When Arthur first saw her, she was distracted. Harried, confused, and more than a little stressed. Her face was shiny with sweat and her eyes darted from one side of the subway platform to another. She wasn’t beautiful. She was reasonable-looking, mostly. Her cheeks were a little too flat and her chin a little too weak, and her lips pressed together in a disapproving way, biting back some curse or another. Despite that, he knew something at once. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was something deep and powerful that propelled him to her. He stepped forward from where he’d been standing, his hand twined with Leah’s.
The girl was Rachel, and she was unhappy. She hated to be lost. She was almost relieved when a strange man tapped her shoulder. It was crowded, people pressing up all beside her, but her eyes fixed easily on his face. It was a light, thin face that smiled easily, and her lips curved in answer. Her eyes flickered down, though, to the hand he held clasped in his. “Hey,” he said. “Can I help you?”
They lived in the same town. They had, anyway, before he moved to another city (San Francisco) and she went somewhere else (Boston) for school. Now they were in his place, and she was visiting just for a few days. They explained this to each other as they started up the subway steps to go the opposite direction. They were going to the same place. Of course, she thought.
He lived in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Leah. Rachel smiled vaguely at Leah, and then turned her face back up to Arthur’s. He was telling her about his favorite place in San Francisco, but she only caught the last few words. She smiled at him anyway. When he talked excitedly like that, he had a sort of glow to him. He was lovely like that, caught up in his own words. She thought of this and looked at him, and tripped a bit on the concrete steps.
On the subway train they hardly talked at all. When they got out of the station, Rachel recognized the street. She could do that much, at least. It was only her second day there. She hastily typed her name into Arthur’s phone, and waved goodbye at the couple as they walked off, hand in hand, in the other direction. She got to her friend’s place and into bed without having to say another word. Once the covers were warm on her skin and she was sinking into sleep, she let herself be sad. She wouldn’t remember in the morning anyway.
The next day she didn’t hear from him until 10:38 that night, when she checked her email. She thought of him all day – of the light clear blue of his eyes, of the way he smiled at her as if he knew her. She was sure it wasn’t just her. He had noticed it too.
She emailed him back, and they made plans. The next morning they met up, Rachel and Arthur, and Leah as well of course. They wandered around the city all day. Rachel was grateful to have found someone willing to show her around. The friend hosting her worked all day, and was kind enough already. She was glad, too, to have found someone so friendly. Two someones so friendly, that is.
Arthur watched all the same television that she did. They talked happily about that for a while. They talked about their favorite foods. When she asked him his, he said, “I love fries that are just cooked, all warm and crispy with mayonnaise – the real kind, not in jars or anything. “
She grinned at him, her eyes bright, and said, “Mine is spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and grated cheese on top.” Nobody else was ever so specific – most people just said “pizza.” He patted her knee, in a casual friendly sort of way. Leah smiled tightly.
The rest of her time there passed like this. She left only two days later, anyway, early in the morning. The night before she left the three of them went to a bar together, an awkward triangle huddled around a corner with their feet curled around the legs of the bar stools and their eyes catching on each other’s gazes.
On the way back they found seats. Arthur sat pressed up against Rachel, the sides of their hips and legs meeting warm and solid against one another. On the other side his hand curled around Leah’s fingers. As they left, he put his foot squarely on a seam in the subway stairs, connecting the two halves with a faint dark line. He climbed the stairs putting a foot on one side and then stepping on the other side, leaning from one half to another until he reached the top and was covered in new night. He could see Rachel’s face as she turned to say goodbye. She hugged him, holding onto him for a moment too long, and then let go. He looked at her for a moment, her face smoky in the city lights and darkness, and then she turned to leave. He turned too, holding Leah’s hand and starting to walk in the direction of home.