“I’m in love.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mia say those words before. In my experience, she treats every relationship like a fling and never seems to get that involved with anyone. In that sense, she’s sort of like a man. Except much prettier, of course. And way less obsessed with sex.
But she seems serious now. Her face is glowing and I realize it’s because she’s smiling. Mia isn’t a smiler. You really have to coax her to get a smile out of her, which is actually something I sort of like about her. She doesn’t just hand out smiles. You have to earn them.
We’re sitting in a café near my office, grabbing a quick lunch together. I’m trying to lose weight for Jude, so I’ve ordered a salad. It’s got lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and mushrooms. No cheese, no croutons, no dressing. I feel like a rabbit. I hate this salad. And as soon as Mia tells me her revelation, I feel a sudden almost overpowering urge to toss this salad at the wall and order myself a bacon cheeseburger.
“In love?” I repeat, trying to sound happy. I want to be happy. I should be happy. My best friend is in love. This is wonderful news. Especially since I’ve got someone too, someone I also love. Well, sort of.
“His name is Paul,” Mia says as she takes a bite of her fettuccine alfredo. Mia can eat pasta in cream sauce because she’s naturally skinny and presumably her new boyfriend Paul didn’t look at her ass critically last night and wonder aloud if it was “growing larger.”
“How did you meet him?”
“We met at a party for work,” Mia says, and I think of the party at Jude’s firm where he was flirting with every girl in the room. “We were both reaching for the last deviled egg.”
“How romantic,” I say in a sarcastic voice, before I can stop myself.
Mia laughs. “I know. But he’s really great. He’s not perfect, but that’s part of what I like about him. Anyway, I want you to meet him.”
I wonder if Mia’s going to get married now. This seems pretty serious. I can’t remember her ever telling me she wanted to meet her boyfriend. I’ve met a few of them by chance, but there was never one that she went out of her way for me to meet.
“I could meet him,” I say tentatively.
“Maybe we could have a double date with you and Jude,” Mia says. She frowns. “You’re still dating Jude, right?”
“Of course I am! Why wouldn’t I be?”
Mia looks surprised. “I don’t know. You just haven’t mentioned him in a while.”
“Well, things are going great,” I say. “We’re madly in love.”
“Wonderful,” she says. “Then why don’t we all get together for dinner on Friday?”
“Sounds perfect,” I say.
I hope Mia doesn’t get married before I do. That would be so unfair. She never even wanted to get married. How could she just meet the perfect guy when she’s not even looking? (Right, I know, he’s not perfect and that’s why she likes him.) And I’m in this relationship with Jude, which is nice, I guess. But the truth is, now that the initial heat is wearing off, I’m beginning to wonder if we have anything in common. Or if I even like the guy, much less love him.
As I get dressed for dinner tonight, I envision several scenarios for my dinner with Mia and her new boyfriend:
1) Jude will spend the entire evening hitting on Mia and therefore humiliate me.
2) Jude will show up horribly late and I will have to feel like a third wheel with Mia and her new love.
3) Jude will be completely wonderful and charming, and everyone will love him.
Scenario #3 would be ideal, but most likely it’s going to be some combination of #1 and #2. Worst of all, despite my best efforts, I haven’t lost so much as a pound. In fact, I stepped on the scale an hour ago and I’ve actually gained weight. Three pounds! And believe me, three pounds is noticeable. If Jude says something tonight, I will kill him.
I spend over an hour on my hair and make-up before sliding into a slinky red dress that I bought special for tonight. It was expensive, yes, but worth it. However, I’m worried about those extra three pounds, so I drag out my Spanx. If you’ve never worn Spanx, they’re these shaping undergarments that hold in your “problem areas.” Wearing them takes off at least five pounds from my hips and ass. The negative is that I find them moderately uncomfortable, but it’s worth the sacrifice because I want to look amazing tonight. I don’t want to feel like Mia’s loser friend. I’m going to look stunning and I’m going to have a gorgeous man on my arm.
We’re meeting at 7:30, and at 6:45, my cell phone buzzes saying that Jude is calling. Undoubtedly, he’s calling to tell me he’s running late. But I cleverly told him we were meeting at 7 so that he’d end up showing up on time.
“Hello, darling,” Jude says in an exaggeratedly weary voice. “I’m swamped here.”
“Running late?” I ask, smiling to myself. Jude is so predictable.
“Actually, I don’t think I’m going to make it at all.”
I feel my cheeks turn red. Not going to make it at all??? How could he?? My best friend is going to be introducing the love of her life to me, and they’re probably going to be super lovey dovey and I need a man with me! How could he ditch me like this?
“Are… are you sure?” I ask.
“I’m terribly sorry, Libby,” he says. “But I’ve got much too much to do. I’m probably going to have to work all day tomorrow too.”
I’m going to cry. I’m literally going to start sobbing right here, ruining the make-up I spent forever getting perfect.
“Uh huh,” I say. If I try to yell at him, I know I’ll start crying.
“Are you all right?”
“Jude,” I say. “Is there any way you could make it? Any possible way?”
He doesn’t even hesitate. Doesn’t even think about it. “I’m so sorry, love,” Jude says. “I simply can’t.”
“Fine,” I say and hang up without saying another word. Fuck. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to go out with Mia and Paul by myself. That would be too pathetic. Maybe I could cancel. I could say I have a bad headache or something. Or my period.
I pick up my phone again. I’ve got Will on speed dial now. He’s number 8. (Jude’s number 7.) The phone rings several times and I’m almost scared he’s not going to pick up, but then I hear his voice on the other line. “Libby? What’s wrong?”
He sounds tired too, like Jude did. “Are you still at work?” I ask.
“Sort of,” he says. Then he admits, “Yeah.”
“Oh,” I say. Why is everyone so busy with work on a Friday night?
“Why? What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to bother you,” I begin, “but my friend Mia invited me out to dinner to meet her new boyfriend tonight, and… I don’t want to go alone.”
“What about Jude?” Will asks. Then he answers his own question: “He canceled on you, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, he did.”
There’s a long pause and I realize I’m biting my lip. Please say yes.
“When is it?” he says.
“Seven thirty?” I say hopefully.
There’s another pause. “Okay, I’ll be there.”
“Thank you, Will!” I cry. “Thank you! You’re awesome!” If he were here would have hugged him.
“Yeah, I know,” he says in a wry voice. “All right, give me the address and I’ll grab a cab when I’m done here.”
I smile. I knew I could count on Will. I can always count on Will.
Okay, there’s a big problem here.
The restaurant that Mia and Paul have chosen, where I can see them sitting through the window, is a small Greek place. I can see why they like it. It’s quaint and it smells really good. It smells like lamb mixed with Greek spices. But here’s the issue: there are four steps to get in.
Since I’ve been spending so much time with Will, I’ve started noticing things like that, even when I’m alone. Like if there’s no curbcut or some asshole without a permit is parked in a handicapped space. Or when there are four steps to get inside and no sign of a ramp.
I walk into the restaurant, a smile plastered on my face, and greet Mia and her new boyfriend. Paul is a big guy: tall with big broad shoulders and a lot of dark hair on his head. I can see why she likes him, although I get the feeling he’s a bit of a doofus. “Mia,” I say, “we’ve got a little problem.”
Mia frowns. “What’s wrong? Where’s Jude?”
“Actually,” I say, “Jude isn’t coming. My friend Will is going to be joining us. And he uses a wheelchair, so the steps outside are going to be an issue.”
Mia and Paul exchange looks. “Oh,” Mia finally says. She looks down at the wine she already ordered. “Uh, should we go somewhere else?”
At that moment, my cell phone rings, and of course, it’s Will. He’s outside the door, waving to me, cut off by the four steps to enter. I hurry over to the door and Paul follows me.
“I’m sorry,” I say helplessly. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s all right,” Will says, although I can tell he’s kind of annoyed. He looks up at Paul. “Are you here to help me?”
“Sure,” Paul says. “I can carry your wheelchair if you can walk up the steps. There’s a railing you can hang on to.”
“No, I can’t walk,” Will says tightly. (That was Paul’s first faux pas of the evening.)
What ends up happening is that Will instructs Paul on tilting his chair back and bumping him up the four steps. Will hangs on to the railing as he does it and the whole thing looks a little precarious, but amazingly, they make it up to the top. And then the restaurant is so damn small that Will is grabbing onto things to propel himself forward. It seems like a miracle when he makes it to our table.
“Thanks for coming,” I whisper in his ear.
“You owe me big time,” he whispers back.
“So,” Paul says. “It’s really great to meet you, Jude.”
Will stares at him. Faux pas number two.
“This isn’t Jude, it’s Will,” Mia says.
“Jude couldn’t make it at the last minute,” I explain quickly.
“And Will here stepped in, I see.” Mia smiles sweetly. “Wasn’t that nice of you, Will?”
I don’t know if Will got what she was implying, but he doesn’t seem to react at all. He picks up the wine bottle Mia had ordered and pours himself a glass, and I practically grab it out of his hands to pour myself a glass. Lord, I need a drink.
“I’m sorry about the restaurant,” Paul says. I have to hand it to him, he’s making an effort. He’s got this eager expression on his face, like he really wants to impress us. “I didn’t realize about the steps.”
“It’s all right,” Will says, waving his hand.
“You know,” Paul says, “my cousin has Down’s Syndrome.”
Will just stares at him again. Finally, Mia smacks Paul on the arm. “He doesn’t have Down’s Syndrome, you idiot. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Faux pas number three.
“It’s okay, really,” Will says, and he’s smiling a bit now. “No offense, Paul, but that’s far from the dumbest comment anyone’s ever made to me about being in a wheelchair. You’ve got some pretty stiff competition.”
“What’s the dumbest?” Mia asks, also smiling.
“Hmm…” Will thinks for a moment. “One woman asked me how long I had to live. That was pretty awesome. But…” He thinks again. “All right, I’ve got it. You ready to hear this?”
“Yes, tell me!” Mia says.
“Swallow your wine,” Will instructs her. “Because you’re going to spit it out when you hear this story.”
“For god’s sakes, tell us!” Mia’s practically squealing.
“So I’m at this restaurant,” Will says, grinning now. “And this really beautiful girl is staring at me. And I don’t mean she’s gawking, but she actually looks really excited. She’s nudging her friends and they’re all smiling and looking at me. So I’m thinking… wow, maybe I have a chance to score with this girl.” He looks at Mia, who’s hanging on his every word. “So finally, at the end of the meal, she comes over to me. She’s really excited. And she says in this really shy voice, ‘Can I have your autograph?’” He pauses. “She thought I was freaking Stephen Hawking.”
Mia’s mouth is hanging open. “No way! You made that up!”
“I swear to god, it happened,” Will says. “Scout’s honor.”
“I believe it,” I say. “People say dumb things to him all the time when we’re together.”
“Yeah, and men are always hitting on you right in front of me,” Will adds. “If we were a couple, I’d be pretty pissed off.”
I laugh. “Oh come on, it doesn’t happen that often.”
“Yes, it does,” he insists. He looks at Mia. “Libby is kind of oblivious when it comes to men. In case you didn’t know that.”
“No, I’ve definitely noticed,” Mia says, a smile curling on her lips.
“I am not!” I insist.
“Right,” Will says. “And do you still honestly think that guy wanted to buy you a drink just to thank you for giving him directions to the subway station?”
“What? He was really grateful!”
Will and Mia exchange looks and burst out laughing. I’m glad that they’re having a laugh at my expense. Actually, I’m really glad that Mia seems to like Will. I have never once introduced her to a man that she liked. She always seemed to have the same response to the men I dated: all bastards, she’d say. But I can tell she adores Will immediately. It’s funny how the one guy she likes is the only one I’m not actually dating.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this much fun at a dinner with Mia. The four of us get along really well, with a continuous stream of laughter throughout the night. After two and a half hours, we’ve polished off a bottle of red wine, some spanakopita, and I’ve had the most delicious moussaka I’ve ever tasted in my life. I’m buzzed, stuffed, and happy.
Will is telling a story about me at the Natural History Museum. He’s buzzed too although not drunk, and his face is glowing a bit. “So we’re in the exhibit about human biology,” he starts.
“Oh no,” I moan. “Please not this story. Please no…”
“And they have all these drawings of the human anatomy,” Will goes on. “Including the male and female pelvis. So Libby is looking at this drawing of the male pelvis, with the, you know, testicles, and this large although flaccid penis. And she gets this really perplexed look on her face, and she says, ‘How does the baby get out?’”
Everyone at the table loses it. “I didn’t notice the penis, okay?” I say defensively, although I’m laughing too.
The check arrives and when I glance at it, I feel a bit sick. We spent a lot of money tonight. I’ve got exactly $18 in my wallet, which isn’t even close to going to cover my share. Paul pulls out his wallet and puts a few bills down on the table. For a second, I hold my breath. “This is for me and Mia.”
Damn, I was hoping he’d offer to treat for the whole meal.
Will whips out his wallet and tosses five twenty-dollar bills on the table. “That should cover me and Libby,” he says.
My eyes meet Mia’s and I know what she’s thinking. “Thanks, Will,” I say. “I’ll, um, pay you back later.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Will says pleasantly. “You know it’s my treat.”
So I’m not surprised that when I get up to go to the bathroom, Mia follows me. I guess it’s possible she has to pee too. She did drink a lot of wine. And as women, we’re always expected to go to the bathroom in pairs.
“Paul seems very nice,” I say when we get into the bathroom.
“Thank you,” she says, smiling. “I rather like him.” Her smile fades and she narrows her eyes. “Does Will always pay for you?”
“Um,” I say. “Mostly, I guess.”
Mia doesn’t say anything.
“Look,” I say. “He’s got tons of money and I don’t have any. Why did you take me to this place anyway? You know I can’t afford it.”
Mia looks me up and down. “You could afford that dress.”
“That’s entirely different.”
Mia shakes her head. “Libby…”
“I thought you liked Will…”
“I do like him,” Mia says. “That’s why I feel obligated to point out that he’s head over heels in love with you.”
“Oh, stop it,” I say.
“You’re wrong,” I insist. “What’s your evidence?”
“Well, for starters,” Mia says. “He couldn’t stop talking about you all night. Libby this, Libby that. Second, he didn’t pass up any opportunity to make any slight physical contact with you. Third—”
“This is ridiculous,” I say. “I’m dating Jude. His best friend. He wouldn’t do that to Jude.”
“Well, he’s not doing anything,” she says. “He’s just in love with you.”
“Look, I know Will’s not in love with me,” I say. “There’s this girl at work that he’s crazy about. He told me all about her.”
“It’s not, Mia,” I say. “He went on and on about her. He’s really deeply in love. It’s sweet, actually.”
For a moment, Mia seemed at a loss. Finally she said, “I think you need to make it clear to Will that you’re not interested.” She added, “If you’re not interested.”
“I’m not!” Of course I’m not. I’m dating perfect Jude, after all. And anyway, she’s wrong about Will. If she had heard him talk about that girl from work, she’d realize that Will doesn’t actually like me. “Trust me, I’m not doing anything to lead him on.”
But when I get out of the bathroom, I can’t help but notice the way Will’s face lights up when he sees me. And she’s right: he’s been talking about me nonstop all evening. But that’s just because my friend Mia is here. He figures she’d be interested in stories about me, that’s all.
On our way out, Paul offers Will help on the stairs, but he says he can handle it. He does a little wheelie, grabs onto the railing, and bounces down the four steps. Paul and Mia say goodbye to us, and Will and I are left in front of the restaurant. Will glances at his watch. “Damn, it’s late,” he says.
“Too late for you?” I tease him.
“Eh, I’ve got to get to work early tomorrow. I’ve got a deadline at noon tomorrow.”
I stare at him. “Will, I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have dragged you out.”
“It’s okay.” He shrugs. “I’ll make it. Anyway, you sounded like you needed me.”
“Don’t worry about it, Libby,” he says. “Really. I had a great time.”
Except Will blew off his deadline for me. And Jude, my boyfriend, didn’t.
“Hey,” he says. “Do you want to split a cab?”
“You live in the opposite direction as me,” I point out.
“Well, I want to make sure you get home all right,” he says. “It’s pretty late. “Anyway, it’s not that out of the way.”
Before my conversation with Mia, I might have just hopped in the cab with him. But now she’s got me wondering. There’s no chance Will could actually like me, is there? “I think I’ll get my own cab,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “Um, okay. You sure?”
This is so stupid. Will is Will. He’s the same guy he always was. He’s not a different person just because Mia has some crazy theory he’s in love with me. Anyway, he’s right. It’s late and I’d feel safer going with him. “Well, okay,” I say. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
Will’s face lights up, and again, Mia’s words haunt me.
To be continued....