After dinner, William tried to beg off and return home; his largely sleepless night, combined with his busy day and some lingering jet lag, had begun to catch up with him in spite of his nap in the park. But Charles looked so disappointed at this abrupt end to the evening that William relented, agreeing on a quick after-dinner drink.
“Excellent!” Charles said. “And I know just the place. I doubt you’ve been there, and it’s an experience you can’t miss.”
The bar Charles had in mind was in the Fairmont Hotel, a bastion of somewhat stodgy elegance. William was relieved; any bar at the Fairmont would be exclusive, comfortable and, above all, peaceful. Sipping cognac while ensconced in a leather armchair, perhaps with jazz music in the background, would be a pleasant way to wind down before heading home to bed.
They passed through the hotel lobby and Charles led the way to the elevators, stepping into one whose doors stood open. He pressed the “T” button.
“T?” William asked. “What does that stand for? Terrace?”
Charles grinned, his eyes twinkling. “Tonga.”
The doors opened, and William heard the sound of a pop-music band churning out a song he vaguely recognized but hadn’t heard in over a decade. “What’s going on?”
“Relax, Will,” Charles retorted, stepping out of the elevator. “It’s called the Tonga Room, and it’s kitschy and lots of fun.”
“Wonderful,” William said. “Just what I was hoping for tonight. A kitschy bar where they play bad pop music.”
“This is a quintessential San Francisco experience, my friend. You just don’t know how to enjoy yourself.”
As he and Charles proceeded through the bar, William stared at the decor, incredulous. Fish nets adorned the walls, accented by artificial flowers and fish. Fake palm trees, tiki torches, hurricane lanterns, and wooden statues abounded. The wooden plank floor was reminiscent of an old ship, and the decorator apparently suffered from a misguided fondness for wicker furniture, a style that suited the theme but that William despised.
They seated themselves at a table for two next to a railing. After William finished inspecting the thatched roof above him, a deep frown creasing his forehead, he studied the worst element of all. Not content to hint at a nautical theme, the establishment had placed its band on a raft that floated in the center of a lagoon.
“Let me get this straight, Charles. You’ve taken me for a quiet after-dinner drink at a ridiculous-looking bar where a bad band drifts around a swimming pool playing ‘music,’ to use that term loosely. And you imagined that I would find this enjoyable?”
Charles’s shoulders shook with his silent laughter. “The Tonga Room is supposed to be a little kitschy; that’s the whole point. But as tiki bars go, this one has a lot of class.”
“A dubious distinction, to say the least.”
“C’mon, yank that big ol’ stick out of your butt and have some fun.”
William concluded that the only fun to be had would be by Charles, who was clearly deriving a great deal of amusement from his discomfort. “I don’t suppose they have cognac here?”
“I’m sure they do. But in this atmosphere, why would you want to order cognac?” Charles signaled the approaching cocktail waitress. “Two mai tais, please.”
William’s worst fears were realized when the drinks arrived in mugs shaped like coconuts, complete with gaily colored paper umbrellas. “I never imagined that I’d need to say the words, ‘I refuse to drink something that comes with an umbrella in it.’”
Charles reached over and snatched the umbrella from William’s mug. “There. Not an umbrella in sight.”
William was about to answer when the room was filled with the recorded rumble of thunder.
Charles grabbed William’s arm. “Watch this! It’s the best part.”
As William’s frown grew deeper and more bewildered, sheets of simulated rain fell from the ceiling into the pool. Two couples dancing near the lagoon were apparently sprayed by the downpour: they jumped away, laughing uproariously.
“Don’t you love it?” Charles asked, his eyes more alive than William had seen them all weekend. But when William’s frown stayed firmly in place, Charles sighed and his enthusiasm fizzled. “Look, Will, I get that it’s silly and not at all your style. But I haven’t had any fun in ages. I’m working hard, and Father is almost satisfied with my work, but ….”
William reached gingerly for his drink, which didn’t look quite as ridiculous without the umbrella. He inspected it warily, removing the stem of mint leaves hanging over the edge.
“All right, I’ll say it,” Charles continued. “I hate it, all of it. I hate my job, and I spend all my time missing Jane and my life up here. Sure, the weather and the surfing are great, and that was enough when I was sixteen. But not anymore.”
Charles’s distress pierced William’s self-absorbed disdain. “I had no idea things were that bad. Whenever I ask you how you’re doing, you always say that everything is fine.”
“I’ve been trying to make the best of it. But I don’t know how much longer I can stand it. The only saving grace is that I’ve gotten much closer to Mother.”
“Oh?” William wasn’t impressed by Charles’s mother, a wraith of a woman who trailed in her husband’s shadow.
“She hasn’t had the easiest life, dealing with Father all these years. We’ve been spending time together when he’s not around, and I know she enjoys having me in LA. If I left, she’d be alone with Father again.”
“That’s a good man,” Charles said. “Drink up, and let’s get into the spirit of things. I need to have some silly, meaningless fun tonight, okay?”
William was appropriately chastened. “Okay. I didn’t mean to … rain on your parade.” he quipped, smirking, as the ersatz rainstorm ended.
“Now, that’s more like it!” Charles gulped his mai tai. “You’ll be disco dancing with a little umbrella between your teeth before the night is over.”
“I seriously doubt that.” But William smiled in spite of himself.
Charles’s prediction didn’t materialize, but once William jettisoned his disapproving attitude he discovered that the Tonga Room wasn’t without some potential for entertainment. He still found the entire concept perplexing, unsure why as elegant an establishment as the Fairmont had built a monument to questionable taste in its basement. But by the arrival of the third simulated rainstorm, he found himself greeting the periodic downpours with a surprising degree of enjoyment.
It was entirely possible that the mai tais were a factor in the improvement of his mood. The empty mug from William’s third mai tai sat on the table beside him, and he was seriously considering eating the alcohol-soaked fruit, reasoning that it was a wiser choice than ordering a fourth drink.
I wonder what Lizzy would say about this place. His eyes drifted shut and he imagined her standing on the raft in the center of the lagoon, singing love songs to him. She wore a silky sarong draped over her body, leaving one shoulder bare. He saw himself striding across the surface of the lagoon, having apparently developed the ability to walk on water. Just as he reached her side, he heard a voice.
He stepped out from under the thatched roof over their table and shook her proffered hand. “William Darcy.”
She nodded, her eyes lighting up. “I thought so. The pianist?”
Her smile, which had already been friendly, warmed even more. “I saw you in concert last year with the San Francisco Symphony. You were wonderful.”
Although William found fan encounters awkward, he was by no means immune to compliments. He smiled at her, relaxing slightly. “Thank you.”
“Are you in town to perform with the symphony again?”
“No, I’m involved in a special program at Pacific Conservatory this fall.”
“That sounds interesting.”
He was uncertain what to say in response, so he simply waited, a polite but detached smile on his face.
After a brief pause, Marie apparently realized that the burden of conversation was going to be hers. “I thought I recognized you, though I wasn’t sure. But I also thought it was a shame that the most attractive man in the room was sitting alone. Would you like to dance?”
William wasn’t immune to this form of flattery either, but he shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t think so.”
“I understand. A lot of men don’t like to dance, though your friend obviously does.” She glanced toward the dance floor. “All right, then, may I keep you company till he gets back?”
“That’s kind of you, but … I’m seeing someone.” He was surprised how good it felt to say that.
Marie shrugged and gave him a rueful smile. “Lucky her. It was nice to meet you, William.”
As she walked away, William returned to his chair and looked back toward the dance floor, where Charles and his latest partner gyrated to the boisterous music. After a few minutes, the raft docked at the edge of the lagoon, allowing the band to take a break. Charles returned to the table and dropped into his chair, wearing a broad grin.
“You’re missing a good time,” he said, wiping his damp forehead with a cocktail napkin. “But I know I’d be wasting my breath trying to convince you to get yourself a partner after the band comes back from their break.”
“I was asked to dance a short time ago,” William said with a superior air.
“Yeah, I saw the cute redhead come over here. Why didn’t you say yes? I bet you would have had fun.”
“You know me better than that. Dancing isn’t my idea of fun.” Slow dances with Elizabeth were a notable exception.
“That’s why I said I’d be wasting my breath trying to change your mind. Anyway, thanks for putting up with this place. I know it’s not your thing, but I’m feeling a lot better now.”
“I’m glad, but I wonder how you’ll feel in the morning.” Charles didn’t seem to be truly drunk, but he was likely to have some regrets tomorrow.
Charles shrugged. “It’s a good anesthetic.” He picked up one of a collection of tiny pink umbrellas scattered around the table and began to twirl it by its toothpick-sized handle. Thunder rumbled in the background, signaling the arrival of another tropical storm, and William had had enough. He caught the waitress’s eye and requested their check.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s call it a night.”
A few minutes later, after saying their goodbyes in the lobby, Charles proceeded upstairs to his room and William exited the hotel. He walked the short distance to his building, welcoming the bracing effect of the cool, damp night air.
Mrs. Reynolds had left on a few lights, forming a path to his room; he switched them off as he made his way down the hall. Once he reached his bedroom, he checked the clock beside his bed. It was almost midnight. Not too late to call, since Lizzy had been out that evening. He dialed the number, but voicemail answered, so he left a message. Despite his busy day, he was wide awake. He decided to sit up in bed for a while and read his new San Francisco history book while waiting for her call.
It was past midnight when Jane and Elizabeth got home. Elizabeth had enjoyed the evening, but she was feeling the combined effect of sleep deprivation, a busy day in the fresh air and sunshine, and far more drinking than she was accustomed to doing. She went straight to her bedroom, changed into her nightshirt, and then wandered into the kitchen, yawning.
Jane was there, filling the teakettle with water. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thanks. But I was wondering … do you want to talk about last night? We’ve been so busy, we haven’t had a chance till now. I know it was hard for you, seeing Charles that way.”
Jane nodded slowly. “I knew he was probably dating by now. After all, I’ve been out on a few dates myself. But knowing it and seeing it first-hand are two different things.”
“Especially with Caroline rubbing it in about how close he and Elena supposedly are. That was probably a lie, just to make you suffer.”
Jane put the kettle on the stove. “I don’t know what Caroline would gain by trying to hurt me.”
“Neither do I, but I don’t think she needs a reason to hurt people. All I know is, for a man who was supposedly in San Francisco with his steady girlfriend, Charles looked miserable. Every time I saw him, he was looking at you.”
“Lizzy, it’s sweet of you to try to make it seem like he still cares, but—”
“I’m telling you exactly what I saw. He especially hated it when you were talking to … what was his name? The guy who asked for your number?”
“Right, Jordan. Maybe you should call Charles in the morning and invite him to brunch before he heads home. You still love him, and if he loves you as much as I think he does, I bet you could work things out.”
“But nothing has changed. We loved each other before, and that wasn’t enough.”
“That was before Charles found out what it would be like to live without you. Really, Jane, you should call him.”
Jane sighed. “I can’t. And it’s not because I don’t want to see him, or because I think he wouldn’t want to hear from me. It’s because I miss him so much that I might do something foolish. If he asked me again to give up my law practice and move to LA with him, and to become the social ornament his father thinks he needs for a wife … I might say yes this time. But I can’t sell my soul, not even for Charles. I’m afraid we’d both end up miserable.”
“Maybe by now he’s had his fill of life with Father. For all we know, he might be thinking, ‘If she asked me to quit my father’s company and move back to San Francisco, I’d say yes.’ Think how much better off he’d be; you saw what his father was like.”
A tear leaked out of Jane’s eye, and she brushed it away. “Yes, I saw. And I’m worried about Charles. But he has to decide for himself.”
Elizabeth sighed. “I hate seeing you so unhappy.”
“I’m fine,” Jane said, with a tremulous smile. “I just wasn’t expecting to see Charles, and it threw me a little off balance. But it helps so much to have you here with me.
“I’m glad to be here,” Elizabeth answered, and the sisters embraced. “I’m off to bed. Don’t stay up too late.” As Elizabeth turned to go, she noticed the voicemail light blinking on the phone. She pressed “Play,” and her eyes sparkled at the sound of William’s voice.
“Hello, Lizzy? Are you there? It’s William … I guess you’re not home. I called to thank you for today. It’s about midnight, and I’ll be up for a while, so if you get this before it’s too late, call me.”
Elizabeth cast a quick glance at the clock. “12:40,” she said. “Should I call him?”
“Of course you should. He might be sitting up waiting for your call.”
Elizabeth dialed his number. Jane poured a cup of tea and left the kitchen. Just before the fourth ring, which would lead to the inevitable sound of Sonya’s voice on his voicemail greeting, she heard a husky voice murmur, “Hello?”
“William, it’s Lizzy.”
The drowsy pleasure in that single syllable brought a tender smile to her face. “I’m sorry. I woke you, didn’t I?”
“I was sitting here reading, and I must have dozed off.” He paused, and she thought she could hear him yawning. “I’m glad you called.”
“I shouldn’t keep you, though. You ought to be in bed. It’s late, and you need your rest.”
“I am in bed. But if you’d like to come over and tuck me in ….”
Elizabeth imagined him lounging in bed, propped up among the pillows, his eyelids heavy with sleep, his hair adorably tousled. A lascivious thought popped into her head, causing her cheeks to flush: I wonder if he wears pajamas, or if ….
“Did you have fun tonight?” he asked, when she didn’t respond to his remark.
“Yes, we did.” She seated herself at the kitchen table. “How about you and Charles?”
“‘Fun’ might not be quite the right word, but it was good to see him.”
“How is he doing?”
“It’s a difficult adjustment for him, being back in LA.”
Elizabeth considered asking outright if Charles was missing Jane, but with her sister in the next room, possibly overhearing, she couldn’t. “Well, it’s late and I should let you get back to sleep.”
“I’d rather talk to you. I was wondering if you had an answer for me about dinner on Monday.”
The teakettle began to whistle, and Elizabeth stepped across the small kitchen to remove it from the burner. “I’m afraid so. The reception’s on Monday, for sure.”
“And you’re busy for dinner tomorrow, too.”
Elizabeth heard the disappointment in his voice. “The jazz group has a gig. I’d invite you along, but it’s a private party.”
“I could pretend to be a roadie.”
Elizabeth laughed softly, relieved to hear the teasing note in his voice. “Shall we do something on Tuesday evening?”
“Okay, that’s settled. Now go to sleep.”
“Yes, ma’am. Good night, Lizzy.”
“I had a good time today.”
“Me, too. Sleep well.”
When Jane returned to the kitchen a minute later, Elizabeth was pouring steaming water from the kettle into a mug. “From the look on your face,” Jane remarked, “it must have been a nice conversation.”
The silly smile Elizabeth knew that she wore grew even wider. “I woke him up, but I think he was trying to stay awake till I called.”
“I know I’ve said this before, Lizzy, but I’m so happy for you. From the way you talk about him, it’s obvious how much you like him.”
“I do. I really do. But ….” Elizabeth’s smile faded and she leaned over the counter, her elbows resting on the Formica surface.
“Is there anything you’d like to talk about? This morning you said you wanted my advice about William. Or are you too tired right now?”
Elizabeth fiddled with the tea bag tag hanging over the edge of the mug for a moment. “Now that you mention it, I think I do want to talk.” The sisters moved into the living room and sat together on the couch.
“I’m not sure exactly where to begin. I … well, you know more or less what happened in New York, when William came to my apartment.”
Jane nodded, sipping her tea.
“I’ve had a couple more ‘Michael flashbacks,’ like I had that night, when I’ve been with William. Last night, we went to the Marin headlands to see the view, and while we were up there, he kissed me. And … well, he didn’t do anything wrong; he just got really passionate all of a sudden. At first it just startled me, but it triggered a memory of Michael, and I got scared.”
“What did you do?”
“It was hard, but I forced myself not to freak out like I did that other time. I pulled away, and then we got back in the car and talked a little. I told him we needed to slow things down.”
“Good for you.” Jane set down her mug of tea. “What did he say?”
“He’s pretty frustrated about it, but he still wants to see me.”
“Of course he does. Char and I have kept telling you that he’s interested in a lot more than just sex.”
“I know. I admit, I was wrong about that.”
“Finally!” Jane stood up. “Would you like a snack? I’m kind of hungry.”
“No, thanks. I’m still full from dinner.” Elizabeth paused, reflecting on the evening. “On the surface, you’d think William and I wouldn’t make sense together. He’s usually so reserved and … taciturn, I guess, and I’m so … not those things.”
Jane returned, an apple in her hand. “I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes opposites attract.”
“But when we’re together it doesn’t feel like we’re opposites. It’s like he’s more cheerful and talkative than usual, and I’m calmer and quieter. We meet in the middle, if that makes sense.”
“You bring out the best in each other. That’s one of the great things about love.”
Elizabeth felt a shiver go through her. “Slow down. I never said anything about love.”
“You don’t need to say it,” Jane said with an affectionate smile. “It’s in your eyes and in your voice when you talk about him.”
“I’m not ready to love him, or anyone else,” Elizabeth insisted, twisting a lock of hair around her finger.
“That isn’t a choice you get to make. When it happens, it happens.”
“My first experience with love wasn’t pleasant. Not to mention what happened with you and Charles.”
Jane’s smile held a measure of sadness. “I don’t regret loving Charles. I wish I could get over him faster, but I’ve never been as happy as I was during our few months together. Besides, you shouldn’t judge from the past.”
Elizabeth swallowed the last of her tea and set her mug on the coffee table. “I know that … at least, on an intellectual level. But then I have one of those flashbacks. I sort of had one this afternoon, too.”
Jane responded to the quaver in Elizabeth’s voice by setting down her half-eaten apple and taking Elizabeth’s hand. “What happened?”
“It was during our picnic. William was stretched out on the blanket, and he fell asleep. I was watching him, and he looked so … so beautiful, I could barely take my eyes off him. And when he woke up, I leaned over and kissed him.” Elizabeth paused, frowning, wondering how to explain the rest.
“And I’m guessing you ended up stretched out on the blanket with him?” Jane’s eyes held a faint twinkle.
Elizabeth nodded. “We’d set up our blanket in a secluded spot, and I suppose it was inevitable that we’d …. Anyway, he leaned over me at one point and he was lying partway on top of me and ….” Elizabeth shuddered. “I got scared, but luckily he moved right away, and I forced myself to relax, and then I was okay again.”
“Lizzy, I’ve said this before, and it’s your decision, but I think you should talk to someone.”
“I am. I’m talking to you.”
“You know what I mean.” Jane fixed her gentle version of a stern-older-sister glare on Elizabeth.
“What I need is to stop being such a twit about the whole thing. I thought I’d put it behind me. But then I met William, and it all started coming back.”
“Well, you said Michael looked a bit like William, so that’s understandable. Any similarities in personality?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Not that many. William is gentler, and of course quieter. And Michael was so sure of himself. Once he decided he wanted something, he wouldn’t let anything or anyone get in his way.”
“He’s sure of himself in some areas, but I think he’s got a lot of insecurities. If Michael had any of those, he kept them well hidden.”
“Maybe if you could focus on their differences, instead of their similarities, it would help.”
“But there’s another big similarity, and I think this is what worries me the most. Michael was a superstar in the Musical Theater department. The faculty supposedly considered him the biggest talent they’d trained in over a decade. His singing voice … oh, if you could have heard it. Warm and mellow and ….” Elizabeth sighed, shaking her head.
“A voice like that can be seductive,” Jane said.
“He could have had just about any girl he wanted in the Musical Theater program.” Elizabeth’s eyes hardened. “And I guess he did.”
Jane set down her mug. “I’m not getting the connection to William.”
“Well, I admired both of them from afar before I got close to them. So in both cases, you might say that my idol came down from his pedestal and noticed me. With Michael, I was so flattered that this demigod—because in my world, that’s what he was—found me interesting.”
“And you’re afraid you’re doing the same thing with William.”
Elizabeth tucked her legs under her on the sofa. “Exactly. I think that’s why I have so much trouble trusting him. It’s made me overly cautious, and overcritical, too.”
Jane smiled gently. “I’m afraid I have to agree, Lizzy. You’ve been hard on him. He’s made mistakes, but I think he’s a good man. And he keeps coming back in spite of everything that’s happened. That should tell you something about his feelings for you.”
“But can you blame me for having doubts? William came down from a much higher pedestal, so it’s even harder to accept.”
“The good news is, now you have some time to take things slowly and find out who he really is. That’ll solve your problem, won’t it?”
“Yes and no. I mean, I realized today that I’m making progress in understanding him, and even starting to trust him a little. But I don’t have that much time. He leaves at the end of October.”
“He’s not staying till the end of the semester?” Jane’s eyes widened.
“No. Just two months.”
“That’s a shame.” Jane thought for a moment, and then her face brightened. “But it’s enough time to find out if there’s potential for something serious. And if things go well, you’ll find a way to keep your relationship going. Maybe you’ll even move back to New York someday to be with him.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “Gee, I’ve only been here for two months, and already you’re trying to get rid of me!”
Jane smiled and patted Elizabeth’s arm. “You know that’s the last thing I want.”
“I don’t know. Here I am, keeping you up half the night babbling at you. You probably got more sleep before I appeared on your doorstep.”
“Don’t be silly. Our gabfests are one of my favorite things. I just hope I’ve helped.”
“You have, like always.” Elizabeth squeezed Jane’s hand. “But we should get to bed; it must be late.”
Before heading for her bedroom, Elizabeth glanced at the phone, which still held William’s voicemail message, and a tiny smile touched her lips. It’s been quite a day.
1Disclaimer: The opinions expressed about the Tonga Room are those of William Darcy and do not represent the views of the author. We’re seeing the place through his very biased lens. Anthony Bourdain’s comment about the Tonga Room: “If you have no love in your heart for this place, you are a sick, twisted lonely f*ck with too many cats.” So take that for what it’s worth, though I take issue with his implied criticism of people who have cats.