Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lunch Break (Part Three)


“Happy Birthday, Cristy,” came a deep baritone voice Carol would recognize anywhere. It was David, her one and only ex.

Carol could feel the eyes of the entire room focused on her. Perhaps she was being paranoid, but she checked her reaction just the same. She smiled at The Perfect Man who arrived and made a mental note to strangle Cristy and/or Arthur for not warning her, later.

Richard could not believe it. After all these years, Carol’s ex still commands attention to himself. This dramatic entrance was so typical of him. He smoothly came to Carol’s rescue and ushered her into the dining room with one hand on her shoulder.

“I swear, if you hold that smile for one more minute, you could model for this ad I’m making,” he whispered to her ear while walking. Still smiling to the outside world, Carol asked, “Ad for what product, Close-Up?”

“Careful, honey, your clenched teeth are showing,” he replied into her deep, dazed eyes. “No, we’re re-launching Pioneer Epoxy,” he said with a straight face. “I noticed that you used some awfully tight glue on your smile tonight.”

Despite herself, Carol broke into a genuine smile and gave Richard a playful punch. She noticed the firm biceps of the funny man. “Your job is to distract me tonight,” she said, a silent plea mirrored in her eyes. “It will be my pleasure, my lady,” Richard replied. Carol needing anything from anyone was such a rare opportunity; he would not be one to waste it.

The feast that Cristy prepared for her guests momentarily distracted everyone. Carol went to the kitchen to help her serve dessert. “Cristy, you’ve outdone yourself again. Even the men were stuffing themselves with your cooking and not drowning themselves in Arthur’s open bar,” she said, while slicing the carrot cake that she made.

“Thanks, Carol. Um, about David…” Carol interrupted her in mid-sentence. “YES, about David, what, pray tell, is your excuse, for conveniently forgetting to warn me of his presence in this party? In the country, for that matter?”

“I knew how you’d plan everything and prepare for tonight’s party as if you were going into battle. There’s no need for all that anymore, now that you’ve apparently moved on with your life and he with his. All those long talks during his previous visits should pay off by now, don’t you think? In fact, I think you’re doing well tonight.”

The kitchen doors swung open as if on cue and there he was, tall and mighty David, come looking for more ice. “Your guests are starting to remember there’s an open bar,” he said to Cristy while smiling at Carol. “I shall come bearing dessert,” Cristy announced, and left to keep her guests sober.

“I heard about your promotion. Congratulations, Carol,” he said.

“Didn’t know you were in town,” she replied, suddenly finding herself wiping and cleaning Cristy’s kitchen.

“Had to come flying home. Angela got married,” he beamed at her. She returned the smile, “Little Angela? That’s great! Ooh, wait, that actually makes me feel old.” She was so fond of David’s younger sister, who was then too young to be her Maid of Honor, and who was now a happily wedded bride.

“Tell me about it. And she succeeded in persuading me to sponsor their honeymoon.” They laughed like old friends. They WERE old friends, Carol thought.

“There you are,” Richard swung the doors open. “Your cellphone is ringing,” he said, handing it to her. He nodded at David.

“Thanks. Richard, you remember David. David, Richard,” she glossed through the re-introduction while checking who the missed calls were from. They were from Diane who was probably dying to know how the night was going. She turned her phone into Silent mode. Diane would hear all about it on Monday. She turned to face the present.

“They’re probably waiting for this melting ice,” David said. “I’ll be at the bar,” he told Carol. “Good to see you again, Richard.”

There was silence in the kitchen as the doors swung close behind David. After the silence became unbearable, Richard spoke. “I’m not sure if I rescued you, or interrupted you.”

“You did both,” Carol said. “We were laughing like the best of friends. But people like us are not allowed to be the best of friends.”

“He has always been a party drinker, your ex,” Richard commented disapprovingly.

“Let’s go get some fresh air,” Carol said. They went through the back door into Arthur’s neat backyard, illuminated by the full moon. Carol led Richard into the big swing that she often sits in with Clarice, her goddaughter and Cristy’s first born.

Richard began the swinging before jumping in and sitting across her. “I still believe you didn’t need rescuing a while ago,” he insisted, probing.

“Girls always need to be rescued, though we seldom admit it” Carol said, realizing how relieved she was to see Richard a while ago. There was a soft breeze. She felt a little cold so she folded her arms to fight it.

“Not you. Whatever a guy can do for you, you can do for yourself, and even do it better. Unless it’s a totally self-made and successful man, probably.” Richard caught himself voicing out his long-kept observations. Perhaps it was the chilly night that made people instinctively want to protect themselves.

Carol could not help her reaction. “Is that how things are now, Richard? Career woman meant to live successfully alone? Carefree man justified in never being alone with one woman? Have you boxed us both into one-dimensional persons?”

“You know why I let you go when you told me you met David all those years ago?” Richard asked, allowing himself to recognize emotions he had ignored all this time. Carol was asking for it. “You needed someone you could fit into your perfectly organized life. Someone you could predict. Someone you could be proud of. I am not so sure about myself, Carol. That’s why I never fought for you. I may never have enough confidence to stand by you and be your man. You need someone who is exactly like you.”

“You’re wrong. I didn’t think of it as heroism on your part then, but as a sign of extreme pride. You are the one who doesn’t need anyone in your life. You can drown and yet never ask for help from anyone. And you wonder why your life seems so directionless.” Carol didn’t feel cold anymore. She couldn’t understand how they became so hostile on this beautiful moonlit night.

She softened her voice. “Let’s not talk about the past, Richard. We were young. We were expected to make mistakes. But we’re here now, older, hopefully wiser. People seldom get a second chance like this.” There. Carol took a chance with that last line. She couldn’t take back her words anymore.

Richard stared at her. The swing had slowed down. “How sure are we that you won’t meet another David and decide that you need to be rescued by a king and not by a prince?” Richard asked, all thoughts about the party forgotten by the way things are turning out in the children’s swing.

“We’re not. We can’t be sure about anything. We can’t predict that you would cease flirting with other women just to spite me.” Richard was about to protest violently, when Carol continued, “I think I will be doing a lot of women a favor if I finally reined you in. I’m rescuing you, too, Richard.”

The swing finally lost momentum and stopped completely.

No one moved. The wind carried traces of laughter from the guests in the house. Carol waited.

Then Richard stood up, and sat beside her. “You threaten to wreak havoc in my perfectly imperfect life, and you claim to rescue me? You are something else, you know that?” He took both of her hands. They were cold. “I still make mistakes up to now,” he said, “but I recognize a golden chance when I see it.” He kissed her right hand.

Carol was fighting back tears. She could not think of a single word to say.

“You are so beautiful… to me” Richard sang, or at least attempted to. Yes, Carol could live with imperfections.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” she whispered. “ I make mistakes too. I made one when I left you.”

They were still locked in a tight embrace when Clarice found them.

“Ninang, Mommy’s looking for you. Oh hi, Tito Richard. Mommy said I’d find Ninang with you.” She declared as she took them both by the hand and walked back into the party with them. Too young to be the Maid of Honor, she became the couple’s Flower Girl when they got married not long after.


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