“Yes. Dinner is in the fridge. You just have to toss it into the oven for forty-five minutes at four hundred twenty-five degrees.”
“Thank you, Emery. I do have a request. The Fourth of July is coming up. My parents are coming into town. Kelly will be around, and Tyler will be, too, with his wife and two kids. Perhaps we could have a celebration, if you’re free to cook for it. Of course, you could take part in the festivities, and Reese is more than welcome. She can use the pool, and I’ll make sure to have some kind of entertainment for her and Tyler’s two kids, who are around her age.” His nervous fidgeting returned as he looked away from me. “Of course, if you already have plans—”
“I don’t. And that sounds so fun. I’ve never done a Fourth of July party. I’m excited to get creative!” I exclaimed, maybe too excitedly. I was going to be on Pinterest looking up different ideas the moment I got home. Plus, I was certain that Reese was going to love the idea of having a party—even with people she didn’t really know, as long as a pool was involved. “Oh my gosh, I can make minidesserts and all kinds of appetizers.” I beamed with excitement.
I swore for a split second that Oliver smiled too.
“I’m glad. Thank you, Emery.”
“Thank you. This is going to be so much fun.” I bit my bottom lip. “Will Cam be in attendance, too? Maybe with her family? Just so I have a headcount.”
He looked down to his notebook and then back toward me. “I don’t think Cam is going to be around much anymore.”
“Oh? Did you two . . . did you break up?”
“Yes, we are no longer seeing one another.”
“Oh my gosh, Oliver. I’m so sorry. I hope it had nothing to do with me . . .”
“It had everything to do with you.”
Guilt hit me at full speed. “I’m so sorry, Oliver. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble for you, and—”
“Emery. I never said that was a bad thing. It was the choice I should’ve made a long time ago. You just helped make it clearer for me. Besides, you were right. I should learn how to sit in my loneliness for a while.”
“If you ever get too lonely, you can reach out to me,” I said without thought. His brows knitted at the comment, and I wanted to smack myself for saying such a thing. He didn’t reply, so I took that as a “Hell no.” I cleared my throat, feeling like a frog was crammed in there. “Well, you have a good night.” I turned to leave the room.
“Earlier you said something that hasn’t sat well with me.”
“You said you were just the chef.” A softness flooded Oliver’s eyes. “You’re so much more than just the chef.”
Those butterflies that Oliver delivered me every now and again? They came back intensely. My mouth parted, but I couldn’t form any words.
“Good night, Emery.”
“Good night, Oliver.”
Later that night, I received a text message from an unknown number.
Unknown: What kinds of things is Reese into?
The mention of Reese’s name made me sit up straighter on my couch.
Emery: Who is this?
Unknown: Sorry. This is Oliver. Kelly gave me your number.
The sigh of relief that hit me was strong.
Emery: Oh, sorry. I’m guessing for the party? She’s really into any female superhero or Disney princess.
Oliver: Sounds good. Thank you.
Emery: Thank you!
I went back to my notebook, where I was drafting up a menu for the Fourth of July. To my surprise, my phone dinged again.
Oliver: How are you?
I was surprised by him reaching out to me again, and not only reaching out, but asking how I had been. Most of our conversations never led to much, and I couldn’t think of the last time he’d asked me how I’d been. Especially at nine at night.
Emery: I’m good. How are you?
He didn’t reply for quite some time. I figured that was what it was like living in Oliver’s brain—a lot of overthinking going on.
Oliver: Did you come up with menu ideas for the party?
Emery: Are you avoiding my question?
. . .
. . .
. . .
Oliver: Because I don’t want to bring down the conversation.
Emery: It’s your first night without Cam, isn’t it?
Emery: And you’re lonely?
Oliver: You mentioned I could reach out if I got too lonely.
Instead of texting back, I dialed Oliver’s phone number, hoping he would answer. Knowing him, it was a fifty-fifty chance. I never really knew which way he was going to travel.
“Hello?” he said, his voice seemingly deeper on the phone than in person.
There went those butterflies again.
“Hey, Oliver. I figured it would be easier to call and talk instead of texting back and forth. Are you okay?”
He cleared his throat. “Why do you ask me that all the time?”
“Because I want to know.”
“But the answer’s always the same.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding as if he could see me. “But someday it won’t be. Someday you’ll be okay.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I just get the feeling that someday you’re going to find it—your happy ending. This is just a temporary thing. Your sadness.”
“I’ve been sad my whole life, Emery.”
That fact made my heart crack a little. I wished I could hug him. “Why is that?”
He paused for a moment, in thought maybe. I could picture him with his stern look on his face. “I think some people are just born sadder than others.”
I hoped that wasn’t true. I hoped someday, Oliver would find his happiness. Find the place that made him feel free from all the sadness that surrounded him.
“Can we talk about something else?” he asked.
“Sure. What would you like to talk about?”
“Anything. Anything except me. Tell me about you. Or Reese. I want to know more about you.” I bit my lip, not completely sure what to say, but luckily Oliver gave me a question to follow up the conversation. “What made you want to be a chef?”
“My parents. Kind of. They weren’t around a lot during the week, because they worked at the church in my small town, and a lot of their time was spent there, super early in the morning and super late into the evenings for Bible studies. I came from a very religious town, where it was Jesus twenty-four seven. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would’ve been nice if my parents came home a bit more. So, while they were gone, I was responsible for making the meals for my younger sister and me. That’s when I learned that I kind of loved cooking.”
“How old were you?”
“Your parents left you alone at the age of seven to take care of your sister?”
“Let’s just say their morals were a bit out of order.”
“Do you still keep in touch with them?”
“Gosh, no. I haven’t spoken to them in five years.”
“Since Reese was born?”
“Did they not approve of you having her at such a young age?” He cleared his throat. “If I’m asking too many personal questions, you can tell me to stop.”
“No. It’s fine. My parents didn’t really approve of anything I did. I never understood why they were so hard on me over my sister, but it is what it is.”
“They were very religious?”
“Extremely,” I laughed, thinking about the number of crosses that lived within my parents’ house. Then I glanced around my apartment, which had just as many crosses.
“Did that make you less religious?”
“No, surprisingly. I rebelled against almost all of my parents’ beliefs, as a way to show my teenage angst. But not when it came to God. My faith always stayed intact. What about you? Do you believe in God?”
“I want to,” he confessed, “but it doesn’t come easy for me to believe in a thing that seems so far away from me.”
I understood that. But for me, when God felt far away, that normally meant I was straying myself.
We talked for hours more, about anything and everything, about nothing, about life. Within those hours, Oliver’s hard shell began to soften. He even chuckled once when I told a poor joke. When it was time for us both to fall asleep, he thanked me for the call, to which I said, “Call me again tomorrow.”
And he did.
Emery allowed me to call her each night. When I didn’t call, when I felt a bit too disconnected from reality, she’d dial my number to check in on me. From our late-night conversations, I was learning more and more about her. But when she showed up the next morning, I froze up. It was as if I didn’t know how to talk to her in person. As if I was able to be more vulnerable with her on our calls than face to face.