by Myles Abroad
Driven by loneliness, how far will one go to get someone's attention.
Someone whistles, and then yells, "Hey, good lookin'!" over the clamour of babbling diners and clattering dishes.
From where I'm sitting in the coffee shop - thronged with the feeding frenzy of lunch time traffic - most people ignore the call, lost in their world of gossip, food and coffee. Some look around as though hoping they're the chosen one. Not me. I don't turn, or blush like I see other women do-nope, I never do. No one in their right mind would ever call me that.
As far back as I can remember, I learned my 'looks' were a long way from being called 'good'. My frizzled brown hair, Groucho Marx eyebrows, blotchy complexion, chicken lips and an anorexic figure ruled that out. Hey, don't pity me, I'm not anorexic-no way. I just have an overactive thyroid and 'looks', well, they're just 'looks'; and you know how deep they go.
Sitting across from me, though, my older sister peers up, sliding a hand through her lustrous raven hair, pinning it behind her ear. The cluster of diamonds on her engagement ring glitters in the sunlight, pouring through the window, but it doesn't stop her from basking in the attention. Her face dimples, smiling at the compliment, her full red lips parting to reveal perfectly straight, pearly-white teeth. The flirt could be a L'Orl model, which she is about to be, judging by the contract offer on the table before me.
I grit my crooked teeth; she got the sex-appeal genes, but me, I got the brains. It's like our drunken Dad used to say on the rare occasions he spoke either me or Christy. After studying us with glazed eyes while he sat in his smelly, rag-bag armchair even a junkyard dog would slink away from, he'd rhyme, "Mary Jane, thin and plain. Little Miss Christy, dumb and ditsy." Shaking his head, he'd mumble something else our young ears should have never heard, and then take another slug of bourbon to kill his disappointment. At least we know where we stand, and we play to our strengths.
"Christy," I say, snapping my fingers to drag her attention away from her admirer. Making room to study the contract, I stack my empty coffee mug on the plate with the crumbling crusts of my BLT and push it aside. "They're offerin' you a good deal, but I don't like the exclusivity clause."
Christy bunches her eyebrows together, dimpling her forehead, in that goofy way she has while concentrating. I just hope she doesn't forget to breathe. "What does that mean?" she asks me.
Taking a deep breath, I count to ten, so I don't explode. It's frustrating to keep answering the same questions, but this has been our pattern for the last five years since we fled our backwoods squalor. "It means that for the twelve months of the contract, you can't work for anyone else. I would get them to either drop the clause or up their offer by $20k."
She nods as I return her contract. "OK, Jane. I sure hope they agree to that."
"Stick to your guns." I start to chuckle then, thinking of the TV ad. "It's like they're always sayin', 'Because you're worth it.'"
Furrows crease Christy's forehead as her eyebrows make their ascent. "They are?"
I roll my eyes, not wanting to explain the joke, but my heart skips a beat when a new customer grabs my attention. "Christy, look, the guy that's coming in now. He's the one I was telling you about."
She looks across the talking heads as a heavy-set man with receding black hair, sprouting dark stubble, pushes through the door. He wipes his forehead, showing off a damp underarm patch, soiling his white shirt. Scanning the crowd, he freezes when he sees us watching him. Dropping his head, he shuffles to join the long take-out queue, giving us a final backward glance.
Christy gapes at me, slumping down in her seat and folding her arms across her generous bosom like she's trying to hide from him. "That was weird. Looks like a creep."
I'm nodding like a bobblehead in an earthquake. "That's one problem Dad wouldn't ever think I'd have." I say, fighting a smile playing on my lips.
It sounds kind of weird, but in some sick way, I'm pleased to have a stalker. My mom used to say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but I never met anyone who saw me in that way-until now. Why, imagine beautiful me, the object of some twisted fetish.
Sis studies me, her eyes as big as baseballs. "How long has this been goin' on?"
"A couple of weeks. He started workin' at the office about a month ago. I've never talked to him, but I catch him watchin' me. Then I started to notice he always follows me to work, and then home."
"Well, maybe he lives near you."
"Yeah. That's what I thought too, until after a couple of days of it. I had just walked into my apartment lobby after work and was checkin' my mail when I noticed him standin' outside watchin' me through the window."
Christy's face breaks into a grin. "Oh, Jane, I think you're bein' a little paranoid. He might have been lookin' at anything."
Feeling my anger start to simmer, I swipe at spilled sugar on the table. She thinks I'm too ugly to rate a stalker. "Yeah, well, why does he seem to turn up everywhere I go? I even changed from my regular restaurants and bars and he still finds me." I give the perv a meaningful glance, watching him fidget like he's looking to cut the line. "Like now. This is the first time we've come here and guess who shows up."
Her face flushes. She stares at the deviant who must feel her anger boring between his shoulder blades, since he turns to look at us. Realising we're watching him, he glances away and tries to push in front of some folk like he's avoiding us. "Jane," my sister says, giving me her full attention as she grabs my hand, "I'm gonna get Brad to sort him out."
Brad's her fianc I don't know how she did it, but she reeled in a choice catch: cute, built like a bull-moose and brains to go with it. He could, and he would exterminate my pest if Christy said so, but he's way too smart for me to want him involved.
Trying to match her concerned stare, I shake my head. "Nah, Christy. It's OK, I'll fix this up."
I wince when Christy squeezes my hand, her eyes glittering. "Jane, you're not taking this seriously. People like that are dangerous and gotta be..."
"Really, Christy, I got this." My sisters mouth slowly closes, and I race ahead to distract her. "You OK to meet me later at Danny McCarthy's."
She groups her eyebrows together and gives a slow nod. "Yeah, but a sports bar? That's not like you. Where'd you hear about this place?"
"Oh, someone at work. They say it's got a mean grill." Glancing again at my nervous predator, my heart races when I realise he's being served. Needing to leave, now, I spout the first excuse that comes to mind, "I gotta get back to work."
Christy squints at me. "But you got plenty of time."
"I'm sorry," I say, wrenching my hand from her grasp. Shaking the circulation back into my fingers, I bustle from my chair. "It's just, I'm real busy, you know how it is. I'll see ya tonight." Grabbing my purse, I flee the coffee shop, leaving the huntsman in my dust.
Turning into the office building, I look over my shoulder and I'm surprised my tail has closed the distance. He's only a block away now. I bound up the stairs, two at a time, to the second floor where I bundle through the tall glass doors of our office. Cool air washes over me as I glance at the row of empty desks, forming reception for the maze of offices on our floor, all belonging to Pearlman & Gratham Law Associates. Only Carol, who's my office neighbour and supervisor, remains, working through her lunch break, her glasses reflecting the computer screen she's glued to.
I collapse at my desk, trying to catch my breath as I watch the entrance. Carol glances over her spectacles at me. Her piercing green eyes drill into me, a stare that would make you admit you had taken the last slice of pie, the one saved for your sister, even if you hadn't.
"You're back early, Jane. You should take your time over lunch, especially when we're not busy."
I raise my hand, nodding, unable to talk through my gasping breath.
"Are you alright, Jane?" she asks, swivelling around to me in her chair. She stabs her pencil through her bun of steely grey hair and folds her hands on her lap. Like she has raised five children, Carol rules us with motherly, yet iron discipline. It might seem strange, but I kind of like it, having a mother figure in my life, that is, someone who gives a damn about me instead of laying all day in bed, depressed.
I take a deep breath and spit out, "I'm OK, but I'm bein' followed again." I nod towards the entryway as my pursuer arrives, holding a coffee and a takeaway bag. Carol follows my gaze and purses her lips, the frown lines on her face deepening as he backs through the doors. When he turns, his dark eyes balloon, pausing under our stare. He darts around the corner of the hallway, bumping into a lady, laden with an armload of files, scattering them and sloshing coffee. I can't help but chuckle as he drops on all fours, gathering the spilled papers, swatting at the spilled coffee and then, cradling his lunch, he staggers into a frantic run, reminding me of a scrabbling chipmunk chased by a hungry dog.
Carol looks at me, her brow wrinkling with what I hope are lines of concern and worry, then stands up, smoothing her skirts. "What's this-three, four times this has happened? I'm going to put a stop to this, Jane."
When I realise what she intends to do, my stomach lurches. I clutch her arm. "Please, Carol. It's alright. I'll deal with this," I plead with her, sweat breaking out on my forehead.
Studying me, Carol dips her head and gives me a thin smile. "OK, dear. You're a sensible one, just make sure you do, or I will." I force a smile and then turn to my laptop, breathing a sigh of relief. I nearly overplayed it as the victim.
Arriving early, I stroll onto Oak St. In the fading light, I can't help but see the illuminated sign for Danny McCarthy's, spelled out in green on a white background and clich with a garnish of shamrocks above the entrance. Beer brands, advertised in garish neon lighting, flicker at me through tinted windows, stirring up memories of the seedy joints Dad lived in. As I'm hesitating, a cool, refreshing breeze caresses me, convincing me to wait for Christy outside on a bench.
Sitting peacefully, I savour the street's vibrant atmosphere. Its mix of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, fills the warm evening with an aroma of grilling meat, spices and peppers. Streetlights turn on in the deepening evening and the air feels alive with excitement and romance. I tingle with anticipation, watching couples, arm in arm, ramble to and from their destinations, their heads bent towards each other in a loving murmur.
Despite the walls I surround myself with, seeing couples content in each other's company always stabs me with loneliness. My thoughts drift to the man giving me 'special' attention, I try to imagine what he would be like to talk to. I figure he's shy, too timid to speak to me. But if he got to know me, would he understand me, laugh at my jokes, care about my ideas? I try to picture what it would be like to have 'that someone special', to have James.
That's right, he has a name. I'm curious too, and I can be a sleuth. Last night, I strolled this street and saw him walk into this bar, alone. Was he lonely? New in town and desperately looking for company? Perhaps he would turn up here again. Maybe he would see me and just maybe he would have the courage to...
I'm startled from my musings when the bar door opens, briefly spilling the clamour of raised voices and laughter onto the street. Glancing up, my heart leaps when the man at the centre of my obsession strides over to me, glaring. Still in the same sweat-stained shirt, he puts his hands on his hips. Gripped with fear, I freeze like a cornered deer, glancing up and down the dark, busy street. I lick my lips and return his stare. He won't dare touch me here.
"What the hell kind of game you playin'?" he hisses.
"What?" I rally back, my heart hammering.
"Everywhere I go; you turn up. Are you stalkin' me?"
Standing up, I clench my hands into fists. "How dare you. You're the one always followin' me. I walk to work, you're behind me. I go home, and there you are, a few paces back."
He steps in close, but I stand firm, resisting the urge to step back as I bristle. Despite my racing heart, I'm not going to show my fear, nor be intimidated. This close to him, I realise he's only my height, then his eye-watering stench hits me like a wave: stale sweat and garlic. Closing my eyes, I step back, happy now to give him space.
Sneering, he rolls his eyes and shakes a finger at me. "I live a couple of blocks down from you. I've no choice but to walk that way!"
I blink in the face of his spit infused outburst. Lifting my chin, I scrutinize him, noticing dirt smudges on his shirt, the buttons straining to hold in his belly. Then, in a calm voice I jab him with, "Well, how do you explain when I caught you watchin' me when I was checkin' my mail?"
He shakes his head and throws his arms up, shouting, "I can't believe I'm having this conversation. I was readin' a sign stuck to the window, someone sellin' a couch."
His words deflate me, was it all really a coincidence? The outrage I see in his eyes convinces me of my stupidity. I was so sure, pleased to be noticed, even if it was in a weird way. I found out what I could about him, visiting the bars and restaurants he preferred, hoping he would be there, to feel his eyes on me. It was exhilarating. Now I feel like puking. Who's twisted, now?
Retreating another step, I hug myself, finding it hard to look him in the eyes as I try to explain. "Look, I'm sorry. I thought, maybe you found somethin' attractive about me..." I drop my head, not wanting to watch him laugh. "I feel like such a fool. I'll leave you alone," I say, shoving past him.
Putting his hand on my shoulder, I'm shocked when he says in a gentle tone, "Wait." Turning, I meet his gaze; the anger has slipped from his face, his dark eyes are open, inviting, could they even be forgiving? Giving me a half smile, he puts out his hand. "I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot. I'm James Stevens."
Surprised at his generosity, I return his smile and shake hands. "I'm Jane Robinson. It's nice to finally meet you."
Chuckling, he swipes at the sweat glistening on his bald patch. "I feel strangely complimented. I've never had a woman pay me this much attention." Relief washes over me; James actually understands how I feel. He nods at the bar entrance. "You have time for a drink?"
Despite my longing, now faced with the offer of his company, I'm about as reluctant as a dog going to the vet, kind of like jumping a gorge that's a little too wide. Looking over my shoulder, I wonder what's holding Sis up.
When I look back at him he's lost his smile as he brushes at the smears on his shirt. "I'm sorry, Jane. I--I got held up after work and didn't get to change, then I-I had a flat tyre on the way here. I'm a mess."
My heart sinks, watching him. I've never turned anyone down before, but I know what it feels like to get dumped on my bony-you know what. I can't help but feel sorry for him. Giving him, what I hope, is an understanding smile, I touch his arm to reassure him, saying, "Don't worry about that, James. It's just, I'm waitin' for my sister."
He stops dabbing at his shirt and puts his hands in his pocket. "I understand," he says, taking a step towards the door. The doleful look in his eyes reminds me of my daddy's sad hound, pulling at my guilt. The smart thing to do is to let him go. I don't know him. It's like Carol says, I'm sensible-I'm also alone.
He hesitates, giving me a hopeful smile as his face flushes. "You--you could wait for her inside."
Oh, to heck with being sensible, I grumble to myself. What has it ever got me, anyways? "You're right, I can do that. I'll text her."
It's like his face lights up as bright as a full moon when he hears me. "You will?" he says, opening the door for me. "You oughta try the garlic chicken in this place. It's real good."
Well that explains the garlic, I thought, growling at myself for being so judgemental. Pushing through the bar's inner door, I catch his reflection in the glass, distorting his smile into a hungry, spine-chilling look, reminding me of the hall of mirrors at the amusement parks.
Entering the dark interior, lit with soft lamps and multiple large screen TV's, showing an Ice Hockey game, I'm surprised the place is packed. My surprise turns to dismay when the crowd erupts in wild cheering, arms flailing, people jumping and hugging each other, like a bunch of Pentecostals at a revival meeting. Stupidly, I remember now the Bruins are in the play-offs, and here I am in a sports bar on the outskirts of Boston. I hate hockey. In fact, I hate watching all sports. That's all my old man ever did, booze and sports.
Grinning at me, James takes me by the arm, shouting over the bedlam, "The Bruins are winnin'. I was in a hurry to watch it here. Let's find a quieter place at the bar."
"Oh-great," I mutter, hoping he doesn't hear my sarcasm. One drink and I'm out of here, even if Christy doesn't show, I seethe as we elbow our way through the rapturous fans. My first date-if I can stretch to call it that-and I have to share it with a hockey game.
We circle the bar, a dark mahogany counter with its deep reddish hues, beautifully polished, and running in a horseshoe shape through the premises. On the far side, next to a wall, we find a couple of empty stools. While, James is rivetted on the game I text Christy to let her know where I am.
Taking in my surroundings, my impression of the place grows. Sports paraphernalia adorns the walls and hangs above the bar: an autographed Bruins shirt next to a picture of Tom Brady, standing with who I figure is the bar owner, then a signed picture of Tiger Woods. I can go on, but I'll only show my ignorance.
When our drinks arrive, I'm amazed when James turns to me, ignoring the game. Wow, what a guy, preferring to talk to me instead of watching that racket!
In no time, we slip into effortless banter. James has a light and easy way of talking. I laugh at his stories and when I speak, he gives me all his attention, as though what I have to say is the most interesting thing he ever heard.
As I'm finishing my drink, my phone rings. I step outside, to take Christy's call. She's apologetic and frantic, she won't make it, giving the excuse of two flat tyres. A likely story-what is it with tyres, anyways-but she overcooks the tale when she claims someone slashed them. Talk about being paranoid. I hold my peace and tell her how bad I feel for her, but really, I'm relieved. My earlier misgivings are completely unfounded; James is a great guy and I feel a connection budding. The evening's shaping into something far beyond my wildest fantasies.
Returning to the bar, I let James know Christy won't be able to make it. His dark eyes glitter and a smile spreads across his face as he asks if I want to stay on to keep him company.
Why wouldn't I? He orders another round of drinks with appetizers, while I excuse myself to the lady's room.
I'm feeling sluggish and more than a little dizzy. I look at my glass trying to remember how much I've drunk. I know I had one before Christy called, and then another after; was this the same one, or were there more? There must be more...
I burp a noxious vapour of garlic. That garlic chicken sure is nice going down but it's a different tune on the way back up. I must have caused a lull in the conversation while I was studying my drink, because my considerate man--that's right, my man--says, "Are you OK, Mary?"
Looking back at him with a sheepish smile, I try to reassure him. "Sure..." Then, in the fog of intoxication, I sense something's wrong-alarming. No one calls me Mary, only Dad did. "Wait, you called me Mary," I say forcefully, but I can hear the slur in my voice.
He smiles, taking a drink. "I did? Sorry, just a slip of the tongue."
I push my beer away. "How'd you know my name's Mary? I never told you that," I croak, my lips finding it hard to form around the words. I want to stand up, but my legs won't cooperate.
James' smile resembles a sneer as his demeanour turns hard. "Mary Jane Robinson. I know a lot about you. You live all by yourself in a tiny one bed. You don't put much stock in your appearance; your wardrobe has nothing but the same dull, frumpy clothing. You don't cook; your cupboards are bare, and your fridge only has rotten milk in it."
I listen in dread. He's been in my apartment, I want to scream, but I can't. I can only utter a whispered, "Why?", as the room begins to swirl; Tiger Woods grins at me, Tom Brady smirks.
He leans forward to listen, then sits up with that hungry look I glimpsed earlier. "Why, Mary Jane, thin and plain, isn't this what you wanted?" My diary, he read my diary. I scream, but the wail doesn't pass my lips. Panicking, I try to push away from the bar but my arms are numb and for the first time, I taste gripping fear. He gives a nasty laugh. "Yup, I read all the dirty little secrets in your diary. You don't know how pleased I was when you started to write about me."
I try to snatch back my hand when he takes it between his. He chuckles at my feeble effort as he presses in close, his lips inches from my ear. "Mary, Mary, I was thrilled when you spelled out how you hoped to see me here tonight-you and Christy." Sitting up, he traces a finger along my jaw line, then cocks his head. "I wonder what happened to your sister."
As reality dims, my logic pushes to the surface like a dawning bell toll, driving a chill down my spine: Christy wasn't lying, slashed tyres, smudges on a white shirt, 'I had a flat tyre on the way here.' I whimper as he runs his fingers through my hair, strokes my cheek and then gently kisses my lips. "It's time to go, Mary. You drank way too much. I guess I'll get the barkeep to help me get you to my car."
A tear slips down my cheek as terror rages through me. The little girl inside me shrinks into a ball, hiding while Daddy sings, "Mary Jane, thin and plain". The bar spins and James' twisted grin looms before the dark settles. The noise of the crowd, the TV's and the clink of glass dwindles. Only the sound of a child wailing remains, fading, then silence.