“Engaged?” I stare at my mother as if she had just grown two more heads. “Again? Aren’t you getting too old for this?”
“One is never too old to find real love, honey.” My mum gives me a pitying look before turning back to the mirror on her vanity. “Although I’m starting to be a bit worried about you. When I was your age, I was already through my first divorce.”
The way she talks about her failed relationships as if they were trophies makes me cringe.
“Mum, I’m only twenty-three, and I’m not interested in getting married any time soon.” I peek at my watch. I’m already running late for my coffee date with Lucy.
“You just haven’t found the right one, sweetie-pie,” she says, applying a bit more mascara than necessary. “I know that this time, I have.”
“That’s what you said the other three times, too.” I roll my eyes, knowing that while Mum is busy with her makeup, she won’t notice.
“I’m only human. I make mistakes too.” She lets her mascara-brush sink and turns around. Her thick brown hair is tied into a sleek bun and beneath the too many layers of makeup, there appears to be a smile somewhere. “The wedding will be in three weeks and I’d love for you to be there. You can bring a friend too.”
I open my mouth to say something, but she cuts me off. “No, and I don’t mean your friend Lucy. I already invited her and her boyfriend Dave. Such a sweet guy, and successful too. I hear that he is going to take over his father’s law firm soon.” She throws her perfectly manicured fingernails an assessing glance. I swear it’s a shade of red I’ve never seen before and I’ve a hunch that Mum’s got a matching purse and shoes somewhere.
“Mum, you don’t have to—”
“Just try to bring a guy with you for once and don’t scare him away with your unconventional views.”
“Mum, it’s your wedding, not my engagement party. So, if you want me to be there, then you’ll just have to accept that I’ll show up on my own. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I don’t need a guy to watch out for me.” I really don’t want to hear the same old litany again.
Mum raises an elegantly plucked eyebrow, the left side of her face doing a weird upwards motion. “Fine.” She sighs dramatically. “Always the stubborn one. I don’t know from whom you got that, certainly not me.”
“How should I know? You never told me who’s my dad, so I can only assume I got it from you.” I have a hard time keeping the ice from my voice.
“Penny, I told you that I was dating several guys at the time of your conception. I was a bit of a wild one back then.”
“Mum, I really don’t need to hear this again.” I pinch the bridge of my nose and check my watch. Envisioning my mum’s escapades in her wannabe-hippie times isn’t on the top list of my priorities. “Listen, I need to go now. Lucy is probably already waiting for me.” I pull up my hoodie and glance at my jeans and faded trainers, both of which have definitely seen better times.
My mum rises from her vanity, her beige pencil skirt and matching silk blouse perfectly in tune with her sophisticated appearance.
“Of course, off you go then. Don’t leave your friend waiting.” She motions to give me a hug, but then detours to pull out some strands of my red locks from beneath my hoodie. “I hear that Dave has a younger brother. He might not be inheriting the law firm, but I’m sure he would be an eligible bachelor too. And you are pretty, even if you refuse to show it.”
“Mum, just stop, please.” I take away her hand from my hair and throw her a pleading look.
“Sorry, honey, I just can’t help it. You’re my only child and I want to see you happy.” She attempts a smile that shows her brilliant white teeth.
“I am happy, Mum. I don’t need some eligible bachelor in my life to give me happiness.” The last words come out a bit forced, but I don’t care. I’m tired of her constant meddling in my life. Before she can say anything else, I turn away and jump down the stairs.
I hear mum trilling behind me, “But it still can’t hurt to have one in your life. You’ll know that when your plumbing needs fixing.”
I sigh, glad to finally be making my way down the street that leads towards the Steamy Bean where Lucy and I have decided to meet. With a little bit of luck, I can still get there on time. It’s early spring and the air is fresh and clean. I pop in my earbuds and fall into a comfortable trot as I weave my way towards the coffee-shop. Einaudi is really the best to help me clear my mind of my mother’s offensive ideas of bachelors and weddings.
With a much clearer head and a distinct craving for latte macchiato, the best in all of Upper Ashbury, I arrive at the Steamy Bean and push the door open. The bells tinkle and the smell of coffee, cinnamon and freshly baked cookies hits my nose. I take a deep breath while I scan the café for my friend. The Steamy Bean is mostly frequented by hipsters and students, who both value the combination of unique furniture and fair-trade coffee. Lucy waves at me from our favourite table at the back of the café. I smile in response and quickly make my way over to her.
We kiss each other on the cheek and then I sink into the seat opposite her, dropping my messenger bag beside me.
“Sorry, I ordered already. I was hungry,” she says apologetically when I see her plate with a fat slice of cheesecake and a steaming mug of hot chocolate right in front of her.
“That’s ok. I would have been here earlier, but my mum had to give me another one of her speeches about finding a husband, now that she’s apparently getting married again.” I draw out a sigh while Lucy smiles knowingly and sips from her hot chocolate.
“What can I get you, Penny?” Jeremy asks. He’s one of the students who works here as a barista for some extra income.
“I’ll have the usual latte macchiato and a slice of the homemade chocolate cake.”
He nods and turns away with a smile.
I settle back in my chair and then I see it. A big fat ring on Lucy’s left hand.
She follows my line of vision and holds up her hand, wiggling her fingers excitedly.
“I see you are noticing something new and shiny?” She grins and her whole face glows in the golden light of the lampshade above our table.
“You’re engaged.” I force a smile.
Lucy draws her eyebrows into a frown. “Why do you look as if someone died? Aren’t you happy for me?”
“Of course I’m happy for you. I know you’ve been waiting for this for such a long time.”
“Yes, I have,” she says, holding the ring up to marvel at the sparkling gem, a little bit too big for my taste. But who am I to question Dave’s taste for jewellery?
“Dave said he wanted to wait until it’s sure that his father will pass on the law firm to him. Now that it’s fixed, I can quit my job too. I’m so tired of being a cashier in that godforsaken place.”
“Shouldn’t you keep the job, just in case? Or maybe you could look for something else?”
“Why would I want to keep that job? I’ve always wanted to quit. You know my boss, Duncan. He’s the worst.” She attacks her cheesecake and shoves a large piece into her mouth.
Jeremy arrives with my order and saves me from having to explain to Lucy why I think it’s important not to be dependent on a guy’s money, no matter the size of the diamond on the engagement ring.
“Thank you,” I say and then I dig into my chocolate cake. It’s delicious, just like the latte, and a feeling of contentment settles in my empty belly.
“And you should go out more, date some guys. Maybe you’ll finally meet the right one.” Lucy skewers another piece of her cheesecake.
“I don’t need a guy.” I stir my latte macchiato until it swirls like a tiny maelstrom inside the glass. “I can be happy on my own.”
“Of course you can.” Lucy swallows and then gives me a long look. Her grey eyes are like the stormy skies and for a moment I feel exposed and vulnerable.
“But the question is, are you happy on your own?”
I stare at my half-eaten cake and after a fraction of a second, I nod. “Of course, I am.”
I put on what I think is my best smile and then deviate the conversation back to her and Dave. I’d rather not talk about my own life. She happily takes the bait and chatters about their wedding plans.
“Are you eating this?” Lucy asks me, pointing with her fork at the leftover piece of chocolate cake on my plate.
“No, you can have it. I’m full.” I push the plate over to her and take the last sip from my latte, licking the foam from my lips. Then I check my watch and realise that I’m running late, again.
“I gotta go. There’s a new delivery of tulips arriving at two and Bessie needs me to take care of it because she has to pick up her son from school.”
“Ah, well at least Bessie won’t snap at you in front of the entire staff like Duncan.” Lucy dabs her mouth with a napkin and then I lean over to kiss her on the cheek.
“You really should look for a different job,” I tell her.
I leave the change on the table and head for the exit.
The flower shop where I work is only two blocks away, but I still have to hurry, if I want to catch Bessie on time. She’s counting on me, and I can’t afford to disappoint her. I need the job. It’s the only way I can finance my tiny flat without asking Mum for financial aid, which is something that I pride myself in never having had to do.
I pick up my pace to jog down the street and around the next corner until the flickering neon-sign reading lower Power because the F isn’t working any more, comes in sight.
“Hi, Bessie,” I call from the door, pushing it open. The shop is blissfully empty and the humid air heavy with the sweet scent of flowers. Might have a quiet afternoon then, once I’ve taken care of the delivery.
Bessie quickly reaches for her coat. “Finally, you’re here. What took you so long? Mike’s teacher is going to kill me if I’m late picking him up again.”
“Sorry, I got held up.” I drop my hoodie and bag behind the counter.
“Well, all right. I’ll be back at five, okay?” She rushes to the door and before I can answer, she’s gone.
I take a deep breath and settle on a small IKEA Norråker stool between the long-stemmed hyacinths and yellow narcissus. It’s really for the clients while they ponder their choices. But I’m all alone now, and I don’t have any choices to ponder, or do I?