A short story by Chuck Waldron
Many, if not most, life-moments are brief and very personal, based on emotions that accumulate volume slowly, like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet.
“You decide.” Squinting, Tom wiped his glasses with a napkin and returned them to his nose, placing them with precision. He looked through them at a private something while Peg hovered on the edge of his vision, her words lurking off to the side as well.
“We always make important decisions together. After nine years you’re now saying it’s my choice. Is that it Tom?”
He turned away – as if to signal for the check – and didn’t answer.
“Damn it, Tom. Name one important decision . . .”
He felt the toe of her shoe tug against the back of his leg. He knew it was her way of pulling him back into the conversation.
“Tom, as long as we have been a together, name one important decision made, we haven’t discussed?”
He pretended to consider her question.
“I can’t Peg. You’re never wrong about things like that.” He leaned back, savoring the barely disguised contempt.
Tom looked past his wife’s shoulder, joining eyes with another woman. He blushed when his gaze was returned; with a sly smile added as emphasis. A smirk flickered as his eyes turned away from her smile toward the direction of the music. The lounge was crowded with other conversations as transitional chords on a piano broke the silence at their table.
Over the music, a roomful of talking created a symphony of sound as cocktails were ordered, lovers leaned heads together to whisper secrets, someone laughing at a joke.
The soft music and other voices retreated when Peg made her demand clear. “At least you can act civil. You’ve made yourself very clear tonight, looking everywhere except at me. Does it make you that fuc ─.”
Finally, she substituted, “uncomfortable?”
He looked at Peg, knowing she would have preferred using the “F” word.
That’s why it just isn’t the same anymore. She’s grown too fond of conformity. When did that change?
Tom concealed his panic when he realized she was razors-edge-close to her emotional edge, exposing her feelings. When he heard her hesitate, he knew tears would soon follow.
“I’m just keyed up,” the best he could manage. “Work, you know . . . nothing to do with us, really . . . look, you have my full attention.”
He realized words were inadequate, seeing tears and watching her head turning away from the other tables. City lights, far below, reflected in her tears which now looked like multi-colored jewels adorning her cheeks.
“I know how you think it’s unseemly to cry in public,” offering his napkin – the words conveying precious little sympathy.
He watched Peg bite her lips together, sucking the lower lip hard against her teeth; dark lines of make-up gradually replaced by new tears. He knew the look. It was like three red flags on a flagstaff at the beach, displayed in signaling a hurricane warning.
“Fuck you, Tom,” leaning closer, “and fuck your condescending attitude.” The quiet way she said that put an exclamation point to her words. She placed her meticulously folded napkin on the table, stood, and walked away. She didn’t look back.
He admired her deportment, knowing how angry she was. He understood her need for control; no public displays of feelings, ever.
Always so damned civil – in public, knowing it could be so different in private.
Tom watched her thread through the congested gaiety gathered round the piano as she headed towards the women’s room. He knew she would use her time in that place to wrap dignity around her like the folds of a comforter, emerging as if nothing had ever happened.
My arms used to be comfort enough. Tom was not at ease with that thought. He tried to remember when he had changed, why he no longer offered a hug. She’s right; I am a condescending . . . bastard. Yes, that’s the accurate word for me. What happened to me, to us? We greeted each day with serendipity –
He stopped. Such thinking was making Tom uncomfortable.
He allowed a half smile to form behind closed eyes, remembering once telling her that life was a tragedy to those who feel, and comedy to those who think. He recalled her response, calling him a bumper-sticker philosopher.
Waiting for her return he felt the lapel of his jacket, taking pleasure in the expense and status the suit stood for. He no longer needed to flaunt his Rolex, but he always knew when someone’s eye was drawn to it. The tailored suit, expensive watch, and school ring, once enough for him in making his status known, no longer seemed enough.
Tom knew he held much back from Peg, and others. But as Peg walked back toward the table he was about to find she knew him better than he realized.
She sat without a word and smiled without smiling. He couldn’t read the hardness setting in behind her eyes. He failed to understand that she replaced vulnerability with steely determination. Tom could only see the smile that wasn’t a smile.
“Truce?” he offered.
The chill of the detachment embedded in those words caused him to shiver, and failing to grasp their coldness, found it safer to complain instead about the air-conditioning.
“They keep it so damned cold in here.”
“Tom, it’s over.” It was not a question.
“We’ve been through this before, Peg. You get mad, I retreat, you say it’s over, and I admit defeat”. He hadn’t meant it to come out sounding sarcastic.
He thought back to their abbreviated attempt at counseling. The therapist asked them if sarcasm was a pattern in their communication. Tom had said, “Yeah, it’s her style somewhat . . . Mostly,” instantly regretting the words that day. He remembered trying a laugh to camouflage his intent, it didn’t work.
Peg sat for a moment, tugging a sleeve, and said, “You like to say life’s a tragedy to those who feel. You haven’t heard me, what I’ve tried to tell you, Tom, about my feelings. Well, I feel remarkably tragic tonight. Or are you laughing at this as if it’s a comedy now, Tom?”
He ran his finger under his shirt collar, it felt like a noose. He never realized how tight-fitting his shirt was, until now. The conversation was slipping out of his control, and he didn’t know how to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
“No, I’m not laughing at this as comedy. I’m laughing at me, actually.” His words didn’t feel adequate somehow.
“Come on, Tom, humility doesn’t become you. Your feelings are as tailor-made as your suits.”
He stopped . . . About to say something, and watched as she lit a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked in years. Fearing the outrage from patrons, he looked around the lounge. He watched her wave the match flame out, dropping the matchstick into a small dish. “I’ve decided Tom,” a look crossed her face he couldn’t decipher.
“Why now? I know how hard it was for you to . . . quit . . . smoking”, was all he could manage as he waved the smoke away from his face.
Neither could suppress a smile when the piano player began his rendition of “Feelings“.
“He’s playing my theme song,” she breathed out noisily.
“Peg, I have feelings too.” It was almost a plea.
“He’ll play your theme song next, Tom, Send in the Clowns.” Her laugh was loud enough that a man at the next table turned to stare, sharing his annoyance.
I haven’t heard her laugh like that since . . . since . . . since she quit smoking. He let his breath out in a long, controlled puff, listening to her laugh deepen until she started to snort . . . Right here in public.
Tom signaled for the tab. As he carefully scanned the details, making sure he wasn’t overcharged, he turned his attention away from Peg. He placed cash, with a decent tip, in the leather packet, stood and helped Peg from her chair.
She leaned her head on his shoulder as they walked to the exit, her long, red hair draped over the shoulder of his expensive suit, leaving a suggestion of dandruff. As they stepped into the waiting elevator, they did what had worked for them for over nine years.
They put the conversation on pause . . . Until the next time.
Dynamic author of 4 thrillers. Unapologetic wordsmith. Friend to fictional characters.