As often as there are tales of love to hit the silver screen, (like some word-slinger's Lazarus stuck on repeat and resurrected over and over from the reject bin of a Culver City back lot,) we, as popcorn addicts, flock hungrily to them anew and over-indulge in a hack writer's black and white view of romance: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end, big dance number, swoon to black. Intrepid reader, you may sigh either in relief or exasperation for this potboiler is no different from those serial sing-a-longs except that the romance upon which we lightly trip begins with a girl running from a boy before meeting a girl in a place as remote as the silver sea, in a time between time, and as chock full of clichés as a screwball comedy from the old RKO.
But let's not turn our attention to the machinations of a long dead picture studio but to the glamour and guts of this fable, one that begins at this very moment with an immortal femme fatale (dark? beautiful? with a hint of the devil in her walk?) that dines on the lust of unexpecting humans. She travels with her faithful and very human sidekick, a recently retired hoofer from the dance halls of a forgotten Manhattan. Indulge, if you are willing, the lush life of a dilettante with the body of an Auburn Speedster—all fenders and vroom—and the soul of an unwilling poet, professionally lovelorn by nature and, as it relates to affairs of the heart, a very lost girl. Welcome to once upon a time where hearts, like rules, are both made and broken.
“Eighteen months, 14 days, and two and a half hours.” Kenzi rattled it off like a laundry list, her voice calm and disinterested.
Bo looked up from Pride and Prejudice. “Non-sequitur much?”
“That’s how long we’ve been having our adventure on the high sea.” She got up to stand, pacing aimlessly the living area of their suite. “…And how long it’s been since we left the best hooch in all five boroughs.”
“So,” Bo dropped her book on the side table with a purposeful thud. “You can count. Let’s have it. You’ve been holding onto this since, since…”
“Valparaíso.” Kenzi’s voice poked at Bo with the sting of the pointed end of a sword.
Bo sat back on the wingback couch, rigid, crossing her arms across her chest, sending an icy stare to her ward. The union between the heiress and the tin pan alley rent girl had been unexpected; and, as many subsequent stories between Bo and Kenzi, theirs began with a bartender named Mickey, Rocco, or Dutch and ended with a hangover with all the pain and punch of a hairpin turn on the Coney Island Cyclone. Bo ran from life, Kenzi to it; it was a match made in, well, heaven, if heaven intersected at the corner of Down-and-Out and 42nd Street.
“You can't run forever, cookie,” Kenzi continued.
“I’m not running. I’m discovering.”
“What exactly? I get the floating buffet of life at sea, I do. I get that there are Seven Wonders of the World—and we’ve seen almost all of them, twice. But all this jitter bugging…” She rushed toward Bo and plopped herself close to her on the couch. “Maybe it’s time to hang up the dance shoes...y'know…go home?”
“Fine, pick a place. In fact, I’ll buy you a map and wherever the dart lands, we’ll call it home. Then will you be happy?” She looked away, her chin dropping low. “It doesn’t matter. Wherever we go I’m bound to be left, eventually.”
Kenzi threw up her arms. “You make me want to get drunk, vomit, and then drink again. And you’ve been reading too much Jane Austen,” she grabbed the novel and fanned its page before tossing it back on the side table. “You’re mixing up real life with some jagged cliff near a foggy heath. Wake up, Bo! The only person who will never leave you is me.” Kenzi's conscience was a tin can that dented easily and the very moment the words slipped from her mouth, she regretted it. The wince behind Bo’s eyes confirmed that Kenzi had overstepped, even for her. Bo bolted from her side and grabbed a chiffon wrap from the one of the open trunks. There were several in the suite, all open as if they had imploded, scarves and lingerie and gowns spilling out like a hundred colorful tongues.
“Wait, where are you going? Where are we going?”
“It seems to me after eighteen months, 14 days, and two and a half hours you’d know how to find yourself around a ship.”
“Bo, I didn’t mean it. Not that way…”
Bo softened even as she had already made it out to the passageway. “You’re right Kenzi. The world is getting smaller by the day…like our state room." Her eyes flickered blue before returning to their natural brown. "And we’re running out of ports in a storm."
Chrome. Dark wood. Lighting that provoked mystery or agitation, Bo couldn't decide which. After storming out on Kenzi, she'd made it to the top deck and the dim embrace of the Schooner Bar, a cozy alcove with recessed seating against one wall and a slender wood-topped bar along another, where she sat hoping not to be disturbed. A gorgeous woman alone in an evening gown naturally invited attention and she was quite a dish. She favored evening gowns that sashayed the line between indecent and swanky and Bo didn't care a fig who stared or whispered. Lust rose like steam when she entered and for once, her biology annoyed rather than amused her. Imagine a succubus being jilted at the altar. But that's exactly what happened on a balmy, mid-summer's night in a Long Island garden abloom with high society guests, and lit by the glow of red Chinese lanterns strung high upon a canopy of branches. She hated the smell of freshly cut grass forever after. That was a long time ago and a harsh but necessary lesson, her grandfather had told her that night, to never fall in love with a human. Stick to your own kind. Since then, she'd given love the big brush-off, left the island, and took up digs in one of the family brownstones on the Upper East. Her blood ran cool blue but her flesh burned white as the Sahara, leading her to nights south of 49th Street: glittery, clamorous, sometimes neglected, just as Kenzi had been when first they met. Neglected. Now that was a word that rolled around her tongue like a pair of dice that always came up snake eyes. Bo nursed her dented heart by venting a coolness toward every encounter or experience—natural, man made, human—with the exception of Kenzi, she refused to care about anything. It became her vocation to slither from port to port without a single string; and she held in contempt any reminders, even accidental ones, that once, a long time ago, she knew love, was convinced of it, was ready to marry a human for it—only to have that dream yanked out from under her black silk stockings.
The melancholy tinkling of a piano echoed throughout the Schooner Bar. The barkeep approached. "What can I get you, miss?"
“Dirty martini. Extra olives,” Bo responded, not ever making eye contact. And keep 'em coming, she mused. She clicked open her clamshell clutch and retrieved a silver dollar coin. She teased it repeatedly between her thumb and middle finger and watched it pirouette on the bar top, encircling the first, second, and third martinis of the evening. Spin and drop. Again. Spin and drop. Each turn taking her farther and farther away from the gravity of her gloom and into the orbit of her own ennui. This low tide sadness made her weary. She thought of herself an ungrateful wretch—the world at her fingertips thanks to her trust fund—and she felt ashamed of herself to have been made a fool on what should have been the overture of a beautiful life. Shame burned into anger and anger, well, made the gin slide like sugar down her throat and fueled her hunger for flesh; and with it, the need to screw this sadness away.
The tug of the ocean made the ship roll suddenly and Bo leaned against her will, hard and heavy, against the bar. She felt the heat of someone's breath before the lump of a body collide onto her back.
"Oh! Hi-de-ho!" a woman's voice sang out in four notes.
The unexpected shove jostled the martini glass out of her grasp, spilling most of its contents on the bar top. Bo turned to give the dame a what-for but was stunned into silence at the sight of the perpetrator: fair-haired, slender, with hooded eyes as mesmerizing as twilight.
The woman looked back at Bo, sharing a similar look of surprise. A wave of yellow hair fell across her cheek, which she brushed behind her ear in a single, sweeping motion with her index finger. She seemed to take that moment to catch her own breath and, while peeking beneath her eyelids, spoke again. "I'm sorry about that. I never seem to quite get my sea legs no matter how many times I sail."
Bo continued to stare at her, her mind as well as her smile, frozen in place. Her eyes slid up and down the woman’s boyish figure and the gentle curves encased in a cream satin gown, ready to be swept away like Ginger into the arms of Fred. She was caught in the haze of this woman's perfume, a sweet scent that transported Bo to an open bazaar somewhere on the streets of Bombay, where she often bought jasmine blossoms by the fistful. In the thick of Bo's sudden and consuming admiration she had forgotten how to speak.
Then the woman did something Bo found extraordinary: she leaned in dangerously close, close enough for Bo to peek down the center of her low-cut gown if she had dropped her eyes instead of keeping them steady with the blonde's. Her arm was toned and bare, Bo couldn't help but notice, as the lithe woman leaned over her and plucked a cocktail napkin from a stack behind the bar. Once retrieved, the woman held the napkin aloft between slender fingertips and stopped momentarily before lowering it to blot the droplets of gin surrounding Bo's glass. Not once did she take her eyes off of Bo. All of this happened in a slow, hypnotic fashion, inflaming Bo's desire as if she were King Herod watching Salome perform the mythical Dance of the Seven Veils.
Few things make the reader stop and pause more than a beautiful woman with long legs and a voice husky from desire, whisky, or luck—and we would be remiss not to give such a woman a past just waiting to be shed one story at a time, allowing us to savor and sip her charms well into the final chapters. However, we are just at the beginning, before secrets are revealed and love has yet to happen. This is the moment of ignition, when infatuation sits down in the stool next to yours and begs to know your name.
The woman broke her gaze to catch the eye of the bartender. "Tequila, please."
"You don't fool around do you?" Air finally returned to Bo's lungs.
“Excuse me?” she asked, less of a polite answer and more of a confirmation that the voice she heard wasn’t one merely in her head.
Bo pointed at the bartender who was busy pouring a shot. "Tequila—pretty strong stuff."
The blonde lowered her chin and pointed to the coin in Bo's hand. "And you, you're a gambler...like in the movies, you know?”
Bo heard laughter in the woman’s voice.
The woman mimicked a two-bit hustler, a Chicago gangster, “I'm feeling lucky, Jake. Put the goods on red 19.” She pretended to toss craps and made a clicking sound with her mouth. Click-click.
They stared at each other, the blonde pleasantly smiling. Bo was all but lost to her. “Are you drinking to remember or drinking to forget?”
The woman answered with a slight sideways tilt of her head and a smirk that said, a woman doesn't kiss and tell. She then took the drink set before her and swallowed the shot in one swift motion, barely wincing, even after she sucked down a lime. She tapped her fingers on the bar top, signaling that she wanted another.
"Your drink choice. I'd expect it of a sailor not from a lady." Bo moved in closer, allowing her fingers to graze the woman's hand slightly, subtle enough that it could be interpreted as unintentional.
"There's a little beach town about an hour south of Tijuana. You won't find it on any map and you can only get there by jeep…" She glanced upward, traces of something warm and far away lit her eyes, perhaps the law was involved—definitely something forbidden—and she'd somehow managed to escape it. Then the glow of nostalgia dimmed as quickly as it came. She gave Bo a low smile and arched a brow. "But that's a story for another time."
A group of women noisily entered the lounge, caught in the middle of a funny story. Bo and the beautiful woman beside her turned to observe the gaggle of girls, stumbling in red with laughter. There was recognition in their eyes: There you are, come sit here, they beckoned like hens, choosing a velvet corner as their nest. The tequila-drinking woman waved back and said to them, "Give me a second."
She turned her face to Bo and Bo could see that the color had returned to her cheeks.
Bo spoke first, nodding her head towards the lovely women settling in for cocktails. “I guess my luck just ran out. Looks like you’re wanted.”
The blonde peeked back at her friends, inciting more laughter, and then looked back at Bo. She smoothed her hand over Bo’s and took the coin. "Perhaps another time… you’ll get lucky."
She walked away knowing as all beautiful women do that she was being watched, every step deliberate and true. No starlight is ever wasted, not even as it disappears into the dawn.
“Wait,” Bo called to her, “tell me your name.”
The woman did not turn to answer and kept walking, not towards her friends, but out the double doors of the lounge. Bo looked over to the corner. Her friends hardly noticed, the gin between them flowing like a fountain.
Bo felt warm. Everywhere. And there was still a bit of martini in her glass. Bo hoovered the remaining drops and winced as it tickled her throat. She had already hopped off the stool when the doors banged open once again.
“Oh no you don’t!” Kenzi stormed towards Bo, coming to a halt only inches away. “Never go to sleep mad and we’re mad at each other. I say, let’s go to sleep drunk. I forgive you. I forgive me. Forgive and forget – what d’ya say? And I’d like two of what she just had,” she shot out towards the bartender. Kenzi put a palm to Bo’s chest pushing her back down on the bar stool. “You and I have been sailing too long together.” She spit on her palm and extended it toward Bo. “Truce?”
“You know I hate it when you do that.”
“It’s an oath. Not a blood oath because I don’t cut myself for anyone.” Her hand was frozen in mid-air waiting for Bo to take it. Finally, Kenzi grabbed Bo’s hand and forced it into a handshake.
“There,” Kenzi laughed, “now we’re made up.”
The bartender slid over two martinis which Kenzi drank in quick succession. “One little martini,” she emptied the first. “Two little martinis.”
Any hope of chasing after the mysterious woman who had the fragrance and mystery of a tropical garden was gone. If she was going to drown her sorrows, she may as well sink to the bottom in the arms of her best friend. Wearily, she sat back down. “Kenzi,” she relented, “if we’re going down the road of gin and spit, let’s at least take our time.”
“You got it, sister,” Kenzi smiled and turned to the bartender. “Four more, my friend!” She spun around on the bar stool twice before she noticed the glazed look in her friend's eyes. Kenzi looked at the door and then back.
"Who was that long tall Sally?" Kenzi asked.
Bo shrugged. "Not sure." But I'm going to find out.