By Bettyann Moore
As far as Toby was concerned, leaving things to chance was not an option. It had been ten years since Georgie had set eyes on him and when she saw him again, he would be perfection personified. For 20 years he’d kicked himself for never telling her how he really felt about her, back when he had the chance, so she’d married someone else, moved away and the chance was gone. Until tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the Putnum High Class of 1995 20-year reunion. Georgie was a widow and was going to be there (he’d checked on both counts), Toby had dumped his lazy, meth-head wife years before, and there would be a full moon. Everything good that ever happened to Toby happened during a full moon. He should have known better to marry the meth-head; they’d met during a new moon.
It only appeared that Toby started prepping for the reunion a year ahead of time. It was just a little plastic surgery. He’d always hated that little knob on the end of his nose anyway. And joining the gym? Everyone did that nowadays. Plenty of people worked out before and after their jobs every day. And on weekends. It made giving up alcohol and cigarettes all that much easier. And the Berlitz crash course in French? Improving one’s mind was all that was. N'est-ce pas?
Now it was the Friday before the reunion. Toby took the day off from work and was sorting through his wardrobe. He was missing that night’s informal mixer; a friend of a friend on Facebook had lamented that Georgie wasn’t going to be there, so there was no need to be there as far as he was concerned. He was friends on Facebook with just about everyone from his old class – even the jocks and cheerleaders – but not Georgie. Toby had his reasons. He couldn’t articulate them, even to himself, but they were good enough for him.
There was brunch, golf and dinner on Saturday, and a small good-bye breakfast on Sunday. If he played his cards right, Georgie would only be saying farewell, not good-bye. Toby laid out a lightweight pair of black slacks for brunch, along with a light blue dressy/casual shirt. He didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but that’s what the salesman called it and it highlighted his baby-blue eyes. His cleaned, shiny golf clubs wore their little socks in a new bag he’d already loaded into his LandRover. It was gauche to wear shorts on the course, even if it was July and hotter than Hades, so he opted for a sharply pressed pair of chinos and a blue Izod shirt. When he wasn’t working out at the gym, Toby was at the driving range; Georgie, he understood, played semi-pro golf after college.
The highlight of his wardrobe, though, was the $500 blue pinstriped designer suit Toby had tailored to fit his buff body. It took him the better part of a year to pay for it and the tailoring. He held it up against his naked body and admired it in the full-length mirror. Paired with a light gray shirt (with cufflinks!) and a Hermes tie … it was killer. He hung it carefully in the closet above the spit-polished black shoes he would wear. Then he reached up to the closet shelf and took down a stack of student annuals, as well as one other book.
He pulled on a pair of boxers and settled against the headboard, the annuals in a chronological stack next to him, the extra book beneath. He started with freshman year, like he always did.
And there she was, Georgette “Georgie” Bouchard, on page 14, sitting awkwardly with three others, the new members of the student council. Even though it was in black and white, Toby knew she was wearing her favorite yellow sweater, the one that went so well with her shiny ebony hair and jet black eyes. And again on page 21, as Ophelia in the school production of King Lear; it was unheard of for a freshman to play that plum role. There was even a picture of them together on page 50: Students Pitch in to Feed the Hungry. Georgie was putting a box of cereal into a big barrel and Toby, the skinny math geek who’d accidentally stepped into the frame behind her, was struggling with a case of canned goods. The best part, though, was her handwritten dedication scrawled across the photo: To Toby, Thanks for being my best friend!!!! She used little hearts to dot the ‘I’s’ and on the exclamation points.
Toby knew he should skip the next picture, but he never did. Page 96, the end of the year freshman dance. There she was in a short pink dress, slow-dancing with Purcell Dresner. Toby had been working at his box-boy job, not that he would have gone, but he was glad he hadn’t been there. It was bad enough that he had to do best friend duties for weeks ahead of time on the phone with her. What should I wear? He’s shorter than me, should I wear heels? Should I kiss him afterward? What if he puts a move on me? It was enough to break a guy’s heart.
With a sigh, Toby set the book aside and picked up his phone. Nostalgia always made him hungry for Chinese food, his one indulgence. He hit the speed dial button for Lo Don’s, then the number three when its automated system kicked in; he was in the mood for beef and broccoli. He picked up the sophomore yearbook and paged through it without much enthusiasm; the same with the others. Georgie with Adam Nesbaum, the quarterback. Georgie getting flowers pinned on her prom dress by Pete Younger, the star center forward. Georgie being crowned homecoming queen by her boyfriend John Pashower. Toby sighed again, then reached for the extra book, which brought a smile to his face.
It was obviously homemade. It had a wooden cover and the pages were glued inside; they were awkward to turn. It was called simply: Imagine (after the John Lennon song) and its “authors” were Georgette Bouchard and Tobias Ivy. They started writing it when they were 10. They took turns writing chapters, though some of them were no longer than a sentence or two. At 10, they had no other goal than to be Authors, with a capital A, and the story didn’t begin to take shape until the mid-’90s when they latched onto the idea that religion had played a major role in creating havoc all over the world.
Raised by staunch Catholics who thought Vatican II was way too liberal, this was pretty brave and scary thinking. They hid the book and worked on it when they were supposed to be doing their homework. In their teens, though, Georgie became more militantly anti-religion while Toby fell victim to his hormones. While she railed against the church, he made moon-eyes at her, to no avail. When Georgie finally did discover boys – but never the right boy, him, Toby thought – the book was put aside and Toby filled the role of confidant.
The doorbell startled Toby out of his reverie. He threw on a robe, grabbed tip money for the delivery guy and flung open the door.
And there she stood, Georgie – older, even more beautiful – and smiling wickedly at him with a bag of Chinese food dangling from one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other. Toby was dumbstruck.
“You … you cut your hair,” was all he could think to say. It was short, very short, giving her an appealing pixie waif look.
“That’s how you greet your oldest and dearest friend?” Georgie cried, pushing past him and into his tiny kitchen. She plunked the bag and the bottle on the counter and turned to him, her arms open wide.
Toby knew his breath smelled funky and his hair was probably doing the rooster tail thing it did whenever he lounged in bed, but he stepped into her embrace anyway. She felt insubstantial, all bones and air.
“Holy crap, Tobster!” she said, holding him at arm’s length. “You’re like the Incredible Hulk or something.” She gave his biceps a squeeze and he couldn’t help himself, he flexed, making her laugh.
“What are you doing here?” Toby said, running a hand through his hair and tightening the belt on his robe. “I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.”
Georgie cocked her head at him and went in search of a corkscrew. “You have a lot to learn about greeting a long lost friend,” she teased.
“Sorry,” Toby said, adding, “It’s in the drawer next to the fridge.”
“Ha!” Georgie held the tool aloft and went to work on the bottle. “Glasses?” she asked.
Toby took two glasses down and she poured.
“To old friends and new beginnings!” Georgie said, raising her glass.
Toby liked the sound of that and raised his as well, even though he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in almost a year. He sipped while Georgie drained hers in one, long pull. She swayed a bit and Toby realized that she’d already been drinking.
“Excellent,” she declared, pouring another. “This will go well with Chinese. I hope you ordered enough. And don’t worry, I tipped the driver.”
“I’m sure there’s plenty,” Toby said. “It doesn’t look like you eat very much anyway.”
“Toby, Toby, Toby,” Georgie slurred. “You used to be such a mannerly boy.”
Toby blushed. “I’m sorry, Georgie,” he said. “I’m just in shock is all. I didn’t think I’d see you until tomorrow and look at me, I’m in my robe ...”
“That’s why I’m here now,” Georgie said, picking up the bag and heading into the living room. “Tomorrow won’t be happening, at least for me anyway. And when I saw you weren’t at the mixer, I held Zack Smith’s arm behind his back until he gave me your address. And here I am. You look cute in your robe, by the way.” She sat down heavily on the sofa, nearly spilling her wine.
“You won’t be at the reunion?” Toby thought of his $500 suit hanging in the closet, the new golf bag, the shoes. “Look,” he said, getting an idea. He went to the kitchen, grabbed a couple of plates and handed them to her. “Why don’t you serve up the food and I’ll just go throw something on, okay?” It occurred to him that at any other time he’d be thrilled to be half-naked in Georgie’s presence, but he went to get dressed anyway.
She didn’t bat an eye at him when he returned just a few minutes later, hair slicked back and dressed in his brunch outfit.
“This is good,” she said, mouth half full. “Sit, eat!”
He sat next to her and picked up a plate. He wasn’t very hungry. His mind was full of all the things he wanted to say to her at the reunion and now he wouldn’t get a chance. He was more comfortable now that he was dressed, but where to begin?
“You look great, Georgie,” he said, finally taking a good look at her. He realized that she was dressed simply, in a rather worn t-shirt and plain skirt with no jewelry other than a ring on her left hand. Widowed almost 10 years now and still hadn’t taken off her wedding ring? Still, she looked amazing, her skin clear, pale and as smooth as when they were kids.
“Thanks, Tobias,” Georgie said, taking another slug of wine. Toby noticed that she’d brought the bottle into the living room as well. She looked at him appraising. “You look … wow … you look amazing. What’d you do to your nose, though?”
He touched the tip of his nose. He wasn’t about to admit to plastic surgery. “Grew into my face I guess,” he said, shrugging. Right then he decided to rush on in. “Look, Georgie, I’m so glad you’re here; there’s a bunch of stuff I need to say.”
Georgie swiveled around to face him. “What?” she said, “you’re not curious about why I won’t be at the reunion tomorrow? Not even wondering why I needed to see my old best friend today?”
“Well, uh, sure I am,” Toby stammered. “So, tell me, why aren’t you going to be at the reunion tomorrow and why’d you need to see me?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Georgie said. She looked down at her hands and frowned. “Last question first: I’m scared and you were always there to help me overcome my fears.”
“Scared? I was?”
“Of course, you big galoot. You were always my best cheerleader. I didn’t make a move without checking in with you first.”
Toby pondered this for a second. “I guess ...” he said, “but what are you scared of now?”
“The answer to that also answers question number one,” Georgie said. “I fly to Nigeria tomorrow.”
“Nigeria?” Toby didn’t know much about other parts of the world, but there had been awful news coming out of Nigeria. Killings and beheadings. “So, if you’re scared, Georgie,” he said, “don’t go.”
“Oh, I’m going,” she said. “I volunteered. My order gave me a choice.”
“Volun … your order?”
“Yes, the Sisters of St. Louis.”
“Sisters of ...”
“Toby, you’re echoing,” Georgie said, laughing.
“Sorry. Uh, you’re a nun then?” Toby’s mind reeled. “Didn’t you used to be married?” He nodded at the ring on her finger.
“Widows, even divorcees, can become nuns,” Georgie said. She laughed and twirled the ring around on her finger. “And this, my dear, is the ring, the cliché, the one that shows that I’m married to Christ.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Weird, huh?”
“Wow,” Toby said, getting up to pace. “I mean, wow. I never would have thought. What about the book, our book, Imagine? I was just reading it ...”
“Oh my God,” Georgie cried, her eyes lighting up. “You still have that relic? I’d love to see it. Man, we were so young and confused! Go get it,” she commanded.
What could he do? Georgie’s wish was his command, always. Toby fetched the book, taking the time to slip into some clean sweats as well. They spent the next hour reading and exclaiming over the book, recalling what was going on in their lives during each entry. They were in tears of laughter by the time they were done.
Still chuckling, Georgie wiped her eyes and got serious. “Talk about rude,” she said. “I interrupted and you never got a chance to tell me what you wanted to say.” She folded her hands on the book in her lap and sat up straight. “I’m all ears.”
Toby looked at her sweet, eager face, the same face that looked at him with complete trust so many years before, the face he’d missed so much.
“Oh,” he said, “I just wanted you to know how much I’ve missed, you know, our friendship, and how I hope life has been good to you. And that I love you. That’s all, just that.” It was all he could do to hold back the tears.
“I love you, too, Tobias, and I’ve missed you as well. Will you write to me? Will you send me long, newsy letters and care packages?”
“I’d like nothing more,” he replied, knowing his desire for much more than that was nothing than dust riding on a breeze.
“Excellent,” Georgie said. “Now, how about yearbooks? You have those, too?”
Toby rolled his eyes. “You mean the black and white testament to Georgette Bouchard’s teenage desirability?” He was trying, he was.
“Yes, that,” Georgie said, clapping her hands. “And by the way, how come you and I never … you know, were a couple?”
Toby was practically swooning inside. He gave Georgie his most deadpan look.
“You were always too wild for me,” he lied. “I liked my girls conservative.”