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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of HappinessTo Laura Fletcher's previous piece      a sort of letter to an exTo Laura Fletcher's next piece


He lurked behind the gorgeous redhead's light green Prelude for three miles on his racing Schwinn until finally his legs cramped up, and he knew he had to either risk humiliation by returning the purse to her or stop to rest. She'd looked so good back at the deli, sipping the newest chic Snapple rip-off and sucking low-fat pasta salad, with wavy red locks brushing her shoulders, teasing his eyes into following the strands down her body. Her lunch date - probably a business partner, but he imagined her to be a date - was pretty foxy, too, but didn't draw his eye as much. She ate the same thing, in an indecisive way that made him think she just "had-what-she-was-having." They both wore power-suit blazers, but the redhead did so with a short, strappy black number and her friend wore hers with an ankle-length brown wool skirt and witch-toed boots. The two women were so involved in conversation that they failed to notice his staring at the redhead as she wrapped her lips around a straw or an Italian dressing-soaked noodle.

In gaudy gold hoop earrings, the brunette companion looked less and less appealing and more and more prim. Each bite of salad was carefully portioned with her plastic knife and fork, held at attention by her cherry-red manicured nails, which she paraded around the table at every opportunity.

How could this gorgeous redhead like such a Mary Kay reject? The redhead's light brown eyes smiled at every story her friend told, without judgement or disbelief. Her eyes shone with innocence and humility, and he wanted nothing more than to ask this smart and attractive woman over to his table, maybe take off that blazer... Of course, he didn't, but he did watch the two rise, throw away their plastic dishes and forks, and exit. Leaning out the swinging glass door, the redhead waved to a now moving car, then stepped back in. He sighed when he realized she was not going yet, which made an elderly woman in the booth next to him glare at him over her shoulder.

The redhead rested her navy blue, toaster-sized purse on top of a "Thank You" swinging-door garbage can to open it. Her comb - or mirror or something else small - fell from her hand, and he gasped as she bent at the hips, her short black dress barely covering her baby blue panties, which he fantasized as perhaps not even being there. Purse on the trash can lid, she recovered her keys and rose slowly, like a queen aware of her every gesture, and walked out the door.

He watched her start her car parked across the street. He even watched her hair flip from side to side as she watched traffic for an opening. However, not until her car had disappeared from the view of the deli's picture windows did he notice her purse sitting alone on the garbage can. Without finishing his sandwich or doing anything at all with it, he dashed for the door like his seat was on fire and nabbed the purse with a wide arm swing on his way out.

His Schwinn, safely stowed in an alley, had an orange plastic tackle box roped onto the back. It took some contorting, but eventually the purse and the entire length of the shoulder strap fit inside. He began thrusting his feet before they touched the pedals, but the hurry was unnecessary: the redhead and her shiny coupe were only half a block away, stuck in downtown lunch hour traffic. Sweaty palms made his hands slide off the handlebars, the perspiration coming from drivers yelling at his weaving maneuvers and a fear that he would never see the redhead again. She signaled left, so he got close - two cars behind her - and followed her around the one-way alley shortcuts. Here, air conditioners drooped from cheap apartments; dumpsters seeped trash as thickly as liquid boiling over. He and the redhead navigated the obstacles slowly. Other traffic soon turned onto main drags, and he found himself alone in the alleys, with her.

That's when he really got to see her car, and her. A brand-new, custom-painted job, without a single scratch or bumper sticker, save the "Harvard Law School" decal slapped like a proud diploma onto her back windshield. Even her gold chrome hubcaps looked too expensive. The car, a Mercedes imitation, had its sunroof up, and her hair wasn't flowing in the breeze; although it was worn down, it held its own due to hairspray and bobby pins previously unseen. Her ears glinted when she turned her head at a corner. As he neared the passenger side, the glint turned out to be diamonds, worn to match a heavy diamond on her right hand and a generous slick of diamond on her flat gold necklace - all of this she had put on in the car, he supposed. Was she afraid to wear her expensive jewelry downtown? Above her gorgeous eyes, a thin coat of re-growing eyebrow hairs loomed thickly. Then, worst of all, the wind rushed her hair straight up. Before she could reinstate the bobby pins, he saw dark roots, black and gray.

How old could she be? Her friend could not have been over twenty-five.

The bike gave out below his legs. It, too, felt the betrayal. He let several cars pass while he pulled over to think. He had no use for the purse, so he might as well give it back to her. Still, his shock loomed before him, doubtlessly plain on his face, making it impossible for him to confront her just yet. He started again but stayed back, half a block or more, barely keeping the chrome bumper in view.

The signal flashed right, and her car drifted onto a suburban two-lane. She couldn't have a house yet, he reasoned, since she seemed single. He decided she was visiting a friend, or client, or family. Manicured hedges and antique cherry trees hid the houses lurking behind the road, but he knew her house would someday be one of these. She wanted it that way.

By now, his knees twitched and his quadriceps pleaded, "Too far!" He vowed to pull up to her at the next stop sign.

Three stops later, and with no other vehicles in plain view, he rapped on the driver's side back window, or at least the triangular slice accorded on small two-doors.

Her eyes now appeared transparent. She eyed his helmet and bike. He guessed he was unthreatening, without a handy weapon or Squeegee. Her window descended.

"Hi, uh, you forgot your purse, back at the restaurant. I have it here, in this box."

Ten seconds dropped in his lap as she stared at him. Realizing her purse was indeed missing, she smiled too broadly and said, "Thanks," with a chipper, baby-like "waaaah!" in the middle.

"Yeah, no problem," he replied. Suddenly, he read her expression: You stole my purse, you dirty ghetto kid, and now you probably want to grab my tits, too. Yeah, I bet the wallet's missing. Her window was down, but her doors were locked. He turned away from her and pretended to fiddle with the latch on his compartment.

"Hold on a sec, this thing's stuck." Inside the box, all hell had broken loose from the purse: powder, perfume, and Tic-Tacs. Orange plastic now smelled like a rotten department store.

"Some stuff got spilled. D'ya want me to throw away some of it?" He didn't face her, but held behind him a broken compact, Tic Tac box, and tiny glass bottle.

She leaned her elbow out of the window. "Yeah, I'll get new stuff. Sorry about the mess; I really should clean that thing out more often."

He forced a grin. "No problem." The wallet sat, still and tan, at the bottom of the box. He passed her the purse and its remaining contents. She had already begun rolling up her window. His reflection, a disappointed and sunken nineteen-year-old face, bounced back too vividly.

"What's your name?" he asked, half through ascending glass. Her car began to idle forward.

"Janine," she shouted, but glared straight ahead. The engine howled and she sped away.

Climbing back on his bike was a chore, even without counting his sore legs and rear. He did not know if she had looked in the purse. She rounded the next right, but before she was out of sight, he muttered, "Yeah. I'm Sam."

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