Read an Excerpt
Steve isn’t stupid.
He can tell by the way she keeps stealing glances at him, by the way she follows everything he says with squeaky titters, by the gradually shrinking perimeter of his personal space this afternoon, that Serena wants him.
He’s known about her crush for months. Frequent visits to his office with no real purpose. Hemlines and necklines drifting inexorably toward each other. Projects stretching into evenings, into weekends, into fuzzy, indeterminate hours that find the two of them alone with the soft rumble of the air conditioner and the laboring hip-hop bass signature of her portable CD player. Serena is familiar with her product offering, after all, and she markets it well.
But Steve isn’t stupid. He’s withstood her voluptuous body and subtle signals because sleeping with his administrative assistant would be more trouble than it’s worth, because he’s never cheated on a girlfriend in his life. And if Serena has figured this out by now—tomorrow they’ll be flying back to L.A. after a full week in Switzerland—it hasn’t stopped her from making a last-ditch effort this afternoon.
Which is remarkable, considering that he spent his entire morning searching for an engagement ring. Up and down the sidewalks of the Bahnhofstrasse, beneath the overcast Zurich sky, weaving between men and women dressed in outfits that cost more than Serena makes in a month. Around lunchtime he found a winner, a stunning three-carat solitaire set on a thousand-year-old band forged somewhere in the Alps to the east, a uniquely European item he purchased for just under thirty thousand Swiss francs.
The ring is for his girlfriend, Janine. She’ll be waiting for him at LAX in less than twenty-four hours, one expectant face in a field of them beyond the post–9/11 security checkpoint. A smile and a kiss and a seventy-five-minute drive to Valencia. A dip into the Jacuzzi tub with a Sports Illustrated. And a few minutes later she’ll bring him a lime-garnished Corona, join him in the tub, and he’ll be waiting with the ring.
Serena knows he plans to propose tomorrow evening. She knows because it’s all they’ve been talking about since he met her at the train station and showed her the ring. He even told her about Lucerne, a beautiful lakeside city here in Switzerland, where he plans to take Janine for their honeymoon next summer.
And still Serena casts smoldering glances at him, brushes against his arm a little too often as they walk along the shadowy Limmat River. She takes his hand as they hurry across the rail tracks, just beating an oncoming commuter train.
During a life spent pursuing women, predicting their behavior well enough to have scored more often than most men, Steve still doesn’t understand why women do what they do. Why is Serena so attracted to a man eight years her senior, a man with a serious girlfriend? Why is she more attracted as she listens to him talk about that girlfriend? Perhaps the exotic setting has something to do with it, their visit to this ornate and historic European city. The odd warble of police sirens, the constant rush of intercity trains, the ancient texture of cobblestone streets under their feet. But it’s more likely that Serena’s aggression is driven by the overpowering attraction a woman feels for something denied to her. This isn’t the first time he’s met one who suffers from a fixation on unavailable men.
The two of them pass the train station and make their way toward the Niederdorf, a touristy sliver of Zurich where claustrophobic streets have been closed to all but foot traffic, and multilevel buildings advertise all manner of food and drink and sex. Serena keeps going on about her obsession with Italian food, so Steve is directing them toward Santa Lucia, a busy restaurant with a chef who is a master of masonry-oven pizzas.
Rain begins to splatter the cobblestone street as they push through the Niederdorf crowds. Serena spots Santa Lucia and takes Steve’s hand, compelling him to run. With his other hand he pats the side of his overcoat, reassuring himself with the slight and squarish bulk of the ring box, and groans as he notices a clot of wet and hungry folks in the restaurant’s entryway. He could locate a cab in sixty seconds, after all, and find shelter in the warm, dry bed of his hotel room thirty minutes after that. Instead, he watches as Serena wriggles her way inside, leaving Steve and an elderly Germanic man to brave the rain.
Fifteen minutes later they’re seated in a dark corner of the restaurant. Steve is thoroughly soaked.
“I hope this food is as good as you say,” Serena says. “I’m starving.”
She chatters on while they wait to order, and Steve strug- gles to guide her away from the deeper waters of intimate conversation. He reveals the imminent acquisition of a new product database. He asks her opinion about moving the U.S. Web servers to Zurich. Serena responds by asking whether he prefers Merlot or Chianti, but before he can answer she grabs a passing waiter and orders something that doesn’t sound like either one.
“Janine is going to be so surprised,” she says, turning back to him. “I mean really. Three carats. She is so lucky.”
“Well, it wasn’t the size of the stone I was after so much. I was just looking for something unique.”
“I know, silly. But you have to understand girls. Rings are very important to us. Engagement rings, I mean.”
Steve smiles politely. He’s not sure what else to say.
“Let me see it,” Serena says.
“Come on. Just a peek.”
Steve retrieves the box and places it on the table. He tries not to notice how dark it is in this corner of the restaurant, how candlelight twinkles in Serena’s face as she opens the box and removes the ring. He wishes Janine were here. He wishes she were sitting across the table from him, twirling the ring between her fingers, smiling. He wants to reach out and snatch the ring back. He wants to wipe that dreamy smile right off Serena’s fleshy face.
Instead she presses the ring against her left hand. “Do you mind?”
Steve glares at her, startled.
“It probably won’t fit,” she says. “But I just want to see what it feels like. May I?”
He looks again at the ring. The stone is nearly pure in its color and clarity, a supernova in the candlelight.
“Actually,” he says, “I’d like to put it back now.”
Serena’s smile withers. “Right. Don’t want to tarnish the precious ring with my cooties.”
“Serena, it makes me nervous to have it out. I paid a lot of money for that thing.”
“Money, money, money. Is that all you ever think about, Steve?”
Predictable as they are, Serena’s mood swings constantly amaze him—from sunny skies to tornado warning in an instant—but such volatility has its place, and he’d guess (were he interested in such a thing) that she probably makes love like a monster, probably screams and moans and shouts obscenities that curl paint. But he can’t be interested in such a thing, because tomorrow he’ll be in L.A. with his soon-to-be fiancée, and any guilt Steve incurs here will undoubtedly follow him all the way home. It will taint the first sight of Janine’s smiling face and forever color his memory of the proposal. Serena might even tumble off her precarious ledge of good judgment and fall into the Fatal Attraction abyss.
“Are you going to answer me?” she asks him. Her eyebrows are arched perfectly above heavy liner and green irises. Red lipstick over straight white teeth. Her pink tongue dancing—
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Jesus, Steve, are you so lovesick that you can’t even listen when I ask you a question?”
“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. What did you say?”
She slides the ring box across the table. “It doesn’t matter.”
The waiter arrives with their entrées, and Serena plows immediately into her spaghetti, washing down every other mouthful with a swallow of wine. Steve’s Pizza Dante blisters the roof of his mouth before he finishes the first bite. Their entire bottle vanishes in minutes, and Serena orders another as she uses her fork to chase the last orphaned bits of spaghetti around her plate.
“What’s the matter?” he asks when the waiter takes away their empty plates.
“Come on, Serena. You haven’t said a word in ten minutes.”
“I stopped talking because you weren’t listening.”
“I said I was sorry,” Steve says.
“Answer my question, then. Is money the only thing you ever think about?”
“Of course not. Money is just a means to an end.”
The waiter appears again, and Steve requests the bill.
“Why are you asking for the check?”
“So we can pay. Did you want to stay here all night?”
“Jesus, Steve. Do you ever have any fun?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I paid this much. Bring the check now. It’s inefficient to remain in the restaurant any longer than necessary. They don’t bring the check, Steve, because they expect you to sit here and have a conversation. That’s what people do over here. They don’t rush home from the restaurant to watch American Idol.”
“We can have a conversation in the cab ride back to the Hilton.”
“Cab ride? I thought we were having a drink after dinner.”
“We have a ten o’clock flight tomorrow morning. We have to be at the airport three hours early.”
Serena stands. “Fine. We better get plenty of sleep now. Wouldn’t want to doze off during the thirteen-hour plane ride to L.A.”
Steve tries to say something, apologize, but she’s already heading for the door. He drops two hundred francs on the table and takes off after her. In the entryway he is confronted with an array of black overcoats, all seemingly identical to his own, and by the time he finds the right one, Serena is long gone. It’s dark now, and the crowds have dwindled to a few umbrella-toting stragglers. Steve has no umbrella. He turns right and walks in the direction of the nearest road, hoping to find a cab quickly. Wet cobblestones glisten beneath his feet. Rain pours from his hair in tickling streams.
Someone grabs him.
He turns quickly, ready to strike, but it’s Serena. She has stepped out from a narrow opening between two buildings, and mascara streaks her face like black ink. She pulls him into the alleyway. Her brown hair is now jet black and draped over her shoulder like thick rope.
“Are you happy, Steve?” she asks, breath humid with garlic and red wine.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a simple question, honey. Are you happy? Because you don’t seem like it.”
She’s holding him by his upper arms. Her face floats mere inches from his.
“I’m fine. But I think you need some rest.”
“I don’t want you to be fine. I want you to be happy. Ever since I met you—it’s been two years now, do you realize that?—you’ve been so serious, so driven. You think you’ve got this plan, that you’ve got life all figured out, but life is flying right past you and you don’t even realize it. I’ve waited for you to open your eyes, for you to see this for yourself, but you won’t. You can’t. Life isn’t about staying on schedule or making money or retiring by a certain age. It isn’t about marrying some girl just because you think it’s time.”
“What are you—”
“Life is like this,” she says, kissing him with her mouth wide open. Steve is ready to push her away, immediately, but the combination of her lipstick and the wine and the garlic is so human, so organic, that for a split second he enjoys the moment, finally enjoys it. Then he pushes her away.
“No. Stay away from me.”
A percussion of rain envelops them. The nearby buildings seem to shrink even closer. Footsteps of passersby grow louder, then fainter. She stands there, chest heaving, her overcoat wet and clinging. He can’t help but notice the swell of her generous breasts.
“You wanted me,” she whispers. “I could feel it.”
Steve steps out of the alley and she follows him.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Why can’t you just live, Steve? Live! Enjoy yourself. All I want is to see you happy.”
“Then leave me alone. That would make me happy.”
She blinks once.
“You’re an asshole,” she says.
“I’m going to be engaged tomorrow. What kind of person would I be if I betrayed Janine tonight, right before I propose to her?”
From the Trade Paperback edition.