You don’t have to stay with Phil to be with someone, that’s all.
Jen looks up and discards her fork. It slides across the cambered edge of the plate, its steel handle scraping painfully at the worn ceramic.
Don’t play with me Pete. Just don’t. Alright? I’ve been engaged to Phil over a year now, and for all that time and longer you’ve been walking around like I didn’t exist. Now, all of a sudden, you’re telling me to leave him, just like that, so I can be with you.
It occurs to me that actually I haven’t said anything to suggest that Jen and I could or should be together, not explicitly. Despite this pedantry, I find myself giving the tiniest nod.
God, you’re unreal sometimes, you really are.
Jen sits back in her chair and gives a short laugh that is also a sigh.
Remember when I first started at FUA? she says. I nod again.
I wanted you to notice me so much, Pete. But you were still so tied up in Emma. I understood that, at first, I thought that’s fine, I can wait. And I waited and waited. But you never moved on. And when it got to the point that I just didn’t want to be alone anymore, I said yes to Phil. He wasn’t always rough, not at the start, not like he is now. So we got engaged and I made a commitment to him. And now – now – when you’re good and ready, you’re asking me to ditch that commitment on the off-chance that you might finally be ready to move on and have a life with someone new?
It’s my turn to stall now. I pick up my mug and, even though it’s just about empty, I swig at it anyway, and make a show of draining tea that isn’t there. I pluck a serviette from the little wire caddy at one end of the table, fold it in half and dab at my mouth. I pick up the bill, examine the amount, then fold it in half once, twice, and again. I don’t know what else to say, so I ask the only question that needs answering.
Do you love him Jen?
She sits forward in her chair.
No. Not in the right way anyway, not in the way a woman should love her husband-to-be.
And the rough stuff? The strangling, the bruises?
Her eyes shine from the nearness of tears as she answers in a ragged whisper.
I hate it. Hate it. It scares me sometimes. He scares me sometimes.
Then leave him Jen. Leave him. And yes –
I swallow. In for a penny.
– try something with me instead.
God. I actually said it. It’s out there now. No going back.
You. You’re asking a lot, you know?
She laughs then, sort of, a laugh that is almost choked up with tears and a running nose. It’s Jen’s turn to pick up a serviette. She wipes her eyes and blows noisily into it. It’s then that I notice our fellow diner, the old man, has left his table and made for the door, but stopped just a couple of feet from our table. He lifts a gnarled hand and, with a finger crooked like a bent coat hangar, he points first at me, then at Jen.
You make your wife cry? he croaks.
My yes and Jen’s no are simultaneous. All three of us smile.
And I’m not his wife, Jen calls out, sniffing and reddening agreeably.
The old man turns on his heel and, leaning heavily on a walking stick, one of those black folding numbers, continues his shuffle to the door. I’m pretty sure I hear what he says as he walks away.
Not yet, my young friend. Not yet.