After receiving Alaina’s shocking news on New Year’s Day, we texted back and forth over the weekend trying to find a day and time to connect. We finally agreed to meet for lunch here at Rawvolution, a vegan café located on the corner of Main and Strand in Santa Monica. Her choice, not mine. I’m a carnivore.

I sit at a table on the sidewalk patio, sipping an iced coffee, watching the foodies next to me chronicle their plant-based luncheon on Snapchat.

Alaina’s running late. Her tardiness is approaching the 15-minute mark—exact amount of time it takes to realize that you’ve been stood up.

I admit defeat and grab the check to pay, only to see Alaina hurrying up the sidewalk. She ducks into the restaurant, then quickly pops her head back out the door. Seeing me, she rushes over, placing her oversized purse on the table. “I’m so sorry. Work was absolutely crazy this morning.”

She looks good. Really good. Her long blonde hair frames her heart-shaped face and piercing blue-green eyes. She’s dressed in a black sheath dress that shows off her toned arms and long tanned legs.

I reassure her that it’s no problem at all. That there’s no place I’d rather be.

“That’s sweet of you,” she says. “And thanks for agreeing to meet me here. Finding a place for lunch can sometimes be a challenge with people who don’t share my belief system.”

“Which is what, exactly?” I say, my interest piqued.

“Well, I believe in living a lifestyle that doesn’t cause harm or suffering to other sentient beings, including animals,” she says as she leans in. “You know, most people don’t even realize that animals experience a wide range of sensations and emotions, including pain, pleasure, fear, and happiness.”

“Is that where the phrase ‘As a happy as a pig in shit’ comes from?” I say, immediately regretting the words as they leave my mouth.

My lame attempt at a joke is met with a pointed stare.

“Animals aren’t inferior beings nor are they simply resources for human use, Riley. In fact, discriminating against animals or believing them to be inferior solely because they belong to a different species is species-ism.”

“‘Species-ism’? C’mon, that’s not a real thing. Is it?”

“Yes, it is a real thing, and it’s as unfair and as unjust as racism or sexism.”

“Interesting,” I say, as I try to figure out if she’s pulling my leg or just batshit crazy.

“Any use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation is against their will and causes them suffering. Therefore, I don’t wear or consume animal products or take part in activities which exploit them.”

I nod, taking it all in. Then I glance at her giant, leather-y looking handbag sitting atop the table, and raise an eyebrow.

This is a Stella McCartney Falabella; it’s made of faux leather, thank you very much,” she says as she waves the waitress over to take our order.

“The usual, Alaina? A Supreme Enlightenment Salad and a green tea latte?”

“Yes,” Alaina says. “No, wait. Actually, make it a lemon ginger tea today. I feel a sore throat coming on.”

“You got it,” replies the waitress as she turns toward me. “And for you?”

“Uhhh,” I say, stalling for time as I skim the menu for the 18th time, trying to find something that won’t taste like cardboard or leave food particles in my teeth. A task that is difficult to do when kale is in every. single. dish.

Not that this is a date or anything. Just lunch. But it’s a start.

“I’ll have the Original Big Matt with Cheese,” I say. “Can’t go wrong with a burger, right?” I say, trying to convince myself.

“Great choice. You’ll feel like you’re rewarding your body with every bite,” the waitress says with a wink, as she takes my menu.

“Uh, okay,” I say. Maybe they’re all batshit crazy.

“I’ll be right back with your tea, Alaina,” the waitress says as she walks away.

Alaina nods in approval. Her cell rings. She looks at the screen and says, “It’s work. I need to take this.”

For the next several minutes she proceeds to scold whoever is on the other line regarding an appearance on Cheddar this morning. The live, on-demand, news network focuses on up-and-coming tech. CNBC for millennials, if you will.

“Sorry about that,” she says as she puts her phone back into her purse.

“Trouble at work?”

“Even more than usual,” she says with a grimace. “We receive hundreds of media enquiries a day that have to be handled. But every so often we have to deal with a gaffe from a high-level executive.”

“You mean like an embarrassing social media post surfacing from your esteemed founder and CEO Blake Astor’s frat-boy college days, possibly under the sophomoric username @blastor?”

“Exactly,” she says wryly. “We’ve also been on a hiring spree these last few weeks to  prepare for the IPO later this year and the spotlight of becoming a public company. All the new hires need to be trained and brought up to speed,” she says as she lets out a sigh. “And on top of it all that there’s the funeral tonight…”

“About that,” I say as I reach out my hand and place it on hers. “I’m really sorry for your loss. I only spoke with him that one time, but he seemed like a good guy.”

“Thanks,” she says. “David was my first real friend at the company. Wow, it’s so weird to speak about him in the past tense.”

“How did it happen, if you don’t mind me asking?” I say.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” she says as she removes her hand to dab her eyes with a napkin. “It’s actually nice to know someone cares enough to ask. The coroner’s report said he OD’d. A lethal combination of alcohol and amphetamines.” She opens her mouth as if she’s going to say something more, then stops as our waitress approaches.

“Your food will be right out,” the waitress says as she places Alaina’s tea on the table.

“Was there an investigation?” I ask, after the waitress leaves.

“Not really. It seemed to be a pretty open and shut case.”

Did he have a history of abuse?”

“Not that I know of. But I only really saw him at the office and the occasional happy hour. Everyone has their demons, I guess.”

“Yeah, now that I think about it, he seemed a bit agitated when I spoke with him at the party. He handed me a flash drive as he was walking away. Insisted that I take it.”

Alaina coughs and takes a sip of her tea. “Really?” she says, fighting off another cough. “What’s on it?”

“Not sure,” I say. “I was hoping you knew. I tried opening it but the files are encrypted. I thought it might be something PR-related.” My voice rises at the end. Turning the statement into a question. A bad SoCal habit I’ve picked up.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I gave you all the approved press materials we have. I can’t imagine why David would feel the need to give you more information or what that could be. She pauses for a moment. “The party was the first time you spoke with him?”

“Yeah,” I reply. “Which makes it all the more strange.”

“Hmm” she says, furrowing her brow. “I can take the flashdrive to the IT department, if you want. I’m sure someone there will know what to do with it. ”

“Nah,” I reply, feeling strangely protective. “Just thought you might have an idea, is all. Thanks, though.”

“No problem,” she says, her look of concern changing to a smile. “Well, let me know if you ever figure out what’s on it.”

A period of silence follows that lingers just long enough to make it uncomfortable. It’s thankfully broken when the waitress arrives with our food. “Ah, here we are,” she says. “One Supreme Enlightenment Salad for the lady, and an Original Big Matt with Cheese for the gentleman. Bon appetit!”

Alaina watches me, with an expectant smile.

I take a bite of my “burger.” And chew.

And chew.

And chew.

Finally I reach for my drink to help wash it down.

“Good, right?” she says as she digs into her salad.

“Mmmmmm,” I say as I take another bite. Effing cashew cheese.

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