My coffee got cold without me knowing. I wiped the ring the mug had made with my shirt. She saw. Metres away she was smiling, in-between her glossy articles and hot froth. I smiled and looked at the clean table. I wasn`t very good at this. I never was – just ask Joan. She knows how useless I am at putting myself out there in social situations. I looked up at the woman again. She was paging through quickly and then caught my eye. I looked down at my silver ring, heavy, panting, weighing me down, a surrender, a cast for my heart. It was one Joan picked out from the same place I picked out hers. Destiny, she said. It felt so natural to put it on each day, kiss her on the cheek and think about coming back to her smile and grace around the house. Her presence stuck in every room. Her scent lingered on my suit usually and half way through the day, I`d lose it, get angry and wait slowly for the day to end to smell her again. Her scent was there.
“Got a pen?” It was her. It was the woman. She was wearing her hair down and had big red lips. She was wearing a grey dress, maybe for work, and black shoes. I tried to speak.
“A pen?” I was shuffling through pockets on my shirt I never had and she smiled wider. Digging through my pocket, I found a pen Joan always used for shopping lists. I was supposed to get the groceries today.
“Here we go,” she was writing her number and two small x`s. Joan usually wrote her letters with three afterwards. It was her trademark and I always teased her about it. She stopped writing though.
“So you can call.”
I remember her nodding briefly and walking away. She didn`t see my finger under the table, how I slipped my ring off when I dug for the pen. She didn`t see and maybe I was glad. I looked at the tainted serviette: Hannah, preceded by numbers I hoped to forget forever. I stuffed it in my trouser pocket, hoping to throw it away later. I could’ve thrown it away then. I could have.
I put my ring back on.
“Groceries?” Joan rose when I entered and smiled briefly when she saw packets full for dinner tonight even though I`d make toast again. I nodded, walked over and kissed her forehead softly. She felt soft.
Joan picked up her book and left me in the kitchen. Four slices in the toaster, Marmite out and kettle boiling. Hardly a feast. Joan always liked Marmite, though.
“Joan? Joan, I made some toast?”
She was probably reading Gatsby again like some troubled ex who had once been a fictional lover. The Marmite was hot and perfect and the tea floated in the room. Never bothered Joan when she was in a book. The last few nights, she never joined me for dinner anyway. She`d always greet me though. Maybe this was it, then? A hard day at the office, a cup of something for lunch and a meek homemade dinner. I`d probably just watch the news, weather and whatever game was on later. Joan sometimes came to check the score but not like she used to be. We used to make nachos on big game nights and invite friends over. Now, friends don`t want to come over. They invite me out instead and tell me things like “Don`t be stuck in this rut, mate.” or “How you`re doing? You need to get out more – it’ll be good for you.” They never mention Joan.
After dinner, I flicked through this and that and found a program on wasps. I felt like it was the sign I needed and went off to the shower. In the far corner of the room, Joan was reading Gatsby and nodding along.
“You`re almost done with it? Again?” I chuckled. Joan looked up and smiled at me, genuinely pleased, “Yes, one hundred lines to go.” She seemed to say that phrase wherever she was in the book but I didn’t care. I got to see her smile.
“Gonna pop in the shower. The toast got cold.”
“I’m sorry, love.”
Before I put my trousers off, I found Hannah and her x`s and put it safely in a box Joan would never see. I could have thrown it away. Especially after Joan had smiled.
“Are you happy?” It was Joan who put her head on my chest. It was early and I was supposed to take a jog before work. Was I happy? This was happy. Joan`s hair was still perfect and her scent lingered on me. Her hand was playing with my messy hair.
“I want you to be.”
“I am like this,” I mumble and smile, rolling over and kissing her forehead. She smiles wide and I feel it in my heart and wonder if she can, too.
Joan didn`t speak to me when I got home. Mostly ‘cause I got a pizza and she had wanted to cook apparently. She usually got upset like this. This was a day when she greeted and the retired to her couch. Hannah in the box did not seem too bad right about now.
“Joan?” she was curled up again and smiled.
“Sorry about earlier…”
“No, I`m sorry. I thought a pizza and something different would be nice…”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
Hannah was dressed in a sharp red dress and a new scent filled my nostrils. I didn’t smell like Joan at all but I liked it.
“So I told my boss I need some time off because I work so hard,” she chuckled and put a hand on mine in the middle of the table, “but I feel like I’m talking too much.”
“No, no, not at all,” I watch her fingers on my knuckles and I smile softly at her.
“I guess I’m not used to dating?”
“You don’t date?”
“I guess not for a while,” I shrug and look at the way she looks at me; the way she seems like she’s enjoying herself and the idea that she wants to listen to every memory I want to talk about. My ring is in my pocket and maybe I’m the only one in the bistro that can hear it buzzing.
“So, if you could have time off work-“
“Oh no, that’ll be a while,” I interrupt, “I had some time off not too long ago but now I’m back and need to stick to a routine for a while.”
Hannah sipped her wine and I could see her lips curl up, “If you could get time off – where would you go?”
“If money was no option?”
“Yes, if money was no option,” Hannah looked excited and her eyes washed over the room quickly as if she were picturing new scenes before her; like I was discovering the globe’s treasures with her. “I’d go to India or Thailand – somewhere hot, with colour and the opportunity to get lost and take photos.”
I grinned and looked down at the glass of wine I haven’t touched yet.
Hannah’s finger was on my knuckle again, “You do have a destination! I can see your brain working overtime!”
“Well I guess I always wanted to go to Rome. I was going to. It just never happened.”
It didn’t. Joan and I had spoken about it a few times but nothing came of it in the end.
I nodded, away in a memory, “I imagined dinner in a little place where no one spoke English-“
“And those quaint coffee shops!”
“And the art, the history! I think you picked a winner…”
I sipped the wine and it was the best thing I’ve tasted in a while. It was better than the hot toast and small cup of tea. It was better than going through the motions of work and making friends with the television at home. It tasted like this moment was meant to happen. I couldn’t shake Joan’s “I love you” or the way she smiled in bed. I couldn’t shake the way she’d make me feel or the way she fought about the silliest things.
I couldn’t shake Hannah’s exhilaration or the way she looked at me. It was like Hannah was actually there.
“Having fun?” Hannah asked softly, her lips playing on the glass’ edge.
“The most fun I’ve had in a while.”
Joan was kissing me and it felt like it was. It was that scent on me again that made me think about the first time we met. Unlike the Hollywood play-outs, we were in the same McDonald’s and Joan was just behind me in the queue. Before I scurried to bury my burger, I heard her at the counter, looking for change.
“I could swear I bought my purse…”
The server lady, far too large for her uniform, did not look impressed and mindlessly pointed to the next customer, “Next! What’ll it be?”
I dropped a note on the counter for Joan and she looked up like she had been electrocuted. Maybe it was a little condescending? I wondered why she hadn’t said anything when the server lady took the cash and put the order through.
I nodded and smiled and felt her smile back. It touched my heart and it felt weird because I never felt that before. I remember her sitting next to me for the next three hours talking about Gatsby, Roald Dahl and poets I never heard of before. I told her anything funny so I could see her smile over and over again. It was easy. It was what life was supposed to be – thrilling yet so completely in order that you knew something more powerful than you existed. God did this to me. God brought me Joan.
Joan was on her couch again when I came in from the jog and she looked excited.
“Listen to this,” she said proudly as if announcing Life’s overall mystery to eternal happiness, “So we beat on…boats against the current-“
I knew the rest, “…borne back ceaselessly into the past,” I say.
Joan smiled and read on. Perhaps Love is this eternal thing that some of us never reach. When you do, when you really know Love, there is no other thing that matters. You do what you do; you do Life as a middle thing to seeing her again. Nothing gets tiring. Maybe imposing on the moments that make the Love stronger – even when you think it can never be possible.
“So you’re finished then?” I ask as she closes the book and moves swiftly to the bed to put her hands on my neck. It feels warm and I feel it stretch along my spine.
“Yes…maybe we can watch the game tonight?”
“There’s a game tonight?”
“I’ll make nachos,” she whispers and kisses me softly, “then we can fight and bet and make sure the bed’s messy tomorrow.”
I felt her completely in my heart and saw her eyes flicker to mine. Love.
After the awful refereeing, laughing at Joan who choked on the spicy salsa I made and the in-between kisses all through the game, I was laying by her watching her sleep. I watched the way she shifted, her brow creasing and then relaxing and her subconscious movement to lie so that her arm was touching mine under the covers.
There was knocking at the door. Something odd on a late Saturday morning. Joan didn’t wake when I moved my arm away; she rolled over and mumbled something in her dream. I guess I forgot to pay rent on time.
It was Hannah. And she was leaning against the doorway with her smile – one that I forgot and it stung my chest.
“Your pen…” she lifted my pen from behind her back, “you left it at the restaurant. Maybe on purpose…maybe I just wanted an excuse to see you.”
I took the pen and then suddenly became conscious of my boxer briefs and T-shirt. That Joan might be awake.
“I’m sorry I was in bed and-“
Hannah was walking inside and she stopped in front of me, tilting in and I had no intention of stopping her. Her lips were on mine and I felt something real, something completely life-like. She stopped, her forehead on mine and her eyes dancing.
“Just thought I’d say hi.”
“Hi.” She stepped away and checked her watch, “I have to run. Talk soon?”
I smiled, nodded and watched the door close behind her.
“She seems nice…” Joan’s head was peeking from around the corner. She looked tired, haggard and I wanted to hold her.
“Joan, its not-“
“It’s not what! Huh, it’s not what!?”
I shook my head. She gave me that look. It seemed like it all came to her for a moment: a grave acceptance, a small beat that told her I’ll be alright. She was allowed to feel this at some point and with all her Love, she knew that she had to walk away.
“I guess it’s alright…” she whispered, smiled that smile and walked to her sanctuary.
“Joan, come on! It’s nothing! It’s nothing!”
I followed her into the room and she wasn’t on the couch. She wasn’t on the bed. She wasn’t in the bathroom crying or locked away in the study.
“Joan? Joan?” I looked to the couch again and saw the mould of her body in the cushion. I looked at the bed and saw the dent in the pillow.
I looked to the desk beside my table and saw Joan. She was in the urn, watching like she always was and now hoping that I’d overcome the stormy night when she crashed and nobody could help. She sat there every night with me – through the game, the un-eaten bits of toast and the empty, empty bed. She was still here; the scent lingering. But it was slowly but surely fading and all I had was her smile in my heart and a Life on a serviette. I had my ring on my finger and I could feel her faintly kissing me good-bye until I meet her one day again.