So there she is, sitting at our usual table. She’s facing inwards toward the dining room, the preferred seat of the first to show up. The empty seat left me with a view of the bus stop outside where I’d just arrived two minutes ago. I sit and order a vodka tonic; she already has her rum and diet soda.
“Not too busy tonight,” I say, taking off my jacket and throwing it over the back of my chair.
“It’s still early. Most people still work nine to five, you know,” she says.
I shrug my shoulders, uninterested. “So what’s new, or do I dare ask?” I already know she’s got some dirt to share, but I ask anyway.
She stares at me for a moment as if she can see right through me. “What’s with the act? Why do you pretend to hate talking about other people?”
“It makes me feel like a responsible adult. Cigarette?”
She shakes her head no, lifting up her blouse sleeve to reveal the Patch. I already knew that too. Just testing her resolve. “And your oral fixation there doesn’t make you feel like a child?”
“Baby, men are all about oral fixations.” I exhale my first drag.
She gives me a smile that’s part amusement, part disgust, shaking her head at the same time. She’s interested in me, sure, but right now sex between us is not an option. Truth is, I actually do value her friendship and don’t want to risk losing it by complicating our relationship with sex. Yet. “Why don’t you go first this time love?” she says, still holding on to that smile.
“Well, before you tell me about Aimee and Philip,” I say, and she looks appropriately shocked, not thinking I know things between them are ugly, “I do have some news about Austin and Richard.”
“They broke up!” she says, a statement more than a question.
I flash a smile, impressed but not surprised that she guessed. Actually, she probably knew before I did and is just acting surprised. “Right now Richard’s at Dominic’s and little brother Austin’s at my apartment in tears, desperately trying to think up some fiendish plot of revenge but, sadly, not doing too well.”
“Richard and Dominic hooked up? I knew it!” She stares off into space, contemplating this new wrinkle in the lives of those we call our friends.
“Austin wants to pack all of Richard’s stuff up and leave it out in the street, but so far he can’t even bring himself to go back to their apartment.” I give an exaggerated sigh. “Young love.”
Movement outside the window catches my eye, and I see a bus pull up to the stop. There are people standing around, waiting to get on the bus, eager to depart. And who can blame them? There has to be somewhere better than here. Yet they wait patiently while those on the bus wait as well for the bus to stop so they can exit.
“Speaking of young love,” my girlfriend says, and when I say girlfriend, I mean friend that’s a girl, “did you hear what happened to Patrice? Turns out she…”
I tune her voice out, having previously heard about Patrice’s woes more than I’d care to, and instead listen to the muted hydraulic hiss as the bus doors open and the lemmings begin to file out, satisfied with another day’s work at Dullsville. My drink arrives. I nod to the waiter and toss the straw out of the glass.
“…and that was right after sleeping with some guy she’d just met at the club that night – she was hopped up on X of course…”
Ho hum, still talking about Patrice. Back at the bus stop I watch an elderly couple help each other off the bus. Behind then is a guy who’s obviously impatient. Looks like the kind of guy who’s just dying to get home to a chilly reception from his wife since finding out that he’s banging his secretary – excuse me, personal assistant, sounds so much more romantic you know – from the office where he puts in ten hour days under fluorescent lighting that really accentuates his rather large bald spot. Bald Guy checks his watch, now angry, then elbows his way past the couple, almost knocking them to the ground as he passes them.
“…when she takes her glass and smashes it right over his head! At his Christmas Party!”
“Appalling,” I mutter. “The nerve of some people.”
“That’s what I said,” Girlfriend says, “and you’d think she’d at least have the decency to go with him to the emergency room to get stitched up, which of course she didn’t. But here’s where it gets really good…”
If this was thirty or forty years ago that old man would’ve whipped Bald Guy’s ass, I can tell. As it is, he just glares after him for a second or two, then goes back to helping his wife. I can’t blame him for not wanting to start anything with Bald Guy. I’m a lover myself, not a fighter. My glass is empty. I signal the waiter for another.
“…kicked him right in the mouth, breaking two of his teeth…”
Everyone else waited politely if not patiently for the elders to finish getting of the bus. Not that any of them tried to help them, mind you. Once safely out of the way, the rest of the drones continue their mass exodus.
Suddenly my heart stops as a pregnant woman steps off the bus.
No, it isn’t Annie, but the similarities at first are amazing. Her close-cut auburn hair, her round face, her tiny little body. There are subtle differences though. The shape of the eyes, the fullness of the lips, her skin complexion.
Plus this Annie is very pregnant.
Somehow I keep my emotions in check, so Girlfriend isn’t aware that my heart just recently jumped into overdrive at the sight of someone I once knew. Or loved. Maybe. No, Girlfriend’s still chattering away, spewing out Patrice’s life story.
“…so she said, ‘No way. You’re not getting into this bed tonight. You are going to…’ ”
Ah, Patrice and her careless flings. How amusing. Like a sore on your ass – it’s fun for everyone else. Meanwhile, my faux Annie is turning her head from side to side, looking for somebody. Disappointed, she waddles over off to the side out of everyone’s way, travel bag in hand. Someone’s not on time to pick her up? What a horrible thing to do to a pregnant woman. Probably her thug of a boyfriend. I can see him now, as brutish on the inside as he is on the outside, tan skin just oozing his ego, not a care in the world. Another reason I know it’s not Annie; she definitely isn’t into the meatheads, as this girl obviously is. She’s awful cute though, standing there absentmindedly rubbing her big belly as she watches the nobodies file on the bus.
The waiter comes over with my second drink and to take our order. I glance at the menu and order something at random. Doesn’t matter what it is, it’s all good here. Girlfriend pauses in her storytelling long enough to order her meal and a fresh drink, then resumes her diatribe.
“So where was I, Oh yeah, so here’s Kenny without any shirt on…”
God, Patrice, get a clue, will you? Outside, Annie number two starts pacing as the bus grumbles to life. She stares after the smoggy exhaust as it fades into nothing, lost in thought, wondering where her Meathead is and why he’s not there to pick her up. She begins chewing on her pinkie fingernail in an oh-so-familiar way that makes my stomach drop again.
It is Annie.
“Holy shit,” I say.
“Well, that’s not even the worst part. It was all a lie! Kenny had really slept with…”
Outwardly I’m still calm, but I can begin to feel sweat building in my armpits. Suddenly it takes all my willpower to suppress an urge to run to her and confess everything – how I’d felt nothing but guilt and regret since walking out on her and really wanted to be with her all along. I start to push my chair back away from the table when I think, this is crazy, it can’t really be Annie, can it? And is it possible that I could still have such strong feelings about her? Then I notice the tattoo on her right shoulder of a big yellow sun.
My Annie would never get a tattoo.
I slump back into my chair, surprised that I’d even gotten so far as to get up out of it. Girlfriend has stopped talking and is looking at me expectantly.
“Bathroom,” I say.
“Well can’t it wait? I’m almost done with the story!”
Just then the waiter arrives with our meals, effectively diffusing the tense situation that has suddenly been built much better than I could have at that moment. But what was going on here to feel tense about? The saga of Patrice and her hoard of lovers? Girlfriend and her obsession of other peoples’ lives? I pick at my meal and Girlfriend starts up again, and I really try to concentrate on what she has to say, but my gaze is drawn out the window where I can see that bright yellow tattoo clear as day.
It’s definitely not Annie I tell myself. She’d have to be crazy to get something like that. I start to relax, unaware that I was getting tense again. I sit back in my seat and breathe out a long silent sigh. “Great,” I say.
“Great? After months of putting up with his abuse and basically working like a slave for him you think it’s great that he just up and leaves her with nothing? Nothing! No money, no clothes, no…”
Annie Two walks to the curb and back, repeatedly checking her watch. Arriving back at the bus stop for the third time, she gives a big sigh, shoulders slumping, then eases herself down onto the bench. I want to tell Annie Two that meatheads only let you down but then I think, didn’t I let you down too? So what does that make me? She looks up at this point, this time to the side so I could only see her profile. She turns her head from side to side, still waiting for Meathead. Maybe she’s just waiting for a cab. As she turns to the left, the sun shines on her face. I can see tears glistening on her cheeks, that hurt expression on her face that comes not from a late taxi but from the disappointment of a loved one, the same disappointment I saw as I turned around to face Annie from the bottom of our front steps, one last look at her face as I walked away, her innocence and the last chance between us now gone forever.
Dammit, it was her. It was my Annie.
“…not two but three different men! And one of them was his best friend Danny!”
“Annie,” I say softly.
“Oh,” Girlfriend says, maybe seeing something awkward on my face, definitely sensing something in my tone. “Honey, I said Danny, not Annie. I would never bring her up in front of you, you know…” For the first time tonight Girlfriend is speechless. Unsure and looking a bit awkward herself, she reaches her hand across the table and takes mine, squeezing it. “I’m sorry,” she says, and this certainly would be a great bonding moment between us except for the fact that I can’t concentrate on her right now.
“Thanks,” I hear myself mumble. I force myself to smile and make eye contact with her. This seems to do the trick of reassuring her that all is okay in our little universe. She releases my hand, smiling in an awkward way that strangely makes her seem repulsive to me. It’s the first time I’ve felt that way about her and it surprises me.
“Are you sure you’re okay? I mean, I know how hard you fell for her and all…”
I force myself to regain my composure, if for no other reason than my reputation. “Listen,” I say with absolute conviction, “it’s all in the past, so please, continue. I’m over it. Really.” I shovel in a mouthful of food that tastes like paper and chase it quickly with my quicksand drink. The mixture quickly sinks to the bottom of my stomach, a pile of lead.
She smiles again, a real smile this time. “Anyway,” she says slowly, “as I was saying before, she was suddenly getting this reputation for sleeping around. Her track record was awful, especially…”
I look out the window again, and I’m paralyzed by indecision. I should say something to her. I have to. I can see she still needs me like I still need her. Just as I can bear it no longer and finally work up the nerve to do something, I see her perk up, rising slowly off the bench and making her way as fast as she can toward a man in a finely tailored suit. Good for you I think. You always deserved someone who would come for you. Plus, he’s not a meathead. Seeing her with someone else convinces me again that this is certainly not my Annie. Then again, by some strange coincidence, her name could be Annie, so I guess what I should say is that she’s not my Annie. Not that I ever owned her, mind you, just an old term of affection that I used to use.
What the hell’s wrong with me right now?
Annie Two (I can’t think of anything else to call her at this point) tries to embrace the Suit, but he gives her a hard shove away. Surprised and hurt, she backs off slightly, but her need for him is still evident in her body language. She wants to run to him, be held by him, reassured, comforted. It hurts me to watch her in such obvious pain. She says something to him, gesturing at the same time with her arms. He stands there, arms crossed, shaking his head no. She starts to pace in front of him, now swinging her arms, ending her statement with a point to her mid-section, then to him.
The bastard, he can’t even say the word no. He just stands there, shaking his head instead.
She’s dumbfounded, mouth slightly open, staring at him. At that moment I see her again with crystal clarity, every pore on her face, every wrinkle.
I know it’s not her.
I sit back in my chair again, feeling relieved but not totally, still a bit worked up, feeling the effects of the recent roller coaster ride my insides have just experienced. It must have shown on my face as well because Girlfriend says, “I know what you’re thinking, that it’s totally not her style, right? But who else do you know would have the guts to go into a full restaurant on a Friday night and…”
Still, even though I’m positive it’s not my Annie, I’m still mesmerized by the situation, if only to see how everything turns out of course. My cigarette has burnt down to the filter, mostly untouched, so I light another, just to give my hands something to do while I watch. Maybe if things turn bad I should go out and offer to help the young lady. Chivalry and all, you know.
Annie Two reaches for her purse and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. She pulls one out, puts it in her mouth, and actually gets as far as snapping her lighter on before the Suit snatches it out of her mouth. She glares at him for a second or two before reaching for another. He manages to take this one away from her as well, though she certainly puts up more of a struggle this time. And despite the horror of a pregnant woman smoking, I can’t help but feel even more relieved.
My Annie would never smoke.
Annie Two is pretty mad at this point. She charges the Suit, beating on his chest and throwing her fists at him, not really doing any damage. The Suit wrestles with her for a minute until he gets her arms under control. Then he forces the pack of cigarettes out of her hands. She goes slack in his arms, so he lets her go. Defeated, she lowers her head into her hands.
The Suit stands there, resolute, bits of tobacco and cellophane showing through his clenched fist.
Her head is shaking up and down in her hands, most likely crying. I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now towards this woman. Pity? Anger? Disgust? Sorrow? My insides feel like a mess, but for the time being I push all those feelings aside, utterly absorbed by what’s going on. I know how my Annie would react. What will this Annie do I wonder?
She pulls her face out from her hands, and I can see her eyes are red and puffy. Still sobbing, she makes her way back to the bench. The Suit follows at a distance, the cigarette pack crushed, dropped on the ground behind them, forgotten.
She brushes her hair out of her face and for the first time I see her ears, those tiny little elf ears of hers.
How could I have ever doubted it? It’s my Annie. I suddenly get hot all over as again I feel consumed by an urge to run to her, take her in my arms, tell her that this time I can be the man she’d always hoped I could be. Tell her that instead of walking away and telling her nothing like last time I could love her the way she deserved to be loved.
The Suit sits next to her and says something obviously full of venom. Suddenly she wheels around and cracks him one, an open-handed slap. He’s so stunned that she smacks him again. I can hear the report through the glass and over the conversation in the restaurant.
I rub my own cheek, remembering the sting of her attack and the hurt that went along with it.
“He put her in the hospital for five days, the bastard. When she got out though…”
Annie changes tactics then, trying to be consoling. She puts her hand on her arm, caressing him, soothing him, and I feel a stab of jealousy. What has this guy done to deserve her love? That’s when I notice she’s missing the ring finger on her left hand.
Not my Annie.
It looks as if the Suit might actually cave in, his face almost one of compassion. But no, he proves that he’s a meathead without the muscles and ends up just pushing her away.
She gets up from the bench and starts screaming in his face. He gets up and you can see that his fuse is short, but she doesn’t notice. She’s yelling for two now, giving it all she has, and by the look of his expression her words are really ugly. His face turns red, what isn’t already red from her little love taps that is. She certainly has spunk.
People walking by begin to notice what’s going on, and soon there’s a small crowd. Some people make an obvious attempt to avoid the situation altogether, making a wide berth around them. Some people openly stare as he starts jawing back and the situation escalates into a full-blown argument, her openly crying now, him throttling the bus stop sign in frustration.
Some people hide and watch.
Finally a young guy tries to cut in, play the hero and calm things down at least. The Suit shoves him into the street, nearly getting him run over by a pick up. The truck’s horn honks, drowning out the Hero’s remarks. Now I’m almost hoping a cop will show up and break it up.
“…took a knife and gave him fifteen stitches in the arm and….”
The Suit’s staring down the Hero so he doesn’t notice Annie walk over to his side. She places a hand on his forearm and he turns and takes a swing at her, all in one motion, cracking her in the head. She goes down hard. I can hear the gasps from everyone outside (or is that my own gasp?). Some big guy, some meathead weightlifter, steps in and tries to end it. At least meatheads are good for something.
That’s when the Suit pulls the gun.
The crowd backs away, uncertain and afraid. Annie rises, a bit wobbly, a thin line of blood trickling from the corner of one eye. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand, sizing the Suit up as he’s holding the gun in her direction, though not pointing it directly at her. Once again she clears her hair away from her face and that’s when I notice the birthmark above her right eyebrow, close to her hairline. The birthmark shaped like a star. Her eyes, suddenly full of hate and despair, knowing eyes, those eyes turn in my direction and lock in on mine, turning my guts to ice. Everything inside me comes crashing down.
Annie! I want to scream. Annie!
Words are exchanged between the two and I watch as the Suit actually raises the gun, pointing it at her.
Annie stands there, defiant. But who is she defying? Is she telling the Suit that her life will go on no matter what, or is she telling me that?
“…divorce will be…is there something wrong?”
The Suit seems on the verge of a breakdown, the gun shaking in his hand.
Annie says something to him, and I can’t help but think it will be her last words.
My fear is confirmed as the Suit steadies the gun, his arm now straight and level.
I stand, upsetting my drink, barely able to keep myself from losing it.
“What the fuck? You just dumped half a plate of lasagna on my dress asshole!”
A final tear rolls down Annie’s cheek. She spits out some comment at him.
Jaw clenched, the Suit lowers the gun to point at her belly.
I close my eyes, powerless to do anything.