UnConventional, page 1
Copyright © October 2014 by Chie Alemán
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Dedicated to anyone who ever needed to find their way.
I owe this book largely to Ruth Madison, who showed me, that, like Di, I could be true to myself and write what was in my heart, regardless of others’ expectations. She helped me find my way.
This novel would also never have happened without the inspiration and encouragement of my husband, who puts up with my writerly insanity and who sat and brainstormed with me whenever I ran into a plot or character problem.
I also want to thank Mike Dolan for sharing his fantastic expertise in orthotics and for reading the text and giving me his perspective as a man with a congenital disability and longtime brace wearer.
I’m grateful to Trecia Canty for being my “no lies, just honesty” beta reader and for reading several drafts and advising me on how I could improve the characters.
And of course, a big thank-you to my mother, for reading my “scandalous” book and proofreading my Spanish.
I also want to thank other friends and contacts, such as Victoria Darkins, for reading the first draft, encouraging me to pursue the story, and lending her advice from her experience as the wife of a man with a congenital disability; Jane Wheeler, who helped convince me to set Part I in New Orleans and advised me as a devotee; Marshall Henderson, for giving me a male perspective and for cheering me on and making me laugh when I felt like giving up; my sister, for always inspiring me to follow my dream; the men with BMD who answered my questions about their life experiences with the disease; and others who helped along the way, including many of my fans and friends I’ve met through PD, my website, and Twitter.
In the end you don’t so much find yourself as you find someone who knows who you are.
I’m not supposed to be here. I was going to skip ECAC this year, steer clear of New Orleans and the memories that hang from it like Spanish moss from a live oak.
The thought swims through my head as I rush through the vast terminal E of Bush Intercontinental Airport, struggling to make it to my gate. The cord from my earbuds sways as I run, the self-identified anthem of my thirtieth year pumping into my ears: All Time Low’s “Weightless.”
Expecting to fly out of terminal C, I went through security there, only to discover after the TSA torture that my gate was actually in E—mostly reserved for international departures. But hey, as the joke goes: “Louisiana: third world and proud of it.” Even with my first-class priority security access (a birthday treat to myself), now that everyone is funneled through the cancer-making voyeur machines, it took me longer than it should have, and I have to race all the way to the far end of the terminal to gate E21, hopefully before my flight leaves me stranded.
Gripping my bag, grateful I checked my suitcase, I continue my dash. I wish I were taller and my petite legs could cover more ground with each stride. I can’t afford to miss this plane, be late to the convention. I may not have originally planned on attending, but now that I’ve committed, I need to be there.
In the middle of the chorus, my phone rings, interrupting my music with my husband Stephen’s characteristic tone, and I manage to hit the button on my cord to answer it without slowing down.
“Look, I’m late—” I leap onto one of the automated walkways, dodging people and luggage who don’t obey the slow-traffic-keep-right rule.
“The company’s expanding their overseas operations, and they put my name in for an international position!”
I’m almost to my gate, hopping off the walkway, narrowly avoiding an old woman. “Stephen,” I say, “I’m about to miss my flight. Can we—”
“I don’t know why you’re even going to New Orleans. Sometimes the past is better left there. You don’t see me going back to Nebraska anytime soon, do you?” Even after ten years of marriage Stephen hardly talks about his childhood. All I know is he spent most of his younger years working on his great-uncle’s ranch, where the only difference between him and the other ranch hands was that he wasn’t paid, and he had nowhere else to go. Stephen was smart enough to get an academic scholarship when he turned eighteen, his ticket off the ranch, and he never looked back. We each have intense memories associated with where we grew up, only mine are bittersweet, and Stephen’s are just…bitter. “Like that novel you’re writing. All it does is make you unhappy. I don’t understand you.”
“That’s not true,” I say, my voice weak. Nearly breathless, I arrive at the gate, an apologetic look on my face as I hand the gate agent my ticket.
“We thought we lost you,” she says. “I’ll let them know you’re here. Hurry.”
I jog up the Jetway. “I have to go. They’re holding the plane for me. We can talk about this later. I’ll call you when I get to New Orleans.” I hit the button to hang up, music immediately surging back into my ears. I mouth sorry to the flight attendant as I find my seat—1-B—stash my bag, and sink into it with relief. I’m exhausted, sweaty, and disappointed I’ve arrived too late for my preflight drink.
I’m shutting off my phone and winding the headphones around it when the man beside me speaks.
“What’s a seven-letter word for the victim of adultery? Begins with a c?”
I glance over. He has his long legs stretched out in front of him, the tray table opened, and the airline magazine flipped to the crossword. A pen poised in one hand, he taps it against his thumb, waiting for me to answer.
Without having to think, I reply, “Cuckold.”
He fills in the word: firm, deliberate strokes, his letters all caps and neat. I like his handwriting. Then he turns and smiles at me: a big, broad grin revealing teeth that are perfect enough to be the result of years of pain and orthodontic work, yet one s
“Thanks,” he says, still smiling. “I should have known that.” His hair is slightly wavy, thick. A deep dark brown with a suggestion of red, conservatively cut but not so short you can’t see its natural body or texture. It’s the kind of hair that demands a woman pull her fingers through.
“I didn’t think anyone actually did those things,” I say, pointing to the magazine.
His cheek raises in a half smile as he slips the pen in the pocket of his button-down and folds the tray table back into the armrest. “Now that I have such lovely company, I don’t need to.” I notice he leans forward at the waist without really moving or bending his legs as he slips the magazine back into the pouch in front of him.
I find my eyes strangely drawn to his legs and feet; he’s wearing black, loose-fitting slacks and black leather dress shoes, although they’ve obviously been chosen more for comfort than formality.
“I always told myself I wouldn’t be one of those people who’s last to board and holds everyone up. I’m sorry,” I say, forcing my eyes to meet his. Reaching for my St. Anthony medal out of reflex, I flush when I catch myself and drop my hands.
“Let me guess,” he says. His eyes sparkle, his skin wrinkling just a tiny bit in each corner. “You went through terminal C.”
“That obvious, huh?” I say, leaning back in my seat.
He points a finger at me, gesturing with it. “There’s actually this little hidden security checkpoint for terminal E nearly no one knows about. It’s rarely crowded, especially since it’s only open in the mornings.”
“You tell me this now,” I say with a relaxed smile, my head turned toward him.
With an effortless shrug, he returns the grin, and I notice his strong chin, his smoothly shaved, olive-tinged skin that suggests it’ll turn the perfect shade of brown if he spends enough time in the sun. He extends his hand. “Santiago Durán.”
It takes a moment for my muscles to register that my hand should slip into his, and even after it does, grasping it and completing the handshake is a struggle. My heart is fluttering—yes, fluttering; who thought hearts actually did that? My throat suddenly dry.
“Santiago… Isn’t that a city?”
He laughs. A good-natured, genuine laugh, almost as intoxicating as the rest of him. Deep but not too deep. “My parents are Cuban, from Oriente, so I guess they were homesick.” At my confused look, he adds, “I’m lucky they named me Santiago instead of Guantánamo; Diego’s a much better nickname than Gitmo. Especially nowadays.” He grins, his eyes twinkling.
Still not taking my hand from his, I say, “Nadine Monroe. But please, call me Di. I can’t stand Nadine.” Neither could my mother. I was named after some great-aunt I never met. It didn’t take long for her to bestow “Di” as a nickname, inspired by her favorite heroine in a novel she’d read dozens of times. I’m pretty sure the “Di” in the book was short for “Diane” (and pronounced “die,”), but because of the sound of “Nadine,” she called me “Dee.”
He laughs again, and I think I could spend a lifetime listening to that sound. “So both our parents chose ridiculous names for their children.”
I’m finally able to recover my hand, although now I know where the hyperbolic expression “I’ll never wash it again” comes from. “I don’t think Santiago’s ridiculous. I like it.”
He smiles and leans his head back, looking directly at me, as if I’m the only woman on the planet. “Then you can call me Santiago. You can call me whatever you like.”
I flush. The flight attendant is going over the safety procedure, and though I know it’s rude to ignore her, I can’t take my eyes off Santiago’s, which are this rich milk chocolate speckled with gold, amber, and copper, a swirl of shades as if his irises were created from a blend of colored pencils. I keep expecting to find some new facet to them.
It occurs to me that I’m looking at him far too closely considering I’m married. Is it cheating just to admire and flirt with a hot guy I’ll probably never see again?
He’s grinning, studying my eyes, occasionally glancing up at the flight attendant to offer her his smile too. I’m not sure what he expects to see in my irises; they’re greenish gray, the color of dirty money, complete with dark flecks of dirt.
“So why you heading to New Orleans? If it’s Mardi Gras, I’m afraid you’re about five months too late.” I keep my voice low, trying not to be too rude to the flight attendant.
He chuckles. “A conference. You’ve probably never heard of it. ECAC. Editors and Copyeditors Association Conference. It’s no coincidence that if you pronounce the acronym, it sounds like a noise you’d make after tasting something unpleasant.”
“Oh my God,” I say, slapping my hand over my mouth, the red in my cheeks intensifying. I cast a glance at the flight attendant, who’s finished her presentation and is glaring at me. “Me too,” I add in explanation, relieved the flight attendant has disappeared to check the overhead bins and tray tables in preparation for takeoff. “Where do you work?”
After his hot Bush Intercontinental Airport tip, I’m pretty confident (and secretly hopeful) this isn’t a connecting flight for him, that he lives somewhere in the vast expanse that is the Houston metro area. Even if he’s a fantasy, the idea of coming home and knowing Santiago “El Hunko” is out there will at least give me a little extra fantasy fuel.
“You know Houston magazine? I write some of the copy, but mostly I’m the one making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed.”
I lean back, stretching my legs and deciding to pull them up into the seat since my feet don’t quite touch the ground. I’ve always wished I was tall and large-chested, but airplanes do make me grateful for my five-foot-one, 100-pound frame.
“What about you?”
Before I can answer, the flight attendant interrupts. Completely ignoring me, she leans in toward Santiago. “We should be taking off soon. You okay? Need anything?”
He smiles at her, shakes his head almost imperceptibly. “I’m perfect, thank you.”
Yes you are, I think, then cover my face with my hands, hoping to hide the reflexive pinking of my cheeks.
It doesn’t matter, because I can’t help noticing the way she smiles at him. They’re totally flirting with each other. I feel myself sink a little. That warm feeling of being singled out is fading. Santiago probably flirts with everyone. I don’t blame him. He’s totally delicious and far, far off menu for me, even if I weren’t married.
“I stashed them in the front closet. I’ll get them out for you once we’ve landed and everyone’s disembarked,” she says.
“Thank you,” he says. He’s still smiling, but I notice him rub the heel of one hand over his thigh, an unconscious, nervous gesture.
What is she talking about? Some kind of luggage? I don’t have much time to ponder the issue because the pilot comes on the speaker. As usual, his voice is nearly unintelligible, but I definitely pick up something about a delay in our takeoff schedule.
The flight attendant disappears.
“Well, looks like we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other,” Santiago says. “I think you were going to tell me about your job?”
“Oh. Yes. I work for an editing consulting company. Basically, it’s like organized freelance.” I chuckle nervously. “Anytime anyone in the area needs editing or proofreading or copywriting and they don’t have an in-house team, they call us.”
“Sounds exciting,” he says, and I’m surprised he’s not feigning his interest. Or being sarcastic.
I tap my hand on my ankle. “Not really. My boss is a workaholic, and that sort of trickles down. So I see long hours and bring work home a lot more than I’d like,” I add with a grunt.
Something changes in his face; it’s fleeting—just a fraction of a second before he replaces it with his smile and warm look—but I still catch it. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“Two lowly editor
He laughs. It’s not his full laugh, but it’s rich and deep and lovely anyway. He winks at me subtly. “I know what I’m doing.”
I arch an eyebrow, my heart thumping.
His eyes twinkle, and he leans toward me when he answers. “Sitting next to the most attractive woman on Flight 1037.”
* * * *
We’ve been sitting on the runway for nearly an hour, waiting for weather conditions to clear enough for takeoff, and I’ve decided this first-class ticket was the best possible birthday gift I could have given myself. Because I’m comfortable—at least, as much as you can be on an airplane—I’ve already had a couple of cocktails, and I’m sitting next to one of the most attractive and interesting men I’ve ever met.
He’s laughing, his head tilted back, looking gorgeous. I reflexively check my mouth for drool. I’m really not that funny. “So you have an actual ‘anthem.’ Is that like a theme song?”
I blush, but it’s more from indignation than embarrassment. “I never should have said that. It’s just a song to motivate me. You know, like people make New Year’s resolutions?”
He’s stopped laughing, but he’s still smiling. “So tell me about this song. What? It must be important to you.”
I shrug. “Do you like punk?”
“Uh, I don’t dislike it, but I think Green Day is probably the only band I could name off the top of my head.”
“I love it. Judge me if you want. But…” I sigh. “It makes me happy.” I shrug. “I know a thirty-year-old woman has no right to love punk—”
He holds up his hand to stop me. “You have a right to like whatever you want.” His face scrunches up. “Except maybe if it’s illegal.” He chuckles. “Sorry. Go ahead.”