The scene is set on the top floor of an old greystone apartment in Chicago’s North Side, the windows of which look out to a black Lake Michigan. Two plates sit on a pub table. One is cleaned and on the other half a pasta portion remains. The diners have taken the wine to the couch, where they are presently reposed; John with his feet up on the coffee table, Lauren with her legs across his lap, her head on a pillow on the far side. Sinatra plays faintly from a speaker, about the same volume as the crackling fire across them. John reads and Lauren thinks. But then….
“Who the FUCK are you?” she said, then withdrew her feet, positioned them on the floor, but kept a suspect eye on John, who became, as of last week, her fiance.
“I’m John Keiser.” he said, smiling, not turning up from his book, for such epiphanies were normal. He smiled because it was these caprices which he liked most in her. Those without humor would say she had issues, and she may very well indeed, but John liked all of her.
“I’m going to marry you?” she asked, and he glanced up to her to see her cheeks pulled back in disgust.
“I hope so.”
“I don’t even know who you are.” she said, then kicked off the blanket and rose and leaned into the tall window so her nose was on the cool glass and looked down to where the lake, black but where a little moonshine scattered, met the deep blue indigo of twilight’s last legs.
He had been anticipating this. She had, in the past week, slipped from taciturnity to reticence when their conversation was given liberty. She had accepted his proposal at the restaurant last week, part of her did anyway (she would never embarrass him in public), but not the true part. That was coming now.
“Well if you don’t want to go through with it,” he said, turning a page, yawning, glancing at her, then back to the page, “you don’t have to.”
She accepted these words with a furrowed brow. A barge was out there in the lake, far off, lit up like a constellation.
“I don’t know if I can.” she said, then turned to him, “Can we still stay together, if we don’t get married?”
He closed the book, set it upon the table, then leaned back and cocked his head and looked at her.
“How do I know? How do I know?” she pleaded.
“Well, you love me. At least I think you do.”
She glanced back to him, “I’ve loved many people. Many things. But because I’m thirty and love YOU, I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you?”
“Part of it anyway.”
“And if it doesn’t work out?” she asked, turning to him with animated desperation, “What then? We’ll be fools.” she said, turning again to the lake, where she tried to track the progress of that barge. Was it anchored?
“We’ll have wasted so much life on each other. Fools. And you could cheat on me.” she said, “or I you. We don’t know who we’re going to be in six months, after the thing happens. Why should I marry you?” she asked, facing him now.
“Well, we have a pretty good time together.”
The direness of her expression broke here, and a few tears of relief rolled down her face as she felt a nostalgia for a time which had yet to be. She wiped them away and returned to the couch, where she sat with her hands on her kneecaps on the far side, exchanging looks between him and the black TV. She opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again:
“What does it feel like for you, after we do it?”
“Men are different than women.”
“But what does it feel like?”
“I want to be rid of you. I don’t want you to be there.”
“You should have lied.” she said.
“I don’t want to lie here. I lie all day.”
“Don’t ever lie to me.” she said.
She rose now, walked back to the window, then picked up the wine bottle and finished the last drops and the pulp tasted of that little Airbnb in Rome, when she came out of the shower onto that little terrace and sat naked on his lap while they shared a cigarette and the starlings shot across the azure while the sirocco wind dried her body like a million little kisses. It was when she saw his first grey hair, in that sun.
They quit smoking together two years ago and the hole he made in the wall when they fought next to the TV still wasn’t patched.
“You’re eight years older than me.” she said, looking at the hole, then at the objects in the room which lost their distinction in growing night, “You’ll probably die first. Then I’ll be all alone. I could be alone for years, for longer than I’ve known you now. That’s a long time to be alone.”
“That’s not a rational reason to not get married.” he said.
“Getting married isn’t rational.”
“We don’t have to get married.” he said.
“Then why did you ask me?”
“I was bored.”
She laughed, then jumped across the room and fell on his lap. Her hand went under his shirt and she played with his hairs while staring at their reflection in the black TV.
“It can get so boring, can’t it?” she asked.
“It’ll be more boring then, when we’re married. We won’t have anything to look forward to. Only you dying.” she pinched him, then peeked up to his eyes. “What did you do before me, when you were bored?”
“I used to walk.” he said, “I’d walk and walk and walk. One time I saw a Great Dane in the park. He was stalking this squirrel in a tree. He moved so slow, it was the most graceful thing I’ve ever see, watching it’s leg raise and fall in slow motion. Then he went for it, the squirrel, and this simple kid, he started clapping, and all of us watching, there were a few, we all started clapping. Then we all went our own way and never said a thing to each other.”
He looked down to her staring at their reflection in the black TV with parted lips. She still had tears in her eyes. He kissed her cheek and tasted her salt.
“You can still walk.” she said, looking fast up to his blue eyes, hurt for having taken that away from him, “You can walk right now, you can go on a month walkabout if you want.”
“I don’t need to walk anymore.” he said, “I found what I was looking for.”
“Oh Gawwwd” she said, then sat up and pushed him with both hands back into the couch before reclining again across his person.
“What about you?” he asked, “What did you do?”
“I don’t remember.” she said. “I’d go to the movies. But the grocery store first and sneak in forbidden food. One time I brought in a can of whipped cream and sprayed it right into my mouth during the loud parts.”
She made the noise the can made into his ear.
“Were you lonely?” he asked, pushing her away.
“Do you miss being lonely?”
“Not really,” she said, “you only listen half the time.”
“What’s that dear?” he asked, drawing his eyes down to the book.
She pushed him again but now fell back on him and watched the fingers of the fire crawl across the ceiling. “If I go first,” she said, “tell me what you’d say, at my funeral.”
“We gather here today to celebrate the life of Lauren Fisher,” he said in a deep, comically reverent voice, looking down to her closed eyes, then he took his time looking into the blaze, “I don’t want to play this game” he said, and she opened her eyes and saw the reflection of the fire in his.
“Ok.” she said, “let’s do it.”
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