Bros of the same feather shopped in the same outlet together, but not us. Stepping out from the cab, my best friend, Francis, looked like a poorly-paid personal assistant next to my slim fit dress shirt and pair of Bengaline pants. Why he didn’t fancy the types of clothes I liked, I didn’t really know. Based on our looks, one would assume that he was the graphic designer and I the accountant. But that would be wrong. I couldn’t find my way out of a balance sheet and Francis couldn’t tell the difference between one point and two point perspectives.
“Do you know who has arrived there already?” I asked him as we made our way toward Pietro Giardino.
“Sarah would know.” He pulled out his smartphone and tapped on its screen a few times. I wouldn’t blame anyone if they really thought he was my personal assistant. “Everybody but us is there.” He put his smartphone in his back pocket.
Two young ladies in fancy dresses walked toward us. I puffed my chest and flashed them a smile. They smiled at me for a millisecond before shifting their attention to Francis, their smiles blooming larger. Their eyes didn’t abandon him even after we walked past them, their necks twisted like a birthday pretzel.
“Cute but too cute for my taste,” Francis said when the ladies were out of earshot.
“Is it the Boo t-shirt? The jeans with torn knees? The blue sneakers?” I referred to Francis’ outfit and his shoes, the latter my present to him two Christmases ago. “What makes you always eclipse me in front of the ladies?”
“Your muscles,” he said. “Some of them are not into meatheads.”
“That’s why I dressed semi-formally, so my biceps aren’t so obvious.”
“Are you two back together?” Francis changed the topic. “Is this the continuation of the fairytale that got rudely interrupted a decade ago?”
Aside from Sarah and me, the rest of our friends didn’t know yet the real reason why Gina came back and organized tonight’s reunion dinner. Of course, it wasn’t my business to tell.
“There was no fairytale, okay?” I responded. “The passion’s long gone and dead.”
“Maybe you need more time adjusting to having Gina around again before the passion gets reignited.”
“Listen, man. My life went on for ten years after Gina left Verona. That’s a very long time. Only fools keep love alive after that period.”
“I’m a fan of long-lost lovers reconciling after many years. It’s very romantic. Don’t count that possibility out.”
And of course, my best friend was the exception to that “not-my-business-to-tell” thing.
“She’s getting married, okay? That’s why we’re walking to that Italian restaurant. She’ll be doling out the invitations to everybody else later after the fettuccine and ravioli.”
Francis stopped walking. “Oh well, there goes my dream of seeing you two reunited.”
“That’s not a very good joke, you know. We both have moved on since that night. No bitterness, only forgiveness.” I chuckled.
We entered the double doors of Pietro Giardino. Soprano music invaded our ears. A maître d’ in a white shirt and a dark-green chaleco vest welcomed us. We scanned the tables looking for a familiar face. Sarah waved at us from a table at the far-left side of the restaurant, our other friends with her.
I trailed Francis’ eager steps to them. He took the empty chair next to Bernard at one end of the table, leaving me ticked. The other empty chair was right next to Wilma, the last person on heaven, Earth, and hell I’d want to be seated next to. My stomach lurched.
I looked at Francis, who was already engaged in a conversation with Bernard and Arthur, waiting for him to look back. From the other end of the table, the women’s laughter overpowered the men’s voices. I kicked Francis’ foot under the table but he didn’t react. Either he didn’t feel it or he chose to ignore it.
Sarah stopped laughing and turned to me. “Why are you standing? Have a seat.”
“Yes, Herbert, please. Join us.” Gina looked at me.
Wilma was busy with her smartphone. I took the seat next to her and took out my own phone, flicking through the apps without a specific one in mind.
“Let’s order.” Bernard beckoned for a waiter who approached us and distributed menus.
Wilma and I stopped using our smartphones and looked at the menu meant to be shared between us. I brought my attention to my phone again, resuming my flicking of my hundred apps. She took the menu.
I let my friends make the decision on what to order with Bernard leading the pack.
“Herbert, anything you want?” Sarah asked me.
“Nothing in particular. I’ll have what everyone’s having.”
“I want cherries poached in red wine with mascarpone cream for dessert,” Wilma started.
Bernard gave the rest of our orders to the waiter.
“I love your choice of dessert,” Gina told Wilma.
“Thank you. It’s been three years since I last had that,” responded Wilma.
I rubbed my knuckles under the table. It had been three years, too, since Wilma had me kicked out of Cylouvre, where we had both worked together.
“Joanna likes that too,” Bernard said.
“Why isn’t she here?” Gina asked him.
“She’s helping the boys study for their exams tomorrow. She’s a very hands-on mother,” Bernard answered. “Besides, this night is only for us.” Joanna, Bernard’s wife, also attended the same high school with us, but she belonged to a different class. Only when she became Bernard’s girlfriend junior year did we get to hang out with her, but she never belonged to our core group.
“What’s everyone doing these days?” asked Gina. “I’m so out of the loop. What’s everybody’s job?”
The catch-up happened. My friends filled in Gina with the details of their lives she missed. But I described them better in my own mind.
Down at the other end of the table where I should’ve been sitting sat Francisco Dioli, my childhood best friend who grew up with a fascination for numbers and became an accountant.
Next to him sat Bernard, full name Francis Bernard White Jr., who insisted back then that only one boy in our group be called Francis and that shouldn’t be him. He ran his own businesses when he wasn’t posting photos of his sons, one of them my godson, on social media.
Then we had Arthur Paisley, Cinnabar University psychology professor, published author, community projects and charity devotee, and formerly the poorest teenager in our group.
“You’re such an achiever. We’re all proud of you,” Wilma remarked after Arthur’s own reintroduction of himself to Gina, casting a sideways glance at me, which I didn’t miss.
In the middle of our table sat the reason for our sudden reunion, Gina Watson, my former skinny girlfriend turned fat ex-girlfriend.
Next to her sat Sarah Montgomery, writer and advice columnist in Regina, a women’s magazine they claimed was popular in Cinnabar though I had never read a single issue.
Moving farther and sitting right next to me was the devil.
“I’m a graphic designer, but I’m thinking of moving to fashion design. I think I’ve achieved the most I can do with making websites, billboards and ads,” Wilma told Gina.
“I can totally see you as a famous fashion designer,” Sarah said with a flutter in her eyes.
“But of course, you know me so well.” Wilma exchanged a hug with her closest friend in our group.
Gina turned to me. “And you, Herbert?”
I already told her what I busied my life with when she ate the cheesecake in my apartment. I supposed for formality’s sake in front of our friends, she had to ask me again.
“I’m a graphic designer,” I said fast, holding myself back from saying ‘too’ and omitting the fact that Wilma and I once were coworkers.
The rest of the group looked at me, waiting to see if I’d say more. Wilma and Sarah were still talking to each other.
“Great!” Gina broke the silence. “I love hearing from all of you, thank you. Now, it’s time for my update.” She took her shoulder bag under her chair and reached inside it. Her hand reappeared with a set of beige envelopes and she handed them out to the group except for Sarah and me.
“Did I win the lottery?” joked Francis.
“I think I know this.” Bernard removed the envelope’s seal and took the invitation from inside.
The group read each of their invitations in silence before erupting into cheers.
“Congratulations!” Francis and Arthur exclaimed. Francis and I caught each other’s gaze. He winked at me.
Wilma reached out to Gina to hug her. “I’m so happy for you, friend.”
“Finally!” Bernard raised his hands in the air. “Somebody will join me in the Married Club. I’ll soon be an outcast no more. Thank you, Gina. Thank you.”
“No one’s treating you like an outcast here.” Sarah crossed her arms.
“Welcome,” said Gina. “Why aren’t the others part of the Married Club yet, by the way?”
“I love women.” Francis smiled.
A laugh ensued among us, except Sarah. She took a swig of water and swooshed it down.
“I still have lots of plans for my career,” followed Arthur.
“Like writing a part two for your best-selling Hammer, Laundry and Hope,” Sarah spoke in a serious tone.
“Ińigo hasn’t proposed to me yet,” said Wilma.
Bernard and Arthur gasped.
“How long have you been together?” asked Gina.
Wilma faced her. “Since college. It’s been a long time.”
“You two will eventually get there,” Gina said.
“I believe that. Ińigo has other things to accomplish first as well, so I understand why the question hasn’t popped yet,” Wilma told her. “I’m sure you’re marrying the better man, Gina, I mean the best man in the world. I can’t wait to meet him.”
“He is,” said Gina. There was a pause in between her two words. The waiter returned with two plates of appetizers, some salad. He put down the plates, one near Bernard’s side of the table, the other on ours.
“Thank you,” Bernard told the waiter. “All right, everyone. Let’s eat.”
Barring the separate past I had with Wilma and Gina, it would’ve been a perfect night. However, not all of us were there. Two were missing: Alastair Hornby, fat kid who loved copying our homework and eating our leftovers, and Paula Harper, big-breasted girl who eloped with a student who’d impregnated her weeks before our high-school graduation.
The last leaf of salad disappeared into Francis’ mouth and the waiter started bringing platters of our main food.
Twisting his fork, Bernard made a torch of fettuccine. “To our friendship.” He raised his fork in the air.
Everybody followed suit and raised their own fettuccine torches. “To our friendship,” they cheered in unison.
“To our friendship,” I uttered, feeling indifferent to it all.
Herbert Novelli lives an ordinary life. Breakfast. Work. Lunch. Work. Gym. Dinner. Sleep. Plus the occasional get together with his long-time friends who entered adulthood together with him in Cinnabar City.
An unannounced visit to his apartment one ordinary night brings his ex-girlfriend Gina Watson. After leaving him with a vague letter and a broken heart in their old home town Verona, Gina’s unexpected appearance is the last thing Herbert expects to happen.
Gina hands Herbert an invitation to her wedding with another man as a strange peace offering. Herbert accepts it, a show of his willingness to bury the hatchet.
But Death has a funny way of doing his job in the city. Sometimes he makes a grand fanfare of his arrival. Other times, he comes unannounced with a wedding invitation on hand.