by Zahra Barnes
“Sorry, what was that?” I’d zoned out yet again. Even though his face sitting across from me in the candlelit wine bar was undoubtedly a thing of glory, my mind was still back at Grey & Boehm. Marian had taken off as soon as the guests were gone, leaving me and Liv to wrap things up with the triplets. Although my inner Tessa was practically foaming at the mouth, eager to confront Liv about almost sabotaging the opening, outer Tessa knew that would be the perfect opportunity to seem undeniably insane. Liv would probably gaslight both me and my professional reputation into oblivion by acting totally innocent at every turn, and I couldn’t have that happen in front of the triplets. They were a gossip machine.
When they went home, Liv trailed them out the door and left me on my own without a chance for the two of us to talk. Fine by me. More than anything, I wanted to think it through before I made any big moves.
The thinking it through thing just didn’t need to happen when I was sitting at a teeny table, face to face with someone who looked like the Abercrombie catalogue model of my teenage dreams mixed with a sculpture that had come to life and escaped a museum of fine arts, if you get my drift. (My drift is that the man looked so good, if Ryan Gosling had walked up to our table and asked me on a date, I would have had to think really hard before asking if we could just work something out together, the three of us.) Tessa, if you don’t focus you will wake up in 50 years realizing this is the day your life could have changed, I told myself. Melodramatic, sure, but it snapped me back into the present.
“I asked what you thought of the art tonight. I’ve never really seen anything like it, but you must be into it since you organized the whole thing. Right?”
“Oh, definitely. I’ve always been drawn to art, but in my teenage years I realized just how bizarre it could get. That’s my favorite part of what I do, finding these really strange art forms and helping regular people connect with them. The best is when we get confused tourists who wander in because they’re lost.” I told him about how some elderly Dutch travelers had almost been frightened off by a series we’d done last spring featuring up-close photographs of people’s most intimate anatomy. They’d been terribly nice, even in the depths of their horror. Eventually, they’d told me the exhibit was actually beautiful.
By the end of my story, Jack’s broad shoulders were quaking with laughter. “No way. That has to be the craziest art piece I’ve ever heard of.”
“It keeps things pretty interesting. And you get it, right? Since you’re obviously into the art world, too. So wait, remind me what you do again?” As if I didn’t remember every syllable that had fallen from those lips when we’d talked at Wilfie and Nell.
“I’m getting my Ph.D. at NYU in 20th Century American history.”
“How’d you get into that?”
Jack spent the next few minutes explaining how he’d gone to college in California and, besides plain old missing the cold he’d gotten used to growing up with in New York, his whole family lived in the city. “It was hard being away from them, so I’m glad to be back,” he said while tracing the stem of his glass with his long fingers. There were various things I suspected could be wrong with him since he was so pretty, but having a pathological hate for his family was apparently not one of them.
“That makes sense. Do you come from a big family?”
“It’s my parents and two brothers.” There are three of them?! I shrieked internally. I pinched my thigh to remind myself this was not a dream, and I needed to act accordingly.
“Let me guess: you’re the baby,” I said.
He laughed. “How’d you know?”
“Oh, you know, you give off that whole golden child vibe that comes with being the youngest.” I took a sip of my malbec to steady my nerves.
His eyes lit up at the prospect of some proper first-date teasing. “Oh, really now?! Okay, you must be an only child, then.”
I scoffed, playing the part of the affronted woman even though he was totally right. “Now why would you think that?”
A piercing look overtook his smile until all that was left was a smoldering gaze that bolted me to my seat. “Because I can tell you’re used to getting what you want.”
We fell into a charged silence, each of us daring the other with our eyes to look away, say something, or otherwise break the spell. I lost.
“So, um, what would you do if I ordered every single thing on the menu and ate all of it? Like, faceplanted into everything” Those damn hypotheticals. It had been so long since I’d experienced first date nerves that I’d forgotten I would bring them up if I didn’t know what else to say.
“What would you do if I ordered everything and ate all of it and faceplanted into everything?” Jack replied. The visual made me burst out laughing.
An hour later, we were still at it. At this point we’d entered into a lightning-round set of get-to-know-you questions. Giddy from exhaustion, wine, and finding out more about Jack, I had to work hard to suppress the kind of giggles that would make me unintelligibable. Unintelligeable. Goddammit. Unintelligible. See?
“Favorite show?” I asked.
“The Office,” he responded, resolute in his decision. “Yours?”
“Grey’s Anatomy.” His eyes turned skyward. “Don’t roll those eyes at me! I bet you’ve never even seen an episode! It covers everything from falling in love to ferry crashes to bombs being lodged in people’s intestines—”
“I don’t have to see it to know it’s trash. Okay, best concert you’ve ever been to,” he said.
“Beyonce, hands down. Although I really want to see Jessie Ware live. Yours?”
I ducked my head to hide my laughter. I looked up and met his eyes, which were performing an impressive pretend-offended act. He fumbled with his excuse. “They make me feel things, okay?!”
“Okay, okay! I like a man who can own up to his feelings. I respect your emotions, I do. But just FYI, I recognized a few Coldplay songs on Grey’s soundtrack. All right, how about favorite food to eat while drunk, upset, or otherwise emotionally or physically compromised?”
Thank god. “That was easy. This might be the deal-breaker, though: toppings?”
“Mushroom and sausage. Get out of here with the loaded vegetables.” He shook his head and crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes right before he burst into a smile. One blossomed across my face, mimicking his. We were clearly meant to be, or at least, our pizza orders were.
The rest of the night was just more of the same sense that we were on very similar wavelengths. When the waitress plopped the bill between us, Jack waved my wallet-reach away with a hand.
“Definitely not. This was my treat.” He pulled out a few 20s and slipped them into the bill-holder.
“Well, if you insist. Thank you so much. I had a really good time.” And I meant it. I had.
Jack could get to his Upper West Side apartment from the same subway stop I was taking. Descending from the chilly night into the blazing light and oppressive sound of a packed subway station was jarring, and I hoped my eye makeup wasn’t smudging everywhere and turning me into a horror movie version of myself. We stood before the turnstiles, knowing we’d have to head in opposite directions once we’d glided past them.
“So.” He smiled down at me and I became fairly certain my insides were composed of jello.
“So,” I responded. I wasn’t trying to be cute, my brain just couldn’t recall any words besides the one I’d just heard. Was he going to kiss me? Here, in a subway station? In the land full of skittish rats and puddles of pee?
“This was a lot of fun. Can I see you again? Sometime soon, maybe?” His face was about a foot from mine, not in kissing territory. This was good, because as much fun as I’d had, deep down I knew this wasn’t the place or time for it to happen. I hesitated.
“I just feel like there’s a reason we saw each other at the bar after the drawing class, you know? Out of all the bars in all the towns in all the world,” he said. His Casablanca reference made my hesitation fade away.
“Of course. Maybe we can order a pizza?”
He enveloped me into a hug. “I’m down if we listen to Coldplay while we eat,” he said into my ear. He pulled away and smiled at me, those eye crinkles providing the sincerity behind what otherwise could have just been a simple upturning of his lips. I stretched up on my tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek, lingering for a second to absorb his warmth before I pulled away, dashed through a turnstile, and ran to catch my train.
When I first weaved my arm around a pole in the subway car, not even the man bellowing Bible scriptures could stomp out my glow. But then the rest of the night hit me: Liv, the triplets, and what on earth I was going to do. Jack had helped me block it out so well, but now that I was alone, it came creeping back like clockwork.
While the train screeched over the tracks, my annoyance built upon itself. I ran over the details countless times as the train snaked higher through the maze that was subterranean Manhattan. Finally, I acknowledged that from what I understood Liv had been the only one in the office, making her the sole person with access to the work phone number that the triplets used to contact me. My shock warped into an anger so intense it was pulsing with heat and I sat down to formulate a plan.
The next day I showed up to Grey & Boehm bright and early. Since I had stayed late the night before, Liv was supposed to be the first to arrive. I wanted to beat her there. By the time she showed up I was sitting at my desk, looking the unruffled, trusting picture of perfection. I’d given myself enough time to stop the blood from sloshing around in my system and cursing me with a telltale furious blush.
Liv startled when she saw me. “Morning! You’re here early.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep so I decided to come in.” That much was true.
“Last night was so exciting that doesn’t surprise me. The triplets really were a hit!” Liv tucked both hands into the pockets of her coat and strolled over to her desk.
No thanks to you, I thought. Then came some remorse. Tessa, you don’t know that it was her. Follow the plan. The first step? Honesty.
“Liv? I need to talk to you about something.” I waited until she was settled with her morning coffee so she had no excuse to do anything but pay attention to this conversation.
“Sure, what’s up?” She gamely faced me, and I shook off the doubt that came with her curious expression.
I swiveled my chair in her direction. “Have you talked to Gia in the past few days?”
“Gia the glass blowing triplet?” Liv looked puzzled. “Well, yeah. She was here for the exhibit so we talked a few times.”
“Right, of course.” This already wasn’t going how I’d planned. “But I mean did you talk to her on the phone? Maybe on Friday?”
Liv paused to think. “Mmm, no. We mainly talked when they got here right before the exhibit when her hair was half curly and half straight. I convinced her it was fine, but she was freaking out.” I’d heard an art critic say that the two inconsistent halves of Gia’s hairstyle, one pin-straight and the other undulating in mermaid waves, expressed how torn she was between her two sisters. What it really expressed was how rushed they’d been before their arrival, but I wasn’t about to tell anyone that.
“Well, I wanted to check because something really weird happened.” I tried to take on an air that was as quizzical as Liv’s. “Gia told me someone from this office talked to them and said the showing was actually going to be at midnight, so they almost didn’t get here on time.” I bit back the flood of words pressing against my lips so I could catch Liv’s reaction.
She twirled her fiery hair around one finger and furrowed her brow. “What? Midnight last night?”
“Who would do that?”
The quiet that lapsed over us her communicated my message more efficiently than my words could have.
“Wait, you think I did it?” Her hand went limp and she just stared at me, shocked. Her act was throwing me. It was too convincing.
“No one else was here, Liv! Did you somehow get confused and tell them the wrong time? I’m not going to freak out, we just need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Especially not when we go over to Revel. We can’t screw up.”
“I mean, I talked to a ton of people that day since you were gone doing things.” Wait, was that shade? “I was fielding a ton of calls, so I really don’t remember. But if I did talk to them, I would never tell them that. We don’t do midnight exhibit openings. Maybe they just misunderstood me at some point?” Liv’s doe eyes questioned me, which I didn’t need. I was already questioning things myself.
At a loss for words, I just nodded and turned away from her. When I heard her typing away at her desk and was sure she wasn’t paying attention, I checked the call log on my work phone. It was wiped clean. I never paid much attention to it, so whether it was from a routine purge or something more dubious, I didn’t know.
Really, what was I going to do? I couldn’t tell Marian what was going on, because all she would see was the night’s almost disaster rather than its blatant success. Liv was even admitting that she’d potentially talked to one of the triplets and somehow crossed wires. I’d expected either an outright dismissal or a malicious admitting of what she’d done, and what I was getting was much more normal. The bottom line was, someone had screwed up and I just didn’t feel like I had the full picture yet. Okay, I told myself, onto phase two: gathering the evidence.