“No, Sara, we cannot.” I keep my eyes on the monitor, finishing up the paperwork on a previous successful call.
“Please. I have something to tell you. It’s important.” Sara looks at me beseechingly, and I can’t say no to her, damn it.
“OK. I can give you ten minutes during my break. Half an hour from now.” My tone is terse because I hate being manipulated into doing something I don’t want to do. I push it to the back of my mind while I continue my work. As much as I hate this work, I’m good at it, and I want to be as professional as possible. I go to the break room when it’s time, and there’s Sara with her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. I sit down across from her and lean back. I’m sure she can sense I don’t want to be there, but I don’t care. I’m already kicking myself for agreeing to talk to her, and I wait impatiently to hear what she has to say.
“Have you ever loved someone so much you’d do anything for them?” Sara asks, her voice small. Oh god. I don’t want to be her Mother Confessor, and I don’t care about her tawdry personal problems.
“Grow up, Sara,” I say wearily. “You’re not a child any longer. That isn’t love—it’s codependency.” I stand up, suddenly tired of this conversation.
“I did something really bad!” Sara blurts out. “The person I love doesn’t even know I’m alive, so I did something to make them notice me.”
“I’m sorry you’re having such difficulties, but this is work. You need to get it together and keep this to yourself.” I stride out of the breakroom, furious at myself for falling for her bullshit again. I stop at the bathroom to avail myself of the facility and to splash water onto my face. I need to get my temper in check before I go back to work. Nobody will buy anything from an agitated, snappish bitch, so I take several minutes to get myself under control. Once I feel as if I’m OK, I walk back to the work room and slide into my seat. Sara is at her desk, and it’s clear she’s been sobbing hard. I really hope Cara fires her so I can have her out of my hair and life.
The day passes at a brisk pace. I barely have time to breathe, let alone talk to any of my coworkers. I sell more Groupon coupons than I can count, and I’m satisfied as the day draws to a close. Until I remember that I have a date with Rembrandt tonight—a date in which there will be ‘a talk’. As soon as I get home, I feed my cats several treats before taking a quick shower. I do my usual ritual of standing in front of my closet naked while deciding what I’m going to wear. I don’t want to be too sexy because I don’t want to lead Rembrandt on, but I don’t want to be dowdy, either, obviously. I finally select a plum-colored V-neck sweater along with black woolen pants. My cats meow their agreement, and I go downstairs. I still have ten minutes before I have to leave, so I give them more treats. I don’t want to go, but I also don’t want to be rude. I stop and ask myself what is it I want from Rembrandt, and I come up against a wall. I want sex. I want kissing and cuddling. I want dates with dinner and maybe a movie and popcorn. I want sleepovers every few weeks, but that’s it. I have a hunch Rembrandt isn’t up for that, but I don’t want to put words in his mouth, either. I head out for Grumpy’s after a few more treats for Onyx and Jet.
“Megan, you look fantastic.” Rembrandt stands up, his eyes lighting up. He’s wearing a forest-green button down and black khakis.
“You look great, too.” I give Rembrandt a tight hug before stepping back. “I am famished! I can’t wait for some of their famous tater tots.” I pick up a menu and look at it. I’m in the mood for a Jucy Lucy, some tater tots, and dessert. Rembrandt waits until after we order before he talks.
“Megan. I’m going to be blunt with you.” Rembrandt folds his hands together before looking at them. “I like you. A lot. I haven’t felt this way about a woman in quite some time. I need to know if you feel the same.” I want to tell him I feel the same, but I don’t. I can’t lie to him, and I need to tell him the truth.
“I like you, Rembrandt. I do.” I take a sip of water, trying to formulate my next words.
“But?” There’s a grimness in Rembrandt’s voice, and I’m sorry I’m the one who put it there.
“But, I just got out of a long-term relationship, and I don’t want to be in another.” I look Rembrandt in the eyes, and I see the pain there.
“What do you want, then?” Rembrandt asks, taking a long drink from his beer. Do I tell him the truth? I have to.
“I want a sex buddy,” I say, my voice firm. “I want to be able to hang out with someone, have some laughs and dinner, then sex, cuddling, and sleeping in separate beds.” I drop my eyes because I’m embarrassed to say what I really want. As sex-positive as I am, there’s still some residual guilt deep inside of me.
“I can do that,” Rembrandt says, his voice still tense. I look at him sharply because he doesn’t seem like that type of guy. Plus, he just said he really liked me. That’s not congruent with casual sex. Plus, he agreed too easily. My guess is he believes I’ll change my mind in the future, which may or may not be true.
“You may think you can, but I find that isn’t true more often than not,” I say. I think about it for a minute. “I’d like to try, Rembrandt, but I’m don’t want to lead you on.”
“You’re not. You’ve been perfectly clear about your feelings.” Rembrandt’s grip tightens on his beer bottle before relaxing. “I want more, but I’ll take this for now. At least I’ll get a great burger out of it.”
“And fantastic sex,” I remind him. We stare at each other for a long minute before bursting into laughter. The rest of the dinner goes well, and I’m really looking forward to dessert. When it’s time to leave, I suggest we go to my place. It’s time for him to meet my Onyx and Jet. I give him the address, and I beat him home by a few minutes.
“Meow!” Onyx trills up at me as I walk in the door. I give her and Jet some treats before tossing my purse on the kitchen counter. After they finish, Jet rubs his face against my shin while Onyx prances around me. A few minutes later, my doorbell rings. I peek through the hole, and it’s Rembrandt. I let him in, and he takes off his shoes and lines them up in the hallway. Onyx and Jet come running into the hallway before thudding to a halt. They look at Rembrandt who crouches on the floor and holds out a fist.
“The little one’s Onyx, and the big one is Jet.” I introduce Rembrandt to my cats as Onyx races over to him. She stops just outside of his reach and sniffs delicately at his fist. After thinking about it, she rubs her hand across his knuckles and he gently pets her head. Jet walks over a bit more suspiciously, but he thaws quickly as well. I smile at my babies before holding my hand out to Rembrandt. He stands up and grabs it. I lead him up to my bedroom, shutting the door behind us. I can hear Onyx on the other side, but I ignore her the best I can.
“C’mere.” I pull Rembrandt to me, eager to fuck his brains out. I could get used to having sex on a regular basis. Afterwards, I lie in his arms, sweaty and satiated. He’s grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Can this be one of our sleepover night?” I stiffen at his question because I don’t want to have this fight so soon.
“Not on a school night,” I say, striving to keep my voice even.
“No problem.” Rembrandt’s voice is drowsy, and I kick myself for inviting him over to my place. “Just give me a few minutes, and—” Great. He’s fallen asleep. I’ll feel like a major shithead if I wake him up to kick him out now. I slide out of bed and let my babies in. They hop on the bed, eying Rembrandt with distaste.
“He’s a friend, guys,” I say, keeping my voice soft. True to their natures, Onyx hops up on the bed and jumps up on Rembrandt’s stomach. She curls herself up in a ball and wraps her tail around her nose. Jet is more cautious. He leaps on the bed, but stays on my side. I nudge him towards the middle so I can lie in my place. Once I’m snuggled down, Jet worms into the crook of my armpit and promptly falls asleep. I’m wide awake, and I wonder if I should just extricate myself. I suddenly want a smoke more than anything in my life. I wiggle around until I am off the bed. I’m sheathed in sweat by the time I stand up. I take a quick shower, and when I get out, Onyx and Jet are sitting on the counter. I put on my robe and go back to my bedroom. Rembrandt is still conked out on my bed, and I’m beginning to resent him. It’s my fault, of course, but I can’t help but wish he were gone. I go downstairs and outside to smoke, then I come back inside and lie down on my couch. Onyx and Jet soon join me. They fall asleep, but I remain awake. Is fantastic sex really worth all this hassle? The sex really was terrific, but this is fucking annoying. I told him I didn’t want anything long-lasting, and, yet, he’s sacked out in my bed. I try to talk myself down because I already knew he had to sleep after sex, so maybe subconsciously, I was looking to keep him here? I don’t think so, but how can I say for sure? All I know is that I want him out of my bed. Now. The clocks ticks slowly as I remain wide awake.
“You left again,” Rembrandt says, his voice thick with sleep. He’s only wearing his khakis, and the sight of his bare chest makes me want to jump his bones.
“I needed a smoke and some space.” I sit up, causing Onyx to squeak in a protest.
“You want me to go home, don’t you?” Rembrandt asks, suddenly more awake than before.
“Yes, I do.” I struggle to make my voice not apologetic, but it’s hard. I feel cold-hearted for asking him to come over, then kicking him out.
“OK. Let me take a quick shower, and I’ll be out of your hair. My girl needs me, anyway.” Rembrandt disappears, and I sag against the couch in relief. Maybe we can make this work. I go upstairs to wait for Rembrandt. He comes out in ten minutes, his hair still wet. “I’m taking off, babe. Have a good night.” He drops a kiss on my head while Onyx and Jet yap at him from below.
“I’ll walk you out.” I grab Rembrandt’s hand and walk with him downstairs. I wait while he puts on his shoes. Once he’s bundled, I give him a hard kiss on the lips and send him on the way. I have to admit I feel a sense of relief once he’s gone. Still. He gave me a thorough fucking, and I have to thank him for that. He makes me feel desirable, which is something I haven’t felt in some time.
I go to check my website, and there aren’t many comments on the cat video, except for several, ‘Oh, how cute!’ remarks. I check my post on missing Julianna, and I appreciate the support I’m giving in the comments below. One of the last ones, however, is from QueenBee, and it says, “Time for some tough love. You are wallowing. You will never be able to move on and see what is right in front of your nose until you put her behind you. She wasn’t worth it, anyway.” Right after that, MNborn counters with, “You are not helping at all. You can’t dictate how someone feels grief, so back the fuck off.” QueenBee, “You think you know what’s best for her, but you don’t. Only I do.” That does it. I reply to QueenBee’s comment, “I appreciate your concern, but you don’t know me at all. Please understand that the me I present online isn’t the whole me. Don’t presume you know what’s best for me because you don’t.”
I take several breaths after writing that comment. I decide to clear my head by writing another post, this time, about Rembrandt. I won’t mention his name, but I need to write about the general situation.
The first thing I noticed about him was his eyes. They were different-colored, and I thought to myself, “He has Bowie eyes.” Then we danced, and I found myself interested in someone new, sexually, for the first time in a long time. We fit together perfectly, and I wondered how he would be in bed. I decided to put off that pleasure because anticipation makes it all the more sweeter. A few days later, we went on an actual date.
He’s a photographer, and he likes to do portraits. Some people think that anyone can take a picture, and with digital cameras, it’s true that most people can take a competent photo. However, I firmly believe that a person has to be born with a measure of talent before they can nurture it by tireless practice. I can point my phone and take a decent picture, but I don’t know what the perfect shot is. When I look at a professional’s pictures, I’m struck by how good the composition is.
He has a famous painter’s name, and I wonder if that’s part of what cultivated his love of photography. I believe that outside factors can influence who we are, and this seems to be one of those. His mother loved the arts, so that’s probably a factor as well in his passion for photography. Nature and nurture often go hand in hand.
He made me dinner, which is my favorite thing in a lover. Well, second favorite thing. I always tell my lovers that if they cook for me, I’ll do the dishes. I figure it’s a fair trade for eating well. Homemade lasagna, garlic bread, and tiramisu. I could get used to that kind of treatment.
I write for twenty more minutes. Before I hit send, I text Rembrandt to ask him if he’s OK with me publishing a post about him. He texts back and says, “Only if you tell them how fantastic I am in bed.” I laugh and text back, “Will do.” With my mind at ease, I hit publish. Not ten minutes later. I get six comments. Three of them are ‘atta girls’. Two are of the ‘make sure you take it slow’ variety. The last one tells me I’m a whore who should repent my sins. Ten minutes later, TakeMeNow says, “I would caution you from jumping into a relationship right now. You’ve just been through a deep trauma which might cloud your judgment.” LaserVision writes, “You gotta use it or lose it. No time like now to get your groove on.” QueenBee, “You couldn’t wait to move on, could you? Was what you wrote about Julianna a lie? Now you’re just taken in by a pair of pretty eyes.” I am taken aback and feel the need to defend myself, “I love Julianna, and she would have wanted me to take whatever joy I could find in this life. I’m sorry, but I think I have to block you from my website.” A minute later, QueenBee replies, “I’m sorry! I just want what’s best for you. Please don’t block me.” I sigh. I hate blocking people, but she’s really starting to creep me out. I decide to let it go for now and revisit it in the morning.
I close my laptop and return to my bed. I lie down, but sleep eludes me. Even Onyx and Jet snuggling by my side doesn’t soothe my uneasiness. I go back downstairs and pull up a Google tab. I plug in Simon’s name, and I discover a tidbit I hadn’t known before. Simon has a child. At least that’s the rumor an alternative rag was floating. A girl. Three years old. Somewhere in Chaska. Simone. I roll my eyes because how typical of Simon. He’s a fucking narcissist, and everything is about him. The baby mama’s name is Genevieve, and she has full custody of Simone. Simon hasn’t seen her since she was born, so I don’t know if this matters in Julianna’s killing. However, it’s something I hadn’t known about him, and that means progress. I send a quick email to Genevieve asking if I can talk to her about Simon. I explain who I am and that I’m looking into Julianna’s death. A few minutes later, she responds. “I have nothing to say about that asshole. He was a sperm donor and nothing more.” Interesting. I write back. “Why does she have his name, then?” A longer pause before I get an answer. “He gave them the name while I was under. I just never changed it.” The truth? Not all of it. I follow a hunch. “Did he cheat on you?” I don’t expect a response because that’s an impertinent question. To my surprise, I get one. “Yes. The bastard. Several times.” Me: “So why did you stay?” Her: “He was very charming. He could talk his way out of anything.” Interesting, but I don’t see how it’s relevant to Julianna’s murder. I still make a note of it and thank Genevieve for her time.
I dig some more into Paola Escobar’s past. Before she moved to Minnesota, she was arrested in San Francisco for soliciting. That doesn’t seem relevant. She’s never held down a real job, but has always hooked up with wealthy men of dubious pedigree. What was her boyfriend’s name? I check my notes. Joey Simmons. I Google him, and there are a lot of Joey Simmons. I add New Jersey, and that narrows things down. I find out that he was rumored to be connected with the mob back home, but only on a very low level. He kept screwing up, but because he was related to a high-level member, he was sent to MN to be kept out of trouble. Any ‘business’ he’s doing here is sure to be illegal. Paola was cheating on him with…Beretta. I Google him, and there’s nothing there except that he’s a slam poet, works days as a chef, and that’s about it. Again, all of this is interesting, but I don’t see how it has anything to do with Julianna’s death. I find an interview the Minneapolis Slammin’ poets had given about Julianna’s death. Most of them are laudatory, and Reggie’s is downright hagiographic, but Paola’s is almost vicious in her condemnation of Julianna. “She thought she was such hot shit that I would steal her work, but her work was bullshit. I wouldn’t stoop so low as to steal that trash. Look, I’m sorry she’s dead, but she was cut-rate.” I narrow my eyes; it sounds more like jealousy than anything else. Jealousy can lead to rage and hatred, which can lead to murder. She is not off the table.
I blink. Am I being too narrow-minded? I’ve been so focused on Simon, Paola, Ramona and Ricardo, and Eric. What about Reggie? It’s clear he’s in love with Julianna, but she didn’t give him the time of day. Love can easily turn into hate, and if she rejected him or laughed at him, maybe he got mad and took it out on him. He is certainly built for it. It seems weak to me, though. He was genuinely torn up about her death, but there have been murderers who weep for their victims and have felt genuine remorse. He’s very low on my list of suspects, though. If she were found strangled to death, maybe, but this crime does not seem to fit him.
Who else is there? I know most aspects about Julianna’s life because she’s an over-sharer, but there might be something I’ve missed. I put her name in Google, and I’m embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. I come up with a shit-ton of information, most of it about her murder. I filter that out, and start reading the results. A fender-bender that wasn’t her fault. I know about that, and it’s not a big deal. I look into her parents, and there’s nothing there, either. Dr. and Mrs. Araki have lead exemplary lives, and I can’t find anyone who hates them enough to kill Julianna as revenge. I slam my hand on the couch in frustration, startling Onyx and Jet in the process. I pet their fur apologetically before returning to my research. I see that Julianna had been doing some freelance slamming on the side, and while the Minneapolis Slammin’ frown upon that, they don’t have any actual sanctions in place against it. I Google some more, and then I do something I am not proud of. I use Julianna’s passwords to access all her accounts. We both have each other’s passwords for safekeeping, but we’ve never used them. We didn’t have to because we told each other everything. Swallowing my distaste, I log into her Google email account and start scanning. There are several scathing emails from Simon, accusing her of abandoning him in his time of need. He calls her a bitch and a cunt, but that’s par the course for him. Charming as the devil until you cross him, and then he’s a supreme asshole. I read the last email he sent her, which was the morning of her murder. In it, he orders her to meet him that night. She, of course, tells him off. What if he got so pissed, he went over to her apartment, waited for Ramona to leave, then went up? Julianna has security, but he can sweet-talk his way past anything. His ex-baby mama said so.
I put Simon high on my list. I would like to know where he is, though. Maybe he went underground after killing Julianna. I know I certainly would if I ever murdered someone. Not that it’s something I plan on doing any time soon. Still. It’s plausible. Wait, no it’s not. He’s in the hospital right now, which means he’s a captive audience—if he’s awake. I read more emails. Julianna had threatened Paola with legal action if she (the latter) keeps stealing her (Julianna’s) work. I remember Julianna telling me something about that, and I urged her to do it. Paola sent several hateful mails in reply, but there’s an undercurrent of fear in her emails. Oh, yes. She’s definitely guilty of stealing Julianna’s work. Julianna called her out on it, and I wonder if that was enough to spur Paola into action. She seems like the type who is used to getting her own way and being told her shit doesn’t stink. She’s probably not used to having someone stand up to her. On top of that, she’s definitely a guy’s chick, which means she finds other women threats or competition. I Google a bit more, but I can’t find any evidence of a female friend. I try to see if she has an alibi for the night of Julianna’s murder, but nothing. That means I might have to talk to her in person, and I wrinkle my nose at the thought of it. I don’t like women who hate other women, and I have a hard time hiding that.
What about Eric? He definitely has the motivation, but does he have the means? He has no money, so if he’s going to fly to Minnesota, he’d have to put it on a card which I doubt he has—a viable card, I mean. I Google more, and I don’t find any evidence that he bought a ticket. I go back to Julianna’s emails, and I read the ones to and from Eric. His are emails begging her to give him money. Hers just shoot him down time and time again. The last one from him tells her if he doesn’t get the money, ‘they’ will kill him. Julianna doesn’t answer that one. I check the ISP, and it’s the same as the others. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have booked a flight for the same day, but he’s a pretty disorganized person, so I wouldn’t place too much faith in him being able to do that. He’s low on my list.
I look at the emails again, and I notice that there’s a file called ‘hot sauce’. I open it up, and the emails are from Ramona. They’re filled with increasing strong vocalizations of love. She talks about moving in with Julianna, which makes me grimace. Ramona is being indiscreet in her emails, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her husband read them. Most people aren’t that savvy about covering their tracks and think that deleting their emails will get rid of them forever. They do something clandestine on their personal computers without thinking their significant others will snoop. Most people probably don’t snoop, but many do. I have, though I’m not proud of it. I did it to Tessa early on in our relationship when I suspected that she was cheating on me with someone from her yoga class. They had some very flirty emails, but as far as I could ascertain, it never went further than that. Yes, I followed her to and from her yoga class several times. She chatted with the other woman for several minutes after class each time, but then they went their separate ways. I would follow her to her house before returning to my own, sometimes texting with her on the way. Only after I pulled over to the side of the road, of course. I never told her what I had done, but it probably played a part in my reluctance to commit to her.
I push that to the side before focusing on the emails again. In the last one on the day of Julianna’s murder, Ramona wrote that she couldn’t wait to see Julianna that night. It went on to describe what she was going to do to Julianna all night long. Julianna replied with a long list of what she was going to do to Ramona in return. If Ramona’s husband saw this, then I would definitely move him to the top of the list. I think I should go and talk to him, maybe after work tomorrow. I don’t know how I will approach him, though, because I can’t say I was a friend of Ramona’s without him probably alerting her about it. Theoretically, he doesn’t know about Julianna, so if I mention her, I may get a visible reaction. Oh, hell. I’ll just play it by ear. With that, I try to go to sleep.