Chapter 2 - Penny's POV
“Ray?” I ask in a singsong voice because I am not about to let him off the hook without some difficulty. By my watch, it has been a minute. Neither of us says anything while I drift in my head, remembering that I have a BFF after all. It has been a sad state of affairs for a few weeks since he’s fallen in love.
Remarkably, he still connects to the cellphone at my ear. I glance at it for a second to make sure it’s not on mute. It is not. He is still there, merely usually quiet for him. I pause in the hallway of my office building by the elevators after Ray has spaced right out of the conversation.
For an awkward amount of time, he must be lost in memories as much as I am. “Are you there? Hello-o?”
“Yeah, um, I’m here, Penny.”
I expel a breath upward, which flutters the brunette bangs on my forehead. “You called me, remember, dude?”
Still sounding, sheepish he replies, “Um, I don’t know what to say to make this right.”
I release another breath I do not even remember holding and roll my eyes. “You know I’ve got all the time in the world for my best bud. Yep, time galore.”
“Awww, come on, P. You’re never gonna let me live this down, will you?”
I glance around the empty hall, where I pause a second and decide not to express my immediate feelings. Never know who may overhear me blasting someone for being a selfish and all-around sucky best friend. Better to be safe than sorry, I decide. Instead, I keep that locked down.
“Not particularly,” I say rather diplomatically. “You’ve got some making up and explaining to do.”
“That’s fair.” He sighs. “Sorry for not checking in more, but I miss you.”
I rest one fist on my hip as I frown at the hurt bubble up from my soul because I am not used to being ghosted by my friends. “Well, it didn’t seem like it. You’ve never like not returned texts or voice messages before, Ray. That hurt.”
“I know. That was a shitty move on my part. You’ve got every right to be angry. I feel bad about it. Please forgive me?”
Should I forgive him?
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 solely a friend. He’s family. Ray is the only family I have left since my grandparents, who raised me, passed away.
First, Grandpa shovels too much snow one winter and suffers a stroke that kills him. A month later, Grandma follows him in her sleep. Both losses are heavy because they occur during my freshman year of college. These two sweet old people are all the family I have left after my parents die in 9-11. A second honeymoon and visit to the World Trade Center lead my parents to New York City that fateful day the world changes.
My lip trembles in the memory. I am about three or four then. What happens will not sink in until I am a little older. At the time, I never forget the comfort I find on Grandma’s lap and in her arms. She has the prettiest singing voice and makes me feel safe, just holding me tight as if she will never let go. She is the one to tell me Mommy and Daddy go to heaven.
My heart shatters. I cry and cry, wanting to be with them. I kept trying to go home, but where I stayed with my grandparents was my home now. The only way to calm me down was to tell me, “Don’t cry, Penny. You be a good girl for me and Grandpa. You grow up and grow old like me.”
I rub my tears with the heel of my hand. “Will I ever see Mommy and Daddy again?”
She nods her white head, stroking my wet cheek. “When the time is right after being a very good girl, the angels will come down from heaven and take you to see them again.”
I sniffle, fast-forwarding through the years at the more loss I endure knowing that one day I will see all the ones I love again. As the holidays come, these special moments further remind me of how I have no family to spend that time with anymore. The reality smacks me hard and depresses me.
Regardless of the dual deaths in my freshman year, it was one of the best of my life. The reason? Well, because that is when I encounter Ray Silverstone, who lives in the same college dormitory. We meet once or twice a month because we often get each other’s mail and take our meals at the same time. He and I also are in the same Humanities classes that first semester. We exchange a few words here and there and study together a few times for our World History mid-term and final exams.
Nowhere to go for Christmas or Thanksgiving? No problem. I spend those holidays with Ray and his family at his insistence. It shocks me how open and warm they are to take in a stranger. I’ll never forget that.
Ray warns as he drives me up to his parent’s house, “There’s always plenty of food like the drama.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
“Um, should I be worried?”
Ray chuckles. “Nah. Nobody’s died—yet.”
By the end of that adventure, I am no longer a stranger. Ray and I bond together like brick and mortar to get through it all. I would have changed nothing. It is by far one of the most polarizing moments of my life.
You see, Ray has semi-truck loads of siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. All of them are different. Some of them are dirt poor, living in trailer parks while taking public assistance. Others are proud, Rebel flag-waving, gun-toting, blue-collar workers for General Motors. Several are in and out of prison like the mall's revolving door, ranging from thieving to support a meth habit or selling illegal and prescription narcotics. A couple find success with their own businesses. One brother owns a car dealership and makes more money than Ray sees in a year as a teacher. The oldest brother owns two houses, including one on a private lake, and drives a new vehicle to show off to the family every year. And yeah, those older siblings all have families of their own, just as varied in lifestyle and income.
One terrific farmhouse of noise and squabbles eventually is what it amounts to at the parent’s place in the country. That and oh, yeah, a fistfight in the front yard with the goats!
The funny thing is, it happens every year, according to Ray. Guaranteed. I have attended every one of them since to know. With my bag of 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. The customary friendly banter erupts into fisticuffs when several alpha-types occupy one space with liquor in the mix.
Wide-eyed, I stare at my shrugging friend and whisper in his ear, “Where are the video cameras? I know this will be on Maury or some audition for a reality show on MTV.”
Ray tries not to laugh but sniggers at me. “It would be worse if we did.”
“I don’t know how. It’s already a zoo!”
Particularly memorable is 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 is perfect. No one can script it any better. A tiny thing with a pronounced baby bump reaches across the dinner table lined with a beautiful spread of the holiday’s best, snatches up her giggling cousin, and decks her square in the face. The cousin, also a female and around the same age as the aunt, smells of pot. Her droopy red eyes look suspiciously high when she accuses preggers of not knowing who her baby’s daddy is. Teen aunt allegedly humps her way through the entire varsity basketball team during homecoming, making that identification next to impossible.
Yeah, you cannot make this up! It is better than any soap opera left on TV. The girls are throwing down inside. Grown men duke it out on the front lawn! Other family members call bets for the winners’ circle. Someone even craftily makes two trophies out of duct tape. One is blue for the boys, and the other is pink.
I laugh so hard every time I think about it. It mortified Ray, of course. Besides his parents, he remains the most regular and down-to-earth person. That first holiday with none of my family affords me no opportunity to throw on a production for a pity party of loss. Not that Ray allows for that nonsense, anyway. He’s the best!
How can I not forgive him?
When birthdays or anniversaries come up of lost loved ones, I crumble into grief. I can’t seem to help it. On the other hand, Ray picks me up, dusts me off, and presents me back to the world after letting me cry on his shoulder without judgment. I mean it. He is really my best friend. It’s why I love him so much. Ray tells me that the feelings are mutual.
“You know you and Ray would make a great couple,” Belle says like the rest of my girls Lorna, Yvette, and sometimes the sketchy Chloe do. We hang out from time to time, if only to have a drink.
“Yeah. Yeah, but it’s not gonna happen. We like things how it is.”
“I swear if you don’t hit that, I will,” says Chloe, and knowing her, she only wants to sleep with Ray. She’s curious about his tool’s length if nobody else is.
At that point, I shake my head. “You're such a little slut, but I love you.”
We all laugh.
Deep inside, I say hell no! Having sex will spoil the excellent friendship Ray and I have. Why shoot myself in the foot like that? Who can forget that I am a walking disaster? Anyone will tell ya. I excel in the annihilation of intimate relationships.
Ding! Ding! That is my superpower—my one perfect talent. I am the relationship assassin! Often and rightly so, I might add, I think that the guy I date is gonna leave me. It is like a sixth sense. Therefore, I master the art of bailing first. No heartbreak settles in that way.