(Read the previous chapters here.)
When I finally emerged from my bedroom the next morning, Pippa, like an intern eying the executive suite, handed me a cup of coffee and a piece of paper listing the details of the calls I had received that morning – all seven of which were from Benny.
“Thanks. You didn’t have to answer the phone,” I said, yawning.
“I know, but he would’ve just kept callin, and all that ringing was getting on my last nerve,” she said, placing the phone within my reach.
I laughed. I hadn’t heard the phone. Dinner with two lovesick teens and one delusional best friend had been just the tonic I needed to put me into a deep slumber. I took a sip of coffee and was just about to unfurl the newspaper, when I looked up to see Pippa with yet another batch of muffins; this one: blueberry.
“Here you go.” Pippa placed a muffin in front of me, along with the mail. Then with a big smile on her face, she quickly disappeared upstairs to Nella Larsenland.
The day was off to a good start. I wanted nothing more than to sit and enjoy my coffee and muffin. I didn’t want to return Benny’s calls. I was mad at him, and not unreasonably so. For him to come to my house with that –girl/woman, without warning, without fingers, well, it wasn’t cool. We had been best friends forever. He had been the first one at my side when I lost the baby, and, as would follow, Francisco. I had seen Benny fawn and preen for a bevy of too handsome for catalogue work, yet too muscle-engorged to glide gracefully down the catwalk: There was Tito, whose real name was Marvin; he lasted six months. There was Joppy, who claimed to be a performance artist, but who mainly spent his days panhandling and reading palms at the Brookland metro. He was followed not too distantly by Jean Claude, Trini Reynolds, and, not to be forgotten, the two Donnys. Then after an unusually quiet stretch there was Richard.
Richard, who encouraged Benny to get his master’s in restaurant management, and who when he wasn’t working on his second master’s in arts management, could be found secreted in the back booth of Benny parents’ restaurant, looking up every so often from the dog-eared pages of his textbooks to catch kisses Benny blew his way. I liked Richard. No, I loved Richard. Where the others were fun and, yes, fabulous, Richard was steady and knew not only how to plot a course, but how to stay true to one.
So they rented a house in Takoma Park. One of those original Sears bungalow homes from the 50’s originally shipped via boxcar with several hundred nuts and bolts and a 75-page instruction booklet. Benny’s mother made curtains. Richard’s father patched the leaky roof and fixed the wood rotted front stairs. Richard hammered nails, while Benny oh and ah-ed at the wonderment of it all. Richard was the right person for Benny–and for me too–at the right time. There just hadn’t been enough time. If Richard hadn’t gotten sick perhaps the two would still be together, if not as a couple, then, for sure, good friends.
But he became ill. Rendered waif-like not by what everyone first suspected — the “gay flu,” but by stage four lung cancer–in operable. He never smoked. He ran five miles every day. And much to Benny’s exasperation, Richard was a devout vegan. No, health-wise, Richard had led an enviable life. His father on the other hand had had a two pack a day smoking habit. “A habit,” Benny scoffed, “He’s still takes pride in today. How’s that for father/son bonding.”
After Richard, I understood Benny’s long list of loves that came after. Some I even felt sorry for because I knew that certain loves like Richard, and to a lesser extent, Francisco, always remain deep in the heart. But that had been five years ago, enough time to get perspective and move on. I suppose that’s why I was so undone. Why I really didn’t want to talk to him, not right then. I didn’t want to be forced into choosing between supporting my friend in his choice and screaming at the top of my lungs, What the hell are you thinking?
Before I could refill my cup of coffee, ready myself to call Benny, the phone rang.
“I’ve got it,” I yelled up to Pippa.
“Good!” she yelled back.
“Hello? Is that all you have to say, ‘Hello?’. You better have something more to say to me than some dry ‘Hello’.”
“Hello, and a good day to you, sir.”
Benny laughed. “Love you.”
“Love you back,” I said.
“So, should I ask what you thought of future wifey?”
“I think future wifey is lovely. More so than you deserve.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I think it’s obvious – don’t you?” I was in no mood to play reindeer games with Benny. I was sick with worry over what those damnable Minnesotans were going to do next, so the fact that I had answered the phone and hadn’t let the machine pickup – well, he had Pippa’s frayed teenage nerves to thank.
“What, her hand? The missing fingers? Really, Stell.”
“No. God, no. Benny, the other thing.”
“Listen, Stell, I’m just going to lay it out for you – I love her. Period.”
Now he had me at a disadvantage, because who can argue with love?
“So, what now?” I asked.
“Well, you get fitted for your tux – best man.”
I laughed. “God. Fine, as long as I don’t have to give you away.”
“Nope. Just say a little something at the reception, nothing too gushy. Something heartfelt. You know, soft, teary eyes business, a little dab here and there, all well within your skill set.”
“Cool. When is this extravaganza taking place?”
“In a month, and it’s going to be a simple affair – tasteful and stress free.”
“I’m there. Oh, I might bring someone.”
“Of course. This Mr. Kehinde, fella?”
“No. Well, maybe, but probably Pippa.”
“I thought this was a short term, emergency thing – whatever, the more the merrier. You just be there. That’s all that matters.”
“I’ll be there. Oh, and just because you brought it up, what happened to Caryn’s hand?”
I nodded as if this explained all.
“She was one of the few in our group that actually made it to the summit. That’s how we got to know each other, sitting around base camp, Huda feeding her soup, with me wiping her mouth. We ran into each other about six months ago at another member’s snow academy graduation.”
”Well, she’s lovely, Benny.”
“Well, I’ve got to go.”
“Me, too,” he said.
“Love you back,” Stell.
To be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.