Paul. The other man in my heart, also MIA in my life. His absence pulls at my heart. Paul, the lost lamb of our family. What happened to Jennifer wasn’t his fault. Things happen, regardless of all of our best intentions and precautions. Things happen, and when disaster struck, we lost him. He was always too sensitive, too caring, too loving. Quick to accept blame when it wasn’t cast on him, quick to perceive if someone was mad or if feelings were hurt. He carried the happiness of our family on his shoulders, as if his young frame could support so much pressure. And that summer, ten years ago, was a bomb to that structure, a heavy cannonball dropped onto a little boy’s house of sticks. We should have known he wouldn’t recover. We should have known that it would push him away. Now, he lives as if that event never happened. As if Jennifer, and the rest of us, never existed. I think the mere presence of us causes him pain. We are nothing but a walking billboard of what used to be. So he pretends we aren’t here. And he walks through life with a smile on his face.
I don’t know if that makes me happy or sad. I am relieved that he is happy, in press photos his grin stretches wide and easily, videos show that his step has a bounce in it. But I am sad for the brother I have lost. One who seems like he will never return home.
He lives around here somewhere. I don’t have his number, can’t find anything but a manager’s number on the promotional website bearing Paul’s pseudonym. The pseudonym irks me, a visible sign indicating his separation from our family. Linx. What a stupid last name, picked by a nineteen year old kid with more pu**y and dreams than he knew what to do with.
I exhale a burst of dirty air and glance towards the waves. The videos on his website show him here—attacking waves with the same ferocity he exhibited as a kid. So when Shannon wanted some gossip time, I suggested Venice Beach, hoping to kill two birds with one stone.
I take a sip of coffee and glance at my watch, my mind bouncing off Paul and back to the surprise sighting of Stewart’s blonde. Fifty-two minutes. Who sits in a bar at two o’clock on a Monday afternoon for almost an hour? I push back from the chair; Shannon’s dialogue pauses, my eyes glancing down to see her looking up with a look of surprise. “Where’you going?”
‘Just a minute,” I mutter, throwing my bag over my shoulder and zig-zagging through the crowd. Then I pulled on the handle and stepped into the bar.
A woman should be dressed properly to go into battle. But I wasn’t expecting to confront Stewart’s Barbie Doll this morning. I was only hoping to see Paul. So I had worn an outfit Paul would recognize me in. I could envision the exact moment when he saw me. How his eyes would light up and he would toss an arm over my shoulder, a soft kiss snuck in and placed on my cheek. And, in that moment, everything would be perfect. He would understand that I still love him. That I will always love him—no matter what. And he will hug me and tell me that he loves me too. That he will allow me to be a part of his life once again.
So I wore a suit, my normal skin for work and my non-existent social life. Paul would recognize a suit. It would stand out on the boardwalk. Cause him to stare a little longer, long enough to see my face and know that it was me. But now, walking into the bar filled with flip flops and tan bodies, I wish that I had at least worn my good heels. Prada would help me have the confidence to approach this woman. Prada would hold my hand and whisper in my ear that I am cool enough, hip enough, to approach this woman who is probably ten years my junior.
My eyes take a moment to adjust to the dark, neon lights coming into focus, the floor beneath my heels sticky. Only two figures at the bar, neither which were blond. The bartender, a redhead pixie who shoulda worn sunscreen earlier in life, raised her chin at me. “What’cha need?”
My palms are suddenly clammy and I wipe them down the front of my skirt, trying to think of some plausible need for my presence. “Do you have a restroom?”
She pops her gum, the crude, loud crack grating my nerves. “It’s outside, past the bookstore. Down that hall.” She points, and my eyes follow the path to a dingy hall, just past an open doorway. Glossy paperbacks are stacked on either side of the door, on wooden chairs that seem to sag beneath their weight. Curiosity makes my eyes linger, the reggae music from inside draws me closer to the door.
An arm chooses to snake out the door, startling me, coming from the height of a small child, pushing a heavy hardback out the door until it bumps into an adjoining stack. I step forward, peering inside, and see Stewart’s blonde sitting, cross-legged on the floor, books stacked all around her. She works here. The realization that she is not a barfly is relieving. I step backward but her head snaps up, and our eyes meet for one terrifying moment.
She smiles. “Please don’t leave. I can turn the music off if it bothers you.”
“Oh no – it doesn’t bother me.” I wipe my annoyingly sweaty hands on my skirt, trying to find my mindset. Why had I come in here? What was my ball-busting plan of attack? Suddenly, my lack of designer shoes seemed to be the least of my poor planning. “I was just looking for the bathroom.”
She frowns regretfully, a ridiculously adorable gesture that made me want to throttle her. “Damn. I was hoping for a reader. It’s been crickets today.” She stands, brushing off her shorts, leaving the pile of books behind. “Want me to show you the way?”
“No, it’s okay.” I glance around. It’s a small space, a few rows squeezed into a small room lined with floor to ceiling shelves, shiny new books squeezed next to worn paperbacks with broken spines.
“I know that look. What’s your weakness? Steamy billionaires with foot-long junk? Or a serial killer taking out half the women in Mississippi?” She shoots me a wicked grin, winking conspiratorially.
I blush, hating the smile that is fighting its way to my face. This is not how this is supposed to go. She shouldn’t be cute, or likable. I had expected upper crust, snooty, digging perfectly manicured fingers as far into Stewart’s money pile as they could possibly go. “Janet Evanovich.”
“Oooh! I knew I liked you.” She jogs past me, humming along with the music as she drags a stool over to a shelf and stands, reaching up and trotting her fingers over titles. “You want the latest?”
“Have you read Stephanie Bond?”
I glance around the store, trying to pick up clues in the brief moment of her distraction. “Uhh.... No.”
She jumps off the stool, crouching down briefly and skimming over a second shelf, snatching a quick book from the rack and tilting her head towards the register. “Anything else before I ring you up?”