“We have plenty of time,” reassures Mariah. She smooths a strand of my flyaway hair as I purse my lips in the mirror. I toss the lipstick on the dresser and push my sister’s long fingers from my head. I grab her arm as strong as I can and pull her out of the room towards the car. She drops me off at the pier 15 minutes later.
2 hours later.
She is the kind of woman who is wearing a little, lacy, black thong underneath that royal purple pencil dress which displays her cleavage like two eggs, sunny side up-his favorite. I am the kind of woman who instantly regrets my decision to come onto the boat in boring cotton panties. I stare at her, take in her curves and her sparkling smile. His arms, clothed in a grey suit jacket, wrapped around her waist. She’s leaned up against him. And me? Well, I’m throwing my head back, guzzling another flute of champagne while careening in heels half a size too big for me, stolen from Mariah’s closet. The waiter smiles at me, the kind of pitiful smile I deserve. I slam the plastic cup down on his silver tray and take another one. She’s laughing. It’s melodic. I want to be in her presence. Shame covers my face in a beet colored blush. “Slow down,” whispers Angie. She steps close to me, the scent of her lemon lotion a comfort in these trying times. I feel the cool metal of her earring against my cheek as she waves the waiter on. She grabs my hand, giving me an anchor in the ocean. Angie leads me over to the buffet table.
Lake Decatur is technically a reservoir. Its huge shores hold in all of its water like a filled wine goblet. Every year, Johnson Hospitality hosts an end of summer bash. Every year it’s on a large boat. Every year, in the cold embrace of Lake Decatur. I work for Foster Inn and Suites, a large hotel located in downtown Decatur. The summer months keep us busy as students return home from college. Mariah and I were drawn to the beach by seagull’s cries and laughter as children, building sand castles before burying one another in hot, sticky sand. She was the first person I called when the invitation came, for the first time last year,-embossed with a fancy wax seal. Thirty minutes later, I was a nervous wreck in a black dress half a size too small. I feel my heart shatter at the memory of our first night together. In my mind, he is sauntering up to me, alone at my table. I took his hand, bashful that I had done something to garner the attention of a man who looked like he walked out of a James Bond film. He spun me around in circles that night. He took me home that night. I blink back tears at the memory. The humidity causes the cold to penetrate through my cashmere sweater; I stuff shrimp down my throat and toss their tails on the red tablecloth, not the trash can provided.
“Ash,” begins Angie as she scoops my sins into the proper disposal unit. She pulls me away from the buffet table, reevaluating her choice to bring me to this area. More plastic smiles on plastic people, dressed up for one night, pass us and the faces blur around me like I’m stuck on some sick carnival ride. I can hear faint pop/rock music from the early 2000s blaring from the front of the ship. I spin 180 degrees and stare at the now small figures clustered away from us. I can hear Ivan’s laugh. I fell in love with his laugh first. It’s a guffaw, not a chuckle. It’s the kind of laugh that fills a room and draws all eyes to it. She’s leaning into him. I bet he smells like Old Spice, but not in the cringey try-hard way, but in the subtle, sophisticated way. I watch him take a deep drink and I imagine she’ll kiss the bourbon from his perfect lips. Like I used to. “Stop it,” corrects Angie. “Let’s go inside,” she directs me to the doors of the ship to the right of me. Their windows are lit bright yellow like the little ceramic houses my mother would arrange lovingly underneath the Christmas tree each year. My feet stomp along like a toddler and Angie smiles at everyone. She’s the catering manager for my hotel and our sister property. Angie pulls open the white door to the inside of the boat. The bright light feels harsh against my face and I wonder if this is what life as a vampire must be like.
I flop down on one of the chairs at table two. Angie sweeps her hands along her black ruffled skirt and sits next to me, like a lady. She mumbles something to a waiter and I can smell the scent of Sunday pot roast emanating from the kitchen. I look up when I hear the sound of a plate being placed on the table. My nostrils open at the scent of coffee. Out of the corner of my eye I see Angie mouthing “Thank you,” to the waiter and pressing a twenty into his palm. Before me, on a perfectly, white piece of china, decorated with gold roses along the edge, sits a ham sandwich. I take a large bite and Angie smiles. A tea cup of coffee sits next to the plate and after I’ve finished half the sandwich, I take a gulp. This makes Angie laugh, “Better?” I nod and finish my sandwich. Once the plate is clean the waiter clears it and refills my coffee. I clutch onto its warmth. I’m suddenly cold. I take in the brightly lit dining room. My eyes admire the huge gold and red balloons before settling the large banner bearing our logo. “Why did he have to bring her, out of all people?” I complain. Angie’s red lips purse delicately along the edge of her wine glass. She takes a slow sip, the kind of sip that old fashioned women in Hollywood take. “Sweetie, you knew this was a distinct possibility,” her voice sounds low and soothing. I appreciate that her comment isn’t snarky. She could have said the obvious: he left me for her, why wouldn’t he bring her?
“Well, I couldn’t just not show up,” I protest.
“No, no you couldn’t have,” she’s laughing now. The crows feet around her eyes crinkle and I can see the wisdom of youth passed in her deep brown eyes. The light makes her grey hairs twinkle like stars. I wonder if I’ll survive long enough to have grey hairs.
“Stop laughing!” I groan and flop my head back onto my head on the and then finish my coffee. “Good,” she says. More party guests enter; my general manager and his wife arrive at the table. She’s in a sparkling maroon dress. I can smell her perfume even as they approach. “How you feeling, sport?” asks Fabian. He’s been my manager for the last four years. I nod at him as his sausage fingers grip the chair next to mine and pull it out. For a moment, he negotiates how such a large body needs to fit into such a small chair. “I believe,” Bea begins the conversation, “Tonight is all about you,” she points at me. She always believes everything. I resist the urge to roll my eyes and I tuck my napkin in my lap before responding.
“I guess so,” I mumble. I feel Fabian’s hand clap my back. It’s cold and sends me forward a bit. For a brief moment, the world feels like it’s spinning again. I catch Angie’s grin; she’s trying not to laugh. “Indeed it is my prodigy’s night,” brags Fabian. A waiter, the same tall blonde haired one who saved my day earlier takes our drink order. I order a Cola and Fabian’s laughter booms around the room and Bea joins in. They sound like two opera singers, performing a terrible rendition of their piece. There’s a part of me engaged in the conversation at hand. This part nods and laughs. It tells confident anecdotes and holds itself together with a few strings of integrity. But the other half of me is scanning the tables. It’s searching for the tall, dark, and handsome man who promised to love me. I spot him. My heart stops. The music fades away. I notice his hand first, raised in the air in a toast. Another old fashioned.
Before I know what’s happening I am standing and mumbling, “Excuse me.” Angie catches sight of me and loudly stands. I am a sailor called by the siren. Thankfully, as I am about to make my journey, the lights turn off. A single spotlight hits the stage. I sit back down in my chair, begrudged that fate or God has chosen to step in. Fabian’s cologne is making me nauseous. “Hello, hello!” calls Daniel. He is our regional manager and has gathered all of us here. My hands crash together like waves on a boat and Angie shoots me a look, too loud. I correct. The first few awards are given out. Then, the spotlight turns off. Fabian has left his seat. “You’re up next,” hisses Bea. Her many rings, one given for every anniversary, birthday, or special occasion Fabian missed due to work at the hotel, clatter against her wine glass. I close my eyes and lean into the swaying boat. I imagine rain clouds gathering outside. The spotlight clicks on again. Fabian looks like a bear stuffed into a suit two sizes too small. I can see beads of perspiration rolling down his forehead and I snicker.
“What can I say about Ashlyn that everyone here doesn’t know already? Well, let me start,” Fabian clears his throat and shuffles through some notecards, the microphone lets out a peal of feedback. “Uh, yeah, ok, a story about Ashlyn that most people don’t know. Back a few years ago, when she first started, Ashlyn agreed to cover a breakfast shift,” he pauses for dramatic effect. I am sitting up straighter; I know the story he is about to tell. “Right. After. A night audit shift,” the crowd chuckles, “Which as you all know means she’s already worked nine hours. She is now agreeing to work four more.” The crowd is laughing now. Fabian pauses. He knows how to work the room. “So,” he begins pacing along the stage, the heels of his shoes knocking on the wood. “Anyway, I come in at my usual time, 8am, of course,” general managers don’t come in earlier than eight and they don’t tend to stay past five. “I check my email, take a few calls, but I don’t see Ashlyn,” he waves his arms around. I feel the embarrassment growing like a weed.
“Where were you?” asks Bea, but I ignore her. Her wax lips stretch across her botox filled face.
“So I walk back to the kitchen,” Fabian is laughing...on stage...at me. “And there she is,” he pauses and centers himself in front of the crowd, “Covered from head to toe in waffle batter!” The crowd erupts. “Yeah, yeah, so she’s standing in front of the fridge, covered in batter. Turns out,” he’s gasping into the mic, feeding the feedback beast, “She went to shake the batter dispenser without ensuring the cap was one!” Laughter fills the room. I can see my past self delicately measuring the two cups of powdered waffle mix into the container. Then, I turned on the water and let it fill the container to the line hastily drawn on in permanent marker. I thought I had screwed on the cap, but I guess I hadn’t. Four cups of waffle batter exploded over me, the entire kitchen, and part of the fridge. I called Ivan from my car, ugly crying had me covered in snot. Was that when he decided it was over? Because I couldn’t hold myself together like her. “God, man! We found traces of batter in that kitchen for six months after,” proclaims Fabian, his booming voice, along with the sharp squeal of feedback, brings me back to the present; “Of course, I sent her home.” Naturally, Fabian needs to edify himself in a speech meant to edify me. I close my eyes. The boat rocks me into a gentle sleep. “Anyway,” he’s back to pacing the stage and I open my eyes, “Anyway, anyway,” the crowd begins to quiet. “That’s when I knew to promote this girl.” The spotlight finds me and I grin as best as I can, “And I am so glad I did because she’s my rock now. I tell you what, this girl is amazing,” he says and my smile feels less fake. The spotlight returns to him. “So it is with all the pleasure in the world that I present Hospitality Leader of the Year to my assistant manager, Ashlyn Carson!” My world erupts in applause as a shiver of excitement dances down my spinal column like an eel. I take a gulp of Cola before standing and weaving through the chairs to the stage.
I climb the wooden steps up to Fabian and shake his hand. Another round of applause bursts through the room like a firework. The spotlight feels bright. I have to hold it together. He hands me a glass trophy in the shape of a bear, our company’s mascot. My name is etched in calligraphy under bold, block letters reading Hospitality Leader of the Year. I smile and stand as tall as a beauty queen. Fabian steps down to find his seat again. The crowd stops applauding as I take the microphone. No feedback sounds. I am relieved. “Gosh, um,” I begin my eyes searching the audience for something familiar, “I guess I need to start by saying thank you.” I try to remember practicing this speech in front of Angie, then Ivan, then the mirror. “Thank you, Fabian, for believing in me. Thank you to my staff for always having my back. Thank you,” I stumble, the words are trapped in the back of my throat, held back by my new reality. This was the part of my speech that had me thanking Ivan for being the love of my life. I had built a whole life for us. “Angie,” I practically scream. “Thank you, Angie, for being my best friend in the whole world,” I mean it. She shoots me a knowing grin from her seat. I place the mic back on its stand as everyone applauds again. I scoot back to my seat as Daniel takes the stage. He proclaims that dinner is served and a bunch of waiters sweep into the dining room.
I begin eating quickly, desperately. Bea snaps her fingers at our waiter and orders another round of drinks. The table is aflutter with congratulations and as more people finish their meals. I accept every bit of celebration. Table 2 is the place to be tonight and I soak it all in. My heartbreak is briefly quelled by the adoration of almost perfect strangers. My inner introvert tugs at my heartstrings, like a soft current, pulling at seaweed. I excuse myself proclaiming the need for a bathroom break and stand quickly. Angie notices, but she’s engrossed in conversation with the waiter. I walk back out to the deck. The cold is a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t noticed the heat rising in the dining room. I look to the sky first. I take in the sparkling stars. A sigh escapes my lips; my heels click against the deck, deliberately, as I head to the railing. The waves lap softly against the white boat. “Congratulations,” says a voice. It’s light and carefree. It’s the voice of a woman in love. I turn to face Ivan’s date. She looks prettier in person. Her delicate fingers are wrapped around a cigarette. I thought Ivan despised smokers. I guess not. “Thank you,” I whisper. My voice, in contrast, is burdened by heartbreak. I wonder if she can tell. Her heels click as she walks closer to me and she leans against the railing.
“I hear it’s well deserved,” she states. My battered and bruised heart considers where she heard it from. It takes off like a newborn butterfly at the thought that Ivan might have said it.
“Maybe. But I didn’t get here on my own,” I reply. My memory pulls me back to late nights tangled in Ivan’s cotton sheets, my head on his chest, as he advised me on the best step to take for my career. I replace that thought with the memory of Angie and I eating Pad Thai after work. She, too, gave good advice.
“I know,” she says. She drops the cigarette and stubs it out with her toe. I continue to stare out to the shore. It’s a small, dark blob in the distance. I feel detached from reality. We stand in silence. It feels unbearable at first. I want to demand why she had to steal my man. Why did she have to wear a red dress to his bar? How come she had to order an old fashioned? What did she say to make him let go of me and chase after her? The waves rock me and I find myself feeling drowsy. I am a worn out child after a long day of celebration. Eventually, she turns and walks back into the dining room and I am left with my thoughts once again. A part of me is startled as a tear hits the back of my hand. I let them fall as the water below cradles me. A soft rain begins.