"Some romances are not the storybook kind...Not even the second time around."
When Ruskin's ex-wife, Elaine, bursts back into his life with the news of her cancer he plans to make her last days happy. But he must overcome her resistance, his own selfishness, and their historical dysfunction to do so. But Elaine's need goes far beyond his expectations. Can Ruskin be the man he wants to be? And what is the ultimate cost to him?
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A knock on the door raised the hair on his neck. Ruskin knew who it was even though he hadn't seen her for months. A timorous voice seeped in from outside.
"Rupie? Are you there?"
He hadn't answered the door in ages, and he wouldn't do it now. He heard her clothes brush against the wood, pictured her fingers stroking the molding on the other side. He knew that if he answered he'd be unable to get away from her. Still, he leaned close, held his breath to listen.
"It's been a year, can you believe it? I mean, it doesn't seem like it, but it's January already."
He felt heavier than he had in a long time. His ankles hurt. He shifted his weight, terrified of giving away his presence.
"I want to talk
to see you
" she said. "Call me."
She slipped a letter under the door, the deep red of his name in her tidy script.
He had been close to finding the Thousand Beauties. But the clarity he'd felt a minute before was now far away. He knew from experience that he couldn't get it back. Not now. All he felt now was a dull ache low in his back and another one growing in the depths of his skull.
"I won't blame you if you don't want to see me, but I think you should. Not just because I want you to, but because
well, you should."
There was a tense silence, then her steps padding down the hall. A few moments later the elevator came and she was gone.
It was always the same between them, a mutually destructive, high-adrenaline game of emotional battery that was as addictive as it was vicious. Had it been a year since they'd last seen one another? Time was speeding up, he thought. There was no lingering resentment from their last meeting, just a hint of remembered anger and public humiliation. He hadn't felt any real pain from her since before their divorce. What he felt, even now, was the familiar self-loathing he'd always experienced whenever Elaine wanted something. He could never say 'no' to her, and it irked him. She wanted to see him; and he would see her because the old cycle of hope and pain was hauntingly comfortable. She was his personal car wreck, and he had taken care of her far too often to turn away from her now.
He opened his closet and looked through his ties. They were few, but more than enough for his needs. At one point he'd prided himself on wearing a different tie every day of the year. They'd been sorted by season and material. His closet had overflowed with ties. They had hung on the doors, looped around the bedposts, spilled onto the floor. They had materialized atop the refrigerator, on the towel rack, in cabinets, under furniture, inside his shoes, suit pockets
This one had been bought on vacation in Cancun, that one was a gift from so-and-so, this one was the ugliest tie he had ever seen
Each of the ties had stories like old friends. He was never one for photographs, not being particularly pleased with his face, so the ties offered him snapshots of his life. By thirty-eight he had hiked in the Amazon, broken his leg in Korea, eaten his way through Mexico and drunk a staggered path through Europe. What he had to show for it was an astounding variety of neckwear. But he had purged the collection, as he had purged everything else after the divorce. Now his apartment resembled his mind, sparsely furnished, but on its to being clear of clutter.
All that remained from Ruskin's nearly half-century engagement with the world were a few errant electro-chemical impulses floating around his brain. These were dominated by Elaine.
He had never been popular. Life had left little time for social interaction. Therefore, he possessed limited social skills and scant desire to improve them. He'd spent his life earning money, and because he had money he'd had women. His dates would use him and he would use them until one or the other grew bored. There were always men better looking than him who also had money. There were always other woman looking for a free lunch. Eventually Ruskin tired of the game and confined himself to a couple of hookers who were good enough actors to almost make him believe they liked him. Then he met Elaine.
He watched her move through the bar like a soldier under falling napalm. When she spotted him, he struggled to keep his smile from appearing too much like a leer.
She looked him right in the eye and sauntered over to his table. If he didn't turn his sour puss away from her, she said, she'd hit him so hard his ass would be shaking twenty minutes later. It was love at first sight. There was something childish in the rush of adrenaline that he'd felt. His voice was silvery smooth as he asked her if she would do him the honor of having a drink with him. She sat with the delicacy of a debutante and waved the waitress over. Within a week they had signed the prenup and left the courthouse as husband and wife.
The first thing he learned about her after their marriage was that she was incontrovertibly insane.
She had manic mood swings. The tiniest thing would set off a tantrum that would frighten an exorcist. There were times when he thought to have her committed, but her old mischievous self would reappear a moment later and all thoughts of asylum vanished. Except for a hoarse voice, Elaine offered little evidence that anything untoward had even happened.
There were times when she made him feel as if the world was formed just to give him pleasure. She could make him laugh over nothing, and the ease with which they played with one another made little girls smile. It was these times, the days of giggles and squeezes, that made up for everything else. Elaine's lows were low, but her highs were
well, her highs were magic that transformed mere earth, air and water into the breath of life.
He had never known what to expect from her, but the prenup had assured him that her motives were not mercenary. To him, that was worth all the tantrums in the world. For a while anyway. Four years, to be exact.
He chose a subtly striped red-on-red tie and hoped this would be one of her good days.