Today my best friend Chrissy shows up for our lunch date ten minutes late wearing a tight red dress that makes every patron of the diner turn and salivate. It’s not just tight—it’s clearly expensive. The same could be said about her shoes, which I remember coveting in the window of Jimmy Choo’s last week and feeling nauseated when I saw the price.
Her boss, Nick Moretti, is clearly paying her well.
Before Chrissy can get to the table, I fiddle with my hair self-consciously. Over a year ago, I went through the trauma of the big three-oh. I’m noticing more lines around my eyes when I smile, and yesterday, I nearly fainted when I discovered a gray hair. I agonized over what to do about it, because they say if you pull out a gray hair, ten more will grow back. But I couldn’t just let it stay there—it was a gray hair! So I pulled the damn thing. I’ll probably be all gray by next winter.
Chrissy is the same age as me, but she’s just getting more gorgeous each year. I don’t get it. By the time she’s forty, she’ll be so utterly beautiful that I probably won’t even be able to bear looking at her any more. And don’t get me started on the men she dates. Each one is more handsome and muscular than the last. Seth doesn’t like to double date with her, because it makes him feel insecure.
Chrissy falls into the seat across from me, swiping strands of silky dark hair from her face. She looks tired but exhilarated. Whatever she does during her days at work, she clearly enjoys it. Unlike yours truly—I’m still working in data analysis and hating every moment of it.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she breathes. “Things were crazy this morning.”
“Nick keeping you busy?” I ask.
Chrissy looks at me in surprise. Probably because I make a point of never mentioning Nick’s name—ever. I don’t know why I mentioned Nick today. It just popped out. I don’t know why I even thought of him. I never think of him anymore—as far as I’m concerned, he’s part of a completely different life. I haven’t seen him in a very, very long time. I’ve moved on.
“Sort of,” she says. “He just opened another new hotel a few weeks ago and he’s already trying to put together financing for a third—it’s just been so much work. Everyone is working nonstop.” She pauses to finger the menu. “But enough about me. How are you? What’s new?”
I shrug. “Nothing.”
Sadly, it’s true. In addition to being at the same old boring data analyst job, everything else is equally old and boring. There’s literally not one new thing going on in my life, aside from the fact that I’m a few weeks older than I was last time I saw her.
“How about the wedding?” Chrissy leans forward, eyes wide with excitement. “When are you and Seth getting hitched?”
“Never,” I say with more bitterness than I intended.
I’ve been engaged for three years with no end in sight. The year after Seth and I got engaged, we talked about how we didn’t want to rush into an expensive wedding because money was so tight. The second year, we started getting ribbed by our friends about how we hadn’t set a date yet. The third year, Seth started making excuses—weddings are a waste of money, he wants to be further in his career before we settle down, and for God’s sake we’re barely in our thirties, what’s the rush?
These days, I can’t even bring up our engagement without a blowout fight. I mentioned it two weeks ago, when a friend of mine booked her wedding at a local church. Seth completely lost it—he was yelling and screaming about how I was always pressuring him about the stupid wedding.
All the while, I kept thinking that I was also starting to feel sorry he proposed in the first place. Because if he hadn’t, I probably would have left him by now. But it’s hard enough leaving the person you live with—much harder to leave the person you promised your life to.
“How long have you guys been engaged anyway?” Chrissy asks.
“Twenty million years,” I say. “When he proposed, dinosaurs still roamed the earth.”
She laughs. “You know my opinion. I’m not getting married until I’m at least thirty-seven.”
Chrissy pushes back the arbitrary age that she’s willing to settle down each year. I don’t think she’s ever going to get married and have kids. She has too much fun without either. I can’t imagine her with a bunch of rug rats hanging off her legs.
“Got any candidates in mind?” I ask her.
Please don’t say Nick Moretti. If Chrissy showed up to a meal one day with a big rock on her finger courtesy of Nick, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest. Whether or not they’re currently an item, I know how she feels about him—I suspect he’s the one guy in the world who might be able to convince her to settle down. After all, she’s had a crush on him since they were in first grade.
But she never loved him the way I did.
“There are always candidates,” she says. “I’m going to have to interview every guy in the five boroughs before I can make any sort of informed decision.”
I put up scare quotes. “Yeah. ‘Interview.’”
“Fine.” Chrissy laughs. “I’m going to fuck every guy in the city. Happy?”
The timing couldn’t be better—just as she says that, our young waiter comes over to announce the specials, and is so flustered that he drops his pen three times while trying to take our orders. It doesn’t help that Chrissy flirts with him mercilessly the whole time.
“Is he next?” I ask her after the poor waiter nearly trips over his own feet walking away.
“No time right now.” She whips a compact out of her purse and checks her makeup. “As soon as we’re done eating, Nick needs me at a meeting.”
“How about Nick?” I blurt out. “Is he one of your candidates?”
Before Chrissy can answer, I feel my cheeks turning red. Why did I ask that? I meant it to be teasing, but it doesn’t come out that way. It sounds like I’m digging for information. And I don’t even know why. Why do I keep thinking about Nick today?
Who the hell knows? Maybe I’m ovulating. Maybe this is the first sign of a malignant brain tumor.
Or maybe when your relationship is going down the toilet, it’s normal to think about the only other guy you’ve ever loved. Even if he won’t see me because he’s too scared to face me in a wheelchair.
“No,” Chrissy finally answers. “Not Nick. Christ, Jess, he’s my boss.”
As if that would ever stop her if she really wanted something. Chrissy, who was widely known to have slept with our eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Pizarro. (He was, in her defense, really cute.)
“Your boss who you’ve made out with,” I remind her.
A tiny smile plays on her lips. “Yeah. But that was a mistake.”
Sure it was.
“I don’t know, Jessie,” she sighs. “If Seth is dragging his feet and you really want to get married for some reason, I say just dump him.”
“But I’m thirty-one,” I protest. According to my mother, I’m an old maid at this point. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but it’s starting to feel like nearly all my friends are married or engaged at this point. I suspect that any guy willing to make a commitment has already been ensnared.
“Exactly!” Chrissy says. “You’re only thirty-one! Live a little.”
I just shake my head at her.
“Come out with me tonight,” she says. “I reserved a table at Cleopatra’s Lounge. We’ll have so much fun.”
“Cleopatra’s Lounge?” That is a tempting offer. Cleopatra’s is a nightclub in the city that recently got a mention in the Times as being one of the hottest places to be. I’m way too old to go to a dance club where someone would probably spike my drink with Ecstasy, but Cleopatra’s is an old school club with singers, comedians, and even drag acts. I’d been dying to go there, but the times that Seth and I have tried, there’s been a line out the door and wrapped around the block. “How did you get a table reserved?”
She waves her hand. “I know a guy.”
Of course she does.
“Can I bring Seth?” I ask. He’s been dying to go to Cleopatra’s, even more than me.
Chrissy picks up a sugar packet from the table and flicks it at me. “No, you may not. The whole point is we get a girls’ night out. And you, my dear, get to see that there are plenty of cute guys out there who don’t live in your apartment.”
I suspect any cute guys we meet tonight will only have eyes for the stunning brunette in the red dress, but I still want to see this place. So I agree to go out with Chrissy. She’s always good for a good time.
You don’t expect to see a six-foot-tall woman with long white-blond hair barging into your office carrying a folded up table.
“Hey!” I snap at her. “Who are you?”
The woman doesn’t answer me. She unfolds her table in the corner of my office like I hadn’t even spoken. I’m not used to people ignoring me, especially in my own goddamn office. When I talk, people listen. I wheel around my desk to confront her directly.
“Hey!” I say again. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The woman lays a sheet on top of the table and points at it. “Get on table!” she instructs me in heavily accented English. She sounds Scandinavian.
“Listen,” I say to her, “I don’t know what you’ve been told but…”
“Get on table!” She points to the table more vigorously.
The door to my office cracks open and I see Chrissy peeking in. When she sees the Amazon woman has set up the table, her face breaks into a smile. I want to be furious with Chrissy, but it’s hard when she smiles like that. Since I hired her three years ago to help her pay off her gambling debts, she’s become one of my favorite people.
“Oh, good!” she says. “You’re all set up for your massage! Sonja is supposed to be the best, Nick.”
“Chrissy,” I say in a low growl. “I don’t have time for this shit.”
“Yeah, well.” She glares right back at me. “I’m sick of listening to you whine about your back.”
She’s right. I’ve been complaining a lot about my back, which generally feels awful. Not that it’s surprising, considering the sheer number of hours I spend sitting in my wheelchair every day. I do weight shifts like I’m supposed to, but I still wake up at five in the morning and don’t go to bed till past midnight—later on weekends. I’m not tired—I’ve never needed much sleep—but my spine can’t take it.
It pisses me off. I’m only thirty-one and I ought to be able to work all night if I want without getting limited by pain. My older brother Tony can be in meetings all day, then go out and party the rest of the evening till two in the morning, and he’s fine. No pain. Meanwhile, I’ve been transferring to the sofa in my office for periods during the day just to take some of the pressure off.
I hate the fact that my body can’t keep up with me.
“Sonja is the best.” As she talks, Chrissy leans in close enough that I can smell her floral shampoo and takes the liberty of undoing my tie for me. Nobody else in the whole world could get away with what she’s doing right now. “I did my research, believe me. Got the lowdown on every masseuse in all of Manhattan.” Chrissy pulls off my suit-jacket and I let her. Mostly because my back is already sore and it’s only two in the afternoon. “I know you have a million things to do, but this needs to take priority.”
I sigh and look warily at Sonja. “How long is this going to take?”
“Massage is one hour!” Sonja informs me.
“An hour!” I shake my head. “Chrissy, I gotta be in midtown in—”
“No, you don’t.” Now Chrissy is unbuttoning my collar. “Tony said he’d cover the meeting for you.”
“Great,” I mutter. “I was hoping to fuck this deal up.”
That’s not entirely fair. Tony has gotten slightly better at not fucking things up. Slightly.
Chrissy yanks my shirt out of my pants, and I decide things have gone a little too far. I’m not in the habit of getting naked in front of Chrissy. That’s not something that’s ever happened or will ever happen. There was a time when it seemed like it might, but that time has passed. These days, Chrissy and I are more like brother and sister.
“I can take it from here,” I tell her. “Thanks.”
She eyes me warily. “Are you going to let her massage you?”
“Yes, if you leave.”
So she leaves. It’s a relief for about five seconds, until I realize that now I’m all alone with the massive Sonja.
Sonja frowns at me. “Take off clothes! Get on table!”
Fine. My back is aching, so I may as well see what this woman can do. I unbutton the rest of my shirt and pull it off while Sonja looks at me appraisingly. She might be a six foot tall masseuse but she’s also a woman, and I’m not pleased with the way I look shirtless. From my ribs up, everything is good. But without working abdominal muscles, I got a gut. Tony’s never been to a gym in his life and he’s got a washboard stomach, but I got the belly of a middle-aged drunk. Nothing I can do about it though.
I usually take my pants off in bed and it’s a little tricky in the chair. Sonja offers to help but I brush her away and do it on my own. The challenging part is going to be getting on the table. The height isn’t too bad, but the table isn’t entirely stable. I’m worried that if I try to do the transfer, I’ll knock it over. Maybe we can do the massage on my sofa.
Before I can contemplate it further, Sonja says, “I lift.” And then she grabs me under my neck and legs and lifts me right out of my chair. She does it so quick, I don’t even have a second to protest before I’m in the air. And you can bet I would have protested if I’d known what she was going to do. I really don’t like being lifted that way.
Once I’m lying on the table, Sonja attempts to turn me onto my belly, but I shove her away. I can at least turn myself. But I appreciate she holds the table steady while I do it.
There’s a donut shaped cushion in front of me and I lay my face in it. I never had a massage before in my life. It seems like something rich ladies do. I hope Chrissy doesn’t tell anyone about this. She better not have told Tony—he’ll never let me hear the end of it. I’d have to lie and tell him I was paying Sonja for sex instead of a massage.
I smell something that’s vanilla. Christ, am I going to smell like a bakeshop after this shit? If I do this again, I’m going to have to ask her to bring some more manly-spelling lotions. Something that smells like the woods or gasoline.
I lift my head from the cushion and crane my neck to look at Sonja. “Hey,” I say, “not too much lotion.”
“Put head back down,” she says stubbornly.
I don’t oblige.
“Not too much lotion,” she reluctantly agrees.
“Also,” I add, “keep your hands off my legs.”
This rule is not negotiable. I don’t want her hurting me in a place I can’t feel and set off the spasms from hell. Or worse.
“For entire body massage—” Sonja begins.
“Keep your hands off my legs,” I say in a voice that people don’t argue with.
She is quiet for a moment. “Okay,” she finally says.
Sonja lays her fingers on me. At first, it’s fine. Almost good. But then all of a sudden, it’s not fine. I’m used to pain—I live with it every day of my goddamn life, but not pain like this. When I start seeing stars, I shake Sonja’s hands off my back, and snap at her, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You have many knots in back,” Sonja says crossly.
“What—are you putting your elbow on me?”
I shake my head at her. “This was a mistake.”
“No.” Sonja pushes me back down, gently but firmly. “I be more gentle. We try again.”
An hour later, I have to admit, I’m feeling a lot better. I won’t say the massage didn’t hurt like a mother, but now that it’s over, my back feels better. I also let Sonja know in no uncertain terms that she is never to lift me on or off the table ever again.
I’m buttoning my shirt back up when Chrissy barges in with a cup of water. She shoves it in my direction, but I ignore her. I want my shirt buttoned more than I want a drink of water.
“Drink this,” she orders me. “Sonja said you need to keep hydrated after the massage to clear the toxins from your body.”
I roll my eyes. “Oh, did she?”
But she keeps pushing the water at me, so I take it. I gulp it down while Chrissy works on my tie. Chrissy Cagliari can tie a tie better than anyone I know. Anytime I’m going to an important meeting, Chrissy fixes my tie for me. It’s my secret weapon.
“She’s great, isn’t she?” Chrissy says.
“Not bad.” I shrug. “What did she cost?”
“You don’t want to know.” She winks at me. “Anyway, you can afford it.”
That’s true. Our new hotel is doing just as well as the first one did. All of our properties are doing better than they’ve ever been doing. And now that the housing bubble has burst, there are bunch of properties going real cheap. That’s what the meeting Tony covered for me today was supposed to be about—there’s a place I’m dying to get my hands on.
At the thought of that meeting, I ask Chrissy, “Tony’s coming to Cleopatra’s tonight?”
“Your table is booked for four,” she says.
Cleopatra’s Lounge is the hottest night club in the city right now, and I own the place. It was my pet project from when I first got started—a dying club that featured tired old acts and watered down drinks. Tony said it was a lost cause—that people wanted to go to bars or dance clubs. But I could see the potential in Cleopatra’s.
I hired Alex Mitchell, the owner of a successful club in Atlantic City, away from his old position. Alex and I worked together to come up with a roster of fresh new acts that would drive in crowds, including some up-and-coming sexy, young singers and edgy comedians. I wasn’t sure about the drag act that Alex wanted to book, but he ended up being right about that too. Business steadily increased until I arranged some good mentions in the paper and Internet buzz, and now we got lines around the block.
Tony loves Cleopatra’s now. Half the time when I meet with him, I gotta go there to do it because he won’t meet me anywhere else. It’s not the greatest location to have a quiet business discussion, but it’s easier than dragging Tony’s ass to my office. And it’s good entertainment.
“Natalie confirmed?” I ask.
Chrissy wrinkles her nose when I mention my latest girlfriend. “Yes, but I’m sure it’s not too late to cancel on her. Or break up with her.”
I smile. Part of the fun of dating Natalie is how much it pisses Chrissy off. That and some of Natalie’s other attributes.
“That’s not going to happen,” I tell Chrissy.
I have no intention of breaking up with Natalie now or any time in the near future. Natalie might offend Chrissy’s sensibilities, but I got my reasons.
To be continued....