“BOLEH KAU TOLONGulang balik apa yang kau cakap tadi?”
“Yang mana satu?”
“Ayat yang ada sebut perkataan nak kahwin tu.”
Usamah mengerut dahi. “Kau dah suruh aku ulang lebih daripada tiga kali, kan?”
“And suppose my ears don’t want to believe that?”
Usamah jongket bahu.Nonchalant. Dia menguis nasi goreng yang masih berbaki di pinggannya. Perutnya masih lapar namun asakkan soalan demi soalan daripada Hazriq sedikit sebanyak mengganggu seleranya.
“Tell your ears. You need to believe it.”
“Believe that you’re getting married?”ulang Hazriq dalam nada tidak percaya. Sejurus kemudian Hazriq ketawa. “You? Married? No way.”
Hazriq menggeleng. “Tak mungkin.” Jus tembikai dicapai. “Selama ni aku rasa sebab kau tak adagirlfriendialahsama ada kau sangatbusyatau kau masihpining overSyaz.”
“Dah empat tahun dah Hazriq. Kau ingat aku ni suku sakat setia sampai mati ke? Kalau betul dia tu memang untuk aku, mungkin la. Tapi…judging from what she did… kau ingat aku ni buta ke untuk tunggu dia lagi?”
“Tak.” Cepat sahaja Hazriq menjawab. Namun sahabatnya itu jelas mengukir senyuman mengusik.
“Kau dengan mama aku samajek. Tau tak? Semua tak nak percaya.” Usamah menggumam perlahan. “Nanti akubawaklari anak dara orang tu, barukorangtau.”
“Bawaklari konon. Yang sorang kat Dublin dulu tu pun tak terjaga….” sindir Hazriq penuh makna.
Usamah kembali menyudu nasi gorengnya. Malas hendak berlawan cakap dengan Hazriq.
“Mesti kau jumpa perempuan Melayu terakhir ni… siapa nama dia?”
Usamah masih lagi setia mengunyah nasi gorengnya.
“Come on, spill the detailsla. Sanggup kau buatbest friendkau ni tertunggu-tunggu?” selar Hazriq sambil buat muka kesian. “Bro, c’mon.”
Akhirnya selesai juga nasi goreng di pinggannya itu. Mulutnya dilapkan dengan tisu, sebelum meneguk air kosong. Hazriq masih menunggu dirinya bersuara.
“Aku tak tau nama dia. Atau macam mana rupa dia.”
Kerutan di dahi Hazriq bertambah selapis. “Thenkautetibadrop a bombkata nak kahwin? Kau ni kena demam kepialu ke apa?”
Pinggan kosong itu ditolak ke tepi. “Dia… calon menantu pilihan mama aku.” Usamah memulakan, dan senyuman sinis automatik terukir di bibirnya sebaik sahaja dia menuturkan perkataan ‘pilihan’ itu.
Hazriq dilihat terdiam. Mungkin cuba mencerna kata-katanya.
“Aku tak sanggup dengar mama aku bising lagi.So the solution is… marry the woman that she approves.” Usamah menyambung lagi.
“Sokiranyathis unknown lady is your mom’s choice?”soal Hazriq. Nadanya membayangkan yang dia masih kabur.
Usamah tepuk dahi. “Kau ni dengar tak apa aku cerita dari awal tadi?”
“Dengar.” Hazriq mengangguk-angguk. Kemudian dia seolah-olah tersedar. “Kau rela la ni?”
Sekali lagi Usamah menepuk dahi. “It’s a plan,okay?Kau ni sejak bila jadislowni?”
Hazriq sekadar tersengih. Dia menggaru kepala. “Entah. Penat kut. Banyak kerja.So now you’re going to tell your mom about this? When?”
Usamah tidak terus menjawab.
“Balik kerja ni aku beritahu dia.”
Hazriq memandangnya lama, sebelum menggeleng perlahan. “Aku rasa macam baru sebulan lebih kau balik Johor… tup-tup kau kata nak kahwin…wonderkalau kau balik lebih awal daripada tu. Mungkin dah adalittle boyyang panggil akuunclegamaknya.”
Tawa Usamah pecah mendengar omelan Hazriq. Namun Hazriq tidak turut ketawa. Dia masih kelihatan serius.
“I hope you’re serious this time, bro.”
Tawa Usamah terhenti mendengarkan nada Hazriq yang serius. Dia berdeham beberapa kali.
“I really hope you’re serious. You’re talking about marriage. Ni bukan benda main-main. Berdosa tau tak, main-mainkan ikatan yang bernama perkahwinan ni.”
Lama Usamah terdiam. Hazriq memang begitu. Julukan nama ‘ustaz’ semasa zaman mereka belajar dulu sememangnya padan dengan Hazriq.
“I am serious.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“She’s a nice lady, right?”
“Nampaknya macam tu lah.”
“Bagus. Nanti kenalkan la kat aku.”
“Kalau dia terima… kalau tak…” Usamah jongket bahu. “Tak ada rezeki la kau nak kenal dia.”
“Dan kau pun tak ada rezeki nak kenal diajugak, kan?”
Usamah ketawa, sambil mengangguk perlahan. Jam di tangan dipandang sekilas. “Almost two. Thank youla sudilunchdengan aku. Jauh kau datang.”
“Mangkuk. Kau ingat City Plaza dengan Menara Pelangi ni jauh sangat ke? Aku siap jalan kaki lagi.”
Usamah bingkas. “Memang tak jauh…but for me to stealmasa emas kau tu…thank you.”
Mereka melangkah keluar dari kafe itu beriringan. Tiba di pintu keluar Plaza Pelangi, Usamah menghulur tangan.
“Kirim salam mama kau.”
“Ada masa datang la rumah aku.”
Spontan Hazriq ketawa. “Kita ni macam takkan jumpa lagijek. Lawak la kau ni.”
“Yela tu… kau tu sibuk memanjang. Baik-baik jalan.”
Hazriq mengangkat tangan sebelum memusing dan melangkah pergi. Usamah pula mengatur langkah menuju ke lif untuk kembali ke pejabatnya di tingkat sepuluh.
IMAN MERENUNGwajah Mak Su. Terasa sendiri dahinya berkerut.
“Cik Kamisah. Iman ingat tak Cik Kamisah yang datang masa tahlil dulu tu?”
“Ingat.” Iman mengangguk laju. “Tapi kenapa dia datang…”
“Dia tanya pasal Iman.”
Iman makin kabur. Dahlah Mak Su menelefonnya di pejabat mengkhabarkan ada sesuatu yang serius yang memerlukan Iman pulang ke kampung. Tiba sahaja Iman disambut dengan sebentuk cincin yang terletak cantik di dalam bekas baldu merah itu.
Mak Su tarik nafas. “Dia tanya Iman untuk anak dia.”
“Dia nak pinang Iman untuk anak dia.”
“Iman tahu. Tapi kenapa?” soal Iman pantas. Wajah Mak Su ditenung dalam. Guru matematik itu dilihat tersenyum simpul.
“Mak Su tanya dia tadi… tapi dia kata, dia cuma sampaikan hajat anak dia. Maksudnya, anak dia yang minta dia pinangkan Iman.”
“Tapi Iman tak kenal anak dia!”
“Mak Su pun tak kenal.” Tutur Mak Su separuh mengusik. “Diam-diam ada peminat rupanya anak sedara Mak Sunih...”
Iman tak menjawab. Mak Su ni! Aku tengah pening dia buat lawakpulak… apa nak buat ni?
“Mak Su beritahu Cik Kamisah, yang apa-apa pun, jatuh pada keputusan Iman sendiri. Mak Su takkan putuskan untuk Iman. Lagipun Cik Kamisah kata, insya-Allah dalam dua tiga hari ni, anak dia akancallIman. Nak bincang pasal ni.”
Iman memegang dahi. Telapak tangannya menggosok-gosok mata yang dirasakan pedih tiba-tiba. Terbayang di matanya, wajah Puan Kamisah yang baik. Dan dia dapat memutar kembali malam majlis tahlil semasa Puan Kamisah datang ke sini. Dan lelaki berbaju Melayu biru muda itu….
Dahinya di tepuk-tepuk.Think Iman think! What shall I do?
“Dah la tu… kesian Mak Su tengok. Iman tak makan lagi kan? Malam ni tidur sinijelah. Esok kan Sabtu. Nak balik pun dah malam ni. Pergi mandi dulu.”
“Lepas ni kita cerita lagiek?Iman letih tu. Pergi la rehat dulu.”
“Some mysterious guy that popped out of nowhere.”
“Kau tak tau siapa?”
“No.No idea at all. Except…” Matanya jatuh pada bekas baldu di atas meja solek. “A really nice platinum ring.”
“A stalker?”Adilah bersuara ala-ala misteri. “You have a stalker. Aku sangat tak sangka kawan baik aku adastalker!!!”
Iman menjauhkan Samsung itu daripada cuping telinganya. Namun masih dapat didengar dengan jelas butir tutur bicara Adilah.
“Hire a bodyguard,Iman!”
“Kau ni kenapa?”
“You have a stalker!”
“Oh, now I’m Paris Hilton?Siapalah nakstalkaku Adi? Dah la hidung penyek, tak lawapulaktu. Kaya jauh sekali. Aku setakatdriveWiraje. Siapa yang tak ada kerja sangat nak jadistalkeraku tu? Baik dia berkebun ke… buatjigsaw puzzleke…”
“Okey. Aku dah habis berdrama.”
Iman spontan tergelak mendengar apa yang dituturkan Adilah.
“Siapa dia? Aku tau kau tak kenal tapi siapa dia? Menurut Mak Su kau la.”
Iman menarik nafas. “Anak Makcik Kamisah.”
“A matchmaking scheme?”Adilah menyoal. Iman terdiam.
“Entahlah… masak otak aku ni….” keluhnya perlahan. “Apa dah jadi ni?”
Iman baru hendak membuka mulut untuk menyatakan sesuatu namun perbualan mereka terganggu dek satu bunyi menandakan ada panggilan masuk.
“Adilah. Adacallmasuk la.”
“Oh okey. Karang kita sambung diskus pasalyour so-called stalkerni.”
Tangannya cepat-cepat memutuskan talian, dan segera menekan butanghold. Dia mengerut dahi seketika. Nombor tidak dikenali.
“Iman Aisyah?” Satu suara lelaki menerobos cuping telinganya di hujung talian.
Iman terdiam. Kaget bersulam terpaku, dijahit dengan terperanjat. Tiga perkataan yang membawa maksud lebih kurang sama?
Jantungnya tiba-tiba sahaja bertukar rentak. Lebih pantas.
“Iman Aisyah?Are you there?”suara yang begitu asing itu menyoal, mungkin hairan dengan dirinya yang tiba-tiba senyap.
“Ingat dah letak tadi.” Suara itu seolah-olah berseloroh. Masih tidak memperkenalkan diri.
“Taklah.Still here. Siapa ni?” perlahan Iman menyoal, walau hatinya sudah boleh mengagak.
Baju Melayu biru muda….
Suara di hujung sana kedengaran berdeham.Nervous?
“Usamah. Usamah Razif.I believe that my mom had met your Mak Su today, kan?”
Sah. Jantungnya semakin hebat berdegup. Jika tadi ala-ala Gavin DeGraw, kini seumpamaMy Chemical Romance.
The next morning Raveena was having breakfast alone when Randy Kapoor’s secretary called.
Nanda brought her the phone and silently handed it over.
“Thank you,” Raveena said.
Nanda’s expression remained sulky.
Nandini was definitely preferable.
“Good morning, ma’am, I’m calling from Mr. Kapoor’s office. Mr. Kapoor would like you to meet him here at one P.M.,” a woman said in precise Indian English.
No wonder outsourcing was going to India. The professionals here spoke better English than Raveena did.
“Okay,” Raveena said. “The only thing is, I don’t know where his office is.”
“Yes, ma’am, I will give you the directions. Where exactly are you residing, ma’am?”
Since arriving in India she’d been called madam and ma’am more times than in her entire life put together.
“Umm, I’m in Bandra. Portugal Road.”
“Very good, ma’am. A beautiful area. Our office is in Bandra as well.”
“Yes, ma’am, Bandra is home to many producers, directors and stars. Now, tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and—”
“Auto-rickshaw?” Raveena interrupted. No way was she getting in one of those things. “I was planning on taking a taxi.”
“Oh no, ma’am. A taxi will not take you such a short distance, and why pay extra money besides? Tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and from there 14th Road. We are located at 29 Jains Arcade, on the 2nd floor.”
Raveena was scribbling this down as quickly as she could. “Jains Arcade. Got it.”
“Wonderful. I will tell Mr. Kapoor to expect you at one. Have a nice day, ma’am.”
Raveena set down the phone and ate some more of the scrambled eggs Nandini had made. They were delicious, flavored with green chilies, tomato and cumin.
Stuffed, she pushed the plate aside and a large black crow immediately swooped in through the dining room window and scooped the egg off her plate. She screamed and threw up her hands.
The crow then perched on the ledge of the window, gazed at Raveena with a beady eye and promptly guzzled the piece of egg.
Since yesterday, she’d been startled by all manner of winged creatures flying in and out of the house. Because of the heat and Uncle Heeru’s devotion to birds, all the windows were open all the time. When she’d asked her uncle why he didn’t invest in air-conditioning, he’d responded by saying he did not want to catch a cold.
The average temperature in Bombay that winter was eighty-eight degrees.
Earlier, Raveena had seen Uncle Heeru fighting with a crow over a piece of papaya.
With a sigh of acceptance, she pushed her plate closer to the window and addressed the crow. “Dig in.”
Wings outstretched, the crow once more swooped in and grabbed the last piece of egg. Instead of dining on the ledge, the bird flew up into the trees shading the house.
American crows definitely had better manners.
Two hours later, Raveena thought she was going to die.
The auto-rickshaw darted in and out of traffic, at times jumping up on the walkway, before zooming back onto the street. Open on both sides without doors, the contraption made her feel exposed. And she was guaranteed maximum exposure to exhaust fumes.
Raveena had done her hair for the meeting, setting it with Velcro rollers, but the wind and humidity wreaked havoc with the curls. If she was going to be traveling by auto-rickshaw, she’d have to do it Jackie O. style, with a headscarf.
Then again, Raveena saw plenty of Muslim women in burkhas walking up and down the street and thought about wearing one herself for practical reasons. Her hair would be covered. Her face would be protected from grime, and she wouldn’t have to worry about her clothes getting dirty.
The heat was relentless. Not wanting to arrive at the meeting with foundation melting off her face, she’d wiselykept the makeup to a minimum. Just some eyeliner and a dab of Chanel lipgloss.
However, Raveena was regretting her choice of clothing. Her parents had warned her to dress conservatively while in India. So she was wearing beige trousers and a white tailored Oxford shirt.
Meanwhile, right alongside the conservative Muslim women in burkhas were teenage girls in shorts and twenty-something women in tank tops, jeans and everything in between.
Obviously, Bombay was to India what Los Angeles was to the rest of America.
A whole different world.
Raveena especially liked the cute cotton tunics or kurtas she’d seen many women of all ages sporting. They looked comfortable and stylish. Raveena decided to buy half a dozen for Maza and herself while here.
“Fourteenth Road,” the driver said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the gutter. He was thickset and heavy, sweat visibly seeping through his khaki-colored clothing.
“Okay,” Raveena said, happy the tobacco spray had missed her nether regions. “29 Jains Arcade?”
The driver didn’t reply, so she repeated the question. He gave her an impatient nod.
“Fine,” she said, sat back and watched the scenery chug by. Cars, buses and auto-rickshaws battled each other for the road. Skinny cows walked alongside, nosing through rubbish for food. The barking of stray dogs was everywhere.
The driver stopped beside a small stand where a man was busy rolling bidis—cheap tapered cigarettes that looked like marijuana joints.
Not realizing they’d arrived at the place, Raveena continued to sit in the back of the rickshaw until the driver turned, looked at her and pointed to the right. She turned and saw a large building.
Raveena paid the driver twenty rupees, about forty cents, and very carefully crossed the street, dodging bicyclists, auto-rickshaws, cars and a hungry cow.
There was a guard at the entrance to the building who stopped her before she could go in. He had an AK-47 strapped to his back.
One of them was seriously packing too much metal.
“I’m here to see Randy Kapoor,” she said, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.
The guard looked her up and down, decided she didn’t pose a menace, and nodded. Raveena opened the door and nearly let out a sigh of relief as the air-conditioned coolness washed over her.
She took the elevator up to the second floor and found herself confronted by a set of thick glass double doors. Engraved into the glass were the words:
Behind the glass she could see trendy twenty-something Indians walking back and forth, answering phones and working on computers. Raveena entered the bright purple and orange lobby—very MTV—and went up to the black circular front desk.
“I’m Raveena Rai, here to see Randy Kapoor.”
“Oh, yes, Miss Rai,” the woman smiled. “Please come with me.”
Raveena followed her through another set of double doors and into a lavish waiting room done up in marble. Two beautiful gold statues of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, occupied alcoves on opposite walls. A second woman sitting behind a black marble desk rose at their entrance.
“Raveena?” the second woman asked, and Raveena recognized her voice from the phone that morning. The woman came forward smiling. “I’m Millie D’Souza.”
Millie was petite, her black hair cut in a shiny bob. A slender gold cross gleamed against her throat. “Mr. Kapoor has yet to arrive. Can I get you some coffee? A cold drink?”
“I’d love something cold. Ah, you don’t happen to have Thums Up, do you?” Raveena had been craving the drink since yesterday.
Millie looked surprised. “Yes, we do. It’s my favorite, but most people prefer Coke or Pepsi.”
Raveena took a seat on a plush burgundy sofa while Millie returned to her desk and pushed a button on the intercom.
A few moments later a young boy entered the room carefully balancing a tray with two tall glasses, his bare feet moving soundlessly across the floor.
Millie waited until he had left, then took a sip of her drink. “In America you do not have people like our office boys?”
Raveena thought about certain personal assistants in Hollywood who were expected not only to make calls, but wash the star’s Chihuahua’s butt, plan parties for the star’s kids, arrange for sex escorts and bring coffee. But she knew what Millie meant.
“No, we don’t. I mean, secretaries will make coffee for their bosses and get lunch, but that’s not their main job. And they’re usually eighteen years old and over.”
Raveena sat back and drank her Thums Up. She was getting addicted to the stuff.
By the time she finished her drink, Randy still had not arrived. Millie was busy taking phone calls and working on the computer but would shoot Raveena sympathetic looks now and again.
To entertain herself, Raveena thumbed through several glossy Bollywood magazines. That was how she got two pieces of very bad news.
The first was from an article on, yes, Randy Kapoor. Apparently, his last five films had all been expensive flops. The very last had been a Bollywood rip-off of Runaway Bride.
She peered closely at a picture of a thin, balding gray-haired man in a suit. He was wiping his brow and looked like the worried accountant of a mobster. According to the caption, it was Randy Kapoor’s financier and father, Daddy.
The picture of Randy himself was blurry, and she could barely make out his features. She did, however, make out the bright yellow Tommy Hillfiger jacket he was wearing.
Very Ali G.
The second piece of bad news was from the gossip pages of a Bollywood rag called Stardust. Raveena was shocked to see her name mentioned. Well, not her name per se, but it was pretty obvious who they were talking about. She quickly scanned the lines:
Rumors have it that casting couch Casanova Randy Kapoor has brought in a foreign actress to play the heroine in his next film. According to the copulating Kapoor, the role required someone of Indian origin but with an American accent. However, Stardust tattlers tell the real tale. As it turns out, no self-respecting Bombay actress will work with the randy Randy. We wish the poor unsuspecting Yank all the best. Maybe she should have brought a chaperone with her…
Great. Raveena had barely been in Bombay for two days, and already her reputation was being battered and splattered across the pages of India’s answer to Variety!
About the randy Randy business—sure, the casting couch was a fixture in Hollywood as well. But Raveena had never encountered it.
She couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or offended about that.
Raveena was still deciding when the door opened and Millie looked up. “Mr. Kapoor,” she said.
Raveena put the magazines away and prepared herself.
Hai readers! Seperti kebiasaanya, admin akan kongsikan kepada anda hasil temu bual kami bersama penulis buku. Pada bulan ini kami berjaya menemu bual seorang penulis buku yang terkenal, Nadia Khan! Salah satu bukunya, Gantung sudah pun dijadikan drama bersiri di kaca tv.
Kalau readers nak tahu serba sedikit tentang penulis buku yang terkenal ini, boleh ikuti temu bual kami di bawah 🙂
1) Siapa yang memberi inspirasi untuk Nadia Khan menulis?
Arwah Mak (Mak Long) saya seorang yang suka membaca. Dia sentiasa galakkan saya untuk terus menulis supaya ada bahan bacaan yang dia suka. Dan tiada yang lebih menyeronokkan daripada membaca karya anaknya sendiri.
2) Apa makanan kegemaran anda?
Saya tak pernah tolak nasi lemak bungkus.
3) Siapakah penulis kegemaran anda? (tak kisah luar negara or dalam negara)
4) Apakah novel kegemaran Nadia Khan? (tak kisah luar negara or dalam negara)
Perhaps in Paradise – Ellina Abdul Majid
Instructions For A Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling
The Marble Collector – Cecilia Ahern
Spoiled Brats – Simon Rich
(Banyak lagi sebenarnya)
5) Ada haiwan peliharaan tak di rumah?
Takde tapi nak kucing!
6) Jika anda diberi peluang untuk melancong secara percuma, ke manakah anda mahu pergi dan mengapa?
New York (“melancong secara percuma” ni termasuk tiket penerbangan kelas pertama tak? Sebab New York jauh. Dah tua ni satgi sakit belakang lak naik kapal terbang lama-lama)
7) Apakah Nadia Khan merancang untuk menulis dan produce novel terbaru?
All the time ☺
8) Apakah pesanan Nadia Khan kepada pembaca di luar?
9) Pada pandangan Nadia Khan, apa istimewanya novel Nadia Khan berbanding novel lain di pasaran?
Mungkin watak-wataknya yang dekat di hati pembaca.
10) Dari mana Nadia Khan selalu dapatkan ilham untuk menulis? Ada yang dari pengalaman sendiri ke?
Ilham ada di mana-mana. Disiplin untuk menulis; itu yang susah. Pengalaman memang ada memberi ilham, tapi diolah untuk menjadi cerita yang lebih menarik.
11) Apa rutin harian Nadia Khan? Ada yang rare tak?
Rutin harian sentiasa berubah. Kalau ada yang rare pun, kadang-kadang bila saya ada writer’s block saya akan pandu kereta seorang diri sambil mainkan watak-watak yang saya tulis – praktis dialog diorang, bagi sedap.
12) Describe diri Nadia Khan dalam 3 patah perkataan?
Daydreamer. Storyteller. Confidant.
13) Apa nasihat Nadia Khan kepada penulis-penulis yang masih baru dalam industri buku?
There’s no such thing as an overnight success – keep on trying.
14) Selain Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Inggeris, apa lagi bahasa lain yang Nadia Khan kuasai?
Bahasa Inggeris. Saya faham Hindi, tapi kalau bertutur tatabahasa saya berterabur sikit.
Kami harap cik Nadia Khan akan terus merwarnai dunia penulisan dengan coretan yang menarik, bermutu dan mind blowing lagi. Jika anda berminat dengan tulisan Nadia Khan, boleh klik pada link di bawah untuk mendapatkannya.
Wardah dan Firas bertemu secara tidak sengaja di dalam kedai buku dan kebetulan mereka mahu membeli buku yang sama. Dek kerana pertemuan pertama yang tidak manis itu, Wardah awal-awal lagi sudah kurang senang dengan Firas. Berlainan dengan lelaki itu yang mula mengambil perhatian. Begitu pun, Wardah terpaksa meminta pertolongan daripada Firas apabila mengetahui ibunya mahu menjodohkan dia dengan seseorang yang Wardah tahu pasti akan membuatkan keadaan bertambah buruk. Dia tak sangka dengan meminta Firas menolongnya untuk menyamar sebagai teman lelakinya telah mencambahkan sesuatu yang pada mulanya tiada di situ, dalam hatinya.
Okay, ternyata Syud memang berjaya buat admin tersenyum sendiri membaca eBuku ni. Dari awal sampai akhir, cerita ni sangat sweet dengan gelagat Wardah dan Pacai. Storyline yang simple, plot yang kemas dan bahasa yang santai membuatkan kita senang ikut dengan perjalanan cerita novel ni. Admin sangat sukakan watak Pacai yang selamba je dengan Wardah, seakan-akan real life dan bukan dibuat-buat. Nak dimulakan cerita, Wardah dan Firas aka Pacai first time berjumpa di kedai buku untuk beli buku Nyanyian Tanjung Sepi namun si Pacai ni beli two last copies yang ada dan Wardah pun dibiar kecewa dan terpinga-pinga di situ. Selepas banyak kali terjumpa, baru lah si Pacai ni memberanikan diri untuk tegur Wardah dan dari situ, bermulah al kisah ‘fake boyfriend’. Sudah beberapa lama, Wardah ‘ter’jatuh cinta pada Pacai dan Pacai pun ‘ter’jatuh cinta pada Wardah tapi ada saja orang yang suka mengganggu hubungan mereka. Nak tahu apa ending cerita ni? Boleh dapatkan eBuku Baju Melayu Hijau Serindit sekarang!
Greg’s Volvo sat smack-dab in front of the Victorian when Toni arrived home from the hospital and pulled in behind it. The sun had shone all afternoon, melting the snow that had topped the shrubbery for days, the remaining patches of white looking a lot like Old Man Winter’s bad toupee.
Between the pristine blue sky and the brightness that warmed her through the windshield, Toni was almost fooled into thinking spring might be making an early appearance. Until she got out of her car and the wind rushed around her, rubbing her cheeks raw with its frigid breath.
Nope, it was still January.
Clutching her knapsack, she raced up the porch steps to the door and jammed her key in the lock, turning it hard till it clicked. With a happy sigh, she pushed inside, stepping into the warmth of the foyer, where she promptly ran into Greg pacing and talking loudly into his PDA.
“So I’ll see you at the meeting?” he was saying and held up a finger when she shut the door and walked toward him. “Yeah, eight o’clock sharp. You bring the doughnuts, and I’ll bring the Pepto. Ha ha. You’ve updated the PowerPoint with the files I e-mailed, right? You’re the man. Ha ha.”
He had on his tailored wool coat, snugly buttoned to his chin. His overnight bag sat on the bottom step, zipped and ready to go. She hadn’t known that he’d planned to depart before supper; but instead of feeling insulted, Toni was relieved he didn’t mean to stick around. Something was happening to her, and she needed to be here in this house without him. It wasn’t anything that would’ve made sense to a logical man like Greg, so she was glad she didn’t have to stumble through an explanation.
“All right then, I’ll see you in the morning,” Greg said and finally stopped giving her the finger (index, not middle) as he ended his call.
Toni plastered on a pleasant smile and said, “Hey,” turning her cheek to him for a kiss while she tugged off her coat. “Did you miss me?”
“Your timing is perfect,” he replied and pulled on his gloves as she yanked hers off. “I need to hit the road, but I didn’t want to leave until you got here.”
“I had no clue you’d be going so soon,” she remarked earnestly, wondering if her grumpy attitude last night had anything to do with it, or maybe it was the weird vibes between her and Hunter Cummings. “Was that Steve?”
Steven Berman was Greg’s partner in his CPA firm and his oldest friend.
“Yep, that was Stevie, getting all our ducks in a row for the big staff meeting tomorrow,” he explained as he stuffed his cell into one pocket then pulled his keys from the other. “I know everyone’s still got their holiday hangover, but tax season’s already ramping up. We’ve got to get our battle plans drawn.”
“So we’ll do the two ships that pass in the night thing, huh? Except more like two ships that pass before dinner,” she joked but Greg merely squinted at her. “Sure you can’t stay and eat leftover meat loaf?”
“Wish I could, but duty calls.” He rubbed gloved hands together. “I’ve got some loose ends to tie up before morning. Besides, if you’re going to spend hours at the hospital so you can hang out with your mom, it seems stupid for me to stick around doing busy work.”
Ah, so that’s it, she realized. He’d driven all the way down so he’d expected her full attention every minute he was with her. He hadn’t imagined she’d ignore him, leaving him alone for hours on end while she visited with Evie in the ICU.
“My mother’s doing fine, thanks,” she told him, a tad stiffly; but she’d given about all that she could give of herself. If he wanted more, she was tapped out.
“Yes, of course I hope she’s okay, or as okay as someone in a drug-induced coma can be.” His clean-shaven cheeks flushed before he turned away to snatch up his carryall. “Is there any change?”
“Not really,” she told him without elaborating, because there was nothing to elaborate on. Evie’s condition was no different from when Toni had arrived in Blue Hills two days ago.
“Will they take her off the ventilator soon?” He pushed at the cowlick on his forehead, and she spotted flakes of dandruff in his hair.
“As soon as she’s ready,” Toni replied, not sure what that meant exactly. “But I’ll stay until they do. I won’t leave.”
Greg shifted on his loafers, his long face fraught with concern. “Just how long can Engagements by Antonia survive without you? I know you trust Vivien, but you’re the captain of that ship, no matter how good your first mate is.”
She shrugged, walking him to the door. “I doubt it’ll run aground in a few days or even a week. I’ve been keeping up on my BlackBerry and the laptop. So we’re in good shape,” she told him, even though she’d been worrying about the same thing. Her business was the only child she’d birthed and raised, and she’d put it first for so long she’d almost forgotten it wasn’t a real baby.
His bespectacled eyes studied her. “Are you sure about this? You don’t have to stick around out of guilt. The doctor can call you in St. Louis when they’re ready to make any changes.”
“Don’t worry about me, okay? I’m fine,” she said and jerked on the brass handle to crack open the door. “So have a safe drive and call me when you get in.”
“Will do.” He paused beside her and smiled, revealing a bit of celery from Bridget’s chicken salad stuck in his teeth. “Just think, when you come back, it’ll be to move in with me. Won’t it be great to live in one place instead of running back and forth all the time?”
Toni had been waiting for him to bring that up since he’d arrived last night. The only surprise was that it had taken him so long to say it.
She made a small “umm” noise and quickly changed the subject. “You sure you didn’t forget anything?”
“No, I mean, yes, I’m sure that I didn’t. But, um, I think you did.” He stuck a hand inside his coat and pulled something out. “This was in the pocket of my blue button-down. I assume it’s yours.”
It was the photograph of Evie and Anna that she’d found in the attic.
“Oh, God!” Her heart skidded as she caught her breath. “Yes, thanks.” She took it from him and pressed it to her chest before sticking it in the back pocket of her jeans. She would have cried if she’d lost it.
“So it’s important?”
“It is.” More important than he knew.
“Then I guess it’s good-bye until I see you again, whenever that’ll be.” He bent in for a kiss, and Toni didn’t even close her eyes as their lips locked. She wanted so badly to feel something more than she did, but it just wasn’t there.
“Good-bye.” She touched his face before he moved apart and headed out the door, a rush of cold air whipping in around him. “Have fun with Diane,” she called out and waved him down the front steps.
As soon as he’d thrown his bag into the trunk and shut himself into the car, she closed and locked the door and stood alone in the foyer, her arms wrapped around herself.
The grandfather clock loudly ticked off the seconds, as if she needed reminding that time waited for no man, and certainly not for a previously committed woman suddenly unsure about the fellow she’d once assumed she’d be sharing her life with.
Could coming back to Blue Hills have changed her that much? Or had she been more in love with love itself than she’d ever been with Greg?
“Clearly it’s an occupational hazard,” she muttered, figuring someone so deeply involved in the wedding business should know the difference between commitment and complacence; but maybe part of the problem was watching so many couples promise “to love and to cherish” that she inevitably coveted that for herself.
What if the strange “vision” of Hunter Cummings last night was merely her mind and heart coming together to convince her that Greg wasn’t her soul mate? What if she didn’t move in with him when she returned to St. Louis? Would he understand if she took a step away instead of toward him? Would he give her the time and space to figure out what she really desired? Or, more likely, would he consider a put-off the kiss of death and move on to someone else who could better appreciate him?
Even if they broke up, it didn’t guarantee she’d ever find a man like Jon Ashton. She could very well turn into one of those women so used to their independence that they could never compromise or settle. The kind they called “spinsters”—whether they were truly spinsters or not—who took cruises solo and adopted fifty cats while watching their married friends celebrate anniversaries and attend their children’s graduations and weddings.
What’s so terrifying about being by yourself?
Toni realized the idea of flying solo again at forty-six would have freaked her out more before this trip back to Blue Hills; before she’d become aware of how much she didn’t know about her own past. How could she make any serious decisions about her future if she didn’t even fully understand the family that had spawned her?
She had to find her past before she could release it, and she happened to be in the perfect place—the only place—to do both. And she would start right this minute, she decided, thinking of the flowered hatbox in the attic.
Well, maybe she’d wait until after she’d eaten something. Her stomach growled like an angry dog.
With the Victorian all to herself, she took her time making a meat-loaf sandwich and a cup of Earl Grey. Then she carried her meal into the den, wanting to check on the homework she’d given Greg.
Since he hadn’t mentioned a thing about going through her mom’s bank statements, she figured he’d spent his time pouting instead; but, lo and behold, she found a neat stack of monthly summaries from the Cummings Savings & Loan sitting on her father’s oak desk, pinned down by a ruby glass paperweight. A yellow note with Greg’s perfectly legible script stuck to the topmost edge:
Couldn’t locate June from last year, but otherwise nothing too out of the ordinary except irregular deposits and weekly cash withdrawals for $400 (for the housekeeper? Is she paying taxes on this???). Looks like she’s borrowing from her money market (which isn’t even earning 1% interest! Horrors!). It’s impossible to get the big picture without seeing ALL of her financial docs. Does she have any other investment accounts? IRAs? What about P&L statements from the winery? Tax returns? Can you box everything up and haul it back with you? (The sooner, the better!)
If anything, Toni felt more confused than ever. Frustrated, she wadded up Greg’s note and tossed it toward the recycle box. It hit the rim and bounced off, rolling to a stop between two stacks of magazines and catalogs.
Okay, the good news appeared to be that Evie wasn’t broke. She had enough in the bank to pay Bridget cash every week. And she had funds in her money market account, which Greg implied she was slowly draining.
What if the problem wasn’t with the clutter or even a few missed bills? Maybe Bridget’s histrionics weren’t about money at all but something else. Toni had a gut sense that Bridget knew way more than she was telling, or else why wouldn’t the black dress healing itself have surprised the hell out of her? She’d seemed to take it in stride, and that wasn’t normal. Toni had begun to feel like she was being steered in a certain direction by a human GPS that wasn’t as specific as Greg’s “Diane,” who instead wanted her to stumble around in the dark until she found her own answers.
“For Pete’s sake,” she murmured. Couldn’t anyone ever cut her some slack?
Because, if that was the case, why didn’t Bridget just fess up and tell her the truth about everything? The housekeeper was being even stealthier than Hunter Cummings with his “secret project” and the crazy-ass winter “harvest” he’d briefly mentioned on his way out.
Tell Miss Evie when you see her that I won’t quit on her, even if her daughter doesn’t like me much.
Was Bridget’s concern about Evie’s deal with Hunter? Because, in spite of how horrid it made Toni feel knowing her mom had turned to him instead of to her when she’d needed help at the vineyard, she had a hard time believing he would truly take advantage of the situation. He might be stubborn, yes, and a little too self-assured, but he didn’t seem callous. He didn’t seem like the type who could screw over a comatose woman and still sleep at night.
Or was she missing the point? Should she be pondering instead why a golden boy like Hunter would suddenly give the time of day to a seventy-one-year-old woman who was, for all intents and purposes, his father’s enemy? He was either as close to a saint as anyone came these days or he was getting something more out of it than a chance to dig his fingers in the last twenty acres of Morgan family dirt.
Stop twiddling your thumbs and go find out for yourself, she heard Evie declaring in her no-nonsense voice. You’re a Show-Me State girl, born and bred. Either you’ll see it with your own eyes, or you’ll know it’s not there.
Okay, okay, she would do it.
The winery was just over the hill. Though it was cold enough to freeze the hairs in her nose, the roads weren’t slick. She’d head over in a bit, once she took care of another item on her “what the hell is going on” list. She’d been dying to get back up in the attic all day long, and finally there was no one around to keep her from doing it.
Toni finished off her sandwich and tea, brushed the crumbs from her sweater, and deposited her plate in the sink. She unzipped her knapsack, plucked out the indestructible black dress, marched upstairs, dumped it across her bedroom chair, then continued straight up the hallway. She opened the door to the attic, hit the light switch, and climbed.
The hatbox remained where she’d left it, and she went directly to it. Instead of opening it there, she hauled it down with her, to her old room, setting it at the foot of her double bed.
Avoiding the chair with the black dress draped over its arm, Toni turned on the nearest lamps. Before she plunked down on the mattress, she pulled the photograph of Evie and Anna from her back pocket and set it beside the box.
If she’d been Catholic instead of a lapsed Presbyterian, she might have said a prayer or at least a Hail Mary, sure as she was that important pieces of her mother’s soul rested within. All she could think to do was whisper, “Forgive me, Evie, if I’m intruding, but maybe it’s high time that I did.”
Biting down on her lip, she removed the hatbox lid to reveal a mess of photographs, color mixed with black-and-white. Most were loose but others had been rubber-banded or stuffed into plain white envelopes with various years scribbled on the front, primarily between 1950 and 1965.
Toni withdrew them all and made neat stacks around her, in the process unearthing a carved glove box with a painted blue bird that contained several postcards: one of the Gateway Arch dated 1965, the year of its birth and her own, and another of a redbrick building with a green dome labeled “City Sanitarium.” While the Arch postcard was blank on the back, the one from the sanitarium was addressed to Mrs. E. Ashton and had a canceled four-cent stamp and a childish scrawl stating, I AM HERE.
There was also a folded sheet of stationery, worn thin as though it had been perused a thousand times. As she carefully opened it, Toni got a whiff of lily of the valley—the very scent she’d detected on the black dress—and her pulse leaped when she saw the monogrammed “A” and realized the note was to her mother from Anna:
I had to do it, Evie. I wasn’t meant to marry Davis. The dress showed me everything so clearly. How could I ignore my destiny?
The dress again!
Toni’s gaze darted across the room to where it lay across the chair. Then she read the note again and once more after that, her breaths coming faster as she realized the dress had given her aunt a vision, too, one that obviously kept her from marrying Hunter’s father.
Had the dress affected Evie as well? Were all the women in her family susceptible to it or just plain nuts?
“Good God, Mother, what else is there that you never told me?” she wondered aloud, placing the letter and the postcards back in the glove box before turning her attention to the hatbox again.
All that remained at the bottom was a tortoiseshell comb, along with a sterling silver hairbrush and mirror, each monogrammed with a curlicued “A.”
More evidence that Anna had truly existed.
So why had Evie hidden it?
If her mother hadn’t stroked out, if Toni hadn’t come back to Blue Hills, if Bridget hadn’t nagged her about cleaning up the clutter, she never would have run across these precious bits of Evie’s history. Her history.
Impatiently, she peeled rubber bands from the photos until she’d made a thick pile. Would she even know who was in them?
She quickly thumbed through the lot of them, finding a number of them labeled on the back.
Anna’s 7th birthday
Me and A at Christmas
Me and A picking grapes
Smoothing the quilt beneath her, Toni spread them out like a deck of cards, eager to take them all in at once rather than little by little.
Whether in color or black-and-white, as a child or a young woman, Evie’s countenance was unmistakable: her longish face often solemn, her eyes focused, her blond hair hanging straight or primly tucked behind her ears. Only in the photo marked Me and Jon, Wedding Day did she wear the most exuberant smile. It crinkled her eyes and stretched from ear to ear. She sparkled like a woman in love, and it both moved and pained Toni to see, knowing what her mother had lost when Jon Ashton had died; more certain than ever that what she felt for Greg couldn’t begin to compare.
There was a rather large photo of her maternal grandparents—Evie’s mother and father, Beatrice and Franklin Evans—but many more smaller ones of the sisters, often with a notation on the back referring to a holiday. One labeled Christmas, 1950 was faded to sepia and showed two girls standing in front of an evergreen decorated with way too much tinsel. Both had bows in their hair and long sleeves beneath embroidered pinafores. The tall and lanky Evie appeared uneasy, her arms stiff at her sides, a bored stare on her face. Tiny, dark-haired Anna beamed and held out the sides of her skirt, one foot set behind the other as if about to curtsy.
“Did you adore her or want to kill her?” Toni asked, even though her mother wasn’t there to answer.
As an only child, she’d only dreamed of having a sibling. In reality, she knew from her friends with brothers and sisters that it wasn’t always fun and games, not unless being put into strangleholds, tickled mercilessly, or being called names like “fart face” were considered sports.
“Maybe a little of each,” she decided, nodding to herself.
Then she began to painstakingly arrange the pictures in chronological order, or as close as she could get. She used the ones with dates as touchstones, guessing on others, until she could sit back and view the chapters of her mother’s life, strung together like pages of a storybook. They started with Evie as a baby and went through childhood to her high school graduation and teacher’s college commencement in cap and gown, all the way to her marriage to Jonathan Ashton.
“There,” she said with a sigh when she was done, feeling like she’d accomplished something monumental.
It was the closest Toni had ever come to understanding Evie and who she was before she’d become a mother; when she was just a girl, the elder of two sisters, coming of age in a small river town.
Evie had so rarely spoken of her growing-up years, although she had recounted plenty of stories about Herman Morgan’s founding of the winery and Joseph Morgan’s sale of eighty acres to Archibald Cummings during the years of Prohibition and the Great Depression. But that had been more like a history lesson than learning about people who really existed.
“You even hated having your picture taken when you were a baby, didn’t you?” Toni said as she fingered an old-fashioned portrait of Bea Evans with a swaddled infant in her arms that surely was Evie. The child’s face looked pinched and grumpy. Beatrice had dark hair crimped in the style of 1940s movie stars, and wore a dress with padded shoulders. She propped the baby up with both arms, proudly turning her toward the camera.
“She did her best,” Evie would remark of her own mother, though it hadn’t exactly sounded like a compliment, “and she left us too soon, God knows. If she’d only had more feisty McGillis in her veins, she might’ve had the strength to hold on and see her only granddaughter.”
Toni wasn’t sure how much McGillis or Morgan she had flowing through her own blood. She had been separated from her roots too long to know.
“I wish I’d had the chance to meet you,” Toni whispered to Beatrice and put the picture away.
She moved on to another photograph, this one color, of a child’s birthday celebration. There was dark-haired Annabelle with her dimpled smile posed behind a cake. Half a dozen children gathered around her, Evie so far to the right that only half of her was visible. One of the little girls closest to Anna had a gap-toothed grin and curly hair as bright as copper. Toni turned the photo over but found no date. Just the words Anna’s 7th birthday.
Toni spotted that same orange-red hair on a woman in a photograph a row above that one. Beside a grown-up Evie, who posed before the stone grill that sat in the backyard of the Victorian, stood a young woman with a head of wild copper hair. The redhead mugged for the camera, a pitcher of lemonade in her hands. Me and B, July 4 BBQ, Evie’s spidery handwriting had penned on the back.
Toni moved the two pictures until they were side by side: Anna’s seventh birthday and the barbecue on the Fourth of July.
It didn’t take much effort to figure out that the carrot-topped child and the grown woman pouring lemonade were one and the same.
“B is for Bridget,” Toni said aloud.
A knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she thought of the woman who’d been a permanent fixture in their lives since Grandpa Franklin had died.
Did you know my aunt Annabelle? she had pointedly asked Bridget only to get the most generic answer: Everyone in Blue Hills knew Miss Annabelle. I figure she’s the only girl in town who’d ever said no to a Cummings. That’s something worth remembering.
Toni figured that lying by omission was the same thing as lying.
So Bridget had lied to her.
The housekeeper had known the family going back at least as far as Anna’s seventh birthday—long before Anna ran out on her wedding to Davis Cummings—and, for some reason, neither she nor Evie had felt it was a fact worth mentioning.
It made Toni wonder what else they hadn’t told her.
There are those who love to shop at South Park Mall. Then there are those who are afraid to enter without an exit plan, such as a line tied around her waist, a GPS, and a flock of homing pigeons. I say this with great respect, as I am a woman who loves to shop. And while there are probably worse fates than a life lived out wandering in perpetual search of a mall exit (assuming the food court is half decent and the restroom stocked with paper and seat liners), I do have a hunk of a husband waiting for me back in Charleston. There is also a very handsome, very hairy, younger male whom I would miss terribly: my cat, Dmitri. (And yes, I do think that the pronounwhomshould be used with cats; they are just as human as many men I’ve known.)
But in order to get to Temptation Rocks I had to traverse a labyrinth of hallways laid out in what was, to me, a very confusing floor plan. The layout was rendered even more torturous because the stores are upscale establishments like Neiman Marcus and Tiffany’s; places where I would normally not shop, but can’t help popping into nonetheless. This is where the GPS comes in helpful, especially if you get the kind that scolds you harshly for deviating from the proscribed path.
At any rate, Temptation Rocks had an understated display window, and I walked past the space twice without noticing it. It was essentially just a gray satin background punctuated by one recessed, brightly lit niche about the size of a PC monitor screen and perhaps six inches deep. The interior of the niche was lined in pale blue velvet and showcased just one gem: a knock-your-socks-off ruby and diamond necklace that was priced at a mere $899,999.99.
As when entering a few other fine shops of its ilk, I had to be buzzed into Temptation Rocks. The woman who let me in wore a badge that proclaimed her to be Hildegard. Her long, golden brown hair was braided tightly and coiled on the crown of her head like the beginnings of a folk art basket. Her perfectly round cheeks were heavily rouged and brought to mind the pair of Gala apples I’d packed in Greg’s lunch bucket before leaving to drive up here.
Hildegard immediately held out a silver tray bearing Baccarat crystal champagne glasses that were certainly no more than half full. “Would you care for some champagne, madam?”
“No thank you; I’m more of beer gal.”
Hildegard recoiled as if she’d been approached by an untouchable. “There is a food court at the end of this hall, and to the left. Perhaps they serve that beverage there.”
“I didn’t come here to drink.”
She appeared to sniff the air as she surveyed the rather impressive rock on my left ring finger. “Oh. Then how may I be of service?”
I made a show of trying to look around her. “Is there a jeweler on the premises?”
“Why do you wish to speak to a jeweler?”
There is an art to delivering that “just so” dismissive look, the one that says that the speaker had no business asking such an impertinent question, and would do well to mind her own business from here on out. I learned that art by watching Rob, who learned it from a former lover who was purportedly minor royalty: he would have been a Portuguese prince had that country kept its king.
“Very well, madam,” Hildegard said. She set the silvery tray on a mahogany stand by the door to the shop. Then she carefully locked that door, before trotting around the counters and through a velvet curtain. Did I mention that she trotted on three-thousand-dollar high-heeled sandals by Victor Illuminati, the blind, but oh-so-gifted Italian designer who is all the rage this year among those who are truly in the know?
I didn’t have to wait long. In fact, I was having a good time admiring the pretties in the nearest case when out from behind the curtain hurried a middle-aged man who carried with him the look of a hunted animal. Right behind him trotted the expensively dressed hostess. She cast me an evil look before resuming her post right inside the door.
“Yes? How can I help you?” The jeweler spoke with the slightest of foreign accents; not Yankee, mind you, but possibly Eastern European.
I held out my hand in the limp fish position. Much to my pleasure, he actually took and kissed it.
“My name is Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn,” I said. After all, European society is ancient, and Europeans respect people with family connections and complicated genealogies.
“Ghurtpen Chergonia.” I had him print it for me. Even then I wasn’t quite sure of his first name.
“Mr. Chergonia, I have heard wonderful things about your work.”
“Your skill! You’re supposed to be the best, you know. Everyone says that.”
“Who iseveryone, madam?”
“Connoisseurs of fine workmanship, that’s who. Like the Ovumkophs, for instance.”
“Forgive me, madam, but I do not know these people.” He turned away and began a slow sideways retreat.
“Oh well, Ovumkoph is just one of many names, of course.” I put my hands to my mouth as if I wished to whisper in his ear. “I can hardly use theirrealnames now, can I?” The low-pitched, cultivated chuckle I emitted was also learned from Rob, who no doubt also picked it up from his Portuguese paramour, he of the purified plasma.
The jeweler turned and beckoned me to follow him. As I did so, the hostess became quite agitated.
“You can’t go back there, ma’am.” Her accent, by the way, had shifted suddenly from BBC British to Piedmont American. “Mr. Hunter, the owner, will be very upset.”
“Oh? Where is he? I’ll ask his permission first.”
“He don’t work on Sundays. It’s just me and this foreign guy. Look, I don’t want no trouble. I don’t want to get in any trouble with Mr. Hunter neither.”
“I think you meanteither. Anyway, I have no desire to get you into trouble. I just want to see a sample of Mr. Chergonia’s craftsmanship. He’s an artist, you know.”
“Uh-uh, get out of town!” she said to the jeweler. “What do you paint? Can you paint a picture of my mama’s dog, Cotton? It’s Mama’s birthday the day after Labor Day but we’re fixin’ to have a cookout down at my cousin Trudy’s place over in Tega Cay. It’s right on Lake Wylie. I mean the deck actually extends right over the water; you can spit right down on the fish if you’re so inclined. And they actually go for it, like it was fish food. I guess they ain’t very smart.”
“What an interesting idea—spitting on the fish; I’ll have to keep that in mind should my husband and I ever decide to build on the water. Or swim in it.”
Hildegard glanced at the door, and seeing it still securely locked, risked a bawdy laugh. “Oh honey, that water has seen a lot worse than that, and folks still swim in it. It’s the lake; not the shower.”
“Gotcha,” I said with a knowing wink. I gave her what I hope was interpreted as a friendly wave and trotted off after the mysterious European on my $39.99 Naturalizers.
I am not so stupid as to reveal the exact location of the safe in the backroom at Temptation Rocks, but I will say this about its contents; many of the rocks I beheld were so beautiful that I was sorely tempted to—well, to drop a wad of cash. What else? The trouble was that even though I am well-off, I am notthatwell-off.
It used to be that glittering gems advertised personal wealth, but that was back in the cavemen days before the technology existed to make cheap fakes—and I mean really cheap. It’s possible to pick up some rings for five bucks or less in tourist traps that will make heads turn, if only for a minute. Because this is the case, because the bling factor can be achieved for so little, there really isn’t a whole of impetus to spend huge amounts on the real thing. Not when there are lots of other status symbols to spend it on. I, for one, would only pay a fortune for the real McCoy when it came to rocks, if I’d checked everything else off my want list, and that included a new Mercedes-Benz.
Nonetheless, I gasped in reverent appreciation, in part because of the elegant gold settings that surrounded so many of the stones. I was particularly fascinated by a ring that looked identical to the one that Aunt Jerry had wished to bequeath me, except that this treasure sported a golden centerpiece.
“It’s a twenty-two-carat golden beryl from Namibia. German cut. Here, hold it up to this light so that you can see the facets. Beautiful, no?”
“Beautiful, yes. Did you make the setting?”
“Yes, madam. Lost wax process. It is an original design, although I have used it since on five other rings.”
I shivered with delight. Surely this feeling was akin to what matadors felt when they were finally coming in for the kill.
“Were they all golden beryl?” I asked.
He made a clicking sound with his tongue. “No. One was aquamarine—that is a kind of beryl too, you know.”
I may have sounded impatient, because his rejoinder was slightly combative. “You don’t see good aquamarine in American stores; not like in Europe. Now in Japan—only the best there. The Japanese know their stones. Here, mostly the stores sell junk. A good aquamarine is—”
“—deep blue, the color of the ocean when you’ve sailed out beyond the continental shelf.”
He stared at me. “Ah, so you are not a dilettante!”
“Nor an expert either. I’m just a lover of gems.”
He motioned for me to sit on a padded stool that had arms and a back. After I’d hoisted my petite patootie into place, he perched on an identical stool.
“Which is your favorite gemstone?” he asked.
“That depends. Can we, for the sake of this discussion, eliminate the human suffering aspect?” I was dead serious. Most gemstones come to us from Third World countries where they are “mined” under appalling conditions. The workers—often children—are little more than slaves, working twelve-hour days either under the blazing tropical sun or deep under the earth in danger of suffocation at any time. For their labor they are a paid a pittance, sometimes not even enough to sustain them physically. After all, what does it really matter if they die on the job? There is always someone to take their place.
“I guess that we would almost have to eliminate the human suffering element, or we wouldn’t have any gems, would we?”
“Actually, there is a lot of gem mining in parts of North Carolina. Some of it is essentially backyard pits. But honestly, what I’d really like, if the human suffering factor was not an issue, would be a Mogok ruby from Burma.”
He nodded. “That famous ‘pigeon blood’ red. The stones with the fluorescence that can’t be matched by their Thai counterparts.”
“Yes, and all we see are Thai rubies, am I right? Little, itty-bitty ones.”
He laughed. “So you like big stones—like this.”
“Unfortunately, I do. And what’s that famous saying? You can have anything you want in life; just not everything. An eye-clean Mogok ruby the size of this golden beryl would cost five times as much as my house in Charleston—Southof Broad Street. What about you? What’s your favorite stone?”
“Madam, I do not know anything about the house prices in Charleston, but I too would not be able to afford my first choice of an emerald from the famous Muzo mine in Colombia. If it were eye-clean—impossible! But with a garden of slight inclusions, then maybe. Emerald is a beryl too, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Madam, you know everything.” He sounded astonished rather than miffed.
“No, but I know a lot.” Play your cards close to your chest, I reminded myself; there was no point in divulging to Mr. Chergonia that my well of knowledge was about to run dry.
He sighed, and locking his fingers, put his hands behind his head. “Then you must know that some gemstones are easier to replicate than others, and that a lab-created emerald has the same physical properties—that is the word, yes?”
“Yes. And yes, it is exactly the same as a natural emerald, except that it took months to grow, rather than tens of thousands of years.”
“There are many times I cannot tell a good synthetic emerald from a natural one, except for under the microscope. As for the glass imitations, they are always greener. Ha, now I make a little joke.”
“You have a saying, yes? The glass is always greener on the other side of the wall.”
I thought of correcting him, but thankfully thought better of it. “That is what we said in my country,” he said. “We had many prisons. But now I want to tell you something truly amazing. This emerald that I desire, the one from Muzo with just a little bit of garden and which is the perfect color of ferns—you know what are ferns?”
I leaned forward on my stool. “Yes. I know what ferns are.”
He leaned forward as well. “I have seen this emerald—right here in my shop. I have held it my hands; I have touched it to my lips. I am telling you, madam, it exists. This fabulous stone is right here in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
“Yes, I know.”
He recoiled ever so slightly. “You have seen it?”
“Yes. I believe that I own it.”
The jeweler shook his head wearily. “Madam, please, it has been a long day. Either you know that this stone is yours, or you do not. It is not a matter of faith.”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story—but I’ll give you the short version. It was given to me by an eccentric woman named Jerry Ovumkoph—an older woman in her seventies—”
“Yes, yes, she is the one! She brings in this ring; at first I think that she has been misinformed; many clients come in with synthetic stones and they do not know it. When I tell them that their stones are worthless, they are, of course, very angry with me.” He shrugged. “But some do know that the stones they have are counterfeits, and their intention is to cheat. Anyway, I studied Ms. Ovumkoph’s stone carefully, and I even asked the opinion of some of my colleagues, and yes, madam—it is real.”
“Did she want to sell it?”
“Madam, you are very charming; a native of the South, yes? But, you still have not stated your business. Are you a buyer, or a seller?”
I thought back to my college days, and what different connotations those words had then. But it was stupid of me to waste even a nanosecond on such memories. I decided to come clean with the jeweler with the vaguely Eastern European accent—well, partway clean, at least. Any Dixie chick with a speck of starch in her crinolines knows better than to spill all her beans at once, even if she has to murder her metaphors.
“I’m neither a buyer nor a seller. You see, the woman who was here—Jerry Ovumkoph—left me that ring in her will. But she’s dead now, and the ring is missing. I’m trying to trace down the origin of that ring for insurance purposes so I can get a replacement value.”
He stared at me. I knew he was trying to read me, to see if I was lying. Of course I was, but I wasn’t trying to scam him out of any money. He didn’t have a thing to lose by telling me the truth. Surely he could sense that.
“She wanted a glass copy made,” he said. “Glass!”
“Scandalous,” I said.
“Are you mocking me, madam?”
“No, sir. I’m quite serious; to put a glass center stone in that gorgeous design of yours would be like hanging a Jackson Pollock painting in the Hermitage. How many diamonds are in the border?”
“Forty-two. Each one is VVSI or better. It is twenty-two-karat Italian gold—not fourteen-karat like the cheap rings one sees everywhere.”
I glanced down at the cheap ring my sweetie gave me. Well, it would take more knocks than a more expensive ring without getting bent out of shape. That’s what I was trying to do in this new marriage: not get all bent out of shape. But as for the knocks—just one literal tap and Greg was out of there. I’d survived one abusive marriage, and I was not going to be a punching bag, foranyone, ever again.
“Of course you Americans are very smart,” Mr. Chergonia said. “You spend thousands of dollars on the dress, which the bride will never wear again. But it is big, and every one can see it even from the back of the church. The ring not so much—even though when the revolution comes, the bride can run and hide with her ring, and then sell it across the border and buy bread for her children if it is high-quality gold.”
“Your point is well-taken, sir. I concede—that means that you win.”
“So—Mrs. Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn—what else do you want to know?”
It took me a minute to scoop up my lower jaw and slap it back into place. “Wow! You’ve got quite a memory for names.”
“And you have an impressive knowledge of stones—for an amateur, yes?”
“Yes, although I do own an antiques store and from time to time I come into possession of estate jewelry. Anyway, what I really came here to find out is if anyone has been trying to unload this ring in the last day or two.”
“Madam?” He appeared to be genuinely startled.
“You see, Jerry Ovumkoph passed—that is to say, she’s dead—and she left me her ring in her will, but it was stolen.”
His dark eyes flashed angrily. “I do not deal in stolen goods!Never!”
“I know that, sir. I’m just wondering if someone—maybe another Ovumkoph—tried to sell you this ring.”
His response was to hold one of his long, slender, if slightly crooked fingers to his lips. The dark eyes directed me to look at the curtained doorway. There was a gap toward the bottom where the heaven curtains fell apart, and in that space was the hideously expensive toe of a Victor Illuminati sandal.
I smiled and nodded. “Then I dragged the body to the car,” I practically shouted. “Of course I couldn’t lift it into the trunk by myself, so I had to call someone from thefamilyto help me. You wouldn’t believe how fast they showed up. Being the Godfather’s real daughter has its perks, you know. I just wish I’d kept my maiden name, and not those of all my former husbands. Oh well, at least they’re no longer around to bother me.”
By then Mr. Chergonia had risen to his feet. The poor man’s face was as white as parboiled grits and he’d begun to sway like a palmetto in a category four storm. I have never taken a bona fide CPR class; all I really know is that the techniques have changed a bit over the years and—thank heavens—giving mouth-to-mouth is no longer de rigueur. Then again, like I said, I really know squat. I just knew enough to dig my cell phone out of my purse and mentally review the procedure for dialing 911.
“I think you need to sit back down,” I whispered.
“Yah, mebbe, dats a goot idea,” he said.
By then the ridiculously expensive footwear was no longer to be seen. Having caused such consternation, I took it upon myself to at least see what, if any, the lasting damages were, so I crept to the doorway and gradually peeled back enough of one panel to allow me to peep into the showroom. You can imagine my relief then when I saw the hostess cleaning the top of a display case at the far end of the room. She looked entirely absorbed in her task; calm and peaceful even. The tray of champagne glasses waited nearby on another countertop. All was well with the world.
I scurried soundlessly back to my source of information. “So? Have you been contacted?”
So why did we break up? When I think of it now, think of it really, I think of how tired I was Halloween Saturday, from getting up early to sneak off to Tip Top Goods myself to buy these, which I never gave you. Yawning outside later, spray-painting an old thrift-store cap I used to wear freshman year, squinting at the gray to see if it matched my dad’s coat, Hawk Davies floating out my bedroom window to bask all over me, that cool part of “Take Another Train” when he polishes off a solo and you hear someone’s faint cry of appreciation, Yeah Hawk yeah while I grinned in the clear air. It wasn’t going to rain out. You and I were going to the Bash and the Ball and it would be OK—extraordinary, even. I had no feeling of otherwise. I can see my happiness, I can see it and I can say that we were happy too then, not just me. I guess I can cling to anything.
“It’s good to see you happy,” my mom said, coming out with steaming tea. I’d been coiled up thinking she was telling me the jazz was too loud, think of the neighbors.
“Thanks,” I said for the Earl Grey.
“Even if it is in your father’s coat,” she said, this year’s thing of deciding it was OK to talk crap about Dad.
“Just for you, Mom, I’ll try to ruin it tonight.”
She laughed a little. “How?”
“Um, I’ll spill drugs on it and roll around in the mud.”
“When am I going to meet this boy?”
“I just want to meet him.”
“You want to approve him.”
“I love you,” she tried like always. “You’re my only daughter, Min.”
“What do you want to know?” I said. “He’s tall, he’s skinny, he’s polite. Isn’t he polite on the phone?”
“And he’s captain of the basketball team.”
“That means there’s another captain too.”
“I know what it means, Min. It’s just—what do you have in common?”
I took a sip of tea instead of clawing her eyes out. “Thematic Halloween costumes,” I said.
“Yes, you told me. The whole team is prisoners and you’re playing along.”
“It’s not playing along.”
“I know he’s popular, Min. Jordan’s mother tells me this. I just don’t want you led around, like, like somebody’s goat.”
Goat? “I’m the one being the warden,” I said. “I’m going to lead them around.” Not true, of course, but fuck her.
“OK, OK,” my mom said. “Well, the costume’s coming along. And what are those?”
“Keys,” I said. “You know, a warden has keys.” For some moron reason I thought I’d include her for a sec. “I thought I’d wear them on my belt, you know? And then at the end of the night I’d give them to Ed.”
My mom’s eyes widened.
“You’re going to give Ed those keys?”
“What? It’s my money.”
“But Min, honey,” she said, and put her hand on me. My wrists trembled to spray-paint her in the face and make her gray, although, I noticed suddenly but without surprise, she already was. “Isn’t that a little, you know?”
“Ew. Like, a dirty joke? Key in the keyhole?”
“Well, people will think—”
“Nobody thinks like that. Mom, you’re disgusting. Seriously.”
“Min,” she said quietly, her eyes searchlighting all over me. “Are you sleeping with this boy?”
This boy. Goat. You’re my daughter. It was like bad food I was force-fed and couldn’t keep down. Her fingers were still on me, skittering on my shoulder like a little pair of school scissors, blunt, ineffective, useless, and not the real thing. “It is none,” I said, “none, none of your business!”
“You’re my daughter,” she said. “I love you.”
I walked three steps down the driveway to look at her, hands on her hips. On newspapers on the ground the hat I was going to wear. Do you know, Ed, how much it fucking punches me in the stomach that my own mother was proved right? I must have shouted something and she must have shouted something back and stomped, she must have, into the house. But all I remember is the music fading, vengefully turned down so it no longer sound-tracked the day. Fuck her, I thought. Yeah Hawk yeah. I was done anyway.
Though I didn’t, did I, give you the keys. The day cooled to dusk while I did a little homework, dozed, missed Al, thought about calling Al, didn’t call Al, got dressed, and headed out with a dagger-glare at my mother pouring little candy bars into a bowl she’d sit and eat while waiting for youngsters. The boy I used to babysit was out on the corner throwing eggs at cars while the sun set. He flipped me off. The world was getting worse I guess, like this Japanese remake of Rip Van Winklecalled The Gates of Sleep that Al and I left early from, each time the hero awoke it was more depressing, wife dead, sons drunks, city more polluted, emperors more corrupt, the war dragging on and more and more bloody. Al said that one should have been called Are You in a Good Mood? We’ll Fix That: The Movie.
I should have known when an old guy on the bus, totally not kidding, thanked me for my service, that my costume was going to be another disaster, but not until I walked under the archway of orange and black balloons looking for you did it really hit me clear, from Jillian Beach of all people. “Oh my God,” she said, already tipsy in red-and-white-striped shorts and a bra of blue bandanas. She was porcupined with goose bumps from the evening cool, Annette was right, I didn’t have to be afraid of her.
“You really are out there, Min. A Jewish girl dressing as Hitler?”
“I’m not Hitler.”
“They’re going to expel you. You’re gonna get expelled.”
“I’m a warden, Jillian. What are you?”
“She invented the flag.”
“Betsy, Jillian. I’ll see ya, OK?”
“Ed’s not here,” she said back to me.
“That’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t even try to be convincing, a Nazi too early for an outdoor party. A nest of freshmen walked around me chattering in mouse ears. A bunch of Draculas preened in a corner. They were already playing that song I hate. The coaches were sipping coffee and sweating in their capes. It was Trevor, who would ever think, who rescued me, limping over with his foot in a cast.
“Hey, Min. Or should I say Officer Green?”
Better a cop than Hitler. “Hey, Trevor. What are you?”
“A guy who broke his foot yesterday and so can’t be in the chain gang.”
“You’ll do anything to get out of dancing onstage.”
He laughed loud and pulled a beer out of somewhere. “You are funny,” he said, as if someone had said otherwise, and took a swig before handing it to me. I could tell he did this with any girl, any person, and that never until me had it been handed back unsipped.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “You don’t like beer.”
“Ed told you.”
“Yeah, why, am I not supposed to know?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said, looking for you.
“Because, you know, he’s always going to tell me.”
“Yeah?” I said, and then gave up and looked him in the eye. He was drunk too, as usual, or maybe he was never drunk, I realized I didn’t know him well enough to know the difference.
“Yeah,” he said. “Slaterton girlfriends need to learn that and scoot if they can’t handle it.”
“Scoot,” he said with a wobbly nod. Even drunk, if he was drunk, he was tough-enough-looking to say words like scoot. “We talk, Ed and me.”
“So what does he say?”
“That he loves you,” Trevor said instantly, without embarrassment. “That you passed the test with his sister. That you put up with his math thing. That you’re planning a weird movie-star party and that I have to get the fucking champagne or he’ll kick my ass. And you don’t let him say gay anymore, which is—can I say gay?”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re not my boyfriend.”
“Thank God,” he said, and then, that’s where you got it I guess, “no offense.”
“None taken,” I said.
“I just mean, I don’t think we’d get along like that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“We’re just, I mean, I like a fun girl who doesn’t change me around with movies or stores that open first thing in the goddamn morning, you know?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I wouldn’t take you there.”
“I’m just, you know, trying to stay fun. Happy on the weekends, you know, sweating hard at practice.”
“I get it.”
He threw an arm around me like a companionable uncle. “I like you, I don’t care what anybody says,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, stiff. “I like you too, Trevor.”
“Naw,” he said, “but you’re a good sport about it. I hope you hang around a long time, really I do, and if you don’t I hope it’s not all drama and shit.”
“Now don’t get all puckered,” he said, finishing a beer and starting another. “I just mean, you guys are like those two planets that crash together in a movie I saw on TV when I was a kid once, the blue people and these weird red guys.”
“When Planets Collide,” I said. “It’s a Frank Cranio film. At the end they’re all purple.”
“Yeah!” he said loud, his eyes toggly with wonder and joy. “Nobody I ever knew ever knew that.”
“The Carnelian’s showing some Cranio in December,” I said. “We could double-date, you know, with Ed and whoever girl you’re—”
“Not in a million years,” he said agreeably. “That theater’s gay.”
“You say that,” I said, “when you’re part of a group of guys chained together dancing.”
“Not me!” he said, raising his broken foot, and we laughed hard, loud, wild, and I even leaned into him, just as you arrived with your chain gang, everyone in striped pajamas and black plastic loops around their ankles. Underneath your flimsy hat your face was flushed and suspicious. “What the hell, Trev,” you said, too loudly, and pulled me away.
“Whoa, whoa,” Trevor said, shielding his beer. “We’re just goofing, Ed. She’s waiting for you.”
“And what are you doing, asshole?” you asked him. “Keeping her warm for me?”
“Hey, Ed, happy Halloween, good to see you,” I said pointedly like a person. I’d never seen this version, this shouting boy jerk, with your eyes frazzled wrong and your hand a claw on my shoulder. It was nothing I’d seen, but I hadn’t, I was thinking, known you that long.
“Dude,” Trevor said to you, smirking like the punch line was coming. “Don’t accuse like that. You know everything but’s not good enough for me.”
The whole chain gang oohed. The tears came to me so quick it was like I’d been saving them up for just this thing. I wished I were Hitler, I would have killed the whole set of them. “Min!” you called to me, your anger chased away in panic, and even took a few steps toward me. But your gang was chained to you, and they wouldn’t let you follow me and make it right. Not that you could. Though you did.
“He’s sorry!” one of the stupid boys called, and laughed. “We all did Viper shots to practice our dance, it always makes Slaterton an asshole.”
“No way!” Trevor said in jealous delight. “You’re doing Viper? Where is it where is it where is it?”
You looked helpless at me, and then the party surged around us like the panic in Last Train Leaving, the coaches starting off the festivities with their fat, dumpy dance to “I’m the Biggest Man.” Go to hell, I thought to everybody, and we were there, everyplace a nightmare of terrible people, screaming, flashing lights, more screaming, worse than a bonfire because there was nothing gorgeous to look at, just the gleamy makeup on people’s faces, the rubber masks like roadkill on boys’ heads, the slutty costume skin on the girls shiny with sweat, the thum-thum thunder from whoever carried in drums, screaming whistles around people’s necks like neon nooses, and then the rhythmic chantings, spread out across the crowd as each school started in, different words cropping up for each team, Eagles! Beavers! Tigers! Marauders!, a clashing of syllables like the mascots were fighting to the death in the sky, and then the captains hoisted up onto drunken shoulders, each school shouting its competing hero, McGinn! Thomas! Flinty! and winning out, Slaterton! Slaterton! Slaterton! as the chain gang clumped up to the stage and began their fake-sissy moves to “Love Locked Up” by Andronika, who sounded in the speakers like she also hated this shit, the hoots of the crowd, realizing you were famous even at other schools, your whole linked gang reaching down your pants to your crotches in gross unison and pulling out bottles of Parker’s when the lyrics said “Drink every drop,” and even with the coaches pretending disapproval the place devastated itself with screaming volume, toppling the cardboard Applause-O-Meter that Natalie Duffin and Jillian were game show gyrating around, and youwon, triumphant in gift certificates, blowing kisses, bowing awkwardly with your legs tangled up, and then Annette crashing the stage in chains and silver boots and a big stagy ax, kissing the whole gang, mwah mwah mwah, just a little longer on you, before raising her weapon and chopping through the chains and setting you free to leap thrilled and drunk, deep into the roaring crowd and vanish for thirty-eight minutes before finding me finally, handsome, beaming, gorgeous, sexy, a winner through and through forever.
I hated you so much.
My face must have blazed with it like Amanda Truewell in Dance to Forget when Oliver Shepard walks into the nightclub with his unexpected innocent wife. Fuming and furious hurt, I was bustled away by the surging crowd and was soon trapped at the goalpost with a guy I half knew from homeroom telling me a story about his dad’s new wife’s white wine problem. I was so angry I knew it would boomerang someplace sometime soon. It growled in me something awful as I just stood frozen and lost. The Bash kept at it, boiling and twisting in costume, until you finally reappeared during the even-worse song, the crowd crying Hey! Hey! Get down I say! frantic with your stripes half-unbuttoned and sweaty hair. “I want to tell you something,” you said, before I could decide which scathing line I’d been polishing to use first. You held both hands in front of you, spread out, a filthy streak on one palm, like I was about to roll a boulder on you. I stepped back and you stayed there, you stood your ground in the blaring battlefield, and you began to count on your fingers, counting the number of times you were saying what you were saying, both hands twice and then almost again. It was the only thing you could say, the perfect thing, is what you said.
“Twenty-six,” you said, before I could ask you. Everyone was gathered around, or anyway they were around us, swirling like loud, bad surf. The crowd was low in the mix, a few yelps, a few catcalls. “Twenty-six,” you said again, to the crowd, and took a step toward me.
“Don’t,” I said, though I couldn’t decide.
“Twenty-six,” you said. “One for each day we’ve been together, Min.” Somebody oohed. Somebody shushed them.
“And I hope that someday I’ll do another something stupid and I’ll have to say it a million times because that’s how long it’ll be, together with you, Min. With you.”
I allowed you another step. The homeroom guy realized he was still there gaping, and stopped and vanished. There was a tremble in my shoulder, behind my knee. I shook my head, shoveling my anger into a shallow grave waiting to be dug up in some plot twist. But, also, your beautiful self, the way you could move and talk to me. I could not look away.
“Anything,” you said, a vast answer to nothing I’d said. “Anything, Min. Anything, anything. If Willows was open, the flowers would be gone, I’d buy every scrap.”
“I’m mad at you,” I said finally. How many are there, movies where the man, or the actress, apologizes in public? I can’t watch them.
“I know,” you said.
“I’m still mad.”
But you’d reached me. Your hands moved to my face and held it. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d kissed me but Ed, you knew better. You just held me like that, warm on my teary cheeks. “I know. That’s fair.”
“Really mad. It’s bad what you did.”
“OK.” The crowd was still there but losing interest.
“No, not OK,” I said, the only fish to fry. “Yes. It was bad.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say it twenty-six times again. Once was enough.”
“I don’t know.”
“Anything, Min. Anything, but tell me what.”
“I don’t want to tell you anything.”
“OK, but Min, please.”
“This isn’t OK.”
“OK, but what can—how can we start?”
“I don’t know if I want to.”
You blinked fast fast fast. Your hand shivered on my face, and I thought suddenly that now my face was dirty. And, also, that I didn’t care. It wasn’t OK, Ed, but maybe—
“How, Min? Anything. What can I do, what can I—how can I make you want to start?”
I couldn’t. No, I thought, do not cry while you’re saying it. But then, fuck it, you’re crying anyway, and he made you cry. Min, I thought, it’s love is what it is. “Coffee,” I said, crying. “Coffee, extra cream, three sugars,” and you took us away, fast with your arms on me across the field, not a single good-bye to anyone at the Bash, cold through the night to the huddle on the bus, holding my face again, the sweet things you said so soft over the motor, and then marching into In the Cups, pushing the double doors wide slamming open, to proclaim that in penance for mistreating your true love, Min Green, you would like to buy a large coffee, extra cream, three sugars for each and every patron of this fine establishment, which was one bewildered old man with the newspaper who already had a coffee. Insisting that the man be a witness to your solemn promise that never would a drop of Viper touch your lips again. And returning from the bathroom with this tag—saying, look at this cool tag for a show we have to go to tomorrow, because look it’s Carl Haig who used to play drums with Hawk Davies who’s that guy you and Joanie like, just hanging on the bulletin board like thumbtacked destiny near the bathroom where you’d neatened your hair and buttoned back up decent and sobered, please go with you because you loved me.
“Oh Min, please don’t say maybe like that.”
“OK, yes,” I said, as the coffee rolled down inside me. I felt embarrassed, boarding the 6, to still say I was angry about something two buses ago. Trick-or-treaters sat across from us, young with the dad madly scrolling through something on his phone. Total strangers, is what I thought. If I was still mad I was alone, Saturday night, Halloween, on the bus. “Yes, OK? But I’m still mad.”
“That’s fair,” you said, but I didn’t want you smiling.
“You told me, Min. And I’m still sorry and this is us.”
“No, our stop, I mean. Time to get off.”
And we did, to the cemetery, hushed and welcome in the chilly dark, knowing the Ball was still coming, this stupid bad night. Our feet crackled and trampled on the shadowy grass. “Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes,” I said. “My friends—look, I went to your thing.”
“So you have to suffer through mine. Anything, you said.”
“And I mean suffer. Because I’m still—”
“I know, Min.”
I gave you my hand. It was a little less terrible then, just to walk in the quiet. Something rustled, off to one side, but I was safe there, in the dark light on the graves, the crosses of stone, and the dead leaves, almost OK.
“You know,” you said, your breath mist, “I thought of this place for the party.”
It was the first time you remembered her name. “It’s nice,” I said.
“But then I realized,” you said, “probably insulting, a bad place for an eighty-ninth birthday.”
“True,” I said. Headlights veered from the street through the trees, the headstones stock-still in the glare, like deer. I could see the numbers of the dates, the life spans long and not long enough. “Maybe she’ll be buried here,” I said. “We’ll have to visit, bring flowers, make sure there aren’t any condoms on her grave.”
You held my hand tighter, we walked on. You must, Ed, have been thinking about your mom and where, when, she’ll end up. You must then, I hope, have meant some of these things you said.
“Maybe we’ll be buried here,” you said, “and our kids will visit with flowers.”
“Together,” I said, couldn’t help whispering. “Together right here.”
It was that lovely thing, that time so beautiful there, that led me back to your corner, Ed. We stayed there a minute and then kept walking. The grass was thick, we stopped holding hands, but we were together heading to the rest of the bad night.
The Scandinavian Hall looked like shit, the same old shit with halfhearted streamers fluttering on it. The same gargoyle cooing the same green-lit steam was there at the door like a drunk uncle. We walked in together but nobody noticed because somebody was already fighting, or maybe just a table knocked over, and then with an embarrassed smile you jolted away, desperate for a bathroom. Someone’s coat was ruined on a table. I walked blinking, turned aside, past Al, sad in his Pure Evil outft of a blood-splattered clown, sitting silent with Maria and Jordan, who were dressed as Republicans with oil stains and flag pins. I never told you what happened in the cloakroom. But now I’ll tell you because it was nothing. In the cloakroom was the fruit punch in a bowl marked hope, but if no chaperones were looking, the boy ladling it out would turn the lazy Susan around, and an identical bowl would come through the curtain with the spiked stuff. And the boy with the ladle was Joe.
“What are you? I know it can’t be Hitler, but it looks like it.”
I sighed. “A prison warden. I lost my hat. You?”
“My mom. Lost my wig.”
“Yeah, oh. Punch? The real stuff?”
“Yes,” I said. My insides were wild with coffee and the roller-coaster night. I sat down while he poured it.
“Having a good Halloween?” he asked me.
“I’ll drink to that.”
We clinked plastic cups, unsatisfyingly.
“So how’re things?”
“Ed Slaterton, I guess I mean.”
“Yeah, I thought you meant that,” I said.
“Well, everyone’s talking.”
“Give me some more punch,” I said.
Joe obliged me. That had been the problem. “That well, huh?” he said.
“Driving you to drink.”
“I guess,” I said, drinking and gesturing dramatically. “I’m a basketball widow.”
“Is it that bad?”
“No, no. But sometimes. You know, it’s a different thing.”
“Well, I guess you don’t give up at the first sign of trouble,” he said, but he wouldn’t look at me while I blinked at him.
“Sure I do,” I said to him, the closest to sorry I ever got. “What about you? I heard Gretchen Synnit.”
“Nope,” Joe said. “That was just a cast party. I’m dating Mrs Grasso now.”
“Oh, nice. Though I think gym teachers are usually lesbians.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve slept with them all.”
“That’s why I’m dating Grasso,” Joe said. “To get closer to you.”
“Shut up. You’re not missing me.”
“Not really,” he said. “Though we did say we’d stay friends.”
“We’re friends,” I said. “Look, we’re having an awkward conversation. If that’s not friendship—”
“How about a dance?” he said, and his body teetered to a stand. Very drunk, I realized, but why not? Maybe a dance was what, somewhere for the fury to go. Why not, why the fuck? Why not rise from the grave and terrorize a little instead of staying buried and dead in the cemetery? It was Halloween, and it was “Culture the Vulture” that was booming through the Scandinavian Hall when Joe led me out onto the floor already twirling, the song Joe just loves, the long version we used to listen to on his bedroom floor with shared headphones, my hand resting under his shirt on his smooth belly, driving him crazy, I knew. My unguarded vengeance, unbuttoning my costume for the first time, showing the lining of my dad’s forgotten coat and also what I was wearing beneath it. Which had been for you, Ed, just my best bra. Spinning and defiant in my head, flush with punch. And the unbuttoned coat. And Joe’s breath against me, sweat I could feel down my neck, the pulse of the second verse. And you, of course, you waiting out the song, self-conscious and stricken, Al too, pretending not to stare, staring, while I danced and pretended not to know. Joe dipping me so low my bra threatened fleshy disaster, I felt my heartbeat beating, brave and fierce, my legs liberated and my arms up in the glorious air, the lights glitter in my eyes, my lips open with the lyrics, and all my thinking erased from my skull while the song roared loud and free. Make it gone, is what I felt. Blow it to hell, kick its ass viciously in high heels, ravish it and rip it up, Ball and Bash both, this cavalcade of battering whatnot, fuck it and let it go. Do it different like they tell you you are. I danced and then I was through, done with every scrap of it, across the floor without looking back, not at Joe now alone, nor Al, nor Lauren, Maria, Jordan, anyone, nobody, everyone else. Just you, the thing worth keeping. The night late, the song over, the singer’s last “Madness!” echoingness-ness-ness, and I got to you and met your eyes staring at me in hungry wonder. I knew who you were, Ed Slaterton. I opened my mouth and kissed you then, the first time all night, attacked you and surrendered completely, and let’s get out of here. I’m ready, I’m finished, let’s not break up, no, no. Take me home, my boyfriend, my love.