The following post, by Sarah Finch, is the eighth installment of 10, 12th Street Online’s first serial novel. It is being written by five authors, each of whom write two chapters each. You can read the first seven installments here. Be sure to check in next Monday for Chapter 9.
Neither the man nor the woman were paying attention to where they were going. Both were lost in thought as they headed in opposite directions down a narrow hallway, only to be violently jolted back to reality when they turned a corner at the same time and their bodies smacked against one another.
“Excuse me,” the man said, offering a weak smile in apology.
He was momentarily taken aback by her lack of courtesy, but there were greater things weighing on his mind than one woman’s rudeness. By the time he got on the elevator, he was again thinking (obsessing, really) over the death of his son the previous day. He had no way of knowing that the woman he had just encountered was thinking about the same thing.
The woman kept walking and then entered the office that the man had just left. “Hi, I need to see Mike,” she told the receptionist.
“Uh, do you have an appointment?”
“I’m his wife.” She paused, a pained look flickering across her face as she thought about their separation and the happier days that seemed so long ago.
The receptionist frowned and picked up the phone on the intercom. “He’ll be right out,” she said after putting the phone down.
A door opened and a man in his late thirties strode out into the waiting room. He had almost generic good looks—the smooth-skinned, brown-haired, strong-jawed kind of attractiveness that called to mind that of an anchorman on the local news. “Katherine, what are you doing here?” Mike asked the woman in the trench coat. He didn’t attempt to hide the annoyance in his voice.
“I don’t know.” Katherine’s voice faltered and her posture seemed to wilt under harshness of the man’s tone.
Mike noticed the receptionist was not concealing her interest in the tense exchange, so he took Katherine by the wrist and led her out of the office. “Come on. If we have to do this, we’re not going to do it in front of my employee.”
“Let go of me,” Katherine hissed.
“You want me to let go? That’s rich,” Mike laughed. “That must be why you called earlier today.”
“You don’t have to manhandle me,” she shot back, the words echoing off the walls of the narrow hallway. Had her voice always been like that? Mike had never remembered it being quite that sharp, even when she was at her angriest.
“Fine.” He let go of her unceremoniously. “There’s a place on the corner that serves shitty coffee. Let’s go and get this over with.”
“Get what over with?” Katherine asked.
“This.” Mike gestured to the space between them. The motion was jerky and stilted, reflecting the tension that was etched on his face. Mike liked being in control, and he suspected that Katherine was not going to allow him to have the upper hand. She probably wants this to be messy, he thought. “Coffee shop,” he said. “Now.”
The short trip to the cheap diner was excruciating for both of them. Katherine snuck an appraising glance at Mike, noting that wrinkles were now beginning to make inroads on his face. There were frown lines that had not been there the last time she had seen him. The spidery veins on his wrist were more pronounced, too. The thought that he might feel as much duress as she did was comforting, not for his suffering but for the solace that she might offer him.
Mike stared straight ahead as Katherine looked at him. He pretended she was not there—and she knew that was what he was doing. “Just don’t make a fucking scene,” he said gruffly as they reached the diner.
The Imperial Diner held the dubious distinction of making the worst cup of coffee in Manhattan. That wasn’t enough to stop it from being Mike’s haunt of choice, as he generally valued fast service and low prices over the ability to choke down the sludge that was served. The pink-haired waitress, who didn’t look a day over fourteen, showed them to a booth and Mike refused the proffered menus, instead ordering two coffees, one black and one with half and half.
“You remember how I like my coffee,” Katherine said, attempting a smile.
“Yeah, some things you don’t forget,” Mike said. His tone was carefully neutral, and his wife was at a loss. If it had any significance to begin with. She had forgotten how he would put panes of fogged glass in front of his words, as if taunting whomever he was talking to. “Why are you calling me and coming to my office?”
“I just need to talk to you.” Katherine saw the smirk on his face but she chose to ignore it. She didn’t come here to have a shouting match. “Things haven’t turned out the way I expected them to. I don’t like being alone, Mike.”
“You said being alone wasn’t a bad thing, that it was good for your artistic juices, or some such crap.”
“It’s one thing to be alone for a few hours or a few days,” Katherine said. “I feel like I’m in solitary confinement.”
“Self-imposed solitary confinement,” Mike reminded her. He took his elbows off the table so the waitress could set down their coffees. He flashed the young woman a smile and Katherine’s mouth pursed in a sour expression.
“You were the one who sent that e-mail saying I wasn’t taking this seriously and we shouldn’t be together. Why would you want to start this again? We’d just end up in the same place.”
“You don’t know—”
“Yes, I do, Katherine. We would just fight over the same crap. We’d be at war, fighting forever, for the rest of our lives.”
At war. Forever. The Forever War. Katherine shook her head, wondering why the title of that goddamn book was following her around. “I just don’t want this. This life.”
“And you think I could fix everything that’s broken?” Mike shook his head and took a long gulp of his vile coffee.
“Not everything. But sometimes we were really good together, Mike. And maybe I was expecting too much of you, expecting too much of our marriage. No relationship is really a magic pill, and I understand that now. Part of me was terrified that we’d end up like my parents, sitting at opposite ends of a long dinner table without a word to say to each other.”
“I don’t think silence will ever be the problem. It’s not as if we ever ran out of things to say to each other.” Mike let out a halting laugh. “Or, more accurately, things to e-mail to each other. Half our communication was done through the fucking computer.”
“But you’re the one who traveled everywhere,” Katherine said. “What the hell else was I supposed to do, send a carrier pigeon?”
“If we’re already rehashing this shit five minutes into our conversation, shouldn’t you take it as a sign that these issues wouldn’t go away with any kind of fresh start?”
“There’s no such thing as a fresh start. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
“So, we’d be building on the foundation of our marriage? That’s not very solid ground, Kat.” Mike missed Katherine’s slight flinch at his use of the nickname. He had not called her Kat since those early, heady days that were filled with dewy-eyed romance unmarred by practical considerations.
“It was solid ground once,” she insisted. “It could be again.”
He shrugged noncommittally. “Why is this happening now anyway? Is it just that yesterday was the anniversary?”
“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. I feel as if everything is coming apart. A boy died yesterday. He committed suicide by jumping off a balcony. I didn’t see it, but I catered the bat mitzvah where it happened. When I saw his picture in the paper I realized he bumped into me just before he jumped. I was one of the last people he had contact with. I didn’t even know him. That’s scary as hell. No one in this city knows anyone, we’re all just floating around, alone. I need someone. I need something.”
A pall had come over Mike’s face at the mention of the boy’s death. He was relieved that Katherine was staring out the window and not looking at him, as he didn’t think that even his best poker face would be very convincing at the moment. His professional life and his personal life were not supposed to collide in this way. The odds would seem to be infinitesimal that his wife, who he’d been separated from for a year, would have been at the scene of a case he had just been hired to investigate.
He suddenly felt very uncomfortable. He didn’t believe in signs; that was Katherine’s thing. But her reappearance coupled with her connection to the case he had just taken complicated his orderly view of the world. Maybe people came in and out of his life for a reason. Maybe now he would have to believe in something other than himself.
Katherine gazed outside, watching the people hustle back and forth on their meaningless errands. She wondered if anyone would notice if she stood in the middle of the street and screamed as loud as she could. She wondered if Mike would notice. She wondered why she cared.
“This was a mistake,” she said at last.
“I’m sorry, Mike. Just forget this, okay?”
She fished a few worn singles out of her wallet and threw them down next to the untouched mug of coffee, then got up and walked away without looking back.