"Hey - are you listening?"
The sharp voice dragged him back to reality. His girlfriend, Katherine, sat opposite him. The eyes behind her glasses glared at Vincent. She left an intense impression, but would definitely be classed as a beauty. She, like Vincent, was 32 years old, but could pass for five years less than that.
She drummed her carefully-maintained nails on the table as though nervous. Beside her fingers was a cup of cappuccino that had just been at her lips. Steam rose from its surface. Noticing this, Vincent finally remembered that he had come to a café.
"Sorry. I guess I'm kind just of tired."
"Are you alright? You've been looking kind of out of it this whole time."
"I've been working all morning."
Lifting his own cup, he gulped down the contents. He could hear the sounds of other customers conversing and the clatter of cutlery from around him. It was mid-afternoon and the café was dazzlingly bright, the atmosphere excessively sanitary. Putting down the cup, he massaged the corners of his eyes with his fingertips.
"Looks like you're working pretty hard."
Katherine's fingers ceased their tapping on the table, her expression softening.
"Nah, I'm sorry, really."
"Why are you apologising?"
"I was late again today. Meeting up with you. We hardly made the movie..."
"It doesn't matter that much; don't worry about it."
The waitress passed by, refilling Vincent's cup with coffee. Watching this, Katherine spoke again.
"Anyway - were you paid extra for it?"
"Extra? For what?"
"Working on your day off. Like for this morning, obviously."
"I... don't really know."
"You're impossible, aren't you? You need to keep an eye on these kinds of things."
"You're apologising again!"
He felt his fatigue double. He was grateful that she was worried about him, but he was uncomfortable with the way she talked to him like she were his mother, and the way she seemed to look down on people. To avoid her gaze, Vincent reached out for his steaming cup. Taking a sip, the bitterness permeated his mouth. He frowned unconsciously.
"Here you go. Two lumps."
Without delay, Katherine reached out and plopped sugar cubes into his cup.
The white cubes were dyed black, sinking down into the liquid. When he looked up, Katherine was watching him intently.
"Hey... How many years is it that we've been together now?"
They were childhood friends, so they had known each other for a long time. It was only in the last few years that they had begun dating, however. So many things have changed in that time, he thought. They had laughed more together when they first began dating. If nothing else, he had felt that they were both on an equal footing. Did she feel the same?
"My parents have been calling a lot lately. Asking me how things are."
"I'm not getting any younger, and I guess they're worried about things. They get that I'm busy with work, though," Katherine said almost in a whisper, lowering her gaze.
"Things are just fine as they are, though, right?"
It was an irrelevant topic. Perhaps she wanted to keep living the way she was, but that wasn't what her parents wanted.
"Well, I guess..."
Vincent thought a little, trying to come up with the least offensive answer he could muster.
"Simple is best, though, right? You never know what's coming next..."
"I suppose so."
Her face glum, Katherine rested her chin in her hands. It didn't look like he'd given the response she was looking for. Vincent searched deeper for the right words, when she grabbed her bag and stood.
"I guess I'd better go."
"Really? That's pretty sudden of you."
"Didn't I tell you from the start I didn't have much time today?"
Picking up the bill, she began to walk.
"Come on, hurry!"
Vincent stood up. Realising that he still had coffee left, he drank it down in a single gulp where he stood.
The bar was packed with groups of people who had finished work for the day. Their chatter and the smell of alcohol mingled with tobacco smoke, filling the room. Vincent rested his elbows on the table, staring absent-mindedly up at the TV on the wall.
"In the case, the body of a young man was found in the home he occupied alone..." came the faint voice of the female newsreader from the speakers. On the screen was the exterior of a building not that different from Vincent's apartment, the kind you might see anywhere. Yellow tape reading "KEEP OUT" was plastered across the entrance. Police cars and ambulances appeared to be at the scene.
"The exact circumstances of his death remain as yet unspecified, and the police are looking at the case from all angles. The police have been pursuing a similar line of enquiry these past few months in the wake of several similar suspicious deaths, and..."
"Doesn't that mean, 'Marry me!'?" Jonny said, putting his sake cup down on the table. He, his junior Toby, and Vincent sat around a box seat. It had been a custom of theirs these past few years to meet up with good friends there on weeknights.
"You really think so?" Vincent asked in reply.
When he thought back on it carefully, he could only think that this was what Katherine had meant during their talk that afternoon. She had taken an interest in Vincent's job, and looked in despair at his mention of "simple being best"...
"Are you sure it's not something else?" Jonny said in surprise, letting out an emotive sigh. "So, marriage, huh. You've been with her for ages, since you were kids..."
"Take it easy, Jonny. Nothing's settled yet."
"You don't want to marry Katherine?"
Brow furrowed, he peered at Vincent. That's kind of a tough question, Vincent thought.
"It's not about Katherine..." He put his thoughts into order. "I've just not thought about marriage. I guess it doesn't feel real."
As Vincent worried about his problems, Toby down sat beside him, holding his portable gaming device and calling out, "Ah!" and "I'm falling!". He was around ten years younger than Jonny and Vincent, and still seemed like a mischievous kid.
"Aw, I died!"
Toby threw his head back, tossing the game system onto the table. Vincent sighed, returning to his conversation with Jonny.
"I just... Getting married all of a sudden is kind of awkward, I suppose. We've been so at ease until now."
"Both of you?"
Jonny laughed sarcastically, pouring more sake into his cup.
"She said herself that's the way things are. Work comes first right now, or something... She's always been the kind to do whatever she wants. You know that, right?" Vincent argued vehemently.
"You can't go on like this forever, though, can you? Someday, other things will come up... like a home, or a family. You'll have to think about these things one day."
"Maybe, I guess. That time's definitely not now, though."
"Are you sure?"
He gazed over with a teasing glint in his eye. Ignoring the question, Vincent took a gulp from his glass. "That's not for someone like you to say when you spend most of your time single, huh?"
"I've just decided that when I get married it will be to my soulmate, that's all. I'm not like you. I've told my current girlfriend plainly that I have no intention of marrying her."
"Damn, that's cold. Can't believe she's down with that."
"That's the kind of girl she is."
"What if you don't meet your soulmate?" Vincent asked.
"Then I just won't get married. Isn't that obvious?"
"Woah, Jonny! You're so cool!" Toby interjected. There was no tension in his voice or behaviour. He had no idea how long he'd been listening, but Vincent suddenly began to feel like it would be stupid to keep talking about marriage.
Jonny seemed to feel the same. Changing his tone, he asked, "Anyway, have you heard about Paul?"
"Nope. What's up with him?"
Jonny hesitated momentarily with his reply, but eventually answered, "It looks like he's dead."
"What? Paul? You mean that Paul?"
Vincent only knew one Paul. The last time they'd seen each other was probably at their class reunion a few years back.
"Dead? But he's our age!"
"I'd heard that he got divorced, but he seemed fine enough. Came as quite a shock."
"How did he die? Was he in some kind of accident?"
"No. Looks like his mother found him dead in his bed in the morning."
"In the morning?"
They both looked up at the TV.
"They were talking about sudden deaths from unknown causes on the news before too, right? It looks like this keeps happening lately," Jonny said, his voice dark.
"T-that's freaky! Are you serious?" Toby shrank back in his seat.
"Maybe tomorrow morning we'll be dead, too," Jonny said, as though talking to himself.
"It must be some kind of story the press have made up again, right? It's a coincidence," Toby said, taking a hearty glug from his mug of beer. He drank it down noisily, then let out a satisfied sigh.
"Honestly. At least one of us an optimist," Jonny said, and Vincent nodded deeply.
"Whaddaya mean? I have my own troubles too, you know?"
"Sure you do," Vincent said dismissively, taking another sip of his rum and coke. The cool liquid ran down his throat, the alcohol in it warming his stomach. As he put down his glass, Jonny opposite him stubbed out his cigarette and stood.
"Huh? Leaving already?"
"Yeah. I have to be up early tomorrow."
"Stay for a bit longer. I kinda don't wanna go home today."
"Then have Katherine come join you."
"I just saw her this afternoon."
If anything, he honestly just wanted to get away from her and everything to do with her.
"I don't know how to act when I see her. I don't feel like discussing anything too deep."
"Fine." Jonny shrugged his shoulders. "Honestly, what does she see in you?" Grinning sarcastically, he crossed into the aisle, taking Toby with him. "Anyway, sorry. I really do have to be up early tomorrow."
"Guess I can't stop you, then."
These days, they had fewer and fewer opportunities to drink through the night. For the most part, they couldn't manage it anymore. They really had aged - so much so that it was about time they started thinking about getting married.
"Don't get too drunk, alright?"
"Uh... well then. Sorry, Vincent, I'll be off." Toby nodded lightly. He worked at the same place as Jonny.
"Yeah, see you later."
He watched them leave, then looked back down at his own glass. Suddenly, the four-seater booth seemed uncomfortably large. Katherine was 32 years old. She would be thinking about having kids, and that might be why she alluded to getting married. But Vincent couldn't imagine himself taking care of kids. Other people's children were one thing, but how was he meant to connect with his own child? No - Katherine wouldn't just suddenly talk about kids. She was surely just looking to be able to call herself married, given her age. It was just the kind of person she was. Marriage is the natural thing to do in a woman's mind, so of course it was expected for her to feel the same way. But still...
He couldn't think straight, so he downed a few more glasses. How long had passed? Someone was talking to someone somewhere in the distance. They seemed to be having an argument. One was a young woman. Her companion was an elderly man.
"I-is that so? Do as you wish, then."
The latter seemed to be the voice of the bar's owner. He remembered it from having heard it so many times before. There was a break in their conversation, and light footsteps drew closer.
"Um... It's really packed in here. Is it okay if I sit here?" he thought he heard someone say.