“Thank you, Mrs. Hardy! Enjoy the afternoon!” Ella called. Mrs. Hardy led her daughter, who continued to tug on her mother’s clothes, out through the shop door. The bell rang behind them as they left, Ding! Ding!, and Ella collapsed on the counter. “Finally, the last customer of the day. What a relief! I can’t believe how tired I am.”
“Staying up all night watching movies will do that to you,” Lilly scolded.
“I did stay up too late,” Ella could do nothing but agree. “I was just in the mood for a laugh and a good romance. After I watched one, it turned into a romantic comedy marathon.”
“And now you regret it.”
“Yes! I’m exhausted!” With her head still down, Ella pulled the rest of her body up onto the counter and shut her eyes.
“Come on! Get up!” Lilly said as she swatted her friend’s butt with a carnation stem. “I want to get out of here too, so let’s close up.”
“Fine,” Ella reluctantly slid off the counter and pushed herself into a standing position. She popped open the register and started the count for the night.
“What put you in the mood to start those movies anyway?” Lilly prodded.
“Oh, you know... Not any one thing.”
Lilly stopped what she was doing and turned to eye her boss. “Hey, I know that tone,” she leaned one elbow on the counter and stood close to Ella. “What happened? And who was it with because I know Steve is fun to laugh at, but he’s far from being a romantic.”
“Oh stop,” Ella pushed Lilly away, but she couldn’t hide her smirk.
“Oh no, don’t tell me it’s that new guy again.” Lilly caught the enormous grin that spread across Ella’s face. “It is! What happened?”
“Well, it started by me running him off the road.”
“Oh this is good. How did it end?”
“With us both soaking wet along the road to Hillside.”
“Ooo, dirty,” Lilly said in a saucy tone.
“Nothing like that. I fell into the stream, he helped me out, then he fell in. Completely innocent.”
“You can tell anyone else that, but I know you just wanted to get him wet and striped down to nothing.” Her eyebrows raised and lowered with a ‘come hither’ look.
“It was an accident.”
“So that’s why you were so late yesterday! You seem to have left out all the juicy parts of this story.”
“There are no juicy parts,” Ella began to protest. “Well...”
“I knew it! Tell me!”
“Alright, I told you about the tortoise.”
“Yeah, yeah... caused you to swerve.”
“Well, he was coming from the opposite direction when I swerved and to avoid me he ran off the road too.”
Lilly simply nodded as if she already knew that’s how the story was going to go.
Ella continued, “So, we walked the tortoise down the hill and left her by the stream.”
“Do-gooder,” Lilly teased.
“Did you expect any less?”
Lilly shrugged her shoulders.
“So when we were heading back up, I fell into the stream―”
“And he dove in to save you!” Lilly interrupted.
“It’s a stream.”
“Hey, I was going for romantic!”
“Anyway... He pulled me out, and then he slipped and fell right in.”
“Classic!” Lilly laughed.
“So we got back to my car and I changed.”
“Always good to keep spare clothes with you.”
“Right! I’m so glad you get that!” Ella exclaimed.
“Hey, you never know when you’ll need a change of clothes!”
“Exactly!” Ella was excited now, but Lilly was dying to hear the rest of her story.
“Oh, right. So, he borrowed my towel and took off his shirt to dry off.”
“Okay, you should have led with this.”
“I’m standing there and I know he sees me ogling, but I just can’t tear my eyes away. I mean he works out... He must... You know what he is?”
“He’s like a Greek sculpture.”
“Ah,” Lilly said.
“Those were my exact thoughts as he stood before me, his six pack glistening in the sun. My eyes may as well have been carved into his abs.”
“Only you would go there.”
“Oh, shut up!”
“You got all hot and bothered, huh?”
“Yeah, I don’t know, I guess.”
“Oh yeah...” Lilly teased with an accusing look. “You did.”
“Fine, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
“El, I’m a little hot and bothered just hearing about it! The simple fact that you said ‘it doesn’t mean anything’ when I didn’t even suggest that there could be anything means something.”
Ella paused for a moment, trying to follow the maze of words Lilly just laid out for her. “What?”
“You like him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t even know the guy!”
“But you want to!”
“So? What if I do? I like people! I like to get to know new people.”
“Not like this!”
“I’m done with you,” Ella said. Lilly started to sing ‘Sittin’ in a tree’ so Ella got louder to drown out the noise. “Done with you! Go away!”
Lilly danced circles around her modest friend, still singing, then swirled off to finish closing the shop. Ella laughed, but couldn’t resist allowing her thoughts to turn back to Eric.
With the shop closed up and ready for the next day, Ella locked the door, giving it one extra tug to make sure it wouldn’t open. “See you tomorrow!”
“Do you want a ride?”
“It’s okay; the fresh air will wake me up enough to put dinner together.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Your call, have a good night.” Lilly climbed into her car, honking at Ella as she drove away.
The night felt cool and crisp. The stars twinkled brightly on the black canvas above the small town. No cars were out, save for Lilly and the deputy parked conspicuously at the gas station down the road. Ella waved and the headlights of the police car flashed in response.
Turning down her street, she admired the lines of trees along the sidewalk. The moonlight that escaped the thick cover of leaves speckled the ground at her feet. The sounds of field crickets and spring peepers filled the air as Ella passed under one street light after the next. The lights had an old-time look that added to the charm of the small town. They stood in the middle of grassy areas separating the sidewalk from the road. Behind the sidewalk, short, steep hills led to green yards and nicely kept houses. Ella couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. As she followed the usual path home, she thought that the only thing that could make this night better would be a warm, relaxing soak in the tub―the perfect way to allow her body and mind some time to unwind.
One more driveway behind her and Ella was home. Mail in her arms, Ella quickly headed upstairs, dropping everything in her possession onto the table. She carried a kiss upon two fingers to the picture of her mother, before turning the deadbolt and heading for the kitchen.
“What to eat,” she asked herself as she pulled open the refrigerator door. Nothing. The freezer. Nothing. She swiveled on her heels trying to settle on a meal that would be perfect for her tonight. As she wandered through the pantry, it came to her. “Cereal. Perfect.” A bowl of crunchy deliciousness with refreshingly cold milk and minimal prep time would really hit the spot. She flipped through a magazine as the bowl quickly emptied, and then skipped to the bath. She concocted her own method of blocking the overflow drain, firm in her belief that the only way to take a bath is to be completely submerged.
Notes, accompanied by a few rogue bubbles, walked slowly upon the lavender-scented air, releasing gentle jazz tunes. With a bottle of wine and a few candles ready, Ella sank into the hot suds. Sipping from her glass, she let the smell of wine tickle her nose and dance on her tongue. Ella smiled wide as she let her joy out in a girly wiggle and squeal. With one deep inhale and long exhale, she was in heaven.
She tried desperately to push away thoughts of work, but the small business owner in her blood couldn’t help but calculate tomorrow’s expected sales or what orders would need to be placed this week. Did she have enough arrangements? Did she have too many? No, no, no. Shake it off, she scolded herself. No more work, it’s time to relax. She took another long breath, releasing it slowly. What is James up to? I wonder if Donnie got back yet. He was on that business trip a long time. I never liked him. Is James working tomorrow? I can’t remember the schedule. Will we have the gardenias in time for the wedding next weekend? Ugh! Ella silently cursed herself. How could she help thinking about her shop, she owned it after all. It was her mother’s life and now it’s hers.
Think about something else, she ordered herself. Anything else. Hmm, I bet if this tub was deeper I could almost feel weightless. Like an astronaut or a swimmer. I should go swimming, I haven’t in a long while. The dip in the stream yesterday reminded me about the old swimming hole. Oh, I used to love that place. I bet it wouldn’t be deep enough for me to swim in now. Probably as deep as where Eric and I fell in. She chuckled to herself. What a mess. That was fun. Eric is funny, even when he’s grumpy―which seems to be the norm. Maybe I could help him work on that. Hmm, workout; I’ll bet he does.
Ella unknowingly lost control of her thoughts as they ran back over Eric’s chiseled abs and muscular arms. The glass of chilled wine was clasped securely in her hand until her mind ventured further into wonderings about this mysterious man. The glass slipped from her hand, sending the cold wine onto her once warm chest. Jumping with surprise, Ella sent some water and bubbles over the edge of the tub. Then, a knock came at the front door as she fished the wineglass out of the bathwater.
“So much for this plan,” Ella remarked with disappointment as she stood up and dried off as quickly as she could. Another knock rattled down the hall and to her ears. “One minute!” she called as she threw on her bathrobe and ran to see who had come to call. Another knock sounded, more impatient now. “Coming!” she slipped and nearly fell on the hardwood floor, but was lucky enough to catch herself from falling. She peaked through the peephole and let out a sigh. Pulling the door open, she stepped to the side to let the visitor enter.
“What were you doing?” Steve asked as he walked in, annoyed that he had to wait.
“Taking a bath,” Ella closed the door and followed him into the kitchen. “How did you get in?”
“The door was propped open downstairs. Looked like a furniture delivery for your neighbor,” Steve plopped a bag onto the counter. “Brought Chinese,” he said, simply.
“I already ate,” Ella walked by him and back into the bathroom. She took a deep breath as she looked longingly at the bubble bath. Her stomach growled a little, the cereal wasn’t enough after all. Exhausted and annoyed, she pulled the plug on the drain and went back out to sit with her guest.
Steve had made himself comfortable with his messy food on her couch and his odorous feet on the coffee table, shoes still on. The sight caused steam to seep from Ella’s ears as she passed by, but she decided to try to let it go tonight. In the kitchen, she pulled out a plate and piled on the moo shu.
In the living room, plate and wine in hand, Ella made a seat on the floor at the coffee table. She shoved Steve’s feet off and they fell to the floor with a thud, drawing his attention away from the TV.
“Nice,” he said snottily. “Thought you weren’t hungry.”
“Changed my mind.”.
Steve knew he was in trouble. He set his plate down and slid onto the floor next to his girlfriend. “Hey, are you mad I ruined your bath?”
“No,” she lied.
“You can go back in there if you want,” he tugged on her robe. “Maybe I can join you.”
Ella pushed his hand away in a flirtatious manner. “It’s already drained, go away.”
Steve flashed an insincere smile and turned to finish his food. “So, why the bath anyway? Have a bad day?”
“I don’t need a bad day to enjoy a bath. I’m just tired; I was up late last night.”
“Oh really. Doing what?”
“You never stay up late watching movies with me.”
“That’s because I don’t like going to bed after watching gory horror movies.”
“That’s not all I watch.”
“These were chick flicks,” she shot him a competitive stare.
“Ah, touché. Not for me.”
Steve threw his irritating laugh at the TV. The last few years with him had seemed to drag on, but Ella contributed most of that to losing her mother. Lilly and James always warned that Steve wasn’t for her, and she knew her mother wouldn’t want her baby wasting her time either, but maybe that’s why she had stuck with him for so long. There’s nothing like knowing something is forbidden for you to want it more. Steve is nice after all... sometimes. Like now, she thought. But as Ella watched him laugh at his ridiculous TV show, she felt she was almost growing too tired of justifying why she stayed with him. I do hate that laugh. But, would I rather be completely alone? Maybe. No. One more chance, she decided. He could still change. She took another long sip of wine.
Even as these words crossed her mind she knew they were lies. Too often were they used in continuous failed attempts to convince herself that she belonged with this guy. But the relationship would continue regardless. Why? Because it was easy, and her mom wasn’t there to show that she was displeased with her. Ella knew all of this. She knew she was settling, and she knew exactly what she was settling for, which made her feel all the more terrible for doing it.
Ella woke the next morning with Steve nudging her to turn off her phone. She pulled the covers off of her head and reached for the cell phone, which was lit up and vibrating its way across the nightstand. She reached and reached with her eyes closed until the phone evaded her grasp and fell to the floor. Leaning her head over the edge of the bed, Ella stared at the phone with contempt. To her relief, it finally shut off. Ella didn’t move, she just closed her eyes and fell back to sleep, head and arm still hanging over the edge of the bed. Not one full minute passed before the phone went off again.
Steve nudged her once more. “Will you shut that thing off!”
Without a word, Ella slid hands first and on her stomach out of bed and onto the floor. She sat against the bed and picked up the phone, using every ounce of energy she could muster to hold it to her ear. “Hello?” Her muscles felt useless. She sprawled out on the floor using the phone as a pillow so she could still hear and talk to the person on the other end without expending any precious energy to hold the phone to her ear. “Yuh. I’m up,” she lied. “Okay... Okay... Okay... Yup... Okay... See ya soon... Bye.” She picked her head up only long enough to remove the phone from under her. A few quiet minutes passed and drool dripped from her mouth and onto the soft rug which now served as a most convenient bed.
The phone started vibrating again, this time only inches from her face. She picked it up and tossed it into the hamper; then rolled onto her back and fought to open her eyes. The sun was up, but barely. James had called to get her out for a morning walk before work. Was he relentless? Yes. Was she going back to sleep? Big, fat NO. Up, she told herself, but her body didn’t respond. Buzz, there it was, that damn buzzer at the front door. She imagined how fulfilling it would be to bust down the wall and tear the buzzer and intercom out wire by wire. That would teach James a lesson in patience, Ella thought at first. Then she decided, no, it wouldn’t. Forcing herself to her feet, Ella was still unable to shake off the sleepiness. Buzz. Her sleepy legs made no effort to rush as they carried her to the intercom. Buzz. Laying her head against the wall and she held down the talk button with one heavy finger “What?”
“Are you coming?” James asked.
“You’re already here?”
“I was here when I called the first time. Do you know me at all?”
“Oh, clearly you don’t. Get down here, we are walking today.”
“I hate you!”
“Love you too, sweets. I’ll be right outside!”
James was in the middle of a runner’s stretch outside as he waited, ever so patiently, when Eric appeared, carrying his new bike on his shoulder. James couldn’t resist talking to the beauty.
“Good morning! Starting early?”
“Yeah,” Eric answered, hoping he could escape the conversation fairly quickly.
“Me too. Have to keep those juices flowing, don’t we?”
Eric forced a smile as he climbed onto his bike and pedaled furiously away.
“Have a great day!” James called after him, stealing a peek at the firm buns that sped down the road. “Oh my,” he said to himself. “I could take a bite out of that behind.”
As Eric pulled around the corner and out of sight, Ella came out the door and trudged down the steps.
“There you are,” James said, as if he had been waiting for hours.
“Let’s go before I fire you.”
“You wouldn’t dare, the shop needs me.”
They hopped down the steps to the sidewalk and began to follow it in the direction Eric had gone. Ella let out a big yawn and gave her body a shake. Her legs and arms were in motion, but her eyes told her to go back to sleep.
“Stop that,” James ordered.
“I’m sorry, I’m tired!”
“Well, wake up, I need to talk.”
“Are you listening?”
“Enough to pretend I care,” Ella teased.
“Well, I wanted to tell you that Donnie is back in town.”
“That was an awful long business trip.”
“I know. But guess what he came back to tell me.”
“He’s finally quitting his job and finding something more permanent here?”
“No. He’s moving out.”
“What!” Ella said with genuine surprise that forced her awake.
“He came back and said he had met someone else. He’s in love, and he’s leaving me.”
“I thought he was in love with you.”
“So did I.”
“Oh, James, I’m so sorry. I knew you two were struggling, but I had no idea it was this far gone.”
“That’s what I thought. I was waiting for him to get back so we could light our fire again. Remember I took some time off so we could work out our issues together?”
“Well, I think you should still take the time. As it is, we are late to begin Maggie’s Rules of Break Up Recovery.”
“No, no, no,” James insisted. “I don’t need to go through that whole process. I’ll deal with it in my own way.”
“Fine, but I think you should still take the time off from work.”
“And do what? Sit around by myself and mope about being alone? I’m not that pathetic.”
“It’s not pathetic. You’ve invested so much of yourself and your life into this relationship. You need time to heal and clear your head. Besides, you work in a flower shop. You’re bound to be faced with a ton of other happy couples. I certainly can’t stick you only on funeral jobs―it’s too morbid.”
“There’s no need, I’m a big boy. I’m going to pick myself up right away and move on. Like you said, I’ve already wasted too much time on him so I’m not wasting any more.”
“That’s very optimistic, but you need to accept and deal with this first. Otherwise it will eat at you and every other relationship you have down the road. “
“Ah, you’re right.” James surrendered quietly as they rounded another corner. Eric rode by them across the street, heading the opposite direction. He didn’t notice them, but James saw that Eric’s presence wasn’t missed by his friend. Ella simply smiled and turned her eyes to the ground that was laid out before her feet. A few more steps and she tumbled face first to the ground. “Where’d you go?” James joked as he helped Ella to her feet.
“I don’t know, I must have tripped over…” she looked around, but there was nothing in her way. “…the sidewalk.”
James shook his head and tugged on Ella’s shirt to get her walking again. “I’ll make a deal with you,” he said.
“Oh, please, can we?” Her words were heavy with sarcasm, but that never deterred James.
“If you insist...” he smiled, in the devilishly handsome and disturbingly evil way that he does. “I will handle my breakup the way you suggest. I’m not following Maggie’s rules, but I’ll take some time off.”
“I can live with the plan so far,” Ella said.
“But, I want you to promise me that you will take some time away from Steve.”
“You’re seriously using your breakup to end my relationship?”
“Ella, it’s hardly a relationship. You’re like his girl on the hook who he’s pretending to be serious about. He’s wasting your life just like Donnie wasted mine. You’re just not brave enough to face it.”
“You’re out of line,” Ella said firmly. She despised both the words she was hearing and the fact that, deep down, she knew he was right.
“Friends have every right to cross the line. That’s what you need them for when the rest if the world is just telling you what you want to hear. Besides, you never know what could happen in the meantime.”
Ella let her fake anger brew for a moment, but she could never be upset with James when he offered such inspiring words. And, she subconsciously hoped that Eric might show some interest in her if she were single. “Fine. But all I can promise is that I’ll think about it,” she half-surrendered. “I don’t know how it’s supposed to help you get over your bad experience, but if it will then that’s what we’ll do. But when I come out of this still happy with Steve, I want you to drop the subject forever.”
“If you turn out to be truly happy with him, I swear I will bite my tongue from here on out.”
“Good, and while you’re at it, bite Lilly’s too.”
“No, no, she’s my back up harasser. I can’t let her off the payroll.”
They laughed as they continued their walk in the brisk morning air.
“So,” James continued. “Tell me about his glistening abs.”
“I hate Lilly.”