“Don’t worry, Lauren,” Gracie said, “he’ll come around.”
I twirled my straw in my Coke and stared blankly as the ice cubes hit the sides of my glass. I hoped her words were true. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gracie rise from the booth. My gaze followed her as she stood. Apparently, the pep talk was over.
“And for goodness sakes, enjoy your party.”
She latched on to my shoulder as she brushed past, partly in support of my situation, mostly in support of her own body weight. She teetered unsteadily on her platform boots and let out what could be best described as an intoxicated giggle. I watched as she made her way to the restroom toward the back of the restaurant, stifling a laugh of my own as she attempted to open the ladies’ room door by pushing rather than pulling.
Ah, yes, this was my party.
I glanced around at the large booth our group occupied. The familiar faces of coworkers surrounded me. There had been a good turnout; by my count, twenty people had at least stopped in to say goodbye. Ten of those twenty still remained, even now, two hours after the official meeting time.
Invariably when someone decided to leave the bank, another employee would take it upon themselves to organize a get-together, usually held at the Mexican restaurant a mile down the road from our branch. For some, it was a good excuse to gorge on chips, salsa and margaritas. For others, it was truly an opportunity to celebrate the guest of honor’s new job or retirement and to say farewell. Whatever the case that brought all these people here, to think they were gathered because of me was surreal.
Neither one of the usual scenarios pertained to me. At twenty-six, I wasn’t anywhere close to retirement, at least not without a winning lottery ticket in hand. And I wasn’t quitting. I had garnered a promotion.
I started at the bank right out of college. Armed with my shiny new accounting degree, I had landed a position at the local branch underwriting mortgage loans. My attention to detail – some would call it anal-retentiveness – got me noticed by our corporate office. After five years of employment there, I had been offered the job.
Director of Underwriting, Mortgage Lending.
The title alone had a nice ring to it. The thought of actually having a staff at my beck and call was enticing. The increase in salary was definitely attractive. The location, not so much. Corporate was about two hours north of here, and I would have to relocate. That was really the only thing that had given me pause.
Being considerate of the circumstances, my current boss had instructed me to take a couple days to think it over, pray about it, do whatever I needed to do. In my heart of hearts, I had known what my answer would be, but I was still relieved that I had a moment to mull things over. That night, I had made two phone calls.
My father had been ecstatic.
Eric, well, things had not gone so swimmingly with him.
Gracie staggered back to the table. She fell onto the seat of the booth, the cushion protesting with a squeak beneath her. This was apparently the funniest thing that had ever happened to her. Her convulsive laughter brought all other conversation at the table to a halt.
“Maybe time for someone to go home?” Mary from Consumer Loans suggested.
“I’m on it.” I set down my Coke and went to grab my purse. “Come on, Gracie, let’s get you to bed.”
“Oh, Lauren,” Stacy, the receptionist, protested, “it’s not fair that you have to leave your own party early. One of us can drive her home.”
“But it’s tradition,” Mary chimed in, “Gracie always drinks too much, and Lauren is her designated driver.”
“Oh, no,” Stacy snorted, “did they include that in the job description for your replacement?”
Gracie still had enough sobriety left in her to shoot both Mary and Stacy a dirty look. “Shut up.”
I stood to go and Gracie followed suit. She was pretty wobbly. She leaned against the wall as I said my goodbyes, thanking each person for coming and accepting their well wishes. As I made the rounds, my eyes welled up with tears.
This was really happening. Come Monday morning, the rest of the people at this table would go back to work like they always did. My desk would be sitting empty. No manila file folders stacked up on the desktop, their contents spilling over onto my keyboard.
Pushing the melodramatic to the far recesses of my brain, I took Gracie’s arm and escorted her out of the restaurant. Considering that she towered over me, especially in those shoes, this was no small feat.
The cool evening air greeted us as we spilled out onto the sidewalk. We continued across the parking lot to my awaiting car. I unlocked Gracie’s door first and helped her inside. As I rounded the car and unlocked my own door, I realized that it was as if we were on some sort of a strange date. I was being rather chivalrous.
“I’m not tired, Lauren,” Gracie whined as I assumed the driver’s seat. “I don’t want to go to bed yet. I want to help you with your problems.”
“Oh, Gracie,” I laughed, “I might be beyond help at this point.”
We drove in an easy silence back to her apartment. I pulled my car into the carport beside her sedan and shut off the ignition. She made no move to get out of my car. Upon closer inspection, I realized that her eyes were closed.
She jumped. “I’m awake, I promise. You want to come up?”
I checked my cell phone before answering. It was only nine. “Sure, why not?”
The short nap had done Gracie wonders. That coupled with a fresh pot of coffee might actually transform her into a worthy confidant. With renewed energy, she exited the car. I followed behind her, realizing as I threw my purse over my shoulder that my cell phone remained in the center console. Briefly, I considered running back to get it, but decided not to. No one would be calling me at this hour. I had just spoken with my dad prior to the party, I was with my best friend right now and Eric was on some sort of random business trip in some location I was sure he had mentioned at some point during chewing me out.
Gracie kicked off her boots as soon as she made it through the threshold. She set her housekeys on the table beside the door with a loud clunk, then landed on the couch with a flourish. I continued on to the kitchen to make said coffee. Moving around the small space as if it was my own, I set to work opening cabinets and grabbing mugs.
As the coffee brewed, I leaned over the breakfast bar. From here, I could view the entire apartment. Gracie’s bedroom was at the end of the hall, right next to the bathroom. The place itself was bland, walls covered in typical renter’s off white. Even though the whole of the place was no more than five or six hundred square feet, it seemed cavernous in comparison with my studio apartment. What made it feel like home were the small finishing touches Gracie had managed to add with her meager bank teller’s wage.
One of those finishing touches, a throw pillow in the shape of a question mark, whizzed past my head.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
I poured the now finished coffee into the mugs and carried them over to the sofa, where I sat down next to her. She took the mug that I offered, closing her eyes as she tasted the first sip.
I sighed, not sure where to begin.
“He’s probably just upset because I am leaving town.”
For the majority of our relationship Eric and I had been, in one way or another, apart. We began dating when we were both sixteen. When it had been time to go to college, we had settled on different universities. This led to lots of long distance phone calls, internet chatting and romantic reunions during breaks. After graduation, instead of finally being in the same place at the same time, he had gotten scooped up by a life insurance carrier to be their sales rep. Even though he was stationed out of their Indianapolis office, the majority of the time he wasn’t anywhere nearby.
It had been a complete shock when he expressed his distaste at my promotion.
“That’s bull and you know it.” Gracie set down her coffee cup on the table in front of us. She tucked an errant strand of black hair behind her ear and stared at me. “He feels threatened.”
Threatened? Maybe, just maybe, he was.
Genre – Romance / Chick Lit
Rating – PG13
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