by Melanie S. Hatter
He said no underwear, so she left them in the drawer. She dabbed spicy perfume, specially purchased for the occasion, on her wrists, her neck and behind her knees. She slipped on a navy mini dress made of Lycra that was cut low in the back and high on her hips. Conscious of the gentle bobbing of her breasts as she walked from room to room, she felt satisfied Rick would go crazy for her.
Erika had spent the afternoon straightening her kinky long hair with her flat iron so she could wear her hair down around her shoulders. That's how he liked her to look. The VCR clock displayed seven-forty-eight p.m. He had said eight o'clock sharp. She opened the Chablis, settled onto the couch and waited. Sitting with her legs crossed, Erika sipped her wine, feeling it warm her stomach, her foot repeatedly pumping the air. Images on the television flashed before her — a noisy sitcom with little to say. At five minutes after eight, she knew he would make her wait. Rick was either precisely on time, or an hour late. As she waited, her mind drifted to a previous lover.
She had played the game with Carter for five years, gagging her urge to reveal that her alarm kept ringing on her inner clock. They had danced the Tango, moving back and forth between being friends and lovers. They had debated in great detail which aspect of their relationship was more important, friendship or sex. Friendship always won unanimously, yet Erika felt they were skipping a part of the conversation. She wanted more than friendship, more than sex, but the fact that he didn't want more of anything hadn't sunk through her love-smogged mind. He claimed he was still trying to find himself, only now Erika was convinced he had never been seriously looking.
She finished her drink and got a refill. Waited. At nine o'clock, she sat twirling the empty wine glass between her fingers.
"Damn you," she said.
Rick had called her yesterday, leaving a voicemail message saying he would suck everything on her body that he could get his lips around. "Wear a short skirt with no panties," he had whispered into her machine. Somewhere inside herself she hated his demands, yet seduced by his baritone and his dark chocolate body, she couldn't stop herself. The concoction of excitement and disgust within her made the experience exhilarating.
But he wasn't Carter. Carter had an inner strength that gave him confidence to move through life with a certainty she had yet to experience. He had drive and enthusiasm but tempered it with a conservative mind that weighed the pros and cons. He had a liberal sense of humor and a quiet laugh. He shared her passion for books and wrote poetry, whispering it in her ear, pausing just long enough for his lips to caress her lobe. He possessed a subtle sensuality that smothered her heart until she couldn't feel it beat anymore and a mouth that made her toes curl when she watched him talk. His body was slender, the color of wheat, and he made love like molasses.
After the demise of a two-year engagement that had ended with the words, "she didn't mean anything to me," Erika was not ready to fall for another. Carter stood, tall and confident at the podium with tight graying curls on his crown, reading words that touched her heart. He spoke sensitive words she'd never heard a man say, and without a thought she approached him afterward, shook his hand and told him she loved his poetry. He held her hand longer than needed and later confessed that he, too, had recently ended a relationship. They sat in the park until the birds rose for breakfast and discussed their dreams — he wanted to publish a novel and she wanted to own a marketing firm. Like buttons slipping into the right hole they connected and shared secret after secret.
After a five-year dance, she gathered all her gall — prepared for him a feast of roast lamb with vegetables, cheesecake made from scratch with fresh juicy strawberries, a bottle of his favorite Merlot surrounded by candles and fresh flowers — and asked him to marry her.
His lower lip fell dramatically, reminding her of a ventriloquist's dummy. Except, she was the dummy. Then he laughed. He actually placed his hand on his stomach and laughed in her face. Feeling her lower lip quiver, Erika clamped her teeth over it and giggled with him. A joke? Of course she was joking. She was a regular comedienne. And as they always did, they made love, and she closed her eyes and fought back tears until he disappeared at some small hour in the night. All he wanted was friendship. The lovemaking was merely an added bonus, not a bridge to commitment. He thought she knew this, but she hadn't known and fell hopelessly in love with him with fantasies of together-forever dancing in her head. Like a discarded shell, she sank to the bottom of the bay.
At nine-thirty-five the doorbell sounded. She rose slowly from her slump and straightened herself before opening the door.
Rick burst in filling the air with the sharp smell of liquor. He rushed at Erika, lifting her by the waist and carrying her to the bedroom. His smile was broad and his eyes watery from an evening of drinking. He dropped her on the bed and she fell backwards awkwardly. He was on top of her before she noticed his pants were down, his breath stinking of Hennessy as he pushed his tongue between her lips arresting her protest. He moved his mouth across her throat and shoulders and whispered, "You miss me?"
"Wait a minute." Erika tried to push him away but failed; his bulkiness held her down. "Baby, slow down."
"I said, did you miss me?" he demanded.
Erika acquiesced. "Uh, huh."
Rick's caresses were rough and urgent as he groped and pushed into her. He grunted savagely in her ear as he rocked, then he rolled onto his back and let a gust of air burst through his lips.
"Damn that was good," he breathed.
Erika lay on her back motionless and stared at the ceiling for several moments. Taking a deep breath, she turned onto her hip to face him, resting her head in her hand. This scene was not what she had envisioned. She had imagined an hour of drinking wine, listening to his funny stories and teasing each other with sexual innuendoes.
"Did you go bowling with the guys?" she asked, pulling the short skirt down to cover her hips.
"Yeah." His eyes closed then flickered open briefly until his jaw slackened and his head flopped to the side. There was a moment of silence then a snore thundered from his throat startling her.
She smacked his arm. "Don't go to sleep. Wake up!"
He flinched at her touch but remained asleep. For a half hour she stared at him, rationalizing that he was tired and needed to rest. Then she stood up and slammed open her closet door. How dare he treat her like a hooker off the street. She flung her dress into the back of the closet and replaced it with a T-shirt and sweatpants. In the kitchenette, she poured another glass of wine and took a gulp then returned to her lover's side.
"Wake up!" she yelled and splashed wine in his face.
Startled, he snapped upright, shook his head and stared ahead of him as if getting his bearings. Slowly he turned his head to face her. He looked at the wine glass in her hand. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" His words were slow and his eyes darkened making her afraid.
Her voice was soft and compliant. "I wanted you to wake up."
"Don't ever do that to me again." He wiped both palms across his face and stood up. "You do not disrespect me like that. Who the hell you think you are anyways? Huh?"
He sounded like a father and she imagined him with his two boys. She almost giggled believing he was joking with her. She couldn't hide her smile. "I didn't mean . . ."
"Oh, you gonna laugh at me now? You are one rude bitch, you know that?"
His comment smacked her face. He turned away and Erika watched him fasten his trousers and check his face in her vanity mirror.
"Why you leaving? I thought we were going to spend some time."
"What? Stay here to be treated like trash? I don't think so. I can get that from my wife."
She reached out as if to pull him back. Was he seriously about to leave her? "I just wanted you to wake up. Baby, I'm sorry."
"Well I'm awake now, ain't I?"
"Baby, please don't go."
He stormed through the hallway and out the front door slamming it behind him. The apartment was still. For a moment, she was tempted to run after him and beg him not to leave her. Surely he would come back. Tears filled her eyes and she gave in to them letting the sobs heave in her chest as she curled into a ball on her bed.
A week of silence passed between them. She wanted him to call and apologize, but he didn't. Foolishly, she called to say she was sorry — being alone was unbearable. Being alone filled her with an anxiety that gave her stomach cramps.
Her birth mother had deposited her at the door of a social worker and for three months Erika had languished in the city's network of abandoned children until her mother reconsidered and came back to retrieve her. Erika had no memory of this, but her mother made sure she knew the sacrifice she had made to give Erika a home. Her mother now lived alone — having cheated on and divorced all three husbands — and would likely die alone. Erika didn't want that for herself. All she wanted was to have someone to love her, hold her in the night — the whole clichéd grow-old-with-someone story, that's what she most wanted.
Six days and several packs of antacids later, Rick finally returned her call of apology and invited her to dinner at an exclusive restaurant just outside the city. Every time he disappeared she vowed it was over, berated herself for being so foolish to fall for a married man, and promised she'd find someone good. She deserved better, yet better never turned up. Maybe marriage wasn't in the cards for her, but anything was better than being alone.
At home after work, she carefully removed her suit and blouse, and replaced the outfit with a form-fitting cocktail dress with a ripple of frills that swirled just above her knees as she walked. She got into her car to drive the hour out of the city to a small restaurant with an inspiring view of the lake.
With the gas tank almost on empty, she stopped to fill up. She swiped her credit card and set the nozzle so she didn't have to hold it. An afternoon rain shower had cleared the thick air and a fresh breeze stroked her bare shoulders. The night would be spectacular — a perfect romantic reunion. As she stood listening to the click-click of the gas pump, a couple arguing on the other side of the street caught her attention. Erika sighed. Some folks had no class, she thought. They needed to keep their nonsense indoors.
The woman appeared to be in her late twenties, much younger than Erika, wearing a skimpy dress and high heels. Her left hand covered her face and Erika thought she was crying. The man's voice carried through the air, although the breeze garbled his words, Erika surmised he was accusing his lady of cheating on him. The man took several steps away from the woman, who was reaching out to him as if begging him to stay with her. Erika didn't notice the pump stop. The man swiveled suddenly, rushed back to her and, screaming something inaudible, smacked the side of the woman's head with the flat of his hand. She stumbled back into the wall of the building, both hands now cradling her face. Erika inhaled sharply. She should do something. Call someone. Call the police. Tell the gas station attendant. But her body stood weighted against her car. The man again walked away, stopped and turned, this time shouting at the woman from a distance before taking off down the street.
When he was out of sight, Erika finally felt her body move. She hurried across the road to where the woman was still leaning against the wall. "Are you okay?"
"Leave me alone." The young lady's voice was muffled, her head facing the brick, long dark hair covering her face. Numerous silver bracelets decorated her light brown arm.
"Can I call someone for you?"
"He'll be back for me. It's okay." The woman lifted her head. Her cheek appeared on fire and her deep set dark eyes were swollen with tears. "He gets mad sometimes, but he'll be back. I'm fine."
Erika nodded. "I should give you a ride home."
The lady shook her head and began to walk after the man. Erika watched her until she disappeared around the corner, and then stood staring at the darkening street feeling her heart thudding in her chest and pulsing in her ears. She turned and caught a glimpse of herself in a store window, wearing sexy clothes for her man just like the bruised woman who had scampered after her abusive boyfriend.
In her car, with her hands on the steering wheel and the engine running, Erika stared at the on ramp to the highway that would take her north to the lake. In her mind, she saw the man strike the woman and heard her words, "he gets mad sometimes." A queasy feeling bubbled in her stomach as she imagined herself as that woman, begging Rick to come back to her. He gets mad sometimes, disappears for a week or two, comes back, and all falls back into routine.
Something had to change. Erika pulled out of the gas station and drove back to her apartment. She slipped her dress off and stared at her naked body in the mirror wondering what to wear now.