Sunday, July 29, 2007

Confessions in Black & White VII

Chapter VII

      “Wow,” Kay said as they disembarked.
      “They’re something, aren’t they?” Will followed her eyes to the shore to their right, which consisted of little more than vertical sheets of white stone.
      Even from within the port, the cliffs could be seen clearly in the distance, and although the day was dismal, the white somehow appeared just as bright as it did any day, standing out against the green grass which lined the top and occasionally hung over the ragged edges. On the docks, people pushed and shoved their way through, despite that the crowds were not very large. Kay somehow managed to walk in between untouched though, her white coat still resting carelessly on her shoulders, making even the slightest brush of another person a recipe for disaster.
      Will folded down his collar and took care of the luggage against Kay’s feeble protests. In reality, she was all too willing to let him handle it. She was enthralled by the scene unfolding in front of her: a small British port town, full of ordinary people, going about their daily lives. None of them had million pound portfolios or convertible assets, or even steady incomes, she would guess. It wasn’t that they were poor, not that they were dirty, but that they were in every way, in all appearances, completely ordinary. She was fascinated.
      Kay was comfortable masquerading as normal in busy London, where the pubs hosted a whole variety of people, nationalities, and walks of life. She was as comfortable in the ripped jeans and tunics she owned as the new wardrobe Will struggled to haul up the ramp, but at the same time, these people didn’t live in a struggling metropolis. They lived out in the middle of nothing, in the middle of nature, like they were trapped in time. It was these occasional encounters that reminded her how old her country really was, and she couldn’t help but marvel. All the colors mixed to grey, and all time bled into that one moment.
      “This place is amazing,” she breathed to Will as he hailed them a taxi. “—Where are we going?”
      “Well, I figured we could drop the luggage at my folks’ house and then grab something to eat, if you’re hungry. Then we can take the train back into London. –It goes to Charring Cross, if that’s all right.”
      “Should I change?” she asked, glancing down at the cream pants and the muddy sidewalks. “This is all right for Paris, but I feel overdressed here.”
      “You can change at the house; it’s no problem,” he assured her, opening the door of the taxi and gesturing her in.
      “Will your parents be home?”
      “Not at this hour. They’ll both be at work.” He wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed –the sunglasses made all her expressions seem expressionless.
      The taxi took them through the winding streets of the town center, stopping in front of a quaint, brown brick-faced row house with a quaint, typical black door and brass knocker. A large bay window opened into the narrow stretch of grass separating the house from the street.
      “This is it,” Will announced. “Not much, but I grew up here.”
      He pulled out keys and let them in. He kicked his shoes off carelessly, but Kay took hers off with care, liking the feel of the old, worn wood under her bare feet. It felt so much better than the stripped wood in her flat, which was harsh from its recent restoration and not broken in like the well-scrubbed planks of the Lawley house.
      “You can change upstairs. My old room is the second on the left on the third floor. Don’t mind any of the baby pictures.”
      Kay picked up her small carry-on bag and went up the narrow staircase with slightly uneven steps. Everything smelt timeless and the natural light, what little there was, came through the windows and divided everything into lights and darks. The hall was as narrow as the staircase and the doors were closed, making her uncertain as she turned the knob of the second door on the left. Inside, she found a maritime theme, the walls a rich, but pale blue. The dark woods of the house echoed in the furniture of this room, as well. She set her bag on the bed and changed quickly, leaving the door partly open so that she could hear if anyone came up. After changing, she didn’t bother folding the pants or sweater before shoving them into her carry-on. Before going back downstairs, she explored a little, opening the drawers of an old fashioned desk, exploring its small pockets and roll-back top. It was something right out of an old film.
      She took one last look before closing the door and trotting back down the stairs, looking as average as she could ever look in jeans and a large sweater, both expensive merchandise, but more casual than her previous outfit. She pushed her sunglasses self-consciously unto the top of her head, loosening some of the strands of hair from their hold in the knot.
      Will was on his mobile, nodding and rolling his eyes.
      “Right. No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Mum, it’ll be fine. Mum…” He sighed and eventually managed to hang up. “—Sorry about that,” he said to Kay. “Did you still want lunch? There’s a decent pub a couple blocks away, not far from the library.”
      She nodded. “Can we see the castle, too?”
      Will looked uncertain, glancing at his mobile. “Mm…only if you want to risk having to eat with my folks tonight. I made the mistake of telling my Mum that I’d brought a friend with me.”
      He looked sheepish, and Kay wondered how exactly he had referred to her. She considered this in a brief moment of silence. It came as surprise to Will then when she answered, “I don’t mind if you don’t.”
      “No, no,” he insisted. “It’s completely up to you. Of course we can see the castle. There’re great views from up there, but if you’d rather get back to your own place tonight, we can always come back here some other time.” Will exhibited both boldness and wishful thinking in mentioning the prospect of future returns to his childhood home.
      Kay shrugged, but it was not the tense shrugs of earlier. “I’d love to see the castle. Let’s just do it.”
      “Great. All right… Lunch then?”
      They walked three or four blocks to a local pub that was relatively thin of people for the hour. Will ordered fish and chips for both him and Kay, along with a couple of pints.
      “I don’t usually eat lunch,” Kay announced, taking a sip of her cider.
      “No wonder you’re so skinny.”
      “I don’t think I’m skinny so much as thin,” she protested. “Thin sounds so much nicer than skinny.”
      “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t have a shadow,” Will teased.
      “What purpose does a shadow serve anyhow?
      Will let out a small laugh at that. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
      “Well, not everything…” she admitted, meeting his eyes so directly that he looked away quickly, unnerved.
      “You should leave your sunglasses off more often,” he told her, looking back at her face. “I’m not used to seeing your eyes.”
      Kay sipped her cider again and didn’t respond. The minutes stretched long as they waited for the food to come.
      “So tell me about the castle,” Kay prompted.
      Will gave her a brief history of the fortress and she listened with mild interest, although history was never her strong suit. Will, on the other hand, was full of facts and information, and shared them liberally to make the meal pass more easily. At appropriate intervals, Kay interjected a comment or question, and nodded frequently.
      After their lunch, they caught a bus up to the castle, and Kay was impressed by the height they gained.
      “I don’t think I really realized how high up the cliffs are,” she said.
      “They get higher, too, a little farther down. I’ll take you out there after the castle.”
      Will paid for two tickets at the entrance to Dover Castle, and they wandered through what was left of the fortified walls and grounds. The sky grew darker as the day got later, and it began to smell like rain.
      “We should probably head back,” Will said, glancing at his watch and then the sky.
      “What about the cliffs?”
      “They’re dangerous when the wind picks up, and it looks like rain. We’d be asking for an accident if we went now.”
      “Just a look?” Kay insisted, pleading without ever letting the sentiment into her voice. “It won’t take long.”
      Will sighed and looked anxious, but agreed.

      By the time they returned to Will’s house, every light was on throughout the town and the rain was falling in large, angry drops, and a sharp wind came up every once in a while, making a wretched howling sound. Will guiltily let himself and Kay into the house, bracing himself for his mother’s scolding.
      “You two are soaked!” she predictably exclaimed.
      “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Lawley,” Kay said unexpectedly, before Will could even open his mouth. “Will said that it looked like rain, but I couldn’t leave without seeing the cliffs. They were beautiful. Just beautiful. I had no idea they would be so white.”
      This softened Mrs. Lawley’s already considerably soft features.
      “Of course, dear. Now, why don’t you get upstairs, both of you, and change out of those things before you catch pneumonia.”
      “Still threatening me with pneumonia?” Will asked, kissing his mother’s cheek and shaking some droplets from his wet hair into her face.
      “And still wishing you’d catch it. It’d serve you right for all the trouble you cause me, William Joseph Lawley,” she said. “Now go change. Dinner’s been ready for an hour. I’ll just heat it quickly.
      In the Lawley’s dining room, Kay sat next to Will and across from Keith, the youngest Lawley brother, who had just turned twenty-two. Mr. and Mrs. Lawley sat at the head and foot of the table, detailing what seemed to be every last bit of the Lawley family history for Kay’s benefit.
      “Mom,” Will tried to interrupt. “I doubt Kay wants to hear about all this.”
      “Don’t be silly,” Mrs. Lawley objected with a sniff.
      “Yes, Will, don’t be silly,” Kay repeated, winking at him and then directing a question at Mr. Lawley.
      Will was impressed with Kay’s sociability with his family, talking easily with his parents and his youngest brother.
      “So let me see if I’ve got it,” she said. “Paul is the eldest, then Will, then Tom and Sam, and Keith is last?”
      “You’ve got it,” Mr. Lawley beamed. “A genuine memory you have there, my girl.”
      “And not a single girl? How do you manage, Mrs. Lawley?”
      Mrs. Lawley laughed. “It was never easy, but,” she spread her hands, as if in explanation, “here I am.”
      “And for that, I commend you,” Kay said, raising her glass to the woman. “I only have one brother, and it is quite enough, I believe, for both my Mother and I.”
      After two hours of pleasantries, Mr. Lawley put on his coat to drive Will and Kay to the train station, and Mrs. Lawley urged Kay to come back and visit again soon.
      “Mum…” Will complained, but his mother just kissed both his cheeks and told him to travel safely, not to work too hard, and to call her more often.

      “You did what?” I demanded the next afternoon.
      “I ate dinner with his parents and youngest brother,” Kay repeated.
      Kay had cancelled filming for the day, and we sat in the Red Lion in Soho, both smoking.
      “Are you insane?” I couldn’t resist asking.
      Kay shrugged, flicking some of the ash from her cigarette into the ashtray between us. She was back to her usual self: sunglasses on, hair braided tightly down her back, a fashionable and expensive wrap shirt tied around her waist, and jeans tucked into boots.
      “Insane? No,” she said calmly.
      “After what he did? After Krystof sent your mother to Paris to call you out, you still had dinner with his family?”
      Kay nodded.
      I exhaled sharply. “I can’t tell if you like Will or if you want to ruin him,” I confessed.
      “Even I don’t know that,” Kay said.
      “But you didn’t sleep with him?”
      Kay shook her head, blowing out smoke as she did. “No.”
      I didn’t know what to think. “Well, what are you going to do now?”
      “Don’t know. Wait and see what happens. If he wants to call, he’ll call. He’s impulsive in that aspect, at least.”
      “But you’re not going to call him?”
      Kay laughed cynically. “Hardly,” she said, for emphasis.
      “Hey, you’re the one who just went for a fucking love romp,” I accused. “Pardon me if I have a few questions or concerns about what the hell is happening to you.”
      Kay shrugged again. “Speaking of love romps, Krystof said he fucked Hannah. True?”
      “As far as I can tell,” I shrugged too.
      “And she’s…?” Kay waved her hand in a circular motion.
      “She’s fine. Probably torn between feeling used and thinking that she should have known all along.”
      “Someone should rip my brother’s dick off,” Kay observed crudely.
      “You said it, not me.” I took a long drink of ale.
      Ever on cue, Kay’s mobile rang and Krystof’s name lit the screen.
      “Dearest brother,” she said in greeting. “We were just talking about having our way with you.”
      “Who’s the third party?” he asked.
      “Beck, of course. Your dream threesome.” Kay teased with cruelty where others teased with mirth.
      “Oh yes: my sister and a slut who claims I raped her. Definitely a dream come true. Somehow I feel like having your way with me wouldn’t involve anything kinky so much as painful, and you know I gave up S/M years ago.”
      Kay took a puff on her cigarette and demanded, “What do you want, K?”
      “Mum wants us to have dinner. I volunteered to drag you along.”
      “You can’t be serious.” Kay slammed her hand down on the small table, making me jump.
      “Perfectly serious, sister. She’s still in Paris, but won’t hear of you not coming to dinner Monday night.”
      “This is all your fault,” Kay accused. “If you hadn’t been so jealous—”
      “Jealous? Of what, your little boy toy? Give me some credit here, Kay,” Krystof said tightly, his voice slightly louder than before.
      “You can’t stand anything I do that doesn’t involve you, whether it’s another man, another woman, or this fucking movie. Just admit it.”
      “Watch your tongue, Kay,” Krystoff warned. “I’ll pick you up Monday night. Will you be at the studio or your flat?”
      “Be ready at eight.”
      “Whatever.” Kay flipped her phone shut.
      “So?” I looked at her with a thousand questions written on my face.
      “Dinner with the Countess,” she said. “Like we’re some kind of big, happy, dysfunctional family…”
      Kay and I finished our cigarettes and pints before parting ways outside the Red Lion.
      “What’re you doing?” Kay asked me, her hands tucked in the pockets of her coat.
      “I’m going to try to get some work done in the studio, just in case you decide you want to get some shots done tomorrow. I should probably start working on the new sets you want, too, from what we talked about today. Building an Arc de Triomphe should be interesting, if not impossible.” I shoved a piece of paper into my bag, a piece of paper scribbled with notes on what Kay had told me she wanted for the next scenes of the film.
      “Do you think changing the setting from New York to Paris is too drastic?” Kay asked, not really looking at me, but staring at the sky over my head.
      “I don’t think it’ll effect anything we’ve shot so far, if that’s what you mean.”
      She nodded, seeming to accept my lukewarm endorsement of the idea. “Good,” she said. “I’ll see you later then.”
      “Why, what are you going to do?” I asked.
      She shrugged, pulling up the collar on her coat and looking half-glamorous 50s movie star and half-Soviet spy. Her sunglasses reflected the sun at just the right angle in the corners of the lenses. “You know,” she said vaguely. “Things to do.”
      This roughly translated into something self-destructive, although with Kay one could never be sure what the self-destruction of choice would be. She walked past me in the opposite direction of where I was headed, her white fingers briefly flickering in a farewell gesture before being hidden in her pockets again. I watched her walk off, my neck craned over my shoulder. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the street that I took off toward the Tube
      I spent as little as an hour in the studio, sketching plans for a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, but the smallness of the space, the silence filling it, and my own restlessness combined to convince me to head over to Southwark and take measurements in the warehouse and perhaps paint some of the backdrops there. I put together a large canvas bag with small cans of black and white paint, at least a dozen brushes, some scraps of light wood, palette knives, and a range of other small and possibly necessary items. By the time I was satisfied with its contents, the bag was heavy and bulging enough to almost make me unable to carry it. I prevailed though and managed to take a bus without waiting too long at the stop.
      Unlike Kay, I was neither tall nor glamorous. When I wore jeans, I looked dressed down, and it didn’t matter if I was wearing heels or sneakers. –I didn’t even think Kay owned a pair of sneakers. The point was though, that I was average. I was just an average girl, sitting on a double-decker bus, wobbling through the streets of London’s south side with an oversized bag, wearing old jeans covered in paint, and an old t-shirt and hooded sweater, a light jacket tossed on top against the autumn chill. My dark brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the quick pats of pressed powder I’d dabbed on after my morning shower hardly counted as make-up at all, not like Kay’s make-up: dark mascara and lipstick making her face come alive. It wasn’t that I was unpretty. I’d had my share of boyfriends, though I’d tired of them quickly. And it wasn’t that I was sexually inactive, just not as active as Kay tended to be –as though she was always doing it with a vengeance. A vengeance, in fact, I became more and more convinced existed. Actually, I was nothing like Kay at all, and it was no wonder that, walking the few blocks from the bus stop to the warehouse, no one really noticed me. It was as though I hardly existed. But then again, I didn’t really notice them either. Or at least I didn’t until I struggled with the key to the side door, the canvas bag slung awkwardly unto my back and pressing its weight into my spine. From the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar figure, or at least it seemed familiar, standing on the opposite corner.
      It was Will.
      He crossed the street with a smile and wave. “Hey!” he called while approaching me. “Kay around today? I figured it was Saturday…”
      “Nope, not today,” I said, with a half-smile. “Just me and the set.”
      “Do you need a hand with that?” Will asked, reaching for the bag digging into my back. “Here, let me grab this.”
      His hands brushed my shoulder as he took the bag, and I gratefully let him relieve the weight. Freed from it, I was able to unlock the door and we both entered the warehouse, which was pitch black from the floor up, lit only toward the top by the rows of windows that lined the upper tiers. The effect was somewhat ghostly and made the dust floating above us visible until it vanished before even hitting our heads, swallowed by the darkness.
      I felt along the wall a bit clumsily before finding the master switch and pushing it up, flooding the entire length of the building in light. They came on one section at a time, with a buzz and a clang, and they illuminated the various sets and backdrops I’d been working on and that we’d used in previous shoots. This warehouse was our whole black and white world, created and brought alive by Kay’s imagination. She worked the actress hard, pushed the stunt limits of a woman who had never even done a cartwheel before, and was even more ruthless with the behind the scenes crew that made the production run.
      “So what are you going to be doing in here?” Will asked, setting down the bag in the middle of a particularly bare portion of the concrete floor.
      “Kay decided she wants to change the setting of the film, so now I’m saddled with the task of creating, or recreating, as it were, the Arc de Triomphe. I still haven’t decided if I want to try plaster…maybe a wood façade, or I could even try a very clever trompe l’œil.” I trailed off and waved my hand indifferently in an arbitrary direction as I began to pull things out of the canvas bag.
      “The Arc de Triomphe? Paris? Where was the setting originally?”
      “New York. Which is probably more appropriate for the subject matter, but if Paris is what Kay wants, then Paris is what Kay gets.”
      Will laughed, and I smiled at him, realizing the unintentional irony in my words.
      “That’s for sure,” he said. “—Is that why she cancelled the filming for today?”
      I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “You know Kay. She might decide things all of a sudden, but then she can stick to them as stubbornly as anyone.”
      “It’s so strange sometimes, Beck.” It felt strange to hear him say my name. “I hardly know Kay at all, and yet I feel like I’ve known her forever. Like I know everything about her.”
      “Oh really?” I couldn’t help but smirk, although I did have the decency not to look at him while I did. He could still hear the telltale sarcasm in my voice.
      “You think it’s ridiculous. It’s okay; I do, too. But it’s still the way I feel.”
      “You and everyone else in this world,” I said, standing with a can of paint in each of my hands. “Haven’t you stopped to think that every person who has ever met Kay –man or woman, child, it doesn’t matter –they all fall in love with her at first sight? And they think they know her because of that.”
      “Even you?” he asked, innocently, but pointedly.
      I shrugged again. “Yeah. Even me. –But none of us really know anything at all about Kay. All we know is what we think we know, what we’ve inferred from all the things we’ve seen or hear or been told.”
      I walked over to a large role of canvas, which we used to drape across rods for backdrops, and set down the cans of paint. Will followed me and helped me to unroll a large portion of canvas.
      “What about Krystof?”
      “Well…” I wrinkled my nose at my least favorite topic. “Krystof is different, too. It’s part of what makes them so similar.”
      Will took the scissors from my hand and began to work at cutting along the line I’d drawn across the piece of canvas measuring what I would need for a standard backdrop.
      “Even more than their looks? Than the fact that they’re twins?”
      “Sure,” I said. “Plenty of people are twins. Plenty of people are even identical twins, which, even though Kay and Krys look a lot alike, they’re still far from identical. –But not all twins stand so apart from the rest of the world like Kay and Krystof.”
      “Krystof seems so different from Kaysa though. Cruel almost,” Will protested, taking the last snip of scissors as he said the word cruel.
      “And you don’t think Kaysa’s cruel?” I raised an eyebrow at him, but he wasn’t looking at me while I spoke, concentrating on neatening the edges of his cut.
      “I wouldn’t go that far. She might not be perfect, but Krystof is…is so much more aggressive. I mean, that’s just my impression, I could be wrong. I don’t even know him that well.”
      I pulled up the large piece of canvas and shook it out as I told Will: “You have know idea.”
      “Of what? Which part?”
      “Both parts. About Kay not being cruel, and about Krystof being incredibly so.”
      “Are you saying that Kay is cruel?”
      I sighed. “It’s not that easy. Kay’s not easy. She’s not black or white. She’s more like…” I struggled for words, casting about for a good analogy. “She’s like red. She’s red in a black and white world.”
      “What does that mean?” Will looked puzzled, and rightfully so.
      “It means that she plays by her own rules. And they might seem cruel to people who have different rules. But they’re not always cruel. Kay has moments…” I knew that he and I both thought instantly of the fact that she’d eaten dinner with his family.
      “And Krystof?”
      “Krystof is pure evil,” I said bluntly.
      Will laughed as we both went back to the canvas bag. “And here I thought I was the harsh critic.”
      “I’ve known them both for a while. Krystof is a severely troubled individual.”
      “How so?” Will stopped laughing and seemed concerned, most likely for Kay.
      “He just likes to hurt people.” When I saw Will’s eyes, I hurried to continue. “I mean, not always physically.” I stammered. “Sometimes, but not always. And never Kay, or so she says. She says that he’d never think of really hurting her, and as aggressive as he gets, as physical as they can be, as far as I know, it’s never been serious. Hair pulling, smacking, not anything that doesn’t happen between most brothers and sisters, I guess. –Although I’m an only child, so I wouldn’t know.”
      “Really? An only child?” When I nodded, Will added, “I have four brothers.”
      “Wow,” I smiled.
      “—How does Krystof hurt people then?” Will asked, returning to his topic of interest.
      “I don’t know,” I lied. I tried to think of a gentle way to put it. “Just look at him. He’s good looking and fit, both of which are pure genetics, because I know he’s never set foot inside a gym in his entire life. He’s got loads of money from the family and investment, and whatever it is Krystof does for a day job to earn a legitimate income. People are drawn to that, naturally. It’s the aura of power.” Will looked uncomfortable, no doubt measuring himself beside this description. “And Krystof has never failed to use all of this to his advantage. It’s a sport for him. Using people. Throwing them away afterward. All because he can.”
      Will shook his head silently, not sure what to say.
      “I just can’t understand how he and Kay can be twins sometimes –even come from the same parents. And how you can say that they’re so similar,” he said at last.
      I put my hand on Will’s arm as we laid out my brushes and knives on the canvas. I was sitting cross-legged and Will had his legs out in front of him, one leg crossed over the other. He looked down at the hand I put on his arm and then back at my face.
      “You just have to be careful with Kay. It might seem like she knows what she’s doing, but I don’t think she does. She could really hurt you.” He started to protest, and I cut him off. “No, I know, not physically. You’re clearly much stronger than her in that aspect. And I don’t know that she’d hurt you on purpose, either, but that doesn’t mean she’s not capable of it. And that doesn’t mean that she won’t do it in the end.” Will nodded, although I wasn’t sure if it was just a thinking nod or if he was actually in agreement with me. “It would be a real shame to see you hurt, Will.”

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Confessions in Black & White VI

Chapter VI

      The phone rang at nine in the morning. Kaysa’s arm reached out for it with effort, her hand slapping around for the receiver, and once she had it, bringing it reluctantly to her ear. There was no reason for anyone to call her at such an ungodly hour.
      “Hello?” The sleep was still thick in her voice.
      “So you brought Will Lawley to Paris with you…”
      “You didn’t think that you could keep him a secret, did you?” Krystof asked. “It’s a little difficult to keep a man of his size a secret. He’s not exactly a puppy or a hamster.”
      “How do you even know he’s here?”
      Will, who had partially awoken with the telephone felt his ears perk at what was clearly a reference to him. He wondered if he should sit up or pretend to still be asleep. He laid still but kept his eyes open and ears alert.
      “Nicola knows better than to keep things from me. Unlike you, apparently, sweet sister.”
      “So what you’re saying is that you’ve fucked her, too, in the past? And every once in a while you cash in on that for information?”
      “You make it sound so crass.”
      “Krystof.” She said his name with groggy irritation, but irritation nonetheless. “Darling brother. Has anyone ever told you that you have annoying sociopath tendencies?”
      He took it as a joke and laughed.
      “Don’t think to distract me with flattery. I thought we had come to an understanding, Kay: that Will would be off limits. He’s not ready for the kind of life you lead.”
      “Why don’t you let people decide for themselves what they are or are not ready for?” As she woke up and her head cleared, she made her language more ambiguous, sure that Will was listening.
      “Oh…” Krystof said, nodding on the other end. “I see… So you haven’t slept with him yet.”
      “I wouldn’t say that,” she said with even more marked irritation.
      “Oh, I would. I can hear it in your voice. That’s not the voice of my just-sexed sister.”
      “Funny, I couldn’t say the same for you,” she threw back at him.
      “Oh, yeah. That girl Hannah from your studio. Hope you don’t mind.”
      Kay rolled her eyes. “I’m hanging up the phone now,” she warned.
      “Wait, before you do…” Krystof stayed her hand from moving the phone away from her ear. “There’s a present for you in the lobby.”
      As though the phone were suddenly hot, Kaysa dropped it with a muttered curse. The receiver slammed down on the cradle, not hard, but with enough force to make a clanging noise. She pulled the cable out of the back so that it couldn’t ring again and then jumped out of bed with sudden energy.
      “Get up,” she order Will, tugging the blankets off of him.
      “What’s the matter?” He sat up immediately.
      “We’re leaving,” Kay answered, as though he should have seen this coming. “Go shower; I’ll pack.” She was already moving around the suite and picking up the clothing she had left everywhere, draped over various pieces of furniture. It was a good thing she had bought her extra pieces of luggage already. That was one less task to slow her down.
      “Is everything all right?” Will forgot to feel awkward getting out of bed, his hair disheveled and his shirt and shorts askew.
      “It’s fine. We just have to get going sooner than I thought. I had planned for us to have one more day together in Paris…” she glanced up at him with an almost wistful smile, her arms full of clothes, “but it doesn’t look like we can indulge this time.”
      Not knowing what else to do, Will showered quickly and then threw his own, relatively few, items into his bag.
      “I’m set,” he announced about twenty minutes after the phone had first rung. “—And you’re sure that everything’s all right? There’s nothing I can do…?”
      “It’s fine,” she assured him, zipping up a large, rolling suitcase which had been sloppily packed so that nearly everything in it would have to be steam-pressed upon unpacking. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and stood up straight.
      She was wearing cream pants and a black sweater that crisscrossed and tied at the waist with a satin belt. On her ears she wore large pearls, and she was sweeping up her hair, tying it in a tight knot at the back of her neck and sticking two pins expertly in place to hold it. She pulled out a long cream scarf, which matched the pants almost perfectly, and wrapped it around her neck elegantly, sliding her sunglasses unto her face while frowning into the vanity mirror. She pinched her cheeks, an almost vain gesture, which Will had never imagined she would indulge in. She tilted her chin first one way, and then the other, and then, seemingly satisfied, she turned her face back toward him. She snatched the car keys off the night table.
      “Do you have everything?” she asked him.
      He held up his bag for emphasis. “I didn’t bring much. –Do you have everything?”
      “It doesn’t matter; they know where to send it, even if I did leave something on a chair or under the bed. But I do think I have what’s important.” She held out the car keys to him. “This is how it’s going to happen. I’m going to go down first, right now. Wait ten minutes, and then you leave. Do not stop at the desk, do not look at me. Walk right outside and tell the valet to bring the CLK.” She grabbed his hand when all he did was stand and stare at her, stunned. She pressed the keys into his palm. “If I’m not out by the time they bring it around, get in the passenger seat and wait for me. It shouldn’t take me long to check out.”
      “—Why aren’t we just leaving together?” Will asked, suddenly feeling as though he’d been struck dumb. A panicked thought in the back of his brain whispered that she could be married and he might not have known all along!
      “Because. It’s complicated.”
      Kaysa took her two pieces of rolling luggage and her small carry-on bag, cruising out the door of the suite. She took the elevator down to the lobby and was unsurprised at the chaos of hotel staff, photographers and interested spectators she found there. At the center of the attention stood a tall, lean woman, not as thin as Kaysa, but extremely fit for what must have been an age of at least fifty. She had dark blond hair, streaked with lighter highlights, and her blue eyes were framed by soft, rosy cheeks and a charming, white smile. She was stylish in a washed-out turquoise dress with suede boots that went up to her knees. The woman was answering a reporter’s question with a laugh, but still making her way purposely toward the front desk.
      “Kaysa, my dear!” she called, flicking her wrist in a gesture barely recognizable as a wave.
      A few more steps brought the two women together, and it was at this point, a split second before embrace, that the resemblance was at its most overwhelming.
      “Mother,” Kaysa said, elevating her voice just enough at the end to indicate surprise. “What are you doing in Paris? I thought you were in Milan.”
      “Well, dear, I was in Milan, of course, but I flew out a few hours ago –ungodly hour –and we had a little stopover here in Paris. So, I thought to myself, why not just make an extended holiday of it? Your brother told me yesterday that you were here, and so that was all the more motivation for me. You never come to see me anymore.” Her mother feigned reproach and a small pout as the reporters and the cameras began to back away and disperse.
      “Well, we’re both been busy, Mother. You’ve got your fashion tour, and I’ve got the movie…” Kaysa hated having to make excuses for her general avoidance of her mother.
      “Ah,” her mother shook her finger as though Kaysa were a naughty child again. “But we both still have time for relaxing à Paris!”
      Kaysa’s smile was tight. “But Krystof must have been confused. I’m leaving today.” Kaysa displayed her luggage. “I was just coming down to check out of the suite. I’d say that you can have it, but I know you’ve always preferred the French Suite.”
      Right on schedule, Will came uncertainly into the crowded lobby. He walked as directly as he could out the front doors, and Kaysa’s eyes follow him over her mother’s shoulder. Through the glass doors, she could see him talking to the doorman and an attendant went off to fetch the car.
      “But that can’t be!” Madam Stevens, the de facto Countess Sandemar, exclaimed in mocked dismay. “Surely you can stay an extra day. You can have the other room of the French Suite, like when you and Krystof were children! And then tomorrow we can go back to London together. We’ll all have dinner.” The countess made an inclusive gesture. “You and your brother and I. A family dinner, like old times.”
      “I’m sorry, Mother, but I’ve simply got too much work to do. I really have to get going…” Kaysa took a step closer to the desk, holding out her room key to the baffled attendant.
      “Nonsense! Work is so bourgeois. You don’t need to work.”
      Although many considered the countess to be a successful career woman, she herself considered her fashion career to be more of a hobby, a distraction that gave her life some semblance of meaning. Although her designs sold for outrageous sums, the money wasn’t even a peripheral object.
      “And what is this?” Kaysa’s mother gestured at the pants and sweater combination. “None of this is mine. Why do you insist on wearing these unbecoming clothes?”
      Kaysa rolled her eyes behind her sunglasses, thankful her mother couldn’t see them. She had never worn anything her mother had ever designed, on principle alone.
      “You didn’t design anything you’re wearing, why should I wear it?” Kay replied instead, and her mother laughed, pressing her hands to her bosom in brilliantly faked sincerity.
      “How true! You make a good point, Kay. –But come now, you really must stay. I absolutely insist.”
      The countess attempted to side-step her daughter at the reception desk, but Kay stood firm.
      “No, Mother, I’m leaving right now. The car’s out front for me already, my bags are down here –I’ll see you when you get back to London.” The latter was attached to the end of a sentence in hopes that it would end the uncomfortable encounter more quickly. Her mother just pouted.
      “How did I raise such a disagreeable daughter? Krystof would stay, if he were here.”
      “Well, he’s not here. He’s in London. Playing evil twin, as ever.” Kay signed the receipt handed to her. The bill was outrageous, but she didn’t care, her scrawled name looking more careless than usual. “Merci,” she said to the man at the desk as he handed her a copy.
      “Kay, be reasonable. What could possibly so important. –It’s not a man, is it?”
      Kay fought the urge to groan or scream or choke her mother. Instead, she bottled it tightly, telling herself that she’d reserve it all for Krystof. “Yes, Mother,” she answered calmly, and a bit sarcastically instead. “Because we all know how brilliant it is to rearrange our lives for men.” She stared at her mother accusatorily through the shades of her sunglasses.
      Her mother stopped smiling and said irritably, “Oh, just go already.”
      Kay was not about to pass up permission to leave her mother’s presence, and so kissed her faithfully on each cheek and made quick work of the distance between the desk and the door. Outside, she let the bell boy put her bags in the trunk while she pulled out her mobile and got in the driver’s side.
      Will looked at her with a face she couldn’t quite read. “That certainly didn’t look like nothing,” he observed.
      Kay shifted jerkily out into Paris congestion and told the car company on the other end of the phone that she would be leaving their Mercedes in Calais. When they protested that that was not part of the agreement, she told them rudely that it was now, and they could bill her for it later. She snapped her phone shut without saying good-bye.
      “We’re going to Calais?” Will inquired, not sure if he should be irritated with her control of the situation or just lean back and enjoy the ride.
      “Have you ever seen the French countryside?” she asked him, and when he shook his head that he had not, the right corner of her lip curled up a little. “It’s beautiful.”
      In an hour, they were speeding past green and yellow rapeseed fields at a safe, but still illegal speed of approximately 160 kmph. The scenery was, in fact, quite beautiful, and Will asked if Kay ever painted landscapes.
      “Landscapes are kind of the elementary level of painting most of the time. I’m a conceptual painter myself, mostly symbolism and post-expressionism in terms of color and style. I painted in the countryside here a few times. Portugal, Spain, even southern Italy. Landscapes are nice to hang in dining rooms, but they don’t speak to me.”
      “And your paintings speak to you? Speak to others?”
      She shrugged. “Not really. But people think they should, so they say that they do.”
      Will was slightly confused. “So they don’t speak to you either?”
      “Not really. They’re just something that I do.”
      Will whistled lowly. “That’s something pretty amazing to just ‘do,’ though. You ‘do’ a lot of things, after all. Aren’t any of them the one? The one thing you want to do?”
      “Do people really do that? Just find one thing, and do it for the rest of their lives? Isn’t that boring? Isn’t that a little naïve? To just have everything black and white, wasting all the wonderful color life has to offer?”
      “What are you, a poet now?” Will joked. “Aren’t you the one making a black and white movie?”
      “To point out this fact precisely,” Kay said, and Will wasn’t sure if she was serious.
      “But I don’t think it has to be black and white, no.” He cleared his throat. “I just think that people develop expertise. –Most people, anyhow.”
      Kay was silent, and they remained so until they reached Calais about an hour later, nothing but the radio filling the car’s interior. Kay parked the car at the train station and they walked several blocks, breathing in the cool air off the Channel.
      “Should be a good day for crossing,” Will observed absently.
      “Have you crossed before?” Kay asked.
      “No, actually. Lived most of my life in Dover and never once took a ferry over. –You?”
      “Nope. I always take the train. Sometimes I’ll fly, but short flights make me even more impatient than longer ones.”
      At the ferry ticket counter, the woman asked whether they would like to land in Dover or Folkestone. Without even looking at Will, Kay calmly said, “Dover,” and the woman printed them two tickets, telling them that their boat would leave in forty-five minutes. Will and Kay walked down to the dock and sat on a bench, the sun warming them against the breeze that was blowing strong across the water.
      “I hope it’s not a rough crossing,” Will said conversationally.
      “Do you get seasick?”
      Will laughed a little. “No, not at all. That’s a swell way to get beat up in school when you live in a port town. –I’m guessing you don’t either though?”
      “No. I’ve been sailing my dad’s boat since I was small.”
      “Do you sail often?”
      “Not so much anymore. It’s harder, especially with the film and whatnot. Maybe next summer; we’ll see. You should come. Krystof and I usually take the boat out on the Mediterranean for a couple weeks.”
      “I get the feeling your brother doesn’t like me much.”
      Kay put her hand on Will’s knee. “Trust me, that’s a compliment.”
      “That was him who called at the hotel, wasn’t it?” Will wanted to try to broach the subject of what had happened earlier as gently as he could. “It seems like you two have a really…interesting…relationship.” Will always chose the word “interesting” to simplify complexity in polite conversation
      “Yeah. You could say that,” Kay said, pushing her sunglasses up her nose, despite that it was mostly cloudy overhead.
      “And in the lobby, that was your mother, right? The Countess Sandemar?”
      Kay pulled her hand off his knee and nodded her head instead of responding verbally. It was clear from her face that this was not a subject she wanted to discuss at the moment, but Will pressed on a little further.
      “Was Krystof the one who called her? I don’t understand what happened, but I have to admit that it all seemed a little strange to me.” She was silent and not even looking at him. “—Kay?” he prompted.
      Kaysa sighed. Why did he have to ask so many questions? He didn’t know her; didn’t know her at all. He couldn’t just expect for her to tell him everything after a couple weeks worth of acquaintanceship. “My family’s very complicated.”
      “Everyone’s family is complicated, Kay. Yours seems…” he didn’t want to say anything offensive, “…unusually so. I mean, you and Krystof are a striking enough combination to begin with.”
      “I know.” She interrupted him, her voice taking on a quality Will had never heard before –in her voice or in anyone else’s. “We’re so alike. So absolutely alike in every way.”
      “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Will tried to argue, but he was again cut off.
      “We’re so well-matched. So overpowering when together, don’t you think?”
      “I’ve really only you seen you two together at the party,” Will shrugged, a tingle running down his spine, as though nails were scraping across a piece of chalk.
      “But it’s like you said,” Kay insisted. “We’re a striking pair to begin with.”
      “I was referring mostly to physical presence. You’re both such unusually beautiful people, and the fact that there’s two of you just draws a lot of attention. And when you add on top of that all the drama you always seem to be having, all the tension that everyone else around you can feel, it’s a lot to digest is all. And even harder to comprehend. You could help me out a little here.” Will didn’t mean to sound as defensive, nor as needy, as he did.
      Kay took out a cigarette and lit it as Will spoke. She puffed it calmly, not immediately responding to him. When she shrugged, Will felt let down, as though the wall that surrounded her, the wall that had momentarily disappeared in Paris, was back up again and thicker than before. Her profiled face against the pier looked particularly pale, but perhaps it was just the black sweater against her white skin. Her eyes, barely visible from his angle, looked straight ahead, almost unseeingly, and she smoked absently, from habit more than anything. The rest of the wait for the ferry was marked by more silence, and a new tension that threatened to break their still fragile relationship.
      When the boat did arrive, Will maneuvered all of their suitcases into the luggage racks, and suggested that Kaysa pull out a coat if she had one.
      “It seems like it’s only going to get colder the closer we get to the English shore.”
      Kaysa pulled out a cream coat from her larger suitcase and draped it across her shoulders without actually putting her arms through the sleeves. She walked out on the deck rather than taking a seat inside like the other passengers of the mostly-empty boat. Will followed her and ventured another attempt at conversation, asking her whether or not she’d ever been to Dover, even to pass through.
      “No. I’m strictly a Brighton girl when it comes to seaside towns in Mother England. The closest I’ve ever come to the white cliffs is a regency novel, and I highly doubt that even compares.”
      “True,” Will laughed, lifting the collar of his jacket as the ferry began to shudder into motion and the wind blew colder up his neck. “What about anywhere in Kent?”
      “Canterbury, but otherwise I’m afraid my knowledge of English countryside is sorely lacking. We tended to travel overseas when I was younger. I spent plenty of my teen years in Hong Kong or New York or Paris, of course.” She leaned over the railing, watching as the Channel waters rippled out from the white sides of the boat and melted silently into the larger expanse of grey.
      “We never traveled much as kids,” Will revealed. He wrapped his hands around the railing and leaned back, his body forming a sharp angle with the deck. “My brothers and I were taken to the usual places, of course. France, Belgium, Holland. We were allowed to go on holiday to Greece before university. But I’ve never been outside of mainland Europe. Never to American, let alone Asia.”
      “Do you want to? Go there someday?” Kay asked, turning around to face Will and leaning backward against the rail.
      He shrugged, a gesture he was not as prone to as she was. “I don’t know. I guess so. Maybe someday. But there are so many other things I’d rather do.”
      “Rather do than travel?” Kay asked incredulously.
      “Yeah,” Will laughed. “I know it must seem outrageous to you.”
      “Not outrageous…” She took out another cigarette. “A little surprising, maybe. I always presume that most people spend their whole lives wanting to travel.”
      Will pulled himself toward the railing and then leaned back again, an idle gesture, but he didn’t really look at Kaysa, even when his face came close to hers. He looked out at the grey sea and the slightly brighter sky. “I always presumed that most people spend their whole lives wanting to be loved, and accepted,” he said, barely audible he spoke so softly.
      Kaysa turned her face away from his direction to exhale her cigarette smoke, and so she told the starboard side of the ship, more than she told Will, that she thought travel was a more attainable goal. Nonetheless, he heard her.
      “I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Will said skeptically, examining the back of her head.
      She turned back toward him. “Well, besides the lofty goals of love and acceptance, what else would you rather do than travel?” she asked.
      “Oh, you know. Maybe settle down somewhere and have a family. Maybe run for the Dover seat when Prosser retires.”
      “You’d want to stay in Dover?”
      “I guess I don’t really know. I mean, I haven’t given it much close thought, just general thought. I suppose I could stay in London. It just depends on so many things…”
      Kay shrugged. “We’re still young. Plenty of time to lose sleep over all of them, I’m sure.”
      “Yeah…” Will slapped his palm against the railing, pulling himself back forward and leaning over, breathing in the sea air deeply, tasting the salt and letting it burn his nose. “What about you? Do you ever think about the future?”
      “The future?” She brought her cigarette back to her lips, a stalling tactic Will was beginning to grow accustomed to. “Not really. I don’t like to think about things I can’t control, and the future is definitely a wild card I’m not ready to handle. You’ve seen me.” She smiled coyly as she, too, turned and leaned over the railing, her arm grazing Will’s. There was still a falseness to sweetness that she displayed though. “I go where I want to go, do what I want to do. The future threatens to be solid.”
      Will straightened and turned her to face him. “It’s not solid yet. You could always change. You never know.”
      He reached up to take her sunglasses off, but she took a step back, her coy grin tightening into only the smallest semblance of a smile.
      “People never change,” she said.
      And then she turned around, walking down the length of the empty deck, perfectly balanced on her heels, despite the reckless swaying of the boat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Confessions in Black & White V

Chapter V

      The following morning, Kay found a set of keys waiting on the breakfast table in the sitting room with her tray of eggs and toast. A note from Nicola apologized that she’d been unable to secure a Jaguar, but a CLK320 would be waiting for her whenever she needed it, and for as long as she would like to keep it. There was also a list of shops that would be expecting her that afternoon at her leisure. Kay crushed the note in her hand and tossed it idly into the trash, picking up a piece of toast to eat as she rummaged through her clothing options for the day. As she’d packed sparsely, it was not much of a decision between the green wrap dress and the green wrap dress. After a quick shower and a hairstyle that involved long tendrils escaping from a loose clip, she cruised out of the suite, out of the hotel, and into the smooth interior of the black Mercedes.
      Kay was known to make a round at the shops and boutiques of trendy Paris twice a year, critiquing the new designs, colors, and styles. In a way, she not only created her own fashion, but influenced the fashion available to others, as she was often one of the first to see the latest for the seasons. The slightest wrinkle of her nose, the faintest shake of her head could send anything from a dress to a color into the back racks of the fashion inventory. “I don’t like it,” was a sentiment that often crossed her lips, but when she did like it, one had to be paying attention to notice. Usually all a favored garment could expect to receive would be a curt nod or, at most, a verbal confirmation that she would “have it.” This rare occurrence sent the attendants into a flurry of activity to wrap the item and mentally mark it with the Kay Stevens seal of approval.
      Two hours later, Kay stood in front of a three-paneled mirror at the third shop she’d been to that day, and she examined herself critically, smoothing the fabric of the dress over her straight hips and frowning over her reflected appearance. Because she was so critical of herself, it was easy for her to be just as unsatisfied with the clothing she tried on.
      “The fabric doesn’t feel right to me,” she said, shaking her head. “It feels like a blend. I’d rather wear something one hundred percent. And something red.” Unfortunately, nothing in the shop fit that description.
      “I’ll try the trousers next,” she instructed, and here the shop faired better.
      Standing with her hands in the pockets of a pair of cream pants, the crease down the middle so straight and rigid that it might have appeared drawn on, she turned twice in front of the mirror. There was no buckling, no folding where it shouldn’t take place, and certainly not where it would be unsightly.
      “How many colors do you have of this?” she asked, and when she was told that the style was available in grey, black, khaki, mocha and a pin stripe, she asked if it was the same material for the colors, as well.
      “Yes, the same fabric for all.”
      Kay nodded. “I’ll take three. This one I’m wearing, the grey and a dark brown. That’ll be all for today.”
      After the second day of this schedule, Kay became bored again. Her wardrobe, over all, had more than tripled, and even Daniel failed to distract her in the evenings, though he was ever at his most charming and interesting. On her third morning in Paris, she actually began to contemplate an early return to London, but decided against it in the end, picking up her mobile instead. She punched in eleven digits she’d never dialed before and only waited for one ring.
      “Home Office, how can I direct your call?” the level voice of a female switchboard operator inquired.
      “Yes, Will Lawley’s desk, please,” Kay said.
      “One moment please.”
      Two rings later, Will’s own voice announced that she had, in fact, reached his desk, and he asked how he could help her.
      “Will, it’s Kay,” she said, running her hands over the back of the sitting room’s loveseat.
      There was a pause. “Is everything all right?” he asked in a rush.
      Kay half-laughed. “Of course. I was just returning your call.”
      Will thought that four days was rather a long wait to return a phone call, but kept the thought to himself. “Oh. Right. Well, what’s going on?”
      “Not much, I’m in Paris.”
      “Paris? Oh, I had no idea. –For the film?” Will used this information to justify why she hadn’t called him back immediately.
      “No, just pleasure.”
      “Oh, I see…”
      “Don’t you want to come meet me?” Kay asked boldly.
      It was Will’s turn to half-laugh. “Come meet you? What, when you get off the train?”
      “No, here. In Paris.”
      “Some of us have real jobs, Kay. Some of us have to work for a living,” Will explained in a feigned patronizing tone as he swiveled back and forth in his desk chair.
      “Working for a living is overrated,” Kay argued. “Besides, I need entertainment.”
      “Entertainment? Is that all I’m good for? Can’t you just see an opera or a show or something, like a normal person?”
      “Normal? What’s normal? Anyway, even if I did that, I’d need an escort, wouldn’t I?” Kay took a long shot on appealing to Will’s chivalry without even knowing if he had any.
      “From what I’ve seen, you’re a big girl and can probably handle yourself.”
      “Yeah, but sometimes I want someone else to handle me,” she said wickedly, and then pleadingly: “Come on. Take the day off tomorrow. Come into Paris. It’ll be great. I’m sure the Home Office will run just fine without you for one day.”
      “One day?”
      “Or two or three. I don’t care. Live a little, for Christ’s sake. You’re still young.”
      Will laughed but refused to commit. “There’s a lot going on right now. Prosser has a lot of work dumped on the staff right now, and I never know when he’s going to call me into Parliament or ship me back to Dover to deal with something.”
      “You do know, right, that a desk job like yours is my worst fear in life, don’t you?” Kay groaned.
      “It’s not so bad,” Will protested.
      “William Lawley,” Kay said sternly. “Are you going to come meet me in Paris tomorrow, yes or no?”
      Will sighed, weighing quickly and inaccurately the pros and cons of the options presented to him. “Yes,” he answered.
      “Great. I’ll pick you up from Gare du Nord. Call my mobile ten minutes before you get in.”
      “All right.”
      “Ciao, Will.”
      “Bye,” Will intoned with less enthusiasm, but Kay had already hung up.
      Will set the phone back in its cradle and leaned back in his chair, tossing the pencil he’d been holding the entire time unto his desk. He ran his hands through his hair and wondered what exactly he thought he was doing, agreeing to such a ridiculous plan.
      It was true that there were a lot of things happening in the Home Office and in Prosser’s office at the moment, but none of it was particularly essential, and Will had been making it easily through his work days, often with time to spare. It also wasn’t as though he’d be putting his civil service career on the line or something, but he always felt a bit of guilt taking time off, even when he was sick. A jaunt to Paris was downright unordinary for him, yet a part of him was thrilled by it. Was it just the idea of playing hooky from work, or was it the idea of Kay, too? He couldn’t be sure, but he felt distracted for the rest of the day, even drawing attention from co-workers.
      “You all right, Will?” one of the other desk officers inquired.
      “Yeah, I’m fine. Just worried about taking the next two days off,” Will said in a half-truth.
      “Don’t worry about it, chap. We’ll be able to manage just fine without you. You could probably use the time off anyhow. You’re always carrying this office.”
      Will had offered a small laugh in return, but couldn’t even shake his anxiety on the Tube home from Whitehall.

      While Will worried about what to pack, I was across town from Marsham Street in the back closet of the studio, which myself and the other student tenants had turned into a makeshift darkroom. It functioned tolerably well, but didn’t offer much in terms of space, so it was a careful business to develop in there. I was working on the rolls of film I’d taken of Kay and they were all developing well, even bending to my gentle manipulation techniques and experimentations. When I finally emerged, I found Krystof perched like a cat on the stool in front of my blank canvass, smoking calmly. I looked around and found the studio inconveniently empty.
      “What are you doing here?” I asked.
      “Looking for Kay.”
      “Isn’t she in Paris?”
      “I don’t know…is she?” I could hear the raised eyebrow in his voice, even though it didn’t appear on his face.
      “How should I know? She said she probably would, so I don’t see why she wouldn’t,” I rationalized, keeping my distance from him, but pinning the prints of Kay on the wall.
      “She’s not answering her mobile,” he announced
      “Maybe she’s switched it off.”
      “Kay never switches off her mobile.”
      “Well then maybe she just doesn’t want to be distracted,” I said, getting irritated and wanting to get on with my painting.
      “Or maybe she’s already being distracted,” he hypothesized, tapping his temple in a mock indication of genius. “Ever think of that?”
      “What do I care? Even if she is being ‘distracted,’ as you so eloquently put it, how is that my business?”
      “It’s not your business.”
      “Right.” Finally, I thought I was getting through to him.
      “It’s my business.”
      “Look, Krystof…” I began. I didn’t know how to put what I wanted to say. “You need to take a step back. She’s your sister, not your lover. She can screw whoever she wants.”
      “Oh, I know.”
      “Then what’s the big deal?”
      “I just want to know about it. She shouldn’t be keeping secrets from me.”
      I shook my head. “That is fucked up.”
      He shrugged. “I don’t expect you to understand.
      “Good, because I don’t ever want to.”
      The door opened and Hannah came in, lugging her portfolio. “Oh,” she said, looking between us. “Uh…is Kay here?”
      “No,” I answered before Krystof could. “She’s in Paris. –Kyrstof is just leaving.”
      “Oh…” Hannah was not the brightest of our bunch, and she again looked between us. “Well, don’t let me interrupt…”
      “Here, let me help you with that,” Krystof offered, picking up her portfolio as though it weighed nothing and setting it on the counter next to an empty easel. “You girls going to paint all day today?”
      “Yeah, probably,” Hannah answered, rummaging through her portfolio and pulling out several sketches. “You want to stay and watch? I could paint you,” she offered.
      “Thanks,” Krystof smiled and leaned toward her across a stool. “—But I think I’d rather have Beck photograph me,” he said in a stage whisper, tilting his head toward where I was still pinning pictures of Kay.
      “Well did you ask her?” Hannah asked. “I’m sure she would. Beck is great with a camera. Beck, don’t you want to take Krystof’s picture?” she called.
      “What do you say, Beck?” He grinned and I rolled my eyes.
      “Not in this lifetime.”
      He turned back toward Hannah. “I don’t think Beck likes me very much. –Have you eaten yet?”
      Hannah looked confused for a second but then grinned. “No!”
      “Want to grab a bite around the corner?”
      Krystof flashed me his most charming smile as Hannah led the way back out the door. “Later, Beck,” he called over his shoulder as the door closed.
      “Who’s keeping secrets now?” I asked the empty studio.

      Around noon the following day, Will left Paris Gare du Nord with a small leather attaché and spotted Kay immediately, leaning against the black Mercedes. She was wearing a black dress with a low v-cut neckline and a slightly full skirt underneath a bittersweet red car coat. She wore a black beret, angled slightly to one side, and her sunglasses. She was holding a freshly lit cigarette, and her cheeks even seemed to have a little color in them, elevated by a smile slightly less ironic that usual when she saw that he had spotted her.
      He hadn’t just spotted her, he had stopped moving and people brushed past him. Her half-hearted wave broke the spell and he continued forward until he was nearly standing toe-to-blood-red-toe with her.
      “You’re looking very Parisian today,” he observed.
      She offered up her lips to buss both his cheeks, her lipstick matching her coat perfectly.
      “When in Paris, do as the Parisiennes,” she smiled, her white teeth seeming even whiter than normal.
      “You always make me feel underdressed,” he added.
      She tugged his collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. “You look great,” she protested. “Shall we go?”
      She slid out from between him and the car, walking around to the driver’s side.
      “Where exactly are we going?”
      “Anywhere you want. We can drop your bag off, we can climb the Eiffel Tower, we can see the Louvre, we can do whatever you want.” She opened her door and got in.
      Will did the same, breathing in the smell of new leather.
      “Please tell me you didn’t buy this,” he said, looking at her out of the corner of his eye, but running his hand along the dashboard,
      Kay laughed. “Hardly. Just a rental.”
      “Good thing. –So where are we going?”
      “You didn’t decide yet,” she pointed out, shifting gears in a roundabout.
      “I’ll leave it up to you,” Will evaded.
      “Ugh, you’re a poor companion already. Are you trying to punish me?”
      “Yes!” he laughed. “For luring me here under false pretenses.”
      “False pretenses? I never lied about why I wanted you here.”
      “Oh, you didn’t?” Will asked, raising an eyebrow.
      “No, not at all.”
      “Not even any of that needing an escort bullshit?”
      “All right…you got me there. But it wasn’t total bullshit. That was just the icing on the cake. Besides,” she flipped her hair, shifting gears even harder, “you wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t wanted to.”
      He looked away from her. Even though her knowing eyes were hidden by the large sunglasses, he didn’t want her to see how right she was.
      “How about the Louvre?” he suggested after the pause. “I haven’t been there in years.”
      “Yeah,” she said. “—Me neither.”
      In the Louvre, they didn’t hold hands like the other couples, and they didn’t linger over pieces like the other tourists. Kaysa was the kind of art lover that would pause in front of one piece, every once in a while, examine it for less than a minute, and then move on.
      “I thought you were supposed to be an artist,” Will teased.
      “So people say.” Kay was always unamused by references to her artistry.
      “So why the breezing through this place? Shouldn’t you pause and ponder?”
      “I’ve seen all of these at least a dozen times, if not here, then in textbooks.” She shrugged elegantly, almost arrogantly. “Besides, appreciation of art is not measured by how long you stare at Rubens.”
      “True enough. So why do you come here then?”
      “To watch other people. To watch the way the masses drool over the masters.”
      “That’s an…interesting…way to put it,” Will observed, looking at her in an attempt to determine if she was joking.
      “Look,” she said, stopping their stroll in the middle of a narrow gallery. “When all is said and done, when the shoe fits, you wear it. Unless,” she lifted one of her slender index fingers to emphasize her point. “Unless that shoe’s a glass slipper. And then you lose it.”
      She resumed walking, leaving him frozen for a second in futile attempt to comprehend if what she’d just said was actually philosophical, or purposely vague just to seem philosophical. He decided to rethink it later and moved to catch up with her.
      After the Louvre, they went over to the Eiffel Tower and rode the elevator to the top.
      “Paris in the fall is beautiful,” Will observed, somewhat generically, but with real sincerity.
      The trees in the park were changing colors, into reds and oranges, some even yellow. The skyline was growing blurry against the fading light of the day, and a few lights had even come on prematurely across the river. The buildings of the old quarter looked smooth and monotone. In the distance, he could just barely see the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, picking them out from their camouflaged locations in the squeeze of other buildings far below.
      “I haven’t been up here in ages,” Kay said suddenly.
      Will looked at her beside him, and from that angle he could partially see her eyes: the long lashes behind the frames of the sunglasses. She was staring out toward the Musée de l’Homme, her white fingers twined tightly through the wire wall that separated tourists from a long fall down. Her profile was more serious than he’d ever seen it before, and he had no idea that it was a glimpse of something no one had ever seen before, except, perhaps, Krystof.
      “Why do you always wear those glasses?” he asked her, not breaking the moment, but somehow removing himself from it so that she was the only occupant of a realm apart.
      “What do you mean?” She turned her face toward him, the lines of her neck twisting while her body remained front-facing.
      “There must be a reason you wear them.” He reached out hesitantly and took the sunglasses between his fingers. When she didn’t stop him, made no movement at all, he slowly drew them off, not sure if she would remain stationery, or suddenly bite his hand. Luckily, he was safe from the latter.
      “When I was younger,” she said slowly, “I had problems with my eyes. The cone receptors and the light…I was hypersensitive to it.” She closed her eyes and touched her eyelids in the dusk, even though they were safe from any of the burning rays she was recalling. They fluttered open again. “I had a couple surgeries when I started to go on the stage more, with the harp and then in dance. I couldn’t wear the sunglasses onstage and the lights gave me blinding headaches, worse than migraines afterward. I’d be incapacitated for days. It’s part of why I stopped doing both those things. The doctors say my eyes are better now, that the pain is only psychological, but…but I still prefer to have them covered anyway.”
      “But your eyes are okay?”
      She shrugged. “I guess so. The color’s all fucked up now. I see watercolors, glorified black and white. Not much more. It’s why all my paintings have such glaring color. Not for their meaning, but so I can see them.” She paused and then flashed him a brilliant smile, perhaps forgetting that her whole face was revealed. “Don’t tell my critics though. They’d lose their heads and call me a fraud.”
      “I would never,” Will promised.
      “Good. –Now, do you like boats?”
      In front of the Eiffel Tower, along the Seine, there were boats that offered dinner cruises and historical or architectural tours.
      “I’ve done these before. But let’s not do a dinner one. We can eat at Le Cinq after this. Let’s just watch the night fall,” Kay suggested.
      So Will bought two basic tickets, and they sat on average plastic seats. Kay sat a little closer than one should because of the plastic armrest in between, but she didn’t seem to notice that it dug into her ribs. Will had put on a brown leather jacket, and she had stuck one of her hands into one of the pockets to warm it. The people getting on took one look at them, Kay’s beautiful head, eyes exposed though only half-open, resting on Will’s shoulder, and they gave the two a wide berth. They must have been thinking “lovers,” but it was mostly pure companionship, something Will had not expected to feel with Kay. As if sensing this, her voice came from his shoulder asking, “See? Aren’t you glad you came?”
      “Definitely,” he answered, holding still lest she disappear as easily as she’d appeared in his life.
      Ten more minutes brought the boat to life, the engine roaring loudly all around them, though it later proved to be an excruciatingly slow-moving vessel. Kay and Will ignored the informational phones that they could have listened to and instead watched all the lights come on, all at once, and yet somehow still one-by-one. They didn’t talk at all during the entire trip, which lasted just under an hour. Even as they disembarked, and Will instinctively offered his hand to help Kay off and then kept her hand in his, even then neither of them said a word.
      “Hungry yet?” she asked, as they climbed back up to the street level.
      “Sure. You said something about Le Cinq?”
      “Yeah,” she nodded, her free hand in her pocket, fishing for the car keys. “It’s the hotel restaurant in the Four Seasons. We can put your bag up in my room and then get a table. I told the staff to hold one for me all night, so we won’t have to wait for seating.”
      Will knew that no response from him was needed, so they went to the car and got in, listening to French pop on the drive back to the Champs Elysées. Will whistled when they pulled up in front of the Four Seasons.
      “Ever stayed here?” Kay asked conversationally, but already aware from his whistle that the answer was a negative.
      “Not in this lifetime. Too many zeros for my price range.”
      She laughed to make him more comfortable, slipping her hand in the bend of his arm once he’d taken his bag out of the trunk. “You’ll love it here, trust me. You’ll never want to leave.”
      In the lobby, she caused a scene just walking through. There was the dinner crowd, the theatre crowd, and even some older members of the opera crowd milling about. The swish of her skirt seemed to draw their eyes, and the precise swing of her legs, like knives slicing through air, drew their envy. Although she was less chic without the sunglasses and the beret she had pulled off so as not lose it from the wind on the boat ride, her face more than made up for a sense of drama, her white skin so much softer, so much more subtle than the black accessories.
      “You didn’t want your own room, did you?” Kay asked suddenly.
      “I didn’t even think to ask before you came…you didn’t want a separate bedroom, did you? We could still get you one, I’m sure, if you want.”
      “I didn’t…well I…I don’t know,” he stammered, feeling silly of a sudden, and uncomfortable in her presence. “That is, if you don’t mind sharing, then I guess…” He trailed off incompetently.
      “No, of course I don’t mind. That’s perfectly fine; that’s what I’d figured all along.”
      He didn’t know what that meant, but he followed her as she led the way to the elevator, where they went up to the eighth floor.
      “Did you bring a tie? I think they make you wear a coat and tie at Le Cinq. It’s got four Michelin stars, or something…” She slid the key into the door and opened it, exposing the immaculately cleaned suite.
      “This is amazing,” Will said.
      “This is just the sitting room. Anyway, the bedroom and bathroom are back here…” She led and he followed. “Would you like to shower? You can shower before dinner if you’d like, although it’s getting late.”
      “No, I’ll be fine, I’ll just change really quick.”
      “Oh, don’t even change then, she said, waving her hand, “Just throw on a tie and jacket over that. I’m not going to change.”
      She didn’t seem to know how elegant she was in the black dress and red shoes, like a 1950s portrait.
      “Just drop your bag wherever and let’s head downstairs,” she instructed.
      They were given a quiet booth that made Will wonder if it was one of the best seats in the house. Kaysa browsed the menu with expert eyes, as though she’d seen it all a thousand times before, while Will struggled to decipher all the words. His French was somewhat rusty from disuse.
      “Dinner’s my treat,” Kay announced. “You came all this way, after all. I ought to offer you something. So order whatever you like.”
      She didn’t even look up when she said it, but there was a degree of earnestness in her voice.
      “Qu’est-ce que vous voudriez?” the waiter asked.
      Kaysa started with a salad and asked for the duck as a main course, and Will intoned that he’d have the same, but with the vegetable soup.
      “Et une boutielle de Bourdeaux, s’il vous plait,” Kay added before the waiter took their menus and ambled off.
      “So, Will…” Kay opened her napkin and slipped it over her lap. “Tell me about yourself. You like your duck medium-rare, an interesting choice.”
      He laughed at that. “About myself? I don’t know. There isn’t much to tell. I haven’t had a glamorous life at all, not like you. No concert halls, no dancing stages, no vacations on safari or anything like that. I was just a normal kid in Dover’s west end. I didn’t go to Eton, I didn’t go to Oxford. I’m just….here.”
      “But you’re from Dover originally?”
      “Yeah. In the town center, actually, because my mum was –well, she still is –a librarian at the Dover Library.”
      “What was it like growing up on the ocean? I always wanted to live by the ocean when we were younger, and I’d make my parents take me to Brighton every summer.”
      “Well, Dover’s no Brighton. The cliff sides are sharp, of course, and the tourists can make the summer months unbearable. But it’s a busy port. An interesting place to grow up.”
      “Did you work at the docks when you were at school? Pulling in fish or something?” Kay rested her chin on her hand and looked at him, not aware of how silly the questions was.
      “No,” Will laughed. “No, not quite. I worked at the market when I was in my teens, and then as a clerk in a law office while I was at university. All in all, it worked out well. I’ve been working with Prosser since he held a county seat.”
      “And do you like it? Politics?”
      “I love it. Don’t you like politics?”
      Kay wrinkled her nose, and the action looked so different, so much younger when her eyes were visible. “I don’t know if there’s anything so dry.”
      “Dry!” he said in mock offense.
      “Well, it’s not like painting. Not like dancing, not like playing. You’re not creating anything with politics. –Except maybe confusion.”
      He laughed again as the bottle of wine arrived, shortly followed by the meal. Will was aware that he’d been laughing quite a bit that day and was only half-afraid that it was a nervous action. He glanced at Kay and then quickly back at his plate. Conversation punctuated the meal occasionally, but they ate mostly in silence, each a little awkward filling their mouths with food in front of one another for the first time. It was carried off without much incident though, and Kay insisted that they prolong their dinner with drinks and dessert.
      “The restaurant’s almost empty,” Will pointed out, his head a little light from the wine. “We really shouldn’t keep the staff too late.”
      “Nonsense,” Kay said sternly, signaling the waiter. “Dessert. –I’ll have a scotch,” she told the waiter. “And the truffles.”
      Cornered, Will ordered a cognac and a crème brulée.
      “See, that wasn’t so bad. None of this has been so bad! You were nervous all along for nothing,” Kay teased, wrinkling up her face childishly at him.
      “How do you know I was nervous?”
      “Oh, you were nervous. I do that to men.”
      Will practically choked on his mouthful of water. He wiped his lips on his napkin and raised one eyebrow. “Oh really?”
      Kay nodded. “I don’t know what it is.” She popped a truffle in her mouth as the tray was set on their table, and smiled. Clearly the alcohol was making her head a little light as well.
      “Well, let me assure you that I wasn’t nervous about anything except missing work,” Will lied.
      Kay stared at him unblinkingly, knowing he was lying, but not actually caring. Will forced himself not to look away from her blank grey eyes because he knew they were a challenge. He swallowed hard until she said finally, “I’m tired. Are you done?”
      “Ready when you are,” he said as casually as he could.
      Kay left cash on the table and a generous tip before rising and leading the way out of the silent restaurant. She waved casually at the person sitting at the reception desk, slipping her arm around Will’s waist unexpectedly. Instinctively, he put his arm around her shoulders, feeling every curve of bone beneath her skin and momentarily thinking that she ought to eat more.
      “You’re so skinny,” he commented.
      “I know.”
      They got on the elevator and Kay leaned in to kiss him, reminding him that he owed her one twice as good as their first, in which they hadn’t even touched lips. In so many ways the second kiss was nothing like their first, but the same emotions were there: a combination uncertainty and confused desire. When the elevator stopped at the eighth floor, the kissed ended and they walked down the hall to the suite, where Kay opened the door and flicked on a couple of lights. She ran her fingers through her long hair, her knuckles catching in some of the windblown knots.
      “I’m a mess,” she said conversationally.
      “You’re beautiful.”
      Kay took off her earrings and walked toward the bedroom, turning her chin over her shoulder to wink at Will. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
      “Hardly.” He walked toward her again and slid one hand across her hip, kissing her softly on the lips.
      Kay responded with enthusiasm, pressing herself against him and tossing her earrings unto the table conveniently nearby. Although executed well, this move did cause her to stumble back a bit, bringing both her and Will into the bedroom. Kay backed him into the bed, her fingers making quick work of his tie, undoing the knot but not removing it from his neck entirely. As her thin fingers moved to the top button of his shirt, Will reached up his hand and brushed his knuckles gently across her cheek, right along the edge of her jaw. Her fingers paused and her lips became inactive. Slowly, she drew her lips away from his, although she didn’t withdraw from his arms altogether.
      “You…” she said, nudging his chin with the knuckle of her index finger. “You should get some sleep.” She pulled away from him a little. “I’m going to go take a bath, but when I get out, I expect you to be fast asleep and dreaming.”
      Will was more than a little surprised by the change in the mood as Kaysa backed away and turned the light on the bathroom, closing the door only partway. He could see the mirror through the open slit, and its reflection showed Kay getting undressed carelessly and turning on the water in the tub as though she hadn’t a care in the world. Will ran both his hands through his hair and tried to catch his breath without making any frustrated noises. They had just met, he reminded himself. They hadn’t talked about anything beyond him coming to Paris… But he’d come to fucking Paris for her. Didn’t that mean something? Will suppressed a groan and fell back against the mattress. And now what? He was supposed to just sleep in the same bed with her, side-by-side, not touching? Like some old married couple? He tugged on his tie and it slithered off from around his neck in one quick motion. This was just his luck.
      Seeing that there really wasn’t any other choice, Will sat up and began to undress, throwing on the t-shirt and sports shorts that he’d tossed in his attaché for just such a variation of this scenario –although he hadn’t been able to predict the precise situation. Once changed, he got into bed on the side farthest from the door, not wanting to seem intrusive, and he pulled out a book to read. He could hear Kay humming in the bathroom and when she still had not emerged after a half hour, he decided he might as well switch off his bedside light and lay back. With any luck, he might even be asleep by the time Kay came to bed, and then all the awkwardness could be bypassed.
      Lying back against the pillows, he was amazed at the comfort of the mattress and momentarily wondered how expensive the sheets were that he was sleeping between. This thought was fleeting in comparison to his other thoughts though, most of which centered around Kay, and what had happened earlier while they’d been kissing. One minute she was practically undressing him and the next she was treating him like a schoolboy. Will tried to remember whether or not he might have done something to turn the tides against himself, but could think of nothing. Then his thoughts turned to whether or not he should say something when Kay eventually came to bed. Should he venture a good night? Would she sleep close to him? He tried to push out all the thoughts to fall asleep, but his mind would not be quiet.
      Finally, the slightly ajar bathroom door opened a little wider, though not all the way, and Kay slid into the room, turning the light out behind her. Will couldn’t see her well in the dark, but she appeared to be wearing a slip-like nightdress, and the bed didn’t move at all under her weight as she climbed on top. She covered herself carefully and lay on her back –he was a side-sleeper himself. She fanned her damp hair out around her on the pillows and then laid still. Although several inches were between them, he could feel the humidity and warmth coming off her body and making the bed feel, at least to him, like a sauna. A sauna that smelt like vanilla and rose water, or some such sweet and musky combination.
      For most of the night, until the early morning, neither Kay nor Will moved, but neither slept, wondering if the other was. It wasn’t until the effects of the alcohol and exhaustion finally overtook them that they both fell into reluctant and confusing dreams.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Stealing Lives I

Saturday, 11:30am

      “Can I help you?”
      Veronica jumped slightly. She and her husband David had just walked into the furniture store and she hadn’t seen the gentleman sitting on the couch in the corner.
      “I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, getting up and giving his best salesman’s smile. “My name Jim. I’m guessing you and your husband are looking for some furniture today?” He eyed Veronica’s obviously pregnant belly, his smile growing wider and more genuine. “Perhaps some furniture for the little one?”
      Veronica gave a sheepish grin and nodded as he shook David’s hand.
      “Is there something in particular that I can help you find?” He was a little older than they were, maybe late thirties or early forties, and his eyes were a bright blue, twinkling out of slightly creased eyelids.
      David answered first. “We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so we need something gender neutral. But we want it to be something that will last a long time. Not just a crib, you know? We’re looking for one of those cribs that converts into a toddler bed and then into a regular bed. And we also need a dresser.”
      “Of course,” he said, brushing lint off his tan suit. “Follow me. We have a youth section at the back of the store.” David followed and engaged in easy conversation with the salesman while Veronica brought up the back. She walked slowly, eyeing the various displays of furniture, wishing she and David had enough money to refurnish the entire house. With the strategically placed lighting, everything looked beautiful, and she felt a small pang of jealousy when she saw a couple about her parents’ age, carefully selecting a completely new living room set.
      “Jim? Oh Jiiiiimmmm!” the woman called out as they walked past. “I think we’re going to take this one over here.”
      “Be right there! I’m just getting these folks set up and I’ll be right back with you.”
      Jim cleared his throat and gestured toward the youth section. “This is what we have on display. Just about everything you see here should be in stock and can be delivered within a week. Of course, we also have a catalogue that you can browse. Special order items take about four to six weeks to be delivered. I’ll leave you two to look around. If you need anything, just give a little holler. Otherwise, I’ll come back in a bit and see how things are going.”
      As he sauntered away, Veronica noticed his long, lean build, which appeared to belong to a man in his twenties. It was only the few strands of silver in his hair that gave away his age as he walked back to the front of the store. Veronica continued to watch him. He had a slightly unsteady gait, almost as if one leg was shorter than the other. She wondered what made him walk that way.
      “It was a stroke,” David whispered.
      David shook his head. “I see you watching him. He has a little limp. He told me when we were walking back that he had a minor stroke last year.”
      Veronica shrugged. “Okay. Makes no difference to me. But why is it that people tell you such personal details about their lives?”
      “Beats me. Must be my charm and good looks.”
      She playfully hit him on his broad shoulder. “I doubt that. Maybe the looks. You do have those soulful brown eyes. But charm? I’m not sure that’s exactly the word I would use.”
      David rubbed her belly. “Whatever. I know you’re just wishing and hoping that our kid comes out exactly like me.”
      “I’m hoping that he or she gets good qualities from both of us. Mostly from me.”
      She dodged him as he teasingly swung a decorative pillow at her.
      “Quit it,” she admonished, trying to suppress her giggles. “We’re supposed to be furniture shopping for the baby.”
      “Yeah, we are. So let’s get to it. I like that set,” he said, pointing to an oak set on their left.
      “Not oak, please? How about this one?” she asked, pointing to a set with a cherry finish. “I like that color better.”
      David wrinkled his nose. “The color’s okay, but I don’t like the style.”
      “Okay, well, there’s a lot of furniture, so let’s ignore the ones we don’t like and focus on the ones we do.”
      Veronica and David were deeply engrossed in conversation. Jim was watching them from across the store, smiling. Sweet couple. He figured it was their first kid. It was always nice selling to younger folks. Furniture purchases tended to be a pretty big deal for them. Not like the dowager with the three carat diamond on her hand, who had snowed her husband into picking out some God-awful teal and jungle green paisley print sofa and loveseat. Jim had tried to contain his grimace as he rang them up. He never understood why designers created ugly furniture. He wouldn’t use that sofa to throw up on, let alone sit on. Ah well, he thought. To each their own.
      After completing the sales transaction, he glanced back at the young couple who seemed to have narrowed their choices to two sets. Lucky kids, shopping for a baby. He made his way back toward them.
      “Any luck, folks?” He templed his hands under his chin and smiled at them.
      “I think so,” David replied. He pointed to a set that included a dresser, mirror, nightstand and crib. “We really like this set, but we’re not fond of the color. We prefer the color of that set,” he said, gesturing toward a dresser a few feet away. “Do you know if we can get this set in that color?”
      “Let me check,” he said smoothly, knowing already that they could. He left them for a few moments, heading to the customer service area, where he drank lukewarm water from a public fountain. He silently counted to ten, then headed back toward the couple.
      “We are certainly able to get that set for you in the cherry finish. Can I interest you in some complementary pieces?” He gestured toward a bookcase and armoire. “You can include these pieces and get an extra fifteen percent off the whole order.”
      Veronica’s eyes lit up, but David held up his hand. “I appreciate it, but we’re on a limited budget. We were hoping to finance just the bedroom set.”
      “Of course,” he said, seeing Veronica’s crestfallen look. “Let me work up some numbers for you and I’ll be right back.”
      As he turned from them, he heard the young woman whispering to her husband.
      “Honey, do you think we can get the bookcase and armoire?”
      David’s face bore a pained expression. “Baby, I know you love it, but we really can’t afford it.”
      “I know,” she sighed. “I’m just excited and I keep thinking how nice it would be to just get it all at once. Because, you know, what if the baby grows up to be a big book lover like me? The bookcase could come in handy.”
      David’s heart was melting as he watched Veronica tug on her dark blonde hair and felt his resolve crumble when she turned her big hazel eyes on him. “Let’s see what he comes back with first, okay?” he said. “If we can figure out a way to swing the payments, we’ll get the extra pieces.”
      Veronica clapped her hands with glee. “Really? I mean really, really? We can get the whole set?”
      “If we can afford it,” he reiterated. “It’s going to be tight to begin with, so let’s see what he comes back with.”
      Jim did come back just then, having overheard most of their conversation while standing at the computer kiosk on the other side of the display. He produced a sheet of paper with some numbers he had scribbled down.
      “I worked out a few options for you. This amount here,” he pointed to one of the numbers, “is the total for all of the pieces including the bookcase and armoire. This number here is the total just for the crib, dresser, mirror and nightstand. You can see that there is a price difference, but,” he paused for a moment, looking thoughtful, “I can cut you a deal because this set is being discontinued at the end of the season. I can give you an extra ten percent off, on top of the fifteen percent discount, and throw in free financing for sixteen months if you open an account with us today. We’ll also pay the sales tax for you.”
      Veronica looked up at David, her eyes full of hope. David blew out through his nose. “Well, it’s a little more than we were hoping to spend, but with free financing, I think we can probably manage. We can make payments and chip away at it. What do you think honey? Do you want to get the extra pieces?”
      “Yes!” she squealed. “I’m so excited.” She turned to Jim. “You have no idea what a big deal this is for us. We’ve never bought new furniture before. Never. The closest we came is buying a new mattress for our bed last year. Our bedroom set is about fifteen years old. My husband bought it for himself right after he finished high school.”
      Jim felt warm inside, basking in the glow of this young woman’s pleasure. “Well, maybe when the time comes, you’ll keep us in mind for a new bedroom set for yourselves.”
      “Oh, absolutely,” she gushed. “We’ve been to four other furniture stores, but this is the best, by far.”
      “I’m glad to hear that. It’s always nice to know that a customer is satisfied.” He produced a credit application form. “I just need you and your husband to complete this form, then I’ll go ahead and run it through. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
      David shook his head. “Nope. This just about covers it.”
      “Excellent,” he said, handing David a pen. “Take your time filling this out while I start processing your order.”
      Jim busied himself entering the information, running the credit application through after Veronica and David completed it. It was approved, of course, and Jim couldn’t help but feel joy for this young couple. When he was through, he tossed the application in the shredding bin, and Veronica and David signed off on the receipt, delighted when he told them that the furniture would be delivered the following week.
      Fifteen minutes later, Jim was escorting Veronica and David to their car. David paused to shake his hand. “Thank you so much for all your help. This is an exciting time for us and we appreciate your time today.”
      “No problem. I hope you and your wife are happy with your purchase.” He let out a small laugh. “I’m kind of jealous. My wife and I didn’t get to pick out furniture like this when our kids were born. We had a series of hand me downs. Furniture has come a long way. Times, they are changing. Ah well. My wife and I will be taking the kids to see their grandparents this weekend. Can’t wait. Kids are such a blessing. You two take care and let us know if there’s anything else you need.”
      He waved as they drove away, thinking what a nice life they must have.

Saturday, 8:30pm

      Veronica stretched languorously on their couch as David gently rubbed her ankles. “Today was fun,” she said.
      “I agree. I can’t wait for the furniture to get here. It’ll make all of this seem more real.”
      “It will. Although, I guess it’s way more real for me since this little one is kicking the daylights out of me.” She grimaced as the baby shifted against her ribcage. “Not that I’m complaining. But I’ve still got two and a half months to go. It seems like this pregnancy is just dragging on and on.”
      David lightly tickled her legs. “Yeah, but it’s worth it. Just think about how different out lives will be.”

      As they chatted about the baby and the things they wanted to do before its arrival, an old maroon car drove slowly past their home. The man sat low in the driver’s seat, a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead. On the passenger seat was a credit application, filled out by none other than David and Veronica Smart. Glancing again at the address on the application, he peered out the windshield, admiring the neatly manicured lawns and yards in the relatively new subdivision. Anger suddenly flared through him. This should have been my life. I should be living in a house like this, with a beautiful wife, getting ready to have a baby. This should have been my life.
      The man sped through the stop sign at the intersection, narrowly missing a child on a bicycle. He hurried out of the neighborhood, folding up the credit application and stuffing it in his shirt pocket, glancing in the rearview mirror only long enough to let the waves of rage wash over him. This should have been my life.

Saturday, 8:55pm

      The same dilapidated Oldsmobile pulled up in front of a weather worn trailer. The man got out of his car, stretched, then loped easily to the porch of the trailer. Sitting in the dark on his porch swing, he lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings in the air. Rolling up his denim shirt sleeves, he thought about what a bitch of a day it had been. He was glad to be home. Well, he had been glad to be home, at least until he started thinking about the exquisite neighborhood he’d just left. He flicked his cigarette onto the porch, crushing it under his heel.
      Nothing had worked out the way it was supposed to. After a lifetime of being alone, he couldn’t stand it for another minute. He lit another cigarette and unfolded the credit application he’d pilfered from the shredding bin at the store. David and Veronica Smart. Mr. and Mrs. All American Couple. Bastards. He tucked the paper back in his pocket, thinking about what his next move should be. He thought about it, then thought about it some more. Out of ideas, he decided to turn in for the night. The next day would dawn bright and early, and he’d have plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do.
      The man took in his surroundings. It wasn’t much, but it was all his. The car, though in pretty bad shape, still ran well, and he owned the trailer free and clear. Yup, he thought, it’s all mine. All registered to and owned by one Terrence Jameson Rhodes.
      Jim, for short.