“It was all over with him. Marius loved a woman. His fate was entering the unknown.” – Victor Hugo
Christmas Eve was going to be a long day Fred realized even before all of his guests left the Saturnalia dinner. Con had followed him to the door to see Esmeralda out, and after the women had embraced with what seemed to be genuine affection, Esmeralda had asked Fred to meet her for breakfast.
Fred had glanced at Con, who had only shrugged with indifference, allowing him to agree.
“See you early then,” Esmeralda said, giving Fred a peck on the cheek as she pushed the storm door open.
Since Constantia had to work the Christmas Eve night shift, she and Fred planned to get lunch some place nice, at least spend the afternoon together. So, now he had a breakfast, too. Fred figured Esmeralda wanted to talk about the money, or maybe Monteith. Neither he nor Ike were too ripped up about their sudden unemployment, but Esmeralda had been involved in that Art Field project, and now…Well, at least she had resources; he’d at least been able to do that much for her. Turned out she was fixated on seeing Bes again. She had ideas…
“You heard what he said to us—he won’t be back again.”
“But I have so many questions for her!”
“Life isn’t about knowing answers, is it? Maybe it’s about making them. It is like my difficulties with alienation, with money—I’m not certain anyone can tell you.”
Fred was exactly on time when he arrived at Constantia’s wreath-crowned door, so he scarcely expected, when her door opened to his knock, that he’d be the one knocked back into the stairwell.
“What the hell were you thinking of?” Constantia screamed, staring up at him, not in the least intimidated by a man a good foot taller than she was. “In front of everybody!”
For a moment, Fred was afraid he’d opened the wrong door, but his brain accelerated into advanced analytics. The queen was angry, very angry; pawn heads were going to roll. Of course, following the metaphor, that made him the king…
“What on the wide, round face of the earth are you talking about?”
“The money, dummy, what is anyone talking about? You give me the same as that woman! And what’s this supposed to be about anyway, a proposal?”
He was still standing in the hall. Hadn’t they all parted friends? “Wait. A what?”
“See! You don’t want to propose to me.”
“I wanted to give you more days in the sun, part-time hours, not to get burned out and cry so much, to do whatever would keep you happy and able to help people.”
“But I can’t take your money! I’d be obliged to you forever—I’d never feel right leaving, I’d owe you too much, even if leaving was the right thing to do.”
“You want to leave me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She did say that, but he tried another tack. “Do you feel that way about the red dress?”
She cocked her head and frowned ferociously. “No. ”
“That was a gift.”
“Yeah, a gift! I can buy a dress, even an expensive dress, now and then, but I would never in my life have had a million dollars.”
“So you want less?”
“No! That’s not the point. The point is, you can’t just go around giving people that kind of money; it isn’t normal.”
Fred nodded, lifting the slender hand that was barring the door and walked into the apartment. “I think Ike was nauseous for a few days when I told him I wanted to give him some of it.”
“Poor Ike,” she said snippily, shutting the door with a forceful thud.
“Perhaps you should be grateful I didn’t win one of those $146 million dollar prizes or you’d be choking on something like $17 million each.”
“You see what I’m saying?” she said rummaging in the cupboard and extracting a bag of Oreo cookies. “You are really messing people up.”
“So I should have just kept it? Not tried to help all of you out?”
“Did you hear Paulette last night? She wants to buy a house—since when?!”
Her voice was beginning to inch up the decibel scale, its silk shearing. He tried remaining calm, though that was a strategy that hadn’t worked out well for him the last time.
“Maybe she and Ike have plans…”
She stopped licking the white cream from between the cookies to watch his face. “Now you see what I’m saying, don’t you? I’ve lived with Paulette for the last 13 years of my life and we’ve been friends longer. She can’t go and …”
“Was she this upset when you wanted to move in with me? They like each other. I mean, why not?”
She snapped each of the black cookies in half, eating one quarter after the other. “She’s not like that. She’s into one-night stands, not boyfriends. She’ll cheat on him; mark my words.”
Fred was shaking his head. “Wait. You were the one who said—“
“Oh, yeah, I saw they’d hook up, that was a no-brainer. I even sort of hoped she’d hang onto him awhile, be happy for a little…but I was hardly expecting this!”
“Moving in together?”
She nodded mutely, biting the next cookie in half, with no preliminary cream extraction or quartering.
“If that’s what they’ll do. You don’t know that for sure…do you?”
She was chewing down the rest of the cookie and only shrugged.
“Listen, Constantia. please. ‘Fuck you money’ doesn’t sound to me like a happy love nest.” Thankfully, Constantia laughed. “It sounded to me like an insurance policy.”
Still clutching the bag of cookies, she crossed the room and threw herself onto the couch. Fred sat gingerly beside her.
“I, like you, am heartsick at the prospect of Ike leaving the Casa anytime soon, but he is my friend. I want him to have what he wants, and I’ll do what I can to help him get it.”
She offered Fred a cookie, but he shook his head. “Even if it means him leaving?”
“Yes.” He stretched his arm behind her on the couch. He was not rebuked. “I feel the same about you; I want you to be happy, I want the world be all the things you imagine. All your daydreams; your fantasies of extravagance. I want you to get everything on the menu. It felt like magic doing those things for you, it made me feel good. This money is a gift, just a gift. This time, you get to decide what to do with it. Maybe it isn’t easy, Constantia. If you truly don’t want it, give it away. Don’t sign the papers. Feel no obligation between us, any more than you ever have. I love you because I love you. I don’t know what else to say.”
She closed her eyes, waiting or thinking, and then stood resolutely, walked a few paces. When she turned back to face him, her eyes were wide dark pools, full of shadows and eddies that quavered with light.
“You love me?”
“Well, yes. Of course. I think I do.” He blinked. “I think so.”
She shook her head, almost laughing. “Oh, of course. Maybe. Listening to you sometimes is enough to drive a person insane! But I’ve always seen it, you know? From the first at Gooski’s, what was in your face at the polar bears, what’s in it now.”
She dropped her gaze to the floor, her chin on her collarbone, hands defiantly on her hips. When she lifted her face again, tears brimmed in her eyes, but her jaw was set defiantly. “Damn it! This is completely out of control.”
He took a tentative step toward her, and as she made no retreat, he continued. “It’s freefall. But it feels like flying a little, doesn’t it? So what if the parachute doesn’t open? This flying moment—with you—would be worth it.”
Her expression was skeptical. “What’s gotten into you?”
He gently stroked her arm. “Try with me.”
She was smiling a little. “Then it is a proposal.”
His hand slid to her shoulder blade.
“I’m not a marrying man, but I am asking you to take this adventure with me. All of us together. But by my side, you.”
“OK, I’ll take the damn money.”
The wayward hand slid up into her curls, got tangled there, causing them both to laugh, even as he tilted her head and bent down to kiss her. His glasses steamed up. He took them off and wiped them on his sleeve. “Still want to go to lunch?”
“Not really. Let’s order in.” As she dug her cell phone out of her purse, she added. “Cruise for a week, then a road trip home?”
It took him a moment to catch up. “Ah!” The look on his face was all admiration. He pointed to a big box wrapped in red and silver paper on the table. “Any chance that’s for me?”
She laughed. “Yes it is. But after your gift, I suppose it isn’t much.”
“I’ll bet it will be fun.”
She had the phone in her hand and was dialing for takeout. “Oh, maybe, but it’s nothing like the fun I’ve got in mind right now.”
The smile she held even while ordering heaps of Chinese takeout was dirty in the extreme. “You’re paying for this,” she whispered pointing to the phone.
He kicked off his shoes. His pockets were deep these days; the sky was the limit.
Find the beginning of the story here.