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The Trouble with Charlie
By Merry Jones
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2013 Merry Jones
All rights reserved.
Bottles glowed amber and jade along the mirrored wall. Toned bartenders did their signature dance: reaching, pouring, swirling. Gliding along the narrow, dimly lit alley of spigots and glassware, serving up alcohol-laden concoctions to a thirsty crowd clustered along the bar. Music amplified to too many decibels pounded percussion without melody. Happy Hour at a mostly singles bar. What diabolical cynic had come up with that name? Dubbing as "happy" the dire, loneliest moments before dark, the time when people cling to each other in primal desperation.
I was no exception that night; I was among them.
"You have to start sometime," Becky had nagged me. "You can't just sit home forever."
It had only been a few weeks, I'd argued.
"It's been almost three months."
But I wouldn't know how to act, what to talk about. Hadn't been out on my own in a decade. I was rusty. Didn't know how to flirt.
"Just be yourself. You don't have to flirt. Just let go. Dance.
Great. I hated dancing, wasn't good at it. I reminded her.
"Don't be so defeatist. What else will you do — stay home and watch NCIS reruns?"
Why not? Mark Harmon was kind of hot, for an old guy.
"Fine. Don't complain when you're eighty and dying alone. Remember what you told me after I broke my engagement?"
"Very funny, Elle. But any of them — all of them. You said, 'The best revenge against a man who breaks your heart is to celebrate your life without him.'"
She was right. I had said that. Good advice, too.
"So now it's your turn. Come out with me. Celebrate." She'd kept it up, having an answer for each of my excuses until I'd caved, and there I was, standing in a bar, staring at glowing bottles, feeling clumsy and conspicuous and not very successful at celebrating my life. The Miller Lite in my bare wedding-ringless hand was empty again. I waved for another over the pounding music, its thumping bass relentless, reminding me with every slamming beat, of sex. Which, with Charlie out of my life, I might never have again. But that was absurd. Of course I would. Someday. Right?
The bartender put another bottle in front of me and I put a few bills in front of him, still thinking about sex with Charlie, his bare chest and shoulders poised above me in bed. Trying to stifle the images. Lord, I could kill him. Sometimes fantasized about it. Had even discussed it with various sympathetic girlfriends, most recently at lunch just the day before.
"You'd have to make it look like an accident," Susan had admonished. She was a criminal defense attorney, always practical. "Overdose him on his blood pressure meds. It'll look like a heart attack. And an autopsy would be inconclusive. They couldn't prove he didn't accidentally OD." She'd forked grilled tuna to her mouth, brows knit, thinking.
"No. Make it look random. Like a mugging or a carjacking." That had come from Jenny. Blonde, a body that poured into her clothes, eyelashes so long you could trip over them, a voice like silk. "Shit, if I was going to kill Norm, that's what I'd do." Jen's husband Norm owned things, including most of some NBA team. Or was it NHL? Her fingers glittered with diamonds. "I'd definitely shoot him and make it look like an RGB.
RGB. I'd had no idea.
"RGB?" Susan had apparently no idea either.
Jen had rolled her eyes. "Robbery Gone Bad." As if the meaning were obvious.
"Shooting's too violent." Becky had lowered her voice, looking around cautiously. "But remember, women usually use poison." I'd wondered how Becky knew that. She was a kindergarten teacher. How did she know this about poisons? Was it common knowledge that had somehow passed me by? I'd watched my share of cop shows, had learned my share of forensic science. "So don't poison him."
"And if you stab him, remember to restrain yourself." Jen spoke with authority. "Be efficient. Too many wounds looks like a crime of passion, not just random."
"And have a good alibi. Cops always assume the spouse did it."
They all nodded and agreed. My best girlfriends: a lawyer, a teacher, a rich housewife. Experts on murder.
"But even if she gets arrested, no jury will convict her once she tells them about Charlie —"
Somehow they'd begun talking about me as if I weren't there. The conversation had stopped involving me, had become about me. "Right. They'd let her off with time served. How many years were they married? Ten? That's a long enough sentence."
They'd laughed. They'd gone on, concocting detailed scenarios. I was to lure Charlie over in the dead of night, shoot him, and claim that I'd mistaken him for a prowler. Or hide in his condo's parking garage until he came home, shoot him, and take his wallet and his watch. Or hire someone to do it for me. All the ideas seemed familiar, like Law and Order reruns, but I'd drifted in and out of the conversation, watching from various distances as my friends had brainstormed from salads through coffee, offering and amending ideas with enthusiasm and delight. Not one had expressed disapproval at the thought of my killing Charlie. Not one had seemed the slightest bit appalled or surprised. They'd seemed comfortable with the idea, regarding Charlie's murder as a reasonable, even a positive alternative to divorce.
But, of course, the conversation hadn't been serious. It had merely been lunchtime amusement. Entertainment, like the bar's pounding music. Except the music was more painful than entertaining. It shook the floor, hurt my head. Made me remember what I didn't want to remember: the rhythmic whamming and thrusting of Charlie's pelvis. Damn.
Above me now was no pelvis, just a big screen playing football highlights.
Happy Hour. Did other people feel as self-conscious as I did? Or did they think this was fun? I looked around. Saw toothy smiles and drinks. Body heat. Commotion. Mostly I saw need. Maybe I was projecting. Lord, I felt uncomfortable.
The place was called Jeremy's. On Main Street in Manayunk, pronounced "Mannyoonk," a Native American word meaning, "the place to go to drink." And, for many professional single Philadelphians, it was. People were. I stood at the bar like a grinning stunned doe, watching people wander and cluster. I gulped Miller and nibbled carrot sticks from the array of free munchies, trying to pretend that I was in fact having an excellent time and that anyone who talked to me would also have one. With a cheerful semismile pasted onto my face, I determined not to look like a wallflower as I watched Becky wag her hips to the music and shimmy and shake with a skinny guy who had fashionable facial hair. She smiled at me, gesturing that I should join in. "Come on, Elle. Dance with us."
Becky was in her comfort zone. Happily single, twice divorced, she was cute, breezy. Short. With a pert little nose, wide grin, breasts like big feather pillows. Men flocked to Becky, and she took care of them as she did her kindergarteners, a mother duck with swarms of hungry ducklings.
Not me. I stood untalked to. Undanced with. At five foot nine, I was too tall to be "cute." In fairness, though, a few guys did approach me. One was stocky, wobbly on his feet, as tall as my chin, wearing a thick-lipped grin. His gaze fixed on my chest. "I'm Pete. Wuzs yrr name?"
He watched my bust as if he thought it would answer.
"Wann' dance?" He shouted over the music, his voice gruff.
My breasts didn't reply, but Pete didn't notice. Already distracted, he craned his neck to ogle some other woman, rotating so that his back turned to me. I stepped away, looked for Becky. Again, she waved me onto the dance floor. I shook my head. The music pounded on, jangling my bones. I stepped out of myself mentally, viewing the bar from above. Saw myself, a woman out of sync with her surroundings. Gawky and out of place.
"Nothing can be that serious. Come on. Give me a smile."
The guy had a strong jaw, broad smile. I felt a jolt, something like fear?
"Oops, look at this —" He reached out, lightly tapped my earlobe, and produced a quarter. He feigned surprise. "Here. This was in your ear!"
The stranger had shiny, playful eyes. Too shiny, too playful. Maybe dangerous. I felt the urge to run. But he held the quarter out, watching me until I took it. Then, eyes still on mine, he cupped his hand and — poof — produced a red chiffon scarf, looped it around my neck.
Wait. He was a magician? The place had a floor show? Oh Lord. I thanked him, stuffed a couple of dollars into his pocket, lifted my beer in a silent toast.
He frowned, retrieving the cash. "Hey, I don't want money. All I want is your smile."
My what? My face got red-hot. I steadied myself. Why was my adrenalin pumping? He stared at my mouth, waiting. I smiled. Actually, I laughed. Nervously.
"Success!" He grinned, put the money back on the bar. "I'm Joel." He yelled above the din.
His eyebrows rose. "Elf?"
I blinked, shook my head. Charlie called me Elf. No one else ever had. "Elle. Like the letter."
"Your face lights up when you smile, Elle."
More blushing. More inexplicable panic. In the dim light, maybe he couldn't see. "So you're not the house magician?"
"No, no." A broad grin. "I create illusions for fun. To cheer people up."
"And help you meet women?"
He laughed. Nice lips. Strong jaw. Good teeth. Carnivorous. "Sometimes."
I smiled. "So. Does it work?"
"You tell me." His eyes twinkled. Playing.
I looked into my beer, drank. Tried to think of a clever response. Couldn't.
"You seem tense." He studied me, as if reading my body language. "Recent breakup?" his voice roared above the music.
He could tell just by looking at me? Oh Lord. I hesitated, not wanting to admit it. I rubbed my temple. "Just a headache."
His eyes softened, sympathetic. For a heartbeat, they reminded me of Charlie's. Odd, since Joel's were grayish and danced, and Charlie's were dark brown and dared. Their eyes looked nothing alike. Maybe it was that he'd called me Elf.
"Press here." He took my hand to show me. His touch was warm, firm. Unfamiliar. "What happened to your hand?"
I looked at the bandage. I'd cut myself earlier, had forgotten about it. A kitchen knife had slipped while I was cutting fruit, slicing my palm. And it must have been deeper than I'd thought because blood had seeped through the gauze. "No big deal. I got attacked by an orange."
As if from the ceiling, I watched myself talking, smiling. Letting a man touch her bandaged hand. Seeming to enjoy herself. Flirting.
Joel smiled and, avoiding the gauze, squeezed a precise spot, just between my forefinger and thumb. And poof — magically, the pulsing in my head eased. "If you press this spot, you relieve pressure. You slow the blood flow to the brain. Something like that."
"You're a doctor?" We were shouting in order to be heard.
His smile was sly. "No. Not a doctor. Just intrigued by anatomy."
He let go of my hand. The headache started up again. Immediately. I set my beer on the bar, began squeezing the spot. Relief. Amazing.
"I'm pretty good at reading people, Elle. Know what I see when I look at you?"
I didn't answer.
"I see a beautiful woman who's very sad."
He did? I looked at his eyes, didn't know what to say.
"Remember, life's full of surprises. Everything can change suddenly — presto. Like magic." From thin air, he produced a single red rose. He held it out, his eyes still on mine. "It's for you. Take it."
I did. Impressed. And unsettled.
Somebody jostled me on his way to the bar, and I glanced away, regaining my balance.
"See you around, Elf. I mean, Elle." Joel squeezed my shoulder, then moved on, disappearing into the crowd, leaving me shaken. A rose? A single, long-stemmed rose? It was another coincidence, nothing more.
Alone again, I stood sandwiched between warm bodies at the bar. Holding a beer and a rose.
Okay, I decided, I'd done enough for one night. Had taken the first step, proved I could go out, even talked with a hot guy. So I could go home. With luck, I'd get there in time to catch the end of NCIS. I located Becky on the dance floor and waved to her, mouthed the words, "I'm going."
"Behind the bar." She pointed to the ladies' room.
"No," I moved my lips. "Home."
"What?" She cupped her ear, gyrating. The guy she was dancing with now was swarthy and buff, mesmerized by her backside.
I made my hand into a telephone, held it to my face. "Later."
She looked disappointed. "You're leaving?"
I nodded and, before she could protest or pout or even miss a grind, I'd pushed my way through the crowd, dashed out the door, and escaped into the chilled evening air. At the corner, I hopped into a taxi, thinking of Charlie who, until that night, had been the only man ever to give me a rose.
* * *
The night was warm and the cab stale, so I cracked the window, watching couples walking hand in hand or arms circling each other. We inched slowly through traffic on Main Street, passing crowded upscale clubs, boutiques, and restaurants. Manayunk had grown in the hills above the Schuylkill River, had housed mill workers, but now it was gentrified. Populated by young professional types. I lived only a few miles away, near the Philadelphia Art Museum, in the townhouse that had been Charlie's and mine. Now it was just mine, or would be when our divorce was final. I played with my empty ring finger. There was nothing to regret. Nothing left to save.
Nor was there a reason to feel so raw about attending a Happy Hour. There was no shame in being single again. In looking for companionship. Divorce didn't make me a loser or a failure. Or unattractive. It didn't mean I sucked at life. All that it meant was that Charlie and I hadn't worked out. Millions of women were separated or divorced. Millions of men, too. I didn't like bars, that was all. There had to be other, quieter, more comfortable venues to meet men. Like health clubs. Supermarkets.
By the time the cab pulled up to my house, I'd almost convinced myself that I had hope. It wasn't definite that I would grow old lonely, sad, and celibate. I was an educated, professional woman, a second grade teacher. When I stood up straight and held my stomach in, I was kind of stately. I had big hazel eyes and full lips. Charlie used to say I was striking; other men must think so, too. But, then again, finding a new man wasn't the answer. What I needed was a new passion, something fulfilling that I could do alone. Maybe I'd take classes in Italian. Or Portuguese. Or Tae Kwon Do. Or opera or skeet shooting.
I exited the cab with more dignity than I'd entered and stood tall as I unlocked my front door, only to slump again when I stepped inside, confronting what was left of my home. The blank spaces on the walls where Charlie's art had hung, the empty corner where he'd kept his aquarium, the half-vacant shelves that had held his books, the bare corners where his philodendra had clustered. Everything was a reminder that Charlie was gone.
Never mind. Spaces could be filled. I'd redecorate. Get new stuff. I set my bag on the hallway table and took a deep, cleansing breath. Maybe my head was aching because I was hungry, had eaten only carrot sticks for dinner. On the way to the kitchen, I stopped, sniffing. I wasn't imagining it. The scent. I knew it, had lived with it for ten years. The air smelled of Charlie. Old Spice. Had he been in the house? Was he still here?
"Charlie?" I stood still, listening. He still had keys. Our divorce wasn't final; I hadn't changed the locks. Even though he shouldn't and, as far as I knew, hadn't come in, he still could.
"Charlie?" Louder this time.
Silence. He wasn't there. Of course, he wasn't.
Even so, I stepped into the living room again, checking, seeing no one. Nothing out of place. Obviously, I was imagining the scent. Or maybe the house had just held onto it, absorbed it in walls, in floors. I went back to the kitchen, suddenly drained. My arms felt leaden, making it difficult to open a bag of Spring Mix. My hands were stiff, fingers sluggish, struggling to add chunks of bleu cheese. Slicing an onion, forgetting about the cut on my hand, I pushed the knife as if slicing through bone. Felt the wound reopen, a warm gush. What was wrong with me? I stopped cutting, pushed on the bandage to stop the bleeding, leaned on the counter to rest. Sensed movement behind me, a tickle on the nape of my neck. A light kiss —
Excerpted from The Trouble with Charlie by Merry Jones. Copyright © 2013 Merry Jones. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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