How Would You Know?

by S. Craig Renfroe

We drank the drink out of the drink. No one came and came. My dinner companion kept boring me with boredom. She did not challenge me to arm wrestling, or piss herself, or strike me. We ate what the food had to offer.

We went to a bar that was on top of another bar. It had a jazz piano, and she wanted to listen and listen on a couch where she would not scoot any closer. The piano man played for us three feet from us and looked up and down my date who listened and listened. I asked that we leave, but she asked for one more song, one more, and another until the singer finished. Great, she wanted to tell him. He nodded his shaggy head in a perfectly perpendicular nod. Sit, she asked him. He sat with us.

He worked here four nights a week, he was translating Russian absurdist plays, he was sitting too close to my date. I was not interested in any of this. His wife was dying. I was interested in this. Cancer. It was always cancer. Cancer of the this or that. Cancer spread evenly through the body like margarine on toast. He spoke in an even voice, calm, pre-cried out of grief. She was all sympathy. She rubbed his arm up and down, perpendicular. I wanted to have nothing to do with sympathy for this woman I did not know, that I could not know. He might have made her up. Pre-widower jazz piano player hunting the dates of others.

When did he get off, she asked him. He kind of smirked an anytime I want. Good, I said we can go see your cancer-ridden wife. She's probably asleep, the date said. Why would someone dying sleep? Time was of the essence. No, it was fine, he said, fine, she would want company. Of course she would. But would we mind the twenty minute trip, he wanted to know. I was free, time stretched before me with no end-stop.

Long windows took up one side of the room, the light on this side and the dark on the other, like an aquarium but since we couldn't see out I could only assume we were the ones in. The long glass windows were the wife's idea—she wanted to be able to see out. I'll get her, he said and went to get her. The date worried her fingernails with her teeth and mumbled we shouldn't be here. Of course she wouldn't want to see the dying wife because then she's a real person and not just some sentimental quantity to make the jazz player sexier. I did not tell her this. I told her to quit biting her nails.

The jazzman opened the door, but the wife walked through the doorway, fast like she was strong, not like she had cancer, not like she was dying. Maybe it wasn't one of those cancers where you die or die right away. The date bit her nails.

We did a round of the introductions. I'll introduce you and you introduce me, but the jazzman introduced only the date. We sat the way people sit for such things. Seated, things seemed much worse, the date bit her nails louder and the wife did look like she was dying and the jazzman eyed only the date's legs. The wife whispered to the jazzman. Was the cancer in her voice?

But the date's voice was fine, and she spoke loudly about needing to go, having forgotten some forgotten thing that needed her immediate attention. Before I could rise, the jazzman had risen and said he'd forgotten something at the club and would be happy to take her back to the city. Only too happy, I thought. Do you mind, he asked; I feel bad bringing her company and not giving her any. Not at all, I said, though I minded it all: the date, the jazzman, the dying wife. I minded.

Thank you so much, the date said, thank you. I was not sure to whom she was thanking. Me for letting her free, for the jazzman for jumping on her, for the wife for not dying right then and there. And with thanks hanging in the air like a quickie Thanksgiving dinner prayer, they were gone, and I could not thank my way out of the wife's company. Not until an ample time had passed, thirty minutes seemed ample, so I checked the time on my watch, though she watched me do it.

We met once, she said. We did? We did. I don't remember that, I said. Yes, you do. You took me out, she said, called my allure painful. You took me to the jazz bar—I would go there after you stopped taking me out—that's where I met my husband, at the jazz bar where he played. I'm glad it worked out, I said. It did not, she said, did not work out. She picked at a scab on her arm.

You came here knowing I would be here, she said. No, I said, I had no idea. No, no, no, no, you knew. She kept accusing me epistemologically. How could I have known?

Look at me and tell me you don't know me, she said. I did—I looked at her. I did know her. There were so many back then, so many now, and I've never been good at remembering names or faces. I forget that I know people all the time. But I could tell even through her face made fragile with sickness something familiar. I remembered then I found her interesting only because of the interest she had in me.

He cheats on me, she said. I'm dying, and he cheats on me. He's screwing her, your friend—he's screwing her right now as we speak. I didn't have anything to counter her claims of screwing—certainly I suspected the same thing. I could say that I was sorry, but what good would that do?

You should have stayed with me, she said. Things would be different. Here was a chance for me to make her feel better, to say everything would be different, to possibly screw her and the jazzman in the process. But even though I resigned to stay, stay the night till the stray jazzman came home, I said, no, things wouldn't be different. You would still be dying, and I'd be the one screwing her. We sat in the long room with the windows and the light on our side and the darkness on the other.

S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At. His work has appeared at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, 3:AM Magazine, Thuglit, Monkeybicycle and others. He teaches writing at Queens University of Charlotte and blogs at I Don't Know What I'm Talking About (