Authors: Robin Jones Gunn
lone in her quiet apartment, Lauren sat curled up on her cabbage rose couch and pulled her cotton robe tight. It was not quite dawn on this somber Saturday morning in July. This was the morning Jeff was leaving for New York. It had been two and a half weeks since the fateful dinner at The Ambassador and the heated discussion that followed at her apartment.
They didn’t make coffee. They didn’t talk calmly. Jeff accused her of “flipping out” because she cut her hair, and of embarrassing him at dinner by turning down the champagne. He wanted to know what had gotten into her and what had happened to the soft-spoken, predictable woman he had asked to marry him.
Lauren countered, asking what had happened to the easygoing, dependable man who wanted to live in the country. Why was he suddenly drinking so much and saying
Jeff called her narrow-minded and insecure. She said he
was trying to be something he wasn’t. He told her she didn’t understand. When she replied, “Maybe I could understand if you didn’t shut me out,” Jeff got up and left, slamming the door behind him. He had done this to her twice before in their relationship. No, three times. Each time she had patiently waited for him to come back, and he had within a few hours.
This time he didn’t return. He didn’t call. Lauren wavered between convincing herself hope still existed for their relationship and inwardly agreeing with her raw emotions that it was all over between them.
For the next few days Lauren kept her problems to herself. She told Mindy she and Jeff had had a disagreement about New York and were still working it out. Since it was so busy at work, she and Mindy hadn’t been able to take their lunch breaks at the same time, which helped Lauren remain detached. To her, it was better to wait and pray than to announce the failure of her engagement. All couples have arguments. Maybe they would pull out of this. It would save a lot of embarrassment later if she kept quiet now.
After three long days of little food and little sleep, Lauren received a call from Jeff at work. She met him at Giovanni’s. He apologized. She apologized. She asked if perhaps they should see a pastor or a counselor. He bristled and said he couldn’t marry her.
She said nothing as she gave him back the ring. He slipped it into the starched pocket of his white shirt and ordered cappuccinos for them. Lauren sipped hers silently as Jeff cleared his throat and told her about the new leather seat covers in his car, as if the two of them were now officially acquaintances, amiable ex’s.
As a final gesture of her love for Jeff, Lauren drew on every ounce of emotional strength left in her heart and honored him by not crying in public.
She went to work the next morning and pulled Mindy aside to tell her. Mindy cried, but Lauren didn’t. She asked Mindy not to make a public scene but to let Lauren tell certain people when she was ready.
By Friday, everyone knew, and they all presented her with a gift before the bank opened. It was wrapped in a small, flat box with a white ribbon. Inside was a note that said, “Here he is: the perfect man. He’s sweet, he’s silent, and if he gives you any trouble, you can bite off his head.” Under the tissue was a big gingerbread man. They all had a good laugh. Lauren was glad to be laughing and not crying.
During the next week, Mindy had bits of advice, some spiritual, some practical, but all compassionate. Lauren found herself praying constantly, not so much asking God why, as asking what she was supposed to do now.
She called Jeff once at work, which he never liked her to do. She asked if she could stop by his place that evening. He said he had plans, apologized, and then said he would try to see her before he left on Saturday.
Now, here it was, Saturday morning, and Jeff hadn’t called or stopped by. She had known he wouldn’t. Jeff liked clean breaks. He had told her once how he skipped a year-end party at college because he didn’t want to have to say good-bye to a bunch of people who would make an emotional scene.
What Lauren had the most difficulty with was trusting herself and her instincts. How could she be so wrong about a man’s being the right choice for her?
She and Jeff had met in Shelbyville, a small Tennessee town where her parents had moved when Lauren went away to college. Her stepdad had this dream of raising walking horses, and Shelbyville was the place to do it. Lauren had come to live with them after she finished college and then had gone from job to job in California, never finding the right position.
Jeff was in Shelbyville, visiting an uncle for the weekend, and met Lauren at a corner gas station. She was filling her car’s tank when he stopped and asked directions. She told him to follow her, and she would direct him to the right road. In the process, she got a flat tire, and Jeff helped her to change it. Then he asked for her phone number. They went to the movies the next night, but when she sat down in the darkened theater, the seat gave way on the left side, jarring Lauren and causing their tub of popcorn to fly into the lap of the stranger next to her. That was the first time Jeff had asked, “Do these sorts of mishaps always happen to you?”
Early in their relationship Jeff would laugh with her. Then he took on the role of her protector. He helped her acquire her present job so she could move to Nashville and be close to him. Their dating relationship moved forward. Everyone, including Lauren’s parents, were delighted to see her at a steady job. The only problem was Lauren didn’t like numbers or money or anything about banking.
When she moved to Nashville, her plan had been to use her English degree as the foundation for a teaching credential. It meant she had to take a few more upper division courses, and those would have to be night classes. But that was okay. She at least had a goal, finally, and planned to work on obtaining her teaching credential as soon as they were married.
Now all those plans had vanished into emptiness. She had no plans.
Lauren reached over the top of the couch to the drawstring hanging from the window and gave it a pull, raising the pleated shade to let in the morning. The view from her window was peaceful. A patch of pine trees ran along the back side of the apartment complex. The summer morning sky began to warm, as if the pilot light of the sun had been lit and any moment now
burners all across the heavens would catch the flame and set the sky ablaze.
Suddenly she heard heavy footsteps on the outside stairs leading to her front door. Lauren held her breath, staring at the closed door. The door knocker was lifted and tapped firmly two times.
Lauren slid off the couch, her heart pounding. She straightened her robe and quickly ran her fingers through her hair. She knew she looked haggard and grabbed a tissue, trying to wipe off the dark mascara rings under her eyes.
The knocker sounded again, twice. Lauren cleared her throat. “Coming!” She tried to sound composed. Her hand clutched the brass knob, and she let out a huge breath before opening the door. A pleasant smile was on her face as she prepared to greet Jeff.
But the man at her door in the early morning haze was not Jeff. This man was scruffy looking, unshaven, with brown hair parted crooked on the side and hanging almost longer in the back than Lauren’s. He held a battered box in his arms and wore a gray T-shirt and jeans.
“Oh, good. You’re up,” he said.
“Bradley,” Lauren whispered in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”
“Since when does a guy need a written invitation to visit his sister?” The athletic young man walked in and asked, “Where do you want me to put this?”
“Yeah, I brought you a computer.” He waited for a response, and when he didn’t get one, he said, “And now you’re supposed to say, ‘Thanks Rad! You’re a doll.’ ”
“Thanks, Rad. You’re a dork. What are you doing here?”
“You mean to tell me you drove all the way here from California without even calling to tell me you were coming?”
He gingerly placed the box on the kitchen table. “I knew you would be home. Mom told me that donkey dumped you. Thought you would like a little cheering up. So, ta-da!” He spread his arms and gave her a cheesy grin. “Here I am!”
“Jeff didn’t dump me. It was mutually agreed that we discontinue our relationship.”
“Oh yeah, right,” Brad said, opening the refrigerator door. “You’ve rehearsed that one a few times. This isn’t a job interview, Wren. It’s me, Rad. Remember? I know it’s been a few months …” He took the milk out of the fridge and sniffed it before drinking out of the carton.
“Try years, Radley. When did you grow your hair out?”
“A while ago,” he said, sliding the milk carton back into the refrigerator. He turned and looked at Lauren. “Did you do something to yourself? You look different.”
Lauren pulled a strand of hair out to its full length. “Could it be my hair, which used to hang to my waist?”
“That must be it. You look different,” Brad said, looking her over. “Actually, you look pretty good for someone who just got dogged.”
“I didn’t get dogged.”
“Oh, that’s right. What was it? ‘Mutual disagreement’ or whatever? You got dogged. Totally. What I can’t figure out is why would anyone dump you? You’re the best, Wren.” He poked his head deeper into the refrigerator. “Don’t you have anything to eat around here?”
“Get out of there. I’ll make some breakfast.” Lauren set to work making a blowout breakfast for the two of them. She hadn’t eaten much in days, and her vegetable bin was full of
ingredients for an omelet. Brad found a box of pancake mix and went to work alongside her, making Mickey Mouse pancakes.
It brought back lots of memories for Lauren. The two of them had always been close. Brad was only thirteen months younger than Lauren, and their mom had referred to them as slow twins. Their father left before Brad was born and never came back. In all her twenty-four years, Lauren had only wondered a few times about her father: what he was like, why he left, if he was still alive.
When she was fifteen she wrote a composition for English about a girl who was abandoned by her father when she was young and grew up to be a nurse. Years later the nurse was treating a terminally ill patient who was homeless and had lost his memory. The doctors wanted to let the welfare patient die, but the nurse took pity on him and did all she could to keep him alive. She cared for him tenderly, as if he were an infant. In the end he died anyway. When the nurse went through his few belongings, she found a picture of herself as a baby and a newspaper clipping of her marriage announcement. The man was her father, and even though he wasn’t capable of being a responsible parent, he must have never stopped loving her.
Lauren won a city-wide contest with that essay. It was the closest she had ever come to exploring her feelings about her birth father. Brad never knew him. Their mother married Stanford James Phillips, a Canadian with a strong temperament. He brought order to their family when Lauren was just beginning kindergarten, and he was a generous provider for them. Lauren and Bradley never doubted that Stan loved them or that he was crazy, head-over-heels in love with their mother. For all intents and purposes, he was their father.
Brad considered him to be his only father. Lauren never had a problem calling him “Dad” or taking his name when he
adopted them. But somehow, through the years, she and Brad had bonded in a way she never had with her mother, nor Brad with Stan. Lauren and Brad were in their own circle. And it was a small circle with only enough room for the two of them.
The first thing Brad did after stuffing himself with every last pancake and Lauren’s omelet was to set up the computer and printer he had brought her. He told her they were about to enter the Web. They would now be able to e-mail each other daily at a minimal cost. Brad yammered on about how much it bothered him that Lauren hadn’t called to tell him about the broken engagement.
“What if Mom hadn’t called me?” Brad challenged. “When were you planning to tell me? Christmas?”
“I wouldn’t have told Mom if she hadn’t called,” Lauren said. Earlier that year their mom and Stan had moved back to Stan’s hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, after giving up on the five or so years of trying to start the walking horse business in Shelbyville. “Are you going to computerize Mom and Dad, too?” Lauren teased, clearing the breakfast dishes.
“I’ve thought about it,” Brad said. “But I only had one spare computer, and I decided you needed it more than they did. I got it from my roommate. He upgraded and traded me this dinosaur unit for my mountain bike and a bunch of CDs.”
“I still can’t believe you drove all the way here. In what? How long did it take you?”
“I drove my truck. Did you know I bought a truck?” Brad said, ducking under Lauren’s narrow desk and plugging in the computer. “It only took a couple of days. Nice drive. Okay,” he said, kicking off his floppy loafers.
“Your feet smell,” Lauren said.
Brad ignored her and flipped a switch on the side of the monitor. “We have lift off.” He pulled the chair closer, and his fingers flew over the keyboard.
“Hmmm?” His eyes were glued on the screen.
“Okay,” he answered.
Lauren wanted to pour out her heart and ask her brother all the questions that had been chasing around in her brain that morning. Questions such as: What should I do now? Why should I stay in Nashville? Where would I move? Certainly not back to Shelbyville. And she had no desire to move in with her parents in Canada. Brad was wrapped up with his college life and friends in southern California. She couldn’t slip into his life. At least in Nashville she had a steady job and some good friends like Mindy. And there was the reason she had told her parents she was moving to Nashville in the first place. She had told them it wasn’t completely because of Jeff. It was also because so many colleges were available. She could finish up her teaching credential. Perhaps that was the answer, as obvious as it seemed.
Something Jeff said during their last meal at Giovanni’s loomed over her, something about his not wanting to hold her back from realizing her potential. Yet there seemed to be a twist to his words. The message she had read between the lines was that she was the one holding him back. And he had decided to go about his life without her.