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Partners in Crime
Lexi invited me to her lake house in the Adirondacks one weekend in July. She was my best friend…well, more like my only remaining friend (when my lifestyle went from Hollywood luxury to closet-apartment poverty, my friends tossed me away like a once-popular bag that had fallen out of style – the only difference with Lexi is that she didn’t find any harm in keeping an unstylish bag hidden in her closet). I already had plans with Hunter so I asked her if he could come. Obviously under the impression that Hunter was the hot lifeguard type, she agreed and gushed over the phone how excited she was to shed her status as a single. I strategically left out the part that Hunter wasn’t near what she was expecting.
She quickly fixed her makeup in the rearview mirror as we waited for Hunter in front of his apartment building. After reapplying blush and fixing her hair for what seemed like the tenth time, she shifted in her seat and watched the building’s doors eagerly through the window. When Hunter’s lanky figure emerged from the main entrance, a glum, disgusted look replaced her excited expression. Hunter jumped cheerfully into the back seat, immediately understanding the awkward situation.
“Well this is going to be a fun trip!” he remarked with a grin. I stifled a laugh. When we arrived, he stripped down into his bathing suit and ran to the edge of the lake. I smiled as I watched him dive into the water and transform the still, glassy surface into a frothy white and blue. My smile faded as I discerned Lexi’s eyes boring into my side.
“You like him” she said. I turned slowly, not sure of how to respond. She stared at me with an austere expression.
I laughed, trying to lighten the mood. “That’s ridiculous. You know he’s just a friend.”
Her shoulders relaxed and a relieved smile replaced her stern expression as if she had just discovered my innocence in an unspeakable crime. Her gaze returned to Hunter who had by this point begun to childishly float on his back and spout water into the air with his mouth. She momentarily grimaced, disturbed by his crude behavior. “That’s good. It’s a cute little charity project you have there. You know, taking a guy off the streets and giving him a small taste of our society. I bet the girls would agree with me.” Interpreting her comment as a joke, I was shocked when she turned around with a completely sincere expression on her face. “I’ll mention it to them. Maybe they’ll even invite you to a few of our parties.” She stared expectantly at me, clearly waiting for me to demonstrate my appreciation.
“Thanks” I muttered, still shocked by her genuine belief in the cleverness of her own suggestion. She gazed proudly at the lake, still reveling in what she thought was her astute resourcefulness. I looked out at the colossal green mountains sloping into the serene blue water. I didn’t want my old life back. And worst of all, Lucy was right – I didn’t want to be just friends with Hunter.
The lawsuit was being brought to court. Up to this point, my lawyer had taken care of absolutely everything – I handed her a check after the accident and never even had to see the despicable creature responsible for Liam’s death. But apparently, the defendant didn’t agree that he owed me money for killing my husband. A week ago, my lawyer called to tell me I needed to be at the city court on July 5 at 8:00 AM to set a trial date. But at this point, I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted to put Liam and my former elitist society behind me. On July 5, I would walk into the court room and declare that I no longer had any interest in pursuing the lawsuit.
The New York City court house resembled a massive ancient Greek structure. Wide white steps led up to a row of huge white pillars. Mobs of New Yorkers already rushed in and out of the door which must have been at least 25 feet tall. Struggling to recover from the blinding enormity of the building, I thought through the directions my lawyer had given me – walk through the front entrance, find first door on the left, prosecutor’s table is to the right of the judge. Following my own mental instructions, I pushed through the crowd of people and walked into the courtroom designated for my lawsuit.
Before I even discerned any details of the space, I noticed there were only three other people – the judge who waited at the head of the room, my lawyer who stood at the prosecutor’s table, the killer who sat in a disgustingly peaceful manner at the defendant’s table and Hunter. Hunter leaned against the defendant’s table with an infuriating innocent expression as if he didn’t even realize the unspeakable crime in defending the man who murdered my husband in cold blood. I marched defiantly up the aisle, my head swimming with rage. That pathetic, low life liar betrayed me. A wave of nausea caused me to stumble. I caught myself, my anger pushing me forward. He betrayed me.
Hunter jumped in his seat when he saw me. “How could you defend the man who killed my husband? How dare you!” His confused expression thickened, feeding my rage. “Stop pretending that you have no idea what I’m talking about! We both know you deliberately deceived me to launch your secret career as a lawyer!”
He clumsily got out of his seat, obviously still feigning disorientation. His brow furrowed as his gaze focused on the walls behind me. “But I’m not a lawyer.” Immediately after the words escaped his lips, he froze, something visibly clicking in his mind. His confusion gradually faded into an emotion I couldn’t yet discern. “Wait did you say your husband?” He turned his head in my direction and his piercing blue eyes bored into mine with intensity far more unnerving than before. Their usual pensive appearance had vanished. I was staring into two oceans of pure fear. “Oh my god…this can’t be happening.”
Hunter wasn’t the lawyer – he was the defendant. I could barely breathe. The air left a trail of fire in my nose and the back of my throat. My legs wobbled under the weight of the silence. I saw the two lawyers and the judge exchange nervous glances. He ran the stop sign. He plowed into the side of Liam’s car. He had been the man was suing the entire time we had known each other. He never told me. Rage bubbled up inside of me from the pit of my stomach. He is the man I have unflaggingly hated for the past year and a half.
“You manipulated me! You knew if you befriended me I wouldn’t ask for as much money!” My outburst colored his face with fury.
“How was I supposed to know anything?! You lied about your name! Shouldn’t you have recognized my name? Oh, did you have your personal lawyer do everything for you?”
I internally winced at his painfully accurate remark but refused to let him have the satisfaction of knowing he had upset me. “How could you not mention that you killed someone and are probably going to jail? We’ve known each other for three months!”
“So what do you suggest I did? Introduce myself by telling you I killed someone…or is a nice talk over a cup of coffee a better time to drop the bomb? How didn’t you notice? My shop has been empty for an entire year because of all the coverage of the accident! My criminal trial is in two weeks and I will be convicted of manslaughter and thrown in jail. Does that make you happy?” A distant gaze replaced the anger in his eyes and his voice grew softer. “The fact that I took someone’s life has been eating me alive for months…I don’t need you telling me I’m a terrible person when I already tell myself that every time I look myself in the mirror.” By the time he had finished, his anger had completely dissipated, revealing a deep despair that shook his entire body.
Despite the fact he was a full foot and a half taller than me, he looked so small and vulnerable standing there before me. His unnerving eyes had melted into a softer, benign blue and he quivered with guilt. Every fiber in his body visibly screamed forgive me. But when I scanned his features, all I saw was Liam’s mangled, lifeless body crumpled at my feet. I could see my icy cold, unforgiving look reflected in his devastated gaze. “I hate you” I hissed. And then I walked away.
The second I left the city court building I burst into tears. I knew I didn’t hate Hunter for killing Liam. I hated him because I wanted to hold him. I hated him because I wanted to forgive him. I hated him because I was in love with him. I was in love with the man who killed my husband.
The next day I called off the lawsuit. Being within twenty meters of Hunter while forced to regard him as a hated stranger would kill me inside. But I didn’t go to the coffee shop that morning. I knew seeing Hunter on friendly terms was now impossible. Weeks went by – each day the same painfully monotonous routine – wake up, rush to work, listen to customers complain with a fake smile plastered on my face, sit in rush hour traffic, talk to Lexi over the phone (only when no one was at her house so she couldn’t be caught talking to me – that would be social suicide), eat dinner alone, and fall asleep watching reruns of CSI while listening to Barbara and Eric make out. Life was becoming unbearable
It was August. Even though the sun had yet to climb above the top of the buildings, a suffocating blanket of humidity hung in the air and early morning rays peeked through alleys, mercilessly boring into the skin of New Yorkers. Buried in the already chaotic river of people rushing up and down the sidewalk, I glanced nervously at my watch. 8:05 – work started 5 minutes ago. A haunting image of my boss’s angry face flashed before my eyes compelling me to push through the crowds ahead of me. The buzz of moving people consumed my quick “sorry’s” and “exuse me’s”. After successfully completing three blocks, I wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead and checked the time. 8:10 – Judy was going to kill me.
As I passed a small bar, a disturbingly familiar sight caught my eye. I stopped abruptly, forcing the river of pedestrians behind me to scatter. A gruff voice cursed and growled at me for obstructing the path. I ignored it. My eyes, stinging from the overwhelming clarity and renewed strength of bittersweet resurfaced memories, were fixed on an old man sitting at a bar counter. The man swayed unsteadily in his chair, mumbling the lyrics to Don’t Stop Believing between sips of beer. I closed my eyes, returning to that night with Hunter months ago. I remembered the childish glimmer in his eyes as he leaned back in his chair and sang loudly in his pitchy vice. I remembered the thrill in standing up on the counter and singing with him. I remembered the other customers joining in until the whole room shook with Journey’s hit song. I remembered everything I had tried so hard to repress – but this time I welcomed it.
Suddenly work didn’t matter anymore. The previously nightmarishly intimidating vision of Judy shrank to a comically tiny image in the back of my mind. The angry buzz of pedestrians faded into a low murmur. I launched forward with new purpose, marching to my quickening heartbeat. Instead of continuing across the crosswalk and following a complicated alternative route that I had been taking to work ever since the lawsuit disaster, I turned right when I reached the end of the block. Excitement began to bubble inside of me as I felt myself slip into a familiar step. Past the restaurants, past the old museum, past the cute courtyard…and then I saw it. A small blue awning created a shady haven in front of the weathered wooden door and the wide windows displaying the adorable coffee shop. Seeing this piece of my past close up interrupted my confident, rhythmic stride. I cautiously approached the entrance and walked through the door.
It was exactly the same – the high top chairs lined the same red topped counter, the small round tables were still scattered artistically across the marble floor, the sunlight illuminated the same beautifully eerie paintings and Hunter stood with his back to me, rearranging the utensils on the shelves on the right wall of the room. I quietly moved across the shop and slipped silently onto a chair at the counter. Unaware of my presence, he continued to neatly pile coffee cups into stacks. My excitement gradually receded, giving way to a hideous fear that rose in me like an infectious disease. My mind swam with doubt. What if he hates me? I was really rude to him in court…this was a bad idea…I should of just –
The sound of glass shattering on marble floor reverberated throughout the room. Hunter stared at me, his face frozen with shock. I smiled tentatively. For what seemed like hours, we stared at each other. I watched anxiously as his tightened muscles relaxed and a more inviting expression spread across his features. Finally, he smiled back at me. During that brief moment I could feel us both acknowledge what had happened. I felt us agree to put the past behind us.
He grinned. “Do you still drink decaf?”
I grinned back. “Of couse.”
I called in sick that day. Judy had burst into a rage, fuming that my last minute call had left her without a receptionist and thrown off her carefully calculated plan for the day. When I gently placed the phone back on the ringer, I almost thought I heard her say that my selfish behavior was simultaneously destroying the salon’s financial situation and her ability to get a date, but I was too absorbed by the way Hunter’s golden brown curls swayed delicately in front of his eyes as he cleaned the counter to be certain as to what she actually said. The thought that prematurely ending our discussion would probably lead to me being fired briefly entered my mind as I hung up but I didn’t care. Laughing and talking there with Hunter, I wouldn’t have cared if everything I owned was wiped off the face of the earth. Nothing mattered anymore, except being with him. By the time I left the cafe it was closing time. It was eight o’clock and the sun was already disappearing behind the tops of the buildings. I was still in love with him – but this time, I knew I didn’t have the heart to fight it.