The tray didn't just hit the for. It crashed and smashed his lunch to pieces. Serves you damn well right she thought. You were staring again.
He looked down at his hands and shook his head. Suddenly she got up and moved towards him. She hadn't intended to, hadn't wanted to help him. She called to the woman behind the counter. She closed her mouth and brought a cloth to clean up the mess. She picked up the fallen silverware and pieces of a broken bowl, put it all on the tray. There was a stain on the arm of his shirt and through it you could see just how bony his wrist were. Like the rest of him. All bones, loose shirt and hanging jeans. Stooped shoulders and mile-long arms. Then he smiled at her. A wonderful smile that creased up his worn face and totally surprised her.
She shoved the tray at him and went back to her table.
She worked at Fox Studios as a script reader and ate lunch in the canteen. She had noticed him because he stared at her. He was weird-looking. He was bald and his clothes were ancient and dull; washed out jeans, worn at the knees, and a faded blue pin-stripped shirt frayed at the collar. Often he sat alone and just picked at his food. Or he read and jotted things down.
A few days after the crash, he stopped at the table she was sharing with Vincent from the mail room, and asked if he might sit down. She said the seats were taken and continued eating. He apologized and took his tray off somewhere else.
“What's your problem, Angela?” asked Vincent.
“No problem. He's weird. Besides, he's twice as old as me.”
“Weird? You've got room to talk, you're a 35 year-old woman who lives alone except for her blind dog, and whose biggest adventure is driving to this place.”
“Izzy is very loyal.”
It was Vincent who told her more about him. He had gone over to get another Perrier. By the time he came back to the table, her head was stuck in a book of poetry.
“Doesn't say much, was a rising star once. He's got bungalow here. Never gets any mail,” said Vincent.
She decided to find her book more interesting. Finally Vincent shuts up and gulps down the rest of his Perrier before pushing his chair out to leave.
“Asked your name," he said.
“You told him my name?”
“I told him everything about you.”
Angela's nose wrinkles.
“Why you'd do that?” he asked.
Angela looks up from her phone. “Asshole.”
“He said you look familiar,” said Vincent. “Like someone he knew.”
“He doesn't know me.”
“You forget, I know who you've slept with.”
“Ancient history. I'm no longer sleeping my way to the bottom.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I gotta go.”
She didn't do much work that afternoon. She kept wishing Vincent hadn't said what he had said. She made a few mistakes in her career, trying to sleep her way to the top was just one of them and being reminded of her past didn't help her get enthused about the pile of crappy scripts on her desk.
A few days later she took along a pile of scripts to read during lunchtime. When she got to the canteen, the old man was already standing by the entry door. He greeted Angela and she had to reply but didn't smile. They were alone and that made her nervous. Don't panic, she thought. Just because he's stared at you for ages, it doesn't mean anything. He's too old, not your type she thought. Besides, you've given up sleeping around at work. You have given it up, haven't you she thought.
“What do you think, should we go in?”
She'd been so busy wondering what he was going to do and expecting him to do something, that she'd completely forgotten to do anything herself. She felt like an idiot and this made her smile and she hadn't wanted to. He smiled back, his brown eyes crinkling right up to his ears and making him look ... nice. Then there was a slap. Her scripts hit the floor. She bent down and so did he, and they bashed heads. At that moment the doors seemed to fling themselves wide open. She was so embarrassed, she marched through the door without looking back and stood in line at the counter. She ordered without looking at the menu and took her tray to a table where there was only one empty seat. She breathed a sigh of relief and began to eat. But the salad stuck in her throat when she noticed that everyone else at the table had already finished lunch and they were getting up to go. She glanced over at the counter. He was paying and in a second, his eyes would scan the room to find her. She ducked her head. Waited. Any minute now he'd sit down with his tray.
“You left this one on the floor," he said. "The title is awful. May I sit down?"
His voice was gentile. Cultivated. What could she say? The tables were all pretty full so she nodded. He said bon appétit and began to eat. She'd always thought he picked at his food. But as she watched, she noticed that he selected small pieces, speared them and moved them carefully to his mouth.
“Have you been there?”
“Been where?” She was totally dazed. From dropping her book and banging her head and everything.
“Barcelona. Spain. Where the film is set.”
She stared at him and thought again of what Vincent had said about her reminding him of someone. A Spanish girl? Maybe an ex-girlfriend or wife?
“It's not an unusual question," he said. “You're old enough to have had a fling in some far away land.”
His smile crinkled up his eyes.
“But I haven't. A fling I mean. Well, not in a faraway land anyway.” she blushes. “What about you?”
“Spain? A few times in the sixties. Last time was a film for Roger Corman.”
“My mother was in a Corman film once,” Angela said.
That's how it started. He asked her a question, nodded when she spoke and then asked another. They talked about film, food, poetry, all the stuff she loved.
Days later William passed their table with his tray and spontaneously Angela said a seat was free. Vincent stared at her and she felt a rush of heat to her cheeks.
After that, William often sat with them and the three of them discussed a lot of things. They spoke a little about themselves too. Vincent said he really wanted to be a writer, but nobody would read his work. Angela talked about her mother wanting to be a famous actress and had to settle for being a bit player in B movies before the drugs took over and she died. William said he'd been in love once with a girl he met on a movie set but it hadn't worked out for them. When they were alone Vincent asked Angela how come William and her always had so much to talk about.
“He's easy to talk to. And he reads poetry. I love poetry."
“You two got so much to say, I don't get a chance to open my mouth all lunch-time." Vincent pauses. “You sleeping with him?”
“But you're thinking about it?”
“He hasn't asked.”
One lunchtime William asked her if she'd like to go to a reading with him.
“Um. Don't know," she replied.
“Maria Sanchez. Nominated for a National Book Award last year."
She wanted very much to go. But although she no longer thought William quite so weird, she wasn't sure she I wanted to go out in his company.
“Afterward, I'll cook us curry. Do you like it?”
“Come by my bungalow at 6. You'll have to drive. That okay?" he asked and smiled his soft smile.
It didn't surprise Angela that she nodded.
After the reading and the curry dinner, Angela drove William back to his bungalow Inside there were more books than she'd ever seen on anyone's shelves. She began to read the titles.
“Help yourself," said William.
“Thanks. But if I read a book, I have add it to my collection.”
“Strange, same here." He waved his arms towards the shelves.” But look where it's got me."
“I'd hate to be without books. They're ... friends."
“That sounds a little lonely," said William.
She turned and pulled out a book.
“Am I what?”
“I don't think so, not anymore anyway.”
“What's that mean?”
Angela's voice came from a distance as she tried to answer him.
“I'm choosy about my friends. Don't have a that many."
“I'm listening," said William and sat down, indicating the armchair opposite him.
“My childhood was sorta fucked up ... I mean, my mother loved moving around. She had no trouble being a gypsy. She slept with almost every man she met. I hated it! Books, film, poetry were the constant things, so I buried myself in them."
“Hell, sounds familiar."
Angela moves closer to William's chair, she leans in to kiss him. He blocks her kiss with his hand.
Perplexed by his rejection, Angela recoils and runs out of the bungalow.
Despite the awkwardness of that night, Angela's friendship with William grew but her curiosity remained. Who did she remind him of? Her mother? If so, could he be her father? Although her Mom had never bothered with books, their physical similarities, apart from tallness, were undeniable. She had never told Angela much about the man who had fathered her. A nomad like me was all she said. Once though, when Angela had been ill with chicken pox, and hot and scratchy, her mother had relented.
"What was he like?"
"Skinniest man you ever saw."
"Where'd you meet him?"
"By a fountain. Italy, I think. Maybe Mexico, Spain, someplace like that. I was catching some rays and these papers started blowing in my face. I was a bit cheesed off at them blowing all over me and then this man comes running. He grabbed and grabbed but couldn't catch them all. So he just stood still, a helpless look on his face. It was so funny, I started laughing."
"I helped and we chased all over the place after them papers. When we sat down to get our breath back, he told me he was an film writer, hoping to be a director. Can't remember what the film was he was on. Something I'd never heard of then or since."
"Why didn't you marry him?"
"Marry him? God, Angela, the answer is staring you in the face. Friends, we were friends. We're talking the sixties. I wasn't ready to marry and he wasn't the type I'd have wanted to marry by a long shot. We were friends, why spoil that?"
"What else did he look like, Mom?"
“Enough questions. Get some sleep."
Angela's mother saw the disappointment in her daughter's face, and said she would write it all down for her. She promised to put it in an envelope to open when she was dead and gone. Angela was happy with that. On a wet, slick highway, driving to Bucharest for the first day of a film shoot, Angela's mother was involved in an accident and died instantly. Angela was eighteen then and on own but when she sorted through and packed up the belongings in her mother's flat, she felt like a child again. She looked for the envelope but didn't find one. For a long time after, her mother's death and not knowing who her father was, she became her mother and drifted from relationship to relationship.
One lunchtime she just decided to brave it and ask William who she reminded him of.
"A girl I met in Spain," he said.
"Was she an actress?"
"She didn't behave like one. That was what attracted me to her. She was ... so different."
"What were you like?" Angel asked. “Like? Much as I am now. Bookworm, bit of a loner. Not very interesting. Not for a live wire like she was."
"Go on," she said.
"She was pregnant. I was very happy until she told me she didn't want my help. Thought she'd change her mind, though, as the pregnancy advanced but when I attempted to see her, she told me to leave her alone. I was very hurt but accepted her refusal to involve me. A few weeks later, I took a job I'd been offered in Canada. I thought it would be for the best."
"Was it? " Angela asked.
"No. I went back to Spain. Looked for her, but couldn't find a trace."
"So you never knew whether it was a boy or ...?"
"A girl?" asked William.
"I found out later she'd supposedly given the baby up for adoption. I should've stayed with her."
Angela sat there, trying to take in what William had said. She felt as though she'd been flattened by a truck. Still, she wondered, was he lying about possibly being her father.
"I thought perhaps it was a daughter."
"Beg your pardon?"
"A daughter. Me."
"You thought I was ... your father?"
"Poetry, curry, I'm tall. We ... we like the same things."
"We definitely have things in common but I'm not your father." He looked at her. I'm so sorry to disappoint you, Angela.”
She tried to smile.
“It's impossible for me to be your blood father. Had a bad case of the mumps as a child. Orchitis it's called. I'm sterile."
"We definitely have things in common but I'm not your father." He smiles at Angela. "I'm so sorry to disappoint you."
Angela tries to smile.
"We're not related but we can be something else."
She looks blankly at William.
"Can't you think of anything?"
"Ummm … No."
"It's been staring you in the face for weeks." William's use of that phrase made Angela burst out laughing.
"Let me in on the joke sometime," he said.
"Okay," she said. "Tell you sometime seeing we're friends."
Then she smiled. And Angela's smile was as wide and warm as the one he smiled in return.
Jake James is a writer living in California.