He hadn’t heard from her in two days when she finally texted him back:
“Do you want to come here or do you want me to come over?” she wrote.
“Whatever you feel, babe,” he replied.
There was a five minute pause, and then: “Okay, I’ll be over in two hours.”
Jim thought a moment before he sent another message. Maybe he was being too available. He couldn’t think if it was something he’d done or not. Maybe he wasn’t keeping her interest, but where had it come from before? He decided not to answer her message, to express his confusion, his disapproval.
He spent a few minutes cleaning his room, putting away his dirty clothes, and then, as if only remembering, washing his sheets and bedding, as he had enough time for that.
The last time he went to the grocery store he’d bought a big bottle of red wine, as he knew she liked that. As for dinner he would make meatloaf. In this period of unemployment he’d taken up cooking as a way to pass the time. There were worse ways to do so.
A little while later he found himself playing Halo in the living room with Keith. He was better at it than his roommate, as Keith still had a job and it wasn’t his video game. At 7:00 he heard a knock at his door and recognized it as hers.
He put the game on pause and went to go answer it. Upon seeing her he knew instantly that something was wrong.
“Hey,” he said simply, holding the door for her, and at a loss for words.
“Hey Jim,” she answered and came in with only briefly making eye contact.
He closed the door then turned towards her, and found her aimed towards him too. He hugged her and they kissed. It was impossible not to notice her air of remove, no smile on her face, and the kiss was short. When it was done she walked past him into the house proper.
“Hey Laura,” Keith said.
“We’re just playing video games,” Jim said, approaching again, “just to pass the time, you know. Feels like it’s been a little while.”
“Sorry, I’ve been busy recently.”
“The fact that you’re here now is what’s important,” Jim said, hoping that his over-abundance of manners proved his point.
She looked away from him and sat down on the couch, on the opposite end from Keith. She crossed her legs and crossed her arms across her chest. She put the hood of her hoodie up as if she were cold. Jim didn’t know what to do or say.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked.
“I expect no less.”
“Do you? Are we being presumptuous?”
“If you’d come to my place we’d have our roles reversed.”
“Lucky you I made meatloaf. With barbecue sauce. And potatoes. I’ve become an amateur chef in my down time.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Jim scratched an itch on his nose then walked briskly through the dining room into the kitchen, where, indeed, the meatloaf was just about done.
He took the bottle of wine out of the cupboard and poured two glasses, believing that Laura’s expectation of that much went without saying.
It would be foolish to overthink the situation. It seemed that he might be losing her interest, an impression he’d felt the last time they’d seen each other too, though this time, so far, was worse; and the remove they’d been at between those encounters was not encouraging.
He wished he still had a job. At least then he would have an advantage.
He took the meatloaf out of the oven and took it into the dining room, then went back for silverware, napkins, and the wine.
“It’s ready, Laura,” he called out.
She got up from the couch and came into the dining room and sat at the place she usually sat at.
“Red wine. You want?” Jim asked, putting the glass down in front of her.
“I guess you’ve made my decision for me.”
“Yes, but was it the right one?”
“Of course it was. You know me too well.”
“Somehow I don’t think so,” he said with a note of tragedy in his voice.
Laura looked up at him and watched him cut the meatloaf and serve her then himself. The potatoes he left for her. After he sat down across from her she served them to herself.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Uneventful.” She replied.
“That doesn’t sound very interesting.”
“I don’t lead a very interesting life.”
“Ah, the lot of the lonely waitress.”
She finished chewing before she answered: “What, you think I’m lonely?”
“You shouldn’t be, when you have this nice guy here making you dinner and pouring you wine. But then again I’ve never been very good at figuring out what makes women happy.”
“I could say the same thing about men.”
“Then you’re being retarded, because we’re much easier to figure out.”
“What, that all you need is a good roll in the hay?”
“Pretty much, but we want the other person to enjoy it too.”
“I don’t think you’re giving your side enough credit. Don’t you like being challenged?”
“Only if I win in the end.”
“Without the chance of loss there’d be no point in victory.”
Jim moved the food around his plate with his fork. He couldn’t bring himself to raise his head and look at her, because he expected her to be watching him. Nothing good lasts forever, he found his thoughts telling him.
“Do you like your meatloaf?” he asked a little while later.
Laura closed her eyes briefly. She saw his unhappiness and felt it too, but she didn’t know what else to say. The hollowness she’d felt recently now appeared to be contagious.
“Maybe you should try to get a job at Cara’s,” she said. “They’re looking for a line cook.”
“Do you mean that or are you just being patronizing?”
“You’re the one who’s always saying you need a job.”
“It’s not the worst idea in the world.”
“If you expect it to make you happy though, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”
“It’s a thought. I have savings. I’m getting unemployment. If things start getting desperate, who knows? But I have a degree, from Berkeley. It probably won’t come to that. At least I hope it won’t.”
Another silence came down, and they finished eating. Jim looked up at her only when he was sure she wasn’t looking at him. Indeed, his previous impressions were confirmed: she did not look interested.
“Is it too much to ask you to do the dishes?” Jim asked. Since he was still staring at her he saw her nod, non-commital, so very far away.
She got out of her chair and circled the table, picking up the plates and silverware.
“Looks like we even have leftovers,” Jim pressed on. “I’ll take care of that.”
He picked up the mealoaf dish and followed her into the kitchen. Since the house didn’t have a dishwasher it was all to be done manually. He cornered her against the sink while she got started, as if completely unaware of his existence. He reached over her and retrieved a spatula that was in the dishrack.
“Excuse me,” he said loudly, still receiving no acknowledgment.
She did her chore because she had to. He wondered why she had even come over to his house in the first place. What had he done wrong? Had he never had a shot to begin with? Did Tyler? He wished, so desperately, to be able to read her, but he supposed he’d never been able to do that.
He put the leftover meatloaf in a tupperware container and shoved it roughly into the fridge, then he strode quickly past her through the house back to the living room, where Keith was still hard at work at Halo. Jim picked up the other controller and sat stiffly awaiting his chance to join in. There was a terrible spinning sensation in his chest as the reality of the situation sunk in. He’d had the impression the last time she’d been over. Tonight it was impossible to misinterpret: This was the last time he would see her under the guise of romantic coupling. She was here only physically. As for her consciousness? He had no idea.
As for Laura, she was crossing a threshhold, aware of Jim’s anxiety, his discovering the truth of the situation. He didn’t know how much she actually perceived, even from the remove he thought her at, her eyes not meeting his, her body no longer open to him. She had no idea what it would take to make her happy, but it was clear that Jim wasn’t up to the task. Allen hadn’t been either, but at least Jim cared one way or the other. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough.
She finished the dishes and walked slowly towards the living room, picking up her half-ful wine glass on the way. She took a moment, standing there, to observe the situation. Neither Jim nor Keith reacted to her presence. There was a rictus of misery on Jim’s face. It hurt her to see it. She’d never thought of herself as a heartbreaker before, but that seemed to be what she had become.
She sighed audibly, then sat down next to him on the couch, on his right side.
He flinched away from her while he followed the action on the television ever more intensely. For a few seconds he had nothing to contribute, and then Keith’s Halo character died and Jim sprung into action starting the next game, but wordlessly, trying as hard as he could to ignore the young woman sitting next to him. And yet her presence was felt, as if in secret, consoling him, almost apologetically, in command of herself as she’d ever been, an aptitude he had never been able to strip from her, completely unaware whether or not she even wanted as much. For the sixty or seventy days they’d been together she’d always had the upper hand. Here, at the end, it was no different.
Suddenly he threw down the controller and got up and pushed past her.
“Hey, where you goin man?” Keith yelled out, unfortunately humorously.
“I’m done. I’m going to sleep.”
“It’s not even eight o’clock!” Keith replied, then made eye contact with Laura, even a little resentfully.
He shrugged his shoulders and made a face of solidarity with his wounded compatriot. Laura nodded at him and continued to sit still. She probably shouldn’t have bothered coming over tonight in the first place. Was it necessary to put the whole idea to rest formally? Once and for all? She did not relish the thought, but she probably owed him as much. He’d tried to be good to her. In some ways he had been. She was angry with herself. Never before had she realized herself to be so fickle.
She stood up and followed him into his room. She found him at his desk with his laptop open.
“What are you up to?” she asked.
“Nothing. More job searching,” he answered.
She sat at the foot of his bed and sighed again.
“What, you want to watch me?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“What are you sorry about?”
Another few moments passed, and then she said “I think I’m going home.”
Jim cleared his throat and didn’t look at her, then: “I guess that’s your decision.”
“I don’t know why,” she said a little while later.
“That makes two of us,” Jim shot back.
She got up and walked towards him and put a hand on his shoulder, but he pushed it away and refused to look at her.
“Just leave,” he said. “If your mind’s made up there’s nothing I can do about it. I guess I was never your first choice to begin with. Even when we were little kids.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“God I fucking hate women sometimes.”
“I hope I didn’t ruin the concept for you.”
“I’ll be fine. Just get out of here, you’re only making things worse.”
He found an entry on Craigslist that looked promising. He clicked the link and began looking it over though, of course, as soon as he was no longer under surveillance he would feel free to indulge his anger and frustration without fear of judgment.
“Goodbye Jim,” Laura said plaintively.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” he replied.
A little whimper escaped her upper throat. She turned away and left. Keith didn’t say goodbye to her either as she left his house, in all likelihood never to return. How this denouement might affect the fortunres of the Fantastic Four was anybody’s guess. That little group might never meet again either. Both agreed, as the following minutes passed, that it probably could have been worse. At least they had been honest with each other.
Jim closed his laptop and went back into the living room, where he went back to playing Halo. Keith wordlessly offered his condolences, allowing his roommate the space he needed to be regretful, to wonder where he had gone wrong. Sometimes, he supposed, there really was no saying. Tomorrow, at least, was another day. Onward and upward. Some day he’d get a job and make money again. Maybe it was that simple. Could it be? No, he didn’t believe that. It had been something else, some idea that hadn’t been brought to fruition, some strength, some level of unpredictability he hadn’t been able to achieve. He wondered what Cather would think; was he even aware that a dalliance had developed between Jim and Laura. And what about Tyler? Uncertainty could be found everywhere you cared to find it.
An hour later Keith left Jim the living room. Jim turned off the TV and lay down on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Eventually he fell asleep that way. He did not remember his dreams.