Sean Hartman's hand trembled slightly, causing the razor pressed against his neck to scrape off a small piece of flesh. A fleck of blood appeared, and Sean cursed out loud.
Sean tore off a corner of a square of toilet paper, and stuck it to the wound. A red spot of blood appeared in the middle of the makeshift bandage.
Just what I need, he thought to himself. Showing up looking like a pimple-faced teenager.
That thought evoked a short chuckle. Well, I was a pimple-faced teenager the last time I saw these people. At least now they'll recognize me without that awkward name-badge-scanning moment.
As Sean finished shaving, he looked his reflection in the eyes. Why do I really care? he asked himself. I haven't seen any of them since graduation. Hell, I haven't even talked to any of them on the phone – or even tried to look them up, for that matter. So why am I so fucking nervous?
Sean splashed a bit of aftershave on his face and neck too soothe the irritated skin, and winced involuntarily as the liquid burned the nick on his neck. He stepped from the bathroom into the bedroom of his hotel suite and began to get dressed, that unsettling question ringing in his head. He finished getting ready and closed the hotel door behind him, still searching for the answer.
Sean checked his watch as he pulled into the parking lot. 5:57 PM. A fastidiously punctual person, he was sure he was one of the very first arrivals. He parked his car and walked into the hotel lobby, looking for the signs directing him to the correct ballroom.
Eschewing the elevators, he took the stairs two at a time to the second floor, pleased that he was not even slightly out of breath from the minor exertion. I bet most of these fat-asses would be gasping for air, he smiled to himself.
Any sense of false bravado evaporated as he approached the ballroom entrance. The large sign mounted next to the ceiling-height double doors read:
Ten Year ReunionSean felt his heart thumping strongly in his chest, and his mouth began to go dry. Stop it! he commanded himself. You have nothing to be nervous about. You have nothing to be afraid of. You will act like the strong, successful man that you are. A small voice in his head chuckled in reply. Yeah, right. Sean forcefully shoved that mocking voice deep into his subconscious, took a deep breath, and handed his invitation to the doorman.
Jefferson High School
Class of 1996
"Ah, Mr. Hartman, welcome." The disinterested hotel employee scanned the guest list. "You have been assigned to table twelve. You may check your coat over there."
He gestured vaguely with his hand toward a corner of the cavernous ballroom. He flipped through a stack of preprinted sticky-back name tags, selected the correct one, and handed it to Sean.
"Please wear this. Have a good time."
Sean took the proffered name tag, mumbled a polite, "Thank you," and stepped into the room.
The Grand Ballroom was tastefully decorated, the subdued lighting enhancing the casual, elegant feel of the space. Forty-odd large circular tables dominated the floor space; each was covered with linen tablecloths and ten place-settings of decent-quality china. A tall candle was burning in the center of each table, surrounded by an attractive floral arrangement. Along the far right wall, a parquet dance floor was set in front of a slightly raised dais, where a five-piece band was playing soft instrumental melodies. To the left was the coat check, and at the rear of the room stood a buffet table with mounds of appetizers. To the left of the buffet table, in the far corner, was the bar. The room was mostly vacant, a small knot of people gathered between the bar and the appetizers.
Sean checked his coat and searched for his assigned seat. He located table twelve and spotted the folded name card, "S. Hartman." He quickly glanced at the other name cards on the table, and didn't recognize any. He saw three sets of cards with matching last names, and Sean suddenly wished that his wife was there with him. At least there would be one person I'd know here, he thought. What was I thinking when I decided to come by myself?
He and his wife had discussed the issue at length, and in the end they had decided that it would be too hard on Jeff to fly cross-country for just a weekend. He was not quite yet two, after all. Neither was leaving the baby behind with a sitter for a weekend an option, considering his health issues. Sean had wanted to simply dismiss the invitation, but his wife suggested, and then insisted, that he could go on his own. She had eventually persuaded him to go, but a part of him wondered if, deep down, he had wanted to be persuaded to go alone all along.
Now, looking at his solitary name card on the table, the same thought gnawed at him once again. Still unsettled, Sean headed for the bar to find a liquid solution to his disquieting thoughts.
After a small plate of hors d'oeuvres, and halfway through his second scotch on the rocks, Sean was feeling much better. He had found two of his old chums, Todd and Billy (who now went by William, under pain of immediate ass-kicking), and the three of them were reliving their high school days.
"You remember physics class?" Todd asked.
"Mr. James!" Sean and William exclaimed in unison.
"Man, I don't know how he didn't kick us out of that class."
"I know. All we ever did was sit at that lab table in the back of the class and play paper football."
"Remember that time you kicked the field goal and it flew all the way to the next table and hit Jimmy Frederick in the face? That was fuckin' hilarious..."
"Yeah, Mr. James was pretty pissed about that one. God, remember we used to play cards all the time in his class too."
Todd looked at Sean. "Dude... you always kicked our ass. It didn't matter what game we played, you always handed us our lunch. Do you still play cards at all?"
Sean shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. "Yeah, every now and then," he replied noncommittally.
William interrupted. "Oh shit... remember the bowling ball? Remember? Mr. James was trying to demonstrate wavelength frequency or amplitude or some shit and he hung that bowling ball from the ceiling? And he got that fucker goin', and it broke the ceiling grid bar and went flying across the room and fuckin' destroyed that cabinet? That was some funny fuckin' shit!"
The three of them laughed together at the memory. As Sean took a sip of his drink, over the rim of his glass he spied a woman tentatively walking into the ballroom, looking around nervously. She was dressed in a red, floor-length, strapless evening gown that accentuated every pleasing curve of her body. Her hair was pulled back and upswept, accentuating her long, sensual neck and bare shoulders. Even from across the room, Sean immediately knew who she was. Laura Mitchell.
His throat constricted, Sean had to forcibly swallow his drink, the alcohol searing his esophagus. His hands began to tremble, he became light-headed and he felt his face begin to flush.
"Ex... excuse me guys," he stammered. "I'll be right back... gotta find the little boy's room."
Sean made his way through a side doorway. The restroom was thankfully deserted, and Sean locked himself in a stall and sat down on the toilet seat.
"Get ahold of yourself, man!" he chastised himself. "What's wrong with you?!"
He began some deep-breathing techniques his therapist had taught him. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Experience release through the breath, exhaling all stress and anxiety and disharmony, ridding the body and mind of the negative. The mind is void of all thought, all emotion. Feel the sweet, pure nothingness enter the body and mind with each inhalation.
Once again in control, Sean put his head in his hands, closed his eyes, and gave in to the flood of memories.
It was his junior year, Mrs. Garamond's trig class. Laura Mitchell sat in the seat right in front of him, and every day he thanked God or Buddha or whatever Supreme Being had arranged for him to be so near to her every day. Perfect Laura, with her perfect long, straight, chestnut-brown hair, perfect olive-colored skin that hinted at an exotic ancestral heritage, perfect large coffee-brown doe eyes, and a perfect smile that Sean could feel all the way to his toes. Laura the cheerleader, member of the debate team and student body, universally adored by students and faculty. Sean remembered countless lectures spent leaning forward on his desk, chin in hands, eyes closed, lost in the wonderful smell of her hair.
Jesus, that makes me feel like a pervert, Sean thought. I hope she doesn't talk to me. Like, what do I say? 'Hi, you probably don't remember me, but I'm the guy who sat behind you in math class and sniffed your hair.' Sure, that'll go over well.
Sean took a last deep breath, stood and exited the toilet stall. He splashed some cold water on his face, and examined himself in the mirror. Just go out there, enjoy reminiscing with your friends, and leave, he told himself. Don't think about her. She doesn't even know who you are, anyways. She didn't then, and she doesn't now.
Sean dried his hands, and walked out the door. He made his way down the small hallway and toward the ballroom. As he walked through the open doorway, a figure walking the other way through the doorway ran squarely into him. Sean felt an ice-cold drink spill on his shirt, chilling the left side of his chest.
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" the offender blurted out.
Sean's heart again leapt into his throat. Laura!
"Oh, it's okay... it... it's nothing really..." he stammered. "I'll just go clean this up."
Sean wheeled around and walked briskly back to the men's room, feeling his face flush once again.
Laura chased after him. "Oh my God! I'm so, so sorry... I was just heading to the restroom and I wasn't looking where I was going... I'm really sorry!" she lamented.
Sean glanced over his shoulder and mustered a brief smile. "It's okay, really. No problem. Excuse me..."
Sean quickly escaped into the safe haven of the men's room. As the door closed behind him, Sean began to dry off his shirt. Great. Just great, he thought to himself. She must think I'm more of a klutz than I was in high school.
When he was finished drying his shirt, Sean again scrutinized his reflection. Satisfied that everything was in place, and that the dark spot on his shirt was only barely noticeable, he headed for the door. He was determined not to let his embarrassment show, or remain with him for the rest of the evening. He opened the door, and stopped short. Laura was waiting for him in the hallway.
"Geez, Sean, I am so sorry," she said again, her eyes expressing her anguish.
"No prob...," Sean stopped short.
"Um... yeah," Sean stammered. "I'm just surprised that you remember me, that's all."
Laura laughed. "Mrs. Garamond's trigonometry class, right?"
Sean nodded assent.
"Do you remember those lectures? God they were boring!"
Sean nodded again. "Yeah, uh, I remember them," he offered weakly.
Laura continued, "God, I'm really sorry about your shirt, Sean. Come on. Let me buy you a drink to make up for it."
"Um... it's an open bar, you don't have to buy drinks," Sean stammered, flustered.
"Okay, I'll tip the bartender for you, then." Laura smiled that perfect smile.
Sean meekly nodded his agreement, and together they made their way to the bar. He ordered his usual, scotch rocks, and Laura ordered a vodka tonic with two limes. She dropped a couple of dollars in the tip jar.
"Thanks, Laura," Sean said with a half smile as he lifted his glass to her slightly. "Well, see you 'round."
Sean turned to go, but Laura grabbed him by the elbow.
"Where do you think you're going?" Laura asked playfully. "I paid for that drink, and that means that I get to keep you until you're finished with it!"
Sean flashed her an embarrassed half-smile. "Sorry, you're right. I just figured that you'd want to catch up with your friends, that's all."
"What makes you think that I have any friends here, anyways?" Laura asked as she guided him to a nearby vacant table. Laura sat Sean in a chair, and pulled a neighboring chair closer.
"Well, I guess because you were always so popular in high school. You know, you were the pretty cheerleader girl that all the guys wanted to go out with."
"Really? All the guys? Even you, Sean?" Laura asked teasingly.
Sean felt himself blush; it was becoming a rather permanent condition. "Well, um, yeah, I guess," Sean stammered. He took a quick sip of his scotch and, knowing he'd regret it the minute he said it, he added, "In fact, I had this huge crush on you all the way through high school. But, you were always hanging out with the football and basketball guys, and..." Sean shrugged.
"Well... I figured that you were way out of my league."
Laura laughed under her breath, and looked away. "Well, I think I was out of my own league back then," she muttered. She turned her gaze back to Sean. "Truth be told, I always liked you too, Sean."
"Come on," Sean replied. "You spill a drink on a guy, you buy him a drink to make up for it. You don't try to stroke his ego by telling him such transparent lies."
"No, seriously," Laura protested. "You were one of the smartest guys in school. And you were always so sweet, and cute." She shrugged. "You were kind of the opposite of the kind of guy that seemed to like me."
"If by that you mean an average-height, skinny kid whose vocabulary was not limited to the monosyllabic, then yeah, that's me – the anti-Roger."
A dark cloud fleetingly crossed her brow. "Yeah, you were definitely not Roger."
"Yup. He was captain of the football team, drove a Camaro to school, homecoming king... definitely not me." A thought occurred to Sean. "Hey, weren't you the homecoming queen?"
Laura flashed a quick, insincere smile. "Um, yeah."
"You two were quite a couple up there. I bet you have fond memories of that time."
Laura sighed. "Actually, Sean... I don't."
Sean looked at her quizzically.
"Well, it's a long story. Nobody here really knows this, but after the homecoming game Roger and I... well... I got pregnant that night."
Sean was shocked. "Wow... I had no idea."
"So, you have a kid?"
Another sad frown. "No. I lost the baby at ten weeks."
"Geez, I'm sorry," Sean said, not quite knowing what to say.
"It's okay. It was probably for the best. But, unfortunately by then Roger and I had already gotten married."
"Yeah, I remember that," Sean recalled. "You did marry him right after graduation. But you guys always seemed so happy, I just assumed that you guys were just so madly in love that you just couldn't wait to get married..."
Sean's words trailed off as he realized how naïve he sounded.
"Well, we weren't in love. I mean, when we were first together, we were. At least I think we were. But when I told him about the baby, he was... different. My dad demanded that we get married – he even called Roger's dad and told him why. That's when Roger got kicked out of his house."
"Yeah. So, Roger got a construction job, we went to the Justice of the Peace, and I became Mrs. Roger Williamson. We moved into an apartment, and he was actually warming up to the idea of being a father and having a family. We went out and bought some clothes, and we bought a crib too... He was getting excited about it. Then, I lost the baby, and... well... everything changed. Everything. I think he blamed me, but I'm not sure."
"Well, that's not fair."
"Roger wasn't interested too much in fair, he was far more concerned with Roger. He started blaming me for the whole situation – for the pregnancy, for the marriage, for the miscarriage, everything. He also blamed me for his having to work a shitty construction job, instead of playing football. He was so sure he was going to be a college all-American, and that he'd go pro. He really wasn't ever that good, except in his own mind." Laura shook her head sadly.
"Well, everyone at school thought he was pretty good."
Laura shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, after that whole mess his father wouldn't pay for his college, and he had lost out on any scholarship opportunities, so he just kept working... and eventually he crawled into the bottle."
"Oh, he drank?"
"Like a fish. The real question is, when was he ever sober? I can't tell you how many jobs he lost for showing up drunk, or how many times I had to go bail him out of jail after he started a fight in a bar." Her voice took on a hollow, distant tone, and her eyes were seeing beyond the far wall. "The bad nights were when he came home and wasn't through fighting..."
Sean reached out his hand, and laid it on top of hers. "I'm really sorry that you had to go through that."
Laura turned her hand over, and grasped Sean's in hers. "Yeah, well, so was I," she said. "But, after a year and a half, I couldn't stay there any more. So I filed for divorce and moved back in with my parents. I didn't see much of Roger after that."
"Aren't you worried that he'll be here tonight?"
Laura looked at Sean blankly. "Not really. He died four years ago."
"I bet you can't guess... drunk again, got in his car and introduced himself to a hundred-year-old oak tree at eighty miles per hour. Dumbass wasn't even wearing his seat belt."
Sean recovered. "Well, I guess he won't be here then, will he?" He offered a lame smile.
Laura sighed. "No. But I still wasn't sure if I wanted to come here tonight. You know how people talk, and I wasn't sure if I'd be comfortable, or even welcome here." She smiled and gave his hand a light squeeze. "I'm glad you're here, Sean."
He smiled at her. "Me too."
For the first time, Sean noticed the evidence of years' passage on her face – the small wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, the youthful freshness lost from her skin. She was no longer the perfect girl he remembered from ten years ago, but she was certainly a very beautiful woman.
The crackle of the speakers at the stage interrupted the moment, and the reunion organizer got on the microphone. After an interminable welcome speech, the guests were invited to take their seats for dinner.
Where are you sitting?" Laura asked.
"Table twelve. You?"
Laura sensed Sean's disappointment. "Don't worry, I'll fix it," she said with a mischievous smile. "You just go get our drinks refilled."
Sean smiled and nodded agreement, and headed towards the bar. He was quickly intercepted by Todd and William.
"Look at you go, you stud!" Todd exclaimed, and thumped Sean on the back.
William chimed in, "Dude, that's Laura Fucking Mitchell! You fuckin' rock!"
Sean shrugged and smiled an embarrassed smile. "Well, she remembers me from trig class, and we just got to talking..." To the bartender: "Scotch on the rocks, and vodka tonic with two limes, please."
Todd eyed Sean knowingly, sensing something deeper. "Uh-huh. Look, you're married, dude. I know you liked her in high school, but that was, like, ten years ago. Don't do anything stupid."
Sean shot him an angry look. "Come on. We're just talking. I know I'm married. We're just catching up on old times, that's all."
Todd pursed his lips together. "Old times, huh. Okay, just be careful, okay?"
William repeated, "Yeah, be careful," and began rhythmically pressing his tongue to the inside of his cheek and moving his hand near his face to the same rhythm, miming fellatio.
Sean collected the drinks and tipped the tender. "Thanks, real mature, Billy."
William immediately stopped, and stepped toward Sean, looking ready to swing, but Todd stopped him. "Hey, come on William, easy," he said, as they both watched Sean walk away toward his table.
Sean and Laura talked all through dinner, sharing the highs and lows of their lives. Sean spoke of his marriage to his college sweetheart five years prior, and of the unbounded joy of the birth of their son almost two years prior. Sean also described his son's chronic health issues and the resulting strain it had placed on the marriage.
Laura shared more of her life of the past ten years; a life full of regrets, wishing that she had made different choices in her younger years. She had finally decided two years ago to go back to school, and began working on her degree at night at the local community college while holding down an administrative job at a local factory during the day.
Later in the evening, Sean and Laura found themselves on the dance floor, swaying slowly to lover's music in the dim light. Laura clung to him and laid her head down on his shoulder, her head facing him. Sean felt her breath on his neck when she whispered, "Do you love her?"
She nodded imperceptibly.
Sean thought, for too long. "I think so," he said unconvincingly.
She raised her head off his shoulder, and looked at him through moist eyes. "You don't sound exactly positive."
"Well, it's been a rough time since Jeff was born. So much has changed with us, with our relationship." He paused. "There's times that I swear that we only stay together because of Jeff. Because it would totally fuck him up if we split up. Then, sometimes I think it might be better for Jeff if we did split up. Like he'd be better off as a child of divorce where happiness was possible than he would be as part of a family that was together but not really happy at all." Another pause. "And, then there are times when I'm reminded why I married her in the first place. When I'm absolutely sure that I love her, and that all the pain and hardship and sacrifice are all worth it, worth it ten times over, because of this incredible love that we share. And then, that love, it disappears again. Snuffed out by a mountain of bills and doctor visits and sleepless nights with Jeff and all the other bullshit that comes with my life, with any life, I guess."
Laura was silent for a while. Then she whispered, "You know, whatever happens between you two, you'll always be Jeff's father. Nothing can change that."
"I know. But... it's all so confusing, sometimes."
Laura returned her head to his shoulder, and nestled her face into his neck. Sean breathed deeply, smelling her hair.
And this isn't helping, he thought.
The clock showed 11:30. Sean and Laura stood at the coat check and waited for the hotel staff to return with their overcoats.
Laura turned to Sean with a hesitant look on her face. "I came here in a taxi..." she said. "Um... do you think you could... give me a ride back to my hotel?"
Sean was taken aback, as he was already mentally rehearsing the words of goodbye that he was expecting to deliver at the curb outside. "Sure, no problem," he managed.
The staff brought their coats, and Sean helped Laura into her coat. They left the ballroom and exited the hotel. Sean led her to his rental car and opened the passenger door for her. She got in, and he closed the door and hurried around to the driver's side. He got in and started the car.
"Chevy Malibu, huh. Big spender," Laura teased.
Sean laughed. "It's all they had left. No big deal."
"It's nicer than my car," Laura replied. "What do you drive?"
Sean shifted in his seat. "Uh, I have a Mercedes."
Laura's eyes got bigger. "Really? That's nice... you know, I never found out what you do for work."
That's because I never told you, he thought. His reply was a nonchalant, "Um... I play games."
"Games? What kind of games?" she asked, intrigued.
"Well, card games. Poker mostly."
"Wait. You play cards for a living? You mean like, gambling?"
A short laugh. "Yeah. Like gambling."
"You mean, like those guys on TV? That looks so interesting!"
"Well, it's not quite like what you see on TV. It actually takes a lot of time, and a lot of dedication, and a lot of skill, to be able to make it. A lot of people try, and not many succeed."
"Well, you must be pretty good, if you drive a Mercedes."
Another laugh. "I do all right. I just have a very good ability to read other people, to really crawl inside their heads and see what they're thinking." Yeah, Sean thought. It's inside my own head that I have the biggest problems.
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
Sean shrugged. "I don't really like to tell people. They hear that I'm a professional gambler, and they either look at me like I'm the devil or they expect me to pull out a six-shooter and start a gunfight at the saloon. It's really just a job like any other… one that I'm pretty good at, and that I really enjoy."
Laura seemed content to dwell on the romantic stereotype of a professional gambler. The rest of the ride to her hotel was passed in silence, Laura lost in her thoughts with a wistful smile on her face.
Sean pulled the car into the circle in front of the hotel doors and put the car in park. He opened his mouth to speak, but Laura spoke first.
"You know what, I bet the bar inside is still open. Would you like to come inside for a drink? My treat..."
Sean clearly understood the invitation in her eyes. He took a deep breath and looked straight ahead through the windshield. His mind was blank. He did not know what to say, or to do, or to think. Then, his eyes focused on the moonlight glinting off the wedding band on his left hand, the same hand that was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles.
He stared at the ring for what felt like forever.
Then he swallowed, and replied as if in a dream, "Thanks, but I really can't."
Laura nodded, understanding. "I understand. Well, thanks for the ride," she said, and reached for the door handle.
Sean put his hand on her knee. "Wait."
Her hand stopped, trembling in midair.
Sean turned to her in the driver's seat. "Thank you," he said.
"For what?" she asked, surprised.
Sean shrugged, struggling to find the words. "For being you," he finally replied. He took her chin in his hand and kissed her on the lips, a lingering, tender kiss. A goodbye kiss.
Laura got out of the car, and walked toward the hotel door. Sean put the car in gear and drove slowly away. At the door, Laura turned around and watched the taillights fade into the distance. "Goodbye, Sean," she whispered as a tear fell down her cheek.
Sean drove for a couple of blocks before he pulled over. He pulled out his cell phone and called his wife.
"Hey, honey... yeah, it was nice... yeah, I got to see a lot of friends. It was really good... listen, something's come up, and I need to make a change to my flight... yeah, everything's okay, but listen... no really, I'm okay... look, I'm just gonna change my flight to tonight, I'll take the redeye... yeah, I just wanted to ask you to leave the porch light on... okay, I'll see you then... I love you too."
Sean smiled to himself as he drove into the dark city night.
Doog lives in California, is married with two young children, is a complete donk of a poker player while being a kick-ass poker blogger. He's also the most modest, humble person you'll ever meet, should you have the esteemed privilege.