The following is from Richard Bausch’s Living in the Weather of the World. Bausch is the author of twelve novels and eight volumes of short stories. He is a recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, Playboy, and other publications. He is a professor of English at Chapman University in Orange, California.
We Belong Together
They’re half an hour late for lunch with Tina. Cathy’s driving. Cathy said she’d leave him if he lied to her about other women again, and now she’s leaving. It all came out this morning. He feels sick. She seems calm, determined, cold.
Early spring. The country’s crazy with color. Everything blooming, everything lush and fresh, the very air promising renewal and replenishment. The car radio is on low. The only sound. The presidential election has worn into its third year, and the air is full of exaggerated campaign talk, lies, and attacks. Empty promises. Nothing will change. Or else it will.
The restaurant where Tina waits is called Belle. It has a glass front and thirties retro décor. Tina’s stylish and statuesque, a vegetarian. She’s eating the salad she ordered. A basket of bread and a half carafe of Sancerre are on the table. You can see her in the window of the place. She waves to them and smiles.
Breskoff gets out of the car. All the promise of his twenties and early thirties has played out in a string of compromises. It hurts him that all the people he now works with are on their way elsewhere, believing, with good reason, that better things are ahead. He told Cathy in the beginning that if they had Tina’s friendship it could help him get ahead in the agency. Another lie. Tina went to another agency after one little year, but they’re all friends and he kept seeing her. They kept seeing her. She has come to their house for Thanksgiving. Several Thanksgivings. He isn’t going anywhere in the agency, which sells advertising to radio stations. Advertising. More lies.
Getting out of the car, he feels a sudden terror about this change:
Cathy leaving him, ending things. His gorge rises. He watches her drive down the block. She’ll have the locks changed on all the doors of home. He looks at Tina in the window with her puzzled expression.
When he steps through the shadow in the entrance, he sees his own face in the reﬂection, pale as death. He goes into the men’s room and washes his face, gagging at the sink. When he comes out, she waves at him again, still looking puzzled, and troubled, too, now. He walks over to her and sits down. “She knows,” he says. “She’s leaving me.”
“I guess it was always coming to this.”
“Oh, God,” she says. “That’s what’s going on.”
“This morning,” he tells her. “It’s why we were late.”
“What she must think of me.”
“No, it’s all me. Believe me.”
“There’s so much you don’t know about women. And I’m not even joking.”
“Well, it’s out. And over,” he says. And now he experiences a surprising sudden lifting inside. It’s almost elation. The thing is here at last and will settle in its own way, and they’ll go through it together. They’re free. It has just come to him, looking at the soft curve of her neck, that they are, in fact, free.
She takes a sip of the wine. Her hand shakes. He says: “I feel like my whole life is a series of broken promises. The whole world.” He’s very dramatic, controlling the panic. He knows she likes the drama and has always found him attractive in his despair. Despair has been their ethos. But he believes it, too, now, and feels it. “I’m—I was so tired of all the lies.”
“All those broken promises,” she says. “Whose were they?”
“I’m talking about life. And—and happiness.”
“But you made promises, too.”
“What’re you getting at?”
“I’m just responding to you, sweetie. You said broken promises.”
“All right. Mine, too. My whole life—”
She takes a last bite of her salad, and then ﬁnishes the wine in her glass. She shakes her head, setting the glass down soundlessly on the table.
“But all that’s done with now, and we’re free,” he says.
She murmurs, “Oh.” Then: “God.”
“I know,” he tells her. “But it was coming to this and we knew that.”
“I guess we did.”
He pours a little of the wine and drinks it down.
“You’re so hurt, my darling. Look at you. You look like death.”
“Let me get a real drink.” He signals the waiter across the room. The waiter knows them from previous visits. He walks over. Breskoff orders a scotch, double.
She waves away anything else for her and sits there looking at him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, playing it. “Really. I’ll be ﬁne. This is a good thing. It’s what we’ve wanted for so long. It’s freedom.”
“You don’t sound like you believe it.”
“It’s not a matter of faith.”
Presently the waiter brings the drink. Breskoff takes a long swallow of it. “I guess I thought it would play out a little less—I don’t know, less abruptly.”
“Abruptly. What an odd word that is. I think that is really such a very odd word.”
“It’s a word.”
She pours more wine into her glass and sips it, gazing at him over the lip of the glass.
He leans forward, to click his glass against hers. “To freedom.”
She says, “Yes, freedom.” They touch glasses and drink.
“I love you,” he says.
“You sound like someone bringing death news.”
“I love you,” he says again.
“Maybe this isn’t the time to talk like this. You said it was a little sudden for you. I mean abrupt. Sorry.”
“It was upsetting. Yes. The way it all just came tumbling out. But it’s done.”
She reaches across the table and puts her hand on his. “I feel awful, honey. But I can’t stay here.”
He says, “What?”
“I can’t. I feel ill.”
She does not look ill. Her eyes glitter. He says, “Don’t you understand what this means? Cathy knows. She’s leaving me. It’s done. I can come home with you tonight.”
“But do you hear what you just said?”
He looks down at his hands where they cradle the drink. “She’s leaving you.”
“But it’s—it’s what we wanted. What I wanted anyway.”
“No. You’re not listening.”
“What difference does all that make? We’re free now.”
“When you got out of that car and started in here, you looked like a man who had just learned he was going to die in the morning. You were scared down to your bones.”
He drinks. Then: “Jesus Christ, Tina.”
“The look on your face as she drove away.”
“Baby,” he says. “It was upsetting, sure—”
She interrupts him. “No. You were a man who was realizing something terrible. It was all over you like a—like a light.”
The waiter comes to ask what he wants to eat. “I’m not hungry,” Breskoff says.
“Put the whiskey on mine,” she says. The waiter leaves with her credit card. The two of them sit there while the others in the place talk and laugh.
“I’ve taken a job in LA,” she says. “I couldn’t turn it down.”
“Don’t worry. Bicoastal is possible, right? Lots of people do it.”
“Bi—” he begins.
“I really literally couldn’t turn it down.”
It occurs to him, with exactly the same level of annoyance that might be caused by the erratic lifting and settling on his skin of a houseﬂy, that he has never liked the frequency with which she uses the word literally.
“Anyway, I think it’s best.” She takes the last of the wine.
On the other side of the room, a man sings part of a song to two couples. The two couples join in. They’re obviously old friends. Others nearby toast the good spring weather, agreeing that it has been a long, terrible winter. At the entrance to the restrooms, a waitress drops a tray with two glasses on it. A man at the nearby table helps her pick it up.
The waiter brings Tina her check. She signs it.
Breskoff looks out at the street. Many people hurrying by in the bright sun, and cars stopping and then idling forward. The glass on the storefronts across the way glares at him.
She stands, and then leans down and barely brushes his forehead with her cool lips. “Bye, lover. I’ll be in touch. I need some time. I think maybe we both need some time.”
“Wait,” he says. “What?”
“I’ll call you,” she says. “Really.”
“Promise,” she says.
He can’t catch his breath, can’t speak, can’t think. The words die at his lips. He watches her stride out into the sunny street and on, disappearing into the busy press of strangers going to and fro. The sun gleams on the blond crown of her head. This ﬁrelike light, this shimmer, is what he’ll remember about her through all the years left to him.
Excerpted from LIVING IN THE WEATHER OF THE WORLD by Richard Bausch. Copyright © 2017 by Richard Bausch. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC