To Love and To Fall

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FIFTEEN

My sweet victory soon leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, like somehow I was tricked into swallowing a raw poison. I am in my car, sitting in a strip mall across from Serena’s rehab, drinking a soda. It is incredulous that I have thrown her away. I wonder, one the one hand, if somehow I can take back what has happened, but yet another part of me, a more vocal part, recoiling at the idea of having her in my life. In her words, I had forced her to drink. That was what eleven years had added up to in her mind. And yet, even as I am convinced that I am better off without her, I cannot seem to rid myself of the hollow place in my gut. No amount of reassurance or pep talks reasons it away. I need the company of another human being, just so I am not alone with these demons. I think of Denise, and though she is on the same list of favorites as Arbuckle is at the moment, is still another human being. I decide to give Denise a call.

Nigel picks up the phone on the third ring. I forgot that he took Tuesdays off from his restaurants. “Hallo?” His British lilt rings out.

I take a deep breath, hoping to mask the darkness in me. “Nigel! Guess who?”

“Tommy Boy! To what do we owe this honor?”

“Guess where I am?”

A slight questioning pause. “Don’t tell me, you’re in Albany?”

“Yep. I’m just getting on the I-90.”

“Business or pleasure?”

I hesitate slightly before coming up with a conservative answer. “A little of both. I was wondering if it was okay if I stopped by.”

“Of course! You’re always welcome, you know that. Denise had to stop and help a friend of hers, so she isn’t home yet. She’ll be glad to see you. Come over and we’ll go out to dinner.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you soon.”

I hang up the phone and head to her home, keeping the radio tuned to a metal station good and loud so I don’t have to think. It takes me twenty minutes to get to Denise’s house, and as I wonder where we will go for dinner, I realize I am famished. It is incredible how this day has run past me like a big blur.

Denise is not home yet, even though it is six o’clock. I am uneasy about being alone with Nigel. I don’t know quite what to make of him. Nobody is always happy-go-lucky like that all of the time, at least not with an agenda. I sometimes get the feeling that behind the cheery smile, Nigel is scrutinizing the other person very carefully. He hardly ever drinks himself, even though he owns two bars, and is married to a supposed alcoholic. Sometimes I wonder if he owns the establishments just to get a rise out of watching the drunks slobber themselves. I don’t know if I would like to discover his motivation for marrying my sister.

Nigel is already standing outside on his porch holding a newspaper when I arrive. I couldn’t gotten away if I tried. I put a big smile on. Hoping I look good.

My efforts at chicanery fail. “Say old chap. You look like hell. Had a rough day, eh?’

“You could say that,” I admit.

He points his newspaper at one of the empty sears on the porch. “Please, sit down. What can I get you to drink?”

“Whatever soda you have would be nice.” I am not thirsty, but am looking for any way possible to kill the time I have alone with this man.

“Absolutely. Be back in a jiffy.”

I allow myself to bask drowsily in the late afternoon sun while he is gone. I still feel hungover from this morning. I doze off, thinking of rum and cokes, and then see Serena give me a haunting look, and I call to her but she turns away. Then there is a loud noise and then I realize I am dreaming.

“Sorry for waking you, old fellow,” Nigel says as he puts down a tray with a pitcher of cola on it. “Guess you weren’t kidding when you said you had a rough day. What time did you arrive in Albany?”

“About two o’clock, “ I exaggerate. I don’t want to make it too obvious how brief my encounter with Serena was.

“Checking up on the job or the old lady?”

“A little of both,” I exaggerate again.

“Hmm,” Nigel smiles as he poured both of us Cokes. “Have you looked for an apartment around here yet?’

Getting an apartment. My mind is far removed form such trivial-seeming matters such as my future. My life feels like a bad joke. The idea of the job seemed like a rotten punchline. But I’d be an idiot to express this to Nigel. To his question, I simply shake my head.

“I think I can help you. One of my customers is looking for a tenant. He’s looking to rent the top floor of his Victorian for four hundred dollars, heat included. Would you be interested?”

I feign interest in the temporarily uninteresting. “Sure.”

“Great. How long are you out here?”

“I have to be back by tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.” I sense the bafflement in his voice, and it amuses me. “Strange day for a long drive, eh?” he asks.

“I missed Serena.” Where the hell is Denise?

“How is she doing? I haven’t gotten to see her in the last week or so. They don’t like having non-relatives visiting especially when they’re not alkies going to the AA meetings. Too bad you guys aren’t married. Then I could get under the wire with brother-in-law status.”

I take a deep breath, realizing I was going to have to break the news somehow. Better that he hear it from me than Serena the Rehab Think.

“Serena and I decided to give each other space. I thought it was best for the situation.” Close enough to the truth.

Nigel gave a big sigh. “Well I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. What with Carla and all.”

My anger rises. I knew Nigel wasn’t as nice as he looked. “Denise told you about Carla.”

Nigel gives me a flat look. “No, Carla told me about Carla. She is a good friend of mine as well. Stop thinking there is a big conspiracy out to get you. There are more important things in this world than you, my friend. Besides, if you hadn’t done anything to get yourself in trouble, you wouldn’t be worrying about what people were saying about you now, would you?”

You never knew when the evil side of someone would strike at you. A fight was brewing, I was ready to stir it when the sound of a car door slamming got my attention. Denise is home, but she isn’t alone, and I almost choke on my soda when I saw who she was with. Speak of the devil, Carla Madison is here.

If I wanted to scream conspiracy, I don’t know if I could. My voice seems to have escaped to the Caribbean and I wish I could have gone with it. All four of us are staring at each other like gaping holes. Finally, Nigel the quintessential host breaks the ice.

“Carla, fancy seeing you here. I thought you were doing a showing in New York.”

“I did. Plans changed,” she replies, keeping her eyes on me. My breath shortens, my blood warms. I sense the same transition in her. True lust never dies. She abruptly looks away, and I turn my attention to Denise, who is giving me a dark stare.

Nigel clears his throat. “Carla, come in the house, freshen up. It’s always good to see you.” Nigel puts a gentlemanly arm around her shoulder and whisks her into the house, the Secret Serviceman protecting the president’s daughter. I watch her until she disappears, my heart throbbing with desire, anxiety and adrenaline. I hadn’t been totally out of my mind that fateful night with Carla. There was some validity to the lust.

“Strange how life turns out, isn’t it,” Denise muses. I cannot reply. I feel like I have been caught in a dirty act and now it has been revealed for all to see.

“Where did you see her?” I finally manage.

“She showed up at my job today. She had an exhibit in New York but she had to cut it short. Her husband came down and threatened her, told her that if she didn’t come back, he’d burn down her studio. He beat her up on the way back.” There was a silence. My emotions for Carla entwine with anger and anguish for her. What kind of asshole would treat her like that? She is so vulnerable and delicate. Then I think of my night with her, and I realize I am little better; she’d been little more than a diversion to me. I wonder what she thinks of me. This is getting too much for me.

“Maybe I’d better go,” hoping that Denise would fight me. I want to have an excuse to see Carla once more.

“If your conscience bothers you that much, then go,” is her cool reply.

Resentment seeps from her. It hangs on her like a lei. I wonder about her indifference, and think of the strange way I was treated by Nigel. And all because of Serena, a woman who over the years neither one trusted but now that she was all rehab-happy she is their best friend. I wonder what happened to blood being thicker than water. Then I remember that in the Hauser family and its satellites, normal things like that arenn’t true. What was I expecting.

Screw it. If Nigel and Denise didn’t care about me then I didn’t care about them. Besides I wanted a free meal. And I wanted to see Carla. To hell with them all. I march to the house with renewed purpose.

The three of them are sitting around the kitchen table sipping sodas when I enter. Carla’s hands shake as she tries to hold her plastic cup. I receive startled looks from all, like an important conversation had been interrupted by my entrance. Was I the topic? I wonder.

“So you decided to join us after all,” Nigel cheerfully greets me. Cheerio, mate.

“Mmm,” I counter, taking the last empty seat at the table. I am right next to Carla.

“Nigel, come with me,” Denise suddenly perks up. “You have to help me find my wallet. I think it’s in the bedroom.” I wonder what has sparked her change of heart that she suddenly trusts me to be alone with her friend. I wonder, with a leap in my heart, if Carla also wants to be with me. My heart thuds in anticipation of requitedness.

Nigel plays with my mind. Denise has already left, but he is still sitting at the table. “I’ll be there in a second, honey. Just as soon as I finish my soda.” He then proceeds to spend what seems like two hours to drink six ounces of liquid. I want to scream. I keep my eyes riveted to the table so my anger will not be apparent to him, and my desire not so apparent to Carla. Finally Nigel gets up, excuses himself, and leaves. I am finally alone with Carla.

I am still unable to look at her. A fantasy turned reality is terrifying. My heart races, my blood boils. Carla is playing with a ring on her right hand. It is her wedding band. I hadn’t noticed it the first night I met her, either on her right or left hand.

“So you’re Denise’s famous brother,” I can hear the sarcasm in her voice. “I’ve always been known to attract the psychos.” Color drains from my face. My anticipation freezes into dread. Then she looks at me and says, “Joke.”

I wonder if it is. I wonder what these women have been saying about me.

“Sorry that I left you like I did,” she is saying. “I was going to leave a note but—“ her voice trails off and she finishes with a shrug.

“Why did you leave? I thought we had a good time.” I have finally found my tongue. I face her, and I notice how pale she is. My insides fall in despair for her.

She gives me a dry look. “Come on. You aren’t going to tell me that you’ve never pulled that stunt on a woman yourself, are you?”

I have not- there is a first time for everything. Carla seems to recognize the truth when she sees it, though she could not see a lie for what it was, for that was what I had been that day. She cringes, getting up from the table and clutching the stove, bowing her head. She is hidden from me. I walk behind her, touching her hand like the rare silk it is, compassion mixed with eroticism. Her body relaxes for an instant against mine, but only for an instant. She jumps from me as though I am a raging fire.

“Don’t touch me! I don’t need your fucking sympathy!” She screams, causing me to jump back. I imagine Denise and Nigel barreling in with the infantry, disturbing my solitude with Carla. But all remains silent in the house, and I go to Carla again. She weeps silently, then looks at me with her luminous blue eyes. Her tears have washed away some of her makeup, enough so I see the bruises they hide. I gasp, then catch myself , but not before Carla realizes my discovery of her secret. She turns away, head hanging, sobs escaping louder and stronger. I gently reach for her. She does not refuse my touch. Anger inflaming the desire that I have for her, rage erupting; that someone could ever think to beat this waif-like creature so horrendously. I take her into my arms, and she melts into me like ice in summer. I clench my teeth, emotions running through me in a torrent.

I do not know how much time passes in our embrace. When we part, she bumps her hand into mine and our skin meets imperceptibly; it burns me more than sheer passion. She is still looking down, not meeting my eyes. I gently press her chin upwards so her gaze meets mine. She is only a couple of inches shorter than me but she seems much smaller to me now. She looks into my eyes with the knowing terror of a doe meeting her predator. I gently touch my lips to hers to silence her fears. She whispers that she needs to leave, and she disappears from the room. I feel her loss immediately. This is not the first time I this black hole visited me. Somehow I knew that it would not be the last, either.

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