The turkey was squatting in the roasting pan while Maria hid in the closet with a bottle of vodka. The phone had skittered across the floor after she had dropped it. James was due in two hours.
She hadn’t invited him. His name was loudly absent when she rattled off the guest list to her friends. This would be the first dinner in nearly two years that she would be attending– let alone hosting– alone. The table would be full of friends she graduated high school with, all except one. No one mentioned it at first. Finally, Nell, the valedictorian, asked, “James isn’t coming?”
“I don’t think I could put him through it.”
“Oh, right, because you guys…y’know.”
The morning of the dinner, a Saturday, Maria went to the butcher. He had already put a turkey aside for her.
“Is the whole crew coming to your place tonight?”
“Yup, just about,” she responded while ticking off items on her shopping list.
The butcher told his wife, who was friends with Mrs. Warren, the secretary in the principal’s office, who always saw James in the coffee room before classes started. Imagine her surprise when he said, “What dinner?”
She had just taken the turkey out of the oven when he called.
“Maria? It’s James.”
“James?” This was the first word she had said to him in fifteen months and two weeks.
“Hi– how’re things?” He knew. He must’ve known. Now he was going to come in, with his typical smoothness, and destroy her.
“Teaching is good. The kids are way more excited to learn about Washington this year. Maybe I’m seeing a trickle down from the inaugeration. Other than that, things have been pretty quiet. How about you?”
“About the same… work, sleep, cook. It’s like I’m stuck on repeat.”
“Speaking of cooking,” he barrelled on, “I’ve been meaning to see if anyone from high school– y’know, Nell, Liz, Bobby, all them– would be interested in grabbing dinner one night.”
And there it was. The oh-so-blatant “are you going to tell me?” moment. He knew. And he knew she didn’t tell him.
“That’s a great idea. You’ve got to love everyone staying relatively close to home after college. Why don’t you set up a date and let me know.” she said.
“Hold on a sec! I’m thinking sooner rather than later. It doesn’t take much for people to stop talking to each other,” he responded.
She nearly threw the phone. Doesn’t take much… “Yeah, well, that’s a relative term. Anyways…”
“Actually, if you aren’t doing anything special, we could always have the dinner tonight.” he continued.
He was going to make her spell it out. “James…”
“Aw, c’mon, it’ll be fun.”
It would be torture. “We’d make everyone miserable.” You would make me miserable, she thought. He would stand there and remind her of all the things she almost did– almost went to a different college, almost chose a different career. But no, she had gone with him. And now she had nothing.
“I wouldn’t be miserable. It’d be nice to see you.”
It was a ploy and she knew it. It still stung. She shook her head, feeling emptied. “It would be too last minute.”
“Nah, everyone could bring a quick dish. I’ll give Nell a call– she’s always on the ball. How’s seven?”
She stared at the turkey, wide-eyed and ready to cry. It was too soon. “Fine. Whatever you want.” She hung up.
Then she headed for the closet.
She cradled the bottle in the space that her bent legs had created. After one mouthful, which she almost spat out, she couldn’t take any more. The cool glass kept her hands busy and the weight helped even her breathing.
She had to say something. He would walk in (first, knowing him. Tardiness was a crime second only to murder.). She began practicing to the vodka bottle. “James, hi. Yeah, things have been really good, I’m–” What was she doing? She was working from home at the moment, letting her business degree gather dust.
She wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye. She would push her hair behind her ear and find different objects around the room that felt safer to look at than his bright blue eyes. She didn’t know what he would see if she looked at him too long.
She leaned her head on the wall. It was so warm in there, if she could just shut her eyes for a minute…
A loud knock echoed from the front door. In her cozy closet, Maria barely heard it. In her drowsy state, she remembered why she had been preparing a turkey; she gasped and sat up straight. She fumbled for the handle and tumbled into the kitchen. 6:59. The knock came again.
The bastard was early.