The waitress winked at Tom, and slipped him a small piece of paper with the bottle. Laura saw it, but didn’t say anything. Tom took both the scrap and bottle in one hand. He didn’t appear to notice the paper, but when he put the bottle down, the note was gone.
“Look,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m just wound up. Finals next week.” He tipped the bottle back and swallowed about a third of its contents. he put the bottle down. “And you know my sister is sick.”
Laura watched Tom’s hand, not his eyes. She didn’t see the scrap of paper and thought it had probably fallen to the floor. She looked up. He was staring at her.
“My sister,” he said. “You know, the one with cancer?”
Laura was still waiting to meet Tom’s family. She had hoped for a dinner at local restaurant, or at her home. But one crisis after another had prevented them from sitting down to a meal and conversation. Tom’s grandfather had died just a few months ago. He was a private man, Tom said. The kind of person who wanted only family around the coffin — only family to cry and remember. Laura tried to offer what comfort she could from an emotional distance. She wanted to help Tom get through the death of a man he so plainly loved, but Tom was private about the death.
“He would have wanted it that way,” Tom had said. “It’s family. It’s who we are. That’s what Papa taught us.”
Then, not long after, Tom’s brother was hit by a car and spent a week in critical care. “It’s his face,” Tom said. “He doesn’t want anyone to see him this way.” Apparently the boy’s face was crushed in the accident. He would live, but with scars that would make living a normal life difficult at best.
Tom was depressed about how his brother would have to live, and he drank more than usual through the time his brother was in the hospital. Tom was angry and unforgiving of mistakes. But nothing like this.
Tom swallowed another third of the beer and sat the bottle down carefully on the table. “I’m sorry, Laura,” he said. “I just–” He stopped and toyed with the bottle again. “I don’t want anything bad to happen. When you were late, I thought–” He pushed the bottle around in the wet circle condensation had left on the table from earlier drinks. “I just thought, well, that you didn’t–” He looked up at Laura. “I love you, Laura. I don’t know what I’d do if you ever left me.”