Monday, May 16, 2011

Short story: Balance (part xi)

The next morning Michael was sitting at the kitchen table when Claudia slouched in. She was still wearing the same clothes she’d had on since he first saw her at the airport and they were rumpled and disheveled; her black pants were dull with cigarette ash and spilled wine.

“Don’t you ever change your clothes?” Michael asked, meaning to joke. But Claudia glowered at him from her red, smudged eyes. “I’m kidding, Claude,” he said softly, but she remained tense, hanging in the doorway. After a suspended moment, she took a step backward.

“I’m going to have a shower.”

When Claudia came back to the kitchen twenty minutes later, her dark hair was damp, ruffled by a towel. She had changed her clothes, put on an old pair of jeans, a light blue sweater and soft scarf. Her face, though still tired, looked young and bare without make-up. Michael smiled when he saw her, as if recognizing her for the first time. She smiled back uncomfortably and ran her hand through her hair.

Michael pushed a warm, paper bag toward her. Inside were two fresh croissants. From the burner he poured thick, steaming coffee into a chipped mug.

“Thanks,” she said, reaching for a croissant. “You didn’t have to do this, Michael.”

“I know.”

He sat down at the far end of the table and they faced each other, weighing the words that needed to be said.

“Did you have a good time last night?” he asked, his voice even.

“Yes, and no.”

He nodded and the reciprocal, unspoken question hung between them till he pushed it aside.

“Claude, do you remember asking me if I was nervous about going back to Canada?”

She nodded.

“I am. I just didn’t want to admit it. You were right that we’ve both changed. Sometimes I think I’ve completely lost touch. I’ve spent 10 months living in rural Thailand, most of my co-workers were twice my age. Do you know that the movie on the flight here was the first Hollywood film I’d seen since I left? I didn’t recognize anyone in it.”

Claudia nodded absently, his kind tone made her feel even worse about the night before.

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