Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Frosted-Glass Table

She sat at the small round table holding his cigarette. The tabletop was of frosted glass and she imagined insects trapped, preserved, in it. She gingerly put the cigarette in her mouth. She didn't have a lighter, she didn't smoke anyway. She was wearing a white dress which had already gotten dirty from her frantic application of makeup that morning.

The chair was the kind with strips of wood along the back and the seat, and they cut into her. She felt uncomfortable. She wished Jan would come back already. He had just gone to get them drinks, surely that couldn't take so long? They were outside and the sun was very hot and even the cool-looking frosted table burned a little to the touch. She was getting thirsty. By the time Jan came she would be thirsty enough to finish both their drinks, and then he would have to go get more and she would have to be alone again. Next time she would go with him, she decided.

There were not many others at the outdoor tables. An elderly couple: the man with a small moustache, the wife with a large pink hat. An attractive young couple, the woman with lustrous dark hair, the man with a soul patch and bottle-green eyes. He had his arm around her and they were drinking from the same tall appealing drink, with two straws. She wished Jan was like that with her, though he was no longer her boyfriend. She wished she had a boyfriend. Jan was awfully insensitive that way, always talking about Katya.

Perhaps he had run into Katya and that was why he was taking so long?

When he returned, she decided, she would depart for the bathroom and take as long as possible-- to pay him back. Let him stew uncomfortably in the frosted-table heat. But she knew really that Jan would not take it the same way she was. He would smoke of course, and drink, and observe, and think about things in his mind, and maybe hum a little, and the time would fly by. No, then, she would stay with him, pester him. But that wouldn't faze him either. Oh, Jan was impossible!

Without conscious effort her fingers had started to shred the white unlit cigarette in her hands, and she wrenched off the filter and tapped out the tobacco onto the glass table. A fly buzzed by and she imagined it imprisoned in the table, as if it were amber. She shredded the white cigarette paper and felt a little like crying.

Footsteps behind her, and she resolved not to look-- hoping hoping that it was him but she needed to not seem so needy. But they clopped past her and she looked up and it was a blond man, long-haired and big-shouldered, in a sweater. Where the hell was Jan, then?

A small girl walked by with her parents. Each of them was holding one of her hands and at intervals they would swing her up between them, the girl chortling with pure delight. Alice tried to remember her parents doing that with her, and could not. She remembered it with her little brother, but not with her. She wished Jan would come. She needed to catch up with him, anyway. She hadn't really talked to him in at least two weeks, though it felt like forever; they had kept making dates and canceling them. The cigarette dust was all over the frosted-glass table, and she swept it into a little pile. The sun went behind a cloud and she felt a little better, and also a little chillier. Jan's coat was hung on his chair and she considered getting up to wear it, but it required too much effort, and it would be awkward then when he came back.

More footsteps clopping by, and again she did not look. Jan, Jan, please let it be Jan finally! And then a tenor voice, very pleasant: "Sorry I took so long. Ran into a friend at the bar. Hand me a smoke, will ya?"

He dropped into the seat across from her, with the coat, and she could not quite bear to look into his pleasant ruddy face. He set down two tall lovely drinks with umbrellas on the dirty frosted table, and pushed the one in the yellow glass to her. "Pina colada for you, daiquiri for me." He pronounced it "dahi-kee-ree," and she was too amused to correct him.

"Thank you," she said, cool as the lovely drink, which she sipped not-too-eagerly from a great curly straw. "Who'd you meet?"

"Peter. This guy who used to work with me, before I quit at the Hammond place. Do you have my smokes, Alice?"

She looked regretfully at the table with its little pile of cigarette remains. "You gave me one, but um..."

Jan went shocked. "You didn't smoke it, did ya?"

She thought about claiming that-- surprise him a little-- but it was too obvious a lie. "Shredded it," she confessed.

He grinned slanty. "Never mind." He found one in his coat pocket and lit it with a sigh. They sucked at their drinks.

"How is Katya?" she asked at length. She could not bear not knowing, and he was so carefully not mentioning it.

His face softened a little, eyelids drooping, and he took a big gulp of dahiquiri. "Oh, she's fine. She got a promotion. She told me to not even try any more. She's in love with some dick at work."

"I'm sorry," she said, trying to sound genuine although of course she was as full of glee as the little girl being swung by her parents.

He stubbed out the cigarette on the frosted-glass table, doubling suddenly as an ashtray (how silly that they didn't have them, actually, at this kind of place). "Yeah, well. She's not so swell anyway. I don't mind."

She spun the little umbrella from her pina colada between her fingers. Soon, she knew, she would shred its paper too.

A fly lit on their table, and lightning-quick Jan smashed it onto the glass. "Sorry," he said sheepishly when he saw her expression. "Reflex. Couldn't help it. Sorry, baby."

She looked at its flattened body and it made her think of her imaginings before, the amber, the preservation. But this fly would be scraped off the frosted table within hours by some busboy. No posthumous remembrance for him, except Alice's.

She let the paper crumbs from the umbrella float to the frosted-glass table surface and looked just to the right of Jan, at the happy young couple, and felt nostalgic and a little sad and wanted to kiss Jan on his big pink lips, but the table was between them and they had been over since March, and now it was hot out and the drinks were very cool and the fly was squashed and rotting and nothing was better. Nothing would be better for a long time.