They got up on the walkway by the Whitney, Jade jumping up the stairs like a gazelle in her heels and light skirt, Sam slowed down by his long, heavy overcoat. Different purposes, different results.
Jade waited for Sam at the top and they walked together in silence until they found a bench with a backrest and enough free space to sit together. They left just enough room between them for another person to fit in. Both of them knew someone would, on a beautiful spring day like this and with the city packed with tourists. It was an invitation. There was no knowing what kind of a person it would be, though, and that never seized to make Sam nervous.
Seated, they didn’t talk or acknowledge each other’s existence. Sam stretched his legs out in front of him on the long, wooden seat, took out a book and started reading. Hemingway, his favorite, his old buddy. He reread these stories regularly.
Jade was looking around. The spot could have been better, there was no way to get her face to the sun at this time of day. The shadows were too long, and the cold air of early April was making her shiver.
Someone sat next to her. On the other side, not between the two of them. A man, somewhere between the ages of 28 and 33, conventionally attractive. Sam raised his eyes from his book only to examine his body composition. About 5’11”, athletic, but not too much. Just your regular three to four visits to the gym every week, two more than Sam himself managed to get in.
Eyeroll from Sam, which Jade pretended not to notice. At least this wouldn't take long, he thought.
“That’s a great book,” he heard Jade say, and cursed having taken the only glance he had afforded himself way too early. Now, he would have to stick to the mystery of what the guy was reading.
But maybe it was better this way. He didn’t want to know too much, Sam reminded himself. Just enough for safety.
“Oh, good to know. I just bought it, I’ve read her work before but not this one.”
“I only read this one, but I loved it.”
There was a silence, but Sam could feel they were both looking for words. The guy was the first one to find them.
“I can recommend them all. She’s a great writer.”
“I respect a man who reads books written by women. Not everybody does.”
Sam felt the jab, but didn’t flinch. He would be as stoic and unmoved as the men in the books he read. A Hemingway man.
“I know, it’s weird. I’ve always read books written by women but I don’t know many other guys who do. It’s like women’s writing was only for women, but men’s is universal.”
“Just like chick flicks. Whenever there’s one or more women as protagonists, it’s a women’s movie.”
He chuckled. “If it’s two men, it’s social commentary.”
“The standard’s still men making the money.” She laughed, a flirty, high-pitched laugh that surprised both Sam and herself. “I’m Jade.”
Of course he’s a Chris, Sam thought, trying to hide a second eye roll, but not hard enough. He would have to be more careful, or the guy would notice.
“You live around here, Chris?”
“No, just visiting. From Portland. I have some friends living here, thought it could be a nice getaway.”
“And you’re having fun so far?”
“That, and people.”
She giggled again.
“Are you getting a reading from me, Chris?”
“A decent one.”
Jade glanced to her other side, back in the direction of the museum, as if looking at people. Sam gave an almost imperceptible nod, and she turned to Chris again.
“You want to go get something to drink, Jade?” He surprised her before she could find the words. “A cup of coffee? It’s a little chilly.”
“I saw a nice little place a couple of blocks from here.”
“I have a better idea. I live close by.“
Sam could feel the surprise in him, even without looking. What a great day for my man Chris, he thought.
They left, and Sam kept reading for a couple more minutes before he got up. He’d barely had any breakfast, last night’s date had been such a disaster he had only been able to prepare himself a cup of coffee in the morning. It had been more than 12 hours now since his last meal, time to go find a sandwich.
Before he left, he looked at the bench next to him and noticed Chris had left his novel. Sam picked it up and stuffed it in the big pockets of his overcoat, next to the Hemingway. It would be a crime to leave a book behind, and Jade would be positively surprised to get the present.
What kind of a man leaves a book on a park bench? Had the novel been just a pickup strategy? Sam had to admit it was a good one. It had landed Chris a girl like Jade, in less than five minutes. Sam himself had not been as successful so far. Getting Jade had also been a long-term effort, but he’d won through persistence, by being better than the rest. Less insecure, less pedantic.
Where was that persistence now? Why had he thrown it all down the drain?
Sam glanced at the smartwatch on his wrist. He probably had an hour or so to kill, but he knew Jade wouldn’t take much longer than that. She was aware of how chilly it was outside. But he would still have time to go to his favorite spot and have a sit-down lunch.
Jade always thought of him, wanted him to be present, to know who she was with, and give his approval. He always did, of course. There was no way he’d deny Jade of what he himself had demanded. To keep things interesting, he’d said, so they didn’t get tired of each other. The only thing he had managed to spice up was Jade’s life.
Sam traced his steps back, down the stairs by the Whitney and towards West Village, to their favorite spot.
It was easy to find a seat at this time of the day. After ordering, he opened the Hemingway to kill the time, take his mind off things, but soon let it go. The book wasn’t doing it for him today. It was too dense, tasted so depressing, the words like cement on his tongue. And it made him thirsty. In Hemingway's stories, someone is always drinking, and you ended up craving some alcohol. After last night’s disaster date his brain, still pounding, couldn’t handle it.
She had been pretty, much prettier than her picture. Almost as pretty as Jade. He’d seen the disappointment in her eyes when she had seen him. He wasn’t a bad-looking dude, or at least that’s what he had managed to convince himself of, but they were in different leagues. Maybe playing different sports, even.
The worst thing about his date was that she had been polite, too polite for an idiot like him. They should have gone home as soon as they’d both realized it wasn’t going to happen. Instead, they had forced themselves to sit through a painfully awkward dinner until, by desert, they had downed so many drinks they had both lost their inhibitions.
She had made a move, probably out of pity or some alcohol-induced loneliness. For some reason, the alcohol had had the opposite effect on him. Sam had stared at the girl’s beautiful smile as she’d leaned towards him, felt her hand on his leg, and burst into tears in the middle of the restaurant.
“I’m sorry, I’m not being honest with you. I have a girlfriend.”
She had been disappointed and offended, of course. He should have told her earlier, she had no interest in being part of a situation like that. Even if it was fine with the other girl. It was in such bad taste. To think that she had given him a chance.
He hadn’t even felt sorry when she’d stormed out. Embarrassed, yes. Pessimistic, too. But not in the least interested in knowing the girl better. She wasn’t Jade.
But he wasn’t going to tell Jade how he’d learned his lesson. Besides, he wanted her to experiment. He wanted to make sure she knew who she wanted to be with. That she really would want him for the rest of her life.
Sam placed the book back in his pocket. Hemingway would not happen today. He needed something easier, something that would make him feel better about himself, not worse.
He felt the other book against his knuckles, still cold from the weather outside. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the smiling person on the back cover. So many discussions about this woman with Jade, yet no explanation he could find for himself now as to why he had started them. Why did he always have to get so damn pedantic and annoying? Why did he feel the need to put others down to feel better? Even Jade. How did he find the nerve to deem himself the judge of what was art and what was not, when he was clearly not good at seeing what was beautiful in his own life?
His burger arrived, with fries and the extra coleslaw he had ordered out of habit, not because he really wanted it. It was Jade’s favorite, that’s why he always got it. She never wanted to take advantage of him, so it was tough just getting her to order anything, let alone another side dish.
Sam moved on to the first page of the book and started reading. There was still a part of him that wanted to hate it, but the writer managed to captivate him from the first page on. Using only the simplest words and structures, she painted a vivid picture, starting at the first sentence.
By the time he’d finished his meal, he was hooked. It was both annoying and exciting to think about telling Jade about it. Just like it was both terrifying and exciting to think about seeing his girlfriend again, only an hour after he had last laid eyes on her.
As he was climbing up the stairs to the High Line, his heart was racing. The alcohol from last night didn’t make a great combination with the brisk pace. The same spot wasn’t available, he had to venture out a little farther before he could find a seat. Jade would find him. And she would do so any minute now, Sam knew. He glanced at his watch. It had been an hour and a half, she would probably arrive in the next fifteen minutes. They had agreed to three hours before Sam should start worrying and go check if everything was okay, but Jade would return sooner.
He took the books out again, starting with Hemingway and leaving the other one on the bench beside him. It would be there waiting for Jade, marking the spot.
Thirty minutes passed, and Jade still hadn’t returned. The cold was creeping in now, he was no longer comfortable in his long overcoat. It was probably the hangover. It made him jumpy, nervous, cold. So unlike himself. So unlike a Hemingway man.
Another half an hour passed. It had now been two and a half hours since she'd left. Now was the time to dig in and try to remember the breathing techniques Jade had tried to teach him to calm himself down. Counting first to five on the inhale and six on the exhale, then adding one. And another one. Slow breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Feeling them in his stomach, letting it expand. But there was no way to stop thinking about what she was doing. How she was enjoying herself with another man. That she might enjoy Chris more than him.
He placed the Hemingway on the seat again and grabbed the other book. He needed something that would take his mind off things, and he had to admit it, this book was excellent.
Sam was still reading when Jade reached him, about ten minutes later. From the corner of his eye, he saw her searching for him. Was there a hint of nervousness in her walk?
“You changed your seat, I almost didn’t find you,” she said as she removed the Hemingway from the bench and sat down beside him. He fought the urge to put his arm over her.
“You had fun?” Sam asked, without looking up.
“We agreed we wouldn’t talk about it.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I started this one.” He placed the book on the bench.
“Oh, Chris left it behind. I don’t think he even noticed.”
He had managed to shut down his imagination and even forget the name for a while, but there it was again. Chris.
Now was the moment to swallow his pride. “I like it.”
She smiled. “I knew you would. She’s great.”
They sat in quiet for a while, until Jade got up, putting the book in her purse. She extended her hand to Sam.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Sam said.
“Fine by me.” Jade grabbed his arm. “I never really wanted to.”
“I know, honey. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was… What I was thinking.”
“Want to go catch a show tonight? There's this off-Broadway play I've really wanted to see. Written by a woman, but I think you'll like it.” She was always like that, so quick to overcome any obstacle, to go with the flow. Never weighed down by his decisions, just making the most of any situation life threw at her. “Hey, maybe we could stop by that bookstore you love before. You know, the one on the Upper West Side?”
“Sure.” He smiled at Jade and gave her a kiss on the forehead. It would take some time for him to forgive himself, but he would get there.