It was so clear to me,
That it was almost invisible,
I lie across the path waiting,
Just for a chance to be,
A spiderweb trapped on your lashes,
I would trade you my empire for ashes,
But I choke it back,
how much I need love…
– Middle Cyclone – Neko Case.
She stiffened when she saw them, tittering away at the table where she’d been seated a mere ten minutes before. As though wrestled from her control, her body began to move, soles slapping loudly against the marble floor drawing stares from displeased patrons as she wove around their tables, arms flailing at her sides.
“What’s so funny?”
She’d strung the words together in her head to come out on a carpet of casual indifference, but they left her lips in an accusing squawk. The table grew silent and the curtains of freshly preened hair parted to reveal her sisters; Uloma, Chizoba and Nneka. And at their centre like tender white fruit surrounded by hard bark was Bobby. Her sisters’ faces held identical masks of condescension soiled with pity, the look you gave your shivering wet Labrador who slept outside in the sleet even after you’d left the front door wide open. It made her want to flee back to the toilets to check if she’d somehow stained herself. Instead she ignored the urge and took a deep breath to ease the tautness in her shoulders before turning to Bobby whose brows were crooked in amusement.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she finally rallied, managing a watery humour. “I just wanted in on the joke.”
“You actually.” Uloma replied with a smirk that made her knees quake. Uloma lived for the humiliation of others, especially at her hand. She tapped Chizoba urgently as a warning and began to worm her way past her to Bobby’s side. Only when she touched the comforting hardness of the woodcut seat did she relax enough to probe.
“Yet you guys say I’m the most boring person in the world. What did I do this time?”
Uloma flicked a column of black curls behind her ear and leaned conspiratorially towards Bobby.
“The real joke would be that we are actually all here hoping you came here with our sister to propo…”
“Actually,” Nneka cut in brusquely, “We were laughing at how predictable the two of you are. Despite the fact that he knows you hate fancy, he brings you in his Corvette no less to the fanciest restaurant to celebrate your 18th year of being in each other’s lives and you don’t realise or remember and come out dressed in Boyfriend Jeans, flats and a sweater. Really you guys, really?”
She felt herself flush from the belly up and was suddenly grateful that unlike Bobby she was black. She’d been suspicious when she saw him park in front of her apartment building in the Corvette but she didn’t want to betray the excitement that almost bowled her over so she’d pretend to not notice anything and dressed like she always did. How was she to know he’d go a big step up from last year at his house eating Chinese takeout and watching the Parent’s trap over and over to a table at the Ritz reserved six months in advance? It had been all so overwhelming and she’d felt so small minded and foolish that she’d excused herself first chance she got and retreated to the toilets for a quick cry. And now, here were her sisters shadowing her like the ever meddlesome fates, waiting to torture her with her failings.
Bobby smiled to her sisters and shrugged. “You know us, ever predictable.”
“…like an old married couple.” Uloma added with a raised brow.
“You have no idea.” Bobby agreed with a laugh, Uloma’s barbed insinuations flying right over his head to pierce her breast. His fingers found the grooves between hers and filled them as he continued. “I don’t know what I’ll do when some lucky bastard comes to steal her away from me. I don’t think I can survive without her now, not after 18 friggin years.”
The sisters shared a look, that condescension with a topping of pity had found its way back to their table.
“Oh you’ll find a way.” Chizoba said to Bobby in her deceptively girly warble, her eyes set squarely on their tightly wound fingers. She sat up and cleared her throat, steering the conversation out from the murky depths and back to the shallows of what to order from their six page menu. One by one, Chizoba and the girls reluctantly joined in. She knew they loved him, but time had tempered even that with a simmering resentment to his oblivion and her cowardice. But they didn’t understand that it was all up to him now. She’d made her grand gestures, so grand that no one could accuse her of not doing anything. It was why; even now her sisters forgave her self-denial, even though they didn’t approve of it.
They ordered and her sisters goaded her into ordering the most expensive course for herself. They practically snatched the menu out of her hands and did the ordering themselves while she gave half hearted protest, secretly relieved that their attention had been momentarily diverted. She ate grudgingly, cutlery clattering down to her full plate the second Bobby smudged ketchup on a bearded cheek. He took the fingers she’d wiped his cheek with and lapped them clean and her heart rattled her ribcage begging for release. He didn’t seem to notice how wide her sisters’ eyes grew, kissing the back of her palm and digging into what was left of his pasta. She pushed away the rest of her plate, turned and rearranged like a Zen garden but otherwise untouched and snuggled into his side. Her whole being thrummed as he absently shifted his fork to his right hand and wrapped the more dextrous left around her.
“Don’t get too comfortable.” Uloma hissed, camouflaging the words with clinks of her fork’s tines against her wineglass.
“What?” she asked, though she’d heard quite clearly.
“A toast,” Uloma said instead, raising her glass, “to Tina our eldest sister and earliest example that just maybe boys and girls can be friends for decades without someone spoiling things by falling in love. And to Bobby for falling in love with her anyways.”
“Hear! Hear!” Bobby grinned and their wine glasses met in noisy kisses. Tina raised hers feebly, refusing to meet her sister’s eyes. She dropped her glass and rifled through the pockets of her oversized sweater. With a flourish, she fished out a small wrapped box the length of a fountain pen case and pushed it towards Bobby. He snatched it up and began to tear it open before she could even say a word. She smiled as he let out a whelp of frustration when he realised the box was triple wrapped and tore faster, his perennial impatience hadn’t improved after all. Her smile split into a grin as his eyes widened and he began to whimper, a thin nondescript band of silver cradled in his fingertips. His eyes met hers. “Is this…?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice to wobble with emotion.
“How did you?”
“My secret,” she tapped the band with a fingertip. “Look at the underside.”
He turned the bracelet and hooted. “Oh my God, it still has the engraving!”
He swooped in and drew her to himself, surprising her with kisses on her cheeks and forehead, eyes and lips.
“You… have… no… idea… how… much… I… love… you… woman. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
She echoed his words, audible only to herself, offering herself over and over to his lips. Reluctantly, he pried himself off her and slipped the bracelet onto his wrist, eyes so heavy with emotion that some had leaked onto his cheeks. She smiled inwardly when she realised her sisters were daubing wet cheeks too.
“This year I didn’t forget.” Bobby sighed, “That’s why I asked your sisters here, they were delivering my present.”
Uloma reached into her purse and brought out a case identical to the one she’d just given Bobby but this one was unwrapped. She took it, fingers shaking with trepidation as she opened the lid and gasped. Nestled in the blue velvet was a bracelet identical to the one she’d spent months tracking down and spent a month’s salary buying off eBay. The very bracelet Bobby had won for her on their first date, breaking his wrist in the process as he fought off skinheads who’d followed them as he walked her home hurling racial slurs. He’d snatched it off one of them and given it to her and she’d spent a semester in metalwork learning how to engrave in silver. She’d given it to him a year later with the words ‘For Bobby, my knight.’ scored into the inside of the band. He hadn’t kissed her like she’d hoped but she’d taken the hug he gave her and lost herself in it.
He’d lost it in college a few years later and always remembered it every year, until today. This one was a replica, the platinum lined with emeralds and the words ‘More than a lover, more than a friend, my Tina.’ The million responses that swirled in her head evaporated in the white hot joy that suffused her and shook her core. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the intricacy of the metal work that gleamed as she turned the band and it took three calls before Bobby’s voice finally broke through.
“Hey,” he waved a hand in front of her face. “Earth to Tina.”
She raised her head to him, slightly disoriented. “What?”
“I asked if you liked it. Your present that is.”
“I love it!”
“Thank God, I had no idea we were getting each other the same thing. Well almost.”
“Yeah, almost. I love you.” The second sentence escaped on the steam of the first, purposeful enough that it made Bobby stop mid-phrase. She looked at his face, his lips really, afraid to meet his eyes and read the words he mouthed.
“You don’t have to tell me, I know.”
He knows! Her mind had coalesced into a stream of thought. It jumped scenarios; trying to tie this new knowledge into everything else, make sense of the jumble. Then a stray word brought her mind hurtling back to their table.
“Aimy? What’s Aimy?” Bobby turned away from her sisters whose faces were now sudden storm clouds full of a new, violent emotion.
“Not a what, a who.” He explained patiently. “She helped me decide on the bracelet. There was no way she was going to let the woman who’d patched up her new boyfriend after all his disastrous past relationships get anything but the best. She already loves you so much it’s scary…”
Emotion leached from her face slowly; laugh lines disappearing, wrinkles smoothening till all that was left was a quiver in her lower lip, a crooked dash in place of her sunlit smile. The levees broke inside her and let out floods of anguish but her tear ducts stayed dammed and her hands lay limp.
Something her Russian professor at college had said once unfurled itself in her mind’s eye, a fable of the tzar and his princess. The princess had asked for a tolling silver belfry as a token of love and the tzar took all he had in the way of silver, six sacks of pennies and upended them into a cauldron bubbling over with boiling water. He was going to forge himself a bell. Six years he spent stoking the flames and refilling the cauldron but the pennies stayed circles glittering at the bottom, no closer to his goal. The princess married another and he died of a broken heart. He wasted his life tending a boiling well, when what he really needed was a foundry.
Walk away, she told herself. Thirty three isn’t too late to begin again. Leave the bracelet on the table and turn your back on this. They taunted her and her anger spread to her limbs and belly waiting for the order. She pressed her hands on the table, looking for the strength to raise herself to her feet. Her eyes fell on his wrist and the circlet of silver, the new engravings catching the light.
Her protests were immediately silenced, her mutinies quelled. Tears came quietly as she sat quietly, pulling on the bracelet Aimee chose onto her wrist, watched by her now silent, no longer judging, already forgiving sisters.