I met up with Erin and her new husband at a restaurant by the marina. They had driven down to the beach near where I live for a little post-honeymoon getaway before going back to work. A getaway from a getaway.
The restaurant we went to was famous for the freshness of its fish—"still swimming this morning" was the promise on the sign outside. This was one of those signs with the movable letters, though no one had moved the letters for years. Even after making reservations, we had to wait. It was a popular place.
Erin was much thinner than I remembered. Blonder, too. When we hugged, my cheek brushed against her hair. It felt stiff, like the synthetic hair on a discount store doll. Pete, the husband, shook my hand. He was obviously someone who believed that handshakes are the best way to size someone up. While I checked my fingers for damage, he wandered off to look at a constellation of desiccated crabs strewn across a plastic net. Erin gave my sleeve a tug. "So, Frieda? What do you think?"
This was the first time I'd met Pete. I missed their wedding. It was one of those destination things down in the Virgin Islands and I couldn't afford to go. It's expensive to live near the beach. Something has to give.
"He seems nice," I said. "You both look so happy."
"Oh we are. Meeting Pete changed my life. Made me feel like there's a reason for things. You know. A purpose." She gazed at the back of Pete's jacket. It was wrinkled, pleated like an armadillo skin. "Isn't that sweet? He's giving us a little time alone."
Her voice seemed different. Higher and more thinly strung. "I was so sorry you couldn't make the wedding. It was so perfect—right down on the beach, the sun setting. Just like a postcard." She played with her ring, straightening it up, centering it on her finger.
I chose not to notice. "I went to your website and looked at the pictures. It certainly looked like you lucked out, with the weather and all."
"Oh, we were blessed, that's for sure. What's happening with you and Trey? I thought you guys were getting serious."
I shrugged. "That ended a while ago. He married his urologist." I used to say, "…and boy was I pissed," at the end of that sentence, but this time I didn't.
Erin and I had once been close. When we were in junior high school, we were on the phone to each other so frequently my mother called the phone cord our umbilical cord. She said we were permanently linked together by the Bell System. We would hang on the line and listen to each other giggle until neither of us could make any more sounds come out. But we had different schedules in high school, and then Erin went out of state to college. Eventually, we devolved into Event Friends—the ones you contact when something important or exciting has happened to you. One step above Christmas card friends.
"Anyone new on your horizon?" She tipped her head at an odd angle, arched one brow. This was a gesture I'd never seen her use—something she must have picked up in college—the coy, weightless pose of a sorority girl.
I shrugged. "Mmm—not that I know of." I had just turned thirty-one—an age when people ask you that a lot. I hadn't yet reached the age when everyone starts to avoid those questions—when they start to believe your Time is Running Out. To be honest, I wasn't really looking anymore. I had enough to do just keeping up with myself.
She squeezed my arm, gave me a sugary smile. "Don't worry. You'll find someone. Trey just doesn't know what he missed."
Pete came up behind Erin and draped his arm across her shoulders like a blanket. "Hey, they just called our name." He seemed nice enough. One of those manly men. The sort who buys his jackets with too-tight sleeves, and crosses his arms with his fists behind his biceps to make them look bigger. He looked distorted, like a newspaper picture on a stretched-out piece of Silly Putty. Erin gave him a melty gaze, took his arm. I followed them to our table.
This restaurant was called The Pier because it was on the end of one. The dining room faced the sea, with large picture windows across three of the sides. From your table, you could watch people sail their boats out into the sound. Sometimes dolphins arced off near the horizon. It was a good place to eat if you didn't necessarily want to talk.
The server left us a trio of menus. Pete and Erin cozied their chairs together in one corner of the table, shared one menu, looked across at me. I felt like I was at an interview. He asked me what was good. I didn't know what they liked. I shrugged. "It's all good."
The server told us her name was Amy. Then, she recited the specials. I went with the flounder. Pete ordered snapper for himself and shrimp for Erin. They nuzzled each other like small animals. I sat with my hands in my lap and looked out the window at the ocean.
"So. You guys have known each other since junior high." Pete gave me a squinty half-smile. "And you're a…" His voice trailed off. He looked at Erin.
"I told you, silly," Erin poked Pete in the arm. "Frieda manages an apartment building. And she's trying to be an illustrator. She's really talented. At Harding, she did all the art for the yearbook."
"How does that work, managing an apartment? Don't you have to get a guy in to do the plumbing and wiring and stuff?"
With my finger, I tapped at one of the ice cubes in my glass, forcing it below the surface. "I can do most of the small stuff myself. If the job's too involved, I hire someone who can do it."
"How'd you learn to do repair work?"
"It's not that complicated. I picked up a few books. Went online. You can figure out how to fix just about anything these days."
"Hmmm." I could tell Pete had finished with me, taken stock, whatever he did. I was boring, homely, and relatively unsuccessful. He had no use for me. We all watched the boats until the food came.
My oversized piece of flounder lolled off the edges of the plate. A cup of slaw nestled next to it, along with skinny French fries scattered like pick-up sticks. I levered up a large chunk of fish, began to chew.
Across the table, Erin and Pete clasped their hands and bowed their heads.
It was a mumbly prayer. I looked away, like there had been an accident. Didn't notice, until it was too late, the open hand Erin had extended to me.
I never expected this. Neither of us had grown up in religious households. My parents were long-lapsed Episcopalians. I have no idea what Erin's parents were. We both had the usual suburban Christmas—all glitter and gifts. Other than that, Jesus never came up.
After praying, they looked up at me. I tried to keep it from them—that I had been eating fish while they prayed—but when I tried to swallow, the food caught in my throat. I choked. I spluttered. I spat a half-chewed gob of flounder across the table. It landed in Pete's coffee, which gave him a good excuse to shoot me a look of disgust. "Sorry," I barked, between coughs.
"Drink some water." Erin pushed my glass a few inches closer to me.
I waved my hand in front of my face as if I were trying to chase off a bad smell. Gulped water. "Good grief. I guess it just went down the wrong way. Sorry."
Pete waved at a passing waitress. "Excuse me. Could you bring me a new cup of coffee? There's something in this one."
She blanched. "Something in it? What sort of thing, sir?"
Pete straightened in his seat. "Well, she"—he pointed at me—"spat a piece of food in it. A minute ago. When she was choking."
I wanted to leave right then. Things weren't going well between Pete and me, and I suspected they might get worse. After the server left, I tried some misdirection. "So Pete, I understand you're a contractor. That's cool. Maybe you and Erin can start up a joint business where you build houses and she decorates them." Erin was an interior designer, the serious kind with a string of initials trailing after her name.
Pete shook his head. "Naaahh. She's giving all that up. I make enough money—she doesn't need to work. Besides… well, maybe you should tell her…." He patted Erin's hand.
Erin put down her fork, leaving a comma of unshelled shrimp impaled on the tines. "We're going to start a family right away. So I won't be one of those forty-year-old moms who can't keep up with their kids." She giggled, and for a minute, I remembered hearing that same sound through the earpiece of my parents' phone. The longer it lasted, the higher the pitch would go. Pete placed his hand across her forearm, and she stopped. It was as if he had hit her off-switch. "I won't have time to think about my business any more."
"Besides, it's those kids that get dumped into day care that cause all the problems," Pete added. "My kids will always have a mom at home for them."
I couldn't think of what to say. Erin had worked hard to get herself established as a designer. A few years earlier, the Event she'd phoned me about had been the incorporation of her business. At the time, I felt a nudge of jealousy. My greatest success as an illustrator had been some spots I periodically drew for the local weekly paper. I was not a go-getter.
I picked up a French fry, changed the subject. "Did you guys have fun in St. Croix?"
"Oh yeah. It was great." Pete sliced into his fish. "Those people really know how to treat customers. Real old-school service. They couldn't do enough for us."
"Pete kept requesting silly things. Just to see if they could get them." Erin giggled. "It was kind of a game he made up."
"Remember all the trouble they went to, just to get me some Icelandic beer? They could have brought me anything. I don't know how Icelandic beer tastes. But, they called someone in Miami and had it sent down. Just for me. What was it called—Egil Something-or-other-sson?" He shrugged. "Can't remember. Doesn't matter anyway. After all that, it just tasted like beer." They both laughed.
Leaning in front of Erin, Pete speared one of her shrimp with his fork. Ate it, shell and all. I grimaced and he grinned at me. "Good protein in those shells. Shame to let it go to waste." Fixing his gaze on me, he bit into another one. When he chewed, his jawbones jutted out like elbows.
I ate some more of my flounder. Erin picked at her coleslaw. Pete ate Erin's shrimp. After he finished, she pushed away from the table. "I'm going to freshen up. You two get acquainted." Pete and I watched her make her way across the restaurant, watched her disappear behind a swinging door with the silhouette of a flying bird on it. Underneath the bird, it said "gulls."
"So," I said. I was stuck. I didn't like this man, didn't like his boxy body. Didn't like his face—the way his brow furrowed and his scalp crept forward when he thought he was being funny. He was all the guys Erin and I had hated when we were younger. The jocks with the monotone voices and the ham-fisted senses of humor. He was Doug Copeland, Bud Thompson, Frank Cole.
I groped around for something to talk about. "It sounds like you like beer." Beer. A safe topic, since it had already been brought up once. "There's a great microbrewery near your hotel. Called 'Beach Brews.' They have all kinds of different beers. Maybe even Icelandic."
"Naaahh. That was just something to do to fool around with the wait staff down there. Give me a good old American Bud any day. Or Coors."
"Well, it's a fun place to go. Sometimes they give tours. Of the brewery part." Folding and unfolding my napkin, I watched a sailboat slip past the window, its sails bellying outward in the early evening breeze.
"Tours, huh?" Pete snorted through his nose—a jock laugh. With his index fingernail, he picked something out of his teeth, studied it for a minute, put it on the edge of his plate. "You seem kinda uptight. Erin told me you were funny. Said you guys used to laugh all the time."
"That was a long time ago. Besides, maybe I'm still funny. And you just don't get my jokes." I took a sip of water, wished Erin would hurry up.
"Nope. That's not it." He leaned back, stretched his arms behind his head. A server, several plates scaling up both arms, barely missed hitting him as she went past. Lurching forward, he leaned across the table.
"Thing is, you need a man."
"I need a what?"
"A man. A slow comfortable screw. A good fuck. Whatever you want to call it." He glanced past my shoulder, lowered his voice, forced words through a clamped smile. "I can help you out with that. Just say the word."
I stared at him. I wanted to slap him, to plash my water across his warped, leering face. Before I could reach for my glass, Erin returned. "They need more toilet paper in that ladies' room. Don't bother with the stall nearest to the door. It's completely empty." Pete stood up, pulled her chair out for her. As she sat down, she beamed at me. "Isn't he great? I feel like a queen."
Erin's eyes glowed starry and unaware. Pete held her hand. From the other side of the table, they both smiled at me.
I excused myself and retreated to the bathroom. Closed myself into a stall. Leaned on the metal divider. As I put my weight against it, it shifted. I wondered if maybe they'd give up on me and leave if I just stayed where I was. But I knew they wouldn't. I opened the stall door and soaped my hands all the way up to the elbows, as if I could scrub off the memory of Pete's gimlet eyes, his hissed proposition.
Erin burst into the bathroom. "I just couldn't wait for you to get back! Isn't he great? I'm sooooo lucky. Now we need to find someone like Pete for you." She was chirpy, pink-cheeked, and breathless.
I knew I had to tell her what had happened. Carefully, gently. "Erin, while you were in the bathroom, Pete said something to me—" I pulled a flurry of paper towels out of the dispenser.
"Oh dear. He noticed that you didn't pray with us, didn't he? He's so worried about everyone's soul. He can be a little pushy when it comes to God." She rummaged in her purse. "I'm sorry. I was planning to talk to you myself. But not this time. This time was just so you two could get acquainted."
I began to wash my hands again. I needed something to do. Erin's eyes met mine in the mirror. She was very happy. And I was going to spoil it all. "No, it wasn't about—uh—God. It was about me." I released another flock of paper towels.
"Oh but that's how he does it. He starts off talking about you, then he introduces Jesus into the conversation. It's the best conversation you'll ever have." She swiped lipstick across her already pinked lips. "It changed my life. It will change yours. You'll see."
"But what if I'm not interested in… what Pete said?" I couldn't do it. I couldn't crush her like this. Sooner or later, he would get careless. She wasn't stupid. Eventually, she would find out he was a creep. Besides, we weren't that close any more. I hardly knew this version of Erin, her new Barbie body, her stiff, processed hair. If this dinner had been our first meeting, we probably wouldn't ever have become friends.
"I'll talk to him for you, if you like. But you know, Frieda, you need to get right with the Lord. It's important. I believe Pete and I came to you today for a reason. And you need to think hard about that." She gave me a grave look, clasped my damp hands. "You can't ignore Jesus forever. He's waiting to hear from you." Her blue eyes were as flat and still as an empty swimming pool.
"Okay, Erin. I'll keep that in mind." I tried to pull away from her, but she held on. Gave my hands an extra squeeze before letting go.
When we returned to the table, Pete had already paid the bill. We pushed our chairs in, said our goodbyes. Erin reminded me to think about what she said. She'd be calling me. I gave her a hug, patted her back. Her hair rasped along the side of my neck.
On the way out, I watched Pete offer Erin his elbow. She clung to it like a life-preserver.