Diane wished she had met Derek at a different time in her life – before Cheers, before Sumner, before everything had caved in at once and changed her. She hadn't even realized how much she'd changed until she started seeing him and discovered that something felt off, without any good reason. He was smart and funny, a good conversationalist, a good listener… He liked her too, and yet she couldn't be at ease with him. Something imperceptible in his manner unnerved her, and as she sipped her coffee, listening to him talk about his travels, she wondered what it could be.
He didn't look anything like Sam, but there was an element of Sam in him – the same way of moving, drinking coffee, the speech patterns – and every time she looked at him she was reminded that they were brothers. Brothers! It made no sense at all, and she couldn't fathom how they had grown up together and ended up so diametrically opposite. But were they opposite? The few shared mannerisms jarred her every time, and it seemed to her that maybe there was more. He played the part of an intellectual well, but he wasn't much like her classmates or professors either. There was a hardness to him, a kind of cynicism, and it seemed that although he loved the things he talked about, he didn't take them entirely seriously. It was almost a swagger – like Sam's swagger – but it struck her as more rueful than arrogant. Despite his successes he seemed to see himself as navigating the edges of a chasm, some unknowable truth that cast a shadow over the happy life he had cultivated, and in his words he carried an almost bitter wisdom. It scared her.
She couldn't ignore the strange likeness and so her thoughts returned again and again to Sam, all the while hating herself for it. It had to be guilt – the reason she felt so ill at ease – but, she reminded herself continually, she had no cause to feel guilty. Hadn't he given them his blessing? And yet… And yet, she didn't quite believe him. She never knew when she could believe him, and it was completely maddening. She had been so taken aback by his words about his brother, how he had admitted his jealousy, and now he was acting like none of it mattered at all. What did it mean? If she took what he said at face value, then the answer was easy: he didn't really care about her, and his jealousy – however sincere in regards to other things – was not being ignited by this new development. But even if he was lying, and he was jealous, she still didn't know how to interpret it. She knew he wanted her, but he seemed to want all women; that didn't mean anything on its own. It had to be just another manifestation of his competitiveness: she was like an egg he'd been trying to crack for almost a year, and Derek had swooped in and beaten him to it, like with so many other things in his life. Part of her wanted to believe that it actually had something to do with her specifically, that she meant more to him than his other conquests, but she worried that dwelling on such a suspicion would render her as much of a liar as Sam had been when he said he didn't care. He did care, but he didn't care about her. It was impossible. She'd have to be completely delusional to believe it.
Her own feelings about the matter were even more confusing, and sometimes she wondered if she really wasn't any better than him when it came to conquest. She didn't want him – she swore to herself she didn't want him – but at the same time, in a strange way, she knew she liked him. He was a better man than he let on, and she wanted to know why he was so insistent about hiding that part of himself, and yet his seeming denial was also what made him so compelling. She wanted to catch him in a lie, and this was how, unwittingly, she had been thrown into his game – not as the prize at the end, but a contender in the contest. She didn't want him, but she wanted him to want her, and to want her more than other women. But why? So she could win and laugh in his face? She hated to think that she could be so cruel, but any other possibility struck her as simultaneously absurd and terrifying. However much she liked Derek, she was acutely aware of how every time they went out she looked forward to returning to work, where she could try and make some sense out of Sam's reaction. She could not remember ever being so malicious towards someone, and it made her feel like a terrible person – at least, until she thought about it longer and grew distracted by how angry he made her, wondering if maybe he deserved it. If he could just be honest… What then? Well, maybe then she could figure out how to be honest too.
"Diane…" Derek's voice interrupted her thoughts and she looked up from her coffee, which she had been stirring absent-mindedly. She noticed for the first time how tightly she was gripping the spoon and relaxed her hand, laying it on the saucer as she met his eyes. "Are you, uh, okay?" The corners of his mouth were twitching in bemusement.
"Sorry," she said, blushing. "I got distracted by something, what were you saying?"
"Never mind," he shrugged. "Just a silly anecdote, I didn't mean to bore you."
"No, you didn't!" she insisted, feeling still more embarrassed. "Really, Derek, this has been so refreshing for me… Talking to someone who actually has, uh…" She paused, fixing him with a lopsided grin. "Anything to say," she finished.
"The folks at Cheers don't cut it for you?"
"Hardly," she smirked, but as she spoke the sense of guilt returned and she almost winced. Derek leaned back in his chair, looking amused.
"I think you'll be surprised," he said slowly. "I think one day you'll really value your experiences working there."
She raised an eyebrow in disbelief and he grinned at her before continuing. "I must know a hundred people like you," he said. "Y'know, the kind of people who would've never dreamed of setting foot in a place like Cheers. But the thing I'm starting to realize is that people are really the same, wherever you go."
"I know," he said firmly. "I mean, think about Sam."
She gave a start when he mentioned the name and then quickly studied his features for a sign of recognition, hoping he hadn't noticed. He seemed oblivious, but there was a strange glint in his eyes and she couldn't be sure if she was imagining it. "What about Sam?" she asked, a little snidely.
"I mean, we grew up together, we're from the same background. He thinks we're so different because we like different things, but I don't know. So I like, uh, tap dancing, and he doesn't. Does it make me more human than him? No."
"No," she agreed slowly, picking up the spoon again and stirring her coffee.
"He thinks it does," Derek shrugged. "I wish he didn't. A lot of people think that way, that the things we do make us who we are. But we just do those things because we have to do something, you know, to fill time. At the end of the day, all people want the same things. A place to lie down at night… And to be loved…"
His words caught her off guard, but they also resonated with her, and she struggled to organize her thoughts. "It's…" she began, then paused. "Yes," she said finally. "I think you're right, it's what… all literature is about, wouldn't you say?"
"Exactly," he grinned, reaching out to pat her hand affectionately. "You're wonderful, you know. You're right at the edge of things. Maybe for the first time. I love to see that."
"Don't worry," he said. "It becomes you."
He laughed, and for a moment she thought he was making fun of her, but there was a gentleness in the way he was looking at her that told her he was not being cruel. "Hey," he said, his grin becoming twisted and mischievous. "Tell me something, what's your favorite country to visit?"
"My favorite country?" she repeated. "I guess, uh, I guess I like England."
"Really!" He cocked his head. "I would have guessed France. You like London, huh?"
"Oh." She paused, considering the question. "Yes, London is lovely… Although in truth, I prefer Paris, as far as cities go. But I like the countryside. We summered in Yorkshire sometimes, when I was growing up."
"Ah," he said. "Of course. The moors, right? I bet they suited your inner Romantic. You meet any Heathcliffs up that way?"
She gave a short laugh. "No luck," she smiled. "But that was when I read it, actually, Wuthering Heights – when we were staying there. I must have been… sixteen?"
"What do you say I take you back?" he said, beaming at her as he reached out to take her hands. "If you want, I mean. Would you like that? We can take my jet, maybe stay for a week…"
"Oh, uh…" The suggestion caught her off guard, yet again, and while she could think of no reason to decline, she was troubled by the lack of excitement she felt. She retreated from his touch and tugged on the fabric of her sleeve as she spoke. "Derek, that would be wonderful… Of course it would be… But I really shouldn't, I have, uh, work…"
"Sam wouldn't give you the time off?"
"Well, he would… I mean, I don't… Uh, well, I'd rather not ask…"
"I understand," Derek said, but a trace of the old grin still remained on his face and it unnerved her. He seemed to know something she didn't. "I wouldn't make much of a Heathcliff for you anyway."
"Of course you would!"
He snorted. "No, I wouldn't. It's not a very good idea at all, now that I think about it. Your sixteen-year-old self would hate me for ruining her fantasy."
Diane stared at him, considering his words. It was true, she thought, and the realization surprised her: he didn't act like Heathcliff, or even look like Heathcliff. His blue-eyed blondeness, along with his refined nature, cast him more in the mold of Edgar Linton – and that was something she didn't want to think about, because as a teenager she had loathed Edgar. During that summer in Yorkshire, Wuthering Heights was her obsession, and though she returned to it often she always approached as she had the first time, relishing in the strange beauty of the doomed love affair without making many judgments about the lovers themselves. Now she saw them as Derek did – flawed, and even depraved – but she could not help thinking that they had stumbled on something that transcended mere human frailties and redeemed them. Edgar she had imagined as a pathetic nuisance, but if he was really like Derek… Who was Heathcliff, then? She thought of him as the perfect man, but it was Derek who met her qualifications for perfection. She couldn't conceive of what a real-life Heathcliff would be like, but nonetheless concluded that Cathy's choice must have been more difficult than she originally thought.
"I can't imagine that you really want a Heathcliff anyway," Derek shrugged.
"Why is that?" she asked quickly, and instantly regretted posing the question. It seemed foolish to defend her youthful fantasy when he had already shown her some of the chinks… But his grin only widened, as if he had been expecting her to ask.
"I don't think anyone does, really," he explained. "Or rather, everyone does… And then they outgrow it."
"Well, you have to! Or you can find your Heathcliff and, you know, die."
"I don't know that I'd die!" she protested, letting out a snort of laughter, but his expression remained solemn.
"Cathy did," he said blankly. She opened her mouth to argue, but he continued before she could speak. "I'm just teasing you, really," he said. "It's a story, you know, it's not real. Love doesn't kill people. But that's what Bronte is going for, don't you think? She's saying that it's a destructive love, a violent love."
"But it's a better love, too."
He paused for a moment, considering this. "Yes," he agreed slowly, biting his lip. "I guess that's the trade-off. I can't say. I'm not that kind of person."
"What kind is that?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.
"Well, you know," he said. "The restless kind. I'm not… I'm not mad at the world. I've seen uh, my share of unpleasant things… But I know I can't do anything about it except keep on going. So that's what I'm doing. Live and let live, I guess."
"That's… That's smart, Derek."
"Well, there you go," he said, shrugging again. "Heathcliff sure as hell wasn't smart."
"He wasn't educated…"
Derek shook his head. "That's not what I mean. I mean… There's a line about Edgar somewhere in the beginning, I don't remember it perfectly… She describes him as having the power to walk away from things. I think that's the most important thing that Bronte tells us about him, why he's different from Heathcliff. It doesn't have anything to do with class or education, in the end. It's what I was saying to you before, people are all the same… But some of them know how to find peace, and some never learn. Heathcliff is a savage at heart. Maybe that's why he loves better, as you put it, but he destroys everything he touches and doesn't know how to stop."
"The trade-off," she murmured.
"Yeah, the trade-off."
For a long moment they sat in silence, sipping their coffee, and then Derek's face lit up again with his usual, wry grin. "You like Sam, don't you?" he asked.
"What?" she sputtered, almost spitting out her coffee. "No!"
He gave a snort of laughter. "It's okay, you know. I like him. He's my brother."
"Oh." She realized he had not meant the question in the way she thought and blushed, staring down at her feet. "Well, he's… not so bad. I think… I guess he's a good person, underneath it all."
"He is," Derek agreed. "He really does try. I love the poor kid."
Diane smirked; it was strange to hear Sam described as a "poor kid", and she wondered what Derek meant by saying that he "tried."
"I didn't mean to bring him up out of the blue," Derek added. "I just started thinking of him, since we were talking about… you know, restlessness. That's his onus. I think… I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my dad, but I think he really did a number on Sammy." At this he looked a little stricken and swirled his coffee cup around a few times before taking a sip. "I really worry about him…"
"Do you?" Diane asked, a little incredulous. She had always suspected that Sam had more depth than he let on, and consequently, more insecurities – but he was still, as far as she could tell, in control of things. He seemed completely capable of taking care of himself, and she thought that he would scorn the notion of anyone – especially Derek – worrying about him.
"Well, I don't think he's very happy," Derek said. "He's never been."
Derek hesitated for a moment before responding, leaning back in his chair and chuckling to himself. "Well, yeah! I thought you saw it too. I thought that's why you liked him, you know… Pity, I guess."
"Not pity," he corrected himself quickly. "I have to stop saying stuff like that. It's why he can't stand me. I meant, uh, compassion. Like a mother, a kind of motherly affection."
"A mother?" she repeated, snorting. "I really don't think he sees me as a mother."
"No," Derek agreed. "I was wrong. You're too alike."
"Well, you know." He made a vague gesture with his hands as he spoke. "On the edge of things."
"It's not bad," he assured her. "We all go there sometimes. And if we're smart, we come back."
"And what if we're not?"
"I guess we fall in, huh?"
Diane could not make much sense of his metaphor, and so she conjured it literally in her mind as a picturesque cliff overlooking the sea. She wondered what it would be like to fall. Terrifying, she concluded. But at the same time, what a way to go…
"Derek," she began hesitantly. "I'm not sure… I don't know if we should keep seeing each other."
"Yeah," he said. "I figured."
"You figured?" She had not expected him to respond in such a way, and it struck her as suspicious. He knew something, or he thought he knew something…
"I didn't think you'd really want to leave Sam behind," he shrugged, and the grin returned as he added, "Now I'm sure you don't."
"It's not like that," she protested.
As she met his eyes it occurred to her that he had never before possessed so much resemblance to Sam. He was toying with her in exactly the same way, trying to trick her… Into what?
"Like…" she stammered. "Like… I don't know."
"You don't?" he asked, his eyebrows arching dubiously.
"No… I mean, I didn't mean anything by it."
"Well." He shrugged again. "I thought I might be getting in the middle of things. I figured you'd tell me if I was, when I first asked you out, but I guess it's more complicated."
"It's not!" she insisted.
"Then why won't you come with me to England?"
"I… I will!"
He snorted, shaking his head. "No, you won't. I wouldn't take you anyway, if it's going to hurt Sam. I've done that too much. I won't hurt my brother."
"And I will?" she snapped, feeling her anger build towards him for the first time. He was clearly insinuating something, but she couldn't make sense of it.
"No," he answered, surprising her. "If I thought you would, I'd insist that you come with me. But you won't, so I won't. I have the power to walk away from things, you know." There was the grin again. It was starting to drive her crazy.
"I want to go with you," she said feebly.
"Boy, you're stubborn, aren't you? Sure reminds me of someone… Can you guess who?"
"Shut up!" she burst, feeling stupid and ashamed as soon as the words left her mouth. "Oh, Derek," she murmured, blushing and tracing the rim of the now-empty coffee cup with her finger, unable to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I'm egging you on, aren't I?"
"Yes," she said, looking up again and blinking. "You are." It was strange to hear him admit it; Sam, she knew, would never admit it. "Why?" she added, after a pause.
"I thought it might be good for you."
"Well." She rolled her eyes, smirking. "I guess I owe you a heartfelt thank you."
"Don't mention it." He rose, lifting the saucer and empty coffee cup from the table and brought them to the sink, then returned to the living room and watched her for a long moment. "I guess I should go," he said. "Do you want a ride to Cheers?"
"I'm not going to Cheers," she scowled. "I have the night off."
"Oh," he said, without sounding remotely convinced. "Okay."
"I know, you just said."
She glared at him, but he remained smiling and unphased. He took a step towards her and touched her cheek with his hand, just for a second, and then retreated. "You really are wonderful," he said. "I hope you're not mad at me for teasing you like this. Rest assured I had only the noblest intentions."
"Right," she smirked.
"You, uh, you have my number," he said, taking his coat from the back of the chair and putting it on. "If you ever make it back from the edge, you can always give me a call."
"Um," she said. He studied her affectionately and took another step closer.
"Can I?" he asked, leaning in. "Would you mind?" She said nothing, and so he kissed her, very quickly, on the lips. When they broke apart she stared at him, feeling uncomfortable and rather oddly exposed.
"I guess I'll be off," he said finally. "You sure you don't want a ride?"
"Well…" He mimed tipping a cap. "Adieu, mon amie."
"Bon soir," she answered, allowing herself a weak smile. Their conversation had unsettled her, and she wasn't sure if she agreed with or even understood everything he had said, but she still did like him. His heart seemed to be in the right place, and in the end, that meant more than anything he knew or anything he had done.
He sidled out the door and from the window she watched him unlock his car and drive down the street. When she was sure he was gone she grabbed her purse from atop the coffee table and started towards the door, stalling only when she reached the book shelf. She scanned the volumes for what she was looking for and, upon finding it, dropped the book into her purse and descended the stairs, exiting the building and walking two blocks to the bus stop. She checked the times. The bus to Cheers would be there in fifteen minutes and so she sat on the bench to wait, thumbing through the dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights to pass the time. She thought about the edge of things, the fall, and wondered if it was possible for a person to survive it.