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It was the middle of summer, and it was hot, damn hot on that bus. Elizabeth and I took the bus every day to and from work. This only made sense. There was a stop close to our apartment, and the bus dropped us off right in the center of town. Elizabeth worked just across the street from where the bus stopped, and I only had a ten-minute walk from there. So, it made sense. It definitely made sense for us to ride the bus each day.
I moved in with Elizabeth early in the year. It was her place, and it was pretty nice, nicer than mine, that’s for sure. We were young, but Elizabeth was doing pretty well, working at a local bank. They seemed to like her there, which was no surprise, and her future was bright. As for mine, it was less clear. I had taught English for a year abroad, and now I was back home, waiting tables to pay the bills while I applied to graduate schools.
The more I waited tables the less I thought about graduate school. I had wanted to be teacher, and I was pretty passionate about it. But working had also embedded me in the practicalities of life, and I could already feel my psyche wrestling with the idea of trading my aspirations for less idealistic goals.
After all, I made pretty good money at the restaurant. I was personable and patient and there wasn’t really a customer I couldn’t handle. Even the most surly customer was usually eating out of my hand by the conclusion of the meal. This led to pretty considerable tips, and I had no trouble paying my half of the rent.
Elizabeth had mixed feelings about my occupation. On one hand, she hated me working nights and getting home so late. And she was sad to see my passion for teaching dissipate seemingly in direct proportion to making a buck or two. She stopped just short of saying so, but I could sense there was something a bit less desirable about me as a waiter.
At the same time, I was now totally capable of halving the costs of our small place. She didn’t have to feel the pressure of providing for both of us, and it allowed each of us to retain a certain level of independence even though we were living together. That made her feel good, even a little proud, that I wasn’t going to be content to live off her salary, that I had enough to pride to contribute financially in any way I could.
The apartment was not bad either. It only had one bedroom, but it had nice hardwood floors and a bay window where our little kitchen table sat. Elizabeth had a real sense of style, and she added lots of little touches to make it looks nice. I wouldn’t have known where to place a plant in a million years, but she knew just how to utilize them to change the complexion of the space.
We lived that way for a while, and it was a happy time in my life. I am not sure exactly why, but if I were to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because I was able to deliver on everything that was asked of me, everything that Elizabeth asked of me. We also didn’t have a mortgage, and we hadn’t begun to consider starting a family yet. Of course, there were always the normal pressures that might come from work or the compromises that relationships facilitate, but they were all manageable. They were all very manageable, and we could focus most of our time on simply enjoying one another. It was only the two of us. We had no debts to speak of, and life was, well… Simple.
That isn’t to say we didn’t deliberate over decisions. But, looking back, the discussions surrounding what type of coffee we should buy or what we wanted to do that weekend weren’t exactly going to shape the future. And that was just it. We were living without much concern for the future at all, without much concern even for our future, taking things a day at a time, relishing the moment. I have often thought that this would be a good recipe for a happy life it could be maintained, but it’s nearly impossible to keep this philosophy up over the long haul.
When Elizabeth got her first big promotion at work, she went out to celebrate with her colleagues. I had planned a celebration for just the two of us, but she asked me if we could postpone it. I was a little disappointed, but I understood. She invited me to join them after work, so I stopped by the bar where they were celebrating close to her office. This was the first time I had met any of her friends from work. Apparently, they had heard a little bit about me, but they still seemed surprised when I walked in the door. It was almost as if they didn’t really believe I existed until they laid eyes on me in person.
The first one to greet me was Tera. She was about five years older than Elizabeth, and they worked pretty closely together from what I could remember. “You’re taller than I thought you’d be,” she said. “And more handsome. Elizabeth, you never told me he was so handsome.”
“I wonder why,” Elizabeth said wittingly. Elizabeth then raised her eyebrows at me, in hopes that I could handle the dearth of questions that might be coming. I was blushing. I never liked to be the center of attention, and Tera’s comment had made me uncomfortable. I figured she was just being charming or messing with Elizabeth, but women never joked about these things in the same manner men did.
“Well…” I stammered. “I have a beautiful girlfriend who’s smarter than me too.”
This seemed to satisfy Elizabeth, although it seemed like she was keeping a close eye on Tera… And me, for that matter.
The next person to make my acquaintance was a young guy about our age. He was clean cut, with blond hair that was likely cut every week or so, and a look from head to toe that could only be described as corporate. He shook my hand with a kind of over-eagerness I had come to associate with young, entitled guys who were fighting to get to the top but who wanted you to believe they had an everyman quality too.
“What’s up, man,” he said excitedly. “William. I’m William Daley. Nice to meet you.”
“Danny,” I said calmly. “Likewise.”
“She’s really something,” said William, looking over at Elizabeth.
“Yes,” I agreed. “She certainly is.”
“I knew she’d get it,” said William. “The promotion. I knew she’d get it all along.”
“I’m glad somebody did,” I said. “She was surprised, I think.”
“No way,” said William. “I can’t believe that. She deserved it.”
“People don’t always get what they deserve,” I responded.
“Well, that’s true,” said William. “But we all thought she was a lock.”
William interrupted our conversation in order to flag down a bartender to refill his drink.
Another man, Andrew, came over while I was talking to William. His was about ten years older than we were, and he was clearly a more senior member of the bank based upon the manner in which William responded to him. William was visibly more nervous than he had been talking to me, and his desire to impress Andrew was extraordinarily unappealing. Andrew instantly struck me as far more intelligent than William. Not just more experienced. More intelligent. And it was his emotional intelligence that got my attention. It was obvious he saw through William a mile away, and he wasn’t ever going to be charmed by William’s incessant ass kissing.
I figured that, if he could see through William, he was probably sizing me up too. If nothing else, I realized I was a curiosity to the people Elizabeth worked with day after day. They seemed to be wondering what kind of man she was attracted to, what kind of man she’d be found with, and so my appearance on this night drew a considerable amount of intrigue.
“Elizabeth said you were a snappy dresser” said Andrew, in seeming awe and disbelief at my jeans and white t-shirt in a sea of suits.
“I try,” I deadpanned. “My Armani suit is at the dry cleaner.”
“Funny,” said Andrew.
“Glad you think so,” I said.
The conversation with Andrew was cordial enough, but it was clear he was judging me. I couldn’t be sure if this was because he wanted to see if I was good enough for Elizabeth like a protective older brother or if he was merely trying to get a sense of his competition. Either way, I wasn’t the kind to be intimidated, and there was nothing Andrew and his cuff links could say that was going to intimidate me. But his next comment removed all doubt. He was digging in. He was digging in pretty deep. Fortunately, I was ready.
“So, what do you do for a living?” he asked, pretending not to know.
“I work at Salvatore’s,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Andrew. “I forgot. Elizabeth told me you’re a busboy or something like that.”
“Server,” I said, laughing at his arrogance.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You get promoted like Elizabeth?”
“Funny,” I said, repeating his answer from earlier. “Sure did. Salvatore specifically wanted to promote me in the event he needed a server to deal with pricks like you.”
“I’m just trying to be friendly,” said Andrew. “Just messing with you.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “You’re just a dick.”
Andrew leaned in close to me and sneered, “You really think a waiter’s going to be able to keep her happy?” Then he leaned back and smiled holding his drink in front of his stomach, with the ice beginning to melt.
Just then, Tera walked by. I was staring down Andrew coolly with a wry smile extending past the corners of my mouth. “Play nice, boys” she said.
Tera was trouble, real trouble, and that was easy to see. But there was something moderately endearing about her. She didn’t possess any of the entitlement that oozed from William and Andrew. She was tougher, grittier. Oh, she could put on a dress and wear it well, but I was pretty sure she didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth. In fact, everything about her edge said she was self-made, and this played differently. I could sense that, not only had she worked to get here, but that she had a real sense of just what it took to stay there when you were flying without daddy’s money or some other type of safety net.
“Would you like another drink, Tera?” I asked, ignoring her comment about playing nice in an effort to get some air.
“I’d love one,” she said. “A gentleman, too.”
“Andrew, can I get you one too?” I asked to his surprise.
“Sure,” he said.
Walking to the bar, I searched the room for Elizabeth. She was being shepherded from person to person wanting to offer her congratulations. Despite her promotion, I almost felt sorry for her, that she had to work with these people. To me, it would have been insufferable.
I caught her eye, just as I ordered the drinks. She looked across the room apologetically, and I just lifted my drink to toast her from afar. She knew I could take care of myself. It was fine. I was always fine, and I could always take care of myself.
When I returned with the drinks, I could tell that Tera and Andrew had been talking. It was clear Tera loved to gossip, and my guess was that Andrew wasn’t above spreading a rumor or two. Still, I was determined to stay above it all, and I delivered their drinks as promised. “Thank you. What a darling you are!” said Tera somewhat seductively it seemed for Andrew’s benefit more than anything. Andrew played it predictably cool and nodded and said “Thanks mate,” which always rings terribly false when said by somebody who isn’t British.
The evening went on like that for some time. I tried to mind my own business and met some other colleagues from the bank. To be fair, most were nice enough, but they lived on another planet it seemed, with different priorities, and it was hard to identify with them. Tera took one more opportunity to corner me. She wasn’t really coming on to me, I don’t think. I was just more of a curiosity, and I suppose I was different from the rest of the crowd if nothing else.
“You weren’t what I expected,” she said.
“What were you expecting?” I answered.
“I am not sure,” Tera replied. “Probably the male version of Elizabeth.”
“I get the sense people here are disappointed,” I said.
“I wouldn’t say disappointed,” said Tera. “Surprised maybe.”
“I might say the same thing about you all,” I said. “Though I am less surprised than disappointed.”
“Why’s that?” remarked Tera.
“Well,” I said, trying to find the right words. “It’s funny. I would have thought a bunch of corporate stuffed shirts would have had better… manners.”
Tera laughed out loud. “Definitely not!” she said. “You don’t bring a bunch of bankers together for good manners.”
“That’s how it appears,” I said.
“And in this case, appearances aren’t deceiving,” remarked Tera.
It was then that I saw Elizabeth was finished making the rounds. That was all I needed to excuse myself. I was ready to go home by this point. I was ready long before, really, but now I had a window.
“It was nice meeting you,” I said to Tera even though nice probably wouldn’t have been the first adjective that came to my mind. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course,” said Tera. “The pleasure was all mine.”
I made my way over to Elizabeth, kissed her on the lips and even dipped her slightly in front of everyone. It was all I could do not to pick her up and carry her out of there, although that would likely have been going too far.
“Can we get out of here?”
“I thought you’d never ask” she said. “But Tera will miss you.”
It was a little dig just to let me know that she’d been watching. Through all of the handshakes and hugs, she’d kept an eye on me and knew perfectly well where I’d been and who I had spoken to during the night.
“Well,” I said. “You have more than a few admirers here too. It’s no surprise, of course.”
“Please,” said Elizabeth. “They are just people I work with, that’s all.”
“Some would like it to be more than that,” I added.
“Who are you referring to?” snapped Elizabeth.
“Don’t even try to deny it. To begin with, it’s unimportant, but don’t pretend you don’t know. You know the list of suitors, the whole list, and it’s not short.”
“Well, I suppose there are a couple guys who might be interested if I wasn’t attached.”
“Or if you were,” I chimed in, before adding, “Just be careful.”
Despite the fact that Elizabeth and I were living in two different worlds professionally, we both understood what was real and what wasn’t, what mattered and what didn’t. Still, coming face to face with her colleagues had been somewhat jarring. And yet, at the end of the night, there we were, together. We had pushed all of the other forces in our lives to the side, to the outskirts, in an effort to be together.
And that’s how it was. Work was work, but it was just that and nothing more. Sometimes our hours didn’t coincide with one and another but, other than that, we were happy. There was still plenty of time to be together. We kept our small apartment, and the more money we made allowed us to travel a bit and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Life was good, and Elizabeth struck me as precisely the same person I fell in love with years before. I wasn’t going to change for anyone, and we were on solid ground as a couple.
Then, little by little, I began to notice some small changes. Elizabeth would casually mention a colleague who had moved into a bigger house or bought a vacation home. And, for the first time, she began to appear unsatisfied with what we had. “We really could use more space,” she suggested, when we were still only two people, and the space hadn’t changed. Or she’d remark that she really wished we could fly first class to the Florida this year. She also suggested it was time for us to get a new car, a nicer car, and that she’d like to drive to work rather than ride the train.
“Where’s this coming from?” I said, even though I could guess. “What we’ve had has always been good enough, more than good enough, for us to be happy, for us to be insanely happy.”
I waited for it, and there it came, plain as day.
“Well,” I was speaking to Andrew,” she said. “He and his wife just bought a country house upstate.”
“So, our real estate decisions are now being influenced by Andrew?” I asked.
“And William and his girlfriend flew first class to Paris last year. First class! Can you imagine? Said they had shrimp on the plane.”
“Honestly, Liz, I couldn’t give a rats ass about what William does.”
“That’s because you don’t make money, not real money, like the money I make.”
That hurt, but she was getting it out now. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment she had changed, but we were getting to the heart of her frustration. In some ways, I was happy she was getting it out.
“I wasn’t aware that you were with me for my money,” I responded, “or that you were dissatisfied with how much I make.”
“It’s not that I am dissatisfied” she said.
“Then what?” I asked again.
“It’s that I just want something to show for it, something more,” she said emotionally. “Don’t you want something more?”
“Nope” I stated. “I just want you.”
“Well, isn’t that sweet,” she said. “Just me. Little old me. That’s all you want. That way you can keep middling through life without any ambition.”
I was dumbfounded. They had clearly gotten to her. Put thoughts in her head that were never there before. But she was working longer days now, too. She had less time for us, and she was making money without visible upward mobility, at least in our personal life, with our personal possessions. I wasn’t sure why that was so important, but it clearly had become important to her.
“Even Tera drives a Mercedes E Class to work,” she said. “Tera! Andrew actually felt bad for me. Said he couldn’t believe I still take the bus.”
“Bet he felt sorry for you,” I snapped.
“What does that mean?” Liz lashed back. “He was far more understanding than you are.”
“I am sure he was,” I surmised. “I’m sure he couldn’t wait to be understanding, offer you a sympathetic ear.”
“That’s right,” said Elizabeth indignantly.
“You should hear yourself, Liz,” I said. “You should fucking hear yourself.”
“You can hear this,” said Elizabeth, madder than ever now. “We’re done. Done. How’s your hearing now?”
I couldn’t even be mad, and I couldn’t fight for us. There was no us, not like there used to be. And there was nowhere to go from here. Elizabeth had changed, and with those changes came different wants, different aspirations. Of course, we all change, and I had changed too. But what I wanted for us hadn’t changed. That had remained the same from the start. And it wasn’t going to be improved by fancy cars or vacation homes. That was for sure. I really had nothing left to say, since it felt like I was talking to a stranger, a complete stranger. I imagine Elizabeth felt the same and, looking into each other’s faces, neither of us could understand why these two people, at this time, would ever want to be together. So, we split up, just like that.
“I am sorry,” I said calmly. “And I feel sorry for you, but my things will be out by tomorrow.”
I turned and walked out. I headed down the stairs of our charming walk-up and out to the street for some fresh air. I walked until it got dark, and then I headed back to begin packing my things. Elizabeth has made a point not to be there, leaving a note that said she was “out to dinner with friends” and for me “not to forget my toothbrush.”
After I moved out, I decided to go back to school and pursue my teaching degree. It seemed like the right time. I was taking two courses and student teaching three days a week. Fortunately, I was able to keep my job at the restaurant, and Salvatore worked my schedule around my classes. I also moved into a new place, a smaller place, on the other side of town. It wasn’t much, but I liked it. I had taken on a roommate too. He was a mechanic named Rodney, and he made the rent like clockwork, which was good.
About six months later, I was grabbing a beer in my new neighborhood when I saw Tera walk in the door. She was pretty attractive and could stop traffic in most places. But in a place like this, in this part of town, she turned every head in the room. After all, they didn’t see too many Fendi bags in here. She sat down on the barstool next to me and laughed, shaking her head. The bartender came over without her asking, and she ordered a Bud Light.
“Slumming it, huh?” I surmised.
“That’s the first thing you say to me?” she said.
“Well, I was concerned,” I remarked. “You think your car is safe in this neighborhood?”
“I see how it is,” she said. “Probably not safe, actually, but I walked here.”
“From your boyfriend’s place?” I guessed.
“Parents” said Tera. “They live right down the street.”
“Damn,” I said. “You don’t say.”
“Forty years they’ve lived in the same place.”
“No shit,” I said, pretty impressed.
“I see your wardrobe hasn’t changed” said Tera.
I hadn’t seen her since the celebration for Elizabeth’s promotion, when I wore a t-shirt and jeans amidst that sea of suits.
“True,” I said. “That’s true.”
“Well, it works better here,” she said, “even if it took guts to wear it the last time.”
“I’ve never been short of courage,” I said. “Makes up for what I lack in ambition.”
Tera leaned closer to me. “So, now that you and Elizabeth aren’t together, are you going to try and get me into bed?”
“I like you, Tera. I am not sure why, but I like you,” I repeated. “I really do. But you’ve got me all wrong.”
“How’s that?” she asked.
“You just think I am out for one thing and one thing only. Why? Because I wear and jeans and a t-shirt and act like I don’t give a fuck?”
“Well,” said Tera. “Yes. That, and because you are a guy, after all, and I look pretty damn good.”
“I am and you do,” I said. “But you must not have too many experiences with nice guys.”
“I don’t think they exist,” she said. “At least not in the way you suggest. Not ‘nice’ enough to turn me down or want to get to know me better.”
“Like I said, Tera, your experience with nice guys is limited.”
“And you’re a nice guy?” she asked. “For real?”
“I am,” I said. “What would make you think I am not?”
“Nothing in particular,” said Tera. “It’s just never served me well to give a guy the benefit of the doubt.”
I nodded. I got it. Tera was straightforward and probably all of the trouble I imagined when I first laid eyes on her at Elizabeth’s celebration. She carried herself with a swagger that screamed of vanity and attitude and arrogance, but the truth was she was just tough. She had to be tough, had to become tough. That was part of her DNA, and she would never change. She had no choice, and so she swept into every room like a tornado, but this bravado wasn’t chosen. It was born, out of need to survive, a need to fight to get where she was. I could respect that. Most of all, you could be sure she wasn’t full of shit. She might have been full of herself, but she wasn’t full of shit.
“So, you want to see something?” I said. I am not sure what possessed me to say it, but I said it anyway.
“So now you are going to ask innocently if I want to go back to your place?”
“I already told you that you’ve got me all wrong,” I said. “How many times are you going to ask me that?”
“Until your answer changes,” she laughed, looking more relaxed than I’d seen her before.
“What can I say,” I answered. “I’m old fashioned.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Tera. “What then?”
“I want to show you my school,” I said, “the High School I am teaching at three days a week.”
“Come on,” said Tera. “You must be joking.”
“I wouldn’t joke about that,” I said.
“Alright,” said Tera. “I’ll drive.”
“No need,” I said. “It’s only a ten-minute walk from here.”
David Joseph is the award-winning author of the short story collection: The Old Men Who Row Boats and Other Stories. His writing has been published in The London Magazine, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, DoubleTake Magazine, and Rattle. A recipient of the John Henry Hobart Fellowship for Ethics and Social Justice, he has taught at Pepperdine University and at Harvard University. He lives in Andalucía, Spain with his wife Karen and their sons Jackson and Cassius.