Dead trees lined the restaurant terrace, their bark sickly black and peeling. From the otherwise bare boughs nearest the table at which Mark and I sat, a single green leaf dangled, wilting at the edges.
The sprinklers kicked on and moistened the tree beds with a gentle mist of poison. The other diners, men and women in pinstripes and power suits, responded with hums of satisfaction.
What am I doing here? I thought, grimacing at the décor in this gimmick-ridden excuse for a restaurant: Les Arbres Morts, where the cutthroat corporate crowd could entertain their clients in a setting that reflected their kill-or-be-killed, leave-your-sentiment-at-home ethos. Not the kind of place people typically chose for a lunch hour rendezvous.
Mark sipped his chardonnay, then followed my gaze to the lone dangling leaf. “I thought you’d appreciate this place. Something different.”
I picked at my overpriced and undercooked salmon. “I guess it’s not really my thing.” Not that I knew what my thing was. I had thought it might be Mark, all adventure and ambition, never afraid to try something new — the opposite of my husband’s stubborn adherence to the status quo. But I was beginning to suspect that Mark only craved new for the sake of new.
As crowded as Les Arbres Morts was, Mark had landed us a tree-side table where one was afforded the privilege of being both seen by and shielded from the rabble. The people passing on 54th Street peered through the dry, twisted branches, their gawking eyes dotting the empty spaces like some sort of freakish Halloween display.
Mark wouldn’t admit it, but he never could have gotten us this table for dinner. Only important enough for lunch, as the saying went. His ambition for more had always been part of his appeal, a sign that he’d never ditch his dreams for a beer and the sofa the way my husband had. But to see him sitting so comfortably amid such vulgar extravagance — was this really what he aspired to?
“I’ll confess, I get a kick out of watching the trees die,” he said, leaning back in his chair with an air of self-importance I once would have mistaken for confidence. “But when they get like this, that one damn leaf clinging to life . . .” He let out the kind of derisive laugh he usually reserved for conversations about his ex-wives. “Just pluck it off and put it out of its misery, you know?”
Easier to do with leaves than people, I thought. Unless you’re Mark. Yet here I was, thinking I was different than all those exes, so damn special that I’d never be plucked off to make way for a new leaf. That he’d never do to me what I was doing to my husband.
“I prefer to come here about a week after they’ve put new trees in,” Mark said, then added with his voice pompously lowered, “when you can see death starting to speckle the boughs.” He smirked, seeming to fancy himself a poet instead of a CEO. “But this . . .” He frowned at the dead trees. “Where’s the thrill when it’s all so clearly dead?”
Mark regarded me with one of his ultra-charming, white-toothed smiles — the kind that used to make me forget I was married. There was something shark-like about the smile now. I imagined him tossing his fork aside and ripping into his filet with only his teeth.
“You all right, kid?” he asked. “What’s with the curt, gloomy attitude today?”
“I hate it when you call me that. Kid. Like I’m a child or a goat or something.”
I took a long drink of my cabernet, tapping my left ring finger against the glass. When the sensation of the wine pouring down my throat went from pleasant to burning, I gave up. Mark was never going to notice that my wedding band was gone.
“I’m getting a divorce,” I said.
“Oh.” Mark stared at me, struggling to hold onto his smile. The clank of plates and silverware seemed to amplify around us, as if to drown out our moment of awkward silence. “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
Mark’s sudden wariness told a different story. It wasn’t our fast drives and whitewater rafting trips that thrilled him. It was the fear of getting caught with a married coworker.
I studied the trees, closer than I ever had before. A few people on the other side still peered through the branches, perhaps listening in on our conversation, but I had never noticed how most continued down the street without a glance or a care. We had surrounded ourselves with death, and they were fine leaving us here.
“My marriage was dying long before you came along,” I told Mark.
He frowned, and the look didn’t become him; it brought out his wrinkles.
“And this thing with us . . .” An hour ago I thought I’d be sighing with relief as I told him we didn’t have to sneak around anymore. Instead I felt like just another leaf, another impending death for Mark to revel in — at least for a time. I still didn’t know what I wanted from my life, but I grew suddenly certain that it didn’t include him. “Time to just pluck the leaf and put it out of its misery, right? I mean, I’m not married anymore. Where’s the thrill in that?”
Mark shifted in his seat and glanced around the restaurant, maybe longing to be part of the business deal going down at the next table instead of our conversation, or maybe already on the lookout for someone new. “Look, I — ”
The terrace’s sprinklers clicked off, and I wondered if the poison they dispensed seeped into more than the tree beds.
“Enjoy the new trees when they’re in,” I told Mark.
I stood and took one final glance at the dead copse surrounding us. That single green leaf, wilting at the edges, finally dropped to the ground.
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, and Intergalactic Medicine Show. Barbara lives with her husband in southern New Jersey and has been known to frequently burst into song. You can find her online at www.babarnett.com, or babbling as a member of the Star-Dusted Sirens writing group at stardustedsirens.wordpress.com.