“Wait.” I was still walking, but I could hear him coming up behind me, knew he’d put his hand on my shoulder even before he did. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said, and started walking again. “I’m fine.” Even when I got to my car and opened the door, he hadn’t moved, stayed there as I drove away. I would have thought this would make me feel better, for once getting to be the one to leave and not the one left behind. But it didn’t. Not at all.
I was almost all the way home when I turned around.
But he was gone. I sat at the light for a second, the big time and temperature sign at Willow Bank blinking above me: 7:24, 78 degrees. I kept looking from the red stoplight to the numbers, then back again, and all of a sudden I knew where to go.
Call it a gut feeling, but all the way to the World of Waffles I was sure that somehow, I could fix this. Maybe I’d just been too sensitive. He had a lot on his mind. It probably had nothing to do with me. But he had been acting so weird, checking his watch. That I knew I hadn’t imagined. But regardless, he needed to know why I’d been so cold to him, how important he was to me. Maybe that would freak him out, too. But it was the Truth. And we’d always held to that.
As soon as I saw his truck parked in the lot, I felt myself relax. I can do this, I thought, as I pulled in two spaces down and cut my engine, then pushed my door open. The air was full of that sweet, doughy smell, and as I started toward the front door, I reminded myself that this, too, was proof that I had changed. Once, I would have just let Wes go. But I was different now.
I was different all the way across the parking lot, to the edge of the curb, almost to the door. But then I saw him, sitting in the same booth against the window. He wasn’t alone.
Gotcha, I thought, and it was weird that it felt exactly the same way, a sudden shock, a jump of the heart, like your entire system shuts down, and then, as you stand there gasping, somehow reboots. Somehow.
I hadn’t heard a lot about Becky, but I recognized her with just one look. Like Wes had said, she was skinny, angular, with a short haircut, the ends of which barely touched her collar-bone. She had on a thin black tank top, a rosary necklace, and dark red lipstick, which had already stained the rim of the coffee mug she was holding between her hands. Wes was sitting opposite her, talking, and she was looking at him intently, her gaze steady, as if what he was saying was the most important thing in the world. And probably it was. Maybe he was telling her his deepest secrets. Or asking her the question I’d been waiting for. I’d never know.
I got back in my car, starting the engine, then drove off. It wasn’t until I pulled onto the highway that it all really sunk in, how temporary our friendship had been. We’d been on our breaks, after all, but it wasn’t our relationships that were on pause: it was us. Now we were both in motion again, moving ahead. So what if there were questions left unanswered. Life went on. We knew that better than anyone.
For weeks, my mother had been concerned about me. Now, it was my turn to really worry.
My mother had always worked hard. But I’d never seen her like this. Maybe it was just that I was up close now, for six or seven hours each day, where I could hear the constant string of phone conversations, the clattering of her answering emails, and watch the constant stream of contractors, realtors, and salespeople coming in and out of her office. It was now July twenty-third, which meant the townhouse opening and the gala celebrating it were a little over two weeks away. Everyone else seemed to think things were going well, but my mother wasn’t happy with the presales. Or the marble tubs that had been installed so far. Or several of her contractors, who, at least in her view, cared more about little things like sleeping and the occasional Sunday off than getting everything done exactly right, ahead of schedule. I’d been aware for awhile of how tired she looked, and how she hardly ever seemed to smile. But all of a sudden, I began to see that things were worse than I’d realized.
Maybe I should have noticed earlier, but I’d been distracted with my own problems. After what happened with Wes, though, I’d stopped resisting my punishment. It was weird how, with things pretty much done between us, I could so easily go back to the life I’d had before. I found myself forgetting the girl I’d become, who’d been, if not fearless, not as afraid.
My life was quiet, organized, and silent. My mother’s however, was fast and frenetic. She never seemed to sleep, and she was losing weight, the dark circles under her eyes clearly visible, despite her always careful application of concealer. More and more I found myself watching her, worrying about the toll her stress was taking on her body. Sometimes you had signs: sometimes you didn’t. But I kept a close eye anyway.
“Mom,” I said one day, as I stood in her open door, the chicken salad sandwich I’d ordered for her in my hand. It was now two-thirty, which meant it had been sitting on the corner of my desk, the mayonnaise in it certainly courting food poisoning, for almost three hours. “You have to eat. Now.”
“Oh, honey, I will,” she said, picking up some pink message slips and flipping through them. “Bring it in, I’ll get to it as soon as I finish this.”
I came in just as she started talking on the phone again, clicking away at her keyboard. Arranging her sandwich on a paper plate, I listened as she talked with the chef she’d hired for the gala, who called himself Rathka. He’d come highly recommended, but so far he and my mother had butted heads repeatedly, about his erratic schedule (he never seemed to answer the phone), the expensive china dishes he insisted she rent (because only they allowed the full culinary experience), and the menu, about which he’d so far declined to give specifics.
“What I mean,” my mother was saying as I poured her a Diet Coke, putting it next to her sandwich, “is that because I am inviting seventy-five people, and because this is a most important event, I’d like to have a bit more of a concrete idea of what we’ll be eating.”
I folded a napkin, sliding it under the edge of her paper plate, then nudged both closer to her elbow. Only when they bumped it did she look up at me, mouthing a thank-you. But then she only took a sip of the Diet Coke, ignoring the sandwich altogether.
“Yes, I understand there will be lamb,” she said, rolling her eyes. Lately it seemed like my mother was battling with everyone. “But lamb does not a full menu make. . . . It means, I need more details.” There was a pause. “I understand that you’re an artiste, Rathka. But I am a businesswoman. And I need some idea of what I’m paying for.”