Authors: Lara Hunter
Shaking my head, I turned away from the counter in a smooth flourish as I told her, “No, thank you.”
“Do you want the money and the theater tickets?” Again her voice came to penetrate the haze that held my psyche captive.
“Keep and enjoy,” I said over my shoulder, making a quick escape into a nearby elevator.
It was going up. And I was going down.
The moment I arrived in my hotel suite I plopped down exhausted on the surface of a soft blue velvet chair; grabbing a nearby remote control and flicking the on switch—forcing my gaze to focus on the sharp, high definition image that appeared on the wide screen television set posted on the opposite side of the room.
Flicking the individual buttons on the surface of the remote, my eyes widened as they focused on a quickly changing kaleidoscope of images; bits from music videos, infomercials, comedy and action movies, cartoons and finally on the picture perfect image of a couple in love, kissing passionately and losing themselves in one another’s gaze and embrace.
Swearing softly I switched off the TV and picked up the phone instead; placing a room service order for a large pizza with everything on it.
As I awaited the imminent arrival of my much needed comfort food, I tried to force my wayward thoughts to various, nondescript targets; a hotel brochure, a pay per view channel guide, the admittedly stunning view of Miami Beach, as afforded through a large, clear window.
, I urged myself, shifting uneasily in the depths of my luxury chair.
This is still a vacation, and I still can have a good time on my own.
Jumping resolutely up from my chair, I switched on a nearby radio; grinning in spite of myself as the jubilant tones of a salsa dance tune permeated my atmosphere; impelling me to perform a free-spirited, impromptu jig across the surface of my hotel room floor.
I was single for ages before I met Oliver, I reminded myself; and I never was one to mope around and wallow in my singlehood—quite the contrary, I tended to embrace my hard earned independence, enjoying at last the sublime opportunity to earn my own money, own my own home and pay my own bills.
And I still thrived and survived as an independent woman. Having left Oliver’s employ during a brief separation last year, I had scored a new position at Clark Industries; acting as the executive assistant to marketing mogul Trisha Vance; herself a tough, smart, no nonsense woman who supplied me—not only a steady stream of brilliant, intellectually stimulating work projects—but with a constant source of empowered, invigorating feminist inspiration.
Even when Oliver and I came back together following our separation, I chose to remain in Trisha’s employ. I didn’t feel quite comfortable with the idea of working for my steady boyfriend; thus casting an aura of distinct inequality over our relationship. I did, on the other hand, feel completely comfortable with Oliver’s new executive assistant, whose name just happened to be Leslie.
Hey, I was more than secure enough in my womanhood to totally accept Leslie’s place in my lover’s life; especially given the fact that Leslie—or Les, as he liked to be called—was bald and had a rather thick covering of facial hair.
Yet at the end of every day I often found myself at Oliver’s house or he found himself at mine. Our lives, our bodies, our beings became one; rendering the last five-month period in my life a fanciful dirge of romance, sensuality, and binding friendship.
So where have things gone wrong?
I pondered, shaking my head from side to side to clear it of its confused haze.
Where is Oliver? And why did he leave me?
My troubled meditation was disrupted by the sound of a loud knock on my doorway; followed by a loud cry of “Room service!”
“I sure do need service of some sort,” I mumbled, trudging to the door to accept and pay for my preordered comfort food.
Only it didn’t seem all that comforting moments later, as I chomped away listlessly at a piece of piping hot pizza brimming over with a variety of succulent toppings; everything from sausage to pepperoni, extra cheese to extra chives.
Just the way Oliver and I like it,
I mused, finally eating my way through my second slice before shutting the lid on the pizza box.
And I can’t eat all of this myself.
Opening the door of a bedside mini fridge and depositing the pizza on the topmost shelf, I slammed the portal shut and collapsed on my bed; a bed that still brimmed with the scent and feel of Oliver.
For just a moment I allowed myself the luxury of experiencing my lover’s lingering presence in the sleek sheets of our vacation bed. I rolled free and wild in the sheets; inhaling both his lingering cologne and the sensation of his essence. My soothed psyche bathed in the memory of the evening before; the night that had witnessed our passionate explosion, the erotic culmination of the incredible bond that had developed between us.
…or so I thought. My eyes flew wide open, and I jerked upward in my sheets as some stray rays of incoming sunshine blinded my gaze; seeming to symbolize the wakeup call—or, more specifically, the wake up memo—that I had just received.
My thoughts flew briefly to another note I’d once received from my lover; one that he had left on my pillow the morning after our first encounter. Hardly a love note, this short, crisply worded missive had broken my heart; also breaking the newly formed bond we’d culled the evening before.
How, I’d wondered at the time, could Oliver greet our first morning after with coldness and regret for the night before and with the brief written message that indicated the rather lame reason that he couldn’t remain at my side?
Well that question turned out to be easily—if all too painfully—answered. Oliver, it turned out, was running from the feelings that he harbored for me—feelings that had become all too real for a man who’d spent his life as a certified playboy.
I was more than ready to give up on the man, and did for a while; until he practically begged me to take him back; explaining to me that the premature death of his mother—indeed, the much beloved Irene had died after a brief but valiant battle with cancer—had joined a difficult collegiate heartbreak in rendering him incapable of maintaining his role in a serious monogamous relationship.
And then along came Lily
, I mused, descending into a restless state of frustrating partial slumber; one accented by dreams and visions of our blossoming relationship.
I saw enchanting images of days enjoyed on bronze sanded beaches throughout the course of sun-drenched days and nights spent ensconced in panoramic theaters where the show on stage was rivalled only by the intensity of feeling that I bore for the man at my side.
I pictured luminous works of art captured on paper. Oliver and I, it turned out, were both closet artistes; so while I wrote endless love stories with heroes that looked suspiciously like him, he produced endless drawings and watercolor portraits with subjects that looked suspiciously like me. His rendering of a beauteous lily in bloom, in fact, turned out to be the key to rejuvenating and reigniting our relationship.
In dreams I basked briefly in the colorful spectacle of this striking—and very personal—piece of art; a small but finely detailed water color, titled ‘A Lily in Bloom’, that depicted a lavender water lily in all its fragrant, dew-glistened glory.
Yet even as I smiled and murmured contented at the memory of this painting, which now claimed a prominent place on my living room wall at home, my beam dissolved as my dreamscape transitioned; suddenly showing me far less pleasing canvases—surfaces that took the form of neatly written notes that explained my lover’s absence.
Finally in my dreams I heard the ringing of a cellular phone; one that produced Oliver’s ringtones, set to the tune of the pop music classic ‘Smooth Operator’ by Sade, the last remaining nod, or so I hoped, to his carefree bachelor days. Then I heard some words spoken in that deep, sonorous voice I so readily identified with my sexy lover; words that formed the troubling phrase, “I can’t talk to you.”
Suddenly I bolted upright in bed; my eyes flying open as my mind was attacked by an unwelcome, unbidden memory.
About two weeks ago, Oliver and I had been lounging comfortably in his luxury three-story townhouse—a place he’d once considered the ultimate bachelor pad—when the loud, insistent ringing of his cell phone served to shatter a quiet, quite peaceable afternoon.
“Smooooth operat-ah!” I sang along loudly and merrily with his signature ringtones; my kooky smile dissolving abruptly as Oliver scowled outright at his own cell phone.
Hitting the talk button on his phone, Oliver put the receiver to his ear and barked, “I can’t talk to you.”
Oliver avoided my gaze as he hit the end button on his phone—ironic, since my time of confusion and concern was only beginning.
“Who, pray tell, did you just talk to, telling them that you couldn’t talk to them?” I asked, feigning an indifferent tone as I pinned my lover with a curious stare.
Oliver shook his head.
“Don’t worry about it babe,” he snorted, making a weak attempt at a casual shrug with shoulders that trembled ever so slightly. “Just one of those annoying telemarketers, that’s all.”
“Just one of those annoying telemarketers, my ass!” I exclaimed now, jumping up from my bed as I reached for my own cell phone; one conveniently located on my bedside table.
As a part of my travel planning I had programmed my cell phone with the number of the Miami airport; it was a number I dialed now with fast, frantic fingers.
“Hi,” I greeted the anonymous clerk on the other side of the line. “Do you have any red eyes departing tonight for the Bennington airport?”
Several hours later I found myself in a taxi cab, veering farther and farther away from the tropical paradise where I had enjoyed my dream vacation.
Only I hadn’t truly enjoyed this trip and my dream was about to turn into a nightmare.
Pulling up to the curb in front of my modest brownstone home, I forced a fake smile as I paid my cabbie and retrieved my suitcases from his trunk; a trail of moonlight leading my way as I made my way up my sidewalk in the direction of my front door.
As I turned my key in the doorknob I formulated a plan; one that I hoped would bring about some sort of peaceful resolution to this insane, downright inexplicable situation.
As tempted as I was to go directly to Oliver’s house and confront him outright, I didn’t exactly want to end up in jail for assault; something that might just happen if I caught him with his mystery girl, the one he couldn’t talk to when he was with me, but who he might be a heck of a lot more than talking to at this very moment.
Of course I shouldn’t just assume the worst of the man I loved; for while he did have a history and reputation of a carefree, promiscuous playboy, Oliver had shown so much progress in the last five months—spending all of his free time with me and repeatedly showing and declaring his unbending and very tender devotion to our relationship.
Maybe one of his ex-girlfriends turned his head
, I pondered.
Who has ever heard of the five month itch, though? I don’t know—I think at this point I need a good night’s sleep. Then tomorrow morning I can approach this situation with a clearer head. I can go to Olli’s house first thing and get this situation resolved. I will let him know, in no uncertain terms, that the way he just took off on me, without any excuse or explanation, is wrong—and that, whatever the problem is, we need to address it and work it out together, just as we have for the past few years. That’s why we make a good team. If, however, I do find him with another woman, I hereby reserve the right to slap ‘em both silly.
I nodded then, feeling better than I had in hours. At least now I had a plan and some semblance of peace of mind; and it was with a slight, self-assured smile that I opened my front door—somehow comforted by the idea of collapsing in my own, comfy bed and getting some much needed rest, also generating some much needed energy for what was sure to be a challenging day ahead.
My beam dissolved and my thoughts scattered moments later; my eyes flying wide as they were met with a terrible spectacle that almost stopped my heart.
I stepped through my doorway to see that my modest but neat and clean home had been trashed and decimated beyond recognition.
Chairs and end tables lay overturned across the floor; a thick carpeted surface also soiled with a mess of documents, newspapers, books and magazines that had been ripped from their places in my bookcases and storage tables were strewn haphazardly throughout my home.
Tears flooded my eyes as I assessed the true damage that had befallen my homestead; a place I had called my personal residence for more than two years. Indeed, I was distressed to find a number of my favorite collectables—including a photo of my beloved parents encased in a brass photo frame, an exquisite ruby heart sculpture that had served as a Valentine’s gift from an ardent Oliver, and a bronze cast Women in Marketing trophy award that I’d won a few months ago from a local feminist group—fallen and broken beneath my feet and as I froze at the center of my living room and rose my wide-eyed gaze, I witnessed a spectacle even more heartrending.
My framed print of Lily in Bloom, posted as it was on a far wall just above my entertainment center, had been hideously defaced. The protective glass that preserved Oliver’s most tender, meaningful gift was shattered; the rendering that lie within, ripped and torn beyond recognition.
“Oh my God,” I murmured, closing and locking my door behind me as I fished around in my purse for my cell phone.
Finally withdrawing the metallic object that shone bright in the darkness of my living room, I dialed 9-1-1.
An hour later I found myself parked on the edge of my cushy, ivory hued couch; frozen in place as I offered rote, mechanical answers to a grizzled, middle aged police detective.
Suddenly my once comfy home teemed with people I didn’t know; investigators that dusted, handled and collected my precious personal possessions; pictures, collectables and pieces of furniture that once had formed a very important part of my life.
Now they were little more than pieces of evidence; innocent objects shattered in an act of rage that knew no meaning or reason.
I felt somehow numb as I offered brief, rote answers to the detective’s never ending line of questions and curiosities. Gruff and unsmiling, Tom Benton was an efficient, hardworking police officer who could stand to work a bit on his bedside manner. Even so, I must admit that he left no stone unturned in trying to pinpoint the nature and perpetrator of this heinous crime against my property and person.
I did my best to answer his questions as correctly and thoroughly as I could. No, I had no idea who did this. No, I had received no threats of forewarnings to anticipate this horrific, inexplicable act. Yes, I would be willing to press charges against the intruder if they were found.
“Honestly, Detective,” I said at one point. “This was probably just a random burglary. I honestly can’t think of anyone that is out to get me, so to speak.”
Det. Benton, a fifty something, salt and pepper haired man with a whisky tinged voice, shook his head from side to side in response to my words.
“I suggest you think harder then, Ms. Ashton,” he told me, adding as he waved around him with a broad, airy gesture, “The creep just invaded your home and didn’t steal a thing, correct? And of the objects they messed with and broke, most of them had very personal, very special meaning to you, am I right?” He paused here, adding with a deep sigh, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I believe that the motivation behind this home invasion was indeed very personal—and that there is someone out there who wants to see you hurt and frightened—if not worse. I think you need to get out of this house, pronto. Find another place to stay, at least until we manage to locate the wacko who did this. Until then, please try to strain your brain a bit about who is out to get you—because rest assured, Ms. Ashton, somebody is.”
“Rest assured?” I repeated, arching my eyebrows in a show of disbelief. “Interesting choice of words there, Detective.”
I fell silent as Benton leaned forward to pin me with a cold, hard stare.
“Ms. Ashton, please try to take my words more seriously—I assure you that this is no laughing matter,” he barked, adding as he once again gestured around the room, “I have no idea as to who did this—but as I look around I get the idea that this was a hate crime; one that claimed you as its very personal target. Please take my advice and get the hell out of here. Pronto!”
Making no verbal response to his words, I once again reached for my metallic cell phone and flipped open its shiny lid, quickly accessing my contacts screen and hitting the top button.
I was somewhat soothed by the ensuing sound of my lover’s deep, sonorous voice; a wave of disappointment followed, however, as I realized that I was listening to his answering machine message.
“This is Oliver Clark, you know what to do!” he chirped.
Waiting impatiently for the loud beep that followed this quick, snappy message, I held the phone away from my ear as it finally resounded loud and clear.
“Oliver, please call me right away,” I said into my phone, my tone serious and strained. “I need you.”
An hour later I remained seated on the edge of my couch staring silently at my phone as the officers continued to dust, clean and collect, in what seemed an intense investigation.
“Where could he be?” I gritted my teeth, shaking my head from side to side in a show of overt impatience.
“So have you heard from Loverboy yet?”
I jumped in my seat as a loud voice disrupted my troubled meditation; one that I recognized all too readily as the gruff tones of Det. Tom Benton.
“No,” I said, without looking upward.
Det. Benton made no verbal reply and only continued to stare at me, long and hard, until I raised my gaze to meet his.
“Do you think we need to question him?” he asked finally.
I shook my head.
“Absolutely not!” I barked in return, tone indignant. “I know that man like the back of my hand.”
It was the detective’s turn to shake his head—and vigorously.
“Then why isn’t he here when you need him?” he asked.
Without awaiting an answer, Det. Benton turned away.
I stopped just short of flipping him off in response to his disrespect; instead using that specific finger to hit Oliver’s preassigned button in my cell phone contacts list.
Seconds later I found myself listening to his voicemail message, once again; and an hour later I remained on the edge of my couch—still staring at a phone that stubbornly, obstinately refused to ring.
Only this time I was alone. Finally the police officers had left; leaving me with all manner of report copies and business cards and spoken advice.
“Get out of this house,” Benton had repeated, pointing an authoritative finger in my direction as he finally cleared the door.
“Sounds like good advice,” I said now, rising to my feet as I grabbed my purse and headed for the door myself. “I’m not going to sit here like a damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued. If Mr. Clark won’t come to me, then I’ll go to him.”
Soon I was back in my car, struggling to steady my nerves as I cleared my modest neighborhood; headed instead for an exclusive neighborhood on the northern border of Bennington.
This world of sculpted edges, cobblestone streets, trimmed shrubbery and excessive deed restrictions had—at one point—seemed remote and alien to working class me, yet after being deeply involved with one of its residents for more than five months, this elite, ritzy part of town had become my second home.
I couldn’t help but heave a sigh of relief as I pulled up to the luxury three-story, dark brick townhome where I had spent many a night. Yet while I usually took a few seconds to admire its classic architecture, its broad windows and sweeping arches, its fronting rose bushes that shone brilliant scarlet in the beams of the waning moon, tonight I saw the home merely as a site of refuge; and it was with frenzied steps that I approached the stained glass double doors that fronted this elite home.
After pressing the doorbell several times and hearing its resounding chimes, I folded my arms before me and awaited a response.
No matter how many times I rang that bell, finally pounding outright on the door that accompanied it, I was concerned to note that silence met my summons.
So whatever it was that took him from my side, is keeping him overnight,
I pursed my lips, finally turning from the door with a frustrated groan.
For just a moment I stopped stock still on the sidewalk, biting my lip as I considered my options, as limited as they were.
The police told me that it might take several days for my home to be secured; i.e., for the locks on my doors to be changed and for a security system to be installed. I knew that I wouldn’t sleep a wink in my own bedroom until then and that thought alone made me nothing short of furious.
Who was doing this to me? And why?
Of course, an even more pressing and immediate question was, where would I go until my intruder/stalker/general crazy person in my life was brought to justice? This is the question that plagued my mind as I retreated to my room just long enough to retrieve an overnight bag and toss some bare essentials (a nightgown, a toothbrush, and a shirt and jeans) in its modest cloth depths.
My parents, for their part, lived too far away to be of much help and, as they were older, I didn’t want to plague them with worry. Thanks to my hectic work schedule I didn’t have a whole lot of close friends; although, come to think of it, one of my co-workers had become a close confidante in the past few months. A close confidante that just happened to be of the male persuasion.