Chapter 31: The Examination Room

Tom Drake examined himself in the mirror, one of six placed strategically throughout his condo.  While arduous and lackluster, the installation process of the additional four mirrors had taught him how delicately such instruments must be handled and how minor carelessness could result in dramatic consequences.

The exercise took an entire Saturday morning, which meant that Tom had not been able to party Friday night.  Which meant he would be able to rise — not stumble — at the necessary hour.  It had to be done precisely this way.  Tom was worthless in the afternoon.  This one, in particular, was no exception.  Shirtless, he paced about, from one mirror to the next, never arriving at any productive exercise or action item.  Maybe that was the point.

Someone was knocking at the door, so Tom, not being in any particular hurry, put on a wifebeater first.  He nipped it from the top of a stack of approximately eight jet-black wifebeaters.  Each had been folded neatly and washed only in Woolite Dark.  Tom found other colors of these shirts to be queer.

Tom slung the door open.  It was Hardy, the fat kid who lived with his parents and sister on the floor below.

“Hi Hardy.  What’s shaking?”

“Mom said you can come over for dinner if you want to.”

“Again?  That’s too generous.”

“She doesn’t mind.  Yesterday she said you were,” Hardy paused, squeezing his eyes shut to think.  Premature crows’ feet could be seen already, even in the pudgy face of an eight year old.  Then the word arrived.  “‘unusually well-mannered.’”

“Did she?  Hardy, that is by far the nicest thing anyone has said about me in at least the last ten minutes.”

Hardy giggled.  Tom smiled a little because he didn’t consider himself especially amusing.
“What time were you thinking?”

“At six.  But you can come over now and play X-Box.  I got Fight Night 4.”

“Any good?”

“The Best.”

“Alright Hardy you sold me.  Can I build my boxer from scratch or do I have to do that shit where you pick one of the greats and emulate his career?  Because as you and I have discussed countless times, Hardy, if I’m going to be playing a game with stats or progress indicators or things of that nature — they’re going to be about me.

My career.

My professional boxer.

My rock star.”

Hardy laughed.  “You’re a funny neighbor.  Ready?”

“Let me get my shoes.”

Tom ambled into his bedroom while Hardy stood in the doorway.  On the counter, just a few feet away, a needle — used– lay discarded upon a couple dry quilted inch cotton squares speckled in red.  Inside the sink, had Hardy been tall enough to peer over it, he would have seen a white shirt soaked and leaking bright blood into the drain.

“Alright buddy, let’s rock.”

“Tom?”  Hardy’s voice shook and suddenly Tom remembered what he’d left in the kitchen.

“What’s up, my man?”

“What did you do today?”

Tom shut the door and gave the knob a quick twist.  Yep, locked as planned. Tom’s hand rested casually on Hardy’s shoulder and he gave him a playful shove when the elevator arrived moments later.  The door had shut and the machine descended two floors before Hardy’s wide eyes, awaiting a response.

“You know me, kid.  When I find problems, I fix ‘em.”

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Part III: Man of the World

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Chapter 30: Fall

Tom and Ginger walked east on Addison Road towards Tom’s apartment.

Though they did not walk hand in hand, they moved together as if each was listening to the same beat or rhythm as the other.  Their talk had fallen to the frustrations of the work day, as it often did.  Ginger had recalled the day they met.

“What was it that I did?” Tom asked.

“You don’t remember?”

“No, it’s a blur.”

“You just started talking and I remember thinking: this guy is totally hilarious.”

“So it was in the first few seconds?” Tom asked this, as he was perpetually curious about such things, about the triggers and events which spurred powerful feelings between two people.  He had theories, but never had he asked someone like Ginger.  “I didn’t even know you were interested at all.”

Ginger laughed and shook her head.

“You are the smartest and most simultaneously aloof and unperceptive guy in the world.”  She said it with a big grin.

“So what are you saying?  About that first day?”

She stopped walking and looked at him in a way he did not remember seeing in her before.  She took his hand in hers and ran her thumb along the top of his palm.  Her eyes dropped to their hands as she did this, then flicked back to meet Tom’s.  A final pause before she spoke.

“I was digging you.”

With those words came a force of euphoria which washed over Tom like a shot of morphine, a warm rush of happiness which he instantly craved like the druggy sort of high that it really was.  His face tightened and in that moment he truly was changed.  He  would never again question his own worth in the same way. In that single moment, Ginger set free years of doubt, loosed demons which had fed on Tom’s anguish.

The death of worry.

The end of guilt.

The triumph of confidence.

That was the power that Ginger had within her: to release the flood gates of fear and let power and confidence and success come pouring forth from an individual who had — as yet — found this magical key to unlock his anguish, his potential.  Coming to understand this reality filled Tom with such a sense of happiness and joy unlike anything he could recall. He became overwhelmingly curious in all the stuff of life and living. Loosed from fear of death, he wished life to drown him in a deluge of all its mystical details.

When Tom Drake had purchased his condo, he had been taken with the breathtaking balcony view it offered.  It was not really so spectacular, but it did have a view of a large sycamore tree which — in fall — displayed the brightest yellow leaves.  Although fall was a time that depressed Tom in general, there was something about that tree which told him that everything would be okay, that it was the natural order of things, and he accepted it.

Leaves from that very tree fell, yellow and wet from an earlier rain, around Tom and Ginger as they walked.  The scene reminded Tom of the games he had enjoyed as a child — adventure games on the computer filled with rich and beautiful scenes of gardens and seasons and adventures. For a moment, he felt the same sense of wonder and possibility.  But only for a moment.

“So this is your fuck buddy.”

The statement came coldly, from nowhere, without warning.  Tom didn’t even recall where he had been looking, but it must have been at Ginger, for when his eyes darted up, he saw a man about his age, with a plain boring face, a big but not fit body, and an average haircut.  But the look on his face was unmistakably enraged.  All in this one instant, Tom wondered if he could fight him.  The man had probably twenty pounds on him, but were they important pounds, in the shoulders.  Tom was not positive he could beat him in a fight.  Then, he tensed, not caring in that moment whether he lost and lay bloodied on the pavement, for some moments inspire an uncommon and unreasonable kind of courage.  His right foot dropped back and his teeth clenched and he poised himself to explode.

But Ginger was too fast.

“No!” she shouted and leaped between the two men, her powerful runner’s legs providing ridiculous speed and agility.  Her hands pushed the two men apart, however slightly.

“Not for me,” she said, shaking her head.  “Don’t.  Tom, this is my fiance, James.”  Then she turned to face the fiance.  “And he is not my fuck buddy.”  Then Ginger began to shiver and shake and Tom took steps backwards, as if he had indeed been punched.  She had betrayed him, lied to him and worst of all: made him believe that they had something spectacular and amazing, unlike any experience he had ever known.

They all stood there for a moment, then James put his arm around Ginger and pulled her roughly towards him.  He looked at Tom, a mean, evil, reproachful look.  Tom met his gaze without flinching, though the reality that this man had taken Ginger from him was more than he could bear. As they turned away towards Wrigley Field and began walking, Tom Drake stood on the sidewalk, leaves blowing around and rustling, pulled from the trees and abandoned on the pavement to rot.

Tom picked one up and held it for a moment, then let it fall and watched it float down, down, down into the grit and mud, leaving behind nothing, not a trace, not a hope, not a promise.

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Chapter 29: The Courtship of Summer

Tasting Ginger was like nothing Tom had ever known, experienced or imagined.

It was both a subtle and elusive taste that consumed his tongue and left him panting.  Tom Drake had been defeated far too often by life to allow this critical moment to elude him.  Once that first kiss had broken the invisible barriers between them, Ginger fell into bed with Tom night after night.  Infatuation is a dangerous temptation which beckons us to taste its bitter fruit.  To Tom, it seemed like an inevitability rather than an option.  From that first night he had kissed her, leaning her over his balcony while cars hummed below them and jets descended overhead, Tom’s previous life had become unraveled.

The chill of weeks prior had dissipated and they found themselves in the full glory of summer.  It revitalized the entire city and threw gasoline upon the tiny flames which already licked at Ginger’s heart.  They sat in cafes drinking martinis till they blacked out, then stumbled back to his place and tore at one another on the roof of the building.  Above them, planes drew white lines across the night sky.  When Tom thought about such evenings, he thought of the subtlties of Ginger that thrilled him the most.  Most of all was the picturesque way she tossed her skinny arms around the back of his neck and gripped her wrists between one another, a lazy embrace which stretched down his spine.

They often lay in the grass by the lake together, picking weeds.  As for their conversations, they always — always — centered around music.

“Go Hard – DJ Khaled,” Tom began as they lay under the sun one afternoon.

“Most people would be like ‘Tom, this song is about shooting people in the hood; you know absolutely nothing about that nor can you relate to it.’  Which is just stupid, because that is totally not the point.”

“It’s not at all.”

“It’s tight that you actually get that.”

“I know.  Most people don’t have that emotional connection to songs.”

“When I listen to them, I see things.”

“Me too, like scenes playing in my head.  I get the same thing when I read.”

“Do you think this is some kind of special ability that we have?”

Ginger laughed.

“It’s possible — I have never heard of anyone else having it.  Not something that easily comes up in casual conversation.”

“It did now,” Tom said.

“Right, but our conversations are never casual.”

“That’s the beauty of it.”

“It is.”

These moments seemed to Tom to be representations of the best of life; he could hardly believe the happiness which Ginger’s presence brought to him.  But as the summer neared its end, increasingly chilly breezes forced them away from their lakeside chats and often Tom could not reach her for long periods of time.  One day Ginger did not show up to the coffee shop for their planned meeting.  Tom saw her outside the office talking to someone but she shrugged it off when he asked.  They both wanted summer to go on and on and for the best moments they had shared to become elongated and preserved.  But it was over.  Fall was upon them.

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Chapter 28: Shiver

Ginger hurried home one night during a violent rainstorm.

Her umbrella was useless, for it would be instantly caught in the wind and mangled.  Her coat was thin against the chilly and relentless rain and she did not have a scarf.  Work had been particularly hard that day.  Ginger was unable to work-out at lunch; she didn’t even have lunch, munching on random snacks from her desk instead.  But Ginger was used to denying food.  She was a former model, after all.  She knew something of restraint, of discipline.  By the time she could finish the day’s work and hasten from the building, it was nearly eight.  She was exhausted.

The bus stop was only half a block away.  It ran late until the evening, but she did not know exactly how late.  Nine?  That would be reasonable.  But since when was reasonable the MO of government?  An icy hand seized Ginger’s spine.  What if the bus had stopped running?  She blew air from her lungs in exasperation as she considered the possibility of eight more blocks in the rain till she could reach the train.  Further still, she would have to walk another six blocks when she made it to the nearest stop.  Ginger did not live close to the El.

No one was waiting at the bus stop.  Strange, Ginger thought.  The street was usually busy, packed with commuters.  They would stand shivering until their busses arrived, eyes brightening when their number appeared upon the lights above the driver.  Cash, tickets and plastic fare cards flashed to existance as each passenger filed aboard.  They slid dollars, they pressed tickets into the automatic feeder and they touched their sophisticated cards against the card reader.  It only failed 30% of the time.  Just below the threshold to be considered an adequate development in technology.

She crossed the street as the Walk symbol faded to a red flashing warning.  She was still freezing.

“Jesus Christ,” she gasped, sucking a humid and icy breath of air.  The rain splashed against her shield of makeup and she panicked that someone would see her tarnished face.  A shadow approached.

Her shoulders creaked as she huddled into herself, shrinking her height by two inches from her failure to maintain posture.

What the fuck, what the fuck?  Must run; crowded street.  Not so crowded now.  Look silly, someone is watching.  No really this time. I wish Tom were here.

The last thought jolted her and she glanced around again.  Nothing.  She hated when this happened.  But why Tom? 

“Ginger.” 

She would have screamed but the voice was instantly recognizable to her.  Familiar and faithful.  At once, she was comfortable.  Order had been restored, control once again asserted. 

But the voice did not belong to Tom Drake, nor did she think of him again the rest of the night.

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Chapter 27: The Perfect List

The months passed, the weather chilled, and Ginger found herself more and more depressed by life’s events. 

She spent New Year’s eve alone in the office, patiently processing items in her work queue.  A desk near her remained empty.  That position, the one vacated for what had now been several months, had not been filled.  It was not something she thought about often, though occasionally she found herself gazing towards teh empty chair, eyes blurred and glassy, daydreaming.  The winter had driven her away from her strict workout regimine.  In all, hating the cold weather as she did, Ginger’s routine had compressed into not so many variations and left her in a dull place on that morning when she met Tom Drake.

The way they met could never be forgotten — just a casual joke about a comic strip which Tom had made desperately in an attempt to hear laughter, something he had not heard since he started this new job.  Ginger had been so blown away by him, his presence.  But her remarks to a colleague after departing his desk captured the essence of the attraction Ginger felt towards this new man in her life.  It was not looks, nor fashion, nor money.

“He was absolutely fucking hilarious.”

She maintained that sentiment in the front of her mind for days and weeks to follow.  As for Tom’s words, they could be likened to that of an unusually warm sunlight piercing previously dreary skies and firing their powers into the frozen earth, infusing it with hope once again.  And it was in that way that they came to know one another.

The season corresponded to the progression.  By the time they had caught each other in the rain, Ginger was already shaken by the force of her feelings for Tom.  They had stood there on the trail for what felt like hours but probably wasn’t.  Breathless and horny, Ginger extricated herself and rushed home.  The doorman of her building — ever nosy– regarded her and raised an eyebrow when she entered in her disheveled state.  Later, she stood under hot water from her shower, shivering from the night.  As she towled herself dry, she could not dislodge Tom from her memory.  He appeared on every cue, in positions hypothetical and longed for– a force, a shadow, a wraith. 

When they were lucky, they found themselves in the break room, in the hallway, even in the foyer of the mammoth office building itself.  Each time they broke into simultaneous grins — smiles that they could niether supress nor understand.  And once they began talking, they did not stop except for external events which forced their departure from one another.  They spoke of music — a taste they shared almost universally.  They spoke of literature, for Ginger was “by far the hottest girl who actually reads books” that Tom had ever met.  He could not be shaken from her; he could not imagine something he might learn that would distance him from her, this woman he had come to know.  In the past, any manner of qualities could have shaken Tom from a potential suitor.  Too many stories of ex-boyfriends or lovers; a lack of manners at the dinner table; an over-zealous glorification and appreciation for sports.  Ginger never veered near any of those or others. 

They had not kissed since that night on the trail.  Though Ginger remained animated and agreeable, she subtly resisted Tom’s charms, making small excuses which he did not think to question or fear.  Sometimes he wondered of her distance but attributed it to the fear found in all young women.  But what they lacked in carnal knowledge, they compensated in words.  Never before had Tom felt so comfortable sharing his life with someone.  Never before did he feel he was accepted and encouraged in the way Ginger did.  And then there were those amazing moments…. 

Those were the moments when Ginger said something that resonated so deeply with Tom that he did not know how to react, how to behave, even what to do in response.  He felt so stunned because Ginger had said such a thing that made him believe no one on this earth could have said anything more true or more real to him.

When this happened, Tom responded with a word which embodied how it made him feel:

“Perfect.”

And they both knew it was.  Undeniably and unbelievably, perfect.  After just a moment’s pause, her reply was always the same.

“It is perfect.”

The frequency of the perfection was staggering.  After they departed, Tom could not help but grip a pen tightly between his fingers and begin to write.  He scribbled big, round bullet points and filled page after page with depictions of Ginger’s charm, her words, her promises and all that he hoped would come true.

Ginger did not know about the list, and she did not know that Tom had fallen in love with her.

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Chapter 26: The Working World

Ginger drew men to her in mysterious and subtle ways.

The force with which she caught them was most closely comparable to to a mammoth electromagnet.  They fell for her in such a way that left them confused and dumbfounded at the logic behind it all.  The power with which she held them, jerked them from their positions of confidence and ease in life and flung them onto their faces, the grit of her charms kicking up into their eyes as they tumbled.  Even in an office of shrewd businessmen, she could not be stopped.

Early in her career, certain men frequently dropped by to see her, to ask her if she wanted a coffee or to have lunch later in the day — though this was usually performed by instant message or email.  Occasionally Ginger would accept an invitation.  And so spring gave way to summer and summer to fall and it became that the seasons could practically be measured by Ginger’s suitors.  They all looked about the same, all paid for her lattes, all tried to talk to her about sports: a topic she loathed.  What she couldn’t understand was — if these men were so interested in her — why did they spend the few fleeting moments by obsessing over other guys?  They quoted stats, recalled key plays, and practically bored Ginger to death.

They gave up after a while– once they realized each dollar they spent got them no closer to unbuttoning the tight pants Ginger habitually wore, gripping the sharp bones of her hips, protruding from beneath taught olive skin.

She sat in a bar one Friday after a particularly harrowing day at work.  She was strung out, and it had been many weeks since she had last had the opportunity to lie in the sun with a novel

There was too much to do; too many stimuli.  Her colleague, Sarah, ordered a lemon drop martini.  Ginger had the lime.  As they waited for the drinks, they stared off in different directions — not disrespectfully — but collectively exhausted.  The prospect of not thinking about anything at all was like an oasis in the arid corporate desert.  When their drinks arrived, they grimaced at one another and took healthy sips of the stark potions.

“This is it?” Ginger said.

For a phrase so vague, Sarah knew exactly the context in which it should be taken.

“Thirty more years of this and then you die.”  Her smile was as bleak as her face and hair –both light and fair, cold and eerie.  Blue eyes that reminded you more of a streak of tundra than a refreshing pool.

Ginger could already see in herself a new strain of thought.  She worried more, slept less, bit her nails down farther than average.   Summer had faded to fall and she had already begun to prepare her closet for the occasion.  She felt harrowed and disjoint, had lost some of the hope that had driven her in the first few months.  She shook her head, willing the thoughts away.  It was still early in her career.  It had just been a bad week.

A few martinis later, Ginger looked away from a giggling conversation with Sarah to see a man standing beside their table.  He smiled as if extending an invitation and greeted Ginger.  As he began speaking about buying her a drink, her face became coy, but it was unclear as to whether it was a result of rehearsal or reflex. She laughed on cue and made introductions for Sarah.  She discussed her drink choice with a bit of humor.  Though it lasted only a couple of minutes, these pleasantries, the man had cause to think he had done well for himself, except for her eyes.  The man had not noticed it at first, but she had not once seen him.  Actually seen him.

For her eyes remained unfocused, over his shoulders, as if straining to see something too far away.

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