Literary Orphans

Having Her Cake
by Debra Brenegan

sadnessisablessing___copie___copie_by_victoriaaudouard

Lysette was exhausted.  She was also a little PMS.  If the people in front of her didn’t move it, fast, she couldn’t be held responsible for her actions.  Well of course she could.  She wasn’t that way.  She was just stressed.  And tired.  Lysette tried to take a deep breath, but just re-clenched her jaw as the slow-as-molasses hotel redhead took a credit card from the tall, bald man tap tap tapping his pen and ran it through the whiz strip machine.  The man stopped tapping long enough to sign.  He started tapping again when Red stood transfixed, staring first from the credit card to the man’s signature, then back to the credit card.  “It’s not really exactly . . .” she said.

“Look I’m in a hurry,” he said in a sandpaper voice.  “I wrote sloppy.”  He glanced at Lysette in commiseration.

Lysette blinked, tried to unclamp her teeth.

Red slid the card across the counter and told the man his room number, keeping two fingers on the card.  “Elevators are to the right.  Please join us tomorrow for our famous Sunday brunch.  You can place your reservation now or by calling later.”

We care about YOU.

“Later,” the man said, tapping again.

“Do you need help with your luggage?”
“No!”

Red startled.  Lysette double-blinked.

“I’m sorry.  I’m just tired.  I’ll carry my own bag,” the man said with a sigh.

“Certainly,” Red said and released the card to the man.

The man scooped up his Ritz Carlton hotel key, the various brochures and receipts Red had laid on the counter, and his credit card.  He stuffed everything into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and picked up his bag.  “Good luck with that one,” he mumbled to Lysette as she replaced him at the front of the check-in counter.

Lysette rolled her eyes and willed the man out of her field of vision.  She was almost foaming at the mouth for a drink, could feel a headache crawling up her spine.

When you don’t have time for pain. 

She had a massage scheduled, but not until later.  She’d been up since dawn packing, schlepping, flying, connecting from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale.  Despite her fatigue, a large part of her was delighted she’d made it through the busy season, for the tenth time, and, also for the tenth time, had made it to her favorite ocean-side retreat.  A getaway weekend with no responsibilities and lots of pampering would do wonders to restore the sanity the holiday advertising season had sucked away.

Lysette pursed her lips as Red waded through the check-in routine.  She would not snap at Red, though, like the tall, bald man had.  Lysette was well-trained to tolerate even the most annoying personality types, to negotiate, to bury her irritation fathoms below, close to her stomach.  Only her dentist suspected how agitating life could be; she ground her teeth.  Lysette laid the pen on the counter and waited for Red to finish her speech.   Then she hailed a bellboy (shouldn’t they be called bellpersons by now?), picked up her paperwork and headed for the elevator.

She stopped the young, male bellperson mid-way through his thermostat speech by folding a ten into his hand and was uncorking a nice Oregon Pinot Noir she’d preordered before the door closed behind him.  Lysette poured herself a generous glass and drank it as she unpacked.  Twenty minutes later, she was poolside, resplendent in this season’s DKNY black and white bikini, her preordered Grey Goose extra-dry martini half finished on the little table near her lounge chair, the repugnant complimentary sun products removed from her sight.  She smoothed, instead, whipped coconut oil over her golden skin, ordered another drink, a few oysters on the half shell, an organic chicken club sandwich, something called Choco-Latte Mile-High Torte, Evian and two more towels, one to roll under her neck, the other to wipe beads of sweat from her face.

Indulge.  You’ve earned it.

Finally settled, with the alcohol snaking lazy through her veins, Lysette allowed herself to breathe.  Her belly rose and fell, her shoulders sank, and her eyes fluttered behind her big-framed sunglasses.  The late-afternoon sun toasted her head to toe, warming the stress, pulling at the knots that had started four crushing months before.  It’d been a grand season, she knew, but a killer one.  Lysette had worked countless late nights and weekends to ensure the most successful year yet for all of her agency’s clients, but especially for the fourteen major accounts she was personally in charge of.  She’d topped last year’s bonus by at least twenty percent and already had a call in to her broker for investment advice.

We work hard so you don’t have to. 

Life, though stressful, was good.  Luckily, she could afford to terminate the tension.

“Excuse me, Ms. Van Landingham?”

Lysette inhaled sharply and blinked at the young woman standing near her martini.

“I’m from the spa.  There’s been a cancellation after your appointment and you’d requested . . .”

“Great.  I’ll take it.  Put me down for a body wrap.  Seaweed, if you have it.”

“Seaweed it is.  So sorry to disturb you.”

Lysette waved the woman away, took another big swallow of martini and, again, settled into the lounge chair.  She willed her jaw to unclench.  She was, after all, at the Ritz Carlton.  Ritz Carlton service was the best.

Better than home. 

Now she had both a massage and a body wrap to look forward to. And nothing else.  If she couldn’t unwind here, then she might as well go shoot herself.

Lysette finished the first martini.  She would relax.  Poolside.  Dammit.  No phone calls.  No emails.  No interruptions from Catherine, her ditzy assistant, who wasn’t good at what Lysette considered problem solving.  Catherine could perform many tasks proficiently, as long as they could be distilled to some formula.  In fact, it pained Lysette to imagine life without Catherine to handle her details.  But it was maddening how Catherine could never manage newish situations, would stutter and flutter her way around the logical, business-savvy answer Lysette always had on the tip of her tongue.  Catherine was too hung up on collecting information, checking facts and considering more angles than anyone would consider prudent.  After a few years of experience, a good art director should just know when a jingle, a slogan, a color-scheme will fly, and when one won’t.  But, with Catherine, it was like . . .

Stop.  Lysette ordered herself to stop thinking about advertising, about Catherine, about anything at all related to work.  She was there to unwind, not rewind the past four months.  But, it was always hard to jump off the treadmill.  Her mental legs just wanted to keep going. 

Take time for you.

Lysette stretched her arms over her head, twisted her torso right, then left, and settled back into the lounge chair.  Perhaps the booze was affecting her, but she swore she felt eyes on her.

Be the one he’ll notice. 

She wasn’t in the mood to be noticed.  For once, she wanted to blend into oblivion, unhassled, ignored, invisible.  She closed her eyes again.  The towel beneath her neck stretched at her tension.  She forced her body to go limp, felt the molded plastic of the lounge chair cup her, firmly, like a giant hand.

“Ms. Van Landingham?”

Lysette snapped her sunglasses off to better see the paper someone was holding in front of her.  It was a bill.  No, an order.  Her food order.  The bill for it.

“Sign, please?”

Lysette signed her room number, ordered another drink, and sat up to better eat the meal that the waiter had laid out on her side table.  It was then she first noticed the impatient man from the check-in counter sitting directly opposite from her, grinning.  His tall, bald, sunglassed self was staring the stare she’d already felt.  There was a blonde woman in the lounge chair next to him, yakking away in a breathy irritating string.  She had on last season’s ubiquitous low-cut, high-cut, black tankini and sported a respectable tan.  There was something about her, though, besides her awful voice, that didn’t fit in.  Her nails were done, though they weren’t French.  Her hair was swept back in a plebian ponytail, but this was just the pool area.  She sipped a pina colada or some such frou-frouy thing, perfectly acceptable, considering the ponytail.  If the breathy blonde had been on a still show, Lysette would have stopped the presentation, would have decided, on a dime, that the background, the hair, the drink, something, was off.  But this woman was no still shot, so Lysette couldn’t quite put her finger on what didn’t work.

Lysette tilted an oyster shell and let the spice-spiked lovely slip down her throat.  She bit off a corner of the garlic breadstick.   A young man delivered her next martini and Lysette wiggled her jaw back and forth in anticipation.  She raised the too-full glass carefully to her lips and sipped.  The tall, bald man nodded.  Was he nodding to her or in response to something the blonde said?  Lysette didn’t care.  She ignored the nod and the man, and took another sip.  This time, he raised his amber-filled glass to her.

Smooth as you. 

Ponytail caught baldy’s gesture and snapped her head toward Lysette.  Lysette shrank into her chair as the woman’s head bobbed back and forth between baldy and herself.  After some breathy murmurs, which the man responded to with a shrug and a grin, the woman maneuvered out of her lounge chair, slipped into pink flip flops, grabbed the pina colada-thing and headed toward Lysette.

Not going there, Lysette thought and started gathering her things together.

Be proactive.  Make your move. 

But Ponytail was quick to stand guard over Lysette as Lysette slipped on her well-heeled slings and grabbed her martini.

“Excuse me,” came the breathy voice.

When you want to be heard.

Lysette took a quick sip of the martini and tried to remember where she’d seen another lounge area.  The roof?  Yes.  There wasn’t a pool, but who cared?

“Can we talk?” Ponytail asked.

Lysette clamped her jaw.

Ponytail continued, “I’ve got a little problem and I –”

“Sorry,” Lysette said.  “I’m late for an appointment.”  She set the glass on the table and scooped her things awkwardly off of the lounge chair.

“. . . need to talk to someone.  I thought maybe you’d –”
“An appointment.  Understand?  I’m late,” Lysette said as she started to walk toward the elevator.

“. . . help me,” Ponytail said.

“No offense,” Lysette said, over her shoulder.

“Would you get back here?” the tall, bald man said in his gravelly voice.  “You’re making a scene.”  He paused.  “Sweetheart.”

A shiver went through Lysette as she stepped into the elevator and waited for the doors to close.  She couldn’t help feeling the tiniest bit guilty about the stricken look on Ponytail’s face, couldn’t help feeling repulsed by the man and his arrogant smile, couldn’t help regretting not getting even the smallest taste of the organic chicken or the Choco-Latte Mile-High Torte.

 

O Typekey Divider

“Would you get back here?” Michael said, in that way of his.  “You’re making a scene, Darling.”

All I was trying to do was make a connection with the woman, with anyone.  I was feeling my anxiety starting up.  It was like the woman knew.  And she was the only one around I could turn to.  No waiters, no staff.  Just the three of us.  It was late afternoon, well past lunch.  It was actually a little chilly sitting out there by the pool and I had just said to Michael that I wished I had remembered to bring my cover up.  But Michael had this idea in his head that we’d sunbathe, and so, well, you know Michael.  We sunbathed.  To him it was warm enough.  We’d have had to sit on those lounge chairs in a blizzard.

When the elevator doors closed and I realized the woman was gone and I was left alone, completely alone, again, with Michael, I could have cried.  To be on a vacation, a nice one, with him, someone who hadn’t the slightest idea who I was, made my skin crawl.  And the thought of later, having to either feign some sort of illness or submit to the rutting he called lovemaking made me break out in a sweat.  I dreaded the hours I knew would crawl by before we could head back to Minnesota, the painful attempts at conversation, the thousand-and-one little insults Michael would hurl at me disguised as jokes.

“Sandy, sit down,” he said in that same acid tone, and so I did.  I walked back to that damn lounge chair and sat down.  What could I do?  Run screaming from the Ritz Carlton?  I sat down and slapped the usual smile on my face and tried, again, to initiate some sort of adult-like conversation.  I think I asked him what book his book group had picked out next or maybe what he felt like for dinner.  I don’t know.  But whatever I said made him start in on me.

“Do you know what I’ve just realized?” he said.  He had that sick little smile on his face and I just knew I wasn’t going to like whatever he’d say next.

“You,” he said, “are incapable of being in a relationship.”

Well, I thought, here we go.  Time to list my defects.  So I tried to change the subject back to the book club or dinner, but, no, Michael wouldn’t stop.  He was off and running.  I was fat.  I was stupid.  I was a horrible mother.  I embarrassed him at sales meetings.  I couldn’t cook worth a damn.  I was illiterate.  I had a horse face.  I didn’t know plain English.  I had ugly toes, pathetic taste, unsophisticated fashion sense.  And then, of course, he had to start in about my voice.

“You sound like you have emphysema,” he said, with that mean little smirk of his.  “I mean, Baby, are you smokin’ on the side?  Ha ha ha ha ha.”

Oh, funny, I thought.  Another hilarious joke about me, about my voice.  Well, I wasn’t going to just sit there and take it.  Not again.  I jumped up and started walking around.  Oh, I was just burning with energy, but, of course, couldn’t show anything but a smile on my face.  I wouldn’t make that mistake again, not after Toledo.  It’s self-preservation.  Survival!  And that’s when it hit me, really hit me, how unlivable life was with Michael.  We couldn’t even go on a mini-vacation without it coming to this.

I walked over to where the woman was sitting and sat down in her lounge chair.  It was like I wanted a little of her energy to rub off on me.  She had been drinking martinis and had left an almost-full glass there.  I just wanted to taste it, but as soon as I picked up the glass, Michael got that murderous look on his face.  “Just what the hell are you doing?” he said.  “Get back over here where you belong and stop acting like you’re insane.”

Oh, so now I’m insane, I remember saying.  I wasn’t being confrontational.  I just said it matter-of-factly.  I don’t remember what he answered.  He just sat over there grumbling and cursing and ordering me to come and sit next to him, where I belonged.  “Now, Sandy, dammit!” he said.  But I couldn’t move.  Not right away, at least.  I remember thinking how strange it was that he practically despised me, yet insisted that I belonged in that lounge chair next to his.  And I was still upset about his comments about my voice.  Ever since Mom and Randy and the boys, and then Mrs. Bunkers that day at The Sound of Music auditions, and now, of course, Michael continuing the tradition.

I took another sip of the martini.  Then, more than a sip.  I started guzzling it.  So this is what freedom felt like.  Sitting in your own lounge chair drinking anything you wanted and as much as you wanted.  Free to scribble your own name on the bills when they came, to get up and walk away when you wanted to, to leave good food (what a decadent-looking piece of cake!) without a thought to the waste or the expense.  I closed my eyes in rapture.  I imagined taking bite after bite of the chocolate wonder, letting calorie after calorie down my gullet without a thought as to where the fat molecules would land.  I could do it.  I could eat the whole thing.  And more.  So much more.  Michael could hang himself but I wasn’t going to listen to another word, wasn’t going to scurry forth under his orders.  I would sit there, in the sun, where it was warm, the booze burning through me, my heart strangely calm for the first time in ages.

O Typekey Divider

The roof was as sparsely populated as the pool lounge area had been and Lysette paced, agitated, though she didn’t know why at first.  Then it came to her.  She’d left her hotel key next to the slice of Choco-Latte Mile-High Torte on the little table by the pool.  She could go back for it or she could just tell Red at the front desk that she’d lost it and needed a new one.

Your happiness – our mission.

She’d just get a new one later, on her way to the spa.

Lysette turned a molded plastic lounge chair so it directly faced the sun and settled into another entourage of towels, folded just right, hastily procured for her by another of the hotel’s charming staff.  She had ordered another martini as soon as she’d stepped off the elevator, but it hadn’t arrived yet, so she took giant cleansing breaths to restore the fleeting sense of peace she’d worked up before Ponytail’s rude interruption.

She considered ordering more food, but Lysette was suddenly no longer hungry.  Her stomach felt twitchy, as if she was coming off a case of the flu.  Too much alcohol on an empty stomach.  She should have known better.

Treat your body like the temple it is.

Suddenly, the sun felt inordinately bright, was blazing down on her, making her sweat.  She patted her forehead with one of the towels and winced when she saw a waiter walking among the chairs carrying a martini on a tray.  That was it.  The thought of even another sip made her stomach churn.  Lysette twisted to a sitting position, slipped on her spiky slings and, lowering her sunglasses, headed for the elevator.

She’d pick up her key, after all, and would take a little nap in the cool of her room before her spa appointments.  She’d lunged herself too heartily into vacation mode and her crackling nerve endings were revolting.  Cool calm quiet was what she needed, at least at the moment, not sun glare and extra strong drinks.

Lysette leaned her forehead against the side of the elevator, watching the numbers flash until they slowed and stopped at 13.  She would just breeze by the pool and get her key.  The thought of standing in line, being civil to Red, traveling all the way down, then half-way back up was killing.

The choice is easy!

The elevator door slid open and Lysette took in the scene without hesitation.  Suddenly, she hadn’t a thought about her stomach or drinks or advertising slogans.  In a dozen strong strides she was there, one spiked sling in her hand and the other kicked off for good measure.  She crashed the shoe over and over again at the shiny bald head until he released the choking grip he had on Ponytail (who was sitting on the chair among Lysette’s towels), until he slumped with a spasm to the concrete and Ponytail gasped, then blubbered, her neck swelling darkly, the crumbs of the Choco-Latte Mile-High Torte witness to it all.

There were no words.  Locked eyes.  One good splash.

The elevator door slid open and the waiter stepped out with his tray.  “Ms. Van Landingham,” he said.  “Your drink.”

Lysette met the waiter at the elevator door, signed, took the martini off the tray and nodded her thanks.  The waiter took the hint and backed into the open elevator.  Lysette touched her lips to the glass, then inhaled deeply.  The late afternoon sun warmed her back and shoulders.  A small breeze wafted the scent of whipped coconut oil past her nose, to the pool, where it hung over the malevolence just beneath the surface.  Ponytail stood staring at the water, cheeks wet, hands softly draped around her purpled throat.  Lysette walked near Ponytail, dropped the martini and the glass shattered and scattered.  She noted her shoes, the one had a damaged heel, and sighed.  We’re just a call away.  Ponytail made strange noises in her throat, tears streaming, lips tight, while Lysette walked to the alarm button and held her finger over it.

Slowly, the bubbles stopped.  Ponytail turned and nodded to Lysette.  Lysette pushed the button, then dove into the pool.

 
–Story by Debra Brenegan