Between Us: The Diaries of Love is a contemporary fiction online serial novel. It will be delivered through regular installments in its original raw, unedited state. Please feel free to comment and share what you think of it chapter by chapter. Who knows, your thoughts might help shape what happens next.
- one -
Beignets, Chardonnay, Ladies and a Gentleman
Michaela Stewart celebrated her thirtieth on Sunday by having brunch with friends. Gossip and final in-person updates between the party of five took place on the terrace of a place called the Dancing Hen in Hell’s Kitchen. In between innumerable mimosas and crispy fried chicken drizzled with cayenne maple syrup over waffles, she heard about possible suitors, the must-have Céline of the season and where they all could go for their next girls’ getaway. If it weren’t for the promise of beignets, Michaela would have announced her boredom and left early for Penn Station.
Heaven smiled on her and soon a waiter appeared with a platter of freshly prepared beignets and they were the good kind. Warm, airy and messy.
“I’m going to learn how to make these and serve them.”
No one said a word. They rarely responded when Michaela mentioned how she dreamed of entertaining guests in her new home. Haters, Michaela would call them, but she absolutely despised the word. That and “at the end of the day.”
“At the end of the day, no one is going to look between your legs to see how many times you were fucked. All that matters in life is how good it was each time it happened.”
That was life according to Nida.
Nida didn’t know it, but after growing tired of similar sentiments, Michaela decided Friday evening that their friendship was officially a waste. She already added Nida’s number to the ignore list in her phone… now she was counting down the minutes until she could ignore her voice without it being so obvious.
The chorus reinforcing Nida’s rant made Michaela wonder if she was in fact the killjoy she overheard them describing the night before when she woke up in the rear of an Uber Escalade. With Cammie’s paranoia of catching Ebola on the subway and everyone else agreeing their taxi experience that morning left all of them cheating death, Uber was the easiest solution. It also upped the stakes for taxicab confessions – costing what was left in the fragile friendship.
Wearing her new favorite cashmere sweater in a shade she only knew was endless blue because she stalked it online for two weeks before giving in to make the purchase, Michaela reached for a beignet after spending five minutes convincing herself that powder sugar was the devil out to ruin her clothes. Her personal pep talk to indulge with caution almost caused her to miss Nida announcing she scheduled her third procedure.
“Isn’t there a limit for those?” Michaela carefully reached for the beignet closest to her, focusing more on leaning over the table to take a bite than she did waiting for Nida to answer her question. It didn’t matter what her soon-to-be ex friend had to say, because Nida always had an explanation for everything. Michaela knew whatever was said would likely be just to ease a conscious more than rationalization for an audience.
An L&D nurse by trade and serial online dater every hour in between, Nida often forgot to take the precautions necessary to keep her from being on the other side of that career as a labor and delivery patient herself. Michaela was the first in the group to turn thirty. Nida’s careless slipup was her reminder.
“No.” Nida shrugged as if telling her that’s that and moved on with her own tale of sex in the city. Michaela did notice that Nida wasn’t as cautious as she had been when reaching for a beignet, just like Nida didn’t care that powder sugar caught a ride in the wind, thus landing on Michaela’s sleeve. Nor did she think twice when sipping from her second glass of Chardonnay even if in a “delicate state” for the time being. The point of her observation, Michaela resolved as she stared openly, was that Nida just didn’t give a damn about anything other than herself.
Reaching for her napkin, Michaela carefully brushed her sweater to remove all traces of sugar and shifted in her seat away from the table. Michaela affirmed to herself that Nida’s irresponsibility was not going to dampen her feel good moment… or her cashmere. The soft sweater, with its cowl neck, drop shoulders and long sleeves was how she wanted to introduce herself as a wiser adult while ushering in the next decade of her life. During brunch, Michaela often caught herself rubbing a hand on her left forearm. Wool never felt this good. The sweater had been her one and only splurge in months (a gift she gave herself), because the storage unit filled with brand new furniture didn’t count. The furnishings from IKEA, Pier 1 and Restoration Hardware – the outlet store, because she couldn’t bring herself to pay full price for anything – were necessities for her new home.
As Nida openly and predictably questioned if she should tell the father or not, the autumn breeze blew Cammie’s empty Sugar in the Raw packets across the table. Michaela was the only one to notice them litter the ground beside them. Just like she was the only one that saw that as a round of congratulations was given when her friends finally toasted her upcoming move that the only smile to reach both ears was her own.
While the group whipped out smartphones to calculate how to split the check four ways, taking turns telling no one in particular that they wanted to cover the meal as part of her gift, Michaela looked forward to the days ahead. She stood as ideas for the next getaway were repeated and Michaela nodded with each one.
“Miami.” They finally decided where they wanted to go in the spring and this time when they all smiled, Michaela noticed she was the only one whose smile did not quite reach her ears. She also had the feeling that for the first time all afternoon, her friends noticed her forced smile… and possibly her, too.
It didn’t matter. Any attention at that point, good or bad, was an effort given too late.
Two days later, Michaela closed on her new home. With keys in hand, she met the movers at the storage unit. She already enlisted the help of her brother and his friend to move what was left in her one-bedroom apartment. Everything else had been sold and donated.
Thursday evening she was uncorking a celebratory bottle of wine and watching 13 Going on 30. Next to her on the sand Belgian linen sectional she got for a steal because there were a couple of nicks on the wood blocked feet was her mail – the first item addressed to her at the new address was a welcome letter from Xfinity. Beneath it was a bill from Xfinity.
Twelve hours later, after snoring softly under her own roof for the first time and imagining the first night she would have her first male overnight guest, Michaela bounced down all eight steps in front of her townhome. The vulgar sound of rubber skidding on asphalt greeted her, welcoming in her Friday.
Michaela survived nearly getting run over by her next-door neighbor, who decided to announce she forgot her cellphone rather than apologize for the near catastrophe. She even managed to find the silver lining in getting laid off from work that morning thanks to the promise of two weeks of salary for every year she worked for the pharmaceutical company. With four months of income and the buyout of vacation and sick days, she could manage while looking for a new job. Michaela once dreamed about writing a novel, something she could do between interviews she reasoned, but remembering there was now a mortgage in her name tarnished her optimism. There was no time for dillydallying. She was now a grownup with responsibilities.
“You dropped this,” a female voice that somehow reminded Michaela of the buttermilk fried chicken she savored days before called out.
Michaela looked up into curious brown eyes. She almost smiled until she recognized the absent-minded driver from earlier that day. “Thanks.”
Her neighbor hesitantly released the large white envelope as Michaela’s eyes narrowed. That’s when Michaela straightened her spine and stopped frowning. “Hi. I’m Michaela. Your new neighbor.”
“Tiffany. I live right there.”
Michaela nodded. She remembered seeing Tiffany brush past her as she called out a bunch of random muttering about a left-behind phone. “Nice to meet you.”
Clutching the envelope detailing the COBRA benefits Michaela knew would eat up most of the severance check she was given, Michaela considered another reason she was thankful Tiffany did not hit her. Medical expenses. While making a mental note to schedule all her necessary checkups with her doctors and dentist before her current coverage expired, she waited for Tiffany to finish. No one just stood there unless they had something else to say or expected something in return… and last time Michaela checked, she didn’t owe the woman a thing.
“I want to apologize for earlier.” There it was again, a thick southern accent that in no way matched the way Tiffany appeared. Tiffany had the voice meant for some of Michaela’s favorite movies, characters, and shows: Steel Magnolias, Blanche from Golden Girls, and Designing Women. Horrible fake dialects… but there was something about the sound of old southern white ladies with quick wit and memorable lines that could halt Michaela while channel surfing if she caught a television marathon. Then there was Anthony, her favorite character of all. No one laughed like Michaela did whenever Meshach Taylor introduced himself as Cindy Birdsong during the Wilderness Experience episode on Designing Women. Just like his female impersonation had, Tiffany’s voice would have gotten her attention if it had been an afternoon spent channel surfing when Michaela heard it. And neither voice matched the body it came from.
“I’m on call,” Tiffany explained.
Michaela blinked to bring herself back to the present. Nodding, she replied, “It’s okay. I still have all my toes.”
“I planned to stop by to introduce myself to you this evening. I’m having a get together with friends this weekend. You should come over.”
“Thanks for the invite, but I’m still unpacking.”
Michaela heard the mentioning of where she used to live. It wasn’t far, but with her department – well former department – relocating to the Pennsylvania office, Michaela didn’t want to commute that great of a distance any longer.
“I noticed the tags. Not sure if you know anyone, but it’s nothing too extreme. We do it every other Sunday. There aren’t too many of us here, and even fewer I extend an invite, too. Being that I nearly ran you over this morning and I want to ask if we can use your second parking space, since I noticed you only have one car, the invitation would be the polite thing to do. Right?”
“For the invitation or space?”
Michaela wondered if what she was experiencing was a test for real grown ups. Shrugging, she replied, “Both.”
Just in case, she didn’t want to fail.
She was early, but after glancing at her watch – one she only started wearing recently – Michaela noticed she was actually on time. No one else had arrived and Tiffany insisted that she didn’t need any help setting out the food.
“Pour yourself a drink and help yourself to some food.”
Michaela nodded and walked into the dining room to check out the spread. George Michael’s voice poured out of a Bang & Olufsen speaker making George sound better than he probably ever could in person.
Then Michaela realized halfway through the song that Tiffany was playing disc one. No one listened to Jesus to a Child just because. Michaela doubted it was ever downloaded on iTunes as a solo single. And she knew because she had purchased not just one, but two copies of Ladies and Gentlemen, only because she misplaced the first Best of George Michael CD collection somewhere in the past ten years. When she made up her mind that she was buying her first house – one where she planned to entertain – the perfect soundtrack was in order. She scoured Amazon for a used copy and this time got the version that had been released in Japan.
“They should be here shortly. Mason had a game and it ran over.”
Michaela turned toward the sound of Tiffany’s voice, but hearing several people walking through the front door diverted her attention.
“Hi, I’m Serena.”
“Amber. We both grew up with Tiff.”
“Michaela, the new neighbor.”
Serena, the shorter of the two smiled and nodded toward the door. A tall guy reaching for the women’s jackets so he could hang them up looked at her. “And that’s Mason. Everyone else is outside parking.”
Michaela returned Mason’s smile but it quickly faltered when she caught sight of who was behind him.
Michaela turned to look at Tiffany as if asking if it was somehow a cruel joke, but there was no way for her neighbor to know. Could she?
“Grant, get over here.” Tiffany reached for the guy’s hand and pulled him closer into their space. “I want you to meet my new neighbor. Michaela, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancé Grant.”
Michaela felt her body start to tremble and hugged herself, rubbing her hands along the cashmere of her sweater. She never wore the same thing twice in the same week, but it looked too good to not let it make a great first impression. Never did she expect it to also be worn while reacquainting herself with the past. “Hi.”
Then she looked at Tiffany expecting her host to see through it all, to know the rest of what couldn’t be said in the presence of company. Instead, Tiffany offered a gentle smile.
And Michaela felt dread when she saw that it reached from ear to ear.
– to be continued. –