“So Harper, how long have you been in the city?” Scott asks as he picks up his slippery nipple from the table.
“Huh?” I’d been distracted. New job, new city…and now my first night out with new friends.
If I think too hard about it, waves of panic start to bubble and the deep-seated desire to run soon follows; but isn’t running what I do best? My thoughts seem a little bit too bitter even for me. Nobody forced me to take a promotion that would send me clear across the other side of the country.
“Less than a month.” I say, hoping the smile on my face seems more real than it feels.
Scott shakes his head while staring thoughtfully at the space between my eyes causing me to reach up and brush an imaginary wisp of hair away from the object of his intense gaze.
“That explains it.” He replies with more than a subtle slur, as if he’d spent oodles of time on and has finally figured out the riddle that is me.
He raises his hand with the shot glass still affixed to his long slender fingers and points directly at the spot he is staring at. My brows begin to burn.
Suddenly he says, “Who is that over in the corner with Judy?” His hand moves, but his gaze remains fixed on my forehead.
I turn my own head to look but only catch a glimpse of a shadowy figure more than partially concealed by the low-lit and smoke-filled room. I see her backward- tilted head and smitten face with a half, shit-eatin’ grin plastered across it, and I wonder if she’s found her Mr. Right Now. I’ve only known her a short while, but long enough to know that her career comes first.
“I didn’t kick, bite, and claw my way through four years of a top business school just to wipe some baby’s ass.” She said the very first day I met her.
I had the impression that statement pulled double-duty as a warning to me, or anybody else; that she would stop at nothing to remain that branch’s chief executive officer… at least until she could fasten her foot into the next highest rung. I laughed despite myself. It was the first time since leaving home.
I watch as Judy coyly slips her business card into the outstretched hand as she shakes it goodbye- no doubt with her personal number scrawled on the back- I freeze as a glimmer of green bobs up and down. Was that an Emerald encrusted ring planted squarely on the man’s index finger? No I think not. It couldn’t be. I’ve only seen one other like it, and it belonged on the finger of a man more than 2000 miles away.
Judy, still with the half-cocked grin, saunters back to the table and takes her seat between Scott and me.
“So! Harper, you ready to get up there?” she bellows.
“What? NO! I…I can’t. I mean I can’t sing. Really! Sore throat.” I very badly fake a cough that ends with a real gag. The night’s appetizers find their way too close to my sphincter in my rush of panic, and now everybody at the table’s laughing but me.
“Oh, come on…what you got to lose?” A quick glance at Scott’s glass tells me his hand has found its way back to his mouth and he is now waving for a refill. I look around at my new inebriated pals and think how simple life would be if I drank.
“Go girl!” the previously quiet Annabelle spits out. I look at her with the fiercest Devil’s eye I can muster, and she just shrugs in response. Annabelle isn’t quite a wallflower, but she is very comfortable with the status-quo. She’s game if the rest of the gang is, for what-ever the gang is up for. She is also the ear to bend when one needs one: She has best-friend written all over her.
Now it’s looking like I have to rethink that.
Rising slowly I try one last time to bugger out with “I don’t even know what to sing!” when Judy shouts a little too loudly, “You’ve got a friend!”
The beginning notes have already started as I am led to the stage and turned to face the prompter. Someone from somewhere plants a mic into my pale grasp and before I have time to reconsider…
“When you’re down and troubled, and you need a helping hand…” springs weakly from my trembling lips.
“….La…a… um, oh…nothing is go-ing riiiigght…”
“Close your eyes and thi… think of me…”
Suddenly, there are two voices: A somewhat sultry baritone off to the right slightly behind me and then the embrace. A warm giant, bear-like hug that would squeeze the life from me if I didn’t break free. I spin around in time to see the hand with the green-encrusted ringed finger rise wearily to the face of a man that was supposed to be far away and left behind.
“And sooooon I will be there- to brighten up even your darkest days.” the voice continues…
I can hear the words but no longer see the person standing before me. The words become a faint treble.
“You just call out my name………………………..”
Two hours, seven stitches, and an egg the size of Rhode Island later, I try unsuccessfully to move my head from the white, sterile pillowcase before Judy intervenes with a hand to the chest.
“Don’t move unless you want to pop a stitch!”
“What happened?” I say.
“Seriously? You did a nose-dive backwards off the stage…ok, that wouldn’t be a nose-dive. You pulled a Scarlet O’Hara and smacked the back of your skull on the prompter. Made a horrible noise. By the way, the owner says you owe him two grand for the damn thing.”
“Ooooh… my word! Now I remember.” My hand finds its way to the bandage stuck to the tender, sticky knot.
“Where is he?” I groan.
Judy smiles coquettishly and reaches into her coat pocket saying, “If I’d have known you would have this kind of reaction, I would have told him ‘forget it’; but he insisted I give you this when you came to.”
Hand-written in bold, perfect print were the words YOU HAVE A FRIEND and a telephone number.
I hold the paper and stare at the print for what seems like ages. My head throbs and I feel like crying.
“Somebody special?” Judy asks.
And with that I reply, “I don’t know.”