“As long as we’re official, I want to set some ground rules,” Bruce said. I was staring at my ceiling while he played with a strand of my hair. I stretched myself away and he followed, wrapping me up in his arms so that I couldn’t leave the conversation.
“Official? I never said we were official.”
“I say we are. I also say we lay some ground rules. Like that you can’t see other men.”
“What if I need to buy something from a clerk who’s a man? What if I need to ask for directions from a man?”
“You know what I mean.” I made it a point to frown by facing him again. “Don’t kiss me unless I say you can.” I wasn’t sure how anyone could enforce a rule like that.
“Oh, trust me, I don’t want to kiss you right now.”
“You’ll keep your shoulders and knees covered and your hair up when you’re out and about so other men don’t have any indecent thoughts about you.”
I sat up, almost speechless by him. I couldn’t believe he thought he could control how I dressed because he was insecure. It had nothing to do with protection. He just wanted to control me.
“I wouldn’t have to make the rule if you would have the common decency to cover yourself in public.”
“I can’t believe you! If you can make all these rules, then I get to make some. I get to see you every night,” I said hoping he’d be outraged by my insistence to cling to him.
“Done and done.”
“Well… you can’t bring your gun places!”
“Undoable. Give me another one.”
“You can’t kiss me unless I give you permission.” His arms tightened around me and his deep voice boomed in my ears so that I couldn’t help but flinch.
“You couldn’t resist me if you tried.” After a moment of unreaction from either of us, he laughed and kissed my neck. He lifted my chin. “You’re crying? Over what exactly? I was only joking, darling.”
“I don’t like your humor.”
“And why is that, sunshine? A woman with legs like these has no reason to cry.”
His arms loosened their grip on me so he could use his hands to feel down my legs. I got myself free and off the bed. He seemed annoyed, getting all huffy. He was getting on my nerves and as soon as I got dressed I was kicking him out.
“Why are you being this way?” he asked, sitting up on his elbows.
“I don’t like rules. I don’t operate that way and you’re being a pain in the ass. Get out!”
He rolled on his back, smiled, and stared at me like a lazy cat.
“That’s it! I’m calling 9-1-1 and telling them there’s an intruder in my home.”
“Go ahead, darling. BayPD are a funny kind of folk. Hardworking, yet easily paid off. Maybe if the city paid them enough to feed their families, they’d be less inclined toward bribery.”
“What are you talking about! I’m calling them anyway!” I picked up the phone and he held his blanket as he jumped out of bed and rushed to me. It was a blanket my grandmother knitted for me before my mother immigrated to America. It made me wonder what she would think of Bruce. I didn’t think anyone could really approve of him.
“Look, Autumn, let’s not bring ourselves to that. I don’t want to bring any extra drama to this. What do you want from me right now, darling.” I held up the phone and kept my finger to the dialer, threatening to make the short dial any second. His eyes pled and I almost had him on his knees. I was just glad it worked.
“I want you to take back what you said about the rules and I want you to talk to me like I can control myself. No one is in charge of me except for me!”
“Until marriage. Then we’re accountable for each other.”
“Would you just trust that I know what I’m doing and the things that I don’t know I’ll figure out for myself! If I need help, I’ll ask for it!”
“Do I have a choice in the matter, darling?”
“I’m sorry I tried to enforce rules upon you. Would you at least consider wearing clothes more conservative and appropriate? I don’t enjoy watching others stare at you with their depraved eyes.”
“That’s like me saying that you can’t wear short sleeved shirts because I don’t like how girls look at your muscley arms.”
“I never knew that upset—”
“It doesn’t matter! It’s your arms. All I want is for you to be happy and it’d be cruel of me to want you to wear clothes uncomfortable for you. Because there’s an amount of trust we need to have for each other for this to work. You get me?”
The emotion on his face dropped and he took the phone from my hand to place it back on its hook. “Maybe I haven’t admitted this to you yet, but I love you and, no! Look at me!” He forced my chin to face him when I turned away. “I love you and I’m not inclined to share you with others so easily. Don’t take it the wrong way when I want to protect you. It’s the truest form of flattery that I’m capable of.”
Normally, when guys said they loved me it was because they wanted something.
“When are you taking me to Paris?” I asked while I had him where I wanted him. He hopped into his pants but ignored my question so I asked it again.
“Why do you want to leave so bad? I thought you liked Bayland. What does Paris have that I can’t offer you right now?”
“Hearing a beautiful language in its native country and basking in the culture. Enjoying the best food in the world. Seeing the Eiffel Tower. Kissing you under the Eiffel Tower.The simple luxury of a vacation. I’m not sure why this is difficult for you to grasp.”
“We could do most of that on a trip to Atlantic City. I could take you there today.”
“I did no such thing. What about Las Vegas. Maybe we’ll run into your mom.”
“What about Paris? I heard it’s lovely this time of year.”
He encircled me in his arms even though I was in no mood for a hug. I only wanted him to take me to Paris. I knew he was rich and could easily afford an extravagant trip. I could barely pay my rent on time but he was fully capable of fulfilling my dreams. He was a selfish man.
“But you will take me one day, won’t you? Say you will!”
“Let’s make plans for a honeymoon in Paris if you want it that bad.”
Honeymoon? As in married? I liked Bruce but marrying him seemed so sudden. Fact, “I love you” seemed sudden… but I couldn’t help but feel the same way. After a quick thought on my apprehension, my eager nature got the better of me.
“You’d marry me?”
“I love it when your eyes look at me like that. Yes, of course I would. And I would take you to Paris where they kiss under a large hunk of metal. But only if you marry me.”
“Take me there and I’ll marry you.” I hugged him back but he didn’t look at me. He put his shirt on and walked toward the door. “What’s the big deal! It’s just a trip. It’s not like I’m asking you to move there with me.”
“I don’t like the idea of leaving the country. That’s all. I still haven’t heard a compelling argument for your case.”
“The argument is that I want to.”
He kissed my hand and pulled my head to his shoulder. “You’re right. You deserve everything you want. How long should we stay?”
“A month at least. You might like it.”
“Doubtful, but if it’ll make you happy, I suppose it wouldn’t do too much damage.” I could tell his mind was somewhere else. Like his mouth was running but his brain was calculating equations.
A pity trip was better than nothing. He had to go to work, still telling me that I wasn’t allowed to know where he went or what he was doing. I hated all the secrets. He could admit to me that he loved me, but he couldn’t tell me where he worked.
“Love me” my ass.
Since I was currently unemployed, I went for a walk, hoping to see HELP WANTED signs. Mostly, I just needed fresh air. The sun on my back warmed me from the cool morning breeze. I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love Bayland. A lot of things about Bruce didn’t make sense to me. How he could be hot one minute and cold the next. The least he could do was lie and say all he was doing was working at that restaurant. Maybe he thought I’d get jealous because of his work atmosphere. Lying only made me more suspicious.
I sat next to a man on a park bench. What would Bruce think? Not that it mattered because all his “rules” were stupid. “Don’t look at other men”. Please. As if he didn’t notice other women.
The man I sat next to was polite and greeted me. His accent was unfamiliar. American… I thought. Not southern. Definitely not a New York accent. Something in between. Maybe it was from a foreign country.
“Where are you from?” I asked. He flashed a pleasant smile. He was either rich or blessed.
“I’ve been getting that question a lot around here. Starting to think that maybe I don’t fit into this place. Just some town in Minnesota that you’ve never heard of. No big deal. Just trying to get away from everything, you know?”
I did know. I wanted to get away from everything, but I didn’t have the means and Bruce was less than cooperative. Atlantic city wasn’t far enough and I still didn’t believe that he was taking me to Paris.
“Autumn Morozov. And you are?”
“My friends call me Marcello. You can go ahead and call me Marcello.”
“Well, some people have been known to call me Marcy, but I don’t like that as much. What about you? Do I need to call you Autumn Morozov forever now? Or are you fine with just simply Autumn?”
“No, the Morozov is the most important part. Marcy is a cute name, though.” We both laughed until I was hit with a startling realization. Was I flirting? It wasn’t even an active thought until I realized what I was doing. No, I was just being friendly to a guest of my city. Bruce just needed to get out of my head.
“Wanna maybe get a bite to eat? There’s this pizza parlor right down the street. It’s absolutely amazing. Unless you have somewhere better in mind.”
Now it definitely felt wrong. Unless it was planned weeks in advance, Bruce would never agree to just do something on a whim. I was surprised he didn’t schedule our arguments. It was kind of refreshing to be spontaneous for no reason.
“Pizza sounds nice.”
I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I couldn’t help it. He wasn’t as imposing as Bruce. He was less daunting and more… easy to be around. Gentle. It was probably too early to judge his character.
He stood up and reached out a hand. If he wasn’t so twiglike, I might mistake him for Big Jack just because of how tall he was. I did my best to smile instead of gawk. I could go to lunch with someone. What Bruce didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
As soon as we sat down to a table, he started to explain his travels around the country. Everywhere was a marvel to him, even Bayland.
“Did you know, Bayland’s one of the oldest cities in the country? Older than New York City. No offense, but it smells older too,” he said with a laugh. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. To me, it just smelled like home. I listened anyway, barely able to get a word into our conversation. I didn’t mind though. I loved his storytelling abilities.
“You go just a little more North and the colors in the trees this time of year would blow your mind away. You ever been to Vermont?”
“I’ve never left the state.”
“Really?” he asked, amused.
“I’ve got almost everything I’ve ever wanted right here.”
“I want to go to Paris. I want to… oh what does it matter! I’m never going.”
“Paris sounds like a lovely idea. Maybe that will be my next stop. I’ve been to Mexico, but that’s the only place outside of the country. It’d be more fun with a friend,” Smoother than his words, he squeezed my hand with a grin. A smile like that and I was sure he could get away with anything. I hated myself for not hating it. At that point, I should have made it clear that I was already in a relationship with someone.
That word was so haunting. Just thinking the word made me feel trapped.
“Where else do you wanna go?” I asked. My interest was only growing. He was so… easy. Easygoing and easy to talk to. Bruce was mysterious and disconnected. I couldn’t help feeling drawn to one more than the other. Bruce being the other.
“I hear Vietnam is lovely this time of year,” he said too casually.
“You wanna go to a wartorn country?”
“It’s a joke. Not a very good one, but—”
“Are you a dodger?”
“How do you know I haven’t already served my time?”
It made sense. Rich and traveling anywhere he wanted while avoiding a war. Or he was a liar and a cheat. I could see it being a possibility. The way he spoke, I was sure he had a history in swindling in and out of things. When our pizza came out, he talked the waiter into knocking a quarter off because it didn’t have enough cheese. I thought it looked fine, but his case was convincing to the staff.
“Are you a felon?”
“Jeez, asking all the fun questions, are we?”
“I don’t want to be rude. Just wondering how someone your age isn’t off fighting.”
“I don’t like being used as a pawn. Those idiots are out looking for World War Three. I say, why not explore the world before they blow it to bits.” It didn’t sit well with me, but it kinda made sense.
“Don’t you think it’s less selfish to help the little guy who’s suffering?”
“Do you have any other icebreakers besides the end of the world?”
“What’s the best place you’ve ever been?”
“Yosemite in the Spring. It’s like you can feel the earth coming alive. It’s… well it’s magical. Hey, has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?”
Bashfully, I swept my overgrown bangs to the side of my face and stared down the table. I almost forgot. Usually, the shadow from my bangs could hide the glow but I couldn’t use them to hide without covering my eyes completely.
“No, you’re not the first to tell me.”
“Then I won’t be the last, either. Honestly, they seem to almost glow.”
I shrugged on reflex and took another slice of pizza but now he was peering at me. As if he’d find some other strange anomaly on my face. I wasn’t feeling all that self-conscious before, but when he took my chin in his hand and pulled my face upward, all I could think about was any imperfections he might find.
“Hey! Hands to yourself!” I pushed him back down in his seat and he held his hands up defensively.
“I’m sorry! Sorry! I couldn’t help myself. I’ve… well I’ve never seen eyes like that. Are you okay? Like… why?”
“Am I okay? How about you don’t go around touching people!”
“Look, I thought we had some kind of connection… I was honest to God just curious. I didn’t think you’d mind. But I’m sorry, alright? Jeez.”
Maybe it was an overreaction.
“I don’t like it when people invade my privacy.”
“Hey, me neither. How’s your sight compared to other people? Can you see in the dark? Ultraviolet light?”
That was a first. No one ever thought I had superpowered eyes before. Someone asked if I was blind once. I rolled my eyes and ignored him. I wished he’d drop the subject and talk more about Yosemite.
“So Paris? I don’t know any French.”
“Me neither but my ex spoke it as their first language.”
“Why not go with him then?” His eyes were prodding, still staring me down.
“He’s an idiot.”
I wasn’t sure why Bruce wanted back-up with this transaction. What harm could a pizza chef do? Still, not much could beat seeing Bruce in his natural state. Scheming and forcing people out of their money. But all I could really do was kill. If he needed a man killed, he’d do it himself or send me alone. I didn’t see the need to tag team.
“Autumn and I…” Bruce started but paused. We were waiting for the owner of the place to open a safe. “Well, we’ve been fighting.”
So he was using me for emotional support? That wasn’t really like him.
“Autumn’s that who–” He looked at me like he might kill me instead of the pizza guy. “I mean, Martha’s sister.”
“She’s not like that. She’s… virtuous. Lovely. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with her. But this morning, she almost called the cops on me. All because I didn’t want to take her to Paris. I can’t tell her why I can’t go. She’d hate me. I’m… I’m at a complete loss.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but maybe you aren’t right for each other. You shouldn’t have to hide anything about yourself from the person you love. Take me for example. You never need to hide anything from me.”
“That’s because you’re a coworker. I don’t expect you to find me appalling when I tell you I kill people for a living.”
The owner stopped cold of reaching into his safe.
“Not that I’d kill you, of course. Just the other ones,” Bruce said to the panicked owner.
“That’s what I’m saying. Go with someone you don’t have to hide from. Say, someone you work really well with.”
“Martha? A bit old for my taste, honestly.”
I wasn’t sure how else to break it to him. He wasn’t taking any of the bait.
“Me! Why am I not good enough, you bastard!”
He bit his lips and stared at me like I just slapped him.
“Oh come on! Don’t play like you don’t know. Everyone teases me about it! Don’t you dare try it, little man!” I pointed my knife at the owner trying to escape. He flinched back to the safe, stallingly pulling out wads of cash.
“I swear I had no idea… I wouldn’t talk about my romances in front of you if I did know. I’m not that heartless.” Bruce held his gun to the owner without taking his sincere eyes off me. “But why tell me now? When I’m with someone else?”
“Because it feels weird. And I honestly didn’t think you were into women. I’ve never even heard you mention liking one before. And I’ve seen you at the club. Honest to god, we all thought you were dating men in secret.”
“Twenty-five hundred? You got it?” Bruce asked the owner. His shaking hands dropped the money in Bruce’s bag.
“Don’t be mad. I just can’t stand to see you with someone who wants to change you.”
“Maybe change is good. As if I would like a mirror like you anyway. We’re too similar.”
I felt the inclination to stab him with the knife in my hand. I ran out of the kitchen instead. That’s when I saw her at a table. She glanced at me, eyes that didn’t recognize who I was. But I’d been stalking her since Bruce brought her up. Just to see if she really was all that Bruce claimed. Honestly, I was surprised that Bruce wasn’t bored of her. She lived a pedestrian life. But she wasn’t alone. She was ogling some blond guy.
I heard Bruce’s footsteps behind me and my heart stopped. Show him and break his heart or hide it and keep him happy.
I turned around and blocked the doorway. He glared at me and pushed me aside but I grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear, all while turning him away from the girl.
“Do you really think that we got the right amount of money? Maybe we should count it ourselves before we leave.”
“I suppose… it was somewhat reckless of me. I’ve just been so distracted lately. I honestly can’t operate when I think she doesn’t like me.”
“What a sad, ridiculous story. Get your shit together, man!” I slapped his cheek playfully and he loosened up his shoulders.
“You’re right,” he muttered and sighed, in a gross, lovesick kind of way.
“You’re a lean, mean, killing machine! You’re better than this and you can get through the day without some broad’s opinion of you.”
“But I want her to love me,” he said with tears in his eyes. What the hell did she do to him? I’d laugh if I wasn’t so shocked. I’d never seen Bruce even come close to crying. I felt almost betrayed by his sudden personality change. There was a strong temptation to let him see who was sitting right outside.
“What are you hiding?” he asked. He sobered up from his crybaby face and scanned the narrow doorway, searching the opposite direction of the diner first. I panicked and blocked the doorway again. That’s when he knew where to look. He pushed me aside, this time with intent and I didn’t stop him.
He almost fell backwards he stopped so fast. I peeked. She was kissing that stranger. They had leaned over the table to reach each other. It looked like a soft, sweet kind of kiss. But my heart broke for Bruce. I tried to warn him. He never listened.
“You knew?” he asked and I shrugged.
“I tried to stop you. You’re too paranoid to save from a secret.”
“Did she see me?”
“I think she was a little preoccupied. Do you want me to kill them both?” I offered. It took him a while to answer. He was hiding back in the kitchen again.
“I’ll talk to her when I’ve calmed down. Don’t do anything rash. I love her,” he admitted as a tear dropped from his cheek. I couldn’t let anyone see him like this. I knew he’d regret showing so much. I’d handle them both when he recovered from her betrayal.
I guided him out the back door and threw the money we made in the trunk of his car. The car seemed more confining than usual. As if I were sitting in a tin can.
“I change my mind,” he growled at a red light. “I’m turning around and killing him.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Do you think she loves him? She never did say she loved me back. How long has this been going on? I’m such a fool to think that I was the only one… Really, it’s my fault for trusting her. How could anyone actually want me anyway,” he said as if I didn’t just pour my heart out to him. Maybe he thought I was joking.
I woke with Bruce’s arm around my waist. Naturally, I pressed my back to his chest. Only realizing then that his skin was much smoother than it was yesterday. I held his hand and saw his manicured and perfect looking fingers. Flashes of the day before struck me like lightning in a thunderstorm. We went out for pizza. Went for a walk around the city. Then he invited me to a club. After that, I won a shot contest and I could remember distinctly how I celebrated. Kissing Marcello until I tripped over him.
How far did I go last night?
I was in my apartment in my own bed. I did my best to pretend I was asleep and waited for him to leave. That could take hours though. I turned around, still encompassed in his arms. His baby blue eyes were watching me. He was awake. He just didn’t feel the need to leave for whatever reason.
“You’re still here,” I said with a hint of annoyance that he’d hopefully pick up on.
“Yeah,” he sighed and blinked, slowly sitting up and stretching with his long, gangly arms. I couldn’t comprehend how someone so skinny could take up so much space.
“What happened last night?” I asked. I was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Apparently, I got into bed with my socks and shoes still on.
“Well, you were shitfaced. I had to walk you home. You almost went in the wrong apartment. Eventually, you found your way. I dropped you off but you begged me to stay. I was already tired so… I just kinda passed out trying to decide what to do.”
“You slept with me?”
“Nothing happened! I swear.”
“A likely story, airhead! I have a boyfriend. I can’t be doing this stuff.”
“That’s not what you said yesterday,” he said with a laugh. I punched him in the shoulder and he pretended it hurt, mocking my comparative weakness.
“Autumn!” was yelled at my door along with loud banging. It was Bruce. My head hurt too much to think up a real solution.
“Hide!” I whispered and pushed Marcello toward the closet. He’d be too tall, but slouching for a few minutes would be more comfortable than confronting Bruce in person. I barely left the mattress when the door was busted down. I couldn’t hide him. It was all too late.
“Oh, of course! I’m excited to hear your excuses. We discuss marriage and a honeymoon in Paris. Then I find that you’ve run off with some other man!” Bruce had a gun and held it toward Marcello, but stared at me with the meanest eyes I’d ever seen on a man. Marcello froze and I was worried that he’d get shot.
“God! I had no idea you even had a fucking boyfriend!” I jumped in front of Marcello. Even if he was mad at me, I doubted he’d shoot me.
“Nothing happened. I sweat it, Bruce.”
“Eva was right… you are a whore!”
“Stop pretending like all that marriage stuff was serious! Stop forcing me into a relationship that I’m not ready for!” I screamed. Then instantly regretted it. I couldn’t look at him. The pain in his eyes was too severe.
“So that’s what you think of me? Just some other guy drifting in and out of your life? What more do you want!”
I wanted to hurt him. I wanted the pain in his eyes to bloom into real tears. It was the most disgusting feeling. I never felt so powerless to another person in all my life. Maybe I only acted out because I didn’t know how to control this new feeling. I’d been mad before but nothing like this.
“I want to be with Marcello. And I want you to stay away from me. Just go away!”
“I’ll give you one chance to take back what you just said.” He was such an arrogant prick! I hated him with every fiber of my being!
“No! Why don’t you just go back to that restaurant! If you can even call it that!”
“You’ll regret what you’ve said. There are no take backs in my world.”