Chapter 22 - THE RING
In 2008 I needed physical therapy.
After my divorce in 1994, I’d taken up swing dancing. It was all fun and games until I tore my rotator cuff, and rather than have surgery, I’d opted for a year of physical therapy, which was longer than my insurance covered. Having inherited my dad’s frugality, I wanted to find a little extra money somewhere; it was time to sell a piece of jewelry I never wore. I went through my jewelry box and found Gramma Ruth’s old silver wedding ring with two bands of square-cut diamonds, fused long ago to form one double band. My grandmother had outlived three husbands and this was the ring from her first—my mother’s father—who had died in a car crash when my mom was fourteen.
When I was a teenager and Gramma Ruth’s knuckles had grown gnarled, she gave me the ring as if it were some rite of passage into the land of the married. Even if I’d liked this retro-nostalgia ring that hadn’t seen daylight in decades and may have been considered a pretty ring in the 1930s, it felt sad on my hand so I never wore it. Gramma Ruth was long gone and my mother wasn’t sentimental, so the ring sat in my drawer for years.
I found an appraiser in Culver City. Patrick was a five-foot-two-inch punk rocker who appraised jewelry to keep his band afloat. He had a banana in his drawer (not a euphemism) and I had a banana in my purse and I believed, of course, it was kismet when we both got hungry, and we both pulled out our bananas. We laughed and toasted our bananas. We joked around and I tried on the idea of him. His spiked hair gave him a couple more inches, but would I ever be able to wear heels? Not that I wore heels often, but these were things to consider. Plus, he was another musician. Gramma Ruth hadn’t had much luck with musicians (her first two husbands), and my family was filled with musicians in our family. My father was a musician. His mother was a singer. My uncle was a musician. My brothers are musicians. My mother had been a singer until a polyps diagnosis side-lined that dream. I’d already married and divorced a musician. Maybe it was time for a scientist or something.
I figured, keep an open mind with this short, funny, musician/appraiser. And flats are more comfortable than heels, anyway.
I learned about the 4 Cs. Cut, color, clarity, and carat, and that Gramma’s ring was not all that great, even though what I thought was silver was, in fact, platinum. Patrick and I flirted. He gave me the appraisal docs with photos and measurements and special seals of authenticity. We laughed some more, shook hands, and I never saw him again.
Saddened by the end of this not-happening love affair, I cheered myself up with thoughts of cash. Two grand? $1500?
I tried jewelry stores but was told it was “not a good time.” I tried consignment shops but again, “not a good time.”
Equally frustrated by the unfinished business of an unsold ring and the promises of lucre, I decided to unload it on Craigslist. I posted the photos, and a list of the stats lifted from the appraisal docs and would have been happy with $1500. Even $1200. But nothing. I heard from a few scammers, some of whom I responded to just to mess with them. I had used an email address that didn’t include any personal information, and I knew enough to not meet someone at night in an alley, so I figured why not kill time with scammers if they pulled the whole cashier’s check thing.
“Ooh, are you getting engaged?” I wrote, after getting an email from someone asking about the ring.
“How did you guys meet?”
“Friends.” Like chatting with a Russian spy. After not much meaningful back and forth, and then the Western Union ploy, I disengaged.
Months before, I’d gotten an email from the ubiquitous Nigerian prince who needed someone to do his U.S. banking for him, and could I possibly help him? I said it was possible but feigned an interruption from a kitty, and then responded, “By the way, do you have any pets?”
“I love cats. Do you like cats?”
“May I send you some pictures of my cat?”
“Are you sending bank information?”
“Oh yes. I want to help you, but look at Mr. Riggles.” I had no cat and pulled pictures from the internet.
This went on for about a month. I’d send him cat pictures and he’d request my bank information until I asked him to send me a picture of his cat. I guess he/she grew weary of the lack of funding, or didn’t have a cat, and stopped contacting me.
Without even a goodbye.
And now, with much less patience for the whole online process, and feeling vaguely lonely after these electronic exchanges with people I had pretended to care about, I got an email from a man named Dan.
“I’m interested in the ring. Can you tell me more about it?”
I was annoyed at first. Weren’t the photos and documents enough? My instincts told me he wasn’t a scammer, so I explained I’d posted most of the salient facts, but that I had appraisal documents if he was sincerely interested and needed additional information. It felt like a delicate balance between seeming too eager and simply presenting the goods and letting the buyer decide. Like cleavage. How much is too much? I didn’t mean to come off as distant, but he needed to know I’m not a pushover. Until I am, of course.
I got an immediate response and Dan explained he was getting engaged and all hope of a “meet cute" went out the window. I had had a vision of his wanting the ring for his mother or a sister or maybe simply for the diamonds. Like he was an entrepreneur. A hard worker. A go-getter. Probably handsome. However, now I felt disappointed for myself and for his fiancée if this was the ring she was going to get.
I asked if he’d like to see more of the paperwork and he said he was fine with the photos and stats and asked if we could meet. Any whiff of an alley at midnight and I’d say no. But I was open to a cafe or a diner. A walk on the beach. Then came another email:
“There’s a Ben Bridge in Torrance. It’s a jewelry store.”
I felt oddly excited to have such a strong and decisive man tell me where we should meet. Like Petruchio taking hold of Kate’s wrist. Yes. Take me. Yes. Ben Bridge. Yes. I reminded myself the man was soon to be engaged. Which didn’t stop my mind from wandering into the world of romantic fantasy. Not that I’m desperate—I prefer to think of myself as a good planner—but I once wore my diaphragm to Ralphs, in case I struck up a conversation with a nice man and we hit it off and decided to fly to Prague that evening.
“Ben Bridge. That sounds fine,” I wrote.
Then I added, “You’ll bring cash?” I didn’t want to be forced to reject him if he showed up with a check, which is one con away from a Western Union request. I knew some things. I had, however, some inkling I should be stronger in my negotiations; have a demand of my own. I wanted him to think I was bold and savvy asking my own questions.
He said he’d bring cash and we picked a time for the next day.
“How will I know you?” I asked.
“I’ll be wearing a red Members Only jacket.”
Okay, a Members Only jacket. I mean, that jacket was sort of uncool back when it was popular in the ‘80s, let alone now over twenty years later. Well, at least he admitted to it without irony. Maybe he was a simple and sincere type of guy. This would be a good challenge for me in acceptance. I was looking at my preconceptions and judgments and wondered: Could I love a man who wore a Members Only jacket? Ignoring, of course, the fact that the whole engagement aspect might impede our love affair. But then realized, the guy was probably sixty. Old jacket, old ring. Oh well.
But he didn’t seem old in his email. Based on what? I re-read our exchange for more clues but found nothing to indicate we were meant for one another.
I looked up Ben Bridge to confirm it existed (savvy me) and found the address on my Thomas Guide. This was simply a transaction for which I would be grateful, and so there was no need to dress up or put on makeup. I did both. If this did indeed turn out to be some kind of “meet-cute,” I wanted to look my best. I chose a light blue cotton dress that was belted at the waist. I buckled the straps on my platform shoes, the ones with the lower heel. I wanted a little height but not knowing how tall Dan was, I didn’t want to overwhelm him. Then subtle perfume. Pink gloss.
I took about seven freeways, at least it seemed that way but it was only six. The 101 to the 10 to the 110 to the 105 to the 405 to the 107 to left on Fashion Way to right on Hawthorne Boulevard. You can’t miss it.
I felt a surge of adrenaline when I spotted the Ben Bridge sign. I found my way to the parking lot, drove around, and found a space in the back where I felt less exposed. I checked my purse to confirm the ring and paperwork were still in place, put on a refresher of pink lip gloss, fluffed my hair, and took a deep breath.
It was hot out. A breeze pulled at my skirt and blew my hair into my lip gloss. I pulled it away, getting gunk on my finger which I rubbed into the palm of my other hand. I locked up my car and walked to the front of the building, casually looking around like it was simply a nice day in Torrance and I was going to a jewelry store. Both of which were true.
The front entrance was imposing. Marble tile on the exterior wall, and large glass doors which I could see led to a foyer. I didn’t see Dan anywhere out front so I pulled open one of the big glass doors and was hit in the face with cold air. The first person I saw was a young blonde woman sitting at a lectern. Like a hostess. I smiled at her but then looked past her and saw a red jacket. On a man. Whose back was to me. I looked back at the young woman.
“I’m meeting someone,” I told her, indicating the man in the red jacket. Like this was a fancy restaurant and I’d found my date.
I took a few steps closer to the man, so I wouldn’t have to raise my voice.
He turned around. He was handsome, clean-shaven, and had dark hair. He looked older than I’d expected and wasn’t too forthcoming with a smile or anything.
“You have the ring with you?” Like a drug deal. Or like I was a prostitute and there wasn’t going to be a lot of chatting, just getting down to the business at hand.
“Yes, I have the ring.” I felt hurt that he didn’t seem very chatty.
Pluses: Handsome; money to buy ring.
Minuses: Doesn’t think I’m smart enough to remember ring; is getting engaged.
Unknown: Sense of humor?
“Can you show me?” he said, with not an ounce of sexual undertone.
I pulled an old ring box out of my purse and opened it to reveal the ring. It was like I was proposing to him.
He took a step towards me and was close enough to touch the ring. But instead of touching it, he grabbed the box out of my hand, snapped it shut, and put it in his pocket. Then in one swift move he grabbed the wrist of my right hand and using his other hand he turned me around, bringing my right arm up behind my back. I wanted to scream.
In a panic, I looked at the blonde hostess.
“Help!!” I sort of yelled, torn between saving my life and making a scene. My eyes were all over the place and I looked back at her, pleading. “Call the police. Help me! Do something.” I probably sounded more like a kitten caught up in a tree, but I was terrified.
I tried again, looking right at the blonde girl, “Help. Stop him!”
She was impassive like this kind of abduction was a common occurrence at Ben Bridge; just another day in Torrance.
Meanwhile, Dan was roughly trotting me towards the front door and I made yet another panicked turn to anyone who might be in the store who would help me. I tried to dig in my heels which was hard while wearing platform shoes, and Dan was stronger than I was, by a lot. He pushed the door open with his foot and he kept pushing me until we were outside.
I looked for somewhere to run. I tried to pull away but he held me firmly in place. Plus my shoulder hurt.
Two men wearing black rushed towards me from both directions on the sidewalk and Dan passed me off to one of them, who grabbed my arm firmly. I panicked: this was some well-planned theft. First, the whole Ben Bridge ruse, and then I’d be dragging into some back alley I’d failed to notice. I wondered if they were going to kill me.
I was resistant to being taken anywhere and yelled at them to stop. I was louder this time as we were now outside.
“What are you doing?” I yelled at Dan.
I looked one last time at the blonde inside the store. I was pleading for help with my eyes but she looked as concerned as if she were thumbing through a new Sephora Catalog.
A third man in black approached.
I thought: this is where they throw me into a trunk somewhere. I was struggling but they weren’t actually taking me anywhere. Did they WANT this theft/abduction to happen on the sidewalk in front of Ben Bridge? In front of everyone?
The third man said, “Her vehicle is clear. It appears she came alone.”
The men, I realized, were cops. Or FBI or SWAT or something. My adrenaline was surging. I could feel I was being held firmly in place, and I no longer feared for my actual life. But something very weird was happening and I didn’t like it.
Dan accepted I’d come alone and turned to me.
“You have the paperwork?”
“Can I reach into my purse?” It was a small purse but I didn’t want him to think I had a gun tucked away, wrapped in a hankie. I’d seen TV shows.
He nodded yes.
I pulled out the folded paperwork I’d gotten from Patrick the gem guy, and handed the pages to Dan.
“Where did you get this ring?” His voice was low but firm.
“It was my Gramma’s. I told you in the email.”
“Can we confirm that?”
“No. She’s dead. But you can call my mom.” I realized with a strange relief that it was after 2p so she’d probably be awake.
“Why?” I said. “What do you want? What’s going on?”
“Ma’am.” That’s how it starts with law enforcement, with a ‘ma’am.’ “We believe you are in possession of stolen goods.”
“What?? No! Call my mom.” Which sounded pathetic—I was a grown woman. He nodded in Number Three’s direction who got my mom’s number from me. He turned away and made the call on a big black mobile phone.
Dan waved to another SWAT guy type who was lingering towards the parking area who then led a tall woman with stringy hair past us and into Ben Bridge. Dan followed, taking the ring and paperwork with him.
Number One had let go of my arm because at this point I was triangulated by guys in black and wasn’t going anywhere. Number Three turned and said to Number Two. “No answer at the number given by the suspect.” As if this was being documented for some legal case in the future.
“Call her again,” I said. “Sometimes she doesn’t like to answer the phone.” Well, that sounded pretty stupid. Probably not the time to go into the whole bourbon and Velveeta grilled cheese routine she had going after the house was quiet and she could finally be alone.
“Did you get the machine? Leave her a message.” I was worried about being too bossy with these guys. They ignored me.
Then came the anxious standing around while the SWAT guys or whatever they were, looked anywhere but actually at me. I expected them to talk into their wrists at any moment. My adrenaline was still surging and I felt damp in my armpits and wondered if the blue dress showed sweat and then remembered Dan was a cop and probably didn’t care about my blue dress. Or my armpits. I was embarrassed and deflated. My feet hurt in the platform shoes. There was still a soft breeze and now a few clouds were puffing about. A lovely day if you could overlook the whole take-down aspect.
I looked at the guys. “What is going on? This is crazy.” But they didn’t seem at liberty to explain.
Dan re-emerged with the ring and the paperwork. I tried again.
“What is going on?”
“A woman reported a theft and we keep an eye on Craigslist. Your ring was a near-perfect match.” The tall woman was escorted out by what I guessed was an undercover guy, who must have been embedded in the jewelry store jewelry in case what? In case I made a run for it back into the store?
“Here.” Dan handed me the ring and the paperwork.
The guys in black relaxed, meaning they exhaled, and then dispersed leaving me with Dan.
“I guess this means you’re not going to buy the ring?” I said, going for the laugh, instead of expressing the outrage I probably should have been feeling. But I was disappointed that not only was Dan not going to be my new boyfriend, but I’d have to go back home with this stupid ring. And try again.
“We’re sorry but it was the only way we could confirm you weren’t part of a jewelry-fencing operation.”
“Yeah, I’m very scary.”
He sort of smiled.
“So I just go now?” I asked.
“Yes. You’re free to go.”
I stumbled as I turned, after being immobilized for a half-hour on the sidewalk. But I managed to keep walking until I got to the back of the store and went to my car. I looked around for a van or something, “Ron’s Flowers” where the SWAT guys were now reconvening, guzzling water, and recuperating after a big stake-out. But there was nothing. No one.
I got into my car. Cried a little, felt stupid, and drove home.
Later that day, Dan sent me an email, again explaining the situation and apologizing. I asked him if he was really getting engaged.
“Married eighteen years, got two boys.”
I had no further contact from Dan.
But a couple of months later I emailed him.
“Hey, I’m selling a desk lamp on Craigslist. Can you maybe not send the SWAT team?”
He wrote back, “Noted.”
(C) Nikki Nash - Collateral Stardust