Laughter

aly


I was coming home early from a weekend with Mary Lou. We'd gone to the city to shop and get away from it all, but when we were gone, we found that we couldn't wait to get back. So while we'd planned to leave on Monday morning, we left Sunday.

Finally home, I walked into the house and heard the sound of his laughter. Stopping to savor it, I let it touch me, caress me, deep inside. He'd always been there for me. Always supported me. Always loved me. With Ranger, I'd never felt like a joke or a mishap. I loved him, and I was pretty sure he felt the same way. Then I heard his laugh joined by another masculine laugh. I went towards the sound, quietly, planning on saying hello and surprising them. That was my first mistake.

Stopping to listen again before going in was my second.

Ranger was telling everybody about some of my more…humorous adventures. He was telling them about when I called him naked from the shower; when I'd had to rummage through garbage for Morelli's keys; when I'd gone with him to pick up Norville Thompson and had eventually had to cut the egg out of my hair; when I'd fallen into dog shit when the fire escape gave out. I stood there for I don't know how long, listening to Ranger telling everybody about all of my mistakes and mishaps and laughing along with them.

It was like I was frozen in place, some masochistic part of me making me stay to hear all the jokes made about me. All of the fun Ranger was having at my expense.

Most of these were stories that I'd told him in confidence. More often than not I'd told him them in bed. We'd spoken about all manor of things, and I'd told him some of my most secret feelings about what had happened. How everything had chipped away at my confidence – from not being able to do the job, to everybody laughing at me, to the bets. And here he was, telling these things that I'd only told him. Telling them to a group of his friends, and laughing about it all. Some part of me that was somehow separate from the pain, some analytical part of me was surprised at Ranger's narrative abilities. He had a good cadence to his story telling, and knew how to draw out the humor so that everybody was roaring with laughter.

All of the good that had been inside me when I walked in the door dissolved. My heart hurt and my chest constricted painfully. How could I ever have thought that Ranger actually took me seriously? How could I have fooled myself into thinking he cared? No, I was still – had always been, an amusement. Something to make him laugh. And after I'd so naively fallen into his bed, there'd been an added bonus to his fun.

God, I hurt. I could feel the tears coursing down my face and the pain in my chest was almost enough to make me curl up where I was. The only thing that kept me from falling was the knowledge that eventually, somebody would see me, and Ranger would know that I'd heard him.

As quietly as I could, I went up the stairs to the room that I'd shared with Ranger for the past few months. We had been planning to let my lease run out, but I was glad that I hadn't given notice yet. I put my shopping bags and duffel from the trip on the bed, and got out my suitcase from the closet down the hall. Then I cried quietly to myself as I went about removing myself from Ranger's life. It was sad, really, how all I had was the one suitcase. We'd been together for almost eight months now, the last four with me living here. And it all boiled down to one small, sad, dumpy suitcase. It was kind of like my life, that suitcase.

Glancing at the bed, I took everything out of the shopping bags and threw them away. The contents of the bags, I laid on the bed. I'd been so excited when I'd found all of it. Now, it just depressed me. I'd finally come across a tiger-stripe teddy. A sheer tiger-stripe teddy. With matching robe. Ranger had a thing for sheer, and tiger stripes. I could feel the tears well up inside me, but I ruthlessly shut them off. Instead of turning away from the pain, I grabbed onto it. Poking, prodding, finding all of the jagged edges and cutting myself on them, until I made it an almost tangible thing inside of me, confirming all of my worst fears and self doubts that I was a failure, and that I didn't deserve anybody's love, no less that of a man like Ranger. I almost laughed at my earlier thoughts, when I'd been almost sure that he loved me. What a fool I'd been. My chest was a constant pain, but I held onto it.

My only other purchase had been made specifically for Ranger. I'd ordered it weeks ago, and it was the real reason Mary Lou and I had gone up to New York. During one of Ranger's rare talkative moods, though I realized now that his silence was probably just around me, he'd told me about something he'd always wanted. When he was little, he'd told me, his father had had a pocket watch. A shiny, gold, pocket watch. Ranger had always been fascinated by it, whether for it's shininess, or the ticking inside the little machine, or how it was one of his father's most prized possessions – each enough to make anything a wonder for a small boy. Ranger had described to me every little detail of that watch, from the filigree carved onto the outside, to the hands on the inside. Unfortunately, his family had fallen on hard times, and his father had needed to pawn the watch for food.

His father had died some time ago, and Ranger was a practical man. He knew that there was no way that he could find the watch, and accepted it as lost. But I hadn't been so practical. I'd called up a specialty shop in New York, and given them all of the detail that Ranger had given me, and Mary Lou and I had gone to pick it up. I looked at it again, and like the first time I'd seen it, I was struck by how exactly it matched the picture in my head Ranger's words had given me. It hadn't been cheap, but I'd thought to use the money from not having to pay rent again for the foreseeable future. My heart clenched again, and I thought that it was time to get a new crystal ball. The old one had some serious flaws.

I shoved down my tears again, carrying my suitcase out to the front door. At the last minute, I decided to leave the watch for Ranger. After all, I'd bought it for him, and I wouldn't have any use for it. Reaching in my purse for the card that had already been filled out, I added a post-it note to the top. Written on it were two words – good bye.

Then I walked out the door listening to Ranger's laughter.


His brothers had come up, all eleven of them, wanting to know all about the woman who'd captivated him; wanting to know what about her kept his attention, what made her so special. And wanting to make sure that she wasn't like his last wife.

Ranger heard the door shut and quickly stopped laughing. Hushing the guys, he listened, but there wasn't anymore sound. He went through the kitchen, seeing something on the table but discarding it in his search for Stephanie.

"Steph?" he called, hoping to find her in their bedroom. All he found were the empty bags in the trash. So she had come in, Ranger thought to himself. Confused now, he went back downstairs where he found everyone in the kitchen, looking at the package he'd seen earlier. Maybe, Ranger thought, she needs help getting everything in.

"Hey bro," Emilio said. "There's a present here for you."

"Yeah," he called absently, mind still on finding Stephanie.. "I'll be there in a minute." Ranger went into the security room, looking through all the monitors to see where Stephanie had gone to. He found her on the driveway with her suitcase, walking to the street. Ranger made a mental note to buy her some new luggage. Then he saw her stop and turn to look toward the house, and saw her pain-stricken face. He didn't see her slide to the ground and collapse with tears; he was already running out the door.

Ranger's brothers stared after him in confusion before following.

It didn't take Ranger very long to find her, sitting in the middle of his driveway. It took him even less time to sit and scoop her up in his arms, cradling her and asking what was wrong.

Then it started to rain, and Stephanie started to cry even harder. She tried to pull away, knew that she shouldn't let him hold her like this, but he was so familiar. He'd been there for her for years, and she couldn't break an addiction that long in rooting in less than an hour, so she let herself cry into his neck while the rain fell on them both.

After a while, Ranger felt her shaking calm and her tears subside.

"Are you done?" he whispered against her hair, and felt her nod in response.

"Can you tell me what's wrong?"

She chuckled a mirthless laugh. A thought struck him, and he felt all of the breath leave his body.

"Were you leaving me?" he asked in a quiet voice. When Stephanie didn't respond, he knew he was right. "You were leaving me, and you weren't even going to tell me?"

His voice was so tortured she forgot for a minute that she was the wronged party. Stephanie was sure that he was going to drop her back in the mud and storm back inside, but instead he just held her even tighter.

"You were making fun of me," she said when she finally found her voice. "You were laughing at me with your friends. You were telling them all about all of my stupid mistakes and blunders, and laughing. You knew all those little things I told you, all those private thoughts and feelings, and then you turned around and made fun of me. God, I'm such a moron. Just let me go, Ranger. Let me leave. Then you can have another good laugh."

She tried pulling away but Ranger was still holding her close. After a while, he started talking.

"I bought you a present," Ranger started. "I bought it a while ago, and when I found out you were going away this weekend, I knew it was going to be perfect. I had it all planned out. You were going to come back on Monday evening, and I was going to have this perfect dinner, with roses and candles and wine. Then, when we were done eating, I had music planned, and I was going to ask you to dance. Then I was going to lead you back to a chair. You were going to sit down, and I was going to get down on one knee. I was going to give you your present, and tell you how much I love you, and ask you to marry me. It was going to be romantic and perfect, and I was so sure you were going to say yes."

"Ranger," Stephanie questioned, but he quieted her with a look so full of sadness and remorse that Stephanie couldn't speak, could barely breath. Even with the rain, she could see the tears on Ranger's cheeks.

"I was so excited, I couldn't keep it all in. I didn't want to spoil it for you, so I called one of my brothers to share the news. They all remember the disaster my first marriage was. My heart was broken for a long time because the woman I married wasn't the woman I thought she was. So they decided that they were going to come up to visit me and get to know everything they could about this new woman who'd stolen my heart. They were so sure that they were going to have to convince me not to propose; that you were going to be bad for me. It's taken me all weekend to try to show them who you are, why you're so good for me, so good to me.

"Nothing was convincing them. They all still thought that you were a ringer, putting yourself in positions where you would have to call me for help, so you could get to me. I was so desperate to make them understand, to show them how wrong they were. I thought that if I told them how independent you are, how you won't let me help you so much of the time, how you only call me as a last resort, how creative you are in coming up with solutions that let you accomplish alone what you otherwise couldn't. I thought that if I told them, they'd see how good you are. Then, when I started to tell them, they started to relax, started to accept you. I could see it. I was so happy and relieved, and they wanted to hear more. I wasn't even thinking, I just kept talking and laughing with them, and I was giddy that they weren't going to make problems, that they were finally understanding.

"Then I heard the door shut, and I found you out here, and now you're leaving me. You're leaving me. Oh, God, Steph, you're leaving me."

He was holding her so tightly it hurt, rocking them back and forth, but it was alright. She was holding him just as tightly.

"No, baby," Stephanie cried. "I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving, baby. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

The two sat there in the rain, clinging to each other for dear life and murmuring reassurances. The eleven other men stood there watching, uncomfortable with the vulnerability they saw in their older brother's face and the pain that they had unintentionally caused.

Eventually, the brothers made their way inside, taking the suitcase, leaving only Ranger and Stephanie. They had gotten past the hurt and fear and were just comfortably holding each other. Stephanie brought her lips up to Ranger's and started a slow kiss that left them both breathless. Slowly, so slowly, they lay down on the ground soft from the rain. Touching and kissing, there was none of the usual accompanying heat. Only comfort and reassurance and love. And while they took from each other, they gave more than either ever thought possible.

When they had both found their release, and their equilibrium, the serious vent of the afternoon turned light and playful.

"I can't believe we're lying in the mud by the driveway when there are so many beds in the house," Ranger said.

"Unh," Stephanie replied. "At least you got to be on top."

They finally managed to pull each other up, and stumbled up the driveway to the house.

"I got you a present, too, ya know," Stephanie told him.

"Yeah?" Ranger asked. "What is it?"

"You'll just have to wait and see," she smiled.

After a quick shower, they went down and Stephanie met the brothers. All eleven of them. All of them looking almost exactly like Ranger, and all of them just as charming.

"Stephanie," Ranger said, reaching into his pocket and starting to kneel. "Will you …"

She cut Ranger off, placing a finger on his lips and shaking her head.

"I'm going to go to my apartment now. When I come back tomorrow night, I'm going to find a wonderful surprise waiting for me, and we'll have a perfect evening."

"Without," she continued, looking sternly at the other men in the room, "your nosy family getting in the way. Now open your present before I go."

He kissed her forehead and retrieved the small box from the kitchen. Stephanie had already taken the note off the card. Sitting down to open the small box, he smiled that mischievous grin and yanked her down into his lap, he and his brothers chuckling at her yelp of surprise. Safely ensconced in Ranger's arms, she flicked them all off. Of course, that only elicited more chuckles.

They all stopped their laughing when they saw what was in the box.

"Babe, where did you find this?" Ranger asked, throat tight.

"I didn't. I had it made. Does it look right?"

"Yeah," he said. "It looks exactly like his did."

Then started the chorus of "let me see," and "I wanna look at it," and a number of other phrases that weren't nearly so nice, all in an odd mix of languages.

"Alright," one of them said in Spanish. "I guess it's alright for you to marry her."

"Thanks. I feel much better now," Ranger replied dryly.

They bantered back and forth some more, andfrom the little bit of Spanish Stephanie had picked up, she knew enough to blush.

"Good night, Ranger," she said kissing him thoroughly. "See you tomorrow."

"Night, babe."

"And you," she said turning to everybody else. "You had all better report to my apartment tomorrow by five pm, or you'll be sorry. I want to make sure you're out of the way. Understood?"

"Don't worry, babe. I'll think of something for them to do."

"I've already got a plan. I think I'll let them entertain my grandma for the evening."

She smiled and walked out the door listening to Ranger's laughter.