WITH ONE HAND Annet grabbed her cellphone and hit speed dial. With her other hand, she reached into a brown paper bag.
“Did it ever occur to you I would’ve appreciated it if you’d been home?” she snapped, tossing her groceries on the worn marbled Formica countertop. Butter, chips, French bread, cream cheese, and, last but not least, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and two large pieces of chocolate and hazelnut cream pie.
“Why are you making such a big fuss?” Forrest protested at the other end. “It’s still early, right?”
She glanced at the round kitchen clock above the window. “Twenty minutes past six is not early!”
“Wow, that late already? Well, I guess I better be on my way soon.”
Her blue eyes sparkled like dangerous firecrackers. “Soon? Right away sounds much better. Besides, where are you?”
“I’ll explain when I’m home,” he replied, as always keeping his calm.
Annet brushed a few loose strands of long blonde hair from her forehead and took a deep breath. “Don’t forget you were supposed to pick up Chinese for dinner,” she said sweetly, letting the words sink in before she yelled, “Jerk!” and hit the red disconnect button. With a puckered brow, she slumped down on one of the rickety red leather stools at the kitchen counter.
How could he have forgotten it was her twenty-fifth birthday? Especially after they had talked about it the night before. They had planned for her to stop at the grocery store on her way back from work, and for him to pick up her favorite meal, curry chicken with white rice from Sue Ling’s Chinese Cuisine. He had promised unwaveringly everything would be ready for a relaxing and intimate evening by the time she got home. The ringing of her cellphone brought her back from her troubled thoughts. She glanced at the caller ID. At least someone hadn’t forgotten her birthday.
“Hi, Mom,” she answered brightly, bracing herself for the cacophony of self-centered chatter she knew would keep her on the phone for at least half an hour.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart. Are you having a good day?” Before she could reply, her mother continued, “You won’t believe what happened yesterday. You remember Paula, who lives across the street from me? The old gal with the faded red wig and the two black poodles? Well, she got in her car during rush hour. That red monster with the big-ass dirt tires. I have no idea why a seventy-something-year-old granny is driving a car like that. But anyway, she backed out of her driveway, without even looking, and plowed right into traffic. I happened to be outside in the yard and saw the whole thing happen. Some kind of boring-looking sedan crashed right into her, completely crunching up the front, and …” Annet closed her eyes, hoping she could muster up the patience to sit through another one of her mother’s monologues. “Chuck turned out to be such a nice guy. Can you believe that?”
“Uh, yeah,” she replied, realizing she had missed a good part of the story.
“Well anyway, he asked me out for dinner, so that’s what I’m doing right now. Getting dressed. I think I will wear the white mini skirt with the sunflowers I picked up at the Goodwill store a few weeks back. With my pale green blouse. If I still like him after we have dinner, I might open an extra button.”
Annet could just picture her mother flirting with her next victim. She’d seduce him with her red plastered mouth and tight clothes, exposing too much cleavage and giggling as if she was still a teenager.
“Ugh! Too much information, Mom,” she protested, wondering if her mother would ever be able to hang on to a man. Her entire life, Annet had seen them come and go, not one of them lasting for more than a few years, including her own father. An unwanted flicker of pain squeezed her heart, but she brushed it away. Why stress over the past? You couldn’t change it anyway. “You’re telling me you’re going on a date with a guy you’ve known for five seconds?”
“I know you pretend to be a prude,” her mother said, her voice clipped. “But I know you better than you know yourself. When it comes down to it, you are just like me!”
“Sure, Mom.” Not interested in another one of those talks, about how they were alike and such, she couldn’t have agreed less.
“I often wonder how it’s possible Forrest hasn’t run out on you yet,” her mother continued. “I know you’re gone a lot for work and that you’re tired when you come home, but I mean, the poor guy. He needs a warm-blooded woman in his bed, and you never seem to lighten up.”
“I think I hear Forrest coming home. Thank you for calling, Mom. I have to go.” Gritting her teeth, she hoped her mother didn’t realize she was lying.
“Yeah, why don’t you hang up on your fucking mother?” was the blunt reply.
Annet shook her head. If she and her mother had something in common, it was definitely their foul tongue, but that wasn’t something you could inherit. It was a matter of upbringing and as far as that was concerned, she had received none.
“Bye, sweetheart. I love you.” Her mother smacked her lips, making kissing sounds before continuing. “Have one for me tonight, will you?”
“Bye, Mom. Love you too.” Annet hit the disconnect button and groaned. “I had such a wonderful day at work, but now I wish it was over.” Her neck dripped with perspiration and she felt a trickle of sweat between her breasts. She peeled off her thick woolen sweater and draped it over the stool next to her, fanning her flushed face with both hands. What was her mother thinking, judging her like that? What did she know about her life with Forrest, about their relationship, and what they did between the sheets? Absolutely nothing. Zilch.
About nine years ago, she had moved to the small coastal town of Dunedam, with her mother and her boyfriend at the time, Brad or Dave? It was impossible to keep track. She had enrolled in the middle of her sophomore year. During first period, Forrest entered her life. He had been tall and skinny, his blond hair too long, his face covered with acne. Trying to sneak in after class had already started, he stumbled over his own feet, landing in the chair next to her. His awkward smile and whispered apology had caused her heart to skip a beat. Without warning, she had fallen in love for the first time in her life.
A key turned in the door, the sound bringing her out of her memories.
“Honey, where are you?” Forrest rang out. Dressed in a pair of black slacks, a light grey dress shirt, and cowboy boots, his Sunday best, he walked in. “Smell,” he said, swaying a plastic bag with a red rooster printed on it, in front of her nose. The familiar aroma of curry, onions, vegetables, and rice teased her nostrils. He put the bag on the counter, took a few steps in her direction and scooped her up in a warm hug.
“Congratulations, lovelove,” he whispered in her ear, nibbling gently on her earlobe. “I had an unexpected job interview this afternoon, so am I forgiven for being late?”
She leaned into him, for a moment allowing herself to relax and enjoy the familiarity of his presence and strong arms, breathing in the musky smell of the deodorant she always bought for him. Then she pushed him away with both hands. “Sorry, Forrest. Although I think that’s wonderful, this time you have to do better than that. It’s my birthday!”
Going down on one knee in front of her, he raised an eyebrow, his blue eyes wide open, as if he was in shock. “What can I do to make up for it? Just name it.” He got hold of her hand, took it between his, and sprinkled it with warm kisses. Slowly working his way up to her wrist and the inside of her arm, he pulled her closer toward him, inch by inch.
“Get up, silly,” she replied, trying to pull her hand free, but he held on tight. The next moment, she lost her balance and fell on top of him. They both rolled onto the kitchen floor, the cheap black and white checkered vinyl cold beneath them. He wrapped his arms around her slender body, catching her lips in a warm, loving kiss.
“What are you doing?” she protested, a familiar bubble of warmth rising inside her.
“Making up for forgetting it’s your birthday,” he whispered between kisses, “I won’t let you go until you forgive me.”
His blond charm and dimpled smile were heart-melting and she was struck by the love beaming from his eyes. This happy-go-lucky, laid back, and affectionate beau of hers still dazzled her with his boyish charm. Relaxing her stance, she softened against him. With Forrest, it was always impossible to stay mad.
“How about I show you how much I love you,” he offered, running his hands beneath her shirt, sensually caressing the tense muscles at the slope of her neck. “Will that grant me forgiveness?”
She wanted to protest, to pull back. This wasn’t her, making love on the kitchen floor, in the middle of winter, with dinner getting cold, but somehow her mother’s words nagged in the back of her head. Maybe she should lighten up, be more carefree and easygoing.
To her own surprise, it worked, a sudden heated urgency claiming her, a soft moan escaping her throat. “On second thought, I guess I wouldn’t mind having a bit of the something you have to offer.”
He worked his warm hands between their bodies. It wasn’t until then that she noticed he had unfastened her bra. Her body reacted beneath his touch and she reached for the top button of his jeans, her fingers fumbling impatiently with his zipper.
“That’s my girl,” he breathed in her neck. His strong hands easily peeled away her jeans and underwear, pushing the fabric between her bare buttocks and the rigid floor, but she didn’t even notice. Her blood heated and churned under her skin. She wanted him, needed him.
“Protection,” he said against her lips, trying to create enough distance between them so he could reach into his back pocket.
Blood roared in her ears. “Don’t talk,” she urged him, not wanting to lose the unfamiliar and intense passion surging through her body. It had never been like this with him.
Her fingers dug into the flesh of his back and she thrust her pelvis against his in an urgent grind. “Just touch me,” she breathed ragged against his neck.
“You’re sure?” he sighed between hot kisses.
Seconds later they moved together, the whole world flip-flopping around her.
After their intense passion subsided Annet paled visibly. “Oh, no! I forgot to take the pill twice this month and we didn’t use protection. What did I do?” She grabbed her scattered clothes and jumped up. “Maybe I should take a shower? See if I can undo the damage? Right?” The next moment she rushed to the bathroom, leaving him on the cold floor. He had only listened with a half ear to her rambling. She had a habit of talking herself through her problems, this time self-doubt dripping from her words. Still wrapped in the afterglow of their lovemaking, he slowly got up to follow her. By the time he got to the shower, water was running, Annet scrubbing vigorously with a washcloth between her thighs.
“That won’t help baby, you know that just as well as me,” he said, looking at her wet, naked body with admiration. Her long legs, unblemished alabaster skin, and full breasts. He sure was a lucky guy to have her.
“I know,” she replied, “but I have to do what I can. Damn, I should have taken the time to...”
He could tell she was upset and joined her under the spray. Pulling her close to his naked body, he mumbled, “It’s all right, honey. It was just one time without protection so what are the chances?” In an attempt to make her forget her concern, he tried to kiss her lips, catching the doubt flickering in her expressive blue eyes before she turned her face away.
“That’s all it takes. One time!” She freed herself from his embrace and stepped from the shower.
“Don’t go yet,” he protested as she reached for a towel. “I want you to wash my back.”
“Next time. I promise,” she replied, drying herself off with brisk movements.
Acknowledging the romance had gone up in smoke, he let the water splash over his hair and face. “You know I wouldn’t mind if you got pregnant, right? I’m ready for it.” He reached for the shampoo, waiting for her reaction.
Annet rolled her eyes and walked out of the bathroom, leaving him to his own thoughts.
“I really don’t understand why you think it’s time to have a baby,” Annet told Forrest after he joined her in the kitchen. The microwave beeped and she took out their dinner. “I only just turned twenty-five. There’s still plenty of time for that later. Besides, we can barely make ends meet on my wages alone.”
He followed her into the living room with the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and two wine glasses. They sat down on their comfy brown couch, both dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt.
“Every penny goes to rent, food, utilities, car insurance, and all that, leaving no room to pay for a baby’s needs,” she continued, dishing up two plates while Forrest poured the wine. “We would need to move to a bigger apartment. You know there’s no way we can afford that as long as you’re unemployed.”
“You’re right, I know.” Forrest tone was defeated. “This economy sucks. There are no jobs in my field out there, and the interview I had this afternoon isn’t going anywhere either. The guy was a jerk.”
They ate in silence, both deep in thought.
“Maybe I should apply at the local hardware store for a clerk position,” Forrest suggested once his plate was empty. “I noticed this afternoon they had a help wanted sign in the window. Or at the auto parts store in town. They seem to have trouble keeping their employees.” He held up the bottle. “Do you want more wine?”
“No, why don’t you get the two pieces of pie from the fridge. It’s chocolate and hazelnut cream and I totally feel like indulging.”
He poured himself another glass. “I’m serious, Ann. Ever since we graduated from high school and moved in together, you have been the one who worked, supporting us, managing to make it all work on so little money. Now I’m finally done with college, it’s time I start to make a few bucks. Since nobody is hiring engineers nowadays, I should at least do something.”
She folded her legs beneath her and took the last sip of her wine. What he’d said was true. He had never brought in a penny. But that wasn’t his fault. He wanted to become a civil engineer and with his 3.9-grade point average, he’d qualified for several scholarships. It would have been crazy not to pursue an education. Besides, all she had wanted was to work, to get away from her flighty mother. Talking him into sharing an apartment immediately after their high school graduation, she had found the one-bedroom unit in the White Castle Apartment complex online. It was the only affordable place in town, but there was nothing castle-like about them. The apartments were small and cheaply built, with most of the tenants on government assistance, single mothers, recovering addicts, struggling artists, and the like. The only reason they’d never looked for something else was that they couldn’t afford anything better.
“You were able to obtain those amazing scholarships that paid for your tuition and books,” she said after he came back into the living room, balancing two pieces of pie. “That amounts to a lot. You should be proud of yourself.”
He handed her one of the plates and sat back down on the couch next to her. “What good does all that do me when I can’t land a decent job?” He took a bite and smacked his lips. “This pie is almost as delicious as you are.”
“You’re too good for me. You know that?” she smiled, squeezing his arm with affection before diving in herself.