Though shirtless, he only felt naked with out his gold chains. So he draped two or three over his head then walked to the double wooden doors leading to his rented room's outdoor balcony. The cracked doors, thick with many years of paint, opened with much creaking and ushered in great, gold, pulsing streams of morning air. Now everything in the room was gilded. Glowing with the energy of the fresh new day.
He stepped out onto the slightly drooped and ancient hotel balcony, barely six feet wide and half as deep. Below him on the narrow streets, overflowing trash bins were clustered at every corner and every alleyway, awaiting another collection. Waiters in white shirts and long black aprons rode bicycles to their morning restaurant shifts. A few early-bird tourists, overdressed except for their sensible shoes, walked the skinny brick sidewalk in search of coffee, beignets, and adventure. Only cars driving and honking, a dog barking from behind a garden wall, and the voices of early workers were audible so far. No jazz quite yet. He surveyed the neighborhood calmly, wondering where she might be waking up, whether he might see her today. He hoped so.
Then he grinned. She was so beautiful. Nearly black hair, silky straight and bobbed to her shoulders. Olive skin. And a full, smile-ready mouth. How much more beautiful would she look in the daylight?
Then a motorized street-scrubber came barreling around the corner, replacing the liquor-vomit stench with an unnatural lemon-soap fragrance. It left in its wake a four-foot wide ribbon of wet, sudsy blacktop. He wondered if anything would scrub his memory so clean of her face. He hoped not.
The sudden sights and sounds of water broke his reverie and sent him hurrying back inside, to the bathroom. Wake up, man! I pity the fool who daydreams his life away!
A few miles away on Frenchman Street, she had been awake for hours. A band playing at the nearby Spotted Cat club had filled her minuscule hotel room with rolling, thumping, soul-rattling tunes well into the wee hours; then in the relative quiet she had found her thoughts to be even more distracting. Should I go meet him? Was he serious? I'm driving home soon... maybe there's no point.
Of course, she had a talent for spotting interesting men, maybe attracting them, but something in his intense gaze had gripped her. Somehow in the midst of so much activity around them, he had focused all of his steady attention on her. She was slowly allowing herself to enjoy the feeling, slowly admitting to herself that she liked it. He was neither needy nor aggressive about it. Just- ready. Captivated and captivating. He spoke to her with simple words and easy invitations.
Was he serious with that feather earring? You can never tell in this city. Last night, his unusual ornament had given her something to look at, a focal point to break their mutual gaze when it became so warm and heavy she had felt hypnotized.
I really need to sleep before driving. I've got to. But what if he's there waiting for me?
She closed her eyes to block out the garish lime-green wall paint of her weird little hotel room, rolled onto her side, and burrowed deep underneath the thick, scratchy comforter. One pillow on each ear, like giant marshmallow earmuffs, she strained to remember the conversation exactly.
"Well, maybe coffee tomorrow then?" She had offered. A safe enough idea. Tomorrow morning always seems so far away when you're strolling through the French Quarter and have barely finished supper.
"Sure. That sounds great. But not Starbuck's okay? Or Cafe Beignet either. Can't do it," he had said firmly, furrowing his dark brow, "I pity the fool who falls for those tourist traps."
She had suppressed a giggle then, remembering how on her first-ever morning in New Orleans she had fallen for exactly that tourist trap and, fool that she was, pitied herself indeed. She had waited an hour for a three-dollar cup of coffee with no refills. "I know a great spot," she had offered last night. "It's on Royal Street near Jackson Square. Not too crowded, mostly locals, and it has great spinach croissants. How about we meet there tomorrow?" Anyone could tell by looking at this man that he prized fitness and nutrition; surely a spinach croissant would be appealing.
"That sounds real nice." His heavy gaze returned now. "How about 7:30?"
"7:30 is perfect." She had smiled at him with her entire face, even her eyes, allowing the gaze to root so deeply that she felt it tugging at her lungs.
Lively zydeco music spiraled and thrummed at them from an open-air souvenir shop. Our of the colorful, excited darkness a tipsy reveler had stumbled and nearly crashed into her. With ninja-like reflexes, this dark-skinned, muscle-bound stranger with a feather earring had just raised one thick arm and barricaded her in safety. It was an accident, of course, and the tipsy reveler had offered them some green and purple Mardi Gras beads as an apology.
She found it remarkable and hilarious that her new friend- What's his name again? Tony? Terry? Tommy?- barely altering their warm, lungs-deep eye contact, had kept the beads for himself. Not only had he not made one lewd joke about how she might earn the beads; he just never offered them! Instead, he had draped the plastic trophies around his substantial neck like it was the most natural thing in the world. And she had to admit... they looked perfect nestled there between his other eleven or twelve necklaces, though these were the only ones made of plastic.
Thoroughly soaked now in the memory, she peeled one of the marshmallow earmuffs away just enough to glimpse the glowing red digits of the hotel alarm clock. 6:43. Plenty of time still to throw herself together and run over to the coffee shop.
She definitely wanted to. Wasn't that what had kept her awake? But this looming road trip and no sleep... She knew she really should get some rest and drink some water instead of rushing out for caffeine and a meeting with a very, very distracting stranger.
So she laid there, torturing herself and fake-punching the pillows, for eight more minutes. Then she raced to the closet-sized bathroom, stared at the mirrored medicine-cabinet door, and commenced with an emergency grooming routine. This is crazy, she thought, I'm never gonna make it in time. And despite herself, she grinned.
Episode 1 is dedicated to Handsome,
my husband and my best friend,
in honor of all of our New Orleans adventures.