Where in the world did Terri go? Warren thought. I’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes waiting for her to come back to the table. This ring is burning a hole in my pocket.
Warren stopped Terri’s sister, Tanya, as she was making her way back to her seat. “Hey, Teensy. Where did your sister run off to?” he asked.
“Damned if I know. Maybe she’s in the bathroom again. You know her bladder’s smaller than a thimble.”
“It’s going on a half hour since I last saw her. Something’s wrong.”
“Well, I’ll take a look around.”
Another 10 minutes passed. Tanya walked by again, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, I don’t have a clue.
Despite a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Warren stood up, clinked his salad fork against his champagne glass, and smiled as he looked out at the host of familiar faces gathered at the steakhouse. His parents and maternal grandparents, Terri’s mom and stepdad, her father and his new wife, her favorite great aunt, all of their siblings, and a bunch of cousins and friends were in the house, decked out in their finest.
“Good evening, everybody. How’s everyone doin’?”
Warren’s cousin Darelle, whose volume control knob had been damaged by several glasses of Hennessey, raised his glass and hollered out, “Great!”
Warren laughed. “I know, right? I think it was Isaac Newton who said it’s physically impossible to frown when you’re standing at an open bar. I think the whole gravity thing came to him one night after falling off his barstool one too many times.
Where was I? Oh yeah… I wanted to thank everyone for coming out tonight, a couple of days before Christmas, to celebrate my sweetheart’s 35th birthday. Terri is a gem; DeBeers has never mined anything to match her. From the first time I saw her, I admired her “cut.” She’s the most beautiful, alluring woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. Not only is she well put together physically, she always seems to know what to do, what to say, how to view a situation. It’s that clarity—that unfaltering sense of purpose—that continually amazes me. She’s the brilliant color that lights up my world.”
“Okay, I see what you did there,” Terri’s dad interjected. “What about the fourth C, for carat?”
“Well, uhh, carat relates to weight. And on the advice of my attorney, I’m going to invoke my 5th Amendment right to remain silent when it comes to that. My mama didn’t raise no fool.”
Everyone in the house cracked up. When the laughter died down a bit, Warren continued. “To me, Teresa Monique Wilson is worthy of an even bigger deal than this. But unfortunately, Madison Square Garden was booked.”
Warren continued looking around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Terri amid the waiters hustling to get the appetizers out. But he still couldn’t spot her.
“I’d like to tell her all this in person. So, if there’s anyone in the house who can tell me where she went, I’d certainly appreciate it.”
The chatter began immediately. Yeah, where is she? Did she take off just like that? In the middle of her own party? Where did she go?
Karen, one of Terri’s cousins, stood up and put an end to the questioning.
“How dare you stand there and act like you give a damn about her?! All your flowery words sound nice, but they’re just a cover-up for your jive-time bullshit. But I see right through you.”
Librarians go their whole careers without experiencing moments of silence like the one that followed Karen’s declaration.
Warren reacted the way anyone who’d been sucker punched would. His face instantly got hot, and there was ringing in his ears accompanied by the aggressive drumbeat provided by the pounding of the arteries in his neck. But these were nothing compared with the instant nausea that gripped him as he looked in the faces of all the people—including his mentor, who was instrumental in Warren having just made partner at his architectural firm—witnessing him being verbally knocked to the canvas. If that “Aw, hell no” moment had a logo, it would have been Terri’s father’s furrowed brow and clenched jaw.
Warren responded out of pure instinct, giving verbal pushback with, “What the hell are you talking about, Karen?” But he was still dazed, and that flailing counterpunch seemed only to open him up to bigger blows.
Karen laughed. “Oh, so now you wanna play dumb? Well, let me bring you up to speed on where we are, Mr. ‘She lights up my world.’”
To make sure she was seen and heard by each of the 50 guests in the room, Karen backed away from her assigned seat and the chandelier that obscured her audience’s view. She moved to a spot that was dead center with respect to the cluster of tables that filled half the room. Karen—who was like a big sister to Terri, Travis, Thomas, and Tanya owing to the fact that their parents raised her for 10 years while heroin kept a tight, cruel grip on her own mother and father—went on the offensive.
“It’s bad enough you’ve been cheating on my cousin like pussy is going out of style,” she said. “But now you’ve got the balls to invite your side bitch to her birthday party?”
An eavesdropper would think he’d stumbled upon an owl convention, judging from the whispered chorus of “Who? Who? Who?,” and the room full of big, round eyes trying to home in on the home wrecker.
Warren was on the ropes. He wanted to fight back, but he was delirious with shock at Karen’s haymaker accusations.
Karen gave an extended stink eye to a white woman seated two tables away. “That’s right, heifer! I’m talkin’ to you!”
She then turned toward Warren and added, “Hmmmph! She ain’t even cute. But I guess, as long she’s pale and pasty, that’s good enough for you, huh? I can’t stand black men like you. Bad enough you can’t keep it in your pants, but you just had to humiliate Terri publicly—and with this stringy-haired white bitch no less. Well, I couldn’t let her go out like that, so I told her about the day I saw your triflin’ ass holding hands, making goo-goo eyes at this troll you invited out from under the bridge. It turned my stomach, seeing the two of you sitting in that dingy-ass diner thinking nobody would see you doin’ your dirt.
When she asked me why I didn’t tell her right away, I told her I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. I shoulda gone with my gut, but I second-guessed myself. I thought: ‘What if I didn’t see what I thought I saw?’ And now, here you go, takin’ it to the nth degree. So, news flash: Terri’s gone. She’s done with you, and she ain’t coming back.”
Karen had punched herself out. In the seeming eternity of uncomfortable silence that followed her onslaught, Warren was finally able to piece together what had set her off. He looked up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath to try to compose himself.
“Don’t act shamed now!” Karen shouted. “We all know you don’t have no shame.”
“Shut up, Karen!” Warren demanded.
“You’ve caused enough havoc for one night. Now it’s time for me to talk.”
Warren took a sip of his champagne and then a gulp.
“Wow…” he said in disbelief, as he struggled to tamp down the anger that was on the verge of boiling over. He began to meditate. But instead of the Buddhist chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, he kept telling himself:
You can’t punch a woman in the face. You can’t punch a woman in the face. You can’t punch a woman in the face.
After he finished his champagne and the contents of Terri’s untouched glass, he was ready to make sense of the madness.
“First of all,” Warren said, “Karen, you’re a jackass and you’re not worthy of my contempt. Consider yourself dead to me.
As for the rest of you, I want to apologize to you all for having been subjected to that sample of unadulterated stupidity. Somebody obviously forgot to put Karen’s distemper medication in her dog bowl. The foaming at the mouth is a dead giveaway.
So... While we’re all here, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”
Warren focused his attention on the white woman Karen had just called out. “Hadassah, would you please stand up for a second?”
Though she was thoroughly mortified, the middle-aged woman in the plain black dress rose to her feet.
Darelle, who had just polished off his sixth cognac in 25 minutes—leaving only the slightest bit of blood accompanying the alcohol in his veins—yelled out, “Oh shit, cuz! I didn’t know you was keeping kosher!”
Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, Terri, who had left the birthday party and run down the block with her winter coat wide open and tears streaming down her face, had returned.
I can’t catch a break, she’d said to herself after she made her escape in a taxicab, then, after getting 10 blocks away from the restaurant, patted her coat pockets. She had enough cash to cover the fare. But it dawned on her that getting in her house without her keys, which were safely tucked away in her mother’s purse, would be a real challenge.
She ducked back into the restaurant amid the chaos and tried to get her sister Tanya’s attention without alerting Warren or anyone else to her presence. But Terri froze like a figure on a trophy when she tuned into Warren holding court.
“Everyone, this is Hadassah Silverstein,” Warren said. “She’s a nice lady—a widow who doesn’t wear the dour mask of grief.” It was a thinly veiled swipe at Karen, who’d lost her husband to cancer two years earlier, but still managed to inject every conversation with maudlin, sympathy-seeking affect.
“In fact, she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But she and I do not have, nor have we ever had, a relationship that's sexual or in any way romantic. To explain the actual nature of our relationship, I’d like to introduce someone else. Sol, would you please stand?”
The white-bearded man in the black suit and yarmulke—who was able to attend only because the winter sun had set at around 4:30 pm, allowing him to say the traditional havdalah blessings marking the end of the Jewish sabbath—leaned forward on his cane, causing the curly locks of hair in front of each ear to shift. With Hadassah’s help, he propelled himself from the chair.
“This is Solomon Weiss. He’s Hadassah’s father, and he also happens to be my jeweler. He’s the owner of a little shop on West 47th Street.
About six months ago, I went there—oh, sorry, Sol. You guys can sit down—I went to Sol’s shop in search of the perfect ring for the woman I know is perfect for me. After he spent an hour showing me every setting in his display cases, I saw what seemed like a thousand loose stones.
‘C’mon, young man,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve shown you everything. What is this mythical ring you’re searching for?’
We both laughed when I looked him in the eye and said, ‘You remember what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography? I can’t explain it, but I’ll know it when I see it.’
To his credit, he just nodded and pulled out another envelope full of rocks. Still, he didn’t have THE ring.
He convinced me to come back two weeks later. He said he’d have some new stuff to show me. And he did. But there was still no sign of THE ring.
This kept up every month. Terri never questioned me running off to the diamond district after work because I always made a detour after that and showed up with her two favorite kinds of cookies from Schmackery’s on 45th: pumpkin spice, and a fudge cookie topped with bits of Snickers and Butterfingers and toffee and coconut—and probably crack.
But I digress…
I kept this up until I ran into one of Terri’s friends on the street about half a block from the jewelry store and I thought my surprise was ruined.
After that, I insisted that Sol meet me a block away at the Evergreen Diner between Sixth and Seventh. Two weeks ago, I showed up there and, instead of Sol, Hadassah was in the booth. She said Sol was sick but didn’t want to cancel because he thought he’d finally found THE ring.
She wanted to get in and out, but I’d grown used to sitting there with Sol—chewing the fat with the old man, letting him pepper me with questions about Terri, and laughing as he’d drop his Jewish pearls of wisdom on me. We must have looked like the setup of a joke: ‘A big, bald, black guy and a Hasidic Jew walk into a coffee shop…’”
Warren turned to Solomon. “One of the things you said that stuck with me—‘What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t invent with your mouth’—is perfect for this occasion.
Warren gave Karen a withering look, then continued.
“I insisted that Hadassah have coffee and a Danish before she showed me what she came to show me.”
Warren smiled as he recalled the moment. “Sol was right. The instant Hadassah plucked it from the envelope, I knew. I’d finally found THE ring—the one I wanted Terri to wear for the rest of her life.
A gorgeous platinum band topped with a perfect-cut, two-and-a-half-carat, VVS1 diamond whose shine seemed to be battery powered.
I was in awe. And all I could think about was Terri’s face when I would drop down on one knee, unveil that piece of jewelry, and ask her to be Mrs. Teresa Austin. I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I was straight up giddy.”
Warren laughed at himself; his friends and relatives, who were, like him, still shrugging off being blindsided by Karen’s outburst, laughed along with him.
“A couple of days later, when Sol was up and around, and back to his old, crusty self, he called me to gloat about finding the unfindable. What did you call it, Sol? Oh yeah: ‘effing the ineffable.’ He insisted that he get to meet the young lady who was the cause of his mutshen zich (his suffering and toil). So, the next day, I walked by the jewelry shop and dropped invitations to this party for him and Hadassah in the mail slot without stopping.”
Warren fished in his pants pocket and pulled out the felt ring box that he’d been nervously fingering throughout the evening. He held it high for every eye to see.
“So they came here tonight, not just to meet the love of my life, but to witness me asking for her hand in marriage and giving her THE ring.”
A stunned Terri covered her mouth to silence the gasp that issued forth from the core of her being. Warren continued, unaware that she was standing 15 feet behind him, taking in every word.
His countenance changed and his eyes welled up with tears as he stared at the ring box.
“But they won’t get to see that, now will they? And all because a… a blockheaded busybody—and you know I’ve got some other, more colorful adjectives and nouns to describe her—saw me that day at the coffee shop. All because she put two and two together, came up with 22, and then chose this moment to deliver that wrong answer. Because of that dumb broad right there,” he said, pointing at Karen, “the woman of my dreams is somewhere nursing a broken heart for no good reason. And I’m here, at the party I thought I’d tell my children and their children about, feeling robbed like a stagecoach.”
Warren looked at the ring box. “And there’s a chance that Terri will never see this.”
The weight of his own words and the stinging sense of injustice might have caused him to hang his head if he hadn’t willed himself to hold it high.
He slid the ring into his pocket, letting his words hit home.
“On that note, I’m gonna go somewhere and scream and cry and cuss and deal with my hurt and anger in a way that won’t have me on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. But the food and drink are paid for. So you folks stay here, enjoy yourselves, make merry. It’s the holidays, after all. Good night.”
Warren turned to leave and Tanya gave him a hug.
“It’s gonna be all right,” she said.
“From your lips to God’s ears. Please try to find Terri so at least I’ll know she’s okay.”
“I’ll call you later, either way,” she said. “After I kill Karen.”
Warren could hear the beginning of the cross-examination. Karen, the hostile witness, was being grilled and berated. It took his grandmother, Nettie Ruth, threatening to “get my good leather belt” to derail his twin 21-year-old cousins’ plan to “go jihad on that bitch.” Warren laughed at the exchange between the two college basketball players and the 73-year-old matriarch from whom they’d learned their post moves before a hip replacement eight years earlier took away her ability to leave defenders bewildered with an array of spins, feints, and head fakes in the lane.
“Her heart was in the right place, but her brain was misplaced,” the old lady said. “It happens. She’ll wake up early in the morning, if she sleeps at all, feeling something awful—without any help from the two of you.”
“Aw, c’mon Nana! Even Jesus himself whooped, er, um… tail every now and then!” said one of the bitterly disappointed twins.
“He who is without sin, throw the first punch,” Nettie Ruth said, closing out the discussion with her granddaughters.
Warren sincerely appreciated the love and support—even the well-intentioned violent plot. But that did nothing to douse the emotional flames threatening to reduce his entire psyche to ash. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do if I… I mean, what if she… There’s no way it’s just…over. I can’t catch a break.”
He was so hot under the collar that he didn’t bother to grab his coat, hat, or scarf to protect him against the evening’s twenty-degree temperatures before he turned on his heels and made a beeline for the exit. When the party room’s pocket door closed behind him, he heard a familiar voice:
“I love you too.”
It was Terri. No four words had ever touched him the way those did.
“I thought you were gone…for good,” he said, afraid to move for fear that the image of Terri in the pearlescent winter white dress that hugged her stunning curves, was a figment of his imagination. The slightest stirring—even a blink, he thought—might shatter his dream state.
She ran and embraced him. “I’m sorry I ran. I—“
“You don’t have anything to apologize for.”
“No. I do. I… I’ve shared with you just how broken, how beaten down I was after my last relationship. I thought I’d put all of that horror behind me, but when Karen hit me with all of this out of the blue, I had a flashback. And I couldn’t deal with it.”
Terri hung her head as tears ran down her cheeks. “She kicked up stuff I thought was settled for good. I know… I know I should’ve… come to you. You’ve been nothing short of a miracle. And you deserved that much.”
Warren put his hand under her chin and lifted her head so her eyes met his gaze.
“Look. I just need us to get two things straight: 1) I would never, ever cheat on you. I belong to you. I’ve long since made the decision to love you exclusively. I don’t see my life working out any other way.”
“And number two?” she asked.
“By this time next year, I want to be your husband and I want you to be my wife. Which means I have an important question to ask.”
Warren kissed her, fished the ring box from his pocket, and opened it. “Terri, will you please marry me?”
“Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you! ”
Warren slid the ring onto Terri’s finger. She held up her left hand as though she could hardly believe what she was seeing. I’m sooo glad I forgot those keys, she said to herself.
“Maybe I’ll be able to tell our grandkids this story after all,” Warren thought.
He kissed Terri again then said, “Let’s get out of here…together.”