“You’ll never know unless you try,” Tom places a wet kiss on my forehead. I feel my protests lodged in my throat, held back by the guilt of this brand new engagement ring that glitters in the sunlight and fills me with butterflies. “You could love her…” he trails off as he wanders into our kitchen and prepares his morning cup of coffee, “Or learn to.” His voice grows louder as he enters the room again. He chuckles when he sees me, poking—no, stabbing—no, annihilating—my pile of fluffy scrambled eggs. “That’s not Sam’s face,” he jokes and takes his seat at his laptop.
“What if she doesn’t like me?” I shovel a bite into my mouth because maybe the eggs will drown my fear. The forkful melts in my mouth. I smile and then quickly erase it from my face, but Tommy’s keen eye catches my expression. I want him to tell me not to worry or better, that Samantha’s opinion of me doesn’t matter because he loves me. Instead, he pretends to busy himself at the laptop and then spins it around so I can examine how he has styled his mock menu. I take in the cheesy black fleur-de-lys in the corner and read over his proposed appetizers and entertaining mains.
I jam an index finger at his computer screen and say, “Maybe make this have a bigger font.” A piece of egg flies from my mouth and I blush. He raises his eyebrows and pulls back his laptop, wiping at it dramatically. “Sorry,” I mumble. With dread in my heart I glance at the clock on my cell phone’s face, envying my fiancé’s foresight at signing up for afternoon classes only. I stand and give him a peck on his head before snagging my blue backpack—the one from LL Bean that has been my constant companion since I was 14—and head out the door. I look back over my shoulder at Tom, typing furiously at his menu for his final in Culinary Management. The deadline is still six weeks away, but he’s a giddy school boy. My giddy school boy.
The ring feels heavy on my finger and I relish in the way it glitters when the sun greets me upon exiting our apartment building. I walk over to my car and smile at it when I take my keys out. I position my left hand at the 12 o’clock position on the wheel so I can admire the hints of rose gold circling the main diamond like stems around a rosebud. I can squeeze in approximately three songs before swinging into the parking lot on campus. My earbuds go in as soon as I close and lock my car. Lately, my playlist has been all love songs all the time. I pretend that I am focusing on my to do list for the day, not scanning this side of campus for Sam. I know she’s here, she has to be here, but I just…
She must have felt her ears burning because just as I take my seat for my first bio lecture post spring break I get a text message: Sooo psyched for our coffee date. See you at 11.
I inhale the sweet smell of coffee. I am the first to arrive. The woman behind the counter hands over my ice latte, wrapped in a tiny, white, cocktail napkin, as I toy with my ring. I stir it quickly, listening to ice cubes in a plastic cup swirl around. I select a seat at a large armchair by the window. I watch Samantha walk up to the door. I watch her push her sunglasses up. I watch them tangle in her hair. I am mesmerized. I dive back into my masochist habits and start to compare myself to her. Samantha is tall; she looks like she’s always walking off a runway. Her yellow sundress, dotted with flowers, swishes around her. She has chosen a soft makeup look that day, almost like she had simply tumbled out of bed this morning.
Of course, I’d met her before, once, at Annie and Marcus’ anniversary party. She had arrived 45 minutes late and placed a huge Edible Arrangement on the kitchen table, awkwardly moving everyone else’s gifts out of her way in the process. Sure, she mumbled apologies, but they were the kind that the heroine says in a romantic comedy film—she isn’t actually sorry—everyone is delighted to be rushing to her aid. The Arrangement had a huge, chocolate sign that said Happy Anniversary in a beautiful scribe. It was the backdrop to a mountain of fruit that was piled with rich, red watermelon and massive strawberries. She had also sprung for extra blueberries; along with towering skewers of honeydew/cantaloupe. It must have cost a fortune. I knew it, they knew it, and most importantly, she knew it.
I watched as drops of juice fell onto the other wrapped gifts. She flitted past me like a moth asking the party guests where Annie was. I watched her squeal with delight at the image of my future mother in law in a bright pink dress. Annie, for her part, was ever gracious. She pulled on Samantha’s arm back to the table of gifts that I was awkwardly leaning against and introduced me as, “Tom’s girlfriend.”
I swear I heard Samantha’s not so whispered question, “Think this one is serious?”
I blink a few times, clearing the memory from my eye like an Etch-A-Sketch just in time to see Samantha float on air over to me with an elastic smile. We embrace briefly; she pats me gingerly on the back. “It is lovely to see you!” I lie.
“Oh, gosh, you, too!” she exclaims, her voice airy. Women like her speak as if they haven’t a care. It’s high pitched, but not annoying or squeaky or mousy. It sounds slightly southern, but not truly southern. Perfectly soft and sensuous. The sunlight makes her blonde highlights in chestnut curls sparkle. My straight, black hair feels stringy and boring. I return to playing with my engagement ring, lost in thought wondering if I could drop twenty pounds and have a flatter stomach like her. “Oh gosh, let me see!” she reaches toward my left hand. Her long, manicured fingers pull it closer for inspection. “Gosh! That is just such a lovely ring!” She compliments.
“Thank you! What did you decide?” I ask her, indicating her green drink, my voice quakes. I’m more nervous on this coffee date than I was when I met Tom. My palms are sweating and I catch her watching me wipe them on the bottom of my cotton dress.
“Green tea, of course. Tommy and I disagreed over the tea versus coffee debate,” her eyes sparkle when she says his name. “I only drink green tea. Mostly because,” she leans close like she’s divulging a terrible secret, “I’m lactose intolerant.” When she leans back in her chair I see her scanning my latte.
“I’m lucky I don’t have that issue,” I say. She presses her lips together and releases them into a frown.
That is the wrong thing for me to say.
“My first date with Tom was out for coffee,” I rush out as nonchalantly as I can. I stick my plastic straw in my mouth to keep from saying anything more.
“Gosh, tell me about that. Tommy never really shared about how you guys met,” she sips and taps her fingernails against the plastic cup. My heart begins to ache, worrying about why he hasn’t mentioned our love story to his best friend.
“We met at a farmer’s market, actually. He took the last jar of clover honey from my favorite vendor. In fact,” a giggle escapes my poised mouth and I flush with embarrassment, “Peter, the vendor, took my side in the whole incident.” The walk down memory lane has put the pieces my my heart back together, just like he did.
“Gosh, well, Tommy always said no one was ever really on his side,” she smiles coyly. “Did he tell you how we met?” she demands. “We met in elementary. We went to the same school from the very beginning. Gosh, Tommy was such a good student. He tutored me after school. I think I pretended to be confused more than I should have.” She laughs and it sounds like song birds singing. Her beautiful hair bounces along her shoulders and she reaches a hand up to toss it over her bare right shoulder ever so perfectly.
“I bet you did,” I cast a disapproving look. What was it about the way an added “Y” to a name can add fifty levels of intimacy? Intimacy that Tom has chosen to never give me? I shake my head—trying to banish the negative self-talk demon—and Sam gives me a puzzled look. I wonder if she can see the huge zit on my chin that I have attempted to cover up with a few layers of thick concealer. “Tom is an adult now. He despises ‘Tommy’ as a name,” I remind her.
She makes a face like she has eaten a lemon, but when she catches me catching her, she smiles big. She blushes the kind of blush women pay good money for, “Oh, Gosh!” I start to wonder why my cheeks never look so full. Her face isn’t too round or too narrow. It’s perfect. She points her perfect chin to the window, displaying her long, luxurious neck, “I dated a boy named Peter once, you know. Tommy was so good to me. He was there to pick up the pieces of my shattered heart.” She placed her right palm over her bare chest in a motion of compassion. I swallow the stone in my throat. “He made me a cake and everything,” she takes a big sip of her drink, like she’s trying to remember the taste of that cake. “It was German chocolate, my very favorite.” I can imagine the cherries on her perfect lips, slightly tart so that in eating them they were poised for a kiss.
“That’s my favorite, too,” I tell my coffee cup. I swirl the ice around. My chest feels tight. I think of my three measly birthdays spent with Tom. Then, I think of all the birthdays to come. I take a deep breath, “Tom is a wonderful man to have in your corner. I remember once, I asked him if I should transition career fields. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but now I’m more intrigued by hospitality. I think his support is why I got promoted to front end lead at the hotel. He took me to dinner. I love that he does that, dates me even though we’re engaged.”
I am a young girl, stumbling and stuttering out words to prove to the popular girl that I am worthy of being her best friend.
Samantha glances at the other patrons, wondering if they could tell her what to say next. “Did Tom ever tell you how we had a backyard wedding? Gosh, we were so young, maybe eight or nine. My mother has a video of us. Tom made me a little dandelion crown,” she reaches up to her head. I imagine that Samantha has that crown pressed in a scrapbook of childhood memories. I bet that it isn’t even slightly pretentious. “Annie is the best; she promised to play it at our real wedding. Annie always said I’d be a dream daughter in law. We have always been just so close! How are you getting along?” she asks me. She places her elbow on the table in between up, balls her hand into a fist, and lets her chin fall just perfectly onto its stand.
“As well as we can be,” I tell her and this time I smiled an elastic smile.
Fear grips me as the image of Annie calling Samantha up conjures up like a scene in a movie. Annie relishes in chatting the night away with her—a gleeful, sick grin of too much red lipstick spreading across her lips when Samantha answers by call her “mom”.
“It should’ve been you,” she’d tell Samantha. Samantha would agree and they’d laugh over how I braid my hair each day because it makes me look like a little girl. Tom thinks it’s cute, but his opinion has never mattered to these clucking hens. I imagine Annie would add, “And you know that she doesn’t make him laugh the way you did.” Samantha would giggle that charming little laugh. Yes, that’s exactly how that phone call would go- both of these women plotting against Tom and I. In my mind we are the prince and princess battling the dragons and with that thought, my eyes glance down to Samantha’s talons. They tap the side of her cup.
“So, we’re planning on light blue for all of the bridesmaids. The groomsmen are in a light gray to coordinate,” I switch the subject as fast as I can.
Samantha takes a breath, “Blue? Gosh, I don’t like that for a wedding.” Tap. Tap. Tap. A frown peaks out involuntarily. When she catches me eyeing her, she looks away from me—a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Her elastic smile reappears.
Annie hates it, too. I’m glad I’m giving you your topic of riveting discussion for the week, I think to myself—instantly picturing another ball of fire breathed from the dragons that I desperately need to deflect.
“Tom does,” I insist and rattle the ice around my empty cup which grabs her attention.
Like a toddler, I laugh to myself and tuck the smile behind my napkin.
She sighs, “Gosh, I suppose I’ll have to consider it. I…just…don’t know where my finances will be.”
I realize suddenly, this dragon is losing stamina. “Don’t worry. My parents are paying for everything,” I boast and correct my posture; I sit up straight and pull my shoulders back.
“That’s awfully nice of them. I just don’t know if I can make it,” she says. “My schedule is just so busy with the masters program I’m finishing next year,” she brags and begins to stretch her long arms up like seaweed in an ocean current. They flop to her side like loose spaghetti—somehow less romantic than the seaweed previously imagined.
“Well, we have over 18 months to plan. Tom wants you there, you are his best friend,” I allow that reality to permeate both of our minds for a moment. We sit in silence for a moment. Her green eyes hold my gaze. It’s as if she has shrunk into the worn, black leather seat. She looks like a deflated paper doll, the once favorite toy, now tossed aside.
“Gosh, where has the time gone?” Samantha shifts her weight to stand. In an instant, she towers over me, in her modelesque beauty. We walk out the door which I, of course, hold open for her. “You will be such a lovely bride. Tommy…” she pauses and takes a breath, “Tom is lucky to have found you...tell him….I miss him, for me?” she asks me. Her porcelain face seems to crack in pain as she says his name.
“Sure.” I promise and linger in the doorway. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch her eyes dart to my ring, her right hand reaching for her own ring finger. She pulls back like a wounded animal. I watch Samantha fade away-up and over the hill to her lecture hall.