"She's GREAT!" Nicole interrupts. "She met a man. She's just about to give details. Come on. Let's sit."
"Seriously, guys," I say. "Nic, you're making too big a deal of this. He's just this incredibly gorgeous, funny guy who I met when he was stalking me last week." Then I plop down on their couch, set my wine down and pick up a People magazine on the coffee table and start idly flipping through it just to annoy them.
Nicole and Mike aren't sitting. They are standing in the middle of the living room staring at me.
"WHAT?" Nicole shrieks. "He was stalking you? Why? Wait! How did you know he was stalking you?" She frowns, "Was he really stalking you?"
Mike is silent but he's looking at me like he might be slightly pissed. They both take seats on the loveseat across from me.
I put the magazine down and pick my wine glass back up.
I think of everything that has transpired in the last 48 hours and I suddenly feel overwhelmed. I take a big gulp of red wine and frown slightly. If I'm going to spill, then I guess I have to spill. "I guess I have to start at the beginning, guys."
Nicole glances at her watch and looks back at me like I'm about to disclose where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, "Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes. Go." They're both riveted on me. I really do love them both so much. I should have told them more about my background so long ago. I've just tried so hard to leave my past behind.
"You know I grew up in foster care," I start, "I've never really discussed why, but basically, my mom was a junkie who did whatever she needed to do to score a hit. She was never real concerned where I was, if there was any food in the refrigerator, or if I had any clean clothes. She also was never real concerned about who she was bringing around our apartment when she was partying, and that meant she didn't really care what kind of sickos she was exposing me to. In fact, she watched a couple times as things got seriously inappropriate with several of her boyfriends and me." I take another huge sip of wine. "Of course, she was so zoned out on those occasions, it's hard to say whether she was actually present or not. Luckily, I was able to make myself invisible for the most part when she was on one of her benders and the partying went on for days. I would hide in a closet, under the bed, or anywhere else I could fit my small body where I felt it would be safe." I glance up at Nicole and she looks stricken, tears glistening in her eyes. Mike has a hard look on his face and his eyes are focused on Kaylee as she plays with her dolls in the open plan dining room just out of hearing distance.
"Anyway," I sigh, "The police were finally called during one of her parties, and I was found in a compromising position with one of the wasted party-goers." Nicole gasps. Mike clenches his jaw.
"Oh, honey," Nicole whispers. I wave it off. It's been so long. It seems like a lifetime ago.
But, if I'm truthful, other times it seems like yesterday.
"When I got to foster care, I met a boy named Leo almost immediately. We were only in the same home for a couple months, but we formed a bond and it's hard to explain how strong that bond was to anyone who hasn't been in a situation where you feel like you are completely alone in the world at such a young age." I pause, lost in thought. "It wasn't just that we were in a similar situation, it was," I pause again, gathering my thoughts, "It was as if I had found my other half and I finally felt complete. I know that sounds unfathomable being that I was only ten years old, but it's the truth, plain and simple. It was as if all of those ten painful years had been for the sole purpose of bringing me to that boy in that place and time, and so I could only be grateful for any pain that had transpired to lead me to him."
I look up at Nicole and Mike and they are staring at me with matching expressions of shock. This is probably a record for the most words spoken about myself in a row over the last three years that I've known them.
"At first, we formed a connection as friends, and I almost thought of him as a big brother, a protector, but as the years went by and we grew older, we fell in love. And the thing about falling in love is that no matter where you are when it happens, you can't help but to color those moments with beauty, even if you're in a location of ugliness. He made what would have been a place of nightmares into a place to dream."
"I was in and out of court, having to testify against my birth mom who never once showed up for the proceedings." I pause, letting the memory of that hurt wash over me. "He made it ok. When I was loved by Leo, I always felt like I would be ok." My own eyes well up now and I have to gather myself to continue.
"He had moved to a different foster home a small distance away from mine, but he visited me as often as he could get away and we always met on the roof outside my bedroom window. We dreamed together, we planned a life together. We were so young, but we were so sure." I can't help the smile that finds its way to my lips.
"When I was fourteen and he was fifteen, he was adopted by a couple. This was somewhat shocking as it's very, very rare for a teenager to be adopted. I didn't know much about the couple but from what Leo told me, they were very kind and they really just wanted to give a home to a kid who most likely had no hope of having one."
"I was thrilled for him, except for the fact that he found out that his new adopted father had gotten a new job in San Diego and they'd be moving very quickly."
"We promised we would wait for each other, that he would come for me when I turned 18 and that we would make a life together. He promised me that as soon as he got to San Diego, he would write to me with all his information and that we would keep in touch through letters. He asked me to promise him that I would save myself for him. I couldn't have imagined doing anything different anyway. In my mind, I belonged to Leo, and he belonged to me. Distance would never change that."
"Jesus, honey," Nicole whispers, bringing her hand to her chest.
I sigh and continue. "He came to say goodbye to me the night before he left and he kissed me for the very first time. And when I say he kissed me, I mean it was like a vow, that kiss. I've heard people say they lose themselves in a kiss, but it was like we found ourselves the second our lips met. It was like he took me apart and put me back together with that kiss."
I am silent again, and when I snap to, I realize I am touching my lips with my fingers. I pull them away and look back up at Nicole and Mike who are gawking at me. "Jesus, honey," she repeats, and really, there's nothing else to say.
I direct my eyes at Nicole and drop the bomb, "But, he never did write to me from San Diego. I never heard from him again."
They are staring at me, stunned. "But - " Nicole starts. "What - " Mike says.
I put my hand up. "I know. I've gone over every possible scenario in the past eight years, believe me. Anything you can think of, I checked into it. I didn't know his new adoptive parent's last name and so I didn't get far. There were so many things my 14 year old self didn’t think to ask. Of course, I had no idea I’d need any information that he’d be unable to give to me later. But, I really did try to research whether there was a physical reason why he never contacted me. I came up empty each and every time."
"You were just kids though, Evie," Nicole starts, and I stop her by nodding my head no vigorously. "No, I know we were kids but these feelings were very, very real. For both of us. I can't explain why he abandoned me, why he lied to me, but I know that his feelings up to that point were very, very real. I will not talk myself out of that. I don't know why they changed, but I will not talk myself out of them existing at all." I bite my lip.
A loud buzz sounds from the kitchen and Nicole jumps up to turn off the stove and is back on the couch in about thirty seconds, staring at me spellbound again.
"Anyway!" I say, trying to boost the mood in the room, "That was eight years ago. I almost feel like I have to console them after the sad ending of that story.
Then, I bring them up to speed on Jake and his connection to Leo, how I confronted him, and him showing up today and asking for my phone number.
"Holy hell!" Nicole yells! "Evie, it's fate, that's what it is. I mean, I'm sorry to hear about Leo," she looks at me sadly. "But Jake's gorgeous, you say?"
I burst out laughing. Only Nicole. She winks at me, letting me know it was her intention to make me smile.
"Yes, completely gorgeous. Inhumanly gorgeous. I have no idea why he'd want to spend any more time with me but it seems like he does."
Nicole and Mike both are looking at me like I've got two heads. "Um, honey, have you looked in a mirror recently? She asks gently. Mike is nodding.
Mike continues, "Evie, do you realize that when you came to our fourth of July grill out last summer, every single guy there called me the next day asking if I could set him up with you?"
I wave my hand at them as if brushing their words away. "Mike, you do know that you have some seriously strange friends, right?" I smile though.
Mike laughs. "I know. Us electricians are not known for our amazing social skills, and that was mostly who was at that party. But they are still men, Evie. And they do still have eyes."
Kaylee bursts into the room at this point, demanding dinner. And I have to admit, I'm hungry too. Apparently, spilling burns a lot of calories.
We all head to the kitchen and Nicole takes the casserole out of the oven while I get drinks for everyone. The table is already set.
"Grab the salad from the fridge, hon," Nicole calls over to Mike and he grabs a bowl covered in plastic wrap before joining us with several bottles of dressing. We all sit down and say a quick blessing before dishing out the food.
During dinner, we chat casually, asking Kaylee about kindergarten and teasing her about her "boyfriend" Mason. It's fun and warm and it feels beautiful, like it always does. I wonder, as I always do when I come for dinner at Nicole and Mike's house whether I'll ever have a family of my own. I hope so but I don't allow myself to dream about that. It's safer not to. For now, sharing in their glow is enough.
After dinner, Nicole starts loading the dishwasher and I offer to give Kaylee a bath and put her to bed. We head upstairs and I fill the tub with warm water and bubbles and we chatter and laugh as she gets clean.
As I'm toweling her off, she asks, "Auntie, Evie, will you tell me a bedtime story? Your bedtime stories are the BEST!"
I smile, hugging her little towel clad body to me. "Yes, sweets, but it’s gotta be a quick one tonight because Aunt Evie is tired and I have to work early tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay!" she sings.
I help her put her nightgown on and brush her teeth and then we snuggle into her bed and I begin,
"Once upon a time there was a little girl who was so impossibly sweet, so intensely sweet, so amazingly sweet, that when someone kissed her, their lips would turn into a delicious flavor of candy."
"Did they turn hard like candy, Auntie Evie,” Kaylee asks, frowning slightly.
"No, not hard, just flavored, and a shade deeper than their natural color. It was not only delicious, but lovely.
"Her mom kissed her and her lips were the flavor of Cherry Vanilla. Her little sister kissed her and her lips were the flavor of bubblegum."
"But Aunt Evie, what if they didn’t like the flavor of their lips?"
"Well, the flavor only lasted for about three months so it would wear off eventually. But everyone loved the flavor of their lips because somehow the flavor was linked to the chemistry in the particular person's body and so it naturally came out just right each and every time."
Kaylee nods and snuggles closer.
"Well, eventually, word got out about this little girl and her unique ability and people came from all around the world to kiss her and get their own candy flavored lips. Pretty soon the crowds were so large that her parents had to start charging to keep the crowds down and so that they could afford to quit their jobs and set up a business that they called Candy Lips."
Kaylee yawns and so do I.
"The little girl grew sadder and sadder because of all the people who came just to take from her, to use her for her ability, day after day after day. Her parents watched her grow more withdrawn and distant by the week and their impossibly sweet little girl was withering before their very eyes."
Kaylee yawns again.
"So they moved to a distant country in the middle of the night and were never heard from again. Although there is a tribe of aboriginals in Australia who are said to have the rosiest, sweetest looking lips on the continent."
I wink down at Kaylee and stand up so I can pull the covers up to her beautiful little face.
"You rushed that ending, Aunt Evie," she says, but she's smiling a sleepy smile. "I'm going to think of something even better."
I laugh, "Well, okay, little critic. I can't wait to hear it." I smile at her again, kiss her forehead and walk to the door. "Goodnight little sweetness," I whisper as I turn out the light.
"Goodnight, Aunt Evie," I hear as I close the door.
Evie is 10, Leo is 12
I'm walking to the usual cafeteria table in the back that I share with Willow, school lunch tray in hand, when I spot him. Denny Powell, the boy who never misses the opportunity to humiliate me. My eyes dart left and right, looking for a path that won't make it so that I have to walk right past him. There isn't one. Also, he's spotted me and if I turn and run, he'll make things even worse. Holding my head high and ignoring him as I walk past is my safest bet at this point.
I'm so intent on my mission of making it past him that I don't notice his foot sweep out just as I'm about to exhale with relief. I'm holding my tray out in front of me and so as my feet tangle with his leg, my weighted arms pull me forward and I crash down to the floor, mac 'n cheese, steamed carrots, and jello ending up all over my short sleeved, yellow button down shirt, some splatters hitting my face and hair.