‘DEGREE OF SEPARATION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
“A seven letter word for divine intervention,” Kylie mused aloud over the daily crossword in the Thursday edition of Porter County’s Post-Tribune. She had stopped in to a cafe during her lunch break to meet up with an old friend who had just moved back home to Indiana after having spent almost four years working her way around Europe – a dream she’d had since they both skipped classes together in high school. Carmen was late. Kylie had already been waiting ten minutes and was beginning to assess the time it would take to walk back to her office, but this was not entirely unusual behaviour for her friend who had always operated on a slightly different plane of existence than those around her. Carmen was something like the Porter County police; rarely around for the little things but always there when you really needed them.
“Tequila!” sang a familiar voice from behind her, causing Kylie to spit a mouthful of hot macchiato out all over the newspaper. She spun around quickly in her chair and was greeted by the smiling face of Carmen who had been reading over her shoulder for almost a minute. Kylie got up out of her chair and squealed in delight, the two embracing in a scene that raised several eyebrows amongst the other diners before they sat down to order. “I can’t believe it’s really you..!” Kylie started, “It’s been such a long time – how was your trip, and when did you get in..? Where are you staying..?” She suddenly had so many questions that her friend’s Facebook updates just hadn’t covered, and found herself gushing almost like a school girl once again. The joy at seeing such a familiar face had almost made her forget entirely about her own problems that she had been mulling over before she arrived.
“The trip was fabulous!” Carmen replied, “Absolutely everything about it, from the hostels and bars to the nightlife, the places and people and the men – don’t even get me started!” She gave a knowing wink. Having been the sensible one of their group in college, Kylie had always lived somewhat vicariously through her friend who was, let’s just say something of a free spirit in her younger years. It seemed as though little had changed either, as she launched into the first of many sordid stories detailing boozed up nights in back-alley bars, a stint hitchhiking across Spain and a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean. Kylie had jumped straight into a degree after graduation before her marriage to husband Dominic last year, and couldn’t help but feel as though she had missed out a little on what it might have been like to take a breather before getting her ducks in a row. Eventually Carmen ran out of steam, asking, “Enough about me though, surely you’re tired of hearing about my childish antics. Tell me about you and that gorgeous husband of yours, I can’t believe I wasn’t here for the wedding..!”
Kylie smiled awkwardly, “Dominic and I are doing well. The proposal was a big surprise, we’d traveled to Chicago for a weekend to see his parents, and one night he took me up to the roof of our condo where a table, wine and wait staff were already waiting for us. I was a complete mess when he got down on one knee. The view, the night air – it was just surreal. He’s been amazing, and we’ve got our little place in Portage, well I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, which Carmen immediately picked up on, “What is it, honey..? Is everything alright..?” She took Kylie’s hand and leaned in with a look of concern. Kylie hesitated, and then continued:
“Well, until about a month or so ago everything was fine. Just amazing, really. I’d just started on at Findlays and he was on the road less often, we finally had more time than ever to spend together. Lately though,” she paused to best articulate herself, “He’s been a little distant and working a lot of long hours, he says to meet with clients and the like. Despite having him around more, it somehow seems as though we’re spending less and less time together, just the two of us.” She sighed and collected herself, “But enough about that, you didn’t come here to hear about my paranoia. I’m sure I’m just blowing things out of proportion, which I’ve never done before, right..?” She laughed and Carmen smiled, replying; “Well I’m sure it’s just nothing, but you have always been good at reading people. Sometimes maybe a little too good – remember Jordy..?” Kylie laughed, “Well, in my defence he WAS a shady character. How was I to know he had a sister..?” The two spent the rest of the hour catching up, Kylie filling her in on the exciting world of business accountancy and Carmen telling her all about her little sister Nadine and the new mystery man she’d been seeing. “Chin up, honey,” she said as they eventually called for the cheque and left the cafe, “It’s like we used to say – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue. But if anyone can smell a rat, it’s Kylie Tavares. Kylie Tavares.. that just sounds weird to say..!”
They parted ways, promising to get together that weekend for a decent drink and to hear more about each other’s busy lives and plans for the future. Despite the momentary respite, Kylie couldn’t help but feel rattled at having finally voiced her concerns out in the open. Dominic had been her only real long term relationship, and they had married relatively quickly despite her usual caution in getting close to people. She spent the remainder of the afternoon with her head in the company books, trying hard to keep her mind off of anything other than her work.
Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine was working absent-mindedly at another bar and cafe where she trained as a barista most afternoons. She was only nineteen, and had decided to take a leaf out of her big sister’s book, working straight out of school to save for a long trip abroad before then deciding on which college to apply for. It seemed like the sensible choice, and given her own active social life she felt quite a way off from being ready to knuckle down and focus on building a career. Slinging drinks and coffee was easy, and the hours suited her perfectly. Today, even more than usual her thoughts were miles away from the task at hand. She had been seeing an older man, Sebastian, for several months and unlike any other boyfriends she’d had in high school, this just felt different. He was mature, grounded.. he made her feel safe and seemed genuinely happy to see her, as often as his schedule allowed. Sebastian worked often, but every time he was able to get away and the two of them could head out for dinner or drinks in the city, he would shower her with affection. They couldn’t get enough of each other, and it made her feel special.
He had texted her that morning to say that he would have the evening free to share a meal and a couple of drinks, and the smile she couldn’t shake had become contagious among her co-workers. “So, Nadine,” Lauren, another barista teased, “I’m guessing by the stupid look on your face you’ll be seeing your mystery man again tonight..? What will it be this time – dinner at the Mayfair, or maybe cocktails and a private show on his yacht..?” She laughed, and Nadine responded by flicking water playfully at her. “For your information, smart ass, we’re meeting at the Mexican place on fifth. Just dinner, and anything else is for me to know and you to only dream about.” She cocked her head toward the counter, “Make yourself useful for once and fill up the machine.” She was used to this, as she had been unable from the outset to keep her new relationship to herself. Things were going well, and she saw no reason to be worried that it wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, she was quietly hoping that that night he would ask her in to spend the night, and had come to work made up and wearing her best, prepared for whatever might happen.
Soon enough, the doors closed and everything had been cleaned, stacked and swept away from the day’s trade. Nadine quickly changed out of her apron in the back office, put on a fresh coat of lipstick and allowed the two other girls working her shift to attend to her hair and give their opinion on how she looked. Lauren finished preening and took a step back to size her up, “You’ll owe us one for tonight,” she boasted, “If he passes up a knockout like you, you’ll have much bigger things to worry about than whether he’s into you. Get out there and do us proud.” She winked, and slapped Nadine on the behind as they giggled and went to turn out the lights before going their separate ways. Nadine turned the corner and made her way to the restaurant that she had settled on, lighting up a cigarette while she waited outside. It was 7pm exactly, which his text had specified and it was unusual that he hadn’t arrived yet. She tried her best to act casual as she glanced left and right, and then stared ahead indifferently so as not to appear nervous or desperate. She hadn’t been worried that he would stand her up, as he’d always been waiting for her whenever they’d met up before but as a soft, cool breeze picked up and she began to shiver, her mind started to wander.
All of a sudden, she felt a tap on her right shoulder and a gentle voice in her ear which said, “Excuse me, young lady – I’m looking for a pretty woman I’m meant to be meeting here. Have you seen any walk by..?” She turned without hesitating and threw both arms around him, saying, “Don’t ever sneak up on a girl like that..! I might have slapped you on instinct.” “What, with these..?” he replied, holding up her tiny hands in front of his face, “Why, these couldn’t hurt a fly!” She scrunched up her nose and punched Sebastian playfully in the stomach, to which he almost doubled over laughing. “Come on, gorgeous. Let’s get in out of the cold. How was your day – did you miss me..?” The two walked hand in hand into the building, and Nadine was almost skipping out of happiness to once again be walking alongside her handsome stranger.
Sebastian led her past the counter and into the annex in the far corner of the restaurant, which confused Nadine, prompting her to ask, “Where are we going, I thought we were stopping here to eat..?” “Oh, plans have changed,” he replied, “Didn’t you get the memo..?” She scowled, “Ha-ha, smarty pants. Where are you taking me then..? There’s nothing else in this building, I’m sure of it.” “That’s why we’re not staying in the building,” he responded cryptically as he pressed the button for the elevator and they went inside. “Now, I’m taking you up to somewhere special, a place only I know about. But I can’t let you see where so you’re going to have to trust me here,” She was confused and excited, but eager to know what it was he had in store. He pulled her close, and rested her chin on his shoulder. She suddenly felt so warm all over as she wrapped herself in the folds of his coat, and the smell of his cologne caused her to fight her impulse to pull away and ask a million questions. She instead held him tight and closed her eyes as the elevator whirred and travelled skyward, and couldn’t recall a time she’d ever felt so safe.
After what seemed like hours, the elevator dinged and the doors opened with a rush of cool air which indicated that they were no longer inside the building. He looked down into her big blue eyes, and said, “Okay, you can turn around now.” Nadine detached herself and spun around to see that they were now on the roof of the tower, which must have stood some forty floors high. They stepped out from the doorway and as they did, she stopped and raised both hands to her mouth. Across the rooftop, Sebastian had arranged for a dining table and two chairs to be set up adjacent to the far ledge, and even from where she was she could make out a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice and a full crockery spread set out beneath two tall gas heaters that had been fired up to chase away the chill night air. She squeaked in delight and clasped his hand tightly and he smiled, leading her across the roof before pulling out her chair and beckoning her to sit. “After you,” he said with a bow, and they both sat down to take it all in.
“This is AMAZING,” She said, after taking a minute to make sure she could stay composed, “How did they let you do this..? Is this even allowed..?” “I have friends in building management here,” he replied with a grin, “and in a few of the other buildings in the area. I know you were keen to grab a bite downstairs, so I thought I’d make our date a little more exclusive. One of the staff will be up in a minute to take our order, which they’ll bring straight up. How do you like the view..?” he asked, looking out over the cityscape below them. She turned herself to admire the lights and windows illuminated in the other office towers in the city center, and replied, “It’s breathtaking. This is so nice – you’re so nice. Thank you.” She smiled and took his hand across the table, and they continued talking long after their meal, well into the evening. Despite her expectations, and after sharing a long and passionate kiss when they were done, Sebastian dropped her outside of her home in the suburbs just before midnight, promising that they “would have a lot more time to spend together over the weekend, as I’m completely free then.” Nadine quietly crept into her parent’s house and once he had driven away, sat down with her back against the front door with an unshakeable smile and let out a long, wistful sigh.
The next morning, Kylie rose early to shower and get ready for another day at the office. Dominic was still sleeping soundly at 8am when she left the house. He had been forced once again to work late at the firm in order to connect with a representative from a big Japanese conglomerate that his corporate legal team had been working tirelessly to satisfy as far as reaching a resolution in an ongoing labour dispute, or so he said. She wasn’t an idiot however, and despite marinating in cologne she could still smell the faint traces of cheap perfume on a ruffled shirt he’d stuffed deep into the washing machine. Her heart had sunk as she ran a cycle before leaving, but as usual she stopped to take several deep breaths, closed her eyes and pushed the situation out of her mind before getting in her car and taking to the freeway. “Keep going,” she thought to herself as she battled the peak hour traffic leading into town, “The world doesn’t stop turning just for this.”
The day dragged on, and in spite of the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she immersed herself in her day to day tasks. It was easy to embrace the monotony of accountancy compared to the complex and uncontrollable speculation of the state of her marriage, and although she knew the situation would still be waiting for her when the day was through, it was all she could do to keep from standing up and screaming at the top of her voice at nothing and everything. “How could he do this to me..?” she thought to herself, over and over. “I’ve given back one hundred percent. Every stress and hurdle, every opportunity to try my best to make him happy, to show him just how much I care I’ve been there. Everything we’ve talked and dreamed about, and all of the promises he’s made. Why would he do this..? What did I fail to do to make him look elsewhere..?”
It felt like the longest day of her life when the hands on the office clock finally found their way around to 5pm, but despite the working day having drawn to a close, Kylie still dreaded walking out the door and returning home. When she eventually did, she was approached nervously by her supervisor who asked if she might be interested in working a few hours the next day, Saturday. “I know it’s the weekend, but if we can finalise month’s end before Monday, we’ll all be able to breathe easier come next week.” Without hesitating and to his surprise, she accepted the offer almost immediately. “Any chance to take my mind off Dominic,” she conceded, texting him briefly and drily as a courtesy to let him know.
Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine had taken the Friday off from work to spend researching options for her eventual trip overseas. She had been torn between following her sister’s recommendation to travel around Europe and spending a couple of months in South America, backpacking across the continent. She had decided finally on the latter, feeling that she would find more value on the road less travelled, and was excitedly bookmarking pages and hostels online for most of the afternoon. Eventually as it approached the evening, she closed her laptop and reached excitedly for her phone that buzzed loudly on the dresser beside her bed. It was Sebastian, and her heart skipped a beat as she opened his text to see that he was again free for the evening, and wanted to catch up for a quick drink in a short window that had opened up in his schedule. She leapt up and jumped in the shower, throwing on her favourite jeans and what was a seriously inadequate tank top for the time of year, and raced out the door to catch the next bus into town.
Sebastian and Nadine met up at a wine bar in the heart of the city, just a few blocks east of where he claimed to work. He had been reluctant to talk too often or at length about what it was he did for a living, only saying that he was a practising lawyer for a medium sized firm, and that while he enjoyed what he did (and was more than adequately compensated for doing), he wished that the hours were a little less intense. She didn’t mind that he wasn’t open to talking more about his personal life, and was happy enough at being able to rub it in the faces of her equally young friends and co-workers that she was “dating a lawyer, an older man who has his act together.” Nor did she mind that he was able to cover the bill for most of their nights out together. While she was happy with the pace and flexibility of her job at the cafe, the pay didn’t leave much wiggle room after the essentials (hair appointments, clothes and makeup etc.) for much of anything else. Sebastian also seemed greatly satisfied at being able to take care of her in this way, and so the relationship seemed like a win-win, as far as she was concerned.
The two enjoyed a few quick drinks at the bar and then Sebastian suggested they take a drive out to the lake to sit and share a bite to eat before he dropped her off. As they sat together on a bench by the foreshore, his arm wrapped around her he turned and said, “As much as I’d love to just stay here with you all night, I’ll have to head back into the office to take an important conference call with a client in Asia tonight.. I hope you understand. Given the time difference, unfortunately we don’t have many options if we’re to talk face-to-face, is that alright..?” “Of course,” she beamed, although she was beginning to wonder if she would ever get him alone to spend a full evening (and morning) together, but he quickly followed-up, “I’ll have tomorrow free, though – all of it. I know it might be a little soon, but I wonder if you might want to come around to my place in the morning..? I was hoping we could spend the day together, just you and me.” Heart pounding, she replied through a smile, “Yes! I’m not working until late in the afternoon, I could come by early, definitely – yes.” He smiled back, and they sat and watched the waves lap gently at the sand below, and the moonlight reflect softly off the surface of the lake.
The next morning, Kylie was operating on auto-pilot as she quietly rose from beside her sleeping husband once again, crept out of the bedroom and went through the motions of her daily routine. She couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast, and didn’t bother with any chores – washing the dishes that sat in the sink from yet another meal Dominic had missed or running laundry, and stopped in to wake him momentarily and let him know that she was leaving. “I’m heading in to the office for a few hours, can you take care of the washing and what’s in the sink while I’m gone..?” she asked softly as he groaned and rolled over.
“I’m not sure I’ll have time,” he mumbled. “What do you mean you won’t have time..?” She asked, “What are you doing today..?” “No plans whatsoever,” came his reply. “The guys are finalising the project from Chicago, I’m taking a personal day. Can I get back to sleep..?” he muttered rudely. “Yeah, right. Whatever you need, honey.” she replied sarcastically, frustrated and suspicious that he’d waste an entire Saturday lying in bed. Despite recent events, she still believed she knew him better than to buy into the idea that Dominic would ever waste an entire day lazing around the house. She slung her handbag over one shoulder with a sigh, locked the front door and started out to the car.
For some reason, perhaps a lapse in thought or for the gnawing doubt in the back of her mind, she started the engine and backed out into the street where she drove only thirty or forty meters down the road and parked on the far side of it, letting the engine idle. All of a sudden, she found her breathing to grow short and quick, and that her heart was beating at a million miles an hour, like it could burst out of her chest. “What am I doing..?” She said quietly to herself, as she merely sat and gazed intently into the rear vision mirror at their house behind her. “This is crazy, Kylie. Just take it out of park and get moving.” She couldn’t though, despite knowing that she would soon be late for work. First for five minutes, and then ten she stayed perfectly still, the engine running and her not taking her eyes off the front of their house in the distance for even a moment. Eventually fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty. “You’re a fool,” she said aloud, reaching for the handbrake as she prepared to move, but still keeping her sight fixed firmly on the house.
It was just as she was about to take off that she saw her round the corner.
Kylie’s heart sank as a young, blonde and flighty looking woman approached the front door to the house, HER house that she and her husband shared and knocked on the door. From the distance where she was she could only make out that she was a small girl, who couldn’t be much older than twenty to twenty-five years old, dressed in tight jeans and an immodest and colourful singlet, the sort of thing no-one her age would dare to be seen wearing out in public anymore. After the unknown woman had waited on the porch for about a minute, Kylie saw the door open and Dominic move out from within the house to greet her.
Without looking around he stepped out and embraced the woman, planting a long and passionate kiss on her lips, the sort of kiss that he and Kylie shared so long ago and that she had longed for in recent months, before they both went inside and the door clicked shut. She could not believe what had happened, despite knowing without a doubt. In shock and without thinking, Kylie turned her eyes to the road, took the car out of park and slowly merged into traffic, bound for Findlays. Not a single thought or emotion entered her mind for the entire commute.
She was still stony-faced as she navigated her way through the open plan office and found her station, and immediately she immersed herself once more in her work. Before she knew it, she looked up at the clock on the wall and realised that it was already well past noon, and so took herself out of the bullpen and to the break room where she reheated leftovers from another meal that Dominic had missed and just sat there expressionless, barely touching it. After several minutes Bradley Johnson, the company’s weekend accountant wandered in and sat down to join her, immediately and frustratingly making small talk. He was one of those painful co-workers that somehow just couldn’t function in silence no matter what the circumstances, which on any other day irked Kylie to no end. Today, however, it was the absolute last thing she felt prepared to deal with.
“So Kyles,” he started cheerfully, “How’s that hubby of yours..? I’ll bet you guys are well and truly settled into the new place by now..?” She didn’t respond, only propping her head up in her right hand and staring absently into the reheated risotto she was toying at with a fork. Bradley coughed awkwardly but somehow missing the signal, tried again, “It was real nice meeting Dom at the get-together last month, real nice. He seems like a stand-up guy that husband of yours. I’ll bet you feel like a real lucky woman there, hey..?” Finally and all of a sudden, maybe at the sight of the leftover effort or the mention of Dominic, or a combination of the two she found herself only seconds away from bursting into tears.
She quickly rose and kicked out the chair behind her, managing only to mutter, “Sorry, excuse me,” as Bradley looked on in surprise and ran to the bathroom, where she rushed into a stall, locked the door and began sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as tears streamed down her face and her mascara ran, and wept openly for what seemed like forever. It felt like she was wrestling against tides of despair, as wave after wave of grief overcame her. Betrayal, inadequacy and worthlessness, fear, anger and nausea. How could she be so stupid..? How could he do this to her..? It was all just too much, and she knew she had to get out of there immediately.
Bleary-eyed, she fumbled for her phone and scrolled through her contact list for a name.
For some reason, she knew that there was nobody else that she could talk to at that moment, nobody else that would know what to say. She was a wreck, and she couldn’t be alone. She finally found the number and dialled, and as soon as Carmen heard her voice on the other end of the line she immediately knew what was happening. “Darling, Kylie, what’s the matter – where are you..? Oh Kylie.. stay where you are, I’m coming to get you. Get your things, I’ll meet you out the front in ten. I’m so sorry, don’t go anywhere.” Kylie hung up the phone and leant her head against the wall of the cubicle, taking long and erratic breaths to try and calm herself down. “Damn him for doing this,” she thought to herself, “Damn him to hell.”
Several minutes later, Carmen came screaming around the corner, almost collecting a cyclist as she did, and flew into a parking space in front of her friend who was standing in a shadowed corner of an alcove outside Findlays, and motioned her to come over. Kylie dropped down in the passenger seat, and the two talked there for almost an hour, Kylie explaining through sobs what she had seen that morning, and Carmen cursing Dominic with every tone and colour possible, and otherwise just listening intently to what her friend had to say. Eventually, Kylie more or less regained composure, and they reached a point in conversation where neither of them could do more than just sit in the car, staring directly ahead and almost cathartically observing the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that stirred in their minds.
After a long and unbroken silence, Carmen turned and insisted she take her across town to her favourite coffee shop for something sweet and a spot in the sun to sit and talk some more. “I’m so sorry to drag you into this so soon after you came back,” Kylie sniffed. “Nonsense..!” came Carmen’s reply, “There’s no way I’d be anywhere else right now. My sister will be starting her shift soon,” she added, “I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to hook us up with something special.” “That sounds great,” Kylie replied, and they finally veered out from the parking space to make their way over.
Nadine had just arrived at work, sporting a grin from ear to ear. She had spent the morning and most of the afternoon at Sebastian’s house, where they had finally for the first time become intimate. She was amazed at how nice his house was, and in such a perfect neighbourhood, too. He was so loving, so tender – so generous. It had been the perfect day, and absolutely nothing could bring her down from where she was. She walked into the break room to prepare for her shift, and immediately her co-workers could tell that something was up. Sarcastically, Lauren called back to her from the counter, “To anyone who just noticed the skinny blonde clocking-on for the afternoon, the one with the dopey grin I apologise – we don’t serve what she’s having!” The others laughed, and so did Nadine as she rummaged through her bag for her spare apron. As she did, her hand came in contact with something unfamiliar. She reached in and pulled out a heavy leather wallet that definitely wasn’t hers. “Sebastian,” she realised, “I must have knocked it off of the dresser and into my bag when we..” She smiled again, and decided she’d text him to let him know.
Before she could however, she noticed a flood of new messages and missed calls on her phone. She opened the first which read, “Nadine, I’m so sorry but have you seen my wallet..? I can’t find it anywhere. If you have it, please DO NOT open it. I’m coming over to see you now, just hold onto it and put it away for me – S.” She was confused, and not sure why he would be so worked up about it. Curiosity quickly got the better of her, and she decided to go ahead and take a quick look anyway, “How’s he going to know, and what’s he got to hide..?”
She opened up the wallet and flipped the inner panel, and froze as her eyes fell upon his driver’s licence: Dominic Tavares – Porter County, 38 years old. She put a hand up to her mouth and gasped, immediately closing up the wallet and taking a step back. “Who on Earth, what the hell is going on..?” she asked herself, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. “Who IS he..?” Just as her mind really began to race, a voice called out from the front, “Get your sweet little ass out here, Nadine – we need a hand..!”
She quickly tied her apron and made for the counter, trying to ignore a million questions that flooded her mind. Just as she reached the front of the cafe to get started, her sister Carmen and her friend Kylie walked in, both looking a little worse for wear. She immediately abandoned her own concerns and bounced across to serve them, asking, “Well don’t you two look like a pair. What can I get you..? It’s probably a little early for anything heavy, but you both look like you could use a real drink.” “Thanks, Nadine,” Carmen replied, “It’s been a particularly bad one. I’ll have an Irish Coffee,” she turned to Kylie, who added, “Yes, it has – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue, right Carm..?” She turned to signal Nadine for a double shot of tequila.
A moment later, Dominic burst through the door.