The flight of stairs that led out of the bar was as narrow as a ship's gangplank, without room enough for two people to pass abreast, but the press of the crowd frustrated politeness. Traffic on the stairs did a perpetual stutter-step tango as patrons went up and down laterally, passing cheek to cheek, back to back, chest to shoulder blade. R.J. climbed the stairs one step at a time as the ascending and descending knots of customers danced their woozy ways up and down. He was not impatient with the slow progress because he hardly noticed it. He was busy untangling the hermeneutical threads in the horseflies and wasps of Canto Three. R.J. could dive deep into his own thoughts and swim among them happily for hours. But suddenly the uneasy feeling that he had left something behind hauled him to the surface. He stopped dead, his awareness rising at the very instant Isobel Klein was crushed up against him, and his hand, reaching into his jacket to check for his silver pen and pencil set, was pinned between Isobel’s breasts.
Like dolphins R.J.'s thoughts had to lift their backs every once and a while to breathe. Breaching to come eye to eye with Isobel, they took great gulps of her and heaved out of the sea of self-absorption. The curls of her hair tickled the underside of his chin as she threw back her head and tried to say hello. But before she could get a word out, the people on the stairs behind her pushed her to move on. R.J. hesitated about chasing after her and in that moment of indecision the crowd caught him and carried him up the stairs and out the door.
He had always had a hard time believing in his own luck. Whenever fortune showed herself more kind than was her custom, it seemed so improbable to him that he dweled on avoided alternative disasters to the point that imagined catastrophes seemed more real to him than any actual success and happiness struck him as a dream he would awake from shortly. Out in the alley it seemed much more plausible that he had not looked up at the right, lucky instant, had never felt Isobel's breast under his hand, had never heard her call him back. Achingly, he stared back at the doorway as if years and miles and not twelve steps kept them apart.
"Why are you grinning like an idiot?"
R.J. cocked his head, unsure of what direction the voice was calling from.
The kitchen door, which was at the bottom of a concrete areaway at the end of the alley, was propped open with a milk crate, and his friend Sophie, the waitress who kept track of his schedule, hair loss, and freckles, stood at the top of the stairwell, backlit in the light coming up from the kitchen, her hands and the tip of her nose glowing orange as she cupped a match to a cigarette. From the kitchen came the clatter of glassware and flatware and dishware and the voices of the kitchen help shouting to be heard over the splush of water in the sinks. It was a warm early spring night, but the breeze carried the damp of melting snow and Sophie wore a bulky cardigan half-shrugged off her shoulders in a world-weary way.
"Come here." She motioned for R.J. to join her and put a cigarette between his lips and lit it for him when he'd settled himself on an empty beer keg beside her. "Did you see Isobel?"
R.J. nodded. "Michael's inside, though."
"I thought Michael's removed himself from the picture."
"He says he broke it off with her."
"You can't break it off with someone you're not actually dating. He just remembered he's already involved. Michael, as you know, is a gentleman." Sophie cultivated a cynical, bored with life attitude, and her posture was always a half-slouch as if existence was so crushingly dull that she might collapse in despair at any moment. It was a pose. Underneath seethed a storm of neuroses. Sophie lived on cigarettes and coffee and a thousand insecurities. She went without sleep, bit her nails, and chewed her lips until they bled. The veins stood out on her hands, which seemed to be always balled into fists. R.J. imagined that if he put his ear to any spot on her pallid skin he would hear the nerves sing underneath like wire in the wind. She was thin and dark-eyed and sometimes she posed for artists and photographers and sometimes she took classes in drawing and photography. She was in her mid-twenties, the same age as the grad student crowd that filled the bar, but she hadn't earned even her BA yet, which made her defensive. The obvious allusions and bits of philosophy with which she peppered her conversation had an ironic backspin, her way of hinting that she was unimpressed with her own smarts and, by extension, with the intellectual pretensions of her academic friends.
R.J. tried to explain why he thought Michael Drury was sincere about not becoming involved with Isobel. Sophie yawned.
"So he tells me. Michael's been confiding in me for two weeks now so I can tell everyone how noble and anguished he's been. So I'm telling you. He's noble and anguished."
Last night, with Drury's blessing, R.J. had taken Isobel out. Drury himself had pretty much set it up and had even seemed relieved this morning when R.J. had reported in. But R.J. had not shown him the thank you note Isobel had sneaked into his mailbox. He was afraid to hear that she had left many similar notes for Michael. Suddenly R.J. became terrified that it was Isobel's letter that he'd left behind. He stabbed his hand into his breast pocket to reassure himself that the little baby blue sheet of stationery with the embossed buttercups on the border was still there. With his hand on the paper over his heart, he debated the wisdom of telling Sophie about his date with Isobel. He decided not to risk any of her sarcasm.
"I'm sure Michael's made things clear," he said.
"I know he has. He made a big speech. There was a lot of crying. She threw a little tin watering can at his head. It was all very dramatic. Isobel told me."
The chronology wasn't clear and R.J. worried about it. He didn't like the possibility that Isobel and Michael had had their fight after he'd asked her to the movies. It would have meant that Isobel had given Drury the opportunity to stop her from going. And the detail of the watering can proved that the scene hadn't taken place on campus. There were no plants to water in the office R.J. shared with Michael. They must have been in Isobel's apartment. Probably it had not been Drury's first visit. Probably—
A frightening image flickered in and out of R.J.'s mind's eye.
"Do you think they ever...?"
Sophie blew smoke up into light shafting down from an upstairs window. "Hands under shirts. Fingers.
Technically short of adultery."
"She told you that?"
"She's hinted. You jealous?"
"Nothing. You look jealous."
As a matter of fact he was jealous. But jealous too of Sophie, of her recent intimacy with Isobel.
"I feel sorry for them," he said.
"If you say so."
R.J.'s glasses had slipped. Sophie pushed them back up his nose, taking the opportunity to search his eyes. "You going back in?"
He tried not to look as though he was considering it. "There'll be more appropriate times."
"That's you, R.J.: BA, MA, ABD, DDG."
Sophie flicked her cigarette away. "Doctor of Delayed Gratification."
"I have a lot of work to do for morning." R.J. hopped off the keg. The feeling of having lost something returned. He patted his pockets, searched through his backpack, went through his pockets again. This hunt was more talismanic than expectant. He hoped that the delay would bring Isobel up out of the bar.
"I forgot something," he said at last, sighing.
"Of course you did." Sophie plucked his cigarette from his mouth to finish for him.
He followed a crowd inside and took his place in the polymorphic dance down the stairs.
---from "Why Do You Hoard? Why Do You Squander?", a short story by Lance Mannion. The Tall Tale of the Month Club is back. Watch this space for further details.