Story One – The Last-Minute Tiki Party
Shawnee, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb
“And I’m all out of God-damn rum!” Justin slammed the liquor cabinet door. “I don’t even like rum. Or this stupid, old, ugly liquor cabinet . . . bar . . . whatever the hell it is.” He beat his fist on the worn countertop. “With its stupid, stupid, hideous . . . stupid pink top!” He focused on the tiny white and gray boomerangs printed across the surface. “I’m a man, for Christ’s sake. Why would I want a . . . whatever this is with a pink top!” He kicked the cabinet resulting in more damage to his bare foot than the mid-century liquor cabinet. “Damn you, Tiffany,” he mumbled, then lay his forearm on the top of the cabinet. He dropped his head, and it crashed hard on his wrist. “Why did you dump me? You messed up a perfectly laid plan.”
“Hey, man.” Eric Waterman popped his head into Justin’s office. “Are you still throwing axes with us Saturday night?”
“No. I’m throwing a party instead.”
Eric laughed. “Oh . . . are you serious?”
“Yeah. You’re invited. I’m making up the email flyer right now. It’s at my house.”
Eric carried his half-eaten sandwich and Diet Coke into Justin’s office and sat down across from him. “What house?”
As Justin picked up a notepad, his mouse slid off, bounced across the desk, over the edge, and crashed on the laminate floor. He sighed. “I bought a house the weekend before Thanksgiving.” He flipped back a page in the notepad as he was uncertain of the address. “5424 Astro Lane.”
“Jesus . . . that’s . . . huge! Like, totally adulting. Hard Core. That was four weeks ago—why didn’t you tell me, man? I thought I was your best friend.”
“There was a reason, but it’s irrelevant now.” Justin grabbed his Route 44 Sonic cup and gulped down watery Dr. Pepper from seven-thirty that morning. “Anyway, I’m having a party this Saturday.”
“Today’s Wednesday. That’s not a lot of time. I mean—I’m going to throw axes with the guys Saturday night, but I guess I can swing by your place at some point. Are you doing a goofy Christmas gift exchange?”
“It’s not a Christmas party. It’s—”
“Dude . . . Saturday will be December eleventh. It’s Christmas.”
Justin opened his bottom desk drawer and grabbed his soft-sided lunch cooler. “Christmas is the twenty-fifth. I’m hosting a tiki party.”
As Justin released the Ziplock bag containing his PB&J, it occurred to him he might get that question a lot. The problem was, he honestly didn’t know. “It’s kind of a tropical theme.”
“Oh”—Eric crushed his Diet Coke can—“you mean like Hawaiian shirts?”
Justin swallowed hard on the dry peanut butter. “Yeah.”
Eric stood and used his foot to reposition the office chair back in place. “It’s pretty last minute, but I think I still have a Hawaiian shirt in the back of my closet.” He walked to the doorway. “A last-minute tiki party in December—I’m sure I’ve done crazier things. I’ll be there. Kinda excited to see your new house, bro.”
Justin reached down and snagged the mouse off the floor. “Wish it was a new house,” he grumbled. “Instead of a fixer upper from the late fifties. I would have never bought . . . ” He shook his head and took a deep breath. “Don’t go there, man,” he whispered to himself. “We’re going to straighten this all out.”
He studied the flyer he’d created in Word, then jerked the mouse back and forth on the desktop. It still worked. “Come to my Tiki Party!” he read out loud. “That’s boring as hell. I want to be a marketing genius, and that’s the best I came up with? Robertson would can my ass if I presented him with that, as he should. What exactly am I selling here?”
He dropped his face in his hands. Don’t sell your heartbreak, he told himself. Nobody wants to buy that. Nobody.
Justin placed his cursor in front of the word Tiki. He typed and read out loud: “Come to my not-a-Christmas-Party Tiki Party.” He nodded. “Not bad. Kind of humorous. Thought-provoking. Engaging. Leads you to read the copy below.”
He thought back to an advertising class at Mizzou about five years prior. What was he not considering? Justin shook his head. “Crap,” he muttered. The word Christmas in his heading would confuse readers that it actually was a Christmas party. He deleted the phrase. Eric was right—this was all too last minute. Under normal circumstances, Justin would have never hastily tried to pull off a party like this. His original plan was months in the planning, probably six months to be exact. I need to own this mess, he told himself. “Screw it.” He inserted Last-Minute into the heading. “Come to my Last-Minute Tiki Party!”
“I like it,” he muttered. “But I still need to sell it. It needs to be more epic. Like the first and last. Alpha and Omega shit.” He replaced the word my with The. “Come to The Last-Minute Tiki Party!” he read. “Done!”
Justin hit print and tore into his sandwich.
* * *
His computer clock read five-thirty, and Justin debated staying an extra hour and wrapping up this project or going to the house to prepare for the party. He’d scheduled Merry Maids to clean Friday morning and rented folding chairs and a couple of long tables, but that was the extent of the prepping since he’d conceived this scheme less than twenty-four hours ago. Was he wasting his time and money? Was anyone going to show up on such short notice?
A rap on his office door startled him.
“Hello,” Justin acknowledged the guy in the doorway.
“Hey, you may not remember me. I’m Dave, from upstairs in accounting.”
“Sure,” Justin lied. “I’ve seen you around.”
“Sorry to bother you, especially around quitting time, but I saw your flyer in the breakroom about the party. Is that legit? I mean, is it completely true—the competition and prize?”
“Absolutely,” Justin replied, shutting down his computer. “It’s all on the level. Not a joke.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
Any sentiment was purely out of desperation, and Justin would feel like a scumbag for pretending his charity game typically approached this score. He nodded instead of accepting Dave’s praise. “Yeah, man, Saturday night, you’re welcome over. I also sent an email with the address and directions. I’ll have beer and maybe some chick drinks, but it’s unlikely I’ll round up a bartender in time. So I guess what I’m saying is”—he grabbed his lunch cooler from his bottom drawer—“the event is BYOB if there’s something special you want to drink. There should be plenty of hors d’oeuvres.”
“Okay,” Dave wrapped his hand around the doorknob and turned it back and forth. “Can I bring a guest?”
Justin couldn’t recall if he’d touched upon that in the email or on the flyer. “Of course, yeah, bring a date.”
“Great. See you then.”
Justin shuffled a few things on his desk and found the notepad with a party list he’d started that morning. He attempted to add hors d’oeuvres to the list, but he had no idea how to spell the rest after writing hor. So he crossed it out, scribbled snacky foods, and headed out the door.
There were pictures of Tiffany all over his phone, but Justin shot his favorite at a bed and breakfast in rural Nebraska. The memory remained forever stamped upon his mind. Tiffany had just gotten out of the shower, her long, light brown hair wet and stringy; no makeup, no clothes, just a goddess. He’d replayed that morning over and over in his head a hundred times in the last six months, as that was the day he decided he wanted to spend his life with her. They showered together then stayed in the steaming water for an extra twenty minutes, their first time together, and he couldn’t shake the image of her head tipped back, her neck extending several inches, all the way to her fabulous, wet breasts.
“Please, God,” he whispered, shocked to find himself praying for the first time in years. “Please let this work. I need her. I can’t live without her. I’ll be good to her—you know I will. Please help her find out about the party and to show up. I know if I can see her face to face in that house, I can win her back.”
He kissed his phone screen, said, “I love you, Tiff,” and fell asleep.
His alarm went off at six a.m., an occurrence over a weekend he couldn’t recall in his entire adulthood to date. He hit snooze, then swore loudly and got up. “Please, God,” he echoed from late last night, “let this work.”
By six that evening, his house on Astro Lane looked pretty spiffy and up to the task. He’d miraculously found someone with a cancellation willing to paint the entryway walls and the two walls in the family room without a fireplace or paneling. His realtor had mentioned those particular walls would look great in a satin, medium-gray paint, so that was precisely how Justin proceeded. Friday evening he’d found a couple of abstract, 1950’s artworks at a thrift shop, and he hung one in the entry and one in the center of the paneled wall in the family room. The kitchen and bathroom were clean but dulled from years of use. Thank God snow covered the ground—the yard was a mess of weeds and dirt patches. As Justin stood there alone, in a house from 1957 that he couldn’t decide if he even liked or not, he told himself everything was going to work out. There was simply a hiccup in his long-term plan. He was a good person, he worked hard, planned well, and everything was going to work out.
The grocery store caterers were quickly in and out by six forty-five, and the first guest showed up at six fifty-five. Her name was Julie.
“My apologies,” he said. “You look familiar, but—”
“I’m in H.R.,” she explained. “I think I processed your paperwork—W-4, I-9, etc.—when you started, but perhaps I haven’t seen you since.”
“Sure, sure . . . Well, you’re the first one to arrive.” He handed her a lei off a small table in the entry he’d brought over from his apartment. He thought it too forward to place it around her neck, especially since she reminded him so much of his mother. “I have some lady-type drinks in a blue cooler on the kitchen counter—you know, wine spritzers, hard lemonades.”
“I prefer beer,” she said, following him toward the kitchen. “Something like Budweiser.”
“Then you want the red cooler.”
His doorbell rang. “There are chairs and food in the family room,” he told Julie. He pointed through a doorway. “Let me get the door.”
Five random people from his department had Ubered over together and were already adorning themselves with leis.
“A house!” Caleb Welch gave Justin a fist bump. “That’s so cool. This neighborhood is still great, too. Congrats!”
The three girls in the group all hugged Justin, and Gwen Ramone, the last in line, handed him a gift bag.
“It’s a house warming. Seemed appropriate.”
Justin looked inside the bag then pulled out a wooden totem, about eighteen inches tall. “Wow.”
“It’s hand-carved and vintage.” She followed the other girls toward the kitchen. “Oh, and I think it’s from Hawaii. We found it in a thrift shop near here.”
Justin cringed. “Yes, it’s perfect.” He placed it on the entry table as a centerpiece amongst the leis.
Bobby Jenkins had held back from the group. “I’m winning this contest,” he said. “I practiced all last night. I’m going to nail it.” He saluted Justin then made his way to the kitchen as another couple arrived at the door.
About thirty minutes into the party, the crowd had swelled to over twenty people. Mostly work associates and a handful of friends of former girlfriends. An unknown, pretty blonde socially worked the family room for about ten minutes before Justin noticed Dave from accounting put his arm around her. She appeared at least twenty years Dave’s junior, and Justin wondered if he had grossly misjudged the age of one of the two. When Dave stepped away to talk to Julie, Justin took advantage of the open spot near the fireplace.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the unknown blonde. “Have we met?”
“No. I’m Kate.”
They shook hands, and, still convinced she was close to his age, Justin decided to linger. “Do you work at TCY?”
“I’m in grad school. Home for Christmas break. My last final was yesterday afternoon.”
“What are you studying?”
Justin stepped backward, and the back sole of his shoe brushed against the side of the fireplace hearth. “Are you serious?”
Kate laughed. “No, I’m teasing. But I dig your mid-century rancher home and the whole idea of doing a tiki party in December. Most people wouldn’t have the guts.”
“It wasn’t so much a matter of guts. Pure necessity. But everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”
“I agree,” Kate commented. “I brought something but left it in the car because I wasn’t sure, but . . . well . . . I’ll just go get it.”
“Oh, okay. I like your dress, by the way. The large pink flowers match your lipstick.”
She winked at him and headed toward the front door. “I’ll be back.”
Was that a stupid comment? he asked himself. He filtered back into the crowd, checking his cell phone for the time. The flyers and emails stated the contest started at nine o’clock, hopefully giving everyone enough time to get to his house, relax, and consume enough alcohol to have the nerve to compete.
A ruckus at the front door compelled Justin to investigate. The axe throwing team arrived in their usual obnoxious style; most dressed inappropriately. Ranging in varying levels of intoxication, the five guys and one girl garnished each other in colorful leis, did some ridiculously loud high fives, then meandered to the kitchen for unnecessary additional beverages.
“Did you tell them it was an ugly Christmas sweater contest?” Justin barked at Eric, the only one in a Hawaiian shirt.
“Sorry, man. I honestly don’t recall what I said. The guys are more interested in booze and the possibility of hot chicks. Except for Lisa—she just wants to be near me.”
Eric smiled, but Justin remained unamused.
“They don’t care if they’re not rockin’ your theme,” Eric added.
“Maybe I care!” Justin snapped. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay, that was out of line. But I’m glad they’re here, regardless. And Lisa’s obviously hot for me, not you.” They both laughed, and Justin caught up with the group in the kitchen, inquiring about the tournament he’d missed.
Luke Adams gave a rundown of every axe toss as he cracked open a beer for everyone on the team. He handed Lisa a wine spritzer, and her eyes and lips thanked him profusely. As the group challenged each dig Luke threw out, Justin began to regret not being at the tournament. However, that sentiment faded fast, and his heart stopped beating when he heard Eric say: “Hi, Tiff.”
She stood there in his kitchen in a tight black dress. Unlike the other party guests, the flowers in Tiffany’s lei were real, and Justin searched out their scent in a kitchen odorized by light beer, cheap wine, and axe-hurling sweat.
“Hey,” Justin said after the room grew deathly quiet.
“Hi. I heard you bought a house,” Tiffany responded.
“And now you’re standing in it, looking like a goddess.”
She laughed, and Justin remembered rowdy barbarians surrounded him.
“Let’s take a tour,” he offered.
“I’d love to.”
He saved what he knew would be her favorite room for last. Once there, Tiffany squealed. “A pink bathroom! All original! 1957!”
“It’s why I bought the house.”
“You hate pink,” she laughed.
“You love pink. And I love you.”
She closed the bathroom door and wrapped her arms around his neck. “When I heard about your house yesterday and your contest, nothing made sense,” she said, then kissed his cheek. “But I think I figured it out. You were going to take me to Hawaii for Christmas, weren’t you?”
The fire in her eyes tortured him.
“And while we were there, you were going to tell me you bought my dream house.”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“Anything else you planned to do in Hawaii?” she asked and kissed his other cheek.
“Oh, I thought we’d roll around naked on the beach.”
She giggled. “Besides that?”
“What could be better than that?”
“I don’t know. I think you were going to pop something. Maybe on the beach, or maybe in a five-star restaurant.”
That was his plan to a tee. On the beach. Sunset. The solitaire engagement ring had been packed in his carry-on bag since early November, the same day he bought the plane tickets to the Big Island. “I guess you’ll just have to find out when we’re there.”
Tiffany shrieked, and her body oozed with excitement all over him. In the year they’d been dating, she’d never kissed him deeper or more prolonged. But this kiss tonight didn’t taste like Captain Morgan’s, her favorite craft beer at Axe & Ale, or even her cinnamon-flavored Crest toothpaste. No, this kiss was utterly tasteless.
She pulled away from him, and her fingertips brushed lightly over his manhood. “I think this means I won your contest tonight, ’cause you’re taking me to Hawaii.”
He stood there speechless until someone knocked on the bathroom door.
“We need to pee,” they begged from the other side of the door. “Bad!”
“Sorry,” Justin shouted. “We’re coming out.”
Tiffany whispered in his ear. “I need to take care of some business, but I’ll be back in less than thirty minutes.”
They slipped out of the bathroom, passing Becky and Anna in the hall.
“So, so sorry,” Justin said to the ladies while noting Tiffany went straight to the front door and out of the house.
Justin stood in the entry for a moment, staring at the wooden tiki idol, trying to figure out how he would tell his guests he’d canceled the contest. No one needed to present their case for why they should win a free trip with Justin to Hawaii over Christmas because he was going with his dream girl on her dream vacation, just as he had meticulously planned it a few months ago. So why was Justin momentarily all alone, in a house that didn’t feel like home, praying to a wooden totem, begging it to help him stop feeling like a slime bag? Finally, he picked up the wooden idol. “Everything feels wrong,” he whispered. “Help me figure out how to fix it.”
Staring into the eyes of the tiki, Justin realized the seventies and eighties rock station he’d selected on Pandora was no longer playing in the background. Instead, a haunting and crackling sound came from the family room—bongo drums and reed flutes and maybe violins. “What the heck is that?” he asked the tiki.
He walked into the family room and discovered at least fifteen people gathered around a spot on the wall opposite the fireplace. Kate was in the center, but Justin couldn’t comprehend what he saw. “What is that?” he asked Kate.
“A record player.”
“Well, yes, I mean . . . how did it get there?”
“I imagine some nice gentleman built it into this wall when they were putting up the wood paneling in the late 1950s. It’s exquisite, Justin. You’re very fortunate it survived.”
“I thought it was just an old radio,” he confessed.
“It’s part radio, yes. But this turntable flips down out of the wall. Then it flips back up, keeping it safe and dust-free when not in use. Hidden in plain sight, like a crouching tiger in the jungle.” She walked to the other side of the turntable and pulled down a handle on another sectional piece in the wall. “The front of this component is a speaker, but behind it is record storage.”
Justin had noticed the stack of records on a folding chair next to the turntable. “Is that where you found the records?”
“No. I brought them from home. I think we inherited them from my grandfather.”
A handful of people dancing caught Justin’s attention over his shoulder, some of them wearing cheesy Hawaiian-print shirts, a few girls in flowery dresses, all of them donning cheap, satin leis. He’d never done anything last minute in his life. He was not a spontaneous guy. Yet, somehow, people were happy and having fun. “I can’t believe this is happening in my house,” he told Kate, then laughed. “Can you believe I even own a house?”
“I can believe you’re a good person and deserve a cool home. My dad says you’re the hardest working person at TCY. And maybe the smartest.”
“I don’t know about that. Who’s your—?”
“Would you like to dance?” Kate asked him.
It would be rude to say no, but more importantly, he wanted to say yes. “Sure.”
As they swayed slowly together on the scuffed-up, hardwood floor, she lay her head against his cheek. Her hair didn’t smell like cheap rum or beer or cinnamon toothpaste. Instead, its scent brought to mind mangos and fresh plumeria and pineapple. He imagined wide-open, moon-lit skies. Crashing waves. Salty mist. He felt peace and like he never wanted to waste another moment of his life meticulously planning. Justin turned his face to kiss her forehead, then snapped out of the fantasy as the record went silent.
“That was nice,” she said, stepping back from him. “Thank you.”
“The pleasure was all mine. Will you excuse me?”
Justin rushed to the kitchen, where he found most of the axe-throwing team describing their technique to Becky and Anna. He reached into the red cooler, grabbed the first beer he saw, and popped it open. While he chugged, the heavy, flirtatious vibe in the room struck him. The throwing team put out a ton of testosterone, but it had never been as evident as right now in his kitchen. The insides of all the cabinets were bare, yet this was, in fact, his kitchen. Justin hadn’t brought over a single dish. He would let Tiffany have a complete say in the kitchen, even though she rarely cooked. He tried to imagine her bopping around barefoot in an apron, wearing an oven mitt, but the scene wouldn’t stick in his mind.
“What happened to Luke?” Justin asked Eric after consuming half the beer.
“He rushed out of here quickly,” Eric replied. “Said he had to take care of something urgent.”
“Booty call?” Justin asked, then regretted his comment. Why did he act like a teenager around these guys? Except for Eric, they were all pretty classless. Masculine? Yes. Gentlemen? No. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay. Good chance it’s true.” Eric reached inside the cooler and grabbed another beer. “So . . . I’m a bit confused. I got the vibe—more accurately, the word—Tiff broke up with you, but she seemed all into you tonight.”
“Yeah, she dumped me Monday.”
“When on Monday?”
“She called me Monday late—around ten. It was her girls’ night. Said something was missing. It was her, not me. Typical B. S., but by the end of the conversation, it was clear we were over.”
“Did you know some of us were at Axe & Ale Monday night?”
Justin rifled through his brain for a moment. “Yes, you mentioned it Monday afternoon, but I stayed late at the office—until eight-thirty or so, then went home.”
“That’s how I remember it, yes. Did Tiffany know that was your plan?”
“Uhhh . . . Yeah, she texted around five, and I think I explained the situation.”
Eric nodded. “She and a few girlfriends were at Axe & Ale that night. Luke Adams gave her a private throwing lesson in an open lane.”
“Why didn’t you say anything before now?”
“Because she hinted to me that you two broke up over the weekend, and I didn’t want to rub salt in your wounds.”
“But you two patched things up? Since Monday?”
“Unbeknownst to her during our breakup exchange, I’d already bought her dream house and dream vacation. And, hopefully, her dream engagement ring. Don’t you see? Tonight she picked her dream over Luke Adams, and he’s the most alpha, best-looking dude we both know.”
Eric nodded but didn’t say a word.
Justin finished the beer and spied into the family room. Kate had put on another record, and even more people were now dancing. He noticed Dave from accounting dancing with Julie from H.R. Lisa and Pete from the axe team exhibited some unique moves. It was all good and kind of cool until he spotted Kate and Luke in the corner, talking. Luke took her hand, and they walked out to the crowd and started to dance. Justin slapped his hand over his chest. In one week, he’d lost two girls to Luke Adams, a.k.a., Mr. Alpha.
He pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket and texted Tiffany. Where are you?
I’m sitting on the edge of the mint-green bathtub in my new master bathroom, admiring the view. It’s perfect! You’re the best!
She didn’t think he was the best Monday night. Mr. Alpha was the best. Justin considered texting that comparison to her but held back. Why muddy the waters? She was his again, right?
He walked back to the entryway. Only one lei lingered on the table, and Justin put it around his neck. He picked up the tiki idol again. “I read a little about tiki culture on Wikipedia before this party,” he told the tiki, “but, honestly, there just wasn’t enough time. I assume you were worshiped at some point in history and mocked at another. Now you’re mostly used to promote overpriced rum cocktails. But that slap in the face doesn’t negate your wisdom. You’ve been able to see into my kitchen and family room—you know what’s been going on here tonight. You’re as old as my house and well suited to reign here. Just help me out, man, because I think I’m about to make the biggest decision of my life.”
He took a moment to absorb the music streaming from the family room. Those same songs possibly spun on the record player in that room sixty years ago. The original owners probably threw many parties in this house—it was designed well for hosting social gatherings. And it hadn’t occurred to him until this moment, but the family cleared out the contents of this house only a few days before he found the real estate listing. The realtor said they dumped off the junk at a local thrift shop. “Was this your house?” he asked the idol. “Well, now it’s our house—yours and mine. We just need the right woman to share it with. So, please, man, don’t let me screw that up.” He set the idol back on the table. “Hold tight, my friend.”
Justin pulled out his cell phone and texted Tiffany. The contest for the free trip to Hawaii starts at nine, in about fifteen minutes. The signup sheet is in the kitchen if you want to go with me. Each contestant has one minute to sell me that they are the perfect travel companion. He started to type Good luck, but then deleted it. He hit send, then promptly turned off the phone and smiled. “This should be entertaining,” he mumbled to himself.
He rushed to the kitchen before Tiffany got there. There were eleven names on the list, including Julie, Eric, Pete, Luke, Gwen, Billy, Becky, Anna. Oddly, Dave’s name appeared near the top but had been scratched off. Also, was Luke serious? Mr. Alpha had balls.
Justin glanced into the family room, making sure to avoid Tiffany. Kate sat in the corner alone, near the record player. He dashed toward her, scooping up a folding chair along the way, then sat the chair next to hers. “Is this seat taken?” he asked.
She burst out laughing. “I believe it’s available.”
He sat down. “You never told me what you’re studying in grad school,” he said.
“That’s correct. I didn’t tell you.”
“Is it highly classified—like a matter of national security?”
She looked up to the ceiling. “That light fixture—it’s not original to the house.”
“What do you mean? The realtor told me everything was original except the refrigerator and the wallpaper in the third bedroom. And I think the kitchen vinyl.”
“She was wrong. The house is from the late 1950s. That fixture is about 1965. At first, I thought maybe the original fixture was broken—you know, random football toss or champagne cork. But I bet there was no fixture. It was the style at the time to have the main light switch turn on all the lamps in a room, but an overhead light in a general living area was considered clutter to the clean-lined aesthetic. Unnecessary and distracting.”
“Did you just use Google or Wikipedia to figure that all out?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“If it were your house, would you replace that fixture with something from 1957?”
“Nope. I’m fascinated with growth and evolution and how things merge over time to create something new. And sometimes—if you’re lucky—something beautiful.”
“That’s a nice image, two things coming together to make something beautiful.” He checked his cell phone for the time. “I’ve got to administer a crazy contest in a bit. And judge. I’m guessing it will take me thirty minutes. Will you be here when I’m done?”
“Will you be looking for me when you’re done?”
He didn’t know and decided he should stop leading her on. “Thanks for being here tonight. I’ve enjoyed spending time with you.”
She nodded and smiled.
Justin had two chairs and a table set up in the third bedroom at the end of the hall. He left Kate and started down the long hallway at the back end of the house, then decided he needed a co-judge. So he turned around and cut through the empty living room and snagged the tiki off the entry table. “I have a job for you,” he said. Justin briefly looked through the slender window along the side of the front door. It was maybe twenty-five degrees outside with about four inches of snow on the ground. He liked winter more than most people, but Hawaii temps would be a fabulous break. He’d be there in two weeks with some lucky individual, and it was going to be okay.
He was halfway back through the living room when he realized he needed the signup sheet. He returned to the kitchen and found it still on the counter by the stove, Tiffany’s name at the very bottom. He was surprised to see Kate’s name above Tiffany. “This looks like a win-win situation.”
He snuck back through the living room, avoiding the family room. Then, after taking a picture of the signup sheet with his phone, he taped the original to the outside of the door and set up shop in the back bedroom, attempting to clear his head until Julie knocked on the door at straight-up nine o’clock.
“Are you ready for me?” she asked when he opened the door.
They sat across the card table from each other.
“Don’t be nervous,” he said. “Tell me, in less than a minute, why you want to travel to Hawaii with me.” He hit the timer on his phone.
Julie cleared her throat. “When we were first married, my husband told me we’d go to Hawaii for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We put aside money every month in a special fund. We had enough saved and almost went on our twentieth anniversary, but our son was starting college, so we decided to wait until he graduated, which, at the time, seemed like perfect timing. However, my husband was diagnosed with cancer the next year and passed about eighteen months later. I want a travel companion because air travel and airports give me anxiety. Also, I’d be uncomfortable being alone that long, but I would certainly reimburse you for my share of the expenses. I just don’t want to go alone.” She wiped her eyes. “Oh . . . I want to spread some of his ashes on the beach. That way, he can be there briefly with me.”
Justin paused the timer with ten seconds remaining. He didn’t say anything out of fear he’d start to cry but nodded, and she quietly exited the room. Before opening the door, he took a few deep breaths. Eric was next, quietly entering and taking a seat.
Justin wiped his eyes. “You can say whatever you want in the next minute, but I’m telling you you’re not going to beat Julie’s story.”
“Dead husband?” Eric asked.
“It’s all true,” Eric confirmed. “I’ve heard she’s had a small poster of Waikiki on her office wall for fifteen years.” He leaned closer to Justin. “Did you make up with Tiff?”
“It’s still up in the air.”
“Luke asked me because he’s all kinds of confused. Man, I know he’s a player, but I think he’s somewhat innocent in the deal. He thought you split up a few weeks ago.”
“I’ll keep that under consideration when he comes in.”
“He had the balls to sign up for this contest?”
Justin nodded. “Yeah. Your minute is up. I’ll talk to you later.”
After Eric closed the door, Justin realized he was feeling sick to his stomach. Adrenaline had been pushing him all night, but he was hitting the wall with swallowed emotions.
Next, Pete explained he was a history buff and would make an excellent tour guide. Also, Pete planned to pick up the bill for all the meals and beverages for both of them. It was a compelling yet emotionless argument. Justin didn’t rule him out.
Luke strutted into the room with a half-cocked smile. His first thirty seconds focused on apologizing for any inappropriateness regarding his misunderstanding about Tiffany. Justin was impressed by his maturity and wanted to punch him a lot less than he had when Luke first entered the room. Luke used the last thirty seconds to paint a picture of him and Justin surfing, drinking Mai Tais, and checking about babes. It sounded fun. Luke was a chick magnet, and if Justin were single in two weeks, Luke’s plan would be exhilarating.
Justin graded the next seven contestants with a B+ for effort, but their proposals lacked emotional strength or a high level of excitement. Kate was next on the list, and Justin started to shake as he opened the door.
After she sat down and before he hit the timer, he asked the running question: “Why do you want to travel with me to Hawaii?”
“I don’t. I want you to take my dad.”
“Who’s your dad?”
“I thought my minute was uninterrupted?”
Justin slapped his fingertips over his lips. “Continue.”
“Three years ago, at my dad’s father’s funeral, we learned that his father—my dad’s grandfather—was a pilot in World War II. However, we could have never fathomed he was Japanese and took part in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My dad’s father was a proud Vietnam Vet and raised my dad to be very patriotic, so you can imagine how my father was horrified to learn this about his grandfather, a man he’d never met. After the funeral, my father told me he believed his grandfather was only following orders, but my dad still wanted to rectify the situation. This knowledge has given him overwhelming stress and sadness. Since I’m in college and he’s alone, he has too much time to think about it. I believe it would change his life if he could go to the Arizona Memorial, apologize for the deeds of his grandfather, and cry for several hours.”
Justin paused the timer with one second left. He had so many questions and wanted to take Kate’s hand, but that would be unfair to everyone else. So he quietly said, “Thank you,” and watched her leave the room.
“Jesus,” he whispered after the door closed. He grabbed the tiki, which was at the end of the table. “I’m in over my head. I’m just a marketing guy, not a therapist. And now”—he rubbed his eyes—“I have to listen to Tiffany for a minute. She’s the one person in this world I most want to vacation with, but I’m so confused about what she did. My head’s spinning, and I honestly want to puke.”
He opened the door and found Tiffany standing alone in the hall. She walked into the bedroom without a word, sat down, and crossed her legs. His heart raced like a freight train. Part of the confusion in his body was spurred by the fact that she was so damn hot.
“Why do you want to go to Hawaii with me?”
“Because you’ve told me many times that you’ve never had so much fun with another person. Because we both love red meat and avoid seafood like the plague. Our favorite beer is Budweiser, but we drink craft beers to be cool with our friends. Our favorite band of all time is The Moody Blues, and our first slow dance in your apartment was to ‘Nights in White Satin.’ Then we made love on the sofa, on the floor, and in your bed. You told me on three occasions that my sexual appetite matched yours, and I was the last woman you ever wanted to sleep with.
“Your parents like me. Your grandmother loves me. Her cat hates me, but you hate her cat, so it’s all good. I sleep through your snoring and tolerate your dirty underwear on the floor. We were made for each other. You’ve said it, I’ve said, and when one of us says it, the other person always agrees.”
His black phone screen suggested he forgot to hit the timer, and he guessed she went over. Tiffany started to stand, but he grabbed her wrist. “Sit down.”
“You’re only allowed the opening question,” she said.
“Everything you said is true. That’s why I was going to propose to you on the beach, Christmas Eve, right after I told you I’d bought our house. It was a seamlessly arranged plan. And it would have been flawlessly executed.”
She nodded, and he was sure he was going to cry.
“You broke my heart Monday night, and I didn’t see that coming.”
He put his fingers over her lips.
“I was ready to forgive you. Luke is a stud. I understand that you may have had a few too many drinks and made a bad decision, especially considering peer pressure from your girlfriends. But I realized about five minutes ago it’s not about any of that. When you showed up here tonight and got all orgasmic about this house, you never apologized. I don’t think you showed remorse in any way. Even when we were alone in the bathroom, away from my friends, you never said you were sorry. And, what may be worse, you never said thank you. I bought you what you’d always described as your dream house, with an authentic pink bathroom. In the moment when you were confident that you were going to get to spend the rest of your life here, you didn’t say thank you. You just ran your fingers over my dick.”
“That was saying thank you,” she grunted. “I thought I was speaking your language.”
“Maybe a week ago,” he considered out loud, “but not now. I think I deserve more from the woman I love. The woman I buy dream houses for. And dream vacations.”
“Are you done?” she muttered.
He nodded and watched her walk through the doorway. She left the door open. It was a subtle move, and he loved it. She knew exactly how his mind worked. She knew his love of metaphors, and, despite his sense of sudden relief, he still believed they were, indeed, made for each other. But that wasn’t his problem anymore.
He grabbed the tiki and closed the door on the hideous, 1990’s wallpaper, then strode down the hall. Several people remained in the family room and kitchen. Why not? The night was young, and plenty of beer remained. He watched Kate finish a dance with Pete, then met her near the record player.
“Is Dave your father?” he asked. “Dave, from accounting?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Is he going to Hawaii with you?”
“No, he’s not going to Hawaii with me.”
“Oh . . . ”
“He’s going with you. I want you to go with him because you obviously love him. He needs incredible emotional support. And to heal.”
“Yes, I agree.” She wrapped her hands around Justin’s arm. “I’m so . . . I guess your graciousness has overwhelmed me. But I want to decline your offer respectfully.”
“What?” Justin stepped back. “You can’t be serious!”
“Listen. After we talked about the light fixture, I checked out the signup sheet and noticed dad had scratched his name off. I put mine down to hold his spot, then tracked him down. He and Julie had shared stories earlier in the evening, and dad felt she was more deserving. He worries more about other people than himself. He wanted her to win.” Kate let go of Justin’s arm. “So, I want to give my ticket to Julie. I want her and dad to go together. Maybe they can heal and perhaps grow together.”
Justin nodded. “Perfect.”
“Besides,” Kate added, “I’d rather go to Hawaii with a boyfriend or husband or lover.”
“Do you currently have any of those three?”
“Nope. Not today. What about you? I’m a little confused—”
“I was, too,” Justin clarified. “But no more. I’m free as a Jaybird.”
She laughed. “I think the expressions are, free as a bird, and naked as a Jaybird.”
“I think you’re wrong,” he said, taking her arm and pulling her toward the kitchen and the beer. “Just as you’re wrong about the light fixture in the family room. It was definitely a random football throw that broke the original shade, sometime in 1964.”
Justin sat the tiki idol on the counter where the signup sheet had been. “I know because this tiki told me. He was here, in 1964, watching a growing family live life. The house’s original owners bought him in Hawaii in 1955 while on their honeymoon. Talk about going to Hawaii with your lover; that’s the way to do it.”
She took his hand. Kate was about to cry, but it was okay because so was he. It was already happening—two people coming together and growing.
“Don’t you agree?” he whispered. “The Big Island would be a great place to honeymoon?”
“If magic happened there in 1955”—she patted the tiki on the head—“it’s sure to happen again.”