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What's Next?

an excerpt from

It Had to Be You

  When it was hot outside, I liked to sit on the chair in my garden and melt. The white, metal chair, though directly in the sunlight, felt surprisingly cool in the heat. I tilted my head back and relished the full force of the sun's warmth on my face. I enjoyed waiting to see how long it took before rivers of sweat ran down my forehead and dripped to the concrete under my chair. My friends and neighbors probably thought I was nuts to sit outside in the sunlight and humidity. But—I loved my garden.

    The garden was relatively small, tucked behind my apartment building on Forty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue. I wasn't originally going to take the apartment because it seemed too cramped and old after the large two-bedroom I was leaving behind in Chelsea. But when I saw the garden, I knew the apartment was meant to be mine. The garden was just a bare concrete square, as big as my living room, but I knew its potential. I knew I could spend every day here and imagine I was out of the city and in the countryside. Well, a twenty-by-twenty-foot countryside.

    The day after I moved in, I constructed planting boxes and schlepped flowerpots from Chelsea to my apartment. Most of my things stayed in moving boxes stacked in towers against the walls while I involved myself in creating my own version of Eden. My weekly manicure was all but forgotten as I grew used to seeing potting soil under my nails. While potting a Japanese maple, I broke a nail then realized I didn't need long nails anymore. I cut them off with the small scissors I used to snip the ends of my spider plant to regenerate growth.

    The spider plant wasn't the only thing I hoped would regenerate. I understood that the new apartment, the sudden interest in gardening, sprang from my desire to start over, which had been building for months. Maybe it had been dread of my thirtieth birthday; maybe I just felt like my life was tired. I'd been a creature of the night for so long: the time of stale smells, hungry eyes, dark intentions. Though it had been my job to add sparkle and humor to the night, everything changed the night Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris.

    There was simply no way I could continue to perform as Princess 2Di4, the Rapping Royal. I could work with bulimia, infidelity, bad in-laws, divorce, and tycoon hunting, but death ... no. I was heedful of my friend Ken, whose Judy Garland impersonation still prompted occasional hate mail—and Judy had been dead nearly thirty years. Martin, who did a fab-u-lous Duchess of Windsor as a jewel-seeking ghost, agreed with me. Our audience tolerated the Ritas, Marilyns, and Graces only when the impersonations were all visual. For those of us with an act that went beyond looking glamorous and lip-synching, death could kill it.

    Timing was everything, and my thirtieth birthday fell on the day of Princess Diana's funeral. My Aunt Jen, who was disdainful of everything royal but the Queen's yapping corgis, sent me a check with the words, "This should cover the basics for a year, Daniel. Toss the tiara and get a life."

    So, there I was in my garden, contemplating getting a life as I surrounded myself with it. I thought to myself, What the hell is that supposed to mean, anyway? Get a life.

    I got up from the chair in my oasis and went into the apartment. Suddenly I was dying of thirst. As I passed the mirror next to the kitchen, I glanced at myself. Funny. In such a short period of time, was it possible I could have changed that much? There was a quality in my face that was generally reserved for others, something ... wise. I scoffed at the thought. Me? Wise? Hardly. At thirty years of age and taking checks from Aunt Jen.

    My thoughts were interrupted by a voice from outside. I could barely hear the words, but right away I knew the voice. I poured iced tea into a tall glass salvaged days before from a box marked kitchen, then sauntered back out to the garden. The voice was coming from the alley. An iron gate opened from the garden into the alley, which then emptied onto the street.

    "Diana! Get your royal ass out here!" Martin screamed.

    "Oh, go away," I said, trying not to sound too bitchy. "I'm having a crisis. And don't call me Diana."

    "My, my, aren't we sweet? Let me in."

    Martin stood on the other side of the gate. His ring-laden fingers clanged against the metal. He didn't look like he was going to move, so I let him in. He strode into the garden with more drama than Bette Davis, sat on a metal chair, and crossed his legs. It was difficult not to notice his well-defined legs. Martin, never one to be shy or modest, wore his daisy dukes like a uniform. His tight blue shirt showed hints of his nipple rings.

    "Please don't tell me you're still in mourning, Danny boy."

    "More or less, but not for Diana, scorned princess of the House of Windsor."

    "Let me guess. You're mourning 2Di4, tired queen of Club Chaos. Am I right?"


    I refused to yield to Martin's prodding. He had been at Club Chaos on that night nearly a month before when I ran out after hearing the news of Diana's car crash. I realized everyone at the club must be wondering if I really meant to trade in my rhinestones for a different career. Maybe they'd even sent Martin to interrogate me. But I wasn't ready to voice just how uncertain I was about my future, to Martin or anyone else. I turned toward the apartment.

    "Pour an iced tea for me, would you, dear?" Martin asked.

    I walked inside and was caught by the mirror again. I could see the garden behind my reflection in the mirror. The garden's double seemed brighter than the original. I glanced at Martin in the mirror as he lit a cigarette. Martin's left leg bounced on top of his right. I looked at my face again. I brushed a lock of fine, blond hair from my forehead and looked right into my crystal blue eyes—Diana's eyes. I also had the same kind and delicate features as Diana, though more boyish on my part. Sometimes I didn't know where she ended and I began; over the years, young Daniel from Eau Claire became lost in an endless cycle of club life.

    Until I walked out.

    My garden became the perfect remedy, giving me time to separate myself from it all. It was like therapy, with Daniel from the days of yore leading the session. I was weeding out the repetitive falseness I'd acquired over the years and replanting the dreams I'd had when I arrived in Manhattan. I smiled wanly at myself in the mirror and wondered—

    "Who's that pretty boy in the mirror there?" Martin's nagging song snapped me out of my reverie. "Shouldn't he be bringing me iced tea?"

    "I gave up waiting tables years ago, Martin," I growled as I made my way into the kitchen. I took the pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator and poured some into a champagne flute, the only other glass I'd unpacked since my big move. This time I ignored the mirror on my way out.

    "Nice touch, Di—uh—Daniel," Martin said. "Why you ever moved into Hell's Kitchen is beyond me. I can't believe you left Chelsea for all ... this," he added with a wave of his wrist and not an ounce of hidden disdain. He sounded like Aunt Jen. "And I would think a Nebraska boy—"

    "Wisconsin," I interrupted.

    "Whatever, would know not to plant in the fall. Fall is for harvesting. You're backwards."

    It suddenly clicked for me what was wrong with Martin, why he resisted my efforts to change. He had taken his duchess beyond the grave, giving her the power and iron will of the woman who'd caused a king to forfeit his throne. If I let Princess 2Di4 die with Diana, it was a rejection of Martin's choice, maybe even a rejection of Martin. How could I explain that moving on—to a new career, a new apartment, a new life—did not negate all he held dear. Especially when I wasn't so sure it did not.

    I needed to work in my garden, my comfort zone. I wanted to touch the fresh living things around me as I tried to figure out how to go on. In my troubled daze, I wandered to the edge of my Eden, hardly noticing as Martin followed me to gracefully land on the concrete in a Betty Grable-like pose.

    At that moment I no longer had the urge to be derisive with Martin, which was always my natural reaction; he could be antagonistic toward an innocent school girl. Instead, just then, maybe it was the lighting, he looked like a brilliant answer. Energy that had been static, stagnant, welled up as he put his hand around my wrist and pulled me down beside him. His tenderness was new to me. I sat on the hot concrete, not minding. The warmth was comforting, as was his lap, where I put my head.

    "Martin, I don't know what to do with my life. The act is old—dead, in fact."

    "Okay, Princess Diana is dead, the act may be dead, but you certainly aren't," Martin said. "You're hardly thirty and—'But soft, what light through yonder window doth approacheth?' "

    I didn't know if it was the sudden change in subjects or the badly quoted Shakespeare, but in my confusion, the urge to slap Martin returned. Things were getting back to normal. I sat up and followed Martin's lurid gaze across the garden and into the window of the building on the other side of the gate.

    My handsome stud of a neighbor was home. I quickly looked at my watch.

    "Five thirty-three," I mumbled.

    He was undoing the knot of his tie and talking on the phone. Every day he returned from whatever job it was that drove him in a suit and tie from his apartment until this time each evening.

    He looked like he was my age, short dark hair in the classic Ken Doll cut, with a strong jaw and full lips. I couldn't see what color his eyes were or how tall he was, but I didn't have to. He was the sort of man whose upper half seen in a window is enough to go on ... to know that if he took you in those strong arms, you'd never want him to let go. Unless, of course, he let go in order to unbutton his shirt.

    "I never would've put down Hell's Kitchen if I'd known the scenery was this lovely," Martin purred. I almost expected rivers of drool to start sliding down his chin. "Why didn't you tell me about this ... this ... god who lives across the way?"

    "I've never seen him before in my life," I lied.

    I didn't want Martin to know that for the three weeks I'd lived here, I'd spent half my time planning and planting the garden and the other half learning this heavenly man's schedule.

    I'd first noticed my neighbor while planting asparagus ferns in the boxes on either side of the gate. Just as I stopped to wipe the sweat from my brow, I happened to glance up and see the most gorgeous man leaning from a window. Like any good city boy, I quickly averted my eyes and resumed my planting. My heart was racing.

    After counting to one hundred, I looked up again. He was standing in front of the window, removing his tie. He didn't seem to be looking my way so I let my gaze linger. I watched as he slowly unbuttoned and removed his shirt. He stayed in the window as he picked up the phone and began a conversation with some lucky person in his life. After a few minutes, he strolled deeper into the apartment, out of my view. I chose that moment to go inside my own apartment to take care of some urgent ... urges.

    This became my routine every weekday at five-thirty, but I had no intention of sharing that information with Martin. It wasn't that I didn't want him to think I was wasting my time pining for this man, or that I was some deranged stalker; it was more like I was a teenager caught coming home past curfew. Instinctive lying. It came out of my mouth before I knew I'd said it. Besides, if Martin did know the truth, that I was as fascinated and turned on by this stranger as he was, it would be all around the city on the Daniel News Network, with Martin at the anchor desk announcing the late breaking "facts."

    "So, what were you saying about me not being dead yet?" I asked, trying to divert Martin's attention from my neighbor.

    "I forget. You know I'm not good at all that spirit-lifting stuff," Martin said, never taking his eyes from the window. "That's your department. Just do what you think you'd advise me to do if I were in your shoes."

    "You'd probably return them," I sighed.

    "Yes, return them," he agreed, obviously having lost the thread of our conversation.

    "Probably too tight for your size twelve feet anyway," I added softly, knowing Martin prided himself on squeezing his shapely nines into an eight and a half.

    "Tight, yes, of course. The tighter the better."

    His fascination drove my gaze back to the window, at which point I became as lost as Martin.

    Five Thirty-three was still on the phone, but he'd unbuttoned his shirt and was absently running an ice cube from the hollow of his throat down that flawless valley between his pecs.

    "Oh ... my ... god," Martin said. "Let me be his ice cube. Help me; I'm melting."

    "Oh please, he's so obvious," I said, knowing my voice lacked all conviction.

    Not that it mattered. I could have stripped naked and done an Ethel Merman medley without engaging Martin's interest.

    "What does a man do," Martin mused, "to make himself look like that?"

    The first part of his sentence shrieked through my mind like a siren. That was it. Of course. How had I missed such an obvious sign? I was looking for a new career. A minimal amount of friendly surveillance could lead me right into Five Thirty-three's territory. I might find my new career and my future boyfriend in the same place!


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