In the clamor of the supper club, they were in a private bubble. The atmosphere of their table was stillness, while the patrons surrounding them were laughing and celebrating. Caroline swirled her drink in the glass. She was watching the dew form larger droplets on the side until they were heavy enough to slide down over her fingers. She avoided Frank’s gaze.
He in turn couldn’t keep his eyes off of her as he watched her in the table’s lamplight. She was getting old. Her face was tired, the corners of her mouth turned down, her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Frank still thought she was gorgeous, but he could tell she was sad. She had too much history. Too many hard times.
“Are you enjoying the music?” Frank asked.
“Huh?” Caroline returned from her reverie. Frank repeated himself.
“Oh, yes, she’s a lovely singer,” Caroline fed him a smile and looked away again over the balcony to the crowd. Frank watched her. They had run out of things to talk about a long time ago. For awhile they just stared at each other over their plates, now she barely made eye contact.
“Was your dinner okay?” he asked. She came alive again and picked up her fork.
“Yes, it was perfect as always,” she replied as she pushed the remains around on her plate.
“Do you feel like dessert?”
“No…no, I don’t think I can eat another bite,” Caroline laid down her fork again. Frank took his napkin out of his lap and stood up.
“Then perhaps you could humor me with a dance.” He held out his hand. Caroline studied him with a hint of suspicion before she accepted. She downed the last swallow of her drink and set the glass on the tablecloth with a clumsy thump.
“Fine,” she said without emotion. He pulled out her chair and she rose. He embraced her as the music strummed slowly below. She seemed stiff as he moved her, like a mannequin from a shop window. A mannequin dressed in the best clothes and wearing an expensive French scent. He held her even closer and her iciness melted a little. Her head came to rest on his shoulder.
Caroline was fighting her own battle inside. She owed Frank a lot. They were very old friends, but he was not an honest man. He was a gangster and there would always be danger lurking somewhere. Her nerves were frayed. Her life had always been like this, at least now she wasn’t on the run or rotting in jail, but she wasn’t living a normal life either. Frank had so many other things on his mind, including Margot. Caroline knew she would never be able to replace her. There would never be any children. She laid awake at night wondering if he would come home at all and one night it dawned on her that she didn’t really love him. She cared about him a great deal, but it wasn’t love. Tears were running from her eyes onto Frank’s shoulder.
“I know you’ve been keeping secrets, Caroline.” Frank’s words cut through her thoughts. He felt her tense up in his arms. “I know about the banker.” She tried to pull away, but his grip tightened.
“Frank, I…” she cried desperately. He pressed her face to his shoulder and shushed her. He whispered into her ear.
“I’m not mad. I’ve known for awhile that what ever we had was over, probably before it even started. We just remind each other of the past. It’s eating away at you. I can live with it, but you…you need a fresh start. You deserve it.” He released his grip on her. Caroline relaxed, but didn’t pull away.
“What are you saying, Frank?” she squeaked.
“I’m saying I’m letting you go. You ain’t happy here. If you think this guy can give you that life you deserve, then I’m happy for you.”
Caroline pulled back and really looked at Frank. “You’re not mad?” His hands still clung to her waist.
“I was hurt for awhile, but you’re my oldest friend, Caroline. I figured out how to understand. I don’t want you to be miserable, because you feel obligated to stay with me.”
Caroline started really crying now. She couldn’t believe what he was saying, but it lifted a giant weight off her shoulders. She started laughing, a giggle evolving into something uncontrollable.
“Now, are you going to tell me about this guy?” Frank cracked a smile. He set Caroline back in her chair as she struggled to catch her breath while laughing. He took his seat and she finally said it.
“Homer Birkenbauer, a banker from Philadelphia. We met while he was vacationing here last summer,” Caroline was still giggling. “And the best part about it…is that he has nothing to do with any of this.” She waved a finger around the room. “He is so formal…so law abiding…”
Frank grinned, “I always thought girls found men like that were boring.”
“Maybe girls do, but women who’ve been around the block a couple times don’t. Predictable. That’s what he is and dependable.” The waiter came by with fresh drinks and Caroline gratefully took a sip of hers.
“You know I want to meet this guy,” Frank said. Caroline sat up straight.
“What?” she said alarmed.
“Come on, I have to make sure you’re in good hands. Tell him, I’m your cousin or somethin’.” Frank shrugged. Caroline mulled it over and finally nodded.
“There’s something else…” she said. At the tone of her voice, Frank’s drink froze half way to his mouth. She leaned forward. The table lamp cast haunted shadows on her face.
“We need to talk about Cylus.”