Lovers


by Adelaide B. Shaw

The woman, a tanned platinum blonde in her early forties, tensed her muscles as soon as her male companion set down his cappuccino and reached across the small table to take her hand.  She winced when he squeezed it tightly and parted her lips in a simulation of a smile.

"We'll eat at Sergio's tonight," he said, squeezing harder.  He, too, had blonde hair.  It was thick and worn in a pompadour, a style popular in the fifties.  Older than the woman by twenty years, his face, an even darker tan than hers, had a web of fine wrinkles etched around his eyes and mouth.  It was still a handsome face in spite of the small scars on his forehead and chin that were partially hidden by a thin film of make-up.

The woman tried to pull her hand away.

"You don't want to go to Sergio's?" the man asked.

"Of course, I do, Hon. Sergio's will be great."

"You bet," he said, releasing her hand.  His broad smile revealed perfectly capped teeth, a dazzling white against his bronzed skin.

The woman adjusted the clips on her hair, pulling up some long loose tendrils, allowing others to escape.  Her hands flew around her head like nervous birds.  The result when she finished was unchanged.  The man leaned closer and brushed a strand of hair away from her face, catching it in a clip.

"You're going to become cross-eyed with this hairstyle.  Do something different tonight so it doesn't fall down.  If you can't do it yourself go to the beauty shop.  What did you do with that money I gave you last week?  Spend it already?"

"No, Hon. I paid some bills and saved the rest."

He leaned forward, pried one of her hands from her cup and held onto it, stroking it, sliding his hand across her palm, then her fingers, gently, soothingly like a lover.  She tensed her muscles again, anticipating another one of his mercurial changes.

Continuing to force a smile, she glanced at the other customers.  Young mothers with babies, a young man writing in a notebook.  They didn't see her, not who she really was.  Just an aging flashy blonde with an equally flashy male companion.  She could get their attention if she screamed and dashed for the door.  But he would follow and force her into the car.  They would still go to Sergio's, but she would have a black eye and lie about a fall, a walk into a door, a piece of plaster flying from the ceiling.

                                                                     ***

Dolores had met Lou at the Roasted Bean cafe six months earlier.  She would not admit that it was a "pick-up."  That happened in bars. A cafe was safe and respectable.  A quiet place to come on a Saturday evening and pass a few restless hours in the midst of strangers.

Lou had been there with another man, their heads together, speaking in low voices.  They stopped and watched her walk past, waiting until she got her coffee and had chosen a table before resuming their business.  Papers and money passed between them.  The taller man, Lou, had seen her looking and winked.

"We seem to be the only customers," he said, leaning over Dolores after his friend had left.  He was expensively dressed in a white linen shirt and cream slacks. "It's no fun drinking alone."  A quick flash of teeth.  "Can I join you?  Let me buy you another coffee." He was the kind of man she would have run from in a bar.  Why did she think the cafe was safe?

"I hope you're not going to ask that old question about what's a nice girl etc., etc.?"

"You'd tell me to get lost, right?"

Instinct told her to, but images of a microwave dinner and her single bed made her bold. "I'll have another cappuccino," she said.

"Look," Lou said, sitting down.  "I have a better idea.  How about dinner?  I haven't eaten and another coffee will make me gag.  We'll go next door.  A little moo-goo-gy-pan and spring rolls. Just dinner.  Dutch treat."

Like a Venus flytrap she had been drawn to him. The sweet overpowering odor of his after-shave lotion, the innocent offer to share moo-goo-gy-pan, the firm hand on her elbow leading her out of the cafe.  Even then, from the beginning, she had no will against his.

                                                                     ***

Lou dropped Dolores off at Rita's Salon, two blocks from her apartment.  She had become a good customer of Rita's.

"I like tanned platinum blondes," Lou had said, and Dolores had bleached her light brown hair and accepted the sun lamp Lou had given her, along with the dresses, low cut and clinging. Her fingernails and toenails dripped blood, and she stood taller in stiletto heels.

She never asked why he had picked her up or why he stayed.  Asking would only make him think about it and maybe change his mind. She must have seemed an easy mark, a plain woman, alone on a Saturday night. From the first meeting, she had given in to everything, and as she grew weaker, he grew stronger in his demands.

She left Rita's Salon with her hair in a French roll, so tight her head hurt.  "Put tons of spray on it, Rita.  It just can't fall down tonight."

* * *

Sergio's was crowded.  A circular tan leather booth along the side and mid-way into the main room waited for them and would have waited all night.  The room was bright, with wall sconces and chandeliers glowing at full wattage.  You saw what you ate at Sergio's, and you saw the other customers.  It was not a place to hide, but to be seen. 

"Bring me my usual scotch on the rocks," Lou said to the waiter, "and for the lady, white wine."  Dolores would have preferred something stronger, but Lou seldom let her drink.  "Women can't drink," he had said.  "They get sloppy."

"Where's Sergio," Lou demanded of the waiter.  "Why doesn't he come and greet his customers?  What am I?  The janitor?"

"Ahh, Signore Ferrante.  A thousand pardons."  Tall and robust, Sergio bowed and flipped a white napkin across the table to remove non-existent crumbs." I was in the kitchen checking on something special for you and your lovely lady.  Osso bucco and fresh baby artichokes."

Lou hardly spoke to Dolores during dinner.  He spoke with Sergio, discussing wine and cigars, and to everyone who passed he nodded and said a few words.  The customers were like family.  Those who didn't stop at Lou's table to speak with him, waited for Lou to come to them.  Dolores was complimented on her dress and hairstyle, and Lou was complimented on his choice in women.  She smiled and ate slowly, daintily, keeping grease off her fingers and her make-up from getting smudged.  Lou hated messy women.

"You look nice tonight, Doll," Lou said while they waited for their espresso.  He reached across the table to touch her arm, lightly, softly, a feather's brush stroke.  "Wear your hair like that all the time when we go out.  It's classy, like Grace Kelly.  You know Grace Kelly?  Neh.  You don't know.  You were too young to know her in her prime, before she married that fat prince and got fat herself."  He gently stroked her arm again.  "You make me proud tonight in front of my friends."

Dolores felt herself soften like the pat of butter on her plate.  Lou had that effect.  He could, with a word or a glance, either dissolve all her muscles in her body or make them tense like corded steel wire.

                                                                     ***

At six in the morning, Lou rolled out of her new king-sized bed.  He jabbed her shoulder.  "Wake up.  Get me coffee."

She had to slide across the bed to get out.  Pressed against the wall, the bed nearly filled the room.  Her dresser and night table had been moved to the front room.  No longer concerned with decor and style, Dolores put things anywhere she found a place.  The sun lamp, a new 40 inch television and CD player sat crowded together with her furniture, as if waiting for a garage sale.

Lou had been generous.  "I want to relax when I come here.  Watch a movie, listen to music."

Lou's apartment, somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard, was off limits to Dolores. "I don't want anyone to know my business," Lou had said.  "The neighbors, the doorman.  They all talk."

Talk to whom?  Dolores suspected a wife, which he denied having.  Perhaps it was another mistress–one for uptown, one for downtown. After Lou left she got ready for work, a part-time job because Lou wanted her afternoons to be free.

  "I'll give you money for rent and expenses.  My work keeps me busy lots of nights.  We can see each other in the afternoons.  What do you say, Doll?  For me?"

 A lover's request. She couldn't refuse. It hadn't been hard to pull her into his life.  No one else was doing any pulling.

                                                                     ***

"What happened to your face?" Selma, the owner of the boutique where Dolores worked, studied the bruise and clucked.

"I had too much to drink last night.  I walked into the bathroom door."

Selma shook her head, her short frizzy red curls bouncing like strawberry gelatin.  "You do that a lot, don't you?"

"I get klutzy when I drink." 

"If you ever want to fight that bathroom door, I could show you a few karate moves." She demonstrated with a mannequin, thrashing it to the floor with a loud yell.

Dolores didn't think even Selma could have stood up to Lou.

The night before, when trying to unpin the French roll, his fingers had become snared.  "What's this gunk on your hair?'   

"It's hair spray.  To keep it from falling down like you wanted."

"So it's my fault you got a head feels like steel wool? Can't you get nothin' right?"

Afterwards, he put ice on her face, the hard, quick fist of a few minutes before opening up to gently stroke her bruised cheek.

"You're not still hoping to marry him, are you?" Selma asked, picking up the mannequin and screwing its head back on. "He's hit you three times now.  Dump him. And dump him fast before he really hurts you."

                                                                     ***

Two days later Lou went out of town. "I'll have a surprise when I come back," he said. "I cinch this deal, Doll, maybe we'll take a trip. Niagara Falls or Hawaii.  Would you like that?"

Was he thinking marriage?  A wedding with a honeymoon.  The whole fairy tale complete with children.  Lou as a loving husband and father, Lou with his quick fists.  Selma's advice continued to echo in her ears as Dolores applied a layer of makeup to hide the yellowing bruise.  She checked the dark roots on her hair and her chipped nail polish. Time to get a touch up and a manicure before Lou noticed.  She checked the fridge.  Time to get more of Lou's favorite beer and wine and snacks.  Time to keep Lou happy.  Time to dump him.

                                                                     ***

Standing before her full length mirror, Dolores checked her appearance.  A dress rehearsal for Lou's return the next evening. She twisted her newly retouched platinum hair into a French roll, managing to do it with a minimum of hair spray.  She was dressed in her most clinging dress and her highest sandals.  Mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, the whole paint box on her face. Lou would be pleased with the results.  She wasn't.   She was an aging spinster masquerading as a whore.  Why had she ever wanted him? Her lonely night terrors had morphed into terrors of a different kind. She had to leave.

                                                      ***

The small, dusty town began to stir itself awake at six a.m.  Dolores rose and dressed quickly.  Since running away from Lou it was the only time she ventured out.  Staying in the center of the sidewalk and looking over her shoulder every other step, she walked to the corner market and back, holding her breath as if that could make her smaller or invisible.

The town, which once had been acres of orange groves, was miles away from Lou.  Dolores had scurried off in the night after coloring her hair back to brown and discarding her whore's costume.  The thought of Lou's “surprise” had sent her running.  She would have to like it, whatever it was. Jewelry?  Fur?  A trip?  Not so much of a problem, those.  But marriage?  That pot of gold at the end of the rainbow had turned to brass, tarnished and twisted. She didn't want it anymore.  Not with Lou.

Dolores sold her car and didn't buy another, remained without a telephone, emptied her bank account, and canceled her credit cards.  She tried to blend into the local scenery, just another plain, lone woman trying to survive.

Two weeks after leaving, she called her former landlord.

"Yeah, he came," the old man said.  "I took him to the basement and showed him all that junk you left behind, the bed and TV and those clothes.  He came back with another guy and a truck and took it away and hasn't been back.  I swear, he never asked about you, where you were or anything."  

Selma said the same.  "Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  No one's been looking for you."

After another month Dolores relaxed her vigilance and ventured beyond her neighborhood.  The Los Angeles basin was big, and maybe Lou wasn't going to find her.  He had appeared in her life eight months earlier, like a road sign, LAST CHANCE FOR GAS BEFORE THE DESERT.  She was well rid of him, and she readjusted her life, working at a dry cleaners, sleeping in a single bed again and eating frozen dinners alone. 

After three months, Dolores no longer looked behind her or jumped at every sound. That was when she began to ask what had she meant to Lou during those times when he had spoken gently, lovingly, and they had caressed each other like real lovers.

After four months a part of Lou still remained with her.  Not the fear or the physical pain she had felt when he hit her, but a hot spot of longing, like a nugget of burning coal in dead ashes.  It wouldn't go out. It was at midnight or at three in the morning that her loneliness returned with a new twist.

"Sure, I love you, Doll," Lou had said.  "Why else would I be hanging around?"

Easy words. Words that had meant nothing. Dolores had just been someone Lou could redesign, a doll he could play with, a diversion for a few months.  Lou had hit her and would have hit her again.  He would do it as naturally as breathing. And yet...  

In the hazy smog filled sunlight of her new town, along with the resumption of her freedom and the loss of her fear, came a disturbing realization.  With his connections, Lou could have found her; he wasn't even looking.  He just didn't care, and that hurt more than his punches.


BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in a small rural community in New York State.  Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including The Toronto Star and The Writer's Journal, both contest winners, American Literary Review, Green's Magazine, Sunscripts, The Villager, Reader's Break, Dogwood Tales, Housewife Writers' Forum, New England Writers' Network, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Griffin,  The Country and Abroad and in Loch Raven Review  In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka and haibun.  Her collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at www.modernenglishtankapress.com