The Suite Life
New York City, 1996
In retrospect, I can’t imagine why I had never considered that Tony could reach all the way from his prison cell across the bridge and into that publisher’s office to continue controlling my life. I should have known better, but I was, after all, only nineteen and still naïve, despite everything I’d been through with him and with my mother.
Now, just over ten years later, I’m a bit wiser if not yet much better off. Whenever I think about all my big plans, I remember the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plan.” If that’s true He must be doubled over and splitting a side at the cosmic joke that has been played on me.
I’d had to set aside my dreams of going to New York University and graduating with a degree in literature, and instead got a job straight out of high school to support myself. But whenever I began to doubt my path in life or feel sorry for myself, I thought of the foundation of love and encouragement I’d been given by my grandma Ruth and my faith in the Blessed Mother.
With the constant presence in my life of these two women who were always “there” for me, I knew that I’d be able to do whatever it took to achieve my goal of being a strong, independent woman and, ultimately, a published author.
I’d already come quite a way from the time when my mother died and I had to borrow money from friends just to pay for her funeral. I had steady temp work at a new brokerage house and had recently been put in charge of payroll, so let’s just say I added a few hours here and there. I had to eat, right? With the bump in hours and pay that came with that mini-promotion I was already eating a little better and had a bit less stress when the rent came due. And the best part—I no longer owed anyone a dime.
Once Tony was transferred to a federal penitentiary in Kansas about five years ago, I’d stopped looking over my shoulder and jumping every time the phone rang. Although the manuscript for The Blessed Bridge, the novel I had written based on the years I spent with Tony Kroon, had been gathering dust on a shelf in my closet for years, I was submitting short stories and features to minor outlets, and I was deep into another novel that I was sure was destined for a better fate—as was I.
All things considered, my life wasn’t all that bad, and I was still on track, albeit not in the express lane. I told myself that I was simply living my own version of Girl, Interrupted, and it could have been a lot worse. They say that when one door closes on you, God opens another. I still had my whole life in front of me, plenty of time to find that door, and I reminded myself to focus more on the positive, as Priti, my best friend at work, was always counseling me to do. Priti Sarma was a pretty woman with finely chiseled features who had emigrated from India with her family. Things hadn’t been easy for her family either before or after they landed in America, and yet Priti was full of life and optimistic to a fault. Although I tended to guard my privacy and not get too friendly with the people in the offices where I’d worked over the years, Priti’s exuberance and the hope that she exuded were infectious. I’d become accustomed to keeping friends and coworkers at arm’s length—my suspicious nature
a by-product of my entanglements with the mob. But after a decade of cautiously looking over my shoulder, I began to let my guard down and was grateful for my friendship with Priti. She taught me about India and her family’s customs, which intrigued me, and she introduced me to the Buddha and the Hindu faith, which fed my curiosity about all things related to God. Her beliefs didn’t threaten my own, as I’d already decided long before that every path of pure worship had the same end.
And she was equally open to learning about Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother. Now and again she would join me for the short noon Masses at Our Lady of Victory, located just up the block from our office, every Monday, and would ask about my rosary-collecting hobby, which had started when I picked up a string of white plastic beads I had almost stepped on in the street when I was walking to my mother’s funeral. Priti seemed to be fascinated by that glimpse into my past, as she was by everything I had to tell her about the rites and rituals of Catholicism.
One day, on impulse, I grabbed her hand and dragged her along with me to Mass. On hot summer days when you could actually see the heat rising in waves from the tar-covered streets and it was too hot to sit outside on a bench, we’d often sit in a cool, dark pew and talk quietly about the mysteries of faith, or pray silently in our own ways. In the peace and quiet of Our Lady of Victory, I am always reminded that I still find comfort in church—and that is no small thing.
That said, however, it was often harder to keep the faith in other areas. Yes, I was still writing, but also still waiting for the break that would allow me to actually live in Manhattan instead of just working there. When my mood got too bleak, Priti inevitably sensed when I was feeling low and was always there to cheer me up.
“What’s with the long face?” she’d ask, her lively dark eyes peeking over the partition between us.
“Nothing,” I’d answer, automatically fingering the rosary that found its way into my hand whenever I was anxious. “Just thinking about things.”
“You girls working?” our ever-vigilant boss would invariably roar through the open door of his glass-enclosed office across the aisle.
“Yeah,” I lied every time he asked the same question. I figured if he hadn’t already fired me for my less-than-stellar typing skills, he wouldn’t send me packing just for having a little over-the-partition chat with my friend.
“Who’s zoomin’ who, Ms. Bonti?” he asked, quoting the Aretha Franklin song. “Get back to that projection I’ve been waiting for too long already.”
“Keep the faith, Sam,” Priti would whisper as she sank back into her cubicle.
Okay, okay, I said to myself, turning back to my keyboard. I guess everyone is waiting for something. Despite a rush hour commute that would depress a saint, Priti’s encouraging words generally kept me in a positive frame of mind until I got home, where I was greeted by the painting of the Blessed Mother that hung above my bed. There are a lot worse roommates, I told myself every time I saw it.
Some days, however, as I was preparing my go-to, cheap-but-healthy brown rice and broccoli dinner, the dreariness of my surroundings and the bleakness of my prospects really got to me—and on those days neither Priti nor the Blessed Mother could raise me out of my funk. I was in just such a mood one morning when I heard a familiar voice behind me at the bus stop.
“My, oh my. I’m not sure the Big Apple is ready for you today.” It was John, my old friend from Brooklyn, who worked near my office downtown.
I smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek, self-consciously
smoothing the skirt of my blue-and-white-striped suit. Mom had bought it for me at a thrift store—it was so old that it had become retro and it was still in good shape all these years later because I had long since learned how to take care of the limited wardrobe I had. The skirt was pencil straight and clung to the curves on my petite frame in the right places but demanded to be worn with heels, which was okay with me. I’d always hated the way women look rushing for the train or the bus in their business suits and clunky sneakers; talk about not knowing how to feminize a suit.
“Nice suit, Bonti. I don’t know how anyone in your office gets any work done with you walking around in that getup,” he said, draping an arm across my shoulders and nudging me closer.
“Easy, John—it’s just a suit,” I retorted, elbowing him playfully and secretly loving the compliment. I’d been in a funk for so long, wondering how I’d become one of the dreary corporate drones commuting to Manhattan every day, that I’d forgotten how nice it was to get a little male attention.
“What can I say—you wear it well!”
I loved John for how sweet, honest, and supportive he was. He was a few years ahead of me in high school, and knew Tony, so he knew where I had truly come from, which scared most guys. But not John. He was always a gentleman, always ready with a compliment or kind word—and we both knew he’d always wanted to be more than friends, but the spark just wasn’t there on my end. We rolled into lower Manhattan and stopped at a cart for coffee before parting ways with our customary two kisses and a hug.
I looked at my watch and picked up my pace—I was late already. I’d walked those two blocks from the bus to the office so many times that my feet took me there without my even paying attention to where I was going. I was still deep in thought when,
steps from the glass and steel monolith that was my home away from home, I squeezed the white plastic rosary in my pocket and, without looking up, took a sharp left toward the door. As I did that, something caught my shoulder and spun me around. I lurched awkwardly to prevent myself from falling and spilling my coffee. “What the . . .” The words were almost out of my mouth when I looked up—and up—into the deep, laughing blue eyes of the giant who had almost bowled me over. The guy was huge . . . and gorgeous. At least six foot two and about two hundred thirty pounds, he had a full head of wavy black hair and an impish smile that compelled me to smile back. His perfect teeth were whiter than white against his tanned skin, and as I glanced down at the arm still on my shoulder, I could feel myself beginning to blush. That wasn’t like me at all. But there was something about this man that took my breath away—and it wasn’t the force of his blow to my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said, even though he didn’t sound very apologetic. “I hope I didn’t hurt you, but I think you’re beautiful and I couldn’t think of any other way to get your attention. My name is Alec, by the way.”
“Well, thank you, I guess. You certainly do have a forceful way of introducing yourself, Alec,” I shot back, having finally regained at least some of my composure. “I’m Samantha.”
“Pleased to meet you, Samantha. And I’m truly sorry if I scared you. If you don’t have a boyfriend or a husband, I would love to take you to brunch or dinner.” He glanced at my left hand—the surreptitious ring check—and I realized I was still clutching my rosary. He turned on his thousand-watt smile: “You’re not a nun, are you?”
Now it was my turn to smile. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m not married, and I’m definitely not a nun” (although my social life had been about as active as a nun’s even now that I was free of Tony). “But I am very late right now.” The guy had a nerve, but
he was so charming that it would have been impossible to stay angry with him.
“So am I,” he said, grin widening.
“Look, Alec, it’s been great and all that, but I really have to go now,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.
“Yeah, I missed the opening bell, too,” he confessed. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a card case, and leaned in close to my ear. “Call me, Samantha,” he whispered, slipping a business card into my hand and allowing his fingers to brush mine for the briefest of instants, “next time you have an open Saturday or Sunday.” And with that he turned and disappeared into the crowd.
I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Holy shit, what just happened there? I thought, shaking my head in disbelief as I pulled open the door to my building. By the way, what is brunch?