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“Westley! Party of two?” shouted the host as he sidled his way through the crowded seating area. “Westley?” The restaurant was particularly crowded for a Friday night. It was a local gathering place for younger people and wasn’t known for much more than that and its divine chicken salad sandwich. There were only about fifteen or so tables and a few booths around the edges, more than enough to accommodate the usual Friday crowd. Tonight was a different sort of night.
There was no event or holiday to mark the date as anything special or out of the ordinary, but the typical crowd was bolstered by a handful of couples more than were expected. The pairs were forced to sit or stand around the entrance and make small talk, stare blankly at their cell phones, look over the various art hanging on the walls, or shift awkwardly from foot to foot as they waited for their names to be called. Despite the dullness of the majority of the patrons, the overall din of the restaurant was slightly discomforting, if one were to simply absorb the atmosphere of the night. This is exactly what Westley and his partner, Ellis, were doing when the host squeezed between two particularly animated cohorts to collect them to their table.
“That’s us,” Westley called as he extended his hand to aid Ellis in climbing up from the plush leather bench. They were led, scarves and coats in hand, across the dining room floor to their corner table which sat beneath an art deco rendering of a wind turbine, part of a series of four created to raise awareness for alternative energy.
After a moment of admiration, Ellis looked over to Westley and said, “This might not be the right place to start a push for alternative energy, but as art, it’s not half bad.”
“Yeah, go figure a town with ten-thousand people would be the cornerstone of an energy revolution.”
“C’mon,” she scoffed, “don’t be so cynical, everything’s gotta start somewhere. We did.”
“I guess. I am trying to go somewhere…I just don’t know where, yet.” They hung their coats on the brass smoking pipes that were attached to the wall on either side of the table and sat down across from one another. Westley stared into the high-gloss finish of the mahogany table and once again tried to crack the barrier that stood between his present and his future.
“You’ll figure it out. You’re too smart and too talented to stick around here working at a job that you’re totally overqualified for. You said it yourself that you wanted to try to get into serious photography.” Ellis looked over Westley, taking in the man she once saw herself with. She saw the way his hair fought to part in the middle, the worn and cracked knuckles on his hands, the shadowy bags that hung just below his downturned eyes. She wanted to reach across the table and take his hand to reassure him that everything would work out.
“True,” he said, feeling slightly better. “Have you seen my photoblog recently? I added the pictures I took over Christmas.” Talking about his hobby always managed to pull Westley out of his depression. She could see it in his face, in the way his body sat up a little bit straighter.
“I did. I really like ones of your cousins opening their presents. You seriously are good, I mean it! There isn’t a bad picture on there.” She was trying perhaps a bit too hard, she thought, but she really liked Westley and wanted to cheer him up. She knew it had been too long since he felt truly happy.
“I know there aren’t, that’s sort of the point of my blog, to post the good pictures. Rest assured that for every good picture, there are two that aren’t worth looking at. That’s exactly the reason I spend so much time snapping away; I need to get to the point where I’m not wasting time taking poor photos.”
“Geez, West, no need to get so down on yourself, I’m just trying to make you feel better.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been frustrated with a lot of things lately and I shouldn’t have snapped at you. Anyway, how’s nursing school going? I’ve seen from your posts online that you have a less than desirable accounting class right now.”
Crap, she thought to herself, I didn’t want to talk about myself but he’s kind of making me. “Oh gawd, I hate that class! It has nothing to do with nursing but for some reason we’re required to take it. Why can’t we just take algebra or pre-calc or something? I could handle those, but accounting is the worst.”
“Why? I would think accounting would be easier than algebra or pre-calculus.” Westley knew Ellis wasn’t quite as smart as he, but he was surprised to hear that she was having problems with a basic accounting class, let alone her desire for pre-calculus.
“I don’t know, just something about the different formulas and all the other stuff and the graphing and it’s a three hour class and it’s at night no less! By the time it’s over, I’m freaking exhausted and just want to go home and sleep.”
”I guess it might be a lot to remember and put together. I agree that any class that long at night can be tiring. I had a class that met for three hours once a week back in my senior year. I loved the class but by the time we were finished, I was, too.”
“I know! It’s like, I spend all day in other classes and then I have like, three hours to go back home, get something to eat and then I have to drive all the way back and sit through three hours of some boring math class.” She let out an exasperated sigh, a genuine expression of how she felt about her class and about the night’s progress. “So anyway, what’s new with you? I know you’ve been taking pictures and working, but how’ve you been?
Westley knew where this conversation was going to end up and he didn’t want to talk about that just yet, not with Ellis at least. Every time she had tried to get back in touch with him before, she always made a not-too-subtle attempt to find out if he was still dating his now ex-girlfriend. “Eh, not too bad. Just working for now, until I figure out where I want to go with my life. Other than that, I don’t have much else going on.” As soon as he finished his last sentence, he wanted to snatch it out of the air and stuff it in his pocket.
This was exactly what Ellis wanted to hear. For years, even after they’d both graduated high school, she had always wondered if she and Westley had just met too young and if they would be a better fit now, after they both had a chance to grow. “Really?” she asked, playing coy,” I thought you’d be trying to stay busy, you know, like, hanging out with Matt or Jesse or something. You’re not really doing anything?” Very smooth, Ellis thought, just ease into it.
He really wanted to cut off this line of conversation before it got too out of hand for Westley, but he, in true Westley fashion, was too polite to create an awkward moment. “Well, I do have some things I’m trying to get in order. There’s the matter of finding an apartment in the area, and there’s work, of course. I’ve also been working on my writings lately, trying to master the subtleties of dialogue and whatnot. Then there’s my photography, which, I’m ashamed to admit, is taking up far too much of my free time, so I’m not really that unoccupied, there are just a lot of things up in the air right now.” Perhaps a bit too harsh, West.
“Wow, sorry. I didn’t mean it like you were just sitting around doing nothing, but it sounds like you’re by yourself most of the time. Have you even talked to anyone from high school, other than me that is?” Ooh, that’s good, act concerned for him. Ellis thought herself quite clever for her efforts. She was making an effort to uncover if Westley was looking toward any other women from his past for companionship. She was adamant that she and Westley deserved another chance to be with one another, if only she could convince him of that.
“Now that you mention it, no, I haven’t. I guess I have had a lot of time to myself since everything happened.” Maybe I do need to get out of my own head, take a step back and look around…
“Then I’m glad we got a chance to get you outside.” This was her moment and she took it. She reached across the smooth finish of the table and gently placed her hand on his arm. They both felt him become tense but Ellis just tilted her head and gave Westley a warm smile. Despite his knee-jerk reaction, Westley did feel better. It had been a while since his last conversation with someone he was familiar with.
“Hi, my name is Dana and I’ll be your server tonight,” chirped a petite woman who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “What can I get you folks to drink?” she asked as she placed two menus and a meager drink special booklet on the table.
“I’ll have an amaretto sour,” chimed Ellis.
“What do you have on tap?” Westley was a beer man at heart.
“Well, we have the usual big domestics but we also have some local microbrews…um, we have Asham’s After-Hours Ale, Jim George’s IPA, Quarterfish Lager and, I think, Dead-Man’s Dark.” Westley was unimpressed by the selection and didn’t feel much like a brew at the moment, or at least knew he shouldn’t have one.
“Hmm…I think I’ll just have a water.” Never thought I’d be a “water boy”.
“Okay! I’ll be right back with your drinks, but in the meantime, our appetizer and happy-hour specials are on the insert in your menu and our soup-of-the day is French onion!” Dana flitted away, narrowly avoiding just about everyone as she made her way to the wait staff’s island.
“Wow, could she be any brighter?”
“I know, like, damn, who are you trying to impress? I was never that peppy when I worked in food service.”
Westley gave an acknowledging “hmph” and went back to staring at the reflections of the various local fare that was bolted to the ceiling.
The rest of the evening went on without incident; both Ellis and Westley had a decent time in the other’s company and Westley, despite his initial malaise, actually enjoyed himself a little. They talked about their shared memories of high school, the cross country training, the track and field meets, the band classes spent doing little more than waiting for the teacher to make his way toward their respective sections, and they had an especially good laugh at the expense of their formal principal. Ellis forgot her plans to pursue Westley and had an honest night with a friend with whom she had lost touch. He forgot about his personal issues enough to see that other people, other real people, he thought, were not as bad as his recent memory would have had him believe.
At nine o’clock sharp Westley’s cell phone played the antique ringing meant to wake him from unconsciousness. Westley simply slid his finger across the screen to silence the annoyance. He had been staring at the clock on the wall, waiting for the alarm to judge the difference between his clock and his phone. Seventeen seconds. Westley had rolled over and finally decided to end his attempts to sleep forty-seven minutes prior to the alarm’s shattering of silence. Well, he mused to himself, it seems that my conscious problems aren’t causing my sleeplessness. I had a fine enough evening and I was even able to let my mind rest before I lay down for the night. Then, a low, groaning sound came from the next room.
“Uuuuuuunnnnnnggggghhhh…why the hell’d j’you set an alarm?”
Westley threw the covers off of his thinning frame, slid out of bed and put on a used t-shirt before parting the sliding double-doors that separated his “bedroom” from the rest of his parents’ basement. His eyes took a second to adjust to the darkness. The basement had only one portal to the light outside, a glass block window set above the washer and dryer, Westley’s nightly companions. “Sorry,” he murmured to the heap of blankets and hair that was splayed across the couch, “I get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends.”
“Wha…who does that?” Ellis mustered ever ounce of strength she had in her small, hung-over self to sit herself upright on her makeshift bed. “Wait,” a sudden concern fighting through the grogginess still hanging over her voice, “why’m I in your basement? Oh god, how did I get here? What happened last night? Did we…?”
“No, certainly not,” replied Westley, a bit too quickly and in a tone that was perhaps a bit too condescending, he thought.
“Oh…good,” her voice trailed off.
They both looked at each other, Ellis, still tangled in blankets, was glad for the darkness because she could feel her cheeks flushing at the idea of her and Westley being together. She wished she could at least remember what happened after her third amaretto sour. Things had been going so well, she said to herself, and you had to go and screw it up! What the hell is wrong with you, acting like some kind of lush?!? I thought you said you were going to get over this; you were going to grow up. Now you’ve just embarrassed yourself in front of the man you least wanted to do that in front of. Just figure out a way to get out of this mess as best you can without making yourself look like an ass.
Westley, standing awkwardly between his bed and the couch, was entirely unsure as to how to act in this situation. This was something completely new to him, having never been much of a “ladies man” in his college years or thereafter. He tried to reason out the best possible course of action. Okay West, don’t panic, this is not a big deal; she needed a place to stay for the night, she couldn’t drive home, so you just brought her back and put her to bed. Nothing happened so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about; you would have done the same for any friend, not just Ellis. Just give her some privacy to collect her things, offer her the bathroom to shower if she wants, and keep a respectable air about yourself and things will be fine. Alright, good, nothing to worry about.
“If you want, you can get a shower, the bathroom’s just up the stairs and off to the left.”
“Oh, okay, I remember. That sounds good…I’ll just, uhh…yeah.”
“Yep…Oh, there are clean towels and the like in the small cupboard behind the door when you walk in. If you want, there are small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash, too, but you can use whatever’s in the shower, either way is fine.”
“Thanks, I’ll figure it out.”
“Sure thing…uh, if you need anything, just give a shout.”
“Will do.” And with that, Ellis detangled herself from the mess she was in, but not before readjusting her shirt to cover herself. Westley couldn’t help but see and turned red when he noticed Ellis glance his way.
“Sorry, I…I was, just…I’ll…”
“It’s fine, we’re both adults, no big deal.” She thought he was cute for being embarrassed. Westley simply nodded, turned around and busied himself with making his bed, hoping Ellis would let it go and make her way upstairs.
Ellis emptied her pockets into her purse and took the stairs to the main floor of Westley’s childhood home. Everything was how she remembered; the forest green walls, the plush carpet, the awful paisley throw pillows on the oversized chair in the corner of the living room, even the warm smell of apples and cinnamon were all unchanged. There was a sense of familiarity she retained with her past in this house and she was glad of it; she felt much more at ease.
She slipped into the bathroom, not wanting to wake Westley’s parents – they were late sleepers – and gathered the towels and assorted soaps she needed and stared the water. She undressed and nearly jumped when she saw herself out of the corner of her eye in a full-sized mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Not everything had remained unchanged, she noted. As the water and soapy foam rolled down her body, Ellis’ thoughts drifted back to thoughts of being with Westley and about their past. She thought of those few months during her sophomore year in which she pined after Westley.
He was a year behind her, an incoming freshman, and she first saw him running around their school’s outdoor track, trying to run a fast enough time to make the cross-country team. She laughed to herself watching his slow, loping strides he took, almost as if he were jumping from rock to rock across a river. Eventually she met him formally and was immediately taken in by the way he talked. It wasn’t something that could go unnoticed in a one-on-one conversation, but they were with a few other members of the cross-country team and the contrast between them, especially the other freshmen, made her take notice. Later, they found they had the same band class and she would watch him from across the room. Even here, among students from all years, she noticed the subtle way he held himself that made him seem older in a way she could not describe in words.
Finally, she was able to gather the courage to ask Westley to dinner. He accepted and soon thereafter they began dating. Dating was sort of a loose term for their relationship, given that they were both so young, but Ellis was content with what they had. Westley, it turned out, was not. He broke up with Ellis over a cup of tea they shared in his parents’ basement, only a month after their “relationship” began, sitting on the same couch she had just spent her night passed out on.
A quiet knock on the door pulled her mind back to the present.
“Did you find everything okay?” Westley asked, still unsure how to proceed with the morning.
“Yeah, I’m good,” she called in return. “Aren’t your parents sleeping?”
“No, they’re gone for the weekend. It’s their anniversary. I’ll let you finish showering.”
“Okay.” So his parents are gone…we have the house to ourselves. Ellis was already planning four steps ahead of where she was and soon realized that her plans had no solid foundation. Get it together, Ellie. He just caught you off guard this morning; you were in a strange place you didn’t know and we a little sloppy, that’s all.
Westley made the short walk from the bathroom door to the kitchen to prepare his morning cup of tea. Vanilla black tea was his usual selection, however today felt different. He went with a lighter green tea and lemon. As he set the small kettle on the gas burner of the range, he wondered how to handle the situation he had gotten himself into. It had been years since he was alone with a woman whom he didn’t know intimately. The feeling was familiar, in a distant memory sort of way, but he had been much younger and the circumstances were different. He didn’t know if he should just take her back to her car and call it a day or if he should offer her breakfast. That may be too leading, he worried to himself. Do we go out for breakfast instead? Just coffee? Coffee here or coffee elsewhere? What if she asks me to go out before taking her back to her car? Do I accept to be polite or delicately turn her down with some excuse; I do have a vignette I’d like to finish. That seems too harsh, but I don’t want to get tangled up right now, especially after what I’m going through. I think coffee would be fine, but not breakfast, that’s too close to a date like situation. I need to keep it friendly, but not too friendly, and above all, I can’t give her the impression that I want anything more than friendship. We are only friends and I’d like to keep it that way. I truly hope she isn’t looking for more right now, that would only make things awkward between us and if I push her away too hard I’ll lose her even as a friend. I can’t afford to lose any more friends.
The whistling of the kettle popped his thoughts back outside of his head. As he poured the steaming water into his oversized mug, he realized his hands were perspiring, he had an anxious knot in his stomach and was suddenly disinterested in tea as a warm beverage. He decided to take the first step and steer the morning in a reasonable direction and took the few steps to the bathroom door. “Hey Ellis, would you like me to make you a cup of tea? I’ve just boiled the water.”
“Sure, I’d like some tea. Do you still drink that crappy black tea? Get me like white tea, or even green.” Ellis had a slight tingling at the back of her mind, remembering the last time she had tea with Westley. She thought she was reading too much into it, only a coincidence, she told herself.
After dressing herself in her wrinkled clothes from the previous night, she wrapped her towel around her head and made her way to the kitchen. She saw Westley standing at the small island in the open kitchen, steeping the tea in the mug he had intended to use himself.
“Wow, you really haven’t changed have you?”
“How do you mean?” questioned Westley.
“Well, for one, you still buy the same brand of tea and two, you’re still using the same mug you’ve had since high school.”
“What’s wrong with my mug?” He sounded a bit too defensive and Ellis took note.
“Well,” she started, backing off the heckling, “it’s just, you’ve had the same mug for almost ten years now. Don’t you want a new one?”
“I like my mug. My mug and I have been through a lot and we’ve made out just fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, either, so why bother to get a new one?”
“I guess, but don’t you want a little variety in your life? Sometimes change can be a good thing.”
“Yes, I agree, but too much can set your world atilt, make you lose your sense of balance.” Westley didn’t understand why she was being so difficult about a coffee mug.
“Eh, whatever, I guess you’ll just be the same old boring Westley Middleton forever.” She shot him a playful smile, reassuring him that she was only making fun; at his expense, but making fun nonetheless.
Slightly indignant and eager to show Ellis he wasn’t boring Westley blurted out, “I’m not boring and just to prove it, I’m taking you to breakfast, something a boring Westley would never do.” That should quiet her for a bit, Westley thought to himself, satisfied.
“Oooh, I think I got a nerve on that one. Fair enough, breakfast it is. Let me finish toweling my hair.” Ellis very nearly skipped her way to the bathroom and shut the door behind her.
Westley was suddenly reacquainted with the knot in his stomach. Dammit, West, he thought to himself. This is not how I planned to spend my Saturday morning. She is probably going to see this breakfast as something more than a friendly meal between two old friends. I am really not looking for a full-time relationship right now, but I can’t cut this off without making things worse between us. Another rock and hard place closing in. I suppose I can try to make the best of it; after all, how bad could this really turn out?
He traversed the narrow staircase to the basement to get a change of clothes and gather his things. By the time he had changed and returned to the kitchen, Ellis was waiting for him, looking much the same as she did the previous night, albeit a bit more wrinkled and wet as she had neither a change of clothes nor a hair dryer. At least she isn’t trying to keep up appearances, thought Westley, and she clearly isn’t trying to look her best. That could be a good sign, a sign that she isn’t trying to draw me into a relationship.
“All set?” she asked, giving him a quick once-over with her eyes. “Oh no, not brown again. Still sticking to the earth-tones, I see.”
“There is nothing wrong with dressing in a neutral color. The advantage is I can wear nearly any two pieces together.”
“Neutral is just another word for boring. And brown on brown isn’t always a good look.” Ellis was trying to keep the gentle bickering going between them, purposefully goading Westley into emotional responses.
“Say what you will, I’m comfortable with my current wardrobe. C’mon, let’s go.” And with that he took his coat from the hook by the door and tossed Ellis hers. He was trying to move onto a different line of conversation without being too abrupt.
“In a hurry?” she asked, sensing the slightly harsher tone in his voice.
“Well, it would be nice to get in before the brunch crowd.”
“Hmm, brunch. That means that you’re taking me to either Paula’s or The Kitschy Corner. Seeing as how Paula’s is closer to Arnold’s Tavern, I’m guessing that’s where you plan on going.”
“How insightful of you. That is exactly where I planned on going.” His tone was a bit softer now, if still sarcastic.
“Predictable, as always,” she teased. Good, Ellie, keep it going. She was getting hopeful. “That’s another one of those words that means boring, you know. Strike two.”
“I’m not sure how you can say that counts as a strike against me when I wasn’t aware that you were keeping track, let alone the fact that I’ve not been involved in either foul.” As a rule, he didn’t go along with games such as this, but he was willing to indulge Ellis; he felt he had been too stiff with her.
“Fair enough, but that’s still two strikes, one more and you’re out.”
“What happens when I’m “out” as you call it?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet but maybe you can save yourself and you won’t have to find out.” She hoped he would strike out.
“That won’t be easy, considering I’m effectively blindfolded and swinging blindly at pitches I can’t see. I can only guess that I should avoid being ‘boring’,” Westley genuinely felt he was at a disadvantage. Alright West, tread lightly, he warned himself. He was also worried what would happen if he “struck out”, as Ellis put it; would he be subjected to some childish stunt, like one that would come from a hormone-fueled game of “Truth or Dare”. Ellis is sort of like that, Westley thought to himself, but she certainly has to be more mature than that. Perhaps it will be something simple like another night out. That wouldn’t be so bad, so long as we don’t have a repeat of last night.
“Something like that; let’s see if you’re as intuitive as I am.” Ellis donned her coat and followed Westley through the front door and descended the steps that led to the sandstone walkway. “You’re parents are gone and you still parked in the driveway? Why not take their spot in the garage?”
“Habit, I guess, though I should have parked in the garage. It would have been easier to get you inside, with all the stumbling you seemed determined to do.” He was trying to play her game now; fight fire with fire.
They were getting into Westley’s car now, a small, dark blue hatchback he’d been driving since the end of his freshman year of college.
“Oh please,” she guffawed, “I couldn’t have been that bad, I only had three drinks,” I think, she thought to herself.
“Three? How much of last night do you remember? Try six.”
She slid the metal rectangle into the tiny slot under the red button-release and froze. She was absolutely abhorred at the image of herself, sitting at the table, talking, having a good time, downing drink after drink, slurring her words more and more as the alcohol lurked in the shadows of her brain, slowly turning her from a young woman to a sloppy mess of disheveled clothing, frazzled hair and tangled limbs, reeking of alcohol, at best only a nuisance to those around her, at worst a liability, little more than a body to be dragged around and looked after. This all flashed through her mind in an instant, but it had an immediate effect on her. What she thought were a few lapses in judgment were beginning to look like a pattern, one with which she was all too familiar.
“Wow,” was all she could utter as she sat back in the faded, cloth seat, “wow…I’m really sorry, I had no idea.”
“No kidding you had no idea,” he chided.
“Oh c’mon, don’t act like you’re my mom, all high-and-mighty.”
“Ah,” he let out, “it seems you can give it but you can’t take it.” He felt a little glimmer of pride; he was gaining ground in her game.
“Just let it go,” she snapped, “I won’t do it again. Let’s just go get some food.”