Outlaw Dreams

The following is a work of fiction:

“But to live outside the law you must be honest.” – from the Bob Dylan song “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

Can anyone explain why as time goes by it’s easier to become someone you don’t want to be than it is to just be the person you’d like to be? That’s pretty much life in a nutshell isn’t it? I’m now that 40-year-old man who stays up past midnight on a weeknight nostalgically listening to the music of the Eagles. 10 years ago, I would’ve dismissed those songs as fodder for dads suffering midlife crises. There’s just something oddly comforting about that music though especially those early songs. As I write this, I imagine the over 40 crowd air guitar-ing to the lush acoustic sounds of “Doolin-Dalton” or mouthing the lyrics to “Desperado” while trying not to wake up their sleeping wives. Here’s an easily disputable universal truth – At the end of the day, men just want to be outlaws. We romanticize what it’s like to live “out there” free from entanglements going wherever the next score takes us while staying one step ahead of the law. If you’re an American male, it’s in your blood whether you realize it or not – even if the riskiest thing you’ve ever done was like your unrequited crush’s Instagram post.

The universal truths in these songs are just inescapable, at least for those of us who wished we’ve done more with our lives. Lately I find myself literally “all alone at the end of the evening . . . thinking about a woman who might have loved me” while craving freedom from entanglements and the allure of “easy money and faithless women” yet the “Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.” That’s life in a nutshell right there only I didn’t realize it while I was in my 20s. Sooner or later we either pursue our dreams and ambitions or we settle down, grow old, and die quietly with someone you thought you wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your life with. Isn’t life just a series of distractions until you die anyway? The day inevitably comes when you hear those Eagles tunes and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah that’s what that’s about,” and “That’s what my life could’ve been.” All of a sudden, I become nostalgic for a life I never led yearning for a woman I never really knew. Then several different songs become an anthem I can’t get out of my head as I think of the one who got away.

We spend so much time inside our own heads sometimes that it becomes easy to believe the unbelievable when it comes to relationships. Just the other day, I was on the bus listening to “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles (of course) imagining that she was thinking of me – that somehow she could hear the song too, that somewhere wherever she is she’d understand everything that’s hidden deep in my heart. Then the song ends, the music stops, and reality sets in. She’s just living her life out there without a thought in the world for me, and there’s no discernable reason for her to think any differently. In fact, I can’t even say I blame her. If I were her, I wouldn’t exactly be longing for someone like me either. Whatever connection we ever had (whether it was real or imagined by me) must have surely faded with time. Sadly, most love fades except for the unrequited kind. It’s this longing that refuses to fade when it’s impossible to stop thinking about what could have been if only fate would have allowed me the chance to try to know her, if only fate would have allowed for the chance of her and I sharing a life together. There was once a window where perhaps I could have gathered up the courage to tell her how I felt about her, but that window has long been shut-slammed more likely. Courage has never been my strong suit . . . but hey! Listen to me – can’t you tell I’ve always wanted to be an outlaw?

I first met Delia years ago while working at a bookstore in Brooklyn. I’ve always felt a special affinity and kinship with books. If you’ve ever watched the film Clerks and worked in retail, you might arrive at this same conclusion as I have – that the job would be so much better if it wasn’t for the customers. I think that’s an understanding we both secretly acknowledged but never said out loud while we worked together. From the moment I first saw her, I knew she was smart, kind, brilliant, sweet, and attractive both inside and out. Don’t ask how I know all this to be true when I barely even got to know her. I just do. It just feels right, like a summer breeze or sun shower arriving to remind you that sometimes rain can be a good thing. For reasons I can’t explain I found myself drawn to her. It’s a cliché to say this but words can’t do her justice. Sometimes you think there’s no one out there who can understand you and then someone appears who might understand you except you’re not sure why or what gives you the right to hold that conviction. Well, that’s how I feel about Delia. She’s that person just out of reach who might make life feel that much more exciting if she’d only just acknowledge my presence. I sense a kind of warmth emanating from her that only a kindred spirit might feel, but I never really got close enough to say I felt for sure. I can only guess, imagine, and believe it to be there. That’s as much as I can say about Delia without taking a giant leap. She’s that “just out of reach” woman. The woman “who might have loved me, but I never knew,” a siren who beckons with the silence of whispers but who isn’t actually a siren. All at once she’s a mystery and an answer yet no matter how much I long to get close to her I’ll never circumnavigate the distance between us. The truth is that even if fate were to bring us together, I’m almost certain that I would amount to nothing but a disappointment to her. In the end people always disappoint.

“If loving you is a big crime, I’ve been guilty a long time.” That’s a lyric from the song “I Stand Accused,” which I first heard on Elvis Costello’s Get Happy album. Somehow it rings truer every time I hear it. Sometimes the days just rush by and with each passing minute any chance I might ever truly get to know her slips away. Even if circumstances were different and we were free to get to know each other, I have no idea if she’d develop mutual feelings for me. One can admire someone from afar for a lifetime but once those feelings are taken to the grave, where does all that suppressed passion go? Does it evaporate like a hidden mist along with the soul? Does it stain the wood inside the coffin as the body decomposes? I wish I had any kind of answer. The older I get the fewer answers I have.

When I was younger, I thought I’d make something more of my life and then reality hit me like a ton of bricks. “A man could use his back or use his brains,” according to another lyrical gem from the Eagles song “Doolin’-Dalton.” It just turned out that I was useless at both, but in my preferred fictional life I have the courage of a thousand outlaws. I can walk down the center of town with purpose and find a gambling table where I’d take down the house. Then I’d ride off to the next town and then the next one until fate brought me to her and even though I’d be rough around the edges she’d be drawn to me just as I am to her, and we’d have to figure out how to make an honest living or risk the fate of Bonnie and Clyde. Either way, life would be eventful. In my fictional life, we’d already have a past and the future would take us to whatever is on the horizon until that fateful day arrives when the law catches up and she’d lie through her teeth to give me an alibi only to no avail. Then she’d be the last person I’d think of as the hanging man covers my head, and she’d wail and cry and fuss over my dead body as they laid me to rest later placing tulips on my grave mistaken for lilies. The townspeople would pity her remarking upon her loyal devotion, and “what a pity it was that she fell for such a louse.” Wherever my soul ended up I’d feel her warmth and her tears and her sorrow and her love. Then maybe my life would have meant something.

Ever wonder why we live these outlaw lives in our dreams? Why does the myth of the outlaw run deep in the veins of every American man? It isn’t because we fear death. It’s because we ostensibly believe we’ll live forever, and it’s that belief that forces our hand so that those of us who prefer common comforts will inevitably choose the safest choice. If you think you’ll live forever you don’t want to make sacrifices for the life you want because the lingering potential of failure is so great that the thought of it frightens one to the bone. One thinks, If I don’t succeed I’ll be a failure for eternity yet if I don’t even try I can adapt, I can be content, I can settle and be comfortable. The result is a slow dirge towards the grave as we stuff our mouths with comfort food and plaque gathers around our hearts until the day we drop never having truly lived except in our outlaw dreams.

The truth about love can be found in the voice of Hank Williams singing about how he’s so lonesome he could cry.  It’s in the gravelly sound of Tom Waits asking if he will see his love on a downtown train. It’s Van Morrison singing about Crazy Love. It’s in the Chelsea Hotel with Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin engaging in oral sex.  It’s in the beauty of finding that there’s a connection in ugliness.  It’s in the bond that forms when two people discover that they’re simpatico. It’s in the cold hearts who refuse to be melted despite the impassioned plea of ol’ Hank crooning away at it like the sun beating down on a frozen stick of butter. It’s in the goal that can’t be reached and sadly also in the sighing breath taken just before giving up and quitting.

If there are two lives we live and when we die we lose both of them leaving nothing behind, then why is courage so hard to muster? Why is it enough to dream and never do? How is it that I can live an entire lifetime without ever telling Delia how I feel about her and finding out what (if anything) she feels about me? If no spark exists between us, then why do I feel the way I do about her? I wish I had answers. I really do. Maybe then I’d write pages that mattered.

It was a stormy night when a posse of riders came barreling into town. They darted and dashed about up and down the thoroughfare like beasts in wild abandon. They were fearless and untamed, everything that Cordelia’s father had warned her about when he sat her down and told her about the ways of men, yet still she found herself drawn to one of them. She listened in as the commotion outside her home reached a fever pitch averting her eyes from the man as if that might somehow make him disappear. Still, she knew that he would find her. She was taught not to put much stock in words like “destiny” and “soulmates” but even she couldn’t deny the pull she felt. It was like the sound of the wind carrying a love song infecting anyone in its path with a wanton sentiment that was akin to lust. If anyone had disrupted her fixation in that moment, she very well could have composed herself enough to manage a cognizant reply, but deep down inside (wherever that was) she couldn’t deny the pull.

The man for his part had introduced himself to her just two days prior. His name was Jake, and although he said he worked odd jobs here and there, she knew he was a cattle rustler. At that moment it didn’t matter. They fell in love, and he promised he’d come back for her. He told her that women like her were a dying breed, and while the compliment may have insulted her if it had come from a dullard, she intrinsically sensed he was more than what he appeared to be on the outside. In fact, in all her years of living she often found that few people are more than what they appeared to be on the surface, and if her upbringing taught her anything, it was this one thing: When you find someone who is more than what they appear to be on the surface, make it a point to get to know them and try at all costs to keep them in your life. Jake not only struck her as someone fitting that description, there was something between them she couldn’t deny that went beyond words.

He whisked her away that evening and took her to an outdoor repertory theater. The company happened to perform Romeo and Juliet and when the final scene had ended and both hapless lovers lay dead on the stage, she looked at him and he looked at her and that was all the truth she ever needed. He brought her back to her doorstep that night, kissed her passionately, and told her, “Cordelia sweetheart, sooner or later we all have to die. Sooner or later, that’s a stone cold fact.” Then he kissed her once again and rode off into the night to a destination unknown, perhaps to a land where they both could live together inside an outlaw’s dream.

The night was cold as he rode into town with surliest group of men anyone had ever laid eyes on. In the distance he could see the light of her home, but he tried to avert his eyes. He was afraid that if he looked directly at it that he’d lose all sense of focus. They had to ride into town this way on this very night. After all, it was one of their own who betrayed their men to the sheriff’s deputy and was due to be hanged straight away in the morning. The hanging judge hadn’t wasted any time handing down the full weight of the law on Clyde Elmsly, but Jake Elmsly would have none of that. He had to save his younger brother from the grips of the hanging tree, and he’d do it with every last breath of life he had inside of him. It would be an evening of desperation. . . at least it would’ve been in my mind’s eye. I might have had a decent dream and told a cleverer more erudite story were it not for the rigamarole of a feckless routine that has me trapped in the twenty first century, a malcontented misfit. Still, it was an outlaw’s dream – the only kind of dream worth having for a man living in America today.

“They’ll never take me alive!” I said sitting up and waking up in my bed talking to no one who cared to listen. It was still the middle of the night, so I laid back down and fell asleep again and dreamt of a wild night with Delia. It’s funny how on most nights you can’t control what or who you dream about but on this night for some reason I could. The setting and many of the specifics I still had no control over. The only constant was Delia, music, and the outlaw life – as Prince would sing in “Pop Life,” “Everybody needs a thrill….”

There was a score to be settled as there always is with these kinds of things. The city was burning. Cops had barricaded 69th street to keep our crew away from midtown. We looked for help from Frank Lucas, but he was nowhere to be found. There’s got to be someone who wants to move this stuff. The thing is that everyone is really meant to go at these kinds of things alone, but one could do worse than have Delia for company. Who am I kidding? Delia is the only kind of company worth having. Somehow, we ended up in Brooklyn after crashing through the barricade unscathed. It’s worth noting that Delia in her ripped up black jeans and her anarchy tank top has more sex appeal than any of the dames dolled up over at Tammany Hall. The small burning fires on the concrete might have very well emanated from the hobos lucky enough to catch a glimpse of side boob as the wind blew up her tank top when she left the car for cigarettes. It’s the sort of thing that might have otherwise led to my own demise were I not distracted by her long black flowing hair and the same secret smile she’d toss my way when I told her a dirty joke – something about dimwitted blondes and their white privilege.

I looked to see what was in the bag we were carrying and had been grateful for having dumped the poison somewhere over on Broadway. Cash was always better. One could live a lifetime on cash and liquor. Despite everything, there are always favors to be met and people to have to cater to. “Every stranger you meet in the street will make demands,” I told her.  Delia understood my burden as only she could. They could threaten her with 20 to life and she’d never wear a wire. In that moment she was my rock, my life, my alibi all rolled into one, but a distant awareness gradually kicked in signaling the end of my somnambulism. There’s that feeling of trying to grasp on to a dream when you don’t want it to end but the tighter you grasp the closer you get to awakening.

Delia – the one of my dreams at least – understands all this and more. She even hears these midnight songs that play in my heart just for her. When I whisper her true name, maybe she hears it in the distant echo of the midnight wind searing its way across the pavement. Honestly, dreams and fantasy always beat out reality in my estimation because reality only serves to reinforce the cruel inadequacies, insecurities, and shortcomings that’ll keep people tied down. For every romantic whim I’ve ever had there are a thousand reminders reality insists on shoving in my face the moment I think I might muster up anything resembling courage. One can’t help but think it’s by design.

Something about airbags. Does it make sense to have them removed once you’ve got nothing left worth saving? I know a guy who might be able to fence me a few bucks for them. Then again, I’m someone who believes that trains were invented for the express purpose of robberies. The entire Industrial Revolution was a robbery of sorts so why not get in on the fun. That’s what I figure. If the system is inherently corrupt and against you, why not level the playing field a bit? What was I saying again?

Oh, I was running the numbers racket down in Red Hook and word had come down about a new loan shark encroaching on our territory. I went out on my collection run last Friday to teach this new guy a lesson only to meet the most beautiful woman ever to run numbers on a city block. It may have been time to settle the accounts on my book that day, but Delia was really something else. Behind her eyes was a mystery that I needed to solve so I left my boss in the lurch and offered her my services. I kicked up my tribute to her with as much nobility as I could muster, and my heart skipped a beat each time she placed my offered envelopes close to her chest. I had no choice but to shoot my boss in the back of his head. His brains splattered all over a plate full of clams – a waste of good seafood. It’s only a matter of time before we all meet our fate. It just comes sooner for some than for others. Delia knew all this and cherished our ticking time for all that it was worth. We had an understanding even though not much had been said. What more could I ever want? What more could I ever dream? Get your mask on, baby. We’ve got a train to rob.

Just a Memory


“Yeah, I don’t have anything to say,” I said to no one in particular.  It’s the motto I’ve repeated every so often simply because it represents my current state of mind.  It’s what you say when the muse has left and inspiration has run dry.  When your brain’s been reduced to mush to the point where the most it can consume is the daily soap opera watched on the DVR from the safety of a comfy old couch, there’s a point where any hint of intellectual curiosity you may have ever had morphs into something perverted.  Such a slovenly existence might be excused if one were perhaps afflicted with a trauma resulting in a massive fugue state.  First comes the lightning blinking bright then the crack of thunder then BOOM!! You’ve been struck and just barely escape a foray into the land of the comatose, but that’s not me nor is it my story.

I was listening to The Rolling Stones one night recently thinking of an old flame prompted by the lyrics of “Memory Motel” when suddenly I came upon a revelation- actually more like a vision.  It was that of the life that could have been if things had worked out and Lisa had decided to stay with a man with no direction or ambition to do anything beyond gaze at the stars at night after reading a good book. You see I’ve always been a contemplative person, but I’be been told that contemplation is not what’s best suited for relationships. Women tend to like men of action and I’m not exactly the Charles Bronson type. In fact, I think Chuck Norris could probably beat me up by just blinking at me very hard.  Quite frankly Walker Texas Ranger puts me to sleep every time I try to watch it.  If ever there was a sedative needed for a good case of insomnia, just put on a random episode of that show and that’s all you need.   Maybe it doesn’t appeal to me because it’s one of those shows that’s supposed to be a “man’s man” kind of show.  Hence, it’s why I could never relate to it since just the thought of opening a toolbox gives me anxiety.  Who needs tools anyway? The point is that while Chuck Norris may be all kinds of awesome and all men everywhere wish they could be him, he isn’t quite in touch with his feelings.  No, I’m not saying he should be either.  There are some people who clearly wouldn’t benefit from any kind of enhancement in their emotional intelligence.

Well, I was listening to “Memory Motel” one night and to be honest these feelings could have equally been stirred by “Far Away Eyes,” which is a song on another album but I digress.  I listened to that song and while Mick Jagger isn’t exactly the poet laurate of Rock N Roll, the song spoke to me or at least it made sense for me in my life. I mean Mick Jagger is the man, a total rock star and I’m well . . . I’m just me so of course we’d have to be on the same wave length when it comes to our lives.  I’d like to think of myself as the Mick Jagger of my own universe with tons of stories to tell and wisdom to share about women.  In my case, it’s been far fewer women.  Okay, maybe it was just one woman who allowed me close enough to feel like I touched her heart as much as she touched mine, but she had so many sides to her that she could have easily been twenty women.  Haha! Take that Mick Jagger!  Needless to say she was complicated, but I like that.  The worst thing anyone could do to themselves is to fall in love with someone who is uncomplicated unless they happen to be uncomplicated themselves. Lisa might have been complicated enough for the both of us.

Every time I picture Lisa in my mind, her hair is wet and the drops drip down over her wet clothing and although she thinks she looks a mess, she looks immaculate to me.  On our first date we saw a movie. It was a science fiction film that later became a cult classic called Contact.  It’s the one with Jodie Foster and her dead father.  That’s all I remember about it other than the fact that it’s based on a Carl Sagan novel I never read, but each time I think about that movie it brings back the memory of our first date and our first kiss. I later regretted not walking her home or at least to her train station.  Perhaps I was too nervous, maybe I was scared.  No, actually I was stunned, shocked, and awed by the fact that Lisa would even sit next to me in a dark room let alone kiss me after a movie.  Back in high school I kissed Sally Fulson and Mary Templeton, but kissing Lisa Falkner when we were just eighteen that was something.   We were both so young back then, and maybe that’s why she still means so much to me now. We had the world ahead of us.  Little did I know that she would move on to bigger and greater things and I would just stay behind and settle into a comfortably solitary life.

It was about two months ago that as a curious observer of Lisa’s online profile, I began to notice that her friends and family did not know where she was.  I didn’t think it was unusual at first, but then some of the messages started to become somewhat desperate and panicked. For about a day, I convinced myself that it was nothing to worry about. Lisa was always a free spirit.  She probably just ran off somewhere without telling a soul.  Indeed, that was one of the main differences between us.  I was always attached to her while she was shall we say “unattached.”  Deep down inside, I knew she loved me while we were together at that time but her motto – the line I consistently hated to hear coming out of her mouth – was always, “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back, it was meant to be.”  When I first heard it, I knew it was something I didn’t want to hear. No, not from her.  It sounded like a trite little bit of psychobabble from a Hallmark card, but then every time we argued, she’d always whip out that saying.  It just hung on me like an albatross during our entire relationship.  Of course, no man wants to hear that they need to set their girlfriend free.  That just sounds preposterous especially for a guy like me who isn’t quite attractive enough to readily replace said girlfriend at will. At the time I thought to myself, She could say that all she wants but no way will I ever let her go, and yet the thing about holding onto people too tight is that you run the risk of suffocating them.  I think I understand it better now, and I readily admit that my need to hold onto her probably drove her even further away, but when we were together this kind of deep reflection about the nature of our relationship had somewhat escaped me.

You see every guy wants to think that their girlfriend’s universe revolves around them.  In some cases, that’s exactly what they get and I suppose if both people are happy then bully for them. In most cases though it’s just not like that. You should never get to fully possess the person you love because then there’s no mystery about that person and when the mystery is gone then so is the love.  At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case in my limited experience.  Besides, all that stuff about soul mates and finding “the one” is all fairy tale bullshit society tries to push upon us starting from the time that we’re toddlers.  It’s all bullshit, and really the only people who have “perfect” relationships are shallow phonies with nothing real to say to the world or each other for that matter.

Anyway, I exhausted all of my patience hoping for Lisa to turn up somewhere and say “GUESS WHAT!  I’m not missing after all and you people are so foolish to think that I was!  Can’t a woman just get away from the patriarchal trappings of our society and escape to her own sanctuary of peace and quiet once in a while without friends and family members constantly worrying where she is as if life was some cheap primetime melodrama where every time a woman goes missing every character she’s ever been close to panics and says ‘SOMETHING TERRIBLE MUST HAVE HAPPENED TO HER!’  FOR THE GODESS’S SAKE LET ME JUST HAVE SOME PEACE WHILE YOU WATCH YOUR EXPLOITATION FUELED LAW AND ORDER: SVU EPISODE!!!!”

Now, while I’m confident that those wouldn’t be her exact words, I was quite sure that her natural response to such panic about her well-being would most likely be in that vain.  Far be it for me, a person who won the gender lottery and was born a man and therefore didn’t have to deal with patriarchal subjugation or menstruation cycles, to put words in her mouth. Is there any wonder how I fell in love with a woman with such zest for candidness and feminism?

Well, that’s the thing I did just that. It was the summer of 1997 and we were both employed at a bookstore.  Even then, I had the gut feeling that while I would remain a second rate clerk behind a counter, she would be destined for something greater.  From the instant I first saw her, I marveled at her magnificence.  Her beauty radiated both inwardly and outwardly.  There was no denying she was a diamond in the rough.  Time and circumstances may have landed her in that spot within my vicinity, but life has a way of separating the weeds from the roses.  I’ve never had any doubt which one of us was which in that analogy.  There she was at that time in 1997 wearing a tight button down cream blouse greeting a customer with that beautiful smile.  I swear if there’s one image I’d like to take to my grave with me it would be that smile of hers.  It might even bring me back to life it’s that powerful.  As she was talking, her eyes glanced at me for a moment and I was in heaven. It might have been for a microsecond but I knew and recognized that look of mischief that she shot me so I approached cautiously and found that she was dealing with the kind of person that we in the customer service industry like to refer to as “assholes” or “quite a bit dickish” if we feel like being polite.  Trust me there are quite a number of people who’ve earned the title.  Most of them are registered Republicans although to be fair there are quite a number of asshole liberals too. This particular piece of filth was giving Lisa a hard time because he noticed that there were more pro- Clinton books on the New Nonfiction table than there were Reagan biographies or some other such nonsense.  It’s funny how the more things change the more things stay the same.  My present day store has now flatly refused to do an election table in an election year because the fervor from both sides gets so nasty, however, 1997 was a year of kinder and gentler political discourse. . . well, I suppose it depends upon who that discourse happened to be with.  I mean Democrats were just as likely to be against gay marriage as Republicans and feminism wasn’t as universally embraced by the Left as it appears to be today.  At any rate, I could tell Lisa needed some help so I remembered the spider scene in Annie Hall where Diane Keaton calls over Woody Allen to kill a spider after they’ve already broken up.  First he notices a program for a Rock concert and suggests that the guy who took her to the concert should come over and kill the spider, then Diane Keaton hands Woody a copy of the National Review and an astonished Woody replies, “Wonderful then why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider.”  Of course, William F. Buckley along with his deplorable views on AIDS and homosexuality had a new book that had come out recently calling it “An Autobiography of My Faith” or something equally pedantic (Conservatives and their faith, HA! More like hypocrisy!!Now there’s a subject I could write an epic about).  Well, after shooing the customer away from Lisa and recommending to him this atrocious William F. Buckley book, I finally had a chance to speak to her.

“Now before you judge me for knowing about Buckley’s new book, just know that the only reason I remembered is because of the spider scene in Annie Hall.  I’m about as Left as they come although perhaps not too Left.  More like Gore Vidal if Gore Vidal wasn’t a genius or educated or creative or talented at all.  That would be me.  I’m a stupid man’s Gore Vidal”

She chuckled, “I’ll take a stupid Gore Vidal over a William F. Buckley worshiping asshole any day of the week.  I’m Lisa by the way.”

I noticed that she looked at my name tag with a bit of bemusement, and finally I remembered. . . Beowulf. Curses!

“I’m Jake although don’t let the name tag fool you.  I actually despise Beowulf.  My friend Bill wrote down ‘Loves Beowulf’ as a joke underneath my name on my name tag and I just went with it.”

“I hate Beowulf too,” she said, and like all great romances in the world we bonded over despising both Beowulf and right wingers.  Unlike Woody in Annie Hall, however, I don’t think I would have ever let her off so easy for having a copy of The National Review readily available in her household even for the express purpose of killing a spider although of course we both still lived with our parents at the time going to college and working at the bookstore part time.  Trust me, her parents would never let the National Review anywhere near their house if they could help it either so at least we were all in good company.

So now with Lisa was missing in 2016, I was more determined than ever to find her.  I took two weeks off from work, and proceeded on my journey. I just needed to know that she was alright because she meant so much to me and when I think about it the happiest times of my life were with her so rather than sit and refresh a social media page for days on end I decided to take action. I booked a flight to New Orleans where she was known to go on her writer’s retreats.

“It’s the atmosphere, Jake,” she would say back when we were together.  “I don’t understand how you don’t feel it Jake.  Doesn’t being in this city make you feel more ALIVE than what you feel in New York?  The music, the food, the people, the drinks…. It’s all so transcendent!”

I thought New Orleans was just “okay” but I’ve always been attached to New York.  I’ve never been able to quite feel comfortable in any other city.  The best thing about New Orleans for me was the food especially the sandwiches at Mama’s but as for the trip and the city, I just didn’t feel what she felt.  There’s a special rooming house where she likes to stay while she’s there.  When were each 25 years old, we went to New Orleans together for the first time and that’s where we stayed for our first major trip together.  It was a bed and breakfast type place.  She would write for about 4 hours in the morning while I read my Ian Fleming James Bond books to pass the time. Occasionally she’d give me shit about the Bond franchise exploiting women, but I would counter with the story of the woman I believe to be the unsung hero of the earliest Bond films, Johanna Harwood.  She was assistant to Harry Saltzman, one of the original producers of the Bond films, and he tasked her with adapting the Fleming novels.  She even wrote her own Bond short story, which unfortunately is somewhat difficult to find.  Anyway, Hardwood co-wrote the screenplay that became the first film, Dr. No (1962) and contributed to the second film, From Russia with Love (1963).  Unfortunately, her role has been overshadowed by Richard Maibaum and the unfair treatment she received from the director of the films, but she was right there at the very beginning crafting an iconic piece of cinema history. Lisa would argue, “But isn’t the fact that so few Bond fans know about her prove my point that the franchise and Hollywood in general is just a patriarchal system of oppression that women must navigate?”  I couldn’t really win these types of arguments with her maybe because I knew she was right. In any case, it was a happy time in our relationship, but as each day passed, I would grow more eager to get back home.

I checked into the place we used to stay and promptly asked the manager as well as the staff if they had seen her but they all said no they hadn’t. Part of me figured that she wouldn’t have come to New Orleans to get away from everyone if that’s what she wanted, but I had to try. I stayed in New Orleans for the weekend though booking a flight to Puerto Rico for the following Monday.

During my stay I started to wonder what life would be like if Lisa and I had stuck together.  What would we be doing right now?  What would this trip to New Orleans be like if she were there with me?  Would we have kids?  Would she have been able to settle down in any one spot?  Would I have ever solved the mystery that kept me so attuned to her? I didn’t have answers to any of these questions.  I just grew irritated.  I would walk down the French Quarter and see couples drinking, singing, partying, just having a good time, but all the while I felt disconnected.  I felt like a voyeur watching lives I could never come close to living.  It’s like when you watch Star Trek: The Next generation and you see Data observing human behavior and wondering what it’s like to be human.  Well, I know what it’s like to be human and there are times I wish I wasn’t.  I wish I didn’t care so much. I wish I wasn’t so attached to certain people who don’t feel the same way about me. I wish I could just go about my day without a care in the world without socializing or talking to a single soul in the world, and I wish I could just live and breathe and just be, but then I think of Lisa and I wish I could have a life with her.  Oh, the contradictions inherent to desire! Everywhere I turned, it seemed like there was some kind of joy and happiness to be experienced that I just couldn’t grasp.  It always feels like everyone is in on some secret and they all just laugh at me behind my back when they think I’m not looking only I am and it hurts.  I couldn’t wait to leave New Orleans.

On the Sunday night before my flight I crawled into a nearby dive and drank bourbon for the first time in years. I’d become a caricature of a man driven to drink by a woman, the oldest and most unoriginal story in the world and yet it’s the stuff of legend.

I dragged myself to the airport Monday for the flight to Puerto Rico.  It’s where Lisa and I would have had our honeymoon if we had gone through with our marriage.  When she called off the wedding, the engagement and the whole shebang, I just crawled into a hole for months.  She, however, went on our honeymoon.  You could imagine that I wasn’t pleased, but once we had patched up our friendship she explained that it was a necessary part of her growth.  “It’s where I needed to let go of you as a lover in order to welcome you back into my life as a friend,” whatever that meant.  I’ve come around to the realization that I wasn’t cut out for marriage anyway.  Lisa felt the same way about herself for a couple of years until she married her partner in a nice ceremony in Jamaica.  The wedding was lovely and her wife, Becky was a lovely person but the marriage didn’t last long.  When she called to let me know she was divorcing after 5 months, she declared, “Now I could fuck whoever I want but don’t get any ideas!”  Apparently, lesbian relationships can also be prone to having one partner try to hold on too tight to another. Maybe it’s just that Lisa doesn’t want to be held onto by anyone for too long.  Maybe it’s just her.  Maybe it’s just a part of who she is.

So, I landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico and proceeded to the resort where Lisa and I would have stayed on our honeymoon only to find that there were no guests listed under the name Lisa Faulkner.   That probably didn’t mean anything as perhaps she would have stayed somewhere else on the island but I could just feel that she wasn’t there.  It makes no sense whatsoever, but there’s a feeling I get when she’s close.  I don’t know why or if there’s any kind of scientific explanation for it, but it’s just a weird feeling in my gut.  I just knew I had yet again come to the wrong place even though there were many other resorts I could have checked on if I was being thorough.

Just as I was about to gather my thoughts and return to my hotel room, a strange woman pressed a room key into my hand.  She was wearing a red dress with a zip down the back.  Her prominent cleavage pressed up against me.  Up close I could tell she wore a wig, but she had such a strikingly stunning face.  For a moment I thought maybe she was famous.  She looked like Kerry Washington. “I hope you speak English,” she said.

“Of course, I . . .”

“Shut up,” she said covering my mouth with her hand.  I could tell she had used hand lotion recently.

“What the. . .”

“Just go to room 235 in 3 minutes.  Ask for Manuela,” She said. I could tell she was American.  “I will reward you quite kindly.”  She hovered her lips over my ear in an insinuating fashion.

Men who look like me don’t get these kinds of invitations all that often so I did as she said fully expecting to be let down.  I went to the room, asked for Manuela, and a manila envelope was placed in my hand by what looked like one of the resort’s housekeeping staff. The same woman said, “She’s in room 358.”

As I went up the stairs to room 358, I saw two men with guns.  They didn’t look like Puerto Ricans.  They had that classic FBI attire you see in movies. I’d be surprise if they spoke a word of Spanish. The next thing I hear is yelling from the direction of the room I had just left. Then the distinct pop of shots fired.  I halted right in my tracks and heard footsteps in quick succession running towards me.  I bolted up the flight of stairs. As luck would have it, Rm 358 was the first door on the left. With no time to deliberate, I knocked and then the door opened suddenly.  It was her.  She ripped the envelope from my hands, pulled me inside, and said, “Moan for me.”


“Act like I’m pleasuring you.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, pretend I’m giving you the best blow job of your life.”

I did as she suggested.  The footsteps came closer.  They paused outside the door.  She squeezed my inner thigh with her long sharp nails and I yelped so loud I thought I was going to cry.   Then, I heard a snicker as the footsteps passed away.

As I heard the footsteps outside moving further away, I closed my eyes and opened them quickly hoping I’d wake up from a dream, but we were both still there, me in my sweaty khakis and she in a new loose fitting white blouse and jean shorts she had just changed into.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Jake,” I said.

“You got a last name?” she said. “You may not know it but I kind of just saved your life.”

“When you said you’d repay me for that favor, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.”

At that she laughed, “Ha! I bet it wasn’t, but don’t be disappointed, sex rarely ever lives up to the lustful expectations you men build it up to be in your head.  It’s not to say that it wouldn’t be good, but trust me you wouldn’t know how to handle me. I’m afraid you’d be the one having all the fun just as it played out in our little routine.”

“It’s Gleeson. Jake Gleeson.”

“Any relation to Jackie Gleeson?”

“None whatsoever and I’m sick and tired of people asking me that when I give them my name.”

“I’m Bernice Callaghan.”

“Funny you don’t look Irish,” I said.

“My father was Irish American.  Mom was from Jamaica.”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what we’re doing here.”

Bernice said, “If I did, I’d have to kill you and so far, you don’t seem so bad.”  She adjusted her blouse and as she got up I could see a holster strapped around the belt buckle of her jean shorts. Her smile revealed a warmth and glint of danger. Then she turned her back to me, “It’s about that point in the story where I make sure it’s safe for you to leave and you go, don’t you think?”

“What if I want to stay,” I found myself saying.

“You could get killed and besides I don’t need a balding overweight clingy overzealous sidekick to worry about.”

Just then we heard a loud crash from outside the door.  The bad guys seemed to have thought that she was hiding in the room right next to us.  Within seconds we could see the knob moving on the door for the adjacent room leading into ours.

“Quick!” she said.

I followed her onto the balcony.  Before I knew it we were shimmying down a drainpipe albeit she did so more gracefully than I.  She waited for me at the base and then we ran down a dirt road alleyway back around to the hotel parking lot when she froze.

“No! He’s given us away.”  I saw who she was looking at and it was a bearded man in white suit leaning against what was presumably her car.

“Bernice, Bernice, Bernice how lovely of you to join me,” he said. He then instructed one of his goons to remove Bernice’s gun.

“It was you all along wasn’t it?”

“The envelope, I know you have it.”  Then, the man turned towards me and said, “It’s a pity you’ve downgraded to such a pathetic specimen of a man.”  His Latin American accent sent chills all over me.  I thought I was about to die and if that was the last voice I ever heard I don’t think my final brain murmurs would have generated any sense of happiness or inner peace, which is all you could hope for if you die seeing as I’m a devout atheist.  All I ask is that my final moments before my consciousness fades into oblivion be somewhat pleasant, a happy memory if you please instead of sheer terror and utter despair.  Is that too much to ask for these days?  It probably is.

While my panic attack commenced, I saw Bernice hand the man the envelope.  She had folded it and placed it between her waist and her belt before we shimmied down the drain pipe. Then, the man in the white suit took out a gun, pointed it at me, but in the last instant turned the gun at Bernice while walking closer to her. Then he lowered the weapon quite deliberately aiming at her left thigh and fired.  Bernice fell straight to the ground her skin and flesh leaving an awful stain on the ground.  Her body struggled to absorb the pain.  Then, like a fighting pit bull she rose up on her good knee and snarled. “You think that’ll keep me from finding you and ending you, Consuelo?”

Consuelo smiled. “Now you look just as pathetic as your friend.  You should both thank me for my mercy but I know better than to expect that from you.”

Consuelo turned and joined his entourage.  When, he was gone, I bent down on my knee to help Bernice but she pushed me away. “You better leave.  If they see us together after this, they will most definitely kill you.”

I tore my shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound ignoring her advice.  Then, she smiled that mischievous smile and winked at me.  “You just don’t listen do you,” she said.

“I’ve been known to get quite attached to certain women especially after they’ve saved my life.”

Bernice refused to go to a hospital and instead insisted that we drive to a doctor that she knew in a small province called Humacao on the east side of the island. The problem was that despite my best efforts she kept bleeding and it would be a 3-hour drive.  We crawled into her red Toyota Camry and drove.  There were additional garments in the vehicle that we used to tighten my original tourniquet.  The drive felt longer than any drive I had ever known.  We stayed on the main thruway, but the terrain felt ominous as we drove.  The further and further we got from San Juan, the more dread I felt as if I was treading where I didn’t belong.  The road signs warned against stopping alongside the road and picking up hitchhikers.  When we finally reached the exit, the sun was going down leaving a crimson streak across the sky that reminded me of the blood Bernice had been losing from her thigh. I saw mango and banana trees.  A poor lady had been selling cocoanut water at the side of the rode.  She watched as I slowed down the car wondering what we were doing in her neck of the woods.  I could see what I later learned to be Candelero Hill along the green landscape.  It felt like that hill watched me for the remainder of my stay.

We found her doctor friend just before Bernice started to pass out.  I later learned that we made it just in time.  Dr. Colon seemed to work out of an abandoned church.  The place looked so immense on the inside with its stain glass windows and marble floors.  I wondered why the worshipers allowed it to go unused.  I sat in a pew while the doctors and his makeshift nurses took care of Bernice. It’s the kind of setting that makes you want to think aloud. I said to myself, “What am I doing here?”

“Seeking guidance from our Lord it would seem,” came a voice from behind.  It was a nun, one of Dr. Colon’s nurses.  I wanted to tell her that it was all just a momentary lapse that none of this faith stuff is real for me, but it seemed inappropriate for me to disagree.  I simply nodded and turned back to where the altar had been.  It now looked more like an empty stage, and part of me knew that at one time it had been glorious whether or not it was a house of God. Minutes turned into hours and night turned into dawn. I must have slept unknowingly.

I awoke to a kiss on the forehead.  It was Bernice in all her glory.  She smiled, looked at me, and said “Not bad for an overweight ugly sidekick.”

She told me that both she and Consuelo had worked undercover for a rum manufacturer who happened to be selling weapons to terrorists.  The manila envelope contained all the contents they needed to bring down his operation also including the names of collaborators within our own government along with how much cash each of these nefarious types had received. The events in the hotel parking lot meant that Consuelo had double crossed her and revealed her identity to Fernando, the big boss behind it all.  A man so powerful he was even able to recruit his own shadow force from corrupted American agents.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We go to the south of France.”

The drive back to San Juan was quiet.  I drove as fast as I could watching the Spanish exit signs fly past one by one. I started to think of Lisa again wondering where she could possibly be.  What would she think of this formidable adventure’s I’ve now found myself in? The American radio station played Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and I boldly sung along.  Bernice just stared out the window for half the song and then shot a toothless grin back at me.  Her black hair glistened in the sunlight.  Then, the oddest question came out of her, “Do you think you’ve earn the right to sing that song as a man?”

“What kind of question is that?” I shot back.

“Bruce earned the right to sing this song.  He’s Bruce.  Who do you think you are?”

“Well, that’s mighty brazen.  I’ll have you know that while I may not be anywhere near as in touch with humanity as Bruce Springsteen, I’ve lived a working class life and have had on occasion longed for a woman the way he does in this song.”

Bernice smirked, “I’ll bet you’ve done plenty of longing.”

I lost my patience and said, “You know not everyone finds their niche in the world as easily as others.  I suppose you must have such a high opinion of yourself because you’re a spy and I’m just some fat loser who works in a bookstore for a living.  It must be good to have that self-confidence about you with every move you make but for people like me . . . we go through our entire lives feeling awkward and insecure.  The least you could do is refrain from openly insulting me especially after I’ve done all I can do to help you, Lisa.”

There it was- the slip of the tongue that I wished I could have taken back as soon as I said it.  I accidentally called Bernice Lisa, and why not?  The two of them were like peas in a pod. They were each so uniquely individual and yet so similar it felt like they were interchangeable. The last thing any woman wants to hear, however, is that they remind you of someone from the past.

Bernice turned to me, “Please, don’t tell me you called me Lisa because I remind you of some ex-girlfriend who dumped you years ago.”

This time I was the one who was brazen, “It was a slip of the tongue but maybe you do.  What of it?  As a matter of fact the only reason I came out here to Puerto Rico was to look for Lisa because it would appear that she’s gone missing.”

“I don’t have time for this immature nonsense.  Did it ever occur to you that perhaps this Lisa woman of your dreams is missing because she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Yes, that has occurred to me of course. I just want to be sure she’s okay though.”

“Yeah, and then what? Do you think she’ll jump into your arms and thank you for your concern or do you think she’ll just want to be left alone to live her life in peace and maybe enjoy herself with someone other than you?” she said.

I thought for a minute then said, “Probably the latter.”

I gave Bernice the rundown of my relationship with Lisa and I got the sense during that ride that maybe part of her grew a little sympathy for me or at least I’d like to think so.  She still thought I was crazy to go out of my way to actively look for Lisa, but I think she thought it was cute that I cared so deeply about someone who might not care as much about me.

When we arrived at the airport, Bernice inquired about tickets and we were told that there were seats available on the next flight to Miami leaving in just under an hour where we could then spend the night and take a flight out to southern France early the next morning. As we sat next to each other on the plane, we both nodded off and went to sleep, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to saying I slept with an attractive female spy.

Upon arrival in Miami, we headed straight to the Fontainebleau Hotel where we both had separate rooms. I was mildly amused by the fact that some scenes from the James Bond film Goldfinger had been shot there.  Before drifting off to sleep again, I thought about James Bond and how cool Connery had been in the 1960s, how that natural swagger of his just emanated a natural charm that attracted women to him. As they said, “All women wanted to be with him and all men wanted to BE him.”  I wonder what would be made of this set of circumstances: an alluring female spy with her unattractive sidekick gallivanting around the globe – she with all the wit and magnetism of a female version of Connery and me and my clumsy awkwardness draining the scenario of any sense of class or style.

Unsurprisingly, my dreams were fueled by an overwhelming sense of fear, danger, and lust.  Faceless gunmen, drops from perilous heights, and finally Bernice’s naked flesh percolated in my mind’s eye throughout the night in no particular order.  At one point, Lisa’s naked body melted away to reveal Bernice’s naked body underneath her nipples (as I imagined them) sharp as knives poking out at me.  I’d like to think of myself as a decent man, and yet my own sense of decency is betrayed by my baseless shameful desires.  I’m pretty sure I loved Lisa and lusted after Bernice but there are times when the line between those two emotions (or even those two separate women) becomes indistinguishable.  I still question where one ends and the other begins yet I’ve fully convinced myself that I loved and lusted after both women although I only ever experienced the love of one.

Whether she remembers it or not, I’m pretty confident Lisa loved me at least for that time we were together.  For a while, we were quite the pair of young lovers if I remember correctly.  Those were the days when she fussed after me and called me and seemed to always look forward to the next time we’d see each other.  Then after a few years, something just changed.  It seemed like we just started to go through the motions to be in each other’s company, and I could tell she grew more and more disinterested in me as her lover with each passing day.  Neither one of us admitted what was clearly going on as the distance between us grew and grew until she decided one day to pull the plug.  Actually, it was me who pulled the trigger out of anger and she who finished it off.  When she called to cancel on me one day after a series of previous other cancellations, I just blew up at her over the phone and said, “Why don’t we just call it quits!”

I was such a coward.  I became that guy who breaks up with a woman over the phone.  This was in the era before text messages on smart phones so it was literally the lowest way to end a relationship.  Lisa became hysterical, which led me to panic and try to take it all back only to have her call my bluff and actually end things with me for real.  I could tell it hurt her but it irreparably hurt me even though the whole thing had been instigated by my outburst.  Just weeks before, we had become engaged and had even begun the process of booking a venue. We got as far as booking the honeymoon.  It was a honeymoon she would go on alone.  When she returned, she made the effort to mend our friendship, but our intimate relationship was over.  It’s something that broke my heart and broke me as a man for years to come.  I coped by eating junk food.  I find that the current trend of our weak millennial culture is this notion about being in touch with your feelings and over-reliance on therapy, however, I think you can add the word “therapy” to any vice or addiction in order to rationalize just about anything.  Perhaps it all started with aroma and hydrotherapy although I’ve neglected to do much research on the topic.  For instance, every time I have McDonald’s I call it “McDonald’s Therapy.”  Doing this makes my nasty junk food habit okay and a lot easier to have it align with current societal moods and notions.  I’d advise anyone reading this try this with any of their vices: Oversleeping Therapy, Prostitute Therapy, Procrastination Therapy, Heroin Overdose Therapy, Suicide Therapy – don’t each of those ugly things have much rosier connotations now?

I woke up early the next day hoping to have a head start on Bernice, but when I arrived at her room there was no answer.  The hotel administrator told me she had checked out and that she left me a note.  I read it trying to stay calm, trying not to care, trying to adapt a casual state of indifference but failing miserably:

Dear Jake,

You’re probably not surprised to see that I’ve left.  Despite our little tiff yesterday I really think you’re a nice guy. Thank you for helping me when I needed you.  You can sing Bruce anytime you want from now on and I won’t be there to bust your chops about it, I promise. Take care and stay safe.  Above all, don’t try to follow me.  It’s too dangerous and I don’t want you to get killed. If it’s any consolation I think Lisa might have lost the one man who maybe cares for her the most.

Your friend always


I can’t say was surprised, but then something stirred in me after reading that note which I hadn’t felt in a long while.  I was more determined than ever to first find Lisa and also help Bernice some way somehow within my own limited means.  I got on the next flight and quickly determined the fastest way to get to Côte d’Azur.  Every fiber of my body vibrated with anticipation fueled by adrenaline. I hardly remember renting a vehicle or the beautiful countryside of the French Riviera, but I remember feeling like was being pulled to Monaco.  Having been a big 007 fan, I remembered that Roger Moore owned a house there once but there was something else.  It felt as if I was following some kind of Northern Star leading me to a fateful destination and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.  I was starting to get a little tired and hungry but there hadn’t been anywhere to stop for a while so I soldiered on until I reached a rather large and quite lovely chalet.  I half expected the owner to shoo me away seeing as how I was one of those “ugly Americans” who the French have had a tendency to despise, but I was pleasantly surprised to see an elderly Irish woman.  She appeared elderly but not very frail. I could tell she still had her wits about her despite being in her mid to late 80s.  I got out of my car as she carefully approached.  I explained that I had been on the road for some time and that I wasn’t quite sure where I was going.

She told me her name was Johanna. “Welcome, come in and have some tea,” she said. “I was just in the middle of having a lovely conversation with a most remarkable young woman.”

Then, that familiar feeling reappeared in the pit of my stomach as I followed her inside and that’s when I saw her.  It was Lisa as I live and breathe.  She wore this James Bond tank top that I had given her for her birthday last year, which she happily accepted despite the fact that it’s a bit awkward for a guy to buy clothes for his ex. On the front was a depiction of the classic woman in gold paint motif with the word “Bond Girl” written over the top.  She looked marvelous. To me, Lisa was the ultimate Bond Girl, and I say that knowing that the notion may go against the grain of a noted feminist like her.  At the time I wasn’t sure she’d accept it since she had gently given me a ribbing for suggesting that the critique of sexism in Bond movies is invalid.

“Jake what are you doing here?” Lisa asked.

“I should say the same about you.  People are worried sick about you.”

“Oh you mean on social media?  I’ve decided to give it up social media altogether.  It’s just not worth it.  Besides I’m up to something more important.”

“Lisa, your parents, your sister, none of your family knows where you are.  I decided to look for you.”

“And how on earth did you find me here?  Did you know about my plans to interview Johanna Harwood for my book?

“No.  Wait. Johanna Harwood?”

Incredulous, Lisa laughed that lovely laugh of hers.  Then, she walked over to me embraced me, gave me a peck on the cheek. “You’re the only reason I know about her because you told me about her when we were together.  You mean you didn’t know that was her?”

I did a double take, “That’s Johanna Harwood?”

“Yes, and I’m interviewing her for my book on feminism in Hollywood.  One of the earliest chapters will be devoted to her story which I know because you told me all about her.  She was the assistant of Harry Saltzman who co-produced the James Bond movies along with Cubby Broccoli and … You know all this already.”

“Yeah, she co-wrote the screenplays for the first two Bond movies.” I said with enthusiasm. “Is it really her?”

“Yes,” Johanna piped in from behind with a tea kettle in her hand and an empty coffee mug.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Harwood.”

“Why thank you.  I’m surprised this many people know who I am.”

I replied, “Well, I know who you are and when Lisa and I were dating I told her what I knew of your story. Little did I know that she would actually track you down for an interview for one of her books someday.”

Lisa jumped in, “It’s a fascinating story how  Johanna was essentially the first writer assigned to adapt the Ian Fleming novels but then had most of the credit taken away from her once the producers hired Richard Maibaum.  Moreover, the director of the first two movies was reportedly a terrible sexist and kept referring to her as a ‘script girl’.”

“All of that is true, but you know I don’t think I would trade in my experience working for Harry and Cubby back in those days for anything in the world.  I was on the ground floor of something brand new and exciting back then. “

Lisa then asked, “But wasn’t it unfair that these men took all the credit for the work that you did and minimized your contributions?”

Johanna smiled, “You would be right to think that it was unfair.  Perhaps it was, but for some reason I don’t feel bitter about it. I went on to write on other projects, but I never got to direct a film, which was a real dream of mine.”

Lisa jumped in, “Even now it’s very hard for female directors in the entertainment industry.  There are clearly not enough opportunities out there and that’s really what’s going to be at the core of my book.”

“I hope I was of some help to you,” said Johanna. “Now if you’d excuse me it looks like something strange is going on outside.”

I turned around and looked out the window to see a white car approaching with its windshield blasted out and plume of grey smoke rising from behind.  It glided slowly as if it was a wounded animal and then I saw his face.  It was a face I hoped to never see again. It was Consuelo.  The car halted to a stop in the middle of the road and I could see the blood dripping from his forehead all over his suit.  He eyed the chalet and approached.

“We gotta get out of here,” I said.

“Maybe he needs help.  I’ll call an ambulance,” said Johanna.

“No.  I know him.  He’s dangerous,” I said.

“What’s going on?” said Lisa.

“No time.” I said.

I soon determined that exiting the chalet from the back would leave us trapped in Johanna’s open field garden with nowhere to hide so I quickly asked Johanna for the best hiding spot in the house and she suggested the wine cellar.  There was some cover separately for each of us in the corners of the room if we angled ourselves just right behind and in between the racks.  We just had to pray that Consuelo wouldn’t venture down there because we’d each be quite visible with just a little bit of light.

I sucked in my stomach as much as possible to try to fit behind the rack, but it just wasn’t happening.  Before we knew it there was a crash and footsteps stomping hastily on the floorboards above us.  I then heard another car approaching.  More henchmen perhaps? I just listened trying to determine what was going on.

Then, I heard her just outside the entrance to the chalet.  It was Bernice.  She called out, “I know you’re in there Consuelo.  The operation is over.  You lost!”

Then, a gunshot fired and what seemed like sawdust fell into my eyes.  I moved to swipe it away and then I clumsily swiped at a bottle causing it to fall off the rack instead.  Before I knew it, Consuelo bolted down the staircase.  He saw me immediately. “You!” he said. Grabbing me by the collar with a gun to my head, Consuelo led me outside.  My heart sank when I saw the look of dejection on Bernice’s face.

“It’s not over as long as I got your big ugly boyfriend,” he said in his terrible accent.

Bernice lowered her weapon and dropped it to the floor.  I dreaded having to explain to her that this was all just happenstance.   Yes, I was trying to find her, but no, I wasn’t trying to find her quite this way. Everything happened the way it did because I was just . . . me.   That’s what it comes down to really.  I began to reflect that my entire life has been a series of disappointments.  Every essential thing about me from my aspirations of becoming a writer to my relationships with women has all been tainted with failure. I was trapped in a cycle of underachievement and it all appeared to come crashing down on me in what I thought were my final moments.

Surely, Consuelo would shoot me once I stopped being of use to him.  He would use me to secure his escape and administer a prompt injection of led to my skull at the first opportunity.  I began to fathom just how much I’ve let everyone down.  To Lisa, I was this inadequate needy lover who she had to free herself from.  To Bernice, I was this clumsy fat sidekick she never asked for. Finally to myself, I just never amounted to anything.  All those dreams I had of becoming a successful writer one day would now turn to ashes.  Whether I died right now or 70 years from now, in that moment I thought I would never amount to anything.  As the Springsteen song goes, “You sit around getting older / There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me.”  That’s me. The joke isn’t on me.  It is me. Time for some death therapy to set it all to rights.

Just while I was about to fade into the depths of despair, a loud crash caused Consuelo to loosen his grip on me. I turned around to see Lisa with a shattered wine bottle in her hand.  She had clocked Consuelo from behind.

“Jake, duck!” yelled Bernice.

The gunshots fired with a nasty precision as I crouched to the ground.  The bullets pierced Consuelo’s chest and he collapsed onto the ground like a sack of dead weight.

A look of relief crossed Bernice’s face.  Then she approach to see if I was alright but soon after her attention drifted to Lisa.

I caught my bearings and began to introduce them, “Bernice this is…”

“Lisa.” Bernice guessed correctly.  “Jake has told me all about you.”

Lisa smiled and approached Bernice.

The authorities arrived soon after.  We all gave statements.  Johanna’s niece came to take her away to stay with her family while the scene at the chalet would be investigated and cleaned up.  Before she parted, Johanna marveled at the fact that she never guessed she’d be at the center of a real spy story.

Lisa and Bernice drifted off together and soon after I could tell where it was leading so I sauntered back to my car and drove.   In the end it doesn’t matter that I finally found Lisa.  She was never truly lost.  It doesn’t matter that I helped Bernice back in Puerto Rico, my clumsiness in the chalet nearly allowed Consuelo to get away. My life only adds up to a series of missteps and mishaps that will soon be forgotten.  What becomes of those of us who just never fit in?  We’re all too socially awkward to form a support group and to be quite honest I wouldn’t care to join such a group anyway.  It doesn’t matter because once we’re dead none of us will mean anything to anyone anyway.  It won’t matter to Lisa that I dreamed of a life with her while listening to Bruce Springsteen songs. It won’t matter to Bernice that I tried to be her spy sidekick at a time when I thought she needed one.  Once I’m dead and buried none of this will matter, and I feel foolish for believing that it ever would.

I doubt Bernice and Lisa will last very long together if they decide to pursue a relationship but maybe I’m wrong about that since I’m wrong about so many things.  In fact, I think in this case it would be Lisa who will learn the torment of desiring someone who cannot be held onto very long given Bernice’s life as a spy.  I suspect Bernice will ultimately treat Lisa as her own disposable Bond girl if she hasn’t done so already, but I find myself regretting such cruel thoughts.  I must ask myself instead what have I become.

I now regret having any of those terribly despairing unbecoming thoughts.  After all, I should be above this kind of pettiness.  I think back on the good and the bad of my life and think to myself what’s the point of any of it at all?  The answer never comes.  The only one that does is the cold truth that we all die alone this day or the next.  The only comfort in that is the memory of Lisa’s love and how it warms my heart even now to think of a time when I meant everything to her and she to me. Like the Rolling Stone’s song “Memory Motel,” which motivated me to write this all down goes she’s “just a memory of a love that used to be.”


Driven to Distraction

Well, we’re drivin’ this car and the sun is comin’ up over the Rockies,
Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul.
But I’m too over the edge and I ain’t in the mood anymore to remember the times when I was your only man
And she don’t want to remind me. She knows this car would go out of control.

-Lyrics from “Brownsville Girl” by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard

“You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you,” Lucy said forcing an end to Sam’s daydreaming as he refocused on driving their aqua Nissan Versa.  They were on the LIE heading back to their comfortable Ronkonkoma home.  Sam’s thoughts had drifted to an area of his memory that he could not escape. For a few moments he could imagine Amy sitting next to him in the car, only this time the car wasn’t a Nissan Versa.  No, back then he drove a hot red ’97 Jaguar. It was the first car he’d ever owned, and they’d both go out spontaneously and just drive.  They’d drive anywhere with Amy’s seat leaned back and her bare feet on the dashboard with the trees racing by and the pavement yielding its limitless horizon.  Amy had such a mischievous smile with a forbidden dark beauty inside her.  Sam often lost himself just gazing at her.  Amy had been an enigma, but that’s what made Sam crazy about her.  All these years later, as he found himself awakened by Lucy’s intrusion into his thoughts, he turned and noticed Lucy’s humorless expression and knew that he was done for.  This is how life pans out after you let society tame your passions.  You end up in a shitty Nissan Versa thinking about how great your life was decades ago before you let your life get ruined.

Sam offered up a noncommittal denial, and Lucy saw right through it.  She said, “What is it with men and their obsessions with women from their past?  I don’t get it.”

“I’m just driving us home.  What’s the problem?” said Sam. It was quiet again, but the silence didn’t last long.

“I don’t suppose you plan to put on Stardust Memories again when we get home,” said Lucy.

“It’s my favorite Woody Allen movie to wind down to,” said Sam.

Lucy started in, “It’s your favorite Woody Allen movie because Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds you of her.  She’s your ‘Dorrie.’”

Sam became incredulous, “My what?”

“Dorrie.  That’s Charlotte Rampling’s character in the movie.  She’s the dark beauty that Woody Allen is constantly torn back to even though she’s a psycho-depressive maniac.”

Sam said, “Lucy, let’s not fight.  It’s just a movie.”

Lucy countered, “It’s just a movie and you’re just a writer inspired by it. I’ve heard it all before.  The best line in that movie happens when a random woman says that the insights are ‘shallow and morbid.’  Doesn’t she say ‘they try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art’?  That’s exactly what your precious favorite movie gets ultimately reduced to.  And your writing, don’t get me started.”

“What about my writing?”

“It’s the same cynical pretentious drivel that Woody Allen tries to pawn off although not nearly as funny.  There’s a reason why you’re a teacher now, Sam, you just don’t have the talent.”

Sam became increasingly deflated, “That’s a lovely attitude from the woman who’s supposed to be my wife.”

Lucy’s eyes seared into Sam, “Oh, am I supposed to be the maternal nurturing Isobel character?  Sorry to disappoint you.”

As the car approached the bend in the expressway, Sam could see the red lights of traffic up ahead.  Soon, the car would come to a halt, the silence would be deafening, the storm that had been threatening to downpour would burst its clouds from the heavens, the lightening would strike boldly in the distance, and the menacing thunder would resound in his ear drums, and the sooner it could strike the better.  The thunder would take him back to the day Amy and he had been driving when the cloud cover came out of nowhere followed by torrential rain.  The brutal rain blasted that Jaguar so hard neither Amy nor Sam could see out the windshield but they were in the middle of the expressway and couldn’t just stop.  The windshield wipers furiously swept back and forth across the windshield but to no avail.  For a long 10 minutes, Sam had driven them nearly blind.  Then, the rain stopped and the sun came out.  Sam took the next exit and Amy directed him to drive to a secluded spot.  Before he’d even reach the spot, Amy had her hands all over him as he drove.  When the car came to a halt, she pulled Sam over to her and furiously kissed him.  They tore off each other’s clothes and made love as the sun set.  Sam could still remember her soft skin and the way her hair fell on her shoulders making her look almost like a lion.  That was Amy and she had been his lioness.

“Snap out of it!  Can’t you see it’s moving now!” Lucy hollered sitting next to Sam.

Sam recovered and took on a more penitent tone.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “ I don’t know why my mind has been wandering like that lately.  I’ve been downright foolish.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be driving,” said Lucy for the first time with compassion in her voice.  “Maybe you’re just stressed out.  It happens to all of us.”

“I’ll be alright,” said Sam. This time he told himself he’d stay focused.  He had papers to grade this weekend and even though it was Friday night the weekends seemed to just race by.  Life just seemed too busy and so much more time was now required to be spent on the obligatory things.  He found himself missing the carefree days of his youth when he could shrug off all responsibility and take himself wherever fate would lead him.

“You know I didn’t mean what I said back there,” said Lucy.  This took Sam by surprise.

“Didn’t mean what?” asked Sam.

“About your writing.  You know I love you but sometimes you just have a tendency to get lost and it’s infuriating to me.”

“That’s alright, sweetheart. I’m pretty sure I deserved it.”

“I’m not going to argue with that, Sam.”

Taillights now glared in the dark moonlight halting their progress once again. Lucy turned up the radio. Some insipid Top 10 hit played out of the speakers and Sam tried his best to tune it out but Lucy sang along.  Sam thought to himself that perhaps he hadn’t done so badly.  Perhaps he needed someone to keep him grounded and if that was the case Lucy fit that role perfectly.  They had met at a party 3 years prior and got on swimmingly. He had impressed Lucy with his limited knowledge of classical music and he was impressed with the fact that she had played the cello.  Back then he imagined his life with her would be a fantastic mutual learning experience for them both.  He’d get to learn and enjoy all the knowledge that came with her classical background and perhaps she might enjoy his writing.  He thought he might dedicate his debut novel to her and that it would be the first of many.  Their first romantic evening together had been at the Metropolitan Opera House and he couldn’t help but feel like Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. He wore his best suit and they met at the fountain at Lincoln Center and they each smiled and got lost in each other’s eyes as if they had been in the movies.  Lucy wore a beautiful aqua blue dress that made her look ravishing. He’d call her Loretta after Cher’s character in that movie and she’d teasingly call him Ronny, and that’s how they fell in love. On their wedding night, they danced to “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin and relished in the knowledge that they were the only ones in the room to get the reference.  Their guests had wondered why that song since neither one of them was even Italian.

Traffic from the flash floods finally let up slowly and Sam was able to start driving again.  This time he didn’t need Lucy to wake him from his daydreaming. The Nissan Versa chugged along, the car got back to moving, and the mood had been lightened to the point where Sam felt comfortable again. A minor accident had slowed things down and once everyone passed along with their obligatory side glances, it was determined that there was not much to look at.  Sam decided to break the ice again, “That really was a fun time. We should make an effort to see Fionna and Billy more often.”

“Are you finally admitting to having a good time or is this just looking for safe empty conversation?  I could never tell with you,” Lucy nervously laughed.

“No, I really did have a good time,” said Sam. “Stop being so cynical.”

“It’s just that you always write about how boring couples can be to hang out with. That story you sold to Phantom was all but a thinly veiled portrayal of couples just like Fionna and Billy.  I mean it wasn’t exactly them of course, but very similar.  The middle class home with the two car garage, the obnoxious precocious children, the way the husband can’t stop talking about his office job.  I felt like I honestly had to drag you there today so did you really have a good time or is this just filling up space?”

“Filling up space?” Sam inquired.

“Filling up space.  I mean you know that thing people do to make innocuous conversation as in small talk. I just need to know if you’re being nice or if your being sincere.”

Sam let out a nervous laugh, ”I’m being sincere.  I like Fionna and Billy.  I had fun.  Billy has an entire collection of Ian Fleming 1st editions.  How could I not like him?”

Lucy became catty, “Really, because if you ask me it seemed more like envy not mutual admiration.”

Sam hesitated and said, “Listen I don’t want to fight. I thought things had settled down with us.”

Lucy jumped on the phrase, “Funny you should use the phrase ‘settle down.’ Is that what I am to you?  Is that what this is?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Lucy.”

“I’m talking about the fact that I know you still think about Amy.  Amy, Amy, Amy.  That’s all you think about when your mind wanders.”

Sam interrupted, “For your information, I was actually just thinking about us before and when we first met at the opera.  Why can’t we get back to more times like that?”

Just then a thunder strike startled each of them out of their train of thought.  Sam could see the cars in front wading through the flooded lanes on the expressway.  It felt like they would never get home.   He thought about Amy.  Where was she now?  What would his life be had they worked things out? Sam knew it would have never worked.  Not only had Amy gotten bored with him, he knew that he could never satisfy her.  She was always too elusive. There had been something about Amy that drove him crazy with passion and desire even though he always knew he’d come up short when it came to fulfilling her. Still, Amy was his Dorrie and he missed her even if she didn’t miss him, even if she was just a little looney – besides, it was her craziness that endeared her to him.

As Sam drove, his thoughts drifted once again to Amy, however, Sam continued to be aware of his surroundings. The Nissan Versa arrived at their exit when just out of the corner of his eye, Sam noticed a familiar face in the car beside him. It was her.  It was Amy.  She was driving alone. His jaw dropped as he took in her beauty once again for the first time in many years.  Then, it was as if an arm reached over, but Sam could hardly tell whether or not that had happened.  Sam tried to slam the brakes but it was too late as the Nissan skidded out of control. Lucy’s furious eyes penetrated him as she seemed to scold him.  The steering wheel turned wildly out of his grasp.  The car spun around, then tumbled, and then skidded upside down towards the parking lot of a strip mall.

Sam blacked out.  His final thoughts were of Amy.  Had he remained conscious he would have been surprised to see Amy get out of her vehicle and offer assistance. He would have seen Amy struggle to get Lucy out of the car and call 911.  Then, he would have heard Amy tell Lucy, “You’ll be alright. Help is on the way. I’m living proof that you can always depend upon the kindness of strangers.” Sam would have seen Lucy gazing at Amy, would have witnessed Lucy becoming entranced with her. Perhaps a glance back from Lucy to Sam would have told him everything he needed to know or rather everything that he knew already.  He once had a woman who was irresistible.  For once he might have even obtained Lucy’s reluctant sympathy regarding his daydreams.  As it was all he could do was to hold on to his most cherished memory of Amy when they had first kissed in an empty theater as the light from the projector displayed images that would rush by unnoticed on the silver screen. He channelled all of his passion to capture that single moment in time and freeze it for as long as he could hold onto it. Then, he expired and life went on for Lucy and Amy.

The Unquenchable Thirst

There existed only one unequivocal thought in his mind and that is that he desired her.  Maybe it wasn’t quite love in the traditional sense or maybe it was the closest thing he felt to that insidious saccharine sentiment, but it was the one thing he felt that he couldn’t question. Harry could only admire her from a distance.  In fact he’d gone over a year without seeing her and there was nary a hint that she had ever given him a second thought since the last time they met. When last they parted, it was an awkward hug in the rain in front of Neary’s Bar on St. Stephen’s Street. For the 50th  time in his life, he had lost count of how many shots of tequila he had had resulting in a jingle jangle stutter step to the curb and a cab back to his place in Clifton.

They had each sworn in bold declarations that they’d see each other soon.  Just because their employment at the paper had ended that night didn’t mean they couldn’t stay in touch. The rain pelted his raincoat with a fury that felt like a tropical hurricane.  The wind blew her chestnut brown hair this way and that, and while she probably deemed herself to be a righteous mess in those moments that’s how he frequently thought and even dreamed about her.  She had opened the rear door of the cab bracing herself against the rain and wind as if her clothes could be ripped apart by the force of it all. In his rush to obtain a reprieve from these conditions Harry cut her embrace short, climbed in the cab, and let her close the door for him.  He drunkenly stared after her as she ran back into the bar and thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her. Then time did its thing.  There were new commitments to be made, a book to write, a dram and a drink to quell an infinite thirst, and a slow dirge marching towards middle age and death to round out a lifetime of misery.

He followed her career closely but could never quite get up the nerve to call.  Phone calls these days carry so much less weight than they used to.  It used to be that if an old friend called you, it meant something.  It might even change the course of your evening.  Now, everything was meant to be quick. People dismiss old friends easily because life gets busy and why make time for a conversation when a text would do.  Harry clung to a deep-seeded fear that she would dismiss him in this manner so he maintained to himself that it was best to avoid reconnecting with her.  It wasn’t worth shattering the illusion he had of her.  It wasn’t worth ruining the subject of his desire with such a thing as a discomforting truth.  Fiction is almost always better than fact.  He allowed the fantasy of her to reign eternally in his heart unencumbered by what must be by now her cold indifference.

He could still replay almost every detail of their first assignment and segment together.  The chief had told them, “These higher ups want us to produce these short web segments on news stories so that the website could get more hits.  Harry and Samantha, why don’t you two tackle the rising murder rate.  I want it done and up on the site by noon.”

Samantha piped in, “But I’m still working on that piece on the latest poll numbers.”

The chief replied, “Who gives a fuck about the poll numbers.  People want to see action but we’re not going to give them action. We’re going to give them two reasonably attractive talking heads talking about action.  Now, get to it.”

Harry chimed in, “Why thanks, boss. I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”

“You can whack off to me later,” said the chief.

Harry had had a crush on Samantha since she started there several weeks beforehand.  She may have been new to the paper, but she proved right away that she knew what she was doing once she delivered her first story.  It was a doozy.  Everyone loves a sex scandal.  Correction: Everyone loves a female reporter talking about a sex scandal.  Harry turned to Samantha and said, “At least he didn’t call you toots. It took Caitlyn years to live that down.  She thought about going to HR, but then decided it was best to take it all in stride.”

Samantha smiled. She shot him that alluring glance he learned to relish with her and said, “Harry, nothing ever fazes me.  Let’s get a drink together later tonight.”

That was the start of it all. They did their segment and it was a hit, but it’s what came after that stuck with Harry. The drink turned into a nightcap at her place and the nightcap turned into a make out session and the make out session turned into the kind of ferocious love making reserved for pornography. The next morning came the awkward goodbyes and “see ya at work.”  Then, the following week would yield yet another successful web segment followed by another similar evening of frolicking. Neither of them spoke of a need to define the nature of their relationship.  Even the very word “relationship” would have been poisonous to the very enterprise.  They worked fluidly together to the point where they could read each other’s minds.  Their repartee on screen was almost like music.  The paper’s website got more and more hits.  Everyone was happy and Harry and Samantha knew better than to spoil a good thing by having an actual serious conversation about their desire for one another.

Then, just like that the bomb dropped.  The paper shut down its print edition and became a web exclusive news source, which wouldn’t have been so bad if so many people didn’t get laid off. Harry and Samantha were initially spared, but then word came down that Chicago was looking for a pretty face. The morning anchor job on a network broadcast station was too big for Samantha to give up.  Harry knew it would be the beginning of the end.  His pink slip came on Samantha’s last day.  The chief walked up to his desk that morning and spouted, “Sorry, Harry.  Looks like it’s the end of the line.”

Colleagues had decided it was the perfect occasion to go out with a bang at Neary’s Bar that night.  Harry drank and drank some more repeating the phrase “onward and upward” with every shot of tequila wishing he could get one more taste of Samantha’s skin to savor on his taste buds.  He knew she wouldn’t be up for it.  He didn’t even have to ask.  Before going outside to meet the cab in the pouring rain, he staggered over to her and slurred, “It’s been fun.”

She smiled that alluring smile of hers and said, “Right back at ya, Harry” accompanied by an ever so coquettish wink.  She walked him outside to the cab and then it was over.

Harry thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her.

The funny thing about desire though is that at least for Harry it never dissipated.  He spent every night since thinking about Samantha, dreaming of that chestnut brown hair coming down on her naked shoulders.  He thought about the way her voice reduced to a whisper as she seduced him all those evenings.  Her every gesture in his memory became a lavish oil painting complete with a moving canvass. He couldn’t escape the memory of her. She became a ghost transfixed upon his brain.  Every time he’d get lucky with a new girl he’d pick up at a bar somewhere she’d disrobe and he’d find that his eyes had morphed her face into Samantha’s.

He couldn’t bear to watch Samantha at her new gig next to that pompous prick, but he forced himself to watch anyway. The clips he’d get hold of made him sick.  Those knowing glances that were exchanged, that alluring smile he thought she’d reserved only for him, the way her voice rose when she agreed with one of his talking points, all those things plagued him. Still, this was the woman he desired, and once you desire someone it’s impossible to forget that desire.

Harry decided to write a book.  He had the free time anyway.  He was working freelance and steady work was hard to come by.  He had published a novel before in the lifetime he lived before Samantha, but it had been years since he considered fiction writing again.  His editor was pleased to hear that he’d return back from the journalism front and pressed him for a first draft, but nothing came easily.  He decided he’d try to channel Samantha into his writing.  He’d devise a story about her although it wasn’t exactly about her.  It would be a facsimile of her, but even with this close approximation of her he found that it strangely brought them closer at least in his mind.  He came up with a brilliant plot and every night he wrote with fury attacking his old fashioned Royal typewriter almost as feverishly as when he made love to Samantha.  Writing this novel became his way of at the very least channeling this desire and making something productive out of it instead of letting it plague him.

The real Samantha had no idea that he was channeling her, and for a while it bugged Harry.  He thought If only she knew just how much she has inspired me. That might even be enough to at the very least get her to invite me over for a drink if I should happen to be in Chicago.  Then, who knows what else a drink might lead to. Still, he resisted the urge to call her or contact her.  Better to let fantasy rule over reality, he thought.

Months went by. The book was finished.  The galley was printed.  Everything appeared to be wonderful about his life again. On a whim, he decided to send a galley to Samantha.  He had obtained her contact information so he sent it to her home address. Inside the front cover, which had an image that had been cleverly modelled after Samantha’s likeness, he inscribed the words:

“Dear Samatha,

I plan to dedicate this book to you as it has been wholly inspired by our dalliance together.  I hope you don’t think it too forward. I promise not to use your real name but of course you will know that every word of it was written for you. I still remember the touch of your skin, and I’ll never stop desiring you.



A week later the package came back with a note inside the book that had been returned. It read,

“Dear Harry,

I don’t have time to read books these days and anyways we hardly even knew each other. It was fun for a time but do yourself a favor and get a grip.

It’s been fun,


A couple of months later after the book release, Harry returned to Neary’s bar instead of the book signing that had been arranged for him.  For the 51st time, he lost track of how many shots of tequila he downed. He never wrote another word.