06 January, 2011

The Picture

John stood in the hallway of his apartment staring at the collage of framed pictures that hung outside his bedroom.  Like any home photos, they ranged from family to friends, old to new, and he liked to switch them out every once in a while and continue this particular scrapbook of his life.  He often glanced at them as he passed by, smiling at the memories they thumbnailed, but today he stood still in that hallway, staring at one in particular.  And he stood there in a daze, blank-faced and glass-eyed.  The picture was just right of the middle, and wouldn’t stand out if you didn’t know its story.  It was a picture of him and his nephew, at his nephew’s birthday party.  John was wearing green sponge Hulk hands and his arms were wrapped around his nephew as his nephew blew out candles on a cake.  But the story isn’t about that picture.  Because that’s not the picture John was staring at.  He actually stood staring at the picture that used to hang there.  The one he replaced with the picture of him and his nephew.  The one he could still see vividly, even though it hadn’t been there in almost a year.  The one of him and Margot, from Chris’ birthday party.
John and Margot met at a wedding, in the Spring, outside in the afternoon, when the weather was still nice enough in The San Fernando Valley to have a wedding outside in the afternoon.  The bride was Hawaiian so the wedding was in that theme.  Most weddings that try it feel like a lunchbox luau, generally because the couple is trying to capture something that isn’t truly theirs.  But that wasn’t the case here.  Like the bride, the ceremony and reception had a quiet elegance, a relaxed gallantry that, like Hawaii herself, prevailed over something as silly as trying to capture something.  The betrothed had captured each other, and anyone that knew them at all knew that was enough, that their chase was over, and they were happy.
When they finally had a chance to talk, John would lie to Margot that he first saw her across the seated crowd during the ceremony and wasn’t able to take his eyes off her from that moment on.  Later that night, they’d come to know each other well enough that he could have admitted the truth, but didn’t;  unable, he told himself, to destroy something as simple as the moment he first saw her.  The truth is, the first time was at the reception dinner when she and her husband were seated next to him.  It seems like a silly thing to lie about, and he wished he’d cleared it up when he had the chance, but by then they’d admitted far more lascivious truths, and it was those they would delve into when stolen moments permitted.  Because it was, of course, the truth that when he did see her, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.  And that, he told himself, was enough of a truth to permit their lies.
John never believed in love at first sight until he met Margot, and he didn’t believe it even then, when she sat across from him, wearing that white dress and tall heels, with pulled-back hair, and eyes that lit up whenever they caught each other staring.  The only other time he’d felt something like it was in college, with a girl named Mina.  Mina was a young model from New York, only nineteen but she’d already covered ‘Cosmo’ twice, and was in Las Vegas visiting a friend.  He couldn’t remember her real name but they first saw each other across a crowd of people at a house party that ended in the wee hours with six or seven of them crashed in blankets and pillows on the living room floor watching Coppola’s ‘Dracula.’  They were both young and swept away, so she told him she’d be his forever, and he called her Mina.  It wasn’t love, of course, but it was the singularly most powerful feeling he’d ever had.  In four days he was more captivated by her than any girl before or since.  And when she left, he went with her to the airport, and she looked back at him from the walkway to the plane, and they said goodbye as they’d met, across a crowd of people, and that was that.
But that wasn’t that.  For those four days would for years to come continue to mean as much as they had then.  Because she would be the bar by which he’d measure all the women to follow.  It wasn’t fair, comparing never is, but that didn’t matter.  He was so struck by her that he tried to recapture that feeling, and for years thought it would never happen.  And then he stopped looking.  And it wasn’t until years after that that he finally found it.  Love at first sight.  It still wasn’t love, Mina had at least taught him that, but it was the closest thing to what he felt then.  And this girl – Margot – sitting at the table with him at his friend’s wedding, with full breasts and long legs poured into that white dress, with that smile that melted him, and eyes that burned into him across the flowers and linen and silver.  He couldn’t stop staring at her.  And when he first saw those eyes staring back, well, he stopped trying.  After so many years of being blind, love saw him.  He wouldn’t admit it was love, at first sight or at all.  That wouldn’t come until a year later.  After it was over.

It was the evening now, after the wedding’s reception dinner, but the sun was still setting, and John stood finishing a Mai Tai outside the enormous veranda on the deck by the lake.  He didn’t often have Mai Tais, they were terribly sweet, but every now and then was all right, and he thought it was better to keep in the wedding’s theme than prevent the inevitable hangover.  Besides, he thought as he downed the rest of it, they were tasty.  Someone called his name and he turned to the bar where Dave was pointing to the cup in his hand.  John looked at the empty in his then back to Dave.  He nodded;  sure, he could use another.  Dave nodded and turned to the bartender and John looked around the crowd.  He only knew a handful of the people there, ten or fifteen maybe.  He’d come alone, met Dave there, and they trudged through the formalities together;  including, apparently, getting each other drinks.  He said hi to some people next to him and they traded obligatory comments on how beautiful the ceremony was, how wonderful dinner was, how unique the location was.  It was all true, but it still felt obligatory since he didn’t know them.  Luckily Dave came back with the Mai Tais and he was able to ignore everyone again.
That is, except for Margot.
He pretended to be absent-mindedly glancing around the crowd, as people do at these things, but he knew right where she was, and the absent-minded glances were just to keep him from staring.  She stood with her husband and some friends at the edge of the deck, by the lake, but on the opposite side of the bar.  Dave was saying something about how cute he thought one of the bridesmaids was, but somewhere between thinking how clich√© it sounded and trying to figure out which one, Margot looked at him and smiled.  It was quick and he knew she’d sneaked it, but its sincerity was written all over her face, and he smiled back at her and she looked away and smiled again, just to herself, but it was enough.  John looked back at Dave who was trying to point out the bridesmaid and John feigned interest but it was useless.  All he could do was think about Margot.  The way the white dress clung to her frame, and her slender hand held the champagne flute, and the line of her neck shined in the light of the tiki torches.  And that smile.  Just like Mina had so many years before, this beautiful girl across a crowd of people consumed him.  And he felt himself giving in to a renewed bout of fate.

“I’m married, you know,” she said.
“Happily?” he asked.
There was a pause before she answered.  “Sometimes.”
She looked away from him.  “Yeah.”
It was an hour later, the reception in full swing now, and John and Margot sat on a short bench away from the deck and veranda, under a large banana tree that hung over them like a canopy.  They were both smoking, he a Camel Light and she a Camel Wide Non Filter, but he tried not to feel inadequate about it.  Actually, he found it uncontrollably sexy, like a glamour girl of the forties smoking real cigarettes between really red fingernails through really red lips.
He looked at her and said, “Doesn’t seem like it would be enough.”
“It is,” she answered.  “Sometimes.”
He smiled.  “I suppose we could go all night about being unhappily married – ”
“I didn’t say I was unhappily married,” she interrupted.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to speak for both of us.”
“You’re not married.”
“I was.
She smiled now.  “Let’s stop right there.”
He smiled back.  “Fair enough.”  He dropped his cigarette to the ground and stepped it out, then downed the last of his Mai Tai.  When he looked back at her, he caught her staring.  “What?” he asked.
She smiled and shook her head.  “Nothing.”
“That wasn’t nothing.”
Her head was down slightly, and she moved just her eyes so they looked up to him.  “But it has to be, doesn’t it?”
There was a pause, and he fell into those eyes and swam around the dark pools at the edge of the blue.  Then said, “For now.”
She blushed, ever so slightly but it was there, and dragged the last of her cigarette.  She dropped it to the ground and stepped it out with one of her long thin black heels and looked back at him with something of a renewed vigor.  “So,” she said, “what do you do for a living?”
“I write,” he said.
“You write?”
“What, you don’t believe me?”
She smiled.  “No, I’m just surprised.  Not often you meet a writer.”
“Well, now you can check it off your Bucket List.”
She smiled again.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Architecture.  Well, I’m in school for Architecture.”
“Like it?”
Love it.  I really do.”
“That’s amazing.”
“Why, don’t you love what you do?”
“No.  I mean I do, but that’s not what I meant.  It’s amazing that you’re an Architect.”
“Why is it amazing?”
“It just seems like everyone in this town works in the industry, so every time I meet someone that doesn’t, it’s amazing.  Maybe amazing isn’t the right word.  It’s … refreshing.”
She smiled again.  “I like that.”
“Good,” he said and swirled the ice around in the little plastic cup.
She noticed.  “Want another?”
He looked right at her.  “Another?”
“Drink.  You ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.”  But he wasn’t talking about a drink.
She knew it.  Her eyes – the blue, the darkness around it, every bit of them – swelled and she said, “You’re dangerous.” 
He let out a grin.  “Sometimes.”
She grinned back – the same devilish way he had – then stood.  “Come on.”
He followed, and they walked back to the deck by the lake.

It was late in the evening now, most of the wedding guests had gone, and John sat at a table inside the enormous veranda, watching Margot dance with her husband.  She was barefoot and her hair was down and it was a slow dance, but it looked far from intimate, their happiness a little too forced.  He held her close, his arms wrapped round her waist, his face buried in her neck, his eyes closed.  And she held him close too, her arms wrapped round his shoulders, her head resting on them.  But every time their slow circling turned so she faced John, she stared at him with those eyes that now burned into him with an intimacy too long ago taken from her husband.  And John wondered how long it had been since she’d looked at her husband that way.  With those eyes.  He thought about his ex-wife and the way they looked at each other with that forgotten intimacy and he felt bad for Margot’s husband.  For having to live with that emptiness.  Or, worse, for not even knowing it was there.  The song ended and Margot and her husband parted and started back to the table.  But before they left the floor, John stood and started their way.  Wonderfully oblivious, the husband smiled as if relieved, and with a simple hand gesture offered his wife to him.  It was a moment John would ponder late at night for nights to come, as if somehow he did know and was offering her to him, succumbing to the inevitable.  But it was far too romantic a gesture for far too placid a man, and John wrote it off as an imaginative safeguard.  But she never stopped staring at him and they turned and started back to the middle of the floor.  The next song had already started and they faced each other.  John watched the husband loosen his tie and angle for the bar outside, so he wrapped his arms around Margot’s waist, she shuddered, electrified, and wrapped hers round his shoulders, and they began their own slow, slow circles.  It was the first time they’d touched.  And the only time they’d dance.
               The rest of the night remains unremarkable.  There was an after party at a friend’s house with more longed stares and mouthed words and even a warm hug as they said goodbye, but the dance was the highlight, what would best be remembered, so it’s perfectly fine to end on.  Over the course of the next year, they’d think of each other often, but never act on it.  How could they?  She was married, and he promised to be a gentleman.  And time, it seemed, would hold them to it.

John stood in the hallway of his apartment, staring at the picture.  He clinked the ice cubes floating through the inch of Crown Royal in his glass, realizing, not for the first time, how long he’d been standing there.  He could see his own reflection in the Ikea glass frame and he reached up and touched it, touching the reflection of his own fingers reaching out to touch him.  He wondered why he’d even bothered changing the pictures.  It wasn’t as if he ever saw this one.  Him.  His nephew.  The Hulk hands.  He never saw this picture.  It was always the other one.  The one that used to hang there.  No matter how long ago he’d switched them out, he still only saw the picture of him and Margot.  From Chris’ birthday party.  As he always had. 
Passion, Margot said once, is the essence of life.  His eyes glassed over, like a drunkard’s, and he heard her saying it to him over and over again.  Passion is the essence of life.  She was right, of course, but knowing something and living by it are two different things.  There’s the old storyteller’s adage that you should always keep reality and story-reality separate.  In reality, it makes perfect sense that you don’t have an extra thousand bucks to blow on a ticket to Paris to tell the girl you love to be with you instead of him.  It hurts and it sucks but, hey, it’s a thousand bucks.  Well, that doesn’t work in a story.  In a story, the hero must blow his last cent, get to Montmarte, run up its steps, and yell.  Because the story’s over by the time the young lovers have to find a way home, eat, and pay bills.  If love likes risk, then passion decrees it.  But reality had played too big a part in John and Margot’s story.  Or, rather, they’d allowed it to.  And so he stood there, in the hallway of his apartment, looking at the cover-up picture, thinking how silly it was to let something like reality get in the way of passion.

                A year after the wedding, to the month actually, the Hawaiian bride threw a surprise birthday party for her husband.  Their house, a wedding present from the Hawaiian bride’s parents, sat in an odd pocket of isolated countryside off the 101 in West Hills;  odd only because of how quiet and left-alone it is, despite being in the populated southwest end of the San Fernando Valley.  And to make it even better, the house sat perched between the end of a cul-de-sac and the top of a large enough hill so that they practically had no neighbors.
               It wasn’t the first time that group of friends got together since the wedding, so it wasn’t the first time John thought he might see her again.  In fact, these friends got together regularly enough, and she’d not shown for any of them, so the anxiety he felt walking into places was completely gone when he walked into the Hawaiian newlyweds’ backyard.  If possibly seeing her that afternoon even crossed his mind, he didn’t realize it, so his guard was completely down when he walked from the front drive, through the gate, down the side yard, into the back, and saw her standing there.  She wore white again, linen this time and sans the tall dark heels, but, just as the first time, she basked in the warm afternoon, shining brightly in it, glowing like a Hollywood starlet in magic hour, and the linen tugged at her curves, and the light of the sun, and him.  He went weak, and tried not to stare, couldn’t help it, and the past year fell apart in the seconds that people said hello and he feigned responses.  To cover-up his failed composure, and partly in hope he’d not be there, John scanned the party for her husband, but didn’t see him.  Was he inside?  Maybe.  When he looked back at Margot, she had turned and was staring back at him in a way that screamed her own surprise, and the past year had fallen apart to nothing at all.  John smiled.  She smiled back.  And the fear of their inevitable reintroduction reached in, grabbed his heart, and squeezed.
              Two hours later, John had had enough tequila that he should have felt it, but he didn’t.  Thank God, he thought, that it was a big party.  Big enough, at least, to hide among the people, able to talk to enough of them without seeming like he was trying to avoid her.  They eyed each other across the crowd, just as they had that year before;  only this time with a sense of urgency that dually cautioned and prodded, coaxing them around the backyard, into the house and back again.  But they waited, neither of them wanting to give in, both of them enjoying the game.  And the husband was there, of course.  They’d not divorced, not that John had really expected them to.  But, then, he hadn’t expected to see her that day, either.  He made his way to the makeshift bar, outside by the firepit, watching Margot talk to the Hawaiian bride’s sister just inside the kitchen window.  He started for another shot of tequila, opted against it, and opened a bottle of Pacifico.
             “Could you have dinner with her?”  Chris – the Hawaiian groom, the birthday boy – was standing next to him. 
             “What do you mean?” John asked.
             He tried not to show a reaction to her name, but his composure failed again.  “Margot?”
             Chris nodded.  “Could you have dinner with her?  Just dinner?”
             “I don’t even know her.”
             He knew he was failing, but continued anyway.  “What do you mean ‘uh-huh’?”
            “Uh-huh there’s no possible way you could just have dinner with her.”  He paused, a funny man.  “Which uh-huh did you think I meant?”
            John decided against playing dumb anymore.  “Is it that obvious?”
            Chris shrugged.  “Only when you’re together.”
            John drank his beer, looking through the window, Margot’s face only slightly distorted by the beveled glass and setting sun.  “Why ask?”
            Chris watched him watching her.  “We were at a thing together about a month ago.  Your name came up.”
            John looked at him.  “Really?”
            Chris nodded.  “She wanted you.”
            “Wanted to know what?”
            “No, she wanted you.  Said she’d have a hell of a time with you, too.”
            John looked back through the window, at her drinking a margarita through a straw.  He didn’t have to play dumb, and felt bad for trying.  Chris was that good a guy.  They were that good of friends.  “That’s probably true,” he said.
            Chris watched him watching her.  “So you couldn’t just have dinner with her.”
            John shook his head.  He was about to drink, then didn’t.  Looked right at Chris.  “Why are you telling me this?  So I do something about it?  Or so I don’t?”
            “You want to do something about it.”
            “She’s married.”
            “She asked about me.”
            “Fair enough.”  Then Chris added, “Would you have?”
            “Asked me about her?  If you knew she was interested too.”
            “I already knew she was interested too.”
            Chris stood there waiting.
            John took a long pull from his beer before answering.  “Never mind.”
            John looked at him and said, “She’s married.”
            Chris looked back at him a long time, then nodded, “Okay.”  He grabbed John’s shoulder, held it a beat, then walked off.
            John looked back at her, through the sunlight kicking off the window, like an angel in stained glass.  He called after his friend, “Happy birthday,” and finished the rest of that beer.
            Later that night, the birthday party had split in two;  half of those still there were inside playing Scene It on TV, while the other half mingled in the backyard.  John sat at the burning firepit, its large pine logs burning brightly, the fire warm and inviting, its ambience a perfect dissolve from the afternoon barbecue to the quiet evening.  The party was in John’s favorite part of its ebb;  not over yet, but certainly in its last act, when the real friends are the only ones left – warmly drunk, telling stories, laughing – as friends that are really family do.
            He sat on the opposite side of the pit from the sliding glass door, so he could look in at the living room.  At Margot.  Over the last hour, she’d turned a few times to look out at him, and of course his eyes were there to match hers, but neither had pressed further than this;  sneaked glances from across the way.  But then, as one game finished and most wanted another, she excused herself and walked outside.  She walked right to him, and he felt a teenager’s surge in his blood, like when he met Mina so many years before, like when he and Margot danced at the reception.  She sat down next to him at the firepit, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her.  While before he’d tried not to stare, now he gave up, giving into it, uncaring who caught him, or what they thought.  She didn’t look at him, not yet, and just sat there, staring at the fire.  Then she reached out for his beer, he gave it to her, she took a drink from it and passed it back, all as if they were intimate enough that such an exchange should feel second nature.  After a long beat, her eyes still never leaving the fire, she said, “Thanks.”   
            And, his eyes never leaving her, never so much as blinking, he said, “You’re welcome.”

            John leaned against the opposite wall of his apartment hallway now, still staring at the picture.  Him.  His nephew.  The Hulk hands.  That that image should have so much an effect on him is funny, he thought.  It had been a long time since he’d let himself go this far.  But, then, it had been a long time since he’d had this much to drink at home alone.  He was fine until he went to the bathroom and was on his way back to the living room, a commercial break from an ‘OC’ marathon, and he saw the picture.  Usually, he just glanced at it, if that, and it didn’t affect him at all.  But sometimes, sometimes it hit him like a wrecking ball.  And, well, half a bottle of Crown Royal is a pretty good wrecking ball of its own.  So it wasn’t much of a fight.  Not that he was putting up much of a fight.  In any event, ‘The OC’ would have to wait.  He tried to move but couldn’t.  So he just stood there, staring at the picture.  The one that used to hang there.  And he thought to himself, Why, John.  Why’d you let her go?
            “I didn’t,” he said, laughing.
            Margot reached for his beer again.  “You didn’t?”
            “No, I couldn’t even move.”  He handed it to her.  “The thing was only a couple feet long, but to see Dave run, you’d have thought it was an Anaconda.”
            She laughed.  “And you’re standing there petrified.”
“Couldn’t even move.  Andy’s up ahead, clueless we’re back here in Jurassic Park.  He finally comes back and asks why I’m just standing there, Ruben’s up a tree, and Dave’s halfway back to the car.”
            “Real adventure types.”  She drank his beer.
            “On a marked trail in Yosemite National Park.”  He laughed.  “We didn’t live that down for years.”
            She shook the lime at the bottom of the empty bottle.
            “Looks like you’re going on a beer run,” he said.
            “Sure you’ll be okay here by yourself?”
            “I’ll try.”
            She smiled, got up and went to the bar.
            John watched her go, from the orange and red of the firelight, into the dark, then into the weak white pool of the light hung over the makeshift bar.  He watched her bend over and open the ice chest.  She was barefoot, and the white linen dress clung to the small of her back, and – he swore it wasn’t the shadows playing tricks on him – he could make out the black bra and g-string that lay beneath it.  She pulled out two Pacificos, opened them, and looked back at him.  “Lime?”
            He shook his head.
            She tossed the caps on the bar and walked back, pulled the chair closer to his and sat down.  No one else was sitting at the firepit, and those that mingled in the backyard were mostly over by the edge of the hill, looking out at the sea of lights in the west valley, so John and Margot were all but alone.  “Seems like we’re always off by ourselves having a quiet chat over drinks,” she said.
            He smiled.  “It’s the only time we get to be alone.”
            “Yeah,” she smiled, then paused.  It was long enough that they both knew, were acutely aware, that the mood was shifting from the cautioned prodding to the inevitable conversation they needed to have.  She pulled out a pack of her Camel Wide Non Filters, offered John one, he declined, and she lit it, inhaling and exhaling slowly, continuing to prolong the inevitable.  But she knew she couldn’t put it off any longer, so she finally looked at him and asked, “How have you been?”
           “Good,” he said.  “You?”
           “Good.”  A beat, then, “I suppose Chris told you I asked about you.”
           “He did.”
           “I’d been thinking about you too.”
           “Had you really?”  She said it as if she were genuinely surprised.
           “Yeah,” he smiled.
           “You never did anything about it.”
           “Was I suppose to?”
           “I’d have liked you to.”
           “I’d have liked to, but …” he drifted off.
           “I know.”
           “How was I supposed to know I should do something about it?”
           “No, you’re right.”
           “You didn’t do anything about it.”
           “I know.” 
           He paused, then said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to –”
           “No, it’s fine.  How could you know?  I’m the one that should’ve said something.”
           He lifted out his beer.  “So say something now.”
           She looked at him and smiled.  Said, “Okay,” and they clinked them together.

           On the other side of the lawn, Chris stood talking to one of his wife’s friends, but he was only half listening to her.  Not because he was uninterested in their conversation, but because he was just slightly more interested in the unheard one at the firepit.  He looked into the house and found Margot’s husband still playing Scene It;  seemingly none the wiser.  Chris looked back at John and Margot.  Was there even something to be wiser about?  They were just sitting there talking.  Nothing more.  His wife’s friend said something – he wasn’t sure what, but he thought she’d made a joke – so he looked back at her and laughed.
           Margot finished her cigarette and tossed the last inch into the fire;  looked at John and said, “You know, it’s funny.  I’ve thought about you.  A lot.  And I’ve thought about what I’d say if I ever saw you again.  What I’d say, how much I’d say.  But I never thought I would.  See you again.  I mean I wanted to, and I suppose I knew I would sometime, but … I didn’t think it’d be so soon.  Or … that you’d still have such an effect on me.”
           He looked at her. 
           His eyes caught hers, and she blushed, ever so slightly.  She continued, “And then you walked into the backyard this afternoon, and I …”
           “Caught your breath.”
           “Just as you did now.”
           She blushed again, caught off guard, though enamoredly so, that he was able to read her like that.  “Yeah.”
           “And now you …” he drifted off, asking.
           She looked back to the fire.  “And now I don’t know what to say,” she answered.
           He looked back to the fire too.  “I know what you mean.” 
           There was a long patch of silence, and all the banter and innuendo dissolved into a pronounced uncomfortability.  Something they had both steered clear of since the moment they met that year before, but were now erratically thrust into again.  The sudden – and very honest – reality that what had been that year before wasn’t just the dream they remembered, but that perhaps that’s all it could be:  a stolen moment at a friend’s wedding.  It was ill-timed that they should be forced together like that – crashed-into and only fleetingly-fused – a moment they feared had been lost with the summer-turned-winter, and winter-turned-summer again.  John broke the silence.  “I know what I wanted to say to you, if I ever saw you again.”
           She looked at him.  “What?”
           He continued staring at the fire, never looking at her.  “Let’s run away together.  Just us.  From whatever we have here.  All of it.  Even our friends, if we have to.  Even from L.A.  Let’s just run … together … and keep running until we don’t have to anymore … and that’s where we’ll start over.  Together.”
           Her eyes were wide and glassy like she were about to cry, but she held it back.  He was quiet and stoic, having said it barely above a whisper, as if he wasn’t even saying it at all, but thinking it out loud, afraid to put it into words, to make it real.  She looked at him a long time, he still staring at the fire, perhaps unable to look at her;  afraid, too, that that would make it all too real.  Her left hand was trembling, and she passed her Pacifico from the right just to stop it.  “Really?” she asked.
          He nodded.  “That’s what I wanted to say.  But now … now I don’t know what to say either.”
          She leaned closer to him.  “Try.”
          His eyes never left the fire, and he shook his head.  “I don’t know what to say because everything I want to say I can’t.  I can’t tell you that I think about you, what I think about you, how much I think about you.  I can’t tell you how I bring up your name in my cell phone, about to dial, then shut it off.  I can’t tell you I’ve hoped you’d be at every one of these things, just so I could see you again, and look into your eyes, and see how you look at me.  I can’t tell you that I still remember how you smelled the night of the wedding.  When we hugged goodbye.  And I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw you today, standing there, and you turned at me and smiled.”
          A single tear hit her cheek.  “No?”
          He finally looked at her, and his eyes saw hers, how she was looking at him, and he caught his own breath, and he blushed, only more than slightly.  “No.  Because then it’s not just a moment a year ago.  Then it becomes real.  And that’s worse.  ‘Cause I might defend it.  And you’d try and fight it.  And we both might give in because we’d want to.  Because, in my own little fantasy world, I wouldn’t mind giving up this real one for you, all of it, right now, just to have you reach out and grab hold of me and – ”  He stopped himself, cut himself off.
          She reached out her hand, almost touching him, and for a long time they both sat there, he having bared his soul over fire and Pacifico, and she wondering whether or not to, in that instant, give up everything she knew, and be with a man that thought enough of her to bare that much.  They both sat there, staring at each other, he wondering what he’d just said – the gravity of what he’d just said – and she wondering what to do about it.  Her hand, trembling again, was close to his.  So close.  Close enough that all she had to do was drop it, no more than an inch, and he would pull her to him, and the dream they’d been pulled into and out-of would finally pull them together.  But he didn’t move, nor did she, and they continued staring at each other, each of them hoping the other would give in, but knowing neither would.  There was a cheer from inside, and she looked to her husband competing voraciously.  Tears hit her cheeks and she pulled her hand back, wiping them away, and John knew, in that moment, that it was over.  The dream was just that, a dream;  one that they’d never be allowed to enjoy again.  For years to come, they would, separately, fall asleep and try to chase it, but neither would come close to the two moments that made it so special:  a dance at a friend’s wedding, and a couple of beers, next to a firepit, in the backyard of a little house in the San Fernando Valley.  “Yeah,” she finally said, forcing a smile.  “I guess you’re right.”

            A few minutes later, Chris’ wife’s friend, enjoying her own funny story the most, realized she was out of wine, so she excused herself, back into the house, and Chris looked to the firepit, where John and Margot sat talking.  And he relaxed a little, because there was something about them – the way they were sitting talking now – that made him relax a little.  He couldn’t explain it, not that he had anyone to explain it to, but something changed.  Where as before there was a remarkable energy emanating from them, between them, around them – like gasoline and gunpowder circling a lit match – now there was just two friends, sitting and talking.  He decided against trying to understand it, and, so, decided to simply enjoy it.  He walked over to them, and squatted between their chairs.
            “There he is,” John said cheerily, but Margot could tell he was forcing it a little.
            “Cold?” Chris said.  “You two have been sitting by the fire for almost an hour!”
            John did everything he could to not so much as glance in her direction.  Hoped he succeeded.  Smiled it off.  "Nah."  Then he stood and asked Chris, “Can I get you anything?”
            “Sure, a beer.  Thanks.”
            Finally looked at her.  Right at her.  "Madam?”
            She smiled.  “No thanks.”
            John moved to the bar.  While he was away, even if just twenty feet behind them, in the weak white of the light over the coolers, Chris looked at Margot and asked, “You okay?”
            “No more dinner out?”
            There was another cheer from the house, and she looked inside – where her husband stood now, his team congratulating him, because he’d won the game – then back at Chris.  “No, no more dinner out.”
            Chris smiled.
            She reached over and touched his face.  “You’re a good man, you know that?”
            Chris shrugged, “Eh,” and they both smiled and relaxed just a little bit more.
            John came back and handed Chris his beer, the two clinked them together, and they drank.  Margot was about to say something, when Chris motioned widely.
            “I almost forgot!”  He looked at Margot.  “Sorry.”
            “That’s fine!”
            “My wife -- I still love saying that -- my wife said I have to get pictures of everyone.  You know, for the first anniversary something or other.”  He pulled a digital camera from his back pocket.  “Do you mind?”
            “Shoot away.”
            John put his arm around Margot, and she put hers around him.  Chris stepped back a bit, looked through the camera, and said, “Say Focaccia.” 
            “Focaccia,” John and Margot said together.  She pulled him closer, softly, he did the same, the flash went off, and that was that. 
            “Perfect,” Chris said with a smile.
            And Margot, a little forced, but only John could tell, smiled and said, “Yeah.”

             In the hallway in his apartment, John stood staring at the wall of pictures, at that one picture, the one that used to hang there.  It had been two years since that party, since the last time he’d seen her;  actually seen her, not just in memory.  They never actually saw each other again, not even at another get-together their friends had.  He heard she and her husband were giving their marriage a serious shot, and John thought perhaps she was avoiding him.  Perhaps rightly so.  They never even talked again.  About a year later (a year ago), she called him, left a polite “hope you’re well” message, but he never called back.  A day later – a day after all-day pulling up her name, about to dial, then deciding against it – he deleted her from his phone, from his life, so he’d no longer be tempted.  Well, at least to call.  Then, over the next year, to that very day he stood in the hall, her memory eventually faded.  Not in passion he secretly promised her, but in how often it tormented him.  Well, of course, except every now and then.  Like that day.
            He looked at the empty lowball in his hand, just a swallow’s worth of Crown Royal and a fast melting ice cube, and decided whether or not to fill it again.  He looked at the picture on the wall once more – him, his nephew, the Hulk hands – and smiled, just to himself.  He drank the last of the whiskey in that glass, crunched the ice into water, and drank that too.  He stood there for a long moment, perfectly still, and let the past years wash away from him, once again, at least for that day.  There would be others, there would always be others, but for that day, he was fine.  So he said, very quietly, with a loving disdain, the way you do when you cheer a favorite villain in a children’s movie, “Damn you, Mina.”  And then he walked back into the living room, sat on the couch, and watched TV.

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