By Weston Ochse
She slid out of the raw November cold and into the warmth of the restaurant. She stood behind a trio of yuppies, who were so eagerly talking with each other about their day’s triumphs that they didn’t notice her; which was just how she wanted it. There was such a thing as too much attention.
The maître d’ glanced at them. By the way his eyes encompassed her and the others, she knew the slender gentleman in formal tails imagined that they were together. She allowed the error, used it, and followed his gesture towards the lounge where a dozen other couples were waiting to be seated.
A Chinese couple sat together on one of the leather sofas that were arrayed around the room. They glanced in her direction as she passed.
She turned slightly, so they couldn’t see her whole face, then stepped to the wall and pretended to examine a picture of the infamous clipper ship Cutty Sark breaking through stormy weather in the South Pacific. She noted the irony of her turning from a man and women of China to the ship that had once run tea from their home to England. Then she dismissed it and used the reflection in the glass to watch the room.
It’d been a long time since she’d braved the crowds. She’d been asked if she was ready for it or if she wanted to wait for a better time.
“When will it be better?” she’d countered. “How will I know?”
There’d been no response. For someone like her who had experienced what she’d experienced, reintroduction to society was something that just had to be done, however difficult it was.
“Pretty amazing that it would become so famous when it lost the race, don’t you think?” came a man’s voice.
She inhaled and felt a nervous tremor run through her as he slid next to her. She caught his reflection. He was tall and blonde. Blue eyes rode easily above a confident smile.
“You mean the Thermopylae?” she asked.
She recognized him. His name was Barry Larson. He ran a hedge fund and liked to race horses.
“It was the Cutty’s perseverance that made her famous,” she said, “Her indomitable spirit.”
“But the Thermopylae won the race.”
“Only because the Cutty lost her rudder. They still finished, which was a feat in itself.”
He smiled and turned to her, holding out a hand in a gesture of friendship. “You, my dear, are a romantic,” he said. Then he introduced himself.
She returned the convention. “I’m Sue Johnson.”
When he shook her hand, she couldn’t help but notice that although his grip was firm, his skin was soft. She saw him check her empty ring finger.
Before long they were talking as they waited. They ordered coffee from a waiter, who returned with a tray of delicate china cups and saucers. He poured from a silver pot that had probably been made in the 1800s when the Cutty was still running tea.
Her nervousness began to slip away as they spoke. They kept the conversation centered on the 1872 race from Shanghai to England, using it as a springboard for other topics. Soon she began to feel her old confidence creep back. She’d once been the best at her job.
“Second place is still second place,” he said, returning to the race. He spooned sugar into his cup, stirred, then lay the spoon on the saucer as he brought the delicate china to his lips.
“Some say that because the crew tried so hard, and even without a rudder fell only a week behind, that theirs was an achievement that overshadowed winning.”
“Fine words from those who backed the loser.”
“Maybe, but does anyone know about the Thermopylae, or is the Cutty Sark the more famous for coming in second?” She smiled sweetly. “Besides, they won the contest the next ten years running.”
“You seem to have a thing about coming in second.” He shook his head. “The inaugural race was the real race. Everything after that was an attempt to reinvent the past.”
Fifteen years in prison hadn’t changed her much on the outside, but it had on the inside. The biggest victim was her confidence and idea of what was fair. Being in public was something with which she’d become unfamiliar. But as uncomfortable as it was, she knew that she had to do it; after all, Barry was her Thermopylae.
“Joseph Conrad wrote a story about the toll it took on the crew. Many of them died in the trying of it. The captain even committed suicide.”
He smiled expansively and shook his head as if he were Damocles sitting in judgment over a naïve petitioner. “One must be willing to die to achieve importance.”
His bravado would have been charming had he not owed so much money. She hadn’t actually been sure that she’d be able to do what she’d come to do, but as her mark turned to answer a call from a friend across the room, she flipped the lid open on her ring and allowed the four tiny pills to fall into his cup. She reached for her own spoon resting beside her cup to mask her movement. She added sugar, watching the white swirls dissolve to nothing, then tasted her coffee. It was the best she’d had in a very long time.
Moments later she excused herself. She passed the bathrooms and an elderly woman struggling into a fur coat and headed out the door.
Barry had been a hugely successful fancier, but was a lousy judge of horse flesh. It was bad enough that he absolutely refused to make good on his debts. Worse for him was his opinion about the Cutty Sark. It was a remark he never should have made.
Sometimes coming in second makes one appreciate what it takes to come in first. It’s all a matter of finishing.