This Provincial Life-
“I will have you for my wife, Miss Bellissa!”
“Like hell you will, Mister Aristade.”
Leaning across the customer service desk, Gage and Jolee were locked in a heated argument. Oblivious to the surrounding shoppers leafing through the books, they had been fighting in hushed tones for over an hour. It was nothing new. In fact, many of the regulars expected this. Twice a week, Gage Aristade would bring Jolee Bellissa an iced chai during the last hour of her shift at the Tattered Cover. Every time Gage came, he would ask Jolee to go to dinner with him as soon as she was off. Every time he asked, Jolee declined.
“Come on, Jo, you know I’m joking,” Gage wheedled, “we don’t have to get married. Sheesh. It’s just dinner! There’s no harm in that, is there?”
“I know what happens to girls who ‘go to dinner’ with you,” Jolee snapped back with a devilish grin, “I’d prefer to keep my dignity.”
Gage ran his hands through his hair in a dramatic show of frustration.
“Why don’t you stop trying to be a tough nut, Jo, and just come have fun with me?
“I’m a girl, not a nut, Gage,” Jolee responded.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Gage retorted, wagging his finger under Jolee’s nose. In a rush of sudden anger, Jolee grabbed Gage’s finger and squeezed it tightly.
“My father isn’t crazy,” she said through gritted teeth, her caramel eyes roiling with fury. Gage let out a small grunt of pain and yanked his hand until she was forced to let go.
“You honestly don’t know how to take a joke, do you?” Gage said.
“You don’t know when to leave well enough alone, do you?” she shot back.
At that, Gage seemed to have no more to say. With a frown he threw his hands up in defeat.
“Any luck today?” a sweet voice asked as a young woman of around twenty-two approached the service desk.
“Of course not, Babs,” Gage replied sullenly.
“No luck yesterday, no luck today, no luck tomorrow,” Jolee sang sarcastically. After shooting Jolee a dirty look, Gage hugged their mutual friend, Babette, and gave her a noisy kiss on the cheek.
“I think I’m starting to wear her down,” he joked.
“You’ll get her yet, tiger,” she encouraged, swatting him playfully on the shoulder.
“Over my dead body,” Jolee grumbled.
There was a small silence as the fight came to a standstill. The hole in the conversation made Jolee want to cringe. She knew how to keep rolling with the punches, so long as the punches kept coming. It was almost fun, in a way. With the tension broken by Babette, she found herself unsure of what to say next. And Gage knew it. He flashed a smile, crooked and sly, before bowing in a mocking, grandiose way.
“’Till next time, ladies,” he laughed, his earlier hurt forgotten as he turned on his heel and left.
Babette took Gage’s place and balanced her chin in her hands.
“Honestly, sweetheart. If that boy was any hotter for you, he’d be on fire,” she prodded.
“That’d probably be best for everyone,” Jolee replied.
Babette shook her head in disbelief, causing a few stray strands to fall loose from the high bun of her curly, fire-engine red locks.
“Really, honey, I don’t see why you have to be so hard on him. He’s always been kind to you,” she continued with her faint Southern twang, “Would it really kill you to be kind back?”
“And give him false hopes about his chances? Trust me, Babs, this is me being kind.”
“I wish you’d just let him take you to dinner. Just once?” Babette said.
“Once is one chance more than is healthy with guys like Gage,” Jolee said, sticking her tongue out playfully. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Babette asked innocently. Seeing that business was slow, as it often was at the end of Jolee’s shift, Babette hopped up to sit on the customer service desk. Legs crisscrossed, her elbows propped up on her knees, it looked as if she was about to be told a story. Jolee had always had a soft spot for Babette’s constant air of wonderment and innocence, even though the girl truly was saucy as hot wings. Though to anyone else she would have been dismissive, there was something about Babette’s wide green eyes staring at her like an expectant child that guilted her into answering every time.
“You know,” Jolee shrugged, “guys like Gage. The super attractive, super popular jock types that have their lives all set for them because Daddy has a place for them in their big boy companies.”
“So you admit that Gage is attractive,” Babette nudged.
Jolee threw up her hands: a mimicry of Gage’s earlier defeat.
“Is that all you heard? Of course I think Gage is attractive. I’d have to be a blind idiot not to see that. He’s tall, he’s dark, he’s handsome—and he’s a brute.”
“I don’t hear anything in that that sounds bad,” Babette murmured with a smile.
“Of course you don’t. Why don’t you go to dinner with him if you think he’s so wonderful?”
“Oh, sweetie, I would if I could. Mmm, the things I’d do to that man—but he’s set on you something fierce,” Babette lamented, “can’t go a day without him thinking up some new scheme to get you to go with him.”
“Give him a month. The challenge’s fun for him now, but he’ll give up when his balls get too blue,” Jolee laughed.
“What makes you so sure? What if he really loves you? He’s been buying you two chais a week for over two months now. That’s an awful lot of time and wasted money for just a quick lay,” Babette protested.
“For Gage? The little business boy in his father’s pocket? He didn’t even need to finish college to get a high position in the company. Got to do some kind of ‘accelerated’ program where Daddy bought his grades and pays all of Gagey’s bills in that mansion of a house they have in the Backcountry neighborhood. Two small chais a week ain’t nothing to a guy like that. You’re thinking Gage is some other guy.”
“So are you!” Babette retorted softly.
Jolee took a moment to imagine Gage in her head. He was indeed tall, at least 6’2”, and built like an ox. Most days he wore button up shirts that stretched tight across his broad shoulders and thick arms, with perfectly pressed, pleated pants. He was always ‘just getting back from the office’. He had long, thick, shoulder-length hair that was a deep chocolate brown, swept back at the temples like an eighties heartthrob and either hanging free or pulled back into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. His thin, pointed face and prominent cheekbones were perpetually covered in a rugged, yet clean-looking stubble. His lips were smooth and pencil-thin, always curved into a boyish smile. And his eyes—large and deep, they were so dark they were nearly black. They gave women the feeling that they were being sucked right into his soul. If he had one, that is.
Sure, Gage was beautiful—and he knew it. Boy, did he know it. Boy, did he flaunt it. Gage was better dressed than most women she knew, and all of his outfits were specifically tailored to him. He flaunted his father’s wealth wantonly and unashamedly used it to pick up women. It was the first thing he had tried to win her with, the first time she met him. Babette had invited Jolee to go clubbing with her and some friends at Beta downtown, back when they were still in college. It had been her junior year. She had been there a couple of times while in high school, but hadn’t gone again until Babette begged her upon the love of their friendship and roommate-bond to be her wingwoman. Gage was the school friend of Babette’s target, and at the outset it had seemed as if he had been just as reluctant as she to go clubbing for the sake of their friends’ love lives. They had talked a little. At the time he had just begun his internship with his father’s accounting firm and was full of vim and vigor. She was just beginning her thesis. Over the loud dubstep they had shouted their bright futures at each other until it became exceedingly pointless. He had asked her to dance.
What could a dance hurt? He was a good dancer, too. Hell, he was a great dancer. They stayed glued to each other all night, only parting when Babette announced that they were moving the party back to their apartment down on Federal. Things went downhill as soon as the drinking started. The more Gage drank, the less he talked about dreams and the more he talked about money and glamour. With sour-liquor breath he kept pressing himself on Jolee more and more, until he finally produced a condom for them, crying ‘Let’s do this thing, baby!’
Jolee had slapped him and they hadn’t talked again until she graduated and moved back home to be with her father. She avoided having any association to the name ‘Aristade’. But it was hard to completely avoid someone in a place like Highlands Ranch. They reconnected again through Babette, though this time as friends with no inherent interest in each other. Until about three months ago, when he began his chai bit in honor of ‘celebrating a promotion’ at the firm. But Jolee didn’t give second chances. The memory of him drunkenly groping her while bragging about his riches was seared into the forefront of her brain.
“He’s just not for me, all right?” Jolee said.
Babette shook her head sadly, affecting a large pout as Jolee clocked out.
“At least tell me you’re coming to the big party I’m having tomorrow?” she begged.
“Will Gage be there?” Jolee asked.
“Probably. Along with a bunch of other girls. And other guys,” Babette replied nonchalantly.
“Uh-huh. Who will all conveniently be taken or completely uninteresting compared to Gage, as usual,” Jolee said as she grabbed her backpack from its hiding place beneath the desk.
“You never know who you might meet,” Babette pushed, “your Prince Charming could be there!”
“Then you can tell him that I don’t need him or his white horse. Nobody decides my fate but me.”
She reached out to Babette to hug her, and kissed her cheek as Gage had done. Babs would be taking over the service desk from there, and she wanted to make sure she’d get home before dark. It was already six o’clock.
It was nearing October and the wind was just cold enough to chill while not being enough to require a heavy jacket. She grabbed a yellow wool-knit cap and matching scarf out of her backpack and put them on. To cut expenses, Jolee had sold her car when she moved back home and had deliberately chosen a workplace within walking distance of her home. It kept her in shape and saved her hundreds of dollars in maintenance and gas.
All in all, she didn’t live a bad life here. It was just—so predictable. So boring. The rousing discussions she had had in the classroom were non-existent in the real world. The certainty and structure were gone, replaced by the frustration of the recession and tumultuous politics. The BA she had earned in English, which she had planned to use to tear the literary world apart, sat gathering dust on her shelf. She was stuck in a life that she had envisioned fleeing all throughout her studies, and now she couldn’t see herself getting out of it. She wanted to see the world. She wanted to be a heroine of her own story. She had grown up as such a visionary and now? Now she fought every day just to keep her and her father afloat in an exclusive kind of town that used to be a sign of their success, but now just reminded her of how they’d fallen.
If only they’d stayed in France. Though her father, Moe, was a born Italian he had been raised a Frenchman and married a Frenchwoman. In truth, Jolee had two elder sisters and a mother across the sea. When she was still a toddler her father left her mother, without filing anything official, and took a non-protesting Jolee to the United States to become an independently contracted inventor for a couple of private American investors. His genius was needed there, he had said. They would make their fortune there, he had said. To this day her parents were still legally wed, though Moe paid no child support for his other daughters and Jolee only spoke once a year to her mother and sisters. From the little contact she did have, however, she knew the rest of her family was better provided for in France than she and her father were here.
She didn’t dare ask for financial help from her mother. Moe had never helped her or his other daughters financially, so why would she help them now? The two sides of the family were completely independent in everything but name. She also knew better than to ask her father to leave America. He loved it here. No matter how few contracts came to him in the economic downturn, he consistently praised the Land of the Free as if it had been his motherland. Jolee, in turn, would find it much too hard to leave her father.
So she was stuck here, like a mouse in a trap. Dream as she might, there was no way out that wouldn’t be selfish or permanently damaging to the only people she loved. But did that really mean that there would be nothing more for her in this life than—this?