By Rivka Shlesinger

‘Come out. You are going to meet him and you will like him.’ The bangs on the bathroom door increased. Jessica knew she’d have to open eventually, but for now she yelled, ‘No!’

The bangs stopped for a moment and she heard muffled voices. Her parents were out there discussing her future. 

It’s MY future. In which I apparently have no say.

They expected her to meet the son of her father’s business partner and ‘like’’ him. All for the good of the company, of course.

“I. Don’t. Want. Him,” she yelled and flung a soap bar at the door.

I have to get out of here.

She tiptoed to the door and pressed her ear to it. Okay, quiet. They’re downstairs. If I tiptoe down, I can make it out of the house and they won’t hear me. 

There was a plan. But how to put it into practice. Such as the matter of where to go. Out of the house first, anything else was secondary. 

She headed out into the hallway and made it safely to her room. She stuffed clothing, her cell, her laptop and her wallet into a bag. She opened the door cautiously and listened. 

Quiet. Good. Did they leave already?

 She leaned over the bannister and strained her ears. 

Hm. Still quiet. Or they are waiting until I come out.

‘You yelled at her and now she will not come with us. Of course, the two of you have to go head to head. She is a girl, for heaven’s sake. Next time, let me do the talking.’

‘I’ve had enough patience.’ 

Ah yes, still there. No sneaking out yet.

She retreated to her room and held her breath. 

She heard the ‘crack’ of the door and ‘snap’ of the key lock. They had left. 

One, two, three, four,….. Yesssss!

She heard the car’s engine.

And…?

One, two, three seconds… what? Coming back?

‘Honk, honk, honk.’

Ah, her dad, the responsible citizen, honked to warn passers-by he was pulling out of the driveway. 

She let out a breath. 

Yay. Now… 

Dashing for her bag and grabbing her keys, she headed for the door. 

***

If I take the car, they’ll know I’m gone. Hm. Tube. 

I could go to Alice. No, she’ll call Mom. I’ll ask Albert, he’ll know.

Jessy took the tube to another part of town and headed for a side street in an area frequented by students and artists. No tourists came to Albert’s, which barely deserved the title restaurant. Worn booth seats with high dark wood dividers provided a hiding place and Al offered sage advice.

She entered the tiny place, nestled into her favourite spot, and waited for Albert to come out of the kitchen.

He talked on the phone, taking orders, so she dropped her bag under the table, slid out of her scarf and gloves, and took out her mobile.

Come on Al, take these stupid orders already and get here. I need a parent! 

She knew her favourite spot hid her from view, so when Albert started singing, she got up, headed for the kitchen door to say ‘Hello.’ 

‘Hi Al, I’ll just make myself a coffee, okay?’

‘No problem, love.’

‘Thanks Al, you’re the best.’

If my father was half as good as Al, I’d be happy. 

She made her cappuccino like an expert and balanced the overflowing cup as she walked to the bench corner. She shrugged out of her jacket and let it hang loosely over her shoulders. Then she fished for her phone and placed it on the table so that she could warm her hands on the cup and scroll through her messages. 

Now let’s see, what is it this time, ruin of the company or heart attack? 

Quickly scanning and then dismissing her mom’s and dad’s messages, she opened one of her sister’s, which was a copy of her parents. 

Ah yes, there we go, our little parrot.

At this moment, the front door opened, and another early guest entered. ‘Al? It’s me.’

Oh boy, I thought I’m bad off, but that one … suit, bowtie, side parting? Holy cow. Jessy slid lower in her seat and hid her snigger.

***

She watched Al approach the newcomer and shake hands. ‘How was your date?’ Albert carefully enunciated ‘date’. In his capacity as owner of the place, he was the local shoulder to cry on or, in her case, the father she wished she had. 

‘She didn’t come.’ The newcomer flung himself on the opposite bench and she had time to assess him. 

Poor bloke. Going out on a date like that and then … Guess the girl was right. I wouldn’t go out with that bowtie-monkey.  

‘What? After all the fuss her parents made?’

‘Yupp, guess it wasn’t her idea of a great day.’

Well, maybe if you didn’t look like you were stuck in the last century, she wouldn’t mind. Do you kiss your mommy good-morning? 

‘Hm. As far as I’ve heard, she locked herself into the bathroom and threw things at the door.’

Al sniggered, ‘Ah, temperament. Always good for young and beautiful ladies.’

‘No. I’m absolutely serious. Her father was purple and practically fuming.’

Wait. A. Minute. Throwing things? Bathroom? No way… Where is the emergency exit? Please Al, please have an emergency exit. Please don’t look over.  

Al stood with his back to her and chatted with the stranger, but he had the front door in view and blocked her escape. 

Oh, stop talking already! And they always say we are the chatty sort? Duh…

Jessy held her mobile up with one hand and the coffee with the other. Perfect camouflage to watch the stranger. 

Bowtie said, ‘You know what? I respect her for that. Really. I didn’t stand up to my old man, but she did. Good for her.’

Al grinned. ‘Bravo, the two of you agree on something already.’

Bowtie pulled his face into a wide grin. ‘As if.’

***

Jessica gaped at Al’s back. Something in common? Traitor! 

Bowtie looked over and grinned. 

That is him? Ouch, Mommy’s darling in a suit. 

She gaped so long, she didn’t notice when Al and the newcomer started staring back at her.

Al turned on his fatherly charm and, in a wide-armed gesture, made the introductions. ‘Jessica, meet Vincente.’

‘Vincent, but my friends call me Vince.’

Turning beet red, Jessica forced a smile and a ‘Hi’ out of herself. 

‘Wait, a minute. You are Jessica?’ Bowtie-monkey blinked.

‘Yes.’ She exhaled the word. 

This is karma. What did I do? Ate chocolate when I was five? This is my safe place, and out of all the places he has to hide here as well?

He tilted his head. ‘So you don’t like our parents’ brilliant idea either?’

‘No.’ She hesitated, too numb and her mind too blank to form coherent sentences.

‘Okay, when you come back online, tell me, did you really throw things at your father?’

That snapped her back to reality. 

‘Ah, sorry. This is too weird, I’m just… Well, it was one soap bar. One. And at the door, not at him directly.’

‘Still. That counts.’ He came over to her table, but excused himself, went behind the bar and pulled a duffel bag out. Winking at her, he headed for the men’s restroom. Five minutes later, he came back wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He had also ruffled his hair to what Jessica suspected was his ‘normal’ and looked much better. 

He plunked the bag near his seat and looked at her. ‘Yeah, sorry. I knew I didn’t want to sit there for hours and suffocate. So, they didn’t stuff you into a dress? What happened?’

‘What you already know, and I left the dress in the bathroom.’

He gave her a thumbs up.

‘Do you know why my father wants to push me into marrying you?’

‘Of course I know.’ He flashed a superior and very annoying grin.

‘So? Enlighten me.’

‘Your father is practically bankrupt. He needs a merger.’

‘So, why not go for that? Why ‘selling’ me off? Sorry, no offense.’

‘None taken. The thing is, he has nothing to offer. Productivity is low, efficiency is lower, nobody has schooled the employees in years, innovation…’

‘Thank you. I got the picture. But why marriage? This is not the middle ages.’

‘The only thing that can save the jobs in your company…’

‘My father’s company…’

‘Your company, but have it whichever way you want, is a takeover by my father’s company. Your father has to step down as CEO, and would be the laughingstock of the industry, if…’

‘He already is.’

‘If we got married, he would ‘retire’ and keep a position as consultant. Since you are not interested in business…”

“That’s not true!”

‘… I would manage your part of the company. ‘ 

‘This is ridiculous.’

‘Absolutely. I will finally grow up.’ He decorated his tale with a mock stern look and a mischievous grin. ‘And grace the family with an heir.’

‘What?’

‘Do you need a glass of water?’

‘Yeah, I think so.’

He got up, went to the counter and returned a moment later with a tray, two waters, Cola, cappuccino, and nibbles. Placing it all in the centre of the table, he settled into the bench opposite her. 

Vince helped himself to peanuts and observed her in a bemused and assessing fashion. ‘You look like the cappuccino type.’

Great guess, smarty-pants. She let out a puff of air, but took the spoon and scooped up some milk foam. 

‘So I lose my inheritance either way. The only thing that will be saved is my father’s pride.”

‘Looks like it.’

Jessy huffed in a mock laugh. ‘Normal, hm? Well, that doesn’t need to bother you. You are going to benefit from this glorious plan.’

‘You think going by family tradition and having a wife who doesn’t even like me is great?’ He mimicked her in scoffing and created some distance between them.

‘Then why didn’t you protest this farce?’

‘I planned to tell my father after we had met.’

‘Great, so you left your options open.’

‘Exactly. And so should you.’

‘Ah.’ She clicked her tongue and crossed her arms. ‘You are impossible. Just like my father.’ Following his example, she widened the distance between them. 

They had reached an impasse. The silence grew thicker with each breath, and Jessy’s stomach fluttered and lurched with every new solution her brain produced. 

‘You are thinking hard.’

‘You are lucky. You can just go home, I’m the bad one.’

When she packed her escape bag, she had neglected the details of a plan. Now that the reality became clearer, all plans of getting away from responsibilities and expectations looked ridiculous.

‘Okay, that wasn’t fair. But seriously, why shouldn’t I look at a date with an open mind?’

‘Open mind?’ Jessy rolled her eyes without the slightest attempt to hide it. 

‘What do you expect me to do?’

‘Being honest with your father for starters.’

He picked up his phone, pressed the speed and flashed her a wicked grin. ‘Wait and see.’

On cue, angry barking came from the other end, which Vince left on loud speaker for Jessy to hear. ‘What were you thinking? Chickening out again? I want to see some … ‘Vince interrupted the tirade and came crisply to the point. ‘I don’t care for your medieval methods. I’m going to live my life and when the day comes, I’m going to marry somebody I like.’

Before the argument could escalate, he cut off the connection and gave her a boyish grin. ‘See? Done. Now, what’s your plan?’

‘Plan? Eh, I think I’ll have to go home and face the music.’

‘Wrong plan.’ He leaned back over and lowered his voice. ‘First, turn off your phone. These things have GPS.’

She did as he suggested, but had no clue where this was leading to. ‘I don’t know how this will help.’

‘This will help when we get away.’

‘We?’

‘Yes, you and me. Portugal?’ He cocked an eyebrow and grinned.

***

‘Albert?’

‘Yes, what can I do for you?’

‘My father is a tad angry and so is hers. Do you know where we can wait out the storm, let’s say for a week or two?’

‘You should leave the country. That is how we used to do it at home.’ Al went into full lecture mode. 

‘We would go into the old country, into the mountains. Nobody is going to check in little mountain villages. You can take a car from Milano, you have money, don’t you?’

Vince swallowed but said nothing. ‘Just emptied my bank account before I came.’

‘Wha…’ Smart move, shame I didn’t think about that. He’s not as bad as I thought.

Vince turned his attention to her. ‘You didn’t?’ She shrugged. 

‘You take a car or a bus. Yes, you can take a bus. Visit the lakes and then you go to my aunt. She lives in a nice little place and not too far away from the city. If you want quiet, you have it. The country, it is beautiful.’ Albert was in his element. 

Jessy jumped up and hugged him. ‘Al, you are the best. The idea is brilliant.’

‘I know, I know,’ he patted her on the shoulder and over her head instructed Vince, ‘Escape for a bit, explore, go out, eat good food. When your father has stopped shouting, you come back.’

‘That sounds great.’ Jessica beamed at Al. He was the best friend she could imagine. 

Vince grinned. ‘Can we leave our phones here, so they can’t track us?’

‘Absolutely. I will keep them for you. You call your parents from the village phone. You take a last-minute flight. If you hurry, you can get on the evening plane.’

***

After Jessy and Vincent left for the airport, Albert returned whistling to the kitchen. Here he put the mobiles into a drawer before he picked up the phone. He dialled only one number.

‘Mr Sanders, Mr Frank? … Yes, of course they were angry. They are young, don’t worry. I sent them to the airport. In two hours they will be in Milan and in three hours at my aunts. … No, no, taxi. Let them travel by bus, and get lost a bit.

… No, don’t give them more money. Long walks by the lake, … yes, you see? Don’t worry, my aunt makes good food and he will sleep on the couch, very uncomfortable. It’ll all work out. There is nothing better than to overcome adversities to fall in love.’

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