…because if she didn’t, there was a decent chance Bret would react precisely as her friends had, on multiple occasions, suggested that he would react, which seemed unlikely to be good. And so Melody had spent a fair bit of time avoiding Bret in recent days. She had, in fact, found his behavior of late to be borderline erratic, almost as though this whole situation wasn’t really as innocuous as he had led friends and associates to believe. And if that was the case—if Bret was harboring some misguided sense of indebtedness on her part—well, then, she was pretty sure that being around him right now was not high on her list of things to do.
Still, there was the interview day after tomorrow. There was no denying Bret had made that happen, though precisely how remained something of a mystery. Apparently he had a friend who was the nephew of the senior editor, or some such thing. In any event, it was now on her schedule and it was by far the best opportunity she had had in recent years to move beyond the dead-end job she had been enduring since arriving in the city nearly seven years ago. She had left grad school with a Masters in journalism, but this was her first legitimate chance to land a position that was in any way actually related to what she had spent all those years and all those dollars studying. It wasn’t even about the money. Hell, she would take a pay cut if it meant finally finding a way into the publishing industry. The only downside to the opportunity was that it possibly carried with it an implicit obligation to acknowledge Bret’s involvement, something she had as yet failed to muster the courage to do. Melody had thought about this rather a lot in recent days and come to a conclusion that was at least odd, and quite possibly downright unjust, i.e., that she would only owe Bret a debt of gratitude if the opportunity actually panned out and she landed the position. If it didn’t go well, she reasoned, the whole thing was a push and she would owe Bret nothing. And given his recent behavior, this rationale concerning her potential debt—or lack thereof—had the perverse effect of almost making her hope for failure in the interview.
It wasn’t as though Bret was obviously groping for recognition or anything like that. Not openly anyway. But there was this unsettling way he had of smiling out of one side of his mouth, a mannerism that carried with it a potentially wide range of emotive ambiguity. And so you were never quite sure what he was conveying or what he expected from you by way of reaction. Melody had seen Bret twice since he’d first told her of the pending interview, and it had seemed, to her at least, like he wanted/expected something in return for the favor. In fairness, though, it wasn’t that Melody had asked outright for Bret to make any special contacts on her behalf. She had, though, mentioned on more than one occasion her frustration with the direction her career had taken, and had, as well, after the odd drink or two, spoken of how very much she wanted to break into publishing. And it was on one of those occasions that Bret had proffered his services as broker of sorts to possibly arrange a meeting between his cousin or nephew or whatever and Melody, though she was quick to remind herself that this had been in the presence of several other friends and it wasn’t in any real sense a date or other form of romantic interaction during which the offer had been tendered, so that her nagging sense of obligatory gratitude was really almost certainly of her own doing and the product of an overactive perception that had nothing at all to do with how Bret did or did not really feel about the whole thing.
Bret, for his part, was in truth terribly fond of Melody, though constitutionally incapable of plainly stating how he felt, having grown up in one of those New England households in which stoicism and the stifling of emotion and earnest conversation are traits much revered and in which expressions of love or, for that matter, any feelings at all toward other people are eschewed on pain of ostracism. The best Bret could manage was to place himself in Melody’s presence as frequently as possible in hopes that his simple proximity might engender in her some sort of autonomic attraction which, to be truthful, Bret wasn’t even sure existed, but which seemed his only recourse. The two had met scarcely a month and a half prior, and it was only through sheer happenstance that the professional situation and frustration expressed on more than one occasion by Melody just happened to overlap with a personal contact—albeit an infrequent one—that had allowed Bret to offer assistance.
There was another complication in all of this though, one that caused Bret no small measure of contradictory emotion concerning how he should proceed. For in the same way that Melody harbored a bit of fear over potentially ending up in Bret’s debt over the connection and ensuing interview, Bret, for his part, felt that, despite his having arranged the interview, he could not in good conscience wish Melody well in its outcome, for the simple reason that the position for which she was to be considered would, in fact, be in another city, so that her success—success potentially orchestrated by him—would only serve to carry her halfway across the country and out of his reach, almost certainly forever. All of which combined to mean that, in summary, Bret had arranged a job interview for Melody, which she had accepted, but which neither she nor he were entirely committed to her succeeding at.
This aspect of the situation—the geographic bit—was at least a small factor in Melody’s state of mind, as well, as she sat in her small apartment that Saturday night, ruminating on just what the Monday morning meeting would be like. For though she wanted, in the strongest possible way, to succeed in her chosen field, she very much enjoyed life here in the city, and wasn’t all that keen to move to some small rural town whose idea of a night out involved copious quantities of beer and floors covered in sawdust. Still, she reasoned, pacing the apartment, a current journalism school article clutched in her left hand (she had, since learning of the interview, made no small effort to reacquaint herself with current trends in the field. It had, after all, been seven years), taking part in an interview obligated her to nothing. The experience would, if nothing else, be good practice, and if she did happen to impress the interviewer, it wasn’t as though she was bound to accept a subsequent offer, though her failure to do so might strike Bret as odd, what with all of her carrying on about the direction of her career to this point, meaning she’d quite possibly be forced to lie and tell friends that she had not been extended the offer after all, while hoping against every realistic expectation that Bret’s contact wouldn’t actually talk to Bret afterward and contradict her.
These were the sorts of thoughts racing about in her mind that Saturday night, thoughts so engrossing that she had totally forgotten to feed Bitters the cat, who was now making his displeasure known by walking in and out between Melody’s legs as she paced the apartment. It was only when she and Bitters got out of synch in their pacing and she stepped on his tail, tripping with a curse and loosening her grip on the papers, which flew in a cloud across the apartment, that Melody regained her balance, leaned down and picked up the cat, ignoring for the moment the papers as they floated back and forth to the apartment floor.
She stepped briskly to the kitchen counter and took down from the cupboard a can of chunky tuna cat food, at which action Bitters expressed his approval by stepping gracefully from Melody’s embrace and onto the counter where he proceeded to make solicitous gestures in the vicinity of the can opener. Soon the bowl of tuna was before him on the counter and Melody knelt to retrieve and organize the papers that lay spread across the apartment floor. In this moment—kneeling on her apartment floor, scooping up papers while her cat ate canned tuna on the kitchen counter, Melody suddenly burst into an absurd sort of laughter, at first subdued, but swiftly building into an outburst so strange yet intense that she actually fell over sideways on the floor and continued laughing uncontrollably, so much so that Bitters momentarily diverted his attention from the tuna and looked in her direction. And in that moment, with laughter so intense that her eyes were tearing and her stomach hurting, she could not say why she was laughing, except that it could only have been at the ridiculousness of her situation. She was thirty-four years old, living alone in a third-floor studio apartment that cost more each month than the mortgage payment on her parents five-bedroom house in Virginia, and here she was on her hands and knees worrying about the possibility of having to feel (or, worse, demonstrate) gratitude to a guy who had done her a possibly massive favor but who, in the final analysis, she really really didn’t much like. What in the name of almighty hell was going on?
A question not at all unlike the one Bret was asking himself in his own apartment seven blocks away at exactly the same moment, though under very different circumstances. Bret was not asking himself this question in response to the ridiculousness of his life, but rather the futility of it, which is to say that while he was unsure how to describe just how he felt about his life, he was quite certain that it did not in any way involve laughter, particularly not the sort that might have one rolling about on their apartment floor. All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Bret was actually a very perceptive and self aware sort of guy, sufficiently so that he could plainly see the effect that his presence had on Melody, which is to say not a good one. And when he looked at himself in the metaphorical mirror (for he could scarcely manage to bring himself to do it with a real one), he had to wonder whether the attraction he felt for Melody (or felt that he felt) was a genuine thing or simply a reaction brought on by his not having dated anyone in nearly six months. He sat on his sofa pondering these things with a book open in his lap that he wasn’t reading and a TV playing on the far wall that he wasn’t watching.
One hour and one large can of Friskies Tuna Lover later, Melody was sitting on her sofa, stroking Bitters’ head and not watching the television that was—by a bizarre coincidence that neither she nor Bret would ever know or appreciate—tuned to the exact same movie. She had retrieved and resorted the papers from the floor and was flipping through them, half reading, half rationalizing her decision in this, the weightiest matter she had had to deal with in several months. She would go to the interview. She would do her best. And if it happened that she wasn’t good enough and didn’t get the offer, then there was no harm done and her life would return to its original unfulfilling nexus of uncertainty and frustration, which, while sounding horrible, actually felt pretty okay in this moment, at least as a fallback position. If, on the other hand, she did well and received an offer to join a nationally renowned publishing house, she would then (and only then) have a decision to make.
Bret wondered if he should call Melody. He could ask her out on an actual date. Every other time they had been together (either four or five times; he couldn’t believe he wasn’t sure of the exact number), it had been as part of a larger group, some of whom were his friends, some hers. And if she turned him down, well it wasn’t as though he didn’t have options (despite not having used them in recent months). The only thing he couldn’t do was bring up the interview. Yes, he had made it happen. His uncle had agreed to it after hearing Bret’s admittedly cursory assessment of Melody’s education and experience in the publishing industry. It had, though, been tough discerning whether his uncle was genuinely interested in Melody as a candidate or was simply going through the motions out of familial courtesy. She didn’t, after all, really have much of what could be called experience, aside, of course, from her degree. Was he possibly just setting Melody up for failure and disappointment? Whatever slim chance Bret had with her might be torpedoed in earnest if she came away feeling like the whole experience had been some sort of con. Still, an interview was an interview wasn’t it? A chance was a chance after all. He pried the top off a Bud Light, aimed the remote at the TV, and settled in.
I’ve done a good thing. Whatever else happens, there’s no denying that.
He’s done a good thing. There’s no getting around that.
Melody looked questioningly at Bitters as though the cat had expressed disagreement. She struggled to separate Bret’s act from its intent. Was it less of a good thing if he had done it in an attempt to gain her favor? Did quid pro quo diminish an otherwise positive thing? She mailed Christmas cards every year, but how many times could a friend fail to send her one back before she’d strike their name from her own list? Are there people in this world who do good things simply because they’re good people and don’t have thoughts of reciprocation? How cynical do you have to be to believe the answer to that is no? Bret liked her. At least she thought he did. The furtive looks, the proffered opportunity. There was something there, but it was one-directional. That much was certain.
As the cat curled up in her lap, another question occurred to her. How close was this relative to Bret—What had he said? An uncle? A cousin?—And what might he assume about a relationship between Bret and Melody? What had Bret told this relative about the two of them? Would there be a knowing glance to pretend not to see? A probing question requiring an ambiguous response? Just because she shared nothing about her personal life with even her immediate family members, didn’t others talk all the time? And how the hell was she supposed to focus on nailing a professional interview if this was the sort of thing running through her head the whole time? Damn it.
And if by some miracle it goes well? What if they actually offer me the job? What then?
What if she is successful? What then?
He wouldn’t have thought it possible to do, but Bret surfed through every one of the fourteen hundred channels on his cable service in under five minutes. His mother had enjoyed sharing tales of her childhood in which they had had just three channels to choose from, how you had to watch whatever was on at the actual time it was broadcast or you missed it forever. Was infinite choice a good thing? How in God’s name could there be fourteen hundred channels and nothing to watch? There almost certainly was something good on, but as he surfed, his thoughts were on other things—well thing really, one thing—the Melody thing. So he’d likely missed anything good that had gone flying by on his screen. Besides, how was such a thing even possible? Fourteen hundred choices in five minutes? How many seconds in five minutes? Three hundred. That’s like five channels every second. No, it hadn’t been five minutes. More like half an hour. Still, a mind numbing scan. Someday he would learn to use the remote’s programming options, weed out the obvious dross—the Spanish language channels, the romantic comedy movies, the cooking shows (when had that become such a thing?). There were really only a couple dozen channels worth even considering. He considered getting up for another beer—number three. What if he called Melody? Would that be weird?
Bret, like most people, found it hard to objectively gauge his own capacity for weirdness, at least weirdness as perceived by another person. Having met a person on four or five prior occasions, albeit in group settings, certainly seemed to him like a reasonable history to justify asking that person out. Hell, people asked each other out on their first meeting sometimes, didn’t they? Only there was a hitch, wasn’t there? One of his own dumbass creation. He had volunteered the interview with his uncle, a big wig at Penguin. And after maybe three minutes on the phone, his uncle had agreed—an uncle he hadn’t seen or talked to in a year. And of course Melody had jumped on it. Who wouldn’t?
It had taken a day or so for Bret to realize what he had done. Phrases then quickly began springing to mind—shot himself in the foot; engaged his mouth before his brain; hoist by his own petard. Clichés all. Only no, that one last one wasn’t right, was it? It was a Shakespearean thing, something about falling victim to your own evil plan. But his intentions had only been good ones. He had unexpectedly found himself in a position to help a friend—a new friend, but still—and he had done so. Not a good friend or a longstanding one, but certainly someone who, at first blush, seemed like a person he would like to have as a good friend, quite possibly more.
Which meant he couldn’t ask her out now. He had unwittingly put her in a position where turning him down would seem ungrateful. If she accepted his offer to get together, he would not know why. Or he would, and wasn’t that worse? And it wasn’t just now either. He had poisoned the well but good. Even after the interview, regardless of how it went, he was still up the creek. If it went badly, he might look worse for having set her up with a bogus opportunity. Even though he’d promised nothing aside from the meeting itself, there was still the implication, however tacit, that he had some leverage in the matter. He was on the inside. And if it went well and she actually got an offer. Well then she most likely moved away and that was that. And even if she came away with a job and didn’t have to move out of the city, he still couldn’t ask her straightaway to go out with him. Wasn’t that calling in a quid pro quo?
As he sat, mindlessly thumbing the remote, channels flying by, a third possibility slowly took form in his mind. It was an unorthodox thing, crazy really, but at this point what choice did he have? He could go to Melody and just tell her how he felt, explain the conundrum that his well-meaning offer had placed him in. Maybe, just maybe, brutal honesty would win the day. Then, even if there truly was no interest on her part, she would at least understand his motivation and would be working with all the facts. It was just possible she would be intrigued by his candor or at least somehow inclined to learn more about him. Or maybe she’d see humor in his situation, something they could both laugh about together. He sighed loudly, dropped the remote onto the couch, and threw his head back, staring for a long moment up at the living room ceiling. At best, this was all just wishful thinking. At worst, he was a pitiful excuse for a man. But whatever he was, and however she reacted to his overtures, he wanted (needed?) Melody to hold out to him at least the fragment of a chance … because if she didn’t …