THREE HEARTS BEAT AS ONE
Copyright © 2013
Hell’s Delight, California
This was painfully agonizing. And Ben knew it. In fact, he was taking glee in it.
Why else would he come into Lacey’s hardware store pretending to look for duct tape? He could have purchased that at any grocery store. Same thing with the flashlight. He didn’t need to come into Delight Hardware pretending he needed a flashlight to keep in his car. Something was up. He must have another message to impart. Lacey knew Ben well enough by now, unfortunately.
True, the yogurt shop his father had set him up in was two blocks away down Jack London Street. Ben fancied himself a big fish in a little pond in their small town, and he liked to walk the downtown area waving to merchants, priding himself on the fact that he knew everyone.
That was how Lacey had met Ben, at one of the downtown merchants association meetings. Now that they were divorced, she was stuck seeing his face nearly every day. She had taken to looking both ways up and down the street before leaving the hardware store to make sure he wasn’t lurking. And he lurked a lot. The bar, the vitamin store, even the sex toy shop called Positive Vibrations. Yes, she’d seen Ben furtively—or wait, perhaps not so furtively—walking proud and tall from the vibrator store with a package under his arm. And that had been only a week after she’d moved out of the house they’d shared. Ben sure was a fast operator.
That was six months ago. Their divorce had been finalized a couple days ago, probably the reason for Ben’s visit, but it still stung. One didn’t just fall out of love overnight, even if the husband was a lame-ass douche bag.
She said feebly, “A flashlight, eh?” What else could she say? She wanted to get to the bottom of this, the real reason he was in her store. She knew it had to be something lowdown and hurtful.
“Yeah, you know,” Ben said conversationally, “I should really pick up a fan, too. This past week has been hot as a pistol out.” He began to strip off his light windbreaker, even though Lacey had the air conditioner on. Placing the jacket on the counter, he began fumbling with his wallet to pay her for the tape and flashlight. What was he trying to show her? That he’d been working out lifting weights, and was a new and improved man since she’d left? She doubted he was trying to win her back, so making her jealous was the only possible answer.
Apparently his wallet had been filled with glue, for it seemed impossible to take two twenties out. Ben shook the wallet and even held it upside down. Predictably, a big fistful of crap men keep in their wallets fanned out across Lacey’s counter, and it was up to her to pluck two bills from the pile of receipts, business cards, and a photo of a chirpy and fresh blonde bimbo in three-quarter profile.
A blonde bimbo. Lacey felt as though a giant hand was squeezing her guts. Of course she didn’t touch the photo and even recoiled back from it, but Ben studied her with delight. His stupid fucking square head had never looked squarer, and Lacey could have sworn his forehead was getting smaller. He had the smallest forehead in the world, with his enormously thick hair starting two inches from his eyebrow. Goddamn Cro-Magnon man.
“Oh, gosh, sorry about that,” Ben said cheerfully. He could’ve said nothing about the picture, but no, he had to draw even more attention to it, as though it was killing Lacey to see it. “Didn’t mean to drop that out of my wallet.”
I will not react. I will not react. Reacting would only give him satisfaction. “Whatever,” she said, and somehow that didn’t feel terribly satisfying either. She put his change on the counter and shoved it at him.
“Ben,” acknowledged Lacey’s stepbrother Calvin, scooting by on his squeaky high-topped sneakers. Of course, being Lacey’s stepbrother, Calvin was bitterly enraged with Ben for his lowbrow treatment of his stepsister. But he was a businessman, and needed to remain civil. “New tattoo?” he said absentmindedly.
Lacey could tell Cal was just trying to make lame conversation but it was exactly the opening Ben had been looking for, unfortunately. “Oh, yeah, my new tattoo!” he cried, as though that hadn’t been the reason he’d stripped off his jacket. He wanted Lacey to know he wasn’t pining around crying into his beer, that was for sure. He wanted to beat her over the head with how excellently his life had been going since Lacey had finally gotten fed up with him six months ago and had walked out.
No, Ben’s life was going so splendidly, in fact, he had found the time and enthusiasm to tattoo “I Heart Brittney” on his bicep.
Dear Lord. Could things get any more stupid, painful, or just downright mean?
Lacey’s knees turned to liquid and she needed to sit on the stool. Ben gleamed proudly, of course. Lacey was sure it was obvious to everyone present that the photo and the tattoo had gotten to her. Cal had stepped right into Ben’s plot by mentioning the tattoo. Ben gloated. “Yeah, could use some polishing up, make it look more 3D, but I think the artist did a good job with the graphics, don’t you think?”
Apparently Cal couldn’t maintain civility now. He made a lip fart. “All right. You’ve got your damned duct tape. Lacey, don’t you have to go get ready for that date? I’ll cover for you. My dad will be in at seven.”
Lacey had never been more grateful to anyone in her life. “That’s right, I’d better shower,” she managed to say. She didn’t cast her ex-husband a single glance as she made her way out from behind the counter on rubbery legs.
I heart Brittney, my ass. He didn’t just meet that bimbo recently. You don’t just meet someone and suddenly tattoo their name on your arm.
You also didn’t suddenly start carrying someone’s photo in your wallet. No, he’d known Brittney way before Lacey had gotten up the gumption to walk out—to walk out on her house and she man she’d loved intensely for four years.
“Hey,” called Ben while she attempted to navigate around a display of cooking pans. “Are you still going to that London Street Valentine’s party?”
“Of course I am,” Lacey snapped, and the moron was out of her sight for good. For today, anyway. Who knew when she’d run into him again, what plot he’d invent to insinuate himself in her path. Ben’s ego simply could not take the fact that she had walked out on him. It was now imperative that he show the world, and mostly her, what a superior, successful, uncaring fellow he was. He needed to show he wasn’t affected that the wife he’d professed to love had walked out on him.
It had been the hardest thing Lacey had ever done. She had still loved Ben painfully the day she’d forced herself to walk out. The thing was, she knew he’d never change. One didn’t just stop loving someone because they stayed out all night long without calling. Love didn’t just vanish because a man couldn’t seem to remember what a cell phone was for. Lacey had never been able to fathom what sort of excitement lay in partying with his friends until four in the morning. She tried to do it herself a few times to retaliate and discover the joy in it, but she’d only been an exhausted basket case the next day. She had no interest in it.
But Ben did, to the point that no matter how many times she yelled, “I don’t even care if you stay out all night! Just call me!” it didn’t deter him from repeating the same thing all over again within a few days. Their marriage had turned into one enormous ongoing fight. Lacey’s best friend, Katrina, had even asked her once, “Do you think Ben is cheating?” And for some reason, Lacey was convinced he wasn’t—that it was all about the partying lifestyle with his wannabe musician friends.
Now, she wasn’t so sure. Who knew how long he’d been cheating while she had her head stuck in the sand?
Since Lacey obviously—unpleasantly—didn’t really have a date for tonight, she still had to haul herself up the inner stairs that led to the apartment she shared with Cal. Cal had been a lifesaver, letting her crash in his spare bedroom.
Lacey had allowed Ben to have it all—the enormous house they rented in a grape vineyard outside of Sacramento, all the furniture, dishes, pretty much everything. She was just done with arguing and didn’t want to haggle over who got the crappy twenty-four-inch TV, the towels, or the clay pot. However, Cal’s bachelor lifestyle was a little thin on the domestic appliances. She really could use that microwave, that coffee pot, those wedding dishes…
What was wrong with her key? Lacey realized her eyes were blurry with tears as she tried to get into her own apartment. Dammit! Ben had succeeded in making her cry. His goal, no doubt!
Gentle female fingers took her key and opened her door. Thank God for Katrina. They had been best friends since elementary school. Lately Lacey had been feeling as though she’d made no progress in her thirty-two years. She still drank coffee with Katrina, still lived in a beaten-up Victorian era apartment on Jack London Street, still worked at the hardware store owned by the guy her mother had married fifteen years ago, Cal’s father, Mr. Zhukov. Where was the progress? She had utterly wasted four years of her life on Ben. She had wanted to be a photojournalist, but being with Ben was priority. She couldn’t travel to Cairo or Syria or the hot spots while maintaining a marriage.
“And now I’m an old maid,” she sobbed as the door shut safely behind her.
Katrina grabbed her by the shoulders. “Listen. You’re no old maid. Thirty-two is hardly old these days, with people living into their nineties.”
Lacey wailed even louder. “Oh, God! You mean I have six more decades of this shit to suffer through?”
“Listen,” said Katrina. “You got any wine? That’ll help.”
“Of course I do.” The idea of wine was already perking up Lacey, and the women moved to the sunny kitchen that had a view of the courtyard and the rolling Sierra foothills, viridian green at this time of year. “My problem, Katrina, is that I’m not a gal who can be alone for long. I just don’t prefer it. If I don’t have that basic foundation of a stable relationship, I’m a loss. A sheer loss.”
“Yeah. I prefer to have a boyfriend as well. That’s probably why I’ve put up with Marco for so long.”
Marco was a strange, sort of disgusting guy who drank about a quart of vodka every day and never seemed the worse for it, but Katrina was devoted to him for some obscure reason. Lacey didn’t know him well. He rarely talked. They had never engaged in the halcyon dreams of double dating with Ben and Marco. Ben loathed Marco as much as Lacey did.
Lacey waxed philosophical before she was even done pouring the wine. “I think it stems from my childhood, Katrina. Everything was so dubious when we were raising ourselves, remember? We had no stability, no foundation at all. We never knew from one moment to the next if we’d be evicted, where the next meal was coming from. If my mother hadn’t married Cal’s dad, we would’ve grown up in a homeless shelter.”
“Yeah.” Katrina sighed and sipped her wine. She looked gorgeous as always, bathed by the warm squares of sun coming in the window. She had an exotic, feline beauty, all long, gangling limbs, like a model. Lacey? Lacey only had to look at a cookie and she gained five pounds. She had to suffer on endless diets just to look a reasonable weight, as Katrina did effortlessly. Of course, the past few months she hadn’t had much of an appetite. “But it’s made you strong, Lace! Before Mr. Zhukov came along, remember we had to sleep up in the hills behind my house? Hitch a ride on the back of the bus to school?”
“Steal the milk that was left out for the school kids.” Lacey was feeling better. Between the wine and Katrina’s reminders, she was starting to feel that she could make it through this miserable period in her life. “You’re right. My childhood toughened me up. If I made it through that, I can make it through this.”
Katrina nodded enthusiastically. “I mean, what an asshole Ben is. Imagine the gall, coming in here flaunting that ugly tattoo? He must be awful desperate and insecure to need to do that to pump his own ego.”
Tears flooded Lacey’s eyes again. “Oh, God, Katrina! Why’d you have to mention that damned frigging tattoo? I can’t believe the gall of that asshole! I wish we could somehow keep him out of the store. Set up a nuclear device that zaps only him if he tries to come in the door.”
Katrina was giggling. Sure, maybe someday they would look back and laugh about Ben’s lame-ass tattoo and his attempts to make Lacey jealous. But today wasn’t the time. “Oh, jeez, Lacey. Cal just told me what happened. Did you see how badly drawn that that was? It looked like one of those things you get in a cereal box. And the name ‘Brittney,’ please. What is she, eighteen years old?”
That wasn’t helping. Lacey already felt like an over-the-hill old maid. Ben was thirty-five, too old to be romancing teenagers. “Do you know anything about Brittney?” Lacey dared to ask. Maybe Marco had told Katrina.
“All I know is she works at the lingerie shop over on Grist Mill Street.”
Lingerie shop. It figures. That was one of the drawbacks to living in a small town like Hell’s Delight, a former gold mining camp. It was very difficult to avoid bumping into people you didn’t want to see. Lacey didn’t know if she should dare ask the foremost question in her mind. “How old do you think she is?”
Katrina hemmed and hawed. “Uh, she looks fairly young. Real immature. Guess Ben couldn’t handle a real woman. Speaking of, what’re you wearing to the Valentine’s auction?”
Now Lacey really did feel about to break down. She had been dreading that auction ever since walking out on Ben. She sloshed some more wine into her glass. “I’m wearing a damned chicken suit, because no one’s gonna bid on me anyway.”