Where the Heart Is

Where the Heart Is
by Michael B. Tager

Barry Saunders sat in his normal seat at the bar and drank watered-down diner coffee as he watched his new favorite waitress, Simone. He’d finished his regular Friday night meal of steak and potatoes (not as good as his mother used to make, but certainly a step up from his own cooking) and was waiting for eight o’clock so he could go home and watch one of those “lawyer shows,” as he called them. Barry knew they had specific names, but they all blended together.

There was the actor who used to be a movie star and now seemed to be slumming it. There was some tattooed and/or pierced person who used his or her brains in non-traditional ways to solve crimes. And there were many, many disproportionately attractive people who would never be cops or lawyers in real life. The shows were all the same and all kind of terrible, but that’s what Friday was for. In the meantime, he liked to stare at Simone.

She was young, just out of high school, and had soft brown curls and the cheerleader’s body he’d obsessed over when he was a youth himself. She wasn’t classically pretty, and he’d overheard some other customers making snide comments about her snub nose and teeth that badly needed braces. Whenever she passed him, however, Barry would try a feeble smile.

He knew what image he made: his hair was thin and brittle, his nose was long and his chin non-existent, and he was fighting a losing battle with middle age. Barry fostered no delusions that a young girl like Simone would have any interest in him. Maybe if he had money or was interesting and charming like his friend Dan.

“Just swing for the fences, Barry,” Dan would say. “Nothing’s easier than a college girl. Know your Psychology and Philosophy 101, watch some MTV, and you’re in.” He’d wink and Barry would stutter.

MTV? That was years ago. MTV was apparently out, but other things were in. As culture cycled in and out and Barry still wore polyester suits, Dan would regale him with stories that made him more and more uncomfortable as the years went by. But as he watched Simone from across the room, with her high, tight breasts and her little ass, he’d get a dirty, itchy feeling in his heart and his stomach and his groin and he wondered if he could do what Dan did.

As Simone glided closer, stopping to chat with other patrons and fill coffee cups, Barry’s breath quickened and he felt his heart start throbbing. She slipped behind the counter, and he closed his eyes and turned his head in anticipation. In the middle of a smile, his face froze in a kind of grimace.

“Need more coffee, hon?” Simone’s voice was deep and throaty. In the past two months since she’d started working (every Friday night, plus Saturday and Sunday mornings), Barry was continually surprised by that voice. It belonged to a movie star from the 1950s, glamorous and at home with her sexuality, not wearing it like a toy as kids these days did. With his eyes closed, he could imagine her as a woman grown and not feel like a dirty old man. “Mr. Saunders?” she asked, a hint of impatience in her voice.

“No. I’m fine,” Barry said as he opened his eyes. He tried to smile while he drank her image in, storing it in his mind. She had a heart-shaped face, with large brown eyes and freckles lightly dusted on her cheeks. “’Bout time for me to go home, I think. Falling asleep sitting here.” He tried to keep his voice even and hide the excitement he felt.

Simone nodded and slid him a bill before smiling and gliding away. He watched her go, still unable to smile, and picked up the check. He laughed at the message written. Nothing special, just a thanks and her name; nothing different from what a million other young waitresses would write, but for some reason it was more special.

“You’re welcome,” he said, staring at the heart dotted over the “i.” He left a 50% tip on his way out the door.

Home was a rented apartment above a pizza place a few blocks away. On most nights, Barry walked past art students, gay men, and urban professionals, all better dressed and healthier-looking than him. Sometimes there was mockery, which disturbed him. This night was cold and wet, and he was alone on the streets.

Outside of his building huddled three Arabic men smoking cigarettes—two of them owned the pizza place—who nodded as he went by. From time to time, a pizza found its way outside his door, usually a little burned or irregularly cut or with strange toppings. He never asked for them and never said no when one was offered; he just appreciated the kindness.

Barry nodded and muttered a hello as he entered the small, unnumbered door next to the pizza place.

“Where you been?” one of them asked. He used to feel bad for being unable to tell them apart, but they were of uniform height and weight and they echoed each other.

“It’s a gloomy night, my friend.” (Gloomy night, dark night) “You need a woman, like we have. Many children. They keep you warm, comforted. Especially on a night like tonight.” (Woman, children) “Come join us; let us introduce you to our sisters.” (Introductions are painless).

He’d normally chat, as they were some of the closest friends he had, but tonight was not the night. He waved off their laughter and escaped inside. There was a flyer stuck in the door handle and a small bundle of mail stuffed in the slot. He grabbed them all, smiled and waved again to the pizza men, unlocked the door, and went inside.

“Goodbye, my friend,” one of them called (Goodbye, goodbye).

The poorly lit, unventilated stairwell made him groan. There were 30 steps, nearly vertical, carpeted with a green shag. The apartment had come mostly furnished, for which Barry had been grateful. Maneuvering up those steps with his few boxes of possessions had been murderous; if he’d had a dresser, it would have been impossible. He couldn’t afford movers and had moved himself, of course. Luckily, the queen-size bed came with the place. He’d turned over the stained portion, bought new sheets, and never thought about it again.

His apartment, despite being only one room, was quite big. The floors were wood and there was even a large, non-working fireplace on one wall, filled with candle stubs left by the last resident. A motley assortment of furniture lined the red walls—a purple armoire, a green easy chair, a desk obviously stolen from an elementary school. One corner of the room had a sink, a stove, and a small refrigerator. Next to it were swinging doors that made Barry feel like he was in a Western every time he had to piss or take a shower in the stall-sized space. The three large windows that faced the street let in quite a bit of noise, so unless it was during the day, he kept them shuttered.

Barry dropped into the easy chair with a sigh and rubbed his eyes. He could still see Simone in his mind. He thought he’d killed that part of him two decades ago, after Rachel.

This is it? he’d thought after the third time they’d made love. This is what I’ve been obsessing about? It seemed … boring. Rachel, as uninspired as he was, called it quits after that. Since then, he hadn’t really thought about a woman, until Simone started working at the diner. There was something about her that set a fire underneath his skin. The world was brighter when he was near her. Just thinking about her hair and her eyes and her breasts …

Anything would be better than torturing himself, Barry decided. He looked around his spare apartment for something to take his mind off things. He turned off his TV after a moment. Even though moving had been the right decision, the best part of living with his parents had been cable, and he missed it.

He picked up the book next to his bed, where he’d dropped it a month before. After two pages, he stopped. He leafed through his mail—all bills. He shuddered, threw them to one side and looked at the flyer he’d picked up from his door. It was yellow and made of strange, heavy paper. The writing was archaic and fancy, a kind of lilting cursive that blended in with the coloring yet shifted and squirmed at the same time. It gave Barry a headache as he read it.

“Cyprus Swan Escorts. Let us guide you home.” There was a phone number above an indelible watermark in the right hand corner. Barry squinted to make out the mark and blushed when he realized what he was looking at: a man and a woman embracing. Or was it two women? Was it just one woman? She looked like she had curly hair and large eyes …

The phone started ringing before Barry had realized he was dialing. He thought about his meager bank account, the unpaid bills he’d tossed just moments earlier (he knew there was at least one or possibly two second notices), his upcoming rent, and the loan he’d borrowed from his mother. He looked at the cell phone in his hand and was about to turn it off when he heard a click.

“Hello?” said a female voice. She sounded like she had just woken up, like her hair was long and voluminous and her eyes shrouded secrets. Barry’s throat closed up and something inside him bent a little. “Hello?” the voice said again.

“Hi,” he said, his voice cracking. “This is—” His name stuck in his throat.

“Hello, Barry,” the voice said, laughing. “This is Cyprus Swan Escorts.” Her voice was a purr. “Aphril speaking.”

“Aphril?” he asked. “That’s pretty.”

“I know. It’s my name. Do you need a girl?”

“Y-yes. I mean, I don’t need a girl. But I want one. Yes.”

“What kind of girl?”

“What kinds do you have?” He closed his eyes and thought of Simone.

“Every kind, Barry. But I suspect you have a specific kind of girl you’re thinking of.”

“Maybe.” He paused and licked his lips. “Yes, I do.”

“I thought so, Barry. Young? But not too young—a woman grown.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Not tall, right?” She laughed again, crystal clinking against crystal.

“No. Short.”

“You like curly hair, don’t you Barry? And freckles?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“It’s my job to know, Barry.” Every time she spoke his name, his heart jumped and his eyes twitched. He was dimly aware of what was going on below his belt. It was like fire. “You like a tight body, don’t you?”

“Tight,” he said. “Like a cheerleader.”

“I think I have just the girl for you. Should I send her over?” In his haze of excitement, he thought he heard a weird inflection. Something possessive.

“Your girls?”

“Of course. They’re all my girls. They bring the good word.” Aphril giggled, incredibly loud, and he winced, even while grinning. “Enough of that. You want me to send my girl over. I know you do.”

“How … how much?” he asked. His head was pounding and he could barely think. He had to force the words out. “I don’t know if I can afford it.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone and then some clicking. It sounded like she was looking something up.

“I’m sure you can work something out,” she said. “My girls know how to get what I require.” She chuckled. “Shall I send her over?”

“Yes. Yes, please.”

“She’ll be there soon.” Aphril almost sounded bored, now that Barry had agreed. The line clicked and Barry stood where he was for a long moment before he was able to think clearly and take the phone from his ear. It was several minutes before he realized he was drooling, and several minutes after that before he realized that he was naked. And it wasn’t until seconds before he heard his doorbell ring that he realized he’d never given her his address.

Barry rushed to get dressed. His clothes were in odd places—on the windowsill, under the bed, behind his television—and it took some time before he was presentable. He gave up on finding his socks. On the way down, he looked at himself in the mirror. Same old Barry, he thought. If I wasn’t paying for it, this would never happen. He brushed his hair anyway, noting how flushed he was. He hadn’t been this excited in years.

Rushing down the stairs, he thought for a quick second about Simone and his gait slowed. What am I doing? he thought as he opened the door. When he looked outside, though, all thought left his mind.

The woman standing in the threshold was wearing a tight green jacket and camel-colored jodhpurs tucked into black boots. Her dark hair cascaded in fierce ringlets. The three Arab men stood there, lit cigarettes dangling in their fingers and mouths. She said something and all three laughed, tears streaming.

“What was that?” Barry asked.

All eyes turned to Barry and he swallowed. The Arab men all narrowed their eyes and he could see their fists clenching.

“She is for you?” one asked, with a half-smile, half-grimace (This is good? For you?). He started to reply, then he looked at the woman.

“We were just talking about the weather,” she said. Her voice was soft and smooth; it sounded like bells. She turned to the men and winked, and the three of them broke into grins. Out of the corner of his eye, Barry could see one of them wink. He tore his eyes away from the woman, toward his friends. He was discomfited to see they had visible erections. He swallowed and turned to her again. “Shall we go inside, Barry?” He nodded.

“Wait,” called one of the men (Stop, please). “Come back. Let us join you. Our friend, wait! (Hold on, let us join). Barry couldn’t even turn his head to look at his friends; he followed the woman.

She walked in front of him up the narrow steps. Somehow the barren staircase seemed voluptuous, sensual.

“What a nice place, Barry,” she said, and he mumbled agreement. All the way to his apartment, his eyes were glued to her behind as she sashayed in no particular hurry. He tried to focus on the way her body moved, but every time he tried, she shimmied in just such a way to deny him.

Then they were in his room and she was wandering around, investigating. She turned on the television and flipped through the few channels. A baseball game was on.

“I do like the Orioles,” she said. “Such a beautiful bird.”

He muttered something and sat down. He felt as if he was going to have a heart attack. He knuckled his eyelids, trying to clear his head.

When he looked again, her coat was lying on his bed, her jodhpurs a crumpled pile by the windows. All she wore was a lacy white chemise so tight and sheer that he could see everything. When she stretched, arching her back, Barry stopped breathing entirely. He only remembered to start again when she chuckled and sat on the bed. He took a deep breath, lowered his head, and coughed.

When he was under a semblance of control, Barry spoke. “I don’t normally do this.” He didn’t trust himself to glance at her. She laughed and even the sound of it made him sweat. “I just, found the flyer. And there’s this woman. She’s—”

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Barry?” There was no amusement in her tone. Barry thought he heard sympathy and understanding and … something else. “Simone.”

“Yes.” He was on the verge of crying. He didn’t understand anything. “She’s so beautiful. She’s so young and full of life and so beautiful it hurts.”

“You want her, don’t you?” Barry nodded. “But you don’t think you deserve her, do you?” He shook his head. “Look at me.”

She was sitting on his bed, utterly still. Her skin was the color of honey. Her arms were crossed in front of her small, high breasts. There was a trace of blonde hair at her navel that thickened before it was obscured by her crossed thighs. Barry could not speak while he drank her body in.

“You’re very lonely, aren’t you? You don’t need to answer.” She smiled and shifted, and it was if he was looking at the sun. “Open your eyes,” she said, her voice calm and patient. He hadn’t realized they were closed. “I understand, Barry. I’m here for you.” She leaned back on the bed. “Come here.”

Barry rose and fumbled at his clothing. Before he could take anything off, she laughed and flung her head back.

“You have to do something for me, though.”

“Anything,” he said. He felt his throat closing. He choked.

“Tell me, would you rather have me or her? Simone? Honestly, now.” She looked at him, and there was something in her eyes that gave Barry pause, like he was being tested. “Don’t even think of lying.” There was ice and grit in her tone.

Barry thought for a long, long moment. His gut was fire and his heart was ice. Everything felt like it was a second away from bursting. He didn’t know the answer.

“You,” he gasped as he felt something pop in his chest. “Her.” Pain flooded his body and he started to fall forward. “Both.”

She smiled and sat up. She leaned forward and touched his chest with a long, delicate finger. He stopped falling and stared as the pain evaporated. He gasped. With her fingernail, and with no visible effort, she cut through his shirt. She giggled and traced a line on his skin. He hissed as blood trickled out.

She tilted her head and extended her tongue, then leaned forward and lapped at the trickles.

“You have so much love in your heart, Barry,” she said. “You are so good.” She swallowed. “So delightful.”

“I … don’t understand.” His head floated in a thick soup of desire.

“Tell me something,” she said, pulling him close and shredding his clothes. Her hand found the cut and he felt her fingers working their way inside of him.

“Anything.”

“Tell me you love me.” Her hand was on him and in him, and he wanted to cry and laugh at the same time.

“I love you.” Barry meant it. He meant it with every part of his soul.

“Tell me you exalt me.” Her mouth touched parts of his body that had never been touched. He felt tears escaping from his eyes. He wanted to sob and yell and scream all at once.

“I exalt you above all others.”

“Tell me you worship me.” She was on top of him, her hair cascading down, her fingers gouging fissures in his flesh and he was alive in joy.

“I worship you my goddess, my love, my everything.”

“I claim you,” she whispered as her lips touched his. As he slid inside of her and as her fingers touched his heart, she whispered again, into his ear. “I claim you in the name of my mistress, the Ruler of Love. You are mine.” She caressed his heart and Barry, unsure if he was moaning in pain or pleasure, closed his eyes. “You are ours. You are love.” She squeezed.

When Barry’s world went black, he felt peace.


Barry awoke the next morning. He lay in bed for several moments before walking to the tiny bathroom and showering. There was a small scar on his chest. Curious, he touched it and felt no pain. He shrugged.

He dressed quickly and exited the apartment, stepping over a pizza box on the way out. He walked down the stairs and through the door. One of the Arab men was smoking outside.

“Hello, my friend. It is good to see you in the light.” He sounded strange without his chorus. “You had a beautiful night?”

Barry laughed and walked to the diner. There were two waitresses working. He sat in his normal seat at the bar. After a few moments, one waitress came over to him. He looked up from the menu and noticed her curly hair.

“Welcome back, Barry,” she said, pouring him a cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” he said. He looked into Simone’s eyes and searched inside of his soul. He felt so much love in that moment that he could not speak. A smile broke out on Barry’s face and after a few moments, when Simone turned away, his smile remained.

Even the tears coursing down his face were full of love.


Copyright © 2015 Michael B. Tager