The slamming of doors had occupied far too much of her existence of late. Life-shattering moments heralded by explosive sounds. Vicki’s life had always been calm and controlled, serene and orderly. Suddenly her life came with sound effects.
The day had already been miserable. The end of employment for her and hundreds of others as Axion closed its doors for the last time. That she’d become the face of Axion, Inc., was no longer a surprise, but that didn’t mean it hurt any less to be shunned by the others as everyone said their good-byes. It was the downside of being the last executive standing, she knew.
Let Alan stomp off to the bedroom. They had always kept their disagreements behind closed doors, sparing the children on those few occasions when they actually got riled up enough to have an argument. She was going to have to get rid of her physical baggage before they dealt with the emotional kind.
“Goddammit, Alan. So I forgot to tell you about the trip. Shoot me. I’ve had a lot going on lately, in case you hadn’t noticed.” She spoke to the closed door, certain he was still fuming behind it.
She dropped the box of her personal effects on the floor of her home office with a loud thunk
, having cleared the last of her pictures, plaques, and mementos before locking the door at Axion for the last time. She stormed across the hall to their bedroom, ready to finish the argument he’d walked away from. Sure enough, he was standing, arms crossed and eyes glaring, when she entered the room. As she walked toward him, he stepped around her and reached for the door she’d left open. He closed it firmly and leaned against it, looking irritated but also smug.
“I thought it would be a nice escape. Sorry for assuming you’d want to get away.” Quiet sarcasm was her weapon of choice.
“That’s your thing, Vick. Little escapes. And you leave me here to keep things together. Well, I’m done with it. Done being your maid, your cook, your babysitter... I’m escaping for real. For good.” Standing with his arms crossed, it occurred to her that it was the most decisive she’d seen him in ages.
“What the hell are you talking about, Alan?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper. Kevin was only down the hall, and she didn’t want him to hear any of this. Hell, she
didn’t want to hear any of it.
“I can’t do this anymore. I want more than a roommate. I need
more than that.”
She crossed the room, wanting to touch him, make sure he was real...that any of it was real. He pulled away from her, his hand on the doorknob.
“But today was it. Closing day. It’s finally over. We can make things work between us. See someone...I don’t know, take time to get to know each other again. Something. This has been rough on all of us, but you can’t leave us.”
His face hardened, but his shoulders slouched.
“Kevin is coming with me,” he murmured.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she practically screamed, decorum and privacy be damned.
“We talked about it, and he wants to come with me. We’re only moving to Saratoga Street. You can still see--”
Tears streamed down her face, but her eyes blazed. “Are you telling me that my seventeen-year-old son knew you were leaving me before I did, you bastard?” Her voice was cold as heat spread through her, her face flushing furiously. “You miserable, sorry son of a bitch. How dare
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this, Vick. Such a fucking control freak. Is that all you care about? Who knew
?” He opened the door, then slammed it shut and turned back to her, the glare he’d focused on her freezing her response in her throat. “You’d be amazed
who knew.” Turning to leave, the repeat of the slamming door in the room was followed by the far more substantive crash and rattle of the front door as it closed, shaking the house and Vicki at their foundations.
She pulled herself together and walked slowly to Kevin’s room. Instead of Kevin, she found a duffel bag open on his bed, drawers open and hangers strewn everywhere. Searching the house, she realized he’d left with Alan. The enormity of the thought--Kevin left me too
--crushed her, and she slid to the floor amid the detritus of a seventeen-year-old boy’s life. A seventeen-year-old boy who didn’t want her.
Kelly found her there not too long after.
“Dad called. He wanted me to make sure you were okay.”
Vicki gazed up at her, suddenly knowing Kelly had gotten the memo before her as well. Her daughter looked pale and tired. She didn’t enter the room, hovering in the doorway as if she’d been sent to visit a sick relative she didn’t like very much.
Rising slowly and straightening her clothes, Vicki swiped at the tears that wouldn’t stop and took a deep breath. “Kelly, I’m so sorry. It’s just...it’s temporary. We’ll work it out.”
“No, Mom. You won’t.” The tears began to stream down her daughter’s face, and it struck Vicki that they must look even more alike than usual in that moment.
“You can’t believe your father would just leave us like that, can you?”
“You left us first.”
“Oh, baby, no. Please don’t say that. I know I haven’t been perfect, but I love you. I love your brother. I love your fa--”
“Don’t! Just don’t say it, Mom. It’s all a giant mess, and you let it get this way.” She rubbed the tears furiously with her shirtsleeve before running down the hall. Another door slam. Another rattle of windowpanes. Another crack in Vicki’s heart.
Wandering aimlessly through the house, Vicki realized that not only were Kevin’s things gone, but Alan’s were as well. Whatever this was, he’d planned it in advance. The anger and frustration she’d seen on his face had surprised her. It wasn’t Alan’s style; he rarely got emotional, rarely lost his temper, and rarely made a decision without her.
Not like he was going to consult with you on this one, Vick.
No, Vicki was always the one with the temper, always the one with the opinion...and now she was alone.
She thought about her marriage, about how things had gone so horribly wrong without her noticing.
So many major decisions had been made lately. First the plant she’d helped to run for over five years was slated to be shut down, yet another victim of the high cost of running a manufacturing operation in the Northeast. She’d let the family decide whether to accept the offer of relocation to Virginia, and Alan and the kids had put their collective feet down. She’d moved them enough, and they were tired of it. “We’re staying>.”
Of course, that was then. Obviously now they’re going, even if it is just across town.
Kevin was about to be a senior in high school, so she could understand why moving--again
--was not on the top of his list of things to do. Kelly was going to college part-time and had a job of her own, as well as a relatively likeable boyfriend that Alan had finally accepted as part of the inevitable march of his little girl toward adulthood. She had no desire to leave, but no means to stay by herself; naturally, she was against the idea.
Alan’s reaction was the one that surprised her.
With all the moving around, he’d been working as a consultant since the kids were little. It was easier than finding a new day care place or after-school programs, and he was more nurturing than she was, anyway. At least that’s what he’d told her, and her current state of affairs certainly seemed to support that theory.
Leading the plant shutdown had taken its toll on Vicki. There were months of long hours to prepare for the transfer of work, followed by an intense sixty days for the final closing activities. Announcements, severance packages...plenty of incredibly unpopular work to keep her busy. And extremely lonely.
Most of the employees had worked for Axion for twenty years or more. Nobody ever
left. Where would they go? Axion was the biggest employer in town. Had
been the biggest, she reminded herself.
As the months of preparation and weeks of frantic activity wore on, she’d withdrawn from her husband. Being honest with herself, she knew things between them had been strained for far longer than that, but it never occurred to her that Alan would leave her. He’d always just been there
, and she realized now that she’d taken advantage of his reliability and the sheer convenience of him for far too long.
Planning this trip had been the one luxury she’d afforded herself during all the hard work. Naturally, she’d planned on going with Alan, but--as he pointed out when he’d refused to go--she’d never even told him about it. Not that it was planned as a surprise. She just never seemed to get around to it, and figured when he saw the airfare hit the credit card bill, he’d ask and they’d talk about it.
Well, she’d cancel the trip and figure out how to put her life back together, that’s all.
Vicki went to her office and put away the things she’d brought home in the box. When the box was empty, she started to break it down for recycling and had a sudden thought that she might need packing boxes. Then she began to sob, and continued to sob for what felt like forever.
* * *
The phone woke her and she answered in a haze.
“Are you mad at me, Mom?”
Kevin’s voice, which had the deep timbre of a man with the lingering hesitancy of a little boy, shook her from her stupor.
She rushed to reassure him. “Of course not, sweetie. This has nothing to do with you. It’s between your father and me, and we’ll--”
He sniffed, and she could tell he’d been crying.
“But it’s all my fault--”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said sharply. “I don’t ever want you to think that, do you understand?” But something in his voice made her analyze what he was saying. As she made the connection, she held her hand to her mouth to stifle the sob that threatened to escape, and she quickly ended the call, telling Kevin she’d call him later.
She pressed the button on the phone to confirm her suspicions. The caller ID provided the final clue to the end of her marriage. Kevin’s best friend’s house. Kevin’s best friend lived on Saratoga Street. And his best friend had a divorced mother. Alan had found solace in the arms of another woman.
Perhaps Alan was better at decision making than she had given him credit for.
* * *
Vicki settled into her seat on the plane, still numb.
This trip should have been a fun escape for the two of them. A reward for making it through the most horrible professional experience of her life. A break before she started a job search during the worst economy in her memory. Should have been.
She had finally accepted the change in circumstance; when she’d realized Alan had moved on, she decided not to cancel her trip after all. She’d actually found some dim pleasure in the fact that she was guaranteed to have an open seat next to her on the plane, something she realized as she packed her suitcase.
The lanky man seated at the window watched every passenger coming up the aisle, his hand resting almost possessively on the empty seat between them. She recognized the familiar prayer of the frequent traveler in his eyes: Please don’t let them sit here.
As the plane grew more and more full, Vicki decided to put him out of his misery.
“Don’t worry. None of them are taking this seat,” she whispered conspiratorially.
The look of surprise on his face brought her attention to his eyes. He was one of those men people would say was “distinguished looking,” which to Vicki was nature’s greatest cruelty. Average-looking men who aged well became distinguished
. Average-looking women who aged well just became...well, old.
“Are you psychic?” he asked, giving her a teasing smile. When he smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkled slightly. It had been an incredibly long time since she’d had any kind of sexual stimulation with another person in the room, and the alcohol she’d consumed while waiting for her flight to be called had reminded her that she was horny.
Get yourself under control, Vicki.
“I could tell you I was, but you’d figure out pretty quickly that I’m not. And I don’t want you to think I’m a liar,” she said, smiling back. She cleared her throat, swallowing the discomfort that threatened to escape as a whimper or maybe a sob. “I was supposed to take this trip with someone, and he didn’t come. So it’s technically my seat too.” She turned to look up the aisle, berating herself for oversharing.
“He’s an idiot,” the man said gruffly.
Stunned at his response, she turned to look at him with wary eyes. “He’s not an idiot.” Things might have gone sideways for them, but Alan was the father of her children and had been her companion for almost all her adult life. This stranger was not going to insult him. Yeah, Vick. That’s a privilege you reserve for yourself.
His eyes held hers until she couldn’t take anymore; she looked down at the empty seat between them and wondered why she felt so angry.
“He’s most definitely an idiot. If it was schedules, you’d have rebooked. That means you’re not together anymore, and he didn’t give you time to invite anyone else. Ipso facto, he’s an idiot. You’re still defending him, in spite of his actions, so you clearly cared about him, which means he took advantage of someone that he should have been taking care of. Idiot. Quod erat demonstrandum
.” His voice never raised, but it became deeper and held her in rapt attention. She didn’t flinch as he brushed his hand lightly on her arm, one fingertip trailing down to the back of her hand. “No matter what happened, he hurt you.”
The skin where he’d touched her grew warm, and a flush ran through her, starting at that point of contact and spreading up her arm to pinken her cheeks.
Just as quickly, he took his hand away, breaking whatever spell he’d woven to ensnare her. Trying to change the mood, she commented, “That’s a lot of Latin in one comment. What are you, a lawyer?”
He snorted. “Math teacher. But I minored in dead languages.” He smirked at her, which flustered her even more.
The silence was awkward, but she found herself wrapped up in what he’d said. Mr. 22F didn’t know anything, really, and had been wrong about a lot of things, but he’d started a tiny little ember of anger at what Alan had done. An ember that smoldered throughout the flight, as she buried herself in her e-reader and tried to pretend she was reading.
Eventually she dozed, waking somewhat refreshed and in need of a plan.
She decided she was damned if she’d be alone; she was going to spend her vacation with anyone she wanted, be anyone she wanted, and do anything--or anyone - she wanted.
Flushing at the last thought, she made a promise to herself: no tears. Alan had left her, had gone to another woman, and she wasn’t going to cry over him anymore. Not for this week, anyway. She could go back to New York and mourn her marriage in a week, but this time would be hers to explore. Perhaps she might even find a new direction. She needed...a mission statement.
Using the keypad on her e-reader, she typed her mission statement as the plane approached the tiny island. Modeling it on Axion’s mission statement, which in hindsight proved she hadn’t sobered nearly as much as she thought she had during the flight, she declared to herself:
Victoria Leigh Simpson, Inc., will create and maintain an environment where I can meet my potential in an atmosphere of excellence, strive to provide superior service to my customers, cultivate a superior level of integrity in my interactions with partners and associates, and conduct myself in a manner that supports these commitments.
Laughing to herself, she closed the e-reader, having saved the note in the book she’d been reading. The irony that the book was a bit of electronic erotica was not lost on her.
“She laughs.” The voice from 22F startled her.
Her body had tensed at his comment, and she prepared to make a smart remark, but she remembered her mission statement. Might as well try it out on Professor Math. He helped inspire it, after all.
Vicki turned to him and smiled broadly. “Just needed to find the proper attitude, that’s all. I’m on vacation. It’s time to have a little fun.”
* * *
Sex in a bathroom? With a stranger whom she knew only as 22F? Thank God he was only stopping in Aruba on his way to Bon-Aire. As he hurried away to catch the puddle-jumper flight, she waved to him, the sick twist of her stomach turning her weak smile into more of a grimace. She’d felt oddly exhilarated as they’d coupled frantically in the family restroom at the airport. She hadn’t yet reached customs, and she was already disgusted with herself.
As she made her way through the airport, she was grateful for the interlude if only because the majority of the folks on the plane had apparently already rushed through to begin their vacations. There were very few people left in the baggage carousel area. Rolling her suitcase behind her, she made her way to the corridor, suddenly anxious to begin her vacation as well.
Underestimating her own skills, she tried to dig out her passport while pulling a suitcase and toting her carry-on items. The paperwork she’d shoved into the folio that housed her e-reader fell to the floor, stopping her in her tracks. As she released a sigh of exasperation, she bent down to scoop it up, but someone else got there first.
She noticed the brown leather boots, broken in but not worn, the faded denim that outlined without straining against what seemed to be toned flesh underneath. With a blush, she fixated on the amply filled area at the top of his thighs before she snapped her gaze up to meet the steel gray eyes of the stranger who held her boarding pass and itinerary in his hand.
She reached for them, thanking him absently as she grasped the documents, and before either of them could speak, his cell phone rang.
“Excuse me,” he said before turning to fish his phone from the backpack he’d placed on the floor behind him.
On instinct, she fled. Something inside her told her to run, that her experience with 22F needed to be analyzed and dissected before she could interact with another male of the species. The nagging something said interacting with this
man would be different than 22F. More dangerous.
Picking apart the emptiness she felt after her encounter with 22F came later. She convinced herself that it was the nature of the experience, the location and the impersonality of it, that made it horrible. It was hardly an environment where she could meet her potential
, and it fell decidedly short of an atmosphere of excellence
* * *
Vicki glanced down at her BlackBerry again, scrolling absently through the text of the e-mail without really reading it. She’d memorized it, so it really wasn’t necessary to even have it open, but for some reason she couldn’t seem to close the message.
The final line was burned into the back of her eyelids.
Come back when you’re ready. We’re all moved out.
Her chest tightened as she stared at her reflection in the glass behind the bar. Her week was almost up. Only two more nights and she would have to leave. Go home
. But it wasn’t really home. Truthfully nothing had held her there for a long time, but now there wasn’t even the pretense of a family to bring her back.
It was amazing how easily all her ties to New York had been snipped.
The reflection facing her showed someone whose mission statement had failed her. Or she had failed it. Either way she’d attempted everything from quick and dirty fucking in an airport bathroom to being wined and dined on a private dinner cruise. Each new encounter had left her feeling hollower than the last.
Vicki caught a glint of something in the mirror and turned to look behind her into the relatively empty lounge. Since her hotel didn’t have a casino, the bar had proven to be a quiet place once the dinner hour had passed, and it wouldn’t pick up again until people began to return from wherever their evening’s entertainment had taken them.
A man sat at a small cocktail table near the far wall of the lounge. Although the place itself was fairly dark, his table was better illuminated than most by virtue of a light situated directly overhead. It cast his face in shadow.
Something clicked. She’d seen him before.
In fact, as she thought about it, she’d seen him almost every day, including the day she’d arrived. The boots-and-jeans guy from the airport. She’d seen the man regularly, usually in the lounge during the evening, but sometimes by the pool where she’d lazed most of the days away, snacking on fruit and European cheeses while sipping French wines and reading. She had never made the connection.
Directing her focus back to the man sitting in the lounge was her escape from self-exploration. His face might have been shadowed, but his hands were visible. They had seemed strong and firm when she first saw him, and looked even more so now. His fingers were loosely laced together on the tabletop, a heavy glass of something amber resting next to them. His wrists were barely visible emerging from a black shirt and deep charcoal suit. He was a chameleon, his attire so different than it was in the airport, or when she’d seen him headed out for a jog or lounging by the pool, that he didn’t appear to be the same man. But clearly he was.
He was dressed well and held himself with confidence. He didn’t fidget and seemed to be watching the bar.
Vicki shifted to return to her drink and caught another flash of light, drawing her attention back to him. Catching the tail end of his movements, she realized he was checking his watch. Must be waiting for someone
. Yet he didn’t study the entryway; his body was oriented to squarely face the bar. It seemed as if he were watching her
She shook her head lightly. Don’t be ridiculous
. He certainly wasn’t expecting her, and if he’d had any interest, she’d been perched right there enjoying the breeze and her beverage for long enough that he could have approached. Hell, he’d had five days and hadn’t spoken a word to her. Heaven knew, others had certainly done so. And it wasn’t as if he wasn’t lacking an opening line: You’re welcome for picking up your things. How about I pick you up this time?
Admittedly it was a shitty opening line, but it was an opening, regardless.
While the evening had begun with the determination that she was done soothing herself through others, she had also reached the point where she knew she didn’t want to soothe it with alcohol either. Caressing the face of the BlackBerry with one hand as she stroked her wineglass with the other, she took one last look at herself in the mirror. The man at the table was just another distraction.
It was time to face her future.
Sighing, she rose from her bar stool, prepared to return to her room and call the airline. If she could switch her flight, she’d pack and leave in the morning. There was nothing in Aruba for her.
Not that there was anything in New York for her either, but it was time to face that nothing
, and face whatever would come next.