Bella emerged from the late twilight, into the hotel lobby, like a sufficiently recovered she-wolf entering an open dell from a dim forest of lost time. Although it could not be observed that she was still in the process of healing, one thing was certain: she was not looking for prey. She merely wanted to survive the rendezvous.
Though weary, she was glad to be back in a warm February climate. Dressed in jeans, a herringbone blazer and a dark blue coat, she was among a few dozen entering and exiting through the rotating doors. With rolling luggage in tow, she appeared as most any other traveler at the Westin Los Angeles Airport hotel.
But she didn’t go to the check-in desk.
Instead, she headed directly to the lounge near the bar and set up her laptop on the counter-island replete with ample power outlets. At the moment she shared the stools and table with only one other visitor, who diligently attended his own laptop and paid her no mind.
The cavernous lobby reverberated with the continuous, low murmur of conversations, punctuated by occasional laughter. Different shades of tawny marble graced the floor and pillars, which were offset by large ceiling squares of recessed lighting. The contemporary space featured floor-to-ceiling windows displaying the cars and shuttle buses circling outside around a large fountain, enveloped in the glow of white spotlights.
Although she was spending a few nights in LA, she would not be staying here. Bella simply wanted to leave a digital trail that placed her in this location at this time via security cameras, Wi-Fi connectivity and a bar tab with her name on the payment card.
The reason: Her ex.
He had a temper.
He also had drinking issues.
This was their first meeting in two years. And the last one did not end well. She gently massaged a tiny scar near her left eye. In retrospect, she wished they had been in a public setting back then. It might have ended less dramatically.
But now she was better prepared. And resolved. She would not be a victim again.
She sent a text, then an email and ordered cranberry juice. It was an hour before the meeting and he was likely going to be late; such was his routine during their three-year marriage.
It could be challenging to contemplate happier times before all the drama. But such did exist. Bike rides, hiking and weekend getaways. There were laughs and memorable dinners.
The change was not sudden. It was a gradual, increasing frequency of craziness that, in retrospect, painted such an obvious picture of cruelty, that the insanity might be perversely imputed to herself for having so long endured it. What made it all the worse was that he could be so charming when simply himself. But, as she learned over and over, telling him to knock off his evil twin was as fruitless as advising any adult to grow a few inches taller.
Perhaps there was one saving grace to the abuse: after finally breaking away she became determined about self-protection. Between personal defense classes, regular strength training, and her tactical pen (which she knew how to use), she was better prepared for anything. Yet, fully aware that it was better to avoid physical confrontation. Nor was she overly optimistic that her self-defense pen was a surefire solution to hostility. However, it might have been helpful in diminishing Greg’s alcohol-fueled, rage-attacks. On the other hand, with their respective size difference, it might have made them worse. Regardless, she was not going to be a passive punching bag and would respond in kind, if threatened.
Greg was a strapping guy. If you didn’t know him you might be intimidated by his heft. But he was as personally affable as physically imposing. In the past, she always felt safe and comfortable when out on the town.
But he started drinking more. And became readily angered. Regularly.
The first memorable sign of things going awry was six months after they were married. They were in slow traffic on Ventura Blvd., heading through Studio City. They got rear-ended at a stoplight. It was a minor fender-bender but it gave the car a good jolt. Greg jumped out the driver’s door yelling and swearing and then beating on the roof of the offending car as the unsettled driver, behind locked doors and windows, called the police while trying to calm two terrified kids in the back seat.
A while later, with police at hand, both he and the driver were chagrined. The driver expressed his regret for the accident and Greg apologized for overreacting. Greg also offered to pay for the dent he placed on the roof, although the driver said it would probably be covered by insurance. Regardless, it was apparent the driver just didn’t want to deal with Greg ever again.
That was the beginning of his police theatrics.
Some months later, she was delayed coming home as a result of a customer service emergency at work. Bella saved the day with quick thinking, good communication and mostly not freaking out. She was exhausted but feeling accomplished when she finally arrived. Greg was gone but there was a red wine stain on the beige living-room carpet. And then she encountered another surprise.
Actually, she heard it first.
The neighborhood birds and local sounds were louder than usual. And then she felt a breeze. Like a window was open. Bella walked from the front hallway, around the corner, into the living room and observed the glass in the window behind the TV was not just broken, it was missing. The window was closed but there was no glass in the bottom half.
Later she learned that Greg was pouring wine while heading toward the TV when he tripped and spilled it. He got mad and hurled the bottle through the window. By the time she got home, he had already cleaned up the broken glass inside and out. But a neighbor had called the police. While he was vacuuming, two officers stopped by with questions. They took notes and left him to complete the clean-up before he went for a walk to de-stress. And to buy more wine.
Sometime after was the first time he hit her.
Bella sent a new text, checked her email and turned around to order another cranberry juice. Abruptly, her world began to transform.
She was startled at the voice and turned back towards the table and lobby. A moment before there was no one around she knew. How did she not see him?
Bella was befuddled. “Oh, ah, hi Greg.” She was dismayed to be caught off guard. In her mind, she had intended to steel herself to his arrival so as not to be put off by any provocation. “You’re early.”
“You look good. Do you mind if I sit?”
He seemed at ease and oddly polite. Bella was on alert. Although just looking at him, his presence appeared benign. Nevertheless, he had a past. In their last year together he always seemed to be harboring some repressed anger that could explode anytime. And often did. “Sure, go ahead.”
Greg sat and looked around. “I like this place.” He nodded his approval. “I’ve driven by here so many times and never stopped in.” He looked directly at her and smiled, “It’s good to see you.”
Bella was still having trouble getting her words together. He seemed relaxed and had lost the extra weight he put on while they were together. He wore a dark sports jacket and grey polo shirt, similar to when they first met. Inside, she wanted to yell and cry and beat him with her laptop. She wanted him to attempt an assault so she could put her pen to work. Yet, her internal ire could find no reason to ignite. In fact, she was perplexed and fleetingly annoyed that she felt so unthreatened. “You look good, too.”
“So, first of all, I just want to say I’m sorry. Again.” He glanced around before continuing. “I put you through hell, and you never deserved it.” He pulled a white envelope out of his jacket and placed it on the table. “Repayment” was handwritten in blue ink. “I know I said I’d have half of it…”
The repressed wrath started to incite. She was consciously determined not to show it, but she nevertheless blurted, “Greg, I just flew across the country….”
“Hold on.” He calmly looked at her and seemed to understand what was about to unfold. “What I mean is…I brought it all.”
Bella was stunned.
He lowered his voice. “Yea, I took out a loan.” Greg glanced at the other guy on his laptop a few seats away and leaned closer. “I didn’t think the bank would give it to me.” He pushed the envelope closer to her. “It’s the least I could do.”
Bella couldn’t speak.
“I know you’re not gonna believe me, but this time I really have changed.” He spoke in a confiding tone. “Listen to this: I moved into a smaller place. I traded down to a less expensive car. I haven’t had anything to drink in almost two years. And I’ve been back to the gym three times a week.” He sat up straighter. “I’ve got a long way to go to put things right, but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Opposing emotions swirled within Bella.
“I get it. You’re not gonna believe any of this. If I were you, I wouldn’t either. But the money is a cashier’s check, just like you asked, so that’s real.” He nodded toward the envelope. “Well, aren’t you going to look?”
Bella hadn’t touched it. She was merely hoping to do a passable job managing her racing thoughts and conflicted emotions. Seconds ago she wanted to kill him and now she was recognizing that this meeting would change her life more than she had been anticipating.
The cranberry juice arrived and she drank it all. “I believe you.” At least she thought she did.
Part of her was saying this was another ploy. But another part wanted it to be true.
She couldn’t bring herself to touch the envelope. The disdain she had built up for him had become a foundation of her existence. She was concerned if she’d lose that foundation too suddenly she’d become unbalanced. On the other hand, it also seemed some palpable stress was releasing from her shoulders.
As if he could read her mind he opened the envelope and pulled the check out for her to view.
Tears began to swell. She reached down and gently pushed the check back into the envelope. “Thanks.” She arrived in California with low expectations, prepared to fight him for whatever she could get while expecting excuses and disappointment. And now she couldn’t rectify the dichotomy of feeling like she lost a bout she couldn’t enter, while simultaneously feeling unexpectedly assuaged. She wiped a tear around her left eye and excused herself. “I’ll be right back.”
Before she left, he added, “Look, I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, I’m so sorry.” Then he declared what he would never utter before. “I stopped gambling, too.” A flash of sadness crossed his face. “Someday, I hope to make things right.”
In the restroom, she let herself go and sobbed.
Confusion swam around a vortex of uncertainty that drained into relief. Who was this guy? Although he seemed like the person she met so many years before, he was markedly unlike who he had become when she left for good.
It took a while to put her face back together and regain her composure. As she headed out of the restroom she felt she could let her guard down a bit and walked towards the lobby with a feeling of ease suffusing her disquiet.
But Greg was gone.
A new cranberry juice awaited, with the envelope under the coaster.
The man on the laptop looked over at her. “The guy said he had to go and asked me to watch your stuff.”
Oh my god! Only Greg would leave my luggage, laptop and a big check in the care of a total stranger. “Thank you.” It was all she could say, as more feelings began to churn. The man returned to his laptop.
Greg’s departure left her wistful. Now she was ready to talk and she had questions. Lots and lots of questions.
Her fingers reopened the envelope: the check was still there. She shifted her attention back and forth across the lobby, hoping he might reappear.
Bella unsteadily retrieved the tactical pen from inside her jacket, placed it on the envelope and quietly began to cry. The mental anguish from the worst days in her life dissipated through a teary vision of the hotel lobby. And yet somehow she noticed the floral arrangement. A large and beautiful display she would have walked by shortly after arriving, but didn’t observe. Resplendent orange and yellow bird-of-paradise flowers glowed through her blurry vision.
by George Alger