I knew it was time to shit or get off the pot. The feared marriage and kids talk gradually entered our conversations. We had been together three years, so I should have anticipated it, but the conversation always went the same. She was ready to be engaged. I was on the fence and couldn’t give her a good enough reason why. Maybe it was because so many marriages fail. No. That’s a copout. Maybe it was because I had been burned before. I always thought that when I found the right one it would hit me like dynamite and I had been waiting for that explosion. It was Valentine’s Day once again and I planned on getting up early to find Candace a present before she got home from work. Of course I over slept till two. I blamed it on the double shift I worked at Brewhaus the night before. I was due back to work at six, which only gave me four hours to find something for Candace and get ready for work. I knew she wanted me to get a better job, one that could support a family and had hours that were comparable to hers. I wanted to get out of the restaurant business myself, but had no idea what I wanted to do. I had grown accustom to the lifestyle that bartending brings: late nights and even later mornings. Most days I didn’t get up until one or two in the afternoon. Any other job, with the exception of factory work, I would have to flip my waking and sleeping hours and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to give up my late nights to be a shirt-and-tie yuppie.
It wasn’t until she started working at Nico’s, an upscale salon in the swanky downtown area, that I felt pressure to find a career path. We used to have a lot of fun together before she started working there. We would go hiking on the weekends up on Signal Mountain and spent our evenings off out with friends. We went to festivals during the summer and never missed Bonnaroo. I taught her how to play pool and she got pretty good at it. All that changed when she started her new job. She never came in to see me at work anymore or wanted to go get a drink with our friends because of her early mornings. She forgot how to shoot pool and she never wanted to go hiking because it made her dirty. When I was going to buy our Bonnaroo tickets after Christmas she told me she didn’t want to go this year. She said that she was getting too old to be running around a crowded field tripping ‘shrooms without a shower for four days.
Her coworkers made things even worse. They were fragrant piles of complaints, gossip, acrylic nails, and pristine hair. She was becoming one of them and I missed her fun side.
As I considered the pros and cons of marriage, I entered a small party supply store. I thought I could decorate our tiny apartment before she got home from work, just a few candles, a balloon bouquet, valentines table cloth, and some heart shaped confetti. If I was going to do this I had to move quickly because of time. I wandered up and down every small, crowded aisle looking for all this stuff.
“Running a little behind?” An older lady with a nice pantsuit and a large red hat noticed my hurried expression.
I glared at her as I continued my search. “Yes, I over slept and this was the only day this week I had time to get out and find something for my girlfriend.”
“Well good luck, boy. My husband used to make it a priority to get me something special.”
“Used to? What happened to him?” I inquired, deciding to slide past the judgment in her tone.
“We divorced a few years back. I found him running around on me with a woman from my bridge game.”
“That’s terrible.” I felt sorry for her but the unemotional expression in her eyes lessened my pity.
“Oh it’s quite alright. She left him and now he’s alone living in some shitty condo in Tampa. Serves him right, the old gink.” She smirked and shook her head at the thought of him. “So, what are you doing for your lady?”
I looked down at the few items I had collected. “I was going to decorate our apartment.”
“I see. Table cloth, confetti. Seems kind of cheesy, don’t you think? Harold always got me flowers or chocolates or jewelry and took me out for a fancy dinner. He was good to me on holidays. Guess the bastard figured that’s the only time it counted.” She let out a small chuckle and started to walk off but I needed to hear more.
“How did you know you wanted to marry him?” I implored.
She turned to entertain my question. “I wasn’t ever certain. He was a good boyfriend when we were going steady. He took me out on fancy dates, dancing and dinner. We would lie around and talk about our dreams and ambitions. He seemed like a real catch. Got himself a fancy job at a bank right before we got engaged. My parents loved him and that was very important to me. As soon as we got married though, he became lazy and indifferent. We never went out anymore. His attitude changed and I realized he thought all a wife was good for were the three C’s. You know what those are, sonny?” I nodded. Every man knew the three C’s: cooking, cleaning, and conceiving, even if they didn’t buy into it.
“So why didn’t you divorce him years ago if he made you so unhappy?”
She laughed, making her wrinkled skin redden.
“Divorce was taboo back then and our parents never would have approved. As soon as they died and I caught him cheating, you bet I kicked him to the curb.” She then looked at her watch. “I have to head home, young man, can’t miss ‘Judge Judy’, those people on there are some entertaining train wrecks. But I will give you this advice, if you decide to marry this woman, expect a change in both of you. Marriage changes everything. I wish someone had told me that.” She gave me a small squeeze on my forearm and a wink before walking away.
How much was Candace going to change? How much had she changed already? Was I ready to change? I looked at the confetti and tablecloth in my hand. This wasn’t something she was going to appreciate. I could almost hear the complaint in her voice at cleaning it up. I threw the items down on a shelf near the door and decided to go down the street to a florist shop. I’d get her a bouquet of roses and some Godiva chocolates, her favorite candy. Those and a card I would leave on the table for her to find when she walked in the door. A nice surprise and no cleanup, perfect.
I rounded the corner of 5th and Cherry when my phone rang.
“Hey, Jason. I’m in between clients and I thought I would call and wish you a happy Valentine’s Day since I hadn’t gotten a call from you yet.” Candace’s voice sounded lighthearted with a hint of disdain.
“Sorry, I woke up late. I didn’t get in till after four this morning.”
“Yes I know. I woke up when you laid down and couldn’t get back to sleep.”
She was a light sleeper so this was a common problem. “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to wake you. How is your day going?”
“It’s been horrible. My first client cancelled. She was a full color, which would have been at least forty bucks commission. Then Sharon, you remember Sharon, that girl with the zebra hair that thinks it looks good? Anyway, she was on laundry duty today and didn’t show up till one so I had to do it all morning. Then the receptionist double booked me at noon with a cut and color and another cut. Both of those women were pissed and didn’t leave me but five bucks a piece.”
I entered the florist shop as she regaled me with her story. As I wandered around looking for a bouquet of roses she continued her rant. Something about Sharon’s husband having dinner with a girl he went to high school with and him being a jerk.
“What are you doing? How is your day?” She asked after her vent was over.
“I’m actually picking up your gift right now. I’ll have it waiting for you when you get home. So that’s something to be excited about.”
“Oh that is exciting. I hope it’s not flowers though. They’re just a big waste of money and they die. Roses are the worst, so cliché. Rachel’s boyfriend had roses delivered to work today and it’s just a silly thing to be excited about. But if you ask me, I think he’s trying to make up for not taking her out for her birthday last week.”
Dejected, I walked out of the store. “That’s shitty of her boyfriend. Don’t worry, it’s not flowers.” What was it? I needed a new plan and was seriously running out of time.
“Good. Oh, hon, don’t forget to clean up the apartment when you get up tomorrow. Remember we’re having that wine and cheese dinner party with Rachel and Jeff at seven.”
“I won’t forget.” She also expected us to dress up, which meant I had to wear a nice shirt and tie. I didn’t mind dressing up for occasions, but having a formal dinner party at my own apartment? I’d much rather get some Sweetwater, cook burgers on the patio, and be comfortable in my jeans, like we did with our friends in the past.
“Thank you. Well, my next client just showed up. From what I hear he frequently does drag at Allen’s on the weekends. Never would guess it though, he always looks so sophisticated in his suits when he comes in.”
“Have fun. Enjoy your day.” Drag? Who cares? I have four regulars at work that do that every weekend.
“You too. Love you.” And the phone went silent. I stood there for a few seconds staring at her picture on the background on my phone. Her blonde hair twirled past her fair skin and hung down to her waist. She had a blue bandana tied to the top of her head and no makeup on in this picture. I had taken it at our last night of Bonnaroo two years ago. I thought of how she looked now with her hair pumped full of chemicals that turned it red and black. It was short now and always teased. I missed her long hair.
I pulled myself away from the picture and started for my Honda when I ran into Ryan, my best friend in high school, whom I hadn’t seen in about five years. We were quite mischievous and partied a lot back then. We were the ones that let the pigs loose in the hallways on the last day of senior year. We were the ones that threw the biggest end-of-the-year parties.
His face lit up when he saw me. “Jason, dude, it’s been forever.” We shook hands and half hugged.
“I know, man. What are you up to?”
“Living the dream, dude. I just bought my first house last month. I got a big promotion at Edward Jones so we finally got enough money saved up to put a sizable down payment on one.” He beamed with delight.
“Wow.” It was all I could say. He was wearing a pink polo shirt tucked into a pair of pleated khaki pants. Where were the jeans? Where was the Zepplin t-shirt?
“So what are you doing these days?”
“I’m working at Brewhaus, been there about five years. It’s a pretty nice gig. You oughta come in and see me sometime.” I could see his eyes glaze over and could almost hear his thoughts: Still working at a restaurant at thirty.
He tried to sound impressed. “Hey man, that’s cool, and I’ll definitely try to do that. Where are you heading now?” He impatiently looked at his fossil watch.
“I’m actually heading over to Belk to get some jewelry. Apparently, I had the wrong idea when I thought I’d get my girlfriend flowers.” I pointed at the door just to my left.
“Right on. I have to get in here and pick up flowers for the missus.”
I couldn’t believe he was married. “When did you and Kelly tie the knot?”
“She made an honest man out of me two years ago. And I’ll tell you man, I’ve never been happier. I got my shit together, quit smoking pot and partying all the time, got a good job. She really helped give me direction. We’re thinking about trying for kids this summer.”
I was twenty-two the last time I felt the sort of love that made me want to be better, but I screwed it up. We had only dated for nine months, but all nine were perfect. They rivaled the first year I’d spent with Candace. This girl was smart and sexy. She loved to read and was into politics and conspiracy theories. I made the mistake of telling her I didn’t want to get married, possibly ever. I was young and marriage seemed so grown up. It was something that I couldn’t have imagined doing at the time. She said she didn’t want to be in a dead-end relationship so she left. I kicked myself for a long time for letting her go and always wondered what she was doing these days. I liked to think I learned from that mistake and never told Candace about my fears.
I pulled my phone out of my jeans to check the time. Candace’s blue eyes stared back at me again, beckoning me to change for her. I slid the phone back in my pocket. It was now ten after four. I said my goodbyes to Ryan and sprinted to my car. I needed to get to Belk and get Candace’s jewelry by five so I could get a shower in before work.
When first arriving at the jewelry department I met a slew of engagement rings. I knew
Candace would be expecting one of those soon but I couldn’t help a shudder as I walked by. “Good afternoon, sir. My name is Heather.” A wispy voice came from behind the counter. “Can I help you find something for your girlfriend or wife?” I turned and met the face of this voice. Heather, who I dated for nine months. Heather, who wouldn’t wait. Heather, whose heart I broke.
I cleared the nervous lump in my throat. “Hi, Heather.” My palms were instantly clammy.
Her eyes widened “Hello, Jason.” Her natural pink lips formed a smile and her olive skin flushed.
“How…” My first attempt at the word came out squeaky. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been good.” I could see her labored breath from the heavy movements of her chest. “How long have you worked here? Corporate job doesn’t seem to suit you.” I smiled and thought of her rants on corporate greed and the lower class.
She laughed; the sound was like a gentle brook. “Just a couple months. I needed a job while I’ve been waiting on the results of my vet tech exams. I’m hoping to get a job at one of the local shelters. What have you been doing?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. My mind raced back to twenty-two. I couldn’t remember why I was there. Her sapphire eyes reminded me of our walks on the bridge, our talks of making a difference in the world, our trip to D.C. for the drug march.
“I, um…” For a moment I forgot how to form words. “I’m working at Brewhaus. I bartend there.”
“I’ll have to come in and see you sometime. We’ll catch up on the last few years.”
“You should. I’d like that.”
She cleared her throat and regained a put-on professional air. “So what can I help you find?”
I shook out of her trance. “I’m looking for a necklace for my girlfriend.” Each word that fell out of my mouth tasted like poison.
“I see.” Disappointment splashed across her cheeks as her smile slightly faded. She reached up and touched the diamond hanging near her heart. “The necklaces are over here.” She walked down the counter, running her fingers across the edge of the metal rim of the case.
I followed her down to the necklaces. Her backside swayed nicely in a long, tight blue skirt.
“Here we are.” She looked up at me and smiled before bending over to pick out several thin necklaces. “Are you looking for a certain style?”
“Not really. I don’t know too much about what girls like when it comes to jewelry.” A nervous chuckle escaped me.
“Well here’s a little selection that I personally like the best.” She placed six simple diamond necklaces on the counter before me.
“Are you currently seeing anyone?” I had to know.
“Well, yes. We’re thinking about moving in together.” Her lips tightened and lost their smile.
Sadness overwhelmed me. I wondered if she was as lost in her relationship as I was in mine. Surely not, she was the one that wanted to be serious.
“Congratulations.” I swallowed the golf ball that started to rise in my throat and looked down at the jewelry before me. “So what do we have here?”
She told me about each of them in her angelic voice. They were all beautiful— one with a heart and diamonds, one a circle, one with a sapphire. “What do you think of this one?” She plucked the sapphire necklace from its silky bed. Diamonds and sapphires mixed in a heart-shaped charm.
“It’s pretty.” Candace would like it. She would parade it proudly at work. Her friends would think I had done well. “Is the chain long?” Candace needed her necklaces to have long chains; it was the fashion or something.
“I could try it on for you and you could see. Here, do the clasp for me.” She turned around and pulled back her thick dark hair to reveal her long neck with two small, sexy freckles.
I managed to hook the clasp, although my hands were shaking slightly. All I could think was how comfortably unbearable this entire situation was.
She turned around to present the necklace. She ran her fingers down the chain and took the charm in her hand. “It’s fairly long. But you can always get a different chain.” Her lips curled upwards and her eyes radiated.
My heart was beating fast; my conscience and my pants were screaming opposing ideas. “How much is it?” I pulled my wallet out of my right back pocket.
“Two-fifty, plus tax. What do you think?” I knew she wasn’t only referring to the necklace.
I looked down at my phone. The picture of Candace with her long blonde hair smiled back at me. She loved me and I knew it. She had changed, maybe for the better. She was working somewhere she could make into a career; of course she had changed. Her twenty-six year old self was more grown up than I was. I needed to do the same and had been unwilling to listen.
I turned my eyes toward Heather. The necklace was placed back in its silky bed. Her eyes beckoned ‘no sale’. I looked down at the necklace. This was the moment. Time to shit or not. I took in a large amount of air through my nostrils as I contemplated my next move. Heather’s eyes, Candace’s love. The past, the future, both standing still, waiting for my response. I had to move forward. I had to take the next step.
Exhaling slowly I said, “I’ll take it.”
Putting the necklace back in the box, her glowing smile fell.
“I’ll get this rang up for you then.” She turned and punched numbers into the register behind the counter. Her energy flared and tensed, and I could feel her disappointment palpable in the air around us. She whipped her long hair around to face me, holding out a folded piece of paper and Candace’s necklace in a gift bag.
Electricity shot through my body as our fingers touched. I held her memory close for so long and now it was fading. I was allowing it to fade.
I thanked her for her help and wished her well in her endeavors. As I walked away from the counter I could feel her eyes following me out the door. When I reached the safety of the cool winter air I opened the paper.
“595-0236. Give me a call when this goes south.”
I threw the paper in the trashcan next to the door of the department store. The past was behind me and I felt content looking at a future with Candace. Change was inevitable and all around. I intended to embrace the future and finally grow up.
On my way home, I considered what my future with Candace would be like and what kind of grown-up I wanted to be.
As I walked in the door my phone vibrated.
“We need to talk.”
It vibrated again.
“I went to the doctor yesterday. I have herpes.”
I stared slack-jawed at the screen. I hate the pot.