Sam didn’t feel like going to a party. His department had spent most of the day coding the documentation matrix for the office’s new workflow system, in between a fusillade of departmental meetings that he liked to think of as “death by committee”, and he was mentally exhausted. When he walked through the door into his apartment, the desire to just stay there and drink a can of Rainier in front of the Marlins game was nearly overwhelming.
The thought of dressing up and dragging his worn out carcass to Jake’s house just so he could stand around talking to a bunch of strangers for three hours held zero appeal at the moment.
But he couldn’t bring himself to blow Jake off again. He’d already missed Tuesday’s bar trivia night with the guys, and he was sure that Jake had seen through his flimsy overtime excuse when he turned down an invitation to play disc golf at the park Saturday. If he flaked one more time, Jake might decide to find a new best friend, one who actually wanted to hang out with him.
So it was that six o’clock found him shuffling through his rather limited wardrobe for a shirt that didn’t scream “office drone” and trying to remember the really funny joke he’d read on reddit today so he could use it as a conversation starter.
He brushed his teeth, ran a hand through his wavy brown hair, and gave himself a final once-over in the mirror. There wasn’t much to see. Average height. Average build. Neither handsome nor repulsive. He felt like the human equivalent of vanilla ice cream. Perfectly adequate.
Choosing to save his taxi money for the end of the night, he took the train to the end of the line in Barstock, then caught a bus to Sanders Park, where Jake lived in a two floor renovated warehouse in the heart of the art district. Even though it let him off two blocks away, Sam could hear the rhythmic pulsing of the bass beat as soon as he stepped off the bus. It was underpinned by a hum of conversation that grew louder as he walked toward the lights. Jake’s neighbors—artists, too, Sam presumed—did not seem to mind the noise. Perhaps they were even at the party themselves.
The heavy steel garage door was open to the night, and light streamed out with the music.
Dancing people had spilled out into the street. Couples swayed against each other while a handful of rowdy college-aged guys jumped up and down like they were at a rave. In the pockets of darkness beyond the glow of the lights, lovers embraced, making out with varying degrees of enthusiasm where they leaned against the rough bricks of the building.
Sam weaved his way around the twisting bodies, seeking a clear path into the loft. His eyes flicked from face to face, looking for Jake. Once he officially put in an appearance, he could cut the night short and slip out without being noticed. He might even get home in time to catch the end of the game. He felt a little guilty at the subterfuge, but not enough to stand around unnoticed all night on the fringes of conversations between more interesting people.
Here and there among the crowd, Sam caught glimpses of people he knew. The beautiful Irish barista from Grounds Zero, the coffee shop around the corner from their office, was helping herself to crackers and dip at the lavishly spread table in the corner. Jamal, a coworker of his and Jake’s who had just returned from vacation in Chichen Itza, was busy showing off what was presumably a souvenir to two fascinated bohemian girls. And leaning against one of the heavy wooden beams holding up the second floor was an older man Sam recognized as the guitar-playing busker who sat outside the Pell Street station performing covers of 80’s rock ballads for spare change. Trust Jake—easygoing, gregarious Jake—to be able to gather all of them under one roof.
Speaking of Jake, there he was, standing by the railing of the upper level with a bottle of beer in his hand, surrounded by half a dozen enthralled partygoers, laughing at whatever anecdote had just been shared. As always, Sam was half awestruck, half envious of Jake’s natural talent for making himself at home in a crowd. He had a gift for relating to people. Whatever their interests, age, or socioeconomic background, he always seemed to find their common ground, and within minutes would be chatting away with them like old friends. It was astounding, frankly. And it wasn’t fake, either. Jake’s sincere interest in others was one of the most charming, and puzzling, things about him.
Sometimes Sam wondered why he and Jake were friends. Sure, they’d grown up on the same street in the suburbs, but so had a lot of other kids, and as experience continually demonstrated, geographic proximity did not a lifelong friendship make.
Sam was, in many ways, Jake’s opposite. He was uncomfortable around a big group of people, and even one on one, he was slow to reach out, slow to warm up. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, or even that they didn’t like him. He just felt… outside of things. Set apart from others in some hard-to-define but tangible way. And yet, despite their differences, Jake genuinely seemed to find Sam’s thoughts, advice, and company valuable. He didn’t understand it, but he was thankful for it.
And that was why he was here.
As he made his way to the stairs that led to the spacious second floor lounge, the driving beat of the house music gave way to a deeper, more melodic piece, underscored by heavy saxophone and a lush tapestry of strings. Its dark, impenetrable bass line wove a spell around the party, and everywhere the tempo of movement and conversation seemed to slow.
Halfway up the stairs, a guy in a vintage-looking jester’s costume and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses stumbled into him, nearly knocking him back down, but he clutched at the banister and caught himself.
“Careful, buddy,” he mumbled, but the man had already passed by. Typical artist, he thought. Stumbling around in his own little world.
When at last he reached the upper story, he didn’t see Jake anywhere. All right, let the hide and seek begin.
Someone thrust a drink into his hand, and he drained it in three big gulps before setting the empty glass down on a low table in the center of a cluster of mid-century art deco sofas. There were seating areas like that scattered all over the loft, each with its own unique design concept: soaring cast iron sculptures for one, Rococo divans covered with Tuscan textiles for another. Fantastical light fixtures, both standing and hanging, lit each of these conversational hot spots as if they were museum installations. In a way, Sam mused, that was exactly what they were.
Everywhere, colorful people laughed, talked, kissed, danced, drank, and touched. Everyone except Sam. He was taken by the sudden fanciful notion that he was invisible, like a ghostly archaeologist walking unseen amongst an alien people, observing life but never touching it, or being touched by it. He cast the thought away with a shiver.
“Sam!” came a shout, proof, if he needed it, that he was not invisible to everyone. “You came!”
“Hey, man,” Sam said, straining his voice to be heard over the noise of the party.
Jake reached out a hand and pulled him in for a hug and a friendly slap on the back. “Glad you made it, dude. Wouldn’t exactly be a party without my boy, would it?”
Sam looked around doubtfully, but laughed. “If you say so.”
“I do.” He grinned. “I wasn’t sure there was going to be much left of you after work today. You were still in that planning meeting when I left!”
“Yeah, it was brutal, but here I am, alive and mostly unharmed. I’m glad I came out.” And as he said it, he knew it was true. He was glad to be here, even if just for the space of this interaction. That was the effect Jake had on people.
“Hey, I want to introduce you to a couple of DJs I met when I was in line for my subway pass yesterday. They’re over there by the Nepalese drum sculpture.” He waved at someone standing next to a large, curving statue made of dark wood. Sam didn’t see anything about the sculpture that resembled a drum, but he’d take Jake’s word for it.
“Let me work up to it,” he said. “I just got here, and I’m still warming up.”
“No problem, man. I feel you. Just find me when you’ve got a couple more drinks in you.” As if to illustrate, he grabbed one, a whiskey sour, off a passing tray and handed it to him. Jake was used to Sam’s social anxiety, and never pushed him. It was partly what made him such a valuable friend. No recriminations. With a fist bump of solidarity, he left Sam sipping his drink and made his way over to two guys in 90’s hip hop gear who started talking animatedly as soon as he reached them.
Better you than me, Sam thought, and looked around for a quiet corner where he could stand out of the way of the general current of humanity and finish his drink.
Then he spotted it, an empty nook between a cluster of potted olive trees and the vast picture window lining the back wall of the upstairs loft. He made for it obliquely, circling around a globe-shaped lounger that held a puppy pile of extremely comfortable party guests, then slipping between two austere stone carvings of 16th century Franciscan monks. With one final lurch, he pushed through the olive branches into the hidden alcove behind—only to find that someone had gotten there before him after all.
“I’m sorry, I—” he began, but his voice closed off like a tap at the sight of the rarefied creature who was sharing the hidden recesses of this retreat with him. She was, without exaggeration, the most beautiful woman he had ever before seen in his life. She was the kind of beautiful that knocks the breath out of you. The kind of beautiful that you have to look at out of the corner of your eye because a direct hit might kill you. She was the kind of beautiful that causes a knot of pain to form in your chest from the knowledge that only a terrible malfunction in the operation of the universe could for one second put a plodding mortal like you in the same room as her, let alone within speaking range.
All this passed through Sam’s mind in a blink. Out loud, and after a long pause, he only repeated, “Sorry.”
Feeling stupid, he backed toward the opening through which he had come as if he was the subject in a rewinding film.
“Wait!” she called, and her voice fell on his ear like the sound of an angelic choir.
“Please don’t go. I think, perhaps, you wished to hide here, too, the same as me.”
He couldn’t place her soft accent, but it put him in mind of sunlight on cobblestone streets and picnics by the sea. Where did that thought come from? he wondered. I’ve never walked on a cobblestone street in my life.
“There is plenty of space. Please stay,” she said, and gestured to indicate a carved marble bench that he had not noticed, positioned to face the glass windows. “It is a very pretty view, is it not?” she asked.
Beyond rows of low buildings directly behind the loft, the moonlight reflected off of the flowing water of the river in multi-faceted sparkles. She gazed out the window, and he gazed at her.
“Very,” he agreed, and sat down.
“I’ve seen you before,” she said, turning to face him. “You’re a good friend of Jake’s aren’t you?”
“Yes. We go way back. I skinned my knee taking a joyride on his first bicycle when we were six.”
She laughed, and the sound was like summer chimes.
“I don’t remember meeting you, though. And this probably sounds cringeworthy, but you’re not someone I’d be likely to forget.”
Her smile turned evasive. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve met. I’ve just… seen you around.”
Sam could hardly believe this woman was talking to him. He’d never had much success with women, notwithstanding his college girlfriend, Amy. They had dated for two years, and then she had lost forty pounds and left him for some Zac Efron look-alike she’d met at Crossfit. It hadn’t even hurt that much. He’d sensed the distance growing between them, and on some level, it had felt expected, like the law of nature asserting itself.
Nothing about this encounter was expected.
“My name is Sam,” he offered, holding out his hand.
“I’m Tea,” she replied, slipping her hand softly into his.
The touch of her smooth skin sent a charge racing through his body, and suddenly he didn’t know whether to shake her hand or kiss it. Instead, he squeezed it once and then dropped it awkwardly.
She didn’t seem to notice, but turned back to the window. “Do you see those houses across the river? I look out at them sometimes and imagine what all the people who live in them must be thinking and doing. Do they go to a job every day? Do they fight with their neighbors? Do they hug their children?”
She sighed wistfully. “So much heart and life pulsing beneath those roofs. I hope they know what a gift it is. Sometimes… I think they forget. I think they hide from each other.”
Sam could see the lights of the houses she spoke of, glowing far off against the night. Her words echoed in his mind. He hoped she didn’t know how accurately she had just described him. He was definitely hiding. It had become… easier, somehow.
Wait, did she just imply that she looked out at those houses often? She must be a regular visitor to the loft. Or maybe… a terrible thought occurred to him.
“You’re not… are you and Jake…? You know… Are you?” Wow, he was smooth.
Tea laughed that same tinkling laugh and leaned to bump Sam teasingly with her shoulder. “Is that what you think?” She shook her head, amusement crinkling her eyes. “No, no. There is nothing like that. I don’t think he has even noticed me, really.”
“I doubt that.”
“What?” She cupped her hand around one ear.
He leaned closer and repeated himself, feeling silly.
“You’re wrong, but makes no difference. Jake does not appeal to me in that way. I like a quite different kind of man.”
He wanted to ask her more about that. Some very small part of him hoped that that the description of her perfect man would include the words “nerd”, “quiet”, and “amazing Fortnight player”, but years of being brushed aside for his best friend kept him mute. Instead, he asked her whether she was an artist, like so many of the guests.
“Not an artist, no. More of a model, I suppose. Though I’ve always thought I might like to try my hand at being on the other end of the brush, one day.”
She was smiling, but Sam sensed an edge of sadness behind her words.
He reached out as if to touch her arm, but quickly drew his hand back, unsure how she would take it. “Why don’t you, then?”
“I… have not had the opportunity. But perhaps I will one day. Are you an artist, Sam?”
“Me, no, not at all. I’m a software development engineer. Not a lot of art in that.”
“Is there not?” she asked. “I don’t know what a software development engineer does, but I suspect there is an element of art in any job done with care and skill.”
He thought about that. It was true that there were times when the code seemed to flow from his fingers as if he were merely channeling it from some perfect and orderly directly into his document, when he fancied himself a strange sort of composer, as if his flying fingers were creating the music that powered the world. The satisfaction he felt at those moments probably ranked up there with the way a finished sculpture must have pleased Michelangelo, or a completed symphony must have gratified Mozart.
“Maybe you’re right,” he agreed. “I’ve never thought about it that way before.”
She smiled at him, and his breath caught in his chest.
“You spend a lot of time thinking, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “I guess I’m not much of a talker.”
“Then let’s not talk.” She laid one ivory hand on his arm and asked, “Sam, do you… would you like to dance?”
He blinked. Like many ex-Dungeons and Dragons players, Sam was not particularly light on his feet, but the music wasn’t too fast, and he thought he might be able to keep up for once. What was one more unbelievable happening in a night full of them?
Standing, he offered her his hand for the second time. Her grey eyes glowed as she stepped into his arms, and within moments, he was leading her across the floor like freaking Fred Astaire. They spun past velvet sofas and industrial lamps, weaving through a blizzard of other dancers with a grace he’d never had before. He hadn’t danced with a girl since high school prom, but suddenly his feet knew all the right moves, and his partner followed him with a confidence that spoke of a deeper connection than one awkward fifteen minute conversation could account for.
So this was what all those romance movies and love poems were about. The warmth of his hand on the soft curve of Tea’s waist, the fierce flash of joy on her face, the way the two of them moved together in perfect sync, like one mind in two bodies… was this really happening? He’d only had two drinks; he couldn’t be drunk, could he?
He just knew that he never wanted this impossible moment to end, didn’t want to wake up from whatever fever dream now held him and Tea in its grip.
They danced through two more songs, the last one a rock ballad that gave him the chance to pull Tea closer and wrap his arms more fully around her. The ivory silk of her long gown whispered against his shirt, its asymmetrical Grecian neckline baring one creamy shoulder. He had to fight the impulse to lean down and press his lips to her skin, not sure if his advances would be welcomed or not.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood there, swaying back and forth in time to the honeyed wail of Steven Tyler’s voice. An eternity. When Tea looked up into his eyes and stood on her toes to meet his lips in a lingering kiss, it felt like Sam Winston had come home at last.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur. They danced some more, and later canoodled on a puffy red sofa where they made out and talked about Dante, and dreams, and the oddly high percentage of people at the party wearing denim jumpsuits. They shared a plate of coconut shrimp and washed it down with matching mojitos. They held hands, and at one point, Tea laid her head against his shoulder and dozed for an hour before waking up to point out that the DJ was playing her favorite song, a Celtic folk remix of I Need a Hero. Jake circulated by a few times, once giving Sam a covert thumbs up and an impressed grin behind Tea’s back. In short, it was the best night of Sam’s life.
At some point after 4am, when the guests had thinned out and the music had taken a turn into jazz contemporary, Sam finally surrendered to the effects of alcohol and sustained social interaction and slipped into the fuzzy arms of sleep as a smiling Tea smoothed a lock of hair out of his eyes and whispered, “You’ve been lovely. Just lovely, Sam.”
The Saturday sun was high in the sky when Sam awoke from his stupor. A few other party stragglers were draped over various pieces of avant garde furniture, but most everyone had crawled back to their lairs before sunrise to sleep off the lingering effects of a long night of fun.
“Rise and shine, Romeo!” Jake appeared at the head of the stairs, looking altogether too alert and cheerful for a man who’d thrown a rager the night before. He had clearly showered already this morning and traded in his party clothes for a pair of old jeans and a t-shirt. “Hey, man, let’s walk over to Fenderman’s and grab some pecan waffles.”
Sam shook off the last wispy clouds of sleep as he stood up and stretched. His head was pounding, and his mouth was a dry as the Sahara, but he felt strangely happy. Pleasant memories of last night rushed in, and he looked around for Tea. There was no sign of her. She had probably left him sleeping and gone home to her own bed. That was all right. He could always call her later.
Wait. Could he? He searched his mind; had he ever gotten her number? He couldn’t remember.
“Hey, dude,” he asked Jake, trying not to look as worried as he felt, “do you remember that girl I was with last night?”
Jake cocked an eyebrow. “Of course I remember. She was a real stunner. Way to go, man!” He jostled Sam playfully, a move that set his stomach to heaving.
“Do you have her number? I think I either lost it or forgot to ask for it.”
“Me?” He looked puzzled. “I don’t have it. Why would I?”
Sam tried not to panic. “Well, where do you know her from? Maybe I could track her down through directory services.”
“I don’t know her. I thought you invited her. I’ve never seen her before.”
Sam sat back down with a thump. That was it, then. “I didn’t even ask her last name.”
“Sorry, man. That sucks. Look, let me treat you to breakfast. We’ll think of something. If she was here, she must have known someone at the party.”
Yes! Of course! That was it. He could ask around. Someone had to know her. She wasn’t exactly forgettable. And she had hinted that she’d seen him around. Their paths were bound to cross again. He would make sure of it.
Feeling more hopeful, he nodded and stood up. “Yeah, you’re right. Breakfast sounds great. I need to put something in my stomach besides booze.”
Jake laughed and punched him in the arm. “That’s the spirit!”
Over the days that followed, Sam talked to as many people as he could remember seeing at Jake’s party. He cornered Jamal by the water cooler, suffering through a twenty minute account of his Mexican vacation in return for the information that he didn’t know any Tea, or even notice Sam was there that night. Sam haunted Grounds Zero waiting to catch Saiorse on her shift and dropped a twenty into the open case of the guitar-playing hobo on Pell, with similar results. No one knew Tea by name, or recognized his description of her.
Like a true friend, Jake took up the search, too, systematically interrogating his own guests for clues to the identity of the mystery girl. He had never seen Sam like this; he had obviously fallen for the girl, and fallen hard. But though a few party-goers had noticed her extraordinary beauty, and one—his biker friend Bruno—had hit on her without success, no one could offer any more information than they already had. It was as if she had materialized out of thin air, and then disappeared back into it.
Weeks passed with no word from Tea. At last, Sam had no choice to admit to himself that he had misread the cues. She obviously wasn’t that into him. After all, if she had wanted to see him again, she would have found a way to get in contact with him, right?
Getting the brush off wasn’t a new experience for him, but still, some strange disquiet scratched at the back of his mind. It just didn’t make sense. He’d never felt a connection like that to another person before, and a part of him refused to believe that he’d made it all up in his head. His memories all insisted: she had liked him, too.
So where was she?
At work, Sam grew more distracted. When his boss, Jerry, caught him doodling a sketch of Tea on his notes at a client meeting instead of paying attention, Jake covered for him, presenting a spreadsheet he had done alone as a collaborative project between the two of them. The spotlight moved on, and Sam heaved a sigh of relief.
Later, in the hall, Jake waved off his words of thanks with a “no problem” gesture, but Sam knew he had to get his head back in the game.
“Seriously, I’m sorry, dude. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“I do. And I have the solution.” Jake’s smile widened.
Sam grimaced in response. “Do I want to know?”
With a friendly punch in the arm, Jake laughed. “Don’t look so worried, man. You’re going to hurt my feelings.”
“Okay, okay.” He adjusted his face into a sarcastic parody of a smile. “What is it?”
“Well, you know that girl I went out with last weekend? Judy? Turns out, she’s got this friend…”
“Aww, man, I don’t know.”
“Trust me. This is the voice of experience talking. The best way to get over a girl is with another girl. Besides, I’ve been telling her about you, and she thinks you sound perfect.”
“Me?” Sam squeezed his eyes shut on the memory of holding Tea on the dance floor. It had only been one night. It was stupid to be acting this way over a woman he had known for only one night.
He opened his eyes. “Okay.”
Jake looked surprised. “Okay?”
“Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll come and meet… what’s her name, anyway?”
“Marla. She’s a private photographer from out near Rocky Pointe, and Judy says she’s beautiful.”
“Girls always say that about their friends.”
“It doesn’t matter, though. I’m not going to fall in love with her. I just need to get out of my own head for a while.”
Jake clapped him on the shoulder. “Exactly what I was thinking. How about this Friday? Come over to my place around six. I’ll make that Beer Cheese Fondue that everybody loves.”
“I’ll be there. And Jake?”
“Thanks. You’re a pal.”
Jake’s smile widened. “Don’t go all Golden Girls on me now.”
By Friday afternoon, the blind date that had seemed like a good idea on Tuesday was starting to feel like a looming appointment with the guillotine. To his shame, the thought of pulling one of his fades did pass briefly through his mind, but he immediately dismissed it. He couldn’t do that to Jake, or even to this girl he’d never met. Marla. She was expecting him, and he would be there.
He showed up at Jake’s place half an hour early, partly to see if he could help out with dinner and partly because the thought of pacing nervously through his own apartment for thirty minutes was unbearable. Why had he agreed to this?
“Here,” he said, handing Jake the six-pack of Sam Adams he’d schlepped from home.
“Nice.” Jake put the beer in the fridge and turned back to chopping vegetables. “Grab a knife, bro. I saved the onion for you.”
“Gee, thanks.” He washed his hands in the sink, then palmed an onion from the wire basket on the countertop and started chopping. The scent stung his nostrils and set his eyes to watering. “Is one enough?”
“Yeah.” Jake scooped the onion into a pan already bubbling with melted butter and added a handful of diced bacon.
“Listen, Jake, I… just wanna say thanks for, you know, everything. Sorry I’ve been off my game lately.”
“Say no more, dude. It’s what friends are for.” He took a swig from the open beer on the counter before adding the rest of it to the pan. “I think I’ve got things under control here. The girls should be here soon. Why don’t you go upstairs to the media cabinet and pick out some CDs?”
“Sure.” Sam washed his hands a second time with the lemon scented kitchen soap, taking care to thoroughly rid them of the smell of onions.
When he was done, he set off up the long staircase, memories from the night he met Tea swirling through his mind. There was the oak floor where they had danced together, his arms truly full for the first time he could remember. There was the red sofa where they had laughed and talked, his usual anxiety carried off by the breeze of her genuine interest and warm presence. He’d probably never meet a girl like her again, one whose eyes seemed to see him completely from the first moment they met. And how, exactly, did you move on from the experience of meeting your soulmate?
His funk growing, he trudged over to the Edwardian cabinet where Jake kept all of his CDs and DVDs, filed in alphabetical order. For a go-with-the-flow artist type, he was meticulous about organization. It was a little comforting, to be honest.
The cabinet was against a wall near the bank of large windows. When he saw the bench sitting off to the side, he recognized the spot, now free of trees, as the alcove where he had sought to hide away from the crowd at Jake’s party, the place where he had first met Tea.
The view was still striking with the afternoon sun reflecting off the buildings, but it was a little more industrial than romantic without the softening cover of darkness and the twinkle of far-off lights. He wondered what Tea was doing now, and whether anything that had happened that night had left a mark on her as it had on him. You’re obsessed, he chided himself. Just let it go already.
Shaking his head, he reached up to open the carved wooden door of the cabinet and froze.
There, on the wall next to the cabinet. Tea stared out at him from a large painted canvas that he had never noticed before in all his visits to the loft. It was about two feet wide and almost as tall, an oil painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style. There was Tea, in the same ivory gown she’d worn the night they met, standing on a short marble pedestal with her arms in the air as if caught in the act of twirling. A man stood off to the side, observing her with the same look of dumbstruck adoration that Sam had felt on his own face while they were together.
What did this mean? Had Tea posed for this portrait? If so, who had painted it, and how had it ended up here in the home of a friend who hadn’t even recognized her? Was this the clue to her identity that he had been looking for?
As he examined the painting more closely, Sam saw that the man was holding a chisel and a hammer, giving clearer context to his appreciation. Tea was not a living, breathing woman after all. She was his creation, and he was in love with her. Beneath the image, a small metal tag revealed the painting’s title: “Pygmalion and Galatea”.
Galatea. Tea. Could it possibly be…? He shook his head at the absurdity of the thought. He was just slipping into insanity. That was it.
Figures from paintings did not suddenly spring to life. Did they?
There was an artist’s name beneath the painting’s title. Francesco Mario Benotti. With trembling fingers, he opened a browser window on his phone and googled him.
There he was, on Wikipedia: “Francesco Mario Benotti (12 January, 1817 – 30 March, 1885) was a British-born Italian painter and poet.”
A bark of mad laughter slipped from Sam’s lips, and he sat down hard on the stone bench.
The man who had painted Tea—or should he say Galatea?—into his masterpiece had died over a hundred years ago. There was the proof, if he needed it. He wasn’t crazy. Something magical had happened to him, and then it had stopped happening, and now he simply didn’t know what to do.
He remembered Tea’s words about seeing him before, about looking out at the neighborhoods across the river. Can she see me now? he wondered.
Standing up, he approached the painting.
Was it his imagination, or were Tea’s eyes looking at him more intently than before? Nothing else had changed, but he could swear that she was present in a way that the other figure on the canvas was not.
“Tea?” he whispered, anxious not to be overheard by Jake on the floor below.
There was no hint of answering movement on the painted surface, just the lingering impression that the figure of Tea was somehow listening to him.
“What happened? How is any of this possible? I… looked for you. Everywhere.” He should have felt silly, whispering to a painting, and yet he didn’t. The need to talk to her was too overwhelming. “I started to think that I had imagined the way you felt—the way I hoped you felt, anyway. The way you disappeared, I thought… But you didn’t have a choice, did you?”
He glanced at the painting again and was startled to see what looked like tears pooling in Tea’s eyes. Those hadn’t been there before.
She could hear him!
“Can you… is there any way you can come back?”
The grief in her gaze was all the answer he needed. He let his own tears fall, giving in to the despair he’d been battling for weeks.
He stood like that, head bowed, for several minutes, almost forgetting where he was. At one point, he opened his mouth to call Jake up to share his discovery, but stopped himself. Even if he could convince Jake that this unimaginable thing was true, what good would it do? He could no more join Tea than she could come to him. And if Jake didn’t believe him… well, he wasn’t ready to put his one real friendship to the test.
“Sam, the girls just texted,” Jake called up. “They’re only a couple blocks away. You got that music?”
“Just a sec,” Sam called, trying to make his voice sound normal while he swiped the moisture from his eyes with one sleeve.
“Blind date,” he said awkwardly to Tea’s picture. “Jake thought I needed to meet someone new.”
When he met her eyes again, the tears were gone, replaced by a look of approval that gave her whole face a soft radiance. She wanted him to be happy.
With a gentle hand, he touched her cheek, the paint smooth beneath his fingers. Closing his eyes, he remembered the feel of her living skin against his.
“I won’t forget you, Tea.”
He turned, grabbed a CD at random from the cabinet, and slowly made his way downstairs.
When Jake opened the door to Judy and Marla, Sam stepped forward to meet his date.
“Hello, you must be Marla,” he said, but the sight of her stopped him in his tracks. Her eyes…
“Are you okay?” the petite brunette asked him, and he realized he was staring.
“Sorry,” he said, but as Judy and Jake made the introductions, he couldn’t stop sneaking surreptitious glances at her. Superficially, she was Tea’s opposite. Standing only a little over five feet, she had a compact, athletic build. Her curly brown hair floated around her face in flyaway wisps that she kept pushing behind her ears absentmindedly. Her face was round and cheerful, with a wide smile that seemed to come easily to her. She was pretty in an approachable way, the kind of pretty that blossoms into full-blown beauty when enhanced by kindness and humor.
But it was her eyes that really captured his attention. Wide and green and full of hidden depths, they were exactly, impossibly like Tea’s eyes. As he looked into them, a feeling of rightness filled him, like the mystical click of some cosmic puzzle piece slotting into place. The spark of hope flared to life once more in his chest.
Jake was looking at him expectantly. It was his turn to talk.
Holding out his hand, he said simply, “I’m Sam.”
Her hand, warm and strong, slipped into his, and he marveled again at the sense of familiarity that washed over him.
Was he imagining the answering spark of recognition in her eyes?
“Hello, Sam.” A warm smile spread across her face, and he could feel the mirroring grin on his own. “I’m so happy to meet you.”