Synopsis: The evolution of Mode's newest potential super couple, Henry and Betty from Henry's POV. The third chapter centers on events that take place in Episode 10, "Fake Plastic Snow."
Author's Note: Per usual, much love, gratitude and worship to the LJ, and TWoP families. A special thanks to MaddieStJ, who has accepted the daunting challenge of being my beta-er and provides me with great conversation. To all the other H/B shippers and writers who are sources for inspiration. And last, but definitely not least, thanks to all my reviewers (even my anonymous ones—Teri and Illyria, to name some of the sweetest) who make my day, week, month with your support and encouragement!
Chapter Three: One (Is the Loneliest Number)
Fact: According the latest New York census (2003), the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 1,564,798 people inhabit the city of Manhattan.
There were 1,564,798 people living in Manhattan. While some found this number daunting, Henry saw it as just another thing to love about the borough. Ever the optimist, it meant there were 1,564,797 people besides him to offer friendship, to provide laughter, and to invoke tears. Being part of the "City that Never Slept" insured that he would, dreaming contently, knowing that he by no means was alone. Particularly, around this time of year.
With Thanksgiving weeks behind him, Henry's life had been going at a ridiculously hectic pace. Christmas was edging closer with each passing day, and he frantically shuffled his priorities to steal precious moments for himself, frozen moments in time where he could breathe in the holiday spirit. He got off the subway two stops earlier to admire the store shops' extravagant window displays. He escaped to Macy's during lunch for a peppermint hot chocolate to sip while he watched lovingly as kids stood anxiously in line, waiting to have their moment with Santa Claus. And he made sure his pockets were filled with one-dollar bills in order to exchange "God Bless" and "Merry Christmas" with the Salvation Army bell ringers and the carolers that entertained him on his way home.
Like every year, he was caught up with Christmas. Unfortunately for Henry, work and Betty were about to catch up with him.
"Oh, my God! Look at this, just look at this!"
Henry shot up from his desk, startled. December marked the end of Meade Publication's fiscal year, and that meant the third floor was Hell epitomized for all its employees. Most workers were pulling 100 hours a week since Thanksgiving, more for those who were hoping to take a Christmas vacation. As the staff made their way into the last couple of weeks before the New Year, everyone was jittery, shaking from a combination of caffeine overdosing, exhaustion, and anxiety.
"What happened? Did your computer crash? Did you not save your work? Jacobs, I told you, you have to hit Control S every five minutes," Henry reprimanded, standing over the cubicle wall that he and his best friend shared, not bothering to divert his eyes from the large file of financial records he was holding.
"Would you get your mind out of the techno gutter for just one god damn minute and look at me? I'm having a nervous breakdown here," Jacobs snarled, choking on the last few words.
Hearing the panic in his friend's voice, Henry relinquished his grasp on his work, and forced himself to focus on Jacobs.
"I'm sorry, J. You have my undivided attention."
Hearing this, Jacobs allowed his shoulders to relax, and he swiveled his chair to face Henry head on. The two gazed at each other silently and impatiently, each waiting for the other to speak.
"Well," they uttered in exasperated unison.
"Say something," they declared emphatically, again in perfect harmony.
"Yes, my face!"
"What's wrong with your face?"
"Are your glasses fogged up, Four Eyes? I'm deformed!"
This caused Henry to take pause. Barely containing his laughter, he theatrically whipped off his glasses, cleaning them with exaggerated swirls them before returning them to his face. As he expected, Jacobs was immaculate. The building could come crashing down around them, and his friend would still find the time to pleat his Prada trousers ("Dolce is so last month, Henry"), straighten his Givenchy tie ("Cranberry is this winter's version of pink"), and button his triple-breasted blazer ("Only fashion rejects do double breasted. Oh, um…but you work it, Hen…"). Because to Jacobs, there wouldn't be anything worse than risk someone finding his crushed corpse committing a post-mortem fashion faus pax.
"I have no idea what you are talking about, J. Per usual, you're sooo pretty," Henry teased, relieved to have a few moments not concerning cash flows and retained earnings.
"Are you fucking with me, Henry? Firemen could use me to soften the blow when they throw babies and kittens out of fiery 10th story windows. My eyes are that puffy!"
Emitting a low moan, Jacobs hid his face in his hands, muttering curses under his breath. "I swear every fucking December Meade is responsible for my youthful ruin. Last year I got two grey hairs and the beginnings of crow's feet."
"Well maybe if you didn't slack off 334 days of the year, the last 31 wouldn't be so painful," Henry gently pointed out.
"You can't see it, but I'm giving you THE LOOK," Jacobs retorted, still buried in his hands, "now, stop being a smart ass and get me the tube from my bottom drawer, will you?"
Henry sighed impatiently, but decided to humor his troubled friend. Collecting himself, he made his way around to Jacob's cubicle and maneuvered his way to the desk.
"Um, J," Henry whispered, a ruddy pink beginning to flower his cheeks, "is there something you want to tell me?"
Jacobs whipped his head up, haughtily grabbing the tube of Preparation-H from Henry's grasp.
"Oh, please, Henry. I saw in Miss Congeniality that hemorrhoid cream reduces the bags from underneath the eyes," he explained distractedly, placing liberal amounts on the offending areas.
For the second time in a matter of minutes, Henry struggled to hide his amusement.
"Um, J? You know, that's an urban myth, right?"
Jacobs froze mid application and glared at Henry in his mirror.
"You actually are supposed to use tea bags or cucumbers," Henry blurted out apologetically, "It's just something I know. You know, growing up with two sisters and all."
Jacobs continued to glower icily at his friend, causing Henry to shift in uncomfortable silence.
"Yo! Working Hard and Hardly Working," a booming bass reverberated in their direction.
The two men looked up to see their supervisor, Robert Drake, heading their way. A bulky man of little words, what words he did choose to utter were always cacophonous and aggressive. Bulky and muscular, rumors circled around the office that Drake was an ex-Marine who was only hired because he could yell his coworkers and subordinates into submission and obedience. Very rarely did any of them actually seem him crunching numbers, and never did they see him smile. Despite all this, Henry had respect for the man, and because of his admirable work effort, Drake returned the sentiment.
"Is he talking to us," Jacobs whispered to Henry, pasting a smile across his face.
Henry answered by playfully elbowing his pal in the ribs. "What can we do for you, Boss?"
"Yes, what can we do," Jacobs echoed, his voice trembling in fear.
"You, Jacobs," Drake bellowed, his tone forcing Jacobs to shrink away, "can get your pretty boy ass back to your computer and finish those statements of cash flows I've been asking for. I want to see calluses on those fingertips by the end of the day."
Jacobs visibly paled at the thought.
"And you," Drake barked, turning his attention to Henry, "I've got something special just for you. The Nancy Boys up at MODE are planning their annual Christmas party. Two weeks before The Books need to be closed, and they threaten to muck it all up with a hoity-toity shindig. Bloody gits, I tell you. They've got $500. Period. I need you to keep on them, make sure they tow the line."
Behind Drake and Henry, Jacobs writhed in his chair, letting out a quiet strangled sound. Not one for theatrics, Henry kept his footing, but felt very much like his tortured friend.
"Are you sure you want ME to do the job, Sir?"
"I'll do it if Henry doesn't feel up to it," Jacobs eagerly volunteered.
"Yes, Henry," his supervisor began, silencing any more outbursts with a menacing glare, "you are my guy. Some people would get too distracted by the half-naked models and the mistletoe antics to keep focused. Besides, between your overproduction in November and your work this month, you've earned a little break."
Henry felt his hopes wilt. He knew that "a little break" from Drake was a huge deal, and one of the biggest compliments he could ever hope to receive. There was no way he could ask for a reassignment now. Smiling faintly, he nodded his head in hesitant acceptance.
"Good, now get to work," Drake commanded, slapping Henry hard on the back, "and Jesus, Jacobs, keep your feminine problems to yourself, would you? Some things are just supposed to be between yourself and God, and I'm not sure God is all that interested."
Realizing belatedly that he was still holding the tube of hemorrhoid cream in his hand, Jacobs blushed feverishly, thrusting the embarrassment into the rubbish bin. Henry held his hands up in surrender, backing away from his friend as if he was a crazed animal.
"Okay, now let's not get all Scrooge-like. Let's look on the bright side, J…You certainly made an impression with the boss," he said, failing miserably at keeping a straight face.
Jacobs gripped the arms of his chair till his knuckles turned white.
"I abhor you."
Laughing all the way, Henry made a dash to the elevator, hearing the high pitched tantrum of his friend sneak its way through the crack of the closing elevator door.
The elevator was packed with Meade employees, and Henry couldn't be happier. The crowd would buy him some time and distract him. Because, while Jacobs was choking on his envy, Henry would have done anything to switch places.
He hadn't thought of her in weeks. Well, that wasn't all together true, but save for a few fleeting smiles he revealed when something reminded him of her, he just hadn't had the time. After coming to terms with his depression and his aspirations for a relationship with Betty at Thanksgiving, Henry had anxiously returned to work. He had hoped to find an excuse to go and see her, or vice versa, but days went by and nothing happened. Sometimes it was due to his lack of nerve, but mostly it was due to the fury caused by the end of the Fourth Quarter.
Now the moment had finally arrived. And yet, after all this time to prepare what he was going to say and gather his courage, Henry found himself exceedingly unready. The events that had followed their last meeting in the elevator had indescribably humbled him, and he was aware, no, he was petrified, that she might not want to see him.
It had been one lunch a month and a half ago. She had a boyfriend. And still, he wanted her. The butterflies flitting around in his stomach were irrefutable evidence of this.
The chime dinged, signifying to all riders that they had arrived on the MODE floor. Dazedly, Henry stepped out and turned on auto-pilot. His mind was whirring a mile a minute, his heart too, as he desperately thought of a suitable greeting. What did he say to the girl with the bug-eyed boyfriend who he fancied so much he was driven to the point of lunacy, only to be brought to his common senses by of all people, a very drunk but Buddha-like Daniel Meade?
Henry never had the chance to find an appropriate answer. One moment he was lost in his lovesick reverie, the next he was thrown back, choking on little plastic pellets of snow.
"Oh, man! I'm sorry," Henry exclaimed, taken aback from the impact, "I..."
Standing before him, herself covered in fake plastic snow, was Betty. Spitting out the foul tasting beads, she was too distracted to notice it was him. Henry felt his chest tighten in response to an overwhelming sense of anxiety and desire. Mentally psyching himself up, he adjusted his glasses as a means of gaining composure.
"Henry," she eeked out, her voice high in what he determined to be utter surprise in seeing him, "hi."
Something about the way she looked at him, and the cute little way she adjusted her glasses, gave Henry a boost of confidence he had yet to experience in his dealings with her.
She adjusted her glasses. Just like I did. This has to be a sign.
"You got a little, um," he uttered, gently reaching out to brush some snow from her hair, "right here…"
He chuckled softly, immensely happy that he had found the sudden nerve to be so daring. He certainly was rewarded; her hair was silky to the touch, eliciting tiny tickles across the pads of his fingers. Henry's breath caught as his palms grow sweaty. Scared that she would feel them, he retracted.
Steady, Henry. You don't want to embarrass her or yourself.
"Gosh, I'm sorry," he apologized, frowning at his cavalier behavior, "that, that was very unprofessional, uh…"
"Let me help you clean this up," he offered, beginning to stoop down.
"Oh, no, no, no, don't worry about it. I-," Betty pleaded.
"No, it's okay-"
The two collided again, this time with no snow to lessen the blow.
Ungracefully, Henry and Betty clung to their heads, rubbing the pain away. Henry felt his nerve begin to dissipate. Being around Betty had turned him back into a gawky, flustering boy rather than the composed man he was so desperately trying to be.
Just get this over with Henry. And try not to be a complete dork.
"Actually, Betty, you're just the girl I've been looking for."
Great. She looks absolutely terrified at the thought.
"Oh, no! Um, I'm sure that there are other girls."
"Oh, uh, it's about the party," he pressed further, "I'm supposed to oversee the budget."
Yeah. Definitely looks thrilled about that.
"So…guess I'll be on top of you for the next couple of days…"
Oh my God. Did I just really say that? Stupid Henry, stupid. Laugh it off. Maybe she won't catch on.
Betty's eyes opened widely, as she raised her eyebrows in fear.
Or maybe she will.
"All right," he heard himself blurt out a little too merrily and an octave too high.
He stepped to leave, only to have her follow suit. They tried again. Same results. Laughing to cover up their awkwardness, Henry motioned a third time in what direction he was headed.
Henry walked to the end of the hallway, mentally kicking himself with every step. His one chance to set the tone for their relationship, and it was a tongue-tied, stuttering mess. Balling his fists in frustration, he cursed himself.
It was going to take a Christmas miracle for him to fix the clumsy rapport that had developed between them.
That night, Henry ventured home on heavy foot and with a heavy heart. He had struggled through the rest of the work day, too distracted by his interaction with Betsy to be of any use. And so he had mustered half-hearted goodbyes to the sleepy-eyed staff and began the trek home.
There were brief reprieves to help soothe his worries. It had snowed all day, and naughty children were being scolded by their mothers for throwing snowballs at passersby. He had managed to find the perfect gift for Jacobs on his way to the train. And the city was glowing in shades of green, gold, red, and white as twinkling lights guided him home. Once again the city he had come to love had managed to fill him with comfort, without anyone uttering a single word.
Henry arrived at his apartment in better spirits. Blindly groping along the wall for the light switch, Henry elegantly dropped his shopping bags next to the door. Still unbundling from the frigid night, he absentmindedly pushed his answering machine to see if he had any well wishers.
"Henry, honey, it's your mother," a sweet, energetic voice rang out, "I just wanted to tell you that it's been unusually cold here at home. Would you believe it's been 50 degrees?"
Henry laughed softly, tenderly brushing his fingers across the machine.
"Anyway, you may want to bring a jacket. Oh, Henry, I can't tell you how excited we are to have our boy coming home for Christmas. That's all; I'm sorry to bother you. I know how busy they keep you this time of year. I just wanted to call and say I love you. Oh…and your father says hello."
The machine beeped to signify its end and began rewinding the tape.
For the first time since he started working at Meade Publications, Henry was going home for an extended Christmas break. The past couple of years Henry had been the rookie, and asking for extra days off during Hell month was simply inconceivable. But weeks of working overtime in November to distract him from his depression had ended up working in his favor. Drake had been so impressed with Henry's increase in productivity that he finally relented and agreed to give Henry a full week off.
Even without trying, Betty seems to manage to make my life better.
Henry sighed deeply, and shook his head, lost in thought. He had to curb this lingering sadness that was threatening to come to the forefront. Things between Betty and him were uncomfortable, yes, but not unfixable. Their current relationship was the result of being out of practice, rusty from lack of use. All he needed to do was find something that would oil the joints, get the kink out, and soon they could fall back to that content easiness that he had originally enjoyed so much.
Too tired to give it any more conscious thought for the night, Henry gathered up his remaining energy and unpacked the gifts he had purchased that day. Wrapping presents always relaxed him—something about the mindless intricacy of making crisp corners and tying the perfect bow calmed his nerves.
Opening up his tiny front closet, Henry winced at the comparable messy state it was in. Usually it was as organized and tidy as its owner, but the combination of the holidays and late nights at work had left it a little worse for wear.
Now where did I put the gift wrap? I know it's somewhere…OW!
Covering his head for protection, Henry tried in vain to avoid the downpour of boxes falling from his top shelf. When the barrage ended, Henry peeked to see the how much damage his apartment had endured.
It was a sight to behold. Platoons of beads, bangles, and balls skated across his floor, dancing their own private ice show. Henry rolled his eyes at his luck and began to clean up the best he can.
And then it hit him. He had the perfect conversation starter in the palms of his hand.
Go figure. It may not be a miracle, but it's close enough for me.
Henry nervously lifted a box in recognition, causing its contents to shuffle around.
"Ornaments," he explained, clutching the handles to hide his hands from shaking, "I thought I might save you a couple of dollars."
"Thanks, but, uh, the budget's all set. Amanda got us some amazing deals, seems likes a lot of people owe her favors," Betty squeaked out, finishing her sentence in one high-pitched, one-breath, run-on ramble.
She hadn't even bothered to look at him. In fact, she had purposefully turned away from him, pretending to skim her mail. But with the frenetic pace she was whipping through them, Henry knew she was using it as a diversion. And it surprised him how much that hurt. Still, he pressed on.
"So, basically it sounds like you don't even need me."
He was losing her. He had to think of something…fast. Seeing the snow globe on her desk, Henry reverted to his safety net: trivia.
"Hey, did you know the snow inside these was originally particles of gold foil? Sounds beautiful, right?"
Betty allowed herself a small "mmmhmm," but continued her uncharacteristic fascination with the mail. But as Henry shook the globe, he got lost in its dance, forgetting for a moment what the task at hand was and let his guard down.
"You know, I'd never even seen real snow until I got off the plane in New York," he reminisced, more to himself than to her, lost in his memories.
The sweetness in his voice in combination with the surprising revelation finally caused Betty to drop her act, and she stared at him in awe.
"What," she asked, not trying to hide her amazement, "how?"
"Oh, ah, I grew up in the desert. Tucson," he clarified, smiling slightly, "I used to think all snow looked like gold foil till I got here."
Henry gently laughed at his sentimental silliness and looked up to see Betty gazing at him tenderly. It was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but it meant the world to him. He smiled and handed her back the globe.
"No, not at all."
It was then that he realized how much he had missed her. Not her smile, not her laugh, not her voice. All of those were delightful, but no, he had missed Betty. It was her spirit, her delicacy, her fragility, her silent manner that so effortlessly put him at ease that he had longed for.
For one little moment they shared one perfect smile, and the awkwardness faded away.
"Was that a Christmas gift from somebody?"
"Oh, yeah. Daniel's been leaving me little surprises all week," Betty smiled, gingerly setting her snow globe down, "It's nice to know he cares so much."
Henry thought back to the night he and her boss had drowned their sorrows over glasses of scotch, and he silently chuckled.
The conversation should have ended there, but neither party seemed to want Henry to leave. And so they stood there quietly, their silence loud with the feelings and secrets untold.
"Where did you find the ornaments? They're really nice," Betty ventured, peering into the box he had laid down.
"Oh, you know, just leftovers from my Christmas tree."
"But there are so many," she exclaimed, picking up handfuls to demonstrate.
"Well, living on the 10th floor in a box-sized apartment really doesn't let me have the size tree I was hoping for."
Betty cocked an eyebrow in curiosity.
"I only managed three ornaments. Any more and it toppled."
His candidness earned him a full-bodied laugh, its warmth filling Henry with joy from head to toe. Both visibly relaxed, happy to have found a pleasant rhythm amongst each other.
"Three ornaments," Betty laughed, sitting down and motioning Henry to do the same, "I'm surprised you bothered at all."
"But you have to! It's tradition."
"Tradition? You usually slaughter miniature trees by adorning them with assorted holiday décor?"
Henry made a teasing face, causing both of them again to burst out in giggles.
"Yes, it just so happens, I do. Decorate the tree, wrap the gifts, and watch Rudolph over a plate of Christmas cookies and hot chocolate."
"I love Rudolph," Betty gushed, her outburst causing him to slightly jump in his seat.
"I mean, it's about an underappreciated, outsider reindeer with a huge nose, who ends up saving the day," she continued, blushing at her excitement, "I guess I always kind of knew how he felt."
Henry knew exactly how she felt, and her sincere disclosure only made his admiration for her stronger. The two exchanged knowing smiles, and he had never felt so close to her before.
"Well, I like the Claymation Rudolph best," she continued, breaking the spell.
"You know, they did that with puppets. They called it Animagic," Henry rambled, waving his hands dramatically.
Betty smiled a knowing smile. "Just something you know?"
"Yeah," Henry confessed, staring down at hands, mortified that he couldn't contain his nerdy outbursts, "I have this weird talent for remembering useless facts."
"Oh, no, it's not useless…it's…it's cute."
Henry's heart stopped.
It was the closest thing she had ever said that could be considered flirtation. Regardless of whether or not it was her intent, he decided to take it that way. Suddenly, the air seemed to grow thick, and Henry had trouble concentrating over the rapid beating of his heart.
I knew it. It's still there.
That spark. The little flickers of hope, want, and wishing that were ignited full blown with one declaration. There was no turning back from here. As much as he had tried to ignore it, as much as he convinced himself that being her friend would just be okay, he knew now that it would never do. Because there was no denying The Spark.
Slowly drawing closer, Henry extended a hand, "I've been meaning to ask, is this-"
"No," Betty yelped, jumping up from her seat nervously, "uh, it's just holly. Holly."
And suddenly the embers went out, his intimacy a cool splash of sudden reality.
"You know what? I need to get back to work, so you should probably go."
"Uh, okay," he acquiesced, slightly confused at her sudden nervousness. He had meant to ask her about mistletoe as a segueway to a childhood story he thought she would enjoy, but apparently his physical closeness proved too unnerving.
Henry rose, unsure of just what had exactly happened and fumbling on how to fix it, "Uh, so I guess I'll see you at the party?"
"Mmmhmm," she squeaked, bobbing her head incessantly.
As Henry made his way to the elevators, he tried desperately to calculate when exactly he had crossed a line. Despite this setback with Betty, he realized that he was deflated, but by no means defeated. As long as The Spark was there, he'd keep trying. So, there was only one thing to do.
I had better make one hell of an impression at the party.
The door was ajar when Jacobs got to Henry's apartment. It surprised him—Henry was not the type who forgot to lock his apartment door, much less leave it open.
Slowly, Jacobs peeled back the door, and a sudden wave of panic ran over him. The place was an absolute mess. Ornaments lay scattered around, papers were everywhere, shoes were hanging from furniture corners, and clothes lay rumpled on the floor. Heh, even robbers know better than to touch Henry's wardrobe, he thought at first, followed by a Holy fuck, robbers!
He rummaged through his coat in vain for his cell phone, but there just too many pockets for his panicked soul. Assuring himself that once he got out of here he'd go straight to a payphone and call the cops, he turned to leave, not seeing the firm hand about to graze his shoulder.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAH! I SWEAR TO GOD, I HAVE MACE SOMEWHERE IN THESE POCKETS, AND I'M NOT AFRAID TO USE IT ONCE I FIND IT," he screamed, clamping his eyes shut.
"What are you talking about?"
Jacobs cautiously opened his eyes to see Henry standing there in his boxers and very little else, save for his signature glasses and black dress socks.
"Shit, Hen, warn a guy," he growled, once again clamping his eyes closed.
Normally, Henry would be amused. But not tonight. Tonight was MODE's Christmas soirée, and to him, his best chance to impress Betty. To work within the allotted budget, there were no "+1s," meaning she was sure to be Walter-less. No "plus one" translated to just the two of them, and the perfect chance for Henry to make his move.
"What were you rambling on about," he asked, not really caring about the answer but trying to be polite.
"It's a pigsty in here! You're the guy who folds his underpants—you don't do sty. I thought someone had broken in."
"Hey! I'm sure a lot people do that," Henry shot back, dragging Jacobs behind him, "Now, I'm having a bit of a crisis. Help me."
He stopped abruptly, causing Jacobs to crash into him. Rolling his eyes, Henry moved sideways, motioning with his arms at the massive amounts of attire sprawled out across his bed. Jacobs stood there in a mixture of wonder and confusion before it finally hit home what his friend was asking his help for.
"Yes, and don't make me regret it."
"Wait," Jacobs started, cocking an eyebrow and grinning madly, "is all this for a girl? "
Henry just stared back impatiently.
"Oh, my little Henry is growing up! He wants to change himself just to impress a chick! I'm so proud," he dramatically gushed, put a hand to his heart and using the other to wipe a fake tear from his eye.
Henry pink cheeks grew full-blown red, and he mumbled incoherently. He was beginning to wonder why he had called Jacobs for help. But as Jacobs began rummaging through his closet, carefully scrutinizing each piece, he felt his nerves calm, and he was grateful for his friend coming over. Jacobs was not the most articulate person, but his words and actions were always purposefully chosen. And in a world of frauds, fakes, and phonies, Henry had come to realize how truly invaluable Jacobs was. Besides, they were like brothers; there would always be some give and take, but he knew Jacobs would not do him wrong.
"Okay, I've come to a decision."
Henry's eyes grew wide with eager expectancy, "Yeah?"
"None of this is going to work."
"What do you mean nothing's going to work? Something has to work! I can't go to the party in just my boxers."
"Oh, please, Hen. Like anybody up at MODE would notice. Half-naked is just another day at the office for them."
Seeing the seriousness behind his friend's joking sent Henry into a new wave of fright. Hastily, he began grabbing articles of clothing, thrusting them upon his torso.
"What about this?"
"Tweed? Are you kidding me? "
"It's a classic!"
"It's 70-year old college professor."
"Well, what about this?"
"A black sweater vest? At Christmas? Isn't that sacrilegious?"
Defeated, Henry slumped down on his bed. It was useless; he and Betty were not meant to be.
"Well, thanks anyway, J."
The sadness in his voice was undeniable, and it caused Jacob to take pause. Before him, his friend stared up at the ceiling, all the life suddenly blown out of him. And Jacobs realized he was responsible for it. Once again, he had inadvertently hurt his best friend, who was nothing but magnanimous in return.
"Here," he sighed, unbuttoning his coat and throwing it on the chair, "take my sweater. Just be careful with it, it's 100 cashmere."
Henry sat up halfway, staring at Jacobs in shock. He knew that Jacobs NEVER lent anyone his clothes. To him, they were his security blanket, his costume of confidence. It was a HUGE gesture for both men, knowing the underlying sacrifice.
Jacobs threw a pair of grey trousers and a white undershirt on top of his sweater and gently handed them to his friend. "This will do."
Jacobs shrugged his shoulder nonchalantly and scooped up his belongings.
"Look Henry, I know that sometimes I can be a shitty friend. And I know I pick on you, on how you act, on how you dress, on who you like. But you're you. You're Henry. And that's pretty fuckin' awesome. It's easy to pick out the right labels. It's a lot harder to be a good person. So, yeah, I love you, and more importantly, Betty will love you, if you just be yourself tonight."
Henry stood up, speechless at Jacobs' pronouncement. He didn't know whether to hug him or shake his hand. He just knew that he was glad that he chose Jacobs to be the one to share his worry that night.
"Don't get all emotional," Jacob muttered, quickly reverting back to character, "That was your Christmas present. Now where's mine? I do remember it was the reason I was tricked into coming here."
Henry laughed and thrust a beautifully wrapped box in Jacobs' direction. Excusing himself, he wandered off to change, allowing his friend to open his gift privately. Eagerly, like a little boy, Jacobs tore off the paper, not bothering to admire its beauty. Henry had given him a combination of PREVAGE and ZIRH men's grooming products for Christmas. Jacobs was aghast that his friend was so in tune with him and had gone to the trouble to spend so much; he knew that the eye serum alone cost over one hundred dollars.
Jacobs looked up to see Henry dressed, standing before him nervously like a kid on the first day of school.
The two shared a knowing smile as Henry guided his friend to the door. They shook hands, they shared a hug, and then it was time for both of them to go do their own things.
"One last thing, Hen," Jacobs said, before sliding out the door, "Whatever you do, just don't dance."
"What's wrong with my dancing?"
But it was too late, the door clicked shut.
"Seriously, what's wrong with my dancing?"
The party was in full swing by the time Henry arrived. Jacobs was right, half-naked seemed to be the norm, as slutty Santas in pink bras and flirty skirts danced around the crowd, offering hor'deurves and champagne.
"Drink," one scantily clad hostess offered.
Henry accepted gratefully, hoping a little alcohol would calm him down. He wandered around the floor admiring Betty's handy-work. There was a giant snowflake ice sculpture that reflected little rainbows on the walls, birch trees mounted in fake snow, white Christmas trees adorned in a bevy of colored crystals and lights…it was all very chic.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a twinkling red sweater vest and knew it was her. He couldn't help smiling at it or at her and completely forgot to stop walking, crashing into a woman in front of him.
"Oh! Uh, sorry," he apologized, sloppily trying to wipe his spilt champagne from the back of her black lace dress. The deadly look of the male companion she was with caused him to stop, sheepishly backing away.
"Robert! What are you doing here? Merry Christmas, by the way."
Henry hadn't seen Robert in a while. The poor guy had spent three days sick after Jacobs and some others had convinced him to eat six bottles of honey on Halloween. After that, Robert had moved cubicles, and tenaciously avoided the group as much as he could. Still, he looked relieved that night to see someone he recognized.
"I was put on the MODE account this month. I guess this was their way of thanking me for making sure their books were in order. Say, have you tried these white snowball thingies? They're really good."
Henry laughed; relieved to know that Robert's stomach had apparently not taken much of a beating after all. Gratefully, he accepted a ball. Robert then began a loquacious tirade about how overworked the third floor was, but Henry stopped listening and started looking around for Betty again. He didn't mean to be rude; Robert's concerns were more than justifiable. It was just that he was at a party; the shop talk could wait another day.
Biting into his snowball, and laughing half-heartedly at Robert's joke, he turned to see Betty staring directly at him from across the way. Smiling what he hoped was his brightest smile, he raised his glass to her in a gesture of celebrating her accomplishments. Much to his extreme delight, she returned the smile tenfold, delicately brushing her nose. Henry mimicked the gesture, suddenly realizing that the tip of his nose was covered in powder sugar. Feeling somewhat silly, but immensely happy that she was paying close attention to him, he again flashed her a boyish smile.
"So what do you think, Henry?"
Henry guiltily snapped his attention back to his coworker. He had not heard a single word Robert had said.
"Hey, we're out of drink over here," a raucous voice around the two yelled in despair.
"I'll open a bottle," Henry chimed up, grateful for the opportunity to steal away, "If you'll excuse me, Robert."
Henry excused himself profusely, grabbing a bottle from the buffet table. It was apparent people were quickly crossing the line from sobriety into abandoned drunkenness—mambo lines were in full force, and a handful of people were making snow angels in the fake snow.
Expertly maneuvering around happy couples, careful this time not to bump into anyone, Henry made his way safely to the circle desk. If there was a corkscrew, surely it'd be there. Not seeing one on the desktop, Henry began opening drawers, still to no avail.
"Ow," a voice cried, her pain resonating with a loud thud.
I know that voice.
"Betty," he asked, cocking his head to the side and trying not to laugh, to see her curled up under the desk, "are you okay?"
"Hi," she cried out, pushing her glasses up and darting out from under her hiding place.
Much as he tried, Henry could not hide his amusement and raised his eyebrows as if to ask for an explanation.
What is she doing? How adorable.
"Oh, um, there it is, just…" she smiled brightly, digging around in the purse above her, only to pull out a line of condoms, "I was just making sure that everybody was being safe. You know…office party hookups and…"
It was adorably obvious that this was a ruse, and that she was embarrassed. It took every fiber of Henry's being not to laugh; he didn't want to make her feel any worse than she already did. But inside he was dancing, she was just so endearing. And deep down, a part of him really thought she might have been nervous to see him.
"That's very responsible of you," he allowed, some gentle chuckles escaping, "You need some help?"
"Yeah," she breathed, gratefully accepting his extended hand, only to withdraw quickly, "Thanks."
Did she notice how sweaty my palms were? Crap. No, I will not get discouraged. She's just nervous like me.
"Hey, you should come back to the party. Um, Beauty is making snow angels, well, in the plastic snow," he rambled trying to act cool and finally finding the corkscrew. "I just came for this."
Betty nodded nervously and offered up a tiny smile, but the air around them had grown fraught with uneasiness.
"Have fun," he said, turning to go.
Henry returned to the crowd discouraged. This night was not going according to plan. What happened to the plucky conversation that they had exchanged so easily only a day before? It was his fault, he knew, not hers. He was too jittery around her, he was trying too hard and it was making her uncomfortable. He just needed to loosen up some more, relax a little, clear his mind…yes.
Four drinks later, and Henry was more than loose, he was downright limber. Tipsily, he danced around with dorky abandon, inebriated for the first time since his college days. He gyrated alone, completely unaware of the fact, but rather feeling as he was joined by the entire floor in his festivities. He gave and received high fives generously, as he be-bopped across the floor.
He saw her staring at him, holding the snow globe that had melted the ice between them. He waved enthusiastically, knocking his glasses in the process. Readjusting them, he smiled drunkenly when she returned the greeting.
And then, in the midst of chaos and drink, he had a moment of clarity. She was looking at him like she never had done before--a combination of longing, of sadness, of guilt, and of confusion. He stopped smiling. Betty was always so collected and composed, that he had forgotten that she was only 22. Staring back at him was not a confident woman, but a tortured, innocent, inexperienced girl. Part of his heart broke right there, while the rest beat its desire to go soothe hers. But all he could do was smile, stuck in his spot, frozen in this place and time.
He was so caught up in this bittersweet yet perfect moment, he didn't have time to react properly to what unfolded next. A forceful hand, lipstick lips, and chestnut curls tickling his face. She pressed hard, she tasted bitter, she reeked of champagne. He had no idea who she was, but he knew she wasn't Betty. And thus, she wasn't for him.
He finally pushed her back, a look of clear confusion and total disgust written across his face. But he didn't have time to chastise her, he was focused on Betty.
Where is she?
He brushed past his attacker, and vigorously pushed through the throngs of partiers. He saw her, she was leaving; she looked upset.
"Betty! Betty, where are you going?"
Her final look sent chills up his spine as the elevator doors closed, and he stopped dead in his tracks.
Oh my god. She saw.
He didn't go after her. He didn't go home. He didn't know what to do.
So he took the elevator to the third floor. He reorganized his drawers. He tidied up his cubicle. He went around the office saying "Merry Christmas" to everybody before he left the office until the New Year. And then there was nothing else he could do but go home.
He stepped into the elevator dully, barely making a sound. He went to press for the ground floor, but his finger stopped short.
I came so close. Too close. No more of this. I'm finishing what I started.
Firmly, with a renewed sense of determination, he hit the button to the MODE floor. He was surprised to find he was not the only one up there.
"There's no champagne left, buddy, so just turn around. Trust me, I checked."
Henry just stood there dumbfounded, staring at Amanda struggling to sweep up the little bits of confetti and snow.
"Seriously, I-Oh, it's you, Accountantman," she said flatly, "did you forget your pocket protector or something?"
"Um," Henry spoke hoarsely, clearing his throat, "I was hoping I could use your floor directory."
This interested her, and she temporarily halted. "What, are you looking to become Betty's dork in shining armor? Because, as weird as it is, she already has her nerd reject. Unbelievable, I know."
"Please, just one call."
Seeing his desperation, Amanda momentarily softened. "Whatever, but if you and Betty end up getting married or something I expect commission or something," She pulled up the directory on her computer then wandered off to the ladies room, leaving him to his own devices.
Nervously, he sat down at her desk. As he gently grazed the smooth countertop, he flashed back to earlier that evening when he caught her hiding from him. There was something there, he didn't know what exactly, but it was pure and it was good. And he just wasn't ready to let go.
The phone ringing was deafening.
He took a deep breath. "Hi, is Betty there?"
"Yeah. Who's calling?"
"It's Henry, her…uh…friend. From work."
The other end grew deafeningly silent.
"Hello, are you still there?"
"Yeah, sorry. Um, actually, you know, Betty is busy. Can I take a message?"
"Yes, please. Tell her about the party-"
He halted. He couldn't tell her what happened over the phone. It was not the right thing to do. She needed to hear it in person, to see how sincere he was.
"You know what? I just wanted to let her know that Rudolph's on tomorrow night. She can call me if she wants to watch it, you know, together."
Again, momentary quiet.
"Uh, okay. I'll tell her. Thanks, bye."
The phone clicked, and the line went dead. And as hard as he tried, Henry couldn't help but feel his chances went with it. But he had tried his best. He knew Betty; she would call him back with some sort of answer. And he'd have his chance to make it right.
I have to.
The next day passed slowly, each moment torture for Henry. He tried to put on a brave face and pretend things were normal. He showered, he cleaned up his apartment, he packed for home.
He didn't leave his house.
She was going to call. He knew it. She was just a little worn out from the party. She slept in late. She was going call. She was just busy running errands. She was going to call. She was probably wrapping Christmas presents with her family and just lost track of time.
He made sugar cookies. He poured two cups of hot cocoa. He dimmed the lights. He turned on the television. And he waited.
She's going to call.
Rudolph came on. "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" played. Rudolph and Clarice fell in love. And Rudolph saved the day.
He turned off his set.
She had not called.
There were 1,564,798 people in Manhattan that night. But for the first time since he moved there, as Henry sat there in the dark, silent, still and alone, it felt like there was only one.