Muse, Summer 2011 issue, First Place, Community Prose
“It’s about Sebastian,” she said.
“Ah—what?” I asked, shifting the phone receiver. I was careful to disguise the coolness in my voice from Julie, my friend for seventeen years. Her new boyfriend was always the topic lately.
“He’s been in an accident.”
I regretted my disinterest. “Is he okay?”
“No.” Julie settled into her explanation. “He was hit by another car, Karen. They took him to the hospital.”
I held my breath. “How bad is it?”
“Well, you know.” Julie sniffed and paused. I could hear her dainty nose blowing. “If it was nothing, they wouldn’t be keeping him overnight. For observation.”
“Where are you?”
Julie sniffed again. “St. Mary’s. Room Three-twelve.”
My mind raced through a litany of check lists. Who could babysit? Did the car have any gas?
“You’re coming aren’t you?” Julie’s voice sounded small.
“Of course. I’ll be right there.”
Breathless, I pounded the hospital hallway, annoyed by the unnaturally loud clacking of my boot heels on the polished tile. I found the room and halted, preparing myself for an unwelcome sight. When I pushed open the door, Sebastian was sitting up in bed talking with Julie, looking very normal except for the hospital gown and a big bruise on his head.
They both turned toward the sound of the swinging door. Julie jumped up, ran to me, hugged me and whispered, “So glad you could come.” She pulled me toward Sebastian’s bed.
I leaned over to give Sebastian a sympathetic hug and kiss. What I’d intended as a kiss on the cheek ended on a corner of his mouth as he turned his head. I stepped back and sat in the chair Julie had pushed next to me.
“It was the other driver’s fault,” Julie said. “He’s going to pay. For sure.”
“What about your head?” I asked Sebastian, gesturing toward his bruise.
“Oh, plenty of tests,” he said, “but nothing too bad so far. They think I might have a concussion. And whiplash.”
“Well, how’d it happen?” I asked.
“I told you,” Julie said. “The other driver hit Sebastian’s car. Rear ended it.”
“I mean,” I said, directing my questions to Sebastian. “Where did you strike your head?
What happened to the airbag?”
“Didn’t deploy, flimsy thing, but it seems obvious, Karen, my head hit the windshield.”
“How can that be, with the seatbelt and all?”
“We don’t wear seat belts,” Julie said. She smiled at Sebastian in what could only be seen as a secret smile of superior knowledge.
I rubbed my forehead, pondering this. “Jul, you don’t take airplanes because you’re afraid of a crash, yet you drive in city traffic without wearing a seatbelt. Is that what you’re saying?” Was my friend’s relationship with this guy endangering her?
Sebastian cleared his throat. “They can’t make me wear one. I resent being told what to do by the government, and I dare them to try to give me a ticket. Julia understands how I feel.”
“Jesus,” I said. “That’s just so stupid. They save lives.”
Sebastian looked offended. Julie came quickly to his defense. “Not really. I’ve heard of so many folks who died even when wearing their seatbelts or who were trapped in their cars because of them,” she said. “Besides, it’s the driver’s choice. You smoke cigarettes, Karen, so how can you be so judgmental?”
She had me there. I offered a lame excuse about trying to quit but suddenly felt a serious need for one.
Julie stroked Sebastian’s hand and looked at him as if he was the only person in the world. I felt small in the presence of the two of them together.
After a few more minutes of talk, I found a way to excuse myself. Julie hugged me again and thanked me for coming but Sebastian merely glanced at me. As I left, this time clacking slowly along the over-bright hallway, I wondered why she’d called me.
Julie and I shared a dream of writing a cookbook together. We made plans to research cookbooks and take a class at a local culinary school. Meanwhile, we created unique dishes with exotic spices.
“Let’s try a little saffron,” Julie said, her eyes glowing.
“Great,” I said, lifting the lid to breathe in the savory aroma and tasting the Portuguese pork stew we were making. “I think it needs something.”
“Actually, it’s perfect the way it is,” Sebastian said after his taste.
Julie dropped her spoon. “Of course,” she said. “Adding saffron would be too much.”
Sebastian gave me a condescending look and strolled out of the kitchen, hands in his pockets.
“Well, it wouldn’t hurt to try some, would it?” I asked.
Looking toward Sebastian’s retreating form, Julie whispered, “No. Let’s go for it.”
As the weeks passed, Julie and I grew more excited. We pored over details of Feast Your Eyes, the name of our cookbook-to-be. Our dream was taking shape. We spent hours cooking, measuring, taking notes, tasting and talking. During these times, I overlooked Sebastian’s moody, faux-European aloofness and soothed the sharp edges of Julie’s intermittent anxiety.
The phone rang. “Oh, hi,” I said to Julie. “I’ve been trying that new marinara sauce. My family will love it and—.”
“It’s about Sebastian,” she said. Her voice sounded flat.
“What?” I felt a cold lump in my stomach.
“He said you were coming on to him.”
I laughed. “You’re kidding, right? I hardly speak to the man.”
“No, Karen, I’m not. Remember that kiss you gave him at the hospital?”
I laughed again. “Oh that was nothing. Sympathy. A greeting.”
“Hardly. Sebastian says he can tell when you look at him. He knows when a woman is coming on to him.”
“You can’t be serious!” I felt anger climbing out of my throat. “I don’t even like him, truth be told, Jul.”
“Well, Sebastian knows passion. He’s part Italian, you know.”
“This is crazy!” I was shouting into the phone now. “He’s jealous of the time you spend with me on Feast Your Eyes.”
“I can tell by your reaction there’s something to it.” Julie was matter-of-fact now.
My anger turned to disbelief. “I can’t believe you’re accusing me of this,” I said. “And, taking his word over mine, after all these years. It’s simply not true.”
Julie was silent but I could hear her raggedy breath, and I knew she was crying.
I felt deflated. “So, what does this mean?” I asked. “What happens now?”
Julie’s voice was almost a whimper. “I guess we need to take a little time off—from writing the cookbook, I mean. Until I can find the strength to forgive you.”
“Julie,” I said with the most deliberate, careful control I could muster. “I don’t need your forgiveness for something I haven’t done.”
I hung up the phone as tears stung my eyes. Turning back, I saw marinara sauce bubbling over, burning on the stove.
© Candace Armstrong