It was on our fifth date when I realized I wasn’t original. And by then it was too late for me. Heather was bubbly and fun, with an easy laugh and big brown eyes. She was sweet, too, always squatting down to pat puppies at the park, smiling at little kids, gushing about the kindergarten class she taught. And I while I told myself I’d feel the same about her even if she didn’t have mile long legs and sandy blonde curls, I wasn’t exactly upset about it.
And yet no matter what we did—that afternoon stroll in the park, a musical, dinner at a boardwalk café, rock climbing and even sweating out a hike up Rattle’s Peak—Heather always managed to talk about Jake.
“Jake used to say…” She was fond of starting sentences this way. Like when I told her I wanted to go skydiving, which I didn’t, by then I was throwing out random activities because this Jake guy liked to surf, ski, eat sushi, iron his own khakis. I was only trying to set myself apart from him.
I’d nod, smile, doing my best to avoid coming off like the jealous type. And it didn’t hurt how Heather was sliding in closer, resting her head on my chest, tracing a finger down my arm when she mentioned the guy. In fact, Jake became almost code for sex. Hey, I never said I was proud.
Still, I needed something. Anything to set myself apart from this oppressive ex-boyfriend shadow. And I thought I had it one Saturday when we were at a bookstore downtown. Heather was looking for lesson plans and children’s books. On the shelf was a globe. I picked it up, spinning it a few times. Then, lightning struck.
“Heather, let’s take a trip.”
Her eyes lit up. Heather loved anything spontaneous. In fact, I think Jake must have spontaneously combusted. I’m guessing that’s how he died.
“Really?” she said, a devilish grin on her face. I smiled, because, finally I’d done it.
I spun the globe, theatrically wagging my index finger as the earth wobbled and squeaked before I brought down my fingertip with a stab.
Ouch. That was going to cost me. But when she squealed, those gorgeous lips revealing a gum-commercial smile, I saw the two of us, backpacking, cut off shorts. Her smooth, tanned skin shining under the relentless sun. And then…
“Jake did a mission there.”
For the love of Pete. I gripped the globe like an angry God
Her brow wrinkled. “What? Mark, what’s the matter?
“Nothing,” I said, failing to control the whine in my voice. My shoulders drooped, not unlike a boy who’d dropped his ice cream. “It’s just, you sure talk about this Jake guy a lot.”
Her smile fell. She cocked her head. “Do I?”
“Yes, like, all the time, really.”
A hand flew to her chest. “Oh God, Mark. I’m so sorry.”
I’m not the kind of guy who enjoys sympathy, but I was enjoying the sympathy. I kicked at the floor. “It’s okay. I mean, I get it.”
I didn’t get it. At all. But she sidled up next to me, nuzzling her cheek on my arm. Then she looked up at me with those gorgeous brown eyes, so big lovely it was worth the hassle. Hell, I’d change my name to Jake.
She her head. “No, it’s not okay. Really.” She pulled her hair back, let it flop down. “And now that I’m thinking about it. It wasn’t even Jake, in Bolivia. It was Blake.”
Hair up, hair down. She smiled. “Yeah, he was a football player. And basketball. He was always working out, hitting the weights. He could lift me clear over his head.”
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be impressed. “Okay.”
“Yeah. Blake liked the beach. His parents owned condos everywhere.”
She took the globe, glanced at it and then set it back on the shelf. Then she grabbed my hand, steps bouncing as she led me out. “I could show you the sights. Blake liked to go to this one place…”
I thought about my credit card balance, hoping there wasn’t a Drake in her past.
Or in my future.