by Lori Cramer
Clutching an unwieldy bag of groceries, I trudge up the two flights of stairs to my apartment. As I’m jamming my key into the lock my phone buzzes. I push open the door, dump the bag on the sofa, and dig into my pocket for my phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Sabrina,” Ruby says in that annoying singsongy voice of hers.
Great. Just what I need. Another call from my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. I kick the door closed, using perhaps a bit more force than necessary. The grocery bag topples over. A tangerine bounces onto the carpet.
“Sorry to keep bugging you, but I’ve got another question. Marshall mentioned a restaurant downtown where you guys used to get half-price steaks. Do you remember what it’s called?”
How could I not remember the name of the place where Marshall and I dined every month for twenty-one straight months? I bend over to pick up the errant tangerine. “Stan’s.”
“Stan’s,” she repeats. “Steaks are half price the first Friday of the month?”
I take the grocery bag into the kitchen. “No, the last Friday of the month.”
“Oh. Doesn’t make much sense to go there tonight then, does it?”
I remove a quart of milk from the bag and put it in the refrigerator. “Not unless you want to pay full price.”
Ruby giggles. “Well, we wouldn’t want to do that, now would we?”
You’d think she’d refrain from using “we” when talking to me about her and Marshall. Then again, you’d think she’d refrain from calling me in the first place.
“Guess we’re going to have to find another place for dinner.”
“Good luck with that.” My index finger hovers above the disconnect button.
“Do you have any suggestions?”
What does she think I am, a cruise director?
“I mean, no one knows Marshall’s favorite restaurants better than you.”
“Why don’t you ask him where he wants to go?”
“He’ll say it’s up to me.” In a quieter voice, she adds, “He’s been awfully depressed lately.”
The last thing I want to do is give Ruby a reason to keep talking, but I’m rattled by the thought of Marshall—the most upbeat person I’ve ever known—feeling blue. “Is he okay?”
“He’s been moping around all week.”
A whole week? That doesn’t sound like Marshall. “What’s he depressed about?”
“You know Brody, that guy in his department at work?”
Brody. Total suck-up. “Yeah, I know him. What did he do?”
“Got promoted to manager.”
What? How? “He got the job instead of Marshall? That’s crazy.”
“I know, right? Marshall totally deserved that promotion. He’s the best worker they’ve got.” Ruby’s tone reminds me of a feisty mom sticking up for her kid on the playground.
“Marshall must be so pissed off.”
“See, that’s the thing. He should be angry, but he’s not. He’s sad. Depressed.” While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of Marshall reacting so uncharacteristically, Ruby catches me off guard with a preposterous question: “Do you think you could talk to him?”
“Me? No.” Though the decision to break up had been mutual, it’d been heart-wrenching nonetheless, and I’d spent the last three months avoiding every place Marshall and I had ever visited together, unwilling to risk even the slightest chance of running into him.
“Please, Sabrina. If anyone can talk some sense into him, it’s you.”
“I doubt he’d even want me to know about it.”
“What if you’re the only one who can help him?”
I used to think I was “the only one” for Marshall. But apparently he’s already replaced me.
“He’ll listen to you. You guys were together for, what, a year and a half?”
A year and three-quarters. But who’s counting?
“He goes to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Valley View Square every Saturday morning at 10,” Ruby says. “You could show up there tomorrow and “accidentally” run into him.”
“What would I say?”
“Anything. Just talk to him. Please?”
Eager to get her off the phone, I promise to think about it.
It’s all I can think about for the rest of the night.
The next morning at 9:55, I’m sitting by the window at Dunkin’ Donuts, warming my hands with a vanilla latte and wondering how I let some girl I’ve never even met talk me into this.
I stare out at the rain, my mind drifting back to my first date with Marshall. A baseball game, Angels versus Rangers. It drizzled on and off all night, and with the multiple rain delays the game ended up lasting five cold, damp hours.
It was the best date of my life.
A silver SUV pulls into the parking lot. My brain shouts, Leave while you still can! But my heart keeps me bound to the chair.
The sight of Marshall in a red flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots gives me a jolt.
I told you so, my brain tells my heart.
Marshall lumbers across the parking lot in that adorable way of his, opens the door for an elderly woman, and takes his place in line behind her. A few minutes later, coffee in hand, he turns in my direction. The edges of his lips turn upward. He heads straight for me.
I stand up, gripping the edge of the table. What have I gotten myself into?
He envelops me in his arms, his stubble scratchy against my cheek. “I didn’t know you came here.”
I hold up my latte as if it’s an excuse. “Gotta have coffee, right?”
“Absolutely.” He grins. “Is it okay if I join you?”
Words escape me, so I simply gesture at the table, smile, and sit back down.
Marshall seats himself across from me.
I peer into his cup. “Decaf?”
He nods. “Same as always.”
When Marshall and I were dating, I used to chide him about his predictability, but deep down I found it comforting, safe.
“So how are things going?” he asks.
“Couldn’t be better.” Yeah, right.
“Good. I’m glad.” He lifts his coffee to his lips and makes that little slurping sound I hadn’t realized I’d missed.
Remembering the reason I’m putting myself through this, I ask, “How’s work?”
He flashes that good-natured grin of his, and for a moment I think he’s going to pretend that everything’s okay. But then he puts down his coffee cup. “It sucks, actually.”
I lean in, anticipating the story I’ve already heard, the one that brought me here.
He takes another sip. Swallows. Sighs. “They promoted Brody to manager.”
“Instead of you? Whose stupid decision was that?” The surprise is fake; the outrage, real.
“Upper management.” He stares into his cardboard cup. “It’s been five years, and they still don’t think of me as management material. I come in early, stay late, work my butt off. No one cares. Nothing ever changes.”
I reach for his hand, not realizing what I’m doing until I’ve done it. It feels warm, familiar. We sit like that for a while, not saying anything, just holding hands. Like the old days.
“I miss you, Bree.”
Those are the exact words I’ve wanted to hear for the last ninety-seven days, but once he’s said them they seem wrong. I pull my hand away.
“Don’t you miss me?”
Yes! I wrap my fingers around my latte to keep from being tempted to touch Marshall again. “What does it matter? You’re with Ruby now.”
Marshall squints at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language. “Ruby? Ruby who?”
“Don’t say that.”
He shakes his head. “I’m not dating anybody. I don’t even know anyone named Ruby.”
“Then who’s been calling me?”
He gives me that speaking-a-foreign-language look again.
“For the last three weeks, someone named Ruby has been calling me, asking questions about you.”
“What kind of questions? Personal things?”
“Yesterday she asked the name of the place we used to go for steak.”
Marshall leans forward in his chair. “What made you so sure that the person calling you was my girlfriend?”
“I heard about her before she called,” I admit.
“What do you mean “heard about her”?”
“I ran into your sister Caroline at the mall. She said you were dating some flighty girl.”
“Caroline said that?” Marshall shakes his head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Then he gets that look in his eyes, the one he used to get right before he was about to guess the correct answer in Trivial Pursuit. He takes out his phone and puts it to his ear.
“What are you doing?”
“Hey, Caroline,” Marshall says into the phone. “I have a question for you: What would you think about Sabrina and me getting back together? The smartest decision I’ve made in three months?” He grins at me. “Then let me ask you this: You think you can help me find a way to break the news to Ruby?”
Lori Cramer’s short prose has appeared in Blink-Ink, Boston Literary Magazine, Ink In Thirds, Microfiction Monday Magazine, New Pop Lit, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Unbroken Journal, Whale Road Review, and the 11th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection, among others. Learn more on Twitter @LCramer29 and http://loricramerfiction.wordpress.com.