An excerpt from ANYTHING:
“You have to let go of me,” Melissa said, looking down at the grass.
“Impossible. I’m physically incapable of doing it.”
She glanced in my direction. Melissa was all business. Except when she wasn’t. A smile slowly emerged. That “you’d be pretty frustrating if I didn’t love you so much” smile. Melissa had so many expressions, always complex, always bearing multiple meanings. This one was among my favorites. It spoke volumes about our relationship.
She laughed. “Come on, Ken. I have to set up the blanket.”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m never going to let you go. I’ve decided I like this much too much.” I squeezed her waist a little more tightly and she finally turned around to face me. Slender fingers caressed my cheek and she gave me a kiss that would have buckled my knees if I wasn’t already kneeling down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a passing bicyclist grin at us from under his white helmet.
“In eleven days and twenty-four minutes, you and I are going to be together until death do us part,” she said. There is no chance that either of us is ever going to let go. At the moment, though, there’s the matter of the blanket. And, sadly, the ticking clock. I have to go back to the office to make sure that life as we know it continues.”
“I wish you would take your job a little more seriously.”
She smirked at me. “To those of us who have evolved, this is serious. The oil companies have somehow convinced the White House to let them drill in an Alaskan wildlife refuge. We have to lobby Congress to stop them before it’s too late.”
“You weren’t including me in that ‘we,’ were you? Might be tough. I think my firm is representing the bad guys. This very picnic could be a violation of any number of the firm’s policies.”
“Remind me again why I’m marrying you.”
I finally released her and allowed her to spread the picnic blanket. I sat back on the lawn to admire her at work and allowed myself to take in the vibrancy of this gorgeous day. May is that special time of year in Washington, D.C. when the weather settles for a brief time between April chill and June humidity. The grass celebrates by tickling your nose with the scent of life. And everything is in synchronous motion, from birds flitting among the budding trees to office workers shedding their pinstripe skins. This is about as right as the world gets.
The Mall is an oasis of green nestled among concrete canyons. Around us was the cultural heart of the nation, the Smithsonian museums ringing the narrow, rectangular field. At one end of the rectangle, white tents rose. There was always a festival on the Mall, and this week it was a festival of Native American culture. Tourists entered in T-shirts and left with colorful clothes and Styrofoam trays of buffalo meat and frybread. Next week it would be something Asian and there would be something Latin or African or Martian after that. We were definitely at the crossroads of the universe.
Tour buses bursting with the spring harvest of tourists circled the Mall in an endless merry-go-round. From an open bus on the other side of the field, a tour guide worked overtime extolling the virtues of the seat of power of the free world. Picnickers and sunbathers sprouted like mushrooms in the grass. Mothers rested on benches, content to let children wear themselves out chasing each other. Outside the park, the sidewalks of Washington hummed with lunchtime crowds buzzing around food stands. A novice rollerblader seemed intent on breaking the sound barrier, though he was more likely to break his arm. Bicyclists were being only slightly more careful as they wove between pedestrians ambling on the dirt paths.
The pale yellow blanket was now settled precisely as Melissa wanted it. She sat and curled her feet under her. She looked spectacular in her white business suit. Nicole Miller, I think. I wore Hugo Boss. Gray, of course. You didn’t work where I worked if you were interested in pushing the limits.
She smiled warmly. “If I recall correctly, you were a lot closer a minute ago.”
“That’s before you shooed me away.”
She held out her arms. “Very, very, temporarily.”
I moved to her and kissed her tenderly, adjusting our bodies afterward so she leaned softly against my chest. She tapped my leg and nodded toward our left. Against a tree sat a young couple, the man with a heart tattooed on his wiry shoulder, the woman with buzz-cut hair and a rose etched in her ankle. They clapped as their blue-clad toddler mastered the art of walking, and falling, and walking again.
“Cute, isn’t he?” she said.
“Really cute.” I snuggled her closer. “Ours will be cuter.”
“Goes without saying.”
The toddler gurgled at a thin man in a dark suit sitting on a bench, his high-domed forehead taut with concentration and his large ears propping up glasses through which he studied a thick black binder. I don’t think he noticed the kid at all. I wouldn’t have either a couple of years ago.
I looked down to see a wistful half-smile play on Melissa’s mouth. I knew she was thinking about the children we would have. I thought about it often myself since she’d agreed to marry me.
After a while, she leaned her head back. “Did you bring the sandwiches?”
I held a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of my nose. “I was supposed to bring them, wasn’t I?”
“That was the plan.”
“Blew it. Sorry.”
It was to Melissa’s credit that she never got exasperated with me, even when I was being my most exasperating – or at least pretending to be. She patted me on the leg.
“I guess I’ll have to go to one of the vendors and get a hot dog for you and a pretzel for me. It’s a pretty safe bet they don’t have veggie burgers anywhere around here.” She looked up at me and offered a mock scowl. “Or anything approaching the fabulous sandwiches I made for us before we went to bed last night.”
“That’s the problem, you know. You distracted me in bed. Consider this a compliment.”
She reached up and kissed me again. “Do you think you’re going to charm your way out of this?”
She smiled and leaned her forehead against mine. “I suppose anything is possible.”
I kissed her hair and looked out to spy the bicycle deliveryman approaching us. “Let’s forget hot dogs and pretzels. I feel like Chinese food.”
“I wish,” she said with a little moan. “I really don’t have the time, though.”
“I guess I’ll have to conjure a little magic then.”
No more than ten seconds later, the deliveryman stopped in front of us. On top of his red helmet was a little illuminated sign proclaiming, “Tony Wong Delivers.”
“That’s me,” I said, not even trying to avoid smiling at Melissa’s stunned reaction. “Any problems finding us?”
He grinned like a freshman at his first frat party. “No, sir. You said to look for the beautiful dark-haired woman in the white suit.” Both he and Melissa blushed at this, guaranteeing a huge tip. He unzipped an insulated red pouch in his basket. Out came two paper bags. I paid him and he dipped his helmet in my direction and smiled at Melissa before heading off. Melissa still hadn’t said a word.
I placed the bags on the blanket with a flourish. “Your table is ready, Madame. Lunch is served.”
Melissa shook her head. “You never cease to amaze me.”
“If I ever stop, you can toss me on the trash heap.” I began opening cartons: eggplant in garlic sauce for Melissa, Peking Duck for me, vegetable fried rice for both of us.
“Nah, I’ll keep you around even when you’re old and boring.”
“You’re such a romantic.” I handed Melissa her carton and a pair of chopsticks and set the rice between us.
“Mmm,” she said. “And I was all set to eat a stale pretzel.”
“I really wouldn’t have forgotten the sandwiches. Even with the distractions.” This was another thing that had become completely different in my days since Melissa.
We ate quietly for a while. The duck, the day, the woman of my dreams. I had everything I needed right here on this blanket.
When we finished eating, I held her close to me. “You know, I could probably get out of work the rest of the day.”
She kissed my forehead and then my nose. “That sounds incredibly tempting, but I really can’t.” She pulled back and reached into one of the bags. “Fortune cookie?”
Melissa pried open her cookie and removed the small slip of paper. I crushed mine between my fingers and plucked out the message.
She read hers first. “‘A major change is coming.’ It must be talking about the wedding.”
“Or something like that. These fortunes are so vague. They can be taken to mean anything. It’s like those psychics on TV who magically know callers are stuck in bad relationships, because anyone desperate enough to call has a good chance of being in a lousy relationship. The ‘major change’ could mean that we’re going to switch long distance carriers or that you’re going to wear a different pair of shoes tomorrow. My fortune says, ‘Your heart will show you the way.’ That’s really going out on a limb.”
“Were you expecting profundity?”
I took a bite. “I was expecting a better cookie. Mine tastes like plaster of Paris.”
Fortunes forgotten, we lay against each other on the blanket. Melissa’s face was as placid as the turquoise sky that extended dreamily overhead. I knew that her work responsibilities were going to intrude again in a matter of minutes, but I was thankful for this little respite. We never had enough of these moments together.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you,” she said, propping herself up on one arm, “Kate managed to pull the right strings so she could get out of that business trip and come to the wedding. Solo, I’m afraid. She and Chris called it quits.”
“That’s great that she can make it. And kind of great that she isn’t with Chris anymore. It’s difficult to believe her self-esteem was really that low.”
“I have had that conversation with her thousands of times over the years.” Melissa shook her head sadly, pondering the romantic fate of her childhood friend. “I’m so glad she got out of that trip, though. It would have been terrible if she wasn’t there.”
“Definitely wouldn’t have been right.” In addition to knowing Melissa since they were kids, Kate Jordan was a former lawyer at my firm, and the person who’d introduced Melissa and me.
“I have something for you,” Melissa said, fishing in the backpack she’d brought the picnic blanket in. Her hand emerged with a shiny object. She held it before her eyes for a moment as if communing with something inside. The pocket watch spun gently on its chain, first toward me, then toward Melissa, like a dog uncertain of its master. “I had it engraved yesterday,” Melissa said.
She lowered the watch into my palm, the chain folding on itself like a golden cobra. On the front was etched a cloverleaf. Flipping open the round case revealed an old-fashioned watch face with black Roman numerals on a white dial. KEN + MELISSA FOREVER proclaimed the letters engraved on the inside.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“It belonged to my mother’s father. Mom said it’s supposed to be a lucky charm.”
I looked at her with arched eyebrows. That was a very un-Melissa-like thing to say. “Lucky charm?”
“I know. It’s silly.” Her eyes were huge and slightly moist. I’d never seen her like this, though, as we got closer to the wedding, I noticed certain signs of sentimentality that had never been there before. I drew her into my arms again.
“It’s fabulous. Thank you.”
I held out the watch to examine it and Melissa ran a hand over mine. “Do you really like it?”
“Of course I do.”
“I love you.”
I kissed her. “I love you. Forever.”
Like a diamond in amber, that moment should have been preserved. Washington is a town that runs on the nervous energy of its self-importance, though, so there was no chance of that. A police car hurtled past in a blur of lights and sirens, followed by a black limousine and then another bodyguard of screaming police cars. This broke the mood and reminded Melissa that she was a citizen of the real world. She sighed and then looked at her cellphone, which was much less elegant than my new watch.
“I have to run,” she said regretfully, kneeling. She kissed me quickly on the lips and stood. “I have to finish briefing Pam before she goes on the Hill. I’ll see you tonight. I love you.”
With that, she was gone. I saw her striding purposefully through a lunchtime crowd that parted like peasants before a queen. I felt a little cheated. I wanted to hold her at least a little longer. I knew, though, that this level of responsibility was one of the things that made Melissa who she was. Would I have loved her as much if she didn’t take her job so seriously?
I shook my head at the ridiculousness of that question. I would have loved Melissa as much regardless of what she did for a living.
I stood up and threw out our trash, then knelt to gather up the blanket, realizing that the backpack would be making the trip to my office with me. As I lifted the blanket, our two fortunes fluttered to the ground.
A major change is coming.
Your heart will show you the way.
Who knew that true messages could be packaged in such an inane way?