Lee Stetson sat on a bar stool in O'Toole's Tavern. Drinking a beer; he glanced around the dimly lit, smoke-filled room, then at his watch. With a sigh, he noted that his contact was almost an hour late, and guessed he wouldn't show.
Depressing tunes filtered out of an ancient juke box. A few worse-for-the-wear female barflies had hit on Lee with no success, and they'd wandered back to their boyfriends at the pool tables.
Deciding to give it fifteen more minutes, Lee ordered another brew and contemplated his next move.
A man entered the bar and sat two stools down from Lee. 'It's about time,' Lee thought to himself, annoyed. He turned his head to see not a contact, but Joe King!
Joe ordered a whiskey, straight up. Dejected, he sat glaring at a bowl of peanuts as though it had done him some personal injury. Lee had never met Joe King, but he couldn't help but wonder what had him so down in the dumps. Lee also found himself wondering about Joe's relationship with Amanda, not that it mattered.
The bartender delivered Joe's drink, and he gulped it down, nodding for another. The bartender shook his head in sympathy and poured a generous second.
"You married?" Joe asked, nodding toward Lee.
"No," Lee responded, shaking his head.
"Never been married," Lee informed him.
"Oh," Joe said and went back to studying the peanuts.
"What about you?" Lee couldn't help but ask. "Married?"
"Used to be. Divorced...I was an idiot," he said mournfully.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Lee asked, knowing full well there was nothing Joe wanted more. He felt a little like he was taking advantage of the situation.
"Where do I start?" Joe gestured randomly. "WIth how much in love I was? With how badly I treated her? Not to mention my kids? With how wonderful she was? With how I disappointed her?"
Lee watched as Joe's features settled into abject grief. "Why don't you start from the beginning?" He couldn't believe what he was saying. His contact could still show up. He felt as if he was prying into Amanda's life.
"Well," Joe began. "We met in college. I fell in love with Amanda at first sight. And once I got to know her, well...she just got under my skin, you know? She was...is...so full of life - so passionate. We married young. Eventually my job took me away all the time, and things just got so strained. Before we got married, she had all these plans. But I convinced her to marry me, that I couldn't live without her, and then pretty much left her, with two small boys."
Joe paused, reflecting on his past course, then went on, as if to himself.
"We got divorced, and I've regretted it all this time. I guess she hasn't, though," he said bitterly. "I saw her this evening; I took her out to dinner. She thought we were going to talk about the boys. I made a complete fool of myself, telling her I made a mistake, that I wanted her back, that I still love her."
He broke off again, shaking his head and looking up at the dingy ceiling in self-disgust. "I assumed she would feel the same way. I actually was expecting her to say she'd been waiting for me to come back. She didn't."
Joe finished off his second whiskey, looking for the bartender to bring him a third. Lee found that he was holding his breath. "What did she say?"
Joe laughed, a small humorless sound. "She said we didn't make a mistake. She said she'd always love me, but as the father of her children and as a friend. Not romantically, not like a husband. I asked her if she was seeing someone else, and she said there's no one in her life. I personally find that hard to believe. You know, I know her too well. She had this look about her like there *was* someone...I don't know, it's a feeling I got. Look..."
He pulled out his wallet and took out a photo insert. There were several pictures of the boys at various ages, one of Amanda with the boys, and one of a younger Amanda, the edges of which were frayed.
"This is her when we met, she was about nineteen, and this is her with my sons. She's beautiful. She's more beautiful now than ever. And so self-confident and self-assured. She was never like that before; not to the extent that she is now. How can a woman like that not have men knocking down her door?"
Lee couldn't think of a response, so he remained silent. The picture of Amanda at nineteen had burned itself into his memory. In it, her dark hair was extremely long and wavy. She was wearing jeans and a red sweater and was sitting on the hood of an old truck. She was smiling mischeviously, her dark eyes dancing with some secret.
Lee knew that expression all too well. Since they'd gotten closer, he sometimes caught a glint in her eyes. Sometimes it was when she had a brainstorm on a case, sometimes when she was teasing him, or being teased by him. It was as if the more he knew her, the more she allowed him to see who she really was. There was so much more to Amanda King than met the eye; and what did meet the eye was very pleasing in itself...
"I threw it all away. I had it all, and it didn't mean enough to me to hang on to it. I miss her. I miss her touch, I miss kissing her, I miss...everything about her. It's true what they say, 'You don't know what you've got til it's gone.'"
"Hard lesson to learn. You'll find someone," Lee said, unsure of how to respond to a near-drunk depressed man.
"Not like her," Joe argued. He changed the subject abruptly. "You have a girlfriend at least?"
The bartender set a third whiskey in front of Joe. He simply stared at it a moment, then looked back at Lee.
"Not at the moment," Lee answered after a telling pause. He was trying to forgot the things he'd been thinking of with regard to Amanda.
"You like someone," Joe observed. "You have someone in mind."
Lee smiled. "Maybe. I don't know," he repeated. 'There's nothing there,' he assured himself.
"Listen," Joe advised, "Don't hesitate. And if you're lucky enough for her to want you too, don't blow it." He took a sip of his whiskey. "I blew it."
"I don't have anyone in mind, really," Lee said. 'Why can't I stop denying it, over and over? Let him think what he wants.'
"Sure," Joe nodded derisively, knowing this man had the thought of a woman in his heart. "Sure."