Wow, I’m having fun thinking about Zara, Jack, and Steve. But this story is already bigger than I intended. Read ahead for Part II… and if you have any ideas for a better title than “Unexpected Encounter,” please let me know in the comments!
Read the beginning of Zara’s story here.
Zara had met Steve Kaufman, predictably, at her favorite bookstore, where she was grading papers one Friday evening. She had ordered a black coffee from the friendly barista, but managed to pick up his latte instead. His sputtering upon taking a hearty gulp of her coffee when he expected the much more mild latte and the ensuing confusion had all the makings of a meet-cute, but his restraint prevented anything more than a few shared words over the mishap. Steve was cute in an absentminded professor sort of way, and Zara offered a few attempts at conversation, but he went about scolding the barista for her mistake and requesting another latte. At his apparent disinterest, Zara shrugged her shoulders and waited patiently for another cup of coffee before returning to her papers. A solid 10 minutes later, Steve seemed to remember himself, finally approaching her and striking up a conversation. He even apologized to her and the barista for being so short, and Zara was persuaded to give him her phone number as he arranged to take her to lunch that Sunday. That had been three weeks ago.
Before she could open the door herself, Jack stepped quickly to the entryway and opened the door for her guest. Just as Steve hadn’t really seemed to notice anything of Zara’s appearance in their earlier meetings, Zara didn’t really notice how Steve looked until she saw him in contrast to Jack. Steve, too, had just come from work, but his long day didn’t really seem to agree with him. He wore a pair of subtly shiny taupe slacks, which she supposed would be pretty luxurious if they weren’t paired with a brown crew neck sweater. He wore his brown, curly hair long on top, which, paired with his dark framed glasses, gave him an impossibly youthful look. Steve looked completely perplexed to find Jack at the door, and looked down at the index card he held in his hand as if to confirm that Jack was in the wrong place.
“You must be Steve,” Jack began, solicitously. “I’m Zara’s best friend, Jack. I hope you’ll forgive me crashing your dinner.” Jack moved to the side, allowing Steve to pass, but didn’t offer any explanation for his presence.
“Of course,” Steve began, his deep voice confused but untroubled, “Zara has told me a lot about you.” This information caused Jack to grin blindingly, giving Zara a meaningful look from across the alcove.
“Hello, Steve,” Zara began, and leaned in to give Steve a peck on the cheek. Jack’s grin faded instantly. “Yes, Jack conveniently ignored the fact that I had a dinner guest tonight and showed up unannounced. I can kick him out if you like,” she said, and frowned lightly when he shook his head.
“No, no. That won’t be necessary,” he said as he looked around her apartment. There was only interest in his eyes, and she was glad for it. Her tiny one bedroom apartment wasn’t much, but it was home. In a way, this was a test. If Steve was going to be a snob about her place, she would rethink spending time with him. Jack closed the door and found his way back to his usual spot at the bar and an uncomfortable realization struck. She didn’t have any place for three people to share a meal; she didn’t have a dining room table. With a resigned shrug of the shoulders, she realized they would be huddling around her coffee table to eat their spaghetti and salad.
“So Steve, tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?” Jack began amiably.
Steve blinked a little at the direct question, but looked Jack in the face. “I work as an accountant for an insurance firm here in the city,” he answered steadily, almost flatly, without elaborating further. He stood, looking vaguely uncomfortable, at the edge of the counter with his hands pushed into his pockets.
“I’ll just start the pasta,” Zara interjected, suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m afraid we’ll have to eat in the living room, gentlemen.” At her words, Jack started gathering plates and silverware to take into the living room, but Steve stood fast.
“I hope you’ve had a chance to read the article I emailed earlier this week, Zara,” Steve began, as if he was aware that he needed to make some conversation.
“Yes,” Zara’s response came, clipped. “Why else do you think I invited you over to dinner tonight?”
“What article?” Jack asked, amused by Zara’s tone.
“In my field, I am regularly reminded of how very important it is to be wise about our spending. I shared with Zara an article from the New York Times about how twenty somethings are notoriously reckless about their spending habits,” Steve responded with more vigor than he’d managed since he got there. Jack barked out a laugh.
“Yes, it is very important that we are wise about our spending, isn’t it Zara? Some of us don’t have lucrative careers, do we?” Jack’s pointed stare made Zara’s blood boil.
“As it happens, I agree with the points made. I am a teacher, after all, and I shouldn’t be frivolous,” Zara’s concession, even though it was made to silence Jack, still set her teeth on edge.
“It isn’t only about income, Zara,” Steve cautioned. “I am so lucky as to have secured a comfortable living, but I am constantly reminded that I should be more frugal.” Jack smiled to himself, but sensing Zara’s discomfort, he changed the subject.
“Where did you go to school? You must have a very impressive education if you’ve been so lucky to secure such a great job,” Jack asked.
“I graduated from Yale, and you’ll never know a finer institution,” Steve declared boldly, but suddenly remembering himself, he added, “Of course, the University of Virginia is a very respectable regional institution.” At that, Jack’s smile faltered somewhat, but he gritted his teeth.
“When is that pasta going to be done, Z?” Zara, for her part, had been quiet for this brief exchange, and she smiled at Jack’s discomfort. Jack was a proud Wahoo and would take any insult to his alma mater very personally. But he had insisted upon these games by coming to her apartment tonight and provoking Steve, so she fought a smile.
“In just a few minutes. Steve, why don’t you tell Jack about Yale’s admissions numbers? Jack, Steve is a generous benefactor of the university.” With that encouragement, as Steve started rattling off statistics about the most recent class of students admitted into Yale, their high school GPAs, their SAT scores, their remarkable achievements, Zara turned away and barely concealed her laugh. He deserved it, she thought. But she stopped short when Jack pressed against her with the pretense of reaching over her head for another glass and whispered low into her ear.
“You’ll pay for that,” he warned.