Monday Evening Meeting

He never would have met her if he hadn't let Sam drag him along. But no, Sam always got him to do things he would never do by himself. Ever since they were ten. Sam always said somebody had to get him out of the house and make him talk now and then. Jason wasn't so sure he agreed most of the time. But, Sam was still his best friend twelve years later, so he must not hate it as much as he claimed. Still, he'd done his usual share of complaining that morning when Sam picked him up.

"Tell me again why I'm doing this."

"Because it's gonna be fun."

"No, I meant the truth, actually."

"Oh, that. Okay. Because Sara begged me to help her find two more guys, and that's us."
"And?"

"And she's our friend."

"And?"

"And she's gorgeous."

"There it is. So because you've got the hots for Sara, I get to join some psychological experiment."

Sam grinned his way. "Now you've got it." He shrugged. "Hey, out of all my friends, I picked you as the most sane. You should be flattered."

"Completely. Now take me home."

Same reached down to his side and Jason heard the door locks click.

"Great. I've been kidnapped."

"Relax, Jace. It'll be fun, trust me."

So he found himself included in a classroom with a thrown-together group of twenty young adults; ten guys and ten girls, and their friend Sara was in charge. "Okay, folks," Sara called out. "First of all, I owe you big for coming, and I promise I'm buying dinner when this is all over with." She accepted the cheers and applause with a wave. "Free food gets 'em every time," she joked. "Now listen up. I can't tell you the premise of my thesis because it will influence your responses, but I can tell you it has to do with conditional behavior. First, we all fill out a really quick questionnaire. Then I'm going to split you up into pairs, male-female, and if you've ever met your partner before, you've got to tell me or it'll mess up the whole thing, okay? And then, over the next week, there are seven tasks you've got to work through with your partner, one per day. Each one will only take a few minutes, maybe twenty or thirty at the most. The last one you do right here, a week from tonight, and we do the exit questionnaire, and you're free." She went along the rows handing out papers and pens, then stood in front of them again. "Please be honest, you've got my life and my grad school future in your hands. Oh, and one more thing – you can't discuss your tasks with anyone except your partner. Any questions?"

Of course Sam's hand went up, and he cracked a joke. It was pretty funny, and everyone laughed, and Sara smiled at him. She likes him too, Jason thought. What a surprise. Everybody liked Sam. After a few questions about the time involved, the room quieted as heads bent over questionnaires. Jason read the questions with a sense of dread. Psychological profiling was not his thing. He always felt like such a loser when it came to stuff like this. Okay, so what if he was never the share-your-feelings type. It didn't mean he didn't have them. He re-read the first question and circled an answer, and a few minutes later he'd made it through and handed it to Sara. She gave him a grateful smile and he leaned back in his chair and glanced over at Sam. Sam was grinning his way and gave him a look, and Jason shrugged. After so many years, they could pretty much tell what the other was thinking. You hated that, didn't you, Sam had asked, and Jason had replied, yeah, but oh well.

Once the last paper was gathered, Sara had them draw colored straws. Jason and his purple straw found Carly and her purple straw by the window, and they introduced themselves briefly. "Anybody already met?" Sara asked around, and no one had, so she handed each couple seven sealed envelopes. "Okay, girls take the envelopes home with you and open them when you start the task. Go ahead and exchange phone numbers now, and if you can please go ahead and arrange a time for a phone call tomorrow night. That's task number one, and it'll take about ten minutes. And, everybody? Thanks again."

The meeting informally broke up as the couples traded numbers and wandered off toward the exit. Jason clutched Carly's number in his hand as he found Sam waiting, and they discussed the project as they walked out to the car. Sam, connoisseur of all things female, had taken note of Jason's partner as much as his own. "She looked cute. What's her name?"

"Carly." Jason stole a look at the slip of paper. "Carly Jensen."

"She's not as quiet as you, I hope, or you guys'll never make it."

"She's not. She volunteered to do the calling."

Sam unlocked the doors and they got in the car and started for home. "Mine's Jess. Jessica, I guess. The one with the streaky hair." He shook his head and laughed. "Not as hot as Sara, but she's got a killer southern accent."

Tuesday - Task One

Jason got a text message the next day. "Still on for call at five? Carly" He wished for a moment that the whole thing could be done by text message, then he texted back, "Yes - talk to you then." By four-fifty he was waiting on his couch, strumming his guitar to pass the time, and yet he still jumped when his phone rang. They greeted each other, then he waited while she opened the envelope.

"'Tell one another your two biggest triumphs'," she read. "'Discuss each one, ask questions. Be supportive on only one. Play devil's advocate and disagree on the other.' Then it has a note about task number two."

"What kind of triumphs?" he asked. "And what does it mean, be supportive on one?"

"I don't know, I guess we'll have to wing it. You want to go first?"

"No thanks."

She giggled, and he decided he liked her laugh. "Okay, let me think. I guess my first triumph would be running a 10K last month. I've always hated exercise, but I ran it for my sister."

"How so?"

"She has MS, and she recently had to give up her crutches and go to the wheelchair full time, and it's been pretty hard on her. She wanted me to run since she couldn't, so... I did." She snickered. "Personally, I think she's trying to kill me. Just like she did when I was six and she pushed me into the deep end of the pool. But she says that's what big sisters are for."

Jason wished he knew what to say.

"Supportive or not?" she prompted.

"Are you kidding? I'd sound like the world's biggest jerk if I didn't support that one. Uh,... good job. It must've been hard."

"It was. I got myself used to running a couple of miles every morning, and then I just did it. Now I just run for fun, which isn't very often."

"I know what you mean. I'm kind of an exercise-avoider myself. Except for hiking and waterskiing, and I want to try rock-climbing."

"Cool. Okay, you do one now. Tell me a triumph."

"Uh... okay. Graduating college."

"Details?"

He lay down on the couch, pushing a pillow behind his head. Not so hard so far. "I was pretty lazy in high school, and my folks didn't really get behind me going. I mean, they paid what they could, but money was tight and they really expected it to be a waste."

"So why did you go?"

"Because it was time to grow up."

"And did you?"

"Mostly." He shifted onto his side. "I mean, I'm on my own, I support myself, and I keep things under control. I like my life. I like my job and I've got some good friends. And my parents are proud of me for a change." He winced. "That didn't come out right."

"I think they call that a Freudian slip."

"Yeah, I guess they do. So... supportive or not?"

"Hmm." She paused. "Do I get to know your second one before I decide?"

"You're the one with the instructions." He was surprising himself, speaking so easily with her. If all the tasks were over the phone, he could do this. It was when he was face-to-face with a girl that he clammed up. Some of them thought it was cute, for about ten minutes. And then they wanted more. And that's why Sam was the ladies' man and he was... Sam's friend.

"It doesn't say."

"Just pick."

"Okay, I'm gonna take a shot at non-supportive, just for kicks."

"Interesting."

"Well, shoot. What if your next one is saving injured puppies or something?"

"Good point. Go ahead, disagree."

"Um... okay. Don't you think you could have supported yourself after four years without going to college, and spending your parent's savings? Or was it all just an ego-boost, so that they'd be proud of you?"

Jason took a breath. "Ouch."

"Sorry," she said softly. "Fight back."

"I didn't know we were supposed to fight."

"Well, at least defend yourself."

"It wasn't an ego-boost. It was a... a, I don't know, a soul-search. I wasn't going to get anywhere just being Mark's little brother, or the son that wasn't the starting quarterback. I wanted to be who I was supposed to be, and I wasn't gonna find that in my bedroom or working at McDonald's."

"So who are you?" she challenged.

"I'm a first-year architect at Hilliard-Mason, and I'm a self-taught musician, and I..."

"Like moonlit walks on the beach and long talks over candlelight," she finished for him, with a teasing tone in her voice. And then Jason realized he'd gotten a little angry, and defensive, and he wondered if that's what this was supposed to be about.

"Man, this is weird," he breathed. "Sorry."

"It's okay," she reassured him. "All in the name of science, right?"
"I guess." They were both quiet for a moment, then he spoke up. "I'm not ready to bash you yet, so let me go again, okay?"

"Go for it."

"Triumph number two... I'm talking to you."

"Excuse me? Are you sure that's a triumph?"

"You better believe it."

She laughed. "Discuss."

"I stink at talking to women I don't know. I usually let my buddy cover for me so nobody notices."

"Jason, I don't really think that counts. I think she meant some big life-experience thing."

"Tough."

"Okay," she agreed. "Then tell me how triumphant you feel right now."

He hesitated. "Well, okay. Maybe it's not really a triumph. But it kind of is. Because I actually feel relaxed. I'm laying here on my couch and talking to you without thinking about every word I'm gonna say, and you're listening. So yeah, it feels pretty darn good. Maybe I am feeling kind of triumphant."

"Congratulations," she said. "If it was really that big of an obstacle for you, then I think you're right. It's a triumph, because I never would have known you were uncomfortable after talking to you tonight."

"You're not gonna tell anybody what we talked about, are you?" he asked uncertainly.

"No way. You either?"

"No, no way." He smiled to himself. She was nice. "Your turn again."

"Oh, oh yeah. I forgot to think of one. Give me a minute."

"Think away." He waited, feeling comfortable enough for a short nap, and then her voice was back in his ear.

"You swear you're not gonna tell?"

"I told you. I promise."

"Because this is gonna sound weird."

"No it won't."

"How do you know?"

"I don't. Come on, talk."

"Okay... this one is a really personal triumph. I didn't get married."

He frowned. "Run that by me again."

Her laugh returned, making his frown disappear. "I was engaged and two weeks away from getting married, and I realized it wasn't right, so I called it off. I was terrified about what people would think, what my parents would say, whether my fiancé would hate me. But I did it."

"Oh. Uh... crap."

"What?"

He sighed. "I've got to disagree with you this time. Thanks a lot."

"Take the male point of view."

"Okay." He took a minute to think. How would he feel if it happened to him? "You probably broke his heart. I bet he was madly in love with you and picturing you having his babies, and you kicked him to the curb. He was humiliated, and sad, and... yeah, he probably hated you. And here you are calling it one of your life's biggest triumphs. That's pretty cold."

For a moment there was no answer, and his heart started thumping uncomfortably. He'd gone too far. "Come on, Carly, defend yourself." Nothing. "Please?"

"Wow. You're good at this," she said quietly, and he exhaled with relief. "He wasn't the only one to get hurt, you know. If I thought he really loved me enough, I wouldn't have done it. But he was all about the perfect life, the little wife at home, and no she doesn't need to have her own interests and be her own person because she has Him. And I wasn't done being Carly yet." There was another short silence. "Any more comments?" she asked.

"I wouldn't dare," he said softly, and again her laugh came across the line.

"You're not so dumb for an architect."

"Hey!" he protested, then joined her laughter.

"This was almost fun," she sighed. "You want to hear about number two?"
"I guess I'd better."

He heard the rustle of paper, then she read aloud, "Meet at a nearby park. Each of you should bring along a favorite photo of yourself, no older than two years. Allow fifteen minutes, and don't forget the envelope."

"A park, huh?"

"Yep. Are you close to the river?"

"I can be, if it can be after work."

"Okay, how about Riverfront park, by the bridge, around six?"

"Better make it six-thirty," he suggested, and she agreed. "So... good night?"

"Good night," she responded, and he heard the line click off. He closed his phone and laid it by his head and laid there thinking about the conversation he'd just had. Staring at the phone, he picked it up again and scrolled through his received calls, just wanting to see her number and prove that it had been real, and then he got up and wandered to the kitchen for some dinner.