A Stray in the Alley by David Smith

He hated being early. It wasn’t that he was impatient, he just wasn’t very good at operating alone in public. At least, not in places like this. His face didn’t mesh well with the joy and satisfaction the rest of the room wore. Liam sat there alone. He watched his inverted reflection drip down the water glass like little planes crashing into the table cloth. He thought about all the times he’d tried flying a kite as a kid. He thought about how fucking pointless it was. Why try to fly if your still tied to the ground? What’s the point in all that? 

“Here you are, ma’am,” the host pulled the chair out and Dana nodded. She looked tired and bored already. She almost always looked bored these days. Apart from when she was drunk with her friends on “Lady’s Night.” She found peace in the chaos that was Thursday nights in the city. And Liam asking her to be here on a Friday for an early dinner was worst case. 

“You look nice,” he said without looking up from the glass.

“I feel like shit. You look stressed.” She sat down with a thud and a sigh before pulling her chair in. She could always tell when he was stressed. His hair would lay flat with a greasy shine. She never knew if he just stopped showering or if his body got extra oily when he was worried about something. Probably both. At first, she hardly noticed. Then she found it kind of cute, in a gross, quirky way. She would make a joke about “taking his mind off of things” and then they’d go have sex in the shower. She missed those days. He smiled more then. And she drank less. 

“How was work? Did your boss ever give you that raise?” Liam was still fingering the condensation on the glass. 

“I don’t know, I called in sick this morning.” She said blankly.

“Lady’s night strikes again.” 

“Yeah, so probably not getting that raise. Geoff will probably get it. Guy’s a fucking teacher’s pet, I swear.” She looked up from the menu to see Liam scanning the room for the waiter. “How about you? Did Duncan tell you when you have to be back on site?” 

“I still have about three weeks, I think. The contract was only for a year, so this will be the last rotation.” Liam finally looked across the table. He wondered if Dana was like this in the two month’s he was gone. Unenthused and tired all the time. At first the two-months-on-two-months-off thing was great. They both enjoyed their personal space, so it worked out well. But then they stopped calling every day. Now, they would go weeks without speaking. Unless he was home. Then they saw each other. Not every day, but a few times a week at least. He had nothing but time, and she was generally just too polite to come up with excuses. That’s why she was here tonight. Called in sick to work but still made enough of an effort to make it to the restaurant. Almost on time too. It pissed him off. He felt like a chore or a pitied old friend she felt obligated to entertain.

“Wanna split an appetizer?” He said to break the silence. He hated this already. Who knew an awkward dinner could be so boring.

“I don’t think I can eat anything right now. I’m not sure I could keep any of this down for too long.” 

“Why did you even come then?” His frustration dragged the words from the lump in his throat before he had a chance to close his mouth around them. “I mean, I could have just come over or something.”

“Do you want to leave then or what?” She was still holding the menu as if she was still trying to find her hangover cure. She looked at him with an impatient tiredness that almost seemed to drain him of his own energy. 

“I, uh…” He looked down at the menu, then around the room for the waiter. He picked up his glass and drank the backwash and ice that accumulated at the bottom. He wondered what kind of waiter would leave his glass empty for so long. The guy had to have walked by a half dozen times by now. He held the glass up and searched for a stray drop he may have missed. Nothing. 

“Look, I think I get it.” Dana closed the menu and smiled for the first time. “Never play poker, Liam. You’d suck.” She stood up and took her purse from the back of the chair. She rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment as she passed. He stared straight ahead. Like she was still there, in her chair scanning the menu. “Take care of yourself.”

He sat there for a minute. Alone again, he felt like a shitty painting at an art show. The people around him looking at him from behind wine glasses, whispering their sympathies and insults to their partners and friends. He pulled his tie through the knot and leaned back, taking his first breath in what felt like hours. The lump in his throat was gone, but his face was sweating now. He grabbed the glass and drank the few drops of new water that had gathered, letting the ice cubes bunch up on his upper lip. He took one in and pressed it hard to the roof of his mouth. It didn’t help cool his face off, but it was something. 

“Can I get you some more water sir?” The waiter looked down at him like he was a stray cat in the alley. The kind you’d want to feed and give some milk to, but not one you’d want to touch with your bare hands. 

“No,” He said, still looking at the empty chair, “I’ll just get out of your hair for now. Thanks.”