Read Lying With Strangers Online
Authors: James Grippando
VENDORS OF ITALIAN ICES WERE SMILING IN THE NORTH END. KIDS IN
South Boston literally danced in the streets, frolicking in the cool fountain of relief from opened fire hydrants. Hospital emergency rooms were nearly overrun with cases of heat exhaustion. It was the third week of July, and the question on the tip of everyone’s parched tongue was the same: When would daytime highs finally fall short of the recommended cooking temperature for grilled pork tenderloin?
Peyton was better suited for the heat than most New Englanders, having spent her freshman year at FSU in a dorm room with no air-conditioning. Boston in July—even this July—was no match for Tallahassee in late August and early September. Even so, the heat wave was taking its toll on her, emotionally more than physically. Time and again she found herself wondering what it might have been like to be this hot, this sticky, and thirty-six weeks pregnant.
The miscarriage was behind her, but occasional thoughts of “what might have been” lived on. The first real setback had been a pop-up reminder on her computer for her week-sixteen ultrasound appointment. Today the blazing heat was the unexpected trigger, probably because a scorching summer had been her biggest fear from the moment she’d calculated an August due date.
Fortunately, the last six months had brought more positive life changes. Minor plastic surgery had taken care of the scars around her eye. The death of Andy Johnson was officially ruled a suicide,
and she’d seen no signs of a stalker since. That left her free to focus on getting her career back on track—and her marriage.
For her and Kevin, the cornerstone of reconciliation turned out to be his novel. Peyton was so impressed that he had written something that good while billing fifty-plus hours a week at the law firm. A book was something for them to be passionate about together. Peyton did some line editing and was especially helpful with the dialogue of female characters, striking things that she knew a woman would never say. At spring’s end they pitched the new and improved manuscript to a legitimate literary agent, who snatched it up in a weekend. It sold to a major publisher in less than three weeks.
Almost overnight, Kevin was a changed man. Selling the book had restored his lost confidence and knocked the Florida-sized chip off his shoulder. It helped their marriage, their sex life, their everyday interaction. It had even boosted Kevin’s precarious status at Marston & Wheeler. His success had caught the attention of the Boston media. Kevin didn’t care how the firm might feel about him once his book was actually released and in the bookstores, but until then, he was not quite ready to quit his day job, and he was savvy enough to say only nice things about his employer. In turn, the firm was image conscious enough to appreciate the kind words and paranoid enough to fear the dreadful tales he might tell some reporter if his colleagues didn’t treat him with a new level of respect. It had struck Peyton as an unseemly foundation for an ongoing professional relationship, akin to honor among thieves, but Kevin assured her that this sort of mutual admiration inspired by fear was the glue that held together every major law firm in America. At bottom, so long as he was happy, she was glad to have him acting more like the man she’d fallen in love with years ago.
“Hot enough for you?” asked the driver.
The taxi driver in Boston had asked her the same silly question on the way to the airport. A short plane ride later, here it was again from his counterpart in Manhattan. What did they expect her to say,
No, I’m from Uganda?
She met his eyes in the rearview mirror and smiled politely. “Plenty hot, thank you.”
The trip to New York had been spur of the moment. Kevin had been gone all week taking depositions at a Park Avenue law firm in a big trademark infringement lawsuit. This morning, out of the blue, she’d realized that today was the tenth anniversary of their first date. It made her smile to think that things were going so well between them that, in the middle of reviewing the results of an abdominal CT scan with contrast, she remembered a personal milestone that might have been overlooked in less happy times. She’d decided to jump on a plane and surprise him.
The cab stopped at the curb. Peyton paid the fare, grabbed her overnight bag, and stepped out. The humidity hit her instantly. It was still hot, even at eight o’clock at night.
“Welcome to the Waldorf,” said the doorman.
A bellboy hurried across the lobby to take her bag, but at all of eight pounds it was hardly a burden. She carried it herself to the elevator and rode to the fourteenth floor. Her heart pounded as the doors opened. This trip was so spontaneous, so unlike her. She couldn’t contain the silly grin on her face. It was the kind that marked mischief.
There was a spring in her step as she walked down the long hall to Room 1426. Kevin had phoned her with the room number the day he’d checked in. She knocked twice, dying to see the look on his face.
No one answered.
She pressed her ear to the door but heard nothing inside. He was probably having a late dinner with a colleague or client. The thought of cooling her heels till they finished coffee and dessert wiped the smile from her face.
Across the hallway, a chambermaid was entering another room for turndown service, which gave Peyton an idea. She could be in his bed when he returned, maybe with one of those little bedtime chocolates resting on her belly beneath a black lace teddy. An even better surprise.
“Can you help me?” she called to the maid. “I locked my key in my room.”
“I’m sorry. You’ll have to check with the front desk.”
“Please, don’t make me go all the way back down there. The line’s a mile long.”
The maid seemed sympathetic. Or maybe an honest face had a way of opening doors, literally. She opened the room for Peyton with her master key.
Peyton was quickly inside, but the maid came with her. “You’ll have to find your key and show it to me,” she said. “It’s just a matter of security.”
“Oh,” said Peyton as she switched on the light. The room was a mess. The bed was unmade. Wet bath towels were on the floor. A room-service tray was resting on the nightstand, the meal gone. She noticed another tray on the desk, also empty.
She moved in for a closer look. One had a few cold french fries remaining on the plate. The other bore the remnants of a grilled chicken Caesar. That gave her pause. Even if he’d been hungry enough to order two meals, Kevin was not a salad kind of guy. She hoped it had been business, maybe Kevin and a witness preparing for tomorrow’s deposition over dinner.
“Miss,” said the maid. “Your key, please?”
A tightness gripped Peyton’s chest as she backed away from the dinner trays and peered into the dark bathroom. In the shadows, something was hanging from the shower rod. She turned on the light, and her worst fears were realized.
It was panty hose.
On the counter was a makeup bag, a tube of lipstick, and a bottle of shampoo and conditioner for treated hair. She turned away quickly and opened the sliding closet door. The entire left side was filled with women’s clothing.
In a panic, she hurried to the door and double-checked the number—1426. The right room, she was sure of it. Hanging on the back of the door was all the added confirmation she needed. It was a plastic dry-cleaning bag from the hotel laundry service. Inside were two shirts. The monogrammed initials on the sleeves
were proof enough, but she checked the receipt stapled to the bag anyway: K. Stokes, 1426.
“I really must see your key,” said the maid.
For a moment, Peyton could barely stand on her own feet.
“I’m sorry. This was all a mistake. Just a terrible mistake.” Her bag in hand, she hurried out the door and ran to the elevator, hurt and angry.
Over the past six months she’d fooled herself, she realized. She’d let Kevin off the hook too easily, having felt sorry for him with his troubles at work. On some level, she’d managed to convince herself that he hadn’t strayed. On another, she’d forgiven him even if he had, blaming herself for spending so much time at the hospital and not being there for him. Ironically, his novel had helped draw them back together by diverting their attention from the real problems, when all along it should have been her final clue.
a good storyteller.
, she thought as the elevator doors closed.
I’m not your fool.
It was almost midnight when her plane landed back in Boston. The last place Peyton felt like going was home to their bed, their sheets, their pillows, their memories. Dropping by her parents’ was not an option. Her father might have been helpful, but she didn’t need her mother’s big
I told you so
Funny, and perhaps it was because tonight marked the tenth anniversary of their first date in college, but she was suddenly thinking of her first big blowup with Kevin in Tallahassee. Kevin didn’t like the fact that she still wore a necklace her old boyfriend Gary Varne had given her as a high school graduation present, and from there the argument escalated to an even stupider display of jealousy. Peyton had not made many friends at FSU, focusing all her energy on Kevin and her studies, so she called Gary back in Boston. It was their first conversation since Peyton
had told him that their long-distance relationship was not working and that she’d met someone new. They talked for hours, and Gary ended up bucking his own self-interest and convincing her to give Kevin another chance. Kevin never would have believed that in a million years, but Peyton saw it as proof positive that old lovers could become good friends. She thought about calling Gary again tonight, but instead opted for the one place she was always welcome, day or night. Work.
“What are you doing here?”
The sound of Gary’s voice startled her. He was working the late shift at Children’s until med school started in the fall. He’d surprised himself (but not Peyton) by how well he’d scored on the MCATs.
“Working,” said Peyton. She continued down the hall toward her locker. Gary followed.
“I thought you went to New York.”
“I went,” she said, as she fiddled with the combination. “I’m back.”
“Oh.” It was an ominous “oh,” as if it were painfully obvious that things hadn’t gone well. “You want to talk about it?”
“Thanks. But it’s nothing you can fix.”
The locker popped open. Gary came closer and sat on the bench beside her. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“That I can’t fix it. I actually have a theory about that.”
“You have a theory about everything,” she said, half smiling, half groaning.
“True. But you haven’t heard this one. It’s about you and me.”
She stopped in the middle of tying her shoe. “You and me?”
“Yeah. Nurses and doctors.”
“We are the last repairmen on earth.”
She managed a weak smile, sensing another Gary-ism coming on, hopefully something a cut above the “Itsmy party” stunt on their first date in high school. “Okay. This I want to hear.”
“No one in modern society knows how to fix anything any
more. It’s getting to the point where the only thing worth repairing is your own body. Anything else breaks, you’re better off just throwing it away and buying a new one.”
“Like TVs and CD players.”
“Especially TVs and CD players.”
“What about cars? You gotta get your car fixed.”
“They already make cars that go a hundred thousand miles without a tune-up. Mechanics are on the bubble, baby.”
“How about things around the house, like garbage disposals?”
“Total scam. There’s actually no such thing as a garbage disposal. You flip that switch, it just makes noise.”
“You know, you have an uncanny ability to say totally absurd things with a totally straight face.”
“That’s because I believe it. Before you know it, everything but the human body will be disposable. Doctors and nurses will be the last repairmen on earth.”
“Does that mean every time I squat in my kitchen half my ass is going to hang out of my blue jeans?”
He started to laugh, then coughed.
“Come on, Gary, it’s not
frightful an image.”
She’d made him blush. He recovered and said, “So, you want to tell me what happened tonight?”
“All right. Then let’s say we don’t talk about it and go get a milk shake?”
“Can’t. I gotta work.”
“Forget work. You’re supposed to be in New York. Come on.”
She thought for a second. “I don’t know. It would probably do me some good to get out, but the last thing I need is to feel fat on top of depressed.”
“Bag the milk shake,” he said. “How about a vodka tonic?”
“Let’s do coffee.”
“Yeah,” she said, wondering what Kevin was up to now. “Every party has one.”
A RAY OF SUNLIGHT WAS STABBING HER IN THE EYE. LIKE A LASER
beam, it shined though a narrow slit in the bedroom curtains. Her brain urged her to turn her head to one side, but she lacked even that minimal strength. It was one of those mornings when it actually hurt to blink. She hadn’t felt this lousy since the morning after her first drunk, back in high school, when she’d developed a permanent aversion to bourbon.
If memory served her, Gary Varne had masterminded that disaster too.
They’d started at Chauncy’s, closed it down at 2:00
, then proceeded to some nightclub that Gary claimed was all the rage. They met up with some friends of Gary’s who were hard-core clubbers. Somewhere between shots of tequila and dancing to insufferably loud music, she’d told him about Kevin. It wasn’t one of those sappy crying-on-the-sleeve episodes. Peyton had just gotten to the point.
“It’s over,” she’d said, the music pounding in the background.
“Kevin and me. He cheated.”
“It’s okay. It’s not the first time. I’m pretty sure he was up to no good about six months ago too.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be. What’s that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
“Only one thing to do.”
He gave her a long, ambiguous look that made her uncomfortable. He seemed to be hinting at something, but she didn’t want to go there, not with him or anyone else, at least not till she’d confronted Kevin.
“Have another drink?” she said, sort of changing the subject.
“Yeah, sure. Let’s have another drink.”
That was the last thing she really remembered.
And now her head was pounding. She lay with her head beneath the sheets, but there was still enough light for her to notice that the linens were totally unfamiliar.
She nearly jackknifed in the bed. The room was spinning, but it revolved slowly enough for her to know it wasn’t
room. She peeled away the covers and then pulled them right back, seeing she was wearing only her panties and a man’s T-shirt.
Her heart raced with panic, but she drew a deep breath, trying to get her bearings. She couldn’t possibly have
with Gary. There had to be some other explanation.
The adrenaline was flowing, and she suddenly heard the shower running in the bathroom. A man was singing. The voice was Gary’s.
She jumped out of bed, then paused to get her balance, still too hungover to get vertical that fast. She rummaged through the bed, even checked under it. Her clothes were nowhere to be found.
What in the world happened last night?
She found her wristwatch on the nightstand. She checked the time and nearly fell over. It was after two o’clock in the
. Even if her surprise visit to New York had gone as planned and she’d spent the night with Kevin at the Waldorf, she would have been required to report back to the hospital more than an hour ago. She needed her beeper; she found it in her shoe across the room, and checked it. No messages, thank God. Just to be sure no one was searching for her, she grabbed Gary’s phone and dialed her home answering machine.
“You have no new messages,” said the digital voice. “You have one saved message.”
She checked the saved message. Kevin was notorious for listening to her messages and then saving them.
The saved message was from 4:13
yesterday. It was Kevin.
“Peyton, hey, it’s me. Ira Kaufman shipped me off to L.A. on another one of his emergencies. I’m headed for JFK now and should be gone at least two days. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know where I’m staying.”
A wave of panic washed over her. She’d checked the answering machine yesterday before leaving for New York. Except she hadn’t checked the
messages. That idiot Kevin. He’d left her a message, dialed in later to check for messages, listened to the one he’d left for her, and then sent it to the never-never land of “saved.”
Peyton hung up quickly and had directory assistance connect her to the Waldorf.
“Room fourteen twenty-six, please.”
It rang three times before a man answered. It wasn’t Kevin.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
She knew Steve, one of the associates who worked in Kevin’s litigation group. “This is Peyton Shields. I was trying to reach Kevin.”
“He left yesterday afternoon for L.A.”
That jibed with the message. “I see. But why are you in his room?”
“Ira sent me at the last minute to pinch-hit so he and Kevin could go to L.A. I didn’t even have time to go to the hotel and check in, so Kevin just left the room under his name and credit card. It’s worked out great. My fiancée is here with me, so we’ve run up about a ten-thousand-dollar bill on his AMEX.”
“Just kidding. About the bill, I mean. My fiancée really is here
with me. She goes to law school at Columbia, so we’re making a little weekend of it here at the Waldorf.”
“Oh my God.”
“I will be. I think.”
“By the way, Kevin had to take off before his shirts came back from the laundry. Just tell him that they delivered them here to the room. I’ll bring them to work on Monday.”
Peyton felt numb. She couldn’t even speak.
“Hello?” he said.
“Monday, sure. That’s fine.”
Gary shouted from the bathroom, “You finally up, Peyton?”
She freaked, fearing Steve would hear the voice of another man. “No.”
“Shower’s all yours.”
“I’m on the phone,” she said with urgency, thinking that would shut him up. She uncovered the mouthpiece and said, “Hi, Steve, I’m back.”
Gary shouted, “Don’t be shy, I’ve already seen you naked.”
She nearly died. She was sure Steve had overheard. “I’m sorry, Steve,” she said into the phone, “did you say something? That darn TV was so loud I couldn’t hear you.”
“No,” he said nervously. “I didn’t hear anything. I mean, say anything. I’ll let you go.”
The line clicked before she could even say goodbye.
Gary switched on the blow-dryer. She sat alone in the bed, wearing nothing but panties beneath Gary’s T-shirt, holding the phone in her hand and not quite believing where she was.
What the hell did I do?