“Lisa!” Jamila caught her in her arms and gave her an exuberant hug. “I feel like it’s been forever.” She stepped back and gave Lisa a once over. “You look healthy.”
“Does that mean I didn’t look healthy before?” Lisa asked.
“You know what I mean,” Jamila said. “I don’t know what you’re doing with this one again though.”
“Nice to see you too,” Richard said. He walked by them into the living room. “I like what you’ve done with the place.” He looked around the room. Jamila had finally decided to decorate. Bright floral pillows sat perched on the beige sofa. A new burgundy throw rug lay in the center of the floor.
“I like it.” Lisa stepped into the room and looked around. “I’m glad you finally got some decorating done.”
“It took me long enough.” Jamila looked at her phone to check the time. “Do you want to hang out here for a bit or should we head out?”
“I’m starving,” Richard said.
“I guess we’ll head out then.” It had been two years since Lisa had been back to St. Pete. She was so busy with school, Richard, and making a new life for herself that she never got back to visit even though she kept telling herself that she would. After graduating, she decided to come home before she started looking for a real job. While she was in school, she worked doing what she’d always done. She was a barista at a little coffee shop that wasn’t too far from campus. She never realized it before, but Lisa liked working in coffee shops. They each had their own personalities, and she enjoyed getting to know the regular customers. She was starting to think that instead of getting a job at a company she might want to use her business degree to start a coffee shop of her own. She was aware that she didn’t need a degree in business to actually start a coffee shop, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. She had a lot of knowledge now that would help her avoid the mistakes that destined so many other businesses to failure.
The three of them got into Jamila’s car. None of the restaurants in town would be crowded on a Tuesday evening so they didn’t bother to make reservations and hadn’t even discussed where they might want to eat. When Jamila pulled away from the curb and started driving toward town she seemed like she knew where she was going. “I assume you have a restaurant in mind already,” Lisa said. She sat in the passenger’s seat and Richard had crammed himself into the back seat. He hated sitting in the back, but had told Lisa that he would on this drive so she and Jamila could catch up.
“Yeah, I hope you don’t mind.”
“As long as I eat soon I don’t care,” Richard said.
“I trust you,” Lisa said.
She regretted trusting Jamila as soon as they pulled up in front of the Liberty Bistro. Lisa’s heart was in her throat. She gave Jamila a long hard stare.
“We’re here,” Jamila said.
“I was hoping for something ethnic. The Thai place across the way is pretty good. I’ve eaten there once.” Lisa pointed to the white building with aqua marine trim around the windows that sat looking vacant and alone on the other side of the street.
“You don’t want to go there,” Jamila said. “The last time you ate there a roach crawled out from under your plate.”
Lisa remembered that day as clearly as it was yesterday. She wanted to eat somewhere new and she and Jamila had gone there for lunch one Saturday afternoon. When they walked in and saw that the place was empty they should’ve turned around and walked out right away. Lisa’s mother had always told her that empty restaurants were usually that way for a reason. “Maybe they are under new ownership,” Lisa said.
“They’re not,” Jamila said.
Jamila and Richard got out of the car leaving Lisa sitting inside having a panic attack. She hadn’t told Richard about Damon and Jamila knew that.
“You know I’m not crazy about Thai food. I’d rather eat here,” Richard said as Lisa got out of the car.
“The food here is good,” Jamila said. “You’ll like it.”
They both went inside while Lisa dawdled around the entrance in a panic.
“Come on. What are you doing?” Jamila poked her head out of the door.
Lisa took a deep breath and walked into the restaurant. The mural was still there. Larger than life, her serene face stared out at the dinners.
Richard froze in his tracks with his mouth agape as soon as they entered the dining room. “You never told me you modeled for a painting.”
Lisa flushed. “I didn’t.”
“That is amazing.” Richard walked toward the wall. A family was sitting directly in front of the mural trying to enjoy their burgers and fries. “Wow!” His voice reverberated around the room. The nine-year-old boy at the table looked up from his meal at Richard with his eyes as wide as saucers.
“What’s wrong with you?” the father of the family asked.
“The painting,” Richard said to the man. “That’s my girl.” He pointed at Lisa who wanted to flee from the restaurant like she was being chased by a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas, but instead gave a meek wave.
The father looked at the painting and then back at Lisa. “You don’t look as good in person,” he said before popping a French fry into his mouth.
“Hey man. You don’t get to insult my fiancée,” Richard said puffing out his chest.
Just as Lisa was afraid things were going to get heated the hostess came up. “Have you already been seated?” She asked.
“No we haven’t,” Jamila said.
“Why don’t you come with me and we’ll find your table?” The hostess said.
Lisa put her hand on Richard’s back and steered him away from the table without incident. Richard was hot-headed and too willing to have an argument with a stranger in public. It was something that Lisa always had to navigate when they were out together. She was glad that he preferred arguments to physical fights.
Once they settled into their chairs at the far end of the restaurant, they were finally able to talk. This gave Richard a chance to ask more questions that Lisa didn’t really want to answer. “That painting of you is amazing. Who painted it?” he asked.
“The guy she was dating before she went on to Chicago.” Jamila picked up her menu and opened it. “Actually, she was still dating him when she moved. Isn’t that right, Lisa?”
Lisa started to speak, but Jamila continued talking.
“Of course you have no right to complain about that because look at what you did. You two weren’t dating at the time.” She scowled at Richard for a few seconds before looking down at her menu. “The sandwiches in this place are really good.”
“Hold up,” Richard said. “You were dating somebody, and you never told me?”
“The blackened chicken sandwich is good,” Lisa said. She quickly flipped open her menu and feigned interest in the list of appetizers. She couldn’t believe Jamila brought this up. She was so mad she could have punched her.
“You don’t get to talk about chicken sandwiches now. I asked you a question.” Richard glared at her.
“I went out with somebody a few times once I’d recovered from your betrayal.” Her words shot out like darts. “It was no big deal. Jamila’s right. You don’t have a right to be mad.”
“I’m not mad because you were dating someone. I’m mad because you didn’t tell me. Maybe it was a bigger deal than you’re letting on.”
Jamila shut her menu. “Shut up Richard. No one wants to hear what you have to say. You start seeing some other woman up in Chicago and don’t even tell Lisa until right before she’s supposed to join you and you think you can get mad because she didn’t tell you that she was dating someone after you broke it off with her? How long were you seeing that woman before you told Lisa? Months, I bet.” Jamila seemed angrier about the situation than Lisa ever was. “I don’t know how she forgave you. I don’t understand how you’re even sitting at this table with us.”
“Maybe I should just go then,” Richard stood up and stormed out of the restaurant.
Lisa knew Jamila was still mad at Richard and disappointed in her for getting back together with him. She’d hoped that Jamila would have put that aside and been able to have a civil dinner with them. Even if it was just a façade, the façade would’ve made Lisa feel so good. Of course, that couldn’t happen. “I thought we were going to have a nice dinner,” Lisa said to Jamila before rising to her feet.
Lisa shook her head. “No, you didn’t. If you were trying you wouldn’t have brought us here.” Lisa rushed out of the front door. She saw Richard standing on the corner, fuming. “Richard!” Lisa ran over to him and took hold of the crook of his arm. “I’m sorry about all of that. Jamila is just trying to protect me.”
“I thought that was my job,” he said. He pulled his arm away and angled himself away from her.
“Actually, it’s my job.”
“Is it?” He looked at the ground and put his hands in the pockets of his khaki pants. “Why didn’t you tell me? I told you about everything that happened between Ariel and me. I was honest about it all.”
“After the fact.” Lisa had been in Chicago for six months when Richard called her. She was finally feeling settled in at school and was starting to make friends. The weather was colder than anything that she’d experienced, but she’d had fun buying soft thick sweaters and woolen coats.
She was renting a room from an old couple. It was only a small bedroom, but it had its own entrance and was enough space for just her. Her phone rang one day while she sat on her bed studying. When she saw it was Richard she didn’t answer it, but he called again. She watched the phone lighting up as it played the old fashioned telephone ringer sound she’d set it to. When it finally stopped ringing she grabbed it to check to see if he left a message. He had. Her hands shook as she held the phone to her ear to listen. The message was short and simple. It said, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”
That was all Lisa had wanted to hear for months and he’d finally said it, no excuses, no back pedaling. It was so unlike Richard. She didn’t call him back, but she also didn’t erase the message. That night when Damon called her she didn’t mention any of it to him. He’d been out to see her once already and was planning to come again in a few weeks. He had been angry at her when she left without warning while he was in Miami, but it hadn’t taken long for him to get over it. She knew that leaving without saying goodbye was wrong and started calling him again soon after she’d arrived in Chicago. Lisa couldn’t wait to see him again, but curiosity and familiarity pulled her toward Richard. She’d find herself sitting in the library daydreaming about him when she was supposed to be studying. She’d wonder why he called. She hoped that it hadn’t worked out with Ariel and that he was trying to get back together with her. In her daydreams, she’d tell him it was too late and he’d gravel on the floor begging for a second chance. She was still lonely in Chicago and Richard was as familiar as an old quilt. When he told her that he had indeed called it quits with Ariel Lisa couldn’t stop herself from letting him back in with open arms. They had been together for so long that she felt like she had to give him another chance.
There was no one else on the street, just Lisa and Richard and their troubled relationship. He stood firmly, his feet rooted in the sidewalk. “I made a mistake,” he said. “Will continue to bring it up for the rest of my life?”
Lisa pursed her lips. She wanted to say, “yes,” but she knew that was the wrong answer.
“I want you to be honest with me.” Richard wore hurt like a weathered leather jacket. He knew how to get the most out of whatever he felt when it came to Lisa. He knew her too well.
“I dated a guy for a little while when we weren’t together. He was passionate and smart and incredibly talented. I liked him. He made me feel like nobody else ever had.”
Richard held up his hand. “You can stop.”
“I’m trying to be honest.”
“Try putting a little bit of a damper on that honesty.”
Lisa shrugged. She didn’t mean to gush. She hadn’t talked about Damon in so long that talking about him now was strange, especially with Richard. Not a day went by when she didn’t think about him and wonder what he was doing now. Any sane person would’ve told her that she should’ve broken it off with him, but they wouldn’t understand. Lisa didn’t deserve a guy like Damon. His life was like something that came from a book. He lived with a kind of zeal that she had never felt. Lisa’s life was like a sleeping bag, cozy and contained. She knew he could never be happy with someone like her. He didn’t really want her anyway. He wanted the woman from his dreams. He always described that woman as dynamic and beautiful. That wasn’t Lisa. Lisa was someone else entirely, but Damon made her doubt sometimes. She’d spend a day with him and go home and look at herself in the mirror searching for glimpses of the woman he seemed to think she was. She never saw that woman and ultimately thought that the real her who liked to stay home on Friday nights and loved vanilla ice cream would disappoint him. “When you called that time. I broke it off with him.”
He looked at her. A smirk crept onto his face. “You dumped him for me.”
“I won.” Richard thought of everything like it was a football game. There was always a winner and a loser. He made sure he was the winner most of the time.
“You did.” Lisa reached out and took his hand.
“The idea of you with someone else burns me up.”
“I know, but I’m not with someone else. I’m with you.”
Richard was quiet for a moment. “We should go.”
Lisa looked back to the restaurant. She couldn’t see their table through the window, but she knew Jamila was still inside. “I wanted to see Jamila. It’s been a long time, and she’d my best friend.”
His expression soured. “I’m supposed to be your best friend.”
“It’s different with girlfriends.”
“Just leave. She’s the one with the car. It’s not like we’re leaving her stranded.” He looked over at the shopping center. “Let’s see a movie.”
Lisa shook her head. “We can’t leave Jamila inside.”
“You’re choosing her over me?”
“Of course not.”
“Let’s go then.” He grabbed her hand and guided her across the street. While Richard bought the tickets, Lisa lagged behind to text Jamila and tell her they weren’t coming back.
“Richard is a jerk. You need to stop letting him call the shots,” Jamila texted back just as Richard came over to her with the tickets in hand.
“What’s that?” he said, leaning over her trying to get a look at her phone.
“Nothing.” Lisa slipped the phone into her purse.
The movie was nothing Lisa wanted to see. It was about a heist gone bad and had way more violence than she could stomach. She spent most of the movie watching her lap. Richard’s heavy arm rested on her shoulders as he pulled her closer to him. The armrest between them dug into her side. She sat quietly letting her mind wander and wondering what her life would be like if she could only choose the adventure over safety.