Short Fiction By: Brittany DiGiacomo
Jackie realized it had been a while since she looked Anna in the eyes. She’d been working, scouring the restaurant. Purposely sitting in direct view of the entrance, watching who walked in and out of those doors. She eyed the hostess as she walked across the marbled dining room floor with a couple following behind her. She led them over to a two-person table nestled beside a wall where water cascaded down onto a row of glossy rocks. What a fluke Jackie thought; she knew the man. Not his name of course. She never bothered with names. But she could recognize his thick, peculiar widow’s peak anywhere.
Jackie turned to her plate, took the last bite of her salad, and peered up at Anna, who was blabbing up a storm about her third divorce. Groaning silently, Jackie nodded her head, faking concern and caring less. It seemed Anna couldn’t help but confide in Jackie all the personal details of the men she married. Jackie always wondered why her? Sure, she was the only child her mother ever had, but why disclose the intimate details of her relationships to her daughter? She hated it now and she especially hated it back then when her mother trapped her at Madison Avenue restaurants like this and blabbed on about her father.
“Your father is a handsome man,” Anna would say, but he never supports me, and he doesn’t appreciate me, and now it’s too late.” Then she’d run her stringy fingers through the front parts of her sandy bleached hair, her lips all pursed, her eyes adrift and dark like the shadowed bends of a river. Now here she was, again, the third time in sixteen-years swallowed up in an unruly swirl of self-pity, carrying on about another incompetent husband.
The waiter returned with two martinis and placed them down in front of Jackie and her mother. “Henry just doesn’t get me,” Anna carried on, slurping the top of her glass as elegantly as a lady could. Jackie reached for hers and took a big gulp, the vodka burning the back of her throat, her eyes watering like they always did when drinking martinis with her mother. She didn’t even like martinis. Definitely not wine. The vodka was okay, but she preferred a Cosmo, something with a splash of juice or soda. “You know he didn’t even come home last week,” Anna said.
The man with the widow’s peak closed the menu and placed it down on the table, amused with something his lady-friend said, when he happened to catch Jackie in the corner of his eye. He did a double take, squinting suspiciously, wondering how he knew her. He was certain he did know her. Her face was familiar, but something about her was off. He couldn’t place her. He cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the lady across from him.
Jackie noticed the wedding band around his ring finger. It had been a week ago, or maybe it was a month – she couldn’t remember exactly – but she did recall his finger being as bare as the skin on her neck when his hands were gripped around it.
“I’m lucky I’ve been smart with my money,” Anna said, a brittle smile forming around her lips. She sat back in her chair, fiddling with her Chanel sunglasses, using them like a headband to keep the bangs out of her eyes. “I hadn’t always had it, you know. Growing up, my family didn’t have a pot to piss in.”
Jackie had heard the story too many times. Anna’s mother washed clothes at the millhouse her father worked at. They never got to spend New Year’s under the yellow-lit Eifel Tower, or tour the home where Ann Frank hid during the war. If Anna and her family went anywhere, it was usually to a relative’s house where they used paper bags for luggage, and had to cut up and tape cardboard to replace the soles of their shoes.
“You’re lucky,” Anna said, taking a long sip from her martini and wagging her finger like a floppy worm in Jackie’s face. “Not every girl has a two-million-dollar trust-fund.”
Jackie had never touched a penny from the trust her father left her. Not when she was granted access at eighteen. Not even now at twenty-nine. Maybe one day she’d need it. But until then, she could hold her own.
Jackie looked over her mother’s shoulder, desperate for the man she was hired to find. She spotted a fellow who looked about forty with dark hair, eating alone at a table to the right of theirs, sitting adjacent to her. The hostess must have ushered him in without her noticing. He was sitting with his legs crossed, reading the New York Times, sipping coffee out of one of those glass bistro mugs. He was broad, military-like, wearing a too-fancy-for-lunch (even for a place like this) pinstriped suit. Jackie noticed the bruise on his cheek, the few scratches on his eye. She knew it was him.
Having looked up from the paper for a brief moment to turn the page, the man caught Jackie staring, and politely nodded. Jackie turned away, wetting her bottom lip with her tongue like she always did when dealing with men like this.
“You know, I never really wanted him,” Anna said.
You know, I never really wanted you. Those words, as fresh as they were the first time Jackie had heard them. She was thirteen that night. Anna had been pickled in booze, half naked running down the stairs, her face all smudged with lipstick. The same night she’d seen her father’s leather suitcase, heard the slamming door, the tires screeching down the driveway. Words that stuck regardless of how many times she was assured time would change everything. But just like a withered sticker on the bumper of a car for an election long forgotten, there would always be traces of residue where the words had lay.
Jackie excused herself to the bathroom. As she got up from the table, she noticed the widow-peaked man gawking at her again. This time, with her nearing, he was able to place her face. His eyes sprung wide and the color drained from his already pale cheeks. He looked away in a flash. Jackie paid him no mind. He no longer mattered. She never did repeats. Brendan had taught her that. Except for Drew. But she was certain even Brendan could agree that Drew was different.
Jackie continued walking towards the restroom, passing by the man with the newspaper, who was eyeing her from above its right corner. No ring, she noted. It wouldn’t have mattered either way. From behind, she heard the smallest scrape of a wooden chair grind across the floor. Without looking, she knew what it was. She knew the man had maneuvered his chair around to get a good look at her long legs, her arms as they swayed on both sides of her body, her brown layered hair flowing between her shoulders. She smiled and pushed open the ladies’ room door.
“Beauty’s your mother’s weapon,” her father once told her. He’d been bent down, eye level with Jackie, holding her hand. “People will judge you by the way you look. It isn’t fair, but it’s the way the world works.” That was the last thing Jackie remembered him saying before he married some woman and ran off south. It was only months after the divorce. Anna married Skip and sent her to live at boarding school in Maine. She never saw her father again.
Jackie pulled up her skirt, flushed the toilet, went over to the sink and washed her hands in front of the mirror. She thought about the picture she’d seen last week. The blood smearing down the girl’s face; her cheek cut open, her eye swollen shut. Jackie grabbed onto the counter and squeezed with all her might. That man was out there right now, simply reading a newspaper, his face almost healed, and the bruise was green and almost gone, as if it’d never happened in the first place.
Jackie left the bathroom, smoothly walking back to the table where Anna sat, downing her fifth cocktail. It was time to go. She had spotted the mark. It was time to leave. She reached into her wallet, pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and stuck it under the candle that lay in the center of the table. “Leaving so soon?” Anna asked, brows raised and blinking.
“I have to go. I’ll see you next month? I’ll let you know where.” Jackie reached for her necklace and pushed the pin-head switch in the center of the gold pendant she wore.
“Yes, yes, of course. Let me know where,” Anna repeated, fanning her blotchy-red face with her hand. Jackie was almost through the door. But not without making a quick stop at the table with the man reading the paper. She dropped her card beside his mug, softly stroking her fingers against it, and walked away. Not her bullshit real-estate card. The other one.
Drew was waiting outside like planned, standing beside the Lincoln town car with a gleam of deviltry in his smile. Pivoting on his heel, he opened the door for Jackie. She hopped in the backseat and Drew made his way to the front. They drove off, making a pit stop back at her place. Jackie hated it had come to this, but she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t work alone anymore. Drew never lasted longer than a David Bowie song anyway.
Saturday morning Jackie lay on the cotton chaise lounge, sunbathing by the pool on the rooftop of her building. The entire courtyard was swarmed with people. The terrace was a giant deck of cabanas and grills with a misting apparatus for hot days like this. It had a full bar set up, a grassy lawn with a dog run, and a tennis court that neighbored a space for yoga, not to mention a stellar view of the city. Jackie had fought a hell of a war with her father’s wife to land the place. But fair was fair and the three-bedroom apartment on East 57th was hers. The one and only thing she could thank Anna for, being she was only in high school at the time. Far too young to have known a thing about lawyers and wills.
Jackie spent the morning at the pool, being served the occasional cocktail or bottle of water. She never let her guard down, not even here. With a book on her lap, she pretended to flip through the pages eager to get to the next part of the story. She knew when to exhale the tiniest laugh to suggest she reached a funny part. Knew when to let out an ooh or an ahh, suggesting a twist in the plot, wearing sunglasses to make it hard to tell what she was really doing. But Jackie had a sharp eye and although sometimes it was hard to identify, she could always spot a phony after watching long enough.
Some guy in a blue bathing suit cannonballed into the pool, making a huge splash, wetting Jackie’s feet. Idiot, she thought, rubbing her feet dry at the bottom of the towel. The guy emerged from the water, laughing, reaching for his girlfriend’s ankles, and pulling her closer to the edge of the pool, as if planning to yank her right in. The girl playfully kicked water in his face. Jackie’s eyes burned as she inhaled a deep breath.
It was winter a year ago when Jackie had been called to tag a man downtown at a bar on Beekman. She hadn’t been watching him long, and unlike some, who masked themselves behind a newspaper or a sham wedding ring, Jackie identified this man immediately. She knew he’d be an easy land and she’d have the situation settled in hours. When time came, she dropped the card down in front of him and walked away. Later that night, after the job was done, Jackie shoved the wig in her purse, and made her way back to the same bar, where she’d also had her eye on someone else. She fought the urge to return, trying to convince herself it was a hopeless cause. She’d tried it before, it never worked. She went back anyway. And over the next year she became close. Too close. Close enough to know his eyes turned gray in the rain. To know the shape of his hands, the way he moved them when he talked. The way his nose wrinkled when he laughed. The way he fussed with his straw at dinner whenever he was angry with her.
Jackie jolted from the recliner, having been splashed for the second time, but this time she was nearly soaked. The same guy was wrestling with his girlfriend in the water was way too close to her chair. Jackie grabbed her book and towel and found a seat and at the far end of the pool. After settling in, she looked back over at the guy, who was smiling seductively. She cringed. It reminded her of him. Irritably, Jackie flipped a page in her book. But then again, what guy didn’t remind her of Brendan in some way? Even Stefan with eyes that turned gray in the rain.
Freshman year. The year Jackie’s parent’s divorced and shipped her off to Maine. Fourteen-years old and she was suddenly a woman. Her legs had sprout like jasmine vine in a summer bloom – long and lustrous, a statue looming in the campus hall. Boys with their cocky winks and arrogant smiles. Jackie adored the attention, all the approaching. Which was why it was nothing new when Mr. Jordan approached her after class one day about her failing grade in science, and she took him up on his offer to tutor her.
She’d drank wine before with some of the girls on her floor. Mostly on Saturday nights when her dorm-mother was fast asleep – there was always a bottle or two hiding under somebody’s bed, shipped in from an older sibling. So after a month of tutoring, her grade rising from a D to a B, when Mr. Jordan offered her a glass, she accepted it. All of the faculty lived on campus. It wasn’t uncommon for a student to visit. Jackie had liked Mr. Jordan. He too was an only child with parents who divorced when he was young.
Jackie wasn’t sure how much time had passed once she woke up. She’d been sitting on the couch beside him, talking, and then she woke up laying there, her top off, a blanket draped over her waist. Her head was pounding, rotating like a spinning top, her vision all foggy. “You passed out,” he’d told her, sitting on the floor beside her. “You scared me.” But his words were muffled, as if he were speaking to her through a bottle from the other side of the room. “You’re beautiful,” he’d told her. “Tall enough to be a model.” He began running his fingers through her hair. She tried to speak, to tell him to stop. She tried to push him off. But she couldn’t move, as if her hands and feet were bound, her jaw stitched together. “Mr. Jordan,” she somehow mustered the strength to say.
“It’s Brendan,” he’d whispered, his hot, wine-tinged breath in her face. Then, slowly, as if sinking underwater with her eyes wide open, everything faded to black.
Later that week, when Jackie called Anna to tell her what had happened, she’d learned that her father had died before she had a chance. “Heart attack. In his sleep,” Anna had said. “I told him to stop eating that crap. I told him it’d kill him one day.”
Jackie put down her book and looked outwards over the city. A sudden tap on the shoulder caused her to flinch. Inhaling a sharp breath, she turned to Stefan in a panic.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. I just came for my stuff.”
Jackie slammed her eyes shut. When she opened them, she glanced at her watch, having lost track of the time.
Stefan sat down on the edge of the chair beside her, propping his elbow on his knee. “Unless you changed your mind.”
“No. Have you?”
“No. I’m not okay with it.”
“I wish you’d understand.”
“I do. Just can’t accept it. It’s too dangerous.”
“That’s what Drew’s for.”
“Drew,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Come on Jackie, don’t you have any pride?”
Jackie stiffened at the remark.
Jackie had pride. Pride in how she had taught herself. Studied the courses for years, sharpening her skills, pursuing her own cases. Pride in how they sought her out and then trained her. Sure, she made mistakes, forgetting her knife on the kitchen counter, neglecting to press record on the camera, landing the occasional trip to the hospital or limping through the occasional abandoned back ally. But she learned.
“I’ve made my decision. I can’t stay. Not after that night.” Stephan rubbed a hand over his dark stubble.
“I understand,” Jackie said, holding Stefan’s gaze, her eyes watering over.
It was the one and only time the drug didn’t hold. The man woke up, noticed the recording, his wallet empty of cash. Jackie’s back was to him. She’d been strangled before. Before the drug slackened their grips and they collapsed onto the floor like string-less marionettes – they all tended to aim for the throat upon realizing, but it was always too late. This man’s hands were soft and fleshy. Jackie fought him off, escaping with the video and all, running until she was far enough away to catch a cab. She’d returned home with spots all over her neck, her voice all horse, her feet swollen and blue.
Stefan dropped the spare key onto her lap and walked away.
Jackie held her arm out and tried to stop him, but by then he was already too far out of reach.
Later that night, Jackie received a text from Drew, letting her know he arrived. He was right on time; ten sharp, waiting for her in the front of the building. She told him to come up. One David Bowie song later, she asked him to wait for her by the car. Told him she’d be down in a minute.
Jackie brushed her teeth and gargled, took the elevator down, wearing a satin belted duster, black Manolo Blahniks, her hair in a sleek braid tumbling down her back. Once in the town car, she pinned the braid into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, reached into her purse and pulled out the butternut-colored wig. After securing the A-line bob into place, she untied the duster, revealing a champagne sequenced dress with a plunged neckline; the gold pendant dangled along her chest.
They pulled up to the Peninsula. Jackie made her way through the hotel doors to the elevator, stroking the pendant around her neck, brushing the concealed pin-head switch, feeling good, knowing Drew was only a push of a button away.
She had gotten the confirmation. She had the key in her hand. She was outside the door. She took a deep breath; closed her eyes for a moment, and for reassurance visualized her fourteen-year-old self, then pictured the faces of all the other girls who’d been cheated, who’d hired her to make things right. Jackie’s heartbeat slowed to a steady thrum. She slipped the key into the slot and entered the room.
It was dim, with a soft light streaming in from the balcony. The curtains swayed in the cool night breeze. The shadow of a man loomed large and misshapen across the wide French doors. The man from the restaurant entered the room. Jackie could see that the bruise on his cheek was still there.
“You must be Honey.” The man stepped closer, his eyes glassy and wide as he grinned, looking her up and down.
She nodded and smiled. Then gracefully walked over to the mini bar and made them both a drink.
Brittany DiGiacomo holds a BS in English Literature from Mercy College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College, where she served as production editor at The Manhattanville Review. In her blog, Brittanytpon.wordpress.com, she writes about everything from witch-hunts to Hemingway. Most weekends you can find her gallivanting around the tristate area styling hair for brides.