December 28, 2013
OUT OF TOUCH
by Dan Burns
They stared at each other like young lovers; only the age was at issue.
They sat in a dark corner of the bar, a sufficient distance from the other patrons, yet close enough to get the attention of the bartender if, or when, the need for another drink arose. The drinks had been flowing for most of the night and would likely continue. She didn’t need it, but he would likely benefit from the courage that the alcohol would provide. It was late and the room was mostly quiet. Only a few hushed conversations were in play as the bouncing head behind the piano tickled out a near-silent serenade.
“It’s quiet here,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” she replied.
“So, vodka, huh?”
“You always drink vodka?”
“What do you mean always?”
“Nothing, I just wondered if vodka was your liquor of choice, so-to-speak.” Liquor of choice—where did that come from? he wondered.
“I’ve been drinking it tonight,” she said. “You know, it’s kind of a special occasion.”
“I know,” he said. He stared at the label on the beer bottle in his hand, as though it might provide some advice. “I wasn’t sure I would show.”
“I don’t know. It’s been a long time. The last time I saw everyone was at prom, a lifetime ago.”
“It’s the last time I saw you.” He took a long draw from his beer. He felt the urge to burp, but held it back.
She looked deeply into his eyes and studied his face, expecting the sound, and was surprised when it didn’t come. “You remember the last time?” she said.
“Like it was yesterday.”
They each looked down at their drinks, not wanting to make eye contact while they took themselves back to a special day a long, long time ago.
He glanced up for just a second, saw her smile, then looked back down before she could catch his glance.
“So where’ve you been hiding the last twenty-five years?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ve been around.”
“Always the modest one,” she said. “The last I heard, you moved to Paris, but that was a few years ago.
“I’m still there. It’s been ten years.”
“Do you like it there?”
“I did for a while.”
“Not so much.”
“Jeff Hostetler filled me in,” she said. “I ran into him at a party.” She thought about what she said. “It’s been ten years? Hmm.” She looked perplexed. “You remember Jeff?”
“I remember,” he said with an expression of displeasure.
“I saw him tonight, and I regressed into a pimply teenager.”
“Really?” she said. She wasn’t sure what he meant.
“He hasn’t changed a bit.”
“He’s a little gray,” she said.
“He actually came up to me and flicked my ear, like he had done a thousand times when we were younger. Son of a bitch.” His face turned flush and he shifted in his seat. He took a drink and tried to swallow his anger.
“Are you okay?”
“I walk into the hall and he’s the first person I meet, like he was waiting for me.
Before I could say a word, he flicked me. Son of a bitch. Then I looked around and saw the staring faces and the snickers.”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” she said.
He looked at her with steely eyes.
She thought she saw him inch toward her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
He took another drink, then waved to the bartender with a circling index finger. “I don’t know how to explain it. When he flicked me it was like he tripped a switch inside of me. It just happened.”
“I punched him in the nose.”
“Yes.” He stood up straight in his chair and his regular color came back, along with a dash of bravado.
“That was you? I saw him running to the bathroom with a red handkerchief up to his face, and I just thought he had a nosebleed or something. That was you?”
“Sorry,” he said.
“No need to be sorry. It’s about time someone stood up to him.” She looked straight into his gaze and smiled coyly, excited by the excitement.
“Let’s talk about you,” he said.
“Oh, there’s not much to talk about.”
“Now look who’s modest. You went off to UCLA to study filmmaking. Where that came from I’ll never know. Three years later, you’re in Hollywood and starring in a film.”
“I wasn’t the star.”
“Whatever. You were in a film, in Hollywood. I went and saw it the day it came out.”
“Of course. You were my girl. I had to see how you turned out.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“Funny thing is, I tried to keep track of you over the years, but it was like you disappeared.”
“Don’t be silly.”
The bartender arrived at the table and set down a fresh round of drinks.
She cleared her glass quick and handed it to the bartender. “Keep ‘em coming,” she said in a delicate voice.
The bartender left.
“You have time for another drink, don’t you?”
“Sure,” he said.
She grabbed her fresh cocktail and swallowed half the contents. “Tell me about Paris.”
“What to tell,” he said as he pondered her inquiry. “My wife left ten years ago. We got married after college and we both worked hard at our careers. We had no kids and there really wasn’t anything there, no relationship to speak of, and so on the day of our tenth anniversary, her present to me, to us, was my freedom.”
“No, it was good. I packed up and picked up and left for Paris the following week. I needed a change of pace, of venue. My art needed it. And I’ve been there ever since, enjoying the life of an expatriate and a wannabe Parisian.”
“It seems to suit you.”
“It’s been fine, great actually, up until about two months ago.”
She looked at him curiously.
“Two months ago,” he said, “when I received the invitation for the reunion.”
Her glassy eyes were empty. The words weren’t registering.
“I received the invitation and immediately threw it away. I was in Paris for Christ’s sake. The funny thing was, like a week later, out of the blue, I thought of you.” He looked at her for a reaction, but none came. “I called Jenny Thompson to inquire about the RSVP list, and that’s when I found out you would be attending, alone.”
She cleared her glass again, swirled the remaining ice cubes and stared at the glass, disappointed. “Bartender!” she yelled to the tabletop.
As if on cue, the bartender arrived at the table and set down a fresh round of drinks. She handed the bartender the empty glass.
He studied his accumulating beer bottles. “Thanks,” he said to the bartender, who was already walking away. He turned back to her. “So I dug the invitation out of the garbage and reconsidered. The thought of coming back kept me awake for weeks. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t work. I was done for. What was stuck in my head was that last time we were together, at the lake, lying together in that big green sleeping bag and watching the sun rise. I couldn’t shake it. Do you remember?”
“Oh, I remember.”
“So I called in my RSVP, and here I am.”
“Yessiree, here you are.”
“I don’t think you get it. I came back for you.”
In one fluid motion, she cleared her glass once again. She set the glass down and reached across the table to touch one of his hands. “You’re so sweet, coming back for little ‘ole me,” she said through a burp. She blushed. “Excuse me.”
“I can tell there’s something there—between us,” he said. “From the moment I first saw you this evening, I knew. When we shook hands, and then hugged, I knew. When I felt your body next to mine on the dance floor, your warm breath on my neck, I knew. I felt a stir inside of me that I haven’t felt in a long time. I knew.”
“Too much time has passed. We can’t go back,” she said.
“Sure we can. Your idea of ‘going our separate ways’ was bullshit. We should have stayed together.”
“We can’t go back.”
“Sure we can.”
“NO, WE CAN’T!” she shouted, as errant spit flew across the table and hit him on the cheek.
He pretended not to notice. “But . . .”
“You’re so sweet,” she said in a now-calming voice. “Before you go any further, I need to tell you something.”
“There’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just come out with it. After that night, our last night together, I had to leave for California.”
“I know, you had summer school.”
“No, I had to leave . . . because I was . . .”
“I was pregnant.”
“Yes. I went to California to have an abortion. I was too young. We were too young. I had an abortion and pretended like you and the baby never existed.”
“Yes. I went to school, I met a few influential people in Hollywood and I slept my way right to the top. I became an actress, a film star, and then just when I thought I’d made it, it all fell apart. I started doing tricks on Sunset Boulevard just to make ends meet. I started doing heroin and cocaine and got caught up in a world you couldn’t imagine.”
The bartender arrived with another round of drinks. Their table was the only one still occupied to keep him busy.
“Get lost,” the man said to the bartender.
“But leave the drinks,” she said. She leaned across the table and touched his hand once again. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you saying?”
“You sweet thing.”
“I’m a prostitute.”
“Yes. Half of your old classmates that you saw tonight—they’re customers. In fact, I think I’ve had them all. All except you.”
His face turned flush. He emptied one of the bottles in front of him, then grabbed another and guzzled half of that one. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.”
“Now you’re darn right adorable,” she said.
“Really, I don’t care. That’s in the past. You could quit that life. You could come back to Paris with me.”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“I’ll take you anywhere you want to go. We’ll leave all this, everything, behind and we’ll start fresh—the way it was supposed to be. You know I’m right. We were meant to be together.”
“But . . .”
“I love you,” he said.
“The magic words,” she said. “You sure do know the way to my heart. Why don’t you settle up the check and then you can take me to your hotel room so we can discuss our future together.” She gazed at him as she licked her lips.
The dance floor feelings stirred in him again and he waved anxiously for the bartender. He instantly felt that waiting any longer could prove problematic, so he jumped up from his chair and pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. Without looking, he peeled off five bills and threw them on the table. “Let’s go.”
As she started to rise, she caught a glimpse of movement from the bar entryway.
She glanced over, and then sat back down.
“What’s the matter?”
“We have guests,” she said.
“What?” He looked to the entryway to find two men approaching their table. He wasn’t sure to what to make of it.
The two men approached the table in a hurry. One of the men was older and distinguished and was dressed like a businessman. The other man was taller and twice as broad, with shoulders and arms that strained the material of his white, pressed smock.
The distinguished gentleman spoke first. “Darling,” he said to the woman.
“Can I help you with something?” the man said in reply. “We’re having a private conversation here.”
“I’m sure you are,” the distinguished man said. He turned to the woman. “Darling, it’s late, and it’s time for you get back to the home.”
“Excuse me, but she’s not going anywhere. I’ve already hit one guy tonight and I’ll—“
“Sir, I commend your chivalry and I’m sure you feel you’re doing the right thing, but this is my wife.”
“My wife of twenty-two years, and it seems she put the slip on the guards good tonight.”
“The guards?” the man said.
The distinguished man looked at the woman. “Darling, you’ve been a bad girl, haven’t you?”
She didn’t say a word.
The larger man stepped up close next to her, folded his tree-trunk arms across his chest, and looked down at her.
The distinguished man continued. “It seems she’s been planning this evening for quite some time. When she didn’t show up for her medication this evening, the orderlies became suspicious. They searched her room and found the invitation and the checklist she used to secure her escape. It took a little while, but it was fairly easy to track her down here. I apologize for any inconvenience she may have caused.”
“Did you say escape?” the man said as he looked at the larger man. He noticed an identification badge pinned to the larger man’s chest and he squinted in the dark light to read it. “The MacMillan Institute?”
“Sir, unfortunately, my wife has struggled with mental illness for the better part of our time together. She’s been a resident of The MacMillan Institute for the last ten years.”
“Yes. For some reason, she felt compelled to attend her high school reunion. How she received the invitation in the first place, I’ll never know. Again, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“But . . .”
“Darling, it’s time for us to go.”
The larger man grabbed the woman under the armpit and lifted her like a feather-filled doll.
She hiccupped just once as she ran a hand across her flat stomach to smooth out the material of her sleek, black dress, and then she gently lifted each breast so they were both appropriately positioned. She looked at the man with a sparkle in her eye. “This was fun,” she said. “I’ll see you later?”
The larger man escorted the woman from the table and the distinguished man followed.
The man remained standing at the table as the bartender approached. The man looked at the bartender as though he was in a daze, like he was sucker-punched.
From across the room he heard a scuffle and he turned.
The woman was straining under the grip of the larger man. She said, “Billy?”
The man looked at her quizzically.
“Billy?” she said again, this time with an edge of desperation in her voice.
“It’s Tom. Tom Fitzgerald,” he said.
She stared blankly for a few seconds, waiting for the short circuit to repair itself.
“Tom, I’ll wait for you,” she said, and with that, she and her entourage disappeared from the bar.
“Sir, can I get you anything else?” the bartender said.
“Can I get you anything else? It’s last call.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll have what she was having—a double.” He slowly sat down as the bartender walked away. It was only then that he noticed that he was alone, again, and left wondering what had happened.
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