"That's the way I am…"
Chapter 4: The way you are
Ricky woke up startled and rubbed his face. He yawned loudly and scratched his beard. Whenever it started to itch like this he knew it was time to go clean-shaven. He pulled off his baseball cap and shoved it in his coat pocket. He dozed way beyond his destination.
"Oh well, just like the old days…riding the rails until the sun comes up." He mused. "It's the weekend anyway."
He looked behind him. The bag lady was long gone and left a flowered patch of fabric from her worn out knitting bag on the seat. He was the only one left inside the car and when he glanced at his watch it was half past midnight. He would have to get out and cross over the platform. The train pulled into the station and he waited by the sliding doors. As soon as they opened a woman rushed inside, she was checking her text messages and carrying a few shopping bags in her other hand. A large, stuffed, tote bag with the letters 'WGN RADIO' hung off her shoulder. She didn't look up fast enough and slammed into Ricky's chest. Ricky grabbed her arms before she staggered backward. He pulled her into the car and the doors slammed closed behind her.
"Alright…I'll get off at the next one." He sighed. "Are you okay, Miss?"
The woman dropped her bags startled. She snapped her cell phone shut embarrassed.
"I am so sorry, sir. I didn't think anyone would be in this side of the train at night, I should have been more careful. Did I hurt you?"
"Naw, I've been through worse scuffles. That was just a love tap. Here, let me help ya with these."
Ricky crouched down to pick up her groceries and smiled to ease her fears. He stared closely at her and in a flash, time reversed thirty years. Her eyes widened with concern, but she gently smiled back at him. She knelt down and they slowly reached for the same bag.
The woman cocked her head confused. "Do…do I know you?"
"I was thinking the same thing." He handed her bag over and helped her off the floor. "I know we've met before."
Ricky quickly took in her form. No longer dressed in shabby, bell bottom jeans, she wore a dark blue cashmere sweater that complimented the similar hues in her eyes and black slacks with smart low-heeled boots. He couldn't help staring, even when she finished adjusting her bags and backed away disconcerted. She aged fabulously, and carried herself with an air of grace. Ricky dusted his hands on his thighs and stood tall. He had to stop gazing at her or she was liable to call the cops.
"Forgive me for staring like a weirdo." He mustered. "But is your name…Coral?"
She nodded slowly. "Yes, how…how did you…" Her expression brightened and a delighted grin spread across face. She lowered her bags on the seat and raised a hand to her mouth.
"Oh my God…it can't be…Ricky? Ricky, is that you?" She demanded.
He found her.
"It sure is! Ricky Linderman! In 1979 on this exact night and in this very last train car you helped to bring me back to the real world and saved my life…Coral! I can't believe it! I never thought I'd see you again! I couldn't find you, I never got your last name or anything!" He blurted out excited.
Ricky restrained himself from rushing to her. Coral made it easier for him. She ran over and threw herself into his arms. She laughed aloud and he hugged her as he had that night. His senses exploded as he held her. She smelled of elegant, sweet perfume and he caught a whiff of the same mint bubblegum on her breath that enticed him years ago. His briefly ran his hand ran through her soft hair. It was shorter and wavier, and colored a deep reddish brown that delicately balanced her golden skin tones.
Coral let loose whimpers of shock and happiness as she rocked him and patted his back. She finally pulled away for a fuller inspection, and a demure smile crossed her lips. He distinctly remembered it as the same smile she gave him right before she kissed him goodbye that night.
"It's Coral Bennett! Ricky, you look wonderful! You haven't aged a day! Oh my…I feel like an old bag…how did?.…Where?…I'm thrilled! I can't even speak…and that's all I do for a living, talk, talk, talk! Come, sit down, we have so much catching up to do!"
Ricky followed her to the seats and plopped down across from her to better observe her face. 'God, she's still so beautiful.' He thought helplessly.
Clifford was right. Seeing her again made him feel like a lusty sixteen year-old, but a wholesome, mature feeling enveloped him. His gaze quickly averted to her left hand. There was no wedding band. He glanced at their surroundings and cracked a wry smile.
"Coral, I know this may seem awkward and it's really late, but…can I just take you out for a cup of coffee? I think I about had it with trains tonight."
Coral's eyes lowered shyly and she wrung her hands. She came back to her senses. They were almost complete strangers, but understood the significance of their meeting. She never forgot the handsome and desperately lost teenage boy on the train and often wondered if he took his life. Sometimes, the thought of him brought her to tears. She looked up and firmly nodded.
"Yes you may, Ricky Linderman…and I want to hear everything."
For over an hour Ricky and Coral talked, only this time, Ricky was adamant that she tell him about her life. He was shocked to learn that Coral was Dr. C, the warm hearted, and feisty talk-therapist on late night 720AM. Ricky always felt her voice and the way she imparted advice was vaguely familiar, but he never put it together. Coral chided him for not calling the station and he admitted that there were times he put his hand on the receiver, but chickened out.
"I'm terrible…I'm really not big with the Internet and all this stuff for myself, I only use it for the kids and research about programs, colleges and all that." He admitted. "I should have looked you up sooner."
"Don't worry, I was in hiding anyway. After six years on the air, my producers finally convinced me to start my own promotional website and blog…it's in development. I'm a very private person and I'm still leery, but they told me not to worry. Most of the time they'll have people running it for me. I just need to dish out the talk. They also secured some publishing deals and want me to write a book! I'm overwhelmed by it all, but I think I just might."
Ricky grinned and winked. "I'll make it a best-seller and buy every copy. You shouldn't lose sleep about being online, just watch out for the posers and stalkers. I've dealt with a few cases of…'mistaken identity' with my students. Whatever happened to face to face contact to meet the man or woman of your dreams? I can't fathom how people fall in love with blurry videos and chat boxes. Ehh…I don't know, we come from an older generation, back when the only webs were made by spiders."
Coral playfully swatted him. "Speak for yourself! I'm not ready for the pine box yet. But really, face-to-face contact seems old hat now. They say you reveal more emotions and unfortunately drop your guard easier when you can't see the person's facial reactions. It happens so fast…but I understand your point. It's hard to imagine it can be 'real.' It's not every day strangers meet on a train…"
She trailed off self-conscious, but Ricky smiled and changed the subject.
After getting past the formalities, Ricky wanted to cut down to the serious talk about the events that led them to their fateful meeting thirty years ago. Coral sipped her coffee and picked at the cranberries in her muffin.
"Are you sure you wanna hear all this old drama?"
"Yes. It's your turn now. Ladies first." Ricky urged her.
"So your big question is, why did I come on that train battered?"
"And why didn't you let me escort you home? I thought for sure after our kiss…" Ricky tapped his long fingers against the cup and shrugged. "Well...never mind that, just what was going on in your teenage life, Coral?"
"Ricky, before I jumped on the train I was on a lousy date with my boyfriend, his name was Stevie. I planned to break it off with him that night but first I had something extremely important to tell him."
Ricky examined her facial expressions and groaned inwardly. He saw it a number of times on the young girls at school. It was her withdrawn stare and biting of the lip that clued him in to her next announcement.
"That week I found out I was pregnant, Ricky. I already got a beating from my dad and then I ran out of the house to find Stevie. He took the news exactly the same way! Even before I told him, I knew I didn't want him involved in my life. He didn't really care either way. He called me a dumb broad and used goods and said I should get rid of it."
Every muscle clenched in Ricky's body. The two men whom she should have been able to trust the most let her down. That night she was beaten twice. Coral shook and had to put down her cup. Ricky clutched her hand and drew his thumb across her fingers.
"Go on, Coral. It's okay."
Her eyes lit up tearfully. "My father was abusive to me and my mom. It went on for years…and of course when I was old enough, I started dating losers just like him. I let that vicious pattern control my life. It went that way for a while before I could come to terms with myself. I realized I was responsible for my own future and had to start making the right choices or turn into one big, depressed bruise. Did I want to wallow in self-pity and be a victim? Or did I want to pick myself up and start over? My first life-altering choice was to keep my baby, regardless of what happened and who helped me or not. My mother adored her and my father relented too. I had a beautiful girl…her name is Rachel."
Coral smiled as the tears rolled down her cheeks. "Do you know that I've been a grandmother for four years already? I have two granddaughters and a loving son-in law. I always knew grandmothers get younger every year, but come on…at forty-seven there's still a chance for me to have another child!" She laughed.
Ricky tried to fathom the elegant woman before him as 'Grandma Bennett' and he shook his head in disbelief. Clifford's grandmother was eighty years old when they were still in High School.
"Wow, so, Rachel's your only child? You never married?"
"I did…and just like before, I wound up with another abusive jerk. Kevin. Up until ten years ago we didn't live in Chicago, we were in California because of his business. The only things he gave to me besides high blood pressure and a few black eyes were my beautiful sons. I have one at home, Charlie. He's in tenth grade, and the other is Scott, and he's away in his second-year of college. Scott dislikes his dad but Charlie's more forgiving. We all get along though…too little, too late of course."
Coral resisted the urge to slam the table. She abruptly sobbed and Ricky clutched her. She laid her head upon his shoulder and wiped her eyes and nose with a table napkin he handed her.
"Ricky, I feel so embarrassed sitting here telling you all this. You must think I'm a big fraud. A clueless hack that knows how to dish it out but can't take her own advice!"
Ricky forced her gaze sympathetically. "Absolutely not! You're a sweet hearted human being with troubled and honest life experiences. You desired to share what you've learned to prevent others from hurting themselves. You had that quality even as a teen and you know what? You taught me to do the same. I never in a million years thought I'd become a guidance counselor. At sixteen I never even thought I'd make it to graduation…but I did. I survived, because on this night, you and my best friend Clifford taught me that having friends that care enough…even if they have to be tough about it…makes all the difference between life and death."
Ricky closed his mouth and looked up solemnly. God, I hate crying in front of people. When he looked back at Coral, she was smiling.
"Oh Ricky, I…I remember saying something like that to you before I left. What a man you've become. I know I sound like an old biddy, but I'm so proud of you."
They left the bistro a few minutes later. As they strolled back to the train station, Ricky casually draped his arm over her shoulder and Coral leaned closer to him.
"So tell me, Dr. C, what's a professional like you doing running around with heavy packages and taking trains in the middle of the night? It's dangerous"
Coral shrugged. "I have to put my car in the shop. I think it died yesterday. I don't know what's wrong, it's only five years old."
Ricky cleared his throat loudly. "I wouldn't think of having you put it in a 'shop.' You're talking to a licensed mechanic, my dear…or did you forget? This jacket is ingrained with motor oil and grease." He patted down his pockets. "I think I have a business card somewhere."
Coral sniffed it and laughed. "You're right…oh Ricky! That's the same smelly coat! Old habits do die hard!"
"I've retained a lot of my youth." He said smugly.
"I see. The years have been very kind to you physically." She murmured and looked at him eagerly. "I'll gladly be your customer. What's your price?"
Ricky's eyes darted back and forth and he pretended to be lost in thought. "Well, what do you say to having dinner with me some time…soon?"
"You're fixing my car and all you want is for me to buy you…"
"No. I'm buying dinner…the price is that you let me take you out on a date."
His eyes sparkled under the streetlamp as he watched her fidget and shy away. He nudged her.
"I promise before I do anything, I will come to your home and speak to the man of the house."
Coral laughed. "Really! Charlie has been trying to get me to date for years. I know he's desperate for a father figure. It's Scott you'll have to impress. That poor kid grew up around all the fighting and Rachel too. Still, she'd be thrilled to…"
Coral immediately cut herself off, she presumed much too far ahead. "I'm sorry. Never mind all that. Sherman, set the way back machine for two minutes!"
Ricky understood, but he shared her earnestness. The night couldn't have turned out any better even if he planned it. He laughed.
"That's right up my alley. I play a father figure every day." He said gently.
Coral put her arm across his waist and they walked the rest of the way to the depot. They reminisced and shared anecdotes from their lives all the way home.
Ricky insisted on accompanying her until she was safely at the door to her modest 1-family house. He stayed on the bottom porch step and the nightlight sprang on.
"Here you are, safe and sound. No black outs or run-ins with ax murderers."
Coral shook her head with a relieved sigh. "Still a bodyguard. Ricky, I'm sorry you were dragged halfway around the city. You must be exhausted."
"Nahh…I'm wide awake now! Seeing you again rejuvenated me. It was a little rough earlier though."
In the bistro, Ricky explained to her about his yearly visits to the train station with Clifford.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I understand…tonight's the night. We'll definitely talk more about that. It's truly been wonderful seeing you again after all this time. Amazing, actually. I don't want us to be strangers."
"Five minutes after we first met again…you weren't at all." He admitted.
Ricky put his hands in his pockets as the wind and cold air picked up. Coral eased her way down the steps and casually zippered his coat.
"It's miraculous how it still fits, it grew with you."
"It's a little short on the arms, but I can live with it. When I get old and shrink, it will fit perfectly again."
Coral patted his chest and dusted off his shoulders. "Sure, in a hundred years. You know, Mr. Linderman, I've been doing most of the talking tonight. Is there anything you would like to tell me?"
Ricky knew she meant his tragedy. He determined that he would eventually tell her the truth, but now wasn't the time. He nonchalantly held her arms and pulled her close.
"I certainly will, but that's part of your payment plan."
Coral tossed her head back with a slight laugh. "Oh, I see. You're a blackmailer. If I don't go on a date with you, I don't get to know?"
"That sounds about right. And you don't get some of the best Italian food in the city. And one date with me is not going to cover fixing your lemon!"
Coral held her hips. "Now my car's a lemon? You didn't even look at it yet. Is that fair?"
"Is life fair?"
"Good point. As Katherine Hepburn once said, Life is hard…after all, it kills you. "
"That's profound!" He laughed. "And the calla lilies are in bloom again...really they are!" He imitated the actress' shaky voice.
She giggled and Ricky drew his arm over her waist and stooped toward her. "This might sound a little strong, but are we going to play like coy sixteen-year-olds all night?"
"I was seventeen then…darn it! And who's being coy?"
"Both of us."
Coral grinned and raised herself on her toes. Their lips met in a gentle kiss and then she pulled back slightly. "Hey, Mr. Linderman, there are no bruises here anymore."
Ricky smiled as his mouth met hers again. "I see that…and there never will be again."
"Is that a promise?" She asked between soft, deep kisses.
"Yes…" He whispered.
Her fingers dug against his back and Ricky felt her keen desires to be loved and have complete trust in a man once again. Ricky stared adoringly and hugged her. His chin grazed her hair and he spoke tenderly.
"You said I couldn't get off the train until I promised I wouldn't do anything stupid. Well, I promised, I came off…and I think I'm exactly where I need to be at last."
The Ambassador Hotel-One year later
Clifford sauntered onto the balcony near the parapet with two cold beers. He tapped Ricky and handed him a bottle. After taking a few sips and setting it down, Ricky turned around and leaned back on his elbows.
"Shelly really outdid herself tonight. Is she still in charge of the kitchen in the hotel?"
"Oh yeah, she's like the Iron Chef down there. They whip up some mean meals here thanks to her suggestions. Best in Chicago, five stars on the hotel list."
"They always did get high ratings. She's adventurous with her cooking." Ricky pointed a few feet ahead of him. "So, where is it?"
"Come on, man, the telescope?"
Clifford laughed. "Oh…that. Shelly removed it a long time ago, she didn't want Danny taking any more 'astronomy' lessons."
"Ahh, so there are some new heavenly bodies out there, huh?" Ricky grinned.
"Too many." He grinned slyly. "Whole orbits!"
"Dog. I wonder where he got the idea to study the stars?"
Clifford held up his hands. "Don't look at me. I'm not my father…the old goat just called me two days ago, that man is living it up in Florida."
"Still chasing stewardesses, huh?"
"I don't know how he does it. But no, he's settling down, and get this, with a woman his own age."
Ricky laughed and crossed his arms. "Good for him! But you're only as young as you feel."
"Yeah, I finally figured him out. After mom died, I don't think he ever wanted to love a woman as much as he loved her. He didn't want to remarry forever."
"I figured that too, Cliff. Whatever makes him happy I guess. So, it looks like our women are getting along famously. I just have to watch out for my lady, Shelly can talk the ears off corn."
"No comment on that one. I agree, Rick. Ehh, Shelly loves all the free advice Coral gives on every subject. You didn't tell me your gal was such an expert!" He nudged his ribs.
Ricky blushed and kept drinking. "Those are her secrets…they work wonders on me, I'll tell you that!"
"So, how's the first three months of marriage been treating you?"
"It's amazing…a whole new world. You come to realize that it's not just about you anymore. There's no more 'I', it's only 'we.' And Coral makes sure I know that. There was no hesitation; we're too old for those games. God, I love her so much."
Ricky peered through the balcony windows and watched as Coral puttered around Clifford's kitchen setting out plates and spoons and laughing at Shelly's oddball sense of humor. She glanced up happily and caught him staring. She winked and blew him a kiss, then went back to her business.
"I've never seen anyone fall so hard for a woman. Your wedding was classic. Driving off into the sunset on your old motorbike! I can't believe you dragged her through the whole city on that broken down thing!" Clifford joked.
Ricky chuckled. "Not to mention in a wedding gown and tux! We also had our coats because she insisted on the winter wonderland theme and had tin cans dragging across the back. It was terrific! She loved it! She said she waited thirty years to ride that bike. Rain or shine."
"Or snow! Winter's a good time to get married…it's cozy…I thought you wanted Vermont, but you two ran off to Aruba and thawed out."
"Oh heck yeah! We had Bloody Marys and pancakes in the morning, took long walks and jogs on the beach, hikes, and luxurious swims, aughh…you shouldn't have reminded me, we have to go back."
"Now do you realize what you missed out on all these years?"
Ricky finished off his beer and shook his head. "No, Cliff, I didn't miss out on anything."
Clifford looked at him curiously. "What do you mean?"
"If I got married much earlier in life, it wouldn't have been Coral, and I can't imagine that. I may not have kids of my own, but her kids and grandkids have become a part of me already. I'm telling you, she was always the one. It just took me too damn long to find out."
"Don't get back on the shame spiral, Rick. You're with her now. That's what counts."
"Sure. And I cherish every second."
Clifford smiled gently. Ricky Linderman constantly proved himself to be the 'Gentle giant.' Ricky's marriage also drew them even closer as friends. Coral's son Charlie became instant buddies with his son, Daniel. Life for the Peaches and the Lindermans was going well.
They gazed at the starry sky for a few moments and then Clifford had to laugh.
Ricky looked at him oddly. "What's so funny?"
"It's not funny, really, it's just…well…need I remind you what day it is?"
Ricky looked up and pondered, but then shrugged. "Sunday?"
"Wow…you really are a changed man, my friend."
"I'm not following."
Clifford patted his shoulder. "Tonight's the night. We all knew, but we waited to see if you would remember…" He trailed off when he saw Ricky's disappointment.
Ricky banged the ledge and glared at him. "Clifford! Why didn't you tell me?"
Clifford folded his arms across his chest sternly and shook his head. "No, Ricky, if it was something that was still so important, you would have remembered without fail. I know it was very important to you, but guess what? You proved you don't need to keep falling back on that night. You made a terrific life for yourself. You have Coral to share your pains, and I know she's helped you so much. I can see the difference. You're …alive, Ricky. Don't keep looking back. It was a moment in time, it happened, we learned from it, but you have to let it go. Damn, between you and your counseling and your wife now I sound like a therapist."
Ricky hung his head and grasped the inner-corners of his eyes with his fingers. He felt a huge rush of blood drain from his head when Clifford told him. He took a deep breath and suddenly, the feeling disappeared.
In its place was serenity.
He raised his eyes to his best friend with a deep smile. "You're right, Clifford. Coral told me that it's like a Rorschach test. You can focus on the black shapes or the white shapes and each one tells a different story. The black ones will always be visible and you'll always be aware of them, but you make the ultimate choice over which picture you see. The fact that I killed my brother will always be with me. I'm not an evil person, it was an accident, but I'm alive and tried my best to do good to others. I guess that's all I can hope for."
Clifford hugged Ricky. He picked up the empty bottles and led the way into the apartment, where their wives served dessert. He turned back and smiled.
"I know for sure you'll always do good, Ricky. Because that's the way you are."