October 2, 1979
I could hear the pulsing of the techno guitar thumping in my chest like fireworks as Maci pulled her raggedy and pathetic excuse for a vehicle over to the side of the road and shifted us into park. The infectious beat of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” was being blared so loud from our friend Jen’s house that we both thought the lyrics were going to rip the house apart board by board until it was stripped bare. Colorful and mesmerizing lights were sporadically kissing the glass on the windows, reflecting the rainbow into the garden that thrived below, and silhouettes of figures were fading in and out of our view as if apparitions were hosting the get together.
The house itself sat perched on the crest of a small hill, a pedestal that made it just a hair superior than the rest. From the edge of the development, its rooftop was the only one that could be seen peeking up through the tangle of treetops. It stood three stories tall, hosted a two car-door garage, and had a front door so grand that I bet a sofa could squeeze horizontally through it. A fenced in patio rested on the back steps, complete with an oval shaped swimming pool, a stainless steel gas grill, and enough wooden lounge chairs to start a lumber company. Flowers and shrubs accented nearly every corner of the house, splashing hints of white and yellow around like the place was a palette. Needless to say, I was unequivocally jealous of Jennifer Hartley.
Admit it, we all have that perfect friend that doesn’t seem to contain one iota of bad luck lurking in his or her blood. The one that has the successful parents who willingly shovel money to them like snow; the gorgeous house that looks like it belongs in those housekeeping magazines rather than stamped in the middle of nowhere, Maine; the straight-A would-rather-die-than-play-hooky-for-one-day student who just seems to have everything going for him or her. The one that was born into greatness, and was destined for nothing less. For me, those characteristics resided and took shape in the form of Jennifer Hartley: The goody-two-shoes with a halo attached to her scalp from birth and a glowing personality like she was a descendant from Heaven directly. At least, so it appeared.
Since we were close to her, though, Maci and I knew just how quickly that facade could melt—especially under the temptation of liquor. On the outside, Jen was someone you heard about in the paper for receiving Honor Roll; someone that you wanted to meet and become friends with; someone that you wished you were. But the second alcohol trickled down her throat, she morphed into the person she really was underneath all the smoke and mirrors: A party girl with the world at her disposable and a beautiful house at her fingertips. And trust me, she wasn’t oblivious to that fact despite the rather humble and giving air she thrust upon passer-by. She was wealthy, witty, and wicked, a triple threat so ferocious it would leave your head spinning for months.
But that’s why we all became friends with her. We knew that if we glued ourselves to her hips then we’d have an instant one-way ticket to free and unlimited alcohol, partying, and whatever else we could get our hands on. So, turning our pockets inside out and coming up empty handed, we obviously cashed in as quickly as we could on the freight train constructed of pure gold.
“Bitch’n,” noted Maci, stepping out onto the sidewalk and straightening her fringed, suede miniskirt and pink, striped tube top.
I ran a hand through the waves in my hair that curled around the edges of my face like ripples in the ocean. “Did you expect anything less?” I teased. “All of her parties are so chill. Now let’s book, we’re already late as it is!”
“That’s your own fault, you know? I waited in your driveway for fifteen minutes!” she laughed, soaking in the yellow beam of the porch light as we approached the front door.
“And you have my dad to thank, not me. We got into this crazy fight when he found out I was going to a party and refused to let me leave. Good thing he was drinking too much to notice me sneak out the back door, otherwise I wouldn’t even be here.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. Good wasn’t the word I had intended to use when it came to my father’s drinking problem, because I knew it was everything but. Serious, frightening, dangerous, but not good. And everyday it spiraled further and further out of control as the loss of my mother weighed on his heart, nipping and picking at it until there was nothing left. Cecilia, my mother, was a chain smoker and died of lung cancer when I was thirteen. The age where I craved her love the most. Who would I cuddle with when my first boyfriend broke my throbbing heart? Who was going to carve me into the woman I would one day become? Who was going to teach me how to shed unconditional love like the pedals on a flower?
Looking to my father for assistance, I realized that bigger problems were laying ahead that not even a mother could solve. Arthur, my father, did not handle her death well to say the least. Comprehending that the person who wholeheartedly completed you could no longer breathe in your scent, feel your touch, or sense your passion was something he couldn’t wrap his head around. It was if he was gorged from the inside out, appearing to be alive on the outside but being as hollow as a grave on the inside, and I didn’t have the tools to save him. All I could do was watch and pray that this nightmare would suddenly end and that things would return to their original state.
That, I knew, was frankly impossible. How could somebody regrow them self from the ground up if their roots had been plucked clean? He was as dead as he could be, only his innards were still pumping and thrashing with the hope of survival. They believed in him even when he didn’t, but that didn’t change a thing.
Days upon days would tick by without a single word being exchanged between the two of us, and sometimes our paths wouldn’t even cross. Half of the time I forgot he even existed, and the other half I considered him to be more of a patient in my makeshift hospital rather than a father. I had to remind him to bathe, I had to make him dinner every night, I had to nurture him when he was vomiting profusely in the toilet. I had to fetch him his booze, though I knew that was only feeding the fire. What else was I to do, though? If I refused, he’d beat me with his balled up hands and stiff legs until I had no other choice but to comply. If I submitted, he’d drink until he could no longer function; no longer feel pain or longing.
When it dwindled down to it, it was either my life. Or his.
But how could that decision be left up to me to make? How could I choose between the well-being of my father and the well-being of myself when I wanted us both to be okay? I knew that wasn’t an option, but that’s what I needed.
Unable to tear us apart any further, I turned to the one thing that I knew from experience would help me relinquish my troubles to the sky: Alcohol. When I first gathered this thought into my mind, I dismissed it entirely, viewing my father’s condition as reason enough not to get tangled in that web. But as his state of mind continued to diminish before my eyes, I saw only myself as the cause and just couldn’t handle the mess I had convinced myself that I had made.
So, poking my head into the refrigerator and inhaling the overbearing and pungent scent of beer, I did what I had witnessed for nearly five years. My lips curled perfectly around the cool top of the bottle as if it was manufactured specifically for them; the liquid swished around in my mouth, declaring all of the crevices its new territory; it trickled down my throat like a spider crawling down a drain. Everything about my first sip was addictive and indescribable, and it felt like I was floating on a cloud above my worries and life.
That’s how it started: With just one innocent sip. Which quickly turned to one bottle; to two; to eventually three. My father never noticed that his liquor was depleting faster than the crack of a whip, so sneaking a few here and there wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, it had gotten so bad that I was making a trip to the grocery store nearly every day to buy the largest packs they had just to get us both through the night, but I didn’t care. I was finally able to cope with the hand I was dealt, and anything that could do that was worth it to me. Alcohol was both a blessing and a curse: Binding me to my situation while helping me cope with everything swirling around me. It could also change people in a snap, and that change—that overtaking of willpower and self-control—was what caused me to leap to such drastic heights. It was a route that I had not anticipated, but accepted.
And it led me straight to the front door of Jennifer Hartley.
The music instantly smothered me in sweat and adrenaline as I stepped into the bouncing house, feeling the rhythm of people’s hearts thumping to the beat. The foyer was littered with teenagers bobbing and swaying casually to the music as small talk and pick up lines were being thrown like baseballs around the room, and I felt myself ease onto the scene as I spotted the red plastic cups occupying most of their hands.
Good, I thought. I need a drink.
Snapping my eyes to the curved staircase, I tracked the body that was stomping down them like a hurricane and making a beeline for me and Maci. Judging by the wildly curly black locks flowing behind her like a storm, the fit and trim figure that most models could only dream of, and the savvy fashion sense that words couldn’t describe easily, it could only be one person.
“You made it!” squealed Jen giddily, bounding off the last step of the staircase wobbly and folding us into a warm hug caked thick with liquor. “I was starting to think you were going to blow me off.”
“And miss this?” posed Maci with a grin as long as the Mississippi River. “You must be joking! But you can blame little Miss. Punctual here for our tardiness. I swear,” she started, turning her attention to me, “you have no concept of time.”
I laughed. “Sorry, girls, but this hair isn’t going to funk itself. You didn’t want me showing up looking like I just rolled out of bed, now did you?” It wasn’t the best or most believable fib I had ever whipped out of my pocket on short notice, considering my hair barely hung below my jawline, but it would have to do. Besides, it seemed like Jen was too tipsy to put two and two together, anyhow, so I had a feeling that if I had said I was busy slaying a dinosaur she wouldn’t have even thought twice about it.
But I had to be severely careful with such a delicate situation balancing on thin wires, because with one slight slip of the lips, it could all come tumbling down onto my body like stones. The only other person besides myself that was aware of my father’s current condition was Maci, and I planned on keeping it that way. It’s not that I thought Jen wasn’t capable of harboring such a secret between her teeth, because I knew she was more than competent; it’s just that I didn’t think she could do it when she wasn’t sober. Like I said before, she was an entirely different person under the influence and I didn’t trust a rickety minded Jen with anything but supplying alcohol. How could I ensure that my complications would remain under wraps when she was too drunk to control her bladder, let alone her lips? For the promise of one more drink, I bet she’d be willing to broadcast my issues over the school speaker systems, and that’s what scared me the most about telling her. If I did, I knew a vicious grapevine effect would occur, causing everybody to secretly know of my hardships but only whisper about them when my back was turned.
I could barely climb out of the hole I’d been flung into now, so adding all of that dead weight onto my shoulders would surely plummet me back into darkness. A place I was scrambling desperately not to return to.
Following the weaving figure of Jen cautiously, avoiding the rowdy boys hurling priceless antiques to one another in the bend of the staircase as if they were footballs, she guided us to the little hint of light peeking through the gloom of the pit. It was sitting there on the granite countertop island, beaming at us like it was an old friend, and I could already feel my muscles start to relax.
“Dig in!” shouted Jen excitedly, displaying the bottles of alcohol lined up like soldiers on the kitchen island as if she was Susan Stafford on Wheel of Fortune.
I giggled, my eyes feasting on the liquids vibrating to the sound of the music and my head spinning with the joyous thought that I would soon forget all about my life for a while and just feel nothing at all. “You’re so lucky,” I blurted out, snatching a bottle from the counter and chugging nearly half of it in one gulp, “that your parents are gone on a business trip. They’ve left you this house, plenty of booze, and a stereo system with stacks of cassettes! What more could you ask for?” Before anybody could answer, I downed the rest of the bottle and reached for another naturally.
“I hear you,” agreed Maci, adjusting her curly, blonde hair so it tumbled down to one side of her body. “This is totally rad! They trust you with everything, you know?”
We watched as Jen bathed in the compliments we were showering her with, her skin shimmering from both that and the alcohol swimming through her system. Her makeup, I had just noticed, was running down her face like a river from sweat, and her eyes were coated in a blood red tint. “And as long as they don’t find out,” she started, her words spilling together like glue, “they always will.” She chuckled as she reached for a bottle and placed it to her shiny lips. “Now I’m going to go find Jake, so you girls boogey on down and relax.”
Her hips swayed like a swing as she went to hunt down her boyfriend, Maci and I nodding like robots and sipping from our drinks casually. The bittersweet taste of the alcohol was erupting through my pores and tickling my taste buds, but its effects were enough for me to look passed all that. My head was already floating around in the clouds, the puffy atmosphere distorting reality and blocking my memory from creeping to the front of my mind. With just one drink, I was already feeling better.
After rocking to the beat for a few minutes by ourselves in the grand, squeaky clean kitchen, Maci and I decided to scope out the rest of the party guests, though, peering around the corner and into the spacious living room, we discovered that most of them had already fled the scene because it was nearly midnight. All that occupied the room was a couple aggressively kissing on the expensive, leather sofa, a group of girls with their hair all parted to the left side snickering about fashion and gossiping about celebrities in the corner, a lone girl sporting bell bottom jeans with flowers spiraling up the sides nipping at a bottle of water on the couch opposite the lovebirds, and a mysteriously tall man with shades concealing his eyes leaning up against the stone fireplace like a statue. There was something about that man, standing so cooly by himself, that seemed utterly familiar to me.
“Is that . . . ?” awed Maci suddenly. Glancing to her, I realized her eyes were glued to the same slick person mine were, and her jaw was practically on the floor.
“It must be,” I injected, honing in on the subject who still hadn’t swayed an inch since we first noticed him. His jawline was very defined as if it was drawn in by a pencil, his white trousers and denim jacket accentuated his muscles slightly, and his thick, wavy hair was brushed out of his face and trickled down his neck like a stream. Just like it had done before.
Shoving my drink into Maci’s free hand, I briskly strode over to him and faked a stumble to solicit a reaction from his seemingly frozen features. It wasn’t an over-the-top fall-flat-on-my-face kind of topple, but one that would send me to my knees at the feet of the man I once knew. And I realized it worked when I looked up and found myself staring, once again, into his deep blue eyes.
“Victoria Schaffer,” he greeted, immediately recognizing me and easing me onto my feet with his muscled fingers. They felt soft and light against my skin, and I instantly got the chills just being in his presence. I brushed off my skirt and tidied up my brown overcoat that dangled just below my waistline, acting like seeing him again wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“Wilbur Dempley? Is that really you?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. I could tell the second our skin mingled that it was Wilbur Dempley, the man I had once called my own.
“In the flesh,” he stated, tucking his shades into the back pocket of his pants and running a quick hand through his hair. “I don’t believe that I’m seeing you right now!”
So he was shocked, too. After spending two years inside someone’s heart, learning the way that it operated and becoming its conductor, then being snipped out of it like cancer only to reunite with them once again could do that to a person.
“I don’t believe it, either,” I spoke softly, gulping up his creamy scent and staring at him, fixated. Was this how love worked? Could you lose someone you loved, then, nine months later, fall right back into their arms without missing a beat?
He cuddled me into his arms, as if to answer my question; as if we had never grown apart. I could feel our hearts rekindling their flame and trying to make up for lost time as I sank into him. “Why are you here?” I finally asked, the question looming above our heads like darkness.
He cracked a smile under the pressure. “The truth: Because Jennifer Hartley throws killer parties, and because my parents are up visiting relatives. This is the only night I had off from shlepping all over Denmark with them, and I’m damn glad I spent it here. Otherwise,” he said, tugging at the back of my skirt with both of his hands, “I never would have seen you.”
His hands slipped under the waistline of my skirt and pressed up against my skin underneath, rubbing it soothingly until I felt myself go limp from his touch. He rammed our lips together, our tongues wrapping around themselves like a knot until I could taste the beer still fresh in his mouth. Our bodies were so close that not even the thinnest of paper could slide in between us, and it was suddenly nine months ago all over again. I knew that this fit of passion that had overcome him was what he had wanted give me when we were still together, to let me know how much he cared, but back then I wouldn’t have allowed it. I was still too innocent and naive to think that this was acceptable before marriage, but now I felt more ready.
“Let’s go,” I breathed, his lips slithering down my neck like a snake, “somewhere more suitable.”
Without uttering a sound, he latched onto my wrist and led me back through the kitchen—both of us picking up a bottle of beer—and into the now abandoned foyer, the chandelier reflecting shades of pink, orange, and blue as the disco lights danced across its shiny surface. He pulled me under its glistening light, a makeshift mistletoe, and drowned me in a kiss so raw and fiery I thought I was going to explode from the inside out. My body was radiating heat like the sun, my blood was pumping to the rhythm of his heart, we were slowly uncovering the pieces of the puzzle we had been missing for far too long.
He suddenly stopped, as if this was all too much for him to handle at once. His calm, blue eyes connected with mine, and I could feel our veins slowly intertwining with each other as they had once done before. We were plunging into love without a parachute, preparing for the ground to rise and meet us where we stood.
“This time, Victoria, I’m not letting you go” he assured me, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ears and softly kissing my cheek—very much unlike the heated movements he’d just been executing. “I promise.”
I sighed and turned my head away from him, tears welling in my eyes just at the thought. “What happens when tomorrow comes? And you’re up north and I’m not with you? What—.”
His mouth, warm and sweet, covered mine instantly before I could finish my pondering. “To Hell with tomorrow, Vic. We have tonight, and I’m not about to waste it thinking about anything else but right here and right now.”
His words sliced right through me, deep and true. All I could do was stare right at the man who had left me speechless and wonder how I could have ever let him slip through my hands like sand. Looking at him now, it didn’t even seem possible.
And for the first time, I kissed him. I kissed him with everything I had bubbling inside of me, emptying myself entirely in that one moment. My soul poured out of my lips and into his body, falling into his landscape and fitting him like clothing. My skin peeled from my body and wrapped itself around him like an invisible blanket. My heart broke free from its cage and melded into his, forever making us one. With that one meeting of lips, I had given myself, all of myself, to someone I was never going to see again, trusting him not to break me when we parted.
“We also have each other,” I added, tearing our lips apart and bursting into tears.
A warm finger brushed under my eyes, clearing them away almost instantly. “And we always will.”
He bundled me in an embrace that shook me to my core. There was so much passion, so much affection, so much emotion coating every movement, every phrase, every word, that I knew departing was unfeasible. No way was I going to split from his grasp ever again. No way would I want to. When something felt this spectacularly right, you simply didn’t question it.
Burying my head deep into his chest, I let the tears run as free as a river. The sound of his heart was quick and steady; drums pounding to a beat. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Then, I heard the shot; the sound of a breaking promise.