Paulette spread the architect’s sketches over the dining table then stepped back to give Helena room to study them. Helena, arms crossed tightly, eyes pinched at the corners, stared past Paulette toward the window.
“Come on, Helena. At least glance at them.”
“We agreed,” Helena said. “No renovation planning. We have a significantly bigger issue to resolve first.”
Paulette sighed. “It’s not as if I went out and hunted this guy up,” she said. “Karel introduced us at that networking event last week and –”
“And because your boss put this man in your face, you forgot all about what I wanted, what we decided? You forgot that you knew exactly what your boss was doing? Or did you forget to be offended by Karel and choose to go along with his plan?”
“I made small talk. I didn’t offer to hire this guy, or invite him to come break down walls tomorrow. I didn’t ask him on a date, or offer to have his children. All I knew about him was his profession. What was I going to talk to him about, French absurdist theater?
“Do you care at all that I’m angry?”
Paulette gathered up the drawings. “I care, but I don’t understand why you’re this angry. I made small talk at a cocktail party. I go through this at least twice a month because of Karel. You know that. Yes, I talked about the apartment. He’s an architect. Talking about the apartment was safe ground for conversation. It’s hardly my fault that he took it on himself to do some sketches and drop them by the office.”
She slipped the drawings back into their portfolio. If Helena would only look at them, she’d be amazed. Paulette had mentioned some of their design ideas casually — she’d been making small talk, after all, not trying to give the guy any real ideas — and Saleh had fleshed out two, three, five variations of each one.
Saleh. He was the problem. Not really him, but the reason she’d been introduced to him. Her boss made no secret of wanting to find her a man. “My clients like my teams coupled up and settled down,” he’d told her. He took every opportunity to introduce her to single men, and was growing increasingly frustrated at her failure to fall in love with one of them.
At the networking event, Karel had homed in on Saleh like a heat-seeking missile. Saleh was young and beautiful in a bookish jock way. He had dark wavy hair and impossibly-long eye lashes. Karel had nudged her as they’d approached, whispering, “I’ve outdone myself this time.”
And, while Saleh was certainly the most attractive of the men Karel had thrown at her, his attractiveness had no impact on her lack of attraction to men, or her being in love with Helena. But she wasn’t out at work, and for a moment she’d wondered if a few coffee and lunch dates with Saleh would put a stop to Karel’s inappropriate and insultingly random match-making.
It was the wrong answer, of course, but an easy one. One right answer would be threatening Karel with a harassment law suit. Another would be the answer Helena wanted, the resolution to the ‘big issue’ expanding between her and any enthusiasm about Paulette’s home-making plans.
“My boss,” Helena would say every time Karel made one of his introductions, “my coworkers. Building security and the maintenance crew. They all know who you are. They don’t think I have a room mate, don’t think you’re my old friend from college.”
But Paulette wasn’t ready, didn’t think she was ready to be ready.
She tossed the drawings onto the couch. “Forget the sketches for now,” she said. “Let’s have dinner.”
Helena turned and left the room.
* * *
Paulette left work early the next day so she could get started on one of Helena’s favorite dishes, coconut cream curry with roast chicken. The plan: have the apartment full of the seductive aroma when Helena walked in and be ready with an apology. She made a quick pass through the market and was poking through options at the flower stall when Helena texted to say she’d accepted a dinner invitation and would be home late. Somehow, Helena sensed that the situation with Saleh was different, and a home-cooked meal wouldn’t fix that. Paulette shrugged, bought the flowers anyway, and went home.
The problem was that she hadn’t actually dismissed her idea about using Saleh to get Karel off her back. She’d been so pleased to find him waiting for her after her lunch meeting, so touched by the time he’d taken to render her ideas.
And it didn’t hurt that Karel had seen them talking, had seen that Saleh had brought her a gift.
“I told you I’d outdone myself,” Karel had said as soon as Saleh left. “What did he bring you?”
“Just some drawings.”
“Just some drawings, she says. The man created something for you! Tell me you haven’t put your foot in it, that you’ll be seeing him for lunch or dinner.”
“Karel, I am not discussing this with you.”
“That sounds like a ‘yes’ to me!” he’d crowed, laughing as he walked back to his office.
It was a yes. She’d agreed to meet Saleh for drinks, telling herself she just wanted to talk about the sketches. It had been so easy. Except that she’d only barely set the thing in motion, and already it was hurting Helena.
Back at the apartment, she poured herself a glass of wine. She’d call Saleh in the morning and cancel. That was the question with the real easy answer. For the harder ones, she needed Helena. She thought about Saleh’s sketches — their clarity, their variations — and wished she had a rendering of what everything looked like once she’d cleaned up the mess she’d made and found her way through.