Jenny tried to push the conversation with Mr. Hiller from her mind, but she kept replaying it while walking up the stairs to her second floor apartment. Why was it so difficult for her to make a positive change in her life and go for what she wanted? Was she that insecure? It was true that she rarely took chances but admitting it out loud threw her off balance, and she felt drained. The last thing she wanted was pity from anyone, especially Mr. Hiller.
Before closing for her lunch break, she had made a few calls to button distributors to clear her head, and it took longer than expected. She understood the drill. She had to take photos of the button and email the images to each distributor, along with the information she knew about the garment. In a few days, she’d know if one of them tracked down a match for Mrs. Chadwick’s evening gown.
With a quick turn of the key, she opened the door and walked the path to the telephone answering machine on her desk. One message waited and held the news that tomorrow’s book club had been cancelled. The voice was female, calling on behalf of Professor Gordon, and Jenny reasoned that she must be his assistant. Her lips pressed tight with disappointment as she listened to and erased the message. She might have held on to it for a few days if Andrew had left the message, but there was no need to keep his assistant’s voice for another listen. Perhaps the extra days would give her time to reread the assigned chapters and prepare notes for discussion. The cancellation also meant she would have to wait another two weeks to see Andrew, which made her feel like a tragic character from a Russian novel. She smiled slightly realizing she was being overly dramatic.
Three quick taps on her door told her lunch would have to wait even longer today. Jenny opened the door and smiled.
“You’re late,” the woman standing in her doorway said, throwing her hands above her head in frustration. As if she had them saved up all morning, her words shot out like bullets from an assault weapon.
Fiona Donnelly, Jenny’s third-floor tenant and friend, had a special flair that made her different from anyone else she knew. An attractive woman slightly over forty, Fiona acted and dressed like someone half her age, but it suited her. An agoraphobic who cheats is how Jenny’s mother described Fiona, who suffered from the crippling panic disorder. Yet Fiona enjoyed a loftier confinement than most in her predicament. She could leave her apartment and walk the six blocks between her home and her office building where she worked as a court reporter in the Criminal Investigations building. Nevertheless, Fiona had not wandered outside of that six-block area in the 20 years she lived in the neighborhood.
“Sorry about that. I had a project that required a bit of extra attention.” Jenny waved to Fiona to come inside. “I forgot you took a vacation day and that we had lunch plans. You should have come down to the store to remind me.”
Fiona shrugged and folded her arms in front of her chest. “You’re not the only person who’s forgotten me today, and I know you don’t like me to bother you when you’re working.”
“I suppose that means he didn’t call,” Jenny said. She braced herself to hear more.
“Oh, I heard from him but now I’m convinced he’s cheating on me.” Fiona’s unbridled passion came from her relationships with her many married lovers. Jenny watched the revolving door through the years, since they came to Fiona because she could not go to them, which probably suited them fine. Her latest faux beau, an electrician named Doug, whom Jenny hired to rewire the shop and the apartments, had been the topic of their conversation for months, and Jenny took a deep breath to prepare for what was coming. Fiona’s smooth reddish blonde hair reached midway down her back, and without a split end in sight. Her cat-like gray eyes danced with joy when she spoke about Doug, or Steven, Joel, Scott, Aiden, and the endless list of the many others along the way. They seemed interchangeable, and none had characteristics that made them more special than the other.
Fiona resembled Moira Shearer, the star of the movie “The Red Shoes” with her body tall and lithe, making everything she wore look fabulous on her dancer-like frame. She fed off male attention as if she needed it to survive, and never went hungry, even in her six-block world. It seemed unfair, even though a married man would never appeal to her, that Fiona consistently had someone in her life and Jenny was alone, without confinement.
Jenny slumped forward and frowned. Clearly, their points of view differed on what constituted cheating. Could a man cheat on his wife have a worse reputation for cheating on his mistress too? Besides, why would it surprise her since he cheated already? “Why do you think he’s cheating on you?” Jenny asked with raised eyebrows.
“Rose, the cashier at the grocery store across from the Chinese fruit stand told me she saw him with an attractive brunette at McGillin’s a few nights ago,” Fiona said, letting her words flow again with rapid fire. “McGillin’s is off the grid,” she added, meaning out of her six-block world. As Fiona spoke, she grasped her cell phone with her slender fingers and sharply filed purple nails. The phone played the part of a constant companion that went everywhere with her because God forbid, she miss a call.
“Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation,” Jenny said, not believing her words, but offering them the same. She preferred the truth, but with Fiona, she made an exception to bend it on occasion as a matter of survival. “Why don’t you ask him about it?” She also wondered why Rose would know anything about Doug and Fiona in the first place, but realized that, like Mrs. Chadwick, Fiona would tell her story to anyone who would listen.
“I have to do a little digging,” Fiona said, and Jenny could see her friend in the midst of concocting another one of her outrageous plans. She hired investigators to follow her beaus from time to time, familiar with the best from her position at the criminal investigations building. Fiona could crack passwords and usernames on laptop computers and cell phones to get the inside information she craved on her latest lover. “Most men are not complicated,” she’d say.
“Try not to get arrested,” Jenny would reply. Her smile made it seem like a joke, but the serious tone in her voice conveyed that she meant it. “You’re wasting your talents, you know. You should help the CIA with those deadly skills of yours.” It seemed odd that anyone would go to such extremes to be with someone they did not trust, a question she dared not to ask. She attributed it to her friend’s phobia. She felt certain that if Fiona had free range in the city, she’d be dating an available man, and Fiona and Jenny would not be friends. They shared, Jenny believed, a friendship of convenience.
“They don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” Fiona said. “Besides, where I come from, it is common to checkup on your man. Technology today makes it easier.”
The words made Jenny shudder. Fiona grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state’s capital. Jenny found it difficult to believe that there were other women like Fiona, let alone an entire city of them waiting to catch their man cheating. What would be the point of falling in love? Fiona left the city of cheaters and moved an hour and a half east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Philadelphia for bigger city excitement and apparently a wider selection of unavailable men. Soon after, she had a breakdown that required hospitalization, and that incident kick started her agoraphobia. She had not traveled back to Harrisburg, and to Jenny’s knowledge, her family never came to Philadelphia. Away at college at the time Fiona’s breakdown, Jenny’s father cared for his new tenant and visited her in the hospital since she had no family nearby. His heart, spacious and full of compassion, also had an effect on those outside of his family, and she knew Fiona missed him too. Their love and respect for this wonderful man had been the one common thread they shared.
“This woman,” Jenny said, “she could have been a business colleague, right?” The suggestion seemed absurd. As an electrician, Doug would not have to wine and dine clients, but her words seemed to appease Fiona. Hopeful or plain delusional, Fiona would cling to the man of the moment’s word, and the clichéd excuses he offered, whether he needed to wait until the kids were a little older before he left, or that he and his wife no longer had a romantic relationship, and hadn’t for years. Jenny appreciated that she was not as needy. She’d never choose a life of dishonesty or waiting in the shadows just to have a companion by her side. Now, she’d added to her friend’s delusions by coaxing her to believe something ridiculous. Once, when Jenny mustered up the courage to ask why she chose to go through this ritual repeatedly, Fiona explained she couldn’t help whom she fell in love with, as if it became an uncontrollable force of nature. You may not be able to help whom you fall in love with, but you can help what you do about it, she had replied, and regretted it after an hour-long lecture that Jenny must not understand anything about true love and its strong and powerful forces.
“You’re right, Jenny, a business colleague. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” Fiona smiled. She received the emotional security she needed, at least for the moment, and now maybe they could get through the rest of lunch without mentioning Doug. “What do you have there?” Fiona asked staring at the piece of paper in Jenny’s hand. “Could it be that the disbelieving Jenny Hobbs bought herself a lottery ticket?”
“Yes, it’s a lottery ticket,” Jenny said with a grin. “But I didn’t buy it.”
“It’s all they’re talking about on the news, you know. Powerball fever is an epidemic. There are three hundred and ninety-eight million dollars up for grabs. Oh, what I could do with that kind of cash.”
Jenny had not realized that she still held the ticket in her hand, but welcomed the turn in conversation. The lottery ticket had changed her luck, after all. “A customer gave it to me this morning,” she said. “I didn’t have the heart to throw it away, so I brought it up here so I didn’t have to stare at it all day.”
Fiona looked horrified at the mere suggestion. “Don’t you dare get rid of it!” she said. “For once, be positive, Jenny. Someone has to win.”
Jenny smiled. “Yes, I believe the odds are in my favor.”
“Why do you have to be so cynical? Just put it on your refrigerator. That way, you can use the power of positive thinking to bring that money to you each time you pass it.” Jenny looked at Fiona shook her head.
“I’m not sure I buy that, Fiona. I’m not wired that way.”
“Positive thinking brings good things into your life. I saw that on an episode of Oprah, you know. What you think, you are. It makes perfect sense.”
“Right now I’m thinking that I’m a person done with this insane conversation,” Jenny said with a grin.
“You’re such a pessimist, and I don’t appreciate your sarcasm. It’s not flattering.”
Jenny relented. “I’m sorry, but it seems silly to me,” she said, throwing the lottery ticket on her desk by the phone. “Can I get you something to drink while I heat the soup? I made minestrone.”
“A glass of water would be nice,” she said, “with lots of ice.” Once Jenny headed toward the kitchen, Fiona, who had a habit of taking things that did not belong to her, picked up the lottery ticket and slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans.