A Promise is a Promise

Alexa put her dripping umbrella in the kitchen sink and laid her raincoat on the counter, then she sat at the chunky wooden table. She pulled her heavy hair off her neck and twisted it around and around, waiting.
Bubba let her and Jerry use his one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment for a few hours every week so nobody would see them together in public. Usually Mondays and Thursdays after work. Dark brown curtains hung at the windows, a brown area rug lay on light grey linoleum tiles, and the bedspread was an African design of dark brown, deep red, and fine yellow filigree. The hand drums on the living room wall next to the Charlie Parker poster had animal hair hanging from them and looked to Alexa like shrunken heads.

Jerry made an apologetic entrance, shaking off the rainwater like a Labrador, “Wow. The taxi got detoured. It’s flooding out there.” He reached around her shoulders from the back and kissed her cheek, “Sorry to be so late. It’s so great to see you.”
She watched as he draped his suit jacket on the chair opposite her, took off his tie, unbuttoned the top button of his slightly shiny light blue shirt, and stretched out his long legs. Then she spoke. “Jerry…”
He frowned, “You look very serious tonight.”
“I don’t like this apartment and I hurt all the time.”
He clicked upright. “Whoa. Let’s start all over. What do you mean?”
“It’s all brown, I don’t like Charlie Parker – nothing about it is inviting for the two of us.”
“You don’t like Charlie Parker?”
“No. I don’t.”

He looked at her a moment, then sat back; “We’re lucky Bubba lets us use his apartment. You know I don’t want to go to a hotel. If somebody sees us and my wife finds out I’ll be in deep shit.
“A hotel, a restaurant, a movie theatre, even a walk in the park. We can’t do any of those things! I feel like a prostitute in a flophouse. It’s undignified, disrespectful, insulting! One thing it sure isn’t, and that’s love.” She put a cork in her anger.
Jerry stared at her. “I had no idea you felt that way.”
“You had no idea? That means you think this is comfort? This is romance? Stealing into somebody else’s apartment for a biweekly romp?”
Jerry folded his arms and watched her.
“You said she wanted a divorce.” This was where Alexa had planned to start the conversation.
“Well, yeah, but she’d take me to the cleaners if she learned there was another woman.”
“Do you want a divorce?”
He drew in a huge sigh. “Can we talk about this some other time? I’ve had a rough day.”
“I’ve given up a lot for you and you’re not doing anything.”

He put his head down and scratched his eyebrow. “I just walked in the door and you’re clobbering me with this. I’m trying to figure something out. Okay?” He hurried on to the other part of her opening sentence. “But what’s that other thing? That you hurt all the time?”
“I miss you!” She banged her fist on the table, “Damn! We have a couple of hours together and I miss you the rest of the time. It hurts! I’m lonely!”
“Jeez! I thought you were going to tell me you had some terrible disease. I miss you too.” He stood up and went to the sink. “Want a glass of water?”
“No thanks.”
He sipped slowly, “You’re right. It’s time I stepped up to the plate about you and me.”
“I didn’t break my engagement to beg for your time.”
“Don’t blame me for breaking your engagement. You said Henry was halfway out the door before we even met.”
“That’s true, but maybe I would have been a little more humane about it. You kept pushing me to leave him so we could be together. You told me you loved me. That’s what you said, anyway.”
“Oh honey, you have no idea how much I love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” He seemed to be calculating whether he should go to her and take her in his arms or deal with this matter from a distance. Distance seemed more serious, “I tell you what; this weekend let’s go to the Southbury Arms in Connecticut. I’ve told you about that place. I know a single weekend is not what you’re talking about but it will be a start.”
“How will you get away?” She was suspicious.
“I’ll tell her it’s a client meeting, or maybe I’ll just say I want a couple of days to myself. I’ll think of something. Anyway, that’s not your problem. You just drive up there on Saturday morning – it should be about an hour away from you if there’s no traffic on the bridge. We’ll stay Saturday night, come home Sunday afternoon. How does that sound?”
“It sounds too good to be true.”
“It’s gonna be true, babe. Everything’s gonna come true. Go up early. I’ll have registered us with my credit card, so you can just do whatever you want, maybe use the sauna or the pool or something, whatever you like. I’ll get up there around noon and we can begin the weekend with a really nice lunch.”
She couldn’t stifle a small smile.
“Come on,” he came over to her side of the table and extended his hand. She rose into his arms. “You’re right. This apartment is not what you deserve. Just remember that there’s nothing in the world I value more than my time with you.”

* * * * *

That Saturday, she drove through an early snowstorm to The Southbury Arms. She picked up the room key, let herself into their room, and spread out on the bed. Sleeping next to him would be delicious.
She ate the chocolates on the pillows, then stepped onto the balcony. Orange and red leaves tumbled down with the snowflakes. What’s the opposite of Indian Summer? A White Man’s Fall? She called Jerry’s cell phone.
“Hi,” he whispered, “Can’t talk.”
“It’s a mess. She saw the reservations on the computer.”
“Jerry, this can’t be one of those ‘oh golly, it didn’t work out’ things.”
“I know. Charge everything to the room. I’ll see you as soon as I can.” His voice was concentrated, as if he had cupped his hand between the phone and his mouth.
She said nothing.
“Is the room nice?”
“Very nice.”
“See you soon.”
So he was still home. Even if he had left right away, which was dubious since he was clearly in the middle of placating his wife, it would be at least an hour before he arrived. She was disappointed, but even after he left his wife, he’d still have to deal with her, and she had to trust him to handle this transition right.
He seemed to understand that this weekend was Alexa’s line in the sand. Now or never. In or out. She felt like a warrior.
She was too hungry to wait until Jerry arrived for the lunch that was supposed to be the opening act of their romantic weekend, so she walked down the stairs to the restaurant. The waiter looked a little like Jerry, with olive skin and the same lines around his mouth that became sharp when he smiled. The same slim wedding ring on his finger.

She ordered lavishly and then went to the wine list: “This wine opens with a ravishing cornucopia of black raspberry! It’s muscular and lissome in the mouth.”
That’s what she wanted in her mouth. It tasted great with the chocolate cake.
“Charge it to room 104, please,” she said, and signed off on the check. As she got up she tripped over her chair and the waiter rushed to steady her. She stood in the lobby a little off balance from the wine, then meandered to the portico for some fresh air.
The white lawn fringed by multi-colored woods did not soothe her. She considered taking a walk, but it was cold and slippery out there.
“Beautiful sight, isn’t it,” said a smooth baritone.

She turned toward the source. He, too, was taking in the scene, a rumpled man all in denim, with well-worn walking shoes and gray hair. “Yeah. We’re not supposed to have a snowstorm in October. It looks like a snow globe.”
“You up here for the weekend?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“You think so?” He turned his head toward her, laughing a little
“I was supposed to meet someone here and I don’t know where he is.”
“Who’s the someone?”
“My married boyfriend.”
“Um hum. Married, but not to you.”
“Right. His wife saw the hotel reservations on the computer.”
“Aha!” He looked at his feet. “I thought I’d do some hiking, but it’s kind of snowy for that. I have in mind a massage. I can’t decide what kind — hot stone, couple’s, Swedish, Shiatsu.”
She was feeling blunt, even aggressive. “Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?”
“What do you think I’m going to do?”
“Ask me to have a massage with you.”
He took a step forward to gather some snow from the edge of the porch, made a snowball, and threw it out onto the lawn. “It might be nice. It’s not racy. You don’t have to tell your married boyfriend.”
“It might do me good to do something weird.”
“Only weird at first glance.”
“I think you should at least tell me who you are.”
“Jack Delaney.”
“You look like a rumpled Ralph Lauren.”

He laughed, “That is an unwarranted compliment, but you can pretend I’m Ralph Lauren if you want.”
In her tiny dressing room, Alexa had to decide whether to keep on her purple lace panties. Yes.
The almond colored room had two parallel massage tables, a bed of stones in the corner, and flute music playing softly. She took off her robe with her back to Jack, and pulled the sheet around her as she got onto the table. “It’s easier for men to be half naked because they only have one interesting half,” she said.
Jack was already snug and smiling at her from under his white sheet on the next table. Two masseurs padded in. The woman came to her and the man to Jack.
“Let’s switch,” Alexa said, “Don’t you think it’s more fun to switch?”
“Sure. Why not.”
The masseurs changed tables without a word.

Alexa heard the masseur squirt oil onto his hands, then rub them together before he ran them down her back.
“How much pressure,” he asked, “Firm or soft?”
“Medium,” she said, and closed her eyes to let the flute’s undulations float into her consciousness, grateful that neither Jack nor the masseurs were going to chat their way through the experience.
When they turned onto their backs for the second half of the massage Jack asked, “Where do you live?”
“Edgewater, New Jersey. Right across the river from Manhattan. What about you?”
“Riverdale. I work in the city though.”
“Are you married?”
“Really!” She giggled.
He blushed a little; “That guy’s crazy to be late.”
“We were supposed to be figuring out our future this weekend.”
“Looks like that is exactly what you will do.”
She sighed, “Yeah.”

After a while, the masseur held a hand on the top of her head for a moment, then swept his hands lightly over her arms and legs and said, “When you’re ready. No rush.” The masseurs left the room, closing the door with barely a click.
Jack dangled his hand off the table and Alexa picked it up for a moment, then she sat up abruptly, clutching the sheet. “Jesus! What if he doesn’t come?”
“You’ll be okay whether he comes or not.”
“I hate the thought of starting all over again. You know, you meet somebody who looks great, you have a wonderful time for a while and then you find out he has a wife, or a slow growing cancer, or a love child in Nova Scotia or something.”
“The Buddha says life is suffering.”
“The Buddha was right. And I’ve got to go.” She stood up, wrapping the sheet around her, and leaned over to kiss Jack’s cheek; “This was sweet. And totally nuts. Thanks.”
On the way to her room she stopped at the front desk. There were no messages, and none on the answering machine in the room. Lying on the bed, she listened to the muffled silence of falling snow.

When she woke up it was almost dark. She dialed Jerry’s number but hung up after three rings. Why bother. There was nothing he could do or say now. If something explainable had happened, he would have called her. She felt vengeful and angry; but first of all, she was hungry.
In the restaurant every candlelit table seemed to host a happy couple. The sight was nauseating, so she took a table near the windows so she could have the illusion of being by herself watching from inside as random snowflakes caught the light.
“Would you welcome company?”
She recognized the smooth baritone.
“Sure. Sit down and I’ll treat you to dinner. The sonofabitch is paying.”
“Nah. He didn’t do anything to me. We’ll split it.”

They were well into the vichysoisse when Jerry and an athletic woman in a mint green pant suit stepped into the restaurant. She had a headful of dark curls and no makeup. Jerry looked around and caught Alexa’s eye. Expressionless, he swung his gaze over to Jack, who was buttering a roll.
Alexa started to stand up, then sat right back down.
Jack looked up. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. For a minute I thought I was going to die, but I’m okay. He just came in. With his wife.”
Jack waited quietly for her to say more.
“If I were to guess, I’d say he told her that the reservations were for the two of them and he wanted to surprise her.”
“Hmm. How else to avoid the hangman? I feel kind of sorry for him.”

Alexa smiled, “I don’t. I feel sorry for me. Some men think that the only promises that count are the ones they make to their wives. I think a promise is a promise, period. If she does find out about us, he’ll say what a terrible mistake I was, and how sorry he is that he hurt her. Just like all those politicians and movie stars. Doesn’t it matter that he lied to me? That he hurt me?”
Jack shook his head. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
She raised her glass of fine white Burgundy: “To hard earned experience.”

They talked about the Yankees and Henry James, and Jack’s affection for the original Mississippi bluesmen, how he might like the cool jazz apartment. His big dream was scuba diving on the reefs of Australia, disappearing into the dangerous silence forty feet below the surface. Hers was opening a bookstore on the shore in Maine.
His father had died suddenly a month before, and this weekend was a chance for him to catch a breath.
“Were you close?” Alexa asked.
He took his chin in his hand, “Recently, yes. He helped me through my divorce. I feel out of balance now, like there’s nothing on the other end of the see-saw.”

After the Crêpes Flambées had settled and the haze of fine wine had begun to lift she said, “If I don’t do something, I’ll feel like a doormat. I just feel like every time he’s told me he loves me, wants to spend the rest of his life with me, you know, all that stuff, he was just playing me.”
“He might have really cared about you, but getting divorced is a bad business.”
“He should have thought of that when he was making me promises. The thing is, I was crazy enough about him to have gone on seeing him if he had just been honest about it and said that he had no intentions of leaving his wife.”
“You’re a young woman. He probably figured you wouldn’t want to waste your youth on him.”
“But isn’t that something we should have talked about? Just be honest with me!”
“I’m not making excuses for him.”
“I know. But do you agree that a little tiny bit of vengeance would not be out of order?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I understand your not wanting to have him pay for your dinner, but could you just play along with me here for a couple of minutes?”

Alexa explained her plan, then they got up and walked over to the table where Jerry and his wife were sitting.
She put her hand on Jerry’s shoulder and bent down to kiss his cheek, “Hi Jerry! I’m so glad you made it! We missed you! Don’t worry, we waited a while, then went ahead and had lunch.” Jerry opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t get a word out before she barreled ahead. “You remember my husband, Francisco.”
“Good evening,” Jack said, with as much of an Italian accent as he could muster.
“Hi Francisco, this is my wife, Geralyn.” Jerry gestured toward his wife, who was looking at Jerry, then at Alexa and Jack, and back to Jerry.
Jack went around to the other side of the table, picked up her hand, and kissed it, “Signora.” Geralyn nodded and half smiled.
“I don’t want to disturb your dinner, but didn’t want to leave without saying hello.” Alexa took Jerry’s hand in both of hers. “It’s been much too long. You’ve got my number. Call me and we’ll get together for a drink.”
Jerry nodded, and they all said, “Nice to meet you” to each other, then Alexa took Jack’s arm as they walked out of the restaurant.

Once out of sight, they both stopped to laugh for a moment, “You were magnificent, Francisco.”
“I can’t imagine what he’s going to tell her,” Jack said, “But I think you were magnificent too. You put the ball right back in his court.”
“Except there is no court any more.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. There’s nothing here any more,” she patted her heart. They stood for a moment, each unsure what the next step was.
“So,” Jack began, “a nightcap?”
Alexa smiled. “Thanks, but I’ve had quite enough for tonight. I’ve really enjoyed it, though.”
He handed her his business card, “Maybe we can meet in the city? I mean, we really don’t know each other at all.”
“Great. I’ll call you soon. By then I should be fairly normal again.”
“I hope not.”

Ann Anderson Evans has been an entrepreneur, legal secretary, university professor, linguist, writer, twice a mother, and twice a grandmother. She speaks six languages. She has lived in Greece, Austria, Germany, Israel, and Spain. She’s a yogi, a foodie, a wine lover, piano player, and choral singer. She resides in Hoboken, New Jersey with her third husband.