The Truths and Lies of Happily Ever Afters

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Chapter Seventeen

Seeing Miranda was supposed to make me feel better, not worse. And I definitely feel worse now. A lot worse.

I manage to hide out back in the kitchen with Eric for a little while but three o’clock brings the end of both the rainstorm and Brenda’s shift. Her replacement - a quiet, mousy girl named Monique - is only sixteen and still learning the ropes so I have to be out on the floor to keep an eye on her and help with the dinner rush.

At least the red mark on my cheek has mostly faded by this point. Girl has some serious upper body strength, she slaps like a boss.

I am so much more than just running on empty by the time the end of my double shift rolls around. Like, I’ve genuinely never been so excited to turn over the ‘open’ sign. If I wasn’t so damn exhausted I’d do a jig. Monique and I clean up the dining room in silence and when she leaves I go into the kitchen where Eric is just finishing up the last of his cleaning.

“Thank God today is finally over,” I say, slumping against the prep counter wearily. Eric looks over his shoulder to give me a sympathetic look. “Yeah, today is definitely not going in my highlights reel. I just - I feel so stupid, man. I really thought she was the one but after all this I just can’t trust her. And it’s stupid because I love her, or I think I do. Fuck, what do I know? I thought Miranda loved me and she doesn’t, and I didn’t think Ray loved me but apparently she does.”

Eric snorts and gives me a significant look.

“What?” I ask. “You telling me you knew? Bren says she knew too. How did everyone know but me? And the worst part is, right now I don’t even care about that. I just wish I had my best friend back. I think I could deal with everything else if I just had her to talk to again, but she still won’t answer my calls.”

I get a pat on the shoulder and then Eric starts flicking off lights inside the diner. We close up the place and then slip out the back, stopping to check that the door is locked behind us before we get into his Buick, which is nearly as old as me and somehow still runs like new. I lean my head against the passenger window and let the cool glass ease the pounding in my skull. I’m just starting to nod off when the car stops and I frown. That wasn’t a long enough drive to get us home, unless I dozed off there for a minute.

Sitting up, I glance out the window and my heart flips upside down. The single story rambler is as familiar to me as my bedroom or the diner. And even if it wasn’t, the bright turquoise jeep parked in the driveway would be a dead giveaway.

I look over at Eric, startled, and he points up toward the house deliberately. “She doesn’t want to talk to me,” I say, shrugging.

Eric shakes his head and signs so fast I barely catch the letters. Y-O-U-N-E-E-D-H-E-R. And damn it all if that’s not the truth. It’s time to grow a pair and deal with this. It doesn’t matter if she’s embarrassed or mad or whatever reason she has for cold shouldering me for the last few days. I gave her time and now I need my best friend.

It’s time to talk.

“Don’t wait up,” I say to Eric. “I’ll get a ride with Ray. See you later.”

Eric makes an approving noise as I climb out of the car, and he waits until I’m up on the front porch before he drives off. Shaking away my weariness, I straighten my shoulders and knock. For a minute I don’t think anyone’s going to answer, but then the door is jerked open. I find myself on the receiving end of a death glare from someone with Ray’s face and the pressed appearance of a yuppie.

“Yasmine,” I say in surprise. “Can I talk to Ray?”

Yasmine arches a penciled eyebrow at me. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” she responds dryly.

“C’mon, I just want to talk,” I say tersely. “I want to get things straightened out.”

Yasmine has her mouth poised to shoot me down again when a familiar voice from behind says, “It’s okay, Yassy, I’ve got this.” Yasmine pauses and then shrugs and disappears back into the house, and Ray steps out to take her place. She looks just like the Ray I’ve always known, apart from the faint shadows around her eyes and the tired frown. “What do you want?” she asks. I think it’s supposed to come out sharply, but it just sounds weary.

“You didn’t really give me much of a chance to talk to you the other day,” I say awkwardly. “Or since then.”

“What is there to say, Jake?” she replies.

What can I say? Tell her that I have no idea if I’m in love with her. “I don’t know, I just - I don’t like us fighting,” I say.

Ray sighs and pushes a hand through her hair, combing through the places where the colored extensions have tangled around each other. “We’re not fighting,” she says. “We’re just - heading different directions. We obviously want different things. That’s just what happens. You’ve got Miranda and I’ve got New York.”

“I dumped her,” I admit. Ray’s head snaps up in shock. “You were right about her, but it was more than that. She asked me to run away with her, even after all of it. She really cares about me. She still wanted me to go to California with her.”

“And you said?” she prompts, her expression tight.

“I couldn’t give her an answer,” I say. “I don’t know what to do, Ray.”

I can tell immediately that I’ve said something wrong by the look on Ray’s face. She scoffs angrily. “Really, Jake? Eight years. Eight years we’ve been best friends, planning to go away to New York together, and you don’t know what to do? Can’t decide between me and the girl who used you? Thanks for letting me know how you feel before I did anything stupid.”

“You mean like telling me you’re in love with me and then refusing to talk to me for days?” I snap back. “Because that was pretty sucky of you. What was I supposed to think? How could I make a decision when I don’t even know if we’re still friends because you won’t talk to me.”

“What more is there to say?” she asks.

“You could actually let me get a chance to say my side,” I say.

“And what’s that?” she asks. “Clearly you don’t feel the same way I do.”

“Because you never let me!” I shout. “I’ve wanted to be with you since junior high but all I ever hear from you is how you don’t believe in relationships. You made me think I had no chance so I gave up. And then when I finally move on and find someone else, you decide to tell me you love me.”

“You were going to leave me,” she says and there’s a note of desperation in her voice now. “Because after eight years you were going to bail on me for your magical princess. The one worthy of all your poems. In all our time, you’ve never written anything about me. Do you know how much that hurts?”

“You think I haven’t tried?” I ask half-hysterically. “I just couldn’t make it work. It was too hard to make it right.”

“But you nailed Miranda on the first try,” Ray says. “Maybe you two are better for each other, you obviously get her in a way you don’t get me.”

“This isn’t about Miranda,” I say, trying to steer the topic back on course. “This is about you and me.”

“Do you love me?”

The blunt question has me floored and for a minute all I can do is gape at her. Do I love her? It’s the question I’ve been asking myself since the fair. Sure, I love her in a way. She’s my best friend and so much more than that.

But do I love love her?

If she’d asked me a year ago I would’ve said yes in a heartbeat. The last few months have changed me so much though, messed with everything I thought I knew. The idea of love I always had shattered with Miranda and I’m still lost, left trying to find something new among the rubble. I don’t even know what love is anymore.

So I look her in the eye and give her the only truth I know. “I don’t know.”

I’ve never known that smiles could be so sad until this moment with her looking at me like that. She looks resigned and she lets out a tired sigh. “Exactly.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” I ask. “Just tell me. I can’t stand us fighting. I just want my best friend back.”

“There’s nothing, Jake,” she says. I frown and make to argue but the resolute expression she gives me shuts me up. “The fact is that you don’t feel what I do. And I can’t keep going along pretending that it’s fine when it’s not. It hurts too much. And I certainly will not be your second choice or last resort.”

“Ray, you-”

“So you know what you can do for me, Jakey?” she interrupts, talking over my attempt to argue. “You can leave me alone.”

“What?” It explodes out of me in a gasp of horror. She can’t seriously mean this, can she? She’s my best friend. This last few days of being without her has been murder, and she wants that to continue? I can’t do it. “Ray, I –”

“I mean it,” she repeats firmly. “Leave me alone and let me get over you. Give me my space.” I try to object but she shakes her head. “If you ever cared about me as your friend, then please, just do this for me.”

I can’t respond. I don’t know what to do. What is a person supposed to say to that? I do care about her, more than anyone else in the world. But can I just give her up like that? I want her to stay in my life, but is that selfish of me? Can I let her go?

Ray wraps her arms around my waist and hugs me, tightly like she never wants to let go, and I hug her back. I can feel the beadwork of her dress and smell her favorite cinnamon-scented lotion and so many other little things like that that make her Ray. She finally pulls back and when I look down at her there are tears on her cheeks. “Good-bye, Jake,” she says. And with one last squeeze of my hand she closes the door in my face.

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