Title: Hello! A Modern Love Story
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Heartache and the specter of revenge follow when sparring partners spend the night together two days before he weds someone else.
A deliciously romantic romp with a good dose of realism and a twist of mystery.
A clash of wits, more than of wills, drives the love story in this modern-day pastiche of 19th-century romance novels by Elizabeth Gaskell (North and South) and Jane Austen. The main protagonists deal with messy feelings and events that could happen to any of us: The heroine, a bright young lawyer, confronts choices about career, abortion, and reactions of parents, friends, and men; while he, an alpha male, is haunted by past relationships, but with a sensitive, caring side that emerges as he woos the heroine.
Elise stared, with lids drooping over glazed eyes, at the newscaster on television, while she nibbled on some take-out falafel from a neighborhood restaurant. But as bright as that pita tasted, with her favorite spicy filling of bean balls, she could not relish it, although she was famished.
What she wanted was rest. She needed more of that than what she could stuff into her mouth and her stomach. She plopped the remaining falafel on the coffee table in front of her. Then, she slid her body, weary and heavy, down on the supple seat cushions.
The last two weeks had been hectic. She was exhausted from running around during the day—interviewing witnesses for her first big case—then working late in her apartment. She had devoted her nights to reading and analyzing transcriptions of interviews and depositions. This evening was not going to be any better.
Sweet, glorious slumber soon took over. But not for long.
Insistent ringing jarred Elise for an instant out of the thick fog in her head. She stirred, but she could not move her limbs and she slid back into another fitful dream.
The ringing began again. How long after the first, she could not tell. She groped for the phone on the side table behind her head.
“Hello.” Elise slurred, still dazed from sleep, her eyes closed.
Her greeting was met with silence.
“Hello?” she said once more.
“Hello. Do you remember me?” The voice that answered was deep and resonant; one resurrected from her past.
Elise sprang upright and swung her legs off the couch. She switched on the lamp on the side table. Now wide-awake, she reached for the remote control and turned off the television, still blaring the same headlines about the uncertain economy and businesses continuing to fail.
Did she remember? How could she forget? There was not a week that passed when that voice did not speak, answering one question or another, on the radio, on television, or merely in her head.
No, she had not forgotten. How could she? But she never expected that voice to address her again. It had been two years, after all, since they were last together, and one year since she had given up on him.
“Yes, yes. Of course, I do.”
Elise could not say anymore. Her heart was thumping. She tucked the strands of hair that had fallen on her face into the barrette on the back of her head and waited for the voice to say more.
For a long moment, there was silence at the other end, although she could hear him breathing. She imagined his chest rising and falling, deep, rhythmic, and regular. She remembered how it felt as it did that, its muscles lean and strong against her breasts.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately,” Greg said.
She gripped the telephone tighter and licked her dry lips.
“Oh?” She managed to squeak the word out of her parched throat.
“Off and on the last two years. Mostly on.”
“Mmmm. Me, too.” She bit her lip. Damn! Sleep had stolen her self-control. She didn’t want him to know she still thought about him.
“Really? Listen, can we meet?” He was never one to beat around the bush. That, she remembered very well, too. She liked that about him. She also liked how his greyish blue eyes peered into hers and how his direct gaze burrowed into her soul, even as those eyes bared his own. She liked the sharp, introspective mind behind them, too. She liked…..
”Stop!” Elise said to herself
“Are you still there?” Greg’s voice jolted her out of her imagined residues of their past together.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I’ve had a long day. I’m still trying to wake up from a nap.” She feigned a yawn. “It kinda came over me this afternoon. This is so unlike me.”
“I see, hectic days as usual.” Another moment of silence at his end. “Would you fit me into your busy schedule? Please? I need to see you. I want to see you.”
Her heart went thumping again. She bit her lips harder to suppress the breath that heaved at her chest. A few moments went by before she could trust her voice.
“Why not. When?”
“That soon? Aren’t you busier than me? How could you fit me into your schedule, just like that?” Early in their acquaintance, she risked falling into sarcasm whenever she spoke to him. Tonight, he provoked it in her again.
“There’s an Indian restaurant on the corner of Huston and Kramer. Maybe 8 pm?”
“Three blocks from my apartment? Yes, I’ve passed by the place.” She knitted her brow and wondered, for a moment, why he would know about a restaurant in the area. But all she could manage to add was, “At 8 then.”
She hung up and did not wait for him to respond. Her hands started to shake and she clenched them tight, close to her stomach, to keep them still.
She blinked away the moisture gathering in her eyes and turned off the lamp. How exasperating! Why could she not turn off the sensations that flooded her then? The way she could turn off that lamp with a quick flick of her fingers.
Her head began to reel and she leaned back on the couch. She was breathing deep and hard, straining for air. Her limbs tingled from a million tiny delicious pricks on the surface of her skin. Stirrings of sensations, too exquisite to be buried, churned her insides. But she wanted them buried. She needed them lost in some unreachable recess in her brain. She did not dare hope again. She clasped her arms around her chest.
What was she thinking? Why see him again? What did he want now?
Elise sat in the dark a long time—at least an hour, according to the clock on her side table.
Work. Work was always a good antidote to the messiness of feelings. She turned on the lamp again and stared at the thick putrid green folder of depositions on the coffee table. Next to it, lay the falafel, its sauce liquefied by wilted lettuce and oozing too close to those precious depositions. She rewrapped the uneaten mess in its brown bag and threw it into the trash basket by her foot—already half-full of rejected drafts and notes for her new case.
She picked up the folder and placed it on her lap. But she could not open it. It weighed her legs down and reminded her how exhausted she was. Drained. Not so much from her work at the Public Defender’s office as from all that happened within the last hour or so.
She unloaded the folder back on to the coffee table, turned off the lamp and went to bed.
That night, she lay, tossing, two hours past her usual bedtime. A couple of times, she skimmed through the book on eastern thought that she kept on her bedside table. Her trusty first defense against insomnia. She read it when fatigue could not put her to sleep. But that night, it failed at its task.
She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, over and over. She tried to lie still, but her muscles twitched and trembled. The sensations, Greg stirred in her again, had stopped. And, yet, sleep continued to elude her.
She reached for the bottle of Benadryl under her pillow and popped a pill into her mouth.
Thoughts and dreams floated through her head that night. She fell asleep at some point, she was sure of that, because the following morning, she bounded without much effort from bed, alert and ready for the frenzy of the day.
Elise went straight home from work. She paced her apartment for about half an hour, faltering: Should she go or shouldn’t she? She dreaded seeing Greg again and, yet, she wanted to.
In the end, she told herself she should, if only out of obligation. She did say she would come. And seeing him again could help. Maybe, the meeting could put a definite closure to a phase in her life—long passed—that still bothered her at night, alone on her bed. That was the best she could hope for but it might be enough to give her the ease and peace she craved.
Elise arrived at the restaurant a quarter after eight. Inside the restaurant, the light was low, flickering from candles on dinner tables covered with stiffly-starched table cloths. Background music floated through the dense air, reeking of roasting meat and a mixture of Indian spices. She could recognize a few of them from her mother’s cooking—cumin, cinnamon, and garlic.
She knew the song well, a popular Argentinean ballad sometimes chanted to the beat of tango. Now, it gushed from a tremulous, pleading voice ” bésame bésame mucho…..” She frowned and smiled a little. Latin America, in bed with India. Getting global could produce unexpected alliances.
A waiter led her to the table where Greg sat, his right hand on the table, cradling a half-empty glass of beer that he was tapping with a finger.
He rose as soon as he saw her, the shadow of a smile on his lips.
She came dressed in a midnight blue short-sleeved turtleneck and jeans. She wondered what he would think of her now. She was older and she had lost a few pounds since the last time they were together. He used to tease her about the baby fat on her face but she had lost that, too, setting off her cheekbones and the slight upward lift in her eyes. She had swept her blonde hair, including the wisps that usually fell on her face, into a tight ponytail that she gathered towards one side of her head.
She was trembling a little by the time they stood in front of each other, the square dining table between them. She forced a smile; clenched, then opened, her hand to control its trembling. With some hesitation, she extended it out to him.
“Good evening, Greg. I’m sorry I’m late. I was taking a deposition. It lasted a little longer than usual.” She dropped her lids as she apologized. She could not stand how he was looking at her.
“How are you, Elise? You made it. Better late than never. I was worried you wouldn’t come.”
He enclosed her hand in both of his.
“Is it cold outside?” he asked. He rubbed her hand gently with his thumbs and held on to it a little longer than she thought necessary.
“No, it’s warm enough. I get cold hands sometimes.”
She looked up again at those eyes, gleaming under his dark, lush eyebrows, even in the low light. She pulled her hand out of his. He seemed reluctant to let go of it.
She sat down and slung the strap of her shoulder bag on the back of her chair. She was doing all she could to avoid that gaze. She fidgeted on the hard wooden chair.
Greg said, “They’re not too comfortable, I’m afraid.”
Elise nodded at his sympathetic smile, her lips twitching into a semblance of one. She picked up the menu. “I am starved. I munched on an apple and gulped down a glass of milk for lunch. Maybe, that’s why my hands are cold.”
“Did you come straight from work?”
“No. I gotta read through some stuff tonight so I popped into my apartment to leave them there. Then, I thought I might as well change.”
“…..que tengo miedo perderte perderte otra vez.” The plaintive voice and the orchestra trailed to a close. On its heels, a sitar trilled the exotic twangy strains of Indian instrumental music. Elise took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She read through the menu with greater concentration than she knew it needed, but it distracted her from his oppressive gaze.
“The tandoori lamb is their specialty.”
“Oh! You have been here.” She peeked at Greg from behind her menu.
“Yes. A few times.”
A rosy flush tinged her cheeks. He lived in the poshest neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area and had no occasion to wander into hers, twenty miles away, a gentrifying city with dog parks, Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops, and new condominiums equipped with workout facilities that attracted many young professionals like her.
The waiter returned to take their order.
“The tandoori lamb, please, with salad. And a glass of mango lassi,” she said.
“Make that two, with naan, no lassi. But I’ll have a cup of tsai.”
The waiter took their menus away.
They turned towards each other at about the same time. Face-to-face, across the small table, they gazed into each other’s eyes for a wordless minute or so. His eyes glowed with an expression she knew only too well. That gaze used to make her tingle. She endured it for as long as she could.
Elise pursed her lips and picked up the glass of water on her side of the table. Drops spilled out of the glass as she raised it to her mouth.
She held her glass tighter as she took small sips of water from it. She kept her eyes directed on the table, aware that Greg was still staring at her. She resisted a sudden urge to throw the water on his face—that should make him blink or turn his face away. Instead, she willed herself to look up again.
She raised her head. A wave of warmth infused her skin and she hoped the light was low enough to hide the blush that she was sure came with it.
Greg smiled at her—the kind of smile that brightened his eyes but barely broke his lips. A knot roiled at the pit of her stomach and spread to her chest. She frowned in irritation. After two years, how could that smile still bring on that sensation? A sensation, among many, that she had tried to bury.
Elise kept her gaze on him. But it was a struggle not to look down or turn away. She bit her lower lip and swallowed.
EJourney is a flaneuse (an observer/wanderer) who writes about, and illustrates (oils, pastels, digital) what she sees and loves. In a past life, with a now-dormant Ph.D., (University of Illinois), she researched, evaluated and developed mental health programs.
Writing was her first love and she wanted to be a journalist but her parents balked at that. She was 15, malleable, and dependent on them for support, so she went into the social sciences, actually a compromise and preferable to chemistry, her parents’ choice.
EJourney’s first novel, Margaret of the North, is illustrated with digital “paintings” done on an iPad.
Her book website is: www.margaretofthenorth.wordpress.com for articles on books and writing, some reviews, and interviews.
For her take on art, travel (mostly Paris where she has stayed for months), eating, and state of being as well as some of her paintings, her website is Journey on a Limb at http://eveonalimb.com .
book website: http://margaretofthenorth.wordpress.com/