All of my bags are packed and I’m ready to go. If I had some white shoe polish, I’d do like we did in the nineties and scribble “Panama City Beach or BUST” on my back windshield.
Spring break is finally here, and for the next week I’m a free woman. No students to teach, no projects to grade, no paintbrushes to wash, and, best of all, no bitchy Catherine Hilliard riding my ass like a fat lady on a Rascal.
I’m sick of her and I’m tired of my job and I need a vacation worse than Nancy Grace needs a chill pill. I wish we were leaving tonight. I squeeze a lime into my beer and head out the back door with Señor Buster Loo Bluefeather hot on my heels. While Buster Loo does speedy-dog crazy eights around my flower beds, I flip on the multi-colored Christmas lights, settle into my overstuffed lounger, and start daydreaming about white sandy beaches, piña coladas, and hot men in their twenties.
My phone dings and in the two seconds it takes me to look at the caller ID, I wish a thousand times it was a text from Mason McKenzie.
I wouldn’t give Mason McKenzie the time of day, and he knows I wouldn’t give him the time of day, so it's ridiculous for me to wish that he would text me, but I still do. Every day.
Of course, it’s not a text from him; it’s one from my best bud, Lilly Lane.
Call me. I will never understand the logic of sending a text message that says call me. Lilly Lane is one of those cellular addicts who could carry on a full-fledged six hour conversation via text message. Sometimes her messages are so encrypted with abbreviations that I just pick up the phone and call her, which pisses her off. She’s like, “I’m texting you. Why are you calling me? If I wanted to talk to you I would’ve texted you and told you to call me.”
Oh, so I’m the idiot? Right.
Then I’ll say something like, “Hey, heifer, save it for someone who cares and tell me what the hell that last message was supposed to mean. I’m not Robert Langdon. I can’t decode symbols, and if you don’t want me to call you, then send me some crap I can read.”
But I can read this particular text, so I prop my feet up on the lounger and give her a call.
“Ace,” she says, and it sounds like she’s been running, but she’s not a runner. “I’m not gonna be able to go to Florida.”
“What are you talking about?” I’m confused because spending spring break in Panama City Beach is one of our most sacred and beloved traditions.
“I can’t go.” She pauses. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” I yell into the phone. “Are you freakin’ kidding me? We’re supposed to leave in the morning, Lilly! Like nine hours from right now! What the hell do you mean you can’t go?”
Silence. And then it dawns on me.
For the past five months, Lilly has been seeing someone on the sly whom she will only call the Gentleman, and she’s more tightlipped about him than she was about the time she got a hot dog stuck in her cooter. I think he might be a gross old man with tons of money. I thought about making a list of all the gross old men with money in Bugtussle, Mississippi, and doing some investigating, but I’m not much of a list maker so I probably won’t do that.
Lilly, however, is a habitual list maker, and I don’t mean the kind of list you take to the grocery store. She can go on a date with some dude and by the time they get to wherever they’re going, she’s got a list a mile long of everything she thinks is wrong with him.
I know this because she keeps me updated with a continuous stream of text messages. Not because I ask for them. I don’t.
After the date is over, she documents the potential suitor’s faults on a piece or twelve of loose leaf paper which she then files in an alphabetized four-inch binder. I mean, God forbid she should forget one small thing about a guy nice enough to take her goofy ass out to dinner and a movie.
Some poor fellows hang around long enough to have their list read to them, and the truly unfortunate get shown the actual notebook. Imagine a man looking at a hot pink polka-dot binder stuffed with more than ten years’ worth of documentation on Mr. Wrong.
The Gentleman, however, does not have a list. As far as I can tell, he has only an itinerary. Since the commencement of her super-secret affair, Lilly has been to New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In the past five months. Five months. And she returns from these escapades with truckloads of fancy shopping bags stuffed with extravagant gifts.
I guess she may have finally found her Mr. Right, although I have serious doubts about how right a man can be who requires such secrecy concerning his identity.
Further adding to the mystery of this surreptitious affair is that new BMW convertible she started driving about two months ago. I mean, she has some serious cash stacked up from her days as a lingerie model, but I don’t think she’d blow every last dime of it on an automobile. Maybe the Gentleman is a rich man in a midlife crisis. The car is red.
Whoever he is, I hate his guts because I’m relatively certain he’s the reason my vacation plans are now in ruins.
“Oh,” I say, “I get it. It’s him. The Gentleman’s got bigger plans for you, Lilly? A little trip down to the Redneck Riviera doesn’t quite measure up to your new travel standards? I can’t buy you six pairs of Manolos and three Gucci purses so I’m out now?”
“Ace, please don’t do this to me. Just get someone else to go.”
“Don’t do this to you?” I yell and feel my face getting hot. “How about you don’t do this to me? And who the hell am I gonna get who can pack up and be ready on such short notice? I’m the only person I know who is that spontaneous.”
“You could ask Chloe,” she peeps.
“Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea. I mean, Chloe can’t go to the mailbox without being watched, so I’m sure her adoring husband would just love it if she took off on a trip to the beach where she might actually get to relax and enjoy herself. Why can’t I come up with ideas that brilliant?”
Chloe is married to Richard Stacks the Fourth, a prominent pillar in the Bugtussle community who puts a ridiculous amount of effort into his let-me-get-that-door-for-you-my-sweet-beloved-wife-because-I’m-a-perfect-husband persona. In private, however, he talks to Chloe like she’s a shit-eating dog. It’s been almost six years since that midnight phone call when Chloe quietly confided the details of her first verbal beat-down. She’d only been married a few months and asked me what I thought she should do. I told her to pack her crap and come to my house. She wouldn’t. I told her to go in the bedroom and super glue his lips together. She wouldn’t do that either. I was about to ask her why she called me if she wasn’t going to heed my stellar advice when it dawned on me that what she needed was for me to clarify who the bad guy was and that it wasn’t her. Soon afterward, Richard had an affair with a skanky-ass local woman who, upon discovering that she was not his only mistress, told everyone in town that he was a gruesome nymphomaniac with a weird, tiny penis. His other concubines didn’t mind sharing, and rumors of his sexual deviance became standard fodder for the rumor mill.
Chloe refuses to acknowledge his infidelity, shrouds herself in ignorance, and stands by in silence as he flaunts his gentlemanly manners in public. She won’t entertain even the slightest suggestion of divorce and ignores me when I say he should be killed. I’ve offered to do just that on several occasions and come up with some good places to hide the body, but she is determined to make her marriage work because she thinks he can change. I think the only thing that can change a man like that is a bullet to the skull. Just like that Dixie Chicks song about Earl.
Silence on the line.
“Well,” I say.
“Well,” she says, “I think you should go on down to Florida and try to patch things up with Mason. You could stop by Pelican Cove on your way to Panama City and y’all could have lunch or something, and maybe work things out. When I was at the bar the other day, Ethan Allen told me he isn’t seeing anybody and, honestly, Ace, I think he’s just waiting on you to come back.”
“Is that what you think?” I ask, heavy on the sarcasm. “How could you even bring that up right now? What the hell is wrong with you?” I pause. “But, hey. I do appreciate you sitting up at the bar and hashing out my personal business with Ethan Allen.”
“Ace, I’m sorry but you’re the only person who doesn’t see what a big mistake you made when you packed up and left Mason in one your famous fits of rage! No one else will say anything to you because they know you’ll go ape-shit crazy—”
“Just stop right there,” I interrupt. My face is on fire. “You have got to be out of your damn mind. I mean, first you text me and tell me to call you, which is stupid as shit by the way; then you tell me you’re ditching our trip, a trip we take every year and you know how much it means to me; then you suggest I take along our poor little friend who can’t go to the grocery store without being interrogated; and after all of that, you have the balls to start babbling about how I need to patch things up with Mason. Seriously, Lilly?” I take a deep breath. “Is that what you really think, or is this you worming your way out of our trip because your Gentleman came calling?”
She doesn’t say anything.
“You have to admit it’s a pretty convenient thing to bring up now.”
“You’re gonna ditch me the night before we leave?” I ask, making a legitimate effort to be calm. “Really?”
“I’m sorry. It's not what you think. I have to be somewhere.”
“You have to be somewhere?” The sarcasm oozes like lava. “Where exactly do you have to be, Lilly?”
“Paris.” She sounds like a baby frog trying to find its first croak.
“Really, I thought you quit modeling because you found the lifestyle too exhausting and unfulfilling, and that’s why you came home and started teaching school. Am I right about that?”
“You know I’m not modeling.”
“Just trying to be a better French teacher?”
“Spring break in Paris,” I say with the sarcasm full throttle. “Well, don’t that just take the cake? I’m so happy for you and your Gentleman friend. Or should I say your Gentleman financier.” I put a little French twist on the last syllable. For effect.
“You are so cruel,” she whispers.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely the bitch in this relationship.” I pause.
“Tell me who it is, Lilly. Who is this Gentleman whose plans for you are so much more important than the plans you made with me?”
“You know I can’t tell you who he is.”
“Why not? I really wanna know.”
“Ace, stop, please. I can’t.”
“Right. Of course you can’t. I mean, why would you? It's not like you can trust me. It's not like we’re best friends, good ol’ BFFs forever, right, Lilly?"
“Ace,” she says, and I can tell she’s about to start her stupid squalling like she always does when she needs people to come around to her way of thinking.
“Okay, well. Hey! Thanks for waiting until Friday afternoon to let me know. Have a great trip and I’ll talk to you later—” I pause. “Or maybe not.”
She starts mumbling a string of apologies and I push the red button on my phone with enough pressure to drive a nail through wood. Sorry means as much to me as that dog turd Buster Loo just dropped in that dwarf yaupon holly.
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