Slow and Steady

I’d never been Gabe’s type, and I knew it.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images
Photo: d3sign/Getty Images
Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

It was too late for us to get drunk and fall into bed together. Not too late in the day — it was 9 a.m. — I mean too late in life. Our timing was off. It had started being off before we had ever met, which was at age 18, in the library of our Ivy League university, where we both had jobs reshelving books. He left me notes in the stacks and I left him notes by the water fountain — not notes, exactly, but call numbers — tip-offs to good book titles. We’d both wanted to be writers. It was never romantic between us, but it wasn’t not flirting.

We were 35 now. I was in Los Angeles for a meeting, and we were in the same popular café. I had been eyeing the pastries, not wanting one exactly. He’d gotten close in order to confirm it was me, and I hadn’t noticed — so intently was I considering a bear claw.

“Sophie,” he said, his face breaking into a grin. “Long time.”

“Gabe,” I said, surprised. It had been. It had been 13 years, and he wasn’t on Instagram, meaning I didn’t know more about him than I should have. In fact, I knew next to nothing. His hair was less long and less unruly than it had been in college. I’d always found him beautiful, I suddenly remembered, with a clarity that took me by surprise.

“What are you getting?” he turned to me, at the cash register.

“Just … a coffee, I guess.”

“Regular coffee?”

The barista looked at him, eyebrow lifting. All these questions, while the line ballooned.

“Yeah,” I said, glancing behind us, flustered.

“I was too. Should we just get one big one? And share it? We’d save —” a pause while he did a silent calculation “— one dollar and 22 cents.”

The proposition seemed bold — intimate, even — but I found myself saying, “Sure. Okay.”

“One big coffee,” the barista repeated.

“And a bear claw,” Gabe added. In fluid movements, he passed the parceled pastry off to me, while he sipped a bit of liquid from the full cup and brought it, without spilling, to the station with the milk and the sugar. He pointed at both: Did I want them? I nodded. With a long-handled metal spoon he mixed in the sugar: The crystals were big and light brown. He sipped, then handed it to me to try. It was perfect.

“Hi, by the way,” he said, and leaned in for a hug.

As I pulled away, I held my breath, out of habit. He still frightened me. In college, kids like him had frightened me — kids with parents who had taken them to museums as children, who had been raised to express their opinions at the dinner table. My Chinese immigrant parents had taken me to libraries, so I wasn’t totally hopeless. Books had taught me some things, though not all.

I’d never been Gabe’s type, and I knew it. He’d dated rich girls with clear, blue eyes and long soft hair, who came from families with vacation homes. At our college, it was rich people and white people and rich white people who boldly embarked on sexual encounters and long vacations, and proclaimed opinions in our philosophy seminars. I’d gotten over this, I’d thought. And yet here I was, with my heart beating faster than usual.

I thought about all of this as we stood together, taking turns sipping coffee.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Honestly,” I said. “Nowhere.” I held up my folded-up newspaper as proof. “I was planning on doing the crossword.”

“Coincidence,” he said. “Me too.”

I must have looked hesitant, or scared, because he added, “Are you anti-collaboration?”

I laughed. “No, no. Pro-collaboration. I welcome your assistance.”

We sat at one of the tables outside, beneath a trellis—wisteria hanging down. Around us, there were flowers and cacti and weeds that looked thrown there but perfect in that rambling, Los Angeles way. Sunlight dappled the crossword. How strange it was that we were both here, I thought. I’d flown in from Chicago only yesterday.

After working our way through half the crossword with ease, we stalled. He moved my hand gently because it was covering a clue; he touched my wedding ring as he did.

“Eight down,” he read aloud. “Slow and steady.”

“Not a clue,” I shook my head.

We sat there in silence, thinking, for a long moment.

“Why don’t we go?” he said. “Walking could shake something up. Slow and steady.”

“Sure,” I said, picking up my purse.

As we walked, we talked. We’d wanted to be writers and now we were. He told me about his writing — he was writing for a popular television show — and I told him the plot of my third novel. He showed me a picture of his dog, and I pulled up a picture of mine. To find the photo I had to scroll past photos of my own family. I found myself not wanting to share those. An hour passed like this, walking and talking, and I didn’t know what neighborhood we were in any longer.

As we walked past men in orange, breaking apart the sidewalk, one of them jackhammering, Gabe said something, but I couldn’t hear it.

“What?” I shouted.

“I said you’re the same,” he said, too loud, because by the next block it was quiet: bird chirps and distant airplanes overhead. I thought of the phrase “noise pollution.” Was every noise pollution? Or was it a certain amount of noise, all collected, at a high volume, that made it qualify as pollution? I thought of everything we’d said to each other today, and how it was already dissipating, how it would eventually fade into nothing.

Though he’d said it admiringly, I hoped it wasn’t true — that I was the same. I hoped I was different. I said, “You too,” and I meant this.

I’d envied him then, and now, this coherence — that his inner and outer natures were aligned. My fear got in the way of communicating exactly who I was; what I wanted to say always came out wrong. It was why I was a writer — so I could carefully consider and say what I meant.

I would have liked to think I’d caught up to him. I’d learned to reconcile my private and public selves in the years since. I had learned some confidence, or learned to project it. I went on book tours and read aloud and more or less said what I thought. Around him I still stuttered.

“Are you married?” I blurted out.

“No,” he said. “But look.” He stopped walking, reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a small velvet pouch. We were paused beside a tall cactus with arms that flexed up. He shook the ring out into my hand, and it made a pleasing clinking noise against my own ring.

“It’s beautiful.” I meant it.

“My girlfriend’s in the park, actually,” he said, gesturing. I realized we were standing at the edge of it. “With the dog. Want to meet them? My family?” I could tell he was trying that word out, liking it. I wondered what my own was up to in this moment.

From our distance, we could see her: She was sitting on a bench, peering into her phone, and the green grass all around her was dotted with dandelions, yellow and white, young and old. I saw her long blonde hair with a baseball cap over it and knew that must be her. She flicked a tennis ball to a dog — a border collie — and it ran to fetch it. I felt a swell of something, like loss. Also betrayal: I thought we’d been wandering, but now I realized he had led me, purposely, here.

“Is she an actress?” My voice came out cracked, soft.

“She went to school for nursing. But yeah, you know. This city. She acts now.”

I realized, suddenly, that he was being modest. I had seen her movies before. She was actually very famous. I realized I knew things about her love life because I had read about it. Gabe had been left largely out of the tabloids, but I knew that before him, she’d dated an actor who played the main superhero in a superhero movie. That she was now dating Gabe didn’t come as a surprise. He wasn’t particularly ripped or breathtaking, but it didn’t matter somehow — had never mattered. He was intelligent and a lively conversationalist, and because he exuded his strange confidence, he’d always dated the most beautiful women.

“What’s your dog’s name?”

“He’s Harry. He’s a sweetheart. And smart.”

As he started to walk toward her and I trailed behind, I said, “No, wait.”

I wanted to get close enough to smell the perfume she wore at the same time that I really, really didn’t.

He looked at me, curious.

“I think I should head back.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry.” I turned my wrist toward me, but I wasn’t wearing my watch. I’d forgotten it. “I should go.”

“I’m so sorry,” I added. “Next time.” I cringed at this. I didn’t mean it. I was saying things just to say them.

We’d long since tossed our shared coffee cup and our hands were empty. He took both of mine in his. My hands were cold in his warm ones.

“Well, it was good to see you, Sophie. Running into you, it makes me …” He trailed off. “It’s good to see you,” he repeated. “We could see each other on purpose sometime. Let me know when you’re in L.A. again.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

Back at my hotel room I stripped naked, and put on the too long and too thick terry bathrobe. I had a missed call from my husband. He’d called the hotel, and so the black plastic phone blinked red with its voice message. We made it a point to call each other’s hotels, whenever one of us was away. It felt more special to receive a message tied to a physical place.

“We miss you,” he said. We meant him and our toddler and our dog, my family. “It’s raining here. I found your note.” I’d left him a note inside his pillow, not expecting him to notice it overnight, and I was right. I would have noticed the crispy paper right away, but he didn’t, and it was one of the things I loved about him. “And I figured out what ‘slow and steady’ was, in case you’re stuck on it. I don’t think it counts as cheating.”

The phone stopped blinking, once the message had been heard. I went to the bathroom, where I peered into the little round mirror, the one that enlarged everything disgusting on my face: my broken capillaries and dull skin and giant pores, the lines around my eyes and my black hair that was split at the ends. I wondered if this was what actresses also saw in those round mirrors, or if they looked into them and were pleased.

Gabe and I had kissed in college, just once. All day, I’d held the memory at bay. In 13 years, I hadn’t let myself recall it. Now I wondered if it could really have been me who lived it.

It was senior year and we were at an off-campus party. We’d tried spin the bottle with an empty wine bottle, and it was more boring than we anticipated, kissing people so openly and so lightly, so we’d moved on. What about Seven Minutes in Heaven?, someone joked. We wrote our names on scraps of paper and threw them into a salad bowl. I watched Gabe as he dropped his hand into the bowl and drew out a slip of paper out and read it aloud: “Sophie.” What were the ridiculous odds? I’d been terrified it wouldn’t be me and now was terrified that it was. Lila and Daniel were in the closet, and Billy had tasked himself with timing them. He banged on the door when the seven minutes were up, and my heart stopped. We were next.

The closet was pitch black except for the strip of light at the bottom. I had been drinking all night but suddenly felt extraordinarily, terrifically sober. “Since you picked me,” I said, “does that mean you get to do whatever you want?” It suddenly seemed very difficult to breathe, less oxygen in a closet, I supposed, and I wondered if my breath seemed labored. I tried to adjust it, so as not to seem I was making too big a deal out of this. I hadn’t done this before, not even in middle school — especially not in middle school.

“We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to,” Gabe said kindly. We were pressed up together in the small closet and the coats, together, smelled like a thrift store. I wondered if he could hear how fast my heart was beating.

“We could just —” he swished some of the clothes around, to make it seem like something exciting was happening.

I put my hand against his face and reached my fingers up to some of the hair that spilled out from behind his ears. He took that for the invitation that it was. He leaned in to kiss me so softly that I hardly registered it was happening. I thought everyone had been drinking the same disgusting vodka concoction, but his mouth tasted like Sprite — was that all he’d had? — and my whole body thrummed wanting more, knowing that whatever we wound up doing would not be enough in the slightest. Emboldened, I kissed him back, and he pushed me against some synthetic fur, and an ironing board fell over from where it was propped and on top of us. We were in college; who ironed? We repositioned ourselves on top of it, surfers on a surfboard, and resumed. I tried not think of how Gabe had probably touched a thousand girls in this same way. I tried not to think about how we would never speak of this again. I wondered how many minutes had passed and thinking it was too many minutes, whatever it was.

When our seven minutes were up, Billy knocked on the door. He opened it with a disgusting, pimplike grin; we spilled out into the light. I smoothed my hair and Gabe smoothed his and we looked around. Nobody was there but Billy. Everyone had lost interest in the game. The closet door stayed open.

“Can I get you a beer?” Gabe had said then. Casually, as though we hadn’t just had our tongues in each other’s mouths.

“Sure,” I said. We trudged silently to the keg, trying to appear normal. Gabe pumped the keg expertly, handed me my cup. He watched me sip from it.

“You don’t want one?” I asked.

“I have a test in the morning,” he said. “Unfortunately.”

He touched my shoulder. I couldn’t meet his eye. This had been a game to him, I suddenly realized. It was a game, of course. I had been seven of a million minutes he’d had in heaven, and I felt ashamed, as I always did, and as I would for years to come — not about this forgotten thing specifically, but ashamed, more generally, that things were a bigger deal to me than they were to other people. I’d worked hard to cultivate the opposite — to care less — and, mostly, I’d succeeded.

“Hey, this is for you,” Gabe said, and handed me a small folded note that looked like the kind he’d leave for me to find in the stacks at the library. “Don’t open it till I’m gone, okay?” he said.

I nodded; obediently, I put it in my pocket. After Gabe left, I finished my beer, alone. There was no one I cared to talk to. I perched the cup on top of the overflowing trash bin and walked back to my dorm room, my body humming more loudly with the embarrassment and longing I felt constantly, like a broken machine. The longing was to be someone different, someone better.

I’d already changed into pajamas and got into bed when I remembered the note in my pocket; I removed it from my jeans. I wondered if it was one of our call numbers — something funny for me to look up in the library later. Neither of us worked there anymore. I’d gotten a different job, and Gabe had never needed, financially, to work there to begin with. I unfolded it. Instead of the familiar series of numbers and letters it said only a name. The slip of paper read “Nadia” but he had lied, and announced it was me. I remembered that now. The rest was a blur.

Slow and Steady