David is not going to be home for dinner. As a medical malpractice attorney he is consumed with lawsuits and devotes several hours to research, expert witnesses and depositions. Because of confidentiality agreements he cannot discuss the cases with me. I never know much more than he’s “researching a surgery,” “meeting with an expert witness,” or “taking a deposition.” The details, the struggles, even the victories sometimes, are not disclosed to me. Tonight all I know is that he’s “working late on a case.”
I walk in the door to our condo, put down my purse, hang up my keys and head into the kitchen to start making blueberry muffins from scratch before I’ve even taken off my suit from work. Baking has always been a friend of mine, a hobby I share with my sweet Grandma Vivian, my most treasured relative. Baking is a welcome distraction for my mind and a calming ritual for the rest of me. Measuring the flour and sugar, cracking the eggs, softening the butter in my hands is relaxing in a way I can’t describe.
I use to spend Sunday afternoons with Grandma Viv, a true worshipper of dessert. My sister Doris was too young to participate at the time and my brother Clark had no interest in baking so the time I spent with Grandma Viv was special because it was just the two of us. She’d always have something sinful on the menu for our afternoons together. I remember one Sunday we baked orange cranberry muffins, chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies and key lime pie all in one day. We both collapsed on the couch, snuggled under a down comforter, and watched old movies for hours after our indulgent feast. It was magical. We still spend our Sundays together although now it’s a bit more grown up – we meet for brunch every Sunday morning at our favorite breakfast place blocks down from the wharf.
I fill the last cupcake wrapper with batter exactly three quarters full and then place the muffin tin into the oven. I scan my kitchen counters and sigh. I’d rather do twenty jumping jacks naked than clean up the bowl of batter, measuring cups, spoons and drops of batter that are now caked on my counter. I do a partial clean up, toss all the dishes into the sink, fill it with warm, soapy water and then go to change clothes. The scent of blueberry yumminess travels with me upstairs and I quickly take off my clothes and throw on my bathrobe and head downstairs to remove my muffins from the oven.
I pick up the phone to call Rachel and invite myself over with my freshly baked muffins, but hang up three digits into her phone number. I already monopolized one hour of her day – half an hour immediately following our meeting and half an hour during lunch – rehashing my impromptu reunion with Mason, and I don’t feel right about crashing on their family time, even if I am bringing dessert. She was way more excited about Mason’s unexpected entrance than I was – according to Rachel drama like this is comparable to winning a small fortune in the lottery when you are home caring for a baby all day long. Rachel lives a different life ever since she gave birth nearly one year ago to an adorable little girl, Phoebe. In an instant her life changed, just like those sappy Johnson & Johnson’s commercials say as they advertise a container of baby powder (the same commercials I secretly sob over when I come across them on a Saturday afternoon).
Since Phoebe’s arrival, I have become more conscious of my visits, especially the spontaneous and uninvited. I feel like an imposition even though they assure me that is not the case. Watching the three of them interact is endearing and excruciating at the same time. It’s like shining a flashlight on what really matters – a family in love with one another. The three of them sit squished together on the couch – Phoebe clumsily climbs onto Jim’s lap while Jim caresses Rachel’s shoulder. Without thinking Rachel turns her face downward to kiss Jim’s hand. Then Phoebe’s chubby little feet appear out of nowhere and end up right in front of Rachel’s face. She’ll grab them and inhale deeply, then kiss them like crazy as Phoebe giggles with delight. I observe from the other couch and smile through thoughts of what I’m missing. Because the same flashlight that illuminates their tender family moment also spotlights the lackluster ones that take place in my life lately.
Doris loves my blueberry muffins. I pick up the phone to call her but remember that she’s on shift tonight. Doris is my beautiful younger sister – 26 years old. She’s a labor and delivery nurse and a darn good one. Pregnant women request her by name and are mortified when she’s not working when they happen to go into labor. Just as soon as I hang up the phone it startles me by ringing in my hand.
“Hello?” I say.
“Hey, it’s Gwen. Are you alone tonight?” she asks.
“Do warm blueberry muffins count as company?” I ask.
“No they do not, but they sound good. Meet me for dinner at Spumoni. We have got to talk!” she says.
“I don’t know, I already have my robe on.”
“Are you kidding me? That is not an excuse. Take it off, put on something cute and drive to Spumoni. I’ll see you half an hour,” she says and hangs up.
I hold the phone up and give it a sour face, as though the cordless hand piece is to blame. I suppose I could use some company tonight. I’ve been alone for dinner three nights this week already. I make my way upstairs and put on a pair of my dressier jeans, a cream lacey top and brown wedges. I fix my hair a bit and touch up my makeup, finishing with my favorite “going out” lip gloss, a shimmery raspberry pink. I smile, happy with my appearance and head out the door.
Spumoni, an Italian bistro a few miles from our office, is a neighborhood favorite, especially with the younger working crowd in the area that surrounds the restaurant. It’s always packed with beautiful people, rich aromas, and delectable food. I park my car and walk toward the restaurant. I can smell the food from blocks away. Bold aromas of ripened tomatoes, garlic, sweet basil and fresh bread seep through the restaurant walls. The décor of the restaurant is warm and clever – pink, green and brown-checkered tablecloths cover the home-style tables. Hammered copper cookware hangs from the terracotta colored walls next to large worn, wooden frames of chalkboard-written recipes to classic Italian fare like marinara sauce, meatballs, lasagna and tiramisu.
Waiters and waitresses wear old-fashioned aprons and garments you would imagine an Italian mother or father wearing at home cooking for their families sixty years ago. Authentic Italian ballads permeate throughout the restaurant, and a string trio performs tableside on the weekends. We have been coming here for so long that some of the wait staff know me by name, especially the ones who are still working from the night David proposed to me here five years ago.
The hostess seats me off to the corner at a cozy table for two. I spot Gwen walk into the restaurant and wave to her. Her auburn hair is down and disheveled in a sexy just-rolled-out-of-bed way, and as she gets closer I notice her makeup is darker than at the office today, and she’s wearing a large pair of gold hoop earrings. She must have freshened up.
“We have so much to talk about!” she says, as she takes off her jacket and sits down.
“Yeah, it was quite an eventful day,” I say, opening my menu.
“Eventful is a nice way of saying DRAMA!” she says.
“What do you mean?” I ask, slightly paranoid. Is there a chance she somehow found out my high school humiliation with Mason?
Our waitress, a sweet-looking older lady named Maria, comes by and we order a bottle of my favorite red wine, Sangiovese. Maria reminds me of a middle-aged mother straight from a tiny village in Italy. Gwen waits until Maria is out of earshot then continues.
“Well, first Peter hires someone without any of us even knowing that he’s looking,” she began. “Then, he hires probably the most gorgeous man in all of San Francisco and to top it all off, he’s single. Like I said, drama.” Gwen’s eyes flash mischief as she picks up her menu.
Our wine arrives and I pour a glass for both of us. I swirl my glass around gently, then inhale the crimson-colored liquid, both tips I learned at a wine tasting David and I went to in Napa Valley a couple years ago. Gwen leans in, as if she is about to tell me a big, dark secret.
“So, what do you think of Mason?” she asks.
“He seems fine,” I say, as I take a sip of my wine.
“Fine? Come on, Audrey. He’s more than fine. He’s gorgeous!” she says.
“Well, I’m married. I don’t really pay attention to all of that,” I say, trying to change the subject. I really don’t want to hear how attractive Mason is. Maybe I should have called my sister after all.
“I don’t think appreciating an attractive man is considered cheating,” she points out, as she takes a large gulp of her wine. Gwen isn’t the type to savor her wine; she drinks it more for effect than taste.
“True, but I really didn’t get a good look at him,” I lie.
“Well I noticed for the both of us and let me tell you, he is hot. I think he was checking me out too,” she stops for a moment, tilts her head slightly and looks up as if to reminisce. “I can just see it now – we’ll flirt for a few weeks. Then one day he won’t be able to stop himself. He’ll make an excuse to get me alone. We’ll share a passionate kiss in the copy room. Maybe he’ll even lift me up onto the machine and rip the buttons off my blouse,” she says, giggling like a school girl.
I clear my throat and force a smile. I really should have called my sister.
“Sounds very erotic,” I say. “Anyway, did you know that Peter has decided to pitch the American Red Cross for their annual Fundraising Gala?”
My news, just as I hoped, brings her pornographic daydream to a staggering halt as she cocks her head in my direction and shoots me an expression of surprise.
“No, I didn’t. When he decide on that? He’s always been so dead set against it,” she says, finishing off her glass and pouring another.
“I know, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Apparently Mason has a lot of media experience so Peter finally feels that with him on board now, we can handle the event. He assigned me to the pitch, along with Mason.”
“You lucky little bitch!” she says, playfully. “You’ll get to spend hours and hours with Mason and you won’t even appreciate it because you’re married.”
Another strained smile crosses my lips. I consider telling her everything about Mason and what he did to me in high school. But, Gwen is protective of her friends. She may be openly cold and distant with him, or worse may confront him about the issue. Either way, Gwen can be unpredictable and there’s no way to know for sure how she’ll react. Somehow, like a tiny little miracle, Gwen changes the subject.
“Speaking of your marriage, how come you’re not home with David tonight?”
“He’s working late…again,” I say, trying not to roll my eyes but I think it happens anyway.
“Hmm, is there trouble in paradise?” she asks.
I sense a sarcastic, condescending tone in her voice and become irritated by her question. I don’t recall ever saying my marriage was paradise. And what does eternally single Gwen know about marriage anyway? Her longest commitment to a man was six months, two of which were spent with her playing mind games on him so he wouldn’t lose interest (it didn’t work). Maria brings our entrees and sets them down gently in front of us – mine the spaghetti carbonara and Gwen’s a large antipasto salad.
“No. He’s just busy on a big case right now,” I say. Then, as I pick up my fork and push the food around my plate, words escape my lips before I have the chance to candy coat them. “And who ever said marriage was paradise? It’s marriage. It’s not perfect. Nothing is.”
I can’t see Gwen’s expression because I am avoiding her eyes, but I know she is surprised. I take a deep breath, and then look up at her finally.
“I’m sorry. I just miss David.”
“I understand. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean anything by my question. I was just teasing. I’m sure after this case is over with things will go back to normal,” she says, reassuringly.
I glance over at the table where David asked me to marry him. It was so unexpected and romantic. I remember walking into the restaurant to meet David for dinner and finding him sitting by himself staring down at the table. He looked awkward and uncomfortable. At that moment I was worried. For some reason, I was certain he was going to break up with me. He looked so pale and I recall him patting sweat from his brow with his napkin. I sat down across from him and searched for his eyes so I could get a better read on him. He kept dodging my eyes, then finally looked up at me and gave a forced smile.
“Hi, you look nice,” he said. David was generous with compliments but this one felt contrived. Something was definitely wrong.
“Why are you acting so bizarre? You’re making me nervous,” I said.
“Nothing’s wrong, I’m just happy to see you, that’s all,” he said.
“Ok, stop. You are acting so strange right now,” I said, adjusting myself in my chair.
“Relax. Everything is fine. Let’s just order,” he said, opening the menu.
“Look David, I am suddenly not very hungry. You are giving off some very strange vibes right now and I do not have an appetite. Just tell me why you really brought me here,” I said. I was not going to wait all night long to find out he was leaving me.
“I didn’t want to do it this way,” he pleaded.
Tears started to well up in my eyes. I put my face in my hands and started sobbing quietly. I could not help myself. David put his hand on mine and tried to console me.
“Audrey, why are you crying? Please stop. I can’t believe this. Everything is getting all screwed up. This is not how I planned this at all. Baby, please look at me,” he begged.
I looked up at him and tears were streaming down my face now. He looked heartbroken as he watched me cry.
“Oh what the hell, I have no idea why you’re crying but I did not bring you here to upset you. I brought you here to…” he stopped talking and stood up. Then he got down on one knee in front of me and held out a diamond ring – a round diamond set in an antique style pave setting. Exactly what I wanted for my wedding ring. People from other tables were watching and whispering now. But once our eyes met, no one else was in that room.
“Audrey, you are my best friend. No, more than that – you are my favorite person – my Wilson. Being with you makes my life better. I feel like saying I love you is just not enough. I adore you. I will always live my life loving you. I am so lucky that I met you when I did and that I got to be with you these last five years. And I want these years to never end. I want to be your husband and you to be my wife. Audrey, will you marry me?” he asked, as tears welled up in his eyes.
The entire time he was talking I heard everything but it didn’t completely register because I was so prepared for him to say he was breaking up with me. But he wasn’t leaving me. He was proposing to me.
“Yes, of course I will marry you. All I have ever wanted is to marry you. You’re such a jerk. I thought you brought me here to break up with me,” I said, pulling him up off his knee and throwing my arms around him. We sat there hugging for what seemed like hours. I could hear the other guests clapping but I didn’t look around the restaurant. I was just so content to be in David’s arms, wearing an engagement ring from him, soon to be his wife.
I fight back tears as I feel happiness we both experienced that night. I look back at Gwen and find a confused expression on her face. I want to tell her what’s going on. But I don’t know myself what’s going on. I can’t explain what I’m feeling when I don’t understand it myself. Still, I’m desperate to confide in a friend. Or maybe I’m just desperate for a friend. I don’t want to admit that things aren’t going well with David. Because wouldn’t that be reflection on me? I am the one who can’t seem to find our connection; I don’t know how we lost it in the first place and ultimately, what this all means is that I’m failing at my marriage.