I can tell by the set of her shoulders that I'm about to catch some hell.
She walks towards me. No, not walks. Stalks. Spine straight as a lightening rod, shoulders back, chest out, head held high. This is her regal, imposing posture. Supposedly, I'm to start shaking in my boots.
If I were a good boyfriend, I would. At the moment, however, I can only be considered marginal.
Her strides are long. Like she can't wait to get to me and extract her pound of flesh.
From her flinty look, I know I've fucked up. Big time.
Mentally, I consult my Girlfriend User Guide. Troubleshooting Section: So you've managed to piss off your girlfriend.
Question One: Do you know what you've done?
Question Two: Is it possible you've forgotten a holiday/special occasion/birthday?
No. It's Valentine's Day and I have adhered to the appropriate protocol. To the letter, in fact. Reservations at a restaurant that does not have a kiddie menu? Check. One dozen roses? Check. Box of chocolates and cuddly teddy bear holding a heart-shaped pillow? Check and check mate.
It should be all systems go right now yet she's looking at me like I've peed in the punch bowl.
The day I understand this woman is the day I run around Times Square dressed as a rubber duck, belting out Singing in the Rain.
She comes to a full stop in front of me and growls, "Orchids!"
Is this final Jeopardy? Should I respond in the form of a question?
On any given day, Monica is a calm, level-headed, charming woman. Today is not one of those days. The bloom is off the rose. The allure is gone from those dark eyes, leaving them hard and cold. The soft, rose-colored lips are drawn into a thin, livid line.
Due to my lack of response, she prods me in the chest with her index finger. "You sent her orchids, Nick. How can you send another woman flowers on Valentine's Day?"
She shrieks the last two words in my face, reaching a pitch only dogs are accustomed to hearing.
We've reached the crux of the situation. The rub. My great big fucking screw-up.
Casually, as to keep her prodding fingers away from my eyeballs, I pull a pack of smokes out of my jacket pocket. If everything had been going according to plan, she and I should have been on our way to a very cozy romantic evening. Instead, we stand in my living room, having the beginnings of a very loud, very stressful conversation.
I stick the cigarette between my lips. The cross look on her face doubles in intensity.
Monica hates it that I smoke. It's one of the major sticking points in our relationship. The problem isn't my refusing to stop. Rather, my refusal to stop for her.
"I always send Pen flowers on Valentine's Day." The cigarette jangles from the corner of my mouth, bobbing with every word. She calls it obscene when I do that. Pen just laughs and snaps a photo on her cell phone. Which is why I still do it. "It's our thing. Purple's her favorite color."
There's murder in her eyes. I might as well go dig a shallow grave in the back yard.
Penelope Gordon is to Monica what a Category Five hurricane is to the Florida coast. Something's going to get fucked up.
Tonight, it looks like that something is going to be me.
"I can't believe you, Nick!" She backs away as soon as I light up. Marlboros are her Kryptonite. "For you to send another woman flowers…"
"It's not 'another woman'," I try to explain. "It's Pen."
The difference is lost on her.
"That's always your excuse. 'It's Pen, it's Pen.' Pen's a fucking woman, Nicholas! Christ, it's bad enough you know her favorite color!"
I take a long drag, blow smoke, and then inhale again. "She's my best friend, Monica. She's gotten me out of more scrapes than I care to remember."
Pen was my designated driver when I was too shit-faced to tell my car from a hot dog cart. The bringer of chicken soup, the dispenser of hang-over cures, the caterer for every tail-gate party. She was the wind beneath my friggin' wings.
The woman brought everything full throttle, pulled no punches. If I was being an ass, she'd tell me to my face, expecting an explanation and an apology. I've cried many a manly tear and spent just as many drunken nights recuperating on her couch.
Savior. Sanctuary. Goddess. All that and so much more.
Not to mention a pain in my girlfriend's ass.
The one time I'd left the two of them in a room together, neither of them said a word to one another. And I swear the temperature dropped fifteen degrees.
It would be understandable if Monica was the type to believe men and women could never be just friends. There are plenty of people with that mindset. However, it was only Penelope that got her dander up. She all but calls my Pen a succubus.
The clock was ticking and that restaurant would not hold our reservation forever. So I throw a Hail Mary and hope for the best.
"Can't we talk about this later? Let's not ruin this special evening."
Conniption. Full-blown conniption. That's what I cause.
"I'm not ruining the evening!" I feel for the canines in the neighborhood. "It's you and your damn… obsession with Penelope Gordon. It's like you can't go one day without thinking about her. I bet you're thinking about her right now!"
She's practically screaming Pen's name from the rooftop. How can I not think about her?
"You're smiling," Monica accuses.
"I'm not in the habit of conserving smiles. You shoulda said there was a shortage." I flick my ash into a nearby ashtray.
"Why do you have to be such a smartass about everything? Why can't you take anything seriously?"
"Give me something serious to talk about." Again, probably the wrong thing to say.
The doorbell saves me from her fury. There's just something so exhilarating about dancing closer and closer to the cliff's edge. You know there are sharp, bone-splitting rocks down below but you keep moving your feet.
On my doorstep stands a blonde angel, all decked out in red and black. Red wool coat over a red corset and black leather pants. Her feet were clad in leather boots with that I know to be four-and-a-half-inch heels. In her hands are a tray of densely frosted cupcakes.
"I come bearing goodies," chirps this good fairy.
"I can see you goodies, Pen. You've got amazing fucking timing."
She snatches the cig from my lips. "Of course, darling." Pen pronounces "darling" like she's Betty David or Joan Crawford. One of those grand ole dames. After a long pull, she puffs, "How do I look?"
The woman's even got red streaks in her hair. "Like a man-eater."
"Damn straight!" Her bosom jiggles quite becomingly as she laughs. "Listen, I thought I'd repay your kindness with a treat."
"You plan on giving me a lap dance?"
Monica screeches from behind me, "Nick, who the hell are you talking to?" In the blink of an eye, she's breathing down my neck. She sticks her raven head under my arm and spies Penelope. "Of course it's you," she sneers. "Who else would it be?"
Penelope tilts her head to the side. "Mary Poppins?"
She tries, my Pen. She really does try to get along with Monica. It just seems like every nice thing she tries is used against her. Like Penelope has this sinister master plan to steal me away from her.
The problem is, the crazier Monica gets, the more inclined I am to believe her. Not that I would ever cheat on her. I'm just not that kind of guy. When I'm with a woman, she's the only one for me. Multitasking has no place in the romantic arena. However, when that woman turns into a T-Rex and tries to rip my head off on a damn near daily basis… Well, a man's gonna want a change in scenery. A nice, calm bit of tranquility.
Penelope is my peace and quite. She is the embodiment of serenity.
I point out, "Mary Poppins never dressed like that."
"Check out the Director's Cut, Peaches," says Pen. "You'd be amazed at the kind of shenanigans she got up to on those rooftops."
Laughing at Penelope's joke sets off the hair trigger of Monica's ire. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?"
From the gleam in Penelope's pretty brown eyes, I know she'd love to tell Monica exactly where she could go and how she could get there. Her graceful nature and love for me prevents her.
Cigarette between two fingers, she adjusts her cat's eye glasses. "Actually, I'm on my way to a V-Day party. Just a couple of us lonely hears getting together to commiserate on this most corporately manufactured of holidays."
Pen could have any choice of men and I've told her that a million times. And a million times, she just pats me on the head and says, "Thank you, Peaches, but I'm okay." The woman's a stunner, both inside and out. Mind as sharp as a straight-razor, a heart so big, she could fit all of NYC in it. Sweet and sassy and sexy…
I did not just think Penelope was sexy. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that, really. I can appreciate the beauty of another woman without being a complete cad. And Penelope is beautiful.
This would be a hell of a lot easier if Monica's head was not wedged in my armpit.
Pen takes a drag on the smoldering cigarette. If Monica recognizes it as mine, she makes no indication. "I just stopped by to give Nick some cupcakes. As thanks for the flowers. And purple ones, at that! He really knows how to make a gal feel special."
I take the tray before Monica can argue against it. Maybe I can convince her to eat one of them before we leave for the restaurant. Hopefully, low blood sugar is to blame for her snarky attitude. "Thanks, Pen. Enjoy the party."
"I intend to." With a wink and a smile, she turns on her pointy heels and sashays back to her car. "By the way," she calls over her shoulder, "I made sure to put lots of frosting on top in case you two get… yanno… creative." Another wink. Another smile. Then she hops into her VW Beetle and drives off.
Disaster averted, I close the door and search for a place to set down the tray.
"Can you believe that… witch?" fumes Monica.
Ding ding. Round Two. At the rate we're going, I might as well nuke us some TV dinners.
"Give it a rest, Mon. She was just doing something nice. And don't harp on the fact that it's Valentine's Day. Pen makes me stuff all the time."
She follows me into the kitchen. I know because of the scent of ozone billowing upwind. "Well, how would you like it if my friend Shane gave me steak for Valentine's Day?"
"Shane? The guy who dresses like a Sopranos reject?"
"Answer the question, Nick."
"First of all, you're a vegetarian, so I think you'd have more of a beef with Shane than I would. Please pardon the pun. Second, as long as he wasn't serving it to you on his naked body, I really wouldn't give a shit."
She folds her arms across her chest. "Like Penelope wasn't half naked a few moments ago?"
Common sense tells me not to mention that a corset still counted as clothing. Instead, I set the tray of cupcakes on the counter, beside the microwave, and head for the front door.
I'm tired, I'm hungry, and I'm fed up.
"What do you want from me, Monica?" I pull out another cigarette, light it, and draw the smoke into my lungs. Nicotine, my dark, sweet mistress. "Just tell me what you want to do so we can go and enjoy what's left of this evening."
Her eyes follow my movement as I tap the end of my cigarette against the side of the crystal ashtray. I fear I am about to be pounced on and there's not much I can do about that. The wheels are turning in her head. I'm fairly certain we won't be making it to the restaurant tonight.
Finally, she says, "Admit that you love her."
No problem. I've made no secret of how deep my feelings for Pen run. "I love Pen. There. Simple. Now, let's go."
She shakes her head. "You love Penelope. Say it."
"I just did."
"No, you didn't. You said you love Pen."
"Well, fuck me on a pool table sideways, Mon! That's the same thing. Pen. Penelope. Pen. Penelope. Inter-freaking-changeable!"
"There's a difference, Nick. A great big one. 'Pen' is this abstract thing. A representation of your relationship. All the fabulous things you do together."
"I can tell by your tone, you don't find them so fabulous."
She prods me in my chest again. The woman is making a habit of that. "Shut up and listen. It might just prove to be the ending of our relationship, but at least you'll gain some insight. 'Penelope' is a living, breathing, sometimes scantily-clad woman. The woman with whom you share your hopes and your dreams and your fears. The woman that has a starfish tattoo that you drew for her on her right hip. The woman who can make you wet your pants laughing just by saying 'How you doin'. The woman that only smokes cigarettes that have been touched by your lips!"
It would be so much easier to lie. To tell her I have no idea what she's talking about. All I wanted out of this evening was a good meal and some brownie points for making the effort.
I'm a coward. Plain and simple. Thinking about Penelope the woman scared the shit out of me. It changes the whole dynamic of our relationship. Fills me with anxiety and doubt. What if she doesn't think of me the same way? What if I fuck things up and ruin the friendship? Things would never go back to the way they were. Monica and all the ones that came before her were just shields and armor against this great beast of uncertainty.
If I were any sort of a real man, I would face my fears head on. Monica deserves to be with someone who is with her because he wants her, not so he didn't have to be with someone else.
"Nick, what's my favorite color?"
Frustrated, I crush my cigarette into the mess of spent butts in the ashtray. "What is the point of all this? To make me feel like a heel? Well, mission accomplished."
She shrugs on her coat. I'm in no mood for dinner. Frankly, I'd rather consume the contents of the ashtray.
"You think you feel lousy," she complains, "try looking at things from my end. For five months, I've watched you moon over another woman, knowing you don't have the decency to throw me aside so you can get to her. I'm no fool, Nick. I stuck around this long because I hoped…" I can see the tears welling up in her eyes, making me feel lower than the price of a plasma television on Black Friday.
Regaining control of herself, she continues, "I hoped that there might be even the slightest of chances we could make it work. But you never looked at me the way you looked at her. Not once. There's this light that comes into your eyes whenever she walks into the room. Like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds on a mid-December afternoon. It'd say it was beautiful if it didn't break my heart every time."
"It's not like I do this on purpose." Not much of a defense, but it's the only one I've got. "I don't go around carving 'Nick hearts Penelope' on every tree trunk in town. Regardless of whatever secret flame I might have burning for Pen… Penelope… There is absolutely no indication–"
Monica cuts me off. "What? That she's not head over heels in love with you?" Her laugh is harsh, but I deserve no better. "If you doubt for one minute that you are the love of her life, then you're more hopeless than I thought."
"She's never made a move. And I've been wasted in front of her more than enough times for her to try something."
"Obviously, she's not that type of girl. If she was, you wouldn't put her on such a high pedestal."
Angel. Sanctuary. Goddess. Any higher and she'd have a nosebleed.
"Bottom line: You want her and she wants you. The only things standing in the way are me and your mountain of bullshit excuses." She's at the door, turning the knob, swinging it open. "Carpe diem, Mr. Murphy. Spend tonight with the woman you love."