by Dallas Woodburn
I inherited my grandmother’s humungous big toe, love of the color blue, and lack of common sense. I did not, however, inherit her cooking skills. My painstakingly prepared eggplant parmesan is a burnt, rubbery mess.
Bobby’s ex Heather is a good cook. Bobby’s mother told me so, in that carefully contrived way boyfriends’ mothers have, the way that makes them seem discreet when they’re being anything but.
I wanted to cry, but I laughed instead.
The kitchen still smells of burnt cheese when Bobby arrives, but I’ve safely destroyed the evidence,plopped Golden Dragon’s take-out Kung Pow Shrimp onto two china plates in a semblance of formality. Bobby hands me a single pink rose. I like sunflowers better, but I say “Oh!” and smile and thank him. I put the rose in a vase of water. Tomorrow, the petals will begin unfolding.
Bobby pulls out my chair for me – “A true gentleman!” my mother would say with an approving smile – and sits down. I unfold my napkin and smooth it on my lap. Bobby raises his wine glass in a toast, I raise mine in return, and we touch them lightly to each other, oh so lightly, as if we are afraid the glass will shatter. I spear a shrimp with my fork. When I look up Bobby’s staring at his food, trying to smile. My heart sinks. “What’s wrong?”
His eyes are apologetic.
“I’m allergic to shrimp,” he says.
I lower my fork and stare at the plate in front of me, the china plate with the gold edges, the plate that now looks so foolish covered in peanuts mixed with rice mixed with shrimp in a bath of brown sauce. We’ve been together for six months. How could I not have known he’s allergic to shrimp?
I hear Bobby’s mother in my head: Heather knows he’s allergic to shrimp. Heather is a great cook. Heather knows everything.
I want to laugh, but I cry instead.
We drive to In ’N’ Out. Bobby orders two cheeseburgers, two small fries, and a chocolate milkshake to share: his attempt to salvage a shred of romance.
“Extra whipped cream, please?” I ask. At least I know how Bobby likes his milkshakes. It’s a small thing, but it’s something I can do for him, something I won’t mess up.
We sit on the same side of a hard plastic booth. Bobby puts his arm around me and studies the receipt. “Number 53,” he announces. He gets up, brings back ketchup packets, napkins, straws.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“You’re welcome.” He studies the receipt some more.
Before I met Bobby, I used to plan imaginary conversations in my head, topics I would discuss with my boyfriend, once I actually managed to get one. I used to picture us, me and the hazy outline of my future Romeo, excitedly sharing the details of our lives – because he would love me, and I would love him, and every detail would be exciting.
“Tell me a secret,” I say.
Bobby looks up from the receipt. “What?”
“Tell me something about you. Something I don’t know. Something nobody else knows.”
Bobby fiddles with his straw wrapper, rolling it up into a ball, then unwinding it, then rolling it up again. I know he’s searching for the right response.
“Becca, if this is about the shrimp thing – “
“Seriously, you’re blowing this way out of proportion. Don’t worry about it, okay? It’s my fault I never told you. I guess it just never came up.”
“I know. This doesn’t have anything to do with that,” I insist.
He remains unconvinced.
“What I’m trying to say- Have you ever thought about how sometimes you know people, but you don’t really know them? The real them?”
“You know me,” Bobby says.
“I know.” I sigh. “I know I do. But you get what I mean, right? Everyone has secrets.”
He flicks the straw wrapper ball across the greasy tabletop. “I don’t know… I don’t really have any secrets. I guess I’m just not a secretive guy.”
“C’mon! There must be something! Some other shrimp allergy.”
“What can I say, Bec? I’m an open book.”
“I know, baby, I don’t mean a secret necessarily, just . . . ” I feel myself deflating. What do I want him to say, anyway? Bobby doesn’t keep any secrets from me- At least, not on purpose. I should be happy.
“Never mind,” I say.
“Number 53!” someone calls. Bobby goes to get our food.
We make the most of our shared milkshake. Bobby slurps noisily, and I laugh for him. Across the aisle two teenage girls watch us surreptitiously like we’re the main characters from the latest Nicholas Sparks book. I know what they’re thinking; I can see it in their faces: How romantic. All they see is two people leaning close, faces almost touching over the tall glass.
I want to tell them it’s never that simple, never that easy. But they wouldn’t understand. Not yet.
I pull away, close my eyes. “Brain freeze,” I say. Bobby smiles, leans forward, and kisses my forehead.
“Happy anniversary,” he says.
Dallas Woodburn is the author of two collections of short stories and editor of Dancing With The Pen: A Collection of Today's Best Youth Writing. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Dzanc Books Best of the Web anthology, and has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Arcadia Journal, and The Newport Review. She is currently an MFA student at Purdue University and serves as an editorial assistant of Sycamore Review. Visit http://www.writeonbooks.org/ to learn more about her nonprofit organization Write On! For Literacy that works to empower youth through reading and writing.