“Thank you for calling Sea Breeze Faith. This is Ray. How can I help?”
. . .
Ray Golel hoped he was smiling.
He was sure trying to hold a smile.
But keeping the corners of his lips upturned while fighting to find some sort of natural rhythm to his stints of eye contact with Jolie was like working to solve two very different puzzles at once, both time-sensitive.
And paying attention to her actual words became attempts at spinning one too many plates.
He was making her uncomfortable too.
He had to be.
For almost whenever his eyes would dart carefully away, hers would likewise spring from his on cue.
His smile would loosen . . . her expression would shift.
He would bring the smile back at just the right time . . . but then his gaze would linger a tad too long, feeding tension like air into a balloon until it popped.
It happened over and over.
Ashamed, he sensed he was ever but seconds from hearing her cry something close to, “Don’t!”
And the fact that nothing was said of their shared pressure or agitation was what gave it most of its power over him.
For all he knew, it was all in his mind.
What’s she talking about again?
“So, why are you here so late?” Jolie asked.
Why are you?!
But all Ray could manage out loud was: “I usually . . . just . . . wait here until . . . later.”
He felt his face flush, probably with red.
Why would I say that?
Couldn’t I just tell her I’m working on something personal?
No, then she might get suspicious.
He realized she was still talking, so bent his attention back like a bar to the prattling stream of her words.
“So, anyway,” the words were saying, “I was going to go back for my master’s, but it’s not really a good time right now. I don’t know. I was supposed to get married…” She paused to laugh (an escalating series of detached little bursts). “I know that doesn’t make much sense. Wow, you’re, like, the only guy I could ever say that to and not have it go all weird.”
Her laugh seemed to want to start up again, only to be cut short by more words: “Anyway, wow, we’ve been here talking for almost two hours!”
Ray looked at his watch, instantly reminded he was the only person he knew without an iun.
But there were no other options.
He had to stay still and just keep fighting to reinforce that rudderless, shaky smile . . . throwing up sandbags of pure resolve until his wild, tired eyes would simply fail to skip about with hers any further.
She can’t know!
As if in answer to his hopes, Jolie trilled conclusively, “Well, I’d better be going. Thanks for listening to all my crap. Have fun, whatever it is you’re doing.”
Each tiny explosion of laughter that followed grew more boisterous and unsettling than the last.
“Have a good night,” responded Ray, fostering an eye-twinkle into his last model smile like an artificial cherry on a store-bought cake.
She made her way out, bouncing through the office like a pinball to do things like forward phones, close blinds, straighten papers, lock drawers, and then finally let the big self-bolting double doors in front shut and clamp behind her.
There was silence.
That was too close!
She must . . . they must all know.
How long has it been?
Wait, almost three years…?!
One more month!
I have to be out by then or I’m sure they’ll…
But Ray found himself lost in something like a vision, foreboding and stunningly clear.
The scene was of Jolie and all the rest seated in a sharp circle to surround him.
He then saw evidence being brought forth, each single piece in turn . . . and every crime fit to its rightful place in metanarrative sequence.
All deliberate choices were made duly impossible to escape or spin until every chance was lost at last for Ray to force with all his worth his own unique brand of utter sincerity.
Besides, his was a naiveté even his slightly greying hair and crinkled eyes must have betrayed as abundantly willful by now.
They all have to know!
The vision wound and swept away on its own.
He saw only himself and Jolie now, sitting as they had been . . . she, calling forth each remaining secret through her mere silent stare . . . and he, straining with all his worth to only stay still, and wait, and…
He watched his own face unravel as he failed to force himself normal again like a bee denying unto death its inability to launch itself from water.
The vision concluded with Ray as a crumbling statue . . . a hand held to its ear . . . and then his statue self hearing only “Don’t!” after a final hellish moment of eye contact misaligned and held too long.
. . .
The phones rang again, a grating digital sound.
He must have forgotten to set them to Night Mode.
“Sea Breeze Faith. This is Ray. How can I help?”
“It . . . it’s you!”