Hayden swept his arms in two wide arcs, like dueling halves of a slow-motion breaststroke. He tilted his chin upward and closed his eyes, inhaling through his nose. The late autumn sun warmed the asphalt beneath his feet and did battle with the chill in the air above. A Californian by birth, Hayden considered himself a naturalized New Englander—he felt most at peace when the leaves turned and the days darkened; his moods improved as the temperature plummeted. His friends once signed him up for a Polar Bear Swim as a joke. He went through with it anyway.
A few paces ahead of Hayden Emily was hugging herself against the cold, her pale hands juxtaposed against the sweater that her mother had purchased when Emily had matriculated at Colby. Emily wore it often. Colby girls noticed this and teased her for it, mostly but not entirely in the manner of friends chiding a bad habit. Emily cared not at all. She wore the sweatshirt alternately out of pride, convenience, and a quiet rebelliousness against female standards of dress. Today she wore it out of convenience: She had checked the weather at The Big E and knew that it would get cold. Predictably, all her friends had commented on it when they clambered into the car for the long ride to Springfield. Except Hayden, she remembered.
Those same friends were now being rejected by the teenage ride operator of the “Flying Chairs”—“You’re too tall. I’m sorry. You’re too tall.”—and had begun milling about the edge of the ride. The girls coalesced around Mark, a boy from school and the group’s unofficial leader, who was brainstorming.
“Alright. So this blowhard,” Mark nodded backward toward the ride operator, who was well within earshot, “proves that discrimination is alive and kicking even in Western Massachusetts. I should’ve written my last term paper about—”
“Height discrimination isn’t really discrimination,” a female group member interjected, “and anyway if you were a woman you wouldn’t—”
“Right,” Mark deflected, “so what’s next? I’m thinking either the Tower of Terror, the Tornado, or the Wizard’s Staff. Thoughts?”
“Gosh, they’re all so phallic. Freud would have loved this place.”
Mark twitched. “You know, Carrie, I’m reluctant to engage with you on this, but I take issue with your incessant psychoanalysis. This isn’t the 1950s. It’s a fucking discredited science.”
“Yes, male hegemony is so passé.”
“You know that isn’t what I mean. It just isn’t. . .” Conversations began to break out among other members of the group.
Hayden and Emily simultaneously sighed, and noticing this, laughed and looked at each other. Hayden cocked an eyebrow at Emily as if to say, “Do you want to get out of here?” And Emily responded with a tiny nod. In sync, they pivoted out of the circle and walked away. Hayden pulled out his phone to text Mark.
Text me when you get food. Im gonna walk for a bit.
Hayden said nothing, but Emily did not seem to want him to. They strolled in silence for a little while, observing children eat cotton candy. Watching mothers on their smartphones. Ogling toddlers with balloons.
Hayden’s phone buzzed. A text from Mark. You walking with Emily? Just make the move. Spare us the suspense.
Hayden grimaced, which Emily immediately picked up on. “What’s up?” she asked.
“Hm.” She had already shifted her attention elsewhere, to two small children playing with sidewalk chalk. Her eyes were drawn to toddlers like ball bearings to a magnet. “Ooh, Hayden, aren’t they cute?”
“Yes, yes. Very cute,” Hayden muttered. But he wasn’t watching the children. He was staring at his phone, then glancing at Emily, then staring at his phone again. “Maybe you’ll have a few someday.”
“Eh, maybe.” They had passed the children, but Emily was backpedaling to continue watching them. “I dunno if I could be a mother.”
“Then who are you going to pass down that Colby sweatshirt to?”
Emily whipped around and glowered at him. From this position she completely obstructed Hayden’s view of the children.
“You know, I was just thinking about how you were the only person who didn’t make fun of me for my sweatshirt. So much for that.”
“No, no,” he reassured her, “I like it. Really. I can’t imagine you without it.”
Emily stopped walking and turned to face him, her arms akimbo. Her body language dared him to lie. “Which is it: Do you like it, or can you not imagine me without it? Those are not the same thing.”
Hayden shrugged deliberately. “Aren’t they though?”
“GUYS!” Mark came running toward them. “You missed it! The Wizard’s Staff was fucking sweet! Do you want us to go on it again with you? I’m down.”
“Nah that’s fine,” Hayden replied. He looked at Emily, who nodded absently. “I think we’re good for now. But thanks for asking.”
He had looked her up in the alumni directory. Facebook messages had been sent and received; texts had been exchanged; voicemails had been recorded. He had chosen Acadia, a posh Italian restaurant on the bank of the Potomac River.
Hayden had gotten there early but lingered outside the front portico. From the outside he could just discern the composition of Acadia’s courtyard. He could make out a balcony of potted plants and a pale light emanating from below the deck. The setting sun glanced off the red brick of the portico’s interior and shrouded the maître d’ in an amber glow. The movement of the Potomac threw off a thin mist that dampened the air with an artificial chill. Its movement drowned the sound of car horns in the distance.
At five to six Hayden entered Acadia with the utmost nonchalance.
“The reservation name should be under ‘Emily Olander.’” He pretended to check his phone.
The maître d’ shuffled his papers importantly. “Signore. Your partner is already here. Would you like me to show you to her?”
“No that’s alright. I’ll seat myself.”
Hayden paused at the entrance to the courtyard and inhaled, closing his eyes. When he opened them he saw that Emily had secured a plumb location near the waterside balcony, right above the restless water of the river. In the dimming afternoon light Hayden could discern only her broadest outlines: He could tell she was leaning forward with her legs crossed. He could tell she wore black professional clothing: A dark skirt with a petite jacket on top. Her brow furrowed at whatever she was reading on her phone. Her fingers drummed the table.
He walked toward her, scrutinizing her appearance as more of it came into view. He noted now that she had gained weight, but in a healthy way—where in college she had been slender now her body had filled out. Her hair, once long, was cropped to shoulder length. Her face had grown less angular, as if an artist had smoothed the edges of a hastily stroked portrait. Her skin seemed better cared for. The overall impression was of confidence. A physiognomically manifested confidence, which, though always latent in Emily, had now taken full form.
He greeted her from a few feet away to avoid surprising her. “Hi Emily,” he said, doing his best to sound warm but casual. She looked up at the sound of her name, her pupils dilating as they adjusted to the hazy light of the early evening.
“Hayden!” she exclaimed. She leapt to her feet and hugged him. “It’s so good to see you!”
“It’s great to see you too.” A half-quaver crept into his voice, which he worked quickly to dispel. “I can’t believe it’s been so long.” Hayden was confused by his own reluctance, which he sought to compensate for with a wide smile. But in vain—she sensed his hesitation and withdrew from the hug.
“Do you want to see what’s on the menu?” Hayden asked. They took their seats. Strategically, Hayden opened the menu lengthwise and hid his face behind its leaves. He tried to compose himself; he was shocked at how nervous he still got around her. The menu, for the time being, was the only face he could trust—his own he could not control; he did not know what expression it might be making or what emotion it might betray. He closed his eyes and focused on the sound of the river cascading off the rocks and on the ambient chatter of Acadia’s other guests.
“So, Hayden,” Emily ventured, “How have you been? I can’t remember the last time we saw each other in person. At the five-year reunion, maybe? Thanks so much for setting this up. I don’t really know anyone in D.C. yet.”
Hayden laid his menu flat atop the table and noticed that Emily had already done the same.
“I know, I can’t remember the last time we’ve met up. Too long, for sure.” He forced a hard laugh. “But it’s good to see you now!”—too much energy—“Ha ha ha.”
He cringed and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little tired. It’s been a long day.”
“No worries. I’ve had a long day too.”
And so they talked. Emily stayed poised and confident, her posture erect, launching salvoes of questions across the table. Hayden, originally hunched, eased as the evening wore on. By the time the sun had disappeared and the food had come and gone, Hayden’s voice had grown sturdy and he gesticulated smoothly.
“So, you actually like your job. Like, actively like it. Enough to move when they asked you to move to D.C. I didn’t even know that was possible.”
“It totally is. And honestly, I don’t mean to presume, but maybe you should consider switching jobs. You should try to be happy.” Emily was leaning forward as she said this. Hayden could sense, or thought he could sense, some solicitude in her voice.
The conversation lulled. The silence felt on the whole quite comfortable, except for the angst of an impatient waiter conspicuously re-cleaning a wine glass at a table nearby. Looking around, Hayden could tell they were the final customers. He checked his watch and sighed. “We’d better go. This place is closing.”
Emily had barely lifted her hand to signal for the check when the waiter arrived, check in hand. “Thank you for dining at Acadia.” He proffered a bow.
Emily rolled her eyes and beckoned for Hayden’s credit card as she pulled out her own. They split the check. The waiter scurried away while the two of them turned to face the river. The moon had risen and was reflecting off the water, which shimmered silver in the autumn night.
“Thanks for that, by the way,” Hayden said eventually.
“For not letting my awkwardness get the best of me.”
Emily laughed. “It’s no problem. Happy to help. I should be thanking you. I don’t know anyone in D.C. yet.”
The waiter returned with the check and another obsequious bow. Emily nodded curtly and passed Hayden his check to sign. They signed and packed their things, exiting under the portico just as the garden’s pale lights winked off in salute.
“This was fun. Thank you.” Hayden smiled.
“Yeah, I enjoyed it.”
The smell of asphalt wafted toward them. A siren whined in the distance. The Potomac gurgled beside them. The only lights were the lampposts and the moon.
Finally, Emily spoke. “Do you maybe want to do this again sometime? I still need to get to know the city a bit better. . . .”
Hayden’s heart skipped. Before he knew it he had hugged her. Then—without thinking—he kissed her forehead. A gentle kiss. Pure affection. Platonic—almost. He could have sworn it was not his idea; in fact, he didn’t even remember doing it. Yet before he knew what had happened, before he knew what it meant, he felt a fleeting, barely perceptible squeeze in return. He might have imagined it. But he felt a calm course through him. A tranquility of spirit he had not felt for many years.
After some time—Hayden figured it could have been days or months or decades—Emily ended the hug and smiled at him. “Alright,” she laughed, “I’ll take that as a yes.”