I don’t know what to wear to Cleopatra’s tonight. Everything in my closet is woefully inadequate. Especially my dresses. But especially my shoes. And oh my God, does every pair of pantyhose I own have a huge rip in them?
Yes. Yes, they do.
I’m starting to question my decision to do most of my shopping at Target. But that’s what you get when you’re poor and happy. Or just poor.
I do have one silky little black dress that might work. It belonged to my mother, who claimed it would look great on me. When she gave it to me, the neck was lined with fur, but I removed the fur in an attempt to make the dress look less ridiculous. And it worked, more or less. It’s plain and not a name brand, but it looks sleek and classy.
My eternal fiancé Seth comes home just as I’m checking myself out in the little black dress. He does a double-take when he sees me. “Hey, sexy lady. We going somewhere I don’t know about?”
“I’m going out with Chrissy,” I say. “You remember Chrissy, right?”
“She’s the hot brunette, right?” Seth raises his eyebrows. His hairline has been receding the last couple of years, which makes the wrinkles on his forehead more prominent. “Where to?”
I hesitate, scared that if I tell him Chrissy got us a table at Cleopatra’s and he’s not invited, he’ll flip out. I don’t feel like starting an argument right now. But on the other hand, it’s going to be hard to hide this from him.
“Cleopatra’s Lounge,” I finally say.
Seth grins at me. “So… you want to spend your night waiting in line?”
On two separate occasions, Seth and I spent half our night waiting in line to get into Cleopatra’s. The second time, we were out there for four hours and moved roughly half a block. During the third hour, it started to rain, but we both wanted to get in so badly that we refused to leave—especially Seth. He took off his jacket at one point and held it over my head to convince me to stay. He got another thirty minutes out of me by doing that.
“Chrissy thinks she can get us in.”
“She’s not that hot, Jess.”
I don’t argue with him. Better he doesn’t know how well connected Chrissy is.
Seth loosens his tie with his thumb and wanders into our tiny kitchen. We’ve moved a handful of times in the last few years, but never somewhere substantially better. We always just moved to escape a horror that eventually became unlivable.
For example, in our last apartment, there was an unidentifiable stench that clung to the place. At first, it was a smell, then it became an odor, and finally it evolved into the horrible stench that drove us out. We checked every crevice of the apartment to figure out where it was coming from with no luck. Seth was convinced there was a decomposing body buried beneath the floorboards. It’s too bad because it was otherwise a nice place.
Seth’s law practice is finally turning a small profit, but that hardly means we’re rolling in dough. After all those lean years, we have zero savings, and neither of us have made a dent in our loans. So I’m still inventing creative ways to serve ramen. And I’m hoping that at Cleopatra’s some guy will buy us drinks because I can’t afford more than one margarita.
“So I guess I’m on my own for dinner?” Seth asks me.
He rifles through the kitchen cabinet, looking for food. “Christ, there’s nothing to eat here. When’s the last time you went shopping?”
“You know,” I say, “you can go shopping.”
“But you always do the shopping,” he points out as he pulls a bag of Cajun-flavored instant rice from a cabinet.
I fold my arms across my chest. “Since when?”
“Since forever?” He tosses the bag of rice in our microwave and types “90” into the cook time. “That’s one of your jobs. Like cooking. And the dishes.”
“And what’s your job?”
“Taking out the trash.”
It seems like every day we end up having some stupid little quarrel. If it isn’t over grocery shopping, it’s over changing the toilet paper roll or leaving an empty carton of milk in the fridge. (Seriously, if you finish the milk, throw out the carton! How hard is that?) It’s not that I don’t love him, but… is it possible that after living together for nearly ten years, we’ve gotten sick of each other?
That said, we’re used to each other. I know everything about Seth, like the way he brushes his bottom teeth first, then the top. I know his favorite television shows (mostly cop dramas). When we eat together, it’s easy. I don’t have to stress out about impressing him and being sexy. It’s like we’re family. I feel closer to him than to anyone else—even my mother, these days.
And that’s why I stick around, even though Seth has his flaws and it’s not the most exciting relationship anymore. Nobody’s perfect.
“I can’t believe I’m in Cleopatra’s!”
Tony’s new girlfriend Daphne is star struck. A little too star struck. I came here tonight for the sole purpose of discussing business with Tony, but the silicone-breasted Daphne won’t shut the hell up. (I know a pair of fakes when I see ‘em.) And when she’s not talking, she’s climbing all over Tony, licking his ear and neck, and pressing those fake tits all over him. I appreciate that she’s excited and apparently infatuated with my brother, but I’m not in the mood for this shit.
“Tony,” I say in a low voice, “we need to talk about the meeting today.”
“Hang on, Nico.” Tony waves me away. “Just let Alice finish.”
Alice is the chick singing onstage right now. She’s one of Tony’s favorites, and I’m fairly sure he’s fucked her. Which is fine. I can’t throw stones—I’ve hooked up in one way or another with just about every waitress who works here.
I glance over at Natalie, who is sitting demurely beside me. Natalie has been my girlfriend for six months, and I’m not sure we’ve ever had a conversation in that time. She’s twenty-three years old, model beautiful, and I’m essentially paying her to be my girlfriend—I’m not even trying to fool myself on that one. I pay Natalie’s rent, I buy her clothes and jewelry, food, whatever. In exchange, she goes out with me wherever I want to go at night and does whatever I want when we go back to my place. Because I’m in the chair, having a beautiful girl on my arm balancing things out. People don’t feel sorry for me if I’m with Natalie.
Does this make her a prostitute? No. Well, maybe. It’s a fine line. The fact is that I don’t have time or desire for a real relationship, so what I’ve got with Natalie works. Also, when you’re in my situation, you start to wonder if the girl you’re with only wants you for your money and power. This way is better since I don’t have to wonder.
But then I look over at Daphne and Tony. Daphne isn’t with Tony because he’s loaded—she’s clearly into him. Not that he gives a shit, but still.
I struggle to think of something to say to Natalie, but come up blank. I have no idea what she likes besides the clothing and jewelry stores that come up on my credit card statement. Luckily, I’m rescued by our waitress.
“Is there anything I can get for you?” Our waitress is a cute little thing named Carrie, who’s been working here for a few weeks. I like the twang in her accent. I also like the way she addresses the table but keeps her eyes pinned on me. “Another glass of wine, Mr. Moretti?”
“No, thanks, Carrie,” I say. She blushes when I say her name. Maybe I’ll send Natalie home early tonight and see what happens with Carrie.
“I want another of those yummy mojitos!” Daphne says, even though she has already had one too many mojitos. But I don’t care. She’s Tony’s problem.
“I’ll have another glass of red,” Tony tells her.
I shake my head at him. “Not till we discuss business.”
Tony rolls his eyes dramatically and I want to punch him. I’ve been sitting here nearly an hour, and he knows I’ve been waiting for this. All the tension that left my back after my session with Sonja is returning.
“Fine,” Tony grumbles when Carrie runs off. “Let’s talk business.”
Finally. I lean in toward him so that the girls can’t hear us, “So did they accept our bid?”
Tony taps his fingers on the table. “Not exactly.”
“Not exactly?” My right hand balls into a fist. Tony is so goddamn frustrating to talk to. “Explain to me what that means.”
He shrugs. “There was another bid.”
I massage my temples with my fingers. “And you couldn’t tell me that till now?”
“What’s there to tell?”
My brother’s an idiot. I don’t know why I bother to send him to meetings at all. It would be better to send a blow up doll. The price on this property in Jersey was dirt cheap because nobody else wanted it, but I saw a lot of potential. I weight shift in my chair, trying to keep my temper under control. “Who made the bid?”
“Shit…” I didn’t see that coming. John Lombardi’s been around a while—he’s nearly as old as Pop, but he isn’t interested in properties the way we are. Lombardi mostly traffics drugs (and girls) and does gambling and loan sharking. Those are things I try to stay far away from—I figure it’s just asking for trouble. Sometimes I worry that Tony might do some of that stuff on the side, but I know my own hands are clean. “I didn’t know Lombardi was getting into real estate.”
Tony nods. “I was surprised too. What do you think he wants it for?”
“Money laundering, probably.”
He frowns. “What do you mean?”
“You know how it works,” I mutter. “Come on.”
He just looks at me. Sometimes I’m not sure what universe my brother lives in.
“Lombardi owns, say, an apartment somewhere actually valued at a million dollars,” I explain. “But banks don’t really know how much the apartment is worth. So if a guy pays him five million for the apartment, that’s a clean transaction that won’t leave a dirty paper trail the way it would if the guy handed Lombardi four million dollars.”
Tony mulls that one over. Finally, he smiles slyly. “How do you know so much about this, Nico?”
I ignore the question. “I want that property, Tony.”
“So we gotta make a higher bid,” Tony says.
“I’ve got to crunch the numbers.” I shake my head. “See how high I can go. This is a pain in the ass though. I thought it was in the bag. We had it.”
Tony claps me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it now, Nico. Just enjoy yourself. We’re at the hottest club in the city. Our club.”
Technically, Cleopatra’s belongs to me alone and not Tony. But who’s counting?
My phone buzzes with a text message. I look at the screen and see that Chrissy is the one texting me: Manny just dropped us off at the door to C’s.
I smile in spite of the situation. There’s nobody I’d rather talk to right now more than Chrissy. I can run the whole Lombardi situation by her and see what she thinks—I trust her opinion over Tony’s any day of the week.
I’ll tell the waitress to bring another chair to our table, I write back to her.
Her reply comes quickly: We’d need two. I’ve got company.
I grin and write: Another one of your lovers?
She writes back: No, yours.
I frown and push my chair back, craning my neck to look at the back entrance. I can see Chrissy easily in her striking red top and black leather skirt—she’s easy to spot in any crowd. But her friend is harder to see. I can tell she’s wearing black, which makes her nearly invisible in this dark room. The only part of her that’s easy to see is her hair, which is…
My phone slides out of my hand into my lap. My tie feels like it’s choking me, and I have to loosen it by several inches before I suffocate. I haven’t laid eyes on Jessie Schultz since I got my wheels. And I’m not ready to see her right now.
What the hell does Chrissy think she’s doing? I don’t need this shit right now. I’ve got enough stress from work.
I pick the phone up off my lap and type with fumbling fingers: Get her out of here.
She doesn’t respond.
I add: Now.
Then: I mean it.
And finally: I want her out or you’re fired.
I see her pull her phone out of her purse. She reads my messages off the screen. She knows exactly where my table is, so she’s able to look right at me, wink, then put her phone back in her purse.
At least they don’t come to our table. Our host Duke seats them at a table close to the stage, but far enough away from us that I could probably be inconspicuous if I wanted. But at the same time, they’re close enough that I can see them really well. That is, I can see Jessie really well. It’s the first really good look I’ve gotten at her since… well, since high school.
Christ, she looks fantastic.
She dropped the baby fat she had back in high school, although she’s curvy as hell and she’s still got those tits that are practically spilling out of her tight black dress. Her golden blond hair is loose around her face and runs down her back, picking up a purple tint from the overhead lighting. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on her when I was only fourteen years old, how she’d made me feel like I was willing to do anything for her.
It turns out nothing has changed.
Would you like to join us? Chrissy texts me.
Of course I would. What kind of dumb question is that? But Jessie hates me. That’s what happens when you refuse to see your girlfriend because you’re too ashamed to let her see you in a wheelchair.
Best case scenario if I go over there is that she won’t speak to me. Worst case is she starts yelling at me.
I really don’t need this shit.
“You okay, Nico?” Tony asks me. “You look a little… sick.”
I undo the top button on my shirt. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Natalie looks at me with disinterest. I wish she’d at least pretend to like me when we’re in public. “Do you need to go home?” she asks.
“I said I’m fine,” I mutter.
It’s clear that Chrissy is not taking my threats seriously. She and Jessie have placed their drink orders with Carrie. As soon as the waitress scurries away, Chrissy picks up her phone. Before I can wonder, my phone buzzes again:
If you don’t join us, I’m bringing her to you.
To date, Jessie still has never seen me in my wheelchair. Not once. And the truth is I’m not excited for her to see it. She’s the love of my life—I don’t want her to see me as any less of a man than I used to be.
But Chrissy is forcing my hand. And it’s stupid to think I can avoid her ever seeing me like this. This is what I am now. I should just go over there and get it over with. Maybe in person, she’ll finally accept my apology and we can put the whole thing behind us.
I signal to Carrie, who races to our table like her life depends on it. She leans over the table to give me an eyeful of her cleavage. “What can I do for you, Mr. Moretti?”
“Those two ladies over there,” I say to Carrie. “They just ordered drinks. When the drinks come, tell them it’s on me. Okay?”
Carrie nods, looking less than thrilled by my request.
I sit there, my stomach turning. I wait for the drinks to come out, all the while considering making a run for the door. When Carrie puts the two colorful margaritas on their table, she points in my direction. I see Jessie craning her neck to see the guy footing the bill. When she sees my face, her eyes become huge. She lifts her hand in a half-wave.
I nod back.
I can’t break eye contact with her after that. Another singer is on the stage, but I don’t hear a word of it. Jessie is all I can see or think about. And the way she’s looking back at me, I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing.
I should go over there. I know I should. Maybe she doesn’t hate me anymore, even though I can’t figure out why she wouldn’t.
Eh, fuck it.
“I’ll be back,” I mutter to the other people at my table, as if any of them care.
And then I’m wheeling myself over to their table. My disability is in full view—there’s no way I can possibly hide it from Jessie at this point. There’s no way to fake being able to walk. It would be handy if I could, but I can’t. This is inevitable.
When I get to the table, the two of us just stare at each other. She looks even more beautiful up close than she did from across the room—she’s only gotten hotter over the years. I want her so bad, it’s physically painful.
But then I realize she’s looking me over just as carefully. I wince when I think about what she sees. I look down at my legs and see they’ve gotten slightly off-kilter while I was wheeling across the room. I want to fix them, but it would be worse for her to see me fixing them. Even if she knows I’m paralyzed, it’s a different thing for her to see my adjusting my lifeless legs.
I wish she could be looking at the old Nick Moretti. If there would be one time when I wish I could magically be my able-bodied old self again just for an hour, it would be right now.
“Nick,” Jessie says breathily, breaking the silence that penetrates the space between us. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I say back, because I’m that suave.
I can’t quit staring at her and it looks like she’s got the same problem. Except I assume she’s staring at me for a different reason.
Well, at least she’s not yelling at me.
“Thanks for the drinks,” Jessie manages.
“You’re welcome,” I say. “I hope you’re enjoying our club.”
“Our…?” Jessie blinks her blue eyes. “You own this club?”
“Right,” I say. “How else d’you think Chrissy got in so easy?” I take a deep breath, angry at myself for letting the Brooklyn dialect slip into my speech. When I’m with old friends from the neighborhood or when I’m nervous, I can’t hide the accent. It’s never really left—in my head, “d’you” is still one word, not two. But I wanted to show Jessie that I’d changed—that I’m better than that idiot from Bensonhurst I used to be. Even if I can’t walk anymore like he could.
At the sound of her name, Chrissy stands up and brushes off her dress. I take advantage of the distraction to quickly readjust my legs. “I hope you’ll excuse me,” she says. “I’m gonna go to the ladies room and let you both catch up. I bet you got a lot to talk about.”
We do. I have about a million questions I’d like to ask Jessie, but I can’t make myself say anything. At least I see that her left hand is bare—no wedding band or engagement ring. That answers one of my questions—the most important one.
I lean in closer to talk to her, and I can see her lean in too so that her golden hair falls forward. I remember the first time I kissed her, how I could smell her shampoo—some kind of flowery smell. That was nearly twenty years ago, but I’d still know that smell anywhere. It always reminds me of Jessie.
“Look,” I say quietly, “I just want to tell you that… I’m sorry for what I did in the past. All of it. I was just a stupid kid, and… if I could take it back, I would.”
“Oh,” she says.
“Is that an ‘oh’ of forgiveness?” I try to joke.
She breaks eye contact with me to stare down at her drink. “I’m not sure.”
“I just…” I take a breath, wishing I could’ve had more to drink before I came over here. “I wish I’d done things differently. I want you to know I never stopped thinking about you. Never stopped regretting the way I left things.”
Jessie gets a tiny smile on her face, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I used to be good at making Jessie smile. I miss it.
“So you really own the hottest club in the city, huh?” she muses.
“Seems that way.”
“I guess you’re as successful as you always wanted to be then.”
I nod slowly. “In business—yeah. I’ve done okay.”
“More than okay.”
I wonder how much she knows about my business dealings. I wonder if she ever sees my name in the paper. Considering some of the stuff that gets said about me, it’s better if she doesn’t. “Yeah, more than okay.”
Jessie is quiet for a minute, and I take the cue from her to shut the hell up. If she’s decided to forgive me, I’m not going to wreck it being saying something dumb. I’m going to sit here and listen to the music playing until Jessie decides she wants to talk to me.
“That singer is really good,” Jessie finally comments.
I glance back at the stage, where Alice is singing an old song that I recognize but can’t name. She does have a great voice for our stage—throaty and sultry. “Yeah, she’s talented,” I say. I can’t help but add, “You’re better though.”
Her cheeks turn pink in a way that makes my chest hurt. “Stop it.”
“You are,” I insist. And I mean it. Jessie could sing circles around Alice. I went to see her in every single performance she did of West Side Story in high school, and I’ll never forget it. “Do you still sing?”
“In the shower,” Jessie gives a strangled laugh. “I used to go to karaoke night at a bar downtown, but… I haven’t been there in over a year. I felt like I was getting too old for it.” She shrugs. “Anyway, the answer is no, I guess. Not professionally, anyway.”
Even with Alice crooning in the background, I can still imagine the sound of Jessie’s singing. I can’t believe it’s been over thirteen years since I’ve heard it. The thought of never hearing it again pains me.
“I’ll hire you for the club,” I say.
Jessie’s eyes widen. “The club? You mean… this club?”
“Sure.” I shrug. “Why not?”
Actually, the more I think about it, it’s a perfect idea. And a perfect excuse to see her again. At a time when Tony and Natalie aren’t across the room watching us, and Chrissy isn’t on her way back from the bathroom any minute.
“No…” She covers her cheeks with her hands. “I’m not… Nick, come on. I’m not right for this club.”
“You think I don’t know what’s right for my own club?”
She just shakes her head. “Are you just doing this so I’ll forgive you?”
“No,” I say, “because you already forgave me. Right? This is just a smart business decision.”
She shakes her head again.
I glance back at our table, where Natalie is clearly watching us. Although she and I have an arrangement, she doesn’t like it when I flirt with women right in front of her. Not that I really give a shit about what Natalie thinks, but I don’t want her to make a scene. It’s the last thing I need right now.
“Listen,” I say to Jessie, “have lunch with me tomorrow. We’ll talk more about this. Okay?”
Jessie chews on her lip. I feel suddenly self-conscious again about the fact that I’m on wheels, but there’s not much I can do about it now. If I want her, I’ll have to win her over the way I am. And I do want her. I’ve fooled myself for this long, but now that I’ve seen her again, I’ve realized something I wish I’d known years ago:
I can’t be happy without Jessie Schultz.
I should never have given up trying to get her to forgive me. I should have gone to the ends of the Earth to get her back. And now that I’ve got another shot at it, I don’t intend to fuck it up.
“Okay,” Jessie says finally.
“Great.” I let out a breath. “How about Blue Moon? Do you know it?”
She nods. “It’s… very expensive.”
It’s also wheelchair accessible. I know it because it’s another restaurant where my family owns the building. So we’ll eat for free, although I’d happily pay for any meal with Jessie. “Noon?”
I can’t stop staring at Jessie. I’m reluctant to leave the table, but I glance over and see Natalie is making a face. She says it makes her look like a fool when I hit on other girls in front of her. I better go back.
“Is that your girlfriend over there?” she asks me.
“I…” I glance back at Natalie. “Yes, but… no. Sort of.”
“Sort of,” Jessie repeats.
“Nothing serious,” I say quickly. Nothing I wouldn’t end in a second to be with her.
She nods and looks like she’s going to say something more, but then she keeps her mouth shut. “So I’ll see you for lunch tomorrow.”
“Noon,” I say again.
I’m not sure I can wait that long.
My head won’t stop spinning after I see Nick.
When he refused to see me all those years ago, all I felt was anger. But tonight… I don’t know if it was the years that had gone by since then or the fact that we were finally face-to-face, but I felt anything but angry.
I want him.
I always thought that night we were at prom was the most intense night of my life but this was a close second. My heart literally skipped a beat when I saw him looking at me across the room. And then he came out from behind the table and I could see that he wasn’t able to walk, confirming what I had heard from everyone I knew, yet never entirely believed until that moment.
He seemed so nervous when he was trying to apologize to me. I’m not used to Nick being nervous. I’m good at being nervous—it’s my specialty. But Nick always seemed so confident.
He’s the same and he’s also different. Obviously, he’s different in that he used to be able to walk—that’s clearly not a possibility anymore based on the wheelchair and the ease with which he used it. He was obviously a guy who had over a decade of practice maneuvering a chair. But there were other differences too—he spoke differently. Aside from a few slips, I could barely hear the Brooklyn accent that used to be so pronounced. And the clothes he was wearing were so obviously expensive. He looked every bit the part of a successful businessman.
But he’s also the same Nick. He still has those same penetrating, sexy dark eyes. He’s still so freaking handsome, I wanted to throw myself at him. No, more handsome. And that confidence he always wore was still there—except when he was talking to me.
Also, the way he looked at me was still the same. That hadn’t changed at all.
When I came out with Chrissy tonight, I genuinely hadn’t expected to meet somebody. Much less The Somebody.
For the next hour, I have trouble focusing on the acts onstage. I keep looking at Nick, and most of the time, he’s looking right back at me. But sometimes he’s talking to his brother, who looks like an only slightly classier version of the gangster he used to be in high school. Other times, he’s talking to the girl next to him. The one he reluctantly admitted was his girlfriend.
That girl? She’s gorgeous. No, she’s moved beyond gorgeous. She looks like she should be in her own species of woman, because no regular human female could possibly look like that. Nick claimed it wasn’t serious, but God, it’s really hard to imagine that he or any male in his right mind could choose me over her.
“Look at the way that new waitress is fawning over Nick,” Chrissy comments. “She wants him so bad.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I say, even though I absolutely had. Every time that girl went over to their table, she would smile at him like he was a movie star. Nick barely seemed aware of it though.
“Oh please,” Chrissy laughs. “The two of you have been staring at each other nonstop since you saw him there.”
“No, we haven’t,” I lie.
“You’re blushing, Jess.”
I duck my head down so she can’t see my face. “Anyway, he has his girlfriend over there.”
“Natalie?” Chrissy makes a face. “She’s the most repulsive person I’ve ever met. He’s only dating her because…”
I narrow my eyes. “Because what?”
“Because he doesn’t have you.”
“Well, it’s true.” Chrissy shrugs. “I finally got sick of watching the two of you being miserable. Obviously, neither of you are capable of finding a decent relationship on your own, so here you go.”
“I’m engaged, Chrissy.”
I know Chrissy dislikes Seth, but she has to understand that he and I have a history together. Nick is… well, intense. But I can’t throw away thirteen years for a guy I just reconnected with an hour ago. That would be ridiculous.