Darla Bloom adjusted her gold tennis bracelet so the clasp lay hidden against the inside of her wrist, fussed with her hair for a moment, and then primly folded her hands in her lap.
Glancing around the comedy club, she sniffed in derision.
Groups of young men laughed as they guzzled pitchers of beer, while single women sipped cocktails and whispered to each other, both groups eyeing the other.
Indecent, she clucked to herself. Whoremongers and strumpets.
She saw groups several groups of four; couples ignoring one another as the men talked about home projects and the women discussed children and shoes.
They should be home with the children, she thought with disapproval. Not out carousing.
In one corner sat an older couple; they leaned toward each other, talking quietly and smiling at one another.
Pretending to be young, she scoffed. They reminded her of her husband.
She looked at Martin. He sat, arms folded, studying the room.
Why would you bring me here? She berated him silently. And why would you pick a table right up front? I know what happens to people who sit up front. Martin glanced at her and she pursed her lips tightly so he wouldn’t miss her displeasure.
His eyes flicked down to her mouth, and he frowned a little, but said nothing.
He didn’t need to. Darla knew what he was thinking. Oh yes, she could just hear him now.
Come, Darling Darla… (How she hated that nickname), It’ll be fun. You’ll laugh, I promise.
She sniffed again. You call this fun? Horrid, nasty jokes about drugs and sex?
You used to laugh, he would continue.
I used to have something to laugh about.
He sighed. “Would you like something to drink?”
She knew what that really meant. Why can’t you relax? Have a beer like the good old days.
“Really, Martin?” she replied in hushed tones. “Trying to ply me with alcohol?”
His steady gaze infuriated her. You used to enjoy sex too, his eyes said.
“No, I wouldn’t think of it,” he answered. “Maybe a soda?”
“You know I don‘t drink that garbage,” she replied, her soft voice laced with contempt.
“Once in a while doesn’t hurt anything.”
“The water I have is fine.”
He looked away when the stage lit up, and a man came out and grabbed the microphone. “Welcome,” he bellowed.
Darla ignored the emcee and studied Martin instead. Her eyes grazed his plain, ordinary features and thick workman’s hands. His stomach pushed at the blue polo shirt she made him wear, and she tried to remember a time when it hadn’t.
Why did I marry you?
Because you got pregnant, she heard his voice in her mind. Remember? And because I loved you… so much, with your fine ways and soft hair.
My daddy told me not to marry you, she answered. He said a classless nobody like you would make me miserable. I told him I loved you because I just couldn’t tell him about the baby.
The baby, his voice came in mournful tones. Why didn’t we try again after the miscarriage?
Disgust rippled through her body. Because God was punishing me. I knew what we did was wrong. And I couldn’t bear the thought of you touching me again, pawing at me with your rough hands like some animal.
You didn’t used to mind.
“That was before,” she declared.
“What?” Martin looked at her. “What did you say?”
“Nothing.” She turned to watch the comedian on stage.
“I love my wife, you know what I mean?” he nodded and looked around the room until his eyes fell on Darla and Martin. He grinned, pointing at Martin. “Yeah, you know what I mean. You have the same look I did. I never knew what real happiness was until I got married … but by then it was too late.”
The audience laughed, Martin along with them. He reached out and tried to take Darla’s hand in his, as if to tell the audience he didn’t really mean it.
But she knew better and couldn’t stop herself from yanking her hand away.
Martin stared at her, his expression never faltering, but his eyes seemed to fill with a coldness she’d never seen in them before.
“Hoo, boy!” the comedian pretended to shiver. “It’s chilly on this side of the room!” The audience laughed again, and he wandered to the other side of the stage, Darla and Martin quickly forgotten.
She turned and found Martin still staring. “What?” she snipped.
“Twenty years,” he choked out.
“What does that mean?”
“You didn’t have to do that,” he answered, his voice low.
“You didn’t have to pull away like that. Make it so the whole room knows you can’t stand me.”
“No one cares about us,” she answered with a careless wave.
“Twenty years,” he repeated. “Twenty years I’ve waited for you to find yourself and twenty years you’ve hated me.”
His frown deepened, and suddenly she recognized the look in his eyes. She’d seen the same bitterness every time she looked in a mirror.
A sliver of guilt ran through her.
“Martin, I …” she faltered.
“She’s never coming back, is she?” His voice was savage. “The girl I fell in love with. She’s gone.”
As Darla stared back at him, the sliver of guilt morphed into something else, something she couldn’t identify.
“Twenty years,” he said again. He stood up, his eyes like flint as he stared down at her for a moment before he turned and walked away.
As Darla watched him leave, she struggled to identify the dreadful feeling washing over her.
She looked around and no one looked back or even glanced in her direction. For one crazy moment, she wondered if she had ceased to exist, and she scrambled frantically to pull a compact out of her purse so she could look at herself in the mirror. She smiled in relief at her reflection, cool and collected as ever, until something in her eyes reminded her of Martin.
Loneliness, she realized. The new emotion seeping through her and taking root was the same emotion that had lived on Martin’s face for so many years.
And for some reason, as she stared at her reflection, she wanted to weep.