(For the first excerpt, click here.)
It was during this relatively tranquil and productive time in the group’s history that Victoria made a horrible discovery.
Group was breaking up for the week, that twilight time after the work had been done and the administrative details attended to, when we all relaxed and smiled at each other and yawned and stretched, when Eleanor hustled to the “washroom,” as she called it, while Imani and Vic bussed the table, and Frederick and Sabrina gossiped (about who? Who did they have in common? Or were they talking about TV? Probably TV…). Dan never lingered; he always started packing his things and patting his pockets while we were still discussing the next deadline and meeting, and as soon as it was decided, he rose from him seat and gave his funny little bow – “Good night, all.” – then swept out the door.
But the rhythms were off tonight. Imani had beat Eleanor to the bathroom, so Eleanor had started telling Vic about something her daughter Marian had written – so talented, Eleanor’s daughter was, and Vic hypothesized that it probably ran in the family. The detail, said Eleanor. Just wonderful, so creative. Her daughter Marian inspires her so much.
Vic smiled at Eleanor. It felt good to be around someone who enthused, instead of critiquing all the time; it was a nice antidote to all the skepticism and sarcasm we might have fallen prey to without her there. If there were disagreements, as there sometimes were, Eleanor was quick to step in and take a side. And in a way, her entering the conflict mollified it. While we would all be bitchy with each other, there was no way we were going to be bitchy with the old lady, and so contentious tones became more even, the agreement to disagree reached much more quickly. Vic wondered if Eleanor knew how powerful she was.
Eleanor went off to the washroom, leaving Vic to look around and notice that the glasses had been collected, while Frederick and Sabrina scorned some absent party named Bethany. The coffee table was smudged, so she went to the kitchen for some glass cleaner and paper towels. And there, to her great dismay, were Dan and Imani. Kissing.
Oh, bloody hell. She yipped in surprise, and Frederick called out from the living room, “You okay?”
“Yep!” Dan and Imani moved apart, Imani flushing and pressing her lips together in a line, Dan moving back into the living room, fluidly leaving the scene. Imani looked up at Vic, helpless – Please don’t think badly of me. Please don’t tell. Vic drew her chin back, eyes open extra wide – Well, well, young lady. What have we here?
They could hear Dan in the living room. “Good night. See you week after next.” Vic gaped at Imani – He’s leaving? Just like that? Did I just see what I think I saw? Imani cringed and shrugged a little, elated and miserable in equal degree. Vic scooted past her to the cabinet, got her cleaning supplies, and went back out into the living room. Eleanor, Frederick and Sabrina were standing and waiting for Imani. Dan was gone.
“Imani, you taking the train?”
Vic wanted her to stay, wanted to hear what she had to say for herself, and she could tell that Imani wanted to confide in her too. “Actually, Imani, can you hang out a minute? I want to ask you about your yoga class…”
“Oh, yeah, yoga.” She moved to the couch, and the rest of them took their leave.
Vic waited for Imani to start. Imani seemed to be waiting for Vic. She looked like a little girl about to be punished for stealing a cupcake, a cupcake she had obviously wanted and enjoyed very much. Vic didn’t want to punish her – she didn’t know what she wanted. Her first instinct was to warn Imani against Dan, but mostly, she wanted to hear about it.
“So,” she said – supportively, she hoped.
“Please, please don’t think I’m a terrible person.”
“I am. I am a terrible person. I have a wonderful boyfriend, I know.” Vic thought back to Benji – sweet, but mediocre at best. “I don’t know…I’m just…”
“Hey, it’s okay. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I just thought, if you wanted to talk…”
“I do.” Her head hung and she started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She wasn’t apologizing to Vic, or she was. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“When did it start?”
“Just now! When you walked in…” There was the edge of accusation, when you walked in and spoiled it. “I mean, I guess it’s been…brewing. But we never said anything. We never planned it.”
Was that true? In a way, yes. They’d never said anything. But they’d said enough of nothing. Three meetings ago, he’d pretended to have some business in her neighborhood, he’d walked to the subway with the gang and sat next to her on the train and got off at her stop. She’d known, even before she asked, as they emerged onto the sidewalk – “So, wait, where are you going?”
Nowhere, he’d said. I just wanted to talk with you.
I have a boyfriend, she could have said, the most hackneyed thing in the world to say. But he knew that. And he hadn’t said he wanted to fuck her, or to kiss her. He just wanted to talk with her. He made no motion to touch her. And suddenly she wanted him to try, very badly. But she couldn’t, it wasn’t up to her. He had to make the first move.
Well, he said, it was a pleasure. And he gave his funny bow, and went back down into the subway.
Since then, nothing. Not an extra glance in her direction during group, but neither did he avoid her eye. No emails except those sent to the group. Not, “I enjoyed our subway ride, I’d like to do it again,” which is the email she composed in her head, the one she wanted to receive, if not to send. She’d hoped he would join them again after group, walk towards the subway with them, the two of them trailing behind and talking, but he resumed his usual habit of disappearing as soon as group was done. She’d even gathered her things quickly last meeting, thinking she’d slip out with him, but he was too quick for her.
And then tonight, he’d lingered. None of them had noticed, but Imani noticed. He had not packed during the denoument. He was sitting in his chair, relaxed. She went to the bathroom and her hands were sweating because she knew, he was waiting for her. She looked at herself in the mirror and it seemed to be someone else, someone much younger, looking back at her. She went back into the living room, and picked up her glass from the table, and brought it into the kitchen, where he was waiting. They didn’t say anything. He just stepped forward one step, and…
“Wow,” said Vic.
“I know,” said Imani.
“He’s really good.”
Imani looked startled. “Have you…?”
“No! No, I just mean – he’s very…” She had to tread carefully, she realized, as she was talking about the man Imani loved. “Persuasive.”
“He didn’t say anything. Neither of us did. It was just like…” She shrugged, and her shoulders stayed up, like she was hugging herself. She let them drop. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Vic realized that this revolting development, which was sure to fuck up our lovely group, was almost exciting and welcome, not just for the novelty and the intrigue, but because Imani was confiding in her, like a friend. “What do you want to do?” she asked.
“Dan.” They laughed. “Don’t laugh. I mean, I know I laughed, but…is it laughable? I mean, he’s…weird, I know.”
“His work speaks volumes.”
“I know! I know! I could barely stand him the first few weeks! I can barely stand him now! I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t.”
“What about Benji?”
Imani groaned like Vic was the world’s worst killjoy. “I think I’m going to throw up. I don’t want to hurt Benji. I love Benji. We were just at his mom’s the other day, and she was all like, ‘When you two have kids…’ And I used to want that, you know? I mean, I still do, part of me, but it’s like everything changed in a month. In a day. Ever since we took that subway together...”