Denise Frock has finally gotten her life together. She has managed to get her weight under control, started her own business and recently married. Then—out of the blue—her first love wanders into her bakery and back into her life.
Chase Richard Pitt–my first love–came back into my life at 3:57 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in October. Well, technically he walked into Paris Café, my modest thrift-store-decorated establishment, asking if he could get a bottle of water and a slice of quiche to go. I know the exact time because I close my café every day at four, and I was just heading toward the door.
I was relieved to be locking up. It had been a long week and Dave, my wonderful new husband, was bringing home dinner from Asian Impressions, our favorite Chinese place. Six months ago, Dave and I made a pact that Friday nights are just for us. We stay in, change into comfy clothes, turn off our cells and open a bottle of wine. A long-time film buff, Dave picks out an old Hollywood classic for us to enjoy. A movie and Mongolian Beef–I had been looking forward to both all day.
Earlier in the kitchen, I had just finished the prep for the next morning: scrubbed down every surface, put things away and jotted a list of items we were running low on, clarified butter, unsweetened dark chocolate, eggs, buttermilk. I’d only been open four months and was still overwhelmed at how much work running my own business was. Quitting a steady job at thirty-one to take a risk on my own place sometimes felt like a step backward. It felt like I was trying to prove something, but I wasn’t sure what that was. And aside from trying (but so far failing) to make a profit, I’m responsible for everything. The ant invasion in June. The broken air-conditioning unit in August. Last week’s clogged toilet. All catastrophes this way, please.
I peeled off my ratty, chocolate-stained apron that I’d owned since I took a baking class in high school, grabbed my phone and purse and headed out to the front part of the bakery. That’s when my old flame walked in. That’s when I stopped breathing.
I felt a burst of cold October air and the autumn light shone through the glass door, illuminating him in a soft glow as he fished through his wallet. The room, with its three small tables, worn wood floor and quaint red-and-white checked curtains (that my mother actually made) swirled around me.
“Brad?” I said, heart thumping.
No response. Maybe no one called him that anymore. Force of habit: in college we all called him Brad because his last name was Pitt and he kind of looked like him. Six foot two with sleepy blue eyes and an easygoing, boyish smile.
My whole life I’d always just assumed that romantic love was something made up by Hollywood to sell tickets for all their sickeningly sweet movies. And then I met Chase. We fell in love the fall semester of senior year. And then the third week in January on a dark, frighteningly cold and snowy morning, he broke up with me. I was devastated.
“Sorry. I meant to say Chase.” I pushed a strand of hair behind my ear as if that might help him recognize me, and I suddenly inhaled a sharp whiff of Indonesian cinnamon which I’d used earlier in three pumpkin pies.
He still wore the kinds of clothes he’d worn in college. A casual, comfy beige sweater with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, faded jeans and scuffed leather sneakers. But his wispy blonde, pretty boy features had settled into something more substantial. More distinguished. He was older around the eyes.
“It’s Denise? Frock?”
Still nothing. Was he playing dumb on purpose? I felt angry and bewildered and stopped myself from reminding him that he’d feverishly taken my virginity in a deserted, echo-filled student parking garage.
“Denise?” he said, now nearly doing a double take, his voice genuinely at a loss. “That’s not you. Is it? I just, you look, um, you’re not…”
I glanced furtively at the wall to my right, peeking into the large, imitation-gold framed mirror that I’d rescued a month ago from the alley behind our apartment. I considered my reflection not out of vanity but from Chase’s perspective–light shoulder-length hair swept up in a ponytail, smeary mascara from the heat of the kitchen, thin face and hollow cheeks–and a wave of relief washed over me. My turn to forget! I used to be fat. Strange to think I could forget a vital detail like that, but it wasn’t every day that a girl’s first love walks into her place of business. So it wasn’t that I meant nothing to him–my own mother would have had a hard time recognizing me after eleven years and a different hair color (brown to blonde) not to mention a sixty-eight-pound weight loss.
“I used to be fat,” I said.
He bowed his head. “Zaftig,” he said quietly.
I blushed. Zaftig was a term of endearment he used when we dated. Back in the day. Back when we were enamored with each other, inseparable, even studying for tests lying naked together in my single bed.
“Denise Frock,” he said, shaking his head and staring. “It’s been, what, eleven years? I can’t believe this.” He took a moment and considered me, and then it seemed that a sense of playfulness replaced the shock he’d felt a second ago. “How the hell are you?”
“Married,” I said before I could stop myself. What a childish thing to say! All I could think to explain my insane blurt was that not only were my nerves starting to get the upper hand, but I was also alarmed at the sudden wedge of euphoria I seemed to be feeling. I fiddled with my plain, white-gold wedding band that Dave and I picked out on a Monday morning at The Diamond Warehouse. “Six whole months now,” I added.
Later on, in the million or so times I would go over this conversation in my mind, I couldn’t recall his having any reaction to my being married: not shock, sadness or even jealousy.
I grabbed a to-go container, filled it with a slice of cheddar bacon quiche and opened the fridge for a bottle of French Mountain Valley Spring water. I had to think for a second about how to work the cash register. It was hard to focus. The black numbers on the tan buttons seemed wavy. It was impossible to locate the thing you press to get the bottom drawer open. I thought about insisting that his food was on the house, just so I wouldn’t have to fiddle anymore with the stupid register. “Sorry,” I stammered. It took forever to count out eleven dollars and forty-seven cents in change. I handed the man his money.
My insides were reeling, my heart hammering. I told myself to get it together. This is just someone I knew a long time ago. A person I used to date. He means nothing now. Less than nothing. I am so over him.
“You don’t have your ponytail anymore,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice distant.
“Up until a few weeks ago,” he said. “I donated twelve and a half inches of hair to a nonprofit center that makes wigs for sick people.”
I glanced down at the white plastic dish of sample cookies I always kept next to the cash register for customers. I remembered that, too. Chase was always giving speeches about social injustices to anyone who would listen, to the point where it irritated–even alienated–other people on campus.
“So, tell me,” I said. “What’s the latest cause?”
He looked surprised at my sarcasm. And then slightly intrigued. Like he hadn’t expected that I’d grown a pair in my old age.
“I’m actually raising money for a rehab center for dogs with substance abuse problems,” he said with a completely straight face, and then he laughed, indicating that this was a joke and that he wasn’t above poking fun at himself.
I know it was funny and I know I was supposed to laugh, but inside I fumed at how calm and collected he was. How borderline cocky.
“Is this your bakery?” he said, glancing around, pausing to consider a piece of art on one of the walls (another alley find).
I gritted my teeth and tried not to read an insult into the question. I wanted to give the impression that opening my own business was nothing. That I was practically an issue away from being on the cover of Chicago Magazine. “I’m thinking of opening a second location,” I lied.
“Wow,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s not a drying out facility for labradoodles or anything important like that, but I like it.”
He laughed again but it was fainter this time. I caught sight of the British Wall Clock Station Replica hanging over the coffee bar and realized that I needed to leave. Right away. That morning I’d promised Dave that I’d pick up his dry cleaning. I had to get moving if I wanted to get there before closing. It was inconveniently located all the way across town. Dave was loyal to Mrs. Lynch. She had been his family’s dry cleaner for his whole life, and he just couldn’t leave her. When Dave had explained this to me early on in our relationship, I thought it was sweet. But right now, it annoyed me. But then I remembered that my husband needed his black suit for his boss’s wife’s funeral on Monday.
“I should probably get going,” I said, my insides still churning.
“Me too,” Chase said.
Neither one of us made a move. Then he shifted his weight and aimed his piercingly blue eyes right at me. I felt another, even bigger stab of panic. I knew that look: a mixture of sexy and knowing, as if saying you are the only woman on the planet. That expression almost killed me once. Just then, a tiny voice warned me to give the man his order and send him on his way. You have a life now, Denise, the voice said. You worked hard to build this life. Don’t mess with it. Go get your husband’s dry cleaning.
“Have you got any time to catch up?” I heard myself say.
“I’d love that,” he said softly.
Just as I started to nod toward the corner table, the cozy place where I envisioned us reconnecting, intimately reminiscing about all the wonderful times, our eyes misting as we bathed ourselves in nostalgia, Chase said something else.
“Unfortunately though, Denise,” he said, “I can’t. I’m just really pressed for time.”
After he walked out the door, I swallowed painfully and blinked back tears, trying hard to rise above the shame of having given in to feelings that I knew were best left alone. I knew this and yet I ignored knowing this. The tidal wave of humiliation I felt was only fitting, and I deserved every heart-wrenching second of it. My first impulse was to inhale a few hundred scones with a side of muffins. I recognized that urge for what it was–a desire to self-medicate–and instead I stood in my bakery and told myself that I was going to have to feel those awful feelings instead of numbing them with food.
In the midst of all this, as my heart pounded and my insides reeled from seeing Chase, I suddenly remembered that I’d left the dry-cleaning ticket somewhere in the kitchen! I walked back there and turned on the overhead light. I surveyed the small, crowded space and started to rifle through the drawers of the butcher block that Dave had made for the bakery. I told myself that instead of eating a scone and numbing my uncomfortable feelings, I was going to redirect my focus. Concentrate on how much I love my husband. Starting from the rainy night in March two and a half years ago when he came into Food for Thought, looking almost comically unsure about joining a weight-loss group.
I smiled remembering this chubby guy that walked into the meeting and sat down on one of the metal folding chairs. He had this earnestness–for lack of a better word–about him and was cute in an offbeat way, bushy eyebrows and thick brown hair parted neatly on the side like an adorable schoolboy. He turned his phone off, stuck it into the pocket of his leather jacket and sat patiently waiting for things to start.
I had reached my target weight of one hundred and forty pounds three weeks before that evening and my therapist was strongly encouraging me to start dating. To put myself out there. Take a risk. So far, I hadn’t gone on a single date since Chase ended our relationship in college.
Nervously, I approached Dave at the beverage table as he poured himself a cup of coffee. I stammered a little while introducing myself, but Dave instantly put me at ease with his warm smile and his sunny, down-to-earth personality. We talked as he drank his coffee. The conversation flowed effortlessly, and we went pretty deep pretty fast. I surprised myself by confessing my secret dream of owning my own French bakery, and he told me he was trying to start his own business as a contractor and then I laughed out loud when he told me that Home Depot is literally his favorite place on the entire planet.
After a month of coyly hinting around, he finally asked me out. After I said yes, he looked overjoyed and suggested that we take a bus to the restaurant (French) that he had in mind. When I scoffed, he assured me that riding public transportation lets you meet people and really get to see the city in a completely different way. We had the best time that night. After dinner, we walked over to the zoo and couldn’t stop laughing at the teenage gorillas throwing their feces around their cages.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with Dave. Despite his snoring when he drank too much and quirks like his tendency to wear bow ties when he got dressed up and an apartment that was on the messy side–a ring in the bathtub and dirty socks everywhere–I fell hard for him after only a few weeks. He was so fun and engaging that I came to accept his eccentricities.
The biggest surprise about my relationship with Dave was our chemistry. I used to think that the price you paid for a great sex life was enduring a certain amount of the tortured artist’s persona. Having to navigate dark, unpleasant moods and even walk on eggshells from time to time—all of which I did with Chase.
Dave, on the other hand, seemed to be the polar opposite of Chase. He was sunny, even-tempered and dependable but also, somehow, searingly sexy, too. And then, three months later, I was even more delighted to find that I’d never felt that safe with anyone before. After a year of dating, he asked me to marry him. From the karaoke stage of a bowling alley! Dave beautifully crooned Love Will Keep Us Together by The Captain and Tenille. When he finished, there was mild applause, and I expected him to turn over the mike to the next person and head off stage. But he didn’t. He stayed put, and as the audience quieted down, all eyes were on Dave as he asked me to join him on stage, which I nervously did, never imagining what was coming next. I brushed away tears as he got on one knee and spoke into the microphone as he said, “Denise, you are the most wonderful woman I have ever met. You are talented, beautiful, kind, and I could go on like this about you for the rest of our lives, and it still wouldn’t be enough. But the truth is, I’d like to try. If you’ll have me. Denise, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
We were married on March 10th. I chuckled as I recalled all the unexpected things that happened that day: the priest assigned to marry us got the flu and was replaced with Father Francis who was like a hundred years old and couldn’t hear anything, so we ended up having to repeat our vows many times until he heard them. When Dave’s dad was walking me down the aisle, he told me that he thought of me as his own daughter, making me grateful I’d worn waterproof mascara. And during the reception, we all watched in horror as my new husband danced insanely to the theme from Shaft, sending us all into crippling fits of laughter.
Our honeymoon in Mexico was peaceful and exhilarating and sexy. We made friends with another couple fifteen years our senior, who taught us to play poker and who lent us their hot pot to use after they headed back to Houston.
We moved into our apartment in Lincoln Park the day after we got back. Despite discovering roaches in the cabinets and a bad smell emanating from the bathtub, we ended up laughing and drinking wine and eating takeout by candlelight after we’d exhausted ourselves putting things away.
Even our arguments had a lightness to them. First of all, I felt–for the first time in my life–that I actually could argue with someone. I felt like my feelings mattered. Our first real fight was over a plaid couch that Dave wanted to buy. It was hideous and then, reluctantly, he told me that I may have a point and then we started laughing. The more we laughed the more he understood that he had questionable taste in furniture.
After we married, we settled into a fun, reliable, exciting routine. Home by six and figuring out dinner together. Helping each other stay within our calorie boundaries. Helping each other when either one of us was tempted to needlessly overeat. What I have found with Dave is a contentment and joy that I’d never thought that I could have. To this day I still marvel that I fell in love and married my best friend.
A few minutes later, by the time I found the dry-cleaning ticket, my heart had calmed, and I was less rattled. I grabbed the ticket from the bowl of sugar-free suckers (meant to stave off any impulse to snack) and headed to the front, but when I got to the door, on the other side was Chase.
“But I thought…” my words trailed off as he held up the bottled water and quiche.
“I know,” he sighed, as I opened the door for him to re-enter the bakery. “I really shouldn’t stay. But the thing is, Denise, I just really hate eating alone.”