Dee called while I was browning the hamburger in the skillet.
“I thought you were going out tonight,” she said when I answered. There were sounds of banging in the background, and I pictured Dee with the phone tucked behind her ear, her blonde hair framing a face as delicate as an eighteenth century porcelain shepherdess. The noise could only be eighteen-month-old Tim Junior pummeling a pot with a wooden spoon.
“If you thought that, why did you call?” I countered.
“I was going to leave a message, Miss Smarty, for you to call me the minute you got home. I wanted to hear how the evening went.” Her voice was wistful “I’ve never been to the Wisteria, even though I’ve begged Tim over and over again. He just said it’s too expensive and too formal. He thinks the Golden Corral is the height of fine dining.”
“You gotta admit, ‘all you can eat’ has its attraction for some men,” I said.
“I’ll hang up and let you finish getting ready.”
“Don’t bother. I’m not going.”
She paused. “Why not?” Dee asked cautiously. “Are you sick?”
“No.” I sneezed. “I might be tomorrow, though.”
“Is Ethan –”
“No. He’s fine.” I waited.
“So? What happened, Lily? Or shouldn’t I ask.”
“You can ask, but I don’t know. He just—well, he’s coming on too strong, that’s all. I told him I needed space and he said I could have the Gobi desert if I wanted it. I guess we broke up,” I finished.
“What else?” Dee said. She knew me too well. We had been best friends since sixth grade, but had lost track of each other after she got married. I had been delighted to discover that she and her husband had moved to Atlanta, not too far from where I lived in Little Five Points. Our friendship had picked up right where it had left off.
“That ring I thought I’d lost? He took it, to get my size. He was going propose tonight. I figured it out—”
“And headed him off at the pass,” Dee concluded for me. “Oh, Lily, Tim and I both thought he was perfect for you. Good looking, good job and good personality. What more could you want?”
“Someone with a good personality, forget the looks and money, that I can just be friends with,” I said. “You know how I feel about marriage, Dee.”
“Yes, honey, I know. But not all men are like that rat, Paul. Ethan sure isn’t, and neither was Brian, or what was his name, Hank? You can’t go on like this, Lily. Don’t you realize you’re leading them on, just to dump them when they get serious? You’re going to get a reputation.”
“I know,” I said glumly. “I don’t mean to, Dee. Each time I think it will work out, and then I panic.”
“Call him,” Dee ordered. “Explain that you got cold feet.”
“Why not? He might be waiting for you to call.”
“I don’t want to,” I whined. “Dee, my hamburger is burning. I have to go.”
“No, it’s not and you don’t. Lily, are you breaking up with these guys before they can break up with you? Because—”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m the one who called off the wedding, remember? So I’m not acting out a fear-of-being-left-at-the-altar syndrome.”
She was quiet as we both remembered why I had called off said wedding. After a minute, I said, “Can we talk about this later? Like in a century or so?”
“Wait! I just want to mention one more thing.”
I waited, spatula in hand. “Go ahead.”
“You’re dumping these men because you’re still in love with Paul.” She said this all in a rush so I couldn’t hang up before hearing the whole sentence.
“That’s so not true,” I denied. “He was unfaithful to me, remember? On our wedding day, no less.”
“All right then, you aren’t.” She said it like she didn’t believe it.
“I really have to go. My kitchen is on fire.”
She laughed. “Check you later. Don’t forget Sunday.”
I must have made the sauce in a fugue state, because I was surprised a few minutes later to find it simmering on the stovetop, and the water boiling for the spaghetti. In spite of my mood, I was hungry, so I dumped in a fistful of the thin, white strands. A roar of thunder made me cringe. I looked out of the window to see rain streaking down the pane. The storm had circled back on itself and started up again.
Just then the doorbell rang. I took the pot off the burner and went to answer it. I wasn’t too surprised to see my ex-boyfriend standing there. I should have known Ethan wouldn’t give up so easily.
“Lily,” he said. Rain dripped down his face, looking oddly like tears.
Ethan is a nice man. A widower, with no children, he teaches high school history. He has a quirky sense of humor, likes old movies and takes a vacation every year to some out-of-the-way spot, which shows a sense of adventure. Only last week this had appealed to me.
“I won’t stay,” he said quickly. “I wanted to give you this.” He held out a small white box.
I made no move to take it. “I thought I made it clear—” I started, but he interrupted with an anger that was new to me.
“And I wanted to say one thing without your hanging up on me or—” his hand shot out, grabbing the side of the door—“without shutting the door on me. Literally, I mean, since you’ve already done that emotionally.” He drew a breath. “You may think you can live your life without getting close to anyone or anything, but one day you’ll wake up. I just hope it isn’t too late.”
“Thank you for your kind wishes,” I said. “Now if that’s all, I’m busy.”
Ethan’s lips tightened. I knew I had hurt him, but wasn’t a clean break the best? I’d been wrong to let him think there was more to our friendship than there was, but he’d been wrong, too, in assuming something that wasn’t there.
He held out the box again. The pretty ribbon tied around it was soaked and the color was smearing onto the white cardboard.
“I told you I don’t want your ring,” I said as kindly as I could.
“It isn’t my ring,” he said. “I took that one back to the jewelers. This is your ring, the one I borrowed. I had it cleaned for you.”
“Oh.” Feeling foolish, I accepted the box. I had been so upset earlier that I had forgotten to ask about it. “It’s my mother’s engagement ring,” I said. “I know you were trying to surprise me, but I worried and fretted for three days looking for it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “But you have it back now. It’s probably the only engagement ring you’re likely to get.” Ethan turned then and marched back to his car, having delivered the perfect exit line. I shut the door in perfect timing with the slam of his car door.
I took the ring out of the box and put it on my finger. For a fleeting moment, I wondered what the ring Ethan had chosen for me had looked like. Maybe everyone else was right and I was wrong. I wished I had handled things better, I thought, still feeling the weight of Grady’s disapproval, Dee’s warning and even my fictional conversation with my grocer. Then, just as I was wistfully imagining a do-over, the doorbell rang again.
Of course, Ethan couldn’t let things alone. He’d probably thought of one more cutting remark he just had to make. I decided to let him make it and then sweetly apologize and invite him in for spaghetti. He wouldn’t be able to resist; he loved my mother’s recipe for pasta sauce. After dinner I would explain that he had taken me by surprise (a necessary lie) and that I had reacted badly, but was willing to make amends. If we couldn’t still be friends, at least my conscience would be clear and Ethan could have the satisfaction of thinking that it was he who had ended the relationship. I flung the door open with a welcoming smile that faded instantly.
Because it wasn’t Ethan who stood there. It was a woman, a woman with the same dark blue eyes as mine, and the same brownish-blonde hair, as limp as mine had been a few hours earlier.
The woman who had ruined my wedding, and my life.
My sister, Jill.