Rochelle arrived at the gold-gilded hotel in her red overcoat, black studded gloves, and her favorite kitten heels. At seventy-seven, she knew her coiffed red hair wasn’t fooling anyone, but she puffed it up anyway and looked around for Shayla. Rochelle was notoriously late, and as tradition stated, Shayla would be waiting for her at the cocktail bar, sipping on a mimosa.
The grand New York City hotel had the best Valentine’s dinner in the state. It had been Rochelle and Shayla’s ritual for over thirty years. First, it was a refuge from their kids and husbands after the busy holiday season. Then, as their children grew up and started moving away, it became a refuge of nostalgia and normalcy. After Rochelle was widowed, it became the highlight of her year. But for the first time in her waking memory, Shayla wasn’t at the cocktail bar. Rochelle huffed and looked around. Shayla was nowhere to be seen.
Outside, giant snowflakes pressed against the windows. She watched the revolving doors as they blew in both people and snow. She checked her watch. Ten minutes had passed. The gift bag she carried became heavier by the second. She shook her free hand with impatience, enjoying the jangle of the charms on her bracelet. She considered getting a table and sending Shayla a text, but Shayla never remembered her cell phone. Just as she started eyeing up the host, barely visible in the restaurant entryway, Shayla came into the lobby.
She was a vision of beige and gold. Her camel overcoat paired nicely with her gold hoops. She held a beautifully wrapped gift box. It was smaller than in all of the years past, and from Shayla’s grip on the box, Rochelle guessed it was heavier, too.
Rochelle waved. “Shayla!” she called.
Shayla’s eyes looked both erratic and glossy as they landed on Rochelle. Shayla had lost her husband this past year. She wasn’t handling the loss well. Though her smile was strained, she embraced Rochelle nonetheless. “Hello, dear. It’s great to see you.”
Rochelle put everything she couldn’t say into the hug. “It’s wonderful to see you, too. Shall we go straight to our table?”
Shayla nodded in agreement. Rochelle took the lead as she mentioned their names to the host, checked their coats, and got them seated at their yearly table. It had the best views of the floor-to-ceiling windows as well as the other restaurant-goers. From there, they could exchange both presents and gossip. It took about a decade of refining, but it was truly the perfect spot. Rochelle absolutely loved it.
The waiter, a young twenty-something with a sarcastic pull to his lips, stopped at their table. “Good evening. My name is Raoul, and I will be serving you today. Anything to drink besides water?”
They didn’t need a menu. “I would love a cup of Masseto,” Rochelle said.
“And for you?”
Shayla looked up from her hands, blinking fast. “Pardon?”
“Would you like anything to drink?” The waiter’s words were slow and condescending.
Rochelle stepped in. “She’ll take a glass of Sierra Cantabria.”
“Very well. Here are the dinner menus.”
Rochelle thanked him and then immediately hummed her disapproval as he walked away. “He’s a little rude, don’t you think?”
Shayla was again staring at her hands.
“I’m sorry dear. What did you say?”
“Never mind. Are you quite all right?” Shayla usually brought bubbly excitement to their evening. Rochelle felt unmoored.
Shayla squeezed her hands and lifted her doe-like eyes to meet Rochelle’s gaze. “As all right as I can be. It’s just such a hard season with Ben’s passing.”
Rochelle reached for Shayla’s hand and squeezed. “I know, dear. Grief is an unwelcome friend. But in time, it will become easier to bear.”
Shayla nodded, saying nothing. They sat like this for some time. Rochelle studied the falling snow and the other patrons while Shayla studied their hands. When Raoul came to take their order, Rochelle ordered their usual favorite: Cesar salads and a brisket entree.
“Would you like to exchange presents?”
Shayla nodded again.
Rochelle picked her gift bag off the floor. “Here you are!” As tradition stated, she got Shayla a custom-made beeswax candle. Its pattern was different every year. This year, it had whirls of snowflakes molded into its sides. With a smile, she watched as Shayla unbagged it.
“Oh, a candle. How beautiful, dear. Thank you.” She set the bag down onto the floor. A bit ceremoniously, Rochelle noted. “Here’s your gift.”
For the past thirty years, Shayla had gifted her a new charm for her bracelet. Rochelle pulled at the green tulle bow and tore the gold foil wrapping paper, wondering what charm could merit the weight of the gift box.
She pulled off the top of the box. It was not a bracelet charm. Instead, a bronze dove greeted her. In the dim lighting of the restaurant, it glowed.
“I hope you like it.” Shayla’s voice was merely a whisper, as if it strained her to speak.
Her late husband had loved bronze figurines. She kept them on her mantle to this day and polished them weekly. “I love it. It’s beautiful, Shayla. Just beautiful.”
“Yes, well. I thought it would go beautifully with your decor.” Her voice had an edge to it.
Rochelle felt like she had been slapped in her face. From some, this tone change would be nothing. However, Shayla was the embodiment of that cheesy phrase, ‘live, laugh, love.’ She was bubbly and happy and never in a bad mood. Rochelle had surely done nothing to receive such a surly treatment.
Raoul swooped in, cutting her off. “Your salads.”
Rochelle thanked him as she set the figurine in her handbag. An icy silence descended on their table. Shayla stared at her salad, refusing to eat, as Rochelle tried not to stab her croutons. It wasn’t her fault that Shayla had changed the stakes and had gotten her something so thoughtful and intimate. It was unfair, really. Rochelle was simply adhering to three decades worth of customs.
The minutes stretched. Rochelle smiled at a neighboring table as they gave them a look. She would not be embarrassed on her favorite night of the year.
Shayla pushed her plate out of reach and reached for the floor. Rochelle expected her to take her handbag and walk out. Instead, she took out the candle and cradled it in her hands. Eyes closed, she breathed in the smell of beeswax. In her mind’s eye, Rochelle pictured the candle being lit. As it was, Shayla’s wrinkles and age spots etched her face. But in the light of the candle Rochelle imagined her as when they met as sophomores in college.
Raoul paused at their table, but at seeing this, he pivoted, a mixture of confusion and revulsion lining his young twenty-something face. She would have to tip him at least twenty-five percent.
“Shayla–” Rochelle started.
Shayla cut her off, eyes still closed. “You weren’t there for me. You’re my best friend. My oldest friend. And when Ben died, you weren’t there. It was like nothing had happened. When your husband died, I was there every single day.”
Rochelle was speechless. She had helped organize the funeral. She had made frozen casseroles that would last Shayla at least a month. She had sent weekly flowers when Shayla declined bingo and bridge invites. She had certainly been there.
“I know what you’re going to say. But casseroles and flowers aren’t friends. You’re my friend.” She opened her eyes. They were filled with tears. “I need you, Rochelle.”
Rochelle felt tears prick her own eyes. This wasn’t on the agenda. She didn’t know this playbook. She didn’t know the right things to say or do. All she knew was that she had been so wrapped up in following customs that she had completely failed her dearest friend.
Rochelle leaned forward and wrapped her hands over Shayla’s, wishing her warmth and comfort. “I’m so sorry I haven’t been there for you. Tell me what you need, and I’m there.”
“Right now, this is what I need.”
Rochelle nodded and clung to Shayla’s hands, letting her presence say all the things she could not.