Chapter 3: The Climb
Waking up alone was not something I thought I would ever have to do after uttering the words I do. I hoped that the agonizing events of the day before were a dream, a terrible nightmare, but when I couldn’t stare into Lorenzo’s loving eyes, I realized that this was my new reality.
Every stitch of his clothing had disappeared from our drawers and closets. The scent of his cologne still held his place in our bed, but he didn’t accompany it. My husband was gone, not to an audition, not to get food or go shopping … he was just … gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
I pulled myself out of bed and sluggishly brushed my teeth before letting the hot steam of our sizable shower cover me like a warm blanket. My brain couldn’t make sense of my tops or bottoms to put together a show-stopping outfit like I usually did, so I settled for a lightweight lace jumpsuit and matching heels. I threw my hair up into a snug ponytail, put on a heavy coat of lipstick, and made my way out the door, silently prepping myself for the heart-to-heart I needed to have with my employees.
Much like any other work day, they were awaiting my arrival, but instead of looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they looked gloomy and sympathetic. I tried to greet them with a radiating smile, but they weren’t buying it. In truth, neither was I.
When we all filtered into the store, I expected that they’d raid the breakfast spread I brought for them, but they eagerly sat down, eyes sparkling with anticipation for what I had to say. It wasn’t until I encouraged them to eat that they finally dug into their food. And even though I wanted to delay the inevitable a little while longer, I knew there was no point; I needed to dig in too.
“All right, y’all. Let’s talk. There are going to be some … changes here at Donato’s Budding Deliveries. My husband …,” I paused, battling the tears that tried to break out from behind my eyes. They noticed. “My husband will no longer be working with us. I am going to try to continue running the business as …”
“So we do still have jobs? Ha! I told you, Alan!”
“Shut up, Reed. Look, Mrs. Donato, I don’t mean to sound selfish, but as you know, I’m using the money I make here to pay my way through school. I – I can’t afford to lose this job.”
“No offense but neither can I,” Chenoa backed. “I’m not trying to go back to McDonald’s and work for minimum wage.”
“Oh my … are y’all serious?” Chloe angrily interrupted. “My cousin is about to go through a divorce and all you can do is think about yourselves? After all she’s done for you …”
“For all of us!”
“Look, I was just saying …”
“What other job are any of us going to find that pays this well and still allows us to live our lives?”
“You want me to go beat up Lorenzo for you, cousin?”
“Okay, okay. Guys? Everyone? Calm down. Please,” I pleaded as they listened. “I understand your frustration and concern. I promise you, I will do my best to make sure that all of you will still be able to live your lives as if nothing has happened.”
“But will you still be able to live yours?”
My heart froze in place as twenty sets of caring eyes stared into mine for the answer, an answer I wasn’t sure that I was equip to give. So, in the midst of my uncertainty, I told the truth. “We’ll see. In the meantime, how was everyone’s night? Does anyone have any negative reviews or rumors to report?”
The worst was over … or so I thought. While Chloe and Frank handled the phones, Talia made it her task to speak with all the females on my husband’s client list – my husband didn’t play on both sides of the tracks like some of our other escorts did – to see who they would prefer to have as a replacement. I was grateful that none of the ladies canceled their contracts or threatened to discontinue their services. I imagined The Vault had a lot to do with that.
“Mrs. Donato,” Andreas called, interrupting my train of thought.
“I spoke with my mom about tonight. She said that you were more than welcome to come, but she wanted to talk to you first. I have her number here for you if you have a minute to call her.”
“Sure, dear. Thank you.”
He nodded before handing me a piece of paper and retreating to the floral studio. I stared at the seven digits, silently wondering why I agreed to go through with this.
“Oh yeah. I told myself it was worth trying,” I sighed before dialing. It didn’t take long for her to answer, but her voice sounded a lot more bubbly than I envisioned.
“Hello there! It’s so nice to finally speak with you. You know, I’m terribly sorry about what you’re going through. We’ve all been there … literally!” she laughed as my face frowned with bewilderment. “But we would be happy to help you find the light at the end of that deep, dark tunnel!”
“Oh dear God.”
“What’d you say, dear?”
“I said … Oh, thank God!”
“The reason I asked Andreas to have you call me is because we don’t want to have anyone here against their will.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Do you actually want our help?”
“I mean, he said that you guys could help me figure some things out …”
“Without your husband.”
“Yes, without … my … husband. I’m sorry. Are the steps for joining a divorce support group normally this dramatic?”
Another hearty laugh was her first reaction. “This is Hollywood, dear; we’re all dramatic. Meet us tonight at my house. I assume you have the address on Andreas’s job application.”
“Uh … yes, ma’am, I do.”
“Fabulous! Then we’ll see you here at 7PM sharp. Oh, and one more thing. If you could do me the smallest favor, dear. We prefer not to have any men in attendance at our meetings, it’s a girl’s only thing, so could you find a way to keep Andreas busy for a few hours? I’m sure you have something he can do there at the shop.”
“Uh … sure.”
“Fantastic. See you then!”
My confused expression was still present hours later when I asked Andreas to stay past closing time to put together extra floral arrangements for the next day runs. Along the ride, my head was screaming: Red flag! Red flag! Meanwhile, my heart was screaming: Tell me every shortcut you know to get over this dead feeling in my chest!
The Riley house was large and lavish … and made me curious as to why Andreas was working for us when his family was clearly rolling in money. A parade of cars were parked within the cul-de-sac in front of the mansion. After finding a spot, I noticed a tall and slender brown-skinned woman with a pixie haircut rush out to welcome me with open arms.
“Well, hello! I’m Sylvia Riley, Andreas’s mother. We spoke on the phone.”
“Yes, of course. Hi. Nice to meet you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine. Oh, aren’t you adorable … and gorgeous too!”
That word was like a knife stabbing and twisting into what was left of my heart. All I could hear was Lorenzo’s voice: Morning, gorgeous.
“Come on in! Don’t be shy. Glass of wine?”
“Please,” I confirmed, solemnly trailing behind her, and immediately felt my jaw fall to my feet. Following her inside her home was like walking into a damn castle. Never in my wildest … well, that’s not true. Lorenzo’s parents’ house was pretty big. I, on the other hand, came from more modest surroundings.
“We’re serving chardonnay today. I hope that suits your taste buds,” she said passing me a glass.
“Anything will suit my taste buds today. Thank you.”
“Hmm, I’ve been there.”
“We all have!” the collection of women sounded throughout the room.
My frame jumped in surprise, but I found myself sharing a light chuckle along with them. Suddenly, I didn’t feel stupid … or nervous … to be there. Maybe it was the best move for me to be surrounded by other women who were just like me, suffering, in mourning, in …
My head whipped around to locate the familiar voice … and smiling face … of Lorenzo’s mother. “Cordelia?”
“Sylvie told me you’d be stopping by.”
“Stopping by? I’m sorry, what? What are you doing here? Are you and Lou going through a divorce?”
“Oh no, you poor dear. Sylvie, you didn’t give her the rundown yet?”
“I was going to as soon as Blair finished up checking the house.”
“I’m sorry. Checking the house for what? Do y’all have a bug problem or something?”
“Every once in a while.”
“What?” I exclaimed before a blithely elderly woman – who put me in mind of a chirpier Betty White – jogged down the stairs with a hidden camera and electronic bug detector in hand. “We’re all clear, Sylvie.”
“Fantastic. Ladies! File in. It’s time to get down to business.”
My eyes grew large at the sight of dozens of women crowding the giant sitting room, women I worriedly recognized. Along with my soon-to-be ex-husband’s mother, I knew a small population of the group members to be the wives of some of our clients. They eerily gawked in my direction.
“Hazel,” Sylvia started. The cheerful color in her voice had vanished. In its place was an abnormally sinister tone. “Have a seat.”