Liz's head felt light. The man chatting to John was all legs and arms waving in the air. His head hung back; his laughter was anything but. She went over to them, the drinks shaking in her hands. She put them down on their table. The stranger, introduced as Jared, showed off his smile, whiter than the the loungers on which they reclined.She shook Jared's hand as briefly as she could get away with. She sat down next to John. Her arm vanished behind his back and she kissed him on the cheek, looking over at Jared as she did. She tried to smile but the smile slipped into a grimmace, her mask not strung tightly enough.
'Jared's in the movie business', said John.
'Any we might have seen?' asked Liz.
'Doubt it. Most go straight to DVD.'
'We watch DVDs', said Liz.
' Do you watch CSI Miami? Is that why you came here? You know Notting Hill made me want to go to London.'
'No, too busy for CSI. We came here for the sun, sand and.... we came here to have a romantic time alone.'
'You're not doing a great job of that then, are you. There's more than a hundred people here.'
'We're staying here.'
'Ooh nice. Well, you picked the right place for romance. The Delano 's rooms are pretty awesome. Hot tubs, big beds..'
'You've stayed here?' asked John.
'Are you on holiday too?'
'Nope. I'm a local. But I end up staying here a lot'. He winked. 'I come here every night. Plays the best music in town and you the right people. Actors, Directors, pop stars. Who knows who I might meet tonight?'
'Lawyers like us?' asked John.
A loud fog horn sounded. A few heads turn toward them; Jared covered his mouth.
'No, not lawyers usually,' Jared said, putting a hand on John's knee, looking over at Liz as he did. 'But you seem pretty interesting.' He looked back at John.
John finished his drink and put it down. 'Another Vodka tonic guys?'
'Count me in', replied Jared.
'Baby,' said Liz, ' I thought we could go for a walk along the beach.'
'One more drink then we'll go.'
Liz raised her eyebrows as John left to go to the bar.
'Are you here alone?' Liz asked Jared.
Jared looked around and covered his mouth. 'Where did my friend go?
Liz lay back on the lounger and shut her eyes.
'You and John been together long?' asked Jared.
'Ten years now.'
'And where's the ring? Ten years is a long time to not...'
'That's what we came here to talk about.'
'Couldn't talk about it at home?'
'Not without his mother interfering.'
'Good luck with that.'
'Do you know about crazy mother in laws then?'
'There's been some nominees but never any winners.'
She laughed and sat up.
John came over with the drinks and sat down. Liz sidled up to him and put her left hand on his right thigh without taking her eyes of Jared.
'So,' she asked, 'do you have someone now?'
'That someone is taken it seems', he said, looking at John. 'It's heartbreaking really. Their partner is madly possessive.'
'Well, they'd have to be around a young handsome man like you', said Liz.
Jared went red.
'But there's plenty of fish in the sea. Look at this place, it's swimming with potential lovers.'
The three of them scanned the poolside. Young, healthy looking men and women in designer clothes sat around chatting and posing to the soundtrack of house music, their good looks made even better by the flames and lights decorating the trees.
'It's never hard to meet someone here', Jared told them.
'What about that woman over there?' asked John, nodding his head in the direction of a skinny, petite, bronzed girl looking over in their direction.
Liz looked up at John and raised her eyebrows.
'What?' asked John.
Liz looked over at Jared. She nodded at him. But Jared just stared back at her, mirroring her nodding.
'Is that your type?' Liz asked.
'I like them in all shapes and sizes', replied Jared, looking at John.
Liz downed her drink and then stared over at John who had only taken a few sips.
'Come on baby, let's take that walk. I think I want to get back to the room soon.' She moved her hand further up his thigh, took him by the hand and pulled him up.
'See you around', called Jared. 'I'll be here tomorrow night if you want to meet.'
'OK, see you then', said John.
'Good luck tonight', said Liz, winking, as she moved off toward the beach, John in tow.
Had she been able to read Jared's mind, she would have read: I'm not the one who needs the luck.
'That guy was nice. Maybe he'll tell us some good local places to go.'
'He'll take you to one if you ask, I imagine.'
'I am sure. He seems very friendly.'
'I think if you accept, he might get the wrong idea.'
'We just met the same guy didn't we?'
'I don't think he was like that.'
'Trust me he was like that. Don't you think it might be unwise to give him the wrong impression and make him think maybe you're like that, too.'
'I think your being around gives the right impression.'
Or the wrong one, she thought. She told herself to be quiet.
'Just be careful around him.'
It was John who stopped walking first. And, as usual, it was John who removed his hand first, stretching out his arms.
'Baby,' said Liz, looking up at him as he held his hands behind his back. 'October would be a good time, The wedding season's over, it's still warm. What do you think?'
She put her arm around his waist and grabbed at the hard flesh.
'Great. You know, any time is cool with me.'
She pinched him hard.
'Come on John! You've 'postponed this wedding four times now! First it was work, then it was your brother's wedding, then it was you needed more time to figure things out and then it was money. You're not going to come up with a fifth are you?'
He looked out to the sea.
'Sweetie, who knows what will happen.'
Liz let out a grrr like a dog who had been kicked.
'I want to marry you Liz, that's why I asked you.'
'Not the ultimatum I gave you?'
'No. I asked you because I loved you.'
'Oh baby! Come on! Don't twist my words. You know I love you now.'
'You love the cooking, the sex and the comfort. But do you love me John?'
She moved in front of him to face him.
'I love you', he said.
She held her hands out to him. It took him a few more seconds than she would have liked for him to take them in his.
Liz opened her eyes after shaking her head to get rid of some of the seawater. She looked over to John and saw him chatting to Jared. The pair of them were lounging on the sun loungers. John was laid back and Jared sat forward on her chair, the fingertips on his his right hand touching John's large, relaxed bicep as the hand swung back and forth. John was laughing, giggling. She rushed over to them, slowing down her pace once Jared turned to face her. Stopping before the lounger, she looked down and said: 'That's my lounger Jared.'
'Hello Liz, how are you today? It's awfully hot isn't it? Do you like my British accent? As you can see, Jonnyboy thinks its a scream.'
She sat down on the end of the lounger, staring at him.
'Can't we share?' he asked grinning from ear to ear, looking over at John and then back to her. 'Sharing is good for the soul. Weren't you taught to share as a child?'
'This is too small to share.'
'It looks plenty big enough to me.' Jared ran his hands along the white lounger and then up across the blue and yellow towel, his eyes moving from Liz to John and back again.
Liz moved up the lounger until she was leaning against Jared.
'You better move Jared,' warned John, 'she gets scary if she's pushed.'
'Sweety', she said, baring her teeth, 'You don't want to fall off that thing, do you?'
'John, old chap, would you mind awfully...', he had to pause to let John's laughs subside so that he could be heard, 'letting me share your lounger?'
And before letting John reply, he jumped onto John's lounger, and onto John's lap, and threw his arm around John's broad shoulders, the whole while, looking at Liz. 'I knew you would not refuse an old chum'.
'This is too much', laughed John, looking over at Liz and seeing her face bright red and biting her lip, he grabbed her forearm, squeezed it and then let it go. She gave a half smile before laying back and shutting her eyes. She tried to relax, tried to tell herself there was no need to be jealous, but the whole while three voices rang in her head: Jared's mock British accent, John's laughter and her best friend Emily's words the first time they had met John at a party: I don't think that one likes girls. First, he likes himself too much, look at his body and that hair, and second, he likes boys. He can't take his eyes off Danny. Those words repeated themselves like a backing track on repeat grating across the incessant chatter of the two men besides her. John spoke in that high tone he had when he was excited, his pitch rose and fell like mountains tops rather than the monotonous drone it formed when he tried to cope with the day to day mundanities of everyday conversation. She had not heard him sound like this for ages. And then a fourth voice came to speak: her own. Why could he not sound like this when they spoke? Why did she have to drudge across to the muddy swamps while Jared got to scale the peaks? Why did he not get rid of the boy and spend time with her, the very point of the getaway? The heat made the voices louder, made Jared's voice more exaggerated, John's voice more forced, her best friend's voice more sure and her own voice angrier.
She put on her sunglasses and spied them from the corner of her eye. John was staring at Jared's toned chest. She lifted her sunglasses up to stare at him, to drag his eyes away. John noticed and looked over at her. She wiped her hand across her ample cleavage as if she were getting rid of sweat and leaned over so that her cleavage could be seen fully. But Jared looked away, turning to John who was perched behind him, one hand spread out over John's broad shoulder. Liz jumped off the lounger and put on a pair of yellow shorts.. She grabbed her handbag and stormed off, the voice in her head drowning out John's cry after her.
Walking along the main strip one block away from the beach, she tried to make out the expressions of other people in order to forget the voices in her head. They were the voices of friends asking her ' but are you sure Liz?' ' Look at how he sits Liz!', 'do you think it might be because he just doesn't fancy women'. The voices, for so long hushed up, ignored or droned out by her own voice that told her he she would be lost without the hours sitting chatting over a glass of wine, the comfort he gave her when she was stressed, and the sight of him in his pyjamas lying next to her, a gorgeous sight it was unanimously decided. But her own voice was muted as the other voices began to boil over, screaming, like a kettle on a hob that would not die down no matter how hard she tried to do so. She tried to be distracted by guessing other people's problems but failed for the sun was so bright and blurred the expressions of the passers by so one was unable to make them as they made their way in and out of shops and restaurants, headed to their cars or to the beach. One could not supposes if they were smiling because they had fallen in love, eaten some good food, had a day off work to lounge on the beach or whether they were frowning for they were unemployed and broke, they were sick or they, like her, were plunging into heartbreak; and so feeling safe from prying eyes, all the sadness inside her poured out of her, streaming down her cheeks, some droplets falling onto her lips. She tasted the saltiness and then wiped them away from her cheeks and her chin and then, her eyes so over brimming with tears that she was blinded, she wiped her eyes, continuing to walk along as she did so, and bumped into someone. Holding out her hands to grab the stranger's arms, which were thin and dainty, she apologised and finished wiping her eyes, though still tears fell, but they were more like gently spitting rain rather than the earlier downpour. It took a few flashes of her eyelids to see standing before her a short, tanned woman, her face indented with thick lines like an old elephant's hide, and big brown eyes, the sacks beneath them dark and baggy, as loose as the skin sagging beneath her jaw, like cow's udders, but the signs of age were lessened by bright pink lipstick and those irises that did not need the sun's reflection to blaze alight.
'My! You are in a bad way', cried the woman in husky tones.
Liz removed her hands from the woman's arms and put them in front of her face.
'I'm so sorry for bumping into you like that.' She spoke through her spread out fingers.
'Shh, shh dear. Not a problem. You've got a bigger problem than that I can see.'
Liz wiped her eyes once more, took a deep breath and told herself to pull herself together.
'Sweets, come in here', the stranger said, turning to face a cafe beside them. 'They do good coffee and the best walnut cake I've ever eaten. I'll treat you and we can have a talk. You need to talk, don't you?'
'No, no', said Liz, 'I'm OK.' She wanted to be alone.
The woman stood before her. 'You're a terrible actress', she said. 'I was an actress. A terrible one, so I know'. She took Liz's limp hand and led her into the cafe. They sat down and the old lady ordered coffee and cake for two. Then she turned to Liz and held her hand.
'You'll be alright sweets. A girl like you. Smart. I can see your smart just from looking at you. It's your make-up. Not too much. But that bits you've done, around the eyes, it's the things you should be doing for eyes like yours. I was a make-up artist sweets. A good one, too. So I know what I'm talking about.'
The waitress brought the cake and coffee.
'Eat that sweets. That'll make everything all right. You can trust me on that.'
Liz took a bite. 'You are the smart one. Wow.'
'I can't make it better myself. I try. I'll drop some to your hotel before you go. But it doesn't have this thing that this cake has, you know, that x'factor,'
Liz took another bite. She thought of Jared.
'Good, good.Eat it up. I knew cake and coffee would fix you for a while. Always works for me. Can I?' she asked, taking out a cigarette.
Liz nodded then shook her head as the old lady offered her one.
'You're stronger than I am. If I was in the state you were outside a minute ago, I'd have smoked two packets by now.'
Liz sipped some coffee. 'Thanks for bringing me here.'
'So, this boy making a play for your man, why don't you have a quiet word with him. Or a loud one. Tell him he's getting in the way.'
'But that's not the issue so much. It's that he could get in the way, if he wanted. That John might let him.'
'But anyone could get in the way dear! How long you been together?'
'Probably someone has gotten in the way by now already. But they didn't stay in the way. They got out the way as quickly. That's par for the course. He's still with you, right?'
'He's not here now.'
'You want him to chase you round town while you're a crying mess?'
Liz laughed. John had never seen her cry; close to tears maybe but never actual crying. No one had died, no one got sick, she had never been upset. How ridiculous it would be if he saw her crying over this, something that she did not know was even real. He would think she was crazy. He would have good grounds to end it all.
'Talk to him. Tell him what's on your mind.'
'What if he says he likes him, that he wants to...' She could not bring herself to say it.
'Then that's what he says. You have to deal with it. Or settle for not knowing. Whatever you do, you can't deal with it like this.'
The woman was enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. There was something gurulike about her. Liz laughed out loud.
'Good to see you find the whole thing funny now. I'm not so worried about you.'
The light relief was brief, however. The woman's smile that was visible now the smoke had subsided, her own laughter, the bright yellow walls and red seats of the cafe, the breezy music and the easy chatter around her could only keep the monster that was her fear hidden down below for so long. The monster was still raging and broke free, bursting through the trap door.
'What if he says he doesn't love me? If he says he won't marry me? What then? I'll be alone. I'll have to find someone else. I want to get married and have children.'
'Whatever you do, don't do it! You'll be even worse than you are now.'
'I don't want to be alone. All my friends are married, or making plans. Some even have kids.'
'So, what are you saying? You wanna get married and have kids cos that's what everyone else does?'
'Is that so bad?'
'Yes! Don't you think he can sense that? That you don't want it either?'
'I've never told him.'
'He's known you for ten years sweetie. I'm guessing this guys got brains. Don't you think he knows what you think by now just by looking at you.'
Liz shuddered. She could tell what he thought by looking at him. She knew every expression that face ever made. She knew that his eyes wide, his eyebrows raised meant he was threatened by her recent promotion, that when he looked up to the left and bit his lip he was wandering when her tirade might end, and that the swift look, his eyes almost falling out of their sockets, his tongue just peaking out the side of his mouth followed by the narrowing of the eyes and a sheepish look over at her and then away again meant he had seen someone he fancied and he felt horny. She knew these; she looked out for them and she understood what he really thought, rather than the 'oh that's great', 'I totally agree honey', and the 'Phew, it's a hot one today?' he offered as dress up for what was really on his mind.
'So, this man won't marry you because it does not feel right? Sounds like a good man to me. Keep a hold of him.'
'I think I'm going to lose him soon.'
'He's not yours to lose. He's his to lose. Or find. Maybe he is already lost. Maybe he's close to finding himself. What do you want, for him to remain lost?'
The old woman got the bill. 'Let's take a stroll sweets. Some light exercise'll do you and my hip the world of good.'
Liz did not look up from her book when John entered the room. He sat down on the bed.
'So, you left pretty abruptly.'
'It was hot.'
'You were hot! Poor Jared!'
'Poor Jared', she mimicked his voice and then bit her lip and blushed.
'He's a nice guy.'
'He clearly thinks you are, too.'
'Can't I make friends?'
'Do you think that all he wants is to be friends with you?' As she spoke, she hunted for his eyes, like an owl for a mouse in the woods, but he was slippery and every time she swooped down and thought her claws might sink into him, like her words might, and he would understand her fears and come back to her, he slipped away, as a mouse might understand the owl's hunger but would never give itself up as a sacrifice.
John shifted around and rubbed his chin.
'He's just a friendly, that's all. Don't you think he's funny? That British accent is a hoot.'
'Well, I bet he turns up again tonight. You can have a great laugh together.'
'You could join us.'
'Three's a crowd. And what do you mean 'You could join us?'' She sat up. Her eyes grew wide like bullets being released from a gun. Had he been looking her way, he would have been gunned down. 'Don't you mean he can join us?'
'Give him a chance sweetie, He hasn't done anything to us.'
'I never thought you had it in you to be like this.'
'I came here to be alone with you John. Not to be stalked by some queen.'
'We are alone, aren't we? Is anyone here now? Was anyone here last night? We've met this guy twice and you're freaking out.'
'I'm freaking out? Can't you see what is going on?'
John took a deep breath and exhaled, producing a sound like a strong wind. He looked up to his left and bit his lip.
'I'm going to take a shower.'
'What a surprise! You're going to avoid the matter.'
'Baby, it's the heat, like you said. Just cool down Ok, you have nothing to worry about.'
That is what she had been telling herself all these years. But she knew from his strained smile, from the lack of touching that she did have something to worry about. She also knew that there was nothing she could do about it, that here in Jared's backyard, it was Jared who was powerful and she who was weak. She had never felt like that before. The second John left to go for his shower, she ran to the window and vomited.
John chewed the steak as quietly as possible yet he silence made it seem as if his teeth were drills and they were eating on a construction site.
'That dress looks great on you.'
Liz took a sip of wine and smiled but no teeth were shown.
'You wanted to be alone yet you have nothing to say,' said John.
'You don't want to hear what I have to say.'
He took another bite but this time did not try to quieten down his chewing.
'I don't want to fight this whole holiday.'
'We won't. I'll be Ok tomorrow I think.'
'Can't you be Ok now?'
'I have too much on my mind.'
'And what makes you think it will have all gone tomorrow?'
'You know what they say, a good night's rest and all. Maybe after dinner, I'll have a drink and then call it an early night. I'm pretty exhausted. Maybe you're right, it is the heat.'
'Whatever you want sweety. Just take it easy. Tomorrow we'll go off down to the Keys maybe, be alone.'
'Yes, baby, you're right. Tomorrow, we'll be alone.'
He wandered if this mood was really going to pass or linger over the entire vacation. She had never been this angry before. They had had rows, many of them, but they were usually forgotten about quickly. This time they had yet to actually have a full scale row, the kind they had once a year when lamps got broken and cruel truths were said, but it was brewing. He could tell from the way Liz did not look at him as they sat there together looking out at the throng of party goers crowded around the bar and pool. Her eyes were narrowed, her lips had folded in on themselves.
No doubt she was preparing herself to speak her mind as she always did before a fight. She never launched an attack without checking over all her ammunition carefully first. He would try and deactivate this grenade but first he would have to catch the one coming for the both of them, a grenade named Jared. He knew the only way to stop Liz's grenade being launched was to be seen actively running away from the other grenade , one of many grenades of the same shape that had come his way and she had never seen, a grenade that looked to him like a star, to her a meteorite, one he had a sick death wish for and wanted to catch, to see how it felt when it exploded on him; a grenade that would hurt Liz emotionally more than it would him physically. But he had to catch it all the same, for though he might avoid this one, another one would come and he could not keep running forever, his legs were growing tired and his heart told him this was the time to get hit and see the consequences. It was akin to a choice between losing a limb,and then if he liked it, losing maybe more limbs but at least choosing to loose them or being blown to pieces in one blast and then left to bleed to death.
But if he was not seen to avoid this grenade, if he kept running into its range night after night, and avoided her instead, she would launch her own grenade stealthily, as she always did, and he would be caught out in the open, off guard no doubt, and left devastated and he was not ready for that; he did not want that life. The life he had now was the life he could cope with: a long term relationship, a steady job, acceptance from family and friends. That other life, one that had often crossed his mind when men caught his eye on the street, in public toilets and parks, was one he fantasised over but dared not go after; the very thought both excited and paralysed him. Now there was a chance to get his hands on that grenade, to get close to death, and then to toss it away and to be seen to have tossed it away by the other launcher who in turn would lay down their weapon. But the grenade had to be caught soon, tonight, before the other one was launched, and, it would have to be caught in the dark, while the other one slept. But he had no control over that; that would be for fate to decide, or the launcher herself.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the grenade coming for both of them
It bought with it its customary fits of laugher. Liz sat silently as they bantered with one another, though she did not hear silence, the voices in her head screaming out loud and clear for her to get away as soon as possible so as to lessen the wound that was already there and would grow bloodier the longer she stayed. Now and then, they would look over at her, John guiltily, and Jared gleefully. She knew she could do nothing to prevent the inevitable.
'I'm off to bed now John', she said, her face as still as stone.
'You do look exhausted', said Jared.
'Are you Ok?' asked John, looking through her rather than at her.
'I just need some sleep.'
She turned around and walked off, stumbling a little on her way.
'Let's get a shot John. It's my last night', said Jared, and lay his hand open John's.
He looked at John who kept opening his mouth as if to say something and then closing it again, like a fish.'It's now or never John. Drink up and let's go back to mine.'
'Are you Ok?' asked Jared, his head resting on his upturned palm, his elbow bent, peering down at a horizontal John, drenched with sweat, breathing slowly and measuredly, his eyes wide like he had seen a holy apparition.
'Hey', said Jared, knocking him gently with his elbow.
John was speechless. All he could do was nod, and even that was an effort, he felt so light, so weak, as if all his burdens had been lifted off him and he was nothing but a floating entity.
His mind replayed what he had just experienced, like a video reel running across his nothingness, as gracefully as a gazelle running across the plains. It was what he had dreamed of, but his dreams had been heavy and dark while this had been light as a feather, and the memories were, too, as what he felt played over again and again: touching skin as thick and hairy as his; his lips against a man's lips, wrestling his tongue; the smell of another man. He closed his eyes and inhaled and a tear came to his eye, not because the stench was dire but because he had wanted this so much, had denied himself so long, and now it had happened, it was real life, not a dreamed one, but real life and a life well worth living. He tried to hold onto that joyful feeling, for he knew it was fleeting, and his hold onto it was brief for the moment Liz flashed into his mind, the heaviness returned, the burden caved in on him. He covered his face and sighed.
Jared stroked his forehead, then his cheeks and then brushed one fingertips over his lips in a clockwise movement.
'I have to go,' said John.
'It was nice knowing you. Come back sometime.'
John sat up and swung his legs and sat on the edge of the bed. He got dressed while Jared went to the bathroom. While Jared was gone, John snooped around the room a little. He stopped his snooping when he came across a pornographic video named Slutty soldiers with Jared and a man twice his size with twice the muscles standing beside him, both naked except for army headgear adorning their heads and their other heads standing to attention. He was so absorbed in the video, he did not notice Jared standing their watching him.
'We all have our secrets,' said Jared, 'don't we? As long as no one gets hurt, does it matter? Hey, feel free to take a shower before you go. You don't want to get sprung. I think she'll know what you've been up to though. I don't have to tell you how smart she is. But you don't want to give her any ammo.'
John limped to the shower. He had a dead leg.
Liz woke up fully clothed, with a crashing headache. Beads of sweat dripped down her broad shoulders, her breasts, her toned arms and stomach and her thick thighs. On the table beside her was an empty bottle of vodka and a bottle of soda. She felt as empty as that bottle right now but it was a thick emptiness, as if her emptiness was swathed in the leather of a thousand bulls, an emptiness forever plunging downward. She clutched her stomach and ran to the bathroom where she undressed. There were trickles of blood in her knickers. She shook and moaned; tears intermingled with the beads of sweat.
'He's not yours to lose. He's his to lose. Or find. Maybe he is already lost.'
As the woman's voice ran through her head, she lay on the bed with the curtains and the window opened, her eyes closed,bathed in the moonlight, listening to the sea and that husky voice.
'Maybe he's close to finding himself. What do you want, for him to remain lost?'
She heard him enter the room, felt the bed fall when he sat on it, could feel him looking at her, could smell he was clean, that he had showered recently. She opens her eyes and looked back at him. He looked away.
'It's ok John,' she says, 'We don't have to get married.'
'You said it four times already. I'm not going to make you say it a fifth time. This time I'm saying it.'
She had no other choice, she could not imprison him with their history and her love; she had to let him go. She was not in control of the situation and as that sunk in, her hunched shoulders relaxed, her folded lips parted and bloomed like a flower, her face, which has been scrunched up since first seeing Jared like a sheet upon which giant rabbits had fornicated all day, was now smooth, relaxed and stretched out like freshly lain sheets in a five star hotel. Her eyes grew wide.
He held her hand and mouthed thanks. She smiled and let go, his hand crashed onto the bed, his fingers spread out, like a flower head cut and fallen to the ground.