Tell Laura I Love Her


Russell Hatler and Brooke Monroe

Laura Montaigne was the best goddamned certified real estate appraiser in Durham, North Carolina. For the past five years she’d worked for herself out of an office near the Southpoint Mall. Laura was thirty-seven years of age, single, sexually liberated, and proud of it. And she was a 3.5 tennis player, closing in on 4.0. Laura played tennis with her partner, Jacqueline Winston, three times per week, come rain or come shine. When it rained, the pair played on an indoor surface down the street in Chapel Hill.

Laura spent at least one weekend a month at the beach, usually in South Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She owned a membership in a timeshare with footpath access to the Atlantic Ocean. The timeshare was part of a much larger association of timeshares so if Laura wanted to spend time in for instance, Las Vegas, she could use her points there.

Laura was also a big fan of theater. She had an annual subscription to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). DPAC plays host to several off-Broadway plays during the year. Laura was partial to musicals. She was particularly fond of Steven Sondheim plays.

Jackie and Laura had been best friends ever since Laura moved to Durham from Western North Carolina twenty years ago. Laura grew up in EarthFirst, an unincorporated, ecologically oriented community near Asheville. EarthFirst was dedicated to restoring the planet to its original pristine state. Laura left her EarthFirst chums and neighbors when she was awarded a four-year, academic scholarship to attend Duke University. She initially majored in philosophy but soon learned that there ain’t no money in philosophy, so she switched her major to business.

Jackie, for her part, grew up surfing with the boys. Her parents, both deceased several years back, had been professors at UNCW in Wilmington. Jackie spent all her spare time near the ocean. When she was in high school, she volunteered to help out at the Sea Turtle Sanctuary in Topsail Beach, caring for loggerhead sea turtles during nesting season. The experience convinced her that she did not want to become a Marine Biologist. Although it’s not politically correct to disrespect sea turtles, they’re incredibly stupid creatures. They’re afraid of everything. They can’t even retract their heads and flippers into their shells like normal turtles. On the other hand, they’ve been around for a hundred and ten million years so they must be doing something right.

During Laura’s freshman year, she and Jackie both enrolled in a class titled The Basis for Morality. The instructor was a randy grad student named Oscar Dolittle. The irony of the title was not lost on either student. The girls frequently hummed the theme to the Oscar Meyer Weiner commercial before class commenced. The entire class enjoyed the joke. Oscar did not. Both girls received ‘D’s for the course despite never having scored less than ninety-five on a test. Oscar said they flunked their orals. The girls protested that they’d never been given orals. Oscar replied that’s precisely my point.

These days Jackie and Laura were members of the Durham Demolishers, a mixed gender team that competed around the state in tournaments. The others on the team were: Marty Sharp, a network security analyst; Dennis Rackham, a systems programmer at IBM; Donna Davenport, a paralegal and Barbara Letterman, a housewife and stay-at-home mom who lived in Apex.

So far this year the team was six and one in tournament play. The only tournament they lost was played the weekend Donna came down with the flu and her husband, Teddy, took her place. Teddy imagined himself a 3.5. He wasn’t. At least it wasn’t the Covid. Donna was back in action the next weekend, much to the other team members’ relief.

Jackie owned her own Interior Design business, Winston Associates. Over the years, she’d handled her share of unwelcome attention from frisky husbands who had designs of their own on Jackie’s slender, athletic frame. Thus far she’d managed to keep their testosterone-driven wiles at bay while she milked their wives’ checkbooks. She enjoyed the harmless, flirtatious game. So far, she was up six Love.

Laura’s phone rang. It was Jackie.

“Hey, Mountain Girl,” said Jackie. “You ready for Hickory?”

“Hey, Beaches,” replied Laura. “Got the Beamer gassed up and ready to rock and roll. How’s the magical world of Bespoke Bullshit? You planning to drop by High Point on the way home?”

“Actually, I’ve always wanted to visit Grandfather Mountain,” said Jackie. “I can’t believe I’ve lived in North Carolina almost forty years and never had the pleasure. You been there?”

“Asheville isn’t that far from Linville,” said Laura. “We used to go there every summer. The view from the Blue Ridge Parkway is spectacular. And the swinging bridge is scary as hell. Speaking of swinging, how’s Marlon?”

“Marlon didn’t make the cut. Gary’s still on the roster, though. I need to hook you up one of these nights. Gary’s got a roommate.”

“I’ll take a pass if you don’t mind,” laughed Laura. “Your hunky jock, Tony, didn’t work out. A tad too touchy, feely for my taste. He was a good kisser, though. I give him full marks for tongue technique.”

“Maybe you sent him packing before he got down to the good parts,” said Jackie. “Just saying. Sometimes I think you expect way too much from a guy. They are the weaker gender, you know.”

“See you at the VRBO Thursday night,” said Laura. “Gotta dash. I’m doing an appraisal in Wake Forest at noon. Keep in touch.”

Laura had worked as a real estate appraiser for fifteen years, shortly after she’d graduated from Duke. At first, she was an inhouse appraiser for a mortgage broker, but five years ago she bit the bullet and branched out on her own. The money was good, and she was her own boss. She could do comps from her office but in order to perform a room-to-room inspection she had to visit the property. A typical on-site appraisal usually took two or three hours. Before she left home that Thursday morning, she’d packed an overnight bag and her tennis gear and stowed them in the trunk of her Melbourne Red Metallic 2018 BMW 320i. No sense going back to her place to change clothes. What she had on was comfortable enough for the three-hour drive to Hickory.

Barbara Letterman was responsible for keeping track of details regarding the team members’ participation in the tournament. She’d sent out a group text on Tuesday. Laura and Jackie were competing in the 7.0 women’s doubles. They were also competing individually in women’s singles: Jackie in the 3.5 while Laura was playing up in the 4.0. Both Marty and Dennis were playing 3.5 men’s singles. Dennis and Donna were teamed up in 7.0 mixed doubles. Everybody but Marty had matches scheduled for Friday, so they had to be in Hickory by Thursday evening at the latest. Marty was driving down Friday afternoon.

Individual matches were scheduled for morning, afternoon, and evening play, depending on the draw. It was all very complicated but that’s one of the reasons Laura loved tournament play. She and Jackie were scheduled to play their first women’s doubles match on Friday morning at 10:00 am. Jackie had her first singles match at 1:30 and Laura’s first singles match was set to kick off around 5:30 Friday evening, depending of course on how the preceding matches went. Matches could last anywhere from forty-five minutes to as much as an hour and a half. You practically needed a mainframe computer to keep track of who was playing whom and when.

Doubles championship matches were played on Saturday, singles semifinal and championship matches were played on Sunday. It was a fact of life that not everybody hung around for the Sunday championship matches. Some people had a life outside tennis.

Barbara was treasurer for the team as well. She collected money from each member to cover out-of-pocket costs for the weekend trips when the tournaments were held out of town (lodging, shared meals and snacks, tournament fees if any). She also handled logistics for the trips. Her husband, Bruce, liked it that way. He wanted to make sure Barbara didn’t book a place where she had to share a room. Not that Bruce didn’t trust Barbara, but he had rules. For example, Barbara wasn’t allowed to play doubles with an unmarried man as her partner. Married men were okay. Bruce figured their wives would put a stop to any hanky-panky, but you flat out couldn’t trust men who weren’t married. Bruce knew. He’d been an unmarried man himself.

For this weekend trip Barbara had booked a house through VRBO. The house was right on Lake Hickory. It was a six bedroom, five bath, 4900 square foot mini mansion that rented for $675 a night and slept fourteen people comfortably. Or six people if each guest wanted their own room. Seven if a spouse came along. Teddy came along with Donna sometimes. Bruce never came with Barbara. He trusted her to do the right thing. Marty was divorced and Bruce suspected Dennis was gay. In fact, if Barbara wanted Dennis to be her mixed doubles partner that was fine with Bruce. After all it was the twenty-first century.

What Bruce didn’t know was that Marty had been hitting on Barbara for years, even before his divorce was final. Barbara didn’t mind. She liked the extra-curricular attention. Things never got out of hand and even if they did Marty had had a vasectomy. Barbara always made sure Marty’s room was right down the hall from hers. Just in case.

Laura got to the VRBO house at 6:07. Her BMW GPS plotted a precise course based on the address Barbara had texted her. Laura never ceased to be amazed by those devices. How could anybody know where everything was? It was a miracle. Barbara was waiting on the porch.

“Hey, you, how was the trip?” asked Barbara, getting up and giving Laura a hug.

“Uneventful, thanks to your explicit instructions,” said Laura. “I didn’t think the Wake Forest appraisal was ever going to end. The owner was late getting there, and the building inspector never did show up. I can get his report later. How are Bruce and the girls?”

“You know teenagers,” said Barbara. “Thank God they can take care of themselves. Bruce is never around since they made him a senior partner in the law firm.”

“Anybody else here yet?”

“Nope, just us chickens. Let’s go inside. I’ll show you your room.”

Barbara allocated sleeping spaces. The team had an unwritten rule. If anybody had a problem with the room they were assigned it was best left unspoken, lest the discontented member be nominated to allocate the rooms the next time. Barbara was always fair though. The best rooms were never doled out to the same parties twice in a row. Laura had a broom closet the last time they were in Charlotte. She got the master suite this time.

“Nice place!” said Laura. “Must’ve cost an arm and a leg!”

“Your share is a little over $300 for the weekend,” replied Barbara. “You can’t even get a Motel Six in the Triangle for a hundred bucks a night. Come on out back. Let me show you the hot tub. Hope you packed your swimsuit.”

“Sure damn did,” said Laura, following Barbara through the kitchen. “I got the memo. And I love hot tubs!”

Dennis was next to arrive, followed shortly by Jackie, with Donna lagging close behind.

“I ordered us three large pizzas for dinner,” said Barbara when they’d all assembled in the living room. “They should be here in fifteen minutes. That’ll give you time to unpack your things. Marty won’t be here till tomorrow afternoon. His loss.”

There was a large picnic table on the lawn behind the house. They all sat around the table munching on pizza. Napkins and paper plates, no forks.

“Good idea,” said Jackie between mouthfuls. “This pizza is delish.”

“I don’t know how you do it, Barbara,” said Dennis. “You always plan the perfect weekend.”

“It’s a gift,” smiled Barbara. “But the real gift is being allowed to spend my weekend with you guys instead of officiating an ongoing grudge match between a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. Contrary to popular opinion, daughters are not sugar and spice and everything nice. Sometimes they’re two-parts unrestrained emotion and one-part pure evil.”

“If you guys don’t mind, I’m gonna pass on the hot tub tonight,” said Laura after the pizza was gone and the paper plates cleared. “Jackie and I have an early doubles match tomorrow morning. We’ll need time to warm up before. That means I have to set my alarm for 6:00. Jackie, I’ll knock on your door at 7:00. My suite has its own walk-in shower and a bidet. Eat your hearts out. Night all.”

Laura and Jackie won their doubles match two and three. The entire match, including warmup, only lasted fifty-three-minutes. Jackie didn’t even break a sweat.

“Piece of cake,” grinned Jackie. “Let’s get lunch. I’m starved.”

Laura watched Jackie lose her singles match to a woman from Charlotte who, in Laura’s opinion, should have been ranked much higher, 7:6(3) 6:4.

“I think I ran into a buzz saw,” panted Jackie after shaking hands with the winner. “I need a nap.”

Laura whipped her opponent from Charlotte soundly in straight sets, four and three.

“Let’s go hop in the hot tub,” said Laura. “All told we’re dead even with the team from Charlotte.”

“I need food first,” whined Jackie. “It’s almost 7:30 and I’m famished.”

By the time they got back to the house it was 8:15. Barbara and Marty were sitting on the front porch, drinking wine.

“Dennis and Donna went to watch the Hickory Crawdads play the Asheville Tourists,” said Marty. “They’re both high-A minor league teams. Grab a couple wine glasses and join us. We were just doing a taste test on the Biltmore Estate’s best Chardonnay. I picked up a chilled bottle at the Food Lion in Hickory before I got to the house. Yummy.”

“I’ll accept your kind offer of a glass of Chardonnay but only if I’m allowed to drink it in the hot tub,” said Laura. “I’m all sweaty. I need to change into my bathing suit and relax.”

“I’m with Laura,” said Jackie. “I’ve already washed out of the tournament. I need to drown my sorrows.”

“Don’t forget the women’s 7.0 doubles championship at noon tomorrow,” said Laura. “We’re still in the running!”

“You girls take the bottle,” said Barbara with a smile. “Marty and I will sit out here for a while longer. It’s such a lovely evening.”

Laura and Jackie went to their rooms and changed. They met in the kitchen, fetched wine glasses from the cabinet and scampered out to the terrace where the hot tub was bubbling away. Barbara had warmed up the water in the hot tub. The temperature was perfect. They poured their glasses full of Chardonnay and stepped in.

“God this is great,” sighed Laura, taking a sip of her wine. “I remember staying at the Biltmore Estate when I was a teenager. They hosted these ecological conferences every summer. My cousin, Jennifer, and I tagged along when we were thirteen. It was all very impressive. We were too young to drink wine, but the adults drank enough for all of us. It was a hoot.”

“My parents were wine snobs,” said Jackie, savoring her wine. “They refused to drink domestic wines. Not even wines from California. Mostly French but on occasion they would uncork a bottle of vintage Chianti.”

“What did your folks teach?” asked Laura. “I know they were both professors, but I don’t think you ever told me their specialties.”

“Mom had her PhD in classical literature,” said Jackie. “Her specialty was the Renaissance period. Petrarch, Boccaccio, those guys. Dad taught music theory at UNCW. He tutored budding young pianists on the side. Some of them were more budding than others.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Laura, taking another swig of wine. “This stuff is really tasty.”

“Mom caught him with his pants down one afternoon,” said Jackie. “His student was only seventeen. Things were tense there for a while, but they eventually got past it. Or at least they pretended to.”

“At least you knew who your Dad was,” sniffed Laura, taking a gulp of wine and pouring another glass. “That’s more than I can say.”

“Come on, Mountain Girl,” said Jackie, taking hold of Laura’s free hand. “I thought you said you grew up in a commune. Everybody was one big happy family.”

“That’s what I thought too,” said Laura softly. “Until the weekend at the Biltmore. Remember I told you about my cousin, Jennifer? Everybody always said we looked like sisters. Turns out her dad, my uncle Vern, had been sleeping with my mom and her mom both at the same time. Cedric, my dad, knew about it but he said it was all harmless fun. Mom and Aunt Fern were sisters, so it wasn’t exactly incest. But I’d say it was pretty fucked up. Not knowing who your real dad was, I mean. And the worst part was, everybody in EarthFirst knew about it but me.”

“Jesus, sweetheart!” said Jackie. “No wonder you have trust issues.”

“What do you mean?” asked Laura defensively, drawing back her hand. “Who says I have trust issues?”

“That’s what Tony told Gary,” said Jackie, taking hold of Laura’s hand again. “Jesus Christ, don’t shoot the messenger.”

“Sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to bristle,” said Laura, kissing Jackie on the cheek and getting up. “Maybe I do have trust issues after all. I’m going to bed. Love you, Beaches. See you in the morning.”

Just past midnight Laura felt the bedsprings jiggle. Then Jackie snuggled up next to her and began fumbling with the string on her pajama bottoms. Laura snapped on the light and turned to face Jackie.

“I don’t do girls,” Laura hissed. “Get the fuck out of my bed.”

“I thought you said,” began Jackie. Then she slipped out of Laura’s bed and walked slowly back to her own room.

The next morning Jackie was subdued at breakfast. Laura, on the other hand, was raring to go.

“Let’s go kick some tennis ass, Beaches!” crowed Laura. “We got this thing!”

They didn’t got this thing. Jackie played a lackluster game. Consequently, the girls lost in a third set tiebreaker 10:7.

“I’m off to Grandfather Mountain,” said Jackie apologetically. “Sorry I fucked up. See you back at the ranch.”

Laura won her singles match handily and was into the semifinals for Sunday. She slept like a baby. On Sunday she whipped her semifinals opponent and breezed into the championship, winning the match three and four. Marty approached her after the match.

“Did you hear about Jackie?” he asked. “She ran her car off the road on her way home from Grandfather Mountain. She died in the wreck.”

Laura checked her phone. She had a message from Jackie. It was a group text to the team.

Tell Laura I love her