He looked up from his phone and stopped, his hand on the glass of the building’s door, cool at first, then, as he stood there, he felt the heat of the day pressing in or his own heat pushing out. He was trying to formulate something that didn’t entail walking right by her. He wouldn’t know what to say if there was anything to say. What was there to say? Why would he say anything? It had been at least two hours since he’d watched her leave Jenn’s office crying. Had she been sitting there with her legs tucked up under herself on the edge of the company parking lot since then?
He’d listened as Jenn and Leslie somehow saw the need to fill him in on the details of this woman Kim’s day. Something he felt he had no right to or need of, not in a bad way, like, he didn’t want to be burdened, but it was all so private and sad he felt unclean in his listening, trying not to judge his new coworkers too harshly—he’d worked in offices before.
That’s terrible, he’d said, which was met with faces that only seemed to register just how terrible it was when he gave voice to it. They’d both put on faces for the sad state of affairs that was Kim’s day, but he could feel and see an underlying baggage that had eaten away at the amount of empathy either woman could have for Kim. Small glances neither of them thought he could see. Long performative pauses that he could tell they were doing for him more than Kim. So he’d said it again, that’s really terrible. There then came a moment of silence before they explained that he’d gotten so ahead on his training that they weren’t going to know what to do with him, so they said he could go for the day, assuring him he’d get paid for a full day. There was an embarrassment in the air when Jenn told him, and it seemed a strange policy, but he wasn’t gonna argue.
Now he was looking at her, Kim, her shoulders slouched in a shimmery beige silk, a reverse silhouette against the asphalt of the parking lot. With her purse tucked up next to her thigh, it was like she was trying to hide inside of herself out there in the open. He looked at his phone, over two hours. He looked back at the door on the other side of the foyer, the one that led out into the atrium between buildings, the one that would let him escape walking right past her. He’d still have to walk past her, but he could keep his eyes on his shoes and let her wonder why he’d leave out that door and take the long way around, if she felt the need to wonder about such things. He could give her a head nod with his earphones in to make it less suspicious. It was doubtful she’d even recognize him as someone from the office. It was only his second week.
When he turned back to the door, she’d turned her head just enough to see him. There wasn’t any expression that he could see as she brushed some of her short dark hair back away from her forehead. She must have felt him looking, felt his presence there. She didn’t react in any way, simply turned back to looking at whatever oblivion she’d found in the parking lot.
He could feel the quiet coming off her as he pushed through the door. Anything other than right by her would result in an odd arc to his car, which was a straight shot past her on the other side of the lot. It would show his hand, it would be weird, it wouldn’t really be him, he thought, as he approached her quietness.
“You alright?” he asked, turning back halfway, already past her, already free to carry on with whatever pointless shit he could get up to for the rest of the day. “You need anything?” he followed up for what reason he didn’t know. He’d later admit that he knew he knew better than to think he could walk right past her, but in the moment it hadn’t stopped him from standing there with his earbud held a couple inches from his head, feeling like a total idiot.
She looked up at him for what stretched out into something he could feel in his stomach, squinting and finally lifting a hand to shade her eyes from the sun that must have been blazing down from over his shoulder. He stepped back to his right and watched her face darken and her hand slowly fall away from it. She smiled at him in that way that makes a person feel like they’re wearing all their naivety and smallness instead of a shirt.
”You the new guy?” she finally asked.
“Yeah,” he dropped the hand that was still holding the earbud and swung the other one at her without really thinking about it, “Gabriel.” He was batting zero on thinking anything through.
As she placed her own hand in his, a scent rose up from her—it smelled older than she was. She couldn’t have been older than her mid-thirties and the scent was the kind of floral that’s never been associated with any real life plant—flowery with sickness hiding somewhere underneath it. It tied into the story he’d been told and belied the smirk that was still on her face. He supposed it was better than her crying, for him at least.
“Kim,” she said.
“We met,” he didn’t know why he was correcting her.
“Oh, right,” she said. She looked away down the length of the parking lot and just as his stomach started to inform him of how much of a screw up he was, she smiled. Turning back to him, she said, “The zoo tour.”
“Sorry,” he was so caught off guard.
“These are the giraffes, Leslie, Mike and Courtney. These are the zebras, Jamil, Ed and so on.” She looked up at him as if she was saying, get it. “It’s the introduction without any real introduction. If anybody lasts long enough to make it through training, they’re more than likely gonna talk to what? Maybe a couple people. Like, actually talk.”
“And probably only the ones in their same phylum,” Gabriel said, looking off because she’d looked off again.
“Very good, Gabriel,” she said, shrinking him down to half size.
The sun was bouncing off the front of the building and up from the faded asphalt. Even though it was early afternoon the narrow parking lot that wrapped around the buildings had more empty spots than cars. Gabriel had noticed that not all the doors in the building had signs on them. The busy road just beyond hummed into a mild roar and fell away to just a hum again. When he looked back at her, she was still staring at the bouncing sunlight and empty spaces, but her hand had dropped from a newly moistened cheek. When she turned to look at him, the smirk was gone and a smile that admitted some small amount of embarrassment flashed across her face. He could feel her feeling stupid as she dropped her face away from him. He felt the burden of his maleness tugging at some center in him when she looked back up, another tear streaming. For some ungodly reason he thought about her being the most attractive woman in the office. She had squarish and straight features and a Roman nose that he’d always liked on women. A face he’d thought of as handsome.
“Sitting in a parking lot feeling stupid,” she said, almost sang. He wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or herself, so he stayed quiet.
She looked up again, the smirk making another appearance, the swing of facial expressions making him want to help this woman and at the same time making him wish he’d snuck around the side of the building or just not pulled out his earbud. Do you need anything? Are you ok? Can I be of assistance in regards to the death of your child that wasn’t even born? Just thought you should know I’m an idiot.
“I don’t know if you’re talking about you or me,” he said. Completely ignoring that his stupidity had only been discussed by himself in his own head. He felt himself blushing.
“Why do you feel stupid?” she asked.
She looked right through him at a tree on the other side of the parking lot.
“I just . . .” The ease in her face made him feel like he could say it, or maybe it was the smirk, “I’m asking you if you need help or whatever? Like, what am I gonna do?” The gap in their ages felt like it was gaining distance with every word that came out of his mouth.
She squinted one eye at him like she was really thinking about it, then turned again to look at something that wasn’t him. “Well,” she said, “I guess I could use a ride. I think the hubby is a no show.”
Damn, how sad does this get, he thought, looking down at her while she continued to look at something that wasn’t him. He had to assume, under the circumstances, that whoever her husband was, he was a real piece of shit. Had to be. Leaving his wife here like this, in a hot parking lot for however many hours. When she gave him the squint again, he realized he might have shown his hand about what he knew and she’d know exactly who told him.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Sure,” he added for some reason.
She waved him off with a hand, pulled her skirt toward her knees and looked even farther away from him than she had before, as though some new territory of the parking lot had just opened up. “Never mind,” came with a sad little chuckle. “My God,” she definitely said to herself.
“No, really, it’s cool.”
“Aren’t you just like going to lunch anyway or something?” This time she only half waved him off.
“They let me out early because I’m ahead on the training, I guess.” Something about her dismissal of him was bolstering, some weird dynamic that because he could leave he didn’t want to anymore. He wanted to give her a ride and maybe make her laugh or just, whatever, he thought. Trying not to think about how pretty she was.
She looked up at him as if boring down into what exactly his intentions were. It lasted long enough for him to think she was gonna figure it out. She finally held out both hands, her shoulders scrunching up next to her face, waiting for him to help.
He pulled her to her feet and stepped back when the momentum almost forced her into his arms. Ending up with a hand on each of her shoulders, still scrunched slightly, as if his touching—or anybody’s for that matter—was unwanted. He found himself helpless to do anything other than look her in the face. She didn’t shy away from this; she reached up and brushed her hair away from her forehead again and looked right back into his eyes, at whatever was directly behind them. Unapologetic about it. The type of unapologetic that can be confused with nothing to lose. A state of mind he would have understood her being in after what Jenn and Leslie had told him.
Like other women that had been introduced into his personal space, she looked different there, different than she had curled up into herself on the edge of the parking lot. Waiting.
“I’m right over here,” he said as he turned. In a rush all of a sudden, because he just couldn’t take those eyes anymore. He looked back to see her looking at something else, but she was still looking at him.
At the back of his car, which, for some reason—maybe because she was older than any woman he’d ever dated—he briefly thought of unlocking the passenger side door first, like one of those elderly couples you see where the only consolations the man supplies in the marriage are small and useless ones. He kept to his left and genuinely considered slapping himself to snap his brain out of it and settled for reminding himself that this wasn’t a date. What the hell was wrong with him? Was this simply because she was pretty and smirked at him and made him feel like a kid and looked into his eyes while she was inside his space. It was her space too. In fact, it was more her space than his. This was just a weekday afternoon for him and maybe it wasn’t one of those days you mark down in your life for her, but it might be. It certainly wasn’t a regular old weekday.
He fumbled keys, then fumbled handles. He was again enveloped in the misplaced bouquet coming off her as he got the key in the ignition. He felt entirely too self conscious about placing his hand on her head rest while backing up the car. She knowingly or unknowingly did him the favor of looking out her window the whole time it was there, turning with a sad half smile as he threw it into drive.
“So,” she said.
When it was clear she wasn’t going to follow up with anything, he said, “So,” and they both laughed a little.
They made it three blocks in silence. After the first block he thought too much about putting music on, then he thought too much about curating music for such a situation, then he thought not enough about putting on the radio and letting the fates decide. As he was thinking about it, her hand darted into his peripheral vision and clicked the big round knob that anyone would think was the way to power on his stereo.
After the second click he said, “It’s actually the little triangular one just up and to the left.”
This smaller, quicker click brought the jangly guitar and crooning vocals of decades and decades past. Strumming and singing about a sweet girl who was probably not of age, as men of the time were want to do. Fate had failed the two of them, clearly, but Kim didn’t seem to want to do anything about it. She must have been satisfied with its masking the quietness.
“I—“ he started.
“You—“ she said at the same time.
“Sorry,” they both said.
“You go,” he felt like he sounded twelve.
“I honestly don’t know what I was gonna say,” she said, “and I was only gonna say something because I couldn’t—and because the song, this terrible song. Just not doing the job I was hoping it would, ya know?”
He pressed the button for one of his presets and jangly acoustic transformed into smoothly strummed, lightly buzzy, electric, a baritone voice almost humming over the top of it, humming lyrics that Gabriel remembered thinking were profound in junior year.
“It’s ok,” she stopped his hand from moving on to the next preset. “It makes more sense at least, maybe, I don’t know.”
It was another block and a half before she asked him what he was going to say.
“I have no idea where I’m going,” he said, and her laugh made him feel somehow more stupid and less concerned.
“Neither do I,” she muttered to the window.
He didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. The car was moving at a reasonable speed. The world outside—strip malls, houses that used to exist on a less trafficked street, empty lots where people had given up on those houses and sold them to the ever consuming future of retail and condos with off street parking—moved by at a hypnotic pace, and Gabriel hoped there weren’t any red lights or stop signs in the near future. He felt he could get away with not responding for another small piece of the day, another stretch of not facing what she was facing. He could feel her building towards needing to talk about it, which he’d already escaped a couple of times. He could listen, he was a pretty good listener as things went, but he had no experience, no idea what to say when he wasn’t supposed to listen anymore. He glanced and she glanced at his glance and he smiled a dumb smile like they were somewhere other than in his car and they were people other than who they were and she smiled a cover up that allowed him to get away with looking at the road for another few blocks.
He finally had to ease up to a red light. The song was now more poppy and punky and not at all fitting whatever type of mood he was adjacently participating in. He kept his eyes just below a glare that was coming off the car opposite the intersection and noticed he could no longer register the scent that didn’t fit Kim. For a second he was amazed at the adaptability of his senses.
“If you have somewhere to be . . .” she started and didn’t finish.
“Not really,” he said without any way to avoid the awkwardness of two strangers in a small space doing everything they could to avoid the elephant. “I mean, is that, like, normal to send me home because I’m ‘too far ahead’ on my training?” He let his hands drop back down to the steering wheel after making air quotes.
“Yeah, I don’t know, maybe,” she told her window. Just as the light turned, she turned to him and said, “I found out today that I . . .”
He couldn’t look at where the choked off sentence came from, so he eased on the gas and tried to figure out how to live in this new experience.
He had to look to see if she really wanted an answer.
“They sure like to talk, don’t they?” she said. “I know who it was too—there is no such thing as confidence with that woman. She should come with a fucking warning. This cunt will tell everybody your business.”
He looked over to see her not looking and got caught looking.
“Maybe something a little more diplomatic for the handbook, but you get the gist,” she said.
“It was possibly the most uncomfortable I’ve been in a work situation,” he said, grabbing onto the thing they could both relate too. “I literally thought about crawling under my desk.” He glanced, smiling, and was struck by daggers being flashed back across the front seat of his car.
“Wow,” she said, the word almost as sharp as the stare, “that must have been so difficult for you.”
“I just . . .” he would have given anything for a place to hide. The slap on his shoulder came with a laugh that shook him out of his quiet castigation.
“Oh, my God,” she howled. “I’m sorry,” barely escaped through the laughter.
“Holy shit,” he said, a man barely eluding a train wreck.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, the laughter dying. She must have seen the look on his face. This time the hand landed on his forearm, the squeeze of it causing him to involuntarily squeeze the steering wheel in return. “I couldn’t not,” she said, the mirth not completely gone.
He had to sigh just to get to some semblance of a smile. Let her know he wasn’t humorless and clueless.
“It was worth it,” she said. “At least I’m not actually angry, right?” this got him a slug on the shoulder. “I mean I am—not at you—I’m kind of mortified, actually, but I can’t really handle that on top of the other shit, ya know? Anyway, it helped, thank you.”
“No problem,” he said.
They were stopped at another light, the buildings were getting closer together and climbing to greater heights. He realized his hands had been at ten and two more or less the whole drive, noticing not because he was looking right at them, but because he was tightening his grip due to an accumulation of sweat. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out in another ardent sigh.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
He looked over to see genuine concern and immediately felt like an even bigger asshole.
“Did I almost give you a panic attack? I almost gave you a fucking panic attack.” Her hand was on his forearm again, somehow doing the same thing it had the last time, only now conveying regret and empathy.
“I mean, maybe,” he said, smiling, trying to brush off another thought he was having about how beautiful she was. “But I think I’ll tough it out.”
“Good,” came with the same squeeze as last time, and when she looked away he kept looking. Unable to not think about how cool she was being about everything and how gorgeous she was and wondering if he’d just never experienced a woman before, like, a real woman who’s been through some shit and some life and not just a girl who has attended a couple of semesters and had a part-time job. That had to be it, but the realization did nothing to quell his total embarrassment and his rationalizing of this weird horniness that was more inappropriate than any horniness he’d ever had in his life. Was that even the right word? Was he witnessing vulnerability and not having any idea what to do with it other than to admire it? Was he so starved for intimacy that he . . .
“Green light,” she said, catching him mid-stare and deep in thought. She brushed that part of her hair off her forehead again and visibly shrank herself away from his gawking. Suddenly she was the girl with a couple of semesters and a part-time job that she’d once been. He was pretty sure he should feel bad about it, but it emboldened him, gave him ground to stand on.
He eased on the gas again.
“This is gonna sound stupid,” he said to the guy jaywalking half a block down the street, saying it in his playful, I-don’t-really-know-what-I’m-doing, tone. “But do you wanna get a drink? I mean, I could keep driving, but . . . never mind,” he told the silence and the silence engulfed the interior of the car as though he and it and her were all being spackled over.
“Why not,” she said.
He was allowed to breathe again, but not with any real relief. Her words were begrudging, not playful and giggly— they took away any sense of footing he’d just thought he had. Why would she be giggly? he wondered, sneaking a look out of his periphery and seeing the quiet again. Feeling it again. What an idiot, he thought for the umpteenth time.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I just—I have no clue what I’m doing here and now I’m sounding like I’m the victim again and—”
“Nobody’s the victim,” she said, quietly.
“You’re right, sorry. I don’t even know how to talk—”
“Then don’t.” If it had been said in any number of other ways it would have been hurtful or dismissive or angry, but it wasn’t. It was like the way some person who has spent a lot of time in a kitchen calmly puts a lid on a grease fire. She just put it out, it didn’t mean anything, she was simply stopping it from burning the place down.
She reached down and turned the radio up to a volume that didn’t endorse conversation and said, “Turn right up there at the gas station.”
They’d made it through the climbing stories of what passed for a downtown and were on the other side of it. Trees here weren’t readily available, and concrete was everywhere you looked, bouncing sunlight into everyone’s eyes. There were more gas stations than seemed necessary, separated by stacks of car dealerships with platoons of chrome and metal flake paint lined up in an orderly fashion, strip malls with at least one “For Lease” sign, and corner lots where capitalism wasn’t satisfied with just a fast food joint, but also required a drive-thru coffee place.
He drove in the second of four lanes and felt glad that the lights were no longer at every intersection but unfurled at lengths that could fit a full verse and chorus. He was almost thankful for the silence between them when the radio DJ started barking about the curiosity of the day involving the longevity of parrots. His hand bumped into hers at the radio dial.
He pulled back quicker than she did. “It’s all yours,” he said. Everything coming out of his mouth making him feel like a fool. He repeated, it’s all yours, several times in his head with increasingly mocking tones while she scanned through a commercial and other carnival barking DJs until finally they were back in silence. The quietness was radiating off her now. He felt trapped and felt stupid for feeling trapped.
Would it really hurt him to drive this poor woman around all day and not say anything? He had no idea what she was going through, not a clue. The closest he’d ever been was waiting in a parking lot for a couple of hours until his recently ex-girlfriend at the time was led by a nice older woman out to the car where he was given basic instructions that he knew were really for his ex-girlfriend and her roommate. The feeling of being told that he wasn’t wanted in the building and not given a reason why—she just needed a ride—was similar to the feeling he was feeling now with Kim. Most of what he understood about it was that he wasn’t required to understand and any feelings of hurt or whatever he might be having weren’t of any real significance. He’d texted Molly two days after giving her that ride and she never texted him back.
“The place with the mustachioed cowboy on the sign.” Kim pointed at a sign for Trigger’s Tavern. A cartoon that was mostly a mustache and cowboy hat held one of those large barrel shaped mugs that had three x’s on it.
“Is this, like, your spot?”
“No, I just see it sometimes.”
“And that’s the place?” Gabriel asked the absurdity of the sign and then conferred with his passenger.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Gabriel, but this ride has gotten to be a bit excruciating.” The light timbre in her voice didn’t make him feel so bad, and there was no disagreeing.
“Trigger’s Tavern it is,” he said, doing his best to lift the mood.
“Isn’t Trigger the horse, though?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” he said, “whose horse?” He was willing to cling to any subject that wasn’t the one.
“Oh,” she waved a hand in front of her face, “some movie cowboy guy or maybe he was a cowboy singer guy or both. Long before both our times.”
“Do we have separate times?” he said as he pulled into the nearly empty lot that looked as though all it had been doing for three decades was aging in the sun. He parked right in front of Trigger’s and looked at a handful of open spots to his left. The only other cars in the lot could be found in the rearview, clearly patronizing the nail salon with faded paint in its windows advertising the price of a mani, a pedi and a mani/pedi. Kim was out of the car without addressing his witless comment about their age difference.
“You coming, cowboy?” she said, popping her head back down in the open door.
“This is really weird,” he couldn’t stop himself from saying.
“Yup,” sounded like it was the same language as the car door closing a second later.
He sat and watched her not wait for him, pushing through the dried out wooden assemblage of a door. Thoughts of simply turning the key and leaving left his head as quickly as they intruded, and then he too was on the dark side of the door to Trigger’s Tavern. Neon signs for any domestic beer one could think of competed with a small set of three windows that ran high up on the wall opposite the bar and a small TV that was possibly older than Gabriel. The bar ran the length of the narrow place and had a mountainous bartender behind it watching the TV. The freshness of floor cleaner fought against the smell of stale beer.
Before he could locate where Kim had placed herself in the darkness, the paunchy behemoth held up his hand that was the size of Gabriel’s head and pantomimed holding something the size of a credit card or driver’s license, causing Gabriel to fish at his back pocket as though his pants were trying to run away. The action made him all too aware of how nervous he was and left him to wonder why.
He handed his ID to this sleepy faced man who could’ve constituted at least two of Gabriel and watched him not really look at his license. That it existed seemed to be enough.
“What’ll it be?” he said, handing it back across the bar.
“Uh,” he stalled, locating Kim at least partially because she gave a slight wave of her hand from the darkness of the booth in the very back corner. It was a wave that didn’t necessarily want to be seen. “I’ll have whatever she’s having,” he said, adding to the long list of things that made him feel like an idiot.
“She didn’t order anything,” the bartender grunted.
“Gimme one second,” Gabriel said. The bartender turned back to the silent baseball game that made Gabriel want to find a paper with the day’s date.
“He didn’t card me,” Kim said, eyeballing the behemoth, “ what do you think that’s about?” She turned the squint to Gabriel.
“No comment,” Gabriel said and waited and hoped that there’d be a smile meeting his joke.
“But we’re of the same time period?” she said, looking right through him again.
“So,” Gabriel looked away for a second and then back at her, like he was resetting the scene, “What’ll it be, Kim?” It sounded so formal, but he’d at least stopped himself from saying cowgirl.
“Bourbon, rocks, splash of water,” she told her interlaced fingers and the table. There was an apprehension that even a person like Gabriel in a dark place like Trigger’s Tavern could pick up on.
“We don’t have to—”
It’s ok, Kim mouthed at him. “Really,” she said after he didn’t move.
At the bar waiting for two bourbons—something decent, he’d said—on the rocks with a splash of water, Gabriel tried to recall the trajectory of the situation he found himself in. Tracing it all the way back, leaving him to wonder if both Jenn and Leslie saw the exchange in the parking lot that led to Kim getting in his car and the two of them driving away. Figuring that if one of them had seen it from a second floor office, she would surely convey their version of the story immediately to the other. He started to wonder what they might think of a darkened booth and two bourbons and was stopped by the barely separated clunks and tinkly rattles of two decent bourbons with ice and a splash of water being set down in front of him.
“Tough day at the office?” the bartender asked, looking from Kim, who looked at the table in front of her, to Gabriel, who looked at his wallet in front of him.
Gabriel dropped what he assumed would cover the drinks and a reasonable tip on the bar and only looked at the bartender long enough to say, “Something like that.”
Kim gave him one of those pained smiles, like a mother-in-law tasting her new relative’s potato salad that’s clearly not the correct recipe.
“So . . .” Gabriel said after his second sip and the third full, fidgety rotation of his glass.
“Ya don’t think about it,” Kim said, looking at the brick wall to her right as though it were an ocean view of a memory and then turning back to him, “but nobody thinks when they go in to find out what kind of baby’s inside them, they’re gonna find out it’s a dead one.”
It was a weight dropping on him that didn’t feel much like a metaphor. He felt it. Unable to pull his eyes away from hers because the weight made anything else dismissive. The reality of this woman’s day. To say nothing of why her husband left her sitting in a parking lot. He felt dressed down, like she’d read everyone of his thoughts since he stopped and pulled his earbud out. Testing to see if he still felt like fucking around now that he had to look right at the center of her reality.
“Still in there,” she said, pointing down below the table at her torso, just to make sure.
“That . . . must be awful,” he said, pretty sure he’d shrunk down to a one-eighth version of himself.
“Yup.” She took a bit more than a sip of her drink, “not great.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Gabriel asked after he’d looked at almost anything other than her and she’d looked at almost nothing other than him. Under such scrutiny, he’d had to work up the courage just to ask if he could ask something.
He wasn’t sure if it was the booze, going down at a much quicker clip than his own, or the atmosphere of the place, or maybe she’d just come to the actual end of her rope, but something was clearly loosening in Kim. For the fourteenth time that afternoon he thought of bailing. It seemed to be his go to when anything got the least bit uncomfortable, but it also seemed like the logical choice. What was he doing here, with this woman, in this situation? Was this charitable? Was it the objectively right thing to do? Maybe there was a reason Jenn and Leslie had treated such an ostensibly tragic situation with such flippancy. Maybe he was about to meet the person they knew.
“Why didn’t your husband pick you up?”
She blew a very long breath out between her lips, pressed her chin into her shoulder, and then turned her scrutinizing eyes back on him. Even giving him the squint there in the dimness of the bar before she opened her mouth. No words came out, just more scrutiny as she clapped her mouth shut and thought about what she was going to say to him. Finally, after another strong sip, she said, “Is that really the line of questioning you wanna go down, Gabriel?”
It appeared as though she’d tried to keep the disdain out of her voice and her eyes, but there was just too much to accomplish full discretion.
“I mean, no,” Gabriel felt no footing, “we don’t have to talk about anything. I just—”
“I . . .” he had nothing.
“You know what?”
He didn’t and was not about to admit as much out loud.
“I can’t speak for him—my husband—but sometimes—and you’re probably too young to have come up against such a thing—but sometimes, a thing is just too sad. It’s just too fucking, rip your guts out, twist whatever’s left up in a knot that doubles you over and makes you wonder how you move on from such a thing, sad. And I’ll tell ya,” she straightened up and shook her finger at him, “I was relieved when he didn’t come back. Pissed, sure, but relieved. The thought of the two of us just sitting silently in that cloud—no, like a soup—a thick fucking soup of misery and we’d look at each other across the cab of the truck and maybe the sadness we see there would make us reach out to the other person’s poor, pathetic hand and give it a sad, pathetic, little squeeze and it wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t. It would just make it worse. It would just turn a profound sadness—slowly, not quickly—into a pitiful sadness. A pitiful fucking sadness that’s gonna be hard to live with, ya know?”
“I don’t,” he muttered, as he watched her wipe away at the anger and sadness that spilled out of her eyes when she admitted her relief. Gabriel had to reach up and wipe away his own empathy and sadness, the air in the bar cooling the dampness left behind. What she’d said had pulled anything that might have been forming in his brain right down into the middle of him and put a stopper in his throat.
“Bet you’re glad they let you out early today of all days?” she said, her anger and sadness retreating rapidly into embarrassment. Letting herself get all worked up in front of some kid.
“Fuck them,” Gabriel said, performing the age old trick of releasing the fist that had a hold of your insides with a laugh.
She laughed too, to his relief. “Yeah,” she said, “fuck them. Fucking Jenn.”
She wiped under her eyes and finished her drink and smiled while he wondered if she’d already cried all her makeup off or if she’d even worn makeup in the first place. Stopping himself yet again from thinking about this woman, Kim’s, looks and how she was maybe more pretty than she had been all day after getting this little release of laughter. Stopping himself from thinking she was beautiful as if the semantics of such a thing had any baring on the situation or even mattered remotely because they were just stupid fucking thoughts in his stupid head—and she caught him staring again for the fourth or fifth or sixth time.
“You keep looking at me like that, Gabriel,” she said. Apparently they were done skirting around any and all subjects.
“Shit,” he said, stupefied, “I’m sorry. You’re . . .” he wasn’t ready to get to any real point.
“What?” she asked, her eyes an interrogation lamp again. “Hot, pretty, really attractive?” she added, when it was clear he wasn’t going to answer.
“It’s stupid and shitty, I know,” he said. He had to look at the ice in his glass while he said it. The interrogation lamp less hot and more quizzical when he managed to look back up. “It’s not like I’m, like, trying to do anything. But you are very pretty.”
“Would you have stopped and said anything if I wasn’t pretty? Let alone give me a ride, take me to a bar, buy me a drink?”
Gabriel couldn’t remember a time when he’d been on such a back foot. He’d been yelled at, accused of a variety of emotional shortcomings—he’d even had a coffee mug thrown at him once—and in those situations he always held onto himself as a decent person and deflected to intention and misinterpretation and whatever other justifications he found close at hand, but this was very nail on head. He wasn’t sure he was ready for such a confession and took too long to come up with a tactic.
He downed the melted ice and trace of whiskey in his glass and said, “I’m getting another, you want one?”
She placed a hand on his as he started to push himself up, “This round’s on me,” she said. “You think about an answer.” She stood at the table, looking down at him for a second, a physical manifestation of his feelings of smallness.. “You don’t owe me anything, but honesty would be nice for me right now. I don’t know why exactly.”
He stared at the puffy ribs making up the empty side of the booth opposite him. The best his mind could do was wonder if they were red or maroon. It was hard to tell in the vagueness of the bar’s light. She took long enough that he finally tried to fit some sequence of words into an actual answer. He didn’t look back when he heard her laugh with the bartender, and he didn’t look up when her hand placed what he guessed, based on the maraschino cherry, was an old fashioned on the table in front of him.
“The horse’s name was Trigger, but our bartender friend couldn’t provide the name of the cowboy, either,” she said.
Gabriel waited to see if she was going to say anything else. She didn’t, just sipped her old fashioned and waited.
“I’m sure you have a grasp of how men work,” he said. “I don’t imagine it would take much research to figure out the basics and a married woman like yourself—”
“You . . . are . . . stalling,” she sing-songed.
“Yes . . . I . . . am,” he echoed.
“Look, this is gonna be the absolute height of honesty for me, like, maybe more honest than I’ve been with anyone else ever.” He tinged it with a jokiness, but it wasn’t.
“Ooooh,” she said, leaning in for effect, making him nervous again even though she’d matched his tone.
“I saw you out there sitting in the parking lot, knowing what I knew, and immediately thought about leaving out the door that goes to atrium in between the buildings—”
“Courtyard, sure, and walking all the way around the buildings, head down, earbuds in, just a new guy, going to his car—”
“And I was directly in your path.”
“And you saw me.”
“And I saw you,” she echoed. She was amused, but in a way that wasn’t a two party system. “I felt you honestly. Creeping around back there,” she smiled.
“So I sucked it up and—”
“Walked right past the tragic lady.”
“I made it too,” he took a sip of his old fashioned and liked it and held it up to let her know. He was feeling a little bit more relaxed, “But it felt like a shitty thing to do to just walk by. I hadn’t really thought through the whole part where it would be an admission that I had all the details of your very private personal business. You just looked . . . and I couldn’t just walk by like you weren’t there.”
“Well that’s sweet of you, Gabriel. Now what about the other stuff? What about the original question?”
“You want me to say I find you attractive?”
“I thought we were doing the most absolute righteous truth the world has ever seen,” clearly mocking him at this point but she was keeping it playful, which made it cut a little less. “And what I want to know is, not whether you’re attracted to me, but whether or not that got us here, to Trigger’s Tavern, drinking surprisingly good old fashioneds?”
“Yes . . . it did.”
“And if I wasn’t so gorgeous,” she put a lot on the word, “would we have ended up here?”
“Probably not. I don’t know, maybe. No,” he scrambled. “But I wouldn’t have just walked past whoever, Jenn say, if she was sitting in a parking lot and I’d just found out she was going through something terrible.”
“But your first instinct was to run in the other direction?”
“Yeah, but when presented with the option, I chose to ask how you were doing?”
“Ok, but that’s the point, right?”
“What is? That I’m a terrible person?”
“Not so much, but when presented with the knowledge that I went into have a sonogram where they tell you if you’re having a boy or a girl, to find out if said boy or girl is looking healthy at such an early stage of the pregnancy and the main thing they told me was not that it was a boy or girl—girl by the way—” her voice cracked away from the playful version she was attempting, she held a hand up to her mouth and looked at anything other than him for a second. After a deep breath she continued, “and the important thing they share with me is that it’s dead. You have this knowledge and your mind can actually wander into the territory of what it would be like to fuck this sad, pretty lady?”
“Ok,” he said, the moment of clarity was like a weighted vest that cinched around him. “Maybe I am a terrible person.”
Kim didn’t appear to even hear what he’d said as she threw back the flap on her purse and started digging. Before she pulled it out, Gabriel heard the distinct buzz. For the first time realizing how quiet the bar actually was.
“Hey,” she said into the phone, looking at some space to the left of him. There was sadness and forgiveness and concern and an almost unmeasurable amount of trepidation in her voice.
He watched her listen and felt like he shouldn’t when another tear pooled at the bottom of one eye and she cupped a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone.
“I know,” she said, listening some more and turning away from him another couple of degrees.
When she said, “You left me in a fucking parking lot,” he felt that was his cue to leave.
He made enough of a fuss with his body to remind her that he was still there, and when she looked over the phone at him he pointed a thumb at his chest and then vaguely in the direction of the door, mouthing the words, Should I go?
Still listening to her husband, she dipped the bottom of the phone and mouthed the words, I’m so sorry. Still in this moment feeling the need to let him know that it was about working out her marriage and not about him being a terrible person. He threw his hands up as if to say, no worries. She held up a hand, conveying both a goodbye and another apology.
When he got to the door, he looked back to see that he was no longer a part of her world. He pushed through the door and out into the sunlight that hadn’t stopped its bouncing around. He squinted and narrowly avoided a sneeze as he took the half-dozen steps to his car. He sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, looking at the steering wheel between his hands, part of him wondering if she’d come out, part of him wondering if they’d ever share more than a hello again.
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