Arriving at the coffeehouse, he saw truculent Erica at the counter after she spotted him; she was pulling a double shift; a very married Seth Bowles cooed over her in a very public way at the counter. The sight of them together was nauseating, but given the establishment was dramatically empty, there was no escaping the awkward logistics. The professor was just as eager to avoid an encounter as the painter, so passed him without comment to the door.
Erica began preparing the patronís drink for a second time that day, and twanged in a nasally midwestern tone, “Where have you been hiding?”
Aloysius threw her an impervious look, but it was spread too thinly over his face. The barista glared through contrails of steaming milk. He did not want to be drawn back into it, but was in a snit.
“You don’t know shit about us,” she challenged. “About him.”
He answered, “I know Seth Bowles is a self-centered man who’s been pampered and placated his whole life like a spoilt child.”
“How does that make him different from any other man?” she asked hotly.
“That’s a cynical excuse to justify your enabling his bad behavior.”
“No,” she rejoined. “That’s knowing the lay of the land.”
“Well, there’s a wife on this landscape,” he reminded her.
“She’s an invalid. She’s never been in the picture.”
“But are you so naïve to think you can come between them? You will never be more than a trophy to him in good times, and a crutch in bad.”
She shot back. “And which are you? A trophy or a crutch?
He was thrown.
She saw his surprise. “Surely you’ve seen the engagement ring on Emma’s finger?”
Air escaping Aloysius’ lungs was audible.
The barista’s bracelet chimed with a plop of the to-go cup on the countertop. “Looks like we both want to be home wreckers.”
Forgetting his drink, again, the man turned red-faced to the door.
He charged up the block—resolved only to return to the house.
The image of Emma’s knuckle grazing his on the table at the restaurant the day before flashed vividly across his mind, but he had seen the ring prior to this. Aloysius was precisely the sort of person who would map out every contour of a beautiful womanís face and fail to notice she was conspicuously betrothed to another man. Being an artist did not make him more observant, only impaired with a peculiar form of nearsightedness.
At the very least, Emma’s virtue had been rescued from his overactive imagination, but at the price of being locked away—and nothing could make him love a woman more than knowing she could never be his. It was less reckless to pine after a woman who was unattainable than one who was merely promiscuous. He would not be required to agonize over her sullied virtue, only pat himself on the back for not asking her to forsake a higher principle on his behalf.
Yet where was the higher principle in failing to mention she was engaged?
As always his dented ego was of two minds on interpreting a womanís actions. Seeing Emmaís unstinting enthusiasm for his company, he could only conclude she was either the most heartless, ignoble woman he ever met, or, having formed an attachment for him, she had delayed her revelation so to cement their new bond and place it beyond amendment or repeal. Either way, she had been pulling him along from the beginning, and on nonnegotiable terms he would be the last to know.
Aloysiusí overstretched brain had systematically shut down over the course of the trying day, taking with it motor strength, coordination, and present-term memory. Regardless, he was not so preoccupied to fail and notice the street was darker going back than coming. He blearily drew a bead on a Cadillac ambulance parked up the block past the quadrangle, though more specifically on the coruscating faces of jack-o-lanterns peering out its rear window. The resident walked by the spectacle, waist-high in a plot, and looked around late on hearing feet kick up in dead leaves.
Glowing orbs appeared below the bare tree limbs; dark figures shuffled on and off porches with more stolen lanterns, betraying the antics of fraternity boys. The accidental spectator slowed on completing the puzzle, yet gathered it was a bad idea to show any reaction. One of the pranksters stood in a yard across the street with him dead in sight. His frightening mask did more than hide his identity. It drew out a primal predator stare. Aloysius quickened his stride and, seeing he was not going to be accosted, turned the corner.
One prominent jack-o-lantern was seen from the bottom of the hill: the one shining from Emmaís apartment window. Backlit against it, two figures stood on her porch, although it was impossible to say whether they were leaving or just arrived. The bedraggled suitor plodded up the steps to where the resident talked, and recognized her fellow interlocutor as Tanner, the artist friend from the coffeehouse.
The appearance of the older man at the foot of the porch ended whatever conversation proceeded it, leaving the stone-faced photographer looking down without greeting. Tanner studied the painter, as well as Emmaís complex reaction to him. “Well,” he awkwardly concluded, “I should be going.”
She acknowledged his leave-taking with a passable smile.
As he descended the steps, and she watched in silence, Aloysius took stock of her hard day. The lemony zephyr from that morning was gone, and in its place was a drab mossy frock buried under his cardigan; the sweaterís raggedness matched her ill-tended makeup.
Once Tanner was planted on the sidewalk below, Emma turned brusquely into her apartment. Aloysius tarried in the doorway where the pumpkin on the end table illuminated several packing boxes from upstairs. Alarmed, he slunk to the darker bedroom to find her wrestling with a large suitcase on the bed.
Hearing his footsteps, she made an announcement. “I’m leaving school, Aloysius.”
His script (if he had one) was out the window. “Why?”
The girl glanced back, raising an eyebrow at his show of feeling. “Why…? Because I didn’t bargain for this.”
She resumed stuffing things into her case.
“Jacques is gone,” he countered. “He will no longer bother you. He will soon be forgotten.”
(The man did not take her meaning.) Emma turned to sit on the dim bed; the ring on her finger was more visible in shadow than it ever was in daylight. “I’m engaged,” she admitted. “I’m engaged to be married. That’s what I wanted to tell you in my studio, and again this morning.”
Though he expected to hear the words, they nonetheless pushed down into his veins like poison.
“Evan is his name,” she went on. “That was him I was talking to last night on the phone when you happened upon me.”
Aloysius listed in the doorway.
“Itís as well it ends here,” she continued calmly. “I thought we would be friends, but itís clear we canít be friends.”
The suitor looked over to see most the beautiful gowns removed from the walk-in closet. A portmanteau, already fastened, presumably contained the bulk of her wardrobe, though those dresses of his personal experience were set aside for different accommodations. Each article was being packed away with a layer of tissue paper, but the designated piece of luggage seemed a hasty and inadequate selection for their travel. He needed to answer heróneeded a cri de cúur. “I don’t have friends,” he explained.
She crackled. “The way you cleared out of here this morning, it doesn’t surprise me.”
“No,” he mumbled. (She did not take his meaning.)
Emma stood up and closed the lid on the suitcase. “It’s been a rough day. Please leave.”
Howling instantly erupted beyond the drizzly windowsill; someone ran across the backyard; the frat house raiders were assaulting another block of houses.
“Leave,” she repeated forcefully.
Creaking, intrusive footsteps arose behind where the painter teetered on a precipice—footsteps undoubtedly drawn to the porch by the lantern in the window. “I have no friends,” he again intoned.
The candlelight wavered at his back; the front door was left open. With retreat cut off, the roused draft nudged him forward. “You don’t understand,” he said.
“What’s to understand?”
The only light in the house snuck away on tiptoe, and the blackness placed him urgently at her elbow. He seized the zipper on the suitcase and, undoing the flap, began flinging gowns to the floor. His voice was stronger. “You donít understand!” Something was unleashed in himósomething barely started. “You donít understand!” he cried.
Emma, astounded, dropped to the corner of the bed.
At the end of his outburst, the suitcase was empty, and tears flowed freely down his cheeks. Aloysius was dull and keen at the same time, somewhere between her warm body and the cold dark that engulfed them. He wanted to apologize, but was too incapacitated to speak. Gravity pulled him to the floor where the dresses were now arrayed at her feet. His arms, of their own accord, encircled her waist as a final fixed point. He chanted the words once more. “You don’t understand…”
Emma eased slowly, like a stack of wobbly cups and saucers struggling to stay aligned. Then, when she had completely exhaled, her body yielded to accept the embrace. “I do understand, Aloysius.” Her voice quietly broke. “I donít want you to be my friend, either.” She turned a tuft of his hair, and after a minute spoke again. “Go close the front door. You left it open.”
Aloysius rose as an emptied vessel to reenter the front of the unlit apartment. The exterior door squeaked on its hinges in the chill, but the pumpkin, with its extinguished candle, was still on the table.
He locked the door and retraced his steps to Emma’s side.
PART IV: Chapter Twenty-one/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.