“Where are you off to? “ Sally had asked me.
I felt a bit guilty I must admit. I was supposed to be home boning up for my job interview in the morning. I really wanted the job at Kelly and Hart Publishing and I don’t know where my head was when I agreed to go to Penny’s birthday dinner at The Indian Garden. There was so much to read up on. I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself the next day. I wanted to look smart and as if I could edit a manuscript better than any of the other contenders. I wanted them to see that I had studied their business profile and was able to represent their company with élan.
I rarely went to parties. Social life was Sally’s domain, not mine. I was the one who stayed in our apartment, waited up until she got in, asked her who was there and did she see so-and-so and was the music good?
Sometimes I felt like a character straight out of an Anita Brookner novel; the kind of woman who on first appearances looks homeknit and mousy but has a rich interior life, a woman who knows Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in B Flat when she hears it and who has read at least half of La Comedie Humaine by Balzac.
I could go on about Sally. She was the nicest person, (or so I thought at the time), that any girl could have for a roommate. She was a fabulous cook, a great tennis player, had an aggressive career in a marketing firm and was even beautiful to look at with her twinkling blues eyes and her hundred watt smile.
“I’m off to a dinner birthday party at The Indian Garden for Penny, my old school friend”, I told her. “I won’t be too late. I have that interview in the morning and don’t want to show up with baggy eyes”.
I threw on the new scarf that I had splurged on at Ogilvie’s. It was blue and yellow paisley and I planned to wear it the following day for my interview.
I arrived a bit late so had to squeeze in at the end of the table.
“Hi”, I said to the guy beside me, who was noticeably perfection. “I’m Jenny”.
“Hi Jenny. I’m Peter. Here, I’ll move over to give you a bit more room.”
The food had already been ordered and soon the waiters were carrying in steaming platters of Samosas, Lamb Tikka, Shrimp Tandoori, Chicken Vindaloo, Eggplant Bhaji and Chana Bhoona.
“Smells great”, Peter said. “Shrimps?” he asked and then slid a generous portion onto my plate.
I ate too much I can tell you that. I was so busy focusing on the food and on Peter that I hardly remember much of the other conversation that was going on. It was pretty noisy with fifteen of us in there.
“How did you meet Penny?” Peter asked me as he poured me a glass of cold water.
“We were good friends at school. Still are. We both went to University of Glasgow and we both studied Contemporary English Literature.”
I said all of this with my mouth a bit too full I thought. And in the meantime I spilled a great yellow glob of curry on my expensive new scarf.
“I’ve only just met her a month ago, at the bookstore,” Peter remarked. We both started working there on the same day. I’m trying to get some money together so I can travel. Always wanted to see Southeast Asia.”
Maybe it was just the Indian tabla music tinkling in the background that put me in the surreal mood, but I felt a stab of disappointment when he told me that. Because what Peter didn’t know was that when I was eating the Eggplant Bhaji I was dreaming that we might go out together, then maybe even fall in love and I could take him to my new job that I’d be sure to get tomorrow at the publishing house and show him off. My life would lift me up like a helium balloon and carry me off in new directions. I’d go from an Anita Brookner character to a Jilly Cooper kind of a horseback-riding- country-manor-woman straightaway. But I like to think I’m a bit controlled so didn’t let on of course lest he think me the idiot that I was trying so hard not to be.
I never drink much but did have a glass of wine when Peter offered to pour me one. Just a droplet. Always like knowing what I’m doing. Safer that way.
“Well?” he said, when the party wound down and people started to leave. It was ten o’clock and high time I got back home so I could be fresh in the morning. I needed to remember all the bits I’d been studying about the firm’s business profile, about their losses and profits, about who was who and about where they wanted to take the company in their five year plan.
“Well?” I replied.
“How are you getting home? Can I give you a lift?”
I was just about to say “You’ve given me a lift already by letting me inhale the same air you’ve just breathed out” when good sense prevailed and I said instead “That would be great thanks Peter.”
I didn’t let him know that my heart was doing The Happy Dance. This was really my week; a smashing man to address my single status, a new job waiting for me to scoop up in the morning.
And my new scarf covered in curry sauce. Perhaps that should have been an omen.
“Right here”, I told him as he manoeuvred the SAAB along the rain soaked street . “Fifteen Rowanwood Circle. You can just pull over here.”
“I enjoyed your company tonight, Jenn”, he said. “Glad I could meet some of Penny’s friends. It was a fun evening.”
It was then that I had the worst idea of my life.
“Why don’t you come in for a cup off coffee Peter? You can meet my roommate Sally. Since you’re new in the area it will increase your
We both laughed (me not too loudly I hoped. I was still striving for the At-Home-In-The-World sophisticate here.)
He said “Sure. Let me park this thing and I’ll not stay too late. I know you’ve an interview in the morning.”
Considerate of him I thought, although I wasn’t about to give up the potential love of my life merely to avoid baggy eyes during my job interview. I’d have to dazzle them with my intellect instead but wasn’t going to let this chance with Peter float past me.
“Sally, this is Peter”, was all I said.
If ever I’ve uttered a wrong or slanderous statement in all of my life, those are the four words I’d soon wish I could have sucked back into my mouth.
It was obvious at the start, obvious that their eyes locked and that Sally was going to get to work on him. I’d seen her do it before but it never mattered to me before.
In only moments I noticed how she had crinkled up those eyes of hers into cute little blue slits, how she pursed her mouth to show up those dimples.
“I was just thinking about putting some gingerbread cake in the oven”, she purred.
‘My foot’, I thought to myself. ‘Gingerbread my foot!’
I struggled behind her to get the coffee ready as she poured the ingredients into a bowl, whipped them up and popped it into the oven. If it had been me making the gingerbread it would have taken me an entire morning and I’d have had to read the recipe twelve times.
“Nice flat,” Peter said, looking over my bookshelves. I took his coffee to him, handed him the sugar bowl. “Who’s the reader? Somebody likes the Bloomsbury group!”
“Me!” I offered, a bit too eagerly I’m afraid.
“Who’s CD collection? I see somebody likes Classical.” He stretched his legs, took a sip of coffee.
“Me! Schumann’s cello concertos, Haydn, Sibelius. You name it, I love it!”, I said again. I couldn’t compete with the gingerbread that was already sending out heavenly signals of eat me from the oven but I sure knew my way around Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
“Not a classical fan myself,” he said. “I’m more into Alternative Rock. Radiohead. Groups like that.”
“Love Radiohead!” Sally said as she popped her way too adorable head out from the kitchen where she was scooping lemon curd into a dish to go with the gingerbread. She dashed over to her own admirable stack of CDs.
“Here!” She handed him their latest disc. “Do you have this one? Borrow it. Take it home. I’ll get it back from you in a bit. ”
He took it, the sap, as I thought “So that’s how it’s done!”
That was her again; the cook, the tennis player, the stunner, the manipulator of mankind, offering him the world. If she couldn’t reach him through food then she’d try Radiohead.
“I’ll be off to bed then and leave you two alone,” she said as she handed round the plates of steaming gingerbread, a perfectly curled little dollop of lemon curd on top of each piece.
“Don’t go!” he pleaded. “After you’ve made us this treat I think you should stay and enjoy it yourself”
“I watch my weight,” she said, as I sat gobbling mine down, a splotch of lemon curd now blending with the curry stain on my new scarf.
Peter talked about his travel plans. “I hope to go away in the autumn if I can save enough money. Viet Nam, Laos. Cambodia. Maybe end up in Hong Kong and teach English for a while.”
“Viet Nam?” she said, and just about jumped off her chair where she sat with her lean legs tucked up under her trim body. “I’ve always wanted to go to Viet Nam!”
“Really!” he rejoined. “I have friends in Dalat.”
“Ohhh Dalat” she mewed. “I’ve heard a lot about Dalat!”
Funny, I didn’t remember ever hearing her express that particular sentiment before. Nevertheless, he bought it hook, line and sinker.
“Maybe we could have some Vietnamese food some night”, he said to her and then looked at me and added “You could come too.”
I said nothing. Nada. Zilch. I was ready for bed. It was almost midnight and I had to think about tomorrow. In fact, I had a lot to think about.
“Was nice meeting you Jenn”, Peter said. “Thanks for inviting me in.” He turned to Ms. Body Beautiful and said “And thanks for the gingerbread. Tastes like my grandmother’s. She used to make it for me after school when I was a kid.” I noticed the gleam in his eyes when he looked at her. It was the same gleam that was distinctly missing when he looked at me.
“Maybe we could have that Vietnamese food next Tuesday night,” Peter continued, while staring straight into her baby blues. “I know a place not far from here. Hong Lac House. Do you like pho? And you too, Jenn, if you’d like”, he added as a polite afterthought.
“Oh Pho! Love it!” Sally said just as I interrupted with “I’m busy on Tuesday nights,” hoping that Ms. Perfection would pick up on my sarcasm. There were many things I didn’t know, but the one thing I knew for sure was that I’d never allow myself to be anybody’s afterthought, no matter how charming he appeared.
I splashed some water on my face and crawled under my duvet. Sally knocked on my bedroom door. “Do you have any idea what pho is?, she asked. “I didn’t want Peter to think I didn’t know.”
“Search me”, I said into my pillow although there was nothing I loved better than a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup.
I think you know where I’m going with this story Dear Reader, as Jane Eyre might have said.
I had the job interview as planned, baggy eyes and all. I flipped my paisley scarf inside out to hide the curry and the lemon curd and thought I looked OK until I entered the waiting room full of other applicants who might have been trying out for fashion runways.
I didn’t get the job. And I sure didn’t get the man. Neither did Sally and I don’t say that with spite. Peter turned out to be a whole lot less than he appeared to be.
“Did you know he’s married?” Sally asked when she came in after their sixth date. (I knew it was their sixth because she was circling them on the calendar on the kitchen door.) “He let it slip”, she continued. “Let it slip! Can you imagine?” she repeated. “As if it was neither here nor there!”
I didn’t console her as much as I could have I suppose. I simply said “Too bad. What a jerk.”
But I couldn’t resist this last bit of piece de resistance. I went into the bookstore yesterday where Peter works.
“Hi!”, he greeted me as if I were his best friend (which I wasn’t).
“Hi!” I said back, as if I really liked him (which I didn’t).
“What can I do for you today Jenn? Need any help?”
“Where’s the children’s section?”, I asked.
“Over to the left and towards the back. Can I help you find something special?”
“I’m looking for a copy of The Gingerbread Man. Do you know it?”
“Haven’t heard of that one for years. My grandmother used to read it to me.”
‘When she was feeding you gingerbread after school I’ll bet,’ I thought.
He was on the computer, checking titles, tapping his way through several screens until finally he said, “It’s out of print now I’m sure. Wait! I can order you a copy from REPRINTS INTERNATIONAL. Want me to?” He looked pleased with his efforts.
“Would you please? I added. “I have a friend I want to give it to. I like the part where it says ‘Run run run just as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man’. I’m hoping she’ll have a good laugh when she reads it”.
But Peter was oblivious to my intent. He simply ordered it, said it would be in by a week Tuesday and told me to drop by and he’d take me for a coffee someday.
If I’d been on death row and that was my final offer I might have accepted his invitation.
But as it was, I had places to go.
Judy Pollard Smith writes from Hamilton Ontario. Her book “Don’t Call Me Lady, The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris” is available through order at your favourite bookstore, online at Amazon, or through Abbott Press, either in hard copy or e-reader.
Category: Short Fiction