The faucet was activated by a foot pedal. I pressed gently but water gushed forth from the tap and splashed off my hands and onto my clothes. I released the pedal quickly and lifted what little of the water I had caught to splash my face. I took a calming breath as I felt the cold bite against my skin. I carefully set my hands on either side of the basin and hung my head. There was no mirror, but I didn't need one to know what I looked like. The days on the road were written there, their story etched in a language of fatigue and self-reproach.
My knees wobbled, but the basin, cool porcelain anchored to the wall, its plumbing hanging naked beneath it, held me. Too many days, too many miles, since innocent sleep.
Out there, beyond the fragile wood of the men's room door, there was a woman sitting at my table, on the plate in front of her an untouched slice of pizza. I had not known I was ordering for two, but I had not been surprised when she arrived. If you run long enough, you forget what it is you're running from. My memory is blessedly short, but now that it was too late I remembered everything. She was out there now, sipping her blood-red wine, looking at her pizza with distaste, and not wondering in the least what was keeping me.
I thought, briefly, about finding a way to slip out the back, but that would have left her with the bill, and that wouldn't be right. She knew I was trapped; that's why she wouldn't worry if I took a long time. I could feel her out there. After all my time running, demons nipping at my heels, it was no coincidence that she chose my table to sit at. She might not have felt the levers of fate at work, but they were there. In that way the instrument of my demise might be innocent of the destruction she brings.
I had been sitting, watching the band set up. The bartender said they were good. I've learned to trust bartenders. The bandleader had carefully set his guitar in its rack and stepped up to the mike. "We'll kick it off in fifteen," he said. It was a Tuesday, but the place was starting to fill. A good sign for the music, but I was beginning to feel guilty as my pizza and I dominated one of the few tables. I began to plan my retreat. I don't like to take up more than my fair share of space.
"Can I sit here?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, before I looked at her. Seeing her wouldn't have changed my answer, it would only have made me afraid that much sooner. There was nothing obvious about her, but in my heart I knew my flight was over. "Have some pizza," I said as she shook off her long coat and unwound her scarf. She slid into the heavy wooden chair opposite me.
"Really? Thanks, I'm starving," she said and flagged down the waitress. "Another plate and your wine list, please."
"We got Cab, Merlot, and Chardonnay," the waitress said.
"Merlot, then, thanks," my guest said. That I knew she was going to order the Merlot didn't make me feel any better. The wine and the plate arrived and she regarded the pizza for the first time. "Is that egg?" she asked, poking at the slice on her plate dubiously.
"Yeah. Egg, ham and peppers." I looked at the pie. "I ate all the peppers already," I added apologetically, indicating the stems at the side of my plate. "They put them on whole."
She dismissed the pizza without another thought. She started to say one thing, then said another. "Can you help me?"
Any hope I had of escape vanished the moment she asked me that. I was trapped by some archaic sense of chivalry, the captive of my own mistaken ideas, betrayed by my own hormones. I heard the chorus offstage beseeching me to change my path, but I could no more deny my nature than Antigone or Oedipus. There was nothing left but to go through the motions, doomed from the start. All the running, all the hiding, the embrace of anonymity and the erasure the road provides were no more. I was found.
"I'll try," I said.
"Just pretend you know me." She gestured vaguely toward the door. "Someone might come in and I don't want to be alone if he does."
I knew that. It was in the script. "You know me, don't you?" I asked.
She looked at the pizza and smiled faintly. Her white cheek, still rosy from the kiss of the cold air outside, showed the shadow of a dimple. "Maybe more than I want to. I guess you don't really know anyone until you order a pizza with them."
Her teeth were perfect. I caught myself wondering if her smile was the product of genetics or engineering. How had this woman, perfectly crafted to ensnare me, been created? I didn't know her name, and I didn't want to. A simple label would have undermined the intimacy. It would have, perhaps, given me a handle on her that I could have used to escape.
She reached across and brushed my hand. Her cool touch sent a shiver through me. I was amazed that my abrasive skin could even feel softness like that any more. She was talking while her fingertips gently explored my battered and abused hand without her direct knowledge, and the delicacy of them amazed me. I don't know what she said.
An image flashed through my mind of her slender fingers picking off pizza parts ordered by someone who should have known better but had never troubled to find out. I lifted my gaze from our hands to her eyes.
"Nature calls," I choked out. "Be right back."
If she was here, the others would not be far behind. I should have kept moving. Stay in one place too long and they find you. Sometimes it's subtle; they get their hooks into you in a hundred little ways. You fall asleep and when you wake up you find yourself tied to the ground, each thread fine as spider silk and just as sticky. Other times you stop for just a moment to catch your breath and order a pizza and they hit you over the head and drag you away.
I slipped out of the men's room and watched her through the thickening crowd. She was poking at her pizza slice with a fork as if examining a particularly odd lab specimen. There was a fresh beer in front of my chair. She probably didn't even know her part in the play. Not yet, anyway. No one else seemed to be paying any attention to her, or at least no more attention than a pretty girl sitting alone in a bar usually gets. I took a shuddering breath and made my way back through the bar toward the table. I was halfway across the room when she picked up her slice of pizza and took a bite. I stopped. She cocked her head, chewing carefully, then took another bite. I resumed my journey.
"I was starting to wonder about you," she said. "I got you another beer. This isn't bad." She flourished the remains of the slice.
"Thanks," I said, sitting.
"I ordered another pizza. Just regular pepperoni. Pretty boring, huh?"
"It's the classic," I said.
"You'll help me with it, won't you?"
"I'll try," I said. "I'm pretty full," I added, making sure we were talking about pizza.
A gentle silence descended over us. I sipped my beer. The alcohol that normally formed a shield around my thoughts was only going to make me more vulnerable tonight. Once they get inside, your own walls trap you.
She resolved to speak. "I -- " That was as far as she got before the band hit their first thunderous chord. Whatever else she said was ripped away by the blast and thrown out the door into the street, where just anyone could pick it up. She smiled and shrugged, unconcerned. She started to shout something over the table to me, but I couldn't hear it at all. I leaned forward, straining, and she leaned to meet me. We were almost touching when her pizza arrived. I sat back, an almost-smelled hint of lilacs following me.
With conversation impossible, we were reduced to sign language. Offering and accepting pizza. Ordering more drinks. I thought about what it was she had been trying to tell me. I fancied she had wanted to warn me. Perhaps she knew she was the agent of my destruction and merely wished to apologize; she was only doing her job. Maybe she'd just had a hard day and was happy for the company. It could have been any of those things but it was probably none of them, and it didn't matter. I was going to stay.
I jumped when she put her hand on mine where it lay on the table. I had let my mind wander, they way it does when I'm in the presence of musicians playing well. Her touch snapped me back. She jumped when I jumped, her gazelle's eyes round, but she kept her hand where it was. I smiled sheepishly.
"Thank you," she mouthed over the din. She put her other hand on mine. I shrugged and shook my head. I hadn't actually done anything except let her sit at my table. Nothing that required gratitude. The softness of her fingers continued to amaze me.
We never stood a chance; they descended on us all at once from every direction. My mind had been drifting with the music again. Idly I had seen them come through the door, seen them scanning the room, but foolishly I had not thought it was us they were after. They seemed harmless, the gaggle of them, disorganized and uncertain. There was half a dozen of them and they surrounded us before I knew what was happening. She rose to meet them in all her classic pepperoni elegance but stopped, unwilling to break the contact between our hands on the table. She sat back down and they swarmed over her with hugs and kisses and gestures of familiarity, male and female alike, and they looked speculatively at our hands touching on the table. Finally, reluctantly, I had to break that contact. She put her hand gently on my shoulder as we stood to meet them, to shake hands and kiss cheeks as they cast their web over me, binding me with their delicate spider's silk.