Luli slid gently out of Alfie’s arms as she checked his nightstand clock—9:54 P.M.
The California new year hadn’t yet officially begun. A nearly full moon lit the way over to the window from her boyfriend’s 12th floor Avalon Towers apartment, an empty Stanford campus silently awaiting the return of the world’s best and brightest. She spotted her black dinner dress and heels at the foot of the bed entangled with Alfie’s starched white dress shirt and red linen holiday tie. Clothing entangled much as they had just been.
She checked her phone, remembering that it was already mid-afternoon in Shanghai as she tapped out a quick parental text reply. She picked up one of the abandoned half-full glasses of cabernet and gazed out the window, the pool lights illuminating linear patterns across the courtyard below. Naked, she ran her fingers through black, shoulder-length silky hair and stretched a diminutive leg across the window’s ledge. She took a long swallow as she watched Alfie stir. His unmussed hair and long, beautiful frame still spooned the spot where she’d been. She allowed herself to appreciate the fact that for the first time in her young life, she felt comfortable enough to be undressed in front of another person.
Her first real boyfriend had been the catalyst for so much emotional growth. But that growth had taken a toll. She eyed her canvas bag and its special contents as she finished her glass, considering her next move. Taking a deep breath, she quietly reached for the dress.
“Hey, love… where’d you go?”
The soft, British-tinted call from across the dark bedroom arrested her. She dropped her clothes and turned back to him.
“I think I should go.”
Alfie was up and standing in a flash. Before her eyes could adjust, his arms were around her waist. “Luli, it’s not even midnight yet.” His trademark cheeky smile found itself. “Come back to bed and ring in the year with me.”
He reached over and flicked on the electric fireplace, and an orange glow illuminated their faces as he took her in his arms. He sure was good at seduction scene management, she thought, as her small hands found his lower back.
He reached back to his nightstand and topped off the high-stemmed glasses and handed her one.
“I’m glad we didn’t stay out tonight.” His lips found hers. “Besides, it’s not as much fun with the gang away.”
She turned away, disappointed at her lack of resolve. “Alfie, why am I not enough?
“Whatever do you mean, love? Of course you’re enough. It’s just more fun with our friends, don’t you think?”
She looked into his eyes that never seemed to stop twinkling. She put down her wine and rolled back into her spot cradled into his chest. “Alfie Dalton… what are you passionate about? I mean, really passionate about?
He let her question linger in the dark, embracing her tighter, letting his squeeze be his answer. She stroked his arm across her bare chest as she waited for words that weren’t coming.
She rolled toward him, their heads facing each other as she audibly sighed. “What are your goals for 2023? What is it that you actually want from your life?”
Alfie gestured to the nightstand clock. “Before we go there, love, let’s talk about how I’d like to send off 2022.” He nuzzled her, his right hand finding her contours under the sheet.
“Luli, what do you want me to say? He relaxed his advance. “Look, you know my situation. I’m going to finish business school. My dad always made it clear that a desk at Barclay’s awaits.” He turned his gaze to the ceiling. “Dad pays for everything. I don’t have a lot of agency here.”
“No, I don’t accept that, and neither should you.”
“That’s an easy position for you to take, Luli. Your parents didn’t…”
“Just because my parents aren’t uber rich like yours that doesn’t mean they didn’t…”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant is… well… you’re sort of… self-made, I guess. I’m not.”
Luli sat up, her smallness neutralized by their mutual proneness. She rested on his hip, her small legs stretched toward the pillow, his hands caressed her tiny calves as she spoke.
“I understand you, Alfie. Better than you realize. My dad pushed me very hard towards science. In school I always had to be number one. Had to master English. We’ll, we all did, but I always had to be better. I didn’t really like science at first. But I do now. In fact, I’m obsessed with it. So I have him to thank for that passion, but that wasn’t always the case.”
“Do you mean you weren’t born to be an epidemiologist? It’s like, all you ever read about or talk about.”
“There’s so much about me you don’t know, Alfie. And why is that?” She looked out at the moon to find her thoughts. “Why is it that I know your entire life story and you don’t know mine, huh?”
“I know all about Richard and Lilly and your sister Ann and everything about your childhood and your pretentious boarding school upbringing and your mountain climbing adventures and your rugby victories and even some of your past girlfriends. I’m still trying to figure out how you cook so skillfully when you couldn’t possibly have learned any domestic skills at home.” Alfie smiled, she continued. “I know about most of the pivotal moments of your life. I know them for two reasons. First, because you provide them to me and others at every opportunity, in long, masterfully curated stories whenever the ‘gang’ gets together, and secondly… and more importantly, because I PAY ATTENTION. I pay very close attention to you. To the details.” Tears began streaming down her eyes. “I pay attention to you because I love you, Alfie. Despite all logic and reason… and my better judgment.”
His trademark smirk gone, Alfie drew her close. “Darling. I..”
“No, it’s okay… really.” She regrouped. “What I want to do is thank you. I never really loved another person outside of my family.” She drew her hands to her chest. “Alfie, when I feel this kind of love, I feel it right in here. It grips me completely. When I was growing up, everybody at school thought I might be a boy. I mean, I wasn’t very social and I certainly wasn’t pretty.”
“You know I find that almost impossible to believe.”
“Believe it.” She looked into his eyes, her hand caressing his cheek. “I never believed someone like you would ever be drawn to someone like… like me.” She now felt moisture on his face. “But now, I feel different. Like I deserve more. Like that a person should love me by wanting to know everything about me. Like, hey Luli I know how much you love art and I saw this unbelievable watercolor at the gallery and I wanted to surprise you with it…”
“You never once mentioned a love for art.”
“I know. And you have a remarkable lack of curiosity. For the four months we’ve known each other I’ve never found a window in our conversations.”
Alfie checked the nightstand clock—10:21 P.M.-—“Okay, Luli Zhao” He reached for the wine glasses, handing her one, his smile returning. “Tell me your secrets. And I’ll tell you mine. We have nothing but time.”
Lingering in the school art room as a child. Surprising her friends with pencil-sketch portraits with shockingly accurate likeness. Hours spent over textbooks, longing for paint and canvas. The thrill on her parents faces when they learned she would finish number one in her post-secondary school. Of learning that she was accepted to Stanford nearly free of charge, but with a crammed academic schedule that afforded no time for a liberal arts minor. And finally, the day when, over a project to decode a particularly artful genetic code string, she discovered the passion that would set her sail with clear, laser-focused intent.
Alfie poured them the last few drops of the cabernet. “You know, there is one thing about me you don’t know.” I too have a liberal arts calling, of sorts.”
“Really? A true inner passion? Aside from girls or accumulating wealth or scaling El Capitan?”
Alfie finished his glass and returned it to the nightstand. “You know, I’ve kept this a bit of a guarded secret, because… well, it just seems rather juvenile. Frankly, I don’t understand it myself.”
“Well, for the past few years, I’ve been writing little stories. Science fiction, in fact. I know, pretty strange, wouldn’t you say? At Worthgate, there was a creative writing class my second year. I did quite well, actually. Never saw fit to share that with daddy or even Ann. Don’t think they would really get it. Didn’t seem in keeping with who they… well, want me to be.”
He spoke of the first story he wrote that really pleased him, and his English teacher. Of Ray Bradbury and Orson Scott Card. The visceral charge he got from creating an entire fictitious, wonderfully peculiar universe only known to him. Of his nine chapters so far, and the outline for the rest of the story arc. His secret searches for a local editor to discuss it more seriously.
“Alfie, I cannot believe you haven’t told me about this. I’m so excited for you.”
“You know I could say the same about you. Much more mystery between us than either knew, no?” He took her hands in his. “Luli, I know this sounds cheesy. But… you inspire me. I just feel different when I’m around you. Like, I should be more.”
“Decide exactly how you want to spend 2023, Alfie. The secret is… intention. Don’t just let events and circumstances send you barreling down a river not of your own choosing. Instead, pick a river, grab a boat, point it in a specific direction, then go hard, as hard as you can. Right?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Luli reached out again for his face. “There… that’s the expression I was going for. Your default smirk isn’t there. That’s the face.” She beamed in the moonlight from the 12th story window. The clock shown—11:57 P.M.
She slid her lithe body over his, nestling perfectly into place atop him. “That’s the face I want staring at me to start off this year.” Their dance restarted with urgency. Gazes locked, hearts pounded as one, and the pace of their collective breathing increased. They both sneaked peaks at the nightstand clock as it struck twelve as they crossed the finish line together, hand in hand.
An overcast California sky signaled the day had begun long ago. Alfie rubbed open bloodshot eyes to find the time—11:17am—a new year already half a day old.
He reached over to find Luli. She was gone, along with her little black dress and heels, and that tan canvas bag that followed her everywhere. What lingered was an intimate, deeply satisfying connection with another human being that Alfie had never before felt. Along with it, the strangest sensation—of being completely understood.
He arose and looked over at the big screen TV on his bedroom bureau, the TV they hadn’t even seen fit to turn on to watch the ball drop. Perched in front of the screen, a matted pencil sketch of himself, the background fully colorized, with details so precise it could be a photograph. There was just one notable exception. The expression on his face was unlike any photograph Alfie ever had of himself. It was the face of intention.