Christopher Williams arrived back in Boston after his brother's baby shower in New York to the latest gossip on campus, which was the news that Liam Kane and his girlfriend had broken up.
Chris couldn't remember Liam's girlfriend's name. Kerry? Carrie? It didn't matter anymore. Clearly.
It was Evelyn who told him this over dinner, her blue eyes wide as she relayed the information over roasted potatoes, green beans, and pieces of rotisserie chicken. It was nearing the end of their first year of business school. Everyone had found internships, classes were winding down, and people were spending their free time preparing for the summer trek to Thailand. They had less cases to read now and more time to gossip over dinner.
"Can you believe it?" she said, shifting her gaze from Chris to Henry, who was sitting beside her and across from Chris. She rubbed Henry's arm affectionately and pouted. "I really thought they would make it."
"I know," Henry said, stabbing a piece of roasted potato with his fork. "They went almost the whole year too. Is that the last one in our Section?"
"The last long distance one," Evelyn replied, looking grave.
Chris said nothing, but he did a mental check. Evelyn was right. With Liam's breakup, all of the people in their Section who came into business school nine months ago with a long distance relationship had ended it.
Of course, business school at Harvard wasn't exactly known to be conducive to long distance relationships, but their Section had been particularly bad. They had about 90 other classmates, about half of whom had come in with partners, out of which about half had been long distance. Over the last nine months, like clockwork, every single one of those had fallen apart.
"It's insane, I really really thought Liam would make it. I mean, he made so many trips out to see her!" Evelyn exclaimed, moving the peas around her plate aimlessly. "Remember when he missed the Iceland trek over spring break because he had to go to his girlfriend's cousin's wedding or something?"
Henry wrapped his arm around Evelyn and rubbed his hand up and down her back, as if to comfort her. "I know, that was a great trek too."
Chris watched them, but didn't partake in the conversation. Henry was his closest friend at business school. They had spent a week last summer bonding over drinking games and flag football before school officially started, and on the first day of class they found out they were seated next to each other in class.
They were both athletic, New England boys who naturally gravitated towards one another.
Evelyn was also in their Section. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and classically beautiful. She came from one of those legacy families and could trace multiple family members from every one of the last four generations of her family back to Harvard.
Henry and Evelyn had started dating not too long ago, and they couldn't keep their hands off of each other. They both toned it down a lot when they were around Chris. He had never asked them to, but regardless, they were good about it.
Well, Henry and Evelyn had officially started dating not too long ago, but they had been sleeping together long before that.
Henry was one of those people who had arrived in business school with a long distance partner. A long distance fiancée.
She was a college relationship, four years in the making, and he had proposed to her half a year before he arrived in business school. They were both Berkeley grads, and she had remained in California while he moved across the country to attend his top choice.
Henry had told Chris about her at the start of school. Somewhere in the middle of one of the many beginning of the year nights out on the town in Boston, he had casually dropped the line 'I had told my fiancée to apply to HBS as well, but it wasn't really her cup of tea.'
Chris knew, as soon as Henry said that, that the relationship wouldn't make it, even with the four years, the ring, and the fiancée label attached.
It wasn't the fact that it was HBS, which for the first years was especially all-consuming. It wasn't even the fact that it was long distance, with the San Francisco to Boston visits seeming particularly long. It was the fact that Chris could read people pretty shrewdly, and he knew instantly that Henry's personality would not allow the relationship to work out.
To himself, Chris had wondered how long Henry's engagement would last. There were plenty of attractive people at Harvard. The students were smart, high-achieving, and well dressed. Mix that in with the endless parties and the insular nature of the school, and hookups were all but inevitable.
When the fall Section retreat happened - a boozy weekend in Nantucket at a large mansion with their Section mates to truly cement the bonding ritual back last September - people were still relatively new. Cliques hadn't formed yet, and Chris and Henry had just started to hang out. Evelyn wasn't really a factor. She was a pretty girl in their Section, sure, but one they hadn't really talked to.
Then that Saturday night of the retreat, Henry and Evelyn got paired up together during beer pong. They had had a particularly long winning streak together. Chris chatted with the other students and watched Henry, slightly red in the face from too much beer, laugh flirtatiously with the blonde girl and knew that it was only a matter of time.
In all fairness, Henry did try his best. Chris guessed that nothing happened for at least two more months between the two of them. Nothing but flirty conversations and being a little too touchy when they were drunk. Chris was fairly sure. He could read them both easily enough.
It was only at a pre-Thanksgiving get together at one of their Section mate's family's cabins in the Catskills, where Henry and Evelyn stumbled away outside to the deck alone together that Chris knew Henry was going to cross the line.
The two of them weren't subtle after that. There was no need to be - the fiancée was back in California, a faraway afterthought. None of their classmates knew her. She was a person they'd heard about, vaguely knew about, and didn't care about. Henry and Evelyn made out at parties and held hands on campus and no one said a thing.
Chris liked both of them. Henry was smart, hardworking, and fun to be around. Evelyn was sharp and very charming. They were a good looking couple who got along with their classmates.
He thought Henry would break up with the fiancée when he went back home over Christmas.
It was one of those rare times where Chris read someone wrong.
Henry came back with a litany of excuses about why he hadn't broken up with his fiancée over the holiday break.
'It was going to happen anyways, so it's pretty much over. He would do it soon. He wanted to let her down easy. After a bit more long distance she wouldn't feel that hurt over it. He'll wait a little bit and do it soon.'
Chris hadn't asked for the excuses, but his friend was feeling guilty, and he confessed freely.
Things went on for two and a half more months after Christmas. Chris liked Henry. He liked Evelyn. He didn't care at all for Henry's fiancée because he didn't know her, but this charade had gone on for so long that even as a third party he was beginning to find it distasteful.
He didn't like to interject, especially in this matter, but when Henry confessed in March that his fiancée had found a job out in Boston, he felt like he had to say something.
"Break it off, this isn't good for anyone involved," he had said to Henry out on one of the benches by the Charles River after one of their morning runs. Henry had had his head down in his hands. He was stressed. He couldn't even look at Chris.
But Henry didn't break it off. He couldn't do it. So his fiancée quit her job in San Francisco and moved out to Boston to be with him in March, and he had let her move in with him.
He kept the lies up for about two more weeks after that. Henry wasn't even the one who told her. One of their Section mates who had a much stronger moral compass finally let it slip to the fiancée that Henry had been cheating on her for the last few months.
She moved out and returned the ring.
Chris heard Henry tell it the next day. Henry had cried. He was feeling guilt ridden, wondering if it was all a huge mistake. Chris knew that his friend wouldn't be upset for long. It was the initial shock of ripping off the band-aid, but he had long since moved on with Evelyn.
Chris was right. Henry was back to his normal self a week later and officially together with Evelyn.
"How have you gone the whole year without dating someone?" Evelyn asked Chris as they put their trays away. The conversation had shifted from Liam. "Not a single girl caught your eye?"
Chris gave her a sideways smile. "What's the point of dating someone here anyways? You know I'm just going to move back to New York after business school."
Evelyn pouted, as if Chris not having an active love life upset her as much as Liam's breakup had. "The girls all refer to you as the most eligible bachelor in our year," she said. "You sure you wouldn't be open to a date?"
Henry looked away, not wanting to be a part of the conversation that his girlfriend was leading to, one which Evelyn had been pushing with increasing frequency over the past few weeks. He rubbed her back again as they walked out of the dining hall together, as if hoping the gesture would encourage her to drop it.
Chris raised an eyebrow. He knew who she was trying to set him up with as well. He didn't mind her friend Julie, who was a petite brunette from Wisconsin in another Section, but he wasn't particularly interested in her either.
"I'd rather just have fun," he said, smiling devilishly at Evelyn to drive the point across.
Evelyn tsked and rolled her eyes, and Henry laughed, but they left it alone at that.
It wasn't exactly the truth. Chris wasn't out there having fun, or meeting girls at clubs. He hadn't been particularly interested in anyone for a while, and besides, business school had kept him far too busy.
He was also going about it very logically. Realistically, he would move back to New York after school was done in another year. He was from New York, his family was there, and he knew he belonged there. He might as well go back to New York and think about it then.
He waved goodbye to Henry and Evelyn at the intersection near their dorm. He wanted to take the T to Boston to buy some books. He had a summer internship in New York for the next couple of months before school started again for their final year, and he wanted to spend some time getting ready for it.
A group of girls on the T gaggled at him as he walked in through the doors. One of them was wearing a maroon 'Harvard' t-shirt. He guessed that they were undergrads by the looks of them. He caught one of them staring and she turned away, blushing.
He knew why Evelyn's friends would refer to him as the most eligible bachelor their year. He was good looking and he knew it. He had known it since high school, when he had never had to feel awkward at a school dance because enough girls came up and asked him to dance.
The HBS name was impressive for when they went out. His guy friends frequently name-dropped the school when they went to bars in Boston - it was a surefire way to pick up girls.
Chris actually didn't go out that much. He went out enough to be social, but not enough to be part of the party crowd. He liked his friends and he liked his school, but he wasn't that into Boston. There were better bars and better clubs back home. Far better.
He was a New York snob through and through.
No, picking up Boston girls was not really his thing. At school, everyone had the HBS name, of course. But at school, he also stood out because of his family.
He had never mentioned it, but eventually people do find out. New York old money.
When he got into business school, his parents offered to pay for all of it without batting an eye. A hundred grand was nothing to them. Nothing at all.
Of course, his parents tried to put good values into him, into all of them. As far as Chris was concerned, they were successful. He and his siblings had all grown up with a good sense of direction in life, with compassion, with an idea of right and wrong.
His parents had also tried to instill in their kids a sense of humbleness. With his sister and his older brother, they had been quite successful in this regard. With him and his younger brother, a little less so.
Chris grinned as he walked into the bookstore, a tiny little shop tucked away on the outskirts of the busy parts of Newberry street that was a favorite of his. He thought back to what his sister had said at the shower last weekend.
"You could do with being a little less cocky," Kayla had told him when he had commented that he would not have trouble finding a job in New York after school.
The truth was, he missed his family a lot more than he thought he would. Growing up, there were four of them, seven years apart from the oldest to the youngest. It certainly made for a lot of interesting dynamics growing up, and even now, but the four of them had always been close.
Chris smiled and nodded to the receptionist behind the counter when he walked into the store. She was a small woman in her early thirties, and she waved at him from behind the book she was reading.
"Not too busy, Clarissa?" he asked as he walked down the steps from the entrance.
"We never are," she replied dryly, not looking up from her book.
He liked Clarissa and her sense of humor. It was part of the reason why he preferred this store to the ones in Cambridge. The other was the lack of people here. Especially now, at the end of the school year when undergrads and grad students alike had less schoolwork, the shops at Cambridge were teeming with people.
There was only one other person in the tiny bookstore. It was a girl, in her mid-twenties, standing in the fiction section of the store. She was peering intently at the selection a little above where she could reach, scanning the titles carefully.
Chris gave her a cursory glance and then turned to walk down the steps into the basement of the store, where the books on finance that he was looking for were shelved, but it was when he looked away that he recognized her.
His brain registered a flicker of surprise. He stopped, and turned to look at her again.
Oh it was definitely her alright.
Straight, brown hair tied together in a long ponytail. Eyes dark and focused. She was wearing a short sleeved, summer dress that reached her knees, and black loafers that he had seen often in pictures.
She was taller than he imagined she would be, but maybe it was because Henry was so tall that she looked shorter by comparison in the photos.
He glanced at her left hand, where he knew there wouldn't be a ring, but the glance was from an instinctive curiosity.
Chris had never met Henry's ex-fiancée, even though she had visited Harvard a few times while they were still doing long distance. Through pure circumstances, whether he was busy or because he had been away to New York, they'd never run into one another. And when she moved here, Chris had purposely avoided meeting her.
Well, that wasn't exactly correct. But in the few weeks after she moved to Boston and before they broke up when Henry had brought her obligatorily to parties and other social functions, Chris tried not to attend. He didn't want any part in it. He hung around Henry and Evelyn enough to know that none of it could end well, and to know that he didn't really need to get to know Henry's fiancée.
There was no point.
He stared a moment too long, and she must have registered it, because the next second she turned her head and met his eyes.
Surprise flickered across her face. She blinked and didn't look away.
This wasn't like the lingering stare of the girls on the T, or the girls walking across campus, or the girls he met when he went out at bars around Boston.
No, Chris realized that she knew his face, just like he knew hers.
They were both in so many photos with Henry that any amount of time spent on social media looking at Henry's account would quickly place one of them at his side.
Chris knew that in that moment they were both debating the same thing. They had never met or been introduced, so technically walking away would be fine. They had nothing to say to each other. Their mutual tie was a man who had cheated on her, a fact she had to find out from one of his classmates.
The eye contact lingered on for a moment too long. They were both still debating whether or not to acknowledge the recognition, and the debate was going on for too long.
Chris made the decision. Without another moment of hesitancy, he walked towards her, his stride confident.
"Audrey, right?" he asked, giving her a smile, just a tilt of his mouth.
She nodded. "You're Christopher," she said, not a question. Her voice was soft but clear.
"Chris," he said.
She nodded once more, her eyes not leaving his face.
Henry's name hung in the air between them. Chris didn't mention it, however. He wasn't going to say it if she wasn't.
But she said nothing more, although she was still looking at him.
He had the slight notion that she didn't like him.
It was just a sliver of a feeling in the back of his mind, but his intuition was usually correct. Of course, it was probably the negative association with Henry. There was no other reason, since they'd never met before.
He could have walked away at that point. 'Well it was nice to meet you' and that would be it. But he was curious, he wanted to see if his intuition was right.
"You need help reaching a book?" he offered.
"Yes," she replied, also without hesitancy. She pointed up towards the shelf she was looking at, the one just slightly out of her reach. "That one."
He followed her finger to a blue paperback. It was Catch-22, Joseph Heller. He slid the book out of the shelf easily and handed it to her.
"Thank you," she said, taking the book, looking away. She didn't invite any more conversation.
But he was still curious.
"So you live in Boston?" he asked.
He actually had no idea. She had moved here to be with Henry, had quit her job at a tech company in San Francisco for him, but had no ties to Boston otherwise. It had been two months since they broke up, and Chris had never thought about where she had ended up, but now he wondered why she didn't move back.
"Yes, I'm in an apartment in North End," Audrey said. And then, after a slight pause, "You're here for the summer?"
Chris nodded. "I'm doing an internship in equity strategy at a firm downtown," he told her.
It was polite conversation. Not friendly, but not hostile either. He decided to leave it at that.
"Well, it was nice to see you," he said, giving her another brief smile. He tapped the book in her hands lightly. "It's a good book if you haven't read it," he told her.
He was half turned away when she asked the next question.
"How long did you know that Henry was cheating on me?" she asked.
Chris stopped dead in his tracks. Wow. He was not expecting that. Her voice had not changed in tone either. She didn't seem hysterical, or angry, or upset, or even any more emotional than she had been just a second ago, but she had gone straight for the jugular.
He turned around, wondering if she was about to go in a furious rage at him, but Audrey still seemed calm and collected, which surprised him still. He didn't want to deal with his friend's upset ex-fiancée right now.
"I'm sorry?" Chris said, pretending like he hadn't heard. The truth was that he needed time to process, to figure out exactly how to answer this question because she had caught him off guard.
"How long have you known that Henry was cheating on me?" she asked, and then added, "before I found out."
"The entire time," he said truthfully, watching her expression carefully. It remained unchanged. "Four months."
Her lips thinned slightly. Then, red appeared at the rims of her eyes. She was trying to control her expression, but faint dots of red had appeared at her cheeks.
Chris knew the expression because he had seen it on others and even on himself a few times in his life from the mirror. She was trying not to cry. It was then that he realized that while she had known that Henry had cheated, she had not known how long. The first time she heard about that was when he had said it just then.
To his immense surprise, she stood in silence for about ten seconds, looking resolutely down at her book, and when she looked up at him again her eyes were dry and steely. She was not going to cry after all.
"And why didn't you say anything to me?" she asked. There was now a slight edge to her voice.
He was right. She did not like him. It was no longer just a hazy feeling in the corner of his mind.
"Henry's my friend, you are not," he told her.
"Your classmate told me," she responded evenly. "He wasn't my friend either."
"Good on him then, but I have no obligation to you," he replied. It may have been callous, but it was true.
"Obligation to do the moral thing?" she challenged.
"That was Henry's obligation to you, not mine," Chris said.
"And yet you are still friends with him," she was frowning now, her breaths were becoming quicker, more winded.
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Why would I not be? He didn't cheat on me," he said.
He thought she would argue back, but she stayed silent. The only sounds in the bookstore were the sounds of her rapid breathing. Clarissa, deep into her book at the counter in the front of the store, did not look up.
After a long moment, during which Audrey had never looked away from him, she finally said, "That's fair."
Chris knew that he had upset her, even though she was trying to hide it, even though she had been fairly good at trying to hide it. But he had told her the truth because she had asked for it.
She looked away, and waved the book at him half heartedly. "Thanks for lending a hand," she said in a monotone. She turned to walk away.
He stopped her. He reached out and touched her elbow, very lightly. "Audrey, wait," he said. It was a very impulsive act.
She turned back, but she looked utterly drained as she looked back at him. It was as if their conversation had left her exhausted.
"I don't think it's a loss for you in the long run," he told her. He had no idea what possessed him to say that. Henry was his friend. Evelyn was his friend. This was some girl he did not know.
She blinked at him, but she still looked tired. "Yes, I know, cheaters always cheat," she said the line monotonously as if she had heard it many times before. Which she probably had, from friends and family after the whole thing went down.
"Not necessarily," Chris said. It was true, he actually didn't genuinely believe that.
Audrey gave him a look. It was a narrow-eyed 'Are you trying to make me feel better or not' kind of glare, one that almost made Chris laugh if the situation wasn't so serious.
"Look, Henry may or may not cheat on Evelyn, who's to say," he said. "But I do know Henry pretty well. His life is one hundred percent about him. Your relationship worked, and was probably very good, but only as long as it was convenient for him. He's a good friend but probably not a great life partner. Life is long, and things are not always going to be convenient. I'd imagine it would be exhausting to end up with someone whose life was all about them."
He had no idea what possessed him to say all of that. He had never even told any of his classmates or friends back at HBS what he thought about Henry or Evelyn. But this was the reason why he knew Henry's relationship with Audrey would fall apart from the beginning, because it was no longer a convenience for Henry once he got to Boston.
Audrey looked at him, her expression very curious now. She didn't say anything, and instead nodded once at him and then turned to pay for her book. She didn't look back again.
Chris watched her go. The frown had still been there on her face, but Chris had a feeling that she disliked him a little less now.
It was another half-formed notion in the back of his mind, but his intuition was usually pretty accurate.
After she left, he went downstairs, picked out the books he wanted, and came back up to pay for them. No one else had come in the bookstore in the minutes since.
Clarissa was ringing him up when she looked up, gave him a furtive look and a smirk. She nodded at the door. "I liked her," she said.
Chris' eyes widened and he chuckled.
Clarissa hadn't been that into her book after all. She had heard their conversation, but just had the tact to pretend like she hadn't.