Tran Thi Linh gathered her belongings and pressed the power button on her phone. She had intentionally turned it off during her lunch break in hopes of turning it back on at day's end and being bombarded with text, email, and voice messages of desire and admiration. She tapped her desk anxiously as the sleek device booted up. Her heart rate increased slightly in anticipation of a new message from a handsome and charming guy inviting her out for drinks or to go play miniature golf. The weatherman with the rust colored beard and cherry cheeks had reported pleasant breezes ahead with highs in the low eighties for the entire weekend so conditions were ripe for an outdoor date. She was already envisioning which pair of jeans she would wear with her short-sleeved slate gray blouse. Her outfit would be christened with silver bracelets and the new silver and gray speckled butterfly hair clip that was sitting quietly in her jewelry box at home. The accessories would finally be rewarded for their patience. Her agenda was set. The only thing missing was her invitation to excitement and that was only a few moments away.
Her phone buzzed to indicate that it had completed initializing and downloading data from the nearest cellular tower. Linh eagerly thumbed her way through its menus. There were no missed calls and no new text messages. The single email that arrived was spam with the subject line: "We've figured out how to KEEP IT BIGGER LONGER!"
"I'm sure this would be exciting news if I had a wiener," Linh muttered to herself. She read the entire email in hopes that it would also include detailed instructions on how to find someone tall with a great sense of humor for whom the message would be relevant. No such luck. She sighed audibly, threw her bag over her shoulder, and headed for the stairwell.
Esther Jackson pressed the elevator button and thought to herself as she stared blankly at the large steel doors. On any given Friday the mass exodus of her co-workers from their fourth story office began around 1:45pm. By 3:15pm, only the keyboard pecks of procrastinators and the highly motivated could be heard and by 4:45pm the entire floor was a ghost town. The late afternoon silence coupled with the soft whir of the elevator motor forced Esther into a state of brief yet profound self-reflection. She emerged from her metaphysical journey with one enduring piece of truth: she possessed a super-natural ability to attract douche bags.
"Any big plans for the weekend?"
Esther turned to see Linh approaching her. The two women had been working in the same office for over six months but had only recently met. Though they were two very different women from two very different walks of life, they shared one overwhelming commonality that drew them a little closer to one another every time they spoke.
Esther shook her head. "I've been off from work for all of forty seven seconds and I feel like my weekend is already off to a bad start."
"Ouch. Something serious?"
"No. It's nothing like that. Just-" Esther paused as her brow furrowed. "Just more of the same crap."
"Guy stuff?" Linh asked.
"Sooo many fish in the sea. All of them rotten tuna."
"Yes," Esther agreed with a tired smile that quickly disappeared.
"I feel you. Something's gotta give."
A silence fell over them and Linh joined Esther in her blank staring. The elevator rumbled up the shaft and signaled its arrival with a familiar bell tone. The doors slid open and Linh moved forward but was stopped by Esther's hand on her arm.
"Wait. Don't get on," Esther said, looking straight ahead.
"Excuse me? Why? What's wrong?"
"Let's try something different. Anything. Let's take the stairs instead. It's time we did something different."
The only time Linh ever traveled the stairwell was when the post-lunch stampede on the women's restrooms forced her to seek out the facilities on the third floor. She had no problem finding the motivation to work out but scaling four flights of stairs to and from her office simply never registered with her. She quickly took a physical inventory and deemed herself fit for travel. She smiled at Esther, who was already moving towards the stairwell door with the wheels of progress turning in her mind.
"He said what?!" Linh exclaimed as the two women descended down to the second floor. "No way."
"Mmmmm hmmmm," Esther nodded. While she was fully engrossed in the conversation, she was also wary to take each step cautiously in her four inch heels. "He had the nerve to tell me to lose his number! I couldn't believe it. I should've known better."
"So, I can't help but wonder, why'd you sleep with him so quickly? What made him so worthy? I mean, you literally just met him last night." Linh asked softly. She didn't want her curiosity to turn offensive or judgmental.
"I don't know. I feel like such a fool. And the worst part is that I wasn't even expecting that much from him. It's almost like I knew exactly what I was gonna be in for, Linh."
"Wow. Your intuition was telling you."
"Yeah, it was. But I was a little tipsy and a lotta lonely. Bad combination. And there he was. But at least he smelled good!"
"But I guess I got what I was looking for in a way though. The real thing doesn't come that easy, ya know. As much as I'd like to say that I was looking for the real thing, I know I wasn't. Well, at least, I wasn't going about it the right way. He was just another step in my never-ending trek up Mount Douche-More."
Linh nodded in thought. She quickly flashed back to her adolescence and young adulthood as the third daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. The pursuit of love and the comfort of a partner were never much of a priority for her. Her mother and father married and had kids relatively late in their lives and she'd always assumed that everything would fall into place for her as well. Her social habits and interests weren't exactly ideal for finding or being found by a potential mate and as she grew older and began to realize this she found it increasingly difficult to deviate from the lifestyle that she'd become accustomed too. She did not believe in looking for love but she also understood that it would not find her if she was not available to be found.
It was a strange feeling for Linh to yearn for change but not quite be motivated enough to nurture it to fruition. She had conquered every other challenge that had presented itself in her life but somehow she could not seem to get a clear vision for solving what was becoming the biggest puzzle of her life. She was a warm and friendly soul but she cherished her solitude and had few friends. She often opted for the passages of an interesting book instead of going to social events. She wasn't a fan of large crowds, sporting events, commotion, or ruckus and, in general, preferred the comfort of her home to almost any other place on earth. Whenever she did make attempts to step out of her comfort zone, they were half-hearted at best and her efforts typically ended up in frustration, disappointment, or embarrassment. The large city in which she now resided was a far cry from the humble village where her parents found each other and with each passing day the weight of her concern grew a few grams heavier on her shoulders.
"It's like you said, something's gotta give," Esther said as the loud tapping of her heels echoed up and down the stairwell. "I guess at some point we've got to ask the question: is what we're doing working?"
"Your way has to be working on some level because at least you're finding guys! They may all be scumbags but at least you're out looking."
"Yeah, but what if that's my problem," Esther retorted quickly. "Maybe I'm not supposed to be looking. Maybe I'm looking too much!"
"Esther, I'm your polar opposite. You're out there at least giving yourself a chance for love. I'm home with a bunch of novels written by other people who were probably just sitting around at home just like me! That's fine and all but it's certainly no way to let Mr. Right know I exist! Heck, sometimes I feel like I'd even settle for one of your douche bags. Take me with you up Mount Douche-More!"
"See. I couldn't do that. I can't even tell you the last time that I've sat down and read a book and just been at peace. I feel like I constantly have to be out. Something's pushing me and I hate it. We both need to take a real shot at something different. Like this stairwell. A break from our everyday ruts. We keep doing the same stuff, getting different results, and expecting something different. Isn't that the definition of insanity? You're insane, Linh!"
"What are you talking about?! You're gonna get pushed down these stairs if you ever insult me like that again!"
"Seriously," Esther said, laughing.
Linh stopped walking and turned to Esther. "So what are you saying?"
"Are you busy tonight?" Esther asked.
"According to my email inbox and voicemail, no."
"Alright. I'm starving. Let's go get something to eat and while we eat, I'll teach you may ways and you teach me yours. Then, this weekend, we'll both do and be something different."
Esther awoke to the soft bustle of street traffic streaming in through her open window. A cool breeze accompanied the familiar sounds of rubber rolling on asphalt and distant conversation. She buried herself in her comforter but then immediately sat up in her bed. Something was different. She felt different. Her mind started to take a mental inventory of her surroundings as her eyes moved around the room. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. She plucked her mobile phone from the nightstand and saw that there were three missed calls. All of them were from the same number. She massaged the area around her and pulled back the covers to see her tablet computer lying on the bed. She thought for a moment and then let out a roaring laugh when she realized why she had felt so differently. She was sober.
Esther Jackson had spent well over two thirds of her life in the shadow of her gregarious, disciplinarian father, Reverend Cesar Jackson III. The reverend was never unkind but he was a man of great stature in the city of Atlanta who simply could not afford to have his children partaking in the ills of the world. "You can date two years after you're married!" was the typical response anytime a young Esther broached the subject of courting the opposite sex. Though he spent the majority of his time away from home tending to the affairs of his growing mega-church, Reverend Jackson III made sure that a watchful eye was always kept on his daughter. After graduating from the high school associated with his church, Esther enrolled in Shand Hauer University, a prominent all-girl's college on the outskirts of the city. Much to her dismay, Esther soon discovered that even the campus of Shand Hauer was not far enough to escape the controlling influence of her father.
"You can worry about boys after you've gotten your degree." Reverend Jackson III said one Sunday afternoon to his twenty year old daughter. "You don't have time for that type of nonsense. Stay focused on the Lord and your studies, baby."
Ever patient and respectful, Esther adhered to her father's wishes and completed a four year statistics bachelors degree program in only thirty two months. Approximately three days after her graduation ceremony, she was on a plane to start a new job in a city far beyond her father's reach.
Esther sat in quiet thought at her small kitchen table. Her bedroom window had been closed and the television was off so there was only the sound of her metal spoon slowly clanking around in her cup of tea. She was drinking an herbal blend recommended by Linh. "It's great for calming the nerves and the restless spirit." Esther recounted Linh's words as she took another sip. Taming her restless spirit would be quite the tall order for such a tiny packet of tea leaves.
Her phone vibrated and interrupted her thoughts. She picked it up and checked the new text message.
Wha da hell happnd to u las night?
Esther rolled her eyes. She could feel the sender's ignorance resonating from the screen. She ignored the question and responded.
Y u aint pik up the phone las night?
She sat the phone down on the table and took another large sip of coffee as her mind began to wander.
Esther made it a priority to look her best for work but her weekday efforts paled in comparison to her Friday night routine. Friday night was show time. Her prep work typically started around 7:00pm. Rested and fresh from a post-work nap, the first order of business was usually a lite snack, a shower, and her hair. After the preliminary work she focused on makeup, outfit selection, and accessorizing. By 9:30pm, she was an unstoppable force to be reckoned with and the hunt was on.
Every Friday night started off with the euphoric high of the unknown. The gods of the match-making universe would surely smile down upon her and place her in the center of the perfect first-encounter scenario. A handsome stranger standing alone by the bar at The Pelican Room, a reserved but confident smile from a gentleman at Chase, or maybe an inviting and flirtatious nod from a casanova on the dance floor at The Red Coconut. The drinks and aspirations of finding a soul mate typically flowed freely until around midnight and by 1:30am her final amaretto sour was watered down from the relentless stream of jerks, pretty boys, and classless hooligans.
For reasons that she could not understand, Esther was tormented by the thought of spending her weekends alone. The fears always seemed to amplify themselves in the wee hours of Saturday mornings or when she was intoxicated and generally led to associations and decisions that she would inevitably regret.
Esther plunged her spoon in and out of her tea and watched the air bubbles rise to the surface. Last night was not a typically Friday for her. She spent the early evening sitting in a booth in a diner discussing life and love with a new friend. Esther thought about their resolution and Linh's challenge.
"Can I recommend something? Sit down and relax. Try it. No clubs, no parties, no douche bags. Just Esther and herself. Read something. Do something you've been meaning to do at your place. Knit a sweater. Clean your stove. Pluck hairs from your carpet. Anything. But just stay inside. No phone calls. No stupid guys. No getting crazy drunk. Nothing. Just sit and be still and concentrate on you."
They had officially declared it to be the weekend of doing something different and Esther had taken Linh's advice. She took a long hot bath, wrapped up her hair, downloaded a short story from one of her favorite authors, buried herself in her comforter, and spent the entire evening reading. The night was a complete deviation from every other Friday night in recent memory. She felt uneasy, fidgety, and lonely at first but as the night wore on she found a sense of contentment settling over her.
Her thoughts were again interrupted by the phone's vibration. She picked up the troublesome device and cringed at the new message.
Im almos there
The navigational device attached to her dashboard screamed at Linh as she proceeded to make her third U-turn of the morning. She was already agitated at herself for being lost and running late for her appointment so being scolded by an over-priced compass was the last thing that she needed. She grabbed the device and threw it in the back seat as she mashed the accelerator.
"Where is this place?!" she screamed at herself. "I don't see any damn Shell stations! Why won't they invest in a bigger street sign?! Why am I even here?!"
She leaned forward against the steering wheel and scanned frantically for her destination. She recalled Esther's instructions from the diner the previous night.
"Okay, she just texted back. You're all set. It's an emergency pedi, mani, and facial session at 8:30 in the morning. I'll text you the street address of her shop later but it's over on Bruton near an old Shell station. It won't take too long. After that, you're off to get a new dress. I really think that you should let me come with you but I can understand you wanting to do it alone. That's fine, it's fine. Remember though, think different. Bright colors. Something sexy. Not conservative but don't go slutty. The last thing you need is the slut vibe. That's the quickest way up Mount Douche-More. Find a balance. Did I mention bright colors? Go bright, Linh. You'll be a beautiful, brightly colored little fish! They'll all line up to see you! This is exciting! It'll be fun for you, I promise. It's something different. Right? It'll be fun!"
"Finally!" Linh exclaimed as the Shell station sign came into view. Shortly beyond it she saw the smaller sign for the beauty shop. "This wasn't fun at all!"
"Destination on right," the navigational device announced from the backseat. "Destination on right."
Linh screamed. "I can see that!"
Her frustration was a mask for the anxiety that was slowly welling up inside of her.
The visitor bell rang twice and went silent. Esther stood next to the intercom panel on the wall near her front door, hoping that the bell would not ring a third time.
"Go away," she said softly to herself. "Just leave, dude."
When the bell rang a third time, she took a deep breath and pressed the "TALK" button on the intercom.
A deep voice emanated from the speaker and echoed through her foyer. Its bass was amplified with the help of a large truck lumbering slowly down Washington Avenue. "Yo. It's me."
"Me, who?" she said in an innocent voice.
"You know who the hell this is, girl. Open up."
A chill shot through Esther's spine as she stared at the intercom panel. Right below the "TALK" button was a large red button labeled: "OPEN GATE". The young man standing down at the front gate of her apartment building was the living embodiment of everything that was wrong in Esther's life. He was the sum of too many amaretto sours and failed aspirations of Fridays long gone. Rude, lazy, and disrespectful, he was exactly what her father had feared for her.
Oddly enough, Esther Jackson didn't enter into her rebellious phase until well after she had moved away from the establishment that she was subconsciously rebelling against. Her conservative upbringing granted her very little experience in the world of romance and so she clung desperately to shaky principles of finding and nurturing love. In the early years of her freedom, her unhealthy attraction to bad boys quickly revealed itself. Men like the one standing outside of her building offered little substance but they were charming, confident, and pleasing to the eye. They marveled at her seductive dress, lavished her with the short-term attention that she desired, and kept her warm at night. Relationships were a rare by-product of these encounters and if one did spring forth it usually died shortly thereafter due to infidelity, poor communication, or Esther coming to her senses. In the end, after the insults and the name-calling had subsided, she was left by herself in an empty bed in her large apartment and nothing frightened her more.
Logically, the never ending drama of dealing with jerks should have lightened the burden of solitude. She cited numerous songs and stories all centered on the theme "I can do bad all by myself". Unfortunately, logic was not always a chief player in affairs of the heart and somehow the men who were all wrong for her would slowly but surely make their way back into her life and into her bed.
The visitor bell rang out again. Esther leaned against the wall and opened her mouth to speak into the intercom but could not find the words. The young man spoke.
"What's going on? You good? You act like you don't know me."
The words suddenly rushed to her. "I know you. Listen, this isn't going to work. I can't do this anymore. You should probably go, okay? I'm sorry." She kept her finger on the "TALK" button but found her voice fading to a whisper. "Just leave, dude. Go away."
She released the button and slid to the floor as tears began to well up in her eyes. When they first met, Esther found it easy to overlook his shortcomings as she painted a masterpiece depicting a new life with him by her side. It took less than ten days for the picture to be torn apart and for his true nature to present itself but by then she had given him a large portion of herself. Severing ties was proving quite difficult for her.
"Listen... Esther," he began. His tone softened. The crackling and bustling of the street behind him faded down until there was only his voice filling up her entry way. "I'm sorry. I apologize."
Esther stood up as he continued.
"I know I screwed up a couple of times. Those girls ain't mean nothing. I shudda just left them alone but I couldn't. I'm sorry for that. I admit that as a man. I messed up."
"How do I know you won't pull that same shit again? I don't know if I can trust you after that."
"You can. Listen to me, Esther. You can. Hey, I've been meaning to tell you something. I love you. I don't love them. Cause I love you."
"You don't mean that," she said, tears streaming down her face. She stood three feet back from the wall as if he would magically emerge from the intercom panel to defend himself.
"Yes, I do. I really do! Look, I know you're prob'ly still hurt. I know. I get that. But I wanna talk about it. You know me. Don't act like you don't know me. Open up the gate and I'll come up and we'll talk. Can we do that, Esther? I just wanna talk about it."
Esther was reminded of the first time that she met him. The man whom she knew on that first evening had disappeared some time ago and was now miraculously standing right outside. She wiped the tears from her face and began to reach for the red button.
The whistle blew and there was a loud yell from the center of the room. Linh took a seat at a small round table across from a man in a maroon collared shirt with broad shoulders. He smiled at her.
"Hiya. I'm Greg."
"Hello, Greg. Nice to meet you!" Her palms were sweating and she could feel the butterflies in her stomach starting to come back. In the hours leading up to the evening's events, she had managed to work herself into a nervous frenzy. On three separate occasions she'd seriously considered cancelling and just spending a quiet Saturday evening at home but each time she drew strength from her covenant with Esther. Her moment had come. She took a deep breath and smiled as she looked down at the small pad of paper in her hand. "So if you could quit your job tomorrow and do anything you wanted, what would you do?"
"Hmmmm. Good question." Greg leaned forward in thought. "It's kinda hippie-ish but I always thought that it would be neat to move out into the country and be a forest ranger. You know, work with animals and what not."
Linh giggled. "Really? Wow. That's interesting to meet a guy who wants to be in touch with nature. "She quickly drew a smilie face next to Greg's name on her pad and wrote the number eight in a column labeled "Looks".
"Yeah, I know. It's a complete one eighty from what I do now."
"I'm a funeral home director. Well... to be honest. I'm not the director yet... but I'm in the management training program and plan to one day be the director. I've been slowly working my way to the top."
"I guess it's better than working your way to the bottom, right?" Linh joked. She tried desperately to mask the shock of actually being face to face with someone who spent the vast majority of his day around dead bodies. "I'd imagine your clients have that position already covered!"
Greg's smile disappeared. "You know, a lot of people like to laugh and tease me about my job but it really is a serious business. Everyone dies. Eventually, you are going to die and when you do you're going to need someone like me. People forget that. And not only am I moving my way up the corporate ladder, I'm also a writer."
"Oh really?! That's fantastic!" Linh exclaimed, relieved to have the subject change. "What're you writing about?"
"The funeral business. It's going to be a fictional thriller about the gruesome, underside of the business. The main character will be sort of a lovable goof who gets into real trouble when his pesky habit of cremating the wrong bodies catches up with him. He's basically going to accidently burn the body of a notorious gangster."
Linh glanced down at her pad and slowly started scribbling lines over Greg's smilie face. She looked around the room for the time keeper while wondering to herself about how much of his book would be based on actual events. Greg continued on.
"I'd love to meet a woman who can understand my passion for writing and my work and really connect with the story that I have to tell. All I do is work work work and I finally said to myself that I'd start stepping away from the funeral home and start looking for love! Sooo..." Greg paused and took a deep breath. "Enough about me. Tell me about you!"
"Yes?" Greg said, leaning forward again.
Linh's speechlessness was interrupted by the sound of a whistle. The time keeper clicked a button on his stopwatch and yelled for all in the room to hear. "Switch!"
"Ummmm. Gosh. The last date that I went on was probably two years ago."
"I'm sorry?" Linh looked up from jotting notes on her pad. The bulbous gentleman sitting across from her was stroking his scruffy beard and staring up at the ceiling in thought. "Did you mean to say that your last relationship was two years ago?"
"Nope. Now that I think about it, it's been exactly two years to the day since I was last with someone."
"You mean, together? Like in a relationship, right? Or are you talking about being, uh, intimate?"
"Nope. On a date." he replied, still stroking. "I went on a date with this girl, we bought a dog, and after that she told me that it wasn't going to work out and pretty much left me with the dog."
"And I thought I was in a bad drought," Linh mumbled to herself.
"I said, I can't believe she bailed out. How could she just leave you and the puppy like that? You guys bought that poor little dog together."
"It wasn't exactly a puppy. More like a four year old. But yeah, she had some nerve. I was devastated. So I went back and got two more dogs and I've just been taking care of them ever since. Here, let me show you a picture of us together."
Charles McAfee wasn't a man of many words. He was polite and well groomed but by no stretch of the imagination could he have ever been mistaken for a conversationalist. Under the normal circumstances of his everyday life, this character trait probably would have served him well but in the rapid fire environment of speed dating it served only as a detriment for him.
Linh considered her own shyness in the social arena and tried her hardest to pull more words out of McAfee. She pushed herself to propel the conversation forward. She offered him friendly gestures and asked probing questions but the resilient McAfee only responded with one and two word answers. A single wayward sentence emerged from him.
"I'm a pretty straight forward guy."
The timid man was a mystery that Linh wanted to solve until she realized one unshakable truth: Charles McAfee had a strange fixation with breasts. She brushed off his initial glances as curiosity but after fifty seconds of attempting to pry detailed answers out of him, she noticed that the glances had become stares.
McAfee wasn't the first guy to notice Linh's extra cleavage that evening. In the spirit of change, she departed from her typical dating attire and let the advice of her friend guide her outfit selection. The festive, brand new dress that she purchased after her beauty shop appointment was splashed with a brilliant green, purple, yellow, and golden flower print. While its plunging neckline was far from inappropriate, it was also quite far from what Linh normally wore and in her moments of uncertainty Esther's words came to her.
"Make sure it's bright and sexy. Nothing below the knee. Nothing above mid thigh. Oh and make sure you're showing a little up top, Linh. Put the girls on display! Show them off for a change! Do something different, right? But don't go crazy. Cleavage is like electricity. It only takes a little bit to get most motors turning and too much of it will kill a man!"
Sitting in front of McAfee, Linh quickly understood the power of her awesome cleavage. She marveled at his ogling and imagined what sort of mind control she could exert over him if she were only two cup sizes larger. A monthly rent payment, dinners at pricey French restaurants with menus that he couldn't read, and bi-weekly book store and shoe shopping sprees didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. She envisioned him as her loyal and willing sponsor, rewarded and driven only by his hunger for her lively bosom. She looked around the room at some of the other men participating in the event and reasoned that the extra attention could be quite flattering coming from a more compatible and expressive match. She turned back to find McAfee no longer even attempting to make eye contact. His attention was fully diverted and his mouth was all but watering. His mystery no longer intrigued her. She straightened out her new dress and turned away from him as she waited silently for the time keeper.
Linh stood anxiously against the wall underneath a large banner that read: "90 Second Match-Up - In 90 seconds you too could find the love of a lifetime!"
She took a few sips from the drink in her hand and surveyed the room. After meeting everyone, the second portion of the event was the mixer. The daters were encouraged to move about the room and briefly re-connect with those who they found interesting. While a large portion of the men that she met were either undatable or unmentionable, a few had succeeded in peaking her interest. In fleeting spurts of confidence, she sought them out only to find them speaking to other women. Occassionally, her wandering eyes met those of an unmentionable and in those instances she quickly looked down and made her way through the crowd back to her faithful post underneath the banner.
"So how's it going?"
Linh's gaze had been fixated on a large woman stuffed into a very small orange dress and she was startled by the voice. She turned to see the smiling face of the time keeper.
"Oops. Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you! My name's Francisco but everyone calls me Frank."
"Hello! Oh, I love that name! Can I call you Francisco? I love how it sounds." Linh could feel herself beginning to ramble. It was usually her first indicator that the alcohol was starting to affect her.
"Sure!" Francisco laughed. He stood slightly taller than Linh. She figured him to be in his early thirties but had a hard time pin pointing his ethnic roots. There was no accent but his dark curly hair and olive brown skin tone helped her to place his family roots somewhere near the shores of the Mediterranean. She was instantly attracted to him.
"So how on earth are you going to meet any cool guys standing over here by yourself?"
"Who, me? Oh, no no. No, no, no. I'm fine! I've met some, uh, interesting guys. Veeery interesting. Some good, some not so good... but all were interesting."
Fransisco laughed. "You sound like you're studying subjects for a thesis paper. Did you find the evening to be fun? Was it a waste of your time?"
"No, noooo!" Linh exclaimed, covertly taking in his cologne while overtly flashing him her prettiest smile. "It's been a wonderful night. I'm very glad that I came!"
"That's great. I'd imagine that pretty girls like you typically make out pretty well at things like this."
Linh could feel her cheeks reddening. She wanted to hug her new, sweet smelling Mediterranean prince for the gracias compliment. She maintained her composure. "This really was a fantastic event. How often do you guys hold these?"
"I have no idea. This is actually my first time coming to one. The guy who runs the website is my brother in-law and one of his regular guys left town for the weekend so he called me at the last minute to help. I almost didn't come but I really didn't have much else going on and he's family so here I am."
"So he pretty much had to beg you to come and hang out with a bunch of hot, desperate women?" Linh playfully asked. She took a seductive sip of her drink.
"Doesn't that sound crazy?! Like, what the heck is wrong with me! I'm not much of a schmoozer though and I barely drink so.... Besides, I don't know how you could call yourself desperate when clearly you're quite comfortable hanging out over here by yourself. All of these eligible guys are here for someone like you and you're nowhere to be found!"
"Maybe, Mr. Fransisco, I don't want to be found by them. Maybe I'm looking for something more. Something different. And who said that I was calling myself a desperate woman? You owe me an apology, Mr. Fransisco."
"My apologies, Miss..." He moved closer. "I'm sorry but I don't think that I got your name."
Linh put the straw back to her lips. "You never asked me for it. That's strike two, Mr. Fransisco."
"Ouch. My apologies again. Let's take this from the top. Good evening. My name is Fransisco. And what would be the name of a beautiful, non-desperate woman such as yourself?"
"Who, me?" Linh asked, giggling.
"Yes. Definitely you."
He took her hand and held it gently in his right hand while softly cupping it with his left. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Linh."
Linh could feel the bass from the subwoofers. The blood coursed through her veins at a rate that matched the pulse of the electronic music being pumped loudly thru the nightclub. The large room was near capacity and, though Linh could see hundreds of faces in the darting strobe light, none of them looked familiar. The music was no longer the celebration of life and success that it had started out to be. After two hours of incessant synthesizers, electric guitars, smoke inhalation, yelling, being groped, and offered free libations, the music had regressed into an inescapable, disorienting force. Her carefree dancing had been reduced to nothing more than being pushed around by the rhythm of the crowd surrounding her. Linh was drunk.
"There you are!"
She felt a hand on her waist and turned to see a slim man with a thick mustache and dark circles under his eyes. A terrible mixture of cheap cologne and hair care product poured off of him and his long-sleeved, lime green dress shirt was unbuttoned low enough to showcase his hairy stomach. His gold chain shimmered in the low light and dangling from it was an oversized pendant with his name on it in silver letters.
"Ace?" she said, squinting and searching her memory for even the faintest sign of recognition.
"That's right, babe! You good? I thought I lost you for a minute there."
Linh closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "I'm not feeling so good. I think I gotta get outta here."
Ace pulled her close to him while pressing a drink into her hand. "Oh no, I'm sorry to hear that, babe! I thought we were having a good time. Here try this. It'll help. One more will do you good."
The DJ started transitioning into a new song that was louder and faster than the previous one. Linh could feel the drumlines thumping at the base of her skull. The crowd roared.
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"What?" Ace said, jumping up and down. "I love this song!"
"I think I'm gonna go," Linh yelled. Ace stopped jumping.
"Wha? Why? So soon? I thought we were having fun, babe." He wrapped both arms around her, simultaneously grabbing her buttocks and drawing her in toward his pelvis. She could feel the heat radiating out from his shirt. "Drink that, it'll make you feel better. I promise!"
The crowd roared again as a screaming guitar struck a deafening chord. Linh squinted in pain. She raised the glass to her lips.
"Is Ace... is Ace your real name?" Linh slurred.
"Naw, babe. But that's what you can call me. All my buddies call me that. So you call me that too."
The two made their way through the crowded club and out into the street. Central Boulevard was alive and bustling with its typical assortment of Saturday night patrons, club hoppers, and panhandlers. Linh, barely able to walk, held firmly to her purse with one arm and draped the other around the shoulders of her opportunistic escort for support.
"I'm your buddy? Awww, that's sweet. But I.... " She paused to belch. "I don't even... know you."
Ace looked around nervously and shushed Linh. "What are you talking about? You know me. You know me. We had a beautiful night together, babe."
"Did I have fun?"
"You most certainly did."
"Did I dance good? I can't even... I can't even remember the last time I've been out dancing."
Ace kissed her on the mouth and patted her bottom with his free hand. "You danced real good, babe. Everyone was looking at you."
Linh shook her head. "I don't remember. I just don't... Waitaminute!"
She freed herself from Ace and stood straight up. He opened his mouth to chastise her for stopping but refrained when he noticed a small group of college-aged kids passing by. "What's wrong, babe?"
"Waitaminute! Did I dance like a princess or like a whore? There's a difference, ya know."
Sweat trickled from his forehead. "You were most certainly a princess. You know I don't kiss no whores, babe. Now c'mon, let's get back to the truck."
She closed her eyes and giggled. "Good. I ain't no ho. That's not our way."
Before she could finish her sentence, Ace had her by the hand and was leading her down the street. As they walked, she quietly marveled at the flurry of activity all around her. There were men and women everywhere, moving briskly and meandering. Couples, friends, lovers; all out enjoying life and ready to partake in whatever the evening had to offer. The music that streamed from the open doors of the bars and clubs spiraled high into the air and dissipated amongst the downtown skyscrapers. Linh closed her eyes again and smiled as she tilted her head up into the rising music. She remembered the feelings that brought her out into the night. She remembered the joy of seeing herself in her fabulous new dress, she remembered the elation of meeting a wonderful stranger, and she remembered an unusual outpouring of confidence and support not only from herself but also from someone familiar. She opened her eyes and focused on the man who was tugging at her arm.
"Ace. I don't... I don't know you."
Ace didn't break stride. His gaze was sharply focused on the street sign at the corner of Central and Washington Avenue. Just a few blocks beyond it was the public parking garage. "Sure you do, babe. You know me. I'm Ace. I'm the one who makes you feel good, remember."
"Ace... am I drunk?"
"Naw, babe. Naw, naw. You're just a little tipsy."
"... and a lotta lonely," Linh slowly mumbled to herself. "Bad combination."
The words were barely audible but they rang out in her mind like the thunderous claps of an approaching storm. They were the words of someone familiar. Someone nearby.
Esther rolled over on her couch and angrily ran her hand along the thick carpet in search of her phone. The blaring default ring tone had disrupted one of her favorite recurring dreams: her, at the footsteps of her father's church in a glowing white gown, about to be wed to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She grunted in frustration of not being able to hear him utter the words that would seal their holy matrimony.
"Hello?" she said in an upset, drowsy voice. She wiped the sleep from her eyes.
Esther could barely make out the voice of the person saying her name. There was very loud samba music playing in the background. She pulled the phone away from her ear and checked the caller identifier. "Linh?"
"Esther, I'm in trouble," Linh said, crying.
Esther was on her feet and moving towards her front door in seconds. "Linh, where are you? What happened? Are you okay? Where are you?"
"I have no idea! I'm downtown. I was walking with this guy..." Her voice began to crack. "We were walking. I don't know him... but we were walking. He was taking me somewhere. I came to my senses and I ran into this club!"
"Okay, okay. You're alright, Linh. We've got to figure out where you are. Is there a bartender nearby? What do you see? What's around you?"
"There are a lot of people in here. Lots of red and orange lights. Spanish music... but I can hear a waterfall. I think there's a fountain in here or something, I don't know." She looked over at the large crowd of people whirling on the dance floor. "The floor... it's got lights underneath it..."
Esther searched her mental catalog. "You're at The Red Coconut! That's only a few blocks away from me! Linh, don't move. Don't leave. I'm coming to get you! I'll be there in a minute."
Linh turned her gaze toward the front entrance of the club and saw Ace frantically searching the crowd for her. She crouched down. "He's here! I don't know this guy, Esther. But he's in here and he's looking for me!"
"Stay calm," Esther said. Her keys jingled in her hands as she sprinted down the hallway towards the stairwell. "Linh, listen to me. I know where you are. I'm on my way, okay. I need for you to go into the women's bathroom, find a stall, and stay there. You understand me?"
"Go now, Linh. To the restroom, find a stall, and I'll be there soon."
Esther sat quietly at her kitchen table repeatedly bringing her spoon to the surface of her cup of tea and then driving it to the bottom. The air bubbles rose and burst as she reflected. For her, it had truly become a weekend of change. In a span of only thirty-six hours, she found herself face to face with many of the greatest obstacles in her life. A tiny smirk slowly widened on her face as she contemplated the growth of an inner strength that was critical to navigating the obstacles. It was an inner strength that had been fertilized by the challenge of a friend.
"A whole Saturday alone," she whispered to herself. "Wow."
She took a long sip of her tea and thought about how close she had come to restarting an unhealthy cycle of hurt and disappointment. She recalled the intense period of mental anguish and then the sudden epiphany not to let the single representation of everything that she didn't need back into her home and into her life.
When it had become apparent to the man at her front gate that he would not be allowed in, he swore at her several times and stormed away. After the standoff, Esther sat on the floor underneath the intercom and cried for half of an hour.
At first, she wept for herself, the loss, and the loneliness that would inevitably follow. When the initial wave of sobbing subsided, however, her thoughts turned to the actual accomplishment and the strength that it took not to push the red button. She had challenged herself to spend a weekend away from everything that she was a slave to and she had just emerged victorious from undoubtedly the biggest threat to her challenge. The realization that a new door of confidence and self-contentment had just been opened was overwhelming. The tears poured from her eyes and when there were no more, she stood up and proceeded to embrace a brand new Saturday.
The sound of someone stirring pulled Esther back from her reflection. She rose from her kitchen table, prepared another cup of tea, and went into her bedroom.
"Why didn't you tell me that the speed dating thing was downtown? I told you that I could've gone with you... especially if it was literally right in my backyard."
"Esther, I had no idea where the place was. I just put the stupid address in my GPS and followed the directions." Linh drank some of her tea and furrowed her brow. "Oh, this is just fantastic. Didn't I tell you this would be good!"
"Yes, you did." The two women sat on the edge of Esther's bed. "So, uh... can you promise that the next time you decide to do something different you won't complete go off into left field."
Linh groaned and rubbed the side of her face. "Ugh. I can't believe I went into that stupid club! I can't believe I had all of those drinks! What was I thinking?"
"You were riding the high of change... and Mr. Fransisco," Esther said, laughing. "You went from no guys, to meeting a bunch of so so guys, to setting up a date with a cool, Mediterranean prince! You basically went from zero to sixty waaay too quickly."
"You are so right. But you know what, aside from the terrible end, I had a pretty good time yesterday. I mean, it was so different for me, ya know. The whole day. I had to push myself to experience something new and put myself out there. It was interesting. And look at what came out of it! I met someone interesting. And you were with me the whole time."
"Was I really? That's awesome."
"Well, except for when I was flirting with Fransisco! That was all me. All business. You would've just gotten in my way!"
"The hell with you!" Esther exclaimed, laughing.
"But seriously though. Thanks for pushing me. And thank you, thank you, thank you for coming to get me and letting me crash. I really appreciate it."
"I'm so glad that I could help you. You were definitely with me, too."
"Was I? Do tell."
"I had another douche bag in my life and I handed him his walking papers yesterday. But my problems were bigger than him. I took your advice. I stayed with myself and by myself on both Friday and Saturday evenings. I had the windows up, I heard the people on the street below, I saw the couples, I heard their laughter, but I didn't go running out looking for something or someone. It was crazy. For the first time in a long time I was just good with myself. It felt unbelievable. I even cooked something. I haven't cooked on a Saturday night in years! And I had a glass of wine. It was just... different. And nice."
"Fantastic! Looks like I wasn't the only one getting drunk last night!"
"What?! Noooo! Not like that! I didn't drink the whole bottle. Not this time!"
"I'm kidding," Linh giggled.