‘Wow, you do feel out of place don’t you?’
Chase turned around and saw Hope walking toward him with a bottle of champagne and a glass. Excellent. She kicked off her high shoes and sat down beside him, dipping her feet in the cool water of the pool. Chase had rolled his pants up and had been busy mulling over the various unsatisfactory elements in his life. Company was, in fact, just what he needed – especially from a beautiful, intriguing woman. He was sick of all the bullshit in normal conversations.
‘Is it that obvious?’ he grimaced. She raised her eyebrows. Chase rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, well I suppose I am sitting out here all by my lonesome, so it couldn’t be any more obvious unless I had a giant neon sign hanging round my neck saying STRANGER!’
They both laughed. Her laugh was nice – not too loud but not one of those weird girly titters either – Chase hated those. You could tell a lot about someone by the way they laughed.
‘I hope you don’t think it’s rude for me to be out here half indulging in your family pool.’
Hope smiled at him and looked up at the stars. ‘No not at all.’
Chase wondered if he should leave. It looked like other people were starting to leave – and more important people at that. Surely he, the stranger of the mass, should be one of the first to go? But he didn’t want to. He wanted to sit and talk to this girl. Chase decided to test the water with her. ‘I suppose I should head home, the crowd seems to be starting to thin.’
Hope threw a glance over her shoulder. ‘Yeah, though there are still a few stragglers such as yourself lingering around.’
This was not the response Chase wanted at all. Before he could say anything she laughed and nudged him, ‘I’m just kidding. Boy, you’re really touchy!’ she teased. With a more serious face she continued. ‘No seriously, you may as well stay at least until the usual suspects have been thrown out, which probably won’t be for another, oh I don’t know, four hours.’
‘Four hours?’ Chase looked at his watch. ‘Four thirty in the morning? Well, your family certainly can’t stand accused of a lack of stamina.’
Again with the nice laugh. My – she really was extremely hot. Was that a good thing or a very, very bad thing? Oh, what difference did it make? Though the initial conversation had boded well it surely wouldn’t last. Chase’s experience with beautiful women was that they were, more often than not, stupid, dull, boring or shallow. Hope didn’t seem to be any of those things, but the night was young; he would find a flaw soon.
After sitting in silence while Chase debated the logistics of her attractiveness, Hope opened her mouth to say something. Here it goes thought Chase, what do you do for a living and other boring, dreary, awful, crappy, normal stuff.
Instead she asked, ‘So why were you having a mini meltdown?’
That wasn’t at all what he was expecting, and for the ten thousandth time since meeting Tanner, Chase was caught off guard. ‘Really?’ he found himslelf saying, ‘No, what do you do for a living, where are you from stuff first?’
Hope leaned back on her hands. ‘Oh, who can be bothered with that stuff anymore?’ She bobbed her head as if rethinking the comment. ‘Well, actually, most people can be bothered, sorry. Okay, what do you do for a living?’
Chase held his hands up. ‘No, no please, don’t revert back to that. I was just surprised that you asked a good question straight off the bat. Most people don’t, you know?’
‘Yep, I know exactly what you mean.’ After a brief pause Hope turned to Chase. ‘Okay then, so are you going to answer the original question?’
Chase rubbed his hands together and smiled. ‘Ah yes – the pertinent question. Why was I having a mini meltdown? Sure you’re ready for this?’
He looked to her for confirmation. ‘Fire away,’ she said.
‘Okay. Well, basically, I hated my life. All of it. I had been thinking about it for some time, and I realised that, in fact, there was not one bit of my life that actually had any meaning or significance – particularly my stupid office job that I fucking HATED.’ He emphasised the word hated, scrunching up his face to make his point. ‘So I quit in a rather, unorthodox fashion.’
Hope furrowed her brow and smiled. ‘Unorthodox?’
‘Ask your brother; I explained it to him after he caught me trying to drown my briefcase in the river while still dressed in my suit.’
Hope put her hand over her mouth and laughed hard.
‘Your brother thought it was pretty cool though by all accounts’ Chase laughed as he said it.
‘Yeah he would. Well, that explains why you attracted his attention then!’
‘Well actually, it was more that he got mine. He just, I don’t know, seemed so content and he stuck out. There was something about him.’
‘There are definitely many interesting things about him, that’s for sure!’
She paused. ‘So what are you going to do with yourself now?’
‘I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m doing some bar work, but long term I just don’t know. It’s kind of exciting I guess, and, dare I say, a bit daunting.’
‘Yeah it must be. But I think it’s good, you know, you should find your niche. It’s better than wasting away at some office job for thirty years that you despise.’
‘I guess. A guy I met earlier was saying the same thing actually. Odd fellow, but a similar sort of situation.’
Hope looked at Chase. ‘Was he carrying a tray of food perchance?’
‘Yeah that’s him, Dean I think his name was.’
Hope rolled her eyes and sighed. ‘That’s the one. He’s my boyfriend.’
And therein lay the fault, thought Chase. He knew it was all far too good to be true. But that guy? Really?? His surprise must have been evident, as Hope gave him a puzzled smile. ‘What? You look really surprised.’
Chase tried to cover up his disappointment, but his surprise he simply could not hide. ‘No, no, well … Actually yeah, I am a bit surprised.’
Hope furrowed her brow. ‘Why?’ Chase grimaced and shrugged his shoulders. What could he say? ‘Come on, tell me! I won’t get defensive and shitty, promise. I’m interested, so tell me,’ she pleaded.
‘Well it’s just … look, I don’t even really know what it is, but there’s something about it that doesn’t seem right. Sorry, I don’t want to offend you or be rude, though that is pretty rude – to tell you that your relationship isn’t right, I’m sorry.’
Hope considered what he had said for a second. ‘No. You know … you’re right. To be honest I’ve been thinking the same thing myself for a while. I just don’t know why the change of heart. It’s weird.’ Hope dragged her hands down her face and sighed.
Suddenly Chase wondered where this inconveniently existent boyfriend was, and if he would stumble upon them talking out here alone, and be less than happy with the situation. ‘Where is he anyway?’ he casually asked.
‘Oh, he went into town to meet some friends.’ Chase detected an air of deep hurt and annoyance in her voice.
‘Really? Shouldn’t he have stayed here with your family?’
This time Hope let her irritation at his absence visibly show. ‘Yes, he should be. Oh, I don’t know! Maybe it’s just everything else. My life has been extremely complicated this past year.’
Chase felt a spark of hope flicker in him. Don’t hope, he chastised himself; it was the worst emotion of all – leading only to inevitable failure, disappointment or disaster.‘What do you mean?’ he asked, genuinely interested.
‘Well! It’s quite a story. Sure you wanna hear it?’
‘Okay, well, the thing is … to sum up a long story, fairly recently my parents told me that my dad is not in fact my dad, well, not my biological father. Turns out mum was with this other guy when she was young, and she got pregnant. Because she was only seventeen my dad, well I should say Ian – the guy that raised me – who was really close friends with her, married her, and they told everyone that the baby was his. Anyway, long story short, mum and dad, Ian dad – not real dad – told me all this last year, which was obviously quite a shock. I was really mad and confused. They told me that my real dad didn’t know about me and that when I was ready, if I was ever ready, they would tell him. So after I got over my initial anger, I started to get curious you know, and I wanted to meet him. So NOW he’s actually moved here – he’s American – and we are in the annoying and uncomfortable position of sort of getting to know one another etcetera etcetera.’ Hope drew in a long breath and smiled at Chase as she let it out in an exhausted sigh.
Chase tried to take it all in. ‘Wow, what a mind fuck. Shit.’
‘Yeah it’s a bit like that’, she chuckled.
Chase was about to question her further on the matter, when they were both distracted by the sudden appearance of Tanner. Hope turned to her brother. ‘Hey, have the stragglers started to make their way home?’
Tanner walked toward the pool with purpose. He always walked with purpose. There was such conviction about him. Chase deeply admired that – it intrigued him beyond measure. ‘Yeah, most of them, though Aunty Janine is bending dad’s ear off, and Derrick’s drunk and trying to get the remaining guests to play a very crude version of charades – the usual story.’
Hope laughed. As he talked Tanner, fully clothed, walked to the stairs leading into the pool and commenced descending down them, without pause, straight into the water. Once in he let out a deep, relieving sigh, and floated on his back looking up at the stars. Hope was completely unperturbed by this behaviour. Chase found it odd, surprising, and highly unusual, and he couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head. He had to stop being surprised by the strange behaviour of this kid or he’d end up having a stroke. Tanner looked peaceful as he floated there. It was quite a lovely image, with his white shirt rippling in the water.
A random thought occurred to Chase as he watched the kid float. ‘Hey Tanner, what’s your surname?’ he asked.
Tanner continued to float serenely. ‘Winters. Why?’
‘Just thought I’d look you up on facebook’ –
Before Chase had finished his sentence Hope’s head flicked toward him, and her eyes widened as she whispered, ‘Don’t say that!’
Chase was about to ask what she meant, when Tanner, having registered the word facebook, suddenly struggled in the water and stood bolt upright. ‘Ah crap, now you’ve done it’, Hope murmured with a wry grin.
Chase was very confused as to what exactly it was that he had done, but Tanner allowed no time for further reflection. ‘Did you say facebook?’ He said the word ‘facebook’ as though it was a scary, repulsive monster. Chase went to answer, but Tanner stopped him short. ‘Facebook?! Really Chase? I expected more from you. Well, that’s a most disappointing development.’ Shaking his head Tanner ran his arms through the water.
Chase was now deeply confused and looked from Tanner to Hope and back to Tanner. ‘What?’ He asked perplexed.
Hope raised her eyebrows. ‘Wait for it.’
‘Wait for’ –
Before Chase could finish his sentence Tanner had began his spiel. ‘Facebook Chase, is the epitome of this generation’s problem. It represents the degradation of modern society. The technological age, though it is glorified and adored by the masses, is, in fact, destroying everything that’s good about the world. Real human contact is becoming obsolete. People don’t need to actually talk face to face and engage with one another anymore. Instead they pin up stupid insignificant details of their lives, equipped with photographic evidence of the meaningless nature of their identities, on a computer screen so that the people who they misleadingly refer to as friends, can keep in touch and up to date with what their doing, without that individual ever having to talk to anyone directly or in a personal way. They think – I’ll just pin it all up on my wall, then I can’t stand accused of not keeping in touch with my overwhelmingly large number of acquaintances who I offer nothing at all meaningful to, I can’t stand accused of not inviting people to my social gatherings. I, in fact, don’t have to even open my mouth to converse again because facebook is happy to do it for me. Facebook says these are the details of my life if you’re interested, and if I’m at all interested in who’s dating who, or who has updated their status, then I might consider checking their page, but it’s my choice.’
Tanner paused for emphasis. ‘The thing is Chase; it’s this collective mentality that is stripping the world of meaning. People go about their silly business not ever really connecting with others, and then when they actually want to have some sort of meaningful relationship, they find themselves completely unequipped, and confused about how to negotiate one, let alone keep one. BASICALLY facebook (and modern technology in general) is an excuse for people to be lazy, whilst simultaneously sating their voyeuristic need to involve themselves in other people’s business.’
Chase sat stunned. Tanner, quite satisfied with his assessment of the decline of modern society, got out of the water and wrapped himself in a towel.
Chase lit a smoke up and puffed it pensively. ‘Can I bum one?’ Hope asked.
‘Sure.’ He handed her one and lit it for her. Did he mistake the feeling of electricity between them as they touched? Of course he did.
After a few drags Chase said, ‘What if you can’t talk to someone face to face? What if they’re overseas?’
‘Ahh, the one justification for facebook that the faithful devotees always recite without fail. But you see Chase – you have just told me that you want to look me up. I am not overseas. You are not overseas. I am, in fact, right here for you to talk to. So don’t give me the, oh but it helps people stay in touch when they’re far away, standard crap. It’s just lazy, that’s what it is. People can’t be bothered making any effort now days.’
Having considered this, Chase said, ‘You know what, you’re fucking right Tanner.’
Tanner was busy stripping down to his white jocks and towelling himself dry. ‘Indeed. But you’re still going to use the site, aren’t you Chase? You’re going to hungrily devour its sordid information with the eagerness of a fat kid on a chicken drumstick.’ There was no anger or irritation in his voice – if anything he was very matter of fact and nonchalant about it.
Chase laughed at the analogy. ‘Rightly accused. I’m involved in it now, and I can’t help myself, even though I theoretically agree with you.’
‘Exactly, you’re a hypocrite. Luckily you have other stuff going for you so I’ll allow this one unsavoury indulgence.’ Tanner threw him a cheeky grin.
Chase couldn’t help but comment further. ‘You do of course realise just how odd it is for someone, particularly of your age, to take that view Tanner? I mean even someone my age might not be on the site, but someone as young as you? You must be the only eighteen year old not to be on it.’
‘EX-ACTLY Chase. And therein lays the problem.’ He finished drying himself and wrapped the towel around his shoulders. ‘Now I’m going inside to increase my rapidly declining core temperature.’ As he was leaving, once again with firm purpose, he turned to Chase and as an afterthought threw in, ‘Look Hope up, she’s a hypocrite too.’
Look Hope up? Excellent. Indeed he would.
As Chase drove home he reflected on what Tanner had said. He mused over all the meaningless acquaintances that he had acquired over the years, and just how little they meant to him. His mind kept drifting back to Hope – what a fascinating woman she had turned out to be. But naturally, of course, she was taken. Not that it really mattered; Chase had proven just how hopeless he was in a relationship countless times. And he didn’t want to ruin his friendship with Tanner. The kid was starting to mean something to him. Yes, it had been a good idea to go to the party. And for the first time in a long, long time, Chase went to sleep without a Valium – though that would not be enough to deter the images that haunted his sleeping mind. She would appear, as she always did, to torture him and cruelly remind him of just how helpless he really was.
As he was drifting off to sleep, another two people were retiring to bed, back in the house that Chase had just visited. Ian had made love to his wife that night, and after it was over he kissed her tenderly on the forehead and fell asleep a happy man. Audrey, on the other hand, found that she could not get to sleep. She lay awake; looking at her husband’s sleeping form. It had been a wonderful night. She loved him. They were so close. He knew every inch of her body and she felt comfortable and at ease with him every moment of the day. So why could she not get the image of Jack out of her mind?
Over the next week something quite strange happened. Violet and Antonio were so busy with the wedding plans, that Audrey and Jack found themselves spending more and more time together. It was a natural, be it quick, development. For some reason they felt very comfortable together. It was as if the fact that they both had vacated their normal lives had created some bond of truth and honesty between them. Both were being who they truly were, a feat that neither had experienced for some time, Audrey perhaps ever.
The two of them sat outside one night when it was raining. Antonio was, as per usual, in his studio, and Violet had gone to her mother-in-law’s for the night. Audrey and Jack sat in the peaceful silence of the night. It was not an awkward silence; when silence entered their world it was a warm and welcome one, sort of comforting in a way. Both were looking up at the stars, and thinking how beautiful they were out here, away from the city.
‘Do you want to go somewhere tomorrow?’ Jack asked as he looked over at her.
Audrey felt her heart flutter. ‘Where?’
‘I thought maybe, if you were interested, we could go into Florence and I could show you some of the architecture. Only if that interests you, of course.’ He looked away shyly and toyed with his wine glass.
Audrey couldn’t help but let her enthusiasm show. ‘It does. I would love to go. It will be like having my own personal tour guide.’ She was bolder with him then she normally was. And flirtatious. How odd. She didn’t realise that she knew how to flirt. But it was harmless anyway, she thought, he wasn’t interested in her that way.
She went to bed that night with mounting excitement. She could not sleep. She wondered why this man had such an effect on her. Beginning to drift into fantasies about him, she promptly chastised herself as she thought of Ian.
As he lay in bed Jack wondered if it had been a good idea to suggest Florence. He wondered if she knew how he felt about her, and if it was wrong to feel so strongly about a girl he’d just met; and particularly one that lived on the other side of the world.
The next day Jack led Audrey through the winding streets of Florence, passionately explaining about all the buildings and their historical significance. Getting carried away, he often stopped to ask if he was boring her, to which she honestly replied no. He then immersed himself in his adoration of the magnificent structures once more. His enthusiasm excited Audrey and made her laugh. They spent the whole day exploring and talking and laughing.
They waited in line for three hours to see The David because Jack was absolutely adamant that she see it. Once finally inside, they both stood gazing up at the grand, awe-inspiring, white figure, speechless.
After a while Jack whispered, ‘I’ve seen him three times now and it still gets me every time.’
Audrey looked at him. He was dazed. He looked beautiful, standing there like that, looking up in humble admiration. She felt her body warm as he looked at her. They stared at the David for what seemed like a blissful eternity in silence.
Then Jack, still staring at the sculpture, softly said, ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it – What beauty humanity is capable of?’
In that singular moment, as Audrey looked at Jack’s face she realised that she was inexplicably in love with him. Not knowing how to respond to such a comment, she simply took his hand and squeezed it, as they both continued to stare in amazement.
When they walked out of the museum, still dazed from the experience, it took both of them a minute to register that it was raining. There was no shelter in the immediate vicinity. Instinctively Audrey went to cover her hair as the rain grew heavier. Jack took off his coat and wrapped it over her. As he touched her their eyes met and ripples of electricity ran through their bodies.
‘No, I can’t take it Jack! It’s freezing, you’ll freeze to death!’ She protested.
He looked intensely at her. ‘Somehow I doubt it. I’m fine, you keep warm.’ He tore his eyes away from her and looked around. ‘Come on, let’s find some shelter and wait it out. I could kill for a scotch.’ He grabbed her hand and they ran through the streets.
Neither of them wanted to go home, though both were intent upon keeping their feelings hidden away. They had to go home, however, as there was a planned dinner at the house.
Immediately after walking through the doors they were separated, as Violet grabbed Audrey and dragged her into the living room. She looked back at Jack, who Antonio was now immersed in deep conversation with. He looked at her. Both felt their hearts sink.
Before she knew what was happening Audrey was being introduced to another man – Andrea – Antonio’s younger brother and, she noted, a very tall, handsome and charming man at that. He was the type of man who undressed a woman with his eyes with one look.
‘Well, I see you are just as beautiful, if not more so, then your sister. It is my pleasure.’ He swooped in and kissed her hand, then drew her in to kiss both her cheeks. Audrey blushed bright red.
The wedding was tomorrow, so the mood at the table was festive. Quite unexpectedly, Audrey drank a little too much over dinner and found herself flirting with Andrea. She did not notice the way Jack looked at her, although some unconscious part of her wanted him to be jealous.
As he was leaving, Andrea kissed her on the lips and voiced his delight at being able to see her again tomorrow. She laughed and retreated back inside as he swept away.
Back in the kitchen Antonio was cleaning up. Violet had gone to get ready for bed. ‘Where’s Jack?’ Audrey had been desperate to be alone with him again ever since they had gotten back.
Scrubbing the last of the dishes, Antonio wiped his hands. ‘He retired to his cottage.’
He kissed her on the cheek and bid her goodnight. When he had left Audrey stood alone in the kitchen with grave disappointment.
Audrey stood outside Jack’s door. The cottage was black. He must have gone to bed. Slowly she padded into her room and sat on the bed trying to get her head straight. So what if she had flirted a bit? Jack wasn’t interested in her anyway. He couldn’t be. Yet there was something … something there. She felt it in the deepest part of her being.
Jack tossed and turned in his bed trying in vain to get the image of Audrey and Andrea out of his mind …