Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 11 months, 2 weeks
Juliana groaned and fell backward onto the bed after trying on what felt like everything in the closet. No outfit felt appropriate for making the perfect first impression. Kevin had decided she and Marq should meet at last. They were his most treasured friends, and her outfit needed to reflect her importance. It needed to say, to Kevin, “I take this relationship seriously,” and to Marq, “Your friend is in good hands with me.” Perhaps she pressured herself too much, but this meeting had been a long time coming. His reasons for delaying had to be serious and deep, and she didn’t want to validate them in the slightest…whatever they were. His nonchalant attitude should have quelled her anxiety. “It’s just Marq,” he kept saying in a quasi-sarcastic tone. “I wear jeans when we hang out. You wear whatever you want.” Still, she worried. If her outfit was too dressy, Marq might feel like a third wheel even though it wasn’t a date. Worse yet, he would probably sense how hard she tried and still send the wrong message. Too casual would send a worse message. Making a decision felt more like balancing on a tightrope high in the sky. The slightest teeter to either side would plummet her into the depths of the despair that was social awkwardness. If Hillary wasn’t getting ready work, this would have been the perfect opportunity to seek her advice. Alas, Juliana closed her eyes and inhaled a few deep, cleansing breaths, willing herself to think about it more rationally. Kevin didn’t play head games–at least not on purpose. He never said anything he didn’t mean. He told her on several occasions not to worry about how she looked. But, he loved it when she curled her hair and put on makeup. He wouldn’t mind just a little effort. She sat up and sifted through the mountain clothing next to her. If Kevin wanted to go out for a casual dinner date, what would she wear? The answer would be her choice for the evening.
Within an hour and a half, a familiar engine roar echoed down the street. Something inside quickened and cued the butterflies to begin swarming in her stomach. If only she could keep her nerve. Why was it such a big deal anyway? She ran downstairs to meet him outside. There was no time to talk to Harold and see Abigail. The quicker they got to the restaurant the better!
“You look great,” he said as she buckled up.
She flipped down the mirror and checked her face for the 9th time that afternoon and felt his eyes rolling.
“Juliana, you’re beautiful as always. I told you not to worry about this. It’s Marq, not the president.”
She narrowed her eyes at him as she tucked the visor back in place. Who did he think he was? A magician? Were her nerves supposed to magically dissipate at his command? Sometimes it felt like he forgot how she operated. Or, maybe he never learned.
“Ok.” He didn’t sound like he believed her, but at least he knew to drop it.
When they arrived, Juliana inspected every man she saw in the lobby to see if she could spot Marq, and she did quite quickly. He was exactly the way Kevin described: tall, blonde, modelesque, fashionable, and cocky.
A bright smile stretched across his face as he sprang toward them. He grabbed Kevin and slapped him on the back. “Wassup, bro! It’s about time you let me meet the lady!” He released him and grabbed Juliana with the same level of excitement and pulled her into a tight, awkward hug. “Bring it in, girl. Bring it in.”
Kevin chuckled at his crazy friend as she attempted to return the gesture. Perhaps this Marq was trying too hard to make a good impression on her.
He let her go…partially. “It’s so good to meet you! You know, if he weren’t so damn smiley all the time, I wouldn’t believe you were real! How long as it been? Like, two years?”
“We’ve only been dating for, like, five months man.”
“Y’all were pretending to be friends way longer than that!” He turned toward Juliana. “He just won’t admit he was scared I’d whisk you away.”
Whether he was joking or not, that statement did nothing for her comfort.
“I told you he was insane, right?”
Juliana smiled nervously. How was he so calm about his friend getting so close to her? And when did he plan on letting her go?
“Did you at least get us a table?”
“It’s over there.”
“Can you unhand my girlfriend now?”
Marq laughed. “See…he’s still scared! I told you, bro…there is no way I’m taking this beautiful lady from you…not that I would ever do such a thing. I can’t deal with you going back to gloomyville.” He led them to the table and dashed to the empty seat next to her before Kevin had a chance to claim it. “Uh uh…you had her all to yourself for two years. It’s my turn to get to know her.”
Kevin’s eyes bounced between the two of them. He snorted and reluctantly took another seat. Dinner promised to be unforgettable.
While they thumbed through the menu, Marq kept smiling at Kevin. It was weird, but maybe he missed him or something. Finally, he spoke.
“So…what’s up, bro? You doing all right? You’re looking kind of strong there.”
Kevin shot a menacing glance she had never seen before–not even when he was around Axel. Whatever joke Marq attempted to make, he certainly did not appreciate it. Though Marq found his reaction to be quite hilarious, he yielded.
The server came and took their orders. While waiting for the food, the two friends conversed. Marq brought out a different side of Kevin. He was much looser and a bit silly. Occasionally, she saw that side of him, but Marq drew it out even more.
Marq was animated, loud, and all over the place like a squirrel dashing from place to place. He and Kevin laughed and told all kinds of wild stories from their college days. Their conviviality made her think of the friends she left behind. Back home, Juliana was well-liked but never had a best friend–a BFF, as Hillary called it. She never experienced anything close to what Kevin and Marq had. At one point, her friendship with Hillary felt like it was moving in that direction, but things happened. Sometimes she felt alone in the world with her family an ocean away, Harriett gone, and Hillary busy with her new life. And Kevin…He loved her more than life itself it seemed, and she appreciated that. As close as they had gotten over the course of their friendship, he still had much to learn about her. She missed what it felt like to be known.
The friendly banter was highly entertaining, but she was troubled. The point of the dinner was for her and Marq to meet and get to know each other, but the two bros carried on as if they had not seen each other in a long time. She was the reason. Neglecting his other friends in favor of spending time with her was not ok.
“Jump in anytime, Juliana,” Marq said. “Don’t let us dominate the conversation. I came here to meet you! So, what’s up?”
She hated that question. It was so indirect and had little meaning. She learned that by being around Axel. People often answered with “not much” which voided the question. Despite knowing this, that was the exact answer she wanted to give. But, thinking back to her wardrobe dilemma, such an answer would give off the wrong impression. Kevin, however, interrupted her, and she was glad.
“Someone at this table has a birthday coming up.”
“For real, birthday girl?”
“In four months.”
“Oh.” He sucked his teeth. “You made it seem like it was tomorrow, Kev.”
“It’ll be here before we know it, and I’ve got big plans!”
Big plans? Leave it to Kevin to be planning some big surprise. What in the world could it be? Clearly, he loved large displays of affection. Juliana appreciated everything he did for her, but the pomp and circumstance weren’t necessary–especially in public. But, if that was the way he showed his love, she would go with whatever he planned and cherish every moment. Still, whatever “big” meant, hopefully, it wasn’t terribly big.
“Big plans, bro? That’s what’s up! I’m down for these plans as long as…you both end up…happy!”
He often laughed at his own jokes, but similarly to what took place earlier, that menacing glance gave away Kevin’s displeasure. Luckily, the food arrived and displaced the negative feelings.
“Thank you, Daddy Warbucks, for this delicious, expensive meal!”
Kevin’s eyes rolled. “Next time, you’re buying, Mr. I-just-bought-a-condo-in-Shang Sim La.”
Marq sucked his teeth. “It’s for business! My manufacturers are there. You’re lucky I don’t just move there!”
Kevin snorted. “Whatever. The point is this whole thing about me having more money than you is garbage. I think you’ll be paying for all our meals from now on.”
“Whoa, whoa now. Let’s not get too hasty.”
Juliana chuckled at their brotherly banter.
Kevin turned his attention to her. “He’s very tight with his money, as you can see.”
“She don’t need to know what I do with my money. What about you, Juliana? How’s your job going?”
Finally! A direct question. “It’s good. I changed the hours to have more time, and I will hire soon to have help.”
He nodded and looked like he didn’t hear a word she said. Her simlish still wasn’t perfect, but it had been a long time since someone couldn’t understand her.
“You have the prettiest accent.”
She blushed. “Thanks.”
Kevin cleared his throat.
“I remember when you two first started hanging out, he used to talk about you allll the time. I used to wonder how you got here and how things were going to work out for you. But, look at you now! You’re very well spoken, have a good support system, own two businesses…and you made this guy come back to life. You got it going on, girl! Heh, they should write stories and make movies about your life.”
“Wow. That’s really nice of you to say, Marq. You are quite amazing, Juliana.”
Kevin’s fine words were warm and soothing like chamomile tea. She never wanted to get used to them.
“What would be amazing is if you could make this guy stop working out so much! He’s gonna look like The Hulk soon!”
Not only did Marq laugh at it his own jokes, but also he took way too much pleasure in making fun of Kevin. Why would a friend constantly make fun of the other? True, she and Kevin had their playful moments at each other’s expense, but it seemed to be in excess with Marq. Was it a man thing? An American thing maybe? He of all people should have understood how sensitive Kevin could be sometimes. And what was so funny? Every time Marq mentioned something about his appearance, he looked like he wanted to kill him. His fitness and strength was an enjoyable asset, not something to make fun of. Why would she make him stop?