The Contest

By Stevanne Auerbach
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:36:00 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Auerbach’s forthcoming novel The Contest. 



Shelly bundles warmly against the unexpected chill falling swiftly over the darkened city, along familiar streets of North Beach, as she walks quickly along Columbus Avenue, she turns left on Vallejo. She stops on the corner of Grant at the door of her favorite respite; The Caffé Trieste. She enters the warm, noisy cafe, and happily greets friends while unwrapping the bright red wool scarf from around her neck, and hurrying to stand in line to order a latte. 

A quiet, winter night settles softly over the narrow streets of North Beach. The holiday shopping frenzy has passed into oblivion. Now, the storied streets are still. 

With only a few days left to signal the end of a decade, Shelly will say “Good-bye” to a difficult year, full of challenges, as most of her years seem to go. 

Balancing the tall, hot, foam-topped glass, wrapped in a napkin, she takes a seat near the door facing outside, before taking a sip to relax and warm her body against the chill, as the cold, dark evening deepens on the outside. 

She smiles at her girlfriend sitting across from her. Mona has been her friend for many years and they have had lots of good times together,   

Quizzically, Shelly asks, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” 

Mona laughs, showing the laugh lines around her bright blue eyes that match the soft, blue sweater she is wearing. She says, “Who wants to go out? I’m happy to celebrate at home. Besides, who’s around that’s sexy, satisfying, and safe?” 

Shelly nods her agreement, as she recalls vivid pictures of the past: How many years ago was it that she watched the glowing ball on the New York Times building slowly falling down along with the snowflakes over 42nd Street as the crowd shouted the “countdown” in unison ... 10, 9, 8, 7 ...? 

She remembers all too well the chill of the night, and the “klutz” that made her body feel even colder. A big wet tongue kiss had broken the warm romance of the moment. 

She recalls a party in Washington D.C. close to midnight, as she is given a cold glass of champagne, with a crisp toast wedge of caviar, and a light kiss on the hand, there among beautiful, bright and powerful people. There was some expression of passion, but not much. Those moments flickered out with the candles, along with faded memories of discarded 45-rpm records. 

Mona quickly brings her back to the moment as she asks, “What do you want in the New Year?” 

Shelly, stops, quickly makes a funny face, throws up her hands, and laughs. 

“Something new!” and suddenly she turns to her right. 

She sees a face, but it does not register. She stares quizzically into very familiar eyes. 

“Hello,” says the silver-haired, handsome man smiling back from the next table. 

She looks again, not seeing him. She is puzzled. Then, as she recognizes him, she tries to shield her feelings. How could he be here at this very moment? 

No, he can’t be here. Not this ghost from years past. The Prince of the years she had lived in Camelot and eagerly waited for the dragon slayer. 

The Prince came to her on his white horse, but instead of slaying dragons, his sword had deeply pierced her heart, and never again would the world of Camelot exist. She would not ride away on the back of his white horse or live in his castle. 

Cinderella’s slipper had fit too tightly and shattered along with her dreams of a fairytale existence in a magical land where many believe fairytales really do come true. 

Shelly gathers her courage, as memories of the pass fly in like bats released from a cave, and casting a chill over the already frosty night… 

“Don’t you recognize me?” asks the silver haired man, noting her surprised look. 

He could always read the truth in her face, if he only took the time to look. She catches herself, holding back a tidal wave of feeling, not wanting him to see any of it. 

“Oh! Hello. I was just not expecting ... to see you ... here. How are you, Doug?” 

“Fine,” he replies. “I was just out taking a long walk, and decided to come in. I haven’t been in here for years. It’s a good place to sit and people watch, but I hardly have much time to do that anymore.” 

“No, I guess you don’t.” 

She gathers herself internally into a smooth ball, wanting to remain calm and cool on the outside, but her stomach is churning so much, her mind is blank for a moment. 

As he gets up for coffee he asks, “Can I get you something?” 

“Yes please, a bottle of sparking water. ” 

She hopes she appears calm as a pool of water with not even a tiny ripple shimmering on its shining surface. 

She turns to Mona with a searching look for some support, but her friend is busy talking to a couple at the next table, unaware of Shelly’s dilemma. Doug had happened long before she and Shelly met. 

Doug returns shortly with his hot coffee, and a glass and  bottle of bubbling mineral water. She alternates between sips of coffee and water attempting to maintain a modicum of composure, as she takes quiet, deep breaths. 

Doug smiles as they look at each other, pausing and collecting thoughts. 

Composed and sure of himself, Doug fires the first round. 

Casual conversation passes between them as if volleying balls on a tennis court. The balls include “people, work, children, the city and other casual comments about the cafe, opera music on Saturdays, the mutual friend who plays piano, and how much and how fast the City they both love is changing. They avoid conversation about family or personal matters. 

Finally Doug asks, “Would you like to take a walk?” 

Shelly nods, leans over and tells Mona, “I’ll call you. Have fun. Happy New Year! Hope all your dreams come true.” 

Mona looks up and gives Shelly a wink, thinking Shelly has found someone ‘new.’ 

“Bye!” She says as they turn to the door. 

As they leave the cafe Shelly throws her scarf around her neck wanting to create a soft shield of protective armor, but it is bogus. 

Across the street at the Ace Hardware store Doug searches for an apple cutter. The store does not have one, so they continue down the street to Figoni, the oldest hardware store in the City. They find many household treasures, including the last two apple cutters to be had in North Beach that night. She decides she also needs one, because she just might want to cut an apple into nine even wedges. 

He does not offer to buy her the apple cutter, so she pulls $2 from her pocket. 

She thinks to herself, “This must be the modern version of the consolation prize Eve wins after losing Adam and Paradise. “Yes!” Even Eve is liberated today. The tempting apple will now be cut into perfectly even pieces, but it’s too late because we already lost the ‘Garden of Eden’—she just wondered where this curious unexpected synchronicity of their meeting again would lead. He was the last person she expected or wanted to see. 

They continue up Grant Avenue past familiar, now-closed shops, and quaint, quiet restaurants, to the French-Italian bakery, where Doug buys a loaf of still warm, fresh, sweet bread. He breaks off a piece and offers it to her. 

She thinks, how ‘civilized’ we both are. How ‘generous’ he is with his offerings of ‘bread and water.’ After all the years, all the tears, all the time lost in a dark, painful prison of lost illusions, empty feelings, loneliness and struggle. She mutters her thanks, as she takes a bit of bread, but it sticks in her throat. The clerk hands her a cup of water as she smiles and sips weakly. 

How odd was this chance meeting after all these years, an unplanned coincidence coming just at the end of the year, and the start of a new decade. Perhaps this was a sign, an omen, or finally a chance to let go of old memories, and gaping wounds that had been festering for more than ten years. Precious time was still needed to heal the still tender cuts not at all visible to the naked eye. Now, Doug calmly offers her a ride home, as he opens the door to his late-model dark-gray BMW, and continues chatting. She replies politely and simply “fine” to each question. 

“How is your mother? 

How is your sister?  

How is your daughter?” 

“How are your children?” asks Shelly. 

Doug shares immediately news about his older son, “Andy is now gaining fame as a ‘go-for-the-jugular’ divorce lawyer.” He adds, “Of course, he had the chance to gain all that experience first-hand at home.” 

“Yes,” she replies softly, thinking to herself, “How clever the ‘big-mouthed kid’ was to capitalize on his natural talents of being a slick, obnoxious manipulator, and slide into the perfect readymade profession capitalizing on the undigested decomposition of relationships.” 

Doug continues, oblivious to her thoughts, “He observed, listened, and missed nothing. Did you realize how much fodder we gave him to prepare for his future career?” 

“No, I guess I never thought about it at the time,” Shelly replies, shrugging her shoulders. But, there were Doug’s series of marriages, and divorces, and plenty of feisty drama to learn firsthand about what can be right, and what can go very wrong. 

As they pulled up in front of her apartment, Shelly turned full face to Doug and asked him quietly, 

“Is it true you and Beryl are separating?” 

“Yes, we will be divorced in a few months.” Doug replies, closing his eyes for a moment. 

Shelly actually thought she saw a nanosecond of discomfort. 

“I’m sorry to hear it.” Shelly responds trying to be civil, but inside, Shelly feels relieved. The woman she has hated for years was finally getting what she deserved. Beryl finally was caught in the inevitable Venus flytrap set for her. 

In a barely audible voice, she says as she got out of the car, “Well, a very happy New Year!” then trying to be flippant, she reaches out to shake his always sure, steady, cool doctor’s hand. “May old acquaintance never be forgotten or never brought to mind?” 

He says, “Happy New Year to you, too!” and adds, “Take care of yourself!” 

Then she hurries to get inside before he can see her wet eyes streaming tears. 

Shelly sits quietly in her dark apartment for a long while, to try to regain her composure. She needs to think, feel, and remember. It felt as if ten years had simply dissolved into a recently released feature length full-color film. 

Mentally, she rewinds the reel back to the beginning. She wants to replay everything, all the frames, as if now, after seeing him again, she could finally make some sense of the whole challenging saga. 

The past comes swiftly flowing into her ‘projector of the mind,’ full-flooding her abundant mental reservoir, and overflowing the fragile container. The details are still deeply etched into her memory. Years fall away, as she listens to her mental radio as if hearing her story told by the “Let’s Pretend” radio show narrator. It was after all her strongest childhood memory, living out the lives of princesses’ adventures in days gone by complete with sound effects, galloping horses, and the excitement of anticipation being swept off one’s feet by Prince Charming. 

When did it all begin? How could anything have been different? Could she have somehow saved herself? Could she have known in advance how it would turn out? Why didn’t she listen to her “all-knowing mother” who foretold her well in advance how it was all going to end? Why, if she knew from childhood about wicked spells, dangerous witches, and evil villains, did she not protect her most prized possession, her hopeful and trusting heart, from being broken? How could she have saved her precious dreams from being consumed by fire? 

Shelly watches the film in her mind, but this time, for the first time, without any tears. The “Let’s Pretend” narrator’s voice, the flashes of stored images from the projector, and lack of resistance to recall are flowing into her mind, all running simultaneously. The drama is rewinding, but this time shown in surround sound, with the full cast of characters and in full-blown color. 

Only a few days left to the end of the year, but it would be a new beginning if she could finally forget, or better yet, just let go of the past, and release the spell cast over her memories. She needs to find some magic to break the spell. She had to live it all again this time also from his point of view and hers so she could better and more fully understand what might have been different. Was it a lifetime mistake or merely a life lesson? 

Doug has never said he was sorry for anything, but that was only one of the problems. Shelly is not sorry they met. If only he had stopped the destruction, before it was too late, and not broken her heart. She wishes she had known critical answers before it was too late. It seems, but a few days ago, when the story began. This time she wants a new clear perspective. 

Maybe this time something might be different. “What could have been different?” 

Could she have stopped before burning her dreams? She sits back and closes her eyes and listens as her pretend narrator takes her into the past…