Once upon a time on Planet Thirty-Seven there lived a woman named Anna Munson and a man named Nick Wells.
Anna was twenty-nine, tall and slender. Nick, thirty-one, was two inches taller and had a lean, muscular build. Anna's hair was light brown, naturally curly, and tumbled to her shoulders; Nick had dark brown hair with a natural wave his stylist knew how to make the most of. Anna's eyes were blue; Nick's were green. They both had high cheekbones, well-cared-for teeth and gums (Anna, especially, was a fanatic about dental hygiene. She'd never gotten over the horror of seeing her grandmother take out her dentures), and the glowing skin that comes from regular workouts at the gym and lots of bottled water.
Anna and Nick met because they were employed by the same company, and since they were both attractive, healthy, and well-groomed human beings, they'd noticed each other.
At that point there were three or four guys Anna worked with whom she found attractive. But she tended to avoid office romances as a rule, since it got awkward working together if things didn't succeed.
For Nick, Anna was just one of many women who met the basic criteria on his list of people he would consider sleeping with. But he, too, tended to stay away from getting involved with someone he worked with. He didn't like any kind of mess in general, and he firmly believed in keeping his personal life separate from his career.
But one day a group of people, including Nick and Anna, were in the break room getting coffee and talking about a difficult client. One of the group did a dead-on imitation of the client's nasal voice, mimicking how the client would call and say, "I think we all have the same conception, it's the execution that still needs work."
Everyone laughed, and it was Nick's laugh that first made Anna sit up and take notice. It started off slow, so that right about the time everyone else was done laughing he was just getting started. And they all ended up laughing all over again because Nick's laugh was so infectious.
As they all stood there laughing, Anna glanced over at Nick and their eyes met. Anna felt that first spark, that moment of recognition, that unexplainable mystery -- the eternal mystery -- the one even I still don't understand. How some little thing about a person gets your notice, or a moment happens, and you feel this pull toward them.
You could say Anna loved laughing, and that Nick's laugh simply made her feel good. And that she loved the way his laugh seemed to make everyone else feel good, too. Or you could suppose that his laugh reminded her of someone from her childhood. A favorite teacher, a beloved grandfather. Maybe her dad laughed in a similar way. Or that Nick's laugh made her think that anyone who could laugh like that had to have a real zest for life. You could say any number of things to try and explain it, and some of your greatest minds (such as they are) have tried. And you would still know that when all is said and done, the initial spark of attraction between two people remains a mystery.
Nick felt something, too, when his eyes met Anna's. It could have been merely a response to how she was looking at him; the simple pleasure one person feels when another person they find attractive notices them, too. It could have been the way Anna's eyes crinkled at the corners when she laughed. Or how pretty her smile looked (Anna had recently completed her semiannual two-week regimen with Crest Whitening Strips). But for whatever reason, he felt an attraction toward her, an attraction stronger than the one he felt for someone he just wouldn't mind sleeping with.
By then I had arrived on the scene, as I always do when that first spark ignites, and I watched as Anna and Nick smiled at each other for a second, then looked away.
The group broke up to get back to work after they stopped laughing, and I watched as Anna and Nick made their way back to their respective cubicles.
Anna spent the next few minutes at her desk thinking about Nick. On the one hand, she felt hesitant about breaking her policy of avoiding office romances. On the other hand, she hadn't felt this attracted to anybody for a long time. And they did work in different departments. He was in finance, and she was in marketing, so they weren't competing directly with each other. And wouldn't end up working on projects together or anything like that where they'd have to be around each other for hours or days at a time.
But it could still get awkward. What if they went out a few times and she thought things were going great, but he had a fear of intimacy and commitment and suddenly ended it for no real reason she could understand? Or worse yet, started dating someone else at work? And she'd have to come in every day and see the two of them together, run into them getting a cup of coffee together, and act as if she weren't bothered by it at all. Anna hated running into old boyfriends when things hadn't ended well -- especially if he was with someone new -- and having to plaster on that fake smile and make small talk and pretend none of the hurt had ever happened. Having to do it five days a week at work would be even harder.
But wouldn't it be wonderful to make Nick laugh? To sit across from him at dinner and tell a funny story, and watch as he threw his head back and laughed, the way he had in the break room? And she'd start laughing again, too, because he was laughing and because it was like this unexpected reward. As if she'd pulled into first place at the last minute.
So Anna decided she'd take a wait-and-see attitude. She certainly wasn't going to pursue Nick in an obvious way and become the object of office gossip. She'd seen too much of that around this place, and her career was too important to her to do anything to screw it up. But she wouldn't write him off, either. If something was meant to happen between them, it would. For all her practicality, Anna secretly believed that true love was a destiny that nothing could prevent. She also secretly feared that you could do one wrong thing and ruin your chances for love forever, which completely contradicted her first belief. But that's a human being for you. This is what I have to deal with.
Nick returned to his cubicle, had a quick sexual fantasy about Anna as he rebooted his computer, then got right back to work.
I didn't give them much thought. Nick and Anna were just one among many millions of romantic attractions I'd witnessed that day, some of which would lead to something, more of which would not. Nothing about their interaction alerted me to the possibility that they'd cause me any more than the usual trouble I have with you people. Little did I know.
For the next few weeks, I didn't pay much attention to Nick and Anna, since nothing happened between them. They'd run into each other sometimes, but Nick's department was unusually busy, and he was preoccupied. And hardly a day went by that Nick didn't see some woman he was attracted to, so Anna didn't stay on his mind the way he stayed on hers. The fact that he'd actually felt something beyond physical attraction toward Anna wasn't a motivating factor for Nick. His feelings weren't something he paid much attention to. If he never saw her again it wouldn't have meant much to him one way or another.
The first time they'd run into each other, Anna had felt those nervous butterflies in her stomach. But his casual smile and hello as they'd walked past each other, the complete lack of energy on his part, had made her instantly withdraw and feel a little foolish. There you go again, Anna, she'd told herself, building a whole fantasy relationship on the basis of one little smile. After a few sad days of regret, she decided it would have been a bad idea for the two of them to start dating anyway.
But one Friday night a group of people from the office decided on the spur of the moment to go out for drinks and appetizers at a local bar. It had been a really bad week. None of the clients had been happy, management had been breathing down everyone's neck, the computer system had crashed twice, and everybody was tired and irritable.
"I need a drink," Larry from accounting had groaned when the copier had jammed the report he'd been copying for the third time. "Or three or four."
"Sounds good to me," Nick had said, standing at the other copier. He was meeting someone later, but she wasn't anyone special, just someone he'd met in a bar a few days ago, and he hadn't called her back yet to set an exact time for their date. He could use a couple of drinks to recover from the past week. "You want to see if anyone wants to go to McMann's after work?"
"Sure," Larry had said. "I'll send out an email. Let me just kill this freakin' copier first."
A short time later, Larry had sent out an email to a bunch of people in the office, including Anna, inviting them to join him and Nick at McMann's for a little attitude adjustment hour.
When Anna read the email, her heart had jumped just a little when she'd seen Nick's name. She really shouldn't go. She'd told Beth, her sister, that she'd go shopping with her after work for their mother's birthday present. Anna knew this was the last chance she and her sister would have to buy a present together, since both of them were tied up on Saturday and they were due at their mother's Sunday afternoon.
But, God, it had been the week from hell. And she wasn't meeting Beth until eight. That should give her enough time for at least one drink. She could use a few good laughs with her coworkers. They didn't go out all that often.
That's why she'd told herself she was going. Yes, she knew her heart had jumped a little when she'd seen Nick's name. But she'd caught herself and told herself that even if Nick hadn't been going she'd still have said yes. And since she knew nothing was ever going to happen between the two of them -- he obviously wasn't interested -- it would be ridiculous to say no just because he would be there.
But I knew better. I knew that's exactly why she was going. Not that she wouldn't have gone otherwise. But she wouldn't have felt that new burst of energy, which, she told herself, came simply from looking forward to some laughs with her office buddies.
Twelve people from the office went to McMann's that night. Somehow, Nick and Anna ended up sitting across from each other. It wasn't planned, not in the sense of them deliberately finding a way to be near each other. The laws of attraction have a life of their own, invisible to the human eye.
To tell the truth, Anna actually felt somewhat self-conscious when she discovered that Nick was sitting right across from her. For his part, Nick didn't have much of a reaction at first, because there was a woman sitting at another table behind Anna who'd caught his eye.
For the first hour, three or four conversations were going on around the table. Anna kept her attention focused on Sara and Lindsay, who were sitting a couple of seats to the right of Nick. The three of them shared their horror stories about the client they'd all had to deal with that week.
Then the server came over to see if anyone wanted another drink, and after he left and it was quiet for a moment, Sara told Anna to tell everyone the story about what had happened with the fax machine that morning.
Anna groaned, partially at the thought of what had happened, and partially out of embarrassment. Everyone was looking at her now, including Nick, and she found herself feeling shy and flustered.
"Come on, Anna," Sara urged. "You are not going to believe this," Sara told the group as they waited expectantly.
"Well," Anna said reluctantly, "you know what the Shop Smart people have been like to deal with this week."
Everyone at the table nodded their heads and rolled their eyes.
"So they're breathing down my back, calling me every fifteen minutes wanting to see the new campaign ideas. I keep telling them I'll fax them something over within the hour, and every time I tell them that, my computer goes down. I can't access any of my files. So I call Sid and tell him I've got to have my computer working as soon as possible because I've got this client making my life a living hell. And, of course, Sid is his wonderful helpful self and tells me he'll get right on it."
Everyone at the table laughed. Once she got past her initial embarrassment and got into it, Anna was a good storyteller. And they all hated Sid the computer guy, who acted as if they were morons because they hadn't memorized their computer manuals. He got away with things no one else at the company did because, unfortunately, they all needed him. Which he knew. So they had to put up with him, and pretend they liked him, and they all had ongoing fantasies about strangling him with a computer cord or knocking him out cold with their keyboards.
"So I wait and I wait and Shop Smart keeps calling, and Sid is pulling his usual passive-aggressive tactics every time I call him, telling me he's on his way and then never showing up. So I finally decide I'll just write something out by hand that I can fax over to Shop Smart and at least get them off my back."
Anna really got into her story at that point. Her eyes were shining, and she used her hands expressively as she talked. Nick found himself paying attention and forgetting about the woman at the other table.
"I'm sitting there, writing out my presentation, and Sid finally shows up. At that point I just want to finish what I'm doing, but of course Sid wants me to give him a whole explanation of what I did to make my computer stop working. And that's when I made my fatal mistake."
"Oh, God," Nick said, drawn into the story. "You didn't say it. Tell me you didn't say it."
Nick smiled at Anna, and for a moment their eyes caught, caught in a way that everyone at the table noticed. Anna's cheeks flushed, lighting up her face with a soft pink glow.
"I'm afraid I did," Anna said, still staring at Nick, caught up in the story she was telling, and the feeling she was feeling, and forgetting her self-consciousness. "I told Sid I didn't do anything to make the computer stop working."
Everyone at the table laughed. And then Nick started laughing, slowly at first until he threw his head back and laughed the way he had that morning in the break room. Anna couldn't take her eyes off him, which everyone noticed.
"Anna, Anna, Anna," Nick said, shaking his head after the laughter died down, looking at her as if she were the only person in the room. "Will you never learn?"
"I know," Anna said, hanging her head in mock shame. "I have no one but myself to blame."
Anna looked back up, and she and Nick smiled at each other, forgetting everyone else at the table. There was a moment of awkward silence, and a few exchanged glances.
"Anyway," Anna went on, telling the story now for Nick's benefit but forcing herself to look around at everyone else, "Sid explains to me in no uncertain terms that ninety-nine times out of a hundred it's the user, not the computer, that causes the problem. And I know I should be getting the presentation finished or the client is going to be calling again. But knowing that if I don't sit there and pretend that what Sid is telling me is the most fascinating thing I've ever heard I'm going to have a broken computer for days, if not weeks. So I sit there, and Sid starts asking me questions I can't answer."
"Think back, think back specifically," Nick said, imitating Sid's voice. "What did you do differently this morning to your computer that you didn't do yesterday morning to your computer? That, my dear computer user, is the key to solving this little mystery."
"Exactly," Anna said, laughing. "And if I've told you people this once, I've told it to you a hundred times," she went on, doing her own Sid imitation. "I believe if you would take the time to read your computer manual carefully, you could avoid most of these problems and simplify both your life and mine."
Nick and Anna both laughed again. The others laughed, too, but not quite as heartily, because they were all beginning to feel like outsiders at a private party.
"This goes on for about twenty minutes. And I nod my head as Sid lectures me, as if deep down inside I know that he's right and I'm the stupidest computer user that's ever lived. And then the client calls, and Sid stands there tapping his feet while I'm on the phone wasting his valuable time. And sighing loudly about every ten seconds. Anyway, I finally manage to leave Sid alone with my computer, and I go to the conference room and finish writing out the presentation, and walk over to the fax machine, thinking this nightmare might actually be coming to an end. And what do I find?"
"Sid's dead body?" Nick asked hopefully.
"Unfortunately, no," Anna said. "Coming over the fax machine is a two-thousand-page document faxed to our office by mistake that no one can figure out how to stop. A document that has already been jamming our fax machine for over two hours, and will probably take at least two hours more before it stops. And, this is the best part, do you know what this two-thousand-page document is?"
"What?" Nick asked.
"A computer manual."
"No," Nick said.
"Yes," Anna said, nodding her head. "Somebody somewhere, probably one of Sid's friends or his even more evil twin brother, is faxing over to the wrong fax machine the rough draft of a new computer manual."
Anna looked around the table. Everyone else laughed politely, but Nick laughed louder than anyone, which made Anna laugh. The two of them laughed together for a full minute after everyone else had stopped.
"Well," Sara said after a moment, when Nick and Anna stopped laughing, "I probably need to get going."
"Me too," Lindsay said.
"Anyone feel like grabbing some dinner?" Nick asked as some of the others started agreeing that they, too, needed to leave and started gathering up their things. By "anyone" he meant Anna, and he hoped no one else tagged along.
"I would," Anna said immediately, telling herself that one or two of the others would probably tag along so it wasn't like she was being obvious.
Everyone else at the table demurred and made excuses, even though a couple of them were hungry and had no other plans, fully aware that something was starting with Nick and Anna and that they wouldn't really be welcome. People paid their tabs, and put on their coats, and said their good-byes. And then Nick and Anna were there alone with each other, and happy about it, although Anna felt a little self-conscious about how quickly she'd answered.
"So," Nick said, "I know a great little restaurant about three blocks from here."
"That sounds good," Anna said. "I just need to make a quick call and use the restroom. Why don't I meet you out front in a couple minutes?"
"Take your time," a relieved Nick said, because he had a call of his own to make.
Anna stood outside the restroom and pulled out her cell phone to call her sister.
She felt bad that she was going to cancel on Beth. But she didn't want to risk losing the momentum that had started with her and Nick. Before she'd only been attracted to him, but now she felt like they'd made a connection. They could talk to each other. They made each other laugh. How often did that happen, the attraction and the connection? And so quickly, as if they'd known each other for years.
Anna was afraid that love has these moments, and if you pass them up and the moment is gone, then the love never happens. Like many of you, she believed true love is the most powerful force in the world, eternal and unbreakable, but then she acted as if it could blow away in an instant. How you people ever discovered fire and invented the wheel I'll never know.
Anna took a deep breath and called her sister.
"Beth," she said. "Hi, it's me. Anna."
"Don't tell me, you're running late."
"Actually, Beth -- "
"Oh no," Beth interrupted, knowing what her sister's tone of voice meant. "You're not going to cancel on me again."
"I'm really sorry," Anna said, "but they moved the deadline back on the project, and I'm going to have to work late tonight and all day tomorrow."
Anna felt bad about lying to her sister, and she was sorry Beth was mad. To make it up to her she'd be forced to take an hour out of her day tomorrow to buy their mother a present and put both their names on the card. Which, no matter what Anna got, her sister wasn't going to like because she'd still be mad that Anna had canceled on her.
But, Anna told herself, it was just easier this way on both of them. Her sister had been married forever and had no idea what it was like to try and meet a decent guy. And it wasn't as if it was a complete lie. The project had been moved back a week. She was going to be working on it all day Saturday. And going in an hour earlier now so she'd still have time to shop for a birthday present. Nick was waiting for her, and she didn't want to get into a long, drawn-out discussion with Beth. She didn't want to ruin the moment or risk having her mood spoiled.
Across the room, Nick was lying, too. He lied to the girl he'd planned on meeting later that night. But he hadn't known the girl long and she hadn't been a particularly promising girl. More like someone who'd be okay to have sex with until someone better came along. And Anna was definitely better. She had girlfriend potential. Nick could see having her in his life for a while.
He felt kind of bad canceling at the last minute. Nick always did, but it never stopped him. The way he looked at it was, sex and dating was a game where you weighed your odds and took your best shot given the circumstances. He made up a work excuse similar to Anna's for the benefit of the not-particularly-promising girl's feelings. And since he didn't know how it would go with Anna that night -- you never knew, Anna could be a compulsive talker, or spend the whole time telling him about the bastard she'd just broken up with a few weeks ago -- he said he might be able to see her Saturday night and would let her know in the morning.
As Nick and Anna made their respective phone calls, freeing up their evening so they could spend it with each other, they didn't realize (and neither did I) that they'd set into motion some major cosmic shit for themselves.
Nick was kind of an innocent bystander in this, since he didn't want true love except way deep down in the most secret part of his heart (such as it is) and was not one of the people bugging me to find it for him all day long. And Nick was so unworthy of true love that in the normal course of events it would have taken him a few more lifetimes to even find true like. What follows is not the normal course of events.
Anna did want true love. She wanted it with all her heart. And since one of my most important duties is deciding if and when someone is ready for true love, I tagged along on all her dates to monitor her progress. But she was nowhere near ready.
Giving the arrow of true love to someone who isn't ready is a violation of the sacred trust I was handed when they gave me this job. I took an oath to honor that trust. No one gets submitted for approval to win the arrow of true love until I'm absolutely sure they're ready.
And even if Anna had been worthy, no way in a million years would she ever have found true love with Nick.
Maybe it was the pressure I was under from the front office, since I never came close to meeting the quotas they assigned me. They acted like it was my fault so few of you are worthy of true love. I kept trying to remind them what you people are like, and that there's nothing much I can do about it. We were all informed from day one that the most we could do is point you in the right direction. God forbid we should interfere with your free will. But these management types don't have a clue what it's like down in the trenches.
So maybe the pressure from upstairs got to me and I reached my breaking point. Or maybe after dealing with you humans for all these centuries, I couldn't take any more. Anna was simply the straw that broke the camel's back. Or maybe I was just in a mood that day.
But whatever the reason, before the evening was over I'd break the number one rule governing my responsibilities and obligations as a spirit: I'd send an arrow of true love to someone who wasn't worthy.
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Stingley