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They were at it again.
She could see them through her window, in the penthouse across the way. Bare skin, a tangle of taut, beautiful limbs— impossible not to notice.
Out of habit, Ari picked up her binoculars and brought them to her eyes. Instantly, she had an intimate view of her neighbor's body parts. She turned slightly to adjust and found herself staring at a hand—his hand—traveling up the outside of a curvaceous thigh.
Up, up, up it went, stopping at the flare of her hips, where he grasped firmly. Ari adjusted the binoculars again, and she had a view of a shoulder, then his mouth, kissing the delicate flesh of her neck.
His expression was intense, determined. He was solely focused on the task—no, make that the woman—at hand. And as always, for reasons she couldn't quite explain, Ari found herself wishing that woman was her. She didn't really want to be with a man, and there was nothing about this man in particular that made him seem exactly like her type, but she did want to feel what that woman must have been feeling at that moment. Ari wanted to feel desire, intimacy, skin-on-skin contact, sensual pleasure—all things missing from her life for the past two years.
Her body responded to the scene with a warming down low, a delicious ache she didn't get to feel often these days. Well, except when watching her overly amorous neighbor.
To the window seat, every time.
And it wasn't like in this neighborhood of apartment buildings and condos, he was mistaking his view for a private one. At any given moment, scores of people could be watching him get it on with whichever of his latest conquests he'd brought home for the evening.
Tonight,she was a beautiful, voluptuous blonde, though something about her perfect hair suggested she lived in the Marina District. She probably had a dog she loved more than her own mother, drove a late-model BMW and worked for a biotech start-up, or maybe a downtown investment firm.
Ari knew the type.
She almost felt sorry for the endless stream of girls Sir Sex-a-Lot, as she liked to call him, invited in and out of his life. Seriously, could he really have gotten them all to go to bed with him without at least alluding to the chance that they might have a real relationship?
Well, okay, maybe she was being a wee bit judgmental. Probably because she wasn't getting laid herself, and it was making her cranky these days.
At times, she had to admit, the reason she watched Sex-a-Lot's exploits was that it got her off. And maybe it was his whorish behavior that made him the ideal random guy for her to fantasize about—her dirty little clean-cut businessman fantasy. Nothing was going to happen with him, and he obviously didn't mind being objectified, so he was safe, distant and available.
She didn't have a sex life of her own anymore, and his was the next closest one to get any entertainment from. And, since he was basically inviting her to watch anyway
But pleasuring herself to the image of another couple's lovemaking no longer sounded like any fun at all—if it ever had. She was thirty-two years old, and her dance career was faltering as she devoted more and more of her time to the dinner club she'd bought eight years ago, and tonight standing here with her binoculars only made her feel pathetic.
Angry, frustrated, alone. It was as if nothing satisfied her anymore. Not even her cheap, reliable thrills.
She lowered the binoculars, dropped them on the purple velvet sofa and slouched down next to where they landed, still watching the couple across the way get it on. But she no longer had the warm buzzing sensation down low. She only felt empty.
And this, perhaps, was the final insult.
It had been two miserable years ago today, she'd realized when she'd checked her schedule on the calendar that morning. Two years since her life had started falling apart. Two years since one horrid, vile assault in an alley had stolen who she used to be and transformed her into this woman who was no longer someone she recognized.
Ari closed her eyes, and she recalled in a flash how it had all gone down. The struggle, the fear, the haunting sense of invasion.
Two years, and she could still remember as if it had happened yesterday.
Who was this person she'd become? Scared of life, scared of men, scared of herself. Hiding behind a workaholic job that didn't fulfill her. She was supposed to be a dancer, not a business owner. She was supposed to be a sensual being, not a monk.
It was only when she felt tears drip onto her chest that she realized she was crying. Silent, streaming tears fell down her cheeks and soaked the low neckline of her black top. She didn't bother wiping them away. When she thought of the calendar again, a cry escaped her throat, and she doubled over onto the dark red rug her mother had brought from Turkey, letting the racking sobs come out now, the ones that had been threatening to escape for so long she'd forgotten to be on guard against them.
But she let it all out now, every moan, every sob, every cry of rage and grief she'd been holding in. She let it out until there was nothing left, and her tears were merely a trickle.
When she pulled herself up off the floor, the couple across the way were no longer in the window, thank God.
She could see instead, when she looked out at the fog settling on the cool San Francisco night, a vision of her life without the baggage she carried now, a vision of her life as it was supposed to be, not as it was.
She knew, finally, what she needed to do to heal.
But first, she had a lot of work to do.
One month later
"Have you lost your freaking mind? You can't sell Cabaret. It's a San Francisco institution!"
This was not the response Ari was hoping for from her business broker of choice. The fact that her would-be agent was also a longtime friend did make her somewhat biased, but still. She winced at Cara's response and braced herself to defend her decision.
"I've been thinking about this for some time—it's not a rash decision," Ari said calmly as she crossed her living room, the phone pressed to her ear. "I've also spent the past month getting the place in spotless shape, all polished and ready to sell."
"But it won't be the same without you."
"Whoever buys it will want to keep it as it is, so Cabaret will live on, I'm sure."
"You can't guarantee that the new owner will keep the place as is."
"I can make it a condition of sale, can't I?"
Over the phone, she could hear Cara sigh heavily. "I guess you can try, but—"
"Look, here's what I need from you," Ari said. "Sound confident. Tell me I can do this."
"Um What exactly am I supposed to be telling you that you can do?"
"That I can sell Cabaret and everything will be fine. I love the place, but I have to get out from under it. It's a time sink, and it's turned me into boring-ass businesswoman. That's not me."
"I guess you're right."
"You know I'm right! I'm a dancer. That's what I want to be doing."
"I'm burned out, Cara. I need to get back to focusing on what I love."
"Which is what? Ruining my favorite hangouts? You dance at Cabaret."
"No, I used to dance. Now I spend ninety percent of my time running the place, and it's not fun. It's not me. I'm losing myself."
Cara sighed again.
Ari didn't want to mention the other reason she had to sell the place, but Cara was going to guess sooner or later.
"Also, I just I can't I feel like maybe a change will help me put the past to rest."
As she spoke, she looked out the window at her neighbor's apartment, which was empty now. She hadn't let herself watch him again since the night she'd broken down crying. She'd even gone so far as to keep her curtains drawn most of the time.
The last sentence she'd spoken hung in the air, creating an awkward silence. Then Cara recovered.
"Right," she said. "I understand. I do. I just hate to see you throw away financial security."
"I'm not. I'm going to keep the building and lease it to the next owner. I'll earn enough from the rent alone to keep me comfortable, and I'll start teaching dance classes in the studio space upstairs."
She'd inherited the building from her father eight years ago when he'd died of a heart attack, and that sad event had been the impetus for her starting Cabaret. Now another sad event was going to be the reason she let the business go. At least she'd still own the building.
"Sounds like you've thought this through pretty thoroughly."
"I have. Now it's just the matter of finding a buyer for the business. And the right agent. I was hoping you'd help me sell the place."
"Of course I will," Cara said. "It's going to be no small task, finding the right buyer, though."
Ari knew her friend was simply being practical, but she didn't want to hear any discouraging words right now. She wanted to believe she could really move on from the business quickly, that she wouldn't have to linger around the memories of it for too long.
Cara continued, still sounding doubtful. "Don't you worry that being in the upstairs studio will still be too close for comfort to the alley?"
Ari refused to feel sick at the mention of the alley. She was past reacting emotionally now.
"Yeah," Ari said quietly, "I'll still have to see it if I look out the window. But it won't be as bad as closing down the restaurant late at night. Every time I have to do that, it brings back memories of that night, and "
"I get it. Teaching dance, you'll never be there late and alone, right?"
"Did you ever call my therapist and make an appointment?"
"Not yet," Ari answered. "I haven't had time."
And she never would.
Cara sighed heavily. She'd been pushing Ari to see one ever since she'd confided what had happened. But Ari didn't like therapists, and she didn't want to believe that her problems were too big for her to solve herself. She'd grown up watching her mother visit therapist after therapist, dragging in their whole family at times, and it never helped a damn thing. As far as Ari could tell, it only made her mother and their family worse off—victims of their own helplessness.
She wasn't going to fall into that trap. Ari had vowed, two years and one month ago, that she would never be a victim again.
"Okay," Cara said. "We'll make it happen. We'll get you out from under Cabaret."
"Thank you. I needed to hear that."
Ari felt tension draining from her shoulders. Hearing someone else say it felt one step closer to making it happen.
And freeing herself from Cabaret would be one step closer to freeing herself, period. From her past, from her unwanted responsibilities, from whatever last bit of grief that was weighing her down.
"Liz called while you were gone. Also, Jacey or Tracy, and some other chick whose name I forgot."
Noah Kellerman stopped in his tracks and frowned at his little brother's words. "Who's Liz?"
"I didn't ask her to fax over a résumé." Simon looked back at the TV and sank deeper into the sofa, where he apparently intended to spend the whole day.
"I don't think I know a Liz."
"Maybe you ought to consider asking for names before you go putting your dick inside anyone."
Noah dropped the mail on the table and took off his shoes and coat.
"You've got such an elegant way with words."
"I call it like I see it, bro. You're like an addict when it comes to sex."
Noah didn't like his brother's insinuation, but the moment he opened his mouth to protest, he realized he'd sound like a hypocrite if he did.
And he had more important things to consider than his own sexual proclivities. He'd just heard from his real estate agent that she'd e-mailed him a property she was looking into for him.
He went to his computer, booted it up and checked his e-mail.
There it was.
Successful, well-known San Francisco dinner club, 6000 square feet to be leased from seller at $6,500 monthly rent; liquor license and full bar; space equipped with stage, kitchen with all appliances; popular North Beach neighborhood with high foot traffic.
Exactly what he was looking for. His heart raced.
He'd heard rumors that Cabaret—the only place in North Beach that fit this description—was going to be put on the market. It was exactly the kind of place that was ripe for the transformation he had in mind.
Noah leaned forward in his leather desk chair and read over the sale listing again, just to make sure his eyes hadn't fooled him.
"I think I've found it," he said.
"Found what?" Simon asked, as he flipped idly through channels on the plasma TV.
"The restaurant we've been looking for."
"If by we, you mean you, then more power to ya."
Aside from his art, which didn't earn him any money, Simon had the ambition of a tree slug, as evidenced by his semipermanent residence on Noah's white, postmodern Roche Bobois sofa, which was not the kind of seat meant for days on end of eating Cheetos and watching reality TV. Thank God the leather tended to allow the wiping-off of tell-tale orange crumbs.
"This is your key to employment success, little brother. Remember, I won't fire you for all the reasons you usually get fired."
"My motto is Do Less, Be More.'"
"That's great if you can find a Zen Buddhist way to pay the rent. Until you do, you're going to have to take the breaks you can get."
Noah had been supporting Simon most of their lives, even when they'd had a mother around to theoretically do the supporting. But he was determined to give his little brother the sense of responsibility and pride that came with self-sufficiency, one way or another. Simon may be bipolar, but that didn't mean he was helpless.
When his brother wasn't watching sometimes—like now, when his attention was riveted to an episode of an inane talk show—Noah would stare at his profile until his eyes blurred and he could see their mother sitting there instead. Simon had their mother's dark hair and slight build, her nose and her chin, too. He was her child right down to the kind of medication he needed to function properly.
Noah missed their mother at odd times like this, missed the rare glimpses he'd had of the woman she might have been if she'd been dealt a better lot in life, and these moments felt like a hard kick in the chest.
Posted January 12, 2010
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Posted January 1, 2010
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Posted September 1, 2011
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Posted June 23, 2011
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