Home > More Than Words(7)

More Than Words(7)
Author: Jill Santopolo

Through the great room was the kitchen, and then the dining room. Their housekeeper, Irena, had set the table with Nina’s grandmother’s gold-rimmed china and put a vase full of daisies in the center of the table. Six months after Irena had started working for the Gregorys, when Nina was in sixth grade, Irena had told her a story about her two sons who were in middle school, too, in Brighton Beach. Nina had realized then that when Irena was at her house, she wasn’t home with her own kids. After that Nina had started telling Irena she was going to have dinner with friends after school, so Irena could go home early. Sometimes Nina actually did go over to Priscilla’s place on the Upper East Side, or Tim’s a few blocks away. But sometimes she spent the afternoon at the Met, doing her homework in the Temple of Dendur and then having an early dinner in the Trustees Dining Room on the fourth floor. They didn’t usually serve dinner on weekdays, but the chef made an exception for her, their secret.

* * *

• • •

“You think Will’s going to win again?” her father asked, as he opened up the television cabinet he’d had installed specifically for their Monday night dinners. He’d been talking about Will all last week, the bartender from Texas who’d been on a winning streak. “I bet you a lollipop he does.”

Nina unpacked the food and spooned it into the dishes Irena had laid out on the table. They’d been betting candy on the results of the game show for as long as they’d been watching it together.

“I don’t know,” Nina said. “Most champions don’t even get to day four. The chances he makes it to day five are slim. How about a Hershey bar he doesn’t?”

Nina’s father laughed. “Playing it safe, I see. You’re not taking into account the Ken Jennings principle that some people are just smarter and can keep a streak going for a while.”

Nina put the empty cartons in the take-out bag and tossed them into the kitchen trash. “Ken Jennings is one in a million,” she said.

“Maybe Will is, too,” her father replied, picking up his soup spoon.

Alex Trebek came on the screen, and Nina and her father ate and watched, until one of the contestants chose the Daily Double.

“Three Tootsie Rolls she misses this Daily Double,” her father said. The category was circus equipment, and the Daily Double was behind an $800 clue.

“No way,” Nina answered. “Two Hershey’s Kisses she gets it. She’s answered three questions right in this category already.”

Joseph Gregory shook his head. “But she hasn’t gotten one $800 clue yet. Her knowledge is limited to the $600 level.”

Her father insisted that Jeopardy! clue amounts were tied to difficulty, though Nina wasn’t quite sure that was the case. He used the analogy in real life, too, when assessing people. Nina wondered sometimes what level he thought her knowledge was limited to, but she was afraid to ask. For her whole life, whenever Nina did something that her father found unimpressive, he would tell her: You’re smarter than that. Those words always made her try to be better, to work harder, to think things through. But they hurt, too. And made her wonder if she really was smarter than that, or if her father was expecting her to be at the $2000 level, but she was only at $1600.

“I believe in her,” Nina told her father.

She took a bite of her moo shu vegetables as the contestant, a woman named Zoe, wagered all her money on the Daily Double.

And then a video clue filled the screen. “A version of this apparatus was developed by the same man who popularized the one-piece outfit acrobats wear while performing on it,” the person hosting the video said.

“What is a tightrope,” Zoe answered.

Nina and her father groaned. “What is a trapeze!” they both said at the same time.

“I’m sorry, the correct answer is what is a trapeze,” Alex Trebek replied. “And the man who developed it was Jules Léotard, who popularized the one-piece leotard.”

“We really should audition,” Nina told her father, covering up her disappointment that he’d been right. Zoe missed the question.

He laughed quietly. “No question we’d win if they let us play as a team,” he said. “And I think you owe me some Hershey’s Kisses.”

Nina smiled, even though her heart ached. “Just add them to the balance sheet,” she said. Her father kept meticulous track of who owed whom which candy; the last time they’d paid off their candy debts was when Nina left for college. Jeopardy! Mondays had been put on hiatus until she’d moved back for business school at Columbia. The newest balance sheet had been going for ten years now.

“Acrobats are remarkable,” her father said, as he watched Zoe choose the next clue.

Nina thought about what it would be like, flying through the air, unfettered, ungrounded, and she shuddered. “I couldn’t ever do it,” she said.

“My careful Nina,” her father replied. “You should face your fears, though.”

She sighed. It was something her father had been telling her all her life. “You can’t be a good businesswoman if you’re risk averse,” he’d say. And maybe it was true. But sometimes being afraid seemed smart. Besides, he was the one who’d made her fearful—fearful of what people would think, fearful that she’d disappoint him, that she wouldn’t live up to his expectations.

“You know,” he said. “I’ve always tried to protect you.”

When Nina looked over at him, his face was more serious than she’d expected. “I know, Dad,” she said.

“Whatever comes,” he said, “I hope you’ll remember that.”

She wondered what he meant, but then the moment passed, and he was wagering a Hershey bar on a $1000 clue. Nina wrote it off as her father being her father, worrying what people would say about him after he was gone. But she couldn’t help the impression she got that he was trying to tell her something more.


Ever since that car ride to the Norwood Club, ever since they’d bumped into each other at the coffee shop and his touch made her blush, Nina had been self-conscious around Rafael. When they were in the same room, she found herself hyperfocused on what he was doing. She noticed tiny things, like how he sometimes bit his lip when he found something funny. How he ran his right hand through his hair, just above his ear, when he was about to say something controversial. And how his eyes often slid to hers in a meeting, as if asking for confirmation on a decision he just made.

But they hadn’t been alone again, until they found themselves together in the elevator in mid-June.

“I think we got an express,” Rafael said, as they passed floor after floor without stopping.

“Rare during lunch hour,” Nina replied. And then she cringed. Rare during lunch hour. What a stupid observation. If she weren’t so self-conscious around him now, she would have said, “I’ve always wondered why someone hasn’t figured out the technology to create a smart elevator that knows when all the floor space has been taken up.”

And then Rafael probably would have told her about a scientist he brought over to the United States on an H-1B visa who was working on something similar. And they would’ve had the kind of conversation Nina loved. But instead, there was dead air between them.

“So where are you headed?” Rafael asked, breaking the silence.

“Probably the salad place,” she answered, looking up at him. “I haven’t decided. What about you?”

“Well, my lunch meeting was canceled last minute,” he said, leaning casually against the elevator wall. “And I snuck out before Jane could give me something else to do. So I figure as long as I stay away from the office, I can get a quick breather. The diner seems appealing.” He paused and ran his fingers through his hair. He was going to say something controversial. “Any chance you want to join?” he asked.

Nina knew she shouldn’t. She had work to do. But there was something about being near him. . . .

“No pressure,” Rafael added. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate.”

The elevator stopped at the lobby.

Rafael stepped aside so she could exit first.

“I’d love to,” Nina found herself saying. “Thank you.”

The two of them walked to the diner at the end of the block and grabbed two seats at the counter.

“Isn’t it nice to eat at a counter?” Rafael said, after they’d both ordered. “I just put in a breakfast bar in my apartment. Sonia hated the idea, but I love it, eating up high like this.”

Nina was surprised he’d brought up his ex-wife. But maybe he felt safe talking about her with Nina in the same way she felt safe talking about her dad with him. She wondered if she could ask more, ask why they’d gotten divorced. The rumor was that one night they went out for dinner and a helicopter ride around Manhattan to celebrate their third anniversary, and the next morning, she told him that she wanted out, that she hadn’t been happy for a long time. In looking at him now, Nina couldn’t figure out what about Rafael could make a woman unhappy.

“It is kind of nice,” she said. Though it meant they were next to one another instead of across a table. More of a chance for their elbows or thighs to accidentally touch.

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