That evening, I dressed carefully. I did up my hair, coiling the brown curls and fixing them in place with glittery pins, then squeezed my feet into my pointy shoes. I checked my nails.
The cab ride to the reception hall was uneventful, but the closer we got to it, the deeper my anxiety ran. Five years. Five years, and maybe, finally tonight, I would be able to get this monkey off my back.
When I exited the cab and approached the hall, the music was so loud that I could barely hear the unrecognizable alum that greeted me, took my money and then handed me my name tag. I teetered into the room full of dancing bodies, felt the boom of the driving bass hitting me in the chest like a mallet, while the smell of the very fruity punch assaulted me. This is going to be a disaster, I thought while gripping the wall with one hand to keep from tripping in the strappy stilts I was wearing.
Thank God! Rescued!
“Hey, Dina!” I shouted over the music. “You just get here? Have you seen anyone yet?”
“Got in about 20 minutes ago. Hey, I ran into Selena and Tonya; they're over by the-” then she looked at me and sighed. “No, he hasn't arrived yet.”
I flushed when she added, “Look, you really have to get over this thing. It's been way too long; it's sucking the life out of you. You're like a shell of the person you used to be.”
“Don't you get it? That's what I'm trying to do!”
“But, this isn't the place!”
“What else can I do? I've tried everything else I could think of, and nothing has worked. It's now or never.”
She raised her eye brow, indicating that she didn’t agree with me.
“Whatever,” I said, changing the subject. “Let's go visit our old posse.”
The reunion with the girls was bland. So much had changed over the years that it was hard for any of us to find any common ground and the conversation was stilted and uncomfortable. How could I relate to brain surgery or running a family of four kids? Besides, my mind was on other things.
“You're a real bore tonight, you know that?” Dina said to me when our friends had gone for some punch. “Loosen up! We're at a party, for Pete's sake. How am I going to meet anyone with you looking so glum next to me? Besides, he might not even show up.”
That was a thought I hadn't considered. I’d simply assumed that he’d show. What if this had all been for nothing? Even if he did show, I thought suddenly, it could still be for nothing. I don't even know if he's married. What if he has kids?
I let Dina drag me onto the dance floor for a while, but when I had had enough narrow misses in my heels, I shouted at her that I was going to the ladies' room and that I would catch up to her later. She shook her head at me, and I shrugged back at her.
Finally, I was free. I pulled off my shoes and walked barefoot towards the washroom, managing to greet old friends that I was able to recognize along the way. All of them, unlike me, appeared to be enjoying themselves, laughing and drinking it up.
I threw myself through the doors, leaned against the sink, and looked at my reflection under the the horrible fluorescent lighting. Strange, but I actually thought that I looked nice. But, the closer I looked, the harder I looked, I understood that the expensive make up Dina had forced me to buy was actually hiding the truth. I was tired. Really, really tired.
Was it really worth it? Was he really worth five stagnant years of my life? A life barely lived, spent waiting for a moment that was unlikely to ever happen, so that nothing in my apartment, not a framed picture, not the arrangement of the shoes in the vestibule, not a photo album, had been changed?
I caught the tears in a tissue before they destroyed the mask. I forced myself to breathe, applied more touch up paint, and managed to calm down. This is not the place, Olivia. Just get yourself home, then you can curl up on the sofa with glass of red wine in one hand and a good book in the other.
With that thought in mind, I took my shoes in my perfectly manicured hand, pulled open the door, stepped over the threshold and suddenly, there he was.
“Hey,” he said. His eyes still twinkled when he looked at me.
“Uh, hi!” Five years of very carefully planning this moment, and now that it's here, the most intelligent thing I can say is 'uh, hi'?
“I ran into Dina; she told me where I could find you.”
“Well, you found me,” I answered, gesturing behind me. “And coming out of the ladies' room, too.”
He smiled the same smile that he’d flashed at me a thousand times before, and motionned to the darkened patio beside us. “Are you alone? Do you want to?”
“Alright.” I mechanically followed him to the door, and then passed through the space he left for me while holding the door open.
I found a lawn chair and sat down on it sideways with my knees together and my arms crossed over them. He found another one nearby and pulled it over so that we sat facing each other. It was too difficult to look right at him, so I stared behind him at the river that ran freely where the deck ended, where boats were tethered and bobbing in the waves. The effect was soothing, and calmed my nerves, a little.
“I didn't think you were coming,” I said when the silence dragged.
“I almost didn't. But, I thought that I owed it to you to come, after...well, after what happened.”
There it was, finally. He had mentioned it and now, it was a topic allowed for us to discuss.
“What did happen?”
He sat for a long time looking at the grass while twirling a gold ring on his finger. He shifted his position on the chair, saw the direction that my eyes were looking, and followed them. He covered the ring with his hand.
“I did love you, you know,” he answered. His voice was so low, I almost couldn't make out the words.
“Just not the way that I wanted you to, I guess.” I looked right at him.
He threw up his hands. “I don't know what happened. Really. I've thought it over a hundred times. The only thing that makes sense is that I just wasn't ready. I think that maybe you wanted more from me than I could give.”
I let his answer sit a while, turning it over in my mind before answering. “You know, you were the first guy to say those three special words to me who I actually believed.”
He didn't respond. He just looked at with me with a pained expression in his eyes, so I continued.
“Why didn't you just say something? I mean, you just left, and since then, I've been stuck with questions that no one but you could answer. But, you wouldn't answer, no matter how hard I tried to get you to. At least, not until today.”
He sighed, long and deep. “I know that I handled everything wrong, but I can't change it now. Listen, I came tonight to tell you that I realized I was wrong and that I’m sorry. For everything.”
I had to know. “It wasn't all bad, though, was it?”
He smiled and laughed genuinely. “No. You're right about that. We did have some really good times together.”
His phone rang, then. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket, checked the screen and smiled apologetically. “It's her. I've gotta go.”
“I am glad that we got to talk. Are we okay?”
“Are you okay?”
I waved my hand at him.
He looked at me with uncertainty, pausing slightly in the action of raising the phone to his ear. I waved my hand at him again, and he nodded, waved back and then exited the patio taking the path that ran under a canopy of leaves and flowers while answering the call.
“So,” came Dina's voice from behind me. “Was it everything that you had hoped?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Well, what did you expect? That he would show up, tell you he was a jerk and that he had made the biggest mistake of his life when he left you, and then beg you to take him back?” She sat next to me and handed me a glass of wine.
“I don't know. Maybe. Maybe I had the crazy notion that seeing him again would make everything finally make sense, or that it would make it a little easier to move on. Oh,” I added after taking a sip of wine. “You knew exactly what I needed.” I took another sip. “Wonderful.”
“Are you angry?”
“No, just numb.”
“Well,” she said in that voice she used when she was about to propose something I was sure to hate, “you know what else would make you feel better? Remember Danny Wexler, the guy who had a crush on you in the 10th grade? He's not married! I bet if you showed him your...assets, he'd stick his tongue down your throat.”
“You're impossible!” I exploded. “You think everything is fixable by having some guy stick his tongue down your throat!”
“Well, I'm not the one moping around because of some guy who broke my heart five years ago, am I? Anyway, if you're not going to go after him, I will. Later!” She grabbed her glass and the half empty bottle of wine, and she was gone.
“You couldn't just leave me the wine, could you?” I shouted after her.
I lay back in the lawn chair, letting my eyes trace the path he had taken when he had left. The path ended in shadow.
“Hey. Are you alone?”
“Excuse me?” I had to crane my neck in order to catch a glimpse of the person who had addressed me. I recognized the face, but the name wouldn't come.
He pointed at himself. “Dan. Dan Stephens from 11th grade. I was a transfer that year.”
“Oh, right. I remember now.”
I nodded. He pulled a bottle of wine and two glasses from behind his back. He offered me a goblet and filled it. Well, I thought to myself, accepting the glass. This is getting off to a nice start.
He sat down in the chair that had been so recently vacated, and I let him talk. I noticed that his teeth flashed when he smiled, and that his eyes sparkled in the moonlight, whether from having had one too many beers or from my intoxicating presence, I didn't know. But, I didn't care. The more he talked, the more my mind drifted, flitting from one thought to another until it came to rest on a new one: maybe tomorrow I should shake things up at home a little.
He made a lame joke and I laughed. I took another sip of wine, letting the warm liquid roll down my throat. I was enjoying myself and didn't feel guilty about it at all.
I finished my wine, smiled invitingly at Dan and poured myself another glass of liquid sunshine.
After all, this was a party.