Break My Tongue
by the stylus
Pene did a wonderful beta. The bordy made me write happy. Ish.
all my lies are always wishes
As she orders a second martini Natalie appears in the doorway, so it must be the other Wednesday. They do this every other week.
"Hey, yourself. I like the haircut." Natalie's hands flutter around her shoulders where the new, funky ends of her dark hair flip outward.
"Thanks. Jeremy hates it."
They ensconce themselves and their drinks in a dark booth that is part of the ritual like the time and the closeness and the subjects they avoid. Dana props her feet on Natalie's bench, legs crossed at the ankles: this is also part of the ritual. She slides an olive ever so slowly off the toothpick and rolls it through her mouth, enjoying the salt and tang and the way it makes the skin at the corners of her cheek go slightly taut. "How's tricks?"
"Huh? Dana, I'm a producer. Not a prostitute."
"I know that. I just like the expression. How's tricks, Nat-a-tat-tat?"
"You started without me, didn't you?"
"Mmm. Quite possibly." She gestures aimlessly with the now-empty toothpick. "But I assure you, I didn't get very far."
"That," says Natalie between sips of beer, "is because you never get very far without me. I am an indispensable part of your life."
"What? A despicable part of my life? Yes, you are."
"Oh, stop smirking and admit that you need me."
"I will do no such thing. And I do not smirk."
"You do. You're smirking now."
"I am not smirking. I am merely smiling at my enjoyment of this witty repartee with a good--but not indispensable-- friend in one of my favorite drinking establishments on a balmy New York spring evening."
There is tolerant skepticism in Natalie's voice and on her face which is as familiar and comfortable as the pattern of their banter. "Dana?"
"Yes?" A quick glance reveals that both of their glasses are empty.
"You're unusually verbose tonight. Any particular reason?"
"Just the aforementioned components of a perfectly lovely occasion."
"Right." She studies Dana's face, which is as open as she has seen it lately. Even Dana's shoulders seem relaxed. It is such a contrast to the previous months that Natalie almost didn't notice. It is almost too different to be real. "I know what it is! You're getting some."
"Huh?" Real confusion from Dana now, who has not followed the leaping path of Natalie's logic. "Some what?"
"You know. Some. Hot sweet lovin'. Horizontal mambo time. Rolls in the hay. Sex," she finishes, in case it wasn't clear enough.
"Ah. You, my friend, are certifiably insane and incredibly prurient to boot. I am getting us more to drink." She walks easily to the bar and orders another round, winking at the bartender when she asks for extra olives. Returning to the booth, she finds Natalie with her eyes closed and her head back against the top of her bench, her hair fanning around her face.
"Here you are." She says it slightly louder than necessary in the way people talk when they want to be certain not to be misunderstood.
Natalie slowly rights herself. "Thank you very much. Now tell me about the new Mr. Right Now."
Dana shakes her head, easing into her seat. "How do you know there's a Mr. Anybody?"
"Because I know. I have special powers."
"In addition to that first statement being a tautology, didn't Jeremy spend, oh, two weeks loudly trying to convince you that you do not, in fact, have special powers?"
"He did. He failed."
"I see. So you do have special powers?"
"I do. And they include seeing that you are trying to avoid the question, which merely confirms my suspicion."
"I thought it was a brilliant deduction made possible by your special powers."
Dana sighs and rolls her eyes, shifting until she is leaning against the wall with her legs stretched the length of the bench seat. She holds up one finger. "Firstly, on this point Jeremy was correct: you do not have special powers. Secondly," ticking it off as well, "you are, however, correct in assuming that I am seeing someone new. But thirdly, I do not appreciate your implication that I am somehow a more relaxed or enjoyable person when I am in a relationship. I'll have you know that I have plenty of my own merits which are completely independent of my romantic status."
The tone is light, but that blue gaze is so steady that Natalie forgets about her sweating beer and the leering investment bankers at the next table and just listens. She can't even nod. And then Dana smiles; and Natalie is back in the noisy uncertain light of the smoky bar. Jeff and Jeff are still leering at them helplessly and the hand she has wrapped around her beer is damp.
"His name, oh ye of the non-special powers, is Ronan."
She wipes her hand on a cocktail napkin while she splutters, "Ronan?"
"Of course he is. Only an Irishman could be named Ronan and not be a psychopath because he spent his entire childhood being beaten up on the playground."
"I happen to think it's a sexy name," Dana answers, flicking her wrist in dismissal of the suggestion that her new boyfriend might be mentally unstable in a less socially acceptable way than any of her previous significant others. "Roh-nahn," she intones, leaning over the table towards Natalie. The wall sconce casts a warm glow at an angle over her face, leaving large swathes of shadow as though someone were studying her for a cubist rendition. "Also, the accent is very sexy."
"I can imagine." She thinks, briefly, of Jeremy's fondness for obscure pieces of geography and the way he pushes his glasses back up his nose when he is in the middle of an explanation. "Is the sex very sexy?"
"I reserve the right not to answer that question." The smirk is back.
"Ah. Well then, my special powers allow me to deduce that the answer is probably 'yes.' They also allow me to deduce that, as we are drinking rather quickly, we are once again in danger of being without libation. And so I will return shortly." She can hear Dana denying the existence of her powers as she slips to the bar. The bartender, whose schedule always coincides with theirs, smiles at her and slides across another beer and a martini with extra olives. She tips him more than necessary and threads back through the late-drinking crowd.
"Hey, how was your trip to see Jeremy's family?" Dana asks as Natalie slips past the rather too close knee of Jeff #2 and sets the drinks down.
"It was nice, actually. I finally got to meet Louise. And I really like his parents, although I think his dad is having a late midlife crisis in his post-divorce state."
"Red, even." She chuckles along with Dana. "But I think it was good for Jeremy to see them now that everything has settled down. Also, we had some extra time so we spent the weekend at a bed and breakfast." She grins at the memory. "I even got Jeremy to go hiking."
"Really?" Dana is incredulous, working to picture Jeremy willingly setting off into the woods and away from televisions, phones, the internet.
"Really," Natalie confirms. Her grin stretches even wider. "He hated it."
"I'll bet. Remember that time we assigned him the hunting segment?"
"Vividly. I had to promise him like a thousand times that I wasn't bringing any instruments of torture or death on the hike. He wouldn't even wear insect repellant." Dana's laughter rolls over her, warm and familiar. "He later regretted that particular moral stance."
"Did you explain to him beforehand that hiking meant leaving cell phone range?"
"No. I let him discover that on his own."
A comfortable silence falls between them, broken only by the rhythm of their drinking and the tap of Dana's shoe against the wooden bench. It had only taken Natalie a day or two to realize that Dana is never absolutely still when she is thinking. A Jeff goes to the bathroom and returns, his hand brushing Natalie's shoulder, and the foot still jiggling and Dana's eyes are fixed far beyond anything in the bar.
"What are you thinking about?"
She inclines her head toward the tapping toes. "What are you thinking about?"
The smile is a little embarrassed. "Oh." She can see Dana carefully stopping her fidgeting. "Nothing really. It's just... Casey called today. I took Charlie to the Mets game this weekend and he wanted to know how it went."
"Ah," says Natalie, settling back. "Casey called."
"I believe I just said that." But Dana is not really offended and they both know it.
"So you did. And besides the well-being of his child, what did you two talk about?"
"You know. Weather. When the Cubs will crumble this year. Stuff." Dana can see that it will not be this easy to get out of the conversation she does not particularly want to have.
"Stuff. Right." Natalie leans forward as if to probe further, but stops short. "How's Dan?"
"You know Danny. Same as always. Casey says he's dating someone new. A model, I think. Stephanie? Amelia? Her last name is long and hyphenated. Sigga-whatsis or something like that."
"Amelie Sagatz-Salzman?" Natalie trips the phrase off lightly.
"That sounds right. Do you know her?"
"She's the new face of Chanel. Big hit on all the runways, too."
"Thank you, Anna Wintour. She is also, it would appear, the new face of Dan's girlfriend."
Natalie tries to picture it. "You know, I bet she's taller than he is. Or at least as tall."
Dana cocks her head, seemingly giving this fact a great deal of consideration. "I'm beginning to think many of the men we used to work with enjoy dating women who are taller than they are. Except for Jeremy, of course. I wonder what that means."
"That they're those people who choose to sit in the front row at the movies?" Natalie wonders if she is thinking about Sally and Casey and Gordon and the unholy mess they made, or if she is simply making a mental note to buy higher heeled shoes.
"Perhaps it is the same kind of perverse neck-craning personality. I hope it's not genetic. Charlie should be spared the indignity of watching everything from the nostril-view seats."
"Yeah." Their drinks are empty again and Dana is lightly tapping the toothpick, denuded of its olives, against the rim of her glass. "So how is Casey?"
There is an ever so slight hitch in the rhythm of the tapping. "He seems to be doing fine. Still enjoying the California sunshine and all the tropical fruit he can eat. Every time we talk he reminds me that he has a personal assistant now, as well as a desktop and a laptop computer, both with the latest software and Pentium processors."
"Casey types with two fingers and still can't use email unless a tech support guy holds his hand."
"I know. He carries his laptop around the office, though. He thinks it makes him look more professional."
"Dan told you that."
"Yep. He knew I would use the information wisely."
"To tease Casey unmercifully?"
"To tease Casey unmercifully. And also to pass on to his other friends so that they, too, might have the pleasure of teasing Casey unmercifully."
"Ah. Dan was right, then."
"Dan is a wise, wise man. Occasionally."
"Did he tell you anything else?"
"Who, Dan? He whined about the way their new producer wants everything scripted." But as she says it Dana looks away, aware of where the conversation is headed.
"I meant Casey. Did Casey tell you anything else?"
Dana is silent for a moment, tracing the wet rings on the table with her index finger; then, "yeah." It is more of a sigh than a word. Abruptly she rises and is swallowed by the crowd grouped around the bar. A few moments later she returns without their usual order. The liquid in the two glasses gleams golden.
"We're moving on to tequila now?" Natalie is not at all sure what this means or whether she wants to know.
"I am. You are welcome to drink or not drink as you see fit."
Natalie shrugs and reaches out. Even after the beers the liquid sears a little on the way down. "So what did Casey tell you that necessitated the change from martinis to tequila?"
Dana sips thoughtfully, remembering the timbre of his voice as he'd said it, the exact inflection of his words. Sometimes she could hear his voice in her head even when they hadn't talked for weeks. "He misses Sports Night," she confesses, not quite looking at Natalie.
Natalie absorbs this. "We all miss Sports Night."
"Yes." The agreement is swift and sure, but Dana does not elaborate.
"What else did he say?"
"Hmm?" But she hasn't really missed anything.
"Dana. What else did he say?"
Dana's eyes flick to Natalie's face and then away; there and then gone. She sips at her drink. "He, um, in a particularly maudlin moment, might possibly have blamed me for the demise of Sports Night. Sort of. Well, not really. But..." She ducks her chin into her chest and goes back to tracing the wet rings where her martini glasses have been.
Natalie mutters under her breath, cursing fates and gods and the man she is certain is still in love with the woman across the table. All of them often seem to take leave of their senses at once. She reaches out and very gently closes her hand over Dana's. "You know that's not true."
It is a long moment before Dana looks up, and Natalie expects eyes bright with unshed tears or a slight quivering at the corner of her mouth; but her face is calm and her eyes dry. "I do know. It still hurt," she draws a sharp breath, "but I knew he didn't mean it. I wasn't responsible for the demise of Sports Night, though it might have been easier. I mean, then at least it would be something that I could truly understand. But it doesn't really matter anyway, because that's not what he was really mad at me about."
"It's not?" Casey and Dana have always had a way of talking around what they mean, their own private language of deferral and avoidance. After working with them as long and as closely as she did, Natalie is fairly good at deciphering it. Fairly good, but not a native speaker.
"What is he mad at you about, then?"
"Leaving." The answer is low but clear.
"Leaving. I left the show."
"Dana, we all left the show. There is no show. The show has been over for nearly a year now."
"I know." The face is still stoic, but something burns in her eyes. Natalie find herself the one having to look away. "But I left first."
Like the tequila, talking about this is a break in the ritual. "Oh," she says finally understanding Dana's eyes and Casey's anger. There is her own anger, too, a frisson skittering under her skin. She tamps it down. "Well, someone had to."
Dana smiles a little at that, remembering how for all her quirks and ideals Natalie has often been the most realistic of all of them. "Yes. But it was me. Not you, not Isaac, not Casey or Dan or Kim or Elliot or Dave but me. And the executive producer is supposed to go down with the show."
"Bullshit." She says it so loudly that both of the Jeffs in the next booth turn, startled. She glares at them until they look away and then leans even closer to Dana, speaking low but forcefully. Trying to make the other woman understand. "That's bullshit and you know it. The only thing that would have been served by your staying on would have been J.J.'s delight at finally getting to come to the meeting where they fired you. The offer from ESPN was way too good to pass up, and it wasn't going to come around again like the SNL job. You did the smart thing."
Dana reaches up and ever so lightly touches Natalie's cheek, her eyes soft. "Yes. But the smart thing isn't always the right thing. I know you were all angry with me. Hell, even I was angry with me." Natalie wants to shake her head, but her own honesty and the gentle pressure of Dana's fingers prevent her. "I just... I couldn't stay there and watch it all fall apart around me. It was the death throes, and I couldn't bear to watch. Even if it meant you all being mad at me and me being mad at myself." Except for Casey, who'd merely been blank and so very cold.
And just like that the inexplicable falls into some sort of pattern. It had been nearly incomprehensible, the motion of the last month of shows done without Dana. Everything the same and nothing, they had trudged along and finished with a whimper and an empty seat in the control room because no one had ever suggested that anyone fill it. At the wrap party, Natalie had found herself constantly glancing from the studio back at that empty seat and wondering how everything could have gone so quickly wrong.
"I would have stayed if I could," Dana says fervently, wanting Natalie to understand. Needing that, at least, even after all this time has passed.
"I know," Natalie nods. "I know." She means to be reassuring, but the words come out faster than she can stop them. "But none of us understood at the time. One morning you were there and the next you weren't. And none of us could get an explanation out of you. You shut us all out." She has said it now, watched Dana's face twist a little as the words hit home. But instead of feeling regretful or satisfied, Natalie chuckles. "God. I sound like a bad Lifetime movie."
An answering moment of laughter before Dana responds, seriously, "That was the one thing I regretted. Which, I know, also sounds like Valerie Bertinelli should be saying it; but it's true. I just couldn't..." she fumbles.
"I know," Natalie says again. Because, finally, she does. She wonder if Casey knows, if Dan does. She will make sure that Jeremy knows. She sighs and little and sits back, rolling some of the tension out of her shoulders. "Did you explain it to Casey?"
"Yeah, I did." Dana goes back to sitting crosswise on the bench, running one hand through her hair and rolling her empty glass contemplatively in the other.
"And I think he understands, too."
So whose anger had she feared, then, Natalie wonders. If she and Casey had resolved it already, why the reluctance to broach the topic? Natalie also wonders if Ronan really explains the easy posture at the beginning of the night. She'd watched the tendons in Dana's shoulders draw out tight and hard like steel in the months after they'd started meeting, watched the planes of her face sharpen. They had all worked too much instead of mourning those first few months. But Dana seemed each Wednesday to have run thirteen marathons between their meetings. Sports Illustrated had called her one of the fifty most influential women in sports and still she'd told Natalie she didn't think she was doing enough. Natalie had gone home many Wednesdays absurdly grateful for Jeremy's comforting length and ability to talk into her silences.
She realizes that she can feel Dana's eyes on her. "What?" It comes out a little defensively. She has always thought her face gives too much away.
"Just wondering what you're thinking. You were very far away there for a minute."
"Yeah." She blows up through the short feathery bangs that don't fall into her eyes. "I was just thinking." It is there, in her throat, but so hard to get out over her tongue--perhaps more tequila will help. "We're out of drinks. Be right back."
The bar has emptied somewhat and she has no trouble getting attention and two more glasses of tequila. On the short walk back she thinks about how to phrase this tactfully, to slip it in under the radar of this new openness. Dana has lit a cigarette in the moments Natalie had her back turned and she checks herself from scolding. If nearly burning her office down isn't incentive to quit, certainly repeated admonitions will be ineffective. Besides, as she regularly reminds Natalie, she doesn't smoke that often.
Natalie slides the glasses and herself into the booth and sips nervously at hers. Dana, by contrast, is almost still: the cigarette resting on the ashtray, the glass in her hand, her head tipped back against the wall and eyes closed. The only movement is the column of her throat as she swallows. It is a vulnerable position and Natalie can feel it stir her earlier anger with its assumptions.
"You could have told me," she blurts. Her voice sounds harsh even to her own ears.
Dana comes to the sound: eyes open, head forward, body canting in, glass eased down on the table. "What?"
She doesn't want to repeat it now, but she does. "You could have told me."
Dana watches Natalie bite her lip as if to stop anything else from escaping and marvels that they have made it this far. She never quite understood why Natalie had kept coming on Wednesdays, kept laughing and caring and being Natalie after it had all flown apart.
"I should have told you," she corrects and ventures a small smile. Letting Natalie know she expected the anger.
The admission, stripped as it is of everything, finally lets Natalie's stomach unclench. She, too, smiles. "Yeah, you should have. You should have told me."
"I should have told you," laying it to rest, perhaps. Although she has always been a better penitent than celebrant she has lately found herself tired of leaving this unsaid.
"And if you ever keep something like this from me again, I reserve the right to pull all of your fingernails out one by one and to call your mother and tell her how long it has been since you cleaned your oven."
She holds up her hands, palms facing Natalie. "Okay, okay. I give. Just don't call my mother."
"Deal." Natalie reaches for her right hand and shakes it firmly and then doesn't let go. "Dana..." The words are heavy in her throat and eyes, but they will not come.
"Natalie." That brilliant Dana smile stretches all the way to her eyes.
The bartender's bass rolls over the remaining patrons: "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!" They have missed last call and the departure of Jeff and Jeff and the better part of the night. Their hands are still loosely clasped on the table among empty glasses and wadded napkins and Dana's scattered oliveless toothpicks.
"I suppose that's our signal. T -2 and counting."
Natalie shakes herself a little. "I suppose so."
Dana lets go of her hand, reaching down to gather her purse and sliding toward the end of the booth. "Why don't you and Jeremy come over for dinner on Saturday?"
Natalie, too, rises. "Will Roh-nahn be there?" She exaggerates the name as Dana had done earlier.
Dana glances back over her shoulder, smirk firmly in place. "He will."
"Well in that case," they wave to the bartender who is wiping down glasses and eyeing the last of the patrons, "you may certainly expect Mr. and Mrs. Natalie Hurley to be partaking of the excellent repast which you are offering on the evening of this approaching Saturday."
"Mr. and Mrs. Natalie Hurley?" One of Dana's eyebrows is attempting to reach her hairline.
"Hey, it's the third wave of feminism."
"In that case, forget cooking. The woman's place is no longer in the kitchen. Let's go out." The night air is cool on their faces and they both take deep draughts.
"Okay," Natalie agrees. "I'll call you on Friday and we'll make plans."
Dana takes a step away, one arm raised to catch the attention of the passing cab drivers. "I will anticipate it eagerly." Under the streetlight, Dana's hair seems to glow a little at the edges and Natalie can see the fine lines at the corner of her eyes when she smiles. Dana reaches out and touches Natalie's shoulder and then disappears into the waiting taxi.
"Goodbye," Natalie murmurs to the lingering scent of smoke and Dana's perfume. She steps into the street and holds out her own hand. Overhead there are probably stars, but all she can see is the hazy light of the city and the small knots of people making their way home after closing time. The first cab stops and her chest is light and at home Jeremy will be waiting up. She thinks it is perhaps a night for his shirt and her heels, this Wednesday.
All characters are the property of their creators. The author makes no profit from this work.