A SNEAK PEEK AT TANGOFISH
Chapter 6 - Olives and The Birth of Venus
For some reason, Mom and Dad look happier than they have in weeks. I'm not sure if it's because I'm actually going to hang out with my friends, or if it's the fact that I'm driving. A car. By myself. It will be the first time I've driven since TJ's accident. It's not like I want to, it's just that the only thing worse than driving the family Mazda to town in the dark, would be getting a drive from Mom or Dad. Being held hostage in the car for fifteen minutes on either end of this evening would definitely suck.
I pull into the parking lot of Figaro's and find a spot next to Colton's clapped-out Civic. When I get out I peer in through his car's windows. Thanks to the streetlamps on the sidewalk, the first thing I see is my reflection. I look like shit. Gaunt, even. My cheekbones stick out more than they used to and I have dark shadows under my eyes.
Inside the car, there are papers and clothes and piles of books on the back seat, but the passenger seat is surprisingly clear of detritus. Gabe, a neat freak of the highest order, must have come with Colton, there's no other way to explain the clean seat.
Jesus. Do I really have to do this?
I could text Rachel right now; I could tell her that I feel a migraine coming on, that I want to go to bed early tonight. It wouldn't be the first time I've bailed on something these past few weeks and everyone is probably expecting it from me, anyway. But it's a party for Gabe, who is probably the kindest person I know; the kind of person who would attend someone's birthday party even if he was bleeding from his femoral artery. I think of his soft brown eyes and sandy blonde hair and his killer smile that always lights up a room—a smile that's even bigger these days, now that he's finally with Colton.
Yeah, Tango, you have to do this.
I step away from Colton's car and straighten up. Then I take a deep breath and walk into the café.
I spot everyone right away; they're in our usual booth, and a cloud of multi-coloured helium balloons float a couple of feet above their heads.
Avery spots me first and jumps up from her seat. "Tango! You're here!" She says this as though I might be the second coming of Christ, and I hate that everyone turns to stare at me with a look of disbelief on their faces.
My legs feel like they are filled with wet sand and my palms are clammy. But I make it to the booth and slide in beside Gabe. He smiles at me, his green eyes crinkling up at the corners.
"Hey, Tango," he says. "I'm so glad you're here tonight. I miss you."
"I miss you, too," I say. "Happy Birthday, Gabe."
There's a pile of presents on what would have been TJ’s chair, which only amplifies the fact she isn't here. It's just not the same. It's not even close. But I place my gift for Gabe with the others and try not to look at the Botticelli print on the wall behind the place where TJ always sat.
"This is so great," Rachel says. "We're all here. Together again. At Figaro's!"
Not all of us.
"We already ordered," Colton says. "Nachos to share, same as always." He grins, and fist bumps Avery across the table. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" they both say in unison.
But everything is broken. And when the giant plate of nachos arrives, it proves that things aren't even close to being the "same as always". Things are entirely different. Because the nachos have arrived covered with sliced black olives, and we never used to get nachos with olives because TJ had been allergic to them her whole life. But they're here now, larger than life, staring me in the face, and as I watch everyone reach toward the plate, my face begins to burn. Because no one says anything. No one mentions that this is the first time we've been here without her, or that her space under the Botticelli looks all wrong, or that we're eating nachos with fucking olives!
My heart starts to race and tears threaten behind my eyes. This was a mistake. I shouldn't have come. I should have trusted my gut and stayed home.
"Tango?" Gabe says, touching my arm. "You okay? You're not eating."
I jerk my arm away and shift further along the seat.
Gabe throws his hands up in the air like he's been burned. "Whoa! No judgement, Tango. I just wanted to make sure you got some, that's all."
"I'm not hungry," I say. It's true. I'm not. I can't remember the last time I felt hungry.
But I can't stop staring at the olives.
An awkward silence hangs over the table, and it's Rachel who finally gets it and speaks first. "I know," she says. "I get it, Tango. It's weird. About the olives, I mean. But, well, we all like them, right? TJ would want us to have them now, I think."
Gabe nods. "Yeah. She would."
"And anyway," Avery says. "It's Gabe's birthday. We should be celebrating YOU, buddy. Come on, guys. We need to change the subject."
Change the subject?
And then the waitress appears with five vanilla milkshakes—old-school style—each frosted glass sporting its own red and white striped straw.
Avery slides one across the table toward me. "Here you go, Tango. Drown your sorrows."
She realizes the error of her words as soon as they are out of her mouth, at the same time I hear Rachel's sharp intake of breath.
"Jesus, Avery," Colton says.
"Shit! I didn't mean..." Avery stammers, "I didn't think—"
"NO!" I shout. "YOU DIDN'T!"
I jump up from my seat so violently, I knock my glass over. So, now milkshake has splashed everywhere: it's on the table, on Gabe's collection of birthday cards by his plate, and to my horror, on the Botticelli Birth of Venus print hanging on the wall.
"Tango!" Rachel says. "Jeez. It's okay." She tries to stand but I push her back down.
"NO! Just leave me alone! ALL of you! You don't get it. None of you! You just want us to all go on as if nothing has happened! As if she was never even here in the first place! You think you can fill her space with a bunch of presents, and order nachos with olives, and have a birthday party like it's the most natural thing in the world to do twenty-four days after our friend drives herself off a bridge and DROWNS, Avery! Did you hear me? TJ fucking DROWNED!"
By now, everyone in the café is staring at our booth, as our server awkwardly mops up the spilled milkshake with a dishtowel.
"Tango," Gabe says quietly. "She didn't mean to say that. It was just a slip. It was—"
But I can't listen to it anymore. And I can't stay here. I can't stay here in Figaro's, with its burnt sienna walls, with its soft lights, framed Italian prints and legendary cheesecake menu. Because sooner or later someone will press G7 on the old-timey Wurlitzer by the window—TJ's favourite song: John Lennon's Imagine, and sooner or later, I'll see the server bring somebody a slice of red hibiscus cheesecake, the only kind TJ ever ordered, and sooner or later, I'll have to go to the bathroom, where I'll see the message on the back of the door that TJ wrote two years ago in her weird, unmistakable printing: YoU ArE PErfEcT JUsT tHe WaY yOU ArE, and when I read those words, my heart will break all over again because she was wrong! She was so wrong. I'm not perfect just the way I am. I am a giant, fucking mess.
I can't stay. I can't. I need to get out of here.
TANGOFISH releases on February 11th in both eBook and paperback format. You can pre-order