The restaurant was called The Hideaway. It certainly was hidden. The door to enter was painted cream in order to blend in with the adobe wall surrounding it and there was no sign out front; only from the presence of the busy valet were they able to find it.
Lilly and Brian sat outside on the Spanish patio, warmed up by a lively fire. The din of chatter and clinking silverware around them couldn’t break their mood. Ferns and holiday lights provided the perfect romantic atmosphere for the couple to celebrate their third-year anniversary. Lilly wore her favorite dress: a mod, two-toned black & white number that displayed the perfect amount of cleavage. A pearl necklace dangled loosely as she leaned forward to be heard. Brian loved her in that dress and couldn’t keep his mind from imagining slipping it down her exquisite body later tonight. He wore a charcoal grey Perry Ellis suit that he recently had tailored so that it fit him perfectly, with a new blue tie he bought earlier from Ross, featuring tiny red polo players.
They were a fetching couple, in their early twenties with unplundered hearts and boundless energy. Lilly had midnight black hair and green, doleful eyes that looked like jewels resting on a pillow of fine white satin. Brian was handsome in that way that even other men couldn’t deny. A sculpted chin, a penetrating stare, and oxen shoulders gave him the appearance of a man that should be in a Fireman’s Calendar, even if he weren’t a fireman. They both possessed a warmth and a beauty that people made exceptions for.
Brian ordered an $85 bottle of wine, because, he told her, it’s a special night, let’s celebrate. When the waiter presented it, uncorked it, and after Brian went through the ceremony of swishing it around and pretending he knew what he was doing by, he tipped his wine glass toward her and proclaimed, “This is for putting up with me for three years and making me the happiest, luckiest, dude in town.”
Lilly smiled. “And thanks for making me the giddiest girl in a blast radius of 100 miles.”
He giggled. “Blast radius… I like that, like, we’re ground zero for relationships. To us nuclear bombs!” They touched glasses and sunk into each others’ eyes as they swallowed a french varietal that neither of them could pronounce. They looked at each other and laughed at the same time.
He admitted, “It’s not really good, is it?”
“You’d think for 85 bucks they’d get the taste of pig shit out of it.”
He held up the bottle. “Yes, oaky with a hint of pig shit. I think that’s what it says here on the back label, but it’s in French, so, I can’t really be sure.”
“It’s French, so even if it says pig shit it’ll still sound beautiful.”
He assumed a horrible Inspector Clouseau accent. “Bougeois, louszie, aire bon foo peeg sheeet.” She laughed and then they both scanned the busy restaurant, taking it all in, pickling and then placing the moment in their memory jar.
Their food arrived and they ate off of each others’ plates, moaning with the first few delicious bites, comparing opinions, and exalting in their expensive meals.
“Now, this is worth the money,” Lilly mumbled with a mouthful of couscous and lamb stew. Her cheeks glowed with pleasure. Brian loved to see her so delighted, so happy. “When I was young,” she told him. “I refused to eat lamb because I thought baby sheep were so cute.”
She winked. “Now I think they’re delicious.”
He joked, “And the best part of tonight: no dishes.”
She smiled but didn’t laugh. He then speared a piece of the perfectly prepared, perfectly peppered, say-that-fast-and-you’ll-spit-all-over-your-plate, Filet Mignon; he made a show of chomping it off of his fork and chewing it for half a minute with his eyes closed. Lilly watched him, amused, but only slightly. She remembered he did something similar on their first date, and how hilarious she thought it was, then.
They finished off their plates without much conversation, engorging like shipwreck survivors’ first night back in civilization. When they were all done and the waiter had dropped off the dessert menu — that they stared at uncomprehendingly, bewildered by how stuffed they were — Brian cleared his throat and announced, “I have a surprise for you.”
“Oh yeah? Surprises are good. Unless, it’s, like, you got Chlamydia or something. Surprise Chlamydia is never good.”
“Nope, just Gonorrhea,” Brian joked.
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Even better than Gonorrhea?” Brian asked. “Cancun.” He whipped out two plane tickets he printed up the previous night and flashed them like a magician producing the exact playing card were picturing in your mind. Brian didn’t need to print the tickets out, you can always check in using your credit card, of course, but he figured it would make a bigger splash if he had something physical to show her. Life’s a stage, right?
Lilly reached out, took the tickets in her hand and studied them as if they were written in a different language. “You bought us tickets to Cancun?” She asked.
“You sound thrilled.”
She bit her lower lip. “Well, Cancun’s not really my thing.”
“Lying on a beach? Drinking? It isn’t your thing? You love Myrtle. It’s like Myrtle Beach with Mexicans. What? You don’t like Mexicans?”
She grimaced. “What are you talking about? I’m with you, right?”
“I’m not Mexican. My parents are from Greece.”
She teased, “Greece is sort of the Mexico of Europe.”
“That’s racist,” he informed her.
“Why? Is being Mexican a bad thing? Is that an insult? To be Mexican?” She asked. “You’re the racist for saying that’s racist!”
“I don’t know what to say,” Brian admitted, cornered. When he bought the tickets he pictured her wiggling with delight, reaching over and laying a big kiss on his face. I sure fucked this one up, he thought to himself. “Seriously though, it’s going to be fun.” He stuck out his lower lip and raised his eyebrows and made the saddest face he could manage. “You’re not looking forward to this?”
Lilly felt horrible. After all, he spent a lot of money on the tickets and it was sweet of him to surprise her. “No, I am. You’re right. I was just caught a little off guard.”
“Get back on guard! We’re going to party and get a tan and, maybe, a little romance on the beach…”
“I’m not getting sand down there, you can forget about it!”
Brian hesitated. “I know, I was just…” He paused and changed course. “Listen, should we get the Moroccan cookies, or the chocolate cake with raspberry syrup?”
“I can’t eat anything more, honey. Everything was so good,” she assured him. “Maybe just a cup of coffee.”
“Okay, but let’s get that somewhere else,” he suggested. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
Although it was only September, there was a cold spell over Tennessee that kept the tourists away from the river walk. The temperature was in the mid-40′s but the wind off the river made it feel even lower. It was almost entirely empty, except for Lilly and Brian, whose post-meal buzz put them in a reflective mood. A riverboat casino was making its way downstream and faint music and snatches of conversation drifted over to shore, giving their ears glimpses of the party happening in the middle of the river. They strolled hand-in-hand and didn’t say much, when they did their breath formed little ghosts in front of them.
In a darkened section of the walk, against a wall, a lady sat in a folding chair behind a collapsible table set up with a black tablecloth and little glass candles. There was a sign on the table and as they got closer they could see it said: Card Reading $10.
“Brian, let’s do it.”
He scoffed. “Ten dollars?!”
“Dude, we just spent two hundred on dinner. That chocolate cake alone would have been 12 dollars. Come on, just for fun. Consider this dessert.”
Brian grinned. “Okay, for you.”
The fortune teller had a silk scarf covering her head and what hair showed underneath was tangled with wispy streaks of grey. Her green army coat had fox fur around the collar and buttons that looked like walnut shells. Her hands were occupied shuffling the tarot cards. There was a flickering glow from the candles bouncing off the wall behind her, forming a jumpy silhouette. She looked up and quit shuffling her tarot cards. “There’s the happy couple,” she proclaimed in a thick gypsy accent as Brian and Lilly approached.
“Hi,” Lilly replied, deploying her disarming 100-watt smile.
“You must be cold,” Brian noted grimly.
“I’ve been through worse, son,” the fortune teller answered. “Would you guys like a reading?”
Lilly glared at Brian.
He mumbled under his breath, “What? It’s cold out here. Look how she’s dressed.”
Lilly ignored him, turned back to the gypsy. “Yes, we would love to have one.”
“Ten dollars for both?” Brian bartered.
“Sure. Whatever. I have all night. Sit down, my child. You too,” she told Brian in a less friendly voice. “I can tell — tonight is special, no?”
“Yes. It’s our three-year anniversary,” Lilly answered.
“Love these days…” She paused, put one hand to her forehead like contemplating modern love was giving her a headache. She tapped on the table with her other hand, then spoke in a fragmented manner. “It’s not easy to make it work, no? A relationship needs yeast. Like bread. Understand? There’s just so much… what’s the word? Distraction… work, stress, the computers… We’re pulled apart by these forces. More and more. My own daughter and her husband — no more, kaput!” She made a noise like a giant bug hitting a windshield. “She’s better, though. I tell her, ‘no fruit in the cupboard is better than rotten fruit.’”
Brian shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Lilly looked at Brian with a gentle, knowing countenance. “We’ve been alright,” she said, then added, “So far…” They giggled, but the gypsy’s face was unchanged.
“Right. Let’s see what the cards say.” The fortune teller picked up the deck of tarot cards and knocked them on the table. The sound reverberated loudly through the quiet air, causing a sonic ricochet that made Brian cringe. She methodically laid the cards out on the table. When she was finished she moved her hand over the cards like a model on The Price is Right gesturing toward a new washer/dryer unit. “Okay, first card… please pick.”
“Lilly, you go first,” Brian told her.
The fortune teller smiled. “Lilly: what a pretty name.”
Lilly pointed at a card and the fortune teller flipped it over. It contained a picture of an angel blowing into a long horn. She glared at the card with a disapproving sneer and then gave Lilly a brief, sympathetic glance. “Next card, shall we?”
Lilly continued to point at different cards and the fortune teller flipped them over, pausing each time to gather in the meaning before instructing Lilly to choose another. Brian felt a foreboding tug with each card the gypsy turned over — like witnessing a car accident in slow motion, wanting to yell out some words of warning, but finding your throat clogged shut.
Lilly finished choosing the ten cards and the fortune teller arranged them in a crisscrossed pattern and then stroked her chin. Brian looked closely and could see she was pulling on chin hairs. The moment dragged insidiously. He couldn’t be sure, but it felt to him like the temperature dropped a few degrees as they sat there waiting for the fortune teller to speak.
The gypsy finally gave Brian a look that caused him to suck down his breath. “You can be…” she paused, clicking her tongue while she searched for the words, “immature at times?”
“Silly,” he answered defensively, surprised at the question. “I mean, like, fun and free-spirited, but not immature, right, Lil?”
Lilly shrugged her shoulders, gave him a sheepish look. “He’s not immature. Spontaneous sometimes, without thinking.” She added, “He’s very talented, though.”
“I’m not here to judge. I’m just asking because of what the cards say…” the fortune teller said, her voice cracking at the end.
Lilly asked. “What do they say?”
“Let me ask you, when you get mad, do you stay mad a long time?”
Lilly scowled at him. “Like, do I hold a grudge? I don’t, I mean, not always.”
“I see. And you’ve been dating for two years?”
“No. Three years today,” Lilly corrected, her voice unable to disguise her growing annoyance.
“Three years, really? I can’t put this easy, right, you two — not suited for each other. This does not mean it can’t work out, but the cards — they show very different destinies. Your future,” she began, looking at Lilly, “is one filled with hardship, a lot of traveling, a lot of changing of your path, like a, a… what is it? Like a squirrel in the street. Always darting… and many different loves.” She pointed at Brian. “You won’t be on same wavelength as this one, much longer. Heartache is going to be your companion. You will seek personal accomplishment over romantic, and it will eventual fill you with loneliness until you figure out what life is worth, yes?”
There was nothing funny about the gypsy’s bleak pronouncement of Lilly’s future, but for some reason Brian snorted. It came out involuntarily, like a hiccup. Lilly punched Brian in his shoulder. “Again you laugh?”
“I’m sorry, but, c’mon! This isn’t real!”
The fortune teller scratched the table with her finger. “Ten dollars, please.”
Brian asked, “Wait, what about mine?”
“You? This isn’t real, right? Why would you want to hear about what’s not real?” She asked.
“Because I want my ten dollars worth,” he demanded.
“Okay. The man wants his money’s worth,” she announced. “Money, what is money?”
Brian didn’t flinch. “It’s what I won’t be paying you with if you…”
Lilly interrupted. “Just do his cards.”
They repeated the process, with Brian tapping on the cards he wanted flipped over like he was playing blackjack in Atlantic City. When the gypsy finished, she examined the cards with a look of disappointment. She pointed to one depicting a king on a throne wearing a crown, in his hand was a tall sunflower. “If you’re an artist, this card is very good. You will have much success. What is it that you do?”
“Well, I work at a department store now, but I’m gong to be an actor. One day.”
“Ah, yes, so this makes sense. It says here you will find financial riches, in addition to the admiration and respect of many people, especially members of the opposite sex. Good, yes?”
“Yeah,” replied Brian cheerfully, maybe too cheerfully.
“What the… ?” Lilly yelped. “I’m going to float around like an idiot and you’re going to fuck a bunch of bitches? That’s our future?”
“She didn’t say that!” Brian pointed out.
From the combination of sudden anger and the cold weather, Lilly’s face ripened like a pomegranate. “No, but the cards implied it.”
“Look, don’t get mad at me. It’s just for fun,” he reminded her. “I love you.”
“You can’t!” She screeched. “Fucking Cancun?!”
“Look, it’s only for a weekend,” Brian said. “It can’t be worse than that weekend we spent at your folks.”
“I love my parents!”
“I do too,” he told her. “It doesn’t mean I enjoy hanging out with them.” He laughed.
She didn’t. Lilly crossed her arms. Her skin grew prickly with anger. Fury flared up insider her. Everything got loud and hot and tight. “I enjoy hanging out with them,” she told him.
“I do too, I didn’t mean that I…” he backtracked. “Look, where would you like to go?”
Her voice softened. “I don’t know… like, Montreal, or something.”
She told him, “Because they speak French there.”
“So? You don’t speak French.”
“You just don’t get it,” she sighed. “‘The best part of tonight is not having to do dishes’?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You said that. At dinner tonight,” she reminded him.
“It was a harmless joke.”
This was the wrong thing to say.
Lilly exploded. “Our relationship is a joke. You don’t have any intentions of sticking around, or making us work, I can tell. I can. Why? Cuz you’re in love with yourself more than me,” she spewed. “It’s not going to last, it’s in the cards. We’re fooling ourselves!” Tears started to stain her flushed cheeks, eroding rivulets of white carved from pink sandstone.
Brian felt a rising impatience creep up in his bones, originating somewhere in his knees and speeding toward his chest.
Now it was the fortune teller’s turn to become irritated. “Honey, nothing is stone. There’s no reason to cry,” she told Lilly. “The cards — they sometimes have a mind of their own. Please don’t cause scene. Ten dollars. There’s no more cards…”
Brian stood up and dropped two fives on the table. “Lilly, it’s our anniversary. Please. We wanted coffee. Let’s go get coffee and leave this woman.”
Lilly was breathing heavily and staring forlornly at the cards on the tabletop. She picked one up and held it close to her eyes. It featured two dogs and a lobster looking up at the face on the moon, bordered on either side with what looked like smoke stacks. Brian and the gypsy watched her in silence, waiting for her to do something. Lilly stood up, then gently set it down and told the fortune teller, “I don’t hold grudges, I just don’t accept bullshit.”
Lilly turned and walked away. Brian apologized to the fortune teller then followed after her.
Lilly walked ten feet in front of Brian. He knew in these situations to give her space, time. Nothing good would come from trying to calm her down and douse those flames. She needed to burn herself out. The lights from the Walnut Street Bridge reflected off the river, creating a string of pearls that shimmied on the dark water. He thought about his fortune, the success the cards foretold. Should he move to Los Angeles? Should he leave Chattanooga without her? They’d only started discussing the possibility of moving recently, and she wanted to finish college first, which would be 18 months at the earliest, that’s if she doesn’t change majors again. If the fortune teller was right, why wait? Then again, he didn’t really believe in the cards, did her?
The green Starbucks logo was the only illuminated sign on the riverfront. To Brian it looked like a halcyon hallucination. The naked mermaid with the long flowing hair, her crown with the star; it’d always seemed like a Freemason symbol, something subliminal, sinister, but tonight, he imagined the mermaid swimming up out of a dream, calling to him, easing his troubled mind. The more he thought about it, the more he concluded there was something subliminal and sinister there after all.
He called ahead. “Baby, I need a latte.”
Lilly didn’t reply or turn around, but she stopped and waited for him. A small act of reconciliation. He caught up to her and wrapped her up in a bear hug from behind. “I love you,” he breathed into her ear.
“Hmm…” She replied.
Lilly kept her arms stiffly at her side, like a wooden Indian. There was a rigidity to her that felt like hugging a telephone pole. Brian snapped. He was sick of walking on eggshells. “This is ridiculous! She’s a scam artist, that’s all that is. She was just out to ruin our night, and take our money while doing it. You can’t believe any of that shit.”
She was morose. “I feel it in my gut. She’s right. We’re not meant for each other.”
“Oh, what a pain in the ass,” he cried.
“That’s what you think I am? A pain the ass? Nice.”
“No, baby. No. She got under your skin. She’s the pain in the ass! But now you won’t let it go.”
“Right, because I hold grudges, and I’m a squirrel, and you’re talented and good looking, and girls are going to be all over you, while I’m off drifting through life like a loser. Sweet.”
“You’re acting like this has already happened, like it’s guaranteed or something. Our lives are ours, they’re not cards, they’re…” he shook his head. “They’re ours. Don’t you see how I look at you? How starving I am for you when you’re not around? So please, just stop. Let it go.” He turned her around, held her firmly by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Let me get you a coffee.”
Lilly inhaled a gallon of air and held it in her lungs until she couldn’t any longer. When she exhaled, her breath was hot and visible and Brian could smell the lamb from dinner. It amazed him how quickly things can fall apart. He didn’t know the exact time, but he knew it took a lot less for Rome to collapse than for it to be built. That’s just how the world works. Relationships are like blanket forts, Brian mused, they’re great to take comfort and shelter from the outside world, but one false move and the whole thing can topple right on top of you.
“Fine,” agreed Lilly. “Get me a caramel Macchiato.”
Brian suppressed a smug smile. “I know what you like.”
He left her outside and stepped into the Starbucks and instantly felt more comfortable. It was nice to be somewhere warm, but also to be away from her, from the bickering. There was only one person in front of him, they finished up and then he ordered a latte for himself and a caramel macchiato for her. The girl that took his order was young and pretty. She had thin, dark eyeliner that made her look sad. He caught her nervously glancing at him while he waited for the barista to make his drinks. Her name tag said Jessica. “Are you having a good night, Jessica?” Brian asked her, taking some satisfaction in watching her blush.
She grinned. “It’s so cold out, it’s been pretty slow.”
Brian looked out the window to see where Lilly was. She was over by the railing, staring down into the water, her back toward the Starbucks. The sight of her standing there in the dark made him tingle with dread. She looked so alone. Desperate. Part of him wondered if she’d have the guts. The water so close. She’d never, he told himself.
He wished he could comfort her better, avoid these trying moments. Lilly lived on the border of fury-land and heartbreak-ville, swinging haphazardly from hot to cold like a broken kitchen faucet.
He turned back to Jessica, disinterested in their conversation. “That’s good then, right? At least you’re not slammed with tourists.” He gave her one of his best smiles, but only out of habit.
“They’re not so bad. I like it when there are customers, the night goes by quicker,” she explained. “How is your night going?”
He wasn’t listening. “Maybe tomorrow they’ll be back.”
Brian’s order came up and he took the cups and thanked the barista and Jessica one more time. A longing to stay inside Starbucks overcame him. To stop time from unfurling. Just he, Jessica, her sad eyeliner, and a bunch of cheese danishes. There was a song playing that featured a banjo and it reminded him that he lived in Tennessee, as if it was possible to forget, and he wondered for how long. He then had this fantasy that all the Starbucks in the world played the same music at the same time; so maybe there was a boyfriend out there, say, in Istanbul, listening to the same song that he is right now, and thinking about his lover, too, and their love was like their own, fragile and brittle, but deep and eternal, and this boyfriend was imagining himself moving far away from her, like Paris or Dallas, Texas, with the same low ache in his heart.
While emptying a packet of sugar into his latte, he contemplated his future, what the tarot cards had to say about it. Whatever waited for him, and for them as a couple, he knew he could handle it. It was the giant question mark of not knowing that scared him. Like at the dentist, the waiting room was always more painful than the chair.
He stepped outside and handed Lilly her caramel macchiato. She told him, “Thanks.”
They started walking back toward their car. Lilly took a sip of her drink. “The heat feels good,” she said.
“I know what you mean.”
They walked in quiet reverie. They didn’t speak about their argument. When they got to the spot where they had their cards read, they didn’t mention that the fortune teller was no longer there, though she had left one of her burning candles behind, the glass completely blackened by the flame.
Down-a-ways, the casino riverboat had docked and late night revelers streamed off noisily. Somebody had a plastic horn and was blowing it like it was New Year’s Eve and the apple had just dropped on Times Square. Two men helped an intoxicated woman up the steps while security kept a trained eye on the proceedings. Another woman was crying and being consoled by her friend. The women looked alike, and might even have been sisters.
Lilly felt confused and scared: about the future, about why she reacted that way to the tarot reading, about how her anger can come out of nowhere, boil up and spill over, and then just as quickly subside. It was this feeling that everything good in her life has a time limit on it. It’s constantly there, unshakable. This is where the fire comes from. But why can’t she put it out?
She was grateful for the way Brian put up with her. She liked what they had. Who knows if it will last? If she’ll be a squirrel? If he’ll move away? The future is always ahead of us; we reach for it and it slips a little further away. He was right, we can do anything we want with it, she told herself. Lilly looked at the river, immense and black and timeless, and felt small in its presence.
They were almost back to their car, the commotion of the riverboat behind them. She reached over and grabbed his hand, slipped her fingers between his. She asked him, “You think I’ll get a tan in Cancun?”
Brian kissed the top of her head and answered, “For sure.”