Heart Conditions

By: Phoebe Fox

one





Every time, I hoped this would be the day it wouldn’t happen. But when I caught sight of the tall, lean figure standing near the picnic tables and grills of Lakes Park, a familiar ache shot through me.

I sighed. Clearly not today.

Ben looked great in a button-down oxford in a light green I knew from memory would bring out the deeper tones in his hazel eyes, and dark-wash jeans clung to his legs with an attentiveness I could understand. Next to him, Jake was straining the leash in every direction, sniffing all the scents the park offered him like a junkie in a crack den.

Jake saw me before Ben did, his vaunted Pyrenees hearing catching the sound of my car door as I stepped out, and the dog nearly pulled Ben off his feet trying to get to me. I lifted a hand to Ben as we walked toward each other.

“Hi,” I said when I got closer.

Ben was better at conjuring a smile than I was. “Hi.”

I braced myself for the giant dog’s greeting, but to my surprise he didn’t plunge his nose between my legs, as was his usual delicate way, but sat at my feet, only his furiously swishing tail giving away his excitement.

“Good, Jake,” I said, looking into his eyes instead of Ben’s.

The dog’s tail wagged so hard I worried he’d leave a fan shape indented into the asphalt, and I couldn’t contain myself any longer either. “How’s Jakie?” I crooned, dropping to a crouch to ruffle his ears. “How’s my boy?” I wrapped my arms around him, hiding my face for a moment in his long fur as Jake shoved a nose into my neck and then pulled back to gaze at me with a joyful open-mouthed smile, and for just that second everything felt right.

“Thanks for this, Brook,” Ben said above me. “With Mom gone, I wasn’t sure what to do with him.”

The moment was over, reality bursting back in. I stood and finally met his eyes. “How’s Adelaide doing—have you heard from her since she left?”

“I got an email from her yesterday. She met two women at a poker tournament onboard and they’ve already gotten pretty tight, it sounds like. Last I heard they were headed to go dancing in the ship’s club.”

“That’s awesome. I’m so glad she’s having fun.”

He looked at me, familiar smile lines crinkling beside his eyes, and I had to look back down at the dog. “You know she credits you for this, right? She says if you hadn’t ‘stayed all over her back’—her words, not mine—about dating again, she’d never have done a singles’ cruise.”

“She’d have dated eventually,” I said with a shrug.

“Well, she didn’t ’til she started hanging out with the Breakup Doctor. So thanks.”

Adelaide and I hadn’t “hung out” for quite some time. The last I saw her, her face had been drawn into tight lines of disappointment. “I hope she has fun,” I said.

Ben reached to hand me the leash and our fingers brushed. For a heartbeat there was only that warm touch, the shushing of the palms in the February breeze, the whirring coos of mourning doves, the distant sounds of traffic from Gladiolus—and the steady gaze of those familiar hazel eyes.

Jake’s ear-piercing bark shattered the moment, and we both followed the dog’s alert focus on Ben’s truck, where a willowy redhead now stood in the open passenger door, shielding her eyes against the yellow sun, waving when she saw us looking.

“Well…I guess we need to get going,” Ben said. “I’ll get you Jake’s things.”

I made another smile happen across my lips. “I’ll come get them. I can say hi to Pamela.”

Ben’s girlfriend was the kind of woman you never, ever want the ex you still have very complicated feelings for—despite the fact that it was you who torpedoed the relationship—to date. The perfect height—an inch or two above average, but not so tall that men were threatened by her. Slim as a prepubescent boy, but with the full, perfect round breasts of a Madonna. Long red hair with a slight curl. Vivid green eyes and teeth so perfect, you would have asked for the name of her orthodontist, except that you already know she never wore braces a day in her life.

You know this only because you actually did ask for the name of her orthodontist the first time you met her, because your blabbering tongue wouldn’t stay in your mouth with your nervousness upon meeting the perfect specimen who replaced you, and you vomited out a number of inane comments like this, and she answered with a disarming smile so appealing that you yourself felt a little stirring of attraction to her, despite the fact that you are solidly heterosexual, and she said with charming self-deprecation, “Believe it or not, I never had braces—my parents have these ridiculously straight teeth they passed on to all us kids.”