Chapter 6: Love Conquers All
You shouldn’t trust somebody who refused to turn away from the shores of the past. The earth revolved only one way and time moved only in one direction, forward. Those who protested the motion of time’s unrelenting ocean expired as prisoners of their own island, barren and lonely.
Gina forked a piece of lettuce and brought it to her mouth, savoring her first taste of salad after many years. “Yum!” she said. “Reminds me of home.”
I picked up my sandwich and took my first bite. Tasty, but nothing spectacular or taste-bud-exploding.
“Do you remember that Wilma and Alastair enjoyed salad too?” Gina forked a slice of tomato. “Because she’s rich and he’d eat anything.”
“Yeah.” I stuffed my mouth with another bite. If Gina knew that Wilma and Alastair were both on my would-like-to-forget-forever list, she wouldn’t bring them up.
“Bernard’s family was rich, but he wasn’t really a vegetable guy. Do you still remember the parties he threw in their big house?”
“I do. Fun times.” I bit my tongue after realizing my mistake. Those last two words only came out to feign interest on the topic.
“We didn’t have to spend our allowances at his parties. There didn’t need to be any special occasion, too. It must’ve been nice to grow up with rich parents.”
“It was,” I said. Bernard’s parents divorced a long time ago but it wasn’t my story to tell.
“Do you know who lives in their house now?”
“I have no idea.”
“I miss their big pool, two-story living room, marble staircase and the brass chandelier above the long, kitchen table.”
She and I would sometimes sneak off away from our friends during Bernard’s parties and hide under that kitchen table to make out.
“Their living room was rad. I haven’t seen anything like that here in Cinnabar.” I reached across the table to get some napkins from the dispenser. Gina’s hand brushed against mine as she reached for a napkin at the same time. “Sorry, you go first.” I withdrew my hand. Gina pulled one sheet and dabbed the edges of her lips with it. Then she crumpled the napkin and smiled.
Suddenly, the busyness of the restaurant flooded my senses and I was glad the extra noise put an end to the weird moment.
The next day, I holed myself up in my apartment. The events of the previous week felt like an overload and contact with other human beings became the last thing on my mind that day. I ignored Francis’ text message. We often spent Sunday together, catching a movie, dining out, bowling and other random shit. But, I couldn’t muster any energy to step outside to the world or even read his invite. Something had changed.
“Why are you eating that?” Madeleine looked at the bowl of rice in front of me during lunchtime on Monday.
“Because I’m hungry.”
“I mean, what happened to the no-carb rule of yours every gym day?”
“I changed schedule. Tomorrow’s gym day. Today’s rest day.”
Madeleine started counting the fingers on her hand. “So, that means Friday is no longer your gym day?”
“Finally! I can ask you to go to the bar with me.”
If there’s a bar I’d like a girl to join me at, it would be a barbell at the gym. Gina was still a long way from that. No way, in her current shape, could she transition from beginner exercises to barbell exercises that quick. Even if she could, no way would that girl be her. She was an ex-girlfriend and I had lost sight of that shore a long time ago.
On Tuesday night, Gina finished her time on the treadmill without falling over, a feat I applauded her for. But once I was alone in the locker room, I stomped the floor with frustration. At the end of our session, I made Gina do burpees. Watching her push herself off the floor to make a quick jump was like watching a whale push itself off the beach to get back into the water, comical and sad at the same time.
“How did I do?” Gina asked before guzzling from a water bottle.
“You did a great job.” I smirked.
We retreated to the locker rooms to change clothes and met at reception afterward.
Amy bid us goodbye, following us with her eyes. “Thank you for coming to Gym Olympia. Have a great evening, Herbert!”
Gina and I walked out the door. Then she asked, “Care to join me again for a post-workout dinner?”
Like they said, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. “That’s no problem.” When we approached the curb, I hailed a cab.
I got in the backseat and beckoned Gina. She looked surprised with my sudden leading.
“Is Myrna’s Garden okay?” I asked her.
“Well, there are more items on their menu we’ve yet to try.”
“Great!” I told the driver the destination.
We sat in silence on the way there. I felt a little smug controlling our adventure this time.
I led the way inside the healthy restaurant, retracing our path toward the same table. Halfway through, Gina grabbed my arm and pointed at a table near the glass window. She didn’t wait for my response and steered our direction there.
The same waitress handed us the menu. Gina ordered a different type of salad, black bean and avocado. I picked the organic walnut burger.
“Does Amy have a crush on you?” Gina asked once the waitress was out of earshot.
“The receptionist? No. What made you ask that?”
“It’s the way she looks at you. I noticed her following you with her gaze when we walked out of the gym.”
Nothing in the way Amy and I interacted at the gym indicated she had any attraction toward me. “I think it’s just her job. She’s a receptionist. She has to be observant. Can’t blame her. She sees a lot of people in and out of the gym. I guess she’s intrigued by a lot of them.” A burst of glee coursed through my veins. I made up a story next to conceal my unexpected delight and not ruin my plan. “Rumor has it she’s dating one of the personal trainers. They’re just keeping it discrete to avoid people talking about it.”
We stared at each other. Gina broke the ice with a laugh. “But we’re talking about it now. I hope you don’t mind me asking. Are you dating someone, Herbert?”
My laughter faded. I looked around the restaurant for any sign our food was coming. The waitress was attending another table. “I go on dates but I’m not seeing anybody now. The last time was a couple of months back.”
“It didn’t work out.” I could make a list of why my affairs with women never worked out—work, no chemistry, clinginess, insecurities—but they all simplified to one thing. It didn’t work out.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“That’s life.” I looked at the waitress again. She had gone to another table. “There’s still a lot of fish out there.”
“But not every fish you catch is compatible with you.”
“But you found yours. That’s why you’re sweating out the weight.”
Gina laughed, though it sounded forced to my ears. “Do you ever wish to get married and start a family of your own, Herbert?”
She knew the answer to her question. I told her many years ago when we were still teenagers in our hometown, when it was okay to get too close to her personal space instead of having a table between us. Perhaps, she had forgotten all about that. Time had a way of eroding memories, like waves of the sea pummeling a lone lighthouse on the shore.
“It’ll be nice to have little Herberts running around the house littering toys everywhere,” I replied.
“And little Ginas.”
My legs under the table went numb.
Gina’s salad and my burger arrived. As I took the first bite of my burger, I looked out the window. Across the street was a billboard that read in big, bold letters, “Love conquers 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.