He remembered. She remembered.
As Irene waited for the hostess to slide her chair back, she surveyed T.J. his tumult of boyish brown hair, his tape patched glasses, his too tight jacket, the wrong color tie. How long had it been? Had he always been so oblivious? She smiled at the hostess, took her seat, patted her hair, “You don't remember shit.”
T.J. Sat, put his elbows on the white table cloth, “Au contraire.” He liked to flash foreign phrases when high. He thought it earned him a touch of 'je ne sais quoi'
Irene glared. “You're mumbling.”
T.J. shrugged, reached across.
Irene pulled her hand away, straightened her back. “You're obnoxious when you're high.”
“Obnoxo. Obnoxus.” He was soaring. From somewhere near the ceiling he grinned down at her. “Whoops et al, I've forgotten. Declension? Conjugation?” He pushed his glasses up.
“Technically you know, there's no difference between verbs and nouns except peut etre in how they parade, preen really in their.”
A uniformed waiter loomed. Under the table Irene aimed a kick at him. Unless she could sober him up, he would ruin an expensive evening. She knew the restaurant, knew it was a stretch for them. The waiter handed them each a leather bound, portfolio sized menu. “I'll come back when you're ready.”
T.J. Raised an eyebrow, “What school of service spawned him? Contempt n'est pas,” He tried to catch Irene's eye. “What's the French for increase his gratuity?”
From behind her menu Irene said, “He's waiting for you to come back down to earth. Me, too.”
T.J. Rubbed his shin. “For the record you should know I have an extensive, comprehensive, set of memories. Precise. Total recall, down to minute details, and in techno color” He saw her walking in front of him as he had when they first met on Madison Avenue, her hair bouncing to each stride. He'd scooted ahead, so he could turn, catch a glimpse of her face. His heart had stuttered. It had taken him two, full city blocks to think of something to say. Even now she laughed at his 'if you're following me, I should introduce myself.' Cheeky she'd called him. Now he'd graduated to obnoxious. He scanned the room. It looked familiar: a giant faux stone fireplace with imitation logs, heavy wall hangings with vague medieval scenes. A mounted knight, visor down, lance at the ready, the horse's massive hind quarters poised over disproportionate thin, back legs. He glanced toward Irene, recalled her stories about riding, training a horse, making it learn its paces. She'd introduced him to the word equestrian. He pointed with his chin, “Think you could ride that beast, teach it its paces.”
Irene peered at him over her menu, “The horse or the dragon?”
What was he aiming at? Almost everything he said sounded like a challenge, a veiled threat. Was he jibing at her Connecticut, horse country family? What stories about her mother had she told him?
She remembered when they'd met at Sheila's raucous party his singing, 'if you're following me permit me to introduce myself.' Beyond cheeky, childish, deflected self pity and he couldn't sing. Still she'd taken him back to her place. Realized he had no socks and nowhere else to go. She pointed at the next panel a scaly fire breathing dragon worthy of a Disney cartoon threatening the mounted knight.
A row of chandeliers dripped cut glass crystals. Shafts of dust moted light slanted in from a row of high windows. Not quite enough light to read the menus. The place instilled ghost like memories in T.J. He squinted tried to reconstruct when he'd last been here and if it was with Irene? He lowered his menu, failed to catch her eye. Her shiny black helmet of hair shifted to dark curls and then back again. TJ shook his head. Took a long sip of water. The surroundings: fake tapestries, glittering chandeliers, shafts of light swam. He stared at the worn carpet. Tread softly. Memories with their waspish stings chased him like the furies. He winced. He took two deep breaths. “You recognize this place?”
A different uniformed waiter, silver tray tucked under his arm appeared. “May I take your drink orders.”
Irene beamed up at him. “A whiskey sour, thank you. More whiskey than sours.”
The waiter hovered over T.J. It couldn't have been Irene. Wine, maybe proseco, but a hard drink, never. It couldn't have been her. Who then? TJ shook his head. “No. No. Thank you. That's all right. I've had enough. I'll stick on de l'eau.” The waiter stiffened. T.J. felt another quick strike on his shin. “No offense. That is, I'll stay with water. On the water, off the wagon, there's a saying.” He brushed his hair back. “for now.” The waiter swept their wine glasses away. Unchecked T.J. ranted, “It's the soul of life, you know. The most precious thing on earth and diminishing, evaporating, being polluted, exploited. Thank god you're not charging for that, yet.”
Sotto voce Irene said, “Please, blessed be the holy one, please get a grip. You'll reduce me to prayer. Neither of us wants that.” She fingered her knife, heavy silver with a pleasing heft. She admired the china with its familiar pattern. She looked up, met the question in his eyes. “Yes, faintly familiar. There cannot be too many of those wall hangings around.”
“How long ago?” T.J. felt a jolt of vindication. “When would that have been?”
“Would what have been?”
“Eating in this place, ensemble?”
“God no. Not with you. Never.”
“But I thought you said it looked familiar.”
“Indeed.” Her black eyes locked on his.
“Oh. I see. Don't I see sort of see.” He craned his head back, peered up. The chandeliers were filmed with cobwebs. He shivered. Wondered if he'd ever come down. “How far can one see?”
“In your case, on a clear day, maybe to the tip of your nose?” Irene laughed. “Evidently not far.” She patted her hair. “How far gone are you is the more relevant question.” She tried to follow his gaze, could not see beyond the chandeliers. “Did you mean see in distance or time?”
“No. No. Neither. No, of course, maybe both, for sure. You remember, Einstein or someone bright like that collapsed distance and time.” He took a deep breath felt his confidence returning. He pressed his palms on the table. “Now we measure distance in time.”
“Aren't you modern. How much did you take? File this away” Irene made finger quotes. “Memory is seeing backwards. Seeing
things that are far behind you in time. Not distance. If an optometrist could measure it, you'd be blind.” She loved mulling over the past. Her closest friend had said her past was her balm and it was true. She preferred to luxuriate in her own recreated past. A strain of nostalgia inherited from her father.
T.J. Bristled. “Hell, no. I remember just fine, thank you.” He rattled off a string of numbers
“What's that supposed to mean. Conjuring Pi?”
“No. Babe Ruth's batting average in nineteen twenty seven, Bobby Feller's e.r.a. in fifty one, Sandy Koufax' strike out record.”
“That's a parlor trick not a memory. Are you going to be like this all night?”
“Mais oui. But you see, you acknowledge, concede that I do remember, remember all sorts.”
Irene's drink arrived. She saluted him with her glass, took a long sip. If she downed this one quick, ordered another, maybe she'd catch up with him and regret it for days.
A large party were ushered to seats across from them. A round faced man tugging a woman behind him veered over to Irene, boomed “Years. It's been absolutely years. What a surprise. How are you? Looking fine. You haven't aged a moment. You need to meet the new Mrs.” He shouldered the blond in front of him. “Rhonda meet Rini.” T.J. Stood. Irene said something between charmed and harmed. The round faced man spoke to the top of Rhonda's head, “Reunion, big one. Years and years ago. Like ancient history. New Haven class of 98. More drinks than speeches. Very smart people. Very smart. I was the fluke.” He straightened. “Not flunky. Mind you, never flunky.” He cleared his throat repeated. “Fluke. Just not lucky with the smarts gene. More lucky with the pretty fillies gene.” He chortled. Looked down at Irene, patted Rhonda's bare shoulder. “And you? You look glowing. This good man taking right care of you. Deserve.” A loud cry rose from his table. The man excused himself, tugged Rhonda after him like the tail of a kite.
“Mon dieu. Who was that?”
“It's o.k. Tell me. It can't be that bad. A one night stand, a week, a month in the country? He knew you.”
“Not. Mistaken identity. Never saw him in my life, not Rhonda either.”
“No. It's o.k. Fine. Really. Tell me he's a cousin. He knew your name.”
My name's Irene not Rini never. Not even my nickname.
“Nickname? Merveilleux Pray do tell.”
A different waiter, tall, gaunt, bowed, “Madame would wish to place an order maintenant?”
Irene lifted her drink, caught T.J.'s eye. “Are you ready?” She pointed at the menu.
“Excellent.” The waiter nodded. “Madame has made a wise choice, le spécialité de maison. Rare? Medium? bien cuit?
T.J. grinned “He speaks my language.”
T.J. Thought he remembered the shrimp dish. He ordered, closed his menu.
“A drink now for the monsieur?”
“Non merci.” He felt a flush of pride, like he was being taken for a genuine sophisticate. He grinned at Irene, “I can share some of the shrimp.”
She shook her head. “No. I'd never.” She patted her hair.
“Sea and turf something like that.”
“No. You forget.”
“It's traif.” He looked so bewildered Irene felt contrite. “Shrimp are not kosher.”
A chant of Boola, Boola went up from the adjoining table. Two trays of drinks arrived.
Irene leaned forward, “Don't look now but I think Rhonda's winking at you.”
“That guy said, Yale. He knew”
“I can't help what the man said. They're from Yale. Memories are tricky things.”
T.J. Frowned. 'Things' was that the new name for memories? “Remember Goose Lake and ice skating?” T.J. Felt smooth, like he was easing down a little.
Irene's eyes widened.
“We were camping out some place upstate. It had some connection with Andrew's family. A huge, old place. Built maybe two hundred years ago, a fireplace bigger than this one but real.”
T.J. Used his hands to help describe. “Enough rooms to be a hotel. Someone said it served as as a training camp in world war two. Later a camp for the super rich a business retreat.
Irene finished her drink patted her mouth with her napkin, wondered if what he was on had tipped him over, worried they might be descending into the T.J. In wonderland part of the evening.
“You invited me, remember.” For T.J. It was their origin story. The very first time it had been possible to think that they were real, a couple. That he might mean something to her. “Didn't even ask if I could skate.” T.J. Reached for her hand again.
Irene shook her head, smoothed her napkin out.
“You had to scrounge around, borrow a pair of skates for me and you were in that flippy kind of skate skirt and white tights. You were stunning. Absolutely amazing.
“No.” Irene muttered.
“There were little white balls fixed at the top of your skates. All you could dig up for me were someone's rusty hockey skates and they didn't fit. I thought I'd break an ankle.” T.J. Smiled. The memory warmed him. “There was a bonfire and bottles, lots and lots of bottles of all sorts. No moon, stars splattered all over I'd never seen the like. I could have gazed for hours. You took your glove off, held my hand. I wobbled out on the ice. Asked if it was thick enough. You laughed and swooped away. Lots of them skated, some in circles a few spinning around. Others like me stuck to the edge. Too dark to see faces, the pale silvery surface of the lake, the stars, nothing else. The world seemed stopped. The only sound the swish of your skates and everyone a silhouette frozen still and watching you.” T.J. Hesitated. “you know my heart leapt up. Have I ever told you that?”
Tears formed in Irene's eyes. She bit her lip. Raised a hand as if to fend him off.
T.J. Splayed his fingers on the table cloth. “The world stood still to watch you spin. It was like a dream broken by this sound.”
T.J. Paused, tipped his head to the side, “One small, hard to tell, sound, like a splish, a small sound but I think everyone knew. You could feel it. I looked for for where it came from. You stopped spinning.”
Irene began to cry.
“I saw there was a dark circle, a completely round, black circle near you. The black was shimmering in crazy ways. Screaming. Everyone began screaming. I had no idea”
“Stop.” Irene raised both hands, palms out. “What is the matter with you. Stop. Shut up. You're sick. Crazy. Why are you doing this? You bastard. That's my story and you weren't even there. I was with Andrew.”
Irene balled her napkin up, left it on the table.
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