"I'm Loving Him" by Jen Anthony

First winner of the contest, February 14th, 2008

7 March 2008

“From the top!” the director barked.

Noelle stepped downstage, squared her shoulders, and crooned, “Baby, you’re my big and tasty.” Behind her, the drummer accompanied her by patting a soft reggae beat.

Fluttering his eyelids, the leading man volleyed back, “And girl, you’re number one on my dollar menuuuuu.”

“Cut,” the director shouted, from the dimly lit front row. “Now get out of here and go celebrate Valentine’s. Tomorrow we’ll start out with the drive-through scene.”

Behind the director sat Bob, the waiter Noelle had aggressively pursued. His blonde hair glowed in the darkness. Noelle had been vaguely excited about their double-date with Graciela and Rickey at Pastis that night, until she’d spotted Lance, the artist and love of her life, outside their apartment just before rehearsal.

“Bonjour,” he’d said. He’d just returned from a jog, and was still panting slightly. His forearms were dewy with perspiration, and the faint scent of Obsession cologne wafted toward her.

“Ca va bien? You sure look good.”

Noelle tore her eyes away from his glistening, finely sculpted arms. “Je suis bien, merci,” she said, although she suddenly didn’t feel good at all – just jealous. “How are you and your fiancee?”

“Oh,” he said. He stared at the sidewalk. “Becky’s fine. You know, we’re planning the wedding. I’ve learned to just say yes.”

Like a trained pig snuffling out buried truffles, Noelle sniffed out the lovely scent of dissension. “Do I detect a little bitterness?”

“Well,” he said, hesitating. “To be honest, I didn’t want to get married so quickly but she was putting the pressure on.”

Noelle felt a shivery rush of promise tingle her spine. “You should never be pressured into a marriage.”

“Well, what’s done is done,” he said. He lifted both hands above his head to stretch and showcase his bulging biceps. “Tonight we’re going to Pastis with her parents, where we’ll see if I measure up.”

“Pastis,” Noelle repeated. She suddenly felt nauseous, knowing that she would probably run into him on her date with what’s-his-face. “So you’ll find out if the parents vote you in or out?”

“Yup,” Lance said. “They’ve got buckets of money, so they feel the right to veto any marriage proposals.”

“And you’ve got no money, so you have no say in the matter?” Noelle asked.

“Pretty much,” Lance said. “An artist can’t eat his paint, you know.”

Noelle thought of her measly pittance from the jewelry store. “Yes, I know,” she said. How could she blame him for wanting something better? She knew how it felt to live from paycheck to paycheck.

Graciela and Rickey met Bob and Noelle just outside the theater after the rehearsal. Bob was excited about his first time at Pastis. Noelle tried to match his enthusiasm but found herself wondering where they would be sitting in relation to Lance and his entourage.

“I could talk to the waiter,” Bob was telling Rickey. “You know, get an in with him and maybe get a job. They have those weekly interviews.”

“I just hope we get into the restaurant,” Graciela said.

Sure enough, when they rounded the corner of Ninth Avenue, a small crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk, bundled up in winter coats and jackets.

Noelle shivered in her faux fur coat and shot surreptitious glances through the front window, looking for Lance.

“Will we get a table?” Graciela said. “1′d be just as happy with a burger and fries at un lugar barato.”

Rickey cleared his throat. “Not to worry. I have connections.”

He disappeared into the crowd and reemerged several minutes later, beaming at Graciela. “We’re in! Follow me!”

Bob, too, was beaming. “Yes! Here’s my chance.”

“Steak tartar para mi,” Graciela said.

Noelle swallowed, hard, and followed the rest of the group through the melee and into the warmth of the restaurant. When they sat down, the scent of warm bread and herbs and French fries floated toward her, as did another, even more familiar scent – Obsession cologne.

She turned to see Lance seated directly behind her, flanked by Becky and what had to be her mother, dolled up in a dress and several stratums of makeup. A silver-haired man sat facing them, his thin lips nearly swallowed by a frown.

“So, you’re an artist,” Noelle heard the old man say. “Meaning, you’re committed to a life of poverty.”

Noelle leaned forward toward her friends, desperately attempting to block out the other table’s conversation.

“I think I’ll have the moules frites au pernod,” she said, so loudly that Bob started and his blonde head jerked upright. “Alright! Me, too!” he said.

Behind her, she heard a soft voice say, “Noelle?”

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