Authors: Brandi Kennedy
There had been a flicker of hope when he had watched his younger brother Drew get married a few years ago. He had watched happily as his brother had promised to love and cherish his new bride, and he had felt the grip of loneliness ease as he watched Cass say the words that had made her his sister-in-law. Drew's best friend Nick had been his best man, and he had made a very inspiring toast during the wedding reception. Michael remembered it well, but not for the pretty words; what he remembered instead was how good it had felt to be hopeful for the first time after his divorce. What he remembered was feeling, for the first time since the divorce, like his life didn't have to end with his failed marriage.
After Drew's wedding, Michael had started trying to get out more. He had dated a few very nice women, had joined – and then quit – several somewhat expensive dating websites, and had tried more unsuccessful rounds of speed dating than he cared to admit. By the time he had attended his sister Cameron's wedding, he had stopped seeking dates and had started settling for what his brothers jokingly referred to as "companionship." And now, he didn't even bother looking for that; now, when he went to the dark little bar down the street from his lonely house, all he wanted was a stiff drink that would put him to bed when he got home.
A soft click pulled Michael out of his thoughts, and the lights to the garage bays all went dark at once. The music kept blaring though, and Michael shook his head as he fished his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans. "Damned old wiring. Be so glad when that's fixed!" He swiped his thumb over the screen of his cell phone, still muttering under his breath as he navigated through the phone's menus. Finding the icon for the flashlight application, he jabbed it with the tip of a grease-stained finger and used the resulting circle of light to help him find his discarded t-shirt.
It wasn't until after Michael had popped his head through the neck of his shirt and made his way carefully through the semi-dark to the lobby of his building, that he noticed the voicemail icon at the top of the phone's screen. Frowning, he tapped the little envelope symbol, waited for the call to his voicemail account to go through, and then set the phone on speaker. Dropping the phone lightly onto the counter, he listened to his messages as he updated the invoices for the jobs he had completed that evening.
"Michael," the phone said, using his father's voice, "I need you to call home, son. Your mother wants to finalize the dates for Harmony's engagement party, and we need to make some plans to do something for Xander. You're the one who knows him best, so get back to me when you can. Alright, love you, son." There was a brief sighing sound, as if Adam had been thinking of saying something more, but then he was gone.
A second message began as Michael started the process of shutting the computer down for the night, and he grinned to himself as he listened to the low tones of his brother's voice. "Hey, Michael," Drew said. “I just got off work and I'm heading home for the night. I saw the lights on in your shop ..." Drew's voice trailed away, and Michael could hear him drawing a breath. By the time he spoke again, Michael had stopped moving, the computer forgotten as he stared curiously at the phone. "Look, Michael. I just ... I want you to know I'm here for you, man. I know you barely leave the shop anymore, and – look, just call me, okay? Let's get together and hang out."
Michael rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh of his own as he turned back to the computer. Obviously, his family was getting worried. Obviously, he was going to have to get better at looking like he had his shit together.
The automated voicemail operator gave the time for the next message, and as the robotic female voice recited the phone number of the missed caller, Michael's grin resurfaced. The sound of the voice leaving the message only made the grin grow wider. "Hey, Michael," she said, her usual smile softening her voice. "It's Renee. Call me back when you get a chance. I wanted to check with you about what we were going to get for Harmony and Xander's engagement gift. I found the cutest thing, but I wanted to get your thoughts on it before I went ahead and got it. We're still planning to go in together on a gift, right? Call me back."
His cell phone was in his hand before he realized he had even moved, his fingers tapping out the digits of her number. "Hey," he said, smiling as she answered the call. "What did you find today for Harmony?"
Renee laughed softly, the sound as smooth as bourbon in his ear. "You'll never believe me," she said, still laughing. "It's so silly but I can totally see Harmony and Xander loving something like this, just because of how hilarious it is."
Michael laughed with her, without the slightest clue what they were laughing at. "You already bought whatever it is, didn't you?"
She laughed again, and Michael heard paper rattling in the background. "Maybe. But I couldn't not buy this, Michael. I had to order it before it was gone. Wait 'til you see it. Go look – I just sent you a picture."
Michael held his cell phone away from his ear, glancing at the screen in search of a text notification. Sure enough, it was there. "Alright, hang on," he said, wondering briefly when he had silenced the device. Shaking his head, he pulled his thumb over the screen to bring down the notification bar, before tapping the envelope that would open the text from Renee.
The image was of a wedding statue, which would ordinarily not be particularly funny in itself – except that the statue was of a bride and groom in a wrestling ring. The groom was holding his bride in his arms, in the classic carry-over-the-threshold pose, but they were standing at the edge of the ring; the groom was poised as if on the verge of throwing his bride over the top rope, while she clung to the lapels of his suit coat. Both parties wore fierce expressions, and the plaque at the base of the statue read,
Mr. Right vs. Mrs. Always Right
"Do I even dare to wonder where you found that thing?" Michael asked, laughing as he brought the cell phone back to his ear. "That thing is ... really something."
Michael could hear a hint of insecurity in her voice, and he jumped to clarify his meaning. "No, it's funny," he said. "I think Harmony will love it, and Xander will probably bust a gut, laughing at it. It's cute. We're, uh, doing something more serious too, though, right?"
"Of course we are," Renee scoffed. "Look at your phone again, since you have so little faith in me."
Chastised, Michael held the phone away from his ear again, leaning against the shop counter while he waited for the text notification to come through. The edge of his boot nudged the side of the garbage can under the counter, drawing his attention to the rum bottle he had tossed in earlier. What made him cringe, though, was yesterday's bottle, staring accusingly up at him. Ben, his office manager, had been off yesterday.
"Hey, Renee?" He spoke into the phone, touching it lightly to his ear to hear her response.
"Hang on just a second. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Sure, no problem," she answered. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, just hang on." Setting the phone out of the way, Michael turned to pull an empty garbage bag from the drawer behind the counter. He pulled it open, stuffing the seamed bottom into his pocket while he pulled the full bag from the trash can and knotted it closed. He could faintly hear Renee, humming quietly while she waited for him to come back to the call; Michael raised an eyebrow, pausing to glance curiously at the phone before he finished adding the new garbage bag to the now-empty can. He wasn't sure he'd ever heard someone humming a Kansas song before, but he
sure he was hearing the melody of "Carry on Wayward Son." Tossing one more curious look toward the phone, Michael grabbed the garbage, gathered his keys, and then lifted the phone to his ear again. "Still there?"
"Yep. You sure everything is fine?"
"Yeah, I'm just closing the shop for the night," Michael answered, cringing as the two empty bottles in the garbage bag clinked loudly together. "I, um ... I needed both hands to take the garbage out."
"Oh," she said quietly. Michael had seen her face the last time she had been to his house; he had watched her lips form a silent pucker, had watched her arch one slim, delicate eyebrow in surprise. She had hesitated before throwing her empty soda can on top of the collection of empty bottles in his kitchen trash can, probably debating with herself about whether or not to ask Michael about the bottles. In the end, she hadn't asked, and Michael had been avoiding their bi-weekly movie nights ever since. He'd be willing to bet his left arm that right that moment, she was remembering that night, too. They were close friends; she had spent enough time in his house to know him well, and to have noticed that something was off.
Hell, apparently everyone who knew him had noticed, if the worried undercurrents in his father and brother's voicemails were any indication.
"Yeah, it was a long day today for me," he said, trying to cover the awkward moment. He cleared his throat as he edged through the door and into the chill air outside, glancing over to make sure the alarm system was set before he allowed the door to swing closed. "How was your day? Anything fun happen in your classes?"
Renee sighed softly, but allowed him to change the topic of their conversation. "It was a good day," she said. "Long, but good. I did have a new student though – a guy!"
"Seriously?" Michael asked. "A dude in yoga class?" Stepping around the side of his building, he dropped the garbage into the dumpster before turning back toward the parking lot. His truck was alone at the edge of the lot, the same small pick-up he had been driving since he was in high school. He couldn't help grinning to himself as he walked toward it, though the memories it brought back were bittersweet.
He had felt every possible emotion in that truck – nervousness on the way to pick up his prom date, exhilaration when he'd pulled into the driveway of her house afterward, and she had dropped a hand on his thigh as she told him that her parents were out of town for the weekend. Fear driving home that night, sure that somehow her parents would notice the absence of the condom he had stolen from their bedroom in order to deflower their only daughter. Pride, as he drove to school the following Monday, no longer a virgin high school boy but now an experienced man of the world. Wonder, as he drove toward the church on his wedding day. Grief, driving home from the courthouse the day his divorce was finalized.
"– and I seriously thought he was going to fall right over on Cass," Renee was saying.
"Sounds like he really needs your class," Michael laughed, unlocking his truck and climbing in.
"I think he wants more than yoga, though. He asked me out after class. Just dinner, you know?"
Michael jerked, dropping his cell phone into his lap. Scrambling to pick it back up, he pressed it to his ear, his throat tight, belly clenching suddenly against the possibility of Renee getting involved with someone. What the hell was
about? "You told him no, though. Right?"
"Actually, Michael, I told him yes. I mean, he seems nice. And I'm ... God Michael, I'm thirty-two. Thirty-three in August. No kids, no family. I don't know about you, but I'm not getting any younger over here."
"Me either," Michael answered quietly.
"Oh my goodness. Oh my God, Michael, I am so sorry! I'm an asshole, I can't believe – I didn't mean ... Michael, I'm sorry. Please, don't take it like that."
"Take it like what?" He sighed, sliding the key into the ignition and starting the truck. His chest tightened, his heart wrenching. Whether she had meant the words for him or not – and he believed she hadn't – they still rang true. At thirty-three years old – thirty-four in December – Michael was about the same age as Renee, and he had no family to speak of either. But in his case, it was worse than just never having married, waiting for the right one; he
thought he'd found the right one, had given his heart, his promise for the future – and his marriage had crashed and burned. Worse, he didn't even know what had gone wrong; Nicolette had only cited "irreconcilable differences" on her paperwork when she had filed for divorce, and she had never been willing to mediate. Even stranger, she had made a point, as her testimony drew to a close, to look him in the eye. She had drawn a deep breath, her chest lifting as she inhaled; then, she had ended her testimony by stating that Michael was a good man and a good husband – she simply couldn't be his wife anymore.
Michael had stood in the courtroom during the final proceedings, silent, his eyes cast down to the table in front of him. He had agreed to the divorce, given Nicolette what she had asked for without fighting. She had looked at him one last time after it was over, tears in her eyes, her lower lip trembling. Michael had wanted desperately to reach out to her, to pull her close and promise her he'd do whatever it took to make her want to try again. But she had dropped her eyes; she had turned away. That was the last sight Michael had had of the woman he had promised to love, honor, and care for until forever.
"I really didn't mean you, Michael." Renee sighed softly. "I mean, really – at least you've had the courage to
. I haven't even done that. That's why I told him I'd go to dinner with him. You know? Because my Mr. Right isn't beating the door down looking for me. I'm going to have to look for him."
"Hmph. Alright, then." Michael sighed, bracing his cell phone between his cheek and shoulder as he shifted his truck into reverse and backed out of his parking space. "Still," he went on. “You do have a point. I mean, maybe I need to get out there again myself, you know?"
"We can have double date movie nights," Renee laughed. "Instead of just us. You invite a girlfriend over, and I'll bring Harvey."
"Harvey?" he croaked. The more they talked, the more his stomach heaved. He hoped he wasn't getting sick. Had he eaten dinner? No, he’d forgotten again.
"Yep, Harvey." Renee's voice had taken on a decidedly suspicious tone now. "Why?"
Michael shrugged, smirking. Harvey. What the hell kind of name was Harvey, anyway? The guy was probably some kind of scrawny, organic-granola-eating tool. No surprise he ended up in a yoga class, then. And there was no way this Harvey thing would go anywhere, either. Renee herself had told him a dozen times that even though she prided herself on being a strong and independent woman, she wanted to someday settle down and grow old with what she described as "a real man." The way Michael saw it, Harvey just wasn't a real manly name. Biting back a grin he couldn't have explained even if she had been there to see it, he said, "So, what's his last name?”
Renee waited a minute before answering, and Michael found himself smiling, scanning the fast food signs along the street as he drove toward his house. Finally, she answered, her voice so low that Michael might not have heard if he hadn't been waiting with baited breath. Her hesitation alone had told him that Harvey's last name was likely to be just as ridiculous as his first. "Fitzgerald," she muttered. But she went on quickly, a warning in her voice. "And yes, I'm serious. And yes, I think that's his real name. And no, you are not allowed to make fun."
Maybe not out loud, then. But he was definitely going to be making some serious mental fun. Harvey Fitzgerald. What a damned sad name.
"Michael? You still there?"
He bit his tongue before answering, hoping the pain would keep the laughter out of his voice. "I'm still here. Just looking for somewhere to get some dinner before I go home. You know, thinking about those movie nights with Harvey."
Renee sighed, but the breath ended on a stifled laugh. "Are you finished?"
"Not really." Michael laughed, enjoying the sound of amusement in her voice, even as she tried to sound stern. "Come on, Renee, I'm serious. Should we get a comedy? Romantic comedy? Or does Harvey prefer manly stuff?"
At this point, Renee lost her stern pretense and broke into giggles. "Maybe he likes action," she said.
“How would he know if he does or not?" Michael shot back, laughing harder. He felt a little guilty making fun of a man he didn’t know, who wasn’t even there to defend himself, but it felt good to joke and laugh. It felt good to let go, to just be relaxed and playful. And the laughing made it easier for him to quietly ignore the unexpected feelings of jealousy over Renee dating someone. “He can’t possibly be an action man. He probably hasn’t had any to speak of. I mean, come on. Fitzgerald? How will you name your kids without laughing? For that matter, how will you make it through the wedding? Do you, Renee Keaton, take Mr. Harvey Fitzgerald as your awfully wedded –”
“Alright, alright,” Renee broke in. “I get it. His name is … not the best. But he’s a nice guy, so I’m just gonna see where it goes, you know? Get my toes in the water.”
“The water’s cold,” Michael retorted, pulling into the drive-through line in the parking lot of his favorite burger joint. “Take your toes back out before you get hypothermia. Fitzgerald. How the hell are you gonna bring yourself to scream
when you’re in bed?”
“Jesus, Michael, you kill me,” Renee giggled. “I’m not going to bed with him, I’m just going to dinner. I gotta go, though, okay? Chelsea’s just getting home so she’ll likely come in her usual way.”
“Right, like a cyclone,” Michael grinned. “Alright. I’ll talk to you later. Maybe you can tell me you’ve got another date with a real hottie named Maurice Filibuster.”
“I might. Alright, call me tomorrow, silly.” There was a click, and she was gone.