You can read the first version here: Coward.
What if he’d turned to look at her, and seen the truth etched into the lines of her face?
“You’re a chicken-shit coward, you know that, right?” He says.
“Yes, I’m very aware of that.” She says.
“And somehow that’s okay with you? No qualms with that?” He asks, befuddled.
“Nope. None.” She says, then adds, “Not a one.”
He shakes his head, bewildered. “How can you say that? How can you be okay with being a coward?” And before she can respond, “I would hate myself.”
She smiles. It’s a wintry smile, it turns her blue eyes into ice chips. “I never said I didn’t.” She says.
Silence spirals out between them for a long, tense moment. He opens his mouth to speak, appears to think better of it, and closes his mouth again. He takes a sip of his beer instead, and wipes the foam from his upper lip. Instead of carrying on the conversation, he glances around the bar and sees everyone else talking and laughing easily. His eyes settle upon a game of pool, where a group of friends are chatting and laughing as if everything in the world isn’t going to hell just outside the bar’s front door. He becomes engrossed in watching them, longing to be a part of that group. Anything would be better than sitting at this table.
She’s watching him watching the other patrons. If he looked at her right now, he’d see the same longing look in her own eyes that he has while gazing at the pool players. If he turns back to her right now, she’ll have betrayed everything she came here to do, everything her brain tells her must happen if they both are to go on with their own lives. Her heart screams against it, however. She’s got him in her crosshairs, but she doesn’t want to take the shot, even though she knows she must. A single tear escapes her lashes, and it’s at that exact moment when he unexpectedly turns back to face her.
They are both instantly disarmed; he by her tears, and she because she never expected to be caught showing emotion. She hurriedly wipes away the tear, and takes a large gulp of her vodka. In her desire to look anywhere and do anything other than face the reality they both just witnessed, she chokes on her drink. It burns for multiple reasons on the way down. Her eyes water, and he mistakes her discomfort for an emotional response. He opens his mouth to speak, but there are no words. Absolutely none. Bewilderment has left his mind a blank canvas. Eventually rational thought will resume, but not before she excuses herself from the table and disappears in the women’s restroom.
His gaze falls upon the scratched wooden table as the wheels in his mind begin turning again, slowly at first, then faster and faster—until his brain feels like an engine cycling up to speed. Had she really been crying? It was a single tear, don’t read into it! Sheesh! But it was real, wasn’t it? Of course, it was. So, she’s not a heartless bitch? How could you ever think that about someone? Do you know he shit she’s done to us? Yes, but—but nothing! She’s the frigid ice queen, remember!? Don’t be fooled by a single crocodile tear! But you aren’t even certain that’s what that was! Oh, boy, you’ve got it bad for her still, don’t you? Poor fool. Poor, defenseless fool. She’s a walking, talking cunt; nothing more! Stop thinking of her as such!
Oh, the arguments we have inside our heads. The cruel voices we pretend we don’t hear. The things polite society would chastise us for.
She hurries to the restroom, head down, and nearly gets brained by the restroom door as a woman comes out at the same time she’s reaching for the door. They exchange apologies, and once she’s safely tucked behind the restroom door, she feels safe. Of course, first she must take stock of anyone lurking in the restroom. No one. She’s alone. Good. Standing before the water-stained mirror, she takes a mental inventory of herself.
He saw it, don’t try to deny it! He saw you defenseless! How could you let that happen? What happened to having the upper hand? Is there an upper hand to be had in this situation? Is there really? Yes! Of course, there is! There always is! Get it together, girl! You came to win this one last final battle! Don’t let this destroy your resolve! You know what you must do, so do it! But she couldn’t, not yet. She closed her eyes, meditating on shutting down the cacophony inside her head. She was succeeding when the restroom door burst open, breaking her concentration. Go get ‘im, a voice in her mind growled. She put her battle mask on, and went.
When she returns to their table, everyone is wearing their armor again. “Sorry about that,” she says.
“No problem,” he says. “So, where were we?” he asks, gently smiling, as if they were simply two old friends who’d been in the middle of a lively conversation about a recent television program, rather than scorned lovers.
She looks from her drink across the table at him, her ice chip eyes confirming his not-so-secret assumptions about her. That look wipes the smile from his face as succinctly as the bartender wiping down the counter after someone has spilled their drink—absently and without ceremony.
“We’re done,” she says. Two simple words, packed with powder and lit like a cannon—blasting through his war-time defenses as easily as cutting through bread.
“That’s it, then?” He asks, his jaw tense, clipping each word off neatly—like severing wires with the snip of scissors.
“That’s it.” She says succinctly, her mind in total agreement while her heart rails against the bars of its prison, screaming to be let out, screaming to be set free. Don’t let me die down here!
He polishes off the last of his beer, and she takes little hurried sips of her vodka. Now that the nasty business is finished, they both want to be out of this bar as quickly as possible. It’s better to be outside in the city, blending in with all the other digits—anonymous. He pulls out his wallet and slaps his money down on the table. She’s digging through her purse deliberately while he takes his leather jacket from the back of his chair and puts it on. She’s giving him time to make his exit before her. The only thing exchanging more words can do now is irreparable damage.
He takes a final swig from his mostly empty beer bottle. He doesn’t know why he’s stalling, but his own heart is screaming not to let it end this way, but what else can be done? They’ve agreed it’s over. He looks at her one last time as she’s rummaging through her purse, knowing that she too is stalling, there’s not enough room in that purse for her to lose anything, especially not a wallet. She feels his gaze fall upon her, and looks up unconsciously. For the briefest of moments, he sees her prisoner heart clearly in those clear, blue eyes. For a single second, he sees the woman he fell in love with, but then she’s gone; swatted back into her prison cell by the woman she’s become, and he feels his heart crack along a fault line. There will always be earthquakes now when he merely thinks her name.
He starts to say something, then once again thinks better of it, turns, and walks toward the door, through the throng of bar patrons. She watches his retreating back, a tsunami of conflicting emotions. She starts to call him back, but then decides the damage is done—let it all be done, her mind insists. As he opens the door she pulls her wallet from her purse and pulls out her change. While she’s looking down at her money, he looks back over his shoulder one last time. In the glow of the bar lights her blonde hair resonates with light, just like it did the first time he met her. He takes that final image of her with him as he leaves.
She looks back at the door just as it closes, and thinks, I am a terrible coward.