‘Maggiano’s’ by Karen Alyse Billings

soft cartel may 2018

My sister and I always go to Maggiano’s for her birthday. She always gets the Crispy Pepperoni Risotto Bites and I always get the Mozzarella Marinara. I smile as I glance at the clock. 6:53 PM. She won’t be here until precisely 7:00 PM because she is always exactly on time—never early, never late. I sit in our usual corner of the restaurant, smiling. I have already ordered for us and have made arrangements that my sister is totally unaware of. I got here early so I could tell the waiter about my special plans for her.

Ever since we were young, Lacy has wanted to try alcohol—specifically the Once Upon a Vine Sauvignon Blanc—obviously for the novelty purposes, but also because it’s the type of wine our father had with his Italian food—that’s also why we go to Maggiano’s. Lacy might think I don’t know, but she has never been good at hiding things from me—her crushes, her diary, her chocolate, and her love for our father that she feels she has to hide from mom and me. Our father may not have always been the nicest man, but he was still our father.

I remember his scent—musky as though he was always outdoors. Long hair, cradling his face, but stopping before becoming too long—pitch black. When I was younger, I often wondered if there were little monsters hiding in it—you’d never know without running your hands through it to find them. He always let me and would pretend like there were, making up these little monster voices for me. Dad had known how to have fun.

One day we walked out of the house to welcome him home as he drove up the driveway after work, Lacy was in 2nd grade, I was in 6th.

“Daddy!” Lacy said, jumping up and down with her arms stretched out.

I smiled, well at least he came home.

He climbed out of his car and twirled Lacy around in a circle before hugging her close. “Oh, my girl! How much did you miss me?”

Lacy held her arms straight out from her body on both sides, “This much!”

I kept my distance, I’d heard him yell at mom last night—something was going on and I didn’t think I wanted to be on his side. You don’t yell at mom. Even I knew that.

“How are my girls?” Dad asked as I lead everyone into the house.

“Good,” I said.

“Daddy! I ate a bug today and mommy told me that was bad.”

Dad laughed. “You got some extra protein! That’s all.”

“Yeah. Protein!” Lacy said, when we found mom sitting at the kitchen table staring at her hands.

Mom looked up and when her eyes connected with dad’s I could see the tears forming as she stood up. “Well,” she clasped her hands in front of her, “looks like it’s dinnertime.”

Within moments the table was set, and we were all sitting around it. Mom and dad on separate ends with Lacy and me in the middle. Dad picked up his glass of wine and swirled it making Lacy laugh, but I watched mom—her mouth pulled down at the corners and her eyes swollen. She looked sad.

We ate our spaghetti in silence aside from Lacy’s excitement over dad’s wine. She thought it was so pretty, the almost clear liquid in his crystal glass. That night was just like most nights when dad came home on time, how were we supposed to know that would be the last time we saw him?

I had worked so hard to secure a bottle of this wine for Lacy. I knew it would have been what she wanted. Once I found it, I brought it with me to the restaurant. Somehow, I convinced our waiter—an old man with white hair whose eyes crinkled as he smiled when I told him it was Lacy’s birthday—that he should bend the rules just this once. Maggiano’s doesn’t let you bring in your own drinks, they want you to pay for their extensive listings of wines and maybe even choose the one they pair with your meal. Today, however, our waiter understood it was a special occasion and chose to look the other way.

How do I know this will be Lacy’s first glass of alcohol? Well, she is a unique person. Unique in the sense that she will only do things when she gets to follow the rules to a “t.” She’s always been that way. When we were in high school—after dad left—I found a group of friends that were into drinking on the weekends, we would sneak wine coolers out of our parents’ stashes and drink them by the creek. Lacy was always invited, but she always refused. We were wrong. She said we were doing bad things—illegal things. Instead of joining my friends and I in our illegal activities, she got involved in the student council and too many random clubs to even name. She found her own friends and I had mine. We were always divided after dad left. She thought he was still a great guy, but she was 4 years younger than me and didn’t understand that mom didn’t like dad staying at work late.

One day, when I was a senior in high school, mom sat me down and explained to me why the divorce happened.

“Bella, you probably have been wondering what the reason was for your dad leaving…”

“Because he cheated, right?” I said.

“Well,” she blinked in surprise, “Yeah. How did you know that?”

“I think I always knew. It just seemed like the only reasonable explanation.”

After that, mom never kept anything from me again. We were closer than a kid normally would be with a parent, but there was a reason. She trusted me and I, in turn, trusted her. She knew about my friends and what we did, she even supplied us with wine coolers sometimes with the caveat that we never ever drove drunk. We never did. I had grown closer to my friends in high school, and further away from my pain in the ass, rule-following sister. It wasn’t until four years ago, when she had completed her junior year of high school that we finally talked again—really talked. She showed up at my apartment and stood on the doorstep.

“I miss you,” she had said.

“Me too.”

“Can we get together for my birthday?”

“Of course. When and where?”

“Maggiano’s. 7 PM.”

I smiled. “I haven’t been to Maggiano’s in years. Let’s do it.”

That dinner was the start of a friendship that should never have ended. We should have been close. We should have been the typical best friends who are sisters, but we weren’t. Instead, because we grew apart, I got pregnant and had my little girl in my junior year of college and Lacy didn’t know. She didn’t know until our dinner. I had to bring Aylee to dinner since the babysitter had bailed—she was only a year and a half old. Lacy’s shock was etched plainly across her face. As I placed Aylee in a high chair at our table, I ignored her shock and smiled, “This is Aylee. Your niece.”

“I have a niece? Do you have a husband I don’t know about?”

“Nope. Just me and Aylee,” I smiled.

I haven’t had to bring her since, but I think Lacy has grown used to the fact that I have a daughter, but don’t have a husband. She at least hides her disapproval better now which I’m positive exists. Aylee didn’t come with me tonight. In fact, she’s probably sleeping by now. It’s what? Almost 7?

I look at my watch: 6:59 PM. I smile as our waiter walks toward me with our meals, steam rising off of the Risotto and Mozzarella.

“Here are the entrées, ma’am. Will Miss Lacy, be arriving soon?” His eyes look at me with concern as he places the food down on the table.

“Oh, trust me, she’ll be here.” I glance at my watch and smile: 7:00 PM. She should be here any second now.

“Are you certain, ma’am? This is a lot of food for just one young lady.” He glances behind him, toward the door to see if anyone is arriving that might be joining me.

I nod, “She has to be here. She knows how important this meal is.”

He looks down at me and smiles. “Should I bring out the wine, then?”

“Oh, yes. Please do.” I glance from the door to my watch, it’s 7:01. What happened to her? Something bad must have happened. She hasn’t been late like this since our dad left and she was in 2nd grade. My stomach churns and I almost blame it on the lack of food, but I know it’s Lacy influenced. I check my phone for any new messages—the screen is blank.

I almost dial her number when I hear a sweet, airy voice that can only be hers.

“No, no. My sister is here. She made a reservation. We always come here,” and then she leans closer as if sharing a secret, “It’s my birthday.”

I watch as our waiter walks over, “Did I hear something about a birthday?”

I giggle, my sister never has been the quietest—it’s her voice—it’s so light that it just carries anywhere at any time.

“Well, yes. You did.” She smiles that genuine smile of hers, the one that lights up her dark blue eyes like sapphires.

“And do you happen to be Miss Lacy?”

“Well, I don’t know about the miss, but my name sure is Lacy.”

“Follow me,” our waiter says as he turns toward me and winks.

He brings her to our table and pulls the chair out for her, so she can sit down.

“Bella,” she looks at me with over her pristinely cleaned Ray-Ban glasses, “Did you order for me again?”

I feel my face widen with my guilty smile. “Yes, Lace. I did. Also, you’re late?”

She drops her face into her hands and when she looks back up at me she looks worn out, “I am. I am so sorry! I got caught up thinking about dad and where he could be. Today is an important day and neither him or mom will be here.”

I shake my head, “I know. Are you okay?”

She smiles slightly, “I will be. It’s just hard, that’s all.’

Choosing not to push it I smile, “You ready for your first drink ever?”

She grins, “I am. I hope it’s worth it.”

I smile as our waiter brings out our glasses and our wine, “Here you go, miss. One glass of Once Upon a Vine.”

Lacy’s eyes light up like fireworks and the worn-out woman disappears, “Once Upon a Vine! Is that an option here?” She searches for the menu, but as I’ve already ordered they are nowhere in sight.

I smile. “It is tonight.,” sharing a knowing look with our kindly waiter, I continue, “I convinced Mister E, here, that tonight should be an exception to their ‘no outside food or drink’ rule.”

He smiles brightly at her, “I had to oblige such a kind older sister. She was too insistent to say no to.”

“Oh Bella,” Lacy cries as the glass is handed to her, “Should I try it, or wait for you?”

“It’s your choice, Lace.”

“I’ll wait for you.” And places the glass down in front of her, but then she picks it up again, “Oh no. I just can’t wait.” And she very quickly brings the glass to her lips and takes a sip.

I watch her carefully as I am handed my glass. “Well?”

She sits there considering for a moment and then makes a face. “It doesn’t taste like I imagined.”

I take a sip and roll it around in my mouth. “It tastes citrusy. What were you expecting?”

She stares at her glass, disappointed. “I don’t know, something that reminds me more of a fairytale?”

I laugh and hold my hand over my mouth to quiet the sound. “You thought it would taste different, but you’re not sure what? Just that it would taste like a fairytale?”

Lacy nods and sits there glaring at the offending glass of wine.

“Well,” I ask, “Did you at least like it?”

She finally peels her eyes from the glass and looks at me, “I don’t. Why did dad like it so much? Did he just have no taste buds?” she stares wide-eyed at the wine, “Also, what the hell kind of fairytale is this supposed to taste like?”

I smile across the table to her. “Well, Lace, I can’t necessarily help you there so, while you try to figure that out, I’m going to eat my food.”

She nods her head absently, deep in thought over why our dad had such bad taste in wine and what fairytale it could possibly be telling—only my sister would do that. Only Lacy.

Karen Alyse Billings is a senior undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program at Brigham Young University-Idaho. She has appeared as a contributor and editor in Odyssey Online from 2016-2017.

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