A TABLE, FOR TWO
by Gary Jaycox F
It was ten minutes before Two on a Tuesday afternoon when I cracked open the door to O’Shea’s Tavern. I was early and that was fine with me. The lunch crowd had gone and the place was comfortably dark and empty. Well almost empty. A middle-aged man sat alone at the end of the bar. He was dressed in a cheap business suit, his red tie and crumpled shirt dimly illuminated under the bar light. There was a worn, tired look about him. You know the look. One that comes from too many days spent out on the road and from too many nights graced by the presence of one’s own company. He was making time with the barmaid. Or he was trying to. She was busy polishing up her drinking glasses with a small towel and then stacking them on a wooden rack overhead. From the blank look on her face, you could tell that she’d heard it all before. You could tell that she didn’t really care. Well, I could tell. I didn’t want to sit at the bar.
I cut diagonally across the room to a small table that was anchored into a corner. I sat with my back against the wall so that I could keep an eye on the front door. There was a window nearby that faced out onto the street. I looked out onto the street, but there was nothing going on. So, I turned back over toward the bar. That’s when the barmaid caught my eye and hurried on over.
“Gin and Tonic,” I said. “Tanqueray if you’ve got it.”
“Tanqueray,” she nodded as she moved back into the light.
I know what you’re probably thinking. That I should have waited before ordering. I mean, that would have been the proper thing to do. The polite thing. But I wasn’t feeling particularly proper or polite. Not on that hot summer afternoon anyway. I’m not sure anymore what I was actually feeling, but I know it wasn’t either of those two things. I’d just arrived in town and I was still wondering what I was actually hoping to find. Back in town one more time.
“Thanks Miss,” I said as she brought over my drink. With a plastic swizzle stick, I toyed with the two ice cubes floating in my glass. I watched as I idly nudged them around and around. One bumping and clinking into the other. Each touching, but never connecting or joining up with its companion. Both forever confined by the rigid contour of my glass. Both slowly melting into nothingness as they circled around and around. A tangled aroma of lime and gin permeated the air. I closed my eyes and took a sip. What, had it really been nine years?
Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes passed by. I ordered a second round. She was late. Maybe something had come up. Perhaps she’d gotten a better offer. Some things never change. I was thinking about ordering my third, and that’s when she finally stepped in. A blinding shaft of yellow light from the mid-afternoon sun sliced into the room. I couldn’t see exactly, but from the silhouette at the door, I knew it was her. Tall, willowy……confident. She didn’t waste any time looking around. She didn’t need to. She walked over to the small table in the corner where I was sitting. She walked over to our table. I stood up. We hugged. We kissed for a moment. Well, maybe for several moments.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
“Sorry I’m late,” she offered.
“No problem,” I replied.
I pulled out a chair. She sat down. Then I sat down next to her. The small table suddenly felt right. Our table. I studied her face in the subdued light. Time had been good to her. Maybe a new wrinkle here or there. Maybe not. She undid her hair. Long, silky and dark, it tumbled gently into her face so that it framed her eyes. Those eyes. Soft and brown. Almond shaped with a hint of exotic. She had the kind of eyes that could easily bore down into a man’s soul. The kind of eyes that could take far more than they would ever return. I loved her eyes. Some things never change.
“I’ll have another,” I said turning to the barmaid. “And the lady, she’ll have a Mojito,” I added with a smile.
“You remembered,” she said once we were alone again.
“Of course, I remember,” I said nodding slowly. “I remember.”
We sat there for a minute or two. Each of us taking measure of the other. Each of us caught up somewhere between the present and the past.
“You look really good,” she said finally.
“So do you,” I replied.
We talked for a while. She filled me in on the latest gossip from around town. Our home town. About the latest exploits of the Devlin sisters. Absolutely amazing. She told me about Mr. Rooney, the boy’s high school basketball coach. About how he’d finally been caught stepping out of the girl’s locker room one too many times.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things he got away with when we were in school,” she said looking down at the table.
“No, I probably wouldn’t,” I replied quickly without really thinking.
She went on to tell me about Mr. Halliday, our high school principal. Everybody liked Mr. Halliday. At the time, he was new to our school and oh-so-cool. She told me about his lymphoma. About how he finally died after a difficult struggle last year. About his wife and the three young children that he’d left behind. All of it a part of the goings-on of a small Midwestern town.
But mostly, we talked about our summer together. The summer that followed our senior year nine years earlier. After we both graduated from high school. A summer of freedom and of unbridled passion. A time when the two of us came up close. Armed with her new business diploma, she was to begin working full time at the First National Bank in town. She was slated to make Head Teller within a year. And me, well, I was headed off to the East Coast in the fall. Headed off to join the Ivy League. A big man in a small town. At least, that’s how it all seemed back then. We were both so young and certain, so confident about how it would all turn out. About how it was supposed to turn out. There were the hilarious escapades at the Mall just outside of town. And the lazy hours spent right here around this small oak table. And, of course, there was the night by the Lake. I was to catch the train East the very next day. We made love all night long under a black prairie sky filled with a thousand stars. A thousand twinkling diamonds she called them. Well, it wasn’t love exactly. Probably more like raw animal sex. I think we both understood that even then. Passion born of lust and of the summer’s heat, fueled by an intensity that only youth can provide. I’ve never forgotten that night.
After I went off to college that September, we phoned each other as often as we could. We mailed lots of letters, too. Funny letters and some serious ones. It went on like that for weeks. And then, suddenly, her letters stopped coming. My repeated phone calls went unanswered. I didn’t know what had happened, but something was up. Something had changed. I wasn’t able to get back home until the Winter Break. And that’s when I learned that she’d abruptly left town. Moved to another state so I was told. Apparently, her new job at the Bank hadn’t panned out. She was gone.
It was like that for nearly a year. As time passed by, I didn’t think about her all that much to be quite honest. There were new adventures to be had, new college exploits. I’d moved on, or so I’d thought. And then came her letter during the fall of my Sophomore year. Just like that. A small pink envelope post marked from my home town. It was on a Friday night before the annual football game against our hated Ivy League rival. There was to be a big bonfire on the College Green that night as there was every year. A night packed with primitive emotion. A night of craziness. A night of alcohol-fueled abandon. All of it authorized and sanctioned by the color of dark forest green. My roommate warned me several times to hurry up. That I needed to move it along. He could see the fiery orange glow beginning to rise off in the distance. I told him I’d get there, eventually. I said that I had something important to take care of first. I held her letter close in my hands, turning it over and over, not sure what to do. Why now after all this time? Why now?
I remember tearing open the envelope and hearing the hollow sound that it made. There were two hand written pages folded neatly inside. The note paper smelled like her. The letter asked me how college was going and was it everything that I had hoped for. She mentioned that she was fine and that she was back in town working at the First National. She wanted to explain why she’d left and why she’d stopped writing. She wanted to tell me as best she could the reasons for her silence over the past year. I flipped to the second page and continued reading. She asked me if I remembered our last night together. The night before I left for college. In a few short words, she wrote about her pregnancy. About how I hadn’t been gone for all that long when she’d found out. She wrote that after lots of searching, she’d decided to have the baby. That adoption was the right thing to do for a soul born of the stars. And that it was all best done far away from the prying eyes of our small home town. That’s why she’d left. She said that she hoped I would understand. That I needed to understand. That it was something she had to handle on her own with the help of her family. Without me. She wrote that she had a healthy baby boy, and that he was now in loving, caring hands. And that the entire affair was safely in the past where it all belonged. That’s what her letter said on the night of the glorious bonfire. That it was all in the past and that’s why she was finally writing me. Well, that’s how I remembered it now as I watched the last of the ice melt away in my glass.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asked playfully. “You’ve gotten kind of quiet on me all of a sudden.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
“It’s like you left and went somewhere else. Where’d you go?”
“No really, I’m fine. I was……just thinking”.
There was an awkward pause. A moment of silence. Each of us looking at the other. The two of us, sitting side by side around a small oak table in a darkened corner of O’Shea’s Tavern on a hot Tuesday afternoon.
“You ever think about him?” I asked finally.
“Think about……who?” she replied, shaking her head.
“About the baby, about our……”
“Oh. No, not really,” she offered with a puzzled stare. “You?”
“No,” I lied.
“That was such a long time ago. Like ten or eleven years,” she said.
“He’d be going on eight and a half,” I countered.
“Well, like I said. It’s ancient history. Let it go, babe. It’s long done.”
“Sure. It’s ancient history,” I said staring into my empty glass. “It’s done.”
There was more silence. And then she abruptly changed the subject. She told me that she was now a Vice President with the Bank. That earlier she had completed her degree in business and finance at the local university. She asked me if I wanted to walk on over and see her new corner office. And then she joked that I would need to consult with her if I ever wanted to get a loan. We laughed. I told her that I was an Assistant Professor at a small liberal arts college back East, just outside of Philadelphia. And that I was on a fast-track for tenure. She smiled, again with those eyes.
“It looks like we both got what we wanted,” she said softly.
I nodded but didn’t say anything. She went on to tell me about her divorce last year. I mentioned that I had recently broken off my engagement. She seemed genuinely concerned. I said that I was doing alright. The barmaid stepped over to our table. I ordered her another Mojito. She didn’t say no.
“No thanks, Miss,” I said, covering my glass with a hand. “Maybe a little later,” I smiled.
To tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty good right about then. I didn’t need another drink. Besides, I wanted to stay sharp. I thought that maybe after O’Shea’s……well, maybe we could both go out and have dinner together. That I’d ask her out for old time’s sake. And that possibly there might be something more for each of us later on that night. That’s what I was thinking anyway. That’s what I was hoping for as I purposely rubbed my fingers back and forth over four small letters carved into our table. Four worn letters carved crudely into an oak table from nine years before. Her initials, partnered closely together with mine. We continued talking. Laughing. And you know, I could swear that some of the old magic was finding its way back. Across the years and the miles, it was beginning to feel like I’d never left.
“I need to get going,” she said abruptly after finishing the last of her drink.
“You do?” I stumbled. “I mean, right now?”
“I’m sorry,” she said rather sheepishly. “I’ve got to go home and get ready. I sort of…… Well, I have a date later on tonight.”
“Oh. Sure. I wouldn’t want……”
She hesitated for a second time. I could tell that she wasn’t sure if she should say anything more. That maybe she’d already said too much.
“You’d like Freddie,” she offered finally. “You know, there’s a little bit of you in him.”
I told her that I would probably like Fred, or Freddie or whatever his actual name was. And I lied when I said that I was truly happy for her, that she’d managed to find someone new. She mentioned that she’d been seeing him for about six months and that it might be getting kind of serious. But that she wasn’t sure. And how could two people ever really know for sure? I didn’t have any answers, at least none that I wanted to share. So, I kept quiet. I just let it go. We stood up from the table. Awkwardly, sort of at the same time. Then we pulled each other close and we kissed. Just like before. And just like earlier that afternoon.
“You come and see me when you’re back here again,” she said playfully. “When you find yourself jetting between the coasts going to all of your important meetings and conferences, well, you tell the pilot to set his big jet-plane down right here. You tell him to land it right here at our municipal airport. You still remember the name of your old home town, don’t you?” she teased.
She worked her warm lips down along the side of my neck, slowly, purposefully, biting gently as she went along.
“Don’t be a stranger,” she whispered.
She turned to leave. It was only then that I noticed how busy the place had gotten. The after-work crowd was filing in. Many of the empty tables positioned around us were now newly occupied. I watched as she moved through the crowd, as she slowly worked her way toward the door. I watched her go. And you know, it was then that I finally realized something. Of the women that I’ve known in my life, well, she’s the only one. She’s the only one who looks as good leaving a room as she does coming in. I followed her with my eyes as she opened the door, as she stepped out into the late afternoon sun. From the window next to my table, I watched her as she walked along Market Street. She moved up past the old Post Office, and then cut quickly to the left and she was gone. Just like that. Like I said before, some things in this life…… Some things just never change.
I got up from the small oak table and I moved purposely across the room. I sat down under the bar light.
“Hi Miss. Yeah, it’s me. I’ll have another.”
About the Author:
Gary Delmar Jaycox holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Dartmouth. After several years at Columbia University and Caltech, he spent the next quarter century at DuPont as a Principal Investigator in their Central Research Division. During this time, he also served as an Editor for technical journals published by Pergamon Press and Elsevier Science. Having authored or co-authored over 120 US patents and scientific publications, this is his first foray into the amazing world of short-fiction writing.