Ella opened the door expecting to see Lilly, the only one who had a spare key to her apartment. But when the door opened, Ella beheld an unwelcome sight. “Steve.”
“What are you doing here? Better yet, how did you get in?”
“The guy downstairs.”
Ella was furious. How could Eric just let someone into her home without asking first.
Steve continued in his ‘I’ve been bad and I’m sorry’ voice―which did nothing but make him seem small. “I know what I did was wrong and I’m sorry. Take me back and I swear it won’t happen again.”
“You mean you know what you did to get caught so next time you either won’t or I’ll find out another way.”
“No, that girl is history. I swear.”
“How do I know there won’t be others, Steve? How do I know there haven’t been already!”
“There haven’t, I’m telling you!”
“Well, your word doesn’t mean much to me these days. In fact, I didn’t want to see it before, but your word never meant much to me. It’s over, Steve. I mean it.” Ella slammed the door and quickly threw the deadbolt and hooked the chain.
“Fine!” Steve shouted as he slammed his fist against the door.
Ella jumped at the noise, but felt confident he wouldn’t be able to bust down her door. She could hear his feet shuffling around, as if he were deciding whether to go or stay. Finally, his footsteps beat angrily down the stairs, but only made it halfway before Lilly came in. Ella could hear every word from where she stood in the safety of her apartment, ear pressed to the door.
“What are you doing here?” Lilly was appalled at seeing Steve’s ugly face at her friends home, and didn’t didn’t attempt to hide it.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, the words dripping with pure attitude. “I’m leaving. You don’t have to pretend to like me anymore.”
“I was pretending to like you? I thought I’d made it pretty clear that I didn’t.” Lilly continued to call after Steve as he stormed out the front door. “Although, you must be pretty bad at reading people if you thought she would ever take you back!”
When Ella heard Lilly start up the stairs, she swung open the door and gave her a disapproving look.
“What?” Lilly asked innocently.
Ella grabbed her purse from the bench near the entrance and locked the door behind her as they left.
The two drove to a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town and loaded up on fresh foods. The day was sunny and warm, but it did nothing to sooth Ella’s anger with Steve or Eric. Sensing no end to Ella’s complaining, Lilly’s desire for ear plugs grew and grew.
“I cannot believe Steve would come back like that. What could he have possibly been thinking!”
“It’s outrageous,” Lilly replied calmly while playing with her gum. As she chewed, she stretched the gum out between her fingers and her teeth―something she knew would drive Ella bonkers.
“And Eric. Don’t even get me started on him!”
“Don’t think I have to―”
“The raw insensitivity of it all...” Ella interrupted without even hearing her friend. “I can’t imagine what must have been going through Eric’s mind. How fowl!”
“Oh, the inconsiderateness!” She looked at Ella. “Is that a word?”
“I think so.”
“Even if it’s not, it should be!”
“Agreed!” Lilly shouted with feigned frustration. Ella finally calmed and the car became quiet. Lilly stopped playing with her gum, feeling that it wasn’t producing the desired reaction. “You know,” she said instead. “I don’t see why you’re so ready to tear at Eric’s jugular like a wild dog.”
Ella cringed. “Nice metaphor.”
“I thank you,” Lilly said, taking a small bow. “I mean it though. I think you’re jumping the gun here.”
“You don’t think I have a right to be mad?”
“After you talk to Eric and get his side of the story, sure. If your anger is justifiable by his answer, that is.”
Ella wasn’t sure who she was talking to. The Lilly she knew―the Lilly she grew up with―was never so forgiving. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“Me? Nothing. What’s wrong with you? After all, you are the one jumping to conclusions here.”
Ella stared at her friend with an accusatory look. “You’re having sex.”
“Ha! I knew it! Who is it? And how serious is this secret relationship you’ve been keeping from me? There is no way sex alone is causing such a dramatic change to your attitude.”
Lilly’s response was to continue pulling the gum from her mouth, chewing it, and pulling it out again.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. We’ve been best friends for most of our lives, and you keep something this life changing from me? Time to fess-up, girly!”
“No way, uh uh,” Lilly shook her head to show that she meant business. “There is no way I’m telling you anything about him.”
“Why not? It’s not Eric, is it? No, you’ve been pushing too hard for me to pursue him. Who is it then?”
“Just a guy.”
“Fine, I’ll guess. I’m calling Truth-Time,” Ella said, digging up their a sacred ritual created in their teenage years. “Is he our age?”
“What’s his name?”
Lilly glared at Ella, who quickly moved forward with the interrogation.
“Does he have a job?”
Lilly tipped her head from side to side. “You could say that.”
“Okay… Does he have a hobby?”
“Well, that’s good at least.”
“Why don’t you want me to know about him?”
“Ugh, you had to ask me that question.” This was the last thing Lilly wanted Ella to find out.
“Come on,” Ella said. “I called Truth-Time, the ever-sacred all-on-the-table girl-talk session.
“We have to find a shorter tag line for that.”
Ella nudged her friend with an elbow.
“Fine. I didn’t want to tell you because this is not a long-term relationship.”
“How do you know?”
“We’re only a thing for the short time he’ll be in town. When he’s ready to leave, we’re over. I knew you wouldn’t approve, so I didn’t bother telling you.”
“Oh,” was all the response Ella could muster. She wasn’t sure how to react. Obviously Lilly did not want to be lectured or scolded, so that was exactly what she couldn’t do―no matter how desperately she wanted to.
“Now you know,” Lilly said, softly. Annoyed by her friend’s lack of response, Lilly began to pull on her gum again.
“Will you stop that!” Ella exclaimed, to Lilly’s delight. The two started laughing, temporarily putting their unspoken disagreement behind them.
Thanks to the events of the day and the surprising news from her best friend, Ella’s greatest desire at the moment was to get back and lock herself in her apartment―alone. To her despair, she would only be allowed one hour of peace before she had to march into work.
After Lilly finally dropped Ella, she trudged up to the front door to find the mail lady pulling out her and Eric’s mail.
“Hey Diane, how’s running mail today?”
“Well, the Gumbles’ dog is finally tied up, so it’s been much better recently.”
“Good! Say, can I take my mail from you?”
“Do you want all of it?”
“Here you go.”
“Have a great day, sweets!”
“You too!” Ella opened the front door and let it swing closed behind her as she sifted through her mail. “Oh, Diane must have made a mistake,” she said aloud as she sorted through and found all of Eric’s mail mixed in with her own. Ella looked at Eric’s door. She almost set the mail on the floor, but decided to bite the bullet and knock. Eric quickly answered.
“Your mail,” she said, holding the envelope-magazine sandwich out and averting her eyes.
Eric was a bit confused. “Thank you?” he said, afraid to accept the delivery. “How did you get my mail?”
Ella looked at him with wild eyes and simply said, “Small town.” She smacked the mail across his chest where he finally grabbed it, and she turned to storm away.
“Sorry about Steve, by the way.”
Ella stopped just before the steps and turned to face her handsome neighbor. “What?”
Eric stepped onto the porch and closed the door to his apartment, tucking his hands safely into his pockets. “My buddy is in town and came over to watch the game. The one who saw you...”
“Naked. Yeah, go on.”
“Well, he said Steve was acting like he belonged here; all friendly and comfortable. He let him in without thinking.”
“So it wasn’t you?”
“Of course not,” Eric said, a bit offended that the thought had ever crossed her mind. “I wouldn’t have let him in even if you were still dating him. I actually ran up to make sure you were okay, but you weren’t there.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Ella, feeling better, turned to head up the stairs.
“I hope you’re not considering taking him back.”
This comment froze Ella in her tracks. “What?”
Eric became visually flooded by nervousness. “I just don’t think he’s the best guy for you. I don’t know him at all, but I can still see easily enough that he doesn’t deserve you.”
Ella almost wanted to cry. His words warmed her heart and made her feel more than ever that she was on the right track by cutting Steve out of her life. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Thanks for my mail.”
Ella laughed a bit, Eric shut the door, and they both carried on with their days.
The next morning, Ella opened her eyes as sunlight stirred her senses to wake. Ahh, she thought. A day off. Doc’s Son got up from his place in the center of the bed and nuzzled up against Ella. At first it was sweet and cozy, but then she got a good whiff of him. “Oh, buddy. You need a bath!” Doc’s Son barked with excitement. “Aww, who wants to take a bath? Yes, that’s you. Yes it is,” she said in her puppy voice. “Come boy!” Doc’s Son followed closely as Ella started the bath, complete with rubber chewy. Not ten minutes later and the dog was clean and fresh.
Knock! Knock! “Hey, El!” Lilly called as she entered the apartment.
“In here!” Ella answered, holding Doc’s Son snug in a towel.
As Ella leaned over the tub to pull the plug from the drain, Lilly pushed open the bathroom door right into her, sending her face first into the dirty dog bath water. Doc’s Son leaped out of Ella’s arms just in time to escape from plunging into the water with her. Flipping over in the tub to lean back on her arms, Ella blew the water and bubbles away from her mouth and shook her head.
“Sorry!” Lilly said, a bit grossed out by the water. “You’ve seen better days, huh?”
Ella gave Lilly the stink eye, but didn’t budge.
“Were you at least thinking about Eric or are your freak accidents carrying over into your everyday life?”
“Ooo, goody, I’ll get that,” Lilly said excitedly as she hurried to the front door.
“Oh, no you won’t!” Ella scrambled to climb out of the slippery tub. “Get back here!”
Lilly swung the front door open before Ella could even stand up. “Hey there, Eric!”
“Lilly,” he replied, trying to force a friendly smile.
“Ella’s in the tub, care to come in.”
“No! I’m here!” Ella ran to the door, desperately trying to dry her hair with a towel. “Hey Eric,” she said as she shoved Lilly out of the way.
“You know, baths are far more effective if you’re not fully dressed.”
“Ha, right!” she replied, a bit out of breath.
Eric’s nose curled. “What’s that awful smell?”
“What? Oh! Wet dog. This is Doc’s Son’s bath water, not mine. I don’t bath fully clothed.”
“Oh! Well, I fell in. Lilly pushed me in, actually.”
“Not on purpose!” Lilly called from the sofa in the living room.
“Probably a little on purpose,” Ella whispered to Eric. “Oh no!” Suddenly, Ella left her visitor standing at the door and started running around the house frantically.
Eric closed the door and walked slowly into the living room where Lilly was seated with Doc’s Son on her lap, once again snug in the towel. “What’s she doing?” Eric asked as Ella continued to run around the apartment.
“Well, she took a bath with a dog, so I imagine she’s trying to dry off like one.”
Eric bent over the couch and pet Doc’s Son’s ears, “Hey boy, your owner’s a bit insane, but you’ll get used to her.”
Lilly made careful note of this remark. After Ella had been running around for a few minutes, she finally decided to ask what was going on. “Hey, El?”
“Yeah,” came the answer from the next room.
Ella reappeared, but didn’t stop looking around. “Trying to find Doc’s Son. He’s probably laying on something and he’s all wet from the bath.”
“Docs... Son. Or a doxen?”
Ella faked a growl as she continued to look for the missing pup.
“It’s not my fault you picked a terrible name for a dog.”
Ella looked up to scold Lilly. “Very funny,” she said, just as she spotted Doc’s Son curled up on her friend’s lap. “Oh, there you are!” she said, plopping down next to the puppy and rubbing his fuzzy little ears.
“Honey,” Lilly said calmly.
“You’re on the couch and wet from the bath.”
“Oh! I’ll go change.” Ella ran into her room and shut the door behind her.
“Does she know I’m still here?” Eric asked.
“Hmm, it’s undetermined.” Lilly grabbed a magazine from the table and started to flip through it as they waited for Ella to return again.
To rid herself of dog smell, Ella hopped into the shower. Eric wandered the living room, looking for something to occupy him enough that he could avoid awkward conversation without being too obvious.
“Is this Ella and her mom?” he said, lifting a picture frame from an end table. The two women had their heads covered with teal bandanas and smiles spreading ear to ear. They looked nearly identical, except that one was very pale and thin. In the background he could make out rows of colorful flowers alongside a sage green house.
“Sure is,” Lilly said. “That was taken a few months before Maggie passed.”
“I’ve noticed Ella wears a teal bracelet. Same color as these bandanas.”
Sensing Lilly wanted to say no more on the subject, Eric returned the frame exactly how he found it and explored further. In almost every picture, Ella was with her mother or her friends; and she was beaming. Did she ever stop smiling? Eric wondered. Finally, he came upon one that immediately won his heart. It was in black and white. Ella sat alone at a window sill, a book spread open upon her lap. Sunlight trickled through the window and across her legs. She still smiled, but it wasn’t like the other photos. This smile was subtle, framed with softs curves. Eric knew it well. He felt honored by every sighting. It wasn’t showy, it didn’t fight for attention. This smile wasn’t easily coaxed out of hiding; though, it was well worth the effort. It was his smile.
“That was Maggie’s favorite. She kept it by her hospital bed until the very last moment. That photo was the last thing we packed when we lost her.”
“I was very sorry to hear she’s gone.”
Eric ran his eyes over other photos, more colorful and reflecting happier times. Eventually, he felt the heat of Lilly’s stare, as if he were an object in a microscope that piqued her interest. The minutes ticked by ever so slowly, and Eric wasn’t feeling comfortable about being left alone with Lilly any longer. He thought he might actually prefer being alone with James. “Well,” he said, awkwardly. “I’m going to go. Let her know I stopped by. I’m pretty sure that part didn’t sink in.”
“Will do,” Lilly replied.
Ella emerged only a few minutes after Eric had left. “Ahh, that’s better.”
“Hey! Eric was here.”
“Oh, I completely forgot! Did he leave?”
“Honey, you barely acknowledged his presence.”
Ella plopped onto the couch. “I wonder what he wanted. I can’t believe I forgot about him.”
“No big deal. Show him your ta-tas later and you’ll be good.”
“Works every time,” Lilly said with a smile and a wink. Ella laughed in agreement.