Covering They Neighbor
Preston, Julian & Alyssa
The weather was pleasant and a balmy eighty-five degrees the day Alyssa Pendleton graduated from undergrad. While parents lined up to watch the festivities with their cameras and applause, one corner of the front row (because of course they scored the front row) was occupied by a contingent of people who would rather be anywhere else.
All right, so maybe that was just Preston Bradley, who had come on behest of his business partner Julian Marcus. Julian also happened to be the fair Alyssa’s boyfriend of a little over a year. The only people to separate him from the best seat in the house were Alyssa’s parents, who were thrilled to discover that they magically scored the winning tickets in the seating lottery. A wheel that Julian had absolutely greased, and wasn’t afraid to brag about to Preston. Humble-brag, I should say. “Oh, Preston, you’ll have noooo idea how easy it was to scooooore those tickets! Just made my assistant Vern make a VERY NICE CALL to the president of the university! Woo-ee!”
Preston held in a yawn during the guest speaker. The press was in attendance, a bigshot photographer from the biggest newspaper in the state only a few feet away from the stage – and much too close for Preston’s comfort. The man could catch him yawning at any moment, and that would ruin the shots of Julian Marcus in a polo shirt, oh my God looking proudly up at his girlfriend as she shook hands with the president and received her diploma. Julian would never let his business partner live it down. Nope. He had to be a good boy for three hours.
Three. Grueling. Hours.
The man originally had other plans that weekend. His latest lover, a woman with legs that went on for days, had mentioned how much she wanted to visit Trinidad, the home of her mother’s ancestors. Preston had the plane fueled and the lodging arrangements made, but said lover decided at the last minute – as in Friday-last-minute – to go back to her ex-boyfriend who barely had $200 to his name. Preston had the sinking feeling that she was pregnant, but hey, he wasn’t going to judge her for it!
Too bad being dumped had depressed him. He offered the weekend in Trinidad to one of his employees who had been stressed to hell and back. The man would be more than happy to take his wife on a second honeymoon while a nanny looked after their kids. It was the least Preston could do… but damnit, what made Julian think he should spend his Sunday at a college graduation ceremony? Sure, Preston liked Alyssa just fine these days, but he wasn’t invested in her academic career to the point he wanted a front-row seat in eighty-five-degree heat.
Or, perhaps, he was afraid of bumping into a certain someone.
Preston had the worst habit of dating women young enough to be in college (that included grad school, thank you.) For a man now pushing his mid-thirties, that was becoming stranger with every passing year. Even so, that meant he had left a trail of exes all over Portland and beyond, most of them crawling around events like this one. Every so often, he glanced around to make sure one of his exes from the past three years wasn’t shooting daggers from her eyes. Nope. Just a bunch of middle-aged moms, most of whom had no problem flashing him pretty grins and fluffing their hair when they caught him looking at them. Sometimes their husbands sent the death glares, though.
Let’s see… Olivia went to this school… so did Melissa… fuck, did Pam go to this school? Pam was crazy. Crazy enough to try lighting Preston’s hedges on fire.
He almost missed Alyssa’s name called out and the woman of the hour, bedecked in a black robe and cap, crossing the platform to claim her well-earned degree. Only reason Preston didn’t miss it was because Julian leaped up and clapped as if this were a fundraising dinner, and the main donor just plunked down his life savings.
“That’s my baby!” Alyssa’s mother turned around in her seat, pointing emphatically at her daughter. “She did that!”
“Congrats!” came a chorus of excited parents.
Preston joined in with the applause while the photographer got some extra shots of Alyssa and the president shaking hands. She soon walked off the platform and sat back in her seat, and the next graduate was called.
Was it over? Please let it be over…
“Hawaii,” Alyssa excitedly said, when a friend asked what she was doing with the rest of her month. “Julian is taking me to Hawaii in celebration of my graduation.” She squeezed her boyfriend’s hand, her tassel tossing about on her cap as she shook in excitement.
“It’s the least I could do.” Julian held her closer to him. The graduation robes made it even clearer how much of an age difference they had. God, is that what I look like when I go out with college girls? Barf. Julian looked old enough to be his girlfriend’s hip, young uncle. Well! He had been old enough to be her boss a year ago! “She has worked so hard, and she’ll be working even harder when she goes to business school in the fall. She should relax this summer.”
“You’re sooo lucky, Alyssa!” the friend cried. “I wanna go to Hawaii with my boyfriend, but he doesn’t have a job yet…”
Preston almost jokingly invited the boy – who was not even in attendance – to apply for a job at Bradley & Marcus. Whatever he did, from janitorial to software developing, there must have been something available. They always lost employees at the start of summer. It was when everyone bailed on Portland, ironically. Not the rainy season, but the warm, dry summers!
“Well…” Preston slapped his hand on Julian’s arm and grinned in Alyssa’s direction. The amicable young lady smiled back at him, and for a moment, he almost forgot why he wanted to leave so quickly. “I’ve got to get going. Have a few things to take care of before the party tonight.” Julian was throwing a veritable soiree that evening for his illustrious girlfriend. Of course, Preston would go. What else would he do? Go to Trinidad by himself? “Congrats, Alyssa. I hope your whole day is amazing.”
She insisted on a quick hug and two kisses to the cheek, both of which Preston indulged under the heavy scrutiny of his possessive business partner. After Alyssa returned to Julian’s side, Preston had his out.
He was content to amble to the first empty street and summon his driver to take him home for a few hours, yet since he was in no hurry, Preston weaved between happy parents, children, and the air of a world where hope was the future and the future was imminent.
He remembered the day he graduated with his bachelor’s. Had it really been ten years ago? More than ten years? His parents and sisters had been there, screaming louder than Julian knew how to clap. His grandmother, God rest her, was in her wheelchair while a nurse asked her to please not climb up on the stage because she thought the commencement speaker looked like Paul McCartney.
His girlfriend, the love of his life, had been there.
But like most college relationships, it had fallen apart by the time they went to different grad schools. Today? Ursula Lennox was married with two kids. Preston knew, because they had a mutual friend he hounded for information every so often. He knew they would never get together again – but he was invested in her happiness.
He was halfway across the grounds when he caught sight of the one person he forgot to ask to stay away.
At first, he wasn’t sure he recognized Cher Lieberman, the employee he dated until she revealed she was only with him to get his money – any way she could.
It wasn’t enough for him to spoil her or give her allowances. She wanted as much as she could get, and she would sue him for it. To be fair, Preston had walked into the situation when he dated an employee. Most courts would have sided with her if she could prove he had coerced her in any way. I swear to God I didn’t, but I was dumb. I’m never as lucky as Julian.
Cher held his gaze for two seconds before turning around and hugging a woman in a graduation gown. A man – much, much older than her – in a linen suit approached and gave her a kiss to the lips. The possessive way he put his arm around Cher told Preston that she had moved on to a new victim, like a viper striking from her nest.
“Good luck, buddy.” Preston texted his driver and waited for him by the side of a street. It wasn’t until a second later, when the black sedan rounded the corner, that he realized he hated to be leaving the festivities alone.
Maybe, one day…
He had to get out of there. Going to Alyssa’s party would be bad enough, especially since he didn’t have a date. Would it be uncouth to hire an escort to take? Yes. It would. So he wouldn’t.
He’d be alone at the party. He’d have to be okay with it.
Still, would it be too much to ask to feel good about it? Preston wasn’t looking for a wife, necessarily. But a long, stable relationship would be nice for a change.
The door shut behind him. AC greeted him in the car. Why didn’t it feel good?