Those Unheard Are Sweeter

By on Oct 18, 2020 in Fiction

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Colorful dream over restaurant table 

The waitress clears our salad plate and Geoff’s soup bowl. Perhaps I should have ordered the soup, because I don’t remember eating my salad. Geoff’s vegetable beef looked like a savory stew simmered in a kettle.

“Have you seen tuition rates?” Alison asks. “As a taxpayer I find it shocking, but as assistant treasurer of the university, I know it’s inevitable.”

Alison has a sharp mind to go with her pretty face. Anyone could see why Geoff Miller was attracted to her after meeting at the university’s Christmas party one year. Of course, rumors encircling her were shameful—having had sex with several students—but how can one differentiate truth from tale? If the gossip never bothered Miller, why should it bother me?

I sit on the wooden chair and try to relax, but that horrid feeling creeps into me. It burrows beneath my skin and travels to my heart and mind. So hard to describe. A drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains one minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk. Yes, I feel the walls closing in and I long to escape. To soar. A physical and ethereal escape.

I take deep breaths and count numbers. Around me, all is solid and real: the bar’s brass railing, the Jacobean beams, the square wooden table, the ladder-back chairs, and their rush seats. Bailey’s Tabard Inn, styled after an English pub, offers meals you won’t find in restaurant chains. Their fish and chips rival any riverside hostel in the Cotswolds, and their shepherd’s pie includes fine lamb instead of chopped beef. With the proper pairing of ale—thanks to Geoff—anyone’s mind could drift in a fanciful direction, even through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways, but now I hear Alison assert:

“Women need to feel attractive, no matter their age. Salon tricks are necessary.”

“I’ve been coloring my hair for years,” Barbara confides, “but now I’m talking about getting rid of these wrinkles.”

You’d think for a CPA she wouldn’t care so much about appearance. But she does. However, beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes; it is forever fading, even if it begins modestly, even if it was never dominant, it silently passes. And yet, I always found Barbara attractive. Because of her mathematical mind she was well-grounded, and I needed that influence. But what did she see in me? Perhaps a puzzle to solve? Yes, perhaps she hypothesized that, with the right amount of nudging and guidance, she could turn me into a “normal” person. Or perhaps she saw me as a Mr. Casaubon, a man whose deep thoughts would one day unhinge the world. Or perhaps, she simply knew I was someone whom she could control.

Sizing up the mater, it makes no sense. I long for a structured life, but I always seek escape. All breathing human passion, although momentarily perfect, cannot last. It disappoints. It leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed because it is not only transient, it is never as sweet as what we imagine.

“Great meal,” Geoff sighs. “Too bad the university’s cafeteria’s food is so awful.”

Alison says, “They do what they can with the budget they have, and they must sell what students will buy. It’s a business.”

“At least you don’t have to leave campus,” Barbara points out.

“A well-conceived trap,” Geoff finishes his third drink.

I glance at my practical wife and think for the thousandth time that, although Barbara was never a beauty, she knew how to tease—to be provocative. A woman’s natural art. Unpremeditated yet a purposeful snare. Her voice was not of clear, keen joyance but of dim, dull seduction. She lulled me to sleep, figuratively, and each time I woke, I was in a deeper trance. Social norms pushed us along: promises, duties, and obligations. I understand and accept all of it. I have never broken my bonds. Yet, having been pricked by the thorns of life, I needed sanctuary. You see, I am neither profound nor normal. I am timid, awkward, and introverted. So, I escape to an imaginary fortress.

“Can we escape without paying the bill?” Geoff says with a laugh.

Barbara asks impatiently, “Where is our waitress?”

“With her youth and beauty,” Alison says with a knowing smile, “you can get away with anything.”

“Hush, she’s walking over.”

She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. She seems so innocent and oblivious to her nature. Can a woman be beautiful without wanting to be attractive? But who am I to her? My days are in the yellow leaf. If she smiled at me, I would no see kindness but pity. If I smiled at her, she would not see a decent man but an old fool.

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Thomas DeConna spent the first half of his life in New Jersey and the second half in Colorado. He taught English for thirty-nine years. He and his wife look forward to traveling through fair weather or foul, whatever life’s journey presents.