Update! Huzzah! The next chapter may take a little longer to get up, since it's as yet half-finished (though the chapter AFTER it is basically done). Please review! I'm sort of a review whore!

P.S. Interesting theory from one reviewer… glad this is making you think about it. )

Chapter Four

When Jack left for Tennessee to visit his son, Israel smoked more, and he smoked cigarettes instead of his pipe. He hated it when Jack left to visit his son. He and Jack had that deal, the one where it was understood they were mutual surrogates and oh how he missed Jack. He was envious of Jack's son and his undeniable claim on Jack's paternity. Israel knew he didn't appreciate it. He missed Jack. He used to smoke Menthol cigarettes when Jack was gone, for that had been what Laurel smoked and when Jack was gone, he spent all his time with Laurel. When Laurel left him, he knew he couldn't smoke them anymore, because they made his mouth taste like hers. He bought plain tobacco cigarettes instead, a different brand even. He would forget her or die trying.

Last week he had put the final coat of beige paint down in his apartment, in the last room to be painted (the bedroom as it were). Halfway through painting, he'd been struck with a first line, but he'd kept painting. He was afraid to write it down because a first line could lead a second line which could lead to a chapter which could lead to a book which might lead to getting over her, and he didn't want to get over her, he just wanted to forget it had ever happened at all. If he wrote a novel, the whole affair would be recorded forever.

The thing he hated most about Jack being gone was eating lunch alone, which he did dutifully at the artist's café they ate at every day. Eating alone, without your customary partner, is an awkward thing like a shirt on backwards, or a sock on upside down. On the third day of the week when Jack left for Tennessee, a woman Israel worked with, and knew from graduate school (in truth, he had dated her in grad school), asked him to have lunch with her and he reluctantly consented, though he refused to even hear of eating somewhere other than the café. Israel was a creature of habit. He frequented maybe four restaurants in all of Chicago, had always used the same dry cleaners, and couldn't conceive of a new barber.

Mary Ellen Schumacher remembered Israel fondly from her days at the University of Chicago. He was always a bit awkward and standoffish, but he was brilliant and for the young political theorist, that was very attractive. The truth was, and they both told the story this way, was that Mary Ellen had had a bit of a crush on her professor Jack Bennett, and Jack had had a bit of protégé, that being Israel, and so he'd suggested she pursue him instead. They'd dated for four months, until graduation. Israel went to work for the Heartland Institute and Mary Ellen began teaching at a college on the coast, but she'd ended up being tempted to the Institute. She was one of the leading experts in the field of democratic theory. Israel had feared when he was dating her that she might be more intelligent than he was.

They had a stimulating discussion over lunch. There were elections going on for the first time in Iraq since the American invasion (one she supported and he did not), and they traded ideas and barbs back and forth. She knew more about democracy than he did, and he knew more about electoral law. He was instantly transported back to graduate school, back when he was still idealistic, and very openly liberal. Mary Ellen was a moderate, but in the truest definition of a neo-conservative, she was one. She believed in the spread of democracy, by any force necessary. She was socially liberal. Israel was the son of a socialist and union organizer turned businessman. They'd had the most spirited debates. If they hadn't had them, he would have tired of her within minutes.

Israel found Mary Ellen attractive. She had fine facial features and curly dark hair, some in spiraling ringlets that framed her face immaculately. She was undoubtedly pretty, though quite insecure. He found that attractive too. It struck him odd. When he was with Laurel, he'd never really thought of other woman, but now that she was gone (and she was gone, he had grown to realize she wasn't coming back, though he'd never thought she was going to), he found it absolutely liberating to objectify women, and he would call it objectification, not out of chauvinism (which he would point out was a synonym for jingoism, not an antonym for feminism) so much as accuracy.

He smoked his cigarettes and Mary Ellen scowled at him and in a scene right out three years ago, quoted cancer statistics. He grinned and blew a smoke ring into the air. She asked him to have dinner with her and he froze.

She had worked with him for six months now, and they'd never spoken about it. It was this giant pink elephant between them. He shifted nervously. "I'm afraid I'm leaving to go visit my mother tonight," he told her and it was true. He was thankful he wouldn't have to lie, although he was a skilled liar. "I'll be gone all weekend."

"Some other time, then," she prompted.

"Yes, perhaps," he said vaguely, and she caught it. She nodded. She told him she enjoyed lunch with him, and he agreed that he also had. She suggested they get back to the office and he enjoyed walking with her the two blocks. It was still winter, but spring was pushing through, and the temperature, though not warm, was manageable. The sky was clear. He felt very happy.

He had not disclosed to her that he could have had dinner with her, because he was taking the last train from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, the 8:30 train, which would bring him to Madison just before midnight. The dinner would have been rushed however and he'd rather eat alone. He loved his mother very much, but she was a mother, after all, and he'd like just a little more alone time before seeing her.

He left work at 4:30, a half hour earlier than normal. Upon entering his apartment, he breathed deep, inhaling the scent of newly painted walls. He liked the smell, oddly enough. Minerva the cat did not, but she had not enjoyed the entire painting process, particularly the increased amount of grooming she had to do after being splattered with paint. Israel, who was adept at so many things, was not a skilled painter.

Halfway through making dinner, there was a knock on the door. Israel pulled the pan off the stove, setting it on a potholder and after shutting off the stove, answered it.

Laurel stood outside his apartment, carrying a medium-sized box. Before he could ask her why she was there, she spoke. "I just thought I'd bring over some stuff you'd left at my apartment," she told him. "I mean, I figured it was about time to." She handed him the box, which he took, stepping back to let him inside her apartment.

He didn't speak—he was completely speechless. Minerva mewed happily and rubbed against Laurel's legs. Laurel, who was allergic to cats, but inexplicably fond of Minerva (much in the way she was inexplicably fond of the cat's owner), knelt down to pet the feline.

Israel was in shock because seeing her answered questions he had. This thing that he was so convinced had happened had two possible outcomes and seeing her confirmed everything. He shook inwardly, but forced himself to appear calm. "Thank you for bringing them," he said mildly. In the box were clothes, toiletries, a half-empty bottle of cologne. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince peered out, dusty as ever. He set the box on the kitchen counter.

"You're welcome." She scratched Minerva behind the ear before standing up. "How are you, Israel?"

"I'm well, thank you." He bristled. He hoped she didn't catch it, but of course she had. "How are you doing, Laurel?"

"I'm great," she told him, and she meant it. Outwardly, her life was a happy one, filled with good friends, a validating job, and occasional lovers. The truth was that Michael had been right because inwardly, she wasn't happy at all. Someday she'd learn what was good for her, but until then, when she was alone at night, she'd never be happy. "I threw a party last night. Did you get my message?"

"Yes," was the only response Israel offered.

She cocked her head at him and moved from the entryway into the kitchen. "Why didn't you come?"

"I didn't feel like going through the motions anymore," he said, and then his lips flattened into a bitter frown. Even though Israel wasn't bitter at her, there were aspects of the situation with which he found himself quite hostile. His bitter frown transformed itself into a sneer and then a contemptuous smile. "You and your parties. Always throwing your parties to cover up the silence."

"I don't throw my parties to cover up the silence," she said acridly. "I throw my parties to dazzle myself. I have sex to cover up the silence."

"You have sex to feel human," he replied, contradicting her. "That has nothing to do with the silence." If he knew that he wasn't supposed to know her so well, he'd shut up, he really would, but Israel didn't really get things like that. "You have sex because you enjoy it. You need your parties and your social circle and your loud, expressive stories much more than you'd ever need sex."

"You should have come," she replied. She wasn't going to dignify the rest with a response or so she told herself. For the most part he was spot on, the only discrepancy being slight differentiations in definitions of silence and need. She didn't want to argue it with him because there was a high likelihood he'd win.

"I'm afraid I can't do that," he told her and rummaged through the box. There were several books there, not just The Prince. They had been gifts he'd given them to Laurel. He was slightly hurt to get them back. They were things he'd wanted to share with her because they meant so much to him. He'd never expected them back, and besides, there were already four copies of The Prince on his bookshelves. "It's beyond my control."

"What is?" she demanded. Her eyebrows knitted together in concentration. Perhaps if she peered hard enough she could see right through him. He stood still for a moment, returning her gaze with an unprecedented intensity. Immediately she wished she were back in bed with Michael, Michael who knew her just as well but was better at hiding it. But even this level had been beyond Israel before. Israel had never looked at her quite like that, with quite so much an air of certainty. In the past, his proclamations had seemed almost curious, as if she were research project, but this time, he acted with the boredom that perhaps an expert in a specific field would take when discussing the subject with a novice.

He must know her secret, she realized.

"The circumstances that have brought all this on, I'm afraid they were quite beyond my control. I suspect they were also beyond yours."

"Why can't we just be friends?" she shot back, though the remark and its retort were entirely unrelated. "I'd like us to be friends. I'd like you to come to my parties."

An ironic look came over his face and firmly, quietly, he answered, "I'm afraid that's no longer an option."

"Why?" The demand was firm and harsh and left no room for diversion. He froze. Minerva had climbed onto the counter and was sniffing at the pan he'd removed. As if out of body, he turned and picked her up, idly stroking her head before setting her on the ground. Standing in his sweatervest and tie, he looked liked a deer in headlights, and man who knew the answer, but didn't like it. Finally he spoke.

"I loved you," he said, simply and helplessly. He threw his hands in an awkward show of surrender. "What's more, I still do." She could hear the resignation in his words. He didn't like it, and he often felt hopeless for it, but he was slowly resigning himself to loving her.

"I'm sorry," she replied evenly. "I don't love you anymore."

"So it is just like you said it would be," he replied, and shook his head. "But it's not. This isn't how it was supposed to work out, because you're lying and you did love me, and I was supposed to leave you. That's how you said it would be. I didn't leave though. A year later I was still there."

"I don't love you," she replied. "I don't think I ever did."

He shook his head spitefully. "Liar."

And there it was. It was the first time he hadn't caught on. She couldn't be lying because she didn't know, so by default, she guessed she was lying, but not the way he thought she was. She honestly had no idea anymore whether or not she'd loved him. One of the reasons she'd wanted to bring his things back that night was perhaps she might figure it out. If she saw him, she might know, but she was looking at him and she was even more confused. She couldn't tear her eyes away from him.

"You'll have to accept it eventually." She'd told Michael things hadn't changed and she felt like she was forcing change and so it wasn't changing at all. She knew she couldn't engineer change. That had been Israel's problem. He'd wanted to leave it up to her discretion but set things up in such a way that really, she'd only have one option.

Israel was quiet, as if digesting that bit of information and then he spoke, harshly and firmly. "Regardless of how you think you do and don't feel and how I think you do and don't feel, I still love you, so I'm afraid I can't come to your parties, No, I'm afraid I can't answer your correspondences." He looked away. She still stared. "You know, I feel foolish for loving you, and in my entire life, I'd never felt foolish before. Arbitrary as it seems, it's like the sky falling. I feel foolish and I can't sand the vague possibility of being laughed at, so I'm afraid I can't permit myself your friendship. No, I really couldn't come to your parties again"

She didn't reply immediately because her first reaction was to yell at him for his arrogance and his stubbornness. She hated that he would stop this just for the sake of his ego, but there was a real chance she had started it for the sake of her ego, so it wasn't fair to yell at him. "You've painted your apartment," she said suddenly. She'd just noticed it so she told him she hadn't noticed at first.

"I thought the beige would be a welcome change," he replied. "I thought it was such a change you might remark on it at once." That was why he felt foolish. When he was painting his thoughts had wandered to her and what she would say the night she showed up at his apartment. He had imagined making small talk about paint colors, not parties. He had fantasized about this night so often. "I couldn't think with the white walls anymore. I couldn't write."

"Are you writing a novel?" she asked him.

"I've got a title and first line, as promised." He looked away, walking over into the living area of the apartment. He stood by his bay windows, looking out into the night. "That's all I really need. I imagine it'll write itself." He didn't mention he refused to write them down.

"Let me know how it ends," she told him quietly. There was an awkward silence and she shifted her weight back and forth nervously. "I'd be curious to find out how it all turns out."

"We'll see, I suppose," he said nonchalantly. "You know, I look forward to the day I can look you in the eye and tell you, I don't love you anymore."

"I'm looking forward to it too," and she knew she was lying. It comforted her that he still loved her, made her feel like maybe she hadn't messed things up so bad. It confused her though because it indicated it had been real. She realized it was beyond her control, because as long as he still loved her, she could not simply invalidate everything there had been between them. He had told her once that if this was going to end, it wouldn't end on her terms or his, it would just end, and she thought she had proved him wrong when she skillfully and completely removed him from her life, but lingering thoughts and the knowledge he still loved her proved that it hadn't ended at all.

"I suppose you're right though," she said thoughtfully, but with a hard edge to her voice. "Until you stop loving me, I suppose the thought of being friends isn't an option."

"No," he echoed quietly. "It's no longer an option."

She nodded and turned to go. "I like the beige, by the way." He gave her a tightlipped smile and thanked her, saying he liked it too and then she was gone, and he was alone in his apartment.

It's no longer an option, he repeated to himself, and tears pricked at his eyes, but he hadn't cried in so long that it seemed impractical for it to start up now.

He returned the skillet to the stove and resumed cooking his meal, an attempt to push her from his mind that failed dismally. He ate his meal, slightly burnt, quietly and quickly. It was 7:30 when he finished, so he was thankful he had already packed.

He went to his room and got his tote bag, and a pad of paper and a pen. It was three hour train ride. Outside his apartment, he hailed a taxi. The Bulgarian driver paid him little mind as he slid in the backseat. Israel pulled out his cell phone and called information for Mary Ellen's phone number.

She picked up on the third ring. "This is Mary Ellen," she barked into the phone, but never abandoning her sugary sweet feminine tone. He told her it was Israel, calling to see about that dinner date. He told her he was going to be home by Sunday evening, if she wanted to have dinner then. She did. He smiled to himself and told her he'd see her then.

An hour later on the train, he stared at the pad of paper he had brought. As Laurel's memory loomed, he decided to write down just the first line, the one that had come to him as he painted his kitchen. Once he had done so, he knew it would lead to a second, and a third, and so he stopped, put his pad away, and stared out the train windows. There would be a time for writing later. He knew just where to start: at the beginning.