Stephen looked over at Nika’s distraught expression.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, genuinely concerned. She didn’t want to tell him the truth; she didn’t want to tell him that she was about to ask him why he up and left, the real reason, and that the stupid food had gotten in the way of it. She didn’t want him to know that she wasn’t over him.
“Oh, um, I just didn’t realize I’d ordered this.” She said at the plate of roasted duck and grilled asparagus.
“We can get you something else.”
“No!” Nika said as Stephen began to save over their waiter. “This is fine, really. I promise.” Stephen settled back into his seat, signaling to the waiter that all was fine.
“We can keep the interview going. I’m a great speaker with my mouth full.” He broke off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth. “Shee? Ohm an eshpert.” Nika laughed.
“I don’t think that this behavior is very becoming of a man of your stature,” Nika sarcastically observed as she turned off the recorder, “but we can go ahead and eat.”
Stephen swallowed his bread. “Enjoy your meal.” The two ate in silence. It wasn’t as awkward as they thought it would be. They stole glances at each other when the other wasn’t looking, trying to spot changes that had occurred since Stephen had left. Nika lingered on his face for a little too long, as Stephen caught her staring and gave her a small, goofy smile. It was like nothing had changed, but it had; everything was different.
A busboy came and took away their empty plates and glasses.
“Creme brûlée.” The waiter sat the hot ramekins in front of Nika and Stephen.
“I live for this mass of sweet delicious heavenly goodness.” Stephen mumbled. As soon as he picked up his spoon, Nika blurted out, “Why did you leave me like you did, and why did you lie about it?”
Stephen exhaled as he laid his spoon back down on the table.
“Nika, it was really complicated, it still is really complicated. But moreso back then. It was hard to explain to you because I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
Now he was telling her how able she was at comprehending situations?
“Well explain it now.” She said softly, the candlelight sparkling in her watery eyes. Stephen took a deep breath and began.
“Of course, as you now know, I didn’t go overseas as a defense contractor for four years, but I did go overseas. Geez, so much was going on. My mom and dad were about to get divorced, while at the same time trying to tie me into an arranged marriage with the daughter of the man running a company my father wanted to buddy up to. They also finally wanted to get some publicity, and what better way than saying that their son was marrying the daughter of so-and-so? At the same time my grandmother had gotten really sick and my aunt was too busy taking care of her own family to devote to my grandmother full-time.”
Nika watched Stephen’s pain-stricken face as he recanted a past that he obviously wasn’t ready to relive. Regardless, Nika was part of that past and she deserved to know everything.
“I decided to go to Algeria to take care of her. My mother ordered me not to go, trying to use them not getting divorced as a bait, when I told her they were better off divorced she somehow got my dad to agree to push me out of the company if I went. I really wanted to carry on the legacy so I made them a deal: if they let me be with my grandmother, to take care of her, I’d come back and marry the girl.” He paused and looked down at his fingers.
“I told you I was going away so that, hopefully, you would forget about me. I really hoped you would. I wasn’t planning to come back down here to Savannah for this long. Scarlett, my fiancée, didn’t want to move away from her parents so soon and I really wanted to get to know her before she became my wife. I’d been up in New York since I came back from nursing my grandmother back to health. Then my publicist told me your online newspaper wanted to do a story on me. Then he told me who would be doing the interview, that gave me even more of a reason to stay. I promise I almost died when I heard your name.” he reached over and took Nika’s hand from across the table. “The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you. I can assure you that from the first night I told you I loved you, I haven’t stopped.” Stephen watched as tears rolled down Nika’s blushed cheeks. She quickly wiped them away with the back of her free hand. Her heart swelled in her chest as she began to understand what happened those couple years ago. It hadn’t been a complete lie, but he had left, he had lied, and now, to top it all off, he was engaged.
“I feel like Tristan and Isolde.” He said, and let go of Nika’s hand.
“I don’t know who they are. A couple of your rich friends?” Nika tried not to sound too bitter, but she couldn’t help it. Stephen chuckled. “Not even close. It’s an opera about two lovers…kind of reminds me of us…but not really.” He said at Nika’s confused expression.
Nika gave a half-smile. “Sounds like an opera I’d want to go see, said no one ever.” They laughed together, both of their laughter streaked with pain. She was disappointed; she wanted so badly to hate him and be through with him. Had he just let it be and not allowed her to interview him, she would have never been the wiser. She could have continued on in life thinking he had left and never expected to see him again. When she would hear or see the name “Stephen McDowell”, she wouldn’t have known who he was.
She inhaled deeply, then gave Stephen a big oh-well-life-must-go-on smile.
“So you’re engaged, huh?”
“Yeah.” Stephen answered between sips of water.
“What’s that like?” Nika asked, even though it pained her to say the word “engaged” to him and it have nothing to do with the two of them. She really only wanted to know if it sucked or not, so maybe she’d feel a little better.
Stephen thought about it for a second. “It’s…interesting.”
“What does that mean?”
“She doesn’t like me that much.”
Nika stifled a laugh.
“Why not? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Well, and all of this is off the record, but…” he got really close to Nika and whispered, “I don’t let her tie me up and spank me and put stuff up my anal cavity.” Nika couldn’t help herself; she burst into laughter.
“Ew! Are you serious?” She asked after getting ahold of herself. Stephen nodded.
“She’s crazy. She grew up in Colombia because that’s where her dad is from and I guess that’s the type of thing the girls are into down there. Anyway, she hates me and we barely even know each other. She refuses to move in with me. I think the lack of butt stuffing is the real reason why she postponed moving to New York.”
“Wow, and you don’t love her either?” Nika was pulling for a hard one, hoping and praying he’d tell her he didn’t.
“Well, not yet. I at least want to try since we’re going to be married.”
Nika should have known that was the case. That was just the type of man Stephen was. She lost the last little bit of hope she had that maybe, Stephen would take back his word to his parents and be with her. Stephen looked at Nika’s tear-stained face, admiring the beautiful sadness about it.
“You ready to get out of here?”
Nika quietly nodded as Stephen laid down two crisp hundred dollar bills.
The night air was slightly humid, creating a halo around the moon. It was a breezy night, not so much to sway the branches of the surrounding weeping willows, but enough to make it feel like the perfect night to lay under the stars.
“I guess this is goodbye.” Nika started. “I’ll get with your publicist about the story. It should run in a few days.” Before she could say anything else, Stephen bent down and kissed her, his lips suctioning hers like he’d never tasted anything so sweet. She breathed in his air through her nostrils. They admired the softness of the other’s flesh. Stephen lifted his hands and cradled Nika’s face in them. He looked into her eyes, taking tiny pecks of her lips to last him until the end of time. He kissed her forehead and looked in her eyes one last time before he hurriedly walked off along the sidewalk into the dark, leaving Nika to stand there, bewildered. She touched her tender lips and turned toward the direction Stephen had disappeared in. Had that just happened? She slowly walked to her car, got in, and drove off. She left her heart there in front of that restaurant, lit by a single streetlight.
It was bustling at Stainless, the club that Erika sang at. She appeared to be on break, as she was sitting with her boyfriend Mick laughing at something. A few other people at the table began laughing just as Nika walked up.
“Nika!” Erika shouted excitedly as she jumped up and hugged her. She clearly had a few drinks in her already, but she was far from drunk; she became bubbly and bouncy after a single glass of wine.
“Hey you, how’s your gigging been so far? Looks like a good turnout.” Nika said, looking around at the pretty packed place.
“It’s been good. It’s 2 Dollar Top Shelf Shot Night.” She explained. “But you’re the one with the beans. How was your meeting?” Erika raised an eyebrow at Nika, making her glittery forehead sparkle.
“That, my friend is a long story,” Nika motioned at her kind-of-messed-up makeup, “that we will have to get into later.”
“I like long stories.” Said one of the men at the table. Nika looked over to see who’d spoken and had to catch her breath. He was delicious looking; his skin was medium brown and he was sporting a short, tapered fade. He had big, light brown eyes and a gorgeous smile framed by the most poignant lips. Nika rolled her eyes at him. “It’s a private story.” Though the stranger made her a little warm and tingly down there, Nika hated when people got into her conversations. He shrugged and looked away.
“Oh my gosh! I am so rude!” Erika said, jumping out of her seat again. “Nika, let me introduce you to everyone. This is Starla, Thomas, of course Mick, and that is James.” She pointed and everyone waved back except for James, who looked butt-hurt about what Nika said earlier. James. His name sounded so familiar. “Everybody, this is Nika. Okay? You guys chat it up while I go sing.” Erika skipped off and left everyone to their prospective conversations.
“Nika, your dress is gorgeous.” Starla, a short, red-headed young woman with lots of freckles said.
“Oh, thank you! I got it as a gift from this boutique on State Street, Cherry Bells. You ever heard of them?”
“I love their clothes. I knew I’d seen that dress before. Why’d they gift it to you, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh no, you’re fine. I know how expensive this dress really is too.” Nika winked at her. “I wrote an article about them that got them a lot of attention.”
“Well that was nice. So you’re a writer?” This girl was a talker!
“Yes, I’m an associate editor at Vital Signs.” Before the girl could reply, James interrupted Starla, ultimately rescuing Nika.
“So you must know Terry Southall then.”
Nika was about to roll her eyes at the man again until she finally realized why “James” sounded so familiar.
“Oh no,” Nika groaned under her breath, “you’re Terry’s James aren’t you?” She blushed with embarrassment then froze up. She had no idea what to say to him. She leaned in towards Starla. “Can you tell Erika I’ll see her when she gets home?” Starla nodded. There was no way Nika could sit at that table with James without a cloud of awkward hanging overhead. It was almost a month since Nika originally agreed to get in touch with James. Terry had to have to have mentioned her. She got up and quickly walked out.
As soon as she reached the parking lot, she heard “Nika, wait”. She turned to see James hurrying after her.
“Hold up.” He got to Nika who was already at her car. “You left this.” He handed Nika her wallet.
“Oh, thanks. I might need this huh.” She looked down, ashamed of herself. “Okay, I’m really sorry for not calling or attempting to get up with you. I’ve been so busy with work and all that.”
“It’s okay. Terry filled me in. You know how he talks when he gets some liquor in his system.” James laughed.
“Wow. I must seem pretty pathetic to you then.”
“No, not really. We all go through things and handle things differently. You’re no exception.” He motioned towards her kindly.
Nika chuckled. “So how close are you with Terry, exactly?”
“Not as close as you’re getting at, but I’ve known him a while. He frequents my club.”
Nika gasped. “You own Club 2525?” She asked, surprised. He looked too young to be a businessman like that.
“Yes I do.”
“Well, Erika and Mick don’t go to 2525 so how do you know them?”
“This one’s mine too. I own a couple more on the strip just in case you wanna ask me how I know anybody else.” James snickered.
“Wow, okay, I got you. Well, anyway, I better get going. I’m sorry again.” Nika put her hand on the door handle.
“Wait…” James put his hand on her hand to stop her from getting into her car.
“I’d really like to get up with you one of these days, if you’re not too ‘busy’.” He smiled, the slight gap in his teeth made him look young.
“I don’t know. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, even though I know I’m a sad, sad person.”
“Look, I don’t even care about your ex. As far as I know, he can rot. Just say yes.”
Nika looked up at his eyes. They looked tired, like he’d seen a lot of struggle in his life. She wouldn’t mind getting to know that struggle. And, it would get her mind off of Stephen.
“Yes. I’ll go out with you.”
“Yesss!” He pumped the air with his fist like a little kid that had just gotten his way with his mom.
“Call me sometime. I know you got my number.”
“Of course I do. It’s already programmed in my phone.” He waved his phone at her as he walked back to the the club.
What was Nika getting herself into…