TW – non-specific references to sexual abuse
“Sometimes, the people we want to be are all around us.”
Susanna pocketed her receipt and made her way through the café to a tall table with two stools at the end of the room. Standing facing away from the crowd, she removed her faded black leather jacket and placed it on the back of one of the stools, then slid around the table to the other, back firmly in the corner of the room. She placed her order card into the spiral stand, turned it slightly to make it visible to the delivery personnel, and lowered her hands back to her lap and bowed her head. Number three - a fitting reminder of her place. Even when she was alone, she was still third.
Her hands tensed unconsciously, gripping the fraying material near the hem of her skirt. A loose string wound its way naturally around her right index finger and she spun it in circles out of pure habit. Glancing around over the top of her glasses, she eyed the other customers warily, fidgeting with her skirt front with her left hand, trying to protect against a viewpoint already concealed by the table. Her feet rested uncomfortably on the circular bar below, just too high to let her sit with her knees together, just too low to hook her ankles below it. The vertical bars supporting the table were positioned perfectly to prevent her from angling her legs out in comfort. Just one more piece of torture to bear.
A soft buzzing came from across the table, her phone trying to get her attention. In response the Fitbit on her left wrist followed suit, and she lifted it up above the table, turned it to face her. It lit up and danced letters across the tiny screen. “Neil cell… Where are you? We…” She twisted her wrist back again, letting the rest of the message go unread. Let him stew for a while on where she might be. A little time being truly alone, rather than merely feeling lonely. It was about time she took some time for herself.
Thirty seconds later, another buzz, more light. “Brian cell… Wondering what…” Another twist of the wrist. Where there was one, there was the other. Brian always thought he could get through to her when Neil couldn’t. True, in the past that was often the case. But today was not one of those days. Today was all about Susanna, for the moment at least. She would probably pay for it later in some way. She always seemed to.
Her Fitbit buzzed a third time, but instead of turning to see the text, she merely stared at her fingernails, released the string on her skirt, and rubbed her cuticles softly cross-wise. Her nails were short and clean, and each one showed a strong half-moon shape. They were coated only with a clear polish to keep them strong, to keep them from cracking under pressure. Never to show off with color. Her hands curled into loose fists as she continued to study them, palms up, hiding away her jewelry. But she knew they were there, could still feel the slight restriction of blood flow they caused. Two metal bands on each of her ring fingers. One silver, one gold on the left, one gold, one silver on the right.
On the table, two steaming mugs came into view, pulling her gaze upward.
“Right here, thank you.”
“And the Earl Grey?”
“Just put it right there.” She pointed at the far side of the table in front of the jacketed chair. The server obliged with just a slight angling of his head, his obvious question unasked.
“No, thank you.” The young man turned away, leaving her to her thoughts again. She raised the mug in both hands, let her face become immersed in the steam, then held it out in front of her.
“To you, Jeanne.” She tapped her mug against the other, then drank deeply the burning hot liquid.
A young woman at a nearby booth looked over, probably wondering how she could drink something so hot so quickly. If she had asked, Susanna could have told her about how all her taste buds had been burned off, how the roof of her mouth no longer had feeling. She could have explained how her sense of smell now substituted for taste, and how getting a cold could cause her to lose weight from not eating. She could have spoken further, about the near case of gangrene in her feet from overtightened chains, or how her shoulders could dislocate and pop back in if she shrugged too hard. Or how she had once been so thin and undernourished that she had broken her finger merely turning on a light switch. She could have shared her life story. But the woman turned back to her croissant. Susanna put down her empty mug and started talking quietly to herself.
The mug of Earl Grey sat across from her and listened, without judgment. Just like Jeanne had, what felt like so long ago.
It was another twenty minutes before Neil and Brian found her. The Earl Grey had long since gone cold, though it continued to listen to her closely. Susanna didn’t even need to look up to know they were there. Neil was loud enough to wake the dead. And Brian’s scent she would recognize anywhere, even when he was trying to mask it with a cigarette. The advantage of the corner of the room is no one could sneak up on you. The disadvantage is there was nowhere to run.
“There you are, bitch,” whispered Neil.
“Hello, love,” said Brian.
Susanna didn’t respond, merely pulled at her skirt again. Same old routine. Bad cop, good cop. Except they were both bad, and neither were cops. But they liked to think they were in control of everything. And, at times, they were. At least of Susanna. Far too many times.
“Get your ass back to bed,” whispered Neil in her ear.
Each of them grabbed an arm and lifted her off the stool, pushing the table away from her at the same time. The mug of Earl Grey teetered but stayed up. Her empty mug tumbled to the floor where it landed with a heavy thud, but didn’t break.
“C’mon dear, let’s get you home alright?” Brian spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. Trying to set the scene for his audience, as always. Susanna closed her eyes, resigned to her fate once again.
Elise tapped her feet unconsciously in rhythm with the music, a 90s pop tune that could have been written by one of any number of bands. Her eyes wandered around the room, hidden by sunglasses. Her book, open in her left hand, slowly changed pages as she shifted her thumb. She had already eaten an English muffin and a bagel and was now halfway through the croissant in her right hand, yet she could tell she would still be hungry afterwards. Too much starch, not enough meat.
She laughed to herself as the thought crossed her mind. Her diet was a lot like her current relationship. Too much of what slows you down, nothing that gives you energy to grow. Just the uptight, starchy, same old thing without any heat. Nothing like that woman sitting nearby who just tossed back a piping hot tea without even flinching. Impressive.
If she had worked up the nerve, she could have told her how inspiring that was. If she had walked over there, she could have joined her at the table, shared the second mug of tea. She could have opened up to her about her feeling that the world rarely held her interest. She could have talked about her own straightforward and predictable upbringing, schooling, career, life. Not for too long though, because there wasn’t a lot of interesting tale to tell. But she could have shared it with someone new. She could have learned something new. She could have made a friend. Then, as she took another bite of the croissant, the woman put down her mug and looked down, avoiding Elise’s gaze.
So she turned another page and continued to read.
Elise didn’t notice when the two men entered the café. The swashbuckling protagonist in her novel was in the middle of interrupting a robbery.
With one arm in a sling, Verdugo is no match for the skillful bandit leader. But as they move towards the front of the cabin a voice calls out from the shadows.
“Hello, love. Get your ass back to bed.”
The words in combination were so out of place that they threw Elise’s sense of reality off for a moment.
“C’mon dear, let’s get you home alright?”
Nope, that tone didn’t sound right either, for her book or for real life. Elise looked over and saw a tea mug had fallen from the table where two men were near-carrying the woman by her elbows. In a moment they would be past her booth. Without thinking she slid out into the aisle with her back to them.
“Watch out, you stupid…” The sentence was fractured by an elbow striking Neil in the nose, knocking him out cold. Brian stopped and stared. For too long, as it turned out, when the heel of Elise’s right hand struck him full force on the chin. Two seconds, two men out cold on the ground. Years of practice finally coming up useful.
The two ladies looked at each other for a beat. Then another, seeing each other at last.
“Perhaps we should go.”
Susanna nodded, then stared at the two men without moving.
“Right. Thanks. Oh, your purse.”
“Yes. Well. Let’s then, shall we?” Elise started towards the door then stopped.
“Just a moment.” Susanna turned back to the two prone men and pulled the rings from her fingers.
“One.” She dropped the silver ones on the floor by Neil.
“Two.” She dropped the gold ones by Brian. Then she held her empty hands to her chest.
“Me.” And she turned and walked away, with Elise following her.
LJIdol Week 25 Second Write-off – "Third"
TW – non-specific references to sexual abuse