April McGowan

A Friendly Reunion

Liz straightened the napkins around her place setting for the fourth time, aligning and realigning the silverware, whispering a mantra to herself. “It’s just for dinner and then I can go home to my family. It’s just dinner.” She tucked the fork down, pulled the spoon up and slipped the package snugly under the edge of her plate. A new group of people entered the restaurant, but there was no sign of Sherri.

A glance at her watch told her Sherri was twenty minutes late. All that rushing to get here for nothing. She shouldn’t have agreed to meet her in the first place. She had finally cast Sherri out of her life three years ago, shaking her friendship off like dust from her sandals. The moment had been the most freeing and refreshing she could remember. It was like the spring breeze blowing in over the ocean on the first warm day at the coast, sweet and salty, cold but not bitter. She wasn’t sure where she ever got the courage to do it, but she hadn’t regretted it once.

The waiter interrupted her thoughts. “More water?” His calm demeanor didn’t match the irritation in his eyes.

She shifted in her chair, guilt building around her for tying up a table during the dinner rush.

“Yes, thank you.”

“And more breadsticks for madam?”

Liz locked her eyes on the empty breadstick glass, not recollecting eating the last one.

“That’d be nice. You know, I’m sure my friend will be here soon.”

“Of course.” He turned his back on her and went to another table, his tone now friendly and light as he filled their wine glasses and offered them coffee and desert.

He probably thought she was one of those people who ate the free bread and left without buying a meal.

There were a hundred reasons she shouldn’t be here waiting for Sherri, but when she’d invited her for dinner, she’d caved and said yes. Liz could never stand up to her. Well, except that last time when she cut off communication. Sherri, apparently having not noticed Liz wiping her hands of their friendship, insisted on this meeting, and was now probably standing her up and making her look the fool once again.

Liz reached up and tucked a straying clump of black unruly hair behind her ear, and fiddled with her earring back, twisting and twisting. Panic set in—was her earring right side up, or upside down? Flustered, she extracted her spoon and covertly looked at her cockeyed reflection. She was upside down, so was left still left, or was it right? Before she could wrap her brain around that confounding bit of physics, she heard voices near the entry of the small restaurant.

Loud, cheery talk drew everyone’s eyes towards the seating host, and the lovely woman who engaged him. Liz noted the cut of her maroon dress, high up the leg, low in the back, and her perfectly styled hair before she realized she was admiring Sherri. The bite of breadstick she had nibbled two seconds prior solidified in her throat and she grappled with her glass of water, gulping it down, in attempts to push it along. She swallowed hard, realizing too late that she had taken in too much. A resounding ache filled her throat and chest as it dislodged the plug, and her eyes teared in sympathy.

Sherri flipped her auburn hair, laughed at something the host said, and touched him on the arm before leaning in to whisper something conspiratorially. Liz tensed as she remembered Sherri giving her orders as if on some kind of training mission, “If you want someone to like you, to do things for you, get them on your side. Empathy and touch do nicely.”

She had always felt Sherri had been quoting from some early Fifties self-help manual, but it appeared the advice still worked. She was never one to reuse an unsuccessful technique. The host personally walked her over to Liz’s table and pulled out Sherri’s chair for her. He offered her a complimentary bottle of their house wine.

“Aren’t you kind?” Her voice overflowed with silky warmth.

Liz’s stomach clenched into a tight knot. He hadn’t pulled out her chair, he had only pointed to the corner and said, “how about there?” He hadn’t offered her wine. On the contrary, the only thing he’d given her was accusing looks.

After tucking Sherri into the table, as if into bed, he handed her a menu with a flourish and a wink before leaving them alone.

Sherri’s rapt attention swung away from the host and settled gently on Liz, like a dove lighting on a newly budding tree.

“Liz, darling.” She reached her perfectly manicured hand across the table and squeezed Liz’s arm. “You look wonderful.”

Liz heard the forced compliment, felt the touch, saw Sherri lean as the empathetic shift of her attention enveloped her.

She knew very well how she looked: tired, haggard and frazzled. Jason had misplaced the iron, so the black blouse she wore was wrinkled; there was a run in the toe of her stalking, creating a large hole encircling her middle toe and cutting off the circulation—it was most unfortunate that she’d worn open toed shoes. In the end, she had barely made it out of the house without food on her slacks when the twins rushed her, their hands encrusted with peanut butter and crackers, to hug her goodbye.

Despite the truth, she sat up a little taller, and felt a surge of pride at being honored by Sherri’s attention. Within seconds, the fallacy of those feelings was realized and replaced by a familiar tickle of tension. Duped again.

The waiter returned with house salads. “May I recommend the scampi?”

“Sounds lovely. What about you?” She pointed the waiter in Liz’s direction.

“Steak and cheddar potatoes.” She had meant to order the low-calorie vegetable soup, but her brain had locked in on the cheddar potatoes and couldn’t seem to let it go. To cover for her mistake, she tried to make small talk.

“Sherri, you look lovely.” She fought the urge to squeeze Sherri’s arm and lean in. Was her smile forced or natural? Did she sound as convincing as Sherri had? She had only been in Sherri’s presence for one minute and already she had begun to second-guess herself.

“Oh, I’m all right I suppose.” She shrugged. “It’s been ages. I’m so glad you could come. I’m sorry it can’t be for a longer visit—I’ve so much to do while in town.”

Liz nodded in mock understanding. Sherri was an attorney, very busy and dedicated to her clients. But, Liz also knew she wasn’t in the middle of a case. She wasn’t home to do anything but visit with her family. It was her parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary. To some, this would be a large affair, but not in Sherri’s family. Blood was always thicker. No, setting aside a few hours for Liz was all she could manage.

Liz caught her thoughts. She hadn’t wanted this meeting at all, and now she was grousing because Sherri didn’t ask to spend even more time with her. Why do I care?

The waiter returned with their food, placing the dish before Sherri with a flourish, and plopping Liz’s down with a thud. As Liz unfolded her napkin, her silverware ratted against the plate, drawing looks from those nearby their table. Ignoring them, she began cutting her steak into small bite-sized pieces before she realized what she was doing—there were no tiny mouths to save from choking hazards here. She pushed the meat around on her plate, to mask what she’d done. Since Sherri didn’t have children, she probably wouldn’t notice.

“So, tell me,” Sherri began, drawing out the word me, “how have you been?” Her brown eyes blinked slowly and she settled her chin on her hands, giving Liz her complete attention.

“Oh, well, fine.”

“Come on now. How are your twins? The last pictures you emailed me were adorable. They could be models, absolutely.”

Email? Oh blast that fool address book. She must have mistakenly sent Sherri the last set of photos. No wonder she was calling her. Wait, did she just say models?

“Oh, thanks. You know, they’re both so quick to learn. Lila is reading and Lucas is so spatially gifted. He remembers street names and people and places months after we’ve visited. For five, they really are amazing.” Liz could hear herself gushing, but couldn’t seem to stop. “They did the funniest thing the other day,” Liz paused feeling self-conscious all of a sudden.

Her companion smiled and nodded before taking a bite of her salad, breaking eye contact as if she were bored to pieces. Liz grumped. Sherri could always get to her, drawing her out and then shutting her down just as she was beginning to feel comfortable. She felt seasick from riding the wave up and down so rapidly.

It was then she noticed Sherri had quit eating; in fact there was little evidence she had eaten anything at all—except perhaps from the gloss of oil and vinegar residue on her forgotten fork.

Liz peered down at her own mostly empty plate and swallowed the bit of cheddar potato she had been enjoying but which now lay like dust on her tongue.

“Anything the matter?”

“Oh, no—just getting full.” Her lips thinned into a smile and she moved her napkin to the tabletop signaling the waiter to remove her plate.

The food was delicious and Liz hardly ever got to eat out without the kids. It was heavenly not to defend her meal from tiny invaders, to eat in peace—or at least relative peace. And yet, she couldn’t eat another bite. Even now she could feel the waist of her size fourteen slacks digging into the skin of her stomach.

Well, that’s why she’s a size six and you’re a fourteen. She knows when to stop. Six and fourteen? Am I really over twice her size? Does it work that way? No it couldn’t be; our wrists are practically identical.

“Liz?” Sherri’s voice broke through her thoughts.

“What?”

“I asked how your husband was.”

“Oh, he’s fine. Business is good.” Liz kept her guard up. She knew very well that Sherri didn’t like Jason. He was the first decision she had made without asking Sherri’s opinion—permission rather. She changed the subject.

“How’s Henry,” Liz countered.

“Oh, I’m sure he’s fine.”

Liz frowned. “You’re sure?”

“Well, he’s moved on you see, so there’s no way I could really know. I suspect he’s fine.” Sherri sipped her wine.

“Moved on?” Her voice echoed in the cozy restaurant. She lowered it. “Do you mean he’s left you?” Liz was aghast—in part shock that her friend was divorced, and in part out of a strange respect for Henry.

“Yes. His secretary was spending more time with him than I was, so he decided he should just be with her instead. It was much more—convenient.”

“Convenient?” Liz laughed at the idea, then sobered when she saw Sherri wasn’t joking. “You’re serious?”

“He’s into efficiency.” She shrugged as if she had just said he was into football.

Liz imagined Henry letting Sherri go, as if he were firing an employee. She could picture it easily, Henry dry and pragmatic, all angles and ugly, smiling down his nose at Sherri. “It makes more sense, it’s much more convenient.” And then his handing her a severance check and a letter of reference for her years of dedicated service.

“The lousy,” Liz stopped herself before she said how she really felt. Sherri didn’t deserve what he’d done, no one did. Then she heard something she hadn’t heard since they were girls. Sherri laughed—loud and long and real. Liz wasn’t sure if she were having a breakdown or not.

“Sherri?”

“I’m sorry. I was just picturing Henry proposing the arrangement to his secretary.” She cleared her voice, lowering it an octave, “By the way, I’m replacing my wife with you because you’re more efficient,” she paused, “he always was a romantic.” She burst into laughter again, blotting the tears away with her napkin.

“And she said yes!”

“I know, can you believe it? Oh good heavens.” She took a deep breath to stave off another attack of the giggles.

“What settlement did you get?” Liz leaned towards her in anticipation.

“I got the house and his car.” She nodded back.

“And you never liked either!”

“No, they were horrible! I sold them the next day to the first offer I got. I lost thousands.” The laughter had returned, and Liz joined her.

“I bet that killed him.”

Sherri could only nod. Liz watched the glimmer of joy in her eyes fade away.

“I’m sorry.” Liz really was. Sherri was better off without an unfaithful husband—but that didn’t change the facts. The dream of a long, fulfilling marriage had ended in betrayal.

For several seconds Sherri said nothing. “I wanted to call you, you know.”

“You did?”

“But we’d lost contact.” Here her eyes locked on Liz’s. So, Sherri had noticed after all. “I know I’m not the easiest person to get along with. Some people say I’m calculating.”

Liz couldn’t argue with her.

“Henry always said he admired that in me. Considering the source, you can understand why I no longer take that as a compliment.”

All Liz could do was nod.

“When you posted those pictures to me, I guess I took that as an olive branch.” Her voice lifted at the end, as if she’d posed a question.

Liz could hardly admit the email had been accidental. She now wished she’d dealt differently with the situation. “I’m sorry we grew apart and that I wasn’t there for you.”

“You know, I’ve never asked you about your faith.”

“It’s your faith, too. You go to church.”

“I occasionally went to church. You go to worship. There’s a difference.”

“Oh.” Liz had never thought of it that way.

“Anyway, I’m not very good at such things, but I thought you could pray for me. Henry’s leaving was such a surprise—and I really despise those kinds of surprises.”

“Of course.” Not once in her life had she ever heard Sherri say the word pray.

“Good.” She laced her fingers together as if she’d closed a deal. Just then the waiter came by to check on them and showed them the desert menu. Liz was about to tell him no, still feeling the pressure of her pants cutting into her skin, when Sherri grabbed it.

“The brownie sundae with extra fudge, please, and fast.”

Liz’s eyes lit up. “Make that two.”

 

Copyright by April McGowan 2010

What do you think? Leave me a comment :)

%d bloggers like this: