David woke up to the sound of a blender whirring. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes, rolled off the futon, and padded into the kitchen.
“Morning, Curls,” Octavia shouted, grinning and turning back to her smoothie. “Want one?”
“No way,” he said, making a face. Every morning for the past few days, Octavia made a smoothie with yogurt, banana, and orange juice. Aside from that, orange juice seemed to be all she drank. She didn’t even own a coffee maker, so he bought a cheap one. He flipped on the switch and the machine coughed to life.
Octavia shut off the blender and carried her concoction to the breakfast nook they’d found at a thrift store and refinished. Already the tiny apartment looked like a home. On the first day, he took her to Home Depot and helped her pick out new light fixtures. She wouldn’t have thought to change them, but the modern ones David chose really lit up the once dingy kitchen. “So what’s on the agenda today?”
He yawned and shook his head. Somehow she worked second and third shift without sleeping as soon as she got home. I’d be dead, he thought, not for the first time. “I have to work.”
“Uh-huh. And then?” She took a sip of her smoothie, her eyes slits of ecstasy. “Damn, this one came out good.”
He smiled. “And then I thought I’d go see Jo.”
Octavia put down her smoothie. “You ready for that?” He nodded. “You’re gonna have to tell her the truth, you know.” He nodded again. She propped her chin on one hand and stared at him across the table. “You gotta think about it from her perspective, Curls. She’s probably thinking this’s all her fault—especially since she hasn’t heard from you in a few days. So you’re just gonna waltz on in there like everything’s fine, and then drop this bomb on her?”
He rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. “You said I needed some R and R, though!” He winced, hating how he sounded like a bratty five-year-old.
Octavia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Curls, but it’s been almost a week. You haven’t so much as texted the girl back.” She took a long draw from her smoothie and chewed on the straw. “Here’s what you need to do.”
* * *
Victor’s phone vibrated in the drawer of his desk. He put his current client—a retired golf player who practically collected properties—on hold and read the text message.
“Come on down and see me—private show,” Mercedes wrote.
His eyebrows rose and he started to type a response, then lowered the phone from his face, sighing. He missed every day of work that week, had no more sick time left, and his boss seemed to be catching on; the old man walked by Victor’s cubicle every five minutes. If he faked sick to go see the stripper, he might get fired. If he got fired, he’d have to explain to Ingrid why he’d lost his job. If she didn’t leave him, they would have to survive on her bartending income. She seemed to be making good money, he surmised. He shook his head at himself, then put his phone down.
It vibrated against the wood of the desk. He snatched it up before anyone heard and read the text. His eyes widened as Mercedes described, in detail, what she would do to him during her “private show.” He swiveled in his chair and checked the room, a maze of cubicles. His coworkers were all on the phones, selling real estate like hot dogs at a football game. He thought of the psychology degree on his wall, his failed med school entrance exam.
“I hate this job anyway,” he said out loud.
He imagined his mother’s voice so well he almost jumped out of his chair: “Victor Bethea,” she spat, “what in the hell do you think you’re doin’?! How you gon’ afford a wedding? I want my grandbabies!”
He thought of his failed med school exam again, this time picturing his mother’s disappointed face. Rolling his eyes, he replied to Mercedes: “Sorry. Gotta work.”
* * *
Ingrid signed the last check, stuffed it into an envelope, and added it to the pile. The rest of the world set up auto-payments with their debit and credit cards, but she felt there was something satisfying about writing out and signing the check herself. She opened her checkbook, balanced her account, and grinned. She even had money left to go shopping, if she wanted. She scooped up the pile of envelopes and took them out to the mailbox, smiling and humming. The sun felt warm on her face and, despite it being early September, the day felt like spring.
She went back inside, grabbed a jacket just in case, and her keys. When she got into her car, she headed toward the mall, then went to the grocery store.
* * *
When Victor’s key turned in the lock, Ingrid stood next to the kitchen table, her hands behind her back. Behind her, the table was set with her mother’s good china, large New York Strip steaks on each plate.
His eyebrows shot up when he saw her. “Babe… What’s this?”
She grinned. “I have no idea if it tastes good. I got the recipe online. I made fettucine alfredo for the side dish, too.” She lifted the lid of a pan. The scent of parmesan and romano cheese wafted toward Victor.
“Smells good, babe, but—”
She shook her head. “I know things haven’t been good between us. I’m really sorry. I guess I’ve just been stressed. Depressed.” Her face darkened, then brightened. “Whatever! Can we just put it all behind us, just sit down and enjoy this?” She strut up to him, then stood on her tiptoes, lips puckered.
His shoulders dropped and he bent down to kiss her. He promised himself he would delete Mercedes’s texts later.
To Be Continued…