Chapter One: If Only
Setting the last heavy box at my feet, I let my gaze drift over the new apartment Amara is currently moving into. It’s a run-down small box of a place, but Amara has this magic in her fingertips where she can bring life anywhere she goes. I see the small details here and there of her hard work. The vintage drawers in the process of being painted, the newly made curtains waiting to be hung, and the plants sunbathing on the windowsill.
This place will tidy up fine.
My eyes fall on the wine and flowers on the table, and I feel my mood take a surge south. They’re from Aerie, the ‘other’ friend. Pugnacious emotions swirl inside me at the thought of her. Nasty emotions leave me feeling irritable and hostile.
I’ve never met Aerie, but she is my nemesis. I hear of her from Amara, about how they travelled to Singapore together, dined at lavish restaurants or went on spa holidays. I never had money to do any of that with Amara, and I am resentful about it. Very resentful. Amara has been my friend since university, and we have been through hell together. To me, Aerie is an uninvited intruder attempting to force her way into our two-way circle. They met at a concert three years ago, and ever since I’ve felt like I’ve been competing for my best friend’s attention. This is why I was startled when she asked me to assist her with her new business.
A clatter sounds from behind me, and Amara appears, her headscarf caught on the door handle and a plant held precariously in her arms. She looks at me beseechingly.
“Please unhook me. I can’t drop this plant. It cost me an arm and a leg,” she huffs, and then with enthusiasm, “It’s a ghost cactus!”
I provide a satiric grin, unhooking the material gently. Amara has an unhealthy obsession with plants, and I swear each one she buys gets a size bigger each time. The plant in her arms is tall, bouncing above her head threateningly, and I go to take it from her to avoid an incident.
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her, heaving it into my grasp.
She nods animatedly, radiating joy. She’s been on cloud nine since we got in the car to drive here, chattering at high speed about her intentions for her business. I don’t blame her. She comes from a large family of boys, all of whom are older than her, and all on their way to becoming doctors. Her family opposed her wanting to be a seamstress and tailor and still do. Throughout her university years, her family would keep trying to dissuade her from continuing textiles and fashion. Their dissatisfaction, however, doesn’t prevent them from expecting her services for family events like weddings. It’s ludicrous that they assumed Amara would hand-make over twenty garments for free. Amara, being who she is, did so with a forced smile, keen to keep face and evade any dispute. Ever since the family wedding between her brother and his new bride, she’s essentially cut them off. She’s been a lot happier since limiting contact with them.
Her brown eyes gleam when they settle on the wine and flowers on the table. An almost dreamy look comes over her face, and it twists like a blade in my chest.
“Aerie said she’s going to be here soon, she’s bringing my sewing machine from her place. I can’t wait for you two to meet!”
I feel my eye spasm. She’s so excited about this, but I’m far from it. I’m dreading it with my entire being.
“You don’t drink wine,” I deadpan, feeling annoyed, wanting to point out anything that could be wrong to point score.
“The wine is for you, dummy,” she answers, oblivious to my exasperation, “She’s eager to meet you. She brought me the coffee machine on the counter.”
My hackles shoot up as I discern the lustrous coffee machine sitting proudly in the kitchen, and my gift of a new terracotta plant pot now feels inferior. My lips settle into a thin line.
“It’s lovely,” I hear myself say, but my words feel distant.
I detest not being rich enough to gift her better things. After university, I didn’t get lucky and instead got unlucky. My mother sustained an injury at work, so I had to turn down the job I had lined up and move back in to care for her. It’s not her fault. Dad was an alcoholic who I couldn’t rely on, and my sister lives in Ireland, so it fell to me. I hate my feelings of resentment on the matter. The fury at my mother for not being more cautious. The outrage at having to give up my aspirations and put them on hold to provide. When university had finished, the future looked shiny and promising. To have it crash around me felt like I was in a slow-motion collision that I had no hope of stopping as it unfolded before my eyes.
I sigh wearily. Dad’s been sober for five years now. I can trust him to look after mum while I’m here, but I struggle to accept it as the truth. I’m so used to doing everything that I harbour severe trust issues. It’s challenging to discern where I am overbearingly micromanaging or reasonable.
Amara looks at me closely, discerning my inarticulateness.
“Your dad’s doing well,” she smiles, squeezing my arm in reassurance, “your mum is going to be fine.”
I give a tense smile, moving the ghost cactus to the corner.
“I hope so. Otherwise, I’ll have to go back, and I want to focus on my career instead of doing odd jobs,” I mumble, and then glance at her, “thank you for asking me to be here.”
She looks contemplative for a moment.
“I could only think of you and Aerie to help me, and I thought you might need a change in scenery.”
True, I think quietly. I was beginning to lose my sanity working in the garden shed back home. I help her unpack and clean whilst listening to the 80′s music blasting from the old radio, and by the time it’s dark, it’s semi-decent. No cobwebs. No grimy windows. Decent.
We settle on the sofa together, fresh mugs of coffee pressed between our palms. Amara’s outfit today makes her look whimsical and glowing. The warm yellows and golds of her layered abaya gown brought out the warmth in her skin. I knew she had made it herself. Amara is the walking advertisement of her business, and it’s an intelligent marketing hack. She puts a personal touch on every garment and always manages to make it look like she’s just stepped out of a regal fantasy novel.
“Aerie’s going to be here soon,” she mutters, glimpsing at the clock, distracting me from my inner thoughts. I watch her a moment, trying to assess if she was enjoying my company, or if she was more eager for Aerie to arrive. My envy simmers darkly, susurrating my insecurities to me.
“Is she someone who’s on time?” I ask quietly, hoping to hear otherwise.
“No, she’s never late. Often she’s early,” she informs me, her lips quirking into a smirk, “I can’t wait for you two to meet. I’ve wanted you guys to meet for so long. You should see her, Cora. Aerie is stunning.”
I frown. Amara never remarks on peoples appearances. Most of the time, Amara refers to what they wear, but never someone’s appearance. She notices my confusion.
“I know I never mention looks, but Aerie could model if she wanted to. She has these eyes,” she explains.
“She has eyes?”
“Yes, like dark until they look black. Like black shining orbs, with these long lashes! She’s to die for. I think you two will get on. She mostly makes fantasy gowns and corsets.”
Frowning, I slurp my coffee and have to admit the coffee machine must be good because this is the best coffee I have ever had. The thought stabs me, my ego collapsing as I now feel distressed over what I brought Amara. It feels like I’m in a competition I hadn’t meant to enter. Abruptly the doorbell chimes. Amara stands up gracefully, the material of her headscarf billowing as she walks. I marvel over her excitement, questioning if she ever acted like that with me. If only. I hear a distinct voice at the door, and as they get closer, I feel my chest constrict upon viewing Aerie.
As Amara said, she is stunning.