Chances and Choice
“One of the funny things about married guys, is that, you know, they are kind of limited with their time,” Brenda said, her voice devoid of criticism.
Alicia poured a pale golden Riesling into a pair of Austrian crystal wineglasses, handed one to Brenda and crunched the bottle into a bed of ice in a matching crystal ice bucket. She cradled it in one arm, grabbed the other glass with her free hand and pointed her chin to the partially open French door.
“Yeah, I know and before you say much about that, it’s not like you’ve never gone out with a married man. Let’s sit on the balcony.”
Brenda stepped aside to let Alicia go through ahead of her. “The occasional businessman passing through, but I don’t get emotionally involved and I don’t ever expect one to leave his wife.”
Alicia set the ice bucket on the wrought iron and rattan bistro table and settled on the matching chair with a round blue and green striped cushion. She briskly rubbed the part of her arm that had been in contact with the cold crystal. “It could happen, you know.”
Brenda sat in the second chair and stretched long legs covered by loose fitting trousers she favored for casual wear. “Sure, and you could get pigs flying past your window, too.”
Alicia didn’t rise to the remark. “Well, there are moments when it seems possible. I mean men do run off with the other woman. Don’t you watch the talk shows?”
Brenda smiled in affectionate rebuke. “No, and you don’t either.” She waved her hand to encompass the space around them. “But at least you’re getting something out of the relationship. I do love this apartment.”
The faint breeze mingled April smells with remnants of savory lunchtime odors from nearby restaurants. The apartment was too far to hear afternoon jazz sounds, but once the evening club entertainment went into full finger-snapping performances, music would escape upwards into recognizable tunes.
“It is a great place,” Alicia agreed, “and makes up for a lot. But Nigel really does love me, you know.”
Brenda glanced across the black wrought iron railing without responding. Her short coal black hair moved only slightly as a fragrant puff of air sent a paper napkin flying off the table.
“I noticed what looked like a dozen fresh roses. What happened this time?” Brenda picked up the napkin before it whirled out of reach.
Alicia brushed her long platinum blonde hair away from her face. “He forgot the in-laws were coming to dinner and Frances had already called his secretary so he couldn’t use work as an excuse. It pisses me off even though I know it isn’t his fault. He gives me all the time he can and we’ll have two days together next week.”
Brenda cocked her head to one side. “How’s that?”
“Frances is off to the villa in Cancun again. He encourages her trips and figures one of these days she’s bound to get the hots for some young beach bum and offer to buy her way out of the marriage.”
Brenda took a sip of wine before she spoke again. “And you believe that?”
Alicia grinned for the first time and her blue eyes showed a touch of self-derision. “Like I said, it could happen. Anyway, speaking of noticing things, why were you carrying a briefcase when you came in? I thought weekend work was over after April fifteenth.”
Brenda didn’t seem to mind the change of subject and set her glass on the table to gesture with her hands. Her voice rose a decibel with the sound of good news. “You forget about all those people who file extensions. But the real reason I went in was to pick up a wonderful surprise which is now in the briefcase. That’s part of what I came to tell you.”
Alicia was curious as to what pleasant could possibly come out of an Internal Revenue Service office. “It’s not a secret, is it?”
“No secret anymore and I guess it never really was. I wasn’t certain it would work out and I didn’t want to mention it until I knew for sure.”
Alicia tucked several wispy strands of wayward hair behind her ear. “Okay, I’m properly in suspense. What’s up?”
“The number two spot in the Raleigh-Durham office opened up and it’s mine effective the first week of June.”
Alicia stared at her and blurted out the first questions that came to mind. “You’re going to leave the City? To go to Raleigh? Why?”
Brenda laughed at her reaction. “Several reasons, but top of the list is it’s a one grade promotion plus I’ll be going to a lower cost of living area. That makes for a very tidy raise.” She waved away Alicia’s protest and continued. “Look, my direct supervisor likes me, but neither of the top guys are overly fond of me and that’s going to hold me down as long as I stay here.”
Alicia swept her arm towards the row of shops below them. “Give up the Quarter? And season tickets to the symphony? How will you get good gumbo?”
“Honey, it’s not like Raleigh is some hick town. It’s a growing place and I never intended to spend a whole career in the IRS. This makes a perfect launch into the corporate world when I get ready in another few years.”
Alicia looked at the woman who’d been her friend since childhood and sighed slightly. “I know I should be happy for you and I am, but I hate to see you leave.”
“Actually, there’s something else,” Brenda said and twisted the wineglass slowly. She paused for a moment, looked towards the street and returned her gaze to Alicia. She measured her words carefully and kept her brown eyes neutral.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
Alicia’s eyes widened. “What?”
“You heard me. Why don’t you?”
Neighborhood noises filled the silence as Alicia wondered if Brenda understood what she’d asked. “You mean, just pack up and go? Leave Nigel and my job?”
“Finding a job is no problem, not to mention there are three universities in the area, so you could get the bachelor’s degree you’ve been wanting.” Brenda leaned forward in the chair. “I’ve already talked to a real estate agent and I can get a three bedroom, two bath house for less than I’m paying now. You could stay with me until you find a place of your own.”
Alicia twisted a lock of hair around her manicured index finger and inspected it before she re-established eye contact. “And Nigel?”
Brenda’s voice dropped to a low persuasive tone. “Alicia, you’ve been with him for almost two years. Aren’t you ready for a change?”
Almost two years. Had it been that long? Where had the time gone?
Alicia released her hair, exhaled slowly and decided to avoid the direct question for a moment. “Jesus Bren, how long have you been thinking about this? The part about me going with you, I mean.”
Brenda gave a half-smile. “I’m not really sure. I guess when I was over here a couple of weeks ago. Right after that things began to fall into place and it struck me this would be a good way out for you. It’s a chance to start over with a definite purpose in mind.”
It wasn’t difficult to remember which night she meant. Alicia had called her after the third double bourbon, angry and tearful with another promised evening abruptly canceled.
“Look, I know I was a mess that night and I agree I get a little melancholy sometimes, but Nigel is good to me and he’s been very generous. Christ, I’d still be living in that trailer park or some roach-infested apartment if it wasn’t for him.”
Brenda wasn’t ready to give up. She quietly drummed her fingers along the edge of the table. “I agree he raised your standard of living, but I’m not as sure as you are that you wouldn’t have made it out on your own.”
Alicia shrugged and lifted the wine bottle. The heavy gold bracelet Nigel gave her for her birthday slipped down her arm with the movement. “Another wine?”
Brenda pushed her glass forward, sat back again and apparently decided not to pursue the issue. “Pour light. By the way, do you want to go to dinner tonight?”
“That’s a good idea. I’ve been eating in lately.” Alicia didn’t add it was because she’d been keeping her nights open in case Nigel could break away for an evening.
She poured a generous portion for her own refill and looked at Brenda as a shade of resignation flickered across her face. “Besides, you’ve always been the one who was willing to strike out on your own and take a chance. Even back when we were kids, you knew you were going to make it out of Robeline.”
Brenda dismissed the assessment with a brush of her hand. “You could have won a scholarship, too. You were smart enough.”
Alicia curved her lips in a partial smile and her eyes reflected the memory of those girlhood conversations. “That’s what I’m talking about. You knew what you wanted and you did what you needed to make it happen. I held back and ran off with Ned as a solution.”
“But you finally had the sense to get rid of him and you finished your paralegal training early,” Brenda reminded her and moved her head in response to the soft sound created by bronze wind chimes mounted on the balcony railing.
“Bren, if you remember, he technically left me, although I admit I did file for the divorce. I always made excuses for him before that, thinking it would get better.” Alicia unconsciously touched the four inch scar behind her left ear. The feel of the impact never completed faded. “And I wouldn’t have done the paralegal bit if it hadn’t been for you loaning me the money and my neighbor encouraging me.”
Brenda wagged her finger. “Maybe so, but finishing first in your class was your own doing,” she pointed out.
Alicia smiled widely this time, accentuating her dimples. She’d been proud of her grades in spite of Ned’s complaints of how she was neglecting him and letting her wifely duties go to hell in a hand basket.
But that was behind her now. “Look Bren, I love you to death and I appreciate you worrying about me, but I’m fine here,” Alicia said firmly. “I will miss you, though. Are you sure it’s what you want to do?”
Brenda looked as if she wanted to say something else, but finished her wine instead. “I am absolutely sure this is right for me and I hear you, but I’m keeping the offer open in case you change your mind. Is eight o’clock good for tonight?”
“Sure. Come on, I’ll go out with you and get the mail.”
They left the apartment and walked down the single flight of stairs into the marble-tiled foyer. “Hey, I really am glad about the promotion and I’ll see you tonight,” Alicia said as she waved good-bye from the stoop.
She waited until Brenda was out of sight, closed the heavy oak entry door and then opened her designated antique reproduction brass mailbox mounted among seven others in the hallway. She sorted through the contents quickly and noticed a letter to the former apartment occupant, a Miss C. Henderson. Alicia scribbled on the envelop, dropped it in the outgoing mail, returned upstairs and spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning. She deliberately pushed Brenda’s suggestion out of her thoughts.
Maybe it had been nearly two years since Nigel moved her into this place, but she understood his situation and she’d never put a deadline on their relationship. Things would work out for them some day. His showpiece marriage couldn’t last forever and it was only a matter of time until she and Nigel could be together.
Alicia lost track of the next four weeks with a surge in work and an unanticipated trip to Boston with Nigel. Then suddenly, Alicia realized her friend’s departure was less than a week away and took little consolation in the fact it was a smart career decision. She watered her in-door jungle of plants and thought about her sisterly closeness to Brenda, about how she didn’t want to lose contact with her again.
They had grown up next door to each other in a small, stagnant town; programmed to become the same trapped women as their mothers. As girls and then teenagers they dreamed of travel, but unlike Alicia, Brenda understood that a college scholarship and a part-time job would break the pattern they were expected to follow. Alicia’s family’s contempt for higher education and her own lack of confidence moved her to elope instead with Ned Sewell and his tales of big money to be made working off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ned’s intense sexual energy and the excitement of their early weeks together caused Alicia to easily excuse his occasional explosions of temper. Then the frequency and violence of their fights escalated with his long absences and the increasing number of boys’ nights out when he was off the rigs. Not that he ever actually hit her. Rough shoves and bruises on her arm where he grabbed her weren’t the same thing as a slap across the face.
The telephone rang and interrupted her musings. She picked up the receiver and assumed it was either Nigel or Brenda.
An unfamiliar female voice asked, “Hello, is Sharon in by any chance?”
“No, I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number. There’s no Sharon here,” Alicia said and stretched to trickle water on the small pot of African violets.
The voice was polite. “Well, it’s been almost three years since I talked to her. She used to be in this cute apartment on Charles Street. Do you happen to know where she moved to?”
Alicia wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m sorry, I don’t know a Sharon, but I think the girl before me was named Henderson or something like that. Is that who you’re looking for?”
“No, this was Sharon Browning. Oh well, I guess that’s what I get for waiting so long to call. I’ll try a mutual friend of ours. Thanks anyway.”
“Sure, no problem,” Alicia said. Well, wasn’t that odd? She knew the apartment hadn’t been vacant long when Nigel moved her in, but how strange that she would have the same telephone number as someone who had lived there years ago.
Once the watering was completed Alicia began the process of turning the plants to change their exposure to light. She thought about what it had been like for her the only time when she and Brenda had briefly been out of touch. She and Ned were in Galveston while Brenda had finished college and accepted the position in New Orleans. For a while, it seemed like the two women would never get together again. Then Ned had another argument with the rig boss and he decided to leave Texas to return to Louisiana. Alicia had happily written Brenda and ignored Ned’s hostility to their renewed friendship.
Despite Brenda’s contempt for Ned, she never openly criticized the clearly failing marriage, but had quietly slipped Alicia the check she needed for the cost of the paralegal course he refused to pay for. It was Brenda’s number she dialed before passing out the night Ned smashed the whiskey bottle across her skull. He’d left her lying semi-conscious on the floor as he raged that marrying her had been the biggest mistake of his life. He disappeared out of state and the divorce papers she’d sent in care of his parents were signed and returned from somewhere in Oklahoma.
Alicia looked up when the telephone rang again. This time it was Nigel, calling to tell her he was sorry, but Frances had scheduled them for an evening of bridge.
“Now don’t be cross, sweetheart,” he said soothingly. “You know I’d much rather be with you, but there’s simply no way for me to back out of it. I’ll make it up to you next week, I promise. Something special. Got to run, Frances is upstairs.”
“Yeah, sure I understand,” she said to his hurried good-bye.
Alicia dialed Brenda without hanging up and made arrangements for dinner, but as she cradled the receiver against her shoulder she wondered how often she would have dinner alone after Brenda was gone. Then again, maybe Frances would spend more time in Cancun.
By Saturday Brenda had completed all the tasks on her list and Alicia had helped her pack the boxes to be carried in the car rather than trusted to the movers. They agreed on a meeting time for their farewell dinner and Alicia was looking forward to a long hot bath to soothe her cramped shoulder muscles.
She paused in front of the apartment door and was fishing into the pocket of her blue jeans when she heard Mrs. Pettibone making her way upstairs. Mrs. Pettibone stopped in the short hallway trying to balance two grocery bags, her oversized straw purse and a bouquet of flowers.
“Goodness, let me help with that,” Alicia said immediately. The old woman, still independent at sixty-eight, was always trying to handle more than was good for her. She was hardly a sturdy woman to start with and Alicia wondered if she’d ever worn anything larger than a size six.
“Why, thank you dear, you’re so thoughtful,” she said and allowed Alicia to take the heaviest bag and the bouquet. “I had the flowers stuck in the top, but when I came up the stairs, they started to fall out. It will just take me a minute to find my keys. They’re somewhere in the bottom of this thing. I really must get rid of it and start carrying something smaller.”
Alicia waited patiently for what she knew would be a process of rummaging through a collection of cosmetics, tissues and other feminine paraphernalia. She didn’t really mind since Mrs. Pettibone was pleasant in a fluttery way. She’d lived in the French Quarter all her life and was always willing to tell you where to find the best bargain for anything in the City. Her husband had been dead for ten years and her children visited during the holidays and occasional weekends.
“Would you like a glass of lemonade or something?” she asked once she triumphantly opened her door.
Alicia had learned from experience that a quick glass of lemonade was likely to turn into an hour’s conversation. “No thanks, I’ve got several things to take care of this afternoon. Where would you like me to put these?”
Mrs. Pettibone followed Alicia into the brightly-lit galley kitchen decorated in a sunflower motif. Cluttered, yet cheery unless you didn’t care for yellow. “Oh well, if you could put the sack on the counter and find a vase in that corner cabinet, it would be a big help to an old lady.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. P. Any particular vase?”
“No child, whichever one you see first is fine. You know, I consider myself fortunate for you girls being so helpful. Every one of you has been such a dear.”
Alicia located a jade-colored vase, filled it with water and took a moment to arrange the flowers.
“You know, I still get the previous occupant’s mail sometimes, even though it’s been well over a year since I moved in.”
Mrs. Pettibone adjusted the glasses that were too large for her narrow face and pursed her lips. “Well, it certainly seems the postal people aren’t as careful as they should be sometimes. I know Carla filled out all the change of address cards. She was much more organized than Sharon about things like that.”
Alicia silently caught her breath at the mention of the name she’d heard recently on the telephone and spoke in what she hoped was a casual tone.
“So, you knew the other girl as well? The one before Ms. Henderson?”
Mrs. Pettibone had her back turned as she began to unload the grocery bags and continued cheerily. “Oh my yes, Sharon Browning, if memory serves me correctly. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the first young lady Nigel moved in.”
Alicia stared into the bouquet of flowers to try and compose herself, but Mrs. Pettibone didn’t seem to notice. She turned and smiled sympathetically at the younger woman.
“To be truthful, I’ve never quite understood why Nigel is still unattached. Seems like one of you girls would grab him, but I guess with careers and all, it’s different for you than when I was young. And of course, he’s so devoted to that sick mother of his, I suppose it would interfere with him being able to have a lasting relationship.”
Alicia struggled to breathe slowly. She had wondered why Nigel had always seemed so friendly when Mrs. Pettibone would stop and talk to him in the hall.
“So you’ve known Nigel for some time?”
“Oh my, yes. Why, I showed him the apartment when he rented it back six years ago. Or was it seven? Well, whenever. We had a lovely conversation and he told me all about how he lived at home looking after his mother, but wanted a place closer to work as kind of a refuge.”
She winked at Alicia. “And despite my age, I’m no prude. It’s the most natural thing in the world for him to move a lady friend in. There’s no sense letting an apartment like this sit mostly empty.” She paused and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh dear, listen to me rattling on. I’m getting much too personal. I do hope I haven’t offended you.”
Alicia shook her head rapidly. “No, no, of course not,” she said quickly. “It’s nice you understand.”
Nigel had been renting the apartment for that long? A place to go to as a break from nursing his sick mother? Alicia could envision Nigel’s charm as he created the story for Mrs. Pettibone. How easily he would have spun the tale, smilingly ensuring sympathy as a perfect cover for his visits. Alicia wondered whether tears or laughter would erupt if she let her emotions loose.
Mrs. Pettibone brightened with the assurance of having given no insult. “Are you sure you won’t have something to drink?”
Alicia smiled, surprised at her control. “No, thank you. Actually I’m glad I ran into you. I wanted to let you know I may be moving myself.”
“Oh, really? Anytime soon? And where? Oh, I’m sorry, there I go again, asking all kinds of questions.”
Alicia spoke more normally than she expected. “It’s okay, honestly. I’ve been offered a job in North Carolina, in Raleigh, but I haven’t quite made my mind up yet. I think I’ll make a trip in the next week or so and check out the details.”
Mrs. Pettibone folded the empty sacks as she talked. “Well, I do like having you here, even though you wouldn’t want to pass up a good opportunity. How is Nigel taking the news? You two have been together for a while now and I did think that perhaps you would be the one for him.”
Alicia stepped towards the door and knew she had to leave if she was going to keep up the charade of composure. “I know what you mean. We sort of thought it would work out too, although, as you say, his family situation does make it complicated. Anyway, you have a nice afternoon and let me know if I can help you with anything else around here.”
She left to another round of Mrs. Pettibone’s thanks, opened her own door quickly and realized she was shaking. She threw her denim purse onto a chair, thought about a glass of wine and grabbed the decanter of bourbon instead. She needed the honesty of whiskey.
She carried the drink to the balcony and pressed against the railing in her favorite pose, knowing the image she presented to people below. They would glance up and see an attractive young woman poised among colorful flowerboxes, enjoying her picturesque apartment in a building exuding a sense of history. If they had known she was a kept woman, the mistress of one of New Orleans’ most prominent lawyers, it would no doubt merely add to the romance. When had she lost herself within the image?
She let the liquid slid down her throat, the smoothness countering the sting of Mrs. Pettibone’s unwitting revelations and then looked around.
Brenda’s words of urging to leave for North Carolina hung in the air like the two small yellow butterflies hovering around the begonias.
Alicia took another sip. She had never made a definitive decision in her life, but had rather chosen in reaction, from marrying Ned, to leaving him, to letting Nigel wrap her in comfort.
Brenda hadtold her she could make it on her own, but was that true? And if she left, was it any different or was she simply reacting again, allowing Brenda to show her a way out? If it was the right thing to do, did it matter?
A couple came out of the antique store, laughing at something. A couple holding hands in public. A couple who looked like they were in love. A couple who might be man and wife.
She could confront Nigel and ask him about the apartment, about the other women. Why? So he could lie to her? No, not ask for an explanation – give him an ultimatum. Why? So he could sympathize with how upset she was and buy her another expensive present to make amends? If he promised to find a way to divorce Frances with just a little more time, wouldn’t she be willing to wait?
Alicia changed her stance to gaze inside the apartment as bands of afternoon sun highlighted the collection of ferns, flowers, and assorted greenery she’d scattered about the den and kitchen to enhance the feeling of living in a garden. Was it really for interior decorating or had it merely been to provide a time-consuming hobby to help occupy the solitude? She smiled wistfully, drained the last of the whiskey, removed her gardening tools from the small flower cart in the corner of the balcony and went inside.
She moved among ceramic, terra cotta and brass pots, trimming and watering plants carefully. She would give them all a dose of fertilizer, write out a card of instructions for each and ask Mrs. Pettibone to look after them.
But then, perhaps Nigel would have someone new move in before they needed much attention.
Copyright © 2001-2018, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.