A breeze wafted in through my bedroom window, lifting the lace curtains. Down on the street two floors below, a car honked and someone shouted in Spanish. Women chattered and birds chirped. Spring. It had arrived just as gloriously as it always did.
I took a deep breath and gazed at myself in the floor-length mirror leaning against the wall. I meant to hang it weeks ago, but like so much else in the apartment, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. Nearly six months into the lease and I still wasn’t sure how I felt about living alone. It was weird, waking up in the middle of the night and being able to do whatever I wanted. I knew it was good… well, hopefully I would one day see it as good. Besides, it was past time to cross living alone off the bucket list. But it was still odd, just like almost everything else that had happened in my life this past year.
I brushed some of my blonde hair from my eyes and twisted my lips, making a funny face at myself.
“Don’t be nervous,” I said out loud. “You got this.”
I scrunched up my nose, Mirror Me not believing Right Side Me.
“Really,” I stressed to my reflection, giving myself an encouraging fist pump. “Really.”
The one seriously fantastic bonus about living alone that I had discovered? You could talk to yourself twenty-four-seven, and no one else was around to look at you funny.
With a confident nod at myself, I turned from the mirror to rifle through one of my jewelry boxes. My recent visit to the Swap-O-Rama flea market had turned into something akin to hitting a gold mine. Brightly colored chunky bracelets now filled one side of my blue velvet jewelry box. I selected a coral one and an orange one, slipping them both on my left wrist, the blend the perfect complement to my reddish-orange and white romper. Just being fully accessorized had a way of making me feel better.
Snatching up my leather fringed purse from the bed, I left the bedroom and crossed the tiny living room.
“Phone,” I murmured to myself, feeling in the bag for it. “Keys… check.”
I unlocked the front door and yanked it open… then let out a yelp.
“Sorry.” Derek grinned, gazing down at me. His unruly brown hair fell down over one side of his face, nearly hiding one of his eyes. He looked like a college kid trying to be goth. When I first met him, I thought he was actually younger than he was, mostly because of the hair.
I exhaled loudly. “It’s all right. I was just… lost in my head. How are you?”
I rolled up onto my tiptoes so I could reach his face and give him a quick peck on the lips.
“Were you leaving?” He shifted his weight and rested an arm against the doorway. “Yeah, I’m going to the orphanage today. Remember?”“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” He straightened up. “Well, let me walk you to your car.” “Sure.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” He straightened up. “Well, let me walk you to your car.” “Sure.”
Derek stepped out of the way and waited silently while I pulled the door to my apartment closed and locked it up.
“How’s it going over there?” he asked as we clomped down the stairs.
“Good.” I smiled just thinking of their faces. “The kids at Hampton Road are great.”
He pushed the building’s front door open and held it for me as I hurried through and out onto the bright sidewalk. “I parked on the street last night,” I explained. “Just down a bit. I’m sorry you stopped by for nothing. I thought you knew Saturday was going to be my regular day there.”
He shrugged before looping an arm around my shoulder. I pressed up against him, the crook of his arm warm and familiar. Derek and I had been dating for about four months, ever since we met through mutual friends at a concert. He was the only man I’d been with in the whole last year and the relationship sometimes seemed too good to be true. It was smooth, easy. We had our own things that we did separately, and we had our things that we did together. It was my life and his life, the two existing independently but meeting in the middle like one of those bubble graphs showing what two variables had in common. It was a simple and well-defined formula. It worked for us.
Wait. Was that called a bubble chart? Or was there another name for it?
“It’s all right,” Derek replied, jarring me out of my head. “I have a few hours to kill before work.”
I nodded, trying to act like I totally hadn’t spaced out for a few seconds. “How’s it going at the shop?”
“Pretty good. Lots of people bringing in their cars to get checked out before they go on vacation.”
We stopped next to my silver Honda. “I can hang out later,” I told him. “When do you get off work?”
He shrugged. “Depends on what time Rodney leaves. I’ll text you.”
“Okay.” I smiled up at him. “Maybe we can catch a movie or something if you’re not too tired.”
“Yeah, there’s that new James Bond.”
I wrinkled my nose slightly.
Derek laughed, the smile transforming his face. “Come on. You’re the last person who should hate James Bond.”
I snorted. “It’s so fake.”
“Every movie is fake. Those romances you love, especially. People don’t just meet and fall in love then get married all in one week.”
I gently swatted his arm. “That’s not how they go!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, knowing he was right. “Whatever. Well, either way, have a good day.”
“You too, babe.” Derek bent down to kiss me, then turned with a wave before striding off down the street.
Realizing that I had no clue as to what the exact time was, I quickly pulled my keys from my purse and hopped into the car. Being late on my third day of volunteering would not be good. The staff there was friendly and understanding, but I’d been raised to never make people wait. Any time I did it, I ended up feeling awful about myself.
On the first day to Hampton Road Orphanage, I used GPS to take me there. On the second day, I used my memory but then ended up taking the wrong road once or twice. Surely by my third day, I would finally have it down.
Heading out of Chicago after the weekend rush hour meant traffic was fairly light, and I made it to the three-story brownstone in great time. Tall oak trees dappled the small gravel parking lot with shade, making it the perfect temperature. Built decades before as a summer home for some rich scholarly family, a full wraparound porch hugged the building. Lush green grass stretched out all around the property, giving it an impressive amount of land when compared to the lower middle-class houses clumped together on the rest of the street.
I tossed my sunglasses on the passenger seat next to my purse, then locked the car and left everything behind. The upcoming day’s activities were still a mystery, but since my other volunteer hours had involved cleaning the kitchen and taking a group to the park to play basketball, this third one would likely be just as physically involved. I didn’t want to be encumbered by a bag hanging off my shoulder or a ringing cell phone.
I took the front porch steps two at a time, escaping into the cooler air of the awning. Before I could open the door, it flew open, a little face appearing only inches above the door knob.
“Blaire!” Jenny yelled up at me, her strawberry blonde pigtails bouncing along with her feet. “Blaire!”
Though there were a couple dozen kids in the orphanage and I wasn’t even close to remembering half of their names, Jenny would be the hardest to forget. At six, she was one of the most precocious and social kids I’d ever run into. She was also a master manipulator as the orphanage’s director quietly told me on the first day. Jenny could design excuses to get what she wanted like a spider weaves webs.
“Hi Jenny,” I said, stepping inside. “You answer the door now?”
“Jenny!” a woman’s voice called from somewhere down the long hallway.
Jenny ignored the call, instead keeping her pale blue eyes trained on me. “Cris… Cris… on is here.”
“Oh.” I paused, not having even the tiniest idea what the child was talking about. “Okay…well, that’s nice.”
Teresa, the home’s director, popped her head out of the doorway leading to the kitchen. “Jenny! Aren’t you going to go play Red Rover? They’re out there waiting for you.”
“Okay!” the little girl yelled, turning and barreling down the hallway. The back screen door gave under her palms, and a second later, she vanished into the back yard. Realizing the front door was still left hanging wide open, I turned around and gently shut it.
Teresa came out into the hallway, the dozens of gold bangles she always wore clinking together musically as she lifted a hand to brush some silver and black streaked hair from her brow.
“Blaire,” she sighed. “You’re looking good. I love those bracelets. How are you?”
I smiled wide. “Great! How are you?”
“Just fine,” she said with a bright smile of her own. Though Teresa easily had one of the craziest jobs in the whole city, she always moved with grace, constantly wearing a smile and giving her full attention to whoever was in front of her. She reminded me of my mother in a way, although a much calmer version of the woman who raised me. Maybe it was her warmth. She had told me she’d never had any children of her own, but to see her with the twenty kids who lived at Hampton Road, it was clear she felt very motherly towards each and every one of them.
“Good, good.” She sighed lightly and rested her hands on her hips. “Thanks for coming on a Saturday. Amy is busy getting the last minute stuff together for her wedding, so she’s gone until tomorrow. Until then it’s just me.”
“Oh, no worries. It’s my pleasure. I can even stay longer today if you want me to. I have nothing going on.”
She bit her bottom lip, her eyebrows bunching together. “Let’s see… it seems to me I had something… hmm…” She ran her thumb over her lip, thinking hard. “There was something I had planned for you to do, but now I just don’t remember it. Oh well.” She threw her hands up in defeat.
“I can help clean,” I suggested. “Or take some kids to the park. You know, whatever you need.”
She smiled. “Oh, that’s all right. I don’t think any of them will want to leave. One of their favorite visitors is here. He’s out back playing with them.”
I cocked my head. “Really?”
“Mm-hmm. Cristiano Leventis.”
My heart flipped. “The Cristiano Leventis?”
“You’ve heard of him?”
I slowly nodded. “He was on the local news last month. I don’t remember which station, but he was in this segment about up and coming Chicago entrepreneurs.”
“I saw that!” she exclaimed, then wiggled her eyebrows. “He looked so good.”
Yes, he did. So good, in fact, that the sight of his face had bestowed me with my first real insta-crush in years. I hadn’t gone so ga-ga for a guy I didn’t know since fourth grade and N’Sync’s first album cover. His raven black hair, olive toned skin and sparkling amber eyes had practically melted me to the couch cushion.
I swallowed hard. “C-cool.” So that was what Jenny had been trying to spit out. Cristiano was there, in the flesh.
Teresa smiled even wider. “Why don’t you go out and play with them? He’s a really wonderful young man.” She winked at me. “He’s single too… as far as I know.”
I nodded, blushed, and squirmed all at the same time, suddenly feeling put on the spot. Could Teresa read the effect the mention of Cristiano’s name had on me? “All right,” I said with a thick tongue.
Stay professional, I told myself. This isn’t about you getting kicks from the attention of some semi-famous hot guy.