Second First Night

They had spent one drunken night at a bed-and-breakfast in the English countryside five years earlier. Pauline never knew his name, or rather she must have known it and lost it the way she’d lost so much of that evening—not the texture, not the flat green glass of the lake and the polished silver of the sky and the low rumble of his voice in the little room above the pub, but the narrative thread, the salient events. Now she was standing in the middle of the exhibit hall at the annual online trading systems exhibition at Chicago’s McCormick Place, and he was standing three yards away, feet planted apart, hands clasped behind his back, a tidy rectangle of neck visible between his dark hair and starched collar. He turned toward her, and there was his face with its relentless composure, its broad straight nose and roughened cheeks, its high forehead and frank brown eyes. It was a face, Pauline felt for a moment, that she alone understood. She alone knew how its equanimity could be overturned, how he too could be swept up, his tender interior laid bare.

He stepped toward her and she read his preprinted badge—Daryl Strong, a name suddenly familiar and comically, or ironically, appropriate for the man she would come to know. A man in the habit of restraint. A man who faced pain or illness or adversity by drinking tap water and forging ahead. But who could also be moved to tears. Whom a year later she would watch come undone over a bird’s nest fallen from rafters, its eggs shattered in the fall. It took him a minute to place her, and when he did he smiled in recognition, but he didn’t embrace her, as she’d hoped he would.

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