The sidewalk across the street was quiet. Light leaked through the closed shades of a dentist’s office. It glowed from behind the heavy curtains of a shop offering back and foot rubs. It flickered silvery gray on the dying screen of a convenience store ATM. On Sara’s side of the street, students and tourists, sweating despite the weather, shoved by one another, roaming the East Village in search of sneakers or onion rings or vodka-and-somethings. Sara and her companion Ace were anchored amidst this flow of bodies on a solid wooden bench bolted to the concrete in front a shabu-shabu restaurant. The bench was good enough to give them a moment of rest until they were allowed inside. And inside the restaurant was warmth and shaved meat, waiting to be dropped in the boiling water of a hot pot. There was a pulsing huddle of customers standing above them, waiting to get inside. A sliding door would rattle open and someone’s name would be shouted by a man dressed all in white, then the huddle would shrink. Each time they worried that they would be forgotten, left to sit alone on that wooden bench until they starved.
Tonight was the first chilly night of autumn, and they had been told the wait would be long. This was Sarah’s second long wait of the day. She had spent her afternoon at her doctor’s office, waiting to pee, waiting for blood work, waiting for an ultrasound, waiting to understand. And like the tonight’s air, the doctor’s office was cold.
“Do we really have to wait for this?” Sara asked. She fastened the top button on her pea coat, right up to her chin. “You’re right, it is cold.” Ace pointed toward the sports bar next-door and said, “Let’s just get a drink in there.”
Ace stood up, but Sara was slow to give up their bench. Finally she stood too, and nodded to a tired looking woman beside her, giving her first dibs on the seat. They walked inside the bar. The lights were turned up and at least a dozen flat-screen TVs were playing sports news, volume turned up, and no one, except a young bartender, was there to watch or listen. This was not the kind of bar you went to intentionally; it was where you ended up for its mere convenience. If Sara had ever been there before—and she maybe she had—it left her no reason to remember.
“A beer?” Ace asked, already holding up two fingers. “What kind?” the kid behind the bar asked. “Let me just get a coffee,” Sara said. “I’m freezing.”
The kid disappeared behind a waiter’s station at the side of the bar and returned with a cup of coffee, a spoon, a creamer, and a bowl full of Domino’s Sugar and Splenda packets. Again he disappeared, this time beneath the bar, and reemerged with a Budweiser for Ace. He paused for a moment and looked at Sara, inspecting her face. He shifted his eyes to Ace, as if he was comparing their expressions, and then he looked at Sara again. She was looking out the bar’s front window at the leaky light coming from the dentist’s office.
“That place looks like where you go for a routine procedure and then end up dying,” Sara said, turning her head away to focus on her coffee. She poured some cream and stirred it but didn’t take a sip. “I don’t go to the dentist.” Ace took a thirsty pull from his beer. “I might have guessed.” “Really? But my teeth are fine,” he said. “The reason I don’t go is because to go to the dentist you need insurance, which means a full time job. And if I’m working all the time, then when will I write?” Sara looked back out to the street. She noticed that the convenience store next to the dentist’s office had no customers. A man—she assumed it was the owner—stood in front, waiting. “Check out that guy,” Ace said, following Sara’s gaze. “He’s built a shed. Some kind of enclosure. Looks like he’s selling flowers. Roses by the dozen and stuff.” “Do you think anyone wants to get their flowers from a dirty bodega?” “Why not?” Ace pulled out his wallet and placed a bill on the bar. The kid walked over. “I don’t need change, “ he said, and walked outside. Sarah followed him across the street, and they both stepped into the fluorescent glow of the makeshift flower shed. “One of these,” he called into the shed, pointing to a dehydrated carnation. It looked as if its life had been artificially preserved by the injection of a mint green dye. “A bouquet? Or alone?” A man stood up from behind the display. “I don’t care really,” Ace said. “Do you?” “This flower is for us?” “It looks pretty by itself, doesn’t it?” Ace pulled the carnation from its plastic bucket. He held it by the stem and twirled it.
Sara took the flower from him and inspected it. She couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to dye something as naturally beautiful as a flower this shade of green. It’s intensity made her feel nauseous. She wondered why Ace would have chosen this flower from all the flowers.
“I could place some baby’s breath around it,” the man said. “Make it a bouquet.” “No,” Sara said more forcefully than she intended. “No, thank you.” If she held the green carnation any longer, let alone brought it back to her apartment, she knew she would vomit. “Okay, I get it,” Ace said. “Gestures—risks—of romantic suggestion should be a source of shame. Buying a woman flowers is sentimental and embarrassing.” “Please just give me a break.” She swallowed hard. “Me?” Ace took a step back. “You were the one mocking the flowers. I was trying to do something nice.” “Let’s have a nice time then.”
Sara needed to hold onto something other than this flower. She looked back across the street. The huddle of customers hid the wooden bench from her view. The man in white stepped out from the restaurant and shouted. A group of five or six people went inside. Sara could see that the woman to whom she had given her seat was still sitting on the bench. The seat beside her was empty. Sara wished she could take it.
“I said let’s get Japanese food,” Ace told her. “I said let’s get a drink. I said let’s buy some flowers. Those are gestures. Aren’t they? I’m being clear about what I want. Aren’t I?” “Yes.” She was still trying to quell the nausea. “All nice gestures. All clear gestures.” “I was trying—making an attempt—to treat you like someone who wanted to be with me, someone that I made a deep connection with. All we do is—we just hang out. We eat dinner with friends. We get drinks. Maybe end up in the same bed at the end of night. Maybe not. Isn’t that all we do?” “I guess it is.”
Ace looked back to the shabu-shabu restaurant. “You know they serve beef tongue, right?” Sara saw that a man had taken the seat on the bench beside the woman. They sat beside each other silently and watched the waiting crowd grow around them. Sara wanted to switch places with the woman.
“You want something else to drink?” he said. “I’m going to grab one in here. It’s cheaper than the bar.” “No, thanks. I’m good.”
While Ace bought his beer in the convenience store, Sara watched the waiting huddle shrink and swell. With all the people going in and out, she wondered if she and Ace had missed their name, if they missed their chance to eat.
Ace came back outside. “Beer’s colder than at the bar too.” He slowly opened the tab, letting the can hiss. “I want to talk to you about something,” Sara said. The can was whining as the air leaked out. Ace cracked the beer fully, silencing it. “Something isn’t usually a good thing.” “It’s more of a possibility, or a soon-to-be-something.” Ace flicked the tab on his beer can with his fingernail. “I knew it.” Sara smiled. She almost laughed. She hadn’t trusted Ace’s intuition, but he got it. “I don’t want to upset you, Ace. That’s not my intention. I’m not trying to worry you with this. We just need to address some things. And I don’t know if flowers are really the answer. You know?” “And once we’ve addressed this ‘something,’ what do we do? How do we proceed? How do we act?” “Like we always have. We’ve always gotten along, so I see no reason why we can’t still.” Ace wrapped the paper bag tight around his beer and took a gulp. “You really think we can just be okay? Just be cool?” “Why not? It’s not like we’ve got some history to get in the way. And I wouldn’t be the first going it alone.” “Nor would I,” said Ace. “Truthfully, being alone works for me.”
Sara knew Ace wasn’t telling the truth, but she couldn’t tell if was acting strong to protect himself or to let her off the hook. She couldn’t tell, because, she had to admit, she really didn’t know him. They had only met a few months before, at a holiday party for an office in which neither of them worked. Tonight would be the first time they had even eaten dinner together without the company of their friends. She realized that she couldn’t even be sure he understood what she was telling him. She wondered if it even mattered.
“Look,” Sara said, “I’m not trying to determine things for you. You can make your own choices. But the good thing is that this really doesn’t have to be complicated.” “So your mind’s made up?” “Yes, I think so. But I’m not trying to make any decisions for you.” “Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. “But you think we can move on and still be okay?” “Yes,” she said. “Whatever you choose, I have no reason not to be okay with you.” “Yeah, I got that. But you think we can still be friendly? Real friends?” “Sure. We’re friends now. I’m sorry if…the flowers…I’m obviously distracted…by other concerns.” “And this will help alleviate your concerns?” he said. “Moving on?” “I’m not sure if that’s how I’d put it. But it’s a step. Taking steps helps.” “Okay then, I won’t protest. I’m not the important one here.” “Okay,” she paused, trying to understand. “But what does that mean?” “I can’t put myself first,” he said. “I can’t try to convince you of things you don’t believe in.” “I’m not sure how you’re being asked to do that. I’m telling you that you don’t need to convince me of anything.” “What’s important is that I’m not putting my desires—my needs—first,” he said. “I’m not going to stand in your way, if you want to move on.” “That’s not even a choice I’m asking you to make.”
Ace took a few steps down the sidewalk toward the corner. He could just see the lights and drunken crowds on Saint Marks Place. A hoard of laughing girls ran across the street. He drank from his beer for a few seconds and then stepped back toward Sara.
“And we would still be like friends?” he said. “Standing here beside one another and enjoying it. And things might even heal?” “What?” “Things might heal?” “Sure,” she said. “Things will be fine.” “But you know that’s not true.” “No, I don’t. Look, I’m not asking anything of you. It will be fine.” “But it can’t be,” he said. “We can choose to make it fine, whatever the arrangement.” “But we can’t. Things have happened and they exist. Memory is actual.” “And we can continue to make choices,” she said. “But what about what we’ve already felt. That happened.” “Right, but I need to you to focus on what’s going to happen.” “I don’t know,” he said. “It seems like this is all much easier for you.”
Sara hadn’t forgotten about that bench. And this conversation, one she didn’t even want to have, was making her want to stop talking and sit on that sturdy, little wooden bench.
“I want to understand what is happening,” Ace said. “It’s happening to me, not you—“ “I know you think that’s true,” he said, shaking his empty can. “I’m going to run inside and get another.” “Fine. But, listen—“ “I’ve been listening. It’s not helping. Can we let it go for a minute?”
He went back into the convenience store. Sara watched him bend down and pull another beer from the case. He brought it to the register and, as he waited for his change, he looked back at her, standing alone in the night.
“Here’s what you need to understand,” she said when he came back out. “I’m not deciding your role here. I’m letting you be a part of things. Or not.” “How is that even possible?” he said. “You’ve already decided.” “I’ve decided what I’m doing. But what you want to do—that’s up to you. It’s that simple.” “That simple.” “Yes, it is that simple.” “Okay,” he said. “Would you do me a favor?” “Sure,” she said. “Either tell me what I’m supposed to do here or shut the fuck up.”
She said nothing and just looked at his hands. Chewed nails sunk into the damp brown bag stuck to his beer can.
“I’m going to leave it up to you,” she said. “I can’t make your choices for you.” “You’re acting like I have a say. Christ, Sara.” Across the street, the door rattled, and the man in white shouted, “Ace, party of two!” “Did he just call us?” Ace asked. “Don’t you know what you just heard?” Ace waved his hands wildly to get the man’s attention. The man nodded. “Let’s head over there and eat something,” Ace said. “Then we can figure this out.”
They crossed the street and followed the man into the restaurant where he showed them to their booth. Ace sat down, but Sara continued on to the bathroom. She used the toilet then washed her hands while looking at a small photo hung on the wall. It showed a small shop—in Japan, she assumed—with a lone woman standing in front, waving but not smiling. The woman might not have looked happy, but she looked okay. Sara was glad she didn’t smile if she didn’t want to. She walked back into the dining room. Ace was sitting at the table, a beer already in front of him.
“Please,” he said. “Take a seat.”
Sara slid into the booth across from him and looked at the menu sitting before her. It was an impossible list of options. Each cut of beef was paired with a picture, all of which looked the same with minor variations of texture and color. She couldn’t even begin to decide if she would prefer to eat one more than the other, and the prospect of making an informed decision exhausted her. She looked up at Ace.
“What’re you thinking?” he said. “Let’s just get the tongue.” “You don’t want pick anything else?” “No. I chose the tongue. Let’s just get the tongue.”