The flickering torchlight illuminates Tom’s face, and I wonder how I can know it so well after only two months. The warm brown eyes, the small straight nose, the dimple that creases his cheek when he smiles—these features are as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror.
A cheerful, efficient waiter clears the entree plates. Tom asks about desserts, and orders something that sounds cool and fruity.
I’m grateful to Tom for this taste of Caribbean luxury, this exotic escape from my frugal reality. I can’t afford roasted brie, fried calamari and West Indian game hen on my lowly instructor’s salary. The restaurant decor matches the cuisine: sleek and sophisticated, accented with bold geometric artwork. Torches burn in bronze sconces around the walls, providing a dim, warm light. Above the tables, a deep blue ceiling dotted with starlight emulates the night sky.
I take a sip of water and watch Tom’s face. He looks away, and I know he wants to tell me something. After a moment, he does.
“Dorie’s coming back next week,” he says casually, as if it doesn’t matter.
I swallow, and wait for Tom to speak again. I wish that he hadn’t mentioned her. Now that he has, it’s as if she’s sitting at the table with us.
Dorie is Tom’s wife.
It isn’t as if they’re in love with each other. They were never in love, even when they were first married. They were young then, still undergraduates... well, Tom’s explained it all to me.
Tom is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering. He doesn’t have tenure yet, though he’s a lot closer to it than I am. But meeting Tom has changed my life. I may not be certain about my career goals, but I’m certain about him. He’s more real to me than anyone or anything I’ve ever known.
I know he wants to say something else, so I smile encouragement. I don’t want him to think I’m afraid to talk about Dorie.
“Leanne,” he says, his voice as warm and caressing as an August night, “I’ve enjoyed this summer.”
“I have, too.”
But this is a bland understatement, and I rush ahead, before he can speak again:
“I know it’ll make a difference, having Dorie home. I know we... won’t be able to see each other as much. At least until...”
I let the sentence trail off so that he can finish it, can repeat the promises he’s already made.
Tom looks down at his glass.
“I’m sure it won’t be long,” he says. “But Dorie’s teaching a full load for the fall semester. She’s got some prep work to do. I don’t want to... you know...”
“Make things too difficult for her?”
Dorie’s spent the summer administering a marine biology camp in Aruba. I wonder idly if Tom chose this restaurant because he was thinking about her, but I push the thought away.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I understand.”
Our dessert arrives. I’m looking at Tom so intently, I don’t notice until the plate is in front of me. The ice-cold concoction looks frothy, creamy and fruity. I try a spoonful, and taste lime and pineapple, with a touch of mint.
I want to ask, How long? How long until you can leave her, like you've promised me? But I know I can’t ask. It would sound whiny and needy, as if I don’t trust him. And I do.
“Listen,” says Tom, putting down his dessert spoon, “you don’t have to worry. You know how I feel.”
“And Dorie’ll be okay with it?” We’ve said all this before, but somehow it’s harder to say it here, and now.
“Sure she will,” Tom says. He sounds sincere, and I know he is. Because I know him.
We eat our dessert in silence, until my attention focuses upon one of the torches in its bronze sconce. The flame fascinates me.
“It’s not real, is it?” I ask, and Tom follows my gaze.
“No,” he says, in his pleasant teacher’s voice. “It’s a piece of silk, with red and blue lights beneath it, and a fan motor. Amazing effect, though... easy to mistake it for the real thing...”
I stare at the flame as it flickers and undulates—so mesmerizing, so real. And I wonder how often people are deceived by this simple magician’s trick: an illusion of fire, a flame without warmth.
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