by Celeste Amidon, ’16
“So. How did you two meet?”
By the time the food came, there were already three empty bottles of Prosecco on the table. Michael Fynch watched Allen Smith tap his cigarette out onto the empty bread plate on his placemat before pushing it away to make room for the steaming plate of squid the pimply young waiter was setting in front of him. Michael watched the Smiths dig into their meals with an air of detachment. Allen worked in finance and she, Miranda, was a 40-something Liverpool-born socialite wannabe. Her arms were wrapped in stringy tendons like Christmas lights, her horse-like jaw gaunt and hollow from years of bulimia. Michael glanced over at his wife, Kate, who sat directly under a paper-lantern, delicately holding a glass, which carried the stain of white Prosecco and her rose-colored lipstick. The couple shared a quick smile, before Michael turned his attention diagonally across the table at the exact moment Miranda picked up a grape tomato with her fingers and ate it, licking the yellow vinaigrette off the tips of her acrylic fingers.
“Oh, it’s not a very interesting story,” said Kate.
“’Course it is,” Allen chimed in, cheeks loaded with pale squid.
“Come on,” said Miranda. Her elbows were pressed together on the table in such a way that her spray-tanned, silicon breasts were suffocating each other, creating a wrinkly and rather unappealing cleavage. “Try me.”
Kate glanced at Michael. “Well, we met at university…”
“Oooh, where?” Squealed Miranda, with far too much enthusiasm for such a mundane detail.
“King’s. We were both sitting near a fountain, reading. I didn’t notice him, at first, but, after a while, he approached me. He was looking at me rather strangely. I thought I might have had something in my teeth.”
“But it was because he was transformed by your beauty…” Miranda looked over at Michael for reassurance. “…Right?”
“Well,” said Kate. “Not exactly. After a while I realized it wasn’t me he was looking at, but my book.”
“… And… which book?”
“It was Ethan Frome. After a moment of him awkwardly looking at me and my book, he lifted up the book he was holding and it was the same one.” She cast a glance at Michael.
“Wait… Michael was reading Ethan Frome, too?”
“Well,” Allen chimed in, “who knows if he was actually reading it? Perhaps he saw this attractive girl sitting by the fountain and ran over to the bookstore so that he’d have a reason to talk to her, eh?” He winked at Michael.
“And was it love at first sight?” Said Miranda, hardly able to contain herself.
Michael glanced over at Martha who pouring herself more wine.
“Yes,” he said, “I suppose it was, wasn’t it, dear?”
Martha nodded, flashing a tight smile from behind her glass. “He certainly did take my breath away.”
At that moment, the waiter approached.
“Another bottle of Prosecco, if you would.” said Allen, without looking up. The waiter nodded and walked away. Miranda turned back to Michael and Kate.
“Allen and I met on a cruise. It was the day before my twenty-ninth birthday.”
She leaned over and put an arm affectionately around her husband, who was looking intently at his squid.
“I was just telling the Fynchs our story, love.”
“Oh, yes. We met at the spa. She was lying there, feet in buckets of water, with cucumbers over her eyes. I came and sat next to her… chatted her up…”
“He certainly did… I was so annoyed! All I wanted was to relax before going to dinner with my friends. And this man was so persistent and… odd…”
“That was before you took the cucumbers off your eyes, sweetpea.”
“Good God, listen to this cheeseball! I can’t say you exactly took my breath away, honey.” She turned to Michael and Kate. “I mean, he was in this early thirties and he already had the bald-spot.”
“How’d you do it, then?” Kate asked.
“What’s that?” He said, wiping the corners of his mouth with a filthy napkin.
“Win her over?”
“Well, keep in mind this was only ten years ago. I had six digits in the bank, even then. And a girl can tell, isn’t that right, Kate?” He pulled his wife into an affectionate side-hug. “Gal’s gotta look out for herself somehow, eh? And, hey, I’m not complaining! I mean, look at this creature. Isn’t she a beauty?”
Miranda puffed out her chest a little and flashed what she thought was a bashful smile, but what was, in reality, a rehearsed baring of the gums, a flaring of the remodeled nostrils, a wide-eyed, plasticky grin.
They had two more bottles of wine. They went Dutch on the cheque, which rounded up to £270, and, by the time they were ready to call separate taxis, it was 11:30.
The ride home was silent. Kate spent the entire twenty-five minutes staring out the window at the streetlamps and the yellow shadows they cast on the street. At the end, Michael paid for the ride out of pocket. They entered their quiet home to see Lourdes, the nanny, at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and reading a Delia Smith cookbook. They paid her and she hurried out the door.
“Lovely couple,” said Kate, removing her coat and draping it over her chair.
“You really think so?” said Michael, struggling to pull his shoe off.
“I do, yes. They’re nice people. Why? Didn’t you like them?”
“Yes, yes. Very nice.”
Kate sat down at the kitchen table and crossed her legs up on the chair. She opened her laptop and took her wire-rimmed glasses out of her pocket, her face becoming lined and unappealing with the bright light of the screen.
“It is a great story, isn’t it?”
“Hm?” She said, without taking her eyes off the screen.
“Our story. How we met. We’ve been telling it for so many years, I’d forgotten how charming it actually is.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I liked the Smiths’ better.”
“Really? I thought it was quite dull.”
“Yes, but they met when they were in their late twenties. We were still in school. Still children, really.” She paused to wipe her reading glasses on her shirt. “It seems a bit silly, doesn’t it?”
She took her eyes off the screen to look at him. Just then, her phone rang and she picked it up.
“Hello, Mum! Yes, we’ve decided on the blue…” She got up and left the room.
Michael stood there for a moment and watched her go, then turned, defeated, and began up the stairs. Walking for Michael wasn’t as easy as it used to be. He had a pain in his hip, a pain that never really seemed to go away. Even when he was standing still or sitting down, or even asleep, it was always there. It wasn’t a sharp pain, but more of a dull ache; obstinate, throbbing, just persistent enough that he had to limp.
He made it to the top of the stairs and went straight to the bathroom. He turned the tap on and splashed his face, then looked up at the mirror above the sink. His face was pale and gaunt under the room’s sharp lighting. There were deep, dented lines, almost like scars, surrounding his jaw. His eyelids drooped, giving him a look of constant exhaustion. His hair was grey and thinning at the top. He removed his heavy black jacket and unknotted his tie. He slowly unbuttoned his white shirt and slung it over the glass shower door before returning back to the mirror to examine his image. What had once been strong, powerful arms were now sagging with loose flesh, covered in white hair and even a few dark age spots. His chest was no longer slender and long, his abdomen no longer cut with pure, bare muscle. A slight curvature, a beer belly, rested just below the ghost-like protrusions of papery-white ribs.
On his way down the hall, Michael stopped outside his son’s bedroom. The door was slightly open, and he pushed it open a little further, peaking inside. There, James lay, his chest rising and falling peacefully. Michael began to shut the door before a sharp whisper cut through the dark room.
Michael paused in his tracks. “Go back to sleep, James.”
James sat up in bed. “I can’t.”
Michael made his way through the room. “Can’t sleep?”
“No. I keep thinking about tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes.” Michael said, perching on the end of the bed. “Double digits. It’s exciting stuff.”
“Am I gonna feel any different? You know, seeing as it’s a new decade, and all.”
“Well,” said Michael, bringing his watch up to the light. “You tell me. It’s 12:24.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t born at 12:24, was I? So I’m not technically ten, yet.”
“Right you are.”
“I’ll be ten at 3:56 tomorrow.”
“More like 3:42.”
“Mum said it was 3:56.”
“Well, Mum’s wrong. You were born at 3:42 in St. Thomas’ on a Monday. Dr. Keating delivered you at 4 lbs.”
“That’s quite small, isn’t it?”
“Mm. Very. We had to be extra careful with you. They put you in an incubator for seven whole days, and Mummy and I couldn’t hold you or even touch you. We could only look at you through the glass. And you were covered in tubes.”
“Did you think I was going to die?”
“God, no. You had the best doctors in the world looking after you. Besides, Mummy and I wouldn’t have let anything happen to you.”
There was a long, hollow silence filled only by the humming of the radiator.
“How do you know when you’re in love?”
“Why? Are you in love?”
“I don’t know. I think so. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“Well, I suppose you just know… Let me guess, it’s that pretty blonde in your class. Lena? Laura?”
“What do you mean ‘you just know’?”
“I don’t know. I suppose you’ll know it when you feel it.”
“Did you know it when you’ve felt it?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Of course you can remember. What was it like when you fell in love with Mum? Don’t try and tell me you don’t remember that.”
“Wait ‘til you get to be my age, kiddo. There’s lots of things I can’t remember.”
There was a noise behind them. Michael turned to see Kate, standing in the door.
“Michael, let’s go,” she said. “James has a big day ahead of him, right, James?” She was a motionless silhouette in the skeleton of the door. Michael tried to meet her eyes, but he couldn’t find them in the cold shadows that covered her face. He stood slowly and kissed the brown hair on the top of his son’s head. “Sweet dreams… Ten-year-old.”
“Not yet,” said James.
Michael left the room, shouldering by Kate on the way out. He paused and turned to meet her eye, but she still had her reading glasses on, and, in the strange lighting of the hallway, all he could see was his own, wrinkled face reflected in the glass. That night, he fell asleep almost immediately while Kate sat up and read some throwaway airport paperback. He was used to sleeping with the light on; he’d done so for nearly twenty years. All he had to do was turn on his side, away from the lamp, and cover his face with a pillow until the room around him became so dark he could pretend she wasn’t reading, but sleeping, with only the sound of a smooth glass and sloshing gin to convince him otherwise. Kate sat up for nearly an hour before puffing out a big sigh, pulling the string on the light, and turning away from Michael to go to sleep.