“Hey, hey, sorry I’m late.” Kandajha in her delightfully vibrant athletic wear had sprinted across the wooden boardwalk to the deck where her aunt, Cassandra was admiring the view of Old Tampa Bay.
With the rather large cup of coffee nearly to her burgundy lips, Cassandra paused just enough to lean to the side to accept the kiss to her temple from her twenty-one year old niece. She was the walking image of Spring regardless of whatever month was on the calendar. Cotton candy pink lips and nails, black and Robin’s Egg blue stretch leggings and top, a koolaid purple zip-up hoodie and a pair of Sketchers that somehow incorporated all the aforementioned colours. That beautiful mane of thick chocolate curls was tossed over to one side and looked just as beautiful and voluminous as ever. Kandy was pure sunshine and vitality.
“I’m surprised they let you through wearing that getup.” The corners of Cassandra’s darkly painted mouth perked slightly as the pair shared a knowing little smile with each other. “Looks like the kid at the front of house still fancies you. Are you finally going to let him take you out then?”
Kandy brought her chair around more to Sandra’s side to afford herself a better view of the quiet beach and serene waters just a few hops away. Plopping down in the chair, she folded her hands in her lap and propped her feet up under the table on the chair position across from them. A somewhat heavy sigh came from the young girl.
“That’s my sigh of disdain. Is he not quite your thing?” Sandra perked a brow taking a healthy drink of the dark roast seasoned only with a pinch of salt.
One quick look at Cassandra’s choice in attire, a black pinstripe skirt suit, would confirm that at some point she’d be leaving for court. With lips in their signature dark red-based matte colour and a pair of grey eyes known for their soul-appraising ability, she looked every bit the part of the honorific the local papers had given her: Queen of the Underworld. Even her wavy hair had been straightened and pinned up in a rather regal style, so that all that was missing was a crown. A crown of what though? The bones of her defeated enemies? The attorneys and law enforcement officers she had embarrassed into early retirement?
“Nah, he just seems like he’s…”
Sandra waited for a moment before shifting in her seat more toward the girl to offer her a suggested answer, “a bit of a stiff?”
Flamingo pink glossed lips smirked at the term and then she shrugged, “He just doesn’t seem like we’d vibe outside of him gettin’ me past hotel security and me smilin’ at him. He’s probably some super Christian legacy Republican or somethin’.”
Bringing a napkin up to her lips, Cassandra very subtly hid her smile from view at the political stereotype before clearing her throat. “How is the Jeep?”
“Not really drivin’ it. Thank God for Uber.”
A long pause from the girl as she reached forward for the fluted glass of what she guessed was a mimosa. “Nah.”
Cassandra very gently took the glass with alcohol from Kandy and placed it back down on the table out of her reach causing her to grumble a little under her breath. She understood Kandy’s position about the lilac and tan soft top Wrangler. There were memories tied to that vehicle, happy ones. Though sometimes the sentimentality that came with just looking at it could be overwhelming to the young girl. It had sat for a solid nine months having been left behind when she took her aunt up on her offer to move into her South Tampa home nearly two hours away. She needed a change of scenery, a fresh environment in which to heal and rebuild. Neither of those things were going to happen if every day she had to walk across the same stretch of flooring where someone she loved had died.
To keep the mood light, Cassandra circled back around to her love life. “Even if he is part of the establishment, you could broaden his horizons, no?”
“Broaden his horizons?” Twisting in her chair to look at Sandra, Kandy hung an arm over the back and folded her legs up into the seat, “Yea, I’m sure his WASPy parents are totally gonna be down with their golden boy goin’ out with a terrorist.”
“Kandajha!” Cassandra grimaced at her choice of words, always going on the offense when it came to such a sensitive subject as her father’s family.
“You know what those people are like. They’re not gonna be invitin’ my ass to Thanksgiving when they start hearin’ names like Kandajha, Faysal, or Amina. I’m fine with them thinkin’ I’m just some stripper.” Kandy mentioned her paternal grandparents’ names to drive home her point. Though her grandfather had been the practiser of Islam, she technically had still been raised in it. Her grandmother was the one who passed on to Kandy a spiritual tradition that incorporated both sides of her Spanish and Moroccan heritage. Unfortunately, most of it still fell well outside what was traditionally acceptable by Christian America’s standards. “I got a long line of rebels, separatists, and combatants behind me.”
Cassandra narrowed her gaze at the girl again over her choice words. “You should give him a shot. His family could be really lovely atheists for all you know.”
The two women looked at each other again and then finally laughed together. The wait staff of the hotel’s outdoor restaurant presented them with their usual lunch order: traditional beer battered grouper and chips for Sandra and a fancy pineapple, avocado, and artichoke topped salad for Kandy.
The forty-something attorney could feel the girl staring daggers into her choice of meal, “Go on then. Say it before you burst.” Awaiting the critique, she twisted off the cap to the Heinz bottle to shake out a nice pile of catsup for the steak-cut fries.
“You’re like at that age where you really gotta start watchin’ what you be eatin’.”
A sigh. “I don’t smoke any longer. I don’t drink any longer. Let me have my fish and chips and the occasional bacon sandwich, yea?” Piercing a golden crisp slab of potato with a fork, Sandra dipped it into the catsup and paused for a moment to admire the sea salt crystals that caught the light on the surface of the perfectly fried carb stick. With great reverence, she savoured every moment of chewing.
Watching her aunt from the side, Kandy perked a pierced brow, “You ain’t gettin’ laid so I guess food is all you got right now. My bad.” The girl then took a casual sip of the ice water that had been poured for her.
Sandra paused to look thoughtfully out over the bay waters, “I honestly can’t remember the last time I had sex with a man who was as satisfying as eating properly fried and salted potatoes.” Another one bit the dust after being topped with more catsup.
Kandajha was in the midst of slicing through her salad when she muttered to herself, “That’s probably the problem.”
“I might be a bit grey, but I can still hear.”
“Yo, Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.” Kandajha casually mentioned in between strategically timed mouthfuls of salad.
Cassandra winced and rubbed her brow bone as if trying to pre-emptively rid herself of the migraine that was inbound. “This must be a preview of what hell will be like for me.”
“Why not go out and have a good time? I know you could get a date.”
“I don’t date.”
“How you ever gonna meet somebody if you don’t date?”
Cassandra shrugged and lifted a hand, “I’ll just meet them as I go about my daily life.”
“Hard to happen when you stay in that fuckin’ house all the time.” Now the frustration had spread to the happy-go-lucky Gemini causing her to push her plate away.
A sigh. “I have a very stressful job, Kandy. Sometimes, it’s nice to just go home, unplug everything, and sleep.”
“You ever think about callin’ up that guy from back in the day?”
With a piece of delicious Grouper loaded on her fork and halfway to her mouth, Cassandra suddenly froze before setting the utensil down in a huff, “Who?” She knew who.
“You guys met when you were young and shit. The one that Auntie Angie mockingly calls ‘The One’.” Kandy stopped arranging the different components of her salad just long enough to do the air quotes with her fingers for emphasis.
There went Cassandra’s appetite as she sat back in the wicker framed chair and frowned, “Do you have to call her that?”
“Why? She’s your other sister, makin’ her my aunt.”
“It just sounds rather creepy.”
“You call her the Grim Reaper.”
Sandra’s pained expression deepened just slightly, “I suppose both are technically accurate.”
It was a nice attempt at changing the subject, but Kandy wasn’t having it. “I guess he must’a left some pretty big shoes to fill…”
Pushing her plate away a few inches just as her niece had done just a few minutes earlier, Sandra slumped into her chair further. With some frustration, she smoothed a section of her dark hair straight back to the thick bun that was secured high at the rear of her skull.
Finally, she answered in hopes of ending the girl’s curiosity, “We never had any trouble in that department. Our difficulties were in different areas. Included in that also were some really crap decisions that I made along the way.”
Kandy nodded whilst deciding to take another bite of her bright tropical salad that was just as sweet and vibrant as she was. “You guys are friends though, right?”
The frustration was building as Sandra suddenly felt as if she was being interrogated about the worst subject possible. She cleared her throat and took a drink of her espresso to buy time before having to answer.
“We are friendly.” The rhythmic sound of one of Cassandra’s red alligator pumps could be heard from under the table as she tapped the stiletto heel unconsciously.
“Maybe you guys need to hook up.”
There came that slow head swivel as Cassandra focused all of her attention on her niece. Those storm grey eyes of hers, despite being concealed behind the usual pair of oversized 60s-styled sunglasses, were on the verge of melting the young singer into a multi-coloured Dayglo blob. Kandajha could feel the heat from the woman sitting at her left. And then just as quickly it was replaced with an all too familiar influx of iciness.
“No.” Cassandra went back to silently drinking her daily dose of caffeine.
Kandy gave her some time to defrost as she went about enjoying her lunch again. It was quite clear that Sandra had lost all interest in her food and was leaving it to turn cold. The girl knew this was going to be a bit of a tricky subject to navigate, but pressed on with it anyway.
“So if he showed up with like flowers and shit and said, ‘Hey, I’m in town for tonight and I wanna see you.’, you would tell this guy ‘no’ straight up?”
“I’m not too keen on the casual stuff and he knows that.” Her fork pierced a steak fry and brought it to her mouth, “He isn’t going to be showing up.” Despite no longer being hot, the potatoes were still worth eating.
The lawyer had come out with her sharp enunciation and cut straight to the point before letting silence settle back in between them. This was not what Cassandra expected to be discussing during a lovely meal with her only niece. Her eyes closed and she tilted her face just a few degrees more toward the sun whose warmth took the chill away from the breeze sweeping in off the bay. If only the wind would take with it the very tense and complicated feelings that were just dredged up.
“When we were cleanin’ out Zo’s stuff, we found a stack of pictures from a show. Looked like y’all were my age. The two of you was all boo’d up and shit sitting on some car.”
Cassandra had a good idea about when and where the photos were taken, but she kept herself from wandering too far down memory lane. She took just enough steps to peak over the divide between then and now to remember that summer night in Tampa. “An Acura?”
“Uh…” Kandy leaned over in her chair to fish around in one of her pockets. She eventually produced the somewhat faded five by nine photo of Cassandra and Dante in their early twenties. “Yea, an Integra.” She placed it on the table between them and used her pointer finger to push it toward her aunt.
It was very obvious that Sandra was doing everything she could to not look at it. She didn’t need to look at it. Every detail was crystal clear and easily put on rotation in her head. This was a time in their relationship that she surprisingly hadn’t revisited much, the very beginning.
“Was that after you guys had been datin’ for a while?”
Unexpectedly, Cassandra laughed and shook her head. “No, no. That was the first time we had spent time on our own.”
Kandy was trying to suppress her grin as she lounged back to observe the night and day change in her aunt’s demeanour. “Like a date?”
She was shaking her head, “We were a part of a group that met up. I had fancied him for a little while, but that was the night I finally was able to lure him away from the pack long enough to just…”
“Be all up in his grill about it?”
“Something like that, I suppose.”
Reaching for the photo again, Kandy turned it just enough to get a better look at it. “This wasn’t even a date? You two were just chillin’ on your own? Hadn’t messed around yet? You look awfully close.”
Sandra smirked and gulped down a few ounces of her coffee before answering, “It was always like that though. Funny and flirty. Complicated.” Finally, she pulled off her sunglasses and leaned over to look at the photo. “I didn’t want to admit it until a little while later, but I was so in love with him there. Just a few hours and I knew. With him, it was always intense.”
The transformation from the person her aunt had evolved into in recent years back to the woman in the photo was astonishing. A good decade was taken off her. Kandy kept quiet and watched hoping the silence would encourage Sandra to keep talking. The way her fingertips lightly caressed one side of the photo reminded the young girl that going back to happier times was a double edged sword.
Lifting the photo, Sandra flipped it in her fingers to show Kandy, “This guy called me Sandy.” She smirked, but finally allowed a smile to take over. “This guy was the one who started the Sandy business.” Her eyes, with the usual meticulous winged liner slid shut briefly as she could almost remember what his voice sounded like when saying it.
Seeing the Integra coupe made Cassandra remember certain other vehicles they had owned: the Excursion, the Super Duty, the Escalade, the Eldorado convertible. Now sitting there at the table holding the photo towards herself again, she was hiding the grin that was spreading wider and wider. Eventually, she laughed and covered her face with her other hand. She may not have been able to recall hearing him speak, but she was still able to remember other things.
“You be blushin’ over here like crazy. What the hell is goin’ on?” For Kandy this was a decidedly trippy experience. It wasn’t like she had never seen her aunt happy, but Cassandra and Dante had separated before Kandy came back to the US for college. This was as close as she would ever get to seeing the positive effect he had had on her.
A smirk and another short laugh. “You know, I was starting to think I could never get to a place where I could look at something like this and not…” Kandy could see the storm clouds starting to drift back in as Cassandra gently cleared her throat. “I’m glad I can look at this with fondness now, you know? Did you find any more of these at the house? Can you bring them the next time I see you?”
The girl nodded, “Sure. You’re not a walkin’ corpse when you talk about him either. That is a nice change.”
Cassandra sighed and rolled her eyes at the characterization. There were days that she hated the cold and calculating description she had earned for her work at the courthouse. Her normal demeanour being likened to that of a zombie caused her to shift uncomfortably in her chair. Kandy was right, there wasn’t much living going on inside that lovely yellow Hyde Park home with its white wrap around porches and fencing.
Most people never knew about the compassion she showed her clients who were collapsing under the weight of their heartbreak. She held their hands when the attempts to resuscitate their marriages eventually failed. And when all the cards finally were put on the table, Cassandra was the always composed advocate who would fight to protect them and ensure as much stability as possible for their transition to the next phase of their lives. If that meant pushing a well respected local expert witness around in deposition or hiring the best forensic accountant to pick apart the business financials of the opposing party, then that’s what would be done. Everybody had to sit through at least one attempt at mediation before trial could be scheduled. The ones that were smart participated. The ones looking to burn suitcases of money in the street proposed unreasonable offers or attempted to bully her client. In proper measure, she would turn the heat up until they were willing to bend and most did.
“Why couldn’t you guys work it out?”
She turns the photo around to show the girl again, “Because I’m not this girl any longer and he’s not this boy any longer. And we haven’t been in a very long time.”
“In all those photos you looked so happy though.”
“We were.” It was becoming quite clear to Cassandra that this was more than just dishing on previous relationships. Considering that, she softened her tone, “As a family, we haven’t given you a lot of successful relationship examples, have we?”
A shrug. “I don’t get it. You have dated since this dude. But you never look like that.” she takes the photo from her before actually gesturing to her, “Or like this.”
That stung a little, but she wasn’t going to dispute it. “They just weren’t who I wanted them to be.”
“I don’t remember most of them, but Wes was cool though.”
Cassandra had feelings for the men she eventually dated after the less than pleasant end with Dante. There was an attraction and connection that developed over time with each one of them. But Dante remained the measuring stick for each experience. They all were as opposite in their appearance, background, and interests as she could find, which created its own set of issues in the courtship process. And while she would readily admit that some of her relationship choices had just been ways to fill the hours and days, Cassandra also knew there were a few in there that had a legitimate chance of succeeding. Inevitably, she’d circle back around to the fact that despite how healthy and promising the relationship might be, she still didn’t feel the pull towards her partner that she had with Dante. It was the indescribable and entirely consuming magic that served as the relationship’s fire, which was missing. Thinking about it in those terms and her likely fate of never having it in her life again, Cassandra felt the wave of nausea building. She needed something to calm her stomach and the only remedy she could think of was grabbing one of the lemon wedges from her plate to hold up to her nose.
It was during the second or third deep inhale of the citrus’s peppery fragrance that Kandy’s words registered fully, “Wait, how did you know Wes?”
Just as Kandy was about to ask whether Sandra was okay, she got hit with the question about the sports journalist from Massachusetts, “I used to listen to his radio show. Funny fucker.”
Cassandra nodded. “I remember this one night we were at the hotel in the bar after work. We were just two sarcastic nutters drinking away our fear of commitment. He turns in his seat and is staring at me for a while and finally says that I seem like I’m searching for something.”
Remembering the exchange was enough to make her take in a small pull of the cold air. Repeating his assessment packed a heavy follow up punch and she went back to casually sniffing the lemon wedge.
“Searching for what?”
Returning the fruit to her plate, Cassandra reached up to her hair and carefully began to unlock and unwrap the bun that had been secured at the back of her skull. “You could blindfold me, have a line of people walk by, and I’d bet you anything that I would grab Dante’s hand. That magnetism, the alchemy of our whatever it was was so strong.”
“Did you and Wes ever…”
Both of Sandra’s brows lifted curiously at the rather forward question before settling back down for a pleasant smile to appear. She shook her head and shrugged, “We were in love with different people.”
The pair of them turned quiet as they were now both snacking on what remained of Cassandra’s crispy steak fries, Kandy dipping hers in the tartar sauce whilst Sandy used the last of the catsup. A hand was still buried in Cassandra’s hair as she gently massaged her roots, which were now free from the rather severe hair style she often wore.
“Like you said none of the dudes you dated had it, but you never felt it with another guy? Ever?”
Cassandra squinted at her niece as she watched the girl poke at the fried Grouper. Sitting forward, she picked up the knife and sliced the golden beer-battered fillet in half for the pair to split. As the curiosity was settling in, the attorney began to wonder where exactly this was going.
This got Kandy’s attention and she immediately abandoned the food to face her aunt. With her legs folded back up in the chair, she sat sideways and propped her elbows up on her knees. It was clear she was quite interested in hearing the details.
“Well, maybe. There was something there, but we never talked.”
“Who was it? Do I know him?”
A shrug, “I don’t even know who he is. We just would see each other around in passing. Here and there.”
“You don’t know the dude’s name?”
Cassandra shook her head, “He drives a Cadillac though.”
“You love those.” Kandy was reaching for the last of her mimosa while taking out her mobile phone.
“I do.” She watched as the girl began typing on the phone’s screen. It was more than just some quick message.
“Why didn’t you guys ever hook up?” Kandy stopped just long enough to look over at Cassandra to ask her question.
Fingers gently curved a shoulder length section of hair down behind her left ear as Sandra thought back to the last time she had crossed paths with the Cadillac owner. The disappointment of what happened felt surprisingly fresh and caught Cassandra off guard. It had been enough to make her reconsider ever being around another person who showed signs of having the kind of chemistry that mirrored what she had shared with Dante. The one thing she seemed to be searching for was starting to give her the impression that it came with a rather high price. But were two instances really enough to draw a conclusion?
“We didn’t seem to have the right timing.” A faint smile teased her wine coloured lips. Sandra shifted to the side and propped her jaw up on a folded hand whilst looking at her. “Kandajha, what is it that you want?”
The smart phone wrapped in a purple and pink silicone case covered in rabbits vibrated against the table. A message had been received. Kandy reached for it, “What you mean?”
Cassandra waited for her to finish with the phone knowing she wasn’t going to hear her whilst caught up in whatever exchange she had going on. “Why all the questions?”
A shorter message this time and she finally pocketed the device, “The photos.” The single nod Cassandra gave her didn’t make it seem like her aunt was buying what she was selling. “I mean I don’t know if I believe in all the soul mate bullshit, but there’s gotta be more to it than what I’ve dealt with.” A half-hearted shrug.
“You’re not going to feel anything if you don’t get close enough to somebody to let them have a chance to surprise you, Kandy.”
Those grey eyes rolled right up to the sky as she heard herself. Who here at this table had stopped dating altogether because she was so disillusioned and disappointed with not finding what she was looking for? Who was it that withdrew from holidays and celebrations and get-togethers because of the awkwardness of being a solitary workaholic? At this point, Cassandra wanted to crawl right back into bed and pull the covers over her head for at least a week.
Meanwhile, Kandy had twisted enough to look up thoughtfully at the rear of the hotel where the guy who fancied her normally was stationed. Sebastian was in his usual hotel-approved suit and tie greeting newly arrived patrons. It wasn’t until he was leaning down to retrieve menus under the podium that she noticed at a distance what looked to be a tattoo of some kind on the back of his neck. Both brows went up as she tried to figure out what it was for a moment or two before giving up and returning to the conversation
“What if he finally shows up?”
“Who?” Cassandra, again, knew who Kandy was asking about, but was, again, on the verge of finally enjoying a bite of her fried Grouper. She was likely to walk away from this lunch date with a case of hives even if she managed to keep her anxiety under control.
“Him.” Once more, the girl pushed the photo back toward Sandra for emphasis.
“He isn’t going to.”
“But what if he did to tell you he got his shit together? What would you do?”
Removing her sunglasses, Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose. Though the annoying sensations in her arms and chest had gone away, she could feel the tension return behind her eyes.
“What you’re really asking me is what it would take for me to say ‘yes’ again.” Cassandra didn’t expect Kandy to answer and the girl did indeed stay quiet.
Sitting back in her chair, she folded her hands in her lap. It wasn’t like she had never thought about this, dreamt about it. One day he’d walk out of the woods, decide on what he wanted from life, and include her in it – that was the fantasy, wasn’t it? After all the unpleasant things life had thrown at them separately, the two of them would be left standing and finally see each other again. He arrived at things in his own time. Perhaps that was the cosmic lesson for her: patience. When she knew something, she went with it. When she felt something, she went after it. Who knew if he even experienced their attraction in the same way she did? Wouldn’t that be a grand kick in the teeth, if all that enchantment was one sided.
“I don’t expect for that guy there to be the one who turns up knocking.” An up-nod towards the photo left on the table between them. She was struggling a bit with trying to quantify something that was, for her, rooted entirely in emotion. “He would need a plan. Where he wants to be. No walls, no hiding, no running. Us moving forward, together.”
“So if he had it all figured out…”
“No, life is a process. He needs to know where he wants to go and be committed to that, to me, our life together.”
That was a very tidy response, but Cassandra left out what would get her to let him in – not just in the door, but back in her life. It would come down to how he looked at her. She would know if this was something he truly wanted rather than just doing what he thought he should do. They had hurt each other a fair amount of the years making the unknown whether they both could get past those things. Would he hug her? How tightly? Would he kiss her? How deeply? She missed her partner, the half that never let her take things too seriously. His flirtatious humour about foldable exercise equipment and teasing of her age. As scarred up as they were from their respective battles, was it still possible for that fire to still be there?
Kandy was listening whilst pensively tapping her pink lacquered nails against the darkened screen of her smart phone. Cassandra wasn’t at all worried about her doing something foolish like reaching out to Dante. The girl had no idea how to get a hold of him. If it weren’t for knowing that, Sandra might not have been so tolerant of the questions. But what was the point of all this?
“Say you got a man and he shows up. Then what?”
Cassandra finally had to laugh at the absurd hypothetical. Both hands came up with a shrug, “I don’t know, Kandy. There’s too much history between us for me to not at least hear him out.”
“Even if you were happy as fuck with your new man?”
This was getting to be rather exhausting for Cassandra. Maybe Kandajha was tied up in some love-triangle and needed advice. Maybe she had been reading too many of those ridiculous, borderline porn novels on her Kindle. Maybe it was the telenovelas.
“Look, I can’t tell you what a relationship would have to look like for me to turn away from Dante completely especially if he’s there offering me the world. Our relationship was not perfect and I have no intention of mythologizing it as if it were. But a lot of other couples were making it, living happily on less than what we had and still are. I can’t tell you if I would love somebody else as much or more than I do Dante. I have no idea if I have that capacity. What I can tell you is that I have yet to meet somebody that inspires in me the desire to find out.”
Kandajha could see the frustration in her aunt building again. She was pushing her luck with how far she had taken the conversation. The girl sighed to herself and brought her phone down into her lap out of view. She wasn’t quite sure what she thought of Cassandra’s rationale. It was an unlikely set of hypotheticals, but the universe had an interesting sense of humour. Rubbing her chin for a moment, Kandy stared down at the group chat she had been texting in earlier. She hadn’t yet decided on what her latest response was going to be.
Cassandra continued on whilst eyeing Kandajha and her phone, “I go to work, make my money, take care of my family, and fix up some cars. Occasionally, I get to enjoy some bloody baseball.” The paranoia was starting to creep back in as she revisited the possibility of Kandy reaching out. Anzhelina was more than capable of finding a phone number. She could find anybody. Her love of chaos and curiosity would definitely be enough to hand Kandy the match. “Who are you talking to?”
“On your phone. Who are you talking to?”
“Warren and a few friends.” It wasn’t a lie. Clearing her throat, she tucked the phone out of sight in a pocket of her hoodie before fluffing up a few thick sections of her curls. “We weren’t sure we could get a place to host the show tomorrow night. Why don’t you come out with me, just for fun?”
“Kandy, I’m not too keen on having to drive all the way out to west Pasco on a Friday night after spending all day at the courthouse.”
Kandy quietly thanked the powers that be for the successful change in the conversation. “Tomorrow, we’re gonna be down near you. We use a place just south of the stadium on Dale Mabry. A couple months back we started doin’ this thing where we meet in Pinellas one week, then South Tampa, then home to Pasco.”
Somehow, Cassandra had missed this memo. Another shifting in her chair as the feeling of discomfort from tension in her back began to spread up toward her shoulders. At least it was chasing away the weakness that had been building in her limbs following the conversation about her ex. The spells of anxiety had become more frequent following her decision to stop drinking altogether. In truth, it was the long hours of burying herself in case law and legal research that often times rescued her from the symptoms of feeling like she was dying. The sharp focus needed to make connections between citations, procedure, and legal theory usually was strong enough to distract her from the suffocating sensation that took hold of her unexpectedly. In the recent weeks there had been two incidents during routine pretrial hearings where it came on fast making her question whether her legs would work when she needed to stand and address the court. Nevertheless, Cassandra would power through unwilling to succumb to it.
“I’ve got a lot to do at the house really. I need to finish all the body work and sanding on the Riviera.”
Cassandra caught Kandajha’s eye roll about the car, but let it pass. After a long day of dealing with whining clients who think they are the only ones who have ever had to split up their household, egocentric judges and assistants treating their court divisions like fiefdoms, and drama baiting attorneys on the other side just looking to churn their bills, sitting alone in a chair massaging the sheet metal of a 60s classic was heaven to her. No talking, no phone calls, no interruptions. It was just her and the car. With great care, she would wind up working her way through the different sections of the long bodied coupe. This intimate act of perfecting the Riviera’s shape was her favourite part of working on a car – her fingertips passing over every single millimetre of sheet metal and trim.
The 1965 Buick still had its original heart, a Super Wild Cat 7litre engine albeit removed and stowed to the side on a stand for now. The big squared off coupe with those trademark hideaway lamps was iconic in its styling and had caught her eye years ago. But like most things in Sandra’s life in the recent past, it was left to sit in a warehouse where the rest of her collection was kept. On the hunt for parts to the Aston Martin earlier in the week, she drove out to the nondescript building she had purchased in East Ybor over fifteen years ago. What wasn’t covered and on stands was coated in a thick film of dirt and grime just for having been neglected for so long. Add to it also that after purchasing the BMW M6 Gran Coupe in 2014, she had essentially stopped driving anything else. It was reliable, comfortable, quiet, and fast. There had been many late Friday nights spent on I75 or even along the east coast on I95 with the BMW clocking mile after mile in the dark pushing 100mph. It was just her, the car, the road, and some playlist that put her in a different universe altogether.
While the flattened tires and occasional pools of fluid where tubes and clamps had finally given up the ghost saddened her, it was a familiar theme inside that warehouse. The home she had owned for nearly as long as she had lived in Tampa still sat close to empty. Whatever furniture that had been left behind after the separation was disposed of over time. Other than a brand new bedroom set and her office, which had been left untouched, the bulk of the rooms were either vacant or contained carefully labelled moving boxes and torn down parcels from Amazon. She didn’t even own a television at this point.
When she saw the Riviera’s driver’s side headlamp peeking out at her from under the partially secured cover, Cassandra swooned a bit. It was one of her favourite designs. For most of the afternoon, she had forgotten entirely about the Aston and instead began going through the Buick front to back building a to-do list as she went. The Burgundy Mist paint was faded and dull from where the clear coat had flaked away in large patches over time. There was a bit of bubbling along side the trim on the body. It needed new carpets and a headliner, but the seats and dash were tear and crack free. Though it was likely the battery had long since died, she didn’t want to risk damaging the numbers matching drivetrain with an impulsive attempt to start the car. The engine would take the most time when it came to draining and clearing out whatever needed to be removed, replaced, and reconnected.
The next morning, she’d be standing in her driveway in South Tampa as the blue and white flatbed from Strand Tow Company delivered the dilapidated Riviera right to her under those big old Willow trees. A project for her was a positive development. It was a creative way to channel her idle time. Though there might be some tasteful upgrading in terms of wheels and tires or suspension setup, Cassandra had no desire to shove any modern, technology-laden components into the Riviera. No engine swaps or nitrous or air ride. Maybe a visually understated exhaust that moderately enhanced the natural tones of the 425 cubic inch Nailhead. Nothing loud or obnoxious to the eyes or ears.
A pelican swooped down to the surface of the bay’s waters and attacked underneath seizing itself an impressive snack. The sound of the bird brought the older of the two women back around to the present. “I think I’m a wee bit long in the tooth for that scene.”
“Come on, I know you got somethin’ you can roll up in. There ain’t nobody you wanna see and catch up with?” Kandy spotted Cassandra arching a suspicious brow from behind those designer sunglasses of hers and immediately tried to dial back her eagerness. “I just wanna make sure you don’t forget to take some time, enjoy the weather, feel the sun, see some folks you know.”
A sarcastic nod of her head, “The weather. This is about you getting me to enjoy the weather.” Both arms unfolded so that her palms could face the sky as Sandra continued to lounge in her chair on the restaurant’s deck. “Here I am, getting my daily dose of mood boosting Vitamin D. And I haven’t burst into flame yet, have I?”
Cassandra tugged at the collar of her white silk blouse with a hooked pointer finger before rolling her shoulders back inside the pinstriped suit’s jacket. Though it was a gorgeous day in Tampa, low sixties, but sunny with a cloudless sky, Sandra coughed to try and free up whatever it was that seemed to be squeezing her ribs. Playing it off with another drink of the coffee, the contrast of the heat against her cold fingers was enough to distract her from the anxiety swirling inside.
Kandy was about to open her mouth and make a rather off-colour joke, but decided against it at the last moment. Instead, she reached for the pitcher of champagne-spiked orange juice and refilled her empty glass.
“Is that all then? Is the interrogation over?”
“You need to get outta this.” Kandy gestured at her from head to toe.
“I need to get out of what exactly?”
“I dunno if you’ve noticed, but you kinda got this whole Disney dominatrix villain vibe goin’ on. Real Ursula the Octopus aesthetic with the eyebrows and shit.” Kandy gestured lazily to her own set of natural, though nicely shaped pair for emphasis. “And the lipstick is lookin’ super Vampira.”
Cassandra sat there with a face that looked like that of a smacked ass. “My what?” She took in a breath and rubbed her brow bone whilst staring over at her older sister’s daughter wondering how in the hell she was going to get herself out of this. Where was the waiter? Why wasn’t he coming to ask how the meal was or if they needed drinks? Horrendous customer service. She should complain on the way out.
“So you think a man is gonna check you out and be like: ‘Yea, I’m gonna go talk to her real quick? She looks mad approachable.’ We’re out here livin’ the life in beautiful Florida and you’re lookin’ like Lily Munster posing at a funeral for Italian Vogue.”
Despite the cold, Sandra was at a point where she had to get her suit jacket off. She leaned forward toward the table in an effort to hide her hands which had disappeared below the surface. The feeling of them trembling against trying to negotiate the buttons only exacerbated the surging she felt in her arteries.
Kandajha watched curiously as it appeared her aunt was struggling against the breeze with her suit. “You need some help?”
“I don’t have to have a man in my life. And if he’s too bloody scared of me based on how I’m dressed that day –” She purposely ignored the question finally shoving the material down her arms in a fit of frustration crumpling the fabric. At least she was now free of it.
“Auntie, you look like a witch.”
“This is for court. This is the image that clients pay for. I don’t go to the market or to my baseball games dressed like this.” While the cold air on her skin helped after removing the jacket, she was still trying to get the shaky, almost numb feeling to dissipate in her limbs. “And I do go out and do things beyond work-related commitments. In jeans and t-shirts, when appropriate. You make it sound like people are horrified of me for fuck’s sake.”
Kandy was watching her closely and finally noticed the small ripples coming up to the surface. If something was bothering Cassandra enough that she could spot the small signs of it on her own, then the girl knew something major was going on below. With that, her tone softened a little in a well learned way. “I know you don’t go bein’ mean to people ‘cause I know you probably don’t talk to a soul when you’re out there among us common folks.”
“I’m there to watch the game or get something done, not socialize.” Cassandra glared at the large cup she had been drinking from and wondered if this was all because of the considerable intake of caffeine. It wasn’t, but she still reached for a glass of iced water instead.
“You owe me. You checked out of checkin’ up on me. I see more of Angie than I do of you. The Grim Reaper has spent more time with me since the funeral than you. I know you must be dealin’ with your own shit, but that’s fucked up, fam. All I’m askin’ is you show up. If you wanna spend two hours sittin’ in a parked car workin’ on your phone, fine.” It was more than frustration that was strengthening the girl’s tone against one of her parental figures. Cassandra felt the hurt more than she heard it. “For once, just show up.”
Kandy had her dead to rights. There was not a single thing Cassandra could say in rebuttal. Like a hermit, she had pulled her world in and around herself leaving everyone else outside. It wasn’t Zo’s death just like it wasn’t any one particular thing. Too much had been left to pile up in her head. Everybody knew that Cassandra wasn’t hurting for money. Her individual net worth, let alone the value of the Boledi family name, was such that her law degree could have just been decorative. But, the job was the only thing that forced her into a structure with built in accountability to clients, the courts, and the BAR association. Retiring was not an option for her as she was still worried that the lack of supervision and discipline would do far more harm than good at this point. She had considered a vacation, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to travel the distance it would take to change her head-space. What if something happened to Anzhelina or Kandy while she was abroad? There would be no quick way to get back to them.
Reaching over to take the girl’s hand, Sandra knew she was crying when she stared off in the opposite direction. She was hiding her face like she had in the emergency room on that one day in particular. Holding Kandy’s hand in her own, she gently squeezed it and sighed.
“I know that my drinking made you move out sooner than we had originally planned for you. All of that has stopped and has been over for a little while now. If you need or want, you can always come back, Kandy.”
The girl nodded still unwilling to show her face. She wasn’t manipulating her aunt. While it was a general goal to get Cassandra out to the event, she was also struggling with feeling like she wasn’t a priority in her life. Cicero was still talking about selling the house on the rare occasions they ran into each other at home and he was sober enough to have a conversation. Angie, though present, wasn’t known for warmth. Life was continuing to march on despite Cassandra acting as if she had stopped it.
“Nah. I feel like if I left again, I’d go back and find some other fuckers livin’ in there.”
“Has he hired an estate agent?”
Kandajha shrugged and buried her face in her hands for a few beats.
“Send me the when and where of it and I will go with the stipulation that you agree to invite that nice young man out front to accompany you. After all, someone told me it will be Valentine’s Day.”
Wiping her face with the right sleeve of her hoodie, Kandy finally looked over at Cassandra, “What if he has a small dick, though?”
Cassandra sat up in her seat and started waving for a waiter, any waiter. “Check, please!”