Read an Excerpt
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight
By Jennifer E. Smith
Poppy Copyright © 2012 Jennifer E. Smith
All right reserved.
There are so many ways it could have all turned out differently.
Imagine if she hadn’t forgotten the book. She wouldn’t have had to run back into the house while Mom waited outside with the car running, the engine setting loose a cloud of exhaust in the late-day heat.
Or before that, even: Imagine if she hadn’t waited to try on her dress, so that she might have noticed earlier that the straps were too long, and Mom wouldn’t have had to haul out her old sewing kit, turning the kitchen counter into an operating table as she attempted to save the poor lifeless swath of purple silk at the very last minute.
Or later: if she hadn’t given herself a paper cut while printing out her ticket, if she hadn’t lost her phone charger, if there hadn’t been traffic on the expressway to the airport. If they hadn’t missed the exit, or if she hadn’t fumbled the quarters for the toll, the coins rolling beneath the seat while the people in the cars behind them leaned hard on their horns.
If the wheel of her suitcase hadn’t been off-kilter.
If she’d run just a bit faster to the gate.
Though maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Perhaps the day’s collection of delays is beside the point, and if it hadn’t been one of those things, it would have just been something else: the weather over the Atlantic, rain in London, storm clouds that hovered just an hour too long before getting on with their day. Hadley isn’t a big believer in things like fate or destiny, but then, she’s never been a big believer in the punctuality of the airline industry, either.
Who ever heard of a plane leaving on time anyhow?
She’s never missed a flight before in her life. Not once.
But when she finally reaches the gate this evening, it’s to find the attendants sealing the door and shutting down the computers. The clock above them says 6:48, and just beyond the window the plane sits like a hulking metal fortress; it’s clear from the looks on the faces of those around her that nobody else is getting on that thing.
She’s four minutes late, which doesn’t seem like all that much when you think about it; it’s a commercial break, the period between classes, the time it takes to cook a microwave meal. Four minutes is nothing. Every single day, in every single airport, there are people who make their flights at the very last moment, breathing hard as they stow their bags and then slumping into their seats with a sigh of relief as the plane launches itself skyward.
But not Hadley Sullivan, who lets her backpack slip from her hand as she stands at the window, watching the plane break away from the accordion-like ramp, its wings rotating as it heads toward the runway without her.
Across the ocean, her father is making one last toast, and the white-gloved hotel staff is polishing the silverware for tomorrow night’s celebration. Behind her, the boy with a ticket for seat 18C on the next flight to London is eating a powdered doughnut, oblivious to the dusting of white on his blue shirt.
Hadley closes her eyes, just for a moment, and when she opens them again, the plane is gone.
Who would have guessed that four minutes could change everything?
6:56 PM Eastern Standard Time
11:56 PM Greenwich Mean Time
Airports are torture chambers if you’re claustrophobic.
It’s not just the looming threat of the ride ahead—being stuffed into seats like sardines and then catapulted through the air in a narrow metal tube—but also the terminals themselves, the press of people, the blur and spin of the place, a dancing, dizzying hum, all motion and noise, all frenzy and clamor, and the whole thing sealed off by glass windows like some kind of monstrous ant farm.
This is just one of the many things that Hadley’s trying not to think about as she stands helplessly before the ticket counter. The light outside was starting to disappear and her plane is now somewhere over the Atlantic, and she can feel something inside of her unraveling, like the slow release of air from a balloon. Part of it is the impending flight and part of it is the airport itself, but mostly—mostly—it’s the realization that she’ll now be late for the wedding she didn’t even want to go to in the first place, and something about this miserable little twist of fate makes her feel like crying.
The gate attendants have gathered on the opposite side of the counter to frown at her with looks of great impatience. The screen behind them has already been switched to announce the next flight from JFK to Heathrow, which doesn’t leave for more than three hours, and it’s quickly becoming obvious that Hadley is the only thing standing between them and the end of their shift.
“I’m sorry, Miss,” one of them says, the suppressed sigh evident in her voice. “There’s nothing we can do but try to get you on the later flight.”
Hadley nods glumly. She’s spent the past few weeks secretly wishing this very thing might happen, though admittedly, her imagined scenarios have been a bit more dramatic: a massive airline strike; an epic hailstorm; an immobilizing case of the flu, or even the measles, that would prevent her from flying. All perfectly good reasons why she might have to miss her father’s trip down the aisle to marry a woman she’s never met.
But being four minutes late to your flight seems just a little too convenient, maybe a tad suspicious, and Hadley isn’t at all sure that her parents—either of them—will understand that it wasn’t her fault. In fact, she suspects this might fall onto the very short list of things they’d actually agree upon.
It had been her own idea to skip the rehearsal dinner and arrive in London the morning of the wedding instead. Hadley hasn’t seen her father in more than a year, and she wasn’t sure she could sit in a room with all the important people in his life—his friends and colleagues, the little world he’s built around himself an ocean away—while they toasted to his health and happiness, the start of his new life. If it had been up to her, she wouldn’t even be going to the wedding itself, but that had turned out to be nonnegotiable.
“He’s still your dad,” Mom kept reminding her, as if this were something Hadley might forget. “If you don’t go, you’ll regret it later. I know it’s hard to imagine when you’re seventeen, but trust me. One day you will.”
Hadley isn’t so sure.
The flight attendant is now working the keyboard of her computer with a kind of ferocious intensity, punching at the keys and snapping her gum. “You’re in luck,” she says, raising her hands with a little flourish. “I can get you on the ten twenty-four. Seat eighteen-A. By the window.”
Hadley’s almost afraid to pose the question, but she asks it anyway: “What time does it get in?”
“Nine fifty-four,” the attendant says. “Tomorrow morning.”
Hadley pictures the delicate calligraphy on the thick ivory wedding invitation, which has been sitting on her dresser for months now. The ceremony will begin tomorrow at noon, which means that if everything goes according to schedule—the flight and then customs, the taxis and the traffic, the timing all perfectly choreographed—she’ll still have a chance at making it on time. But just barely.
“Boarding will start from this gate at nine forty-five,” the attendant says, handing over the papers, which are all neatly bound in a little jacket. “Have a wonderful flight.”
Hadley edges her way toward the windows and surveys the rows of drab gray chairs, most of them occupied and the rest sprouting yellow stuffing at their seams like well-loved teddy bears. She props her backpack on top of her carry-on suitcase and digs for her cell phone, then scrolls through the contacts for her dad’s number. He’s listed simply as “The Professor,” a label she bestowed on him about a year and a half ago, shortly after it was announced that he wouldn’t be returning to Connecticut and the word dad had become an unpleasant reminder each time she opened her phone.
Her heart quickens now as it begins to ring; though he still calls fairly often, she’s probably dialed him only a handful of times. It’s nearly midnight there, and when he finally picks up, his voice is thick, slowed by sleep or alcohol or maybe both.
“I missed my flight,” she says, adopting the clipped tone that comes so naturally when talking to her father these days, a side effect of her general disapproval of him.
She sighs and repeats herself: “I missed my flight.”
In the background, Hadley can hear Charlotte murmuring, and something flares up inside of her, a quick rise of anger. Despite the sugary e-mails the woman has been sending her ever since Dad proposed—filled with wedding plans and photos of their trip to Paris and pleas for Hadley to get involved, all signed with an overzealous “xxoo” (as if one x and one o weren’t sufficient)—it’s been exactly one year and ninety-six days since Hadley decided that she hated her, and it will take much more than an invitation to be a bridesmaid to cancel this out.
“Well,” Dad says, “did you get another one?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t get in till ten.”
“No, tonight,” she says. “I’ll be traveling by comet.”
Dad ignores this. “That’s too late. It’s too close to the ceremony. I won’t be able to pick you up,” he says, and there’s a muffled sound as he covers the phone to whisper to Charlotte. “We can probably send Aunt Marilyn to get you.”
“Who’s Aunt Marilyn?”
“I’m seventeen,” Hadley reminds him. “I’m pretty sure I can handle getting a taxi to the church.”
“I don’t know,” Dad says. “It’s your first time in London….” He trails off, then clears his throat. “Do you think your mom would be okay with it?”
“Mom’s not here,” Hadley says. “I guess she caught the first wedding.”
There’s silence on the other end of the phone.
“It’s fine, Dad. I’ll meet you at the church tomorrow. Hopefully I won’t be too late.”
“Okay,” he says softly. “I can’t wait to see you.”
“Yeah,” she says, unable to bring herself to say it back to him. “See you tomorrow.”
It isn’t until after they’ve hung up that Hadley realizes she didn’t even ask how the rehearsal dinner went. She’s not all that sure she wants to know.
For a long moment, she just stands there like that, the phone still held tightly in her hand, trying not to think about all that awaits her on the other side of the ocean. The smell of butter from a nearby pretzel stand is making her slightly sick, and she’d like nothing more than to sit down, but the gate is choked with passengers who’ve spilled over from other areas of the terminal. It’s Fourth of July weekend, and the weather maps on the TV screens show a swirling pattern of storms blotting out much of the Midwest. People are staking out their territory, laying claim to sections of the waiting area as if they plan to live there permanently. There are suitcases perched on empty chairs, families camped out around entire corners, greasy McDonald’s bags strewn across the floor. As she picks her way over a man sleeping on his backpack, Hadley is keenly aware of the closeness of the ceiling and the press of the walls, the surging presence of the crowd all around her, and she has to remind herself to breathe.
When she spots an empty seat, she hurries in that direction, maneuvering her rolling suitcase through the sea of shoes and trying not to think about just how crushed the silly purple dress will be by the time she arrives tomorrow morning. The plan was to have a few hours to get ready at the hotel before the ceremony, but now she’ll have to make a mad dash for the church. Of all her many worries at the moment, this doesn’t rank particularly high on Hadley’s list, but still, it’s a little bit funny to imagine just how horrified Charlotte’s friends will be; not having time to get your hair done undoubtedly qualifies as a major catastrophe in their books.
Hadley’s pretty sure that regret is too slight a word to describe her feelings about agreeing to be a bridesmaid, but she’d been worn down by Charlotte’s incessant e-mails and Dad’s endless pleas, not to mention Mom’s surprising support of the idea.
“I know he’s not your favorite person in the world right now,” she’d said, “and he’s certainly not mine, either. But do you really want to be flipping through that wedding album one day, maybe with your own kids, and wishing you’d been a part of it?”
Hadley really doesn’t think she’d mind, actually, but she could see where everyone was going with this, and it had just seemed easier to make them happy, even if it meant enduring the hair spray and the uncomfortable heels and the post-ceremony photo shoot. When the rest of the wedding party—a collection of Charlotte’s thirtysomething friends—had learned about the addition of an American teenager, Hadley had been promptly welcomed with a flurry of exclamation points to the e-mail chain that was circulating among the group. And though she’d never met Charlotte before and had spent the last year and a half making sure it stayed that way, she now knew the woman’s preferences on a wide range of topics pertaining to the wedding—important issues like strappy sandals vs. closed-toe heels; whether to include baby’s breath in the bouquets; and, worst and most scarring of all, lingerie preferences for the bridal shower or, as they called it, the hen party. It was staggering, really, the amount of e-mail a wedding could generate. Hadley knew that some of the women were Charlotte’s colleagues at the university art gallery at Oxford, but it was a wonder that any of them had time for jobs of their own. She was scheduled to meet them at the hotel early tomorrow morning, but it now looks as if they’ll have to go about zipping their dresses and lining their eyes and curling their hair without her.
Out the window, the sky is a dusky pink now, and the pinpricks of light that outline the planes are beginning to flicker to life. Hadley can make out her reflection in the glass, all blond hair and big eyes, somehow already looking as careworn and rumpled as if the journey were behind her. She wedges herself into a seat between an older man flapping his newspaper so hard she half expects it to up and fly away and a middle-aged woman with an embroidered cat on her turtleneck, knitting away at what could still turn out to be anything.
Three more hours, she thinks, hugging her backpack, then realizes there’s no point in counting down the minutes to something you’re dreading; it would be far more accurate to say two more days. Two more days and she’ll be back home again. Two more days and she can pretend this never happened. Two more days and she’ll have survived the weekend she’s been dreading for what feels like years.
She readjusts the backpack on her lap, realizing a moment too late that she didn’t zip it up all the way, and a few of her things tumble to the floor. Hadley reaches for the lip gloss first, then the gossip magazines, but when she goes to pick up the heavy black book that her father gave her, the boy across the aisle reaches it first.
He glances briefly at the cover before handing it back, and Hadley catches a flicker of recognition in his eyes. It takes her a second to understand that he must think she’s the kind of person who reads Dickens in the airport, and she very nearly tells him that she’s not; in fact, she’s had the book for ages and has never cracked it open. But instead, she smiles in acknowledgment, then turns quite deliberately toward the windows, just in case he might be thinking about striking up a conversation.
Because Hadley doesn’t feel like talking right now, not even to someone as cute as he is. She doesn’t feel like being here at all, actually. The day ahead of her is like something living and breathing, something that’s barreling toward her at an alarming rate, and it seems only a matter of time before it will knock her flat on her back. The dread she feels at the idea of getting on the plane—not to mention getting to London—is something physical; it makes her fidget in her seat, sets her leg bobbing and her fingers twitching.
The man beside her blows his nose loudly, then snaps his newspaper back to attention, and Hadley hopes she’s not sitting next to him on her flight. Seven hours is a long time, too big a slice of your day to be left to chance. You would never be expected to take a road trip with someone you didn’t know, yet how many times has she flown to Chicago or Denver or Florida beside a complete stranger, elbow to elbow, side by side, as the two of them hurtled across the country together? That’s the thing about flying: You could talk to someone for hours and never even know his name, share your deepest secrets and then never see him again.
As the man cranes his neck to read an article his arm brushes against Hadley’s, and she stands abruptly, swinging her backpack onto one shoulder. Around her, the gate area is still teeming with people, and she looks longingly toward the windows, wishing she were outside right now. She’s not sure she can sit here for three more hours, but the idea of dragging her suitcase through the crowd is daunting. She edges it closer to her empty seat so that it might look reserved, then turns to the lady in the cat turtleneck.
“Would you mind watching my bag for a minute?” she asks, and the woman holds her knitting needles very still and frowns up at her.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” she says pointedly.
“It’s just for a minute or two,” Hadley explains, but the woman simply gives her head a little shake, as if she can’t bear to be implicated in whatever scenario is about to unfold.
“I can watch it,” says the boy across the aisle, and Hadley looks at him—really looks at him—for the first time. His dark hair is a bit too long and there are crumbs down the front of his shirt, but there’s something striking about him, too. Maybe it’s the accent, which she’s pretty sure is British, or the twitch of his mouth as he tries to keep from smiling. But her heart dips unexpectedly when he looks at her, his eyes skipping from Hadley back to the woman, whose lips are set in a thin line of disapproval.
“It’s against the law,” the woman says under her breath, her eyes shifting over to where two bulky security guards are standing just outside the food court.
Hadley glances back at the boy, who offers her a sympathetic smile. “Never mind,” she says. “I’ll just take it. Thanks anyway.”
She begins to gather her things, tucking the book under her arm and swinging her backpack up onto her other shoulder. The woman just barely pulls her feet back as Hadley maneuvers the suitcase past her. When she gets to the end of the waiting area, the colorless carpeting gives way to the linoleum of the corridor, and her suitcase teeters precariously on the rubber ridge that separates the two. It rocks from one wheel to the other, and as Hadley tries to right it the book slips from under her arm. When she stoops to pick it up again, her sweatshirt flutters to the floor as well.
You’ve got to be kidding, Hadley thinks, blowing a strand of hair from her face. But by the time she gathers everything and reaches for her suitcase again, it’s somehow no longer there. Spinning around, she’s stunned to see the boy standing beside her, his own bag slung over his shoulder. Her eyes travel down to where he’s gripping the handle of her suitcase.
“What’re you doing?” she asks, blinking at him.
“You looked like you might need some help.”
Hadley just stares at him.
“And this way it’s perfectly legal,” he adds with a grin.
She raises her eyebrows and he straightens up a bit, looking somewhat less sure of himself. It occurs to her that perhaps he’s planning to steal her bag, but if that’s the case, it’s not a very well-planned heist; pretty much the only things in there are a pair of shoes and a dress. And she would be more than happy to lose those.
She stands there for a long moment, wondering what she could have done to have secured herself a porter. But the crowds are surging around them and her backpack is heavy on her shoulders and the boy’s eyes are searching hers with something like loneliness, like the very last thing he wants is to be left behind right now. And that’s something Hadley can understand, too, and so after a moment she nods in agreement, and he tips the suitcase forward onto its wheels, and they begin to walk.
7:12 PM Eastern Standard Time
12:12 AM Greenwich Mean Time
An announcement comes over the loudspeaker about a passenger missing from his plane, and Hadley can’t stop the thought from tiptoeing into her head: What if she were to skip out on her own flight? But as if he can read her mind, the boy in front of her glances back to make sure she’s still there, and she realizes she’s grateful to have some company on this of all days, unexpected as it may be.
They walk past a row of paneled windows that face out over the tarmac, where the planes are lined up like floats in a parade, and Hadley feels her heart pick up speed at the thought of having to board one soon. Of all the many tight places in the world, the endless nooks and crannies and corners, nothing sets her trembling quite as much as the sight of an airplane.
It was just last year when it happened for the first time, this dizzying worry, a heart-thudding, stomach-churning exercise in panic. In a hotel bathroom in Aspen, with the snow falling fast and thick outside the window and her dad on the phone in the next room, she had the sudden sensation that the walls were too close and getting closer, inching toward her with the steady certainty of a glacier. She stood there trying to measure her breathing, her heart pounding out a rhythm in her ears so loud it nearly drowned out the sound of Dad’s muffled voice on the other side of the wall.
“Yeah,” he was saying, “and we’re supposed to get another six inches tonight, so it should be perfect tomorrow.”
They’d been in Aspen for two whole days, doing their best to pretend this spring break was no different from any other. They rose early each morning to get up the mountain before the slopes were too crowded, sat silently with their mugs of hot chocolate in the lodge afterward, played board games at night in front of the fireplace. But the truth was, they spent so much time not talking about Mom’s absence that it had become the only thing either of them could think about.
Besides, Hadley wasn’t stupid. You didn’t just pack off to Oxford for a semester, spend your days teaching poetry classes, and then suddenly decide you wanted a divorce without a good reason. And though Mom hadn’t said a word about it—had, in fact, grown nearly silent on the subject of Dad in general—Hadley knew that reason must be another woman.
She’d planned to confront him about it on the ski trip, to step off the plane and thrust an accusing finger at him and demand to know why he wasn’t coming home. But when she made her way down to the baggage claim to find him waiting for her he looked completely different, with a reddish beard that didn’t match his dark hair and a smile so big she could see the caps on his teeth. It had been only six months, but in that time he’d become a near stranger, and it wasn’t until he stooped to hug her that he came back again, smelling like cigarette smoke and aftershave, his voice gravelly in her ear as he told her how much he’d missed her. And for some reason, that was even worse. In the end, it’s not the changes that will break your heart; it’s that tug of familiarity.
And so she’d chickened out, instead spending those first two days watching and waiting, trying to read the lines of his face like a map, searching for clues to explain why their little family had so abruptly fallen apart. When he’d gone off to England the previous fall, they’d all been thrilled. Until then he’d been a professor at a small mid-tier college in Connecticut, so the idea of a fellowship at Oxford—which boasted one of the best literature departments in the world—had been irresistible. But Hadley had been just about to start her sophomore year, and Mom couldn’t leave her little wallpaper shop for four whole months, so it was decided that they’d stay behind until Christmas, when they’d join him in England for a couple of weeks of sightseeing, and then they’d all return home together.
That, of course, never happened.
At the time, Mom had simply announced that there was a change of plans, that they’d be spending Christmas at Hadley’s grandparents’ house in Maine instead. Hadley half believed her dad would be there to surprise her when they arrived, but on Christmas Eve, it was only Grandma and Pops and enough presents to confirm that everyone was trying to make up for the absence of something else.
For days before that, Hadley had been overhearing her parents’ tension-filled phone calls and listening to the sound of her mother crying through the vents of their old house, but it wasn’t until the drive home from Maine that Mom finally announced that she and Dad would be splitting up, and that he’d be staying on for another semester at Oxford.
“It’ll just be a separation at first,” she said, sliding her eyes from the road over to where Hadley sat numbly, absorbing the news one incremental thought at a time—first, Mom and Dad are getting divorced, and then, Dad isn’t coming back.
“There’s a whole ocean between you,” she said quietly. “How much more separated can you get?”
“Legally,” Mom said with a sigh. “We’re going to legally separate.”
“Don’t you need to see each other first? Before deciding something like that?”
“Oh, honey,” Mom said, taking a hand off the wheel to give Hadley’s knee a little pat. “I think it’s already been decided.”
And so, just two months later, Hadley stood in the bathroom of their Aspen hotel, her toothbrush in hand, as her dad’s voice drifted in from the next room. A moment earlier she’d been sure it was Mom calling to check in, and her heart had lifted at the thought. But then she heard him say a name—Charlotte—before lowering his voice again.
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “She’s just in the loo.”
Hadley felt suddenly cold all over, wondering when her father had become the kind of man to call the bathroom a “loo,” to whisper to foreign women on hotel phones, to take his daughter on a ski trip as if it meant something, as if it were a promise, and then return to his new life like it had never even happened.
She took a step closer to the door, her bare feet cold on the tiles.
“I know,” he was saying now, his voice soft. “I miss you, too, honey.”
Of course, Hadley thought, closing her eyes. Of course.
It didn’t help that she was right; when had that ever made anything better? She felt a tiny seed of resentment take root inside of her. It was like the pit of a peach, something small and hard and mean, a bitterness she was certain would never dissolve.
She stepped back from the door, feeling her throat go tight and her rib cage swell. In the mirror, she watched the color rise up into her cheeks, and her eyes felt blurred by the heat of the small room. She wrapped her fingers around the edge of the sink, watching her knuckles go white, forcing herself to wait until he was off the phone.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked when she finally emerged from the bathroom, walked straight past him without a word, and then flopped onto one of the beds. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Fine,” Hadley said shortly.
But it happened again the next day.
As they rode the elevator down to the lobby the following morning, already warm beneath layers of ski gear, there was a sharp jolt, and then they came to an abrupt stop. They were the only two people in there, and they exchanged a blank look before Dad shrugged and reached for the emergency call button. “Stupid bloody elevator.”
Hadley glared at him. “Don’t you mean stupid bloody lift?”
“Nothing,” she muttered, then jabbed at the buttons randomly, lighting up one after another as a rising sense of panic welled up inside of her.
“I don’t think that’s gonna do anything….” Dad began to say, but he stopped when he seemed to notice something was wrong. “Are you okay?”
Hadley tugged at the collar of her ski jacket, then unzipped it. “No,” she said, her heart thumping wildly. “Yes. I don’t know. I want to get out of here.”
“They’ll be here soon,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do till—”
“No, now, Dad,” she said, feeling slightly frantic. It was the first time she’d called him Dad since they’d gotten to Aspen; until that point, she’d pretty much avoided calling him anything at all.
His eyes skipped around the tiny elevator. “Are you having a panic attack?” he asked, looking a bit panicky himself. “Has this happened before? Does your mom—”
Hadley shook her head. She wasn’t sure what was happening; all she knew was that she needed to get out of there right now.
“Hey,” Dad said, taking her by the shoulders and forcing her to meet his eyes. “They’ll be here in a minute, okay? Just look at me. Don’t think about where we are.”
“Okay,” she muttered, gritting her teeth.
“Okay,” he said. “Think about someplace else. Somewhere with open spaces.”
She tried to still her frenzied mind, to bring forth some soothing memory, but her brain refused to cooperate. Her face was prickly with heat, and it was hard to focus.
“Pretend you’re at the beach,” he said. “Or the sky! Imagine the sky, okay? Think about how big it is, how you can’t see the end of it.”
Hadley screwed her eyes shut and forced herself to picture it, the vast and endless blue marred only by the occasional cloud. The deepness of it, the sheer scope of it, so big it was impossible to know where it ended. She felt her heart begin to slow and her breathing grow even, and she unclenched her sweaty fists. When she opened her eyes again, Dad’s face was level with hers, his eyes wide with worry. They stared at each other for what felt like forever, and Hadley realized it was the first time she’d allowed herself to look him in the eye since they’d arrived.
After a moment, the elevator shuddered into motion, and she let out a breath. They rode down the rest of the way in silence, both of them shaken, both of them eager to step outside and stand beneath the enormous stretch of western sky.
Now, in the middle of the crowded terminal, Hadley pulls her eyes away from the windows, from the planes fanned out across the runways like windup toys. Her stomach tightens again; the only time it doesn’t help to imagine the sky is when you’re thirty thousand feet in the air with nowhere to go but down.
She turns to see that the boy is waiting for her, his hand still wrapped around the handle of her suitcase. He smiles when she catches up, then swings out into the busy corridor, and Hadley hurries to keep up with his long stride. She’s concentrating so hard on following his blue shirt that when he stops, she very nearly runs into him. He’s taller than she is by at least six inches, and he has to duck his head to speak to her.
“I didn’t even ask where you’re going.”
“London,” she says, and he laughs.
“No, I meant now. Where are you going now?”
“Oh,” she says, rubbing her forehead. “I don’t know, actually. To get dinner, maybe? I just didn’t want to sit there forever.”
This is not entirely true; she’d been heading to the bathroom, but she can’t quite bring herself to tell him this. The thought of him waiting politely just outside while she stands in line for the toilet is more than she can bear.
“Okay,” he says, looking down at her, his dark hair falling across his forehead. When he smiles, she notices that he has a dimple on only one side, and there’s something about this that makes him seem endearingly off-balance. “Where to, then?”
Hadley stands on her tiptoes, turning in a small circle to get a sense of the restaurant choices, a bleak collection of pizza and burger stands. She isn’t sure whether he’ll be joining her, and this possibility gives the decision a slightly frenzied feel; she can practically feel him waiting beside her, and her whole body is tense as she tries to think of the option that’s the least likely to leave her with food all over her face, just in case he decides to come along.
After what seems like forever, she points to a deli just a few gates down, and he heads off in that direction obligingly, her red suitcase in tow. When they get there, he readjusts the bag on his shoulder and squints up at the menu.
“This is a good idea,” he says. “The plane food’ll be rubbish.”
“Where are you headed?” Hadley asks as they join the line.
“London as well.”
“Really? What seat?”
He reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and produces his ticket, bent in half and ripped at one corner. “Eighteen-C.”
“I’m eighteen-A,” she tells him, and he smiles.
She nods at his garment bag, which is still resting on his shoulder, his finger hooked around the hanger. “You going over for a wedding, too?”
He hesitates, then jerks his chin up in the first half of a nod.
“So am I,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be weird if it was the same one?”
“Not likely,” he says, giving her an odd look, and she immediately feels silly. Of course it’s not the same one. She hopes he doesn’t think she’s under the impression that London is some kind of backwater town where everyone knows everyone else. Hadley’s never been out of the country before, but she knows enough to know that London is enormous; it is, in her limited experience, a big enough place to lose someone entirely.
The boy looks as if he’s about to say something more, then turns and gestures toward the menu instead. “Do you know what you’d like?”
Do I know what I’d like? Hadley thinks.
She’d like to go home.
She’d like for home to be the way it once was.
She’d like to be going anywhere but her father’s wedding.
She’d like to be anywhere but this airport.
She’d like to know his name.
After a moment, she looks up at him.
“Not yet,” she says. “I’m still deciding.”
7:32 PM Eastern Standard Time
12:32 AM Greenwich Mean Time
Despite having ordered her turkey sandwich without mayo, Hadley can see the white goo oozing onto the crust as she carries her food to an empty table, and her stomach lurches at the sight. She’s debating whether it would be better to suffer through eating it or risk looking like an idiot as she scrapes it off, and eventually settles for looking like an idiot, ignoring the boy’s raised eyebrows as she dissects her dinner with all the care of a biology experiment. She wrinkles her nose as she sets aside the lettuce and tomato, ridding each disassembled piece of the clinging white globs.
“That’s some nice work there,” he says around a mouthful of roast beef, and Hadley nods matter-of-factly.
“I have a fear of mayo, so I’ve actually gotten pretty good at this over the years.”
“You have a fear of mayo?”
She nods again. “It’s in my top three or four.”
“What are the others?” he asks with a grin. “I mean, what could possibly be worse than mayonnaise?”
“Dentists,” she offers. “Spiders. Ovens.”
“Ovens? So I take it you’re not much of a cook.”
“And small spaces,” she says, a bit more quietly.
He tilts his head to one side. “So what do you do on the plane?”
Hadley shrugs. “Grit my teeth and hope for the best.”
“Not a bad tactic,” he says with a laugh. “Does it work?”
She doesn’t answer, struck by a small flash of alarm. It’s almost worse when she forgets about it for a moment, because it never fails to come rushing back again with renewed force, like some sort of demented boomerang.
“Well,” says the boy, propping his elbows on the table, “claustrophobia is nothing compared to mayo-phobia, and look how well you’re conquering that.” He nods at the plastic knife in her hand, which is caked with mayonnaise and bread crumbs. Hadley smiles at him gratefully.
As they eat, their eyes drift to the television set in the corner of the café, where the weather updates are flashed over and over again. Hadley tries to focus on her dinner, but she can’t help sneaking a sideways glance at him every now and then, and each time, her stomach does a little jig entirely unrelated to the traces of mayo still left in her sandwich.
She’s only ever had one boyfriend, Mitchell Kelly: athletic, uncomplicated, and endlessly dull. They’d dated for much of last year—their junior year—and though she’d loved watching him on the soccer field (the way he’d wave to her on the sidelines), and though she was always happy to see him in the halls at school (the way he’d lift her off her feet when he hugged her), and though she’d cried to each and every one of her friends when he broke up with her just four short months ago, their brief relationship now strikes her as the most obvious mistake in the world.
It seems impossible that she could have liked someone like Mitchell when there was someone like this guy in the world, someone tall and lanky, with tousled hair and startling green eyes and a speck of mustard on his chin, like the one small imperfection that makes the whole painting work somehow.
Is it possible not to ever know your type—not to even know you have a type—until quite suddenly you do?
Hadley twists her napkin underneath the table. It occurs to her that she’s been referring to him in her head simply as “The Brit,” and so she finally leans across the table, scattering the crumbs from their sandwiches, and asks his name.
“Right,” he says, blinking at her. “I guess that part does traditionally come first. I’m Oliver.”
“As in Twist?”
“Wow,” he says with a grin. “And they say Americans are uncultured.”
She narrows her eyes at him in mock anger. “Funny.”
“Hadley,” he repeats with a nod. “That’s pretty.”
She knows he’s only talking about her name, but she’s still unaccountably flattered. Maybe it’s the accent, or the way he’s looking at her with such interest right now, but there’s something about him that makes her heart quicken in the way it does when she’s surprised. And she supposes that might just be it: the surprise of it all. She’s spent so much energy dreading this trip that she hadn’t been prepared for the possibility that something good might come out of it, too, something unexpected.
“You don’t want your pickle?” he asks, leaning forward, and Hadley shakes her head and pushes her plate across the table to him. He eats it in two bites, then sits back again. “Ever been to London before?”
“Never,” she says, a bit too forcefully.
He laughs. “It’s not that bad.”
“No, I’m sure it’s not,” she says, biting her lip. “Do you live there?”
“I grew up there.”
“So where do you live now?”
“Connecticut, I guess,” he says. “I go to Yale.”
Hadley’s unable to hide her surprise. “You do?”
Excerpted from The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer E. Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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