My life changed that day on the hill. The sunset was so intense it seemed the sun had set the world on fire. We were kids, all of us, playing at being grown-ups, singing, dancing, talking about boys and having the time of our lives. I didn’t know it was to be my last day of childhood, that I would grow ten years older that day.
The sun dipped in the sky, shadowing our faces as we smiled at the oncoming dusk. It was a glorious summer evening, the cicadas chirped at full blast, while the birds trilled hidden among the trees that lined the craggy rock at the top of the hill, Venus the Evening Star shone her way into the royal blue sky. We honored her that day, we honored our girlhood, our womanhood and all the feminine beauty around us.
I was happy, we were happy, and as we trudged down the hill by the light of our flashlights I felt and inkling, a feeling, that the fiery sunset had been telling me something, but I didn’t understand the message.
I waved goodbye to them—Linda, Janice and Grace—as they got in the car. I would be walking home, even though they always offered me a ride. It was part of the ritual: the climb up the hill, the sunset at its summit, the hike down in the dark and the offer and decline of a ride. Perhaps if I’d gotten in the car with them they would be here now.
The police found their abandoned vehicle three days later, ten miles outside of town, no sign of the girls. In the ten years since there have been no phone calls, no letters, no bodies, not one clue to their fates.
I sit alone in the sunset, and as the sun dips below the horizon I ask him if he sees them and if they are all right, but he doesn’t answer; and when Venus comes out I ask her if she saw what happened, but as the darkness surrounds me, the silence comes, and the questions remain.
The Moon sees everything, Diana thought as she hurried down the street, away from the street lamp, keeping to the shadows. She wasn’t running away, not really, she was running to. She ran towards her life, her independence. She had to leave in the night, by the light of the moon.
The Moon sees me, she guides me, she does not judge, the voice inside her spoke, she is my mother, my sister, and by her light I will be free.
Diana stopped at the corner, the street light was out, but The Moon shone her cleansing light on her as she looked back. She slid the ring off her finger, her past fixed in its metal, and flung it away. The moonlight caught it as it flew, like a falling star lost in the night. Only The Moon saw it glimmer for an instant as it hit the ground.
Walter had spent most of his life teaching others. He had always known it was his calling, ever since he had been chosen as student tutor in eighth grade. It came so naturally to him, the explaining, the lecturing, and most especially, the grading. He loved it when his students excelled, and to him, grades where the only way to measure a person’s capabilities.
Now, as a University professor he felt himself the cream of the crop. He was famous for being the toughest lecturer in the school, he was also known as “The Colander” because only the best of the best passed his course.
Walter liked being The Colander, it gave him a sense of pride, of accomplishment. He was the reason students pushed themselves beyond their potential, he was the reason they shone. He shaped the young minds of the world, and when future Nobel Prize Winners accepted that prestigious award, he would be the one they were thanking. He was The Great Instructor behind The Master.
Collin was not the brightest star in the sky, he was not fast of thought, and he often had to ask for explanations, but he was dogged, and stubborn, and driven, and, as a child, he had earned the nickname Turtle. “Slow and steady wins the race” was his motto, and “there are no stupid questions” his slogan.
Collin was only two credits short of graduating. It was a great honor to his family, and his greatest personal achievement. The stage of school life was set for the final scene and so it happened that Collin was forced to sign up for Walter’s most dreaded and difficult course, History of Economics. It was the only course available that would fit Collin’s schedule, it was also the only course that was never full.
That last semester was a living hell for Collin. Walter made sure of it. He hated slow students, he hated repeating himself over and over because one student was too lazy to understand the first time. Collin studied and studied and tried as hard as he could, and though the course was too difficult and too fast, he never gave up, and by midterm, when The Colander usually drained the school of slackers, Turtle had managed to scrape through. It wasn’t a bad grade, but in Walter’s eyes, it was mediocre.
To Walter there was no getting rid of Collin, no matter how hard he tried to fail him, the little shit still managed to make it by, so he tried more powerful means of persuasion. He yelled at, humiliated, teased and bullied Collin, but Collin just kept his head down, studied and muddled through, exactly like a turtle, seemingly unaware of its slowness and stupidity. To his classmates, Collin was a rock, a hard nut, someone who didn’t break under pressure. Some felt that he held up the class, and they would often join in Walter’s bullying, but others were impressed by his steadfastness and stalwart demeanor, and they defended him, and helped him and admired him. This admiration towards the world’s biggest fool only angered Walter more. They should be admiring him, Walter The Colander, not Collin The Turtle.
By day, Collin bore the humiliation and the bullying like a hero, his personal slogan “there are no stupid questions” soon spread like the wind over campus, but at night, Collin broke down. He studied until he could no longer see, worked himself into fevers and often cried himself to sleep.
Finals came and Walter knew that Collin’s fate would be decided, the war would soon be over, and this blemish would soon be out of his life.
The test was the most difficult and tricky that Walter had ever designed, it was meant to make people fail, not to gauge their knowledge and understanding of the course.
Walter knew the battle was half won when he saw Collin walk in the exam room. He was gaunt, and pale, his hair ruffled and greasy and his eyes sunken. He looked like a walking corpse.
Walter couldn’t wait to grade Collin’s exam, it would be the first and he looked for it frantically amongst the papers the students had turned in. The answers were mediocre and some just plain wrong, and as Walter kept a tally of Collin’s points he smirked. The Turtle was just one point shy of passing. The final answer was correct, written coherently and exactly what Walter was looking for in an answer. It was perfect, and it would have been enough to pass Collin had Walter not been overtaken by a fury so strong it blurred his vision and numbed his mind. He had long forgotten what it truly meant to teach, but now, that dormant feeling was cast out of his soul forever. He reviewed Collin’s exam again, looking for any excuse to fail him, and found it. So simple! Collin had forgotten to date the exam! With a smile and a flourish, Walter flunked Collin.
When Collin received the news of his failure a little part of him died. He fell to his knees in the hall and sobbed quietly into his hands. His classmates rallied around him, tried to cheer him up, and even tried to convince Walter to pass him, but the die was cast, and Collin would not be allowed to graduate with his class.
Walter was proud of himself as he walked into the dean’s office. He had done the right thing, Collin had been the last slacker standing and now all the bad apples were gone.
“Walter,” the dean said as he gestured for him to sit, “I have heard that Collin Harris failed your course. In fact, I’ve had about ten students complaining to me about your decision to fail him over something so trivial as a date. I believe that you know what is best, but I will ask you to reconsider.”
“Sir, my decision is final.”
“I see…I hope you understand why I’m asking you to rethink your decision. I’m sure you have gotten to know him well during this semester. As you know, his parents were killed in an accident when he was a toddler. He himself was in the car and was badly injured. His grandparents raised him, and while the rest of his body healed, his brain never fully developed. He has pulled himself through school all his life, slow and steady, and this was to be his crowning achievement.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that,” Walter’s heart fell to his feet. He had always seen the boy as a stain, a smear to this institution and it had never occurred to him to learn more about his student.
“Sir, if I may ask a stupid question,” Walter’s voice was almost inaudible, “how do you know all this?”
“I talked to him during admission. I vetted him and these past four years I’ve mentored him. He has reminded me of the meaning of teaching and guidance, and he will graduate, this semester or the next. And I must say, that is my crowning achievement.”
My novel “Rust” is now available on Amazon Kindle edition and paperback, as well as on Barnes and Noble website on paperback only. Please feel free to check out my author website on Amazon and Goodreads and I hope you’ll enjoy my book.
Kevin groped in the dark. I’m Theseus, he thought, I must kill the Minotaur before another girl dies.
He walked further into the labyrinth, opening doors and windows, only to find more rooms and hallways, each one different.
He stopped and looked around. He was in a room decorated in pink, all pink, the furniture was white and the bed had a canopy. This was a little girl’s room. The air in it was stifling and the bright pink made his eyes hurt. There was something about that room that disturbed him. Something had happened here, someone had died, but the memory was silk, and it slipped from his fingers when he tried to hold it. It was one long pink silk.
At the end of the room there was another door, white, with a brass handle. That was the bathroom, he thought. He turned the handle and walked through.
Now the room was blue with white curtains that rustled in the wind. Did that mean there was an open window? He rushed towards the curtains and slid them back with such a thrust that the rod almost slipped from the wall. There was a window, but it was latched. Kevin tried to open it, and at first it wouldn’t budge, but then, it suddenly gave way with such force that he almost fell out into the darkness.
Strange, he thought, I could’ve sworn there was sunlight coming in. He took a deep breath. It occurred to him that he wasn’t scared, or worried, or hungry or thirsty. He didn’t feel anything, just a strange sense of floating in a heavy silence. Like the city feels just before a snowstorm; silent and hovering, almost as if gravity had weakened its pull and was about to let go.
He retraced his steps out of the little girl’s room and entered a hall. This was a different hall than the one from where he’d come in, even though he’d walked through the same door. First, he’d been in a narrow, white hallway, with no windows, but this hall was vast. The walls rose up, and the light of the lamps that hung at intervals along the wall did not reach the ceiling. The wallpaper was brown with a rhomboid pattern and the carpet here was red. The red startled him, it looked almost like a river of blood and Kevin hurried to get out of that hall; he quickened his pace, then ran, his bare feet thudding on the blood-colored carpet. The hall was endless, and for the first time, Kevin was afraid.
Something was chasing him, he knew; a ghost. This hall was haunted, perhaps this whole house that was his and wasn’t his, too. He didn’t belong in this house and the ghost wanted him. Who are you? He thought, what do you want? But the ghost only let its presence be felt, never showing itself. So Kevin ran, fear growing with each stride, desperation wafting out of him with each pant.
“I know you’re here!” he yelled, and the house echoed his voice, “Show yourself!”
Suddenly, he tripped and fell into pink light. He was back in the pink room, only this time, there was a little girl in white pajamas. She was in the fetal position on the bed, her arms covering her head and she whimpered. Her pajamas were speckled with red spots that appeared out of nowhere, like raindrops from inside out.
Kevin got up and a belt materialized, it came down on the little girl. An arm appeared as the belt was pulled up and when it whipped down again, the whole figure formed.
The man was his father, and as Kevin looked closer at the little girl, he recognized his sister.
“Stop!” he yelled, but the man didn’t, and Kevin knew what came next. He knew this would lead to a small coffin in the ground, but this time he might change the ending. Maybe this time, he would kill the Minotaur.
He lunged at the man and the whipping belt hit him on the head. He screamed in pain and the room with the man vanished.
Kevin opened his eyes and found himself on the floor of his bedroom, his illustrated book of Greek mythology next to his head. He sat up and tried to support himself on the bed, but the blue rumpled sheets that hung over the frame only slipped, covering his Superman-pajamaed legs, and his teddy bear tumbled down. He fell back on the floor. His head hurt and he felt a new bump on his forehead where he’d collided with the nightstand.
Kevin put the teddy bear against his chest, curled himself up with his hands over his head, much like his sister had done, and wept on his beloved book when he remembered he had failed to kill the minotaur yet again.
He was ready to take on the world. He’d just graduated from college and his brand new degree promised wealth and success. Nathan had felt as if the whole world was in his hands; as if nothing could stop him, he was unbeatable, unbreakable, and the future lay at his feet.
Ten years ago Nathan had been young, proud, and full of hope. Now, he was stuck in an economy that promised no wealth, no job security, nothing to look forward to.
His father was a jeweler with a small shop downtown, and Nathan had made sure to follow his advice and majored in finance, an industry that would always provide wealth, jobs and financial security, (“just the 401k alone, Natey, just for that, it’s worth it. You could make millions by the time you’re thirty and nevah have to worry about money again, not like your old man. Natey, you have ta be better’n me”).
But the reality had been different. He’d worked as a temporary employee for the first two years, and had been the wonder temp, the best temporary employee so-and-so company had ever had, but unfortunately, there had been no full-time employment opportunities at the time. Not even Daddy’s friends had been able to help.
So Nathan had gone from temp job to temp job before a permanent job opportunity had surfaced. It was a position at a huge, important, international financial company that was expanding, growing even, in this contracted economy.
He would have to start from the bottom, they’d said, but there were plenty of advancement opportunities, they’d said.
That was eight years ago, and he’d never been promoted once. It wasn’t that his job performance wasn’t up to par, it was in fact better than most; but Andrew, the head of department, always said it was just that there weren’t any promotions available.
“The economy, you know,” the boss looked impassive at Nathan, “it’s really hit us hard.”
“Then, why did Jason get promoted? I know you promoted him Andrew, why him and not me? You know I deserve a promotion.”
“That’s true, Nate, but Jason has more responsibilities, he has a wife and children.”
“That doesn’t make him better suited for the promotion.”
Andrew sighed. It was a sigh Nathan knew well; a sigh of annoyance, of irritation, and Nathan was aware it was often directed at him.
“My decision is final.”
So once more, Nathan had to swallow his pride, his ire and the words that threatened to come out unchecked, and go back to his desk, head down, serious, yet with a smile of insensitivity he had learned to adopt since working for this company. It was a smile that said, “All’s good, everything’s fine,” but hid his true feelings of anger, rage, disappointment and contempt.
Nathan was seething at Andrew’s open discrimination and dislike towards him. It’s true that he wasn’t married, that he had no children, and that his responsibilities were fewer than most. But it was also true that the salary he earned was barely enough to keep him afloat. He still had to work weekends at his father’s shop. He didn’t have a mortgage because he couldn’t get a loan, he lived in an apartment that was barely bigger than a closet and he couldn’t even afford to take a date out for dinner, so how was he opposed to take care of a wife and kids?
What was also true was that Jason, who’d been silently promoted (no fanfare and no big to-do) was a friend of Andrew’s brother, and that he had joined the company through that connection.
It was also true that Marshall, who’d been promoted before Jason, played golf with Andrew every weekend. And Nathan was almost certain that Beverly had been promoted after she and Andrew had left the company picnic together.
Nathan opened his email and was about to type a long letter to HR, when his cell phone rang.
Mario, Nathan’s supervisor, came into his cube and saw that Nathan was on the phone. Patiently and respectfully he waited just outside, joking around with Patty, and knew by the way that Nathan’s face fell and the color washed out of him like cheap laundry, that something was wrong.
Nathan hung up and looked at Mario,
“My dad’s had a stroke, I need to leave.”
“Go,” Mario said, his voice full of understanding and concern, “and don’t worry.”
Nathan was out of the office for more than two weeks, his vacation was spent and his sick days were all used up. The stroke had completely paralyzed the left side of his father’s body and Nathan had spent most of that time looking after him in the hospital and, later, when he was allowed to go home, at his father’s house. He’d had to move back in with the old man, and, per Dad’s insistence—even though his body didn’t work properly anymore, his mind remained sharp as a knife—had sold the shop in order to cover his hospital and medical bills. Nathan had finally decided to hire a full-time nurse while he returned to work. He had of course, requested access to work from home, but, because of his position, it had been denied. Employees at his level were not considered essential, therefore, the company could not issue them with a special laptop loaded with all functions and programs necessary for his job.
When he returned to the office, he found a mountain of tasks that needed handling and no one to do them but Mario, who’d been working in the same position for fifteen years and worked at the Stop-and-Shop in the evenings to make ends meet, and Patty, who’d been there for forty years, could barely walk, had heart issues that kept her working in order to keep the insurance, and was saddened when Andrew chose to lay someone else off instead of her. Jason was ‘working’ from home, Beverly had taken a sick day and Marshall was ‘busy’ running to and from meetings. Only Mario, Nathan and Patty were at their desks, working diligently whenever Andrew chose to walk by.
The work was going slowly though, since Nathan’s personal cell phone kept ringing. His dad needed this, then that, and could he please stop to get such-and-such medicine, they were also out of milk, and on and on, until finally Andrew called him into his office.
“Nate, I know you’re having a hard time, but could you please keep the personal calls to a minimum?”
“Andrew, I need to take a personal leave of absence for a few months, my Dad needs full-time care, the nurse can’t leave him alone, and his affairs still need to be looked after. I know the company offers unpaid leave for personal reasons, but I require your authorization.”
Andrew sighed and shook his head,
“I’m sorry, Nate. I can’t authorize it, due to work reasons.”
“What work reasons?”
“I’m sorry, the answer is no.”
“Andrew, I have been here eight years in the same position with no promotion, the raises are so meager they hardly cover inflation, and the insurance so bad, I have to use my Dad’s Medicare to help pay for his nurse. I need to do this, I need to take care of my father, I’m all he has.”
“Perhaps your mother can help?”
“Look, I know you don’t like me much, (Andrew smiled, shook his head and tried to interrupt) and that’s okay, but if you’d taken the time to know me better, they way you did with Jason and Marshall and Beverly, you would know that my mother died when I was born and Dad never remarried. There’s no one to take care of him but me; I need to be with my father.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Andrew’s annoyed sigh got under Nathan’s skin.
“Then what do you expect me to do? Go back to my desk and keep working just as well as before, like nothing has happened?”
“Yes, I expect you to go back to your desk and keep doing the same excellent job you’ve been doing so far. My decision is final.”
That was the stick that broke the camel’s back, and Nathan’s rage rose at a nigh uncontrollable level,
“Fuck you, Andrew, I quit. This is my notice, you’ll have my resignation on your desk in ten minutes. ”
Andrew started to protest, but Nathan got up, walked back to his desk, typed up his resignation and said goodbye to Mario and Patty. He left the company for ever.
It was a tough year for Nathan, his father went from bad to worse; it was as if the old man had given up and wanted to die. Nathan and the nurse couldn’t understand why, because even though he refused to eat much, the man was still taking his medication, and his mind and brain had shown no sign of further deterioration; but even with their day-round care, he died within three months.
Nathan cried when he’d cleaned up his father’s room a couple of months after the funeral and found a whole bunch of little pills hidden away under the right side of the mattress. It was the last thing Dad had done for him, he had chosen death instead of burdening his son; and Nathan, hands buried in his face, had thanked him silently through his tears.
Nathan’s father had left his life insurance to his son, the house, and what had remained from the sale of the shop. This small inheritance did not set him up for life, but it did give him a good financial boost so that he could start his own business.
While at first it had been difficult, the business had finally begun to pay off and Nathan was now in a position to hire employees.
“Hi Nathan,” Andrew sounded bright and cheery as he walked into Nathan’s office, but Nathan could see the contempt behind his smile.
“So Andrew, you’re looking for a job?”
“Yeah, I was laid off a few months ago and it’s been difficult finding a new job, you know, the economy, they say.”
“Yeah, I know, and I’m terribly sorry, Andrew,” Nate skimmed the man’s resume, “but I don’t think you’re right for this job, you’re overqualified.”
“But I really need this. What do you expect me to do, go home empty-handed?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you, my decision is final. Maybe Jason, or Marshall, or Beverly can help you out.”
The two men wrestled on the floor. They were fighting over the damnedest thing: a woman.
How had they come to this? How had Alistair reduced himself to this?
He stopped, fist raised to the sky. He was on top of Nestor, and as he looked down at his own brother, he saw that Nestor’s face was bloodied by cut lips and running nose. Alistair was aghast at what he had done, but when he looked into Nestor’s eyes, he saw the rage and indignation within, and knew that the fight was not yet over.
Alistair brought his fist down on Nestor’s face before his brother could recover. Nestor’s head turned to the side and he lay limp, unconscious. Alistair climbed off his brother, sat on the floor and ruffled his hair. A damn woman, he thought, a goddamn woman!
Roxanna had come into their lives like a typhoon, and just like a typhoon she had wrecked them, leaving only jealousy and rage behind.
Nestor groaned and opened his eyes. He looked up, dazed, and met his brother’s gaze,
“Who the hell taught you to punch like that?”
His speech was slurred and Alistair wondered if he had done some real damage.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me, we’re too old to be fighting.”
Nestor sat up and looked his brother up and down, woozily noticing the black eye and the scratches on Alistair’s face.
The man was right, and Nestor hated that. Alistair was always right. Alistair was always right and he was always good. Alistair was the geek, the nerd, the learned one, the smart one. The one who was going places. Nestor was the athletic one, the dumb one, the one whose only chance at life was through sports. He only had a span of ten years to make something of himself, while Alistair, with his books and his brains had his whole life ahead of him.
“Yeah,” Nestor wiped his bloody nose with the back of his hand, “but where did that come from?”
“I don’t know,” Alistair looked at his brother.
He truly didn’t know. He had not thought himself strong enough to do that. Nestor was the one with the physical strength. The handsome one, the popular one, the one everybody loved. Nestor had always been the one all the girls wanted to date, while Alistair had always been the one all the girls sneered at.
When Roxanna had let Alistair believe he had a chance with her, he was over the moon. He had spent days romancing her, sending her flowers, buying her gifts and she had reciprocated in every way. She had kissed him, held his hand, let him put his arm around her waist, and finally, she had let him make love to her. It had been the best night of Alistair’s life, and it had soured the next afternoon, when he had come home and found them in bed together. Surprise had quickly turned into rage, and rage had evolved into violence.
Alistair closed his eyes as the memory of Nestor and Roxanna clouded his mind and sent his judgement out the window. The anger built up and he felt himself floating as he lunged at his brother again. Nestor had regained his bearings and easily dodged his brother.
Alistair landed with a painful thud, arms outstretched, still gunning for Nestor. His face burned as he hit the carpet. It wasn’t the only thing that burned. His pride burned and the indignation and humiliation scalded deep inside.
For one moment Alistair had beat his brother, the great athlete who was going places. The one who would hold the family’s name way up high among the stars, the one who would soon be a ‘Golden Olympian’.
For one instant, Alistair had been on top, the ace, the number one, king of the hill, and Nestor had had to take the punches, to bend over and scream”Uncle!”. For once, Nestor had waded in the miserable pool of weakness that Alistair had swam in all his life.
All that was over when Nestor easily rolled aside.
“Take it easy, Ali, I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Nestor had Alistair’s arm behind his back in a wrestler’s hold.
“I saw her first,”Alistair grunted,”I had her first, she was mine first.”
“Is that what this is about? She came on to me, I wasn’t about to say no; but if you want her, and she wants you, then be my guest. She ain’t worth it, you know.”
And then the anger subsided just as quickly as it had come. Reason prevailed, and Alistair thought clearly as his body relaxed. It was true, Nestor was right, she wasn’t worth it. What kind of woman would sleep with two brothers? And it all came back to him; her smiles, the way she tilted her head just so, touched her neck just so, giggled, walked, spoke, flirted. She had acted the same way with Nestor too.
Alistair realized that he’d noticed it all along but had chosen to ignore it. He had felt himself wanted, elated, sought after and had wanted to believe it was true. He’d wanted to believe that a beautiful, sensual woman had wanted to be with him, and not with Nestor.
“Nes, why did she do this?”
“Who knows, Ali” Nestor shrugged,”sex, maybe?”
”That doesn’t bother you?”
”Sex? No, it doesn’t bother me; but believe me if I’d known how you felt I wouldn’t have slept with her. You’re my brother, and no woman is gonna make me forget that. I love you even though I hate you.”
”What fresh hell is this?” My husband said as Sarah, his assistant, came up to us. The party was not going well; the guests looked bored, the food was not what the caterers had promised and the music was subpar.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Sir, but the bartender has informed me that we’ve run out of wine, liqueur and champagne, and beer is all that’s left,” she said, shirking his gaze. I knew that the blame would fall on me, I knew that I would pay for this debacle later on.
“Beer?” He asked, “we didn’t order any beer, did we?” He turned to me, eyes oozing mockery and reproach. Sarah and I shook our heads. She was a sweet girl and she was my best friend when my husband wasn’t around. He didn’t approve of me being friendly with employees, but when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and Sarah and I have often had a blast at lunch, or dinner, or around town.
“No, Sir, but Mister Christopher brought some along with his friends. They’re outside on the back lawn.”
I put my head in my hands. How could he be doing this now, in front of his father’s guests? This was a very important party for his father’s business. Not only would I be blamed for the disastrous preparations, but also for our son’s shenanigans; my son’s shenanigans, he would say. Whenever Chris did something right, he was his son, when he did something wrong he was my son. Chris had not been his father’s son in a long time.
My husband looked at Sarah in that stone lion way of his that could make the manliest man tremble. The poor girl winced, hunched her shoulders and looked down at the floor. Swallow me earth, please, I almost heard her think.
She was afraid for her job. Sarah and I had worked so hard organizing this party and I was perplexed that everything had gone so wrong. “Ah, the perversity of inanimate objects,” my beloved Uncle would have softly sighed, shaking his head. His voice came to me from the dark crevice of my memory and in that moment, I wished with all my heart he were here with his arm around me.
I looked up at poor Sarah and shook off the wistfulness and embarrassment as best as I could. We had to find a way to salvage this party, or else Sarah would get the boot, and I, well, I would feel the wrong end of my husband’s frustration, to put it mildly. I excused myself from my husband’s side and went to seek out Chris.
I hadn’t always been like this. He hadn’t always been like this. Chris hadn’t always been Mister Christopher, and even he hadn’t always been like this. We had once lived in a small one-bedroom apartment that had one tiny bathroom with grout on its tiles and rust around the faucets and drains. It had overlooked a noisy city street, where women still hung the clothesline from one window across to the next while people bustled about on the pavement beneath the day’s laundry.
“We didn’t have a bucket to piss in,” my husband would say on those few occasions when he would look, really look into my eyes and see the nostalgia embedded in their gaze, “now look at all that I can give you!” He would puff out his chest and open his arms as if embracing the wealth around him. “What more do you want?”
Poverty, I always thought. I rather liked our poverty. Back then, my husband had been Jimmy; not Sir, not My Husband.
I liked Jimmy. Hell, I loved him. But Jimmy was long gone; he’d flown out the door the moment my Uncle’s inheritance had sashayed in. Without it, our business would not have taken off as it had. “You have to speculate to accumulate,” Jimmy had said as we’d walked out of the will reading, Chris turning somersaults in my overgrown belly. We found out soon enough what most wealthy people already know: the more you invest, the greater the return.
In a flash, we’d gone from the apartment, to a small house in suburbia, and finally to a mansion by the shore. I could not deny that I loved the mansion, with its stone lions guarding the front stoop. There was another pair of lions at the bottom of the terrace steps that led to the immense back lawn and gardens. I’ve never really liked those lions, they seem pompous and egocentric, like my husband; but the ones on the front stoop give off a different vibe. Somehow, they make me feel safe, glad to be home. The stoop lions remind me of Jimmy and I’ve always patted their frozen manes whenever I’ve walked by. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had that impression, ever since we bought the mansion. Perhaps it’s because the stoop lions sit sphinx-like as if proud yet humbled to guard the treasures within. Or maybe it’s because the terrace lions sit upright, each with their paw on a big round ball, as if forcing the world into submission to satisfy their whims.
Chris was born in the apartment, he took his first steps in the house and walked out of the mansion’s front door on his first day of school. He’d said goodbye to the front lions and stroked their petrified noses as we’d stepped onto the graveled half-moon driveway.
I’ve sometimes felt sorry for Chris. I don’t think he ever met Jimmy. I’m sure he saw remnants of Jimmy in his childhood; I recall a few occasions when Jimmy had gleamed in the back of my husband’s eyes, but Chris was barely out of diapers then.
I remember the last time we’d seen Jimmy. It was the Saturday after Chris’s first week in school. It had been a tough week for our little boy and we’d taken him to the park. As we’d arrived, my husband had opened the trunk and pulled out a dragon-shaped kite. We were both surprised and delighted. Chris had clapped his hands and such joy and fire had shown in his eyes that I still feel a lump in my throat when I think about it. Jimmy was with us all that day. He had laughed as carefree as before; he had played with his son, hugged him and kissed him and swung him around in his arms. Later, he had made love to me. As I’d gazed into his eyes, I’d marveled at the warmth and joy of Jimmy. I’d missed Jimmy and he’d come back, just for that one day
I walked through the terrace doors to try and persuade Chris to take his party somewhere else. As I went down the big stone stairs, I felt my stiletto heel catch on a crack in the step and my ankle wobble. I remember thinking as I fell that I’ve always hated high heels, but that my husband insisted on me wearing them now that we were well-to-do.
“I’ll break my neck in them,” I’d always said.
“You must wear them, ladies of our class all wear them. You don’t want them to think you don’t belong, right?”
But I don’t belong, I thought as the cold stone shattered my elbow. I saw Chris rushing towards me, looking like his life was about to end too. It’s funny how death comes so quickly yet happens so slowly. I heard myself calling out to him and saw my name formed on his mouth as I rolled down the steps, but all I heard was the dull crack of my neck as I landed under the haughty gaze of the terrace lions.
I’m with my Uncle now. We are watching Chris cry on my grave with poor Sarah bawling on his shoulder. My husband looks on, cold as a stone lion.
She had it all, but hated everyone and everything. Nothing was ever good enough for her; so Alice spent every day complaining about her life, her job and the people that surrounded her. No one was ever as smart or as pretty as she; no one could do anything as well as she. In her mind she was flawless and faults were unacceptable.
One day, she met Jason, and just like everyone else, he was not good enough. Alice was convinced that Jason didn’t mean anything to her, but she was only cheating herself. The truth was that Jason had impressed her deeply from the very start. Jason was tall and handsome and intelligent. He had been hired at her jobsite and was quickly climbing the corporate ladder. He was proving to be a valuable employee. He did things right the first time, just like Alice. He was nice, well-educated and unassuming, just like Alice (or so she thought). In any case, he was perfect. The perfect catch, the perfect man. But Alice had convinced herself that he wasn’t good enough because Jason was deaf. And in her flawless mind, deafness or blindness, or any other handicap was an intolerable fault.
Despite this huge blemish on Jason’s life resumé, Alice’s heart still skipped a beat when she saw him. Her mind swam with pleasure whenever the scent of his cologne floated to her through the sea of office cubes as he walked by. She woke up every weekday elated that she would see him; and during the day, whenever she bumped into him in the hall she would bask in the sunshine of this gaze.
Try as she might to reject and deny it, Alice was thoroughly smitten and her attitude towards Jason changed. She smiled at him, praised him whenever she could, and even tried to teach herself sign language from a book she’d borrowed from the library.
One day, she got up the courage to ask him out to lunch and, to Alice’s amazement, he agreed. In his mind, it was just a friendly outing between co-workers. In her mind, it was to be the date of her life. This was to be the date that defined everything for her, this was to be the most important hour of her life; excepting the future wedding ceremony, of course. During this one hour, she was going to bowl Jason over with her wit, her charm and her beauty; since Alice was certain she was in possession of all three. She was perfect, after all.
The next day Alice was slightly late for work. She had woken up extra early and spent much of the morning picking out her outfit, doing her hair and makeup to perfection. She was ready to conquer the man of her dreams. At lunchtime, she strutted to his cubicle in a tight red Nordstrom pencil dress, black Jimmy Choo stilettos and Prada handbag. She was a sight to behold. She even paused to look at her reflection in one of the windows and set her hair just right. Alice was hot, Alice was sexy and Jason would not be able to resist her.
Throughout the date, she was sensual and seductive. She gave it her all. She smiled, flirted and was certain that Jason was completely and irrevocably enamored of her charms. She was Alice, how could he not be?
Jason was a dream; he was kind and witty and in spite of that strange muffled quality of his voice, he was eloquent and gentlemanly. He was even sweet enough to point out her mistakes in sign language and praised her for the effort she was making in communicating with him. Alice brushed those comments off; she was certain she hadn’t made mistakes, her sign language was flawless, she had made sure of that. Perhaps Jason was just being polite by communicating in her preferred mode: the spoken word, and was using these so-called mistakes as a way to make her feel comfortable.
When they returned to the office, Jason accompanied her to her desk and said goodbye in the most polite manner. He assured her that he would love to lunch with her again and Alice’s heart raced as those blessed words flowed through her brain. Yes, she would very much like that too. Jason was hooked. She could take that to the bank.
That night, as she lay in bed she dreamed of the perfect relationship, the perfect wedding, and their future flawless life. She woke early again, and made herself up to perfection. Jason must think that Alice’s image was always perfect. She could not afford one single mistake now that she had met the man of her life.
Alice walked into work as if in a dream. She was still curt to those imperfects around her, but she felt herself light, featherlike, and very much in love. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw an envelope on her desk. It was not on company letterhead and looked rather personal. She was certain it was from Jason, and as she reached for her letter opener she imagined him coming in early just to give her that. She pictured him standing behind her as she read the letter, smiling like the sun, arms wide open while she rushed to his embrace.
She opened the envelope and read Jason’s letter. It began with a gentle explanation of how difficult it was for him to speak, since words always came out strange in his voice, and, while that normally wouldn’t stop him, he felt that in order to avoid any misunderstandings, in this case, he preferred to write.
He wrote about how flattered he was by her attentions, but that he didn’t think she’d be good fit for him. He didn’t like the way she treated others. He didn’t like the way she thought so highly of herself, and he was certain he did not want a romantic relationship with someone like that. He wrote about her initial attitude towards him and his deafness, her curtness towards her peers, and her rudeness towards those that made no difference in her life.
He wrote about how he believed there were five crucial conditions for a good relationship. The first, was that both parties had to like each other. In their case, there was no doubt about that; she was very pretty, he wrote, but there had to be more than that. The second condition he sought in a relationship was the way a potential partner would treat him. That meant a lot to him, he wrote, especially because of his condition, and Alice, who had recently showered him with praise, had not always been so attentive towards him. Third, it was important for him to see how she treated those she loved, both in good times and in bad times. He admitted that he had not been privy to that behavior, since it seemed that Alice did not have many friends at the office, and he had only seen her at work. Fourth, he always paid attention to how she treated people who were indifferent to her, and in these instances, he had seen a lot. Alice was rude and boorish, especially to those who worked under her, not only at the office, but elsewhere too. He even gave an example of how she had yelled at the waiter the day before because he had forgotten to bring the ketchup. And five, it’s always important to note how a potential partner treats her enemies; and he had seen how Alice had destroyed a poor colleague’s career by taking credit for all the work and blaming all the mistakes on him. It had not escaped him, Jason wrote, that that man was first in line for a promotion, and that Alice, had received it instead.
So, he concluded, while Alice was a very beautiful woman on the outside, it seemed to him, that she did not fit his other conditions and that it would be best if they just remained colleagues and friends. Perhaps, he went on, if Alice rethought her attitude, someday, his feelings towards her might change.
Alice read the letter, crumpled it up and threw it away. In her mind, Jason had passed on a great love with someone beautiful, smart and flawless. But in reality, Alice had missed out on a wonderful relationship because of her ego.
Today of all days he had to be late for Art class. Jennifer had detained him, only to nag about their relationship.
She’d gone on and on forever about how he never touched her anymore. How he never cared about her life anymore. How he never gave her anything anymore. How he’d changed, how she’d changed. How she needed more. She’d yakked and yakked and yakked until the conversation had led to a big fight. As he’d rushed to class, he’d felt himself adrift, out to sea with no sail and no oar; unable to decide whether to stay with Jennifer or leave.
He liked Jennifer and he had been in love with her once. But now, that love wasn’t just fading, it was turning into something else, something dark and toxic; something he dared not experience, and yet, what could he do? He had never been good at breakups. His timing had always been terrible. The last time he’d put it off for so long that the girl had broken up with him instead. But he knew Jennifer would not break up with him. When he looked in her eyes, he still saw the same spark burning as brightly as at the beginning; but now there was something cloudy behind it. Was it disappointment? Anger? Despair? Or maybe just the need to hold on to what once had been? He wondered whether Jennifer saw something else in his eyes too; maybe she saw something that fueled this new opacity.
Even though he knew he was late, he paused at the door, his fingers tight around the handle and eyes closed. He took a deep breath and asked for a sign. He needed guidance, he needed something to show him which way to go.
He opened the door. As his eyes adjusted and he came out of his reverie, he thought he was looking at a Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, to be precise. She was standing in front of the class on the small podium dedicated only for the models. She was stark naked and holding a staff the professor had presumably given her. Her long hair flowed in a braid down her right shoulder.
Lo and behold, here was this goddess, this Aphrodite born of the sea, standing right in front of him; beckoning him to come closer, to take her, to ask her about her day, her life, her future, and hoping against hope that her future might include him. Kevin was dumbstruck as he closed the door behind him.
“Mr Jackson, would you care to answer the question?” the Professor’s voice brought him out of his astonishment, while the class looked up. Some people smirked.
“I, um, I didn’t hear the question. Um, could you please repeat it?” The whole class laughed, while the Venus smiled shyly. Kevin couldn’t take his eyes off her and her smile made his heart skip. He felt it touch him deep down there. Down where he shouldn’t feel anything for anyone else but Jennifer.
“The question was, is there a reason for your tardiness?”
“No sir, I was kept late by someone, is all.”
“Nothing serious, I hope?” the Professor asked raising an eyebrow.
“No sir, time just got away from me. I apologize.”
“Very well, don’t let it happen again. As I’ve already said, we have a new model working with us. Mr. Jackson, please meet Miss Summers.” The Professor pointed at the goddess. Kevin looked her right in the eye.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Kevin.”
The goddess met his gaze, and for just an instant he thought he saw her pupils dilate briefly. He’d always thought that was myth. It hadn’t happened with Jennifer; the spark in her eyes had been lit later on during their acquaintance.
The goddess smiled, and with a voice as soft and rolling as the dawn said, “I’m Stella.”