Photo: Ian D. Keating

“I’VE GOT AN EXTRA BEER. Would you like one?”

She has long curly hair, blue eyes and a smile so bright it lights up the room. That’s on the outside. Inside, there’s a dagger ready to strike, and all it takes to turn the knife is me.

Her name is Karen. We met at a party thrown by a mutual friend. She gazed in my direction as I walked up, and I noticed her right away through the open front door. We walked toward each other, but she beat me to the door and came outside.

“Are you friends with Erin?” she said.

“I am, we went to high school together,” I said. “I just moved back to town. My name is Tim.”

“I’m Karen, so nice to meet you. I’ve got an extra beer, would you like one?”

We sat down across from each other in folding chairs on the large patio, overgrown with philodendron and covered in cracked paint. Not uncommon for a rental house in Denver’s Wash Park neighborhood.

“So what’s up with that shirt?” she said. “Did you rob a teenager?”

I look down. I am wearing a shirt from the band NOFX. “I did, actually,” I said, and took a long sip from a Rolling Rock. “I was in such a hurry to get over here that I forgot mine and had to wing it.”

My God, I think. With lines like that, no wonder I’m single.

“Well I’m glad you made it,” she said.

We hung out a handful of times throughout the summer and come fall, I took it up a notch. I figured I had to be smooth, with a clear plan for the future. So I got on Google.

I invited her over for dinner at my apartment. “I have an idea,” I said as we sat down over the meal. “I found this cruise that a band called 311 is hosting. The boat’s going to the Bahamas in a few months.”

Karen grinned. “I’m a ‘yes’ girl!”

I pulled up the website. We looked it over and within twenty minutes, I broke out my credit card and we booked the cheapest cabin.

A dark cloud settles in.

A week later I opened FB and found a message from Karen’s ex. “You’re an asshole and a piece of shit,” it read. Karen and I went to grab a bite to eat that night and I asked her about him. Our conversation, typically filled with flirty laughter and excessive compliments, turned sour for the first time.

“We broke up six months ago, but he won’t leave me alone,” she said. My gut clenched. “Just block him. He won’t do anything else.”

Seemingly true, for a few weeks. I moved on from it. By the time he started calling my work and blowing up my phone with an endless onslaught of nasty text messages, I’d already told Karen that I loved her. We’d talked about moving in together once our leases expired.

“Karen, what’s the deal with this ex-boyfriend?” I said one night after a particularly rotten barrage of texts. “He’s been blowing up my phone, so I blocked his number, but I’m not going to back down if he shows up at my door.”

“He won’t,” she said. “He lives in Louisiana now.” Then, her face suddenly glowed red.

“Weren’t you just in Louisiana last week? Wasn’t that supposed to be for work?”

I’m a sucker who got too attached.

We reconnected within a month. After all, we spent thousands of dollars on a cruise and it was now a few weeks away. “I swear it’s over,” she’d say, the statement never fully breaking through the layer of doubt that encircled our relationship. She bit her lip as the scrambled look on her face turned to confusion as no more words would come.

“I know, hon.”

I scrambled. Dinner reservations at the pho restaurant where I’d taken her on our first real date. “Babe, I’m picking you up at 7,” I said and hung up the phone.

She wrapped her arm around mine as we entered. “Two shots of tequila,” she told the waiter as we sat down. The liquor set us at ease, and we kept it flowing. My face ached from laughter by the time our meals arrived.

Late that night as we lay in bed, she whispered, “I still love you.” I let out an audible sigh.

“I love you too. We’re doing alright.”

The plane took off into a wide open blue sky towards Fort Lauderdale. Bloody Mary’s were ordered and a Sudoku puzzle completed. A movie came and went on the seatback television and I stared past Karen out the window. “We’re beginning our descent into Fort Lauderdale,” the captain said over the intercom. My gut clenched as tight and I felt that the wall I’d build around my heart had weakened.

We boarded the ship and scooted our way through to the first bar we found, a light buzz from the flight still in effect. I talked briefly with a couple sitting on my left. I glimpsed a guy approaching Karen. She smiled and they started talking. He took hold of her shoulders. She just smiled some more.

“Hey man I’m Tim,” I said.

Karen’s new admirer smirked. “Right, I’m Ken. Karen and I were talking about good old Louisiana. I’m from there. She’s been there.”

Karen smiled sweetly. Ken bought her a couple shots of whiskey to keep her talking. “I need to get a pack of smokes,” Ken said. “You guys want to join me outside?”

“Why the hell not,” I said. I put my arm around Karen to guide her to the patio. Ken laughed and fell in behind us. He held out a pack of cigs. I took a couple calming breaths of fresh air before allowing Ken to light my smoke. “True southern hospitality,” he said.

“What do you do for work?” I asked Ken, then drifted off staring at the open ocean as we began to pull away from shore.

“Excuse us for a minute, Ken. I need to check in with my lady.”

I pulled Karen aside. “What is the deal with this douchebag?”

“He’s nice,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sounds fascinating. Hey, I’ve got to hit the restroom. Back in a minute.”

I splashed water on my face, caught my breath and returned. Karen and Ken from Louisiana were gone. We’d been on the ship not even two hours and I entertained the thought that I’d spending the next few days abroad and alone. I hunkered at the bar for the next few hours and ended the night in my cabin, the latter of my fears holding true.

I was not in the mood the celebrate the beauty of nature.

The next morning, I walked outside into the bright morning of Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Bright turquoise water ran into light sandy beaches, green foliage backing the sand with a forged shipwreck sitting beachside next to a large stage. It was the moment that we paid all that money for. But I was not in the mood to appreciate the beauty of nature. I was not ready to celebrate the ecstatic simplicity of the world in which we live.

The thought crossed my mind that something had happened. Maybe she had been kidnapped or hurt herself. I went back to the room, maybe she at least needed a change of clothes. As I exited the elevator I saw her at the far end of the hallway.

She made her way over, eyes glued to the floor. Her hair looked as though she’d just pulled her finger from an electric socket. Her face was bright red and on the brink of tears.

“I drank a little too much and woke up on the couch of a couple two floors above us,” she said.

I felt completely lost.

The concerts on the beach, the fruity cocktails, the volleyball, and the laughter were all in the way of where I needed to be — at home, sulking in my thoughts. To survive the rest of the trip, I had to write her off.

The most beautiful mistake I’ve ever made.

I taught myself to break away from the drama inside my head. I drank and reveled in the party atmosphere that surrounded me. Occasionally I passed by her on the deck or saw her dancing drunkenly to one of the bands, always bikini clad and surrounded by two or three men trying all too hard to catch her attention, no idea of the invisible stigma surrounding her magnificence.

At the airport, she sat to my right and rested her head on my shoulder. As we boarded the flight back to Denver I smiled at the ridiculousness of the situation. The airplane door closed behind us, along with a brief but unforgettably harrowing chapter of my life. I’d been played. So hard that I stared deception square in the face without catching hold of its evil smirk. I leaned to my right and softly kissed her forehead, breathing in her smell for the last time — an undying reminder of the most beautiful mistake I’ve ever made.

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