Alistair, her boss and lover, had been hit by a car while crossing Van Ness. A woman drove east with the morning sun in her eyes. He didn’t see her coming. Cherry received news of his accident when her colleague Melissa announced it in a team meeting. Cherry was frantic when she received the news, but had to negotiate her reaction carefully, showing a level of concern appropriate for the incident, but not too much concern, as she felt Melissa, and possibly others, was already suspicious of their affair. Alistair, the new, young executive director of the non profit, and Cherry, an experienced database analyst stuck in an entry level job, had been dating in secret for the past year, and had just, four months before, taken their first trip together where Alistair introduced her to his mother in Scotland. “It’s been a long time since I’d brought anyone home.”
In the four months since they returned from their trip, Alistair, it seemed, had been disengaging from the relationship—spending most of his times with friends, ‘forgetting’ to include Cherry in his social plans, not calling her when he said he would. She felt the Scotland trip, the introduction to his family, the bonding with his mother over tea in a manor house, solidified their relationship; when in fact the opposite happened upon their return, Cherry thought perhaps she’d done something wrong. Did she inadvertently allude to marriage on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, a chaotic evening she can’t recall after the third martini? Did Alistair’s mother not approve of her?
When Cherry finally got off work, she found Alistair resting on the couch with the remote in hand, flipping through channels at high speed. She’d spent the whole day in her cubicle with grey walls, sitting before her monitor with an open spreadsheet, as if analyzing important data, when in reality she attempted to contact Alistair by email, text, chat, wishing she could make up an excuse, any excuse, to leave work early without drawing attention to herself.
Alistair seemed quite normal when she arrived to his flat, unlike the romantic notion she held in her mind about coming to his rescue in his time of need. She repeated the word helpless to herself, liked the sound of it, the feel of it. Except for a limp in his right leg caused by a bruised thigh, where the car bumper had made its first impact, and a large abrasion on the left side of his forehead, which was covered in a thick clear cream and a white square bandage, he was the same old Alistair. Cherry tried to contain her disappointment.
“You don’t have to stay long, Cherry.”
“Let me elevate your leg with pillows,” she said.
Cherry phoned her roommate to let her know Alistair needed her for the next few days, possibly longer. Her roommate agreed to feed Cherry’s dog and take him on walks until she returned, which was a grand gesture considering her roommate had just lost her own dog to illness.
That night, after falling asleep with the aid of several cups of chamomile tea Cherry prepared for him, Alistair woke up confused and in pain. She rushed to his roommate Rochelle’s bedroom for help but she wasn’t there. Rochelle’d recently starting seeing someone new, so she was rarely home. Her large, expansive room, a combination of what was supposed to be a living room and dining room, was dark; the only thing Cherry could make out were the masks on the wall and the round beanbag cushions on the floor. Alistair and Rochelle could’ve had sex in here, she thought, and she’d never know.
The tech who responded to her 911 call asked Alistair a series of questions he couldn’t answer. “What year is it? Who is President?” Usually he was in charge, quick-witted. He’d asked Cherry out within the first few months in his new position. She’d been single by choice, or so she told herself; he’d just gotten out of a green card marriage. Over martinis late one night, after an offsite filled with team-building exercises, he whispered in her ear, “Show me why they call you ‘Cherry.’” She laughed. Although for the first time she felt embarrassed by her family nickname—wished she’d reverted to her given name, Cheralyn, before they met. ‘Cherry’ made her feel immature and fruitlike.
The tech repeated his question, “What year is it?” He held a flashlight to Alistair’s eyes, temporarily blinding him, scanning his pupils like a search light looking for a capsized boat in a vast ocean.
“He was hit by a car this morning, for fuck’s sake,” she said.
Alistair held on to the railing and the tech’s arm in preparation to move to the ambulance. Cherry saw moisture gather in the crease of his eyes. She grew excited, assured that her role, at least for the next few days, was to be his sole caretaker.
The last time Alistair had ridden in an ambulance was when he was eight years old, shortly after his father skipped out on his mother. A boy older than him had pushed the carousel in the Council Housing playground too fast, causing Alistair to lose his grip, fall under the moving structure, where a piece of metal pierced his scalp. In the hospital, the doctors placed Alistair under a thick, scratchy blanket before he smelled alcohol and felt a sharp sting on his head and passed out. If he searched long enough, he could still find the small bald patch the size of a quarter in the back of his head that once held several stitches.
His mother, adjusting to her new role as a single parent, and pining over Alistair’s father who left for no good reason, panicked when Alistair got hurt. It was her neighbor who called for a doctor, and it was the same neighbor who answered the doctor’s questions about his name and age, and watched Alistair’s four-year-old sister while his mother accompanied him to the hospital.
For many months after his father left, Alistair became accustomed to his mother’s new ways: she slept in all morning, got herself out of bed for a cup of tea, and then sat in front of the small television with poor reception until Alistair or his younger sister begged her for dinner. Sometimes they missed school but she didn’t care. He finally learned to boil water for macaroni and make cucumber sandwiches so they didn’t have to depend on their mother at all. Every time he found the bald spot on his head, Cherry saw him rub it in circles with his index finger, around and around.
In the hospital parking lot, there were bits of torn paper and soda cans alongside the entryway of the emergency room, scruffy men drinking from bottles hidden in paper bags, the automatic doors leading into the hospital opening each time one of them passed by. A security guard circled the lot, playing with his night stick.
The technician parked Alistair’s gurney in the hallway until a room became vacant, and asked Cherry to fill out paperwork at the registration desk. In the rush to get him to the hospital, she hadn’t grabbed his wallet. The clerk looked at the rows of empty boxes on the form.
“We don’t live together,” said Cherry.
After about an hour of standing next to Alistair’s gurney under the bright hospital lights, dressed in all black with red shoes, a work outfit she’d assembled earlier that morning to tease Alistair, she asked if a room would be available soon.
“Nope, there’s a full moon tonight,” she said. “Thas when the fun begins.”
Another hour passed. The doors of the emergency room opened and closed, opened and closed, as more patients streamed in, eventually parked in their gurneys alongside Alistair in the hallway. He let out a series of load moans, so Cherry begged the nurse to at least give him something for pain until the doctor could see him. His constant moaning in the hallway both upset and embarrassed her. Why did it matter? He was the victim. Someone had hit him.
A young doctor dressed in loose scrubs came by to apologize for the wait as he filled a syringe with a clear liquid, stuck it in Alistair’s arm, and pushed the fluid inside him.
“Holy shit,” Alistair said, as his eyes rolled back and then closed for what would be a long sleep.
They wheeled a man with a bloody bandage around his head out of one of the rooms, and immediately moved Alistair in. The same young doctor returned, and Cherry had to speak on Alistair’s behalf since he was too drugged up to communicate.
They stood on either side of his hospital bed, talking over him as if he weren’t there. She wondered if the youthful doctor was an intern. He looked mid-30ish, clean shaven, short, dark hair, even tan—the opposite of Alistair’s bright blonde hair and fair complexion. The doctor asked a few questions, and then asked her to wait while he ordered a scan of Alistair’s head.
When the test results came back, the doctor let her know he suffered a concussion, and that it was okay to let him sleep, despite the myth that a person with a concussion shouldn’t.
“It’d be best to follow up with his regular doctor tomorrow,” he said. “He does have one, right?”
“I’m sure he does,” she said.
“Well if he doesn’t, here’s my card.”
It wasn’t the type of business card you’d expect from a doctor. It was his personal business card with a dark purple background and yellow neon lettering. In addition to being a medical doctor, he was into energy healing, chakra alignment and Reiki.
“Can we call a cab?” asked Cherry. It was nearly 2 a.m.
“Do you guys live in the neighborhood?”
“He’s in the Mission, and I’m over on 44th Avenue, near the Park.”
“You don’t live together?”
The young doctor gave her a bright, wide smile.
“Hang on to my card, just in case,” he winked.
Alistair dove into his bed when they got to his place, pulled the covers over his head, let out a few loud moans and then passed out for the rest of the night. The bar crowds were dispersing in the streets, something she rarely heard out in the Avenues. Cherry ran her fingers along his hairline, adjusted the covers while he slept. There was an urge to look through his drawers, his shoeboxes filled with letters in the closet, old pictures of girlfriends he’d had in Berlin, London and New York, the last city he’d lived in before moving to San Francisco. It was his fault she felt the urge to snoop—he never talked about the past or the future. Finally, she turned off the light, unable to sleep, unwilling to let her newfound role as caretaker slip away.
Cherry called in sick the next morning. She could almost feel the whispers in the hallways and cubes at work. “Isn’t that a coincidence?” While Alistair slept, she tiptoed from his bedroom down the long hallway leading to the kitchen to fix him black tea and toast. His roommate Rochelle came out from the acupuncture room to search through her glass bottles filled with unmarked herbs. By the slow and soft way she moved, Cherry knew she had a patient. She never knew if Rochelle was certified but there were faded certificates in Chinese hanging on the treatment room wall.
“Hey,” she said. “So like, how is he?”
She asked about him as if he were recovering from a hangover.
“I looked for you last night,” said Cherry. “Could’ve used your help.”
Rochelle grabbed a handful of herbs. “He’s sooo lucky to have you here,” she said, before hurrying away.
Cherry brought the breakfast things into Alistair’s room but he wasn’t hungry.
“Who’s President?” she asked.
“Good, you’re feeling better.”
He asked her to take his suit to the cleaners, the one he was wearing at the time of the accident, and to pick up his prescription medication at Walgreen’s. Cherry stepped into the warm streets, in awe of the way people went about their shopping during the day, the way the world moved when she was usually at work. She passed a grocery store with loads of fruit stacked up under a striped awning. Dance music blared from a clothing store that displayed three manikins from behind, who existed from waist down only, with large, plump asses.
“This gonna be extra,” said the woman at the dry cleaner’s when she saw the blood stains.
“But you know him. It’s Alistair, the Scottish guy. Looks like James Bond,” said Cherry.
“Sahrry, blood extra.”
“He got hit by a car yesterday.”
“Pick up on Tuesday,” she said.
When Cherry arrived at Walgreen’s, the pharmacist said it would take about twenty minutes to fill the prescription, so she wandered the aisles of the store, looking at the vintage candy, thinking about hot summers growing up in San Jose— Jujubes, Bit-O-Honey, Mary Jane’s, Abba Zabba, Bubblicious. In the hygiene aisle, some of the fancier toothbrushes with bright colors, tilted heads, futuristic angles, were locked up behind a glass case, with a sign that said you had to ask for assistance.
When Cherry realized she’d been gone for nearly half an hour, she began to panic. What if he passed out, or was unable to breathe? She imagined his throat constricting, tightening. When the medication was finally ready, she rushed down Valencia, across 23rd and over to Van Ness, with a level of excitement and fear.
She pushed her way into his room, prepared to make another 911 call if necessary. But he was exactly the way she left him. Curled up on his side with a pillow. Cherry gripped the bag of medication, sat down on the floor and exhaled.
No one was sure where Alistair’s father went after he left. There were rumors that he climbed a tall mountain in Scotland and never returned. Other stories were that he sailed across to America where he likely lived in a shack in a secluded area. He was a nature man who felt uncomfortable and uneasy in the urban, loud Council Housing units. But the reason the family had to live in government-assisted housing in the first place was due to the fact that Alistair’s father couldn’t hold down a steady job.
His own father, Alistair’s grandfather, had abandoned his family at a time when Alistair’s grandmother had five small mouths to feed and another one on the way. As told to Cherry by Alistair’s mother during their long, private lunch, Alistair’s grandfather got up one morning, had breakfast, patted the children on the head, as he’d done many mornings before, and never came back.
Alistair’s father was the oldest and therefore had responsibilities the other children did not. At ten years old, he had a list of chores to squeeze in before and after school: wake up his siblings, prepare the toast, sort out any crying at the breakfast table, walk them to school, make their afternoon tea, help with homework and nudge his mother when she stared for too long at a blank wall. He’d stopped going to school due to fatigue, and no one seemed to notice. It would be years before Alistair’s grandmother realized he’d spent his days walking the hills and dales, fishing alone.
When Alistair’s father met his mother, they courted for a brief time before marrying. His father had warned his new bride he was dead set against having children, that he felt he’d already raised a family well before his time. She agreed and understood, but neglected to use protection because all she’d thought about as a young girl was having a baby or two with the man she loved. She convinced herself that her husband would change his mind as soon as he held their child in his arms. As she recounted the story to Cherry over lunch, she realized, as if for the first time, it was some type of small miracle that Alistair’s father had managed to stay around until his eighth birthday.
The following week, down in the café of the building where they worked, Cherry ran into Alistair, who was in a hurry for a meeting. He stood in line to pay for yogurt and granola.
“Is that your lunch?” asked Cherry. “You really should eat more.”
She reached for the scrape on his forehead, which was no longer a bright red patch but a series of light brown spots, and he backed away before she could make contact.
“Not here,” he said.
He turned his back to her as he rummaged through his wallet for cash, trying to balance his heavy shoulder bag with a large binder bursting with paper. The café was loud and full of people; staff from four other non-profits in the building frequented it each day. When Cherry tried to hold the binder for Alistair, to make things easier for him, he turned away. “I’m fine.”
Cherry wanted to ask if they could have dinner together mid-week and possibly on Saturday, too. She was working up to seeing him twice a week although he let her know once a week was the most he could do given his busy work, travel and exercise schedule. But she was there when he needed her most and thought that should count for something.
“I’m in Vegas this weekend,” he said, before rushing off to his next meeting.
She’d forgotten about the Vegas trip. When he mentioned it to her weeks before, he said it was a “male bonding” trip with colleagues. She later learned at least two of the men decided to bring their girlfriends. His excuse for not inviting Cherry to events was always one she couldn’t argue against—their colleagues would be there.
When she returned to her desk with a sandwich, Melissa knocked on her cube entrance to share the good news. Melissa led the Development team and was known to kiss up to wealthy donors in hopes of landing in their will. She once told Cherry, “I made it a point to compliment the Impressionist paintings in Mr. Fischer’s private art collection so he’d know I was a connoisseur.”
“Guess who just gave us a $500,000 check?” said Melissa.
Cherry was unable to guess who it might’ve been. It was the largest individual donation she’d heard of in the five years she’d been with the organization.
“Adeline Scott!” she said.
Adeline Scott was the striking daughter and heiress of Abraham Scott who had made his fortune as a builder responsible for large-scale development in San Francisco. He was the son of a laborer who watched his parents struggle to feed him and his brother over the years. By high school, Abraham had dropped out of school to help his family, and was taken in by James Callan, as an apprentice on a construction site. Mr. Callan, who had no children of his own, grew fond of Abraham and began to think of him as a son. When he died thirty years later, he left a third of his empire to Abraham, a third to his wife, and the rest to charity.
Melissa held the check in her hand, smoothed it out several times, and thought out loud about what she would do if the money were hers.
“I’d stay in the top floor suite of the Hotel Paris in Monaco and order room service for every meal until it all ran out!” she said.
“Or I’d stay two weeks, and then fly to Rio, where I’ve always wanted to go.”
The longer she held the check, the more reality started to settle in.
“Actually, I’d just go to Hawaii for a week and invest the rest so I could live off the dividends.”
“That wouldn’t be enough to live on in the Bay Area,” said Cherry.
“Thanks for bursting my bubble,” she said.
Cherry texted Alistair soon after Melissa left to share the good news with Amy in the next cube.
He wrote back, “I know, I brought it in.”
If she could, Cherry would boast about Alistair’s talent, about his ability to get donors and volunteers excited about the agency’s mission to bring theatre to low-income, disadvantaged youth in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He could sell almost anything to anyone, she thought. But she had to sit quietly with her pride in his accomplishments, at least until their relationship became public one day, which she hoped would be soon.
Cherry slept in Saturday morning despite her dog begging her to go out. She tried to reach Alistair before he started his day in Vegas but was unable to reach him. She adjusted her phone to the loudest ring tone possible in anticipation of his call later in the day. Was he asleep in his hotel room? Was he alone? Thoughts like these had to be erased from her mind at once. It wasn’t fair, she thought, not to trust him when he hadn’t given her any reason to.
Her roommate was away for the weekend so Cherry walked around in Alistair’s T-shirt and boxers. First she made breakfast of dry toast and weak tea. Outside the kitchen window, there was a small blonde girl and her younger brother, Cherry guessed, playing in the front yard. The girl took her brother around in a wagon while he pulled on an imaginary cord that blew the train’s whistle. They circled around and around in the small driveway, making use of the confined playing space that city kids had to adjust to. Their mother knelt before a garden pulling weeds; every now and then she looked up at her children and smiled.
When Cherry first met Alistair, he said he wasn’t interested in marriage or in children, except when they turned twenty-one and were old enough to go drinking. But Cherry knew he couldn’t have possibly meant what he said. People like that spoke out of fear; she knew this from the myriad self-help books she’d read over the years. She’d read so many, in fact, she felt she could open her own private practice to help people with their relationships. A life coach of sorts.
She stood under the hot water of the shower for a long time. Finally, she walked her dog to the park and threw pine cones for him, his favorite toy. Above her, the wind moved through the trees, small grey squirrels chased each other across the twigs and leaves on the park floor before shooting up the tree and disappearing, only to come running down again and repeating the pattern.
Her apartment was quiet when she got home. She flipped through one of her roommate’s magazines on running and wondered why anyone would do such a sport for fun. It was times like these that she’d wished they’d ordered cable TV. A little bit of background noise would’ve helped. There was a substantial pile of laundry in the closet but she couldn’t bear to gather her clothes up and trek over to the Laundromat, even though it was only a block away. Besides, her friend who owned the juice shop on the corner might see her alone; he let her know more than once that he didn’t like Alistair. She didn’t want to have to explain why she was alone that weekend.
By dinner time, she still hadn’t heard from Alistair, nor did she hear from him the next day. She started replaying their conversations in her mind about whether or not he said he would call. He never actually said he would, she thought, so he wasn’t breaking any promises. Cherry wished she could be a more understanding and trusting girlfriend; of course he needed to get away every now and then and relax: his job was stressful, unlike hers, he liked to remind her, which was a job that a monkey could do. Cherry had no intention of staying in her role for as long as she had, and was close to submitting her resume to other agencies until Alistair showed up. And now that they were an item, she couldn’t think of leaving, especially since the hour or two she glimpsed him in a meeting at work or in the café was the highlight of her day.
For the next several months, Cherry and Alistair met for dinner once a week, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. He liked to keep his weekends open, he’d explained, because every minute of his day was scheduled during the week. So Cherry began to keep her weekends open, too, just in case Alistair rang at the last minute wanting to catch a movie or grab breakfast, which rarely happened. Still, it was important to her to be there when he needed her, no matter what time of day.
One Wednesday night, while they sat at the bar at Tokyo-A-Go-Go in the Mission, Alistair let Cherry know that Ian, a childhood friend of his from Scotland, was coming to visit that weekend. They’d planned to drive up to Napa on Saturday and possibly watch a soccer match at a sports bar in the Marina on Sunday.
“You should join us,” he said.
Cherry was excited to meet Alistair’s good friend; it confirmed for her that he was indeed serious about their relationship. While she wasn’t invited to superficial outings such as happy hours in loud bars after work, he did make sure to introduce her to meaningful people in his life. As long as she lived, she’d never forget the Scotland trip. For the first time, she felt important and special because someone as smart and charming as Alistair wanted to be with her. It meant the world to her that he’d paid for Cherry and his mother to have lunch in the manor house, just the two of them, so they could bond. Why would he do that if marriage weren’t on his mind?
Ian came into town on Friday, and Alistair left work early to pick him up at the airport. Cherry left shortly after him so she could rush home, feed and walk her dog, and take her time applying makeup and fixing her hair. She had to make an impression. The plan was for Alistair and Ian to drop off Ian’s bags at Alistair’s flat, and then to call Cherry as soon as they got to a bar. She took her time in front of the mirror, blowing out her hair, section by section, before taking a flat iron to give it a shimmery, smooth look. She used concealer under her eyes and over spots on her face, brushed on a light layer of powder, shaped her eyebrows and applied black mascara to the outer edges of her lashes. She finished off with a deep red lipstick, perfect for an evening out with Alistair.
By 7 p.m., she hadn’t heard from him. Cherry lay on her bed with her dog, careful not to move so as to keep her hair in tact. A half an hour later, she rang him but it went straight to voicemail. They must’ve been caught up in traffic, she thought. Anything could happen on a Friday night. Was it the last Friday of the month? Maybe they were stuck behind Critical Mass or perhaps Ian’s flight was delayed?
By the time she finally reached him, it was past midnight, they were at a dive bar and Alistair was drunk.
“Sorry, dahling, we got caught up. Haven’t seen each other in feckin’ forever.”
“But I’ve been waiting,” said Cherry.
“I’ll make it up to you, dahling.”
The next morning, she met Ian and Alistair for breakfast at his place. She was still upset over the night before, but didn’t want to ruin Ian’s visit so she let it go. Alistair ran to the local store to get some breakfast items, leaving Ian and Cherry alone.
“So what’d you think of Scotland?” asked Ian.
“I loved it. Absolutely. Could really see myself living there for part of the year,” she said.
“Are you planning to move there one day?”
“One day. Perhaps when Alistair and I get married. We could bring the children to see his mother.”
Ian choked on his orange juice.
“You’re not serious?” he asked.
“You never know,” said Cherry, shrugging her shoulders. “His mother likes me.”
“The chances of this wanker getting married and having children is as likely as a volcano erupting in the middle of Edinburgh,” he said.
Cherry laughed, and then decided she didn’t like Ian very much.
Alistair returned with bags of groceries and made a greasy, gourmet breakfast for them, including mimosas, fried potatoes and eggs. Cherry had three drinks and started to feel ready for a weekend with them. When they were finished, Alistair explained that plans had changed.
“We’ve scrapped Napa,” he said. “Instead we’re going to hang out with Mike and Donna from work.”
“But then I can’t—“
“Sorry, dahling. I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” said Alistair, kissing Cherry on the forehead.
For the next week, Alistair seemed to be caught up in meetings, more so than usual, with his calendar blocked off for hours at a time in the afternoons. When she hadn’t heard from him by Wednesday, or seen him around the office or in the café, she called him that night.
“Did you hear?” he asked.
“I’ve been placed on administrative leave.”
“They found out? About us?”
“Let me call you from my roommate’s landline,” he said. “I don’t trust this cell phone.”
He called back an hour later.
“What took so long?” asked Cherry.
“Rochelle was on her phone.”
“So what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Someone gave HR an anonymous tip. They said I was sleeping with Adeline Scott, and that was how I got the big donation.”
“Is this a joke?”
“This is not a joke, Cherry,” he said.
After a long pause, he asked, “It wasn’t you, was it?”
“Fuck you, Alistair.”
“Sorry, dahling. I just don’t know who to trust or what to think right now.”
He said, “Listen to me, Cherry. We’re not to talk to each other or see each other for a while, until everything clears. I mean it. Don’t even look in my direction and don’t even think about calling me.”
“God, this isn’t happening,” she said.
“You can be sure as fuck it’s happening.”
The phone calls from curious and concerned colleagues and even Adeline Scott came streaming in the first week Alistair had been let go—resigned, actually. The Board had given him two choices: resign with a clean record or fight the accusations, which could be costly for him, both in time and money. Cherry was surprised when he chose the former instead of the latter; she felt he’d given up too easily and allowed the Board to push him around.
The first thing Alistair did was change his cell phone to a different number and unplug Rochelle’s landline during the day when she wasn’t home. He sat on the couch in grey sweats, with the remote and a glass of wine before lunch. Cherry was the only person he would see. She stayed with him day and night, except when she was at work, where she no longer spoke to colleagues. If anyone, particularly Michelle, who Cherry had suspected as the anonymous rat, tried to have a conversation with her about Alistair or any other matter, Cherry would ask them to send her an email. Her eyes stayed fixed to spreadsheets as colleagues tried to communicate with her. She hated Michelle and everyone around her for spreading false rumors about Alistair and Adeline Scott. It took every bit of restraint for her not to stand up on a chair in the conference room and announce to all that she and Alistair were in a serious relationship, therefore rendering the whole supposed affair with Adeline Scott implausible.
Cherry suspected it was Michelle who’d done the damage because she had applied for Alistair’s position as Executive Director and was poised for the job until a recruiter, at the last minute, had sent in Alistair’s resume to the Board. They flew him out from New York for a series of interviews and then decided, after much debate, that he was the right person for the position. Michelle made it her priority when he first arrived to criticize everything he did, every opinion or idea he had. Her jealousy couldn’t have been more obvious, Cherry thought.
Each morning, Cherry made breakfast in bed for Alistair before she left for work. She’d call him several times a day, every hour on the hour, to check up on him once she was at work. She missed deadlines, spaced out in meetings, searched the job postings for another position. Without Alistair, it no longer made sense for her to stay at the agency. There was no more anticipation of him turning up in her cube unannounced to ask about her weekend or to slip her a note that read “Take off your shirt.” There were no more opportunities to watch him shine in the conference room as he spoke about the agency’s mission to infuse art into the lives of children who were otherwise headed for drugs, gang violence and early pregnancy. Cherry felt others were simply doing their job, while Alistair was singularly focused on making the world a better place. It sickened her when she thought of the poor kids who would go without art in their lives because the Board decided to play power games with Alistair.
Nevertheless, the world—her world—had finally turned into the kind of life she’d always dreamed of. Alistair refused to meet or talk to anyone. He trusted no one, except Cherry. He even refused to talk to his mother in Scotland for fear she would pick up on something strange in his voice and know there was a serious problem.
“Let’s go to dinner,” said Cherry. It was a Friday night. She couldn’t remember the last time Alistair was available for dinner on a weekend night.
“We might run into someone.”
“You can’t stay holed up in your flat forever. We’ll go somewhere dark and quiet.”
In the grimy El Salvadorian restaurant around the corner from his flat, a place neither he nor she ever frequented before, they sat in the back near the restrooms, with Alistair facing the door so he could see every person who walked in, could be forewarned if the need to hide in the bathroom arose. He acted like he’d committed a major felony, Cherry thought, and was a fugitive on the run. He thought his phone was tapped, and that he was being watched by someone hired by the Board to find concrete evidence that he was indeed shagging Adeline Scott.
“I’ll have another margarita,” said Alistair.
It was his third one in less than half an hour. He’d hardly touched his food. Cherry, on the other hand, had a good appetite.
“I was thinking we could try that new Peruvian place next Friday,” she said.
“I’m not on vacation, Cherry.”
He flagged the waiter to ask for a fourth drink. The waiter looked at Cherry.
They sat there for a while with nowhere to go. Alistair had been cooped up in his flat all day waiting for Cherry to finish work; she could tell he was relieved to be out, even if they were in a less than desirable place. When he ordered a shot of tequila, Cherry didn’t protest. “Get it out of your system,’ she said.
“My father would be proud if he could see me now,” said Alistair.
“Stop being hard on yourself. Besides, your father left so he’s got nothing on you,” said Cherry.
“He was a good man, I remember.”
Alistair downed the shot and then sucked on a lime.
“The only thing he remembered about his own father was a pipe he used to smoke. Can you imagine that? Every time he smelled pipe smoke he’d stop what he was doing.”
Alistair drank progressively more each day. For weeks, he fixed himself to the couch and waited for Cherry to get off work, where she found him unshaven and still dressed in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Finally, she quit her job so she could be with him all day. He needed her more now than ever, she thought.
Four weeks after he’d resigned, on a warm day in August, Alistair had drank so much Scotch he passed out and vomited all over himself. Getting sick was a good sign, it meant that he was letting things go, but she called 911 anyway in case he had serious alcohol poisoning. In the emergency room, she saw in the distance the same young doctor who had treated Alistair after he was hit by a car. Cherry felt excited. She still had his card somewhere in her purse; each time she came across it when cleaning out her purse, she decided not to throw it away.
She applied fresh lip gloss. Alistair moaned and opened his eyes for a second before shutting them again. The doctor was coming their way. He wore light green scrubs and a face mask dangling off the side of his chin. As he walked, he consulted a file and spoke with a nurse. He was more handsome than Cherry remembered. If things didn’t work out with Alistair, she thought, perhaps she would call the doctor.
He walked past Alistair and Cherry in the waiting room, looked directly at Cherry and walked away. Didn’t he recognize her? She wondered if he was playing hard to get. She let go of Alistair’s hand and followed him down the corridor.
“Excuse me, doctor.”
“Yes, how can I help you?”
She stood there for a moment, giving him a chance to recognize her.
“Miss, how can I help you?”
“Oh, I was wondering if you were our doctor. My boyfriend is not well.”
“Just hang tight and a doctor will see him soon.”
He approached the registration desk and pointed at Cherry and the receptionist nodded. Cherry stood in the bright lights of the hospital corridor as the young doctor turned the corner and disappeared. She returned to Alistair, who had leaned over to the chair beside him. A woman sitting across from them in the waiting room gave Cherry a hard stare.
The AA meetings the doctor had suggested for Alistair helped at first, but, more than anything, his disgust at the whole institution began to pull him out of his slump. Cherry insisted that he continue to attend, that he needed it more than he knew, and that she would go with him for support. He was more humble in those meetings, a different person almost, with her and everyone around him. She’d never seen him show that kind of compassion towards other people. Maybe with the low-income kids who participated in the theatre programs, but it was a different kind of sympathy he held for the other AA members. But, after the constant check-ins and phone calls from other members started to increase, and they began to match Alistair with a sponsor who would help him through the program and on to recovery, Alistair refused to return.
“I’ll get my shit together on my own.”
For the next several weeks, Alistair woke up early, went for a morning run while Cherry was still asleep, and made a light breakfast of fruit and toast. He spent the morning and early afternoon researching jobs, submitting his resume and speaking with recruiters about the types of positions he was looking for. Cherry urged him to slow down, take it easy during this time of transition, and not to rush back to work. Besides, it felt like they were on vacation together: she wanted to wake up late, watch TV in their pajamas, make love in the late afternoon, followed by a nap, and cook dinner together. Cherry was hardly home these days, and her roommate had agreed to continue to care for her dog but now asked for payment. Even though Cherry was no longer working and had little savings, she agreed to compensate her.
In all the time she’d been by Alistair’s side after the accusation and resignation, she’d never once asked him if the rumor about he and Adeline Scott was true. The many times she’d felt the urge to ask, she was overcome by guilt for not trusting him. There were many occasions when he went on trips or out with friends without Cherry, and so the opportunities were there. What did he do all those Friday nights when she sat at home alone? But she would never ask. She wanted to hold sacred at least one thing in their relationship, and that was the deep trust she held for him.
“I’ve been offered a position in Europe,” said Alistair.
He was washing up dishes that evening and had hinted to Cherry that she should go home, freshen up, and spend a night at her place with her dog.
“I’d be a consultant to agencies throughout Europe on their fundraising models and organizational structure.”
Cherry wasn’t expecting him to find a position so soon, and certainly not one in Europe. He’d just arrived to San Francisco, and their relationship was just beginning to solidify after many ups and downs. Why change a good thing? Of course he’d want to take her along, but was she ready to leave? And would her dog be able to come without being placed for months in quarantine? She wouldn’t be able to work in Europe unless they were married.
“What about us?” asked Cherry.
“I can’t think about that right now,” he said. “I can’t think about that at all.”
Cherry looked around at his belongings—his tattered couch from Goodwill, the light with no lampshade, finely pressed suits and an assortment of ties in his closet, and boxes filled with mementos from all the places he’d lived over the years and letters from women he’d dated. His suitcase was stored at the back of the closet. It would be large enough for him to fill it with everything important he needed, and nothing more.
© 2018 Beverly Parayno