Of course I would see him for the first time in two years while I was struggling.
Mother insisted on seeing the dress in her three-way mirror. Never mind that I didn’t have a car. Catalina has a car, doesn’t she? I could see Mother’s pursed lips in my mind. Go with her. I need to see this dress outside of the store before you walk down the aisle in it.
So of course, that left me and Cat struggling to get a firm hold on my wedding dress, to shove it into the back of the car. Cat’s car would be in the shop that day, so we had to rent one. Unfortunately for me, the problem with a ballgown wedding dress was precisely what I envisioned: too much dress, not enough space.
“Just push it in.” Cat let out a little grunt as she attempted to move it through the doorway of the car. One lone drop of sweat trickled down her face and I feared that any minute, she would explode. “Why did we rent such a tiny-ass car to pick up this monster of a dress?”
“Hindsight is a bitch.” I let out a curse as I jammed my finger between the dress and the car door. “We have no choice but to keep trying.”
I turned my eyes toward the voice like a man follows a siren’s song. My watch beeped at me frantically. Take a breath. Take a breath! I tipped my head back to meet his eyes.
A clean Caesar had taken the place of the high-top fade I was so used to. His lips—which almost always held a frown of some sort—seemed more tender-looking than before. More lush. More kissable.
The graphic-T / loose jeans combination of our high school days had faded into fitted jeans and a plain white tee. The shirt molded to the curves of his arms, bunched up a little on the hill of his bicep. It conjured up pictures of long hours spent at the gym or doing pushups. I could see Andrew in my mind’s eye, at the squat rack or at the bar doing chest presses, sweat pooling at his collarbone or soaking his shirt. I practically salivated at the thought.
I longed to run my fingertips over his broad shoulders; my heart sped up at the thought of my fingers getting tangled in his shirt. Looking at him that day, I wondered if he was going to burst through the shirt if he turned the wrong way. While the thought of a semi-naked Andrew was always enough to make me blush, my heart ached for the stick-thin Skinny Minnie that earned him the nickname in high school. I met him when he inhabited that body, had lustful teenage thoughts about him even when he was a beanpole. It felt wrong, somehow, that we had grown into adults.
Despite all the delicious ways that time had done him well, he was still Andrew Parker. His light brown eyes still held the gentle mischief, the leisurely and calm confidence I remembered from so long ago. His eyes roamed over my wedding dress, and then over my face, possessing it and staking his claim. His gaze stopped at my lips then flashed back to my eyes. I knew that even with my dark skin, he could sense the blush, everpresent in our early days, creep over my face. He smiled.
“Hey.” I tried to continue with our arduous task, but Cat took this moment to do her best statue impression. Traitor. I glared at her and tugged on the dress for emphasis. “How’ve you been?”
“Good,” he said, looking back toward the dress. I felt the familiar tingle as his voice—smooth, low, and warm—wrapped itself around me like a blanket straight from the dryer. His eyes flashed back to mine again. “You’re getting married.”
“Two more months!” Even to my own ears, I could hear the false note of cheer. Andrew tilted his head a little, a small frown playing between his brows. My traitorous heart melted at the sight even as my watch beeped again. My hand itched to smooth his brow, the way he did for me all those years ago.
He tapped his palm over his fist before deciding to shove both hands deep into his pockets. He looked away from me, squinted into the distance. A muscle ticked in his jaw.
I flashed back to the memories of Andrew’s face not even twitching when I felt like I was coming unraveled. Of the two of us, I was always the one on the move—tapping my fingers, pacing. His slow, easy heartbeat had been my anchor, and his calmness was always comforting. I paused at what I saw now.
“I saw you the other day, coming out of a coffee shop. It didn’t look like a good time to talk, though. Seemed like you were arguing with someone on the phone.”
“Probably was.” Something in my voice made him narrow his eyes. I flashed back to all of those times when I was constantly fighting with some guy or another, Andrew looking on with interest and slight disapproval. Not much had changed in that department—just that I was fighting different people now. Different battles.
“It made me realize that I couldn’t call you.” When I raised my eyebrows, he coughed and looked away. “I don’t have your number saved in my phone anymore. After, you know, everything.”
So he did it. The full purge. My heart lurched. I could feel the tears threatening to come up, so I blinked and looked down at the dress as I spoke. “I can text you. Is your number the same?”
Our eyes met over the gown with an almost audible click. He took a deep breath, and I could almost hear the echoes of our conversation, so many years ago, playing in his head as well as my own.
“Yeah, it’s the same.” Almost as if it had a mind of its own, Andrew’s voice lowered, the deep resonance betraying his surprise and pleasure.
I dipped my head briefly, a curt nod. “Talk to you then.”
“If we were ever to stop being friends, I’d do a full purge,” I announced. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Andrew stop chewing and hit pause on the Goosebumps episode we were watching.
“A full purge?” he asked.
“Everything that even remotely reminded me of you would go.”
“What are you, an echo?”
He chewed slowly, staring at the screen as he thought. I could almost smell the smoke burning from the effort.
“I’m surprised, is all,” he said finally. “That’s not really your thing.”
“Who’s the echo now?”
“Minnie.” I turned to him, a warning in my eyes. I scratched my knee then toyed with the skin around my fingernails. “Cut the enigmatic bullshit and say it straight. What do you mean it’s not my thing?”
“First of all, you’re a memory hoarder. That would never work.” As I opened my mouth to protest, he continued, “Secondly, we’ve spent countless years together now. We met in our senior year of high school. We’re almost out of college. That’s thousands of hours of memories. You could forget all that?” He looked up from his cereal. His spoon remained suspended over the bowl as he searched my eyes. I felt a shiver and a slow burn inhabit my body. I hated it when he looked at me like that.
“I would have to forget.” I could feel the waver in my voice as I swallowed. “I wouldn’t have a choice.” My face flushed with the confession, and then looking at him became too much. His eyes showed an understanding of something more, something that, at that time, I had yet to grasp.
He reached out to grab hold of my chin, tilted it toward him. I could see a question there, but I didn’t know what he was asking. What he was really asking. Finally, he sighed as his fingers moved from my chin and returned to the spoon. He considered the Lucky Charms as he spoke.
“No amount of purging could help me get over the loss of us,” he said. “I wouldn’t even bother trying.”
“So what was it like? Seeing Andrew after all these years.”
I shrugged and gave the barista my card and looked around the tiny coffee shop. “First of all, it’s only been two years.” I gave Cat a sidelong look. “Secondly, it was regular.” So regular that my heart almost jumped out of my body. “I didn’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to see him ever again. Especially after everything that happened last time.”
“Yeah? Is that why you were ogling him? Because you don’t want to see him ever again?” Catalina smirked.
“So are you ready to tell me something real, or are you gonna lie to my face some more?” She stirred honey into her green tea.
I picked at the skin around my nails then frowned in surprise. I haven’t done that in years. “He’s always been attractive; that hasn’t changed,” I admitted. “I like the beard on him. And he’s filled out in a not-so-bad way…”
“So you are gonna lie to my face.”
“That’s not a lie!”
“Alicia, you might as well have tried to lick him from head to toe, the way you were looking at him.”
“You pretend to be a prude, Alicia Jones, but you are not. And you may try to lie to yourself and to me about your rampant, insatiable lust for Andrew, but I’m not lying to no-damn-body. Including you.” She flicked invisible lint off her arm. “You’ve been attracted to that man since high school. You couldn’t get enough of him then, and you can’t stay away now. Not to say I blame you. Andrew says he doesn’t work out, but for someone who never hits the gym, he sure does have a nice, round, tight ass—”
“Jesus, Cat, aren’t you happily married?” My face burned even brighter. “And I’m the one supposedly lusting after Andrew?”
“Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I’m blind. Andrew is a snack. And just because you’re getting married, it doesn’t mean you have to be blind, either. Besides, you’re marrying Michael because he’s a hot piece of ass. Don’t be so uptight. And don’t try to tell me any different,” Catalina said over my protests. “Because you’re definitely not marrying him for his mind.”
“That’s not fair.” I swirled my coffee distractedly. Andrew had a mind that any nerd could get lost in. “Michael makes me feel like no other man has. He’s warmhearted, and responsible, and compassionate, and—”
“—doesn’t have an intellectual thought in his head.” Catalina rolled her eyes. “He’s one turkey short of a feast, Alicia, believe that. I don’t know how he’s getting through business school, let alone overseeing a whole-ass retail store. And he’s a fucking bro. He’s the complete opposite of you. What do you talk about with him, anyway? Other than the weather and himself.”
“He’s stable, has a good job, good family background, loves kids, will be a great father, is taller than me,” I said, using my fingers to list his attributes. “He has potential but most importantly, he’s great in the here and now. He’s everything I could want in a future husband. Unlike Andrew.”
“So you’re marrying him because he’s not Andrew.” Catalina pursed her lips. “Look, Alicia, I get it. Andrew broke your heart—”
“—here we go—”
“—and no one can compare—”
“—but this is worse than settling. This is emotional suicide. Marrying Michael will be like watching paint dry for the next fifty years of your life. How can you be okay with this?”
“Because.” I turned to her. “Michael is the one. Period.” He has to be.
* * *
So after all that you went through with this number all those years, you still kept it?
I laughed. Yeah, I couldn’t get rid of it. Memories, you know.
Naturally. When did you ever pass up an opportunity to hoard your memories?I could almost hear Andrew’s murmur of a laugh through the text. I could hear it echoing in my head, the richness of it filling my soul. My whole body went hot, heat pooling between my legs, and my watch beeped. Take a breath.
Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right? But the real miracle is that your number is the same. I’m surprised.
Fair. But ask me how many phones I’ve had since…
I frowned at my phone, looking for the spinning wheel of death at the top of the screen. My phone was as serene as an early morning lake. The dramatic pause for effect, I thought, sucking my teeth. Typical Andrew.
Anyway, he continued, we should get coffee tomorrow. Catch up.
I twisted my engagement ring around my finger as my mind scattered in several different directions. My skin felt like it was on fire as I remembered how things ended. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore the dull ache in my heart.
What will it be like? Will we go back to the way things were? Does he still smile the same?
Does he remember?
IDK, I said finally. I chewed my lip, fiddled with my ring again. Let me check with my fiancé first.
There was a long pause, to the point where I wondered if Andrew would respond.
You have to check with your fiancé first? For coffee?
My nostrils flared as my nails tapped on my desk. The scorn in his text almost singed my hands. Deep breaths, I told myself. Stop letting him get to you.
Yes. Michael and I are a team.
Okay, Jones. Whatever you say.
I’ll let you know by tonight.
Great, he said, as if it was already decided. It’s a date.
Despite myself, I smiled.
* * *
“Did you pick up your dress?”
I rolled my eyes at the phone. My mother could be so short these days.
I snorted to myself. Just these days?
“What was that?”
“Yes, Mother, I picked up the dress.”
“And everything is in order?”
“Good.” I heard her shuffle around some papers on the other end. I sighed. Even when planning her only living child’s wedding, she was still working. Still dictating. I breathed deeply, feeling the air expand within me. Keep it cool, I reminded myself. Keep the peace.
My relationship with my parents was tenuous at best. We kept it civil lately because of the wedding, and because they loved Michael. They thought he had great potential in business, if not football, which ultimately led my father—a sports attorney with connections to agents—to take Michael on as a client.
He’s fantastic. Unlike that other boy you used to date.I could hear my mother’s cool voice in my head, see the slight wrinkle of her nose as she thought of Andrew. Who, by the way, I never dated. But those were just semantics to my mother.
“Is there anything else?” I sighed. I looked at my watch, then at the time on my microwave. I shifted so that my feet dug into my couch. “I’m at my apartment, but Michael should be here any minute.”
“No, nothing else.” She shifted the papers again. “And how is Michael doing? You two are only two months out from the big day. Any wedding jitters?”
“Nope, he’s as solid as ever,” I said, unable to keep a slight edge from my voice. Michael, as solid as ever. His heartbeat was even steady when we kissed.
“Well, as we say, happy husband, happy wife.”
“Doesn’t the saying go, ‘happy wife, happy life’? Shouldn’t he be trying to keep me happy?”
“Alicia, don’t start getting all bent out of shape. You know taking Michael as a client means a lot to your father. Michael’s family has connections that we couldn’t have even dreamed of. This could be the thing that makes or breaks your father’s firm. We need Michael to be on board.”
Michael, Michael, Michael. I made a face at the phone to avoid snapping at Mother. If I heard any more about this partnership that Michael and my father were working on, I’d go insane. “It’s fine, Mother. I understand.”
Fine, fine, fine, everything’s fine. Isn’t it, Ace?
It was as if Andrew was in the room with me. My heart jumped to life at the thought of him. I frowned and turned away from those thoughts. Remember, I thought. Things have changed. You have a future marriage to think about now.
“…need anything else,” my mother finished. I quickly searched my brain for the last sentence that she said. God forbid she caught me not listening.
“I will,” I promised. “Goodnight, Mother.”
“Goodnight,” she said just as Michael was walking in. Sighing in relief, I hung up the phone and smiled at Michael. “Hey, you.”
“Hey, yourself.” As I watched him saunter across the room, I marveled at the god that was my future husband. His muscles rippled with each step he took. While Andrew favored a basketball player physique, Michael was all football. Wide, broad shoulders. Biceps the width of my leg. Watching him stroll across the room, brazen confidence apparent with each step, he practically set my body on fire. We hadn’t had sex yet, at Michael’s insistence. Ever the traditional one, he wanted to wait for marriage because he felt like it was the right thing to do, as if he was protecting my virtue somehow. Still, it didn’t stop me from picturing my legs wrapped around his torso, could almost feel him drive into me as I uttered irreverent prayers to our bedroom ceiling.
I studied his full lips, looked into his hazel eyes. A grin flashed across his face, dimples making their delectable appearance.
He bent down to briefly touch his lips to mine then dropped his bag to the floor. A slight flash of irritation zipped through me before I tamped it down. There was a hook specifically for Michael’s bag, but he refused to even acknowledge it. Though I could appreciate that Michael felt at home wherever he was, this was still my apartment. My apartment, my rules.
I didn’t mention it to him, though.
“How was the talk with your mom?” he asked as I fought my irritation.
“The usual. Straightforward.” I grimaced. “She says hi, by the way.”
“Hi back.” He grinned at his own joke.
“How was the gym?”
“Good.” He flexed and kissed his bicep. “Making gains. This will be my year, babe. I feel it.”
“Yeah?” I turned to him as he dropped to the couch and propped my feet on his lap. “Did something happen?”
He started to rub my arches and I hummed my satisfaction. “Yeah. The starting running back pulled a hamstring. The trainers don’t know how long it’s gonna take him to recover.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Yikes. That sucks for him—probably hurts, doesn’t it?” Michael frowned as if that didn’t even occur to him. “But it’s good for you,” I added hastily.
He shrugged. “Yeah. It’s a step in the right direction.”
We sat in silence, lost in our own minds for a moment, before I cleared my throat. “So, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Yeah?” He reached for the remote and turned the TV on. A laugh track played softly in the background. “What’s up?”
“I ran into Andrew today.” I fiddled with my ring for the third time today. “He wanted to grab coffee and catch up.”
Michael flicked through the channels absentmindedly. “Is this the same Andrew that your mom hates?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes.”
“Didn’t she say that you two used to date?”
“But we didn’t.” I almost couldn’t stop myself from flicking my thumbnail against the pad of my forefinger. The rapid fft fft fft sound couldn’t be heard over the TV show’s loud explosions.
“It’s fine with me, then.” Michael shrugged. “It’s not like you had feelings for the guy.”
A small seed of guilt swirled in my stomach. “Right.”
* * *
The next day, Andrew and I met at a coffee shop in our hometown. As I waited for Andrew—who was running late as expected—I looked around the large room. Baristas scurried about with half-empty containers of this liquid or that, the manic, almost hysterical atmosphere reflected in their eyes. The barista manning the pick-up line pasted a falsely bright smile to her face as a woman gestured sharply in front of her. Looking out the window, I saw a sign boasting FOUR NEW LOCATIONS!Must be a chain, I thought. Definitely not Andrew’s style. I wondered why he picked it?
“This was the only coffee shop in our town that I could find that we hadn’t been to.” I turned around to see Andrew standing behind me, hand on the back of his neck, eyes sheepish, mouth turned down in a sour grimace. “But I know about your love affair with coffee, and I didn’t want to risk our first meeting since…everything”—he coughed—“without coffee, so I chose here. For a fresh start and all that.” As if realizing that he strung too many sentences together at once, he stopped abruptly and shoved his hands in his pockets. I watched him for a moment before looking around again. Finally, I turned to him with what was hopefully a reassuring smile.
“You did good, Minnie,” I said. “Let’s get some coffee.”
We took a few steps to integrate ourselves into the line waiting to order. As I browsed through the menu, Andrew cleared his throat. I met the mischievous gleam in his eye with a frown of my own.
“So,” he said. “Your fiancé let you out the house then.” An uncharacteristic smirk twisted Andrew’s lips. Although, I thought, who’s to say it’s not like Andrew to do that? We don’t know each other anymore.
But did we ever?
“He didn’t ‘let me out.’” I sniffed. “I am free to go where I choose. I chose to ask him.”
“As opposed to sneaking around?”
“As opposed to not honoring his wishes, despite being in a committed relationship.”
Andrew made a noise of approval. “Fair point.”
I murmured my agreement, smoothing my skirt. Andrew frowned slightly, gesturing with his chin at my legs. “When did this happen?”
“When did what happen?”
“When did you start wearing skirts?” He gazed at my legs as I blushed. “Short skirts, at that. I thought you hated your legs.”
I shrugged, tapping my hand against my thigh. “Things change. And they’re not so bad. Michael loves when I wear skirts.” I flushed deeper as Andrew’s eyes met mine with a raised eyebrow. I returned his look with defiance coursing through my veins. Say it. Say that you’re disappointed that I changed for anyone; I dare you.
“Things do change, I guess,” he murmured. His refusal to say it made me avert my eyes. But I should’ve known. He never rose to a fight or picked one. Except that one time.
As I looked out the window to avoid his eyes, I said, “So. What’s new on your end? I’m at a disadvantage. You already saw me struggling with my wedding dress.”
I turned to him just in time to see him smile into his tea. “Yeah, that was pretty great. Would be great to see you in it. I bet you look like a princess.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, a big, poufy princess.” I grumbled as Andrew’s smile grew into a full laugh. “They will roll me down the aisle in a haze of taffeta.”
“I’m surprised that you agreed to it.” He took a long pull of his tea. “The Alicia I knew couldn’t be made to wear any dress, let alone a princess dress.”
So there it is. The judgment. I shrugged, taking a sip of my own drink. “Sometimes, you have to make some concessions.”
“Like marrying a Neanderthal and wearing a dress you hate to an event you wouldn’t be caught at otherwise?” Andrew pulled his lips inward and pulled his eyebrows together. “What happened to you in the last two years, Ace?”
Somehow, the heat of Andrew’s scorn was harder to stomach after a couple of years of not having to. I closed my eyes, counting to ten, before I gave up on that idea. “Life happens, Andrew, and we all grow up. Or some of us do. Life is about making hard choices, compromising for the people we love. So I participate in a wedding reception because my future husband wants to throw a party. So what? I’m not giving up world peace. Besides, that Neanderthal, as you call him, treats me well. We have a great life together.”
“Do you actually love him enough to marry him, or are you just scared?”
“Is this why you invited me to coffee? To demonstrate your utter disapproval for the life that I’ve chosen for myself? Emphasis on chosen, by the way.”
“No, I didn’t.” He sighed and ran both of his hands over his hair. My heart pulled at the memories the gesture invoked. When you do that, you look like a wet cat, I used to joke.
“To answer your question, nothing’s new on my end. Still writing. Still not making any money.” He laughed without humor. “Still working at a job that I hate.”
I hid a smirk. Andrew’s inability to keep a job was legendary. “Where are you now?”
“A home-décor mom-and-pop store. I love the owners, but I will die a fiery retail death if I don’t quit soon.”
“But what will you do for money? Do you have any savings?”
I shook my head. “Still living on a prayer, I see.”
“Now who’s the judgmental one?”
I held up my hands as I dipped my head in concession. “Fair point. Let’s move on to less incendiary topics.”
“Before I agree to that—how’ve you been? No bullshit.”
How are you holding up, Ace? No bullshit.He used to ask me this so often that it became part of the lexicon of our friendship. At first, I hated it; he never asked to actually give a solution. Or rather, he thought that asking and listening to the answer was a solution in and of itself. For me, I needed an actual solution, actual things to work toward.
But now, after everything, hearing it again—How are you holding up? No bullshit—my body melted with the recognition.
I shrugged. “Managing. You know how that goes.”
Andrew tilted his head, hearing the evasion in my voice. “Alicia.”
I inwardly shivered at the way he said my name. Andrew was never a forceful person until he said a person’s name. Until he said my name. He spoke it like a man who was used to being obeyed. He spoke it like a king, like I was his. We used to fight about it all the time.
Don’t say my name like that,I used to say.
Like what?he would ask.
Like I’m meant to obey you.
Then don’t answer like you want to obey.
Then and now, I didn’t know which feeling was stronger: my longing to hear him speak my name again or my fury that he thought he could command anything out of me.
“This is me, Ace. You know you can tell me anything.”
“Do I?” I met his eyes. “How did that work out for me last time?”
He nodded slowly, taking the hit with pinched lips. “You’re right. We have a long history of…” He spread his hands wide, indicating the unspeakable. “We can’t start over, nor can we start where we are. So how do we fix this?”
I shrugged, fiddling with my coffee. “I don’t know if we can.”