excerpt from Absinthe Doesn’t Make the Heart Grow Fonder

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 A best friend is someone who when you show up at their door with a dead body they say nothing, grab a shovel and follow you.

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 Josie

How far would you go for a friend?

“You’ve got something there,” I told Lana, pointing to where she had something stuck between her teeth. We stood outside the door of Thrice restaurant, waiting for Poppy and Meredith to show up, or at least for the throng inside the door to move to allow us to get in out of the cold.

Lana worked the seed with her tongue. “Got it?”

“No, still there.” The height difference between Lana and I was so extreme if I stood on my tiptoes, I was still only thisclose to being eye level with her mouth. Not that I often felt the need to examine her mouth but it would be nice not to continually have to crane my neck to speak to her, or dislodge foreign objects from her teeth. We were both to blame; Lana was a tall, big-boned woman and I was vertically challenged.

“Get it for me,” Lana urged, thrusting her chin down. With a flick of my nail, I extracted the tiny black seed and showed it to her. “Thanks.” With a glance over my shoulder, her usual cheerful expression darkened. “Shit, I can’t believe she brought him!”

I glanced behind me. Poppy was walking towards us with what might have been an attempt to smile, but came across as more of an awkward grimace. From the outside, Poppy and Kent Carter were the true definition of a golden couple – happy, wealthy and beautiful. On the inside, things were very different.

“He’s not staying,” I hissed, through my own forced smile.

“I can’t talk to him. Or her. I have no idea what to say to her,” Lana confessed.

“Just act like nothing’s wrong.” I spun to greet them and hoped my smile could pass for genuine. “You made it!” To cover the strained gaiety, I hugged Poppy but then after a brief pause, I had to hug Kent as well.

“Happy birthday,” Kent said.

“You’re not allowed,” Lana said, her rude tone offset by a playfully pointed finger at Kent. “Girls only.”

“You won’t let me play with you for even a little bit?” Kent wheedled, the only man I knew who could make whining sound attractive. “I’ll sit quietly. I’ll be good.”

He ignored the couple walking by, even with their obvious attempts to get his attention. “That’s Kent Carter,” the woman said excitedly. “From Dragon’s Lair. I bet that’s his wife.”

“Who knows?” the man replied. “He’s got women all over the place.” I thought for a moment he was going to push through us to fist-bump Kent with a gesture of male approval and the admiration in his voice brought a pained expression to Poppy’s face.

I took her arm to move her closer to me, with her back to the street. “Sorry, Kent. My birthday – my girls. I said no to Duncan and I’m saying no to you. Just Poppy tonight. And Lana and Meredith, of course.”

“Of course,” Lana grinned. “So no penises allowed. Bye bye.”

Kent looked like he wanted to respond to Lana’s playful comment, but with a quick glance at Poppy, gave a shake of his head instead. Poppy kept her eyes on the ground, but a hint of a smile played around her lips. Not many people said no to Kent Carter.

“What happened to your lip?” I asked Kent quickly. A bruise was beginning to mar his upper lip. When I stepped forward to take a closer look, Kent pulled back with a wince.

“Squash court,” he said abruptly. “Silly accident.”

“It looks painful.” His lip was split and slightly swollen with a bluish bruise surrounding it. “You should get some ice on it.”

“It’s fine.” The sudden coldness of his voice would be more effective than ice.

“Get Poppy to kiss it better,” Lana said sarcastically.

“He said it was too tender,” Poppy said quietly.

“But it will definitely be fine later,” Kent promised with a winning smile at his wife, trying vainly to perpetuate the guise there was nothing wrong in their marriage. “When you come home.”

Lana shook her head.  “Don’t count on it.  It’ll be late. Lots to see, lots to do tonight!”

“What have you planned?” Kent asked but Lana continued to shake her head.

“Uh uh. Need to know basis, and you don’t need to know!” Lana spoke with a smile that was nowhere near reaching her eyes. Kent kept Poppy on a short leash, one we had been trying to stretch for years.

“All right then,” Kent heaved a huge sigh. “Have fun.” He stepped forward to enfold me in his arms again, his hug a little too tight, a little too long. Poppy had been married to Kent for fifteen years but there had always been something about him that kept me at arm’s length. Especially now. He made a move to hug Lana but her folded arms and fixed stare blocked him so he turned to Poppy instead.

Why didn’t I glare at him like Lana? Why did I always have to pretend everything was all right?

“Be good,” Kent told Poppy as he dropped a kiss on her forehead. With a final two-fingered salute, he headed off down the street.

“Where’s he off to?” Lana asked as we watched him go.

“Business dinner.” Poppy turned back to us even before Kent was out of sight. “Meredith not here yet?”

“Of course not,” Lana said wryly.

“You look nice,” Poppy said to me. I squinted up at her, trying to gauge her true mood, not the put-upon persona she used for the public. “I’m fine,” she added, accepting my scrutiny with a rueful smile. “I’m ready to have fun.”

“Me too,” I cried with relief. “I left the mom jeans at home.”

“Please tell me you don’t have mom jeans,” Lana groaned. “Those high-waisted ones that make your butt look flat.”

“And horrible,” Poppy agreed.

“Apparently high waist pants are in fashion again,” I told them.  “At least that’s what the emails I get from Old Navy tell me.”

“Well, I don’t think you need to get your fashion advice from Old Navy,” Lana grinned down at me. “And I will personally make it a point to ensure you never own mom jeans. Your little ass is much too cute for them. Look, we can finally get in the door.”

“It’s never this busy here,” Poppy commented, following Lana as she pushed through the door into the tiny waiting area.

“That’s what we get for going to such a hip and happening place,” I said eagerly. This was where all the famous people went when they came to Toronto for the Film Festival. I, of course, had never been here, and gazed about excitedly in case I recognized anyone.

Poppy, of course, was a regular. We didn’t move in quite the same social circles. Kent Carter was a super successful venture capitalist who parlayed his business savvy into two bestsellers and a spot on Dragon’s Lair. My husband Duncan was a dentist.

My enthusiasm for the locale soon began to wane as we continued to wait in line to talk to the harried hostess. There were at least a dozen other people stuck before us, all demanding immediate attention. To say the hostess appeared stressed was an understatement. She also looked about fifteen years old, and incapable of doing much to speed up our wait. I was starting to get hot in my heavy coat. The woman beside me was wearing a particularly unpleasant perfume, the smell exacerbated by the heat and close quarters.

The awkward silence between the three of us didn’t help. Lana was right when she said she didn’t know what to say to Poppy and therefore kept quiet, a rare occurrence for her. Poppy was always quiet, but tonight kept her eyes fixated on the floor. I sighed to myself. So much for my happy birthday celebration.

“So, how’s everything?” I asked Poppy grimly. “We haven’t talked since –”

“I can’t talk about it,” Poppy said bluntly.

“I get that…this definitely isn’t the place.” I glanced around at the packed lobby. “But–”

“I’m not talking about it at all.” Lana met my eyes at Poppy’s abnormally harsh tone. It was rude, but her eyes were troubled and anxious. She reminded me of a bottle of pop – shaken and ready to explode, about to spray everything in sight.

“Okay…but everything else? Anything new?” I tried doggedly.

Poppy raised an eyebrow in response and looked away.

“I’ll take that as a no, then,” I muttered with resignation. “At least you were able to come out tonight.”

Lana gave me a sympathetic smile.

Poppy Carter held the distinction of being my oldest friend. When I was twelve, my mother moved me and my sister out of our home the day after our father left us. This had also been only three days after my first visit from Aunt Flo so I could add hormonal to being devastated at my father’s desertion. Since I got most of my information about periods from the classic novel, Are you There God, It’s Me, Margaret? I never thought to inform anyone about this major milestone. My mother and I were never close.

The day I met Poppy, I was on the cusp of enduring a fate worse than death; being forced to start a new school halfway through sixth grade without knowing a soul. Poppy and her twin brother Teddy rescued me.

I had been miserably exploring my new neighbourhood, feeling like an orphan as well as a freak because I didn’t understand the reasoning why I needed to become a woman now. I hadn’t noticed where I was going, or even the game of catch happening along the tree-lined street until the baseball Teddy threw at his sister hit my bike and I crashed onto their lawn by way of the curb. What started as one of the worst days of my life however, turned into one of the best. The incident gave me a six inch scar on my leg but also introduced me to a family who actually cared about each other. Poppy and I had been inseparable ever since.

I hated to see her hurting.

“Where the hell is Meredith, anyway?” Lana asked in her loud voice.

“She’s on Meredith time,” I said quickly.

“I can’t believe it’s so packed in here,” Lana went on. “Our reservation was supposed to be five minutes ago and I can’t even get up to the desk to tell them we’re here.”

“I see Meredith,” Poppy said with the height advantage of long legs and high heeled boots. She waved a hand. I could see nothing but the shoulders of those crammed around us in line until Meredith managed to navigate her way to us, effortlessly passing through the bad-natured crowd with her ethereal smile and soft touches and bringing a waft of cold air mixed with her usual heady scent. She was wearing her leather biker jacket that wasn’t warm enough for tonight with a bag-like gray wool toque, flattening her cascade of white-blonde waves. It was an ugly hat, but somehow worked. Only Meredith could pull off a look like that.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, as usual sounding anything but. Meredith moved on a different plane of existence from the rest of us, where events progressed slowly and outlooks remained calm and stress-free. We had accepted this being the cause of Meredith’s lack of punctuality a long time ago.

However, she seemed flustered tonight, like she was fighting to retain her normal serenity.

“Everything okay?” I asked automatically.

Meredith blinked wide gray eyes at me and enveloped me in a hug. “Yeah. Yeah, just a bad client. Bad day.  But happy birthday.”

“Must be pretty bad.” Meredith had recently opened a massage therapy practice. This was her fourth – maybe fifth – entrepreneurial venture, none of which ever seemed to turn a profit. First, she bought into an esthetician place, then there was the little candle store, then the crystals and candles, then the aromatherapy place…I must be forgetting something. But she seemed happy with her little massage practice, so maybe there was a chance she would stick it out for longer than usual.

“Yeah,” Meredith repeated strangely. “Bad day.”

“What happened?” Lana wanted to know.

“Nothing, it’s – nothing.”

“It obvious it’s something because I’ve never seen you this upset over nothing,” I declared, using my mom voice that offered no room for argument. “Now, what happened?”

Meredith’s eyes flicked to Lana and Poppy, before falling resignedly on me. “Nothing I can’t handle.  Just this guy…he tried to grab me,” she admitted reluctantly.  “It was – he must have thought it was a happy endings sort of place.”

“Who was this guy?” Lana demanded angrily.

“What’s a happy ending supposed to mean?” I asked curiously.

“You’ve never heard of a happy ending?” Lana laughed, immediately breaking the tension.

“Well, from the sound of that, I’m guessing it’s something about sex,” I retorted.

“You know, you’re still the most naïve forty-year old mother of three I’ve ever met,” Lana grinned affectionately at me. “A happy ending is when a guy goes to get a massage at a special place and expects to have a happy ending.” She did a little movement with her hand like she was grasping something and…

“Eww! They expect to be jerked off!” I cried, a little too loudly. “You don’t do that, do you?” I whispered urgently to Meredith.

“No,” Meredith smiled grimly, pulling off her hat and stuffing it in her red leather bag. “I don’t.  But – this guy expected me to. And he got a little upset when I said no way.”

“No fucking way,” Lana muttered. “So what did you do to him?”

“You’d be proud of me,” Meredith told Lana. “He jumped off the table and backed me into a corner – dumped half my oils onto the floor, stupid ass – and grabbed my hand and was trying to…never mind.  I managed to get my knee up and pressed it against his balls just so.”

“Good girl!” Lana applauded.

But I was horrified. “Meredith! He could have…he could have…hurt you!”

“I know how to take care of myself,” she assured me.  She wiggled her fingers. “I gave him a good knock on the chin. I’ll have a sore hand tomorrow to show for it.”

“Knee him in the balls and punch him!” Lana crowed. “That’s what they deserve.”

Meredith looked over my head at Poppy, who was white-faced with a worried expression. “Who was it?” she asked urgently.

“Nobody,” Meredith said quickly.

I thought Poppy was going to say something, but she only shook her head grimly.

“You won’t let him back in again, will you?” I demanded fiercely. “Or I’ll find out who he is and do more than knee him in the balls.”

They laughed at the image, because I was only a hair above five foot and had issues killing spiders.  But Meredith leaned over and hugged me. “Thanks, Josie. That means a lot.”

“You mean a lot,” I said into her shoulder. “I worry about you.”

“Don’t. I’m a big girl,” she assured me, drawing away. “And no more talk of this tonight. We’re celebrating!”

“I’m glad you all could make it,” I said honestly. It had been a tradition for the four of us to celebrate birthdays together, but it had become increasingly difficult to do so over the last few years, and I was worried tonight wasn’t going to happen. The four of us hadn’t managed to get together for Lana and Meredith’s birthdays this year and I was desperate to keep the tradition alive.

We needed each other more than ever these days.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Meredith said.

“Me neither,” Poppy told me, giving me one of her increasingly rare smiles, transforming her wan face. One of the men crowded alongside us jostled Poppy, and did a double take before stammering an apology.  I wasn’t sure if it was because he recognized Poppy or because of how beautiful she was. “It’s been too long.”

“Not since you…”Meredith trailed off. “I saw you guys in the summer,” she quickly corrected.

“I wasn’t there,” Lana reminded her. “And when we went to Josie’s for Easter, Poppy wasn’t there.”

“How long has it been since the four of us were together?” I cried.

“Well, we were getting together tonight, come hell or high water. I wasn’t letting anyone get away with bailing,” Lana promised me. “It is your birthday, after all.”