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"I want you two to leave, now!" Thomas said. He waved a revolver around in the dense air of the hotel room. "Roxy belongs to me. I paid for her services, and she is going nowhere!"
I stood, shaking in my sister's arms as the man I thought I loved swung a gun between my sister and me.
Stephen, my sister's friend, laughed off Thomas' gun and attempted to take over the situation. "Why don't you put your water gun down?" Stephen asked. "You don't want to go there with me."
Thomas' eyes bore into mine, and despite my wish to leave, I felt a tug in my chest. It wasn't his fault that he paid for a woman who didn't know what she really wanted out of life. I thought France would awaken my artistic passion. I thought it would solidify my relationship with Thomas, but all that it had really done was allow me to see how much I had messed up my life.
Tears trickled down my face, mingling with the sweat. Stephen and Thomas were at a stalemate, each staring the other down. I sniffed and Thomas glanced my way.
He was shaking, tears dripping from his eyes. His hair was pasted to his scalp. "Don't go, Roxy," he said with a voice full of pain. I trembled. "I love you!" he cried out.
My sister guided me to the bed where she began to throw my clothes into a bag.
"Don't listen to him," Dee growled.
"Roxy." Thomas' voice went up an octave.
"Please," I cried, "I want to go home, Thomas. I'm sorry."
"After all I've done for you?" He pointed the gun directly toward me and suddenly the room went still, voices hushed, breaths silenced. "I gave you money," he continued. "I gave you France. I gave you love and the chance to paint. And now you leave me?"
In that moment, before I could respond, my so-called life flashed before my eyes and for a split second, I wanted Thomas to pull that trigger. Wonderful family, all-American sister, and me, the fuck-up. Instead of trying to be as good as my sister, I rebelled against it and became someone I hated. Selling my body and my dignity and now I had a gun in my face.
My mouth began to form the words, shoot me, but instead, I spoke, "Thomas, I'm so sorry. If you love me, you'll let me go."
I could literally see Thomas fold upon himself as if air simply vanished from his body. He held himself up against the wall, weeping from his gut.
"Thomas," I whispered. Dee grabbed the bag from the bed, snatched my hand and pulled me toward the opened front door.
"Get out of here," Stephen called out. "Now."
My heart and mind were playing tug-of-war with each other. I wanted to escape Thomas and to forget what he represented. I wanted to erase the black eye and swollen cheekbone of abuse he had given me when I begged to leave. At the same time, a part of me wanted to stay and accept the only love I had ever received.
At the threshold of the door, I looked away from Thomas and began to follow Dee out the door.
I turned and looked at Thomas. His eyes were wide and frightening. The gun rose and leveled off directly in line with my heart.
"I can't let you live without me," he said slowly. The gun, the animate seemed to quiver as if alive while aimed at me.
Before Stephen could pull out his own weapon, Thomas fired. A yellow-gold flash erupted, and the bullet, in a slow haze, came toward me. I could hear myself scream "no," and heard the high-pierced yell of Dee, but I was frozen in place. The bullet ripped through my tee shirt and plunged...
I screamed, springing up from my sleep. Sweat dripped from my body and my skin was boiling hot. I gulped air in like I had been in a desert for weeks without water or oxygen. I blinked for several minutes, taking in snapshots of my bedroom. I saw the NYU banner taped onto the mirror of my dresser and slowly, my breaths came to me.
I snatched my cordless phone off its base and punched in a number. It rang three times before a gruff male voice answered, "Yea?"
"Steve," I whispered, "it's me."
"Roxy, what's wrong?" Despite my sweating, I dug deep under my comforter.
"I'm sorry for calling you this early. I know you're leaving for Cali today."
"Don't worry about it." He yawned. "What's going on?"
"I had the dream again," I whispered, still shaking. "I got shot."
"Oh Roxy, honey." Steve sighed. "Did you, um, die in the dream?"
"Close." I wiped my tears away with the sleeve of my tee shirt. "Last time, the gun went off and I woke up. This time the bullet hit me, but I woke up before it went into me."
Silence. Heavy breathing. Sniffling.
"When is it going to end?" I cried, one hand holding the phone while the other wiped away tears, pushing my stringy hair from my face. "The dreams are just getting worse and worse. I might die in the next one."
"Babe, you won't die. You didn't die. Thomas did. He shot himself."
"I know." I fell back onto my pillows. I coughed up a sob. "I know he's dead. I helped kill him. It should have been me. I ruined him."
"Stop it, Roxy! I don't want you to say that again. Ever. You got me?"
I nodded, though I knew he couldn't see me. "Yes, yes, I have you," I whispered. "I'm sorry, Steve. I heap all this shit on you. It's not fair."
"I'm your friend. I don't give a shit about what's fair or not fair."
"It's been a few years now. I don't think I'll ever let it go."
"Don't cry, Roxy." I could hear Steve sniffling. "You want me to come over?"
"No, but thanks. I need to get up."
"First day at Visions?"
"Yep. Full-time, no less. I guess I really impressed Charlise during my temp gig."
"Of course, you did. Roxy, you are a very talented woman. I know she loved you."
"Aww, you are so sweet. Better be glad you're already taken." We laughed.
"Seriously, Roxy. You're strong, and you're going to get through this."
I took a deep breath and let it out. I batted away tears and promised myself that no more would be shed today.
"Thank you, Steve. I can't tell you how much it means to have you as a friend."
"Same here. If you need me before I leave, call. And just because I'll be three thousand miles away doesn't mean you can't call if you need to. Even collect."
"Thanks, 'cause you know I'll be broke for a while," I said with a laugh.
"I love you, Roxy."
"Love you, too, my friend. Wish me luck."
"You don't need it."
I hung up the phone and tried to push Steve's love and positive voice inside me for safekeeping. I always found it ironic that the only person I could trust with my past and my pains was a man. Steve just walked into my life at the right time, for me anyway. I shook my head and began to peel my comforter from me. I slipped out of the bed and planted my feet on the floor. I sighed wearily. When would I be able to have a full night of sleep without dreams of my past, dreams of gunfire, dreams of a fatal attraction that unfortunately or fortunately, ended the way it did?
Before it rang, I banged my hand atop of my radio, turning the soon-to-be-buzzing alarm clock off.
"Okay," I whispered. I stood up and flattened my hands over my tummy and thighs. I had an hour and a half to shower and dress before I had to be in SoHo to meet with Charlise, the owner of a chic, small but quaint art gallery by the name of Visions. If anything, my new job at Visions was a positive in my life. Especially at a time when I was about to be kicked out of my NYU apartment and needed a job to pay rent and to utilize my interior design degree. Not only would I be getting paid to design the new bookstore café, but I would also be able to dream of art and painting, my secret loves.
I walked over to my dresser and pulled out panties and a bra, and then headed over to my closet to select an outfit. A Sunday paper was on the floor, glaring at me. It was open to the real estate section where I had been looking for a place to live.
"You'll find a place to live," I told myself, though I had been looking for three weeks and had found nothing. Now that I had a job that paid, I couldn't find a place to sleep. Figures.
I stood at my dresser and applied my makeup and jewelry. A picture of my sister Dee and me caught my eye. We were hugging fiercely, me in my cap and gown, her in a pale pink summer dress. Even on my graduation day, she outshone me. My faint smile faltered a bit. I swallowed a few times, trying to squelch the jealousy that threatened to come up.
"Not on my first day," I gritted out. "I love Dee. She loves me. She's a great person, and so am I."
Self-affirmation. Something I had to do every day to reassure myself that I was worth something. Sometimes, it didn't work.
I riffled through my top drawer to get my silver watch and stopped. A white tee shirt. Emblazoned on the front: Viva la France! I gripped the dresser and tried not to think of him, but I failed. High school graduation, college in California. Bad things passed through my mind, leading up to Thomas Dugué -- a man who would change my life in more ways than one.
He was debonair and witty and his French accent drew me in with a tenacity I hadn't seen before then. His words lulled me in, and before I knew it, I was being asked to travel to France with him, for a fee and the opportunity to leave France whenever I wanted to. "But," he had said, one of his sly, come-hither smiles falling upon his lips, "once you get there and feel your painting muse flow, you won't want to leave."
He was wrong. Steeling myself against painful memories, I grabbed my purse and headed out the door.
"Girl, you are the best decision I've ever made," Charlise said as she tossed her flaxen blond hair over her shoulder. I chuckled at her use of girl, almost sounding like a sister, despite her debutante appearance. Body-wise, Charlise could have easily been a model. Tall, svelte with a walk that made her appear to glide across the floor as opposed to walking like us mere peons. One could easily tell that her passion was art and painting, as she stood before me, dressed in white overalls with splatters of colors all over her. The only thing in place was her hair, for even her face, the right cheek to be exact, held a spot of emerald-colored paint. She made the perfect image of the perfect artist.
"Thanks for the compliment," I replied. I moved along the gleaming hardwood floor as my eyes took in the splashes of colors that adorned the bright white walls of the gallery. "I am so happy to be here," I added. "To be around such beautiful artwork really feeds into my artistic aura."
"Wanna see my latest piece?" Charlise asked. Beams of light bounced off of her.
I nodded anxiously, and she guided me down a hall that gave way to a newly structured escalator. We went downstairs where the café would be located. I smiled when I entered the large space, watching construction workers smooth walls in order to place oak wood paneling onto them. I had suggested to Charlise that with the brightness and colors that permeated the gallery, a more classic coloring of oak, hunter green and burgundy would go over well in the bookstore and café. The fact that she took my advice made me swell a little in pride. I swallowed and continued to follow her down another hall to a door on the left.
"This is where I do my painting," she said before flipping on the switch. I sighed when I spotted her painting resting upon an easel in the middle of the room. She was an abstract painter, like me. It took a keen eye, and some knowledge of the artist to understand the abstract painter's work, but I got this one, no problem. Upon the pristine white canvas laid colors of emerald, navy and a chocolate brown, strokes of colors so smooth, it was as if the grace of a swan painted the lines. I could smell the Earth resonating from her painting, her love of Earth, the emerald representing the growth of life, the navy reflecting the oceans and the brown imitating the soil, the life force that helps to make the things we need grow. I was impressed.
"Wow," I said. I sidled up beside a grinning Charlise.
"You like?" she asked, hugging herself and rocking back and forth on her heels.
"It's incredible, girl."
"I've been on such an artistic high since I went on this cruise a couple months ago."
We left the room and made our way into the space that would serve as the café. Kitchen materials were already set, and Charlise poured us both a steaming hot cup of coffee. Black, just like I like it.
"Yea, I went on a cruise called The Art of Life," Charlise said. "For an entire week, we sailed the beautiful waters, ported in Cancun, although I believe their next cruise is going to the Caribbean. Got to hobnob with the hottest new artists out today, learned some new strokes, read up on new opportunities during the workshops, and even got a second to do a little painting."
"Whoa!" I exclaimed. I sank into a thickly pillowed chair and slipped one leg up under me. "That sounds so incredible. I wish I could do something like that. I mean yea, I have my degree in interior design, but art has always been in my heart. It would probably awaken the artist in me to surround myself with other lifescapers."
"I like that. Lifescapers."
We both smiled for a moment before Charlise jumped into the chair beside me, as giddy as a child on Christmas. "You can go!" she squealed.
"Go where?" I chuckled as I warmed my hands on the ceramic mug. "On the cruise?" Charlise nodded enthusiastically. "I would love to go. Let me go pack my suitcase!" I noticed Charlise's huge grin and decided I'd better hook her to reality. "Sike! Girl, I have no money, feel me?"
"Oh, come on, Roxy, I could give you a week or two's pay upfront."
I shook my head so hard, it damn near fell off my shoulders, my streaked hair flipping back and forth across my lips. "Unh-unh, I'll need that to get me a new sleeping pad. I'm trying to prove to Deandra, that's my sister, that I am a responsible person. I've been doing well so far this past year. Blowing two weeks' pay on a trip would be above and beyond irresponsible."
"Surely your sister knows how important art is to you?" Charlise questioned. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime cruise."
I blinked a few times, understanding what Charlise was saying, and wanting to tell her that she didn't know the entire story, but I bit my lip. Deandra had very valid reasons for not believing or trusting anything I did or said.
"The next cruise is in a week," Charlise added, perking my attention back up to her. "I know it's late, but if you could get the money, I could probably sweet-talk someone into getting you aboard. They do the cruises four times a year, but this would be the perfect time for you to go."
"She's not going to give me the money." I shook my head and took a sip of coffee. Charlise completely ignored me.
"It could refresh your whole outlook and rejuvenate and escalate your appreciation for the arts."
By now, I was moaning. I really wanted to go on this cruise. It felt like something I had to do, but I had no way of paying for it myself, and knew of no one who would be even willing to unload that kind of cash for me at a moment's notice. Except, well, hmm, not even she would do that, I didn't think. Besides, Deandra had given me an iBook for my graduation gift just a week earlier, so I knew giving me money, when her wedding was at the end of the year, would be a big no. Then again, I wouldn't know for sure unless I asked.
"Hold up, sis! I have to get something to clean my ears out because I know you are not asking me for that kind of money!"
Oddly enough, I was hurt by Deandra's outburst. I mean, hell, I would have been like what the hell, too, but I had barely gotten the question out. First, I wanted to tell Deandra about my great job, and then reintroduce her to my love of painting before I mentioned the cruise. By the time I finally got to it, she had put two and two together.
"Sis," I said, half-whining, half-crying, "you know I wouldn't even ask you this unless it was an emergency."
"A cruise?" Deandra asked blandly. "A cruise is an emergency? If that's the case, sign my butt up for one also because I've been working sixty-hour weeks for the Orioles lately and could use a vacation. Excuse me, an emergency."
I kicked off my shoes, padding along my apartment, pacing actually, praying and hoping that I could find the right words to sway Deandra over to my side of the fence. "I'm sorry, Deandra," I said, in a clipped, professional tone. "It was rude of me to call and ask you for money. All you or Mom and Dad have asked of me is that I try to put my life back together, to leave the past in the past and move on. I think so far I've done a good job of that."
"You have," Deandra said. The high-pitched shrill became a soft, mellow yell. "We are all so proud of you, sistergirl! Couldn't you tell at graduation?"
I smiled at the memory, thinking back to how gleeful everyone was to see me walk across the stage in my cap and gown. They all laughed when I snatched up my degree and did a little happy dance. That day was a good day, most definitely, despite my feeling second best at my own graduation.
"I saw how happy you guys were," I admitted. "Made me happy to know I could put smiles on your faces. It meant a lot to me."
We both sat in silence until I spoke again. "My boss offered to pay me two weeks upfront, so that I could go on the trip." Even through the phone, I could feel Deandra's eyes widen as she sucked her teeth. "I didn't take her up on her offer," I added, smirking because I knew Deandra would be blushing with embarrassment right now.
"For real, I do want to go on this trip. Don't ask me why because I just found out today, but it's like, I love painting, I love art, and something inside of me is saying, 'Go on this trip, Roxy!' I think I could find myself there, reconnect myself with things I threw away, trying to forget them."
If anything would get Deandra, it would be the truth. More than anything, I knew I had to be on that cruise come next week. Like it was destiny, something I never listened to in the past, but was trying to befriend as I grew up.
"You really want to go that bad?" Deandra asked. Her voice had softened considerably.
I sighed, answering, "I know, under the circumstances, I don't deserve shit, but yes, I really do want to go that bad -- bad enough to take a loan from you if you have the extra cash. Once I move out of my apartment and get into a new place, I will hook you back up with all your money, sis. I promise."
"I don't want to regret this later," Deandra said, almost in whimper tones.
"Deandra, you won't," I said, practically skipping around my tiny apartment. "Will Stephen get mad that you gave me the money?"
"Hell no." She laughed at me. "I have my own individual account with a little sumptin' sumptin' in there. He doesn't even bother to ask about it."
"Thank you so much, Dee Dee," I said. I wanted to cry at the Hallmark moment we were having. "Um," I added sheepishly, "can you wire the money to me? Like today?"
"Damn it!" Deandra joked. "You beg for almost an hour and now you're being Miss Dictator. Fine, I'll have it wired to you within the hour."
"Oh, my God!" I squealed into the phone, running and sliding along the floors of my apartment. "I think this experience will change my life, girl! Call me crazy¿"
"And you know I already think you don' lost it!"
"Hush. For real, Deandra, this means a lot to me. I'm going to come back from this trip a whole new woman. Just you wait and see!"
© 2003 by Shonell Bacon and JDaniels.