Ella sat on the merry-go-round with her book bag beside her and her bare toes dangling in the sand. She waited patiently for Daniel to meet her for their play date. Normally, their classes were let out at the same time, but today Daniel was taking a bit longer than usual.
“Hey, get off this! It’s mine!”
Ella looked up to see Billy standing before her. “I said... Get off!”
“The playground is for everyone!” Ella argued. She looked desperately along the crowd of kids climbing onto the school busses. A number of teachers were supervising the children, but no one noticed her.
“Not the merry-go-round. That’s mine!”
“No, it’s not!”
“Get off or we’ll move you!” as Billy barked his orders, he tossed Ella’s bag into the center of the merry-go-round, then the two smaller boys started to spin it faster and faster. Ella quickly jumped off and turned to watch her bag which was far out of reach. Billy stood there, watching and laughing.
“Hey! Leave her alone!” Daniel cried from the crowd as he forced his way through and ran up to Ella. One of the teachers turned to see where Daniel was rushing off to.
“Daniel!” Ella cried in relief.
Billy looked at Ella in disgust. “Daniel,” he mocked in a whiny voice. “What’s this? Come to protect your girlfriend?”
The bag flew from the merry-go-round, kicking up sand as it landed. One of Billy’s minions snatched it up before Ella could even move.
“Give her bag back, Billy,” Daniel’s tone was firm.
“Why don’t you make me?”
“What’s going on here!”
Billy turned around to see his teacher approaching. The other two boys slowly moved away from the spinning merry-go-round and turned to see what would happen. “Nothing, Mrs. Archer. Just playing with my friends,” Billy schmoozed.
“That’s not what it looks like to me. Who does that bag belong to?”
“It’s mine,” Billy lied.
“No it’s not! It’s mine!” Ella corrected.
Mrs. Archer’s face was washed with disapproval. “Why don’t you boys wipe off Ella’s bag and hand it to her? Nicely!” The minion with the bag followed the teacher’s orders, keeping his head down in embarrassment. “Good, now Ella and Daniel, have a nice weekend off. As for you three... Follow me.” With that, Mrs. Archer spun around and marched the three boys inside where she would promptly call their parents.
“Are you okay?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, they just dirtied my bag. Thanks for helping me.”
“Want to go play now?”
“Yes!” And off they ran.
Ella lay across her bed reading a book. Music played softly in the background. She finished one more chapter and put the book down. Steve was in the living room watching TV, as usual. Why they had been spending less time together was still a mystery to Ella. Even when they were together, they were apart. It was becoming increasingly harder to get his attention, even when he was in the same room. Nothing about their relationship had changed―that she was aware of.
“Ah-ha,” she said to herself, hopping off the bed.
Ella stripped down, knowing what would never fail to get Steve’s attention. She marched with confidence out into the living room and stood in front of the TV.
“Wow-oh, nothin’ but panties. Just what I like.” Steve set down his beer, missing the coaster, and walked over to put his arms around Ella. Just as they embraced, his phone began to vibrate on the table.
Ella looked down to see the name ‘Jami’ appear. “Who’s Jami?” she asked.
Steve stopped caressing her neck and grabbed his phone. “Jami? Uh, a buddy of mine.” He picked up the phone. “Hey, what’s up?... Oh, hi… Well, I told you I wasn’t free tonight.” He turned his back to Ella and spoke in a low voice. “Yeah, maybe later… I’ll call you… No, I- will- call- you.” He pronounced each word with a hint of force. “Bye.” He turned back to Ella, who was now standing with arms crossed, waiting for an explanation. Steve put his arms out to the side and just said, “What?”
“Who is Jami?” She asked in a low, angry tone.
“One of my buddies―”
“Jami is not one of your buddies, Steve! And I know she is not a friend or relative. Who is she?”
“Don’t even call me ‘baby.’”
“Wha- You didn’t even let me say anything.”
“Get out,” she said, pointing toward the door.
“GET OUT, STEVE!”
“Fine! I’ll go see Jami.” Steve walked out and Ella followed.
“Great! Go see Jami, and don’t come back!” She followed him down the stairs and out the door. “I hope you waste as many years on her as I wasted on you before she leaves you for another cheating bastard!”
Steve got into his car and drove away, squealing the tires as he went. A cool breeze ran over every inch of Ella’s body. Suddenly, she realized that she was standing outside in nothing but her panties. Quickly covering as much of herself as she could with her bare arms, Ella ran back up the path steps to find that the outer door was locked. She closed her eyes and silently cursed herself as she envisioned the keys dangling on a hook just inside the door upstairs. She successfully-and angrily-chased Steve out, but now she couldn’t get back in.
Ella looked up and down the street, thankful for the dark and that no one was out tonight. She glanced down at the two apartment buzzers. There was no way she wanted him to see her in this situation. He’ll think I’m crazy, she thought. But, in desperation, her finger finally pressed the button to ring Eric’s apartment.
“Eric, thank goodness, could you let me in? It’s Ella.”
She saw the apartment door open and Eric came out with a beer in his hand. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her. Ella kept her hands in place covering her chest, but managed to lift her fingers slightly to wave. Eric opened the outer door.
Ella stood there for a moment. “Sorry… to bother you.” She looked around nervously. “I had to…” she gestured outside. “Uh… I forgot my key.”
“Are you going to come inside?” Eric asked, wondering why she would hesitate. “Or did you want to hang around out here naked all night?”
“Oh, right.” Ella slipped by him and heard shouting coming from Eric’s apartment. She looked up to see what the noise was and, much to her discontent, found a strange man standing in Eric’s doorway, smiling back at her. “I didn’t know you had company. Sorry… again. Thanks.” She shot a deadly look to the man in the doorway and quickly hopped up the stairs to the privacy of her own apartment.
“Not bad,” Eric’s friend commented.
“What are you doing?” Eric slapped him on the arm.
“What? She was naked.”
“Exactly, you didn’t have to stare.”
“I didn’t see you looking away.”
“Shut up. Let’s get back to the game.”
“Hey, is she the one who gave you the black eye?”
Ella closed the door to her apartment and leaned her back up against it. “He must think I am out of my mind,” she said to herself, banging her head against the door. Like a wave, the events of the evening suddenly came crashing back at her.
After throwing on a t-shirt and shorts Ella let a few tears fall as she gathered up Steve’s belongings and anything he had ever given her, save for the fish. Once everything was in a box, she taped it up and left it by the door to drop off to him the next day. She took a bath, drank some wine, and eventually fell asleep a few hours later upon a tear soaked pillow.
The next morning, Ella felt better than she had in a long time. The nights since her mom passed had been so unforgiving as sleep would endlessly tease and, ultimately, elude her. Thankfully, the tears that came with her breakup tired her enough that she slept the whole night through. The pillows were still on the bed and the blankets were spread nicely as if she hadn’t budged at all during her sleep.
Rising from bed, she was struck by the realization that she was once again alone. But, surprisingly, sadness had subsided and hope had taken its place. Ella had known for years that she deserved better than Steve, and now she had received the push she needed to break free from him. As a result, the morning was greeted with new hope and a sunny disposition, the shower was rocked with song and dance, and Ella was donned with a sassy summer dress and sandals with her hair flowing over her shoulders. Picking up her purse and the box for Steve, she headed out the door. Downstairs she emptied the mailbox and locked it again just as Eric emerged from his apartment.
“Oh, hi,” she said, recalling all at once her embarrassment from the previous night.
“Hi.” Eric tucked his hands into his pockets and his eyes ventured into every view available that did not include Ella.
“Um, thank you… for letting me in last night. And I’m sorry again for interrupting your evening. I didn’t know you had people over.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Rob didn’t mind.” They both began to relax a bit and he finally found courage to look at her.
“So, where did you meet them? I thought you were new in town.”
“They’re from Washington. I told them a bit about the town and they decided to come down for a visit. They weren’t planning on staying long, but thanks to you they may be here for a while,” he joked.
Ella laughed, secretly hoping his friends, especially Rob, would be gone soon. “Well, I’d better go.”
“Oh, sure. Here, let me get that for you.” Eric opened the outer door and let Ella pass.
“Bye,” she smiled.
“Bye- Oh, hey,” he called after her. “Would you… care to go out to dinner sometime? On me.” Thinking back on last night, he wasn’t sure if those were the most appropriate words. “Dinner, I mean. Dinner is on me. I will pay for dinner.”
Ella, unknowingly, displayed her soft, subtle smile. There it is again, Eric thought. “I knew what you meant the first time,” she chuckled, although she was surprised by the offer. She imagined that her clear and frequent demonstrations of wacky and unpredictable behavior would have urged him to keep his distance by now. “But, I don’t know.”
“Just as friends. Just to talk.”
“You’re not asking me because you witnessed me running around outside naked, did you? Because if that’s the case I can assure you that I don’t do that often. Certainly not on a date. Well, at least not on a first date.”
“Not a date; just friends,” he repeated.
Her pride took a hit but she tried to conceal it. “Well, I still don’t know,” she said, half disappointed.
“Don’t worry; I really do just want to talk. Seems like you’ve been through a lot recently and I wouldn’t mind being there to help you through it.”
“Yeah, I’m worried too. What do you say? Pick you up at seven?”
“Okay,” she smiled.
“Great, see you then.”
“Okay,” Ella began to walk away but called out to Eric just before he closed the door. “Oh wait! I can’t at seven. I need to close the store, that won’t give me enough time to get ready.”
“It’s not a date, remember.”
“Still, a girl needs some time. Say eight?”
“Eight it is.”
“See you then,” she smiled again and hurried away before he could change his mind.
“Great,” Eric whispered to himself. “What are you doing, man?”