The storage room looked particularly eerie from where she was standing. It was like a decrepit, mouldy school gym, the kind Carrie had burnt down in the 70s.
She'd just got off the phone with Criss, who asked her if she'd bought the meditation stool. She was holding it right now, planning on dumping it for good. She had made up some unconvincing lie about having lost it in a cab.
"We'll get a new one, don't worry. You can use mine, meanwhile," he had offered gleefully.
"Aargh!" she yelped when she saw a fury little rat scamper across the floor.
"Jack?" she called out unsure. "Why did you invite me here? Ugh, you're gonna murder me, aren't you?"
It would make sense. And he'd be able to cover it up. She shrugged in amusement. "Eh, it's okay…"
At this point she was ready to buy anything. And she couldn't care less about what happened anyway. She'd just lashed out at everyone, again. Nothing was ever going to change. She might as well die.
Liz frowned. She'd only been this nihilistic in college. Self-destruction never mixed well with her particular brand of humour.
"Up here, Lemon! I haven't secured that level from the rats yet!" Jack's booming voice came from above. He was wielding what looked like a video game rifle.
Well, that's pretty much obvious, she thought looking around annoyed.
She followed him up the stairs.
"What the hell is this place?"
"This is where I remake KableTown. And where Americans – for cost reasons, quite a few foreign Americans – will make couches," he decreed solemnly.
"To watch TV on…" Liz trailed off, putting things together. "Do I finally understand vertical integration?"
"Yes," Jack answered cheerfully, not paying attention.
"Well, I'm glad one of us got out of their rut today," she muttered somewhat resentfully, throwing the unaesthetic meditation stool in the trashcan below.
"Lemon, what are you doing?" Jack asked disconcerted as he saw her wipe her hands clean of her new-age item of self-discovery.
"I realized today that I cannot do my job without you," he continued in earnest. "This is all because of you."
A painful shadow flickered across her eyes but it was gone when Jack looked at her again.
"The couch idea? It's all me? Because I managed to distract you?" she asked, stuffing her hands in her pocket, feeling a chill from behind.
"Well, that too, of course, but your silly debate on meditation made me try your method, realize how asinine it was, then come up with ways to prove it. And all this was my shower principle, Lemon, it was you. I got my idea from you, more or less, don't you see?"
Liz smiled wryly. She gripped the railing until her knuckles went white.
"So because you approached meditation from a cynical angle and put effort into defrauding it, you succeeded in marketing an idea about couches. You know what I think, Jack? I think that maybe lying on your own couch, trying my idea made you think of couches to begin with. Listening to me helped you, not fighting against me. But you wouldn't see it like that, of course."
"What on Earth are you talking about? Are you trying to get even more credit than I've already given you? Lemon, I basically confessed I need you. What more do you want?"
"I'm not trying to get credit for a couch idea! I never asked to be your reluctant muse. I've only tried to be your friend."
"And? You are my friend. So what is it? What has got you so disgruntled? Is it the rut you think you're stuck in? Isn't this something new?" he asked, trailing his hand across the empty space.
Liz winced and took in a deep breath.
"You think you got that idea and you think you need me because you take everything I say and try to prove me otherwise. You're constantly trying to tell me I am wrong and that you are right and even when you actually take my advice, even when, rarely as it does happen, I am right, you try to turn it into a competition, a fight, you try to make yourself believe you succeeded in spite of me, not because of me. You need me so I can be your distraction, that other small obstacle you defeat so it gives you enough motivation to go for the bigger one, like playing golf in your office in order to be able to make a creative decision on which lies the fate of the entire company. I am that little ball you push around until I fall into a hole and then you can pat yourself on the back move on. Okay, bad analogy, but still, I am tired of it, you've been doing this for the past six years, so yes, I am in a rut!"
Jack stared at her in astonishment as she unfolded furiously in front of him, her voice growing higher and higher until it came out as a hoarse whisper. She was panting heavily.
"Lemon, I can't believe this is what you think of our friendship…" he began, his voice reproachful, trying to find an argument, a starting point, something to convince her that she was wro-
"I know you care about me in your odd way, I know I can't ask for more emotional maturity, that's fine, since hey, I'm probably a toddler compared to you. But that's the problem. We're not equals. At least you don't consider me an equal. There is no balance in this relationship. You hold all the power. I am that stray dog you keep around out of compassion. And you've tricked yourself into believing I'm actually useful. Because you'd hate to know you've wasted so many years on me."
"Lemon, you don't know what you're saying, I've never…kept you around, I've always considered you my – well, my companion, if not my equal…but you are extremely valuable…" he trailed off, panic washing over him in waves.
"Oh, don't worry, I know I'm valuable. I'm not saying I'm not aware of that. But you've persuaded yourself into believing I'm only useful as a wall in a game of squash. Ugh, bad analogy again! Point is, you don't actually use me at my real value. You underuse me, if that makes any sense."
"You…want me to use you more?"
"Use me as a friend and an equal, use my advice and take it seriously, don't just use it for one of your intricate allegories about life and business, don't talk down to me when I am trying to make it easier for you! Don't use me against yourself, against your better judgement. Use me for me."
Jack opened his mouth to reply but a sudden amusing thought crossed his mind.
"Why do I feel we're reenacting Pride and Prejudice?"
"I might've gone a bit period drama at the end, but it doesn't matter as long as you – What? Why are you doing your wiser than thou face?"
"You're right, Lemon. I'm giving you what you want. When you're right, you're right."
"I don't want you to say it just cuz you feel guilt-tripped into it."
"No, I – I just had a small revelation myself," he said, shaking his head in relief. "Maybe I have misused you after all. I never really tried you at your real capacity. It's like never really smoking those Colombian cigars all the way to the end because –well, it's a superstition in my family. I got used to the idea that all your ideas must be counterproductive and I ignored the good ones, the ones that kept me afloat. It's, it's almost poetic. It's almost like KableTown. I thought everything here would set me back, but there were moments, key-moments that challenged me, that made me more creative and more ambitious than ever, because what can be more powerful than an underdog?"
"I'd hardly call you an under-" Liz began.
"Fighting with KableTown, not against it. Fighting with you, and not against you. I…it sounds so strange, it's like eating your steak with salad and enjoying it. I've never had allies. Not like this. I mean who can catch up with me? Who can stand by my side like that?"
Liz smiled uneasily.
"I've been doing it for a while now, even though it doesn't seem like my natural forte. Heck, it might seem like the last thing I'd be good at. It doesn't make sense and that's why it's my strength."
"And maybe you need the kind of strength that only I possess," she quipped, smirking condescendingly.
"You're trying to tell me I need you because only you can give me what you have? Are we reenacting Show Girls, this time?"
"Shut up," she retorted, hitting him over the elbow, smiling secretly.
"I know you're not going to really change," she murmured at one point. "I mean I know it can't happen overnight. After all, this is our thing, isn't it? The charm is that you never have to be apologetic."
"Lemon," he said, turning towards her, "I might have to think about this more than I usually think about your problems and I might have to treat it a lot more seriously, even make it a priority. And maybe down this road I'll trust your opinions more than I do my own, but I am quite sure there is no power struggle between us anymore. I don't hold all the power."
Liz seemed unconvinced. "I don't see how you don't –"
"I need you more than you need me."
Liz's lips formed an unattractive "O", before she quickly shut her mouth. For a split-second, she thought she had heard wrong and she waited for him to correct himself or turn it into a convoluted explanation that would negate the statement.
She was sort of expecting a "Good, God, Lemon, you actually bought that?" And then he'd brush past her confidently, chuckling to himself.
But then she would be doing the same he's done with her. Not giving him enough credit.
Jack stared into her eyes without a trace of deceit or sarcasm. There was nothing there but a resignation, a truth he'd become accustomed to.
Liz's eyes softened. She knew he was being honest, that he really believed it and she knew she had to appreciate this extremely disadvantageous confession on his part, but at the same time she couldn't stand watching him grow smaller and further away from her, as he accepted that she was never going to be just as dependent as he was. It was wrong, but she almost wanted to contradict him, to let him indulge in the lie.
Liz, you'd undo everything, she told herself.
He needed to know she was stronger. But she needed him to know she'd always be there, that no matter what –
Her cell phone started ringing furiously. She stared at it almost in surprise.
It was Criss. Right on cue.
Jack leant forward and saw it too.
She looked up. He stared back. His eyes wavered slightly as the painfully sharp ring tone tore the silence between them.
"Well, you'd better answer that, Lemon."
"Yeah," she replied, still looking at him.
There was a pause.
"You know, he's not that bad. He's great actually. He said he loved me. Several times, actually. He even…"
"Solo-ed you. I know. You told me. You said your life was finally complete," he finished for her, smiling sadly.
All she heard was "your life is complete without me". And it felt like the air was sucked out of her.
"Oh. Right, I said that," she laughed it off nervously, "I forgot. Of course I'd say something like that."
"Maybe I should get the stool back," she added, looking down at the trashcan.
"Yes, maybe you should," he replied evenly.
The ringing continued, but she kept stalling. And he didn't urge her.
They were still in a rut, a big one. And it was not going to go away because it was the constant distance between them. The way they reached out to each other all too late, the way they never listened, never wanted to listen, the way they kept each other at arm's length, the way neither of them wanted to become a reality for the other person. Happy distractions, that's all they were.
The emptiness surrounded them like a second world and they felt at home somehow, staring at each other, trying to forget, waiting for the ringing to stop.