Shoe Shopping

Tristan’s apartment was on the ground floor of a duplex. The front door opened into a dingy stairwell that smelled of mold, motor oil, cardamom. The door to his apartment was at the foot of the stairs to the left. He could sense Emily on the inside waiting for him, tempering her frustration so she could pretend he shouldn’t notice. She didn’t realize that tempering only sharpened her edge even more once it came out. He entered the living room. To his left was a window seat. To his right was Emily sitting on the couch, ostensibly reading, though it was clear by that point she was only maintaining the posture for appearances. Two plates of Szechuan chicken and their boxes of white rice sat on the coffee table. The chopsticks were still in the wrappers.

“Hi, hun. Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere, I just got held up on the way home. The food smells good.” Tristan put his bag down next to the couch and sat with a heavy exhale. He kissed Emily on the cheek. 

“Well, it’s probably cold. I could heat it up.” Emily said, as she reached out, grabbed the plates and started to stand in a swift, premeditated motion.

Tristan tried to stop her by touching her wrist, saying, “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”  

“You don’t want to eat it cold. It’ll only take a second.” Her arm passed through his ambiguous grasp. She was right, but more importantly, he didn’t want her to leave. He wanted to be close to her now, even if she was upset, even if they didn’t say a word, he felt better with her near. Emily disappeared into the kitchenette on the other side of the wall.

“How was work?” She called, the muffled sound of her voice a room away emphasized the perfunctory nature of the question. Tristan took off his blazer and laid it on the arm of the couch. He sat back on the couch and recalled what had just happened a couple blocks away. He hadn’t called the police. Maybe that was stupid. He took a moment to appreciate the stability of his apartment’s walls of white-washed brick.

Emily poked her head out from the kitchen. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m pretty tired.” Tristan sat up, massaged his face and mustered his best tired smile. “Work was good. You know, the usual.” 

“Good.” Emily flashed a smile and retreated back to the kitchen. 

The following hour passed in this way. They ate, shared general pleasantries, trying not to upset or disturb or provoke. Their evenings were becoming increasinlgy this way. It wasn’t because Tristan had just been robbed, or that Emily was forced to wait a few minutes longer than her patience could withstand. It was a deep fundamental and involuntary shift in their hearts’ allegiances. The experiment was over, the conclusions were in. Their hearts were malnourished and seeking alternative resources. They both felt what was happening, but they interpreted it in different ways. Tristan thought it was a phase, a dry period, an opportunity to prove how much they loved each other by acting loving even though they didn’t feel loving. She saw it as the beginning of the end, an irreversible collection of signs weighing against the prospect of a life together. 

Emily was the first to break the stalemate:

“I know I’m a little upset, so it’s probably not the best time to talk about this, but I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple weeks, and it’s all I can think about now. I feel like I need to just get it out there or we will continue to sit in silence forever.” 

She studied Tristan for a reaction, and he tried his best not to give any.

“Go ahead. No time like the present.”

“It’s like that! That right there. You’re so fucking passive. You think you’re being a good listener, but it’s maddening. It’s like talking to a wall.” She took in a slow breath, sat up straight on the edge of the couch cushion, and made deliberate eye contact like a mother scolding her son. “We’ve been together for almost four years Tristan, and I still don’t feel like I even know you. It’s not like I can’t tell when something’s bothering you, but you won’t even give me that. Everything’s like a huge secret. And you carry it around with this pompous silent saunter, like you enjoy it, like the world relies on you to carry this unimaginable burden.” Her upper lip quivered. She touched it repeatedly as she spoke. “I just want you to show me some emotion. Let me in. How can you say that you love me when you won’t open yourself up even a little bit? I’ve never seen you truly joyful, or even angry. Just show me, let me in, cause I really don’t think I know you.”

“Of course you do. You just said you can tell when I’m upset.” His casual dismissal was enough to set her off again.

“Don’t do that. Don’t treat this like some trivial argument. This isn’t something you can find some easy simple explanation for. It’s complicated, and the solution is going to hurt. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. I feel like I’m losing my mind a little. I mean, I think I know you, but I can’t ever be sure, because you never confirm my intuitions, you never share anything. You could just tell me that I’m crazy when I think you’re upset, that you were actually made out of cardboard and never feel anything, and I might just believe you. This is how surreal this thing is becoming!”

“This thing?


“Oh. I love us.”

“I know you do. But I’m not sure you love me. “US” is like a safety raft for you.” She made little air quotation marks with her fingers. “It’s an object of imagination, a habit for coping with your unhappiness.”

“You think I’m unhappy?”

“Aren’t you? You don’t seem happy. Half the time you’re uneasy, fidgeting around, looking for a way out of wherever you are, the other half you’re either in an introverted protective shell or putting on some obnoxious silly front. Either way you’re distancing yourself from people. It’s like with the secrets, you need them. It’s not the world that needs you to keep them, you need them, they are your excuse to segregate yourself.” 

She waited for a response, but Tristan was just staring at some point between his knees and the edge of the coffee table. He was prodding an errant fingernail cuticle with his thumb nail.

“You don’t even think you’re smart enough to apply for a promotion.”

“I don’t want a promotion.” 

“I know you keep telling yourself that, but look around. It’s a two year position at most. People either move up or move out. You look ridiculous just sitting there, not even putting out the effort while all your colleagues move on.”

“OK. I get it. I need to show more initiative, be more emotionally available, and I embarrass you. Is there anything else?”

“You don’t embarrass me. I never said that. You’re smart. You should be competing for those positions, but I think you’re scared to compete. Scared that it might reveal too much.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think, I mean, it seems like we are at the end of the line.”

“We tried, but we just aren’t right for each other.”

“I think we’re right…” Tristan’s voice was very soft now, and difficult to understand. “Things have been stressful lately, that’s all, with you’re location assignments and my brother dying. It’s just a perfect storm of bad timing. We really shouldn’t be making huge life decisions right now.”

“It’s not just now Tristan. It’s everything adding up. The past year and a half we’ve been ignoring these signs. We owe ourselves more than that. If we’re not getting married, then what are we doing?”

“So that’s it. You’ve made up your mind already? Why this whole charade then? What, are you waiting for me to agree with you? Cause I won’t. If you’re going to do this you will do it alone. If you want to give up on this I won’t help you. “

“But you won’t fight for me either…”

“Oh, no you don’t. Not this again. So, now I’m supposed to completely ignore your will, become a stalker because you may or may not find it romantic. I’m sorry, I have my limits, and it’s not fair for you to accuse me of not loving you because I won’t go against your will. That’s just crazy. I thought we agreed on that.”

“You agreed. I was tired of arguing.”

Tristan pushed out an exasperated breath. He took his eyes off of Emily and fixed them on a framed poster of a young Duke Ellington seated at white grand piano in the left hand corner of the room. Duke was cool, and at all times level; Professional and yet a creative genius. He was completely within himself as a man, never too far out on any limb, but always nimbly looking out from the edge. At least this is what Tristan imagined whenever he saw a picture of him.

Emily and Tristan sat on the couch, side by side, unable to look at each other, but also unable to leave, for a terrible period of time. 

Emily broke the silence once again with a purposeful inhale.

“I should go. I’m exhausted as it is, and I have to get up early. We can talk more tomorrow if you’d like. Maybe I’ll feel better. I probably just needed to get it off m–”

“Please stop, don’t minimize this. I know you’re just trying to make it easier, but I don’t need your pity — you just want to be free, so you can go out and pursue some ladder climber who dresses like James Bond and makes you feel like a queen.”

“Come on Tristan.”

“You said you wanted me to get mad. Well, here it is. I hope it’s everything you’d dreamed!” 

Emily’s eyes were a levee ready to burst. She was clenching her jaw like she does whenever she’s trying not to show her emotions. Seeing her hurt just hurt Tristan even more, but he poured that hurt into his anger and steamed. 

“Can you just leave. I don’t want to say something I will really regret.”

“Yeah.” Emily grabbed her coat and purse, stood up and walked toward the door. Tristan stood up behind her. She turned toward him. There was a stream of mascara down her left cheek. Tristan had to look away to keep from breaking into tears in front of her. He knew if he tried to utter a word he would lose it. She put her hand out and cupped his shoulder. She backed away slightly, dragging her palm down his chest, where she’d rested her head so many times. She held it there for a beat, another moment that lasted forever, and then spun around and was gone. 

Tristan immediately started heaving wet sobbing protests to the universe. So much time spent with this girl. So many pointless arguments and insipid lazy afternoons. So many expensive dinners and gifts. After a few minutes the tidal wave of despair gave way to a steady trickle and Tristan went to the kitchen to pour a glass of his favorite scotch. 

He sat down at the window seat. He couldn’t bare the thought of sitting back on the couch. He starting texting a friend. He needed to get this information out, he needed to pass it along so he could start getting over it. He was a free agent, there’s the bright side. He told himself he may have secretly been hoping for this to happen, he just didn’t have the balls to do it himself. She was probably right, she was usually right. It was for the best.

An incoming call interrupted his text. It was a D.C. number. He took another quick sip of his scotch and answered with a cough.

“Achk, hello. Ugh, excuse me.”

“Hello, is this Tristan?” The voice was of an older man in good health; Low but clear with elegant breath control and annunciation, like a classical singer.

“Yes, speaking.” He was still getting a grasp on his voice.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, sorry, just swallowed down the wrong tube. I hate that.”

“That’s all right. This is Mr. Dryden. From the Institute.”

“Oh, of course. How are you this evening, Mr. Dryden?”

“I’m great. Thanks for asking. Listen, I won’t take much of your time. I wanted to let you know that I’ve noticed the great work you’ve been doing for the Institute these past years.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’ve also noticed that you haven’t sought any promotions.”

“Yes, well, it’s funny you should say that…” Tristan reconsidered the merits of mentioning the newest development in his life.

“I mean, um, I just feel I serve the Institute best from my current position. You see, I really don’t see myself as the management type.”

“I understand. I used to be the same way, believe it or not. Well, listen, I have an old college friend who works at the State Department who would like to have lunch with you tomorrow. He read a report you worked on concerning that study connecting the suspension of some graphite mines in Pingdu to insider trading in electric car stock. He said you made some leaps of logic that he found intriguing, to say the least. He’s asked for an opportunity to pick your brain a bit.”

“It doesn’t sound like I have much of a choice.”

“Trust me, it’s always better that way. I’ll still consider it a favor.”

“Okay, it would be my pleasure. Where does he want to meet?”

“Good man. Do you know the Marriott Atrium?

“Yes sir.”

“He’ll meet you at 1:15.”

“Yes sir.” 

“Good night.” The line went dead.