*Note: This short story is a sort of prequel. It introduces us to a few characters that will be in The Sound of Serendipity, years before the novel takes place. You can read the book without reading this short story and vice versa.
Desperation sounds like the exhaust of a Greyhound bus as it rumbles along through the city toward my destination: Westerly, Rhode Island. It sounds like the ringing of a third unanswered call and the paranoia in the stints of silence in between.
He usually answers. I end the call just as I hear the voicemail begin. “Hey, it’s Henry….” Something’s wrong.
I’m not listening to the voice in my head because it’s pretending to sound like sanity. It’s reasoning with me, begging me to call my dad and tell him I quit school, but I can’t do that. The only person I want to tell is separated by a few hours from where I am, and he isn’t answering his phone.
The emboldened young lady who packed a few belongings before rushing to the nearest station is slowly leaving. I’m left on this bus seat, alone and unsure. The fiery annoyance that pushed me toward the nearest Columbia University exit is quelling. One that was slow burning until its flames licked up and up toward the sky. My lack of friendships were like dried wood, giving the fire enough energy to burn, but it was the failing grade in Chemistry that made it easier to toss my father’s money to the wind. Henry and I wouldn’t need it anyway. My mom and dad hadn’t needed money. Not until he got rich and she faded away, her cancer killing her before she could truly reap the benefits of being married to the President of Kingsley Records.
The benefits that I so willingly chose to toss aside. It wasn’t like money mattered when Henry and I were together. He was in community college and maybe I’d go back to university someday. Right now, all I wanted was him. That want had me looking toward the front of the bus, wondering how much longer it would be until I was in his arms again. I think back to the last time I saw him, a few months ago, before the semester started. We lived summer to summer, not seeing each other in between because the rest of my time was to be spent with my dad. I was lucky not to be roped into interning each summer for him simply because of my mother’s family. He thought I went to Rhode Island each summer for them.
Because I didn’t tell him otherwise.
Last I saw Henry, I was kissing him goodbye after a night of fumbling with condoms and whispered promises, mostly on my part. Henry wasn’t vocal about his feelings, but I always saw his love through his eyes. He held me like he loved me, but now I need more. Now I need him to love me.
I don’t realize I’ve fallen asleep until the bus stops and people start getting off. I blink a few times and stretch before reaching for my bags. A duffel and a purse are all that I have to remind me of Emerson Kingsley. Was I walking away from that or was I walking toward something else? Who knew? Maybe I’d end up being Emerson Esposito. I smile at the thought of one day marrying Henry, thinking my mom would’ve loved that. There are cabs lined up along the curb, waiting for customers. When one of the drivers notices me, he waves me over and I tell him where I’m headed.
“One more time?” he asks, leaning toward me.
I clear my throat and tell him again. This time he nods and gets in the cab. Though he chats idly while we make our way, I just smile, my excitement making my cheeks hurt, they’re spread so wide. As we pull up to the Esposito house, I see so many cars lined up and down the street that I immediately wonder if something has happened. Is that why I haven’t been able to get ahold of Henry? We usually text, but these last few days his messages have seemed distant. Maybe that was the true tipping point for me. Maybe that was what made this small fire something that threatened to burn me alive. If I couldn’t have Henry, I didn’t want anything. I loved him from the day I met him, and our story is full of quiet love and secret laughter spanning over a decade.
Truth be told, his kisses weren’t as sweet anymore. They always tasted like goodbye. Maybe that was what made me drink that wine and wordlessly take off my clothes in the very house the cab driver stops in front of. I pay him and lug out my duffle.
I hear music from where I’m standing and it sounds happy. I’m relieved and I tell myself that he didn’t answer because he probably couldn’t hear his phone ringing. I tell myself this because I’d rather think he didn’t notice. Because if he did, it meant he ignored me and after the promises I made, to love him forever, I couldn’t bear to think it.
An autumn breeze picks up, but it’s still warm outside. The leaves haven’t even fallen yet. Just odd clusters here and there. I walk toward the house as the cab pulls off, ready to be welcomed into the Esposito home. I glance at the house beside the one I’m heading toward, remembering the times when I was the one who lived there. I don’t know if anyone lives there now; it looks so quiet. But that part of my life is gone and I’m heading toward my future.
My heart beats fast as I near, and I glance around the house where I see people walking out toward me.
“So cute, Pauline. You did good with Henry. Raised him right.” At the sound of Henry’s name, I focus on the woman who said it. She’s in a dress, her sling back heels hugging her feet a little too tightly. I wince for them. I wonder what she’s doing here. I wonder what’s going on and what she’s talking about. Yes, Henry was raised to be a good person, but it was strange thing for someone I didn’t know to say. Then again, Henry has a whole other life without me. Coming here is showing me that more than anything.
“Thanks. See you soon. Make sure you give my love to Frankie!” As the couple steps past me, Pauline Esposito’s eyes finally meet mine. She pauses like she’s torn, and I walk toward her, a smile on my face.
“I tried to call Henry….” My voices fades when I stop in front of her and she doesn’t smile. Her mouth remains a little open, like there are words trying to be spoken but her lips won’t budge. I think I can still hear them, though.
What are you doing here?
The longer I stand here, the worse this idea feels.
“Paulie? What are you…?” I glance past her to see Henry’s uncle Frankie stick his head out of the window. Frankie, Frankie, Frankie. Even Henry’s dad’s name is Frankie, but they call him Charlie because his middle name is Charles. I was always surprised Henry didn’t end up being another Frankie.
“That you, Emmy?” Uncle Frankie’s loud voice makes me wince. Now everyone knows I’m here, and I don’t know how to feel about that yet.
“Go get Henry, Frank,” Pauline says to him, her eyes on me until the last word, when she looks up at him with a stern expression. He quickly ducks inside and I know it’s because no one wants to be on the receiving end of her thoroughly Italian anger. The same temper that reminded me of my mother’s. It was so easy to look at her and remember a time when my mom was alive.
Before I can ask her what’s going on, I hear the back door open and heavy steps hurry down the porch until Henry is standing a few feet from me. He stops before he reaches his mom, his eyes wide and full of that love that I always question when I don’t hear from him. I smile and drop my bag, taking off when I hear its heavy thud. The space between us shrinks with each jump of my pulse and slap of my ballet flats against the driveway. He catches me in his arms and everything I love about him encapsulates me. I want to roll my eyes at my uncertainty. After being in his life since kindergarten, I should know better than to think Henry wouldn’t welcome me into his life permanently.
“Hi,” I whisper when he pulls back.
“Hey,” he says, pushing my hair from my face. I imagine I must look crazy, my eyes searching and my mouth open to speak. I hear someone clear their throat and I tear my gaze from Henry’s. Someone is behind him. All at once, the sound of my doom is a timid voice asking who I am.
I step away because I finally look at the way Henry is dressed. My Henry usually wears a T-shirt and shorts. This Henry is wearing a suit and the woman behind him, with her thick black hair and even thicker eyeliner, is wearing a white dress. I glance at Pauline and even she’s dressed up.
“What….” I don’t know what I’m asking. Not until I see her hand reach for his. Her right hand grasps his left one, and I pause when I see the light bounce off the band around his ring finger, shocked. One left hand, one ring finger, one ring. One heart in one chest feeling like it can’t beat faster than it is in this polarizing moment.
“I was gonna tell you….” Henry’s voice trails off and Pauline speaks up.
“You didn’t tell her?” I feel Pauline’s hands on my shoulders. “How could you not tell your best friend about your wedding?”
Wedding. I glance back and forth between this man and his wife. The more I look at him, the more he looks like a stranger. The more I go back to that night of clumsy love and stupid fucking promises.
Nothing hurts worse than promises you can’t keep. I promised to love Henry forever, but he made that impossible. Henry Esposito made a liar out of me.
“Giselle always thought it’d be the two of you getting married,” Pauline says, oblivious to the sound of my heart crying. My mom thought we’d be married one day because she was the only one who knew I liked Henry. She took that secret with her to the grave, never even telling Pauline, her best friend. If she were here now, what would she tell me? You should’ve made that boy tell the world about you. What my mom would never know was that Pauline, for all of her feigned ignorance, knew that Henry and I were something. If I hadn’t known it before, I knew it the moment she saw me on her property. Her quick save wasn’t fooling me.
While I used to love loving Henry in private, thinking it was romantic and special, I now regretted the decision to get knowingly swept under the rug. I look at his wife and I wonder, as I take in all of what she so freely shows me, when did they meet? At what point did she surpass me in Henry’s heart. When did she take what was once so firmly in my grasp?
I’m backing away before I even realize I’ve moved. Henry lurches forward before his wife—his fucking wife stops him. I snatch up my duffle and run off as quickly as my feet will take me. I don’t stop until I reach a hotel where I book a room just so no one will witness the violent outburst that is threatening with each uneven breath I take. Once I’m locked in the hotel room, I call the only person I can think of.
“Well, I never thought I’d hear from you,” I hear the voice on the other end say. It’s a voice I don’t know too well but well enough to know that he can offer me the type of companionship I’m craving right now.
“Turns out I need a friend,” I whisper before the tears come and I turn into a blubbering mess.
“Hey…” Hollis starts. Before he can ask what happened, I’m telling him everything all while he tries to find a way to make it to me. I’m still talking when I hear a knock on the hotel room door a few hours later. When I open it, he’s standing there with his phone to his ear and I drop mine before pulling him into a hug. It should feel strange since I’ve only ever been his lab partner, but it feels nice to have someone to talk to.
“Come in,” I say with a small smile as I step back inside.
“You look like you have a food allergy,” he tells me as he pats my head and walks in. “So this is where you’re from?”
I nod. Westerly isn’t small but suddenly it feels tiny in the grand scheme of things.
“What’s the plan now?”
I shrug and flop on the bed.
“Crawl back to my dad? I love music so that’s something to look forward to. And I know things about making music that I’d never learn in school, anyway.”
“Yeah?” He lies beside me and I wipe the remaining tears from my face. “My parents are bitching about my lack of employment so if there’s an opening, let me know. Since we’re friends and all now.”
I snort. “Friends?”
“Considering I know what you look like when you cry for four hours straight and that this Henry guy is a dick—”
“Don’t say his name.” I turn onto my side. “It kills me to hear it.”
He nods and before I know it, it’s getting late and Hollis is asleep on the floor. Me, I toss and turn, my anger raging through the silent hotel room.
People think that anger should be loud but my feelings eat at me quietly. They tiptoe through my senses and wreak a havoc that paralyzes me. There is no love here and I wonder if there ever was. I can’t help but replay so many of our moments together. It’s only now that I notice the things that I should’ve before, when my eyes were wide open, so afraid to miss a moment.
I should’ve spent more time listening to his silence because it meant so much more than the bullshit he was telling me. Instead, I was the fool who dropped everything for a man who ended up giving my future away to someone else. While I didn’t want to go back to school, I wasn’t going to give my life away again. I wasn’t going to sacrifice the things my father worked for in the hopes of finding someone to hold me, only to leave me when they got what they wanted from me.
I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
I wasn’t going to be that girl anymore.
Copyright © 2016 by Cynthia A. Rodriguez. This is an excerpt from The Sound of Serendipity (ISBN 978-0-9904189-8-6). The names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this work are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.