by Zahra Barnes
I don’t make a habit of drinking at 1:15 p.m. on a Wednesday, so I had to pass. “Water’s great for me, thank you!”
The waitress smiled and nodded before turning away, shooting a curious look at us over her shoulder. I was eager to know the purpose of this outing, myself. Marian had stalked over to my desk that morning and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we were getting lunch at Vert, a new salad place nearby. I could tell Liv’s ears perked up, but Marian solved the mystery of whether she would be coming pretty quickly. “Liv, I trust you’ll handle everything while we’re gone. Shouldn’t take long.”
So here I was, trying not to worry about what Marian had to say. It’s not like it was going to be an impromptu review; after my first year at Grey & Boehm, I’d naively asked her for one. “If I don’t fire you, assume you’re doing passably well,” she’d told me in a steely voice. Okay, then. In the time since, she’d made some nice gestures like the gala invitation and the ring dish she’d gotten me for my apartment, but the woman was the definition of an ice queen. You just never knew with her.
Marian took off her massive sunglasses and set them on the table. The waitress placed the martini in front of her, and I got the sudden urge to lunge for it and slam it back. Just to see what Marian would do. I half-expected she’d respect me more for it. We placed our lunch orders and, at a loss, I started to make smalltalk. “Well, the weather is finally—”
“Tessa, I brought you here today to tell you about some changes that are coming to Grey & Boehm,” Marian cut in. I couldn’t even be offended, because in her world I probably hadn’t uttered a word. “You know that we’ve been making a push to get more high-profile artists and expand our visibility.”
“Well, to that end, we’re being acquired. In a few months, Grey & Boehm will join forces with Revel Productions.”
I tried to maintain a neutral expression, but my mind was racing. Am I about to get fired? Wait, am I Marnie in Girls? I can’t be, because I would never have sex with Booth Jonathan and talk dirty about a sassy doll. Please, God, don’t, let me be Marnie. Wait, Tessa, what the fuck are you thinking? FOCUS! My shrill mental scream brought me down to earth in time to realize Marian had asked me a question, one perfectly-shaped eyebrow arched while she waited for my response.
“I said, ‘Are you happy at Grey & Boehm?’”
“Oh, of course! It really is the perfect fusion of event planning and obscure art forms made accessible—”
“Tessa, this is not an interview with a common Human Resources representative. I didn't ask for a canned answer.” She leveled me with a look that, instead of being intimidating, was encouraging. In her admittedly brusque way, she wanted me to be real with her.
I paused, then gave her the most candid response I could. “I’m obsessed with this job. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”
She studied me in silence. I felt like she was evaluating everything from my one stupid lock of hair that refused to submit to my blow dryer to each decision I’d ever made at Grey & Boehm. It was like I was on a reality TV show and she was determining whether I was going to be eliminated or get to stay on in the hopes of becoming America’s Next Top Arts Events Planner. I imagined Marian trying to teach me how to smize (don’t think the Botoxed are especially good at that), and grinned. I scrubbed my face quickly, feeling like I was losing it. Surprisingly, Marian’s genuine smile mimicked mine. She nodded with satisfaction and I suppressed my awe at what I was seeing.
“Good. I’ve ensured that your position will remain safe in this process, as will Olivia’s if she is interested in staying on.”
A wave of relief rocked me so hard, I almost felt woozy. Roller coaster emotions always make me ravenous, so I was grateful for the waitress’ impeccable timing when she set our salads down in front of us. We dug in (well, I did while Marian frowned at the avocado on my plate and nibbled the lettuce leaves on hers) and she told me about the deal. The man who had visited the week before, Tom Fitzpatrick, was a silent partner of Revel Productions. His late wife’s passion had been throwing huge parties, so he was backing the up-and-coming event planning firm in her honor. It was swimming in money, thanks to Tom’s heavily-lined pockets. We at Grey & Boehm were going to head up the arts-related branch of the company. We’d even be moving into swanky offices in midtown Manhattan. Basically, this was huge news.
“You know I don’t think there’s any room for sentimentality at the office, but I will say you remind me very much of myself at a young age. I admire your tenacity,” Marian said. “And I want to see you do well.”
I chose to ignore the more suspect parts of the comparison (since I was not intimidatingly emotionally stunted, we were actually different in many ways), and took it as the compliment she intended it to be. Marian saying something that flattering was basically like her proposing to me. She’d taken ownership of Grey & Boehm when she was only 27, and everyone in the art world knew and respected her. If I could capture half of her cutthroat determination, I’d go places.
On a high from the news that not only was my job safe, Marian actually valued me, I told her all about Mary, the out-there artist I’d met at the gala. Marian agreed that her brand of crazy would be the kind of thing that would help us make a splash just before joining with Revel.
I left the lunch feeling buoyed. I’d only been back at my desk for a few minutes when Grant texted me. “Free on Saturday evening? Have a surprise for you.” He knew just how to hook me. I could not get enough of surprises, whether it was planning them for friends or watching videos of them gone wrong on YouTube.
After I spent Saturday morning at Grey & Boehm, Grant met me in front of my apartment. I’d tried cajoling, begging, and faux-threatening to find out what the surprise was. He wasn’t budging. He’d just told me to wear something nice and get ready to dance. Even though I wasn’t sure what we were doing, I knew it was going to be my kind of night. We hopped on the subway and then zigzagged through the city streets on the way to our final destination.
During our walk, he asked how Celine was doing. He’d left before she woke up the morning after the gala, but when he’d texted checking in on her, I told him I’d fill him in later. Everything had actually been weirdly fine.
“I’m so sorry to ruin the evening! I just didn’t eat enough yesterday,” Celine had said over the brunch she’d made me to apologize.
Still worried, I’d kept at it. “You know you can talk to me about anything.” I forked another bite into my mouth. Her “sorry pancakes,” as she called them, were better than mine even though she should have had a hangover from hell.
“I know, but I swear I’m totally fine. YOLO, right?” Celine had decided she didn’t know enough American slang, which she said was the true sign you were totally fluent in another language. She’d taken to listening to hip hop for some guidance, with hilarious results.
I watched her bustle around the kitchen, seeming perfectly okay, and was ultimately convinced that it had been a one-off.
“So she’s all good?”
“Yes, and thanks again for your help…” I trailed off when I saw the yacht covered in fairy lights. “Wow. Faaaancy,” I cocked my head in its direction and kept walking, only to realize he wasn’t still next to me. I turned around and saw him grinning proudly in front of the boat. “Grant. No!”
He nodded happily. “Yes. I know how much these tourist-y things get you.” He held out a hand. “Welcome to your sunset cruise.”
When we’d first started dating, I’d explained that I was unabashedly into seeing the most obvious tourist attractions. Grant had taken me to the top of the Empire State Building, we’d browsed collections at The Met, and we even had a picture with one of those creepy life-sized Elmo puppets in Times Square. I couldn’t help but love the cheesiness in a way that was originally ironic, but had somehow become completely genuine. He’d always known a sunset cruise was on my list.
I threw my arms around him, then dragged him to the line, wriggling with excitement. After Grant presented our tickets, we walked up the plank and explored the two-story boat. I’d pictured a sunset cruise being a gaudy kind of fabulous, but this was actually tastefully done. The dining room was all spotless glass and plush velvet seating, candles peppered throughout. It had sightseeing decks complete with bathrooms on both floors, and at least two bars that I could count. As the place filled up with other sightseers, we headed to one to get a drink.
The captain came over the loudspeaker. “Welcome aboard Sunset Sightsees! We’re pushing off now. Last chance to leave, folks. If you change your mind after this, I hope your doggy paddle’s in good shape!” he chuckled to himself, obviously amused even though he’d probably done this for years.
“What are you getting?” I asked Grant.
“Well, this is so corny, but let’s go with it. Champagne? To celebrate?”
I didn’t ask him to elaborate; I knew he meant it to mark how well our second try was going. Plus, I never could resist bubbles.
Flutes in hand, we turned around to survey the scene.
“Where did these people come from?” Whenever I’d imagined doing one of these, I’d pictured being surrounded by midwesterners in their 60s who were delighted to tour The Big Apple. Not that there’s something wrong with that, because if my parents are anything to judge by, the party doesn’t stop after 50. But these people were pretty much all the glitzy city types I’d see at a Grey & Boehm opening.
“This company markets itself to a sort of young high roller crowd that wants a different party for a night. It is pretty nice, huh?”
“I’d say that’s an understatement.” A shimmering blond head of hair caught my eye, and even though I could only see the back of the woman, I knew she was stunning. “Jesus, I had no idea Blake Lively was here.” Grant had secretly gotten obsessed with Gossip Girl after I watched a few episodes at his place. He was still annoyed at the revelation that Dan was the eponymous schemer who’d wreaked havoc on the Upper East Side. And really, what was that? It makes no sense.
Grant followed my line of sight and his entire body stiffened. I was about to ask him what was wrong, but I understood when the woman turned enough to offer a glimpse of her profile. A roaring filled my ears as I took in the honey waves of hair, snug bordeaux-colored dress, and signature smirk that seemed like a fixture on Sophie’s face. She didn’t spot us, otherwise she’d probably have been turned to stone by the force of our combined gaze. Which, let’s be real, I wouldn’t have hated.
Did Grant know she would be here? Is this some sort of second attempt at sabotaging us? I took one look at him and knew he was just as surprised as I was. His face had gone white and his jaw ticked uncontrollably. My brain, unwilling to process what was going on, just focused on weird, tiny details. Like how prickly his recently-shorn scalp looked now that it was drained of blood.
We stood there in stunned silence until he faced me. “I swear, I didn’t know she would be here. We can leave.”
Desperate to fend off my rising alarm, a manic grin that is the stuff movie killers are made of crept across my face. I felt like if I just kept smiling, everything would be okay. “Grant! We’re on a boat! We can’t leave unless you’re somehow Michael Phelps in disguise and can make it to shore with me on your back!”
He grabbed my hand. “What do you want me to do? I just want to avoid her, but I’ll do whatever you want.”
I took a huge breath, trying to get as much oxygen to my brain as possible. It was feeling starved. “At least it’s not a rowboat, right? Let’s just try to stay away. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.” I reminded myself that I technically had nothing to hold against Sophie, and that by starting things with Grant again, I’d made my peace with what he did.
He squeezed my hand in agreement and started to lead me to the upper deck.
“Wait.” I held up a finger and turned to the bartender. “I need a very strong drink, please. Don’t care what it tastes like. Just strong.” I couldn’t stop picturing Grant’s hands tangled in Sophie’s hair. Why did it look that good? What kind of sorcery was she using in place of conditioner? If only bartenders had brain bleach on tap, I wished. Celine had taught me an important lesson in not going overboard, but I needed something to numb the shock. I’m not superhuman, after all.
“You know what? I’ll have what she’s having.” While the bartender mixed our drinks, Grant leaned his forehead against mine and stared deep into my eyes. With that one look, I knew we were in this together. Or as together as we could be. It was touchy for both of us for incredibly different reasons.
We headed up to the top deck with our drinks. It was chilly since we were on the water, so most people had gone down to the main room. A shock of cold air slapped me, but I sucked it in, welcoming it. It cleared my head.
“I just have to ask,” I started, annoyed at myself but knowing I couldn’t just pretend I wasn’t shaken. “You’re sure this is what you want? Us, I mean. I know you haven’t seen her in a while and that sometimes feelings can just come flooding back,” I said in a rush. Like they did when I saw you, I added mentally.
He paused long enough to make me consider hurling myself over the edge and taking my chances fighting the waves back to the dock.
“I knew I wouldn’t need to think about it, but I know you. If I hadn’t stopped to think, you’d say I hadn’t given myself a chance to really consider what you were saying.” He was right. “I know I want you. Period. Not Sophie, not any other woman. You.”
My entire body slackened like I’d shoved a handful of muscle relaxers down my throat. “Okay, good. Well, let’s try to make the best out of it, right? At least the sunset’s gorgeous, and that’s what we came here for.”
“It is,” he agreed. He wrapped his arms around me from behind and we leaned against the railing, our own little bastardized version of Jack and Rose. If Jack had cheated and Rose were actually half-hoping for an iceberg to take the ship down so she could escape in a rescue boat, that is.
“Gotta head to the bathroom.” Grant broke the silence. “I’ll be right back. We’re going to have a good night, okay?” He kissed my head and disappeared around the corner to the upper deck’s restroom. Would I have been suspicious if he went to the one downstairs, closer to Sophie? I was glad he didn’t, because I didn’t want to know.
I swirled my ice around in my glass, sipping slowly. The clinking noise calmed me, and the drink was caramelly and rough, leaving my throat a little raw after each fresh swallow. I was grateful for the feeling. It anchored me, giving me something solid to hold onto.
“Tessa?” I spun around, already knowing, but still shocked when I found myself face-to-face with Sophie. My heart skittered jerkily in my chest. Everything looked confident about her except the question in her eyes, which she offered up to the world in her next breath. “Can I talk to you?”