Mom sends me on some errands on Saturday so I don’t go to the café in the morning. I only realize that I don’t even have Miho’s number when I consider sending her a text, but then again, we are only chatting a bit. It’s not as if she’s waiting for me to come and leech off her Wifi.
But I manage to drop by in the afternoon and find the place packed with people. To my surprise Miho isn’t alone behind the counter, a waitress helps her serving the guests. Looks like a student to me. When Miho spots me she grins, grabs a cup but I stop her.
“I can’t stay today, but I really, really need a good, strong coffee to get me through the day.”
“Sure.” She switches to the paper cups, prepares my coffee and leans against the counter while waiting for the machine to finish. “So, that dinner tonight?”
“Yeah, I’m not exactly thrilled to go there. Don’t get me wrong, the mayor is lovely, but my brain just stops when I see Ben and it doesn’t help that his fiancée used to be my friend until one day, she wasn’t. I get very hostile vibes from her.” The coffee cup is hot but I cradle it between my hands despite the warm day outside.
“People change.” Miho shrugs and prepares another order. “Maybe she’s not the same person that was your friend anymore. Maybe it’s just you feeling guilty because you lust after her guy. Anyway, when she poisons your food or throws a knife at you, you can be sure that she hates you. Until then just assume it’s as uncomfortable and awkward for her as it is for you.”
I gnaw at my bottom lip and hand her the money for the coffee. “I guess that advice is better than the last piece of wisdom you gave me. If I don’t show up on Monday, I have probably been poisoned and/or stabbed to death. Wish me luck.”
“Wait!” She rummages through a drawer under the counter and pulls out a piece of paper. “Here. It’s my number. In case of getting poisoned or stabbed, call me. I consider calling an ambulance, depending of the seriousness of your condition.”
“Thanks, you are too generous.” But I take the note and put it in my bag for later.
The moment I step through the door and enter the house of Mayor Rosenfeldt I wish someone would stab me. Poison would take too long to end my suffering after all.
Since Mom wants me to bring some ingredients for dinner I actually arrive way before 8pm and run directly into the other Rosenfeldt son. Jacob. The bane of my high school existence.
“Now look who graces us with her presence,” he drawls when he sees me, the bags with groceries still in my arms. “Jazz ‘too clumsy for her own good’ Mann.”
I freeze. He can’t have already set up some kind of prank for me, can he? Only if he knew that I would come and who would tell him? Mom. Mom would tell him, not even meaning any harm by it. But we are both adults now, certainly he has changed his stupid way of making fun of me. Right? Right?!
“Hi, Jake,” I icily greet him. Being polite doesn’t cost me anything after all, but I don’t have to be friendly with him. “Sorry, could you save the mocking until I set this down? It’s kinda heavy.”
I juggle two grocery bags and my keys after all, and Mom’s shopping list wasn’t exactly short.
“Who’s mocking? I’m just telling it as it is.” He steps closer, reaches for the bags. “Here, gimme that.”
“No, it’s fine, I can handle this.”
“Come on, let me help you at least.” He already tugs at the bags, disturbs the fragile balance I had so far. I tense, he pulls, my key slices open the bottom of one bag. Apples start pouring out of the slit, but Jake doesn’t stop fighting for the bags.
He yanks the bags from my arms, causes the already damaged bag to give up completely. The box with eggs lands on the floor with a wet sounding smack. There’s egg all over my shoes, the floor and the carpet.
“If we had flour we could make an apple pie,” he dryly points out, hoists the bags up a bit and carries them towards the kitchen.
“Mrs. Mann! Jazz made a mess in the hallway!”
I want to kick him. I want to smush his face into the egg goo on the floor. I want to cry. Trembling with frustration I slip out of my shoes, ignore Mom who comes running and immediately starts fussing over the state of the hallway. My feet take me to the supply closet, I get a bucket and a rag, inwardly seething.
He did it again. Every single time.
Mom still goes on and on about how she has no time to clean this now and I try not to snap at her when I set down the bucket.
“I’m already at it, ain’t I? Go back to the kitchen, I’m taking care of this.” I scoop as much of the egg I can back into the carton, but it’s everywhere. The shell is sticking to my fingers and I curse under my breath while plucking pieces of it off the floor and the carpet.
“What happened here?”
Of course Ben has to walk on while I’m kneeling in goo, having egg on my hands, on my bare legs and probably everywhere else.
“Jake,” I grate, add this to my list of humiliations caused by that guy.
“Wait here.” Ben vanishes in the supply closet, comes back with a roll of paper towels and helps me cleaning most of the egg away.
“Thanks.” I’m sniffling but can’t wipe my nose, my hands are still covered in raw, mixed egg and shards of eggshell.
“You, uh, you got something there.” Ben’s finger hovers over my cheek but doesn’t touch me.
“Where?” I wipe my cheek at my shoulder, can’t use my hands for it after all.
“Wait, let me get it for you.” He grabs a fresh paper towel, carefully wipes my cheek clean. Not that it makes any difference, I’m covered in egg anyway. Dump some bread crumbs on me and I’m ready to get fried.
“Maybe you should take a shower after this,” he suggests and my heart beats furiously. He’s close enough for me to smell his cologne, fresh, soapy, manly.
“I would love to, but that would mean going back home. Like this. Only to come back here for dinner and having to sit at the table together with your brother.” My smile is probably crooked, wavers under his intense gaze.
“Don’t bother. You can shower here. There’s not much we can do about your clothes, though. Maybe we can find some of Mads’ stuff lying around.”
“No, it’s fine. I don’t want to cause any trouble. I can just wipe my dress off a bit. No big deal.” Running around in Maddie’s clothes isn’t a very appealing thought for me. I probably won’t fit into them anyway.
“Or I could lend you a shirt and some shorts. Will be a bit big on you, but it’s better than wearing your dirty clothes, right?” He’s still smiling, throws the last used paper towel into the bucket and sits up again.
“You know what? I think I rather go home.” There’s no way I can restore my dignity anymore, not even with a shower and a brand new designer outfit, so I better just excuse myself and end this here. “Tell your father I’m sorry.” To cut the discussion short I grab the rag and furiously scrub the carpet clean.
“You always do that. Jake pulls one of his stunts and you just bolt. Why do you allow him to treat you like that?”
His words hit a nerve, a raw one, directly connected to my tear ducts. I keep my head down to hide my trembling bottom lip, convinced that if he continues talking I will crack like the eggs earlier and just melt into a puddle of gross self pity. Not because of Ben or even Jake. Ben’s way of scolding me just now reminds me so much of Sam.
Sam, who always challenged me to become a better version of myself, but never patronizing or pushy. ‘Why do you let them treat you like that? You are worth so much more, love.’ It was always ‘love’, never ‘baby’ or ‘sweetheart’.
My feelings threaten to overwhelm me and I take it out on the carpet, don’t even look up when Ben calls my name and I hear footsteps coming closer.
“Benjamin, darling, what are you doing?”
Maddie looks down at me, both literally and figuratively, and I never before felt so much like Cinderella. Only that the prince is next to me on his knees, gawking up at his actual fiancée.
“I’m just lending Jazz a hand,” he’s quick to explain.
“Wiping the floor? Honey, we have servants for that.” She smiles sweetly at me, lets the word ‘servants’ roll off her tongue, slowly, savoring it like a piece of good chocolate.
“You know what?” I say and get up, drop the rag into the bucket so that the water and egg mixture sloshes out, some of it splatters in tiny droplets back on the floor, on Ben’s pants and Maddie’s shoes. “That shower sounds lovely. I’m waiting upstairs for you, Benny.”
With my head up high I saunter up the stairs, displaying as much swagger as I can muster while looking like a hobo. Behind me there’s a hushed argument, or better Maddie is hissing something at Ben who grumbles back. Not my problem.
The bathroom is just down the hallway, across from Jake’s room – of all places. But he’s still downstairs and the one following me upstairs is Ben. He rushes into his own old room and comes back with some clothes in his hands.
“Here, a shirt and some sweatpants. I don’t have underwear you could use, but if you go commando that’s totally your choice. I won’t tell anyone.” His wink puts me off, this is not the way he usually talks to me. Must be Jake’s influence.
“I don’t think the egg goo seeped into my underwear, so I should be fine. But thanks for the shirt.” With his clothes pressed against my chest I close the bathroom door behind me, shake my head at this strange exchange just now. But the shower is singing its siren song to me and the warm water feels so good, it washes my irritation away and leaves me clean, relaxed and happy. For the first time in this week.
Ben’s sweats are far too big for me and the shirt is not long enough to pass as dress, but too long and wide to be considered a shirt. I tie the belt of a bathrobe I found in the bathroom around me to keep everything in place and grab my own clothes to throw them into the washing machine. Hopefully they will be clean and dry by the time I want to go home again.
Downstairs an unexpected sight awaits me. Jake on his knees, wiping the floor. I bet Mom gave him a stern talking to when she learned what actually happened. She always held the boys accountable for their own mess. They learned quickly not to make her angry if they didn’t want broccoli for every single meal of a day – breakfast included.
“You look as if you could use a shower,” I quip in passing.
“Only if you join me.”
“Why? So you can try to drown me again?” One sentence and the light mood shatters, tension fills the room between us.
“You will never let me live that down, will you?” He gets up, glares at me and grabs the bucket.
“Sorry, some things just stick.” I tap my ear lightly, raise my chin and meet his gaze, dare him to talk back to me.
“Whatever.” He scoffs, breaks our eye contact but it doesn’t feel like a victory to me. No matter how I look at it, I will always be the loser in this conflict.
And Maddie is right there to remind me of it. During the whole dinner she drops comments on my outfit – ‘Looks cozy. Not exactly dinner wear, but how should you know that, right?’ – about my relationship status – ‘And? Do you have someone?’ – and my plans for the future – ‘Must be hard, looking for a job in this economy.’
It doesn’t help that Ben keeps grinning at me and Jake sneaks glances, probably planning my next humiliation. Mom carries the food in but declines Mayor Rosenfeldt’s offer to join us.
“I want to clean the kitchen now so I can go home together with my daughter.” Her bright smile, directed at me, gives me some strength to make it through this dinner.
The mayor is really good at diffusing tensions while keeping a light conversation going. I learn that Jake actually has his own business, management consultant for small start-ups. I can’t imagine him being serious about anything, even less the businesses of other people.
When Ben talks about his job as coach his eyes light up and he even forgets the food in front of him until Maddie jabs her elbow into his ribs to remind him of the actual purpose of a dinner – eating.
“And Jazz, will you stay until the big celebration?” the mayor asks me over dessert, ironically apple pie with ice cream.
“Yes, of course. Mom and I are looking forward to the fireworks already.”
“I remember that one time when you almost freaked out during the fireworks display,” Jake says, huffing a short laughter.
“Oh yeah? Was it that one time when you lit that cracker right next to me and ruined my pants with the sparks?”
I smile sweetly at him, ignore Maddie’s murmured: “Sure it wasn’t something else that ruined your pants?”
“Jake was a bit of a troublemaker as a kid, but he’s really responsible now.” Fatherly pride shines in Mr. Rosenfeldt’s eyes when he looks at his son, the complete opposite of what Jake invokes in me.
I pick at my pie, shove tiny apple pieces over my plate to make it look as if I’m eating. My appetite is gone now, the big lump in my throat makes it hard to breathe, let alone eat.
“I would like to invite you to the dinner party I’m holding next week,” the mayor keeps on talking as if nothing has happened.
“Oh, thank you, that’s very generous.”
“Elias, are you sure? I mean, Jazz has to go back to – wherever eventually, right? And we don’t want to keep her here longer than necessary, do we?” Maddie jabs Ben again, glares at him for support.
“Why don’t we let Jazz decide if she can make time for it or not?” Jake points out, scoops some ice cream on his spoon and hums at the taste of it. “Dammit, this apple pie is amazing.”
“Jacob, language.” Mr. Rosenfeldt shots Jake a stern glance that makes him duck his head lightly, a mumbled ‘sorry’ the most genuine apology I ever heard of him. The mayor turns back towards me.
“The invitation stands, and I would be really happy to see you there. Just let me know in advance if you’re coming or not. You can even bring a plus one if you want.”
And with that this topic is over. I somehow make it through the dinner, leave the house with Mom who tries to worm out of me why I am so grumpy after such a nice dinner.
Back in my old room I restlessly browse through my phone. Pictures of me and Sam, old messages, one or two video clips of us goofing around. Me teaching Sam some basic sign language. The first time I ever signed ‘I love you’ to a person and meant it. My High School crush is getting married to one of my former best friends and here I am, wallowing in self pity, stalking my ex on social media and staring at our pictures from happier times. I’m officially a pathetic loser. Tomorrow, I promise myself, tomorrow I will delete everything and start looking forwards. But tonight, after that humiliation and cruel reminder of who I used to be, I just want to curl up, cry until I’m empty and sleep.