I’ve Come to See the Show

Billiard’s Pick
Daniel Lanza


It was a coffee shop downtown where I first saw her. I know it sounds obvious to say that, boring maybe, but it’s the truth. I wish it had been some place more romantic like on MUNI moving off in a different direction, or ordering the same thing at some obscure Afghan restaurant, but plain as it may be, it was a coffee shop. She was sitting at a table in the far corner with a book in her hands. Her hair was long, the shifting brown of dying leaves. She wore glasses and read while sipping from a petite cup of coffee. I knew then—at that first view of her—that I was in love, madly and intractably. The kind of love you experience solely during high school or those first fumbling years of college, back when you can still do so without reservation or fear of complication and disappointment.

I didn’t have the courage to talk to her then, she was so beautiful and serene. Like a statue or fantasy.

She caught me looking and I turned away.

*

I was sitting in the corner seat, near the window when he first approached me. There was a touch of swagger in his step, obviously forced. He was a little insecure for someone his age. Early forties maybe. Around the age of those who always seem to look, but never touch. The ones with wives and kids at home, who take their seat on stools toward the back of The Blackbird to watch, and fantasize, their eyes filled with guilt and longing. His hand trembled slightly in mine when he introduced himself. His eyes were tightened into a false casualness. I was reading Ellis: Rules of Attraction. He told me later that he thought the book and its title were just a coincidence.

They weren’t.

When he asked for my number, I gave it to him. I didn’t have any paper, so he got out his wallet to offer me an old receipt. Instead I plucked out a twenty.

I wrote slowly, including my name, lest he forget it: Amelia. His was Harry, or—I guess—still is, wherever he may be.

We smiled.

He lingered for a moment, waiting for something more. I coyly directed my eyes back to my book and pretended to read until he left.

*

I didn’t want to seem too desperate, so I waited a few days to call her. She told me later that she was impressed. She was sure I was going to call that day, if not the next. In fact, she’d written her number on the bill to ensure just that.

It was four, to be exact.

Four horrible, hopeful days spent struggling to remember her face instead of just colors and a feeling. I’d picked up the phone nearly a dozen times. In the end I would will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I was never good at dating games early in life. During those years, I would always fumble my way through the etiquette and hope that I came off as endearing, instead of crass. When, much later, I told Amelia this, she said she’d never have thought to call me crass, boring, maybe, but never crass.

Her voice was calm through the receiver when we spoke. We agreed to meet for dinner by the pier. Some event or another was going to be setting off fireworks over the water, and she wanted to watch the rockets explode into fiery ribbons. She said it was as close as you could get to seeing shooting stars in the city.

I told her I’d meet her there around eight.

I arrived fifteen minutes early and circled the block. When I got back, I found her standing out in front of the restaurant looking luminous.

*

The suit was cut impeccably across his shoulders. The fabric shifted slightly as he approached, showing off the curvature of muscle underneath. His smile was slight and hesitant. When he arrived, I felt his hand slide to my elbow. A braver move than I’d expected.

“Have you been waiting long?” he asked.

I shook my head, even though I had. The July day had begun to wind down, but I noticed faint traces of nervous perspiration dotting his hairline and neck. I thought it was cute.

“Shall we?” he asked.

We did.

I don’t remember many of the specifics after we sat down. What I do remember, though, is that the evening went well. Harry was witty and self-deprecating. His eyes lit up when I laughed and cuffed him gently on the arm, letting him know that I was hooked.

Back then, he was still pushing papers downtown. When he asked what I did, I told him that I danced for a living and that I’d been in a few productions around town, but left out the details. For the most part, it was the truth.

*

We were seated inside next to one of the windows with a view out over the bay. The sun began to set out into the west, throwing a blanket of hues across the sky. Oranges and yellows mingled with the clouds and sea air in a way that appeared far off and lonely. I didn’t look when Amelia’s fingers covered my hand. It was fear, I guess. Fear that if our eyes met, she might realize her mistake and pull away. So instead we watched the light play over the sky and water.

Sometimes, I think you can pinpoint the height of a relationship; its cresting point, if you will. If you’re lucky, you never reach it. Marriages, births, grandchildren, these things form an ever-rising peak of accomplishment that death ends before you reach the summit. Other relationships peak too soon. I wonder, then, if the moment would have changed, had I known back then that it was the peak. Could I have traded that instant of perfect silence for something deeper, grander? Maybe if I’d looked into her eyes, I could have smelled out the lie and settled things then. Maybe.

Instead, I stared at the sunset, which no longer seemed so lonely. When the sky was finally dark enough for the fireworks to begin, their reflections were blurred and beautiful on the surface of the bay.

*

I wondered when I woke up beside him the next morning, if the time to come clean about my job had passed.

I should have done it at dinner, I can see that now, but I didn’t want anything to ruin it. I didn’t figure him for the kind of guy who would overreact; I told myself I was waiting for a better time. As it turns out, that time never came.

His eyes were sleepy when he finally woke, and he wrapped an arm around me. Light filtered in through the shades and he was so beautiful there. I didn’t mind that he tasted like sleep. I shifted next to him. The lie fluttered in my chest, like wings of a moth against my rib cage. I looked into his eyes and smiled.

It could wait.

This was too perfect.

*

Things were wonderful, for a time. We spent afternoons and weekends making love and sharing expensive ethnic take-out dinners.

Amelia worked late almost every night leaving us few precious hours between the end of my day and the beginning of hers.

She told me she’d been cast as an extra in some number downtown. It saddened me then, to think of her face lost in a crowd of dancers. When I asked if I could watch her practice, she mumbled some excuse about the director being strict about guests.

If I had to pinpoint the moment that sparked my suspicions, that was it. Something in her voice, her movements, seemed off. Amelia, who was always so suave and self-assured, was suddenly cagey and evasive.

Weeks went by. She stopped talking about work, and I stopped asking. Even our silences grew strained and seemed liable to break at any moment.

It got so bad that I tried following her to work one night. She didn’t notice me, that I’m sure of, but when I turned the last corner, she was gone. I stood in front of the strip club while the Market Street crowd shuffled past. It had grown dark and no matter how much I looked, there was no sign of her. I even circled the block in a vain attempt of spotting the dance studio. It was cold and windy. After half an hour I returned home.

*

I could feel the guilt tighten in my stomach every time he asked about work.

I could tell he was getting suspicious, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t in love with him yet but I wanted to be, which is almost the same thing. I knew that he was in love with me, but I kept waiting for the right moment. In retrospect, I think that was my mistake. I convinced myself that if I framed it just right, then he’d be the one to get it. The one to understand how hard it was to get by as a dancer. He’d see it like I did: as a transition, not a destination.

Before things got bad, he used to look at me and I felt something flow between us, an understanding maybe. But as time went on, the understanding turned to inquiry. He didn’t look at me anymore; he studied me. Each glance was an attempt to figure me out and I was too afraid of what he’d find when he finally did.

*

We were getting coffee when it finally broke. It wasn’t the same coffee shop we met it. Or it might have been; I’ve forgotten. Amelia was standing off from where I was. Some guy recognized her—some lonely, disgusting, strip-club guy.

“She’s got a great ass,” he told me.

I said, “Hey. Lay off, buddy. That’s my girlfriend.”

His expression sobered. “Fuck. I’ll just wait to see it tonight.” The words were almost under his breath.

Amelia was oblivious to what was happening. She didn’t notice until I’d already dropped him. She yelled and her coffee slipped from her hands. I’ve never been a violent man, so I guess I surprised us both.

He got up and felt the split in his lip. “Your girlfriend’s a stripper, you fucking moron,” he said.

I told him to shut his fucking mouth and leave. He did.

We didn’t touch or talk the entire way home. When we were back at the apartment, I called her on it. She cried, but didn’t deny it. I was furious.

“This doesn’t change who I am,” she said.

I remember turning away. I couldn’t look at her then without seeing it. In her face, in her body.

I told her she disgusted me. She told me I was a judgmental prick. Both statements were true, I guess.

She grabbed me and turned me toward her. She asked me to look at her, and tell her what I saw.

I did and she slapped me.

I think I deserved it.

*

There was a moment of silence after my hand connected. His face was turned away from me and suddenly my insides grew heavy. I swear I could feel my heart break right there. Shattered on the point of a word.

Whore.

Part of the appeal of Harry was that I’d never thought he was capable of breaking my heart. People have a way of surprising you.

I don’t remember leaving, just walking home in the rain.

I didn’t even call in to work that night. They tried calling when I didn’t show up, but I unplugged my phone before they could leave a message. My apartment suddenly seemed lonely and quiet. All I wanted then was him. Even after what he’d said, even after he’d pulled open my insides and spat on them, I still wanted him.

Love’s funny like that. It never leaves when it should. It just lingers like an illness or an unwelcome guest.

*

I didn’t know whom I was angrier at. I’d known that I was only fooling myself. I just hadn’t seen her lying to me too.

I picked up the phone to call her nearly a dozen times. In the end I managed to will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I called in sick to work, and spent the week listening to music and watching daytime television.

I hated the way my pillows still smelled like her. The way I still yearned for her. The way I thought of her each night before sleeping. I’d lie in the bed we’d made love in and pretend it was one of those times.

Back when things were good. Back before she’d wrecked it all by revealing herself to me.

I’d been too quick to fall for her. If I’d been more careful, or taken more time then maybe I could have dealt with it better. At least I could have pulled away without hurting as much from it.

As you get older, each failed relationship seems to sting more. Maybe it’s just from the familiarity that seems to accompany that moment of parting, or maybe it’s the daunting fate of singularity that creeps closer with every goodbye; I’m not really sure any more.

When I couldn’t take it any more, I went back to her work, knowing where it was, this time. It was called The Blackbird. She wasn’t there that night, so I came back the next.

It wasn’t until my third visit that I saw her dancing on one of the platforms.

Up there she seemed real for the first time. Not a fantasy, just a girl. A tired, heartbroken girl who’d gotten caught up in a lifestyle and a lie that I couldn’t handle.

I pulled the twenty from my wallet where it had stayed since the day we met. Funny, the ink still looked wet.

Soon it was gone, and I was just another customer.

*

The shadows made his face look hard, but his hand felt warm in a way I missed. I felt it when he slipped the bill into my waistband.

I didn’t need to look to see what was written on it; I’d put I there.

With his back turned, he couldn’t see the misstep.

He probably wouldn’t have noticed it anyway.
pencil

“I am currently an undergraduate at Sonoma State University in California where I study Liberal Arts and English. I have been previously published in the December 2005 issue of Toasted Cheese and in the Sonoma State literary magazine, The Zephyr. Last year I finished my first novel and I am currently at work on my second.” E-mail: Lanzad[at]sonoma.edu.

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