“You must be new,” he says, his eyes trained coolly on the elevator doors while her very presence burns holes into his oxygen supply.
“How would you know that?” she says, glancing down at her notebook.
“I know all the pretty nurses in the hospital.”
She says nothing until the light for her floor illuminates until she's sure she can get in the last word before the doors shut him out. “And apparently, they all know you.” She steps out of the elevator, gives him a pointed look. “And I wouldn’t take that as a compliment.”
I jump, my finger pressing out jjjjjjjjjjjj as I glance toward the sound. I groan. It was my last day at the El Encanto, and I’d thoroughly planned it for maximum efficiency. Had the infallible hotel staff made a mistake?
Last night, I’d pre-ordered room service for coffee breaks, lunch and dinner. I’d even scheduled my last morning to eke out the most of what the hotel had to offer me. And what it had already granted, was more than I could have known to ask: I had a journal full of notes and meaty character profiles, a story timeline, a list of questions to ask my grandmother and Sam, and most encouraging of all, I had written ten, whole, chapters. “A shitty first draft,” as my favorite author on writing had said. But it was a first draft!
I set my laptop down on the patio table, unfold myself from the cushy chair and stretch with each step that brings me closer to the door. The coffee was nearly forty-five minutes early, but I didn’t care enough to send it back. I’d already been disturbed anyway. It’d be pointless to be interrupted again in another forty-four minutes.
When I open the door, a bouquet of red roses floats in front of my face. And then, it’s not just red roses, but Rich and his face is bumping into mine for a kiss on the lips, his greeting so jarring, his smile so bright, that it feels to me like a beautiful mirror has shattered, and I will have to spend the rest of my time here, picking up the fragments one-by-one with my fingertips.
A smile is plastered to my face. I’m aware, but he isn’t. He’d started to walk into the suite with his shoes on, and I’d asked him to take his shoes off. He’d laughed at me. Wasn’t I so cute? Treating this suite as though it were my own home.
He was wrong. It was my sanctuary.
Or had been.
What I wanted to do now was throw his overnight bag and his shoes out the door, as though getting his things out of sight would make it possible for this interruption to have never happened. Why hadn’t I looked through the peephole first? Why had I opened it assuming it was coffee? But if I had seen that it was Rich, what would I have done? Called down to security and reported that there was a strange man at my door? With flowers?
I set the vase of giant rosebuds-- so out of place in this space, I think-- on a side table near the balcony doors. Peachy antique roses, peonies, a spray of wildflowers, maybe. But not these stuffy hothouse roses. These made me think of valentines with no imagination or high school prom. Rich had known this about me forever, and still, here they were. Here he was.
I hear doors open and close and Rich’s drifting voice as he notes where the hotel has saved money and where they’ve spent it in good measure. Finally, I hear him come up behind me on the balcony where I’m saving my manuscript, my eyes lingering on my unfinished sentence with longing. His arms wrap around my waist, so I try to melt into him, keep my bristles retracted, not stab him with the pinpricks of my displeasure, my disappointment that he knows me so little.
“I’ve missed you so much. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t text or talk for as long as we did this time.”
“I love you,” I say because I can’t make myself lie and tell him I missed him too.
He squeezes me, rests his chin on the top of my head. I am grateful for this. As thoughtless as he could be at times, he could read my face like a loophole in an airtight contract.
“I knew after being here by yourself these last few days you’d be dying to see a friendly face. Bored out of your mind, right?” He chuckles, not looking for an answer so much as a pat on the back. “I asked you if you wouldn’t mind using my credit card for the booking so I could earn the points but.... it was so I could call the hotel back and extend our stay. Two more nights here, but together.”
At this, I know I’m already on the way to forgiving and letting go. So he’d trampled on one day of writing. I could start working on it again when I got home. No one had given me a deadline on pages. Rich had done something nice for us with what he knew about me in mind. And the me he knew, didn’t take trips without him, couldn’t spend more than a day on a single project without getting bored, couldn’t sit at my desk for more than a couple of hours at a time without stretching my legs. “You know me so well,” I say, turning to face him with a smile. “What do you want to do first?”
“You seem distracted,” Rich says, squeezing my hand at dinner. I smile back. The truth was, now that I’d begun to write, I couldn’t entirely put the story out of my mind. Even as the waiter refilled our wine glasses, as Rich caught me up on his latest client dramas, the reel of my novel played like an out of focus movie.
“I can’t stop thinking about my story,” I say. “It’s like I’ve breathed actual life into these characters and now they’re continually demanding my attention.”
Rich narrows his eyes a little. “Are they talking to you right now?”
I give his foot a little kick under the table. “You know what I mean.”
He shakes his head grinning. “Tell me a little more about what you’ve been working on. And after that, I have some exciting news for us.”
The first thing Rich had wanted to do this afternoon was to take a dip in the pool. I’d yet to swim in the middle of the day, and I had to admit that it had felt nice. Lying side-by-side on the lounge chairs, soaking in the sun, it had felt as though we were on vacation. I’d told Rich a bit about my story then— just the elevator pitch, and he’d sounded enthused, told me he’d always thought I should write a novel about growing up in a small town. “I could easily see something like that becoming a screenplay too.” I’d leaned over my chair and kissed him on the cheek, droplets of water from my hair falling onto his face. “Exactly!” I’d said.
But, sharing any more of the story felt too precious right now. Rich was always generous with his opinions and advice when it came to my writing, but this wasn’t an article about selling real estate, or marketing products in foreign countries. My ideas and words are still too fragile a thing to pass around for examination. I could get hurt. I’ve been writing long enough to know how demoralizing criticism— however right, and ultimately helpful— it could be, when invited at the wrong time. Wasn’t it Stephen King who had said, “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”?
“It’s okay,” I say, taking another sip of my wine. “I’d like to develop it a little more on my own before I share.” My gaze sweeps the dining room of the hotel. It has an almost safari like feel with its elegant wicker back chairs, walls of windows and lush plants snuggled against every corner. Rich had done his research: all of the ingredients were from the hotel’s gardens, the seafood, caught that day from the shores below the hotel.
“What’s your news?” I say, thinking I have an idea of what it is. While Rich’s money was his money, and mine was mine, we’d always celebrated each other’s individual successes with a small degree of ownership.
“Remember that guy, Cash, from Jake Hurt’s party?”
At the mention of Jake, my thoughts jump to Jake’s farewell party in Calabasas—it was the last time I’d seen him before his move to Tomahawk Hill. Audrey had gotten sucked into an impromptu taste test Cesar had scrounged up in the kitchen and Rich had been deep in conversation with Cash. I recall a big grin and even larger glasses. Tech start-up. App genius.
Jake and I had continued our talk on his parent’s patio long enough that one of the servers had come by with a fleece blanket for me and fresh coffee for both of us. We’d fought over the last cookie on our dessert plate until Jake had “negotiated” what he’d considered a fair deal. “I’ll give you this entire cookie,” he’d said, waving it in my face, “if you promise me a lifetime supply of free malts at the diner.”
I’d snatched the cookie from his fingers and taken a big bite. “I’m 60% sure Therese will say ‘yes,’” I’d raised my eyebrows when he’d given me an, “oh come on!” look.
“Hey, is it my fault that you forgot who was in charge of the diner? Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy 100% of this deeeelicious cookie.”
“Yes, I remember Cash,” I say smiling, but holding back a laugh. I missed Jake’s teasing and the way he bartered unnecessarily for things like cookies and malts.
“Guess who called me last week to help him buy-up two new office spaces? One in Culver and the other downtown?”
“Rich, that’s great,” I say, pleasantly surprised that Cash was the one who had initiated the transaction. None of the other contacts Rich had pursued after Jakes party had gone anywhere so far, much to Rich’s annoyance. “But... that was last week?”
“I wanted to be sure Cash was serious, get his signature on the contracts before I told you. He’s my first commercial client, Liv, and the contract is worth millions, which means we will make thousands.”
Looking at Rich across the table, hearing him go into further detail about what he and Cash had discussed, I remember the reasons why I’d fallen in love with him in the first place. In that one sentence: we will make thousands, he’d said, what’s mine is yours. And in the ways he trusted me to write his real estate articles and shared his business woes and triumphs, he said, we are a team.
I wasn’t naïve enough to think Rich’s encroachment on my writing retreat was purely selfless. I knew he missed me, wanted to do something sweet for me. But it was also Rich’s way of getting his way after I’d insisted on mine. And maybe I was foolish to find this endearing, but I loved how stubborn he could be. He was so sure of himself, so sure he knew what was best for me.
And on top of all that, underneath the expensive suits and loafers, was the country boy I’d met in college. Deeply earnest, dreaming big, always wanting more; for himself; for me.
His movement is so swift and fluid I wonder, as I gaze at him down on one knee, how did he get there?
When he opens the red box, the diamond blinks at me like a newborn opening its eyes for the first time-- shiny and new and perfect.
I’ve been whisked onto the set of a movie, an extra with one speaking line but I can’t remember what the cue is to say it-- my eyes ten degrees right of the camera. Was it before or after the guy with the coffee cart walks by?
As people clap and send whistles through the air around us, Rich’s lips seek mine, and I’m heady with the victory of remembering what to say at the right time, and the scene ends, the two of us walking hand-in-hand, my head bumping the side of his shoulder we’re walking so close, and we enter the hotel gardens to talk about our future and our big, big, dreams.