Birthdays are always a momentous occasion. My dad was celebrating his on Saturday, the best excuse to fly home for the weekend. I still considered Oasis Springs my home even though I lived in San Myshuno. It was hard to get out of the habit. I asked Joseph if he felt the same way.
“Home is where you are, Lizzie,” he replied.
I wished he could come with me, but at the last minute, his boss upped his workload. Joseph figured this was as good a time as any to ask for a raise. Since I didn’t want a perfectly good ticket to go to waste, I invited Karleen to join me.
“How’s my little munchkin?” Eddie said, greeting me with a higher pitched voice.
I must’ve had a look of disgust on my face because Karleen joked, “Careful, Liz. Your face might freeze that way.”
“Dad, I haven’t been little… or a munchkin in a long time,” I rolled my eyes.
“You’ll always be my baby girl,” my father said, walking toward the living room. “No matter how old you are.”
After we got settled, I met Holland for drinks at the Rattlesnake. I hadn’t been there since I was dating Rob. The place hadn’t changed much. Take that back. It hadn’t changed at all. Same awful movie-theater-seat-red drapes much too big for the windows. Same dim lighting and cheap chairs and grey bartop. Different staff though. Not surprising. Turnover in the bartending world was pretty high actually.
Holland ordered us some pita bread and famous Rattlesnake hummus. I did miss their bar food. San Myshuno had something available twenty-four seven with something to please everyone’s culinary palette, but there was a sort-of timeless charm of a local watering hole that served favorites and closed before the wee morning hours. We sipped our Riverblossom Cranerulet Nuala wine, made from white cranberries from a river rather than a bog. Holland told me she was happy, but surprised to hear from me.
“Sorry,” I winced, fiddling with my stem. “I kinda dropped off the planet.”
I didn’t add quite literally.
“I’m just glad you’re back,” Holland grinned. “Business is business but you’re my best client. I’d hate to lose you.”
“Thank you,” I said, shyly. “So you read the proposal?”
“Yes,” Holland said. “And I have lots to say.”
A party of four frat boys arrived and wanted to sit together at the bar so we slid down the end, grabbing platefuls of hummus, crackers, celery, and cheese. Holland laid out her plan for moving my bestselling novel to the big screen while maintaining creative freedom and control and giving the studio what they wanted for a reasonable price. When she wrote down the numbers, I nearly fell out of my barstool. It’d be enough to last us for years to come, and Joseph could afford to look for a better job. I was impressed at how good a job my agent had done, and realized it was high past time I give her a raise, especially with a seven-figure payout.
“I am confident that this is the deal you’ve been waiting for,” Holland assured. “I think you’ll get everything you want and more.”
“Wow,” was all I could manage to say. “Thank you for all your hard work.”
“Psh! I’ve been living for a day like this myself,” Holland waved her hands dramatically. “Of course, you’ll have to fly to Duetchsimland with me to close the deal. Are you ready for that?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” I nodded my head, swallowing hard as reality set in.
Truth was I didn’t think that through, and the doctor recommended no long-term travel, but this was too good an offer to pass up. I hesitated, my hand hovering over my abdomen. If I had still been carrying a little one, who knows if I would’ve been able to do this? Then again, if I had my little one, I probably would’ve called my agent back instead of blowing her off time and time again.
“Holland, I’m sorry about everything,” I said, guilt twinging in my gut. “I… really didn’t mean to cut you out of my life and all. And I really appreciate everything you’ve done.”
“Lizzie, I know what it’s like,” Holland reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Hundreds of women go through what you have.”
“Oh I don’t know about that,” I shrugged, my voice going up a notch.
“I miscarried between Paris and Brooklyn,” Holland laid both hands over my stomach. “I know that emptiness feeling and how you just wish the world would go away. It’s okay. Trust me. I don’t blame you for retreating.”
I smiled sadly. If only it were that simple.
Sunday morning after services with the family, I decided to go jogging. I missed this big open space of a state park. San Myshuno certainly had its beauty, but there was something delightful about butterflies in the lilacs and hot orange sand and prickly cacti. I counted my steps, wondering if I’d ever be able to keep up with Joseph. We chatted via Sim-ype last night and I laid out the details of Holland’s plan. He was supportive, and happy for me, but I could tell he was tired. He hated being apart. Truth was, I missed him, but I was also happy to see my family.
I stopped as my cell phone dinged. Plucking the device from my pocket, I smiled when I saw who the sender was.
Good morning, beautiful. ☀
Morning, handsome. 😃
Finished your latest novel. Can’t believe it took me until now to finish it. 😬
It’s okay. We’ve been busy.
I know the real reason was the separation due to my ghostliness and trying to get a handle on life first, but I didn’t need to say that in a text.
It’s great. You did a good job with the protagonist. 👍
Thanks. I’ve been following your ad campaign. Saw a commercial this morning.
That was Brad’s. Boss pulled me off the campaign.
Joseph, I’m so sorry. 🙁
Meh. It is what it is. Is it Wednesday yet? I want you home. 😘
I could hear my girlfriends laughing in the distance. Teresa was complaining about an ache in her stomach, and Karleen teased her that they only went a quarter-mile to catch up to me. I smiled. It would be nice to hang with the ladies today, even if I missed my man.
Miss you. Girls are here. Ttyl. 💓
Joseph didn’t write ‘miss you more.’ He felt guilty for wanting his wife to be at home while he continued recovering from his neck injury. She had an incredible opportunity and he wanted to be fully supportive. He definitely didn’t want to tell her he lost his job. He was let go. It had been a long time coming, and now with his absence from work due to the car accident, his boss made the easy choice in terminating him. All this talk about a busier weekend was bull. He walked in yesterday morning and received his immediate notice of termination. Not much better than being fired. Lizzie was moving up in the world, and he was woefully lagging behind. Joseph grunted as he looked around at the apartment. He should go for a run. It would help him clear his head. After feeding the cat. Now where was Dulcie?
“Liz, you’ll outpace us all,” Siri complained, twisting her pink hair into a messy bun.
“I’ve been running a little more regularly,” I shrugged. “It’s nice and peaceful out here today. Nothing like the car horns in the city.”
“We’re so glad you came for a visit,” Ameera said, stretching her arms.
“Yeah, but what’s the real reason you’re here?” Teresa asked.
“Teresa,” Ameera shook her head.
“What? I can’t just want to see all of you?” I rubbed the back of my sweaty neck. “And my dad? It’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow.”
“She’s here to meet with her agent about a movie deal!” Karleen said, exuberantly.
“Karleen!” I sighed.
I wasn’t ready to tell the world I might be making a movie. I hadn’t even signed the papers yet or met with the producers.
“What?” Karleen replied. “I didn’t know it was a secret.”
“I knew it!” Teresa clapped her hands. “I saw you with your agent last night going into the bar.”
“You were spying, you little brat!” Siri teased, pulling on Teresa’s hair lightly.
“Ow!” Teresa grimaced. “Anyhoo… I figured you would only come here if it was something big.”
“A movie,” Ameera swooned. “How exciting!”
“Yeah yeah, it’s not set in stone yet,” I dismissed. “Let’s keep working out, ladies.”
Karleen shared her pregnancy woes and her desires to be a single mom.
Teresa confessed that she told Steve she liked him and he took her out for cheese pizza. He was polite. Opened her door. Got her chair. Carried her purse. And brought her a daisy.
Ameera gushed about her boyfriend, Raj, and how he was improving his cooking. She showed all the ladies pictures of his latest culinary feats.
Siri explained how she was working on a new piece of art. Nude. Because she was trying to master human anatomy. Karleen laughed. Teresa blushed. Ameera pointed out how inappropriate the topic was. Siri disagreed.
“She’s gotta learn sometime,” she shrugged. “We’ve all got parts. The human body is pretty spectacular when you come to think about it.”
“Come on, ladies,” I grunted, into my fortieth sit-up. “We came here to work-out.”
“How do you keep your hair so shiny?” Ameera admired Karleen’s, snapping a photograph.
“Pregnancy,” Karleen answered.
Everyone laughed. I narrowed my eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t have told them where I was going. No one seemed to want to join me. Joseph and Riley were rubbing off on me.
We managed to jog a little further before taking a break again. It was the middle of the day so the heat was getting to some of us. Ameera grilled some hot dogs in the picnic section of the park so we could enjoy lunch before popping off to the restrooms.
“How do you get love to last?” Teresa asked me, bluntly.
“Um… uh…” I fumbled.
Joseph and I hadn’t quite made it to a year yet, and we stumbled a lot. I was growing to love him more, but the starting over part was hard.
“Why do you ask?” I inquired.
Teresa twisted her hair. “My parents… they aren’t sure I should date until I’m older.”
“They’re smart,” I remarked. “There’s no reason to rush. You’re young.”
“They’re idiots,” Siri protested. “Girls should date at any age they feel they’re ready. I mean, boys are allowed to date at younger ages. Why shouldn’t our sex be allowed the same opportunity?”
I frowned. “It’s different in every family… Teresa…” I continued. “You and Steve are young and you have time. You don’t necessarily need to think about love now.”
“But you and Joseph are so romantic,” Teresa swooned. “And Ameera and Raj. I want a guy who cooks for me, and takes me on nice dates and kisses me on the mouth.”
“Amen, sista!” Siri pumped her fist in the air.
“Siri,” I sighed. “Not helping. Have a hot dog.”
“I’m not eating red meat,” Siri declared.
Five minutes later, Siri was on her second hot dog. I explained to Teresa that true love was more than just cooking and date nights and kisses, though those were important too. True love was being patient with your spouse, and kindly taking care of them when they were sick, and working through the difficult stuff.
“So sticking together no matter what?” Teresa summarized.
“Yeah, essentially,” I affirmed. “Joseph and I have been through a lot of struggles, but we keep working through them and we don’t give up on each other. That’s a big commitment for two freshmen in high school. A lot can happen in four years.”
“Yeah, but people marry their high school sweethearts all the time,” Teresa gushed. “Steve is just so cute. And funny. And he makes me feel good.”
“Okay,” I smiled giving her a side-squeeze. “Enjoy your time with him.”
“Has anyone seen Karleen?” Ameera interrupted.
As if on cue, we heard retching in the bushes.
“Aw… Karleen…” I said.
After the party on Monday, Nora and I wandered out to the bench overlooking the golf course and pond to chat. Nora wanted to apologize for her insensitivity to me last fall and winter. I told her not to worry about it, but she insisted, and I accepted her apology. She shared how she had some big news, but she wasn’t sure our parents would approve.
Before she had the opportunity to tell me, Ali joined us on the park bench.
“What are you girls up to?” she said in her usual cheery voice.
“Not much, just catching up,” I replied.
“You’re never going to guess!” Ali exclaimed. “Okay… wait guess! Okay, don’t guess… Leon asked me to move in with him.”
“Leon, really? Wow!” I replied.
They had only been dating a short time, but she seemed happy.
“Yeah, he had an opening in his apartment for a roommate,” Ali explained. “A girl named Courtney Neon roomed with them…”
Ali chattered away about how cool Leon was and how awesome it would be to live with him and his roomie, Lewis, and how she finally had the opportunity to move into the city. But I froze, feeling an icy cold blast through my veins. I narrowed my eyes. Who is Courtney Neon and why is that name familiar?
“You guys!” Ameera interrupted. “I have news.”
“Get in line,” Nora teased.
“Really? I have to wait,” Ameera pouted.
Honestly, I didn’t hear much of what they were saying. My brain was still fixated on a vision of neon and purple and a forbidden kiss. My stomach was all in knots and I was sure I never met the woman, but somehow knew her.
“Liz! Are you listening?” Ameera exclaimed.
“Simterra to Lizzie,” Ali hooted.
Nora nudged me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m engaged!” Ameera blurted out.
“What?” Ali threw her hands in the air. “Mazel Tov!”
“That’s wonderful,” I managed.
“Thanks. Raj proposed last night and showed me this little house he’s renting for us in a quiet little section of the desert, just outside town.”
“Wow, how cool!” Nora smirked. “I remember when Julian and I moved in together.”
Somehow I felt left out. Even though I was already married. Even though Joseph and I were happy enough. All these announcements made me feel a little off-balance.
“I’ve got big news too…” Nora giggled, pulling out her phone and showing Ali a picture. “Do you know what that is?”
Ameera squinted her eyes to see from where she was standing. Again, I felt left out.
“What is it, Nora?” I said, trying to mask my annoyance.
“An ultrasound,” Nora said, smugly. “I’m expecting.”
“Holy heavens!” Ali exclaimed. “Buena suerte!”
“What are you studying languages now?” I said, impatiently.
Ali shrugged. “It’s just… fun…Nora, congrats!”
A baby! I felt my heart sink as I congratulated my kid sister. I genuinely wanted to feel happy for her, but Lee was pregnant and Karleen was pregnant, and I was… not. Strangely, I felt dead inside. Not angry. Not sad. Not frustrated. Numb. At a loss for words. Tears pricked my eyes and I quickly pulled Nora into an embrace.
Home is where you are, Lizzie. Joseph’s voice echoed in my head and I suddenly ached to be in his arms. I said my goodbyes to the girls, walked back to the house, grabbed my bags, and asked Karleen if she minded if we caught an earlier flight. Her feet were up on the sofa and she was leafing through a magazine with an inane cartoon muted in the background.
“Sure,” she shrugged. “I’m kinda missing my bed.”
“No kidding,” I said, soberly, thinking of Joseph.
While Karleen and I were in the airspace somewhere above the Nation, Annie was fighting with the garbage chute in the hallway. Flies buzzed about, and she waved at them, aggravated. There was a visible green cloud of something when she managed to get it partially closed.
“Lovely!” she spit, annoyed by the foul taste and stench.
She walked around the hallway, knocking on doors to see if someone could come assist. Riley and Akira were in Uptown for the night. Probably snuggling beneath stars, Annie thought, feeling lonely. Geeta, the landlady, was out for a shift as the Love Guru. She has yet to predict good things for my love life, Annie sighed. She knocked on the Green-Simself apartment door. After a minute, Joseph answered.
“Hey, do you think you could help me?” Annie pointed across the hallway. “With the trash?”
“You… will… close…” Joseph grunted, forcing the jammed trash chute door with his shoulder.
Immediately, he felt the tension and pain shoot through his body. He rubbed his neck. That was dumb. Annie had stayed to help for a minute, but then she received a phone call. It must’ve been good because she shouted for joy and apologized to him, saying she finally had plans for the night.
“Hot date?” he smirked.
“Something like that,” she grinned, and ran off to her apartment with girlish glee.
He was happy for her. But her joy just made him miss Lizzie even more. She wouldn’t be home until Wednesday. She hadn’t been responding to his texts for the last three hours. He tried not to panic. She was probably in a meeting. He pivoted, returning to the apartment, planning to nab a shower, ice his shoulder, and order in a pizza. He walked in, the door staying open, but he was too lazy to go back and shut it. The elevator bell dinged.
“Joseph!” a familiar voice exclaimed.
I dropped my bags and ran to him, throwing my arms around him.
“Elizabeth! You’re home?” he said, surprised, his eyes lighting up. “You’re home…” he repeated, closing his eyes and sighing into my shoulder.
“I missed you,” I whispered. “And you stink.”
“I was going to shower,” he replied with a low chuckle. “And I missed you too. It was so boring around here without you.”
“You’re going to shower?” I said, coyly, removing my hat and reaching for my skirt zipper. “I’ll join you.”
“Oh really?” he said with the biggest, toothiest grin on his face.
He didn’t even care that he was still recovering from his injury. Joseph picked me up and carried me into the bathroom.