It was a few degrees too cold inside Brasserie Chavot, forcing the elegant Friday night crowd into silk scarves and cashmere pashminas. Men in tailored suits bought complicated cocktails for women too gracious to refuse. Zara sat in the center of the dining room, straight-backed and alone between the glittering chandelier and gleaming mosaic floor. She took a sip from her glass of Syrah, swallowing without tasting, then spotted Safran as he walked through the door.
He cut a path through soft laughter and muted music and greeted her with a smile, his light brown eyes crinkling at the corners. "Zar, is that you? Christ, what are you wearing?"
Zara embraced him warmly. His voice made her think of old paper and kindling, a comfort she had long forgotten. "They're just jeans," she said. "I had to stop pretending I still live in your world."
"'Just jeans'?" he echoed. "Come on. For seven years, we pulled all-nighters and not once did you step out of your three-inch heels." She shrugged. "People change."
"You of all people know that's not true." For a moment, he watched her react. "You still square your shoulders when you're getting defensive. It's always been your tell." Without pause for protest, he stripped off his Merino coat and swung it across the red leather chair, the hem skimming the floor. Zara loved that about him. He'd buy the most lavish things, visit the most luxurious places and then treat them with irreverence. The first time he crashed his Aston Martin, he shrugged and said it served him right for being so bloody flashy.
He settled into his seat and loosened his tie, a note of amusement bright in his eyes. "So, how is the illustrious and distinguished exponent of justice that is Artemis House?"
A smile played on Zara's lips. "Don't be such a smart-arse," she said, only half in jest. She knew what he thought of her work: that Artemis House was noble but also that it clipped her wings. He did not believe that the sexual assault referral center with its shabby walls and erratic funding was the right place for a barrister, even one who had left the profession.
Safran smiled, his left dimple discernibly deeper than the right. "I know I give you a hard time but seriously, Zar, it's not the same without you. Couldn't you have waited 'til mid-life to have your crisis?"
"It's not a crisis."
"Come on, you were one of our strongest advocates and you left for what? To be an evening volunteer?"
Zara frowned. "Saf, you know it's more than that. In chambers, I was on a hamster wheel, working one case while hustling for the next, barely seeing any tangible good, barely even taking a breath. Now, I work with victims and can see an actual difference." She paused and feigned annoyance. "And I'm not a volunteer. They pay me a nominal wage. Plus, I don't work evenings."
Safran shook his head. "You could have done anything. You really were something else."
She shrugged. "Now I'm something else somewhere else."
"But still so sad?"
"I'm not sad." Her reply was too quick, even to her own ears.
He paused for a moment but challenged her no further. "Shall we order?"
She picked up the menu, the soft black leather warm and springy on her fingertips. "Yes, we shall."
Safran's presence was like a balm. His easy success and keen self- awareness was unique among the lawyers she had known—including herself. Like others in the field, she had succumbed to a collective hubris, a self-righteous belief that they were genuinely changing the world. You could hear it dripping from the tones of overstuffed barristers, making demands on embassy doorsteps, barking rhetoric at political figureheads.
Zara's career at the bar made her feel important, somehow more valid. After a while, the armor and arrogance became part of her personality. The transformation was indiscernible. She woke one day and realized she'd become the person she used to hate—and she had no idea how it had happened. Safran wasn't like that. He used the acronyms and in-jokes and wore his pinstripes and brogues, but he knew it was all for show. He did the devil's work but somehow retained his soul. At thirty-five, he was five years older than Zara and had helped her navigate the brutal competitiveness of London chambers. He, more than anyone, was struck by her departure twelve months earlier. It was easy now to pretend that she had caved under pressure. She wouldn't be the first to succumb to the challenges of chambers: the grueling hours, the relentless pace, the ruthless colleagues, and the constant need to cajole, ingratiate, push, and persuade. In truth, she had thrived under pressure. It was only when it ceased that work lost its color. Numbed by the loss of her father and their estrangement before it, Zara had simply lost interest. Her wins had lost the glee of victory, her losses fast forgotten. Perhaps, she decided, if she worked more closely with vulnerable women, she would feel like herself again. She couldn't admit this though, not even to Safran who watched her now in the late June twilight, shifting in her seat, hands restless in her lap.