Valentine

The bell rang brightly and Zuzu pulled her plump, red lips into a smile. The next client was right on time even with the foot of fresh snow outside. Her bridal party trailed behind her like a brood of baby ducks as they streamed into Gingersnap Bridal. This would be a fun one and she particularly in need of that on this white Valentine’s.

Zuzu hunched down behind the counter and tucked her eight legs in tight around her abdomen. She always watched bridal parties before approaching them. It was better to gauge the group dynamic when they didn’t know they were being watched. The bride was always the easiest to pick out. Bright-eyed, this one ran a hand down a satin A-line gown before she unhooked it from the rack and held it against her figure. She had a lovely navy complexion- a drow if Zuzu had ever seen one- that would look fabulous with a blush palette or a pop of gold bronzer. Not that a bridal shop was the place for color but that never stopped the artist in Zuzu. An older woman flipped through the racks- the mother of the bride, likely- while a teenage girl trailed towards the end of the group looking completely disinterested: the sister of the bride, judging by the resemblance. Zuzu let them wander through her domain for a few more seconds before she pounced.

“Hello, lovelies!” she cooed from behind the counter and the party almost jumped at the sound of her voice. Zuzu stood up, rising far taller than any member of the party and pattered out from her hiding place in a slow, innocuous manner.

The bridal party froze. Like many others, they weren’t blatant in their disgust but a heavy silence occupied the dress shop as it had many other introductions. It wasn’t malicious, per se, but it certainly wasn’t friendly. The silence could have practically been an employee at Gingersnap Bridal for how often it showed up.

Their reactions should have bothered Zuzu but when the lower half of your body is a massive spider caboose, you get used to it.

“Oh…” said the blushing bride as all the color drained from her cheeks. Her mouth was parted in a circle like the sound had caught between her lips.

“Don’t worry, dollface. I already had breakfast. You’re Jenny, right?” The bride nodded and gave a rehearsed smile. Even if she was afraid, at least she was trying and that made Zuzu like her all the more.

“I’m Zuzu and I’ll be your consultant today. “She propped one tattooed arm on her waist and bent the other above her head. With a snap, Zuzu gestured for the group to follow. She moved in a symmetric saunter with her candy-apple boots pattering gently against the hardwood floor. Well, she called them boots. Adorning the ends of her slender, black legs were hollowed out spikes the same shade as the hourglass spot on her abdomen. Hugging her curves was a matching polka dotted blouse. She had needed the big guns today after the perpetual assault on her confidence. Past few days aside, this morning was indication enough that the entire day would be a battle: her platinum waves needed an extra spritz and her puffy eyes begged, just begged, for a few extra pat, pat, pats of foundation. So she had worn red and painted her face like the masterpiece she knew it was because that was how she would handle the impending implosion, explosion, whatever fallout was bound to hit the living room tonight. Bombshell? Hardly. She had plenty of black powder to spare.

The party wove their way through aisles of dresses in every imaginable shade of white possible and then some. Each dress was unique in its own way. Even identical dress models had minute quirks that differentiated them. It was like staring at dozens of brilliant snowflakes and while Zuzu loved it most days, today Gingersnap felt less like a winter wonderland and more like an avalanche. She ran her fingertips across the skirts as she pattered along relishing the feel of taffeta, and organza, Mothra silk and web lace. Better to focus on work right now. The sensations kept her mind anchored to the present instead of the knot in her stomach. No reason to rain on someone else’s outdoor reception.

The aisles opened up to a mirrored platform with half a dozen small spotlights overhead. To the right was a hallway with curtained off dressing rooms. To the left was a closed office where Zuzu’s sister-in-law tailored away. Sometimes she envied her, all tucked away in her burrow with her cozy sweaters and hot tea. But Zuzu was never one for tailoring or baggy sweaters or even tea, especially not that orange spice stuff Sophie always drank. The isolation part, though, that one seemed more attractive by the second when she thought about later tonight. Zuzu tilted her head back and closed her eyes sucking dry any bit of emotion that threatened to bleed out. After a quick adjustment to her glasses and smoothing out her attitude, she turned to face the party.

“Well, lovelies. I hope you’re all as excited as I am!” said Zuzu genuinely because she really did mean it, distracted as she was. “Is this your first appointment or are you already an expert?”

“First one.” Jenny smiled nervously and glanced to her party for assurance.

“Anything in mind style-wise or do you want to poke around a bit and take in the general splendor first?”

“I, uh, I think I want to look first. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“Of course, sug! And just so you know, we had a few cancellations today because of snow-mageddon so you lovelies get the whole shop, including moi, to yourselves.” A few members of the party smiled at each other. ” We organize by designer and style but if something specific pops into that pretty little head of yours just give me a holler. To start you off, I recommend all of you grab a dress for the lovely bride. Just bring them all back here and I’ll prepare them for the fitting room.” At the end of her bit, the smiles had spread. Her Zuzu charm was working its magic.

The party scattered throughout the shop while Zuzu hunched near a rack of nearby dresses pretending to be busy. While she didn’t let on, she could feel their footsteps through her red boots. Two sets there, three over there. The footsteps were happy ones tapping through the shop like an unchoreographed dance. A pause by the rack, twirl, then tap, tap, tap down the line as the hangers slid. It was soothing, almost. Then she felt the tapping of feet traveling in her direction. She glanced over her glasses.

“I like your tattoos!” said the teenage girl.

“Well, thanks, sug. I got ‘em from the naga up the street. Bald lady, cobra tail. She’s a genius.”

“That rose one is super legit.”

“Oh.” Zuzu glanced down at her sleeves. Decorating her upper arm was a Sailor Jerry-style rose surrounded by leaves, thorns and a swallow underneath. Of all the tattoos for her to like, she had picked out the rose. Peachy. Just peachy. The knot in her stomach twisted. “Thank you,” said Zuzu suddenly self-aware as she adjusted her glasses. “You thinking of getting a tattoo?”

“Oh, yeah. Totally. I-”

“Sasha?” The older woman called as she held up an armful of dresses. The teenage girl gave Zuzu a straight-line smile and returned to her mother. Minutes later, the footsteps wandered to the podium, hauls in hand, and Zuzu gingerly hung the dresses up for the bride to take in. She tried on five before calling it a day and deciding to leave empty-handed. The party trickled out, the teenage girl waved but the bride hung behind.

“Zuzu, right?” she said.

“Yes, doll?”

Jenny tucked a strand of hair behind her pointed ears. “Sorry for, um…”

“It’s okay, doll. I get it all the time. Arachnes are about as common as good men.” The bride glanced at the ground and Zuzu felt that knot in her stomach lurch. “You seem like a lucky gal, though, probably hooked a stud,” she added with an encouraging wink.

The bride smiled a bit wider this time as her eyes flickered across Zuzu’s face. She was probably just now noticing the extra sets of eyes above Zuzu’s glasses. Figures. After a polite wave, Zuzu flipped the “closed” sign and locked the door. Though it was hardly noon, there was only one more appointment after the cancellations and it wasn’t for a few hours. This was probably the first of many snow days throughout the week if the forecast was correct and Zuzu was thrilled. The shop was getting flooded with calls daily as is and she and Sophie could hardly keep up with appointments. They were smack dab in the middle of dress season and it would only get worse. With Valentine’s came engagements. With engagements came dress buying appointments, then fitting after fitting until the big day. The snow was a welcome break and Zuzu couldn’t remember the last time she was so excited to see the color white.

The chill from the single-pane windows crept through her polka dots and she suddenly felt desperate to hold something warm. Zuzu pattered to the back office and rested her palms on the door, listening. No footsteps or any other major movements. Sophie was probably working on a veil or some other kind of small headpiece. Zuzu bit her lip. Maybe she’d fallen asleep on the job. A girl could dream. She pushed open the door and there was Sophie, fully awake in the sewing room. Her fuzzy brown legs were tucked up around her and her dark hair was pulled back into two loose, frizzy braids. They had always been opposites, her and Zuzu, but that made their dynamic work. Sophie was hunched over what looked like a large pin cushion with a patch of lace dangling from it. Her fingers gently plucked at the silvery threads woven between the pins and with each swoop, the patch of lace grew a little longer and a little more lovely.

Without looking up from her lacework, she said, “Did you talk to him, yet?”

“Oh, Sophie, don’t start with me now.” Zuzu blew past her and plugged in the electric kettle.

“You two are married. It’s not like you can avoid him forever.”

“Is that a bet?” She ripped open a packet of hot chocolate and dumped it into a baby pink mug with the words, “Hot Mess” scrawled across the side in cursive. “‘Cause you know I’m the betting type.”

“All I’m saying is that you should talk to him. Let him beg for forgiveness while he basks in the glow of your presence.”

“Sounds a lot like you’re in his corner.”

Hands frozen in place, Sophie shot Zuzu a cold glare. Rather than entering into a staring contest, Zuzu tilted her chin up and glanced around the sewing room. The walls were veiled with tools and trinkets. She fiddled with the end of a spool of ribbon; one of dozens strung on a rack. Ribbon? Said her husband’s voice from a faraway memory. I don’t know. They look like toilet paper to me.  Since his comparison, whenever she looked at the dozens of spools of ribbon all stacked up, she saw it too. A smile crept up on her face and she bit her lip to hide it.

“It’s Valentine’s. It’s not like he forgot your birthday,” said Sophie. The teapot pinged and Zuzu poured the hot water in silence. “I mean, yeah, he shouldn’t have scheduled a business trip out of town but it’s not like you guys can’t have a date this weekend. Besides, now you have the opportunity to keep me company.”

“Well, I am great company,” said Zuzu as she stirred her hot chocolate. The small marshmallows swirled and she pretended they were drowning in a chocolate whirlpool. Death by chocolate would be a fine way to go. “And I’m thrilled you think so highly of me, really I am.” She stirred faster and the spoon pinged against the porcelain mug. “I am a people person. You know me. I love spending time with people especially when I like them. In fact, the only way this day could be any more perfect is if my husband was here with me. Oh, but wait!” She slammed the mug on the table and put her hands to her face mockingly. ”He’s out of town until tomorrow and I’m going to be all alone in our empty apartment tonight with a bottle of wine and a whole lot of disappointment.”

“You’re getting bitter.”

“I am not!” she hissed. “I’m just wondering why my husband doesn’t want to spend time with his wife on Valentine’s day.” Zuzu pushed up her frames with her manicured fingertips.

“You’re doing that thing where you fiddle with your glasses.” Zuzu snapped her hand down and straightened out her blouse.

“Come on, Zuzu. I’ve known you since the third grade. I can read you like a book. I don’t get why you’re making such a big deal out of this.”

Zuzu crossed her arms to prevent herself from wringing Sophie’s pretty little neck. She knew what she signed up for when she had taken the job at Gingersnap. Working with your best friend? Absolutely infuriating. But it was also one of the best three decisions Zuzu had made in her entire life. The other two: befriending Sophie and marrying Ben. Even if she was furious, she still loved him. She loved her husband, she really did. As long as she kept telling herself that, she might not bite his head off the second he walked through their apartment door.

She sighed. “I know I’m overreacting but he promised he’d never forget the big days.”

“Is this because Jimmy from tenth grade forgot your birthday? ‘Cause we both knew you only dated him to make Ben jealous. That kid used lard to style his hair.”

“No, it’s not because of Jimmy. Holy moly, I forgot about him.” Zuzu picked up her hot chocolate and cradled it close. “You remember that time when we snuck off to get burgers over at the Donna’s on my birthday because my parents were in Minnesota at a convention?”

“Of course I remember. I also remember all the time you’d say you didn’t want fries and then you’d eat all of mine.“

Zuzu continued unabashedly. “And how I’d practically live at your place during the holidays because they had that annual conference they always had to go to?”

“Yeah. My parents started just assuming you would be there and they’d always pick up a set of pajamas for you.”

“Well, when Ben and me got together, he promised me he’d never forget my birthday or Christmas or all those other big holidays ‘cause he knew how much it bothered me.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows and pinched her chin.

“And I understood we were both working adults and it’s not like we could take every holiday off but we promised we’d try to schedule dates on my birthday and our anniversary and-”

“And Valentine’s.”

“-and Valentines!” Zuzu pointed with her other fingers still wrapped around the mug. ”Exactly.”

“Okay, okay. I agree completely.”

“Thank you.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

Zuzu opened her mouth and shut it again. All the heat she felt early had burned up but the knot in her stomach seemed to be fireproof. After a pause, she said “I don’t know. I still have another appointment left and I can’t bring myself to think any further than that.”

“Well, I say we kick back tonight with that bottle of wine you mentioned earlier. We order a gourmet pizza. We watch a serial killer documentary. Girl’s night.”

“That is the best idea since the invention of mini-skirts. In the meantime, I should really get things ready for the next client. ” Zuzu downed her hot chocolate, pattered out of the office but paused by the door frame. “Hey, Sophie?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for listening to me complain. You’re great company, you know.”

“Only the best, princess.”

The store was pristine but Zuzu needed to move around after their conversation. She did a walk-through of the store and spaced the dresses out evenly on the racks. Then she adjusted a few of the mannequins and took her sweet time smoothing out the dresses and fluffing the veils. Gradually she worked her way towards the display window and it wasn’t until she straightened out a quartz tiara that she spotted the vase of white roses. She had forgotten about the roses. Why roses? Obviously, they were for Valentine’s day but the display made her remember the teenage girl. Her eyes drifted to the tattoo on her bicep as her mind pictured the matching one on Ben’s arm. They had them done on their first dating anniversary. The idea started out as an inside joke but when he kept pressing, she had never felt more thrilled. She had dozens at that point, but it was his first and his only. Zuzu turned away. The next client would be here any moment and she needed to keep her head-space afloat. She flipped the open sign and spotted a figure standing outside the shop in the corner of her eye.

It was Ben.

He waved at her through the glass window and suddenly all that rage she thought had melted away made a spectacular reappearance. Zuzu’s plump red lips stretched into a straight line and she turned defiantly. Her slender black legs didn’t stop there: they carried her past the white roses, the white aisles and all the way to the back office. She slammed the door behind herself and pressed her back against it. “Ben’s here.”

“That’s great!” said Sophie. Zuzu remained standing in front of the door. After a few seconds passed, Sophie narrowed her eyes and said, “What are you doing here, then?”

“I’m still mad.”

Sophie groaned dramatically as she stood up, then she pushed Zuzu out of the way and exited the office. Alone, Zuzu slunk to the ground. He had come back in time for Valentine’s. She should be thrilled, over the moon really, but she was still angry. She didn’t even know why she was angry at this point and that made her even angrier. The heat spread from the apples of her cheeks to her entire face. She was probably as red as her blouse at this point. The door smacked her right in the spinnerets. With a jolt, she shot upright and spun around prepared to blow up on whoever emerged.

“It’s me,” said Sophie. “He just wants to talk.”

“Tell him to come back later. The client’s going to be here any minute!”

“He is the client, Zuzu.”

“What?”

Sophie pushed past Zuzu and returned to her lacework. “I’m not going to play telephone between you two. Just get out there and talk to him yourself.”

Zuzu pushed her glasses up onto her nose and sniffed. A little voice told her she was being ridiculous and even if she agreed, she pushed it down. Nothing sounded better than running into the dress shop and squeezing the life out of his chubby body. But she was angry. She was venomously, furiously angry and that sweltering fire swelled in her core until the smoke blacked out everything else. All of her emotions seemed to exist on a sovereign plane. They were potent, commanding even, and when they hit, it was all she could do not to be washed away. She knew she was being ridiculous but the knot in her stomach seemed to disagree as a stab of nausea hit.

“Okay, fine,” she said, tilting her chin up. “But I’m not looking at him.” Zuzu sauntered out of the office holding her hands up like horse blinders. Paper crinkled behind her. He must have bought her flowers or a box of chocolates. She crossed her arms and with a sickly sweet tone, said, “I’m listening.”

“I just want to start off by saying I’m sorry. I’m the biggest idiot to ever grace your presence.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Look, about that meeting.” She could feel him fidgeting. “I agreed to do it but then the client changed the date on me and it was a huge sale. My manager was really excited about it.”

The intensity of her hot rage flipped into a cold, calculating fury. Her nose crinkled up and she felt herself winding up like her body was comprised of strings.

“I should’ve just said something then but I caved. I wanted him to be impressed with me and with us saving up for a house I thought the extra money would be nice. I’m sorry. I’m just rambling away and-.”

With a tone of coolness that surprised even her, Zuzu said, “Why did you schedule an appointment?”

“I wanted to surprise you at the end of your shift. I booked it over a month ago before it all got messed up.”

“And how are you here now?”

“Well, it took a bit of bartering and I’m going to have to work over the weekend but I talked Steve into taking it.”

There was a college basketball game this weekend. He never missed home games for Hemlock State. A flicker of warmth smoldered in her core. The strings loosened. Her shoulders relaxed and she breathed as if she had been holding her breath the entire day. He had made it back in time. She might not be ready to jump in his arms just yet but whatever gift he was holding might brighten her mood.

“So, did you get me flowers or chocolate?” Zuzu turned and stopped. Standing in the middle of the shop was her dorky, dopey husband still in his dress shirt and tie but he didn’t have flowers. He didn’t have chocolates, either. In one hand, Ben held a tray of three large milkshakes with fluffy whip cream and cherries on top. In the other was a greasy paper bag.

“I, um… I thought it would be best to break out the big guns. I got a ton of extra fries and a milkshake for Sophie, too. No pickles on your burger either. I already checked.”

It’s like they were just out of high school again.

Zuzu laughed and when she put her hand to her mouth, the tears she’d been sucking back all day decided to spill over. She tilted her head back and fanned her eyes but it was too late: the hot tears dragged the mascara across her pristine foundation. “You…” she started until a hiccup cut her off. The knot in her stomach lurched and as she looked at the paper bag, the pink milkshake and that scrumptious maraschino cherry, she realized she that pit wasn’t nauseous: she had been hungry. She had been hangry. Zuzu pressed her hands against her waist to appear more collected than she was. The sniffle gave her away.

“I should eat your face, ” she said pressing her red lips together to avoid smiling.

“I mean, you could but I don’t think I have any nutritional value at all. I’m basically a greasy pizza pocket with a side of beer.”

“Ew!” she laughed and wiped away her tears with the heel of her hand.

“Canned beer. Like not even good beer.”

“Quit that!” She slapped his arm but he caught it. Gradually, he pulled her in.

“No!” She giggled as she slapped his chest softly. He wrapped his arms around her and she buried her giggling, snotty, mascara-stained face into his clean shirt. The strings loosened completely and her legs wobbled. All the rage and bitterness had melted away. Her insides were gooey and warm like chocolate fondue and the tears kept pouring out until her eyes were cried out. “I missed you,” she whispered.

“I missed you too, honey.” He leaned back and thumbed away her tears. “If you want to go out, I’m all for it but I’m also good with a night in. It’s your choice.”

“Well,” she started, but then she bit her lip.

“Well?”

“I kinda already told Sophie that she could come over tonight. We were going to watch serial killer stuff.”

Ben smiled. “I see how it is.”

“How was I supposed to know you were coming back!” She slapped his chest gently. “And anyways, it’s Sophie. She’ll understand if I cancel, kay sweetie pie?”

“No, it’s fine. We’ll all watch ‘em together. It’ll be like when I first got my license and I had to drag you two around town everywhere.”

“But you hate murder stuff.”

“Zuzu,” he said “It’ll be wonderful. Honestly. I’m just glad I get to be home with my wife.”

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