Jealousy…For over five years, Cloud has been spared this stupid emotion. Griffin takes the team out for a night on the town. This is way outside of Cloud’s comfort zone. He’s a closeted agoraphobic. Seeing his beloved Jessica dancing with other dudes stirs up old feelings of hatred and envy. And as much as Cloud just wants to cast everyone off as his enemy, Jessica’s revelation about her past prompts Cloud to realize just how pitiful he is.
Chapter 10: The Most Annoying Emotion
By Rock Kitaro
Already my fingers are jittery. We haven’t even entered yet. For a Tuesday night, the place is friggin packed with large groups congesting the waiting area. It’s so bad that a line formed to curl around the brick walls outside. Most had been waiting for well over forty-five minutes, so I can understand their exasperated gasps as a self-assured Griffin leads us past the hostess like one of the mobsters from back in the day.
Josey’s Steakhouse is a popular spot on Broad Street in downtown Augusta. It’s loud with country guitar music flooding out. Passing pedestrians were prompted to give a little two-step as they traverse the popular thoroughfare. Broad Street was known for its bars and southern restaurants. It’s one of the main thoroughfares saturated with foot traffic every month on a little festival the locals called, “First Fridays.”
The place is dimly lit but bright enough to notice there’s nothing but white people in the building. That’s not a knock on race, just a glaring observation anyone used to diversity would notice. The restaurant boasts an authentic cowboy theme. Loud burly men in flannel shirts chug their beer at the bar in front of their sports. The rustic skulls of Texas longhorns hang above the main entrance and nearly every major beam. Lassos and haystacks are stationed in random places to give it that barn vibe and the waitresses look cute in their brown boots, jean shorts, and red midriff baring center knot shirts.
The dance floor in the middle of the restaurant is the size of a tennis court. As per usual, I locate all five exits and differentiate the uniforms of employees from the guest. I’m stepping on crunchy peanut shells as Griffin leads us to his favorite booth in the corner. Along the way, I notice timid glances from gorgeous women. I sensed their fear of upsetting their territorial dates. The men would simply glare over their shoulders and I, for some reason, made sure to smile submissively as if to say, “It’s okay. I’m not after your woman. Carry on.”
A glimmer of light catches my eye. I turn to the flames of the grill kitchen on the other side of the restaurant. Everyone is good looking and young. Everyone’s having a great time. The atmosphere is energetic and uplifting and suddenly I can’t help but think I’d rather be anywhere else.
My heart’s pounding. A migraine flares. Heat crawls up my neck and stretches to one side of my face. It’s chilly outside, but the moving bodies and racing hormones bring the room temperature up to a humid eighty-two degrees. I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea to wear my black slim-fitting, shoulder-padded sweater. I have it worn over a tucked in collared shirt and I feel the beads trickling down my abs. At least I’m in comfortable khakis. My legs feel great with enough room to breathe.
Griffin and Leanne are both nearing forty but they’re dressed younger than me. Griffin’s wearing a tight dark V-neck tee shirt with blue jeans and black boots. He looks like a ranch handling MMA fighter, to be honest. His pecs and biceps bulge with intimidating tone. Leanne is wearing a center knot blue denim shirt with a white body-wrapping blouse underneath. Her jeans sit low on those hourglass hips and they’re so tight that she has to carry the rental keys by hand.
Jessica is directly in front of me. She’s wearing a black tank top to showcase those smooth caramel toned shoulders. Her long silky black hair stops just above the groove in the center of her back and I can’t help but notice that she’s wearing a matching satin bra underneath. Her dark colored jeans sit low like Leanne’s, except I can see a thin tease of the dimples on her lower back each time her hips shimmied from side to side. I have to concentrate to keep from breathing hard.
We file into the corner booth with red padded cushions. It has a window view of the abutting brick buildings. The polished wooden table catches the light well. It mirrors the ice rattling in Griffin and Leanne’s whiskey glasses. In fact, the two of them are sitting awfully close to each other and while I’d normally shoot Leanne a cautionary glance, I’m too consumed with trying my best to maintain composure.
“Be cool. This is what normal people do. They go out and have a good time. Just be cool.” This is what I tell myself.
Jessica abstains from alcohol while Leanne orders my lime soda as a mother would to a child. She did this on purpose as a joke and I laugh it off just wanting to get the dinner over with. My looks, the way I’m behaving…I perform as if everyone in the dining area is watching me. They’re not, but I think they are.
Conversation begins with Leanne regaling over her production for the day. It’s boring police stuff that would make anyone wonder off and daydream but Griffin can’t get enough of it. It’s like Leanne’s doing stand-up over here. Oh god…a giggling Griffin shoulders into her. There’s a meeting of the flesh. Leanne’s heart flutters like a butterfly and that smile is showing way too much teeth.
Jessica’s laughing at their jokes but she keeps turning to exchange glances with me as if every shocking revelation deserves a jump of the brows. This is unbearable. Jessica is trying to ask me these deep philosophical questions to lure me into a conversation but it’s way too loud. There’s nothing more irritating than trying to talk about something deep and meaningful while competing with a ruckus. So I give short answers and quickly ask her for her opinion on the subject. She appreciates my attempt to engage and tries to reciprocate but I can’t hear a single word she says. I just keep nodding while throwing in clichés like, “exactly!” or “that’s so funny.”
After twenty minutes or so, our orders come out. Leanne’s lager is topped off. As a server sets sizzling steak fajitas down in front of Jessica, I reach under the shade of the platter and snatch up the keys to the rental car. Leanne squints at me. I squint back at her. Just like that, she switches back to a smitten schoolgirl as Griffin compliments the searing of her New York strip.
Opting for a lighter meal, I ordered lemon grilled chicken breast over brown rice. The rich citrusy smell is divine and uplifting, just what I needed. I’m salivating before I even pick up my sterling fork. And just as I hover the serrated edge of my knife over this tender chicken, I notice the tip of my blade is shaking. My nerves are tingling with a mild burning sensation seeping into my knuckles. My nostrils furl as I’m determined to steady my grip. I glance at Jessica to see if she noticed. So precious…She’s shoving a wrapped fajita in her mouth like a vacuum. She catches me looking just as she chomped down.
Laughter erupts with her turning away so bashful. “Why are you looking at me!? So creepy!” She snaps.
“Haha! Sorry. Hungry, eh?” I snicker.
“I haven’t eaten all day! Shut up! Eat!” She commands.
The meal is delicious. I finish it within three songs before sitting back and letting my mind return to the case at hand.
It enters my eardrum like an echo in a hollow cave. It’s nearing nine o’clock but it’s been sundown for over two hours. Why am I just now hearing Maggie’s creepy demands? I peer out over to the dance floor. A mass of bodies moves to a rhythm of the guitars. And hovering above them is a dark, almost organic smog. It wasn’t there when we walked in but I see it now. My gaze lifts to the ceiling. The place has been renovated over the past two years but the souls hovering above tell me that they perished in a nasty fire. Shadowy bulges of their faces press out from the smog as if they’re trying to escape but keep being pulled back in. There’s nothing I can do for them.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a cluster of souls like this. The last time was during my visit to Charleston, South Carolina. There was an old pirate ship that also perished in a fire. Unlike the pirates, however, these souls seemed relatively complacent and calm. Sad and miserable, but not like the belligerent pirates.
I react as if to a mosquito bite. And just over my shoulders I catch a glimpse of Maggie scowling through the reflection of the window.
“You alright, Cloud?” Jessica asks.
“Hey! Let’s dance!” Leanne shouts with haste.
Leanne…She knew I was about to say how tired I was and she didn’t want the night to end. This girl had a playbook for her game and it was only halftime.