The Queen of Love and Beauty

I thought my rival for his affection was his daughter, born on Valentine’s Day.  She was five years old.  He was having a trial separation from his wife, he’d told me.  This all took place thirty years ago.

I was his confidant and he told me about the women with whom he was sleeping.  One stopped the elevator when she saw he was standing inside, alone.   She smiled at him and pushed the “stop” button, looking him up and down.

My stomach ached when he described how she kissed him.  “But it didn’t mean anything,” he added.  “I don’t want to get involved right now.  I can’t do that to my daughter.”

The Valentine’s Day his daughter turned five, I didn’t know it was her birthday.  He had come to Baltimore the night before to see her, or so he told me.  He had stopped in the bar where we had met; the Waterstreet Exchange

He worked for IBM and all the IBM men I have ever met looked like they could be in the movies.  Gorgeous.  He had perfectly graying hair that was clean cut and shorter than those who didn’t work in a dark suit with a white shirt and tie.  His eyes were hazel and they changed color, from a yellowish green in the light to slate blue in the dark.

I stood next to him at the bar, hoping he would talk to me.  I wasn’t going to fawn all over him.  I’d seen him in action many times.  He’d start the evening with the crowd from IBM in white starched shirts and dark suits.  By the end of the night, the sphere around him would have grown with women.

I wanted him to notice me, not the other way around.  That night, I had worn my best Laura Ashley dress, red with a ballerina neckline.  He told me, later, that he thought the dress made me look pregnant.  I had no sense of what was alluring.  The dresses I wore had ruffles, full skirts.  They were expensive and I thought they were feminine.

When I managed to squeeze my way to the bar the night we finally met, I stood next to him, facing his back.

I tapped his shoulder, holding my breath as he turned and parted his lips in a smile.

“Hey,” he said.  “We know each other don’t we?”

Thrilled by his smile, I shook my head.  Embarrassed.

“You want my seat?” he asked, slipping off the bar stool.

“Oh, no,” I said, two palms up facing him.

“It’s ok,” he said, “I was leaving anyway.”

My stomach turned.  Our encounter was too brief.  Instead of protesting — something I’d seen women do with him — I heard myself murmur, “What are you drinking?”

“You want to buy me a drink?”

He slipped back on the stool, “Heineken.”

Eventually, he introduced me to his white shirted friends.  As the evening continued, their ties loosened, jackets came off and the disc jockey played the tunes they requested.  The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” thumped through the room as he placed his hand on my back, “Wanna’ get something to eat?”

My stomach flipping, I followed him to the IBM garage and got in the passenger side of his black BMW.  He was drunk and I didn’t care.  I could die in that car with him.

He drove too fast, five blocks east to Little Italy, giving his keys to the valet.  We stood at the entrance to Chiapparelli’s Restaurant.  Over homemade bread and a delicious shrimp dish in white wine sauce — called Nicola — he told me that he was leaving his wife.

“It’s a trial separation,” he said.  “I’ve got an apartment in D.C.”

I wondered if he was telling me the truth or just trying to pick me up.  “How long have you been separated?”

“Not long,” he stabbed the last gigantic piece of shrimp and chewed.  “My lease is month to month.”

Then he told me about the woman in the elevator.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to your wife?”

“Who knows?”  He stood up, “Ready?”

He drove me to my apartment and sat in the driver’s seat, idling the car.  My stomach dropped, he wasn’t searching University Parkway for a parking spot.  I lived across the street from the Johns Hopkins Homewood Field, on the third floor of a four story brick building.

He told me his old house was about five miles away, in Homeland and raised his hand from the steering wheel, waving me off, “Well, see you around.”

I opened the passenger side door, “Thanks for the ride.”

He nodded, “No problem.”

The next Friday, February thirteenth, the night before Valentine’s Day, I stood by the bar, ignoring the stupid heart shaped cut outs that hung from the ceiling.  He wasn’t there and I didn’t have a valentine.  The IBM crowd had welcomed me, though.  First three, then more suits arrived, surrounding me at the bar.  They included me in their first round of drinks, “One for the pretty lady, here!”

A handsome man stood on my right and another on my left.  No one mentioned him, so I didn’t either.

It was late when I spotted his face at the back of the crowd, slate blue eyes focused on me.  My heart thumped as he moved closer.  His lips parted in a smile and he grabbed my hand, “I gotta’ ask you a favor.”

My stomach was flipping like I was diving on a rollercoaster, “Sure, what?”

“I might need a place to crash, tonight.  Can I sleep on your couch?”

“Ok,” I nodded.  Giddy.

“I want to see my daughter tonight, but I stopped there and no one is home,” he said, pulling out his wallet.  “Here’s a picture of her.”  In the plastic coated window on one side, was a photo of a child with straight, blonde hair.  I recognized her hazel eyes.

“Four years old, almost five” he murmured.  “She’s something, huh?”

He ordered a Heineken.  “Do you want anything?” he asked me.

“Champagne,” I said.

He looked at me, “What?”

“I’m drinking champagne,” I said, smiling at him.  I wanted to trace the deep blue shoulder of his suit jacket with my fingers.  To claim him on the night before Valentine’s Day in front of all his colleagues.

He ordered my glass of champagne and handed it to me, “You know what they say about champagne taste.”


“Never mind.  It’s just something that reminded me of my wife.”

I took a gulp of the champagne, “So, why isn’t she home?”

“I have no idea,” he tipped the beer to his lips.

“Hey man!  Where ya’ been?” a dark suited arm encircled his shoulder.

“Later,” he nodded at me and turned away.

I did not see him leave and stood in the cold to take the number eleven Mass Transit bus.  I did not drive downtown to work.  Couldn’t afford the parking.  The bus was slow, of course.  Thirty minutes went by because it was no longer “rush hour.”

When I got home, I shoved the pile of newspapers that had gathered on my coffee table into the hall closet and cleared the books off my kitchen table, dumping them on the floor between my bookshelf and my bed in my bedroom.  I debated about whether or not to make my bed.  Locating clean sheets, I plopped them – folded — on the couch.  Just in case.

I thought about changing out of my tweed suit; pencil skirt in a cream and pink weave.  I’d bought it at Joseph Banks and wore it with a white blouse; my version of his IBM uniform.

The buzzer to my apartment sounded, startling me.  I pushed the intercom with a shaky finger.

“Hey, it’s me.  Can you let me in?”

“What happened with your daughter?”

“I’ll tell you when I come up.  It’s freezing out here.”

His voice had an ease to it.  I think I actually sighed as I twisted the dead bolt to open the door.

“I brought you some beer,” he said, holding up a six pack of Heineken.

“Instead of flowers or chocolate?” I asked, taking a bottle out of the pack.  It was cold, solid in my fingers.

“Huh?” he placed the pack on my coffee table and plucked a bottle, holding it up.

I watched him, wanting to mumble something about Valentine’s Day, but I said nothing.

“Got a bottle opener?” he asked.

In my kitchen drawer, I had a selection of bottle openers.  I picked one that was a souvenir from a trip to Fort Lauderdale I had taken during spring break in college.  I held it with pride.  Below the circular ring for the bottle cap was a porcelain figure in the shape of a woman, tanned, in a yellow polka dot bikini.

He smiled when he took it from me, “Classy.”

“I thought it looked like me,” I grinned.

“Couldn’t tell with all those clothes you wear.”

I let the comment go.  “So, what happened?”  I asked him, taking a seat next to him on my couch.

“Nothing.  They’re still not home,” he said, glancing down, noticing the folded sheets I’d placed on the couch.  “These for me?”

“Yes, if you need to sleep here.  I can round up a blanket for you, too.”

“Oh, ok.  Sure,” his eyes roamed over me.  My head buzzed.  I thought he was going to kiss me.

“You look better in that get up,” he said.  “The dress you wore last week – eh.”

I pulled my shoulders back, “What?”

“That dress, the red one.  Was it a maternity dress?  I thought you were pregnant.”

I was too shocked to speak.  A ga-a-a-a sound came up from my throat.  I tried to cover it with a laugh.

“Well, tell me.  You haven’t mentioned a boyfriend.  Do you have one?”

“No,” I murmured.


“What’s that mean?”

“Oh, nothing.  You’re so pretty.  I’m just kinda’ surprised.”

It wasn’t what I expected, and I was too proud to ask him why he asked.  I put the Heineken down, “Well, good night.”  I stood up.

He raised his head and I looked down at him.  I wanted him to grab me, to tell me he wanted me.  That I was spectacular.  Something.

The silence felt awkward.  I was angry, confused.  Hurt.

“Oh.  G’night,” he said.  “Thanks.”

I didn’t remember the blanket I promised him until I had clicked my bedroom door shut.  My linen closet was next to the bathroom.  He could find it for himself.

The next morning, he was gone.  The Heinekens were gone, too.  There were six empty bottles standing in my kitchen sink.  The sheets were still folded on the couch.  He must have slept on them.  As I picked them up, I noticed something tucked into the seam between the cushion and the back of the couch.  I fished it out.  His wallet.

Opening it, I ignored his daughter’s photo and pulled out his driver’s license.  It had his Homeland address.  It also said that he was six feet, one inch tall and one hundred eighty pounds.  His birthday was two months before mine.

There were one hundred and four dollars in twenties and ones.  Tucked into the sleeve opposite his daughter’s photo was a platinum American Express card.

I drove down his street, searching for the black BMW.  I didn’t find it, but I located the house.  Nice.  Brick.  It had two white columns supporting the small porch roof over the front door.  The door itself was massive.  Impressive.  It was black, with a bronze knocker of a pineapple.  I pulled it out, letting the pineapple snap back.   The solid bang it made scared me.

The little girl opened the door; wide, green/yellow eyes in the sunlight and straight, blonde hair tucked behind her ears.  She wore a pink nightgown.  Over it, a deep red sash hung from one shoulder down the front of her small chest, diagonally, like a contestant in a beauty pageant.  “Queen of Love and Beauty” was embroidered on the scarlet sash in black thread.

“Hello?” she said it as though it were a question.

“Hi, is your dad home?”

“WHO IS IT?”  A woman’s voice sounded loud, angry.

I stood on the stone porch, shifting my weight from one leg to the other.

The little girl turned and said, “It’s a lady!”  She stood in the entrance way, blocking my path.  “It’s my birthday, today.  Daddy hasn’t come.  Yet.”

“Oh,” I nodded as a short, busty woman walked into the foyer.  Her skin was the color of skim milk and white/blonde hair curled like fizz all over her head.

“Yes?” her voice was snippy.  Curt.

“Hi.  I – ah – I found this wallet and wanted to return it,” I said, holding it out.

She frowned, her eyebrows making twin, light brown arches.  Reaching past the child’s head toward the wallet, she spoke to her, “Go on, Elizabeth.  Go get ready for your party.”  Grabbing the wallet, she looked up at me.  The skin on her face was blotchy, red.   Her eyes were puffy; she’d been crying, “Where’d you get this?”

The little girl stepped back and I could hear her footsteps on the hardwood floor.  The house was beautiful.  I could see crimson walls.  A rich looking, dark red oriental runner covered the wide steps of the staircase.

“You’re sleeping with my husband, aren’t you?”  she said.  Her voice was low, severe.

Shaking my head, I stepped back, “What?”  Twirling, I walked as fast as I could on the flagstone path.

“You stupid whore.  You think you’re somebody special?   You’re just one of a crowd,” she yelled at my back.

I heard the heavy front door slam.

I never saw him at the Waterstreet Exchange again.  I did talk with one of his IBM friends though.  He told me that he had moved his family to the IBM hub in Charlotte, North Carolina; that he’d been having an affair with his wife’s best friend.

 (The feature  illustration is by Sarah Butcher.)