I have the bacon on a plate and am scooping eggs out when I feel him enter, his heavy presence as palatable as a burst of hot air. I grin, knowing what is coming, before I feel his hands on my ass, gripping and squeezing before he slides his hands around my stomach, coming up and brushing my br**sts. He nuzzles my neck. “You can’t possibly expect me to eat food when you’re naked.”
“I’m not naked. I’m almost naked,” I protest, slipping out of his hands and carrying our plates to the bar. “Now sit. I didn’t get up at 4:30 to have you ignore my breakfast.”
He obeys, moving my plate till it is next to his and pats the stool. “Well, almost naked, if that is how you call it, looks damn tempting.”
“Thank you. You can thank Valentine’s Day, last year for that.”
He tilts his head. “Is that what I got you?”
“And a watch. But I didn’t feel like dripping diamonds while flipping bacon.”
He grins. “Understandable.”
“What’s the call with Helsinki about?”
“Rebranding. We’re splitting an entity into two parts and need a new brand for the new arm.”
Stewart works for a venture capitalist firm. They purchase assets that are typically struggling, then paint a new face on them, streamline their production processes, and use their bulk buying power and outsourcing to reduce costs. Many of his subcontractors are in Finland and India, which makes every hour of the day a business hour. He treats his new assets like children, becoming emotionally invested in their futures, their successes and their failures. I love his passion, and understand the time commitment and place in his life that his work possesses. In his life, work is first, and I am second. I am okay with that standing, just as he is okay with the fact that I will not make our relationship exclusive as long as I have that second-place ranking.
It doesn’t stop me from loving him any less. It doesn’t stop my heart from tugging when he smiles. It doesn’t stop my recognition that he loves me back, as much as his heart and schedule will allow. I don’t want our world to be any different than it is right now. A change in his priorities will mean a change in our relationship. A change in our relationship will mean that I have to choose between him and Paul. And I can’t do that. Not right now. I’m not ready for that jump.
He glances at the kitchen clock and bends over, placing a soft kiss on the edge of my lips. “Leave the dishes, babe. Estelle will be here soon. I’m gonna take that call.”
I nod. “I’m gonna head back to bed.”
And I do. I lose the lace underwire bra and matching thongs and crawl back to bed, the motorized blinds dragging the room back into darkness. My heavy breakfast and early morning causes sleep to come quickly, and I don’t wake ‘til late morning.
VENICE BEACH, CA
The bookstore is busy, a rare occurrence, and the afternoon passes quickly. I sell a grand total of sixty used books, bringing in a whopping hundred bucks. The new books do all right, too, bringing the owner some much-needed revenue and guaranteeing me at least one more month of employment. I lock up at eight, heading next door to the bar that shares our awning.
It is crowded, half tourists and half locals, familiar smiles greeting me as I grab a bar stool. Bip, the bartender, a pretty brunette that has managed to look eighteen for a good ten years longer than physically possible, pops a Corona top and slides it over to me.
“No sweat babe. Where’s your sexier half?”
“Somewhere on I-5. He’s with Nick and Moses, headed back from Del Mar.”
“They catch good conditions?”
“According to the text I got, the waves were great, but too many shoobies, it was a zoo.”
“That’s the problem with this time of year. Tourists everywhere.” She lowered her voice, glancing around before shooting me a smile. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Hey, me either.” I toasted her, taking a swig of the beer and glancing at my watch. “Can you put in a large philly to go? I’m gonna head home before it gets too crazy.”
Venice Beach has been romanticized by Hollywood and an impressively deceptive tourism marketing campaign. They paint our sidewalk stands and street performers in a romantic light, touting our artistic graffiti and muscle beach as unique oddities. In actuality, it is the armpit of LA tourism. Panhandlers and druggies everywhere, homeless getting rich off of intimidated tourists and families of four too far from the safety of their car to say no. We have at least ten murders a year, over three hundred aggravated assaults and around a hundred rapes. The majority of those crimes happen to tourists, prostitutes, and drug users. Paul and I fall in the lower-risk demographic, but that doesn’t mean we are safe. Locals do their best to protect other locals, our misfit band of eccentrics attempting some basic form of civility. But I am a young, attractive female. Walking down the boardwalk after dark alone scares me. I call Paul and let him know I’m on my way home.
“Awesome babe. I’m twenty minutes away. Gonna drop the boys at their place and then I’ll be home. Call me when you get to the house, so I know you’re safe.”
I agree, hanging up my cell, and slip it into the pockets of my sweatshirt, the cash in my pocket burning my skin. Then I grab my food, throw a twenty on the bar, and head into the crowded night, a half-mile from home.
I move quickly through the crowds, my hood up despite the warm night air, ignoring the catcalls from men and the panhandlers who know me yet still stick out their hands. I nod to familiar faces and share words with a few locals. Then the crowds thin and I am on the sparse path that covers the last quarter-mile home. There are still tourists here, ones who didn’t realize that the South Venice parking lot is the wrong place to park, a long walk from the attractions, a much closer lot a quarter-mile north. We all hurry, the night sky unsettling, too many shadows and dark alleys in between the million dollar bungalows that face this oceanfront broken sidewalk.
Then I reach our street, head a block east and jog up the steps to our home, my key out and ready, the deadbolt flipping in the lock as soon as the door is fully shut. I strip off my sweaty pullover and call Paul, letting him know that I am home.
I hear his jeep rumble as I pull two beers from the fridge, popping their tops and carrying them to the coffee table, flipping the dead bolt switch on my way. He bounds up the steps, flinging the door open and crossing our living room in four easy steps, pulling me into his arms and taking my mouth. I jump, wrapping my legs around his waist and he catches me, his hands strong on my ass, his mouth desperate on mine, like he has been away a month instead of a day. He carries me to the couch and tosses me down, the worn leather soft against my back, his mouth following my descent before softly releasing me. His eyes linger on me, a smile on his face before he wheels around and shuts the door.