Alchemist's Gift

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Roland’s Song

Roland and Liz sat outside at one of the tables shaded by a large yellow umbrella that advertised a certain Italian vermouth. The restaurant had a spacious setback from the sidewalk. Brian, the owner and self-appointed uncle and guru to both Roland and Liz, thought it would be a good idea to offer the al fresco experience at The Edelweiss. He installed a wrought iron railing to give the place a continental touch and put half a dozen tables out.

They ate their breakfast in relative silence. Roland brooded and Liz rationalized the correctness of her no-sex policy. They sipped their coffee and whenever they made eye contact they exchanged fleeting little smiles.

Silver gray clouds scudded in from the Pacific, and although it was beautiful out, the temperature dropped and things got chilly.

“They’ll probably have music at the street fair. Remember that guy who played the Celtic harp last year?” chirped Roland, hoping to change the mood.

Liz nodded.

“Do you ever play his CD I got you?” The CD was a double album and had cost almost thirty dollars. Liz thought she had talked Roland out of buying it for her, but when she was occupied looking at some turquoise jewelry, he slipped away, and even though it was extravagant, Roland was more than happy to get it for her.

Liz answered Roland with a Giaconda smile and a bobbing little nod that might be taken for a yes or a no. She continued in a tone that was just this side of being snooty. A tone that coincided with a promotion that doubled her salary and her passive aggressive no-sex policy. A tone Roland was hearing more and more often. “Then there’s the stinky old hippie who sells incense out of the back of his VW van. He’s a character.” She studied Roland’s bewildered expression and added, “There are some nice things for sale there.” Liz took Roland’s hand and added with a smile, “Remember we had that old witchy lady tell our fortunes?”

“How could I forget her? Madame Maria. She was all wrinkled up, and that crazy costume; it looked like a bunch of rags tied together. She was just plain spooky with that gravelly voice of hers. And the way she said everything in a rhyme.”

Liz picked up the thread. “What did she say about me again?

Your search for love

Will bring you to naught.

Love is a gift

That will never be bought.

The start of your loss has already begun,

Lo, the forces above will grant you a son.”

“To this day I still haven’t figured that last part out. But my search for love got me you,” Liz smiled and patted the back of Roland’s hand.

Roland looked into his almost empty cup and set it down.

“Tell me what she said about you. Wasn’t it something about a trip?”

“Let’s see.” Roland reached for his wallet, took out a little folded piece of paper, and read.

To find your soul and strengthen your heart,

You must render yourself into many a part.

You will be led to a door,

And be given to flight.

You will come to a land

And find your true light.”

“You actually wrote that down? Does it make any sense to you?”

Before Roland could answer, Liz’s phone rang. She held her hand up for Roland to be quiet. By the look on Liz’s face, Roland guessed she would be called away again to solve some urgent problem.

After many nods and “okay”’s and a long, drawn-out smiling goodbye, Liz ended the call. “That was Chuck. One of our clients is getting antsy about something. I’ve got to go smooth things over. He’s a pretty big client.”

Roland guessed the outcome. “So, Chuck again. I take it we’re not going to the street fair. I swear, Liz, you spend more time with him than with me anymore. This is the fourth weekend in a row you’ve been called in.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s my job. Go work on your thesis today,” she added as an afterthought. “I’m going to the Foster Kids Retreat after I take care of this problem. I haven’t been there for three days. Cheer up. There’ll be plenty of time to be together, and go to street fairs or whatever. But first we have to get you through school.” Liz took his hand, gave it a quick squeeze.

Roland felt a strange flutter in his body that momentarily took his breath away. He shook it off as a chill.

Liz took his confused expression for disappointment. “Roland, don’t think I’m not concerned about us. I don’t want to lose us. We’ve known each other for so long. You’re the first and only love of my life.”

“Then how come we don’t make love anymore?” They hadn’t for months. “Back at my place you said I could stay there as long as I wanted to. But I know you want me to move in with you. I don’t get it.” Roland felt a pain rush through his head. He closed his eyes and grimaced. When the pain subsided and he opened his eyes again, everything around Liz flickered for a few seconds, and a pretty girl with dark hair and a dimpled chin took Liz’s place. As quickly as it appeared, the face disappeared and Liz returned. Roland gasped and involuntarily shook his head.

“Maybe it’s not up to me. I’ve told you why. Is our relationship about love or sex? If it’s about love, sex shouldn’t matter.”

Another wave of pain caused Roland to barely hear what Liz said. He slumped in his chair. He felt nauseous.

“What’s that look for?” Liz said impatiently. He didn’t answer.

“Were you even listening to me?” Liz checked the time on her phone.

When his stomach settled, he spoke. “Something really weird just happened. Your face and everything around you started to flicker.”

“What do you mean?” She put her coffee cup down and leaned closer.

“I told you. Your face and everything around you began to flicker. Instead of you, there was a dark-haired girl with a dimple in her chin looking back at me. She was dressed like one of those people in my dream.” Roland touched Liz’s cheek.

“I’ve been here all the time. It could be stress.”

Roland couldn’t readily connect this hallucination to anything. He hesitantly agreed. “I guess that kind of makes sense. Maybe you’re right. It could be stress.” Roland gave a weak, nervous smile. He wasn’t really convinced but agreed anyway.

“That’s all it is. Don’t worry. Your thesis will come to you. Just stick with it. You’ve come along this far. Look how I’ve stuck with you.”

“Stick, stuck, stick, stuck,” said his inner voice. His dream that morning had certainly felt real enough, and now this latest breach of reality frightened him. Roland wondered if his sanity was ticking away as well.

“I’m going to the restroom and to pay the bill. I’ll be right back.”

A bus went by and bombarded Roland’s already aching senses with its grinding echo. He hunched down in his chair. The toxic smell of diesel invaded his nostrils. A lowered small green car with darkened windows was stopped by traffic in front of the restaurant. The metallic music, especially the pounding bass line, was so loud that it passed through him, vibrated the water in his glass, and made the plates on the table rattle against one another. Roland closed his eyes and covered his ears, and hunkered down even lower in his chair until the car headed off.

Liz finally returned to the table. “Well, sweetheart, I’ve got to go.” She put on her sunglasses. “I have a confession to make.” She made a cute little pout. “I really didn’t want to go the street fair. It just isn’t like it was before.”

“What was it like before?”

Liz didn’t answer. “I promise we’ll spend more time together.” She checked the time on her phone again.

“Well, maybe after you’ve finished your business,” Roland suggested. He took her hand; it was cold.

“After my business meeting I’m going to the Foster Kids Retreat, remember?”

Roland let go of Liz’s hand. “Right. I remember,” he said, trying not to sound disappointed.

“Be fair. I grew up in that place. It was my home away from my foster home. It was a place we kids could go to if things didn’t work out after we got placed. There were people there for me, and now it’s my turn to be there for someone else.”

“I understand that. Any chance of getting together before you head down to the kids’ center?” Roland asked in a hopeful and good-natured way.

“There’s just no time. Roland, I told you what I’m going to do today. Did you even hear me?” Liz was annoyed by his persistence.

“Do you ever hear me?”

Liz took a deep breath and spoke calmly and clearly. “This is what I mean about us. I want to know what our relationship is really about and where it’s going. I’m really not in the mood to talk about it right now. Tomorrow we can talk. Right here, meet me here for brunch, ten o’clock.” Then she added softly. “I do love you, and I better see you here tomorrow. Now go work on that thesis. You can do it.” Liz bent down and kissed Roland on the cheek.

He tried to kiss her on the lips but she turned away too quickly. When Liz reached the corner she looked back and waved.

Roland drove his faded blue Jetta to the S.D.S.U. library. He stopped at a red light. People crossed University Avenue. Roland recognized the Sikh in his turban who worked at the 7-11. There was a plump little Mexican mom pushing a stroller with a wobbly wheel, her two cute little girls in tow. A bent old lady, bundled in a black overcoat and hat, toddled along. He had to look twice when he saw a man surrounded by what appeared to be a pulsing red glow. The man wore a brimless cap, a dusty tunic, baggy pants, and worn boots. He had greasy, tangled hair; a terrible complexion; and crooked, yellow teeth. A studded club hung from his belt. Roland recognized him as another unwanted visitor from the Renaissance.

The others by the crosswalk took no notice of the anachronistic phantom. The glowing man stopped, faced the car, leaned on the hood, and glared directly into Roland’s eyes. Roland looked away for a second into the rear view mirror when he heard the car behind beep its horn. When he looked back, the soldier was gone. Roland took off slowly and looked down the sidewalk. His soldier was nowhere to be seen. He pulled over to the curb at the first chance he had, and sat there trying to make sense out of what he had just seen.

Roland made it to the library. He had had enough of eerily vivid dreams, seeing Liz flicker into some pretty but unknown girl with a dimple in her chin, and the encounter with the ugly soldier with his bloody aura and threatening glare. Roland felt secure and safe in this bastion of rational and organized thought.

Roland sat alone at a long wooden table. There were just a few souls wandering about the stacks; he had the whole mezzanine to himself. He loved the quiet and solitude, and the endless aisles of books as unique as the authors who wrote them. Some books crisp and waiting to be discovered; others dressed in faded, course cloth, darkened and smudged by the many hands that had held them over the years. Roland closed his eyes and centered himself on his thesis.

When he opened his eyes a book somehow tumbled from a nearby shelf. Roland retrieved the little leather bound volume entitled “Alchimista Beneficium.” Roland returned to his seat and set the book in front of him. He ran his fingertips over the cover and gently caressed the worn and rounded corners. The book was warm to his touch and it had that pleasant scent that accompanies old, well-used books.

The text was an 1815 English translation of a 1431 Italian manuscript. The moment he opened the book and started to read, Roland was carried off to a magnificent and mysterious world where philosophy and the spiritual quest for meaning and purpose held court. Thoughts and ideas waited on each page like a long-lost friend wanting to be found. He read for three hours straight.

Roland had taken Philosophy 101. At the time he didn’t realize he was too spiritually and emotionally immature to grasp the thoughts of Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Camus. Up to that point in his life, philosophy had asked and answered questions that were purely academic. After reading from the Alchimista Beneficium, Roland realized he had no code or philosophy or any real connection with his spirituality or the larger meaning of life.

As for his thesis, Roland originally thought about people like the Borgia or the Medici or Machiavelli. He was fascinated by the sordid tales of the rich and their bold, outlandish ways. The moment he read from the Alchimitsa Beneficium, all of that changed. Roland would do his thesis on alchemy.

He wished Liz would call. He wanted to share the excitement that his search for his theme was finally over. Roland had to be patient. Liz turned off her phone when she did her volunteer work. She sent a text a little after five that she could meet him at The Edelweiss around eight for dessert.

Roland drove back to the granny flat and parked under the cramped carport off the alley. He was relieved that he wasn’t visited by another hallucination. It was a little before six. He looked in his wallet. He had a twenty, three fives, and seven one-dollar bills.

He needed most of the money for car insurance, but he didn’t really want to be alone. He grabbed his backpack and headed to The Edelweiss on foot. Roland stopped at the 7-11 and splurged on a single long-stem rose wrapped in stiff plastic for Liz.

The dinner crowd hadn’t quite arrived at the Edelweiss, and in that lull Roland had a chance to talk to Brian. The two sat outside.

“So, what’s new?” Brian was in his late forties, heavy-set with dark hair cropped close on the sides. He had a jowly face and fat fingers, and wore black-rimmed glasses. He was quick to make a joke or give a tidbit of sage advice.

Roland took the books out of his backpack. “All kinds of stuff.”

“Why all the books? Everything’s online. Even I know that.”

Roland held up the little volume. “I like books. I like the way they feel. This one is a real gem.”

Brian looked at the book and nodded. “No Liz?”

“She’s at the Foster Kids’ Retreat.”

“I do miss her not coming in so often,” Brian added with a smile and a good-natured tease. “You, Sir Roland, I see almost every day.”

Roland’s smile faded into a serious expression. He needed to talk. “Brian, something is going on with her. I don’t know if you know this or not but she’s always helped out… with money, I mean.”

“That’s a problem?”

“No, that’s not the problem. Ever since she bought her condo in Pacific Beach, she’s… well, she’s just different.”

Brian relaxed into the chair. “How so?”

“Explain this to me. She wants me to move in with her. So why this morning does she say that I can stay at the granny flat for as long as I need to? If she wants me to move in with her, why does she make it so easy for me not to?”

“So why aren’t you guys living together? You did before, didn’t you? This is the 21st century. You’re not going to be burned at the stake for fornication or branded on the forehead.”

“Yeah, we had our little apartment on 54th together until two years ago. That’s when she graduated and got that job.” Roland crossed his arms.

“So like I said, why aren’t you guys living together?”

“I tried it for three months when she first got the condo. For one thing, it’s a lot further from P.B. for me to go to school. When I lived there all I seemed to do was go to school, go to my little job, and come back to the condo at night. All of our friends live in North Park and Kensington or over by the college.”

“And when you moved out, she was fine with that?”

“She didn’t seem mad. She didn’t even seem disappointed. In fact, she was really nice, but it was a strange kind of nice. The same day I said I wished we lived closer to school, we spent the whole weekend looking for the place I’m in now. She even came up with the security deposit and the last month’s rent.”

Brian tried not to be judgmental. “You moved out because it would take you another half hour to get to school?”

“It wasn’t just that. Her boss is something else. We were going to Croce’s to celebrate our six-year anniversary being a couple. We’re just out the front door and her boss calls. C’mon, what boss calls at seven o’clock on a Saturday night and says he needs you to go meet some client? She just can’t say no to this guy. So of course, that was the end of our date. If I say anything about it, she kind of shrugs and tells me it’s part of her job. It wasn’t just that once. Liz is called out at least twice a week at night and at least once on the weekends.”

“All the more reason you should be around.” Brian’s warning missed the mark.

“I’m just really tired of the way things are going.”

“You can change that if you want to.”

“Maybe.” Roland shrugged and said with a sigh, “Things were so much better when we were in school together.”

Brian had to chuckle. “Yeah, that’s why they’re called the good old days. I can remember those rainy afternoons when my girlfriend and I would skip class and go to her place. We’d like to sit on the sofa under a blanket with the lights off, watch the rain on the windows, smoke a little pot, make love, and lie there in that warm bed until the afternoon light turned gray. All those lazy weekends with nothing to worry about but writing some paper or reading some book or wondering when happy hour started.” Brian gave Roland a nudge with his eyebrows. “Move back in with Liz. So you have to drive another hour a day. So what? And believe me, all those friends of yours come and go with the tide.”

Brian grabbed a plastic thermos coffee pitcher off the bus cart and a couple of cups. He set the cups on the table, filled them, and slid one over to Roland. “Roland, this isn’t rocket science. She wants a commitment from you. She wants a family. Even I can see that.”

“I’m committed to her. Jeez, I’ve known her since the sixth grade. We’ve been together for seven years.” Roland had a sudden itch on his right ankle.

“Friend, you’ve got to do something.”

“Like what?”

“You’d better start taking her needs seriously.”

“She should take my needs seriously, too. Ever since she’s got that job, she’s way too serious. Until the last three months, she’s been a great girlfriend, but now she acts more and more like my mom.” The coffee was hot and burnt the tip of his tongue.

“Whoa, what’s this lately?” He had known Roland and Liz since they were in high school. “You have to be patient and listen to what she has to say. I mean, really listen. You know, she’s a very special person. She’s someone who never had a real family or much of anything. That’s got to be some heavy baggage for her to carry by herself. She’s a pretty woman and so damn smart… to get to be the private secretary to Charles Owens so quickly is no small feat. He’s got one the most successful law firms in San Diego. If you don’t do something pretty soon, the Liz train is gonna leave the station without you.”

Roland picked up the plastic-encased rose. “I care. I’m supportive, but it’s hard.” Roland thought for a second. “Here’s an example. Take last Sunday. She invited me to her condo for breakfast. It was fun, like the way it used to be. We made breakfast together and then snuggled on the sofa. I’ll have you know, I didn’t try anything with her. She’s got this hands-off thing… okay… I don’t like it, but that’s the way she wants it. So anyway, we’re sitting there, and she starts rambling about work. It’s Chuck this and Chuck that, and he’s got a house in Rancho Santa Fe, and he drives whatever a Maybach is. I just listened and nodded. Then boom, she stops in the middle of a sentence and gives me a kiss on the cheek and says I’m her first and only love. But the way she said it was like she was reassuring herself. After that, she snuggled up closer and held me super tight to the point of being uncomfortable. I was getting a little weirded out. But what could I do?”

“Hands off… you mean no sex? That’s never good. How long?”

Roland was reluctant to say. “Going on three months. Brian, one minute she’s miss independent, career-driven woman and the next she’s so damn clingy and needy.”

“So, she’s got issues. Who doesn’t? She told me she was placed with six or seven different families.”

“Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.”

“Oh, boohoo. Quit holding your breath and try smelling the roses.”

Roland attempted the coffee again. It had cooled enough to sip. Brian continued, “Hey, you’re smart. You can’t stay in this little dream world of yours. C’mon, a bachelor pad courtesy of your well-meaning girlfriend. What’s this? Your eighth year of college? Liz won’t wait forever. And Roland, she’s not going to wait forever. Her biological clock is tick-tocking away. Do something.”

“So what should I do?”

“Some old-time philosopher said, ‘No matter what you do, it is always the right thing because in the act the truth shall ring.’ You’d better do something and do it soon, or you’re going to be flying solo.”

“Yo, Brian!” called out a gentleman who led a party of eight.

“You’ll figure it out one way or another. I gotta go. Duty calls.”

Roland opened Alchimista Beneficium. That clock ticking for Liz was also ticking for him. He was glad for the diversion of the steady stream of happy couples that passed him on their way to dinner. He tried to read, but looked up when he heard a bit of conversation or laughter. He looked up once at a pretty girl who lingered on the other side of the rail and smiled at him. Roland nodded and looked down at the Alchimista Beneficium. He recognized the people who entered eventually leave.

A black Lexus parked in front of the restaurant. Roland gave a cursory glance and looked back down at his book.

“Roland Hughes, is that you? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Roland looked up and saw his former schoolmate Tim Idings. Roland and Tim were middle and high school pals. They had lost touch after Roland graduated from high school.

“Hey, Tim. Wow, how’s it going?” Roland grinned. “You look great, man.” Roland looked at the lady holding Tim’s hand and back to Tim. This was not the disheveled and unkempt kid that Roland remembered. Tim was well-groomed. His clothing was impeccable, from his expensive gray turtleneck sweater, to his tan creased slacks, down to his shiny Italian penny loafers.

“Oh yeah, this is Mandy, my wife.”

She smiled and shook Roland’s hand. Mandy was a tall blonde with sincere eyes. She wore a little black dress that showed off her shapely legs.

“Married. Wow,” was all Roland could say.

“What the heck are you doing here?” asked Tim.

Before Roland could answer, Tim turned to Mandy. “Honey, do you remember I told you about this place? This is where Roland and I, and my brother Nick, used to hang out after school. We’d spend our lunch money here. It was always the same: three large fries and three Cokes.”

“I haven’t seen you since graduation,” Roland said.

“Yeah, I know. Ten years. So, did you ever marry Liz?”

“No, not yet,” Roland said vaguely. “What happened to you? Where did you go after high school?”

“UCLA. Got my doctorate in political science. It took me long enough but at last I’m on track for my tenure. I teach over at UCSD. Mandy is a therapist. She has her doctorate in psychology.”

“I opened my office at our house in La Jolla.” She leaned against her husband’s shoulder. “Tim has been so good about everything and UCSD is right up the road. It’s a short commute for him and even shorter for me.”

Tim looked at the open the books on the table. “So, what are you reading there?” Tim picked up the book on alchemy and opened it.

“I’m doing research for my master’s thesis.”

“Oh, so you’re just now getting your master’s?” Roland could hear the enthusiasm go out of Tim’s voice. “That’s great. Which college?”

“San Diego State.” Roland noticed Tim rub his thumb on the large gold college ring he wore.

“State’s a… a fine school,” Tim said. “Where do you work?”

“I do some part-time at the Copy Hut, and I’ve got my student loans.”

“I see.” Tim looked at his wife and nodded. “Well, honey, what do you think? Wanna give the old Edelweiss a try?”

“Sure, but no fries or Coke for either one of us, though.” She winked at Roland and then announced, “We’re almost vegan.”

“What’s old Nick up to?” Roland asked. He and Nick would ditch Tim and smoke a little pot together.

“He’s doing fine. If you ever need a lawyer, look him up. He’s online. It was good seeing you, Roland. Keep plugging away. Sooner or later you’ll get that master’s degree under your belt. Remember, carpe diem!” That was Tim’s tag line for everything.

“Nice meeting you, Roland,” said Mandy.

“Right.” Roland waved so long and sat down. He ordered a bowl of tomato soup a grilled cheese sandwich, and a glass of chocolate milk. Roland ate slowly and wondered why he was still at his high school haunt waiting for his grade school sweetheart who was so maddeningly supportive. In a moment of egotistic clarity, he saw that Liz’s generosity might be a desperate attempt to keep from losing him. The truth of the matter was they played off each other’s weaknesses. He wanted to live in the past, and she wanted him to be in her future. The revelation made him queasy.

Roland steered his thoughts to his studies and his thesis. He wondered why it had taken him so long to arrive at this point in his school career. He somehow turned into one of those perpetual students. As for Tim, Roland didn’t remember him being any more intelligent or clever than himself. Roland pondered why was so hard for him to get from high school and college to a career or at least some meaningful work?

Roland bit into the grilled cheese sandwich and thought about his childhood. His mom and dad were unexciting, practical and pragmatic people. His older brother by twelve years enlisted in the Navy at eighteen and his older sister, by ten years, eloped when she was seventeen and moved to Albuquerque. Roland and his parents lived in a modest house. His dad always bought and drove used Fords. Mister Hughes answered every situation from his lexicon of clichés such as: “no good deed goes unpunished”, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, “nothing ventured, nothing gained, something ventured could be lost”, “better half a loaf than none at all” “I love humanity. It’s just people I hate”, a quote from Casa Blanca in his best Bogie imitation, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” And of course Ben Franklin’s chestnut, “Mind your own business.”

Mrs. Hughes was an unfulfilled woman brimming with nervous energy. She stopped seven credits short of her college degree in accounting when she gave birth to their unplanned first child Elvin, and never forgave herself for not going back. She did temp office work and was a volunteer mom all during Roland’s grade school years. Roland hated when she drove him to school. She carried his books and lunch bag for him. She even kissed him in front of everybody before he went into class. His classmates teased him. She always seemed to be on playground duty.

One day he fell off the monkey bars, tore his pants and cut his knee open. Mrs. Hughes raced across the playground blowing her whistle all the way. This alerted the children, and they followed in a stampede right behind her. No matter how stoic Roland tried to be and no matter how much he insisted he walk, she cradled him in her arms, found the strength to pick him up and carried him to the Nurse’s Office. He was not allowed on the monkey bars again.

When Roland was twelve, he asked his dad if he could deliver the newspaper for the summer.

“Fine with me. That’s a pretty thankless job. You have to deal with people and dogs. Go ask your mother.” Mr. Hughes went back to listening to the Padres lose to the Giants.

Mrs. Hughes gave her nod with some trepidation. She lectured him on bicycle safety. She mapped out his route for the utmost efficiency. At four A.M. Mrs. Hughes was in the garage with the light on and the front door open. She wore a pink quilted housecoat, sat at a shaky folding table, and drank coffee. She listened to a scratchy transistor radio while she waited for the young man named Rick to toss the three bundles of papers out of his truck at the end of the driveway. She took it upon herself to carry the papers into the garage, fold, and rubber-band them, and load them into the two cloth saddlebags that draped over the back fender of the bike. At exactly four forty-five, she woke Roland up and had his breakfast ready.

Four days in, Roland broke his wrist when he took a spill trying to avoid a dog. Roland pushed his newspaper-laden bike back up the driveway. Mr. Hughes looked at Roland’s swollen wrist. He nodded and said, “Kids. Ya gotta love ’em.” Mrs. Hughes went into a panic when she saw her little boy. Mr. Hughes talked her out of calling an ambulance. “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” He suggested they could save quite a bit if they just drove him to the emergency room.

Roland was spared the responsibility of having to get an after-school job to the end of high school. Mrs. Hughes hunkered down and weathered the salvos of disapproving clichés and homilies that came from behind the fortress walls of Mr. Hughes’s open newspaper when she declared she would give her boy a fifty-dollar-a-week allowance when he started college. This one little act started a slow and unstoppable disintegration of their marriage and helped instill a feeling of entitlement in their son. They separated when Roland entered his junior year.

Roland took what Brian said to heart. He was going to be more attentive to Liz. The people came and went until the dinner rush was over a little after nine o’clock. Somehow Tim and Mandy slipped out without him noticing. By nine, the cars had driven off, and the street was almost deserted. When Roland checked the time on his cell phone, Liz happened to call.

“Hey babe, where are you?” Roland bubbled. He was glad and relieved to finally hear from her. “When are you getting here?” Roland wanted to tell Liz he finally decided on a thesis, but more importantly, he was ready to move in with her.

“I should have called sooner. I was just about to leave the Foster Kids Retreat when the funniest thing happened! Chuck called.”

“Let me guess.” Roland spirits sunk.

“You’ll never guess; he needs me to be with him tonight because we’re meeting this really big client from New York, who’s leaving tomorrow. It was a last-minute thing, so it’s tonight or never. Roland, this client could bring us so much business.”

Roland couldn’t muster anything to say for a few seconds. “So, I guess you won’t be making it over here. I have something really important to tell you.” Roland tried to be upbeat.

“Oh… tell me at brunch tomorrow.” Liz was dismissive with Roland but excited with her own news. “And guess where we’re going? On my suggestion, I might add: Croce’s! Oh, I got to go. Chuck’s here.” Liz ended the call without saying goodbye.

“Well, have fun…” Roland’s voice trailed off. “Damn it, Liz. Again? Damn that Chuck,” Roland hissed. He didn’t want to wait until tomorrow.

Brian was right; Liz was too special a person to lose. He realized that she wasn’t forcing him to do anything. Liz was treating him exactly how he wanted to be treated. If he wasn’t quite ready to leave his school days, she had at least made it possible for him to continue. Roland asked himself how he could have not seen this before.

Roland decided he’d go home, take a shower, and put on his new shirt and a pair of clean Levi’s. He’d be at Croce’s in about an hour and wait at the bar for Liz and Owens to finish their business meeting. Roland would take her over to Little Italy. There were quite a few romantic little bistros up and down India Street. He was just about ready to call Liz back and tell her the plan when his phone rang. It was Liz’s number.

“Hey babe, I’m glad you called. I was just going to call you.” No one answered. Roland heard only a hissing and a faint rumbling noise. “Hey Liz, are you there? Hello…” This time he heard her. She sounded far away, and her voice was hollow, but he could understand her. He listened to the unintentional call.

“Croces isn’t too far away,” she said.

“Great idea you had, Elizabeth.”

“Thanks, Chuck.”

“After this, I’d like to take you to my house and celebrate with some champagne. You’ve earned it; you’re part of the Owens family.”

“Well, sure, that would be great. Thank you, Chuck, thank you very much.”

“That is, if that boyfriend of yours won’t mind.” Chuck gave a little laugh.

Liz chuckled too. “He doesn’t have to know everything I do.”

Roland was in a panic. “Hey, Liz!” he yelled into his phone. The conversation continued without him.

“Who’s going to be there?”

“Just you and little old me, sweetheart. That is, if you can stand my company.” The call abruptly ended.

Roland called back, but the phone went straight to voicemail. He tried three more times, and the same thing happened. He became angry, then numb, and then angry again at the thought of Liz being with another man--an intimidating and very rich man, at that.

A chill breeze came up off the ocean and brought with it a mist that settled on the city like a shroud.

“How could I not have seen this coming?” he asked himself out loud. How could he and Liz truly be in a loving relationship when he was the one who chose not to have the day-to-day intimacy of living together? She could only put up with it for so long. Now she was gone.

He was angry with himself, with Liz, and with that big-shot lawyer boss of hers. Roland imagined the scenario: the two of them sitting in the dark next to each other on a sofa in the glow of his fireplace, all warm and cozy. That bastard Owens filling Liz’s glass every time she took a sip. After two or three glasses, Liz would get that cute and goofy little smile and be as bubbly as the champagne. Her inhibitions would fall away. Then he’d make his move, he’d be all hands, and she’d let him. And why wouldn’t she? His heart raced and his jaws tightened.

Roland picked up the rose, snapped it in half, and threw it back down on the table. One of the thorns pierced his thumb. He looked at the tiny drop of blood and then rubbed it away with his finger. His thesis and plans of moving back in with Liz were now incomprehensible foolishness.

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