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Curtis Sittenfeld

1993-94

By 10:30, there's still barely anyone in the office, so someone from accounting turns on the radio—it's a seventies station, Hannah realizes after the fourth or fifth song—and the few people who have actually come to work start milling up and down the hallways, stopping for extended conversations Hannah can hear over the walls of her cubicle. Around eleven, Sarie, who answers the phone at the front desk on the sixth floor, appears in Hannah's doorway, or the space where a doorway would be if Hannah's cubicle had a door.

"So he's completely late coming to get me," Sarie says. "And as soon as I get in the car, he's like, `I'm not that hungry. Want to just get coffee?' I'm like, hell, no, I don't want to just get coffee. Here I'd—" she pauses, then mouths the words I'd gotten my moustache waxed. Resuming her normal voice, she says, "I mean, I'd gone to some trouble. But I say, `Sure.' And we go to this freaking diner, not even, you know, Starbucks. I'm thinking there must be, like, rats in the kitchen. We stay less than an hour, and then he drives me back. We're outside and he asks if he can—this'll blow your mind, Han—he asks if he can come up." Sarie shakes her head. It is the first time this morning Sarie and Hannah have spoken to each other.

"I don't get it," Hannah says. "Why is that so weird?"

"He asks if he can come up for coffee. We'd just had coffee. How retarded is that? I didn't even answer him. I slammed the door in his face."

"Oh," Hannah says. "Well, that's too bad."

"No shit it's too bad," Sarie says. "If he would have taken me out for a real dinner, it would be a different story. But after that, forget it." They're both quiet. Sarie scowls and mutters, "Men."

"It's not all men," Hannah says immediately. "It's one guy. Patrick, right?"

Sarie nods.

"No offense, but he sounded kind of like a dud from the beginning."

"Yeah, you did think that, huh? Hmm. You know, I gotta listen to you more often, Han. They're all pigs."

"They're not all pigs!" Hannah practically yells.

"I'm just saying that to get your goat." Sarie grins. "I should go back to the phones—like anyone's gonna call on New Year's Eve."

She turns, and Hannah notices—disinterestedly she notices this, the way she notices the hair color of strangers she sees on the T—the length of Sarie's skirt, which is not very long at all: three inches below her ass maximum, maroon, and made of a clingy material Hannah cannot identify because she owns no similar clothing. Before she graduated from college, Hannah had not known people were allowed to come to the office wearing the sort of clothes Sarie wears, especially given the fact that Sarie is the first person clients see when they arrive. But apparently, as Hannah has learned since college, there are many, many things you're allowed to do out in the wide world. Or, at least, there's little you're explicitly denied.

Sarie is short and curvy, and as she disappears from view, Hannah observes also how nicely shaped Sarie's calves are. Sarie has what Hannah has come to realize is the type of body most preferred by most men: not too tall, small but still voluptuous, topped off by a pleasingly bland face, and blonde hair that's fakish but not definitively fake. Sarie wears skirts and nude pantyhose every day, even though the temperature in Boston hasn't risen above freezing for weeks now. Hannah always wears pants in the winter, and she usually wears them in the summer, too, because she has fat ankles. Also, Sarie wears thong underwear. Practically every time they're in the bathroom together, Sarie expounds on the virtues of thongs (they're so comfortable, they prevent panty lines) and tells Hannah that if only Hannah would try a thong, she'd never go back. So far, Hannah has resisted.

At moments—on, say, the infrequent occasions Sarie has actually persuaded Hannah to go to a bar with her and Hannah has sat there feeling huge and dull while, across the table, the men wind toward Sarie like she's some source of energy or light—Hannah has felt a surge of envy for Sarie. At these moments, she quickly reminds herself, in this order, that Sarie never got a college degree; that Sarie is a secretary, and thirty years from now will, in all likelihood, still be a secretary; that Sarie's father left her mother when Sarie was six and neither of them has seen him since; and that Sarie has had two abortions. Hannah herself graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore, although she has realized in the three years since graduation that this was a mostly useless feat, not something you can politely tell other people except when you're applying for jobs, which she's done only twice.

By quarter of twelve, the music coming from accounting is so distracting that Hannah clicks off the spreadsheet she's been working on and pulls a piece of company stationery from her desk. Do laundry, she writes at the top. Then, Make dentist appointment. Then she can't think of anything else. She glances out at the hallway. Ted Sammerson, who was just promoted from cubicle to windowless office, is passing by. Their eyes meet, and he gives a little wave. "Turn that frown upside down," he says, and the comment is so ridiculous that Hannah actually laughs.

"So what do you think the body count's up to?" Ted asks.

"Oh, I don't know. About four."

"Four!" Ted sounds alarmed.

"No, I'm kidding," Hannah says quickly. "Fifteen or twenty, probably. I haven't been away from my desk much."

"Yeah, that sounds more like it. I wouldn't be here myself, but I'm going to Baja in April, and there's no way I'm wasting my vacation days."

"What will you do in Baja?" Hannah asks.

Ted raises his arms as if keeping invisible walls from closing in on him and then wiggles his hips, or what he has of them. "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine."

"What?"

"Jeff Spicoli," Ted says. Hannah must still look confused because he adds, "It's from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie? Mid-eighties?"

"Oh," Hannah says. "I think I saw that in middle school. But what does that have to do with Baja?"

"I'm hoping to get some surfing in."

"Oh. How'd you decide to go there?"

"It's in Mexico," Ted says.

That doesn't answer my question, Hannah thinks. Aloud, she says, "Yeah, I know. I've been there, actually. It's beautiful."

"You've been there? No kidding."

"Yeah," Hannah says. "It's beautiful." Realizing she said this already, she adds, "The water really is that deep turquoise like in commercials."

Ted grins. "That's what I like to hear," he says. There is a lull, during which Ted looks down at his watch and Hannah looks up at Ted's hearing aid. When someone with a hearing aid goes in the water, do they take it out first, or are hearing aids waterproof these days? she wonders. Ted is her age, maybe a couple years older, yet as long as she's worked here, he's worn a hearing aid. When she arrived, actually, she had a slight crush on him, if this is possible, because of his hearing aid. It made him seem sensitive somehow, as if he had known difficulty but not difficulty so great that it would have made him strange or bitter. His voice warbled endearingly, and besides that, he was tall and had green eyes. The crush passed, though, after less than a month. Once at an office happy hour she attended for eight minutes, she heard him having an incredibly animated conversation about what a bitch his boss was, which first of all seemed unwise to Hannah given the setting and, second, seemed unbearably common. Hearing aid or not, Ted was not much different from other men, certainly not the kind of guy who would see that despite her fat ankles—and despite her sensible clothes and her plain pearl earrings and her inability to ever make a zippy comment on command and the way she unintentionally but pretty much constantly frowned—despite all of this, she was interesting, she was fluent in German, she would cook him pancakes on Sunday mornings and go to action movies even though she hated them. She would meet someone halfway, if there were someone to meet. In Hannah's mind, men are divided into two camps, Sarie Lovers and Other, but Other does not necessarily make them Hannah Lovers. In fact, most likely they are not; they love girls with nose pierces and tattoos, or foreign girls, or girls who will cheerfully strip to their jog-bras and sweat pants and play touch football with them on Saturdays, and Hannah is none of the above. She's not even quirky.

"We're ordering pizza," Ted is saying. "You want to go in on it?"

"Where are you ordering from?" Hannah asks.

"I think Baldini's."

"Sure."

Ted enters her cubicle to collect money, and Hannah instinctively turns over her list of errands, although apparently Ted's not accomplishing much either right now. "Writing love letters?" he asks as she reaches for her purse on the floor beneath her desk.

"Yeah, to you," Hannah says.

"Huh?"

When she realizes he didn't hear her, she considers not repeating the joke—it wasn't that funny to begin with—but then she thinks, Oh, who cares? "I was writing love letters to you," she says more loudly.

He laughs. "All the girls are."

"The competition," Hannah says. She waves a hand in the air. "Forget about them."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm the one. All the others, well, they don't compare to me."

"Is that right?" Ted says, and he's still grinning, this is all still a big joke, but the expression on his face has become a mix of curiosity and surprise. He is, Hannah realizes, appraising her, and she starts blushing. Abruptly, she can't think of anything to say. It was fine before, it felt like they were reading from a script of generic flirtation, but now it feels like they've come to the end of their lines. She's just herself again.

She glances down then looks back up at him. "So, um, anyway, how much should I put in? Is ten dollars okay?"

"That depends. Do you want to treat half the office?"

"Does that mean I should give less?" In social situations, Hannah always offers to pay more than she knows she should, mainly out of a fear of appearing stingy. However, most people actually allow her to pay too much, leaving her with the impression that they're the misers.

"Five bucks should cover it," Ted says. "You'll be eating, what, two slices?"

Hannah nods and passes him a five-dollar bill.

"It should come in about an hour," he says. Then he adds, "You keep writing me poetry until then." He smiles, and Hannah realizes that the mood before—the weird lighthearted energy that passed between them—had been replaced with awkwardness only for her, not for him.

When the pizzas arrive, nine or ten of them crowd into the office kitchen on the seventh floor. It turns out that only younger members of the staff are in today. Someone has ordered beer, and a bottle is passed to Hannah. "I didn't pay for any," she murmurs, but no one is listening, and then Lois, who works in human resources and is five months pregnant, passes Hannah the bottle opener. "None for me," Lois says, patting her stomach. She is chewing a slice of mushroom pizza.

"So what are your plans for tonight?" Hannah asks.

Lois has just taken a bite, and she waves her hand in front of her mouth.

"Oh, sorry," Hannah says.

Lois swallows. "That's okay. I don't have major plans. Jim and I are having dinner with a few other couples."

"Like a potluck?" Hannah asks brightly. Inside her head, she sneers at herself. Usually, she eats lunch alone, heading to a food court in the Prudential building for baked ziti on a Styrofoam plate and waxy cups of Diet Coke.

"Yeah, I suppose it is a potluck," Lois says. "But fancy, you know? I'm making dessert."

"Oh, really? What are you making?"

"I already made it last night. It's a chocolate torte. Jim's mother gave me the recipe."

"How nice," Hannah says. She has polished off her entire first slice of pizza. About thirty seconds pass, during which neither she nor Lois speaks, and Hannah begins chugging her beer. It's dark and heavy, like bitter soup. She never drinks dark beer.

"Hi, girls," someone says, and then Sarie's standing in front of them. "How much is the office like a ghost town today?"

"You're telling me," Lois says.

"I'm leaving soon," Sarie says. "Han, you want to come over and get dressed at my place?"

"Oh, that's okay," Hannah says. "Thanks a lot, but I won't be getting too, um, decked out."

"You two are hanging out tonight?" Lois asks.

"Indeed we are," Sarie says.

Hannah tries not to cringe. But she hates herself for cringing—who cares what Lois thinks anyway?—and she just wishes to be away from both women. "I'll be back in a second," she says, and she squeezes out of the kitchen.

In the hall are a cluster of men Hannah hardly knows: Rick, Abe, Stefan, a guy from this floor whose name she can't remember, and Ted. When he sees her, he lifts the beer out of her hand and squints at it.

"Looks like you need a replacement," he says.

"I think one is plenty for the middle of the day," Hannah says. But Ted has already gone into the kitchen.

"Oh, come on," says Stefan. "Any day when Nailand is out is not a workday."

"Yeah, didn't Nailand come to the office the day his wife was in labor?" Abe pipes up. Everyone laughs.

"Actually, that's impossible since the Nailands adopted their child," Hannah says.

Ted is back by now, and at this comment, he leans over, puts an arm around her, and brings his mouth up to her ear as if to whisper. "Drink your beer," he says in a normal voice.

The guys all crack up again.

For lack of anything better to do, Hannah does drink the beer. They start talking about New Year's plans, which bars people are going to, the price of the cover charges.

"My girlfriend wants to go salsa dancing," says Rick. He's the person at the firm whom Ted seems closest to, and also—this is the primary way Hannah thinks of him—someone Sarie was sleeping with for a few weeks back in October, unbeknownst to his salsa-loving girlfriend.

"Cha cha cha," says Ted.

"Speaking of which, who's playing the shitty music so loud today?" asks Abe.

"Watch it, man," says Ted.

"Does that mean it's you?" Abe asks.

"Actually, no," Ted says. "But I'm not afraid to say that the seventies were a beautiful time musically."

The men start laughing again.

"What's your favorite seventies song?" Hannah asks.

"Ah, that's a toughie. That's like who's your favorite supermodel?"

"Cindy Crawford," says the guy whose name Hannah can't remember.

"You know what, though?" Ted says. "I'll tell you a song that always puts me in a good mood: `I Will Survive.' You know that one?"

Some of the men groan.

"You're kidding, right?" Hannah says. "You know that's, like, a feminist anthem, don't you?"

At this, the men positively roar with laughter, although Hannah wasn't trying to be funny.

Ted doesn't respond immediately. Instead, he sets his beer on the floor, walks a few steps away, turns around, takes a breath and begins: "First I was afraid/ I was petrified/ Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side . . ."

"Goodness," Hannah says. She crosses back into the kitchen, picks up another beer, and says to Sarie and Lois, "You guys should come see this."

Out in the hall, Ted is prancing around by now, singing the chorus—"I will survive/Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll feel alive/I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give/and I'll survive"—and the handful of women who are present join in, except Hannah. She's buzzed already, she's even kind of smiley, but she's not drunk. She does feel pretty good, though. She rarely drinks, and then when she does, she wishes she could be drunk all the time.

Ted's performance somehow prompts the others to start yelping popular songs they know all the words to—"Stayin' Alive," then "Uptown Girl." Pretty soon, everyone present is dancing—literally dancing—between the hall and the kitchen. Lois kicks over a half-full beer, but no one else seems to notice as the liquid gets absorbed into the carpet. The situation feels cheesily surreal: a scene from a sitcom about office life instead of a real office where, allegedly, people accomplish things during the day. Hannah is the only one not dancing.

Then Ted grabs her shoulders from behind, whirls her around, and pulls out her arms. Dancing without music is not, Hannah thinks, unlike washing your hair with no water, but in spite of herself, she begins giggling. As long as Ted is leading her, dancing in a sort of messily old-fashioned way, she's fine. Then he releases her, and she stumbles backward.

She just stands there. Finally, she says, "I've got to get back to work."

"Work, huh?" Ted says. "Fat chance." But he doesn't protest as she heads toward the stairwell leading to the sixth floor.

Back in her cubicle, the walls look like they're shifting. I'm such a lightweight, Hannah thinks. She has now had, she calculates, a little less than three beers.

She sits at her desk and grasps the mouse to the right of her computer monitor, checking her email. No new messages, she sees, and shuts it again quickly, before she mass-mails some incriminating message to the entire office: I have never in my life seen so much mediocrity amassed under one roof. Or perhaps, Working with all of you is like dying a very slow death.

Less than twenty minutes have passed when Ted appears in her doorway again. "Hey there," he says, and she says "Hey" back. She feels more shy than she's ever felt with him. At this moment, she thinks that it's not that she doesn't like the people she works with. How could she not like them as individuals, standing before her with their own private quirks and appetites, their intermittent gestures of friendliness? No, like this, like Ted is now, they're fine. She'd have to be cruel not to think they were fine, not to recognize that they're lurching along as best they can. It's just that she hadn't anticipated that life would be so ordinary. Her coworkers remind her of how ordinary she herself is.

"So the day is pretty much shot," Ted says. "We're just gonna head over to Rick's and hang out if you want to come."

"Doesn't Rick live in the North End?" Hannah asks. This is how you turn down invitations without turning them down. Then you don't go, and after a few times of not going, people stop inviting you places, unless they're as dense as Sarie.

"Yeah, he does. And you live where—in Brookline Village, right? It's all on the green line. You can catch the T again at Haymarket to get home."

"Oh," Hannah says. "Okay." She's shocked that he knows where she lives. All her life, she has known more about people than they know about her—their major in college, what food they're allergic to, the names of their siblings. Other people don't even know whether Hannah has siblings. "Just give me a few minutes," she says.

It is three-thirty by the time they're all out on the street: Hannah, Ted, Rick, Abe, and Sarie. The T is weirdly crowded for midday, and they joke that the rest of Boston has been playing hooky while they've worked. They are talking loudly, but everyone else seems to be talking loudly, too. An electricity is in the air, the energy of all the people for whom tonight might hold surprises.

Rick's girlfriend isn't home when they get there. The apartment has a black leather sofa and milk crates for tables. What an awful combination, Hannah thinks. Then, based on the sofa, she finds herself wondering if Rick makes more than she does.

Abe and Ted are debating whether to walk to a liquor store down the street, and Rick starts giving them directions. When they've left, he goes into the bedroom to change, and Hannah and Sarie sit down on the sofa. "Did I tell you about the Chinese guy who kept calling this afternoon?" Sarie says immediately.

"Um, I think I heard you telling Lois about him at lunch," Hannah says.

Sarie continues as if Hannah has said nothing. "It was so fucked up. I mean, at first it was funny, but it got annoying after a while. He was looking for some girl named Margaret, and I kept being like, `No one by that name works here.' And he'd be like, `Please to give me Miss Margaret?' He had a wicked thick accent."

"Oh." Hannah reaches forward and lifts an issue of Sports Illustrated off the milk crate in front of her. She starts paging through it, looking at the ads.

Sarie keeps talking. As the story progresses—with, as far as Hannah can tell, no discernible purpose or points of interest—the caller changes from Chinese to Japanese. After ten minutes, Hannah glances at her watch and wonders if everyone would think she was really strange for months and months if she got up right now and left.

Then Abe and Ted get back and what they proceed to do is get hugely, sloppily, noisily, and completely drunk—all of them, and, in fact, Hannah especially. Rick brings a Trivial Pursuit set out of the bedroom, and they play for a while, but within half an hour—they're doing shots—no one is getting any answers right. They abandon the game, and someone flips on the TV. Another forty-five minutes or so pass, and Hannah rises from the couch to use the bathroom and finds she must grab Sarie's shoulder to steady herself. In the mirror above the bathroom sink, she peers at her flushed cheeks, her pearl earrings. Inexplicably, she beams at herself. The hand towels are red—the fact that Rick even owns hand towels makes her like him more—and she dries her fingers one by one, pretending she's a hand model.

When she gets back to the living room, Sarie and Ted have switched places, and the next hour is filled with intricate maneuvering and Hannah's hyperconsciousness of, and only of, any moments when she brushes against Ted. These moments occur increasingly frequently, until they have resulted in his arm resting across her shoulders, just lightly but definitely there.

At this juncture—more and more signs are pointing to the fact that something will happen—she returns to the bathroom, pulls a toothbrush from a cup on the sink, and brushes her teeth. In her current state, this act of borrowing feels jaunty and vaguely adorable.

At some point, Rick's girlfriend gets home, carrying several shopping bags and seeming miffed, and she and Rick go in the kitchen and proceed to bicker loudly. It's the kind of thing that sober, Hannah would find shamefully enthralling, but right now she is far too distracted to appreciate the drama. The next few hours grow increasingly murky. The only thing that's clear is that whatever plans people had for this evening have been postponed indefinitely.

Later, Hannah actually closes her eyes—everything is reeling—and when she opens them, she sees Ted go into the kitchen. She can't help herself; she follows him. She has nothing to say, she has no excuse to be in there. She just wants to stay near him.

The volume of the TV has been growing progressively louder over the course of the night, and it is now blaring, lending the gathering a feel of chaos far greater than it really possesses.

"Are you having fun?" Ted calls to her when she's entered the kitchen. He is standing by the sink, filling a glass with ice.

Hannah nods. "Yeah. Are you?"

"Yeah. I'm glad you came. You should hang out with us more often."

At this moment, someone changes the channel in the other room, and a countdown, already in session, becomes audible—"Eight, seven, six . . ." people are screaming.

"Is it midnight already?" Hannah says. "God." And even as she says this, she and Ted are smirking slightly, he is setting his glass on the counter by the sink, they're tilting toward each other—it's the countdown! they're supposed to!—and leaning in until they're touching. His lips graze her jaw, that is the first instance of contact. Then comes a tiny, exquisite moment of facial negotiating, and then they are kissing in earnest. Also during this time, the TV countdown segues into clichéd party noises—tooting horns and "Auld Lang Syne" and dialogue that is less like a live reporter than like a canned conversation—and Hannah realizes it's not really midnight, it's a movie on TV, which is something she already sort of knew. Ted shoves his tongue deeper into her mouth. More shocking is that this gesture doesn't bother her—it doesn't bother her for any of the usual reasons it might, not least of which is that all of this is taking place under blazing fluorescent kitchen lights in an apartment belonging to a coworker she barely knows.

Now, he grasps her face with both hands, his fingers gripping the back of her neck where her hairline ends, his thumbs pressed up beside her earlobes. He steps forward—into her—so their bodies meet at all points. This is not a tentative, goofy New Year's kiss; it's a pre-sex kiss. How does she recognize it? Who knows? She just does.

And sure enough, he pulls away but keeps his hand resting on her head, then runs his palm backward through her hair, says, "Happy New Year, Hannah," and asks, "You want to get out of here?"

She nods.

In the living room, they bid farewell to the others—Ted makes some excuse that she barely listens to while she goes around hugging everyone present, except Sarie, who apparently has passed out in the bathtub—and then they stumble down the steps and out into the bright, cold night. They debate where to go now, her apartment or his, and decide on hers because he has roommates. The absence of her inhibition is so pronounced it feels almost as if she and Ted have escaped from the company of some judgmental third party—a pursed-lipped great-aunt, perhaps.

The T is packed—she's not sure why, at this odd in-between hour—and riding to her stop, they are standing very close the whole time and, on top of that, keep heaving into each other. Even Hannah can't tell how much of this is the jerking of the T and how much is willful on her part or Ted's. He has a way, she has noticed over the course of the evening, of cupping his left ear, or tilting it toward you as if you're saying something particularly intriguing—a manner of reminding people of his hearing problem that makes them feel interesting instead of obtuse.

When they step onto the platform at Brookline Village, she realizes, to her chagrin, that she's starting to sober up. It's okay, though. The widest gulf for her has always been between touching and not touching—not between touching and whatever comes afterward. No, it's the first contact which seems the most unlikely, the thing she never, even once, has initiated. But once it's done, once whichever guy has sidled up to her or pulled her toward him, her anxiety dissipates a little. She just needs proof, a base to move forward from. Up until the point when he makes his move, no matter how attentive a guy is (and part of the problem is, most of them really aren't that attentive), she can never shake the fear that this is all in her head, the guy has no interest and she is merely flinging herself at him in a reckless and pitiful fashion.

They head up the sidewalk and around the corner to her apartment, and she opens the first door then turns the lock on the second one with her key. Climbing the stairs to the second floor, she feels like all the blood in her body is surging forward, propelling her up.

Inside, they take off their coats, and before she can even offer him something to drink, he says, "So, are you gonna give me the grand tour of the place?"

In her room—besides the tiny kitchen, the tiny living room, and the tiny bathroom, there is only her room—Hannah perches on the foot of the bed and they just sort of look at each other and then in one extended motion he has sat down next to her, leaned forward, and started kissing her again. This goes on for several minutes. They don't talk at all, and it's so quiet in the apartment, especially after the raucousness of Rick's, that Hannah is conscious of the noises they're making, that slight slurping. She wishes she'd thought to put on a CD. But then she stops thinking about it. Pretty soon, she's lying with her back on the mattress, her feet hanging toward the floor, and he is leaning over her, and then they've scooted up toward the pillows and he's flat on top of her. He unbuttons her blouse then reaches around and unfastens her bra. "Will you turn out the light?" Hannah says, but her voice comes out sounding distant and incoherent, and he doesn't respond. "Can you turn out the light?" she says more forcefully. She raises her arm above his head and gestures with one hand, though he can't see it. "The switch is by the door."

"But you're beautiful," he says. He has said it far too quickly. Not that it matters, Hannah thinks. Obviously, they both want the same thing.

"No, really," she says, and she nudges him from the side. He's kissing her neck, but he pauses and looks at her. He rises and flicks the switch. "By the way," he says when he's standing, "do you, ah, have something?" He lies down again, more next to her than on top of her.

"Um, actually, no." The only sound in the room is their uneven breathing. "I thought the man always took care of that," Hannah says, and then she giggles. Immediately, she is mortified, although it's only because of herself, not because of Ted. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would realize that what she just said, or the way she giggled, was at all embarrassing.

"Maybe I do have one," he says. "Hold on." He rolls onto his side and reaches into his back pocket.

A window of time opens up and just as quickly starts to close again. If she is going to say anything, she has to say it now. "Incidentally," she begins, and her voice sounds frighteningly, abruptly sober, the voice she uses when she's presenting reports to Nailand, "I should probably tell you. I mean, this isn't a big deal, but I've, well, I've never had sex before."

There is such a long pause that Hannah starts to think Ted didn't hear her, and during this interval she decides maybe it's not such a great idea to tell him after all.

"You mean—" he starts out, and before he's said anything else, she can tell he heard her perfectly, "—you're, you're a virgin? That's what you're saying?"

"Well, yeah." Hannah giggles again, the same idiotic giggle as before. "I mean, I hate that word, I don't even like when people say virgin daiquiri, or virgin wool. But, I mean, yes, that's, um, correct."

"I don't understand," Ted says. "Are you religious?"

"No," Hannah says.

"And you're—you're, what, twenty-five?"

"Twenty-four," Hannah says.

"Did you—not to get personal, but did you—was there a guy who, you know, treated you bad?"

"What? Oh, you mean, like, molested me?" Hannah says. Her voice was getting a little quivery before, but now it comes back strong. She always takes being defeated better than being hopeful. Hopeful is just so embarrassing. "That's what you mean, right?"

He says nothing.

"No," she says.

There's a silence, and then he says, "I don't understand."

She doesn't try to explain. Everything is finished. This moment has passed. Finally, she says, "I find it so amusing. There's this myth that guys want to go to bed with a whore and wake up with a virgin. Well, half the equation is right. But, see, after exhaustive research—some field research, if you will—I've found that the old virgin-whore dichotomy is basically fallacious."

This is something she used to do when she'd get drunk in college, use big words—when, after drinking too much, she'd seen which way the night was going to go, she'd realized that consuming five beers in an hour and a half didn't really make things any different and that now instead of feeling sober and bitter, she merely felt drunk and bitter. But her big words are only SAT words, unimpressive to anyone with half a brain. In this state, Hannah also starts rolling her r's, a fake-fancy sort of accent. Once, drunk, she told a guy she liked that she had a trust fund, which was true, and that she felt horribly guilty about it, which was partly true and partly not. She starts acting like a caricature of a snob, and in fact this is a snobbishness which she always feels, even sober, but which mercifully gets twisted so it comes out as insecurity. At this moment, it is emerging full-force, in its true form.

Just as she forgot how pleasant it is to be drunk, she also forgot how unpleasant it is. This is why she doesn't drink: because it makes her pissed off and desperate, unable to contain her ugly thoughts.

"I can't speak for other guys," Ted is saying, speaking slowly. "But I think you should do this with someone you love."

Hannah gives a barking laugh. "You may as well speak for other guys," she says. "You're all the same anyway."

They're both silent.

"Then I'm not the first one to be, ah, surprised?"

So all he wants is reassurance, a way out. He wants her to say You are normal, I am the freak. "Actually, it's never gotten to this point before," she says.

"What happened?"

"Do you want me to go case by case?"

"How many cases have there been?"

"Are you serious? I don't know. Do you think I counted?" Of course she's counted. There have been seven, and that's including high school.

He shrugs. She feels him shrug, though they're no longer touching.

"Twelve, maybe," she says. "Fifteen. I don't know what happened. I wasn't enjoying it, I guess." This is not exactly true. She usually was enjoying it, except for her own sense of self-consciousness, which would eventually override everything else. She'd stop things when the guys were going to discover something unattractive about her—that she hadn't shaved her legs in a week, say, or that her stomach was flabby. She'd stop them just prior to when, she was sure, they would have stopped themselves. None of them ever protested much.

"Why am I different?" Ted says. He is so sincere. His voice is so earnest. It's warbling even more than usual. Isn't this what men are supposed to be—he can joke with the guys, but then he can reroute himself, he can be gentle and sympathetic? She is but a wounded rabbit in the wood, and he is a lumbering bear here to nurse her back to health. She hates him so much right now that she must concentrate on not slapping him.

Because you have such a big penis, she almost snaps. It's that I want you so badly I just can't help myself. This is what she's supposed to tell him, right? It might even do the trick, get him to have sex with her.

"Why don't you leave?" she says instead.

"Hannah, come on. I like you. I think you're cool. I just don't think, under the circumstances, we should have sex. But it doesn't mean we can't, you know, have fun."

"Really?" she says. "Is that what it means? Thanks for interpreting." Then she pauses—she doesn't want to say this, she doesn't want to be this kind of person, it doesn't even have anything at all to do with what they're talking about—and says, "But enough about my foibles and follies. How about you? What's with the hearing aid? How deaf are you exactly?"

He looks directly at her for the first time in several minutes. Even in the dark, the eye contact is excruciating. She looks away. His body rising from the bed a few seconds later is peripheral—more like a shadow than an actual person.

He is standing then, fastening his pants, putting his shoes on, tying them. "Thanks, Hannah," he says, and mentally she adds the phrase for nothing. To be fair, his voice isn't sarcastic. It's more, just, distant. He wants to be away from her, and she doesn't blame him. He leaves the bedroom, and she hears the rustle of him pulling on his coat in the living room. The front door opens and clicks shut, and he is gone. The first thing that occurs to Hannah is that today is Friday. She will, at least, have the weekend not to see him.

She lies there exactly as he left her, her blouse half off, her bra unfastened, her legs parted. An indeterminable amount of time elapses—a half hour?—and then noise starts to swell from every direction except her own apartment: from other units in the building, from the sidewalk below her window, from the sky even, if that's possible: there is shouting and horn-blowing and music, and she realizes it must be midnight, the real midnight. It is 1994. She tries to imagine where she will be a year from now, and she thinks, Probably here. The idea of changing her life in any substantial way seems laborious and unlikely. It is so hard to envision. It would require, almost, for her to be a different person, and she'd do that, she'd change, if she knew where to begin. But she doesn't.

She thinks of where she was last year, when she was still new to Boston. She'd started her job a month and a half earlier. There had been no question that she'd spend New Year's Eve alone because there was no one to spend it with. Sarie, possibly, had invited her to do something, but this would have been back when she was still declining Sarie's invitations. She wasn't that depressed, though. Given enough advance notice, Hannah can take care of herself, she really can. It's just when she expects things to turn out differently than they do that her mood gets tricky.

Last year, the office was empty, too, and she'd left early because everyone was leaving early, but she didn't want to go home because once she got to her apartment, she wouldn't leave it again. So she walked from the office on Huntington Avenue up to the Common, where a sort of citywide festival was being set up, one of those outdoor fairs with crafts booths and mini-concerts and stands selling hot chocolate and fried dough. It was all supposed to be alcohol-free, which even at that hour of the afternoon made it feel both zealous and false, at least if you were young and by yourself instead of part of some big squabbling family traipsing around with dirty mittens, distracting each other.

Hannah stopped briefly by a display of ice sculptures then cut back in the direction she'd come from. The Common was already thick with visitors, as well as behind-the-scenes people testing the sound systems, playing bits of songs that Hannah would not be consciously enjoying until they were cut off, when she'd feel a pang of disappointment. Just outside the Public Garden, she bought fried dough and continued heading west, crossing over the frozen pond where, in the summer, the Swan Boats ran. It was four o'clock and getting dark. And the temperature had been falling all day—her bare fingers as she picked at the dough were like frozen sticks.

She came out of the Public Garden at Arlington, threw away her paper plate in a metal bin on the sidewalk, and walked over a block. On Newbury Street the stores were brightly lit: gourmet food emporiums, fancy boutiques with satin dresses in their windows, salons where rich women could have their hair highlighted and their legs waxed.

Where Berkeley intersected Newbury, Hannah fell into step behind three people who at first she thought were traveling separately but who, after a moment, she realized were together: a girl around Hannah's age, a man a few years older than Hannah, a woman who looked like one of their mothers. She watched their profiles when they spoke to each other. The couple—and they must have been a couple, Hannah thought when the man linked his arm through the girl's in a way too tender to make them siblings—were both quite good-looking, the man with broad shoulders and a strong nose. The girl had an olive-colored coat, ankle-length and wool, and long, wavy blonde hair. She wore no hat, and the lightness of her hair made her seem oddly vulnerable. She held her chin in the air, in almost a parody of fine breeding. The older woman was bulky and slower-moving, wearing a scarf wrapped around her head. Hannah wondered where they were going. The man said something to the girl, and the girl shook her head. Hannah could not hear their conversation, and she began to walk more quickly. But they didn't speak again for nearly a block.

And then, abruptly, the woman turned to the girl and said, "Are you happy?" She had an accent of some sort, so that the emphasis came out on both syllables: Are you happy? She was Eastern European, Hannah decided. Hungarian, perhaps.

The girl didn't respond, and it was ridiculous, but Hannah felt as if the question were directed at her. How could the girl not answer? Had her entire life been like this, one long inquiry as to whether things were going the way she wanted?

Across the street, a police car had on its flashing lights, and Hannah glanced at the swirl of blue, then looked at the police officer himself. He was writing a ticket to a large man who sat in the driver's seat of a Mercedes, waving his hands emphatically at something in front of him. They both seemed far away. The music from the park, now playing continuously, was still audible above the rush of cars and the cries of children, and, as she always did when she heard music while outside in an urban area, Hannah felt like she was in a movie.

She was completely alone. But in a strange way, her loneliness contained its opposite; everywhere around her lay the possibility that things would change in the year ahead. She drew closer to the Hungarian woman, so close she could have rested her palm on the woman's back. "Are you happy?" the woman asked again, this time more insistently, and at that moment heading up Newbury Street, Hannah was on the verge of saying yes.

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