Sam's hand runs down his cheek, sprawls to cover his mouth, and travels slowly down to his chin. When he does finally hear himself speak, he finds his voice sounds several octaves guiltier than he had planned it to. "What are you saying?"
She doesn't miss a beat. "I'm saying: There's one page missing." She's making her way back into the office now, her imminent exit seemingly forgone, and he feels the familiar panic begin to well up in his chest. Diane's eyes are still fixated on the wretched letter in her hands, her fingers flipping back and forth through the pages.
Regaining momentum, or so he hopes, Sam leans casually against his desk, loosens the tie that seems to have abruptly begun to choke him, absent mindedly pokes one finger, then the other, in and out of each of the holes on the rotary dial of the black telephone. To be on the safe side, he keeps his eyes firmly cast away from her own. His words are short, and concise, if lacking in conviction.
"There's nothing missing."
"Sam. There's one page missing. I know what I wrote, and I know precisely how many pages I excruciatingly penned, bent over my desk in despondent rage and agony, two nights ago. I know, because I have numbered them in impeccable cursive at the bottom here, see?" he doesn't see, doesn't dare look up "And page 7 is missing."
Still bent on not following direction, Sam looks straight past Diane, and at the door that has diligently closed behind her once again - the old feeling of entrapment becoming too vivid to bear. He decides the fastest way out of it is most likely the truth. Well, half of it, anyway. A third of the truth, if one were to nitpick.
Putting on his best airs of feigned disdain, Sam circles around his desk again, positions himself behind it "You know, you're delusional, Diane. You're unbelievable." every object on the desk gets a dispassionate knock from his knuckles, until his hand eventually slips down to the first drawer on his right. He opens it. Closes it. Opens it again. "I mean, where do you even come up with this stuff. Nobody else would ever count the… Oh look here, this it?" The single sheet of paper stares up at him like a sentence of guilt, dangling from his hand like it can't wait to burn away.
She slowly takes it from him, inspects it for a second "What - was it doing in that drawer?"
"Why were you keeping this page in that drawer, Sam?"
Oh, God, you kn...I wasn't keeping anything, Diane. It must have fallen off when I put it all together just now to give back to you."
"Right... except. You didn't take these pages from the drawer, you took them from that folder up there, on top of the cabinet." The nod of her heighty chin toward the cabinet exasperates him. Why won't she just leave.
"Well, then it fell when I pulled them from the drawer and into the folder. I mean. What does it matter? You have all of it now, you can go. Goodbye."
"Fine... I'll go. Thank you."
He's about to sink into his chair, eager for the quiet that will finally settle in, when his name falls off her lips again. "Sam?"
"What now?" unsurprised by how exhausted he sounds, but startled at the way she's looking at him, as if she's about to say something she's never told him before, something big, something unexpected. Something... and then she does.
"I'll miss this, you know? I'll miss even this. Maybe this, especially. In a twisted, out-of-one's-mind sort of way." The easy breathing returns to his lungs at her words, her soft smile disarming him, as it does.
"Yeah." he hears himself admitting it out loud "Me, too." That's more than just a third of the truth out of him, so he feels he owes it to her, to the two of them, to say it again. "Me, too."
"We've made some nice memories, you and me, didn't we Sam?"
"We sure did..."
She could have simply left then, could have turned around and opened the door, let it swing shut behind her one last time. She could have said nothing else at all, and, unbeknownst to her - and not noticed by him until too late, she still would have taken the best of him with her.
But Diane remains motionless, barring the sluggish way in which she drops her weight backwards against the door; like she's going to stay a little while longer. The unexpected surge of relief in his chest catches him off guard. She has that inspective look in her eyes again, but she's not looking at him this time. She's staring straight ahead, like she's watching something unfold in front of her that he's not privy to.
"I still can't believe some of the things you put me through in these past four years." He waits for her next words, unsure of the tenor in the memory she's evoking. "Like that Boston barmaid contest?"
Sam smiles, inevitably. They had been children then. "The very one you tried to sabotage, remember?" They were children now.
"You signed me up without my consent!" she scolds him, and she redresses himself to do it, too, like she means it, but she's chuckling. He breathes, keeps his eyes on her now, watches her transform into the Diane of four years ago. She hasn't changed, and yet she's barely recognizable. "And that one time you set me up with a murderer... and ruined my five hundred dollar Hemingway - which, by the way, you have yet to pay me back for..."
"You mean the one you never paid me back for! Alright, Alright. Hold up." Sam feels a rush of energy, the memories of easier days egging him on. He moves to the front of the desk again, props one leg on its surface. "What about the things you made me do? Turn my bar into a theatre stage, hire Norman as my accountant, make me give up a load of money that could have bought me the sweetest ocean ride this side of the globe's ever seen…"
"I knew you still resented me for that one." She points a finger at him in accusatory amusement. "But that boat would have haunted you forever, Sam. You know it would have. You'd eventually have had to purposefully sink it to escape your conscience. I saved you that day. I saved you from a lifetime of guilt and remorse. In fact, I believe you still owe me a thank you for that."
He nods, but waves his hand like he's dismissing her arguments. "Maybe so... but did you have to take me to all those museums as punishment for my deeds? The freakin' ballet. Hell, just the other day we were sitting at the opera together with the entire gang. Or should I say sleeping together at the opera?" His eyebrows raise at the shock he sees shape her features. "Yeah, yeah. I saw you."
Diane is laughing openly now, that laughter he'd always feel so proud to be able to get out of her, the one that would always make up for every fight, would make each bout of anger, each harsh word spewed, worth it. But they're playing now. They're playing like kids and, Jesus, he's happy. Is he ever this happy anymore? Ever this exhilarated, inside of anything he's not sharing with Diane? Outside of the smallest inch she's not occupying?
"Oh God, Sam." the sound of her laughter deepens that of his own "I did fall asleep, didn't I..."
"You bet you did. We all did. Every single schmuck in the audience, in fact. Rumor has it some have yet to wake up and leave the room."
That elicits another bout of laughter from her, and he beams. Just like a kid in a candy store, he can't stop sticking his hand in every jar, despite the sure risk of eventually getting it stuck in one of them.
"And you forget that time we almost got married so your mother wouldn't end up in the poor house? And when you brought in that colleague of yours for your little experiment." He's on a roll, specks of memories coming at him at full speed. "And that one time you suggested we fly to Kansas, to find my lost bottle cap? I mean, how crazy do you have to be to even consider doing that?"
"Crazy. Entirely insane." Diane's laughter slowly subsides, her breathing hisses " You looked so lost though. And I would have done it, too. Gone with you all the way to Kansas to find that bottle cap."
Sam's still wearing his grin when his eyes fall back upon her own, still twinkling, but now intently upon his face. He tries an intake of breath but falls short, lightly chokes on a gulp of air. "I know you would have. I never thanked you for that, either."
The gradual silence that settles between the two of them is almost deafening this time, if confusingly comforting. Sam's eyes quietly leave hers to wander across her features, take in the still curled up corners of her mouth, the flush in her pink cheeks, still glowing from the laughter that had filled the small room not two minutes ago. He notices her clavicle is heaving as rapidly as his own, like they have just burst through the door, running.
To Sam's slight dismay, Diane breaks the spell with yet another memory, like she wants to keep the game going, or maybe distract from the unmistakable magnetism, that would most likely work its way to narrow the gap between them, should they allow it to linger.
"And you forget we almost died not that long ago, mister. In that flight scare with Jack? Because someone was too adamant in not helping me get out of it. You made me resort to dragging you along."
Sam scoffs, forcing his eyes to the floor between his feet. He mumbles "Man, I was pissed about that."
"About me making you come on the flight? Or at the prospect of having your life come to an end in a plane crash..."
He looks up at her, grins mischievously."About you dying before I'd get the chance to kill you myself."
What he doesn't say - doesn't confess - is that what he remembers about that night isn't the danger they'd faced, but more so the solace of having faced it with her. He can't very well recall his fear of dying, or the thought that it could have been all over in seconds. Not the trepidation wrapped around the likelihood that he would never again walk into Cheers, never see his friends again, never see her again. Or the suspicion that Norm would never, indeed, pay his tab if he weren't there to make sure he would.
What Sam does remember, with near infuriating detail, is the way she had held on to him to soothe her own fear, and the way his blurted, secretly ingrained thoughts of marriage to Diane had not seemed to push, nor scare her off. Her seemingly casual mention of little Sams and little Dianes has played over and over in his mind since that night, as if they had always existed as a definite plan, spoken of long before that night - like a promise - and ready to spring into existence the minute they'd get their shit together. The sudden staggering certainty that they would. That they must. For no other reason than him needing them to; than him needing her.
Granted, if he does - maybe, eventually, some day, perhaps - marry Janet, the little Sams will likely still come to exist, and although loved to the point of madness, they will be glaringly short of that which would make them whole. Complete. Because he knows - knows it with the same certainty the sky is blue - that the little Sams will make no sense without the little Dianes. The little Dianes are the important ones, the balance in the mathematical equation of, well, pretty much goddamn everything. And he's never been that good at math, to begin with.
"... and I mean that, Sam. Despite all the acrimony, and albeit all our differences, I just want you to be happy."
Diane's voice emerges like a blur, pulling him out of his thoughts, like a gentle shake, slowly bringing him back from reverie.
"Am I what?"
"Are you... happy?"
"Sure, I'm happy."
He sees her eyebrow draw an arch, the way it does when she senses foul play. He grins. "Come on, Diane. Would I lie to you?"
She laughs lightly. "Yes, you would."
She looks concerned underneath her smile. Maybe disappointed is what it is. There appears to be a tinge of sadness to her blue eyes, but he can't swear by it. He's not good at decoding her manner, or her words. His forte has always resided somewhere else altogether. He looks at her hands, tries to read her state of mind in the much more telling movements of her slender fingers. He's always understood her body better than he has her mind. It was always the way she touched him, and the way she didn't - specifically the way she wouldn't - that would lay down the clues he'd need in order to decipher Diane each time. He had gotten good at it, too, with slow but steady improvement, even if she'd never recognize it.
But then one day he had, inexplicably and quite recklessly, stopped paying attention.
Borrowing from that same recklessness, and before she'll have a chance at breaking the silence this time around, Sam walks the two strides required to bring him over from the desk to where she stands. He reaches for her hand, the one she's holding her letter in, and he wills her fingers to drop it to the floor, before bringing her knuckles up to his lips. The thumb on his free hand hooks itself on the hard leather of her belt, and he feels zero resistance from her, as he pulls her to him and guides her into the small storage compartment in the back of his office.
Every wine bottle clatters against its alcove with the same anticipation that rattles his bones, as he pins her against the racks. His kiss is forceful in urgency, but gentle in execution, even though he can feel the immediate swelling of her bottom lip, as he repeatedly draws it into his mouth. Half-crazed with longing, one hand is now holding both her arms behind her back, fingers wrapped around both of her willowy wrists, while the other busies itself with the neckline of her jumpsuit, urging the material to yield, to further expose her skin for him to taste.
He's saying God, I missed you, and whispering, Did you miss me?, and moaning, Diane, and begging, Diane, like prayer: Diane.
His lips find the spot where her delicate neck melds with her shoulder, and he buries his face in that soft curve, leaves a trail of love-bites where they hurt the sweetest. She's whispering, Sam, and calling, Sam, and asking...
"Sam. Sam. Sam?"
Begrudgingly, Sam's eyes open to find Diane standing right where he'd left her, two painful strides away from his desk. The hand he's never actually reached for still holds the words to her resignation, while the other rests unmoved on the doorknob, announcing her still impending exit from the room, and subsequently, from his life. He notices the neckline of her jumpsuit remains untouched, free of the invisible traces of his finger prints.
"Mmm?" His palm slaps against his cheek, and he rubs his face as if to rub off a disappointment he hopes she can't detect.
"You seemed... aloof there for a minute."
"No, I was just thinking." he shakes her head at the look on her face "Naw, don't raise your eyebrow at me. I just thought of another memory of ours."
"Oh? Which one?"
Of course, she'd ask. "You know, the um…" His eyes widen with alarm and dart across the room, looking for something, anything. They fall on the red water gun, sitting on the shelf to his right, and he reaches for it in one fell swoop. "Our water gun fights. Remember those?" he points the gun at her teasingly. "Pew, pew. Water!"
Diane scoffs, and he lets out a nervous chuckle. "Oh yeah, I remember those. I beat you every single time, Mayday. You're so easy to fool."
"Ha so you did, so you did. In fact. You should take this." she gazes at him, confused as he places the water gun in her hand."
"Oh, I don't…"
"Oh, what am I thinking, the red one wasn't your favorite one! You had some other color, some other col…" he searches the shelves for a different water gun, praying either one of the two will put him out of his misery, and spots the yellow one hiding behind his football. "Yellow!" he yells out. "You like the yellow best, don't you? Take that one, instead. All for the better, really, red's my favorite color."
"It is?" Diane looks astonished, and Sam finds himself back to wishing she would just leave his office so that he may finally sink into his chair and bury his face in his hands. He anticipates a new string of questions, but she simply says "Oh, of course. That makes sense. The Red Sox."
"What?" he looks up at her, then back at the gun in his hands, like he's noticing the color red for the first time in his life. "Oh yeah... look at that. Whaddaya know!"
Diane's still wearing that look on her face, like she's just witnessed one of his marbles roll under the desk. But then, when hasn't she looked at him that way.
She's turning to leave for the umpteenth time, but holds back from it yet again.
"I um... hear you're having a press conference here in the bar, later today?"
He smiles, thinks he shouldn't be this surprised that she knows this, too "You eavesdropped on someone for that information, too?"
"No... Woody told me about it. He said that um, Janet… has been traini… helping you. With what to say."
He presses his tongue against his cheek to hold back a grin at her quick step.
"Right. Yeah. She is."
"Yes, well... that's good." She pauses, and he wonders if she's waiting for him to say something. He doesn't. " I should probably get going. Good luck, Sam and... thank you. For... the gun." Diane waves the yellow gun at him in the guise of an "I'll see you later" and, not astonishingly, Sam feels the urge to stop her, acts on it before he can hold back. Not yet. Never on a first, second, third attempt. It wouldn't be them.
"Hey uh, Diane?" In a deja vu moment that isn't really deja vu at all, Diane looks at him expectantly, like she knows he has the words needed to turn everything around and make it right, and knows he will still keep those very words from her. "Call sometime?"
She nods, and he can tell she doesn't mean it. "I'll call sometime."
Diane smiles. "Would I lie to you?"
He wants to ask her to convince him she wouldn't lie, that she's not, that she will call. He realizes, though, that he can't convince himself long enough of that promise to believe anything she might tell him now, so he allows her words hang between them, throws a barely perceptible scoff in her direction, instead.
And then it happens, in the span of a single second: she lunges for him and wraps her arms tight around his neck. Hugs him, really hugs him, and it startles him much like a curveball used to when he was dead sure he was going to get a splitter.
In the same thin amount of time, and before he has time to react, she's let go, and Sam has no choice this time but to watch it all unfold before him.
The bout of undisputed reality: the soft, barely perceptible roll of her wrist on the doorknob; the undulating of her blond hair, as it slips past her shoulder when she turns and gives him that one last look; the bittersweet tint to her smile, followed by her crestfallen demeanour, like she can't bear it that his face is going to be the last part of Cheers she will see. The almost silent, and yet impossibly loud, click of the door as it shuts behind her. She's gone. Again. The quietness of her exit somehow more disturbing, more unbearable than any storm she could have stirred. He realizes that the eerie silence engulfing him will probably remain now. Linger for a long time, like a bad habit. That the small office that has witnessed so many of their proverbial, and sometimes literal, fisticuffs, will not witness anything more than a few balanced arguments from here on out.
With Janet there will be no tempests. Not the kind that can sink ships and throw entire crews into despair. They'll disagree, sure, but it'll never come to a physical tussle for the upper hand. There will be no screaming matches within patron earshot, no following each other around the bar for a last word in - Janet would never stand for that kind of thing.
No, the bar will change. Without a doubt. It will change.
With Janet, there will be no silly water gun fights before a work shift. No cheesecake up at Melville's after a game of who's-not-over-whom. No impulsive trips to Italy to stop a wedding. No drop-you-to-your-knees kisses they will no longer be able to withstand, stolen upon the hard, umber floor tile at Cheers after closing time.
He'll have quiet days. Normalcy. Peaceful nights. He'll sleep easy and wake up with no headaches. Without a doubt. He will change.
Hands shoved deep in his pockets, Sam takes a few slow steps toward the little storage room, steps into it with steady resignation.
With Janet, there will be nothing to find behind the very bottles he's daydreamed of pinning Diane against not ten minutes ago. Nothing hidden away that does not belong in a bar. Nothing he'll think back to every so often at the end of a long day, when he'll be sitting in his office alone, head pounding from adding and subtracting.
He lets out a long, loud exhale. Mirroring the slow quietude hovering the room, his hand circles around the neck of the dusty bottle of wine, the one sitting easy in the upper corner of the rack. It lets out a husky sound of complaint, as it is gently dragged out of the snug space. He carefully sets it on a nearby shelf, free to slip his arm, deeper this time, into the same compartment the bottle no longer occupies. With exaggerated care, he brings out a smaller, far more delicate bottle from its hiding place, presses its small mouth to his nose.
Diane had forgotten the item in his office one time, long go, after getting ready for an after-work romantic outing with him: a vial of her favorite perfume. A two year old secret, suitably stashed behind alcohol - something else he no longer touches, but whose grip on him he doesn't dream of feeling again half as often, like fingers around his throat, clutching not to kill, but instead to ease his breathing.
The vial has long dried up now, the scent of what once filled it more of a memory than a fact. Much like him and Diane.
If he manages to keep her hidden in a corner of his mind, cluttered up behind thoughts of everything else, blanketed by memories of their bad times, and conveniently forgotten in a drawer - much like page 7 of her resignation letter, upon which he suspects a tear has smudged one iteration of his name - he should be alright. He will be alright.