When Benji arrives, they’re skating to “Gimme Three Steps,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“I didn’t think anyone roller-skated anymore,” Benji says. “This is like something out of 1979.”
“I come here all the time,” Celeste says. “I think I like it so much because this is the music my parents listen to.”
“Oh, yeah?” Benji says. “Are they big Skynyrd fans?”
“All classic rock,” Celeste says. “They especially love Meat Loaf.” As Celeste watches the skaters, she thinks about being a little girl sitting in the backseat of their Toyota Corolla while her parents cranked up the volume on their cassette of Bat Out of Hell. They loved all the songs, but their favorite was “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” When the song got to the middle section with Meat Loaf and Mrs. Loud, Karen would sing the woman’s part, and Bruce would sing the man’s part, and at the end of the song they would belt out the lyrics together with so much gusto that Celeste got swept away. Her parents, in those moments, had seemed the most glamorous couple in the world. Celeste fully believed that if they had shared their car-singing with the wider world, they would be famous.
The roller-skating song changes to “Stumblin’ In,” by Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman, and Celeste gets light-headed. It’s eerie; this song is a particular favorite of her parents, and it’s not a song that’s played on the radio anymore. Celeste is stunned. She turns to Benji, overcome. How can she explain that this song so strongly evokes her parents, it’s as if Betty and Mac are standing right there? Benji makes the slightest movement of withdrawal but Celeste can’t possibly leave the skaters until this song is over. She sings along softly under her breath and Benji seems to understand. He stays patiently at her side. The next song is “Late in the Evening,” by Paul Simon, which is also on Bruce and Karen’s comprehensive playlist, but Celeste realizes that enough is enough. She takes Benji’s hand and they stroll toward Bethesda Fountain.
After the park, Celeste and Benji sit at the Penrose and drink beer and watch football. When the game is over, Celeste asks Benji if he wants to grab a pizza and go back to her apartment but Benji says he likes to be in bed early on Sundays so that he’s fresh and ready for the week ahead. Celeste says she understands and a part of her is relieved because it once again delays the question of what she and Benji will do once they’re alone together. But a part of her is disappointed. She really enjoys Benji’s company; he’s easy to be with, he’s funny, he tells stories about growing up in London and his family’s immigration to New York City but he never sounds like he’s bragging even though it’s clear he’s a member of the elite. He listens well too. He encourages Celeste to talk by asking good questions and then giving her lots of time to answer.
But she has probably bored him to death. And freaked him out by wanting to listen to old-people music in the park.
“I do have a question before we leave,” Celeste says.
Benji covers her hand with his hand.
She can’t believe she’s being so bold. It’s none of her business, but if Benji is giving her the brush-off and she might never see him again, she might as well ask this question.
“Shoot,” he says.
“What happened with your girlfriend?” Celeste asks. “And her daughter?”
Benji sighs. “Jules?” he says. “We broke up. I mean, obviously. But it wasn’t your fault. Things had been bad for a long time…”
“How long had you dated?” Celeste asks.
“Just over a year,” Benji says.
Celeste exhales. Not as long as she had feared. “I guess I’m mostly worried about her daughter,” Celeste says. “She seemed so attached to you.”
“She’s a great kid,” Benji says. “But she has a father and two really involved uncles who live only a few blocks away, and when I broke things off with Jules, I told her I would be available if Miranda ever needed me.” He stares at Celeste. “It says a lot that you would ask about Miranda.”
His gaze is so intense that Celeste casts her eyes down to the scarred bar. “What about Jules?” Celeste says. “Did she take it okay?”
“Not at all,” Benji says. “She threw her shoes at me. She screamed. She smashed her phone and that made her cry. She’s in love with her phone.”
“So many people are,” Celeste says.
“That was part of the problem. She couldn’t be present; she was self-absorbed; she wasn’t a kind or thoughtful person. She called herself a stay-at-home mom but she never spent time with Miranda. She went to Pilates class, got her nails done, and met her friends for lunch, where they all engaged in competitive non-eating. The only reason we were even at the zoo that day was that I insisted. Jules was hung over from the night before and all she wanted to do was take a nap and a bubble bath before she met her friends Laney and Casper for dinner at some overrated restaurant where she would order a salad and eat two pieces of lettuce and half a fig. That trip to the zoo put it all in perspective.”
“I just wondered,” Celeste says. “I wasn’t trying to steal you away or break you up.”
Benji laughs and slaps money on the bar. “Let me walk you home,” he says.
He kisses Celeste good-bye outside her apartment building and the kissing becomes so heated that Celeste wants to ask him to come upstairs. But he pulls away and says, “Thanks for a great weekend. I’ll talk to you later.”
Celeste watches him take the steps two at a time, wave, then disappear down the dark street.
When she gets upstairs, she sends Merritt a text: I blew it.
How? is Merritt’s response. What happened?
Celeste sends a series of question marks. A few seconds later, her phone rings. It’s Merritt, but Celeste declines the call because suddenly she is too sad to speak. She should have canceled the date on Friday, she thinks. Because what she has learned over the course of this weekend is that she is lonely and life is nicer when there’s someone to talk to. To kiss. To bump knees and hold hands with. Celeste was pretty sure from the start that she was an alien species, but it’s disheartening to have it proved true.
He’ll talk to her later. Yeah, right.
On Monday, as she is in her office reviewing the following summer’s special programming—they’re getting a gray-shanked douc langur from Vietnam, which makes Celeste think of Madame Vo’s with Benji across the table—there’s a knock on her door. It’s a quarter after two and Celeste suspects it’s Blair from the World of Reptiles saying she has to go home because she has a migraine setting in and can Celeste please cover her three o’clock snake talk, which also makes Celeste think about Benji.
“Come in,” Celeste says halfheartedly.
It’s Bethany, her assistant, holding a vase of long-stemmed pink roses.
“These are for you,” Bethany says.
The next day, Celeste’s father calls to say that Karen’s MRI came back fine.
“Really?” Celeste says. It’s not beyond her parents to lie to her about this.
“Really,” he says. “Betty is as fit as a fiddle.”
On Thursday night, Benji takes Celeste to a movie at the Paris Theater. The movie is French with subtitles. Celeste falls asleep as soon as it starts and wakes up at the end credits, nestled in Benji’s arm.
On Friday, Benji takes Celeste to dinner at Le Bernardin, which is nine courses of seafood. About half the courses press at Celeste’s boundaries. Sea urchin custard? Kampachi sashimi? She imagines telling her parents that Benji spent nine hundred dollars on a dinner that included sea urchin, kampachi, and sea cucumber, which is not a vegetable but an animal. There is wine with every course and Celeste gets tipsy. That night, she invites him upstairs.
She is nervous. Before Benji, there have been only two other men, one of whom was the TA in her Mechanisms of Animal Behavior class in college.
The next day, Merritt texts: So???????
Celeste deletes the text.
Merritt texts again: Come on, Celeste. How was our Benji in the sack?
Fine, Celeste texts back.
That bad? Merritt says.