“Clearly, she’s the devil and you’re her man-whore.” Strands of hair fall across her face as she lowers her head. Her gaze lands somewhere in my general direction. Her eyes laugh almost audibly.
“Sorry? I don’t even know what that means.” I pretend to be offended by the introduction of levity into our discussion. I know I take most things too seriously, but this is the last three years of my life we are talking about here.
“And, who says that?” My voice grows tighter with each word.
She shrugs again.
“…man-whore?” My disdain is now so over the top that it is becoming transparent.
“Well, obviously." Liz raises her eyebrows and cocks her head to one side. She casually tosses her open hands in my general direction.
I'm not sure why I'm always so aware of her hands. She has great hands. They’re not elegant; not clumsy or grotesque. They are simple—useful. They are quick and purposeful. Somehow, they are always exactly where they should be.
“What do you want me to say?” Her inquiry is curiously sincere.
“Nothing, I guess. After all, if she wants to play that game, let her play! Right?” My voice rings with an immodest and unimaginative confidence. I wade deeper into the cliché. “If she needs to think of me as the villain… if that’s the role she needs me to play in her version of this story…” I lose track of where my thought was going. I pause as if the next few words are entirely unnecessary, hoping Liz won’t call my bluff. She doesn’t. In fact, she appears to ignore the whole thing. She scrapes up the remaining cream from the small dessert plate and licks her fork clean with all the grace of a preteen schoolboy.
The fork barely leaves her mouth as she begins. “Mmmm, you know what you should do?” I’m not completely certain whether she’s talking to me or the cream. She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “You should do whatever you would have been doing if you had never met her. You know?” Liz places the fork across her plate as though it was the finishing touch on a masterpiece. She leans in, resting her palms on either side of the small bistro chair and straightens her elbows. “What is it you do again?”
“Oh, you’re a riot!”
“Yes, I know. Thanks.” Everything with Liz is matter of fact. “But you can’t write about this. Not yet. Maybe not ever.”
“I’m not sure that’s fair. Writing is my catharsis. It’s how I process. I can’t think without my pen. I can’t feel. You might as well tell me I shouldn’t breathe.”
“No, writing is your job. It’s what you do for a living.” Liz wrinkles her brow and concedes. “And, it’s your voice. And… it’s who you are. If that’s what you want.” She seems lost in thought for a brief moment and then quickly reengages, settling into a more theatrical tempo. “Which is why you need to put space between your keyboard and this little taste of hell. Why should she get that too? Don’t give this any more of your soul. Don’t give her any more of you. It’s time to withdraw your investment.” Her closing cadence punctuated by self assurance.
“I’m sure you’re right.” My concession trails off into what should be a satisfying silence.
“There now… we’re agreed. We don’t care anymore.” Liz resumes her playfully, albeit patronizing tone. I want to hate it. I can’t. So, I love it instead. "Is the waiter ever coming back?” She reaches into her lap and casually tosses the cloth napkin into her empty plate.
“Wait. I don’t know how to do that. I’m not that guy.” I stumble through the words like a baby taking his first steps. Gradually I settle into a nice, healthy stride. “This is my life. This kind of matters to me. It has to. Besides, I’m the guy who cares about stuff. I like that about myself.”
“Me too.” Liz doesn’t even look at me. The statement lands flatly on the ground. She scans the room for the waiter.
“So, what? Care.”
“Just like that?”
“If you want to go around caring about everything, be my guest. Just don’t expect me to join you. Not today anyway. Maybe tomorrow, if I have the time. OH! THE TIME!” With a single movement Liz sweeps her purse into her lap and begins digging for her phone.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I should throw you back and kiss you right here in this café or walk away and never speak to you again.”
It's completely involuntary. The laughter bursts out of my throat like a foreign object from a choking victim. This afternoon is turning out to be some kind of emotional Heimlich maneuver and, for the first time, in a long time, I can breathe. It's a rough start at the promise of freedom. I cough and hack and sputter. Liz looks me squarely in the face, then closes her eyes, takes in a long, deep breath, and smiles.
“Finally.” She sighs.