I, Gaby Flores, will be gullible no more.
There. I said it. And I mean it this time, my friend. No more believing the unbelievable. No more living like a patsy. No more dating guys from the dark side. The time has come for me to shake those things, those issues, those people in my life that just don't make sense. ¿Comprende?
Deep breath in. Start fresh.
So... here I sit in my newly rented loft on the third story of a fantastic house overlooking one of the prettiest neighborhoods you've ever seen. The house sits perched at the edge of a channel that's swollen with ocean water. From my vantage point, I can see the open arc of the harbor mouth, where the seawater flows in and out. I've got the outfit I'm wearing, the remnants of my recently ransacked floral shop, and a new (so what if it's a little rundown?) place to live --- and all with a view of the sea.
What better place to start fresh?
My friend Bri huffs up the final step to the third floor. "Is that it?" she asks.
I drag my gaze from the window where I've been watching a kayaker pull her paddle against high tide and look across the nearly empty loft. "Unless you've knocked over a Nordy's lately."
Bri blows out a weary breath, drops the last box onto the hardwood floor, and slides it against the wall with one flip-flop-shod foot. Standing there with a garbage bag of hand-me-downs in one hand, she says, "Sorry, Gaby. I didn't mean ... Anyway, you know my offer still stands. Let me buy you some new things --- I really want to." When I don't answer right away, she scrunches up her brow. "Please just get over yourself, will ya? Take me up on it."
I manage a smile. A girl's --- no, this girl's --- got her pride. Without that, thanks to the fire that leveled my apartment building, I got nothin'. (Unless you count my Visa card, that is.) I sneak another peek through the silt-smudged window, toward the water below, and see that sunny-yellow kayak continuing to rock its way toward the harbor mouth. The sight cheers my wounded heart.
When I turn back, Bri's still pacing, her forehead scrunched, the bag now at her feet.
"Bri-Bri, stop fretting. That closet full of things I had left at the shop should be enough to help me get by. Plus all that stuff you collected for me. All I've really got to do now is hang them up in here and I'll have the neatest closet in town."
I glance down at my roundish hips, dreaming of slimmer days. "Skimpy's good."
Bri rolls her eyes. "At least that criminal you had working for you wasn't into women's clothing."
I shrug. "Not that I knew of anyway."
Bri grunts and wags her head. "You amaze me. For someone who's been ripped off all the way around, you're far too chipper." She leans her head to one side and stares at me. "Gaby, you're usually so dramatic about everything. What's gotten into you anyway?"
"Don't deny it, girlfriend. I've known you way too long."
I shake it off. "Well, I have had my moments, chica. You know it. It's just that the sickly smell of my burnt-out apartment made me realize how blessed I really am. Can you imagine?"
Bri's face softens, because, yes, she knows what I mean. Because my mind whirs like a fan on fast all day long, I tend to be a deep sleeper. By the time I turn out the light each evening, I get so lost in slumber that it would probably take one of California's super-sized earthquakes to shake me awake.
My point is this: Had I been home when the fire broke out and before all those hottie fire fighters showed up, my dead-to-the-world slumber habit may have kept me from noticing in time. Sure, a working fire alarm would have helped. By order of the fire department, our landlord had finally installed one in each apartment. For some reason, though, none of the tenants, yours truly included, actually verified that he'd also put batteries in them. They don't work without them, you know.
Bri glances around my new digs, her eyes settling on a flat brown-bag-wrapped package. She bends to pick it up. "Where would you like this?"
"Just stand it up against the kitchen cabinet."
"I'm so sorry, Gaby. That just sounded kinda funny. Most people say kitchen cabinets. You know, with an s at the end."
I take the package from her arms and feign a scolding. "Just give me that, silly girl. If I had more than one, I would have said so." I lean the package against the solitary cabinet.
Bri sighs. "Okay, okay. I guess you are blessed, girlfriend. Although these walls have seen better days." She stares at what looks to be soot embedded into the plaster. "Wonder why Livi didn't grab it for herself?"
"I can't imagine. The rent's incredibly low for this area. I mean --- come on --- the beach is close enough to walk to, yet it's a community all its own. I've no idea why she passed this up." Livi's our mutual friend, even if she is a bit of a doormat. She heard about this loft coming up for rent and told me about it --- even though she'd love to get away from her punk-loving roommate who swears over every little thing. "Anyway, God probably just whispered this find into her ear just for me. The timing was perfect, you know."
"I know." Bri paces. "Um, Gaby?"
"You don't have to worry, Bri-Bri."
She swallows a sigh.
"I can afford it. I have some savings, and my insurance will help me with what Sammy took from the shop." Sammy's the delivery guy who cleaned out my floral shop --- literally --- the day I was picking through the rubble of my apartment building, hoping to find at least one unscathed tube of Aloha Red lipstick.
"After your huge deductible."
I glance at my deceased grandmother's old peanut jar, the one filled with spare change, and bite back the sting of self-pity. "Stop. You've got to have faith, my friend."
"I do. You just bring out the mothering instinct in me."
"Quit worrying. I've got this fabulous roof over my head now. I'm just looking forward to a nice quiet life by those calm waters out there." I toss a wave toward the filthy window with a lone spot rubbed clean, trying not to gag. "Oh, to start fresh .... I want that. It'll be perfect. You'll see."
Bri spins around, and my eyes flicker toward the door. A lanky woman with blunt-cut brown hair peeks in.
"I hope you don't mind me barging in before you're all settled." She steps inside my loft. "Are you Gaby?"
My forehead arches toward the sky. "I'm her."
"Wonderful! I'm Iris Hornsby. We're neighbors. I live with my husband and daughter in the fourplex just across the street." She leans close and whispers, "We own it."
My new neighbor wrinkles her nose and squeezes her shoulders together, her smile bright. "I figured you'd be busy, but I didn't want to wait to welcome you to our neighborhood." She thrusts a jar of hard candy into my hand. "These are for you and ... ?" Her voice trails off as she glances over her shoulder at Bri.
Bri reaches out her hand. "I'm Gaby's friend, Bri Stone. Just helping her move in."
Iris grins cheerily. "Aw, you're a great friend, then. It's a good thing you're just a helper today. Loft occupancy is limited to one." She laughs a gravelly laugh and bows her head my way. "Wouldn't want to have to turn you in."
I remember the jar of candy in my hands and glance down. "Thanks for the gift, Iris. Very nice of you." I rub the price tag still stuck to the side of the jar with my thumb.
"You're very welcome! Just a little something to help you feel at home in our Harborwest family." Her face scrunches like a prune when she says family, and I dare not catch eyes with Bri.
We all stare at each other over an awkward silence. I wear a smile, willing Bri with my infamous eyebrow arch not to roll her eyes in front of company. If it had been offered, Bri could've received a Ph.D. in Sarcasm. I just know she's having issues with my new neighbor's enthusiasm, but what-ev! This knowing-your-neighbors thing is a brand-new concept for me.
Iris backs up. "Well, ladies, I'll let you two get back to all your --- " she hesitates while taking another quick survey of my nearly empty loft --- "unpacking."
"Thanks again, Iris, for stopping by."
On her way out, she halts near the stairway and does this strange sort of lunge backward, like she's been snagged at the collar with fishing line. She cocks her chin. "By the way, Gaby. How did you learn about this rental's availability?"
I hesitate. "A friend mentioned it. Why do you ask?"
She just smiles. "No reason, really. But may I ask how your friend learned of this rental?"
I freeze in place, my tongue tied. The past few weeks of turmoil rush to mind, and I'm feeling like naked prey in a sea of sharks. I brush off my reticence and snap out of my trance when Iris scrunches her shoulders together and shakes her head. "Never mind, never mind," she says. "I see you're busy. No matter. I'm sure we'll have plenty of chances to chat soon."
I'm embarrassed by my knee-jerk reaction