“Everybody wants fortune cookies,” the waiter says.
“Well not us,” Shelby tells him.
The waiter nods at Ben. “He wants a cookie.”
Ben takes a cookie and nods back at the waiter. They are united against Shelby.
“Are you serious?” Shelby says.
Ben cracks open the cookie. All your dreams will come true. He puts the cookie on the table and pushes it away with one finger.
“It isn’t a good idea to get a random opinion on your life,” Shelby says.
“I should have known it was you,” Ben says.
“Yeah?” Shelby hates shrimp and now she has a ton of it.
“I was the one who told you, you could save the world.”
“I should have known it was you. Bambi. That should have been a total giveaway.”
“Yeah.” Ben laughs. “You remember?”
“Fourth grade. You cried.”
Ben winces and looks like his gawky old self.
“And Jimmy whatever his name was, that tough guy who wound up in prison, hit you with some rubber bands while you were crying.” Shelby nibbles on the shrimp toast. “I got a fellowship that paid for my last year of school. I graduated.”
“Seriously? That’s great. I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“I’m working at the Humane Society.” Build yourself up, Maravelle told her when Shelby called her to discuss what she thought was a blind date. Do not tell him your troubles or bring up your past. So Shelby doesn’t mention that she’s applied to vet school in case she doesn’t get in. She’s keeping things positive, something she never did when they were together.
Ben has finished his plate of food. He takes out his wallet. “I chose the restaurant. I should pay.”
Shelby feels an odd panic rising in her chest. He’s about to leave her. She probably has the same crestfallen expression the stray dogs in their cages have when Shelby locks up for the night. “Already? You’re going to pay?”
Ben leans forward. “The dating service was wrong, Shelby. We both know that.” He smiles and gets up to go. He leaves the tulips and too much money for the waiter. When he’s gone, Shelby takes five dollars off the tip and slips it into her purse. She’ll use Ben’s money to take a cab home. She leaves the flowers for the waiter. Maybe his wife will appreciate them. Maybe his wife will take him to bed and tell him she’s never loved anyone the way she loves him, not now and not ever, not in this lifetime.
When the temperatures rise into the high nineties, people in Manhattan will do just about anything to walk over green grass and find space under a shade tree, even if it means being in Valley Stream. Shelby sits in Maravelle’s backyard with the dogs. She’s wearing a T-shirt and a short plaid skirt. They’ve filled up a plastic kiddie pool bought at the local dollar store with cold water, fast turning tepid, from the garden hose. Shelby has her feet dipped in even though Pablo is taking up most of the pool, lolling around like a big polar bear. Just as she predicted, the grapevine Maravelle thought was so charming when she bought the house is now pulling the shingles off the garage. There are hundreds of bees gathered around the sweet buds, and Maravelle is doing her best to chop the whole thing down. When she gives up, she fetches them a pitcher of iced tea and some rum.
“I thought you quit smoking,” she says when Shelby lights up.
“I started after my date with Ben. It was traumatic. I’ll quit tomorrow.”
“You should quit today,” Maravelle says. “I liked Ben.”
“You barely knew Ben! He was always working or in school. We led separate lives.”
“You made it that way,” Maravelle says. “You never included him.”
“The world is mine to ruin.” Shelby mixes rum into her iced tea and takes a sip. She licks her lips. She gulps more rum and tea. “Surprisingly refreshing.”
“Ben would have done anything for you.”
“I thought that meant he was an idiot.”
“No,” Maravelle says. “It means you’re an idiot.”
They have dinner on the back porch. Maravelle has been distant lately. She dodges conversation, saying only that there’s trouble with the kids.
“Is that creep Marcus back?” Shelby asks.
Maravelle shakes her head. “It’s not that. But I’m always keeping watch over them. I used to feel bad for you that you didn’t have kids, now I think maybe you’re lucky. You don’t have anyone to worry about.”
“I worry,” Shelby says. “I’m a major worrier.”
“Trust me. It would be worse if you had kids. They start off breakable. They fall off things, they get lost, they get fevers. Then they get older and things get worse. Their hearts get broken, they have terrible friends, they start to lie to you.”
It’s Jasmine’s night to cook, and she’s made orange-flavored beef in Shelby’s honor. Jaz’s summer job is working as a hostess in a Chinese restaurant, and she spends all her free time in the kitchen learning as much as she can. Mrs. Diaz comes out with some rice, stopping to greet Shelby. “I heard you went out with your old boyfriend, but he walked out on you,” she says.
“Well, yes.” Shelby gives Maravelle a look. “Was that reported in the New York Post?”
Jasmine laughs as she brings out dishes and silverware. “It was reported in the Valley Stream Echo,” Jasmine says. “Otherwise known as my mother.”
“Well, that ex-boyfriend of yours doesn’t know what he’s missing,” Mrs. Diaz says in support of Shelby, but Shelby is fairly certain Ben knows exactly what he’s missing and that’s why he walked out of their date.
Dorian arrives home from swim practice, smelling of chlorine; he’s so tall and handsome Shelby feels her throat tighten. Do people really grow up this fast? He leans down to hug her.
That’s when Shelby realizes what’s missing. Until recently, the brothers were always together. “Where’s Teddy?” she asks.
Everyone else exchanges a look. This is why Maravelle has been so upset. It’s something to do with Teddy. Dorian fills his plate and starts in on his dinner. Maravelle does the same. No one answers Shelby.
“I haven’t seen him the last three times I’ve been here. Is he in a witness protection plan?”