Today's Reading

After the first few conversations they tried to have as a couple—leaning forward, shouting at people one or the other of them barely knew—they drifted apart. Annie looked at the spines of the books on the shelves, at the people standing in groups near her. She found herself talking briefly to someone she'd known years before in a photography class, but even as they were speaking, she could watch his eyes moving around the crowd, trying to spot someone perhaps more promising. She talked to several people she didn't know—quick, shouted exchanges. How do you know Graham? Yes, what a perfect night for a party. Did we really need another bookstore in Harvard Square? Thank God the rain stopped, I thought I'd go mad.

She went back over to the big table a few times to get more wine, one time lingering to eavesdrop on a long conversation between a man and a woman who clearly didn't know each other very well. She was asking him many, many questions about a trip he'd taken recently, and listening with what seemed like great interest to his account of how strange the people were, "sort of innocently open," he said. Annie was trying to figure out what country he was talking about, and then she realized it was not a country at all—it was Chicago, the city she'd grown up in. She laughed out loud, and a man standing near her stared at her for a moment. She looked back at him and smiled before she turned away.

And through all of this, she kept seeing Graham as he moved around the room, as he embraced people, men as well as women, as he threw his head back to laugh. His shirt was visibly damp with sweat by now, his skin slightly pinked from the heat. Or perhaps, she thought, just from excitement. When passersby stopped to look in the open doorway, trying to figure out what was happening in here, he would call out "Come in! come in!" He seemed so ingenuously happy and enthusiastic that she couldn't help smiling as she watched him. At one point he caught her glance and looked steadily, quizzically, at her for a moment before smiling back. As if he were really registering her, Annie thought. Maybe he'd noticed her too, here and there in the square, though that seemed unlikely, she was so much less noticeable a person—a personage—than he was, in his size, his ebullience.

Several times she spotted Jeff somewhere in the room too, once leaned over a woman, listening attentively. She recognized this posture. He'd assumed it with her too when he was picking her up at the party where they'd met. She watched him now for a few moments. It seemed to be working in this instance too—the woman gazed up at him, apparently dazzled. He was good at it.

At some point she went outside to cool off, standing among a small group of people gathered there. She fell into a conversation with a tall, middle-aged man who vaguely resembled Al Pacino. She couldn't place his accent. New York? He was a friend of Graham's, he said. His partner, in fact.

"Partner?" she asked. Was he gay then, Graham? She felt a quick jolt of disappointment.

"Yeah, you know, the guy who owns the bookstore with him."

"Oh!" she said.

Peter, he said his name was. Peter Aiello. They talked for a while, easily, a bit flirtatiously, and then he saw someone inside the store he needed to speak with and moved away.

Annie stayed outside, by herself. The air was fresh and cool, the first stars visible in the deepening blue of the sky. She found herself wishing she could just leave—leave, and walk home alone. It wouldn't bother Jeff for more than a few seconds at the most.

Or maybe it would.

This was the trouble with these ruleless relationships, she thought. You couldn't really know anything for certain about what the other person might be feeling. Might be entitled to feel.

She went back in and made her way slowly through the press of people to the table, to get herself another glass of wine. Just as she turned to face the room again, wine in hand, she bumped into someone. It was Graham. He was holding a glass of wine too. White wine, she was happy to note, as she felt it slosh abundantly across the front of her shirt, cool and shocking.

"Oh, shit!" he cried. He grabbed napkins from the table and began dabbing at her awkwardly, mostly at her bosom, such as it was, which was where the wine had landed. "Oh, I'm so fucking sorry."

"It's all right, really," Annie said. She was as much embarrassed by his response as by having caused him to spill the wine.

"It isn't," he said. "How could it be? Look at you!" He dabbed away, talking all the while, lost in apology. "What a klutz I am! I'm just so sorry!"

"Really, it was my fault," Annie kept saying, trying to stop him, trying to slow the hand that wielded the napkins.

"No, no. How could it be? It was me. Oh, God, I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. Please." But now he was insisting on his idiocy, saying what a clod he was, an asshole. Until, just to make him shut up, Annie raised her glass—red wine, unfortunately—and tossed it at him, at his shirt. A blue shirt, as it happened, a beautiful soft shirt, now with a dark stain blooming on its front.

His hands froze, he paused for a visible intake of breath, and then he burst into laughter. A guffaw, Annie thought. Of course Graham would guffaw.

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