Nine Inches

by Tom Perrotta

Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the Vice Principal twisted his arm. He said it was like jury duty: the system only made sense if everybody stepped up and nobody got special treatment.

            Besides, he added, you might as well do it now, get it over with before the new baby comes and things get even crazier.

            Ethan saw the logic in this, but it didn’t make him feel any less guilty about leaving the house on Friday evening with the dishes unwashed and Fiona just getting started on her nightly meltdown—apparently her busy toddler day wasn’t complete unless she spent an hour or two shrieking her head off before bedtime. Dana smiled coldly at him from the couch, as if he’d volunteered to be a chaperone out of spite, just to make her life that much more difficult.

            “Don’t worry about us,” she called out as he buttoned his coat. “We’ll be fine.”

            She had to speak in a louder-than-normal voice to make herself heard over Fiona, who was standing in the middle of the living room in yellow Dr. Denton’s, her fists balled and her face smeared with a familiar glaze of snot, tears, and unquenchable fury.

            “No, Daddy!” she bellowed. “You stay home!”<br />

            “I’m sorry,” Ethan said, not quite sure if he was apologizing to his wife or his child. “I tried to get out of it.”

            Dana scoffed, as if this were a likely story. She was usually a more understanding person, but this pregnancy wasn’t bringing out the best in her. Only five months along, she had already begun groaning like a martyr every time she hoisted herself out of a chair or bent down to tie her shoe. She was also sweating a lot, and her face had taken on a permanent pink flush, as if she were embarrassed by her entire life. Ethan couldn’t say he was looking forward to the next several months. Or the next several years, for that matter.

            “Love you guys,” he said, inching toward the door.


His spirits lifted as he got into his car. It was a crisp March night with a faraway whiff of spring sweetening the breeze, and he couldn’t help noticing what a relief it was to be out of the house, going somewhere— anywhere—in the dark on a weekend. He just wished his destination could have been a little more exciting.

            When Ethan first got hired at the Daniel Webster Middle School, teachers weren’t expected to babysit the kids at social functions. But that was back in a more innocent time, before the notorious Jamaican Beach Party of 2006, a high school dance that degenerated into a drunken brawl/gropefest and scandalized the entire community. Six kids were arrested for fighting, three for misdemeanor sexual assault, and two for pot; eight more were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Cellphone videos of some shockingly dirty dancing made their way onto the Internet, causing severe embarrassment for several senior girls-gonewild who had stripped down to bikinis during the festivities and become the focus of unwanted attention from a rowdy group of varsity lacrosse and hockey players. Dances were cancelled for an entire year, then reinstated under a host of strict new rules, including one that required the presence of faculty chaperones, who would presumably impose the kind of professional discipline that had been lacking in the past.

            Ethan thought the new rules made sense for high school, where the kids were old enough and resourceful enough to get into real trouble, but it felt like overkill to extend it to the middle school, one more burden added to a job that already didn’t pay nearly enough, though he knew better than to complain to anyone who wasn’t a teacher. He was sick and tired of people reminding him that he got summers off and should therefore consider himself lucky.

            Yeah, he didn’t have to teach in July and August, but so what? It wasn’t like he got to while away eight weeks at the beach, or lounge in a hammock by the lake. He didn’t even get to sit home reading fat biographies of the founding fathers or taking his kid to the playground. He was a thirty-two-year-old man with a master’s degree in history and he still spent his summer vacations the same way he had when he was sixteen— standing behind the counter of his father’s auto parts store, ringing up wiper blades and air filters to make a little extra cash.

            <br />For the second time in less than twelve hours, he parked in the faculty lot and made the familiar trudge around the side of the building to the main entrance, where a crowd of boisterous seventh and eighth graders had already begun to gather; there was no such thing as being fashionably late to a dance that went from seven to nine thirty.

            Ethan was popular with the kids—he was, he knew, widely considered to be one of the cool teachers—and a number of them shouted out his name as he passed: *Mr. Weller! Hey, it’s Mr. Weller! *Oddly gratified by the recognition, he acknowledged his fans with a quick wave as he approached the double doors, onto one of which someone had taped a single sheet of red paper, its message printed in big black letters: THIS IS HOW WE PARTY.

            The main hallway was deserted, faintly ominous despite—or maybe because of—the Mylar balloons taped to classroom doorknobs and the festive hand-lettered signs posted on the walls to mark the big occasion: *Dream Big! The Sky’s the Limit!! Prepare to Meet Your Future!!! *Ethan was a little puzzled by these phrases—they seemed off-message for a dance, more like motivational slogans than manifestos of fun—but he wasn’t all that surprised. The kids at Daniel Webster were products of their time and place, dogged little achievers who were already taking SAT prep courses and padding their resumes for college. Apparently they were ambitious even when they danced.

            As far as he knew, the other chaperones on duty were Rudy Battista and Sam Spillman, so he wasn’t sure what to make of it when he spied Charlotte Murray checking her reflection in the glass of a vending machine outside the cafeteria. She turned at the sound of his footsteps, looking unusually pleased to see him. Her expression changed as he got closer, her mouth stretching into a comical grimace of despair.

            “Help,” she cried, flinging her arms around his neck as if he were a long-lost relative. “I’m trapped at an eighth grade dance!”

            Charlotte was an art teacher, a bit of a bohemian, one of the more interesting women on the faculty. Ethan patted her cautiously on the upper arm, struck by how pretty her reddish-gold hair looked against the green of her sweater. There was a nice clean smell coming off her, a humid aura of shampoo and something faintly lemony.

            “I’m filling in for Sam,” she explained upon releasing him. “His father’s back in the hospital.”

            Ethan nodded solemnly, trying to show the proper respect for his colleague’s ailing parent. Secretly, though, he was delighted. Sam was a social black hole, the kind of guy who could buttonhole you in the teacher’s lounge and kill your whole free period telling you about the problem he was having with his dishwasher. Trading him for Charlotte was a major upgrade.

            “It’s your lucky day,” she said, as if reading his mind. “No kidding.”

            They smiled at each other, but Ethan couldn’t help noticing a slight awkwardness in the air. He and Charlotte had been good friends during his first year at Daniel Webster. He was single back then, always up for a movie or a drink, and she was separated from her husband. For a little while there—this was five years ago, ancient history—they seemed on the verge of maybe getting involved, but it didn’t happen. She went back to Rob, he met Dana, and their lives headed off on separate tracks. These days they only saw each other at school, and limited their conversation to polite small talk.

            “So how are you?” she asked.

            “*Okay*.” Ethan pronounced the word with more emphasis than it usually received. He was suddenly conscious of his thinning hair, the weight he’d put on since knee surgery had ended his pickup basketball career. He was three years younger than Charlotte, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from looking at them. “You know, not bad. How about you?”

            “Great,” she replied, making a face that undercut the word. In the past year or so, she’d taken to wearing oval, black-framed eyeglasses that made her look like a college professor in a Van Halen video. “Nothing too exciting. How’s your little girl?”

            “Adorable. When she’s not screaming.”

            Charlotte took this as a joke; Ethan didn’t bother to correct her. “And you’re having another?”

            “Yeah, figured we should do it now, before we get used to sleeping through the night.”

            She said she was happy for him, but he could see it took some effort. Kids were a sore spot in her marriage. She wanted to start a family, but her husband—he was a struggling scrap metal sculptor, deeply devoted to his art—refused to even consider the possibility. This had been the cause of their separation, and nothing seemed to have changed since they’d gotten back together.

            They were saved from this tricky subject by the arrival of Rudy Battista, barely recognizable in khakis, a brown turtleneck, and a checkered blazer, a far cry from the crinkly nylon sweatsuits he wore to teach gym every day.

            “Look at you,” Charlotte called out. “Got a date?”

            Rudy adjusted his lapels, his face shining with health and good humor.

            “It’s a special occasion. I believe it calls for a certain elegance.”

            “I wish you’d told me that an hour ago,” Charlotte complained, but Ethan thought she looked just fine in her simple skirt and sweater combo, the black tights and ankle-high boots adding a slightly funky touch to the ensemble. He was the slacker of the group in his baggy—the technical term was “relaxed”—jeans and suede Pumas. At least his shirt had buttons.

            “I brought you guys a present,” Rudy said. He reached into his pocket and produced two identical strips of soft yellow measuring tape, the kind favored by tailors. He handed one to each of his colleagues. “Exactly nine inches long.”

            “Are you serious?” Ethan asked. The Vice-Principal had briefed him on the Nine-Inch Rule a couple of days ago—it stipulated that students had to keep their bodies at least that far apart while dancing—but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that was meant to be taken literally. “We’re actually supposed to measure?”

            “Just during the slow songs,” Rudy explained. “The kids think it’s funny.”

            Charlotte shot a skeptical glance at Ethan, who shrugged and stuffed the measuring tape into his pocket. She pulled her own piece taut in front of her face and pondered it for a couple of seconds.

            “If that’s nine inches,” she said, “someone’s got some explaining to do.”


Ethan spent the first half-hour of the dance manning the table outside the cafeteria, taking tickets, checking IDs, and crossing names off a master list, while a uniformed cop hulked in the doorway behind him, scrutinizing the kids for signs of drug or alcohol abuse. Lieutenant Ritchie was an older guy—he had to be pushing sixty—with a brushy white mustache and none of the mellowness you might have expected from a small-town cop coasting toward retirement. He introduced himself as a special departmental liaison to the school board, appointed to oversee security at dances and sporting events. He said the position had been created specially for him.

            “One of my nieces got caught up in that Jamaican mess,” he said, shaking his head as if the trauma were still fresh. “We let that thing get outta hand.”

            Ethan had to turn away two kids at the door, but not because they’d been partying: Carlie Channing had forgotten her ID and Mike Gruber hadn’t realized that the tickets had to be purchased in advance. Both of them begged for one-time indulgences that Ethan would have been happy to provide, but Lieutenant Ritchie made it clear that no exceptions would be permitted on his watch. He seemed to take it for granted that he was the final arbiter, and Ethan had no reason to assume otherwise. Carlie left in tears, Mike in sullen bewilderment.

            “It’s a good lesson for them,” the Lieutenant observed. “Follow the rules, you got nothing to worry about.”

            Ethan nodded without enthusiasm, vaguely ashamed of himself for knuckling under so easily. Carlie returned ten minutes later with her ID, but he was haunted for the rest of the night by the thought of poor Mike wandering the empty streets, exiled from the fun on account of a technicality.

            <br />It was a relief to slip into the cafeteria, where the lights were low and the music was loud. Assuming an affable, *don’t-mind-me *expression, Ethan joined his colleagues at their observation post by the snack station. Every few songs one of them would venture out on a leisurely reconnaissance mission, but mostly they just nibbled on chips and Skittles while commenting on the action unfolding around them.

            “Look at that.” Rudy directed their attention to Allie Farley, a leggy seventh-grader teetering past them in high heels and an alarmingly short skirt. “That can’t be legal.”

            Charlotte craned her neck for a better look. She was the chaperone in charge of dress code enforcement.

            “It wasn’t that short when she came in. She must’ve hiked it up.” Allie was chasing after Ben Willis, a shaggy-haired, delicate-looking kid who was one of the alpha jocks of Daniel Webster. When she caught up she spun him around and began lecturing him on what appeared to be a matter of extreme urgency, judging from the slightly deranged look on her face and the chopping gesture she kept making with her right hand. Similar conferences were taking place all over the cafeteria, agitated girls explaining to clueless boys the roles they’d been assigned in the evening’s dramas.

            For his part, Ben just stared up at her—she had at least half a foot on him—and gave an occasional awestruck nod, as if she were some supernatural being, rather than a classmate he’d known since kindergarten. Ethan sympathized; Allie had gone a little crazy with the eyeliner and lipstick, and he was having trouble connecting the fearsome young woman on the dance floor with the giggly, fresh-faced girl he taught in fourthperiod Social Studies. She seemed to have undergone some profound, irreversible transformation.

            “I wish I could’ve worn something like that when I was her age,” Charlotte said. “I had scoliosis and back then you had to wear this awful body brace. It looked like I was wearing a barrel.”

            “I didn’t know that,” Ethan said.

            “I never told you?” Charlotte seemed surprised. Back when they were pals, they’d stayed out late drinking and talking on numerous occasions, and had covered a fair amount of personal history. “Junior high was a nightmare.”

            “Must’ve been tough,” Rudy said.

            “Long time ago,” Charlotte said with a shrug. “But sometimes I wish I could have those years back.”

            Allie turned away from Ben and began signaling to Amanda DiCarlo, a petite dark-haired girl who was standing nearby. Eyes widening with horror, Amanda clapped one hand over her mouth and shook her head. Allie beckoned again, this more emphatically, but Amanda wouldn’t move. She was wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope slung around her neck, an outfit that marked her as a member of the Social Activities Committee, the group that organized the dances. The S.A.C. apparently insisted on picking a theme for each event—tonight’s was Dress as Your Future, which at least explained the cryptic signs in the hallway—but no one seemed to know or care about the theme except the committee members themselves. In addition to the cute physician, a basketball player, a ballerina, a CEO, and a female astronaut were circulating throughout the cafeteria, looking a bit sheepish as they interacted with their uncostumed peers.

            Overcome with impatience, Allie seized Amanda by the arm, forcibly tugged her over to Ben, and then scampered off, leaving the newly constituted couple to fend for themselves. They barely had time to exchange blushes before “Umbrella” began to play and Amanda’s shyness suddenly vanished. It was like she became another person the instant she started dancing, mature and self-assured, a pretty medical student just off work and out to have a good time. Ben hesitated a few seconds before joining her, his movements stiff and a bit clunky, eyes glued on his partner as dozens of classmates surged onto the floor, surrounding and absorbing them into a larger organism, a drifting, inward-looking mass of adolescent bodies.

            Ethan wasn’t sure why he found himself so riveted by the spectacle of his students dancing. Individually, most of the kids didn’t look graceful or even particularly happy; they were far too anxious or self-conscious for that. Collectively, though—and this was the thing that intrigued him— they gave off an overwhelming impression of energy and joy. You could see it in their hips and shoulders, their flailing arms and goofy faces, the pleasure they took in the music and their bodies, the conviction that they occupied the absolute center of a benign universe, the certainty that there was no place else to be but right here, right now. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like that.

            He was so busy staring that it took him a little while to notice Charlotte’s arm brushing against his. She was swaying in place, her elbow knocking rhythmically against his forearm, lingering a second or two before floating away. When he turned to smile at her, she responded with a long quizzical look. In the forgiving darkness of the cafeteria, she could’ve easily been mistaken for twenty-five, a young woman full of potential, a stranger to disappointment. She leaned in closer, bringing her lips to his ear.

            “You okay?” she asked. “You seem a little sad.”

            <br />The trouble started during a moment of deceptive calm, a lull he recognized too late as the eye of the hormonal hurricane. It was a little before nine o’clock—the home stretch—and Ethan was feeling loose and cheerful. If pressed, he might have even been willing to admit that he was enjoying himself. The kids had prevailed upon the teachers to join them for a few line dances—the Electric Slide, the Cotton-Eyed Joe, the Macarena—and he felt like he’d survived the ordeal not only with his dignity intact but with his good-guy reputation enhanced. Then he’d been invited to preside over the raffle, pulling names out of a Red Sox cap and bestowing gift certificates for pizza and frozen yogurt on winners who couldn’t have been more excited if he’d been handing out iPods.

            He was making his way back to the snack station when a vaguely familiar slow song began to play; Charlotte later told him it was “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. He felt something stirring among the kids, a sudden sense of urgency as they scanned the room for prospective partners. At the same time, the DJ turned on his special effects machine, a revolving sphere that shot off an array of multi-colored lights, painting the cafeteria and everyone in it with a swirling psychedelic rainbow.

            There must’ve been something hypnotic about the combination of that song and those lights, because Ethan stopped in the middle of the dance floor and let it wash over him. All around him, kids were forming couples, moving into each other’s arms, and without fully realizing what he was doing, he found himself scanning the room, searching for Charlotte. It wasn’t until he located her—she was wandering among the dancers, checking for compliance with the Nine-Inch Rule—that Ethan finally emerged from his trance, remembering that he had a job to do. For the first time since Rudy had given it to him, he reached into his pocket and withdrew his yellow tape.

            There’d been slow dances earlier in the evening, but the kids hadn’t seemed too interested. Relatively few couples had ventured onto the floor, and the ones who did had been extremely well-behaved. This time, though, maybe because the night was winding down, Ethan sensed a different mood in the cafeteria. Most of the dancers still kept a safe distance, but a significant minority were inching closer, testing the limits of what was permissible, and a handful had gone into open rebellion, pressing together with moony looks on their faces and no daylight between them.

            When Ethan came upon one of these pairs, he tapped both partners on the shoulder and held up the measuring tape as a helpful reminder. He was pleased to discover that Rudy was right—the kids seemed to enjoy the intervention, or at least not mind it. Some smiled guiltily, while others pretended to have made an honest mistake. In any case, no one protested or resisted.

            The song must have been about halfway over by the time he spotted Amanda and Ben. They had drifted away from the herd, creating a small zone of privacy for themselves on the edge of the dance floor. Even at first glance, something seemed strange about them, almost forbidding. The other couples had at least made a show of slow-dancing, but these two were motionless, clinging to each other in perfect, almost photographic stillness. Amanda was melting against Ben, arms wrapped tight around his waist, her face crushed into his chest. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted; he appeared to be concentrating deeply on the smell of her hair.

            Ethan knew what he was supposed to do, but the role of chaperone suddenly felt oppressive to him. They just looked so blissful, it seemed wrong even to be watching them—almost creepy—but for some reason he couldn’t manage to avert his eyes, let alone move.

            He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring at them before Lieutenant Ritchie appeared at his side. Ethan nodded a greeting, but the Lieutenant didn’t reciprocate. After a moment, he jutted his chin at the young lovers.

            “You gonna do something about that?”

            “Probably not,” Ethan replied. “Song’s almost over.”

            The Lieutenant squinted at him. Bands of red, yellow, and green light flickered across his face.

            “That’s a clear violation. You gotta break it up.” Ethan shrugged, still hoping to run out the clock. “They’re not hurting anybody.”

            “What are you, their lawyer?”

            By this point, Rudy and Charlotte had arrived on the scene, the combined presence of all four adults creating an official air of crisis. Ethan could feel the attention of the whole dance shifting in their direction.

            “What’s going on?” Rudy asked. He was all business, like a paramedic who’d happened upon an accident.

            Lieutenant Ritchie glared at Ben and Amanda who remained glued together, oblivious to anything beyond themselves. Charlotte looked worried. The damn song just kept on going. Ethan knew when he was beat.

            “It’s okay,” he assured his colleagues. “I’m on it.”

            <br />Later, in the bar, Ethan tried to describe the look on Amanda’s face right before he pried her away from Ben. The way he remembered it, her expression wasn’t so much angry as uncomprehending; he’d had to call her name three times just to get her to look up. Her eyes were dull and vacant, like she’d been jolted out of a deep sleep.

            “I don’t think she even knew where she was,” Ethan said. “She’s a sweet kid,” Charlotte pointed out.

            “Tell that to the Lieutenant.”

            “Ugh.” Charlotte’s mouth contracted with disgust. “I’m surprised he didn’t use his pepper spray.”

            Lieutenant Ritchie had insisted on formally ejecting Ben and Amanda from the dance, a punishment that carried a mandatory two-day suspension and required immediate parental notification. Ben’s dad had at least been polite on the phone—he apologized for his son’s behavior and promised there would be consequences at home—but Amanda’s mother treated the whole situation like a joke. *It was a dance*, she told Ethan, pronouncing the words slowly and clearly, as if for the benefit of an imbecile. *They were dancing at a dance*. She made him explain the Nine-Inch Rule in great detail, correctly sensing that he found it just as ridiculous as she did.

            “I still remember the first time I danced like that,” Ethan said. They were working on their second drink—Rudy had joined them for the first round, but left after receiving a phone call from his wife—and the bourbon was having a welcome effect on his jangled nerves. “Must’ve been seventh grade, with Jenny Wong. She was just a friend, a girl from down the block, but it was such an amazing feeling to have her pressed up against me like that, with all those people around. One of the highlights of my life.”

            “You’re lucky,” Charlotte said, sounding like she meant it. “When I was that age, I used to sit alone in my room and make out with my arm.”


            “It wasn’t so bad.” She glanced tenderly at the crook of her elbow. “I still do it sometimes. When nothing else is going on.”

            Ethan smiled. It felt good, being here with Charlotte. McNulty’s had always been their bar of choice—they’d sat more than once at this very table—and he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the past five years had never happened, that they were right back where they’d left off. He had to make an effort not to blurt out something inappropriate, like how much he missed talking to her, how wrong it was that such a simple pleasure had vanished from his life.

            “By the way,” he said. “I really like your glasses.”

            “Thanks.” Her smile was unconvincing. “I prefer contacts, but my eyes get dry.”

            He studied her irises—they were hazel with golden flecks—as if checking on their moisture level.

            “Something wrong?” she asked.

            “Not really,” he replied. “This is just kinda weird, isn’t it?”

            Charlotte looked down at the table. When she looked up, her face seemed older, or maybe just sadder.

            “I don’t know if you heard,” she said. “Rob and I are getting divorced.”

            “No, I hadn’t. I’m sorry.”

            She shrugged. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while. At least I have.”

            Ethan hesitated; the air between them seemed suddenly dense, charged with significance.

            “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I never understood why you went back to him.”

            Charlotte considered this for a moment.

            “I almost didn’t,” she said. “I was all set to leave him for good. That night I slept on your couch.”

            He didn’t have to ask her to be more specific. She’d slept on his couch exactly once, and he remembered the occasion all too well. Her thirtieth birthday. He’d made lasagna and they’d killed a bottle of champagne. They both agreed she was too drunk to drive home.

            “I waited for you all night,” she told him. “You never came.” A harsh sound issued from his throat, not quite a laugh.

            “I wanted to. But we had that long talk, remember? You said you still loved Rob, and couldn’t imagine being with anyone else.”

            “I was stupid.” Charlotte tried to smile, but she seemed to have forgotten which muscles were involved. “I was so sure we were going to sleep together, I guess I overcompensated. Rob and I had been together since freshman year of college. I just wanted you to know what you were getting into.”

            “You’ve gotta be kidding.” A bad taste flooded into Ethan’s mouth, something sharp and bitter the whisky couldn’t wash away. “I was dying for you. That was the longest night of my life.”

            “I thought you’d abandoned me.” “But you said—”

            “I was confused, Ethan. I needed you to help me.” “You went back to him two days later.”

            “I know.” She sounded just as baffled as he did. “I just couldn’t bear to break his heart.”

            “So you broke mine instead.”

            Charlotte shook her head for a long time, as if taking inventory of everything that might have been different if he’d just come out of his bedroom.

            “I’m the one who lost out,” she reminded him. “Everything worked out fine for you.”

            Ethan didn’t argue. This didn’t seem like the time to tell her about the weeks he’d spent on his couch after she went back to her husband, the way his world seemed to shrink and darken in her absence. He didn’t go on a date for almost a year, and even after he met Dana—after he convinced himself that he loved her—he never lost the sense that there was a little asterisk next to her name, a tiny reminder that she was his second choice, the best he could do under the circumstances.

            Charlotte wasn’t making any noise, so it took him a few seconds to realize she was crying. When she took off her glasses, her face seemed naked and vulnerable, and deeply familiar.

            “I don’t know about you,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “But I could use another drink.”

            <br />It was late when he pulled into his driveway, almost one in the morning, but he wasn’t tired. He wasn’t drunk either, not anymore, though he’d felt pretty buzzed after his third drink, pleasantly unsteady as he made his way down the long dim hallway to the men’s room. There were ice cubes in the urinal, an odd echo of his bourbon on the rocks, and an old-school rolling cloth towel dispenser, the kind that makes a thump when you yank.

            He wasn’t too surprised to find Charlotte waiting in the hallway when he stepped out of the bathroom—it was almost like he’d been expecting her. There was a peculiar expression on her face, a mixture of boldness and embarrassment.

            “I missed you,” she said.

            Kissing her just then felt perfectly normal and completely selfexplanatory, the only possible course of action. There was no hesitation, no self-consciousness, just one mouth finding another. Her ran his fingers through her hair, slid his palm down the length of her back, then lower, tracing the gentle curve of her ass. She liked it, he could tell. He spread his fingers wide, cupping and squeezing the soft flesh.

            It was the voices that made them pull apart, two young women on the way to the ladies’ room.

            “Excuse me,” one of them said, turning sideways to slip by. “Don’t mind us,” chuckled the other.

            It was no big deal, just a brief, good-natured interruption, but for some reason they never recovered from it. When they started kissing again, it felt forced and awkward, like they were trying too hard. Charlotte pulled away after only a few seconds.

            “Oh God, Ethan.” Her glasses were askew, her face pink with shame. “What are we doing?”

            “It’s okay,” he told her. “We’re just having a good time.”

            She didn’t seem to hear him. Her voice was barely audible. “I better go.”

            “Come on,” he said. “You don’t have to do that.” “I do.”

            She turned swiftly, heading for the exit. He followed her out to the parking lot, pleading with her to stay for one more drink, but nothing he said made any difference. She just kept muttering about his pregnant wife and child, and how sorry she was, all the while fumbling in her purse for her car keys.

            “You have to forgive me,” she said in a pleading voice. “I’m just going through a hard time. I’m really not the kind of person who—”

            He grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her to look at his face.

            “I love you.” The words just popped out of his mouth, but in that moment they felt true, undeniable. “Don’t you understand that?”

            She shook her head. The only thing in her eyes was pity.

            “You need to go home, Ethan. Just forget this ever happened. Please?”

            Then she got in her car and drove off, her face ashen, her eyes fixed straight ahead. He thought about chasing after her, but he knew it would be useless. There was nothing to do but go home, just like she told him.

            Now that he was here, though, he couldn’t seem to get out of the car. Maybe in a minute or two, he’d unbuckle his seatbelt and head inside, into the house where his wife and child were sleeping. In the meantime he was happy enough to stay right here and think about kissing Charlotte outside the men’s room and the dreamy look on Amanda’s face when he showed her the measuring tape and explained that she and Ben were dancing too close, the way she just smiled and closed her eyes and let her head fall back onto her partner’s chest, as if the two of them were the only people who mattered in the world, as if they had no one to answer to but themselves.

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