Then I met Matilda Greene, the woman who became my Guide. She said she had come to the Café Rose for the diary her friend had dropped, but really she came for me, to introduce me to S.E.C.R.E.T., an underground group dedicated to helping women liberate themselves sexually, by granting them sexual fantasies of their choice. Joining the group, letting these women arrange fantasies for me, and finding the courage to go through with them, she said, would pull me out of my malaise. She told me she’d help me, guide me and support me. Finally, after a week of turning the idea over in my head, I said yes. It was a reluctant yes, but it was a yes nonetheless. After which my life changed completely.
Over the course of a year, I had done fantastical things with unbelievably attractive men, things I would never have thought possible. I let a gorgeous masseur pleasure me without asking for a thing in return. I met a sexy British man in a dark bar who secretly brought me to orgasm in the middle of a boisterous jazz show. I was taken by surprise, in many ways, by a tattooed bad-boy chef, who stole a bit of my heart while ravaging me on a prep table in the Café’s kitchen. I learned to give the most mind-blowing orgasm to a famous hip hop artist, who enthusiastically returned the favor, the memory of which still makes me tingle when I hear his songs on the radio. I took a helicopter to a yacht, then went overboard in a storm with the most handsome man I had ever laid eyes on. Not only did he rescue me, but his whole (incredible) body restored my faith in mine. Then the Bayou Billionaire himself, Pierre Castille, took me in the back of a limousine, after making me feel like the most beautiful girl at the ball. I skied the risky black diamond runs with Theo, the adorable Frenchman who pushed my sexual limits further than anyone had before. Then I went into sensory overload with a man I could only feel, not see, during a night that was blindingly sexy in more ways than one.
Then came my final fantasy, when I chose my beloved Will. I chose Will over S.E.C.R.E.T. and couldn’t have had a happier night, or a more glorious morning after.
Now, six weeks later, there was no Will waking me up on my birthday with a thousand kisses. Instead, he was probably sleeping soundly next to Tracina, maybe even spooning her, his arms wrapped around her growing belly. She was just shy of three months pregnant, but yesterday afternoon she suddenly began lumbering around the Café like she was about to give birth at any moment. She kept one hand in the middle of her back while pouring refills, groaning and stretching between serving tables. She hadn’t cut down on her shifts yet; she wasn’t at the point of asking for help. Still, I wasn’t the only one rolling my eyes at her exaggerated discomfort. Dell wiped down tables while I refilled the salt and pepper shakers. When Tracina made a show of bending down to pick up a dishrag, Dell let out a long, slow whistle.
“That girl’s making an Academy Award–winning performance out of a regular baby growing in her. I had overdue twins and it wasn’t such a burden.”
We watched Tracina meander from the kitchen to her customers to the cash register, making everyone around her look like they were in fast-forward. She even made Dell—at age sixty—look spry. During a lull, she lumbered over to where Dell and I were clearing a large table. Her belly barely protruded through her tight T-shirt.
“Oh, let me help, Dell,” Tracina said, waving her away from a tray of half-filled ketchup bottles. “My legs are sore. You take the next tables. I don’t mind losing the tips. I just don’t want to push things while I can still work. ’Cause soon I’ll be all ‘feet up watching TV,’ right?”
“Why thank you, Tracina,” Dell said, hoisting herself off the chair. “Nothing like the pregnant one giving the old one more to do.”
“I’m just saying …” Tracina began, but Dell threw up a hand and followed the bell to the kitchen to fetch ready plates.
After the lunch rush, almost on cue, the hammering began. Will needed to make more money from the Café and the only way to do that was to expand to fine dining upstairs. After finally securing the proper permits and a business improvement loan, Will had started renovating. And now, with the baby on the way, the work was more urgent. The loan covered materials, but not much extra labor, so Will was doing the renovations himself, one wall, one window, one beam at a time.
In those six weeks since Will and I had been together, I had done everything in my power to avoid small talk with Tracina, because it felt littered with landmines of truth. So I avoided Will and work topics as best I could, switching to Dell, or the baby, or gossip on the street. I still couldn’t tell how much she knew about what had happened that night between Will and me. Everyone at the Blue Nile saw us leave together, and half of Frenchmen Street saw us kiss, so she knew something had occurred. And even though she hadn’t participated in the burlesque show on account of the pregnancy, she had hung out afterwards with Angela and Kit, both of whom were S.E.C.R.E.T. members, and both of whom danced in the Revue. Now, sitting side by side at the big round table, we gave each other matching high-eyebrowed, tight-lipped smiles.
“So, uh, things are good then? With the baby and everything? You seem good,” I said, nodding like an idiot.
“Yeah, I’m, like, sooo good. Amaaaazing really. Doctor says the baby’s suuuuper healthy, though Will and I both agreed we don’t want to know the sex. But I swear I’m carrying a boy. Probably a linebacker. Will wants a little girl,” she cooed, her hand circling her belly.
The sound of Will’s band saw coming from upstairs caused her to jump, nearly sending her off her chair. I grabbed her arm to steady her.
“Oh my god! Has he been upstairs all morning?” she asked, trying to hide the real question buried beneath. Have you been alone with him today? Since reconciling over the baby, Tracina had moved back in with Will, so I assumed she knew where he was all day.
“I have no idea,” I said, lying. I had seen him that morning. We had said our awkward hellos to each other when he walked by me in the dining room and bounded up the stairs, wearing his stiff leather construction belt, shiny new tools hanging off it.
“He brought some big spools of wire upstairs yesterday. But at least he’s saving the loud work until the breakfast and lunch crowds die down.”
Tracina slapped her hand on the table to brace herself, then, without another word, headed up the stairs.
If avoiding small talk with Tracina was a hobby, avoiding alone time with Will was becoming an art form. The last few words he’d spoken to me in six weeks, or the last few words I’d given him the opportunity to speak to me, were “We need to talk, Cassie.” It was a harsh whisper delivered in the corridor between his office and the staff washroom.
“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. Our eyes darted around, making sure Dell and Tracina weren’t nearby.
“You realize that right now, I can’t—”
“I realize more than you know, Will,” I said. We heard the trill of Tracina’s voice as she cashed out a customer.
“I’m sorry.” He couldn’t even look me in the eye as he said it, and the agonizing moment made it all the more clear that I couldn’t stay.
“Maybe we shouldn’t work together, Will. Actually, it’s probably best if I quit.”
“NO!” he said, a little too loudly, then, more quietly, “No. Don’t quit. Please. I need you. I mean, as an employee. Dell is … mature, and Tracina’s not going to be much help soon. If you leave, I’m sunk. Please.”
He clasped his hands into a fist beneath his chin, begging me. How could I leave this man in a bind, when his hiring me so many years ago had plucked me out of mine?
“Okay, but there have to be boundaries. We can’t be whispering in the halls like this,” I said.
Hands on hips, he waited a beat to contemplate the condition, then nodded at his shoes. The chemicals were still coursing through my system, ones awakened by the sex we’d had. We needed rules until they subsided.
Maybe Will wasn’t happy about the baby at first, maybe it had come as a complete surprise and he was as gutted about our truncated relationship as I was, but over the past six weeks, you’d never have known it. I watched him go from pinched attentiveness towards Tracina to textbook superpartner, never missing a doctor’s appointment, reading the books that only pregnant women seemed to dog-ear, and helping Tracina in and out of his truck, though she still hardly showed. This seemed to bring out a new sweetness in Tracina as well, even if it was in service of making her life easier and the lives of others a little harder.
Just before the end of my shift, I made a last-minute assist, helping Dell deliver food for a party of six. I was already cashed out, refilling my condiments and wiping down the counters. I had plans to go for a run and to have an early night, when Tracina came bounding back down the stairs, rubbing her neck. She did look pale, so when she told us she was leaving early, Dell wasn’t surprised.
“I’m just so sick. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Will told me to go home. Sorry, guys. It’s going to be like this for a little bit, I guess. Second trimester is supposed to get easier.”
There was no way Dell could handle dinner on her own. I pretended to stifle my exasperation, but truth be told I wanted to stay. I needed the money and I had nothing better to do. Plus, there was that awful, painful, marvelous chance I’d accidentally be alone with Will, something I longed for despite all my genuine attempts to avoid it. And sure enough, an hour later, after business died down and a few minutes into the post-dinner hammering, his plaintive voice called from upstairs.