Stratosphere sat atop one of the tallest buildings in the city and offered some of the best views of the area. The mountains were visible on a clear day, and the southern side of the dining room offered a clean line of site of the airport, which was far south of the city but seemed closer from 40 stories up. I had been to the restaurant for lunch once with my dad many years ago when he met one of his college buddies to celebrate his friend’s upcoming second marriage. That marriage had since ended in divorce, and dad’s friend remained single as far as I know.
I hadn’t been to the restaurant at night, so when the elevator spat me out on the 40th floor at five minutes until eight, I stood in the lobby for a moment looking out over the streets below. The lights twinkled along the streets, and the surrounding office buildings looked liked gap-tooth jack-o-lanterns with some windows dark and some lit. I watched traffic snake around the bend on the freeway heading north, a trail of red taillights pointed the way.
I turned toward her voice and almost fell backward. I had gone home and freshened up, but I still wore the same suit that I had worn to work sans the tie. Julie had changed altogether. She wore a slim-fitting dress that looked like it had been airbrushed on. She always dressed nicely in her business suits, but this dress was a different level of nice. My voice hitched in my throat.
“Julie…you…you look great.”
“Thank you.” Her smile glowed in the dim lobby. She stepped up next to me and looked out the window at the world below. “It’s so beautiful from up here isn’t it?”
“Yes.” It was all I could say as I inhaled her perfume again. I struggled not to stare directly at her, so I watched her reflection in the window before us.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I made a reservation.”
“That’s good.” I watched her in window as she turned to me.
“Are you hungry?”
“I can always eat.” She laughed as if had told a joke. She turned back toward the window and we stood there a moment longer watching the ant-sized world crawl around below us. The excitement of being next to her almost overwhelmed me.
“Let’s go to our table,” she said turning away from the window. I followed her to the maitre d’s podium. The maitre d snapped to attention as she approached and smiled when she gave her name. He summoned a hostess who stood behind him, and she led us to a table at the far end of the restaurant next to a window overlooking the east side of the city. I could see Standard Tower in the distance, the red letters of our company’s name glowing in the darkening night. I wished that she had put us somewhere that didn’t have a view of Standard Tower.
“Have you been here before?” Julie asked as we sat down. I placed the starched, cloth napkins in my lap.
“Not at night. It’s beautiful.”
“I love this place at night. The views are stunning. I love watching the city as it parties the night away.”
I’d never thought of it that way. Most nights I was holed up in my apartment or in one of my friend’s apartments playing Xbox. We ordered food for delivery or popped something in the microwave. None of my friends were really interested in going out. I became acutely aware of how odd we were, a group of man-children slavishly devoted to silly games when we, or I, could be hanging out with interesting women like Julie doing adult things. I felt like I was on the threshold of some sort of awareness, or it could have just been nerves. I struggled to find something to keep the conversation going.
“Do you come here often?” I almost wanted to face palm because that was what came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Julie smiled again as if she could read my thoughts. “We have a lot of business meetings here. Mr. Rich loves this place.”
I nodded as I cracked open the menu. When I had been here before, my dad had paid for my lunch. I didn’t remember much about the food, but the menu looked strange with its cutesy names and lengthy descriptions. The prices were a little eye-popping, and I quickly calculated whether or not I had enough on my credit card to cover our meal. I thought I did.
I looked up at Julie’s concerned expression. “Yes, of course.”
“You just had this worried look on your face.”
“I can’t decide what I want.”
“The filet mignon is the best.”
I hummed to myself. “I may try that.” I quickly looked down the rest of the menu for a cheaper option and settled on a broiled chicken entree for half the price of the filet.
The waiter high-stepped over to our table and introduced himself in a pretentious English accent. As I listened to him talk about the menu, I wondered if his accent was real or just an act to fit the surroundings. I’d read on the internet that some actors who worked as waiters practiced by becoming a character when they worked. He sniffed after we ordered our drinks and pranced away toward the bar.
“He’s a little over the top,” I said after the waiter moved out of ear shot.
Julie giggled. “He is a little much.” She glanced toward the bar, but then, she turned her eyes on me. I almost melted in my chair. As I held her gaze for a brief moment, I felt like something passed between us, an unspoken message. I grew more nervous and returned my focus to the menu.
“Do you know what you want?” she asked.
I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t want to put the menu down. “Yes.”
“Good. Me too.” She signaled our waiter who seemed peeved that he had been summoned before he could bring the drinks, but he waltzed over to our table and made a big show of removing his pen and pad from his apron. Julie picked the filet, medium rare, and I had the broiled chicken. The waiter asked a bunch of questions, and we responded as if we were in some sort of speed round on a game show. Finally, he turned and rushed away with our menus tucked under his arm. My nervousness blared in the dim light without the menu to cover me. I looked out the window as the blinking lights of a distant airplane sailed across the horizon.
The waiter returned with our drinks and scampered away after a few witty comments. Julie sipped her wine, and I could feel her eyes on me as I glanced around the restaurant.
“Do you have any plans this weekend?” she asked.
I turned toward her as she took another sip of her wine. “Not really. Just hanging out with friends.”
“What do you do with your friends?”
I was too embarrassed to tell the truth, that we mostly played Xbox all day, did fast food runs, and avoided anything that interfered with our games including showers. “We play video games, go to movies, hang out at my apartment…”
She nodded as if it made sense to her.
“What about your plans?”
“I’m mostly working this weekend. There’s still a lot to do, especially after Mr. Rich’s announcement.”
“No, that you have to work.”
“Part of the job.”
I could barely stand working during the week. I couldn’t imagine if I had to work the weekend too. In that moment, I felt sorry for Julie, but she didn’t seem the least bit sad about it, nor did she seemed resigned to her fate. She looked as she always looked – determined and ambitious, and I wondered how anyone could get too excited about Standard.
“What did you think about Mr. Rich’s announcement?”
“It was ambiguous. He said something was going to happen, but he didn’t say exactly what.”
“It’d take longer to go through all the details. He just wanted to set the stage for what’s to come.”
“Do you know what’s coming?”
“I do.” I must have given her an expectant look because she continued, “I can’t tell you anything beyond that.”
“I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”
She nodded. “Mr. Rich wants to pull the Band Aid off quickly, so it will happen sooner rather than later.”
“What’s the rush?”
“Mr. Rich is ready to move on. He was brought in to transform the company. He’s close to doing that, and once he’s set the wheels in motion, he’s going to move on.”
“He’s leaving the company?”
“Who’s taking over?”
“That’s still to be determined. I guess it depends on how the next few months go.”
“Wow. What are you going to do?”
“That’s still to be determined too.”
I sat back in my seat fingering the silverware still resting on the table beside my empty plate. I didn’t want to work at Standard if Julie wasn’t there. I had joined the company because of her, and I had stayed because of her. If she were gone, I’d have no reason to stay. I felt no loyalty or affinity for the company itself.
The waiter brought our appetizer and placed it on the table between us. The aroma of fried food and aioli sauce filled the air around our table. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until my mouth started watering. I waited for Julie to fork a few rings of calamari onto her plate before I did the same. I immediately shoveled a couple of rings into my mouth savoring the tender meat bathed in the spicy sauce.
In between bites our conversation shifted from work to life outside of work, mostly Julie’s life outside work. Despite the fact that she worked a lot, she still managed to do other things. She was an avid cyclist, but she hadn’t spent much time on the road lately. Instead, she had one of those Peloton bikes, and she woke up at 4 AM every morning to ride the bike for an hour. I’d seen the commercials for the bike on TV, and I imagined that Julie’s bike was set up in some airy apartment high above the city with splendid views of the mountains off in the distance. If anyone could live the aspirational lifestyle of those commercials, it was Julie.
I learned a lot about her in those two hours at Stratosphere. Her parents lived on the east coast, and she had a younger sister who was a doctor that lived in Oregon. She revealed this without much prompting, and thankfully, without expecting too much in return from me. I felt small compared to her, incomplete and uninteresting. She was definitely out of my league. I had graduated college, but I hadn’t fully graduated into adulthood. My biggest moments of late involved finishing a newly-released Xbox game on the weekend after it’s release. On the other hand, Julie had spent a week in Vienna a few months ago and had attended an opera there. I could barely say opera without laughing.
The time flew by too fast. I wanted to learn more about her, but after we waved off the prospect of dessert, the waiter dropped the check onto the table in a little leather portfolio. I reached for it.
“I got this,” Julie said. She reached for the check and her hand glanced mine. “I invited you here.”
“I can get it.”
“I know you can, but let this be my treat.” I acquiesced, and honestly, I felt relieved because I could imagine that the bill was pretty big.
“Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed your company.”
“I’ve enjoyed yours as well.”
She put her credit card into the portfolio and held it up for the waiter who swooped by to retrieve it.
After she paid, we stood up, almost in unison and made our way to the exit. We waited for the elevator quietly and remained quiet for the ride down to the lobby. We stepped out onto the marble floor in the lobby. Her heels clicked and echoed in the vast atrium as we walked toward the exit and stopped just outside the rotating doors.
“I’m parked in the deck,” she said nodding behind her.
“Oh, okay. I’m taking a Uber.”
“I’ve had a great time.”
“Me too. Thank you again for dinner.”
“You’re very welcome.”
We stood there staring at each other for a moment. I felt awkward and unsure of what to do. I didn’t know if this was a business dinner or a date. I didn’t know if I should shake her hand or simply wave goodbye to her.
She leaned in and I froze as she kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good weekend, Travis. I’ll see you Monday morning.” She smiled and lingered for just a few seconds before she turned and walked toward the parking deck.
“Have a good weekend,” I said to her back as she walked away. I watched her confidently stride to the parking deck as if she knew I was watching her. My heart pounded in my chest, and my knees felt weak. I could still smell her perfume in her wake. I had wanted to spend my Friday night playing a new Xbox game, but now, I didn’t care about that game. I watched her disappear into the elevator to the parking deck. I wanted to yell out for her to wait before the doors closed, but I just stood there staring at the space she had occupied in front of me until it became too awkward and I had no choice but to call an Uber and go home.