Sally O’Dowd is a magazine self-publisher, blogger and poet. Her story Swan Castle placed fifth among 26 entries in NYC Midnight’s writing contest. Genre: Romantic Comedy
Anne and her sister Carrie were having a drink Tuesday night at Molly’s, their local pub, where the subject was routinely Anne’s sexist CEO.
“Period pain? I can’t believe that’s the reason Jack thought you took a sick day,” Carrie said. “What a wanker. Doesn’t he know it’s still against the law to speak that way?” The two young women were not alone in fearing that, under the influence of the country’s new president, such behavior would become normalized.
Two years older, Carrie felt responsible for both Anne’s libations and existential progress. “How much longer are you going to take this?”
“I’ll get out. Give me some time.”
“Can you go to HR?”
“No, she’s a friend of Jack’s wife.”
Just then two twenty-something men approached to order a couple of lagers. “Thanks, buddy,” the taller one said, leaving a tip on the bar. Their faces seemed nice.
The shorter one took the initiative. “Hi, there. I’m Chris and this is Oliver.”
“Hi.” Carrie nudged Anne under her knee. Potential.
As Carrie and Chris laughed at Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation on YouTube, Anne turned to Oliver. As cute as he was, she couldn’t entirely forget the day. “I wish I could spread shit sandwiches on my CEO’s office floor. He hates sandwiches.”
He laughed into his near-empty glass. “I’d love to see that,” he said, signaling for another round. “But seriously, I hear you. My boss is an ass, too. My bonus was so effing low last year, even after exceeding my quota.”
Salesmen – all they care about is money.
“This is a town of wealthy entrepreneurs, you know that, right? What do you want to do if not that?”
“Make the world a better place.”
“You have noble goals. I don’t look that far ahead.”
Running out of things to say, they went to play the Jukebox—The Chainsmokers and The Killers, Taylor Swift and Prince. He let her pick the songs and paid kind attention all night. And she liked his moves on the improvised dance floor.
Two hours later they walked down the street to the corner. Her head was dizzy from the wine, but she didn’t give it much thought as he put his mouth onto hers, the smell and touch reminding her of warm air under clean sheets. Oliver held her close; she pulled away just enough to pull up her blouse and his button-down shirt. The pure humanness of skin relaxed her muscles. She exhaled onto his neck.
“Get the hell away from my diner!” The owner appeared out of nowhere. “Scram!”
Like teenagers who had stolen gum, they ran down the street to Anne’s apartment building where they caught their breath and said good-bye. She woke triumphantly to a text Wednesday morning.
—GM Anne! Whoa. I was over-served last night. With that said, I can remember that UR smart and sexy. Never eating at that diner! You?
Disappointment dropped into her gut like a New York bagel. Over-served? No, he wasn’t! What doesn’t he remember about me?
She held back from typing, feeling over-exposed.
Hungover and perplexed by Oliver’s distant tone, Anne moved slowly. But if she moved faster, she’d encounter more misery, sooner.
Her inability to breathe, brought on by a cold, made her feel hot and faint…she exited the elevator sweating under her blouse and trying to balance her tea, which had spilled through the lid’s opening onto her backpack. She threw it onto her desk, riddled with Post-it notes from the CEO, at 10 a.m. Jack’s going to be pissed.
She blotted her backpack to a semi-dry state, pulled out her hand sanitizer, and began to take her place in the large, echo-filled reception area. Imposing in black letters, HARTMAN CAPITAL signage hung on the wall. She grabbed a clean tissue just in time, sneezing the word “shit,” which is exactly how she felt.
Jack approached from behind. “After you boot up, read my email; I need you to order lunch—12 people. And you know how I hate those sandwiches.”
Her neck muscles tensed—a familiar sensation after two years as Jack’s admin. Having made a fortune as a serial entrepreneur, he was a prominent venture capitalist in San Francisco. And while money was not her ultimate goal in life, her $35,000 salary was another insult. I was summa cum laude in European history for God’s sake.
Later that morning, she replied to Oliver.
—Hey there-busy at work. thx 4 nice time.
—My pleasure. TTYL.
Reassured of his interest, she didn’t write back.
She jumped at a text late in the day—from Amazon. So-and-so’s business book, featuring advice from Jack, had been shipped. Damn it.
“Did God have to create men? Seriously!” Anne yelled, forcibly heaving her backpack on the kitchen counter that night. Partly regretting the third-base make-out and reeling from Jack’s recurring insensitivity, she ordered-in chicken noodle soup and went to bed.
While she couldn’t do anything about Jack, She was hoping Oliver would be a source of validation. But it was now Thursday afternoon and no word, so she did like other dejected girls—confide in her hair stylist. “Hey, why don’t you text him a photo? You look awesome if I say so myself,” said Jodi, admiring her work.
Anne agreed, a rare moment of self-confidence. “What guy doesn’t like a photo of a pretty girl?”
Her faith in all humanity had diminished by the time she slammed the apartment door. “He has completely DIS-UH-PEARED!”
“Bollocks!” Carrie was learning Irish slang—it was part of her plan to meet Niall Horan from One Direction and make him fall in love with her.
Enough was enough. With Carrie as editor, Anne texted around 10 p.m.
—Re: photo. That was before I shaved my head.
He responded within minutes.
—Hey Anne-great hair! Sorry 4 not writing. I was hung over yesterday and have lotsof work to catch up on. We should grab coffee but not sure of UR expectations? U R cool n interesting.
“Cool and interesting? Blimey!” Carrie said, handing Anne the bowl of popcorn.
Anne shooed it away, folding her arms tightly across her chest.
“He had his hands down your pants for bloody sake.”
“Shush. I feel bad enough.”
Anxiety getting the best of her, the adrenal glands responded:
—What happened to liking our make-out session and calling me sexy?
—Epic make-out, but I’m platonic for several reasons. I’d be happy to explain in person.
“So he’s communicative but inconsistent. What do I do now?”
“Play it two ways. One: Ignore his game-playing arse. Two: Hear him out and maybe you’ll learn something for the next buck who comes along.”
Anne decided that the path of least resistance was to a coffee shop.
—What about this weekend?
—GRT. 1 pm Saturday at Charlie’s?
Scratching an arm fighting two dressers and a closet, Anne decided to wear ripped jeans, red flats and black V-neck with minimal makeup—sheer gloss instead of red lipstick. She didn’t want to look as though she’d made an effort.
Oliver’s excuse was honest if not a little lame. His ex, two years ago, had repeatedly put him down and he still felt self-conscious and hurt. “Perhaps that’s why I don’t think that far ahead—commitment-phobe,” he said, raising his hand. “I’m sorry if it irked you. I really like you and hope you’re willing to see me for coffee once in awhile.”
Under the table, she hit her thigh with her fist. Looking for love in all the wrong...But overall, his character was a positive—endearing in an emasculated metrosexual sort of way.
“I’d like that.”
Then, the zinger. Anne started talking about life post-election, assuming he had voted for Hillary like everyone else she knew, or liked. Jack had probably voted for Trump; they were cause and effect.
“I voted for Gary Johnson.”
“You mean Gary What is Aleppo? Johnson?”
“Is it that bad?”
“If you know about murder of innocent Syrians!” She knocked her teaspoon to the floor; picking it up she banged her head on the table.
“I didn’t know you were so political.”
“I haven’t needed to talk about it—everyone I know is a Democrat,” she retorted, now rubbing her head, her hair looking like a big M on top.
“At least I didn’t vote for Trump.”
“Any vote not for Hillary helped him win.”
“I didn’t like either of them, OK? You guys are the party of voting rights, after all.”
She stood down. “That’s true, I’m sorry,” she said, flattening her hair, disappointed by yet another difference but seeing his point.
“Please, let’s not let politics divide us like the rest of the country.”
Simmering down, she ordered another tea. It was almost 4 o’clock by the time they parted.
Carrie was practically jumping in anticipation when she opened the door. “What’s the craic? Did you snog?”
“His ex said he smelled, he voted for Johnson, and he offered to rewrite my resume.”
Carrie shrugged her shoulders and winced.
“One out of three ain’t bad.”
“That’s the Sleeping Beauty castle on back.”
“The nineteenth-century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, to be exact. His senior adviser at UCLA gave it to him for good luck, and now he’s passing it on to me.”
Indeed, their talk had ended on a true high note. Anne would treasure Oliver’s gift, having studied the European Union in college. The coin, she knew, was part of Germany’s commemorative series launched in 2006. Every year for 16 years, the country would honor one of its 16 states on the back of a small percentage of its issued currency. While collectors bought such coins as investments, Anne cherished history. The coin with the fairytale castle, personally financed by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was one of the prettiest objects she’d ever seen.
“You know mom’s grandparents came from there, right?” The girls’ mother had died when they were children.
Anne spent the next three weeks looking for administrative jobs—what else was she qualified to do? Despite Carrie and Oliver’s cheering squad, she couldn’t overcome Jack’s influence. He had worn her down; her self-esteem dragged like an old robe. In her helpless solitude, she longed for her mother. Falling asleep, she thought she heard her say, Let Oliver help you.
Anne met him at Charlie’s the following Sunday. As they pulled out their laptops, he asked, “What do you want to do, really do?”
“Told you. Make the world a better place.” She paused. “And earn a respectable salary.”
“Broad, but good. Name the organizations you admire.”
The ones fighting for political prisoners, press freedoms, civil rights—she counted them emphatically on her fingers. They spent the afternoon combing for jobs, many of which were too senior, or boring positions in technology. But then the Internet revealed itself in all its glory.
“I found one!
College grad with two+ years experience needed
on fundraising team at Women’s Rights International,
a provider of healthcare and family-planning services.
Must have excellent written and oral communication skills;
team player and organized.
“Totally you! Now— your resume.”
He moved his chair beside her, going line by line to shape her experience to the job. The waitress came by, gently turning around with a smile—they couldn’t be distracted.
A few weeks later she got the offer—$48,000 with benefits and a tuition-reimbursement program. She texted Oliver immediately.
—Meet me at Molly’s to plan Operation Get Out (O-GO).
The following Monday at 7 a.m., a delivery guy came with 50 sandwiches that they used to spell, “I QUIT” on Jack’s office floor. Oliver then hid in a meeting room.
Jack said good morning gruffly an hour later, went to his man-cave and quickly returned. His narcissistic anger spread welts on his chubby face. “Get out! I never want to see you again!”
“That’s the point!” Anne exclaimed as Oliver pushed the elevator button.
“What am I supposed to do with the food on my floor?”
“Eat it!” they said in unison, waving good-bye.
As spring turned into summer, Anne blossomed, speaking at team meetings, handling correspondence with donors, regularly receiving praise. She started swimming laps, treating herself afterward to the club’s Jacuzzi and steam room. She felt purified. Her skin glowed.
The pair began to see each other more frequently. If he’d attend Carrie’s poetry open-mic, Anne would be his wing-woman at business functions; if she watched the Bengals, he’d attend a pro-choice rally. She kept the two-euro coin in her jewelry box, admiring it every morning.
Their first romantic kiss, apart from the fateful night at Molly’s, occurred at the close of WRI’s annual fundraiser. Anne had curated a stellar list of goods for auction, certain to attract wealthy donors—a grand piano, cruise down the Nile, a case of Bordeaux. With an eye for surprise, she gave guests a laugh at the exit—a crystal bowl filled with complimentary condoms.
“I’d take one but don’t want to be presumptuous,” he said, just before the revolving doors.
“You kidding? Take three.” Arm in arm, they headed for his place.
They made a gentle love. Oliver’s appreciation of her body provided a divine sense of maturing womanhood surrounded by the safe zone of his sheets. “I really want this to last,” he said after climax. She was still, careful not to shift his body, which lay upon her. They fell asleep just so.
They moved in together after the new year.
Boxes unpacked, Oliver suggested a vacation. “Where do you want to go?”
“Gosh, I haven’t thought about it.”
He already had a plan. “What about Bavaria?”
Anne immediately started to plan the trip, choosing a small hotel in the village of Hohenschwangau, at the foot of Neuschwanstein Castle. Anne was joyful to the point of tears when sharing the meaning with Oliver: The “New Swan Stone” fortress paid homage to German medieval literature. Lohengrin, a knight of the Holy Grail, is sent in a boat pulled by swans to rescue a maiden forbidden to ask his name. The castle would inspire Disney himself.
After a week of walks around the Alpsee and Schwansee lakes, of hiking hills, of Franconian wines accompanying hearty dinners, they dreaded their departure. On their last night they placed a blanket amidst beech trees and spruces, fulfilling their own fantasy of making love in a forest.
“I told you the first time I wanted this to last,” he said, pulling out a ring.
“Yes, my darling, yes!” Oliver wrapped the blanket tightly around them. They didn’t move the rest of the night.
Walking along the Schwansee at sunrise, they paused to listen.
She took out the coin from her coat pocket. “Should I?”
“It belongs here.”
The coin rippling the water, the startled birds flew away.
Short story submission for NYC Midnight writing contest. © Sally O’Dowd