He didn’t recognize her all at once. Her voice hit him first, just like it had four years earlier when it knocked him right out of his mundane life as a beat reporter and sent him into a tailspin. Yes, that was what had done it. Her posh affectation, the slight slur of a child’s unpracticed speech that she never quite grew out of, and how she had used it to ask all those chemistry questions to show off her intelligence and yet look needy and helpless at the same time.
Since he’d gone off his Joy, he had remembered her, certainly, but only in terms of their youth. He knew beyond that, but he’d been careful not to let himself land on that topic. He’d distract himself with a deft tangent if he edged too close to thinking about Sally who left in that green and white checked dress and used that voice and everything else she had to win herself helpful new friends at every turn, how she had never used those things on him.
And look, here was a helpful new friend now! Didn’t Sally’s latest companion look spiffing with his hat tilted at a jaunty angle to belie what carefree and lighthearted company he must be. He was fit and fashionable and not too tall as well, not awkward and gangling like Arthur was. He’d look just right with his arm interlocked with Sally’s. Glasses too, of course. Sally always did love an intellectual, didn’t she?
“You know what? Nevermind,” Sally said, her voice pitched in that way that radiated a smile even if you couldn’t see it because her back was turned. At the word, “nevermind” though, the man’s face snapped towards Arthur and the two of them locked eyes for a moment. In that moment, Arthur realized a deep and startling hatred for this guy. This absolute composite of every guy Sally had ever playfully teased, charmed, or flirted with instead of him, when he had been right there the whole time. This guy who was immune to – or worse matched – Sally’s thrall enough to break his gaze from her face to fix Arthur with his own cobra’s stare.
“Same time next week?” Sally said to him.
And then, the man just turned and left! He maintained eye contact until he disappeared beyond the corner, an assertion of dominance, but his face never showed any investment to this two-second clash of theirs.
Somehow that was even more maddening for Arthur than if he had sneered or smirked about how he got to talk to Sally so easy and often – same time every week even – when Arthur had been pining after her for fourteen years. As if to say that he didn’t need to acknowledge this staredown because it came to no consequence. That he was not embroiled in the same feelings that Arthur was, lacked all the insecurities that Arthur suffered, so he could take his leave of both Sally and this without further consideration. What could Arthur possibly hope to be compared to a guy like that?
“Arthur? Arthur Hastings?”
Sally finally turned around and all thoughts of the man she’d been talking to evaporated. It was quite similar to Joy Erasure, when you popped a Joy because life annoyed. All he could think of was how white and perfect Sally’s mask was and how his had chips and scratches from his foray in the Garden District. Maybe she’d think a little weathering would look good on him, like he’d been having adventures and not tribulations. He was supposed to say something now, but the only words that didn’t feel risky were his old scripted standby.
“Lovely day for it.”