The first time Beth and I had lunch was on the Kennedy Center’s porch on a blistering day in late June. There are metallic picnic tables set out on the concrete deck overlooking the Potomac. The heat exploded off the stone and reverberated luminously off the marble building, the glare bathing everything in a radioactive white.
“Toasty,” said Beth, who somehow didn’t seem to be sweating.
I had packed a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, with tomato, spinach, mustard, and a slice of Muenster cheese. Beth had bought a green salad from the coffee shop under our office building.
While she waited in line, I read rental listings in a CityPaper, trying to think of what we were going to talk about. I had been working for about three weeks, sitting in the cubical next to her, spending a lot of time allocating and reallocating funds in my retirement account.
But Beth and I hadn’t talked much so far, and her invitation to lunch via a playful email—“Up for a bite al fresco, comrade?!”—had come as a surprise. I obsessed over every word. The continental “al fresco” colliding against the vaguely subversive “comrade.” Did she think that there was solidarity between us already? And what about the mixing of punctuation? Was a “bite” worthy of such exuberance?!
I stood up and leaned over the wall between our cubicles. Beth had the J. Crew Homepage open on her computer. She seemed fixated on leather boots.
“Hey,” I said.
She twitched in her chair.
“Huh?” she said, minimizing the J. Crew site.
“Sorry I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, no don’t worry about it. What’s up?”
She looked at me from a hunched over position, her right hand still on the mouse.
“Well. Nothing really. I mean, I guess I could have emailed you, but thought it would be easier just to tell you that I’d love to have lunch.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay, yeah, great. You know, sometimes I forget that you’re right next to me there.”
“Great,” I said. “I mean, that’s not great. That’s seems kind of like, indicative of something scary right?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
“I mean, here we are right next to each other, and we can’t even talk really talk.”
She nodded and rubbed her nose.
She looked back at the computer screen for a moment.
“Anyway. Looking forward to it,” I said.
I sat back down, and logged into my 401(k) account, trying to shunt the blood from my cheeks. I readjusted the weighting of my portfolio toward domestic large cap stocks. I bought a few shares in a China fund. It made me feel better to imagine someone buying stock on my behalf—to know that I could set something in motion on a trading floor somewhere.
A few moments later I got an email from Beth.
Let’s leave at 12!!!
Sure, I typed back.
To this point, I had been eating by myself in the company “Common Room” every day, trying to catch up on things that I hadn’t read in college: Proust, a book called Pragmatist Aesthetics, and most recently Hamlet.
In the evenings I would go home on the number 31 bus, which rumbled west up M Street, straight into the blaring sun in Georgetown, past the gathering dinner and happy hour crowds. We’d turn north on Wisconsin Avenue. I got off the bus and watched lightning bugs float in the waning light. I was staying in the cheerful white twenty-something enclave of Glover Park, with a cheerful white twenty-something roommate Katie, who agreed to sublet a room in her house until I could find a place of my own.
I’d eat another sandwich for dinner because it was too hot to cook, and because I was being frugal. Watching my spending. Even this early in the summer the evening heat lasted long after the sun fell below the trees on our block. I would smoke three cigarettes and drink a beer on our steps and watch as cheerful white twenty-something girls went jogging past the house. I would think about expectations. About banality. About the possibilities for escape from a situation that every day seemed more like the life that I thought I wouldn’t have to live. Woe unto me, That it should come to this, Horatio, I said to myself. And burped.
I suggested a table in the shade so that we could try to avoid roasting ourselves.
Beth sat down and I started unpacking my sandwich from its aluminum foil. It dripped tomato juice.
“So, how do you like DC?” she asked. I was trying to drain some of the excess juice off of the sandwich. I looked up.
Beth was rummaging in her enormous leather bag for something, taking out its contents as she searched. A green Dior sunglass case. Lip gloss. A beaten up cell phone, a bottle of half-drunk Red B Vitamin Water, a brush, a contact lens case. She was buried up to her elbows in the bag. I felt invisible, intrusive, like I was getting a silent peek into Beth’s room. Why had I come out here? It was a thousand degrees and I could be reading.
“I like DC so far,” I said.
I took a gooey bite of my sandwich and a warm breeze convected off the concrete and slammed me in the face.
Beth didn’t say anything, but she looked up at me for a second as she put on the sunglasses, and nodded. I tried to look pensive and stared with purpose out at the Potomac. The steeples of Georgetown stood behind sheets of haze above the river. I glanced back at Beth and then looked down at the aluminum foil. I put down the sandwich and wiped my hands on my pants.
“Well it takes awhile to find out what bars you like—you know, getting to know the neighborhoods and everything,” she said.
I thought of what I had done the night before after dinner. A load of laundry: underwear and socks, followed by two episodes of the Discovery Channel’s documentary Planet Earth (“Fresh Waters” and “Great Plains”). In bed, I Googled “how many cigarettes does it take to get cancer,” and fell asleep watching YouTube clips of shark attacks. I put in headphones to drown out the muffled sounds of Katie having cheerful sex with her boyfriend in the next room.
“I guess I haven’t really gone out yet,” I said. “I’m trying to save up some money.”
“Uh huh,” she said, not even close to paying attention. I watched her, wishing she would look up.
Beth’s sunglasses covered much of her slight face but accented her cheeks as they angled to her chin. A quiet sophistication underlay everything she did. She left it in her footprints, and it hung in the air after every gesture. I caught it while she showed me how to put in the department code on our copy machine; when I sat behind her at her desk as she tried to teach me how to enter a new billing contact; when she took me on a tour of the common room.
“Here is where we keep the cream cheese,” she had said, pulling open the refrigerator door with a grace that bordered on the cinematic.
A guy on the other side of the room had stopped buttering his bagel and was just staring at her. She seemed not to notice. The smoothness of her motions seemed entirely ill-suited to the conventions of office rhythms. Like watching a ballet dancer move among amputees.
It was getting unbearably hot even in the shade.
I had changed loads of laundry during a commercial break in “Great Plains” the night before, but wanted to get back to the living room to catch footage of a wildebeest chase. In my haste I had forgotten to wash my undershirts and they lay in a pile on the laundry room floor. Now I felt the sweat sliding down the back of my dress shirt toward my pants.
“So where do you live in the city?” I asked, trying to ventilate the shirt by tugging on my armpits.
“Georgetown, for now,” she said. “But I need to get out of there.”
She opened a zippered side compartment in the bag and squealed. She had found whatever she was looking for. She extracted an orange prescription bottle. She shook it and a few pills clicked around.
“Thank God,” she said. She unscrewed the cap on her Vitamin Water and took the pill.
I didn’t say anything.
“Aderol,” she said, sensing the obvious question that hung between us, “It makes me a little jumpy, but definitely helps me focus.”
I nodded in agreement, but thought of the way that Beth had been staring at the J. Crew homepage, wondering whether I was relieved to learn that the intensity of her attention may have been chemically induced. That she was startled because of an elevated heart rate. That it had nothing to do with me, with the walls of the cubicle, with the sudden reminder of our proximity to one another.
“So wait, what were you saying again?” she asked.
I was wondering what on earth she could possibly need Aderol for. Did it help her get through the day?
“I was just asking where you lived,” I said.
Was her grace chemical? Was she high? Was it a rush?
Beth leaned across the table and stared at me through her dark glasses, and I thought that she could read my mind. I froze up.
“What?” I asked.
“Go like this,” she said, putting her index finger up to her front teeth, “You have something green caught in your teeth.”
“Oh,” I said, “It’s probably spinach,” I said, and I stuck my nail straight into a monster wad of food.
“Let me see,” Beth said.
I showed her my teeth.
“Perfect,” she said.