“Can someone come up here, please? I need a hand. Cassie? You there?”
Instead of heading up, I waited for Dell to garnish the final platters for our last customers.
“Please! It won’t take long!”
“Are you hearing that man? Or is it just me hearing that man?” Dell muttered, handing me the hot turkey specials.
“I hear him.”
“Good, ’cause he’s not talking to me.”
“I’m coming!” I yelled over my shoulder, thinking to myself, No pun intended. I’d preserved an internal sense of humor even while nursing my wounds.
I dropped off the plates and headed towards the stairs. I had a flashback to the fake tumble Kit DeMarco had taken on the floor, the one that secured my spot next to Angela Rejean in the burlesque show six weeks earlier. I had had no idea they belonged to S.E.C.R.E.T. too. As I stood now looking up the stairs, more flashbacks played out in my mind’s eye: Will’s face contorted in ecstasy above me, the light from the street illuminating his features. I’ve wanted this since the day we met, he whispered, while I lay beneath him. I wanted you too, Will. I just didn’t know how much.
When does this stop? When do memories quit hurting so much?
If he were to say, We need to talk, Cassie, one more time, I would say, No, we don’t, Will. I would add, I told you we should not be alone, and I would say this while lifting my shirt over my head, tossing it into the corner along with all the unwanted memories stored in that room up there. Will would say, You’re right, Cassie, we shouldn’t be alone. Stepping towards him, I would place my hand on his bare chest, letting him reach behind me and undo my bra. This is such a bad idea, I would say, pressing my skin to his, kissing his mouth, pushing him back until the window ledge stopped us. There, with his thighs straddling mine, his hands on my body, unsure where to touch first, his fingers finally traveling up to entwine my hair, his hands pulling my head back, opening my neck to his hungry mouth, I’d say, See? We don’t need to talk. We need this. We need to make each other moan and sweat. We need to fuck each other again, well, and often. And then, I need to decide what I’m going to do, because I can’t be alone with you, because look what we’re doing to each other, because everything pointed to me and you and now there is no me and you.
And then the words would stop and we’d be just hands and mouths and breath and skin … and awful consequences.
As I took the steps up to the second floor, that delicious, piercing pain went through me again, the one that caused me to throb in places that had once been dormant but now came awake every time I was near him. At the top of the stairs, I stepped around a sawhorse and over an empty roll of cables. The hallway was lined with the detritus of recent renovations—empty pails of plaster, stray nails, remnants of two-by-fours. Behind a roughed-out wall where the new bathrooms extended, Will stood atop a stepladder, framed against the exposed brick between two windows. He was shirtless and covered in white dust. There was no furniture in the room, no evidence of the night a dozen giggly women got ready for an amateur burlesque show—no chair, no storm-tossed bed. He was holding the end of an iron curtain rod with one hand, a screw gun with the other, his T-shirt tucked into his belt.
“Thanks for coming up here. Can you eyeball this for me, Cass?”
Cass. When had he ever called me that? It made me sound like a pal.
“How’s this?” he asked, balancing the rod.
“A little higher.”
He jerked the rod a few inches too high.
“Nope, lower … lower.”
He had it nearly perfectly positioned, and then he brattily dropped the rod way below the window line, at an awkward angle.
“How’s this? Is this good?” he asked, throwing a goofy smile over his shoulder at me.
“I don’t have time for this. I have customers.”
He brought the rod even. When I gave him the go-ahead, he quickly drilled a screw to hold it in place and stomped down the ladder.
“Okay. Are you going to stay mad at me forever?” he asked, stepping towards me. “I’m just trying to do the right thing, Cassie. But I’m at a loss when it comes to you.”
“You’re at a loss?” I hissed. “Let’s talk about loss, shall we? You lost nothing. Me? I lost everything.”
Matilda would have slapped my mouth shut. Have you learned nothing? she’d have said. Why do you paint yourself as the loser?
“You didn’t lose anything,” Will whispered. His eyes met mine, and my heart stopped beating for three whole seconds. I picked you and you picked me. “I am still here. We are still us.”
“There is no us, Will.”
“Cassie, we were friends for years. I miss that so much.”
“Me too, but … I’m just your employee now. That’s how it’s got to be. I will come to work and I will do my job and I will go home,” I said, avoiding his eyes. “I can’t be your friend, Will. And I can’t be that girl either, the one who … who hovers on the sidelines, waiting like some buzzard circling overhead, to see if your relationship with Tracina dies and turns cold.”
“Wow. Is that what you think I’m asking you to do?”
He brought the back of hand to his forehead and wiped his brow with it. His face was lined with sadness, exhaustion and maybe even resignation. A tense silence fell between us, one that made me question whether I could continue to work at the Café while my heart’s pain still existed. But I also knew this was my problem, not his.
“Cassie. I’m sorry for everything.”
Our eyes met, seemingly for the first time in weeks.
“For everything?” I asked.
“No. Not everything,” he said, quietly placing the hammer on the sawhorse and tugging his T-shirt from his belt to wipe his whole face. The sun began setting over Frenchman Street, urging me to get back downstairs and close up shop.
“Okay. You’re busy. So am I. Curtain rod looks good. My job here is done,” I said. “I’ll be downstairs cashing out if you need anything from me.”
“It’s not a matter of if I need you. You know I do.”
I’ll never know what my face looked like in that exact moment, but I imagine the flash of hope was impossible to conceal.
I went home and made a solid set of promises to myself. No more pining. No more pouting. That was yesterday.
Today was my birthday. I was meeting Matilda to talk about my new role in S.E.C.R.E.T. When you’re fresh off your own fantasies, it’s a tricky year. You’re not on the Committee. Not yet. You have to earn your spot. But you’re given a choice of three roles, and I was eager to plunge in, to have something else to do, someplace else to be, someone to think about other than Will or myself.
One of the roles was Fantasy Facilitator, a S.E.C.R.E.T. member who helped make fantasies happen, by booking travel, acting as a background player or participating in scenarios like Kit and Angela had the night of the burlesque show. Without Kit faking her injury, I wouldn’t have danced on that stage. And without Angela’s help with the sexy choreography, I would have made a complete fool of myself up there. This year they were becoming full Committee members, so those two slots were open.
I could also be a Recruiter like Pauline, the woman whose misplaced diary had originally led me to S.E.C.R.E.T. She was married, but her husband wasn’t threatened by her role as a recruiter of the men who’d participate in the fantasies, because, well, he’d once been one of them. Recruiting men for S.E.C.R.E.T. was different from training them; Pauline merely enticed them into the fold. Full-on training, or fine-tuning a recruit’s sexual skills, that was reserved for full Committee members, as was participating sexually in the fantasies—not that I was ready for that anyway. The third role was Guide, providing encouragement and support to a new S.E.C.R.E.T. candidate. There was no way I could have navigated the strange terrain of my crazy, sexy year without my Guide, Matilda. So I chose Guide, the least daunting of the three roles, though Matilda’s advice was to keep an open mind. “The most surprising opportunities could come up,” she said. Last thing left was to sign my S.E.C.R.E.T. pledge and bring it to our lunch.
I, Cassie Robichaud, pledge to serve S.E.C.R.E.T as a Guide for one term, doing whatever is within my power to ensure that all sexual fantasies are:
I vow to uphold the anonymity of all members and participants of S.E.C.R.E.T., and to uphold the principles of “No Judgment, No Limits and No Shame” during my term, and forever after.
___________________________ Cassie Robichaud
I signed it with a little flourish, while Dixie pawed at the reflections cast across the bedspread from the charms on my bracelet. It was time. Time to take a whole new set of steps—away from Will and my past and towards a new future, whatever it held.
THAT MORNING, I stood across the street from my store on Magazine at Ninth, watching my employee, Elizabeth, put together another one of her brash window displays. I had hired her away from our chief vintage clothing rival down the street because she had a unique eye, the kind you couldn’t train. But ever the control freak, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the direction Elizabeth was heading with this display. I saw bras and baskets and lots of yellows strips of crinkled paper. She hated when I did this—hovered, managed, tweaked—always doing myself what I don’t trust others to do. But it was the way I ran my business and it had worked so far, hadn’t it?