Sarah Bell was wondering how she had gotten to this point in her life. How could she be so miserable? And worse, she knew it was all her own fault. Sarah had made her own bed, so to speak, and now she was sleeping in it. Alone. And THAT was a large part of her problem.
She shivered from the cold — standing outside on the pier at night in Malibu was cold in February. Even for California!
"Brenda," she asked her friend from work who had dragged her out for the evening, "Remind me why we are standing here in a line, waiting on this freezing pier?"
Brenda could barely understand Sarah, whose teeth were chattering. A gust of wind came by at just that second, and even through her pants Sarah could feel the cold ocean air. Thank god she'd opted to wear pants, and not a skirt, for the evening.
"We are waiting in line, because that is what you have to do if you want to eat at L.A.'s hottest new restaurant, and it happens that they don't take reservations!" Brenda replied. "Anyway, it's been months since you've been out, Sarah. Not since your boyfriend Mark left you, anyway."
Sarah was slightly annoyed at Brenda's remark about Mark, but not for the reason one might expect.
"He didn't 'leave' me, Brenda; I drove him out by being a first class b-i-t-c-h..."
Brenda quickly interrupted Sarah, before the tears could start.
"Don't go getting all upset and beating yourself up again, Sarah. We're here to have a good time, and eat a meal to die for. I've been told..." Brenda continued on, not noticing that Sarah was lost in her own world.
Sarah could still see the picture in her mind of Mark lying there in their bed, the sheets only partially covering his lean, masculine body. She looked down on his sleeping form, his wavy black hair ruffled, his face peaceful and his eyelids closed concealing dark eyes that burned with passion when they made love.
Mark never exercised as such, but his work involved lifting and moving heavy boxes every day, and it showed in his muscular arms and shoulders. He didn't have the highly defined abs that the body builders who displayed themselves on Venice Beach exhibited, but his torso was nevertheless well muscled, and, in Sarah's opinion, very sexy. And the line of hair that descended from his chest down his abdomen like an arrow pointing to his organ, concealed at that moment under the sheets, made Sarah wish she had time to crawl back into the bed to kiss and caress him awake.
Alas, she had to get to work. Damn! She looked at the clock next to the bed and realized she was running late as it was. She turned and walked out of the bedroom and out of the apartment.
She and Mark had been living together for just a little over eighteen months, and for most of that time, it had been bliss.
Sarah Bell worked in the financial industry, having gotten her undergraduate degree from a top-50 mid-western university. Following graduation, Sarah had fulfilled her dream of getting a job in Southern California, in the Wealth Management department of UBL — United Bank of Liechtenstein, in Santa Monica. Actually, her dream wasn't so much that of working in Southern California — Florida would have served as well — as it was escaping from the bitter cold winters of her native Chicago!
She had first met Mark while getting lunch with a couple of her friends at the restaurant across the street from her office. They had often dined there before, but that day as they ordered their usual meals, there were two changes.
First, which only Sarah seemed to notice, was that instead of their waiter, another man, with wavy black hair, an olive complexion and deep-set dark eyes, served them their food. Sarah looked at the attractive young man, and found herself staring directly into his eyes — which were looking directly back at hers! She froze like a deer in the headlights for a moment, until he smiled showing his white teeth against his tanned skin, and showing even more cheek, winked at her!
The second difference, although not a bad one, was the food. The five women who had come to lunch that day had all ordered the same meals that they regularly ate at the restaurant. But this time, and there was no other way to say it, the food was simply better. Each of them noticed small changes in the preparation of their meals that enhanced the flavor. Changes had been made to the spice combinations; a sprinkling of cheese and garlic butter was added to the vegetables. The beef was slightly more tender; the fish was delicate and flaky to the fork. Little things, but which in total made the meal memorable.
As Sarah left to return to work, she asked the waiter, "Who was the man who served us out food? Don't you normally do that?"
The waiter grinned, "Yeah, I do. But for some reason, today the cook wanted to take care of your table himself. Very odd, but who am I to argue; I get to keep the tip."
Sarah, intrigued, began eating at the little bistro on a regular basis, and when the black-haired cook was working, he always seemed to find an excuse to serve her. She finally learned that his name was Mark, and she began plotting how she could engage him in conversation.
Mark had been entranced by the slim redhead with the pale skin and sky-blue eyes from the moment he'd seen her come into the restaurant. When she wore a skirt and heels, he could see her long, shapely legs, and just watching the motion of her derriere as she walked across the room could give him a hard-on.
Sarah finally decided to take the bull by the horns, and use the direct approach.
"Do you have time to sit down with me for a minute, please," Sarah finally requested, as he was arranging plates of food on the table in front of her.
Mark thought about it — nothing was cooking that he had to supervise for a couple of minutes, so he took a seat across the small table from his dream woman.
She extended her hand, "I'm Sarah, and I work for UBL across the street."
"I'm Mark, Mark Flore," he replied, taking her hand, but just gently holding it between his dry, warm hands. "I'm the chef here, sometimes server, and your fervent admirer!" He said that with a twinkle in his eyes and his generous smile, which revealed dimples in his cheeks. Mark was anything but shy and retiring.
Sarah could feel a blush that started in her neck and quickly rose to her hairline. It took her a minute before she remembered to pull her hand back away from Mark's. There was definitely chemistry between the two of them.
"Mark, you know, instead of waiting until I come for lunch and serving me, you could just ask me out on a date!" Sarah told him flat out. It had taken her days to get her courage up to make her approach, but she wasn't going to take a chance that Mark wouldn't ask her out or that some other woman would get her claws into him.
Mark was gob smacked! He sat there looking as guilty as a little boy caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. Sarah thought he was even cuter, if it was possible, at that moment. It took Mark only a second to recover. Before he responded, he took a deep breath, released it, and then took another. Then his smile returned and Sarah could almost see his heart melting.
"That sounds like the best idea I've heard all day; in fact it's the best idea I've heard all week — no, all month. Maybe the best idea I've ever heard in my life!"
That was the beginning, for of course, he did ask her out. In fact, from that moment on, they spent every spare minute that they could together. After dating for a couple of months, Mark and Sarah, fairly certain that they had found their soul mates and life partners, moved into an apartment together, not far from the beach.
In many ways, theirs was a match made in heaven.
Sarah and Mark enjoyed the same music; they watched the same classic movies, and laughed at the same jokes. They were both relatively neat, not a Felix and Oscar odd couple. They compromised with each other, each willing to give a little on their position if by doing so they would make the other happy.
And when it came to making love, they were a perfect fit. Neither one of them had been virgins when they met, but they were such an incredible match that when they made love, it was like they had never known any other lovers. They were attuned to each other's needs and desires. They both had the attitude that the other's pleasure was more important and came first before their own.
There was always one, actually two, flies in the ointment for Sarah.
The first was Mark's work. His job demanded an immense dedication — he worked long hours, sometimes starting so early in the day, that Sarah would awaken to find him missing from their bed, even from the apartment. Other times, he would be working late long after Sarah had gone to bed. Mark would slip in so quietly that he wouldn't even wake Sarah (who admittedly slept like a log!), but he would still be asleep the next morning long after Sarah had left for work. She would bend down and kiss his cheek or forehead, and the edges of his mouth would turn up in an unconscious smile, and he would mutter a few words in his sleep.
Of course, Mark also had to work most weekends when Sarah was off, and while she intellectually understood why he wasn't available to her, at an emotional level it bothered her anyway.
The other aspect of Mark's chosen field that bothered her was that as hard as he worked, and as many hours as he put in, he wasn't paid what Sarah thought he should be. Not that Mark didn't contribute his share of expenses; he did. But he had to watch his spending, which limited what they could do as a couple, and how often. Not that spending money was a problem, getting back to the fact that so much of the time he was either working or sleeping, recovering for his next shift.
Even Sarah, though, had to admit that she had never eaten so well in her entire life as since she'd lived with Mark! There was never a real reason to go out for dinner, because Mark could prepare a better meal at home in their own kitchen than one could buy at any but the most exclusive and expensive restaurants.
In short — several aspects of Mark's work caused Sarah a certain level of heartburn.
The second 'fly in the ointment' for Sarah was subtler, and if anyone had pointed it out to her, she would have dismissed it as utter nonsense.
Looking back, while Sarah had been away taking classes at her university, Mark was traveling the world learning to cook.
Sarah, in addition to her Finance and business classes, had a general education that included history and political science classes, English literature and psychology classes, and a host of classes in other subjects as well. Many of those were classes that on her own Sarah would have never taken, but they were required. Which of course is the point of a Liberal Arts education — a broad field of knowledge introducing students to subjects that left to their own devices they would otherwise ignore.
With her degree in hand, Sarah was something of a snob regarding formal education, which Mark didn't have.
Mark had traveled through Asia, learning to cook Chinese, Indian, and other Asian ethnic cuisines. Mark had worked in Latin America cooking everything from tamales in Mexico, to delicate fish dishes in Lima. He had spent time in Germany and Central Europe making sauerbraten and goulash. In France he had worked in bakeries, and even attended culinary school in Paris.
His true culinary love, though, was Italian food; cooking and eating the dishes of his ancestors. And in the end, his most important teacher was his mother, who passed to him the knowledge that generations of his family before him had perfected in the art of food preparation.
Mark's lack of what passed in Sarah's mind as 'formal education' hadn't been a huge issue for the first fifteen months that they had lived together. While Mark hadn't taken classes at a university, he was interested in current events and history, especially European Renaissance history. He was also knowledgeable about classical music and painting — another knowledge set that he had learned from his mother.
The upshot was, that on those few occasions when Mark had been able to attend social events held by Sarah's employer, he was perfectly capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation on a variety of subjects, and no one thought about whether he had a college degree one way or the other.
That was until Mark and Sarah had been living together for about sixteen months. That was when, like in every Garden of Eden, the serpent appeared. In this case, it was a serpent by the name of J. Phillip Woodword.
Phillip (never 'Phil') was transferred into the Santa Monica branch of UBL as part of a program intended to groom him for upper management (at least that was what he made sure all of his co-workers were informed). He had gone to one of the snooty east-coast schools and came from an 'old money' family. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of the money left by the time Phillip arrived on the scene, but it didn't prevent him from looking down on almost everyone, especially these west coast upstarts.
While Phillip might have been an insufferable snob, he wasn't blind and his reaction to watching Sarah's divinely proportioned ass in motion as she walked down the hallways of UBL was about the same as Marks. He wanted to tap some of that! And he tried.
He could hardly believe that Sarah would turn him down when he asked her out, but she politely let him know that she already had a boyfriend and that although she and Phillip could be friends and colleagues, they would never be more than that. Phillip, to all outward appearances, took the rebuff well.
On the inside, he was seething. Phillip decided rather than giving up on Sarah, to redouble his effort to get into her pants. He just had to figure out how to split her away from her damn boyfriend.
His attack started with a casual conversation over a cup of coffee in Sarah's office.
"So Sarah, what does your boyfriend do?" was Phillip's first foray of gathering intelligence.
"Oh, he's a cook. He works at 'Bistro Parisian' across the street," she replied, not knowing that she had just given Phillip his line of attack.
"A cook? That's really interesting," is what he said, but what he was thinking was, "What the hell is a stone fox like her doing hooking up with a cook?"
"Does he have a degree? Or is he, you know, one of those English Lit majors who couldn't find a job, or something?"
"Oh no. He never went to college. Actually, he spent about six years traveling around the world working as a cook. He saw a lot of interesting places and met a lot of different people," Sarah explained.
"But he never pursued any formal education?" Phillip pressed the issue.
"Well, he did go to a cooking school in France, I think," Sarah told him, trying to remember something that Mark had mentioned in passing one time. "Yeah, I think it was called 'Gordon Blues' cooking school, or something."
"Wow, that's, ah..." Phillip started, but just trailed off.
"Well, it seems pretty unusual for someone as educated as you who went to a highly ranked university, to be together with someone who doesn't share the same kind of educational background. But hey, I'm sure that you two have worked it out just fine." Phillip didn't want to be too obvious about his approach.
Sarah just nodded her head, taking in what Phillip had said.
"Oh, we do really well together, and Mark is very intelligent even if he didn't go to school. He reads a lot too, when he isn't working."
Not long after that, Phillip returned to his own office. But the seed had been sown in Sarah's mind.
That evening after dinner, when she and Mark were sitting together in the living room talking, she raised the issue of education herself.
"Mark, honey? You know, I was thinking: if you wanted to go to college, I make enough money now that you could quit your cooking job and go back to school."
Mark looked at her incredulously.
"Why would I want to do that?" he asked - his attention now fully focused on Sarah.
"I don't know; you might find all sorts of subjects that interest you at college. I know I did. When I started at the university, I thought that I was going to major in biology and go to medical school; instead, I discovered that what I really enjoyed was business and finance, and ended up getting my degree in that. And look at the job I got as a result."
Mark didn't answer immediately, but Sarah could see that he was literally getting 'hot under the collar'.
"Sarah, how would going to college help me to be a better chef? Or are you saying that cooking is a profession that is somehow less important than working in finance. Or are you suggesting that I'm not educated enough or smart enough for you?"
Sarah became somewhat defensive herself, "No, I'm not saying any of those things; I was just offering to support you if you were to decide to go to school." Now she was getting wound up too, "And I think you're very smart; so smart that I think you could be working a regular work week, and making more money if you were to get a degree and find something else to do!"
"I don't think that you understand me very well," Mark hotly replied, "Cooking is all I've ever wanted to do, and I'm happy doing what I'm doing. It is hard work, and demands long hours, I know, but it's what I'm good at, and what I love."
Sarah backed off a bit, "OK Mark, I didn't mean to get you upset, but I wanted to offer just in case. And if you were to ever change your mind, the offer stands."
That was the end of their first spat, although a couple of hours later as they lay next to each other in bed, they were each thinking their own thoughts and for the first time in their relationship, they were unwilling to communicate them.
So it went for the next two months; Phillip always 'as a friend' would make observations about Mark's job or his inferior level of education compared with Sarah's, or even implying that Sarah should be with someone on a higher intellectual plain.
From that night forward, there was always an edge to Mark and Sarah's conversations. Mark had become sensitive, perhaps too sensitive to Sarah's words, seeing more in them than she meant. He began to interpret what she would say as subtle criticisms. He in turn would become short with her. Soon their interactions became an exercise in verbal sniping at each other. In other words, they were hurting each other on a daily basis, both of them acting out of the fear that they were losing the other, and it was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The final crisis came about two months after their first little argument.
Given Mark's long hours, sometimes into the evenings, it was not unusual for Sarah to go out for a drink or two with the girls after work. Mark had never objected to her having time with her friends. But that night, he began to wonder about the 'girl's nights out' as well.
That evening, Phillip joined the other Wealth Management group employees at the bar. In truth, Phillip could be a charming man, and quite a conversationalist when he wanted to be, and that evening he dominated Sarah's time. Indeed, they spent almost the entire evening talking with each other to the exclusion of any of the other members of the group. Even after the others had called it a night and left, Phillip and Sarah continued to chitchat. Finally, almost two hours later than was her normal habit, Sarah arrived home to find that Mark had actually gotten there ahead of her.
Mark was somewhat disappointed that Sarah wasn't there when he arrived. He'd been able to take off early from work, and had hoped to have some time to spend with Sarah, to try and address the problems that had been developing in their relationship. Plus, he had some exciting news that he had hoped to share with her — news that would change his future career.
Instead, Sarah got home late and had obviously had a few more drinks than her usual. When he tried to talk to her, she began to go on and on about the wonderful time she'd had that evening with Phillip, her new co-worker.
"Phillip?" Mark asked, "I don't recall meeting him."
"I guess not, he's only been with us for a couple of months," the slightly inebriated Sarah admitted. "But you'd like him. He's really smart and went to one of the top schools on the East Coast. He's pretty funny too, once you get to know him."
A light went off in Marks brain the second that Sarah laid that little tidbit on him. The change in Sarah's attitude had begun just about the same time that this Phillip character had come to her office. He wasn't at all persuaded that he would like Phillip; in fact he suspected quite the opposite.
"Ah. Did his wife join you at the bar?" he inquired.
"Don't be silly," Sarah said with a laugh, "He's not married!"
"Really? My, what a surprise," Mark remarked with a grimace that went unnoticed by Sarah. "Was it Phillip who suggested to you that I might one day rise to the level of a wage slave, if only I went to college?"
Sarah frowned thinking about Mark's remark.
"Oh no. I thought of that myself. But we had been talking about your job and how you hadn't gone to school. You know..." her sentence just trailing off.
"Has it ever occurred to you that Phillip might be trying to split us up, and that he is doing it by convincing you that I'm not good enough for you?"
"No, no, no. Phillip is just a friend. He's not interested in splitting us up," Sarah insisted.
"So he's never tried to ask you out, or put moves on you?" Mark pressed the point home.
"Well, when he first arrived he asked me out once, but I told him that you were my boyfriend, and that I couldn't go out with him."
"Sarah, I think that he does want to go out with you, and probably figures that if your boyfriend wasn't around, he would have a shot at getting into your pants!" Mark explained, becoming rather upset. "And one way to get in between us is to try and poison your mind against me."
"Mark," Sarah got loud right back in Mark's face, "You're being unfair to Phillip. He's done nothing to try and 'get in my pants' since I told him no. You're just jealous because Phillip is an investment banker with a degree, and you're just a..."
Sarah stopped, and she instantly become sober, because she knew that she had gone too far.
She could see the look on Mark's face that combined the pain of what she had implied about him, with disgust that she had finally exposed her true assessment in a moment of candor.
"Mark, no, no ... I'm sorry; I didn't mean what I said. I was just angry and saying the most vicious thing that came into my head..." she said, her entire being filled with a sense of shame.
Mark, shocked and hurt, put an end to it.
"I think I'm going to go to bed. I have an early day tomorrow," he said in a quiet voice, his strength having drained out of him. "Let's talk after we've both had a chance to calm down. That way maybe we won't say anything more that we will regret."
And with that, Mark turned and walked back to the bedroom.
By the time that Sarah joined him, Mark had turned and faced away from her side of the bed. She climbed under the covers and moved over to spoon with her beloved, but he was still and unresponsive to the warmth of her body for the first time since they started living together.
"Mark," she whispered into his ear, "I love you. I love you the way you are. I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to hurt you."
Eventually, they both fell asleep.
The next morning by the time that Sarah woke up, Mark was already gone. She was disappointed that he hadn't even bothered to wake her, and had (she figured) gone off to work kind of pissed off. But she felt more optimistic in the daylight — she would make it up to Mark this evening. In the meantime, she needed to get to work too.
Mark had started off his morning in the opposite kind of mood. So far as he was concerned, he had been putting up with Sarah's complete lack of respect, her dwindling affections, and a growing ration of nagging for the past two months. And worse, now he knew that the sudden rift in their relationship could be attributed to one Phillip Woodword. Mark was not a believer in coincidence, and the arrival of this man on the scene was just too convenient.
But as he sat and had his first cup of coffee for the day, Mark shook his head to clear his mind, because he couldn't let his deteriorating relationship with Sarah interfere with business today. Mark had to put his shit together, because in a couple of hours, he had a meeting this afternoon with Luci Vandenhousen, known in L.A. food circles as 'Luci V.' Luci was a well-known 'angel' in the L.A. restaurant scene. She found great chefs, usually just as their reputations were growing, and she would enter into partnerships with them — they supplied the cooking and the recipes, she supplied the financing, and publicity and voila! A hot new restaurant would be born.
And Mark was her next project.
The downside for Mark was, Luci was an attractive blond in her early forties, and a well-known 'cougar' with a particular taste for young chefs. She was said to have sampled the wares of every chef whose restaurants she had funded. One of the dirty little secrets of the industry was, that like rock-and-roll musicians, celebrities, and politicians, the top chefs also had 'groupies' — one of the reasons why so many of them were divorced.
"At least," Mark thought to himself, "if I have to service Luci, I won't have to worry about two-timing Sarah anymore." As he'd sat, he made his decision. That afternoon he was going to move out of the apartment that Sarah and he had shared.
After Mark had prepared the lunch meals, he left them for his assistant to finish, and took one of those rare afternoons off. He returned to the apartment, and packed his bags. A sad and depressing thing for him, because he truly loved Sarah, but felt it was his only choice.
He didn't need a mother telling him what to do, nor a condescending virago, harping day and night trying to 'improve' him. At this time of his life, taking advantage of the opportunity to open his own restaurant was simply too good to pass up.
Before he returned to the restaurant, he wrote out a note and left it for Sarah to find on their dining room table.
The day dragged on slowly for Sarah. Even though she thought she had repaired the damage she'd done with Mark, their fight the night before — and she had to admit to herself that it was a fight not just a spat or disagreement — it had left her afraid that it would leave a permanent stain on their relationship.
She realized that she was desperately in love with Mark, regardless of his job, his working hours, or his lack of a degree. And finally, she was feeling terribly guilty at the fact she had been such a bitch to her lover and partner for the past couple of months.
One of the first things she concluded was that she was going to stop allowing Phillip to have the influence on her opinions that she'd ceded to him since he arrived on the scene. Her opportunity came that morning when he dropped by her office.
"Hey Sarah! How's it going this morning?"
"Not all that well, Phillip. Could you sit down for a minute?" she asked. He took a seat in the chair across the desk from her.
"Sure. By the way, I had a great time with you last night. You're really a lot of fun to be around."
"That's one of the things I want to talk to you about.
"After I got home last night, my boyfriend and I had a big fight. You know that I appreciate your trying to help me out and give me advice, but I'm afraid that some of the ideas that I've been picking up from you are hurting, not helping. I know that wasn't your intention, but that's what the result has been. So, if you don't mind, I would prefer if we didn't discuss my boyfriend or our relationship anymore."
Phillip tried to look abashed on the outside, but inside he was jumping for joy that his strategy had been so successful. So now he would just have to make an adjustment to his method.
"Oh Sarah! I'm so sorry. I certainly didn't mean to cause you any trouble. All I was doing was being a sounding board for your frustrations, and giving you whatever guidance I could.
"But I will absolutely stay away from the subject of your boyfriend, if that's what you think is best. I hope that we can remain friends, though."
Sarah nodded, "Absolutely — after all we still work together, and see each other every day, so I wouldn't want it any other way. But I think from now on, we need to keep things on a more professional basis."
"Absolutely," Phillip agreed, assuming that Sarah's stance wouldn't last long after she broke up with her current boyfriend. Sarah couldn't see the grin on his face as he walked back to his office.
The hours passed with agonizing slowness, until lunchtime finally arrived. Sarah was out the door right at noon, which was earlier than she regularly took her lunch, and across the street to Bistro Parisian to talk to Mark.
"Alas no, Miss Sarah," replied Pierre, the maître d' of Bistro, "Mark said he had some business to attend to, and left. I expect that he will return later this afternoon, if that would help?"
"Thank you, Pierre. I guess that I can come back later."
Pierre looked at Sarah and could see that she was agitated and unhappy not to find Mark at work. Perhaps she was worried that Mark was seeing another woman, he though briefly, before dismissing the thought. No. Not Mark, that wasn't his style. Something else, he decided.
"Miss Sarah — you look, how you say it? Unhappy and disturbed. Can I bring you something to eat? You know life's difficulties are always easier to face on a full stomach."
Sarah had to smile at Pierre's concern as well as his attitude towards food. Like Mark, he lived a life centered around food and the Bistro.
"Thank you, Pierre, but I don't think so. I'm not really very hungry."
"Oh Miss Sarah, Mark made Lobster Bisque for the soup d'jour — can't I get you at least a bowl of bisque and some fresh bread still hot from the oven..."
Sarah could feel her resolve melting at Pierre's description of the soup, so she allowed herself to be convinced. Pierre sat her at a table that was in the kitchen and served her there himself.
While she ate, Mark's coworkers came by, one after another, and each sat with her for a minute or two, talking and passing the time in pleasant companionship until they had to get back to work. They all had words of praise for Mark: he is a great chef, he is a pleasure to work with, an all around nice man.
Sarah actually had a great time and enjoyed just being in the hot, steamy, bustling kitchen, filled with dedicated hard working but pleasant people. These were Mark's friends, and this was his world.
And Pierre was right — the troubles between her and Mark seemed less ominous and more solvable to her on a full stomach.
The only worrisome thing was that Mark didn't get back to the Bistro in time for Sarah to see him. She had to return to work.
Luci was right on time for the meeting at 4:30 that afternoon. There wasn't really much left to do as far as the partnership was concerned. Over the last two months they had gone over the details a hundred times — the menus, the décor of the dining room, the kitchen requirements, the staffing, the location, and the financing. All that was left now were the signatures on the papers. The lawyers had reviewed the documents and everyone all around conceded that the contract accurately reflected the desires of both parties.
As Mark looked across the table at Luci, he couldn't help but think to himself that she was a work of art — the art of the cosmetic surgeon!
He knew she was at least forty-years old, but she looked ten years younger, at least if you didn't look too closely. Her nose had been straightened, her cheekbones enhanced. Her breasts weren't that large, but they stood out like bullets from her chest, firmer than would look natural even on a younger woman. Her ass was so perfectly rounded, that it screamed of liposuction and surgical shaping.
She was thin, almost to the point of anorexia, which surprised most people when they discovered that she was the part owner of half-a-dozen of L.A.'s top restaurants. But it was easily explained by the hours each day she spent with her expensive trainers in her home gym, who kept her fit and thin.
She was, though, a natural blond, a fact to which her lovers could attest. She did not go in for 'brazilians', leaving a thin blond landing strip for their delight.
"I can't tell you how excited I am, Mark," she exclaimed, an obvious glow lighting her face. For Luci, starting a new restaurant was comparable to being pregnant and giving birth for most women. They had just finished signing the paperwork and were finishing off their celebratory glasses of Champaign before Mark had to get back to the kitchen to prepare for the dinner seating.
Even Mark was feeling better, despite the situation between him and Sarah. With his own restaurant, he was sure that he could hit the big time. Mark was so pleased, in fact, that he didn't object when Luci reached across the table and took both of his hands in hers.
Luci was ecstatic, and could hardly stop talking.
"We should be able to open in about six weeks — thank god that the kitchen was already set up, and is fairly new. So we get the decorators in there and let them go to town.
"In the meantime, I'll start talking up 'Trattoria Veni Vidi' with my contacts at the Times, and Channel 7. Once they are on to it, everyone else will follow. Oh, I guess L.A. Magazine too. They will all be completely blown away by the food."
As she finished speaking, Luci looked up to see a young woman with red hair standing at the doorway of the Bistro staring directly at their table with a horrified look on her face. Feeling more than a little mischievous, Luci raised her voice.
"Mark, the two of us are going to be SO good together; it's a marriage made in heaven!"
Then she looked back at the redhead with a smug look, and smiled.
Sarah's face fell when she heard the blond bimbo sitting with Mark say those ugly words. Whatever pain she had caused Mark, she had just received back ten-fold. Tears began to run from her eyes, even before she could take a breath, which was followed by a sobbing gasp. Then she turned and ran out the door into the evening.
Hearing her sudden gasp, Mark disentangled his hands from Luci's grasp. He turned, just in time to recognize Sarah fleeing from the Bistro.
"Sarah, Sarah! Wait!" he called at the fleeing figure.
He stood up from the table so quickly that he knocked the chair he was sitting on over. He ran to the door, but it was too late. By the time he made it out onto the street, Sarah could not be seen. He looked one way and then the other, but it was made more difficult because it was right at closing time for all of the surrounding businesses, and the sidewalks were at their most congested of the day.
Mark slowly walked back into the Bistro. Luci, having done her damage, kissed him on the cheek as she walked out.
"OK Mark. We'll talk tomorrow, and get YOUR new restaurant started. By the way, who was the woman?" Luci asked, already having a fairly good notion.
"She's my girlfriend — I mean ... I guess my ex-girlfriend."
"Oh no! I hope I didn't frighten her off!" Luci replied, with a sincere tone that bespoke of her acting abilities.
"No, I don't think so. I didn't expect her for a while. She told Pierre that she was coming by this evening to talk to me. I guess she wasn't that keen on the idea. She was probably going to bitch at me for one thing or another," Mark said, trying to make light of what had just happened. But Luci could tell how badly the break-up was affecting him just by the dispirited tone of his voice.
She reached over and caressed the side of Mark's face.
"Don't worry, darling. You are going to be so busy for the next couple of months; you won't have a second to worry about women. And after 'Veni Vidi' is open, your main problem will be keeping the women at bay!' she laughed, not saying what she was thinking — that one of those women stalking the lithe young chef would be her.
Strangely enough, she was right. For the next six weeks, he was too busy to worry about anything except getting the restaurant opened in time.
When Sarah arrived back at the apartment that she and Mark had shared, it didn't take long for her to discover that he'd left her.
His clothes were gone from the closet, his toiletries were missing from the bathroom, none of his personal effects remained, just the photos of the two of them together still hanging on the walls.
She found the note on the table.
Sarah, I love you more than anything else in this world — yes, even more than my other love, cooking. I can't conceive that I will ever 'not love' you. You were my perfect other half. You completed me; you filled my soul with joy. You were a perfect lover, and a perfect love. I'm mystified how I will be able to live without you, but I can promise you, it will be with less happiness in my life.
But I cannot go on living with you the way things have been recently. Your lack of respect for what I do, and the goals that motivate me in MY life, hurts me beyond my capacity to explain. And I will not accept living with someone who has recently begun to criticize everything that I do, and everything that I am. So perhaps it is time that we part.
Perhaps you have already left me in spirit, leaving me for Phillip, or some other man who will better match your needs. I hope you find the right man, the man with whom you can live a fulfilling life, have the children that we talked about having one day, and who can love you as much as I do. I truly wish you happiness and love.
One last thing: I left you a dish of Coq au Vin in the refrigerator. Bake it at 275 degrees for about two-and-a-half hours. Remember not to cook it any higher than 275 (the oven cooks a little hot), and don't forget to take it out on time — set the timer. You'll have leftovers for a couple of nights out of that; just reheat until it's warm enough to eat.
Ps: I also put some tamales that I made in the freezer. The cooking instructions are on a piece of paper in the bag.
Pps: Don't use the damn microwave to reheat the Coq au Vin; use the oven at a low temperature.
Sarah read the note and sat at the table most of the rest of the night bawling her eyes out. Even on his way out the door, Mark wanted to make sure she didn't go hungry.