"Well, he's always had a thing for you," Nina said. "Pass the skim?"
I slid the canister of skim milk her way. "I still think a part of it is because I negged him. He's just not used to hearing the word no."
"Oh, I'm sure that has something to do with it," Nina said. "That got his attention, but then I think he may have developed real feelings for you along the way." She'd been stirring the milk into her coffee, but now she paused. The current carried the wooden stirrer around and around the edge of the coffee cup. "Oh my God," she said, "do you think he started dating Sam to prove to you that he's capable of more than just a hook up?"
"Wow," I said, "I never even considered that."
"I think it's a real possibility." Nina gave the counter top a confident little smack.
"Think what's a possibility?" Ashley asked. She'd been in the bathroom, and I handed her the latte we ordered for her.
Nina shook her watch free from her sleeve. "We'll tell you on the train. We're going to miss it if we don't go now."
We gathered our things and hurried out of Starbucks to catch the 12:11 back to Penn Station.
Richard and I had treated each other like polite acquaintances all Thanksgiving day. After dinner, he made up some bullshit excuse about having to take the train back to the city—he didn't even stay for dessert, which when Nance makes her infamous oatmeal toffee brownie bites, is just blasphemous. Nina and Ashley diagnosed him with a feelings freakout.
"Do you think I should just pretend like nothing ever happened?" I asked.
"That depends," Nina said as the train wove closer to NYC. "What do you want out of this?"
I thought for a moment. "There is obviously...something...between us," I said. "Some kind of sexual tension or something. But I just think it would be a disaster if we tried to date."
"And he has a girlfriend," Ashley pointed out.
"And he has a girlfriend. So even if we did try something he'd have to break up with her, and," I sighed, already exhausted by what it would take for us to even get to a place where we could go on just one date, "it's too messy."
"If I were you," Ashley said, "I'd just let him know you love him as a friend but it can't be anymore than that. Nicely, of course."
"Of course," I said. "I do love Richard as a friend and I would never want to hurt his feelings."
I decided to give it a few days before reaching out to him, but he beat me to the punch. On Monday morning I woke up to a text from him, asking if we could grab a drink. He said he'd been doing a lot of thinking, and he really needed to speak to me. We made plans to meet up later in the week. I knew that after a mini vacation, my first few days back at work were going to be long ones.
Frank called me into his office first thing Monday morning. Without even asking me how my Thanksgiving was, he informed me he had made an exciting deal over the break. "It's a gamechanger." His eyes twinkled behind his tiny little glasses. I waited patiently for him to continue.
"We've acquired the rights to ten of Sylvia Plath's unpublished poems—written from when she was in college—as well as some of her private journaling."
"Wow," I breathed. The Bell Jar is quite possibly my favorite book ever. I've reread it so many times that there's hot pink nail polish binding the tears in the spine.
Frank's lips curled into a self-satisfied smile. "I know." He perched on the edge of his desk. "The next order of business is for us to find a writer to introduce her work and maybe even ruminate through out and transition between the poetry and the chunks of free form. We're going to want a big name for this. I'd love to get someone like Jonathan Franzen."
"Don't you think it should be a female writer?"
Frank's beady little eyes narrowed in on me. "It can be. It doesn't have to be."
"But," I swallowed, nervously. It's not easy going up against Frank. "The Bell Jar is like the original American feminist novel."
"Men can be feminists," Frank snipped.
"Of course they can," I said, quickly. "But don't you think it's going to have more of an impact with a woman writer?"
Frank pushed his glasses further up his nose. I'd irritated him, sent that wall up between us again. "What will make it impactful is a great writer. Gender shouldn't matter."
I nodded, even though I didn't agree with him at all. I was actually crushed by his reaction—it was something I felt he should intuitively understand. Saying gender didn't matter when it came to Sylvia Plath's work was like saying race didn't matter in a biography about Martin Luther King Jr.—it mattered in the most fundamental sense. "Would you like me to do a memo with some suggestions? And then I can reach out to gauge interest from there?"
"Get it to me by the end of the day," Frank said, tersely.
I went back to my desk and started my research right away. I gave Frank some options I knew would make him happy, and I threw in one dark horse. It was a long shot that he would go for it, but I had to at least try. It was times like this that I missed William. He knew that as a wealthy white guy in his 40s, he didn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Cocky as he could be, he was humble enough—and savvy enough—to admit that. He knew it was in his best interest to consult me or any of the other assistants for our opinions, because we were the demographic he was trying to market to. "A good idea is a good idea," he once said. "It shouldn't matter who it comes from."
I spent all day on that stupid memo even though in my opinion, there was only one worthwhile option on it and the others were a waste of my time. I had it on Frank's desk before he left for the evening. Only then was I able to start on the rest of my work. Back to the grind.
I swear I must have sent some message into the universe because a few days later, I got an email from William. He had accepted a position at his old agency, he said, and he wanted to talk to me about a few things in person. He'd promised me he would bring me over as his assistant if he went somewhere else so I assumed that had to be it. He'd caught me at a good time—I'd been warming to Frank, but now I was back on Team William. I couldn't wait to hear what he had to say.
I also couldn't wait to hear what Richard had to say. I was the first to arrive at the restaurant where we were meeting for a drink, and I greedily sucked down a glass of wine as soon as I sat down, so that by the time Richard arrived, he was all fuzzy and golden in the low light. He really was so handsome, especially wrapped up in his nice cashmere coat. Maybe I was too quick to blow him off. Richard is probably the only guy I've ever known who can give as good as I can, and that counts for a lot in my book.
I climbed off the bar stool and reached up to give him a hug. The cold clung to his coat like stubborn cologne. I was shivering when I pulled away.
Richard took off his scarf and wrapped it around my neck. His fingers caught in the ends of my hair and lingered there for just a beat too long. "Better?"
I smiled. "Better."
He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze before sitting down. "Whatever she's having," he said to the bartender.
"Have you reassembled your wallet by now?" I asked, sliding into the stool next to his.
"What a process that was." Richard rolled his eyes. "Remind me never to get mugged again."
"Never get mugged again," I said, and one side of his mouth picked up. He reached for his glass of wine and took a sip.
"So listen," I said, at the same time Richard said, "I wanted to."
We both stopped. "You go," we said at the same time again. I laughed. "Seriously. You go."
Richard turned to look at me. His face was more serious than I'd ever seen it. "I wanted to talk to you, about...that night."
I had been planning on going first. The last thing I wanted was for Richard to confess his feelings for me and then I'd have to tell him that the two of us weren't a good idea. But Richard looked so intent on telling me whatever it was he needed to tell me, that I wanted to hear it. Maybe he'd make a good case for why we should give this a try. Maybe I'd even consider it.
"I think we should talk about it," I said.
Richard nodded. "I just want to make sure you don't have the wrong idea about me. I'm not...I'm not like you think I am. A womanizer, or whatever."
"I don't think that about you," I said. "I did, at one point. But I don't anymore."
"I was like that at one point," Richard agreed. "But I've changed." He leaned in a little closer and his shoulder brushed mine.
I couldn't believe it. It was exactly like Nina had said—he was totally using Sam to prove a point.
"I know you have," I said.
"I care about you and our friendship so much"—
"I do too."
—"And I'd never want to do anything to wreck it."
I shook my head. "Me neither."
Richard breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. So we're on the same page."
I blinked, confused. "On the same page about what?"
Richard looked at me funny. "We agree that little almost kiss was a huge mistake." His shoulder was warm against mine. "I'm crazy in love with Sam."
It took me a second too long to recover. "Right," I said. "I know you are."
Richard studied me closely. "I mean it, Josie. I am. I'm sorry for my part in whatever that was on Wednesday. I won't be putting myself in a position like that again. Sam means too much to me."
I leaned away from him. "Putting yourself in what position?"
"Alone, in the dark, at 3AM with a random girl"—
"A random girl?"
Richard waved his hand. "You know what I mean."
"Clearly, I don't," I said. "You found me. You hugged me. When I was upset and vulnerable."
"Jesus, Josie. You make it sound like I was preying on you or something."
"I'm just stating the facts." I turned away from him but he caught my face in his hands.
"What do you want me to say?" Richard said, his voice soft and low. His eyes scanned my face, back and forth, like he was reading the tiny, quick print of a newspaper. "That I'm in love with you? That I don't know how to handle it I'm so in love with you?"
My mouth fell open a little bit. I had no idea what to say. Before I could figure it out, Richard dropped his hands from my face and burst out laughing.
"Relax," he said, "I'm fucking with you." He took another sip of his wine. "Don't think so highly of yourself."
"You really are a special breed of asshole." I reached into my wallet and dropped a twenty on the table. Richard pushed it back at me.
"Come on," he said, "I'm just kidding. Let me at least pick this up after what you and your friends did for me last week."
I stared at the twenty, pinned to the bar top by Richard's index finger. It was like a peace offering, either I accepted it or I didn't. I reached out and peeled it off the table before pulling on my coat.
"Are we okay?" Richard swiveled around in the stool, leaning back on his elbows and watching me collect my things.
"I want to be," I said. "Sometimes you just take it too far though." I hauled my bag over my shoulder. "I have to go. I'll see you later."
Let it be noted that no one should ever take love advice from Ashley, Nina, or I ever again. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest with the assessment we came up with, sheesh. In trying to honor this personal commitment to myself to take a break from relationshipping, it seems I've found a loop hole, and that is the guy who isn't my boyfriend but who I have a history with, so anything that happens between us is so much more emotionally charged than it would have been with a new guy. It's sort of like a boyfriend lite, and it's got to stop, because it's just me trying to skirt around the reality of being single.