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Strangers

PG

Ted and Martha were late. Having lingered over French-press coffee and a true English Trifle at the nearby brasserie, they now had little chance of getting prime seats for the cabaret performance at Club Zee. Martha raced across Leicester Square, several paces ahead of Ted who seemed to be unaware of the need to hurry. She had purchased the tickets well in advance of their departure from Chicago, but that wouldn't matter if they ended up stuck behind a pillar.

Ted caught up to her as she was struggling to push the revolving door into the club's lobby. "Let me go first," he said, stepping in front of her and giving the door a firm shove. When Martha spun out on the other side, Ted was there to catch her arm, and with a gentle pressure, he stopped her pell-mell advance.

"Ted," she began, ready to protest this added delay, but she stopped when she saw him shaking his head and smiling down at her. His dark brown hair had grayed a bit, and his forehead was creased with lines etched by years of intense concentration, but at that moment she felt the magnetic pull that had drawn her to him decades ago. The tension in her body shifted and she capitulated before his first word.

"We had a wonderful dinner," Ted said. "We'll enjoy the show. Everything's fine."

Moments later this pronouncement seemed overly optimistic as both she and Ted stood frozen in the curtained doorway to the packed lounge, searching for somewhere to sit. Rescue arrived in the form of a petite blonde hostess in a beaded silver cocktail dress that harmonized with the Art Deco setting. The hostess smiled and pointed to two seats on the red velvet banquet at the rear of the room. "You can have those, or I have two right up there." She gestured toward a small round table directly in front of the stage.

Four cushioned chairs were arranged in a tight semi-circle around the table, all facing the stage. Both of the center seats were already occupied, one by a gray-haired man wearing a dark brown suit and the other by an overcoat and briefcase. "What would you recommend?" Martha asked. "The front table seems like a better location, but it looks like we wouldn't be able to sit together." Martha guessed that the couples that had arrived earlier must have reached the same conclusion before finding adjoining seats.

"Of course, that's best. Don't worry. I'm going to tell the gentleman to move his coat. Perhaps he'll check it." The hostess hurried ahead of them to the table, leaned toward the gray-haired man and pointed to the items on the chair. The man shook his head "no," but immediately got up and repositioned himself on the other side of the items. By the time Ted and Martha reached the table, the two seats on the right were empty and they quickly sat down.

Martha chose to be on the far right, so that she would be sitting only next to Ted. As unfair to Ted as it sometimes seemed, this was their pattern, well-established after twenty-three years of marriage. Even on airplane rides, where the tight middle seat offered minimal room for knees and elbows, Ted formed a human buffer between Martha and whatever potentially annoying person would share their row. At the theater, Martha sat on the aisle and was shielded from the bad breath and fidgeting of Philistines in the audience. Ted never complained. Perhaps in subliminal self-defense, within minutes of take-off or curtain-up, he was usually asleep and impervious to potential irritations.

Tonight, however, he was sure to stay awake and enjoy the performance of London marquee talent Lanie Morrow. A poster in the lobby promised a slim, sultry brunette, clad in a black satin strapless gown. The show's title was "The Nearness of You."

Martha turned to ask Ted to order her a glass of white wine before the lights went down and was surprised to find him almost too near. He was wedged between her and the chair on his left which held the bulky overcoat and briefcase. Their table companion had draped his right arm over that chair and appeared to be guarding its contents. Martha started to move her own seat, but stopped when she realized she would be turning her back to the stage.

Martha was immediately annoyed. She and Ted were being made to suffer because of yet another thoughtless person. Usually it was someone breaking a rule: a full grocery cart in the express check-out lane, failure to yield the right of way on a crowded street, a glowing cell phone during a movie. But sometimes it was just a matter of people not being observant, not recognizing and caring about the effect they were having on those around them. That was just as unacceptable.

"Excuse me, sir," Martha leaned across Ted to make herself heard. "Do you think you could slide your chair over and give us a bit more room?"

The man looked up at her and appeared to answer, but Martha could not hear the reply. The noise level in the room was what OpenTable liked to call "energetic," its euphemism for "unpleasantly loud."

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Martha asked, angling her head farther toward him. The man had made no effort to comply with her request, and she was afraid he had just stated that he was happy right where he was.

"I'm sure he'll be right back." This reply was clear and emphatic, and identified the man as British. Martha tried to pinpoint the accent. It didn't sound like what she thought of as Professor Higgins posh, but it also had none of that Eliza Doolittle Cockney quality. But of course it was absurd to try to identify someone's origin based on characters in a Broadway musical. It was enough to know that he was in some way at home and she should try to make a good impression as a visitor from the States.

It occurred to Martha that she might make more headway if she tried to appear friendlier. Sometimes people misinterpreted her rush to get the point as brusqueness. She thought of herself as focused and task-oriented, but even Ted sometimes flinched when she asked him to bring in the newspaper before thinking to say "good morning." Perhaps it would be better to try an indirect approach.

"Yes, of course . . . I'm sorry. I don't know your name." Martha tried to sound sociable but polite.

"Charles."

"Hi Charles. I'm Martha, and this is Ted." Martha clasped Ted's arm to emphasize their unity.

"Of course your friend will be back," she continued. "This show is going to be terrific. We purchased our tickets a month ago, as soon as we knew Ted had a business trip to London. Some friends of ours saw Lanie perform when they were vacationing here last year and told us not to miss her if she was booked again."

"You were smart," Charles said. "I've never had a chance to hear her before, because the show always sells out so quickly. I think tonight will be special."

"Yes," Martha said. "The room is really packed. In fact, I was wondering . . . ." Martha was ready to repeat her request, but Charles was already turning away, looking over his shoulder, searching the crowd with his eyes.

"Charles," Martha said, a little louder, again leaning across Ted. "Charles, I was wondering . . . ."

At that moment, Martha felt Ted's hand on her shoulder, gently pulling her back. He touched his head against hers and whispered into her ear.

"Let it go. This isn't important. I'm okay."

"But."

"I'm okay!" Ted's tone was insistent, and Martha suddenly realized that she had to be missing something. This was the same tone that he had used last year when he ordered her to get into their car as a man with a garden hoe approached behind her in an isolated urban parking lot. Her instinctive resistance to following any order had been abandoned only when she saw the look of concern on his face and turned to see a six-foot bruiser closing in. They had barely locked the car doors when the menacing man slammed his fist on the trunk and Ted peeled away. "Did you notice any gardens around here?" Ted had asked dryly once they were safely out of the lot. Remembering how foolish she had felt about her knee-jerk opposition, Martha decided to reassess the present situation.

"You're right," Martha said to Ted. "He seems preoccupied. This night seems to mean more to him than it does to us. Maybe it's a first date. Do you think you can flag that waiter and order me a glass of Chardonnay?"

After dutifully ordering her drink, Ted pulled his Blackberry out of the front pocket of his trousers and started thumbing through his messages. Martha rolled her eyes and sighed, but he was either oblivious to her annoyance or inured to it. There seemed to be no occasion that was so totally recreational that the accursed Blackberry could be forgotten. Ted was so attached to it that he had refused to relinquish it when most of his coworkers switched over to newer smart phones She was about to remind Ted that he had promised not to work tonight, but the arrival of her wine diverted her attention from her electronic rival. Grimacing as she tasted the over-oaked Chardonnay, Martha peered over the glass at Charles.

Charles continued to fuss with the overcoat, patting it as if it were a housecat. He was not a bad-looking man, but she found nothing particularly impressive about his appearance. His gray hair was thin, though not yet requiring a comb-over, and his face was a bit pudgy - not quite a pudding face, but not chiseled either. Martha was wondering just who that ordinary face had attracted when she was suddenly startled to find herself pinned by Charles' pale hazel eyes.

"I don't know where he is," Charles said, as if continuing their earlier conversation. "He should be back by now."

Martha started to reply, but stopped short as Ted stood up to allow access to the remaining empty chair. Her view of the arrival was blocked, but she knew this must be Charles' missing friend. Charles was gathering the coat from the chair and handing it up to its owner. As Ted sat down, Martha suppressed a gasp. "Well done!" she thought.

Ted was on the same wavelength. "I'm impressed," he muttered into her ear. Sitting close beside him was Rock Hudson's resurrected double, smartly attired in a three-button charcoal blazer and navy wool slacks and looking like he had come directly from the soundstage of McMillan and Wife. "Charles hit the jackpot."

"Let's scoot over as much as we can," Martha whispered back. Although it placed her uncomfortably close to the stage, she and Ted shifted their seats toward the front of the table, giving the other couple a few inches of added privacy. Ted's body relaxed against hers, and Martha realized that he had been coiled in, holding himself away from the man next to him. Feeling a frisson of guilt and love, she placed her head on his shoulder for just a few moments. There was no need to tell him why.

Martha lifted her wine glass and offered Ted a taste. As he sipped, she swept her gaze around the room, purposely ending at her own table. Although the lights were beginning to dim and the cacophony of voices was ebbing, Martha could not hear the words passing between Charles and his friend. But Charles was animated, smiling and touching his companion's arm. Martha imagined he was telling an amusing anecdote, or laughingly confessing that he had been needlessly worried that the other man would be late for the show. "I didn't know where you disappeared to," he might be saying. "I was missing you." The friend nodded but stared impassively ahead at the empty stage. "Opposites attract," Martha thought, "I should know."

But Martha also knew that attraction wasn't the whole story. You could lose someone while your attention was on the wrong thing. While you focused on the little things that seemed important in the moment.

Martha thought back to that moment in the Boston hotel, already ten years ago, when Ted had slumped with defeat as she concluded another chorus of "why can't you?" Why can't you pick up your own towels, keep the hotel room neat, remember to make the dinner reservation, get enough cash before leaving home, schedule the taxi to the airport before the last minute, pack the medicine like you promised? Why can't I count on you?

At first there had been no answer, but then Ted spoke very quietly, with a resignation that still shattered her when she remembered it.

"I love you, Martha, but you break things. You're breaking us."

The door hadn't slammed as Ted left the hotel room, but Martha had flinched when she heard the click of the latch. She had sat on the edge of the bed staring at one pink cabbage rose in the patterned carpet until the light from the wall of windows dwindled into gloom and the rose disappeared. A cold emptiness had coursed through her body like a rampant virus. She had recognized it as abandonment.

It had taken years, even after their marriage, for Martha to trust that Ted was not like the daunted lovers who experienced her self-confidence as arrogance and her self-command as indifference, lovers who had inevitably moved on to prettier, less prickly companions. Ted had his own flaws, chief among them an internal engine that often seemed stuck in idle. But he seemed sincerely to believe he had won a secret lottery where the prize was Martha, and his tenderness had allowed her to unlock her own.

For a number of years, she had been careful, grateful, checking the impulse to correct and perfect, accepting his placidity as a gift. Eventually, though, her behavior had shifted, dangerously slipping like a tectonic plate, unremarkable until the earth shook.

That night in Boston, as she sat alone in the dark hotel room, a shaft of artificial light suddenly fell across Martha's face, causing her to hide her eyes with one hand, and then her face with two. The door to the outer hall had opened and Ted was standing in front of her. She heard the door close again and the light was snuffed, but she knew she was not alone. She felt Ted's weight sink into the mattress next to her. He did not touch her.

"Are you alright?" he asked. His tone was even, not hostile, but not warm.

"How could I be?" she whispered. "I thought I wouldn't see you again before I flew home tomorrow. I thought you were gone."

Ted said nothing.

"Are you?"

"Am I what?" said Ted.

"Are you gone?"

Before Ted could answer, Martha began to shake with violent sobs that had been building within her for hours. Ted encircled her with his arms and silently held her until her wails of pain had subsided into whimpers.

"I'm not gone. I don't want to be gone. And I know you love me. But sometimes you make me feel like you don't like me very much. And I can't live like that."

"I'm sorry. I know. I'm so sorry." Martha repeated the same words over and over until the repetition became a sad lullaby and she drifted into an exhausted sleep.

The following morning the trip was over, but somehow the marriage wasn't. Ted gave her more time. Time to notice how much she could count on him. Time to refocus.

Suddenly, the club was dark, and a spotlight shone on the Baldwin piano onstage. A young man played the opening strains of a Gershwin classic as Lanie Morrow slowly made her way onto the stage, her head bowed as if in deep meditation. Martha turned to Ted and took his hand. There was usually at least one song in every cabaret act that caused tears to well up in her eyes as the lyrics evoked an inner joy or pain. In that moment, she would want to squeeze Ted's hand and have him squeeze back, silently confirming that he knew what she was feeling.

Lanie began to sing, and Martha looked back across the table, wondering whether the other couple was also sharing or perhaps creating a similar ritual. First she saw the empty chair, and then Charles' face. He was gazing not at Lanie, but at some perilous point beyond her, some lonely intersection of longing and resignation. How could she have thought he was ordinary when his eyes could express such infinite sadness?

Martha squeezed Ted's hand, and he squeezed back. But she suspected he misunderstood. She nudged him and nodded toward the vacant seat. "I know," Ted whispered, and with a small gesture pointed to a small table along the far wall, where the handsome stranger now sat alone, sipping what looked like whiskey. Feeling unsettled, Martha turned her chair toward the stage where Lanie was continuing a medley of melancholy standards. She could no longer bear to look at Charles.

Later, as they walked back to the hotel, Ted placed his arm around Martha's shoulders as she tried to interpret the evening.

"Why would someone do that?" she asked. "It just seems so cruel."

"Couldn't you tell?" Ted answered. "I guess you couldn't hear the conversation. They were never really together. I don't think they met before tonight."

Martha stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stood motionless, replaying the evening in her mind. Charles had crept away before the encore, so her last glimpse of him had been during the opening number. Shimmering in her black satin gown, Lanie had seemed to sing for him alone. "They're writing songs of love," she crooned, "but not for me."