Debbie, our receptionist, peers over her faux mahogany desk and catches me studying the photo of Dr. Edwin Chung on the cover of Business Week. “You know him?” she asks. Debbie is twenty-two years old and has a piercing for every year she’s been on this planet. Seven in each ear, another in her left nostril, two in her navel and the others scattered around her body in places I don’t even want to think about.

I toss the magazine, as if I’ve been caught doing something illicit, back on the low glass and chrome table. “Everyone knows who Edwin Chung is,” I tell her. My fingers are tacky from the magazine’s paper.

“Yeah, but you had this look on your face. Sorta…” she taps a finger against a metal hoop, “Pensive. Like you were mourning something.”

I give her one of those side-of-the-mouth grimaces that’s supposed to convey “whatever” and sneak another glance at the magazine. Eddie smiles from the glossy cover, and it’s obvious the years have been good to him. Great, as a matter of fact. He’s standing in front of an enormous logo of the software company he founded, Innovate, arms akimbo and smiling easily into the camera, a casually powerful look. The picture may have captured him moments before the meeting of the board of directors when he reports another brilliant quarter for the company and another billion dollars for the corporate coffers. Since our college days, Eddie’s look has gone from total geek to geek chic: he’s lost the coke bottle glasses and his hair is as stylishly cut as straight straight Chinese hair will allow. His polo shirt fits snugly over a trim torso, short sleeves displaying sculpted biceps to full advantage. Hard to believe this is the same guy who did swing dance and, later, wanted to slow dance with me at the Rhythm of the Night party during our freshman year, almost ten years ago. I pull my eyes away and ask, “When’s Lynne going to bring that presentation portfolio? I have less than 30 minutes to drive in rush hour traffic to deliver it across town.” Any hour is rush hour in Silicon Valley these days, but 4:30pm is a truly impossible commute time.

Debbie shrugs. “You know how Lynne is. Some nitpicky thing no one else will even care about is sticking in her craw.” Having caught a whiff of a secret, she’s studying me. “So did you know him? I know you were at university together, and I’m sure he would have noticed a pretty woman like you.”

Lynne’s staccato footsteps announce her arrival and spare me from answering. I compose myself and manage a smile as my boss hurries into the lobby holding an enormous portfolio almost as tall as she. “Sorry it’s so late,” she says, not sounding the least bit penitent. “But that shade of blue in the background was just not coming out correctly, and the color was throwing off the whole balance of the work.”

I try not to grind my teeth audibly. Lynne’s the VP of Marketing, and I’m her assistant. On paper my job description reads, “Provide support for Marketing, including the creation of marketing communications and advertisement materials. English or communications major preferred. Knowledge of web design a plus.” In reality I’m a glorified administrative assistant and occasional gofer, and right now I’m Lynne’s whipping girl. Behind Lynne’s back, Debbie and I exchange sympathetic rolling of eyes. We are both way overqualified for our jobs. I don’t need an English degree from Stanford and graduate work in creative writing to race like hell and deliver this presentation any more than Debbie honor’s philosophy thesis at Cornell helps her answer phones and greet visitors.

Lynne looks at the clock. “You’d better get a move on, Jessica.” She looks at me expectantly. I can do nothing except grab the portfolio and leave.

Highway 101 moves smoothly, but time is running short. I wonder whether 280 might be faster, though it would require a ten-minute detour? I turn on the news channel for traffic and weather guidance, every eight minutes. I just miss the latest freeway blockage update, but the female reporter announces clearly, “Innovate shares went up five percent after hours today, on news that the software giant’s earnings for last quarter surpassed the company forecast. Edwin Chung, Founder and CEO, credits the good news to the introduction of Innovate’s newest product line-“

It’s Eddie. My Eddie. Or Eddie who could have been my Eddie, had I stayed on the dance floor with him when El Debarge started to croon “Time Will Reveal.” And I have to wonder, where would I be if I had? If I had danced with him, let him slide his hands down my back, left the party with him rather than the other guy. If I had been even remotely attracted to him, my life would have turned out completely different.

“Huh!” I stare at the radio as if Eddie is talking to me from just behind my dashboard, huddled next to the engine block of my car. And that’s why I don’t see the wheel lying across the white line, just far enough into my lane so I hit it, the impact jolting my bones and shoving me back in the seat as my front right tire blows.

***

The drumbeat throbbed through the floor and the leather soles of my flats. Pure dance music, punctuated with a heavy bass beat that grabbed you and shook the vestiges of modesty away, insisted you hit the floor and show off your best moves. My heartbeat synchronized to the beat and made my feet shuffle and hips sway. I stood in the doorway of the dining hall and inhaled the cool stream of air sweeping through the open door, the fragrance of star jasmine a welcome announcement that spring had finally arrived.

This dance was the biggest event of the year sponsored by the Asian American Students Association at school. All the Asian students attended this one, even the most devout study fiends crawling from their cubicles in the engineering library, ready to party. Dance, drink and maybe get lucky.

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t a date. Last week I’d seen Philip Lim in the library and sidled over to chat. I suggested to him, very casually, that maybe we should meet up at the dance. He’d said, eagerly I thought, that that was a good idea. Did he actually say he’d meet me? Or had I interpreted his smile as agreement? Shit, I should have pinned down a time.

I took another swig of the beer I was holding, Molson’s, which I knew was Philip’s favorite. I hated Molson’s – where was Phillip? I’d arrived about an hour, two hours after the party had started. As these events run on AST – Asian Standard Time – the bulk of attendees showed up within the last 40 minutes. But I wanted to arrive early, new forest green mini dress and make-up perfect, for Phillip to get the full “wow” effect. At first I had put on a pair of CFM pumps, with the silver stiletto heels, but ditched them at the last minute for the ballet flats. Philip was the same height as I, and an additional two inches in altitude were a potential turnoff.

The song cranking out of the speakers was “The Rhythm of the Night,” also the name of the party. I returned to the rising warmth of the dining area-turned-dance hall, humid with the sweat- and pheromone-laden heat from the crowd of dancers, and sang along, “When it feels like the world is on your shoulders…” I focused on the music and forgot about Philip’s absence and the warm beer in my hand – just let the song take over my body and voice. I performed a little twirl, bottle arm’s length, and threw my head back to belt out, “where all the action is out there at your feet-“

My bottle clipped the shoulder of the guy approaching me along the edge of the dance floor. I stopped turning but not before I almost hit him with my other hand. My heart sped up for a moment then slowed back down to a disappointed thud. It was Eddie Chung.

“Hi Jessica!” Eddie beamed. His hair was slicked back from his wide brow. The light from the overhead lamp glinted off his lenses and hid his eyes momentarily. “You look great!” He eyed my legs appreciatively.

“Hi Eddie. Thanks.” I glanced at his black tee shirt emblazoned with “Microsoft” (he’d done an internship there the previous summer), jeans and sneakers. Eddie hadn’t changed for the party – it looked like he had come straight from the library. Amongst the Asian students I hung out with, Eddie was considered one of the hardcore nerds. A serious assessment, coming from a race of people known for their ability to hit the books.

“I could hear you singing as I walked up,” he said. “You have a marvelous voice.” His eyes continued their survey of my appearance.

“Thanks.” I preened, just a little. I didn’t bristle at his open appraisal. I was, after all, on display. Eddie was not the first guy to give me the once-over that evening – I’d been getting smiles and invitations to dance since I’d arrived. After a polite dance or two, I’d excuse myself and take another walk around the party perimeter to await the arrival of Mr. Lim.

Besides, Eddie was a sweet guy. To feel his admiration beyond skin deep would have been like turning down the friendly advances of a Golden Retriever puppy. Eddie lived three doors down the hall from me and was the self-appointed go-to tutor for math and computer science. I asked him a couple of calculus questions once or twice, and often after he’d explained the problem we’d end up sitting around for 15 to 20 minutes and just chew the fat. It turned out we both loved music. Eddie played the violin and I sang almost everything from opera to musical theater. Before winter break he’d asked me to attend a vocal and orchestral performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I said sure and invited a couple of other dorm mates to come with us. Katie Watanabe, my best friend, told me afterward that I’d hurt Eddie’s feelings. “He wanted it to be a one-on-one date,” she said.

“No way, I paid for my own ticket,” I argued.

She shook her head. “He has a crush on you.”

I shook my head in response. Not only did I not believe her, but Eddie was not a recognized blip on my romantic radar. Philip, gorgeous pre-med and gymnast who lived on the second floor, was the UFO I was after: unattached, fine object.

Now Eddie tilted his head toward the dance floor, where people were still grooving to “The Rhythm of the Night.” “Dance?”

I hesitated. What if Philip came while I was dancing with Eddie? Would that negate our semi-date? Or was he even showing up? Even by Asian standards, he was late. My thoughts led to a less palatable but plausible reason for Philip’s absence: he was blowing me off. I bit my lower lip. Screw him, if he wasn’t here, I wasn’t going to wait around. “Sure,” I told Eddie, and he beamed. I held up the bottle of Molson’s. “Let me just get rid of this.” I didn’t really like beer anyway.

Eddie took the offending container from my grip. “I’ll take that for you.” He stood back from the doorway and gave a small bow from the waist. I grinned and curtsied and preceded him inside. Eddie detoured to a recycling bin then we made our way to the dance floor. The dancers had increased in number considerably, but we managed to stake a claim to a small corner of parquet. Eddie had pretty good moves for a nerd. He was quite fluid through the hips. I hadn’t noticed it before, but Eddie was a few inches taller than Philip.

The song ended and Eddie looked at me with what seemed to be a hopeful look. “Again?” he asked, sounding so much like a little kid wanting another scoop of ice cream. I was a little embarrassed, but I said, “Sure.”

The song had segued to a swing dance. People in my dorm occasionally drove to the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco on Friday afternoons for tea dancing. I had learned how to swing dance and loved it. My feet twitched to step lively, but I glanced at Eddie uncertainly. “Do you swing?” I said, and gulped nervously. “That’s not what I meant-“

Eddie grinned. “I know what you meant. And yes, I do.” He gave me his arm and after I took it he led me to the center of the parquet floor. I kept a straight face. God, we looked like a couple! Then Eddie took both my hands, and any thoughts of embarrassment melted away as I found myself concentrating on following Eddie’s lead. He could really dance. At one point I giggled when Eddie dipped me almost to the floor. “Careful!” I cried in mock dismay. His arm around my back, though, was firm and I knew I was safe.

He grinned. “I’ll never let you down, Jessica.” He winked, “At least not too hard.” He lifted me up and spun me around in a neat semicircle.

I twirled toward him as he spun me expertly into his side. “When did you learn how to dance, Eddie?”

He shrugged. “My sister taught me. She’s nuts for dancing, and I had to be her partner.”

“How long have you danced with her?”

Eddie shrugged again. “Seven, eight years?” He led me through an intricate step that came effortlessly. “Karen’s in graduate school now, and she supplements her stipend by teaching ballroom dancing.”

A small circle had cleared around us. Amused spectators watched us through our dance, and we received a polite smattering of applause at the end of our stint. Another song came on, a fast dance, and without consulting each other we started to dance together, smiling at how well our moves matched. I looked at Eddie more carefully. His haircut was awful, one of those five-dollar campus barber jobs, and the frames of his glasses about ten years out of date. Despite his stockiness, his shoulders were surprisingly broad. If Eddie lifted weights, he’d be pretty buffed. He had the scholar’s concave chest and slightly pudgy build of someone who spent too much time sitting in front of his computer screen and not enough time running in the sunshine. But with a better haircut and contacts, he’d clean up okay.

The song ended, and we walked off the floor. I punched him playfully in the arm. “You can really dance.”

He punched me back. “You can really follow.”

I gave him a shoulder bump, and he answered in kind. Eddie smirked, and I found myself leaning against his arm. His steps slowed. I moved away and smoothed down my hair. After a moment Eddie asked me, “Want something to drink?”

I nodded. “Anything non-alcoholic, please.” To hell with Molson’s.

Eddie got me a soda from the refreshment table. I nodded toward the stairs that led to the mezzanine dining area. “How about up? It’s a little less crowded. And maybe a little less noisy.”

Other people had had our idea, and we joined them to watch the festivities below. Eddie and I stood on the balcony overhanging the dance floor and watched people twisting and writhing to the music. It was peaceful, leaning our elbows over the balcony and watching the dancers below. Eddie pointed out a couple who danced really well together, and we commented on their footwork and how well they fitted together.

“That takes years of practice,” Eddie said. “I think I recognize her from the salsa dance club in Mountain View.”

I gaped at him. “You dance salsa?”

He nodded. “I just tried it for the first time a few weeks ago. They have an hour lesson before free dancing starts, then you practice what you learned.”

I smiled. “Sounds like the tea dancing in the City. It’s a lot of fun.”

“Yeah.” Eddie turned, leaning stiffly against the railing, and faced me. His gaze focused on my right ear lobe. “Maybe we could go to the salsa place sometime. You could try it out. There are some pretty good restaurants on Castro Street, maybe we could get a bite to eat beforehand. Or afterward.” He addressed my earring.

Eddie was asking me out on an honest-to-goodness date. Lord, Katie was right. This was Eddie, for heaven’s sake. My occasional math tutor and companion at lunch. According to Katie, an admirer. I looked at Eddie’s shoulder. “That could be fun,” I hedged.

The tempo of the music below us changed, became a slow song. El Debarge again, with the most romantic song of the season, “Time Will Reveal.” Funny how the song picked for the name of the dance and this song were both by Debarge. It must have been some sort of omen. I just had no idea what it meant.

Eddie looked at me, hopeful and a little nervous, and I knew absolutely he was going to ask me to slow dance with him. I froze as my mind reeled. He was a nice guy and I liked him, but not that way. Then a part of me asked, it’s just a dance, and you love this song. Why not?

Because it should be Philip Lim, not Eddie Chung. And this song is way too romantic.

But Philip blew you off. And Eddie is sweet. Quite fun, actually. What’s the harm?

I never had to make the decision because Eddie never asked. Just behind Eddie, a pair of familiar broad shoulders, coupled with the slow graceful stride of the natural athlete, caught my attention. Philip had arrived. Several other women had noticed his entrance; I saw the appreciative glance of two women standing on the stair landing, their giggles and eyes following Philip as he climbed past. I realized I was standing shoulder to shoulder with Eddie and, feeling guilty, stepped away adroitly.  

“Hi Jessica. Sorry I’m late,” Philip said. “The gymnastics meet went longer than usual.” His hair shone with the wetness of a fresh shower. Philip wore a button down shirt, the sleeves rolled casually to the elbow that revealed muscular forearms. I was willing to bet the rest of his body was equally smooth and totally edible. He nodded at Eddie. “Hey, Eddie.”

“Hey.” Eddie’s monotone made me squirm, but Philip didn’t notice it. To his thinking, it wasn’t as if Eddie was a serious rival. It was a rather arrogant attitude, but then Philip smiled, and my pique vanished. We had the date to meet here, after all. I’d just been hanging out with Eddie until Philip had finally arrived.

“It took me a few minutes to find you up here,” he said. He looked down at the dance floor and chuckled. “Great perspective on the action below.”

I laughed. “Some of the dancers are pretty good.” I indicated the pair Eddie had identified before. “Those two have been tearing up the floor. Apparently they also salsa dance.”

“Who won? The meet?” Eddie asked, trying to stay relevant.

“UCLA did, but it was close.” Philip turned to me. ‘’You should come to the next meet, against Cal. They have a great team this year.”

I asked, “How did you do?”

“Did all right. Third on the horse, fifth on the parallel bars. Tenth in the all around standings.” He shrugged, a modest endearing gesture. Philip was the kind of guy who kept news of his achievements short and brief. Debarge had stopped singing, and the music had changed to another fast dance. The Weather Girls started their introduction to “It’s Raining Men.” I loved the song. Philip held out his hand. “Dance?”

What could I say? We had a date. I nodded and took Philip’s hand. Before Philip and I reached the stairs I looked over my shoulder at Eddie. The lighting was dim, so I couldn’t quite make out the expression on his face. Reproach. Resignation. I felt sorry and a little ashamed, but I hadn’t promised him anything. We’d bumped into each other at the party, and we’d had fun. But I’d promised Philip. We hit the floor and didn’t leave for a solid hour. Philip was a smooth dance machine, moving with the easy grace of a gymnast. I didn’t see when Eddie left the party, in part because my eyes stayed on that flexible, confident body in front of me for the rest of the night.

Philip and I moved to Los Angeles together after graduation: him for medical school and me in the graduate English program. Nine months after we’d started cohabitating I caught him studying sexual anatomy with his fellow medical student in ways not prescribed by his professors. I moved back to Northern California; the dot com boom was just starting and I joined the hundreds of thousands of other young people flocking to the technological gold rush.

Eddie stayed at Stanford and earned his Ph.D. in computer science. During his post-doc at MIT, he met Jimmy Kenchammana and they started Innovate.  Eddie sent me birthday cards for a few years, and on email we talked about getting together for dinner sometime but it never happened. Eventually we just lost touch and he became rich then famous then super rich and famous. I never saw him again.

***

I just manage to steer my car, now listing like a drunken thing, to the shoulder of the highway. I open my door cautiously, then throw it open and stomp to inspect the damage. Automobiles whiz by at careless velocities that send my skirt ruffling in their wake. I breathe in sulfur-heavy exhaust and stare at the black rubber confetti running across the lanes that marks my trail to relative safety. Not only is the tire shredded beyond useless but the rim of the wheel has a dent in it. It’s a total wipeout.

“Crap!” And it’s not just my destroyed tire that’s pissing me off. It’s hearing Eddie on the radio and my lousy job and the fact that my choices have sucked. Eddie wanted to slow dance, and I waltzed off with Philip. My parents wanted me to be a doctor; I insisted on writing poetry. Now I write product descriptions that are forbidden to be even remotely poetic.

God, sometimes I hate my life.

But the only thing I can try to fix now is the tire. I have a mini spare in the trunk, but I’ve never changed a tire in my life. I don’t have time to wait for AAA to come and save my ass. I am at the mercy of the universe, and right now it’s being a real bitch.

(I’ll bet if Eddie has car trouble, all he has to do is press a button and a helicopter comes to the rescue.)

“Now what?” I say this to the car, which remains ominously silent. I look at the clear blue sky, deceptively serene and decidedly impervious to my discomfort. “I could use a little help here!” I announce to the heavens and the universe at large.

The universe answers.

A battered pickup truck sporting dusty Arizona plates pulls up behind me. The door creaks open and as I’m praying it’s not a serial murderer a man steps out, and he is impossibly delectable. His blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail that is naturally streaked by the sun. The face below the hair is pleasantly angular, with high cheekbones, dancing blue eyes and a wide, generous mouth. The play of muscles under his tee shirt as he approaches makes me stand straighter, no longer paranoid. Damn, when was the last time I’d been laid?

Bonjour,” he says, and his accent makes me melt. God, a French knight in a pickup truck. “I saw you hit that wheel, and I thought mon Dieu, that person will need help.” He walks to the side of my car and shakes his head.  “Dommage,” he says, “it must be replaced, oui?”

“Yes,” I finally manage to say. “Of course.” I clear my throat nervously. “I have a delivery to make across town, and then my car hit the wheel and now I have no idea whether I’ll make it on time this proposal is supposed to be there by five…“ He tilts his head to the side as I babble, and his eyes half-close as he listens to my voice, as if he’s being lulled to sleep. I shut up.

He opens his eyes and smiles, and I want to drag him into the bed of his pickup and ravish him. My knight holds out his hand, and for a crazy moment I think he’s going to ask me to dance. “May I have your keys? So I can retrieve your spare?”

In a dream I pass this total stranger my keychain. Metal jingles as he locates the Toyota’s key and opens the trunk. Dumbfounded, I stand back, watch him removed the mini wheel and observe the ripple of muscles as he lowers it gently to the ground. When he bends over to position the jack under the car chassis I blink and forget about the deadline, about Eddie on the radio, about everything except how fine this man’s butt looks in dirty Levi jeans. I move toward him, and he turns and shakes his head. “I’ll have this done soon,” he says. “Stay where you are, away from the traffic. It would be terrible if you were hurt, n’est-ce pas?”

“What’s your name?” I ask him.

He smiles over his shoulder. “Vincent.”

“Vincent. Thank you.” Thank you, I think to the universe.

Avec plaisir.”

He’s got the Toyota back in action in ten minutes. He refuses my offer to pay him, but he takes my business card and promises to call me. The tools in the bed of his pickup rattle cheerfully as he pulls effortlessly back into traffic.

I tally up this man’s assets: French, chivalrous, gorgeous. Probably not rich, if his truck is any indication of personal wealth. Hotter than hell. And he’s going to call me.

He is everything Eddie isn’t.

I start the car, and as I check the rear view mirror before merging into traffic I can’t help but notice the gleam in my eye, the almost wicked way the corners of my mouth lift. And I think to myself that maybe not giving Eddie that slow dance wasn’t such a bad choice after all.