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Sunday, May 6th, 7:00 p.m.
"You'll never believe what wonderful thing he's done now!" Mary Ann exclaimed as she flung open the door of her San Francisco Lake Street apartment to greet Dena and me. Her deep brown eyes glittered with excitement.
Neither Dena nor I had to be told that he was Monty Sanchez, the very successful entrepreneur she had been dating for the past eleven months. He made robotic toys and stuffed animals that nobody needed but every gadget-collecting geek wanted. Like the lifelike seal pup that could recognize faces and dance the samba. That one was a huge hit.
Dena's eyes slowly narrowed as they made their way down to Mary Ann's hands. "What the hell? Why are you wearing long gloves?"
"Because tonight I feel like a princess!" Quickly she hustled us inside.
Dena and I exchanged glances. "She never drinks by herself…so she's probably not drunk," Dena mused.
"Maybe she's sleepwalking?'" I suggested. "We shouldn't wake her. You know what they say—sleepwalkers can get violent when awakened, especially if they're already acting deranged."
Mary Ann stuck her tongue out at us before breaking into a light laugh. "Come in, take your jackets off and I'll tell you all about it."
We followed Mary Ann into her living room, at which point Dena let out a yelp of alarm.
Sitting by the window was a giant orca. A plush orca to be precise, but, based on size alone, it could have given any living juvenile orca a run for its money. It gazed up at us with black oval pupils as if pleading for understanding.
"Don't you get it? A day after I met Monty on the beach in San Diego he took me to SeaWorld for our first real date! He bought me a Shamu to show me how much that day meant to him! Isn't it perfect?"
"Shamu?" Dena repeated, clearly baffled. "God, Mary Ann, he's as big as my love seat!"
"A love seat," Mary Ann repeated, clasping her gloved hands together as she emphasized the second word. "That's perfect. And look! He can act like a love seat, too! See? You can sit on him!"
She plopped down on top of her new pet. Shamu barely budged under her weight, but then again Mary Ann couldn't be over a hundred and ten pounds. It was doubtful that she had the power to crush a baby Chihuahua.
"Is he comfortable?" I asked doubtfully.
"Well, no," Mary Ann admitted. "But I bet the real Shamu isn't all that comfortable either, and the trainers ride him all the time!"
"So now you want to straddle an orca?" Dena laughed.
"Don't be crude! This orca is one of the most romantic gifts Monty has ever given me! Not that you would understand.
Your idea of romance is a pink dildo with a vibrating dove flopping around at the end of it!"
"Don't be ridiculous." Dena waved her hand in the air dis-missively. "They don't make them with doves. You're thinking of the rabbit with the twitching nose…or maybe my rubber ducky vibrator but he's not attached to anything, the vibrator is the duck. You just hold it—"
Mary Ann sucked in a deep breath through her teeth. "You're missing the point!"
Dena shot me a pleading look but I refused to intervene. I have published ten murder mysteries including Fatally Yours, which was currently on the New York Times bestseller list, and I have managed to solve more than one true-crime case before the police could, but debating the emotional significance of a giant plush sea mammal was well beyond my mental capacity.
Mary Ann recognized our silence as a victory and smiled. "There's more."
"Oh?" I asked, trying not to sound apprehensive.
"Yes. Yesterday was our eleven-month anniversary and to celebrate the day Monty put together a whole gift pack with something to remind me of each of the wonderful places he took me to during the first week we were together."
"Wait a minute." Dena adjusted the low cowl neckline of her army-green tank top before dropping down on the flowered couch. "You guys celebrated your eleven-month anniversary? Shouldn't you have waited another month before exchanging gifts?"
"Monty says that would be too continental," Mary Ann explained.
Dena and I were quiet for a moment as we tried to work that one out. "You mean conventional?" I ventured.
"Isn't that what I said?"
Both Dena and I tactfully chose not to answer the question.
Mary Ann shrugged and got back up to her feet. "You want to see what else he got me?"
"Can I have a second to think about that?" Dena teased.
Mary Ann rolled her eyes and went to the mantel of her mock fireplace. Carefully she picked up a snow globe that I hadn't seen before.
"Check it out, it's two flamingos like the ones we saw at Wild Animal Park! Isn't it cute the way their heads are pressed together so their necks form a heart? And he had it engraved and everything! Look!" She pointed to the little plaque on the front of the snow globe. "M & M! For Monty and Mary Ann! He says that life with me is just as sweet as the candy. Isn't that cute?"
Neither of us said anything for a moment and then Dena turned to me. "Do you have any Tylenol?"
"Oh, come on." Mary Ann smacked Dena on the arm with a tad too much force to be considered playful. "It's sweet! You think it's sweet, don't you, Sophie?"
"Well," I hedged, "it's certainly unconventional. I mean, well, they put flamingos in a snow globe. I'm not judging or anything but…wouldn't penguins be somewhat more appropriate?"
"Penguins can't make their necks look like a heart!"
"Actually they sort of can—"
"No, they can't!"
"Oh. Okay." I sank back as Dena muttered swearwords under her breath.
"And I'm sure that flamingos would love the snow if they ever had the chance to play in it!" Mary Ann continued. "Humans aren't the only ones who like to mix things up, you know!"
I nodded quickly to show that I was willing to concede the point. Of course it wasn't the flamingos that I had difficulty with despite their peculiar climatic versatility, it was the inscription. Comparing a relationship to the sweetness of M & Ms?
If Anatoly ever said something like that to me I'd whack him over the head with a toothbrush.
Dena lifted her fingers to the bridge of her nose as Mary Ann replaced the globe and crossed to the other side of the room. But this time what she pointed to was a rather interesting and well-rendered piece of modern art that she had hung high above her low bookcase. The blue backdrop perfectly offset the bold black and white strokes that graced the canvas.
Dena immediately perked up. "Monty gave you that?" she asked. "It's actually pretty cool!"
"Isn't it?" Mary Ann looked up at the painting lovingly. "It was painted by an orangutan at the San Diego Zoo!"
Dena opened her mouth, then closed it, then started rocking slowly back and forth like a mental patient trying to comfort herself. "Maybe I should pour us all something to drink," I suggested hopefully. "Something strong."
"In a minute," Mary Ann promised. "First I have to show you this."
She crossed to the side table by the couch and lifted up a delicate little treasure box. It was made of porcelain and was as smooth and beautiful as Mary Ann's complexion. On its lid stood a small figurine of Tinker Bell. Her delicate but spirited face was upturned and her little wand was arched high above her head as if she was trying to command the stars to dance.
"It's pretty," Dena begrudgingly admitted.
Mary Ann nodded solemnly. "It's Lennox. It was at Disneyland that I knew I was truly in love with him. Tinker Bell flew over Sleeping Beauty's castle and the sky lit up with fireworks.…" Her voice trailed off and she took a deep, shaky breath. "He kissed me then and the way I felt when I was in his arms…the entire experience just opened my eyes to a whole new world!"
Dena grabbed my wrist and gave it an urgent squeeze. "She's going to burst into song!" she hissed. "It's like some kind of nightmarish scene from Mamma Mia!"
Mary Ann shot her a quick dirty look. "I'm not going to sing. But it was magic. Disney magic. And whatever you may think of it, that magic woke me up to what an amazing guy I had standing next to me… holding my hand. And now just look at us! We're living the fairy tale!"
"The Disney version or the Brothers Grimm?" Dena asked.
"Why do you always have to be like this?" Mary Ann snapped. "You and I both know that Disney never made a movie about any brothers named Grimm and if you're talking about Brother Bear, well, that movie wasn't romantic at all!"
As they continued to argue I picked up the Lennox box. There was room in it for something small… and possibly very valuable.
"Mary Ann," I asked carefully, "was there anything in here when he gave this to you?'"
Mary Ann, who had been yelling at Dena, abruptly stopped… and blushed.
"Is that the reason you're wearing the gloves?" I persisted.
Her blush deepened and she pulled off her right glove and then her left. None of us moved a muscle as we collectively stared down at the large heart-shaped ruby on a simple platinum band.
"Oh. My. God." They were the only words I could manage.
Dena's eyes widened slowly and the fine lines of surprise popped up on her forehead one by one. "Mary Ann," Dena breathed, "is that what I think it is?"
Mary Ann only nodded, her eyes still on her ring.
"But you've only known him for—"
"We've known each other for almost a year." She looked up at Dena, her anger replaced with a gut-wrenching vulnerability. "I am totally and absolutely in love with him."
Dena pressed her lips together and I found myself holding my breath as we all waited for further reaction. Dena was the sole proprietor of an upscale sex shop and she was currently involved in a polyamorous relationship with two guys and a hippie chick named Amelia. The very idea that she was going to be able to embrace her cousin's acceptance of a heart-shaped gemstone presented in a Tinker Bell box seemed preposterous. But it was also necessary. For Mary Ann, Dena was more than a cousin, she was the older sister she never had, and despite all their differences she would want her blessing.
Dena took Mary Ann's hand and lifted the ruby to the light. "It's a good quality rock," Dena said as she tilted the gem this way and that. "It's almost like glass and the red is fantastic. It's Burmese?"
Again Mary Ann nodded. "It's over a full carat. He got it from Goldberry's on Sacramento Street…you know Bob Dylan's former longtime girlfriend designed it. I thought you'd like that. I thought maybe… maybe you could be happy for me?"
Dena took in another deep breath and then looked straight into Mary Ann's eyes.
"You tell him that if he ever hurts you I will get a rock five times this size and shove it up his ass. Got it?"
And that was Dena-speak for "I'll support you in this." Mary Ann threw her arms around Dena's neck and burst into tears. "I love you so much," she sobbed.
"Hey," I said, gently nudging Mary Ann as she loosened her grip on Dena. "I'd shove a rock up a guy's ass if he hurt you, too, you know."
"Like Monty could ever hurt anyone." Mary Ann laughed and gave me a swift, hard hug. "He's not like the other guys I've dated. He is always so kind and gentle and he would never cheat on me. Not in a million years."
"Ah." Dena stood up and crossed her arms across her chest. "So what you're saying is he's not like Rick. Is that asshole still calling you?"
Mary Ann pressed her ringed hand against her chest and looked away. It had been almost exactly one year since Mary Ann had found her now-ex-boyfriend Rick Wilkes in the arms of Fawn, the rather lively and ironically named female taxidermist. It had been a particularly tragic discovery since it had not only ruined Mary Ann's relationship but also her love of natural history museums.
"Rick calls occasionally. He even happened to call the night Monty proposed. Can you believe that? He actually thinks we can be friends or something." She shook her head in disgust. "Monty's nothing like Rick and not just because he's faithful. Monty sees the world differently. He's so… hopeful and enthusiastic about everything. He makes life more fun and…Dena, he makes me so happy! And now you're both happy for me like I knew you would be…or I thought you would be…or…I hoped. I guess I didn't really know what to expect. Neither of you believe in marriage."
"That's not true," I protested, perhaps a bit louder than was necessary. "I just don't believe in marriage for me…not a second time."
"But that was with Scott," Mary Ann reminded me. "If you married Anatoly—"
"Okay, seriously?" I asked. "The man hasn't even given up his apartment! Did you know that? He won't even sublet it to someone who plans on staying for more than six months!"
"But you've said that Anatoly never actually sleeps there," Mary Ann pointed out. "He always stays with you—"
"And according to him that's what really matters," I practically yelled. "As far as I'm concerned what matters is that he resorts to bullshit justifications in order to explain himself."
Dena raised her eyebrows. "So what you're saying is you had another argument earlier today."
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I was getting off course. "Anatoly and I love each other and we'll work it all out. But as for marriage… it just isn't our thing. You're different, Mary Ann. You were meant to be a bride with a killer dress and all the rest of it. Don't you think, Dena?"
Dena took Tinker Bell into her hand and ran her finger over each of her curves and angles as if searching for some clue to her magic. "It took me thirty-three years to find the willpower to limit myself to two men," Dena said slowly. "And there are days and nights…lots of nights, when I wonder if I'm going to be able to keep it up without throwing some new guy into the mix. So marriage…" She sighed and cast a dubious glance at Shamu. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully wrap my mind around why so many people think it's so friggin' fantastic. But if it's what you really want—"
"More than anything," whispered Mary Ann.
"Well, that's something I can celebrate, a woman getting what she wants. Particularly if that woman is you."
"Have I ever told you that you're the best?"
Dena smiled. "Not even once. Can we drink now?"
Mary Ann bounced up and down on her toes as if she was preparing to jump off a diving board. "I have a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge."