PART ONE: Veni
When he briefly met Melissa at the university party last semester, Avery Ward collapsed from the wave of deep smit overpowering him. Whether those supercharged feelings surged at him through her laugh or her smile, he couldn’t tell, but they hit his stomach full force with the weight of iron, keeling him over onto the backroom sofa. Melissa was enchanting from head to handbag, like an adult-sized pixie fluttering up from the depths of a mirror-calm spring. He couldn’t avoid his eminent infatuation with her, or the punch to his gut that her telekinetic beauty had given him. And he didn’t want to.
As he prostrated across the couch, nervous of the words filling in his mind, he resolved, somehow, to speak to her again before the night ended. After a violent season of heartbreak, he needed her intoxicating face to numb his pain and her warm touch, assuming she was warm, to bring him back to the living. Although she was woman, like the beast that had mauled him in August, she was also soft. For that, he had to believe in her sensibility—that her first sixty seconds of cozy amiability, before she had gotten that call on her cellphone, were genuine.
Therefore, once he finally found the courage to initiate the sequel to his interaction, his emotions were bushwhacked when he discovered she had left the party. He fell on the couch again, smitten not by infatuation but by the cold, cruel hand of life. He even cursed the old hobo who lived in the fraternity house attic for his ill fortune, not that the hobo had anything to do with it; it just felt right.
Sometime later, when he recovered from his daze, Avery Ward felt the wave in his bowels sucking his nerves down into a whirlpool. He didn’t know whether to cry or to puke. Fortunately, he chose to cry, since the party was still raging around him, and the frat brothers wouldn’t have liked him vomiting in the crack between the couch cushions. He stayed there the rest of the night. A few people may or may not have sat on him at some point.
The story might have been common fare for most guys his age, but a spellbinding of this level had happened to him only three times before—most recently with Allison, the girl who betrayed him. For the crush to happen again, with Melissa, he was convinced that she was special. But seeing that she had walked out of that party, leaving him bereft of a second chance to converse with her, burned into him a torment equal to the fierceness of a bloodthirsty bog monster, which he believed was pretty fierce. He was afraid he had been burned for the fourth time.
So he had to thank God for second chances when he veered into the condiment aisle of a ritzy supermarket several months later to find her shopping there.
Melissa strained to grab a bottle of olive oil from the back of the top shelf, facing opposition from her inch-too-short arm length. Her long, wavy brown hair danced against her shoulders as she bobbed on her feet trying to divide the mass of fatty cooking grease cans that blocked her target. Unfortunately for her, her efforts were futile. Fortunately for Avery, he had a window of opportunity to unfutilize them. His arms were just the right length. He was pretty certain of that.
Avery examined his desire to assist her first. As long as she was in his sights, she had the potential for needing him in other, more important matters. What if she couldn’t pay for her groceries? He could swoop in to cover her ticket. That would certainly drop him smack dab in the middle of her radar. Heroes weren’t born for small things, but small things were judged by the eyes of the beholder. Buying her groceries would’ve been huge. This small thing seemed legitimately small; coming up with a credible reason for rescuing her would’ve required rationale. He figured a stock boy could drag a ladder into the aisle and kick the bottle off the shelf as easily as he could stand in her place. It was a small thing. But he didn’t want to give a stock boy such advantage. Her petite form stunned him: a physique resembling a pepper mill, moderate in length and remarkably thin, hands shaking to finish the job she had started. Just his type. The thought of a stock boy thundering in and stealing his advantage actually brought him to a slight panic. He dug his fingernails into the edge of the soup shelf as he thought about this. Buying her groceries for her would’ve been a grand gesture, but this was one he could act on now, and sometimes now was the antithesis to never.
He made his decision: He had to act fast. Whether he could develop a convincing story to sidle up to her or not, he wasn’t sure. For all he knew, she had forgotten about him.
There was only one way to find out.
In his heart he knew he didn’t need any more bottles of olive oil for his pantry, but he didn’t want his brain to know that. After taking another short breath to verify his aliveness, he stepped once, then twice in her direction, followed by several more until he stood within whispering distance of her. He smiled at his newfound courage. This was definitely the better choice. He could already taste the scent of her Evergreen Dream perfume pilfering the staleness in his nose. Smelled like peppermint and spring water!
“Here,” he said, feeling some heat rising from his collar. “Let me help you with that.”
Without waiting for a response, he pushed the remaining cans of grease aside and grabbed for the first olive oil bottle in reach. It felt wet and slimy, so he searched for a dry one. Satisfied with the better choice, three options later, then scrutinizing a fourth or fifth just to savor the moment beside her, he pulled the first bottle from the shelf and placed it in her hand. He considered stroking her soft palm free of the oily residue on the bottle for added bonus, but decided that might be too forward. Probably better to have gone with the drier option. At that moment, he caught glimpse of her green eyes and lost his train of thought.
“Thanks,” she said.
He expected more from her, perhaps a demure smile or seductive hair-flip, but he received only thanks. After placing the bottle into her shopping cart, she scooted off. The moment seemed wasted. But watching her skirt rise and fall made the departure worth it. He just wanted so much more. How to get it though….
Another moment passed before he remembered why he’d come down the aisle: He had to find some Italian dressing and steak sauce for his barbecue bash on Memorial Day weekend, which his college friends had commissioned him to host. Since he knew his fraternity brothers were an analytical lot, he wanted to acquire the highest quality of condiments available to waylay them of overreaching opinions they might form about him, or at least to distract them from his lack of wealth. Even though his miniscule salary had made it difficult for him to shop at classy, high-quality supermarkets, he reasoned that the risk to buy into the National Chain Grocery Saver would have had a nice deceptive payoff. Of course, he hadn’t counted on the anomaly of the salad dressing aisle distracting him.
An hour earlier, Avery Ward was at the fraternity house, waiting for the barbecue committee to convene. The meeting was scheduled for later, but Avery liked to get an early start, as did several of the other frat brothers who lived elsewhere but spent much of their time at the house, so the house was already filling up with nonresidents. Because he was so early and had time to kill, he decided to pop in a movie. When he entered the living room, however, Dexter, one of his fellow nonresident frat brothers, passed him a message. He was on the couch, sitting quietly.
“Chet needs you to get dressing and sauce for the Memorial Day bash,” he said.
“Oh?” said Avery. “Any reason he won’t tell me himself, at the meeting later?”
“You know Chet. Too busy to explain himself.”
“Okay, I’ll put it on my list for that weekend.”
“I think he wants it now.”
Avery wrinkled his nose.
“Really? Why? It’s two weeks away.”
Avery found Chet in his bedroom. He was pacing between his bed and his dresser while he carried on a lively conversation with his cellphone. Chet didn’t bother looking up when Avery entered.
“—not a big deal, man,” he was saying, as he stopped, scratched his face, took another few steps, stopped, furrowed his brow, and repeated the process. “We’re cool with any style. Reggae, jazz, contemporary—whatever you can find. We need lots of—”
Avery waved to get his attention, but he didn’t look up. The man was always on his phone. When a few more wild gestures went unnoticed, Avery decided to interrupt his conversation.
“Hey, what kind of dressing and sauce you want me to get?” he asked.
Chet ignored him. Whatever conversation he was having, it was clearly more important to him than answering Avery’s question.
“Chet?” he said. “What kind of dressing and sauce? I’m going to the store.”
“—nah, man, he’s a good enough drummer. We don’t need star power. Just competent. Drunk people don’t care about quality. They just need sound. Yeah, man, keeps them—”
This got Chet’s attention. He cupped his hand over the receiver and gave Avery the stink eye.
“Dude, I’m on the phone. What do you want?”
“I’m going to the store. What dressing and sauce do you want?”
“Really? You’re bothering me for that? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“Just want to make sure that—”
Chet waved him off and went back to his conversation. Avery tossed his arms up in protest. If not for the fact that Chet was in charge of the barbecue committee, Avery would’ve rejected his request and watched his movie instead.
Back in the living room, he found Dexter still on the couch.
“You sure Chet didn’t say what kind of dressing and sauce he wanted?” Avery asked.
Dexter shook his head. Avery studied him. He was staring at the television, but it wasn’t turned on.
“You all right?”
Dexter stared at nothing for a few more seconds, then looked up when he broke out of his trance.
“I asked if you were all right.”
“Oh, yeah.” He went back to staring at the blank television, thinking about whatever was on his mind. “I mean, I don’t know. Just having an off kind of feeling today.”
“I don’t know. Gina said something strange to me this morning. Not sure what it meant. Just, you know, I can’t put my finger on it. But she’s acting a little unusual.”
“More than usual?”
Dexter glanced at him. Gave him a smirk. Avery and the other frat brothers had been trying to convince him for a long time that his wife had some quirks about her that had put her on the dangerous side of marriage, but Dexter either couldn’t see it, or he refused to see it. This was gonna be one of those cases, so Avery changed his question.
“Unusual how?” he asked.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I was actually hoping you could help me since you’re the psychologist.”
“Psychology student,” he corrected him. “Still learning the ropes.”
Avery agreed to gather some vibes about her the next time he saw her. Dexter thanked him. The assurance was comforting enough that Dexter moved his hand toward the television remote.
Avery had actually found Gina, Dexter’s wife, sitting at the dining room table on the floor below a few minutes later. She was munching on some crackers and cheese and laughing at her cellphone screen when Avery approached.
“Hey,” Avery asked. “I’m heading to the store. Any idea what kind of dressing and sauce Chet wants for the party?”
Gina glanced up at him. She winked and smiled. Then she got up from her chair, put her hand on his shoulder, stood uncomfortably close, close enough for him to smell the provolone on her breath, and answered him in a silky voice.
“Oh, you’re so cute, Avery. You know what he likes.”
Avery took a small step backward. Not enough for her to notice, but enough for him to feel better about her proximity. She was a shameless flirt, and everyone in the fraternity knew about it, everyone but Dexter.
Her phone chimed. Someone was sending her a text.
“Remind me,” Avery said.
She broke away and reached for her phone. She held her finger up at him while she read the message. Then she laughed and messaged the texter back.
“Sorry. What did you ask?”
“Remind me. What dressing and sauce?”
Her phone chimed again.
She responded to the texter again. This went on for three minutes. Then the phone rang. Gina answered.
“Hey,” she said. “Yeah, you’re so crazy—” She glanced at Avery and noticed him staring at her. “—er, chick. I do like that. I can’t wait to see it. You should totally go for it. Put it out there, Bri-, er,” she smiled at Avery, “chick.”
She put her hand over the receiver.
“Avery, sweetie,” she said. “This could take a while. What did you need?”
“Dressing and sauce?”
“In the fridge.”
Again, Avery tossed his hands up. He just wanted a straight answer. They were inviting hundreds of people to the barbecue, and he was in charge of dressing and sauce, and he didn’t even know what kind of dressing and sauce to supply. He could’ve just waited until that weekend to get them, but no, Chet needed everything done right now, yet he was too focused on another matter to give Avery any guidance. Why this couldn’t wait until the meeting, he didn’t know.
Just then, Dexter entered the dining room to find his wife talking on the phone and Avery staring helplessly at her as he waited for her to take a breath. When Gina spotted her husband in the doorway, she gave him an awkward smile.
“That’s right, Brian, er, A—Brian-a. Brianna! Okay, I’ve got company. Gotta go.”
She disconnected the phone and smiled.
“Hey, honey. You still depressed?”
Dexter pointed at her.
“Brianna?” he asked.
“Yeah, girlfriend from class. She’s so stupid.” Gina was fidgety where she stood.
“You gonna invite her to the barbecue? Chet wants a big turnout.”
“I guess.” Then she looked at Avery. “I’ll invite her if Avery invites someone.”
“You know he won’t do that,” he said. “He’s got no guts.”
Avery felt a little sucker punched by that. Last thing he expected to break his friend out of a stupor was his terrible conversational initiation skills.
“Sure he does,” said Gina. “You should have more faith in the people you care about. Avery’s got plenty of guts. He just needs to step out and remind himself that persistence is key. If he can’t get someone to commit to the party, then he’s gotta convince them to be his date through other means. He just has to try, try, and try again.” She smiled at Avery. “Veni, vidi, vici, you handsome stud. Remember, you keep trying, and you’ll get your success. Case in point: Italian dressing and steak sauce.”
Dexter frowned. It seemed as if Gina had just handed him the missing puzzle he needed to solve today’s weirdness mystery.
Avery stood in that salad dressing aisle thinking about what Gina had said, taking her comforting words to heart. Giving up was easy, but boldness gave way to reward. He just needed to demonstrate that he meant business. And he even had a vehicle for getting what he wanted.
The mission changed: He had to invite Melissa to the barbecue, reclaiming his once lost second chance at love.