Next time I’ll be ready.
Right. The next time Henry had seen Eliza-- the next morning, at the office-- he’d opened his mouth without any semblance of a plan, and promptly erupted into a coughing fit. She’d awkwardly patted his shoulder and, by the time he’d managed to recover, she’d disappeared around the corner.
He swallowed his words and went about his day. He had enough on his mind trying not to scratch at his arm underneath his cast, anyway. He’d already lost two pens and a paperclip that way.
Later in the week, they rode the elevator up together, and he tried asking her to dinner.
“Eliza,” he began, taking a deep breath as the elevator doors opened on their floor.
“Oh my god,” she breathed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
His eyes widened. “What? Wh-- I’m not kidding, in fact, I’m actually rarely --” Her excited squeal interrupted his stammering as she rushed out of the elevator toward reception.
“Charmonique, girlfriend! That new wig is slammin’. And I really mean it this time, no take-backs.”
“There better not be any take-backs!” Charmonique fluffed her artificial hair. “This puppy cost Mama a fortune.”
Henry’s nod of greeting was ignored as the women continued to coo over Charmonique’s latest purchase. He slunk toward his office and slumped into his desk chair, idly nudging the business end of a letter opener down the side of his cast. It scratched the itch, but left him unsatisfied.
The weekend came and went and so did Henry’s determination. One week passed, then another, and before he knew it he was at the doctor’s office getting his cast removed.
“Wow, Mr. Higgs,” remarked Dr. Brunelle while firing up his saw. “You’ve kept this cast in pristine condition. Not a scratch or a dent on the thing.” He chuckled as he began to run the saw back and forth across the plaster. “What’d you do, stand perfectly still for the past six weeks?”
Henry frowned. Wasn’t that essentially what he’d done? He’d made up his mind to take a chance, only to slip back into old habits because they were easy, and comfortable. Even when he’d heard around the watercooler that Eliza had broken up with Freddy-- again-- he’d chosen to say nothing, letting the moment slip through his fingers.
Well. Not anymore.
“I’m done with that shit,” Henry muttered to himself, before cringing a bit. “Sorry, Doctor.”
The doctor shrugged, and tossed Henry’s cast, now split into two pieces, into the sanitary garbage bin. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
But Henry did, and that’s all that mattered.
“Eliza? May I have a word with you?”
She looked up from her desk, the last bite of a sandwich hovering in midair as she waited for Henry to continue. His mouth felt dry; his kingdom for an iced green tea.
Eliza chuckled. “‘Sup, Henry? You look like you just found out they discontinued your preferred brand of dishwashing detergent.”
He scoffed. “They’d never discontinue Cascade Actionpacs; they're a consistent Consumer Reports darling.” Off her blank stare, he cleared his throat. “No, that’s not it. I was just wondering if you… if you might be free this evening.”
“Actually…” She hesitated, her nose wrinkling. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“I’m sure that’s not true; I’ve come to find you very trustworthy.”
“Aw, that’s sweet, Henry. But I have, like, a trillion reports to finish up before the end of the quarter.” She shrugged, popping the last bite of sandwich into her mouth. “So I was just gonna stay in tonight, you know. Order Thai, pop open a bottle of champs, spend some quality me-time between the spreadsheets. That sort of thing.”
Henry frowned, about to open his mouth to tell her that mixing alcohol and Excel rarely ended well, when she spoke up again.
“You’re welcome to come over and join me, if you want. A little one-on-one reporting action.” She rested her chin on her palm and gazed up at him, drawing out her voice into a sing-song as she offered: I’ll get extra of the basil noodles you like...”
On the one hand, his grand plan had been to sweep her off her feet, to wine and dine her, to impress her with his suaveness. On the other hand, he wasn’t completely sure he was capable of suaveness. But he did have complete confidence in his spreadsheet skills. Perhaps this was the opportunity he needed to woo Eliza in another way.
“How’s 7 o’clock?” he suggested, and she nodded with a smile. “I’ll bring the--” he grimaced. “Champs.”
“Better make it a couple bottles-- these reports are going to need a little lubrication, if you know what I’m saying.”
He didn’t, but he made a mental note to pick up two bottles of mid-range champagne on his way over to Eliza’s apartment. Maybe liquid courage was what he needed, anyway.
At 7 o’clock on the dot, he knocked at her door. She swung it open almost immediately, and he took in her appearance-- grey yoga pants, an oversized sweatshirt with ‘DON’T CALL, JUST TEXT’ printed on it in block letters, her hair in a knot high atop her head. A far cry from the look she might have sported had he gotten up the nerve to ask her to a fancy dinner, but she still looked beautiful to Henry. In fact, he felt a spark of privilege at getting to see the Eliza that most of the world didn’t get to see. He supposed the truth was that he just liked every version of her.
Eliza smirked and leaned against the doorframe. “You’re not the delivery guy.”
“No, but I do come bearing champagne.” He followed her inside, setting the reusable grocery bag containing the bottles on her coffee table. “I wasn’t sure whether you liked it dry or sweet, so I got one of each.”
Eliza pulled one of the bottles out of the bag and began to open it. “I thought maybe we could watch a movie while we wait for the food to get here,” she said, pouring a liberal amount of bubbly into each of the flutes she’d set out. “No sense in starting those reports on an empty stomach, am I right?”
While he generally subscribed to the philosophy of getting unpleasant tasks out of the way early, he just nodded. Forty minutes later, he was surprisingly invested in the romcom she’d picked, and cartons of noodles were strewn across the coffee table.
“I don’t get it,” he said after the romantic heroine had gone home with the man she was clearly not destined to end up with. “If she likes David, why not just tell him that? Carl’s all wrong for her.”
“Well, people don’t always say how they feel, in romcoms,” Eliza responded, sticking her chopsticks back in one of the containers. Then, more quietly; “Or, you know, in real life.”
Henry scowled, still caught up in the flimsy premise of the film. “She should obviously be with David, though.”
He shook his head. “Maybe we should put a pin in this. Those reports can’t wait forever.”
Instead of pausing the movie, Eliza just turned up the volume and gestured mock-apologetically at one ear. “Sorry, Henry, I can’t hear you.”
“Ha ha,” he deadpanned. “Seriously, though, I brought my laptop with me, and I have a whole system for these reports that I really think will make the time fly by.” He stood up to get his bag from where he’d left it by her door.
Eliza grabbed his hand and tried to tug him back down onto the couch. “Come on, let’s finish the movie first at least. All work and no play, ya know?”
“We have to get to work, Eliza,” he said, frowning down at her. “The whole point of the evening was to work.”
“No it wasn’t,” she said quickly, before biting her lip. His frown deepened.
“What do you mean? You asked me over to work on those quarterly reports for--”
“Ugh, Henry, there are no reports, okay? There were never any stupid reports.” She pouted just a little, leaning back against the couch cushions and looking up at him. He blinked a few times, his head feeling foggy.
“Then why-- but when I asked if you were free tonight, you said-- I was going to--”
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Were you going to, Henry? Because I’ve given you ample opportunity and still nothing.” She threw up her hands to emphasize her point, which was-- what, exactly?
“You don’t even know what I was going to do.”
“I know what you weren’t going to do, and that’s ask me out.” She raised an eyebrow in challenge. When he didn’t say anything in return-- he couldn’t-- she continued, her voice softening. “You were never going to ask me out, and I knew if I asked you out, you’d freak. So I thought-- how ‘bout a lowkey hang? I thought it could make for a nice, casual non-date first date.”
So many neurons were firing in Henry’s brain that he didn’t know what to think. Instead, he fixated on just one key point. “You used my love of spreadsheets to trick me?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “It worked.”
Henry shook his head. “I’m just-- wait a sec. So, what was your plan after this? To keep tricking me into non-dates I didn’t know I was on using the Microsoft Office suite of products? Was a PowerPoint dinner party next?”
Eliza’s brow wrinkled as she looked up at him like he was crazy. It was a look of which he’d grown fond. “What? No. I was totally going to seduce you by the end of the night. You’d definitely know we were dating by morning.”
There was that drymouth again. Henry reached down and picked up his champagne flute, taking a swig as he collected his thoughts. “So… what now?”
She paused. “Are you freaking out?”
“A little,” he said honestly.
“As much as you would have if I’d pinned you up against the wall in your office last week and asked you to be my date to my cousin Rachael’s wedding?”
He thought about it for a moment, the dropped back down to sit beside her on the couch, his hands clasped in his lap. “Maybe not that much, no.”
Eliza smiled. “Then my plan was a success.”
One thing kept niggling at Henry’s mind, though, something he saw as a personal failure, one that couldn’t be invalidated by the (quite pleasant) thought of Eliza seducing him at the end of the night. He sighed. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to get up the nerve to ask you out. I’ve wanted to. You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to, but when it comes to you, I just… can’t seem to move forward.”
She reached out and squeezed his knee, then let her hand rest there. “But you did, Henry. You asked me if I was free tonight. Duh, everybody knows what that means.”
“I could’ve been asking you to help me move, or babysit my cat.”
“You don’t have a cat.”
“Not the point.”
She rolled her eyes. “The point is, you did make a move, and I just made one back. It’s like a game of checkers. You can’t play checkers alone; you have to do it together.”
He just gazed at her, his mouth quirking up into a smile. He found her checkers analogy surprisingly charming, and in fact, surprisingly helpful as well. It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He hadn’t stood perfectly still; they’d moved forward together. Just like in checkers.
“So,” he began. “What comes next?”
She smirked. “It’s just like checkers,” she said, scooting impossibly close to him on the couch and lowering her voice to a whisper. “I jump you.”
It turned out, Eliza had been right. By morning, Henry was certain that they were dating. And, possibly, that checkers was his favorite game of all time.