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Wed, 28 Feb 2007
"These meetings are achingly dull," Kevin Wright thought, as the shuttle bus crept through the Holland Tunnel towards Manhattan, "and they screw up your whole day."
Kevin's company had offices all over the New York City area, but after 9/11, they thought it better to not have so many of their staff concentrated in the city proper, opting instead for a light dispersion of offices around the suburbs. Kevin always smiled at this, for he had realized as soon as the plan was announced to relocate himself and his staff to northern New Jersey that the new offices, being less than 20 miles away from Manhattan, were almost certainly not going to be immune from the aftereffects of any major terrorist attack. His only consolation was that they were at least due west (and thus generally upwind) of the city, which meant that the folks who had opted for new office sites in the outer boroughs, Long Island or Connecticut would probably get somewhat the worst of it when al-Qaeda dropped the big one.
The verymost senior executives kept their offices at the corporate headquarters in midtown, and geographic dispersion wouldn't keep them from scheduling all sorts of face-to-face meetings with underlings at all hours of the day and night. So for Kevin a summons to Galactic Headquarters meant an earlier-than-usual arrival at the office, followed by long ride in what had become rush-hour traffic into the city on the corporate shuttle bus.
His fellow passengers that morning were the usual mixed lot. Several spent the trip continuously conversing on their cell phones, or kneading and massaging their Blackberries until Kevin was sure their fingers or arms would snap off from the extended strain of being held in such unnatural, uncomfortable positions for such extended periods of time. "Who are these people, and why do they have to be in such constant communication all the time?" Kevin thought. What did people like this do before they had cell phones? Others on the shuttle bus had pulled out their laptops and PDAs, making some last-minute tweaks to e-mails yet to be sent, or Powerpoint presentations yet to be given. Every minute of your "work day" was "work time" as far as these people were concerned, and best not to waste even a minute of it. But did anybody really understand or appreciate all this extra effort they spent fine-tuning and wordsmithing? More often than not, it didn't matter at all: corporate communications were generally pretty mediocre, and Kevin had never noticed anyone putting the finishing touches on the Mona Lisa or the Gettysburg Address on any of these trips.
Instead, on trips like this, Kevin liked to look out the windows. The whole of the infrastructure needed to keep a big city like New York alive was a constant fascination to him: Power stations. Power lines. Planes, trains, and automobiles. Overpasses and submerged tunnels. Gas stations and toll booths; runways and grade crossings. Warehouses humming with activity; warehouses long abandoned to the crack addicts, stripped down to the bare walls and floors. A million points whirling about in the maelstrom, almost no single one absolutely needed, yet all making some small contribution to the whole, a pointillist picture to the Nth degree. At times like this, Kevin often thought of how incredibly complex and balanced it all seemed, and yet how that same knife-edged balance meant you could never quite be sure exactly what would happen next. "The butterfly effect," he reminded himself.
Out of the tunnel and into the crosstown traffic, the shuttle bus continued plodding along, stopping more often than starting, weaving around the double- and triple-parked cars. Remarkably, only a few minutes behind the posted schedule, it pulled up in front of the headquarters complex, and Kevin stepped out on to the sidewalk. He still had a few minutes before his meeting was scheduled to start, and, although "the shuttle was stuck in traffic" was becoming an excuse that was, if not completely accepted, then at least reasonably well tolerated, Kevin did not want to be late. He decided to skip stopping at the Java City counter in the building lobby, and instead headed straight for the elevator.
The elevator doors opened, and Kevin walked over to the receptionist's desk.
"I'm Kevin Wright; I'm here for the meeting with Karen Bertelone at 8:30." It was just 8:25, so Kevin expected to be directed to one of the several conference rooms on the floor in which the meeting would be held.
"Oh, Mr. Wright, I was trying to get in touch with you, but I suppose you had already left your office." The receptionist spoke at him with just a touch of scolding in her voice. "Ms. Bertelone is tied up in another meeting and sends her apologies, but your meeting this morning is canceled. She'll have to reschedule it for another day."
"Oh! Well, all right. Please tell her I was here, and I'll watch for an e-mail with the new date." Kevin felt almost like he had to apologize. He didn't carry a cell phone, or a Blackberry, or even a pager for that matter, but it was at times like these that he had to concede that, as obnoxious as they were, these things did have a certain utility.
"I'm sorry you came all this way for nothing," the receptionist replied, still looking at Kevin a little reprovingly. The implicit subtext in her apology was, "If you were a little easier to get in touch with on the road, this needn't have happened, so don't blame me."
"Not a problem. This happens sometimes. I know Karen is very busy." Kevin supposed the simplest thing to do was simply to be gracious about the whole thing. He turned back to the elevators, and rode one down to the lobby.
Now the average office building elevator moves between floors at something like 150 feet per minute, which meant that Kevin had a little over two minutes of ride time back to the lobby. And it was during those two minutes, alone and uninterrupted, that Kevin Wright was seized by an extraordinary notion. It happened completely silently, and there was no outward sign that anyone would have noticed that his mind was suddenly and unexpectedly running off in a direction that no one who knew him would have suspected him capable of even contemplating. But there it was, an idea that suddenly popped into his head, completely formed, which wouldn't go away or be dismissed.
"You always wanted to play hooky. Now you've finally got your chance."
It really was an extraordinary idea. Where had it come from? Kevin was always one to play by the rules, absolutely the last person one would expect to step out of line in any way. By all rights, he told himself, he ought to simply get on the next shuttle back to New Jersey and spend the rest of the day in the office. But then the thought would repeat itself, a little more insistently.
"You always wanted to play hooky. Now you've finally got your chance."
He could, of course. He was the only person from his office who was going to be at this meeting, and he was only going to be there to provide supplemental technical information and details, so no one would really notice or care that the meeting actually hadn't taken place that day.
"You always wanted to play hooky. Now you've finally got your chance."
The elevator doors slid open in the building lobby, and at that instant, Kevin Wright made up his mind. He walked back past the Java City, out the doors, and into the sunshine. He would do it. Why not do it? Who would ever know? He was going to play hooky today. He turned left, away from the lineup of shuttle buses waiting at the curb, and stepped out into the city. He didn't know exactly what he was going to do, but that was part of the adventure of it all.
The sheer freedom of it all was both exhilarating and a little bit frightening. Kevin had rarely experienced a situation like this -- he could, within reasonable limits, do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted. The whole city was at his feet. He didn't have to answer to anyone. He wasn't due anywhere. And yet he also felt, in the back of his mind, a little bit of guilt. Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary had defined "conscience" as "That little voice that tells you, 'Someone might be looking.'" Kevin felt a sudden urge to get off the street, a need to hide. Perhaps someone who worked at headquarters would recognize him walking down the street, he fretted to himself. Maybe all this freedom was making him a bit paranoid.
But the problem was easily dealt with. There was a coffee shop just ahead, across the street at the far end of the block. He would stop there and go inside, to make up for the coffee he didn't have time to have while rushing for his meeting earlier this morning. It seemed like a tiny yet perfect bit of justice to Kevin, as he went inside.
The shop was subdued and not at all crowded, most of the clientèle having already stopped off on their way to work. A few hard-core habitues sipped at lattes or cappuccinos while surfing the web. Kevin went up to the counter and ordered a "regular" coffee -- cream and sugar -- with a copy of the New York Times, and sat down at one of the tables towards the back of the shop.
"This is a real treat," Kevin thought to himself. Since moving out of the city, and commuting to work by car instead of train, he rarely had the opportunity to read the Times. He savored his coffee, sip by sip, and slowly paged through the paper much as he used to do when riding the train. Even then, he thought to himself, he had to do a kind of informational triage (the train ride was just over an hour) and prioritize which sections of the paper he would read: World and National first, then the Op-Ed page, then Metro, and then a quick browse through Business or Sports, seeing whether any headlines there would grab his interest.
But today was different. Today, Kevin savored the newspaper, reading each story slowly and carefully, alternating sips of coffee with another few paragraphs of story. A waiter brought him refills for his coffee before he even realized he was running out. He took out a pen and had at the crossword puzzle, which he wrestled into submission forty-five minutes later, with only a couple of cross-outs and corrections. He examined every page, read the photo captions, even checking out the ads, which he had never paid much attention to before. The only parts he could not bring himself to read through were the stock and bond tables, and the baseball league standings; Kevin had never been that deeply into making money or following sports, so he was simply disinterested in them.
How long Kevin's silent reverie might have continued is hard to say. The anxiety that had been clawing at him when he first entered the coffee shop had by now completely vanished. He had by now completely surrendered to the feelings inside him, and was not going to look back. He was a free agent; he was completely independent; he had no job, no family, no responsibilities, nothing to hold him back. Drinking good coffee and reading a good newspaper, in the back of a quiet New York coffee shop, there's no telling just how long Kevin might have stayed, had not the rest of the city around him intruded on his solitary meditations.
Without realizing it, Kevin had been in the coffee shop for several hours; it was now just about midday. At first one by one, and then more frequently and noisily, the coffee shop began to fill up with customers. The shop's menu changed from coffee, bagels, and biscotti in the morning rush, to sandwiches, salads, and bottled water for lunch. The noise level increased, the cash register jingled, and tables all around Kevin began to fill up. The waiter who had been bringing him coffee all morning asked him if he were ready for the check now. Kevin paused to consider it, then nodded and began to reassemble the newspaper. You could enjoy playing hooky from work in a crowd only if you were sneaking off to a World Series game or something like that, he thought. So what to do now? Just start walking and see whatever there was to see? Perhaps he'd hop on the subway and just ride, all the way to the end of the line, just to see what it looked like and how far from where he was now he could go. Choices, choices -- the only downside of all this freedom (if it was one) was having too many choices.
And just them, as he finished refolding the newspaper, a woman sat down at the table next to his.
The woman had short hair of a striking red color, not brassy and artificial-looking, but seemingly entirely natural; her pale skin, a faint line of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and her green eyes served to confirm Kevin's suspicions in that regard. Kevin only had an inch or so advantage of her in height, he guessed as she adjusted her chair. Her figure was well balanced and evenly proportioned, without undue exaggerations in chest, torso, or legs. She was dressed in typical office-worker wear: blouse and blazer, skirt, sensible shoes. But he also noticed immediately that her blouse was not broadcloth but silk; it had a translucent sheen and a quasi-transparent quality which tantalizingly and simultaneously revealed and concealed something intricately patterned underneath, a tempting mirage of satin and lace.
Now, as a rule, a complete stranger sitting down at an adjacent table to Kevin's would normally not be any cause for -- well, frankly, for anything at all. In the great mixing bowl of life and work in the city, it was virtually impossible to not be in close proximity to other people most of the time. In transit, at work, on the streets, one quickly became anesthetized to the presence of others nearby.
But this was not an ordinary day, and Kevin Wright was most certainly not in an ordinary frame of mind. He was a free agent. He didn't need to answer to anyone. He could do anything he wanted. And right now, unreasonably, irrationally, unprecedentedly, and unhesitatingly, he wanted this woman. There was no explaining it, no rationalizing it, no excusing it. Kevin surrendered to his instincts: he did not ask why he wanted it -- wanted her -- he just knew he wanted, and did not care about the why.
But how? What should he do? Kevin's single years were somewhat more than recently past, and he was not certain what to do next. The waiter came with the check. "I think I'll stay for lunch," Kevin told him. That was the first step – staying close. Kevin ordered a salad and an unsweetened iced tea, the same as the red-headed woman at the next table. He unfolded the newspaper again, and sat back in his chair to wait for his lunch. Kevin was sure he had noticed a flicker in the woman's eyes towards him as he had placed his order. Maybe he was being a little too obvious. But it was too late now for second-guessing. At least she seemed to notice, he thought.
The waiter returned in a minute with the salad and tea on a small plastic tray, and set them down in front of Kevin. "Thank you, sir. Enjoy," the waiter told him as he left. Kevin unwrapped his napkin from around his knife and fork, squeezed the lemon into his tea, tore open the packet of dressing, and proceeded to apply it liberally to his salad. He was about to take his first forkful of salad, when he heard a voice.
"The salads here are very good, you know." The woman was looking over at him with a pleasant expression on her face.
"Oh yes. They get the greens and vegetables from the stand next door, and so they're fresh every day."
"I see," Kevin replied equally pleasantly, and he put the fork into his mouth. She smiled at him as he chewed and swallowed; he nodded at her while he cleared his mouth. "Yes, quite so," he said. "All the greens tasty, and not a bit mushy." He took another forkful. "You must eat here often."
"Sometimes," she replied. "I don't often get away from my desk."
"Oh. Too bad. But I'm glad you were able to get out today." A pause. "I'm Kevin Wright."
"Kate Henderson," she answered, still smiling amiably at him.
"May I join you?"
"Certainly." They stood and pushed their tables together so they were facing each other without a three foot gap between them. They began chatting back and forth. Kate Henderson, Kevin soon found out, was an administrative assistant who worked at an advertising agency nearby. And Kevin found himself telling Kate, this stranger he would not have known from a hole in the wall ten minutes ago, a good deal about his own life and career. She seemed perfectly fascinated by everything Kevin had to say. And, for his part, Kevin found his sudden infatuation with Kate growing ever greater as they talked.
Minutes passed, then tens of minutes, then an hour, then two. Suddenly Kate looked down at her wristwatch.
"Oh God, look at the time! All my going on and on, and now I'm sure I've made you late."
"It's all right. Really. Don't worry about it."
"Are you sure? Now I feel terrible."
"Not at all. Everything's fine." Things were clearly at a make-or-break point for Kevin now. But he was a free agent, the lord of all he surveyed. He plunged ahead. He knew what he was going to say, but he could not do it there. You had far more anonymity and privacy walking the streets than you had in a far corner of a coffee shop at lunchtime. "But maybe we should leave now."
"Yes, I think you're right. Let's go," she answered him.
Kevin tucked a twenty under the check, and he and Kate stood and walked out the door together.
"Which way?" he asked her.
"What about you?" she asked back, as she smiled at him.
"This way," he said, and they started off down the street. It was only after they had gotten halfway down the block that Kevin realized that he didn't know where they were going. But Kate was not objecting.
When they came to the corner, Kevin turned to face Kate. "Come with me, Kate. Now." He held his breath and waited for her to react. He had never been so direct, so forward, in his entire life. If she was going to scream, or run away, or punch him in the face, it would happen now.
She looked up at him intently, her ever-present smile now a little more pronounced. "Yes," she answered simply. Little did Kevin Wright suspect that, out of the millions of particles whirling about in the maelstrom of the city that day, his path had happened to cross with that of Kate Henderson, whose boss had called in sick that morning, and who had suddenly found herself overcome with an incredible urge to get up and walk out of the office. "I always wanted to play hooky, and today I finally got my chance," she told him, as they walked together, arm in arm, hurrying down into the subway entrance. They were free agents; they were completely independent; they had no jobs, no families, no responsibilities, nothing to hold them back, as they disappeared beneath the city streets, and the very earliest vestiges of the afternoon rush-hour crowds began to trickle out of the office towers, swirling back towards their homes, just like every day in New York.