Forty-five minutes had passed rather quickly considering where my mind was, and my watch reflected none of its duration. I imagine myself tapping on its large glassy casement, hoping to wake its many components from apparent boredom. I had purchased this particular watch a few months back on a semi-occasional trip to St. Martin, one of many of my favorite locations – not to mention home of my personal villa located on the north side of the island, over-looking the Atlantic. My home away from home, or work… so to speak.
My eyes move back to meet Natalie’s. “Yeah,” I quickly reply through a furrowed brow.
I take in one last draw of a thick Cameroon cigar; its dark cloud spinning in my mouth, idling my tongue, as I taste. I still remember my first cigarette that my father handed me as a teenager. There was no special occasion, just the bonding of father and son after a long day, and the soon followed cough of adolescent lungs. I can hear the slow creak of leather on a large black couch and the clanging of ice in a near-empty glass of scotch & ameretto as if it were just yesterday. My father was never a man of words, though he always saved his words of wisdom for when I needed it the most.
I reach over my plate and singe what’s left of my cigar in a drained glass of straight bourbon. Just across the clean white table - dirtied with a few breadcrumbs and a little blotch of dressing – sits Natalie, my illustrious date and (nearly self proclaimed) girlfriend. Her hair is short, wavy - similar to her most recent spread on the cover of a popular magazine she posed for last week in Spain – or was it Venice?
“You seem quiet, is everything all right?” says Natalie; she tilts her head slightly.
“Me?” I smile and come to. “Yes. I’m just noticing how busy it is in here,” I reply. There is no doubt in my mind that she deserves better than the small talk that I give her. I’m sure she has something important to say, perhaps from the view of every one person in this room (excluding jealous femme fatale), but I don’t catch a word. I don’t give her a chance. I’m too distracted.
To my right there is a gentlemen in conversation close to the bar. Further to my right, an extremely tall, lanky, waiter, and just one more step to the right of him, sitting at a small table is a woman with long red hair. I don’t know why, but since she sat down, I have kept my eyes on her. She stared back at me, no – glanced, for a moment as she sat. It is the feeling of being watched: somehow she could feel my eyes nudging her. I don’t even know her.
“Well…” Natalie lets out a soft sigh. “I think we should get out of here, then.” Natalie takes one last quick sip of her white wine, nearly interrupting herself of her own response.
“Sounds good,” I respond. For a moment I feel the guilt of wasting Natalie’s time. I let her hang on the fact that we haven’t established where we go from here, or some form of positive accord. It is the undeniable truth that I do not care where we go from here. It is so curious to me that someone so beautiful can sit in the vacant spot of my mind and heart, with barely any attachment, that I can feel nothing but the discreet pleasure of a beautiful woman on my arm. It is having, and anything but needing. It is chemistry, and the lack-thereof.
I glance to my right again, my eye focused on the color red. The woman sitting alone. Why, alone? There is something about her. She brings a small bite of food from her fork to her lips. For the first time in my life I am jealous of a stainless fork. Her subtle movements numb my body. I am completely aware of her proximity.
“Ethan, I just realized we’ve never eaten sushi together,” Natalie says, with a bright expression on her face. She stands up from the table, straightening out a champagne-colored cocktail dress. “You’ve always said you love sushi,” she adds.
I slip a large, crisp bill on the table as I stand and slide my chair out from behind me, lifting my eyes to Natalie. “True, that’d be fun,” I reply. We both hear the fake laughter in my voice. Wincing, I feel a tight pain behind my knee as I push the chair away. The expression carries to my face, and then the pain is gone.
Natalie knows me well enough not to mention my bad knee. If there’s anything this minute relationship has, it’s comfort. It sounds silly, but I feel as though it’s my duty to ignore my most obvious flaws. I figure if I can ignore them, then maybe others will too. Perfection is a daily grind.
“Have a good evening Mr. Stone,” I am personally greeted by the owner of the very popular restaurant, Na Fianna. Two others make an effort to shake my hand as I nod and smile back.
“Yes, George it was good seeing you,” I return. It is here, in this restaurant that you will see a handful of some of the most powerful men and women around. Tonight, Na Fianna had been hosting a banquette for the new garden ‘Fleur-de-lys’ which will be ceremonially unveiled just two blocks away, tomorrow in Bakers Square. I had happily accepted my invitation.
I step outside, an energizing breeze brushes against me as I pull my tie further from my neck. The street illuminates the slowly darkening sky, it is bright and alive with all forms of life, different nationalities, and even birds on sidewalks that appear to be a long flight from home. Pizza shops carry aromas of hot oven-baked pies with bubbling cheese and sauce. A mix of newspaper stands, hot dog venders, and flower stands stay open through most of the evening - business is always good. There are couples holding hands, cute elderly women relaxing on cozy street benches under the cool shade of man-planted trees, and young children struggling to keep pace with older siblings and parents alike. This is home.
Natalie stands beside me as we look for a cab. She folds her arms and looks up at me with a smile. I see her in the corner of my eye as she bobs up and down on her tiptoes, up and down, up and down. I can feel my heart begin to sink down into my stomach as if I swallowed it along with my entire entrée: a twenty-seven dollar salmon, scalloped sweet potatoes, and (a surprisingly tasty) lemon spinach. I recall every moment of affection Natalie has given me, along with the occasional honest response I give in return. I don’t deserve her.
It isn’t long before a bright yellow cab pulls up to the curb to whisk us away. The side of the cab is crawling with advertisements of all kinds: there’s pet grooming, happy cleaning maids, diamond rings, and a woman with massive amounts of shampoo in her hair. ‘Who washes their hair with that much shampoo,’ I say to myself. It somehow takes me back to my childhood, the litter of stickers, ice cream trucks flaunting hundreds of cold treats – none of which I could eat right now.
I take my time in reaching for the door handle, and before the door opens I can feel it cling to the rest of the frame, making me work harder than expected to open it. As I lean in and pull harder, Natalie places her hand softly on my back. These are the subtle things that I enjoy about relationships, and for a moment –as it seems – I feel a warmth at her side. As I turn to smile at her, I prop open the door nice and wide, but she isn’t there. Natalie is gone. It is in this moment I am caught completely off guard. In front of me is the woman I had been staring at all dinner long, it is the woman with red hair.
“Excu…” The red-haired woman stops and laughs. “Sorry!” she continues apologetically and takes a step back.
“No!” I blurt out. I’m surprised at how close she is to me, surprised she’s close at all. “Uhh…” My mind then goes blank as I look further to my right to look for Natalie. I feel heat rise to my face and wash away my ghost-like expression. My heart begins to skip like I’m in ninth grade and I just ran into my first big crush, Amy Wilkins, between classes.
“Would you like to share our cab?” Natalie interjects behind me, putting an end to the awkwardness, for a moment. Natalie’s smile is calming. I wish she knew how much I want to like her, how much I want to need her. To be honest there are times when I feel it - whatever it is. “Really – it’s no problem!” Natalie adds reassuringly.
“Are you sure?” the red-haired woman replies back to Natalie. “I could just take that cab over there,” she continues and laughs again, pointing just one car-length ahead.
She was right, I look straight ahead at an empty cab sitting at the curb, it’s 4-cylinder engine beginning to overheat, putting anxiously on the side of the street – only adding to the uncomfortable silence that I was uncontrollably adding to.
As we stand in the street I can feel the eyes of innocent bystanders who are walking, loitering, staring. It is the feeling of bright lights on the broadway stage, as the faceless, shadowy-figures, glare intently at the entertainers. At best guess I’d say they are hoping to see something interesting happen on the street as they walk home, maybe from work or the store, to claim a story for later – at best, but I would not give them a story. I will not entertain them! If there is any possibility to act as normal as possible, I was going tobe normal.
“No…” Natalie replies nicely. “We can let someone else have that cab.”
I step back freely from the door, allowing room for both Natalie and her to enter. I take another glance at my watch, observing it’s motionless state, it’s hands tied behind its electronic back. In a way it seems to be a metaphor of this moment, how fitting an example. Time feels as though it has slowed, and however uncomfortable it has become, there is more excitement within this last minute than I recently remember.
As Natalie and I wait for the woman to enter, I do my best not to sneak a peak as she slips by me softly. I feel my body go numb again as she brushes against my arm. Her perfume fills my lungs with scents of fruit - it teases me. I begin to turn my attention to Natalie, letting my eyes linger a little too long on her body. I examining every curve from her legs, straight up the small of her exposed back in a split second. Her skin is almost pale, making me wonder if I am the first to see her livid body, along with the sun.
Natalie interrupts my train of thought and runs her hand up my arm, feeling my bicep before resting it there. She kisses me before I have time to reflect on what has just happened in the last minute or so. Her lips are soft as she gently sucks my lower lip before sliding away. She has a nice way of doing it subtle, and never once did she seem to me the PDA type.
“After you,” Natalie kindly gestures me to enter the cab next.
I bend my head down into the cab as I wipe fresh lip-gloss from my lips. The smell of recently cleaned leather hits my nose hard as I inhale, sliding across the glossy seat of the cab. I grasp a worn seatbelt and pull it over my waist until it meets its metal counterpart and clips in place with a loud ‘click’. Natalie scooches in beside me and places a small purse on her lap, its color matching the same cool-colored dress that cuts off at the middle of her tanned thighs.
“Mr. Stone,” the driver lazily turns his head back at me; his gum filled mouth flapping almost as much as the tacky accoutrements hanging from his rear-view. Pictures of his apparent family and friends are posted to the dash displaying birthday parties and trips at the beach. “Where can I take you this evening?” he questions.
I begin to reply with a joke, but my mind beats out my tongue and holds it tight. There is nothing funny I could possibly think to say that would make this trip any less uncomfortable. “720 Plush Avenue, please,” I simply reply.
“I’m Madison,” the woman with red hair holds out her hand to shake mine. Our eyes connect before I extend my hand out in response.
“Ethan,” I reply back.
Her hand is soft and I begin to squeeze it, firm, as our eyes remain connected. I believe a handshake says more about a person than what actually comes out of their mouth during initial contact. There was no strength in her grip, just a soft, warm hand that I began to imagine touching my body.
“Hi, I’m Natalie,” Natalie greets Madison over my lap. There is no sound of jealously in her voice. After all, she did insist on me sitting in the middle of the cab. She must have no idea I had been staring at Madison all dinner long.
“I… I must be honest,” Madison hesitates. “I thought your name was Taylor Stone.” She looks up at me and bats her eyelashes through a white smile. I turn to meet her eyes but mine drop somewhere near her chest - only for a second. As she notices, she pulls her hair to the side, exposing her neck, and continues to play with her hair.
“Taylor is my middle name,” I reply. “It was my father’s name.
“Ethan Stone,” the cab driver yells aloud between weaving traffic. “This man is owner of the third largest international bank in the world – originally started by his Father, recently declared share owner of Calibre-One Modeling, and last years’ ‘Touch Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year’.”
“And you know so much about him because?” Natalie leans forward with a large grin on her face, she places her right hand on the headrest of the passenger seat, and the other hand on my right thigh, and squeezes.
“Because I read ,” the cab driver amusingly replies.
Natalie laughs, continuing to lean forward intently.
“Miss, you think I drive a cab for enjoyment?” he says. “This is part time. No, no, no… Much like Mr. Stone here, I plan to live my life as a ‘one-percenter’. If you think about it, the majority of the people in this world simply don’t give a damn… they may say they do, but they still runnin’ their mouths as they always did, buyin’ cars for their kids, bouncin’ checks on expensive toys they don’t need.”
“And what exactly is a ‘one-percenter’?” Natalie asks, her hand still on my leg.
The car continues to dip and shake as the driver peers back through the rear view, his light-gray eyes bouncing back and forth from the road to the mirror.
“Financially speaking? A one-percenter is an approximation of those individuals that take in a quarter of the nations overall income. Now, you seem smart, I even hear a bit of an English accent from you, which means you’ve probably seen more of the world than most U.S. Americans do on average, yet alone own a passport with legal validation. Let me ask you, what would you say is the percentage of individuals over eighteen with a passport in the States?”
Before Natalie has a chance to reply, the driver continues.
“Thirty-seven percent! That means we are the rare breed, Mr. Stone,” he adjusts his eyes to me.
“You certainly are a rare breed,” I joke nicely with the driver.
I put my arm around Natalie and cross my leg as she swats me on the knee, giving a teasing look. Madison laughs as the driver smiles back through in the mirror.
“Thank you Mr. Stone!” he says in a friendly voice, nodding his head. “Miss Madison, here’s your stop,” the driver turns back towards her - his eyes open wide.
“Thank you,” Madison replies. “Ethan,” she says taking in a breath, “not that you care,” she continues through a smile, “but a week ago I put in an application to be one of your administrative assistants. I hadn’t heard back yet.”
“Oh,” I reply, “Madison Hayes? I saw your application.” For a moment I reflect on the chances of us meeting in a cab. It would have never occurred to me that this woman applied to work for me. “Jamie said you had definite potential,” I add.
“Oh Yes…” she replies, gesturing her hand as she speaks. “He was very nice.”
I stop, for a moment, thinking she might be making a joke.
“No, uuhhmm… Jamie is a woman,” I laugh lightly. “She’s the secretary you would be replacing."
As we talk, the driver’s radio picks up feedback and conversations between other drivers drown out our voices, though the driver himself ignores it and looks at me in the mirror. He says nothing. Natalie leans in to me and runs her hand down my tie, finally resting it on my stomach as she listens and takes in a deep breath.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Madison replies with a hand to her lower jaw. “I’m terrible with names,” she adds.
“Yeah, it’s no problem,” I laugh. “I’ll look at your file again and see what I can do.”
Madison pays for her fare and exits the cab, thanking me again.
I must admit, I’m used to suck-ups of all kinds, but there was something genuine about Madison. I’m surprised a woman so beautiful would have the skills to make a good administrative assistant. There is probably no way I could get any work done with her walking in my office. I’m also curious if Madison working for me would be the end of Natalie and I.
I think a bigger question would be, should you let someone go if you know the biggest problem in the relationship is yourself? I’m not perfect - I never claim to be – but Natalie is truly special and I’m not about to just throw that away.
“Alright Mr. Stone,” the driver yells out with enthusiasm. “Homeward bound, 720 Plush Avenue.”
As we drive, the cab remains quiet, as though Madison’s quiet demeanor has somehow affected us all by her leaving. I remain seated in the middle, spending the short drive next to Natalie as she lays her head against my shoulder, her eyes straight ahead, and says nothing.
Light from the sun reflects brightly against a bug smeared window as it shimmers through trees and hides itself briefly behind green and yellow street signs. The car leans as we wind around a large green hill, close to home. I rest my chin on Natalie’s head as she continues to lean against my shoulder. Her golden hairs tickle my cheek as a cracked rear window lets in a warm summer breeze. I straighten my back from the tight, spring-loaded, back seat. Natalie lifts her head for a moment as I rest back in to place, and we turn slowly onto my street. As we turn towards the large entrance gate, I notice a song playing softly on the taxi’s radio. The driver sings along with the words.
Happy together, unhappy together
And won't it be fine?
Days may be cloudy or sunny
We're in or we're out of the money
But I'm with you always
I'm with you, rain or shine
I'm gonna love you
Like nobody's loved you
Come rain or come shine
My father used to love Billie Holiday. I never really listened to those lyrics. It’s funny how certain moments present themselves, when crossroads depict both who you are, and who you want to be. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that. It’s just like the song. It’s funny how a young girl from Pennsylvania - who dropped out of school at age eleven - somehow found herself singing about love and money, surrounded by love and money. I somehow found myself surrounded by love and money, too.
“Alright Mr. Stone,” the driver of the cab leans back. “Welcome home!”