Chapter 1: Skinny Love and the Cheesecake
Where am I right now?
Jot this down. Scribble it. Write it. On a paper. On the edge of a newspaper. On a kitchen paper. Or if you prefer. Type it. File it. Save it. On a computer. In Notepad. In Wordpad. Or pin it on Twitter. Because when this story is over, you have to answer my question. Where am I right now? Where do you think I am right now?
Here is a hint: I killed my friends.
Fuck. Some people have an aversion to cursing.
Well, I said it anyway. Fuck what other people will think and say. Each of us gets only one life. Regrets suck harder once you get to the afterlife.
My name is Herbert Novelli and I have a confession to make. I killed my friends. I killed my friends and it fucking thrilled me.
Time is ticking, my friend, so let’s begin.
It started with knocks on my door. Three raps. I looked at the triangular clock hanging on my living room wall. Only my best friend Francis possessed the gall to disturb me in my apartment at half past nine in the evening. A text, “Bro, God is coming to your place.” Or a call, “I’m ravenous right now and I hope you have a delicious stash in your fridge. Pizza with lots of pepperoni, please.”
But my kitchen was pizza-free that night and the many months preceding. Junk food clashed with my high-protein and low-carb lifestyle. But I’d make exceptions when I visited Francis at his own place, an unstated clause in our best-friend contract. I’d eat one and he five or seven or eleven. He never complained about the absence of his favorite food at my place because I made up for it during my visits to his.
But the person rapping on the door tonight was not Francis. I checked my smartphone lying on the coffee table for notifications. Nine from Facebook about my other friend Bernard’s latest photo uploads. One from Periscope indicating he was live ten minutes ago. Not a single SMS. Not even a missed call. I abandoned my old, green sofa and the two rhinoceroses copulating on the TV.
“Who’s there?” I stood an inch from the door. One day I’d ask my landlord to install a peephole.
“It’s me,” a familiar female voice spoke from the other side. It was Sarah, our other friend.
I opened the door. “This better be good because my bedtime is in less than an hour and I’m very strict with my sleeping — ”
“Hello, Herbert,” the woman standing in front of me spoke.
The last time I saw Gina Watson was more than a decade ago. We were sitting on a swing surrounded by her mother’s roses under a crescent moon. Her cotton candy-flavored lips touched mine. I licked my lips twice after to savor the taste, not knowing that kiss would be our last. The following day, her mother handed me a piece of folded paper, a Dear Herbert letter, written in black ink that could’ve been made from the tears of my bleeding heart. Fast-forward to the present, she was the last living person I expected to stand on my doorstep.
“Hello, Herbert!” Sarah popped from behind Gina, her greeting louder and higher-pitched. She grabbed Gina’s hand and pulled her through the doorway, like a kid dragging her parent to a toy store.
I stepped to the side just in time, too livid to display any hint of objection. Sarah made Gina sit where I sat a minute ago before heading to the kitchen with a brown bag. I closed the door and followed her, leaving Gina alone with the mating rhinoceroses. Sarah put the paper bag on the counter.
“You better have a goddamn good explanation or it’s friendship over.”
She opened one of the overhead cabinets and took two ceramic plates. “Stop trying to be hip, Herbert. It doesn’t suit you.” She opened the drawer next to the kitchen sink and took a couple of forks.
I turned Sarah around to face me and gave her the deadliest stare I’d made in ten years.
“Okay, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said in her ever-loud voice.
“Shush.” I motioned my head to the living room.
“If I did, you wouldn’t open the door and would not let us in.”
“You’re damn right.”
Sarah unloaded the contents of the paper bag, two slices of cheesecake, and filled the plates.
“Where did you find her?” I asked. “She’s been MIA for years.”
“I didn’t. She found me on Facebook yesterday. The others don’t know yet. You’re the first to know after me.”
Silence transpired between us. If the cheesecake slices could speak, they’d say, “Awkward.”
Sarah picked up the two plates. “Gina brought you food.”
“Today’s not my cheat day.” I shook my head. “What’s the agenda? Why did you bring her here?”
“That’s not for me to tell.” Sarah walked to the living room before I could stop her. “Sweets!” She put the food on the coffee table and grinned to Gina before leering at me. “Herbert.”
I dragged myself to the single couch facing the door as Sarah picked up the TV remote and clicked. The animals disappeared from the screen. Then she pushed the plates toward us. Gina brought hers to her lap. I took my smartphone off the table instead, thinking I could lose myself in Facebook while the two women chatted. Sarah grabbed her shoulder bag and turned to the door.
“Sorry. I have to make an important phone call, you know, work.” Sarah pulled her phone from her bag and left us with a wink.
Gina ate a small slice of cheesecake and waited for the door to close before speaking. “Blueberry.”
I forced a smile, which came out as a squeamish look, I was sure. “I’m on a strict diet.”
Gina looked at my arms. “I’m sorry. Do you work out?”
It wasn’t hard to tell. Outside my apartment, I was a long-sleeved-shirt-and-dress-pants kind of guy, the width of my shoulders the only hint I had a gym membership. At home, I was a tight-white-shirt-and-a-pair-of-very-short-manly-shorts kind of guy, not hiding the result of years of soreness, sweet potatoes, and cycling of supplements to see which ones were compatible.
“I do,” I replied.
“You’ve grown a lot.”
Gina had grown a lot too. The two skinny teenagers kissing on the swing in the garden were skinny no more, in different ways. While my shirt was about to rip apart because of my hard pectorals and bulging biceps, Gina’s peach dress was overstuffed with flab. Layers of fat folded around her torso. A sack of skin under her arm jiggled as she pushed a spoonful of blueberry cheesecake to her mouth. Her two chins bounced as she chewed, chewed and swallowed.
I drew a mental smile. They said that success was the best revenge. However, seeing your ex-girlfriend end up as a balloon turned out to be better. “Thank you,” I said, playing Mr. Goody-Too-Short-Shorts. What came out from my mouth next contradicted the result I wanted. “That’s what all humans are supposed to do — grow.”
Gina flashed her teeth and stooped. “You’re right. Look at me.”
Silence fell between us, more awkward than the one I had with Sarah. Gina ate another spoon of cheesecake and smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “This is delicious. You should try it.”
I would not allow her to dictate the tone of our conversation. “Let’s cut all the — ” Gina froze, her hand holding a spoon a couple of inches to her open mouth. “Cheesecake,” I continued. “Why are you here?”
She put her plate and spoon on the coffee table. “To apologize for what I did to you in Verona.”
Sorry would’ve made for a better word. “And it took you more than ten years? The letter you wrote me was full of gibberish.”
“I was only a teenager then, Herbert. I didn’t know better. Now I do and so I realized I was wrong to leave you like that. It took me a long time to build my courage.”
Courage and Gina didn’t mesh together. I branded her a coward after the first time I read her Dear Herbert letter. Silence settled between us again but not in an awkward way. I set my eyes on hers, boring my gaze without blinking. “Why do I have a hard time believing your sincerity? I feel like something’s missing.”
Gina moved her orange shoulder bag from her side to her lap and pulled a beige envelope from it. She handed it to me. “I came here to give you this.”
I didn’t have to open the envelope to know what it was, but I still did. I wanted to get up and smash the plate on her head or spread my untouched cheesecake all over her face. But my legs froze, like the roots of a decades-old tree buried under concrete. My eyes scanned the invitation for the three keywords that delivered punches to my heart. Nuptial. My stomach ached. Gina Watson. My heart skipped two beats. Danny Fackelmeyer. My temples began to throb. I glazed over the close-up photo of the soon-to-be bride and groom, Gina and douchebag Danny, to prevent further damage to my bio-system. Then I put the invitation back in the envelope and tossed it to the table.
“I’m getting married, Herbert,” Gina said. “I hope that whatever ill feelings we had for each other will be forgotten. I want you and our friends to come to my wedding. Let’s forget about the past. Start anew. You and I were also friends then.”
I took a deep breath in preparation for the onslaught I was about to unleash when the door burst open and Sarah came bustling in, her phone in one hand and her bag in another.
“Sorry.” She closed the door and walked to us. “My boss is a control freak. She didn’t like the opening paragraph of my latest editorial and wanted me to change it tonight. I had to convince her I’d do it first thing tomorrow morning. Horrible, I know. Some bosses are like that.” She looked at the envelope on the table and then to me. “So, Herbert, what’s the verdict?”
Their eyes fixed on me, Sarah’s steely, Gina’s shifty. They were waiting for my answer like two dogs anticipating a bone from their master. If success was the highest form of revenge, then it would belong to me. Seeing your ex-girlfriend not only become a fat fuck but a sad one too was the key to that. I had two months to cook up something before the wedding.
“Save a seat for me,” I said.
Sarah clapped. A big smile appeared on Gina’s face. “I told you it’ll be all right,” Sarah told Gina.
Gina put a hand on Sarah’s arm. “Thank you and you too, Herbert.” She turned to me.
I moved to the edge of the couch and dug into my slice of cheesecake. “Raspberry.” I looked at Gina whose cheeks flushed red like the fruit I just ate.
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.