Plus-One With A Vengeance : 15 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 15 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"A picture is a secret about a secret;
the more it tells you the less you know."
— Diane Arbus


 

On Friday, after Paul's habitual crash-bang-zoom departure, I made my way to the kitchen, bracing myself for Melissa's powerful positivity and excitement. Today was unusual: I found a different Melissa, a Melissa unlike every other time I'd seen her. Today she wasn't chirpy and cheerful. She had her head down, her face resting in her hands, her elbows resting on the counter. Today she gave the impression of being run over, or emptied out. She looked worn, frazzled, tired. Her hair was as messy and tousled as mine, so I felt no fear that she'd chase me back upstairs to brush out my tangles.

She didn't look up when I came in. Her response to my "Morning," was a faint grunt.

"Do you want some coffee?" I offered. Again, her only reply was a muted sound. It seemed more like a yes than a no, so I heated enough water to fill the French press and shoveled in the coffee as I waited for the water to boil.

"Tired?" I asked.

Melissa let out a nearly inaudible sigh. "I wish it was only that," she whispered. "I've got a migraine coming on."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"I already took my medication. When the coffee's ready, I'll bring it upstairs and lie down for a few hours."

"Does the coffee help?" I asked in a quiet voice. She nodded. "I should be okay by lunch. Just let me rest until then."

I poured her a generous mugful of coffee. She kissed my forehead, took the mug and trudged toward the stairs.

Her slow, muffled footsteps ascended the stairs and down the hall. Her bedroom door slowly closed, and then the house was quiet.

At first, I didn't know what to do with myself. It was the first time I found myself alone since becoming Lorelei. I wandered into the entryway and looked at myself in the mirror. For no particular reason, I tried out different smiles: showing teeth, not showing teeth, curling the corners of my mouth in varying degrees. I have some nice smiles and some dopey smiles. I have nice cheekbones. No dimples, which is fine by me.

Then my stomach rumbled, and I went to make some toast.

After a quiet breakfast, I figured the next thing to do was prepare dinner for Max. Then I could make myself pretty for the day.

Melissa and I had already worked out the week's menu for Max; all that remained was the execution. I confirmed that we had all the ingredients, got out the pots and pans, the cutting board, the knives and other tools, and was all ready to begin when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Max.


Max: What's up?
Me: Nothing much. You?
Max: Same. Are you at my parents'?
Me: Yep.
Max: Is my mom reading over your shoulder?
Me: No. ha ha
Max: How is it, living there?
Me: Nice. Your parents are great.
Max: My mom is crazy about you.
Me: yeah
Max: What does my dad think of you? Does he know your story?
Me: No. He doesn't know. He's good. I think he likes having me around.
Max: ... and using the pool
Me: that too
Max: Homewrecker!
Me: As if!
Max: j/k
Me: I know.
Max: So, what are you up to?
Me: Fixing dinner for you.
Max: What is it?
Me: A surprise. You have to wait and see.
Max: Fair enough. Do you want to help me eat it?
Me: Have dinner with you? Yes, of course! Where?
Max: My house. Where else?
Me: Your parents' house?
Max: No, no way. I need to talk to you.
Me: About what?
Max: A surprise. You have to wait and see.
Me: hmmph
Max: I can pick you up after work.
Me: Sounds like a plan
 

Good thing he caught me before I started cooking. After a quick evaluation, I saw that I could make enough for two. Just to be sure, I added another side dish, and made a mental note to pick up a baguette and some cheese.

Once my hair and face were ready for the day, I dressed in a pair of khaki shorts and a loose white cotton top. Since I had so much time to kill, I picked out my outfit for tonight, for my date with Max. The obvious choice was a cute bright yellow summer dress. The bright yellow was mitigated by an understated floral print, pale white flowers, leaves, and tendrils. It had a lot of nice details, like a flared ruffle skirt, a ruched bust, and spaghetti straps that showed off my shoulders and arms. A pair of white sandals with a two-inch heel finished off the outfit.

What I was going for was cute. NOT overtly sexy. It was important to establish that Max have no doubt that I'm female, and stop there. Instinctively I felt that anything more would make Max uncomfortable, and there was no point in that. "Uncomfortable" leads to resistance. I needed to make it easy for Max to accept me. No pushing, no pressure. He needed to feel in charge of the subtle negotiation.

Melissa came quietly downstairs at 11:30. It was the first time I'd seen her so subdued, so quiet. She still had the just-rolled-out-of-bed look, still wearing her pajamas. Seeing the concern on my face, she smiled weakly. "I'm fine," she told me in a in a near-whisper, and she gave me a hug. "It takes a lot out of me."

"I can see that."

She smiled again, to let me know she was alive and well.

"How often do your migraines come?"

"About once a month, which suggests an obvious connection." She smiled ruefully. "My doctor tells me they'll probably go away when I hit menopause."

"Oh!"

"Something else to look forward to, eh?" I didn't know how to respond.

She asked if she'd missed anything, so I told her about Max's invitation, expecting her to explode with glee. Instead, she merely nodded, smiled, and said, "That's nice. A step forward." No squeezes, nothing about grand-babies.

"Are you sure you're okay?" I asked, solicitous.

She smiled again and chuckled. "Yes, I'm fine. The storm has passed. Don't worry." She stood up and fished through her bag. "I'm going to give you my car keys. I was going to take you back to the mall again, to Macy's, so you can get a good evening look. I mean your face... makeup. That girl last time was very good — you should go back to her again."

"I can't drive," I pointed out. "I don't have a license."

"Ah, right," she conceded. "Tomorrow we can go get your state ID, start on the license process."

"Tomorrow's Saturday."

She sighed heavily. "I'm batting a thousand, aren't I?" She sat down again and played with her empty coffee mug. "How about this, then: take an Uber to the mall, get the evening look. Shop if you feel like it, and come back in time to get ready for your date with Max. I'm no use to you today, so there's no point in hanging around here."

 


 

Luckily, the same salesperson was working and available. Rather than work up a whole new look, she showed me how to make a few adjustments to my daytime look, and turn it into a face suitable for my dinner with Max this evening. Again, nothing overwhelming. Melissa was right about this woman: she really knew her stuff. What was particularly great about her was that she gave me a subtle look, a natural look, that — even up close — almost seemed like no makeup at all. I loved it.

While she worked on my face, I thought I saw Kitty walk by, a little far off, in the hallway outside. I'm talking about the mall hallway, the one that connects all the stores. I couldn't tell whether she spotted me, because I had to keep my head still for the makeover.

At Melissa's suggestion, I looked at some jewelry, and found two items that appealed to me. One was a simple gold necklace, fourteen inches, so it lay close to my neck. Then a pair of gold hoop earrings an inch in diameter. Again, I was going for simple. Feminine, yes, femme fatale, no.

The shopping felt a lot more relaxing and enjoyable without Melissa's pushing and prodding and asking me questions. I didn't always have a reaction ready for every piece of clothes she dangled in front of me. On the other hand, I missed being able to ask her opinions and to get reinforcement for my choices. Of course the salespeople told me that everything looked great on me, but they'd say that no matter what I chose.

At three-fifteen, I stopped in a little cafe. Although we were indoors in a huge mall, they managed to mimic Paris' sidewalk tables without seeming hokey or cheesy. Moments after I sat down a waiter appeared. I ordered a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant, and that's when Kitty appeared. She chose her moment well, blindsiding me by approaching from behind the waiter. She stepped into the open just as he was turning away from me.

She looked down at me, feigning surprise. She said, "Oh, you! Hello!" and then, after a quick glance at the waiter, she asked me, "Do you mind if I sit here?"

Her entrance was breathtakingly abrupt, but having seen her earlier, I wasn't completely surprised. I managed to say, "Please do," with some aplomb. Kitty asked what I'd ordered, and requested the same. The waiter left, Kitty sat. We smiled at each other.

"Sorry for bursting in like that," she said apologetically, "but I wanted to meet you, and didn't get a chance the other day. I'm Kitty Dahlmann. I'm a friend of Max's."

"Max?" I asked, pretending to draw a blank. The best course, I thought, would be playing dumb.

"Max... Max Errison — Melissa's son."

"Oh, right."

"Sorry — I assumed that since you're friends with Melissa, you'd know Max as well."

"I met him once," I told her truthfully, searching my memory as I spoke. I had a flash of a mental picture: Max's shoes, pointing at me as I climbed out of the pool. "I only met him briefly." That much was technically true: we'd only met once since I became Lorelei.

"Oh!" Kitty said, starting back slightly. She didn't expect *that* response at all.

The waiter arrived, interrupting the interrogation. He carefully set out our cups, croissants, napkins, and a glass of water for each. He checked the cream and sugar, asked whether there was anything else, and left. The entire time, I covertly studied Kitty's face. My response clearly befuddled her; far more than it should have. I could almost see the gears turning in her head; she wondered whether I was lying.

"But you *do* know Elliot," she prompted, as she broke off a bit of croissant and dipped it in her coffee.

I gave a little sigh and treated Kitty to a somewhat distressed facial expression. "Elliot?" I asked, feigning helplessness.

Kitty's confusion increased. "Elliot Beekman. He must be your cousin or something — you look so much like him."

"I'm sorry," I told her. "You seem like a nice person, but you're asking me so many questions about people I don't know. At the same time, I have no idea who you are."

Kitty blinked. Her face took on a troubled aspect. She arrived with a plan and a vision of how this conversation was going to go, but it wasn't going her way.

"I told you my name," she said, sounding apologetic. "But I don't think you told me yours."

"I'm Lorelei," I replied, and set my face like stone. I wasn't going to say the name Gight. That name would connect me to Darcy, which would connect me to Elliot, who I was pretending not to know. I thought my face told her that all she was going to get was my first name, but she persisted.

"Are you Darcy's sister?"

I replied with an open-mouthed, offended sigh.

"I'm getting very uncomfortable here," I told her. "Why do you care who I am and who I know?"

Kitty appeared genuinely unsettled. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm doing this on behalf of a friend. I don't mean to pry." She fiddled with her phone and held it up to show me a photo. "This is my friend," she said.

The photo surprised me. Honestly, it astonished me to a degree that I nearly fell off my chair — without exaggeration.

The photo showed Kitty and Amber, side by side, both of them smiling. Big, sunny smiles. Both were dressed in cutoffs, tank tops, and flip flops. The location was a boardwalk, somewhere. Kitty looked like the Kitty I've always known: positive, happy, solar, attractive — the archetype of the girl next door. Her hair was a bit longer, but otherwise the same.

Amber appeared in a way I never could have imagined. Her hair was a glorious mane. Her teeth were white and even. Max had said that Amber was hot — and that fact was very much in evidence here. She looked normal, healthy, full of life. Joyful, even.

I know that I've only met Amber a handful of times, but I can honestly say that the entire time I've been in her company, she scowled. In my limited experience, she had no other facial expression. The idea that she could smile never occurred to me, and if it had, I would never have pictured the open friendly smile that Kitty was showing me now.

For the first time, I understood how Max could fall for her.

At least on a physical level.

"Your friend...," I observed. "I met her yesterday. She didn't look like that."

Kitty glanced at the photo for a moment, then turned it back to face me. "Well, it's from five years ago."

"That's not what I meant," I told her. "She wasn't smiling yesterday. Not at all. Not for a moment."

"Well, what happened?"

"I was minding my own business, looking at some clothes. She came out of nowhere and snapped at least a dozen pictures of me without asking. She peppered me with questions, too." I shook my head. "She acted like she was some kind of cop, and she treated me like a criminal. She never even told me her name or what she wanted with me." I looked Kitty in the face. "Who is she? What is this about?"

"Her name is Amber. Amber Lochlin. She and Max Errison — Melissa's son — were dating for years... until last Christmas."

"And what does that have to do with me? Just because her boyfriend dumped her doesn't give her some kind of weird license..."

"Wait — no." Kitty was briefly flustered. "He didn't dump—" She sighed heavily. "Honestly, I don't know. They broke up. But up till then, they talked about getting married, and having kids." She looked me in the face, to see what effect her story was having.

I shrugged and said, "People break up. It happens all the time. Everybody's heart gets broken."

"Right," Kitty acknowledged. "But Amber is convinced that Max is her soulmate. That's why she won't let go. She can't let go."

I said nothing. I only raised my eyebrows in silent question.

"I don't know whether you believe in soulmates," Kitty told me. "I do. I married mine. For me, there is no other man in the world."

I didn't respond.

Kitty hesitated. In retrospect, I think she realized how bizarre it was going to sound. "But see — Amber wanted to talk to you because— See, um, Max left her for someone who looks... just like you."

I couldn't help it. I started laughing. "Seriously?" I asked, still chuckling, "That's why she came to bother me? If Max left her for someone who looked like Megan Fox, would she go pester Megan Fox?"

Kitty frowned. "Okay," she admitted. "That's fair. But what happened when she talked to you? I heard her scream. I've never heard her scream before. Ever."

"Really?" I said.

"Really. Amber is a wonderful person. I've never seen her angry or mean or unkind. I sometimes wonder whether she even has negative emotions."

On hearing that, my eyebrows went up as high as they could possibly go.

"I'm serious," Kitty said.

"So, you think that *I* must have done something to make your sainted friend scream?"

"Did you?"

"I refused to answer her questions and I asked her to go away. That's all." A thought occurred to me. "But if you were watching, you'd know that."

She colored red at that. "I wasn't watching," she told me. "I was nearby, so I heard the scream. But I didn't see your interaction."

"Did you sic her on me?" I asked.

"Sick?"

"Sic, like when you sic a dog on someone."

"No, of course not! She wouldn't do that anyway."

"But you pointed me out to her," I concluded.

"I'm sorry," Kitty said again. "This conversation didn't go the way — it didn't go any way that I anticipated. I'm sorry to have bothered you. I won't bother you again. I'll go pick up the tab for this. It's the least I can do. Goodbye."

 


 

Kitty was sorry, but I was sorry, too. I've said several times that I like Kitty. She's an old friend.

Her picture of Amber utterly confused me. Big time. Not just the photograph, but her description of the woman. A thought occurred to me — something that never occurred to me before: Amber had a lot of friends. Maybe none of them saw her the way that I do. After all, every woman in town (at least as far as I know) believed her stories about Max and me (Elliot-me).

And Kitty... it seemed she swayed one way and the other, sometimes favoring me and Max and sometimes favoring Amber... if she honestly believed in Amber, the way she said she did, she must need to shift her confusion back and forth, in and out of focus, depending on who she was with.

I'd have to ask Max about this. After all, he dated Amber for three years! It couldn't have been utterly horrible. At the very least, it couldn't have started off as horrible.

Then again, how much did any of it matter?

I took an Uber back to Melissa's house and got ready for my date.

 


 

Max sent a text that he was leaving his office and would arrive in thirty minutes. I packed up the food into two bags and waited in the kitchen with Paul and Melissa. Melissa was still subdued, but looked a lot better than this morning. She hadn't bothered to put on any makeup, which made her seem washed out, but I could tell that her spirit was much improved, though her enthusiasm was not yet up to full strength.

Max pulled into the driveway and honked once. I grabbed the bags and headed for the door.

"Hold on there!" Paul commanded. "Make him come inside! What kind of manners did we teach that boy?"

I set the bags down and stuck my head outside the door. Max rolled down his window. "Your father says you have to come inside," I told him.

"You're kidding," he scoffed.

I shrugged, smiled, and went back inside. A moment later and Max walked in.

"What kind of manners is that?" Paul asked (though he half smiling, half scolding).

Max gestured to me and said, "She knows me! It's not as though we're going to the prom!"

"Oh! The prom!" Melissa sighed wistfully.

Paul gave a good-natured scoff.

Melissa told him, "Max, don't you like her dress? Aren't you going to pay her a compliment?"

He took a deep breath, looked me over, and blinked. He said, "Wow. You look amazing. Really. That dress... your legs and arms and... uh, I'm going to shut up now."

I smiled. He smiled. Melissa brought her hands together close to her heart, beaming.

Paul said, "Now you kids have a good time tonight, but Max, I expect her home by ten."

Max rolled his eyes. "Come on, Dad."

"We're in loco parentis here, aren't we?" Melissa gave him a gentle poke with her elbow. "Alright," he said, "By midnight. Two at the latest."

Max reached for the bags, but his father stopped him. "Aren't you going to kiss her?" he asked.

Max sheepishly kissed me on the cheek. "God, you're so soft!" he whispered. Then, in a normal tone, "Let's get the hell out of here!"

 


 

In the car, Max asked, "So how are they treating you? Is it like being a child again? Do they let you go out by yourself?"

"It's nice," I said. "Your mother is helping me a lot."

"With cooking, or with girl stuff?"

"Both. I really appreciate her advice." I hesitated a few beats, then: "The only difficult thing about living with your parents is your father. When he gets up in the morning—"

"Oh, I know!" Max exclaimed. "It sounds like he's tearing the house down! He's so incredibly loud!"

"I don't know what he does, but first there's all this banging, and then he's up and down stairs in his clompy shoes—"

"—and then it seems like he slams the front door with all his might, and the same with his car door."

"Right. But he doesn't do that on the weekend, does he?"

"He gets up early every single day. Consequently, everybody else in the house is up early as well." Max shook his head. "My mother has talked to him about it so many times, but he never changes."

Back at chez Max, we entered through the kitchen. Everything was clean and in order — just as Melissa and I had left it the day before. Then I noticed that the table had been set, with all the cutlery and glasses and even a bread plate. "I copied what you did when Kitty and Claus were here," Max explained. "Claus took a picture of it, so I asked him to send it to me."

"Are you and Claus hanging out now?"

"Yeah! He's a good guy. I kind of wish I'd gotten to know him before. Sometimes he does that poor-foreigner-who-doesn't-understand shtick, but aside from that, he's great."

Foolishly, I felt a slight twinge of jealousy; the feeling that I'd been replaced. I let it pass.

"Does that mean Claus knows about our date?"

"Our date? No. All he knows is that I asked for that picture. I didn't say what I wanted it for."

As I stood and admired the table setting, I was aware of Max, who seemed to be studying the back of my dress. I ran my hand behind me, over my skirt. "Is something stuck on me back there?" I asked.

"Uh, no," Max replied, a little embarrassed. "I was, uh, just staring. Okay, I'll come out and say it: your ass is a work of art. I'm sorry, but it's the truth."

I looked at him. For some reason, my voice came out in a squeak. "I'm glad you like it."

"I hope I didn't offend you."

"No, no — not at all." Honestly, my mind was occupied with something else entirely: I was wondering whether Amber prompted Claus to become friends with Max. I knew better than to voice that question out loud. At the same time, on the positive side of the ledger, I noticed that Max didn't deny that we were on a date. I decided to touch that key again.

"So... Claus doesn't know about our date."

"No, I just told you: Claus doesn't know about our date. He doesn't know about you at all." Max noisily uncorked a bottle of white wine, and mused, "You know, speaking of dates... you're the first... person since Christmas to say yes to me when I asked them out."

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. Nice negotiation of your gender-neutral words, Max! I swayed my hips to set my skirt swirling.

"That dress is killer," Max told me, as he handed me a glass of wine. We clinked glasses. I took a sip and started heating up our food.

"Max, your mother and I ran into Kitty the other day at the mall."

"You did?" I told him the story, and he shook his head. "I don't know what the deal is with my mother and Kitty," he confessed.

"Kitty *is* good friends with Amber," I pointed out.

"She always has been and probably always will be, good friends with Amber. I like Kitty. I don't feel she needs to throw over her friendship with Amber to be friends with me. With us. I don't want to lose her friendship just because of Amber."

"I like Kitty, too," I confessed, "but she confuses me."

"Awww," Max cooed, then stopped himself. "Wow," he said. "I almost came over there and hugged you."

"You could," I said.

"I will," he said. "Just not yet."

I nodded.

"The thing is," he explained, "Sometimes I see you as Elliot and sometimes I see you as Lorelei."

"I understand."

"How do you see yourself now?"

"I'm just me," I told him. "Most of the time I feel that I haven't changed at all. But then again, most of the time I'm alone, or with your mother, so I'm not really aware of my female-ness. There's nothing to bring it to the fore."

"Your female-ness," he repeated. "And uh, does your female-ness extend everywhere? To every part of you?"

I bit my lip before answering. Then I told him, "I have a vagina, if that's what you're asking."

His breath caught in his throat. Then he said, "That *is* what I was asking, yeah."

"In fact," I told him, "I'm a virgin."

My timing was unintentional, but perfect: Max had just taken a sip of wine, but on the word virgin he spat his mouthful all over the kitchen wall. Fortunately, I was not in the line of fire. Luckily, it was white wine, not red.

"Vir— virgin," he repeated.

"Virgo intacta." I added, with precision. "But don't worry — I can get that fixed."

"How?" Max asked, caught off guard. He thought I was talking about his aunt's medallion.

"The old fashioned way," I replied. I made an "O" with my left index finger and thumb, and inserted my right index finger into that hole.

"Ah!" Max gasped, and the two of us burst into laughter.

"So if you know any one who wants to cure me...," I said, giving a rakish look over my wine glass.

"I'm sure you won't have any problem finding applicants," he quipped, giving back a rakish look of his own.

I opened my mouth to add another witticism, but thought better of it.

Max saw my mouth open, then close, so he asked, "What were you going to say? Go ahead! Come on!"

I said, "Hopefully they'll be able to pass the entrance exam."

Max howled.

 


 

I noticed that Max was being unobtrusively careful about his wine consumption, pouring himself half glasses, and drinking them slowly. When I remarked on it, he said, "I need to be able to drive you home. I don't want to send you home in an Uber."

"I appreciate it," I told him, although — I didn't mention the possibility, but I could easily stay overnight. We didn't need to sleep in the same bed. But as I said, I didn't mention it. I didn't want to push it.

By the time we'd done eating, Max hadn't consumed even one full glass of wine. Still, I thought I might safely broach a topic that was much on my mind, especially since my meeting with Kitty. If he'd had more, I would have felt a bit easier about it, but I needed to talk about it.

"Max, I know I asked you this before, but how on earth could you stay with Amber for three years? I mean, isn't she an awful, crazy, witch?"

"Oh," he said, taking a deep breath and letting himself deflate. "I guess you've only seen the worst of Amber, so you wouldn't know." He took a tiny sip of wine. "Amber is like four different people. Four very different people. There's the public Amber, the covert Amber, the crazy, violent Amber, and the bitchy, controlling Amber."

"Violent?" I repeated.

"Well, I don't want to exaggerate," he said, after a moment of thought. "I have never seen that Amber, but I know that she once kicked down the door of a previous boyfriend's apartment because she thought he was cheating on her."

"Was he?"

Max burst out laughing. "Yes, he was. Obviously, she scared the hell out of him — and the other woman as well."

"Did she hurt them?"

"No, she just walked in, said I thought so, and left. Maybe she broke a lamp or something. I don't know."

"Are you sure that really happened?"

"Oh, yeah!" Max said. "I talked to the guy. I think he's still afraid of her — soon after that, he moved to Canada."

I couldn't help it — I started laughing. "You're putting me on!" Then I thought for a moment. "But wait — when did you talk to him? If he was going out with Amber, then that was before you, but if he left..."

"Don't make it complicated," he said. "He heard I was seeing Amber and he called me. She had his mother's engagement ring and he wanted it back, but he was afraid to ask her for it."

"Did you get it back?"

"Yes. Anyway, that's the least interesting part of the story. In any case, not many people get to see the crazy Amber, thank God."

I have, I thought, but I'm not going to tell Max about it. What I did say was, "I'm guessing the covert Amber is the one who secretly moved out and started the whisper campaign about us."

"Right," Max agreed. "She can be very subterranean and secretive. Now, the public Amber — that's the Amber most people know. That's the Amber who is funny and charming and charismatic."

I shook my head. "I find that hard to believe."

"That's the Amber Kitty knows. That's why Kitty doesn't believe the things we say about Amber, because to Kitty they seem totally out of character."

Max scratched his eyebrow, thinking, before he went on. "Think about it: Amber has a lot of friends. A lot of friends. She knows just about everybody, and pretty much everybody likes her and even respects her. She's very active. She's always doing things, making things happen, and bringing people along."

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

"What kinds of things?"

"Parties, little trips, outdoors things like hiking, canoeing, camping, sports..."

"Is she good at sports?"

"No, she's terrible! But that makes it easier to pull people in, because they don't feel intimidated by their inability."

"I had no idea." I mulled over what he said, and then asked him, "Do you miss her?"

"Oh, hell no!" he replied immediately. "Not at all! Not at all. Because I got to know the fourth Amber: the controlling, bitchy one." He gave a bitter, barking laugh.

"When we first started seeing each other, it was great. It was fun. You haven't seen her — I mean, really seen her — but Amber is hot. And the sex was pretty good... it was definitely up there. It wasn't until after we moved in together, though, that she began to show this other side. She wanted to change me. To improve me. To round off my rough edges. She didn't just try to change me. She demanded changes. Changes in the way I dressed, changes in the house, changing furniture, deciding who we'd see and who we wouldn't see — that was a big one. She had me cut off most of my contact with my family and friends. With you, for instance."

"I was busy with the startup then."

"Right, so you didn't notice. You were down in that coal mine. I'm sure you remember, the times that she saw you, she treated you badly." He sighed heavily. "As time went on, she criticized me more and more. She was relentless. I began to feel she was trying to break me. And somehow, I felt like it was good for me, that I needed it, that she wanted nothing but the best for me and from me. But it wasn't like that at all. It was just control. Pure control. Through negativity. After a while, it seemed that she didn't like anything I did or said. Finally I gave up. I figured, if she doesn't like anything I do, I should do whatever I want!"

"Why didn't you break up with her?"

He chuckled. "I tried! I told her that I wanted to break up. I told her why. I didn't hold back. She let me talk. She listened to every word I said, and then she said, Well, I don't want to break up. I think we should stay together.. And that was the end of it! She stayed. She didn't move out. I felt like *I* was the one who was supposed to move out — of my own house!" He twisted his mouth to the side. "That was about a year before she left."

My jaw dropped. "She was just going to occupy until you broke down and married her."

"I'm pretty sure that was her plan."

The two of us where silent for a few moments. Then I asked, "So was I the first crack in the wall?"

Max smiled and gave a little shrug. "Seems that way. When you moved in, seemed like she figured all bets were off."

"Maybe she figured that if she moved out, you'd come desperately running after her, begging her to come back."

"It that was her strategy, it was a miserable failure!"

 


 

As we loaded dishes into the dishwasher, I said, "Hey, you said you wanted to talk to me about something? Did we talk about it?"

He laughed. "No, we didn't. Sorry, but I was so dazzled by that dress and all your..." he gestured at my body, toe to head "... all your charms, I completely forgot!"

"So, what was it?"

"Remember Kass, the dancer?"

"Your fake date on Valentines?"

"Yeah. Well, her girlfriend, Tamara, has invited us to lunch tomorrow at the Celestial Lamb."

"I thought you needed to make reservations months in advance for that place."

"For dinner, yes. For lunch it's much easier. And less expensive. Anyway, it's her treat."

"What's the occasion? Is there one?"

"Tamara is a fashion designer, and some celebrity chose her to create their red-carpet look. It's a big deal for her; a real coup. Probably her big break. So she wants to celebrate. Since Kass is not officially out, or completely out or whatever, it's a small celebration, just the four of us."

"Do they know who I am?"

"No, the invitation is for me and my date — if I can find one."

"Cool!" I said. "I'd love to go!"

The dishwasher loaded, Max moved on to hand-washing his crystal glasses while I dried. I told him about my encounter with Amber at the mall. When I got to the scream, he went white and set the glass he was washing down. Leaning on his hands, looking down, he said, "Lorelei, promise me that you will never get into a fight with that woman."

"I'm not afraid," I told him. "If she starts something, I'll do my best to make her sorry."

"No," he said. "Please don't. There's no winner in a fight like that. And remember: crazy, violent Amber has no rules. She could bite a chunk out of your nose, or scratch your face to shreds. You don't want that. Promise me. Back away. Run away if you have to."

"Okay," I said, more than a little miffed.

"Seriously," he insisted, looking me in the eye.

"Okay!" I reiterated. "I promise!"

"Good," he said, and returned to washing glasses.

Then, trying to lighten the mood, I told him my perception, that Amber I were the same size, the same build, basically the same body.

"I guess you have a type," I joked.

He gave me a strange look, and I almost apologized for saying it. But I didn't.

He dried his hands and went into his pantry with the step-stool. He looked at the four remaining Christmas presents, pulling one after another slightly off the shelf. He stopped at the third box and reached it down.

"Here," he said. "You might be able to wear this tomorrow, to the lunch." I started to pull on the paper, to rip it, but he put his hands on mine to stop me.

"No, open it at home," he said. "I don't want to see the expression on your face if you don't like it or if it doesn't fit."

"Okay," I acquiesced, withdrawing my hands. "But tell me: how do you know that this one is a dress? Are the other three dresses too?"

"No," he said, tipping the box up. He pointed to a letter D written in a corner on the bottom. "D means Dress."

"What was the letter on the All-in-One Cooker?"

"A for All-in-One."

"What letters are left?"

He grinned. "Do you think you're going to get them all?"

"I don't know, am I?"

"We'll see!" he laughed.

"So what are the letters?"

He thought for a moment. "Okay, the remaining letters are P, V, and S. Don't ask me what they mean. I won't tell you."

"Can I buy a vowel?"

"Ha! No."

"Hmmph."

He fingered the tag. "You know these were for Amber. I can pull off the tag, but that will rip the paper. Which would bother you more: ripped paper, or the To Amber tag?"

"It doesn't matter," I told him, "you can leave the tag."

But when I got back to Melissa's house, in the half-lit kitchen, I set the box on the kitchen counter. I tore off the tag, muttered, "Fuck you, Amber!" and tore the tag to shreds. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I left the box unopened and went to bed. I'd open it in the morning.

Halfway up the stairs I realized that Melissa wouldn't be able to resist the mystery, so I ran back down and carried it, still unopened, to my room.



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