Manhattan. My home since...well, since I got accepted at dental school. A little restaurant that I won't name, because every time I tell somebody about it, it gets even more crowded and hard to get into than it already is, and right now, more than anything, I need one of their cannoli sundaes. We discovered this place together, Gen and I, a few years back. Gen and I have the same birthday; she's two years older. Isabel was with us then. We used to frequent this place like it was the only eatery on the island. The last time we were all here together was about two months ago. We toasted to the future together, only one month before I did the unthinkable.
My life is so messed up.
A knock at my door, followed by Gen barging in. She never waits for me to answer, she just barges in all the time. It's her most deplorable trait. "Ashane, I want you to meet my boyfriend."
I've only been in dental school for three weeks, and already I've made friends with this third-year student who lives down the hall from me. Her name is Genevieve, though she much prefers everyone call her Gen. She's outgoing and cheerful, which is a nice change of pace from the gravity and studiousness of the students in my class. What a bunch of nerds.
"You have a boyfriend?" I ask, trying to hide my surprise. She's already met my girlfriend Isabel. Isabel and I met during our first-year orientation, and I was drawn to her almond-shaped eyes and her adorable button nose. We saw each other through the first two party-heavy weeks of school before we made it official.
"Yeah. Almost six years." She opens the door to my dorm room, lets herself and her boyfriend inside. Mike. His name is Mike. He doesn't look good enough for Gen, not with his tattoos and his grubby clothing. I have a keen attention to detail, and I notice where he's let the holes from old piercings close up in his ears - eight in all - and his eyebrow.
"Hey, Mike." I extend my hand to shake his. His hands are rough and calloused. His fingernails are short, with dark grit packed underneath. He works with his hands, but not like in a dentist way. Like an uneducated laborer way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. "Nice to meet you."
Dirty Mike studies me suspiciously, like maybe he suspects Gen of cheating on him with me. That's not possible. I've only known Gen for ten days, and all of those ten days I've been with Isabel. "Yeah, likewise."
Even his voice sounds dirty. I have no idea why my friend is with this guy. My eyes meet hers, pleading for a reason. Any reason. Any good reason.
"We've been together since my first semester of college," she informs me, almost apologetic, after she drops him off at the bus station to return home. "Since I was eighteen. I lost my virginity to him too, you know?" She pauses, looking at me like she knows she can't make him look good to me. "What can I say, Ashane? I've been with him for so long."
I exhale sharply. I don't want to tell Gen she can do better; that point's glaringly obvious. She looks at me unsurely, desperation pleading and shiny in her cocoa-brown eyes. She wants me to give her what I cannot give. She wants me to give her a reason for staying with her boyfriend. Longevity and inertia are not good reasons to stay with someone. Fear of the unknown is not a good reason to stay with someone past the relationship's expiration date.
"Gen," I console her gently, "if you can't be proud of your boyfriend, you shouldn't be with him."
She breaks up with Dirty Mike within the month.
Our birthday. My twenty-third, Gen's twenty-fifth. It's a bigger deal for her because she's single and I am not.
Isabel and I are firm in our relationship. We have decided that we'll marry once we finish dental school and any ensuing residencies. Isabel is not suspect at all of my friendship with Gen. Gen and I do not lust after each other; we're more like brother and sister than anything else. Which is important, because Gen looks so incredible tonight that two of my friends have already approached me about taking her home to hook up with her.
"God, Ashane," my classmate Kris whistles with his usual dramatic flair, "tell your friend to stop being such a cock block."
"Which friend?" I slur, drunk on vodka martinis. At the bar, Gen and I threw back martini after martini - classic with Belvedere vodka for me, dirty with Ciroc vodka for her - while my friends pounded beer after beer. Funny, it was only my friends at our party. None of her friends or classmates showed up. Most of them are engaged or married. Too busy. Mine are always ready to party.
"The dude who's so all over Gen, he's practically holding her boobs up." Kris shoots a poisonous glance at Scott, our classmate who's a closer friend to me than Kris will ever be.
"Get over it." I'm so drunk. Studying our drinks earlier made me think Gen and I have a leg up on my classmates. We're more sophisticated. More adult. Isabel nursed two or three light beers all night, always calorie-conscious. She has a body that would put a pre-baby Heidi Klum to shame, and she's obsessed with keeping it that way. Gen is more like Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield, soft and curvy. Some of our classmates think it would be fantastic to date - or have the body of - a Victoria's Secret model. Ironically, I'm the one who prefers the more voluptuous type, and I'm the one dating the lingerie model stand-in.
"Ashane, I want her in my bed tonight," Kris whines, more emphatically this time.
"I don't think so," I snap, suddenly wishing I had another martini in my hand. Instead I settle for a beer, still slightly cold but, really, almost lukewarm. I take a sip and the room spins. Any amount of beer after a seemingly limitless amount of vodka is nausea-inducing. Never a good idea. I find myself retiring to my dorm room, the last thing I notice being Scott's hand on the small of Gen's back, her full lips smiling and her head tipped back in a laugh.
The next morning, Gen barges into my dorm room, dressed in her floral-print bathrobe, her hair tousled and frizzy from sleeping and sweating on it. "Hey Ashane," she yawns, "what was the last name of that guy in your class I slept with last night?"
For the love of God. "Kris or Scott?"
How did that happen? I left too early and missed the play-by-play at the end of the night, and then it dawns on me that Isabel went home. She didn't stay in the dorm with me on my birthday. "Does it matter?"
"No. He was awful in bed."
I never speak to Kris again. Nor do I invite him to any of my parties or attend any events he's been invited to. Every time I see him, I imagine him in bed with Gen, imagine slapping that self-satisfied smirk off his blond face. When Isabel asks me why I hate him so much, I don't have an answer for her.
Parking. There's never enough parking in Manhattan, which is why I purchased such a small car - it can fit into the tightest of spaces. Of course there was no parking available directly in front of the restaurant, but at least I'm not walking too far, and it's not cold out.
The restaurant is busy, as usual, but it's not so busy that I have to wait for a seat. The hostess looks annoyed that she has to waste a whole table on just one person, but I don't care. I need a sundae and I'll endure anything to have it.
"I am going to throw up."
It's the night before Gen's NERB exam. The NERB exam, more formally known as the NorthEast Regional Boards, is the dental licensing exam. It's a big deal because you can't become a practicing dentist without passing it, and up to a quarter of the students taking it don't pass their first time. Isabel and I are sitting in our living room with Gen - I got rid of the dorm room a long time ago and moved into a one-bedroom apartment with Isabel - and watching a movie on TV. Napoleon Dynamite. Isabel opens a bottle of inexpensive red wine and pours the entire bottle into three wineglasses.
"You'll do just fine, Gen," Isabel tells her soothingly, gently, coaxing her to take a sip of the wine. It's a pinot noir, one that some wine magazine named a best buy for under ten dollars.
"And if I don't?" Gen's face is wracked with worry.
"Then you can be my barmaid for the rest of your life," I joke quickly, without thinking. Isabel shoots daggers at me with her eyes. Gen doesn't notice. She looks sick from nervousness, downing the wine in large gulps.
"You won't flunk, Gen, I promise," Isabel assures her. But I don't know if Isabel is saying it to be nice, as if to soothe Gen, or to remind me that she is my girlfriend. Gen is merely my best friend and, therefore, sexually off-limits.
Not that it matters. Gen passes, and, a few weeks later, graduates from dental school. Much to Isabel's delight.
The bed in her hotel room. Even though it's been a few months since Gen graduated from dental school, she hasn't forgotten about me. She's still my best friend.
It's the wee hours of our annual birthday weekend. At three a.m., after we've danced and sweated and frozen in the early-morning February chill, after we've eaten sub-par pizza in our drunken state, we collapse on the bed in her hotel room, exhausted but laughing. Isabel is away for the weekend, visiting her family, which is shit because we've been together for two years, but perfect because she wouldn't have wanted to come with us tonight anyway. Gen looks amazing, her black hair curling haphazardly from the sweat accumulated from dancing, the last vestiges of her cranberry-colored lip gloss hanging to the outlines of her full lips. I don't know what overcomes me. It feels like someone else has crawled into my brain and taken over.
"Gen," I tell her breathily, "if I didn't have Isabel, I would go after you."
"Ashane, shut up. You're drunk." She eyes me seriously through her own drunken haze. "And do you have any idea how many guys want me? Seriously, it blows my mind."
I shut her up by kissing her.
I love Gen. In my drunkenness, I not only lust after Gen, like every other guy in my class, like every other guy I know, but I love her. I love her desperately. Forgetting Isabel, I begin to put the moves on my best friend. I love Gen. I love you, I love you, I love you.
"Ashane, it won't bother me if we have sex tonight." Gen pulls away from me and looks at me seriously, sobering up in a way I haven't. "But it will bother you. You will regret it if you cheat on Isabel."
"I know. But I'll also regret it if we don't have sex tonight."
"I will." I kiss her again, slipping the clothes off her porcelain-white body. She's wearing expensive lingerie underneath her jeans and clingy jersey-knit top. Black. Lacy. My God. No wonder Gen drives every man crazy with desire. Like me. Right now.
"Ashane, I'm gonna have to stop you. Don't do this. I have enough respect for Isabel to tell you no."
Damn it. I lay on my stomach next to her on the bed. She lays on her back, and I run my hand over her breasts, down her belly and to her thighs, lingering for a moment above her thighs. I'm drunk and I know I shouldn't be touching my best friend like this, but I can't stop myself. My hands have a mind of their own.
We fall into an alcohol-filled coma, lying just like that next to each other. The next morning, I wake early and return to my apartment, but not before writing a note of apology of the little pad of paper next to the telephone. I don't see Gen again, not until after I've proposed marriage to Isabel.
The waitress is the usual Saturday-evening waitress. I don't know what her real name is; I've always called her Doll-Face. Her nickname didn't result in a crack across the face for me because I was with two women at the time. I look up at her name tag and study it for a moment. Her name is Carrie.
"Hi, Dr. Ashane," she greets me pleasantly.
"Hello, Carrie." I answer quietly. Numbly. Without a trace of confidence. Right now, I'm broken.
She looks surprised that I'm not using her nickname. "Here, let's get you to your usual seat," she says to me, despite the fact that the usual seat sits four and I'm here all by myself. "Where are the girls tonight? Are you expecting them?"
I shake my head. "No, Carrie, I'm not."
I can't bring myself to go into detail about the break-up. It didn't happen because of another woman. It happened because I changed. It happened because, in my first year of residency, I discovered I'm not the same person I was in my first year of dental school. It's not that I don't love Isabel. I do. But I love her with a passing fondness, the way I loved a stuffed animal as a child. I don't love her as a partner. As an equal. Inertia and fear drove me to stay with her, to slip a diamond on her finger.
A part of me wanted to stay the same way I was in dental school. But that couldn't happen. So much changed between Gen's graduation and my graduation, and then during my first year of residency, that made me reconsider everything about my life. Like my marriage proposal. Or my life's plan. Or even my relationship with Gen.
I think back to Gen, and subsequently, her relationship with Dirty Mike. Gen was the ultimate example of staying in a relationship out of obligation, not love. And she managed to get out of it. Painful, yes, but experienced nonetheless.
Now I need Gen. Here's where the irony comes in: now that I am finally single, finally able to be with Gen, she's with someone. She was single for so long, and now that I'm single, she's not.
The irony doesn't escape me.
Carrie brings the cannoli sundae over to me, with one lone spoon sticking out of it. "Are you all right, Dr. Ashane?" she asks once more, the concern in her voice palpable.
"No, not really."
"What's wrong?" It's late and not as busy as it should be, so Carrie sits down next to me. "I'm worried."
I exhale, my breath thick with depression. "Let's just say this past month has been the worst month of my life."
"Where's Dr. Gen tonight?"
I drop my head. My eyes focus on the amarena cherries and the full cannoli square sticking out of the top of the sundae. It hurts less to tell her my problems when I'm staring at the mounds of sugar in front of me. It can't be good for my waistline. "Gen...she got married tonight. I'm actually on my way back from her wedding."
Carrie smiles. She's always liked Gen, probably even more than she likes me; after all, Gen is the one who insists on dropping a 100% tip every time we come here. "That's so nice," she says dreamily, like maybe she can't wait for her own wedding day to arrive. "Where's Dr. Isabel?"
I grit my teeth. "Gone."
"Gone. We were supposed to get married two weeks ago, but I called the engagement off two weeks before the wedding."
Carrie stares at me, stunned. I'm not sure if she thinks I'm the bad guy or not, if what I've done is despicable or unforgivable. I'm sure she's picturing Isabel, jilted, wearing her white wedding gown, crying so hard that her face is red and black mascara streaks down her face. I know that's what I envision every time I think about it.
"Well," she answers me, "it's better to call it off now, before you're married, than to get divorced in ten years when you have a house and a mortgage and a couple of cars and some kids."
That's exactly what Gen told me. Almost word for word.
"Thanks for your support, Carrie," I say to her. "I appreciate it. I need all the support I can get, because, Christ, I feel like my whole world is coming down."
She nods at me sympathetically, then leans over and plants a kiss on the top of my head. "It's okay, Dr. Ashane. I'm not judging you." She turns away to walk back to the kitchen, but then she stops and twists her body to face me. "Hey, I just want you to know that I never saw you and Dr. Isabel together. Never. I saw you and Dr. Gen together but not you and your ex."
Choosing to ignore the regret that stabs me in the heart, I pick up my spoon.
When the bride calls your name, you don't turn her away. I look over at Gen, radiantly happy in her cream-colored gown and red satin shoes. She didn't put on a veil; she thought that it would look too hypocritical after all the years she spent bedding almost every guy who showed a speck of interest in her. Almost. She wouldn't sleep with me.
"Dance with me."
I smile, wiping my lips with my napkin. Being at Gen's wedding, newly single myself, is excruciatingly painful. I try to wipe the anguish from my face as Gen grabs my hand and leads me to the dance floor. In the background, I hear the deejay announce something about the bride's dance with her best friend. I am her best friend, and I am ruining her wedding. I tell myself to stop it.
The music begins, and we begin to sway together. Guests begin to gather around to watch as she nestles her head comfortably on my shoulder.
"I love you, Gen," I tell her, choking on the emotions rising in my throat.
"I love you more, Ashane," she answers, never lifting her head off my shoulder. "Now stop thinking about Isabel. You're so lucky you got out of it now before you had kids and a mortgage and all that crap."
"Shh, don't think about that now."
"Yes, I will think about that now." She never lifts her head off my shoulder as we dance like we're the only two people in the room. Coldplay's Viva la Vida plays in the background. "You're here. There's only this moment. Live in this moment right now and don't worry about anything else, 'cuz once this moment is gone, we'll never get it back."
I can feel her smile. "I always am."
When the music ends, applause breaks out. I see Gen's new husband clapping along the sidelines, a genuine smile on his face. I kiss her firmly on the side of her face for show and pictures, then escort her back to her husband's side.
I've got to get out of here.
No one notices me as I slink out of the banquet hall and into the parking lot. I slide behind the wheel of my car and turn the key in the ignition. I have to get away from here. I have to go back home.
But I have to stop somewhere first.
Once Carrie is out of sight, I stare at the cannoli sundae in front of me and contemplate tonight. I think about my relationship with Gen, and all the festering, lingering feeling I have for her. I think about Isabel and our broken engagement. I think about how lonely and tired and sad and relieved I feel, and how I hope these feelings won't last forever.
This is not - was not - a love story. And there sure as hell is no happy ending; at least, not now.
The sundae is big, bigger than I ever remember it. And I proceed to eat it. Alone.