Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 12: Ashes Out of Phoenix

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets

We're in the new millennium, year 2001 and counting. Destination: Phoenix, Valley of the Sun, though frequently landscaped in smog. The city is a  fitting epicenter for hypercapitalism. It is the terrain of conservatism, Barry Goldwater and Sandra Day O’Connor, maverick politician—now deceased, and Supreme Court Justice—still living. Unfettered growth is manifest in the suburban sprawl that devours the valley at the rate of an acre an hour. It is also the home of Alice Cooper, aging rock idol, and Geordie Hormel, heir of the Spam fortune. And, if we travel back in time enough, Geronimo, slayer of white settlers. Then there are the Phoenicians: the ordinary, the uninspired, the present‑day natives.

Still, let’s not forget the city’s namesake, the lovely Phoenix. She’s mythical, of course. An immensely beautiful winged creature, said to live five or six hundred years before immolating herself and then rising out of her ashes with all the freshness of youth to live yet another life. A perfect symbol for this city, for our age. Who wouldn’t want to believe in resurrection, rebirth, and life eternal? Really.

It’s Thursday, the twelfth of April, and I’m headed there on business to attend a meeting on e‑commerce. These days I’m an Internet content guru. My specialty: developing concepts for high‑tech enterprises, whether software (my preference) or silicon. It has been a rocky ride for me after Amtech. I bounced from one manufacturing debacle to another. Then I said, “Fuck the industrial sector. From now on it’s strictly New Age for me.”

These days I’m a Quantum Physics gal. I embrace the current cosmos—the overthrow of matter. Naturally, with this transformation comes the eclipse of the nation‑state and the triumph of global capitalism. That’s no big deal since I welcome a global economy where wealth is no longer measured in terms of physical resources. Our age represents the ascendancy of mind over materialism. Whatever the product, whatever the means, it’s all VIRTUAL. And who can deny the virtues of New Age weightlessness? Face it. What we have at the moment are enterprises begging for code. SOFTWARE: today’s Value Proposition.

But I’m no programmer. I’m strictly content. That really shouldn’t come as any great surprise since my experience came from developing strategies for an Internet startup in New York. Those were heady days, ones filled with lavish expense accounts, power lunches, and an abundance of pontificating bullshit. We were showered with VC and given our own IPO. My world was one defined by Burn Rate, the amount an Internet venture loses each month in excess of its revenues. Naturally, I embraced debt. I reveled in transitory technology. I defied the laws of gravity. I was always two steps ahead of the curve. Then came the merger. My firm, Contextual Analysis, was swallowed up by DelphianO, a software outfit in Sil Val. In the months that followed, I was unceremoniously relocated to San Mateo.

These days I’m a Venture Tripper. Like all the über‑geeks, my life has become a study in abstract minimalism. Bare bones, I’m lean to the max. Tom is left behind. Who needs him? I rent an eight‑hundred‑square foot apartment. The cost? A whopping twenty‑seven hundred monthly even though it has no view. Not that there’s much to see in The Valley. I lease my seven pieces of furniture (bed, dresser, two barstools, TV, VCR, and couch). I use plastic plates and utensils when paper won’t do. I travel light. Everything is disposable with one exception, my Porsche Boxster S. With a rouge diabolique finish and a 3.2‑liter engine, she’s guaranteed to be noticed. She accelerates through that quarter‑mile stretch in only thirteen seconds and tops out at 160 mph. I have a three‑year lease with an option‑to‑buy clause. Yeah, I know: buy‑outs are strictly for wusses. I’m not saying I’ll exercise it, but just in case. Allow me this foible.

Like the other VTs, I embrace the Gold Rush. Nothing else matters. Neither love that nourishes nor ties that bind. Food is fuel, nothing more. As for the rest—community, culture, discourse, politics, passion—fuggedaboudit! There’s only the lust for money, the green trail. What else is there? I squelch fears that I’m too old for this business, that anyone over forty in Sil Val is strictly road kill. Instead, I hire a personal trainer along with the best surgical team in The Valley. Others might take a few days off for R&R now and then to head for Napa, see the world, whatever. Not me. I frequent “spas,” a term euphemistically applied to my surgical visits, my precious leisure spent in postop. So far, these procedures are minimal: liposuction, strictly thighs; facial and neck chemical peel; tummy tuck; and laser tooth‑whitening. Call it a 45,000‑mile overhaul, nothing major. It’s all part of the game. I’m no quitter.

So I arrive in Phoenix, a city without water. It’s a metropolis dependent on irrigation. We’re talking desert here. Yet never underestimate the powers of mind. With a wave of the wand, Phoenicians transform their smog‑ridden atmosphere into a pristine sea by naming their airport Sky Harbor International. No matter, I take the cab into the city where, as I mentioned earlier, I plan to attend my conference on e‑commerce. But the drive in tells the tale of Phoenix. It’s not about urban living. It’s about sprawl, unchecked growth, automobiles, air‑conditioned malls, shopping, and treks to the ever‑receding desert, beyond the galloping expanse of tarmac formed by streets and highways.

I check into the Arizona Biltmore located near the northern perimeter of the city. It’s a resort built in 1929 that embodies the spirit of architectural modernism exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright. Even today, it has its share of celebrities who come to stay. But it’s the Hollywood stars of the thirties and forties—Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Spencer Tracy, and others—whose voices I hear as I walk the magnificent grounds landscaped with palm trees and tropical foliage surrounded by lush beds of grassy green. Their spirit is with me while I frequent the award‑winning spa, and later, as I sip my cosmopolitan, seated outdoors in a lawn chair looking northward toward Squaw Peak.

I suppose it comes as no surprise that, while swimming in one of the three outdoor pools that evening, I am joined by these princes and princesses of the silver screen. They congregate along the poolside; they stand beside the deck chairs; they dive effortlessly into the pool, swimming along the expanse of blue backlit by the light of the moon. I catch snatches of their conversation sprinkled with laughter. I watch the clinking of their crystal flute glasses bubbling over with Veuve Cliquot. How could I fail to notice the tuxedos and ball gowns strewn by the wayside like so many careless cocktail napkins? All around me I see men and women whose nakedness glistens in the starry night. Theirs is the burning intensity of paramours, the intoxicating delight of excess floating free. Oh, but for a moment to be one of them.

So it is at the Arizona Biltmore, this modern palace with its pools and verdant lawns edged in vermilion and ocher‑orange splendor, that I am to spend my free time. It’s a veritable oasis perched on the cusp of dreams, deserts apart from the frenzied hustle of the postmodern city.

But even here, even now, reality intervenes. For I’m here on business. And a reunion. In addition to the conference on e‑commerce, there’s a tradeshow for industrial consultants. The two meetings provide a pretext for a reunion of former Amtech managers, all of whom are scattered in hotels throughout greater Phoenix. Like many people who attend reunions, I’m ambivalent. Amtech is family. Or was, past tense, like a former in‑law. As with most familial gatherings, this meeting is likely to provide both comfort and indigestion.

While I’m ostensibly here on business, it’s my former colleagues at Amtech who occupy my attention. And yes, I prepared for the occasion. I dieted prior to coming. I did sit‑ups to flatten my abs, squats and lunges to harden my buns. I brought a rolling suitcase crammed full of clothing that will present me to my best advantage. Make no mistake. Reunions are about show, about presence, about victory. Let them see just how great things really are. Aces up. Strut a little; gloat a lot. And never, ever, let them see the dark side. To prepare for this, I had visited my aroma therapist, my acupuncturist, my spiritual advisor, my trainer. I consulted the congruence of signs, zodiac and otherwise. I’m ready.

The plan is to meet for drinks at six in the barroom lobby of the Hyatt on Friday evening. That morning, I take a cab into the city to attend some sessions on e‑commerce. I’m dressed in attire that will be serviceable from morning until night. I’m wearing a pair of tight black jeans, a creamy silk shirt, translucent, with a plunging neckline, accented by a gold and diamond flecked pin. Then there are the female “enhancifiers,” black, spiked heels, Prescriptives makeup, and the latest taupe lipstick, touched by just the barest hint of red. A pushup bra heightens the look.

That evening, I arrive at the bar a few minutes late. I pause in the entryway, anxious to get my bearings before becoming noticed. There’s Candy off to one side, chatting up Tiebold. Her laughter ripples through air, begging for notice. Hugh’s with Jeff and Doug. They’re all sitting on high‑backed chairs toward the other end of the bar. Hugh’s older, grayer, but still a sharpie, nonetheless. And then Skip. God, I didn’t know he’d be here. He crosses the lounge toward me, his gait heavy, his head balding, his face bloated. As every additional crease, every added pound becomes visible, my spirits sink. We embrace, but I find myself casting my eyes down, away from his gaze. Just looking at him makes me teary. I’ve got to regain my composure. So I smile, hoping it deflects my concern. I’m determined not to let Skip see.

“Sue, you look great!”

“Liar!” We laugh.

“No, really.”

“So do you.”

Skip smiles with a sad, tight, purse of his lips. “Well, we do the best we can, right?” He guides me back to his table and goes to fetch me a lite beer, ever the gentleman.

The years have been brutal to Skip. He has the look. The look of a man harnessed to a treadmill. Just going through the motions with no hope of a reprieve. But enough of that. So I squeeze his hand and press him to tell his story. What he says comes as no great surprise. He’s still in Jersey working as an industrial consultant. He does double‑duty working as a manufacturer’s rep on weekends. His kids are now in college. He’s still married to Helen, who works at the local hospital in the neonatal intensive care unit. They’re making ends meet, but barely.

And then he asks me about Tom. With anybody else, I’d be tempted to lie or, at the very least, sweeten my story, but not with Skip.

“I guess you didn’t hear. We’re divorced.”

“But you were so perfect for each other. I don’t understand.”

“It’s just one of those things.”

“Sue, I don’t believe that. I’ve seen you together. Tom was devoted to you.”

“Well, what can I say. I had this hot marketing job in New York developing Net content. I was just beginning to earn big bucks when the firm merged. I had to relocate to Silicon Valley.”

“Tom couldn’t move?”

“Tom liked things as they were. He begged me not to leave. But I was sick of holding on. Been there; done that. My time was clocking down. I felt that, if I was going to make something of my life, I had to be willing to take risks. But how would that happen if I always took whatever lousy job was available? What kind of future would that be? Who chucks her career away at the ripe‑old age of forty‑two? Not me, so I said, ‘Fuck it. For once, my job comes first. I’m following my opportunities.’ Well, I’m sure you can figure out the rest. We separated after I moved. A year later we divorced.”

“Any chance you’ll get back together again?” Ever the sentimentalist. You had to love the man.

“Oh, I don’t know, Skip. My experience has been that you never really recover those precious moments.” I brush away a tear. “Even if you spend a lifetime trying. Tom’s out of the picture now. He’s been married for over three years to a woman named Holly. She’s an engineer. If only she were a lawyer or an executive, that might be different. You know, someone with anger, greed, and turbo‑drive. One of those kind of people who comes from one of those professions where people are dynamically unstable.”

“Like sales?” We both laugh.

“Yeah, like sales. Then I’d at least have a chance. Engineers can’t stand turmoil. Don’t expect them to have affairs; don’t worry about divorce, and don’t think they’ll leave you. They generally don’t. They just try to fix things. But you can’t fuck things up and expect them to tolerate the chaos that follows. They won’t. Take my word for it.

“Anyway, Tom’s no exception to the rule. And with two engineers married to one another, my prospects of getting back together with him are lousy. But hell, there’s always an upside. I like my work. I’m making good money. I’m even seeing someone, off and on.”

“Off and on? What is he, a toaster oven?”

“Funny, funny. A surgeon. Our lives are busy; we get together when we can. It works for now.”

I see Skip’s look of concern, so I switch the subject.

“Have you spoken to the rest of the gang?”

“Some. Candy’s with that rag in Hollywood, Bizz magazine? Come to think of it, she’s also in marketing. Her job is to determine what sells both in print and on the Net.”

“That’s a fucking no‑brainer. Sex, shopping, celebrity, and anything else masquerading as sex.”

“Well, Sue, I see The Valley hasn’t tamed your style. Anyway, Candy’s involved in the demographic end. She’s into synergy. Establishing links between print, entertainment, and Net enterprises.”

“Sounds perfect for the Bitch. All show and no substance.”

“Sue, Sue, Sue, we’ve got a reunion to get through. Save those daggers for later.”

Skip fills me in on the rest of the gang. Hugh’s involved with an electronic Net enterprise. It’s an online billboard highway that attracts buyers, sellers, and interested parties to linked business interests, say electronic or software or computer hardware or aerospace. He works with clients to build usage measured both in terms of clicks on their Web pages and actual dollars spent. Tiebold’s still in Atlanta, still in manufacturing.

“So how’s he doing?”

“He’s surviving.”

“Just surviving?”

“Surviving’s pretty good in manufacturing these days.”

“What about Jeff and Doug?”

“Didn’t you hear? They were downsized in December of ‘94.”

“Guess I’ve been out of touch for a while. That’s too bad.”

“They’re still in the Midwest. I believe they’re independent contractors for some manufacturing outfits. I imagine they’re struggling. I think they’re here somewhere.”

“Hi, Sue!”

I turn around and look up.

“Oh, my God, Hugh!” I say as I rise to greet him.

“So,” Hugh says, “are the rumors true? Are you really single these days?”

“How’d you hear?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The grapevine, whatever. Hey, give me a hug.”

So we hug. I reach over, stretching to kiss him on the check. But his lips do a kind of block and tackle, intercepting mine. I feel the teasing flicker of his tongue. My mouth opens; I respond in kind. And why not? I’m available.

I hear wolf‑whistles from the bar. Even from Tiebold’s corner. Good. Let’s hope the Bitch sees.

Hugh takes his time. Even then, after our lips have parted, he grasps my hands at arm’s length.

“Let’s have a look see,” he says softly.

His is a careful eye, one used to appraising women. Sure, it’s flattering, but I’m no sex kitten. My eyes falter under his gaze, my fingers strain to be free.

But, once again, he draws me toward him, whispering, “Looking great, Sue.”

I blush and move away.

By then, the gang has gathered around us. Even the Bitch. It’s hugs all around. Everyone’s tone is jocular, light, consciously upbeat. It’s great to be among friends, minus one.

Another round of drinks, and we’re ready to party. The consensus is that we should go gambling at Harrah’s casino on the Ak‑Chin reservation. Despite my objection, the majority rules. We pile into two cars, Hugh’s and Roy’s, and head south on I‑10 until we pick up Highway 347, continuing our southward trek. As we approach the Ak‑C, we see a desert mirage ablaze in lights.

The casino’s glitzy, in an ersatz kind of way. The bubbling fountain near its entrance entices. It lures you toward a cluster of five small hubs. Each has a percolating glass dome that spouts light like a fountainhead. They combine to form a single building, a temple for the godless. One where money leeches out of pockets, out of wallets, out of purses, out of hand. An establishment financed by corporate thugs and fronted by Indians. Determined not to lose one red cent, I enter the Ak‑C.


Once inside, I discover this casino disappoints. It’s smaller and drabber than others I’ve frequented in Nevada, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Nevertheless, even the Ak‑C succeeds in ensuring the meltdown of one’s central nervous system. The clanging of slots, the flashing of lights, the whirling of sound erodes all rational thought. There’s no opportunity to converse, no desire to think. Everyone becomes a zombie. I suppose that’s a relief to many who come seeking an escape from their pain and emptiness. All around me money flows from green to chips and then to nothing. Want to recoup your loses? Look around; I’m sure you’ll find the ATM. Run dry again? There’s always the possibility of using your savings, your car, and your house as collateral. Life seems so ephemeral. Go with the flow. Be a part of it.

Still, still, still. Comparatively speaking, Ak‑C is small‑time hustling compared with some of the high‑stakes casinos. Here, there are mostly automated machines: machines for poker, machines for blackjack, machines for slots. Nevertheless, off to the side, I spot the Keno area, the Bingo section, and then there’s the poker room staffed with dealers and crammed full of players.

By now everyone has dispersed. We’ve agreed to reconvene at midnight at the Coyote Crossing Snack Bar. So what am I to do but head for the vortex of action, the poker room.

I spot Hugh and Roy playing poker at a table to my left. And the Bitch. Where the fuck did she learn to play? I’d love to squeeze her out. But what the hell do I know about poker? So I do what I can. I walk over and try wedging myself in between the men and the Bitch. Close as I dare, anyway, so that the dealer doesn’t toss me out. By the looks of things they’re not doing so well. I look on while cards are dealt and chips of red ($1), yellow ($2), orange ($5), and green ($25) are placed. Not a word is spoken. Just a deal of the cards, a placement of the chips, then more cards, more chips, and sometimes still more cards and chips. I watch as the chips slide away. Sure, there are wins. But mostly, I see losses.

After awhile, I step away, fearful that I’m a liability to Hugh and Roy. I wander through the poker room until I see Jeff and Doug at a table. They’re only betting red and yellow chips. Just as well by the looks of things.

And then I walk some more. Along the way, I pick up some chips of my own. Just a few, I say. To pass the time. I decide to try some automated blackjack. Each deal requires a $1 minimum with up to $8 at risk with each deal of the cards. That seems safe enough. Naturally, my luck is with me at first. And then the losses begin. Down, down, like Alice I tumble. Down the Wonderland tunnel I fall, dropping chips all the way. Who cares. It’s only money. And so it goes. Chips spill away like droplets of water. Until, that is, it becomes a torrent, $499. That damn machine just rolled me for nearly five bills. Five fucking bills!

Disgusted, I pace the floor. Eventually, I run into Skip. He’s alone in a corner working the slots. Chucking quarters like there’s no tomorrow. That’s probably because he doesn’t have hundreds to toss. There he is pushing buttons, bone‑dry with the look of LOOzer stamped all over him.

“Take a break, Skip.”

“What?” He says gruffly.

“Skip, a break, some air—you need it.”

“What do you know about needs?”

It hurts; it really does. “Look Skip, I’m just trying to help. Forget it,” I say walking away.

He looks up. His voice softens. “Wait, Sue. Wait for me.”

We exit out the front door, walking toward the fountain. Skip lights up a cigarette.

“I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I didn’t. At least not the last time I saw you.”

We chat for a while, and then he asks me more about Tom. Tom, whom I’m trying hard to erase. I promised myself I wouldn’t go there. But I see his cig; I hear his cough; I look into his tired eyes. What the hell, misery loves company. Why should Skip feel left out? So I tell him.

I tell him about the one time Tom flew out to see me. How he took it all in, my apartment, my plastic. How he sat on my leased furniture. How we tried and failed to love again. About that trip, that time he told me he was going to marry her. How he put his hands in mine. How he pleaded, “Come home; come home, Sue. We can fix this.” How I didn’t.

“You fool, you fool,” Skip whispers.

And I tell him about my dinner in New York at the Four Seasons, not so long ago. I was there with a client. The customer was the greasy kind, a fatto. Mr. Sleaze put the moves on me. He wanted in on our content with me as a kind of bonus.

“No problem,” I told myself, “I can handle him.”

Even with his hand on my thigh. What the hell, I’ve been through worse. So I slid my chair away, just enough, and glanced around.

That was when I saw Tom. And Holly. There they were, dining, holding hands across the table. A quiet evening, an intimate evening. Like the ones Tom and I once shared. After the appetizers, the entrees, in the interval between coffee and desert, I noticed Tom was alone. I excused myself from fucking moneybags and walked over to Tom’s table.

“Hi,” I said, sitting on her chair.

“Sue,” he replied, “you look great.”

Of course, I did. With my face‑lift, my tummy‑tuck, my liposuction, and my seven‑hundred‑dollar black, slinky dress, of course I did.

His eyes lit up; his tone was warm. He charmed me once again. Then he broke my heart. “It’s our third anniversary,” he said. “Holly and I are celebrating tonight.”

I should have known. I should have guessed.

“A special night,” I said. “I mustn’t disturb,” I added.

And then I kissed him goodbye. But not just any kiss. It was a searching kiss, a wishing kiss, a wanting kiss. His lips responded, first surprise, then desire, followed by longing, then nothing. Shutdown. Married man.

“It’s done; it’s over; we’re through,” he said.

Yeah, I was the one dealt the heartbreak. He was the lucky one, the one with a sequel. So I returned to moneybags; I closed the deal. I slept alone that night.

And then I bring Skip up‑to‑date. I tell him about my current, my surgeon. A guy who’s attractive and charming. Who’s probably married (I don’t ask). Who sees me now and again, usually at his convenience, generally out of town, our liaisons planned well in advance, always at his expense. Whose sexual style is methodical, safe, and disease‑free. I make no apologies. Everyone is entitled to a love life—a sex life, anyway.

But just in case my personal life seems a downer, I save the best for last. I tell Skip about my financial goals. How I intend to set up my own business, become a Contractor Girl. I talk about my five‑year projections to net four mil. I mention the architectural blueprints prepared for my dream house. Digs that’ll cost me six mil, easy. If Skip seems uncomfortable with my plans, maybe it's the fact that these days my wants all come in seven figures, instead of the emotional tug of heartstrings. Passion, where the fuck does that get you?

“I’m going to make it; you’ll see.”

“Sure you will,” he says.

Is that reassurance or disbelief? “You don’t believe me,” I say sharply.

“Will it be worth it?”

“What do you mean? Of course it will be worth it. It’s what I’ve prepared for all my life. I’ve worked; I’ve sacrificed; I’ve fought in the trenches. Of course, it’ll be worth it. Don’t be stupid.”

If I’m curt, well, that’s understandable. This is my life we’re talking about. Of course, it’ll be worth it. Of course.

Skip doesn’t press further. “It’s nearly midnight,” he says. “Let’s head inside to join the others.”

So we gather around a table at the Coyote. As a group we tally up the losses. And laugh. Who cares? There’s always tomorrow. That’s the great thing about sales, about life; there’s always tomorrow.

“Hey, where’s Chip?” asks Jeff. “Didn’t he come out west for the tradeshow?”

“Didn’t you hear?” says Roy.

“No, what?”

“He’s dead.”

“What?” Jeff and Doug say in unison.

“Yeah,” Roy answers, “I thought y’all knew. Chip died a year ago last January. You mean to say that it has taken y’all till now to notice his absence? Man, you’re vicious.”

“Give us a break, Roy,” Skip replies. “Some of us thought Chip would be coming in tomorrow.”

“Well, he’s here now.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” snarls Hugh. “First you say he’s dead; then you say he’s here. Cut the crap.”

So Roy tells us how Chip died at the hands of a drunk driver, whose vehicle hit Chip’s 1997 Hyundai head‑on at the intersection of Fourth and Main. How Chip’s wife called Roy when she learned that some former Amtech managers were planning to meet in Phoenix.

“Take him with you,” she pleaded. “He has been sitting on my mantle for more than a year now. I can’t bear to look at him anymore. Please. Amtech was family to Chip. He never, really, got over the shutdown. I beg you, Roy. Scatter him out there. He’ll like that; at least, he’ll be warm. Do that for him.”

“So I’ve been carrying around a plastic container filled with Chip.”

“Where is it?” asks Doug.

“In the rental car.”

“SHIT!” We say our voices blending as one.

“Are you telling me,” shouts Doug, “that I rode from Phoenix to this bloody casino with a dead guy? Jesus, Roy.”

“Well, think what I’ve been going through,” replies Roy, “picking him up, taking him though the airport, driving him around in my rental car. Anyway, all that’s left of Chip is ash. Think of it as particle residue deposited by one of your manufacturing plants, Doug. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of that when you’re making your calls.”

“We’re not talking soot, for God’s sake. We’re talking Chip, a dead Chip, to be precise.”

“All right, already. The thing is, what are we going to do with him?”

“We???” We are a chorus of voices united in protest.

“Yes, we. He’s one of us. You’re not sticking me with the dirty deed. We’re a team. We’re going to bury Chip together.”

Were a team, Roy. Past tense. Gone. Finito. We don’t have to do anything,” says Jeff.

“Ah, let’s hear him out. Just what did you have in mind, Roy?” asks Doug.

“Well, that’s where I could use some help.”

Imagine the responses. Toast sprinkled with Chip. Cappuccino and Chip. Chip over easy. Nouveau cuisine drizzled with Chip. Or the sites selected to scatter his remains. Right here at the Ak‑C. What about Fort McDowell’s casino? We’re probably headed there tomorrow. How about the Hard Rock Café? Then there’s Alice Cooper’s place.

“You know, the Biltmore Fashion Park would be perfect,” says Candy. “Honestly, the guy loved to shop.”

Yeah, we laugh. We laugh our hearts out.

“Screw that,” says Roy. “I’m his guardian, no‑fucking way.”

“What about the desert?” I ask.

“What about it?” says Roy.

“Well, it’s spring. It’s supposed to be beautiful this time of year. We’re in Phoenix, after all. Maybe Chip will rise out of his own ashes? It’s just a thought.”

My idea wins out. It’s decided. We’ll scatter Chip’s remains in the Sonoran Desert. Among the cacti: the saguaro; the barrel; the cholla, the last of which, legend has it, jumps out at you. Among the ocotillo, it’s thorny arms extending like the tentacles of an octopus, searching for water. Near the agave, the century plant that lives for nearly seventy‑five years only to bloom once and die. Against the backdrop of Phoenix. It’s agreed to meet Sunday morning at half‑past eight. It’s not that we’re early risers; it’s just that we’ve got flights to catch that afternoon. It’s decided then. Enough of Chip. After all, there’s still another night of partying. Why be morose? We agree to meet tomorrow evening at six at Coopers’Town for dinner and drinks before heading to Fort McDowell. It’s late. We’re exhausted. With our pockets empty and our spirits sagging, we head back to the city.

I’m in Hugh’s car. He’s dropping everyone else off first. Candy’s car is parked near the convention center, so he’s heading over there. Skip will be next, since he’s staying nearby at Hotel San Carlos. Because I have the good fortune to be without a car, Hugh has generously offered to drive me back to the Biltmore, even though he’s got a room at the Hyatt.

Naturally, Candy’s unhappy about these arrangements. She’s staying at the Phoenician in Scottsdale just down the road from the Biltmore. I’m sure she would like Hugh to drop her off after me so she could make another play for him. There’s nothing subtle about Candy these days. Take the resort she’s staying at. It was built by none other than Charles Keating of the infamous savings and loan scandal of the late 1980’s. When his empire collapsed, the Phoenician was sold off to ITT Sheraton, and he was sent to federal prison, only to have his state and federal convictions later overturned. I tell you, bitches travel with dogs. Candy’s staying in the right place.

Fortunately, it’s not long before Hugh and I are sitting alone in his car. Just moments later, it seems, we’re idling in front of the Biltmore.

“Want to come in?” I ask.

“Love to. Mind if I bring along some refreshments? Trusty Jack?”

I look at his quart of whiskey, its seal newly broken. “Of course not.” We leave the car with the valet and walk inside.

We’re making our way through the lobby toward my hotel room. But it all seems just a bit too seedy: two aging sales reps, tired, drunk, lonely, pawing at one another. Surely there’s a better alternative?

“It’s a nice evening. Would you mind if we sit out by the pool?”

“Not at all,” Hugh replies.

If he’s disappointed, he doesn’t show it. So we walk outside across the grounds to the pool. It’s late. Miraculously, the gate’s unlocked, and we go in.

As we step inside, I’m relieved. There’s a gentle backdrop of light. If I turn my head a little, I can still see them, my Hollywood stars and starlets of yesteryear. In their frocks, or not. One or two couples voluptuously naked, intertwined in an embrace. Others glide effortlessly through the pools with only the lapping water to cloak them. All around me, I see beauty, glamour, and lust. Hugh and I have a tough act to follow.

At first, we’re sitting on concrete. Hugh’s legs are extended; mine are scrunched to my chest. We’re close, just touching; Jack’s nestled between us. Hugh’s talking. He tells me his second marriage is over. They’re separated. He remains in Texas because of the kids. He sees his daughters only on weekends. The divorce is sure to be messy. Hugh’s anger is explosive. It’s a rage that, if allowed to go unchecked, might reduce our deck to rubble.

Tom and I never had that. My loss is different. I have no children to complicate things. All I’m left with is that terrible well of loneliness that comes with separation. That desperate urge you feel when your body screams out for its mate, and you’re left with nothing. When all that remains is a poor substitute, one that dampens the panties. And those useless hours that deaden your heart first thing in the morning and, once again, in the evening before you numb yourself with booze, with television, with some stranger to share your night, with whatever works to trick your body to sleep. That’s my pain. Useless pain, pointless pain, where there might easily have been a lifetime of pleasure. Tom and I might still be together. If only he’d been willing to follow me as I pursued the money trail. We’d be together now. We’d have worked things out. We should have; we could have. Damn him! It’s too late, too goddamn late. Anyway, what’s the use? I can’t fix things. So I try to relax and listen to Hugh.

These days, Hugh has it pretty tough. The divorce hit him hard. He’s furious at her, funneling his anger into a desperate battle for custody of the children. He says he’s the better parent. That he’ll win even though courts usually favor mothers. He’s got a detective, the whole nine yards. And bundles of rage. Under the circumstances, there’s absolutely nothing I can do but offer a sympathetic ear. And so that’s what I do. Gradually, imperceptibly, at first, we move away from his pain. Hugh asks me about my marriage, my divorce.

Fortunately, Hugh understands loss. He doesn’t press me to lay open my wounds. After all, he’s been through two breakups. We’re mature adults. We can maneuver around the land mines.

And so we do. Hugh talks of his daughters, Sarah and Jess, of their beauty and charm. He bursts with fatherly pride. At least he has that.

I talk of goals. What else do I have? “Yes,” I say, “I may have lost a husband, but there’s an upside to all this.”

I tell Hugh about my plans for an architecturally designed house and my intention to start my own business. These aren’t whims; they’re no wish list. They’re viable, articles of faith, a prospectus of things to come. I no longer linger on the cusp of dreams; my goals are tangible; they’re just within my grasp.

Through it all, we drink the whiskey. Enough, too much, who can say? We’re very close now. My legs are fully extended. Our bodies touch from our hips nearly to our toes. Jack’s been pushed somewhere off to one side. Hugh leans toward me. He presses his lips to mine. This time, it’s not for show. His is a kiss of longing. My lips part; my mouth opens; we take our time. Kiss after kiss. His fingers follow the lines of my breasts, trailing down my shirt. He unbuttons my blouse, pulling it gently away. Kisses on my brassiere. Fingers that unclasp my bra, slip it aside. More kisses now on my nipples, which are poised with excitement. Fingers that glide downward, releasing my jeans. Fingers that find their way into my panties, touching me until I’m wet with passion. I want Hugh. I’d beg for this. For his fingers, his lips, his touch, hoping he will never stop.

But lovers share pleasure. Button by button my fingers open his shirt until it slides off his chest and away from his arms. His chest has hair, just enough. My fingers slide off his pecs, down across his abdomen. I unzip his jeans. No underwear. That’s nice. So it’s easy to slide both my hands into his pants. One set of fingers pull and tug at his pecker; the other gently grasps his balls. It doesn’t take long before his john swells. Before he groans with pleasure.

Maybe I kick off my heels. I’m sure it’s Hugh who pulls down my jeans. It’s he that tugs at my underwear. Our clothes form bedding, softening concrete. His tongue alights, flickers, swirls, exciting me. His fingers reach up to my nipples, taking their time. His hands grasp both my breasts before sliding down to my waist. I come and come and come. Gently, slowly, only when I’m ready, he pulls away. Such exquisite pleasure. Not since Tom has sex been so good. Was Tom better? Well, yes. But what would you expect? We were together all those years. Why wouldn’t it have been great? Still, this will do nicely.

And one good turn deserves another. I reach for Hugh. I touch him from chest to scrotum, administering to his needs. I give him my tongue, fingers, breasts, and pussy, whatever he wants. I message; I rub; I touch. He’s hard, ready.

But instead he whispers, “Swim, Sue; let’s swim.”

So we swim. We laugh. We join together, side by side, front to back, back to front. We drape; we push; we pull one another. We find ourselves at a shallow end of the pool. Hugh lifts me up onto the deck. I sit at its edge, my back is arched, my arms pressed behind me. He spreads my legs, which are draped over the side touched by blue. He spreads them wide. Again Hugh’s tongue enters my pussy. He takes me and takes me and takes me until I come. Afterward, he lifts me back into the water.

“Swim across the pool and back. I’ll be waiting.”

Now it’s Hugh’s turn to sit on the concrete edge of the pool. Now his legs are splayed. I swim the length of the pool, springing off the wall, heading his way. When I reach him, I grasp his thighs; I take his dick into my mouth; my fingers tug gently at his balls. He’s rock hard, ready to come. But he says, “Again, Sue.” And so I push away. I swim the length of the pool and back. I take him into my mouth, again. I feel him ready to come. And still he says, “Again.” So I do. This time, my third, I grasp his hips with both hands; I take his dick in mouth, no letting go, no release, not this time. He groans; he thrusts; I take his fluids. He shudders. Then lifts me poolside. We’re side by side, naked but for the moon and stars.

Yes, this will do nicely.

We retire to my room, my bed. We fall asleep. Later, he mounts me, slides it in. Protected, of course. We make love. Hugh leaves at twenty‑past‑ten that morning, a morning when I want nothing more than to feel his touch, his thrust, his hands all over me.

With what remains of the working hours, I go through the motions. I shower; I get dressed; I go into town; I attend my conference. But I hunger for Hugh—or Tom—any impassioned lover will do. Throughout the day, I’m in a state of heightened arousal. I’d forgotten this, the powers of lust. It’s been so long since I’ve experienced burning desire. And what can I say, except that I want more. Later, I head back to the Biltmore. I change. I have a drink. But mostly, I go to dinner that night with nothing other than a good fuck on my mind.

I’m a few minutes late arriving at Coopers’Town. I see my buddies gathered around a couple of small tables, sipping their drinks. All of them, apparently, except Hugh and Roy, who haven’t arrived yet. I nod their way and head to the bar to order my own drink. But this is no ordinary joint. This is a rock’n’roll sports bar like no other I have seen. Against the back wall is a panel of huge TV screens flashing images and spewing out sound. Then there’s the rock music that a live DJ cuts in. Dozens of TVs are scattered about. Who can hear; who can think; who can talk above all this? It’s appropriate, somehow. Noise for the New Age for people who have nothing to say. O.K., whatever, so what. Go with the flow; be there. So I order a drink, a Martini. I swallow the olive. Toothpick in hand, I’m swirling my toxin thinking, I should have ordered a double, a triple. Tonight’s just not going to be my kind of night. I’m sitting there on a barstool, minding my own business, about to join the others when Candy sits down next to me.

“How are you?” she shouts.

“Fine. And you?” I roar.

“Can’t complain,” she screams.

And so the Bitch screeches away at 100dB. About Bizz, her rag mag, about her talents as the latest and greatest demographer of celeb trends (do I care?). She’s Bizzzzzing round me ready to alight. I’m thinking, where’s that swatter when you really need it? Blabbing about her print and Net markets and the celestial orbit of LA (so you’re one of the top cunts at Bizz). I give a few “Un‑huhs” to demonstrate my real fucking empathy. Not satisfied, the Bitch continues circling, her stinger poised to strike.

“I understand you and Tom are divorced.”

“That’s right.”

“Sorry to hear that. You seemed well matched.”

“Coming from you, Candy, that’s almost a compliment.” What the hell is she after?

“Of course it is. Really, Sue, you’re so prickly sometimes. I understand you’re working for DelphianO in the Valley. Net content, right?”

“Right again.” Always the psycho Bitch.

“And fucking Hugh.” Ouch. There it is, her stinger goes in. I should have been expecting that.

“You’re a visionary, Candy.”

“It doesn’t take a visionary to deduce whose cock you were sucking last night."

“Given how much dick you’ve sampled over the years, I guess that makes you an expert at spotting trends.”

I get up and start walking away. She grabs my arm, pulling me toward her.

“Before you get all lovey‑dovey with Hugh, you should know he likes his women—and his booze. Don’t expect him to hang around. You’re not exactly his type. For starters, your tits are under‑inflated, and your ass is way overblown. Add to that you’re a brunette, and he’s partial to blondes. Then there’s your age. A little old, don’t you think? Hugh likes his coeds. I have you pegged as strictly rebound material. Nothing more than a one‑night stand. Not like Hugh and me. We fucked our brains out that last year at Amtech.”

“Your brains? You don’t say. That couldn’t have been too hard.”

“Have I missed something? Since when did you become a card‑carrying member of Mensa?”

“Candy, it’s you we’re talking about. You mean you sucked dick for an entire year, and still he walked? Doesn’t say much for your technique. Too fucking bad.”

I pull away from Candy, trying to make my getaway. But not before her nails dig in. Before they scrape my forearm, drawing blood.

FUCK! O.K., whatever, who cares. Go with the damn flow; be there.

I join the gang. Candy follows behind me, careful to sit just beyond my reach with Doug strategically positioned between us. There I sit pretending to listen as the Bitch titters away at anyone who will listen—titters with gales gusting toward 110dB. Really, someone ought to kill her before she strikes again. She’s done quite a number on me; that’s for sure. My head throbs terribly. Even the three Tylenol I swallow down dry provide no relief.

“So Skip, the story about Tal is . . .”

“Sue, there’s blood on your arm,” Skip says, the palm of his hand gently pressing my flesh.

“I must have brushed up against something nasty at the bar. It’s nothing,” I reply, as I dab my arm with a napkin.

“Anyway, Skip, the thing about Tal is,” continues Jeff, “that two years after the rest of us were canned, he was tossed out on his ass. Ain’t that a pisser. Guys like Tal always think they’re immune. They think their time will never come. That bastard thought if he screwed us royally he’d be a fucking shoo‑in for a promotion. Instead, what does he get? Just a couple months supervising Technopower, nothing else. In the end, he’s nothing more than a grunt like us and our reps.”

“Not exactly,” says Doug. “They kept him another two years. That accounts for another twenty‑four paychecks. I’d have been a whore for that. So what if he fired everyone. I’d have done that and a lot more. Two hundred extra Gs buys a lot of time and a shitload of stuff. You bet I’d have laid off some people. I’d have canned our entire division for that. And don’t think it would have kept me up nights, either. And I’m sure it didn’t bother Tal. And don’t forget, the guy left with a real pension. Not the crap they gave us. Sure, he got less than he wanted, but from where I sit his situation looks pretty damn good.”

“So where’s he now?” asks Skip as Roy and Hugh walk up.

“Hi, everyone.” says Roy.

“Hello,” says Hugh.

“Tal’s with some tiny outfit in Ohio,” continues Jeff. Synchronize, that’s what it’s called. Tal’s a paper VP. In truth, the guy’s nothing but a line manager. He supervises only fifteen people in a technical consulting firm. It’s a small startup. My guess is it won’t be competitive with the larger outfits. If he survives another five years, he’ll be lucky. Anyway, the reason he’s on easy street is because of his pension. I bet it accounts for more than a third of his yearly income.”

“At least he got that,” Doug says. “What did we get? Squat.”

And that pretty much covers the discussion of Tal—almost as if he never existed. In the scheme of things, he’s nothing compared to Chip. At least we think about Chip. At least we’re going to bury him. What’s Tal, but a bunch of 000000s? Zeros, bupkis, nada.

Our waitress escorts us to a quiet table outside. Later, we’re told, there will be a live band out here, but that’s later, thank God. We guzzle down spirits and feast on burgers. We laugh and joke during our chowdown. Miracle Whip, that’s our demeanor, sprinkled with hilarity. Now and again, I sneak a glance at Hugh. He’s oceans away. To my right is Skip, then Jeff, followed by Hugh. To my left there’s Doug, flanked by Candy, then Roy. I can’t speak for the others, but I’m putting on a great show. Acting as if my heart isn’t breaking. As if I’m not aching to touch Hugh, kiss him, fuck him. As if I haven’t a care in the world. As if it’s just any day. As if my passion isn’t oozing all over the table. Never let it show. Never let it show. Never let it show. Hell of a mantra.

And I can’t help noticing Candy’s live‑wire act. Free and easy, doing her damnedest to lure Hugh in. I get to sit and watch. Watch the Bitch. Watch the Bitch. Watch the Bitch. This is going to be one hell of a night. There she is leaning over, one arm slung across Roy’s chair like an estrogen‑charged talon grasping for Hugh. Anyone can see the top two buttons of her blouse are undone, revealing her lacy brassiere and displaying her cleavage. Cleavage and cunning, that’s some Bitch.

As if that’s not enough, she’s whispering to Hugh. Then a laugh or two and some more whispers. What a show. Honestly, the only thing that keeps me from causing a scene is that Hugh barely responds to her coquettish entreaties. Still, that doesn’t prevent Candy from pulling out all the stops.

All of which makes me wonder why the fuck didn’t I let her fall overboard that time she was sailing with Tom and me. What the hell was I thinking as I pulled her back in? And this is my reward? I get to sit by while she puts the moves on Hugh? Fuck her. Fuck him. Fuck them all.

We finish dinner and split the tab. Everyone’s decided to head over to Fort McDowell’s. But I’ve had it. I can’t keep up this act. So I say that I have a splitting headache (true), that I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night (that’s no lie), and that I’m in the hole for a whopping $499 (yessiree).

“That’s right, guys, I can’t afford to lose another couple of hundreds.”

And with that I blow some kisses to my comrades, promising to meet them in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency promptly at half‑past eight tomorrow.

I call a cab and head back to my hotel. I make my way to the bar. I order a double scotch, straight up. Hoping it will wash away thoughts about the Bitch and Hugh. Praying the drink will make me forget her prediction that I was nothing to him but a one‑night stand. I stumble to my room drenched in drink. Mercifully, sleep follows.

Brrriinng! Damn, my phone. I reach for it, knocking it to the floor.

“Shit.” I pick it up. I glance at the clock: 12:17 a.m. I’ve been out a couple of hours now.

“Sue? Did I wake you?” Even through the haze of sleep, puréed with alcohol, I recognize his voice.

“Hugh, I guess I’m a bit groggy. I must have been dozing.”

He laughs and says softly, “Well, I hope your shut‑eye hasn’t made you forget everything? Not what we had last night, anyway. I’m in the lobby. Toss some clothes on, Sue. Let’s go for a drive.”

“What?” My voice seems dreamy, even to me.

“Sue, some clothes—jeans, sweats, whatever. Something comfortable.” Hugh’s instructions are simple enough. Even for me, even now. And his voice, that goddamn voice. So throaty, so sexual, so gently commanding. Who am I to resist?

“I’ll be right down.”

He laughs, warm and inviting: “I’ll be waiting.”

This time I take precautions. I insert a diaphragm. I throw a couple of spermicidal gel caps, along with a few condoms, into a baggy, placing them inside the zippered pocket of my sweatshirt jacket. I throw on jogging pants. This time I’m wearing no underwear. I put a comb to my hair; I take a swig of mouthwash; I’m ready.

Hugh’s in the lobby, handsome as ever. He takes me in his arms. Gives me a kiss. He steps back a little. Flashes me a smile. His fingers glide quickly, discreetly, across my sweatshirt, over my breasts. He leads me out into the night air toward his waiting car. We get in. He’s at the wheel. Not saying much. Just that we’re headed for the dessert. That he missed me at the casino. That Candy was a pain in the ass. That he has a real treat in store for me. His right hand roams from the steering wheel across my body, first to my breasts, then downward. Even while driving his fingers perform their magic. I’m hot. He knows it. He presses my pocket.

“What’s inside?” he asks.

So I tell him about the diaphragm, about the spermicide. That we can skip the condoms. By now we’re out of the city, past Tempe, beyond Apache Junction, headed east on I‑60 into the foothills toward the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, according to Hugh. Wherever that is.

“Take your jacket off,” he says.

I do. He glances over.

“God, you look great.”

And from his perspective, why shouldn’t I? After all, I’m naked from the waist up. He grabs hold of first one breast, then the other. Tits poised and ready. He reaches down under my sweats to my pussy, making it wet.

“Put it in.”

I know what he means. I slide the capsule in. He tugs at my sweat pants. I take them off, buck‑naked and visible by the light of a nearly full moon. He gazes intently; he wants to fuck. It’s not long before we pull off the road onto a rocky dirt path. Hugh heads down the road a bit until we’re well out of sight, then he stops the car.

“Get out, Sue. Walk to the front of the car. Wait there for me.”

Not wanting to break the spell, I do as I’m told.

Hugh leaves the car, moving toward me. He lifts me onto the front sloping hood. He pushes me down so that my back lies flat against cold metal. My hips are planted at the edge of the hood, my legs spread wide, dangling off the front of the car. He tosses off his shirt, then fondles my breasts. My nipples respond. He unfastens his jeans, slides them off and mounts me, right there and then. Flesh pressed against flesh, my backside hard against steel. His dick is swollen and firm, his arms extending toward mine, his hands pushing my wrists at angles above my head as far as they can be stretched. He’s standing on the ground with his rod shoved deep inside. Leaning into me. Pushing, grunting, grinding. More. Again. Again. Then he groans. He comes. His is a passion with no soft edges. He takes it out.

Hugh steps away and walks over to the driver’s side of the car. He reaches in and grabs a buckskin throw, stained yellow, and some whiskey. He tells me to take the Indian blanket in the back seat, which I do after reaching for the plastic baggy crammed in my jacket pocket. Then we walk. Maybe we run. Perhaps the buckskin and blanket are wrapped around us. Certainly, the moon shines brightly. Well beyond sight of the car and off the rocky path we make our bed, buckskin on bottom, blanket nearby, just in case. As if it mattered.

This time Hugh inserts one of the gel caps. Then he tastes me, taking his time. First his tongue meets mine, lingering in wet sensations. Later, hands and tongue slide down my body. Our wants are lustier, stronger, greedier, tonight. We touch; we grab; we thrust. Now I’m on my knees, legs spread wide so that they’re positioned on either side of his head. My pussy is poised just over his mouth when I press on down. His tongue, even his face, is now fully meshed in my cunt. His hands grasp my hips and then my breasts. I cry loudly as though howling at the moon. Afterward, I slide off him and take his dick inside me. He’s hard; his thrusts are strong, his grunts impatient.

We do this and that a couple of times over the course of the night. Between snatches of sleep, I try not to think of coyotes or scorpions or black widows or rattlesnakes. Later, he has me scrunch down on my hands and knees. He enters me from behind, grabbing and pushing. I don’t care. His dick is big enough, inside deep enough, to excite us both. We fall asleep. At dawn’s first light, he takes out a full bottle of whiskey, whiskey we haven’t touched that evening. Flat on my back, legs and arms splayed wide, I’m now ninety proof—all of me from my neck to my toes, deep, deep into crevices, which prying fingers pull apart. Then his lips drink. They suck. They eat. His hands seize hold, inch by inch. Hugh takes his time. No hurry. No hurry at all. Whiskey never felt so good. Afterwards he takes one last fuck, thrusting hard, grunting hard. It’s a marathon night, an Olympic night. But now it’s over. We walk back to the car. We dress and head for Phoenix.

It’s funny what you think about, dream about, wish about. During the entire drive back, Hugh and I didn’t say much. Along the way, I kept visualizing the four‑day, Apache ritual, Nah’ih’es. It’s a coming of age ceremony for young girls entering puberty. I kept imagining the Gaan, those supernatural spirits, who live in caves near the tops of mountains. They’re said to dance at the Nah’ih’es. I kept seeing young girls clad in buckskin garments that are stained yellow, the color of sacred pollen. These costumes symbolize fertility. We were in the foothills. Wasn’t it possible that the Gaan spirits were dancing nearby? And what about Hugh’s yellow, buckskin throw. Wasn’t it stained yellow? The girls face east for these ceremonies. Didn’t we face east in the dawn’s early light?

I think of the Gaan and all the hopes embodied in those four days and nights. I think of the most important female deity of all, Changing Woman. I’m a woman. This is an age of change. I’m entering a different phase of my life. Why can’t there be a ritual of Changing Woman that will sustain me? Think, dream, wish, want. If only, if only. And so the rhythm goes. But unlike the beat of the drum, the tread of the tires on the road yields no answer.

And then, like that, we are back at the Biltmore. Hugh drops me off before returning to his hotel.

Minutes later, it seems, after showering, after dressing, after putting on a fresh face, I take a cab to the Hyatt. And then I’m back in the front seat of the car with Hugh. Only this time, Skip and Doug are in the rear. We follow Roy’s vehicle out of the city, tracing the path Hugh and I took just hours ago. Apparently, Hugh and Roy picked the site where we will sprinkle Chip’s remains. It’s not so terribly far from where Hugh and I made love. But far enough. Far enough so that it is out of our line of sight, but close enough, all the same. In that same patch of desert facing east. No one says very much as we scatter Chip’s ashes. With the wind gusting, his dust‑blown remnants swirl back around us. Particles of Chip cling to everyone. Naturally, I think of Bill, my Bill, who died from a burst appendix years ago. A man, a rep, long gone. The tears stream down my cheek. And now, of course, there’s Chip. I glance up, wipe the tears away. Maybe I see the Gaan spirits dancing nearby. I’d like to think I catch a glimpse of Changing Woman. Anyway, that’s what I’d like to think.

What I do know is that everyone in our party is tired, hung over, broke, or glum. We’re thinking of Chip; we’re thinking of ourselves. We’re hoping that, like the Phoenix, the best for us is surely yet to come.

Perhaps, we’re feeling our mortality, our middle age, our loss of opportunities. Perhaps we’re mourning our dashed dreams. Perhaps that accounts for our silence, our sagging spirits. In any case, we’re quiet on the drive back from the desert. At the Hyatt, we say our good‑byes. I hug Skip. We promise to keep in touch. Everyone’s exchanging addresses, making commitments they know they won’t keep. When the group breaks up, Hugh takes me back to the Biltmore. At least he does that. We embrace in the lobby. We kiss, our lips dry, singed with melancholy.

“I promised my daughters I would buy them presents. I’ve got to head out to one of those malls.”

“Really,” I say, “there’s no need for you to take me to the airport.”

Yes, I am the essence of the modern woman. Financially independent, single, sexually available, no holds barred. Determined to make no claims on this man. Trying not to think about the consequences of a night spent with only limited protection. The truth is, I barely know Hugh. Now I’m praying he—and now I—are free of AIDS and lesser afflictions. And please, oh please, don’t let me be pregnant! But mostly, I’m trying to hide my longing, my desire, once again, to have a partner that will share his life with me. Oh, for that blissful union of two.

Hugh presses my hand. Maybe, he reads my thoughts.

“Sue, I can’t promise you anything. My life is confusing right now. The divorce will be messy. I’ve got my girls to think of. I need to stay close to them right now.”

Hugh’s words are kind. They’re gentle. They’re deftly delivered with the consummate skill of a lover used to parting with ease. They get him off the hook. Damn him!

“I understand,” I say. “We’re both adults. We’ve made no plans for the future.”

I say this lightly with a smile. My tongue meets his playfully, offering an enticement of joys yet to come should he dare to follow me, chase me, pursue me.

But tongues lie. My body screams for a partner. It begs for a constant lover sleeping by my side, one, who like Tom, would be devoted and caring.

Instead, it seems I’m to forge my life alone. And so I manage to walk away from the lobby without turning back. I don’t drop to my knees. I give no pitiful cry. I go to my room. I pack my bags. I check out. I board my plane, exhibiting a composure that doesn’t exist. Looking closely, anyone could see tears in my eyes that entire trip home. Sure, I’m discreet. Yes, I mask my discomfort. I show no overt sign of a breakdown. I’m not sobbing in the aisles. Still, I yearn for Tom and everything that we once shared. My body aches for Hugh. And I try not to think of my doctor, my sexual partner of convenience, who’s nothing more.

I tell myself that money, in itself, is enough. That my riches lie just around the corner. That this pain I feel is only momentary, just a small hiccup on the path to gold and glory. Yes, the best is yet to come. I’m confident that I’m perched on the cusp of success.

These are the dreams, I tell myself, that I hold dear. Dreams that await me just around the corner. To wash away the pain. To ease the heartache. To fill my deep well of loneliness. Yes, these are the things I tell myself on that plane ride home.

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