Only the Best

Today is the day. I can just feel it. I rise from my bed, the clarity of wakefulness washing over me as I consider the woman of my dreams. I glance out the window, and the pleasant scene induces an honest smile. Maybe it’s the warm spring morning, melting away my anxiety and fear. Maybe it’s the cloudless sky, offering no obstacles to my planned endeavors. Or maybe it’s the freshly bloomed Irises, in bright whites and deep purples, which border the chain-link fence in the front yard. Perhaps it’s simply the knowledge that today marks the one year anniversary of the morning I first met her. The woman of my dreams indeed. No wilting flower could come close to her eternal beauty. Tonight, I would offer her a future by my side.

I move over to the closet, but no outfit seems to satisfy the day’s purpose. I think I’ll pick up a new suit while I’m in town. Only the best for my lovely.

I do adore being poetic. I think she appreciates the softer, more sensitive side of me. She’s never complained about it, at least. I’ll show her that side tonight, with dinner. I pull a sweater over my head and slip into a pair of jeans. Enough to suffice until I’ve found a more classy ensemble. I’ve planned this day for weeks…I hope I don’t screw it up.

 

My coffee and toast are finished quickly, so I brush a few bread crumbs from my chest and head out the door. My little Toyota pickup waits for me in the driveway. It’s an older model, but it’s been mine for over ten years now. The once-bright exterior is riddled with scratches, cutting through the deep red to the metallic gray underneath. But no physical disruptions could ever make me love it less. I wonder if my dream girl thinks that about me. Sure, I have a rugged exterior. But I’m loveable, right?

I climb into the driver’s seat and run my hands along the steering wheel. The leather is fading in places and the seats are worn. The passenger seat sits empty, though I can still recall the day my angel first graced this vehicle with her presence. Her body laid limp against the reclined seat, unconscious and timeless, like a fairytale princess. That was the most beautiful this truck had been since it rolled out of the factory.

A sigh escapes my lips as I turn the key in the ignition. I’m grateful I won’t have to pick up the woman of my dreams in a vehicle that, although well-loved, is entirely less than adequate. Only the best for my lovely. I shift into reverse as my mind shifts into outlining the day’s itinerary, devising the most proficient route.

 

I squeeze into a tight parking spot alongside the brick building of Giovanni’s, just inside the limits of what would be considered ‘downtown’. Gio has known me since I first wandered into his shop all those years ago, and I don’t think anyone knows me quite as well as he does. I open the glass door, and a small string of silver bells jangle to announce my entrance. A rustling and clattering ring out from the back room, and an thin older man scuffles through a doorway into the lobby.

“Ryan,” he announces. “I should have known.” The man’s loud, clear voice contrasts his frail demeanor, and a good-natured grin sweeps across my face.

“Hey, Gio. Got time for me today?”

“Of course! Come in, come in, let me get my glasses.”

“I need a new suit. You still working on that blue one for me?”

“I finished it last week,” Gio said proudly. “Single-breasted, wool, two buttons, peak lapel, and jetted pockets. Just the way you like them. What’s the occasion this time?”

“Dinner plans. Trying to look good for the missus. Thanks, Gio. I really don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Not that you need to try. Handsome as always. You want it on now, or boxed up?”

“I’ll put it on now, if that’s alright.” Gio hobbles into the back room, and there’s a bit more rustling before he finally emerges with a jacket and trousers draped over his arm.

“Shirt’s right here, too, and ties are where they always are. You know where the dressing room is. Knock yourself out.”

“I appreciate it.”

The old man waves me off with a chuckle and a shake of his balding head. I step across the room to the wall of ties, wondering which would please my guest tonight. I reach a hand out to a strip of emerald silk, as deep as the swirling galaxies in her eyes. I pause halfway; her eyes may be green, but her favorite color is purple. I grab the dark green, then pick up a satin mulberry as well. Which would she prefer? I envision each length of fabric wrapped around her own neck, speculating which of the two would best compliment her pale skin. The thought of cold silk beneath my palms, with my fingers against her skin and her pulse quickening, makes me shudder and tighten my grip on the two ties. I muse over this while I get changed, almost certain that she’d love either one. But I want this to be perfect. Staring into the floor mirror, I admire the slimming waistline and lean appearance granted to me by the pinstriped suit. I hold up the two ties to my chest. What would she say?

Oh, Ryan, how sweet! You wore a tie that matches my eyes! I can’t believe you noticed. Hmm. Ryan, you shouldn’t have! My favorite color… I love that you pay attention to my interests. Yes, that one. It has a more personal touch. Only the best for my lovely. I wrap the purple length around my neck and walk out of the dressing room, returning the green to its hook.

“Heading out?” Gio’s voice floats across the threshold from the back room.

“Yeah, I think I’m good. Charge it to the card, will ya?”

“Don’t I always?”

 

Now that I look my best, it’s time to retrieve the focal point of the night. I walk briskly up the steps of my office building, striding into the advertising company’s corporate headquarters with a smile plastered across my face, and a quick wave and a nod to any who glance my way.

“Good morning, Mr. Altress. Anything I can do for you today?” The sultry voice of the receptionist stung my ears with her cloying deference.

“Good morning, Marcy. No thank you, I’m just grabbing something from the office.” I glance her direction, dismissing her low-cut blouse with a curt nod. “Tell the husband I said hello.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure he’ll say the same. Let me know if you need anything.”

I reach the elevator and press the button for the fourteenth floor. The round disc lights up, and the doors slide closed.

I can just imagine bringing my dream girl into this elevator. I can almost perfectly visualize the way she would cast her eyes downward, bite her lip, slowly run her hand down my chest, and slide her finger along my waistband. She would pull herself close, look up into my dark brown eyes with her tantalizing emeralds, and—

The doors open once more, thirteen floors higher than when they had closed. I return the false friendliness to my face in anticipation of my co-workers, who I know are in the boardroom at this time of day.

As I walk past the wide glass windows of the central office, three men, also dressed smartly in suits—though none of them as carefully crafted and custom-fit as my own—exclaim in surprise at seeing me in the building. I keep a steady pace, already prepared for their banter.

“Ryan! Hey man, what are you doing at work?”

“Yeah, I thought ya had the day off, buddy.”

I continue walking, forcing them to keep up if they want responses. “Hey guys. Just grabbing something from the office. How’s Cindy? Getting closer to her due date.” I keep my eyes ahead, focusing on the small gold label on the black door at the end of the hall. I slip my hand in my pocket and pull out a small keyring with various keys dangling from it.

“Sure is man, sure is. One month to go. Hey we’re all meetin’ at Joe’s Friday night, you game? Drinks and a few rounds o’ pool?”

I stop in front of the office door just long enough to unlock it. “I might be busy Friday. But, you know what, I’ll see what I can do.” The three follow me into the room, gathering around my desk as I walk to the other side.

“Sweet. So, hey, you need any help on that sound bar ad? We’re not busy next week, if ya wanted a few more pairs of eyes to look over things.”

“I think I’m good, thanks,” I reply casually. I’m almost finished here, then I can leave these parasitic bootlickers behind. They’re always trying to worm their way into my projects. I use another, smaller, key to unlock the top drawer.

The shortest of the three men picks up a picture frame from the desktop. Though I can’t see it from here, I know exactly what the image is. It’s my beautiful girl, with her long golden hair and striking green eyes. “Man, she is one fine woman.” He exchanges looks with the other two, and I notice their rude gestures and pelvic thrusts as I fish through the drawer.

My prize is tucked away neatly, in the back left corner. I straighten up, pulling out a small blue box. I crack the lid slightly, just enough to let the fluorescent light reflect off the three large diamonds inside, set in fourteen karat white gold. Only the best for my lovely.

“Ohhh!” One man puts a hand in front of his mouth and points at me. “Damn, boy, I didn’t know you had a girl!”

“Ryan, yer makin’ me look bad over here. Cindy’s been waitin’ years fer one o’ those.”

I force a laugh, and surprisingly, it sounds natural.

“Wait a minute,” says the man holding the frame. “Is this…is this an actual picture of your girlfriend?” He looks incredulously from me to the image, obviously awestruck. A thin smile lies on my face, but it doesn’t reach my eyes. The man shifts his weight beneath my gaze. “Dude, I didn’t mean any disrespect. The way she’s looking away from the camera, I mean—I really thought this was the gimmick photo that came with the frame.”

The other men look just as surprised. “Sorry about the innuendo, man. You have to admit, though, she is sexy. But we ain’t gotta tell you that.”

“Picture. Please.” I hold out my hand, aggravated. The man gives it back, and I motion for the three to exit the room. They trudge toward the door, exchanging knowing looks and glancing back at me. Let them think I’m overreacting. I don’t care.

I use the corner of my jacket to wipe the fingerprints off the glass. She’s so beautiful, her exquisite elegance frozen in this moment of time, although no image can do her justice. The camera didn’t capture the joy she had experienced as she ran past the cafe window chasing after her friends, or the way the sun glistened in her hair just so. The ink of the printer dulled the gleam in her eyes, bursting with the pure innocence of her huge heart. I set the frame down gently on the desk, returning it to its former position.

As I walk past the open door of the boardroom, the men walk over and apologize again. They slap me on the back, wishing me luck—in the perverted way they’re best at—and offer their assistance on my project once more. As soon as I’m in the elevator again and the doors are sliding closed, I exhale with relief. Two more stops before I can get home and start preparations. This day is going by so slowly, and all I can think about is getting everything suitable for my golden-haired flower. Only the best for my lovely. I don’t even respond when Marcy calls out to me with her lilting voice, asking if I need anything before I leave.

 

The automatic doors slide open, and a cool breeze floods over me as I walk into the store. The scents of crisp vegetables and freshly-baked breads waft through the air, melding into the familiar, unique smell that only a grocery story has. To make this night truly perfect, I need to cook a homemade meal. Her favorite is a toss-up between lasagna and chinese, which I know will be an odd combination, but I also know she’ll love it. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve watched her walk into Da Roma and Sing Wan Buffet.

She has this one particular smile that she gets whenever she knows something she loves is awkward or strange. Slightly askew on her face, just off to the right…then she tightens her lips as if she’s trying to keep from laughing. I expect to see that smile tonight.

I push my cart up to the dairy aisle. I grab the part-skim ricotta and a pack of one-third reduced-fat cream cheese. She has a sensational figure and doesn’t need to watch her weight, but women appreciate thoughtfulness.

Every item I set in my cart is lovingly chosen for my darling. Each brand is one she would buy, each distinct flavor is one she prefers. I comb the vegetable aisles for the freshest, brightest, most flawless specimens. Carrots, onions, celery, and shallots are all examined carefully before I commit to their purchase. I grab one last item before I head to the other side of the store.

I would be remiss if I thought the night could be complete without her favorite chocolate. An entire aisle is dedicated to the rich sweetness, and I scour the shelves for the exact one she would want. I pass over dark chocolate with raspberry, reminded of the deep red of her lipstick when she dresses up for a formal occasion. I scan past the milk chocolate with almonds, imagining the smoky eyeshadow around her oval eyes.

Finally, my search ends when I find the salted caramel-filled milk chocolate squares, propped up on the shelf beside the dark chocolate with orange and almond slices. Only the best for my lovely. These two are her favorites, and I wouldn’t dare go home without them.

Not that she would be upset if she doesn’t get chocolate. She’s not that kind of girl. I thank every star that I found her, and that she’s mine. This brand isn’t even the most expensive; how lucky I found a girl who doesn’t base her love on price. I take the chocolate and proceed to the checkout counter. Each item is carefully set on the conveyor belt, grouped nicely by size, weight, and temperature. The cashier takes notice of my organization and takes the same care as she packages them into paper bags on the other side of the scanner.

“Hello, how are you today?” She smiles brightly.

“I’m good, thank you.”

The chocolate is placed in its own bag and handed to me. “Wow, fancy. Apologizing for something?”

“Excuse me?”

“Whenever my boyfriend brings home chocolate, it’s usually because he’s apologizing for something.” She shrugs, still smiling.

Did I have something to apologize for? There was the other night…but the argument had ended on peaceful terms. Her teasing eyes had ignited a flame within me that I could no longer ignore. She had laughed, denying me until my grip tightened at her wrist… She had stopped fighting, though. She had lain in my arms. She had come home with me. Surely that meant all was forgiven.

I return her smile and wish her a good afternoon before taking my groceries to the truck. One more stop. One final touch.

 

My last errand is on the way home, just outside the city limits, and I pull off the side of the road beside a wide greenhouse. Potted flowers adorn the entrance, and I can see a middle-aged woman just inside, tending a flower bed.

“Good afternoon, Sarah,” I call to her.

She looks up at me in surprise, then a knowing expression graces her lightly lined face. “Hello, Ryan.” She stands and wipes the dirt off her hands onto her apron. “What can I help you with today?”

“I’d like a cut arrangement. Something fresh. Beautiful. Befitting of an angel.”

She laughs, and I follow her inside the greenhouse.

“The usual?” she asks.

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. With the willow branches, please. They’re her favorite.”

“I know, dear. She’s a lucky lady.”

“So they tell me. I’m the lucky one, though.”

 

I arrive home shortly afterward, and the first thing I carry inside is the oversized floral arrangement. The wide glass vase is frosted with white ivy leaves, and the pristine white petals of a dozen lilies spread out in a thick fan. Purple heather and bluebells accent the piece beautifully, and the final touch rises above the blooms: two green willow branches, gently folded and entwined into the shape of a knotted, curved heart.

I set the vase in the center of the dining room table, turning it until the heart is perpendicular to our seats. I step back and admire the centerpiece. Only the best…damnit. Four o’clock already. Dinner should be ready and on the table by six-thirty. I quickly bring in the groceries and slide an apron over my head. I don’t want to get food on my new suit.

I whisk an egg with water, then fold it into flour. My sweetheart loves wontons. I wrap the dough and refrigerate it for the time being as I retrieve a sharp knife from a drawer. She is as delicate as a wonton wrapper, containing just as much flavor and spice within her as the delicious filled food. I raise the knife and slice through the vegetables, each cut to the drumming of my heart. It beats for her and her alone. My love is swift, and the job is soon done.

The pasta is boiling, the meat is browning, the vegetables are diced, and the sauce is at a simmer. Each enticing scent is a chord of fragrant melody being composed into a symphony of delicious aroma. I blend the array of cheeses: ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, cheddar, and my secret ingredient, mascarpone. I add an egg to hold it together. My angel is the egg of my life. She is what holds together the gooey center and flaccid pasta of my existence. That was entirely less poetic than I was aiming for. I laugh despite myself.

My favorite part of cooking has arrived…assembly. Combining each separate piece to create something perfect. Just as I was doing with the entire day. Bringing it all together.

Each layer of ingredients is one step closer to seeing her face light up with joy. Home-cooked lasagna is such an intricate meal, I hope she sees just how much love I put into it. Once assembled, I top it with a final layer of grated parmesan and set it in the oven. I check my clock. Five. Good; this should bake for an hour. That gives me plenty of time.

I remove the dough from the fridge and begin kneading it. Like my relationship, it takes time, patience, and work to cultivate. I roll it out on the lightly floured table, remembering the first day I met the girl who would steal my heart.

It had been unseasonably cold that day, and it had been snowing, as pure white as the flour on my table. I slice the flattened dough into squares, the smooth sound of the knife reminding me of how I had slipped on a patch of ice. An unexpected hand had extended down to help me. My eyes had traced the delicate fingers and smooth, creamy skin, and as I reached up to take hold, I looked at her face. My attention turns back to the wontons, and I spoon cream cheese onto each square. I fold the filled squares intricately, forming triangular pockets. Six at a time, I lower them into hot oil, watching tiny bubbles erupt around them as they puff up and turn a golden brown, the same shade as the caramel hair that had peaked out from beneath a knitted wool cap. The girl had smiled at me, and offered her name, and by the time I managed to stammer out my own, she had my heart grasped firmly in the palm of her hand, sweating nervously and completely smitten.

The pasta continues to cook for another half an hour. I use this time to wash my face and apply a dab of cologne. I grab a lighter from the bedroom nightstand and move methodically throughout the house, lighting candles to set the proper mood. The living room shelves are arranged with various sizes and shapes; all white, all unscented. The six tall, thick columns that burn on the coffee table give off the sweet fragrance of brown sugar and vanilla. I move to the bar between the kitchen and living room, watching the wicks ignite as I lower the flame to their tips.

My anxiety swells steadily as the night expands beyond my window. I withdraw the ring from my pocket, opening the small blue box and watching the flickering lights of the candles reflect against the precise cuts of the diamonds. How would I begin this conversation?

“Dearest angel, I haven’t known you long, but I’ve loved you my entire life.” My voice waivers, and the words sound awkward and cliche. I return the jewelry to its safe haven in my pocket. “Darling, this past year has been…” Has been what? I finish lighting the candles throughout my bedroom, content with the soft glow, just bright enough to see by. “All my life, I’ve searched for my soulmate, but the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew my searching had ended.” That was much better, but still too cliche.

The oven dings its completion, and I remove the perfectly browned lasagna. I inhale deeply, taking in the scents of the meal with the pride of my efforts. The clock reads six, and my timing is impeccable. I remove my apron, hanging back on a hook inside the pantry. I delicately lift two neatly cut segments and lower them onto plates, arranging wontons beside them. I set the table, and stand back to admire my handiwork.

My formal suit matches the occasion, with a tie to match her favorite color. The ring resides in my pocket, awaiting the ideal moment. The meal is prepared exactly by my grandmother’s recipe—the secret ingredient being my own personal touch. The chocolates are displayed beside the vase, which adorns the table as the elaborate centerpiece. The candles are lit throughout the kitchen, living room, and bedroom. Only one thing remains.

I walk throughout the house once more, this time scattering white flower petals across the comforter on the bed, trailing around the bedposts, down the hallway, through the living room, and around the base of the dining room table. A handful are placed on the table itself, for added effect. Now everything is perfect. Only the best for my lovely.

I check the clock again. Six-twenty-four. Only a few minutes early.

I walk to the hallway and open the door to the basement. I flip the switch just inside the threshold and make my way to the bottom of the stairs. I stride across the room, where a chair sits against a barren wall. I kneel down before the chair, lightly caressing the bare thighs of the woman bound to the seat.

“Honey,” I murmur tenderly. “It’s time to wake up, sweetheart.”

She moans incoherently, and her thick mass of golden hair shifts slightly as she stirs. Her head lifts up, and her makeup is in disarray, mascara running down her cheeks and lipstick smeared at the corner of her mouth. No, not lipstick…a trickle of blood.

I raise a hand, lovingly, to her face, gently stroking a bruised cheek. Her green eyes flash with hatred and fear, though I see past her ephemeral emotions to the deep love beneath. She jerks her head to the side, but I delicately guide her chin back to face me.

“I have a wonderful surprise for you. Everything is perfect tonight. Only the best for my lovely.”

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