Willie is swirling the ice around in his scotch glass when she comes in. Late, as usual, but with that grin. God, that grin. Marty motions to the waiter and slides off her coat, folds it over the chair and settles in. A chardonnay soon follows, but it's all for show and she'll quickly abandon it for vodka, straight.
This is their ritual -- once a year, they meet for drinks. In between they do not talk on the phone, they do not send e-mail. They write old-fashioned letters where every sentence is pondered upon for at least five minutes, every crossed T checked for proper flourish. And once a year, an invitation arrives in the mail on engraved paper. The liquid courage is just a given.
He teases her about her lateness, she points out the sideburns he's trying to grow back. They talk about the last three movies they saw, why the slush in New York can't properly be called snow, and the futileness of spring cleaning. Marty recommends a fantastic tapas restaurant if he's ever on an unnamed sidestreet in Barcelona. Willie tells her about an album he's been listening to non-stop with a song, even here with her, he can't get out of his head. She makes him write the title down, says she'll pick it up on her way home. She will.
Marty asks about his family, and if Daddy Downer liked the fruitcake she brought over last Christmas. Superb, Willie says and she throws her head back and laughs. He stares at the way her back arches, the way her neck bares itself to him. She calls him Willie-boy and he calls her Christopher and suddenly it's not so funny anymore.
Marty does not tell him about the men -- all at least ten years older than her, with graying brown hair and a self-deprecating tone that always reminds her that she's the one in control. She once broke her unspoken rule and slept with a boy her age in Rome because he had the exact same eyes as Willie -- sad and resigned but for the tiniest flicker of hope when he looked directly at her. It made her catch her breath, her cheeks quickly reddened by a winter chill blown from thousands of miles and years away. She took him home, rolled about her bed with visions of another in her head and afterward, she cried for two days straight. She does not mention that she spent a long, painful month in her seventeenth year flirting with Brother Bummer in hopes that there might be a spark of Willie beneath his clueless exterior. There wasn't.
He does not tell her of the songs he writes -- the ones that make older men sigh in that heavy, weighted down way and women tear up at his piano bar. Songs about the loss of great loves due to god awful timing, filled with what-ifs and why-nots. Or the songs he doesn't play for anyone -- the ones tucked in a manila folder, locked in the bottom left desk drawer. They are filled with the words he does not write in his letters, too obvious and raw that sometimes Willie's a bit embarrassed to admit to them. Those songs simply hurt too much to play, at least for now.
Willie's happily married and does not regret his life. But he still wonders what it would have been like if he waited. Five years, is really not so long. They've already been meeting for seven and it always feel like they just started – and they have so much more to do, to say.
Marty is now the age he was when they first met and knows the very idea of running away with a thirteen year old is absurd. Back then she kinda sorta knew it too but it still hurts. She still wishes he chose her.
The waiter clears their glasses and asks if they need anything else. Just the check, Willie says, and insists on paying. Marty makes him promise that next time he'll let her pick up the tab but they both know it's only for show. Part of their dance, and simply something to argue about before its inevitable end. She's nervous. He can see it, her eyes flickering down to a napkin she keeps folding and refolding. Willie places a couple of bills on top of the check and they gather their things.
His lips meet her cheek and she wonders -- he wonders -- if this time, this time they might meet her lips. To taste a moment they both have been imagining for sixteen years. He inches closer each year, but this is not the time. All for the better, Marty tries to convince herself as she backs away, but still raises her hand to touch him -- fingertips to his lips. She smiles sadly and her eyes fill with tears as he takes her hand, curling her fingers in his, and kisses them. Marty falls into him and he wraps her arms around her. Willie whispers into her hair, far too quietly for her to hear, "take me with you when you go." He can't say it any louder or she just might.
Marty breaks away and tilts her head at him. "Well, Willie-boy, 'bout time for me to ramble off and get going with the carnival of rabbit-fearing freaks I've hitched a ride on." He smirks and kisses her head, and she stumbles off before he has a chance to say goodbye. They never say goodbye.
They have next year to look forward to but they will never look back at each other.