As Nancy moved around the room making last minute preparations, she exuded a fluttery nervousness. Her short leather skirt clutched her shapely thighs, making each step shorter than usual. She had the sensation several phones rang simultaneously, and she couldn’t decide which one to answer first. If she didn’t calm down, Curtis would know he’d unnerved her. They both knew her body language had always been an open window to her interior landscape. She glanced around the room, trying to ignore the Christmas tree in the corner. She hoped Curtis wouldn’t comment on the fact she was still celebrating Christmas in August.
And how shocking that Curtis showed up like this out of the blue. She had taken him off her list years ago, a sure sign their breakup was final. Curtis had left Chicago seven years ago, and she’d not heard a word from him for four years. Now he claimed he’d applied for a job in the city, and came in from California for the interview. This morning he’d called to say he wanted to come over and visit.
When she first met him ten years ago, she’d just turned twenty-six, and her enchantment with him loomed larger than the twelve-foot tall figures on billboards. He took up all of her breathing space, and she depended on him to dole out oxygen for her sustenance. And when the oxygen was in short supply and she was about to expire, he’d give her just enough air to survive. All the cruel witticisms she’d planned to heap on him at the first opportunity evaporated when she heard his voice. She didn’t hesitate to invite the love terminator up for a drink. She should have simply refused. Why didn’t she?
Hiking her skirt to the top of her thigh, she knelt to open the liquor cabinet. She pulled out a bottle of Glenlivit Scotch, his favorite, and untouched since he left. So many times she tried to throw it out only to return the container to the same exact space. She brushed the bottle with her fingers, raising a small cloud of dust, and chided herself for keeping it so long.
After Curtis walked out, he left a void that filtered into every aspect of her life. She couldn’t sleep, her work slipped, and she juggled a multitude of minor physical ailments that could be blamed on plain old depression.
For a year and a half she felt her hold on sanity was barely more than a slim thread. On late evening walks, she found herself peering into windows wishing those happier looking strangers would take her in and comfort her. Movements made too swiftly terrified her, like she balanced on the edge of a cliff and had to walk perfectly erect and in a straight line. Just when the unrelenting loneliness threatened to swallow her, she’d found Tom. He’d saved her, and it wasn’t a rebound. She truly loved the man, the kindest person she’d ever met.
Tom is a meat and potatoes guy while Curtis loved fine cooking. Sometimes Curtis had cooked for her, his favorite meal being feta stuffed veal chop with rosemary. Nancy recalled that she always bought the food, and that hadn’t bothered her at all. Curtis seasoned and cooked like a top chef. Nancy set out the caviar and crackers with chopped onions on the side. She chided herself because her intent was just to say a quick hello and have him leave as soon as possible. If that was the case, she asked herself, why had she opened a jar of the Beluga caviar he loved so much?
The doorbell rang. Nancy checked her watch and saw that Curtis was late as usual. Tom was never late. She glanced at a photo of Tom, a sweet-faced, forty-year old balding man. Her eyes shifted to the door and for a moment she had the feeling she was committing adultery. She considered not answering until he went away. When she opened the door, he lifted her up and spun around.
“Put me down,” she said, laughing in spite of herself.
“It’s my Nancy girl,” he whooped. Slowly, he lowered her to the ground, his lips brushing her cheek. Her breath caught in the back of her throat. She didn’t know if her vertigo was the result of his presence or the twirling. Struggling for a nonchalant smile, her lips felt like they were made of plastic.
Curtis scrutinized her approvingly with those cool, green eyes. “You still look totally delicious,” he said in his deep baritone voice. “Haven’t changed a bit.”
For the first time since she’d known Curtis, she experienced a tiny jolt of power. The best revenge for the lover that dumped her, she thought, was to look good.
They stood in the foyer as she tried to get her dizzying thoughts under control. His languorous handsome face showed signs of the malice of time. His olive skin that had once had a wonderful dewy feel now looked dry and leathery. Deeply tanned, tiny white lines radiated from the corners of his eyes where the ridges were too deep for the sun to reach. He still had the kind of sultry, poetic face you see on book jacket covers, the kind that incites women to have sexual fantasies.
“And Hollywood?” She noticed his scruffy cowboy boots.
“I’ll tell you all about it. Are you going to invite me in?”
She closed the door and put her hands behind her back so he wouldn’t see them trembling. Images of walking on Michigan Avenue with Curtis, hand in hand, burned the backs of her eyes. She told herself that he was a has-been, forty-three-year old actor who couldn’t shine Tom’s shoes.
Curtis stood in the middle of the room, his fists jammed into his pockets. He stared at the Christmas tree in the corner. “Seeing the tree makes me think nothing has changed. It’s like time stood still for us.”
“Everything has changed,” she said louder than she expected to. “Drink?” She walked quickly to the bar and put ice cubes into two glasses, suddenly needing a drink herself. As she poured, she watched the cubes melt a bit, rearrange themselves and tinkle pleasantly.
Sucked into a whirlpool of their history, she stared at Tom’s picture to anchor herself. She loved Tom. Tom was stable, caring and supportive. She had been out-of-her mind crazy about Curtis, the most creative, funniest person she’d ever met. Ever. But the man was all glitz. She handed him his glass and watched as he inhaled, then sipped the golden liquid in the voluptuous way she remembered. Her heart yanked, and she wanted to touch his full, bruised looking mouth. She curled her toes inside her shoes.
“Glenlivit? You remembered my favorite drink. You can’t still be angry with me.” He swiveled the glass and looked around. “How come you still celebrate Christmas in August, just like we always did?”
“I don’t do it for you or the memory of you. I like doing it for myself.” She almost said for Tom, too. But the words did not leave her tongue and she didn’t know why.
They both stared at the large potted pine tree that consumed almost an entire corner of the small living room. It had grown since Curtis had bought it as a sapling. The sodden pine smell blanketed the air, seeping into every corner. When she had told Tom about the celebrating Christmas in the summer, he loved the idea although she didn’t tell him it originated with Curtis.
Her stomach churned as she realized she had not removed several ornaments on the tree that Curtis had given to her. He had trash picked them; a porcelain figurine, a broken lead horse and at the top, a plastic figure of Jesus with an arm broken off. She felt exposed, like the weird dreams of finding herself naked in the middle of the street. Had she unconsciously wanted him to see it? Curtis pointed to the Jesus figure.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Nancy said. “Some ornaments were worth keeping. They remind me that I survived trash day. You know, the day you left me without so much as a goodbye.”
His eyes narrowed. “My leaving seems to have agreed with you.” He smiled and looked at the photo of Tom. “Boyfriend?”
“Yes. A great guy and not terrified of the “C” word. We’re getting married in six months.”
“Does he know I’m visiting you?”
“Why wouldn’t I tell him?” She could tell by Curtis’ expression he knew she manipulated the words to conceal the fact she hadn’t told Tom. Her knees turned rubbery. She didn’t tell Tom the truth because she feared her voice might have revealed too much feeling. Plopping on the sofa, she averted looking at his big grin. He sat beside her, very close. The aroma of his musky cologne enveloped her. She gulped her drink then turned to him. “Did you ever get married?”
“No. I made it clear that wasn’t my style from the day we met.” He took a long swallow. “But that was then.” He gave her a familiar stare with a raised eyebrow. That look usually preceded a dramatic announcement. It was as though he tried to gauge her response in advance, like raising a wet finger to judge the direction of the wind. Those comments fell into two categories – half-real for effect or imagined. But they could be whoppers like the time he announced he got a starring role in a Broadway show. In actuality, he had eight lines.
Now she sensed he wanted to backfill the void of the last four years to make it firm enough to walk across. It set her even more on edge and she began babbling about her graphic design job and how she’d been made director of the department. When a hole appeared in her monologue, she plugged it with giggles. The calmer he appeared, the faster she talked. She felt feverish.
Suddenly, he pulled her to him and brushed his mouth over her cheek. His lips trailed to her mouth and she tasted the Glenlivet on his mouth. She felt like she’d returned to a warm place after being stuck in a snow storm.
“Where’s the champagne?” he whispered. “Remember how we drank champagne when we made love?”
Nancy didn’t pull away as she remembered how Curtis dribbled champagne over her breasts then ran his tongue on the trail of the bubbly liquid — sweat and champagne, the trademark of their lovemaking.
“I’m scared to death,” he whispered.
She’d never heard him admit to being afraid of anything. “Why?”
“I’ve changed a lot and you probably won’t believe me.” He moved away.
She didn’t want to hear this. If they made love, she’d never forgive herself. How could she face Tom? She had to ask Curtis to leave.
He stood and walked to the window, staring at the panorama of apartment buildings. “I’ve missed you so much. You’ll never know.”
“Really? Why didn’t I hear from you all this time?”
“I wanted to be an actor above everything else, and you couldn’t take a back seat.”
“You never even gave me the opportunity to decide? I was always the caboose of a long freight train in your life, and I stayed with you through it all. I didn’t even mind when you went out with your drinking buddies. Or hadn’t you noticed.”
” She searched his back like a street map that would guide her now. He gave a forlorn shrug.
“That’s over. I’m ready for us and a nine-to-five.”
“Curtis, don’t you think I’ve changed, too?
“I can handle that.” He spun around to face her.
The look on his face was raw anguish, and a melt-down to her resistance began. Still, she needed to show him her new-found strong will. “I’m not asking you to.”
“Listen, babe. I know you still have feelings for me. And, as for me, I’m still crazy about you. I’m just asking you to give us a chance.”
She wanted to touch his sad face. This image of a subdued Curtis was new to her. In the old days, he’d been a twanging taut wire, hardly able to sit still for a minute. “You waltz back into my life as though you’d just returned from a stroll in the park. Now it’s like you’re apologizing for being late for dinner.”
“It took me a long time to grow up. I know that you’re the only one for me. I really understand now what you were trying to tell me.”
“I’ve got a new life.”
“It’s not the same as us. We can pick up from where we left off. We’re both different now.” He touched her hair. “You told me many times we were like magic. It’s still true.”
“I love Tom.” Her voice was small.
“Not like you loved me.”
Curtis hit a chord in her. “Tom takes care of me. He’s reliable.”
“It was the kid in me that you always loved. We had sizzle.” He held his arms out. “You see before you a responsible man. But I kept the fun kid parts in me intact.”
She kept her eyes on his boots covered in beige and pink dust and wondered where he’d wandered to accumulate the scratches and discolorations. So many times she’d agonized about where he might be and who he was with. If she looked at him too long she’d be lost.
“How about I bring my things in? I got a couple of suitcases in my van.”
Nancy wanted to tell him no, but her tongue froze.
“I’ll have to pick up Chuckie, but that will only take an hour. He’s with my sister.”
“You still have that mutt we found?”
Curtis raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. It’s my son, Chuckie.” He smiled crookedly. “I always did like that name.”
“Back it up. What son?”
“I had this casual affair and the woman got pregnant and wanted to have the kid. When she was killed in a motorcycle accident, I inherited the little guy.”
Nancy laughed harshly, thinking her expression had to be as contorted as she felt.
“What’s so funny?”
“You named your son after a dog?”
“It’s the name you gave the pooch.” He looked away. “That’s how I always kept you in my sights, babe.”
She didn’t want to believe him. “Where is he now?”
“You know about the life of an actor. My sister’s been raising him, but she doesn’t want to anymore. If I don’t get settled, I’ll have to put the kid in a foster home.” He cocked his head. “You always wanted kids, and Chuckie doesn’t take up much space or eat a lot.”
Nothing has changed she thought. Lean on Curtis and like confetti he drifts lightly through the air. “The amount he eats is not the problem, Curtis. Sooner or later, you desert everything important in your life. If you can’t dump poor Chuckie on me, you’re willing to give him to strangers. Where is the new Curtis? You hardly seem like father material let alone going into a committed relationship.”
“Hey, I’m trying my best to raise my kid and get back together with you, and all you do is criticize me.”
“You’re always the victim.” Something inside her gut went from liquid to steel. She could look him in the eye now and not melt. “So, after you move in here with Chuckie, what if you don’t find a job? You’re only qualified for acting.”
“Hey, there are plenty of acting jobs in Chicago. I did handy work when I got hard up.”
“And what if things don’t work out here for you? Back to California without Chuckie? I can see you’d dump the poor kid on me.”
“Hey, don’t be like that. I’d never do that.” He waved his hand at the tree. “This place is filled with my ghost. Don’t tell me you don’t love me.”
“It ended when you left. I didn’t know it until today. Thanks for stopping by.”
She walked over to a closet and took out a large cardboard box and a small ladder. Climbing the ladder, she removed all the ornaments from the tree, and neatly placed them in the box. Next, she put the bottle of Scotch on top and handed it to him.
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe my sister can use these.” He hoisted the box onto his shoulder and saluted her with a snap as he turned and walked out.
It was as though Curtis had left a bookmark before the last chapter of a thrilling book when he left, and now she had read the disturbing conclusion. The book was closed, and she had a sense of peace.
She picked up the telephone and dialed. When Tom said hello she gasped, “Thank God you’re there. How soon can you get here? And can you bring your tree ornaments over? I just threw mine out. I don’t like them anymore.”
“I’ll be there ten minutes ago,” Tom said, his voice soothing her. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you to say that.”
His statement startled her. He knew. In that moment she realized that the man
she intended to marry was remarkable. “I’ve been waiting a long time, too,” she said, her voice strong.