“Are you sure you want me to go?”
“Of course. You’re not backing out of this, not now. Taste this,” Vanessa held a spoon out for Rick to try. If it had been an experimental dinner or lunch attempt, he would have dug around for an excuse to avoid her catastrophic cooking. But the spoon bore something sugary. Desserts were her specialty and even when they didn’t turn out as planned, they were still pretty tasty. He could taste chocolate and a hint of raspberry, warm and rich and creamy.
“Mmmm.” Rick licked his lips as Vanessa turned back to the bowl and continued mixing. A timer went off and Vanessa whipped around to the oven and pulled out a golden pie shell crust. Rick hadn’t even seen her put the oven mitts on her hands, she’d moved so rapidly and fluidly. A trivet was waiting on the counter and she set the crust there to cool before moving to the freezer and pulling out a plastic bag of raspberries.
“Why do they need to be frozen?” Rick asked. He used his finger to wipe up some of the chocolate mixture that had run down the side of the bowl. He popped the finger in his mouth before Vanessa could turn back around and catch him.
“I didn’t have the time to make this earlier so the crust won’t be able to cool completely. If I did it with fresh raspberries, I think they would get too mushy too quickly.” She was carefully lining the bottom of the crust with the frozen berries. “At least, I hope this will work. It won’t have much time to set either, just however long it takes me to shower and get dressed. I hope this helps, but I really have no idea.” She poured the chocolatey mixture over the berries and gingerly carried it to the refrigerator.
“I’ll go to the party if only to have a chance to try the finished product,” Rick was using his finger to scrape the excess chocolate from the bowl.
“Don’t get any on your shirt. The only change you have here is that vile monstrosity and there won’t be time to stop by your apartment on the way to Deb’s.”
She threw her apron on the table and hurried off to change.
“For the record, I love that shirt. And I know deep down you love it too,” Rick called after her. He put the bowl in the sink and filled it with water from the faucet while still licking chocolate from his fingers.
Rick pulled his cell phone out and scrolled through his address book till he found Tony’s number.
“Hey man, it’s Rick. Listen, I can’t get out of this thing with Vanessa tonight so I can’t cover your shift… Look man, I’m sorry. I told you I’d try, I never actually said I could… Well, that’s your problem. You shouldn’t have told her you had the night off… Did you try Bob? … Sorry, but it looks like you’re out of luck. Buy her something nice or she’ll think you did it on purpose.” He put the phone back in his pocket and dallied around the apartment, looking at the photos stuck up on the fridge, he found one of him and Vanessa taken by a passerby they’d pounced on. Their faces were pressed together but the joy in their smiles was obvious and genuine. It had him smiling just to remember that wild day.
He moseyed through the living area where more traditional and staged photos stood primly in their matching frames. Vanessa flanked by her parents in her cap and gown, diploma clutched in her arms, front and center. Vanessa in a fuchsia gown holding a bouquet of orange lilies, standing at the end of a line of similarly attired bridesmaids. An informal shot of Vanessa curled up and passed out on a couch with a book falling from her limp hand was his favorite (and he knew it was hers too, even if she did mention it with a hint of reservation; it had been snapped by her ex after all).
Rick heard the shower when he wandered into the bedroom and dropped onto her bed. The room was cluttered with papers, books, and knick-knacks but there was an underlying sense of order. Except for the small space on the floor by the dresser where he’d taken to dumping his things. A pair of sneakers, spare boxers and a shirt cushioned a plastic baggies that had some loose change, a razor, a toothbrush and his license.
He thought back to the bedside table at his place where Vanessa would meticulously lay out her contact lens solution, lens case, glasses, book, toothbrush, mouthwash, razor, make-up bag, condoms, and deodorant whenever she stayed over, tapping each object when she set them out and again when packing them up the next morning. She never left anything behind to keep the imprint of her body on the sheets company until their next night together. He thought she must be waiting for him to say something about it, to extend an invitation but he wanted her to stake a claim on her own, the way he had with his pile on the floor. He thought about swiping one of the items and hiding it till after she left, then setting it out so it would be waiting for her when she returned.
“Should I wear the black or the green?” Vanessa had a towel wrapped around her chest and her wet hair snaking down and over her shoulders.
“What’s the party for again?”
“Go with the green. The black would be too much like a funeral.”
She nodded and pulled the forest green dress fro her closet, draping it across the back of the desk chair as she headed to her dresser and pulled out a lacy black bra and matching panties. She started to return to the bathroom to change but a playful smile lit her face and she turned back, letting the towel drop.
Rick cleared his throat and looked away briefly as she wiggled her hips, pulling the black fabric up over her ass. There wasn’t any playful way she could think of to put on a bra. Then the zipper on her dress got jammed at the exact spot between her shoulder blades that she couldn’t reach.
“Could you zip me up?”
“Yup,” he popped up and fiddled with the zipper until it complied. “So who’s gonna be at this thing tonight? What do I need to know?”
“Don’s retiring. Deb is throwing the party.”
“And Don is the principal…”
“Vice principal. He’s been there longer than I’ve been alive.”
“And Deb is his wife…”
“She’s the school nurse. Sherry is Don’s wife. Hannah is the principal.”
“You know, I think I’ll do better when I’ve got faces to go with the names.”
Vanessa pulled two mismatched shoes from the closet and put them both on. She tried different angles in front of the mirror before settling for the shoe with a solid, thicker heel, and retrieving its match. A few minutes later while they walked to the car, Vanessa was reassuring Rick that he would do fine around her colleagues, so long as he behaved himself. He pointed out she was more likely to maintain their high opinion of her if she didn’t forget to bring dessert. She went running back to fetch the pie while he brought the car around. They were soon on their way with no further incident but the fact that they would be arriving a little late and Vanessa’s lighthearted reassurances had done nothing to soothe Rick’s nerves.
He wiped his sweaty palms on his pant legs as Vanessa rang the doorbell.
Rick didn’t know people as bubbly as Deb existed in real life until she opened her front door and began leading them through her house, ultimately arriving at the yard out back where a small group of guests had already arrived and were beginning to disperse into smaller clusters. He wondered if people ever broke the habit of forming cliques or if these people simply found it more difficult because they were teachers surrounded by students and influenced by their behavior. Either way, he figured he was in for a rough night till they determined where in the pecking order he would fit.
“Vanessa, so glad you made it,” a woman in her mid-forties cooed as she made her approach.
“Rita,” Vanessa had morphed beside Rick. A polite and cheery smile that looked like it would leave her cheeks sore later had appeared from nowhere and her tone altered. Condescension dripped from her mouth like saliva from Pavlov’s dogs. “I told you earlier that I’d see you at the party later. You must not have heard me. Rita, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Richard. Rita is a guidance counselor at the school.”
The woman’s glaring smile looked sweet but couldn’t conceal the fermenting disdain hovering beneath the surface.
“Call me Rick,” he said, extending his hand and praying she wouldn’t take it.
“Pleasure.” She took his hand weakly and gave it only the slightest of shakes before dropping it unceremoniously. “So, what do you do Dick?”
“I’m a bartender over at the Dog That Bit You.”
“That dump? Oh, sorry. I’m sure it’s improved since I was there last… month.” The last word was mumbled with a bit of a smirk.
“Subtle. Rita, is it?” Rick surprised both women by calling Rita on her comments.
“Rick,” Vanessa interjected reflexively but she had no real intention of stopping him.
“What was it you said Rita did? I mean, I know you work at the school. I can’t imagine anyone would bring you here as a date.”
Rita was taken aback and Vanessa was struggling to settle her face into a shocked and perhaps mildly disgusted expression. What Rick said was harsh but she could feel the smile tugging in her cheeks and pride beaming from her eyes. Rita turned to Vanessa, ignoring Rick as best she could.
“I hope you brought more than just this excuse for a boyfriend. One of your sickeningly sweet desserts perhaps. The food table’s over there.” She flicked a hand and walked away to inject herself into another established conversation.
“Thanks Rita, but Deb already put the pie I brought in the fridge for later,” Vanessa said loudly to Rita’s back.
A slim man with thinning gray hair turned away from the group Rita was looking to join and brushed right past her on his way to Vanessa.
“Did someone mention dessert?”
“There’s a chocolate raspberry cream pie chilling in Deb’s fridge as we speak,” Vanessa said with a far more genuine smile. “But you’re going to have to save room for cake. You know Deb. I’m sure it’s going to make a statement.”
“I just hope I don’t have to cut into my own face. Creeps me out. I like your desserts. Not over the top just straight forward and delicious.”
“Flatterer. Don, this is my boyfriend, Rick.”
“The guest of honor,” Rick reached out and received a real handshake. “Congratulations on retirement.”
“Thirty-eight years. I’m gonna miss it. Well, I’ll miss most of it. Never did like getting dragged into the middle of childish squabbles. And I’m not talking about the children.” He eyed Vanessa meaningfully.
“We both knew I’m not the only one who’s had run-ins with Rita,” she said defensively.
“But you have had more… disputes with her than anyone else.”
“But I’ve only had disputes, as you put it, with her. She’s had them with almost everyone.”
“Yeah, what’s up with her?” Rick asked. The soon-to-be-retired Don was relaxed and laid-back in a way Rick latched onto. The only thing missing was a cold bottle of beer to hold onto and give his hands something to do besides move sporadically from his jacket pockets to his pants pockets and back again.
“I’m sure she was her charming self as usual,” he chuckled. “She’d probably have been nicer if…”
“If you weren’t here with me,” Vanessa finished for him. “It’s okay, Don. You don’t need to be polite about it. Rita hasn’t been.”
“All I know is she was a total bitch just now and all that happened was an introduction. I’d love to get clued in.”
“She thinks I took her job.” Vanessa was blunt. “I don’t really feel like talking about this anymore, especially on your night, Don. Can I grab you anything over at the food table? Chips? A drink?”
“I’ll take a beer.”
“I’ll grab something in a bit. I already made one pass. And Deb said something about getting a bartender when I talked to her yesterday. Haven’t seen one yet but that’s what I heard.”
“I’ll see what they’ve got. Deb might have been talking about Rick. I’m pretty sure I told her he’s a bartender. Back in a flash,” she squeezed Rick’s arm before moving into the group of people that had at least doubled in size since they’d arrived. Rick was glad he and Don were off to the side a bit. They weren’t hidden from sight, just out of the way. He knew it wouldn’t be long before more guests came to pull the honoree away from the stranger. Vanessa got stopped on the way to the food and drinks at the back of the enclosed yard.
“So what bar do you work at?”
“The Dog That Bit You. But actually, I’m curious about what Vanessa meant, about taking Rita’s job.”
Don chuckled tensely. “I think you should ask Vanessa later.”
“I will but that’ll only give me her side of the story.”
“You’re the boyfriend. Her side is the only side you should care about. I’m surprised she hasn’t said anything about it already.”
Rick shifted on his feet wishing once more that he had that beer. He’d been tracing Vanessa’s progress through the growing mass of her colleagues and their significant others. She’d made it and was searching through the available offerings, grabbing a few things and sticking them on a vibrant paper plate.
“Vanessa doesn’t talk about work much,” Rick confessed to Don. “And when she does, it’s usually to brag about her students.”
“As it should be,” Don said with a quiet smile. “There isn’t really a whole lot to it. Rita applied to the same position as Vanessa. Rita had been working in the school as an aide and sub for a year or two. Vanessa was better qualified and impressed the right people during her interview. Rita didn’t think she had to try as hard because we already knew her. She resented that Vanessa got it. We ended up with an opening in the guidance office not long after and promoted Rita to that placement, but she still holds it against Vanessa as if it were her fault. It’s childish but we all get that way sometimes.”
Vanessa had made her way back through the partygoers and held a cold beer out to Rick. “I guess Deb had scheduled a bartender but he backed out just before the party. She’s pissed but hiding it well. It’s turned into more of a serve yourself type deal.”
“That’s a shame,” Don said shifting to go back and join the rest of the party. “I could use a white Russian or a mudslide.”
“She’s got the stuff out,” Vanessa began.
“No good at mixing them myself. They’re usually just something I get on vacation. Should probably figure out how though. Isn’t retirement supposed to be like one long vacation?”
“I could make you one if you like,” Rick offered. “You are the guest of honor, after all.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s your night off. This is a party. Enjoy yourself.”
“Don’s right,” Vanessa said quickly. “You don’t want to wind up behind that table all night. I brought you to show you off, not put you to work.” She came in closer and said quietly, “The last thing I need is for you to abandon me to Rita and give her so much ammunition. I’m liable to tear her head off.”
“If you want to show me off, let’s do it to best advantage. Besides, it’s how I get to know people, or don’t you remember. Come on, lead the way.” He stepped into the gathering, beer in hand and went off in search of the hostess he remembered from their introduction but the swirl of faces nodding to him politely had him questioning the image in his head.
“I don’t know how much she has for you to work with but if you’re sure you want to do this…” Vanessa sounded resigned as she pushed ahead toward the table with liquor bottles neatly lined up. It was worse than waiting for someone to go ahead and take the first piece of pie or the first brownie from a tray. Several people were loitering near the table, eyeing the unopened bottles but hesitating to demonstrate how much or how little they knew of what to do in front of their colleagues.
Rick went around to the back of the table and inventoried the bottles before setting to work on Don’s white Russian. He improvised when necessary and put on as much of a show as he could for the small crowd that settled in around the table. Vanessa stayed close by and watched, torn between pride and frustration. She loved that Rick seemed to have relaxed and was clearly hitting it off with a number of her coworkers but she wanted him with her and knew that while the others were impressed with him now, they would still be judging him silently. Then she hated herself for caring about what they thought so much.
After a little while he abandoned the table and rejoined her, bearing a fresh beer for each of them.
“Thanks, Babe. This’ll be my last one though,” she took the drink and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I don’t want us to have to walk home later.”
“Cutting you off. Got it.” He slipped his free arm around her waist and gave her a small squeeze of affection. The familiarity of having something to do for the last half-hour or so had settled his nerves tremendously but he could feel the slight tension in Vanessa’s frame. She did relax against him but only momentarily.
Deb came up to the couple beaming. “Thank you so much. You’re a lifesaver, honest. The guy who was supposed to come called just twenty minutes before everyone started arriving. Said that the guy who was supposed to be on tonight had flaked and he’d been called in, nothing he could do. Actually had the nerve to try to keep the deposit when I asked for it back. He said he’d already cashed it. Probably won’t see it again even though he did finally agree to refund it.”
“How’d you find this guy?” Rick’s tone was polite, sympathetic but his curiosity was tinged with suspicion.
“A friend of my husband’s is a regular at the bar where he works. He gave us the guy’s number. Seemed happy for the extra money. Oh… I can um… Is there something I can get you… for your time tonight?”
Vanessa flushed vibrantly and rage shuddered up her frame. Rick gave her another squeeze, which helped her to check herself but the rage and embarrassment continued to simmer dangerously.
“Don’t worry about it.” Rick’s voice was as stiff as Vanessa felt. Pride kept his tone polite. “But, what was the name of the guy who cancelled?”
“Marc something. No, Marcus. Marcus Antonio. He works at that place over by the ball park. It’s got a weird name.” Deb looked down at her watch. “Excuse me. I think it’s time to start bringing out the desserts and set up for cake.” She hurried away from the tension glad of the excuse her duties as hostess provided.
“That lying son of a bitch,” Rick said with a harsh laugh. “Tony asked if I’d switch shifts with him and work today. He said his wife had screwed up his schedule and his in-laws were flying in tonight. She wanted to go out to dinner with them for their first night in town. Man, he can lay it on thick.”
“I can’t believe Deb offered to pay you. Treating you like staff. At least she had the decency to be embarrassed when she realized how insulting that was.” Vanessa took a small sip of her beer then poured some of the bottle’s contents into the carefully manicured strip of flowers to her left, glancing over her shoulder to be sure the act was unobserved.
“Of course, this gives me something on Tony,” Rick continued musing. “The question is, should I go straight to Jerry and rat him out or make him squirm a little first, maybe get something out of it?”
“If I even see Rita and that smirk of hers again tonight, I’m afraid I’ll lose it.” Vanessa dumped more of her beer into the bushes. They were slowly working their way along the outer edge of the party headed towards the exit. As they approached the back of the house, Deb emerged holding an enormous sheet cake aloft. Don’s formal photo from picture day lay on the sugary surface, buckling here and there where the baker struggled with the rice paper appliqué.
“Wish me luck,” Don materialized behind Deb and whispered to Vanessa and Rick as Deb called for him to hurry his pace, he’d have plenty of time for dawdling during retirement. “Save yourselves,” he added before complying.
Rick nearly chocked on his beer and Vanessa patted his back. The chocking gave way to what she thought must be giggling but it was hard to tell. Rick would laugh loudly or chuckle quietly but she’d never heard him make this high-pitched gleeful squealing noise before.
“Are you okay?” she asked with her eyebrows askew and one arm crossed over her chest, clutching the other.
“No,” Rick couldn’t stop making that noise. Luckily most everyone was clapping as the cake made it’s way forward for the ceremonial cutting. “Did you see it? The cake?”
“Only briefly. Why?”
“What it said. The picture’s big enough but it said, ‘We’ll Mess You.’ All I could think of was ‘Too late.’ Sorry. It’s not really that funny.” But he broke into a fresh bout of laughter just as he seemed to have gotten himself under control.
Vanessa started laughing too. “You’re right. It’s not that funny.” It was another few moments before they were able to calm down enough to breathe regularly again. Vanessa leaned her head against Rick’s shoulder as they watched Don reluctantly cut into his own face with a knife to rival a guillotine’s blade. Deb’s eyebrows were dancing around her hairline ad she seemed a little on edge. Rita wore a satisfied and amused expression while a wave of subtle nudges and whispers circulated. It appeared everyone was too polite to point out the cake’s mistake. Or they just weren’t drunk enough yet.
Plates with pieces of Don’s face began to circulate. Rick rubbed the small of Vanessa’s back. “Is it too early or are you ready to get out of here too?”
“Just let me finish my drink first.” She lifted the bottle of beer and dumped it onto the bricks of the patio. Some of it splashed onto her legs and rand down to her shoes. “All set. Let’s head out.”
Rick dumped the rest of his beer too and put the empty down on the corner of a table as they passed. They passed Sherry in the house on her way to the bathroom.
“You’re not leaving already, are you?”
“I’ve got a bit of a headache and Rick’s not feeling too well either,” Vanessa apologized quickly. “Tell Don we said congratulations again and be sure you get whatever’s left of that pie. I made it especially for him. Baker’s orders. Don’t let Deb give it away to someone else.” She gently tugged Rick toward the door.
“Will do. Thanks for coming. It was nice to meet you Rich. I hope you both feel better.” Sherry continued calling after them as she floated back to the party out back.
“I feel like we should squeal out of here or something. Like we just robbed a bank and this is the getaway car.” Rick handed the keys to Vanessa and climbed into the passenger side.
“All I want to do is get back to my apartment and get out of these shoes and this dress.”
“I can get behind that,” Rick said suggestively and they both laughed as they drove away from the party.