What You Wish For – (Novel Excerpt)

The downstairs buzzer of Leonora’s Upper Westside brownstone rings twice. It is 2:15 in the morning. The buzzing comes in a familiar frantic succession solidifying the intruder’s identity. She is startled in her apartment’s galley kitchen because despite his customary frenzied buzzing, it is not his appointed day. Leo stands barefoot on her maplewood floors orchestrating her late-night Moroccan tea ritual. At the second tap of the buzzer, startled gives way to anger. How dare he just show up unannounced again for a quickie?

She was convinced after their last “talk” that Steven would respect the boundaries she had set forth for their affair —the most important of those being that he would never show up unannounced—otherwise how was Leo expected to keep her other guys a secret and maintain full control of the situation?

The reflection off her frosted cabinet doors offers a gentle reminder of a messy head of chestnut curls that flirt just above her shoulders. She squints a pair of dark brown eyes hoping the  foggy likeness would adjust and paws at her frizzy strands. Leo stops herself when she decides that if Steven insists on barging into her nights he should get a less polished and certainly less agreeable Leo at the door.

She is aware, despite having just turned 30, that the dark circles around her eyes have stolen a certain radiance her face once had—an occupational hazard she has accepted after years of working endless round-the-clock sessions to meet editorial deadlines. Nothing the proper amount of foundation and the right Dior eyeshadow palette and a hint of lipgloss can’t restore.

Without changing into the expected black sheer Claudette number Steven gave her last Christmas, she stomps her way to the doorbell panel and smashes the talk button, “It’s two in the morning! We talked about this!” She releases an angry pointer finger demanding an explanation.

“Please buzz me up. We have to talk.”

“Talk? This ‘talk’ of yours couldn’t wait until daylight? I have work tomorrow. What if I was asleep?”

“Leo, c’monnnn.” His head cocked slightly to the right as he pleads on a dark stoop into the stainless steel panel adjacent the sturdy double doors of hLeo’s white-washed brownstone, “You’re probably up there making your tea. Just buzz me up, I have a surprise. I have news!”

Leonora loves the way he lingers on the Lee in Leo giving her nickname a playful ring. It conjures moments of midday lovemaking under the warm sun rays that routinely crash through her skylight—one of the many perks of leasing the top unit.  And so anger or disappoint melts away as it often does with all her lovers. Curiosity now ruled as the dominant emotion because seldom, which is to say never, had Steven ever added news or anything newsworthy to their ten-month affair.

She can’t complain though. He has turned out to be the perfect romantic cliche. The kind she so desperately wanted after all the failed attempts at real relationships at university. He is a great lover. He is attentive during important holidays and events but surprises and spontaneity are not his forte.

“News or not, it’s still two in the morning.” She presses the unlock button for downstairs access.

The locking mechanism of the wooden doors signal his access. He hurries to the third floor skipping two steps at a time with the aid of the unyielding Victorian banister. Quite sprightly for a man of thirty-eight. At the top, Leonora’s curvy silhouette waits in the doorway. The outline of a left hand on her hip and the other holding her mint tea are made possible by the moonlight cutting through the skylight.

She walks away before Steven hops the last stretch of the staircase to the landing. With the door left wide open he is free to go in and make himself comfortable but he knows he has a lot of explaining to do before comfort can play any part in it.

“You’re not going to believe—” He was beyond the threshold now. His sentence cut short.

“Close the door Steven and lower your voice. My neighbors don’t need to be subjected to your visit at this time of night.” Her whisper is slow and deliberate while balancing a deep silver tray from the kitchen to a coffee table she has carefully nestled between two large leather sectionals.

Leo’s gray taffeta pajamas rustles through the silence with every careful step. She sets the tray down and gets Steven to sit down too.

“Okay, so first I need to tell you that—” Unfortunately, Steven doesn’t realize his news will have to wait until after tea.

“Steven?” She opens a tense palm and fans across the tea presentation, “Are you kidding me right now? Do I go to your office and interrupt your client meetings? Do I stop you at the airport when you’re rushing off to close deals in L.A? Better yet, do I steal your precious Sundays away knowing that is sacred time with your kids?” He had already broken his promise to Leo of never showing up unannounced. But he feared disturbing the formalities of teatime with his hasty speech will destroy any chance he might have of sharing the happy news.

“I’m sorry Leo, I’m just so excited. Besides it’s just tea for two not some corporate board meeting.” Steven finally sinks back into the black leather and crosses his legs—the appropriate body language from a man who is willing to be patient using all the wrong words.

“Just tea?” She pauses to filter all the expletives out of her next sentence, “If you must know, it was actually tea for one. I never plan tea for two.”

“But what about the time you—”

Leo knew he would bring up that Wednesday night long ago when she exposed herself and allowed him to stay the night including him in her nightly process, “It’s not a standing invitation, Steven.”

All the  required accouterments for serving a traditional Moroccan tea are before them; the silver berrad or Moroccan teapot still boiling from the stovetop, the small silver dish with brown sugar, extra mints leaves piled at one corner of the tray, two Moroccan tea glasses, one crimson, the other royal blue, both trimmed with patterns of gold leaves and finally the ornate little spoon that brings it all together.

Leonora places four mint leaves in the crimson glass for Steven followed by three hefty spoonfuls of the corse brown sugar. She grinds the bottom of the glass in three quick twists of the wrist with the spoon—this unconventional step forces the mint leaves to release a premature freshness that fuses with the sugar for a fuller body. Steven always enjoyed the ceremonial way in which she completes every gesture, like a ballet dancer that takes each movement to absolute perfection or the violinist strumming the chords for its deepest notes. Leonora contrary to her Italian heritage was a hopeless tea connoisseur—falling in love with this practice years ago in college. Her cousins taunt that she loves the ritual more than the tea itself.

She carefully repeats the grinding steps in the blue glass and is ready to pour. Leo knows from her apprenticeship that junior year at Columbia that the art of a great Moroccan tea is all in the high pour. The secret of its success is undoubtedly in the froth. She remembers practicing at all hours of the night back in her dorm room where she perfected her aim—a skill her literature professor taught her that same year during their long Winter break together. “The higher the pour the more seductive the froth” he would say. She has always had a thing for older men, especially ones possessing exotic knowledge and experience of the world.

These are important qualities Steven lacks. Leo knew this day one when they met almost a year ago at the 96th Street Farmer’s Market off of Riverside Park. Before she came to his rescue, Steven had managed to pick a full bag of green mangoes that would have made him terribly ill had Leo not stopped him. He would later explain he was just grabbing a few random mangoes to mix into his normal salsa for a little added sweetness—his secretary had recommended it and promised it would be a hit with “the boys” on game night.

Steven is the type of man you teach, not one who teaches. Leo would often ask herself, Why bother? But at the end of the day she found it difficult to resist his soft salt and pepper hair, the deep lines of his face in all the right angles that enhanced his handsome score by a factor of 10 and his high-school-quarterback charm—classic Soccer Dad.

“What’s this news that couldn’t wait?” Leo sets the berrad down with a clank and forgoes the whole tea business.

“I thought you wanted to finish—”

“Never mind the tea. Spill it.” She interrupted unaware of the great pun.

“Are you sure you don’t want to—”

“Either you tell me now so I can put this day behind me and go to sleep or you don’t tell me and I got to bed anyway, with or without your bit of news.” She takes the tray back to the kitchen sink and stands at the edge of the breakfast counter taping her fingernails on the stainless steel.

Steven had never experienced Leo in this capacity before. The tender smile is gone. The welcoming tone disappeared. Her temper and mood had alluded him for almost a year. He deduced her day must have been horrible to render such nasty and rude behavior from someone so loving. “Did something happen at work today?” He is determined to inquire and gets closer.

“Surely you didn’t come all this way to ask me about work?” She sidesteps him on her way back to the coach near the window.

“I just can’t understand the attitude. Why do you seem so angry? Is it me?”

“Steven, seriously just..?” She turns away and stares at a street light through the branches of an old willow oak below while her tea grows cold and bitter. She can’t figure out how to tell him she wants him gone. That she wants her night back. Her life back. That she has changed her mind. That she doesn’t want him after all. That every Wednesday for the past ten months (with the exception of the first two) have felt like an alien invasion.

“Leonora, I came to tell you I’ve left my wife! I am here to move in with you just like you wanted. My bags are in my car a block and a half away. I rushed over because that’s not news you sit on. I thought you’d be happy but you seem angry. What’s going on?”

“I seem? Seem? Huh? Seem?”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You keep saying I seem angry. And that’s funny because you’ve never seem me angry. You’ve never seem me a lot of things. I just can’t believe you left your family. You don’t even know me.”

“Not my family. My wife. And of course I know you, why are you saying that?”

“You said that moving in together is what I wanted. Steven, think very carefully…when did you ever in the last ten months hear me say anything about leaving your wife or living together? When?”

“I’ve been planning to leave my wife since our second date. I love you.”

“Love? You don’t know me. And you never talked about leaving your wife before today. Why am I just hearing about this now? I never asked you to leave her. You can’t just decide to move into someone’s place overnight. These things require planning, discussion, negotiations, time to sink in. Besides, look around, there is no space for you here.” She stands, lifts both hands wide open and twirls in semi-circles demonstrating the lack of room in her small apartment.

“I thought you loved me. But why don’t you just come out and say what you really mean.”

“I’m trying to explain that there is no space for—”

“You don’t really mean there’s no space for me. What you really mean is that there is no place for me here. That’s quite a different thing all together, isn’t it, Leonora?”

Leo knows Steven is right; people can always make space if they want to.

She looks once more around the room then out toward the willow oak again and anticipates his briefcase, his laptop, his razors and shaving cream, his socks, his nail clippers, his Head&Shoulders, his stained coffee mugs, his tie collection, his morning paper, his occasional cigar, his love of beer and hatred for wine, his endless copies of Business Weekly, his suits, his ugly flannel shirts, his snoring, his nail-bitting, his nose hairs, his cackling laughter, his laundry, his dirty dishes, his toothbrush, that damn smashed-to-shit useless toothbrush! Ewww! Not a single one of his items or quirks have a place in her life. On some level he must have known it too—it may be why he chose to leave his belonging in the trunk of his car.

When Leo returns from the window, she finds Steven has left without any last words. Leo can now add feeling-like-a-total-bitch to the night’s festivities.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“Doesn’t every mistress dream of the day he leaves his wife? What’s the matter with me? Isn’t he a great guy?”

“Leo, great in bed doesn’t make him a great guy, you know that.”

“Don’t be crass, Letty.”

“If I don’t throw a few below the belt, what kind of cousin would I be? And when did you get so sensitive anyway. This time last week you would’ve showered me with wit and profanity by now. What’s got you so soft around the edges? Is it this Steven thing or is there something else going on?” Leonora’s cousin Letty, the only married of the four Salducci girls is often called upon for wisdom.

“I’m just really confused here. Not about Steven. Steven’s gone. I wanted him gone. I’m confused about me. What the hell am I doing or more like not doing? What about relationships with Paul and Sam?”

“Why do you refuse to assign things their appropriate labels. These are not two relationships, they are two idiots. C’mon, say it with me…i-d-i-o-t-s.”

“So you found Mister Right. You’re one of the lucky few that—”

“I hate it when you guys call me lucky.I’ve told you, luck had nothing to do with my marriage. I simply refused to get distracted by muscles, a pretty face or a good lay.”

“Do tell, oh Great Wise One—who guards the truth in the Realm of It’s-All-Quite-Simple. What is the secret to finding my soulmate?”

“All right, all right, that’s enough. Have you been drinking, Leo?”

“There’s that condescending motherly tone I love so much. No, Mommy Dearest, I haven’t even had my tea today. How about we just catch up on Saturday as usual. Remind the girls it’s my turn to cook.”

“Leo, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“Letty, I’m not mad nor am I drunk. Really. A bit cranky that I didn’t get my late-night tea. Quite bummed that things ended the way they did with Steven. Losing another pawn in The Great Dating Game has taken it’s toll tonight. I know you love me. You mean well even when your advice is pure shit. Just, promise me you’ll call the girls about Saturday at my place and let me go to bed so I can try crying into my pillow like every normal hormonal, heart-broken woman should.”

“I promise. Goodnight, Babe.”

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