|Meanwhile, at the Pink Flamingo...|
The world was slightly less chaotic than usual, but only because it had become transfixed, watching the live feed of the current events train wreck du jour.
For months, Nicole had managed to stay out of it, and she took pride in how little she knew of the details of the "three-ring shit show," as her friends were calling it. But the headlines and news alerts had become so ubiquitous and rapid-fire that she now knew way too much. With that knowledge had come a suffocating heaviness, like drowning in peanut butter. She went from alarmed to frustrated, then skipped depressed and went straight to saturnine. All was doom and gloom. She knew what she needed in order to snap out of it - if only for an hour.
She needed to play a round of the ridiculous game. She needed Ted. Three text messages later, it was arranged.
She found him pacing beside the old dead tractor in the cornfield next to the busy rail line that bisects Dickerson, Maryland. "Hey, loser," she said.
Ted shook his head. "Nic. Geez - they'll let anyone in here, these days."
"I gave the man at the gate twenty bucks," she deadpanned. "Just like old times. Hey, speaking of old times - how is that old tractor still in one piece?"
Ted looked at the disintegrating machine and shook his head. "Actually, I think this is a new old tractor. The old old one is over there under there under those bushes."
"Makes sense," she said, nodding. "I mean, it's been what, twenty years..."
"Twenty-two," he corrected. "It's been twenty-two years since we've been here. We were still so young. We were getting ready to watch you and Bobby get married--"
"Oh, my Bobby," Nicole sighed. "God, I still miss him."
"I know, Nic. So do I. I can't believe it's been seven years. Lately, I've been trying to tell myself things like, 'hey - at least he doesn't have to endure the dumpster fire that is 2017.' It doesn't work, though, because--"
"Because you know that he would have somehow found a way to have fun with it, and that he would make it less awful for the rest of us?"
"Exactly. Hey - I brought my flask, in case you want to do a toast," Ted offered.
Nicole smiled, and moved a wayward tendril of her long brown hair to a more secure position behind her ear. She knew it was the bit with all the grey in it, which annoyed her. It wasn't the fact that there was grey - she was at peace with that development. It was the fact that the grey hairs seemed to congregate in the tendril that was always getting in her eyes, as if to say "look at us!"
"No more toasts," she said with a chuckle, "but I'd love a drink."
They passed the flask back and forth a few times in silence. "By the way," Ted eventually said, "I am officially too old for trespassing in cornfields and throwing rocks at trains. Wait - are we going to be throwing rocks at trains? 'Cause I have this sciatic nerve thing, now, and--"
"No, no," she assured him. "I just thought it was about time to put the phone down and sit with the most zen guy I know and stare at the dandelions for a while - so to speak."
"You're so right. These days, every time my phone buzzes, my life flashes before my eyes. It's like, now what? I mean, every single day, that tiny-handed simpleton--"
Nicole put her hands over her ears. "La la la la, I can't hear you. I can't hear you. He doesn't exist. None of that stuff exists. That's exactly what I don't want to talk about."
"I'll bet. So, what do you want to talk about?"
She stared at the railroad tracks and let out a seemingly endless sigh, heavy with the weight of countless years of regret. Or melancholy. Or maybe just routine respiration - but it sounded heavy to Ted. They had been friends since their twenties, we she had married Ted's best friend Bobby, and they had grown ever closer since his death in 2010. The adventures they'd shared were beyond number. He knew that sigh. He hadn't heard it in forever, but he knew it.
"I want to talk about us," she said, looking skyward. "How did we end up in the friend zone, all these years?"
Ted laughed. "Oh, honey - that ship has flown. That bird has sailed."
"So many chances," Nicole lamented. "So many potential branch points in our history. Do you remember that night at the club?"
He thought for a moment, studying her face. Within a few seconds, his own countenance went from quizzical to calculating to 'ah-ha.' "Are we really doing this? You mean the Smoking Womb. How could I forget?"
"What the-- No! Not the Smoking Womb," she laughed. "What's wrong with you? That was a disaster. I mean the night. The night when we met for the first time."
Ted searched the sky for a moment, with his eyes tightly closed. "Oh, that night! The Sultry Chameleon. How could I forget? I saw you leaning against the stage. You looked like Nastassja Kinski - and that purple backless dress, with the sequins..."
"It was blue."
"I know, but the lights made it purple, like a dream..."
"You mean nightmare. I was drunk, and had cried off all my makeup," she said.
"I thought you had sung it off. You were so intense. And you had such style."
"Oh, really? Why were you even there? You looked so lost."
Ted sighed and turned away for effect, but then ruined it by peeking to see if he'd created the right effect. "I was lost - for the millionth time, I think. I knew I didn't belong. I heard your singing from the street. I was looking for love in a sad song. Those words you sang - it was my life's story."
"It was mine."
"I wanted to grab you and kiss you, but I was afraid you'd slap me."
Nicole laughed. "Actually, I would have punched you, and you would have never been the same."
"I was already never going to be the same, and I think you knew that. Oh, your eyes, that night."
It was Nicole's turn to affect a sad, far-off look. "I know now. Back then, it was all a game to me. I'd apologize, but that's just not my style."
"I know. And when I said I wanted to rescue you from that terrible life, I really wanted you to rescue me from mine."
"Too true, baby," she nodded. "Hey - you never did tell me what it was that you were running from."
"Oh, I don't know, Nicole. Bad guys? How much longer are we going to keep this up?"
She put a finger to his lips. "Shh... That's okay, sweetie. Some other time." A mile-long train of empty coal hoppers roared past, putting an end to the game. Ted and Nicole strolled back to their cars, parked a half-mile away at the edge of the cornfield, sipping from the flask as they went.
"What are we drinking, anyway?" she asked. "Tequila?"
"Mezcal," he said. "Overpriced mezcal."
"Smoky. I like it. Sorry I'm not as good at the ridiculous game as Bobby was. Thanks for playing along. I think it helped. You always make things better, you know."
Ted smiled. "It's what I do, man. And I'm sorry I borrowed so heavily from Soft Cell."
"I thought I detected bits of 'Sex Dwarf' in there," she said.
"It was 'Torch,'" Ted said. "The extended version."
"Of course it was. We should do this more often. It's going to be a long eight years--"
"Oh God, no! Four! FOUR years, Nic. Geez - now we have to start over! I remember when we first met..."
Again, I was prompted! My friends at Our Write Side gave us SATURNINE and/or GLOOMY, and I'm all about that sentiment, lately, so here you go, Two-word Tuesday...