by Sandra Kleinschmitt
“Fairy lights, pink awning. Manicured bushes. Love songs playing. A red carpet with—gold glitter? Romantic, yes?” asked smiling Wes.
Monica was not impressed.“Mm.”
“It’s Valentine’s,” Wes said, smile fading.
Monica rolled her eyes. “I’m…whelmed.”
Wes blushed, silently escorting her to the glass door. A uniformed doorman held it and smiled. “Good evening. Welcome to Caramel.”
“It’s got a stripper name.” She said, not too quietly. Entering first, she expected a restaurant or club. Or exotic dancers. One glance, though, and a slow burn began in her chest.
Elegant overstuffed chairs lined the walls and formed rows across the plush carpet.
A waiting room? It was nice, but still.
Other couples sat together, drinking champagne, talking in soft voices while love songs played in here, too. Wes led her to the only pair of unoccupied chairs.
A waiter with a tray of bubbly came by. She grabbed a glass and sat.
“What is this place?”
A smooth male voice came over a P.A. “Happy Valentine’s to you all and thank you for choosing Date Swap.”
Monica snorted a laugh. This couldn’t be good. “You’re gonna pay for this, ” she said with disdain. The announcer went on.
“In just a moment, your swap will begin.”
How dare he do this to her—on Valentine’s? Quietly she sang “Loser.”
Wes reached under his chair and pulled out a white cardboard box with a cellophane lid. He took out a wrist corsage of red roses and baby’s breath. The others were doing the same. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of making a scene. She held out her arm.
An older man with a Dad bod, came over. The corsage pinched. She got dizzy. In a split second the scene shifted. She was still in a chair, but now she sat in a smaller room.
The other chair opposite held a mirror. How odd. Then the reflection crossed her legs.
Examining the corsage and her wrist, there were no injection areas, nor odor of anything chemical like. The champagne hadn’t tasted off. “Great. I’m nuts.”
“If the shoe fits,” said her reflection.
“I don’t believe this. I’ve been drugged.”
“Psychic intervention, actually. Call me by our middle name. It’ll sound less cray cray.”
“All right. Doreen.” This couldn’t be real. “I’m talking to myself.”
“‘When was the last time you had a heart-to-heart with me?” Doreen asked.
“‘What?” Monica could hardly credit this…delusion.
“Most people who don’t self-assess end up self-obsessed,” Doreen said.
“That’s meaningless B.S.”
“How many times has Wes phoned you at the office just to say he loves you?”
“Twice a day. How many times has he brought you flowers just because?”
“Sometimes,” Monica said. “Not, like, all the time.”
“Weekly. How often do you come home and he’s there early, making dinner, drawing you a bath—“
“Oh my god! This is unbelievable.”
“Pretty often?” Doreen pressed.
“I’m not going to answer that,” Monica said.
“Because if you did, you couldn’t ignore the truth,” Doreen fired back. “You don’t like any of the answers.”
Monica studied her lap, shifted in the suddenly uncomfortable chair. Wes was romantic, attentive and decent. She had trashed his efforts by demanding he do better.
Monica never gave back.
She could avoid Doreen’s piercing gaze. She couldn’t escape her own internal revelations.
“Those aren’t the right questions. How many times did I get cheated on, lied to?” Monica asked. “I deserve something for my long-suffering.”
“You imagined an affair?”
“His industry is fashion, with a lot of women, parties and overtime to meet deadlines. That doesn’t mean he’s stepping out.” Doreen inhaled and licked her lips. She sipped her champagne.
Monica knocked hers back, hoping she could get another. “You know it’s unfair to do all this without dinner.” She gestured to their general surroundings with her empty glass. “Any chance of food? We’re hungry.” Realizing what she said, Monica added with a snort, “We’re. Wow.”
Doreen laughed.“You ate. You were going to order an expensive dinner and eat, like, three bites. I have only one question.” Doreen’s voice held a ‘holier than thou’ finality to it.
Monica knew that tone. “Here it comes. A dramatic mic drop bomb you walk away on.”
“I wouldn’t walk away. It won’t go well for you,” Doreen warned.
“Better than being played.” She stood and found the door. What was Wes thinking, bringing her here—on Valentine’s Day no less? She was going to break it off. Now.
Slow burn going thermal, she turned the doorknob. A vice gripped her skull. Awash with a million little shocks, she reeled. A jet engine screamed in her ears. Agony stabbed between her eyes. She collapsed on the soft carpet.
Many hands pushed until she rolled to her back.
“Gently,” came Wes’ voice.
Was he crying? What a baby.
Something was shoved between her teeth, bitter on her tongue. She just wanted it all to go away. It hadn’t been real. Couldn’t have been real.
“Don’t fight it, please, love,” Wes sobbed.
“You were informed of this possible outcome,” a woman’s sterile voice said.
With desperate anguish Wes pleaded, “Monica, please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just wanted things to be better, and thought if you could only see—”
“I’m losing the mental connection,” an older man’s voice intoned.
“She’s not responding to the Reviver,” said the woman’s voice.
Something warm touched Monica’s lips. Wes was kissing her?
“I’ll always love you, Monica. I’ll be better, just—don’t die. Please accept the truth. Just…accept it.”
Monica heard the last parts like she’d gone down a drain. But it was all too much. She needed to retreat. Just drifting now, the strange date passed before her eyes.
Was she to blame? No. She had to stand up for herself. Ahead, an exit appeared. She slipped out into nothingness.
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Date Swap by Sandra Kleinschmitt <—You Are Here