She must have stood on that step barely a few seconds, and still the pain in her calves as she took yet another step away from Cheers, away from him, suggested Diane might as well have been balancing on its edge for well over an hour. Her legs weren't the only physical part of her that hurt. Her entire body felt sore, heavy, difficult to carry. It was as if she were lugging around a piece of hefty accoutrement that was foreign to her, yet strangely inextricable.
It occurred to her that she should have probably driven. No, no. Leaving her car at Cheers had been the right decision; her mind would never have been able to focus on such a mundane thing as traffic. She would have not been capable of devoting the required attention to the road and its lights, which color code, for once, she was sure she would not be equipped to decipher.
In truth, Diane was having trouble devoting her attention to much else other than the persistent, relentless invisible pull that shook her frame. The almost magnet-like force that seemed to want to compel her to turn around and walk back. Walk fast. Run back. It wanted to lead her back to that step, the one that had propelled her up the stairs against her will, before she could risk another blow. Except this time she would run down past it, ignore its poignant existence, burst through the bar door and back into his life, whether he liked it or not. The only sound in the bar would be that of her black heels hitting the tiled floor all the way up to where he would stand, tall and proud. Diane would not take notice of his pride. She would not look into his eyes or try to gauge his resolution. She would instead crash into him in a beat, wrap herself around his torso, and carve her fingers on his shoulder blades until he'd give in. At last, his arms around her would tell her he had surrendered. His sigh onto the top of her head would confirm that the pain burning across her chest, and impeding her regular flow of oxygen, could finally die. She would feel safe again. She would be okay.
What must have looked like a stroll on a warm May afternoon to everyone crossing her path, felt to Diane more like a raging fight against a fierce storm that was coming at her with all it had. Passersby looked relaxed, in that way people do when Spring plants its feet on the concrete, and everything begins to look easier. Diane, however, had been flung back into a cooler season, and she instinctively hugged her gray vest closer to her body.
"Oh, sorry, miss."
Diane's hand cradled her shoulder at the sudden pain that struck it. Her eyes lifted to see a man walking past her, looking back in her direction with regret, and waving his hand in that apologetic universal gesture. "It's okay." she said, though the sound barely registered in her head, and had been surely just as inaudible to her surroundings.
She was about to resume her walk home when her eyes fell on the HELP WANTED sign, glued to the inside of a bar's window, one door from where she stood on the sidewalk. Help wanted, indeed, she thought, scoffing lightly at the irony of the statement glaring at her, written in big black letters that seemed to mock her. For a moment, her eyes looked past the sign and past the interior of the bar, visible through the glass, and Diane found she was looking into her own eyes. She could barely recognize herself. Her eyes looked lifeless, two puddles of blue that glistened with the ever present threat of the tears she had been forcing herself to hold back. The shape of her mouth seemed to translate the churning in her stomach, and bring it out into the open. And she looked pale. Or maybe it was the light. She closed her eyes and swallowed. When her lids lifted, her gaze focused on the sign once more and, resolutely, she marched to the entrance of the bar and walked in.
The place was empty still, much like Cheers had been when she'd left it a short while ago. Opening time was not for another half hour, if the time in her mind was right.
"We're still closed!" she heard a voice coming from the back.
"I know. I… I saw the help wanted sign?" she said, to no one she could see.
"Oh." A woman emerged from a door to Diane's right. She was dressed in loose jeans and an AC/DC t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she had an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. "Hi, there." Diane felt the woman eyeing her from head to toe, a warm smile across her face. "You're looking for a job, then?" The tray of clean beer mugs the woman had carried in was set on the bar counter.
"I am." Diane nodded hesitantly. Looking for a job now had not occurred to her. In fact, she had no idea why she had come in the bar at all. Working in a bar had not been her goal two years ago, and it was not her goal now. It felt familiar, maybe. In a where-else-would-she-go kind of way. In the way she knew she would never again be able to enter the bar she most wanted to cross the threshold of.
The woman approached her and held out her hand for a shake. "I'm Carol. Carol Robinson."
"Diane." She shook the woman's hand and found she was smiling back at her. "Chambers."
"Well, Diane Chambers. You don't look like a waitress. What brings you to this job? What's your story?" Carol had tilted her head and was looking at her curiously.
Diane looked down at her red dress and her vest. She did look more like she was going to a business meeting, or a date, than to a beer hall.
"I am a waitress. I have been. For two years now." Diane untucked a lock of hair from the back of her collar.
"Really. Here in Boston? Any place I might have heard of?"
"Cheers?" Diane winced at the sudden surge of pain that came with saying the word. "The bar…"
"Downstairs from Melville's." they said in unison.
"The restaurant. Yeah, I know the place. Only been in there once or twice, but I don't remember seeing you around."
"Well, I don't have any references, I just…" another pang of pain struck her chest and Diane's lip quivered. The tears that had been threatening to take over were now welling up visibly and she tried to hide them by lowering her head and shutting her eyes. Her tears burned against the inside of her lids.
"Hey, hey, hey." Carol's tone was soothing. "Here, have a seat." she came around to Diane and, with a gentle hand in the middle of her back, led her to one of the bar stools. "My next question was going to be why you'd left the place, but I'm guessing it had nothing to do with your waiting skills, unless you're the type to cry over spilt beer."
Diane smiled weakly, taking the seat at the bar. "I'm sorry…uh..."
"Carol! I'm sorry, Carol. It most certainly wasn't about spilt beer." she chuckled, wiping her lower lids with the back of her index finger.
"Well whatever it was, it looks like it hurt." Carol said, setting a glass in front of Diane. Diane waved it away.
"Bartender's intuition? I heard that's a thing." she smiled, that familiar pang squeezing her heart again.
"I'm beginning to believe your "I'm a waitress" story."
"Have you ever had a... thing with an employee, Carol? Or an employer, for that matter?" What was it about bartenders, and why was she suddenly opening up to this woman?
"Can't say I have. That sounds like a dangerous affair." the woman grabbed a cloth and started wiping the beer mugs she'd carried out earlier.
Diane scoffed. "Dangerous doesn't begin to cover it. Stupid, senseless, moronic, obtuse, irresp…"
"I think I get the idea."
"Yeah…" Diane said softly, looking at her hands, her nail drawing idle circles on the wooden surface of the bar. "It wasn't even... That wasn't the problem."
"No? What was the problem?"
"The problem was…" her mind left the bar and went to Sam. She pictured him at Cheers, in his element. The memory of his smile brought with it another grimace. And then her thoughts went to the many ways they had failed to meet in the middle. To understand each other. To make each other a priority. Their names, never at the top of the other's lists. "The problem was he didn't get it. I didn't get it. Neither of us really got it. All I had was him. All I cared about... All I wanted was…" Diane paused, her next words came in shaky, her voice distorted, as tears began to stream steadily down her cheeks. "He didn't love me. Not really. He couldn't have."
"But you loved him."
"Oh God, yes. I did."she was sobbing freely now. "I do." Carol's hand covered Diane's and she squeezed it for a moment. Diane tried to pick herself up.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Carol, you've been so nice and I'm making a mess in your bar." Diane offered her an apologetic look, as she took her hand to once again rub the tears away from her face. "And I've also made you listen to my drivel."
"Nothing to be sorry for, this wood has seen far worse than your tears, my dear. But if it means anything, I can maybe see why someone might, Diane. Want to have a thing with their employee." Diane looked up at Carol, who winked at her and put another mug away. Diane smiled at the warm comfort of the words.
"Now. You don't really want this job."
"I really don't. I should want it. Because I do need it. As of today, I am officially an unemployed woman." Diane raised the empty glass in front of her in a toast. She shook her head. "But I don't. I can't."
"Listen, I'll give you my number and if, in a few days, you find yourself thinking you might want it… give me a call. I won't promise it'll still be here but. You never know, right?" Carol wrote the number on a napkin and slid it across the counter to Diane.
"Right." Taking the napkin, she stood and held out her hand for Carol to shake again " I must warn you, though, I'm actually a pretty terrible waitress. I can probably get you references for that." she waved the napkin at the other woman. "Thank you for listening. I am extremely sorry for wasting your time."
"Don't mention it."
Diane nodded, lifted her hand to wave a small goodbye to the bartender, and turned to leave. When she was almost at the door, Carol spoke again.
"Oh and, Diane?"
She turned around, her hand on the door handle, ready to pull.
"Whoever he is, looks to me like you've waited on him long enough."
The double entendre wasn't lost on Diane. She had waited. And waited. Enough. That was the word she would repeat to herself every remaining step of the way back to her apartment. Maybe if she'd repeat it an absurd amount of times, to the point of rendering the word senseless, she might end up believing it.