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Brightly Lit Diners (These Dark Café Days)

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After Grace's plane pulls off the tarmac and disappears into the sky, she turns to Peter. Her eyes are wet, she knows, but she doesn't cry.  "Do you want…?" She hesitates. "Do you want to get dinner?" she asks. 

Peter sighs, and he won't meet her eyes for a moment, and she knows, then. "Forget it," she starts to say.

"It's just that I have someone waiting for me," he admits. 

She blinks; his honesty surprises her. "It was stupid," she mumbles. "Forget it, I—"

Peter nods, watching her, and he's given her everything she's asked for, lately.  She sort of assumed that it was guilt because he’s still sleeping with Ramona.  Or sleeping with her again.  Alicia’s not sure, and she really doesn’t want to know.  Now, though, she thinks that maybe she had him wrong.  Maybe it wasn’t guilt, but apathy.  That hurts, and she blinks the thought away.

 "So..." He trails off, and it's so awkward, really. 

She remembers the way she used to tell herself that his flaws were endearing, to believe his lies because they were pretty and easy and she loved him so much, back then. He loved her too, once. He lied because he loved her, she used to think. He said as much, after the scandal. I lied because I didn't want to hurt you, he had said. She didn't believe it, then, had snapped that he lied because he didn't want to get caught. The thing is, though, she did believe it, a little.  She believed that he loved her so much that he couldn’t bear the thought that his inability to control his impulses might make her cry.

Now, though, now he smiles and tells her the truth and she wonders where that love has gone, that flawed instinct that drove him to want to protect her.  

At home, later, she feels as if she’s crawling out of her skin, and when she closes her eyes to blink, she sees the ashes of her family laid out in front of her.  Zach hasn’t called in two weeks and Grace is gone and Peter— It doesn’t matter how many times she tells herself that it’s over, the thought of him with another woman still turns her stomach.

She’s on her second glass of wine when she reaches for her phone, impulsive, and texts Finn.  

What are you doing?

Scratching my nose, is his response.  

Now I'm taking a sip of coffee, comes a moment later.  

It’s cold, follows after another second.  I think it’s the cup I poured this morning, so that makes sense.

Should I continue?  Probably going to the bathroom, soon.  Could get awkward.  Will soldier on if it makes you happy.

Alicia laughs, in spite of herself, and calls before she can think better of it.

"I really do have to pee," Finn says when he picks up.

"After you do that, do you wanna get dinner?" she asks.  "I need to get out of the apartment."

"Yeah," he says, and he doesn’t hesitate.  "Half an hour?  That diner on Halsted?"

"The vegetarian one?" she asks.  "No.  I need bacon tonight.  And sausage."

"How about the one on West North, then?" he suggests.

"Wasn’t that the one that gave you food poisoning?" she asks.  "Or was it the one on North West?"

"It was the one on— I can’t remember.  One of them.  What about that one on Chestnut, with the skillets?"

"Perfect," she agrees. 

He’s waiting for her, when she steps inside.  There’s coffee on the table and he’s facing the door.  He smiles when he sees her.  His hair is finally starting to grow out, again, and she doesn’t know why she’s only noticing it now because it isn’t as if it happened overnight.  

"I ordered you a plate of meat, as an appetizer," he says.  

She blinks.  "You ordered—?"

"Meat," he tells her.  "Sausage, bacon.  Ham, too.  Why do you never order ham? Sometimes a bit of ham can be good."

That’s the thing about Finn.  He makes it easy to forget, sometimes, to fall into familiar patterns and jokes.  It’s why she seeks him out, when things are bad, why she celebrates with him when they’re good.  He was the one to find her, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror when she lost the election by ninety-seven votes, and he’s the one she called tonight, when the emptiness of her apartment was more than she could bear.  It’s funny, the way he ignores her when she says that she wants to be alone and yet there’s nothing disrespectful in his presence.

"What’s wrong?" he asks her, when they’ve cleared their plates and she’s switched from coffee to tea.

She wants to ask why her daughter leaving for college isn’t enough, but then, he sent his child halfway across the country, once, too.  Of course, he had a wife to go home with, someone to rub his back and remind him that kids came home for summers and holidays, that they grow up and leave and that it’s a good thing.  Alicia’s always hated goodbyes.  Ever since she was a little girl and her mom left, the first time, she’s hated goodbyes.  

"When I was a kid," she tells him, because it’s easier to say that than it is everything else and maybe he’ll understand.  "My mom— She was always going off on adventures for—"  Alicia looks down.  She didn’t mean to tell him this, to say this much.  "That’s not— The first time, I think Owen was maybe three, and he—"  She wonders, idly, if her aversion to people leaving was ever really hers.  "He kept waiting for her to read him a bedtime story."

Finn nods, and she can tell that he doesn’t get it, not really.  "You didn’t leave your kids, though," he says.  "I mean— When you left you husband—"

"I didn’t leave my—"

"When you and Peter decided to do whatever it is you’ve decided to do, you didn’t leave your kids."

They left me, she wants to say, but it’s bitter and unfair, and she doesn’t.  "I’ve never lived alone," she admits, and it hits her, as she says it.  She’s forty-six years old and she’s never lived in a space that wasn’t shared with someone else.  "That sounds so pathetic."

"No!" he protests then, on her look, he grins and adds, "Well, maybe just a little."

She laughs, a little, and it’s odd, laughing when she wants to curl up in a ball and cry.  "Am I supposed to turn the kids’ rooms into an office or something?"

"A sewing room," Finn says, and she can’t tell if he’s being serious or deadpan.  "That’s what my mom did with mine, when I moved out.  It made it really awkward, I moved back in for the summer after 1L.  Aidan was crawling, and I was so afraid he’d jab himself on a straight pin."  He smiles.

Alicia smiles back.  "The air conditioning unit," she admits.  "I used to be so afraid that Zach would push against the window unit, when he was learning to stand up, and it would go crashing down."  She shakes her head.  She hasn’t thought about that apartment in years.  We’re moving, she told Peter, when she found out she was pregnant again.  I’m not carrying another baby up those stairs.  She’d been so afraid of falling, then.

"Living alone’s not that bad," he says, after a minute.  "It’s actually kind of nice.  You can walk around naked without scandalizing anyone."  He grins.

Of course, now she’s picturing that, and from the way he won’t look at her, she’s pretty sure she knows what he’s imagining, too.  She wonders if that was the point of saying it at all.  "Is that really something people do?" she asks.

Finn shrugs.  "It’s, you know, you’re in the shower, you realize that you left the clean towels in the laundry basket, so you make a run for it."

Her imagination is quick and vivid, and she shakes her head but the image doesn’t clear.

"You’re picturing me naked right now, aren’t you?" he asks, leaning forward over the table a bit and dropping his voice.  "Naked and dripping all over the carpet, like I'm some piece of meat."

"No," she lies, but her cheeks are burning.  "I’m wondering what kind of a person doesn’t check for towels before he gets in the shower."

"Finn Polmar," he teases, extending a hand over the table.  "I believe we’ve met."

"Alicia Florrick," she murmurs, taking and shaking his hand.  It’s soft, and his fingers are soft, and she holds on for a moment longer than she really needed to.

He notices, she thinks, of course he notices.  Finn notices everything, and she knows that he must, because he says things, fills the kind of silences that could drag on forever with Will until she convinced herself that they knew each other so well that words were unnecessary.  She wonders if that’s where they went wrong, if they let their assumptions become their versions of truth.

"Penny for your thoughts," Finn says, and his smile is wide and bright but his eyes are concerned.

"Nothing," Alicia lies.  "I have no thoughts."

Finn laughs at that. "You're a terrible liar," he teases. 

"I'm not," she counters, but she's smiling. "What about you?" she asks.  "Tell me about your thoughts."

Finn rolls his eyes, and for a moment, she thinks he’s going to decline, but then he says, "My son’s been asking about his mom— his biological— Did I ever tell you about Zelda?"

Alicia shakes her head, blinks, and up until this moment it never occurred to her that someone besides his ex-wife was his son’s mother.  She thinks that it’s a fair assumption to make, but— "Tell me," she murmurs, and Finn does.

He tells her about meeting her at some karaoke bar in the Village during his senior year in undergrad, about sleeping with her a few times, always after too much to drink and not enough forethought or conversation. "Keep in mind, I was all of twenty-one," he says, as if he's defending himself against judgement that she has no intention of levying. 

"Finn," she says, gently. "I kind of assumed that you've had sex."

"Right," he says, and he looks down at the table. "Anyway, I proposed, because I was twenty-one and stupid and thought that's what you do when you get a girl pregnant—"

"It's what Peter did," she says, before she can stop herself. The thing is, she doesn't want to think about Peter, about the way her voice shook as she told him about Zach, about— "Sorry," she says to Finn's raised eyebrows. "Go on."

"You're going to tell me about that later," he says. "Anyway, she moved to Milan when Aidan was five months old and she never came back." Finn shrugs. "I think she's in Barcelona, now."

And his son is asking about her, Alicia thinks. She wonders what details Aidan's getting that she isn't, wonders what he's told her that he hasn't told his son. 

"He was still in diapers when I met Ann," he adds. "And after the divorce I probably should have expected him to ask but—"  He shakes his head.  "So, you were knocked up on your wedding day?"  He grins at her, as if her life is somehow more interesting than his own. She doesn’t think that it is, but then, she lived it.

"Two months," she confirms.  "C’mon, I want to hear more about you."

"My life’s an open book," he says.  "You, on the other hand— I didn’t think saints were allowed to have shotgun weddings."

"It wasn’t—" she rolls her eyes.  "He’d been planning to ask, anyway," she says.  She thinks about the way he kissed her until she stopped shaking, about the way he dropped down to one knee, pressed his lips against her belly and whispered that he'd planned to wait until after she took the bar, but— "He said he had, anyway," she says.  Now, though, she wonders.  "I don’t— I don’t understand, she just left?"

"Zelda?"  Finn nods.  "She was nineteen when he was born," he says.  "And I think— I don’t think she realized, don’t think either of us realized, just how much having a kid changes things."  He sighs.  "'He said he had'?" he asks, changing the subject.  "Sounds like you’re not so sure."

Alicia glances down at her empty teacup, for a moment, then looks up.  "Peter lies," she says, simply.  "That’s not exactly news."  Peter used to lie, she thinks.  He used to lie and now he doesn’t and I almost wish that he would.  "Wait, so you were a single father in law school?" she asks.  "How did that—?"

"You don’t want to see my transcript," he teases.  "C’mon, Alicia, you know how it is.  You’ve got kids," he says.  "You make it work.  My mom helped, and my dad wrote the checks for the nannies and the babysitters and the preschools, and instead of Goodnight Moon, his bedtime stories came out of my casebooks."  Finn shrugs.  "'Peter lies' isn’t really an answer, you know."

"This isn’t tit-for-tat," she says.  "This conversation, it’s not—"  She looks down.  "I don’t have any reason not to believe that he meant it," she says.  "I’m just— I'm in a weird mood."  He was about to finish his second clerkship.  She was graduating.  They were moving back to Chicago together.  It was time, and she had no reason not to believe it then, has no reason to doubt it now but—

The waitress walks by their table and shoots them a glare, and Alicia looks at the empty cups in front of them and shakes her head.  "She doesn’t like us," she whispers to Finn.

"But we so tip well," he says, and he seems momentarily confused as to why they should be disliked at all. "And we’re likable.  Well.  I'm likable."

She kicks him, under the table. He laughs and she reaches for her wallet.  "My turn, right?" she asks.  It’s not, but she hands the waitress her credit card before he can finish correcting her.  

"You can’t do that," he says.  "It messes up the system."

"You can get the tip," she offers.  "Or the next two times, if you think that’s better."

Finn sighs.  "What’s the point of making rules if you’re just going to ignore them when you feel like it?" he asks.  He’s smiling, though.

"Is that what I'm doing?" she asks.  "I don’t think it was a rule that we switch off getting the check.  I think it was… habit."

She thinks about all of the habits in her life, the patterns of her day that guide her and trap her at the same time.  She thinks about the way she still looks for Will’s name when she scrolls through the day’s missed calls, the way Peter has taken to answering the phone with what’s wrong?, how she lies to him, quickly says nothing, when the truth is, nothing is right.  She drums her fingers against the table and thinks about the way she glances at the towel bar as she’s adjusting the water temperature every morning, how lately she’s started spending too much time leaning back against the wall under the spray, eyes closed, waiting for— She doesn’t even know what.  

"It’s fine, Alicia," he murmurs, and he sets his hand across from hers on the table, not touching, but close enough that he could, that she could.

"I hate my habits," she admits in a whisper, and she lets her fingers go still, next to his.  

"So change them."  Finn shrugs.  "Do something daring.  Don’t pre-rinse the dishes.  Drink a glass of white wine.  Forget the clean towels in the dryer and—"

"Now you’re picturing me naked," she teases.  His fingers are warm, and so close that she can feel that, but they’re still not touching.  What was it he had said?  Like some piece of meat?

"Yup."  Finn grins. 

The waitress returns with her credit card and the slip.  She hesitates, then brushes her fingers over the back of Finn’s hand as she reaches for it to sign.  "I’ll tip," she tells him.  

She parked next to him, when she arrived, and it wasn’t really intentional.  Someone was pulling out, she saw his car, waited, and pulled in.  Now, they are leaning against it, and they’re not touching but they might as well be for all that she can feel his breath against her skin when he speaks.  This is how they get around the rules that they made, she thinks, because they meet in diners but they always have to leave, eventually, and no one ever made up rules about the parking lot.  This has become a habit, too, as familiar as anything.  They lean against one of their cars as they say goodnight, as they let the conversation continue and extend until it’s a a minute or an hour later than they’d planned to stay.  

"I don’t want to go home," she admits, softly.  "I know it’s stupid, but I—"

"But you’ve never lived alone," he supplies.  "I get it."

Alicia nods, watches him, lets her eyes dart from his eyes to his Adam’s apple and back, resting for just a moment too long on his lips.  There was a time when this thing with Finn felt inevitable.  It terrified her, then, feeling herself spin so far out of control, and she steeled herself for the moment when she would find herself in his arms and imagining someone else.  It never happened.  They have rules, and the inevitable is starting to seem unlikely.  She nods, then turns towards him, looks up at his kind eyes and his soft lips and, when she kisses him, she isn’t thinking about Will or Peter, she’s thinking about herself, about how long it’s been since she’s been touched, how terrifying it is to think that she might spend the rest of her life alone.

"Hey."  Finn pulls out of the kiss, after a moment, before she’s finished, before she’s let herself find any real comfort in his lips.  "Tonight’s a bad night to throw all the old habits to the wind."

"No, sorry, I'm sorry, I—" She stammers, humiliated, and she fumbles for her keys in her pocket, quickly unlocks her car door.

"Alicia—"  His hand is on hers, stopping her before she can get in.  "I just meant—"

"Please just let me go," she whispers.


The questions surprises her, and she blinks, stares at him for a moment.  She opens her mouth to say home, but the thought of empty walls is worse, somehow, than this.  "I shouldn’t have done that," she says, instead of answering.  "I—"

Finn shrugs it off.  "I’m just surprised it took so long," he admits.  He’s toying with the hem of her sleeve, staring down at her hands.  "It’s not that I don’t want it to happen," he says.  "It’s that I don’t want it to be— I don’t want to be someone that you want because you’re afraid to face the future."

"That’s not what this is—"

"No.  Not usually.  But tonight… I think it is tonight.  And I don’t— I don’t want to be used."

Alicia leans back against own car, stunned.  She should be angry, at the accusation, at the presumptiveness of it.  She’s not, though.  She’s not angry, or amused, doesn’t feel indignant, doesn’t even feel rejected.  "What do I do now?" she asks him, expression blank.

"You go home," Finn says.  "You pour a glass of wine and take a hot bath.  And tomorrow, you call me, and you say 'Hi, Finn, I know last night was awkward, but I’ve been unable to stop picturing you naked, and I think that it’s something we should explore.'  Or you say 'Hi, Finn, last night was awkward, and I'm sorry, but I think I'm happier being afraid of the things that I think might make me happy than I am with actual happiness, so can we forget it happened and continue being just friends?'  And we go from there.  But you have to face it, sometime."

In the end, it’s somehow not as bad as she thought it would be.  It’s late enough that she can pretend that Grace is just sleeping, down the hall, that it’s just another late night at the office and missed bedtime and you can use my card to order pizza, sweetie.  She drinks a bottle of wine in the bathtub, sets her alarm, and goes to sleep.  She dreams about Finn, and he is naked.

"I thought you might call," he murmurs when she does.  It’s early, and she can hear the sleep in his voice, hear the yawn he’s stifling.

She doesn’t answer, just listens to him breathe for a moment, smiles to herself, then murmurs, "I’m tired of being afraid."