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“WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR AN HOUR.” That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.
Her hair is longer than the image I’ve always held of her in my mind. She’s wearing what looks to be a pantsuit, but her legs are hidden under the table, so it’s hard to tell. Her top is black, with a crème-colored collar, three round buttons down the front. A cardigan is looped over the back of her chair.
I step back. I take them in. All of them. They’re seated at a round table, right in the center of the restaurant. Audrey is facing the door, Professor Conrad to her right and Robert to her left. Tobias sits on the other side of Robert, to his left is Jessica, and in between her and Tobias is my empty chair.
“We started without you, Sabrina,” Conrad says, holding up his wineglass. He’s drinking a deep red; so is Jessica. Audrey has a scotch, neat; Tobias has a beer; Robert has nothing.
“Are you going to sit?” Tobias asks me. His voice cracks a little at the edges, and I think that he’s still smoking.
“I don’t know,” I say. I’m surprised I have the ability for words, because this is insane. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe this is some sort of mental breakdown. I blink. I think maybe when I open my eyes it will be just Jessica seated there, which is what I’d been expecting. I have the urge to bolt out the door, or maybe go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face to determine whether or not they’re really here—whether we’re all really here together.
“Please,” he says. There is a hint of desperation in his voice.
Please. Before he left, that was the word I used. Please. It didn’t make a difference then.
I think about it. Because I do not know what else to do. Because Conrad is pouring Merlot from the bottle and because I can’t just keep standing here.
“This is freaking me out,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“It’s your birthday,” Audrey says.
“I love this restaurant,” Conrad says. “Hasn’t changed in twenty-five years.”
“You knew I’d be here,” Jessica says. “We’ll just make room for a few more.” I wonder what she said when she got here. Whether she was surprised or delighted.
“Perhaps we could talk,” Robert says.
Tobias says nothing. That was always our problem. He was so willing to allow silence to speak for him. The frustration I feel at him next to me overwhelms my disbelief in my situation. I sit.
The restaurant bustles around us, the diners undisturbed by what’s going on here. A father tries to quiet a small child; a waiter pours wine into glasses. The restaurant is small, maybe twelve tables total. There are red potted hydrangeas by the doorway and a soft sprinkling of holiday lights line the place where the wall meets the ceiling. It’s December, after all.
“I need a drink,” I declare.
Professor Conrad claps his hands together. I remember he used to do that right before class would let out or he’d assign a big project. It’s his way of anticipating action. “I came all the way from California for this blessed event, so the least you could do is catch me up on what you’re doing now. I don’t even know what you ended up majoring in.”
“You want an update on my life?” I ask.
Jessica rolls her eyes next to me. “Communications,” she says.
Professor Conrad puts a hand to his chest in a show of feigned shock.
“I’m a book editor now,” I say a bit defensively. “Jessica, what is going on?”
Jessica shakes her head. “This is your dinner.” My list. She knows, of course. She was there when I made it. It was her idea. The five people, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with.
“You don’t think this is insane?” I say.
She takes a sip of wine. “A little. But crazy things happen every day. Haven’t I always told you that?”
When we lived together, in that cramped apartment on Twenty-first Street, she had inspirational quotes everywhere. On the bathroom mirror. On the Ikea desk that held our television. Right by the door. Worrying is wishing for what you don’t want. Man plans and God laughs.
“Is this everyone?” Robert asks.
Audrey flips over her wrist. “I’d hope so,” she says.
I take a sip of wine. I take a deep breath.
“Yes,” I answer. “This is everyone.”
They look at me. All five of them. They look expectant, hopeful. They look like I’m supposed to tell them why they’re here.
But I can’t do that. Not yet, anyway. So instead, I open my menu.
“Why don’t we order,” I say. And we do.
Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Serle