Another Sad Cafe

SHORT STORY | THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY

The One Who Got Away

It was a petty argument over next to nothing really. A difference of opinion over something so trivial, she couldn't even remember what it was about, or even who started it. It could have been a perceived slight of some kind over an offhand remark, or perhaps something one of them had said; she couldn't recall, but now, all she wanted was for it to mean nothing, and for the whole thing to simply go away before it turned into something they couldn't walk away from.

She and her notoriously touchy roommate had only known each other for about three years, and, due to their respective independent streaks and panic-stricken fear of commitment, they established two simple ground rules: to go to neutral ground if the tension ratcheted up a notch, and to be brutally honest with each other. And after spending a week haggling over details, they finally moved into a small loft together in the East Village near Tompkins Square Park.

Susan had done her best to live by those rules, but having misjudged how badly her oversensitive roommate would react to that bare-knuckled brand of integrity, it wasn't long before it became nearly impossible to predict what seemingly trivial misunderstanding would spark another blow up. Perhaps it was her own restlessness that was getting in the way, but having what she said continually taken out of context, and then having it compared to some thoughtless thing one of her roommate's old girlfriends had once said or done, had finally convinced her just how turbulent their already troubled relationship had become. But there's not a whole lot she can do about it tonight, except to go to the one place she always goes while these increasingly frequent dramas played themselves out.

Silvio's is a wildly popular, late night neighborhood watering hole, but it's a weekday and the place is nearly empty. The flickering glow of candlelight appears to be the only source of light in the ancient cherry-stained bar, but on a night like this, it's the honey-colored, old world moodiness she loves best about the place. Before she even get a chance to sit down, her favorite bartender hands her a drink; "Rocks and salt," he says, trying in vain to hide the guileless adoration in his eyes, "on the house."

"Thanks, Antonio," she says, grinning back at him. "You still make the best margaritas in the city. And no matter what your friends all say behind your back, you're still a sweetheart."

"Yeah, well, you better watch yourself, doll face," he says, giving her the conspiratorial look he'd been practicing in the mirror all day on the off chance she decided to stop in. "The storm knocked the lights out earlier and those 'ritas you're drinking are natural born killers"

When the stylishly dressed Wall Street type had first walked in and taken a seat two stools down, she'd scarcely noticed him, but since stealing a second look, the temperature in the room seems to have jumped a good ten degrees. In fact, she's sure of it.

In her past life as a wildly promiscuous, oversexed libertine (as her mother had so delicately put it), her taste in men had run more towards bad boys in black leather jackets, biker boots, and screw-you tattoos in places you couldn't hide if you tried. Things had changed over the years, of course, but the memory of all that fumbling around in the dark and that hot, sticky fingered rolling around on a floor with rank strangers is still as sharp as the man's indigo blue Ralph Lauren shirt and as bright as the 18k gold Atelier Yozu cufflinks he's wearing. Since spending three straight summers working nights in the men's department at Bloomingdales, she'd learned to appreciate a man who gives a damn about his appearance and knows how to dress. And this guy is seriously cute, and tall, and she likes the way his expertly trimmed, chestnut hair brushes against the collar of his tailor-made Dolce & Gabbana suit.

The third margarita seems to be doing the trick, and as an old familiar craving bubbles up from a place she thought had dried up and blown away years ago, she decides to relax and not shut this thing off before it gets started like she'd done so many times before. She'd long ago lost track of how many handsome young Lothario's like him she'd spurned, but there's something seductively intriguing about this guy, and, like the infamously intuitive research assistant she is, she intends to find out whether or not he's hiding something.

Shocked, but also amused, by her impulsive bravado, she playfully pats the stool next to hers, and when the man appears as if by magic by her side, she about falls over laughing. God knows she's played these school girl games before, but this guy is different. His gaze doesn't waver, and he can actually complete a sentence without using a tedious string of macho sports metaphors punctuated with four letter expletives to get his point across. The flirtatious invitation in his eyes is unmistakable, and the gentle touch of his hand on her arm is pleasantly reassuring, but it's the tenderness in his eyes that has already begun to melt whatever token resistance she may once have had.

She's so not ready for this, but for years, even when she'd had far too many of Antonio's fully loaded margaritas, she never had been, and if she doesn't take this risk right now, it's a sure-fire probability that she never will be. It's been a long time since she'd given in to this kind of dumb-assed reckless behavior, but she finds the man's straightforward sense of confidence strangely comforting, and when he leans in and kisses her lightly on her lips, his tongue tastes like it's been dipped in warm maple syrup.

"You're sweet," she says, cracking a crooked little smile, "but I'm too far gone to get talked into doing something that I'll regret when I have to get up in the morning".

Gracefully slipping his left arm around her waist, the man gently tugs her close and whispers; "Who says we have to get up in the morning?"

"Hmm. Naughty and nice. I like that," she says as the last shadow of doubt fades into the intoxicated blur of blue agave and candlelight.

As they walk hand in hand into the night on their way to the man's nearby 11th Street condo, she looks up and smiles, as if the fuzzy warm glow of the streetlight is welcoming her back to a world she has no idea she'd missed so much, but which, for some curious reason, still scares her half to death. She's vaguely aware of the faint sound of an alarm going off somewhere in the back of her mind, but for the first time in a long time, she chooses to ignore it;

"No risk, no glory, she giggles to herself, before nearly tumbling headfirst into the snow packed, deserted sidewalk.

The man throws his head back and flashes her a truly wicked grin before catching her just in time, which in her tequila-impaired state of mind, confirms that this is a risk she's willing to take. And if she sees the banner headline, "Police Mount Desperate Search for the Dapper East Village Strangler", on the front page of The New York Times that lay crumpled up on floor of the elevator of the man's high rise luxury condo, it doesn't appear to register.

After shaking the snow off his black cashmere coat, and hanging it next to hers in the hall closet, the man tells her to make herself at home, and that he'll be right back. Then after turning on a small end table lamp, he disappears down the short hallway into what she assumes is the bathroom.

Still tipsy from her last margarita, and afraid she may pass out if she doesn't sit down soon, she looks around for a chair. But she can't find one. In fact, she can't find any furniture anywhere. When she hears the water running in the bathroom, she stumbles sleepily down the carpeted hall and peeks into the bedroom, but the only furniture in there is a meticulously made four poster bed and the most inviting and luxurious, red Thai silk bedspread she's ever seen.

After washing his hands as thoroughly as a cardiac specialist prepping for open heart surgery, the man lifts a box from behind a neatly stacked row of hand made Ferragamo dress shoes and takes out a roll of duct tape, a blindfold, a small Ziploc bag marked "Rohypnol", a dark-brown glass vile marked "Chloroform", and a pair of regulation NYPD handcuffs. Fastidiously placing the items inside a tan calfskin Louis Vuitton briefcase, he walks silently back down the hall. But when he doesn't see the girl anywhere, he stops dead.

Checking the living room and the kitchen, he braces himself, every muscle in his ripped, muscular body tensed. This had happened before, but the last girl who'd suspected something had somehow managed to find the forged steel butcher knife he kept in a kitchen drawer before he could get to her. That got messy fast, but at least the police never found any evidence tying him to the stupid cow. He'd always been thorough, and fooling NYPD's finest had always been like hiding toys from a retarded child.

Swearing at himself for letting his guard down, he checks the hall closet, but surprisingly, the girl's coat is still there. Knowing how freaked out she must have been to walk out into a blizzard like the one howling outside without a coat, he goes over every possible thing he could have said or done that may have tipped her off, but he comes up clean. Even so, he should have seen this coming.

She was smart, he'd have to give her that. Nothing like the dumb fucking gold digging sluts who batted their fake eye lashes, licked the gloss off their lips with their lying tongues, preened in his rear view mirror, and then rifled through his check book when they thought he wasn't looking. But unlike all the others, this one was languid and cool: showing him respect, letting him take the lead, and not holding back. But on his beloved mother's grave, he will never again make the mistake of wearing his emotions on his sleeve like some horny frat boy with his Fruit-of-the-Looms wrapped around his ankles, begging for a poke. But she was a looker, this one, and there was something about her that he couldn't quite put his finger on. But then, as if he'd been slapped in the face, his body goes limp, remembering what his dead mother had told him over and over again when he was just another latch key rich kid; "Women are sorcerers," she'd said, "Take my word for it. They're all conjurers, whores, and blood-sucking tramps, the whole lot of them."

After flashing a murderous smile at the unrecognizable reflection staring back at him from his bathroom mirror, he puts the contents of the briefcase back where they belong. "First time for everything," he says, shrugging it off. "Looks like one finally got away. Who would have thought? Catch and release. How funny is that?"

But when he switches off the light and walks down the hall into his darkened bedroom, he freezes, sensing someone else in the room. And like a feral hyena sniffing the wind, he catches her scent, feeling the heat of her, the faint whiff of sex drifting up from the delicate white folds of the rumpled silk sheets.

After turning on the small antique lamp, he sees her laying naked on the bed, framed in a warm pool of amber light. But when she shakes herself awake, and sees him standing above her with undisguised lust in his eyes, she knows; she can't do it. There's just no way she can let this happen tonight. "I'm sorry," she tells him, "but I really have to go." And without saying another word, she gathers up her things, and hurries down the hall, dressing as she goes. And, after grabbing her coat, lets herself out the door. And she's gone.

A half hour later, after recharging his dead cell phone battery, the man checks his messages. When he hears the girl's voice, he feels a freakishly erotic rush of excitement: "I'm sorry," she says, "but I couldn't do it. I had fun and it really did mean something to me, to be treated like a queen again. Believe me, it's been awhile and I appreciate the attention. I didn't mean to lead you on, but as I told you when we first met, I have a roommate, who, to say the least, demands more of me than I think I have to give. But at least I have to try. We've been together since our freshman year in college, and I've never been any good at balancing more than one relationship at a time. I really like you, and I'm sure you're a great guy, but I'm just not emotionally available right now. I really am sorry. But thanks again for the drinks. I had a wonderful time."

After hanging up the pay phone in the tiny French café on Avenue B where she'd stopped on her way home to make the call, she feels the overpowering flood of desire that she'd felt earlier receding, replaced by an unexplainable sense of relief. Maybe she really is ready for a long term commitment after all. And maybe this time, she'll actually stick to it.

But when she gets home and begins reading the note on the kitchen table, it finally hits her; it's too late for any of that now. No hearts or flowers, no dots over the O's and I's. Always the consummate lawyer, her roommate: succinct, staying in the moment, and sticking to the point. She can read the genuine affection between the lines, but the paper itself feels cold and damp. There really is no going back now. The line they'd drawn in the sand had been crossed, and there's no undoing what she'd done. The note reads:

"My dearest Susan,

I'm sorry I have to say this to you in a note, but it would have killed me to watch your gorgeous face while you lied to me. Your bartender pal Antonio, at Silvio's called last night to say you'd been there earlier and that he was just checking to see if you'd made it home safely. I knew that's where you'd go after our silly spat. I was going to call you, but when I saw your cell on the nightstand, I thought I'd grab a cab and try to meet up with you to explain myself. But I was still too drunk to go anywhere at that time of night, and decided to go to bed instead, and when I woke up at three this morning, and found that you still weren't home, I fell apart. I mean, when Antonio told me that you'd apparently met someone, I just lost it. A man, he said. And then I realized that, after all this time, you'd finally made your choice. I've always suspected that you'd never resolved all those old sexual issues that have been nagging at you for so long.

I thought I'd buried all of my insecurities and suspicions, but you know what a jealous jerk I can be when I drink. I thought I'd given you everything you needed, but I can see now that even that wasn't enough. But please remember one thing; even though I can't live with you any longer, I still care about what happens to you, and I wish you the best. But as much as I want you to be happy, I won't share you. I just can't do it. I would have done anything -and I mean anything- to keep from losing you, but I can't just lay around and do nothing while some nobody pretty boy takes you away from me. I love you. I really love you, and I always will. There, I said it, and in spite of everything, I mean it with all my heart.

Please, take care of your dear, precious self.

All my love,

Sarah"


The knock on the man's condo door is tentative, uncertain, as if a rookie Bible salesmen had spent all day working up the courage to make his first pitch. But when he opens the door, and sees her there, the fury he'd felt at being disturbed, turns immediately to ecstasy-fueled joy.

"Hello," she says, batting her beautiful, but tear-stained, brown eyes. "I'm so sorry that I left the way I did this morning. I hope you don't mind that I had to flirt with the security guard to get him to ring me in. Are you mad at me?"

"Hardly," the man says, desperately trying to conceal the white hot, chemically-induced euphoria that's burning its way into his lethally over-medicated brain. "You have no idea how good it is to see you again, Susan."

***