The faucet was activated by a foot pedal. I pressed it gently but water gushed forth from the tap and splashed off my hands and all over my clothes. I released the pedal and lifted what little of the cold water I had caught to splash my face. I took a calming breath as I felt the cold bite against my skin. I carefully set my hands on either side of the basin and hung my head. There was no mirror, but I didn’t need one to know what I looked like. The days on the road were written there, their story etched in a language of fatigue and self-reproach.
My knees wobbled, but the basin, cool porcelain anchored to the wall, it’s plumbing hanging naked beneath it, held me. Too many days, too many miles, since innocent sleep. The next sleep that held me would never let me go.
Out there, beyond the fragile wood of the men’s room door, there was a creature sitting at my table, on the plate in front of her an untouched slice of pizza. I had not known I was ordering for two, but I had not been surprised when she arrived. If you run long enough, you forget what it is you’re running from. My memory is blessedly short. She was out there now, sipping her blood-red wine, looking at her pizza with distaste, and not wondering in the least what was keeping me.
I thought, briefly, about finding a way to slip out the back, but that would have left her with the bill, and that wouldn’t be right. She knew I was trapped, that’s why she wouldn’t worry if I took a long time. I could feel her out there. I could feel the heat of her, the unnatural power she held. After all my time running, demons nipping at my heels, it was no coincidence that she chose my table to sit at. She might not have felt the levers of fate at work, but they were there. In that way the instrument of my demise might be innocent of the destruction she brings.
I had been sitting, listening to the band tune up. The bartender said they were good. I’ve learned to trust bartenders. The bandleader had carefully set his guitar in its rack and stepped up to the mike. “We’ll kick it off in fifteen,” he said before switching it off. It was a Tuesday, but the place was starting to fill. A good sign for the music, but I was beginning to feel guilty as my pizza and I dominated one of the few larger tables. I began to plan my retreat. I don’t like to take up more than my fair share of space.
“Can I sit here?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, before I looked at her. Seeing her wouldn’t have changed my answer, it would only have made me afraid sooner. My flight was over. “Have some pizza,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said and flagged down the waitress with disturbing ease. “Another plate and your wine list please.”
“We got Cab, Merlot, and Chardonnay,” the waitress said.
“Merlot, then, please,” my guest said. The fact that I knew what she was going to order didn’t make me feel any better. The wine and the plate arrived and she regarded the pizza for the first time. “Is that egg?” she asked, poking at the slice on her plate dubiously.
“Yeah. Egg, ham and peppers.” I looked at the pie. “I ate all the peppers already,” I added apologetically, indicating the stems at the side of my plate.
She started to say one thing, then said another. “Can you help me?”
Any hope I had of escape vanished when she asked me that. Trapped by some archaic sense of chivalry, the captive of my own mistaken ideas, betrayed by my own hormones, I heard the chorus offstage, beseeching me to change my path, but I could no more deny my nature than Antigone or Oedipus. The only difference was that my tragic chorus was inside my head. There was nothing left but to go through the motions, doomed from the start. All the running, all the hiding, the embrace of anonymity and the erasure that the road provides were no more. I was found, and I was made.
“I’ll try,” I said.
“Just pretend you know me.”
“I do know you.”
“Does your boyfriend know if you like eggs on your pizza?”
“He’s not my boyfriend anymore.”
I knew that. It was in the script. “Does he know?”
She looked at me for the first time. Wondering what she had got herself into, no doubt. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, then. We already know each other better than that.” I didn’t know her name, and I didn’t want to. A simple label would have undermined the intimacy. It would have, perhaps, given me a handle on her that I could have used to escape.
She reached across and took my hand in both of hers. Her cool touch sent a shiver through me. I was amazed that my hoary old skin could even feel softness like that any more, but the contact stopped my heart. Her fingertips gently explored my battered and abused hand without her direct knowledge, and the delicacy of them amazed me. I lifted my gaze from her hands to her eyes.
“Nature calls,” I choked out. “Be right back.”