I need peer-actualization like a fat kid needs cake. Please, review, dear friends. It gives me such incentive to write more.

Chapter 7

Noah was embarrassed to enter the restaurant, that bright room with a white marble pianoforte in the corner, wearing what he was wearing. In his former life, he had been to this place all the time. It was where all of his colleagues lunched, wetting their fresh greens with vinaigrette among white tablecloths. He was always sharp, well groomed and dressed. But there he was now, in his ugly brown untailored suit, his hair messed up from an earlier meeting with his secretary. How could he refuse? Their 'people' had made plans and this had been the place Sybil penciled him in for. He greeted the pretty hostess over the classical music softly playing in the background. She was the same one, the one that in his former life had always given him the bedroom eyes, the one that he amused himself with during boring depositions, the daydream he ran away to. He'd size her up from memory, toe to hair, weighing the pros of her appearance against the cons—long legs, large nose. Then he'd decide whether she was worth the effort—whether screwing her would make it easier or harder for him to get a nice table at his favorite place. Now, she barely even looked at him, and when she spoke there was contempt in her voice. But that was to be expected, he thought.

"I'm supposed to meet Mr. Saunders," Noah said to her. "Is he here yet?"

"Oh, of course," she said politely and nodded her head, "Follow me."

Matt was older, darker, but still the same. The same fucking pretty boy he'd appeared to Noah in his newly fabricated memories. He was dressed very well, and looked disgustingly self important. In fact, the first words Noah wanted to say were "Well, la di da." But he did not. When Matt looked up, Noah suddenly became aware of his own meager appearance and that at once humbled, angered, and terrified him. He felt as low and ugly as his clothes.

Matt's large, pearly smile stretched across his tanned face. He stood up and extended his hand to Noah, who shook it almost grudgingly.

"Well if it isn't Noah fucking Villiers," Matt said openly, confidently, like a man who had never known grief in his whole life. He was a caricature of himself, in all of his fucking perfection. With those perfect looks, that prim tailored suit, that manufactured smile. Noah would call him a sleaze-ball if he wasn't also so noticeably and unnaturally clean.

"Matt, it's been a while," Noah said. At least he supposed it had been a while.

"Oh, four years at least, if not more. So you can imagine my surprise when my secretary tells me Noah Villiers is on the phone."

"It was my secretary on the phone," Noah said, as if he had been affronted.

"Well, sure—sure," Matt added quickly.

"Yeah."

"Yeah."

It was awkward and silent for a moment.

"Well, what about you, Noah?" Noah broke the torrent of quiet. "Are you still—are you still married to Anna?"

When Matt said her name, it was as if the clown mask of confidence he was wearing on his face came off for a second and he was human again. But it came back almost as soon as it vanished.

"Yeah, I am," Noah said.

"How is she?"

"She's great. She works for Goldman." He had said it so nonchalantly, as if he knew Goldman personally. But he didn't, not really.

"Goldman and Johnson, you mean?" Matt asked. The prick, Noah thought to himself, assuming that Noah had just gotten the name of the firm wrong.

"Yes, them."

"That's impressive," Matt said. "I always knew that Annie—I mean Anna would go far."

He demonstrably left out Noah's successes.

"Meanwhile, I've been slaving under John Martin's ever guiding light for the past three years. Overwhelming stuff, you know. Damn near broke my back with all those ninety hour weeks I pulled. I've only recently made partner. Thought I could take a breath, but there is just so much to do."

"Oh yeah, definitely," Noah said. He remembered his sole client with her stupid divorce.

"And what about you? What are you up to these days?"

"Well—" in truth, Noah knew that this was coming. He should have prepared an answer that sounded genuine and self-actualizing ahead of time. But there he was, at a loss. He didn't even fully remember the history he had with Matt Saunders, but coming off inferior to him seemed like an unbearable thing. "I have my own firm."

"Own firm, huh? And how's that going for you?"

"Well—I know that's kind of a road less traveled but I figured I could probably take on cases that larger firms would never accept. I don't charge a lot. I represent the common people." That sounded so ridiculous. Common people? Who the hell was he?

"Oh yeah? That sounds incredible!" Matt said with more condescension than admiration, "That's something I've always thought of doing in law school. But man, you actually went for it. That's great!"

What Noah heard was this, "I was that dumb in law school. But then I wizened up and built up a successful career. You were one of the chumps who actually followed through on that idiotic goose chase."

Noah needed to change the subject.

"Well, what about your other life? Are you married?"

"I don't have much of the 'other life' as you so fittingly put it."

"No? It's hard to imagine you'd have trouble getting a woman."

"Oh, believe me, friend, I've got no trouble with that. It's the wife part that's hard. I'm not really looking. Haven't got the time or the energy—nor the girl worth all that time and energy that I haven't got."

"Then have you been dating anyone lately?"

"Well, there's Leddy Price."

"Wait—Leddy Price—the Leddy Price?"

"The Leddy Price," he said. Leddy Price was a New York based model famous for her luscious bee-stung lips. And among a few lucky contenders, for both sets of them.

"Wow, that's amazing," Noah couldn't keep himself from saying.

"She does lay the pipes down right," Matt said.

"Tell me about it," Noah sighed, "You lucky son of a bitch."

"I've got nothing to tell you. You've got Anna." The bastard would even trump Noah in that.

"Anna is no Leddy Price," Noah said, thinking that if he stated what Matt only implied, the effect would be less jarring.

"No," Matt said earnestly, even a little sadly, like someone commiserating with an old friend or remembering some long lost love, "Leddy is no Anna Vaughn."

--

Anna was reading the newspaper in bed when Noah entered. She had just returned from work and was still dressed in a gray, tailored suit that exaggerated her longness and thinness stretched across the mattress. Anna was not a woman of curves but rather of angles, and in the dimness of the room, the evening seemed to hang on her shoulders like a shawl.

"Hey, hubby," she said ironically.

He sighed and unbuttoned his ugly brown jacket. He knelt his elbow on the large brown dresser and buried his face into it.

"Hard day at work?" she asked him.

"How can you tell?"

"Want to tell me about it?"

"I got a client."

"A whole client?" her voice was both ironic and earnest.

"Yeah, yeah. A whole client. My first in a while, I gather." He took off his jacket and then loosened his tie, undid his pale blue shirt. His toned abdomen, downed with blonde hair, glowed, the shadowed suggestion of his pelvic bones angled downward into his ugly brown pants. She observed how beautiful he looked.

"I had lunch with Matt Saunders today."

Her eyes widened.

"Matt Saunders?"

"Yeah, we haven't seen him in a while."

"No," she shook her head, a little shocked, "no not since graduation."

"Has it been that long? Why, Anna?"

She shrugged her shoulders; her eyes glistened. "I guess—you two grew apart."

"Why?"

"You just did, I guess."

"Well, I invited him to dinner with us tomorrow. Is that all right?"

She looked stricken but did not object. "That's fine," she said.

They were silent again. He didn't get the chance to ask Matt what he really needed to know—why he was married to Anna, why he was the way that he was. Noah was too stricken by his baseness, his ugliness. And now he was inviting that cold, picturesque shark into his embarrassment of a living room, to his ordinariness of a wife. Why had he invited Matt? What was he trying to prove? Everything was so wrong.

"Damn it, Anna, where the fuck did I go so wrong?" suddenly broke from him. He wasn't expecting himself to say it, but there it was, floating between them, polluting the air. As if he sneezed it, that contagion—that admission of something he'd rather die than admit.

"What do you mean?" she asked him.

"I'm thirty years old. I went to Harvard law. How the hell did I fuck up so bad that I'm stuck in that no good pro-bono hole? Tell me Anna," he moved toward her, knelt his knee on the bed, "I don't know why or how but you know me better than anyone—you must or how else—" his voice broke. He moved forward, to where she sat up on the bed. He felt compelled by her closeness and began pleading, "Tell me, please, what was my mistake? Where did I go wrong?"

She looked a little frightened for a second. Then her face softened, her eyes softened, all of her seemed so soft he was sure she'd melt out of his sight at any moment.

"You were too brave," she said, "Your mistake was that you were too brave and too good. You could have had my job—my boss's job—but you chose to be better, and being better is so much more difficult than being rich. But listen—the others in our graduating class—and me as well—we were all cowards and opportunists and realists—but you wanted to help the people."

"So I sacrificed myself? Everything I wanted to be? All of my ambition—I gave it up?"

"No," she shook her head. Her eyes were moist as she placed her soft palms on his cheeks. "You never gave up on your ambition. That is why you are where you are—because no matter what life dealt you, you kept your principles. And that is why when I am forgotten, when everyone around us is forgotten, you'll be remembered, you'll leave your mark on the world. That is why I married you."

That was why she married him? For the first time in his life the thought struck him that Anna, too, had made a choice. All this time he had seen their marriage like some burden inflicted upon him, something he needed to bear because the events of his life had simply aligned a certain way. Fate had forced him, and he had no choice. He thought he was doing Anna Vaughn some sort of favor. But there she was, telling him that she had a reason to marry him—as if there was a possibility that without all of that so-called ambition and goodness—his looks or charm notwithstanding—she might not have fallen in love with him at all—he might not have deserved her at all.

"But come on, Anna. It's all good and proper to help people, but it doesn't even seem like people want much of my help. If they did, I'd at least be in a bigger office. With more—I don't fucking know—renown."

"Hey, you, pull yourself the hell together," she said sternly. He almost expected her to slap him. "Now let me tell you, professional capability has nothing to do with renown. I've got a coworker, name's Nick Doozer. Complete asswipe, obviously made it up on connections. Had his job handed to him on a silver platter. Is complete shit for brains. Fucks around instead of doing work and still has the audacity to complain about my promotion over him."

"He sounds like an asshole," Noah said.

"He is. So, don't you even dare think that way, you hear me? You've got this one client. Just one? Well, one is a hell of a lot more than zero. So listen to me, hit this one out of the ballpark. Kick ass, my friend, and I promise you, after enough asses are kicked, people are going to start wondering who it is that's kicking all these asses."

"You're still such a dork," Noah smiled a little.

"I haven't changed? Even a little?" she cooed with a softer, quite sensual voice.

"You know what's weird?"

"What?"

"At the moment, I wouldn't really want you to."

A few tears streamed down her cheeks. She pressed her lips to his, and he felt their warmth mingling with the saltiness. Noah was free for a moment, safe, complete. But then something disaligned again and he knew that everything was still wrong, that even that afternoon he had done the same thing to Sybil, that he didn't really want to be doing this, or even if he did, he didn't deserve to. He pulled away and the surprise on her face could have broken his heart if he had one.

"I have to go look over some work," he said to her. "It will take a while. Go on to bed without me, all right?"

"Sure—yeah—good luck with work," she said.

He walked out of the room.