“Seriously Maggie, why does he want to marry you?” my younger brother asked with a mouthful of pizza, one eye on the Redskins game playing on the television. My family believed in multitasking. “You’re his secretary for God’s sake.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, you’re going to choke. And I’m his assistant, you weenie. We’re getting married because he loves me.” I replied with the utmost confidence. Sure, he hadn’t said the words, but why else would he want to spend the rest of his life with me?
“I’m moving in with Gloria next week and I don’t love her. How come this guy who supposedly loves you won’t let you live with him?” Marty raised one eyebrow, a skill I’d never mastered.
“He’s old-fashioned. He wants to wait until after we’re married.”
Marty snorted and some root beer shot out of his nose. “Old-fashioned guys don’t get it on in the backseat of a Camaro.”
I winced at the memory. “I never should have told you about that. It was a long time ago and how was I supposed to know the rocking car meant he was boffing his girlfriend? Can I help it if my warped little prepubescent mind thought a vagrant was stealing his car? I was only ten, for the love of grief!”
“Well you’re being naïve again, Maggie. Something isn’t right.”
I wiped up the root beer with a napkin. “Maybe I am naïve, but I’m happy. Can’t you be happy for me, too?”
Washington scored a touchdown and Marty yeah baby-ed the team before he answered my question. “I want to be happy for you sis, but I still think you should ask him about the money again. Get it before the two of you are married. Go over there now and ask him for it.” Marty pointed his pizza crust at the door.
“If it’ll make you happy, sprout, I will.” With a spring in my step, I went.
My fiancé only lived a few blocks to the southwest of my sublet condo. The Jetta-or the pee-pee mobile as Marty was fond of calling my ride-was on its last legs so I decided to walk. The leaves on the deciduous trees had a jaundiced look, pale yellow or light orange with brown flecks as they often did this time of year. Richmond didn’t boast the glorious fall foliage that some other parts of Virginia were known for. My one-point-five caret diamond sparkled with the colors of the setting sun and an early October breeze lifted my hair back from my shoulders. Life was good.
I reached his apartment building as the light faded and the doorman recognized me right away. “Good evening, Miss Maggie.” He greeted me with a slight bow of his stooped, arthritic shoulders.
“Hi Eddie, how are you feeling?”
“Can’t complain.” The dour faced doorman offered me one of his rare half smiles. “You look very nice this evening.”
“Thank you. Is he in?” I chucked my thumb at the second floor.
Eddie’s expression clouded over-he didn’t care for my fiancé. “I believe so, Ma’am.”
My spirits soared so high I didn’t even mind the Ma’am-ing. I thanked him and continued on my way into the lobby.
Wanting to burn off my second slice of pizza, I skipped the elevator and headed for the stairs. An elderly couple with a pair of wiener dogs made their way down and we exchanged pleasantries as I held the door for them.
The second floor hallway was empty, as most of the building’s inhabitants were the upwardly mobile sort who spent every evening out being seen. Upwardly mobile types, much like my boss.
Whose door I’d reached. Mentally calling up the office schedule, I gnawed on my lip and wondered if he was even home. Well if not, I’d wait, maybe call his mother and talk wedding details. All those colors and fabrics to choose from, all the time I needed to invest-never mind the money for something I’d wear once. Ick, not a chore made for a woman like me. Might as well get it over with, since I lacked female relatives to run interference and his sister, Justine, had emailed me from college to say my future mother-in-law wanted to talk turkey. I put the key in the lock, turned the doorknob and was about to announce my arrival when I saw it.
The tract lights over the entryway were dim and it took a moment for me absorb the significance of the lacy black bra draped over the barstool. I picked it up between shaking fingers and turned toward the cracked bedroom door, where Barry White crooned in dulcet sensuality. I stopped outside the door, fighting the urge to hurl, when his voice greeted me.
“That was great, baby.” The Jackass sounded out of breath. I closed my eyes in revulsion, knowing exactly how he looked as he said those words. After all, it had been my bra on the barstool often enough.
“You never answered me. When are you gonna ditch her?” The female voice sounded catty and I had no doubt I was the ‘her’ in question.
I heard a distinctly male grunt. “These things take time, sweetheart. You need to be patient.”
“I’ve been patient for over four years now, you jerk! You promised me you were going to tell her you lost all of her money and send her packing! Then the next day, you tell me you’re engaged to her!”
“Well, I couldn’t tell her I was paying for your breast implants with their inheritance! Really Darcy, how do you suppose-”
Darcy. I knew that name. The rat bastard had me cancel engagements with Darcy for him on a regular basis about six months before I’d started shtupping my boss. I had only seen her in person once and I could clearly picture her silky long blond hair and trim figure. Must have been before the breast augmentation.
“Besides, it’s just a phony engagement.” My heart ripped in two at his callous words.
“Watch your tone with me, Mr. High-and-Mighty! You were the one who wanted me to get that surgery! Besides, you told me you made nearly a million dollars with her investment. Where did it all go?”
I needed to sit down. Good question, Darcy. “Darcy, honey, calm down. You know I’ve had problems with the IRS-they froze my assets. I needed the money to keep me afloat while I straightened everything out.”
A million dollars. I had owned a million dollars and I never even knew it. Now the money from my father’s hardware store and the insurance capitol from my childhood home was gone, used to support the yuppie lifestyle of a scamming, no good rat bastard.
“I want her out of my condo. You told me it was only temporary, yet she’s still there, her fat ass leaving imprints on my sofa!”
I pushed open the door. “Don’t worry, Darcy; I’ll be out of your condo by morning.” I looked at The Jackass. “And I’ll be calling your good friends at the IRS to let them know what a considerate tax payer you’ve been.” I spun on my heel and marched out of the apartment with my dignity in shreds, held together with spit and phony pride.
“Maggie, wait!” The Jackass chased me down the hall, twig and berries bared for all to see. He grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him, but I didn’t think before I brought my knee up with all the force of a woman scorned. His face took on a deathly pallor before he crumpled like a sack of shit to the beige carpet. I didn’t bother to stick around to see if he would retch-though the thought held a certain grim appeal- just swung my ass out the door without a backward glance.
My brother was gone when I returned to the condo to pack my belongings. With shaking hands I called Marty’s girlfriend’s cell phone and left a voice mail to inform my brother I was packing up his stuff and I would get him a room at the Holiday Inn until he moved in with Gloria. I jogged down to the super’s door and asked him if I could borrow a Phillips head. Then I took some tuna steaks out of the freezer and used the screwdriver to remove the vent covers on the heating system. I dropped the fish in, reattached the covers and cranked the thermostat to eighty five. Welcome home, Darcy.
I returned the screwdriver on my way out to the car and bags loaded, drove over to the nearest motel, where I rented a room under Marty’s name. I could have stayed there, but I was wound up and needed to move. Put some distance between my body and my sham of a life. I dropped off the bags and headed east on I-64. The pee-pee mobile took a crap in the form of a busted alternator right at the 264 interchange. It was a struggle but the downhill momentum helped me guide it to the shoulder of the road. Without a moment’s hesitation, I left my bags in the car and started to walk. I hoofed it the next ten miles to the resort area of Virginia Beach fueled by indignation. Every step drove the point home.
Stupid, Stu-pid, STUPID!!!!
Fury burned through my system like acid. I was furious at The Jackass, at my parents for dying, my brother for being an ungrateful burden, but most of all with myself for being so gullible. Somewhere in my brain a voice shouted that I could be accosted, mugged, raped, left for dead in a gutter, but the rage blotted out fear and rational thought. At that point, I had truly hit emotional rock bottom.
Only when the sun rose directly in front of me, due east from my current location at Atlantic Avenue at Seventeenth Street, did I realize I’d been walking all night. Gulls cried out, eager to find a tasty treat in the churning ocean below. I broke into jog as I saw the first waves, and inhaled the salty tang of low tide. At least it was the end of October and there was nary a tourist to be seen. I really didn’t want witnesses to my meltdown. So focused on my goal, I crashed into a girl out for some early morning roller-blading on the boardwalk. Murmuring a very insincere apology, I helped her to her feet. She surveyed me for a second, eyes wide, mouth agog and took off in the direction she had come from at an unnecessarily fast clip.
I trudged through the sand and went to the water’s edge to remove my ring. It bounced in my palm a few times before I pulled back my arm and hurled it with all of my strength into the sea. My purpose achieved, I felt…empty. My legs wobbled as I staggered back a few feet and collapsed into a fetal ball, crying all the tears held in check since my parents’ death. I cried for them, for Marty, but mostly for myself and the waste of my youth. I ignored the bleat of seagulls and the taste of sand and briny morning air. I never wanted to move again.
And that was where he found me.
“Nice throw. Hell of an arm you got there.”
I looked up through my tears to see a man staring at the spot where I had pitched the ring. His mouth curved in a bemused smile, but when he turned and met my gaze sharp intelligence and concern lit his hazel-green eyes. An unbelievably handsome man, giving new definition to the term sculpted. A long sleeved gray T-shirt clung to his upper body; his shoulders looked like they could carry the weight of the world and the fit of the fabric showed off an awe-inspiring six-pack. His left hand had been shoved into one of a zillion pockets in his tan cargo pants that rode low on lean hips.
Dream or hallucination? It had been a brutal night, maybe my psyche had snapped like a dry twig. I started the perusal over. He wore his dark brown hair a little shaggy but oh so boyishly charming. Streamlined nose and high cheekbones were in perfect symmetry and deeply tanned skin covered lean muscle that he didn’t exactly advertise but became evident none the less. The lightening sky over the crashing waves of the Atlantic contrasted his profile, casting him in sharp relief against a soft focus backdrop, a living, breathing specimen of male perfection.
Great. Just what I freaking needed.
“Look.” I narrowed my eyes on Mr. Gorgeous. “I’m kind of in the middle of a nervous breakdown and after that I plan on having a very festive pity party, table for one, so unless you are here to put me out of my misery I suggest you scurry on your way.”
He flashed me a whiter than Vanna White smile, which only succeeded in making me feel like dweeby Pat Sajak. I guess that meant God was Merv Griffin and He was laughing His ass off. The handsome stranger held his hand out to me and for some bizarre reason, I took it.
He pulled me to my feet and then turned to walk away. I stared at his backside, wondering if I had hit my head at some point, sure this couldn’t be real because Merv Griffin only knows-actual people weren’t so glorious. He looked back when he realized I hadn’t followed him.
“It’s best to keep moving, that way the demons can’t catch you.”
“That’s easy for you to say, you were never the fat girl in gym class who couldn’t outrun her own shadow,” I snipped at him. Gesturing at the roaring surf, I continued, “Besides, I’ve hit the Atlantic. Running is no longer an option.”
He strolled back over to me, locks of hair tussled in the early morning sea breeze. If possible he appeared even more magnificent in motion. Something in the way he moved choreographed lethal intent, a dangerous predator, lying low, waiting for the right moment to spring at his unsuspecting prey.
“Then you’ve got to swim for it,” he informed me, before he did just that. His easy gait morphed into a determined sprint and he crashed against the oncoming waves-one awesome force of nature against another.
I think a crab crawled into my mouth when my jaw hit the sand. Stupefied, I watched him swim in the cold water, a steady crawl full of power growing smaller as he neared the horizon. And then he vanished.
“Okay, Maggie, you’re officially psychotic,” I murmured to myself and sat down hard on the sand. My gaze trained on the spot where he had disappeared and I wondered what Freud would say about my vision. Probably something like I hated my mother and needed to get laid.
Maybe he was a merman, returning to his home beneath the sea where he could shag Ariel and tell tales about the chemically unbalanced woman he’d met on the beach.
“If she is an example of the people above, the land is ripe for the picking!” he would announce to his fellow mer-folk as they dined on lobster before a roaring fire in the great hall. Although how the fire stayed lit underwater, or how they cooked the lobster for that matter…
I looked up for the second time to see my dripping wet merman-sans fins-holding out his hand to me. He held my one-point-five carat solitaire, which looked none the worse for wear. I took it from him with a shaking hand.
“Oh my God.” Water dripped from his hair, eyelashes, nose and chin and I shivered in sympathy as the cool wind cut through my denim jacket. “Are you insane? You’re going to catch hypothermia!”
He winked at me. “Not likely. The water temperature is in the low fifties. I’ve been in much colder water for longer periods of time. It’s not exactly comfortable, but I’ll pull through.”
Master of the understatement.
“Come on.” This time he strode back up the beach without checking to see if I tagged along. Only and idiot would, but follow I did. He stopped short of the boardwalk where he retrieved a fraying blue towel and a small white card, which I instantly recognized as a hotel room key.
“You leave your hotel key sitting in the sand?” My tone sounded incredulous. “Where are you from, Mayberry?”
He didn’t look at me as he dried his stylishly unkempt brown hair. “It’s a magnetized card. If I’d lost it, I’d go to the front desk and they’d issue me a new one.”
“Yeah, but someone could steal it, go through your stuff.”
He shrugged. “Whatever, it’s just stuff. Nothing irreplaceable.”
I remained silent as he slipped on a pair of leather sandals and headed up the ramp to the boardwalk. He made no concession to the wind as it slapped his wet clothing, just strode along at a steady pace with me trailing behind him like a bitchy lost mongrel hoping for a good belly scratch.
The princess cut diamond bit into my palm. I wanted to ask his name and how he had retrieved my ring, but even despite his assurance that he wouldn’t freeze to death, I wanted him to get warm and dry as soon as possible. Answers could wait.
We were the focus of more than a few raised eyebrows as we entered the hotel lobby, not one of the pricier ones along Atlantic Avenue, but a nice little five story place with quite a bit of charm. My haggard appearance might have drawn notice if I’d been alone, but my companion commanded all the attention. I figured the men were astonished by his sodden clothing while the women were checking out his magnificent bod. He dripped into the elevator and I paused, unsure if I wanted to go all the way. Into his room. Where he would get naked.
A low growl rumbled in his chest as he reached for my arm and propelled me into the elevator. I didn’t resist, glad to follow a little while longer and study every detail of the merman. He pushed the button for the fifth floor. Coffee colored hairs were visible on his forearms, along with thin white stripes, possibly old scars. He didn’t shift or fidget, just gazed as the numbers on the elevator lit up with the car’s progress. I tried to think of something to say, but my mind had gone out to lunch. He seemed content to absorb the Kenny Logins Muzak and drip on the floor. The door dinged open all too soon.
He ambled halfway down the hall as if he didn’t have a care and inserted the key card. The light turned green and he gripped the handle, pushed open the door. My brain chose that moment to reappear and panic gripped my lungs in a vice.
“I’ll just wait for you here.” I toed at the carpet like a lost child.
He gave me a hard stare, allowing the silence to amplify my statement. A flash of something that might have been disappointment came and went. Or maybe it was just my severely battered heart, making me see things not really there. Wanting to be wanted. Hazel green eyes bore into me and it felt as if he sized me up, like he could read my thoughts as easily as he had found a diamond in an underwater sand dune.
“You’ll be all right.” His deep voice sparked something in me, something totally unfamiliar that I craved with rabid desperation. I nodded even though he hadn’t phrased it as a question.
Without a backward glance, he entered the room and shut the door. I stared at the brass numbers, 517, trying to jumpstart my brain. What the hell had just happened? Who was this guy?
I gazed at the ring in my hand through new eyes. When I had started driving last night, my only intention had been to exorcize The Jackass from my heart and get rid of this final reminder of him in one grand gesture. And I had. The ring had been cleansed in the ocean, a materialistic baptism which wiped the remaining vestiges of sentiment from my mind. I saw it now not as a reminder of The Jackass, but as the means to a fresh start. The gorgeous merman had known this, and had given me a new chance.
“Thank you,” I whispered at number 517. I touched the door, but jumped when I heard footsteps inside. I ran and only Merv Griffin knew how fast.