Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hearts of Steel - Chapter 2

"See you on the other side." I waved to Paul and Priscilla as they disappeared down the ramp. Over her shoulder, Priscilla blew me a kiss, then wrapped her arm around Paul. Hip-to-hip, they took their place among the other Gold Pass first-class customers. They took their seats. My first-class seat.

Why was I complaining? Let Priscilla have it. It was going to take more than money to bring some class to that woman. I loved Paul like a brother. He was my teammate, my drinking buddy, my confidant. There wasn't anything I wouldn't do for him...except tell him the truth about his lady.

Correction. His wife. Priscilla was his wife now. He wouldn't believe me if I told him anyway. Or maybe he would believe me and wind up hating me for forcing him to see the truth. If I were in Paul's shoes, I don't know if I could choose between my woman and my best friend.

So I was going to do what all best friends do when they know their best friend has gotten involved with a skank. I was going to keep my mouth shut and run interference the only way I knew how.

I was the best man at the wedding. Standing there, dressed to kill in my tux, I hadn't felt like the best. I'd felt like a fraud. What else could I feel when I was burning with the secret that just the night before, the love of Paul's life had tried to hit on me? It was more than a hit. The woman had thrown herself at me like an all-out body block.

We'd all been drinking. Maybe a little too much. But Priscilla wasn't that drunk. I'd seen her put away more than that and still be able to walk a straight line. Hell, the fact that she could drink like a fish was one of the qualities that had attracted Paul to her.

I wonder how cute that upturned nose and upturned glass are going to be three months from now when Priscilla gets tired of playing the happy homemaker. She was only interested in Paul's ball-playing ability long enough to get him to the altar. After the ring was on his finger - more like through his nose - she made it clear that she wasn't going to follow the Steeldogs from country to country to support her man. 

What kind of a woman who knows nothing about football and cares even less winds up marrying a football player? It was Paul's entire life. He ate, breathed, slept, and spat football. I don't know how he's going to take it when the glow of Priscilla's beauty wears off and he realizes that they have nothing in common. 

"Quite a handful," I remarked as they were leaving - that's what Priscilla was going to be.

My statement drew the attention of Goldilocks and the two bears standing ahead of me in line. Well, not really golden. Her microbraids were actually a shade between honey and caramel.

"He needs his behind tanned," she snapped. Then, a funny look crossed her face. Not funny ha-ha. There was nothing amusing about her face. It was rather compelling. The kind of face that made you want to study it, to indulge in all of its nuances - from the rough heart shape to the high cheekbones and the high-arched eyebrows. Full lips painted a shade too dark with a hint of gloss. Other than that, no other makeup than I could tell. Even this early, the weather was too hot for all of that foundation, mascara, eye shadow, and whatever else women were using these days to give that "unmade-up" look.

The look that crossed her face was one of disbelief. She hadn't meant to say what she'd said out loud. The way she bit her lip afterward made me think that she'd recall the words if she could. Her jaw snapped shut. I could almost hear her teeth click together, the muscles in her cheeks working in tiny spasms. She glared at the squalling kid behind us.

Now that she drew attention to him, he was loud. I guess I'm lucky. After playing in a few stadiums where the acoustics could be deafening, I've trained myself to tune out just about anything. With seconds to go, a game-breaking catch on the line, I couldn't afford to be distracted by every peep and squeak from the crowd.

When the time has ticked down to the last second and you've got the game-winning ball in your hands as you're dancing the victory dance in the end zone, that's the time to let the crowd noise wash over you. Nothing like ten thousand individuals screaming your name in frenzied adulation to get your attention.

Or the soft voice of a single, pretty woman. A pretty woman gets my attention every time-whether she is screaming my name or not.

"That, too. But I was referring the teddy bears."
I ad-libed. I'd started to say that I was referring to my friends who'd just boarded the plane. But they were no longer my point of focus.

The cafe au lait beauty with the chocolate-drop eyes had my full attention. I wondered about her situation. Where was she going? Who were those bears for? Her kids? 

"Oh, I knew that," she said, lifting her chain. Several stray braids fell from their clip and landed across her cheek and eyes. She blew them back, ineffectively, and tried to reach up with her shoulder to brush her hair aside. Her hands were full.

"Need some help with those?" I offered. My hand twitched, as if fighting the urge to reach around the girl in the faded college sweats and brush at Goldilock's cheek.

"No. I think I've got it. Thanks."

She turned her back to me, maybe too abruptly, and sucker punched the college student with the bear's foot. The student clutched her stomach and groaned.

Laughter bubbled inside me, causing my lips to twitch and my eyes to tear. I hadn't seen this good a performance since my junior high school, most losing season, basketball days.

To set a pick or try to draw an international foul, we'd had to put on some wonderful performances. If an offensive player came within inches of touching us, we'd had tacit permission from the coach to fall to the gym floor and writhe around as if we'd been hit by a freight train.

I'd taken a fall so many times that my junior high school photo had beside it Jack "The Splat" Deneen. Being big and clumsy on the basketball court wasn't an asset. It hadn't taken me long to switch teams as soon as the season changed. I'd tried out for junior varsity football and found my calling intentionally knocking the other kids flat.

Now I was a big-time star wide receiver for the Ghanaian Steeldogs. No longer Jack the Splat. I'm known around Africa and beyond as J.D. "Flash" Deneen. And all the girls who wouldn't look my way in high school are tracking me down, giving me offers that would make Hugh Hefner blush. I can't seem to beat them off with a stick. Not even the married ones. Which is why I was in this mess in the first place. 

I couldn't keep ducking Paul and Priscilla. How many times could I use car trouble as an excuse for running late? Trying to avoid Priscilla had almost made me miss my flight today. She was tenacious, insistent. She won't be satisfied until she gets into my pants. Not this time. She'll just have to settle for getting into my airplane seat.

Maybe I should thank Priscilla. If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Goldielocks. She played it coy. Pretending that she didn't notice me noticing her. That's fine. I'll play that game for now, we may be working from different rule books, but the game's all the same. Both of us looking to make the big score.

The gate agent moved the cords, and I inched a little closer. That is, I could have gotten closer if the college student hadn't suddenly let several of her friends cut in line. They came from out of nowhere, slinging backpacks and sporting equipment. Suddenly, I was ten people deep and I saw my chance to strike up another conversation with Goldilocks slipping away.

Goldilocks moved slowly, carefully down the ramp. Those bears must have gotten too heavy to carry. She was holding them high enough off the ground to keep the big bear feet from dragging. Her back was straight; her shoulders were slightly raised when she planted her hands on her hips. There was a slight sway to her full hips and I wondered if it was natural or whether the enticing sway was a show for my benefit.

Slinging the strap of my carry-on over my shoulder, I started down the ramp with the rest of the passengers. I didn't get very far. There was a bottleneck just before the entrance to the plane. This always happens when passengers have trouble getting settled in their seats.

I was almost willing to put money on who was holding up the line. Yep. There she was, standing with her back against the wall. The bears were sitting on either side of her like bodyguards protecting royalty. Her head was tilted back, exposing a neck adorned with a slender beaded chocker made of irregularly shaped natural pearls.

As I moved closer, I saw what had made her stop. She lifted a small, white vial to the corner of her eyes and allowed a few clear drops to splash against them. A few drops missed and rolled down her cheeks. She fanned her face with her hand and used the back of her wrist to dab at her eyes and cheeks.

I must be one of the few men under thirty who never leaves the house without a handkerchief. I have my grandfather to thank for that. Nobleton Deneen was a gentleman's gentleman. Born on a sugercane plant in Puerto Rico, he'd immigrated to America in the late thirties. Even when all of America was coming down around his ears in a rain of rubble and shrapnel, he'd maintained his dignity. According to one of his wartime stories, his hanky did everything from staunch the flow of blood from a gut wound to strain the impurities from the last potable water left in the city. God's honest truth, he insisted.

If I could use my hanky to attract the attention of a pretty girl, that was good enough for me. Whatever airline fates there were gave me another chance to meet up with her again, and I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass me by a second time.

"Here you go."

I placed one hand on her shoulder and with the other dried her face with a handkerchief.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

She jerked away from me. Her dark eyes flashed, warning me that perhaps I'd stepped over an invisible, but mutually understood line. I could see her position. She was a woman traveling alone. I was a strange man who'd stepped too close for comfort. I could be anyone.

Strangers flirting in line is one thing. Deliberately, openly touching without permission said something else altogether. It made her throw up her defenses.

"Oh, it's you." Relief flooded her face.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah. I just got a little something in my eye."

"Here. Take this."

"A handkerchief?" She sounded surprised.

"Its clean," I assured her, and gave my most disarming smile.

"And pressed." She wiped away the contact lens solution, examined the handkerchief, then offered it back to me.

"No, that's all right. You can keep it."

"I suppose it's not so clean now."

"That's not how I meant it."

"Thank you." Her voice was honey sweet, with a hint of a slow, Ghanaian drawl. I could bet my life she isn't ghanaian. I found that some ghanaian women may talk slow, but don't let that fool you. Their minds are lightning quick. I believe they speak slowly, softly, to gather their thoughts. And while they're gathering themselves, they're reeling you in.

My mother is a very soft-spoken woman from Ghana. Yet, just try to beat her at a game. She would supply the answer while we were still trying to figure out the question.

"My pleasure," I continued, gesturing toward her bears. "Are you sure I can't help you with those?"

"Maybe I could use a hand. They're heavier than I thought they would be."

"Birthday present for some lucky kids?" I asked, blatantly fishing.

She smiled. I noticed that she tactfully avoided answering my question. She was going to make me work for every scrap of information.

As she indicated one of the bears to pick up, I did some junior sleuthing and checked out her hands.

One gold ring with an ankh symbol was on the index finger on her right. On her left hand was a bracelet matching her choker. Nothing on the ring finger of her left hand. Perfect manicure, not too long.

All the signs of being well taken care of, but nothing to tell me if anyone, other than herself, was doing the caring. If there was a man in her life, he hadn't put a ring on her yet.

"At least we don't have to walk far. I'm in row nine," she said, squeezing through the narrow entrance.

On my left, I heard pilot activity in the cockpit. On my right was the cabin entrance through first class. Paul and Priscilla were sitting in their seats a few rows back. They must have convinced one of the passengers to switch after all. Paul saw me first. 

"Priscilla! Quick! Give me the camera," he said, jostling Priscilla's arm. "You wait until I tell the rest of the team about this one. They'll never believe me. I've got to have a picture of this."

He held up the small, silver-toned digital camera to his eye. The light flashed, making small dots dance before my eyes.

"I'll take my blackmail money in small bills." Paul grinned at me and slapped me on the back as I passed by.

"Sweet J.D. Always the gentleman." Priscilla added. She touched the ultrasleek, sophisticated chignon coiled at the base of her slender neck. For a minute, my mind did a fast backtrack, remembering how she'd pulled the pins from her hair and tossed the peroxide platinum curls over her shoulder. The locks had tumbled down her shoulders, almost to her waist, barely covering the surgically augmented breasts she'd bared for me.

I hadn't felt very much like a gentleman, then. I'm only human. When a beautiful woman touches me with intent to arouse, I'm not going to disappoint her. But Paul had been my best friebd since I moved permanently to Ghana, since I joined the team. I wasn't going to let my best friend and teammate down. When Priscilla threw herself at me, that was one pass I had to fumble.

"That's me, a gentleman." I replied.

I felt Priscilla's eyes boring into my back. Two cold, blue pinpoints of light zeroed in on my spine and pushed me past the first-class passengers.

The line stopped moving as the passengers ahead of us stuffed their carry-on bags into overhead bins. Babies cried, cell phones rang with last-minute calls, and the warm staleness of air yet to be circulated worked its way into my head. I could feel the beginnings of a headache throbbing at my temples.

The man ahead of us tried to jam an overstuffed carrier on wheels into the overhead compartment. Goldilocks turned her head to avoid being elbowed. He continued to grunt and strain, despite the flight attendant's gentle reminder over the intercom.

"Passengers, if you have found your seat assignments, please clear the aisle so that others can pass. If you need any assistance, press the call button located in the panel above your seats. Thank you for your cooperation."

The struggling passenger jostled Goldilocks, pushing backward into me. The bear stopped our bodies from making contact. She turned her head to look back at me, her expression a delicate mixture of irritation and apology. Still, he kept cramming, ignorant that he'd nearly given her a goose egg in the middle of her forehead.

I'd had enough. I shifted the bear to my right arm, reaching above both their heads, and slammed the compartment shut. The resulting sound echoed through the cabin. For a moment, it seemed as though a hush fell over the passengers. Heads turned to stare at us.

The passenger glanced up at me. Dark, red-rimmed eyes sized me up and considered whether it would be worth it to say something about me taking matters into my own hands. I lifted my chin and narrowed my eyes, in effect issuing my own challenge. "Whassup, man?"

"Thanks." He muttered, then scooted out of the aisle. His head barely touched the button panel as he moved toward the window seat. He didn't say another word, didn't even make eye contact with me again as I continued down the aisle.

The rest of the passengers let out a collective sigh as the conversational buzz picked up again.

"Here we are," Goldilocks said. "Seats A, B, and C."

"You've taken all three?"

"Does it make sense for me, after all I've been through to stuff those bears up there?" She lifted a finely arched eyebrow at me.

"No, I guess not." I remarked, plopping Papa Bear in a seat. She slid him over, saying. "Grandpa always gets the window seat." She placed the mama bear in the middle and took the aisle seat herself.

"Thanks for the help, mister."

"Anytime." I paused, thinking maybe I should say more. At least tell her my name. Find out hers. Find out where she's going, and how I can get there too. I wasn't ready to leave her just yet.

The lady behind me rushed my schedule. She cleared her throat loudly and said, "Some people would like to get to their seats before the plane takes off."

"See you on the other side," I said to Goldilocks before moving on. Hopefully, my smile and the memory of my kindness would be enough to hold her attention, her interest in me until we landed. I wanted her thinking about me the entire trip. I wanted her thinking just as hard as I knew I was going to be thinking about her. And I didn't even know her name.

Two hours to Lagos and I was going to be fixated on a nameless woman - the woman with two tall bears and the honeyed smile.

Five rows back and one row over I found my seat. It was on the aisle. Usually, I prefer the window. I like to stare into the clouds and go over plays in my head. I couldn't be picky this time. The young man sitting in my window seat had already settled in. He leaned his head agains a scrunched-up jacket and snored softly, a faint whistling through his nose and throat that was just enough noise to add to the pounding gaining strength at my temples.

I reached up and placed my own bag in an overhead compartment. As I prepared to close it, I felt several pairs of eyes staring at me, waiting to see if I would have another slamming fit.

Part of me wanted to give them the show that they wanted. After all, I was a performer. I get off on being a crowd pleaser. The other half didn't want to give them the satisfaction of thinking they were in the presence of an angry man.

The overhead compartment closed with a barely audible click and I took my seat. As keyed-up as I was, it would take some time to relax, so I crossed my arms. It was warm on this plane. I looked over one shoulder, then over the other at the guy snoring soundly beside me.

Assuming that curiousity about me had faded, and no one was watching, I raised both arms high over my head as if to stretch, then took a quick whiff. Just checking. I couldn't get close to the lady if the smell was going to drive her back. So far, so good, it was just dampness, no odor. I didn't know how much longer it would hold out, so at the first available opportunity, I meant to slip into the lavatory and see about freshening.

The flight attendants in navy blue uniforms and sensible heels sashayed past, counting heads and checking overhead bins. Sleeping Boy next to me had the right idea. My eyelids felt slightly grainy as I allowed them to close.

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