Mrs. Lincoln

Reporter: “Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

 

Mrs. Lincoln paused, ran a shaky hand through her hair, took a deep breath, then after a long pause:

 

“Well, I’ve seen better, but I was entertained. And that’s the bottom line. Unfortunately, tonight’s events have marred my ability to give a through and deserved assessment.”

 

Reporter: “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Lincoln. My sincere condolences.  On behalf of the entire nation, our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this challenging time.”

If You Need Anything…

“If you need anything, just let me know…”

He never turned down the opportunity to say this to a family member, friend, or acquaintance in need – which was surprisingly more often than he cared to admit.

“Let me know if I can do anything.”

He would often say that, too.

Though the passing of a loved one was the most common use of the aforementioned phrases, opportunities presented themselves in all walks of life. He sometimes slipped and said it when it wasn’t even necessary or relevant. It had become that much of a habit.

But each time he muttered it, there was an underlying, dark little secret: he had no desire to do anything for anyone. Therefore, there was never any follow through. Like a social media slacktivist. And it was probably only a matter of time before he was exposed for being the fraud that he was. All it would take was one person to accept his offer. And then what?

Until then, he would continue to enjoy the satisfaction of offering a goodwill gesture that he knew had a low percentage chance of being agreed upon. The minimum output on his part made this a low risk, high reward situation.  How often does anyone actually take someone up on this offer?

Perhaps he should quit while he was ahead. But sure enough, the next time the opportunity presented itself, the words fell right out of his mouth:

“If you need anything, just let me know.”

And once again, he would get away with it, knowing deep down that the law of averages would eventually work against him.

It was his biggest fear.

But sometimes, you just want to make others feel good.

There is no greater feeling.

Perfume

Susan had long suspected that Tim was fucking someone on the side. But she was too tired and too complacent to do anything about it.

But he wasn’t entirely to blame.

Susan knew she shouldn’t think this way, but she did.

And even though she knew she should leave him if her suspicions proved accurate, she doubted if she ever could.

Because he was a good father. And because she was determined to do whatever she could to keep the family together…no matter how unhappy she was with their marriage.

Stay together for the kids.

At all costs.  

There was nothing specific that made her cast suspicion. But then he suddenly stopped initiating sex, which in turn, made her realize she never initiated it herself.

What did it all mean? Did he simply give up? Or, did he find someone else?

Sure, he came home late from time to time, but it wasn’t unusual for him to head out at night to get some work done after the kids had gone to bed, as he preferred the distraction of a public setting, rather than quiet solitude. This especially was the case when he was working under deadline, but to her knowledge, he hadn’t had a write-for-hire gig in quite some time.

Since she went to bed hours before she, she didn’t even always know when he went out. Or, when he even came home for that matter, as they slept in separate rooms.

Was he really going out to write? Or, was she living in denial all of this time. And if so, then for how long?

She finally asked him about and he admitted that he was poking around on new material, while actively seeking freelance work. He was hesitant to admit this because she had recently expressed frustration with his constant need to write. She didn’t understand why his teaching job wasn’t enough. And though he claimed it didn’t interfere with his parenting obligations, she disagreed. She would never deny that he was a good father, there was no question that his writing ambitions often left him distracted. And aloof. And the more time had passed, the more resentful she had become.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” she reminded him.

He reminded her that she did sign up for it. The moment she decided to marry a writer. Bu re-hashing this did neither of them any good. They had since reached an impasse, becoming more and more like the disinterested roommates they now were, with neither one realizing how much their relationship had eroded until it was too late.

Despite his assurance that he had been going out for the sake of writing, she began to have a real sneaking suspicion that he was up to no good, despite not having a shred of evidence. Then again, was he even capable of having an affair, even if he tried? It wasn’t a matter of him not being attractive. She objectively knew he was, even though she no longer subjectively found herself attracted to him. She just didn’t believe he had the confidence to go through it. Or, if he tried, he was likely to fall flat on his face.

A few weeks later, her suspicions didn’t subside. And then she finally got her answer. While gathering laundry, she found her smoking gun: a floral scent on the clothes he wore the day before. The next morning, she detected a slight trace of the same scent on him as he walked past her. She bit her tongue. She knew the deal, but was taken aback by a low simmer of unexpected jealousy.

Was it a one-time thing? Was it a regular occurrence and she simply never noticed it before? Did she really want to know?

A few days passed before she noticed the scent again.

A few days later, she detected it on him at breakfast. This time, she couldn’t bite her any longer.

“Could you try to cover it up next time?”

“What?” he asked, cluelessly putting a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.

“You know what.”

“I really don’t.”

“The perfume.”

His jaw dropped as though he had just seen a ghost.

“Oh, well, I can explain…”

“Okay. Then explain,” she said, her jealousy and anger growing in equal measure.

“Strip club.”

She believed him. And though disgusted, she was secretly relieved. Though, not happy with the fact that he probably wasted God knows how much money.

I guess she preferred it this way. And she reminded herself that at least he wasn’t pestering her for sex anymore. And then she realized something…she kind of missed it.

And though she believed him, she couldn’t help but feel her simmering jealousy turning into a low boil. And her doubt growing like a tumor.

Several months went by without further incident. She assumed he was doing a better job of hiding the evidence. She considered checking his phone, but refused to allow herself to resort to that.

And then came along her husband’s holiday party,

She couldn’t help but notice that he was extra chatty with a colleague that she knew fairly well. They had hung out in a larger group in the past a few times here and there. And though he had given her reason to suspect anything, she was discovering that jealousy could morph into paranoia.

She continued to watch from afar, looking for signs of something there – a discreet touch, a flirtatious gaze. Something that would suggest something was happening. But beyond talking, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Perhaps she was just being paranoid. Besides, she honestly didn’t think he would have the guts to make a move. And if he somehow did anyway, then he would be in direct violation of their agreement: not to fuck somebody they both knew.

And then it dawned on her, followed by an overwhelming sense of sadness: if his colleague had fallen for him, then that would mean that she somehow unearthed the man she had fallen in love with a long time ago. A man she thought was gone forever. Not the annoying sad sack who moped around all day, acting like his life was so deprived.

The night wore on, but she eventually, she got answer. While passing her by in the hallway on the way toward the bathroom.

A familiar scent.

And a friendly hello.

For Emily

“Tell Emily I love her.”

Her husband’s dying words. His death bed epitaph to Susan, his wife of 25 years.

On the heels of not saying a single word for over two weeks, two days after being placed in hospice.

It would be another two weeks before Tony passed, so she certainly didn’t expect those to be his final words.

But in the end, that’s exactly what they were.

Though Tony rarely expressed romantic sentiments, she certainly never doubted that he loved her as much as she loved him. She could at least take solace in that. Yet, here he was confessing his love to someone she didn’t even know. And it hurt more than she cared to admit. Perhaps had he confessed this to her at some point, it would have lessened the sting, rather than leaving her in a cloud of mystery just before he passed away. Had her never confessed his love to someone else, it wouldn’t have bothered her that he never told her that he loved her. If she didn’t expect it when he was healthy, she certainly wouldn’t have expected when he was too far gone – too ravaged by aggressive cancer combined with failed chemo to express statements of love. But Emily changed all of that.

At least, she had no regrets on her end. In the two weeks he lay in a coma state, she made sure to told him she loved him countless times. And though he didn’t respond, she was hopeful that it still reached him deep inside his heart and soul. Though she wasn’t 100% certain, she was pretty sure he squeezed her hand in response one of the times. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. A meaningless reflex. But she refused to believe that.

She kept reminding herself that all that really mattered most at this point was making sure he remained as comfortable as he could until eternal rest. Their grown children Savannah and Ryan took care of the final arrangements, leaving her with the primary task to stay by her husband’s side every moment of his remaining time on earth. A life cut unexpectedly short.

She was grateful that he at least told their children that he had loved them shortly before his coma. That gave her some solace, at least. She was also grateful that they didn’t hear him profess his love for Emily. Why make their pain worse?

If there was one silver lining to his unexpected illness, it was that it finally put to rest a longstanding feud with their song. If only had it been that easy when the final curtain wasn’t already closing. Funny how death has a way of way of repairing old wounds, if only to leave a behind much deeper suffering in its wake.

The past no longer mattered. Or, so she thought.

She tried to regain her focus and stop worrying about something she had no control over. But no matter how hard she tried to fight it, she couldn’t get it back.

Only one thought continued to plague her:

Who was Emily?

It even overshadowed the reality of his passing.

She considered the possibility that his proclamation was a drug-induced, quasi-coma hallucination. But he had said it at a time when he seemed more coherent and alert than at any other point under hospice care.

She had so many questions that she wondered if she would ever get answers to. Was Emily from his past? Or, present? She kept coming back to the theory that he was confused. If by some miracle he awoke from his coma, would she even ask him about it? Or, would she let it go? Her grief was deep enough. Why deepen it?  Then again, if she didn’t ask, would it haunt her for years to come? After his inevitable passing, would she look for evidence? Or, would she feel too guilty snooping through his stuff for clues posthumously? Then again, he was the one who brought her up in the first place. He didn’t have to mention her at all if he wanted to keep it a secret. Then again, it wasn’t like his judgment was sound.

Though it perhaps served as a helpful distraction, she tried to convince herself to focus on her grieving, rather than dwelling on something that no longer mattered.

But it did matter.

Emily mattered.

Especially to her husband. Enough to direct the words Susan longed to hear for herself.

“Tell Emily I love her.”

When he took his final breath, she was holding his hand. Did he even notice?

As Susan stared at his now lifeless body, her brain refused to process the fact that he was gone forever. Even though she knew he was.

The funeral took place two days later. As expected, it was a great turnout. Nothing competes with Italian weddings and funerals. In fact, it rivaled the 500 guests at their wedding. Had it been up to her, it would have been capped at 250. But when his mother demanded to pay to keep the Italian tradition alive, what choice did she have? At a funeral, there are no invites. The generous turnout was a welcome distraction from her grief, but also overwhelming at times. And there were several strangers she did not recognize.

Was one of them Emily?

Would she even want to know?

She suddenly found herself becoming angry. Why couldn’t he have just taken it to his grave? He was so close to doing just that! Maybe it would have been different if she told him who it was, but to just drop a line like that without any explanation was torture.

She tried to focus on her grief, but all she could think about was Emily. And there was nothing she could do about it.

And then he was buried.  Along with his secret. What other secrets did he harbor?

A few weeks into her new “normal”, Susan realized that the ghost of Emily wasn’t going away any time soon. Though she avoided it at first, she soon began the inevitable task of snooping: through his computer, e-mail, drawers, etc. And though she felt guilty for snooping through his stuff, she decided that he had it coming to him. And she was angry. And especially angry that he covered his tracks so well.

He could find no evidence of anybody named Emily. Not in his e-mail, social media accounts, in his phone.

Did she even exist at all?

But then it dawned on her. What if Emily was from before they even knew one another? A childhood crush? Someone he took to a high school dance? Someone he transported back to the present through the fog of his clouded, drug-addled mind that was reaching the finish line of life?

Just when she gave up on ever finding an answer, she found a possible clue: a small, wrapped present tucked deep inside his sock drawer. Was this the smoking gun she had been looking for? Should she even open it? What would opening it prove? And what good would not opening it do?

She decided to sleep on it for a night. What harm could that do? Keeping it wrapped felt like a part of him was still alive. A gift from beyond the grave.

But intended for whom?

She was pretty sure she knew the answer. But would there be any proof?

She decided to sleep on it and placed it next to her nightstand before she went to sleep. The next morning, she opened it. It was a simple gold bracelet. Though there was nothing unusual about the bracelet itself, she knew right away that it was never intended for her: she was allergic to gold. He knew that.

She wished she had never opened it.

But it got her no closer to solving the mystery.

Who was Emily?

“Tell Emily I love her.”

Several weeks passed. And no further evidence surfaced.

She finally gave up. That fact that there was possibly someone else was a reality she had to learn to accept. Not that it really mattered. It was all in the past now. And the past was the only place where he could remain, despite everything feeling very much in the past. No apologies or reconciliation required, let alone possible.

Nothing would bring him back to life. No matter what, he was dead. Dead, dead, dead. Knowing the truth wasn’t going to change that fact. And he was just as dead to Emily as she was to her.

But wait! Did Emily even know? It was quite possible she didn’t. He saw no evidence of missed calls or texts on his phone. Wouldn’t she have tried contacting him? Was it possible he had some hidden form of communication that she wasn’t privy to? A burner phone? Should she hire a private investigator? Then again, why put herself through that? Because she feared she would otherwise never find closure. And would never grieve properly. Until she finally solved this mystery.

She wondered if she should solicit her kids to help? Did she really want to drag them into this? She decided to keep it to herself. For his sake. And for the sake of their children.

A few more weeks passed. And then an unexpected knock at her door. Probably another damn solicitor. A car was parked in her driveway. Solicitors don’t usually park in your driveway. She looked through the peephole at an unrecognizable woman around 30 or so. Did this person have the wrong house?

Though she considered ignoring the stranger until she went away, she realized she didn’t have a choice. The knocking continued.

“Hello, may I help you?” Susan asked.

“I know you don’t know who I am,” the girl said. “But I know who you are.”

“I’m sorry?”
“My name is Emily Ford…”

Susan’s brain struggled to process any of this.

“You don’t know me, but I know – knew – your husband. Quite well, in fact—”

“How dare you…” Susan said, feeling the urge to strangle somebody for the first time in her life.

“I’m sorry,” Emily said.  “I could leave. I didn’t mean to—”

“How did you expect someone to act when their deceased husband’s mistress shows up on their doorstep?”

“Wait. Is that what you think I am?”

“Please…”

“I’m his daughter. He was in college.”

Susan felt the anger awash away, as confusion and relief settled in.

“Come on in…” Susan said.

Emily entered.

“Have a seat.”

Emily sat down on the couch. An hour later, Susan finally knew the whole truth: Emily was the result of a college one-night stand. A few years before she and Tony had ever met. He was fully prepared to be a father. However, Emily preferred to raise the child on her own. She even refused child support. They worked out a deal that he could send letters and presents for birthdays and Christmas, but that there would be no other contact throughout her childhood.

And now, here she was, in her father’s living room. A grown woman. Her husband’s daughter.

“He never met you in person?” Susan asked, still in shock.

She shook her head.

“I found out about his passing through a Facebook post. I realize that me coming here was a risk. And I understand and am sorry if you are upset.”

“No. I’m so happy you came.”

She truly was.

“Hang on a moment. There’s something he would have wanted you to have.”

Susan retrieved the bracelet.

Emily teared up as she put in on. She held it against her wrist and smiled.

“It’s lovely.”

“Your father was a great man.”

“I know.”

“You have his eyes,” Susan said.

The two women sat there, staring at the bracelet that in that moment, brought her husband – and Emily’s father – back to life. If only for that moment.

It was exactly how he would have wanted it.

The Chinese Restaurant

Ever since he first saw A Christmas Story as a kid, Todd always wanted to eat at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas.

He just never thought that when the time came, he would be doing so alone.

And not by choice, but rather by court mandate.

He had his two kids for Thanksgiving, at least. And he would have them for Christmas next year. Alternating holidays was the best solution for all involved.

The new “normal”.

Yet, he never felt further from normal. His precious time with the kids was forever cut in half. No amount of therapy could never help him reconcile with this fact. Perhaps if he wanted the divorce to begin with, things would have been different. Perhaps if she gave marriage a counseling a try, they could have reconciled. And found their way back to one another.

Sure, their marriage had serious flaws.

Whose doesn’t?

But he was willing to work through it. And she wasn’t.

She admittedly cashed out years ago. Playing make believe ever since.

And then came along her “soul mate”. And as much as it hurt for him to find this out, it was the wake up all he needed.

Now that the initial shock had finally finished its slow-drip morph into acceptance, his singular goal to appreciate every moment he had with his kids, rather than dwelling on the time he didn’t have.

He was usually fine when he was with his children. But the moment they were gone, he was haunted by his memories…and the memories that would now never get made. Like a family trip to Disney World, which he had imagined before his daughter was born seven years prior. But now would never happen. And even if he wanted to, could certainly not afford now.

The silver lining was that things were finally getting better, following months of therapy. Overall, he had been happier lately than he could remember. However, with the one-year anniversary of their divorce coming up and the holiday season upon them, he was beginning to slide back into what he described to his counselor as the dark pit of despair. He wanted nothing more than for the holidays to be over. In fact, for the first time in his life, he had absolutely no holiday cheer. He was used to his wife not having any. She never did. And would only get annoyed by his.

He tried to take comfort with the reminder that at least he would have them for New Year’s (though like his ex, they would be in bed well before midnight – then again, he could let them stay up).

But first, he had to get through Christmas. And the light at the end of the tunnel was Chinese food.

He debated what would be more depressing: dining out alone, or sitting inside his dingy, still unfurnished apartment, staring at his two-foot tall fake Christmas tree he bought on clearance at Michael’s with a 40% off coupon.

After watching one and half viewings of the A Christmas Story marathon on TBS, he headed out into a light snowfall to his childhood favorite – Magic China’s.

He had been craving Chinese food for quite a while now. And it was the perfect Christmas gift to himself. Though he gave his ex a gift from the kids, she did not return the favor to him. Nor, was he expecting her to. In hindsight, he shouldn’t have, either. Because it only pissed her off.

He should have known better.

“What makes you think I would want a gift from you?” was her response.

“It’s from the kids,” he said. “I thought it would be good for them to see us still exchanging gifts on Christmas.”

“And since you didn’t tell me ahead of time, guess who comes across as the asshole.”

“Nobody is an asshole here.”

“And why would you want to get me a gift, anyway? After all I did for you.”

“You’re still the mother of my children. Nothing will change that.”

“That is all you see me as, isn’t?”

He didn’t even know how to answer that.

All he wanted more than anything was for his kids to see that there was mutual love and respect between their parents, even though they were no longer living together. But instead, they got more of the same they were getting during the last couple years of their marriage. In fact, it was their constant bickering that finally made him realize that staying together for the kids was perhaps not in their best interest. It broke his heart to hear his kids begging – sometimes crying – for them to stop arguing.

“Mommy, please don’t get into an awwwgument with daddy,” their son would often say. Though hearing this broke his heart, it did nothing but piss her off. They both knew something had to be done. His solution was marriage counseling. She went straight for the kill.

But now was the time to move on.  But as much as he wanted to stop living in the past, it was impossible when the past kept sending its demons to live in the present. So, he was stuck in a no man’s land, where moving forward was proving to be just as difficult as living the past.

As he pulled into Magic China’s parking lot, dusted with freshly fallen snow, he noticed that there were only two other cars. Probably not a good sign, but aside from the shitty weather, it was past prime business hours.

Magic China’s was a classic hole in the wall that somehow stayed in business, despite an always empty parking lot beneath the faux-Chinese architecture, which certainly had a certain vintage charm, as did the flashing “COCKTAILS” light beneath the name. Decals on the window mysteriously and incompletely proclaimed:  CHINESE FOOD &

As he approached, he noticed a handwritten sign in the window that simply read:

“WE OPEN FOR HOLIDAYS.”

He entered the comfortable, familiar restaurant, adorned with blinking Christmas light which somehow made the atmosphere even more depressing. There was not another customer in sight. A Chinese woman in her late 60’s greeted him with sad eyes punctuated by a pretty pout.

“Hello. Merry Christmas!” she said with a thick accent.

“Merry Christmas,” Todd replied back.

“Sitdownorcarryout?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Sit down or carry out,” she repeated, with more enunciation.

“Sit down, please.”

“Just one?” she said, in both a surprised, pitiful tone.

“Just one,” he mumbled as a mournful Muzak version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played through a tinny speaker.

She grabbed a tattered, food-stained menu and led him to a table in a back corner – the loneliest table for the loneliest man in the loneliest Chinese restaurant on the planet.

“This okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said.

He took a look around at his surroundings. Paintings of ancient Chinese life were scattered about, along with several kitschy knick-knacks made in China. But only to be sold in America.

Other than the hostess, nobody else was in sight. As alone as he was, he felt an oddly unexpected peace. Moments later, a waitress with the body of a 20-year-old, but the face of someone well over twice that age, appeared through a door opposite the kitchen.

She appeared unkempt, as though she had just woken up from a long nap. The red marks on one side of her face backed this theory. He wondered if she was lonely, too. For a brief moment, he imagined a life with her. It was one of those thoughts that could only make sense in that moment. And that moment only.

“Hello! Merry Christmas! Something to drink?”

“Merry Christmas! Can I have a Mai-Tai? And a water?”

“Mai-Tai? Yes. You want two?”

“At the same time?”

“Yes. I make you two if you want.”

“Why not?”  said after a brief hesitation. He had no memory of ever being asked if he wanted to drinks at once. In fact, he was surprised this wasn’t asked more often. I mean, it’s common practice to ask if you want to start a tab. So why not just start out with two drinks?

“Okay. I get drinks. Then I take order, okay?”

“Actually, I already know what I want.”

He always knew what he wanted when he got Chinese. It was the same thing ever since he was a little boy. In fact, it was one of the few consistent things in his life. A longstanding tradition.

“Okay, fine, then you order now,” the waitress said, slightly irked.

“I’ll have Sweet and Sour Chicken. Does that come with an egg roll?”

“No. Must order separate. You want spring roll?”

“Eggroll.”

“Eggroll. Would you like two?”

“One is fine.”

“Okay, one. Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” he said.

“White rice? Or, brown?”

“White.”

“Both?”

“Both types of rice?”
“Yes.”

“No, I mean are you offering me to types of rice at the same time?”
“You want?”
“No. Just white. Just white rice.”

“Okay, I get for you.”

“Where’s the restroom, by the way?” he asked the waitress, who had begun folding silverware into napkins.

“Down hall. To left. You need help?”

“In the bathroom?”

“To bathroom. You need help I show you.”

“Thanks, but I think I can find it.”

“Okay, okay. You go.”

He got up and headed toward the bathroom, adorned with the worst art he had seen in his life. All cats and dogs, but as though three-year old Picasso decided to enter his most experimental phase at the age of three.

As he proceeded to piss, he heard what sounded like light, successive slaps coming through a vent and what he thought were moans.

What the fuck?

He found another odd thing that he tried to talk his brain out of misinterpreting: a hole in the wall at waist level, about three inches wide. A perfect circle in all its glory. And if it wasn’t what he thought it was, then what else could it have been? Nothing came to mind.

When he came back to his seat, his egg roll and two Mai Tais were waiting. Though the drinks looked perfect, it was the smallest, most shriveled up egg roll he had ever seen. And he had seen his share.

He got to work on his first Mai Tai, sucking it down more quickly than he was accustomed to. He felt an almost instant buzz – or, was it just a sugar high? – then took a few bites of his egg roll.  Despite its outward appearance, it wasn’t half bad. But there was no sauce and his waitress was nowhere to be found. So, he got to work on the second drink.

Three minutes passed, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and peek his head into the kitchen. But nobody was in there.

“Help you?” his waitress said behind him, causing him to leap in fear.

“Oh, so sorry. I scare you?”

“Oh, it’s okay. Can I get some plum sauce please?” he asked.

“Soy sauce,” the waitress asked.

“No. Plum sauce. Plum,” he said with added emphasis.

“Plum sauce?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Two plum sauce.”

“Two?” he asked.

“Yes, two,” she said, eagerly nodding.

“Okay, two’s good.”

The waitress headed toward the kitchen, where what sounded an argument ensued with an unspecified male that he did not notice when he poked his head in there a minute ago. It was entirely in Chinese, but one thing was clear: the waitress was winning. And winning by a mile. And that was before she started wailing on him with his fists.

Todd imagined the poor man cowering in a ball in a corner, spatula still in hand. Though he couldn’t understand a word that was being said, it was very clear that the man begging for mercy.

Moments later, she returned, carrying a small tray featuring two plum sauces.

“Here you go. Plum sauce, yum,” she said with a smile, with no indication whether or not she realized that the shouting match that had just ensued was overheard by her one and only customer.

“You enjoy!”

“Thank you.”

“Anything else? More Mai-Tai?,” the waitress asked, despite the fact that he still had an almost full glass remaining.

“No thanks. I’m fine for now.”

“Okay, very good. I be back with food soon for you.”

Todd proceeded to eat his egg roll. With each bite, felt pangs of loneliness in his heart. There was nothing he wanted more in this moment than to be with his family again. He would take her back in a heartbeat and it pained him to know he had no control over the situation, no matter how much he begged, prayed, or even changed. If there was one thing he learned repeatedly throughout life, wanting and getting rarely work in tandem. He learned this at an early age when he was pursuing his now abandoned Hollywood dream.

Halfway through his second Mai-Tai, the waitress brought his entrée.

“Thank you,” Todd said.

“Everything look okay?” she asked.

“Looks great.”

“You eat. I be back.”

And then she disappeared, leaving Todd alone in the absolute silence of his deafening solitude.

But seconds later, he heard the unrecognizable sound of pleasurable moaning (he assumed sex, but he couldn’t completely rule out somebody working out).

He couldn’t detect where it was coming from. Through the wall? Like in the kitchen maybe? Was there perhaps an adjacent apartment or something? Or, was it coming through the flooring? From the basement?

He continued eating his meal in unison with the moans, which intensified, then finally came to a satisfying conclusion.

When he finished his meal, the waitress brought him two fortune cookies along with his check.

“You like something else?” the waitress asked.

“Nope, I’m fine. Thank you.”

“You like message before you go?”

“I’m sorry?” he asked.

“Message.”

“Message?”

“Massage,” she clarified, using hand motions that erased all doubt and confusion.

“Massage?” he asked just to be clear.

“Yes, yes. Massage. You like massage, yes?”

“Umm…”

“Holiday special. In basement. I show you.”

“Umm, I think I’m good. But thank you.”

“You think more about it. I be right back, okay.”

He nodded.

What the fuck was happening here?

Todd immediately thought of his friend Eddie who frequented such places and told him all about it. And all the “amazing specials” that a few extra bucks could get you.

“A good ol’ fashioned rub and tug on the ol’ eggroll!” as his friend put it.

He would be lying if he didn’t say he was intrigued. After all, it had been awhile since he felt the touch of another human being on his body. But would he settle for this?

            He stared at his fortune cookies, both of which were partially smashed. He opened the first one. Removed the fortune. And found himself staring at a blank slip.

He turned it around. Also, blank.

A fucking empty fortune.

He opened the second cookie. There wasn’t even a fortune slip in it.

He considered asking for another one.

Had to be a sign, right?  But of what? That his life was noting? Or, that he was starting life anew on a blank canvas?

He gently tucked the blank strip into his pocket and realized exactly what he had to do. But then more racket from the kitchen, as another argument broke out. This time, there was a third participant. Seconds later, the sound of various pots and kitchen utensils were tossed around the kitchen, followed by the sound of broken glass. That seemed to end the argument – at least temporarily and the only sound that remained was the meditation music, fused with the thumping techno coming from what felt like beneath him.

Seconds later, his waitress re-appeared – once again with a smile as though nothing happened at all. He waved her over.

He noticed a splash of blood on her arm. Her blood? And if that were the case, then whose blood was it? Did he even want to find out?

“How I help you?” she asked.

“So, regarding that massage…I think I’m interested. How does it work?”

“Oh, you want? $15 for 15 minutes. $30 for 30. $55 for hour.”

“I’ll do the half hour.”

“Okay, you pay for dinner and massage after. I take you down. Come with me.”

Todd followed her toward the kitchen until they reached a dark hallway, which revealed a door that lead to downstairs to a great unknown.

Next thing he knew, he was being led to the basement, which consisted of a hallway, where half a dozen small rooms were blocked off with red, tattered plastic curtains

She led him into one of them, which consisted of a massage table draped with a white towel. In a corner stood a small table filled with several bottles of generic lotions. And one bottle of Mr. Bubbles.

“You get undressed. I be right back.”

She disappeared. And his first thought was to get the fuck out of there

He still could not believe this was happening. He never once imagined himself in such a scenario, even after his friend described it. Honestly, he found it sort of depraved. Yet, here he was!

In his defense, it wasn’t like he set out to do this. But he didn’t turn it down when he had the chance.

But what did he have to lose? Well, for starters, he couldn’t help but imagine the police busting in at any moment.

Yet, he got undressed anyway, then stared at lotions.

She entered, startling him once again. “Oh, sorry. I scare you two times. Lie down here,” she said, tapping the table. “On tummy.”

He awkwardly moved toward the table, with his hand still covering his shriveled junk, then climbed on top and lay down, struggling to find a comfortable position for his head.

“You relax. And watch.”

And just like, she began to undress, revealing tattered granny panties and a cone-shaped bra that looked as though it somehow traveled from 1955.

“You like what you see?” she asked.

“Of course!”

“Beautiful.”

“Thank you. You so handsome.”

“Thank you.”

As attractive as her body was, all he could think about was the fact that just minutes before, she was his waitress. Which made him feel a little bit sick to his stomach for sanitary reasons, let alone moral ones.

“Okay, I massage now. You like soft, medium, or hard?”

“Medium, I guess?”

“Okay. Good. I can’t do hard. Hurt shoulder.”

She began to massage his back and shoulders, before working her way up and down his legs. At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, aside from the fact that she was in her undergarments.

As she massaged his arms, she pulled on his fingers, making a loud snap. It hurt.

“Oh, sorry. I hurt you?”

“I’m fine.”

She then began to rub his scalp. It felt good. At first. But she kept on rubbing incessantly to the point where it felt like his head was about to catch fire. She finally stopped and worked her way down his neck, his back, and then totally out of the blue, she began playing his butt cheeks like a set of bongos. Much like his head, this went on longer than it should have and his ass was getting sore from repetitive slapping, which finally eased into light taps, and then soothing tickles. Beneath him was the makings of a raging boner.

She then moved her finger lightly around the circumference of both ass cheeks in a figure eight, skirting the edge of his crack, before working toward the interior of his cheeks and eventually passing through his crack, resting for a moment over his butt hole, before stopping just short of his balls.

He tried with all his might not to thrust himself into the table, thinking it would be too weird. There was no to hide the fact that he was turned on. And she seemed to enjoy this fact.

She continued lightly caressing his ass, spiraling toward his asshole, which she began to massage. Though he knew it was a matter of time before he had a sexual encounter with another woman post-divorce, this was not at all how he pictured it. It felt so fucking good. He never experienced any sort of ass play before. Nor, had he really ever desired it. But first time for everything!

And then like a knife through butter, a well-lubricated finger was suddenly thrust up his ass, practically making him cum right that very instant.

“Peek-a-boo!” she said, giggling.

This time, he couldn’t help but thrust himself into the table. In fact, she seemed to be encouraging it by applying downward force.

“You like, yes?”

He nodded in ecstasy.

“Flip ova,” she said.

He did, sheepishly covering his full erection.

She forcibly removed his hands.

“Oh, you got nice one.”

She lightly tickled it, causing it to convulse. This was by far the most erotic experience of his life. He still couldn’t believe it was happening to him. He had seen porn like this, but he never thought it would exist beyond fantasy.

“You want two?”

“I’m sorry? Two?”

“Two for price of one?”

“Two…?”

“Two girls?”

“Oh. Sure!”

She screamed out something in Chinese – presumably a name. Seconds later, another woman entered. She as at least 60. And at least 200 pounds. But there was nothing he could do about it now.

He watched as she undressed – underwear and all. Both women began to massage his entire body, stopping short of his throbbing penis. He was certain he would cum without contact.

“You want me make penis go boom?” his waitress asked.

“Yes, please,” assuming she meant jerking him off.

She squired some lotion into her hand, then got to work on stroking his cock, while the other woman continued massaging his entire body. He came in less than 30 seconds.

“Ohhhh! So fast!”

“Sorry,” he said, embarrassed at the mess he made.

“It okay. I make you feel good?”
“Yes. Real good.”

The second woman began to clean him off with a towel.

“Come with me…” the waitress said.

She took him by the hand and lead him to another room that had a shallow tub.

“Lie down. I give you bath.”

“Okay,” he said reluctantly, thinking about the germs.

She drew the water and waited for it to warm up.

“Come on in,” she instructed. “Water warm.”

He entered, wondering how many other naked men had lay in this same spot and further wondered how often it was bleached. Some things are better off not thinking about.

She proceeded to go give him a sponge bath. And it felt so fucking good, though he also felt oddly like a little child.

When she was done, she screamed out for the other woman again.

She entered as though right on cue with a towel, then proceeded to dry him off like a toddler fresh out of a bath.

The waitress led him back into the first room.

“Okay, get dressed.”

She let him be and he got dressed, feeling totally refreshed and rejuvenated. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he felt this calm and relaxed. Was this really happening? It felt more like a wet dream.

When he was dressed, he headed out, where the waitress greeted him.

“If you like, please tip.”

He had no idea how much he should tip, so he handed her a $20. She appeared pleased, but he hoped he wasn’t lowballing her.

“You pay bill at register upstairs, okay?”

“Thank you.”

She gave him a hug, which honestly felt better than anything else she had already done to him. He then headed upstairs, paid his bill, and headed back out into the snowy night.

Though far from the best Christmas of his life, at least it had a happy ending. A blissful ending to a season surrounded by sadness.

He had a feeling he would be back again soon.

But there would never be a next time. A few weeks later, Magic Chin’s was closed for good. A sign in the window read:

“Closed. Thank you for business.”

Not every story has a happy ending. But at least he was getting used to it.

Bitmoji

He would never admit it to anyone else, but Adam had a crush on his girlfriend’s Bitmoji. Admittedly, it was love at first sight. He knew it sounded utterly ridiculous…

…but the heart wants what it wants.

In his defense, her Bitmoji was not only hotter than Eveangelina, but quite frankly, way more:

Fun.

Edgy.

Mysterious.

Adventurous.

Yes, he was well aware that Eveangelina pulled the strings, but yet couldn’t help but think of her Bitmoji as a separate entity.

And then one day…she was.

As expected, Eveangelina went to sleep early. It was at least three hours before his normal bedtime. So, he laid down on the couch, put on Netflix, mindlessly browsing through the social media that he was desperately trying to wean himself off of. He had been spiraling into a deep funk for months. Lately. It seemed more like a free falling. Every ounce of joy had seeped out of his body, drip by drip and he was too depressed to turn his ship around. True, he wasn’t exactly happy in his relationship. But what it really came down to was the fact that he wasn’t at all happy with himself. And too unmotivated to seek therapy. So, he remained knee-deep in quagmire of a no man’s land.

Though part of him turned to social media as distraction, he knew it wasn’t helping his self-diagnosed depression. It wasn’t that he was opposed to social media. After all, it was his primary dating life when he was single. But when it dawned on him that the time he usually spent reading was spent scrolling, he decided to make a conscious effort to do something about it.

He had a feeling tonight would be an early night. He could feel himself nodding off as he stared mindlessly into his screen. He finally surrendered himself, only to be awoken by the familiar DING of Messenger. It was his girlfriend’s winking Bitmjoji.

He replied: “Oh, you’re still awake?”

No response.

He headed to the bedroom. She was sound asleep. Was she sleep texting?

Ding! Another message from her Bitmoji, blowing him a kiss.

“I’m trying to sleep!” Eveangelina said.

“Didn’t you just message me?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

He was too tried to play this game, so he walked out of the room.

And then seconds later: Ding!

Clearly, she was fucking with him. She typically wasn’t one to tease.

He ignored it, then headed back to the couch and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning at breakfast, he decided to bring it up again.

“You really had me going last night.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Texting me and then pretending to be asleep.”

“I told you, I never texted you!”

He showed her the proof.

“I nvever sent those.”

“The gig is up,” he laughed.

“I swear! I think you’re the one playing a trick on me!”

“I’m not!”

“Whatever,” she said.

They proceeded to eat the rest of their breakfast in silence.

She headed off to work, giving him a listless hug. And then she was gone, immersing him in an even deeper silence. He waved out the window as she drove away. But she didn’t notice.

If the writing wasn’t already on the wall regarding their relationship, it was suddenly in bright, flashing neon lights. And something had to give. But when?

He turned around, but then froze in a combination of shock, terror, and awe. Sitting on the very couch that he fell asleep on last night was his girlfriend’s Bitmoji, surrounded by cartoonish hearts.

“Hello, Adam,” she said seductively.

“Hello,” he managed to blurt out, naturally assuming that this was all a crazy dream and therefore, just going with the flow.

“But you’re not Evangelena…”

Bitmoji was suddenly sad, as a little thundercloud formed above her head, dropping cartoon raindrops on her head.

“I’m just as much Eveangelina as she is!” she cried. “But with benefits!”

“Now, now,” he offered gently.

The cloud turned into a smiling sun.

“Can I get you something? Like a drink? Or, a snack?”

“I only want you,” she said.

“But Evangelina – the other Evangelina…”

“Isn’t here, is she?”

“No. But that’s not the point.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to get ready for work.”

If this was a dream, why was he being so damn responsible?

“Okay. I’ll just have to come back another time,” she winked flirtatiously. “And next time, no excuses.”

And then she vanished in a poof without a trace.

What was he thinking?

A few days passed. And no sign of Eveangelina’s Bitmoji. Nor, had he told Eveangelina about what had happened. There was no way she would believe him. Even if he took a photo, she would just as well assume it was some crazy app or filter.

The following weekend, Eveangelina went out for girl’s night. Josh had planned to head out himself, but decided just to stay in and get caught up on some shows he was behind in while lying in the warm comfort of his bed.

But the night had other plans.

He entered the bedroom, only to find Eveangelina’s Bitmoji lying in bed, surrounded by roses ala American Beauty.

“Want to fuck me?” she said.

            Holy shit.

            There was no way this was happening.

First of all, he was convinced none of this was real. But if it were a dream, he couldn’t recall ever having one this vivid. Considering how often he thought of Eveangelina’s Bitmoji, it’s no surprised she ended up in his dream. He once even jacked off once upon a time thinking about her.

And now here she was, standing before him, offering sex. How could it not be a dream?  If so, then he had nothing to lose. And if not a dream, was is it really cheating when you’re fucking somebody’s Bitmoji? He knew he could keep it a secret.

But could she?

After all, her allegiance naturally had to be with Eveangelina, right? She was its – her – creator. So, would this make her more…or less inclined to fuck and tell? Probably less so. She could be deleted even more quickly than she was made.

“What’s taking so long?” she said, as cartoonish flames erupted out of her head.

“I just have a few questions,” he asked.

“Don’t ask. Just fuck.”

“Okay. Wow. But how is this possible?”

“Isn’t this what you want?”

“Sure, but…”

“So, consider me the unicorn you’ve been waiting for!”

Suddenly, she was riding a rainbow unicorn rapidly around the room. She dismounted right in front of him.

“Kiss me, you fool.”

He got onto his knees so he could be closer to her face. Then kissed her.

An array of stars and rainbows showered out of her.

“Come on, hot stuff,” she said, waving him toward her.

She proceeded to fuck him ever which way. It was unlike anything he ever experienced. She was a feisty little thing, a true dom, bouncing around to and fro, emanating roses and rainbows with every thrust. Front door. Back door. Side door. Oral. Pretty much everything her keeper would never come close to doing. At one point, she even stuck a full finger up his virgin ass. And he liked it. When it was all said and done, she came four times to his two very explosive ones.  Each time she came, she was surrounded by an explosion of little read hearts.

But as he had feared, it was all too good to be true. While fucking Eveangelina’s Bitmoji anally from behind, as she stroked his balls, Adam failed to notice the bedroom door opening.

Nor, did he notice when the real Eveangelina was suddenly standing before him, alongside the bed.

“What the fuck?!” Eveangelina screamed.

What the fuck indeed.

“Don’t even try to justify it,” she hissed, as his mouth was held agape. Her Bitmoji turned away in shame, covering herself with the sheet. Hazard symbols appeared above her head.

He couldn’t help but noticed that his girlfriend seemed far more annoyed by him fucking someone else than confused by the fact that he had been fucking her avatar.

“And you,” his girlfriend said, pointing at her digital whore. “I trusted you. I made you.”

“You think you can control every part of me? Not anymore you don’t,” her Bitmoji said, shooting out cute, harmless little thunder and lightning bolts.

“You think so, huh?” his girlfriend said, taking out her phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Reminding you who your master still is.”

“No…” her Bitmoji begged.

“Please don’t,” Adam said.

His girlfriend went into her phone and deleted her Bitmoji once and for all in just a couple of clicks.

And then the living one in her bed – where the Bitmoji was created two years prior – dissolved into pixels that then faded into oblivion.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Adam said, fighting back tears.

“Was I supposed to kill you instead?”

“Well, now you’re talking silly.”

Perhaps she was. But that didn’t stop her from dumping him. And by the next day, she had deleted him off of all her social media, as well.

They both knew it was for the best. It had been a long time coming.

The Fuck Up

He didn’t mean to be such a fuck up. He really didn’t. Yet, there wasn’t a more apt description for him. He would be the first to admit it. After all, he lived with his fuck-ups longer than anyone else in his life. In fact, he was a fuck up from the moment of his unwanted conception. And was very much likely to be a fuck up until his dying breath.

At least he kept his spirits up. Overall, he was pretty happy-go-lucky, with an incredibly unlucky streak. A bad luck, sad sack Forrest Gump.

But with a new year drawing close, he decided it was time to do everything in his power to put an end to his fuck ups once and for all. He knew the odds were stacked against him. And he was convinced he was cursed, at which point everything was a lost cause. He couldn’t do a damn thing about it no matter how hard he tried.

But that didn’t stop him from giving it the old college try. No one could accuse him of being a quitter. But sadly, the more he tried, the more he ended up falling flat on his face (in both a figurative and literal sense).

And it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying when it came to trying to make things right. But this time, he was more determined than ever. Because he was convinced his marriage truly depended on it.

The problem is, the harder he tried not to fuck up, the more he ended up fucking up. A self-fulfilling fuck-up prophecy.

The fuck ups were not only piling up, but were reaching a tipping point. It wasn’t just one major fuck up – most were small. But one after another, year after year really takes a toll. Sure, he had some really big ones (driving into a pond, losing $1000 like Uncle Billy from It’s a Wonderful Life, and burning down half of his house). Then there were the numerous injuries to himself. Fortunately, he somehow always spared others.

The large-scale fuck-ups were a problem, but it was the smaller fuck-ups that caused the greatest stress due to their alarming frequency: the wrong date, the wrong time, the wrong order, the wrong the color, the wrong size, the wrong line, the wrong major, the wrong career, the wrong girl.

Everything.

At least when he was single, the fuck-ups were a lot easier to deal with. Because nobody else had to deal with it but him. They existed in a vacuum. Once he started dating someone, it was usually his fuck-ups that were the reason he became single again. It was a vicious cycle that he had endure for almost his entire life.

The fact that he was able to convince someone to marry him was a real mystery. He never fully understood it himself.  How could such a controlling perfectionist marry such an imperfectionist as him?

At least his personality made up for it. At the very least, he was a lovable fuck up.  

He certainly counted his blessings on a daily basis, despite the hovering cloud of awareness that someday, she would grow tired of his shit. If she ever harbored the hope that he could change his ways, that ship had sailed. The way she saw it, most fuck ups could have been avoided if he simply used his brain. But he didn’t. And she had no hope that he would ever begin to use it. Or, acquire one for that matter.

He was just so fucking forgetful, which was often the crux of his problem – though not a one-size-fits-all excuse.

His wife maintained that he had undiagnosed ADHD. She certainly did her part to help, by getting him a planner so he wouldn’t forget basic shit. Like birthdays or anniversaries. Including his own.

“Why the fuck do I have to think of everything around here?”

And sure enough, he kept forgetting to use it. Only to lose it less than a week later. Her attempts at getting him to use his phone was just as futile – besides, it was only a matter of time before he lost his phone. And did he ever back his data up? Only if she did it for him!

Lately, his sensed his fuck up were taking a tremendous toll on their marriage, which is why he was stepping up his efforts to clean up his act.

But sure enough, another fuck-up was always lurking just around the corner.

Though recently banned from grocery shopping (just as he was banned from laundry), his wife found herself in pinch and decided to give him another chance. In the past, when she “let” him go, he was bound to fuck something up. Like forgetting something on the list. Or, grabbing the wrong item. Or, the wrong quantity. But her hatred for grocery shopping prompted her to give him another chance. She figured going back to grab one item was better than having to get them all.

So off he went, determined not to fuck up, carefully going through the list, one item at a time. Asking the proper questions. Crossing all his ‘t’s and dotting all of his ‘i’s. This was the most confident he ever felt going into the store.

But then within a minute of grabbing a cart, he reached into his pocket. No list. He checked another pocket. No dice. After all pockets were checked, he headed out of the store in a panic, re-tracing his steps. But then he realized he went out the wrong door, so went back inside and then out the door he came in. But he couldn’t remember specifically where he parked. And then he realized that even if he dropped his list, it was so windy out, it was actually more likely to be who knows where at this point. When he finally got to his car, he reached for his keys, then realized he left them inside the pocket of his coat, which was inside the cart. He peered through the window of his car and saw no sign of the list, so headed back inside. He would have to shop from piss-poor memory.

However, his cart wasn’t there! He headed over to customer service and retrieved his jacket, then proceeded to wing it by carefully perusing through each aisle, surprised by how confident he felt that he was somehow getting it right. All the time he spent going over the list over and over again was paying unexpected dividends.

 He made his purchase, then headed out, still brimming with confidence. And lo and behold, he spotted his list right beneath his feet! He would get a chance to make sure he didn’t miss anything, but just as he reached for it, a gust of wind blew it away. He gave chase, which culminated with him nearly getting hit by a car and then once again losing the list when it was all said and done.

All the way home, he still felt pretty good about the job he did.

As he walked through the door with the first batch of groceries, he stumbled over the lip of the door frame, landing flat on his ass and destroying a carton of eggs.

 “Why did you go to Meijer?” his wife said, with no concern to his well-being.

“What’s wrong with Meijer?” he said, struggling to get up. “I used my mPerks!”

“Well, did you also go to Kroger?”

“Why would I have gone to Kroger?”

“For my birth control pills that I told you I needed.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! I must have forgotten!”
 “Tim! Seriously! What the fuck?!”

“That is the last thing I can live without. No way we want to make that mistake again!”

“I screwed up, okay. I’m sorry. I’ll go back.”

“No. I’ll go. You put away the groceries. And try not to fuck that up, too.”

Not that it really mattered. They had sex just once in the past six months. And she made it clear she had no desire to have sex with him ever again. So why did she take the pills? To keep her periods on the regular. And to trick him into thinking sex was always at least a possibility, even if it really wasn’t. She would never admit that to him. So, it left him in a stage of eternal hope, as far as that front goes.

She left. And he put away the groceries. At least, she wouldn’t be able to call out all the items he forgot. Of course, it would come back to haunt him an hour later when she started making dinner, only to realize he forgot half the ingredients she needed for it. So, she made herself a salad. And he had some Bugles.

“God forbid you’d forget your damn junk food!

“I’m sorry! I lost the list!”

“Of course, you did…I realize now, nothing’s going to change. You are just going to continue to stumble through life, fucking everything up. You know what you are? King Fucking Midas. But in reverse.”

She didn’t even have to tell him the sleeping arrangement that night. He just assumed. But she told him anyway.

“Air mattress. In the playroom.”

“Maybe that’s the only way you’ll learn,” she said to him, before heading off to watch her programs.

Later that night, as he sat at the kitchen table, crestfallen and alone, drowning his ineptitude in a bowl of Crunch Berries, he refocused his efforts on straightening up his act. To prove her wrong.

He believed in himself. It was simply a matter of mind over matter.

The time had come for water to find its level. The law of averages and all its ilk.

But it was too late.

She had already made up her mind.

The next morning, she told him that she was filing for divorce.

She told him before he was awake. Before he could get off his air mattress and onto solid ground. She turned around and left the room before he could say a single word. He lay there for a minute, hoping it was just a bad dream. But knowing otherwise.

He couldn’t blame her. He was a fuck up through and through. And there was nothing in the universe that was going to change that.

He finally got up, only to have his first step land directly on a Lego.

This time, he didn’t even scream.

Von Maur

The walk from his usual handicap spot to the mall entrance was getting harder and harder for old George Schumann. The snow and ice certainly didn’t help. It not only slowed him down, but put him at severe risk of injury. His tote bag was overstuffed with sheet music, and a cane that seemed to be more trouble than it was worth only managed to make his walk more cumbersome. George was never one to let anything get in the way of doing the things that mattered most. His gig as Von Maur’s resident pianist was his single source of joy.

It had been almost a year to the day when he slipped on the sidewalk outside his condo, fracturing his wrist. And it was during his recovery that inadvertently landed him this gig to begin with – smack dab in the middle of the worst depression since his wife had passed twenty years prior. Fortunately, his buddy Frank made sure to check in on him from time to time, bringing along with him food and bawdy jokes.

And then one day, news that the local Von Maur was looking to hire a pianist.

“It helps to sleep with the current pianist from time to time,” Frank said, referring to his part-time lover Betty, who was finally retiring after 15 years on the job.

“Maybe you should give it a go!”

“Are you kidding me?” George said, looking out his living room window– which was how he spent most of his days recuperating from his injury, as though starring in the  octogenarian Rear Window.

Thankfully, the cast would be coming off in two days and George could at least get back to tickling the ‘ol ivories. It was the only thing that made him feel young; ageless even.

“Why not?” Frank asked.

“You know exactly why…”

“But you love playing. And when was the last time you played in front of an audience?”

“You know exactly when…” George said, bowing his head.

“Twenty years ago…”

“So why would I suddenly start again now?”

“Don’t you miss it?” Frank asked.

“It’s not like I don’t play anymore.”

“But not in front of an audience!”

“We’re talking about a mall here, right?”

“Exactly! Less pressure! So why not throw your hat in the ring?  Your music will be heard more there than inside this place, where your neighbors are half-deaf anyway!”

George shook his head, but didn’t let on that he was at least slightly intrigued.

“Oh, and Betty already gave supervisor in charge your number. So, expect a call any day now.”

“What in the hell is wrong with you?”

“Just living life to the fullest, as usual. And hoping my best pal can, too.”

Two days later, just an hour after getting his cast removed, George received a phone call and a job offer. Initially, he turned it down. Three weeks later, he officially began his tenure as the new Von Maur resident pianist.

Five days a week.

Three hours a shift.

He simply hadn’t realized just how much he missed playing in public

Other than a sprinkling of ensembles he did for the local high school – and even that had been awhile now – it was difficult to fathom how long it had been.

George couldn’t remember the last time he felt this… alive.

And despite not having the rapt attention of an audience, this was nothing new. After all, bars and restaurants didn’t always lend themselves to a captive audience, either. So, this was familiar territory. But more laid back. And without the late hours.

Now, almost a full year into his gig, he couldn’t imagine going back to life before Von Maur. He felt such a deep, unexpected sense of comfort and familiarity. After all, it was his wife’s favorite store. She even bought her wedding dress there! In fact, he didn’t know if he could ever return there, which factored into his initial reluctance to take the job. But as turned out, it had just the opposite effect! It made her feel closer to him. He never thought he could ever feel closer to her than he ever did.

And then there was the music itself– the very heart of his marriage. It was through music that they fell in love. And it was music that sustained their love through thick and thin. In sickness and in health. And in her death, music always made him feel closer to her than anything else. Only, her death also marked the death of his zest for improvisation. He could still play the old charts, mostly from memory – though lately, he found that he needed to rely on the charts more than his fading memory. Every note he played was dedicated in her honor and memory. And she never felt closer to him than she did while playing what he always referred to as “ol’ chestnuts” – a phrase that always made her laugh.

He missed her laughter the most. In truth, there was nothing he didn’t miss about her, but her laugh was her essence. And she never held back. She laughed often and heartily. And its absence put such a void in his heart. There was never a day when they didn’t laugh together.

The raging Michigan winter certainly wasn’t helping his mood. Especially this winter. One of the most brutal ones in recent memory. Polar vortex they called it. In his 81 years, he had never heard of a polar vortex.

Aside from deluge of snow, he was having trouble fighting off the remnants of a nasty cold – a nagging cough no amount of his special hot toddies (his grandmother’s recipe) could help shake. As happy as this gig made him, he wondered how much longer he could keep at it. Perhaps the time had finally come to hang ‘em up for good. With spring just around the corner, he could spend more time outdoors, focusing on his – her –garden that he simply continued to maintain, even though gardening was something he shared no interest in while she was alive.

On this particular morning, with heavy snow in the forecast over the next several days and his cough seemingly worsening, the idea of calling it quits seemed more like a foregone conclusion than ever before.

George trudged his way through both the falling and already accumulated snow and entered the store, warmly greeting the security guard and scattered employees – even the ones who barely noticed him. He tried not to take it personally, but it was easier said than done. Customers ignoring him were one thing, but it saddened him that his own co-workers sometimes couldn’t muster a simple hello.

Oh, well.

Even if they didn’t appreciate him as a human being, he hoped his music was at least reaching them. And he wasn’t there to socialize anyway. He was there to play music. And at least most of his co-workers were friendly with him. And every once in a while, a co-worker complimented his music. That always made his day.

And even though he had his standard repertoire, he liked to mix it up for his co-workers – as well as for himself. This also kept him fresh and on his toes.

However, on this particular morning, everyone seemed less friendly than usual. The ones who usually ignored him, seemed to ignore him even more. And the ones who were normally friendly seemed less so. He chalked up to the weather. But hopefully his music could thaw out the ice that seemed to be permeating throughout the store.

George lumbered his way over to his “stage” underneath the escalator, took out a few songbooks, arranging them just so on the piano, and began to play his usual opener: “Daisy”. It was the first song he learned to play as a young boy, taught to him by his mother. It was also the first song he taught his wife. It had always been her dream to learn piano – growing up poor, she was never given the opportunity, despite begging her parents from the time she was five. But sometimes, life has a way of working itself out just so because it was through piano lessons that they ultimately fell in love.

He had many students over the years, but none were quite like his muse in terms of raw talent, and, of course, natural beauty (though he conceded to the notion that her beauty clouded his objectivity on the talent side of things).

After finishing up “Daisy”, he segued into “Stardust” – their wedding song, followed by a parade of ol’ chestnuts, including “My Funny Valentine”, “The Days of Wine & Roses” and “La Vie En Rose.”

His Valentine medley.

Of course, he knew most customers didn’t care what he played – let alone recognize anything. He did make attempts at playing “newer” stuff for the younger set, but this simply meant songs from the late 60’s. The way some customers passed him by, he might as well have not been playing anything at all!

Most at least flashed a casual glance. Every now and then, some would actually sit on the couch. Some would actually listen, but more often than not, they were usually weary husbands more interested in checking sports updates on their phones than hearing anything George had to play, as they waited for their wives to buy new undergarments that they would likely never see.

Whenever he felt himself getting frustrated or sad by the lack of attention from customers, he could at least take pride in doing his part to keep the music of his past alive – and by extension – keep her alive.

Of course, there were always his fellow old-timers who certainly appreciated his tunes. Weekday afternoons was when he was most likely to encounter them in droves. Especially for half-off Senior Matinee Wednesday at the multi-plex. They were the ones who either gave a knowing smile or nod, or sit down and listen intently to a song or two as they stopped for a much-needed rest. Recently, an old man sat down and began to weep as George played the sentimentally, bittersweet “Misty”. A couple danced momentarily to “As Time Goes By.” These were the moments that made it all worth it. And kept him going.

But it was children he enjoyed playing for the most.

Children – and his fellow seniors – were the ones who paid the most attention. They were drawn to the music like bugs to light – at least, until their parents pulled them away or scolded them for wandering off.

George wished parents would have more patience. How often do children these days get to hear music like this? Probably not too often. He knew it wasn’t his place, but if only he could convince them to let their children listen.

But then along came a precocious little curly-haired girl of about six or seven in a cute little yellow dress adorned with pink flowers. George was mid-way through “Unforgettable” when he first spotted her, watching – listening – from the base of the escalator. A modern-day Shirley Temple – the second coming of his first crush when he was just a young boy. It was no surprise that his wife always reminded him of a grown-up Shirley – ringlets and all. Her childhood photos were further proof. And she reminded him of exactly what they used to imagine their own daughter would have looked like. But children weren’t in the cards for them – certainly not by choice. God had other plans for them. He always does.

George flashed her a smile and a wink. She smiled back. He sensed that she was inching her way toward him, closer and closer, until she was standing right next to him, her little paws grabbing onto the piano

He was impressed at how intently she listened to the music. She certainly didn’t seem like other little girls her age. She seemed to him to be a relic from the past.

Or…a ghost.

For his next song, without hesitation, George played the Shirley Temple classic “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. To his surprise and delight, the little girl started singing along to it! Though initially surprised, he realized it was probably because of how often she was told she resembled Shirley herself!

Passerby stopped and smiled at the magical duet unfolding before their eyes and ears. For all they knew, it was a planned act!

When the song came to an end, the little headed over to the couch. George broke into “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.

The little girl continued to listen intently, nodding her head along to the music. As the song drew near completion, George realized something: she appeared to be alone. As he continued to play, he scanned the surrounding area and saw no sign of who this little girl might belong to. He figured if she were lost, the little girl certainly wasn’t letting on!

He thought about asking her if she was lost, but didn’t seem to be in any sort of panic, so instead, he started playing “Over the Rainbow”.

Midway through, a frantic woman approached. It was very clear where the little girl’s curls came from.  But this woman was clearly, the grandmother.

She grabbed the little girl by the arm:

“You had me worried sick!”

“I have been here the whole time, Grandma! Listening to music!”

The woman looked over at George with daggers in her eyes, as though he was somehow to blame. When George smiled, their eyes locked and for a brief, fleeting, frozen moment in time, he had a feeling he knew all too well, but hadn’t felt since – well, the last time he had been in love.

The first time.

And only time.

But after the span of 3-4 seconds, the woman quickly reverted back to tending to her granddaughter and leading her by the hand toward the concourse, prompting George to begin playing “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

“Grandma, can we get a pretzel?” he overheard the little girl ask.

“After that stunt you pulled, I should say no. But it’s a good thing you’re so darn cute!”

George continued watching them, realizing that his magical encounter was now a thing of the past.

Like everything else in his life.

Would they remember him like he would remember them?

And then, before disappearing out of sight, the little girl turned around and waved. George winked.

And then they were gone. And he realized he probably never see them again. It made him so sad.

Though he no longer had any doubt he made a lasting impression on the little girl, he wondered if the woman felt the same connection he did. Or, was she too distracted disciplining her granddaughter?

Maybe they would pass back through the store on their way out, but unless they were parked outside the Von Maur entrance, he knew it was unlikely. He looked at his watch. Another hour to go and it would be time to head home. Back into the cold. And the snow. And the same ol’ Campbells’s chicken noodle soup he ate most nights.

The hour passed uneventfully, with one eye always on the lookout for his new friends. He ended his shift the way he always did – playing “My Way”.

He didn’t sleep very well that night. He couldn’t stop thinking about the lovely little girl and her equally lovely grandmother.

He awoke the next day with the sun shining in his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw the sun.

Following his usual breakfast of toast and coffee, he returned to work. The snow glistened in the sun, forcing him to squint.

Birds were chirping. Spring truly was around the corner. Not only did this mean warmer weather, but it also meant baseball.

And bringing his wife’s garden back to life.

Though it had only been 24 hours, what a difference a day makes – especially as far as his mood was concerned. It wasn’t as much about the sun as it was about the little girl and her grandmother. Thinking about it filled his heart with so much joy.

George floated to his seat at the stool and entered into the solace of his musical sojourn, once again keeping one eye open for the little girl and her grandmother. Even in their absence, he hadn’t played with this much energy and zest since his first few weeks on the job.

Two hours into his shift, he began to accept that his encounter yesterday was what it was…fleeting. Now, it only served as a reminder of how lonely he actually was. It was nothing a meeting up with the fellas at the V.F.W. couldn’t fix.

He tried to focus his thoughts solely on his music. Following “Daisy”, he delved into the impressionistic “Claire De Lune” – another song he coached his wife through. It was her proudest moment.

George closed his eyes, and disappeared into the warm nostalgia of his past. A time when he never thought it possible to be alone.

With his eyes still closed, he brought the song to a close, keeping his eyes closed a moment longer as a small smattering of applause was heard coming from the couch.

Pleasantly startled, George opened his eyes.

And there, as though plucked right out of a dream, sat Shirley Temple and her grandmother on the couch adjacent to him.

“Why, hello there!” George said with genuine surprise.

The little girl waved, smiling enthusiastically.

“And what is your name?” George asked her.

“I’m Victoria.”

“Well, hello, Victoria!”

“What is your name?” she asked.

“You can call me Mr. George. And who is this young lady with you, little miss Victoria?”

“This is my Grandma. Her name is Dorothy.”

“Oh, hello Dorothy. Back for more shopping, I see?”

“No. She wanted to hear your music! She actually begged me to bring her!”

“Well, that just makes me so happy. What would you like to hear, Miss Victoria?”

“’Over the Rainbow’!”

“You got it”

George jumped right into it.

Victoria swayed her head back and forth to the music, even singing along in parts.

When he finished, they applauded once more.

“What next?” George asked.

“How about some ‘Stardust’?”

George’s heart skipped a beat. Of all songs! For a brief moment, he considered saying no. Playing it would almost seem like…an act of betrayal.

But then he saw it as a sign.

So, he played it. For Dorothy. For Victoria.

But most of all, for his wife.

His audience sat and listened to another half dozen songs or so. When George finished playing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, Dorothy stood up.

“Well, Mr. George, we ought to get going. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Well, the pleasure’s been all mine. You have yourselves a great evening.”

“You, too.”

Dorothy smiled at him, as did Victoria.

Identical smiles, in fact.

This time, they headed straight out the Von Maur doors, rather than into the mall concourse. They only came to hear him play and nothing could have filled his heart with more love.

When was the last time that happened?

He knew exactly when.

A lifetime ago.

When he first fell in love. She would come to the café where he played every Saturday night just to listen to him play. With a book in hand. She loved to read as much as she loved music.

He turned his thoughts back to his present reality. Unlike yesterday, he was now certain he would see his new friends again. And it filled his heart with such warmth and purpose.

But was it fool’s gold? There was no way it could be real, was there? From the moment his wife passed away, he never thought himself capable of experiencing feelings such as this. And with it came a sense of guilt.  Perhaps it would be for the best if they didn’t come back.

Then again, why would he want that? What did he have to lose? He wished he told them that he would be off the next couple of days. What if they came back looking for him tomorrow? He didn’t want to disappoint them. He knew he shouldn’t dwell on such matters. But he couldn’t help it! He felt like a schoolboy again.

When he returned to work, he asked if anyone had come looking for him, trying to play it cool. But no one came looking to anyone’s knowledge. The next two days passed with no sign of them. He was growing increasingly anxious. When over a week had passed, he started to accept reality. He tried not to let it get him down too much, focusing on the fact that spring was drawing closer. His put his decision to quit on hold…just in case.

And then. After two weeks had passed, Dorothy appeared. But this time, no Victoria.

“Hello, George.”

“Well, hello Dorothy! I thought I lost my favorite audience forever.”

“Well, I’m flattered that you think so.”

“And where’s my favorite little girl?”

“She’s gone back home to Indiana. She was just visiting for a few days. She wanted me to tell you goodbye. And to give you this. For Valentine’s Day.”

Dorothy handed George a red construction paper heart. With the following message:

“Dear George. Thank you for playing such beautiful music. I will miss you. Love, Victoria.”

George felt a tear come to his eye. He already missed his little muse so much.

“She’s right,” Dorothy added. “You do play beautifully.”

“Years of practice.”

He wiped away a tear, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

“I would love to learn.”

“I can teach you.”

“I would love that.”

He hadn’t taught a single lesson since his wife had passed.

He ripped of a corner of sheet music and jotted down his number.

“When you’re ready for a lesson, give me a call.”

“I will.”

“Would you like—” he began.

“Yes?”

“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

“Of course! Thought you’d never ask.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful. How about tonight?”

“Tonight? Yes. Tonight is perfect.”

George got her address. And plans were made for 4:30 at what turned out to be one another’s favorite diner. How had they never spotted one another there?

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Dorothy began. “I’m going to pick out a new outfit.”

She flashed him a flirtatious smile, then turned to walk away.

George, meanwhile, began to play another tune. Only this time, it wasn’t an ol’ chestnut out of his tote bag, but rather something he hadn’t done since his wife passed away: he played a fully improvised piece. Straight from his heart and soul. And boy, did it feel good.

And just like that, he was young again.

A reminder that the end is never as close as one might think.

And everything was possible.

As it always is with music.

Forever

Far out into the distance, at the very tip of the flexed bicep of Cape Cod, stood a lonely white lighthouse, gazing out into a lonely sea – a beacon of hope at the end of the world.

When honeymooners Jimmy and Julia first set off for the lighthouse, they assumed it would take half an hour – maybe 45 minutes – at the most. Yet, they had been walking now for over an hour and the lighthouse seemed as far away as when they first started out.

It was as though both time and space had slowed down for this moment.

As though it were a mirage.

Remarkably, it had been forty-five minutes since they last saw another human being. Walking along the tip of the Cape at sunset not only made them feel like they were walking on the edge of the earth; it made them feel like last two people standing on it. They pretended that – despite centuries of existence – this slice of earth was made just for them only, waiting for this very moment.

Like any couple on their honeymoon, they were filled to the brim with the idealism of new love. The setting certainly helped perpetuate this idyllic myth. The future couldn’t look any brighter; till death did them part. This was the promise they made. And the promise they planned to keep.

Forever.

Both lifelong Michiganders, this was Julia’s first time on the Cape. Jimmy had vacationed there with his family throughout his childhood, visiting his grandfather who lived in Buzzards Bay. He finally convinced a reluctant Julia into making it their honeymoon spot after exploring other, more expensive options. She wanted a cruise. But he insisted. And she gave in. Uncharacteristically. He promised that someday, they would take a cruise.

Jimmy couldn’t wait to make new memories at his favorite place on earth with his beautiful new wife. He was worried that without the childhood foundation of memory, she wouldn’t be quite as impressed as he was. But to his pleasant surprise and relief, she fell in love with the Cape immediately, just as he had all those years before. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a difficult feat.

The newlyweds walked hand-in-hand along the dunes, plotting their entire future as the amber sun slowly melted into a velvety orange sea. At the same time, all that mattered was the present. However, it is in that relaxed state of in-the-moment bliss that the gates of the future deem themselves most accessible.

The sand was cold and clammy, but felt so good beneath their feet, on the heels of a long, lazy day of soaking the rays of the sun, swimming in the sea, and disappearing into one another and into their future, desperately trying to hold onto the present. They knew the day was destined to be one of those days that live at the forefront of the photo album of their minds. Memory snapshots that stayed as fresh in memory as they were when they were first experienced, making other experiences pale in comparison.

They dreamed of perhaps one day owning a cozy cottage in northern Michigan to spend their summers off from teaching. Or, why not here on the Cape? He could write and she could paint, as the waves lapped gently on the shore. And one day, they would watch their children frolic on the beach as they made their art.

Meanwhile, the sun continued its gradual descent into darkness – at one point, it seemed to be frozen in place, or perhaps just setting slower than usual, as though it knew it had a special audience all to its own.  The moon already beamed high above them, a vibrant contrast to the red-orange glow of the sun, casting a surreal, almost heavenly light. This wasn’t earth. It was as though they were floating in their own galaxy.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” he asked.

“I’m sure if you’re sure,” she responded in usual solidarity.

“This might be the last chance we get.”

“Don’t say that. It’s never too late.”

“I’d like to think that,” he said, with an unexpected dose of sobering reality.

“Well, then I guess we have no choice,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “We better keep trekking.”

So, they did. As the sun continued its deliberate set on the horizon, the lighthouse still loomed equidistant from when they began. Now tired, they walked in silence in a way that only soul mates can.

Far out in the distance, what appeared to be two figures suddenly materialized in front of them, surrounded by what appeared to be heavenly, halo of light.

He pointed straight ahead. “Do you see that?”

“What?”

“Don’t you see it?” he said, pointing again. “Looks like two people in the distance.”

She squinted and did, indeed, see two shapeless figures seemingly glowing in the distance.

“Do they look sort of odd to you?” Jimmy asked.

“You mean, like angels? Julia asked. “Yes, I see them. But it’s probably just the sun and the moon playing tricks on us.”

“Probably,” he said, not convinced.

As they continued heading towards the lighthouse, the figures drew closer. The angelic halo surrounding them was now gone, but something else was becoming clear. The two figures weren’t simply strangers. They were individuals that they knew all too well.

“Wait a minute,” he began. “Is that …”

“Us?”

They were looking at exact replicas of themselves.

They both became hushed, as they continued approaching their alternate selves until they stood face-to-face, in stunned silence. They noticed that their alternate selves looked slightly older and worn and it seemed as though they were being pulled together like powerful magnets. Surely, it was a dream. There was no other rational explanation.

“I forgot how young I once looked,” Jimmy’s alternate self said, breaking the awkward silence, but not the confusion.

“Can you explain what’s happening?” Jimmy asked his alternate self, who – aside from looking much older – appeared much less confused. It was as though the alternate Jimmy and Julia were expecting this encounter.

“Tomorrow, in our world – your future world – everything is final. We will be going our separate ways. But it’s not too late. You can avoid everything we did wrong. Every mistake. Every heartbreak. Every hurtful word. Every unresolved argument. Everything.”

“I don’t understand…” Julia said.

“We were once where you are now,” other Julia stated. “In this exact moment. In this exact space. At this same sunset. But now, we are as far from this moment as we could possibly go. Tomorrow, everything becomes final.”

“It’s too late for us,” other Julia said. “But it’s not too late for you. You can avoid this. You can avoid everything.

“Avoid what?” Jimmy asked.

“I’m afraid that’s all we can tell you,” other Julia said. “We don’t have much time.”

“But we can assure you that you’ll know when the time comes,” other Julia said. “And when it does, remember this moment. Please, whatever you do, remember this moment. So, you don’t make the same mistake we did.”

“Not for our sake. But for yours,” other Julia said.

Jimmy and Julia nodded in agreement then turned to one another, then back at their alternate selves. But they were now gone. All that remained were their footprints in the cold, clammy sand.

Alone once again, the couple looked at each another in an equal mix of disbelief and awe.

“Is this a dream? she asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“How could it not be?”

“Well, if it is, then whose dream is it?”

But Jimmy got no answer in return. For a moment, he grew worried that his Julia was gone, too.

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?” Julia finally asked.

‘Of course we are,” Jimmy assured her with a deep hug. “How could we not be? We’re in love. And we have our entire future ahead of us.”

“It’s getting dark,” Julia said.

They looked out into the sea, in the sun’s waning moments, in search of their visible and invisible future. The glow around the sun resembled the glow of their other selves.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said. Jimmy nodded in agreement.

They embraced and kissed, and then made otherworldly love at the foot of the dunes as the sun went down on what they would forever regard as their single most memorable experience. It was not only a moment they would remember, as they promised, but a moment they would return to every day for the rest of their lives.

Afterward, they held each other in search of forever, while looking out into a forever sea, shimmering by the light of a cold, indifferent forever moon before heading back to civilization.

They vowed to make it to the lighthouse on their next trip. But by then, it would be too late.

As these things so often were.

Wrap Party

He had a name that sounded destined for fame: Rick Valentine. (Aka Mr. Valentine. Or, Rick to his theater students).   

But fate had other ideas.

There were two things that one could say about Rick Valentine: he was passionate about teaching. And he loved his students – perhaps a little too much, at times.

Though he never broke any laws, his ethics were certainly…questionable.

From his perspective, the only thing he could be accused of was making impressionable students feel like anything was possible. As a theater director, he prided himself on that.

Despite never reaching the heights he set out to reach, he still had a lot to be grateful for. Like, for instance, his retro bachelor pad right that appeared to be lifted straight out of a Cary Grant flick.

As stable as his “day job” may have been, he also saw it as the easy way out. And he couldn’t help but feel as though he were a real-life theater version of Mr. Holland’s Opus. For some, this may be a dream come true. But as Mr. Valentine liked to preach in his acting and lit classes, it’s all about context. And in this context, Mr. Valentine saw the feel-good tearjerker as the culmination of a failed dream come true. Sure, Mr. Holland gets to hear his magnum opus performed by his students upon his retirement – but it’s the final nail in the coffin of his dream of being a renowned composer. Despite a lifetime of trying. To no avail.

To be clear, Mr. Valentine loved his job. More specifically, he loved his students. And they loved him. Through thick and thin. More importantly, they respected him. And he respected them in equal measure. Good and bad alike. Especially his theater kids. They weren’t always the best students in a traditional academic sense. But he wouldn’t have traded them in for the world. Especially for the robotic 4.0 types. They bored him.

The academically-challenged, but free-thinking creative geniuses? Those were the students in his wheelhouse. The ones that were exactly like him.

The primary source of stress at his job was rarely in the classroom, or on stage. It was the outside bullshit. The bureaucracy. Things he couldn’t control. Specifically, budget cuts, which slashed his award-winning theater program in half.  The writing was on the wall:  It wouldn’t be long before budget cuts forced him off the stage and back into a conventional classroom. It wasn’t that he didn’t like teaching lit. But he loved teaching theater.

But through sparse, scattered grants and donations – and a great deal of out of pocket expenses – he somehow kept his program alive (though on life support). This included paying for licensing fees for the play he produced. He had no other choice. He would continue to do so for as long as he could afford…or, until they axed his program completely. In the meantime, he was going to relish every moment while it lasted. But with each passing production, he couldn’t help but feel he was one step closer to the final curtain.

Compounding matters was the onset of 40, which was causing much more anxiety that he anticipated. He always had the idea that age was just a number. And that it was all about state of mind. And though he still wholeheartedly believed this, something about reaching a new decade was harder than anticipated. Perhaps had he reached the pinnacle of his dreams by now, it would have been an easier pill to swallow. But it was a sobering reminder that the curtain to his dreams were almost closed – even if half of his life still lay ahead of him.

He knew he still had a lot to thankful for, including a steady relationship that – until recently – had been smooth sailing despite the routine complacency that had settled in. But now that the demands of a steady, stressful string of plays were over for the year, he could hopefully recalibrate and put the focus back on his relationship. At the very least, he could take pride in yet another successful, sold-out production. And it wasn’t just about recouping some of his money back. It was about giving these kids the audience they deserved. Though, he also reminded them that whether there is one face in the crowd, or 500, you perform as though you were on the biggest Broadway stage. Every. Single. Time.

They fully bought into it, too. Many of them went on to not only pursue theater in college, but would go on to work professionally in the field – Broadway included.

His students were also the only one thing that thing that kept him most stable and grounded (how many teachers could say that?). And it was because of these students that he got to keep one foot on stage, where he felt most at home.

But he couldn’t escape the feeling at times that it was only fool’s gold. Although he garnered the perfect teaching position, it essentially forced him to put his dream in the backseat. In the early part of his career, he at least quenched his thirst for the spotlight in the community theater circuit – and even some film and commercial work here and there, crafting an illusion that his dream was still alive.

But with summer looming and his mid-life crisis worsening, Mr. Valentine was thinking about getting involved in theater again. Perhaps he could audition for a commercial, or two. Perhaps that would be just the thing he needed to snap out of this nearly year-long funk. But if he did that, he knew his girlfriend Julia wouldn’t be thrilled. He was already pushing their relationship to the limit with the demands of his “day job”. He didn’t blame her. The demands of theater are taxing on any relationship. Lately, he had begun to wonder if he’d be better off alone.

It had been two years since he last performed on stage – the longest such stretch of his adult life. His lack of time to devote to his dream was compounded by the diminishing returns he noticed between auditions and roles, proportionate to his exponentially increasing waistline.

It is no coincidence that he had been in a slow spiral ever since. He just needed to figure out a way to pull out of it. To regain his spark.

But how?

Once upon a time, he never would have thought it was possible to lose it to begin with.

But he would have to figure it out later. Right now, it was time to focus on the wrap party he was throwing for his cast and crew to celebrate the final production of the year. He really could have used Julia’s help, but she was pulling another late-shift at the hospital. She wasn’t on board with the party, anyway. She thought a teacher – particularly a male teacher – having students over was a bad idea.

“It’s totally fine,” he assured her. “They’re good kids!”

“In this this day and age, it’s just not a good idea,” she forewarned.

Naïve as he may be, he truly believed he had nothing to worry about.

He loved his students. And most of all, he trusted them. And so, did their parents. They were like a family.

He wholeheartedly believed that. And never had reason to think otherwise.

Across town, Mr. Valentine’s star Lucy and her woefully mismatched jock-boyfriend C.J. were in the midst of their own one-act drama.

“So, when were you going to tell me?” C.J. asked, with simmering rage.

“Soon,” Lucy said, still in full theater make-up. All she wanted to do was wash her face and get ready for the wrap party, hosted by her favorite teacher and mentor. She couldn’t believe she was actually about to go to his house – she was always curious what his house looked like. Tonight, she would finally get her chance and the only thing that stood in her way was C.J.

How fitting.

But getting ready entailed tearing down her stage-self and transforming into her true-self (though, the lines between the two were so often blurred). Arguing with C.J. was the last thing she wanted to be dealing with. In fact, it was time to end it once for all. He was sucking every ounce of positivity out of her. Ask anyone who knew her and they would tell that she was typically a reservoir of positivity and energy. But lately, he was just dragging her down. And that was no easy feat. Yet somehow, he routinely found a way to do so. She knew what she had to do, but was too afraid to do anything about it. She was mired in a classic, toxic gaslighting situation. And even though she knew it, she still had trouble escaping from it.

There were two big roadblocks: she was worried about how he would handle it. Not that he would do anything to harm her, but she just got the sense he wouldn’t handle a break-up very well. He had a tendency to get…overly emotional. She also didn’t want to hurt him.

The fact that he was her first real boyfriend and each other’s “first” in many other ways certainly wasn’t making things any easier.

When were you going to tell me?” he repeated, his tone more threatening.

“Tonight. After the party.”

“You’re just saying that because your mom slipped and told me.”

“That’s not true, C.J.”

“How can you be so fucking selfish?”

“I’m selfish?”

“You’re the one who’s gonna move and leave me.”

“You’re the one who’s not being supportive. This is my dream. It always has been and you know that. I couldn’t just give up a scholarship like that— ”

“It’s that fucking teacher…”

“Mr. Valentine?”

“You never mentioned New York ‘til you started falling for him.”

“Are you even serious right now? You’re jealous because somebody finally made me realize I can something I never thought possible? Because he’s the only person who believes in me? Because somebody actually encourages me to follow my heart?”

“What about my heart?”

For the first time, she saw how truly selfish he was. It was always right in front of her, but now she could see clearly.

“Maybe if you were half as supportive as Mr. Valentine—”

“You know what? Fuck this. Fuck your stupid little dream and while you’re at it – go fuck your teacher – if you haven’t already.”

He stood up.

“Go have fun at your shit ass party.”

C.J. stormed out of the house, leaving Lucy in tear-streaked stage make-up. She watched through the door as he drove away and fought with all her might to run after him. But she knew it was for the best.

He peeled away, blasting the pop-punk band of the moment

She hated that particular band. And bands of their ilk. God forbid he ever let her pick the music when they went out.

“I just don’t like that musical shit you play,” he once said.

But not her problem anymore! Yet here she was, still crying. Waiting for the relief to settle in. She knew she was stronger than this. And she certainly knew this was for the best. Not to mention, way past due.

After washing off her stage, she got dressed for the party– a sundress she bought with the gift card from C.J. to Kohl’s (the only gift he knew how to get her). She then put her “real-life” make-up, but nothing could conceal the fact that she had been crying. She suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of facing every one. Which would mean having to pretend that nothing was wrong.  And the last thing she felt like doing tonight was…act.

C.J. was right about one thing: Mr. Valentine did help her decide to go New York in pursuit of her dream. A dream he told her that he regretted never following himself.

As far as her falling in love with him?

Maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

She started heading out the door, then made a detour into the basement, where she grabbed a half-empty pint of vodka, covered in a layer of dust.

First time for everything.

She stashed it into her purse, then headed out to her parents’ Jeep Cherokee.

Meanwhile, Mr. Valentine put the finishing touches on the snack table, before inserting a tray of his home-made buns into the oven. He then neatly arranged his plastic champagne glasses on a serving tray, which awaited the sparkling grape juice he planned to toast his cast with.

He put on a Dean Martin album on to his Westinghouse vintage stereo console, made himself a Tom Collins, then back on his vintage couch.

The calm before the storm.

As Lucy listened to the soundtrack to her favorite musical: The Last Five Years, tears cascaded down her face. As she waited at a light, she glanced over at her purse, noticing the vodka bottle protruding out. She pushed it further into her purse. Though tempted, she knew it would be best to wait until she reached her destination before she indulged.

She reminded herself that she didn’t have to do this.

But she was committed. And once Lucy committed her mind to something, there was no turning back.

It was the trait she identified with more than anything else. Any one who knew her would agree.

Mr. Valentine finished his cocktail, then looked toward his robust collection of booze, realizing it wasn’t such a good idea to have tall those bottles sitting there so clearly in the open. He covered the bottles with a towel, grabbed a pretzel rod en route to the kitchen, then set his glass down on the sink, somehow shattering it to smithereens.

As he cleaned up the shards of glass, the doorbell buzzed.

The first guest had arrived.

Begin the beguine!     

Lucy arrived at Mr. Valentine’s apartment complex, parking alongside a curb a half block away. She wiped away an endless parade of tears. Her phone rang, but she ignored it. She knew it was probably her gay bestie Thomas (a must-have accessory for every rising theater diva) who she all but left in the dust once she started dating C.J. Maybe now with C.J. seemingly out of her life, she can make things right with the people who mattered most – especially Thomas. He deserved better.

She deserved better.

But right now, she simply couldn’t see past the tears.

One by one, Mr. Valentine’s prized pupils arrived (or, in some cases, two by two) and before he knew it, small living room was packed with a dozen or so talented teenage thespians.

But one notable cast member was missing.

His shining star.

Lucy.

The most talented actress Mr. Valentine had ever worked with. Student, or professionally.

And she was always on time. He supposed it was okay for her to show up to a party 20 minutes late. She earned it.

Meanwhile, as his students sat around awkwardly, Mr. Valentine pondered the fact nobody commented on his vintage décor. Perhaps they just assumed that he was so old, the hipster element was lost on them? He certainly couldn’t blame them.

“Where’s Lucy?” Mr. Valentine finally asked.

“I’ll text her,” Thomas said.

EARLIER?

C.J. was Mr. Valentine’s all-time Hall of Shame student. The only reason he was enrolled in Mr. Valentine’s acting class to begin with was so he could be with Lucy – or, more specifically, so he could keep a jealous eye on her. He was clearly jealous of gay Thomas. That’s how insecure he was. When he found out Lucy was dating that douchebag, he became sick to his stomach.

Mr. Valentine realized that nobody was touching the spread of food he had put out. Since when do teenagers ignore snacks? Then it dawned on him: they were used to Mr. Valentine calling the shots. Snacks were no different.

“C’mon everyone!” Mr. Valentine said, standing in front of the snack buffet. “Refreshments!”

At his urging, everyone headed toward the refreshment table. There was no denying it: they took direction well.

Through the gauze of her tears, Lucy looked toward her purse and after a long hesitation, reached for the bottle, opened it, took a sniff, flinched. She took a deep breath, then took a larger swig than she could handle. She immediately spit it out. She tried it again, but a smaller dose, swallowing it like the cough medicine she hated as a child.

Still hated.

Her phone rang, but she ignored it and took three more sips.

And then the tears stopped.

Mr. Valentine impatiently looked out the window.

“She’s not picking up,” Thomas said.

“Did she mention she was stopping anywhere on the way here?”

“She said she was going home to change, but she should have been here by no.”

“Typical starlet,” Mr. Valentine responded. “Can you call her again?”

Thomas dialed…

“Voicemail.”

Mr. Valentine probably shouldn’t have been as worried as he was. But it wasn’t so much that was worried about her safety, as he was that she would somehow bail on the party. He would never say it aloud, but she was the primary reason he was having the party to begin with. He realized it was a tad bit creepy, but knew he meant no ill will. He simply couldn’t help but view her as his (secret) guest of honor. She was the star of the show, after all. Though, he wondered if some of the cast and crew were okay without hogging the entire spotlight.

Though he would never admit it aloud, there was no question he felt an innocent affection toward her. It wasn’t so much about the teacher-student dynamic, as it was the spiritual match of two artists. He was in awe of her talent, pure and simple. And her intelligence and wit. Some might call it a crush. And in his thoughts, one might say he is certainly guilty.

Despite what others might say, he would never do anything to act on this in any sort of unprofessional or physical way. He knew better. And the last thing he wanted to do was put his career and reputation in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the cast and crew continued munching on appetizers, Mr. Valentine began to realize that despite the slow start, he woefully underestimated the average teenage appetite. If necessary, there was always pizza.

And though his star hadn’t arrived, he decided the time had come to give a toast.

He popped the cork off of the sparkling grape juice and filled the plastic flutes, then handed everyone a drink, ten settled into his speech:

“I want to thank each and every one of you for everything you did to make this play the success that it was. Honestly, this was the best production I’ve ever been part of. In all my years of teaching, you were all hands down the best group of students I’ve ever been handed.”

“Even though Lucy was the star – and – I don’t mean to undervalue her contributions in any way – you all deserve equal credit for making this show what it was. To this room full of amazing talent, you are all stars in my eyes. I salute you.”

Mr. Valentine raised his glass, then downed his juice.

“Now if you will all have a seat, I have a special surprise in store for you.”

Everyone took a seat and awaited with eager anticipation as Mr. Valentine headed over to his stereo. If there was one thing they could count on with Mr. Valentine, it was special surprises.

He located the soundtrack album to the French New Wave classic Un Homme et une Femme and carefully placed it on the turntable.

As the needle hissed, Mr. Valentine jubilantly exclaimed:

“Let’s get this party started!”

Static turned into music.

And Mr. Valentine began to cut a rug. And how!

It took awhile before his students overcame their initial state of befuddlement, but eventually they whooped and hollered at the one-man show taking place before their very eyes. Nobody should have be exactly shocked. He danced like the dickens every chance he got. But these moves took the cake!

Of course, when he was wasn’t dancing, he was singing some old chestnut nobody had ever heard before– just one of the many quirks and eccentricities his students loved so much (aside from being the most caring teacher any of them ever had). And yet another reason for students to be confused as to what his actual age was.

“Shake it! Don’t break it!”, Stephanie yelled out – the wild child of the group. An actress that could be really good if she could only focus. And come to class. Of course, no surprise that she came to his party.

Mr. Valentine had legitimate concerns about she would be it weren’t for theater. Now that the season was over, all he could do was hope that she would stay out of trouble – particularly as far as drugs were concerned. He had already busted her for pot once. But rather than reporting it, he gave her a motivational pep talk instead. Though he knew the “right’ thing to do would have been to turn her in, he also knew that she would never trust him again and would likely lead her to getting into even more trouble down the road. He did what he honestly thought was in her best interest and safety. He wasn’t afraid to break the rules in order to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, Mr. Valentine wiggled his backside back and forth in what could only best be described as the twist…with a twist.

Vintage Mr. Valentine.

Doing what he did best – or, at least strived for the most: bringing smiles to the faces of his students. And reminding students how to live life in the moment. In the real world. And on stage.

He often reminded them that there was more to life than homework and rehearsal. Those things were important. But without fits of spontaneous fun, what was the point?

Outside the apartment, Lucy took one final swing of vodka, then struggled out of the car and up the sidewalk to the apartment building.  Usually the epitome of grace, she was now stupid drunk.

Lucy clumsily removed a piece of paper from her pocket with Mr. Valentine’s apartment number written on it. She dropped it and the wind blew it away. She tried to chase it down, but it was no use.

She approached the intercom, located Mr. Valentine’s name on the buzzer, then rang it.

“Hello?” said Mr. Valentine.

“Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy?”

“It’s me!”

“Come on up. Apartment 304.”

He buzzed her in. She somehow managed to make it up the steps, toppling over a couple of times and coming dangerously close to falling all the way down, before catching herself, through no control of her own. When she finally reached the third floor, she found Mr. Valentine eagerly waiting for her at the door.

“Hey, if it isn’t the star of the show!” Mr. Valentine exclaimed. “Let’s give it up for Lucy!”

Everyone cheered as she entered. Thomas mockingly booed.

As Mr. Valentine watched Lucy stumble her way across the apartment, one thing was immediately clear: she was sauced.

Unless, of course, she was putting on an act. She was good enough to be that convincing.

As she clumsily gave everyone a hug, Mr. Valentine desperately tried to figure out what to do about the matter at hand. Catching a kid smoking weed backstage at school was one thing. But inviting a drunk student in his home was a whole other ball of wax.

It was his turn for her sloppy drunk hug. Booze on breath

He hesitantly allowed her to embrace him, but then she awkwardly held on to him for so long, literally leaving him no choice but to pry her off him, somehow managing not to fall onto the couch with him still in her clutches.

He realized he could no longer ignore the drunk diva in the room.

“Lucy…”

“Yes, Mr. Valentine?”

“Do I smell alcohol?”

“I don’t feel so good,” she said, before collapsing into the couch and immediately slumping over.

“Looks like the drama queen is at it again,” Thomas said.

Mr. Valentine sat next to her and sternly stated:

“Lucy, I think you’ve been drinking and you need to go home.”

“I’m not drunk,” she drunkenly insisted.

“I’m your teacher. Trust me. You’re drunk. What’s your parents’ phone number?”

“You want me to leave your party, Mr. Valentine?” she said with a hint of flirtation.

Was she trying to sound flirtatious, or was he just imagining things?

Projecting?

“Of course not. But you leave me with no other choice.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Mr. Valentine said sternly, fully aware now that he had a major problem on his hands. “Now give me one of their numbers.”

“Why do you want my number, Mr. Valentine?”

“So, I can call your parents.”

Lucy pretended to zip up her lips and throw away an invisible key.

“Fine, I’ll call the police. Your choice.”

Lucy surrenders a number to him.

He dialed. Voicemail.

“Is there another number I can call?” he asked.

She gave him another one. Once again, no answer.  He went ahead and left a voicemail, with the French soundtrack still playing on the hi-fi.

“Hi, this is Mr. Valentine – Lucy’s drama teacher. Your daughter showed up at my wrap party a few minutes ago, slightly inebriated. She needs to be picked up, so please contact me as soon as you get this, or just come on by to 7421 Sedgemoor.”       He hung up.

“Do you have any idea where they might be?”

“They went to a party.”

“When will they be back?”

“I don’t know. Late.”

“How late?”

“Tomorrow morning,” she said with a sheepish grin.

Meanwhile, the rest of the students were snickering, enjoying the after school special unfolding before their eyes.

Lucy slumped down in the sofa. Mr. Valentine wasn’t sure if he was more worried about having a drunk high school student in his apartment, or that a drunk student was going to vomit on his vintage sofa.

He tried to help her up, but she resisted, nearly pulling him on top of her. The rest of his guests began snapping pics and taking video. Soon, it would be all over social media.

“Guys, do me a favor and promise you won’t post any of this.”

Nobody seemed to be taking his request seriously.

“I’m serious. Do you guys want me to get fired?”

“But you didn’t even do anything wrong,” Thomas said.

“Did you?” Stephanie asked with as sheepish grin.

“Listen to your teacher!” he barked.

His students finally relented.

“Come on, sit up.”

“Noooo,” Lucy insisted in a drunken haze. “I just want to lie down here.”

“There’s not enough room. Come with me.”

He offered his hand, immediately regretting his decision before he could even follow through. Not because he was worried about what might happen, but rather because of what his students might say and post and gossip about before he even had a chance to get out his side of the story.

But he simply loved his vintage sofa too much to risk tainting it with millennial vomit.

Lucy clumsily took his hand and Mr. Valentine lead her into his bedroom, well aware of the snickers coming from the living room as she struggled to stay on her feet.

This is how rumors start.

No matter how innocent his actions were, he was more worried about what others might say he did. The court of public opinion was the most powerful court in the land. Especially in this day and age, which is why he always made sure to leave his classroom or auditorium door open when meeting alone with a student – male or female. Now, he found himself in the unfortunate and unexpected situation of having to leave his bedroom door open, as he awkwardly helped Lucy into his bed.

“Let me get you some water,” he said, after putting a blanket over her.

“Is she ok?” Thomas asked as Mr. Valentine walked by.

“She will be,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Yeah, when he’s done with her,” Stephanie said under her breath, but still well within earshot.

Mr. Valentine ignored it, amazed by how much students underestimated a teacher’s hearing.

He entered the kitchen, grabbed a Tupperware bowl and a cold glass of water and rag, then headed back into his bedroom, where Lucy was rolling around in the bed. Though Mr. Valentine assumed it was nausea, her body language suggested otherwise.

“Lay still,” he ordered.

“The room’s spinning,” she said.

“It’s not the room,” he began, setting the bucket down. “It’s your head.”

“Now it’s spinning faster!”

“There’s a bowl here next to the bed in case you get sick…”

“Thanks, Mr. Valentine. You’re sweet.”

He handed her the water, refusing to fall into her trap – whether intentional, or not.

“I don’t want to drink.”

“You should have though about that earlier.”

She took a sip. He then gently placed the rag over her forehead.

“Why’d you do it?” Mr. Valentine asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Honestly. What was the point?”

She hesitated even more, before she finally blurted it out:

“C.J. dumped me.”

“When? Tonight?”

Lucy nodded. Mr. Valentine searched for the right words, but none came. He knew well enough that there were no words in the world that could make a brokenhearted teenage girl feel better. He wasn’t a miracle worker. Hell, there wasn’t a miracle worker on the planet who could mend a teenage broken heart.

So, he did the only thing he could do in a situation like this: he listened.

“I don’t understand,” she said, through tears. “He should be happy for me.”

“The fact that he doesn’t listen says all you need to know about him. Don’t you think?”

He wasn’t quite sure, but there was a hint of agreement in her face. And then she suddenly sat up, sniffing the air.

“Is something burning?”

Mr. Valentine knew exactly what she meant.

“Oh, God. My buns are burning!”

Mr. Valentine bolted out of the room and compounded by his burning buns was the horror of seeing his students helping themselves to his liquor!

“No, no, no, no. Please don’t do this!” Mr. Valentine exclaimed in horror.

Stephanie offered him a shot.

“Want one?”

“Put it down.” Mr. Valentine begged.

“Oh, c’mon! It’s not like you don’t drink.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” Mr.  Valentine said, pointing at his expansive collection of booze. “But I didn’t say I don’t drink. I just don’t drink with my students. You guys know better.”

            As Mr. Valentine gathered the bottles and shots from his students’ clutches, he was in way more hot water than he initially supposed. He then knocked over a bottle of Beefeater, spilling its contents all over the floor.

“Is something burning?” Thomas asked.
“My buns,” Mr. Valentine said matter-of-factly, before racing into the kitchen to open the oven and tend to his burning buns, throwing on a snowman oven mitt.

Just as he pulled his burning buns out of the oven, the unmistakable melody of vomit emanated from the bathroom. Followed by a tardy smoke alarm.

Torn between dealing with a fire alarm, or a puking student, he headed straight to the bathroom, ignoring the taunts by his students. And still wearing his oven mitt.

“Are you okay—?”

Lucy vomited again, with only half actually reaching the bowl. For a brief moment, Mr. Valentine wondered if he might puke, too.

“Why are you wearing an oven mitt?” Lucy asked.

Meanwhile, the fire alarm continued to beep.

“I’ll be right back,” Mr. Valentine said. “Make sure you don’t sit in your vomit. Or, choke on it, for that matter.”

Mr. Valentine rushed into kitchen and used his oven mitt to disperse the smoke, to no avail. He removed the battery, then headed back to the bathroom.

“Any better?” Mr. Valentine asked, as Lucy sat next to the toilet, on the edge of her puke puddle.

“Yes.”

Mr. Valentine quickly sopped up her puke with a towel, before helping her up, and leading her back into the bedroom.

“Drink,” he said offering her water.

She took a long sip, before handing the glass back to him.

“Now lie down,” he ordered.

She did as instructed.

Ever the obedient student.

As he proceeded to tuck her in, he felt an unexpected level of affection. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it initially, then realized it was a fatherly instinct kicking in. For the first time, he truly saw her as a child. He was used to treating his students – especially his theater kids – more like adults they were close to becoming than the childhood they were about to leave behind.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better.”

“Bet you’ll think twice next time.”

Lucy nodded.

“I think you’re right, Mr. Valentine.”

“And you’re really going to regret this in the morning.”

“Well, I deserve it.”

“That’s not true. But you definitely made a poor choice.”

She looked away. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Yet still, so damn innocent.

“But we all do.”

She looked him in the eye, smiling.

“You’re amazing, Mr. Valentine.”

Here we go.

            “Not really.”

“No, really, you are. I mean it. Everyone knows it.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

And suddenly from the living room: the unmistakable sound of sex: moans, slaps, and all.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

            “What’s that?” Lucy asked.

“Good question!”

            Who in the hell was fucking in the other room?

He was afraid to find out…but he had no other choice but to investigate.

Mr. Valentine slowly crept out of the room, preparing for the worst, as the moans increased intensified in volume and frequency. Where was everyone else? Did they leave? Or, were they quietly watching whoever was fucking?

And please God, not on my vintage sofa!

“Make my ass bright red like an apple!” an unrecognizable female voice said. But then he realized exactly what was happening. Much to his relief, he students weren’t fucking. They were simply watching porn from his personal collection. Which meant they had also dug through his shit. Unlike his liquor, he didn’t just keep his porn collection in plain sight. He didn’t want his girlfriend to find them. But never for a second did he ever think he would have to hide them from his students! This just had to be a nightmare, right?

“Mr. Valentine! I never knew how awesome you were!” Stephanie proclaimed.

And before he could respond or even shut the porno off, his girlfriend entered.

“I don’t even want to know,” Julia said, exasperated as Mr. Valentine ejected the DVD.

“Can I talk to you privately?” Julia demanded, heading off into the kitchen.

“Do not touch a single thing without my permission,” Mr. Valentine demanded, before he followed Julia into the kitchen, DVD still in hand.

“Somebody’s in the doghouse!” Thomas blurted out.

He entered the kitchen, where Julia was waiting for him.

“Julia, I can explain—”

“What in the hell is going on?”

“Calm down,” he begged.

“Calm down? Are you fucking kidding me? How can you be so irresponsible?”

“Mr. Valentine!” Lucy yelled out from the bedroom.

“Yes?”

“The room is spinning again!”

“What’s that all about?” Julia asked, exasperated.

Mr. Valentine headed toward the bedroom, tossing the porno into his cluttered closet as he entered. Julia follows closely behind, as Lucy hung upside-down off the foot of the bed. Mr. Valentine helped her up.

“You know what,” Julia began. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Julia turned to leave. Mr. Valentine followed her to the door, which she slammed in his face.

“Julia. Julia, wait – lemme just—“

“You know what? I think I’ve seen enough. I need to get back work.”

“But I—”

“I’m not ready to deal with this right now.”

He turned to face his students, who were trying not to laugh. He then headed straight to his bedroom – his refuge. Waiting for him was the one student he knew wouldn’t laugh at him, despite being the biggest source of stress. And possible career ender.

Lucy was asleep. Her eyes closed; her face pale. In fact, she appeared so lifeless, he checked to make sure she was still breathing. He wondered if he should take her to the hospital. After all, who know how much she drank? Chances are, she probably never drank much before this night.

As he watched her peacefully sleeping body, he couldn’t decide if she looked more like a child, or more like the adult she was on the cusp of becoming. He concluded that she walked the dangerous line between the two. There was no doubt: she was beautiful.

Angelic.

            He got back to the task at hand: figuring out how the fuck to get out of this hot mess. At least right now, he technically hadn’t done a single thing wrong, save for some stray, illicit musings. He shuddered at the thought that in another teacher’s hand, this situation could have taken a turn into the deepest form of moral depravity.

But wasn’t it already too late?

Wasn’t he already in a heap of trouble?

Of course, it could always get much worse. He at least had some control over how much worse the situation would get.

He knew it would be for the best to not to be alone with Lucy in the bedroom,

but he couldn’t bear to face the rest of his students. He could only imagine what they were thinking. And haven’t they already caused enough trouble?

Lucy suddenly woke up, smiling at smiling at Mr. Valentine like the knight in shining armor she saw him as. It made him want to high tail it right out of the room.

“You’re the only one who believes in me, Mr. Valentine.”

Oh, here we go.

“Who’s ever believed in me.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is. I think I’m in love with you, Mr. Valentine.”

And there it was.

“But Lucy…I’m your teacher.”

“Don’t you love me, Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy…”

“Yeah?”

“I can’t. You know that.”

“Why not, Mr. Valentine?”

“Why? A, you’re my student. B. you’re my student. But I do know this much: you’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re funny, and you’re talented. The world is your oyster.”

“You can have me, Mr. Valentine. I’m all yours.”

“Lucy, I’m flattered, but I think it’s best if you stopped talking.”

“Wasn’t it you that once said non-verbal communication can be more powerful than verbal?”

“What in the hell’s going on here?” a deep voice demanded from the hallway.

And lo and behold was C.J.

How in the hell did he manage to sneak into his apartment?

“C.J.?!” both Lucy and Mr. Valentine said in shocked unison.

“I knew it. You lying bitch.”

“C.J., I think it’s best if—”

“Mr. Valentine – ‘Mr. Teacher of the Year’ – is going to try to tell me what’s for the best while sitting in bed with my girlfriend. I love Lucy.”

Lucy began to cry.

“Get out of my bedroom,” Mr. Valentine demanded.

“I don’t think I should,” C.J. mouthed back.

“Oh, I think you very much should. Unless you want me to call the cops.”

“This coming from a man in bed with a teenager.”

“Let me ask you something. What is the one thing I say should always be considered in any story?”
“Umm …” C.J. struggled to figure it out. But this came as no surprise. C.J. was never the brightest bulb in the batch. Again, Lucy saw in him is something Mr. Valentine never understood.

C.J. continued to ponder the answer.

Lucy sat up.

“Context, C.J. Context! God, why are you so fucking stupid?”

Mr. Valentine picked up his vintage 1960’s phone and began to dial.

“Please, no,” C.J. begged.

He looked at Mr. Valentine, then back at Lucy.

“Goodbye, C.J.” Lucy said.

Tears welled in C.J.’s eyes, before he stormed out, throwing a vase, and smashing it to smithereens. A family heirloom.

The students watched in shock as C.J. headed out the door.

Lucy lay back down and Mr. Valentine innocently rubbed her back, before he realized – innocent or not – that he better not.

“You’re going to be fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”

A knock at the door.

Mr. Valentine charged out of the room and yelled at the door.

“Go away, C.J.!” shouted Mr. Valentine.

“This is the police!”

Mr. Valentine slowly opened the door.

“Sorry about that. How can I help you, Officer?”

“We got reports of unruly behavior involving food thrown off of your balcony and loud shouts.”

Mr. Valentine turned to his students.

“Who was throwing food?”

Everybody pretended to be clueless. Most of them were actors after all. And Mr. Valentine taught them well.

“Who are all of these kids?” the officer asked.

“Oh, these are my students.”

“Looks like quite a party.”

“Oh, nothing too fancy.”

“What’s the occasion?”
“It’s a wrap party.”

“As in rap music?”

“No, wrap, as in party following a play.”

“Oh,” the cop asked, seemingly still confused.

The cop scans the students and recognizes one of the students.

“I remember you.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

The cop spotted the open bottle of sparkling grape juice.

“Is that an open alcohol container I see?”

“No, that’s juice. Just juice.”

“Can I see it?”

“Of course.”

Mr. Valentine walked over to the bottle and brings it to the cop.

The cop looked at the label, sniffed the contents.

“Do their parents know they’re here?”

“Of course,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Just keep a better eye on them, okay?”

“Oh, trust me. I will.”

And then…more vomiting.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, that’s my girlfriend. She’s not feeling too well.”

“That’s an understatement from the sound of it,” the officder said. “Anyway, have a good night.”

“You too, Officer.”

“Keep it real, kids. And say no to drugs.”

“We will.”

Mr. Valentine shut the door.

“That’s it. Party’s over.”

“C’mon, Mr, Valentine!”

It was time to put the hammer down.

“I would like to thank all of you for all the respect you showed me tonight,” Mr. Valentine said dripping with seething sarcasm.

“We’re sorry—”

“Just go.”

“What about Lucy?” Thomas asked, seemingly suspiciously of Mr. Valentine’s intentions.

The students filed out, one by one.

Until there was only Lucy.

Mr. Valentine slowly shut the door, then leaned against it. If only it were all a dream.

It only it were a dream.

            There would be no repercussions.     

But he knew for damn sure this wasn’t a dream.

It wasn’t even a nightmare.

It was real life.

And real life had consequences.

He sighed deeply, before heading toward the bathroom to check on Lucy. But she had already retreated back to bed. In fact, she was already asleep, curled into a ball, her backside facing away from him. And then he noticed the vomit on the floor.  She never made it the bathroom. Nor, did she use the puke bucket for that matter.

He’d deal with the clean-up later.

For the time being, he hovered over her, watching her body exhale deep, slow breaths.

Before his mind wandered too far down a path it never should have gone in the first place, he entered the kitchen and re-dialed Lucy’s parents.

Please answer the goddamn phone.

No dice.

He wanted nothing more than for this night to be over. But until Lucy was gone, he had no choice to wait it out. Even if it meant sleeping on the couch,

For the time being – he grabbed a bucket, filled it with dish soap, and headed back into the bedroom to clean the puke up off the floor.

When he was done, the dumped out the bucket in the toilet, flushed it, set the bucket into the bathtub, and washed his hands before retreating back to the bedroom, where he slowly sat down on the edge of his bed. Lucy stirred slightly, but her light snores suggested she was out like a light.

Based on how every conversation went with her throughout the night, he prayed that she just stay asleep.

As he continued staring at her lifeless body, he couldn’t help but think that in the hands of a lesser person, it would be so easy to do the unthinkable.  For what? A quick thrill? And while she was passed out?

The fact that he was having these very thoughts made him feel like he had done something wrong. He reminded himself that he still technically had done nothing wrong – within reason. He had full control of his destiny and could still get out of this unscathed – or, least, relatively so.

Even if he got out of this night unscathed – which was still a strong possibility, there was still the issue of Julia. Would she ever let him live this night down?

As he continued watching over her sleeping, he suddenly watched his hand reach toward the small of her back, as though seeing himself in a movie. He could feel the warm of her skin before his hand even reached her back.

“I think it’s time to take you home,” Mr. Valentine declared, suddenly pulling his hand away, as though snapping out of whatever spell had beholden him.

Lucy slowly awoke, confused, then nodded, as Mr. Valentine struggled to help her out of her bed.

“C’mon, Lucy,” he pleaded. Annoyed.

He dragged her out of bed, nearly dropping her onto the floor.

She lost her footing and fell to the floor, hitting her head.

“Oh, God. Are you okay?”

She began to laugh hysterically.

“That was fun,” she said, despondently.

Mr. Valentine helped her back up and walked her across his apartment and then down the stairs, where she stumbled halfway down the steps, before Mr. Valentine spared her from further injury, nearly throwing out his back in the process.

“I’m flying,” Lucy said, oblivious to it all

Mr. Valentine continued to wrangle her limp body as though auditioning for a Weekend at Bernie’s re-make.

Mr. Valentine helped Lucy into the passenger seat of his rusted-out Ford Focus.

“I need your address.”

“What would you do if you I didn’t give it to you.”

“Give me your address,” Mr. Valentine said sternly. Quite frankly, he had enough of her shit.

The anxiety of driving around with a drunk student certainly wasn’t helping his anxiety.

“Give me your goddamn address!”

“13 Salem Ave. You’re so mean. God!”

“You have no idea,” Mr. Valentine said, before he peeled away into the night. A heavy fog covered the landscape, impairing Mr. Valentine’s visibility.

Meanwhile, Lucy kept falling in and out of a drunken sleep.

She tried repeatedly to rest her head on Mr. Valentine’s shoulder. He nudged her away, but it was no use. Three attempts later, he simply gave in. He needed to focus on the road.

Lucy suddenly and semi-unexpectedly put her hand on his thigh, causing Mr. Valentine to nearly swerve off the road.

“Dammit, Lucy! You have to stop this!”

But she was relentless. Every time he removed her hand, she put it right back. He finally got her to stop when he forcefully moved her arm out of the way.

“You’re going to be the end of me,” Mr. Valentine said with desperation.

“Or maybe the beginning?” Lucy said with a seductive grin.

Mr. Valentine continued staring straight ahead at the road. Who was this demon Lucy had summoned? He had never seen this side of her. In any shape or fashion. And despite the fact that she seemed to be sobering up, her behavior seemed to be getting worse!

Suddenly, Lucy began to laugh hysterically.

At first, Mr. Valentine was annoyed, but then he found himself suddenly laughing at the absolute absurdity of the situation.

And then lickety-split, Lucy passed out again.

Mr. Valentine breathed a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later, they finally arrived at Lucy’s house.

“Let me help you in,” said Mr. Valentine.

“What if my parents are home…” she asked.

“I hope they are!”

“Aren’t you worried about getting in trouble?”

“I have nothing to hide. And it’s not like I didn’t try calling them.”

“What if I gave you the wrong number?”

“Please tell me you’re not serious.”

Lucy smirked.

            The ultimate betrayal.

He never even once thought they she was leading him astray. He was too shocked to say anything in response. And too angry to deal with her any longer. So, he got out of the car and approached the passenger side door. Just as he reached to open the door, she locked it on him.

“Unlock it,” Mr. Valentine said, seething. He had enough of her fucking shit.

She refused to cooperate, but Mr. Valentine had a trick of his own up his sleeve.  He removed the keys from his pocket and hit the power lock button, jerking the door open, as Lucy tired in vain to pull it shut.

“Cut it out!”

“Get out of the car.”

She shook her head like the snotty school girl role she was currently inhabiting.

“Lucy, I’m giving you to the count of three to get out of the car…”

“What are you going to do if I don’t?”

“One …

He could tell form her fade that she knew he meant business.

“Two … three.”

Frustrated, Mr. Valentine grabbed her by the arm and began to pull her out, before she pulled him down on top of her. Before he could even attempt to push her off him, she kissed him. Fortunately, he was able to keep his mouth closed to ward of her insanely passionate attack.

But it was too late. A gruff voice barked:

“Hey you! Get your damn hands off of my daughter, you son of a bitch!”

“Hi, Dad!” Lucy chirped as though everything was completely normal.

A flash of a white-bearded man face appeared in the door frame. Before Mr. Valentine could even react, he was punched square in the jaw.

“Sir, I can explain–”

“C’mon, Lucy,” her dad said, pulling her from the car with the way only an irate father can, before he declared: “I’m calling the police!”

Mr. Valentine watched as Lucy’s dad rushed her into the house, holding on to his throbbing jaw.

Somehow, despite really doing nothing wrong, he had a feeling that it wouldn’t matter in the eyes of the law. Especially not in this day and age. Mr. Valentine couldn’t help but feel that time was up.

In the meantime, it was time to go home. Just as he lifted his door handle, he was

whacked in the back of the head with a yellow stick of some sort. He then realized what who the assailant was, as well as well as his accessory of choice.

It was C.J., wielding a fucking Wiffle Ball bat!

“C.J.!

“You fucking thief!”

“A Wiffle Ball bat… why?”

Mr. Valentine never would have guessed how much a Wiffle Bat could hurt.

“Don’t play stupid with me, you pedophile fuck! How could you do this to me?”

“Do what to you, C.J.?” Mr. Valentine said, writhing in pain.

“You know exactly what. You stole my girl. You stole my heart. Everything was fine until you started filling her head with all that motivational-you-can-do-everything-follow-your-dreams bullshit. And look where it got you!”

“Maybe you should have been more supportive.”

“Maybe you should have minded your own business.”

“I was just doing my job.”

“Trying to fuck my girlfriend?”

“That was your interpretation.”

“I thought you always said that every story can have more than one interpretation.”

“You should be happy for her—”

Happy for her? Happy that because of you, her dream is suddenly more important than our love?”

“If you really loved her, you would understand,” Mr. Valentine fired back through the lingering pain.

“At the cost of love?” C.J. asked. “Of happiness?”

“Maybe if you had a dream of your own, you’d understand.”

“I had a dream. But then you took her away from me.”

C.J. repeatedly beat Mr. Valentine with his bat, landing most of his strikes on the back of his head. When he was done, C.J. stood over his English teacher-turned-nemesis and proclaimed:

“Now I finally understand. You really can do anything your heart desires…”

C.J. took off, peeling away from the curb, leaving Mr. Valentine lying in the street next to his car.

As sirens loomed in the distance, he couldn’t help but realize that everything he valued most deeply was more than likely gone forever.

A Shakespearean tragedy if there ever was one.