by Louise Margot
Two days after accepting a marriage proposal, she finds a card at her doorstep.
The envelope had been sitting on top of the junk mail. As Helena pushed open the porch door, the pile of post was compressed against the wall, skewing the corners of the letters and creasing the unsolicited leaflets against the skirting board.
Wrapping around the door’s edge to retrieve the mess, Helena felt a kick of excitement when she saw the card. Though addressed solely to her, it had arrived just two days after Mike’s almost romantic proposal. It would be their first engagement card. With so many means by which to post, comment or tweet congratulations, locating a stamp and walking to the post box was more than she expected from most of her friends.
Her nan used to send cards for everything. Her mother had inherited the habit, though less severely. But, though love is infinite, people are not. Several birthdays and Christmases had now passed without them, and their cards.
Still, there were dutiful aunts and friends who might make the effort for an engagement. She ripped open the envelope without even a glance through the less compelling mail. The card’s front featured a black and white sketch of an embracing couple, with a gold embossed slogan that read, ‘Congratulations on your engagement!’
Helena opened it and saw that the printed greeting had been crossed through in ink. The card began to flutter in her hands as she read the handwritten message underneath.
I’m really sorry for doing this, but I don’t think you should marry him.
If you want to hear why, meet me at Joe’s tomorrow night. 7pm.
If you don’t want to know, don’t come. I will never mention it again.
She read it over several times, glancing out to the street to check that Mike’s car hadn’t suddenly appeared.
The handwriting was faintly familiar, but she didn’t need a graphologist. There was only one person who had, in a previous life, affectionately called her Lenny. There was only one person with whom she had once shared milkshakes at Joe’s, an A-road trucker stop between two distant towns. There was only one person who cared enough about her to be this bold.
It was Drew—Mike’s older brother, Drew.
Helena looked up at the giant clock on the wall. Ten past six. Mike would be home at any moment. She dropped her bag on the hallway floor and pounded up the stairs two at a time. From their bedroom wardrobe she pulled a heavy box file out of the stack where she had piled her degree coursework. It had been sitting there inertly for three years since graduation.
Lifting the scribbled notepapers housed within, she revealed a half-empty packet of cigarettes, some handwritten letters, and a parking receipt for the zoo, on which had been written, ‘2014 – with D’.
She placed the card on top of the cigarette box and covered it with the notepapers. Mike’s key turned in the front door as she stuffed the box back into the centre of the stack and pulled the tails of her hanging dresses back into place to hide it all.
‘You up there babe?’ he called as his keys clinked onto the key hooks at the foot of the stairs.
‘Heya. Yes, I’m just getting changed.’ There was a nervous quiver in her voice.
Mike appeared at the bedroom door. ‘I have to go out tonight, sorry. I totally forgot. It’s Tim’s leaving do.’
She stopped pretending to tidy her underwear drawer and looked up at him. ‘Tim? From work?’
He laughed. ‘No. Tim from football. He’s moving up north.’
‘Ah.’ She nodded, suspicion already creeping in. Is he meeting someone else? Is this what Drew wants to tell me about?
When they first started dating, Mike had strayed to other women twice whilst under the influence. He had regretted it and begged for forgiveness. But that was years ago.
It was years since Drew had been there as a shoulder to cry on … since that had almost turned into something more.
She smiled, hoping that he hadn’t noticed her hands shaking as she busied herself with her drawers again. ‘Okay. I’ve got some stuff to do anyway.’
He moved towards the wardrobe and pulled out a casual jacket. ‘Wedding planning?’ he asked with a thin grin.
Helena’s eyes lingered for a moment on her dresses.
‘Actually,’ she said, snapping her eyes to his, ‘I’ve got a leaving do to go to tomorrow, too.’
‘Oh?’ His eyes narrowed.
‘Yeah, Tasha. From work. She’s moving up north too.’ It didn’t mean she had to go to Joe’s. It just meant that she could, if she wanted to.
‘Ha. Okay. Is it a couples thing?’
She shook her head. ‘I doubt it. She’s recently single. I think she’s hoping for a girls’ night.’ She smiled at him with well-practised charm. ‘We’d better not make her jealous.’
‘Okay,’ he said, winking at her.
She wasn’t sure what colour category this lie fell into, but it wasn’t white.
When she pulled up to Joe’s it looked the same as it had done six years ago, when Drew taken her there to say goodbye. American diner booths lined the walls and red leather stools sat around the bar. The diner would be shutting at eight. It was almost empty already, save for a figure in the far corner that stood as she entered.
Helena glanced around, checking for witnesses, and made her way towards him. She stopped a few feet away and waited for him to speak.
There was a magnetic field between them, though she wasn’t sure whether it was positive or negative. It had been years since they had been alone together. At every family function that brought them together since their short affair, he had shared only the most essential words with her.
‘Hi Lenny,’ he said, hovering beside his seat. He welcomed her with an apologetic smile.
‘Hi.’ She nodded and slid into the booth, where a strawberry milkshake was sitting in wait. ‘Thank you,’ she said, pulling it towards her.
‘I asked them to put vodka in it, but apparently they’re not licensed.’
She laughed and he let out a heavy breath as he returned to his seat opposite her.
After a long sip, she lifted her gaze to his soft eyes. Even looking at him still hurt a little. When Mike had introduced her to his older brother, she immediately knew that Drew was the guy she would always want but never deserve. He made Helena want to be better.
They sat quietly for a little longer. He seemed to be waiting for her to decide whether she wanted to ask about what he had to say.
She wasn’t ready to.
‘How’s Kirsty?’ Helena braced herself. She didn’t want to know how Kirsty was. She knew they were still together. In moments of bravery, she had occasionally glanced through Kirsty’s instagram feed. Occasionally.
‘She’s good, thanks.’
He smiled and spoke with an easier warmth. ‘She’s great. She just turned six.’
Helena inclined her head and smiled knowingly. ‘Yes, I remember.’
She rested her head lightly on her hand and turned towards the booth by the door where, one summer night, a million years ago, he had told her about Kirsty, and the baby.
There had always been an energy between them, but it was when Mike cheated for the second time that Drew had taken it upon herself to get Helena home safely. Though he had been dating Kirsty at the time, his late night consolation led to more. A few secret dates had followed and they had soon, completely inappropriately, but helplessly, fallen for one another.
‘I took Lily to the zoo last month,’ he said, carefully.
‘Oh yeah,’ Helena left a tone of warning in her voice.
‘Do you remember when we …’
Do I remember when you told me you loved me and I kissed you in the darkness of the bats enclosure? Do I remember cheating on Mike with you in the shadows?
‘Yes, I remember. Lily is beautiful.’
‘Thank you,’ he smiled.
For better or worse, their romance had been cut short by the baby news. They had agreed that he should try and make things work with Kirsty, for the sake of the child.
Helena had occasionally wondered what might have been if she had encouraged Drew to leave Kirsty. But judging by their sepia instagram posts, she had done the right thing. There was no way he could fake all those moments of joy.
Even though she had never completely healed, they had both moved on. Helena knew he wouldn’t have stayed with Kirsty if he didn’t love her. And yet, here he was.
‘I’m happy that you’re happy,’ Helena said, simultaneously sincere and insincere in equal parts.
‘I’m sorry about the card. After I sent it, I realised how awful it seemed.’
She laughed. ‘It was kind of dark to send the note in an engagement card.’
‘I didn’t mean to. I had the card all ready to send my congratulations, and I just couldn’t.’ He shook his head as though struggling with his own thoughts. ‘I scribbled the message and posted it before I could change my mind.’
‘Did you change your mind?’
His expression warmed and he looked at her. He had Mike’s eyes. ‘No,’ he said.
‘You know, this is the second time you’ve tried to break Mike and I up.’ She lifted an eyebrow.
He laughed a little. ‘If I remember correctly, the first time, you came to me when he’d already messed things up. I’ll admit this one’s on me though.’
She mirrored his laugh. ‘I shouldn’t be smiling right now. I mean, I don’t know why you asked me here but it’s pretty clear it’s not going to be good news.’
‘I shouldn’t be smiling either. But it’s nice to be with you here. That probably makes me a bad person.’
‘Don’t ask me.’ She looked at his wedding band. ‘Can I tell you something?’
‘When I told you to try and make it work with Kirsty … I … didn’t really think it would.’
He nodded. ‘I know. Me neither. But she needed me, and we sort of grew together and—’
‘It’s fine.’ She cut him off. She didn’t need to hear any more details. ‘It’s history.’ The pain was growing again.
Let’s get this over with.
‘So, what is it that I need to hear?’ She braced herself as he sat back a little and sucked in a hesitant breath.
‘Okay … Once I say this, I’m a bad brother. But if I don’t say it, I’m a bad … whatever I am to you.’
‘Friend, Drew. That’s what you are.’
‘Okay,’ he said, though his tone suggested he didn’t agree. He hesitated again.
‘Do you want to write it down?’
He shook his head. ‘He talks about you sometimes.’
‘He talks about you with his friends. About being with you. I’ve told him not to.’ Drew looked uncomfortable and she filled in the gaps.
Her cheeks started to heat a little. ‘I see.’ She cringed. It wasn’t nice news, but it wasn’t really news at all. She knew what Mike was like. ‘Is that it? He can be a jerk when he’s around the guys. Is that why you thought I shouldn’t marry him? Jeez.’ She sat back and laughed, but she could tell Drew wasn’t done.
‘He told me he was going to propose.’
‘And he … he … Shit.’ Drew thumped the table and sat back in his chair, looking away from her. ‘He just doesn’t deserve you, okay? Can you just trust me on this, Lenny?’ He looked back at her.
She frowned. ‘Not really. Getting married is kind of a big deal. I think I’m going to need to hear why. Besides, I’m pretty sure “He doesn’t deserve you” is the biggest pick-up line going.’
Drew leaned forward onto his elbows and pressed his forehead into his thumbs. ‘Okay.’ He tried again. ‘I asked him why he was proposing and he said … I can’t be bothered to date anyone else.’
‘Ha! Okay, and …’
He stared at her expectantly. ‘He meant it, Lenny. I asked him about it and he tried to justify it. He meant it.’
Helena reviewed his consternation for a moment and then she laid a hand on his forearm, for no other reason than to remember what it felt like to touch him.
‘I say the same thing to him. It’s a joke mostly, but I’m not surprised if there is some truth in it. Don’t worry, Drew, he loves me. Is that all?’
‘Yes, but …’ He struggled to finish his sentence.
She ran her thumb across his arm once and then retracted her hand. ‘I know that you want the best for me, and that’s really kind, but it’s fine. I know he loves me in his way. We’re going to be fine together.’
‘What?’ He was looked angry. ‘Really? That’s what you want is it?’
‘What I want, Drew, is irrelevant. It is the options on the table that matter. He loves me. And I love him. It’s really not as bad as you’re making it sound. Can’t you just be happy for us?’
‘No! I can’t. I can’t be happy that you’re settling for someone who doesn’t love you as much as I do—did.’
She stared at him, expecting him to quickly retract his words. But he didn’t. He held strong, his fingered clasped but pulling in opposite directions.
‘Haven’t you seen me and Mike? We’re not kids anymore. He’s not cheating on me anymore. We have a house together. We’ve grown up.’
‘Yeah, but he’s not me.’ He stared at her.
She saw something foolish in him that she had never noticed before.
‘You’re not an option, Drew. And if you recall, I smiled the whole god damn day during your wedding. I hugged Kirsty in the receiving line. I even fucking sang out those stupid “We do” chants in the church.’ She turned and slid out of the booth, pulling her bag onto her shoulder.
‘I’m fine. Mike and I are fine. Go back to your wife.’
Tears had filled her eyes before she made it to the door. Outside, the road was quiet and dusk preyed over the hills that surrounded them.
‘Lenny!’ he called, catching up with her.
‘Don’t call me that. Don’t call me that anymore.’
‘Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I just felt like I owed it to you to say something. I sometimes wonder … whether you miss us.’
She turned to looked at him. They were standing unacceptably close now. Helena didn’t move as he inched closer.
‘It was six years ago. There barely ever was an “us”. We were just an idea.’ She didn’t mean it, but he had to hear it. ‘It doesn’t matter now. We are all different people now.’
‘I’m not different,’ there was something dangerous in his eyes.
‘Well I am. Does Kirsty know you’re here?’
‘No,’ he said, as though it were obvious.
‘Are you leaving her?’ She held his gaze firmly and crossed her arms.
‘No!’ he said, taking a small step back.
She had always thought that Drew was the ideal man. He looked different to her now. All the moments when she had thought about him in the past now seemed clouded by what she saw before her—a husband who had arranged a secret meeting with a former lover, a man who had betrayed his brother. An imperfect man.
All the illusions that made her want to cling to their past, fell away. Illusions are so often the only thing that hold those desires in place. It didn’t stop her from liking him, but she immediately stopped wanting him. And she thought of Mike.
Helena nodded. ‘Okay, then. We’re done here.’
Helena glanced at Drew several times on the day of the wedding, as he followed Mike around in his finery. He sang at the church, he smiled in the photos, and he skillfully kept Kirsty away from the receiving line.
In their wedding card he wrote, ‘I am very happy that you’re happy.’