“I love you.” He said it into the phone. He was talking to Stacy, Renata’s best friend. Renata was standing by the window, one arm raised, looking at her dark reflection and practicing Kodaly hand gestures. She heard the words. They moved past her and then were static on the cold glass, and it was almost as if she could see them there, before they were absorbed into her reflection. “I love you.”
She turned and stared at him. He had his cellphone in his hand and was pressing the button to end the call. His head was lowered. His shoulders shifted, tensing just a little. He glanced up to see if she had heard. “I don’t know why I said that,” he told her.
“You told her you love her.”
“I know. I don’t know why.” But there was fear in his eyes. He tried to smile. “I must have been thinking about you.” He slipped the cell phone into his jeans pocket. “She said she’ll meet us at Sunprint, for dinner.”
Sunprint was on State Street, a second floor cafe that had salads and small cold quiches with wheat crusts. Stacy was waiting for them when they arrived, sitting at the table by the window. She was wearing a flower-print skirt over black tights. Her legs were crossed and she was doing a crossword puzzle, bent far forward at the waist so that the line of her back and her head were almost parallel with the table top. She was chewing on a long red pencil.
They sat down and she didn’t look up. Renata sat very straight in her chair. Mitchell tried to put his arm around her, but she shied away. It was their silence that caught Stacy’s attention. She looked up from the crossword puzzle and met Renata’s gaze, and her long Scandinavian face stretched longer with surprise when she saw Renata’s hostility. She glanced at Mitchell. It was a guilty glance.
Maybe Mitchell didn’t sense it. Or maybe he was just good at dissembling. A master of disguise. He leaned back casually in his chair. “Give us a question,” he said.
“What?” Stacy asked.
“From the crossword. Give us a question.”
They were spared a question. The waitress came over. Renata ordered rose hip tea. She glanced at the dark window and saw them there, Mitchell between herself and the window, Stacy across from him. She leaned forward a little so that she could see herself in the glass. Her reflection seemed to emerge out of Mitchell’s, as if he was birthing it. Her head seemed to collide with Stacy’s, who was kitty corner from her, but the reflection didn’t seem to realize that.
“I have to throw up,” she said. The other diners at the other tables stared at her as she rushed past. A man even got up, solicitously, as if, somehow, he could help her. The bathroom was tiny and yellow and smelled of the jar of dried flowers that sat on a table beside the door. She knelt over the toilet and dry heaved. She was afraid that Stacy would follow her in. She listened for the rattle of the door handle.
When she emerged she didn’t go back to the table but straight down the stairs and into the night. It was mid-March, and still bitterly cold. She had left her coat in the restaurant. State Street was thronged with people, mostly students, passing her in groups, on their way to dinner. They stared at her as she walked by in her yellow sweater, her arms tight around her chest, her hands tucked under her armpits. Her own condensed breath fluttered against her face in gusts. You saw things on State Street. Drunk couples fondling each other. The homeless teenagers, who Mitchell jokingly called ‘street arabs,’ throwing things at each other and chasing each other around. Sometimes, people screamed late at night, falling to their knees on the sidewalk, drunk and anguished and free of inhibitions. She wanted to hear those screams. More, she wanted to hear Stacy and Mitchell following after her, calling to her. “Renata, where are you going?”
She arrived back at the apartment and went into the bedroom and crawled into the bed. She was shaking with cold and the heavy blue comforter smelled like Mitchell and couldn’t warm her. It lay, flat and flaccid against her, and it shifted rhythmically with her shaking, as it might if they were making love. And then she wondered. Had Stacy and Mitchell ever lain in this bed together? How long had he been saying those words to her? Every time he’d said them, he had made Renata’s life a little more illusory, without her knowing.
She heard the key in the lock and soft movements beside the door. She knew, just from the sound, that it was both of them. Sound had always been her ally and her friend. Organized into music, it was the meaning of her life. But now she heard the careful, guilty sounds of their footsteps, and she wanted to pierce her eardrums. Wasn’t she, of all people, supposed to be loved?
They came into the room. She had the comforter up over her head, and she imagined them as solicitous shadows. Only half real. Mitchell would be standing at the foot of the bed. Stacy would be in the doorway behind him. They wouldn’t touch each other because they wanted to be generous towards her. That was how they would say it to themselves. It was terrible that things had changed, but at least they could be loving, at least they could be generous. But she didn’t want their generosity. She said it out loud, and the words were small and stony and real. Those words were the only real thing in the dark room. “I don’t want your generosity,” she said. “I don’t want your guilty comfort.”
~This has been a flash fiction elaboration of Ascalon, Ohio #2, which you can read by clicking here.~