“Goodnight, Ralph.” I smiled and walked to my apartment’s door and put the right key in the lock.
“Wait! Who’s Ralph?”
I turned and regarded him. He looked confused. Gorgeous, delicious, but confused. I was so good at messing with Alpha boys. “Oh, gosh. I’m just an innocent Cheesehead.” I shrugged my shoulders, batted my eyes and pretended to swoon. “What do I know?”
“Apparently more than I gave you credit for,” he said.
“About time.” I opened the door to my place and stepped inside. “Thanks for—”
“What do I get when I figure it out?” He stared at me. “I mean—when I figure out the Ralph reference I should at least win a prize or something for my efforts.”
“You’re never going to figure it out.”
“Don’t underestimate me.”
“What kind of prize do you want?” I asked.
“I want to kiss you,” he said.
A shiver zipped up and down my spine. I thought about it for a moment. Realized he’d never find the right answer. He’d also lose all interest in me the more he drove me. He thought I was exotic. I knew I was boring. So my reply was easy.
“Yes, Alejandro,” I said. “Yes, you can kiss me if you figure it out.” I shut my door, leaned back against it and smiled.
But who was counting?
I glanced at Alejandro who lay on his back on a table next to me also clad in a threadbare patient gown. Strangely, it suited him. His eyes widened as he watched what I was going through, most likely realizing—he was next. “Dr. Tung,” I said, “please be super gentle with the needles on my friend, Alejandro. He’s not here to heal. Or research. He’s just here to experience… life. I think.”
“Yes.” Dr. Tung gently stuck in a needle in Alex’s forehead. “Yin Tang. Third eye point.”
“Hey!” He jumped halfway off the table. “What are you doing? This feels weird.”
Dr. Tung put a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down. “You have energy shut off from accident that happened about four years ago.”
“You were in an accident?” I asked.
“You’re not an official Angeleno until you’ve had your first fender-bender,” Alex said. “It’s practically a rite of passage.”
Dr. Tung stuck a needle in Alex’s chest and then—bam, bam, bam, three needles in his right ankle and foot. “You need to release that energy so chi flows. So life flows.”
“I’m not a human pin-cushion, you know?” He squirmed.
“Stop moving,” I said. “You’re going to screw up the needles. You don’t want to do that.”
Alex frowned but stopped fidgeting. “Fine. But, I’m doing this for you, Sophie.”
Dr. Tung stuck a few needles in his ear. And one in his nose.
He sneezed, which didn’t help matters. “Dammit!” He was filled with needles, half naked and wearing a stupid gown. He looked at me like a miserable puppy that was getting shots at the vet.
I started giggling. I knew it was wrong. Very wrong. But I couldn’t help it.
“Stop laughing,” Alex hissed. “You’re going to screw up the needles. God knows you don’t want to screw up the needles. Because we could actually be having a normal date.”
“But we’re not on a date,” I said.
“Whatever. We could be catching a movie. Going to a party. But no, we’re in Chinatown. And not for Dim Sum. We are quite possibly screwing up the needles.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. “Dr. Tung. Dr. Tung?”
“Yes?” he asked.
“I think Alejandro needs his Yin Tang opened a teensy bit more.”
Dr. Tung moved toward Alex and eyeballed his forehead. He twisted the needle deeper.
“Ow!” He hollered.
“I come back in fifteen minutes. You two be quiet. Do not scare other patients.” Dr. Tung quickly left the room.
“This is like hitting me with the kickball in middle school, isn’t it?” Alex asked. A grin grew on his face. “I think this means you like me.”
“Get over yourself,” I said.
“Oscar Fuentes, you son-of-a bitch.” Javier held the baseball bat high in the air and slammed it down on a metal picnic table then continued to race toward us.
“Back off, Javier!” Oscar exclaimed.
“Fuck you, Oscar.” Javier bolted toward us. “You are not hurting that girl.”
I elbowed Oscar repeatedly. Most of my efforts connected with air. But a few jabs nailed his ribs. He grunted and slowed down for one long second.
I spotted Alejandro about fifty yards away with Nick right behind him. They raced like hell toward me. “Take care of my girl, Javier,” Alex hollered then jabbed his finger in the air toward Oscar. “I can see you, skinhead prick, and I’ll fucking kill you if you hurt one hair on her head.”
Basically after that all I heard were roars and grunts and thuds, the sounds of fists hitting flesh, a baseball bat hitting bodies, and concrete and bones cracking. Someone slugged Oscar and he released his grip on me.
I hit the ground and rolled on the grass and sand onto my side. Police sirens blared in the near distance. People shouted. I felt weak. I felt like a victim. Once again, I felt like a stupid girl.
A young, pretty Latina woman snagged my hand and hissed, “You’re next to a picnic table. Get under it—now. Hurry! We’ll hide you.”
I crawled under the table. She and her friends threw their backpacks, purses, a dog carrier, a sand-filled blanket and rolled up paper trash bags from their day at the beach on top of me.
I laid on the sand and dirt under the table until I heard the cops cuff Oscar and take him away, in spite of his protests. I huddled there while I heard a Venice police officer tell the rest of Oscar’s gang to leave and instruct the crowd to disperse. Another officer told Alex and Nick and Javier that they had not yet found me yet, but the bathrooms had been searched and were cleared.
The girl who helped me hide didn’t abandon me. She and her friends pretended it was just another day at the beach as they chatted about celebrity gossip, their own gossip, what movies they’d seen and who was hooking up with whom. At one point I pinched her ankle.
She bent down like she was tying her shoe.
“Can I leave?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Oscar’s gang, the Lowriders, always keep a lookout on the scene. Wait a bit longer.”
“Thank you. Would you tell my friends who are looking for me that I’m okay?”
She shook her head. “Boyfriends and friends always give it away. You gotta think like the bad guys right now.”
Alejandro, Nick and Javier paced back and forth looking for me. I felt like a shithead for not telling Alex where I was. But when I asked the girl again, she whispered a story to me. A story about a girl that Oscar’s gang had fucked up about five years ago. That girl’s name was Tatiana. And that girl was dead.
It had to be after eight p.m. It was getting dark outside. Alejandro, his friends and Javier were still searching for me. Pacing the boardwalk, checking storefronts, asking folks if they had seen the confrontation. I squeezed my savior’s leg. She bent down under the table and looked at me. “I think it’s okay for you to go.”
“I can’t even find the words to thank you for hiding me,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “My name’s Gabriella. I was Tatiana’s friend.”
Two more female faces popped under the picnic table. “Hey,” I said. “I’m Sophie. You are?”
One girl extended her hand toward me. “Rosie—Tatiana’s friend.” She shook my hand.
“I’m Naomi—Tatiana’s friend,” another girl said and handed me a bottle of water. I cracked it open, took a long slug and crawled out from under the table. We all hugged and I started crying. Then the rest of the girls followed suit. I was covered in mud, sand and was completely disgusting.
“Sophie?” Alejandro said.
I turned and saw him. He stood next to Nick and Nathan and Javier. Their jaws dropped.
“Sophie!” Alejandro raced toward me, grabbed me around the waist and pulled me tight into his chest. He kissed the top of my head. Placed his hands on either side of my face and tilted my head up as he bent his down. “Are you okay? Are you all right?”
“I’m okay,” I said. “These girls hid me. They protected me.”
“Go out with me, for real,” he said. “Not a yoga class or a walk on fire event, or a palm reading.”
I really wanted to say, yes. But, this would take us to a different place.
“We are so perfect right now,” I said. “I don’t want to screw up our relationship. I don’t want—”
He pulled me toward him and kissed me. One hand cradled the back of my head. He ran his fingers through my hair with his other hand. His lips were full and insistent. His tongue slipped inside my mouth like it was meant to be there. Tempting me. Claiming me. He tasted sweet.
And suddenly I felt like I was falling all over again. I leaned back against my front door as his lips moved from my mouth, trailing kisses down my face, down my neck.
“Sophie,” he breathed in my name. Then kissed me hard on the lips, his tongue exploring my mouth. One strong arm wrapped around my waist as he lifted me up a few inches off the ground toward him, my T-shirt scrunching up toward my breasts, my bared abdominal skin pressed tight against his thin T-shirt.
“Life is short, Sophie Marie Priebe. We are not perfect people. We don’t know how much time we will have together.”
He had no idea how scary prophetic he was being.
“But I will guarantee you this. We have something far more special than the majority of people. Consider this to be your official invitation—” His warm breath and the pressure of his full lips brought a flush to my skin. His hand traced down my neck toward the top of my T-shirt. He pulled the neckline back as he kissed my shoulder.
Shivers raced up and down my arms. “This is me. Officially asking you, Sophie, to, please, go out with me.” He tucked strands of my hair behind my ear. Kissed my ear. Kissed my hair. Kissed my shoulder.
“Yes, Alejandro. Yes, I will go out with you.” I tried to find my footing. Which was a little hard to do when he was still holding me six inches above the ground.
Gidget barked and I heard a kitchen window slam shut, muffling her yips.
“Voyeurs,” I said to Alejandro as his lips brushed mine.
He frowned. And slowly let me slide down his body. His gorgeous face. His dimpled chin. I closed my eyes because I just wanted to feel him: His muscular solid chest. His tight abs. His hardness. When my feet hit the ground, he backed away from me.
I swayed for a moment and wanted to say, “Fuck you, caution. Screw you, MS! You can’t own me. This is my time!”
“Gimme Shelter” blared from Alex’s phone. I opened my eyes and reached for him, but he was standing a couple feet away from me the sidewalk. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Someone needs a Driver. I can’t believe it. Not tonight.” He stared at his phone.
“Sorry, Bonita. It’s important. I made a promise. I’ve gotta go.” He jogged toward his Jeep.
“Okay,” I said as my knees felt weak and I leaned against my door.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.” He got into his Jeep and drove away.
Alex grinned at me and pushed the phone away from our faces for a second. “I’ve got this,” he whispered. Pulled my hand that held the phone close to his face. “Yes, Bubby Sophie.”
“Perfect, Alejandro,” Nana said. “Are you in a romance with my granddaughter? You do know she is a shiksa, yes? It seems many young men of the Jewish faith will happily date shiksas, but not be serious about marrying them. Will this be a problem for you in the future?”
“Nana!” I hollered and collapsed back into my seat. I face palmed my hand into my forehead in sheer humiliation that only a family member could initiate.
Alejandro ran his finger over my cheek and traced my jaw. His fingers landed squarely under my chin that was collapsed in my hands on my chest. He gently lifted my head up. “Put the phone back toward me,” he whispered.
I blushed but did as he asked.
“Bubby Sophie?” he asked.
“I thought for a second I lost you.”
“You’re not going to lose me, Bubby. In fact, I can’t wait to meet you some day soon. In regards to your shiksa granddaughter? I’m crazy about her Wisconsin accent—”
“What accent?” I slapped Alejandro’s thigh with my free hand. He caught my hand and interwove his fingers between mine and pulled me close to him. Which meant I was practically sitting in his lap.
A man in a truck in the next lane honked, leered and said, “Get a room!”
I glared at him. “Get a life!” I struggled to flip him my middle finger but it was currently engaged and wrapped tightly next to Alejandro’s middle finger. He squeezed my hand and winked at me. “Ignore the assholes,” he whispered into my ear and turned back toward the phone. “I adore your granddaughter’s snarky sense of humor…”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
“… her beautiful dairy queen face, the fact that she’s girlie but still thinks football is important and her sheer determination to get things done. So, no, I don’t care that she’s a shiksa. I also don’t care that she’s stubborn and that she’s probably going to test me even further once I get off the phone with you. Can you live with that, Bubby Sophie?”
“Yes,” Nana said. “You seem like a nice young man, and I greatly appreciate you letting me practice my foreign language skills with you.”
“You’re welcome.” Alejandro smiled at me.
“I must run or I’ll be late for the sing-along in the lobby. We’re performing a medley of Michael Jackson songs this week.”
“It’s my honor to have made your acquaintance,” Alejandro said.
“And you, Alejandro Maxwell Levine.”
I leaned into the phone. “I love you, Nana.”
“I love you back, my favorite granddaughter.”
“I’m your only granddaughter.”
“I know,” she said. “Which is number six on my top ten reasons why I love you the most.”
She paused for a moment and I heard her breathing, hard and raspy into the phone. “Nana? You okay?”
“Never better. Just promise me one thing?”
“What?” I asked.
“Life is full of mysteries, odd twists and turns. You think you’re traveling down one road only to discover you veered off and venturing down another. One that is completely unknown. And the new road has no fancy navigation system, no streetlights, or signs and you have no reception on your fancy phone. What do you do? Tell me, Sophie. What do you do?”
Alejandro squeezed my hand. He gazed into my eyes for a second. Smiled. Then turned his eyes back on the road. A lock of his black-brown hair escaped from behind his ear and fell onto his high, sharp cheekbone. He lifted my hand to his mouth and kissed it. Softly. Tenderly. I broke out in chills. Everywhere. “What should I do, Nana?”
“Be kind,” she said. “Just be kind to each other.”
“Okay,” I said.
But she’d already hung up.