Summer came early to New York. Memorial Day was three weeks away and the temperature was already in the low eighties. If this was any indication of what the next three months would bring it was going to be a long, hot summer in the city.
Layla Brooks sat on the sill of her third floor walk-up apartment of the prewar building that faced Washington Square Park. She peered out of the smudged window at the entanglement of humanity on the streets below. Absently she fanned herself with the stiff, white envelope that boasted a Sag Harbor addressa world away from where she lived in the West Village.
The West Village was known for its eclectic blend of people, styles, food, excitement and entertainment. Those were the things that drew her to this slice of New York City life, that and her cushy job as a journalist for The View. Her beat was New York lifestyles and in search of the next salacious story she haunted some of the best and the worst locales in the city.
It was simply ironic how things got twisted all around and she became her own headline: laid off, unemployment running out, and working two nights a week as a hostess at Jake and Jill's one of the local blues lounges. All things considered, she was better off than a lot of folks. She'd saved her money over the years and invested wisely, thanks to the wise counsel of her godmother Carolyn Harte. The paper had given her a decent severance and in the year that she'd been out of work, she'd finally finished up her classes in massage therapy. It had been an on-again, off-again process for nearly five years. Now she was fully certified in rehabilitation therapy, deep tissue massage and she had even taken a special course, two years earlier in tantric massage, which was how she'd met Brent Davis, her former fiance.
Brent was the manager of the tantric massage studio, tucked away in a three-story townhouse on the Lower East Side. He'd trained herpersonally. There was no question that in the right hands the eroticism of the human touch is mind-blowing. Unfortunately, Brent felt the same wayabout every- one. She'd been naive and in love, engaged to be married to the man of her dreams and too blind to see that Brent didn't only have "hands" for her. It took her a while to push that part of her life to the back of her head. But the hurt would rear its ugly head every now and again when she'd see couples hugged up together, whispering to each other and knowing that the evening would end with them in bed togetherand she would roll around alone on empty sheets.
The upside was that Brent was good at what he did and he'd taught her everything she needed to know to be just as good a masseuse as him, if not better. She had a few regular clients and the extra income was great. The idea of owning and running a studio became more intriguing day by day. But with the economy still on shaky ground she wasn't quite ready to take the leap. At least not yet.
She stopped fanning herself and flipped the envelope over. She ran her finger beneath the flap and tore it open. She pulled out the stiff, off-white postcard inside.
It was the invitation she'd been expecting, embossed with the Platinum Society logo. It was the kickoff party of the season coupled with Desiree and Lincoln's fifth wedding anniversary party, hosted by Layla's god-sister, Melanie Harte. Although the festivities were more than a month away, Mel always planned way in advance.
Desiree Armstrong was her soror and dear friend. They still laughed about all the fun they used to have as students living in the Big Apple. So when Desiree married Lincoln Davenport and moved out to Sag Harbor to open her art gallery and help out with his Bed & Breakfast establishment, The Port, Layla and Desiree didn't see each other as often as they once did, but Layla could always find a reason to visit Sag Harbor.
She'd spent most of her summers on the Harbor. Her godmother, Carolyn, the cofounder of the Platinum Societya high class matchmaking servicemade sure that she kept an eye on her precocious daughter Melanie, and Melanie didn't go far without Layla. They'd grown up rubbing elbows with the people that the average person only saw on television and in the news. Melanie and Layla were trained in the areas of entertainment, money management, travel, fashion and knowing how to mix and mingle with anyone from the man on the street to the President of the United States. Like Melanie, Layla could speak three languages fluently and had traveled to Europe and Africa before she was eighteen. And if Layla had her way she would have married Melanie's gorgeous brother Alan even though he always thought of her as the "cute kid," and his little sister's friend.
She smiled as those good memories rushed to the surface before she hopped down from the sill, just as a truck backfired below and let off a plume of smoke into the muggy air.
Yes, it would be great to get away. A change of scenery, hanging with her girls and enjoying a blowout party was just what she needed.
"I think you should stay for the summer," Desiree was saying while she held the cell phone between her jaw and shoulder and adjusted a painting on the wall.
"Girl, the whole summer! You have got to be kidding. I have
stuff up here to take care of."
"Yeah, right. What stuffa hostess job?"
"I have clients. They'll miss me," she said, trying to sound convincing.
"I have a beach full of clients for you and you know Melanie will hook you up. Besides, when was the last time that the three of us had a chance to spend some real time together?"
Layla thought about the tempting offer. But the truth was, both of her girls were married; Desiree to Lincoln and Melanie to Claude. She would be the proverbial fifth wheel. Her chest tightened as images of what could have been flashed for an instant in front of her.
"I don't know, Desi," she said slowly, teetering on the brink of relenting.
Desiree blew out a puff of frustration. "Well, whatever you decide to do is fine. I think you're blowing a perfectly good vacation."
"Where would I stay for the entire summer?"
"Right here at The Port."
"Desi, come on. What about your guests? The summer is the busiest season. You need all of your guesthouses."
"True, but you wouldn't be a guest."
"What are you talking about?"
"You would be a summer employee."
"I thought you said this was my vacation." She chuckled.
"Look, what if you stayed in one of the cottages and paid your way by offering massages to my guests? I've had a spa set up for months with no one to really run it. It would be a major perk. And you get to keep the tips!"
Layla burst out laughing. Desiree always had some kind of plan. "Let me think about it."
"Okay, but don't think too long. I know someone will want to hop on this great opportunity."
"Someone like whom?"
"Doesn't matter. Someone will."
"Girl, you are too crazy."
"Crazy as a fox," Desiree said with a snicker.
"Yeah, okay. Anyhow, I'll see you next weekend. But I'll let you know before then what I'm going to do."
"See you next week. And think about the offer.
"Okay, okay. I'll think about it. I'll see you Friday."
Layla disconnected the call. An entire summer on the Harbor? Hmmm. She got up from the side of the bed and walked toward the window. She pushed the off white curtain aside. Traffic, gray concrete and throngs of rushing people filled her line of sight.
She let the curtain drop back in place. A slow smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Nothing was keeping her in the city beyond her decision to just say yes.
M aurice Lawson winced when he attempted to push up from the couch and stand. The pain in his leg vibrated through his entire body. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. Slowly the searing fire ebbed to a dull throb. He inhaled deeply and sat back down.
That night, flying over the Afghanistan mountains flashed in his head. The skies were clear with just enough cloud cover to camouflage their mission. He and his Navy SEAL crew were on a stealth mission. Everything was going according to plan. The target was illuminated on the control panel of the Black Hawk Helicopter. And then without warning the world seemed to explode. He'd lost two men on that mission and he'd barely survived himself. He'd spent three months in the hospital and the next three months in rehab, learning how to walk again.
The doctors said he'd always have pain
and nightmares. But over time both would diminish. They hadn't.
That was more than a year ago. He still battled the pain and the nightmares
and the guilt. Some days, the guilt was more painful than his injury.
He opened his eyes and his gaze settled on Dr. Morrison.
"Are you all right?" She put down her pad.
He nodded. "Yeah." He forced a laugh. "I should be used to it by now."
"How are you sleeping?"
He shrugged. "Some nights are better than others I suppose."
Maurice Lawson had been referred to her through the Veterans Administration. After recovering from his wounds it was clear that his injuries were more than physical. She'd been working with him for about six months and the psychotherapy was slow, but there were days when she felt they were making progress. Then there were days like this one when that haunted look would come into his eyes.
Dr. Morrison leaned forward. "Maurice, your physical therapy is over, but I can't get you beyond that night if you won't let me help you to help yourself. You're holding on to more than physical pain and that's what's really debilitating."
The corners of his eyes pinched. His full mouth drew into a tight line. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to accept that what happened that night was not your fault."
"But it was!" he bellowed. "Why can't you understand that? I was in charge. Those men relied on me to get them in and out of there safely. And I didn't."
"What could you have done differently?" she softly asked.
He turned away from her penetrating stare. He'd asked himself that very question a million times. He'd gone over every minute of that flight. Nothing stuck out. It was textbook. But he had to have missed something. And that's what haunted him.
"What?" she asked again.
"I don't know," he finally answered, his voice filled with defeat. "I don't know."
"How about your friends, family, have you been in touch with them?"
"We don't have anything in common. They all want to act as if nothing is wrong or that everything is." His laugh was ragged.
"You can't continue to live in your head, Maurice, disconnected from everything. It's well past the time that you rejoined the world. Begin new relationships."
"Is that right, Doc," he said derisively. "You mean if I join the world, as you put it, I'll be all better." This time he fought against the pain and stood.
"I'm saying that you can't continue to punish yourself by shutting everything and everyone out."
"It's not that easy," he said, gritting his teeth against the pain.
"I know it's not. It never is. But if you are ever going to regain some semblance of life, of an existence, you're going to have to try. You're going to have to work at it, just as hard and with just as much passion as you've put into being a decorated fighter pilot."
He stole a look at her. "I don't know how," he admitted.
Dr. Morrison stood up and came to him. "I have a friend who owns a fabulous Bed & Breakfast in Sag Harbor. I think a change of scenery and the relaxation of being by the water would be therapeutic."
"I don't think so, Doc."
"At least think about it, Maurice. And I'll only be a phone call away
when you want to talk."
He pushed out a breath. "Yeah, I'll think about it."
She returned to her desk and wrote the information down on a prescription pad, tore off the paper and handed it to him.
He looked at the neat handwriting. "The Port."
"Go, Maurice. A few days, a few weeks." She studied his face. "Give yourself a chance. And think about getting back in touch with Ross."
His gaze jumped to hers.
"You'd mentioned in earlier sessions that the two of you were close, that you even played in a band together. I'm sure he would be glad to hear from you. Have you spoken to him since you've been home?"
He lowered his head. "No." He folded the paper and shoved it in his pants pocket. "Time up?"
She moistened her lips. "Yes."
He bobbed his head. His jaw clenched as he turned toward the door. "See you next week, Doc."
Maurice opened the door to his one bedroom condo apartment. He'd lucked out and was able to purchase the condo from his Veterans benefits in one of the most sought after communities in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Ft. Greene. One of the perks of fighting for your country, he thought derisively.
He'd been in the space for nearly a year after leaving rehab and it was still sparsely furnished, only the basic necessities. It didn't matter much to him. It was only him. He didn't have company, there was no woman in his life and all he needed was a place to sleep, eat and bathe.
He tossed his keys into a plastic bowl on the kitchen counter and limped over to the window. He drew in a long, slow breath. Never in a million years would he have imagined his life coming to this point. His breathing echoed in the cavernous space. Alone. Broken.