It was past midnight and most of the bar patrons had gone home, but Rebecca stayed behind to help him redecorate the pool room. "It's the least I can do," she shrugged when he thanked her. "Y'know, after I burned down your bar with my cigarette and almost cost you your entire livelihood… And had to give you my life savings to pay you back… And now I have nothing… Unless you count this crummy job, and my crummy friends, and my whole terrible life!" As she spoke she became increasingly theatrical and melodramatic, her voice breaking into a wavering wail and her bottom lip quivering. Sam met her eyes with a twisted grin.
"Well," he said. "When you put it that way…"
She gave a snort of laughter and stepped back to survey their work. "It looks good!" she said.
"Even better than before," Sam agreed. Together, they trailed from the pool room into the bar and Sam found himself unsettled by the renovations; the new room resembled the old room almost perfectly, but at the same time something seemed to be lost – some of its character, perhaps, or the memories that had squeezed themselves under the floorboards and into the woodwork, idling there for years without him ever fully registering their presence. But now they had gone up in smoke, and the newness overwhelmed him more than it excited him.
"Is there anything else we need to do?" Rebecca asked. Sam took a moment to scan the room, and then nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "I think I'll give the ol' bar one more coat of polish. But you can go if you want, it's pretty late."
She shrugged. "No," she said. "It's okay. If I go home I'll probably just put on my old wedding dress and drink a bottle of wine by myself and cry about my miserable life."
Sam laughed uncomfortably, thinking that she must be joking, but he was not entirely convinced. "You couldn't just go to sleep?" he asked.
"That is how I go to sleep," she replied blankly, extracting the varnish from under the bar and pushing it towards him. "You do that side," she said, nodding to the inner half of the room, "and I'll do the other."
They polished in silence, Sam finding a strange comfort in the monotony of the task. Although he was no craftsman, he liked to work with his hands; there was not, he had come to realize, a lot that he could do, and he didn't know much beyond what experience and common sense had taught him, but he still took pride in a simple job done well. Through movement, the act of doing something – whatever it happened to be – he could sometimes pacify his inner restlessness, the incomprehensible sense of agitation that rose in his throat like bile and urged him to run, without actually telling him where.
When he looked up from his work he realized that Rebecca had stopped and was studying the surface of the bar with a bemused expression on her face. "Sam," she said. "Did you carve your initials here?"
He took a step towards her. "What?" he asked.
"Look," she said, running her finger over the mark. "S.M. plus…" She squinted as she tried to decipher the words.
"D.C.," he interjected, smirking as he leaned over the bar to inspect the mark himself. "Well, I'll be darned. It's still here."
"D.C.?" she repeated. "Is that –"
"Diane, yeah," he confirmed, his voice blank and emotionless. "She did it… uh… Well, I guess it'd be eight years ago now. Boy, time sure flies when you're…"
"Having fun?" Rebecca finished, snorting.
"Yeah, right. Sweetheart, there's a wax stick under the bar, would you mind getting that for me?"
"Sure," she said, looking puzzled as she leaned down to find it. "Why?"
"Because I'm gonna fix this." He took the wax without looking at her and ran it absently over the bar, too lightly to actually fill the scratches. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her wrinkle her nose, her expression still somewhat baffled, and he turned to her with irritation. "What?"
She answered his question with one of her own. "Why?" she repeated.
"Because I don't want graffiti on my bar!" he answered disdainfully. "Why else?"
"Oh, Sam," she murmured, placing a hand on his arm. "Come on. Don't you think it's kind of romantic?"
Diane had said the same thing eight years earlier and he winced at the memory, retreating from Rebecca's touch. "No," he said stonily. "I think it's vandalism."
"Sam," she chided, rolling her eyes. He could almost detect a trace of pity in her voice and his shoulders grew tense as he applied the wax with more pressure, blotting out the inscription.
"Give me a break," he grumbled. "Come on, how would you feel if it was R.C. plus R.H. instead? Would you want to look at that every day?"
"Well," she mused, gazing into the distance as she considered his words. The question seemed to resonate with her and as he watched her contemplate it he thought inwardly that this was how he liked her best: when her melodrama subsided and she seemed merely confused – not hating herself, not pitying herself, but simply wondering how her life had managed to unfurl in such a way so as to deposit her right here, into this moment. In these flashes of sober examination he saw himself, because neither of them had meant to arrive where they were, and neither was entirely sure what to do about it. He loved her as much as he had ever loved a friend, but she could not resolve his bewilderment over what his life meant any more than he could resolve hers. They had tried, in a way, when they decided to have a child together, but the attempt failed and he knew they would never again be lovers. She was a confidant, a kind of doppelganger, his companion in aimlessness.
"I would like it," she concluded finally, and when he raised a skeptical eyebrow she continued. "I would look at it," she said, pushing him aside to caress the waxed inscription lovingly, as the names really were hers and Robin's, "and remember the time in my life when I was a successful businesswoman… And engaged to the richest man in the world… And…" She trailed off, looking up into Sam's eyes with an expression of terrified realization, and burst into hysterical tears. "I was going to be so rich!" she moaned, clawing at her face with her hands. "But I blew it, because I'm a loser!"
Repressing a snort of amusement, Sam pulled her into a hug. He felt bad, of course, but he could never quite take her seriously like this - when she lapsed into her overblown displays of anguish. She was, he acknowledged sadly, not particularly happy, but he didn't believe that her hysterics were a true manifestation of it. It seemed to him that she was actually trying to be entertaining, refashioning herself into a grotesque caricature so as to create distance from the real sadness that lurked beneath the surface of things.
"You poor kid," he said.
"So rich," she repeated. "So rich and happy."
"I think," he said, tilting her head up to look at her eyes, "you would have just been rich."
At his words she froze, her face contorted in thought. "Yes, you're right," she conceded, pausing for a moment before allowing herself to succumb once again to dramatic sobs. "But I'd rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable! I have nothing to live for!"
Now he laughed for real, a sharp, bark-like sound, and she met his eyes with a morbid smirk, knowing he was not being cruel. "Of course you do," he consoled her. "You have your friends, and the bar –"
"The bar I burned down."
"Well, we fixed it, didn't we? Come on, you have a lot going for you."
"I have nothing," she insisted.
"Well, then I have nothing too," he said snidely, "because all I've got is the same stuff you do."
"That's true!" she exclaimed, seeming momentarily unburdened. He smiled at her.
"See?" he said. "It's not so bad."
"You're a loser too!" she cried gleefully, and pulled him into a tighter hug. "Oh Sam, I'm so glad we're friends."
"Me too," he grinned, patting her on the back. After a moment they broke apart, and he refocused on waxing the bar while Rebecca watched him.
"You're really getting rid of it?" she said.
"Honey, we just went over this. I don't want to see this here any more than you want to see Robin Colcord… Or Evan Drake… Or –"
"But that's different," she protested. "Robin was rich."
"So was Diane," he countered, but when the words left his mouth they struck him immediately as absurd, inane. Although it was true, he had never once given it much thought – and, he remembered with a vague smile, she had of course eschewed her mother's money to go her own way, anyhow.
For a split second Rebecca looked genuinely surprised, captivated by the notion that he might have once shared her gold-digging ambitions, but she knew him too well to really believe it and her face relaxed into an expression of gentle sympathy.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said quickly. "I just never knew that the rich committed acts of vandalism."
He laughed, setting down the wax and running a finger over his handiwork. He could still make out the inscription beneath, but when it dried he would buff it with a cloth and it would be gone.
"You know," Rebecca said suddenly, "I've never seen you get like this, over a woman."
"So…" She stared into space, her brow furrowed as she tried to find the right word. "Weird," she finished finally. "You're acting really weird."
"Okay," he shrugged, but part of him hated her for pointing it out. He didn't want to be weird about Diane because he didn't want to be anything where Diane was concerned; he didn't want to think about her, wonder about what her life had become, agonize over the anonymous men he imagined her dating, but he did all these things, and for that reason he picked up the wax and began scrubbing at the bar again with the fervor of a psychic performing an exorcism.
"You're just getting wax everywhere," Rebecca remarked, eying him warily. "You've already filled in the mark, it's done." But he kept at his work, barely hearing her, his eyes wild.
"What if she comes back and wants to see it?" Rebecca suggested after a long moment. "Won't she be sad?"
At these words he stiffened, whirling around to face her. "She's not coming back!" he bellowed, and she recoiled in surprise at his sudden anger. He hadn't meant to speak so loudly, or to say anything at all, but her question had awoken something within him and he could only submit to it. "Goddamnit!" he yelled to no one in particular, kicking at the base of the bar.
Rebecca stared at him guardedly, almost fearful. "I'm sorry," she said, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'll drop it."
His anger vanished as quickly as it had come and he slumped over the bar, feeling drained and exhausted. "No," he said. "I'm sorry. I guess I overreacted, it's late, you know."
She was still staring at him, fixing him with all her attention as if he were a particularly difficult math problem. "I just don't get it," she said finally.
"That makes two of us."
"Sam," she began hesitatingly. "How do you know she won't come back?"
"Because I know her, okay?" he snapped. "She never belonged here. It was all so stupid…" His eyes trailed back to the engraving and he felt his stomach twist into a knot. No, she had never belonged at Cheers, but there she was – eight years later, still ensnared in the bar and in his life. If the fire couldn't get rid of her, could anything?
"I bet she's married now," he continued, embarrassed by the bitterness he heard in his voice. "Hell, I know she's married. Of course she is. What guy wouldn't want to marry her?"
Rebecca twined a tendril of hair around her finger, seemingly perplexed. It occurred to him that he had never discussed Diane with her – or anyone, really, since she had left.
"Based on the way everyone talks about her," Rebecca ventured, "I would say, the kind of guy who doesn't want to get the electric chair for murder."
Sam let out another snort of laughter and for a moment the knot in his stomach eased, before returning with full force. "Yep," he agreed. "She was a piece of work. You know, I could never figure out if she was the best thing to ever happen to me, or the worst."
"There's still time to find out," Rebecca murmured, but he ignored her.
"I think she must have been the worst," he continued. "But sometimes I still feel like she was the best. Do you know what I mean?" Rebecca nodded. "Don't tell Carla I said this," Sam added with a sheepish grin, stretching against the bar.
"God," he moaned, massaging his temples with his thumbs. "I hate it. I hate not knowing. I don't know anything."
"But you can still find out!" Rebecca repeated incredulously. "Don't you want to find out?"
"No," he replied in a brusque voice – the lie so obvious that neither needed to acknowledge it. He looked at his watch.
"Damn," he said. "It's almost two."
"I guess we should go home."
"But I don't really feel like going to sleep…"
Their eyes met, and out of habit he almost moved to kiss her – but it was just that, a habit, a ritual, a shape he could fit into a void to give it the illusion of fullness; and it could not fill him or free him any more than alcohol had, or the banal act of polishing the bar. Like so many things between them she seemed to understand this instantly, and fixed him with a weak smile.
"Hey," he said, grabbing her hand. "Do you want to come over to my place anyway? We can watch TV or something."
"Sure," she shrugged. "I guess I'd rather do that than get drunk alone in my wedding dress."
"Me too," Sam grinned. "Your wedding dress doesn't fit me." They crossed the room, stepping from the foyer into the Boston night, and although the knot in his stomach was tight and unrelenting as ever, he felt suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that she was his friend. The bar, he knew, would be waiting for him tomorrow, swarmed as always by its inexorable ghosts – but tonight he would watch old sitcoms with Rebecca and forget, all the while knowing he hadn't really forgotten.