Chapter 1 - Penny's POV
“Hello,” I answer not really looking at my cellphone before putting it to my ear. Too many busybodies in the office who love to gossip about people’s phone conversations for my liking. I get out of the habit of using the speakerphone feature unless my door is closed or I’m driving in the car.
Rushing out of my office in downtown Chicago near Greentown, I'm hungry and need a quick bite. I snatch my wallet and phone from my purse before leaving. If I fail to leave right now, I never will until quitting time. I’ve done it too many times before to see the writing on the wall.
It’s been a bitch of a day already, and I’ve not stepped a high heel out my damn office since I arrived at eight o’clock this morning. Besides that, if that new guy, Harris, who happens to be my boss asks me another stupid-ass question over Microsoft Teams, I feel like I’ll explode! Damn, I require a break before I murder somebody.
You know that woman who tries to climb out of the bathroom window to escape a bad date? Well, I’m her all over as my M. Gemi black heels click softly over the hardwood floors. I make no eye contact out the main doors of Gateway Capital. Ordinarily, I’ll switch to sneakers, but not today. I don’t dare risk getting caught up in the latest problem of the day and missing the opportunity for a needed break.
“Hey, Penny girl,” greets Raymond Silverstone but prefers Ray, and so do I. There’s something in his voice that sounds off, which slows down my progress.
“Hi, stranger!” I can’t help my excitement despite the fact that I know something’s up with my old friend. Being so close, I know these things innately no matter how long it’s been since we’ve talked. I’m having a hard time remembering how long. It’s been a hot minute since last I’ve heard his sweet voice, for sure.
He replies in a sheepish tone, “Yeah, I guess I deserve that.”
Ray always reaches out when I’m down. It’s like a beacon or something goes off for him, and he calls me at the right time, just when I need him. This hectic workday shapes to be one of those kinda days, you know? Hearing Ray speak my name in that mellow, smooth voice of his instantly puts a smile on my face. Meltdown averted! He serves as my personal ray of sunshine on the gloomiest of days since I’ve known him.
“Thought for sure you’ve been ghosting me?” I inquire more than curious as to what prompts this call today and not a quick text at the very least.
Ray and I often talk several times a week, by phone, text, or email. Since he started dating this latest girl Tara, he’s been missing in action on all fronts. His girlfriend acts like a jealous bitch whenever I am around him. True... Ray and I are tighter than my favorite skinny jeans. Very tight, but it’s not like we’ve dated or would do anything like that. Ever. I mean, it’s Ray, my boy. My BFF. I would never mess that up. I’ve screwed up many relationships already. A lot of them, okay? Lesson learned. This strong friendship with Ray is not gonna be one of them I destroy because of my abysmal skills in keeping a man. Nuh-uh; no way!
Besides, I love Ray far too much to complicate what we have by doing something daft like friends with benefits. Ha! What a crock of shit that is! Don’t do it. Not worth the heartache or the headache.
“Awww, man, quit it already, will ya.” He pushes out a breath and says rather reluctantly, “I’m sorry, okay?”
A second or two go by without me saying anything. Ray breaks the silence first. “Please?”
“We’ll see.” I snicker without helping it. I love hearing how uncomfortably guilt he sounds as he should.
“How are the girls? Have you talked to Chloe or Kevin lately?”
One of my girlfriends, who was sweet but a total nympho name Chloe, made a mistake a few years back. She super regrets it to this day. She and my other friend Kevin knew each other since high school, right? While out drinking one night, they got stinking drunk. I mean blackout, stumbling around smashed.
Somehow, they wound up back at his place. Neither recalled how that happened. Instead of sleeping it off as they typically did, they had sex. Liking it so much, they continued the sex part for three months until Chloe met some cute black guy named Darwin through another friend. After hitting it off with him at the club, she got knocked up by him before he was in the wind.
Anyhow, by then what Chloe did not know was that Kevin developed deeper feelings for her. As in all the warm and fuzzies. The will-you-be-my-girl sort of feelings that lead to marriage and, uh... well, baby carriages, which on the latter she had covered. Yeah, ouch, right?!
Oh, Chloe agonized over the whole affair because she never felt like that for Kevin. She thought she had been clear that she only wanted his body. Without any finesse, she flat out told him that she was not in love with him and never would be. His merrymaker was too small to really get her off, and she liked them really big. Double ouch.
And you guessed it, not only did Kevin and Chloe stop knocking boots, but they also stopped being friends. I couldn’t believe it. To me, I’d seen no two people closer or having each other’s back. It shocked the hell outta me and saddened me, too. No longer could we hang out together.
Poor Kevin couldn’t stand seeing Chloe running around banging other guys (with presumably bigger peckers than him) while also having someone else’s baby. He moved to Florida in hopes of getting over her by getting under someone else. Every now and again, I check in with him to find out how he’s doing just because, you know. Kevin is my friend, also. I miss him to pieces!
He’s okay now. Some Cuban girl named Leya with a fiery temper has his attention. She’s crazy but crazy in a good way in bed. Most importantly, she loves him and his pecker. Kevin says that he cannot get enough. Moving away from the Mid-west is the best decision he could have made. Kevin might not have met Leya, otherwise.
Long story short? Do not hook-up with your BFF! It obliterates everything. Shut the front door on that shit with a quickness!
“Everybody’s living their lives, Ray,” I muster unable to stop myself from giving him another dig, “You know like how you’ve been living yours?”
He expels another breath. “I didn’t... I mean, I—I never meant to stay away so long, P.”
“Then why did you?” I wonder as the snickers stop and my smile fades. The hurt leaks through turning my playful tone bitter after weeks of not hearing from him. Despite the fact that I understand the situation, I just never think it will come to this, not for us anyway.
Ray and I have always kept it real, you know. No bullshit. We are completely honest with each other and are the best of friends in the process. However, Ray is so much more than just a friend. He’s family. The only family I have left since my grandparents who raised me passed away.
First, Grandpa shoveled too much snow one winter and suffered a stroke that killed him. A month later, Grandma followed him in her sleep. Both losses were heavy because they occurred during my freshman year of college. These two were all the family I had left after my parents died in 9-11. A second honeymoon and visit to the World Trade Center led my parents to New York City that fateful day the world changed.
I was about three or four then. What happened would not really sink in until I was a little older. At the time though, I will never forget the comfort I found on her lap and in her arms. Grandma had the prettiest singing voice and would make me feel safe just holding me tight as she would never let go. She was the one to tell me Mommy and Daddy had to go to heaven.
My heart was shattered. I cried and cried, wanting to go be with them. I kept trying to go home, but where I stayed with my grandparents was my home. The only way to calm me down was to tell me that after being good by minding Grandpa and her, that I’d grow up and grow old like her. When the time was right, the angels would come and take me to heaven so I could be with Mommy and Daddy again.
Regardless of the deaths that happened in my freshman year, it was one of the best of my life. The reason? Well, because that is when I met Ray Silverstone who lived in the same dormitory. We met once or twice a month because we often got each other’s mail and took our meals at the same time. He and I also were in the same Humanities classes that first semester. We exchanged a few words here and there and studied a few times for our World History mid-term and final exams.
Nowhere to go for Christmas and Thanksgiving? No problem. I spent those holidays with Ray and his family at his insistence. It shocked me how open and warm they were to take in a stranger. I’ll never forget that.
Ray warned that there was always plenty of food like the drama, (it wasn’t me!). By the end of that adventure, I was no longer a stranger, that’s for sure. Ray and I bonded together like brick and mortar to get through it all.
You see, Ray had loads of siblings. All of them were different. Some of them were dirt poor living in trailer parks taking public assistance. Others were proud, Rebel flag-waving, gun-toting, blue-collar workers. One was in and out of prison like the revolving door at the mall from his thieving to support a meth habit. Another was successful with his own business making more money than Ray saw in a year. The oldest brother owned two houses including one on a private lake and drove a new vehicle to show off to the family every year. And yeah, those older siblings all had families of their own, just as varied in lifestyle and income.
One terrific farmhouse of noise and squabbles was eventually what it amounted to at the parent’s place in the country. That and oh, yeah, a fistfight in the front yard with the goats! Yeah. Really. Like I said, plenty-o-drama. The funny thing is, it happens every year according to Ray. Guaranteed. I have attended every one of them since to know. With my own popcorn, I settle in for the show. Each gathering never disappoints! Ray thinks I’m as crazy as the rest of his family because I love it so much. He’s probably right.
How does it begin? His plastered brothers, niece, nephews, or cousins, generally topless and not always male, start trash-talking about who has a man, how much they make, or who just got knocked up, to start. The customary friendly banter erupts into fisticuffs when several of the alpha-types occupy one space with liquor in the mix. Wide-eyed, I stared at my shrugging friend, wondering when the video cameras would swing out of the woodwork for the old Jerry Springer Show.
Particularly memorable was Ray’s pregnant teen aunt. Frazzled fuchsia hair worthy of my favorite reality show 16 and Pregnant on MTV, tiny cut off shorts, a clingy T-shirt, and bare feet was perfect. It could not be scripted any better. A tiny thing with a pronounced baby bump reached across the dinner table snatched up her giggling cousin and decked her square in the face. The cousin, also a female and around the same age as the aunt smelled of pot. She looked suspiciously high when she accused preggers of not knowing who her baby’s daddy was. Teen aunt allegedly humped her way through the entire varsity basketball team during homecoming making that identification next to impossible.
Yeah, you could not make this up! It was better than any soap opera left on TV. The girls were throwing down inside. Grown men duked it out on the front lawn! Other family members called bets for the winner.
I laugh so hard every time I think about it. Ray is mortified, of course. Besides his parents, he’s the most normal and down to earth. That first holiday without any of my family afforded me no opportunity to throw on a production for a pity party of loss. Not that Ray ever allows for that nonsense anyway. He’s really the best!
When birthdays or anniversaries come up of lost loved ones, and I crumbled into depression. Can’t seem to help it. Ray, on the other hand, picks me up, dusts me off, and presents me back to the world after letting me cry out the grief on his shoulder. I mean it. He is really my best friend. It’s why I love him so much. Ray tells me often that the feelings are mutual.
My girls Lorna, Yvette, and sometimes Chloe who hang out with me from time to time, have mentioned on more than one occasion that Ray and I would make a great couple. Chloe, being Chloe, just wants to sleep with him, curious as to his size, if I won’t. That girl is such a little slut, but I love her anyhow.
I say hell no! Hooking up would spoil the excellent friendship Ray and I have. Why would I wanna shoot myself in the foot like that? Besides, I’m a walking disaster. Anyone will tell ya. I excel in the annihilation of relationships. My one perfect talent. Often, I think, and rightly so, I might add, that the guy I date is gonna leave one way or the other. I bail first. No heartbreak can settle in that way.