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Her very presence unnerved him. She stole his presence of mind and his lung capacity in a way no one had since he was a teenager. The fact that compared to him she was practically still one herself was not lost on him, but that didn't matter. It wasn't like he was talking to her or implementing a plan to get her phone number or even her name. He was just looking. Looking across a crowded room. Observing.
He catalogued certain things.
She touched her earlobe five times, as if she were confirming she still had an earring, as if maybe she'd lost one before.
When it appeared the conversation she was engaged in made her nervous or bored, she'd demonstratively check her cocktail glass, gauging her need for a refill. Twice, she found a glass empty enough to excuse herself to get another. The gambit worked once, but the second time, the person she was talking to offered to get the refill for her. While he was away, she changed position. It took him awhile to find her, and by the time he did, she'd found a new conversation partner. He handed over the retrieved drink and then disappeared.
One of her shoes bothered her. The left. From what he could guess, it had something to do with the way the strap cut into her heel.
She carried no handbag. She seemingly had no ID, no cash, no phone. There was not a coat check, you carried what you came in with. Or she had stashed it somewhere, suggesting she either knew someone or she was very trusting of the people their host would invite to a party.
At least three times she saw him staring. The second time she smiled, but he ignored it. This, he felt, confirmed she was indeed too trusting and he didn't want to take advantage. The third time she caught him, she smiled again, and at that point, he decided it would just be rude to act as if he wasn't staring and had not noticed.
"I'm Chris," he said.
"Shanti," she replied.
Now he was talking to her. Now it mattered.
"You don't look like a Shanti."
"How does a Shanti look?"
"I don't know. Indian? Or wearing a big flowery dress."
(She was wearing the classic black cocktail dress.)
"My mother's closet is full of those," she said. "My parents were hippies."
Shanti laughed at her own revelation. Good. She didn't take things too seriously.
"Why are you here, Chris?" she asked.
"Because of the happenstance of evolution. At some point the right cells divided, and I stepped through the cracks."
She touched her ear again, and he decided it wasn't what he thought it was originally. It was some kind of tell. She was devising something.
"You're being purposely mysterious," she said.
"And you smell like lilac," he replied.
"There. You did it again."
"I don't intend to cultivate a mystery," he told her, "I just don't what us to get comfortable with the absolute truth just yet."
"Which would imply..."
"That there is an absolute truth, yes."
"Do you believe there is?" And before he could answer, she slid in, "And don't say me."
"I wasn't going to say 'me,' I was going to say 'you.'"
He was faster.
"Touché." And she laughed again--only this time, there was a different lilt to it. She had information he did not.
"Do you know what the two greatest words in the English language are?" he asked.
"I doubt we agree," she answered, "so just tell me."
"'And then'? I don't get it."
"As in, 'And then he asked her if she wanted to get out of there.'"
The girl nodded. "Interesting. But I'd counter that the best word in the English language is actually 'yes.'"
"As in, that's your answer?"
"No," she said.
And then she checked the level of her drink....