Authors: Joanne DeMaio
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 Joanne DeMaio
All rights reserved.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61914-966-3
CreateSpace, North Charleston, SC
To my daughter, Mary
achel checks her watch again, she can’t help it, she’s so hungry. Three hours of shopping does that every time and it’s all she can do to not down half her lunch. Sara Beth just stepped away to fix her hair, but the food’s getting cold now, so she lifts her fork and tastes her lunch, picking at sliced zucchini and carrot. The seasoning is sublime, but still, their habit is to sample it all, a piece of Sara’s braised lamb, the different veggies, the sauce. It makes a goulash of lunch, their silverware spearing the other’s plate, but it’s how they eat. And how they talk, around the food and the savoring, dodging the other’s fork.
After another minute, she takes a sip of her white wine and casually glances around. Inside the Manhattan restaurant, tiny square tables, like dominoes one after the other, line the long window. Identical pale yellow linens drape precisely over each, heavy silverware anchors thick folded napkins and crystal goblets form a distinct sparkling line along the table row. Sara Beth should be back by now enjoying every bit of this.
“Excuse me,” Rachel says, standing and moving past a patron on her way to the Ladies’ Room. She opens the door to the lounge, a rectangular room edged with tufted-velvet benches. Unframed mirrors hang over long marble countertops. There is a woman in her thirties blotting her lipstick on a tissue, talking to a friend or sister beside her. It is so them, that image. She watches for a second, then hurries past into the lavatory. Half of the stalls are occupied; two women stand at the sinks.
“Sara Beth?” Rachel hikes up her handbag, fully expecting to hear
Okay, okay. I’m coming
as a door swings open, Sara Beth rushing to the sink, apologizing for taking so long, maybe admitting to a headache, worrying if the food was getting cold.
Instead the room quiets, heads lift, hands still beneath the soap dispenser, eyes meet. “No Sara here,” a lone voice finally calls from a stall.
Okay. So she begins knocking softly at each closed door, her head bowed and leaning close. “I’m sorry, Sara? Are you there?” Her tap at the doors is light, trying to be unobtrusive, as if that’s possible. “Sara?” she asks again and again, the answers disappointing. She pushes open each empty stall, pressing her hand at an angle against the door and standing back. Is she sick, unable to move? Is that why she seemed withdrawn before lunch, maybe a little sad?
Everything okay, hon?
Rachel had asked, and Sara Beth looked up from her menu.
After one more glance back at the stalls, she hurries out to the dining room. In the height of lunch hour, the room got so crowded, voices rising and falling now, making her look at different tables when she hears a woman exclaim, another gently laugh, voices of friendship so recognizable. Could Sara Beth have bumped into an acquaintance? Here? And gotten sidetracked?
“Excuse me.” Their waiter approaches. “Is something the matter?”
“Yes, actually. I’m waiting for my friend. It’s odd, but she seems to have disappeared.” She glances past his shoulder. “You took her order? The braised lamb sandwich?”
“Yes, I remember. Can I get you anything while you wait? A coffee?” He pulls out Sara Beth’s chair and motions for Rachel to sit.
“No.” She sinks into the seat. “I’m fine. Thank you.” As soon as the waiter turns away, she digs into her purse for her cell phone. Her fingers quickly press the number. Just as quickly, the call goes to voicemail. Sara Beth’s phone is off.
Funny, the way a silly delay unnerves her. Where could she have gone? Sara’s shopping bags still sit beneath the table but she took her purse. “Where the heck are you?” Rachel says, twisting around in her chair and searching the restaurant. She picks up her wine and sets it right back down without sipping any. “Come on already.”
To stop from imagining anything bad, she has this way of talking herself through things, things like this annoying waiting. They’ve missed each other somehow and will laugh about it in a few minutes.
There was a vendor outside,
Sara Beth might rationalize.
I bought you a picture of the skyline, so you can sketch it and remember our birthday weekend.
Rachel will sigh with relief,
How sweet of you! It’s perfect for my collection. But I was so worried!
And Sara Beth will tuck her hair back, smile that great big smile and brush it off as she lifts her sandwich.
I was right outside. Oh this food is divine,
she’ll say around a mouthful.
When Rachel looks to the doorway, nothing seems like she had pictured. She grabs her phone and dials Sara Beth’s cell again, getting her voicemail.
“Sara Beth?” Her whole body leans into the call, turning toward the window so she can search the sidewalk as she talks. “It’s me. Rach. This feels really dumb, but where the heck did you go? This isn’t funny.” A long second goes by. “Well. Call me at least and tell me you’re fine.”
“Excuse me, please,” the maitre d’ says from behind her, making her stand, like this urgency is uncoiling. “Your friend. The lady with the scarf.”
“Sara Beth. Yes! Is she okay?”
“Apparently she had to leave, I’m afraid.”
He reaches into his jacket pocket. “She left this for you.”
Her eyes lock onto his. “What do you mean,
He hands her the folded paper. “She stopped me on her way out and asked me to wait ten minutes to deliver this. She said you would understand.”
“Understand?” Rachel’s fingers fumble with the note, dropping it on the floor as she opens it. “You mean, she left the restaurant ten minutes ago?” she asks as she bends over to pick it up.
“A little longer than that.” He motions to the crowded lunch room. “I couldn’t get to you sooner.”
She glances down at Sara Beth’s handwriting, scanning random phrases. But they don’t register; the whole thing doesn’t make sense. “Did you see which way she went? Did she say anything else?”
The maitre d’ shakes his head and steps back. “I only took the message from her.”
“Oh,” she says, and then nothing, because what can you say when your very best friend disappears without notice? A thousand thoughts, instead, swirl in your mind. Did you say something to hurt her? Is Sara angry? Sick? Is she meeting someone and coming right back? Or was it the ballet flats she saw a block over that she loved but passed on? The maitre d’ turns his hands up in apology. He doesn’t know more. “Well. Thank you,” Rachel says. “I appreciate it.” Her eyes drop to the note again as she slowly sits.
But when he starts to walk away, she can’t help looking up. This is the man who last spoke to her friend. “Oh sir?” If she keeps him talking, it’ll keep Sara Beth closer. “Was she upset? Or crying?”
“No.” He pauses and she can see he’s summoning her friend’s image. If she could only follow it, walking out the door, that image. “She seemed rushed though.”
“And then she walked out? Just like that?”
He gives a slight nod.
“Well. Thank you, then. Sorry to bother you.”
“Not at all,” he answers.
So she sits at the table with the folded paper in hand. It’s like someone hit the Pause button, the way her fingers are bent, the paper so apparent, so neatly creased. The day stops with this news. Lunch, their whole birthday celebration thing stops, and she glances over her shoulder at the other tables. Should she wait here? Leave? What’s she supposed to do now?
Just this morning they had coffee-to-go and split a bagel the way they always do, on country lanes searching for antique shops and at farmers’ markets hunting for
best tomato plants and around the neighborhood and at the mall, today on a dawn-quiet Fifth Avenue, window-shopping at Saks. Just this morning. What happened?