“Don’t tell me? You couldn’t sleep either?” He was freshly showered and unnervingly handsome.
“I couldn’t sleep, no.” Her voice came out in a squeak. She cleared her throat and glanced back down the hall in the direction of her room, her arms crossed tight over her chest.
He held up the bag of chips he’d just pulled from the machine. “I know I shouldn’t, but I guess carbs are the least of my worries now, right?” He stepped aside to allow her access to the machines, but did not walk away.
His eyes still upon her, she debated between the low-fat, low-carb energy bar she knew she should choose, and the cheese Danish she’d planned to buy, before she knew there’d be a witness.
As though sensing her concern he said, “Ah, go ahead. I won’t tell if you don’t.”
With her back still turned to him, an embarrassed smile broke across her face. She hit a button and the Danish broke free of its spiral cage. When she stepped in front of the beverage machine, he spoke again.
“Don’t waste your money on that. I’ve got water and some sodas back in my room. You can take your pick.”
“Back in your room?”
“I’m just saying,” he shrugged, “you could save some money and keep me company at the same time-kill two birds with one stone. The nights are the worst.” He stared down at the bag in his hand as he spoke. “I just can’t get it out of my head. Where she is, what might be happening to her.” He took a deep breath and looked up, into her eyes. “I could really use the distraction.”
She could not imagine being left alone in a strange city during such a crisis, without so much as a single family member around for support. She also thought about her key card, still locked in her room. “Of course,” she agreed, “I’m happy to help.”
She followed him back down the hall and glanced around the empty corridor as he slipped his key card into the lock. Upon entering the room, she saw two double beds, the first of which was covered in manila file folders and a laptop computer. His dirty clothes lay on the bathroom floor and an empty beer can sat on the dresser. He rushed forward to clean the room.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s okay,” she said.
“Sorry, Ana is the neat one. Without her I’m…” he paused, as though to steady his voice, “a mess.” He put the computer and folders on a nearby desk then pulled open the mini-fridge. “What’s your pleasure? I’ve got bottled water, diet cola or orange juice.”
“Water’s fine, thanks.”
He handed her a bottle and gestured to the stack of files. “I thought I’d try to get some work done, but I can’t seem to focus on it.”
“Who could blame you? What kind of work do you do?” she asked, hoping to distract him from all they’d learned that afternoon.
“I own a landscape design firm.”
“Oh, so Ana works for you?”
“Well, she did. That’s how we met.”
“Kind-of a risky move to date an employee these days,” she said.
He nodded. “She agreed with you,” he explained. “When we started dating, she thought that it would be better-less potentially problematic-if she were to move on. So she got a job with another firm about a year ago.”
“Uh-oh, so now she’s the competition?” she asked with a smile.
He smiled in return, a brave attempt to appear lighthearted. “Yeah, and I’ll admit it, it was quite a loss. She’s damned good at what she does. But I wanted to keep seeing her and if letting her go professionally was the price to pay…” he shrugged.
“How long have you been together?”
“Almost two years, what about you and Marc? How long have you been together?”
She hesitated, trying to think of a way to respond that would not give away her age. She could think of none. “We’ve been together for twenty-seven years, married for twenty-three.”
Melissa wondered if he was impressed by her marriage record or merely surprised by her age.
“I didn’t think…” he stopped himself and Melissa was sure she knew what he’d been about to say. “That’s a long time. How’d you meet?”
“We met in college. He was a Teacher’s Assistant for a class that I had freshman year.”
“Ah-ha, so your relationship began with a scandal too.”
She spit out a humorless little laugh. “Yeah, I suppose it wasn’t exactly legal from the school’s perspective. For us though, I think that made it more exciting. There’s something about sneaking around and the fear of being caught. I guess for some people that never gets old.”
He was studying her as she spoke. “Any kids?” he asked.
“Two,” she said, with a smile. “My daughter, Tess, is in her senior year at the University of Michigan and my son, Jake, starts at MSU in just a few weeks.”
He shook his head and smiled.
“What?” she asked, tugging again at the hem of her too short shorts.
“It’s just…don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t look old enough to have a daughter in her final year of college.”
She flushed. “Thanks. We were married when I was quite young. I was twenty-two and he was almost thirty. I had Tess two years later.”
“So that makes you…” He pretended to count on his fingertips.
“I’m forty-fucking-five,” she snapped, in mock annoyance.
He smiled. It was a teasing, playful grin that made her stomach flutter nervously. She remembered the missing girl and a wave of guilt chased the flutter away.
“You look great. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Thanks. What about you?”
“Oh come on, you know mine. Fair’s fair.”
He smiled again. “I just turned thirty-six.”
“And Ana? She looked…”
“Young?” he offered.
She laughed. “Well, I was trying for something a little more diplomatic but yeah, now that you mention it.”
He laughed. “She’s twenty-five. I knew even when I started dating her that the age difference might pose its own set of problems, but…”
“Yeah, I think I know what the ‘but’ was about. She’s a beautiful girl. She reminded me a bit of Tess when I saw her.”
“Tess is the senior at U of M?”
She nodded. “Yep, and too pretty for her own good, even if I do say so myself.”
“Oh yeah-Bryan.” She said the name as though it were the source of a really foul odor.
Steve laughed. “Uh-oh, what’s wrong with Bryan?”
“Well, see? That’s just it. I don’t think the problem really is with Bryan. Well, at least, I don’t think it’s only with Bryan. The problem is that Tess is at that age when she’s just convinced of her own beauty-of her own ability to keep a man enthralled. It hasn’t even occurred to her just how quickly that beauty can fade or just how short a man’s attention span can be. I know men like Bryan and trust me, that boy’s got a short attention span.”
“What does Marc think of him?”
“He hates him. Isn’t that funny? If Bryan were nearer to Marc’s own age and not dating his daughter, I’m sure they’d have been fast friends. Once you throw Tess into the mix though…”
“Nothing quite as scary as a father protecting his little girl,” Steve said with a smile.
“After what we heard today, I’ll bet you’re glad that Ana’s father never came up to visit.” The thought escaped her lips before she could stop it.
Steve’s smile faded at once. “I felt like such an ass in there today. When they started talking about cartels and drug lords, I almost wanted to laugh. It seemed so obvious to me that they had their facts all wrong, that they were chasing the wrong woman. Until they showed me those pictures, I’d have never believed that my Ana could have…” He rubbed his eyes. “Here these total strangers know everything about her life and I knew none of it-well, almost none of it. I just felt so stupid. She told me that she had a sister, Isabel. She’d have video chats with her. I’d even said hello to her once or twice during those chats. She told me about her brother, Abe, and that her father was retired. That’s it, that’s all she told me about her life back home. Now, in retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t think to question her on it more, but it didn’t seem like she was hiding anything. We just didn’t discuss it much.”
“You said you’d been together for nearly two years. Didn’t you think it was odd that in all that time, she never wanted to take you home to meet her family?”
“Ana’s here…” he hesitated, then began again. “She’s undocumented, so she was worried that she might not be allowed to re-enter the country if she left.” He frowned. “At least, that’s what she always told me.”
“So she’s in the country illegally?”
“She’s undocumented,” he insisted.
“But wouldn’t those missing documents have given you some indication of her criminal past, of her family’s criminal past? I mean, isn’t that the point of those documents?”
He glared at her and then looked away.
She fell silent and there was a long, awkward moment, during which she became certain that he would ask her to leave. Instead, he said, “The thing that gets me is that we argued.”
“Sorry?” she said, relieved by the change of subject.
“That day, before she disappeared, we’d been arguing.”
“We’d had one of those ‘Where’s this relationship going?’ conversations.”
Melissa laughed, “I see. Well, you did say she was twenty-five, right?”
He grimaced. “Yep.”
“Well then you had to know that was coming, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. It wasn’t the first time either. She started pushing me about that maybe six months into the relationship, but back then I was worried that she might be…” he paused. His brilliant blue eyes probed her like searchlights through the dimly lit room. Finally he said, “I wondered if it wasn’t just a matter of those missing documents.”
“You thought she just wanted a green card?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
He nodded. “I’m ashamed to admit it now, but we hadn’t been together very long when she started hinting at marriage and she’d say things like, ‘I know you wouldn’t want me to get deported-then we’d never be able to see one another’ or ‘How would you feel if they kicked me out of the country just because you refused to make a commitment?’. It put a lot of strain on the relationship back then.”
“Now she just focuses on the fact that it’s been two years and we’re still not married.” He rolled his eyes and fell back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling, as though exhausted by the conversation.
“And you’re not interested in marriage?”
“I just don’t understand the rush.” He threw his hands up, as though pleading his case to the ceiling. “She’s so young. I have no problem with marriage, honestly. I’d say I’m even looking forward to it, but I only want to do it once. I absolutely do not want to be divorced and I guess I feel that she’s just a little young yet, maybe a little too young to know what she wants from life. I just don’t want to rush into it until we’re sure. At least,” he let his hands drop back onto the bed, “that’s how I felt before…”
“They’ll find her,” she whispered. “I’m sure they will. They’ve practically got every cop in the state out looking.”
“I don’t know. That argument we overheard this afternoon didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.”
She pretended not to hear. “You’re right about the age thing. If Tess were to tell me that she wanted to get married now-at her age…”
“To Bryan…” he interjected.
“…to Bryan,” she repeated, rolling her eyes, “I’d fight it tooth and nail.”
“But you were married at her age, right?”
She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again, shaking her head.
“What?” he asked, lifting his head off the bed to look at her.
She shook her head again. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
He sat up and looked directly into her eyes. “I’d really like to know what you think about it,” he said. His voice was a deep, soft whisper that brought the flutter back into her stomach.
Melissa rose and began to pace around the room, wringing her hands as she searched for the words to continue. “Don’t get me wrong,” she began, “Marc’s a good man-a good father-but when I married him, it wasn’t about finding my perfect match. It wasn’t about knowing who I was and what sort of man I would need to complete my life. I was twenty-two, for crying out loud. Who the hell knows what they want or who they really are when they’re twenty-two, right?” She turned to him for confirmation.
“At that age, it’s more about standing at a crossroad and wondering where to go from there.” She seemed to be speaking more to herself than to him now. “I think for a lot of women-for me anyway-that’s a pretty scary crossroad. At that age, it feels like there’s constant pressure about where your life is going, when you’ll get married, and when you’ll have babies. I don’t know if it’s biological and coming from within or if it’s more to do with society, but I remember feeling it. I think it becomes almost like musical chairs-you just want to find your partner before the music stops and there’s no one left.”
She sat back down on the bed opposite his. “I know how ridiculous it sounds…”
“No, I’m not laughing because it’s ridiculous. I’m laughing because it’s familiar. And Marc was the answer to your crossroad?”
She nodded. “He was. He swept in and took charge, which, at that age, was a relief to me. I don’t think I understood that at the time, but I do now. What is it they say? Hindsight’s twenty-twenty?”
“I moved into his very nice home, played the role of his very nice wife and gave him two very nice children. It was all very…”
She smiled, a sad little smile.
“And now…” she paused, met his gaze, and then looked away. “And now I find myself wondering what my life might have been if I hadn’t rushed through that first crossroad. I’m not unhappy, of course.” She could feel the stinging rush of tears welling up in her eyes. She pulled the towel off her head and allowed the still-damp hair to cascade down around her face. She curled a lock around her index finger and tucked it behind her ear.
“Are you sure about that?” he whispered.
For a long moment, she seemed almost unable to speak. Finally she shook her head and said, “I love my kids. I have a beautiful home and great kids. That’s more than most people, right?”
He nodded but said nothing.
She stood and tugged at the hem of her short boxers, then wiped away an unshed tear with the back of her hand, while pretending to brush the hair out of her eyes. “I should get going.”
“No, please.” He stepped in front of her. “If you leave, I’m going to start going over it all in my head again and I just can’t face another night of that. Would you just stay and watch a movie with me? Anything you want, you pick.”
“Even a chick flick?” she asked, forcing a light tone back into her voice, grateful for the change of subject.
He winced, as though in pain, but nodded.
She smiled and returned to the bed near the window, while he returned to the one nearest the hall. Not more than half an hour into the movie, however, she heard him snoring and glanced over to find him asleep at last. She should have left right then, she knew, but the movie was interesting and the room was warm and comfortable. Before too long, she too had dozed off.