STAGE THREE: BARGAINING, Saturday, 8:17 p.m.
“Are you still engaged or what?” asked Leah, half-jokingly, half inquisitively.
“Glad my life falling apart manages to amuse some people…” snapped Fabienne.
“Fae, ignore her; some people need a course in Friendship Etiquette 101,” Marissa said with a sly smile, before addressing Leah with reprimanding eyes.
“I thought we already went over this: I told you guys: I’m done,” Fabienne replied in a severe tone, her eyes darting back and forth between her friends.
Leah and Marissa sat back in silence, afraid to further enrage their jilted friend. The air was filled with apprehension. Neither one knew how to address the issue without reprisal from an irate ‘would-be’ bride.
“I don’t know where we stand,” Fabienne finally admitted. She looked down at her sparkling engagement ring and proceeded to rotate it around her index finger out of habit. Marissa approached her and knelt down beside her.
“Honey, you need to know. You’ve been brewing anger for WEEKS! Isn’t it time to find a resolution and know where you guys stand?”
“Why should I be the one to do all the work? Was I alone in this relationship all along?” Fabienne screamed in outrage. “Why doesn’t HE pick up the phone to try to mend things?”
Marissa squeezed her friend’s hand and opened her mouth to offer her hypothesis, but quickly decided against it.
“I’m sorry,” Fabienne, her expression apologetic as she plunged her face into her hands to conceal her hurt.
“Baby girl, whatever you want to do, we have your back. But it would be best for you to find a clear resolution to this and know where you stand rather than guess. Forget the angry e-mail you sent: maybe he’s calling your bluff, that’s why he’s not calling you back. So, as far as I’m concerned, no e-mail responses, texts or calls may be a way for him to dismiss your blow-up as just that: a blow-up. Men hate confrontation, whether they’re dating, engaged or married. It’s up to you to get into his space and get a firm answer so that you no longer sit here pondering what is,” said Leah, her expression soft.
“I’m just so TIRED of this whole thing!” Fabienne responded.
“We know, hun…”
“But I do admit that I hate not knowing. Either way, he’s a coward! First of all, who walks out on his woman when she’s already going through a crisis just because he’s not getting it? Then, when he finally got around to calling me back days later, it was to accuse me of cheating on him…with JOHN, of all people…Said I’ve held off on giving it up to him for years, but had no reservations giving it up to a white boy. Like!? I thought we were way past his jealousy of John. Ya’ll know I love Jay, but he’s not my type whatsoever. Marc’s trainer better watch his back: I will spit in his face if I ever run into him…he wants to spread rumours about me? He’s about to know me! What irks me the most is that Marc is more than willing to just take his word over mine! How messed up is that? We haven’t been together for 10 days, for crying out loud! We’ve been together 10 YEARS, while he’s known that asshole Devin for all of two years! I’ve put up with him being indecisive about his future; changing career paths a thousand times; never finishing his education; picking up the bill for him God knows how many times because he was in “between” jobs. I’ve had several people tell me that I could do better since I was so driven and accomplished, yet I dismissed them and chewed them up for their insolence. But yet, Marc wants to act up like he’s the one who’s had to contend with me? That’s priceless!?” Fabienne yelled, jumping to her feet and pacing back and forth.
“Fae, we get it! Now, what does it all mean? That you’re done for good? Seems like it!? Judging by your outburst, perhaps you’ve already taken your decision and do not need Marc to validate it. If that’s the case, then cut your losses and move on!” Leah yelled back.
Silence fell again. Fabienne pursed her lips together and thought about whether or not she was truly ready to bid farewell to that part of her life. The feeling of defeat weighed down on her heavily; she was out of courage and on love’s life support.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Can we have dessert now?” Fabienne asked with a sigh before reclaiming her seat on the sofa.
“Yeah, enough doom and gloom for one night,” Marissa said cheerfully. “Let’s enjoy this night for what it’s supposed to be: GIRLS NIGHT! Didn’t you PVR The Bachelor Canada, Ley?”
“Yes ma’am! I’m hoping this is the week Whitney or Gabriella gets the boot!”
One hour and 12 minutes into the show, Fabienne was no longer listening to the eager women across the screen or her friends’ banter about them. Excusing herself, she made her way to the washroom and closed the door behind her.
She looked down at her cell phone and dialed Marc’s number. Not surprisingly, it went straight to voicemail.
Marc, c’est moi. I’m coming in peace and just want us to talk the way we used to when we were friends, because that’s what we were initially and that’s something I do not want to lose. Whether your feelings have changed or not, you are and always will be first and foremost, my best friend. We roll like Brown and Shtiny. Bye.
In the living room, she could hear Leah and Marissa screaming of glee.
“What happened?” asked Fabienne.
“Gabriella got the boot!” yelled Leah, as she gathered their dessert plates and walked over to her kitchen sink in a victory dance.
“It was about time!”
“Who’s up for another slice?”
“Hit me up!” exclaimed Marissa. “Fae, is everything OK?”
“Oh yeah, everything’s all good. I’m with my ladies: what could be wrong?” she winked.
The evening stretched on languishingly, leading each one of the women to fall asleep from too must desserts and even more drinks. When Fabienne awoke in a jolt at 3:32 a.m. following another nightmare, a voicemail was awaiting her.
“Hey…it’s Marc. I got your message. Yeah…I think it’s time for each of us to say what we’ve really been feeling. I just want to get these things off my chest…”
And on that indicative note, Fabienne proceeded to listen to the longest voicemail Marc had ever left her in the history of their relationship, sealing the inevitable end of their story.
“I COULD REALLY SPIT IN YOUR FACE RIGHT NOW,” he said as his face inched closer to hers, his rage palpable through his clenched teeth. She held in her breath, afraid to allow it to escape her. She had never seen him so angry. “You denied me for years, but you had no problem giving it up to him, huh? You disgust me,” he dropped while slamming the wall next to her head with his fist. Fabienne woke up in a jolt and felt her heart tighten for a split second before it resumed its normal rhythm. It was just a nightmare and though Fabienne felt relieved after the fact, she quickly wished that it had ended in a resolution of some sort; reality, as it turned out, offered none.
Eight days had gone by since Marc had walked out on his fiancée in the middle of the night and despite the several messages she had subsequently left him on his voicemail (in addition to countless text messages), Fabienne felt more defeated than ever. Marc had gone into hiding from an imaginary villain made up of rumours and hearsay. During those 192 hours, she had gone through a rollercoaster of emotions and doubts about their future and wondered if those feelings were similar to those experienced by people dealing with tragic loss. She was aware of them – the Five Stages of Loss or Grief; in fact, they had been the only subject matter she had shown interest in during her freshman year’s Psychology 101 class. And though none of them had any incidence on her carefree life at the time, they had been stored away into her “mental” locker. Dusting them off their “life” shelf was now a matter of sanity for the lonely.
STAGE ONE: DENIAL, Monday, 7:58 a.m.
The computer screen blinked a series of numbers and codes as Fabienne hung her trench coat and cashmere shawl on a hook.
“Hey, lady!” a voice said, interrupting her thoughts.
“Oh, hi Fern. How are you?
Fern, a 15-year senior translator who had mentored her during her FSWEP program, was standing at the entrance of Fabienne’s cubicle, holding a steaming cup of coffee that was likely older than she was. Fabienne recognized the smell of hazelnut: she hated that flavour.
“How was your weekend? Did you do your regular bi-weekly trek to Montreal?” Fern asked, rubbing the base of her cup with her palm.
Fabienne’s computer screen sang its opening ringtone before revealing its desktop fixture: a smiling Fabienne and Marc, their heads joined together.
“Yeah, I did,” she responded noncommittally.
“How’s the family? And how about that gorgeous fiancé of yours?” Fern continued on, leaning against the cubicle wall. Her interest seemed genuine and nonthreatening, unlike a thread unravelling from her faded red cardigan. Fabienne felt the urge to pull on it to save Fern from her messiness; after all, she reasoned that it was clearly too short a string for her to hang herself with…
“Everyone is good. Marc is great! He’s getting eager for us to get hitched: ten years, you know? The man cannot wait to claim what’s his!” she said winking. Her heart raced as the words left her mouth.
“Who can blame him?” Fern agreed. “So long as he treats sweet old you well, he has my vote!” Fern said, patting Fabienne’s hand.
“Speaking of, he just texted me…” she said, brandishing her cell phone in the air as if to signal the urgency to return the call.
“Oh, no problem. Tell him I say hi, even though he has no clue who I am, but…”
Fabienne’s was already in another world as Fern finished her sentence. She was already texting Marc for the 28th time: Fern says hello. The poor thing cannot wait to meet you lol.
STAGE TWO: ANGER Wednesday, 2:16 p.m.
“Are there any new developments for that 8,000-word document from Parliament?” inquired Brenda, the team’s translation coordinator, who had suddenly turned the corner from the hallway and was inches away before Fabienne had any time to react.
“Jesus! Can you please not sneak up on me like that?” Fabienne asked, her face stern.
“Sorry,” Brenda apologized, her tone giving away her impatience. She was one of those women who harboured a haughty tone towards people despite being as junior as they come.
“What is it you were asking about?”
“That 8,000-word document from Parliament? You know, the one that I assigned you last Thursday? Is it almost done?”
“Um, yes, but I thought I had until Friday to hand it in?”
“Technically you do, but there are more of them coming through and given that you left earlier last Friday for Montreal, I’m going to need you to crank it up and deliver it sooner so that I can assign you…”
“Hold up, Brenda! Deadlines are implemented for a reason: to allow us time for translation quality and delivery. The clients are aware that. Why is this suddenly changing?”
“It’s not! But you know how things can get around here: you know how this place can be. I didn’t make the rules!”
“And neither have I!”
“But yet you get to go away early every other Friday to Montreal to see your fiancé and frankly, not all of us get that privilege, so…”
“Listen, Brenda: I know you take your job seriously and that’s great and all, but I don’t believe that my personal life has anything to do with work deadlines especially if I deliver everything on time. I will never apologize for having a LIFE outside of this place and I would appreciate it if you could keep your remarks regarding my fiancé to yourself,” Fabienne snapped before walking away, leaving Brenda dumbfounded.
As she returned to her cubicle and sat at her desk, she could feel a fiery ball of expletives growing inside the pit of her stomach and she knew just where to take her fury.
I’m sure you’re enjoying making me squirm, but I’m done taking your bullshit. I’ve sacrificed time and again for us, and all I have to show for it is your ungratefulness and the disdain of my colleagues who question my work ethics for that very sacrifice. You obviously do not know how good you have it, so you can kiss us goodbye: I know my worth. Congratulations: you wanted me to hate you? You’ve succeeded with flying colors, which says a lot since you’ve never seen anything through in your whole entire life…
Without a second thought, Fabienne pressed the ‘SEND’ button, bidding Marc a farewell to hell.
THE CALL HAD COME IN THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING and gone straight to voicemail. This didn’t prove unusual for the caller – she was aware that Marissa had this belief that restful nights led to jolts of ingenuity in the mornings and that she adhered to a strict do-not-disturb-me-under-no-pretense rule. To further get the point across, Marissa had long adopted the habit of turning off all telecommunication devices by 10:00 p.m. every night to discourage gossipy nightcap calls from colleagues and only loosened the grip on the “almighty” code when duty called during VSPR events. But unbeknownst to her friends, she had changed her telephone habit in recent months.
In fact, following her successful first date with Johan several months prior, Marissa had morphed into one of those teenage girls who eagerly await the call from the voice that works as effectively as a cup of java and keeps an infatuated woman miraculously awake through several hours of conversation. Her usual “fountain of youth” formula was now obsolete. Ever since Johan had revealed his feelings to her in that boardroom, Marissa had grown increasingly preoccupied with the thought of him and the idea of what could be; in a matter of weeks, they had gone from casually hanging out once a week to spending every single evening together, transforming the wondering into…wonder.
Marissa looked down at her cell phone: it was now 2:38 a.m. on a Sunday morning and she had spent every waking moment with Johan, which brought her much pleasure and that tingly feeling in the pit of her stomach that her friends had continuously spoken about during their teens. Though she had survived several short-lived romances in her life, she had never experienced it herself during those primitive years until now and she found herself pleased to be a late bloomer for it had been well worth the wait. She wondered if perhaps this is what one would call “being in love”; after all, she didn’t possess a previous point of reference from which to draw such a conclusion from other than her girls’ musings, but she relished the idea of entering this new place “emotionally” and to feel something for someone that is unlike love for a family member or a close friend. Johan had made it virtually impossible for her to consider their “relationship” anything less than the four letter-word.
She looked over at Johan, who was sleeping soundly at the other end of the sofa, one arm over his head. She sat up and tried to jump over him quietly, tripping slightly as her right foot grazed his crossed legs. She walked over to his washroom and looked herself over in the mirror; her mascara was slightly smudged under her lash lines and she rubbed them off vigorously with her forefingers. She turned on the faucet and within seconds, splashed cold water on her neck, slicking her hair back with the remaining drops. As she towelled off her hands, there was a faint knock on the door.
“Yeah? Come in.”
Johan opened the door and walked in, looking sleepy. The front left side of his hair stood awkwardly in a spike and Marissa chuckled at the sight of it.
“I thought maybe you’d left…”
“No, just thought I would get up and get ready to leave.”
“We both need to be at work early: the Dupere Children Foundation gala won’t turn itself into a…”
“You think too much, did anyone ever tell you that?” Johan asked, smiling, as he got closer, cupping her face in his hands.
“Is that a fault? My behaviour should be viewed as a sign of someone who isn’t growing complacent, no? I care about being ahead of the game and I act accordingly,” she replied, butting her head with his before turning away from him and walking out of the washroom.
Johan followed her into the living room as she sat down to lace up her olive green velvet booties and gathered a few of her belongings that had spilled out of her slouchy Marc Jacobs leather hobo bag. He stood against the open doorway and placed his hands inside his dark trousers.
“Spend the night.”
She stopped herself and looked up at him.
“It’s late. You can’t go home now,” he continued, walking over to her and taking a seat a couple of feet away from her on the sofa. She stared at him blankly before resuming her activities.
“Marissa, did you hear me?”
“Yes, I did.”
She stood up and walked over to the entrance to grab her shawl and wrap it around her neck. He followed her, puzzled.
“Marissa, you can’t leave this late into the night. It’s not safe. I can give you the bedroom and sleep on the couch and in the morning, we can…”
“Johan, I have to go,” she responded flatly before unbolting the front door.
“What’s going on? Did I do something?” Johan stood in the entrance doorway in a manner that made it hard for her leave.
“No, Johan, you haven’t done anything. I just…I have to go, OK? I’ve been away from my own life for weeks now and need to get back to it. I have countless missed calls; I haven’t spoken to my girls in days; my mother hardly hears from me anymore. I…I just have to go.”
“You think they’ve sent out a search party for you?” he said, amused by his own joke. “I’m sure they’re all sound asleep and can all wait until the next day.”
“That may be true, but I can’t. Good night, Johan. See you tomorrow,” she simply said, tugging a bit at his shirt before starting down the hall and down the stairs.
As she pushed her way through the lobby doors, she felt foolish; not just for her behaviour, but because it was becoming clear to her that she didn’t know how much longer she would have to wait for their first kiss to “materialize”. Despite all of their time spent together and the marks of flirtation that made playing hard to get endearing in the beginning, her patience and anticipation were now running thin. As far as she was concerned, Jennifer Garner had nothing on her – she was living a real life account of that sappy 13 going on 30 bubble gum fantasy and this was one movie reel that was taking far too long to bloom.
“MARC, OH MY GOD! I CAME AS SOON AS I COULD,” Leah said breathlessly, as she hugged her visibly shaken friend. Marc hugged Leah tightly and sighed of relief. He knew that if there was anyone Fabienne would want to see at this time, it would be her best friend. He had promptly texted Leah after an ambulance had arrived at the Etienne residence within several minutes of the incident – in a moment when paramedics requested that he and the others step aside while they tended to the lifeless elderly woman and a screaming Fabienne in need of sedating.
The doctors had managed to pump the matriarch’s stomach, but anticipated that she would subsequently slip into a coma. As for Fabienne, she was now resting in a separate room, sobbing quietly in her slumber, wrestling an unknown force that reigned over her like a vicious victor. The Etienne clan was seated in an adjacent waiting area, each of their faces more concerned than the last. Leah looked at François and Francis, whose expressions read of confusion mixed with disbelief. Both of them held on to their wives, who were crying uncontrollably. Mrs. Etienne sat in a chair, her head bobbing along with her trembling shoulders. The only person who seemed composed before such sadness was Mr. Etienne. He harbored a placid, unshakable expression. Leah saw him close his eyes several times and whisper quietly, as in dialogue with himself. To the outside world, his mannerism would earn him the distinction of another crazy person, but Leah knew better – she knew he was doing the only thing that brought him comfort, whether days beamed of sunlight or raged with chaos: she knew he was praying.
She approached Mrs. Etienne and knelt down in front of her to make her presence known. Mrs. Etienne, whose tears had quieted down, resorted to heavy sobs upon seeing Leah’s face.
“Leah, chérie…tu…tu es…ve…nue,” she said in a barely audible voice.
Leah simply nodded and taking Mrs. Etienne’s hands in her own, rubbed them gently to comfort her. She avoided saying anything, deciding on silence as a form of quiet understanding, though her mind couldn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what had taken place.
At that moment, Frederick arrived with his newest conquest in tow. His girlfriend, a pretty young woman with an impressive pout, looked around the waiting room at all the long faces – her expression quickly turned to one of regret for having bothered to make an appearance. She remained close to Fred, as if wishing to blend in with his shirt.
Francis, the oldest of Fabienne’s brothers, looked up and couldn’t conceal his anger at his younger sibling’s lack of better judgment. He stood up and made a beeline for Fred.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he dropped under his breath, however loud enough for bystanders to hear him and look their way.
“I came as quickly as I could,” Fred said, frowning at Francis’ attack.
“This is a family matter, Fred, did you really have to bring your latest chick around?” he said, glaring at Fred’s girlfriend. The girl was now clutching Fred’s hand so tightly that her knuckles were turning white.
“Francis, give me a damn break, will you? She’s here with me, big deal! She’s not hurting anyone,” Fred retorted. But as soon as he realized Leah’s presence, he added in a defiant tone: “Leah is here and she’s not family!”
“Leah is a lot more family than you right now, jackass! Don’t even try to justify this with such a stupid excuse when you know better. Your friend has…to…go,” Francis said angrily, inching closer to Fred’s face, who was maintaining a strong stance.
“Guys, please! Let’s keep it down,” said Ruth, Francis’ wife, as she approached them, placing her hand on her husband’s back to invite him to back off. She extended her hand out to Fred’s girlfriend to introduce herself.
“Hello, I’m Ruth,” she said with a bleak smile and reddened eyes. “Your name?”
“Sa…mantha,” responded Fred’s girlfriend hesitantly. She quickly shook Ruth’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Samantha,” Ruth continued. “Samantha, I’m sure you can understand that this is a difficult time for Fred’s family, so would you be so kind as to let us deal with everything as a family? I’m sure this is not how you wished to meet everyone the first time, right?” she suggested rhetorically. Samantha nodded, relieved that someone was able to understand her desire to flee such a scene. Francis sighed and looked at his wife with admiration; she was definitely deserving of her psychology degree.
“I’ll walk you to the door, babe,” Fred said to Samantha, and as he led her away from the group, he turned his head around to look at Fred, mouthing off Pussy.
As each one returned to their seat, Leah walked over to the area where Fabienne was resting. She observed her best friend lying on a stretcher, her face contorted in an expression of pain. She approached the curtain and parted it with her hand. As if sensing a presence, Fabienne opened her eyes slowly and her mouth curled downwards as tears rose up in her eyes.
“Ley, oh…my…G…” she said, bursting into tears.
“Shhh, I’m here,” Leah said, leaning over to wrap her arms around Fabienne.
“I…I don’t…my Gran Nanou, my Gran Nanou…” she repeated several times.
“I know, hun,” Leah responded more out of empathy than a real understanding of what was happening.
“She was…just…there,” Fabienne continued, in between more sobs and hiccups.
“Fae, what happened,” Leah asked, hesitantly. “Did she tr…try to take her own life?
Fabienne closed her eyes, pressing her lips together tightly to keep her from screaming. She seemed hard pressed on erasing the memory of the ordeal from her mind.
“I DON’T KNOW!” she cried out, before bursting into more tears. “She was just there, ly…lying on the floor. Gran Nanou, my Gran Nanou…”
Leah didn’t press her on. She just held on to Fabienne tightly, not uttering a single word. She wondered to herself if tragedy was the only true significant mark of their friendship. With each new card they were dealt, they had grown accustomed to holding each other in their brokenness; strangely, it was their most comfortable and favoured state because that’s when they stood strongest together.
Marc unlocked the door, holding on to Fabienne by the waist as she entered her fiancé’s tiny Saint-Michel apartment. Silvery beams from the full moon streamed through the patio door windows, bathing the darkened path ahead of them. Marc walked Fabienne over to his bedroom and as he did so, he looked on to her with concern: she appeared completely depleted from the trauma of too many things gone wrong.
As Fabienne’s head hit the pillow, she sighed of exhaustion. Marc sat by the bed, and placing her legs on his lap, carefully removed her shoes. He rubbed her feet gently and could hear Fabienne moan faintly from the relief it brought her. After several minutes, as Fabienne’s body wind down, he stood to leave, assuming that she was now in a restful state.
“Brown,” Fabienne called out to him. She had nicknamed him Brown in the early stages of their relationship following a successful movie date to a viewing of “Brown Sugar”. Unbeknownst to them, the movie would end up serving a much bigger purpose in their love story than a simple entertaining one – that very night, they would trade the generic “dating” label to the more desirable “exclusive” boyfriend and girlfriend titles.
Marc turned around and sat down next to her.
“Yes, Shtiny,” he asked, caressing her forehead with his hand.
“Can you lay down with me for a while?”
“Of course, babe…”
Marc lay down next to her as she moved to the centre of the bed, grabbing his left arm and wrapping it around her waist. He aligned his body with hers, nestling his face against her short cropped hair. Her body felt warm against his, and her curves resembled endless peaks and valleys. He slowly started kissing the back of her neck. She remained motionless for the first couple of minutes before turning around to face him. Their lips found their way to each other and their kisses, at first slow and gentle, grew more fervent. They had surrendered to some very intense and passionate make-out sessions in the past, mainly in their teens when hormones dictated actions far more than consequences; but the platitude of getting older, of facing life’s obligations, and of transitioning from an exciting new relationship to the more mundane world of habit and comfort had not benefited them in keeping that spark ablaze. Marc loved her and couldn’t imagine a time when he hadn’t been completely taken with her.
He cupped her face in his right hand, his lips traveling all over her face. She responded to his kisses, running her nails over his flesh. His left hand was now moving up her tear-speckled blouse. He slowly unbuttoned it, starting at the top and moved downwards, growing eager at the reveal of her ebony skin and the details of her lacy bra. She held on to his face with her hands and seized his lips with her teeth before returning to a less hedonistic approach. She pulled his t-shirt over his head, clawing her nails into his back for support as she climbed up from the bed to pull him back down with her. Marc’s panting rose as his hand moved under her navy skirt. She slowed her kisses and lay back, feeling her throat tighten. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes, suspended in their crevices.
“Brown…” she said slowly.
Marc continued on, unbuckling his pants without missing a beat.
“Brown, I…I can’t,” she said.
“Babe, I’m here for you,” he responded breathlessly as he kissed her all over her stomach.
“No, Brown, I CAN’T!” she shouted, pushing him away, grabbing her rumpled blouse to cover her breasts.
Marc sat back, baffled; remnants of his “manhood” were still visible as he rose to his feet to put his pants back on. He worked furiously on his belt buckle, fastening it as quickly as he had managed to get Fabienne unbloused. She approached the edge of the bed and touched his arm gently, but he yanked it away. She looked up at him with pleading eyes seeking a resolution, but Marc avoided her gaze altogether.
“Brown, I’m sorry. I just don’t…”
“Save it, Schtiny. Just…save it.”
“It’s been a rough day,” she said mournfully.
Marc stood there without moving, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply. Fabienne could tell he was trying to repress his frustration, which she anticipated would erupt in a succession of accusations long bottled up, but he remained silent. Fabienne stared at him with inquisitive eyes: despite the years gone by, Marc was still every bit her ultimate crush; but now, she was allowing another type of crushing to take hold of them, and Marc’s feelings were the ones being subjected to her torturous deviation.
“Can we talk about this? Fabienne asked in a small voice. She hoped her question wouldn’t further fuel his anger.
“No, we can’t,” he responded flatly. “Go sleep. I’m gonna go to the gym.”
“But it’s late,” she reasoned.
“I’m not sleepy,” he snapped, grabbing his gym back on his way out the bedroom door.
She sat back and bit her lip. She knew that Marc was not one to be pushed into submitting to anything he wasn’t in the right state-of-mind to discuss. She also knew that when life got to him, he took to the gym’s boxing floor to release the blows thrown his way.
“When will you be back?” she called out to him.
But her only answer came in the form of the apartment door closing shut.
“You’re not focused,” Devin Cruz yelled, pushing Marc with his boxing gloves, destabilizing him. Marc edged in closer, throwing a harder right-hand punch. The glistening sweat from his face revealed the creases of his indignation.
“Harder! Faster!” Devin yelled, pushing back with each incoming jab.
Marc unleashed his fury with several alternate punches in rapid sequence before dropping his arms to his sides on Devin’s command. His breathing was hoarse and he went about walking around the boxing ring in an attempt to shake off the soreness in his joints.
“That was better, but it wasn’t great,” Devin said, removing his protective pads. He pulled his drenched t-shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor before grabbing two bottles of water.
“Heads up!” Devin called out as he threw a bottle in Marc’s direction.
Marc settled on a small foot rest, wiping his forehead with a towel before draping it around his shoulders. He was winded from the workout, though the physical efforts he had deployed proved far less significant than his usual boxing prowess.
“Bredren, what was that? Are you already going soft on me?” Devin laughed, uncapping his water bottle and taking a swig. He sat on an adjacent foot rest. His dreads and goatee shined from perspiration under the sterile gym lights.
Marc’s face remained serious as his breathing cooled down. He picked at his boxing shoes noncommittally.
“Thought the workout would work its magic as it usually does…Some stuff went down in Shtiny’s family, but I’m tapped out from all of it, so let’s not talk about it.”
“Fair enough. But is all well with the lady?”
“Just, you know…it comes and it goes. I just needed to get out.”
“And this is why I don’t do commitment, dog; that shit right there.”
“Get outta here, bro; it’s not you not doing commitment; it’s commitment not doing you!” Marc chuckled.
“Well, when you put it like that, I guess a fine specimen like myself cannot be held up by convention – there are far too many possibilities available to me to stay locked up in a dungeon when a castle clearly needs each one of its rooms visited” Devin joked, his eyes fixated on a pretty young thing in the distance who was hugging a burly white guy. Her eyes crossed Devin’s and a seductive smile spread across her lips.
“Show me a king first ‘cause jesters hardly count as royalty.”
“Oh oh, touché!” Devin laughed, his eyes still staring at the woman as she turned her back, walking away. Before disappearing through the door, she turned one last time to have a look at him.
“No, but on the real, bredren, I can’t be tied down like you: women are shady, dog! They can tell you everything you want to hear, but when they tip-toe out that door, there’s this whole new dimension at play that’d you’re not even aware of, man. And you best to believe they cover those tracks better than dirt on bones.”
“Man, you sound just like my boy Hunter. Ya’ll just haven’t found the One yet, which is you fools are spewing some Dr. Phil shit. That’s cool if that’s your take. But let me tell you something: it’s not the same when you come across that one chick that changes the game. Fae and I may have been together for a long time, and yeah, there could have been “distractions”, but we’re not about that and we never acted on them. This is as real as being with someone who’s real gets, bredren. I wouldn’t trade that for all the concubines in the world.”
Devin nodded his head in “fake” reverence to his friend’s commentary on the virtues of love and relationships. Marc wasn’t one to easily back down from making his point.
“Is Schtiny still friends with that dude, um…what’s his name again? James?”
“White dude she used to roll with back in Ottawa when she moved there for school…”
“Oh, John? Yeah…I guess. She hardly brings him up anymore; she knows better than to bring him up. Why?”
“When’s the last time she’s seen him?”
“I don’t know…a year ago? Why?”
“Is that what she told you?”
“Yeah, man, I mean…yeah. Ever since he moved to NY, their communication kinda stalled. All the better for me, though: never trusted the dude.”
Devin leaned forward, setting his water bottle on the floor. His expression was now one of complete seriousness.
“Bredren, I don’t think you know everything about your girl,” Devin said in an even tone. “I saw her recently…with him.”
“Are we still in the same conversation here? ‘With who’…with John! ”
“What? What the hell are you talking about? When?”
“Last Thursday. They were coming out of the Delta Montreal and…they, um…were holding hands and kissing.”
“Back up. Schtiny? Is this a joke?”
“Man, I may be crass at times, but I wouldn’t mess with you like that.”
“You must have seen the wrong girl.”
“Bredren, I saw her,” Devin insisted. His tone was as serious as Marc had ever heard it. Sweat beads were forming around Devin’s temples. Marc’s throat tightened.
“Nah-uh, man, this is crazy! Fabienne only comes down every other Friday, and she was in Ottawa last weekend…”
“…man, I have been around you and Schtiny enough times to know what you both look like, even in my dreams. And even though I don’t know that John character well, I don’t easily forget a face. Tall dude…6’4…scar over his right eye…receding hairline…”
Marc sat back against the boxing ring cords, leaning on them for support. His head was going a hundred miles per hour. There was no way this could be his fiancée, he thought. But as Devin readied his bag and put away his belongings, he retraced the night’s outcome and felt anger resurface. If this was true, someone would have to pay. Never mind the betrayal – as far as Marc was concerned, a harder pill to swallow would be the notion that after being patient for a decade and still not getting the cookie, Fabienne could just give it up to the next man. Except, this wasn’t any other man: it was John – the only person who ever stood between them then, and the only thorn in Marc’s otherwise blissful relationship.
THE WEEKEND was slated to be another one of Fabienne’s biweekly trips to Montreal; for once, she found herself wishing it would also be a restful one. In desperate need of slowing down from the frenzied pace of the last several weeks, she was ready to slip into a 48-hour coma. The long Canada Day weekend had presented its fair share of revelry and unexpected repeated drama that was now common place in her circle as of late. <!–more–> She often thought back to the times when all of them could stand to just let go and let God and enjoy the simple things of friendship, laughter and appreciation of one another. But it had taken one person’s selfishness to bring the fort down, and though Fabienne abided by the school of do not judge, she couldn’t help but hold that person responsible for the demise of their group dynamic. She was also growing tired of being the “mother” figure. For as long as she could remember, she relished the title of wisest of them all; but she recently longed to be taken care of and have her concerns addressed with the same attention she had bestowed upon her friends time and time again. She had yet to witness one of them ask those three little words that would make a world of difference: Are you OK? She desperately yearned to hear those words – they were, after all, the subtle difference between self-awareness and selfishness.
Every other Friday was spent over at Marc’s place. Fabienne could already anticipate the routine that would come out of their evening – they seldom went out on dates anymore. Marc now insisted that his place was every bit as good as the fanciest restaurant or most entertaining movie theater in the city and that unlike these places, it held the distinction of being “free”. He had long being known for being a little “cheap”, which contrasted greatly with Fabienne’s high maintenance persona. Based on this one factor, many people had assumed over the years that their differences would eventually tear them apart. Surprisingly, it had not been enough of a deal breaker. Fabienne and Marc often described their love as something that could not be summed up in words, and consequently, anyone with a pulse could easily detect the current that rang between them. They had fought through the haters and naysayers numerous times and had promised one another that no matter what transpired in their relationship or around it, they would continue to love each other for as long as their hearts were still invested in what they had. They reminded everyone around them that what they had could not be quantified by how many things they had in common, but by the genuine friendship that celebrated their differences.
Fabienne looked at her dashboard: it indicated 6:34 p.m. She furrowed her brows at a couple of vehicles speeding past her shiny Mazda 6, eager to squeeze their way onto the ramp. She loved Montreal, but harbored feelings of impatience towards its growing traffic. As her vehicle advanced slowly in the maze, she looked up at the giant billboards perched atop buildings, smiling down at unsuspecting consumers. Each time a vehicle aligned next to hers, she turned to look at its passengers out of curiosity. On her right was a group of teenagers, engaged in loud talk over loud, explicit rap lyrics; on her left, two gentlemen with pronounced tans and dark curly hair held court in a cube van. Upon realizing that they had a spectator, they interrupted their conversation to look down at Fabienne, smiling mischievously before blowing her kisses. The older of the two, seated in the passenger’s seat, seemed transfixed on her cleavage and licked his lips like an eager ogre. Fabienne rolled her eyes and lifted up her round-neck tee to obstruct his view to the “peep show”. Luckily, her lane moved a few feet forward, while theirs remained at a standstill. She pressed on the gas with readiness in an effort to get away from this stranger’s prying eyes and perversion.
She was almost at the Queen Mary exit when her cell phone rang on the passenger seat. She pressed on her Bluetooth headpiece to answer the call.
“Hey Fred! Ça va?”
“Ouais! Toi? Where are you?”
“Stuck on the 15…”
“Are you coming over to Manmie’s?”
“I’m headed to Marc’s right now…”
“Fae, Marc is here!”
“Qu’est-ce qu’il fait là?”
“Um…the proper question should be why aren’t YOU here?”
Some shouting in Creole could be heard in the background and Fabienne tried to decipher the exchange between her brother and another voice, but was only able to catch a few words here and there, which were disguised by the sound of kompas music and a patio door sliding shut.
“Fae, it’s Gran Nanou’s birthday. Did you forget?”
Fabienne tapped her forehead with her palm for her forgetfulness. She searched her mind for a quick and plausible explanation.
“Yeah, I know! I was headed to Marc’s to get him.”
“Well, no need to; he’s here and everyone is wondering where you are.”
“I’m on my way!”
“Make it quick, because Manmie has fired up the grill and wants to start serving people, so…”
“Vous pouvez commencer sans moi.”
“Fine. See you soon.”
She clicked on her earpiece to end the call and once again, glanced over at the dashboard: it signaled 7:04 p.m. She had been stuck in traffic for 30 minutes already and was now growing irate at the slow traffic pace. She wondered in that moment how such a lively and fast city like Montreal could be brought to its knees every single day by fast-moving individuals in slow-moving cars. Yes, she loved Montreal; but she was no longer in love with it.
The smell of grilled meat traveled from the backyard of the Etienne residence to the surrounding neighborhood, lending itself to the anticipation of famished guests. Turning unto her old street, Fabienne slowed her vehicle in the hopes of finding an empty parking space, but was met instead with a string of cards lining up both sides of the sidewalk. One of her parents’ long-time neighbors, Mme. St-Amour, was outside on her front lawn sprinkling her rose bushes. Upon recognizing Fabienne, she lifted her arm and waved, gesturing for Fabienne to park her vehicle in her empty driveway. Fabienne waved back and proceeded to make a 360 turn to ease her vehicle into its open-invitation space. As Fabienne stepped out, Mme. St-Amour shut off her water hose and set it on the grass before walking over to greet her. She hadn’t aged a day since the last time Fabienne had seen her. She was sporting a faded yellow straw hat on her head, which clearly had seen better days. Fabienne repressed a chuckle at the sight of it upon realizing that it was the same one Mme. St-Amour had worn every summer in the last two decades.
“Ah ben, salut Fabienne!” Mme. St-Amour exclaimed, opening her arms to hug her.
“Bonjour Mme. St-Amour!”
“Sapristi! Ça fait des mozus de belles surprises!”
“Oui, en effet! Vous allez bien?”
“En pleine forme! T’es v’nue voi’ère la famille?”
“Oui, c’est la fête de ma grand-mère, donc on fait un petit BBQ pour célébrer ça…”
“Sé tu assez l’fun ça! Ça sé comment fêté, les Haïtiens! Pis en plus, j’sé comment ta mère est une mozus de bonne cuisinière; j’peux sentir ça d’icitte pis ça m’donne pas mal faim!”
“Je suis sûre que ma grand-mère serait ravie que vous veniez faire un tour.”
“Ah ouains? Pas b’soin m’de le dire deux fois! J’va finir mon jardinage pis j’va m’en venir, OK?”
“Certainement! À tout à l’heure!”
Fabienne smiled at her before turning her heels towards her parents’ house. She was already anticipating her mother’s questioning once Mme. St-Amour would make an appearance; but she also knew that her mother was hardly one to turn company away. In fact, entertaining guests was one of Mrs. Etienne’s favorite hobbies, and one she did not partake in lightly. She delighted herself in planning an affair to the very last detail: menus were often inspired by recipes taken from the many cookbooks she purchased at garage sales; every party’s décor consisted of streamers and balloons in the birthday individual’s favorite color, which embarrassed Fabienne more than it wowed her; and the guest list, which hadn’t changed much over the years, was written out in cursive handwriting on a piece of paper that currently resembled a dirty rag much more than a processed tree part. Mrs. Etienne loved company more than anyone else in her family, and not even someone as kooky as Mme. St-Amour would make her change course in that regard.
Fabienne opened the front door to the house and was immediately enveloped in the warmth and familiar smell of her childhood home. From the doorway, she could recognize a few voices, namely that of her uncle Michel, her auntie Laura and her cousin Marie-Noëlle. She proceeded to walk towards the kitchen when someone unexpectedly swept her off the floor, throwing her over their shoulder. She wailed to break free, but couldn’t slip away from the mysterious prankster’s strong hold.
“Scared yet?” asked the voice. Fabienne recognized Frederick’s voice, her second oldest brother.
“Hardly!” she replied, laughing.
“You ought to be! You weigh as much now as a sack of potatoes, which says a lot about how happy you’ve been. I’m breaking my back right now!”
“Or perhaps it’s because you’re really a weak link,” she teased.
“Ha-ha! Don’t get it twisted: these guns can handle anything,” he said before putting her down. They chuckled before hugging.
“Hey Fred. Are the others here?”
“Yup! In the backyard. Gran Nanou has been waiting for you: dying to see her favorite granddaughter.”
“Please don’t have me killed, OK? Marie-Noëlle is standing right there!”
“So? She ain’t shit!” Fred yelled out, loud enough for Marie-Noëlle to hear him. He loved to push people’s buttons and no matter how much she tried to ignore him, Marie-Noëlle couldn’t suppress her annoyance. She didn’t look amused.
“Whatever, Fred. I’m going outside now. Tu viens?”
“Actually, I have to go pick up someone, but I’ll be back soon,” he replied, kissing her on the forehead before running off.
“Is it a new chick? Manmie said you have a new girl,” yelled Fabienne after him. But instead of confirming the hearsay, Fred was already out the front door and running towards his beat-up sports car.
Fabienne stopped by the kitchen to greet several people stationed around the island before standing by the patio door to observe the scene outside: her father, dressed in a short-sleeved linen shirt and dark grey pants, sat in a circle with a few of the church deacons and a couple of friends, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. She imagined that their discussions probably revolved around the two sacred “P’s” of Haitian gatherings: politics and the pulpit. Her two young nieces, twins Francesca and Fabiola, were dressed in coordinating bathing suits and were frolicking in a children’s pool, taking turns splashing their little brother, Florent, who was inconsolable before such treatment. Fabienne’s mother, dressed in a bold floral dress, scurried around the buffet table, instructing Ruth and Clara, her two daughters-in-law, on the proper way to set up a table’s content. And lastly, beside the shed stood Fabienne’s two other brothers, Francis and François, exchanging laughs with Marc. Mrs. Etienne lifted her head for a split second and noticed Fabienne; she smiled brightly at her daughter, gesturing for her to come out.
“Ah, la voilà!” she exclaimed loud enough to get a reaction out of her guests. Several pairs of eyes looked up to watch her coming down the stairs.
“Allô Manmie. Hey ladies! Sa kap fèt?” she asked, kissing her mother on the cheek before doing the same to her two sisters-in-law.
“Je vais bien, chérie! Tu as salué tout le monde?”
“Non, manmie, je viens d’arriver,” sighed Fabienne. Haitian mothers always had a knack for getting under their children’s skin with the expectation of how one should carry themselves in social situations. According to Mrs. Etienne, waving to all with as a general greeting was a sign of poor manners and a lack of respect; in her world, nothing less than a kiss on each guest’s cheek would suffice, even if the guest list bordered on stadium-size territory. This was, after all, how “proper Haitians” did it, she’d counter.
“Sais-tu que Marc est ici?” Mrs. Etienne asked, pulling at a corner of the plastic tablecloth to smooth it out.
“Oui, manmie. Going to see him right now.”
“D’accord! On va commencer à manger bientôt,” concluded Mrs. Etienne before returning to her chores.
Fabienne shot Ruth and Clara a knowing look, making them chuckle. Clearly, they too had gotten used to their mother-in-law’s incessant need to be in control and have the last say in every conversation. They had attempted to become indifferent to her expectations, but had quickly found themselves on the receiving end of harsh criticism from their husbands. They now considered any thought of standing up to their mother-in-law to be the quickest road back to singledom – the woman had successfully kept all of her sons attached to her umbilical cord.
She walked over to her father’s seating area, who upon seeing his daughter, stood up to greet her. Fabienne knew her father had a soft spot for her: she was, after all, his only daughter and the youngest of his four children to boot. She loved and admired him in ways that she could not verbalize because it often went beyond the mystery of father-daughter bonds. She looked up to him for strength and wisdom and considered herself blessed to have found in Marc many of her own father best traits.
“Ma p’tite chérie!” he said, hugging her tightly. “Comment vas-tu, ma p’tite chérie?”
“Je vais bien, papy,” she replied, closing her eyes and wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. She could smell his musk and think back to all the times he had rocked her as a child.
“Tout va bien à Ottawa?”
“Bof, tu sais, ils parlent de coupures, mais notre équipe n’a pas encore été touchée,” she said, trying to dismiss the thought from her mind.
He smiled reassuringly. “Si cette porte vient à se fermer, l’Éternel est capable d’en ouvrir une bien plus grande!”
“Oui, papy, I know,” she said, unfazed by words she had heard a thousand times.
“Bon, va voir ton future époux,” he said, motioning for her to be on her way. “Je t’aime, ma p’tite chérie.”
“Moi aussi, papy.
On that note, she approached the guys’ standing post and found herself surprised that none of them immediately acknowledged her presence. Marc finally turned to her after a few seconds and pulled her into the circle, planting a kiss on her lips. Her brothers each leaned in to plant individual pecks on her cheeks.
“Shtiny, how long have you been standing there? How did the drive go?” Marc asked, pulling her by the waist.
“Not long. The drive was, you know, the same. So, what are you guys talking about?”
“Oh, nothing important,” Francis responded before breaking into hysterics.
Fabienne seemed confused.
“No worries, Shtiny – men business,” Francois continued, winking at Marc.
“Oooo-K,” Fabienne responded hesitantly. “Where is Gran Nanou?”
“Oh, I think she went to change; she complained that she was melting in her dress. She should be in her bedroom.”
“Cool! Well, you guys go on with your men business. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“OK,” was the rousing reply from the three before resorting back to their conversation followed by more laughter. She didn’t particularly want to be in their presence and even felt resentment towards all of them, especially Marc.
Running up the stairs, she was inside again within seconds. She walked past the main hall, glancing upon family portraits that adorned the walls. Fabienne knocked softly on her grandmother’s door. There was no answer. She cracked open the door gently, peeking her head in.
“Gran Nanou?” she called out. Still no answer.
She looked around the bedroom: her grandmother’s tiny night stand was populated with framed pictures of each one of her grandchildren at different stages of their lives. Next to one of Fabienne’s grade school pictures sat Gran Nanou’s Bible. A bookmark that resembled a picture peaked out from its pages and Fabienne pulled it out to look at it. It was a picture of a serious-looking little girl dressed in a red polyester dress and two pigtails; she was standing on top of a chair set against a fake tropical background. Fabienne looked closer and realized that it was…her. She was probably around 5 or 6 on it. She wondered why she had never seen it before, considering that she had recently requested that her mother send her all her baby and childhood pictures for the montage she planned to commission for her wedding. She flipped the picture over; on the back were a date (July 25 – Gran Nanou’s birthday) and Fabienne’s initials. Carefully, she tried to place the picture back between its original pages, but the Bible fell to the ground. “Shoot!” she whispered to herself for the fluke before quickly picking it up. She opened the Bible to place the picture inside it when a verse, highlighted in bold yellow marker, caught her eye. It was Luke 8:17: “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” She re-read the verse a few more times and flipped through the Bible back and forth to find more highlighted verses; but no other ones existed.
Fabienne found it rather odd; her grandmother was known to recite any verse off of the top of her head, be it Old Testament or New Testament. Gran Nanou usually favored verses that spoke of hope, faith and love; but this ‘doom-and-gloom’ selected verse seemed so out of her character.
She suddenly realized that the water in her grandmother’s ensuite bathroom was running. She tapped lightly on the door.
“Gran Nanou? Es-tu là? Mwen rivé! ”
The interrogation went unanswered.
She opened the door and felt her legs give out from beneath her: there lay Gran Nanou’s body, lifeless. A vial of pills rested by her head, with its content spread out all around her. A screaming siren sounded off loudly, numbing Fabienne’s pulse. When Fabienne returned to her senses several hours later, she realized that the siren that had accompanied her from her parents’ home to the hospital had been none other than her own, relentless, screaming voice.
THREE MONTHS HAD ALREADY GONE BY since Marissa had basked in the glory of Vladimir’s praise and subsequent offer for promotion and she still had three more months left to go. True to her word, she had demonstrated keen attention to every task she had been assigned, spearheading the team with confidence, working countless nights to oversee the company’s high-profile events, and setting a precedent for any aspiring VP. But also true to his word, Stanley had wasted no time insinuating the circumstances behind her sudden rise to the Big Chair, which (much to his dismay) detonated as pure jealousy to everyone else. He had steadily maintained the “allegations” during Marissa’s first month on duty, but had eventually given up her lynching after Patricia had giving him an earful in front of their peers inside the employee lounge.
“Stanley,” Patricia had called out in her Jamaican drawl. “A wha do you?” she had asked, crossing her arms across her chest like a reprimanding mother. “Duh gyal ain’t done nothin’ to you!” she had snapped, bringing the room to a standstill.
According to Jill (which was quickly validated by Tristan), Stanley had stood there, smiling awkwardly and looking around the room, hesitant on what to do or say next.
“You neh ave no manna’s?” Patricia had continued, raising an eyebrow at him.
“No, I have not,” he had replied. “But apparently you have forgotten how to enunciate proper English,” he had retorted, taking a jab at her heavy accent.
Colleagues had gasped at his audacity, not so much because they didn’t know Stanley to be that big a jerk, but because Patricia was well respected around these parts and was, after all, a woman of a certain age. She looked like she could spank the guy like he was one of her own children.
“Oh no, ya done be wrong, Stanley!” she had shouted. “You think say dat we neh ave nottin’ betta fi do than fi listen to you laba laba all day, e? Cha! Perhaps yu outta channel dat energy you wastin’ tawlkin’ ‘bout well-deservin’ folks into bein’ a team player!” she recommended in a stern tone.
“Hmm-mmm,” could be heard around the room and Stanley quickly realized he was outnumbered, gesturing to his friend Kevin that this was their cue to leave.
Marissa had been relieved to hear that people still believed in her. She genuinely cared about people, but Stanley was one of those folks who would never get to find out just how much. Even with the cheap jabs he took at her in front of Johan or others, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Perhaps Stanley had been the prey to ridicule in his former life and the habit of being picked on had later turned him into the very people he loathed. She was no psychologist, but she always wondered what made people tick – she was a firm believer that there was a story behind each person’s behaviour and actions. She had developed her perceptive eye over the years and was often right, but Stanley remained a mystery – the eerie kind.
It was Thursday and things at VSPR were not slowing down. Johan sat at the conference table and Marissa took a seat near him. She enjoyed working with Johan, who had turned out to be a lot more liberal and carefree than she would have imagined him to be. They fed off of each other’s energies when pitching to clients and their camaraderie alone helped them close one deal after the next. Vladimir had emailed to congratulate them on their work, further solidifying their respect of one another. They were on the same page when it came to the logistics of things, which made for an easy working relationship. But now, Marissa found herself slowly wishing that this relationship would evolve outside of the office…
“Good morning!” Johan said, smiling timidly at everyone. Marissa found his manners endearing.
“How was everyone’s long weekend?” he asked, readying himself for the dirty details. As a few people volunteered information about their revelry, Marissa studied Johan’s profile. His smile was magnetic, she thought. And those teeth! She was a sucker for a gorgeous smile and his didn’t disappoint. She laughed along at each of the stories being told, but continued to steal glimpses of him from time to time. However, her laugh quickly dissipated upon realizing that Stanley was staring at her, a smirk on his face. He had caught that. Damn.
“That’s great, guys,” said Johan, trying his best to slowly steer everyone back to business. “Today will be brief, but I wanted to mention a few things.”
Everyone opened their notebooks like orderly students.
“Vladimir sends his greetings and thanks all of you for your hard work. He urges us to stay the course. So, great job!”
He was so humble, she thought. The man understood how to make everyone feel included, which is essentially how she was. He was her…in male form.
“I would like to bring up the Interop Las Vegas 2012 event taking place at the Mandalay Bay this coming May. I plan to attend. It’s not standard procedure to allow employees to attend events abroad given the cost of flying and accommodations, but I have spoken to Vladimir about the possibility of some of you experiencing it and he’s allowing three of you to join me on the trip.”
The room suddenly started to buzz with excitement and Marissa couldn’t conceal her surprise. He certainly had tricks up his sleeve, that dear Johan. This must have been decided with Vladimir recently because she was finding out at the same time as everyone else. As if reading her mind, Johan turned to her and leaned over. “I was going to tell you about it, I swear,” he whispered, smiling sheepishly. She held on to his gaze for as long as she could and squeezed his forearm gently, indicating that she believed him. Man, was she ever feeling him!
“So,” intercepted a voice at the other end of the table. “How will you decide who goes?”
“Well, I want to be fair about this, so I will draw names at random. If more of you wish to join, it would have to be at your own expense. Obviously, we cannot allow everyone to go – business must go on around here. But I am confident that 5 of us would be more than fine with Vladimir,” he said.
“So, what’s covered by the company?” inquired the same voice as before.
“Just roundtrip airfare and hotel. Meals and entertainment are your responsibility,” Johan indicated.
“I can live with that!” shouted another voice and the room became lively again with everyone discussing what a weekend in Vegas would do for their monotonous lives.
“When will the names be drawn?” asked Tristan, whose excitement made his voice go up in decibels.
“Hmm…this afternoon?” Johan hinted, looking right at Marissa as if seeking her approval. She simply nodded affirmatively.
“Great!” cried out Tristan and everyone laughed. They were not used to him smiling brightly…or at all.
Johan himself laughed, sensing his stock rising with the staff.
“Patricia, I would like for you to coordinate the draw,” he instructed. Patricia nodded, looking relieved at the prospect of not being included in the mix. She probably felt too old for this sort of thing…
“Once the names have been drawn, Patricia will send out an e-mail to reveal the lucky three,” he concluded. “Meeting adjourned.”
And with that, everyone stood up to leave. Marissa was about to follow suit when a hand clutched her arm.
“Can you stay for a few minutes?” asked Johan, loosening his grip before letting go.
“Ok…” he said, smiling. He really ought to stop doing that, she thought.
As she sat down again and the boardroom emptied out, Stanley approached them, seemingly unaffected by his intrusion.
“Hey Johan, can we talk?” he asked, avoiding Marissa’s gaze.
“Sure! But can it wait for a few minutes?”
“Oh, I’ll make it quick,” he responded, intent on having the last word. Marissa felt her breathing come to a halt.
“I know there’s only three people who will be chosen at random for the trip, but wouldn’t it be a good idea for Marissa to be one of them?” he asked as if this should have been a given.
Marissa stared at him quizzically, wondering what he was up to. Stanley shot her a glorious smile. Creep.
“Well, yeah…I guess that would make sense. I just wanted to give everyone an equal opportunity, but that’s a good point, Stanley,” Johan agreed, as if he was coming into the light for the first time.
Marissa felt pleased that Johan didn’t mind her presence and she would love nothing more than to interact with him outside of VSPR. But somehow, given her less than spectacular relationship with Stanley, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a total setup. And if that was the case, she wouldn’t allow herself to fall into the trap.
“Oh, no! No need for that!” she begged. “I think that’s more than fair what you suggested in the first place and I totally support it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” she said smiling. Stanley shrugged, maintaining his smile as if he had given it his best try. “But thanks Stanley: that was thoughtful of you,” she added, flashing him her own pearly whites. His eyes seemed to throw darts at her head.
“Well, ok then,” responded Johan. “I guess that settles that! Thanks Stanley for the suggestion. Who knows? Maybe one of the lucky spots will be yours and one will be Marissa’s,” he said, as if this possibility would make for the most wonderful bonding opportunity for long lost pals.
“Yeah, who knows?” Stanley said, shrugging nonchalantly. “Later, guys.”
Stanley walked away, pulling the door behind him.
Marissa looked at Johan, waiting on him to share what was on his mind.
“I’m so sorry if I ambushed you in the meeting,” he started.
“No, that’s fine.”
“No, Marissa, it’s not. I should have said something to you about it right away. I guess I hesitated beca…”
He interrupted himself. Marissa looked at him with eyes that urged him to go on.
“Why did you hesitate?”
“I…I’m embarrassed and I’m not sure if this will come out right…”
Johan bit his lower lip and looked up at the ceiling for split seconds, as if looking for his answer.
“I didn’t mention it because I didn’t want people assuming that I was favoring you, though it would make sense for you to go since we are running things around here together…at least, temporarily.”
“Why would people assume that?” she asked. She hoped it didn’t have anything to do with Stanley’s campaign to ruin her name. She was barely coming out of the woods with that one.
“Because I…like you,” he admitted.
Marissa’s face lit up. So, he had a thing for her. She wished more than ever now that her name would be drawn.
“Good to know, because it’s mutual,” she replied. They stared at each other for a few minutes, letting shyness chip away at their long gaze after a few seconds.
“So, what can a guy do about it?” he asked eagerly, rubbing his temple.
“I cannot tell you that,” she said playfully. He had to work for some things!
“But I can tell you that whatever you choose to do, I will be up for it,” she added, dropping her head to the side and smirking at him. Elle Woods had her bend-and-snap; Marissa Andrews had her tilt-and-wilt.
“This reassures a man,” he said, a huge grin forming across his face. That smile was illegal.
For the rest of the afternoon, Marissa felt like she was floating on air. The thought of Johan made her giddy…lightheaded…silly. She could barely focus on the tasks at hand, and she still had quite a few of them to work through. She had rejected the others’ offer to go for an afternoon walk even though she typically didn’t shy away from sunlight and fresh air.
She opened a new window into her Outlook and added Leah and Fabienne’s e-mail addresses, with the header “Got news!” in the subject line.
How are things? Found out earlier that Johan feels the same. I’m in need of a three-way call tonight if you are both free. Holla!
The topic of Johan had come up over Easter weekend during their Sunday brunch and her constant babbling about him had hinted to the ladies that he was this year’s “guy to watch”. Fae had expressed her happiness with regards to her friend’s interest in anyone but Hunter and Leah had equally shared the enthusiasm of the sentiment (though her own joy was inspired by her selfish longing of him).
The end of the day was near, and in between conference calls and laying out the next pitches, Marissa could hardly wait to know who would be declared the lucky attendees of the Vegas summit.
At 3:50 p.m., an e-mail from Patricia landed in her Inbox and Marissa quickly opened it.
I am happy to announce that the three people who will be joining Johan at the Interop 2012 event in Las Vegas are Louise Strictland, Tristan Raitt and Rita Smith.
More details will be provided to you in the coming days.
Those wishing to attend are required to send an e-mail to Johan by EOB tomorrow to signify their interest. It will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Marissa sunk back in her chair, disappointed. In that moment, she regretted not jumping on the opportunity Stanley had so “generously” laid out before her. But how was she to know that Johan really did have an interest in her? Hadn’t his admission come after the fact?
In any case, she reasoned that she had to be fair to others and rejoiced at the thought of two of her work buddies being picked. She had been to Las Vegas with her own circle of friends on a few occasions and it was definitely an experience that gave the famous catchphrase “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” its weight in gold.
Her Inbox rang to reveal another incoming e-mail. It was from Tristan.
ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW???
I’m literally bouncing off the walls. Vegas, here I come!!!
Marissa laughed out loud, loving how the City of Sin had the power to convert a cynic into a lunatic.
She collected her things, shutting off her computer for the day. She could really afford to go for a little shopping at The Forum Shops, but this would have to wait until another time. And so would getting to know Johan better…
She went out into the hallway to find Tristan and Rita trotting down towards her, looking animated.
“Hey you two! Vegas, huh?”
“This made my year!” Tristan said, draping her shoulders with one arm.
“It’s going to be so much fun!” Rita enthused, grabbing unto Tristan’s free arm.
“You guys have no clue how much!” Marissa said pleasantly.
As they made their way to the elevator, they were joined by Johan, Stanley and Kevin.
They all squeezed closer together to fit in with the other riders. Johan was right beside her. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears from the panic of being so close to him.
“Congrats, guys!” Johan said to Tristan and Rita. “It’ll be a great experience.”
“So we heard!” they chanted together, laughing hysterically at their synchronicity.
Johan turned to Marissa and they stared at each other for a few seconds, wanting to say something; but the eyes did all the talking. The elevator reached the ground floor and everyone poured out and dispersed immediately.
“See you tomorrow, beautiful,” Tristan said, giving Marissa a quick peck on the cheek and grabbing Rita by the hand. She waved, watching their silhouettes diminish into the distance. As she turned to walk the other way, there he was: standing nearby and talking to Stanley and Kevin. She asked herself why was it that every time she yearned for a moment alone with Johan, Stanley happened to “conveniently” be there, stealing away crucial minutes that could be hers.
“…so send me an e-mail tomorrow with details. I would love to read your concepts,” Johan said to Stanley. “I have to run.”
“Dude, so do we!” indicated Kevin to Stanley by tapping him on the shoulder.
“We’re going!” said Stanley and twirling his hand as a sign of farewell, he started down the sidewalk with Kevin by his side.
“So what now?” Johan asked.
“I thought you had to run?” she replied, confused.
“Yes. Where are we headed?” he responded, smirking at her.
Marissa was enjoying this flirtation. Who needs Vegas?
He was even more handsome than she had last seen him. Dressed in dark blue jeans and a grey and orange dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Leo now sported a new haircut similar to David Beckham’s former semi-spiky and semi-tapered hairstyle. He walked in his usual nonchalant manner, stopping every few minutes to greet acquaintances. Leah held in her breath as his steps progressed in her direction. The girls, who had been cackling all night, suddenly seemed to take a vow of silence; the awkwardness of the situation spoke volumes.
“Did you know he was gonna be here?” Leah asked, her eyes darting in Marissa’s direction.
“Hun, it’s an industry event; any company that sponsors an event is bound to be present. Rhyme is one of them…”
“And somehow, mentioning that escaped you?” Leah asked, resembling a tiger ready to pounce.
“Ley, come down!” Erica advised. “Don’t you think that it’s time for you to face Leo and figure out where you guys stand?”
“I’m with Erica,” was all Fabienne could muster the courage to say.
“GO FROM WHERE? DID YOU GUYS HAPPEN TO FORGET THAT HE GAVE ME MY PINK SLIP?” Leah yelled at Erica, brandishing her left hand in the air to remind them of her broken engagement.
“What are you gonna do? Run forever?” Marissa asked, hitting back in defence. “If Leo is the one you want, then shouldn’t this be a good thing that the two of you are here and can talk things out? I never meant to set you up. I just want to see my girl get back with the man she loves and breathe again, because until you do, the rest of us are bound to be miserable,” she said, half-jokingly in the hopes of lightening the mood.
“Ley, that’s all we want for you,” continued Fabienne. “Go get your man and your life back.”
Leah took a deep breath. She knew that she hadn’t been the easiest person to live with in recent months, and for that, she felt quite sympathetic to her friends for having to deal with her conundrum. She yearned for things to go back to the way they were: uncomplicated.
“Leo!” the girls shouted in unison as he approached their table, interrupting her thoughts.
“Fantastic Four!” he responded, taking turns kissing and hugging each of them. She smiled shyly, realizing that he had always been so good to her friends.
He stopped in front of her and leaned in for a tight hug, omitting the kisses on the cheeks.
“Hey,” he said, in a soft tone. She felt relieved that there were no traces of animosity in his voice.
“Hi,” she responded, breathlessly.
“How are things, Leo?” Fabienne asked, trying to steer the awkward situation into one of conversation.
“I’m cool! How have you ladies been?” he asked in return.
“Great!” They all responded eagerly.
“You’re good?” he asked Leah, staring her straight in the eyes. She was amazed at how, despite what had happened between them, he could still hold her gaze with the same intensity he demonstrated when they were together. His consistency was his best merit…and his worst fault.
“Yeah, I…,” she started, feeling the tears rising in her eyes. “I’m fine,” was all she could muster. “Issa, where is the ladies’ room again?”
“Down there, to your right,” Marissa indicated, her finger pointing out the direction.
“Excuse me,” Leah said, walking away quickly, clutching her lacy minaudiere.
Fabienne caught up to her, grabbing her by the arm.
“Est-ce que ça va?” Fabienne asked, looking concerned. Leah nodded quickly. “Ouains, je dois vraiment y aller.”
“OK. Want me to get you another drink?”
“Sure. Thanks. I won’t be long.”
“Alright,” Fabienne said hugging her best friend.
With Fae gone, Leah retreated to the washroom, entered a stall and let the tears flow.
With several minutes gone by, Leah realized that staying inside the washroom a second longer could spell escapism from the situation; escapism from him. She came out of the stall and stood in front of the mirror, looking at her reflection. She ran a finger along her bottom lash line to remove any evidence of her breakdown. She looked down to rummage through the contents of her purse, looking for mascara and a lip stain tube. Right by the paper towels were a few of the flyers from the event, similar to the ones Marissa had handed them at Erica’s. She took one and scanned it with her eyes; Rhymes’ logo was indeed on it as one of the sponsors. How had she not noticed it then?
“Whoa, that’s one hell of a dress!”
Leah looked up to find a pretty woman standing next to her, washing her hands vigorously under the running water. The woman whistled admirably, nodding her head in approval. She was dressed in a Kelly green alter dress with a plunging neckline. Her shapely legs chased away inches halfway up her thighs. Her dress wasn’t much to Leah’s taste; in fact, it bordered on “night walker” territory. But she couldn’t help but admire how confident this stranger looked in it. She had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that made her irresistibly appealing, even in her cheap get-up.
“Thanks,” Leah responded noncommittally. “You’re giving women here a run for their money in yours!” she complimented back. The stunner simply smiled and grabbed some paper towels to dry off her hands before grabbing her clutch and walking out.
Leah readied herself by closing her eyes and breathing in – tomorrow would be a new day.
She came out and there stood Leo. His expression was one of concern and his eyes were as gentle as she had always known them to be. She felt her legs tremble.
“Are you OK?” he asked, without moving from his post.
“I want to be,” she responded.
He simply nodded, understanding what she was getting at; but he remained in his place, trying not to let her anguish win him over. He had pride when he had to preserve himself, and she couldn’t hate him for it.
“Can we talk?” she asked hesitantly.
“Aren’t we?” he responded, matter-of-factly.
“Leo, there’s so much I want to say to you,” she started. “I don’t know where to begin, how to begin, if you’ll listen,” she continued.
“Ley, I don’t know what else could be said,” he responded, as if she had already exhausted every possible apology ever known to men and that there were none left for him to believe.
“Leo, you have to let me tell you what I have to say because I’m so close to losing my mind,” she said in a pleading manner.
“Can we head to the bar, then? I need a drink,” he indicated.
Leah sighed, relieved. She was willing to do anything for them to talk – not necessarily about what was broken, but about the possibility of starting over. She loved him; she missed him; she yearned for the familiarity of him.
As they walked back into the main room in silence, Leah quickly took a glimpse at her Blackberry: it was now 12: 53 a.m. A bigger crowd had assembled on the dance floor. As they neared the cocktail table where she had been stationed with her friends all night, she simply gestured to them that she was fine and was headed to the bar with Leo for a chat. They all smiled, mouthing “good luck” for encouragement.
“What are you having?” the bartender asked as he wiped the bar surface with a cloth.
“I’ll have a Sprite and the lady will have a Gin and Tonic,” Leo said, remembering her favourite drink. The bartender nodded. Leo had never been a drinker. Despite being in an industry where poppin’ bottles constituted a mantra of many rap songs, he had never once felt compelled to succumb to its pressures. Leah thought to herself that he and Fabienne were very much alike in staying true to their values.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling at him.
“De nada,” he said, the corners of his lips rising up slightly.
“How have you been?” she began, trying to keep the mood light. She anticipated getting her drink and planned on keeping the conversation moving into banal territory until she had consumed enough to make her brazen.
“I’m good,” he said, nodding slowly as if to add weight to his statement.
“And how are things at Rhyme?” she continued, hoping that his next reply would go beyond the two-word automatic response. “I see that you guys are one of the sponsors tonight?” she added.
“Yeah, just another industry night. You know how it is out here; every other night in this city is an excuse for people to see and be seen. Toronto is restless.”
“Seriously! Remember that Bacardi-sponsored event in ’05 that we went to where this wannabe couple showed up trying to get photographed with anyone they assumed was a star? Remember how they tried to schmooze us all night and told us that they had produced songs for SWV and Xscape in the 90’s?” she laughed.
“Oh wow, I remember them! Man, when I mentioned I was headed to Detroit to interview J Dilla for an upcoming issue of Rhythm, homeboy was quick to slip me a copy of his latest “work”!” Leo said, now laughing wholeheartedly.
“What a hot mess! What about his wife? This woman was a singer, songwriter, interior designer, stylist, PR maven…I could barely keep count! I was like “You wear many hats! Busy lady indeed!” and her response was “You have no idea! I’m so busy that I have to schedule an appointment with my own husband for dates!” Talk about pretentious!”
“Let alone false! Didn’t she say she could rearrange her schedule around to collaborate with you on some events as soon as you mentioned that you were an events junior executive?” Leo said.
“Oh yeah, you’re right! When I asked her why she would do that, she said that she was growing increasingly bored with her other ventures and wanted to try something new. Unbelievable!” Leah said, remembering the woman’s self-promoting PR pitch.
They were now both laughing with ease, continuing on their banter for a little while.
“Wasn’t that the night you also received news that you had been nominated for the Young Entrepreneur: Digital Content Award?”
“Yes, it was!” Leo said, seeming impressed with her memory.
“And of course, you went on to win it. I was so proud – my man, the entrepreneur! And you were so handsome…”
“Leah…” Leo said softly, interrupting her reminiscing. She could tell he was becoming uneasy. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…”
Screw the drinks.
“Leo, I love you and there’s not a day that goes by where I do not miss you,” she blurted out.
Leo, who had been doing circles on the bar counter with his glass, interrupted his maneuver and stared directly into her eyes. He could tell that she meant every word, but he wouldn’t allow himself to let on that he did.
“I want us back.” She paused, closing her eyes because she could feel the tears rising up again. “Leo, I have a good grasp on the things in my life – from the things that I eat every day, to the friendships I entertain. I can predict within 10 seconds the outcome of a work presentation just by paying attention to a potential client’s body language, and I can adjust the presentation’s tone accordingly, closing the deal every time. But the one thing I cannot seem to do, no matter how hard I try, is to convince you to take me back. And deep inside, if I was in your shoes, I think I wouldn’t take me back either.”
Leo’s expression softened and he moved in closer, his fingers almost touching hers over the bar countertop.
“And why wouldn’t you?” he asked, out of curiosity.
“Because you deserve to be loved like no other, Leo; and loving someone with that kind of intensity is the one thing I know you excel at better than me. I have not known, nor will I ever know, a greater love than the one you’ve given me when we were together. But I know that if you wanted to, you could go on to find a love better than mine, and that scares me, Leo. You would never seize to be you in a new relationship, but I would never be myself again in any subsequent relationship. I know that and you know that. How do I convince you that I can reach my best me? Will it ever be enough to save us? Perhaps there’s someone else out there better suited for you, and if there is, I can’t compete with that; but yet, I’m willing to try over and over again because nothing else has ever made more sense to me than us. I…want…us.”
Leo was now a few inches away from her, his eyes studying every inch of her face. She could feel his breathing on her skin and she wanted nothing more than for him to kiss her on the forehead the way he had done countless times before.
“You’re right; I could go on to be with someone else and keep myself from wondering every day where I failed with us,” he said in the affirmative. Leah bit her lip and looked down. “But I never signed up for easy, Ley. I wanted you and despite everything – the hurt, the anger – I still find myself wanting no one else but you. I was aware of what I had gotten myself into then, and I still am aware of what I would get myself into today. And right now, I know I still love you. I just need time.”
Leah sighed and Leo ran his hands along her arms.
She had to know.
“Where do we…go from here?” she asked, biting her lip once more.
“I don’t know, Ley,” Leo replied, planting a kiss on her forehead. Every muscle in her body quivered. “Why don’t we get out of here and go for a bite?”
“I can do that,” she smiled. “I’ll let the girls know. Be right back.”
Leah tried to keep herself from running to the girls, weaving her way through the crowd at light speed.
“Ladies, I’m out! Leo and I are going to eat. And Erica, I may not come home tonight,” she said with excitement in her voice.
“See?” Fabienne said, moving to A Tribe Called Quest song playing over the speakers. “And to think you wanted to escape this place!”
“Yeah, yeah, point made, OK?” Leah replied, taking the time to peck her friends on the cheeks one by one. “I owe each one of you. Wish me luck!”
“Luck/blessings!” said Erica and Fabienne respectively.
She walked back to where Leo had been. But as she approached, his pleasant expression from a few minutes prior had turned into one of seriousness; in fact, he looked angry.
“Leo? What’s wrong?” she asked, touching his arm.
He slowly removed her hand from his forearm without looking at her.
“What happened?” she asked, surprised.
“I should have known that with a speech like the one you gave me, it’s no wonder you close every deal.”
“What do you mean? Leo, I’m confused. Talk to me! What’s going on…”
“Even if I did, I don’t think it would make much of a difference now,” he added.
He started to walk away, and Leah called after him. He turned to face her.
“I want us too,” he continued, “but for that to work, you would be better off ridding yourself of your cling-on.” And on that, Leo walked away.
She stood in place, motionless and confused. What had just happened? She looked down to her blinking Blackberry; there it was: the deal breaker – a text message from Hunter.
You continue to take my breath away. You are a sight for sore eyes…
Her head spun around: Hunter was here too? She tried in vain to locate his whereabouts and after a few seconds, walked back to where her friends were. Erica was the first to see her coming their way.
“What are you still doing here?” she asked surprised.
“Leo is pissed and has just left! I have to catch up to him!”
“Why? What happened?”
“THIS happened!” Leah shouted, waving her Blackberry mid-air.
Fabienne grabbed it from her hands and proceeded to read the words out loud.
“Who is it from?” Erica asked.
“Hunter is here?” Marissa exclaimed, an expression of alarm and anger on her face.
The four of them surveyed the room with their eyes, hoping to find Hunter before more damage could be done.
“I have to go find Leo.”
“I’ll do a lapse and go outside, see if I can spot him…” offered Marissa.
“…and we’ll try to find Hunter,” said Fabienne.
Each one set off on her course. Leah dialed Leo’s cell phone number, but the call went directly to voicemail. Several minutes had passed, and with no leads, Leah set out to return to their standing post. But suddenly, there they were, staring at each other without words; her and Hunter. Behind him appeared a woman, who draped one arm around his neck. He turned to face the intruder and his body seem to stiffen upon her contact.
“I figured you’d be here tonight,” Redhead cajoled in his ear, staring at Leah with a mysterious smile. Leah recognized her as the girl she had briefly exchanged words with in the ladies’ room. At that moment, her friends appeared.
“We didn’t find him.”
They all came to a halt, realizing the potential mess this picture could create.
“Hi, I’m Trish,” Redhead said, extending her hand.
“Leah? Oh, my, my,” Trish said. “She’s real after all,” she added, realizing that Hunter’s so-called “fantasy” was a living and breathing being and far from a work of fiction.
Fabienne, Marissa and Erica looked at the vixen suspiciously.
“She looks so much like…”
Hunter, uneasy, detached himself from Trish’s grasp.
“You’ve really done a number on him,” continued Trish, as if this revelation should make Leah apologetic.
Leah’s eyes darted at Hunter. She spun around to find Leo standing there, shaking his head in disbelief before storming off.
“Leo!” Leah called out, going after him. Hunter grabbed her by the arm, but she wrestled away.
“When will you ever learn?” she mumbled to him under her breath. The ladies followed her, with Fabienne going the extra mile of a cut eye.
With Marissa and Hunter left to face each other, Marissa smirked and shook her head, not at all surprised in witnessing Hunter’s downward spiral in his friends’ eyes.
“Keep the mistakes coming,” she simply let out before turning on her heels and disappearing into the crowd.
Hunter stood there for a few minutes, looking around for an escape. It was staring right at him – the bar.
He turned to face Trish, who was standing next to him. Her green dress, which left very little to the imagination, was very distracting.
“What are we toasting to?” she asked, twirling a strand of hair around her finger.
“To keeping the mistakes coming…”
THE CROWD IN ATTENDANCE at 99 Sudbury had been the most fashionable Leah had seen in a long time, though she didn’t particularly find it unusual for Toronto. From the city’s power players and bloggers whose faces repeatedly graced such sites as BLC and Hype1, all the way to those who aspired to become a part of the scene, each attendee was clad in their weekend best. Thank God for Marissa’s RfR hook-up – Leah felt fantastic in a Mark and James by Badgley Mischka black sequin v-neck number that seemed to “miraculously” plump up her diminishing figure (the result of little sleep and a lack of appetite). Fabienne and Erica were each dressed in outfits that also seemed to highlight what nature had blessed them with, which could best be summed up as a cocktail of candid and courage.
“I’m going to text Issa,” Leah said, already typing away on her Blackberry. “She said she would come get us at the door.”
“Yes, please, it’s not exactly warm out here,” Fabienne said, gesticulating like a restless child.
A line-up had started to form outside the venue, and the chilly air prompted guests to huddle closer together in an effort to warm up.
Leah looked around at nothing in particular. So far, the weekend had been fantastic and she felt her best for the first time in a while. The cute guy in line behind them, who wasn’t hiding his attraction to her, and whose eyes wandered off from his friends to her from time to time, also reminded her that she still possessed that magnetism. She knew what that felt like; she had experienced it the first time she had laid eyes on Leo and when their eyes had locked, she had considered herself done for life.
A tall silhouette was marching towards them, determined, yet graceful. Many interrupted their conversations to admire the tall, slender blond dressed in a Camilla and Marc black lace long-sleeved dress, a high ponytail and striking eyes. She embodied the missing ingredient to their girly “cocktail” weekend: clout.
“Hey! Look at you guys; you ladies clean up nice when I look after you,” Marissa joked, as she hugged each of them.
“Whoa! Remind me why we’re friends when you look like this,” questioned Fabienne, as she looked Marissa up and down in an exaggerated matter.
“Seriously!” Erica conquered.
“Are you kidding me? You have more junk in your trunk for a thousand me, and you’re still second-guessing yourself?” Marissa joked.
“Well, fine, if you put it like that, I guess I am pretty damn fabulous,” Fabienne replied, tapping her own butt a few times.
“Can we go in? I feel like I’m turning into an icicle,” Erica asked.
They walked to the front door where a burly bouncer slowly moved aside to let them through as Marissa flashed him her VSPR industry pass. Marissa led them to the coat check where they swiftly removed their blazers to reveal their winning attires. They soon were headed into the main room where guests were mingling in small groups, either around cocktail tables or seated at several lounge vignettes comprised of purple velvet couches and love seats around clear acrylic coffee tables. In the distance, Leah recognized a few faces that she had read about in Rhyme magazine: French rapper FLO and Toronto MC Erupt; some of the gentlemen from 1LoveT.O. and the Legends League; the blogging team behind Coco&Cowe; and of course, l’homme du jour, Purple Haze. To the exception of the latter, Leah had been following the evolution of the others’ careers over the years and secretly tried to contain her excitement at being in the same room as them.
“I love Tdot!” exclaimed Fabienne, as she looked around the room, admiring people’s bold fashion statements.
“I have to get back to business, but do a lap, mingle, do whatever you ladies do well,” Marissa said, as she waved to a few people in the distance.
“Open bar?” Leah asked.
“VSPR doesn’t do anything else!” Marissa replied.
“Then you know where I’m headed!” Leah said, grabbing both Fabienne and Erica by the hands.
“Please do not embarrass me! I have to be able to show my face to work on Monday. Otherwise, have a fabulous time!” Marissa enthused, before disappearing into the crowd.
“I’m here to get crunked! If I embarrass anyone, it’ll be by myself!” Leah laughed.
“I don’t want to have to quote scripture tonight, OK?” Fabienne said in a warning tone, implying that she was not up for playing mother hen.
“It’s ladies’ night, remember? What’s the worst that can happen?” Leah asked before flagging down the bartender.
The crowd seemed to warm up a little as Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink to That)” could be heard blaring on the speakers.
The ladies hit the dance floor twice in the second hour and even received an invitation to sit with Purple Haze and his entourage, but Fabienne quickly dismissed the invitation on all of their behalves, observing that there was a fine line between being a lady and a groupie, and that accepting the invitation was a sure way to slap the “Grace Kelly” off of them.
“Besides, you guys know that I do not believe in leading a man on that wouldn’t stand a chance in hell with me,” she clarified, as she sipped on her fifth Gin and Tonic.
“And where does Marc fit in this equation? Shouldn’t that be the first and only reason to say no?”
“Oh please! I mean, Marc is one reason, but as women, we often like to base our decisions on who we’re with at the time rather than on our own moral code. I choose to not base my decision on Marc but rather on the fact that I can choose to be a lady at any moment, whether I’m with someone or not,” Fabienne said, raising her eyebrow at Leah, as if to reference the Leo and Hunter ordeal and not her own motivations. Leah gave her a dirty look.
“But of course, the fact that I love and respect Marc fits into my moral code. I would never want to jeopardize what we have for a quick thrill,” Fabienne said, dreamily. “Besides, Marc is not a man to played with!” she laughed.
“I hear you,” Erica added. “I feel the same about Eric. I know better than to double-cross him!” she said laughing, staring into the distance for several minutes, a smile forming across her face.
Leah stared at her friend and squeezed her hand. Erica seemed lost in deep thought for a moment, and the next, she was back to her drink, downing it in a single swig.
“Seriously, you guys are killing my buzz! Must I remind you that I’m unattached right now? Even if none of those guys are my type, it was nice to get a little bit of attention!” Leah retorted.
“Ley, if you feel the need to get attention from a man that goes the moniker Purple Haze, then you’re not drinking hard enough,” Fabienne said. All three laughed for a few seconds.
At that moment, Marissa arrived hurriedly to where they were all standing.
“Hey! How’s everything going?” she asked, looking concerned.
“Guuurl, this girls’ night out idea was a good one!” Leah said, moving to the beat of a Wu-Tan Clan track that a group of guys at a nearby table were happily singing along to.
“That’s good, Ley, really good. How buzzed are you?”
“Apparently, not enough; she was ready to surrender her virtue to Purple Haze,” Fabienne mentioned, giggling. Erica shoved Fabienne playfully and they laughed some more.
“Give a girl some credit! I know better then to hook up with the last of the leaches!? And for your information, I’ve been holding my alcohol down without incident,” Leah affirmed, pleased with herself. “I can tell you that this party is mostly a hit because of the endless supply of alcohol that has people so shit-faced that they’re willing to overlook Purple Haze’s wack tracks; those girls seated at three o’clock? They’ve been eyeing Purple Haze and his boys all night in the hopes that this will take them closer to the big time. If they’re asked to go fish vomit down the gofer’s throat to earn the privilege of having their picture taken with Haze and posted on every blog in the city, they’ll do it without batting an eyelash because that’s as close as they’ll ever get to having their names in print next to those of the people whose lives they try to emulate. The bartender? Putting on a good show for the ladies, yet totally cheering for the same team. And that hot guy across the room that looks like a stand-in double for Leo? He’s here to screw with me on girls’ night,” she finished, laughing with sheer abandon.
“If only you were so lucky…” Marissa whispered.
Fabienne and Erica looked at each other and seemed to pale.
“Ley, it is Leo,” Marissa said in a single breath.
The world seemed to suddenly spin as Leo came into focus. Leah’s heart was now louder in her ears than the party’s music. She felt faint, ill. She had been served a strong shot…to the heart.
THE SPEED AT WHICH FABIENNE was traveling down the 401 West towards Toronto had made Leah plead several times for the gift of lasting life, but Fabienne was hardly swayed – she felt confident that she could get them to destination safe and sound, unscathed and unscratched. She laughed at Leah’s incessant speculations that if anything were to ever happen, she would be the one to somehow end up crushed between the hood of the car and a tree, similar to a scene from the movie Signs where the protagonist’s wife suffered such a fate.
“You are so extra!” Fabienne said, laughing, while Leah shook her head vigorously, her face looking rigid.
“Glad to see safety is not one of your concerns.”
“Ley, will you stop that? This is crazy! How many times have we traveled down this highway together?”
Leah simply looked out the window, and avoided answering the question – she knew Fabienne would try to get her to rationalize the absurdity of her own insecurities, and quite frankly, fear was a comfort she loved to wallow in from time to time.
“Woman, if you’re not answering, it’s ‘cause you know I’m right,” concluded Fabienne, chuckling.
Leah shot her a dirty look before sticking out her tongue at her.
They both laughed and Fabienne’s foot seemed to ease off of the accelerator. Trees were now recognizable again as they passed them by, and Leah’s breathing eased slowly.
She was anxious to get to Erica’s and unwind. The past few weeks had been some of the best and worst of her life. For the former, she had been able to step in last minute in the planning of an after-party celebrating the latest collection of a designer during Ottawa Fashion Week. The execution had later given Brown & Everson some of its best reviews on several blogs and on Twitter, which was how she loved to prove her abilities as hostess with the mostest. But, as for the case of the worst, she had finally decided to text Hunter to thank him for the flowers, only to be met with a vow of silence. She had also texted Leo to say hi, and though he was gentleman enough to respond, his message had been succinct, with no hint of enthusiasm or hope. Sleep had begun to evade her like a thief, and she found herself waking up with puffy eyes that had succumbed to tiresome tears. But now, she was going to have a weekend with her girls and set her men worries aside, even if 72 hours was a short relief from 365 days of drama, which reminded her…
“Fae, can you try to avoid any awkwardness with Erica this weekend, please?” she asked, hopeful. “I do not expect you ladies to become best friends, but she is having us over at her place, so can you put away the attitude and maintain world peace?”
Fabienne kept her eyes on the road ahead and sighed. She was aware that her mouth had gotten her in some real trouble her whole life. Marc, her fiancé, had often told her to learn to exercise restraint. But she always defended herself as “someone who had been given no filter by the Most High”, and hence, couldn’t help herself from saying it like it was. She found herself surprised to still have a circle of loved ones who could “stomach” her bluntness and never gave her some walking papers to the land of “screw you” – in fact, she hoped with all her might that it would never come to that, especially since she valued the few people that still mattered to her and couldn’t imagine a life where they would seize to be a part of it.
“You’re killing me!” Fabienne finally said, her foot pressing the accelerator a bit. “But I still know how to be civilized, so just for you, girl, I’ll behave. But just so we’re clear, your friend isn’t exactly innocent, either, man! She knows how to fight back, so…”
“That’s beside the point, Fae! All I want is one drama-free weekend. Can we attempt that? It’s not rocket science! Put away the gun and reload once we head home!”
“Fine, fine,” Fabienne responded, rolling her eyes. “I’ll focus on Issa and let you entertain your girl, alright?”
“Speaking of Issa, she mentioned in one of her last tweets that there’s a launch party that will be hosted by VSPR this Saturday. I think that’s where she’s bringing us.”
“Really? I haven’t checked my timeline in the last couple of days.”
Leah clicked on her Blackberry’s Twitter icon to view her feed and started scrolling down her timeline to find Marissa’s latest tweets.
“If Drizzy attends the party, I will lose my damn mind!” Fabienne shared, the excitement rising up in her voice as one of Drake’s latest songs came on the radio, prompting her to sing along.
“Oh, you’re a groupie now? You’re a grown-ass woman with a fiancé!” Leah laughed.
“So? The boy has been done with Degrassi for a minute! J’ai bien le droit de saliver un peu!” responded Fabienne, now singing the lyrics louder as if to pledge deeper allegiance to her crush.
“Just don’t let Marc ever hear you say that; he’d have your head!” Leah advised, pointing to Fabienne’s left hand where rested an engagement ring.
“Oh please, I have Marc wrapped around my finger; he would never dream of being without this chick!” she said, taking a split second to admire her one-carat white diamond ring that sparkled brightly. She smiled, content, admitting to herself that her “crazy in love” feelings for Marc ran as strongly for him as his did for her.
“Maybe so, but it wasn’t always like that, remember? You guys grew on each other. I won’t lie: I thought for a long time that maybe you and John would end up together, especially when Marc was delaying the asking…”
Oh God, John! As much as Marc could stand to hear Fabienne speak about any and every thing, one name that remained the proverbial “off” list was John Perreault, her former coworker and best male friend. Her and John had met over a decade earlier while both were enrolled in the Translation program at the Université de Montréal. John had chosen to drop out of the program half way through their second year upon starting a long-distance relationship with a young woman named Tina who was studying law at Ottawa University. Fabienne had been quite shocked at John’s sudden change of plans, and she warned him of the perils of moving too fast, which fell deafly on amorous John’s ears.
Their camaraderie in the weeks preceding John’s move to Ottawa had become strained, with Fabienne unable to shake the feeling that John was making a costly mistake, and John feeling frustrated with Fabienne’s lack of support for his new budding relationship. John had left Montreal without so much of a goodbye and the two had subsequently lost touch. Fabienne would go on to learn from mutual acquaintances that he and Tina had gotten married and had moved into a quaint apartment in Sandy Hill, living off of their passion for each other, midterms and coffee.
For a few years, Fabienne would wonder about John and his whereabouts and would miss his presence in her life, though her feelings had no romantic connotations – after all, she had been with Marc for several years by then and both of their families eagerly awaited the “proposal”. But she did wish that wherever John was, he was happy and well – she promised herself that if she ever saw him again one day, she would apologize to him for not being the thoughtful friend to him then that he had once been to her.
She could have never anticipated having to make due on her own promise within 2 years, 5 months and 10 days of her fallout with John. Upon being hired as a student in the Federal Student Work Experience Program, Fabienne had moved to Ottawa, seeking a transfer of her credits to Ottawa U. To her surprise, John had also been hired as a student. She could still remember the look on his face on the day that their manager introduced her as the newest member of the team: he had stared at her as if she had been the most extraordinary creature he had ever laid eyes on before letting a huge smile spread across his face. His eyes had softened as if to indicate that whatever had been the cause of their demise was now long forgiven and forgotten. From that day forward, their friendship had resumed effortlessly. Double dates with their significant others would later follow and Fabienne had found herself relieved to see all of them get along so wonderfully.
Graduation would eventually come knocking, and with the unknown before them, so did the harsh realities of the real world. While Fabienne and Marc’s relationship would make the natural transition from dating to engagement, John’s own marriage would soon fizzle, with Tina seeking a divorce despite John’s multiple attempts to save his marriage. With no prospects left in Ottawa and the sole reminder of a broken heart, John would later announce that he was moving to New York to work for the United Nations. It had now been more than 4 years and he had no plans of coming back, stating that the Big Apple had bitten him and left its sweet poison running through his veins before he ever had a chance to take a bite out of it first.
With Tina out of the picture, the frequency at which Fabienne and John communicated would soon get to Marc, who had become convinced that John was secretly in love with Fabienne. She would dismiss his theory many times over, calling on him to focus on them rather than a man for whom she could never develop romantic feelings. Her words would never carry the weight of persuasion she hoped for, and any mention of John would eventually become a topic best left unspoken.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Leah yelled for her to pay attention to the road.
“Fae, you’re going to miss our exit! It’s right here!”
Fabienne swerved quickly to the right without looking at her blind spot, causing the vehicle behind her to honk several times out of protest. Fabienne simply lifted her right hand, serving the driver a single finger gesture.
“Geez, that was subtle!” Leah remarked.
Several minutes later, they were pulling up unto Erica’s street, which was bordered on both sides by newly built single homes with perfectly manicured lawns and shiny cars.
“God, suburbia…” Fabienne said as they pulled up into Erica’s driveway.
“I know,” countered Leah. Neither one of them could ever imagine retiring daily to open green pastures, preferring the convenience of city life and its unparalleled access to everything.
“Oh well, let’s make the best of it,” Leah encouraged. “Remember, no drama!”
“Yeah, yeah…I don’t go looking for drama; it comes looking for me!”
The Thursday of their arrival, the ladies enjoyed a quiet evening where they were treated to Erica’s homemade cooking. Her prowess in the kitchen never seized to amaze Leah, who licked her fingers with sheer abandon. Even Fabienne was impressed with Erica’s homemade sushi delicacies, raising her glass of red wine in her direction as a respectful salute.
“I have to give it to you, Erica; this was quite something!” Fabienne said, nodding with approval.
They later sat in the living room and talked casually about pop culture and events from their respective cities, trying their best to keep superficial ramblings at the forefront.
“You ladies want more wine?” Erica asked, standing up from the floor where they were all seated around a low coffee table.
“Yes please!” Leah said, jumping unto her feet to help her friend clear the table of the messy dishware.
“Ley, I can do this! Can’t you just relax for a second?” laughed Erica, as she picked up the plates and started marching towards the kitchen.
“I guess this is as good a time as ever to tell you that Ley doesn’t work late because she made it into the big leagues; that’s the cover. She’s actually the nighttime maid,” Fabienne joked.
“La ferme! Why do you have to put my business out like that?” Leah retorted, adding to the farce.
“That does explain so much,” countered Erica, throwing the dirty linen napkins in Leah’s direction. “The obsessive compulsion with having everything a certain way…These things always find a way to come out,” Erica said, and all three laughed.
Leah followed Erica into the kitchen, while Fabienne surveyed her iPhone for any text messages.
The doorbell rang.
“Fabienne, can you get that, please?”
Fabienne stood up and walked over to the door.
“Hello, hello!” Marissa said as she stepped inside the house, holding a box of cupcakes from Pretty Sweet in one hand and a garment bag in the other.
“Hey woman!” Fabienne said, greeting her friend with a tight hug. “Issa is here!” she yelled out to the others.
“I almost got caught up at the office, but I worked something out with Johan. I told him I needed to see my ladies tonight; they’ll see me in the morning,” Marissa said, dropping her belongings on an entrance chair.
“What? They have you working Easter weekend? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Fae, I work in PR! There’s never any time off!? Parties go down year round, even on the holiest of holidays. We cannot all be like you lazy public servants up in Ottawa who get endless benefits, weekends off and paid holidays for your dolls!” Marissa joked.
“Hey, watch it! This girl paid her dues in hard labour. I got skills, aaight!?”
“Aaight? Is that the translator talking or the auto-correct?” Marissa said, winking, before being shoved playfully by Fabienne.
At that moment, Leah and Erica came out of the kitchen and took turns hugging Marissa.
“Got you guys some goodies,” Marissa said, lifting the box with a mischievous smile on her face.
“Squash the wine! Bring on the coffee to round this off!” Erica suggested, and gesturing for Leah’s help, they disappeared into the kitchen again. Marissa removed her orange BCBG Ruffle Trench Coat and placed it on a tufted chair. Her gold bangles clinked together as she lifted her hands to her flowing mane to run her fingers through it.
“What have I missed?” Marissa asked as she settled down on the love seat adjacent to where Fabienne was seating.
“Oh nothing really,” Fabienne said nonchalantly. “Leah made me promise to behave and avoid any topics that could ruffle some feathers,” Fabienne said in a low voice, looking in the direction of the kitchen as if to avoid being overheard.
Marissa sat back and lifted her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around them as her own mother would do.
“Have you been behaving?”
“Yes, and it’s pure torture! I feel my cynicism dwindling!”
“You? Never!” Marissa chuckled.
“Promise me that I will be allowed to vent as much as I want once we get out of Little House on the Prairie” Fabienne asked, leaning over and extending her pinkie to Marissa.
“You betcha, mama!” Marissa replied, joining her own pinkie to Fabienne’s.
Leah and Erica returned with espressos.
“Are we going to murder these or what?” Fabienne asked, ripping open the lid of the cupcake box.
As the ladies eagerly grabbed a cupcake each, Leah turned to look at Erica, an expression of concern on her face. But Erica was all smiles and followed the ladies’ lead by picking up a cupcake with blue icing.
“So, what’s new, Issa?” Leah asked, biting in her own treat.
“Well, I have to report to work tomorrow, so I cannot sleep over tonight. But, I will be crashing here with you guys tomorrow night. No staying in; we’re painting the town red tomorrow night!”
“Where are we going?” Leah asked, between mouthfuls.
“There’s an album release party for one of our clients tomorrow night at Sudbury 99 and I have to be in attendance for work. But since I’m overseeing it, I will have you guys on the list so that you can come through.
Leah and Fabienne’s eyes lit up.
“Is Drake gonna be there?” Fabienne asked eagerly while reaching over the coffee table for another cupcake.
“Fae, it’s a release party for an up-and-coming artist, not the VMAs!”
“Damn, sorry I asked!” Fabienne replied, rolling her eyes.
“I don’t have anything to wear,” Erica remarked.
“No worries; I have you all covered! Lisa and Kristy from Rent Frock Repeat sent over some gowns as a favour, so you will all look like the dime pieces that you are!”
“Nicely played, madame!”
“Ah, you know I try,” Marissa said, batting her eyelashes furiously like a seductress. “I’ll have to be there early, but one of you should text me as soon as you get there so I can go get you at the door. VIP, no ID!” she said laughing.
“Sounds like fun!”
“To bright lights and ladies’ night!” Leah said, raising her cupcake in the air.
On that, the rest of the evening played out in non-dramatic fashion. With Marissa headed back to the city at 1:30 a.m., the ladies were each ready to call it a night.
After wishing each other a good night’s rest, Erica started up the stairs to her bedroom, while Fabienne and Leah retreated to their guest bedroom on the main floor. As they walked the short distance from the living room to the bedroom, a photograph of Erica and Eric mounted on the wall caught Leah’s eye. In it, Erica was in a simple white satin sheath dress, holding a bouquet of white tulips. Eric, dressed in a basic tuxedo, had his arms wrapped around her. Their smiles, so bright, reflected their joy and had set the tone as one of the most memorable celebrations of all their lives. Leah remembered the happy day with fondness – there had never been any doubt in her mind that they were soulmates.
“That was fun!” Fabienne said, as she slipped out of her jeans and into her pyjama bottoms.
“Yes it was,” Leah responded. “But don’t you think the ‘murder’ them comment was a bit much?”
“What? What are you talking about? Did I do something wrong? I was polite all night!”
Leah simply refrained from having to explain herself any further. Fae was her best friend, but she was who she was: even when doing her very best to not offend, subtlety beat her at her own game.
THE LONG EASTER WEEKEND WAS HERE at last and the weather was climbing into the low twenties without inciting global warming fears. Outside of Erica Huang-McDonald’s home, a couple of birds carried twigs in their beaks, building their little nest atop a few strategically placed tree branches. She paid attention to the spectacle, feeling inspired to spring into action inside her own abode. She rationalized that if she got to it now rather than later, she would be able to enjoy her days and evenings doing the things she loved rather than tedious house cleaning chores.
She had received a call from Leah earlier in the week, who had informed her that she was planning to go down to Toronto for the weekend. Erica looked forward to having her good friend over, but could have done without the addition of Fabienne with whom she had never managed to find some common ground. For starters, Fabienne spoke openly about her Christian faith, which clashed with Erica’s own agnostic views, and on several occasions, their conversations over the existence of a Higher Being (or lack thereof) had turned many pleasant evenings into tensed ones. Fabienne also seemed to favor the idea of segregation, defining it as “cultural survival”, but Erica classified is as “closeted racism” towards some races – she particularly felt targeted by Fae’s remarks on the matter given the fact that she was not only married to a white Irish-Canadian, but was herself the product of a Japanese and Irish union. She often found it ironic that Fabienne could maintain a friendship with Leah, whose own existence was the result of a biracial marriage. But then again, perhaps Leah’s darker skin tone fit into Fae’s “acceptable” color spectrum, a requirement Erica’s milky complexion couldn’t compete with…Then again, how was Marissa getting a free pass in Fae’s book?
Erica hoped that Marissa would join them. She liked her far more than Fabienne and found her quite charming. Never mind the fact that her looks alone made her stand out as a luminous creature – she was a sight to see, but didn’t seem to use it for evil. Erica had observed Marissa’s kindness in action and had often wondered if some women truly had it all, or simply alluded to having it all. Erica was more inclined to think the former and even imagined that Marissa must have been the prototype to the “Lucky Ones”.
For once, Erica was willing to make nice with Fabienne and she made a pact with herself to not give into any topic that could spark uneasiness. She was in much need of female bonding, and though she enjoyed her peaceful suburban life in Ajax, she was still able to nurture her friendships before they turned stale.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Erica smiled and continued to wash the dishes in the sink, keeping an eye out on the progress of her new neighbors’ move.
“Hi my love,” she simply replied.
“You seem to be in a great mood!”
“I’m always in a great mood when you’re here…”
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be…”
Eric…the love of her life – her reason for living and breathing.
She had witnessed very little affection between her own folks growing up and never imagined that she could ever find a love to call her own. But as life often finds it, it’s when you’re too busy making other plans that it suddenly happens to you. Erica could still remember the day she and Eric first crossed paths.
The population was in a tizzy as the G20 summit descended unto the city. Barricades were being erected near the Metro Convention Centre and surrounding areas and media outlets were quickly spreading the word that a security fence had been erected along the middle of Wellington Street.
“Call it the resurrection of the Berlin Wall!” shouted Erica’s friend Asher, a lithe, curly-haired hippie she had met years prior during a backpacking trip to Europe.
They were riding the TTC’s Yonge line, crammed between hundreds of people who seemed headed in the same direction: that of chaos. Some held handmade signs that called for peace, while others expressed their discontent with bold expletives. Erica’s own philosophy resonated more with the peaceful protesters, but she knew that Asher wouldn’t let her get away with being a silent wallflower. He had planned his own little rally downtown and had contacted dozens of people he had met on his numerous trips abroad. His excitement was palpable and Erica worried that it was getting the best of him.
“Asher, maybe I should go home…”
“No way, Erica!” he shouted, rejecting her proposal. “Are you serious about being a teacher?”
Erica didn’t know where this was going, but she didn’t want to leave his interrogation unanswered.
“Yes, of course! You already know that!”
“Then?” he continued.
“Then what?” she asked loudly. The TTC ride was a bit noisy.
He turned to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, staring straight into her eyes.
“Erica, do you realize that this is history in the making?” he asked, hoping that his question served as a stand-alone argument.
“Then?” he asked again.
“Asher, that’s great and all, but do you realize that we’re exposing ourselves to some serious danger and…”
“Erica, danger is all around us! Moments like this do not amplify it; moments like this reveal its rewards. This is so much more than anything physical, emotional or spiritual. This moment is about being conscious of the things that are far more detrimental and harmful to us as a society than any gun, bomb or threat: it’s our right to freedom.”
Erica chuckled at Asher’s overdramatic take on things, but she did admit that he had a point. Asher guessed that she wasn’t biting.
“How do you expect to teach your students about anything that’ll affect their future if you prefer to remain home, stuffing your face with Lays potato chips and shutting yourself off from historical moments that are taking place right outside your door? Survivor has nothing on this, my friend! Imagine being able to stand before your students and recounting your time in the heart of the storm; witnessing it and living it! The authenticity of an experience like this cannot be bought, not even by book publishers,” he said matter-of-factly. “So, become the kind of teacher who doesn’t just read from a book, but adds value to her students’ lives by demonstrating the rewards one gains from being bold. Live to tell the tale!”
In that moment, Erica felt closer to Asher, whom she considered to be one of the smartest people she had ever met. She appreciated his zest for life and his sense of adventure; not so much because she emulated the same characteristics, but because it reminded her that every living being had a purpose. She was beyond convinced that Asher’s was to be the stamp-travelling hippie who could get her away from the comfort of Survivor and out into the street jungle.
The tension between armed police officers and the crowd was intensifying as protestors marched forward, defying their opponents. Erica and Asher got off at King Station and walked up to the Starbucks located at the intersection of Yonge and King. Upon seeing their leader, Asher’s allies shouted, lifting their arms in victory and brandishing their picket signs. Erica couldn’t help herself from laughing at their “Braveheart” way of things.
“Ok guys, listen up,” Asher ordered, lifting his arms to silence them. “We’re going to walk to…”
Asher had barely begun when a glass window behind them suddenly shattered, making the group jump in unison.
“GET OUT OF THE WAY!” a female voice cried out to them, and the group dispersed in seconds, with Asher grabbing Erica by the hand and running across the street, maintaining a safe distance from the armed forces who were moving in on demonstrators. Erica’s heart was racing, and though she had initially felt some excitement upon getting off the subway, she found herself regretting the whole affair. What had she gotten herself into?
A few vandals dressed entirely in casual black sweats with faces hidden behind black bandanas and heads covered by hooded sweatshirts proceeded to throw miscellaneous items at Starbucks’ windows, with some of the more brazen ones running up to them to take a direct hit with hammers and bars. Some voices in the crowd urged them on. The majority of onlookers resorted to taking out their cell phones to immortalize the moment. The police had had about enough and honed in on the crowd in a single file line, grabbing whoever put up a fight and pinning them to the ground. Screams erupted; some demonstrators tried to break their friends away from police officers’ grasp. Asher, recognizing a familiar face amongst the detainees, swooped in to stand in as her shield. Erica’s ears became less and less receptive to the cacophony and moved up a bit, not entirely certain of whether to help Asher or run for her life.
The struggle between the two groups grew more violent, and within minutes, someone was backed out in an attempt to avoid capture, causing Erica to fall backwards on concrete. She yelled out in pain and shielded her face with her hands to protect it from potential injuries. The several minutes that followed seemed like an eternity and she could hear voices all around her, coming in and out. Her mind raced as she imagined the worst. But suddenly, she was being lifted up and carried away. The carrier’s arms were strong and held her small frame firmly. She heard a male voice reassuring her that she was going to be OK. And then she blacked out.
THE VOICES THAT WERE COMING in and out of the room seemed to compete with the sound of sirens in the distance, a male voice sounding off on an intercom and multiple female voices in a hallway. Erica opened her eyes slowly and clarity seemed to slowly return. A tall man was standing nearby, looking concerned.
“Hi Erica,” he whispered, as he approached the bed, placing his hand by hers without touching it. “Are you ok?”
“Where am I? I…” Erica winced, feeling too weak to speak.
“Easy,” continued the man, now holding her hand. “I’m Eric. I brought you here because you got caught up in that messy brawl between the protesters and the police…”
“I did?” she asked, trying to remember the incident.
“Well, you were standing close and someone knocked you over.”
“Oh, I don’t remember any…”
“It’s ok,” Eric replied. His eyes expressed the most genuine concern. He was all man, but with a boyish innocence.
“Where are we?” she asked, feeling some warmth returning to her cheeks.
“St. Michael’s Hospital. I hope you don’t mind, but I had to dig into your purse to find a healthcard, so…”
“That’s fine,” she replied.
Eric squeezed her hand and Erica instantly felt reassured, as if Eric had always been present in her life to watch over her.
“I want to go home,” she demanded, wanting the ordeal to come to an end. She would never again agree to such craziness, she thought. In that moment, she was resolute in her decision to remain within the confines of her boring and safe apartment, even if it meant dying alone.
“I’ll be happy to bring you back if we can get a doctor to give us the green light to leave,” Eric reassured her.
“I can find my way back,” Erica said, trying not to sound too defensive. But truth be told, she really did hope Eric would insist and wave away her lame attempt at going it alone.
“Erica, I’m not letting you go by yourself. I got you here and I plan to bring you back,” Eric replied, his eyes fixated on her. His tone seemed to indicate that she should refrain from trying to persuade him otherwise, but surprisingly, she didn’t find herself feeling the least bit threatened. What would have normally intimidated her coming from another person seemed totally natural coming from this guy she knew nothing about. If this was a preview of what it was for any woman to let go of fear and allow herself the possibility of trusting someone, then she was willing to embrace this side of the unknown with open arms.
“Very well,” she conceded, smiling weakly. Eric winked at her and squeezed her hand a little. His was warm, comforting.
“Ms. Huang?” a voice announced as a male doctor who looked in his late 40’s appeared from behind a curtain. “I’m Dr. Evans. We have been monitoring you and everything is stable, so you are free to go.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“My pleasure. I will have a talk with your boyfriend in the hall about what he needs to give you…”
Erica felt herself blushing and quickly intervened.
“Oh, he’s not my boyfriend.”
Eric’s amused expression at her rebuttal further made Erica blush and she tried to avoid his gaze by keeping her eyes on the doctor.
“Yeah, she’s right: I’m not her boyfriend,” Eric corrected, and the doctor seemed a bit embarrassed to have assumed otherwise. “I’m her husband.”
Erica’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to protest, but Eric simply placed a finger over her lips, as if to silence her panic. The doctor seemed confused.
“Doctor, perhaps she’s had a memory loss?” Eric said, his expression suddenly turning into one of seriousness. “Can the stuff they’ve given her make her forgetful?” Eric continued, rubbing Erica’s back gently while caressing her hand with the other. The words she wished to speak seemed to jumble up in her throat.
“It’s not common, but it has happened. Perhaps she’s not quite ready to go yet…”
“She will be fine, right honey?” asked Eric, already helping her off the bed and patting her hair down with his hands. Erica was speechless.
The doctor’s eyes expressed his uncertainty and he searched Erica’s for reassurance. She simply smiled weakly.
“Ms. Huang, are you OK to go home? We can keep you under observation a bit longer if…”
Eric, not missing the beat with his little comedic act, gestured to Dr. Evans to relinquish the little bag of pills he was holding along with Erica’s health card. A voice over the intercom called Dr. Evans to the emergency wing.
“I have to go, but make sure to take these every four hours until the full dosage is done,” Dr. Evans yelled over his shoulder as he rushed out the room.
Eric turned to Erica and her voice seemed to suddenly jolt out of her body.
“What were you doing? Are you a lunatic?”
“What difference does it make?”
“A…a huge difference! That was misleading, wrong, inappropriate of you to tell Dr. Evans somet…”
“Haven’t you done enough protesting for one day? I mean, look where that got you!” Eric said, laughing. Erica considered his words for a second and unable to conceal her shock, started to laugh. Who was this guy?
“Yeah, well…perhaps I’m safer here than with you!”
“I doubt that,” Eric replied, rather confident in his affirmation. “If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t have brought you here when you got hurt, now, would I?”
Again, Erica found herself perplexed, but this time, it was more out of curiosity for this cute, witty guy who was quickly winning her over.
Eric started leading her out the door, holding her by the waist. Erica leaned against him, their bodies falling in step with one another as the walked. A few minutes of silence followed their walk, but there were no feelings of uneasiness. Outside, a young Indian man dressed in faded jeans, a white V-neck tee and a straw fedora was leaning against a silver Honda Civic, playing on an iPhone.
“Dude!” Eric yelled out to him, and the young man looked up, quickly moving from his post to the other side of the car. He opened the passenger door and smiled at Erica.
“Hi! I’m Rhavi,” he said, grabbing her other hand to help her into the car.
“Hello,” she responded simply.
“This is Erica,” Eric indicated to his friend, leaning over Erica to buckle her seat belt. She observed his blond hair and held in her breath, in case it was repugnant.
“So, Erica, you brave thing, you were itching for danger today?” Rhavi joked.
“A friend of mine invited me along and he has this idea that I should learn to step out of my comfort zone to experience life, and…ooooh,” Erica moaned, raising her hand to her head. She was feeling dizzy again and her breath fell short.
“Relax, Erica, you’re in good hands,” Eric said, stroking her hair slowly to relive her of her discomfort. She had never experienced such thoughtful attention in her life before.
Eric gestured for Rhavi to get in the back seat and made his way to the driver’s door. Once seated, he looked over at her, concerned.
“Erica, do you live alone?” he inquired.
“Hmmm…no. But my…roommate is…out of town,” she replied, leaning her head back and closing her eyes.
“I do not feel comfortable with dropping you off at home without anyone to take care of you. Maybe we should take you back to our place?”
“Wha…no! Home, take me home, please,” she asked faintly.
“We won’t bite!” Rhavi said. “And plus, you couldn’t have gotten a better guy to be your hero than my boy right here,” he added, tapping Eric on the shoulders.
Erica opened her eyes again and turned her head to look at Eric, whose face had taken an exaggerated expression of sadness, his lips curling downwards. Erica smiled.
“This face is sad that Ms. Huang does not trust Mr. McDonald, so Mr. McDonald feels he needs to drown his sorrows at the Ronald McDonald house,” he said in a childish voice, with Rhavi lifting his arms to play an invisible violin for added drama.
“Ok, ok, but as soon as I feel better, will you take me home?” she asked, though internally, she loved the feeling of having someone like him care for her well-being.
“Yes, ma’am!” Eric responded, now upbeat again. “Hungry?”
“Happy Meal for the little ones?” Eric asked, starting the engine.
“Oui, oui!” Rhavi chanted in the backseat. Erica laughed and nodded, happy to feel her headache dissipating like the wind.
“Happy Meal, it is,” she agreed.
The car took off, passing protesters who were retreating to their homes after an eventful day. As the trio stopped at a red light, Erica saw Asher standing on the corner of the street. He was hugging a young woman. Erica recognized her as the one who had gotten embroiled into the altercation with the police. They were gazing into each other’s eyes and suddenly, they kissed. She rolled down her window and shouted Asher’s name as they crossed the street, but the crowd pushed them along. She sat back, disappointed that he hadn’t bothered to look for her following the incident. She rolled up the window.
“Friend of yours?” Eric asked inquisitively.
“So I thought…” she simply responded.
“Well, you’re making new ones now,” Rhavi pointed out. Erica looked back at him with gratitude.
This day was definitely not what she had expected it to be. It had started out in fear, turned into danger, transitioned into wonder, and now was moving towards…Erica couldn’t choose the sentiment that best represented her feeling in that very moment. “So, Ms. Huang, how’s that for the unusual?” Eric asked.
There it was – the missing word: unusual. She didn’t know how to respond, but she knew one thing: she wanted to delve deeper. Eric was the one she wanted to discover.