64 • Catching Up
Joe picked up the New York Times from the leather sofa in the back corner of the dark coffee shop, slap-tongue saxophone sounds punctuating an impassioned conversation between two college students at a table behind him. He set the paper on a wood block coffee table and motioned to Christina to sit down. She dropped her briefcase on the middle cushion and sat back into the sofa with a sigh. Joe sat down in the side chair and smiled.
“So how do you know our boy Will?” he asked, folding his hands over his belly.
“Will? We met in Chicago.”
“You’re from Chicago?” Joe’s face lit up.
“No, no. I did my undergrad at Northwestern. I’m a hometown girl. Grew up just down the street from here.”
“I see.” Joe’s shoulders drooped, and then he brightened again. “You two dated in college?”
“Dated Will?” She shook her head and laughed, pulling her hair behind her neck. “Does he date people now? Because nobody dated Will in college.”
Joe slumped again and glanced toward the counter where Will was showing the barista his receipt and lightly tapping his boot rhythmically into the toe-kick under the counter.
“It’s not that nobody wanted to, ” Christina added, seeing Joe’s disappointment. “It’s that he wasn’t exactly … available.”
“What do you mean? If he wasn’t dating anyone else he would be available, wouldn’t he?”
“Has he ever told you about Barbara?”
“Barbara?” The corners of Joe’s mouth turned down as he thought, and he shook his head. “No, I don’t believe he’s mentioned anyone by that name.”
“Well, that’s probably his to tell, not mine. But she was my roommate. Will didn’t date anyone because of Barbara.”
“They were — a thing?” Joe looked up to see Will again. He was walking across the café holding three coffees in an awkward sort of paper cup pyramid in front of him.
“They were not. Not a dating thing, anyway. A different kind of thing I guess. Let’s say it didn’t go well for anyone who showed an interest in him.”
Joe stood and took a coffee from Will and handed it to Christina. “There you are. I thought maybe the barista was trying to hire you, it took so long.”
“Don’t get me started. It is so hard to get a simple cup of coffee in these places. They shouldn’t call them coffee shops.” He set the other cups on the table and sat on the far end of the sofa.
“Christina was just telling me you met in college.” Joe smiled.
“Was she?” Will looked at Christina. She lifted the cup to her mouth, breathing in but not drinking the steaming coffee. She shrugged. “It took them long enough that you were able to tell Joe all my secrets?”
“Pretty much.” Christina tucked one leg under her and pulled the hem of her skirt over her knees.
“This is what I get for being the nice guy and buying the coffee.”
“It’s what you’ve always gotten for being the nice guy. You just haven’t learned yet.”
“Did she tell you how I wrote her senior paper in Con Law, Joe?” Will took the lid off his cup and set it on the table. “She’d have flunked out and never made it to law school without me.”
“It’s true, ” Christina laughed. “I sure did miss you when it came to the Bar exams, buddy.”
“Did you, now.”
“I did. Missed you after school too. I still don’t understand how you live an hour and a half away and I never see you.”
“You don’t keep in touch?” Joe’s eyes widened. “What is it with you and beautiful women?”
Will and Christina both blushed. “In his defense, Joe, it does turn out I’m married.”
Joe turned the paper sleeve on his cup. “Do you keep in touch with other friends from college, Christina? Like, your roommate?”
Will stiffened and looked at Joe, then at Christina. “Damn. You weren’t kidding.”
“Oh, relax, Will. This is why you should never play poker.” She sat upright and put a hand on Will’s knee. “He asked how we met. I told him my roommate was a friend of yours. All your so-called secrets are safe, my friend.” Christina tore open a sugar packet and poured it into her coffee. “Barbara and I exchange Christmas cards. That’s about the long and short of it.”
“What’s her zip code these days?” Will looked over the top of his cup, hoping for nonchalant but knowing he sounded too interested. He set his coffee on the table and leaned back in his chair, crossing his hands over his belly in a gigantic overcorrection.
Joe stifled a snicker and gulped his coffee in an overcorrection of his own, wincing at the scalding he’d just given his unsuspecting esophagus.
Christina laughed at them both. “You two should really take this on the road. You’re great together. I’d pay to see the full performance.”
Swishing the coffee in his cup, Will half rolled his eyes. “Okay then. So where is she?”
“Highland Park, of course. You would expect any less?”
“No, I suppose not. That’s what she always wanted. And I couldn’t deliver.”
“Did she want to be kept by you, Will?” Joe’s eyes widened.
“Not . . . exactly.” Will shifted in his chair, staring into his cup. “Barbara Roberts was not exactly the kept woman type.”
“What you mean is that she was not a typical kept woman, ” Christina corrected, stirring a slim brown straw in her cup. “She absolutely wanted to be kept. But she had her own way of keeping, too.”
“Who is keeping her in Hyde Park?”
“Still? I thought he was a rebound.”
“He was. And we all thought she was going to cut him loose. But she changed her mind. No one ever knew why.”
Will thought back to that last phone call he’d had with Barbara. “You know he’s gay, right?”
“Everyone knows. But then, no one knows. She has deniability.”
“Plausible.” Will nodded.
Joe listened intently, turning his head back and forth with each volley of the conversation between two old friends, like he was sitting in the stands at Wimbledon.
“Are they married?” Will asked.
“No, ” Christina said with a small smile. “She would never agree to it. Being able to walk tomorrow without legal obstacles gave her the leverage she needed with Nick.”
“She’s still cold.”
“They deserve each other.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Are you seeing anyone?” Christina asked.
Will broke the cadence of their back-and-forth with a long pause. Joe interjected on his behalf. “He’s working on it.”
He scowled at Joe.
“Working on it, eh? What does that look like?” Christina sipped her coffee and raised an eyebrow at Joe. “I may as well ask you, because he won’t tell me anything.”
“I’m not working on anything.”
“He’s very modest, you know, ” Joe smiled. “A lovely woman moved in across the street from us and he is a little sweet on her.”
“Will is sweet on a lovely young woman? That is sweet— And wait a second.” Christina pointed between the two men. “Do you two live together?”
“Well . . .” Will started.
“That’s sort of a long story. The short version is I am a temporary guest of his landlady.” Joe tapped his chest. “Recovering from a little scare with the old ticker. But speaking of sweet, his landlady is a very sweet piece of —”
Joe turned to Will. “What? I was just going to say that Pearl bakes a very sweet piece of pie.”
“That is not —”
“Well, it’s true. She does.”
“Of course she does. But —”
Christina laughed. “Seems like you two were made for each other.” She looked at her watch. “Listen, I need to get going. Big case coming up for a paying client.”
“Look, ” Will said. “Send me a bill for Nina.”
Christina punched him lightly on the arm as she stood. “I’m kidding, Willie. Glad I could help out. And clear our account.”
“Thanks so much for coming on such short notice. You’re a life saver.” Will stood and gave Christina a light embrace.
“Don’t be such a stranger, okay? Bring your lovely young lady with you next time.” She grinned at Joe. “And the sweet piece of pie.”
Joe let out a belly laugh and shook Christina’s hand. “I do hope to have her on my arm the next time I go anywhere.”
The two men stood at the table, coffee cups in hand, watching as Christina Sharp made her way between crowded tables to the exit.
Without turning, Joe said softly, “You have some stories it might be time to tell, Will Phillips.”
(to be continued)