Two lonely video poker machines sat across from his table awaiting company. Around the wall in the other room, discouraged soccer fans rattled with contempt for the match that had fallen out of their favor. The walls were decorated with beer signs, posters of soccer schedules, framed pictures from the 70’s, and a yellow lining along the top. There was the dissipation of cigarette smoke through the musk of beer, fish, bread, meat, and unclean spectators. They lined the bar, crowded the tables, talked loudly, ate sloppily and thought little.
Paolo shuffled with his limp through the wooden tables and tarnished floors clearing the finished pastry and meat dishes inquiring politely of further rations. Dick stood behind the bar cleaning glasses and pouring drinks while his two sons, three years apart but neither above eight, restocked the ice chest and wrapped food for the travelers. They chattered happily in loving tones during their work:
“You excited for your season?” the caring father asked his kids.
“Oh yes, I’ve been practicing so much.”
Muffled chatter from the outside tables was barely heard by the American who sat just inside the doorway to the poker room. He had been on his computer, lost in the abyss of infinite information, only momentarily looking towards the screen as the bar rang out with the last goal. He used the back of his hand and finger tips to unknowingly rub his scruffled face with calloused hands. A final gulp emptied the glass as Paolo returned with a freshly opened bottle of Cisk. They chatted for a few seconds about the game although Paolo knew he didn’t have an interest in it:
“I always root for the underdog,” he told Paolo.
“But they are such savages.”
“All the more reason,” with a grin.
It was twenty minutes until the match was over. Most the crowd trickled out bitter and defeated. There remained an elderly man, who may or may not have been asleep, three Englishmen caught up in discussion of the abhorrent loss, one went as far slapping the other for a blasphemous comment, and finally the appropriately disheveled American. His yellow, green, and light blue plaid fedora was pulled down low on his head where his oily brown hair hung down a few inches. On his shoulders fell a tattered green shirt with small spots of bleach surrounding the Hart Beer Co. logo that was now barely visible. The pockets of his even more faded corduroy shorts held twelve Euro, a set of three keys, a small notepad and pen, and a monthly bus ticket used for less than its value. His bare feet tapped on the relatively clean tile, His daily leather sandals lounged behind them. He fumbled with his handmade bracelet as he read Vonnegut.
Billy Pilgrim had just got unstuck for the first time in Tralmafadore when his eyes dropped back to his laptop to peruse his overly complex interests. Shuffled through radio stations, journals of various arts, the art itself, and some of his own. His glass was down to the last few ml above backwash when he removed his headphones as the final song faded out. He began to pack his things.
“After nine months they are like already getting married? I seriously can’t believe she’d want to jump into something like that,” came the slightly jealous voice from behind the corner.
“Well the wedding isn’t for a few months” chimed in another reassuringly.
“Like one in a half,” the first said. The flinty voices of young American girls over the droll of the English soccer commentator fancied his attention. The partition inhibited him from viewing his compatriots, but he could sense the transitivity of travelers in their voices.
“Well you know, like, she’s always liked the sense of security with her boyfriends, and has only really dated like three guys,” explained a third. Accents from the west with their uptick inflection every few syllables mocked their intelligence.
“Yeah well, I mean, I never wanted to tell her this,” the jealous one complained, “But I didn’t really like Mark all that much. Come on, he was like, I dunno, not up to her standards, and basically a tool.” She continued, “But I mean he was so obsessed with her I could understand it. Plus, like, he’s really rich.”
Way to stick to what you know. He opened his notebook again to seem occupied to listen in on the end of their conversation. It had been a few weeks, perhaps months, since he had spoken with anyone living in America and was curious about what other insults and insecurities they would divulge at the expense of the engaged friend.
“I think they are cute together and she’s happier that I have seen her,” said the third. She giggled, “She said she almost fell off her chair into her plate when she leaned across the table to look at the ring when he proposed.” The other two joined in.
“Well, like, I’m not complaining. He’s paid for most of this trip. I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Her opinion she was so set on seemed to change as frequently as her make-up.
“Speaking of, where is the lucky girl? It’s a quarter past. We said Dick’s at one right?”
“Yeah, maybe she like got lost,” the first’s sidekick congealed.
“I hope she gets here soon. I don’t know if I can stand the smell of this place anymore. I mean, like, meat pies? Seriously?”
Happy he was still living in Malta and uninterested in any part of the rest of their chatter, he began to pack up his things assured he would now be leaving. Terrific friends, he thought in his methodical pace. I guess one was actually benevolent.
Chimes of greetings echoed from the three girls as they rose with the wooden pegs of their chairs skidding across the floor. They asked different questions in sequence before the friend had a chance to answer the previous. He stood as well to cross the bar into the other room, pay his tab, chat with Dick and the kids for a few minutes, when he heard her voice:
“Hi!” He could hear her smiling. “Sorry I’m late but Marco, the super cute masseuse, gave me a free fifteen minutes! He said, ‘It would be unfar to paid to tooch lady as beautiful leke you.” Despite the loveable, fake Italian accent, he recognized it at once. He sat abruptly, stuck by disbelief, asking too many questions to process. There he put his head to his hands with a dropped jaw and recreated three years of another life in a matter of moments.
He began with the last time he had seen her. It was four years ago when he lost at his own games for the first time. She looked at him with those mermaid eyes, so long had they held the blissful devotion of innocent, youthful love, devoid of the emotional devotion that had driven them to such extremes. Then there was just two months prior when old companions transformed the reconnection of an adolescent friendship to an affair. It was vulcanized into palpable sentiment through moment after moment with the unfilled desires of months spent apart. He remembered those long months apart with distraction after distraction. He had a tattoo, but got temporary ones so they would blend with the original but only found them to wash off in the shower after a few days. The last moments he remembered was saying their first true goodbye before those empty months, and feeling confident in her face of anguish that it was better for them both.
Her voice continued with the familiar, playful notes and evident emotion:
“Thank you girls so much. I think that was one of the best spas I’ve been to.” She put down her bag beside their table. “I’m going to use the bathroom real quick then we can go. Margaritas on the beach, mmmm.” Quickly pulling down his fedora, he grabbed his tortoise colored Ray Ban’s. His head leaned against his wrist as he pretended to read to conceal his face.
Her leather sandals on the wooden floor passed in front of him as heavy as if Hagrid had walked by. When she was safely facing the other direction he looked towards her through the right angle of his elbow out from beneath the sunglasses. Her wavy, soaked blond hair fell in loose spirals, unblemished by heat, to the bottom of her shoulder blades which tucked in her tight frame. Her Caribbean turquoise, sundress lay low across her back just showing the top of the delicate dimples that rose up her waist-line accentuating the soft, peachy skin that had been recently polished up with sun, and oil. He admired her, top to bottom, as she closed the door behind her.
For a moment he sat in thought of how to handle the situation but quickly made up his mind it was best to avoid this potentially emotional encounter for a location other than Dick’s. Knowing that if he left through the front he would have to chat with Dick so he fumbled through his pockets to leave the tab on the table and and swigged down half a tall Cisk in about two seconds. He could explain later. As he stood, his bag in hand lifting up over his shoulder it was only second before he heard the knob turning again. Following the grind and click of an old bar door it swung open. He was slightly leaning forward waiting for her to walk out. She finally did.
Her face had not lost its innocent charm but was now freckled with graceful womanhood. Her disproportionately beautiful eyes still shined from the perfect skin as she looked his way. Initially, they stood and simply gazed, examining each other’s reactions Her eyes swelled, brow raised, thin lips parted, and head dropped down to lean forward. He responded by crack a half-witted, closed-mouth smile, showing a dimple, and raising a brow. As her surprised look smoothed into a held back smile, her eyes relaxed and narrowed, her head pulled back with a light shake of the hair off her shoulders. She waited, ready to tango.
“Don’t I know you?” He dropped his bag leaning against the side of the table and crossing his arms.
“We may have met before.”
“Yeah that’s right, you’re that Laura girl. Didn’t you go out with that guy Robbie a ways back?”
“A loooooong ways back.”
“Are you sure you’re that same Laura? Because the one I knew wasn’t quite the woman I’m looking at now.”
“Well we all eventually grow up a bit,” There was a subtle sexuality in her response.
“So what brings you here,” she asked finally.
“Cheap drinks and strip-clubs.”
“You can’t get that in the states?”
“Not without judgment. Plus I have an addiction to chicken Shwerma so this is where I thrive.”
“Well I hope you found what you are looking for.” Her seductive smile changed to one of almost irritation but he didn’t believe it. He could see out of the corner of his eye one of her friends leaning out from behind the wall and assumed the other two to be doing the same. Paolo was pretending to serve the man who was asleep and Dick’s kids even began mopping the floor.
“I see you’ve become The Flash of using the bathroom. Or just don’t wash your hands.”
“Funny but they were out of toilet paper.” A mop hit the floor and followed by the patting of footsteps and Dick’s youngest hustled by hugging four rolls to his chest gazing up at the beautiful blond. Robbie laughed through his nose as she smiled at the child rubbing his head as he went by.
“You can’t beat the service here. Or the ham and cheese croissants which I highly recommend.”
“Thanks but I already ate.”
“Well then perhaps a drink? For you and the bridal party.”
“I see you haven’t lost interest in eves-dropping.”
“It’s a condition.”
“Well thank you but we better get going if we want to make it north today to the nicer beaches.” The conversation was closing but he needed more. He wanted more of her character and cursed himself for such juvenile comments.
“How long will you be here for?”
“Just tonight. We are flying to Greece tomorrow.” As she said this she turned to walk into the other room and her friends stood, pushed back their chairs and shifted through their purses.
“Look, I” He took down his glasses and let his eyes drop into a soft, natural gaze, “I know you are here with your friends and are getting married and all that. But if you wanted to catch up over some fish tacos, I’d like to hear about who you are now, and about what you’ve done this past few years. And if not fish tacos between old friends, at least a quick drink.” She drew in her breath and looked around thinking for a second and trying to read her friend’s faces for advice.
“Meet me at the Westin at nine. These tacos better be good though.” She turned with her dress fluttered and picked up her modest bag with a nod to her friends. They were sure to see Robbie’s face before exiting and he sarcastically waved back with an overly enthusiastic smile. He asked Dick for a Jack and Coke and sat down at the banister.
Rob coolly strolled across the blue, white, and black marble tile of the lobby reception desk inside the spacious San Julian Westin. He asked for her to be notified of his arrival. In the arm chair across the foyer next to the spinning glass entrance doors he picked up a travel magazine flipping through looking only at the pictures and headlines.
The assistant manager of dining services at the resort passed by and noticed him in the chair. As he approached and called out to him, Rob stood and calmly shook his hand as if they expected to see each other there:
“How’s business been? Congrats on the position.”
“Thanks Rob. It’s been good but should pick up real soon. We’re looking to have a good season though.” They discussed a lighthearted nothing for a less than a few minutes before Rob felt a body next to him.
“You’re actually on time.”
“Early in fact. ” He politely introduced the two strangers.
“Ricard is a good guy and as you can see, pretty good-lookin. You should set him up for a night with one of your friends. Not the jealous one though. She doesn’t deserve the satisfaction.” With a quick wink at Ricard, “So what is it, tits or ass?” Uncomfortable and not wanting to hear his response she pushed Rob by the shoulder towards the exit saying a gracious goodbye.
“They are under Cilinya if you want to send them a little something something”
“You’ll have some nice treats waiting for you when you return.”
He muttered a quick comment about the nature of her friend’s eating habits and selfish behavior and put his hand on the small of her back to escort her out. “See told you he’s a good guy.”
The walk from the Westin to The Avenue was less than ten minutes under the waning crescent moon that hung above them. It was missing the little guy sitting on the tip with a fishing pole dropped into the ocean. Despite this, the water shined and the boats waved in motion as they walked with a fair distance between them. Around the moon were scattered puffs of moonlight soaked clouds against a blackened sky scarce with stars. The road was empty and well lit but they walked on the sidewalk.
Their conversation began less momentously than their first. A typical discussion of the fairly obvious observations about the portion of the island she was staying in consumed a majority of the hopefully romantic stroll. It was a fair report on the cultural blend of the Middle East and Sicily, pebbly beaches, and endless souvenirs disclosing the sordid affairs which were common throughout the island.
“You walk slow.”
“I’m just not in a hurry.”
She wore a strapless white dress that reflected the light her tanned skin was could not absorb. He admired the lines of her collarbones, delicate shoulders, and top of her boobs that barely lent themselves recognition but could peer over the lacy white line. She wore turquoise spring selection heels by an unrecognizable designer to Rob and belongings of immediate importance held in a Marc Jacobs purse that had some form to it, not the usual nylon bag with leather straps. She had turquoise pendent earrings but left off the necklace not to distract from her torso. For this same reason she did not wear a bracelet for her plainly set engagement diamond. A quick ball-park landed the stone around six to eight thousand but he could have been fairly off. Her hair was now wavier than the loose curls earlier and pulled back with few inch bangs framing her infinitely pleasant face.
He had not shaved or showered but did rinse out his hair and change into a white v-neck with a well-fitting blue and grey flannel he left unbuttoned. The bottoms of his jeans were tucked under his heels on the worn leather sandals.
Upon arrival they chose an elevated table in the corner of the outdoor patio. It was away from the viewing area of the several televisions spread throughout the venue playing music-videos lacking any artistic integrity and soccer matches with the significance foreign to them both. To his left and her right was the walkway from the shopping mall, Hard Rock Cafe, and a few take out spots, to the main Paceville center of bars and clubs behind them. She looked past him to a woven reed decorated wall. Behind her was the rest of the restaurant. The white florescent bar with neon streams topped with a black marble counter was quickly accumulating patrons dressed with untucked oxford button-ups and seamless cocktail dresses.
“Hi Rob, It’s been a while.” Their busty Australian waitress Paula greeted them with menus, condiments, and a blatantly irritated attitude. Laura grinned at Rob and shook her head wondering about whether or not Rob would be keeling over after the meal.
“I know. Last time the manager suspended me from coming here for a month because I kept saying to the other guests how they should have a stricter dress code for the waitresses. Their cleavage was making me cross-eyed. He said it was for my own good.” Without a response to his comment she inquired about their drink orders.
“Chivas and coke for me and a Vodka tonic for the soon-to-be wife. Not mine of course.”
“I could have guessed that. Congratulations.”
Laura appreciated the gesture and decided on a glass of white-wine rather than Rob’s suggestion. The waitress left and Laura asked indirectly of the Maltese relationship assuming he did not call her after.
“I really thought she wanted to be mutually inexclusive. What were you saying about your father?”
She continue on about his father’s career for a few minutes and then went on to say how her mom was happy and well-over the empty nest syndrome with more details Rob didn’t really listen to. Talks of family no longer interested him.
“I’m sorry about what happened with your parents. I just couldn’t get out of a work trip to make it to the service.”
“Eh it happens. The card was very helpful.”
“I heard you gave a beautiful eulogy. That’s very brave of you.”
“I think it’s a bit cowardice not to when it’s your parents.”
“Some people just can’t do things like that.”
“Well either way my father fully cried and that’s no easy feat.”
“A crying man has become quite the spectacle these days. On second thought, public displays of any emotion other than contentment fit that statement.” She waited for him to say something she could mother him about looking into a devoid expression. His eyes followed the crowd back to her face, uncomfortable at the easy sympathy gazing back at him. An indifferent attempt to change the subject to the possibly harmful nature of their food led her to dwell on the topic.
“How’s your brother holding up with the loss?”
“He’s at school with plenty of distractions and was doing pretty well when I left.”
“Distractions don’t take care of the problem though.”
Rob went on to deflect her questions with innocuous answers about the nature of his relationship with his brother and friends. She struggled with each one exhaling frequently with skeptical expressions no longer smiling at his cynical irony and dry sarcasm. Despite leaving his lucrative job abruptly and fondling his inheritance and accumulated salary wadding through his interests to try to find an appropriate future path, he discussed Malta as just being a nice fit for now to get away from The States.
“You never were very open.”
“Maybe you just aren’t asking the right questions” The Aussie came back and they ordered a few tacos each. He ordered another drink and she declined only asking for water. Well this is going well. “What were we talking about?”
“The questions don’t matter if the answers are bullshit.”
“Look you don’t do shit when I possibly could use someone most when my parents go down like Bruce Wayne’s. You send me a fucking card that helps as much as my horoscope, and continue to cut me off from your life like an addiction. Then you stride in with an air of condescentment because I left the most virtueless environment I’ve ever been a part of, pretend to be interested, don’t really tell me much about your life either, and expect me to be open. I mean, fuck, I found out more from your shitty friends.”
“Bruce Wayne was seven.”
“At least he had Rachel.”
“I’m sorry for pointing it out but I don’t like being made out to be unobservant and just stupid like I couldn’t figure out something about you in the time we spent together. You said the right things when I needed to hear them but I knew it wasn’t truthful and if I tried calling you out all there was the defensive impudence. Lots of places have a great location, climate, nice people, and party spots, but we all just don’t up and leave their home in a moment when we lose those we love most. I know that’s not why you needed a break from America and I can see you in pain.”
“Well I’ll give you it, you were always observant to that.”
“I do miss you and am sorry for cutting you off. I had to though — you were my past and I needed the present. I was selfish for not being there and one of the main reasons I wanted to go out with you was to apologize. Okay? So I’m sorry, the card was shit, I was… For all we’d been through that was wrong. So I’m sorry. ”
“Fuck you Robbie.”
“Okay okay, thank you Laura. I know I didn’t think much of your situation during that time I was just a bit preoccupied with mine.”
“No, no. Please, don’t feel bad.”
“Yeah I didn’t.”
He took a long one from his fresh drink and looking inside towards the bar eyeing the shapely female crowd catching a few prospective glances. With a cold stare he came back to his former love. She was looking away, deep in contemplation. After a few silent moments besides the crowd’s resonance, without a word she reached in her bag for a few Euro’s to put on the table.
“I couldn’t have been happier than before I saw you today and I don’t need another minute alone with some asshole when I’m more than in love with the most wonderful man in the world. You need someone but not me and I cleared my conscious tonight and know this will dwell on yours. But frankly Robbie, I just don’t give a damn.”
She pushed out her chair and left without any objection from the visually indifferent American sitting with a lonely drink. The waitress came back with two plates of tacos.
“Can I get these to go?”
—written by Taylor Sanit in CW 350 Fiction Workshop, Fall 2010