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Contemporary Romance Happy

“Good morning,” she calls, her cheery voice echoing down the hall.

I grit my teeth.

First of all, it’s 7 AM.

Second, it’s Monday.

Third, in two hours, our team has a meeting with our draconian boss where he thoroughly enjoys chewing us out.

To make matters worse, we’re the only two here. Ever since the secretary quit two months ago, the responsibility of setting up the conference room for weekly meetings has become ours, since we’re the youngest two in the team. God, I can’t wait for them to hire someone new.

She plops down next to me. “Whatcha doing?”

“Dying,” I mumble as I fix a spelling mistake in the powerpoint.

She laughs like I made a joke. “Should we go set up the room?”

“I have to finish this.” 

“Alright, I’ll start. You can join me when you’re done.”

She's so stupid. If I were in her place, I would have sat my butt down and waited so I wouldn’t have to do all that work alone.

As annoyed as I am, her willingness to step up to the plate makes me feel guilty and I work faster, finishing my slides in fifteen minutes.

I save the presentation to the server and dash down the hall. She’s already pulled the chairs back and is trying to move the massive table.

“What are you doing?” I scold, running and grabbing the other other end so we can lift it together. “You know it’s too heavy for one person.”

“I thought I could manage it,” she says sheepishly.

I narrow my eyes. “Are you purposely trying to hurt yourself so you don’t have to do this next week?”

I’m serious but she giggles.

Annoying.

“This is so dumb,” I complain as we rearrange the room. Every week, the boss demands we rearrange the room for the meeting, then rearrange it back afterwards. 

She shrugs as she turns on the projector. She never complains about anything. 

I honestly don’t get it. 

The meeting progresses, and as always, the boss is harsh. But he’s hardest on her. I think he gets annoyed, too, that she never gets upset about his criticism. Just nods, makes a note and moves on.

She’s the only member of our team that hasn’t cried after these meetings yet. 

After the meeting, she and I are again stuck rearranging the table and chairs. She pauses and I look up to see why. 

She’s staring out the window.

“What is it?” I demand. 

She points. “Look.”

“A butterfly?”

“A monarch butterfly,” she says dreamily. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

I scoff. “They’re everywhere this time of year.”

“That doesn’t make them less beautiful. And they’re strong, too. Do you know they travel thousands of mile every year from here down to Mexico? Delicate wings, but they go so far. It’s amazing.”

It is kind of cool, but I’m not in the mood to discuss butterflies. “Can you focus? I’ve got other work, too.”

She smiles and gets back to work.

It’s a relief to get out of the office that day. I mindlessly play Candy Crush on the subway, wishing that it would go faster. All I want to do is go home and veg out.

At some point, I look up and I see her. What in the world? She doesn’t take this train. If she did, I would have seen her before.

She’s right across me, head leaning against the window, eyes closed and ear buds plugged in.

At the next stop, she opens her eyes. She spots me, gives me a small smile, then gets up and slips out the door.

I don’t know what’s gotten into me, but impulsively, I follow her.

“Where are you going?” I ask, running a little to catch up.

She looks at me curiously. “To visit a friend. What about you?”

I shrug. 

“Well, do you want to come with me?”

“Won’t your friend mind?”

She smiles, but it’s one I’ve never seen before. It takes me a second to realize that it’s because there’s sadness behind it. 

“No. My friend doesn’t mind anything.”

“She’s like you, then,” I say, only half-joking.

“What do you mean?”

“You know. You never get upset about anything.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Unless you’re a really good actor, I’ve never even see you frown.”

“I frown. But usually, I have more reasons to smile.”

“You’re smiling now,” I observe. “Do you have a reason now?”

“Because I have company. Normally, I have to do these visits alone.”

I’m about to ask what she means but she comes to a stop and realize where we are.

A cemetery.

“Your friend…is here?”

“Told you she wouldn’t mind. Come on.”

I look on awkwardly as she pulls out a water bottle and sprinkles a few drops over the grave. Eying the gravestone, I find myself calculating her age of death. 17. Damn.

“Alright,” she says after a few minutes. “Let’s go.”

“If you want a moment alone, I can wait for you at the gate.”

“No, it’s alright. Let’s go.”

“She was young,” I say as we walk down the street.

She understands my unspoken question. “Cancer. It only took six months from diagnosis to death.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s ironic, isn’t it? Between the two of us, I was the one who didn’t want to live.”

“What?” I nearly get whiplash from how fast I turn my head. Her? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so full of life.

She open the door to a dingy diner. I’ve seen it before, actually, but never bothered going inside. There are other more attractive looking cafes and restaurants on this street.

“They have the best apple pie here. I always get it; do you want to try it?”

“Whatever,” I say impatiently. “What did you say just now? Were you…” I can’t bring myself to say the word.

“I was depressed. My home life wasn’t the best, I was bullied, and she was my only friend. Sometimes, I even felt that she was annoyed with me. My New Year’s Resolution that year was to put myself out of my misery once and for all.”

A bored looking waiter asks us for our order.

“Two slices of apple pie, please,” she says cheerily.

The waiter leaves. “Go on,” I encourage.

She tilts her head aside. “You’re always in a rush. You should take things slow; anticipation isn’t always a bad thing.”

I give her a look.

“Fine. The day I was planning to do it—my birthday—my friend called me to tell me that she’d been diagnosed and hospitalized. They would begin her treatment right away.

“For six months, I watched her struggle. Every day, she fought to live. When she wanted to give up, she would tell me to find something to remind her that life was worth fighting for. 

“Silly poems, shiny rocks, funny shaped leaves, anything that was remotely interesting, I brought to her. 

“And she loved it all. 

“Slowly, I started seeing it through her eyes. It made me want to live. Even when she was gone, I kept on going. I went to a therapist, changed my lifestyle, and fought my depression.

“And I won. I remember how proud I was of myself the day I woke up and didn’t want to go back to sleep right away. I’d forgotten what that was like.”

The waiter returns with our order, and suddenly, she’s self-conscious, tucking her hair behind her ear. She laughs a little. “I’m sorry. You didn’t ask for my life story and I poured it all out anyway.“

“No, it’s fine. I’m glad you told me.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “Maybe now you’ll stop rolling your eyes every time I say good morning.”

It’s my turn to feel self-conscious. “I don’t…I mean—“

She waves away the awkwardness. “It’s fine. Dig in.”

The apple pie really is delicious and as I eat, she points out how beautiful the sky looks outside.

I take a look. The sun is setting, orange rays streaming against a rosy sky. Yeah, I guess it is pretty nice. But aren’t all sunsets like this? I try to remember the last time I stopped to see one. 

“Your turn.”

“My turn?”

“Show me something amazing.”

I say the first thing that comes to my mind. “You.” My ears burn as I realize what slipped out. 

She giggles. “That’s a cop-out but I’ll accept it. My turn. Ummm…look at that couple.”

It’s an older man and woman sitting across the diner. “What about them?”

“You can see how much they love each other. Isn’t it amazing?”

“Maybe they’re not a couple.”

“They don’t have to be. Even if they’re friends, or brother and sister, or strangers that met today—they have something. A familiarity, a closeness. It’s lovely.

“Now, your turn.”

“This apple pie.”

“I told you, didn’t I?”

“You did,” I concede. “If you’re done, let’s get going.”

She starts to take out her wallet, but I stop her. “It’s on me. It’s the least I can do after barging in on your visit.”

“I didn’t mind,” she argues, but I still refuse to let her pay. 

Finally, she relents. “But next time, it’ll be on me.”

Next time? Will there be a next time? Surprisingly, I don’t hate the idea. In fact, I’m a little bummed when we split apart at the subway station.

For the rest of the week, I don’t roll my eyes when she says good morning. I even respond a few times. “I’m rubbing off on you,” she says, delighted, the first time I answered her.

She is, in fact, rubbing off on me because on Thursday, as I’m walking to work, I pause to watch a cardinal loudly singing on a fence nearby.

“What are you shouting about?” I ask. The bird startles and takes flight, leaving behind a bright red feather.

I stop by her desk so I can give it to her. She lights up like a Christmas tree.

Friday, as I’m walking out of the office, she comes up to me and links her arm around mine. “Come on.”

“Where?”

“Didn’t I tell you to learn to enjoy anticipation?”

“Didn’t I tell you that you’re a brat?”

“No, you’ve never said that.”

“Well, I’m saying it now. Tell me where we’re going.”

“You’ll know when we get there.”

Thankfully, I don’t have to wait long. Our destination is a little park a few minutes away from work. She buys lamb over rice from a cart and we sit on a bench, eating and chatting.

“I’ve never noticed this place before,” I say, looking around. Birds chirp as they flitter in and about the branches overhead; a pair of squirrels play tag.

“There’s a lot you don’t notice,” she points out. “You’re kind of oblivious.”

I scowl but don’t disagree. “I’m noticing now,” I say. Her curls are slipping out of her simple bun, the sunlight is hitting her face at just the right angle to make her eyes sparkle. Yeah, there’s a lot I’m noticing now.

“Prove it. Tell me something amazing.”

“You,” I say deliberately.

She nudges me. “You can’t use flattery to get out of it this time.”

“It’s not flattery if it’s true.”

She lifts an eyebrow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Have you just realized it? And I’m the oblivious one.”

“I don’t like flirts,” she says primly. “If you’re interested, ask me out properly.”

“Will do.”

She waits. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Ask me out.”

“Haven’t you heard? Anticipation is enjoyable.”

She sticks her tongue out and I laugh. “Go out with me.”

“I thought anticipation was enjoyable.”

“I can’t wait any longer. Go out with me. Tomorrow. There’s a butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural History; I already have tickets.”

Her mouth drops open. “The audacity. How did you know I would say yes?”

“You won’t refuse butterflies,” I say confidently.

“You know my weakness.” She sighs, acting as if she’s being horribly inconvenienced. “Fine.”

She doesn’t need to take the subway because she lives nearby but she walks me to the station, hand in hand. When was the last time my stomach swooped like this from just holding hands with a girl.

We agree to meet in front of the museum the next day. We wave goodbye and I pause, halfway down the steps, to look back at her. She’s still looking at me, too.

That night, she sends me a message. It’s the little things that make something amazing. The anticipation of a first date, a comforting hand to hold, a longing glance. Thank you for making us amazing.

I don’t know how to answer her. I don’t know how to open my heart and bare my soul the way she can. So I read her words over and over, vowing to myself that no matter where we end up, I’ll live every moment. No half-heartedness, no empty promises.

Our first date is a hit. She loves the butterflies, loves wandering around randomly afterwards, oohing and aahing at the tiny and giant fossils alike.

She doesn’t even mind the soggy fries I buy when we pause for a few minutes. Even when the museum closes, we don’t want to stop. We get pizza and then head over to Central Park.

I’ve been to all these places dozens of times, but with her, it’s like the first time.

“Don’t you love the smell of spring?” She exclaims, throwing her arms out wide and whirling around.

I laugh, grabbing her hand to steady her when she gets dizzy. “Sure,” I agree. I hadn’t before, but now I’m starting to. I learn to love a lot of things, when I’m with her.

The first blossom of the roses she plants in her balcony, the droplets that cut through the heavy summer heat, her favorite worn out hoodie from high school that’s more rags than hoodie at this point, the way her nose turns red from the winter chill.

And as I stand with her, shivering despite our coats and gloves, waiting for the Rockefeller tree to be lit up, I realize that I love her, too.

I don’t tell her right away. I let the weight of my epiphany settle, warming by body right down to my toes. I wrap my arms around her and kiss her cold cheek. “Tell me something amazing,” I whisper.

She leans into me. “You.”

“That’s my line.”

“It’s mine now. Your turn.”

“This.” I gently tug on her curl and let it go. It bounces back into place. “Your turn.”

“That little boy over there, on his father’s shoulders.”

“What’s so amazing about him?”

“Look how high he is. But he trusts his father so much; the fear of falling doesn’t even cross his mind. Your turn.”

“One day, that might be me. Standing here, with a little boy on my shoulders and you by my side.”

“That would be amazing,” she sighs.

“I love you,” I murmur.

“Look in your pocket.”

It’s not the response I was expecting and I frown as I pull back a little so I can reach into my pocket. There’s a slip of paper there, and I unfold it. I love you, it says. Love the way your hair is messed up when you wake up, love the way you tap your finger when you’re lost in thought, love the way you never call me silly when I say silly things.

I gently fold the paper again and place it in my pocket. Pulling her to me again, I whisper, “I love you. Love the way you smile at the ground when you feel shy, love the way you say good morning every morning, love the way you make life so beautiful.”

Her eyes twinkle. “I love you, too.”

It is the first time she’s said it to me, and I memorize the look on her face. I wish every time she says it to me, my heart will beat like this.

And it does. 

The day we stand at the alter, surrounded by every one we know and love, promising our lives to each other.

The day she holds our child in her arms, tears streaming down both our faces.

Every single day of our lives.

August 09, 2021 14:12

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