Frank was gone. He packed his belongings and left. Eileen thought he loved her, that he was looking forward to having children with her, growing old together. A stockbroker by trade, Frank was intelligent, funny, and handsome. Her career in accounting brought in a decent income too, together allowing them to take exotic vacations and drive nice cars. Yet Frank had walked out.
The crisp night air, almost chilly, cooled her skin, easing a bit of the tension behind her eyes. Eileen drove along the dark streets, going nowhere. Blinking lights, the sign for Keb's Bar, called to her as never before. Pulling into an empty parking space near the back, Eileen slid out of her car. In a daze, she walked to the front door.
A single spot at the end of the bar beckoned her. Slipping onto the stool, she ordered a margarita from the attentive bartender. Eileen ignored the sounds around her, hoping instead to dull the pain in her heart with the alcohol. A plethora of memories clouded her brain: meeting Frank, the day he proposed, how handsome he was, and the first time they made love. Sharp daggers pierced her heart with each image and crushed her until she broke down, sobbing.
Rocky ordered another beer, laughing along with his friends. All in their late twenties to early thirties, the four were regulars at Keb's Bar. The group had gone to college together and still gravitated to the local hangout on Friday nights. Giving each other a hard time about their favorite sports teams, all four sat on shiny bar stools and surveyed the crowd.
The lights turned her hair a dozen shades of red, catching Rocky's attention. Natural curls followed the curve of her hunched shoulders, floating down her back. Sobs wracked her slender body as she sat at the end of the bar alone. Beer in hand, he walked over and sat down next to the sad young woman.
"So a man was driving down the road with twenty penguins in the back seat. A police officer stops him and says that he can't drive around with the penguins in the car and should take them to the zoo. The man agrees and drives off. The next day, the same man is driving down the road with those twenty penguins in the back. Again, the police officer stops him and says, "Hey! I thought I told you to take those to the zoo." The man replies, "I did. Today I'm taking them to the movies," Rocky said, his voice changing with the different roles in the joke.
Despite her mood, Eileen started laughing. The joke was corny, but the way the stranger portrayed the characters made it funny.
"Rocky Manville," he said, holding out his hand.
Reed thin, he wore a brown sweater, khaki slacks, and hiking boots. His hair was in need of a trim, the slight curl in the back a hint at how long he had been away from a barber shop. But his eyes were what held her attention. Dark brown, almost black, Eileen noticed a touch of sadness deep in them similar to that found in hers.
"Have you ever been in love with someone, Rocky?"
"Once, long ago, yes."
"I thought someone loved me. Eileen Hulette," she replied, putting her soft hand in his.
Green eyes, puffy from crying, still held tears in the corners. A hint of embarrassment stained her pale cheeks.
"Why can't life be easy?" Eileen asked.
"Ah, but wouldn't people become bored?"
"There are parts of life that go along smoothly."
"Are they the pieces that bother you though, Eileen?"
Eileen took another drink of her margarita before answering. This stranger, Rocky, made her think instead of just giving her neutral answers. He stimulated her brain, and that intrigued her.
"How can you love someone but never really know them?"
Rocky heard pain and confusion in the question, and wondered about the person who hurt Eileen. Having a deep conversation with this woman somehow felt right, even though they'd only exchanged names minutes ago.
"Many people hide their flaws early in a relationship, to impress others," Rocky replied.
"What you mean is they hide pieces of themselves . . ."
"Yeah, in a sense they do. But not everything can be hidden, either."
Her brief nod told him she understood the implication in his words. She had already noticed the jagged scar on his cheek.
"I was seven, trying to show off on the playground at school," he said, confirming the injury happened a long time ago.
The noise in the crowded room soon made it difficult to talk. Friday nights were always busy and the band was loud. Rocky leaned in closer to listen, resting his arm along the back of the bar stool. The young woman's words came in chunks, parts blocked out by the constant beat of the rock music.
"I didn't catch all of that. The music . . ." Rocky said.
"What?" Eileen asked, trying to piece the words together. "It's too loud in here!"
He shook his head, hands out at his sides, palms up. Rocky wanted to turn the volume down on the band so he could hear Eileen instead.
"This is crazy!" Eileen almost shouted.
Trusting her instincts, Eileen stood up and pointed to the door. With a brief tilt of her head, she invited him outside where it was quieter. Rocky didn't hesitate, tossing some bills on the bar and following close behind the redhead. After only a few steps, she turned and reached for his hand, like a stranger he had known before.
Stepping outside, Eileen spotted the subway train. Acting on impulse, she tugged on the brown sweater. Together, they ran down the block to board right before the steel doors slid shut. Finding the car close to empty, they headed to a corner. The clanking of the wheels was almost hypnotic, soothing after the deafening music in Keb's Bar, and neither spoke for several minutes.
Rocky observed this woman he found himself sharing space with, a stranger yet not. He wanted to wipe the remnants of tears off the soft cheeks, hold Eileen close and make things right for her. Only he didn't know what was wrong.
Somehow, Eileen needed to tell this stranger about herself. Content with that thought, she focused on a black mark on the floor and began.
"When I was thirteen, my best friend and I were angels in a school play. For my birthday that year, Latwanda gave me a small figurine dressed the same as we had been. I kept it all these years, along with the card. She moved away when we were in high school, and I never heard from her again."
Eileen hesitated, trying to block out the ugly scene that had occurred in her apartment a few hours ago.
"My parents were strict, seldom allowing me the liberties most children had. An hour a day went into studying religion and they insisted I play a musical instrument even though I hated it and was horrible. I wasn't the best student, so it took me forever to get my homework done. It all pushed me into becoming a loner."
The subway car lurched as the brakes slowed the train for the next stop. A few people entered, letting in a rush of pungent exhaust.
"Latwanda's family lived a couple houses down from ours, so we went to the same school. At recess, I was always included in whatever games she played. I think she was lonesome and sensed I was too. We didn't have many black people living in our city back then and none in our grade. I loved those stolen minutes where I was free to be a kid without my parents there."
Rocky listened as Eileen described her childhood. It was so opposite from his own that he had a hard time relating. He knew he couldn't take the bad memories away, but he might be able to bring her some joy in the future. Some deep protective instinct pulled at him as he looked into her eyes.
"Did you ever want something so bad you swore you would do anything to get it, Rocky?"
"When I was about eleven or twelve, I went to the bicycle shop in town with my friends. One of them needed a new tube since his had a leak. There was the shiniest blue bike I ever saw in the front window. The fenders were chrome and it had one of those banana seats that were so popular back then," Rocky replied with a sad smile.
"I raced home to tell my parents because my birthday was coming up and that's what I wanted. My father decided to teach me the value of earning my own money that year. When school let out for the summer, I had a long list of tasks to do. Each time I completed one, I was that much closer to my dream bicycle."
"I can just about imagine you at that age painting the fence and mowing the lawn."
"The list also had things like washing and waxing my father's car each week, working in the garden, doing the dishes, and cleaning out the garage."
"How much time did you need to earn enough?" she asked.
"My mom got real sick that summer and things were rough. On the nights she was too tired and weak to get out of bed, I had to cook. Many days I ended up doing laundry and the vacuuming too. Since none of those were on my father's list, I didn't earn anything when I helped her. I never got the bicycle."
"That wasn't fair, Rocky. I'm sorry."
"A lot of things weren't that year," he replied.
Another stop made further conversation on the subject impossible. The doors slid open and all the others disembarked. A blast of cooler air swirled in to blend with the stale heat. No one entered their car this time, and soon the subway train took off again.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be like all the others in the neighborhood and play outside, have fun. Each night I swore I would do better in school so my father wouldn't be angry and spank me. He had a horrible temper and my mother always appeased him. She had learned it was easier to keep out of his way than to argue with him. I tried really hard, but nothing was quite right."
"That must have been horrible to live through," Rocky said.
"Yeah, my father seemed to thrive on the anger, smirking whenever he found an excuse to get the paddle out. I met Jake when I was sixteen and he was twenty. He was kind and gentle, gave me little presents, and treated me so good. No one had ever been nice to me like he was. I fell for him right away."
Rocky tried to imagine Eileen's childhood. Though his own hadn't been easy, his parents had loved him.
"Then one day Jake was gone; no hints that he was leaving, no arguments, nothing. Several years passed before I discovered my father had pointed out the sex laws in our state regarding minors to Jake. The implication was that if Jake and I remained a couple, he would press charges. Between the temper, the spankings, and the strict rules, I had already thought about moving out after I graduated from high school. The issue with Jake was the last straw, so to speak," she explained.
"I'm sorry you had to live that way, Eileen."
Somewhere during the last few minutes, they had gravitated closer to each other. Rocky slipped his arm around Eileen's shoulders. The gesture was as much to offer comfort as to touch her.
"It took me a long time to trust anyone after Jake left," she went on, acknowledging his words with a slight nod. "How many women do you know who are still single at my age?"
He chose to be honest rather than placate her. "Most are married. But I'm thirty and I'm still alone too."
"You're attractive, a great listener, and you seem intelligent. Why aren't you married with all that going for you?"
"It helps if I meet the right lady. One who loves me and not what I can do for her," Rocky replied.
"All of that is true. Frank worked in the building next to where I did. The first time I saw him, he was leaving with this beautiful woman on his arm. I didn't even know him, yet I wanted to be next to him. They could have been married or engaged, but I didn't think of that right then. Every day after that I imagined how Frank and I would meet and fall in love."
Rocky felt the fine tremors in her body and pulled her against his chest. A waft of her perfume teased his nose, the exotic scent fitting her.
"How did you get his attention, drop something, bump into him, wear a short skirt?" Rocky asked.
Eileen's slight chuckle reverberated through him, ending in his groin. He wanted to take her home and explore her for hours. But the timing wasn't right.
"A friend of mine set me up on a blind date. Arrangements were to meet at Chico's restaurant uptown. The guy was a real jerk and I decided to leave. He had other plans and grabbed my arm. Next thing I knew, he was holding his nose as blood spurted out and someone pulled me away. I was so shocked that I didn't think about the danger of letting a stranger lead me outside. All I wanted to do was get away from the creep. I heard a voice asking if I was okay and turned to see Frank. He had just finished his dinner when he saw that guy pulling my arm and came to my rescue."
"I hope you had a long talk with whoever set you up," Rocky said.
"We never spoke again, but that was the beginning for Frank and me. We spent several evenings a week together, learning everything about one another. When he asked me to live with him, I was ecstatic."
"I finally had the kind of home I always wanted. There were no fights, though we had our spats. Frank had a lot of stress at his job, and began stopping off for a drink with some of the other guys from work. I couldn't understand why he didn't want to be with me. Frank accused me of being needy. I thought he would be anxious to come right home. Does that make sense, Rocky?"
"I've discovered a good relationship is difficult to maintain without communication. My last girlfriend expected me to know what she wanted without saying a word. No matter how often I tried to explain I couldn't read her mind on every little thing, she would go off on how stupid I was. Her preference for a specific restaurant when we went out was supposed to be obvious to me. If I asked, she ignored me, leaving me to choose a place."
He thought for a minute before going on. "I think there are different levels of love. A couple who is open and shares their deepest thoughts and desires will most likely stay together forever. If they pick what they tell their partner, keeping part back, they'll do okay for a few years or so. But if those same two people, or even just one, are selfish and conceited, the relationship won't last."
Eileen didn't reply, and Rocky figured she was mulling his words around. Another stop came up and the sliding doors whisked open. Three teenagers boarded and sat a few seats away. The trio laughed and joked, each one talking louder. The intrusion into what Rocky had started to think of as 'their space' irritated him, but he remained quiet.
Long minutes passed and the threesome didn't settle down. Rocky rested his chin on Eileen's head, inhaling the fresh scent of her shampoo. His hand found hers, their fingers twining together in a natural move. Snuggling, they each hoped the teenagers would leave at the next stop.
The subway train stopped several more times before the group pushed and shoved each other through the open doors. Rocky sighed at the relative peace that came with their departure. Yet neither he nor Eileen spoke, one lost in memories and the other in fantasies.
Shards of glass, her favorite angel figurine unrecognizable, skittered across the hardwood floor. Eileen cowered in the corner of the living room at the obvious anger in her boyfriend. He grabbed another piece of the delicate collection, smashing the fragile shape against the wall.
Frank held the paper in front of her, claiming it was all the evidence he needed. Deciding she wasn't worth the effort anymore, he tossed the faded card onto the floor and turned. Eileen sobbed as he slammed the front door behind him.
"He thought I cheated," she said in a small voice.
"I was going through a box of things and found the angel card."
Rocky tried to figure out the relationship between her last two sentences. Then he remembered.
"Do you mean the card your friend gave you with the angel years ago?"
"Yeah, that one," she replied. "She wrote a message inside, nothing that I ever thought sounded wrong. Just something about how I would be her favorite angel forever, and that she would never forget that night."
"How did he get . . .?"
"She ended the note with 'Billy'. Frank saw that and flew into a rage. He never let me explain that Billy hated her given name. I tried to tell him how old I was when she gave the angel to me, but he seemed to think I got the card since I was with him."
Rocky was getting a better picture of the man who hurt Eileen. If she were his, he could never do anything to cause her pain. He wanted to learn all about her, to discover how her skin tasted, and if her eyes changed color while making love. He shifted as his body reacted to that last image.
They never moved from their seats as the subway train stopped once more. An elderly couple smiled at Rocky as they slid onto the bench a few feet away.
"I enjoy seeing young couples in love. Too many people today only think about sex, forgetting the complexities of a relationship," the woman said, a tender smile on her face.
Correcting the woman never crossed Rocky's mind. Instead, he just nodded and grinned.
The car became crowded as several basketball enthusiasts filled the seats at the next stop. Another forty-five minutes passed before Eileen looked around and saw they were alone again.
"When I was younger, I had a part-time job babysitting. Going into a home where the husband smiled at his wife shocked me. Being around that type of relationship between married couples was new to me. They unknowingly became my role models," she explained.
"Each time I dated somebody new, I compared men. Within a short time, my dates fell short and I broke the relationships off. Frank slipped in behind my defenses. I thought he was the one, but . . ."
The rhythmic clanging of the wheels filled the lull in conversation as Eileen looked at the stranger next to her. He made her feel comfortable, not afraid to speak her mind, as if she had known him forever. Tears welled up in her eyes as she berated herself for choosing a man that ended up being so wrong for her.
"If you love someone you should trust them, right Rocky? You would give them a chance to explain, wouldn't you?" she asked, almost pleading for him to agree with her.
"Yes, I would. Trust is vital to sustaining a long-term relationship, in my opinion. Exposing your deepest, darkest secrets, knowing your partner will love you anyway. Letting them into your soul, where no one has ever been before. Finding a couple willing to give that kind of commitment to one another is rare."
"All of that is about the same as standing naked in front of them, don't you think?"
Somehow it didn't surprise him she'd been able to strip away the extraneous words and turn them into one simple sentence.
"By opening yourself in every way, not just physically but mentally as well, you allow them to see the real you. Too many people have a separate persona for their job, one for family, and another for friends, until they lose sight of who they are," he said.
Rocky watched Eileen as he spoke. The dim lighting did nothing to detract from her beauty in his eyes. He had met this woman only hours ago, knew almost nothing about her, yet Rocky recognized the vulnerability in her. A hesitation, almost an uncertainty, crept into the way she spoke.
Trying to remember ever having such an in-depth conversation with a woman, Rocky looked away. Previous girlfriends included an ex- fiancée, but she had never wanted to hear about his hopes or thoughts. That was only one of the reasons for their break-up. Eileen might be his destiny.
The hours slipped away, less people boarded, and dawn brought them complete privacy.
"It's time," she said.
Just the two words, but Rocky felt them echo through his head. He wanted her to stay, to ride the subway train forever.
Tipping his head, Rocky never got a chance to answer. Eileen's soft lips covered his, her fingers brushing his cheek. Sucking in a breath of surprise, he unwittingly gave her tongue access to his mouth. Wrapping her up in his arms, he joined in the sweet kiss. Desire that had only simmered before burst into flames.