"What's so funny?" I asked as I sat down, looking over the table as I continued to avoid Rachel's gaze.
I was surprised to see a feast before me when the most effort Chris, Rachel, and I had ever previously attempted for breakfast was a bowl of cereals. Now, there were buttered toast and scrambled eggs, but also, sunny-side-up's and fried rice and what appeared to be some sort of marinated beef strips.
"Oh, nothing," Rachel told me. "I was just laughing at Thea's story of how she used to always burn eggs back at home."
Thea. I should have known.
I glanced over to the kitchen where the dark-haired woman was busily pouring coffee into two cups. She wore her dark hair up again and was wearing a simple white shirt over a pair of jeans.
"My mom didn't find it so funny at the time," Thea grinned, glancing over to where we sat. Then she shrugged and continued as she brought the cups over. "I only really learned how to cook once I got here 'cause, well, necessity."
And then she turned that soft easy grin fully in my direction as she set a cup in front of me.
"Good morning, Liv!" Thea greeted before taking her seat across Rachel. I smiled back politely, still not quite used to and a bit uneasy around the newbie's presence.
"Where's Chris?" I asked, turning my head towards Rachel and quickly looking down when I got her attention.
"He left early," Rachel answered. She put a piece of toast into her mouth and chewed, waiting until she had swallowed before explaining further. "He said he's got a ton of errands to run before next weekend and he may not have the time to do them during the week."
I nodded, completely understanding.
Chris was set to go home for the holidays next Saturday and wouldn't be returning to the loft until the 30th. Rachel, on the other hand, had to work on both Christmas and New Year's Eve, and would be staying through the holidays which, in turn, opened up a third option for me.
As a child of divorce, I had the choice to either spend Christmas at my dad's or my mom's and their respective new families, which, to be honest, had always made me feel a bit awkward and excluded. So I had decided to stick around the loft too, this year, figuring it was the perfect opportunity to spend some time alone with Rachel without Chris as a buffer.
I had always used Chris as a crutch somewhat when dealing with Rachel and I thought, with him gone, then maybe I would be forced to grow some backbone and finally tell Rachel how I felt. Who knew, maybe I would be kissing Rachel come New Year's Eve, instead of just watching her lock lips with whatever random dude she brings as a date, like last year.
That Thea was here and Rachel and I wouldn't actually be alone in the next two weeks was only a minor hitch. I was fairly certain that I wouldn't be tempted to use the dark-haired Filipina as a buffer.
"I wanted one of those pink Barbie convertibles when I was 8 but my parents couldn't get them," Rachel was saying to Thea now, snapping me back to attention as I briefly wondered how the conversation got there. "I had this phase when I used to pretend that my Barbie was Sandy after I seeing Grease on the TV."
"Oh, I loved Grease!" Thea gushed and I watched as the two of them launched into an easy talk about musicals and theater. Their banter was light, both women seemingly in sync with what the other was saying, and I tried my best to keep up as they bounced off each other. Still, I couldn't help but feel like I was increasingly being left behind.
"I like Barbie's!" I burst out suddenly, a bit desperate to join in on the conversation, and the two women stopped to look at me blankly.
Rachel resumed talking to Thea after what was probably the most embarrassingly awkward beat of my life, and Thea gave me a little smile before turning back to Rachel.
I tried my best not to pout, concentrating instead on putting scrambled eggs on my plate. How was it that, within less than a week of coming into our lives, Thea now seemed closer to Rachel than I had ever been?
I stabbed at the eggs with my fork in frustration before shoving some into my mouth, and found myself wishing that they didn't taste exactly as good as Chris and Rachel had both told me they would. It would be easier to dislike Thea if that wasn't the case.
I put my fork down and reached for my cup instead, slumping back in my chair and wincing as soon as I took a sip.
The coffee was incredible, too. Damn it.
I came home later that night to the smell of food being cooked. I had gone out earlier in the afternoon to meet a friend over coffee, and then dinner, yet still found myself still tempted by the delicious smells wafting through the loft.
I glanced towards the kitchen, somehow not really surprised to find Thea there. She wore a dark-colored apron over a white tank top, her hair pulled up in a loose bun this time and her profile turned to me as she stood over the stove stirring a pot.
But then my eyes noticed the counter, which was littered with several ingredients and spices and other kitchen stuff I wouldn't know about. There was even an already-cooked dish laid out, which Thea seemed to be setting aside. I recognized it as Adobo, but only because Chris and I had tried the Filipino restaurant in the city once.
"What's all this?" I wondered aloud as I closed the door behind me. Thea glanced over, smiling as I walked towards the kitchen.
"I'm just preparing my food for the week. I don't really have much time to cook during weekdays." Thea answered before she dipped the ladle a bit into the pot, holding it out as she walked over to me. "Here try this."
I could do little else but obey as she held the ladle to my mouth. It was some sort of soup and, at first, the sour taste of it had me wincing. But it wasn't long until the flavors swirled over my tongue, with a bit of spiciness adding to it.
"Mmmm," I said as I nodded my approval. Still I had to ask. "You're cooking for the whole week?"
Thea grinned again as she set the ladle down and turned towards the counter. "Yeah, I'm just cooking three dishes, actually, and preparing some egg rolls that I can easily fry."
She glanced up to find me still looking at her quizzically, and gave a soft little laugh.
"It's cheaper than eating out all week and, well, I could really use the extra." Thea shrugged. "I'll be keeping them in the fridge, but feel free to have some if you'd like."
"Be careful saying that stuff to Chris or Rach, or all this food might not last the week." I found myself grinning at her. "Apparently, they love your cooking."
"But you don't?" Thea asked lightly, glancing sideways at me.
"Well, I've only really tasted the eggs," I sighed jokingly. "It takes a lot more than that to impress me."
"Then all the more you should help yourself to these," Thea laughed. "I'll win you over yet."
She gave me a smug grin before turning back to check on what was in the stove, and I had to laugh a little.
"I'll leave you to it, then," I told her, pushing off the counter and heading to my room before I did something I wasn't sure I wanted to do just yet. Like start thinking the new girl wasn't so bad, after all.
This was a bad idea.
I was in the park, Thursday night after work, where Chris had invited me to check out the new night bazaar that had sprung up there this December. I had agreed easily enough when he had suggested that we have dinner at the bar where Rachel tended afterwards, but knowing now that I would have to find Chris' tall, blond, and lean frame in this coat-and-hat-wearing crowd had me wishing that the two of us had agreed to meet somewhere else first.
I took one lap over the place, not bothering to check any of the stalls yet as I looked for Chris, and then finally deciding it would be prudent to call him now. I stepped out into a less busy spot in the park and dialed his number.
"Hey, what's up?" Chris said as he picked up.
"Where are you?!" I asked, looking around for any sign of him.
"Still at work. Why?" My friend answered easily. He let out a gasp in the next beat, finally remembering. "Oh my God, I'm so, so sorry, Liv! My boss gave me a bunch of work I had to finish today, and I completely forgot!"
"Oh, you're kidding me," I muttered with a sigh, rolling my eyes even though Chris couldn't see. "This was your idea!"
"I'll make this up to you, I promise!" He assured me over the line. "I can still meet you at Maude's in, say, an hour? On me."
It was smart of him to remind me that I would be seeing Rachel tonight, and it did a lot to quickly curb my annoyance. But I could never really be mad at Chris for long anyway, and we both knew it.
"Fine," I told him. "But you better be on time."
I looked at the bazaar behind me as I hung up, debating whether I actually wanted to go back into that busy crowd or not. I turned back towards the park, deciding that I could just as well pass the time by taking a little stroll.
I hugged my coat tighter and looked to my right before taking a step— and saw Thea's unmistakable easy grin rapidly heading towards my direction.
"Oh, hi, Liv!" Thea greeted breathlessly, her coat a mere cream-colored flash as she zoomed right past me.
Stunned, I followed her with my eyes, realizing a moment later that she was gripping multiple leashes in her hands. They were attached to at least four dogs—including two very unruly retrievers, and I couldn't help but be amused as I watched Thea try to keep up with her wards.
Did she really think she could handle that many, clearly excitable dogs with her small frame?
One of the retrievers leaped suddenly, sending Thea on a forward surge as she tried to keep herself from tripping. I moved reflexively, catching up with her as fast as I could and grabbing hold of the leashes in her left hand as I offered my arm for support.
"Whoa!" I said, lightly tugging on the leash until the retriever finally showed signs of calming down. I bent down to scratch its ear, and the terrier on the other leash eagerly asked for the same treatment. I checked on Thea, and she was more or less doing the same thing to the dogs she was still holding.
"Thank you!" Thea smiled gratefully with a sideways glance. "I had no idea how to stop them."
"Yeah, well, I didn't want you tracking blood and dirt all over the apartment when you get home," I quipped.
My opinion of Thea had inevitably mellowed over the last few days. I couldn't deny that having her around the apartment was somewhat of a good thing. For one, there always seemed to be food now, and I had to admit Thea was pretty cool, basing off the occasional interactions we had had in the loft.
At the very least, I got to see Chris and Rachel around more often, when before we would always just catch each other usually while one of us was on their way out.
Besides, it was very likely that I just wasn't in the best of moods when Thea and I had just met, and that had unfairly clouded my opinion of her somewhat. If it did turn out that Rachel ended up liking her that way... well, then I really couldn't fault Thea or anyone else for being attractive, could I?
In any case, I had been in a much more open and agreeable frame when it came to our new roommate as of late.
"What are you doing getting dragged by these cuties, anyway?" I asked as we both stood up.
Thea started walking, holding out her hand in an effort to get the leashes back, but I shook my head, choosing instead to fall in step and walk with her knowing we both could use the company.
"I'm a dog-walker for three nights a week, after work," Thea shrugged, smiling as she transferred one leash on her now free hand.
"And you tutor kids on weekends?" I asked with a curious squint.
"Yup," Thea nodded, and I let out a low whistle as we continued to walk.
"That sounds... exhausting, is what it sounds, to be honest." I told her.
"Well, I could always use the extra cash." Thea replied, her easy grin keeping me relaxed in her company in spite of the cold.
"You didn't wear a scarf today?" Thea observed when she noticed the slight shiver I gave as I tried to hold the top of my coat closer together with my free hand.
"Nope, not that I have any to begin with," I said, lightly chuckling when she looked at me as if I was crazy not to own any scarves. "Well, I always think of buying one during the winter, but then I'd never come around to actually doing it. And then spring would come and I'd forget until the air gets cold again."
"Good thing I have two, then." Thea said, taking off one of her scarves and placing it around my neck as she explained. "I'm not used to the weather yet, and I never know whether it would be too cold for me lately so I always go out prepared."
I couldn't keep myself from smiling upon smelling her perfume on the fabric. It was nice.
We continued to stroll, all the while chatting and occasionally stopping to play with the dogs. I learned that Thea had left her mom and four younger brothers—all of whom were still studying—back at home, and that most of her salary that didn't go towards rent and bills, she would send over to them. The odd jobs she took here and there were mostly to tide her over until her next paycheck.
She didn't mention her dad and I didn't pry, figuring that might be too personal or she would have otherwise offered the information.
Thea asked how long Chris, Rachel, and I had been friends, among other things, and I told her, our conversation more or less kept light. And then one of the smaller dogs' leash got tangled with one of the retrievers', and both of us had a pretty amusing time untangling those two until Thea happened to glance at the watch I was wearing.
"I should be getting these guys back to their humans," she said, and I felt an odd tinge of disappointment at her words. And then Thea glanced at me with an offer. "Do you want to grab a bite to eat after or something?"
I considered it for a moment, a bit uneasy. I suddenly felt like there was something that I had forgotten to do, and my hand went to my mouth when I finally figured out what it was.
"Oh, shit! I can't!" I exclaimed, looking at the time. "I told Chris I'd meet him for dinner, and I'm already a few minutes late."
I said goodbye, purposely leaving out the part where Chris and I were having dinner where Rachel worked as I hurried off. I might not be able to blame Thea if she and Rachel somehow ended up together, but I certainly wasn't going to help make that happen either.
"I should go over there," I breathed as I looked over Chris' shoulder to where Rachel was standing behind the bar.
She was wearing her uniform—a simple, fitted white v-neck shirt with the word Maude's in tiny letters stretched tight over her right breast, but I could hardly take my eyes off of her. Rachel looked so enigmatic even in the slightly dim light, her wispy, pink hair softly moving as she laughed at something one of her customers had said, that I started to get nervous even from our table, a few yards away.
I turned back to Chris, staying silent as waiter arrived with our orders.
"I should just go over there and talk to her, right?" I asked as soon as the waiter left, and Chris rolled his hazel eyes at me.
"Why do you even ask?" He told me, a hint of frustrated annoyance in his voice. "We both know you're gonna do it anyway."
I glanced back at Rachel, who had her back turned at the moment. Neither of us had told her we would be having dinner here, and she hadn't seen us on our way in. I took a deep breath and turned back to Chris as I tried to reinforce my courage with a slight nod.
"I'm going," I told him, unable to take the anxious edge off my voice. "I'm gonna go get myself a beer. Do you want a beer? I'll get us both beers."
The sentences left my mouth one after the other as I stood up, not waiting for Chris' response before I began making my way towards the bar. I put myself in Rachel's peripheral vision and she looked up as I neared, the surprise on her face quickly transitioning into a bright smile.
"Hey, stranger!" Rachel greeted as she laid a drink in front of a customer. I leaned over the counter as I greeted her back, and she continued. "Are you here alone, or...?"
"No, Chris is over there," I smiled shyly, gesturing towards our table. Chris had been watching and he gave Rachel a little wave before turning away.
I took another breath. I wanted to say something more to Rachel, maybe even flirt a little, but the words wouldn't come to my mouth and all I ended up saying was, "Two beers, please. The usual."
"Sure thing," Rachel told me, immediately turning away to get the beers. She came back a moment later and set two ice-cold bottles in front of me. "I'll try to come over and say hi to you both later, if I'm not too busy."
"Okay, that'd be great!" I beamed. But Rachel's attention had already been called away by another customer, and I had nothing else left to do but return to our table, mentally kicking myself for being such a dork when it came to Rachel.
She never did get around to coming over to our table, which was understandable. The bar at Maude's was pretty busy most nights, with everyone wanting to be around the hot bartender, and tonight hadn't been any different.
I kept sneaking glances at her throughout our meal, and was surprised to catch her looking back a few times. The first couple of times it happened, I figured it was a fluke—her eyes were just probably going around the room and I had just happened to catch her gaze. By the fourth time, however, I started to feel a bit of something akin to hope, and it had me grinning as I turned my attention back to Chris.
"What?" Chris asked suspiciously, glancing over his shoulder quickly before looking back at me.
"Nothing." I kept grinning.
Or maybe something, I thought, feeling bolstered by the possibility that I might actually have a shot with Rachel after all.
"You're kidding! Not even once?" Rachel was saying as I entered the dining area on Saturday morning.
She and Thea were sitting over breakfast, which seemed to have become a habitual thing between the two women. I didn't feel threatened or annoyed this time, not after the way Rachel had checked me out at the bar last Thursday night.
"Not even once what?" I asked, joining in on their conversation. I leaned over the table across from where Rachel as I spoke, surveying the pancakes that Thea had cooked for everyone and taking one.
I broke off a piece with my hands and popped it into my mouth, fighting the urge to close my eyes, it tasted so good.
"Thea hasn't been on a single date since she's been here." Rachel replied, grinning sideways at me.
"You mean, since she's moved in the apartment?" I frowned, quickly glancing over at Thea as I put another piece of pancake in my mouth.
"Since she's moved here in the states," Rachel clarified, surprising me a little with that revelation. This time, my eyes stayed longer on Thea, who was eyeing Rachel with a bit of shock, no doubt surprised that she would freely offer that information to someone else.
"Come on, Thea!" Rachel told her. "You can't convince me that you haven't been asked out on a date for the past eight months! Liv, isn't she too hot to have gone three quarters of a year without a single date?"
I wasn't prepared for the question Rachel had thrown at me, and it made me feel a bit awkward. I looked at Thea, and saw a slight blush of embarrassment creep into her cheeks as she averted her gaze. It couldn't be too comfortable to have your dating life (or lack thereof) suddenly be the center of attention.