Nick and Allison met at a little non-chain coffee shop halfway between Nick's office and Allison's home, from which she mostly worked. The place was as relaxed and noncommittal as the time, 5:30 on a cool spring Tuesday evening.
Neither had been there before, which was one reason it had been selected for their first date. Others were the simultaneously public and intimate atmosphere provided by the place's dim lighting and comfortable sofas; the wide varieties of coffees and teas on the menu, which—though Nick was a dark-roast, regular, one sugar man, Allison a Darjeeling, two sugars, slice of lemon woman—would give them something obvious and safe to talk about; and the entertainment, which would give them something just as obvious, but a bit more conspiratorial.
This was a mic, a guitar, and a guy in a fashionably ratty wool cap who introduced himself, frequently, as Randall. They listened to Randall's strummy versions of classic rock and folk, and his more heartfelt renditions of his own compositions, during the spaces in which they were not discussing their jobs, or their tastes in movies and music, or the place's amazing variety of beverages.
Powers-Smith / Love / 2
During one such space, Nick leaned toward Allison—not having to lean far, each having moved slowly but steadily toward the middle of the sofa during the course of the evening—and said, “This guy's great!”
She blinked, hard, then caught the sarcasm, and smiled a large, lovely smile, laughed a small, girlish laugh; her first uninhibited laugh of the evening. Not her last.
Later, at her car, they exchanged a short, close-mouthed kiss. In his own driver's seat, eager to relive a moment of what was already crystallizing into fond memory, Nick got his phone out and scrolled through his emails. Sender: GeTogether.com, but there were many of those; it took him a few seconds to find Subject: Suggested Phrases. He scanned the familiar list. There it was, right between “Seriously? Come on, I love this song” and “Why would anyone hire this hack?:” “This guy's great [Sarcastic].”
On Thursday Nick got an email instructing him to call Allison the following evening, tell her he'd had a good time on Tuesday but had been too busy to call until now, and ask if she'd like to do something again. Allison's email advised her to respond with noticeable but understated satisfaction, agree that she'd had a good time too—“Way better than most of these things, they're usually so awkward” was listed as optional—and inform him that, though she'd had plans for the night, they'd fallen through (here she had her choice of “One of my girlfriends got sick, and we really want to save this movie until she's around” and “I was going to get some work done but I'm not in the mood”). She was to suggest doing something that very night, though not, the message stressed, too eagerly.
They saw a lighthearted romantic comedy, giving Nick something to complain good-naturedly about, along with a slight feeling of being owed, and Allison the satisfaction of having nominally gotten her way, as well as the early precedent in movie-selection powers. Neither was interested in this particular movie, but that wasn't the point.
Powers-Smith / Love / 3
The point was that, at her car following the after-movie drink—both had stuck to the strongly recommended two-drink limit—they exchanged a kiss which was neither short nor entirely closed-mouthed.
Nick promised to call her the next day; it just slipped out. She smiled, and drove off.
Nick checked his email nervously and often all Saturday morning and early afternoon, convinced he'd screwed up badly. Finally, the blessed message arrived. He could, in fact should, call Allison that evening, and ask her out again. It took a while for the excitement of the impending date to seep through the relief, but seep through it did.
Allison, however, pleaded prior plans. At first she wouldn't tell him anything more, but after a brief pause—during which he heard her thumbs padding softly on the buttons of her phone—she informed him that an old college classmate was in town. They'd decided to have a girl's night out, she said, which assuaged Nick's worries about the gender of the friend. He still wondered whether she was real or fabricated, but that was a less urgent question, and one without practical implications.
They didn't see each other again until the following Friday, though they had several good talks in the interim, two at Nick's instigation, one at Allison's. Friday night was dinner, a movie—her choice again, though she had no interest in this one either—drinks, and a midnight stroll through the neat little strip of park in her neat little housing development.
After strolling by the neat little duck pond for the third time, Nick began to feel stalled. He saw her check her watch once, and didn't know what to make of it. He had no authorization to instigate, so he walked on, and hoped GeTogether knew what it was doing.
It did, of course; didn't it always. They were still a few hundred feet from their fourth encounter with the pond when a warm spring rain began to dot the path in front of them. It quickly built to a
Powers-Smith / Love / 4
legitimate shower, and Allison was justified, if not absolutely unrehearsed, when she dragged him, jogging, toward her condo, breathing breathlessly over her shoulder, “Come on, let's get out of this.”
They saw more and more of each other, were allowed more and more to express their real thoughts and feelings. There were awkward silences, during which both could be seen discreetly looking to their phones; there were minor disagreements, though the way forward was never more than a few keystrokes away; there were the countless little surprises, some endearing, some not, which wait in ambush as another's true mind is gradually revealed, but these were rendered unambiguous, at least, by the knowledge of which were to be considered endearing, which not.
On a hot, humid afternoon in late August, Nick moved into Allison's condo.
Nick was a little worried when, in mid October, he began getting instructions to spend more time at work, in the company of Melissa. There was nothing to do but comply, but he delivered his lines with less than total gusto. He got the impression she always chose the most risque conversation suggestion, whether it was warranted or not. Usually it wasn't, since he always—almost always—used the most innocuous line on his list.
It wasn't much of a surprise when he was texted instructions to respond affirmatively to the forthcoming suggestion. Melissa didn't give him much time for doubt.
“Why don't we take care of this stuff back at my place,” she said. “I've got some wine, and it's a lot comfier.”
She seemed a little annoyed at his hesitation. All his choices were marked either “[Eager]” or “[Very Eager],” and he did his best with “Yeah, why not?” It wasn't convincing, but Melissa didn't seem to mind.
Powers-Smith / Love / 5
Allison got the call from Melissa on a cold late-November afternoon. Snow was swirling outside, but soon Allison was flushed and beginning to sweat. She was too stunned to use any of the suggestions that arrived in a steady stream of texts throughout the call, though she did mouth some of the more obscene ones after Melissa had hung up.
When Nick got home, she threw it in his face, as per instructions; at least she hadn't been told to brood over it for days or weeks, which would've been too much for her.
She had some trouble, but she got through it. “Do you love her? She says you do” sounded more honestly questioning than “[Accusatory].” “How could you do this? Why?” was hollow and silly; they both knew how, why. “I want you out of here” carried no conviction at all.
She couldn't take his “She's fun. We never have fun anymore” seriously, since he clearly didn't.
When his phone buzzed for the tenth or twelfth time, some part of her must've known it was the last. She looked up from her own phone, waited. He seemed to be in almost physical pain as he silently read the message, looked up at her, looked back down to read it again.
“OK, I'll go,” he said, and went.
He went to Melissa's, though it was obvious, had always been obvious, that she wasn't his ultimate destination. He'd thought, hoped, Allison might be. But there was nothing to do but trust that GeTogether knew what it was doing, was molding his experiences in preparation for the final woman, was guiding her, whoever she was, along a similar, intersecting route.
He supposed there was no reason not to sleep with Melissa now. He'd felt guilty for disobeying those instructions, and foolish for missing out when he was going to take the consequences anyway. Melissa hadn't cared one way or the other.
Conor Powers-Smith was born in Patterson, New Jersey, and grew up in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Ireland. He currently lives on Cape Cod, where he works as a reporter for a local news Web site.