Lauren stepped back to survey the table, wondering briefly if the heart-shaped foil confetti was a bit too cheesy. She shook her head to dismiss the thought; questioning herself was becoming a habit, one she didn’t want to stick. She was hoping tonight would set things on a smoother path, help her unravel the knots her mind had kinked itself into lately.
Lauren tensed when the doorbell rang. Was that a normal reaction? She wasn’t sure what normal was anymore although her best friend, Cameron, told her she was certainly missing the mark. But tonight would be good: her parents were out of town, dinner smelled delicious, and she was a woman in a committed relationship.
She reached up to tighten the ponytail that flowed down her back in a mass of beachy curls and opened the door with a smile.
And there he stood: Barrett Malin, with his dark tousled hair, hands resting lightly on his hips, and his mouth turned up on one side, the same expression he wore the first day he fixed his eyes on Lauren. She remembered that moment as magical even though Barrett had had his hands shoved into Arin Malone’s front pockets as she leaned back against him. But Barrett had ended things with Arin that day, and Lauren had been his ever since.
She reached out a hand to draw him inside. “Hey, there.”
He stepped forward, but frowned. “I thought you’d be wearing your hair down.”
“Oh. I was just trying something--”
“It looks best down.” Barrett reached out a hand to touch her face, his expression earnest.
“So I’ll take it down.” Lauren reached up to pull the elastic free, allowing her hair to tumble around her shoulders and, in that moment, decided to veer off her planned course for the night. “I was actually thinking of cutting it. Might make it easier to deal with in the mornings and give me more time to practice before school.”
“Bad idea. Leave it like it is.”
Lauren smiled tightly. “Let’s eat before everything gets cold.”
They moved toward the table, but before she could make it to her seat, Lauren felt Barrett come up behind her. His arms circled her waist, pulling her close. He spoke softly in her ear, “You know I only say that about your hair because I want you to look your best. Because I love you.”
Lauren felt a bit of the ice that had started to form in her heart thaw. She turned herself in Barrett’s arms. “I know.” He tangled his hands in her hair and drew her in for a kiss, only releasing Lauren when she was breathless. Barrett glanced toward the table and raised his eyebrows.
“This looks amazing. How long are your parents out of town?” His smile spread slowly.
“Until tomorrow evening. They take weekends like this every once in a while. Something they learned in a marriage retreat a long time ago.” Lauren took her seat, spreading a napkin across her lap.
Barrett’s forehead creased. “Marriage retreat? What a crock. No offense. I mean, I’m glad your parents are out of town. But my dad said he and my mom went to a marriage retreat once, a long time ago, and he said it was like being brainwashed. Like they were trying to make him into a woman, all emotional and mushy.”
A question wormed its way into Lauren’s mind. “Did your mom like it?”
“Did your mom like the marriage retreat?”
Barrett shrugged. “Oh. I don’t know. She never said.”
Funny that in their time together, Lauren had seldom seen Barrett’s parents in the same room together. Their conversation was stilted, not unlike that of two strangers trying to find a bit of common ground while waiting for their turn in the doctor’s office. Come to think of it, Lauren mostly saw Mrs. Malin in the kitchen, always dressed beautifully in tailored suits, her hair styled to perfection, flowing down her back in long waves. Lauren had always wondered why she didn’t pull her hair back when cooking, and now she felt the beginning of an alarm bell in the back of her brain.
“My parents loved their retreat.”
“Okay. Great. Are we going to argue about pros and cons of marriage retreats?” Barrett furrowed his eyebrows.
Lauren gave herself a mental shake and took a moment to chew a bite of salad, her first of the evening. “No. That’s not what I want to do. Argue, I mean.” Barrett’s face relaxed at Lauren’s relinquishment. “I’ve actually got something really exciting I want to tell you.”
“Zeke and Cameron have asked me to come back to the band. To be their drummer again.” Lauren succumbed to the hope that bloomed in her chest. “We’ll have to practice hard, but there’s a competition coming up this summer and--”
“And what?” Barrett snapped off the words, and Lauren sneaked a glance at his hardened face before glancing back down at her salad and continuing.
“And. . .I want to do it. I’ve missed being part of a group.”
“Would you miss me more?”
“You heard me. Would you miss me more?”
“I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”
“We won’t survive you being back in the band, Lauren. Not with Zeke and Cameron. She’s always putting ideas in your head, and he’s always standing a little too close to you.”
Lauren decided to try a different tack. Barrett had always been more physical, and maybe she could work that to her advantage.
She stood and moved over to his seat, leaning back against the table and placing her hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. “I really want to do this, Barrett. Can you just be happy for me?” She hated that her words sounded like a plea for permission.
Barrett sighed under her touch and lowered his head. It’ll all be okay, she thought. A brief image of double dating with Zeke and Cameron flashed through her mind. It might take a while, but they would get there. She began to relax until she felt Barrett shoot upward, heard the chair clatter to the floor behind him, saw her arm fall from his shoulder, and registered the grip of his hands on her upper arms. “If you do this, if you pick them over me, we’re over. You better think about what you’ll be giving up.”
Lauren gave herself a moment to absorb his words, to let the feel of his thumbs pressing into her flesh sink in, and then felt herself finally emerging as if from a fog.
“I think you should go, Barrett.” Her words were quiet, but firm. “Now.”
He released Lauren and she took the opportunity to side step, putting some distance between them. She saw a muscle twitch in his neck.
“Yeah, okay. Maybe I’ll give Arin a call. Heard she’s been asking around about me still.”
“You do that, Barrett. I’ve got some phone calls to catch up on myself. And some practicing.”
He attempted to pin her with a glare, apparently decided she wasn’t worth the effort, and slung himself out the door, slamming it behind him.
Lauren allowed a few tears to fall as she fixed the deadbolt in place.
When her phone rang a few moments later, she was relieved to see MOM lighting up the screen. She sniffed once and swiped at her eyes before answering.
“Lauren! How’s it going, honey! Dad and I just wanted to check in on you. We’ve got dinner plans coming up shortly.”
Lauren heard her dad’s voice murmuring in the background and her mother’s effusive laughter. “Your father is finally taking me to that little family-owned Italian restaurant. Oh, and he had chocolate covered strawberries delivered to the room. I’ll save you some and bring them home.”
Lauren smiled in spite of the events of the evening. “I’m fine, Mom. You guys have fun. I think I’m actually going to stay at Cameron’s tonight. Did I tell you she and Zeke invited me back to drum?”
“Lauren, that’s wonderful! Jack, Lauren’s going back to drumming! Your father is thrilled. You know we met in band class.”
“I know, Mom. You’ve told me the story.” She paused and felt her heart lighten a bit. “But maybe you can tell it to me again when you guys get home, over the chocolate covered strawberries.”
“Will do. See you tomorrow, sweetie.”
Lauren ended the call and headed to her bedroom to get some clothes together. She knew Cameron would be thrilled when she called. It had been a long time since she’d spent the night with her friend.
She passed the small table that stood against the wall in the hallway, her eyes instantly drawn to the framed wedding photo of her parents from so long ago, their hands clasped, smiles lighting their eyes. They hadn’t had just a happy moment; they were creating a happy lifetime.
Lauren ran her fingers lightly across the beloved faces in the photo: “This is what love is,” she quietly reminded herself, while at the same time taking a moment to mourn the fact that she had clearly seen what it wasn’t.