“You’re late.” Tom tapped his beer bottle on the table and glared at Laura. The bar was dark and smokey, and Tom seemed to be a part of the gloom.
Five empty beer bottles were pushed to the far end of the table, against the wall. Tom was drinking more these days. When he drank, he got mean. “Sorry,” Laura said. “Homework and Monica.” Laura slid into the booth opposite Tom. “You know how she gets.”
Tom spun the longneck bottle between his hands. It was almost empty, and the beer in the bottom of the bottle turned to froth. “No, I don’t know how she gets,” Tom said, his voice dropping to a growl. “Why don’t you tell me?” The last was a challenge.
“Don’t be angry,” Laura said, motioning to the bartender. “It’s just–”
Tom reached out and grabbed her hand. He yanked Laura hard into the table so that her face was only inches from his. “I said you’re late.” Tom jerked her arm with each word.
“Just shut up.” Tom shoved her back into the booth. “I told you to be here at 6, and it’s quarter after.” Tom swallowed what was left of his beer and signaled for another one. “Where were you?”
Laura rubbed her wrists. Tom rarely acted this way. She wasn’t sure what to do. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think–”
“You’re right.” Tom spit the words out. “You didn’t think. I told you when to be here. You’re wasting my time.”
The waitress came up beside the table. Her voice was high, and had a lilt to it. “Two-fifty,” she said. “You want something?” she added, nodding to Laura.
“She doesn’t want anything,” Tom said, throwing three one-dollar bills onto the table. “But I might, later on.”
Laura’s mouth dropped. Tom had never been so crass, nor so cruel. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine.” He bit the two words off one at a time. “I’ll be better after I’ve had this beer.”
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.”
Laura’s ribs hurt from being pulled into the table, but she put out one hand. “Tom, I know it isn’t easy. If I could do anything to help, I would.” She took his hand in hers and thought about Monica. “I don’t know what I would do if I ever lost my aunt. I know–”
Tom interrupted her: “You don’t know,” he snapped. “You don’t know what it’s like when someone you love dies.”
Laura gripped his hand tighter for a moment, and her eyes glazed. Something she almost remembered — something she almost knew: someone close to her had been murdered. But the memory eeled away.
“I’m sorry, Tom.”