Away from home and upset by an encounter with an old enemy, writer Amber Dunn decides to be someone else for a night; by David E J Berger.
I finish my muffin and hit the streets. For inspiration, I study the looks of women I pass: pants suits and pencil skirts, stilettos and strappy sandals, trimly cut blazers and blouses that walk the fine line between suggestive and professional, girls wearing Beats headphones, skinny jeans, wedge sneakers, short flirty dresses with oversized cardigans that seemed like they belonged to their father's but probably cost way too much money at some ridiculous trendy store, so many gladiator sandals, yoga pants, and gym wear. Nothing enthralls me. A homeless man openly pees against an office building and I'm reminded that these streets aren't the runways of Paris.
My phone vibrates in my purse. It's a text from Dan, finally. It reads: "Got your message. Trapped in Los Angeles? Sounds like a passage from Dante. But then again it won't stop snowing here. So enjoy yourself. Hope to see you tomorrow. Love you."
I wish I could say I was surprised I got a text and not a call but most of me is not. I hope it's because Dan's at his desk, buried in prose. But I question whether he's written any of his novel, even with his deadline looming. I worry he's settled too much into his role teaching at the night school. You always hear of things like that happening but you hope they don't come true in your own life.
Across the street, a bus engages and continues on its route. It's departure unveils the most stunning suede navy loafers I've ever laid my tender, green eyes upon. Their gold hardware flares in the sun. My focus tilts up to slim cut charcoal gray trousers, an oversized silk men's shirt with polka dots, a cropped leather jacket so soft it looks buttery, and finally to long blonde wispy bangs and big dark sunglasses which hide her face. Now, here is a woman with a proper approach. I survey her again head to toe. This further inspection produces a biting motility. How do I know this woman? This is Los Angeles. Is she an actress? A model? She's certainly thin enough to be both. Probably hasn't eaten a muffin in years. The woman removes her sunglasses and looks at her crystal watch, revealing her face. An emotional chord is struck so strong in me that I nearly fall over where I stand. In front of me is Mary fucking Turner.
To understand my perfectly justifiable and surprisingly rational hatred for Mary, one must go back to my sojourn in Delta Zeta, my freshman year of college. Mary Turner was the president of the organization, which apparently also meant ringleader for torturing the lives of new recruits. The latter had failed to be mentioned during rush. Instead, pamphlets and flyers declared those days to be a new era of sisterhood. Care and support were hailed as the main pillars of the foundation. I'll be honest, much like high school, I'd been struggling making friends, especially females, and some care and support sounded pretty fucking good at the time. If I was to become a strong and powerful woman, I needed to be around women of similar ilk. So I joined. All seemed well until night one in the sorority house. My roommates, fellow pledges Christine and Jennifer, and I were roused out of bed with an air horn by Mary. She was dressed in a pink hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over her head and flanked by other, older sisters similarly cloaked. She had a bottle of cheap vodka in her hand.
"You didn't think it was going to be that easy?" Mary announced. Having never seen anyone act anything but overly congenial, I, in fact, did.
"To live in this house, you must be taught your place through a series of rituals developed and perfected over time by your sisters before you," Mary continued. She slugged back some vodka.
"Is this like, like hazing?" Christine asked. I shook my head. I'd discovered two things about Christine in the brief time I'd known her: she grew up on a farm and stating the obvious was her forté. Full disclosure, part of me wanted Christine to not survive whatever was about to happen next.
"You're going to wish this was something as fun as hazing, cow pie," Mary said. "We could all witness your downfall!"
I figured this for dramatics and wondered what was the worst thing they could actually do to me? Drinking contests? Laundry? Paper writing? Bring it on! I told myself. Mostly because I didn't cheer and rarely found proper opportunities to induce the popular-at-the-time sentiment.
"The first thing you have to do is give up your past so you can be a part of our future," Mary said.
She turned to me and pointed at my picture collage above on a particle board above my bed.
"Is that your boyfriend? Am-ber."
Mary walked over to the pictures and pointed at one of Jason and I at the lake over that summer before college. It was cold that night and I had on one of his football sweatshirts. Jason had me in his arms. We were both smiling. I loved that night. I still love that night, in fact.
"Does he go to school here?"
"No. He goes to Wisconsin."
"Then, the first thing I need to you to do, pledge, is call him right now and break up with him."
"I didn't stutter. Call him right now. And break. Up. With. Him."
"I, I can't do that. I love him."
"Oh you can do it. And you will do it or you're going to be out on your ass tonight. Seriously. You will have to move all your shit out of our house right now if you don't call your boyfriend. We have too many obligations with fraternities on campus for bitches to be having off campus boyfriends. It makes us look bad and we can't have that shit."
Mary extended her hand with the phone in it.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I'm doing what's best for the sisterhood. One day you'll see that. I'm going to count to three. If you don't dial by then, I'm going to start chucking everything out the window. One..."
Flustered, tears rolled off my face.
I glanced at Jennifer and Christine. Their fraught faces offered no guidance. Mary grabbed my backpack and ushered it toward the window.
I grabbed the phone, dialed. I told myself I'd call him back later and say I was drunk and he'd probably get a good laugh in the end.
"You can't mention the sorority when you do this either. He has to believe this is coming from you. And put it on speaker."
Jason answered and I proceeded to dump her him over speakerphone. He ended the call by screaming "fuck you" and hanging up. I collapsed to the floor.
"Get up," Mary said. When I lifted my head, drenched in tears, I discovered Mary using a lighter to burn the picture of Jason and I at the lake.
"No!" I screamed and lunged toward Mary who dodged me by stepping to the side. I fell to the ground.
"Pathetic." Mary commented, standing over me. She turned to Christine and Jennifer. "This is just the beginning. Your time is tomorrow night."
Mary threw the picture, still on fire, in an empty metal trashcan and exited with the other sisters. I crawled over to the trashcan, but it was too late. One memory was now burned into flames and another into my brain. I can still vividly conjure the photograph in the trashcan, turning to ash. And the pain associated with this image, while not as fresh, still exists.
I didn't know it at the time, but my forced exchange would be the last words Jason ever spoke to me. I tried to explain what happened but he never returned phone calls or texts. Shortly after, Jason joined the Army and stepped on an IED in Iraq, dying upon impact. A feared fate for which no one's ever truly prepared. To this day, I cherish our naive and innocent relationship because it's the best memories of my adolescence. Our romance deserved a better ending. And why didn't it? Mary fucking Turner.
Abruptly, she walks east on 7th. I follow, more out of instinct than choice. A few blocks into pursuit, Mary turns south on Broadway and enters the diner portion of the Ace Hotel, which is the hotel I had wanted to stay before my publisher settled for a better rate at the Standard, much to my chagrin. I had read about the hotel's opening and appreciated the care taken to preserve history in the restoration. Of course, this walking skeleton has a reservation.
At the hotel's entrance, the stocky doorman performs his duty, and I hustle inside hoping I don't lose her. Looking around the dining room of low-lying café tables under white tablecloths and votive candlelight, I spot her blonde mane at a table for two. I sit at the marble bar tucked away on the north side of the restaurant.
"Can I get you anything?" the bartender asks. He's tall, tan, has short brown hair and pronounced dimples. In between is the type of smile only worn by men with steadfast confidence. Pouring me a glass of water, I can't help notice his toned arms through his tight black shirt. I've never liked bulky arms, which makes this all the dangerous combination I used to be a sucker for. Long before I met Dan outside a colleague's book signing where we were both trying and failing to quit smoking. It's not a glamorous meet-cute but it's ours the same.
"I'll just have the water, thanks," I reply.
The bartender drops the water. I grab it and immediately spin back around. I can't waste one second too many on this handsome bartender. I'm too focused on Mary. After college, I figured she would do what most horrible people do and fall into overweight mediocrity or rot in a gutter. But no. Here she is: looking fabulous and eating artisanal soup in a beautifully restored hotel. She probably has a bullshit Instagram taking selfies from Tokyo to Milan. That I was ever envious of this person, even for an unknowing moment, makes my skin crawl. Something has to be done. Now is not a time to think but to act. I stand and cross the meticulously tiled porcelain floor and flop in the polished wood seat across from Mary.
"Well look what bitch is in Los Angeles," I say. I wish I'd thought of a better quip because it's ringing back in my ear and it sounds like I could be talking about myself. I may have not only broken but fallen through the ice. Mary, whose hair is even more gorgeous and voluminously blonde up close, twinges her flawless features together like she just ate a lemon.
"I'm sorry. Do I know you?" Mary says. Her face relaxes into what modern anthropologists would call a "resting bitch face."
"Don't act coy. I'm Amber Dunn."
I can tell Mary's still trying to place me by the twitch in her big, stupid blue eyes, which is incredibly infuriating.
"Syracuse. We were in Delta Zeta together."
"I'm sorry again. But I'm afraid you have the wrong person."
She sips from her tumbler with ease like we are gal pals out on the town catching up, which we are assuredly not.
"No, you're not getting off that easy. You don't get to pretend we aren't former sisters. You're Mary Turner and I'm Amber Dunn. I know you know who I am."
I stare intently at Mary who squints her eyes as if seeing less will tell her more.
"Ms. Dunn," she coughs. "Amber, you said? I'm once again sorry to disappoint you but that's not my name." She coughs again and sips her drink.
I know I'm not wrong because not only does she look exactly fucking like her but I feel a latent presence of evil. My blood is so hot it feels like it might boil through my skin and I'll melt to the floor.
"Stop being sorry and start dropping the act."
Mary laughs out loud, rich and hearty. Like a sailor who'd just heard a dirty limerick.
"My name is Rhonda. It's no act, Am-ber."
Her words, not even her words, but that intonation hits me like a punch, swift to the face. I can't. I can't sit here anymore. I stand, grab her glass and toss the contents in her face. Mary shrieks like a banshee left over from the previous incarnation of the renovated space.
"That's vodka bitch!" she yells.
Satisfied, I sit back at the bar.
"Actually I think I'll have a look at that drink menu now," I tell the bartender.
Instead of his charming smile, he grimly stares at me.
"I'm sorry, miss, but I saw what you did," he paused. "I'm afraid I'm going to have ask you to hit the road."
"You're not serious?"
"Are you a hotel guest?"
"That woman is. So like I said, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. We can't serve patrons who disrespect our hotel guests."
I laugh. This turn of events is clearly an injustice. I should tell this guy the things she did. Then he'd understand. Instead, I throw my water in the bartender's face.
"You can go fuck yourself too."
I storm out.
Around the corner at the Golden Gopher, I'm sitting at the bar because I decided to skip shopping for another favorite vice: gin. I sip my gin and soda and it's so strong the liquor burns my mouth.
But not about Mary, who's clearly as psychotic as ever, but about Jason. Why didn't I walk away that night? What would have happened if Jason and I hadn't broken up? Would he have still joined the Army? If we were still together, would he call me in his free time while I'm out in California? Would he care what I'm doing when I'm away from him?
"Hey Roberto, can I get a Trumer?" a recognizable voice behind me says. I turn to find the bartender from the Ace sidling up next to me at the bar. Still handsome, he has a leather carrier bag slung over his work shirt.
"Of course, my man!" Roberto, the bartender with sleeve tattoos crawling out from his black t-shirt, says. "Off the clock already?"
"Fazed out early. Got that gig tonight."
"That's tonight? Shit, I forgot. Well, I'd love to come see you and be the beneficiary of any fall out pussy, but instead I'll be here serving drinks to SC putas who don't fuck bartenders." Roberto grabs a pint glass. "At least not this bartender, shit."
"I bet they've never drenched you with their drink, though."
"Please, that's happened too many times to remember, bro."
I sip my gin and soda hoping I will disappear, but it's empty and I'm simply making that suction sound of sparse liquid through a straw. The Ace bartender turns to me and flashes that damn smile again.
"Found someone that'll serve you, I see," he says.
"Hi," I squeeze out.
Roberto lands the bartender's beer. He takes a sip and wipes the foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry about before. It's just, that woman is a real cunt," I say.
"You should've just said that. I would've said go ahead and throw another drink in her face. At least then maybe I would've stayed dry." He laughs at his own joke, which is kind of cute. "Actually, I would've let you slide but I just got this job and my boss saw me see you. So, there was no way I wasn't going to toss you. But I'll be honest, when I was waiter in high school, I wanted to throw drinks in people's faces all the time." He sips his beer again. "Instead I would just spit in rude customers' food."
"Hey, I was a kid. You're a grown woman throwing drinks people's faces."
"A woman retains the right to throw a drink in a someone's face at any age."
We both laugh.
"But I'm sorry. Roberto, can you put his drink on my tab?"
"Sure thing," Roberto says.
"This doesn't mean we're even by the way, but my name is Bryce," the bartender says. He extends his hand. I shake it.
If Mary Turner can be someone else, why can't I? The day feels out of character as is. Why not embrace it? I've found in situations like these it's best not to reveal too much of who you really are anyway. I order another gin and soda from Roberto.
"Do you live downtown here?" Bryce asks.
"No, I'm on vacation from Minnesota."
Roberto passes me my new drink. I take a big sip, locking eyes with Bryce. He laughs.
"Are you really going to make me ask what you do? You could've have just included it in that statement?"
I remain silent.
"Fine. And what is it that you do?"
"I'm a lumberjack."
"I should've guessed. You're built like a lumberjack after all."
Bryce smiles back to indicate that he's joking but I already know that he is because I've been to the hotel gym every morning this week and look damn good. Mary isn't the only one who hasn't let herself go since college. Also, I'll be damned if I turn into my mother. All cankles and high blood pressure.
"It's a family business. I was born to lumberjack."
Bryce rolls up his sleeves, revealing several tattoos including a crude, dark one in the shape of an eight on the inside of his left forearm. I squint at it and come up with a guess but it's an odd choice and I need confirmation.
"Is that a tattoo of a peanut on your arm?" I ask.
"Why yes it is," Bryce says. He flips his arm to better display the aforementioned peanut.
"I hope you never went back to that tattoo artist again. It's pretty shoddy work."
"I did it myself, piss drunk after a gig about ten years ago."
"Drunk huh? That was your first mistake."
"It's good to make mistakes now and then. Mistakes remind you that you're alive. That you're human." He sips his beer. "Besides, even bad tattoos are fun. Dance, peanut. Dance."
He twists his arm to make the peanut dance, and I have to say it's surprisingly funny, but I just smile instead of laugh.
"So you got that after a gig, huh? I heard you had another tonight?"
"That's correct. And, wow, eavesdrop much?"
"Don't speak so loud. My ears were only performing their designed function. What's the name of your band?"
"I'm a solo artist, baby. Just me, a guitar, and a mic."
"And it sounds like you've been singing for awhile?"
"Since I was a kid, but I didn't truly get my voice until the army. You won't believe it but your tax dollars don't just pay for tanks. They also pay for pianos and vocal training too. I'm playing at this new New Orleans inspired spot up the street. Tell you what, if you want to truly make it up to me for the impromptu shower, you should come tonight. If you're free."
"As long as you promise I won't end up with a tattoo of a shelled snack, I'm in."
"No promises, but I still hope to see you tonight," Bryce finishes the rest of his beer and sets it on the bar. "'Berto, I'll catch you mañana, amigo!"
Roberto is chatting up a young girl with purple hair and a septum piercing and misses Bryce's goodbye. Bryce shakes his head and turns to leave. I watch him walk all the way through the door into the brightness of the afternoon street. I tap my fingers on my drink and when I don't hear the clanking of gold on glass I realize for the first time today that I didn't put my wedding ring on when I woke up this morning.
In the oblong mirror installed in rooms at the Standard, I audition the three new dresses I purchased after leaving the Golden Gopher. I ultimately decide on the little black dress because of the shapely way it falls over my butt. I slip on new cheetah print heels, pin new gold earrings, and clasp my gold necklace with the emerald pendant that dangles in my cleavage.
In the sundries shop in the lobby, I buy a pack of Marlboro Lights. Because even though I've successfully quit, I decide Lucile is a smoker.
My Uber picks me up and promptly drops me off minutes later in front of the bar. Looking around, this is a part of Los Angeles I've never seen before. Part urban wasteland, part refurbished taverns and restaurants. It's like the future and the past confusing what's present. I smoke a cigarette before entering. I can't help but wonder, why am I here? But several reasons come to mind. All valid. I finish my cigarette and stamp it out with my heel like the old days.
Inside, the bar is decorated astutely and accurately like the French Quarter with the centerpiece being a gothic gazebo with a fountain in the middle. I know New Orleans well and the transportive aesthetic adds another layer of intrigue to the night. I float around the bar in search of Bryce, but he's nowhere to be found in the crowd of hipsters, Hollywood posers, and awkward tourists. I order a Sazerac at the bar.
An MC takes the stage.
"Ladies and gents, I'm excited to have this artist on our stage tonight. As I'm sure the ladies in audience will be too once he gets up here. Please give it up for Bryce Lucas!" the MC announces over the sound system.
Bryce walks out from behind the MC to the microphone, center stage. He's wearing a black V neck shirt and tight black jeans, guitar strapped to his back. His brown hair is slicked back. Different from earlier. The MC shakes his hand and steps away. Bryce sits on a wooden stool and brings his guitar around.
"Thanks Lenny. Lenny Carroll everyone. Owner of this place and there's no one better suited as he's a professional drinker, ladies and gents. One of the best. I can't thank him enough for this. Let's have some fun. This first song I call "Against Her."
He launches into his song. I decipher that it's about a man and woman trying to salvage a relationship. Bryce's voice is a rich baritone, strong and soulful. Looking around the room, I'm not the only one bobbing to the rhythm.
His set of original songs continues. While he stays in key, smooth with the melody, his lyrics are often trite observations on the shortcomings of love. What makes matter worse is his chord progressions are anything but precise. Still, he looks so good up there it's hard to hear the faults unless you're really listening, which I gave up on a few songs back. I finish my third Sazerac and order another.
Bryce says his last song is going to be a cover. I'm excited at the prospect of hearing Bryce's voice combined with the words of some other/any other songwriter. He finishes by saying he's covering the Mink Deville song, "Guardian Angel," which is a song I know and have heard many times.
Before he starts, Bryce's eyes gaze around the room. I wonder what he's searching for until he locks eyes with mine and smiles. He starts to sing with our eyes embraced. The chorus hits: "If I stumble in the street, you say, it's alright and I believe. 'Cause you're my guardian angel, you're my angel..." His voice echoes and its stirring. Suddenly it feels like we're the only ones left in the room, on the planet. I feel the drinks rush to my head while Bryce reprises the chorus. I think about what he said earlier about mistakes making you human. I think it's true, but in a way that relates to my own mortality because it's unexpected things like this that remind me I'm simply slouching toward the Earth with every waking moment. So what does any of it mean anyway? I close my eyes and accept that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. The night is no longer in my control. It belongs to Lucile the lumberjack from Minnesota.
The next morning while on my plane high above the clouds, I'm myself again and spend a long time nursing my guilt. If I'd remembered to put my ring on yesterday morning, would I be in this position today? When Bryce invited me to his show, did he know how this would end up? Did I know? And then, another thought: where did I park my car at the airport?
Back home, I walk through the front door to discover the aroma of tomato and basil filling the rooms. My nose leads me to the kitchen where I find Dan wearing an apron, stirring a large pot on the stovetop. It's some sight and one I'd never seen. I walk up and put my hands on his shoulders. He flinches.
"Shit! I didn't hear you come in," he said. We kiss, passionately. Dan rarely kisses me the wrong way. Something I've always found endearing about him.
"What's all this?" I ask.
"San Marzanos tomatoes, cloves, onion, basil, garlic, olive oil. It's taken me all day. I had no idea it would be this hard."
"It smells terrific."
"Thanks. Go do your thing. Freshen up, luggage, and all that. Dinner will be ready in fifteen. I only need to boil the noodles."
Dinnertime arrives and the dining room is set perfectly with our wedding china and votive candles in the middle of the table. The efforts Dan made wrenches the guilt inside me more. Why did Dan have to make such a presentation? Then again, he still hasn't asked me about my trip. Also, these will be my last carbs of the week.
Dan serves his linguine and I keep conversation moving by offering up details about my trip without provocation. I tell him about my flights, the weather, how I learned that California will be out of water in twenty years, and then about the debacle with Mary. He's surprisingly not shocked by my behavior and more concerned with California's drought, which is mildly disconcerting.
"Oh, I forgot to mention," I say. "I saw some music last night and the guy did a cover of one of your favorite songs, Mink Deville's 'Guardian Angel.'"
"No way! How'd it sound?"
"I figured. No one can touch Willy." Dan sips his wine. "You know I'm a CBGB guy at heart, babe. Don't let my stature as a world class academic fool you." He saunters his body side to side, which I think is supposed to mimic dancing. I laugh and suddenly it feels like we are falling back in rhythm and whatever happened yesterday is now simply a different time, a different place, a different life. One that belongs to someone named Lucile and her alone.
For dessert, Dan presents banana bread he made the day before. It's incredible and I'm thoroughly impressed with my husband. I offer to do the dishes and Dan takes me up on it so he can write, which is music to my ears. After I finish the dishes, I'm so tired from traveling that I fall asleep on the couch watching TV. Dan wakes me to retire to our bed for the evening.
The next morning, I rise early and Dan is gone but I'm not sure where. Once again, I'm alone with my thoughts. I enter the kitchen for my morning coffee. With it, I cut another piece of the banana bread. I bite into it and the moist texture mixed with the banana flavor stimulates my mouth so much that it makes me wonder. How in the world did Dan bake this? Why was he even compelled to bake? Where did the pan it's contained in come from? What the hell happens here when I'm not around?