The premature lines cut deep into Sam's cheeks, sharp and clean. Amanda sat back and watched him as he squeezed the lemon peel into his double espresso. "I love this stuff," he said, shaking his head slightly and smiling with a special sense of wonderment and awe–a boy from a flat town in Ohio where the churches gave frequent bridal showers and there were no espresso bars. Sam had been in New York for over a year and it was still a million Christmas mornings to him. He took a sip and looked up at Amanda and bit his lip to keep the same smile from forming. For weeks, he had been dancing gingerly about her, unable to ask her out. He found himself faltering in a way that he was not used to, opening his mouth to suggest a date and emitting a soft string of vowels instead of a time and place. It was as if he needed a new language with her, and he had not yet discovered it. Finally, she had turned to him, amused, impatient. "So look, do you want to go have a cup of coffee?" she had asked.
Now, piercing the usual confines of first-date wariness was this wonderment of Sam's, this enthusiasm. The stained-glass windows of the café were beginning to dull and the little colored lights that draped the room went on and it was strange and romantic and European to him, stranger still because it was a corner stolen from a devastated block and there were hungry people outside. "What a great place," he said as the last notes of a Vivaldi oboe concerto melded into reggae. "Do you come here a lot?"
Amanda tilted her head down so that he could barely see her full lips, curling at the corners. She had cool gray eyes and a steady gaze that seemed to be measuring out what would be given, what would be accepted, marking time. It looked an awful lot like confidence.
"Dumb question," Sam said, more to himself than to her.
For a couple of minutes, they each played with their espressos, dripping it about with tiny baby spoons and wondering what to say.
"So what did you do in Allensville, Ohio?" Amanda asked finally as she uncrossed her legs and lit a cigarette.
"I was a reporter for the local paper."
"How come you left?"
"I guess I figured there had to be something more important to write about than state fairs."
Sam ordered another espresso and began to describe what it was like to work for the Allensville Weekly Ledger, what it was like to stay home. He spoke slowly in low tones that suggested an intimacy that did not of course exist and Amanda found herself leaning forward on the wobbly marble table, holding her head and her cigarette in the same hand, listening intently. There was a softness in his voice that held her more than what he was saying and the willingness in it tugged at her like nostalgia. He had straight blond hair and shiny marble eyes and he made her laugh about the ancient Allensville society columnist who started every paragraph with a quote from Shakespeare and sometimes ended with one too.
"And I thought there was no civilization in the Midwest," Amanda said.
"Well, the column only appears once every two years. That more than covers Allensville's society." Sam leaned forward. "And what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"Younger than I am now."
Amanda lit another cigarette. She had rummaged about for a goal for years and the only one she had ever been able to come up with was this: to be self-contained. Anything more than that eluded her and now she was almost thirty and she figured she was too old to play with those particular building blocks.
"What makes you think I want to be anything? My job's not so bad." She was working at the moment at Legacies, a small clothing store owned by a mutual friend.
"You just don't look like the type to be all that interested in fashion." Perhaps he had read her all wrong. He certainly hadn't meant to insult her.
Amanda looked at him and looked at what she was wearing and she laughed. Her sweater, her coat, most of her clothes, in fact, were unraveling. They were not bad clothes, they had once been good clothes, but now they were all unraveling. She knew too that she could pull it off, that she could rim her eyes with liner and shuffle about her feathery light brown hair and it would be okay.
"I guess I'm not. I'm just helping Nancy out for a while."
Amanda pushed her cup away and shrugged. Looking up, she shook her head sharply as if to get rid of the conversation and motioned to the waitress for a check. There was nothing for Sam to do but follow. They walked a few blocks together through the gray city dusk filled with the smells of smog and sex that catches you and then vanishes like the sparkling glass fragments in the pavement.
Excerpted from Variations in the Night by Emily Listfield. Copyright © 1987 by Emily Listfield. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.