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by William J. Piovano

part 2 of 3

Ithaca stepped into the pharmacy day-dreaming of Peter. Her friend. Her lover. Her soulmate. Sweet, gentle Peter. Tonight they were going to dine in a fancy restaurant in downtown Moscow, with candles and wine. They’d hold hands, and have another perfect kiss...

The bell on the door rang and Ithaca drifted from utopia to the counter. Rummaging into her purse, she said, “the usual, please.”

The clerk, an elderly woman with small eyes and a bun of white hair, nodded and returned shortly with a small glass bottle. Ithaca took it into her hands and squeezed it with excitement. My phial of love, she thought, ignoring the clerk’s preoccupied look. Probably thought she was a druggie. Ithaca didn’t care. Nothing mattered here. Only Peter mattered. Peter was her drug.

She paid and left. Waiting to cross the street, she noticed a man staring at her from the Café Lorisa on the opposite side of the road. He sat at a table, hands resting by the table, and lacked either the courtesy or the shyness to turn away. Ithaca, then a beam of uncontained joviality, simply grinned at him and waved. Foolish, perhaps, to wave to strangers, but her mood was soaring too high for worry. The man raised a tentative hand, jiggled it slightly.

Clouds had begun to gather, threatening storm. Ithaca skipped the rest of the way home, whistling with a hand in her pocket. Her hand gripped the small bottle firmly, but carefully not to break it. She had broken one once, in her apartment just before a date with Peter. It had taken three hours of sobbing before the five a.m. opening of the pharmacy. Three hours late for that date, but Peter always forgave her. She wanted to whistle and collect daisies like a freshly enamored maiden!

Though she was neither freshly enamored, nor a maiden.

Her apartment building stood out from the rest with its white-washed walls and decorated stone balconies. It was a relic of the older days, before the advent of automated construction, when creativity expressed itself in architecture as well as in the pure arts. The balconied rooms commanded a price far too high for Ithaca’s meager income; so did the tiny rooms by the back alley, for that matter, but Daily Musings — her employer — had subsidized what she could not cover. It had been a desperate attempt to avoid legal repercussions after her fit of depression some years ago.

That had been before Peter.

In the elevator she could barely contain the anticipation. The same feeling every week, when she returned with a new bottle. Elevator beeped, doors slid open.

“Morning, Mrs. Piagio.”

Ithaca blinked up at her neighbor, Ms. Neeman. The woman had assumed her usual hand-on-hips stance and tilted head. The bloated belly granted her a cartoonish oval shape, which Ithaca always associated with the colored illustrations in the Humpty Dumpty books. Today the nosy neighbor wore a thick dress which resembled a doubled tablecloth, and a red plastic apron which hung from her trunk-sized neck.

Ithaca slid out of the elevator and stepped aside, nodding briefly, eager as ever to escape the prattle. It did not work.

“I saw your article on the Daily Musings,” Ms. Neeman said. “I admire your imagination.” She didn’t, of course. The real interest was boiling in her mouth ready to pop out like a hot potato.

“Thank you,” Ithaca replied, shifting her weight to begin an escape. Peter, she longed for Peter...

“So when are we going to meet the beau?” came Ms. Neeman’s inevitable question behind her. “We’ve seen the wedding ring enough times! I’d love to have you over for tea.”

Ithaca’s smile was thin. “He’s in Moscow, for business. We’ll make sure to stop by when he returns.” She did not wait a breath longer, executing her escape even as the last words left her lips.

Ms. Neeman no doubt cast a disapproving glance her way as soon as it was safe to do so. Most of the people in the building did that when they walked by.

It all disappeared when she clicked open the apartment door and closed it behind her; the clouds, the buildings and the stares, all a fast-fading memory. She was back in her world, and would soon be back with Peter, too. She placed the bottle carefully on the counter, a safe distance from any drop, and shed her coat and sweater and hung them carefully in the correct spot inside the closet.

First, she reminded herself, work.

She sat down at the desk and managed to write for a short while, hacking away at a new article for the Daily Musings. It was about finding your passion in life, and she wrote it with a passion of her own, for she had already found her passion and felt compelled to let people know what a truly wondrous gift it was. ‘Peter’ she wanted to write, again and again until the five letters became the only ones available on the word processor page. That would not be an appropriate article, though.

Time trickled by, and hunger gripped at her stomach and her mind. She shrugged it off at first, but soon it became too distracting to ignore. For some reason she had to eat five to six meals a day. Once, she had woken from a wonderful dinner with Peter, and immediately gone to raid the fridge.

She frowned. Had she actually eaten with Peter, though...? Most of the time the meals came to the table (table, picnic cloth, sailboat; wherever the romantic encounter happened to take place) looking inviting and delicious, but the lovers’ mouths were invariably more attracted to each other. And much of her energy was spent in bed. She giggled at the thought, twisting the microwave dial and watching her prepared meal spin slow circles under the buzzing light.

The snack’s cooking completed with perfect punctuality, just in time for her to slap the lasagna onto a clean plate and switch on the television. The opening credits of Love Paths, her favorite show, blared onto screen and speakers, alternating flattering cuts of tanned men and women like those on photo shoots.

The show lasted a half hour, with Ithaca glued to her chair under a blanket, romance-high as busty blond John broke from his seven-year forced vow of secrecy and finally rebelled to reveal his love for Lila, the beauty, to save her from her arranged marriage.

After nine heart-breaking episodes, it was about time!

When the episode concluded, cliff-hanged at a confrontation between the would-be lover and the scheming fiancée, Ithaca pounced from the chair and ran to the counter. She resisted the urge to open the bottle immediately, taking care instead to wash the plate and discard the microwavable container. She folded the blanket back over the chair and placed the remote control on the tv.

Once all was done and back in order, she extracted her newest black dress, low-cut and snug, from the formidable collection in the closet. Pulling up the straps, she let herself pose before the mirror, like Lila in the opening credits of Love Paths. Then she snatched the glass bottle and tucked herself into bed.

“Oh, my dear Peter, here I come,” she breathed, and pulling the cap off the bottle, dripped the desired amount into her mouth.

Drip, drip, drip, drip. Strength faded almost immediately, leaving just enough time for her to lean over and place the bottle on the nightstand. The veined wood blurred to an even brown, as did the wicker waste-basket beside it, and all the empty glass bottles of hypnotic medicine within.

Moscow’s harsh winter winds howled against the cottage window, brushing snow up against the sill. Inside a great fire crackled in the stone fireplace. Ithaca walked up to it and warmed her hands. The five-carat diamond sparkled massively. Smiling, she smoothing the neckline of her dress, touching up her hair.

As soon as she had finished, Peter walked in from the adjacent room. His clinging sweater outlined the solid curves of his body, a black red in wonderful contrast with the crop of blond hair.

“Hey,” she said quietly.

“Hey,” he replied.

With two strides he came to hold her, running a hand down the exposed small of her back while the other navigated through her hair. His kiss was gentle, not too firm but with that teasing touch of lust.

In short, perfect.

“These are for you,” he said, revealing a deep Russian accent. Ithaca’s heart raced harder at the rumbling voice, exotic and masculine. When he accompanied with a bouquet of white and red roses, she wanted to swoon.

Courteously inhaling the aroma, she smiled up at him, part sweetness, part mischief. “Thank you.”

“Come sit, love,” he said.

Ithaca sat herself in the cushioned sofa, her gaze stuck on that gorgeous man. Peter’s plate rested opposite hers, but he sat beside her instead, and kissed her again. They continued so, embraced, for a time.

She was being carried up some stairs, in bridal fashion. She did not remember having that dinner, no longer cared, now that Peter had her in his arms. The door eased open to greet them into the bedroom. The sheets were the purest white, and scattered with white and red rose petals. Peter lowered her onto the bed. She sank into the mattress and closed her eyes, waiting for his body to slide onto hers. Running her hands over the smooth sheets she gripped a handful.

All petals, and not one thorn.

* * *

Ithaca sat in her office, squinting over the two books. Combined, the two yellow-bound volumes probably weighed more than she, and the text was so small that she was already on her third pair of glasses. The grimy neon lamp didn’t help, either. The pages were of that recycled paper so thin one could almost see through them.

She often wondered how many numbers the books actually contained. Millions, probably, and she had to run through each and every one, comparing this year’s volume with last year’s to find all the new businesses which had sprung up in the past twelve months.

That was Ithaca’s morning, and she approached it with all the optimism in the world. She was too busy to fuss, to get bored. She had her own office, after all. It was a basement cubicle, with only a plastic chair and a computer, and it was located right next to the noisy reception, but it was all for herself. The job’s pay was meager, like the checks for her articles in the Daily Musings, but Ithaca had never been a heavy spender. Her bills were split between food, sleeping drops, and cable-TV subscriptions. Peter took care of the rest.

Her beau smiled from a framed cut-out she kept on her desk. Whenever her head seemed ready to split open, whenever she felt like retching the meaningless numbers all over the desk, she just had to look up at him and the sun would break through the clouds.

Evelyn walked in that morning. She was the new receptionist, young and dreaming of a career in Hollywood, and instead she regularly found herself on the verge of tears as angry customers yelled at her on the phone. Nobody was kind to receptionists.

Evelyn was on her lunch break and she wanted Ithaca to grab some food with her. No doubt she craved gossip and company, but Ithaca found her a bit too chatty. She was not sure why Evelyn liked her. It might simply have been the fact that she never yelled at her. Ithaca pitied her because she had nobody.

“I have thirteen pages to go,” Ithaca said apologetically. “And I have to finish fast. I’m meeting my husband.” She felt all giddy at the thought, glancing at the picture.

Evelyn, following Ithaca’s stare, leaned over to take a look. “Is that him?” she asked. There was a mix of jealousy and curiosity in her voice.

“Yes,” Ithaca said, smiling. “He’s called Peter.”

“He’s beautiful.”

“Thank you.” Ithaca blushed. He wasn’t beautiful, he was gorgeous. Strong jaw-line, silky blond hair, blue eyes that made her sigh.

Evelyn frowned. “Isn’t he that actor from Love Paths? You know the cute blond Russian one? Looks identical. Like a magazine cut-out!” She grinned.

“They look very similar,” Ithaca admitted.

“Don’t you feel lonely down here?” Evelyn asked, peering at the bare walls. “I always think I work in a hole, but this is a real dungeon. I don’t know how you cope.” She averted her gaze, slightly embarrassed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean, you know...”

“It’s all right,” Ithaca said. “I’m never alone.” She was thinking of Peter, but Evelyn took the broad smile as a friendly gesture.

“Lucky you,” she said. “I keep getting dumped.”

“You’ll find your man, one day,” Ithaca assured her, not really caring or believing in her own words.

“Sure you don’t want to come to lunch?” Evelyn asked.

“No, I have to finish here. Thanks.”

When she was alone again, Ithaca drifted into a daydream, the portrait a focus of her loving stare. Eventually she forced herself back to work, but as she turned a yellow page she noticed a tuft of hair between her fingers. Cursing softly, she felt her scalp for any bald spots, but found nothing. They were still falling out, despite the treatments.

The doctor had warned her about the excessive use of sleeping drops, warned her that the prolonged side-effects could include hair loss. Now he was baffled as to her condition, but only because Ithaca had lied and told him she had stopped taking the drops. She could not stop, of course. She loved Peter and would do anything for him.

She brushed the hairs into the bin and got back to her numbers.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2008 by William J. Piovano

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