Author’s Note: This is based on a writing prompt from Lou Willett Stanek's book, “Story Starters.” She used the prompt and started developing it as an example to get budding writers started on their own stories. She wrote a couple of paragraphs and then left the rest of it for her readers to finish on their own. The prompt reads as follows:
"Dumping you on graduation day was the worst mistake of my life. Sheila and I didn't work out. I'll be at the Colony at eight. I asked the chef to prepare a lemon souffle and to put white tulips on the table. I hope you still like them, but mainly I hope will show up."
I borrowed a couple of other ideas from Ms. Stanek besides the prompt such as the name of John Harrington and the idea of some dried tulips that were kept in an album as a momento. The original female protagonist was a piano tuner, but I've altered her name and job description. However, I did keep the idea that she wasn't too keen on performing similar tasks to her job duties when she was off work. I did not use Ms. Stanek's paragraphs for my writing other than the prompt itself which will appear in this chapter.
It was one of Miri's favourite parks in the city. Looking out onto the lake at the centre of the park, she could see a couple of people fishing on the dock and someone paddling a canoe on the water. Three college aged kids were playing a game of frisbee on the grass, and at the playground on one side of the park, children were climbing the jungle gym or pumping themselves on the swings. Usually Miri would have been sitting under her favourite tree, enjoying the sunshine and watching the activity in the park.
Today, instead, Miri was standing on the edge of the lake looking down one of the pathways of the park.
A pang surfaced, along with sharp anger directed at him and...Sheila. Resentment stirred in her chest as she recalled the message that had been left on her answering machine earlier that day.
Miri had just returned to her small apartment after work, too exhausted to deal with her messages, even though she had noticed the blinking light on the answering machine. She dropped her body onto a kitchen chair as she kicked her shoes off, closing her eyes and drawing in deep breaths. Her job as a receptionist for Dr. Wilson had seen her making and receiving phone calls for the greater part of the day, and the last thing that she wanted to do was to take down another message, even one for herself. She needed some iced tea and something to eat before she did anything else. Besides, it was probably just Alissa, the other receptionist at the office, who had already tried to persuade her to go downtown to check out the city's annual performing arts festival. It was an excellent idea for spending a warm summer evening, but that all Miri wanted to do was to sit in front of the oscillating fan perched by the living room window, eat a light meal, and pretend that she was relaxing in a room with proper air conditioning.
Miri quickly assembled a salad with some leftover chicken and poured a drink from the pitcher in the fridge, and looked out onto the street below. Her place was located in a business district which usually started closing up at 6 o'clock, but there were a few restaurants and retail stores that kept later hours. Looking at the people briskly walking about, she considered the idea of taking a walk in her neighbourhood after her dinner. A quick call to Alissa's cell would let her friend know that Miri was definitely planning on staying close to home tonight.
She should probably start looking for a new place to live, she thought fleetingly, as she pressed the button to listen to her messages before calling Alissa. It was a great place for a student, but Miri had already graduated from university three years ago with a degree in history. However, with her finances at the time of graduation, she couldn't afford to move. She had been working part time for Dr. Wilson's office, manning the reception desk on Thursday evenings, which was the only day the doctor kept late hours for patients who couldn't schedule appointments earlier in the day. When Mrs. Smith, one of Dr. Wilson's daytime receptionists retired, he offered the position to Miri, who gratefully accepted the job. She would have preferred finding a job that was related to her field of study, but at that time, she couldn't be choosy about work, and being a medical receptionist would pay her bills.
She had a few messages on the machine. The first was from her mother, who called in the morning to remind her to come home for Dad's birthday party next week. The second was from John. At first, she didn't realize who the caller was because he didn't identify himself by name. It wasn't until she heard the content of his message when she finally realized who the caller was.
"Hey, Miri. Dumping you on graduation day was the worst mistake of my life. Sheila and I didn't work out. I'll be at the Colony at eight. I asked the chef to prepare a lemon souffle and to put white tulips on the table. I hope you will like them, but mainly I hope you will show up."
She was stunned after listening to the message, forgetting any thoughts about calling Alissa or walking around the neighbourhood. The jumbled feelings that welled up in her chest threatened to overwhelm her, and she tried to squash them down, again. It was always like this ever since she found out the truth about John and Sheila. Feelings of pain, hurt, betrayal, anger, humiliation, horror, sorrow, and regret, all clamored for their voices to be heard all at once, even though three years had already passed. She didn't want to feel this way; she was more comfortable with her emotions being under control. Even when she was with John, she had a reserved demeanor, preferring to show her affection in a subdued and restrained manner. Her calm mannerisms had actually endeared her to his mother, Mrs. Harrington, even though Miri's lack of pedigree was viewed as less than impressive when she first met the woman.
Miri glanced at the clock sitting on the shelf. The time was 7:20 PM.
"That...that...man!" she sputtered.
She closed her eyes as she sat on the edge of her chair, expelling a huff of anger and exasperation. John didn't leave her much time to decide what to do. Yes, she could have listened to her messages an hour earlier when she first arrived home, but did he really expect to drop everything to be with him in such short notice? Of course, that was what she had done in the past. It was what she had always done in the past for him.
A feeling of bitter victorious satisfaction rose in Miri's chest, as her lips formed a grim smile. So, Sheila and John didn't work out, eh? She savoured that feeling for a fleeting moment before she returned to the decision that she had to make.
Did she want to see John again, after all this time? Did he want her back? Did she want him back?
He didn't leave a number to contact him about whether she would show up or not. It was just like John to try to stack the odds in his favour to manipulate her to come. He knew her well enough that she would probably go since she would feel badly about not being able to decline beforehand.
Miri also had a weakness for lemon souffle. John had taken her to the Colony before, and that dessert was a house specialty. She groaned audibly, remembering the mix of the tartness and sweetness of that treat.
The tulips were another reminder of their previous visit to the Colony. Those too, were a specialty of the restaurant; the staff would provide tulips upon request. Miri didn't know how they were able to find tulips all year long, but the Colony was able to procure those for guests who wished for them. Miri thought about white tulips waiting for her at the Colony, white tulips like the ones that were dried and tucked in between the pages of a scrapbook that had been shoved to the furthest corner under her bed.
Glancing down at the rumpled shirttail dress that she was wearing, Miri thought quickly. It was then 7:30. If she were to meet John at eight, she would not have time to take a shower. She would still be late a few minutes, even if she were to leave at that moment. However, she could smell herself; it had been a particularly hot day, and if she were to meet her old flame again, she wanted to look her best. Miri cared still about making an impression upon John; whether this was to impress him or to show him what he had lost was up for debate.
Miri quickly stripped off the dress and tossed it aside. Realizing from a pragmatic standpoint that a shower was out of question under the time constraint, she grabbed a facecloth and quickly gave herself a sponge bath. She rushed to her closet and pulled out a blue sundress and grabbed a pair of sandals. After running a comb briskly through her hair, she grabbed her purse and car keys. She exited her apartment and rushed down the stairwell to her stall on the parking level; it would take less time than waiting for the elevator.
Miri fumbled with her key fob trying to press the button that would unlock her car. She stepped into the car rather ungracefully, and took a moment to take a breath and calm her nerves.
"What am I doing?" Miri whispered to herself. She pulled down the sunshade and popped open the flap to look into the mirror. She stared at her reflection and saw an unfamiliar wild eyed expression on her face. She closed her eyes and listened to the accelerated beating of her heart. She wasn't going to make it on time, but John would probably wait for awhile. She felt unsettled and pressured. She needed time to think but there wasn't any.
"I could call the restaurant and leave a message," she muttered as she toyed with the idea about not showing up. She knew, though, that John would probably call her, or worse yet, show up at her door.
Miri started the ignition and pulled out of the parkade. As she drove towards the Colony, thoughts of driving elsewhere preoccupied her.
The Colony was an upscale restaurant that was situated in an old house built in 1891. Its name referred to the original use of the land that it was located on. The provincial penitentiary had previously existed there before it had closed down about about 30 years ago when a new prison had been built further away from the city. However, the nickname of the original prison, the Penal Colony, stuck to the area until the city council rezoned the land for new development. Practically all signs of its previous use disappeared, replaced with the appearance of new homes and businesses, except for the warden's house which had been renovated and restored to become the Colony Restaurant.
The Colony was located at the end of this particular pathway, and Miri hadn't walked this way in years, since John dropped her for Sheila.
Miri made her way to the entrance of the Colony. She had not set foot into the restaurant since she was last here with John. The exterior still looked the same, with a wraparound porch which overlooked manicured garden beds that lined the walkway up to the front. There were a couple of small tables set up at the far end of the porch for diners who wanted outdoor seating, but Miri did not see John seated at any of them.
She drew in a fortifying breath and mounted the steps. At the door, she hesitated before going in. Her heart skipped a beat. Was she ready for this?
Stepping into the foyer, Miri blinked, allowing her eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. Even though it was after 8 PM, the sun had not yet set, and candles were used to lluminate the interior. It was like stepping into someone's home, except that there were several tables set up in each room with diners seated around them. She noticed that the ground floor had a new addition, increasing the dining area on the ground floor.
A smiling hostess approached Miri, and asked her, "Would you like a table?"
"I...I'm meeting someone," Miri stammered. "He may be here already. I'm looking for John Harrington."
"Please come with me, Miss Hart. Mr. Harrington is waiting for you in the back.
The hostess led Miri towards the newer area of the restaurant which was furnished differently than the older section. The decor was more contemporary than the furnishings in the front, and the back wall had two glass paned doors that opened up to a brick patio. Miri realized that the hostess was about to lead her out to the patio when it suddenly occurred to her that she was about to see John once again, after not seeing him for three years.
She looked through the doorway and saw John seated at a table at the far end of the patio. There were white tulips on the place setting opposite to his. The table was situated so that it would give him a clear view of anyone passing through the glass doors. However, he was not looking towards the doorway at that moment, and Miri subconsciously took a step back into the shadows. The hostess stopped and cast a puzzled look towards her. Miri gave her an apologetic, yet wry smile, straightened her back and walked out with her head held high.
Upon hearing Miri's approaching steps, John turned towards her and looked in her direction. The recognition in his eyes was instant. He quickly rose to his feet to greet her.
"Miri! It's so good of you to come. You look fantastic!"
Smiling, he stepped forward to engulf her with a hug, but Miri cut him with a glare that caused him to halt mid-step.
John looked at Miri with wary eyes while she sighed at her own response. She would be civil; after all, she had prided herself on her self control in front of others. She could have her private meltdown after her meeting with John.
"John,...I'm sorry about being rude, but I'm not ready to receive a hug from you just yet."
He looked at her awkwardly, and made a motion with his hands, indicating that she should sit down. He pulled her chair out for her, and then returned to his own seat.
He leaned towards her. After a moment, he grinned at her.
"Thanks for coming, Miri. It's really good that you came."
He gave her an expectant look. Miri could feel the muscles around her eyes begin to wrinkle into a look of confusion. What sort of response was John hoping for? She wasn't sure if she even wanted to be here. No automatic response was forthcoming; at that moment, her mind could not bring forth any nicety to continue the conversation.
Miri considered just directly asking John what he wanted, but quickly discarded that idea. She looked down at the table and waited for him to speak. It felt like forever, but in reality, likely only a few seconds passed before she raised her eyes to look at John. She was surprised to see that he seemed to be at a loss for words too.
"How are you doing?" John blurted out.
"Fine," replied Miri. She paused for a moment before realizing that if she didn't play her part in the conversation, John might not get to the point of telling her what this meeting was all about. "And how are you doing?" she asked.
"Great!" said John in an enthusiastic voice. He sounded very much like how he used to when they had first met. John had been very pleasant and charming and he was definitely pouring out the charm this evening.
It was a mistake to look into his eyes, because as soon as Miri did, she was caught and could not look away. She could feel her eyes widen, and she cringed. She could see in John's eyes that he saw the attraction, and a confident smile appeared on his face.
"I've finished my MBA and I'm working as a manager in the company now," John informed her.
Miri nodded. She remembered the plan. The next step was for John to climb up the ladder and eventually become the CFO in his family's business.
"That's nice that you were able to meet your goals in a timely matter."
John glanced regretfully at her before replying.
"I haven't accomplished all that I had hoped to by this point. There were a couple of detours."
Miri choked back the water that she was sipping from her glass.
Detours, she thought, as she placed the glass down abruptly, almost crushing the tulips that lay before her. She stared at the table, not wanting to raise her eyes, because she knew that if she did, she would not be able to contain the hostility that was begging to be released.
Miri wanted John to spell out precisely those detours he referred to. After that, she wanted him to apologize, or better yet, grovel and beg her for forgiveness. John had said over the phone that things didn't work out between him and Sheila, and he did look at Miri with regret just a minute ago. His words hinted at the original plan for their own marriage. If Sheila hadn't come between them, or rather, if he didn't choose Sheila then, Miri and John would have been married for about a year already. That had been the plan.
She knew that he wanted to know her thoughts on the matter, but she wrestled with her anger. She couldn't trust herself to speak just yet, so she kept looking at the tablecloth .
A bowl containing lemon souffle appeared before her. She looked up in surprise. The waitress was placing a slice of apple pie in front on John.
"I took the liberty of ordering the souffle for you and asked that these be brought out to us after you arrived."
"Thank you," she said woodenly.
The souffle looked and smelled wonderful. She picked up her fork and took a bite.
I could be bought with a dessert, she thought fleetingly. It was as good as she remembered, and it was even better now, because at that moment, she was savouring a bite of souffle. She thought that it was amazing that such a combination, sour and sweet, could result in such a blissful experience for her tongue.
After another mouthful, Miri opened her eyes to see John looking amused at her enjoyment of her dessert.
"What?" she said defensively.
His lips twitched.
"Nothing, Miri." A grin broke out on his face. "I'm just enjoying my slice of apple pie."
To emphasize his words, he ate a forkful of his own dessert.
After a moment, he asked, "How are you doing? What have you been up to?"
Miri took another bite, stalling for time to think about what to tell John. She did not want to tell him that she was still working at the same job, still living in the same apartment and still had no idea about what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She worried that John would think that she was not able to move on with her life since their break up.
"I'm doing well. I'm still working for Dr. Wilson," she said quietly. She could not think of anything else to say, so she concentrated on her spoonful of dessert.
"This souffle is good," she finally said.
"Yes," replied John, stretching out the word as if it were two syllables. He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms, looking at Miri as if she were a puzzle that he was trying to solve.
Miri raised her eyes to look at John's face. She could see the frustration in his clenched jaw. It reminded her of the times when he was angry when things did not go his way, especially when she refused to go along with his plans. Miri knew that John was getting angry that she was not making the conversation easier for him. She could feel rising within herself the familiar response to back down and let John have his way. It was something which she had done frequently in the past except for that one thing which she had repeatedly refused him.
No, she told herself. Let John work a little to get what he wanted to know. She had not been ready to answer him when he alluded to it earlier and she would not allow him to manipulate her so that she would feel like a doormat to his will. She wondered idly what he would do now if she did not go along with his desires.
She was beginning to remember things about John that she had forgotten. Most of the time, he was charming, and he was definitely easy to look at with his wavy dark brown hair, and piercing blue eyes. He was over six feet tall, and had broad shoulders along with an athletic build. When Miri first met him, she was quite taken by his good looks and easy manner of speaking. It took a while longer to learn that he could also be quite impatient and brusque when things did not go his way.
To John's credit, he seemed to be reining in his temper while he and Miri sat at the table finishing off their desserts. She guessed that he was unsure about how she would respond. Whatever he wanted, he must have wanted quite badly enough to bite his tongue momentarily, she thought.
John's voice broke through her reminiscing.
"Have you kept in touch with any old friends?" he asked.
"I see Diana and Teresa occasionally. I don't know if you remember them," she answered. "How about you?"
"Just hung out with Matt last week."
Miri remembered Matthew Templeton. Matt was the one who inadvertently let slip that John and Sheila were cheating on her, when he made a pass at her at a party. Matt had been a bit soused when he came onto to her. She would never forget what he said.
"C'mon, Miri, gimme a kiss...."
She had refused and tried to duck out of the way, but he caught her arm and pushed her up against the wall. He tried to land his lips on hers, but she turned her head quickly and he caught a mouthful of her hair.
"Whassa matter?" he leered at her. "Canna give me a hot kiss like your friend is giving Johnny?"
He lunged at her, but she slapped his arms and broke away, running down the hall.
She searched all the rooms until she found John, wanting to ask him if they could leave. She found him alone in an empty room, straightening out his tie. She was about to make her request, when another side door opened and Sheila appeared in a doorway that led to a washroom. She cast a look of annoyance at Miri, and that's when Miri noticed that both Sheila's and John's appearances were quite disheveled. That was when Matt's words kicked their way into her mind.
She had been so rattled over the confrontation with Matt, that she asked John to take her home without telling John what had happened between her and his best friend, and without asking what was going on between John and Sheila. There was silence between them on the car ride home. When they arrived at her apartment, he told her that they needed to talk in the morning.
The next day, Miri and John were no longer together. Somehow, Miri managed to make it across the stage in the auditorium where her graduation ceremony took place. She woodenly shook the hands of the university officials who handed her history degree to her. Her parents and brother, Kevin, had wondered why John was not present, but she told them that he couldn't make it. It wasn't until after convocation was over, that she finally broke down and told them what had happened between her and John.
Her family were less than impressed with John for the way that he treated Miri. However, they were even less charitable with Sheila, because Sheila had been Miri's best friend since elementary school.
In retrospect, Miri could see that Sheila was up to something secretive in the months leading up to her breakup with John. In fact, when Miri thought about it, she realized that Sheila's attitude towards her had changed almost around the time when Miri had first started dating John. Miri had attributed Sheila's initial sour reaction to Miri's relationship with John as envy of Miri for being in a relationship while Sheila was then single.
Sheila's situation troubled Miri and Miri tried to comfort and encourage her friend to keep her hopes up that she would eventually find the right man for herself. Miri and John invited Sheila to spend time with John's circle of friends. Miri didn't expect that her attempts to introduce Sheila to John's male friends would lead to Sheila snagging John himself. Sheila had gone through and rejected all the males in the group. Miri had wondered how she could help Sheila find a guy since she had turned down all of John's friends; Sheila would had needed to find another social circle to join if she wanted to meet a suitable candidate for a romantic relationship. Of course, none of John's friends were good enough for Sheila, because she had been aiming for John, Miri recalled bitterly.
By this point, Sheila and Miri had grown distant from each other even though they were best friends. Besides being secretive, Sheila had grown increasingly hostile and cold towards Miri. Miri thought again that it was because Sheila had been envious of Miri. It never occurred to her until the night of the graduation party that Sheila and John had been seeing each other behind her back.
Seventeen years of friendship died when the truth about John and Sheila surfaced. Not only did Miri lose her fiance, she also lost her best friend, the girl with whom she made mud pies with, took ballet lessons and crushed over boy bands. The friend who should have lent a listening ear and support over being dumped was one of the people who had betrayed her.
Shortly after the breakup, Miri had run into Mrs. Harrington. It was an awkward meeting, but Miri was left stunned when Mrs. Harrington had drawn Miri into a bear hug.
"I'm sorry, dear, that things didn't work out between you and John," Mrs. Harrington told Miri gently, "I know that we didn't see things eye to eye, you and I, but I would have been proud to have called you my daughter-in-law."
It had been gratifying for Miri to know that she had won over John's mother, but humliating to have been dumped in the way that she had experienced, being the last in their circle of friends to know about the betrayal.
Miri had wondered for months if she had given into John's demands, would they have remained a couple? However, she knew that if she had slept with him, and if he broke up with her anyways as he had actually done, her heart would have splintered into many more pieces than it had, and it had been broken quite badly. She still felt as if she was putting the pieces of her life back together. Nothing happened as she originally planned and in a lot of ways, her life still felt frozen. Her heartbreak had been horrible, but it could have worse. Her heartbreak had been horrible, but it could have worse.
Still, she wondered if John would have stayed with her. She wondered if sharing herself in that way would have bound him to her in such a way as to prevent Sheila from taking Miri's place, or if he would have tossed her aside as he had.
She would never know. Sheila and John happened, and about a half year after the breakup, Miri heard through the grapevine that John and Sheila had a baby girl. Sheila had the life that Miri had planned for, and Sheila had John...until now.
She glanced up from her memories to see John smirking at her. She flushed, realizing that she had been caught staring at his lips.
"Sorry, John. Would you mind repeating what you just said?" Miri asked quickly.
He looked at her knowingly, and it infuriated her. Instead of wanting to kiss him, Miri wanted to punch him in the kisser. She took a deep breath and shook her head to clear it, making an effort to listen to his words.
To her surprise, John started picking at his napkin. He cleared his throat, but did not say anything immediately. He looked away from Miri and she could see the muscles around his mouth flex as if he were about to open his mouth to say something, but his lips remained sealed.
John was nervous, Miri realized. His behaviour reminded her of his proposal to her almost four years ago, here at the Colony, with a similar bouquet of white tulips that he had given her.
"Yes?" she prompted him.
He raised his eyes and looked directly into hers, leaning towards her. She steeled her heart against those intense blue orbs which had always captivated her in the past. She knew that John would employ his considerable powers of persuasion to convince her to agree with whatever he had in mind.
He noticed her defensive posture, and sighed, relaxing his own stance. He glanced down at her hand, and picked it up, then cradled it in his. Miri resisted pulling away, but she knew from the way that John held her hand, that he sensed her tension. He was holding her loosely, but his look informed her that he would do his best to make her hear him out.
"I'm sorry for walking out on you, Miri. Would you consider getting back together with me? Would you give me another chance?"
John finally said the words that Miri had longed to hear, words that she had wanted to hear three years ago. His eyes pleaded with her to forgive him.
Three years ago, even with the birth of Sheila's baby girl, Miri probably would have said yes, then, just to find relief for her broken heart. However, now, Miri felt differently.
She looked into John's eyes. The knowing look was gone, but he met her gaze and held it. He was a very handsome man whose looks still made her catch her breath. She had loved him before, enough to agree to marry him in the past. She had trusted him before, but she no longer trusted him now. She did not think that she would ever be able to trust him fully again, and with that, she knew what her answer would be.
"John," she began in a dampened tone,"…I'm sorry. I do not want to pick up where we left off. I still feel angry about what happened."
She looked to see if he was angry at her for refusing him. She was certain that he had expected that she would quickly agree to reunite with him.
Instead, he had his poker face on, but she could see the gears moving in his brain, plotting his next move.
"I know about Emma," she blurted out, still watching his face which remained neutral. She waited for him to say something, but saw that he was not going to say anything just yet.
"I am sure that you are quite involved in her life," she began, "but she would be a constant reminder to me about what you and Sheila did…and I don't think that I will be able to handle that."
"Are you saying that you want me to give up seeing my daughter?" John asked heatedly.
"No," Miri replied forcefully. "I think that you should continue whatever involvement you have with your daughter. I'm only giving another reason why I do not want to get back together with you again."
"So, you won't forgive me, then," John said flatly.
"I don't trust you," she replied simply.
After a couple moments of silence passed between them, John asked, "There is no hope for us?"
She shook her head from side to side.
It was time to go. Miri rose from her seat and John got up with her.
"Thank you for the dessert, John." She could not bring herself to say that it had been good to see him again. She eyed the bouquet, but decided at that moment to leave the tulips behind.
John looked at her somberly, then grabbed her hand, raising it up to his lips.
"Please, don't!" begged Miri.
She could not bear the thought of him kissing her, even on her hand, as he had done many times in the past. She did not want to find out if she would back down from her decision because she still found him very attractive. What she was certain of was that she could not trust him again. She did not even know if he had been the one who had left Sheila, or if Sheila had been the one to leave him. Somehow, Miri strongly believed that it was the former, and if that was the case, Sheila would likely try to find some way to worm her way back into John's affections…and there was Emma. She needed to get away from him as quickly as possible so that she would not fall back under his spell.
He dropped her hand.
"Good-bye, John," she said quickly.
She picked up her purse and walked to the doorway that went from the patio back into the restaurant. She resisted looking back at John. She walked out of the restaurant and marched down the path leading to the parking lot, not stopping until she reached her car.
The sun had already set. There were a few streetlamps lighting the parking lot and the path she had just walked on. She sat in the car, looking through the windshield into the surrounding darkness.
Miri closed her eyes and looked into her heart. She knew that she needed to forgive John, and she probably would someday. She felt regret for what might have been if Sheila had not stolen John away, but she felt at peace with her decision to say no to John's request for a reconciliation.
She also felt a lightness that seemed to flit through her. It felt like hope, a hope for something wonderful that might be waiting for her in the future.
"Good-bye, John," she whispered.
Then, Miri put her key in the ignition, started her car, and headed home.