Building 45

Literary/Arts Journal


by Allison Simmons

"I have a table for 'Pemberly,'" I said, and the woman behind the podium in her high-and-tight ponytail took a glance at her list and gave me a smile.

"For two?" she asked, confirming the statement I had made that morning when I set the reservation and obviously noticing that I was very much alone.

"She's running a little late," I explained, and the hostess gave an understanding nod before picking up two skinny drink menus and leading me through the restaurant and out onto the veranda.

"Andy will be your server this afternoon," she said, picking up the bottle of water on the table and filling my glass. "He should be with you any moment."

"Thank you," I nodded, and she smiled before working her way back into the restaurant and to her podium.

I sipped absentmindedly at my water while I took in my companions on the porch. A few older ladies, some couples, and a duo of Wall Street-types in their nice suits in the midst of a power lunch. Tombo's wasn't a cheap place and it attracted a certain kind of people, which was probably why I was more than a little nervous about being there. I chewed on the ice in my glass and kept sending glances to the door that led to the veranda, expecting the source of my nerves to stroll in at any moment.

It wasn't that Bethany was clueless or anything -- the two of us had been eating at Tombo's since it opened when we were still undergrads. Bethany even had her rehearsal dinner there. She knew this place like the back of her hand, and if she would feel comfortable meeting up for the first time in nearly a year anywhere in the city, it would be here.

I just didn't know if Tombo's would know her anymore.

"Good afternoon," a friendly voice said from somewhere above me, and I quickly swallowed my ice chips before looking up at the waiter -- Andy, the hostess had said. He had a pad of paper in his hand and a pen poised to write. "How's your day been going so far?"

"Peachy," I said, smiling.

"Anything I can get started for you? We have a great frozen daiquiri that people have been raving--"

"I'm actually waiting for my friend," I said, rushing to cut him off before he could launch into his spiel. The waiter glanced away from me for a moment, made a quick move to stifle his raised eyebrows, and then gestured to the door.

"Would that be her?" he asked.

And of course it was, right? A pair of faded jeans and a formless t-shirt in one of the nicest lunch spots in town, and of course it was the girl I was meeting for lunch.

But I adored Bethany, difficult as she was, and I jumped from my seat and squealed so that the waiter would know it.

Falling into a hug with Beth was like falling into the bed you slept in as a kid. It fits you perfectly and it's so familiar, so matter how long you've gone without it.

"Oh my god, your hair," I said, once we'd pulled apart and were settling into our chairs. I reached across the table and tugged her side-pony. "You're more roots than bleach!"

"Your boobs, though!" she replied, halfway between being aghast and amazed. I burst into laughter. "When did you get those done?"

"A few months ago," I said, thrusting out my chest proudly before remembering the waiter who was doing his very best to pay no mind. I gave him a sheepish smile. "How about that daiquiri?" I asked, sliding a drink menu to Bethany. "Strawberry, please." He chuckled before writing down my order.

"Umm..." Bethany furrowed her brow. "Can I get a Sierra Mist?"

"Coming right up," Andy smiled. "I'll bring back some lunch menus right after I get those folks some more napkins," and then he was gone, and for the first time in nearly a year it was just me and Bethany.

"Really, Beth?" I asked, cracking a smile. "We come to your favorite drink place in all of New York City, and you get pop?"

She frowned at me and then suddenly laughed. "Oh, I haven't seen you in so long that I forgot you don't even know!" she said. "I don't drink anymore, Diana."

My eyebrows must have shot up pretty high because Beth let out the same snorting giggle she'd had since grade school.

"Sorry," I said, shaking my head. "You were just, ah... quite the party girl, y'know? Why'd you stop?"

Bethany sipped from her water. "You learn from example, y'know? You wouldn't believe how many alcoholics we have in the shelter." She sounded so excited when she said it that it sounded almost like she was proud of it.

I couldn't help but think of her husband in that accident, the breathalyzer, the blinding light of the hospital room, and wonder if she was trying to save face by bringing up the shelter.

Mm-hm, the shelter.

I shattered another ice cube with my teeth. "How is that?" I asked. Because that's polite.

Beth's eyes lit up so bright it was like staring into headlights. "Oh my God, I am so glad you asked. Diana, it's amazing. You've gotta come down sometime. I mean, it can be kind of overwhelming, but wow. It has changed my entire perspective on things."

While Beth told me every detail of every inch of the shelter and I nodded at all the right times, I took her in. The decal on her enormous t-shirt said something in a script I couldn't read, and then beneath it, "Mission Center." As we were walking back to table from our hug I had seen the back said something like "Everybody deserves a second chance." After Brent's accident she had vanished into that place. Her incredible job on Wall Street was gone and every waking moment of her day was spent spooning chili into Styrofoam bowls and running to the store for cans of shaving cream and boxes of tampons for the people who slept on cots and blow-up mattresses on the floor of a dirty mission on Dresden Avenue.

Beth's parents thought it was so good for her at first -- therapeutic, in a way, to see people worse off than she was in that moment. Like a good-hearted little kid who sends Christmas cards to soldiers or donates some coins in their piggy bank to the bell ringers at the mall. But once it kept on for a month, then three, and then a year, Beth's parents stopped being charmed. I tried my best to stay fascinated, happy even, with her new world, but there was a little part of me that couldn't help but feel that, no matter how familiar that hug felt, she wasn't really my Beth anymore.

Andy had come back with some lunch menus and our drinks while Bethany talked, and when she finally took a break for a sip of pop I gave her a smile.

"Geez, Beth," I said, trying to look encouraging, happy for her. "Sounds really... fulfilling."

"Right?" Bethany asked, grinning. "Ugh, it's amazing. A girl there, Jean, she's trying to get clean from some bad stuff right now so her hands shake like crazy. I let her do my hair this morning for some practice." She shook her head, proud of the frizzy, stubby thing that shot off the side of her head like a rocket. Beth took another sip and I tried not to look disturbed by the idea of a junkie knuckle-deep in my hair.

"Have you talked to your parents lately?" I asked, desperately wanting to change topic.

Beth's smile fell. She sighed and rolled her eyes, and in a flawless imitation of her mother's voice said, "I know things are hard, Bethany. We all love Brent. But it's time for you to stop playing. I don't care if you have to get on your knees and beg for that job back, you can't keep running around with hobos and crackheads!"

I gave a smile. "That's Lucille, alright." I took another sip. A question burned so hot in my mind I half-expected my hair to catch fire. I knew it would sound bad, but... "Don't you think she has a point, though?"

By the stunned silence from Beth's side of the table I figured I probably should have kept my mouth shut.

"A point about what, Diana?" she asked, suddenly incredulous. I'd seen Beth angry before and it wasn't pretty, especially since she had a tendency to cry. I clutched the napkin on my lap, ready to give it to her to blot. "You agree? You think I should go back to that boring Wall Street job?"

"At least you got paid for that," I said, trying to stay gentle, level. But why couldn't she get that I was trying to help? "You could support yourself with that, and with Brent's medical bills--"

"Oh my God," she said, scowling. "Do you seriously think that I would do this without thinking about Brent? He is all I think about! Diana, I can't believe that I have to -- I mean, God, my mother is one thing, but I figured at least you would understand!"

Right on cue her eyes began to water and I handed her my napkin.

"Thanks," she warbled, rubbing her face. I was going to warn her about her mascara smudging when I realized she wasn't wearing any. She wasn't wearing any makeup at all, actually.

It was weird, thinking of how her eyes sparkled and her face seemed to have this life to it when she talked about the shelter, a happiness I hadn't seen since the day she and Brent got married, and there wasn't a speck of makeup on her face. None of her happiness was artificial. I stared at the dark roots in her hair, bleeding through the blond. None of her was artificial at all.

Deep, deep in my heart, I missed the lies.

I missed not knowing each other well enough to be able to tell they were lies.

Sitting at Tombo's, listening to her cry and watching her rub roughly at her eyes with a napkin, it was... too intimate. Too real.

"When the doctors said that Brent wouldn't remember anything that happened before the accident," Beth murmured, voice muffled by the napkin, "I thought my life was over."

She placed the napkin on the table and picked up her Sierra Mist to press the cool glass against her face. I watched her silently. She never tried to make eye contact, but simply talked to the table.

"I loved him so much, Di," she said, "and I still do. And I wanted him to love me again. But I figured... I mean, what was I supposed to say when he asked me about myself? He knew I was upset, God, he even knew I was his wife, but... Christ, Di, what would I say?"

She looked up at me finally, and she didn't look angry at me. She looked tired.

"Hi, Brent. I'm Bethany," she said, voice a mockingly lilting imitation of her own. "I'm a borderline alcoholic that you met when you drove me home, totally plastered, from a party. I'm a trust fund baby who got through college on Daddy's paycheck who can name more clothing designers than authors. I cry constantly, I own at least nine pairs of shoes that I've never worn, and I've never done anything for anyone other than myself in my entire life."

If she knew that she had just done the job of describing me, as well, she didn't mention it.

Slowly, like she was deflating, she put her head in her hands.

"I wanted him to be proud of me," she said, voice muffled again. "I wanted to be a wife he'd brag about. I wanted to talk about our marriage and watch his face light up, thinking, wowie, I'm married to her? Jackpot!" She pulled her head from her hands and flicked away the last few remaining tears. "Along the way," she said, "I really started to love it. I've met really cool people there. I mean, it's pretty much all I think about." She sniffled. I tried to hide a frown with a blank face. It was all she thought about? I wondered if this wasn't more of a way to avoid dealing with Brett than anything else.

I watched Bethany's face -- her real, honest, natural face, and I reached forward, covering her hand with mine. She gave me a soft smile in return. I didn't know what it meant -- either her smile or my need to comfort her.

A sharp, loud beep shocked me into pulling my hand away. Beth jumped as well before reaching into the pocket of her jeans and pulling out a pager. She smiled and abruptly stood up. I stared at her in surprise.

"Sorry to bail," she said, pulling some money for her pop out and putting it on the table. (She carries cash now?) "Apparently the shelter needs some help with rearranging the beds for tonight. We just got a whole mess of new people and someone still needs to go grocery shopping." She looked me in the face, eyes shining like fire. "Why don't you come with me?" she asked, leaning forward and taking my hands in hers. "I can introduce you to everyone. It could be a really cool experience!"

I stared at her, eyes wide. Her face was open, honest, thrilled at the prospect of an evening in the service of others. She was so blindingly... real.

Very carefully, very slowly, I pulled my hands out of hers and laid them on my lap.

"I'm gonna take a raincheck tonight," I said, smiling apologetically. "Maybe some other time."

"...Alright," she said. "Again, I'm really sorry to leave."

"Don't worry about it," I said, and I waved her toward the door into the restaurant. "Say 'hi' to everyone for me, okay?"

Bethany grinned. "Sure!" she said, and then she dashed out, followed by a few amused glances and giggles from other patrons.

I watched her go and settled back into my chair, pressed my daiquiri to my lips.

I hoped, somewhere deep inside, that Bethany was relieved when I said no. God, I hoped she wouldn't ask me again. Not with that face, honest and loving and open, so different from the Beth I had grown up with who bleached her hair and owned every Barbie in the world and who would hug the girls she hated, who drank her allowance, who doodled on people she didn't like in the yearbook.

I thought of myself, from the pedicure artfully executed by some underpaid Vietnamese woman to my fake tits that I was so fucking proud of to the makeup I couldn't leave home without and the hair extensions that cost as much as my apartment.

I wasn't real enough for the bitter world that Bethany inhabited now, and I didn't have the light in me that she did to burn all of it away. I was better off here, sipping at a drink I didn't like and watching the sun go down on a world of people just like me.