Be careful what you wish for.
Sarah Lynn Morgan
"Hey, it’s really you isn’t it?”
I sighed and set my book down beside my coffee. He seemed like an average guy in his mid twenties, except for his smile. That would have looked just about right on a fourteen year old.
“It is you! You’re her.”
It had been almost fifteen minutes, I thought, looking at the coffee that I’d never finish. “Yes I am. It’s really me.”
“Well, can I have your autograph?” He quickly snatched a napkin from my table and pushed it toward me, as I picked up my purse and folded my glasses into their case. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a…”
“Here, I’ve got one. Please make it out to Robbie. Man, my friends are never going to believe this.”
It was just too much. I sighed and let my shoulders droop as I could see a half dozen other people whispering and pointing at me. Time to leave.
“Sure, I said, and quickly took his marker and wrote: ‘To Robbie, Love, Tom.” I slid the napkin back to him as I picked up my purse and headed toward the door.
Behind me the boy’s grin split his face from ear to ear, until he picked up the napkin and read it, that is. After that, his expression slowly faded into a confused frown.
I could see Trish behind the counter shaking her head, commiserating with my plight without really knowing its depth. Trish had been serving me coffee on Sunday mornings both before and after the big movie of the summer hit the screens. Her “bye” was both friendly and sympathetic.
For about four years after getting my own place, I’d usually just sat around in my apartment whenever I became Penny. I wanted to go out, but looking in the mirror frightened me. Even though I honestly believed that all anyone would see would be a pretty red-haired girl, somehow I always found some good reason it was silly to take such a large and unnecessary risk. After all, it was not as if I was shut-in in my other more masculine life. Therefore, I’d usually just watch TV.
I really do hate TV…
I reached my car, and got in it just in time to have a bus pull over and block my exit; so, putting on my sunglasses, I fastened my seatbelt, locked my doors, and just waited.
At first, there had been a few trips out for little things I needed, always in the evening when it was slow. Then as I should have expected, wonder of wonders, I ran into a woman friend from my office who recognized me. Even though I always thought she was very nice, she ended up surprising me by asking if I’d like to go out with her on Sunday morning for coffee.
Well! ‘lovely’ just didn’t cover it. Laurie became such a close friend as we whiled away pleasant mornings, laughing over quietly-told stories of both our silly lives, and enjoying a few tepid cups of coffee. All the while my confidence grew until I fully realized that if I only just tried a little, other people would only see what I had always known to be inside.
Then came my high point: Josh.
He worked in our firm, one floor up from Laurie and me, and when he found us sitting there with our coffee, my instant fear was at least as profound as my relief of a moment or two later. At first, he had looked at me and asked “Tom?” He’d laughed out loud, then, every note of which felt like a body punch. To my horror he’d just sat down, making me expect the worst; but, then he did the most amazing thing. He reached out and took my hand, and still laughing he smiled and kissed it. ‘My god, you are absolutely beautiful…” he'd said with a wondrous smile…
The bus roared into motion, causing me to looked back suddenly out of instinct, but there was a full line of traffic and two lights to negotiate. My eyes fell to an indeterminate point just above the hood of my car.
The next Friday, he surprised me even more.
“Would you like to have a drink with me tomorrow night? Of course, you can invite Laurie too, if you’d feel more comfortable. I had a great time last Sunday.”
My heart still raced when I thought of several weeks after that, when Josh had said he had two tickets to the dinner. It was just a quiet dinner, a couple of speeches, and a really good orchestra so we could even dance. ‘You know, just as friends, if you like. Do you dance?”
Not as well as my heart did.
Several trips that I’d always dreamed of, but had never before had the courage to attempt, were experienced at a full frenzy. With Laurie leading me by the hand, a trip to a fine salon, with money no object. Then I found myself sitting in a chair as models paraded the most beautiful gowns. That was followed by an endless day of nervous excitement and anticipation.
I remembered we were just good friends, as he took my wrap and held my chair. It grew to adoration, as he whispered little jokes about the speakers, small entertainments to make me smile, and which always seemed to be echoed in his green eyes. Breathlessness came, due to my inattention to the rest of the world, when the music played, and suddenly Josh’s hand was held palm upward toward me.
He laughed again, and I did too, as I reached for my purse that wasn’t there, and looked about the room nervously unsure of what I should do. He laughed a little more when I didn’t know where to put my hands, before they found the cool front of his shirt and his shoulder as he pulled me close and began to sway me in time with the music.
“Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?”
“I don’t remember.” I’d said shyly, glowing in the string of compliments that followed.
Everything was a dream. Too wonderful to be real, and too real to be ignored. I felt as if I’d had too much champagne as they brought his car, but I couldn’t remember having more than one single glass. My whole body tingled, but my insides positively danced as he first held my door, and then reached across to buckle me in.
“Why are you smiling so much?” he’d asked.
“No reason,” I’d said, as I instinctively leaned forward to kiss his cheek. I couldn’t help myself, and I couldn’t help smiling even more as he returned the kiss on my temple before he shut the door. I just adjusted the folds of my gown, as I grinned out the windshield at the world...
I jumped at the horn of the truck that blared just at my rear door. I’d subconsciously put on my blinker, and someone wanted the spot, so with an absent wave I pulled out.
I’d always dreamed and hoped that someday someone might accept the me that only I knew. I prayed so much, only to pass that small test some day… and then as if in a single blink, I had.
How could I ever have dreamed that just one week later, some starlet that no one had ever heard of would play a key role in the biggest movie of the year. Who would ever have imagined, that as hard as I’d tried to look like the me I had seen every time I closed my eyes, that she would look just the same.
She was a good actress. Her interviews and the promotions for her awards all said so. How lucky she was, to have won such a key role, the heroine who saved her love interest not once but twice in a single movie. The biggest hit all year, they said...
I laughed out loud in amazement. All I’d ever wanted was …
Perhaps I should go out to Hollywood myself. I should see if they needed a double. If they didn’t, then perhaps I could make her feel completely undermined by taking a role in a lesbian porno movie or something. I could try ruining her life for a change!
The thought made me laugh mirthlessly as I said to my mirror, and to the amazement of a cabbie who sat just beside me at a light, “Yeah right! I forgot! I can’t be in a your lesbian movie sir, because I’m a boy! Sorry!”
The cabbie was still sitting there as I pulled away. “ Love, Tom.” I muttered at my mirror where he still sat. I felt bad, because I wasn’t really mad at him. I was mad at the world.
I just hope there will be something better on TV tonight.
Easing over to take the onramp, I had to dig in my purse for my ringing cell. The cute little doll that hung from it, a gift from Laurie, made it almost impossible to get out quickly. Probably her anyway.
“Hello?” I said quietly as I glanced back and eased into the travel lane.
It wasn’t Laurie. Suddenly my arms felt weak, and my stomach right long with them.
“Penny, it’s Josh.”
There was silence on the phone for several heartbeats as I watched the lines on the road ahead blur and twist slightly.
“I’m surprised you picked up. I keep getting your voicemail,” he said somberly.
I wanted to tell him that had been a mistake, that I was not avoiding him. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, but no words would form. Nothing. All I could do was to keep the car in the lane, thankful that the road was so empty this time of day.
“Are you very angry with me, Penny?” He asked me, I’m sure fearing the silence even more than anything I might say.
I took a deep breath, and sighed it out, which must have sounded to him like the emotional equivalent of my screaming ‘yes.’ I wasn’t though.
“No.” I said quietly, while trying to wipe my eyes with my wrist without smearing my makeup everywhere. “I’m not mad at you. I . . . understand.”
“You’re disappointed though,” he said, using that little voice people use when they already know they should be saying they’re sorry.
Several things went through my mind to say back to him, none of which I had the heart to utter; but, in the end the thing that came out wasn’t even something that I’d consciously thought. It just came out.
Now there was more silence, as I blinked my eyes to clear them, and began fishing for anything to dab my eyes before I crashed the car.
“Are you crying, Penny?”
I could have sworn I’d tell him that I was not; but listening to his voice, I just didn’t have the strength.
“Penny, I am so sorry. When those reporters cornered us like that… I didn’t know whether to slug the guy with the microphone, or to just piss myself. I knew you’d be so afraid that they would find out all about you. All I could think of was to get us out of there.”
“I did, but then… I guess I didn’t handle it very well - when I took you home. That’s why I’m so sorry.”
“I understand.” I said more to myself than to him.
The funny thing was, that I really did understand. Anyone would be frightened of the prospect of being cornered by cameras when out on a date with something like me. Suddenly a nice quiet dinner didn’t seem quite so harmless, when the pretty girl turns out to be a thing. Reporters asking if I’d changed my looks to be more like some stupid starlet, as if I were a maladjusted eleven year old, were bad enough. The questions that were sure to come as soon as they figured out what I was had to be so much worse. ‘Oh, yes, Josh. I do understand,’ I thought.
“I miss you.” He said quietly, “That’s why I kept calling.”
“I miss you too.” I had to get off of this road, before I killed someone.
“Please don’t cry anymore. Are you at home?”
"No. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” I told him; finally fishing out an old Kleenex of questionable lineage.
“I’m coming to get you.”
My car swerved too far, as I moved into the slow lane to take the nearest exit.
“You don’t have to do that, Josh.” I said, thinking that there was a little park off this exit, where I could pull in and collect myself so that I’d make it home alive, if not altogether in one piece.
“It’s something I do have to do, Penny. I miss you more than I can say. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to be. I don’t care. I’ll make it up to you, no matter what it takes. Starting tonight. I’ll make us a nice dinner, and we can talk, or I’ll just hold you. I need you here, with me”
I’d never make the park, so I just pulled over to the side, under the shade of a tree. “Josh, I’m sorry. I…”
“You have nothing to be sorry about, Penny. I just got . . . unnerved.”
“Because of me,” I said flatly. “Because someone might find out.”
That had just come out too.
The silence on the other end of the phone was the one that I fully expected to go on forever, ending with a quiet but permanent click. I was ready for that; which, was why I was even more surprised than I thought I ever could be at his honest answer.
“Yes.” He said, seeming to take a deep breath of his own. “It’s true that I didn’t want anyone to know, but not for the reason you think. I just wanted it to be perfect. Besides, I think it’s too late to worry about people finding that out anyway.”
“What?” I mumbled. It didn’t sound brilliant either, but you try and have a conversation while your brain is doing everything in it’s power just to shut itself off.
Josh actually laughed a little then, just like I remembered.
“I didn’t want to tell you on the phone, but we’re pretty sure everyone at work knows. Several people saw you before and during our date. This morning, that guy from Marketing said something. Williams? Wilson? I don’t remember his name, but when I walked into to common area to find out if Laurie had heard from you, I found her backing him against the wall. I think he thought she was going to pop him one, but she only told him that he’d better keep his stupid mouth shut in a way that made me glad she’s never been that mad at me.
That’s when the office manager, Tammie, told him that he needed to get back to his office and look up the company harassment policy damned quickly, before she reported him to HR. She told him that you were already so upset over what happened with the reporters that you’d called out for two straight days. Tammie told him that he needed the quiet time to grow up, and to make damned sure that he never said anything else that might upset you even more. Well sure enough, didn’t Wally-whatever open his mouth to apologize sarcastically that he was ‘so sorry’ that he hadn’t known that you and Laurie’ were an item. All I can say is, the way everyone reacted to that, well, they all know why you called out, Penny. Almost everyone understands, and is on your side. Nobody likes him very much anyway.”
I sighed again. A month ago, if someone else had told me that everyone at work knew, I would have seriously contemplated suicide. Not now. Things had changed so much. Mostly because of Josh. Now I’d happily get another job if I had to. It just didn’t matter to me anymore. What I now saw in my mirror was so much more important to me than any job, even though it could never again be perfect like it was, without him. Besides, It wasn’t like I could actually hide the changes the girls at the salon had made, which hadn’t seemed important either, then or now.
“Thank you for telling me, Josh, but you didn’t have to worry. I just don’t care if they know or not. It’s not important anymore.”
“I know that.” he said in the strangest tone, like he was losing his patience with me a little, and made me wait before he continued. “I just wanted you to know that everyone wants you back. Besides, it’s taken care of anyway. Tammie was going to march Wilbert What’s-his-name into HR even, but she couldn’t because she’d have had to report me as well…”
“What?” I mumbled confused, sounding no more clever than before.
“Well, yeah. When he said that to Laurie, and I really thought she was going to go after him, I had to pull her back. She and I have been friends since middle school. I told the guy that Laurie wasn’t seeing you: I was. I told him we’d been dating for weeks, and that I was just as much in love with you as you were with me; and if he opened his mouth again I was going to put my arm down his throat and pull out anything I could grab hold of.”
I may have mumbled ‘what?’ again. I may have just been moving my mouth. I’m just not sure.
“I told him that I love you, Penny. My god, you know that don’t you?"
“Yes.” I said making no effort to hide the fact that I was crying freely now.
“Look, will you be okay? Can you make it home?”
I mumbled that I would be okay.
“Good. I want you to come and stay with me. I don’t want you to be alone… ever again. Laurie and some of the girls came up with the idea that this could all go away if you just went back to the salon and got your hair colored again, but in a different color. They all think you should become a blonde, and have even started a pool. The point is that all the girls believe that will solve the look-a-like problem. Laurie even talked to the salon owner about what had happened, and got you an appointment for tomorrow, if you want it. Tammie said she listed you as being off for personal time, so it’s up to you. As for myself, I don’t care. I’ll love you just as much as a blonde, or brunette , or even bald, just as long as you promise not to turn your phone off anymore.”
He chuckled about that, making my insides quiver so much that I couldn’t even mumble.
“So you just get yourself home, and I promise you that we can fix this. I already told everyone that they would probably get to meet the most wonderful girl in the world on Monday, so they could just be patient for a little while longer while we make sure you don’t get cornered in any more alleys by reporters. For tonight, I’ll make you that nice dinner, and you can sleep, or soak in the tub, or you can just cuddle up if you want. By tomorrow, you’ll feel a lot better. I promise you.”
I think he knew why I was crying, so he paused for me to collect myself a little, before he spoke again.
“I’ll be right over. Will you be ready?”
“No” I said, softly, trying to dry my eyes by pressing the Kleenex hard into them, not caring about my makeup anymore.
I could ‘hear’ Josh smiling over the phone as he laughed again. “Well that’s a lady’s privilege, isn’t it? I’m coming anyway, and I’ll help you get your stuff together. Are you sure you won’t tell me where you are, I’m already in my car, and I can come right to you?”
I had to take a deep breath, which made me realize just how badly my lungs had been burning, but even though I was far from alright, I could still talk. “No. I’ll be fine. I’m only just down the street.”
“Okay, then, if you are sure,” he said, obviously not happy about my driving.
“Josh?” I asked, my tears blinding me again so that I might never get home.
“What is it, baby?”
“I love you, so much.”
“Oh, I know you do. I love you even more, believe me. I was going to tell you just how much, and give you a little surprise I have for you to prove it, but all this happened. That’s why I got so mad. I wanted it to be perfect when I asked you to put up with me for the rest of your life, but that doesn’t matter to me now. Once you’re here with me, we’ll have all the time in the world. Now you be careful going home, and I’ll be there in just about twenty minutes.”
“Okay.” I said, hesitant to click the phone closed, not wanting the call to end as I reached for the key with a shaking hand.
“Honey, are you okay?”
I’m afraid I jumped a little, startled by a voice beside the car. Looking over, I could see a woman with two small children standing beside the car, holding out a folded cloth to me.
“I’m fine now.” I said, wiping my face gratefully with the cloth.
“You don’t look fine. Are you sure?”
“Yes. That was my boyfriend, and he’s coming to get me. I really am fine. I think everything’s going to be better now.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” She looked at me for a moment, and absently waved away the cloth I tried to hand back to her. “You know, you look very familiar to me. Have we met before?”
I actually laughed this time. “No,” I answered, “but I get that a lot. Not for much longer, though. Tomorrow I become a blonde, God help me.”
The lady smiled back, reaching down to pull a child closer to her, and away from the car. “If you say so. We all have to try that eventually. I looked like hell as a blond, but that was years ago, and someone like you…” She smiled warmly a me. “You have a good life, Honey. Pretty girls like you shouldn’t be crying.”
I felt myself smile back for the first time in days. “I will.” I said, and I carefully pulled away…
Thanks to Karen J. for some help with Editing and proofing. Amazing good help.
Sarah Lynn Morgan
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