When Nick dropped into the chair next to hers at the post-lecture reception, Joy wasn’t startled. She always knew exactly where he was, even in a crowded room. Their conversation was initially curtailed by the aging sociologist across the table and his interminable treatise on core-periphery hierarchies. Normally Joy would escape by draining her whiskey sour and heading to the bar for a second, but tonight she slid under the barrage of words and centered her attention on the subtle movement of Nick’s arm against hers. He shifted, bringing his body close enough so that she could feel the rise and fall of his breathing.
Nothing to see here, folks, she thought, glancing around the room crammed with their colleagues. Just two friends sitting together after the world’s dullest lecture.
Finally, Professor Umberg belched and rolled to his feet, off to chase another grad student in a short skirt.
“Hi,” she said, turning to Nick, her eyes dancing.
“Hey,” he replied. “So that lecture was boring.”
“Hush,” she laughed. “Someone will hear.”
“I don’t care,” he said, his mouth quirking.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“Not enough to get through that lecture. I only made it because I could see you sitting in the second row. You looked bored.”
“I was,” she said, her breath catching at the thought of him watching her. “I saved you a seat,” she offered, ignoring the voices in her head telling her to cease and desist.
“I wish I would have known that,” he said, leaning toward her. His foot nudged hers. She caught his scent, coffee and laundry detergent sliding off him in waves of heat. “I would have sat by you.”
His hand flitted over hers for a moment and then descended. He squeezed her fingertips, his hand warm on hers. Joy watched as her own thumb rubbed the edge of his pinkie. His hand was strong and square, more suited for carpentry than pre-Colombian art history.
Joy tried to pop her unrealistic hopes, reminding herself that this was nothing more than one more piece of evidence to consider. The Great Hand Hold would join the Epic Elbow Brush from the October faculty forum and the Smoldering Glances from the end-of-year banquet. It would be added to the index of jokes he had made and nuggets of personal information he had shared during their weekly coffees in the faculty dining room. She told herself it was no more significant that the time he came up behind her at McGowan’s and settled his hands on her shoulders for a moment. She’d analyzed everything as if it were data from her lab and concluded that his interested was nothing more than friendship studded by momentary flirtation.
He squeezed her fingers again. He lifted his dark eyes to hers. His gaze was both shuttered and intense. This was different, Joy realized.
Joy swallowed, aware it had become an uncomfortable amount of time since either of them had spoken.
“Maybe we should—” she said, breathless.
“Hi, you two. Mind if I interrupt?” a voice said. Joy flinched as she looked up at her administrative assistant. Nick removed his hand.
“Do you need something, Marilyn?”
“There are some people who want to talk to you,” Marilyn said, her silver earrings jingling as she nodded toward the doorway, a slight frown on her face.
“Can it wait?” she asked at the same time Nick spoke.
“Better let you get to it,” he said, rising from his chair and walking away without a backward glance.
Joy looked for him the rest of the night while she was trapped by pocket after pocket of academics. She saw him briefly by the hors d’oeuvres talking with some of his newer colleagues, but by the time she freed herself he was gone.
Joy’s heart was still pounding hours later as she teetered over the ice.
“Joy, wait,” Nick called, following her out the door.
“I thought you’d gone,” she said, blinking in surprise.
“Just stopped by my office to pick up some papers.” He walked close enough that his sleeve brushed hers. She imagined slipping, grabbing his coat while his arm came around her waist. She was still looking for an accommodating patch of ice when they reached his car.
“You need a ride?” he asked.
“Sure. I was going to walk but it’s colder than they said.”
He unlocked the doors and she slid into the front seat, the cold leather seeping into her back. She marveled at how intimate it felt to climb into the car beside him, as if they were a couple and this was a normal part of their day. She wondered if the normalcy would dissolve the connection between them. Then she pictured his mouth on hers, arms twisted around her body, and she knew it would never be normal with him.
For four blocks she debated asking him about what was between them. She turned various phrases over in her mind, never coming up with anything less awkward than, “So, remember how we were holding hands at the reception and then stupid Marilyn interrupted? What was up with that?”
The whole time she watched his fingers on the wheel, imagining them stretched across her skin. Glanced at his long legs, wondering how they would feel pinning her to the bed. At his mouth, picturing it moving restlessly over hers. The fear of seeing rejection – or worse, pity – in his eyes kept her from saying anything other than commenting on the snowstorm forecasted for Tuesday.
“Well, okay then,” Nick said. Joy realized they were idling at the base of her driveway. In the dash lights, his wedding ring glinted on his finger. A booster seat glared at her from the corner of her eye. Every possible word fell from her mind.
“Good night,” she said, sliding from his car. She watched his taillights disappear. She climbed the stairs to her empty house, feeling as hollow as the snow.
*Troubled Joy was originally published by Ealain in February 2015. Here’s Ealain’s rights statement: “All rights remains yours and will forever, but I do retain the right to add the story, poem and art to an upcoming anthology.”