"Please, for me, Dave," I placed my hand on his, and really, no begging, just asked him nicely, "Lay off the booze tonight."
Whether he heard or not, he was distracted by two women coming into the restaurant, both in dark glasses, dressed to the nines, one, big-breasted, had a throaty laugh, the other, wearing gypsy-style gold-hoop earrings, had an oily sheen across her forehead. And above us, spheres of gold and silver, like planets, some studded with crystals, caught the light and moved with the warm night breeze as the women closed the door. I remember I scooped up rose petals scattered on the table and crushed them between my fingers, but with my sinuses playing up, for me there was no scent.
The others arrived soon after: Zelda, Nazli, their husbands. This was a good-bye to these older women I worked with at my sub-editing job. Goodbye to nine-to-five and the bad office chair that had stuffed up my back.
This was the dinner to mark a new stage of my life.
The artichoke starter was a disappointment. My steak came smothered in chocolate sauce made of musty unsweetened Belgian that even the hint-of-chili couldn't improve. This black mass I considered sacrilege, it glistened like an oil slick on my plate. And for conversation, the others talked mainly about the trouble children were.
Zelda said, between steak and desert: "I gave up my newborn daughter for adoption when I was fifteen and didn't see her again till she was twenty. I'm working through my guilt in therapy, you know, that all this time I thought she'd had a better life without me but her foster father turned out to be a no-good alcoholic."
Nazli teased from the other side of the table, "I'd like to drop off my kids somewhere and collect them in twenty years. Heck, that would suit me!" Telling me babies were easy, it was tots and teens that gave you worries, and that children were there for life, like an affliction of some sort. Her husband laughed, "To be single and gay would be ideal, and not to want kids. Be damn rich and have a decently decorated house with no stains on the couch, or junk I'm constantly tripping over on the floors!"
We were having fun, yeah? For me: no. It was not fun.
This was one of those trendy restaurants that provide entertainment. For instance, the waitress, after pouring yet another round of schnapps the colour of semen, brought around a selection of hats for dress up: a hard hat, a panama, a boater, a black pillbox, a silk turban in grey. Mostly dirty and bent out of shape. Dave, in a straw hat with a frayed brim, leered like Huckleberry Finn on the drink.
I was sober. I was tired of the banter and the jokes. After the hats, Dave sucked from a Hookah and blew smoke, his jaw clicking as he sent rings floating across the table, his mouth a black hole, his lips stained dull maroon from too much red wine. I wanted to go home, lie down and get relief from the pressure at my pelvis.
There was even a magician. He pulled a stream of silk hankies from a previously empty palm. For his next trick, his fingers fluttered around the fork that Nazli gripped, and we gasped as the prongs twanged at right angles and in opposite directions like broken fingers.
And it was while we were all goggle-eyed at Nazli's corkscrewed fork, that one of those chic-chicks in dark glasses came from the shadows, banged on a table with a spoon, and shouted: "Listen up, as if your life depends on it! Hand over everything of value." It was the woman with the gold-hoop earrings, wearing a hard hat now, like a builder on site, not a criminal about to rob us. She said: "We don't want to find out you've been holding out on your wallets, cell-phones or jewelry."
The magician whimpered, looking like he wished he could do a Houdini, when he saw two of Gold-Hoop's men-friends head for the kitchen, appearing as if from nowhere. Gold-Hoop's partner, in the black pillbox with a veil covering her face, pointed a gun directly at us. And the restaurant, buzzing seconds ago, was suddenly so quiet I could clearly hear the lyrics Elvis Presley was crooning in the background ("Are you lonesome tonight...are you sorry we drifted apart...) as Gold-Hoops moved towards our table and ordered, "Make your contribution," passing around the very same straw hat that Dave had worn.
So, I reckon from sheer fright, my waters broke. I looked down at the darkening upholstery of the seat, felt some of the warm liquid run down the insides of my legs before it pooled under my chair. I told myself I just had to sit this through. I held a hand to my side and averted my eyes. I told myself that everything would be okay. I did what they said. What the ladies got from me was a cheap Timex, a diamante broach, a mock-croc purse with a coupla car-guard bucks in it.
Dave, done spitting on his fingers, struggled to pull off his wedding ring. He was so past it with those hooded eyes of his after overdosing on wine and shooters, that he started giggling as Elvis sang, "Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair..." Elvis making a joke of his ballad, Elvis losing it and Dave too, like this robbery was one big joke.
This was when Gold-Hoops stepped close. A knife darted out and a silver blade opened a flap of skin across Dave's cheek.
But Dave didn't quit. Dave, with blood seeping from the cut on his face, just could not control his misguided mirth, and Gold-Hoops cut again.
This time right through the fabric stretched tight across my abdomen, she slashed right through my ski pants, through the skin, the muscle, and Dave at last tossed his ring in the hat and sat heavily, no laugh left in him.
"The next person who says a word, we'll shoot this pregnant woman," warned Gold-Hoops, as she pressed a circle of cold metal against my temple.
The whole thing only took some minutes, though it seemed interminable, before the women walked backwards out the door with a flash of psychotic smile, a thank you ladies and gentlemen. Elvis Presley laughed as their gang disappeared more smoothly than the magician had pulled the coin from behind my ear.
That's what I remember. And the stink of adrenaline in the restaurant, as frantic phone calls and hysteria took over.
One woman had gold-hoop earrings, and sweat and pimples on her ebony forehead. I remember the deep cleavage of the other. On both, dark glasses and those ridiculous hats. And I remember a man in a black leather jacket, with straight square teeth, at the door beckoning for them to hurry.
I was aware of the pain, as the baby knocked hard at my pelvis with his foot, as blood soaked through my fingers where the knife had split my skin that had been taut as a butternut, as the baby's head started crowning right there at the slice at my belly.
In Long Street, as they carried me to the ambulance, a boy as thin as a praying mantis appeared in the light, with his hands cupped in front of him, but the paramedics chased him away. The ninety-buck steak, smothered in the chocolate sauce to-die-for that someone had recommended, churned in my gut, with the tasteless artichoke salad and insipid rose-scented crème-brulee. I hardly gave Dave a second thought, as I breathed under the mask and succumbed to the meds the paramedics pumped into me.
The day after, Dave came to the hospital with the others. He'd passed out at the restaurant, "defeated by the booze devil," Nazli said, as if this was an excuse.
Dave asked me, as I held my tiny boy, born a month early by emergency caesarean, as I stroked my son's face and kissed his downy head, Dave in his rumpled clothes, asked, "Did we at least have a good time before all this happened?"
"Are you serious, Dave?"
The vertical indent deepened between his eyes as he tried to bring back more of the night. I watched as he fingered the crusty cut on his cheek, which started to weep, then traced the plaster on the baby's face to help jog his memory.
That's all I can tell you. I've signed my statement. When I was conscious, I was focused on my baby and I prayed throughout that he'd be safe.
Now, I can't get Elvis Presley's laugh out of my mind.
All the world's a stage and each must play a part.
The plastic surgeon says that forward slash on my baby's cheek, cut by Gold-Hoops, will leave a scar. As will the cut on the face of my baby's shit-faced alkie father.
About the robbery, if you ever trace our goods, I don't want the wedding ring back.
archive - issue 13