Throughout this month, I will be posting segments of my progress on the novel I am writing. Out of context and out of order, they may not make much sense, but you can take a look if you are interested…. The book is a “romantic comedy” set in New York City and takes place over the course of 10 busy days in December in the lives of several young Wall Street professionals.
Friday, 3:30 p.m.
For Gabe, it had become a wasted day. Since the call had come in this morning, he’d been unable to think about anything but getting married to Ana. He’d spent a good portion of the morning doing things he supposed that newly-engaged brides usually did.
First, he had combed the internet for honeymoon destinations. He wanted to go to Barcelona. She’d never been to Spain, and since he’d spent his junior year abroad there in college, he had always wanted to go back for an extended visit. He’d been back a couple of times for a day or two as part of other European travels. But not for enough time to really dig in. He would enjoy showing her around and introducing her to his former host family, the Orosos, with whom he’d kept in touch.
Then his mind shifted to Hawaii. All kids who grow up in California dream of a Hawaiian honeymoon. Maybe Maui or Kauai? Something luxurious and relaxing. Someplace where they could concentrate on each other and not be as distracted by “activities.”
That was the part of getting married he would most be looking forward to. Finally, he and Ana would “be one.” Yes, they were waiting for marriage for sex. That was something they had both agreed upon from the beginning. He, with his lifelong Christian faith, had held it as a high standard all his life. She, with her conservative Catholic upbringing, followed by her conversion to the Protestant faith, had also held it as a standard. So when they officially started dating, they agreed they would wait.
But the waiting for him had been arduous. And he looked very forward to soon being able to put that to an end. In fact, he’d spent a portion of the morning working out reasonable timelines. How soon could they plan the wedding, which would take place in her home town of Mexico City? How complicated would it be to plan a wedding at such a distance? He’d go to City Hall with her tomorrow, if she’d let him. But he knew that she, and her parents, especially, would want a grand ceremony.
Then he realized there would need to be a reception for the friends in colleagues in Manhattan, since they wouldn’t be able to invite everyone to Mexico and not everyone they did invite from the US would be able to make the trip. He looked at websites for a couple of hotels and for the Faculty House at Columbia, where he had graduated. There would be plenty of options, but all of them expensive. Well, at least he didn’t need to buy an expensive engagement ring – that part was taken care of. God bless her grandmother!
Maybe he was getting ahead of things. He still had to propose to her! He and Fee would talk about ideas for that tomorrow.
He suddenly felt very nervous. What was he about to do? Lord, he thought, am I really going to take this woman “till death do us part?” Forever? Husband and wife. Children? He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Lord,” he prayed silently, “give me wisdom and strength. I want to be a great husband. I want to make the world right for her.” He knew that was a tall order.
Friday, 4:55 p.m.
May Rose was pushing the elevator button when Fee walked up beside her. They stood silently for a moment, each swathed in coats, with a purse in one hand and a computer bag in the other. Twins, she thought, but not at all, she realized. Fee, with her wavy brown hair, dark eyes and darker complexion was everything May Rose was not.
“So, new furniture?” Fee asked.
“Yes. A dining room table. I thought it was time to have a real one. It’s my thirtieth birthday present to myself,” she said. “You’ll have to come by and see it after it’s in.”
“Yes, for sure,” Fee said.
Fee had been in her apartment several times. She’d only been up to Fee’s once. She’d been shocked to see what a tiny place it was, and how it was still furnished like a college dorm. But, she supposed, it was enough for Fee that she’d managed to get a place in Manhattan at all. Perhaps all the trimmings would come later. Perhaps, if she ever got promoted.
“What are you doing tonight?” Fee asked.
“Nothing planned,” May Rose said, immediately regretting her honesty. She always had trouble lying to Fee.
“You want to get some dinner?”
May Rose begin to process excuses, but knew, from experience, that Fee would wear her down before long. “Sure, why not,” she said. This now also meant she would be riding the subway with Fee, which she had artfully managed to avoid this morning.
The elevator arrived. They stepped into a crowded car and rode in silence to the street.
“How about the food court at the Financial Center,” Fee suggested, as they exited the building.
“Sure – sounds good,” May Rose said. The food court was actually a set of gourmet eateries that shared a common seating area and was just steps from the apartment complex they both lived in. Since it had opened not long ago, the two of them often grabbed dinner there if they happened to leave the office together. The food was great and it was informal. Quick in and out, May Rose always thought. A short dinner was always best.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Fee. How could you not like Fee. She was so damned nice! Too nice, at times. May Rose had a hard time with Fee’s niceness. She thought there had to be some ulterior motive behind it. Niceness had to be a facade people used to hide a truer, meaner self that was after something. Fee was certainly smart – smart enough to deceive people if she wanted to. But May Rose always walked away believing she was not trying to deceive people. She was just really nice.
When they had finally managed their way to their destination through the Friday night rush, they chose a table near a window that looked out over the North Cove and they took turns going off to order food. Yachts, rumored to belong to celebrities, were anchored in the harbor below, and a holiday season ice skating rink, crowded with young families from the neighborhood, lit up the promenade with a brilliant white light.
May Rose was sipping a glass of white wine she had procured with her grilled cheese sandwich when Fee returned. Fee had ordered Mexican – which she did most of the time. It reminded her of home in California, blah, blah, blah.
There was a long silence as the two of them started into their food. Fee finally set down her half-eaten taco, cleared her throat and said, “May Rose, I am actually really glad that I ran into you tonight. I want to talk to you about the project.”
Ah, the ulterior motive. She knew there had to be one. May Rose was silent, watching Fee’s discomfort, making Fee press on without her help.
“The three of us working together – you, me, Lily. That could be a little awkward, right? I mean, you and Lily aren’t the best of friends.”
“I might like her better if she stopped calling me ‘Rosie.’ My name is May Rose.”
“Bill calls you Rosie all the time. She probably picked that up from him. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“Yeah, right,” May Rose said. She knew exactly what Lily meant by it. Lily was a bitch.
“Look,” Fee continued, “I will talk to Lily about that. But you have to acknowledge that Lily knows her stuff on this project – she rocked the presentation and the business case. You are leading this piece of the project. She can help the two of us succeed. Don’t you want us to be the best we can be?”
May Rose took a long sip of her wine. “I am leading this piece of the project,” she said, “which has me wondering why you are doing the planning with Michael?”
“I guess Bill and Michael think that’s something I am good at. Michael asked to work with me on that piece.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, I can handle myself with Lily. I don’t really need your coaching on this matter. We will do a spectacular job. I will see to it. And I am sure you’ll do a spectacular job with Michael.”
“But,” Fee started to interrupt.
May Rose wrapped up what was left of her sandwich, swallowed the rest of her wine in a single gulp, and said, as she stood up to put on her coat, “Don’t worry about it. It will be just fine. Thanks for the dinner invite. I have to go home and get ready for my furniture delivery.”
She walked away briskly, not looking back to see Fee’s response.
Friday, 6:45 p.m.
Michael left the office early, as he had planned, but as soon as he got home, he turned on the lights, kicked off his shoes, flopped down on his bed, and opened his laptop again. He wanted to get just a couple more emails done before he called it a day. Then he would rest a little to prepare himself to engage with the Hong Kong guys. Yes, he spoke Mandarin, but not all the time, so it took a lot of brainpower for him to do it.
Michael’s bedroom was at the back of his loft, which was in a very old building. It was a very cool New York space – exposed brick walls, an elevator with a screen that pulled back to gain admittance, worn wood floors. It had probably been a sweatshop years and years ago. Today, it was just a hip place to live on the border of Chelsea and the garment district. He’d owned it for about two years. Since just after he’d broken up with Cami.
Since all the natural light in his place came from vast windows at the front of the unit, and the only walls were those that he erected to create his bedroom at the back, his bedroom was like a cave. He could sleep there any time of the day or night in complete darkness.
This came in handy with his current lifestyle. He tended to work long hours during the week with little sleep. And then, because he had little accountability to anyone else, and not much of a social life, he would hibernate like a bear through the weekends, sometimes sleeping his way almost entirely through them.
Lots of sleep had been his plan for tonight, before Bill had invited him out – He was going to go home, sleep a long night, get in a run in the morning, and return to the office. Now, not only did he have to go out, but he had to speak Mandarin to important clients. Before he even got signed into his email, he set aside his laptop and closed his eyes. I’ll set the alarm to wake me in a couple of hours. I can be at the Garden in a few minutes – it’s just up the street. That was his last conscious thought.
When he next opened his eyes, he was confused for a moment. Then he panicked. What time was it? He looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was quarter to seven. “Crap,” he shouted, jumping up from the bed. He he’d be a little late, but he’d get there.
Friday, 6:15 p.m.
Fee watched May Rose walk away. This was not good, she thought. She had managed to make things worse, instead of better. May Rose still hated Lily and now she was mad at Fee.
And what was May Rose’s problem with her and Michael? She always seemed to be insinuating something about their working together that Fee did not like. Fee knew that May Rose had once had a huge crush on Michael – years ago, before Fee had been on the team. She was just jealous. Well, that was her problem, not Fee’s.
She had to admit to herself, though, that it secretly had thrilled her that Michael had asked specifically to work with her. She always wanted to impress him positively with her skills. Apparently she was succeeding.
She finished her dinner slowly, staring out the window at the boats and the lights. It was Friday night. She had no plans. Everyone she knew was somewhere else. She considered going to a movie – the theater was close by. She wasn’t in the mood. She’d just go home. Maybe she’d read a book and relax tonight. That was a rare treat. And an escape. Yes. Hot cocoa and a book. Perfect.
Friday, 7:15 p.m.
Bill sat alone in the corporate box. He knew he shouldn’t have let Michael go home before the game. He was late. For all his smarts and capability, Michael sometimes took on too much. Or maybe Bill piled too much on him? He never said no and never dropped a ball. And he generally stayed pretty positive through it all. He was every bit the boy wonder. He deserved the promotion he was about to get. Soon enough, he’d mature and learn not to take on the entire world. But that was something he had to learn for himself, Bill thought. At that age, it’s hard to convince them that they aren’t invincible. Bill remembered himself fifteen years ago: married, a young son, climbing the ladder. Also invincible, with all of life’s possibilities still seeming pretty shiny.
Thankfully the Hong Kong guys had not yet arrived. Bill dreaded facing them alone. Their English was reasonable, but he always struggled with things to say to them just the same.
Manny and Ellen entered the box. They would buffer him from the socializing. He was relieved and greeted them enthusiastically.
Manny Borowitz was a Wall Street powerhouse. He was the number two guy at one of the downtown firms. With Ellen a Managing Director at The Bank, the two of them were the Wall Street power couple. Bill had always wanted to work for Manny, but when, after a reorganization, he had found himself working for Ellen, he couldn’t think of an elegant way to leave her to go to Manny’s firm. Things could always change again on a moment’s notice, so he never stopped feeding the relationship with Manny.
“Bill,” Manny said, as they shook hands, “Heard your date stood you up.”
“I was looking so forward to meeting this mystery woman,” Ellen said, taking Bill’s hand and leaning in to pretend to kiss him on the cheek. “I am beginning to think she doesn’t exist,” she whispered in his ear.
“Nonsense,” Bill said. “Anyway, Michael is almost as pretty, and he’s bilingual. Very handy, if you ask me.”
“Handy? Glad you think so highly of me.” Michael arrived just on cue, panting as though he had been running.
More handshaking and greeting took place. A server came to take drink orders. A couple of other execs arrived, distracting Manny and Ellen. Then the honored guests arrived, and there was another flurry of introductions. Bill stood back and watched the magic that was about to happen.
When Michael was introduced to the three gentlemen, he greeted each of them, with an air of respectful formality, entirely in Chinese. Their eyes lit up. What followed was a full fifteen minutes of conversation, all in what Bill suspected was flawless Cantonese. The game was starting, but their conversation continued right through the National Anthem and the tip-off.
Bill saw Manny and Ellen observing this phenomenal performance. When the Knicks scored their first basket, he whispered under his breath, “Score!” and pumped his fist. He could see the Hong Kong relationship sealing itself easily after this exchange.
After a few more minutes, Michael gracefully signaled Ellen and Bill over and transitioned the conversation to English. Then he just as gracefully slipped into the background and let the rest of the Execs take over. Masterful!
Friday, 7:50 p.m.
Michael sat in the corner seat in the front row of the box. He’d done his job and now earned his chance to enjoy the rest of the game from a prime seat.
Manny Borowitz slipped away from the continuing conversation with the guests and sat down next to Michael.
“Impressive, what you just did there, son,” he said, reaching to shake Michael’s hand.
They watched silently together as the cheerleaders came out to perform during a timeout.
“How old are you, Michael?” Manny asked.
“I’m thirty-three,” he answered.
“No sir. Hope to be someday.”
“You ever considered working abroad?”
This was beginning to feel like a very off-the-record job interview. “No sir. Been there, done that, as a child. I’d like to stay put for now.”
“I see.” Manny was silent for a moment. He pulled a card out of his wallet and handed it to Michael. “I could use someone like you in Hong Kong. Think about it. If you feel your mind ever changing, let me know.”
“Thank you.” Michael said, taking the card and slipping it in his own wallet. “Sir, not to seem disrespectful, but you’d consider stealing me right out from under your wife, so to speak.”
“I would,” he said, standing. “And she’d do the same under the proper circumstances. As they say, ‘married, but not dead.’”
“Indeed,” Michael said, standing to shake his hand again. Manny started to walk away, then turned back and said, “Oh – and if you ever hope to be married, you need to start dating people prettier than Bill.”
Michael sat back down and turned his attention back to cheerleaders. The second one from the right was very pretty – far prettier than Bill, he thought, smiling. He had always like tall, athletic girls. Girls like Cami, he thought.
He hadn’t dated since he’d broken up with her. If he wanted to be married someday, he’d need to put himself back out there. But how? He couldn’t imagine doing the online thing, though his buddy Ed had met someone very nice online and they seemed very serious about each other. He had no time for a relationship, he reasoned. He had way too much work to do. But he also knew that no one ever went to his grave wishing he had worked more. He was thirty-three. If he wanted “all those other things” in life he’d have to find a way to change things up, and soon.
Well, he’d have to think about that later. This weekend, at least, he knew work would take priority.
Friday 8:00 p.m.
Fee went home, made herself a cup of hot cocoa, and spent about an hour looking at YouTube videos of marriage proposals, “studying” for her breakfast conversation with Gabe in the morning. Then, she got ready for bed. Now she was selecting something to read that she would luxuriously enjoy, snuggled under her comforter, for the rest of the night. She had considered downloading something new to read to her Kindle. Instead, she decided, she was lonely and tonight called for an old familiar friend. She knelt in front of her bookcase and reached for the bottom shelf for her favorite book.
She set in on the nightstand, closed the blinds, turned out all the lights except her bedside lamp, crawled into bed, and started to read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Friday 8:10 p.m.
Gabe was in the sports bar waiting for Ana. Still. She had said she would be late, but this was crazy. The game was in the second quarter already, and the usual crowd was into their third beer. He was sober, not really wanting to drink until Ana arrived. So he sipped on a Coke while waiting at the bar.
With nothing else to do, he had been thinking a lot about the proposal. He was very anxious that the ring would arrive in one piece. Certainly Sr. Ortiz, Papá, would string him up by his family jewels if anything where to happen to that family jewel before it was safely on Ana’s hand. He imagined all sorts of disastrous scenarios that could befall the ring – everything from a stolen delivery truck in Mexico to an irresponsible internal mail courier at his office in New York. He tried not to go down that path anymore. It was exhausting him.
The ring had been her grandmother’s engagement ring – her mother’s mother. Ana’s mother had shown it to him when they had visited her family in Mexico City in September. Even then, he felt the family finally warming to idea of their beloved daughter marrying this Protestant Gringo Californian from New York. Enough, at least, to share with him the existence of this important family heirloom and the requirement that it be on her hand when she eventually got married. It was really quite exquisite – nicer than anything he ever could have gotten for her himself – very delicate, art deco period, gold filigree, with a large square diamond set on top. He knew she would treasure it.
He knew that Ana’s extraordinary shyness was going to make proposing to her in any elaborate way out of the question. Regardless of what Fee and Lily thought, he was going to opt for a good old-fashioned, simple approach to presenting this treasure to her. That the two of them were taking this step at all was miraculous enough. He didn’t need to make it any more complicated that it already had been.
After that first night at the church meeting, he kept on the watch for Ana both at church services on Sunday and at the Wall Street Professionals meetings. He’d looked for her the day he’d finally interviewed and Abernathy & Hernandez. He didn’t get the job. He’d been nervous and not interviewed well. In fact, he partially thought his nervousness had more to do with thinking of the possibility of somehow running into Ana than it did with his being intimidated by Abernathy.
He didn’t see her for two months. In that time, he had picked up the phone to call her office switchboard at least a dozen times to ask for her. But every time, just as the call was about to be connected, he chickened out and hung up. He reasoned that if she had wanted to be contacted, she’d have given him her card when they met. And she had his information – if she was interested, she could have reached out to him. He tried to just let it go. But he couldn’t.
Finally, after three months, she returned to the monthly meeting. He’d almost begun to think of her as a figment of his imagination until he saw her again across the room. She was even prettier than he remembered her to be. Big brown eyes, thick, dark hair. She was petite and pretty, but carried herself upright and strong, almost defiantly – daring you to try to get close. He took that as a challenge.
He didn’t remember a thing that was said in that night’s meeting, spending the whole time plotting the shortest course across the room to reach her seat as soon as the meeting ended. The final “Amen” had barely been pronounced before he was on his feet headed her way.
This time, he did not demur. He boldly approached her and spoke to her immediately in Spanish. She looked shocked at first, perhaps at his boldness or his fluency, but she seemed to quickly warm to him, laughing at his opening line.
“I have been looking for you,” he said to her in Spanish. “But when I didn’t see you again for so long, I thought maybe you were an angel that God had sent from heaven to provide me with insights for the job interview. But I didn’t get the job, so I figured you had to be a mere mortal.”
In Spanish, she apologized for disappearing, saying she had been traveling to South America for work, but that she was back in town now for the next few months. She switched then to English. “My English is not so good, so I was a little afraid to talk to you so much the first time. I didn’t know you spoke Spanish so well.”
When the room at the church was closing up for the night, they continued their conversation at a nearby Starbucks over coffee. He learned that she had only been in the United States for a few months and was still adjusting to life in New York, and still becoming comfortable with conversational English.
“In Mexico. I learned to write English in school,” she said, “but not to speak.”
Gabe agreed. His Spanish education had been all about conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary, but hadn’t really learned to speak until he had moved to Spain for a year.
“Would you like to practice your English?” he asked. “I’d be happy to help you.”
“Would you?” she asked.
“Sure. And I could use some more Spanish practice,” He said. Then he switched to Spanish. “What if we met each week for coffee, just to talk. One week in English, the next in Spanish. Then we both would get to practice.”
She liked this idea. And so they started meeting every Wednesday afternoon at a Starbucks downtown, near her office. One week in English, the next in Spanish.
Gabe smiled thinking of those first months of their “language lessons.” They had no agenda. And they weren’t exactly dating. They just ordered their own coffees, sat down, and starting talking. It had been a sweet time – and a nice, gradual way to get to know a girl he discovered was very shy and very slow to open up.
Gabe looked at his watch. Then he checked his phone. No messages from Ana. She must be very caught up in things to not have at least tried to reach him. He ordered a beer. He was getting restless.
Friday, 6:25 p.m.
Lily had given up working after her encounter with Bill. She sent a text message to her Hoboken friend Katie. They played softball together in the summer and darts together in the winter. She knew Katie was going out clubbing somewhere tonight in Manhattan with her own work friends. They coordinated via text message and agreed to meet for dinner before heading out to party.
She’d spent the last couple of hours shopping online for Christmas presents to her family in Missouri. It was the most productive thing she’d done all day.
The office was finally empty. Bill had stayed late and had just gotten into the elevator. He had not looked her way when he left. He’d have had no reason to imagine anyone else would still be in this late on a Friday. He’d simply gotten up from his desk, put on his coat, grabbed his briefcase, walked out of his office, closed the door, and headed to the elevator. She waited a couple of minutes. Then she got up and walked around the floor casually to be really sure no one else was around.
She went to Bill’s office and tried the door. It was unlocked. She knew it would be. Ellen was the only one who ever locked her office. She went to his desk and scanned its contents without touching anything. Couldn’t see what she needed.
There was a pile of interoffice envelopes mingled with loose pages in a tray on the corner of his desk. She gently thumbed through it. Not the right kind of stuff.
She carefully pulled open the center desk drawer. She looked up again to confirm that she was still alone. She studied the arrangement of the items in the drawer before poking around. Mostly office supplies – pens, clips, note pads, post-it notes, a pack of gum. There was a bottle of prescription meds. She picked it up. Antibiotics, unfinished from a few months ago. She remembered when he’d had bronchitis. Such a “man thing” to not finish you meds as instructed. She sighed.
She pulled open the top left drawer. Ah, more promising. Mail. She tentatively lifted the stack out of the drawer and thumbed through it. Bingo! Exactly what she needed. She quickly memorized the information, gently set the envelopes back in place, and closed up everything, leaving things just as she’d found them.
Then she, too, packed up and called it a night. She was off to have some fun.
Friday, 8:30 p.m.
May Rose stood in her empty dining area looking quite satisfied. She came home from her non-dinner with Fee, finished her sandwich, opened a bottle of wine for herself, and set to work preparing her house for the delivery tomorrow.
First, she called down to the doorman and asked to have the porters come up. She tipped them handsomely to remove her old table and chairs. She figured one of them would end up with them, either keeping them or selling them. She didn’t care, as long they were gone.
Then she dusted her apartment, mopped the wood floor in the dining room, unrolled the new rug she had purchased to go under the table and centered it into place.
She was ready for the new furniture to arrive.
She was going to sit down and relax, maybe watch some TV. And tomorrow, she’d work on the revisions to the presentation, herself, so she could control how they came out. Monday, she’d meet with her “team” and get them sorted out.
All in all, she felt pretty good about things. She poured herself another glass of wine to celebrate.
Friday, 8:50 p.m.
Lily was really trying to have fun. She and Katie went to Eataly across from Madison Square Park and grazed the various choices in the marketplace for dinner. Then they met up with Katie’s colleagues and went to a new club in Chelsea. Six women arrived together at the club and jumped onto the dance floor as a group. There was a mix of people at this place – men in couples, women in couples, men and women in couples. Lily got asked to dance by both men and women. She didn’t mind dancing with women, exactly, but she was more interested in dancing with men. As brash and confident as she tried to appear in her daily life, she still was sort of a small-town girl. Much as she hated to admit to herself, sometimes the crowds and volume in clubs overwhelmed her. Sometimes the “everythingness” of New York overwhelmed her, even after five years of living here.
She took a break and went to the bar. While she was ordering a beer, a man came up next to her to place an order. He was African American, tall, in his thirties, she guessed. His head was shaved and glistened with sweat. He wore a suit. His tie was loosened.
“I’ll have what the lady is having,” he shouted at the bartender, “and you can put hers on my bill, please.”
Lily looked around to see who he was talking about. When their eyes met, he shouted, “Yes, you,” and smiled at her. He extended a hand to her.
“Martin,” he said. “And you are?”
“Lily,” she said, unsure of just how much she wanted to disclose to a stranger in a club. She shook his hand.
“Lily,” he said thoughtfully, as though he were memorizing her name. “Miss Lily, would you dance with me after we finish our drinks?”
Friday, 9:00 p.m.
Gabe had now finished a second beer and felt a little like a guy in a cartoon, drowning his sorrows in alcohol alone in a bar. Still no word from Ana. He had tried to call her. No answer of his calls to either his cell phone or desk phone. He’d spent the past hour considering more options for the proposal scenario, but was feeling unsure of which one he liked the best.
A woman sat down at the bar next to him and ordered a Dirty Martini.
“Tough week,” she said casually to the bartender when her drink arrived. She tipped him generously.
“I had a good week,” Gabe said to her, raising his mug to her. “Here’s to a better one for you next week.”
“Thanks,” she said flatly, not responding to his gesture, staring at the television screen above the bar, clearly trying to avoid conversation with him.
“Can I ask you something?”
She didn’t respond. He continued anyway. Anxiety, two beers, and no dinner were making him a little more open than usual.
“Let’s just say that there was this guy who really loved you and wanted to propose to you.” She glared at him, furling her brow. “No, seriously,” he said, leaning toward her, “how would you like him to propose to you?”
“Seriously?” she said. “Like this.” She picked up her Martini and tossed it in Gabe’s face.
He jumped out of his seat, shocked. His glasses having taken the brunt of the attack, he could barely see as the women stood up, grabbed her things and stormed away. He peeled off his glasses and could see at that moment, a blur at the entrance to the bar – a blur that strongly resembled Ana. He was certain she had seen the whole thing.
“Oh, hell,” he whispered to himself. The bartender slid him a dry towel, as though he had a supply of these behind the bar for just this purpose. Gabe wiped off his face, and the front of his shirt, and began drying his glasses as Ana approached.
She lit into him in Spanish in a flurry of words that came so quickly he almost couldn’t understand them. He heard the bartender laughing behind him and, somehow feeling slightly disembodied himself, could see how this probably looked very funny.
“Ana, you don’t understand,” he started in English. “She misunderstood me. It was nothing, really. I hardly spoke to her.”
“Gabe, I’ve had a long day. I’m tired. I think I’ll go home now,” she said, turning to leave. He reached for her shoulder to stop her.
“Don’t go, querida, please. Let me explain.”
She turned around, crossed her arms over her chest, purse dangling from one shoulder, and stared at him. “OK, please explain.”
He realized that he’d have to lie to her to explain this or ruin his surprise. He’d never lied to her before. He hesitated, then said, “She said she had a bad week and I just wished her a better week next week.” That much was true.
“And she threw her drink in your face for that?”
“I told you, she misunderstood me. I was just trying to be nice to someone who seemed upset.” He shrugged his shoulders and tried to look as pathetic as he could. He could see her face softening. She walked over to him, set her purse on a bar stool, took the towel from his hand, and used it to wipe his face again. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?” she said smiling.
“If I had listened to her, I’d have never met you,” he said, taking the towel from her and kissing her forehead. “I am sorry,” he said.
“No, I am. I need to learn to control my temper. ”
“Can I buy you a drink, señorita.”
“Sí, por favor,” she said.
“You can have anything you like, except for a Martini.”
Friday 10:15 p.m.
As the game was ending, Michael was standing up to make a quick exit. Bill stopped him.
“You have to go out to the pub with us – just a round or two,” Bill said.
“C’mon Bill. I did my part. I want to go home,” Michael said.
“No whining,” Bill said, clapping him on the shoulder. “We won’t be long, but I think we have this just about sewn up, and I could use you there as a translator.”
Michael sighed. He felt like whining. He didn’t need any more to drink tonight. He vowed to not have any more alcohol, but knew with Bill at the helm, that was unlikely.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Bill said. “What are you doing on Sunday?”
“I have a feeling you are about to tell me,” Michael said.
“These guys have a private tour guide for the weekend, except for Sunday dinner. Can you take them out somewhere nice?”
“You’ll be there, right?” Michael asked.
“Well, I can’t, actually. Family thing I’ve got to do.”
Michael sighed again. “Sure, I’d be happy to take these fine gentlemen to dinner.”
As they were leaving the box, Manny came over to shake Michael’s hand again. “Don’t forget what I said earlier.”
He hadn’t. He’d been thinking about it all night.
Friday 11:00 p.m.
Lily was getting ready for bed. They had gotten to the club early for a Friday night, and she had slipped away early. She was just over it – the noise, the crowd, and the men.
She did dance a couple of dances with Martin. He seemed really nice. But then a few of his friends arrived and he had disappeared. She didn’t know his last name. She didn’t know where he worked. She didn’t have his number.
That was how it was at a club. You met people and they disappeared. That was that. Anyway, how great could a guy be who used such a clichéd line to try to pick her up? Though she had to admit, he was a damned good-looking guy. She had even surreptitiously cruised past he bar where he was with his friends and snapped a photo of him on her phone before she snuck away.
She looked at the clock. It was too late for her to call her Mama tonight. She’d call tomorrow and have a nice long chat with her. And she had a project for tomorrow, too.
She was ready to call it a night.
Friday, 11:55 p.m.
Fee could no longer keep her eyes open. She looked at the clock. So late? Had she really been lost in the story for that long? How wonderful! She had to get to sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day. She marked her place, put down her book, and turned out the light.
Michael set his alarm for eight in the morning. He’d never wake up if he didn’t. His head was pounding. He’d too much to drink. But as Bill always said, party all you like, but you have to answer the bell the next morning. He’d be up and ready for his day.
*Includes new writing and edits to work written previously
Saturday, 8:05 a.m.
“No different than any other day,” she said to Norton Simon, as she dumped food in his bowl. “Late, again.” She had twenty-five minutes to shower, dress, and grab a cab if she was going to be at the restaurant by nine. She turned on the shower, and had just pulled off the tee-shirt she used as a nightgown when her phone buzzed. She went to the table to pick it up. Great, she thought, maybe Gabe is running late, too. She swiped the phone and pressed it to her ear, “Hey buddy,” she said.
It wasn’t Gabe, she realized. She pulled the phone away from her ear to look at the caller ID. It was Michael.
“Ah, jeez,” she whispered, frantically stepping over to the futon and wrapping the afghan she kept there around her. “Ha-Hi,” she said.
“Sorry, Sofia, did I wake you?”
“Oh God, no. No, no. I’m awake,” she said stuttering. She felt heat rushing to her face.
“Sorry,” Michael said again. “I just wanted to know what time you were going to be at the office, so we could coordinate our schedules.”
“Uh, I’m having breakfast with my brother. So maybe ten-thirty,” she said, trying to regain her composure.
“Perfect. Then I have time for a run first,” he said. “So I’ll see you later.”
“See me?” she said, in the highest register of her voice. “Later, yes.”
When Michael hung up, she flung the phone onto the table and fell onto the futon. “Ugh! That was so embarrassing,” she shrieked. Norton Simon looked up from his breakfast at the sound of her distress. “I think my brother is calling – no problem. My boss calls, and I think he can see me through the phone!”
She put her face in her hands and muttered, “He’s going to think I’m an idiot!”
She heard the shower running and realized she had no time to fret. She had to get going.
Saturday, 8:10 a.m.
Michael hung up the phone and looked again at the time. It was a little early to be calling someone on Saturday morning, he realized. He felt bad for waking Sofia up. Then he wondered if she might have been doing something other than sleeping? He didn’t want to ponder too closely the intimate particulars of what his colleague might be doing early on a Saturday morning in her apartment.
He realized that he didn’t know for sure if she had a boyfriend. Though he figured he would probably know if she did. Everybody seemed to know everything about everyone at the office. And they all worked late a lot of nights, so a boyfriend’s name would have come up at some point, if there was one, he figured.
He shrugged. At least he now knew he had time for a run.
He hadn’t run since last weekend. That was unusual for him and he didn’t like it. So even though he was a bit sleep deprived, and a little hung over, he decided he’d go for a run this morning.
He checked the weather forecast for the day. Partly cloudy skies and forty-five degrees for the high. Current temperature was just below freezing. He put on his high-tech winter running gear, drank half a bottle of water, laced up his favorite shoes, zipped cash, his key, and an ID into his pocket, and headed out.
He headed down 7th Avenue and turned west onto the 23rd Street. At this early hour on a wintery Saturday morning, he was pretty much alone on the street. He liked the calm of the City when it was like this. He started slow to warm up. At first, the air felt sharp as he drew it in. But soon, his body warmed and he picked up his pace. When he reached the Highline he took the stairs up and ran downtown toward 14th Street. He was alone here, too, other than other occasional runners. He wove in and out of the decorative path. It was a nice morning – more sun than clouds. It was times like this he wished he didn’t work so much and could spend more of his time outdoors.
Michael had been a runner since he was a kid. He first remembered running with his Dad when he was in Equador – maybe when he was about eleven or twelve? They ran through the rugged streets of Quito, a site for the locals to behold – the tall American Missionary and his little son bounding through the stone alleyways. At that time, he was still scrawny and short, and he struggled to keep pace with his long-legged father. But when they returned to the US, when he was thirteen, he grew several inches over the summer, to almost his full adult height in what had felt like mere weeks. Suddenly he could keep pace with his father, stride for stride. In fact, he soon outpaced him.
He ran Cross Country and Track in high school, earning some recognition. But when he graduated early to go on to Yale, he had thought his competitive days were over. He was too young and not strong enough to compete at the collegiate level. But he kept training through his first years at school, and as a junior and senior, he ran distances for the Yale Track team.
Now he ran to keep sane. He liked the high he got the rest of the day from a good run in the morning. And he liked being able to eat whatever he wanted, the running keeping his metabolism fast and his body lean. In the summer months, he’d sometimes run in the evenings. In bad weather, he’d hit the treadmill at the gym. He tried to get out three to four times a week. He didn’t always succeed.
At the end of the Highline, he was starting to feel the effects of last night’s activities, a slight queasiness overtaking him. He turned around to head home, walking for a few minutes to settle himself. He’d need real food, and lots of water, to get him through the day. He picked up his pace again and retraced his steps.
Saturday, 9:10 a.m.
Gabe put his name in at Sarabeth’s and stood outside staring at the bare trees lining the lower end of Central Park. Saturday in New York was coming to life before his eyes: Mom’s pushing babies in strollers, dogs talking their people out into the new day, the first of the Horse-Drawn Carriages crossing to line up at the entrance to the park. He seemed to never grow tired of edgy excitement of his adopted home that differed so from the uncomplicated warmth and sunshine of his native home in Southern California. He and Fee talked of living in New York from when they were teens – attaching to the fantasy an idea that it was a nobler place than their humble suburban home. He knew now that it many ways it was. And in many ways it was not.
He looked at his watch. Fee was running late – she’d sent him a text message. God bless her sister – she was always running a little late.
She bounded around the corner just as they called his name, and they were seated immediately.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, hanging her coat on the back of the empty chair next to her and dropping into her chair. “Stayed up late reading.”
“That’s OK. I always expect to be operating on ‘Fee’ time. No worries.”
Neither of them looked at the menu. When the server came over, the each ordered their usual – she the almond-crusted French Toast, he the oatmeal with bananas and strawberries.
“And lots of coffee,” Fee added. She said to Gabe, “I have to be in the office by ten-thirty, so let’s get to work.”
And so they did. Fee began by revealing the results of her YouTube video study the night before. “I don’t see skywriting or XXXXX as viable options. But XXXXX, and XXXXX might be good ideas.”
Gabe reminded her of Ana’s shyness. “She’d be mortified if I did something like that. I want this to be romantic and private. Intimate.”
“Well, where did you go on your first date?” Fee asked.
“We had a zillion non-dates at Starbucks,” he reminded her.
“Don’t you dare propose to her at Starbucks!”
“I guess dinner at Babbo was the first real date,” he said.
“Too noisy,” Fee said. “Where was your first kiss?”
Gabe felt himself blushing at the idea of sharing this with his sister. “Down near your house – at the South Cove. We walked there after I picked her up at work one night.”
“Ah,” Fee said, “The Blue Lagoon! That’s a great spot. There’s that bench above the dock that overlooks the Hudson. You could do it there!”
He liked that idea. It was a romantic spot – wooden walkway along the water with blue lights casting a glow over everything.
“Then you could come by my house. We could do a little surprise party for her – just a few of your friends. A Champaign toast. What do you think?”
Their food arrived and they refined the plan further. Gabe would take her to dinner downtown somewhere around seven. He’d walk her across to the Lagoon, pop the question, and then suggest they stop at Fee’s to share the good news. He’d plan for them to be there roughly at nine.
“Then a few of your friends will be there to surprise you,” Fee said. “I’ll take care of a small party of them while they wait – snacks and stuff. We’ll have a toast – it won’t be a big deal – but special.”
Gabe thought Ana would like that and promised to email Fee a list of guests to invite – friends from their church group and a couple of colleagues.
“And Lily – she wouldn’t want to miss this,” Fee suggested.
“Of course,” he said, “We must have sister Lil there!”
It was settled. Romance plus a surprise at the level Ana could deal with. Perfect.
When the check came, Gabe grabbed it.
“You can’t keep paying all the time,” Fee protested.
“I can until you make more money,” he said. “Tell you what, if you get a promotion this week, you can take my fiancé and I out to a nice dinner.” He liked the sound of that word come out of his mouth – his fiancé!
“Deal,” she said.
Saturday, 10:40 a.m.
Fee sprinted the eight blocks to the office, trying not to be too terribly late. She was so excited about her plans with Gabe that she wondered how she’d focus on work. She was making a mental list of all the things she needed to do this week to be ready, including cleaning up her apartment, which was desperately needed. She’d have time after work today and before she met Lily tonight. No problem.
When Fee got to the office, Michael was already at work with Tran. They were sitting in Tran’s cubicle speaking Vietnamese. This was one of the many mysteries of Michael. He spoke several languages. He lived abroad extensively as a child. That she knew. But she didn’t really know any of the details of where, exactly, or why. She had always assumed his Dad had been in the military, but had never gotten the right moment to ask more about it. No one else seemed to know either. He kept his private life pretty private.
She put her head down and got to work on her first pass at the plan for her team’s portion of the work. She could already imagine the problems that would arise when she tried to meld her timeline with what the rest of the team would be doing. She was sure there would be obstacles and that this process was going to take a lot of work. Michael needed something pretty clean for his management meeting on Tuesday. She figured they’d be working late Monday night, too, to get it done.
Saturday 12:00 p.m.
Michael stepped out of his office and called across the floor to Sofia. When she popped her head over her cubicle wall, he shouted to her, “Come over and bring your laptop.”
She joined him in his office.
“I want to see what you have so far,” he said. They compared spreadsheets and ideas, noting where the resource conflicts were appearing.
“We need a bigger team,” she whined.
“No,” he said. “We just don’t have everyone on the right task at the right time. We’ll get Tran’s piece here shortly and see where we stand.”
“Michael,” she said. “I have always been curious about how it is that you speak Vietnamese?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” he joked. She looked annoyed at his teasing.
“Seriously. It’s a little odd, I mean, not all white boys from Yale speak Vietnamese,” she said. “And don’t tell me that you are a little odd. I already know that.”
“Ha-ha,” he said, wadding up a piece of paper from his desk and hurling it at her. She ducked, laughing. “It’s not so odd. I lived in Vietnam for a year when I was kid. So, yes, I speak a few words.”
He paused and considered what else to share. He looked away from Sofia when he said, “My parents were Christian missionaries there. I lived a year in Honk Kong, too, so I speak Chinese. Cantonese. And we lived in Ecuador, later.”
“Wow! You were an ‘MK?’” she said. He was not entirely surprised that she knew that expression.
“Yes. I am a missionary kid.” He paused to consider his next question. This time he looked her in the eye when he asked, “You aren’t a ‘PK’ are you?”
“Oh no,” she laughed, “Not a pastor’s kid. Do I seem that bad off? Yikes! But I…was…a church kid, yeah, definitely, all my life.”
“I thought so.” He liked when he was right about this kind of stuff – reading people. He had wondered about this for some time now – almost since he first met her. He’d just never found a “workplace-appropriate” moment to bring it up before. Religion was a taboo topic. Wall Street people seldom discussed it. “You still go to church?” he asked.
“Sometimes with my brother. He goes all the time, still. Very involved.” she said. “How about you?”
“No, not for years,” he said. “Much to my parents’ chagrin. A classic ‘backslider’.”
She nodded. “I’m more of a ‘fallen on my ass, but not yet slidden all the way down the hill-er,” she said. He chuckled. “Do you ever miss it?” She looked out the window when she asked this question, not directly at him.
“Kind of. I don’t miss church as much as I miss God,” he said. He paused. He wasn’t’ sure again how far he wanted to go with this. He hadn’t rarely talked about it with anyone in years. Sometimes his sister Mary gave him grief about it. But otherwise, it was his own private thing. “I miss relationships, ‘community,’ having something bigger that define me. And having someone to take your troubles to – even your most embarrassing ones.”
“There is comfort in that,” she admitted. “Having God there. Having people there.” She was still looking out the window. He wondered if she had gone through the same struggles he had. Could she reconcile being a grown up in the “Big City” with a serious, “worldly” career, with believing in all that he had embraced so innocently, eagerly as a child? Did she sometimes feel she had lost something important and yet somehow clung to her independence from it?
They sat silently for a moment. He said, “I guess we are done here for today. I’m starving, anyway. Time to get some lunch,” he said.
She stood to go.
“You wanna go to the ramen place?” he asked, the words rushing out of him unexpectedly. He knew she loved the ramen place. They ordered in from there all the time when they worked late.
“Sure,” she said without hesitating. “Give me ten minutes.”
Saturday, 1:05 p.m.
Fee used that 10 minutes to close up shop. She went to the ladies room and brushed her hair. She rooted around the bottom of her purse for some lipstick. She almost never wore lipstick, but today just seemed like a lipstick sort of a day.
Her head was full of the conversation she’d just had with Michael. Now she knew the answer to the mystery of the languages. But that just left her wanting to know more. He was from a similar background to hers, but from a completely different set of life experiences. Yet they’d found themselves in a similar place. Amazing. Now that she thought about it, what she had just learned explained a lot about Michael. He genuinely was such a decent, ethical person. The way he approached people was so different from how the rest of management did. This certainly explained that difference. A lifetime of being surrounded by loving, ethical, kind people would certainly stick with you, even if you rejected all the theology behind it.
She was ready to go, but Michael and Tran were still talking. In English this time, she noted. Fee thought for a moment that Michael was going to invite Tran to join them for lunch. She found herself rudely thinking, no, don’t invite him, no, don’t invite him, no, don’t invite him. Then he told Tran to call it a day. Fee sighed in relief. As much as she liked Tran, she just didn’t want him along today.
The ramen place was just off Seventh Avenue, right across from their office. It was one of those places where the food was so authentic that it was always filled with Japanese people. When Fee did go there to pick up food, she was almost always the only Caucasian face in the place. Today was no different.
As they walked in the door, Fee realized she hadn’t had lunch alone in a restaurant with Michael since her interview with him a year and half ago. Was that possible? They ate together all the time in the office while they were working through lunch or late at night. But no one ever went out to lunch during the week anymore unless it was for a specific business purpose. If Michael went out, she knew it was with Bill or Ellen, or the traders they supported. Fee usually just went to the deli downstairs and grabbed a salad to eat at her desk, unless, on the odd Friday, she and Lily went out to a real lunch to rehash the week’s drama.
She remembered that interview like it was yesterday. She had been working in Regulatory, mostly writing procedures. When she got bored, she’d occasionally search the internal job board for something new to do in the firm. When the position in the Data Products area came up, it sounded perfect. It was technical work that would be challenging for her, but she’d be interfacing with traders as her internal customers – something she knew she’d be very good at. It was a more “in the trenches” view of Wall Street.
She’d met with Bill first. And then with Lu Ming. Both of those conversations had been very pleasant and relaxed. Finally, she was introduced to Michael.
“This is Michael Dayton. He will be your direct manager in this role,” Bill said. She remembered noticing that Bill had said “will be” rather than “would be,” and that gave her some assurance that he had liked her. “Michael, this is Sofia Nagy.”
Encouraged by Bill’s words, she’d confidently shaken Michael’s hand and looked him straight in the eye. He’d smiled at her immediately. She remembered that very clearly. And she remembered thinking in that flash of a second that he was stunningly good looking.
“I have back-to-back meetings all day,” he said, apologetically. “So the only time I had free to meet with you was over lunch. I hope you don’t mind. I know lunch interviews can be nerve-racking.”
“All those knives and forks to deal with,” she said. He laughed at that.
“Exactly,” he said.
He took her to a high-end steak house on Sixth Avenue that lived up exactly to the knives and forks problem. She, in fact, felt overwhelmed by waiters in bow ties, extremes of white linen, and the cavernous din of the place.
They were seated in a window table that afforded them a bit of privacy. She became nervous about eating in front of this incredibly handsome man she hoped would be her new boss. Her appetite seemed to have disappeared on the walk over to the restaurant.
After they had ordered – she had selected a Caesar Salad and he had ordered a fish special of some sort – he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a folded copy of her resume, and systematically began asking her questions. Yes, double degrees from Princeton, Econ and English. Yes, joined the firm right out of school, working first in the Princeton office and then here in New York. Yes, strong people skills and sensibilities about issues and politics. Yes, a strong writer. Yes, hoped to get an MBA someday. No, not the most technical person in the world.
The waiter brought bread. He dug into it as though he was starving. As if he was reading her mind, he said, “Sorry, I’m starving. I ran this morning and didn’t have time for breakfast.”
She picked a piece from the basket and set it on her plate but didn’t eat it.
“So, Miss English Major,” he said while buttering second slice of bread, “what is your favorite novel?”
This question surprised her. But she answered quickly, “Pride and Prejudice.”
“Of course,” he said. “But why?”
“Why?” she asked him. She had to think about that. She wondered what he was looking for. He must have seen that in her face.
“Not a trick question,” he said. “I want to know why you like it.”
“Because it is a great story of how true love can be born and survive in the most unlikely of circumstances,” she said.
“A romantic,” he said. “I like that.”
The waiter came over to refill their water. He reached for Fee’s glass just as she decided she’d like some of her bread after all. Their arms collided and about half of the pitcher of water ended up on Fee’s suit jacket and the table.
She leapt up in an attempt to keep her skirt from getting soaked, too. She hastily pulled off her jacket. Michael leapt up and handed her his napkin. The waiter, apologizing profusely, grabbed napkins from a nearby empty table and began blotting the table. Busboys seemed to appear from everywhere. In the confusion that followed, she excused herself to the ladies room to try to restore herself to some semblance of order.
When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she was mortified. The middle button of her blouse was open, revealing a nice glimpse of the lace camisole she was wearing under it. She’d had the jacket on all morning, open over the blouse. Had the button been open all morning, too? Or had that just happened in the fray at the table? She was mortified. My goodness, what would Michael think of her?
She felt tears welling up and tried desperately to quell them. She didn’t want to ruin her make-up on top of everything else. She buttoned herself up, did her best to pull herself together, and returned to the table.
When she got back, it looked as though nothing had ever happened. The table was reset, her damp jacket was hanging on the back of a nearby chair, and their lunch had just arrived. When she approached the table, Michael stood up, walked to her side, and pulled her chair out for her.
When he sat down opposite her again, he looked concerned. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded. The both started to eat silently. After a few moments, he said, “So, what questions do you have for me?”
The rest of the meal had been all business.
A week later, she got a call from Bill telling her she’d gotten the job.
Now, all these months later, on their second lunch alone, she searched for something neutral to discuss. “Your suggestions for the project plan were brilliant,” she said. “You must be a genius,” she teased.
“I am,” he said.
“Of course you are,” she said. “Everyone says so.”
“No, I really am.” He looked a little embarrassed. “I was tested when I was 12 and again when I was 15. I am really a genius.”
“Like ‘IQ off the charts’ genius?” she asked. Now she was a little embarrassed.
“I don’t tell a lot of people,” he said.
“I heard that you went to Yale when you were, like, sixteen. So that’s really true?”
“Yeah,” I had my BS and MBA by the time I was twenty-one.”
“Wow,” she said.
“Well, you’re not so slipshod yourself, Miss Double-Degrees from Princeton,” he teased.
“Fair enough. We can’t really out-Ivy-League each other here, can we?” she laughed.
The waiter came. They both ordered the house special.
“So besides Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Ecuador, where are you from?” she asked.
“I went to high school in Connecticut. My Dad ended up running a not-for-profit there.”
A waiter came by to refill their water glasses. Michael said to him, “Be careful not to spill any on my friend here.”
“Oh God,” she said, “I was hoping you’d forgotten that. That may have been the single most humiliating moment of my life.”
“How could I forget the look of utter astonishment on your face when all that water came pouring out on you,” he said, laughing. “At least here, there are no knives and forks to deal with.” He held up his chopsticks. “I’ve seen you handle these before, so I think we are safe.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “How did you ever decide to hire me after that?” she asked.
“I have to admit I did feel a little sorry for you. But you stood on your own merits.”
She felt her cheeks flush a little. Thankfully, their food arrived just in time to fill what she thought would become an awkward silence.
“So I know you are from California” he said.
“I basically grew up in L.A. – Pasadena,” she explained. “Your basic, boring, suburban upbringing.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I was always jealous of kids like you. My life may sound like it was glamorous, but it was kind of lonely, too.”
She could imagine that – being the stranger in a strange land. Moving around so much.
“For instance,” he said, “I never got to have a dog or a cat or any real pets.”
“That is kind of sad,” she said. “We had all kinds of pets. And I have a cat right now. His name is Norton Simon.”
“Norton Simon?” he asked.
“After the museum in my home town. It was my favorite place to go with my Mom when I was little. They have this collection of Degas sculptures of dancers. I loved them. I wanted to become a dancer.”
“Why didn’t you?” he asked, pushing his empty bowl aside and leaning in to listen.
“Seriously?” she laughed. “Have you looked at me? Do I look like a Degas Sculpture?”
He didn’t laugh at that. He just looked at her for a long moment.
“I’m not tall enough. Or flexible enough. Or strong enough in the legs….” She let the thought trail off.
The waiter brought the check. He paid it, she noticed, from his own pocket, in cash, and did not take a copy of the receipt. They stood and bundled into their coats before heading out into the wintry late afternoon.
“What are you going to do with the rest of your day?” he asked.
“I have stuff to do at home, but it’s such a nice day, I think I’ll get some exercise,” she said. “Maybe take a walk in Central Park before it gets dark. How about you?”
“I was just going to run some errands, I guess. Work some more later.”
“You wanna join me?” she asked tentatively. The invitation slipped out before she thought about it.
He smiled at her, considering the offer. “Ah hell, sure. The other stuff will keep.”
They set out up Seventh Avenue toward the Park.
I edited some previous sections, then wrote this new section:
Sunday, 9:25 a.m.
Fee had promised to be on time and had made good on her word, greeting Ana and Gabe with hugs outside the church auditorium before they went in. They rushed in to grab seats before the place filled up.
Their church was a happening place – packed every week. It met in Greenwich Village in a school auditorium, with a congregation that represented New York in all its variety. There were Wall Street types, artists, musicians, doctors, single people, young families, and some older people. The draw was the pastor, who was a bit of a celebrity in his own right. He was brilliant, and Fee always found his sermons to be very thought-provoking and intelligent. Much different from the hell fire and brimstone that was tossed her way most of her youth. It wasn’t about heaping guilt on you and pointing out your failure to live up to certain rules. It was about knowing you could never live up to those rules and accepting the grace offered to you in your failure. Sometimes, because if this thoughtful, gentler approach to the Bible, she felt on the verge of relenting and climbing back into her faith. But then she’d walk out into New York City, and the spell would be broken. Her life would seem hard and real compared to what she heard in the sermon, and her temporary spiritual revival would fade.
But she liked to go to church at Christmastime. She knew there would Christmas hymns, which reminded her happily of her childhood. When they walked in, a brass ensemble played Mozart before the service started. The whole thing felt very festive.
The sermon was about the Wise Men – it picked away at some notions that Fee had always held about who and what they were. They were advisors to Kings who, at that time, saw stars as signs for momentous events. A star had appeared several times, not just once, which is what led them to follow it. There was no actual place that we are told that there were three of them. She contemplated this fact-filled message, which made the message of Christmas seem less like a fairy tale, and which upset her old comfortable notion of the “Three Kings of Orient.”
She thought about her conversation yesterday with Michael about his being a genius – a wise man, she thought. He would be that advisor to the King who sought out the momentous event, seeking facts, not a fairy tale. He might enjoy listening to a message like this one, she thought.
After the sermon, they stood to sing a final song. Fee sang out in her steady soprano voice, “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see they lie.” She felt tears in her eyes at the sound of this familiar melody, recognizing herself as no longer a child who could look at Christmas sweetly and innocently. She had hopes and fears, and wondered where they would be “met” as she grew older.
She was quick to scrub away her emotion when the music ended, not wanting Gabe and Ana to see her response. They pushed through the crowd to exit the building quickly. They had to pick up a Zip Car and head to New Jersey for the afternoon.
Saturday 11:35 a.m.
Lily was a woman obsessed. It has started innocently enough with her just taking notice of certain things about Bill. She especially loved the cadence of his voice. She found that she wasn’t even listening to the words he said these last few weeks, as much as how they sounded. He was so “Aus TRALL yun.” Cute.
Then she started assessing the way he looked. He had dimples, which gave his otherwise middle-aged face a bit of boyish charm. He had a head of salt and pepper, curly hair, still thick and full. The hairline was receding a little, sure, but there was something about still having all that hair that made him seem “softer.” Yes, he had 25 extra pounds that also made him look softer, around the middle and in the face. No real harm in that. It gave him a teddy bear quality – no, she thought, a koala bear quality!
It was Halloween night at O’Nieals in Hoboken that had pushed her down this road. She, Fee, and Katie were having beers, choosing to steer clear of the Manhattan festivities this year.
“I hate my boss,” Katie had said. She then regaled them with a litany of his flaws.
“I like my boss,” Fee had said. “He gets a little moody sometimes, but most of the time, he’s pretty cool.”
“You’re such a suck up,” Lily had said. “He’s moody because he’s a know-it-all and doesn’t suffer fools. Moody. Ha!” She could feel she’d already had a little too much to drink, on the edge of the point where she can be reasonable or not so reasonable.
“I thought you liked Michael?” Fee protested.
“I do,” she said. What’s not to like, he’s gorgeous. And mostly nice. He also can be full of himself.”
“I don’t think so,” Fee said.
“Fine. Have it your way,” Lily said. “What do you think of Bill?”
“He’s a little lazy sometimes,” Fee said. “He delegates too much and doesn’t do enough of his own work.”
“I call that a sign of a great manager,” Lily said, raising her mug as if to toast him.
“Fine. Have it your way,” Fee said. “To great managers!” she said, raising her mug.
“To moody managers,” Lily said.
“To managers that suck,” Katie said.
They clinked their glasses together.
From that day to now, Lily had been considering Bill very closely. What astonished her most in this consideration was the gradual realization that he was actually considering her. She caught him looking at her several times in meetings. She noticed he was passing by her cubicle when he was headed places on the floor that didn’t require him to go by her. She had it in her mind that he, a high-ranking exec in The Bank, might just have a little crush on her. And she, lowly Associate Lily, was developing one of her own on him. It was like a high school thing – very irrational and very immature. That made it all the more crazy. She liked crazy!
Gradually, she’d been considering some good possible consequences of this “crushness.” What if she was to get him to actually fall for her? What if she was to snag him for real – find herself a well-to-do, older, easy-going Wall Street Executive to take her in, care for her, marry her? That would be a pleasant prospect.
So, she began to deliberately milk this for all it was worth.
And here she was, getting ready today, to go in for the kill.
She started with a Google Search: William H. Grand.
That took her to LinkedIn, where she studied his career. Born Melbourne, Australia. She knew that. Graduated University of Melbourne, business degree. Started with The Bank right out of school in Melbourne. Came to New York seven years later. Earned an MBA from NYU. Mostly stuff she sort of knew, except she now knew his exact age. Forty-eight.
OK, she’s thirty-two. Sixteen years difference. Not unheard of.
She did already know the next fact she confirmed – they had the same birthday – March 6. They always celebrated together in the office. She saw that now as a sign.
Next, Facebook. Couldn’t learn much there – too locked down.
Next, she googled his son: Jason Grand. His page was a little less locked down. That got her to photos she was sure belonged to the Ex. But no indications of her name.
Tuesday, 12:05 p.m.
Fee saw Bill and Michael come off the elevator and return to their offices. The presentation of the preliminary plan was done. Fee was anxious to hear how things had gone. She walked over to Michael’s office and tapped on the doorframe. He had just dropped into his chair.
“Hey, how did it go?” she asked.
“Not so well,” he said. He looked grim.
“They didn’t like the plan?”
“They didn’t like our part of the plan,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, surprised. “What are we going to do?”
“We are not going to do anything,” he said. “I will take a look at it and fix it.”
“I…I feel like I should help you. Did I screw up?”
“No you didn’t screw up,” he said, raising his voice. “Listen, don’t worry about it, OK?”
“But I want to help….” She felt tears starting to well up. She didn’t want to cry in front of him, but she couldn’t control herself. She felt angry that he was angry at her.
“Sofia, I said, don’t worry about it.” He stood. “Could you…could you just please leave me alone.”
Now he was yelling at her. She slowly stepped away from the door and then quickly returned to her desk.
She tried to hide her face from Lily when she passed her cubicle. She didn’t want to be interrogated right now. But it didn’t matter, because as soon as she sat down, she burst into tears.
Lily popped her head over the wall. “Lil Sis, what’s up?”
“Nothing,” Fee said, feeling ridiculous. She hid her face in her hands. “Michael’s just was…..”
“Moody Michael?” Lily said.
Fee tried not to laugh through her tears. “Yes, Moody Michael.”
Tuesday, 12:10 p.m.
Michael grabbed his coat and walked out of his office. Yes, he was angry about the meeting. It had gone badly for several reasons, not just the plan discussion. And now, on top of that, he was ashamed of himself for what an ass he had just been. He didn’t want to deal with any of it. He needed lunch. He needed to clear his head and calm down. He tried not to look at Sofia as he walked past her desk. But he couldn’t help but look up. Sofia was wiping her eyes with a tissue. Did she have to cry? Jeez, he’d made her cry.
Tuesday, 4:00 p.m.
Michael sent Sofia a message. “Can you come by my office for a sec?”
She had written back, “Yes.” He saw her rise from her seat, stop and confer a moment with Lily for a moment, laugh, and punch Lily on the shoulder.
He stood up, walked over to the door, ushered her in, and closed it. He motioned for her to take a seat in one of the guest chairs next to his desk. Instead of returning to his side of the desk, he turned the second guest chair around and sat down facing her. He looked directly at her.
“I owe you an apology,” he began. “I am sorry that I yelled at you earlier, and I am sorry that I made it sound like it was your fault that things had gone wrong.”
Tears were welling up in her eyes. “You’re not mad at me?” she asked. He could see that she was trying not to cry, but she was losing the battle.
“No. I am not mad at you. Do you accept my apology?”
“Yes,” she said. She drew in a big breath and sighed. Then she lost control. He reached for a tissue from a box on his desk and handed it to her.
“Why are you crying?” He was trying not to smile at her. She looked so pathetic.
“Because I am mad at you for yelling at me. I’m sorry for being mad at you. But I care I about what you think of me. And I couldn’t stand that you might think I was stupid.”
“Sofia, I could never think you are stupid.” He reached over and put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him then. “I’ve been mad at myself all day for taking my anger out on you.” He felt himself suddenly getting teary. He fought it. “I care about what you think of me, too. But sometimes, I just….”
“Get really cranky when you are tired, or hungry, or stressed out,” she said.
“How do you know that about me?” He felt a little defensive. Like his Mom or sister were scolding him.
“Because I work with you every day, Michael,” she said, starting to laugh through her tears. “How could I not know that about you? But you need to work on that – on being aware of it and controlling it better.”
“OK, I accept that.” He pulled his hand away and pulled back from her a little. “Will you let me give you a suggestion, too? For something to work on.”
She was regaining her composure. “Seems fair.”
“You need to learn not to take things so personally. Business is business. And I know that tears are one way to express your emotion. Even your anger. But they aren’t the best way in the workplace. So you need to work on controlling that response.”
“OK,” she said. She took a deep breath. “I accept that.” He handed her another tissue. She dried her eyes. “Anything else?”
He thought about the “buttons” issue, and decided that now was not the time for that conversation.
“We’re a good team, Sofia. We need to hold each other accountable on this one. Deal?
“Deal,” she said.
“Are we good, then?” he asked, standing up.
“Yes,” she said, standing, too. “Thank you.”
He wanted to give her a hug. But even without looking out of the glass wall of his office, he sensed that all the eyes on the floor were already on them. So he went to the door and started to open it. Then he paused and turned back to her. “Before you go, I just have to know…what did Lily say to you before you came in here?”
Sofia hesitated, biting her lower lip. “She told me that if you weren’t nice to me, I should kick you in the nuts.”
He laughed. “Am I safe?”
She laughed. “For now,” she said, smiling.
Sunday 12:00 p.m.
Lily had worshipped all the gods in New York. She’d prayed to the Taxi gods on a rainy Saturday night. She prayed to the gods of the subway and the PATH train when there was flooding on the tracks. She’d even prayed to the gods of the Starbucks line when she had ten minutes to make a meeting and desperately needed her coffee. But she wasn’t sure there was a god for the girl who stalks her boss’s boss. She was simply going to have to trust her instincts and her luck that she would come out of this day with what she needed. What that was, even she was not quite sure.
She’d started early for the long trek from Hoboken to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With trains running on Sunday schedules, she knew it would take forever. She arrived on Bill’s block at just about eleven. This, she thought, was the sweet spot. If he was going to head out somewhere for the day, it would be around this time.
Next, she had fabricated an excuse for her being in the neighborhood. An old college friend was in town and was staying at a place down the street. They were meeting for brunch. What a coincidence? You live on this street? She thought she could be convincing enough. She’d even rehearsed the scene several times yesterday in her apartment, playing out variations on the dialog.
But the objective was not to run into him. It was to follow him and see where he went and what he did and who he did it with. She needed information, she needed understanding. She needed whatever the gods would give her.
She also had the “what’s this black chick doing on our block” problem. Would she draw attention loitering on this posh street if the wait for Bill was long? She hated to think it was so, but she knew it was a possibility, no matter how nicely dressed she was or how confidently she carried herself. She would consider herself a failure at stalking if she drew attention to herself. She’d curse the gods if today of all days, she was singled out for the color of her skin.
She’d tied back her long braids back and tucked them under a wool cap. She’d dressed herself in business casual clothes with heeled boots, carried her leather work bag, and wore a camel-colored wool overcoat. She looked very chic. If Bill accepted her – and wanted her – for who she was, his neighborhood would have to accept her, too.
In the leather bag, she had a bottle of water, two protein bars and an apple. She was prepared for a long day, if need be. She also had a book.
She approached his address from the west, passing in front of his house as casually as she could. Without slowing, she cast a long glance at the building. Four-story classic brownstone. Could he possibly own the entire place? No, two buzzers at the door.
A few doors down was a brownstone that had been carved up into several apartments. Many buzzers at the door. She could see Bill’s place well from the steps of this unit. She sat down, pulled out her book, and began her wait.
If someone asked her what she was doing, she was waiting for her friend to return from church – they were having brunch.
And so, she held her unread book open in one hand, and raised her eyes to look for Bill.
About twenty minutes into her vigil, a guy came out of the building and held the door open.
“You want in?” he said.
“Nah. I’m waiting for someone. Thanks.”
“Warmer in there,” he said, pointing to the foyer.
“It’s a nice day. I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Have it your way,” he said, letting the door close, and passing her as he came down the stairs.”
It was a nice day – the high would be almost fifty. But even though it wasn’t that cold, she realized now that she could really use a bathroom. She’d have to manage, because if she walked away now, she might miss her opportunity. She’d tough it out.
Her patience was rewarded in less than an hour. Bill emerged from his building, and held the door open for an attractive middle-aged white women with dark, short hair. They were dressed nicely. Brunch looked like a possibility. The headed west toward The Park. She gave them a head start and set off to follow them. She thanked the stalking gods for her first answered prayer of the day.
Bill and Carolyn were meeting Carolyn’s kids for brunch and taking them to the Radio City Christmas Show later in the afternoon. Apparently this was a tradition for them. So even though they were in college, they made a specific point of setting aside time for this family activity. Bill had only taken his own son to this show once, more than ten years ago. He hadn’t enjoyed it then and didn’t particularly relish the idea now.
Her son Sam was a senior at Fordham and lived in the Bronx. Her daughter Kimberly was a freshman at Rutgers, but had come up to The City last night specifically to be here for this event. Kimberly had stayed at Carolyn’s place last night. Carolyn had stayed with him.
Her kids tolerated him, at best. Even though they were estranged from their own father, they had a history, according to Carolyn, of immediately holding in distain any man who entered their mother’s life. He was no exception. They referred to him as her “fat old boyfriend,” which gave Bill little confidence about himself in their eyes or hers. Maybe that was part of the reason the spark wasn’t there.
Last night they had dinner at Del Posto, one of New York’s more romantic Italian restaurants. After dinner, they’d come back to his place, lit the fire, and had cognac. Bill was tired, and a little drunk. Carolyn was less tipsy and feeling romantic. Things started a little awkwardly. But in the middle of it all, he found himself thinking of Lily. He couldn’t banish the thought of her, even though he was with Carolyn. He felt thrilled and ashamed of himself at the same time. The thought of her would not leave him, so much so, that later, when he was trying to sleep, it was as though she were a third person in the room with them.
Finally he got up, went downstairs, got a glass of water, restoked the dying fire, and sat staring at it for more than an hour.
Could he seriously be thinking about this girl this way? His employee. What was she – twenty years younger than he was? It was crazy. It was disgusting. It was exciting. It was forbidden. It was wrong.
Lily had told him to take the weekend to think about it, and now she was haunting him. Couldn’t she just disappear and leave him alone? He wanted his dull, old, fat bachelor’s life back. He didn’t want to have this mid-life crisis. Carolyn was a decent women, She deserved better.
Eventually, he’d fallen asleep on the couch for a few hours. At six, he carefully slipped back into bed with Carolyn. They got up a couple of hours later and started their Sunday as usual with coffee and the New York Times.
Now, they were headed to Midtown for a family day. He was weary and full of shame.
Sunday 12:10 p.m.
Lily immediately saw the complete idiocy of her plan. Things would be fine as long as they were walking. But what if they got into a car? Or a taxi? No, they turned uptown. There was a good chance they were headed to the subway. That contingency she was prepared for.
They walked to Lexington Avenue and turned uptown. At 86th Street, she let them go down the stairs ahead of her and trailed them into the downtown station. She let them go through the turnstiles. She hung back. She watched them standing side by side on the platform, their backs to her. They looked like an old married couple. She knew Bill was long divorced. So who was this? He hadn’t mentioned anyone. He didn’t talk much about his personal life, except to dis his Ex or boast about his son. But this was probably not a new relationship, or not a passionate one, or there’d likely be more closeness.
When the train entered the station, at the last possible moment, she swiped her card, pushed through the turnstile, and ducked into the car next to theirs. Through the window at the end of the car, she could see them sitting. They both were buried in their phones. No conversation.
They rode to Grand Central Station. Lily was relieved. Her pursuit became less dangerous here – anyone in the world could be in Grand Central Station, so if he saw her, it was not a problem. But it was more dangerous because it would be easy to lose them in the throng. Once they came up the escalator, there was no throng. In fact, at this relatively early hour on a Sunday, there wasn’t enough of a crowd. She had to hang back quite a bit to not be noticed. And then they disappeared. No – they had gone out the door onto 42nd Street. She saw the last flash of the blue coat through the glass door to the street. She ran to catch up.
They crossed the street and went into the Pershing Square Café. She approached the restaurant carefully. A moment later, the woman came outside, cell phone to her ear. She looked up and started waving. Two young people approached her and hugged her. Her kids? The girl was a ringer for her – still a teen, Lily thought. The boy, a little older, was gangly and perhaps could be a son? They went in.
The place was huge and a bit of a mob scene. You waited your turn in a line to be seated. She ducked just inside the door. She was overcome with the noise – what a din! How could you have a conversation in a place like this? She watched as they waited for their table. The kids interacted only with the woman. Bill stared at his phone.
When she saw that they were seated, she went back outside. Now what? She desperately needed a bathroom. Ah. Perfect. She had a plan.
She waited a few minutes, pacing in the cold. Then, when she thought a decent enough interval had passed for perhaps the coffee to have been poured and the orders taken, she stepped briskly into the restaurant. She told the hostess she was waiting for her party to arrive and asked where the restroom was.
She spied Bill’s table, took the route furthest from his side of the restaurant to avoid being seen, did what she needed to do, then took a route directly by his table to exit the restaurant. She took her time, approaching with a distracted air, as though she were searching the room to return to her own table. When she got to the table next to Bill’s, she whispered, “Sorry” under her breath. Then she reached out her hand slowly and knocked a set of silverware belonging to a dining child onto the floor. It made a small clatter, enough of a noise to cause Bill to look up from his phone and look directly at Lily.
“Lil,” he nearly shouted. He awkwardly rose from his seat, dropping his phone on the table, his own silverware clattering to the floor. His face turned red. Not a little red, but beet red. Lily had seen Bill pissed off, tired, drunk, and hysterical with laughter. But she had never seen him look so utterly embarrassed. She felt her own cheeks grow hot.
The woman, turned abruptly to see what the fuss was about. She caste a mean stare Lily’s way. The kids watched, amused, it seemed, at Bill’s bumbling.
“Bill,” Lily shouted in return, sounding legitimately surprised, his reaction having caught her completely off guard. “Wow! Small world.”
“Yes. Wow!” He returned. “I’m sorry,” he gestured to the woman. “Carolyn, this is Lily Goodwin, a colleague of mine.” The woman nodded. “Lily, Carolyn.”
Lily extended her hand. The woman waited half a beat before taking it.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Lily said, smiling as warmly as she knew how. The woman said nothing.
Bill continued bumbling, gesturing to the kids. “And these are Carolyn’s children, Kimberly and Sam.”
Kimberly waved and grinned. Sam said, “Hey.” They seemed to be enjoying this moment.
“So, brunch.” Lily said. “Big plans after that?”
“Going to the theater,” Bill answered quickly.
“Radio City,” Kimberly chimed in.
“Fun,” Lily said. “I am meeting a friend for brunch.”
There was a silent moment. She knew she needed to make her exit. “Well, nice to meet you all,” she said. She started walking, placed a hand on Bill’s shoulder as she passed, leaned toward his ear and said “See you Monday.”
She walked directly out of the restaurant and did not return.
Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Lily’s boots pounded the pavement on Washington Street. Hoboken’s main drag was alive with Sunday Brunchers, too. She couldn’t stomach the idea of people enjoying brunch. She was in a hurry to get home and hide.
When she first walked out of the restaurant, she was giddy and triumphant. Once again, the high of having power over a powerful man had elated her, as it had Thursday night when she had flirted with him and Friday when she had teased him. She replayed the scene over and over in her mind – Bill’s extreme discomfort, the chill of Carolyn’s reception, the joy the kids had taken in the moment. She knew that she potentially had Bill in the palm of her hand. Or she had potentially created a nightmare for him. What if this woman was important to him? Would her disruption get him into trouble? She hadn’t known there was a Carolyn. Would this encounter cause them to argue? Would it push Bill away from Carolyn or cause him to need to grovel before her? Lily wanted to win here, not create a situation where Carolyn would win. What had she done?
She needed to think this through. This much she knew – she had been so surprised by Bill’s reaction to her that she knew she had convincingly pulled off the surprise encounter. His embarrassment could signal only one thing – that he indeed had been thinking about her this weekend. There was her triumph. But what now? She wasn’t sure.
Sunday, 10:30 p.m.
Fee crawled into bed and turned out the light. She had a dull headache from all the crying she’d done this evening. She knew that sleep would heal it.
She lay on her side and clicked for her cat. He hopped onto the bed into his usual spot, curling up against her stomach. She scratched his head. She liked that he was a cuddly cat. She liked to cuddle. She thought of Michael. Then she quickly pushed the thought from her mind.
She needed her rest. This would be a big week with multiple Troubadour kick-off meetings, and promotion announcements on Thursday. It would be a long week, but she knew, at the same time that, in what would seem like five minutes, it would be Friday.
Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
Gabe passed a minivan and pulled into the fast lane. They were zipping in a rented ZipCar down the New Jersey Turnpike, headed to the Garden State Parkway. Gabe was a California Boy. He liked to drive and seldom got to as a City dweller. So often, even though the train was easy and stopped near Aunt Eva’s place, he chose to rent a car and drive down. “Gotta keep my driving skills sharp,” he’d insist. Today, there was no traffic headed out of the City in the middle of the day, and the drive had been quick and easy so far. Fee and Ana were chatting away about clothes – something about boots with heels. He was pondering his plan for next Friday. He couldn’t wait to see the ring tomorrow.
He glanced at Ana, admiring her beautiful dark hair. He loved her nose. It was aristocratic, he told her, pointing more to her Spanish lineage than her Mexican citizenship. She had a sharp chin that she could point determinedly when she was angry and tilt sexily when she was feeling so inclined. No question, he was in love with this amazing woman.
Sunday, 1:45 p.m.
Bill walked silently next to Carolyn as they approached the doors of Radio City Music Hall. The kids trailed behind. His dread of attending this performance had diminished somewhat now. He actually looked forward to sitting in the dark for a couple of hours without having to see or talk to anyone.
Brunch, which started off rockily enough on its own, with the kids ignoring him and being ornery toward their mother, declined into a state of disaster after Lily’s “appearance.” As soon as Lily walked away from the table, Sam pronounced, “Damn, she’s hot. Who is she?”
Bill felt his face flushing again. He’d barely recovered from the first horrible rush. He looked down to try to hide. He heard Carolyn say harshly, “That’s enough, Sam.”
Kimberly said, “Are all the women at your office that ‘hot,’ Bill?”
He knew they had clearly seen his reaction to Lily and were going to milk this for all the misery they could cause him. He looked up at Carolyn.
She said, “Are all the women in your office that ‘hot’, Bill?” She was not smiling. She was not teasing him.
“There are no ‘hot’ women in my office,” he replied flatly. “There are colleagues – men and women. We work together. Period.”
“Well,” Sam said, “If I worked with her, I’d be banging her. Period.”
Carolyn raised her voice, and pronounced each word individually when she repeated, “Sam. That. Is. Enough!”
Bill was rescued by the arrival of their food. Silence ensued as they ate. Bill had no appetite. He pushed his food around on his plate, and when the server next came by to check on them, he ordered a Bloody Mary. He ordered a second one before the meal ended.
He thought he had never been so happy to leave a restaurant. On the street, at least he felt he could breathe again. Making their way through the holiday throngs, he did not feel obligated to carry on conversation.
When the lights came down for the performance, Bill pondered the wonder of running into Lily at that very place and time. What an enormous “coincidence.” Small world, indeed? She really was haunting him. Or stalking him? That was ridiculous – she had seemed as surprised has he had when they met. Even she wasn’t that good of an actor. And the trouble she’d have had to go to in order find him there and then. Ridiculous, right? It had to be some kind of a sign.
Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
Gabe knew that Aunt Eva always had a lovely lunch waiting for them. Today was no exception. She had made Chicken Paprikas, Nokedli, Cucumber Salad, and Apricot-filled Palacsintas for dessert.
These were all Hungarian wonders that Gabe had introduced to Ana in the past year. The wonderful chicken braised in a strong sauce of paprika, the homemade egg dumplings, and the tangy salad were a perfectly satisfying meal for a Sunday afternoon in the winter. The sweet crepes filled with jam were a light, delicious dessert.
Gabe had the advantage over Ana in this department. Growing up in Southern California, it was natural for him to already be familiar with the language, food, and culture of Mexico. But Ana had a lot to learn about Gabe’s Hungarian heritage. He was proud and happy to school her.
Aunt Eva Molnar was his mother’s older sister. As very young children, the two girls and their parents fled the Hungary after the revolution in 1956 and arrived in the United States. Sponsored by distant cousins, the family landed in Cleveland, Ohio, where Eva and Gabe’s mother Susan grew up.
His father John was born in New York City to Hungarian parents who had married young in Budapest and fled to the safety of the Unites States as World War II was dawning. When John was young, the Nagy family moved from New York City to Cleveland, where they joined the large Hungarian enclave there. John Nagy met Susan Molnar through family friends and married her, proudly “keeping the blood pure,” as he liked to say. By the time Gabe was born to them, the Hungarian community in Cleveland had begun to dissolve. But Gabe still grew up feeling very connected, through food and some rudiments of the language, to his family’s past.
Gabe’s full name – Gabor Tomás Nagy – marked him as Hungarian wherever he went. He soon decided as a schoolboy to go simply by “Gabe.” It made for way less teasing.
His little sister – Sofia Eva Nagy – was named for one of her grandmothers and this very Aunt Eva they were visiting today. Gabe was only three when Sofia was born. He was the one who, in his toddler’s tongue, first began calling her “Fee.” The name had stuck.
Their father was a Physics professor. When Gabe was seven, and Fee was only four, their family moved to Pasadena, where their father was offered a prestigious position teaching at Cal Tech.
That was how Gabe and Fee became Californians. Aunt Eva, who had never married, eventually made her way from Ohio to New Jersey. Her presence there enticed both Gabe and Ana to the East Coast for college. Gabe had gone to Columbia. Proximity by train to Aunt Eva in New Jersey always gave him a place to go to when New York City became too much for him to bear alone. Three years later, Fee followed him east to Princeton. And now, Aunt Eva’s was their home away from home. They came every few weeks to spend time with her, more often in the summer with friends, where her Condo on the Jersey Shore in Long Branch provided a perfect weekend getaway.
They were seated around Eva’s kitchen table, plates empty and stomachs full. Gabe was desperately wanting a nap. When Fee and Ana rose and began clearing dishes, Aunt Eva leaned toward him, and in a loud whisper said, “So, Gabor, when are you going to marry that lovely girl.” Gabe looked over his shoulder into the kitchen to see if Ana had heard this question. She and Fee were chatting.
He leaned closer to Eva, put a finger up to his lips and whispered, “Someday soon, I promise.”
Eva, delighted with this said to him, no longer in a whisper, “That’s wonderful.”
Ana came back into the room to gather more dishes. “What’s wonderful?” she asked.
“That you are getting married,” Eva said.
“We are?” she said, looking questioningly at Gabe.
“Well,” Gabe said, “I think….I hope…maybe, I mean, someday.”
“What are you waiting for, Gabor? Don’t you want to be married?” Eva asked.
“Sure,” he said. He looked back into the kitchen at Fee, who, absorbed in the dishes, with the water running, apparently was not going to rescue him. He was scrambling for a way to respond. “I’d like very much to be married. Someday.”
“And have lots of babies?” Eva suggested.
“Yes. I would like to be married someday and have lots of babies. Absolutely.”
Ana stood with a dirty plate in each hand, staring at him. “Really?” she said. “Someday?”
“You shouldn’t wait much longer Gabe. You’ll be too old to chase after babies if you wait too much longer,” Eva offered.
He rose and reached for the plates that Ana was holding, “Here, quierida, let me help you with those,” he said.
She shoved the plates into his hands and said, “Excuse me, I can’t wait much longer. I need to go to the bathroom,” and walked quickly away. He heard a very firm closing of the bathroom door down the hall.
“Aunt Eva,” he said whispering again. “I haven’t asked her yet. Please don’t say anything more about it.”
“Sorry,” she said. “I seem to have upset her.”
“Maybe just a little,” he said. Eva looked stricken. “It will be alright. Don’t worry. And I promise, it will happen soon. Please, don’t say anything else,” he begged.
“I promise,” she said, taking the plates from Gabe. I’ll go help Fee. You go sit down and relax.
Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
Fee was daydreaming while she was loading the dishwasher. She was imagining a long walk on the beach with Michael. They’d be holding hands, like they had yesterday. After a while, they’d sit on a jetty and watch the waves lapping up around them. He’d reach an arm around her shoulder and then….
And then Aunt Eva came into the kitchen and set a couple of more plates in the sink.
“I think I may have upset Ana,” she said.
“Oh?” Fee said. “About what?”
“About,” she leaned in and whispered to Fee, “getting married. But I promised not to talk about it anymore.”
“Oh. Yes. Best not to talk about that just yet,” Fee said smiling.
“What about you, little one?
“What about me?” Fee asked.
“Getting married?” Aunt Eva asked.
“It would help to have a boyfriend, first,” Fee laughed.
“No prospects? Millions of men in that Big City and you haven’t found anyone?” she asked.
“No, Aunt Eva. No prospects.”
“Well, I pray for you,” she said. “I pray for you to meet someone nice, someone tall and handsome, who will take good care of you,” she said.
Fee set down the dish she was holding and turned off the running water. “You pray specifically for that. In that way?” Fee asked.
“Exactly for that,” Eva said, kissing her cheek. “Why don’t you go in the other room and make sure your brother and Ana are okay. I’ll finish here.”
“Okay,” she said, reaching for a towel to dry her hands. “And you, please, keep praying exactly for that.” She kissed her Aunt on the cheek and walked into the living room.
She found Gabe stretched out on the recliner with his eyes closed.
“Where’s Ana?” she asked.
“Went for a walk,” he mumbled.
“Yes.” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“This is not good,” Fee said. “Maybe I should go after her?”
“No,” he grunted. “When she’s like this, it’s better to leave her alone. That much I have learned.”
“Oh,” Fee said. She wanted to help mend this somehow, but she felt helpless. The New York Times was spread on the coffee table. She plucked out the travel section, sat down on the couch, kicked off her shoes, and started to read. The cover article was on travel to the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador. She read the writer’s adventure on a canoe on the Amazon River, sighting all sorts of exotic lizards, bats, and monkeys. She was suddenly very interested in Ecuador. There was a sidebar about things to see in Quito. She wondered if that is where Michael had lived when he was there? She’d have to ask him more about that.
Sunday, 5:00 p.m.
Fee dropped her purse on her kitchen table, hung up her coat, and flopped down on her futon. She finally let loose the flood of tears she had been struggling to hold in.
She had just lived through what she thought might have been the longest two hours she had ever spent in a car. When Ana had returned, sullen and silent, from her walk, she made apologies to “Tia Eva” and asked Gabe to take her home.
The three of them bundled off into the car and returned to the Parkway. Fee sat in the back seat feeling horribly awkward in their company. The atmosphere was so cold in the car, she thought, they might as well be driving through the December afternoon with the windows open. She could not think of anything to say to break the ice.
After several minutes of silence, Ana started into Gabe in a rapid torrent of Spanish, only a few words of which Fee understood. She understood enough to know that Ana was genuinely pissed off at him. She also understood enough to know that Gabe had asked her not to speak in Spanish in front of Fee, as it was rude to exclude her.
“You want her to hear what I am saying,” Ana said in English. “Fine.”
“Maybe, honey, we could talk about this later?” Gabe asked feebly.
Ana started crying. “Gabe, you want so much to be married and have babies, huh, with someone?” she sobbed.
“With you, Ana. With you. Of course with you,” he explained. “You misunderstood what I was saying back there.”
“Again with the ‘misunderstood’?” she said. “For a guy who speaks two languages, oh, and some Hungarian, too, you have a lot of trouble making people understand you lately.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that….Ana, I do want to marry you. Absolutely. I love you.”
“Then why you don’t ask me?” she demanded.
“You want me to propose now, in the car on the Parkway? This doesn’t exactly feel like the right moment,” he said, raising his voice.
Certainly not while you are fighting, Fee thought.
“Well, when the mood hits you, feel free to ask away,” she said, her tone dripping with anger and sarcasm. She crossed her arms and turned her face to the window. “After all the work we’ve done. Someday?” She shook her head.
Fee felt then like she might explode. She fully appreciated both her brother’s desire to keep his secret just a bit longer and Ana’s confusion over what must appear to be his doubt or apathy. Fee just wanted to find a way to make things right.
“Ana, quierida mia, I just need a little more time to take care of a couple of things. And then, I promise you, we can make plans to get married. Please don’t be mad at me. It breaks my heart,” Gabe said.
Fee could hear him trying not to choke up. That made her want to burst into tears. She reached up and wiped a couple of stray ones from her face. She had to remain neutral and composed. Pretend you aren’t here. Disappear, she thought to herself.
Ana remained silent the rest of the ride. And it had been a long ride. What normally took just over an hour with no traffic had taken nearly two. The traffic coming into the Holland Tunnel alone had backed up for a thirty-minute wait. The silence was unbearable.
Fee closed her eyes and leaned against the window. Is this what love is like, she thought? Miscommunications? Accusations? Anger? Hurt? Deception? Fighting and bickering? Yes, possibly, she supposed. She knew that Ana and Gabe had indeed worked hard to get to this point. Gabe had never been specific, but he had told Fee there were demons in Ana’s past. We all come with our own baggage, Fee supposed, some people’s heavier than others. Ana and Gabe called themselves “Christians” still, and this is how their love looked? Fee felt her emotions had swing full circle from this morning, where a closeness to God felt inviting. Her fantasies about Michael now seemed embarrassing and ridiculous. Now she simply felt cold and hopeless.
Sobbing on her futon in the dark of her apartment didn’t help alleviate those feelings. After a few minutes, she rousted herself and stood at her window looking out at the Christmas lights in the courtyard of her building. The trees were strung with white lights. And in colorful displays were Santa with his reindeer, and candy canes, and in too-bright LED lights, a rendering of a manger scene. The hopes and fears of all the years, she thought, are met in this? She turned on the light next to her bed and went to the kitchen make herself some tea.
Sunday, 5:15 p.m.
Gabe was driving alone up the Westside Highway toward 14th Street to return the car. Alone.
After their horrible ride home, Gabe hoped that after he dropped off Fee, he’d have the chance to calm Ana down, maybe take her out for coffee and talk things over. Kiss and make up. But no. When he pulled into the drive in front of Fee’s building and stopped the car, Ana had jumped out and taken off in a brisk walk in the direction of the World Financial Center.
He jumped out of the car and shouted, “Ana, wait!” But she didn’t even look back. She stormed away.
Fee stood on the curb looking utterly distraught. “Go after her,” she shouted at Gabe.
“No, Fee,” he said. It’s better to let her go, if that’s what she wants.” But he wasn’t so sure now. Maybe he should have chased her down. Maybe she was testing his love and he failed? But past experience told him it was better to let her cool off. She had what he considered to be an almost stereotypical Latina fire to her. It worked both ways, he knew. Her passion for him could be as hot as her temper. He hoped that passion would work out to be a wonderful thing, once they were married. But for now, he felt completely lost.
Fee had come over to give him a hug with tears streaming down her face.
“Fee, I am so sorry you had to see all of this,” Gabe said.
“Are you sure you want to marry her?” Fee asked. She could joke around, he knew. But she looked serious.
“Yes,” he said. “She’s not perfect. Neither am I. But I love her. And I believe that God brought us together for a reason. Yes. I want to marry her.”
Fee hugged him again and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Well, I love you, too, brother,” she said. “And I want you to have whatever will make you happy.” She smiled then. “Just let me know before Friday if we need to cancel that party we were planning.”
He punched her in the arm. She stuck her tongue out at him.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said. And she walked into her building.
Now he had no idea what to do next. He’d return the car and head home. Should he call her? Stop by her apartment? Send her flowers? Tomorrow the ring will arrive. Maybe he should propose as soon as he receives it?
“Lord, you gave me this woman,” he prayed aloud in the empty car. “Please give me the wisdom to care for her.”
Saturday, 2:00 p.m.
Gabe and Ana ate a nice lunch at XXXXX and walked across to the Lincoln Center movie theaters. The near disaster of last night seemed to be completely forgotten. He was taking her to a movie. They went to the movies a lot. They liked to watch them and discuss them afterwards. It had been part of the gradual progression from the Starbucks meetings to a real dating life.
Their first date took a very long time to materialize. Through an entire spring and summer of “language lessons,” he continually tested the waters for a meeting on new turf. He’d actually tried several times to get her to go out with him, but she would always claim to be busy or have other plans. He could see that, for whatever reason, she was not really open to dating him.
But each week, staring into her beautiful face, he was gradually falling in love with her. She never let him touch her: No hugs, no friendly kisses on the cheek after their coffee time. Always an extended hand and a simple handshake. That made him crave her all the more. Despite her confidence as a professional, he saw a shyness in her that he never understood. She simply kept herself physically distant from him.
He began to suspect that she might actually be in a relationship with someone else – someone at work. She worked a lot of late nights and never talked about what happened there. He figured he really was just her language buddy and was about to give up.
During this time, they both continued to attend the Wall Street Professionals group, and they had started running into each other on Sundays at church. One Sunday, he saw her across the auditorium and had an inspiration: maybe if he asked her out while they were at church she would respond differently than during their meetings? Sort of a “date-asking ambush.” It was worth a try.
It was Labor Day Weekend. Most sane people were out of town. He’d had a work project come up and canceled his plans to go to Aunt Eva’s for the weekend. Miraculously, Ana was there at church, too. He spied her as he came in. He quickly moved toward her, and as the service was beginning, he dropped into the seat next to hers.
“Hola, Ana,” he whispered. He had clearly surprised her.
“Hi, Gabriél,” she whispered. She smiled.
As they went forward for communion, he admired her from behind. He couldn’t help himself. He was growing more and more drawn to her. He prayed for forgiveness for his “lusting after her” in the communion line – he felt, somehow, that God would understand.
As soon as the service ended, he turned to her. “What are you doing this evening?” he asked.
“Nothing special,” she said.
“Have dinner with me?” he asked. “We can speak Spanish or English – your choice.”
He could tell she was about to beg off. He jumped in. “You said you weren’t doing anything special –change your plans – do something special with me.” He cocked his head to one side, trying to look like a begging puppy. She fell for it.
“Okay,” she agreed. “But I will meet you at the restaurant.”
He was willing to go with that plan. “I’ll make a reservation and send you a message with the time and place,” he said.
He was thrilled beyond belief. He rushed home after church and prayed silently for a great place to have an opening for them tonight.
He scored – he was able to get into Babbo at six-thirty. From all of their conversations, he knew she had a sophisticated palette. He suspected she’d enjoy the “parts” of things that Mario Batalli offered on his menu.
He was right. She went crazy ordering dishes with ingredients like tripe and beef cheeks. They shared a beautiful bottle of wine and spent three hours at their dinner table, talking like they had every week at Starbucks. They switched from English to Spanish at will. To Gabe, it felt more relaxed and fun than any time they had spent together. And for the first time, just a little intimate.
Afterwards, on a night that was showing the first lovely signs of the transition from summer to fall, they walked all the way from Greenwich Village to her co-op in Hell’s Kitchen. By the time they reached the entry of her building on West 55th Street, it was nearly eleven.
He figured he wouldn’t push his luck on being asked to come up. They’d already spent quite a long evening together. But he wanted very much to kiss her good night.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” she said when they reached the door. “I had a great time.”
“Me, too,” he said. “Wonderful. Can we do this again?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” she said. “If you behave.”
He wondered what that meant? He stepped closer to her. “Good night, Ana,” he said softly, taking hold of her shoulders, starting to move in for the kiss.
She took a step back and extended her right hand. “Good night, Gabriél,” she said. “Thank you, again.”
She’d hung him out to dry. He saw no polite option but to take her hand, as he had a hundred times before. This time, however, he gently raised it to his lips and lightly kissed it.
“See you at Starbucks,” he said. He turned and walked away.
Sunday, 7:45 a.m.
May Rose was on the 7:43 a.m. Express Train from Grand Central to Tarrytown. Ahead was a day of shopping with her mother. After yesterday in the City did not meet her expectations, she still had a long list of presents to buy. She and mother would conquer Woodbury Common Outlets. Ambitious, but possible with this early start. Mother would pick her up at the Tarrytown station, they’d have breakfast with father, drive out to the mall, shop for a few hours, return for dinner with father, and she’d head back to the City. If all went well, she’d be home before nine-thirty tonight with all of her Christmas Shopping done.
May Rose had actually been on a bit of a shopping drought since October – at least as far as clothing went. Her last excursion had been to the Secaucus Outlets in New Jersey with Fee. It began with one of Fee’s friendly ambushes similar to the one she’d pulled this past Friday – what are you doing this weekend? Oh, nothing special. I am planning to go buy some new suits.
This had made May Rose’s ears perk up. Fee was such an uninteresting dresser. She had this way of always looking not quite put together. Not horrible, but not as sharp as she could be. May Rose could not resist a challenge like this one.
“Would you like some help picking things out?” May Rose asked.
“Sure,” Fee had readily agreed. “I love to have someone to give me a second opinion. I used to always shop with my mom, and now I rarely get the chance since she’s in California.”
So a plan was hatched. May Rose would proxy for mom. They’d take public transit to New Jersey, and spend the day on Saturday updating Fee’s wardrobe for the winter.
May Rose soon discovered, much to her amazement, that Fee had a perfect, tiny little body that fit into anything in a size four petite. Fee had never much dressed to show off her shape. May Rose was determined to break her out of her shell.
“You need to go from business boring and typical, to business sexy,” May Rose had insisted. May Rose considered herself the expert in this area, always striving to be a woman in the workplace and stand out in a room full of men.
Fee was clearly self-conscious when she began stepping out of the dressing room May Rose’s picks. May Rose was pushing her to color, shape, and style. But when she stepped out in a particular gray pantsuit-with a well-seamed jacket that emphasized her waist, a hip-hugging pair of slacks that gave her a butt to kill for, and magenta V-neck sweater that clung and plunged just enough to make even her small chest seem enticing, even Fee could not resist staring at her own reflection the mirror.
May Rose was at once jealous and very pleased with herself. Her beautiful hair was her own best accessory for attracting men. In her wildest dreams, she could never pull off this suit she’d chosen for Fee.
“My dear,” May Rose told her, “In this outfit, you will make some unsuspecting man faint.”
Fee giggled and said, “I could never wear this to work.”
“Sure you can – and you will. You are definitely buying this.”
This success unleashed Fee’s inhibitions. She next tried on a skirt suit in black with white flecks in the fabric. The jacket had a peplum that flare out to highlight her waist. The skirt flattered her hips and flared out, too. Underneath, she wore a delicate white collared blouse.
“For a special day,” May Rose insisted. “You must have this.”
They finished her wardrobe off with a few more mix and match pieces – jackets, sweaters, slacks. Fee would look like a new woman this winter.
“Oh,” May Rose insisted as they were finishing up, “we can’t leave without a sexy pair of boots for you – something black, with spikey heels that flatters your calves.”
And so, their full day of shopping for “suits and boots” had been a huge success. May Rose couldn’t remember when she’d had more fun. At the end of the day, Fee was overwhelmed and full of gratitude. May Rose thought that Cinderella might just yet make it to the ball.
Tuesday, 12:00 p.m.
Michael hated Tuesdays, sometimes even more than Mondays. Tuesday had no rhythm or predictable feel. It was usually a day full of meetings. Everyone had full wind in their sails, now that Monday was behind them. Somehow that also meant that expectations were higher, too. Higher heights from which to fall.
He dreaded his full slate of meetings today, including the Troubadour Plan presentation. They’d done good work on it, but he had a nagging feeling something wasn’t right.
To help prepare for the day, he ran this morning. That felt good, but then he was late. He skipped breakfast, grabbed and apple and a banana from the fruit vendor at 49th and 7th, and headed into to his first meeting.
From there he was behind all morning. Now he was in the Troubadour presentation, and things were a little rocky. He sat next Bill, who was doodling on a pad of paper, unengaged. Bill had not been himself the last couple of days. Michael made a mental note to talk to him later.
Winston, the MD of the customer team, was ripping the plan apart. Michael was starving and was not feeling patient about this.
“You guys got the priorities on the Analytics part all wrong,” he said to Michael.
“We went right off of your specs,” Michael said.
“Can’t be, Mike. We’d have never proposed this,” Winston countered.
“I think this is the logical approach,” Michael argued.
“I think you need to redo this, Mike. Get me something by next week.” Winston stood and looked down at him.
“Michael,” he said. “My name is Michael.”
“Fine, Michael. Get me a revised plan for the Analytics by next week.”
Bill scribbled a note in the margin of his notepad and tilted it slightly in Michael’s direction. “He’s an asshole. STAY CALM!!!!”
“OK. I’ll get you something,” Michael said, backing down.
When the meeting ended, Bill clapped Michael on the back as they headed to the elevator. “Not your best moment in there, ‘Mike’.”
Michael eyed him, annoyed. “Yeah, well, that guys pisses me off.”
“Let it go and do your job. And take your ‘happy pill’ before our next meeting, please.”
They got on the elevator.
Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.
Michael opened his office door and stepped out onto the floor.
“Hey everyone,” he announced. “If you are staying after six to work, I’m buying dinner. Sandwiches from the place across the street. Message me your order.”
There were claps and cheers, and a couple of “Thank you’s” from the team.
It was the least he could do. He’d already approached May Rose, Tran, and Lu Ming about the rework.
He walked over to Sofia’s desk. She looked up from her work.
“Help me on the rework of the plan tonight?” he asked softly, unsure what her response might be.
“Of course.” She smiled.
He was relieved. He turned to Lily in the next cubicle.
“Is it safe for me to ask you to stay tonight, too?” he said smiling.
She laughed. “You are safe as long as you are nice to my friend. You know I can take you down.”
“I do know that,” he said. “Thanks.”
Tuesday, 6:20 p.m.
Fee knew that Michael had a rule: when he bought dinner for the team, everyone had to come into the conference room and spent at least 15 minutes eating together and socializing, relaxing over their food before they went back to work. Sofia thought it was a good rule – it helped build camaraderie and helped you relax a little before the final push of the night.
The sandwiches arrived and were spread across table in the Fish Bowl, each one marked to identify its contents. Fee had found her “Turkey on Whole Wheat” right away and was unwrapping it. Everyone else was sitting around the table, pawing through the pile to find their own item. Across the table from Fee, May Rose was next to Michael. They bumped hands reaching for the same sandwich.
She said to him, “It’s a wonder you can see anything you’re doing with all that hair hanging in your face.” She reached over as if to push it out of his eyes.
“Hey,” he said sharply. “Stop it. Don’t touch me.”
There was chorus of teasing “Whoa’s” and “Oohs” from the table, and couple of nervous laughs.
“Sah-reeee,” May Rose pronounced, stretching the word into too very long syllables.
Fee had just taken her first bite of her sandwich. She felt such a sudden hot surge of anger that she nearly choked. She jumped up from the table and ran to the break room.
She filled a cup with water from the cooler and leaned against the wall. She took a couple of deep breaths and coughed. She sipped some water. How dare May Rose do that? But then, it isn’t as if she herself hadn’t had the very same thought at least a half a dozen times in the past few days. She’d just never had the nerve to actually try it herself. Or she had the common sense to know the boundaries. And if she had tried, she’d have died if Michael had responded that way to her. She couldn’t decide if she was more upset that May Rose had tried to touch Michael or that Michael had so little wanted to be touched.
Lily popped her head into the break room.
“There you are. Are you okay?” she asked “You had me worried when you didn’t come back in right away.”
“Choked a little,” Fee said, taking another sip of water and clearing her throat. “Thanks, I’m okay now.”
“Are you sure that’s all?” Lily looked suspicious.
“Sure. Let’s go eat.”
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.
Fee got up and put on her coat. She and May Rose were getting ready to leave. She saw Michael at his desk, stretching, yawning, and rubbing the back of his neck.
She went to the break room, filled a cup with cold water, and grabbed a packet of Tylenol from the first aid kit. Then she went to the Fish Bowl and grabbed a leftover bag of potato chips from the table.
She went to Michael’s office and walked in.
“Hey,” she said. “I am heading out for the night. But I sent you an updated file.”
“Got it,” he said without looking up. “Just reviewing it. Looks good. You can use this for your presentation downtown tomorrow.” He turned to look at her. “Really nice work.”
“Thanks,” she said. She set her offering on his desk. “I brought you something.”
“I am not going to ask how you knew I needed these,” he said, tearing open the packet of pills. He popped them in his mouth, and drank down the entire cup of water.
“You look exhausted. You should go home,” she said.
“I will,” he said. “I just need to….”
She put her hands on his desk and leaned forward toward him. She said softly, “You should go home, now. Deal?”
“Ah” he said, leaning toward her. “Deal.”
There he was, with that damned gorgeous hair hanging in his beautiful eyes. It took everything in her not to reach up and gently push it away, and then….”
Loudly from the door of the office, May Rose said, “Hey, you ready to go?”
Fee jumped back. Michael pushed his chair away from his desk.
“Yes” Fee said, pushing past May Rose, “Let me just get my purse. Night Michael.” She headed briskly to her desk. She heard May Rose behind her saying, “Good Night, Michael,” in an overly sweet tone.
Fee grabbed her purse and pushed through the door that led to the elevators.
She heard May Rose behind her say, “What, exactly was that?”
“What was what?” Fee said blankly.
“OK, fine. Nothing. Never mind,” May Rose said.
They rode to the lobby in silence. When they got to the street, May Rose stepped out to hail a cab. Fee said, “I think I’ll take the subway. I could use the air and the walk.” She dashed across 49th Street to the downtown N/R entrance, not waiting to hear May Rose’s response.
On the platform, she watched a rat weaving his way through the track bed. A rat indeed, Fee thought. She worried just exactly what May Rose had thought she had seen. She worried what exactly had happened? This time she wasn’t thinking Michael was going to kiss her. She was thinking that she was going to kiss him. Holy Cow! What was she doing? You can’t kiss your boss! It was one thing to fantasize about it in Aunt Eva’s kitchen. It was entirely another thing to fantasize about it when you are face to face with him in his office. Was she out of her mind? She had to get a grip on herself.
Tuesday, 8:55 p.m.
Michael was on the downtown 1 train. He’d finished the last of the chips and was crumpling the bag. That Sofia, he thought. So kind. The headache that had been plaguing him most of the afternoon had started to subside already. The snack felt good, too. Was he really so incapable of caring for himself? He was just too entirely focused on his work.
This had been a terrible day from the start. But it somehow felt redeemed now. The team had pulled together and the new plan, including the Analytics, looked much better. It hadn’t even taken that long to do, with everyone on board. But he had behaved badly several times today. He was not proud of his behavior, even though Sofia had forgiven him. And May Rose. Well, he wasn’t sure he cared how May Rose felt.
But he was thankful for May Rose’s “poor” timing tonight. If she hadn’t walked into his office, he is not sure what might have happened next. There he was, face to face with Sofia. Really inches from her. All he’d needed to do was lean forward just a little more and he could have….
Could have what? Would he really have kissed her? It’s what he wanted to do, he knew, but it was not rational. She was his employee! They were right there in his open office with half the team still on the floor. It would have been dual career homicide!
He had to cool down and let this pass. It just simply could not happen.
The train pulled into the 28th Street station. He got off and headed for the exit. He tossed the crumpled chip bag into a trash can. “There,” he said out loud to himself. “Done with it.”
Fee was stretched out on the futon, wrapped in her afghan, trying to watch a movie she had recorded. She couldn’t follow the story. Her mind was wandering too much. She thought about cleaning her apartment – that had to be done before Friday night’s party. If there was going to be a Friday night party? She simply felt too emotionally wrung out to do something so ambitious. She thought she might even “jinx” it by preparing for it. So, she reasoned, it’s better luck not to clean right now.
She stopped the recording and saved it for later. Norton Simon leapt up onto her lap, purring and nudging her for attention. She tickled his chin. Then Fee picked up her phone from the end table and scanned her email. She couldn’t resist thumbing back to the selfie with Michael. What had she been thinking when she took that? She hadn’t been thinking. She had just acted. So did this picture make their time together a date, as Lily had charged?
She scrolled to her recently-dialed numbers and clicked to dial “Home.”
Her mom picked up the line.
“Hi Sweetie Pie,” her mom’s familiar voice rang. “So nice to hear from you. How was your day with Eva?”
That’s all it took, and Fee was crying again.
“Oh Mom,” she said, “It was awful.” She recounted the whole misunderstanding, including all the details of the car ride home. “I just wanted to die watching the two of them fighting. They are in love. I didn’t want to see them treating each other like that,” Fee whined.
“Sweetie, all couples fight. It’s part of the process. Your Dad and I fight – well, not so much anymore, but we did a lot when we were raising you two.”
“I don’t remember you fighting much,” Fee said. “Except for maybe when you yelled at Daddy about his driving.”
“We tried not to fight in front of you. You know, a married couple is made up of two separate people. When they have different ideas, they have to work things out. It’s not always easy.”
“Of course I know that, Mom,” Fee said. “But Ana was so mean to Gabe. Is he really going to be happy with her?”
“I am sure he will be,” Mom said. “He adores her. And she adores him. They’ll work it out. Don’t worry.”
Fee was quiet for a moment. Then she asked, “How do you know, Mom, when someone is ‘the one’?”
“Well, there’s probably a lot people a person could marry in life – lots of potentially qualified candidates, right?”
“I guess,” Fee said. “So how do you pick just one?”
“Do you remember asking me this when you were in high school?” Mom asked.
“Sort of. When I was ‘in love’ with that guy Mark from my drama class.” The memory made Fee smile.
“Yeah. What did I say then?”
“That the person has to satisfy all the different parts of me,” Fee remembered.
“Right. You are an adult, now Fee. A beautiful, smart woman. I want you to be careful and remember this. You deserve someone who meets your needs mentally and physically – those guys are a dime a dozen in New York, with all those smart, handsome fellas running around Wall Street.”
“Mom,” Fee protested, embarrassed by her mother’s frankness.
“But, Sweetie, this is important. If you can find one who also meets your needs emotionally and spiritually, too, that one’s a keeper. Hold out for someone who fills you across all these dimensions.”
“Now are you going to lecture me about abandoning my ‘spiritual’ side,” Fee was getting ready to be defensive. Sometimes her Mom did nag her about her “backslidden” state.
“Fee, don’t kid yourself,” her Mom said, quite seriously. “You may not be living out your faith the way you used to. But you still have a ‘spiritual side’. Of course, you know that I pray for you to settle yourself back into Christianity. But whatever you chose to do, the person you marry should be like-minded with you in this area. Even ‘non-religious’ people have a spiritual side. And I’d wager that the best marriages across the board, religious or not, are between people who think alike in this area – even if ‘thinking alike’ means they both completely ignore it. Does that make any sense?
Fee pondered this. “Yes, Mom. It does.”
“So hold out for the big four, okay?”
“I will, I promise.” Fee felt like crying again.
“So,” her Mom said, changing her tone, “Is there someone?”
“No,” Fee said, tsking away her Mom’s suggestion. “But Aunt Eve says she’s praying for my perfect guy to come along.”
“So you should expect him any day now, then,” Mom said. “Cause she’s quite a woman of prayer!”
Sunday 9:00 p.m.
“Hey Mom,” Gabe said.
“I was expecting your call,” his Mom said.
“What? Did Fee call you already? Gees, that little tattle-tale,” he complained.
“That’s what little sisters are for,” Mom said.
“Okay, so you know that today sort of sucked, then.”
“Yes,” she said, “I do. What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for ideas,” he said.
“I suppose she isn’t answering your calls at the moment?” Mom asked.
“Correct. I thought about going by her place, but I think she’d just be more angry.”
“Then don’t do that. Are you still prepared to propose to her this week?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “If we are speaking again by the end of the week.” He tried to laugh at his own joke, but he sounded feeble, even to himself.
“My best advice is to try to work this out as quickly as possible. Don’t let anger linger. Ideally you would have worked it out tonight. But try to make sure you talk to her tomorrow. We’ll pray for you two.”
“Thanks, Mom. In the end, that’s really all I wanted you to do. Send my love to Dad.”
When he hung up the phone, he immediately went to his computer. He ordered a dozen red roses to be delivered to her office tomorrow with a note that said, “Lo siento, mia rosa. Te quiero.” He tried calling her, but the phone went straight to voice mail.
He left a message. “I’m sorry, querida. Please call me tomorrow. We should talk. Do you want me to make an appointment for us with Louise? Let me know. I love you!”
Then he sent her a text message that said, “So sorry. ILU. Want to talk to you Mon. Pls call!”
He kept his phone on the sink while he brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. But there was no response. He felt a little desperate, but he’d done all he could do, except what he knew his Mom would also be doing, which was to pray.
He knew that marrying Ana would mean a lot of moments like this. She was all confidence and strength in the workplace when she put on her public face. But she was terribly insecure in her private life. The enormous wall she’d put up all those early months of their relationship was clear evidence of that. If she sensed anything that threatened her, she’d flee and close up. She had approached a relationship with Gabe with such caution and had taken a very long time to accept that he really loved her. Once she had accepted it, she would doubt it again in an instant when the least sign of a challenge came along. Being with her was hard work sometimes. But most of the time, being with her was lovely and warm, so the work was worth it. He loved her.
And she had good reasons for her behavior, but it took a very long time for Gabe to find out what they were.
After he’d been left hanging at the end of the Babbo date, he considered seriously the possibility that she really wasn’t interested in him “that way” at all. They continued to meet for coffee and “talking,” almost as though that night had never happened. After a couple of more weeks, he decided to ask her point blank.
“Would you go out with me again,” he asked, “on another real date?”
“I’d like that,” she said.
“Are you sure? Don’t just say yes to be nice to me. I don’t want to torture you if you really aren’t interested in me.”
“Gabe,” she said, reaching across the table to take his hand. “Being with you is not torture. It’s wonderful.” As quickly as she had taken his hand, she had let it go. “Please, let’s go out again.”
The second date was a casual dinner at XXXXX followed by a Spanish movie that was playing at the XXXXX (ART HOUSE THEATER IN THE VILLAGE OR AT 57th??)
Afterwards, they went to XXXXX, shared a dessert, and talked over the merits of the movie.
He didn’t try to kiss her goodnight. She shook his hand.
This pattern continued through several dates – movie, dinner, discussion – until one night in December, now a year ago, he realized, they had gone to see a French film.
He hadn’t really read the description that closely, except that it was a drama about a family in crisis. About an hour into the film, the father went into the room of his young daughter, a girl of maybe twelve or thirteen. He approached her, and it was clear that he was about to do something very wrong to her and that this was not the first time. The girl in the film began to quietly sob in terror. Gabe realized at that moment, that Ana, too, was sobbing. Just as the man reached for the girl, Ana leapt from her seat and ran from the theater. Gabe quickly grabbed their coats and her bag and followed her.
He found her on a bench in the lobby, sobbing uncontrollably, her face in her hands. He approached her very slowly, afraid of what her response might be if he came too close. He set their things down, and very quietly sat next to her. He wasn’t sure what to do. He’d known her for almost a year and had never seen her cry, and certainly not like this!
After a few moments, the sobbing subsided. But she didn’t raise her face.
He spoke to her in Spanish, very softly. “Anita, what can I do for you? What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed into her hands, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she repeated over and over, in Spanish.”
“Sorry for what?” he asked.
Then to Gabe’s complete surprise, she threw her arms around his neck, buried her face in his shoulder, and cried some more. He very gingerly put his arms around her. She accepted the embrace and hugged him tighter.
He sat for several minutes, just letting her “cry it out,” whatever “it” was? He rubbed her back gently He was so delighted to be touching her, at last, he didn’t dare try to question why it was happening.
Finally, she raised her head and pulled away. He make up was smeared on her face. Her eyes were red and her cheeks pale. “Gabriél,” I need to tell you something. Can we go somewhere to talk?”
Wonder of wonders, twenty minutes later, he was sitting Ana’s apartment. He’d never made it past the front door of her building before. Now he was seated her living room. She’d once said she owned a one bedroom place. He’d had no idea it was so tiny. He thought it might even be smaller than Fee’s studio downtown.
One wall of the living room was the kitchen, with a sink, stove, refrigerator, and a tiny counter. In front of the “kitchen” was a two-seater table where he now sat. The living room included a love seat and a table that held a modest television set. The far wall had a bricked-up fireplace that probably had not worked for fifty years. But the mantle of it was decorated with things from her home. Above it hung a colorful tapestry that he was sure was also from Mexico.
When they walked out of the theater, she had suggested they go to her place. He had not commented, but had followed her as she rushed down #### in that direction. She was clearly in a hurry to be somewhere she felt comfortable.
When they walked in, she excused herself, went into the bedroom and shut the door. She emerged a few minutes later, her make up washed off, her hair pulled back, wearing a hoodie, yoga pants, and slippers.
Gabe’s heart started pounding in his chest. She might as well have come out in her underwear – that’s how “naked” she appeared to him. He had never seen her in anything less than perfectly-assembled, and accessorized business outfits or casual wear. Even the few times he’d seen her in jeans, she’d been completely made up and put together. It was clear she was about to “bare” herself to him.
She moved about her kitchen silently preparing hot chocolate – Mexican style, so that the room soon smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg. When she set the mugs down on the table, she also grabbed a box of tissues from the counter, and set it on the table, as well. This gesture alone made Gabe himself feel like crying.
She sat down and spoke to him in English.
“When I was ten, my parents had a party – a big party. Lots of people. It was summertime. All of us out on the patio and the lawn. All my parents’ friends and my father’s business colleagues were there. When it was time, my Nanny took me upstairs to put me to bed. A little later, I woke up, my bedroom door was open. I saw a man. I thought it was my Papá coming to say good night. But it was not.”
She paused. Tears were overtaking her again. Gabe could see she was trying to gain enough composure to go on. Gabe’s heart was pounding hard again. He feared that he knew what was coming.
“It was my father’s friend from University,” she said. He said he wanted to say goodnight to me. He came over and sat on my bed. Then he kissed me on the lips.” Her voice broke again, and through her tears, she continued. “Then he touched me. Then he stood up and showed himself to me.”
Gabe put his hand over his mouth. He thought for a moment that he would throw up. Ana was sobbing again in a way that sounded to him like grief – the way his Mom had cried at his grandfather’s funeral.
“Oh my God, Anita. My dear Anita.” He reached for her hand across the table.
She recovered a bit and went on.
“At Christmastime, he came again to our house. He came to stay one night with us.”
“They let him come again?” Gabe asked. Then he realized, “You didn’t tell your parents.”
“How could I? I didn’t know what it was. I was ashamed. I knew it was bad.” She took several tissues from the box, wadded them up, and buried her face in them for a moment. Gabe took one to wipe his own eyes.
“Anita,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me anymore of this.”
“Yes, I do,” she protested. “I do.”
She went, through new sobs. “That night, he came to me in the middle of the night. He woke me. He kissed me and laid on top of me. I could feel him on me.”
“Oh, no, Ana,” Gabe said. “He didn’t….”
“No,” she said. I fought. I kicked and scratched him. I bit him. He cursed me. He left quickly, then. I think he was afraid my parents would hear.”
Gabe got up from his seat, took her arm, grabbed the box of tissues, and took her over to the loveseat. He sat her down and sat next to her.
He said to her in Spanish, “May I please hug you, Ana?” She nodded.
He took her into his arms as the wounded child she was and held her, stroking her back. Her head was on his shoulder once again. She was crying silently now. His shoulder was wet from her tears. He whispered in her ear, “Beautiful, sweet girl.”
After a couple of minutes, she calmed down. She pulled back from him. She reached up and wiped a tear from his face.
“I have never told this to anyone,” she said.
“What? How have you lived your life?” Gabe asked. He was shocked by this.
“You see how I live my life,” she replied, matter of factly.
“You never told your mother? A girlfriend?” She shook her head. “Never a counselor or a doctor?”
“No. And I never saw the man again. I don’t know if my parents figured it out, or whether he just got scared. I wanted to forget.” She took another tissue and blew her nose. And another to dry her face again. She was trying to pull herself together.
“But why, now, after all these years, are you telling me?”
“Because,” she hesitated. “Because I love you, Gabriél.”
“You love me?” His heart was pounding again. She loved him!
“Yes, bobo, of course I love you,” she said, the slightest smile passed over her face before she grew teary eyed again. “I have wanted to tell you this for months,” she said. “I needed to know if….”
Gabe could see she was going to lose control again. He wanted to keep her calm. “If what?” he asked softly.
“If you would still have me after you knew this?” There were tears in her eyes, but she was not losing control.
“Still have you?” He pulled her chin up so he was looking straight into her eyes. “Ana, I love you more than I have ever loved anyone in my life. To me you are the most beautiful, perfect woman in the world. I want you, I admire you. I think you are precious. This doesn’t change how I feel about you one iota. If anything, it makes me love you more, because now I understand you more.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Very sure. One hundred percent sure. But that doesn’t make it all go away. Ana, you have to get some help with this. You have to go to counseling. I have to go to counseling. And we have to go together, too.”
“I could never talk about this with someone strange,” she said.
“You just told me.” He was trying to make a joke. She didn’t’ respond.
“We have to work on this together, because we really can’t be together until we do. Do you understand?” She nodded. “We’ll talk to each other, we’ll get help. We’ll pray. God will help us. He brought us together. He knows we can get past this and have a wonderful life together.” He touched her cheek. “And a wonderful love life together, when the time comes.”
He hoped he hadn’t gone too far with that last part. But he knew that a big part of this.
She smiled a little then and touched his nose with the tip of her finger. “I would like that, bobo.”
“We’ll call the church counseling center Monday to get you an appointment, okay?” She nodded.
Now, let’s have our cocoa. Then you should go to bed.” Gabe got up and brought over the mugs. The cocoa wasn’t very hot anymore, but it was satisfying, and they sat quietly together drinking it.
“Would you stay here with me tonight?” Ana asked.
Gabe felt an instant of panic. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said.
“I don’t want to be alone. Would you stay and sleep here on the couch?” He considered. He was exhausted. The idea of going out into the cold seemed unpleasant. And he hated the idea of her being alone of she got upset again. “Okay, just this once.”
She brought him a spare toothbrush, a towel, and a washcloth from her closet. She showed him into her bathroom, which was only accessible from her bedroom. He tried not to look at her bedroom as he passed through. He didn’t want the picture of it, and her in it, in his brain. He’d had all the intimacy with her he could handle in one night. He quickly washed up and used the bathroom.
When he came out, she had made up the couch for him.
The stood awkwardly together. He was very unsure of what should happen next. He wanted to kiss her good night, but that seemed too much for him to bear, let alone her. She walked to the door of her room, blew him a kiss, and said, “Buenas noches.”
“Goodnight. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said, as she closed the door behind her.
He took off his shoes, belt and sweater, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible before curling up on the tiny couch. He turned out the light and laid down, staring out into the darkened apartment. He tried not to think of her undressing in the next room. He felt like a scoundrel having that thought after what they had just been through.
He was suddenly afraid. He loved her, no doubt. But could he do this, knowing the work they’d have to do together in the coming months? He knew he couldn’t do this by his own strength. He closed his eyes and prayed.
Wednesday, 5:45 a.m.
May Rose stared out the window of her apartment, but it was too dark to see much yet. She woke up at four-thirty, the rain pounding her windows, the trees on the promenade rattling, and the wind whistling as it pushed against the building. She made a strategic decision at that point. She got up and ordered a car service car to pick her up at quarter to eight. She debated whether or not to let Fee know. She sighed and sent a text message offering her a ride if she showed up on time.
May Rose wanted to look good today. It would give her added confidence. It was handy to be “in” with the MDs and ADs on the IT side. She put herself together to look very professional. She debated over the right footwear, and finally she chose a pair of stiletto boots. They weren’t that comfortable, but they looked nice with her outfit – a navy blue shirt suit. She wouldn’t be walking much today, anyway, since she had a car to take her to work and to the meeting later. Sweet. She looked sharp.
Wednesday, 6:45 a.m.
Michael realized he’d double-booked himself this morning. He was supposed to go downtown for the Yale recruiting committee meeting. May Rose had invited him to something in the office that he had accepted as well. Too bad. He was co-leading the Yale thing. He had to be there. He’d send her a note to apologize later.
Wednesday, 8:15 a.m.
Fee awoke to her least favorite weather: thirty-nine degrees with wind and rain. Twenty-eight degrees and snowing was lovely and inspiring. Fifty and raining was tolerable. But near-freezing temperatures with a blowing Nor’easter invariably made for unpleasant conditions for walking, driving, or riding the subways.
She was very unhappy about having to go all the way to Midtown this morning, only to come back downtown through this mess. But May Rose had set up this final “dress rehearsal” for Bill and Michael. There was nothing she could do about it but comply. And before that meeting, she still had to plug the details from the newly-update plan into the final presentation. No pressure.
Today was not a day to wear any of her new clothes. She plucked something older from the closet – a brown pinstripe pantsuit. She stuck a pair of brown pumps in her work bag and put on a pair of pink, green and orange rain boots that usually only wore with jeans. They seriously looked like something a teenager would wear. And they looked ridiculous with the pant legs of her suit tucked into them. But today, dry mattered more than beautiful.
She’d heard the traffic and weather report while she was dressing. The rain had started after midnight and had been coming down with such fury since then that there was already street flooding and some flooding in the subway tunnels. The World Trade Center PATH train was closed, forcing everyone to use the line that goes to 33rd Street. Guess it was just as well they hadn’t planned to meet downtown – Lily would not have made it directly from Hoboken. But with the extra crowd, her commute in to Midtown was likely to be miserable.
Fee bundled herself up the best she could. She debated a long time between the warmth of a wool coat the water protection of a rain coat. She went with the water protection and hoped her hat, wool scarf, and gloves would keep her warm enough. She took an umbrella, but knew it would be useless, at least in downtown.
She struggled through the courtyard of her complex, which was a notorious wind tunnel. Half of the holiday displays had blown over during the night, including the manager scene, which was face down on the lawn. The unlit backside of the Virgin Mary presented itself to her. It was as though Mary were mooning her. Auspicious beginning to my day, Fee thought.
The trek to the Transportation Center was miserable enough in the winter, without the addition of the rain and wind. Fee’s coat was providing little protection. The wind blew it so much that her pant legs were getting soaked. At least her feet were dry. These were the days she thought about December in Southern California, where a windy day would mean “Santa Ana” winds with eighty degree temperatures. Sometimes she really missed Pasadena.
While Fee waited for her train, she pulled out her phone to see if anything was brewing yet. There was a text from May Rose from early this morning offering to share a car to Midtown with her at seven-thirty.
“If I don’t hear from u, I’ll go on alone,” the message said.
“For cryin’ out loud,” Fee exclaimed. She could have had a ride to work if she had just looked at her phone earlier!
Wednesday, 8:45 a.m.
Lily was on the platform for the 33rd Street PATH train. The crowd was six deep. She hoped to get on the next train. She’d already been waiting nearly half an hour. To fill the time, she had been thinking of the various ways she would cuss out May Rose for making them go to Midtown today. In the end, with the other train line dead, didn’t really matter. Lily would have been stuck going to 33rd Street and making her way downtown anyway.
She was fine with it all. Stuff happens. She was comfortable. She wore black slacks and a thick sweater. She had on her down parka, her combat boots, and her wool hat. It was a nasty day. She knew she’d be wet before the day was out. No point in complaining worrying it.
She had bigger things to worry about. She had to present in front of Bill today. With everything that had happened the last few days, she was not looking forward to that. Why did they need another rehearsal? More reasons to cuss out May Rose.
Wednesday, 9:30 a.m.
Fee needed only a few minutes to update the presentation. She was ready for their final dry run. Lily still hadn’t made it into the office. She was getting a little nervous about her making it with the train problems.
May Rose was in already, dry and looking perfect, when Fee arrived. Now she was loitering around Fee’s desk waiting for her to finish her updates.
“Sorry I missed you this morning,” May Rose said, not sounding terrible sorry to Fee. “I didn’t want to call you that early and wake you up. I figured you’d look at your phone – isn’t that the first thing everyone does these days?”
“Yeah, usually,” Fee admitted. “I got distracted by the weather. Anyway, the presentation is updated and ready to go. I’ll send it to you”
“Good,” May Rose said. “You aren’t planning to wear those boots to the meeting are you?”
“Well, yes, to the meeting. But not in the meeting. I’ve got other shoes to change into.”
“Thank God,” May Rose said. “I can only imagine what they’d be thinking if they saw you in those.”
Yes, Fee thought, just imagine that? She looked down at her computer. She had an email from Michael. “Hey. Michael says he’s going to miss our run-through. He has to be downtown this morning for another meeting that he forgot about.”
“What?” May Rose said.
“Oh well,” Fee said. Bill will be there – and he’s the big boss, after all.”
“But Michael’s in charge of this project. Jeez. Sometime that guy just pisses me off,” May Rose said, walking away from Fee’s desk.
Wednesday, 1:30 p.m.
May Rose was glad the car service had followed her instructions. The car was right in front of the building waiting for them, not around the corner where they usually met cars. The rain was still coming down with a fury when the three of them dashed through the revolving door.
“Shot gun,” Lily shouted as they ran.
“Fine with me,” May Rose shouted back. She liked sitting in the back seat and feeling like she was being chauffeured.
Once they were all in the car, May Rose leaned forward to give the driver instructions. “The Water Street Building,” she told him. “Take the FDR.”
“Ma’am,” the driver replied, “The FDR is bad today – flooding. I think we’ll do better on the Westside Highway.”
“It’s longer that way. And I’m sure that all the roads are bad. Please try the FDR.”
“Hey, Arturo,” Lily said. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” the driver replied.
“Dude,” Lily said, “You drove me home to Hoboken last week. Remember me?”
“Sure,” he said. “Miss Lily. I remember you.”
Lily turned around to May Rose in the back seat. “Maybe we should listen to Arturo, here. He knows his stuff.”
“I’m glad you and Arturo are such good buddies,” May Rose replied. “But I’d prefer we went the shortest way.”
“I’m just sayin’” Lily said.
“It’s fine,” Arturo said. “We can go however you like. I just want you to be satisfied with my service.”
“Thank you. Can we just get going, please,” May Rose said.
Thirty-five minutes later, they were standing still at the corner of Lexington and 42nd Street. They could have walked this far much faster. Arturo switched on the radio. The traffic report was dismal. Two lanes of the FDR were closed at 14th Street.
“Maybe we should go down Lex instead, maybe get on the FDR later,” Fee suggested. Fee had been silent throughout the ride so far. In fact, May Rose thought, she hadn’t spoken directly to May Rose since earlier this morning. Is she mad about something? May Rose couldn’t tell. Fee was so even-keeled most of the time, until something upset her enough to cry about. She hated that Fee cried about work stuff. May Rose prided herself on keeping her emotions in check.
Lily was babbling the entire way with Arturo about the Giants’ play-off hopes. May Rose was struggling to stay awake. Car rides made her sleepy. She wanted to be “on” when they got to the meeting.
May Rose looked at her watch. They still had an hour or so. “Okay, yes. Let’s go down Lexington,” May Rose suggested, leaning forward to be heard by Arturo.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
“You know, I am a ‘miss,’ like ‘Miss Lily’ there, and not a ‘ma’am,’” she said, while still leaning forward.
“Certainly, Miss. Sorry,” he said, softly.
“She’s really much more of a madam,” Lily said, nudging Arturo’s elbow.
Fee snorted. May Rose stared at Fee then took a deep breath. It did not behoove her to get into a tussle with these two “girls” right before this big meeting.
Lexington was actually good for several blocks. Then it slowed to a crawl below 34th Street. The rain, which had slowed a little in the last half hour, opened up to a downpour again.
“This is crazy,” Lily said. We should have taken the subway.”
“It would have been faster today, I believe,” Arturo offered.
“Are you supposed to advertise for the competition?” Fee asked, leaning forward to pat Arturo’s arm.
“I think I’ll get out at 28th and take the train. We could transfer at Union Square to the 4/5. That will take us right to the office.”
“I’m with Lily,” Fee said. “I think we’d be better off underground.”
“We’ll get soaked walking to the office,” May Rose protested.
“Nonsense,” Lily said. “It’s practically right at the building.”
Arturo cast a glance over his shoulder looking for instructions.
“Well, fearless leader?” Fee asked. “What is your bidding?”
All eyes were on May Rose.
“Okay, okay. We’ll get out at 28th.”
“Yes,” Lily said, fist-pumping. “Sorry to bail on you, Brother Arturo, but this calls for drastic action.”
“Of course, Miss Lily,” he said, with emphasis on the ‘miss.’”
Arturo pulled them as close to the Downtown 6 station as he could. The ducked out of the car and dashed for the station.
Wednesday, 2:18 p.m.
Fee was shivering on the platform. She wished now that she had her wool coat. She smiled to herself thinking that this was nothing compared to the cold shoulder she was giving May Rose. It was that remark she made about Michael. She didn’t like the tone of it. It was mean. Michael didn’t deserve to be treated meanly. Especially by the queen of mean.
A train came in less than two minutes and they were speeding toward their destination.
“See,” Lily said. “This is so much better.”
“It’s stifling in here,” May Rose complained. “I hope we have time to grab some coffee before the meeting,” May Rose yawned.
“We’ll be there in twenty minutes. Plenty of time,” Lily assured her
“Feels good in here to me,” Fee said. She had defrosted now.
When train stopped at 14th, there was an announcement.
“There’s a problem on the tracks in Brooklyn. We are temporarily holding all trains on this line.”
“What,” May Rose said. She was red in the face, maybe from the stuffiness in the car. Maybe from the new obstacle in their path.
For several minutes, nothing happened. The doors didn’t open. The car felt increasingly hot. Now even Fee was warm.
“I’m going to faint,” May Rose proclaimed, fanning her face.
“No you’re not,” Fee replied. “Take off your coat.”
“You like it hot,” May Rose retorted. “You are from California.”
“It’s not always hot in California,” Fee defended.
“It never rains in Southern California,” Lily sang it.
“Sure as hell rains here,” Fee sniped, crossing her arms over her chest. May Rose took off her coat.
Suddenly the subway door opened. A new announcement came. “This train is out of service. Please exit the train. Repeat , this train is out of service.”
“Let’s go, we can get the N/R from here.” Lily said. “It drops us even closer to the office than the 4/5.”
They trooped up the stairs. May Rose was trailing them because she was now carrying her coat, purse, computer bag, and attempting to run in stiletto heels.
Fee looked back at her with no compassion. “Come on May Rose, the clock is ticking,” she shouted from the top of the stairs. Lily led the pack, Fee followed. May Rose trailed behind.
Up the stairs they went, across the station, and down the stairs. On the platform, Lily was laughing.
“She’ll never catch up with us,” Lily said.
A train approached the station. “Do we wait for her?” Fee asked. “Lily, we have to wait for her.”
Lily stood with one fist on her hip. ‘Really?”
The train came in, stopped, doors opened and closed, and it pulled away just as May Rose landed on the platform.
“Missed it,” Lily shouted.
“Sorry. I wasn’t’ expecting to run today,” May Rose said angrily. “We just should have stayed in the car. We’d have been there by now.”
“No telling that for sure,” Fee said, trying to neutralize things.
“No way,” Lily argued.
“There’s another train in three minutes. We’re fine,” Fee protested.
May Rose put on her coat again and pulled out her phone. “No cell reception here.”
I’ve got bars,” Fee said, checking hers.
“Send a message to someone and let them know we are on our way.”
Fee typed furiously, trying to find the right contact name, trying to get an email sent before they got on the train. Not fast enough. The train pulled in just as she was sending it. Did it go? She didn’t know.
Wednesday, 2:30 p.m.
Lily eyed May Rose, who sat across from her on the R train now (WHICH TRAIN GOES TO WHITEHALL STREET??). She knew everyone thought May Rose was the consummate leader. Lily just thought she was pushy. There had to be a difference between leadership and just plain being a bitch. Lily knew they’d make it now. They’d be just on time. Maybe a minute or two to spare.
The train stopped at Rector Street and sat. Nothing. No announcement. No doors opening.
Then the lights went out on the train. May Rose screamed, not in fear, Lily thought, but in sheer frustration. Fee was giggling.
“This is absurd,” Lily said, also laughing.
“How can you laugh?” May Rose screeched. “We are on our way to a huge presentation and we are late. We’ll look like idiots.”
“They’ll understand,” Fee said. “The weather is bad.”
“At least it’s not too hot in here,” Lily said.
“Or too bright,” Fee joked.
They lights came back on. The doors opened. There was an announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will resume service momentarily.”
“I’m outta here,” Lily proclaimed, gathering her belongings. “We can walk there in fifteen minutes, for sure. I’ll take the sure bet.”
“You’ll get soaked,” May Rose protested. I can’t walk all that way in these heels.”
“I’m with Lily,” Fee said.
“Of course you are,” May Rose snapped.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Fee said, stepping out of the car.
“I’m the leader of this team,” May Rose shouted at their backs as they headed to the stairs.
Fee shouted back, “Then act like it.”
The rain was still coming down and with the winds of Lower Manhattan gusting, Lily knew they’d get wet. So be it. Bring it on. At least they’d be there.
Wednesday, 2:58 p.m.
Fee walked, breathless, into the conference room with two minutes to spare.
She was completely soaked. The ends of her hair were wet, her pants legs we dripping water, her coat had soaked through. Her feet were dry. Perhaps that would be the saving grace from her catching pneumonia.
She pulled off her wet gear, piled it on a chair in the corner, and surveyed the room. No May Rose.
“What do we do?” she asked Lily.
“We do it ourselves. You take the opening, I’ll take the background and the IT part, you do the plan and the closing. Piece of cake.”
“You know the IT stuff?”
“Are you kidding? Better than May Rose!”
They got to work setting up Fee’s computer and connecting to the projector. The lead IT MD, a guy named Charles that Fee had met a couple of times before, came over to greet them.
“You guys look like a couple of drowned rats,” he said.
“Subway trouble. We had to walk part of the way,” Fee explained.
“Why didn’t you take a car?”
“We did,”Fee replied.
“Long story,” Lily added.
The room was filling. There were several people she recognized coming in. Then, to Fee’s surprise, Ellen walked in the back of the room and took a seat against the wall.
Fee nudged Lily. “Look,” she said.
“Crap,” Lily said.
“No worries. We got this,” Fee said. “Showtime.”
Fee got up and opened the meeting, introducing herself and Lily. She explained that May Rose had been detained but would join us soon.
Fee had spoken at dozens of meetings like this. She enjoyed it. She knew that giving presentations was as close as she was going to get in New York to performing for an audience. Since she never pursued her youthful dreams of Broadway, this was as good as it would get. So she milked it for all it was worth.
She was a little worried that May Rose had not arrived. But the audience was ready. The show must go on.
She delivered the opening and was about to turn it over to Lily when she realized she was still wearing her ridiculous boots. How could she have forgotten to change? What was it that May Rose had said about them thinking they were idiots? Oh well, she thought. Too late now. She finished and turned it over to Lily, who nailed the background, delivering it even more brilliantly than she had last week. She was about halfway through the IT part when the rear door of the conference room opened and May Rose sheepishly stepped into the room. She was completely dry and looked absolutely perfect. She discretely took a seat at the rear of the room.
When Lily finished, Fee stood up again. “May Rose,” she asked, “would you like to describe the plan?”
“No,” she said very politely. “You go on ahead.”
So Fee did. As she was wrapping up, she saw May Rose make her way to the front of the room. It was clear that she was going to at least get a little of the glory.
“I’ll turn it over now to May Rose, who will wrap things up for us.”
May Rose very graciously thanked Fee and Lily for their excellent work, went through her planned closing remarks, and opened the floor to questions.
The Q&A went smoothly. Fee could see that May Rose had no choice but to defer to her and Lily for several of the questions, since she hadn’t heard what they had presented. Fee felt a little guilty about just how much she was enjoying May Rose’s lack of control of the situation.
When the meeting ended, Ellen made her way to the front of the room and shook Fee’s hand and then Lily’s.
“Well done, ladies,” she said. Fee felt her face grow hot. “You did a great job. Nice boots, by the way.”
“Oh my god, Ellen, I am so sorry about those. I was supposed to change to my regular shoes, but we were so late, with the rain and everything, I forgot.” Fee was really embarrassed.
“I’m only teasing. It’s more than apparent you had a little run in with the weather. Why didn’t you take a car?
“We did,” Lily said.
“Long Story,” Fee said.
May Rose joined them then. “We didn’t know you were coming to this meeting,” she said. “I am so sorry I was so late. The train I was on got held up.”
She delivered the opening and was about to turn it over to Lily when she realized she was still wearing her ridiculous boots. How could she have forgotten to change? What was it that May Rose had said about them thinking they were idiots? Oh well, she thought. Too late now. She finished and turned it over to Lily, who nailed the background, delivering it even more brilliantly than she had last week. She was about halfway through the IT part when the rear door of the conference room opened and May Rose sheepishly stepped into the room. She was completely dry and looked absolutely perfect. She discretely took a seat at the back of the room.
When Lily finished, Fee stood up again. “May Rose,” she asked, “would you like to describe the plan?”
“No,” she said very politely. “You go on ahead.”
So Fee did. As she was wrapping up, she saw May Rose make her way to the front of the room. It was clear that she was going to at least get a little of the glory.
Wednesday, 3:40 p.m.
“Thank you, Fee,” May Rose said as she came to the front of the room. She was not going to let this end without giving herself the final word.
“And Lily,” she added. “Let me summarize a couple of key points. And then we’ll take questions.”
She went through her planned closing, hoping it fit with what took place before she entered the room. She had never been late to a meeting in her life. Not like this! And then to walk in and see Ellen there. It was mortifying. Fee and Lily looked a complete mess. She hoped her polished presence at the end could redeem her team’s first impression.
But when the questions started coming, she felt panicky. She had no choice but to defer to Fee and to Lily most of the time, since they had provided the initial information.
Why hadn’t she followed them off the train at Rector Street? If the train had taken off right away, she would have beaten them to the office. She didn’t want them to be right. She didn’t want to walk all those blocks in the rain. She sat there feeling ridiculous. Each minute she sat there on that idle train, she felt more and more angry. She thought of going up to look for a cab, but knew that was hopeless on a day like this. So she waited until the train finally left the station.
All she knew now is that she had to put these two girls back in their place on this team if she was going to successfully lead this project.
Wednesday, 3:50 p.m.
Michael slowly opened the door to the conference room. He didn’t want to interrupt anything with his entrance. When his Yale meeting downstairs ended, he knew if he hustled upstairs, he could catch the last few minutes of the IT presentation. To his surprise, Ellen was sitting in a chair at the back wall. He slipped into the chair next to her.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” he whispered.
“Last minute change of plans,” she whispered back.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Very well. You should be quite proud of your new promote,” Ellen whispered back, smiling and winking at him.
“She’s in?” he asked. “And Tran?”
“Thanks,” he whispered. He was looking forward to sharing this news with Sofia tomorrow. He’d have to think of some fun way to do it. Something special to help her remember this moment in her life.
Sofia was at the white board drawing a flow chart, just like she had done the other night in the conference room. Only she didn’t look at all the same as she had the other night. She was a mess!
“What the heck?” he whispered.
“Perhaps you should have a word with her about being visually prepared to present,” Ellen said. “Oh, and May Rose was almost thirty minutes late. You may want to talk to her about that.”
“What?” Michael said, no longer whispering.
Someone in front of them turned around and shushed them. He looked at his team standing in front of this important meeting. May Rose looking perfect, but somehow sheepish, and both Sofia and Lily looking like disasters, but somehow poised and confident.
When the meeting ended, Ellen made her way to the front of the room. Charles accosted Michael to ask him some questions.
Wednesday, 4:05 p.m.
“Thank you, so much, Ellen, for making time to be at this meeting,” May Rose said as Ellen approached.
“Looks like I did a better job of making time for it than you did,” she responded. She then turned to Fee and shook her hand. “Well done, Fee,” she said. “And Lily,” she said, shaking her hand as well.
May Rose felt desperate to make this right. “We got stuck in the subways, and with all the rain….”
“You should have taken a car.” Ellen said.
“We….” May Rose started.
“I got down here from Midtown in half an hour. Scooted right down the Westside Highway. Anyway, I’m late to my meeting. Good job.”
Ellen walked away. And now Michael was approaching them. He was not smiling.
Wednesday, 4:10 p.m.
As Ellen walked away, Fee saw Michael walking toward them. Michael? When had he come into the room? How much had he seen? What did she look like? She looked down at her ridiculous boots.
“Ladies,” he said, “I just caught the tail end, but I’ve heard good reviews already. But for the love of God, what the heck happened to you two?” He pointed at Fee and Lily.
“We got stuck on the subway and had to walk part of the way in the rain,” Lily said.
“Why on earth didn’t you…”
“Take a car?” May Rose growled. “We did!” she shouted at him.
“It’s a long story,” Lily and Fee said in unison. They looked at each other. Then, they laughed. Fee could not control herself. She was laughing so hard, she was crying. Lily doubled over.
“I gotta pee” Lily said through her gasps of laughter. She rushed out of the room.
Michael was not laughing.
“May Rose, I heard you were late, on top of everything else. We will discuss this later,” he said.
May Rose didn’t say anything. She turned to gather her belongings and left the room.
Michael faced Fee, who was still trying to recover herself. He took her gently by the arm and led her to the corner of the room.
“Sofia,” he said, more kindly than she expected. “You are a mess. You are always, somehow slightly a mess. Do you know this?”
“I do, Michael,” she said.
“You looked so nice the other day,” he started. He stopped suddenly, sighing. “Anyway, can you work on tying up your loose ends a little, please.”
She felt her face getting hot. “I’m sorry. I am truly working on it.”
“This is awkward,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He paused. “I do kinda like your boots, though,” he said, laughing.
“Thanks,” she said. She started laughing again. “This has been quite a day. It’ll go down in the annals of my personal history as one of the worst.”
“Well,” he said. “I think tomorrow will be a better day.”
Thursday, 6:15 a.m.
Michael had gone to bed feeling tired last night. This morning he woke up feeling a little, for lack of a better word, “off.” When the alarm went off, he thought seriously about calling Ed to cancel their planned breakfast. But then, he reasoned, he needed to eat breakfast anyway. This was going to be a big day, and he already knew from his experience on Tuesday that skipping breakfast was a bad idea for him.
So, he dragged himself out of bed, shaved, showered, and dressed himself in his newest suit. If today, by some outside chance, happened to be a big day for him, he wanted to look his best. He started to tie his favorite tie around his neck, a classic red striped power tie that Cami bought him just for them broke up. But the very act of tightening it this early in the morning made him feel like he was being strangled. He loosened it, neatly folded and rolled it, and placed it in his suit jacket pocket. He could put it on later, before he started handing out raises, bonuses, and promotions.
He met Ed right on time at the XXXXX diner. The hostess started to seat them at a table. Ed asked for a booth in the corner. “More privacy so we can talk,” Ed said to Michael.
Michael studied the menu and couldn’t see anything that he really felt like eating. He wondered if he was just a little nervous about what he planned to say to Sofia today. He laid awake a full hour trying to come up with a fun, maybe teasing, way to tell her about her promotion. Maybe lead her to believe she hadn’t gotten it and then surprise her. He still wasn’t’ sure. He knew he also wanted to say some nice things to her about her work. He still felt awkward about the conversation he’d tried to have with her yesterday. “Buttons,” indeed.
Or maybe he was just excited about his own possibilities?
He settled on pancakes, and bacon. No eggs today. Not in the mood. He ordered orange juice and coffee, too. Ed ordered an omelet.
“So what’s on your mind,” Michael asked, after the server walked away.
“Well, you are my most ‘spiritual’ friend,” Ed began. “I want to ask you a question.”
“Me, the lapsed missionary’s son? I’m the most ‘spiritual’ person you know? You must lead a pretty vacuous life,” Michael said.
“This is serious,” Ed said. “I am asking for your help.”
“Sorry. Of course,” Michael said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” Ed began. He seemed nervous. “I am thinking of asking Brittany to marry me.”
“Wow,” Michael said. “That’s fantastic! She’s a great girl. You two seem to go really well together.”
“That’s just it,” Ed explained. “I think so, too. But how do I know she’s ‘the one?” How do I know I am making the right decision? I mean, so many people totally screw it up. But a lot of the people I know who have good marriages, they seem to have this ‘something extra,’ besides just ‘she’s a nice girl and she’s attractive.’ You know what I mean?”
“I guess so?” Michael said.
“C’mon, Michael. Look at your parents. How long have they been married?”
He did the math. “Thirty-six years.”
“So it can work, right?” Ed looked a hungry for affirmation.
“Of course it can,” Michael said. “My grandparents have been married sixty years.”
“So what’s the secret?”
“You’re asking me? I don’t even have a girlfriend!” Michael laughed. “Okay, seriously. When I was trying to decide whether or not to marry Cami, I asked my Dad the same question. I asked him how you know when you’ve met ‘the one?’”
Ed was hanging on his every word. “And….”
“And my Dad said you’ll know when I’ve found ‘the one’ because ‘God will fill your heart with her.’”
Ed thought this over. “What does that mean?”
“Well, I tried applying that to Cami, and it was pretty clear that she didn’t fit that description. She was sexy and beautiful, and we had some fun. But my heart wasn’t ‘full of her.’ I knew I could walk away from her and still be complete – not feel broken. Doesn’t mean I didn’t miss her when we broke up, but I knew I’d be okay without her. Does that help?”
“Yeah, I think it does. Thanks,” Ed said.
Their food arrived. They ate in silence for a few moments. Then Ed said, “Michael, you know you aren’t so spiritually lapsed, right? I mean, you don’t go to church like you used to. But you are still very spiritually wise. People see that in you, you know?”
Michael felt embarrassed by Ed’s compliment. He didn’t feel that way about himself at all. In fact, he often felt quite spiritually empty. “I just look that way,” he said, searching for the right thing to say. “It’s all those years of practicing my faith. You don’t lose the knack entirely when you start exercising the muscles so young.”
“Muscle memory. Means it would come back quick, if you starting practicing again, kind of like piano or tennis, huh?”
“Perhaps,” Michael said. He’d finished his breakfast, and now he felt like he’d eaten too much. Maybe it was this conversation that was making him feel so uncomfortable. He redirected the focus back to Ed.
“So are you going to pop the question?”
“You know, Michael, I just might. I just might.”
Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Bill dropped his keys on the table in the entry, hung his coat in the closet, and tossed his sports coat on the banister. He loosened his tie, poured himself a double Dewar’s, and flopped onto his couch. He was in the dog house, no doubt about it.
At the end of the show, standing on the sidewalk outside Radio City, Carolyn had matter-of-factly reported that she and the children were going to dinner. By themselves. They needed some family time.
“Will I see you this week?” Bill asked.
“Probably not. Busy week,” she replied. And off she went.
Wasn’t he just saying to himself a couple of days ago that he was going to dump this woman, and now he was drowning his sorrows over her with a double scotch neat?
Or was he? He wasn’t sure. He might just as easily be trying to drown out the noise of Lily.
He didn’t even know his own mind. When Lily had whispered in his ear, a shiver had gone down his spine. An honest-to-god shiver. When was the last time that had happened to him?
“God, I’m an old, worthless fart,” he said raising his glass to toast himself. “What is going to become of me?” He thought he didn’t care about Carolyn until she fled him in a snit. He couldn’t understand why he cared about Lily, until he saw her out of context in that restaurant and his knees turned to rubber.
He knew he had to talk to Lily tomorrow. She had challenged him to think it over. He honestly didn’t know what he wanted. He was a guy who was known for thinking on his feet, acting in the moment on solid instincts. That’s how he’d risen through The Bank. That’s how he led and it had never failed him. He decided the best thing he could do is let the moment inspire tomorrow.
Sunday, 7:00 p.m.
Michael selected Quality Meats, a happening upscale steak house near the Plaza Hotel, for dinner with the Hong Kong guys. On Saturday at the office, he’d made a reservation for four after he’d gotten his “assignment” for this dinner. But this afternoon when he checked his phone after his run, he had a text message from Bill’s assistant telling him that the three gentlemen each had a date for the evening. Great. He’d had to go all the way to the restaurant manager to secure a last-minute upgrade to a table for seven. Seven. How awkward! He tried to reach Bill, but his phone went straight to voicemail. Just as well. Michael really couldn’t stomach the idea of Bill being his “date” twice in one weekend. Who to call? He immediately pulled up Sofia’s number and was just about to dial her when he remembered that she was visiting her aunt in New Jersey today. Damn. He gave a passing thought to calling May Rose, but knew he couldn’t stomach her this evening, either. He’d go it alone.
His guests arrived on time in a stretch limo. The head of the team, Mr. Chui, introduced the woman he was with as his wife. Michael believed that. She was a lovely, charming woman who spoke a few words of English. The women escorting the other two gentlemen, they were introduced as Su Lin and Suzie, he feared, may have been exactly that, some sort of hired escort. Don’t ask, don’t tell, was his philosophy in these matters. To his relief, these women also spoke some broken English. Whatever their origin, he was certain they were currently residents of New York City.
Their waiter was named Jaime. Michael followed his hunch and spoke to Jaime in Spanish, suggesting that he’d make it worth his while if he could see to it that the meal moved along quickly. He wanted to be out in two hours. He didn’t think he could stand this much longer. Jaime smiled, winked, nodded, and agreed to the plan; the rest of the table none the wiser.
Michael started the evening by ordering a couple of bottles of high-end Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. He had a glass in front of him that he barely touched. He needed to stay very sober to manage this conversation. They opened with talk of business – their broken English and his Cantonese carried things along pretty well. By the end of this talk, they expressed their high hopes for the relationship between their team and the New York team. So far, so good. Michael was earning his keep.
As the wine started to do its job, conversation turned to more general matters. What was their daily life like in Hong Kong these days? How was the economic there? What were Michael’s interests? How had he come to speak Chinese? Was Michael married?
By the dessert course, the escorts had turned their attention from their own dates to Michael.
“You ever be a model?” Su Lin asked, attempting to show off her English skills, blinking at him with her false eyelashes.
“A model?” he asked, making sure he understood.
“You know,” she said, “picture in magazine.”
“Right,” he said. “No,” he said, with emphasis.
“You sure?” Suzie asked. “I see you on sign, I think.”
“I’m sure you have me confused with someone else,” he said in English. And then he repeated in Chinese, “I am not a…,” realizing then that he didn’t know the word for “model” in Chinese.
“You have a nice hair,” Suzie said. The two women shared this agreement between themselves in Chinese, giggling. Michael thought he understood what they were saying, but his vocabulary, learned mostly at a young age, did not include certain “adult” topics very extensively.
By now, Mr. Chiu’s attention had shifted to the giggling girls. Michael quickly jumped in, trying to redirect his attention by asking him when they plan to return home. But it was too late.
Mr. Chiu, in his broken English, asked, “You are stealing our women, Mr. Dayton?”
“No, no,” Michael said. “Not at all.”
“I think maybe if we cannot trust you with our women, we cannot trust you with our business,” he said, eyeing Michael.
Michael jumped to Chinese, apologizing for any misunderstanding, saying that he wasn’t interested in their women.
“Ah, I right” Suzie said triumphantly, “I tell you he was gay!”
At that moment, Jaime arrived, placing a hand on Michael’s shoulder as he laid down the tray with the check. Jaime whispered in Spanish that his number was on the back of Michael’s copy.
Michael felt himself blushing deeply. He could think of nothing to say to extricate himself from this situation. He just wanted to be out of this restaurant.
As they were leaving the table, Mr. Chiu took him aside and said to him in Chinese, “My apologies. We understand now. Clearly you could have no interest in the ladies.” He shook Michael’s hand. “We look forward to doing business with your team.”
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Lily dialed her Mama. No one answered. She hung up and tried her cell phone. It went straight to voicemail.
She left a message: “Mama, miss ya, love ya. Just wanted to see how you’re doin’. It’s Sunday night – oh, I bet you are church. No prob. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Lily’s Mama was a devoted Baptist now. She hadn’t been a religious person at all when Lily was little, but she’d gone through a conversion while Lily was a teenager – she’d “given her life to Jesus.” Now she never missed a Sunday morning, a Sunday night, or a Wednesday night at First Baptist Church of NAME.
Lily didn’t mind that her Mama had gone through this transformation. It gave her a lot of new friends and somewhere to go when she wasn’t at work. Lily sort of appreciated that Mama was always “prayin’” for her, though she herself didn’t’ take all that too seriously. It was mostly superstition, in her mind. She’d never had the least interest in any of it.
But today, since she had come home from disrupting Bill’s brunch, she felt horribly wrong. Slightly queasy. Was it guilt? Shame? Jealousy? Embarrassment? She was feeling “like the sinner she was,” her Mama would probably say. How she felt about Bill hadn’t changed. How she felt about herself had.
She decided she would take a different tack with Bill tomorrow. She’d back off from being the aggressor and see how things went. She still wanted this. But she wanted him to want it even more.
May Rose dialed her mother.
“May Rose, you can’t be home already?” her mother said.
“No, mother, dear. I am still on the train. And I just about had a heart attack! I just realized that I left the new dress I bought to wear on Thursday at your house! Can you believe that?”
“Oh my,” he mother said, sounding very worried.
“It’s not a catastrophe. You can just overnight it to me, OK?” May Rose suggested.
“Of course, darling. Whatever you need. I’ll send it off tomorrow.”
“Thanks, mother,” she said. “Kiss.”
“Kiss,” her mother replied.
Crisis averted, she thought, as she disconnected the call.
Sunday, 9:15 p.m.
Bill sat at his kitchen table. He’d had a little too much Dewar’s and not enough dinner. The townhouse felt very empty to him tonight.
He dialed Jason’s cell phone. No answer. He left a voicemail.
“Hey son, just calling to say ‘Hi.’ Gimme a call sometime, eh.”
Then he sent a text message: “How r u? Call me sometime.”
Bill set the phone down on the table and foraged around in the refrigerator for something to eat. He found a hunk of cheese. He grabbed a Diet Coke. He pulled a knife out of the block on the counter, and found some crackers in the cupboard.
He set his meal on the table. His phone lit up. It was a text. “At a party. Call ya soon.”
That was good. He’d answered. Bill would take that. That was a grand gesture coming from a twenty-year-old.
Sunday, 10:30 p.m.
Michael sat at his desk at home with his work laptop open in front of him. He already sent a message to Bill summarizing the results of the dinner, well, at least the business-related results.
He knew he should be laughing at the whole “gay model” thing, but it didn’t feel funny. It had touched a nerve.
He leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms over his head, and looked at the pictures on the shelf above him. There were Mom and Dad smiling at him in a photo taken a couple of years ago. He hadn’t seen them in more than six months. They were in Calcutta working with imprisoned women, caring for families in need. It was sometimes dangerous work, but they had spent a lifetime doing dangerous work, even if the danger had been nothing more than declaring what they believed in less-than-welcoming places. He respected his parent’s commitment to their work. He was even grateful, most of the time, for the interesting childhood they had given him. But there were a lot of times, like today, like right now, when he wished he could drive out to Connecticut and just hang out with them. Connect with them. Have his needs be the focus of their attention, instead of them focusing on some stranger in need.
He looked at the time, did the math, picked up his phone, and dialed his mother. After several rings, her bright voice was on the other end of the line.
“Mickey!” she said loudly. She always shouted into cell phones, even when she wasn’t ten thousand miles away. “I was just thinking of you, dear.”
“Hey Mom,” he said. “Guess I was thinking of you, too!”
She laughed. “Is everything okay?” she asked.
This was her signal to him that he didn’t call often enough. Her assumption that he’d only call when there was something wrong. That simultaneously hurt his feelings, because he felt he did call enough, and filled him with guilt because, though he wasn’t’ sure quite what it was, he was calling her because something was wrong.
“Everything’s fine Mom,” he said. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“I might lose you, dear. We are out on the edge of town, heading to Bantala,” she said. “So I’ll say ‘I love you’ now, in case we get cut off.
“Love you, too. How’s the work going?”
“Good. Busy. Amazing stuff happening. It’ll all be in the ministry update we are sending out next week,” she said. She was breaking up.
“Dad okay?” he shouted.
“He lifts too much and climbs too many ladders. And accepts too many late-night visitors who need an ear to bend. The usual.”
“Sounds like Dad,” Michael said, picturing his Dad at the kitchen table in their Ecuador house, praying with one of the local people. There was always a person crying at their kitchen table when he was growing up.
“I can’t hear you too well, dear. We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks,” she shouted.
“Me, too. I’ll let you go,” he said. “Say ‘Hi’ to Dad for me.”
The call ended. He wasn’t sure she heard the last part. He did look forward to seeing them. They were coming home for January and February, before heading back for another six months in India. He missed them.
This whole weekend had been so strange, so up and down. And now he was plagued by this odd feeling of what? Loneliness?
It had first struck him in that moment of panic when he realized that dinner would be for seven. There should be an eighth person – someone with me. That’s what he felt – an absence of someone for him.
Then, when the escorts made that remark, it stung because reminded him of the absence, and the long-ago presence, of Cami.
He met Cami at a Wall Street Singles mixer. He’d been in The City working at The Bank several years at that point and had not really been dating. One by one, his friends from high school and college were starting to marry off. He’d attended five weddings in twelve months and been in two wedding parties. It was spreading like a virus. He was only twenty-eight at the time, not really that old. But he started to feel like he wanted to catch it, too. For all his maturity and confidence in the workplace, he really still felt very awkward around women. For that, he also ‘thanked’ his parents. His cloistered, conservative upbringing had rendered him almost unnaturally terrified of women. But somehow women were drawn to him. Mare used to torture him by telling him all her friends thought he was “to die for handsome.” That frightened him.
That night at the mixer, he’d seen Cami across the room. She was tall and blonde, but not a willowy tall. She was an athletic, sturdy-looking tall. He liked the idea that he could look a woman in the eye. He worked his way toward her to get a closer look. She was nearly his height. She was wearing a suit with a very short skirt that showed off her long legs. He studied them. They were muscular. He was sure she was a runner.
He decided to go for it. He swallowed the rest of his glass of wine in a single gulp, set the empty glass on a passing waiter’s tray, and walked right up to her to introduce himself.
She was mid-conversation with the woman next to her when he approached. When he got close enough, he saw from their name tags that they were from the same company – they both worked “across the street.”
He read her name, “Cami Frank.” That immediately suggested all kinds of terrible opening pick up lines to him that, frankly, he resisted. “Hi, I’m Michael,” he said. “Apparently, we’re neighbors,” he said, pointing to his name tag.
“Ah,” she said. “a ‘Banker,’” using the term as though it were a racial epitaph. “One of those guys across the street.”
The second woman, whose tag read Melinda, spoke up. “You know we watch you guys through the windows with binoculars, right? What floor do you work on?” Melinda was shorter than Cami, dark-haired, round faced. Round bodied. Not his type, he thought.
“Thirty-three,” he said.
“Oh,” Melinda said. “I’m on twenty – probably haven’t spied on you.”
Cami interrupted, “Don’t mind her. That’s actually her job. She has no other skills.”
Michael turned his attention to Cami. “I have to know – are you a runner?”
“Yes,” she said. “How did you guess?”
“How do you suppose he guessed,” Melinda said. “You’ve got ‘gams’ a mile long, which you are conveniently flaunting.”
Cami ignored her. “I can tell you are,” she said to Michael, taking him in. “Long legs, skinny ass.”
He felt himself blushing. “Have you run the Marathon?” she asked. “I’m training now for this year.”
“So am I,” he said. He felt like this was too good to be true. They traded running vitals.
“We could train together,” she suggested. “You’d push me, I’m sure.”
“That might be fun,” he said. They exchanged information and he promised to call her to set up a time to meet.
The next Saturday, they were running together in Central Park. She was a more than competent training partner for Michael. Their legs were the same length, and she could match him stride for stride. After a long run, he was starving and suggested they grab something to eat.
“I’m too sweaty to go anywhere good,” she said. “Want to meet later for dinner instead?”
“Sure,” Michael said. He’d just been asked on a date! He’d had the same thought, but she’d beaten him to it.
They met that night at XXXXXXX. The talked for three hours over dinner and two bottles of Barolo. He could not stop staring at her face. Her eyes were a deep blue. Cornflower, he decided. Her skin was pale and perfect. Her eyebrows arched inquisitively when she asked a question. He thought he might be falling in love.
While they were sharing a chocolate soufflé, she said, “You know, Michael, my friend Melinda thought you were gay.”
“What?” He was shocked.
“Yeah She said you were ‘too damned handsome’ to be straight.”
“Okay,” he said. “I am not sure what to make of that. I can assure you, though, that I’m not.” He reached across the table and took her hand.
“I could tell you weren’t. Though, I swear you could be a model.” She reached across the table and ran her hand through the front of his hair. “If you grew out this front part of your hair, you’d look just like one. You’d be able to get side gigs, modeling suits, I’m sure of it.”
This was an odd notion to him. He didn’t feel like he was exceptionally attractive. “I’ll grow out my hair, if you’d like. Just to see,” he said.
She stroked the side of his face. He’d never had a woman touch his face like that before. It felt very intimate. It excited him.
She leaned toward him and whispered, “You’d do that for me? That would be…amazing.”
She’d taken a long moment before adding the word “amazing.” He felt like he was melting.
Cami pulled on the sleeve on the next restaurant employee who walked by and demanded their check.
As soon as they were out of the restaurant and had rounded the corner, she grabbed his hand, pulled him toward the entry way of a closed XXXXXX, pressed him against the wall and kissed him. Once he recovered from the shock, he kissed her back. They stood in the doorway kissing for fully ten minutes. It was the most passionate exchange he had ever had with a woman.
“Let’s go to my place,” she whispered in his ear.
“But,” he paused. He wasn’t sure of the “what” of this but.
She pulled him along, ran to the curb, and hailed a cab. They made out in the cab all the way to her apartment door.
The whole time, in the back of his mind, Michael was plagued with the fear that he was not prepared for this. Wasn’t he supposed to be the one taking the lead? Making the suggestion? Would she be able to tell how inexperienced he was? Would she figure out that she was his first, “New York Woman?” Geez, he didn’t even have any protection? This was the last thing he expected to be doing tonight. He was torn between the attraction he felt for her and the panic he felt inside.
She lived in an apartment on West WHAT that she shared with a roommate. She dragged him through the living room to her bedroom without even pausing to acknowledge the roommate, who was actually seated on the couch watching TV.
She pushed him into her room, shut the door, and locked it.
Even though he wasn’t prepared, she was. And so, that night, Michael lost his New York virginity.
Michael replayed that first night in his mind now. The unexpected passion had been thrilling. And those first months together had been like a hormonal high – he spent half his days looking forward to his nights. But there was more to a relationship than sex – much more, as he soon learned.
This is the history of Michael and Cami that will be revealed bit by bit through the book as he falls in love with Fee.
REVEAL THIS LATER IN THE STORY:
What amazed him most in the weeks that followed that “first time” with Cami was that he had also, magically, finally lost the guilt about sex that he had carried all of his life. Michael slept with his college girlfriend a few times, enjoying the moment, but not the guilt he felt afterwards. He hadn’t, at that time, let go of everything he’d been raised with regarding sex and its “sacred” role in life.
But Cami was such an overpowering presence, and the attraction he felt for her so overwhelming, there simply wasn’t room for any for doubt. It was like he’d just gotten the best new toy ever, one his parents would never have bought him that he now could not get enough of.
They fell into a regular pattern of time together. They’d run short runs during the week and then they’d train with longer runs on the weekend, sleeping at one another’s apartments on Friday and Saturday, and sometimes Sunday, nights.
After a few months of this, Cami began spending nights during the week at Michael’s. By then, she was at his place more than hers.
At the time, Michael lived in Soho in a walk-up studio apartment on XXXXX Street. He’d inherited the place from the older brother of one of his college buddies, also inheriting the low rent. The space was barely big enough for one person to turn around in. But since he worked all the time and didn’t spend a lot of time there, it had been fine.
With Cami in the apartment, it started to feel claustrophobically small. It felt cozy enough when they reading the New York Times in bed on Sunday morning, but once they got out of bed, they really had to get out of the apartment to keep from killing each other. Cami was an overpowering partner in every way.
To solve this problem, they began looking for an apartment they could move into together.
“I definitely want a doorman building,” she said one Sunday when they were scrutinizing ads online.
“I like something with a little more character,” he said. “Maybe a loft.”
“We should move closer to Midtown,” she said. “Shorten our commutes.”
“It might be fun to go somewhere funky in Brooklyn,” he countered.
“Brooklyn? Are you kidding me? You have to live in Manhattan – you are an up-and-coming Wall Street executive, wonder boy. You couldn’t entertain if you lived in Brooklyn.”
“Maybe I don’t want to entertain,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t want to rise in your firm?” she said.
“Of course I do. Why should where I live have anything to do with that?”
“Oh, Michael, come on. You can’t be that naïve.” She was challenging him. He didn’t like to fight.
“I was naïve,” he said, “until I met you.” He grabbed her and kissed her, and that was the end of the discussion.
He was with Cami about eight months when they completed the first New York Marathon together. They both beat their previous personal bests. It had been a fun working toward that goal together. This was the point in their relationship where he thought, looking back now, that they had been the happiest.
Michael hinted to his family over the last few months that he had a girlfriend. But he hadn’t yet introduced her. With their recent Marathon triumph, and Thanksgiving coming, he decided it was time for them to meet her.
“There’s just one thing,” he said to Cami, after extending the invitation, “we are not going to be able to sleep together at my parents’ house.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Not to them. Unmarried people do not share a bed. They’ll stand firm on that one.”
“I am not even going to bother calling that old-fashioned,” she said. “Fine, we’ll just stay at a hotel.”
“We can’t do that,” he said. “They’d be heartbroken if we didn’t stay with them. C’mon, I mean, we can go a couple of days….”
“Maybe you can,” she said, putting her arms around his neck and whispering in his ear, “but I certainly couldn’t. Just knowing I couldn’t have you would make me want you all the more.” She kissed his neck.
He pulled her away. “I am trying to be serious here” he said. “Surely you’d respect my parents’ wishes. I mean, they are my parents. Wouldn’t you want me to respect your family’s rules?”
“My family lives in the twenty-first century,” she said. “In fact, I bet my Mom will hit on you the first time she meets you,” she said laughing. “Are you going to respect that?”
“That’s disgusting,” he said.
“Michael, you take everything way so seriously. Okay, I’ll go with you and play the ‘good girl,’ for the weekend. But, they do know we are sleeping together, right? I’ll respect their rules, but I won’t lie to them.”
“That’s none of their business,” he said.
“Are you ashamed of what we are doing? Or just not man enough to defend your personal choices with them?”
“Cam, they are good, kind people. I don’t want them…”
“You don’t want them to be disappointed in you,” she said firmly.
Ouch, Michael thought. He felt like he’d been slapped. She was right, of course. It wouldn’t shock them that their twenty-nine-year-old apostate son was sleeping with a girl he wasn’t married to. They did live in the twenty-first century. But it would sadden them and perhaps make them wonder where they had failed. He didn’t want them to feel that way because of him.
“I haven’t touched on that topic with them. They know I have a girlfriend, and that we run together, that’s about it. But if it will make you more comfortable, I will tell my Dad ahead of time, just so everything will be clear.”
Michael let several days go by before picking up the phone. He felt like he was about to confess to having eaten all the cookies in the cookie jar after his parents had expressly forbidden him to have any. And that he might just be in for a spanking.
“Of course you can bring Cami out for Thanksgiving weekend,” his Dad said.
“I know that you won’t want us to sleep in the same room,” Michael said, trying to sound matter-of-fact about things.
“That is correct,” his Dad said. “Mare is on call that weekend. She won’t be down. So Cami can use her room.”
“You know I am very serious about Cami,” Michael said, hoping this euphemistic approach would do the trick and that he wouldn’t have to be any more specific.
“Are you going to marry her?” his Dad asked.
“Well, we aren’t that serious yet,” Michael said.
“There’s nothing more serious than marriage,” his Dad replied.
“I am sleeping with her,” Michael blurted out. “That’s serious enough for the moment.”
“It is,” his Dad said. “Please, Mickey, be careful. I won’t lecture you. You’re an adult. But there are good reasons why I believe sex is best left for marriage. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I appreciate that Dad” And he did.
“We welcome both of you here – and we look forward to meeting Cami,” his Dad said.
In that moment, he knew his Dad was a bigger man than he would ever be.
It was Mare who first made Michael really aware of the problems in his relationship with Cami. She didn’t meet Cami until well after that Thanksgiving weekend they’d spent with his parents. That weekend had gone well enough, but it had also been very stressful for Michael. He felt two very different worlds colliding and that he was trying to keep them both suspended in space with his bare hands.
But when Mare came down for a long weekend in New York a few weeks into the new year, she’d had a chance to “bond” a little with Cami, the way girls can when the meet.
After that visit, Mare said to him on the phone one night, “So what do you two do together, besides run?”
“Well,” Michael said, “I don’t think I want to discuss ‘that’ with you,” he said.
“I mean besides ‘that,’” she said. She sounded like she was scolding him. “Don’t you go to the theater or museums?”
“She isn’t much of a museums person,” he said. “And she doesn’t like theater very much.”
“Yeah, but you do. What does she read?” Mare asked.
“Sunday Style section in The Times,” he answered.
“Humph. Is she religious? She wouldn’t talk about that with me.”
“I don’t think she was raised anything. Her Mom is kind of a hippie, frankly. Very free-form, you know.”
“And you really like this girl?” Mare asked?
“You’ve seen her,” he said. “She’s gorgeous. Of course I like her.”
“Do you love her?”
“I am thinking about asking her to marry me. We’ve been together almost a year. I want to be married. Have kids. All of that.”
“With her?” Mare asked.
“Do you really dislike her that much?”
“I don’t dislike her. I’m just surprised that you do like her. It doesn’t feel right to me. I want you to be so in love with the woman you marry that you can’t see straight. Over the moon. Besotted.
“That’s what happens in Broadway musicals and romance novels, Mare.”
“I think it’s what should happen in life, especially for you, brother dear. Will you promise me that before you ask her to marry you, you will talk to Dad? Please?”
He took her advice. And he was glad he did.
WHAT BREAKS THEM UP
In their second year training for the Marathon, they joined a training group from Cami’s firm that her colleague Kyle told her about. “We need the motivation to push ourselves even further,” Cami said.
One Saturday that winter, when they were finishing a long run with the group up at the Reservoir, Michael pulled up in pain. He couldn’t put weight on his left leg.
“A tear in the calf muscle,” his doctor told him after an MRI. He was on crutches for two weeks and in physical therapy for eight.
Michael had never had an injury that really took him out. It was painful, and especially in those first couple of weeks on crutches, inconvenient and frustrating for him. Just when he really needed some help, Cami seemed to never be around.
“You don’t mind if I keep running while you are down, do you?” she asked one Friday night. “I really want to keep on my program.”
“Of course not,” Michael insisted. But he was angry and resentful about it just the same. He’d be in his tiny apartment alone all day Saturday, eating food he’d ordered in, nursing his bad leg. She’d be out all day without even a call or a text message to see how he was doing.
And of course, for the first couple of weeks, he wasn’t up to anything physical. Then, when he recovered, she seemed reluctant. “I don’t want us to hurt your leg,” she’d say.
“Cam, would you mind hanging with me today instead of heading up to The Park,” he asked one Saturday. Michael was doing his PT stretches. He was starting to get back on his feet. “I feel like I have hardly seen you the last few weeks.”
“Oh, I made plans to run with Kyle,” she said. She was putting her stuff together to leave. She’d slept over but they’d only slept. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t okay, but he didn’t know what to say.
“Come back tonight. I’ll take you to a nice dinner,” he said. “Be here by six, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. She kissed his cheek and left.
That evening he made reservations at XXXXXX for seven. He figured she’d arrive at six, they’d have time to take the subway up there and get a drink in the bar before dinner.
He skipped lunch in favor of the big meal he knew he’d been eating later. He’d gained some weight with all the laying around he’d done, so dinner would be more than enough food.
When she still hadn’t called by six-thirty, Michael was beside himself, with hunger and anger. At six-forty-five she texted him, asking if they could meet at the restaurant.
When she got there at seven-fifteen, Michael was furious and famished. His worst possible state. He lit into her as soon as she came into sight.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“What’s your problem? I’m a little late. No big deal.”
“You blew me off – you didn’t come to my place. You didn’t call. Where were you? Were you with Kyle all day?”
“What if I was?” she said. “At least he doesn’t turn into a crank the moment the whole world doesn’t go his way.”
“I’ve been injured for the last few weeks, in case you hadn’t noticed?”
“There’s nothing I could do about that?” she said, throwing her hands up in the air.
“How about you could care?” he said.
“Screw you,” she said, walking away.
“You haven’t been. What are you doing, screwing Kyle?”
“What if I am?” she shouted over her shoulder.
And that was that.
His Dad was more than right on this one. This woman didn’t fill his heart. Mare was right. He wasn’t besotted or in love with her. But just the same, he was alone again. And the part of himself he’d given her, an intimate, deeply personal part, was gone and could never be recovered. He turned his back on love and relationships, and threw himself into his work.
By a few months later, he become one of the youngest AD’s ever appointed at The Bank and owned his own loft in Chelsea.
Friday, 4:30 p.m.
Bill could not stand it another minute. He wanted to settle this thing with Lily once and for all. It was now or never. He knew it.
He walked by her desk. She had her head down working. Barely slowing as he passed, he tapped her on the shoulder, startling her, and whispered, “Dungeon.”
He didn’t miss a beat, moving directly to the conference room. He entered and shut the door.
Friday, 4:32 p.m.
Lily waited a moment and then rose from her seat. It was the end of Friday afternoon, the day after promotions. There was almost no one around. She looked down at Fee, who was making lists on a piece of paper, probably planning last-minute stuff for the party. They had planned to leave in just a few minutes to head to her place. May Rose wasn’t at her desk. Lu and Tran were in the Fish Bowl talking. And of course, Michael wasn’t around.
She casually made her way across the floor. Before she opened the door, she looked around. No one was watching. She opened the door quickly and slipped in. Bill was leaning against the edge of the table, arms folded across his chest. The room was freezing, as usual.
She shut the door behind her. Bill got up from his perch, walked over to the door and locked it. They were completely alone, no one could come in, and no one could see.
Then he gently led Lily by the arm, taking her to the far end of the room, and positioned her gently up against the wall. He put one hand on each of her shoulders and looked her in the eyes.
Her heart was pounding. She wasn’t afraid. She was curious what exactly he would dare to do.
“Alright, Miss Lily,” he said. “I’ve had all I can take of this game of ‘Tiger’ and mouse. We need to settle this once and for all. Now.”
“And exactly how are we going to do that?” she asked coyly.
“Like this,” he said. Then he moved in and kissed her. Not a little peck on the cheek like last week, but a full-on, deep, exploring kiss on the mouth. She did not resist. She kissed him back. They embraced and started exploring each other with their hands. She was breathing deeply; so was he. Then, mid-clutch, they both stopped. With their lips still locked, their heavy breathing turned to snuffles. They pulled apart, stared at each other, and burst out laughing.
He dropped into a chair, wiping his eyes. She leaned against the wall, doubled over at the waist.
“Are you kidding me?” he said.
“OK, Bill, not to diss your kissing skills, but that was just plain gross.”
“Well, Lil, I’d say it was more ridiculous than gross. No, maybe gross is the right word. Are you sure we aren’t related somehow?”
They laughed again, then took a moment to regain their composure.
Lily said, “So I guess we are done here, now, huh?”
Bill said, “Yes, I believe so,” He stood, extended his right hand. Lily extended hers and they shook. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
“Same here,” she said.
He opened the door of the room, waved her out first, waited a moment, and followed.
Lily dropped into her desk chair. She felt herself grinning. Fee looked up.
“What’s with you?” Fee asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Lily said. “But I think maybe next year my just be my year for a promotion.”
Tuesday, 3:45 p.m.
Bill was in the HR data system looking up information. Yes, this was silly. He knew Lily lived in Hoboken. Now he knew exactly where. Okay, so their talk today hadn’t gone well. Maybe if he could catch her on her way out of the office tonight, he could convince her to have dinner with him, or a drink, or coffee. Go someplace safe, away from the office, where they could have a private chat. Yes. He’d watch for her to leave and, well, not exactly follow her, but sort of plan to run into her, accidentally, right? Worst case, he could chase her down in Hoboken – but that was truly a last resort. What a mess!
He closed the HR system and stared blankly at the Troubadour plan open on his screen. He couldn’t see what Winston was complaining about. Looked fine to him.
Michael came to his door.
“Got a second, Sir?” he asked.
“Sure. Come in,”
Michael dropped wearily into the chair opposite him.
“I screwed up big time today,” he said.
“Good that you acknowledge that,” Bill said.
“I just emailed everyone and asked them all to stay late tonight to help rework this. I figure many minds are better than mine alone, especially today.”
“Humble of you,” Bill said. “So you’ll get it fixed. No big deal. Why the long face?”
“’Cause I’m a jerk. I yelled at Sofia.”
“You yelled at sweet little ‘Buttons?’ Why?”
“No reason. That’s the problem.”
“Geez, you are a jerk. Well, you owe her an apology, then, right?”
“So don’t let it fester. Fix it. Today.” Bill leaned across the desk to make his point. “She’s an important part of your team. You can’t have her mad at you, or afraid of you, or whatever.”
“Yeah, I know.” Michael was looking down at the floor. He looked truly upset.
“Chin up, Michael. You’re damned good, but not perfect. Learn from it.”
“Right.” Michael looked up and studied Bill. “So, uh, are you okay?”
“Who, me?” Bill said, leaning back in his chair. “Sure. Why?”
“You seem a little ‘off’ these last couple of days, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” Bill sighed. “Personal stuff, you know. I’m in the dog house, I guess you could say.”
“Do you owe someone an apology?” Michael asked.
“Maybe,” Bill laughed.
Michael stood up to go and said, “Well, a wise man once told me, ‘don’t let it fester.’”
Monday, 4:00 p.m.
Lily stood in the doorway to Bill’s office. “You’ve been avoiding me,” she said in a sing-songy tone. Bill was typing with his head down. He did not look up. She went in and shut the door, taking a seat.
“Lil, I’ve got work to do,” he said, still not looking up.
“We have a conversation that we need to have, too. An important one.” She picked up his Managing Director’s cube from his desk and examined it.
“Put that down, Lil,” Bill snapped, finally looking up from his work. “Okay, let’s talk.”
“I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,” Lily began. “That makes this all the more interesting.”
“Yeah. What a coincidence running into you yesterday, by the way,” Bill said, eyeing her. “Remarkable, that.”
“Amazing. New York is such a small town,” she said, smiling. “So did I get you into trouble yesterday?”
“You might say that.”
“You don’t love this woman, do you?” Lily asked.
“That’s really none of your business.” Bill said.
“No, it’s a lot my business. Because you and I have a little somethin’ here, and I wouldn’t want to be ‘the other woman.’ That’s not what I had in mind.”
“You want to be the woman,” Bill said, picking up the cube himself and passing it from hand to hand.
“Yup,” she said.
“Alright. She’s a great lady. I like her. But, no, I am not in love with her,” he admitted.
“And how do you feel about me, now that you’ve had the weekend to ‘think’ about it?” Lily asked, reaching across the desk taking the cube from his hand.
“I am not in love with you, Lily,” he said. “But I will admit to being a little in lust with you. Please recognize the vast difference between those two things.”
“Ah. Okay. Fair enough. I am a lot in lust with you,” she said, rolling the glass cube slowly in her hands. Bill swallowed and blinked. He reached across the desk and snatched the cube from her hands, placing it on the other side of his computer, out of her reach. “So, now what?”
“Now we agree to an understanding that, awkward as it is, we should let this go, since I don’t want you to have to be the ‘other woman,” Bill said.
“That’s your best offer?” Lily asked.
“That is the only offer,” Bill said, standing.
“Very well, she replied, also standing. “I’ll think your offer over, and let you know my response tomorrow.”
She walked quickly out of his office.
Monday, 4:10 p.m.
Bill stood at his desk, mouth hanging open. What had just happened? What did she mean, “she’d think his offer over?” His palms were sweaty. How had this girl managed to flip this her way. She really was a tiger. And he was still in trouble.
His desk phone rang, startling him. It was Ellen. She wanted to discuss plans for Promotion Day.
Monday, 4:15 p.m.
Bill walked into Ellen’s office and shut the door. He hoped he didn’t look as flustered as he felt.
“What’s with you?” Ellen asked him.
“Nothing,” he answered too quickly.
Ellen shoved a piece of paper across her desk to Bill. “This is the list I sent on this morning for processing,” she said. “Another year in the books.”
“Indeed,” he said. Fee, Tran, and Michael all present, along with a couple of others from his extended organization. He was very satisfied.
“Michael is having a big day Thursday,” she said. “You can give him his promotion during the morning one-on-one’s, and then we’ll present his award at the party,” she said.
Bill thought for a moment. “I have an idea. Are you up for something fun?” he asked.
“What do you have in mind?”
“What if I tell Michael in the morning that he didn’t get it, feed him a line about his not being ready yet, you know. And then surprise him at the party with the award and his actual promotion. Then we can make a big deal in front of everyone about his being the youngest ever, and so on.”
“He’d hate that,” she said.
“All the more reason to do it,” Bill said. “Humble the kid a little.”
“He’d miss the new promotes toast with the MDs – he wouldn’t know he was eligible to attend.”
“He’ll survive that, in light of the later moment he’ll be getting. Heck, he’s been to three toasts already.”
She thought about it. “We’d need a fake letter for you to hand him in the morning. Make sure he doesn’t get invited to the toast. I can arrange for that.”
“So you’re game?”
“Sure. Let’s do it.”
Monday, 10:05 p.m.
May Rose was reworking the slide deck for Wednesday for the third time. She wanted to tell the story to IT in just the right way – make them think that they were going to be responsible for everything clever in this project. Her eyes were getting tired. Too many hours at the computer; too long of a day.
She rubbed her eyes and looked into the distance. There, in the Fish Bowl, were Michael and Fee. They’d already spent one long spell together in his office. A long spell that had looked more like an intense conversation than work. Now he was coming around table and taking a seat next to her. They were nestled side-by-side sharing a computer screen. How cozy.
What the heck? Geez, where they kissing? No. That can’t be! She saw Michael get up quickly and move to the other side of the table.
What was that little bitch up to with him? Was she seducing him? If Fee got promoted, May Rose thought, would it be because she was flirting with him? She didn’t trust Fee as far as she could throw her. All that niceness was a front. She was a fiend!
Speaking of fiends, how about that Lily? She’d seen Lily in Bill’s office this afternoon in a heated discussion. What was that about? She didn’t trust Lily either. She knew she was up to something, she just wasn’t’ sure what it was.
She’d have to have a conversation with Bill tomorrow to see what was going on.
May Rose decided to pack up and go home. She wasn’t going to wait for Fee. Fee could find her own way home.
Tuesday 10: 07 a.m.
Bill sent a message to Lily asked her to come to his office. She came to the door and leaned against the door jam, striking a cigarette-girl ad pose. “You rang,” she whispered.
“Stop that,” he said. Get in here. Shut the door, sit down, and tell me what you meant last night by ‘thinking about’ my offer. There is no ‘thinking about’ my offer. It was a ‘one-time only,’ ‘only offer’ kind of offer,” he said in a rush.
She dropped sultrily into the chair opposite him and crossed her legs. She was wearing a short skirt with black tights. He couldn’t help eyeing her.
“So we are forgetting about this whole thing, right?” Bill said.
“No.” she replied.
“What do you want, Lil?” he said. He felt exasperated
“I want you.”
“Are you proposing that we have an affair?” he asked.
“No. I don’t want to have an affair,” she said, uncrossing her legs and crossing them the other way.
He stared. “Ah, that’s a relief.”
“No, I don’t want you to have an affair with me.” She paused. “I want you to marry me.”
“You WHAT?” he shouted. He looked out the window of his office and saw heads pop up at nearby cubicles.
“You heard me,” she said.
“So you are not ‘proposing’ that we have that we have an affair,” he whispered. Then shouted, “You are simply ‘proposing!’”
“Yes,” she said calmly. She was examining her fingernails now. Her nonchalance was making him crazy.
“Well, I don’t want to get married,” he said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms across his chest.
“Well, for starters….” He paused. He wasn’t prepared for this question. “I don’t know. I don’t’ know.” He repeated, helplessly.
“Let me help you,” she said. “If you were to get married, what would you look for in a wife?”
“This is ridiculous,” he said, shifting in his chair.
“Answer my question.”
“I don’t know. Someone fun, someone smart, someone I was attracted to, someone I could talk to, go places with.”
“Ta da!” she sang, pointing to herself.
“You are out of your mind.” He countered.
“Okay. Why wouldn’t I make a great wife for you?”
He leaned forward to challenge her. “You’re manipulating me, for starters. That’s not a great basis for a relationship.”
“Bill, I am not manipulating you. I’m teasing you. ‘Please recognize the vast difference between those two things,’” she said, mocking him with his own words. “Why else can’t you marry me?”
“You work for me,” he said, slapping his hands on his desk to emphasize the finality of this statement.
“That could be changed, if need be – the working for you. How about that ‘I’m black?’ Is that a problem?”
“No. Not relevant.”
“You don’t care would others would think?”
“Your age is a bigger issue to me,” he said. He knew that was true.
“People would call me your mid-life crisis, right?”
“Sure, I suppose.”
She got up from her seat and walked to the window. She leaned against the window sill and looked out. “And you care what other people think.”
“No,” he said. He got up and walked around to the other side of his desk and leaned against it. He was close to her now. “Not really.”
So what’s the problem, then?” she asked, looking him in the eye.
“I don’t love you.”
“You don’t love Carolyn, either, but you are with her.”
Yes, she was right about that. He had to turn the tables on this fast. “Seriously, Lily. Why on earth would you want to marry me?” he asked, crossing his arms again.
He laughed. “That’s bull.”
“No, it’s not. I love your accent, your curly hair, your cheeks, the crinkle of your eyes when you smile.” She pointed at him with her index finger as though she were highlighting each of these features as she spoke.
He felt himself blushing a little. “No accounting for taste, I guess,” he said. He felt flattered. “Why else?”
“You make me laugh. You’re fun to talk to. You’re well off. You have a nice home.”
He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”
She shifted and crossed her arms. “I assume it.”
“I’m not that well off. Remember? Ex-wife, son in college?”
“You’re an MD here. Well off enough.” She countered. She stood up and walked past him, around his desk, and sat down in his chair. She picked up his MD cube from where he’d left it yesterday and tossed it to him.
He caught it.
“Anything else?” she asked.
He felt paralyzed. He said nothing.
She stood up. “That’s my offer. Think that over until tomorrow and we’ll talk again.”
Tuesday, 1:00 p.m.
May Rose booked an appointment with Bill to ensure she got a chance to talk to him. She arrived at his office precisely at one. He had accepted the meeting invite but wasn’t at his desk. She went into his office and sat down. She studied the picture of his son Jason on the corner of the desk. Looked like a young, thin version of Bill. A good looking kid, she decided. She wondered for a moment what Bill might have been like before he got so heavy and “middle aged” looking.
“So sorry I’m late,” he said, cruising in a few minutes after the hour, setting a salad container down on his desk. “Went to grab lunch downstairs and ran into some of the Credit Risk guys. We got to talking. What can I do for you, my dear?”
“Well, Sir,” she said, “Just wanted to give you an update.” She reported the progress on the reworked presentation and their plans for tomorrow for the IT meeting.
“Good,” he said. “Sounds like you are ready.”
“Well, almost,” she said. “I’d like you and Michael to see the presentation before we go tomorrow.”
“Fine, you can send it to us,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I’d like to have us do a ‘dress rehearsal’ run through for you tomorrow morning,” she explained. “Make sure we are on track.”
“I trust you will do fine,” Bill said, opening he salad and starting to eat.
“I think it’s important for Fee and Lily to do this,” she explained.
“Okay. If you insist. Put something on our calendars.”
“Thanks,” she said. She paused a moment and then said, “Bill, I want you to know that I have been noticing some unusual behavior between certain people.”
“Oh?” Bill said. May Rose saw a look of concern cross over his face. He leaned forward and said, “Well, things are not always what they seem.”
“True,” she said. “I just want you to know that I am watching closely and that I will report any untoward behavior that I see.”
Bill set down his fork and closed the salad container. “May Rose, I urge you not to jump to any conclusions. Be sure of what you think you are seeing.”
“Of course,” she said. “Just wanted you to know that I am watching.”
(New material and edits to some work done previously)
Monday 8:00 p.m.
Michael waved Sofia in when she appeared at his door. She had a couple of questions for him.
She went to the white board in his office and started drawing a flow chart. Michael watched her from behind as she worked. He wondered for a moment how tall she might be. Five-foot-four, maybe? He was six feet even. Cami had come in at five-ten. Comparatively she was tiny.
She looked nice today – no loose ends. He didn’t think he’d seen her in this suit before. He studied her. She had a nice….
“Michael,” Sophia said, “are you paying attention to me?”
“Sorry. Yes,” he said. “Believe me, you have one hundred percent of my attention.” He had no idea what she had just said.
She set down the marker and dropped into the chair by his desk. “My brain hurts,” she moaned. I need a break from this for a minute.”
“Make yourself at home,” he said, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on his desk.
“Did you see the article in yesterday’s Times about Ecuador?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I lived in Quito, but I barely remember it. We didn’t really do any ‘sightseeing.’”
“Do you ever want to go back to visit?” she asked.
“Maybe, someday,” he said.
“What kind of missions work did your parent do there?” she asked. Then she seemed to reconsider her question. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” she said. He appreciated her sensitivity. He decided to answer. After Saturday, which had seemed like another dimension in space and time, he didn’t see any reason not to share with her.
“They worked with women in prison and their families. Tough stuff,” he said.
“Is that what they still do? You said they were in India now.”
“Sort of, yes. They aren’t missionaries anymore. They do similar work with a not-for-profit organization. Not with a church, per se.”
“I see. But they are still active in a church, right? You sort of implied the other day that they were holding out hope for the return of the prodigal,” she said.
“Yeah. They are very hopeful people,” he said.
“Michael,” she said, “you don’t have to answer this question, either, but I was thinking about what you said the other day about ‘missing God.’ Why did stop going to church and walk away from it all?”
He straightened himself, putting his feet down and pulling his chair up to the desk. He looked at her. She almost looked like she was about to cry.
“Are you okay?” he asked. She nodded, blinking away the tears. “I don’t know exactly,” he said. “No one reason.”
“I left partly because I got tired of failing,” she said. “I knew God forgave my sins. I’d ask for forgiveness over and over. And then I’d sin again and feel like I was a bad person all over again two days later.”
“Yeah,” he said. “The endless ‘rededications’ with no better results. Been there. Done that. I struggle with how my desire to work on Wall Street matches up in any way with the ‘Godly’ life of ‘service’ my parents modeled for me. Why did God make me so damned smart and so interested in this stuff, if it doesn’t serve Him?” he asked.
“But I think it does,” Sofia protested. “I’ve always believed that God made everything in the world. Not just the beautiful natural things, like the Grand Canyon, but New York City, too. God created man. Man created New York City and everything in it. I think it’s beautiful.”
“Me, too,” he said. “My favorite place on earth!”
“I think it would be more fun to spend eternity here than in the heaven my parents told me about. I don’t know how to play a harp,” Sofia said, chuckling. “But I did used to look forward to singing in the heavenly choir. That sounded cool.”
“You know, Sofie,” he said. He paused. “Sofia,” he corrected.
She smiled. “You can call me ‘Sofie.’ I like that.”
“Sophie,” he said, “I still believe in God. I even think I still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, died, resurrected, saves us, all that. It’s the religion, the ‘churchiness’ that I think I really wanted to get away from.”
“The rules,” she said. “Where was the joy? It was all rules.”
“Yes,” he said. “Exactly. It made for very dull people who didn’t seem to be enjoying the life God gave them. I want to enjoy this life! I want to drink a glass of nice wine. I want to dance at a party. I want to have sex with a woman I love.” He looked up, she was looking down. “Sorry, too much information. I have a lot of sex guilt, honestly,” he said.
“I guess we all do,” she said. She giggled.
“I got to college. I got to see more of the world and more of how other people lived, and then I wanted to see more of the world and live more. Is that so far off from what God intended for us?” He felt himself getting emotional.
“I hope not,” she said. “I can’t believe God doesn’t want us to appreciate life. His world.”
Michael stood up and paced behind his desk, staring at the floor as he spoke. “And the intellectual side. So many people I knew, people I genuinely loved and respected, didn’t, or couldn’t, make a compelling intellectual story out of what they believed. They couldn’t equip me to. I need it to be an intelligent truth. God is all intelligence. His story should be, too.”
He stopped and looked up at Sophie. Now she was crying. Just a couple of tears on her face. She wiped them and cleared her throat. “You’d like my brother’s church. It’s different. It is very intelligent, thoughtful. When I was there yesterday, I thought of you – that you might have enjoyed the sermon.”
“Maybe I should go sometime?” he said. He smiled at her. They were silent for a moment.
“We really should get back to work,” he said, clearing his own throat. “But I need a few minutes.”
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Fee had worked with Michael long enough to know that “I need a few minutes” was his euphemism for “I need a bathroom break.”
They walked side-by-side toward the restrooms. He ducked into his door; she ducked into hers. While she was sitting there, she contemplated the otherworldliness of the conversation they just had, and the mundane humanity of the current moment they were sharing. He was on the other side of the wall, doing the same thing she was, in his own way. God made us, man and woman, in all our functioning humanity, she mused. She was very glad that Michael had refrained from giving her any more information about his sex life. Too much information, indeed.
What a conversation! She didn’t think she had ever put those exact thoughts about her faith into words before. She was surprised by her own – and his – emotional response to the whole thing.
She heard a flush on the other side of the wall.
She pictured the men’s room. She’s been in there once before. It had been for a “prank” for Bill. He wanted to make a joke in a group meeting about everyone’s attachment to their cell phones. So he had Fee take pictures of people using their phones all over the place –in the cafeteria, in the gym, on the street, on the subway, in meetings, while at Starbucks. He also wanted to include a photo of himself, from behind, standing at the urinal, with the cell phone pressed shoulder to ear. Of course, he would only be posing as though he were using the urinal, but from behind, it would look quite real. When they had discussed this in his office, the idea had sounded hilarious. But when it came time to take the photo, she was completely mortified. There she was, in the men’s room, with her boss’s boss, snapping photographs. She was giggling so hard she could hardly take the picture.
She giggled now, thinking of it. She finished what she was doing and tried to erase the men’s room from her mind. There needed to be some boundaries at work.
Monday, 9:58 p.m.
Fee and Michael were in the Fishbowl working at the conference room table, laptops open. They were hashing out the project plan. It was a struggle.
Michael was pacing on his side of the table. She watched him as he casually walked the length of the table and back. He was at ease with himself. A couple of times he reached up to run his hand through his hair. She wondered if he realized how often he did that. He really needed a haircut, she thought. He was tall and slender, but had the fit look of a runner. She wondered just how tall he was – several inches taller than her, she realized. He was deep in thought, but looked up suddenly, as though he’d sensed her looking at him.
“I have an idea,” he said. He went back to his computer and made some changes.
Michael’s computer was projecting on the large screen. Fee saw what he was doing on his side.
“No, she said. That conflicts with the chain of events on my side,” she protested. She took control of the display to show her screen. “See. That gives us ‘trouble, trouble, trouble.’ He laughed at that. “These three would be out of sequence then. The resources would conflict.”
Michael studied the screen silently for a moment. “No, no. no,” he said. You aren’t thinking broadly enough.” He stood and came around to her side of the table, whistling the first few notes of “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
“May I?” he asked, pulling out the chair next to her and sitting. She slid her computer to him. “Take this item, and move it earlier. Move these.” He adeptly moved lines around on the schedule.
She pulled up close to him to see her computer screen, not looking at the large display on the wall. She could feel the warmth of him next to her and could smell some product he was wearing that was masculine and musky. When he finished, he turned to look at her. Their faces were inches apart. She had that same insane urge she’d had on Saturday to reach up and push the hair out of his face.
“You are a genius,” she whispered. She then had another insane thought for the briefest moment – that he was going to kiss her! He stood up suddenly, shoving his hands in his pockets, and walking back to his side of the table.
She stood, too. She pulled off the jacket of her suit, laying it on the back of the chair next to her.
“Warm in here,” she said, taking a deep breath and sitting down, pretending then to give her attention to her computer. Now she could feel his stare on her. She felt herself blushing. She couldn’t control it. She looked up.
“Yeah,” he agreed. He starting pulling off his sweater. While he pulled it over his head, she caught the quickest glimpse of his flat stomach and the top of his boxer shorts, as his shirt came untucked. She looked away when he starting tucking his shirt in again.
He sat back down in his own seat. They worked in silence for a moment.
“Maybe that’s enough for tonight,” he said. “I think I have what I need for my meeting tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I think so.” She quickly slapped her computer closed, grabbed her jacket, and walked out of the room. “See you tomorrow,” she said.
“Yup,” he said, not looking up from his screen.
Monday, 10:58 p.m.
Fee got home, flung her coat and bag on the kitchen table, slipped off her suit jacket and boots, and fell onto her bed. She grabbed the remote from the nightstand, thinking she’d watch some TV to unwind. It had been such an interesting night. But instead, she rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. The memory of Michael slipping off his sweater reappeared in her mind. She thought of his lanky runner’s body and imagined him pulling off his shirt, too. And then….. She sat bolt upright on the bed and said out loud to the empty room, “Stop. He’s your boss!”
She thought about their conversation again – how similar their spiritual paths had been. She thought about how “damned smart” he was. She was smart, too. She knew that. But she really respected Michael’s intelligence. She wondered if he respected hers, lowly as it seemed to her at this moment.
With everything on her mind, wondered how she’d ever sleep tonight. She went over to her desk, flipped open her computer, and starting scanning Facebook posts.
Monday, 11:20 p.m.
Michael was home with his laptop on his lap but staring at the muted television blankly. A beer was open next to him, but he hadn’t drank any of it. It had been a long day. A long night, he thought. But he enjoyed working late with Sofia.
“Sofie,” he said out loud. He knew her friends called her “Fee,” but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. It didn’t seem dignified enough for her. And now, it seemed, he had his own nickname for her.
They’d accomplished a lot tonight. They always were productive together, but in a fun, “it-doesn’t-seemed-so-much-like-work” way. She was a sharp lady. But she was always slightly less than together, in that odd fashion. A button open on her blouse or a lapel on her jacket slightly turned up. He’d never found a good way to discuss this with her. He’d thought of asking Patti from HR help him to deal with it, but he’d been too embarrassed even to ask her. He wondered why Fee was like this. But he thought he knew.
It wasn’t that she was scattered. It was that she was always more focused on other people than she was on herself. She cared about people. He knew she’d make a great manager one day because of that. That’s why he had recommended her for promotion. He didn’t know for sure if Ellen would really put her up. He’d find out on Wednesday or maybe not even until he got his team’s letters on Thursday morning. He thought Ellen only saw the open buttons. But to him, those things were just “her.” He liked her willingness to be less than perfect. He wondered if she had noticed him staring at her tonight. He hadn’t meant to embarrass her – he hadn’t even realized he’d been doing it. But, at one point, he clearly saw her blushing.
He knew you weren’t supposed to talk about it, but he also knew that he wasn’t the only one who noticed his female colleagues in ways that HR would object to. May Rose, for example, was nearly perfect. She had stunning blonde hair that made her look like a girl in a shampoo commercial when she turned her head a certain way. And she was always immaculate. Her beautiful hair often did catch his attention, he had to admit. And he knew, of course, that she had, at least at one time, liked him. But he’d never once returned the feeling.
And Lily. She was statuesque, he thought. Large breasted, curvaceous. Really, the kind of woman he had often fantasized about when he was younger. And her beautiful dark skin. She was stunning, for sure. He knew Bill thought she was attractive – he’d said so to Michael quite directly after a few beers one night not too long ago. Though he knew Lily herself didn’t think she was pretty at all. He’d heard her make self-deprecating comments about herself several times. He’d often wished that it would have been appropriate for him to assure her that she was attractive to men. But you could never, of course, as someone’s boss, ever say such a thing!
Sofie, on the other hand, was petite. And with all her loose ends, always seemed slightly like she’d just gotten out of bed and hurriedly dressed. Tonight in the Fish Bowl, when he’d sat next to her, he thought for a split second that she was going to kiss him! No, he thought. We were just caught up in our work. Somehow today, she looked more – what? More womanly than he’d ever perceived her to be. When she’d taken off her jacket, she was wearing a sweater with a V-neck that plunged just a little bit low. That had drawn his attention to her chest, which was small, but still pleasant to look at That’s when he’d found himself really staring at her, taking in her shape, genuinely distracted by more than just her mere “cuteness” After their intensely personal conversation about God, he felt a closeness to her. He’d just opened up to her in a way he’d never done with Cami – in a way Cami never could have understood, even. He really hadn’t talked about any of this in ages. He recognized now, to his surprise, that he felt a kind of unexpected attraction to Sofie unlike anything he’d felt toward Cami. Is this what they meant when they talked about “chemistry?” It was crazy!
He slapped his laptop shut and rubbed his eyes. He was wiped out, but would never sleep, he thought, if he kept up this train of thought. He unmuted the TV and flipped to find some sports news.
Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.
Bill had been keeping a close eye on Lily all night. He’d long ago run out of things to do to keep him at work. He was just waiting for Lily to leave so he could coincidentally walk out with her.
He saw her close up her computer and start putting her things together. She spent a focused moment texting, and then put on her coat.
He leapt from his seat, grabbed his coat and bag, and slid up alongside Lily just as she got to the elevator.
“You stayed until after eight,” he said to her as they waited for the door to open. “You can take a car home,” he said.
“Thanks, but I am not going home,” she said. She was still focused on her phone, not looking him in the eye.
“Lil,” he said. “Come have a drink with me. Let’s talk some more.”
“Nope,” she said. “Too soon. You need to go home and think through my offer. The deal is we talk tomorrow.”
The elevator arrived. They stepped in, but to Bill’s surprise, at this late hour, someone else was in the car.
The rode in silence to the lobby.
She rushed out. He quickly followed. “Lil,” he shouted after her. She pushed through the revolving door after her. She was headed toward the south side of the building where the limos queued up at this hour. He caught up to her at the corner. “Lil, you can take a car now to wherever you are going and call for another when you head home later. My treat. It’s the least I can do for me fiancée,” he joked.
She chuckled. “Sure, dear,” she replied. “Thank you.” She approached to the line and hopped into the first car, shutting the door. Bill stood on the curb waving sheepishly as the car started to pull away. Then as fast as he could, he jumped into the back seat of the next car.
“Follow that car,” he shouted at the driver.
“Seriously, dude?” the driver said.
“Yes, seriously,” Bill shouted. “Go, damn it.”
And so the driver went, with a squeal of his tires as he pulled away from the curb.
“Don’t lose them,” Bill shouted.
The headed down Seventh Avenue, turned right on XXXX, and followed as Lily’s car made a left on 9th Avenue heading downtown.
“Don’t get stuck at that light,” Bill shouted.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” the driver said, hitting the gas and blasting through the intersection just as the light turned red. “But why are you following Miss Lily?”
Bill glanced at the driver’s ID on the visor. Arturo. He’d ridden with this guy before. But it worried him that he knew Lily by name. She seemed to have friends everywhere.
“I am her boss,” Bill said. “And I need to talk to her. Now just go.”
They followed Lily’s car into the Meat Packing District. They pulled up and stopped in front of bar – maybe some kind of a club?
Arturo pulled over a safe distance behind the other car. Bill reached into his briefcase and pulled out a New York Yankees cap. He usually kept it in his gym bag in the office. He grabbed it on an impulse before he left the office. It was the best he could do for a disguise on the spur of the moment. Bill reached into his wallet and handed Arturo him several twenty dollar bills.
“Wait for me,” he told him. I hope I won’t be too long.”
Lily went in the door after exchanging a word with a burly black guy at the door who appeared to be some sort of a bouncer. Bill waited a moment and approached the window, peering in. It was a trendy place. Not a place for Wall Street types. He saw Lily hug another woman at the bar at the far side of the room before they each took a seat.
He nodded to the fellow at the door and went in. The fellow eyed him suspiciously. He clearly didn’t fit in here. He stayed near the door and slipped into a booth in the bar – one that afforded him a view of Lily and her friend. He could see the two girls talking to the bartender now.
Hip Hop music was blaring over the sound system. For a Tuesday night, there was actually a fair crowd. He wondered how many people went out on Tuesday nights.
The waitress approached him – a girl who seemed Jason’s age wearing almost no clothing. “What can I get you, Pops,” she said, winking at him.”
“Johnny Walker, Rocks,” he said.
“Not good to drink alone,” she said.
“I am a man with troubles,” he replied.
“Should I make it a double?”
A young man wearing a leather jacket and tight jeans approached the two girls, placing a hand on each girl’s shoulder. Lily’s friend shrugged it away, but Lily seemed to actually engage with him. She was something, Bill thought, beautiful. Every man who saw her knew she was the tiger he knew her to be. He signed. He needed to find a way to get over this crush he had on her. It was unreasonable. It made him act like an idiot.
And, of course, he couldn’t marry Lily. Not in a million years. He was a little amused by the idea, now that he had a few hours to think about it. But if this kept up, this game between them, he’d was going to have to move her off his team. He didn’t want to do that. He liked having her around and she was a strong player. He’d miss her.
His drink arrived. Lily finally disengaged from the visitor, saying something to discourage him, and turned to talking with her friend.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out. Geez, it was Carolyn! She was calling him? He’d thought he’d have to be the one to come crawling back. He couldn’t answer it. He’d never hear her over the noise and she’d wonder where the hell he was. He let it go, praying she’d leave a message.
A few minutes later, Lily and her friend got up to leave. They were headed his way. He turned his back to them, pulling his cap over his eyes and grabbing a cocktail menu off the table to hide his face.
The girls slid by him toward the door. Just as he was about to lower the menu, Lily stepped back to the booth and said casually, “Good night, Bill,” and walked out.
Tuesday, 9:15 p.m.
Bill slid into the back seat of Arturo’s car.
“Take me home, please,” Bill said, stuffing the Yankees cap back in his briefcase.
Eighty-fifth street, Sir,” he asked.
“Yes,” he said. “You know the place.”
“Miss Lily left a few minutes ago,” Arturo said.
“Yes, I know that. Please, just drive.” Bill pulled his phone from his pocket. There was a message from Carolyn.
“Billy bear,” the message said. “I am so sorry about Sunday afternoon. I was such a bitch to you. Can please you forgive me? I am sure you could never be fooling around with that young girl! What was I thinking? Please call me. I want to see you.”
He called her.
“Hey, you,” she said. “Can we be friends again?”
“I’d like that,” he said. He meant it.
“Can I come over tonight,” she asked sweetly, “make up for how mean I was to you?”
“Darlin’” he said. “I am not so feeling well. It’s been a rough day. I am just heading home now. But I’d like to take you to dinner tomorrow, if that’s okay.”
“I’d like that,” she said. “I’ve missed you,” she whispered.
He wasn’t sure if he’d missed her or not. He’d have to think about that.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.
Bill had been mortified that Lily had seen him, but not necessarily surprised. Tomorrow, he’d tell her in no uncertain terms that this would have to stop between them or she would have to move on to another team. That should do the trick, though he was terrified of raising a threat. She could raise threats of her own. They were both treading on thin HR ice.
When Arturo reached his house, he leaned forward, dropped a second wad of twenties into his hand and said, “Arturo, should you ever see Miss Lily again, you are not to discuss this evenings’ events. Understood.”
“Of course, Mr. Bill,” he said, nodding.
As Bill unlocked his front door, he mused that this was perhaps the most expensive non-date he’d ever gone out on.
STARTING WORD COUNT JAN 1: 39,645
ENDING WORD COUNT JAN 31: 80,290