They sat across from each other at a center table for two in the dimly lit restaurant. The room was filled with the lively buzz of muffled conversations, and the clinking of china and crystal resounded like bells against soft romantic violin music.
It seemed to Colleen they had been sitting there for hours and she grew increasingly impatient, tapping her nails on the table, waiting for the next words to be spoken. Much less enthusiastic about their rendezvous, she glared virulently at Bill her icy stare daring him to break the lengthening silence. Fidgeting uncomfortably in the white button down blouse she had carelessly tucked into a plain gray wool skirt, she pulled harshly at its collar wishing she could have worn something more feminine and cheerful. Despite her youth, her appearance was matronly; her hair, the color and texture of fraying jute, was twisted into a loose braid that fell limply down her back. Her olive complected skin was ashen as though the sun had never warmed her face and her angry eyes, lost and vacant, seemed to search for a life outside her own.
Bill calmly ignored Colleenís stare and busied himself buttering a slice of warm bread. His rolled up shirt sleeves exposed the fine reddish hair that dusted his ruddy freckled skin; his slightly loosened tie hid the undone top button providing comfort without looking disheveled. Judging from their expressions, to the casual observer, the pair may have come from an unsuccessful business meeting or even a funeral. Regardless of his aloofness to her obvious displeasure, the occasion was a planned dinner date for the two lovers and the night was meant to be full of purpose.
Bill sat in defeat after Colleen, rebuffing his touch, pulled her hands out of his reach and rested them in her lap. Absentmindedly, he scratched at the tablecloth with his fingernail, watching as little breadcrumbs skittered in all directions. Colleen intensified her condemning stare, disgusted by the pathetic look of rejection on his face. That lost little boy look had once been endearing to her. On Bill, it was a bothersome attempt at regaining her approval. But the more she learned and the longer she was with him, in spite of how she wished to be out of this relationship, she found herself bound to Bill.
He continued the scratching until Colleen couldnít take it one second longer. "Will you stop that!" she hissed, pounding both fists on the table, overturning a glass of water which Bill quickly sopped up with his napkin.
"How long can we continue this charade?" Colleen asked, after the mess was cleaned up, her words an icy cutting knife.
"What do you mean?" Bill asked.
"This!" she spat, with a deliberate sweep of her hand that seemed more like it was intended to slap the face of the entire world. She made this motion when she was angry, which lately was more often than not. It came to her gradually, like a sickness eating away at her. She never remembered being this angry before. She had never really felt a reason to be.
This was another of those eruptive voids she treasured. It was during these lucid moments, when being able to think clearly, she longed for that one thing hidden from her. Covered up so well, it was as though it had never existedĖher past. Having learned the truth about it long ago, the search for it plagued Colleenís mind. As her life moved forward, the more impossible it was to hold on to her memories and those revered and cherished moments began to cloud over as if they never occurred.
She held fast and became familiar with these voids and learned to appreciate them. When they came she forgot about her present life and focused on happier times. Inexplicably, when they went away, she once again plunged into an aimless place, moving about as if directed by unseen hands.
That was all about to change. She would hold onto that learned truth and, working it to her purpose, Colleen would stay in control and seek her revenge. Just when and where the opportunity she could take advantage of would present itself, were the questions.
Bill was stunned. He knew it had been a bit on the rough side, this relationship, but up until this moment, he wasnít aware of how severely she felt.
"What about Michael?" he asked.
"Oh Michael! Michael! Is that all you care about? Doesnít it ever bother you the way he manipulates us?"
"Manipulate is such a harsh word, isnít it? And besides, heís the one who brought us together."
"So, we owe him to be miserable?"
Bill sat silent for a moment, bracing himself for another one of Colleenís rampages. From the look on her face, the way her lips became thin and her jaw clenched, this one promised to be intense. She just sat there, staring at him, hating him. Hated the way he parted his hair. Hated his freckled face; it was like something a bee crapped all over. The way he hung on her every word irritated her. But most of all, she hated how he allowed his life to be dictated to him and how he thought she should accept the same for herself.
This should never have happened. They had been good friends not so long ago and through a despicable twist of fate, without her even realizing it, he had insinuated himself into her life as something more and into a place where there should have been no room for another. Sheíd seen it slowly happening and was helpless to stop it. She hated herself for that. And she hated him, for letting himself be a part of it. Now, as what was becoming the end to the life that had once felt so safe and secure and its hope and dreams faded into nothingness; a new course obscured all she desperately held onto.
"You havenít answered my question," she hissed and slapped the table again. "Doesnít he see how wrong we are for each other?"
"Thatís your opinion. I thought up to now we were having a great time."
"You call this a good time? Itís only because Michael wants you to think that way. Itís almost like he controls us, pulling our strings, like puppets, making us say things. You canít say Ďnoí to him. He comes up with an idea and boom! There we are. And invariably, like all good Ďmatchmakersí", she condescended, hooking quotation marks with her fingers to punctuate the absurdity of the word, "if thatís what you want to call him. He leaves us to ourselves with nothing to say."
"It sounds like youíve got plenty to say."
"You know what I mean. And Iím not talking to you anyway. Iím complaining. And you just happen to be listening."
"But why do you have to be so negative about everything?" Billís eyes drooped with sadness and disappointment at this outburst unfolding before him. No one else in the room seemed to even notice as her voice grew louder and her gestures more animated. It was as if all the patrons and wait staff were in suspended animation, not noticing or caring about the commotion going on at the center table and Colleen and Bill were the only players amid painted cardboard characters and the restaurant just an ill-lit abandoned movie set.
"What is there to be positive about? What do I have to be happy about? Ever since..."
"Donít!" Bill snapped back, cutting off her words, knowing what was coming and for a moment, she was taken aback. "Whatís the sense of bringing that up now? Thereís nothing you can do to change it, so just forget about it." His tone had turned gruff and determined, something sheíd never heard from him before. Maybe he did have a backbone after all.
Michael returned and just as he sat, from the opposite end of the room, somewhere near the kitchen, a sudden crash of dishes stunned the place into a momentary silence. Like a long-idle cold engine, the joyous delirium from earlier slowly resumed, mixed with a few obvious snickers and jeers at the dish incident and concerned stares at the klutzy busboy being reprimanded by the maitreíd. At least Bill was happy for the interruptive commotion and that he and Colleen were no longer like cardboard cutouts amid an artificial background.
"Yes, a drive after dinner would be lovely," Colleen said, finally, once the mood was returned to normal.
Bill smiled, pleased. "Thereís a great view from the overlook and if we hurry, there will still be enough light to see the city in silhouette." Bill motioned for the waiter, paid the check and minutes later they were maneuvering out of the crowded parking lot and on their way to the overlook.
The towering skyscrapers, office buildings, apartments and factory smoke stacks in that distant separate world below were like fingers grasping at the last light of day, trying desperately to discourage the fading warm rosy orange from dissolving into the cooling purples and blues and black, as the lights from their distant windows twinkled and danced to the rythm of the city below.
The darkening sky blinked its starry eyes to life to oversee the night and the cool breeze blew tender kisses through the air. Bill wrapped his sport coat around Colleenís shoulders to warm the sudden chill and held her to him. The moment seemed like both, a beginning and an end. Colleen sensed what was coming next. She could almost guess the next words; words she dreaded hearing but knew she could not control. With an overpowering stab to the heart, there they were, "Colleen, will you marry me?"
She looked up at him and gazed into eyes that were filled with love and desire. A smile came curiously easy to her because deep down, she could feel a tempest of hatred toward this man, yet was powerless to let it surface now. Instead, helplessly, she drew closer and closer to Bill.
A tear of unimaginable happiness fell down her cheek as they embraced. For this one moment, she wanted to be nowhere else. His warmth chased her chills away. They lingered there long after the last streak of orange faded from the sky and they stood engulfed in the breeze, the distant pulse of the city and the chorus of crickets.
"So when will you be here?" Roger asked into the phone, dragging his cold beer bottle across his sweaty forehead.
" Iíll be there in time for your birthday, donít worry," answered the voice on the other end. "Itís the big one! The big 3-0! Itís cause for celebration. Afer all, itís not everyday a guyís kid brother turns 30. Youíre catching up to me, at last. Got anything special in mind, how you want to celebrate when I get out there?"
"No, not really. I havenít given it much thought. Been too busy with work and stuff to think about it."
"Good. Then donít make plans. I have something thatíll keep you busy."
"What is it?" Roger eagerly asked.
"Itís a surprise. Something I think youíll get a kick out of."
"Not even a hint?"
"Not even a hint. All I can say is it took a lot out of me to plan for it, so I hope you appreciate it."
"Plan for it," he mumbled to himself. " Hmm. Are we going someplace? Is that why I needed the week off from work? Camping? Fishing? Antiquing?"
"Antiquing?" his brother scoffed. "Where the hellíd you come up with that one? Donít ask questions, little brother. Just trust me. I know whatís good for you. This is gonna be a sort of a celebration for both of us." And after a drag of his cigarette, " So, tell me, whatís been going on with you since the last time I talked to you? Howís your love life?"
"A couple of dates here and there. Nothing serious. Not much new otherwise. You know how it is here. Nothing much changes." Roger took a long drag from his cigarette. "My air conditioner went on the fritz and itís hot as hell in here. Iím sitting here naked in a pool of my own sweat in front of the fan watching TV," he offered matter-of-factly.
"Thatís an unnecessary visual. It doesnít surprise me though, but donít use the heat for an excuse." From the time Roger discovered he could reach that far, heíd constantly be freeing himself from his diaper. And when he was able to walk, many times he would appear with his diaper in his hand. As a teenager, he would think nothing of sitting in his underwear in the living room, in front of his parents watching TV. Thankfully, he showed some decorum if they had guests, like his grandparents. Then, of course there was that time when he turned eighteen and he and a group of his friends decided to celebrate with a throwback to the streaking craze of the 70's. Luckily, they didnít get caught. Not that it would have made much of a difference to him. Being naked came just as naturally to Roger as breathing. "So, whatís the matter with the air conditioner?"
"Needs a shot of Freon or some shit like that. Maybe I should just get a new one," and he took another long pull from his beer.
"Why donít you?"
"With what? My looks?"
"Sure. Everyone says you look just like me. And Iím a handsome so and so, if I do say so myself. You could go places with our looks."
"Yeah, to the poor house, no doubt!"
"Not nice, little brother."
"Speaking of the poor house, howís the new one shaping up?"
"Fine. Itís almost done as a matter of fact. Iím just doing some cleaning up and fine tuning since I have a deadline looming over me and thereís a little pressure, but otherwise itís going well. And what about you?"
Roger always admired his brotherís writing skills. With two successful novels under his belt, he had earned the respect of the writing community, especially after his second novel uncommonly remained on the best seller list for over a year. Although second novels were generally fodder for most criticsí poison pens; whether as initiative for the would be successful author to strive for better work, or to humble him after such an overwhelming successful first attempt. However, the cocky self-assured author had decided to tempt fate and scoffing at such a concept, went ahead with his idea. His second novel was a comedic take on the trials and tribulations of the mechanics behind the coming together of his first novel from the idea first popping into his head to that nerve-wracking meeting with the publishers. The anecdotal fictionalized account illustrated how the first book came together; the bouncing of ideas off family and friends, the selected preview readings by certain people, the endless rewrites, tears and declarations of throwing in the towel. It was a daring, self-serving topic from such a green author, but he took a chance on the overwhelming success of his first book. It obviously paid off, because his audience grew and sales skyrocketed. The criticsí reviews were mixed, but they were unexpectedly mostly favorable. Those who read his debut into the literary world clamored for more of his work, and those, who by chance read his latest, went back to read his original book.
Over the years, Roger himself had made several attempts at writing. The self-assuring thrill of penning the winning entry in an essay contest in high school coursed through him from time to time. On those occasions when boredom and dissatisfaction with his job as a short order cook at the local roadside diner, were overwhelming, he would dust off his notebook determined to pen the great American novel. His writing sessions usually began and ended with doodlings of exaggerated female anatomy or lightning bolts or anything else far unrelated to intelligible writing, and those ended up in crumpled heaps on the floor. He never felt on par with his brother and so let the artistry fall on more experienced shoulders. When it came to the written word, his lot in life was to be an admirer, not one to be admired.
"And what about me, what?"
"Your writing. Or is it still just a collection of gargantuan boobs?"
"You know Iím not worth shit where my writing is concerned."
"Well, I think youíre underestimating yourself. You always have. Iíve seen some of the things youíve written. I think you..." He trailed off, sensing Rogerís displeasure of the topic and turned the conversation away from books and boobs. "So, how are mom and dad? I havenít talked to them in a while."
"Does ĎThe next time you talk to your brother, ask him if his fingers are broken!í answer your question?"
"Ah, yes. Same old mom and dad. It hasnít been that long since I talked to them. I guess I should give them a call."
"Yeah, would you?"
"Let me go," Colleen demanded and pushed herself away from Bill.
"Whatís the matter now?" The sudden change in Colleen, though unwarranted was not unexpected and Bill needed to be more and more on the defensive with each passing day of their increasingly volatile relationship.
"Oh stop it, will you! Canít you get it through your head? I donít love you. I donít even like you." She waited for his response, but he was once again stunned, at this mercurial turn, to offer a comment. All he could see was the venomous glint in her eyes and how odd, he thought, he had that same detached feeling as in the restaurant; even the crickets had ceased their symphony. "Well?" she went on, "canít you say something? Anything?! Donít you have a mind of your own? Is Michael always going to control the rest of your life?"
"What have you got against Michael?" came Billís answer in his calm way.
"I donít like this hold he has over us."
Bill gave a little chuckle. "I donít really think there is anything you can do about it. You know what our circumstances are."
She stared with contempt, an icy death knell of a stare, carefully considering her choice of words, but Bill continued his questions before she had a chance to speak.
"Now who canít say anything?" Bill challenged with a smirk, watching her pace nervously about.
"Thereís got to be a way out of this. There just has to be," she kept repeating, pounding her fist against her forehead, absent-mindedly as if trying to arouse a dormant, previously well concocted plan.
"I think your chances are pretty slim," he answered with a self-assured tone.
"Donít be so damned cocky. Iíll figure a way out and leave you and that bastard Michael to pick up the pieces." As his confident manner challenged her, she just stood, shaking from anger, daring him to say the next word.
"Yeah, okay, Roger. I have to get going. I"ll see you in a couple of days. Goodnight."
"Good night, big brother."
The cricketsí song slowly filled the air again and the city lights danced once again in the distance far below them and Bill sensed the world around him coming back into focus. He reached for Colleen and pulled her into his arms once again.
"Itís getting late, Bill," Colleen whispered so as not to disturb their surroundings, "perhaps we should head for home." Colleen never thought sheíd be this happy again and all along the ride home, neither of them spoke. Neither had to. The comfort of each otherís company was enough.
They arrived home and Bill poured a brandy for each of them as a nightcap.
"Itís been a wonderful evening," he said, handing her the glass and they clinked a toast to each other. And Bill subconsciously breathed a sigh of relief that her acceptance, finally, would soon remedy his situation.
Michael put down his fork and wiped his mouth. He took one last sip of his drink and pressed his hand against his churning stomach. There was a bit of burning discomfort that happened when his meal time was interrupted, when he couldnít concentrate on chewing his food properly. "I have to quit doing this while Iím eating. It upsets my stomach too much. Maybe I should just get some sleep."
Colleen pulled away from Bill when he reached for her hand to lead them upstairs to bed. "You know, I think Iíve just about had it with you. When are you going to face facts? This is the way it is!" Billís manner had turned uncharacteristically agitated. "Just how do you think you can get out of this?" he challenged.
Colleen didnít answer for a few moments. She only stood across the room from him, meeting his challenging stare. "Iíve been giving this a lot of thought," she finally hissed. "Unlike you, Iíve been paying attention to whatís been going on around here. Youíre so damned busy living Michaelís life you havenít taken time to notice. You canít even think for yourself. You just sit by and let Michael dictate to you what he wants you to do. Itís like, itís his way or the highway. Well, Iím taking the highway.
"Iím the one heís been manipulating in all this and Iíve had enough of it. I donít think he realizes just what I know. I know he hasnít covered all his bases and there is a way out of this. And Iím taking advantage of it."
While her rampage continued, Bill just stood calmly with his arms folded across his chest, giving audience to what sounded like maniacal ranting and a indulging smirk came over his face, but for a moment, he wondered if perhaps what she was saying was true. Could there be a way out? Was there something she saw that he didnít? Did he fool himself into loving Colleen for Michael?
But his reverie was quickly interrupted as she continued on. "Iíve never loved you. I donít even like you. I donít know what Michael was thinking. I donít know what you were thinking...or what you even think...or if you can think. You just always seem to be waiting. Waiting for the next word to say. Michaelís words! Or the next move to make. Michaelís moves! I am so sick of Michael. And you! Sick to death!" She turned toward the door once again.
"Donít do that!" Bill barked, surprising her and for a fleeting moment she smiled.
"Now you stand up to me? Is this what itís going to take? Nice try." And she turned the knob.
"You canít leave," Bill said in desperation. How did everything suddenly get so out of control? "Michael will only bring you back. So you might as well just stay and save a whole lot of trouble."
Colleen turned to face Bill once again, her hand still poised on the doorknob, Billís truthful words falling on her like a sledgehammer. She knew it would be impossible to do anything right now. She had to wait. And she had a plan. "Alright," she conceded, "let me let you in on a little secret. I know exactly whatís going on here. I know why weíre together. You didnít know that, did you? Did you think I would have gone along with this willingly? Iíve been observing, watching his every move. But he doesnít know that. I wonít say how I know, or what I know, but I will tell you I know for sure that my chance is coming soon. And Iím going to take advantage of it. This big plan of yours, I assure you, will never get off the ground."
She knew it was a risk, divulging even that little vague crumb of information, but she was that confident that she alone could take control of this situation and make it right. She had the fight in her and was up for the challenge. She thought back for a moment to all the events that had led her to this moment. Of the nightmare that interrupted her happy dreams and continued to control her life. The detour she was forced to take was not of her choosing and matters had been out of her hands.
And she went along grudgingly with what was dished out, always careful not to let slip anything that she had learned. The road was longer than she anticipated. She played her life over and over in her head and as time went on, that life seemed to belong to someone else. A new existence was dawning into the dusky memories of the past that was taken from her. But she waited and her patience gave her the strength to go on and kept her focused on her final goal.
It was so difficult at times, almost impossible really, to contain her rage over her circumstances. Ultimately, she held only one person accountable. As the chapters of a new and strange and unwanted life unfolded her anger was less and less controllable.
And there was Bill. He, too was a pawn, however insincere, in this vicious game. He had a greater goal, an ambitious victory to achieve and Colleen was an instrument in his game. But she couldnít think of that now. She had a promise to fulfill and longed for the opportunity to do so soon. Sheíd regain that lost dream and live with it through all eternity. So, for now, she relented, perhaps to ease this unwitting puppet away from any suspicions he may be feeling. She retreated from her threat to leave and stood face to face with Bill once again.
"Thatís better!" Bill said.
"Youíre hopeless," Colleen sneered.
"Where would you have gone anyway? You know you really canít go anywhere. Neither of us can, really," Bill said lightly, almost victoriously.
"What do you mean, neither of us?" Colleen hissed in contempt. "What do you know that I donít?"
"Itís what Iíve known all along. This big plan...the one you just figured out....itís all finally coming together. Itís already off the ground. This is what itís all about. Itís what itís always been about."
This was the last piece of the puzzle for Colleen. She knew now sheíd been had, played the fool, used. What she didnít understand was how Bill could have known for so long. They both came from the same place, their lives progressed in tandem. Had she been blinded so much by the manipulated happiness that she could not see beyond herself? "This? You mean... me and you? This is what itís all about?" The final realization killed the fight in her.
Bill nodded, still that unbeaten look on his face.
Colleen slumped, life seemingly drained from her. "Youíve known it all along," she muttered under her breath, then loudly and angrily she repeated her statement like she had grown impatient waiting for his answer, but not wanting to hear from Bill. She continued her hushed rationale. "Itís all been for nothing. All that he and I were put through. What kind of a sick joke is this?"
Bill looked on as this anguish tore at her. It was painful for him to watch, but better for her to deal with it all now, once and for all, now that she knew.
"All this time," Colleen said, speaking to Bill now, her voice exhausted and beaten, "...all this time, and the two of you have been teaming up against me. To think, that once I figured it all out, I could have allowed myself to feel sorry for you, for having been taken advantage of as I know now that I had been. But you both had me in this spot all along. Youíre no better than he is. Why didnít you ever tell me? How could you keep something this important from me?"
"Why would I have?" Bill questioned, smugly. "Things were going along as planned. Everything was going my way."
The same arrogant calm he possessed in every situation remained unchanged. It never had irritated her so much than at this very moment. This time it concerned her yet he held her in complete disregard. Her anger gave her strength and as her confidence grew, she made a further declaration. "Well, sooner or later, his guard will be down and Iíll be out of his control. And yourís. Not to mention that Gar..." She almost went too far this time, but she caught herself in time. The last thing she needed was to play her final hand right now. The time for that would come. She just had to wait.
"Not to mention that....?" Bill queried cautiously.
"Nothing. Forget it. Itís not important.
"It must be important judging from that look on your face."
"I said forget it," Colleen snapped. "All you need to worry about is that soon, all this will be a bad memory. But for now, Iíll just have to wait for the right time."
Bill raised an eyebrow, "And what will you do then?"
"Iíll get my Eddie back," Colleen assured him.
Bill laughed. "Eddie? Eddieís been dead for over a year!"