On the flight home from Chicago, Liz watched Monsoon Wedding. She wanted it to be Bride & Prejudice, and kept replacing the actors and plot in her mind. She wasn’t really watching it. Cramped in 34C, against the window, that ideally would help her sleep but really just gave her legs the pins and needles and made her long to climb over the elderly, sloshed couple passed out next to her and stand in the vestibule. For two hours, she practiced meditation and yoga to release the muscles in her legs, then gave up, and got her 6′ frame out of there and in the back near the flight attendants. It was a red eye, and two of the girls were chatty. She poured herself some coffee, Cherry, one of the attendants, poured herself one and spiked them both with rum.
“That’ll take the edge off the fact that we have a headwind that is not helping.”
Cherry had a brunette helmet and lacquered make-up. “The captain on this flight is so incredibly hot. You will die when you de-board and see him.”
Shanelle, the other attendant, rolled her eyes. “YOu think every captain is the cat’s meow. Three words, Cherry. Get A Boyfriend.”
“I don’t need a boyfriend. I have a husband.”
“Let me repeat: get a boyfriend.”
They laughed, and Liz felt familiar enough after discussing their apartments- one in Cherry in New Jersey, Shanelle’s in Atlanta, and their love lives, that Liz opened up about her drama.
Cherry had the first input. “He doesn’t know what a fortune hunter is. If he’s calling you one after one kiss, that boy needs to get out and kiss some more frogs. He would never see me coming, in a million years.”
Shanelle tilted her head. She was black with straightened black curls down her back. “How old is he?”
“And you went on the wine tour, and he took you to two dinners?”
“You are so blind! He wants to tap that ass! Of course those were dates. And you were in a bikini on a picnic? Wake up. What he wanted, was a short little sumpin-sumpin, and you called him on it. So he was angry. The rent thing was nothing but smoke and mirrors.”
“He did seem to put a lot of thought into it. I was just so surprised. I mean, it was a business dinner. And he is very … cold. That first time I met him, he had all of these ideas about who we were.”
“Forget him. Go to your boyfriend, appreciate how lovely and fine he is, and just leave this guy to go to some expensive therapist and work out his mommy-love.” Shanelle cracked open an orange juice, and they started discussing the flight paths and what they were going to do in San Francisco for their layover. Liz convinced them to meet her for drinks after work and she’d bring Raul. As she walked down the aisle, Cherry said after her, “watch out, I’m looking for a boyfriend! Make sure you tie him down!”
The next day at work, she took Melanie to lunch and spilled the beans about the entire visit. She would have called, but getting home and finding Dani passed out on the couch with the apartment a mess, at 8PM, and a slight bit of jet lag, left her no time to catch up her friend. Raul had been nice and taken Dani out to breakfast one day, but otherwise Dani was in huge depression cocooning.
Melanie wasn’t doing too well either. “So, he came onto you, and you were surprised, and then you guys started yelling at each other.”
Liz toyed with her salad. They were sitting on the steps of the Fed, in a rare sunny autumn day. “Yeah, you think I was naive? I really thought we were just coworkers. I’d take some guys from a remote office out to dinner, if they were in town.”
“Was it just dinner? Did he suggest something else?”
“Well, we had shots of grappa, and we went on a walk.”
“God, it does sound romantic. But knowing you, and knowing him, I can see it also as a business trip. I’m sorry, I should have never sent you. Having RC as an enemy, or worse, some star-crossed pouty lover, is really going to be difficult as we roll out this campaign.”
RC’s words about Liz were running through her mind. They were so vicious, and sitting in the sunshine next to her friend, she just saw a sweet woman who was depressed about her latest love interest not calling her back, not some scheming fortune-hunter who wants another conquest. If RC knew that Melanie was personally well off, and just not the type of person to manipulate men that way. Her divorce was amicable, and from what Liz knew, she was a savvy investor, so she could have gotten a clean split, and not a lopsided settlement. Anyways, RC was obviously wrong, but where had he gotten that idea in the first place? And was that why Johnny high-tailed it out of there?
They decided to meet at the Pied Piper, a hotel bar in the Sheraton Palace. The building was squat and square, from the 1800s, and sitting steadfastly at New Montgomery and Market Street. This wasn’t Liz’s usual habitue, but Cherry and Sharelle liked hotel bars when they were in town.
Liz crossed California street after work talking on her cell to Sharelle.
“I know it’s fuddy duddy, but honey, that’s where the boys are, and they have a white chocolate martini that is to die for.”
Liz got another call from Raul. “Hold on, checking in with Raul. I’ll see you in ten minutes, OK?”
Raul purred in her phone. “I can’t wait to see you, it’s been too long.”
“Oh come on, just a few days. But I missed you too. I have a crazy story to tell you.” She had thought about not telling him, because of Raul and RC’s history, but decided she’d just spill. It was bound to come out anyway.
“Why are we going to the Sheraton?” He asked. She felt the same way, it was expensive and costly in a town with numerous other options for a cheap beer after work. “I met some friends on the plane, and they want to go there. I’ll get your first drink, don’t worry.”
“Oh I’m not worried, just wondered why.” He kissed her goodbye on the phone and she rung off. She hated crossing busy downtown rush hour streets with a cell phone plastered to her face.
A long taxi line waited outside the Sheraton, and uniformed valets blew their whistles in the middle of the four-lane one way street. She darted up the carpeted steps. This route used to be a horse-drawn carriage entrance, and inside, the garden atrium was a turnaround for the carriages. Now, it was generic hotel – albeit a fancy hotel- and she looked around trying to remember where the bar was.
Ripples of laughter and a stream of conference goers ushered her into the dark paneled bar. Cherry and Sharelle were already stationed at a tall round table. She shrugged off her coat and purse and ordered another drink for herself.
Raul arrived and hugged Liz. She smelled cold air and cigarettes on his coat. She hadn’t thought about it, but he was smoking that time she met him outside of the print shop, to pick up the Aspert proposals.
Cherry and Sharelle were eager to meet him, and they laughed and exchanged flirtatious conversation about being a flight attendant.
“Do you have boyfriends in every city? Come on, you know you do.” Raul teased Cherry. He put his hand on Liz’s knee. “Are you going to tell me the story?”
“Oh no, you haven’t told him yet!” Cherry yelled. It was getting noisy in there and soon their table was surrounded by suits, mostly guys with tags tagged on their lapels with some conference or another.
“I’ve been busy, really.”
Sharelle tapped on a man’s shoulder next to her. “What conference are you from?” She got into a long conversation with the man and his friends, and Cherry joined. Liz turned to Raul.
“I was in Chicago for the conference, right?”
He nodded, she had told him as much before she left.
“Well, I was taken out to dinner a few times by RC.”
“Let me guess, Four Seasons, or some other fancy European style restaurant, then the second night something more down home, to show that he’s really not as stuffy as all that.”
Liz laughed. “Pegged.”
He gestured to the attendants. “Look at that, fast work. They’re getting their next round from those guys.”
Sharelle leaned into talk to Liz and Raul. “Anesthesiologists.”
“Try pronouncing that later tonight. Just as a check.” Raul joked.
Sharelle gave him a bad look. “I have three days in San Francisco before heading back to Atlanta, and goddamit, I”m going to have a good time.”
She turned back to her gentlemen friends and Liz reassuringly patted Raul’s hand. “So yeah, he took me out a few times. I guess he had, what is the old expression, ‘designs.’”
“And how do you feel?” Raul looked at her seriously while he drank his pint of light colored beer.
“We are talking about RC here. Reality check, the man who couldn’t even swim in the pond in Sonoma. The man who basically ruined your life. The man who walks around with a rod shoved up his…”
“OK, OK. I’m impressed that Aspert sent you out there, that’s quite an honor. Did they say anything about a promotion?”
“Nah. I’m doing far more than a copywriter, but I’m not sure if that’s Melanie who just trusts me, or if she has the backing of others at the company to promote me. God knows I need a promotion. Some kind of cash infusion would be fine.”
“Dani talked about you selling your car.”
“Oh yeah, thanks so much for giving her a place to crash. That was so nice.”
“No problem. But do you think you’re going to sell?”
“I don’t know. It’s not worth much, and it’s worth more to me to have it to get out of town once in a while.”
“Come on you guys, meet our friends!” Cherry dragged Liz over, and Raul gestured that he’d get them another round.
Liz and Raul stayed there for another hour or so. Liz loved catching up with her new friends, and they vowed to go to the dusk trip to Alcatraz the next day.
Liz invited Raul home with her. It was the tense first time for them, and she was nervous, and anxious, but very excited most of all.
He walked into her flat as she flipped on lights, and she led him to the living room. He hugged her close and they started kissing. Then, she got the weird intuition that someone was trying the lock. Mid-kiss, she groaned. “Ah, I forgot.”
“Dani’s staying here.”
Raul backed away a few steps, and combed down his hair. “I need to get home anyways.”
She cocked her head. “Really?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry about me, or us, we’ll get back to this. He gave her a quick but intense kiss and grabbed his messenger bag. Liz shrugged, and walked into the kitchen. She sifted through the mail, she thought she saw a coupon from her salary direct deposit.
She heard, down the hallway, Raul and Dani laughing, and Dani ushering him out. Dani entered the kitchen.
Dani plopped onto their tall draftsman stool. “So, how was Chicago?”
Liz sighed. “OK, I guess. They put me up at the Four Seasons. Really good chocolate on the pillow, and cable. That was nice. I didn’t have much of a chance, but I got some MTV videos. And the skyline. I had this view from my window of downtown Chicago, which is such a big city compared to SF. It’s huge. Other than that, went to a Greek place with RC that was amazing.”
“I was visiting that company- he’s the one handling the account.”
“So it was a work dinner? Did you get to order all you want, and like, get the most expensive thing on the menu like lobster?”
Liz laughed, “Yeah, it was kind of a business dinner, kind of not. Which was a problem. But I didn’t really want to order the most expensive thing, after eating so much all the time once in a while you just want toast.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I’d get the biggest dessert, and just take it to my room.”
“Good idea. Did you go shopping? So what’s up with you? Have you figured it out?”
“Um, I’ll just keep commuting. I don’t want that apartment. If it’s OK, I just like staying here.”
Liz nodded. She could try and fight this battle, or just let it go. It wasn’t really worth the pain of setting Dani up again if she was going to once again flock to her.
“So are you and Raul going out?”
“Sure. So what did you guys do this weekend?”
“I don’t think you’re going out. He hits on lots of women. We went to that vodka place on Haight, and he was all over the place.”
Liz’s stomach sank. “Really? Well we haven’t had ‘the talk’ about whether we’re exclusive.” She kept sorting through the mail now, not really focusing on the from addresses. “Well, did you go shopping? Can you make some dinner for me too? I’ll get you back later.”
Dani hopped off the stool. “Sure, I was going to make some pasta. It’ll be enough for two.”
Liz hugged her and walked down the hall, going in her room and sitting on the bed. She was exhausted. It was a short trip and she wasn’t jetlagged, but she had mixed feelings. Mad at Dani for moving in with her, preventing her from getting down with Raul tonight, and mad at Raul for being into other women, even though she really didn’t have any claim on him. But she had told RC, cherry & Shanelle they were dating. She lay down. She was just confused. Time to work out and ignore her very confused feelings. Before she had met these two men, she was just concerned about getting over Fred. Thank god, he hadn’t even risen up like the phoenix lately to haunt her, like he had before. Liz wasn’t like some of her girlfriends, seeking love and logging onto online sites, or scoping guys. Like Cherry and Shanelle, she rarely went out to meet guys intentionally. And she wasn’t one of those women that had men falling over her every five seconds. She just ended up having more love interests in her life than she herself required, as an individual. She was involved with her hobbies, her work, and her family, and while she wanted companionship like anyone else, she didn’t seek it. And then of course in times like these, it found her and presented her with these problems.
The next morning, she woke up and got up before Dani to score the shower and bathroom. She didn’t want to worry about her kid sister, but the girl didn’t seem to be working. She was always here, in SF. If she was doing a four hour commute each day, two down to the peninsula and two back, by public transit, then wouldn’t you think Liz would see her less? But there was Dani in the living room as Liz walked through. She was sacked out, a blanket tossed over her, still in her clothes, a pint glass of water on the wood floor, and her Doc Martens.
Liz sat in the living room and slipped on her heels. “Dani, wake up.”
“Uh. No. Sleeping in.” Dani turned over so all Liz saw was her backside.
“Don’t you have to go in to work?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Dani covered her head with the blanket.
Liz grabbed her purse and walked out into the sunny morning. She walked to the J-Church and held her commuter pass for the driver. She sat down and started to earnestly people watch out the window, when someone slipped next to her. She caught his eye and recognized Paul.
They greeted each other and talked about their respective commutes, when he suggested they get together that night. Liz mentioned she was going to Alcatraz with some visitors and he jumped on the wagon. She didn’t mind, more the merrier really.
After work, they met at Pier 43 and bought tickets to ride the ferry. Sharelle and Cherry seemed glad to meet Paul.
“You’re flight attendants?” He asked. When they both said “Yes” at the same time, he couldnt’ wipe the grin off his face.
“Don’t ask what I think you’re going to ask.” Sharelle said, dismissing him and talking to Liz.
“What was he going to ask?” Liz asked later.
“Oh honey. They always want to know if there is a mile high club, and if they can help us get in on it. ”
“Oh gross. Was he really going to ask that?” She checked out Paul again, who was talking very ecxitedly with Sharelle.
As they boarded the ferry, Paul ran off to buy concessions for all of them, despite Cherry’s warning that the ride was only 20 minutes.
Liz climbed the stairs with her friends and they stood on the upper deck, watching the downtown drift away, as the heavy motors chugged against the strong current of the Bay. Alcatraz was closeby, but far enough away that prisoners had a hard time making it across the freezing water and currents. Yearly an Escape from Alcatraz swimming race set out from Alcatraz to repeat the same path.
Paul returned with chips and soda, and they cuddled together on the benches, as now the cold damp air had grabbed hold of their layers and they were all freezing, with a sheen of salt air on their skins.
“It is freezing! Why do they say California is hot!” Sharelle complained. Paul took this opportunity to give her a one armed hug, as he held the chips in the other hand.
Liz laughed, “Yeah you remember to take a sweater with you wherever you go.”
“This has me cold down to my bones.” Sharelle shivered for effect again, and Paul pulled her closer.
Cherry gave Liz “a look,” and they walked off to the rail. “So how are you doing with Mr. Raul? He’s really charming. You didn’t tell me he’s an artist!”
“Oh yeah, he paints fire hydrants!” The moment she said it she and Cherry started laughing, “I don’t mean to be flip, they’re really cool. Bright red…”
“Yeah. Glad you like him.”
“He’s also very friendly with almost everyone there that night.”
“Oh he’s just outgoing, that’s what I like about him, he isn’t shy and reserved.”
“Just watch yourself, that’s all I’m saying. Did you tell him about Mr. Trust Fund?”
“Kind of, we never quite got there. Oh, here we are.” Liz said, as the ferry pulled up against strong winds to a rocky cliff, near the base was a small dock. Liz’s party coudl hear the engines straining against the strong current on this side of the island as it pulled to the dock to become moored.
“Wow, it’s so, destitute out here, and cold. I had some idea it’d be that way, but being out here I really feel like I’m really in a prison.” Cherry said, as they startd to walk down the stairway and off the ferry. “That sounded dumb, but whatever.” They laughed, and queued up to tour the prison island.
Paul and Sharelle were together during the entire tour, leaving Cherry and Liz to don their headsets, and walk throughout the prison cells, dining areas, and solitary confinement blocks by themselves with the audio tour leading them around. Afterwards, they met near the gift shop.
The sun had gone down, and a stray ran of sunlight lit up the tops of the skyscrapers of San Francisco. Because it was dusk the water was flat and glassy. A Park ranger came by and thanked them for the dusk tours, and told them to listen for the next ten minutes, as they would hear sounds from North Beach filter across the still water, like it was only a few blocks away, not a mile.
The crowd was silent, and Liz stood there. She thought of the loneliness of the prisoners, their lives destitute and pointless, with no hope of escape or freedom, hearing women’s laughter, men’s voices, and even the cable car rings from the vibrant nightlife district. Her throat caught, despite feeling foolish at being so sentimental, she wondered what she was doing with her freedom, with the options in her life.
On the ferry back they decided to sit inside, and planned to get some seafood chowder in Fisherman’s Wharf when they returned. They did just that. Liz sat across from Paul and Sharelle, next to Cherry, and noticed that they all had very red cheeks, from the salt air and hiking around Alcatraz. The creamy chowder sat welcome in her stomach, and she sipped on hot tea.
“So how do you two know each other again?” Sharelle asked.
Paul piped up. “Oh, my paper wrote about some of her friends. Do you know the Cases?”
Sharelle shook her head.
“Case Industries?” Paul asked.
Sharelle opened her eyes wide and looked at Liz in surprise. “You know Joss Case?”
“No, no. My friend knows his son, and he invited us up to Sonoma, that’s all. And Paul’s paper here wanted to write about it.”
“Well we did, but we wanted to get more in depth. But I decided to respect Liz’s privacy, and her friend Melanie’s.”
Liz didn’t contradict him. Sharelle was eager to hear more about the Case’s, as Cherry put her head on Liz’s shoulder.
“I’m tired. We’re going to shop tomorrow, then fly out the next day. I’ve really enjoyed this, we should do it again. If you’re ever in Atlanta or Dc, just give us a ring.”
Liz turned to her. “Really? I feel like I want to get away and do something. I haven’t taken my vacation. I don’t have much money, but fuck it, I just want to do something.”
She continued. “I mean, what are we doing, just waiting for something to happen to us, or are we going to go out and do it? Experience the freedom that we’re given. I haven’t been to Europe, I haven’t been to South America. I’ve never had great sex in a hotel in Paris. I’ve been to Korea, but never to Japan or Bali. I haven’t skied, I haven’t skydived, I have just done what I could, or should, do at any given time. What am I waiting for?”
Cherry, Sharelle and Paul looked at her. “You haven’t skied?” Paul asked.
“I want to go to Austria and eat one of those big fluffy white cakes. And go to Spain and see a live flamenco dancer. Ride a camel in Morocco. Smoke from a hookah. Eat papadams in India. Beer in Octoberfest. Reindeer meat in coffee in Sweden. Swim in Lake Baikal. Climb Mt. Fuji.”
“You sound like an ad for the National Geographic.”
“We saw all of those prison cells and none of you thought of your own mispent freedom?”
Sharelle toyed with her sourdough bowl. “I was thinking of how cold those cells were.”
“I was wondering why they thought to build a prison with no drinkable water nearby.” Paul replied.
“I was thinking of what those guys did to get in there. It’s not like you’re about to commit a murder or something, are you?” Cherry joked.
“Maybe I’m just feeling trapped lately. My sister is moving in with me in slow, passive-aggressive ways, and …”
“Man trouble.” Cherry said definitively.
“No, not that, well, maybe. I just am not about to settle down. I’ve never really done anything. My life has been pretty boring.”
“I don’t think so. You live in this beautiful city!” Sharelle said. “But I travel for a living so it doesn’t seem that amazing to me. I tell you what. Write down all of those things, pick one, and on your way there stop at my place and I can show you Atlanta. OK?”
That helped Liz, if at least that she said it all outloud.
After dinner they all felt exhausted and split to follow their respective ways home. Liz climbed onto the historic F-Market surface trolley. She was alone with a few other nightlifers, and she curled up on the cushion and stared out the window all the way to a block near her house, then walked home. She climbed onto her bed without brushing her teeth, slipped out of her jeans and coat, and fell flat asleep.
The next morning, she gave up on rousing Dani and dressed, showered, and took the train downtown. She stood in line at Peets’ coffee, breathing in the richly dark, vibrant air of the groundings, and sat at a high stool, sipping a coffee and eating a scone. She paged through the paper, reading with interest various vacation locations. Bali, South Africa, Croatia, Malaysia. She ripped out the sheet and walked the few blocks to work in the crowded pedestrian rush hour.
Melanie wasn’t in her office, so Liz sent her an email, “Coffee?” She wanted to talk to Melanie as soon as she could about her plans.
An hour later, Melanie dropped by, and they rode the elevator down to the street.
“Let’s walk over to Cafe Dulci.” Melanie suggested. They walked across Sacremento, up to Market, and along the busy, four lane road that transversed the city. Market was full of busses gliding by on electrical wires, and the barren landscape of cement corporate entryways.
Melanie was gushing about the latest meeting with Aspert almost the entire way. They approached Dulci, not more than a doorway, inside of which stood a young man making espresso drinks. A few chocolates on the window were the only other thing available at the small stand.
When they got espressos and started the slow stroll back, choosing Kearny this time, a busy retail strip with hardly any corporate fronts, Liz revealed her real reason for going on the break.
“So I went to Alcatraz last night, with some flight attendants I met on the way out here from Chicago. It was really beautiful. I recommend taking hte dusk tour.”
“Remember I told YOU about that tour.”
Liz laughed, “Oh I forgot!” She hugged her latte. “So while I was out there, I got this idea in my head, and I can’t really think of anything else. You know, after I came back from Chicago, it’s been kind of crazy. Not just with the thing with RC, or whatever, but just, you know, when I think of my life… ”
Liz nodded. “I feel that way too, sometimes. I wonder if this is what midlife crises are about.”
“So, after thinking about it for a while, I realized I do want to get out and go do things, and, well, I want to take a short leave of absence.”
“What? That doesn’t sound like you. I thought you had money problems. Don’t you need to work?” Melanie took a sip of her latte.
“I know, it’s just something that I think I really need rih tnow. And it’s true, I don’t have the money, and I don’t have the vacation time, but I really need to get out and just do something. My life has been so much the same, for so long. I need to go and see things.” She pulled out the folded travel section from today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Just hours later and it was all worn and smudged with teh multiple times she had taken it out of her pocket to look at. “I’m not sure where yet, but these look interesting.”
“Oh….” Melanie looked at Liz, not at the flier, outstretched in her hand. “And this doesn’t have to do with all of the business with your love life lately?”
Liz shook her head and furrowed her eyebrows. “No. Why would it?” She refolded the cutting and placed it in her pocket.
“Just wondering. Well, I’ll look into it. Do you want off the Aspert account?” Melanie and Liz took a right on Sacramento. Small restaurants and stoores, small plots that made up Chinatown, crowded on the tiny one lane road.
“Well, it wouldn’t really help things if I was MIA for two weeks, would it? Not that I’d be MIA, but part of the idea is to get away from things and really think about what I’m doing with my life.”
“Is that as long as you want? Why not go for four weeks, or heck, after the holidays- just take off until mid-January. I have to say, I was going to put you up for a promotion based on your work with Aspert, so I’m not sure what to do now, if you do take off a few weeks. But don’t worry, I think we can set it up.”
Liz was downcast at first, but then the prospect of even more time off hit her and her emotions buoyed. “That would be amazing. I’m not sure I can afford it. I mean, I can’t even really afford going on a two week vacation.”
“I hear you. Last time I went to Aspen…” Melanie went off on one of her long stories about the ski lodge, the men she met, the ski runs, the parties afterward, and the occasional hook-up ending with tears and/or good times. Liz would usually be interested, if not as a friend as an armchair tourist, but now she was looking at the shops going by, namely the Japanese consulate, the China Airlines posters, and envisioned that in a few short weeks, maybe days, that would be her.
They returned to the office and Liz started diving into a pile of edits on current campaigns. Not an hour went by when Melanie poked her head into her cube.
“Hey. I think we have a solution you’ll like.” She explained that if Liz represented Aspert’s concerns abroad, she coudl go on a 3-city tour of Europe, and add on a week of her own travel. The week would be taken out of her next year’s vacation. Melanie suggested receiving half pay that period so next year she coudl take the same half-pay vacation. It was all confusing, but Liz accepted, with the caveat that she wasn’t too hot on travelling around visiting Aspert offices. But it seemed a nice combination, and she could take a lot more time off.
“We can set you up to leave next week, if that’s soon enough.”
Liz was flustered. “I don’t get it, why all this, I mean, how did people agree to it, I’m just a copywriter…”
“Well, that’s the deal. I promoted you early, and folks are very excited about you being a presence to Aspert Europe, that’s going to really seal the deal on future contracts with the client. One thing is your’e going to have to mnage the project while your’e there. But having a US project manager, that is current, visiting the client’s far flung branches really speaks volumes. Seriously, folks don’t see this as a perk, they see it as an extra responsibility on you.”
Liz thought again taht maybe quitting and not having to work while she travelled was a better option. What Liz said next “sealed the deal” in her mind, as well.
“Did I mention a pay raise? Oh it must have slipped my mind.”
Liz batted Melanie’s knee. “Thanks.”
Melanie laughed, “It’s ten percent, before taxes, so don’t get too excited, but the earlier we can get this in, the earlier you can get your next one.” Her eyebrows lifted in some kind of mockery of her own expressions, and she twirled out of Liz’s cube. Liz hadn’t seen Melanie this happy in ages. And then she realized, she was friends with melanie, and leaving would mean not just a loss of a worker that got a lot done for her above and beyond her description, but that fun work comraderie that meant so much day in and day out, to your work quality.
Liz started getting copied on tons of email. Distribution lists from Aspert that she hadn’t even known existed. She was given an Aspert email address, in addition to her own work. The next day she got a cell phone delivered to her desk. This was a special European phone, comp’d by her company, with a new number and service. Melanie setup a meeting the following day with various members of other proposals who wanted to pitch Europe. Liz was almost overwhelmed with the new responsibilities, but she found each bit of new knowledge interesting. It all added a new dynamic to her existing work. She saw how her other work was part of a larger complex that played a part in the overall deliverable to this worldwide company.
Dani was excited that she was leaving and wanted to know each destination. Liz had found out the other day from several different directions, that she was expected to have “face time” in Amsterdam, Paris, Warsaw, Turin, Lyons, Stockholm, Prague, Madrid, and Frankfurt. Because Aspert was a shipping company originally, its other operations were all still stemming from this major industrial cities in Europe.
Melanie had sat Liz down the other day and reviewed the expected itinerary. It was a whirlwind, but on the company dime, something Liz had to keep reminding herself. Her personal life had suffered to a degree with the added responsibilities at work. Dani had quit her job on the peninsula and started working in a cafe in Lower Haight, the Horseshoe. She had told a Liz a couple of stories from the cafe, none of them warmed her heart. The manager arrived at staff meetings with a gun, that he promptly placed on the table then asked if “anybody had any problems” with his management style. Heroin addicts regularly shot up in the bathroom, and cleaning it was more a biohazard than an unpleasant duty. She liked it though, and was starting to get “a series of” tattoos. Liz liked one or two, but the overall plan that Dani was going with made LIz fear that a facial tattoo might be in her future. Raul was non-existent latley, begging off because he had a big series due at a gallery. Whenever he called, Liz reminded herself that she needed to talk to him about their exclusivity, or lack of, as the words of Sharelle rang through her ears each time she talked to him, that he had been flirting wildly at the Pied Piper the other night.
As for Paul, he had been tied to Sharelle until her time to leave. She never heard from him, except for a rare comment on a thread started by Sharelle. The flight attendants had a rich email joke list, and Liz was about to talk to her friend about being more selective, or at least “safe for work.”
Her departure time was approaching. Dani made her setup a goodbye drinks at a local bar to her cafe, one she had actually gone to with Raul so long ago, the Noc Noc. It was covered in primitive paintings and dinosaur aestethic.
Dani dragged her there early. She was tired from so many last minute meetings and correspondence, getting her passport up to date and packing. She wanted to dress more formally, but knew she’d do more shopping once she was there. It was just her, Raul, and Dani, and they sipped Chimays and talked about her travel plans. Dani coudlnt’ suppress her excitement at having the flat to herself.
“And take care of the car…” Liz said, after they toasted to “bon voyage.”
“I promise I will. I do. I promise. I’ll be fine.” Dani squeezed Liz arm to express herself fully.
“I should ahve sold the car, huh.” Liz lookedat Raul and Dani.
“No, no! I’ll take care of it, I promise.” Dani practically screeched. “Oh my god, you are going to have such a good time. Remember to take pictures nad post them online, OK?”
Melanie entered the bar with a bewildered look on her face, and Liz noticed again how out of place she looked in the seedy underbelly of Lower Haight. Melanie’s coach purse, her frosted, fluffy hair, and immaculate make-up screamed trophy wife and not the artistic funky appeal of the bar.
“Hey girlfriend! We’re going to miss you!” Melanie approached liz and gave her a European kiss, on both cheeks. “But you will enjoy yourself, and that makes me feel much better.”
Raul went to get Melanie a drink and Dani and Melanie chatted for a while. Liz was going to miss everyone so much, she started to get choked up. She walked up to Raul and hugged him from behind.
“Hey, I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you, too.” He said, and kissed her forehead.
“How’s the show preparation going?”
“The what?” He gestured to his ear like he couldn’t hear her in the crowded bar.
She spoke into his ear. “You’re preparing for a show? At Hang gallery downtown, I thought you said.”
“Oh, right. It’s good! Going well. Tough, you know, but good. Here is a Merlot for Melanie.” He laughed at his alliteration and handed her the glass.
She sat down on the low bench, covered in leather next to a wall with cut-out holes and odd rock-like projections. Melanie was describing her first trip to Paris with her ex-husband.
“We were in the hotel for three days before we left.” She lifted her eyebrows in classic Melanie fashion. “It was amazing. Being in love, in Paris, ah…”
Dani got up to help Raul with the next round, and Melanie turned to Liz.
“Raul is gorgeous, I keep forgetting what a charming hunk he is.”
“And that’s what drew me to him,” Liz said, and followed Melanie’s eyes to the back of Raul, where he stood talking and laughing with the bartender. He was so outgoing and fun-loving, and he was smart and charming, as well. Not just a good looking man, but also generally entertaining. When she thought about it, she was always attracted to men who could handle situations and make quick witticisms.
Liz turned back to Melanie.
“Have you told him about what happened in Chicago?” Melanie asked.
“Kind of, well, right afterwards, I mentioned that RC had made a move. Raul doesn’t like to talk about him, for good reason. Please don’t bring it up, OK?” Liz pleaded. “So, let’s talk about you. I know it’s been a while, but have you heard anything more about Johnny?” Liz hadn’t asked in a month so she thought it was not as sensitive a topic as it might have been.
“Um, no. I haven’t heard from him, though Brenda mentioned by email the other day that he and RC were in San Francisco.”
“It’s still so odd that he didn’t mention anything, and things were going so well. Sorry, I’m pointing out the obvious.”
“No, I understand. I’ve talkd to my therapist and figured it out like this. I liked Johnny. I may not understand his reasons, but I’m sure they were well-founded, if not totally correct. I don’t think he was being malicious.”
“OK, I want to float this idea by you, and tell me if it’s totally off base, but I could see it all playing out like this. Someone doesn’t want you and Johnny to be together, and has influenced him somehow to drop you. Like, one of those jetsetter girls, friends of Brenda or something. I don’t know, but it just seems like, since we didn’t know them beforehand, and suddenly to go off you so fast with no real material reason of any sort…”
“Johnny’s not like that, he’s not so impressionable. He wouldn’t cause me that much of an insult just because some girl told him I was bad for him. Would he? I don’t know.” Melanie reached her hand back to pat her hair. “You know, when I think of everything that has happened, I just hope that Johnny’s happy, that he’s made a life that he can live in happily. If he’s found someone else, or if he’s decided to be single for a while, whatever works for him. I’m glad, at least, that he’s happy.”
“Oh Melanie, you can’t mean that. Your’e too good.” Liz said and hugged her friend. “I’m going to miss you. Promise me you’ll go to owrk early or stay up late or whatever it is that means we will be online at the sametime, OK?” Liz and Melanie hugged again.
More friends from Liz’s past arrived, and she greeted them, laughing and chatting about old times. Friends from SF State, from old jobs, old roommates and neighbors, after living here for ten years she’d accumulated quite a lot of friends that soon filled the bar.
She was tired and had to pack and catch the plane the next day, so she and Raul headed to her apartment, and Dani stayed. Some friends of hers had turned up and she was going to go dancing.
At the MUNI tunnel opening on Duboce and Church, they hugged for a long time and started kissing. She pushed him away slightly, “I’m going to miss you, and I want to be with you now, but I need to get packed and stuff for tomorrow.”
He mock groaned and kissed her some more, “But I’m not going to see you for months and months and months…” then said, “OK, I understand. You’re going to write, right?”
She smiled, “Of course.”
She wanted to say “I love you,” it was the right time, the right moment, a romantic middle of the night confession, but the words just refused to come to her lips.
“See ya.” She said, and walked away.
“Bye, doll.” He said, and turned and walked the other direction.
She strolled home, noticing each storefront, sign, image and visual symbol to memorize for when she was away from home. She hadn’t really felt like it was home until now, and she worried that she would be too homesick.
She flew out of San Francisco International Airport at 3am. She had a large bottle of water, a portable DVD player borrowed from Melanie, a romantic comedy, a thriller, and a documentary. What she really needed was a leg massager. She spied the man next to her. In the next hour they found out they had almost no friends in common, and his work in insurance and construction meant that they had little interest in each other’s lines of work. She managed to squeeze past him a few times, during which she caught him ogling her ass and breasts. The flight turned out to go relatively quickly for an international flight, as she slept or watched movies between the regulated meal times. Arriving in Heathrow, England, she boarded the Underground with her luggage, then a short few block walk to her hotel. She showered, then wanted to walk for a while. Her legs were still feeling like jello from the long flight. She put on her tennis shoes and walked from her hotel in Hyde Park through Bloomsbury, The City, and down into the Thames. The water was dark and murky, and she felt the distance betweeen her flat iwth her annoying sister, and business travel in an international city. Occasionall, she’d pass up someone and dream up small vignettes about their life, their goals, and their state of happiness. She chekced her watch, realizign she had meetings in the morning that would be ridiculously early PST, and headed back to get a taxi and return to the hotel.
Back at her hotel, a small, medium ranked hotel with a normal, beige-colored apartment up a narrow staircase, she received notice that Sharelle was going to be in town tomorrow night and would love to get dinner.
Liz didn’t sleep very well, tossing and turning and thoughts running through her mind regarding the logistical situation of her car, Dani’s feasible ability to manage things while she was gone, her upcoming flights and appointments, and the lingering kisses of Raul, and whether she should have let him stay over. He hadn’t expressly asked, of course, and stopping at the tunnel was both ihs decision and hers. Or was it just hers? She coudln’t remember.
Because she hadn’t slept, it was easy to get ready and in the underground station headed to the first branch by the time allotted. She was crushed into a car, pinstriped men younger than her eating oily onion sandwiches, women with high heels and stockings and plastered hair, squished against her. She tried to hide hte alarm on her face, and visibly exhaled when she was finally ejected onto her stop at Elephant and Castle.
The London office of Aspert Enterprises was bright and airy, with tons of windows and Aeron chairs. It was more like a start-up than the old fussy decorations of the Chicago office. She reminded herself not to make too many assumptions about this company as it was still an American branch in England, and not a purely English company.
She was received by a young woman her age, Angie, who seemed like her in almost every regard.
“Welcome! We love having Yanks here. Fancy a coffee? I’d suggest tea, but you know we all drink coffee now. And not because we’re British, just because that’s hte new office drink, I’ve read.” She chattered on as she led Liz to a small recess in a hallway housing an espresso maker, hot water spigot, tea collection, and mugs.
“Take a mug here, no not that one, that’s Paulie’s, and that’s Ian’s and that’s Aidan’s. OK this is a good one, I think. That was Jeanie’s, and she’s gone.”
Liz laughed at the hierarchy of mugs and got an odd look from Angie.
After pouring a steaming cup and adding milk, Angie led her down another hallway. “Let me just take you down here and we’ll sit down and have a proper chat.”
After discussing for two or three hours the ways that her company could extend and improve their existing campaigns, Liz was ready to eat something and take a nap. She got a text message from Sharelle that she had landed. Angie suggested all of them getting tea at Claridges.
“It’ll give me a chance to get out of here. I don’t have vacation hour sand your visit is my big excuse. That’s horrible, isn’t it? Don’t tell anyone.”
It was a great plan, and soon they were on the tube headed into Bloomsbury. Angie ahd called a few hours before to make a reservation, and Sharelle was dropping her things off and going to meet them.
Liz sat beneath a Klimt, amongst low backed couches, and crossed her legs. In keeping with the recommendation to dress mroe formally, she was in a twinset and wool pencil skirt. “You look period perfect for this place.” Sharelle joked. Sharelle had just gotten off the plane, but had been quick to change to a wrap-around black top that showed her cleavage, and nice dark greysilver slacks. She wore a dark turquoise pendant. Angie chatted with Sharelle about her job and where she lived- Islington- with her new husband.
“He wants to have a baby right away, and I want to go to India. I’m trying to get him to wait at least a year. And I don’t want to put on all that weight right away. I just got married!” She giggled.
Liz sipped the tea, it was fabulous, and the littel sandwiches and pastries were perfect since she hadn’t felt hungry since before leaving the US.
“How do you two know each other?” Angie asked, pouring herself some more tea.
Sharelle laughed, “She was on one of my flights. She had this incredible story.”
“Oh no, don’t go into it, I’m blushing just thinking of it.”
“Oh no, do tell me!” Angie asked. “Nothing happens in our group. I have no gossip to tell. We all sit around looking at each other all day, and absolutely nothing happens.”
Sharelle looked at Liz. “Can I?” Liz grimaced. “Well here’s an abbreviated version. She was on this business trip, and this guy took her out to what she thought were business dinners, but then he made the move. And Liz here is seeing someone, so…”
“Actually not so sure about that anymore.” Liz shook her head.
“Oh no! But he is so fine. Don’t tell me you screwed that one up.”
“I don’t know, it was so busy near the last few days back in America, it was hard to see him, and we just didn’t end up talking that much.”
Sharelle looked at her tea. “Hm, doesn’t seem like he was too passionate about it, either. If you don’t mind my saying so.”
“How did you meet your husband?” Liz asked Angie. She went on a long story about how they were both in yoga, and started hanging out, then lived together for three years. She got a chance to study at the London School of Economics, and he followed along, but as a husband. “And now we have kids, which means this is about as close as I’ll ever get to going out with the girls again.” then Angie showed them photos of two adorable blond children, ages 3 and 5.
Sharelle and Liz said goodbye to Angie outside, and walked a short distance to a bustling neighborhood of Indian restaurants. Sitting in one and getting a full course of five dishes, including barbecued tandoori, mint sauce, lentil soup and chicken in butter sauce. Liz finally felt tired and hungry, and dove into the food.
She sat back after polishing off her second plate and asked Sharelle if she really thought Raul wasn’t that into her.
“I’m just saying he would make time if he wanted to.”
Liz started to speak and then stopped. How did she feel about him? Was she just so concerned with what he thought? “Maybe its’ a good thing I left for a little bit.”
“So I wanted to ask you something. I know that you went on a date with Paul…”
Liz covered her face. “Oh, god. That was so embarassing too. What is up with this month?!!”
Sharelle laughed, “Why? What happened?”
“He contacted me for a story on Aspert, because he had gotten some photos of us swimming up in Sonoma, at – well at some friends’ house up there. And he was doing this whole playboy riff on one of the guys. We were trying to setup this contact,” She gestured around her, “That I’m now benefitting from! But I had to make a deal with Paul, to get him into some parties, he would hold off on printing these photos of me.”
“Well there’s some photo of me going aroudn work, too. Ugh, it is so annoying.”
“OK before you say anything more about him, I have to let you know, we’re moving in together.”
Liz choked. “What?”
Sharelle smiled. “We kind of hit it off the other night, on Alcatraz. And, well, he’s been taking me out, when I fly in, and the other weekend we both met in Vegas. It was sooo romantic.”
Liz wiped her face. “Don’t tell me you got married.”
“We almost did, but we’re going to live together first to see if it works. He’s so cute! And I have to tellyou, sister, it gets long and lonely on all those flights, and only being in town a few days a week, if that. I love San Francisco. I’ve never felt that connected to Atlanta, so I’m going to move out here…”
“Wait, wait, you’re moving out here to be with him?” Liz looked around the restaurant. “Look at that guy! Or that guy! They’re all cooler than… ” She turned back around and saw her friend, and a downcast, reserved look on her usually open and outgoing face. “OK, I’m sorry. Paul’s very fun, he’s ambitious, and, um” she tried to remember the few times she was otu with him, and things he may have said or done to lead to some deeper personality traits. “Loyal.”
Sharelle reached across to grab Liz’s hands. “Listen, we all don’t have the same requirements. A photo of you ina bikini got front page, listen, honey, this plus size is not going to get that. I meet mena ll the time, ones that ask me for another bag of peanuts. I want someone who is there for me when I land. I’ve had enough part-time boyfriends to know that it takes a certain kind of person to do that, and he’s usually not on the cover of GQ.
“I want to give this a try. I know I talk about flirting and all that, but I’m really looking for a soulmate, and I think that takes work. I’m willing to work it out with him, and more improtant, he’s willing to give me a try. You don’t know him, you really don’t. He is the sweetest, most sensitive man.”
“OK, I’m willing to say that you can judge, if I can’t at least. You’ve spent more time with him, I hope?”
Sharelle laughed, “Oh I have to tell him to go play video games and leave me alone, that boy is so attentive. OK tomorrow, he’s flying in to show me the Google-London campus, and we would love it if you went with us, just for a little bit. No commitment, but it’s also South of London and you can just meet us for a little bit. It would mean the world to me.”
“Oh sure, Um, I think I have some time in the afternoon. Ring the branch there, my cell phone isnt’ working here and I haven’t gotten a Eurepean one.” Liz jotted down the Aspert branch number and slid it across to Sharelle.
She did at least tried a bit not to judge her too harshly. Was Sharelle settling? All that talk of having a husband and a lover on teh plane was just talk, just teasing Cherry. She wanted to know what Cherry thought but didn’t want to sound like she was peddling for gossip. “Have you told Cherry?”
“Oh please. Cherry’s idea of girl talk is dissing her husband and hunting men. If I got one ounce of sentimental and romantic on her she’d club me.” Sharelle wiped her plate with some leftover na’an bread. “Let’s hit a club! I hear there’s a good DJ down the street in Shoreditch.”
“Oh I’m beat. I have back to back meetings tomorrow, ones that I put off from today. I’m supposed to do a one on one with everyone in the office to find out their goals and issues with their current agency. So I ahve to sit in meetings all day, then go to my hotel and write it all up. This was supposed to be a paid vacation!”
“Day one, what can you expect? You’ll get the flow of things. Well, let’s get cabs ot our respective hotels, OK? And I’ll give you a call tomorrow to meet us at Google-London.”
Liz waved goodbye to Sharelle and got in the next taxi coming up the street. Sitting on the wrong side, and going the wrong direction, still felt backwards to her, and with the food coma and jet lag adding up, she crashed once she climbed the stairs up to her small room.
She woke up brightly at 5am and dressed, showered, and sat in the common dining room with a large pitcher of coffee. Each table got one, she noticed, as well as a rack of cold toast and marmalade. She liked the tangy sweet and sour taste of the marmalade, and the endless coffee helped her motivate to sit through a series of long and repetitive meetings. She had a few minutes here and htere to dive online and get messages. One or two from Dani asking where random things were, and none from Raul. Dani did mention him, in that she wanted to do a road trip to Seattle, and hoped that Raul would be interested in going with her, and that she would pay all of the gas money on the car and not get in any accidents. Liz rolled her eyes at that- like accidents were something you could prevent.
She had a bunch of work email, including one from RC that he and Johnny were in Paris if it coincided with her visit. Brenda copied her and Melanie on a story about flash mobs in San Francisco, something Liz knew about but doubted Melanie did. They were organized online and set in various public places. From pillow fights, superstring mobs, to zombie attacks, they were a monthly occurence in downtown San Francisco. Her parents sent their weekly update from Korea. She forwarded choice quotes to her brother on how their mother’s English wasn’t as idiomatic as it had once been. She had been away from the Staates too long! Now Liz caught herself calling it “the States” like everyone in England. Soon she’d be calling herself a Yank.
Her first two meetings were with the division head, and a branch manager. They were generally nice, self-effacing guys with the same issues with dealing with the earlier vendor. She then met with Angie again, and they opted to take a walk around the neighborhood at lunch, and get out of the office.
They loaded up coats and scarves and trekked out to the busy streets of South London. They were right on the Thames so they started walking across the bridge. “I’m so glad that they sent a woman out. Sometimes with the blokes I feel the all get on too well and I don’t know what’s really going on after we split ways, you know? Like do they all go see the tarts? Who knows. And well, that we’re so much alike.”
Liz stared to ask the usual quesitons about the other advertising agency, but then shifted into discussing Aspert.
“So do you like it here then, at this company? Do you have any huge gripes with it?”
“It was you know, the stodgiest company in the world. They didn’t have the internet. Three years ago, and no internet. they had these ancient computers, that had that green blinking dot. This Christmas party, where you got one drink coupon, and all of the ladies brought in the food. Don’t know why the men didnt’ ahve to bring food. The manager had been here for ages and had his own clients, and that was it. There was no innovation, we were in these smokey, pokey little offices.” She stopped on the bridge and pointed to the skyline farther South. “See those towers there? Below those, there was a warehouse, and there were three little rooms there, still smoky since the main man had to have his fish every day for lunch, followed by his cigar.”
“That sounds dreadful.”
“It was really pretty bad. I wasn’t there, I just heard about it from Frankie. When I came in we were in this new building, and it was like any other job in the 21st century, really. This young guy set it all up. He came out here a few times, had this vision, and worked with us, and really got it all setup. We now have these meetings very week going over goals, it’s all transparent and available, even to someone like me. If I have an idea, I bring it up, we talk about it, and everybody knwos it’s me, so no one’s stealing my thunder. Just amazing, when he came through, it just really shaped things up.”
“Was his name RC?”
“How did you know?” Angie didn’t wait, and continued walking to the other side, where they were soon walking along to St. Peter’s. “He was young, younger than us, and sure at first we all thought he was going to make some useless suggestions. Getting Bernard, our division head, onto the Internet. That’ slike, well, that’s just impossible. But he did, he had a way with him. He listened to Bernard and got some of his main things rolled up into it. It’s hard to explain.” Angie went on about business issues, internal politics and metrics so that for a while Liz just wanted to stop hearing about golden boy RC.
They stopped for a coffee in a cafe, and Liz sipped on a cup of strong coffee. “This is so nice. I have been realy tired all day. The fatigue is catching up on me.”
“They say RC isn’t bad looking either. I heard that Brenda Case, that’s the head of the entire Aspert conglomerate, is his girlfriend, but he hasnt’ said anythign hwen he’s visited.”
Liz burnt her tongue. “Ouch. Wait, he’s visited? How frequently does he usually visti?”
“Oh we never know, sometimes it’s once a month or less frequent. Since it’s winter, there’s not that much traffic and we’re in the retail push. But then he likes to come to Switzerland for skiing. Can you imagine that, going to a chalet, having hot chocolate and skiing all day, getting that nice ruddy glow to your cheeks. Now I ahve children I just dream about these crazy romantic vacations. Mind you, when I was single I never dreamed of spending money so foolishly. But I should have!” Angie tilted her head. “You should go. You only have a few more interviews, then we’ll be fine without you for a few days. Then when you come back we can dive right in again. How about it?”
Liz thought, and despite being cold and tired, the idea made her excited. “That is a good idea. Do you know any good places?”
They started discussing people in the office, and Angie’s friends, that had gone, and soon Liz was truly visualizing catching a plane to Switerzland for a quick midtrip ski trip.
They trudged back to the office still chatting about the ski visit, and Angie promised to bring her ski clothes in tomorrow to see if Liz fit them. A message at the front desk awaited her from Sharelle and Paul. They were at a cafe nearby and she should join them to cab over to Google-London.
Sharelle and Paul were sitting holding hands with two small cappuccinos on the table, as Liz walked in. She smiled, and Paul jumped up and shook hands with her, perhaps a bit more officious than he needed to be. He asked her about her promotion, her sister, and Melanie. He inquired about Johnny and RC but Sharelle gave him a short warning look.
“Well it’s not in South London, sorry I got mixed up.” Rachelle apologized to Liz.
“No they’re right in the thick of things! Right near Victoria tube. We’re going to take the underground right over. Can you leave work now?” Paul asked, as they put on coats and scarves.
“Fine with me, I think I’m done there for the day- last meeting and all, jsut have to write up my notes.”
They bundled off to the nearest underground stop, Elephant & Castle, and rode it a few stops into Victoria station. Crossing the large Buckingham Palace Road, Paul kept chekcing his iPhone- he was looking at it the entire time on teh subway, while clasping Sharelle’s free hand in the other, and affectionately draping an arm around her shoulders or giving her a peck now and then. Sharelle kept up a lively conversation, but Liz kept checking her whenever Paul did one of his little outbursts about Google.
“This is so intense. You can see every light in real time, off of this globe that’s projected on the wall of their office, like, in real time, of the entire world.”
Liz had stopped “oohing” and “aahing” at this point and just slightly nodded, trying to catch Sharelle’s face. Sharelle might be blushing a bit, but she was either always looking down or gazing at Paul.
The offices were up an elevator and open to rooms and rooms of comfy sofas. A large espresso machine sat in one corner, and a dog ran around loose. A young man came up and gave them badges, introducing himself and giving them a brief tour. Paul was a journalist, and knew most of what these guys were saying, but Sharelle and Liz hung back and admired from afar. Liz whispered at one point that she’d love to get Indian food and Sharelle seemed enthusiastic.
“But the cafeteria here is amazing. You can get wheatgrass soup, and vegetarian lasagna!” Paul enthused, “And a massage.”
Liz held back asking if they had any Segways to roam around in. Paul led them up to the next floor, and the next, and finaly Sharelle complained that she didn’t have good enough shoes, and they decamped to Shoreditch, a neighborhood near the City, ten or so blocks away. Liz didn’t mention that Sharelle could walk the distance to Indian, but not around the Google offices.
Dinner was great, and she recognized that they were so happy together, did it really matter if she thought Paul so insufferable? They split up as they were staying different directions, and Sharelle told her to email her itinerary to see if it matched hers’.She hugged her friend, and even hugged Paul, who was stiff and obviously uncomfortable.
The next day Angie brought in a pile of ski clothes for Liz, and Liz resigned herself to buying a few at a local shop Angie told her about. She had the round trip flight, which, when Liz compared it to the entire cost of flights her company was paying for, was a drop in the bucket.
On the short flight to Switzerland she drank red wine and read a Thomas Mann novel, one she had picked up for a Euro in London. She could get used to this lifestyle. The final days of work were a breeze with this ski trip planned, and as Angie said, no time like the present.
Directly from the airport to the hotel’s minibus, she noticed the dramatic steep, ragged white peaks everywhere. The chalet she was recommended was outside a small village that seemed completely hemmed in by steep banks of snow that looked very prone for an avalanche. She was so excited and that excitement equated with wanting to talk to everyone, but since the only person on the bus, was the minibus driver, she managed to spit out some basic phrases in German before they were reduced to stoic silence, which was somewaht apt for the breathtaking turns and steep ravines the little bus managed on snowy roads. At the chalet, she was instantly stuffy in the warm confines, wood walls and tall ceilings. A large stone fireplace was at the middle of the lobby, and large overstuffed couches and chairs surrounded it. She checked in with the desk person/the concierge, who oddly had a South African accent. She tried to chat with her, but it also ended up in even-toned politeness that led nowhere. At dinner, she was ushered into a large white tableclothed restaurant, with large windows on one side to an icy white lake surrounded by tall trees covered in snow. She was undergoing serenity shock- the transfer from bustling London to the quiet calm of the Alps, and this seemingly desolate chateau in the midweek.
There was no wi-fi or internet for guests, something she had confirmed multiple times but the story changed when she arrived, and the South African concierge greeted her with a finite, curt, “No internet.” Then proceeded to check a computer that Liz was sure was on the internet.
She crept up to her room after two glasses of wine and a veal bernaise entree, and with heated coils on the floor, and a soft down comforter in high thread count sheets, she succumbed to a restless sleep. Maybe it was the silence or the quiet, or the emptiness of the hotel, regardless, she had fit-filled sleep that dwelt strangely on the Regency period.
The next day she sat at her table now in the restaurant, for now it was her table, no one else was really there but they wouldn’t have dreamt of giving her more than two empty tables distance between the next party. Did they think she was on this trip to get over a lover, or a divorce, or worse yet, a death in the family? She was starved for society and bored, and hoped that a day on the ski slope would help the ennui.
Cradling a cup of coffee in her hands, she reviewed the dream she had last night. She was wrapped in this tight dress with an empire waist dress- high under the bosom and with a corset, which seemed against any better sense. If you’re going to define your waist with clasps and tight ropes, think you’d show the waist! While managing the long hours of the day in this dress she could barely breathe in, and maintain a posture that was completely unnatural to her, she was constantly being asked her opinion on tinny old music and the comings and goings of people she didn’t care anything about. Talk about boredom, similar to this chateau, she had nothing to do but sit on uncomfortable horsehair couches and read small books with lots of sentiment and exclamation points. When dinner was served, she was asked to dress- again, in a dress that seemed exactly like the one she had just put on- and upon that sit with an unnaturally erect posture, in a freezing room with an exposed bust, eating meat barely free of maggots and covered in rancid cream. Once in a while a gentleman with bad teeth would ask her a question, but there was a good twenty minute pause between each comment directed at her. Finally she was allowed to leave, and went to an equally freezing room, to sleep. She awoke in the warmth of the chateau, and the walls and windows were the same. How old was this house? Was it haunted? She groaned at the prospect of having another disturbing Regency dream.
She finished her seemingly endless cup of coffee- they kept on refilling it over and over again enabling in her addiction.
She changed into her ski clothes and clomped down to the gear room, where she read the ten or so signs describing “dos and don’ts” of cross country skiing. A young twenty-year old stood behind the rental window, clicking around on a computer that Liz guessed was on the Internet. A MySpace page flickered behind the rental girl while LIz described her foot size and tried on various skiis. Trying to get the girl to talk seemed futile, and she returned to her computer while Liz navigated the skis and poles out the door with a large clattering sound.
Despite it being a downhill ski area, she decided since she had time to kill, and didn’t mind the workout, she’d do some cross country. There was a large path around the lake, and she started a fast stride that soon had her panting, and her cheeks red and tingling. She took off her hat and unzipped her coat. Angie’s clothes were a little tight on her, and she vowed to buy some more clothes at the lodge. She was embarrassed at the delicious thrill of charging things on her VISA that she couldn’t afford. She’d always remember the pair of tall ski socks that she bought, with fanciful designs on it, for thirty dollars, that realistically she should never have bought. Oh, the small joys of going off-budget, like going off-roading.
On the lake she started a rhythm of skiing that matched a song in her head, and soon she was meditating and skiing without even thinking about it. She didn’t check her watch, but her stomach told her it was lunch time. She snacked on an apple she’d grabbed from the hotel, and referred to the little soggy map that the concierge had given her, and estimated that she could probably get back in an hour and a half. Now with a target in mind, her pace picked up even more. She had passed one other couple of skiers on the way, but otherwise no one was out on the lake. She saw a dark spec ahead of her, and with her speed and theirs, she met up with him- turned out to be a man- in a few minutes. He was tall, with dark hair, and wore goggles and a sleek black and blue outfit. She waved, and they passed, then she heard him break, and slow down and follow her. She started to slow, but since she was new at skiing, she wasn’t edging the skiis right and ended up flopping on her ass.
“You okay?” He said and leaned down, offering her a hand.
“Uh, sure.” She took the hand, used it to get up and fell again. She started laughing, and he started laughing too. She lay back on the snow. “Oh this is so embarrassing. I really do know how to get up on my skis.”
“Well, I have to say I didn’t expect to see you out here.” He took off his goggles, and she recognized that it was RC.
This sobered her up and she managed to get in the correct position of both knees together, skis forward, and moved her body weight over the center of the skis. Now upright and balanced, she moved her skis so she was side by side with him.
“Wow, what are you doing here?” She removed her sunglasses and smiled at him.
“I come here once in a while when I’m in Europe. It’s a great hidden chalet.” He looked off into the lake, “You want to keep going?”
“Oh yeah, I was heading back to get some lunch.”
“Me too, I’m starving.”
“But you were going that way,” She gestured with her glove out to the rest of the lake.
“Right, but I could do with something now. I didn’t have much for breakfast. Wanted to get out as soon as I arrived.”
He took the inside non-groomed lane, and she took the track. She was awkward now with someone watching her, and her knees and legs seemed to freeze up.
“So what brings you to Europe? I thought you didn’t travel normally.”
“Oh, well Melanie suggested I visit the Aspert branches.”
“Oh, so you knew I was going to be over here, then?”
“Well, I’m on the general marketing list, so I got that update. What did you think of it?”
“Oh, the office is nice.” She was still caught so unawares, and concentrating on skiing and not falling on her ass again.
“Is anyone here with you?” She asked, as they returned to the chateau and unclipped their skis, propping them on the pegs outside the building.
He knocked the snow off his and flapped his gloves together. She noticed a deep red on his cheeks, she wasn’t sure if it was the cold or embarrassment.
“Nope, just me. I like to come out here by myself, once in a while, and no one really shares the non-thrills of cross country.” They laughed.
“Everyone seems intimidated by the workout. I like just doing this all day. And I get such an appetite.”
They were inside and removing coats. She had worn flexible ski pants, but he had waterproof shell on. She waited while he sat down and removed his outer pants.
“Angie told me about this place, which makes sense why we’re both here, I guess.”
“Oh yes, Angie.”
“She speaks quite well of you.”
“Well, yeah, we try to get a pint when I’m out there. London is the flagship, really, of all our branches. I’ll send a note when you visit the other ones, so they’re prepared.”
“Oh no, don’t. I don’t mind just meeting everyone. I don’t need you to get heavy on them, on my account.”
He laughed. “Maybe I’m warning them more than throwing my weight around?”
They moved to the restaurant, and the staff waved and greeted along the way. Liz thought of how proud and stilted he was when they first met, and what a strange metamorphosis this was.
As they entered the restaurant, she gestured to her table, “I’ve been assigned this table, if you’re interested.”
He sat down next to her in the far corner, away from the windows. A Brazilian waitress came by, the same woman who gruffly rented Liz her skis, and asked if RC wanted to sit at his usual table under the window.
Liz laughed. “I knew I was getting the shaft here.”
“You’re just new. They’re used to seeing me a few times a year.”
The waitress arrived with a tall, light beer. Liz looked longingly at it. “I’ve been drinking far too much the last few days…”
RC pushed it over to her, and asked the waitress for another. “You’ve earned it, that lake path is a tough one.” He described going out a few times and how far and long he’d go, and times getting stuck out in the woods. She listened and observed his features. His face, and the lines on his face, could be so rigid, but as she learned to understand him, or to see him in different places with people who knew him in different ways, she recognized those lines easily creasing into a smile, or other expressions. It’s not that he had a face that had different facets, but that she had learned how to see the face differently.
She took a sip of the beer, then another. With her empty stomach and the altitude, she felt a little queasy.
“What’s wrong? You just went pale.”
“Rocky mountain sickness.” She grimaced. He gave her a funny look and she explained. “The altitude, it makes you feel kind of headachey and nauseous all the time. But I’ll be fine once I put some food in my stomach.”
Quicker than when she ordered, the food arrived. She ordered a steak frites, and he tucked into something that looked to Liz like large knuckles and pasta.
“This is a provencale dish of ham and the German Spaetzle. It’s fabulous. You have a lyonnais sauce on top. the only thing remotely like it in satisfaction factor would be, maybe, Philly cheesesteak or deep dish pizza.”
“I really didn’t understand anything you said.” Liz admitted, laughing. “It looks to me like parts of the pig I usually throw away, but to be honest I never really see the whoel carcass, so…”
“I will ignore the fact that you said, ‘carcass.’ That’s just not appetizing.”
She laughed, and noticed the nausea was gone, and bits of steak and French fries were making its way into her and giving her a feeling of total complacency.
She leaned back in her chair.
“You haven’t eaten anything yet!”
He stared to cut up her steak. “Here, I’ll make it more tempting.”
She laughed again, and sipped her beer.
“I know what I need now.” She picked up the single sheet of paper and read from it, “Flourless gateaux de Sachre. Whatever that is, I think it sounds great.”
“Oh yes that is really good.” The waitress, waiting near the kitchen talking to another worker, saw liz pick up the menu and ran over “Is something wrong with your steak frites?”
“Oh no, it’s great.”
“She wanted to skip riht ahead to dessert, the sachre torte, s’il vous plait.” RC asked, in a quick authoritative manner.
“Mais oui.” The Brazilian responded, and walked away.
“I have to keep reminding myself that you’re from the States, too.”
“I actually grew up here. This was my father’s family estate, my grandmother was the last private owner of this chateau. My dad moved to the States to go to college, met my mom, and ended up living there. We would come here once in a while, but I basically keep coming back to just to remember Nana. She was a great woman, I think you’d like her. She was very… well, in the States we may say bitchy, but more like, she was very strict and had a clear view of things and made it known to you right when you met her.”
Liz smiled at the idea of RC getting bossed around by a little Swiss woman, but stopped when she noticed he had a quiet look about him.
“She died when I was 18, and I was really wild until then. I started focusing more on what I wanted to do with my life, and Johnny’s Dad was having a hard time with his company. It really helped me to be close to him, and learn from him. My dad, I love him, but he’s always been very comfortable with not working, living on his income from the estate, his hobbies, their life together. I envy them, he’s totally content. It’s taken me a while to finally reach that place where I’m totally okay with the life I’ve chosen.”
Liz didn’t know what to say. He always seemed so directed and focused, she never thought he had inner qualms about where he was going or what he was doing with his life. “Tell me more about your grandmother.”
He described how she lived here, the local village, her routines.
“I’d love to see that village.”
“It’s a little different in winter, but let’s go there tomorrow. We can ski there. I’ll stop by after breakfast.”
Liz felt like demurring but she really wanted to see it.
The dessert arrived. It was a thin sliver of dark chocolate, with a sprinkling of apricot glaze on the top. She slid her fork in and tasted rich, milky overtones of European chocolate and hazelnuts.
“That is from a famous hotel in Austria. You should go there, our branch is nearby.” He discussed Aspert business, and she took bite after bite of the chocolate, that, with the light airy beer, made her Rocky Mountain sickness dissolve, and the distant snowy banks of the lake became the winter wonderland she had only dreamed of, far away in her rickety flat in the Mission District.
“I can’t believe I’m here. It’s all so dreamlike. Trite, isn’t it.”
“Well, one thing that really impresses me about you, Liz, is that you do what you want. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say, “I can’t do this because of xyz.” You take your own destiny, your own future in your hands.” He held her hand under the table. “I really respect that.”