“So, who’s meeting us there?” Ella asked from the back seat of Lilly’s car as they rode to the nearest club―which didn’t seem near at all. Ella and James always tucked themselves in the back to comfort each other when Lilly’s driving became too intense. They sat together now, holding each other’s hands and silently praying they would make it to their destination in one piece.
“A couple of the girls. Marcy had to go out of town so she’s not around tonight.”
“Joella will be there… With her male friend,” James said in a secretive voice.
“Male friend?” Ella said.
“James heard he’s married.”
“No! Joella wouldn’t!”
“How sure are you about that?” James asked.
“Well, we did joke in high school that she was most likely to become a gold digger.”
“You have no idea what she’s been drilling.”
“James!” Ella and Lilly exclaimed with a disgusted tone.
“What? Old men don’t have a lot of time to waste. They can’t just give the bank away for free and wait around for a good romp.”
Once in the city, the three walked into their favorite club to find that the other girls had saved a couple of sofas near the front window for them. Ella went around greeting everyone she hadn’t seen in a while, sharing hugs all around.
“Sit down, I’ll go grab us drinks,” James said.
“I’ll help.” Lilly and James disappeared into the crowd, leaving Ella alone on one sofa with three old friends staring at her from the other.
She looked across at the women she no longer had much in common with, trying desperately to find something to say. “Jenny, having another? Didn’t you just check out of the maternity ward?”
“Ha-ha! They will be 17 months apart, not bad timing I’d say.”
“As long as you can keep your hubby off you once you go home with this one,” Sandra joked.
“So Ella,” Nicole said. “What brings you out here all of a sudden? We never see you anymore.”
“Not much, just some good ol’ guy trouble.”
“It never ends, does it? Are you still with that Steve character?” Nicole said in a snotty tone, which Ella did not appreciate.
“You need to find yourself someone who treats you right!” Jenny piped in.
“Oh shut up,” Nicole said to Jenny. “Not all of us can find our Prince Charming in high school and be in love for life. Right Ella? We have to search and fight for our men.”
“Right,” Ella agreed with a forced smile.
“But what does your mother think?” Rozlynn said.
Ella stared at the youngest, most spoiled and self-centered of the group. She knew Lilly and James had good intentions, but didn’t expect the mood to be ruined so early in the night. “My mother passed away years ago.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’m sure you just didn’t remember. You couldn’t make it to the service, after all.” Ella tried hard to swallow the lump in her throat that begged her to shed a few tears.
“Oh. I would have made it, but death just isn’t my thing.”
“You took a road trip to Atlantic City instead.”
“Oh yeah!” Rozlynn said, excitedly recalling the trip.
As the other girls absorbed themselves into a conversation without her, Ella sank into the faux leather couch, praying for the night to end. Several handsome men passed by but, from what Ella could tell in the darkened room, they were mostly college boys, gay, or too handsome to hold a decent conversation. Still, it was disappointing that not one of them seemed to notice her. Am I putting out a vibe? she wondered. Probably. But what vibe? ‘I’ve been recently hurt and you have no chance in the world,’ or ‘I’m simply not interested and you have no chance in the world?’ Either way, she wasn’t meeting anyone new tonight. Probably not even for a quick dance. Looking to the door, Ella unconsciously hoped that Eric would happen to pop in and save her. Wait. Why would I wish for that? I’m supposed to be upset with him.
Lilly abruptly sat down beside Ella, leaning into the back of the couch on an elbow, crossing her bare legs out before her, and combing through her long hair with hands that were annoyingly absent of alcohol.
“I thought you were getting us drinks?” Ella asked with clear desperation.
“Some guy started talking to James at the bar.”
“James isn’t interested, but he thinks he might be able to flirt a few drinks out of him.”
“Ah. Well, at least he could see some action tonight. I haven’t had a single―”
Lilly and Ella looked up to see a man standing before them, his eyes locked on Lilly. He looked like a hardworking man, a little rough around the edges, not entirely handsome but nothing to spit at.
“Can we help you?” Lilly said, seemingly untouched by his prying eyes.
“I just wanted to say: you are one beautiful woman.”
If not for his cocky and presumptuous tone, this observation may have sounded a little more like a compliment.
Lilly simply smiled. “And you are one average man.”
He didn’t know what to say. Rage quickly began to swell in his eyes, but he was so stunned that he almost couldn’t react. Instead of engaging Lilly further, he turned to the girls across the table who looked on with gaping mouths. “Any of you ladies care to dance?”
“I will!” Rozlynn squealed as she jumped up from her seat like a puppy trading tricks for treats and quickly led the stranger away.
Finally, James returned with three drinks in his hands. “Here you are, ladies. Drinks are on me,” he said with a devilish wink. “Where’s Joella,” he asked.
“Did somebody say my name!” Ella squinted at the high-pitched sound. It came from a tall, leggy woman who approached the sofas with a confident, showy stride. She wore a short, shimmering dress, immodest heels, and diamonds that dangled from her neck and ears. Her long hair was full of bouncy blonde curls. “Ella!” she squealed as she threw her arms around her long lost friend, nearly spilling her drink. “I have missed you so! Let me introduce you to my boyfriend. This is Mervin.”
The man didn’t speak a word. He held a look of superiority, wearing an expensive business suit and experienced eyes. No receding hairline that Ella could see, but his hair was aged with gray upon his head and face. His air was strong and decisive. Firm wrinkles wrapped around his face and hands. Upon his left ring finger were fresh lines where a ring should be. It was apparent that he lusted after Joella, but Ella saw no indication that he respected or longed for her in any way other than as eye candy and a play toy.
Following the brief visit with Joella and her lover, Ella sat on the sofa most of the night avoiding all conversation that could lead back to Eric. She couldn’t keep from staring at the entrance hoping he would come in. Every time she realized what she was doing, she felt a little more confused by the intense mix of anger and longing.
At the end of the night, Lilly, James, and Ella headed back to Ella’s for one more sleepover. Rule Three of Maggie’s Break Up Recovery: cannot be without friends for at least 48 hours. On the ride home, Lilly was quiet in the driver’s seat and James snored on Ella’s shoulder in the back as she stared out the window and up at the stars.
“Day dreaming again?” Lilly’s voice startled Ella, shaking her from her thoughts.
“I’m just trying to imagine what he was thinking.”
“Eric?” Lilly said, although she required no confirmation. “Can I be honest with you?”
“Of course,” Ella assured her friend.
“I think you should forgive him. It was a long time ago and you were both really young. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care for a friend this deeply, but you act like you dated for three years before he dropped you out of the blue.”
“I guess I just hoped my friendship meant as much to me as his meant to me.”
“I get that, I do. But, it’s not like he skipped town once he figured out who you are. From what I can tell, he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Ella had no response. She just sat in silence and continued watching the stars. Lilly had a point, but Ella didn’t want to admit it quite yet. When they parked in front of her home, Ella noticed Eric’s truck in the driveway. He was home, but all lights inside were off. She helped Lilly carry James inside where they tucked him in on the couch with a blanket beneath his head and a garbage can close by.
The next morning, Lilly had everyone up bright and early. It was time to return to reality. Ella shoved off to the shower. Lilly and James offered to wait so they could run interference in case Eric waited downstairs, but Ella insisted they go.
“No thanks,” she said. “I would need to face him eventually, and the sooner that happens, the sooner I will be able to find some closure.”
Clean and dressed, Ella sat at the dining room table flipping through a couple magazines. After spending a few days away from the shop, she thought it best to refocus by gathering some new ideas for arrangements. Then, it was off to Hillside for a quick visit. Lilly had walked Doc’s Son before she left and now he was happy as could be playing with his kong. As Ella listed her floral ideas on a notepad, a tapping came at the living room window. She turned to see Charlie outside.
“Charlie! Haven’t heard from you in a while. Missed you, but go away.” Turning back to her magazines, Ella heard another rap at the window. “What could you possibly want right now? Go find an acorn or something and leave me alone. Do squirrels eat acorns?” she asked herself.
Charlie continued to knock. “You are the most stubborn squirrel I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing!” Ella gathered her things, said her good-byes to Doc’s Son, and headed out the door.
She made her way down the stairs just as Eric was coming in with a paper bag full of groceries. Stopping as soon as he saw her, all he could utter was, “Good morning.”
“Morning.” They stood without words for a long moment. Ella looked out the window to see Charlie sitting in the driveway, happily gnawing on something that should have kept him busy enough to leave her alone. You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? She said this just before Charlie hopped away and out of sight.
“I know you want to explain,” she interrupted. “And you deserve a chance. But I’m on my way to apologize to Mr. Finer for rushing out the other day, and I’m sure I have a ton to catch up on at work. Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight and we’ll talk then.”
Eric was quite surprised. “Sure,” he said.
Ella headed for the door, but as soon as her hand touched it, she turned to face Eric again. “You know what? I won’t be able to go all day without knowing, so tell me now what happened.”
“You want to hear me out right now?”
“Yes, you’ve had time to think it all over so now will work, right? Unless you need to get some lies in order first,” she crossed her arms in front of her chest to create a barrier between them.
“No, no lies.” Eric set his bag on the floor. “Ella, I know what you learned about me sounded bad and the way you found out wasn’t perfect. But I didn’t even realize who you were at first.”
“So, you didn’t remember me at all. Is that really the road you want to take with this apology?”
“Okay, you have a point. But, Ella, we were kids. Being in this town did start stirring up old memories. When you heard me talking to my Nana―that was the first time I was sure that you were the girl I knew from childhood.”
“What do you mean the first time you were sure?”
“Well, I had an idea. There were just some things that seemed oddly familiar to me.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? If you had we would have figured it out together long before now.”
“Things felt familiar, but I couldn’t place it.”
“Even seeing me at the flower shop? That alone should have been a dead giveaway!”
“Yeah, you’ve got me there. I just didn’t put it all together. We were young, the memories are still fuzzy and I’m sure many are gone. After you left me at Hillside, I spent the rest of that day talking with my Nana, calling my father, and sorting through the few things I brought with me to piece it all together. ”
“Well, clearly I didn’t mean as much to you then as you meant to me.” Ella had freed her arms, but she crossed them again trying to shield herself from further pain.
“Ella, please. I know how it sounds, but try to believe that you did mean a lot to me then, too. The thing is, you mean more to me now. Think of how you would have felt if I went on about a girl I knew from my childhood and how I hoped that she was you. If you turned out to be someone else, you’d walk away. And I wouldn’t blame you.”
“You didn’t give me a chance.”
“I considered how I would have reacted, and I didn’t want to chase you away if it turned out that you weren’t the Ella I was thinking of.” Eric paused for a moment, hoping she would understand. “You know, before I really got to know you that summer, I never opened up to anyone. After we were torn apart, I shut down again.”
“We weren’t torn apart. You left and never looked back.”
“You can’t put that on me. It wasn’t my choice to leave. And I wrote to you just like I promised.”
“Yeah, once. I replied to your letter and never heard from you again.”
“What? I never received a reply. If I had I wouldn’t have forced you out of my head. Then I know I would have known you by first sight when I saw you again.”
“Oh please, as if that hasn’t been an overused excuse. Are you going to tell me your mom found my letter first and kept it hidden from you?”
Eric thought about this possibility for a moment. “That makes sense,” he said softly to himself.
“What!” Ella’s patience was quickly diminishing.
“Ella, in your letter, did you write that you gave my Nana the note I asked you to deliver?”
“No! Ella my mother cut off all ties to my Nana. If she read your letter and found out I was still trying to keep in contact with her, she would have gotten rid of it.”
“Why? What happened between them that could have been so bad?”
Eric sat on the bottom step of the staircase leading up to Ella’s apartment. He felt defeated and as if so much of his time these past years had been wasted. “Nothing. Nana was wonderful. She’s not great towards everyone now, but back then she was a gem.”
Ella’s anger was beginning to subside as sympathy filled its place. “Then why?”
“My mom. She was sick.”
“She passed a few years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.” Giving in, Ella sat next to Eric on the step and gently rubbed his back.
“It’s okay. You know, she would have hated me for coming back here.” They sat in thought for a moment as their nerves calmed and they began to relax. Everything that needed to be said was said, so there was nothing else that mattered except how to move forward.
After many long breaths, Eric broke the silence. “Ella, you have to believe I would have told you sooner if I was sure. In fact, when I saw you in the community room I was about to leave to find you.”
“Convenient,” she joked.
“I’m happy that we found each other again.”
“Me too.” Ella offered a sweet smile, recalling what Lilly had said. She hated when Lilly was right but, in this case, relief trumped hatred. “You know, it was a long time ago. I think we should give ourselves another chance. Start over?”
“Because if we did, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Eric pulled Ella close, sweeping her in for a kiss. It was warm and exciting, and melted her in his arms.
“You let him kiss you!” James said. “Lilly, I thought we were mad at this guy, and here she is kissing him. Do you understand what’s happened here?”
“You know I don’t have a clue,” Lilly said from atop a ladder where she adjusted a display upon a high shelf. “She does what she wants.”
“Hey, you were encouraging me to forgive him, Lilly.”
James’ focus turned to Lilly who played innocent.
“So, what happened, again?” James asked.
“I told you, we talked it through.”
“Oh, they talked it through,” James mocked her.
“Everything’s okay, you guys.”
“El, we are phenomenal beings, but even we can’t understand the things you do. Apparently trator-pants up there isn’t, but I am worried about you.”
“I know, James. And I appreciate that.”
“Well you make it very difficult.”
“My deepest apologies. I’ll try not to make you love me so much.”
“You’re mocking me. She’s mocking me!”
“I really will try to make life easier on you,” Ella promised.
“Good because I don’t think I can take the stress anymore.”
“You’re giving him wrinkles,” Lilly said, thoroughly enjoying her comment.
“Hey, age lines are no laughing matter,” James scolded.
“Would both of you just settle down?” Ella said.
“We will if you tell us you won’t be seeing him tonight.”
“Then I’d be lying.”
“James, it’s just dinner.”
“Yeah, except it never is.”
“You’re confusing Ella with yourself,” Lilly said, inserting her comments from above. “With Ella, there really is such a thing as ‘just dinner.’”
“Thank you, Lilly” Ella said.
“Pipe down until you come down!” James ordered.
Ella approached James with her version of puppy dog eyes. “It’s just dinner. We’re going to get to know each other all over now that we know who we really are.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt... again,” James said, taking her hands.
“Don’t worry, I liked him when we were kids, and I already know I can like who he’s become. All I have to do now is fill in the gaps in between.”
“Alright, but I want you home by ten. I’ll be there, so be sure you come alone.”
“James!” Ella let his hands go and walked away, laughing him off.
“Okay, 10:30, but any later and you’re really cutting in on my beauty rest.”
“Please don’t be late, El. Clearly he doesn’t get enough beauty rest as it is!” Lilly chimed in as she climbed down and hopped off of the ladder.
“Ha-Ha,” James mocked as he turned into the office.
“Thanks for your support,” Ella said sarcastically to Lilly.
“What? I fully support your decision, but I can’t leave James to give you a hard time all on his own.”
Once the store was closed, James tried to follow Ella home. First he acted like he hadn’t noticed he was following, then claimed that since he was on his way already he might as well just hang out at her place. Finally, she shook him off and was able to run home and change. Although she had been out with Eric before, Ella couldn’t calm her nerves this time. This wasn’t just any date. This was a date where she would relive part of her childhood, her favorite part. Eric was her first real friend and her first taste of a broken heart, and tonight all would be mended.