Stuart had just spilled some coffee down his windpipe, and was coughing convulsively when Marsha saw him. The veins of his long, thin neck bulged in an exaggerated way. His face was crimson, his forehead damp with perspiration. His dark hair leapt about his head violently with each convulsion. The entire coffee shop had fallen silent.
Slowly, the coughing subsided, and Stuart looked down at his cup of coffee. It was full and still piping hot, but suddenly Stuart had lost his urge to imbibe another drop of it. It looked to him sinister now, not because it had almost killed him, but because it had embarrassed him in public. He stared at the coffee cup because he did not want to know how many people were looking at him. He didn’t want to count the faces which seemed concerned against those which betrayed amusement. Not again.
This was the only reason Stuart could not see Marsha standing before him with a rapidly waning expression of anticipation on her face. Her eyebrows, which had been raised, were falling, as were the corners of her mouth. Marsha was a plump, red-haired woman who did not like to be ignored. She was one of those overly sensitive types who could not stand being disapproved of in the most insignificant ways. She interpreted Stuart’s failure to look up as a tacit gesture of reprobation, and she fixed him with an accusatory stare. Still, Stuart’s eyes gazed downward. Marsha cleared her throat, “Stuart.”
Quite stunned by the apparent closeness of the voice, Stuart started and looked up.
“Did I startle you?” she hissed.
“Marsh—hack, hack—excuse me. Marsha—hack—how are you?” Stuart said this somewhat self-consciously. Surely she had witnessed his recent mishap.
“Didn’t you see me?”
“No. I had no idea you were here. Do you usually come here?”
“I could have sworn you looked right at me when I was at the register paying for my coffee.”
“I swear I didn’t see you. Do you come here often?”
“Every day. Shall we?”
It was 7.30, and the ten minute walk to the office awaited them. Ordinarily, Stuart would have come up with some excuse to avoid walking with Marsha to the office, as she was unpleasantly loquacious. However, his embarrassment had not diffused completely, and he wanted nothing more than to leave the cramped coffee shop. Marsha chirped like a magpie the entire way to the office. She didn’t seem to consider that her father’s ulcer and the events of one pretentious show called The Big Bang Theory held no intrigue for Stuart. But he was scarcely bothered by Marsha’s chatter. His mind was elsewhere as he strode down the cold, bustling street that morning. He had been involved in a heated argument the night before with his wife, Susan. He couldn’t remember what it had all been about, but the argument was symptomatic of the strange terms they had been on for the last six months. They nitpicked at each other and fought incessantly. The source of their unhappiness together was a mystery to Stuart.
The office was dark when they arrived, but not vacant. at the far end of the room, Stuart descried an active monitor illuminating the features of a face which he did not recognize.
“That must be the new accountant. He was supposed to start today.”
The man sat very still, gazing intently at the screen. Marsh headed for the light switches whilst Stuart made his way across the large room to meet the new accountant. The lights flickered on just as Stuart approached and the man looked up. Two dark eyes warily regarded Stuart from behind a pair of large, thick-rimmed glasses.
“Stuart Lyman. Are you the new accountant?”
“Yes. Constantine is my name. I am very pleased to meet with you.” Constantine had a strange accent which Stuart could not identify.
“Where are you from?”
“Have you been here long?”
“No. This is my first time to be in your country.”
Stuart sensed, in Constantine’s responses to his inquiries, a sort of reticence. He supposed it was due to the novelty of his situation; new city, new language, new job. He decided to end the conversation out of courtesy; let him warm up as it were.
“Well Constantine, I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Constantine nodded sheepishly and quickly returned his eyes to his computer screen. Stuart surreptitiously observed Constantine that day. He did not seem to be interested in “warming up” to any of his colleagues, as he was unforgivably shy. He took his breaks and even his lunch hunched in front of his computer screen, like a woodchuck in a freshly dug burrow. Whenever he was addressed he would behold his interviewer with apparent trepidation, his head tilted slightly back, and his eyes seemed to cower behind the thick black rims of his glasses. He had a habit of pressing his index finger against the bridge of his glasses repetitively whenever he spoke, as if to adjust them—the adjustment was never needed. He also blinked very decidedly, like an incredulous man would after seeing an apparition.
At dinner, Susan was somber, and Stuart was struck with a premonition that a crisis was imminent. They were eating a casserole which Susan had prepared earlier that evening, and it happened to be very good. Despite his feelings, Stuart ate the casserole greedily.
“This is very good dear.”
Susan said nothing. She lifted a forkful of the casserole and dumped it lethargically back onto her plate. She had been doing this repetitively, and it was beginning to annoy Stuart.
Stuart looked up. Susan’s hazel eyes focused on his in a very determined way.
“I am leaving you.”
Stuart gazed blankly at the preoccupied faces of the people standing opposite him in the tunnel. The noise of the approaching subway grew louder. He almost smiled as he reflected on what those people would witness momentarily. I’ll ruin their evening, was his thought. Stuart thought he could make out a familiar face in the crowd. Yes, that of Constantine. He was smiling; smiling an unusually self-assured smile. Was he with someone? Yes, a woman. Their fingers were interlocked as they stood waiting for the southbound train. The face of the woman was one which Stuart could recognize in his sleep. Susan.
A sudden sharp pain in Stuart’s chest seemed to take his breath away. He heaved a sigh of disbelief. It could not be so. Stuart strained his eyes to get a better look, but the oncoming northbound train obscured his view. Stuart stumbled backward, as if in shock, colliding with an elderly woman who had been standing behind him. She nearly toppled over.
“Excuse me young man!” she hissed angrily.
Stuart didn’t bother with an apology. He scampered past the old woman and up the stairs. He weaved his way through the foot traffic to the southbound side of the tracks. The train had already arrived when Stuart descended the busy stairway. He could see the back of Susan’s head as she boarded the train with Constantine, her fingers still interlocked with his. Stuart boarded one car behind to avoid being seen.
They got off at Market Street, and Stuart followed them out of the station. They walked slowly, hand in hand for two blocks before disappearing into a large brick apartment building. Stuart’s depression had evaporated, and he was now filled with rage. He couldn’t understand how this had come to be. He stopped short of the entrance to the building. His chest was heaving and his face had become excessively hot. Just then, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“Stuart, are you all right?”
Stuart turned toward the voice. Marsha.
“What are you doing here? Didn’t you say you had an apartment on the north side of town?”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m—I’m having dinner with an old friend,” he lied.
“That’s nice. Oh, don’t you know, Constantine is my neighbor. I just found out last week when I bumped into him on the elevator. And he’s got a nice, pretty girlfriend too, just moved in to live with him. He works fast, that fellow. Four months and he’s already got a live-in girlfriend. You wouldn’t think he’d be the type. Is there something the matter, Stuart? You look white.”
Stuart was not accustomed to being the aggressor. The large black-rimmed glasses seemed ready, for the first time, to fall from the tip of Constantine’s nose, he was shaking so. They were on the roof of the office building. Constantine had come at Stuart’s bidding. Stuart had told him he needed financial advice. Constantine had not expected to be pinned against the wall, looking into the eyes of a crazed man. He hadn’t expected his pants to be moist with hot urine just then. Stuart was gripping Constantine’s collar with such force that part of it had become detached from his shirt.
Stuart became cognizant of the fact that he was a much bigger man than Constantine. Constantine was diminutive, and his smooth round face gave him a childlike appearance. It occurred to Stuart that he could kill him now if he had wanted to. His power over the piddling accountant seemed absolute. But Stuart had not intended to kill the man. He wanted only information. He wanted to know why his wife of three years had left him without a word. Stuart had planned to be civil, but his emotions had overridden his capacity to conduct the interrogation sensibly. As soon a Constantine’s insufferably timid face had emerged from behind the door, Stuart had seized him like a ravenous lion about to devour its prey. Constantine was trembling uncontrollably. Remembering his initial intentions, Stuart relaxed his grip on Constantine’s collar. He could feel Constantine’s pulse racing like a rabbit.
“Susan is my wife.”
“Wife? Your wife? How can she be married?” Constantine raised his unsteady hand and placed his index finger on the bridge of his large glasses as he said this, repositioning them high on his nose.
“We were married three years ago. She left me in November. Look, she hasn’t talked to me since then, and I need answers. I want to know why.”
“Mr. Lyman…sir…I—I don’t know why she left from you. I met her one year ago on the internet. We met through an online dating service, you see. But I did not know that she was a married woman, she—she never told me this fact. Is it true?”
“Yes! And you stole her from me.” His grip on Constantine’s collar tightened again. “You must stop seeing her at once, Constantine! Now that you know, you must put an end to it. Do you understand?”
“I am sorry. It is too late. I love her. I came here to be with her. If I lose Susan, I will have nothing!” These words came out boldly, a strange juxtaposition against his trembling body and his distorted, cowardly facial expression.
Stuart seemed momentarily stunned by Constantine’s words, but still he held him fast. Stuart hated everything in that moment. He hated Susan. He hated Constantine. He hated money. He hated class. He hated capitalism. He hated progress. He hated history. He hated science. He hated nature. Stuart felt that he had been betrayed by everything he had known to be inherently good. They had all conspired and moved against him in some way. Now was his time to move.
Constantine was the first to fall.