He panted as though he had just sprinted with all his energy. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Hold on, what's going on!?" said a sharp voice.
His breath caught with fear. Had she caught a snippet of Catherine's voice? Had she heard it all? If so, he was in deep shit. Joking aside, she may actually kill him. Or perhaps she just might hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit, make him suffer eternally for defamation or inflicting emotional suffering or some other charge he didn't really understand. In his panic, he started to ramble.
"Nothing, it was just a work call so..."
"That's not what I mean. Your phone!"
"What? My phone?"
"Why did you just change it!?"
"This? Oh, yeah..."
He took the phone out of his pocket. She seemed to be angry that Vincent had changed the model without telling her. Apparently, she hadn't heard Catherine's voice. Of course she hadn't. If anything, it would be a surprise if she could hear the voice of whoever he was talking to inside the noisy café. He let out a sigh of relief.
"The one I've been wanting finally came out last week..."
"It hasn't been that long since you switched last time, has it? You could have got more use out of it."
"Yeah, you're right."
He was used to being scolded like this. It was several times better than her finding out about his affair.
"Didn't you only recently get a new computer, too? All you ever do is throw money away."
It did still irritate him, though. She folded her arms across her chest, glaring at Vincent.
"You're going to have to take more care with this kind of thing from now on. You know what I mean, don't you?"
"Yeah, I get it."
"I guess it's okay as long as you're working hard. I'm going to have to take maternity leave, you know."
The unusual term "maternity leave" set off something inside him. Reality began to set in. If they got married, he would be nagged like this day after day, year after year until he died. Everything he did with his money would be monitored, as of course would how he spent his time.
His phone rang again inside his jacket. Taking it out, he saw that the call was coming from the same number as before. It was Catherine calling. He really wanted to answer. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to complain about this awful situation - no, he wanted to laugh about something else entirely. He wanted to forget what had been thrust upon him. But he couldn't. He didn't have the courage.
Vincent wordlessly switched the phone to silent mode, tossing it into his pocket. It continued to vibrate for a while, but finally went quiet. Despite it being obvious, something he'd caused himself, he felt somehow abandoned. Katherine went on talking opposite him.
"Oh, but I do want to go back to work after the baby's born. We'll have to split up the housework, so get some practise, okay? You can't just go tossing your clothes all over the place anymore. Also..."
Katherine's voice went in one ear and out the other. He couldn't concentrate, however hard he tried. The café seemed to be even more packed than before. All of the seats were filled.
"...So I think you'd better start being careful about saving money. You'll stop drinking at night, won't you? It's not cheap, you know. I'll manage the bank account by myself..."
She would make a very efficient wife. Whether I'm with her or not we'll be together; isn't it more important for her just to be able to say she has a husband? he thought anew. He was just a symbol of her status - nothing more than an accessory. Seeing this vision of the future made him realise that it wasn't only the future when this would happen, but that he was already in a situation quite like it, which only made him more depressed. This time, Vincent put in his own sugar, sipping the cold coffee.
"Great, I made it in time for lunch!"
He spat out his coffee. Liquid sploshed over the edge of the cup. It was her voice he had just heard for sure. The voice he had only just heard on the phone.
"Hmmmm... I'll have a blood orange granita!"
Coffee entered his windpipe, causing him to cough more. He set the cup back on the table. Taking out a crumpled handkerchief, he roughly mopped his clothes and face. He glanced at the entrance on the verge of tears, but couldn't see her characteristic blonde hair. He didn't think he was mistaken, though.
"Hey, are you listening?"
Katherine grabbed her fork, slamming it down onto the dessert on her plate, thrusting it deeply into the cake. The bang caused the tableware to bounce up with a clatter.
"You're not a child. At least drink your coffee properly!"
He hurriedly wiped up the coffee spilled on the table. Even as his hands moved, he avoided her gaze. Where was she? Was she really here?
"You've been acting strange this whole time."
"N-no I haven't. This is what I'm always like."
He heard the slightly lispy voice again. She was definitely here.
"I don't mind being in the smoking area."
"Hey, is this the smoking area?" Vincent asked Katherine, dropping his voice.
"Huh? Yeah, I think so."
So it was. Now he realised that there had been an ashtray on the table all along.
"Oh, that's right. You're going to have to quit smoking now, okay? It's not good for the baby."
Yet another order restricting Vincent's freedom. She made him think of a cruel prison warden, but that was the last thing on his mind right now. This was terrible. Catherine could turn up in the neighbouring seat at any time. If she saw him, he was screwed. In the blink of an eye the warden transformed into an executioner, sitting Vincent in the electric chair and wrapping rope around his neck, jabbing a needle into his arm.
"M-my stomach hurts!"
Vincent grabbed his stomach in desperation, doubling over.
"What?" Katherine responded, sounding confused.
"I'm going to the bathroom! I'll pay, you just go on ahead and leave!"
"Wait a second...!"
She tried to stop him, but Vincent slipped around her. He bumped his leg against the table. The tableware clattered loudly, attracting the stares of all of the nearby customers, but there were no young blonde women amongst them. Actually, he didn't know for sure, but at least Vincent couldn't spot her.
Stepping out into the aisle, he stumbled further inside. He walked like a boxer who had taken a body blow.
"Okay... I'll ask my parents when they're free!" Katherine called after him. She was telling him to meet her parents. If he did, it would be impossible to say no to marrying her. He certainly couldn't ask her not to have the baby. She was denying Vincent any means of escape. She thought this was for the best. She honestly believed she was making the right choice for Vincent.
Vincent didn't turn around. He didn't want to think about anything. Wanting to just run away from it all, he collapsed into a stall in the men's toilets. As he did so, the phone began vibrating against his chest again. So she had seen him, then - with his girlfriend. Even she would get mad and tell him off. He took out the phone timidly, bringing the screen up to his face, and an unfamiliar number was displayed upon it once more. Was it a call from a client this time?
He sucked in a breath, then slowly exhaled. Prepared to hang up at any time, he cautiously pressed the call button and put the phone to his ear.
"Is that you, Vincent?" said a forceful male voice he had never heard before.