“Architecture is one of the most important expressive works a corporeal society can develop. While paintings may last hundreds of years with care, monuments and buildings may last thousands,” the museum guide droned on. “Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus! They each invoke powerful images of endurance, elegance, and yes, even hubris. But, long before the invention of holos or photography, there were attempts to bring the ancient world to the parlors and museums of the day. This exhibition of Miniatures of Ancient Buildings includes some of the most detailed recreations, some now older than the sites they were made for at the time.”
Ben stifled a yawn and moved with the rest of the class. Did he want to be an architect? Maybe. Did he need this class? Unfortunately. Stone, concrete, iron; these materials bored him. What good were ancient ruins compared to the sleek lines and glass panels of today? Why look at rocks when there were spires that stretched into the sky? Then again, people were still talking about these places thousands of years later. “There must be something here, after all,” he thought idly.
He retrieved his sketchbook and began carefully recreating the lines of what the placard called the Burj Khalifa. “That’s more like it,” he muttered, as he worked the pencil slowly across the paper. The sign didn’t say what happened to the building—probably destroyed in the third world war, if he had to guess. That’s what happened to all the nice things from that era.
As Ben took in the building, he started to put his own spin on it: lines that would take it from twenty-first century achievement and make it a twenty-fifth century masterpiece. It was going well; he was getting a real groove and then he just completely lost it. When he took a moment to step back and admire his sketch, he could only conclude it was hideous. And, like so many artists facing their own work, he tore the page from the sketchbook and stuffed it in his bag.
The class had moved on to another display. He was about to moodily stalk toward it when a soft chirp alerted him to a call. Ben held the comm to his ear as he turned his back on the group.
“Ben?” came an unfamiliar voice. “Ben Weber?” the voice pressed.
“Yeah, who is this?”
“I’m sorry, Ben Weber of Santa Barbara, California. Sister is Amanda Weber?” the voiced asked again.
“Yeah, that’s me; who’s calling?” he asked, irritated. When Ben looked back for the class, they had moved on again. He frowned, trying to concentrate on the caller while looking for the parade of students.
“Oh thank goodness did you know there are fifteen Benjamin Webers in North America?” the voice asked relieved.
Crap. The class was gone. Maybe they left the floor? “That’s fascinating,” he said in a tone that suggested he did not find that fact in the least bit interesting.
“Anyways,” the voice resumed, “I’m Amanda’s roommate, Zaliel.”
That got his attention. “Is she okay?” he asked with his heart in his throat. He didn’t even know his sister’s roommate’s name. At least, he never remembered if it came up.
“Oh, yes! She’s great, actually I’m calling—this isn’t a bad time is it?”
“Um,” he did one more check. The class was gone. To hell with it. “Yeah,” he answered as he sat on a bench where he could admire a miniature of London Tower.
“Oh, it’s a bad time? I’m sorry should I—“
“I mean, yes now is fine,” he said, his irritation rising to “slight annoyance,” on a level or so below, “irked”.
“Oh, great, so I wanted to get your help with a gift for Amanda.”
Ben smiled. “And you called me?” he chuckled. It was so absurd—so unexpected—how could he not laugh?
“Yeah, see I’ve known her for a while and we’ve become really close and I’ve—OH HEY AMANDA!” he heard Zaliel shout suddenly. Ben pulled the earpiece away in surprise and dialed the volume down. Even lowered, he couldn’t help but shake his head in increasing bemusement as Zaliel flailed wildly to cover up the call, while yelling like a C-rate actor reciting Shakespeare in the park. The call ended abruptly when Zaliel declared loudly, “ANYWAYS THANKS FOR YOUR HELP,” before the line went dead.
Ben sat looking at the miniature of London Tower, scratching his head. He was weighing the possibility of finding his class or seeking out a sandwich when his communicator chirped again.
It was a text message from Zaliel which included an address.
For a moment, he considered blowing her off. She was a stranger who called out of nowhere. She wasn’t his problem.
But, then again she was trying to do something nice for Amanda. Of course, this could be Amanda’s way of setting them up. He thought carefully: if it was a setup, why have Zaliel call? Why not just arrange a meeting together? It was true that work and school made it difficult for them to meet, but not impossible. Ben wasn’t usually a fan of the company his sister kept: typically loud, muscular types who talked about squats and delts and whatever the hell a glute was.
He checked the address: Italian food in a very public setting.
Ben was hungry.
Life often presents people with very simple, binary choices. In this moment, he could stay and attempted to further his education or leave, meet someone new and (most importantly) have a much needed meal.
In the end, his stomach won over his grades. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Ben stepped off the transporter pad at the Seattle hub and took the monorail to Seattle Center, a tourist trap for off-worlders who wanted the experience of gentrification and cultural collage that only Seattle could offer. As the Space Needle came into view, Ben grabbed his sketchbook and tried to pencil the general shape. If I’m going to go rogue, he reasoned, at least I can make the most of it. He liked how the sketch was coming along and found the curves and sweeps fun to draw. He was enjoying it so much that, be missed his exit while his head was buried in the sketchbook. He wound up completing the circuit again before the picture was at that precious point where it could be put aside without it gnawing at him. He might be running late, but then again it was an impromptu arrangement. Could he really be late?
The afternoon was cool—much more so than the museum he had left which seemed to run on solar energy and hot air. Most people were wearing long sleeves as the clouds loomed overhead, threatening rain. He missed the California sun already.
Ben reached the restaurant which was nestled between two museums—one for rock music and the other for political activism. In fact, as he approached the restaurant he began to realize that every building around him was either reserved for history or food, with wide green lawns separating them.
“Why is everyone so fixated on the past?” he asked with some annoyance. To him, all those times before were not as interesting as where life was going: a new age of peace and prosperity. Sure, there were great, galactic affairs to consider. But, these were distant, abstract concerns that a twenty-something Ben, living in the jewel of the Federation had little care for.
He pushed open the door where a maitre’d greeted him and asked for his reservation.
“I don’t know?” he replied. “She said to meet her here? It’s under,” he checked his comm, “a Za—un, Zaliel? Am I saying that right?”
“I’m sure I could not say, but I have your table this way,” the man rhymed, then walked briskly through the maze of tables, guests, and staff. Ben took this moment to appreciate the restaurant’s interior: what had appeared as a dull red-bricked building on the outside featured dark marble floors and white pillars with gilded trim. Recreations of Ancient Roman murals covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Large, gold wall scones and floating chandeliers lit every surface evenly, leaving little room for shadow.
It was hideous.
“Your table,” the maitre’d said before making a hasty retreat. He had other stories to enter just as quickly as he would exit.
The woman at the table didn’t acknowledge Ben’s presence which gave him a moment to consider her: Zaliel was about his age and dressed in warm earth tones. Her hair was auburn and about shoulder length which almost hid her spots. Furrowed in concentration, her brow drew thin, tight lines as she typed away on a foldout PADD; a small smile on the edges of her lips. An untouched wineglass rested near her, while an empty basket of breadsticks waited on the table’s edge for replacement.
“Uh, hello, miss?” Please don’t make me butcher her name that I only heard once while not paying attention, he silently prayed.
Zaliel’s head jerked up and she nearly spilled the wineglass while snapping the PADD closed. “Aaaahhhhh Ben, right?” she asked, half standing in greeting. She held a hand out which Ben took firmly and released just as quickly. This is already awkward enough.
“Yes, but typically the screaming doesn’t come until after the date.” He smirked, trying to push through the awkwardness with humor.
Zaliel tilted her head slightly. “I don’t get it?” she asked as they both sat opposite each other in the booth. “Oh, well, you see the thing about that is,” and he was saved by the waiter who arrived, spent a long time explaining the fresh meals available, then left with Ben’s request for whatever Zaliel was drinking.
“So, why Seattle?” Ben asked, hoping to drum up a casual conversation.
“Oh, well, Amanda is out of transporter credits,” Zaliel began.
“Typical,” he scoffed.
“I know, right? And I didn’t want the risk of her spying on us.”
“About her present?” he recapped.
“Yes!” Zaliel nodded enthusiastically. “I overheard her the other day talking to Cheryl—do you know her?”
Ben shrugged, “We don’t really share friends,” he admitted. He made a face as he considered how rude that may have sounded. If it hurt Zaliel at all, he couldn’t tell.
“Anyways, she was talking to Cheryl about how your grandmother used to make her favorite cookies.”
“Memaw’s Fantastic Fudge Clusters,” Ben laughed. “That recipe has been passed down for generations.” He sighed and expression became bright and wistful. “She used to make them when we visited her lake house in Wisconsin. Amanda and I would go out on this ancient paddleboat for hours. When we came back soaked and covered in mud, she would sit us in front of the fireplace, pour hot chocolate in these tall mugs, and stuff us full of fudge until she practically rolled us up the stairs and tucked us in and I just realized this is probably boring you to pieces.”
“What? No, seriously, it sounds perfect,” Zaliel replied sincerely.
“It was,” he nodded first with a smile, then a frown. “It was,” he repeated, solemnly.
There was a long pause where neither spoke. Ben found himself missing is grandmother. Those were simple, carefree days where the only expectation anyone had of him was to dress himself and stay out of trouble. Now, everyone in his life expected something of him. To “make life his own!” as his father said countless times. While he could choose a life of aimless wandering, he wanted something more. He just couldn’t say what.
He watched as Zaliel picked up her glass and set it down a few times without drinking it; sometimes resting it in both hands, rolling the dark liquid thoughtfully. Hesitantly, Zaliel carefully placed a hand on Ben’s. He appreciated the gesture, even if he was unsure how to feel about it.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “You wanted to know about the cookies.”
She nodded slowly and withdrew her hand. “Do you, um, do you think it’s a good idea? Like, I don’t, uh, I don’t want to upset her?”
“No, it’s a great idea.” He stiffened slightly. “I will help you make the cookies,” he added definitively.
Zaliel smiled. “Great! We can feed the specs into a replicator and—,” she began.
“No!” Ben interjected, offended. “By hand, with fresh ingredients, just as Memaw would have made them.” He was set, determined.
“You can cook?” Zaliel asked, impressed.
“Bake,” he corrected. “And no, but we can take the time to learn.”
“We can’t do it at my place: Amanda will know instantly that something is up,” a pause. “Plus, we don’t have a kitchen,” she squinted in thought. “We might—we might need one of those?”
“My place it is, then.” The waiter returned with Ben’s drink as they were exchanging information. He asked if they were ready to order. Both confessed that no, neither had looked at the menus, and the waiter stalked away to see to his other tables.
Ben lifted his wine glass and took a sip which he promptly spit back into the glass. “What the hell is this?” he asked as he wiped his tongue with a napkin.
Zaliel, initially startled, replied shyly, her face turning bright red: “Hot fruit punch.”
“Why?” Ben asked, agog. “Why hot? Why in a wine glass?”
“Is that what those glasses are for?” she asked, gesturing to the other tables. “I thought it was traditional. You know,” she pointed at the murals, “Moldavian.”
Ben laughed which Zaliel fell nervously into as well. “Okay, okay,” he said after a moment. “These are Roman murals.” He pointed to a few, naming them. “But why? Why is it so hot?”
“Oh, I,” Zaliel picked up her glass and held it with both hands. Ben noticed the way she cradled it and slowly rubbed the places where liquid swirled on the other side. Her demeanor had changed, and the laughter thinned. She seemed to be doing some mental math. “How much do you know about me?” she asked suddenly.
“Like, what Amanda’s told me?” he blinked, surprised by the tone shift. “Um, nothing really. I think,” he reached back about a month to the exchange they had; where Amanda tried to play cupid and get him interested in Zaliel. But, nothing came of it; Amanda didn’t mention it again, even when Ben later hinted that his interest was piqued. What was it he wanted to know more about?—except: “She mentioned you’re an artist?”
“Sculptures,” she nodded with a smile. “Clay, usually. I’ve been doing it since I was little. I share a studio space near our apartment. If you’re ever in the neighborhood,” she let the invitation float in the air.
He leaned back and prepared to settle into the conversation. Art seemed to be a safe topic to discuss while he chewed through the emotions connected with his grandmother. He missed her. When she passed years ago, a hole was left in his heart and all the hot chocolate and boat rides in the world wouldn’t bring those days back. He loved her and she was gone.
A part of his brain alerted him that Zaliel had just told him something important and his attention snapped back to see her holding a Starfleet combadge to her ear. She was saying some big technical words that he didn’t quite know the meanings of, so he waited and gingerly sipped from his glass. Why hot fruit punch? he wondered again as he looked at Zaliel over the glass’ rim.
The call was over and Zaliel started packing her things. “I’m very sorry, Ben,” she started. “Something’s come up and I have to go to the office.”
Ben stood. “Can I walk you to the hub?” he offered.
“You’re sweet, but I’m going to catch a beam-out just outside the restaurant.” Zaliel took a bold step, paused, turned toward Ben, and added. “This was, um, weird? Thanks again for your help. Let me—Could you—?” she seemed to be pulled in several directions at once.
“I’ll send you my schedule,” he gave a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, we’ll bake soon!”
Ben watched as Zaliel quickly navigated the dining area before crashing through the exit. He swirled the wineglass in his hand and put it to his lips. He managed a ponderous hrmmmm before he sipped and spat the sugary drink back into the glass.
After a few days of careful coordination and false starts, Ben and Zaliel managed to arrange a baking day. It would be perfect: Amanda was taking a three-day weekend to visit some friends off-planet which gave them nearly the whole weekend to work. Ben, for his part, gathered the ingredients and—most importantly—spent the week scrutinizing the cleanliness and arrangement of his home.
He dusted every surface, angled every trinket, and fluffed every pillow in the hopes of making a good first-impression. He did not do this entirely consciously. If he had any visitors over at all, they might point out that it was a lot—a lot a lot—of work for his sister’s roommate. They might even suggest he had something else in mind.
But Ben, being Ben, would naturally dismiss these accusations and point out that Amanda’s roommate was vicariously Amanda; if he was living in a mess, it would get back to her and he’d have the whole family in crisis-mode again. It was too much to deal with or even think about, so he happily cleaned and polished and straightened and arranged literally until the moment Ben saw Zaliel walking along the (freshly power washed) stone path toward his door where upon he gracefully leapt over a couch to greet her before she pressed the chime.
Ben opened the door and waved her in. “It’s good to see you, Zaliel,” he attempted.
“Nice to see you as well, Ben,” she replied. Zaliel pulled her wide brimmed hat off, a thin white strap held it against her back. Ben was reminded of a cowboy, except it wasn’t that kind of hat, or that kind of dress, or that kind of twirl she did as she stepped into the foyer, taking everything in at once. “This place is gorgeous! Is that the ocean?” she asked excitedly.
Ben proceeded to give Zaliel what he called “The Nickel Tour” which briefly became a lesson on ancient American currency.
“How did you wind up with this place?” Zaliel asked once they settled on the deck with drinks; a cold lemonade for Ben and a hot blueberry tea for her. They were beneath the canvas canopy which extended from the home about mid-way the length of the deck. A warm breeze ruffled the fabric intermittently. Ben was grateful for the shade and lemonade, even in the temperate California weather.
“Well,” he began, stirring the drink idly as he talked. “It was a crafty bit of total and complete luck.” He smiled a beat for the joke to land. Zaliel’s snicker carried him forward with renewed aplomb. “I got it as part of the university I’m attending. The other students I was supposed to share it with dropped out.”
Zaliel laughed, “And you get it all to yourself?”
“At least until next year, when more students enroll. Assuming,” he added, “that I’m still here.”
He made a gesture with his hands. Zaliel tilted her head slightly.
“What is this?” she clumsily repeated Ben’s gesture.
“Oh, um, you know like, ‘so-so’, or like ‘más o menos.’”
“More or less?” Zaliel confirmed, repeating the gesture again. “I wish this translator covered hand gestures. Anyways,” she went on, “How are you more or less graduating?”
Ben reflected as he drank lemonade. “Are you sure Amanda didn’t send you?” He added what he hoped was an amused chuckle.
Zaliel blinked. “Well, yeah, I mean I came here because of her?”
“I, well, yes but, anyways,” he struggled, trying to find his stride again. There was something in the way she sat and looked at him which was vaguely unsettling, like it was an imitation of a behavior that should be familiar, but was just slightly off. He glanced away—shit! don’t look at her legs!—he glanced back—shit! don’t look at her chest! So, he had no choice but to hold her gaze even though he badly wanted to avoid eye contact. He was embarrassed, afraid she would guess that he wasn’t nearly as well-adjusted as he was trying to be. He was aimless. He wasn’t so sure of himself that he could commit to something like she had to Starfleet. He was just here, on the beach, trying to act like he knew what he was doing.
But she wouldn’t stop looking at him in that way. What was it? Was she confident in herself? Did she really have that much strength? Or was it the spots that ran from her bare feet to temples? Was she really that alien?
He kept stumbling over his words so he did what any self-respecting man would in this situation and chugged lemonade until his mouth collapsed from a sour overload. He pointed to his glass as if to say, “I’m going to get more lemonade, please excuse me,” and gratefully she nodded in understanding, so he was free to retreat to the kitchen.