Monday, 9 am - Emerson Arena
Madeline Mathews stopped pouring her coffee. She must have heard wrong. She had been driving since five am to make it to the kickoff meeting on time. A meeting she had to lead for an assignment she dreaded. Now was not the time for her mind to play tricks on her.
Nobody had called her “Maddie” since Jake. She made sure of it, telling co-workers and friends the nickname was too childish, more befitting a doll than legal counsel at Emerson Insurance, the country’s largest insurance company.
In her heart the name would always belong to Jake. Nobody could say it like him—deep and soft at the same time—and she didn’t want anyone to try. She was saving it for him, just in case he ever came back.
But that wouldn’t be today, she told herself, and definitely not here. Not in Trump country, USA, where her job for the week was to make sure nothing “went wrong” at the Trump rally hosted at the newly acquired and renovated Emerson Arena. The babysitting assignment was punishment for calling in sick the day after the 2016 election.
“It will be good for you, Mathews.” That’s what her boss had said. “You’ve got to put your job before your politics if you’re going to make it in the corporate world.”
“Make it” meant getting the promotion she deserved and would finally get if she survived the week.
“Maddie, is that you?”
Heat rushed through Madeline’s body, a familiar heat she thought she’d never feel again.
The voice was real, and it was Jake’s.
You don’t get many second chances in life, and Jake knew it. If you are lucky enough to get one, you have to grab it.
But grabbing wasn’t an option for Jake, at least not that morning in early May 2018, as his past walked into the conference room and made a beeline for the coffee. Madeline Mathews—Maddie, his Maddie.
He fell for her in law school. They sat next to each other in class, then the library, then late night study sessions wherever there was an open table and hot coffee. Jake had a good memory and a natural grasp for law, which let him get away with studying Maddie more than his assigned cases.
All first semester Jake waited for her guard to come down. Sure, they had inside jokes and long talks about justice and the Constitution, but he wanted more. Maddie had sworn off dating for the first year to focus on school. Jake didn’t want to mess up her plan. Just be patient, he told himself.
Then finals were over and he had to catch a flight home the next morning. He showed up at Maddie’s apartment with a six-pack of spiked lemonade, her drink of choice, and take-out Chinese food.
They spent the night discovering each other. Her body confirmed what he had hoped, that she wanted him, too. She’d been forcing down her feelings until they came rushing out that night. They were uncontrollable together—she was explosive and wild beyond his expectations. He had surprised himself, too, not by how much he wanted her, but by how much he needed her.
“How am I going to leave you?” he asked the next morning.
She stood at the door in an oversized t-shirt and nothing else.
“Don’t,” she said, a playful grin on her face as she pulled his shirt out of his pants and ran her fingers up his chest. They had already made love when they woke up and in the shower, and she seemed ready for more. After all, they had a year to make up for.
Jake moaned. “Maddie…I’m going to miss my flight.”
He was heading home for a summer at the District Attorney’s Office. Maddie was staying in the city to intern with an immigrant rights group.
“Okay then,” Maddie said, stepping back. “Just don’t make me wait too long.”
“You made me wait all year,” he said as he threw his bag over his shoulder.
“I would have flunked out…”
“Was it that good?” he asked, pulling Maddie close for a kiss.
Neither one expected it to be their last.
* * *
“Hey boss,” Clay said.
Jake shook hands with Clay, a retired electrician who managed the volunteer effort at the rallies. He was reliable and hard-working, an Obama voter who went for Trump in 2016. Like most political volunteers Jake met, Clay wore his views on his sleeve. Today it was a Trump 2020 windbreaker.
Politics had become a problem for Jake since 2016. He’d always been conservative, but before 2016 that was simply a point of view. Now it was toxic. The same people who blamed Trump for dividing the nation didn’t hesitate to cut Jake out of their lives. But Maddie knew him from before.
“Jake’s take” is what she called it in law school. He could tell from her face that she enjoyed the intellectual challenge to her liberal views. Call him Devil’s Advocate, but he loved to get her going. He’d watch her eyes narrow, the hint of a grin suppressed by her habit of biting her lip when deep in thought. They’d go back and forth, point for point, never agreeing but it didn’t matter. It was more fun to disagree, at least back then when the stakes weren’t so high.
If anyone could see the real him, it was Maddie. He had to connect with her now, before she discovered why he was there. He had to remind her of what they had, not what they lost.
Jake extended his neck to keep Maddie in sight. She had the corporate look, from her suit to her tied back hair. She wore it well, but it didn’t fit the woman he once knew.
“I’ll grab seats,” Clay said with a nod to the conference table.
Jake stepped towards Maddie, certain of one thing.
He wasn’t going to let her go again.
“Ready to start, Ms. Mathews?” a woman asked from across the room.
Madeline filled the rest of her cup with coffee and turned around.
Jake stood in front of her with an innocent smile, as if he hadn’t walked out of her life three years ago. He looked good, even better than in law school. He was muscular yet lean, a soccer body more than football. Not the body you’d see on the cover of a romance novel, but sexy just the same.
“Jake?” Madeline squinted, pretending he was a distant memory.
“Hi Maddie,” he said.
He seemed happy to see her. It didn’t make sense. He was the one who disappeared. After that night together he hadn’t returned her calls, emails or texts. She searched for an explanation—plane crash, car accident, lost phone. It was inconceivable that he could be so thoughtless, that what they shared meant nothing to him.
Madeline spent the summer stewing, rehearsing what to say when he came back to town. He had to come back, if not for her, then for the second year of law school.
But he didn’t, and that’s when she knew it was really over. Classmates asked where he was. Even the professors seemed sad to lose such a star student. Madeline had no answers for them. She checked with friends at other schools. None reported a handsome new second year in class.
Time passed, and his name was forgotten. Life went on, but Madeline was never the same.
I should be angry, she told herself, staring into her black coffee. Be angry.
“You two know each other?” asked a woman in her mid-thirties with a Cleopatra haircut and dark brown eyes to match. Her name was Yazmin, Yaz for short, and she was a legal assistant in Madeline’s department.
“We went to law school together,” Jake said.
“Kind of,” Madeline corrected him.
“Oh, wow. It’s a little reunion. Sweet.” Yaz leaned into Madeline’s ear and whispered, “Toni’s getting restless.”
Madeline followed Yaz’s eyes to the conference table, where a woman with oversized breasts and cake batter makeup sat with her arms crossed, one penciled eyebrow raised.
“Ready when you are…” the woman called out to Madeline.
Toni was Head of Operations for the arena, a holdover from the acquisition by Emerson. Madeline only knew Toni by her voice on conference calls, but the picture she had formed in her mind was spot on with the woman she saw before her now.
The rally was a victory for Toni. She had lobbied for months to book it, arguing it was the perfect opportunity to reintroduce the arena to the public. Madeline disagreed, and said so.
“Any association with Trump is bad for business,” Madeline said during one of their conference calls.
“These are his people,” Toni responded.
“I thought presidents worked for all of us,” Madeline shot back.
“Oh come on, I’m trying to help you out here. This event will put the arena on the map.”
Event. That’s what Toni had been calling it since she first pitched the idea. She never called it a rally. Rallies were undignified, unbecoming a sitting president.
Madeline wasn’t surprised her boss sided with Toni. He belonged to the “no publicity is bad publicity” school of business.
“You ready?” Yaz asked.
Not for this, Madeline thought, and she didn’t mean Toni.
“After you,” Jake said, stepping out of her path.
As she walked, she felt Jake’s eyes on her. She was suddenly thankful she had on a flattering suit and heels. Was she wearing makeup? She couldn’t remember.
Madeline took her place at the head of the table. About twenty faces stared back at her, waiting for her to begin. She had a job to do. She was a professional. She got her head back in the game.
“Thank you all for coming,” she started. “I apologize for any delay.” Madeline sipped her coffee and scanned a document Yaz handed her.
“It’s the agenda,” Toni said.
“I see introductions are first, so I’ll start. I’m Madeline Mathews, a member of the legal department at Emerson Insurance. I’m here to oversee the events we’re hosting this week, to help out any way I can. Yazmin works with me.”
“I’m not a lawyer,” Yaz clarified. “And you can call me Yaz.”
“I’m sorry, what’s that?” Clay asked, leaning in as if he hadn’t heard right.
“Yaz,” she repeated. “Y A Z, like jazz.”
Clay made a note of it and leaned back in his seat.
“I’ll go next,” Toni volunteered. “I’m Head of Operations. My team runs this place.” Toni introduced the faces to her right. Jake was absent from the lineup, which didn’t surprise Madeline. Jake was too good to be one of Toni’s minions.
But why was he here? If he didn’t work for the arena, then he was from one of the groups with an event that week. Madeline scanned the agenda. There were three events planned—the United Way on Tuesday, a concert by The Axes on Wednesday, and the Trump rally on Friday.
“We’d like to thank the United Way rep,” Toni smiled. “You’ve been a solid supporter of ours for years.”
“Well, it’s mutual,” said an older, distinguished lady in pearls and a cardigan. “And we hope it will continue.”
“That’s up to the new ownership,” Toni said with a glare at Madeline.
“I certainly hope so,” Madeline said.
That left the band rep. Was Jake in the music business? Was that why he disappeared? She’d never seen him with an instrument in law school, thank goodness. Jake strumming a guitar or playing the piano would have made him even more irresistible.
Madeline felt a kick under the table.
“The rep from The Axes is on the line,” Yaz said with wide eyes that screamed, Get it together, girl!
“Right,” Madeline said. “So, nobody is here from the band?” she asked, panic setting in.
“I’m here,” came a husky female voice from a speaker sitting on the table. “Where you been?”
“Sorry, I’ve been up since four.”
“That’s when my band went to bed,” the voice said with a laugh. “I’ll be on site tomorrow, checking things out. The setup team gets goin’ on Wednesday morning. Will they have access to the venue?”
The band rep and Toni went through the specifics. Madeline rested her hands on her lap and squeezed them tight. As soon as Toni finished Madeline asked, “Who is here from the Trump campaign?”
She was overeager, and it showed. The group looked at her with confusion.
“It’s the next event,” Madeline tried to explain. “On the list.” She pointed to the agenda.
They didn’t seem convinced.
“First I want to say something,” Toni announced, poking the air with a painted claw. “This event, it’s special for me. Never in all my years at this place did I think I’d be working an event for the President of the United States.” After a dramatic pause, she continued, “We are so honored that the President chose our venue for his event. You know, this place would have closed for good without him.”
Madeline knew she was right. The upswing in the economy was the only reason her company closed the deal.
“It’s just amazing, and historic,” Toni went on, beaming like a proud grandma. “Don’t you agree, Ms. Mathews?”
Madeline shifted in her seat. It was a setup. “Of course,” she said. “It’s a great arena, especially with the renovations.” Emerson had spent close to a million dollars updating the place, and Madeline didn’t want them to forget it.
“So then…who is the rep for the Trump team?” Madeline asked again.
“I am,” Jake said.
With that, a sheet of ice fell between them.
“Really?” Madeline blurted out before she could stop herself.
The group laughed awkwardly. Yaz kicked Madeline under the table again.
“And you’re right,” Jake said. “This is a great space. It’s beautiful.”
Beautiful…he stared directly at Madeline as he said it. She caught his stare but quickly looked down.
“We’re lucky we found it,” he said.
This is lucky? Madeline fumed. The only man she ever loved found her again and he’s on the Trump team? Madeline sat on her hands to contain her fury. She didn’t know which betrayal was worse—Jake dropping out of her life or taking up with Trump.
Toni handed out floor plans and resumed talking. Madeline didn’t care anymore. She just wanted the week over as soon as possible and Jake back where he belonged—in the past.