“I have a wife, a girlfriend, a woman I hope to cheat on both of them with, and the one I want to date. On a good day, the third and fourth one are the same person.”
That was Niles’ response to the young waitress’s wise-ass question about his “woman troubles.” She was cute and knew it, but he and his old friend Mike had been around a block or two. Besides, the women that they were drinking over were themselves gorgeous, so they were not that flustered by her.
Mike’s ex, a stunning strawberry blonde named Sarah, was again cutting off communication, as was her pattern whenever she dated someone. Best friends, occasionally with benefits, since their break-up, they were oblivious to the fact that most of their friends and relatives pictured them together. At least she was. His desire to get back with her, combined with her radio silence had brought Mike out on a Tuesday night, a rare feat. It must have been bad because he ordered an actual drink. Not water, not Sprite, but a Hendricks and cucumber, taking Niles’ advice that they were good at hotel bar.
In the almost thirty years of friendship between them, Niles and Mike had seen each other through everything. College, jobs-from first ones to career builders, girlfriends, girlfriends lost, moves, joy, pain, losing parents, weddings. And through it all, Mike had drank Sprite. Or water. He did make an exception for his and Niles’ weddings. For him to be matching Niles drink for drink, he must have needed to get something out his system that his sweet nature just would not allow him to get out.
It was about the fourth drink that freed him.
“What the fuck is she thinking? I just don’t get it. We have seen each other more now than when we were married, and it’s better. But for some goddamn reason she is afraid of us getting back together,” he slurred, the alcohol flooding brain cells unfamiliar with its powers.
“They’re all nuts!” was Niles’ amusingly misogynistic response. “For god’s sake, I am dealing with three of them, and they all are crazy in their own way.”
It was at that moment that the waitress returned to check on them, and made the mistake to ask if they were “happy.”
“Happy? No, we’re not happy!” snapped Niles bemusedly. “If you want to know if we liked our food and drinks, the answer is yes. If you want to know if we are happy, really happy, you should pull up a chair, and get yourself a drink. They’re both long stories and they all involve crazy women.”
“I would love to,” she answered in that learned way people in the service industry flatter those future tippers. “But I am working, so, give me the short versions.”
Niles gestured to Mike, to start.
“Oh, no. Yours is much more interesting,” he protested, fork in mid-air as he was caught about to take a bite of his long-ago-cold dinner. “He is the most interesting man in this hotel, you know,” he said to the waitress, who looked at Niles questioningly.
He laughed, and added, “Probably not, Probably not even the most interesting man at this table.”
She smiled, and looked back at Mike, who was now fully enjoying his fish. “OK, so let’s have it,” she goaded.
Putting his fork down, Mike inhaled deeply, and started to speak.
“So, I dated this woman after my divorce. For three years, and her only objection was on the basis of religion. Neither of us are particularly religious, but she got hung up on that. We are great together in every other way. And now, I think she’s dating someone else and it’s not working out, because he’s not perfect for her, like I am! Oh, did I mention that she is the same woman that I was married to before that?” He punctuated his exclamation by draining the last of his drink.
“I think that deserves another round,” Niles said while holding up his empty glass.
“Hold your horses!” answered the waitress, Lena. “I want to hear more about that.”
“Yes, but couldn’t you do it after you bring three drinks, and sit down with us?” Niles protested mockingly.
“Hush!” she chided, while turning her almond-shaped eyes towards Mike and asking, “So why don’t you go get her back?”
“She won’t even return my calls!” he responded, exasperated. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
“He’s kind of a wuss,” added Niles in a smart-Alec tone, earning himself a playful slap on the head from Lena.
“OK,” Lena added, “you need to stop hanging out with guys like him, that are on their way out of relationships, because you seem like a nice guy, who really cares about this woman.”
“Hey!” protested Niles. “I am a nice guy! Just because I gave you the funny version of the mess of my life…”
A hand in his face shushed him.
“I got it,” Lena added, “but I can tell you are doing better than he is, so let me hear his story. So?”
Mike again found himself the object of the gaze of a beautiful woman, too young, too pretty for him to ever consider as having any interest in him, other than that of those who serve alcohol, the bartender-psychiatrist-lives-on-tips type.
“Soooo,” he paused, “that’s it. I have given her everything, including space, but I cannot break through that wall. And honestly, I am getting tired of banging my head against it,” he confessed. It was more honest and earnest than he intended to get with a stranger.
Lena’s gaze softened, touched by the unexpectedly sweet display of emotion. In three years of working at the hotel’s lobby restaurant, she was a lot more used to blowhards and self-impressed assholes hitting on her, not nice guys showing pain. She stepped towards him, before remembering that she was still at work.
“OK, another round of the same? she asked, distracted all three of them from the sadness hanging in the air.
“No more for me. Just water, please” pleaded Mike, now fully aware of the impact that the drinks were having on him.
“I’ll have a Rusty Nail, with Dewar’s,” was Niles’ response, happy to be drinking just a few floor below his bed for the night. “It’s a short ride upstairs for me!”
“How about you?” asked Lena of Mike. “Are you a guest here, also?”
“No, I live here, over in Brookline,” he answered.
“Oh, then we’re neighbors!” she chirped. “I live in Brighton, near Comm Ave.”
“I am only a couple of minutes from there, right off Harvard Street,” was Mike’s answer, a little more enthusiastically.
“OK, let me get you the water and the Rusty Nail for the old Scottish man over here,” Lena joked.
As she walked away, Mike didn’t keep himself from enjoying watching her walk away. The staid uniform of black pants topped by a white shirt and tie did little to hide her figure.
“She’s really cute!” he exclaimed.
“Really?” asked Niles, condescendingly, having already evaluated Lena’s considerable charms. “A hot twenty-something brunette, with a great figure and an even better smile, and those eyes hiding behind to big glasses, and ‘cute’ is the best you could come up with? Listen, Mike, you and I have punched about our weight class when it comes to dating for a long time, but even I think that she is pretty spectacular.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Mike conceded, admitting with a shrug both his unwillingness to entertain the thought of another woman, and of the offense it was.
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Niles. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you are a wuss. I understand waiting for someone to come around. You know my situation, so you know I am not impatient when it comes to love. But I hate to see you pass up every opportunity in your life waiting for a woman who is at best confused, at worst crazy. She will never find someone better than you. And if she can’t see it, or chooses to ignore it no longer matters. I am getting tired of watching you wither while you wait.”
If this was intended to inspire Mike, it missed it’s mark. Stating the obvious seemed cruel.
They were sitting in silence when Lena came back with their drinks.
“Water for the sweet one,” she said smilingly before turning to Niles and purposefully frowning and saying, “and a Rusty Nail for the coldhearted one.”
“Hey, be nice to me, I am a way better tipper than him,” laughed Niles, pointing at Mike..
“You know,” she continued, now looking at Mike, “if you’re going to cry, I am going to have to get you a beer. Nobody cries in their water.”
Mike was surprised to be caught off-guard, with his emotions exposed like that. He might have cried. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Not even the first time that day. He was at the end of his rope. Knowing she was dating again had wounded him. It wasn’t the first time since their divorce, but it was the first time since they had found themselves spending time together, growing into the best friends they used to be again.
He looked up, and gave a half-hearted smile in response to Lena’s joke. She saw the sadness in his eyes, and something inside of her wanted to make it disappear. Niles noticed the moment his dear friend and Lena were sharing and kept uncharacteristically quiet.
Mike broke the silence.
“You know what? I’ll have what he’s having. A Rusty Nail!” he bellowed, trying to convince himself that it would help.
“Oh, I am sorry. I can’t do that,” replied Lena.
“Why not?” asked Mike, puzzled.
“Well, as your ‘spirits’ adviser,” started Lena, “I cannot allow you to order another drink. And certainly not one that is all alcohol. Listen, I get off as soon as your friend here pays the tab, why don’t we go grab a cup of coffee? I think that might be better suited to both of our moods.”
Without hesitation, Niles was handing her his credit card before she had finished her sentence. As a card-carrying male, he could never stand between a friend and time with a beautiful woman, however unlikely it was to result into anything.
“Do you want to go to that Greek dessert place in Washington Square? They’re open late.” offered Mike.
“That sounds great!” responded Lena. “I’ll be back with your tab.”
“Are you feeling OK? Because you don’t look so good,” observed Niles looking at his friend.
“Yeah. Fine. I just need…”was all that Mike managed to get out of his mouth before he stumbled back down on his chair, failing his first attempt at standing after three hours and several drinks.
“OK. So you might need to wait a little bit,” offered Niles. “Why don’t you take my key and go lie down in my room for a bit? I’ll do some work down here and then get you a cab home when you’re ready.” He tossed his room key to him across the table, and added, “It’s 1220, and don’t throw up in the bed!”
Too weak to protest, or think about what that meant for his coffee with Lena, Mike accepted the offer, and with a little help from Niles, made his was to the elevators next to where they were sitting. Lena returned to the table to find just Niles.
“Did I get blown off?” she asked, as she handed Niles the vinyl folder with the check.
“Not exactly. I sent him upstairs to rest a bit. Standing was not his strong suit right now, and I am sure that a ride on the T would be a problem.”
“What room number?” she asked.
“Why?” Niles asked, honestly puzzled.
“Neighborly concern,” was Lena’s answer.
“OK. Fair enough. It’s 1220, but he might be passed out already, and he has the only key card,” Niles added, while signing the check.
“Why don’t you get another key card, while I cash out,” instructed Lena. “That way I can help him get home. I feel bad that I didn’t notice, and honestly I could get in trouble for serving him.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Niles assured her. “I’ve known him for almost thirty years, and I couldn’t tell he was that bad. I was actually impressed at how well he was handling it,” he added with a smirk.
“OK. Let me go to the front desk, and you do what you need to,” he told her. “But don’t take my drink away because I’ll just sit here and do work for a bit.”
“Sure, thanks,” she replied as she headed back towards the bar, and Niles walked his somewhat shaky legs towards the front desk. He wasn’t used to drinking that much anymore. Since Kate and he had split, drinking was a solitary task, without much joy, even if age, a good work ethic and a little bit of luck allowed him to afford a better class of beverages.
He got two cards, one for himself, and returned to the table, burying his face in his phone, to respond to the emails accumulated over the past few hours.
Lena returned, and he handed her one of the key cards.
“Twelve twenty, right?” she asked.
“Correct,” Niles responded. “It’s at the end of the hallway to the left of the elevator. Take your time, I am not going to sleep any time soon.”
“Thanks…What is your name?” she asked, figuring out that she hadn’t even looked at the credit card for that information.
“I am Niles. The gentleman upstairs is Mike. And he’s a special person. Truly the nicest man I’ve ever met. Had it been up to me, my sister would have married him,” offered Niles, for no other reason than that it was how he truly felt about the friend passed out twelve floor up. He laughed that this might have been the first time in his life when he was giving a woman his room key so that someone else might get lucky. He decided to not share the amusing thought with her.
“It won’t be long. Thanks,” she hurriedly replied, and headed to the elevators, leaving Niles to return to his work.
It was his phone’s battery hitting thirty percent life left that made him stop. It was after 2AM, and he was the only one besides the night auditor in the lobby. He had long ago drained the last Rusty Nail. He rose, somewhat sore from his jog earlier, to head outside for a smoke. He was in the process of trying to replace the latter habit with the former, as singledom found him stuck with a habit that had lost its coolness a long time ago.
He hobbled the first few steps until his legs cooperated and then he was able to return to his long stride towards the door. He looked at his watch again, to confirm that it was as late as he thought.
Contrary to the jokes of his friends, and the Indian programmers he worked with at all hours of the day, he did actually need sleep. The rumors were started by all his friends who had suffered at his hands during long evenings out that frequently ended in the early morning with visits to a Chinese restaurant for “cold tea,” the code name for the last available beer in Boston, overpriced as appropriate for contraband in a seller’s market.
Tucked out of the wind and rain in a small alcove in the building’s facade-would it kill these places to put a roof over the smoking area?-he lit the cigarette and finally settled into the thought of what to do next. He didn’t think they would have left without him noticing, as his mind, bored by his work, noticed every entry and exit from his vantage point next to the elevators. Nor did he expect that they would have left without saying anything. He didn’t expect to catch Lena and Mike in flagrante, but he wasn’t quite sure what he might walk into, or if he should walk in at all. Maybe he should call Mike’s phone. To hell with it. He at least needed his charger.
Finishing the cigarette, and placing the butt in the tall neck of the ashcan, he again interrupted the doorman’s middle of the night rest, and walked back into the hotel, and to the elevators. Once outside his door, he hesitated, trying to listen for noises. He realized that it would look weird, maybe even suspicious, to the ever-present cameras.
Hesitantly, he inserted the key card into the slot, and turned the handle. The desk light was on, and as he entered the main part of the room, he saw their shoes placed carefully at the foot of the bed closest to the window. On top of it were two pairs of jeans, a purse and two jackets. Lena and Mike were sleeping in an embrace that to Niles appeared very intimate, arms around each other, face-to-face, their lips almost touching. He grabbed his charger and toothbrush, and headed downstairs.
He was able to get a second room, giving away very little to the confused clerk, and headed back upstairs to sleep. It didn’t take long before he the long day, the drinks and the exhaustion that he carried everywhere that work travel to him to these days, made him pass out, asleep.
It seemed as if he had just laid down when the alarm went off at 5:15. He had grown accustomed to getting up that early since the business trip to Hawaii, when getting up that early had allowed him to swim before the work day began. It had been during one of those swims that he had met the first woman he had felt any real feeling of passion or desire towards in years. It had been their generally innocent evenings, they had kissed, that had reminded him what it felt to have his heart skip a beat, how good it felt to be desired as a man. It was upon returning home from there that he and Kate had decided to end it, after years of loving each other as friends, but without the love he still hoped to find in a mate. He had moved into his mother-in-law’s second home while he figured out his next move.
He now found himself wishing he had grabbed a change of clothes, as he wanted to shower and change almost as much as he wanted coffee. Pursuing the need he could fulfill, he headed to the elevators, and rode alone to the lobby, where now early morning fliers were congregating awaiting their airport shuttles.
The two-block walk to the coffee shop woke him up, as the breeze from the river wound through the park and in-between the buildings to become a chilly gust that was more than his T-shirt could protect against. Ah, yes, May in Boston. A lot like January in Florida. With no one in line ahead of him, he got his usual large black eye quickly enough that he was able to step back outside before the next alarm, the back-up, at 5:30 went off.
He sipped on the coffee, smoking his favorite cigarette of the day, the first one, the one that still provided that slight buzz he first remembered from when he first started sneaking his father’s cigarettes over thirty years ago. He paused and looked at his reflection on a mirror-like window. Generally, he liked how he looked. Since meeting Sydney in Hawaii, he had added surfing to his life, and the resulting weight loss made the graying hair a little less old looking. Not that he ever got to surf. The west coast of Florida is not a surfing destination for a reason. Still the paddling did good things for his arms, and the occasional dolphin encounter at sunrise made even the toughest mornings a little easier.
As he got closer to the hotel, he began to wonder if should wake them up. He knew that Mike had work to get to, although he was pretty sure that a sick day was in his friend’s future. As far as Lena, he knew nothing. Did she had a day job? Dear God, was she young enough to still be in school? Did she need to let someone know where she was? He decided to wait until a slightly more reasonable hour, hoping it wouldn’t make either of them late for anything important.
Settling into the same chair as the night before, he looked at the overnight e-mails from the developers and started to respond. He was in the middle of one of those responses when Mike’s face came on, the contact picture for the incoming call.
“Good morning. How’s your head?” he answered.
“Where are you?” was the hurried question from the other end.
“I am exactly where you left me last night,” he answered, amused about how the truth sounded more dramatic than it really was.
“OK. Do they have coffee there? I am on my way down,” responded Mike, hanging up before Niles could respond.
He waved the waiter over, ordered a pot of coffee with milk and a side of toast, and finished his e-mail while he waited.
Mike looked rough. Messy hair, clothes that looked like he got dressed in a hurry, furtive glances. He flopped down on the same chair he had occupied a few hours earlier, speechless.
“Good morning,” Niles repeated, as the coffee made a timely arrival.
Still silent, Mike poured himself a cup, messily added milk, and managed to burn his mouth on the still scalding liquid.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed, interrupting the quiet of early morning.
“Easy!” responded Niles.
Gathering himself, Mike apologized, and looked up to see his friend’s bemused smirk and questioning eyes.
“Yes?” Mike asked, fully aware of the question.
Niles just laughed. “Was my bed comfy?” was all he said, cracking himself up.
“Actually it was a little small. Why didn’t you get a king?” Mike shot back.
“So, should I not ask?” was Niles’ earnest question to his friend.
“Nothing happened. I swear!” protested Mike.
“Is that a complaint, or an denial, because you don’t need either one with me,” Niles reminded his friend.
Sipping more carefully now, Mike reached for his phone, and dialed into work to let them know that he was going to be out sick that day. Placing the phone on the table after he had hung up, he looked up at Niles again.
“OK, so maybe a little something,” he said, the smile spreading across his face. “We kissed.”
“Nice!” was Niles’ reaction, as he caught Lena out of the corner of his eye.
“Talking about me?” she asked, her smile intimating that she already knew the answer.
“Actually, were talking about the Red Soc, and their weakness in hitting,” joked Niles.
“Yeah, sure,” she said dismissively. “Do you mind if we go somewhere else for coffee? I don’t know too many of the morning staff, but…”
“Sure. Sure,” offered Niles, Mike still half asleep and fully hung over. “Why don’t you guys go ahead to the place on Arlington, and I’ll meet you there after I pay.”
Lena and Mike walked out, while Niles got and paid the tab. Intrigued was not even close to defining how he felt.
He walked quickly to the coffee shop, and sidled into the couch next to Lena, facing the slumped over heap of a friend across from them.
“So?” Niles asked, having exhausted his small capacity for patience. “What’s going on, kids?”
“Do you want to tell him, or should I?”asked Lena as she looked at Mike.
“You go ahead. I’m tired,” sighed Mike.
“OK, then,” she started, adding, “here’s the deal, and I am only telling you because he would have later anyway.”.
“Your friend here,” motioning to Mike, “is a stud!”
Niles’ eyebrows went up at that comment, but he keep silent
“He played me. No, seriously, here is what happened. I was engaged to be married, and long story short, he cheated on me, with my best friend, weeks before the wedding which was to have taken place in Rockport, in June. Combine that with me turning thirty,” a number which again brought a shocked, questioning look to Niles’ face, “and I was a tinder box of emotions. Most of them bad. Certainly in terms of how I felt about men. And then you two sat down at my section. And no offense Miles, but whatever troubles you’re having, and Mike told me a little about them, you just look too cocky and confident. Mike on the other hand, looked like I felt. You are right about him being so sweet. So, I decided that I wanted to at least talk to him. We found that each of us just felt beaten down by our situation. Lost our confidence, lost ourselves in the questions of why we weren’t good enough for the person whom we allowed to put us in this situation. I never offer to hang out with customers, because frankly, most of the men who hit on me are jerks. I’ve even tried wearing a wedding band, but it doesn’t seem to dissuade them much.
“But, Mike…” she sighed his name as she paused to take a look at him. Niles was a little jealous because as much as people liked him, it was rarely in this way.
“He’s special,” she said, inducing a “Yes, he is!” and a strong nod from Niles, like the choir in a church.
“He was almost asleep when I got upstairs and we started to talk. I mean really talk. And at some point I really needed someone to put their arms around me to make me feel like it would be OK. I am pretty sure he needed the same.”
Her last comment was met with violent head nods from both men, although Mike stopped himself as the movement and the hangover made for a terrible mix of headache and nausea.
“So that’s pretty much it. I think we agreed that we can hang out, with no expectations, but that both of us needed last night. He said something about how nice it was to have his heart skip a beat again, for the right reasons, which was true of me, also.”
“Me, three,” added Niles, remembering his experiences with Sydney in Hawaii, and how he had described the same feeling afterwards.
“Be good to him, whatever capacity you are in his life,” he added, pointing a finger and a smile at Lena, who now was doing her own version of the bobble-head with the nodding.
“I will,” she promised, with that calm, assured tone one hopes to hear someone say that about a person they love.
“Well, I have to get ready for work, and check out of two rooms,” Niles said as he stood up, turned towards Mike and opened his arms.
“So that’s where you ended up last night. We were wondering,” said Lena. “I am so sorry, we didn’t mean to kick you out of your room.”
Standing, now awkwardly, while waiting for Mike to stand and give him a hug, Niles responded, “No worries. Really. Actually, why don’t I get a late checkout and you guys can go back and get some more sleep. I think at least one of you could use it.” Turning back to Mike, “Come on, wussy. Give me a hug.”
Mike slowly rose, and gave Niles a real hug. Not the man-to-man, back-patting type, but a real one.
“Be well, my friend,” instructed Niles.
“I’ll call you later. Thanks,” was Mike’s heartfelt response.
Turning to her with open arms, he added,“Lena, it was wonderful to meet you, and best of luck, whatever you two decide. I would hope to see you again, and not just because I stay at your hotel for work a lot.”
Their shared love for the again-slumping man on the easy chair across from them made their embrace easy, familiar, and Niles planted a soft peck on her cheek, more parental than anything else, and walked out the door, back to the hotel, to gather his things, and get ready for work.
He would indeed hear from Mike later, and he loved the life that reappeared in his friend’s voice.
Over the next few months, Niles would return to Boston for work, and most of those visits allowed him to see Mike, and Lena. She still worked at the hotel, but it was the nights where the three of them went out together that he enjoyed. Lena and Mike waited a long time before figuring out that their age difference, and what they wanted out of life, were sufficiently different that dating was out of the question. Their friendship, borne out of shared pain, blossomed into one of mutual support and love. And their occasional romp kept both of them in good spirits.
Lena had been amazing the one time that they had run into Mike’s ex, sending Sarah into a fit of jealousy to which she wasn’t really entitled, but helped her remember why Mike had been attractive to her in the first place. It would be months, but Sarah would eventually call Mike, and in his infinite wisdom, he took her back, for what he hoped was the last time.
Niles eventually moved, to the east coast of Florida, where there were waves. He and Sydney were never able to make a move together work, and over time the physical distance became emotional, until one day they stopped communicating. He knew that he would always be grateful to her for helping revive him, and his passion for life, but there was a part of him that felt disappointed that she wasn’t the person with whom he got to share that life.
When Sarah and Mike re-tied the knot, Niles was again the best man. They looked happy, and he had brought Lena as his “date.” She was still single, though he couldn’t figure out why, and was happy to attend her dear friend’s wedding. Sarah and Mike were in love, although Niles was certain that it was mutual only for the first time, as he had always detected that something in Sarah was holding her back, for fully letting herself fall for Mike. Whatever that was, he no longer felt it, and all he saw the entire weekend was genuine joy. He was also happy that Sarah had, over time, accepted Mike’s old friend into their lives, as Lena posed no threat to hers and Mike’s relationship.
He received some jovial ribbing from their friends who didn’t know who Lena was, assuming that she was him post-divorce mid-life crisis younger woman. He would correct those that needed to know, and smile knowingly at the rest. There were worse pictures of him than that of them dancing at that wedding. He certainly had dated women less appropriate for him than Lena. Even now, he was enjoying how their bodies fit together on the dance floor, and the way her head rested on his chest. But given how they met, and their relationship since then, Lena was a cherished friend, and a fine dancing partner. Besides, his heart was still somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, watching some surfing brunette paddle out of Waikiki Beach. He chosen to be alone, for no other reason than that he didn’t find anyone worthy of his freedom. A very eligible bachelor for many, he lived a much more monk-life existence, preferring solitude to dating, loneliness in isolation to the loneliness within a bad relationship.
“So, Niles,” asked Lena, interrupting his thoughts. “When will I get to come to your wedding and make people wonder?” she added with a laugh.
“I should ask you the same,” he responded, twirling her just a bit.
“Oh, no. The two best guys in the world are my friends, so it will be a long time before I find someone who treats women as well as you two do. Besides you’re older. It’s your turn.”
“I’ve already done it once,” he reminded her.
“That time doesn’t count,” she joked, poking her thumb gently into his ribs.
“I am pretty sure I have the alimony receipts to prove that it does,” he joked, glad that with her marriage to her former paramour, his ex had at least relieved him of his financial obligations to her. “And by the way, I don’t think you are supposed to dress in a way that upstages the bride. Red?!” he teased.
“Oh, this old thing?” she laughed, understating the red sequined evening dress that was burned on the back of the retinas of all of the wedding guests.
“Yeah. That,” he joked back, enjoying not feeling alone. “Want to grab another drink?”
“Sure,” she responded, as the warm summer breeze made a cold drink sound enticing.
As they toasted the newlyweds, they looked at each other in the eye, and Niles thought he saw a spark that had never been there before, but dismissed it. It was Lena, after all.
They walked to a corner table, sitting down to catch the breeze and give Lena’s feet a break from their fashionable prisons. He absent-mindedly took her left foot onto his lap and started to rub it. She moaned gently at the relief his hands provided to her aching feet.
“Oh, that should be taught in school!” she exclaimed.
“Wait, it’s not? I had it third period the spring of my junior year,” joke Niles.
“Remind me to send my kids to the same high school, if I ever have any,” she replied, feeling the pang of doubt about her chances at motherhood.
“WHEN,” corrected Niles, making sure to wipe away the doubt he knew his friend felt about her future.
“Seriously, Lena, why are you single? I know what you look like, so I am guessing it is by your choice. What’s the deal?” he asked, truly curious.
“Oh, you know. This and that. The man I am in love with is in love with someone else, blah, blah, blah…” she trailed off.
“Not Mike!?” he asked, now questioning his decision to bring her.
“No. It’s not Mike,” she said, lowering her gaze.
For a split second, Niles allowed himself to think it was him, and to actually enjoy the thought. Afraid to know the answer, either way, he continued, hesitantly.
“Anyone I know?”
“Yes,” she replied curtly.
“Is this a ‘how do you keep an asshole in suspense’ joke?” he asked, his impatience making a long overdue appearance.
She downed her drink, took her foot off his lap, and walked towards the garden, leaving him to wonder.
“Hello???” he asked, a lump in his throat growing with each passing second, as he walked quickly to catch up to her.
They were in the rose section of the beautiful manicured garden when he was able to catch up and hold her arm.
Tears were streaming down her face. She looked almost angry.
“It’s you! It’s been you for the past three years!” she blurted, the tears no longer being held back and taking her mascara with them on their gravity-inspired roll up and over her perfect cheekbones, and down next to her perfect lips.
Niles was stunned into silence.
“Did not never notice that I stopped sleeping with Mike after the third time I saw you?” she asked, understanding from his blank stare that he had not pieced those two events together.
“Look, I really liked Mike,and he was probably the best thing that could have happened to me when I first met you two, but then, oh then I realized that it was you who that I really liked. That you weren’t cocky, but just comfortable in your own skin. And I saw how must you loved Sydney, hell even your ex, and I wanted that for myself. I wanted stories written about me, I wanted to be that heroine that you would describe in such lovingly nefarious detail, finding her essence not merely describing her looks. I had so much more to give than what you were settling for…”
By now she was sobbing, and stopped talking. Niles’ attempt to comfort her was rebuffed brusquely, and she continued further along the rosebushes.
He followed her, trying to figure out how he felt about her revelation. Part of him felt like he was chasing a dream across that garden, and another part felt like he was about to break a dear friend’s heart. He had no idea which one it would be when he got her to stop again.
“Lena!” he started, using her name as a pause until he could think of the next thing to say.
“I never knew!” he admitted, preferring to be honest.
“Of course not. You’re so wrapped up in Sydney and your love of your aloneness, how could you?” she responded angrily.
“It’s not that. I never saw it because I never wanted to. I always imagined this conversation going in the opposite direction, with me confessing, and you having to decide,” he admitted, letting her in on the tormenting thoughts he had suppressed for years.
She looked at him, surprised to hear him say that.
“Once I stopped talking with Sydney is when I accepted my future possibly being one without a person to share it. I really accepted it as a possibility. And I did get comfortable with it. And then I would come to Boston, and see you, and between how we met, the age difference, the fact that you still want children and I have given up on that dream, Mike, all of it added up to me dismissing any chance of an ‘us’ ever happening, and honestly, I preferred to have you as a friend forever than as someone I attempted to date once. Because I never thought you would have said yes, and then I would have ruined the friendship.”
“Are you really that damaged?” she asked, her face softened, the previous scowl replaced by a look more of concern.
“Not sure what you mean,” he replied, uncertain of what she meant, uncertain of what to do with the hand that in the past would have reached for a cigarette, a long-ago abandoned habit, the comfort of which he wished for now.
“I have done everything short of attacking you to let you know I was interested. Did you think that I really had a business trip to Clearwater? Or do you think that I spend entire rainy Saturdays under a blanket on a couch watching 80’s movies with just anyone? Or did you miss me stroking your arm while watching ‘The Sure Thing’?” she continued.
“But I always assumed that your heart just belonged to Sydney, or at least to someone other than me, so I never dared go further…”she stopped talking, aware that she had made her point, and now desperately awaiting his response.
“Oh, Lena,” he sighed, his lower lip under assault from his upper teeth as he struggled to keep from crying.
“I never thought you could…I never thought…” he couldn’t think of what he wanted. Here was his ticket out of loneliness, in the form of a gorgeous woman whom he already knew, and loved in so many way, and the accumulated fears and baggage from a lifetime in the trenches of love wars made him afraid to reach out to touch her, to be with her, to end his heart’s exile, to stop writing love stories that were always colored by pain, and almost never ended happily, as this was what he knew.
He hung his head in defeat. He didn’t have the strength to make a decision. One time too many, his willingness to give his heart to someone had ended in crushing pain, and while the writing had provided an avenue to get rid of some of it, it also perpetuated the loneliness, as he plucked pieces of his heart, shaped them for publication, and released them to the world, never finding anything to fill the hole they left behind. It was the only way in which he gambled, willing to be hurt in the pursuit of love, to have it be rewarded with only temporary relief to the sadness that pervaded his soul, if any at all.
Having had enough, Lena decided to act. She took his face into her hands, and planted a sweet kiss on his lips. “Dear God, they are so wonderfully soft!” she thought as she kept their faces locked in that tender embrace.
She pulled back to check on her partner’s state of mind. She saw nothing. A blank stare was all of the response with which Niles graced her moment of sanity.
“Well? Nothing?” she asked.
Niles was startled enough to retrieve his soul from the clouds. The light returned to his eyes as it re-entered his body from its astral trek.
He looked at Lena, who by now was shaking gently, not unlike the roses behind them, as the evening had turned the gentle breeze chillier. For the first time ever, he saw her. Really saw her. Not the friend, not the woman that helped Mike wake up, not the forbidden fruit he had considered her to be.
“I love you,” was the barely audible response that escaped his lips. It wasn’t what he had intended to say, but it was what he meant.
Her teeth, bared by the widening smile, and tears emerged at the same time, as she stepped up and wrapped her arms around his neck, and he pulled his arms around her waist to bring her even closer.
A muffled “I love you, too!” was heard by the shoulder on which her mouth rested, but his ears and heart got the message, also.
Their lips found each other, now freed by the worries of a few moments earlier, and their kiss burned through the sadness and the reasons for it to not happen.
Pulling away to look at his love, made more beautiful by the combination of the setting sun’s golden light and red-rimmed eyes that were locked on him.
“I am too old for games.” she started. “I don’t want to pretend I feel for you any differently than I do. I love you, knowing all the things about you that I do. Things that we hide from people we date, but reveal to those we love and are comfortable with. I am not even worried that I am no longer worried about playing hard-to-get with you, dear friend.”
He rewarded her truthfulness with another kiss. How many times had each of them dared to imagine this moment before dousing the warmth of the vision with the cold truth? Or at least what they thought was the truth?
At their wedding, the following summer, on the beach near their house, the newlyweds glowed in the collective stares from their gathered loved ones. Mike was the best man, a duty that had gone to Niles’ brother at his first wedding. He did a masterful job at balancing the story of Niles and Lena, with his own past with her, giving her credit for saving three hearts; his, Sarah’s, and Niles’.
And for only about the fifth time in their lifelong friendship, Niles saw Mike have a drink. Or was that Sprite in the champagne glass?