Violins play softly as I sit drumming my fingers on the red checked tablecloth with flickering candles as the only light in the whole room. This is a horrible spot to meet James for dinner. The candlelight, soft music, Italian food…it all spells out disaster. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, the last straw, the point of no return. It officially labels me as a romantic.
I’m independent, not romantic. It’s my thing. My older sister is the pretty one and I am the tough one, the daughter my Dad doesn’t need to worry about even though I don’t have a husband to take care of me. I’m a smart and strong and independent woman and then I have to go and meet James. Wonderful James, who gives me butterflies and makes me do stupid things like smile to myself at work while I dreamily braid my hair and send text messages with kissy faces and x’s and o’s. I even pretended the other day that I couldn’t open the jar of pickles so he would have to come and help me but it turned out the lid wasn’t even screwed on and so he saw right through what I was doing and laughed and kissed my forehead and called me adorable. How mortifying. No, I’ve never felt this way before.
Jeez, I’ve even gone to church with him the last three Sundays. I’ve never been a very religious person. The truth is, airports see more sincere kisses than wedding chapels. The walls of hospitals hear more prayers than the walls of churches. And then I meet James, and he turns everything I think upside down and I contemplate things like religion and heaven and angels and all other kinds of stuff. I start to enjoy going to his church services, and I like the God he tells me about and I start to wonder if maybe my view of God is messed up, not James’s. His God is different than mine. James talks about forgiveness and redemption and second chances and my God sits up on a dark thundercloud in heaven, angry and disapproving and ready to strike down the pathetic mortals for not living up to His expectations. Especially me.
I sip from my wine glass. It’s a wonder James still stays with me; not only stays, but wants to stay. I have a broken soul; I know that. I don’t pretend otherwise. It makes every one else run screaming but James wants to hear about it; he wants to talk with me about what gives me awful nightmares in the middle of the night and why I hate rainstorms. And so I tell, and he listens and just when I start to think that this story, this secret, this skeleton in my closet will be the end of us, will be too much for him to hear, he just holds me and sometimes I think his eyes are full of tears when he says he wants to protect me from ever being hurt again. And I start to believe that he can. And the scariest part is…I want him to. I don’t hide anything from him anymore. I expose it all, and then I wait for him to run, just like other guys did—not that there’d been a lot of them. But there’s something different about James. He doesn’t run. And I don’t want him to.
I wish I didn’t feel this way. We’re all immortal until that first kiss and second glass of wine. I met him when we were in line getting coffee. It was a Tuesday and he said something ridiculous and cheesy like he didn’t know angels flew so low and I got flustered and dropped my coffee all over his shoes and while we were cleaning up the mess he asked for my number and I gave it to him and ran away. So I thought that was the end of it and then that night my phone rang and I answered and then four hours later I was laughing more than I’d ever thought possible and we had made plans for a date the very next day. Eight months later I’m disgustingly head over heels in love, one of those annoying girls who constantly talk about how amazing her boyfriend is and sings “Crazy in Love” in the shower and looks at wedding dresses online. My family keeps asking when we’re getting married. They love him almost as much as I do and I’m just shocked because I’ve finally done something my older sister approves of.
I check the time as the waiter stops by for the fourth time to see if I need anything. It’s not like James to be late. I had actually been the one to plan this date, and he had been so excited. I don’t plan dates. I don’t get excited about them. I say things like, “I don’t care; wherever you want to eat,” and now look at me. I make myself sick. I’d bought a new red dress that was much more sensual than anything I’d ever owned before. Red! It made me feel like a fire engine but I bought it anyway because it was kind of sassy and James loves red and I curled my hair and I was wearing the pearls he’d bought me. I’d even put perfume behind my earlobes. Ugh. I know he’ll love it, though. And yeah, maybe the heart shaped pizza is a bit much, but I’ll just say I hope he doesn’t think I’m too cheesy and then he’ll throw his head back and laugh that wonderful laugh of his, the one that thrills me right down to my toes and then he’ll lean across the table and kiss me. He kisses better than anyone I’ve ever kissed, and my older sister says that I can’t say that because he’s the only man I’ve ever kissed but that’s not true because Billy Driscoll kissed me behind the librarian’s cart in 7th grade and one time this really drunk guy kissed me in a bar and I let him because I was tired of having only Billy on my list. Billy, who cut my lip with his braces and then tattled to Ms. Cambridge that I’d gotten blood all over Pride and Prejudice and I had to face her wrath. The drunk guy had reeked of whiskey and stopped slobbering on me long enough to throw up on the floor and then resume his ardor without even rinsing his mouth and so those were both such awful experiences that they better count for something. Third time’s definitely the charm. James is the best because I can feel the love and sincerity coming right through his lips and I don’t worry about if I’m a good kisser or not because all I can think is, dang, this guy really likes me a lot and so I just kiss him back and he doesn’t complain, so there, Tessa. I used to hate couples kissing in public before, but I don’t protest anymore.
My phone rings, James’s picture popping up on my screen. “Hello?”
“Hey, beautiful.” His warm voice makes my heart beat faster and I start to believe that I am what he always calls me.
“Hi.” I giggle, something I never do except around him. “Where are you?”
“Stuck at work.” He lets out a frustrated breath. “I feel awful, but we might have to postpone tonight. I just can’t get away.”
My heart stops beating. I force my lips to move. “Sure. That’s no problem.”
“You know I wouldn’t miss tonight if there were any other way. My boss—“
“Yeah. No, I know.”
“Tomorrow for sure; I promise. I can’t wait. I gotta go but I’ll call you later, okay, baby?”
“I love you.”
“Love you.” I hang up the phone and sit staring at the dark screen for a moment.
“Signora?” The waiter comes over. “Is your date coming?”
I sigh as I try to stand in the crazy high stilettos I had bought for that night. “No. He’s not.” That’s what happens when you follow your heart.
I leave James a voicemail that night, breaking up with him.