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  1. LIV January 2007. She knew the power of making an entrance. Oversized sunglasses, skewed beret, black cape coat, shopping bags in both hands. So Livi. That moment, standing at the door of the dark bar, the sun haloing her, said it all. The hostess looked up. “Oh, I’m just here for tea. You do serve tea at the bar of the Russian Tea Room?” “Yes, Madam. Please come in.” Liv entered, eyes feasting on every morsal: the lush red carpet, the dark green walls framed in glistening gold, swooping firebirds and shiny samovars adorning them. Leather stools lined the bar like bright cherry lollipops. Oh yes, this will do just fine. The restaurant just beyond the bar was dead, but its decadence gave it a pulse. A server wearing a double-breasted jacket with gold buttons whizzed through, setting up for dinner. Then the well dressed, gray-haired gentleman seated near the door of the bar caught her eye. He gave her a little salute. She passed him, her strides long and commanding, knowing his gaze would obediently follow. These were the moments of confidence she’d come to relish. An audience of one was plenty, and the bar had become her runway. Oversized shopping bags impeded any graceful positioning at the bar. She released them with a sigh and plopped down on the end stool. “Good afternoon,” the bartender said, sliding her a menu. She contemplated her choices, then glanced up, watching him wipe the bar; determination in his hand, pride in his face. The glint of her eyes caused his to avert. She smirked as he fumbled with his rag. “Jasmine tea, please,” she said, then began carefully organized her bags like prizes around her feet. “You got it,” he said, tossing the rag and catching it playfully. Liv placed her beret on the stool next to her, then peeled off long leather gloves. She noticed the man at the end still glancing over. Early-fifties, a city professional maybe. She couldn’t get a proper read on him, as if interference had disrupted the broadcast of his aura. But she was bursting to talk—about her day, about her vacation, about anything and everything—and didn’t care who exactly was on the receiving end. As soon as Liv’s mouth formed into a hello, the bartender returned with an ornate tea set. “How lovely, thank you. I’m Livi,” she said, steeling a glance in the mirror behind him, fixing her bangs. “Diego,” he said, with one last wipe of the bar. “How’s your New Year starting off?” “Well, it’s going to be a big year, Diego.” Liv jumped to fetch her gold notebook from her bag. She turned to the first page, creased it, then rattled off her grandiose goals in rapid fire, all the way to 12) Speak fluent French. “You know what, learn Chinese,” Diego advised. “It’s going to be the most important thing for the 21st Century.” She clicked her pen and immediately added it to her list. Diego leaned in. “You see that guy at the end of the bar? Don’t look yet. Nobody downs three martinis like that in the afternoon anymore.” “Well, let’s find out his story, shall we? I’ve been dying to!” Swiveling her stool towards suited man, she rested her elbow on the bar. “Bonjour Monsieur. Ça va?” Livi was in a French mood. “Well, Bonjour yourself.” He laughed. “You’re French, are you?” His pinkish face froze in amused anticipation. “Maybe a bit. I’m Livi.” A seed of exhilaration sprouted from her belly and bloomed across her face. He scooped up his martini and moved in, extending one hand. “Patrick.” Diego quickly exited the situation. “So, what are you doing here by your lonesome, Mister?” “I could ask the same of you, Frenchie. In between meetings. Will you join me for something stronger?” he said, a slight labor to his breath. “Sure, why not. I’m off today and still in holiday mode. Hey Diego,” Liv called down the bar, “I’ll also have a martini, straight-up, extra olives, s’il vous plait!” “So, Livi, what’s your story? A woman who randomly has afternoon tea at the Russian Tea Room?” “Why not? And I needed a shopping break.” She looked towards the opulent restaurant, eyes gravitating to the rich red leather banquets, the 24-carat ceiling. “God, it’s like we’re in a jewellery box.” “First time?” “Yep. But I’ve heard so much about this place. Did you know that apparently there are two genuine Picassos and one Chagall here, mixed in with reproductions? I guess the fakers are to throw prospective art thieves off the scent.” “I did know that, in fact. I come here quite a bit, Livi.” One martini turned into two. Before Liv knew it, she was showing Patrick her acquisitions. She pulled out a pair of tall rain-boots, boasting the sale price. “Oh Livi,” he clapped once, “I want to see you wear those in Venice!” She put them away carefully, the length of the box taking up two counter spaces. She turned back to Patrick. “So,” she said, her chin on her palm. “What’s this meeting you have to dash off to, Mystery Man?” He looked down as he swirled his martini. “Livi, you don’t want to know. It’s something big with the Italians. But you know what, I’m feeling pretty good about it.” He looked at her, half-smiling. “That’s all you need to know.” “Oh, I get it. Sopranos type stuff.” An ah-ha moment turbo-launched her. “Hey, are you in the market for a super discreet place? I’m selling mine on Park Avenue South. Doorman building, courtyard facing. Private elevator entrance, second door in the kitchen, fire-escape through the bedroom. Essentially three exits.” Liv knew three exits meant three escapes. “My son might be interested. Do you have a card?” “Yeah, but you’ll see I’m just a boring ol’ psychologist.” She handed him the card. It was only later, during a shimmer of insight, that she realised how stupid this was. “So, what are you doing next?” She tugged at his sleeve. “I have to exchange this ring at Dior, a Christmas present from my ex. Wanna come?” “Let’s get the check and be on our way then. Excuse me, Diego!” Liv smiled at him, twisting her hair with a finger as he snatched the leather folder from Diego, sliding a black Amex inside. Before leaving, he excused himself and had a private word with the hostess. She also asked for Liv’s business card on their way out. Patrick relieved Liv from a couple of bags and the fast-friends linked arms, stepping out to a bitter-cold 57th street. But Liv’s tingling skin wasn’t from the cold. The mystery man on her arm, the lights twinkling against shop fronts, against the dusk above them, sent an exhilaration coursing through her. If only there was a little snow to whirl with her racy energy, it would have been a perfect snow globe moment. “Gosh, this is the most magical city in the world at this time of year.” “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town.” Patrick sang. Liv grabbed his arm tighter and joined in, caring little for pitch. “The Bronx is up and the Battery's down.” Such laughter! They stumbled over a black snow mound as they crossed the street, bags bouncing around them as they rebounded then dodged a yellow cab. More laughter! Reaching Dior’s glass shopfront, decorated like an extravagantly wrapped Christmas present, they paused to catch their breath. Dior used to feel intimidating to Liv. Now she walked through its doors like she owned it. Liv released her bags next to a chair, then ran her gloved hand along a glass counter, its encased rings and necklaces sending a hit of dopamine to her brain. She wandered over to handbags, displayed like immaculate sculptures across an altar. To Liv, Dior was indeed a religious experience. “Ha! This reminds me of that movie, Arthur, you know, about the alcoholic millionaire.” She posed, holding a Lady Dior bag above her shoulder. “I’m Liza!” Their extravagant spectacle continued. Champagne appeared from the back. But Patrick’s phone kept ringing. He was late for his meeting. The night ended too soon—a dramatic air kiss, an awkward goodbye. Vivienne June 2005. The meeting was running over by 32 minutes. Viv fiddled with the lanyard around her neck, fingers trailing down to her work ID. She smoothed the pockets of air from the plastic holder and examined at her photo, the Medical School’s crest, her name: Dr. Vivienne Day, Research Scientist. More than a year after graduating, the sight of her title still sent a trickle through her. Sitting up straighter, she leaned in over the conference table and folded her hands. Viv felt the impatience in the room rise another degree. Dr. Win clicked to the last side, and an audible, simultaneous exhalation was released from her three colleagues. It was a correlational analysis Viv had run between patient medication adherence and perceived family social support. Dr. Win paused before talking her team through the findings, her pinched face even tighter. Viv couldn’t tell whether it signified distaste for her, or the scent of lox cream cheese that lingered in the air. “Last we have another significant finding from Dr. Day’s investigation.” Dr. Win said nothing more, stepping back as if to let the slide speak instead. She didn’t look at Viv once. Viv’s hand crept up, but morphed into a cheek scratch after a chest tingle arrived. Biting her thumb cuticle, she let the urge to share another observation come and go like a wave. “Dr. Malone, perhaps you could run an integrity check on these data?” Rachel, another ambitious research psychologist around Viv’s age, looked up upon hearing her name. “Of course.” Rachel shot Viv a knowing look, rolling her green, impeccably mascaraed eyes. Looking down, Viv pursed her lips to hide her smirk. Their salaries were both funded by Dr. Win’s grant. The Win-Win situation, as they called it, had brought them together. “Good.” Dr. Win stared down at her laptop, her jet-black bob haloed by the graph on the screen behind her. “Meeting concluded.” In her race to escape, Viv knocked open water bottle. “Shit,” she said as she recovered the bottle, then froze, looking at Dr. Win like a guilty teenager. But it was as if Viv had become invisible. “So… I’ll be in my office for a while if you need anything else.” Her voice seemed to drop an octave as she wiped the spill with some left-over H&H Bagel napkins. Viv stood to face her, twisting a napkin. Was Dr. Win about to say something? Instead, she silently unplugged her laptop, slipped it in her bag, and walked out. A cold prick of hurt replaced the warm pride that Viv felt moments before. Hot-faced, Viv fast-walked to her office, crunching the plastic water bottle like a stress ball. The Department of Epidemiology wasn’t on the Medical School campus, but in a historic hospital, their teaching site. The hallways felt dark and eerie, traced with incompatible scents of mold and disinfectant. Her windowless office could have once been a coat closet. But she didn’t care, it was hers. She could close the door, loose herself in her work. Engrossed in her data set, Viv heard that great laugh from down the hall. Rachel always seemed to brighten up that dull ward with her spunky personality. Soon, her petite frame appeared at her door, her blonde pixie hair and red lipstick perfect as always. “Knock, knock.” “Hey girl, good timing. I could use a distraction from this evil spreadsheet,” Viv said, staring at her screen as Rachel shut the office door behind her. “Oh. My. God.” Viv gave her a knowing look. “Win wouldn’t leave my office for a good hour after the meeting, going on and on about potential issues with my multiple regression, even though I checked it, like, 100 times.” “Yeah well, she stopped talking to me.” Viv pushed the mouse away, stretching her arms wide. “So I guess I don’t have that problem anymore.” “Oooh… that’s juicy. What happened?” Rachel said, bemused. “Not a clue. I even tried talking to her about it last week. Any observations?” “Afraid not. I’ve had my head too buried in this new grant to witness much of anything these days. She’s probably just intimidated by you.” Viv threw her head back with a ha! “That’s a good one. But thanks for the compliment.” “Did you snap at her? I mean, she does micromanage us out the wazoo.” Viv sighed. “I don’t think so. She can be a piece of work, but to think I was somehow disrespectful or rude is mortifying. She’s a research rockstar, but the woman kind of scares me.” Viv still held onto her first memory of Dr. Win from nearly a year ago; how she commanded the panel presentation, her brilliance revealing itself in slide after slide of sophisticated research design. “Well, you know I have your back. Power in numbers,” Rachel said, slapping Viv's hand on the way out. The Gazelle, Viv’s Pearl ET2 Vespa scooter, was parked in the rear lot, ready to help her bend time again. After shoving her bag and a few files in the back case, she straddled the seat, inserted the key and woke her girl up. Once her helmet was snapped into place, she swept long bangs from her eyes. Black leather gloves were slipped on last. With a good thrust of her body weight, she rocked her off the stand, slowly twisted the accelerator handle and smoothly hopped the curb. There was one guaranteed way to fling the day’s weight from her back: grip the handlebars tight, open the throttle, and ride hard. A deep exhalation always followed that first full twist of the handle. A physical freeing of her body’s tension.
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