“I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“If you wanted to stay so badly, why didn’t you? Why come back?”

“My parents, they were expecting me. I had to come home. I had to register for university courses. I couldn’t just….float away into this dream world.”

“Maybe you should have. It sounds like it was an emotional trip.”

“It was,” you say “It was my first trip abroad. My first trip alone. The first time I spent more than a week away from my parents. More than a week away from my home and this tiny town.” you poked at the fire mindlessly, watching the embers pop and swirl up the chimney. “The first friends I made that weren’t from…..here” the last word tumbles off your tongue like a tired marathoner 10 feet from the finish line.

I looked you over as you sat on the opposite side of the couch, bundled in a knitted quilt you eyes staring through the fire and into the past. “You should have gone back.”

“I did.”

You had stared at the phone in your hotel room for quite a while. Long enough that the evening sun had slipped away past the artificial horizon of Toronto’s tall skyline. Your parents were waiting for your phone call. You were to tell them when your flight was arriving. They were to meet you at the airport and drive you all the way back home. You just couldn’t seem to reach out and pick up the phone. Calling them made would make it harder you surmised. With a resolute sigh you picked yourself off the bed and dragged your feet into the shower stopping only to marvel in the compulsive order of the bathroom filled with neatly placed towels and small personal sized shampoo, conditioner, and body washes.

As is the norm for most hotels, the water trickled out in a gentle stream that seemed more in keeping with how you would water a delicate flower than how you would shower. You wrestled with the tiny tube of shampoo and tore open a fresh, hard, boring bar of soap. A few minutes later you stood naked in the bathroom. Your toes curling and grabbing the thin bath mat as you wiped the excess water from your body. Wrapping yourself with a pristine white towel you grabbed the generic hairdryer and fluffed your hair to a reasonable dryness before wandering out of the bathroom. A few moments later you returned, and went through the mindless process of applying creams, lotions, makeup and perfume while standing in your underwear. You couldn’t help but smile at yourself in the mirror. The red push-up bra and matching panties looked great and you knew it. After rustling through your bags you found the dress Leon had given you on the day you left. You had yet to wear it, and knowing that you were heading home tomorrow, it was unlikely that you’d get an opportunity to wear it anytime soon.

Returning to the bathroom you draped it over your body and turned yourself side to side to look at how it would hang on you. Pleased, you slipped it on. The dress was also red with an offset skirt bottom, thigh high on the left side, and slightly below the knee on the right. The top of the dress was loose but elegant top it hugged your waist perfectly and showed off your less than curvaceous figure in a manner that would certainly garner attention. You slipped on the matching heels and admired yourself in the large bathroom mirror. “Not bad Leon” you thought to yourself, “you’ve got a good eye my friend.” You dawned the necklace you mom gave you for your 16th birthday, a white gold chain with tear drop pendant containing your birthstone, and the earrings that Celine gave you, hanging elegantly like mini crystal chandeliers from your ears. With a smirk you reached back into your makeup bag and produced an as yet unused tube of lipstick. Popping the top off and twisting it you watched as the dark red lipstick came into view. This was your gift to yourself. You had never worn such a shade. It always seemed the color of starlets and high priced call girls. The color of seduction. The color of sex. Before you lost your nerve you applied it, smoothed it with your lips and marveled at how it completely changed how you looked. Before you were demure, pretty, and appealing. Now, you looked aggressive, seductive, and deadly. Returning to the room you grabbed your purse and your room’s key-card then made your way down the hall to the elevators and off to the hotel lobby bar.

You felt like a celebrity. You felt the eyes of everyone being drawn to your presence as you sauntered down the hall to the bar. The men looked on you with guarded lust, and the women looked on you with either disdain or envy. You ignored them all. Reaching the bar the attendant just bowed his head slightly and smiled, motioning you on through without even a thought to ask for your ID. Inwardly you chuckled but continued through, channeling your inner Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Upon reaching the bar you found an open spot.

The dutiful bartender turned to meet your gaze, smiled as he looked at you and asked, “What would you like tonight miss?”. It was a question you had neglected to anticipate.

Taken aback for a moment your spluttered out your request as best as you could manage, “Wine. I’d like, I’d like a glass of wine…..please.” Should you have said please? Do sultry vixen celebrities say please or does it ruin the mystique? Should you have just demanded the wine?

Before you could answer any of the questions swirling around in your head the bartender replied courteously, “Ok. But which would you like?”

“Shit.” you thought to yourself. Celine and Leon always chose the wine. All you did was drink it. You hadn’t the first clue about what to get.

“Semillon Icewine” a voice uttered from behind your right ear. “She’ll have a glass of Semillon Icewine, and you’ll put it on my tab.” the bartender nods in confirmation and you turned to say thank you. Immediately, you recognized the man who made the order. “Glad you decided to visit me in the bar.” he smirked, flashing his impossibly white teeth. It was, of course, your taxi companion. The salesman and potential sleazeball. If it weren’t for the fact that he believed you to be a lesbian, it was an absolute certainty that he would be oozing sleaze from every pore within seconds. “Come, I’ve got a table already over here.” he motioned with his head to a quiet corner of the bar where another man and woman were sitting. He threw down a few bills and grabbed your wine as well as his drink and turned to motion you again to his table.

You quietly decided in your head, “Why not.” and made your way to the corner table.

“I’m sorry actually I didn’t catch your name.” the salesman queried on route.

“It’s Alcina.” you responded politely.

“Alcina, love to see ya.” the man muttered softly to himself in a self absorbed mnemonic technique to ensure he remembered your name. “I’m Chase.” he stated emphatically, almost as if she was already supposed to know this information. He turned back to the table and the two people waiting there. “Look who I found” he exclaimed, “it’s the french model I told you about.”

They both raised their eyebrows and smiled, clearly surprised that the story he was telling was actually true. “Alcina I’d like you to meet my colleagues,” he continued, “this frightfully charming man is Joseph.” the large round shouldered black man stood and extended his hand, “Alcina.” he took your hand in his large but surprisingly soft hand and nodded. “and this beautifully radiant creature is Inessa.” Inessa didn’t stand but simply smiled and nodded.

“Nice to meet you both.” you politely stated trying not to notice how both Joseph and Inessa were looking you over from head to toe.

“So you are a fashion model?” Inessa questioned first. “In Paris no less?”

“Yes.” you stated plainly, hoping to leave it like that.

“Chase tells us that you left your partner there?” Joseph continues the background check.

“Yes.” you again reply plainly. Trying to be curt and boring as to not encourage additional questions.

“Her name was Celine.” Chase interjects like the over eager kid in the front of math class all too excited to blurt out the answer.

You turn to Chase and scowl. “Yes, her name is Celine.” you repeat roughly.

“Interesting.” Joseph accidentally mutters out loud.

You turn now to Joseph with daggers in your eyes, ready for an attack, “Why is that interesting?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Joseph replied defensively.

Chase interjected again, eager as ever, “Joseph was saying earlier that it’s not fair when pretty girls are lesbians.” Joseph looked at Chase intently, his head slightly cocked to one side as he was quite obviously trying to stop Chase’s lips from moving using only his mind. “He said he doesn’t mind when they’re all butchy and manly, but when they’re pretty it’s not fair.”

“And why isn’t it fair” you ask Joseph directly. Clearly his candid talk was assisted by the lip liberating libations of liquor; but that didn’t mean he didn’t felt this way. Quite the contrary. Those truths spoken under the influence are more often than not the feelings we try to hide, even from ourselves. You looked straight at Joseph like a stern principal would at a misbehaving student.

“Awww shit.” Joseph swore, “Look I meant no disrespect….I was just saying….”

“What?” you continued, “What is it that you were saying Joe?” you pushed.

“It’s just. There’s like a 50/50 ratio of men to women right? 50/50 in all the world. And sure you may say ‘oh there’s only one for me’ but we all know that’s a bunch of hooey. Reality is, we’d just like it if she’s ok for personality, but g’damn for looks.” he finished the thought, then looked back at you clearly concerned that he’d dug a deeper pit for himself. “I’m just saying that it’s not fair because we’re already limited to who we get to be with, and then you end up being gorgeous, but not interested in any guy…ever? That’s just mean  man.” the last sentence was punctuated by a large gulp of whatever drink Joe he had in his glass. He settled the empty glass onto the table with a thud and looked back up at you his eyes darting from Chase then to Inessa nervously.

“So you would prefer me to be into guys, so that way when I reject you it’s not because I’m not attracted to men, it’s because I’m not attracted to you….specifically.” You finished your sentence with ice draping over your words, and quietly sipped a small taste of wine enjoying watching Joe squirm.

Joe looked around at the table, “Aw shit.” he muttered. “When you put it like that….”

“She sure put you in your place there Joseph.” Inessa chuckled and patted on the seat next to her encouraging you to sit next to her. She turned to you, “Don’t mind Joseph,” she cooed with the hint of a long lost Russian accent, “he’s just a big old bear that can’t hold his liquor.” She finished her sentence by looking over at Joe and winking as the group of them burst into laughter.

Over the next few hours you found out more than you would have expected from these strangers. Joe was recently divorced and had two kids. One was only a few years younger than you, the other was just starting kindergarten. Joe had said both were “mistakes.” As he put it, “When my daughter was conceived we said, Whoops……when my son was conceived we said ‘Aw shit’.” He had married young. His high school sweetheart as he put it. The biggest mistake in his life. He lamented on all the lost time and opportunities. “I grabbed the first girl that looked at me and thought she was the best thing that happened to me.” Joe languished. “She wasn’t though. She was just the first thing. When is the first thing ever the best? I just didn’t know any better.” Before leaving high school his now ex wife was pregnant with their daughter. They got married 3 months after graduating and limped through a tired, unhappy existence for 16 years until his ex wife discovered he was cheating on her and divorced him.

“Served you right” Inessa chimed in, her subdued Russian accent getting stronger after each drink. “If you act like a pig you should sleep in the barn.” Inessa was single and did not have any children. Her ex boyfriend had definitely wanted kids, but Inessa was concerned about losing her freedom to a “bunch of squealing, screaming, pooping rug rats.” as she put it. She was happy where she was and saw no need to change. Her boyfriend ended up sleeping with her former best friend and were now in the process of planning a wedding before her pregnancy showed too much. The pain of the betrayal, though predictable clearly evident in the sneering way she talked to Joe.

“Yes, well it was over a long time before that.” Joe explained. “We just didn’t feel like pretending anymore. My cheating was a convenient excuse to make me the bad guy. The truth is she stopped trying ages ago. Before I cheated we hadn’t had sex in almost a year. How is a man to survive?” Joe raised his arms in frustration.

“If you knew you were drifting apart maybe you should have just separated instead of cheating.” you commented.

“That’s easier said than done Alcina.” Joe admitted “You get into a pattern of thinking that you can’t get out of. You’re locked down and it’s hard to see or hear a solution even if someone points the way.” Joe then turned to Inessa and blurted, “Hey it’s not like you should talk. Didn’t you sleep with that guy from the Paris division while we were there? You knew he was married right?”

“That’s different.” Inessa explained “He was cheating on his wife….I was merely the object of his affection.” she laughed and gulped down her drink, signalling the waitress for another.

“How is it different?” Chase asked inquisitively. Trying his best not to sound judgmental.

“It’s different because I’m not the one cheating. He is. So I’m not in the wrong here.”

“But you knew he was cheating. You knew he was married and you still went back to your hotel room with him.” Joe exclaimed. “How is that different?”

“It just is.” Inessa stated emphatically indicating to everyone that the subject was no longer up for discussion.

“What about you Chase?” you asked him nonchalantly.

“What about me?” he retorted.

“Have you cheated on your wife?”

“I’m not married.”

“Your girlfriend then?”

“Don’t have one.”

Surprised you can’t help but ask, “Why not?”

At which point Joseph interrupts, “Because he’s impossible to please.”

“No I’m not. I’m not impossible to please. I just….I know what I like….what I want. I’m not willing to settle for less than that.”

“Sounds like a great recipe for being alone.” Inessa offers.

“I’m a romantic.” Chase offered, to the groans of his colleagues. “I think when the right girl appears, I’ll know.”

“I hadn’t pegged you as a romantic.” you state honestly.

“Don’t.” Joseph interjects, “He’s not. He’s just afraid to commit and so has impossibly high standards.”

“They’re not high. They’re just what I expect.”

“They’re impossible!” Inessa yells at Chase, her accent now thick as her mother’s. “You say, girl must do this, look like this, like this thing, not like this thing. You have this list and it’s so long that Santa would be jealous of yours.” She sighs, exasperated. “Chase you need real woman, not dream woman.”

“I think it’s sweet.” you chime in. “It’s sweet that he thinks there is a perfect girl for him and he’s holding out for her.”

“Alcina, you’re young so you don’t know this, but there is no such thing as a perfect girl, or a perfect guy.” Joseph blubbers, “No one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has their ugly nasty bits.” Inessa nods in agreement. “You need to find someone that you enjoy their company warts and all. If you find that you’ll be happy.”

“Well I still think it’s sweet.” and Chase smiles at you with his impossibly white teeth, thankful to have your support. Secretly, though, you felt yourself cringe. Thinking about the messy, regret filled existence these people were living in was depressing. Is that what you had to look forward to? Boring marriage? Cheating spouse? Empty single life? Romantic loneliness? You raised your glass and took the last sip of wine, placing the empty glass gently on the table. “I’m heading to bed now. It was a pleasure to meet you all.” you courteously excuse yourself from the table. The three of them stood and without thinking you said goodbye in the french manner, kissing them each on both cheeks. As you did one last quick wave goodbye you couldn’t help but notice all of them were smiling.

The next day you met them again in the lobby. This time you were casually dressed and looked more your age then the night before. Joe did a double take and looked sheepish. With a daughter that was so close to your age you imagined, quite accurately, that he felt guilty for the way he looked at you the night before. Inessa waved both hands emphatically and then pulled you in tight for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Nice to see you again Alcina. I hope we didn’t frighten you off last night.” she laughed, not really meaning it as a serious question.

“I have the distinct impression that I may have made an ass of myself.” Joe lamented. He was more formally dressed now and looking much more dapper than the night previous. From the look of it, it would seem that he was the senior member of this group. Something that you couldn’t have pictured from the night before.

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Chase soothed. “I think Alcina is the understanding forgiving type isn’t she.”

“Today I am.” you answered curtly in mock sternness to their amusement.

“Let me help you with that,” Joe offered, picking up your suitcase. He made it look effortless and you couldn’t help but both admire his strength and detest your weakness. All four of you piled into the airport shuttle van and sat squished shoulder to shoulder. Every turn, stop, bump and acceleration moved the group as a single unit. “Do you think you’ll go back to Paris soon?” Joe asked you suddenly. He tried to look at you as you responded but his own shoulder was in the way.

“I hope so.” you admitted, “but I don’t know when I’ll get the chance.”

“Take it from us hun,” Inessa offered from the back seat, “Don’t let the present hold you back from your future.” You felt her hand on your shoulder then caressing your neck as you might a child, or a dog. You instinctively pinched her hand to your shoulder with your head, leaning over to the side and sighing.

Shortly after the shuttle arrived at the airport and everyone extracted themselves from the van. Chase tipped the driver, and Joe once more picked up your luggage. “Shall we?” he asked, ever the gentleman now that he was sober. The four of you continued through the airport, checked in, passed through security, and then sat at your gate, waiting for the plane to arrive.

“Where are you guys off to after this?” you asked, ashamed that you hadn’t taken more of an interest in their jobs before hand.

“We’re stopping in Winnipeg for a few days to meet with some clients, then it’s back to the home base in Vancouver.” Joe stated dryly. It was now a certainty that he was in charge.

“You know, I never asked you what you guys did for a living.”

“It’s boring Alcina. Very boring. But it pays the bills.” Inessa answers in jest.

The gate attendant called the passengers to board, and one by one they filed into the plane. Chase, Joseph, and Inessa went first due to their higher standing tickets. Eventually you boarded, walking past them on your way to the back of the plane. They smiled as you passed each already with their laptops open and in the middle of a serious discussion. The momentary glimpse of relaxation you had seen earlier had been replaced as they transformed back into suited businessmen and women.

The flight from Toronto to Winnipeg was short. Shorter still since you fell asleep on the plane and only remembered the take off and the landing. By the time you were able to disembark from the plane, Chase, Joseph, and Inessa were already gone. Once more you were on your own.

You talked to the gate attendant and found where you were to go next. As you wandered through the airport watching friends and family talking about the trip they were just on you couldn’t help but feel saddened. After a few more turns you stood and waited for your luggage at the carousel. As it came into view, a large burly man reached out and picked up your overstuffed suitcase with ease. You turned to look at him, your face already scowling in incredulity when the smell of a freshly smoked cigar wafted passed you and the realization washed across your body. “Daddy!” you exclaimed like the little girl you used to be and you ducked under his arm and close to his large bear-like body. He dropped the suitcase with a thud and wrapped his arms around you squeezing the air from your lungs and making your ribs hurt. “Hey pumpkin.” he grumbled. “Nice to see you.”

You looked up to him and felt your throat close up. Your cheeks wet with tears. It was hard to say if they were of joy or sadness, but you hugged him again as he kissed you, his little girl, gently on the top of your head. “Nice to see you.” he grumbled again, rocking you back and forth like he always did.

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