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A crowd had gathered around them. Bicky was going strong, telling tales about the early days in the oil business. Hart had made several valiant attempts to part company, but each time Bicky pulled him back into the fold, talking, joking, making introductions. Right now, Hart was sitting at the center of Houston’s power base and decided it was in his best interest to humor his father-in-law. If he were going to quit as he’d promised Sonia, he’d need a new job and the people sitting around this table listening to Bicky wax prolifically were the very people who employed ninety percent of Houston’s employable.
By 10 o’clock, Hart was feeling the effects of the past two days of travel and two hours of alcohol consumption. He wanted nothing more than to lay his head on the nearby rosewood table. He decided to call Sonia while he could still speak coherently and let her know of his plans: a brief respite in one of the alcoves to clear the cobwebs in his head; he’d drive home later.
Hart rose on unsteady legs and left the room. Raucous laughter followed him out, seeping into the hallway’s wide-open spaces only to be absorbed by the elegant, plush carpet and thick walnut walls. A series of dimly illuminated sconces lined the hallway; overstuffed leather armchairs dotted the landscape. Hart flopped down in one and rubbed his face with both hands to revive or steel himself, he wasn’t sure. He checked his watch. If only he could keep his promises. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed home.
The phone rang six times before the answering machine picked up. Hart blathered into the phone, his words tumbling out in a self-effacing rush. “Hello? Sonia? Pick up. Are you there? Are you asleep? In the shower? I know it’s past 9, and I’m not home yet. Will you pick up the phone, please? Alright. Well, I’m still here and I probably shouldn’t drive home. I’m really tired. I’m going to take a short nap in a corner somewhere and then I’ll see if I can. . .”
“Beeeeeppp.” The machine ended his little speech.
Hart banged the phone shut between his hands, “Damn.” He punched in the numbers again. The phone picked up after three rings this time. “Sonia. Pick – Up – The – Phone.” Hart waited several seconds before continuing: “Listen, Babe, don’t be mad at me. I’ll be home as soon as I can. I’ll wake you up when I get there.” Then he added as an afterthought: “Let’s sleep in all morning tomorrow.” He waited a few seconds before hanging up. “Damn.”
He replaced the cell phone on his hip and stood with a slight waver. Though only seconds had passed, he checked his phone to make sure Sonia hadn’t returned his call. The face glowed a phosphorescent green, but did little else. “No calls,” he said to no one in particular and staggered to the men’s room.
Hart washed his face and stared at his intoxicated reflection in the mirror, looking for hidden clues. A sudden, unsettling thought gripped him. What if Sonia’s not asleep, but on her way to the hospital about to give birth to their baby? He didn’t travel 6,000 miles in seven minutes only to have the baby born while he was across town. He willed his reflection to give him an answer. His normally handsome, exuberant face peered back at him, pale and haggard. He head throbbed like he was being riven in two: a meat cleaver to the head, a ragged split down the middle.
Hart loved his life and was reluctant to give up the part of it that made him feel so viable, so indispensable. How many people took the physical risks he took on a daily basis without even a second thought? His occupation, not the engineering part, even Sonia could live with that, but the field work – that’s what set him apart from the average guy, and Hart liked it that way. Hell there wasn’t enough money in all of Akanabi Oil for Hart to take a desk job, toiling away under the leak and glow of florescent lighting. Damn her need to control. Hart had noted the similarities between Sonia and Bicky long before he married her. The attributes that lurked just below the surface of genteel southern behavior had formed more distinctly with time. Some parts had broken off or withered away, while others were polished to a smooth, impenetrable finish that only water and a million or so years would be able to alter in any appreciable way. He married her because of, and in spite of, those attributes. That, and the fact that she was beautiful, and probably the most passionate woman he had ever met.
Hart himself was from a family of academics. His father was a professor of law at the University of Penn and his mother a professor of Shakespearean minutia, one of only a handful of scholars across the country with that particular nomenclature, which put her in high demand in academic circles. His mother was constantly being wooed by competing universities desirous of her services. Sabbaticals and six-week architectural tours of Europe were the norm when Hart was growing up. He’d read more literature by the age of fourteen than most people read in a lifetime. It was no surprise then, that his parents weren’t exactly thrilled when Hart went to work for Akanabi Oil. They had wanted him to choose a more scholarly occupation – as if chemical engineering was for slackers – something with a professorship attached. But his parents’ reticence, or perhaps inertia, was so entrenched they couldn’t arouse sufficient passion to convince him otherwise, so off to Columbia he went, which is where he met Sonia. To Hart, Sonia Coleman was the antithesis of his beige upbringing. Her colorful, passionate outbreaks about everything from Goethe to guacamole were something Hart had never known on any intimate level, and something he soon found he couldn’t live without.
But Hart also found that passion and the need to dominate often went hand-in-hand. Thankfully, Sonia was more like her mother than her father, and lacking Bicky’s mendacious spirit, her demands on life in general and Hart in specific were guileless, prompted by a need to be loved. He pandered to her whims when he could, and when not, they fought an aggressive fracas that could reach levels of inanity for which Hart had no frame of reference. Despite their different temperaments, they hung together. The battle scars did not run all that deep, not yet, and were still easily erased by the night of intimacy that inevitably followed. Hart knew this kind of behavior would eventually catch up with them, but they were young and he believed in the power of love.
He shook his head to clear the sense of foreboding that had begun creeping into his grey matter, checked his cell phone again. Nothing. What if something really was wrong? He closed his eyes. Sonia knew where he was and could have had him paged if he didn’t answer his cell phone.
But what if she couldn’t get to the phone. He shuddered involuntarily, threw the towel in the trash can and sprinted out of the bathroom intent on coaxing Bicky into handing over his car and driver. He found Bicky sitting in the place he’d left him, gesticulating with abandon.
Hart begged the pardon of the gathered crowed and pulled Bicky over to the bar.
“Hey, thanks for the madcap evening, but, I gotta go.”
“Stay. Have another drink.” Bicky’s tone was sharp.
“Can’t. It’s Sonia. I can’t get her on the phone and I’m just…worried. You know, with the baby and all.” His voice cracked uttering the last bit, and Hart felt a little foolish given the way Bicky glared at him. Bicky attempted a thin-lipped smile, his head bobbing up and down mechanically, the closest thing he could manage to empathy.
“So be it. Who am I to stand between a man and his wife.”
“Do you think Manuel could run me home? I’m a little tired.”
“Sure. Sure.” Bicky snapped his fingers once and Manuel, his driver, materialized out of the shadows. Hart started, wondering how much you had to pay someone to stand within finger- snapping distance.
“Would you see to it that Mr. Hartos arrives home safely, Manuel? And come right back. I suspect I’ll be ready to leave by then.” Bicky patted Hart on the back and shook his hand. “Give my regards to my daughter,” Bicky said. His voice was sad, but Hart’s slushy brain didn’t pick up on it. Instead, he nodded thanks and followed Manuel out the door.
to be continued. . .
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