We Are Not In A Romantic Comedy
After college, I stopped trying to learn the names of Christine’s boyfriends.
“How’s it going with Ashley?” I’d ask on our weekly calls, draped across my armchair with a just-uncorked bottle of red wine.
She was amused by my calling whatever man she was currently seeing ‘Ashley.’ It cast him in the role of her romantic ideal: Ashley Wilkes, the southern gentleman who Gone With The Wind heroine Scarlett O’Hara thought she loved.
“Oh, wonderful,” she’d gush. “Absolutely wonderful, Holly. We are rapturously happy together.”
She was eternally hopeful, manically so, but she easily shed disappointments; that man hadn’t been her Ashley; she’d been wrong; that man had just been a distraction not worth her time; this new man is definitely Ashley. She believed it with her entire soul.
“That man,” she told me once, laughing — she always called the latest not-Ashley that man — “was so upset that he didn’t win the big door prize at the club on New Year’s Eve that he stormed out, announcing he’d go somewhere he had better luck. The casino, I assume. Or the whorehouse.”
“And you let him go?”
“Hell yes!” She sighed. “That man was clearly not Ashley.”
Christine tried it all: blind dates, set-ups with friends-of-friends, speed dating. After the New Year’s Eve incident, she decided to find Ashley more scientifically. She thought online dating would end her search, but the list of eligible bachelors left her feeling…“overwhelmed,” she confided. Her hushed voice barely carried over the line; I turned the volume up on my phone. “I mean, how do I tell which one is Ashley? They all seem so nice and friendly.”
It was too many men at once. She had first date after first date with Mister-Not-Quite until eventually several months passed; Valentine’s Day came and went, time not spent in some romantic tryst with Ashley; and the dreary Midwest winter lingered over-long, the charm of cuddling under blankets and before fireplaces with some attractive maybe-Ashley slowly suffocating beneath wave after wave of relentless grey slush and bone-aching cold. For the first time in the ten years Christine and I had been best friends, she stopped talking about her latest man, stopped talking about men altogether. That’s when I knew it was time.
What I think Christine missed in her many readings of Gone With The Wind was that Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley — a man who was unable or unwilling to return her love — had prevented her from finding any happiness with her untoward admirer Rhett Butler. I have an idea about that, if she truly is slowing down on the Ashley front, but I will have to proceed with caution.
“How’s work?” I ask carefully on our usual Thursday evening call.
“Oh, fine,” she says blandly. “Finishing up the quarterly report for the department head, then I’ve got some vacation time to burn. Probably just stay home. Catch up with the cleaning. You know.”
“Your thirtieth is coming up,” I point out. “Why don’t you come visit? We’ll get the gang back together and go out on the town.”
“C’mon,” I wheedle. “We barely see you anymore, and Chicago is only maybe four hours’ drive from Indy. If you don’t want to drive, take the bus down; Mike will pick you up. We’ll do a fancy dinner downtown with Sarah and James and everyone.” Pause. She hasn’t said no yet. “Wrap up the night with cocktails and cigars at Nicky Blaine’s?”
“Well, I suppose…”
“We’ll even rent one of those horse-drawn carriages,” I say. She laughs. I’ve got her.
“I always loved those,” she says wistfully.
“We’re doing it,” I say. “You need a break from the big city. Ask for a few days off; we’re doing girl time before the big three-oh.”
“Okay,” she says, and I can hear the slow smile in her voice. “Girl time sounds great, Holly. We’d better get mani-pedis — and the whole shebang! I’ll bring all my little black dresses.”
“And your sultriest shoes!”
As I hang up the phone, Mike pushes the slightly-ajar family room door open and eyes my half-emptied wine bottle.
“Operation Rhett Butler is a go?” he asks.
I shoot him a double thumbs-up. “This may be the dumbest thing we’ve ever done.”
He leans over the armchair and kisses me upside-down. “Dumber and dumberer, ‘til death do we part.”
“This whole Gone With The Wind thing is a bit stupid, isn’t it?” Brooke asks the next day across the long table in the break room where we’re catching up over soup and salad. “Aren’t you and Mike being sort of…” she waves a cracker in the air while she searches for the perfect word. “Dramatic?”
“Look,” I say, pointing my plastic spoon at her, “yes. Yes, we are. But I’m not imagining Christine’s whole Ashley obsession. And Desmond’s no Ashley.”
Brooke’s left eyebrow quirks up. “Oh? And is Dezi a Rhett Butler?” Brooke leans in and lowers her voice. “She hasn’t said a single thing about him for five years. She doesn’t give a damn, Holly.”
“Dezi is the one who gave her that book,” I say. Brooke just looks at me, confused, so I elaborate. “Dezi gave her Gone With The Wind. For Christmas, right before their big fight. I don’t think he ever read it, but apparently she ‘reminded him of a Southern belle’ or some such.”
“And she thought the book’s takeaway message was to go find an Ashley Wilkes?” Disbelief practically drips from Brooke’s voice.
“You knew she had that Ashley thing.”
“Christ,” Brooke said, cracker frozen halfway to her mouth. “Yeah, I knew she’d been on a love quest to find McDreamy, but Christ! I didn’t know she got that book from Dezi.”
“She still keeps it on her nightstand.”
“Christ,” Brooke says again. She pops the cracker in her mouth and shakes her head. “I thought you and Mike were crazy,” she says, spraying crumbs across the table. “Now I think it’s just her.”
“You always have to be the practical one,” I say, flicking my spoon into the trash can. “Love isn’t always sensible, you know.”
“It could be a lot less senseless.”
“Motherhood has sucked the romance out of you,” I joke. “Look, I gotta get back to work. Mike and I are hoping to head out early tonight.”
“That’s right, you’re going to Cincinnati this weekend. Give Dezi our best.”
“You and James should come with us again.”
“Yeah,” Brooks says, “maybe when the baby’s a bit older, we’ll feel okay with leaving her with my mother while we waltz off for a wild weekend of drunken debauchery with Mr. Desmond Harris.”
“Aw, that’s exaggerating a little.”
Brooke shoots me a stern look over the top of her glasses, then cracks a smile.
“Well, maybe a little,” she admits. “Tell that jerk we miss his stupid face.”
Construction on I-65 prolonged our trip to Cincinnati, forcing Mike and me to rendezvous with Dezi at the restaurant where he’d made dinner reservations, rather than meeting him at his home in the suburbs.
“Brooke’s wrong,” Mike murmurs as he helps me out of my coat in the entryway of the Cincinnati steakhouse. “Christine’s not the only crazy one.”
I groan. “He’s got another new one?”
“He’s got his hand on that woman’s shoulder,” Mike points out, gesturing toward the bar.
Desmond Harris is a tall, slender man with a way of standing that is instantly recognizable, even from behind — and, these past few years, particularly so while leaning over a woman to whisper playfully in her ear. He was always debonair, but in the years since that last ballistic argument with Christine, he’s become positively insouciant in his amorous behaviors; the combination has wrought him seemingly irresistible to any woman of his desire.
“You’re sure it’s not the one from last time?” I ask Mike hopefully. We’d met up with Dezi just after the new year, and he’d brought a woman he’d been seeing for several months. “Krista?”
“Kirstie,” Mike corrects me. “Krista was the one from last summer.”
“No, that was Crystal,” I say. “I remember because he kept making those jokes about stemware the whole week at the lake.”
“Oh, God, yes,” Mike says. “That was awful. Anyway, this one’s definitely new.”
“Shut up; he’s seen us,” I hiss, and I wave at Dezi. The woman has turned as well and, yes, it’s another petite brunette. Check, check, and — too far to tell, but brown eyes are common enough. If ever these days he romances women without these characteristics, those relationships never last long enough to warrant an introduction to his inner circle — but he was always more taciturn than Christine in disclosing the details of his dating life.
“It’s the Walkers!” Dezi exclaims, pumping Mike’s hand enthusiastically and clapping him on the back, then hugging me. “Holly, Mike, I’d like you to meet a very special lady. This,” he says, turning and putting an arm around the woman’s shoulders — yes, brown eyes, check — and squeezing her briefly, “is Kristen.”
“Soooo good to meet you,” I practically coo, dodging the elbow Mike was about to dig into my side by stepping forward, grasping the latest lookalike of my best friend by the hand, and treating her to a smile of the highest wattage. “It’s always a pleasure to meet someone important to Dezi.”
“You must say that a lot,” she deadpans.
“I — what?”
“It’s not as if I don’t realize my Desmond is a charmer,” she explains, grinning. Her teeth are shockingly white against her bright-pink lips, and I think, unkindly, of the open leaves of the venus flytrap that Brooke had, for a joke, left on my desk in Indianapolis: a solution to the persistent drone of the housefly that had grated on my nerves for several days.
Dezi laughs and kisses the top of woman’s head on the place where her long hair parts.
“You know me too well, my love,” he murmurs into her hair. Then, to me, he says, “It’s okay, Holly. Kristen knows all about my sordid past.”
“I’m not sure I would say sordid,” I comment. “Active, perhaps.” My love? Did he just call her my love?
“There are no secrets between us,” Dezi explains. “You see, tonight is a celebration. I wanted — we wanted — to tell you two first. Well, after our parents. Of course.”
“Dezi, man, what are you saying?” Mike demands. “Tell us what?”
“Kristen has agreed to marry me,” he says. “We’re engaged!”
In the sudden silence — in which my jaw drops, actually drops, open — the well-coiffed host steps up and says to Dezi, “Sir, your table is ready.”
“Give us a moment,” Mike asks. The man nods and steps away. Dezi looks nervous, excited; the woman who’s snared him — yes, I can see the ring; he did the thing properly, of course; her hand hadn’t been in view before but certainly is now — looks pleased. Mike shakes Dezi’s hand enthusiastically, congratulating him, and hugs Kristen, this woman on whom we’ve never before laid eyes. I attempt to smile.
“What a surprise,” I say, finally — too late; thank God for Mike’s instant joviality. “I’m afraid you’ve caught us completely off guard.” I manage a smile that feels possibly not blatantly false. “Why don’t we sit down and you tell us all about it over dinner?”
“Perfect,” Dezi says. The group begins to turn toward the host, and I put a hand on Mike’s arm.
“I’ll be right there,” I say. “I need to step in the ladies’ room.”
As soon as the restroom door closes behind me, my cell phone is in my hand and I’m texting Brooke.
D lost his mind
Worse than you can imagine
Brooke’s response is immediate: You are being dramatic again
I am typing furiously.
Tiny, brown eyes, brown hair
Giant fucking diamond
Super weird but congrats to D
That mofo always was cray cray
There is something wrong here I insist, thumbs flying across the touchscreen.
He is supposed to be with C
I know it
This time, several minutes pass before a new message appears from Brooke.
We are not in a romantic comedy
This is real life
Things do not always happen like in your stories
My phone beeps, interrupting my thoughts with an unexpected text from Christine, who has no idea her old flame has suddenly become affianced to her doppelgänger.
Holly I was thinking…
Would you invite Dezi to my bday?
I don’t know if he wants to hear from me
Do you think he’d come?
I know it’s been years but…
It wouldn’t REALLY be the old gang
I look at the text, read it over again, and slump against the wall. I slowly type out one final message to Brooke and hit “Send.”
Sometimes things happen like in my stories
Where do you think stories come from?
Prompt: Run With It, January 2014