tagRomanceA Just-Friends Holiday

A Just-Friends Holiday


All the girls had warned Allison about Todd. Mark, in his gentle and diplomatic way, had done so too.

And they'd been right.

As Allison sat half-numbly in her favorite seat at the coffee shop, Todd was still talking. But Allison wasn't listening. She was remembering her friends' every word that she had so blithely ignored. You're in love with him for all the reasons why you ought to stay the heck away from him! He makes you feel young because he is young! He's twenty-four going on thirteen, Allison! The second he gets bored or some other woman wears the right dress to work, you'll never see him again.

Worst of all, Sandra had been right about how Todd would do it. "He'll make it out to be like you both thought it was just fun all along," Allison's college friend had warned her on New Year's Eve, which she had spent with Sandra and Tricia because Todd had a private party to deejay. "Because for him, it is."

Scarcely a month later, here he was doing just that. "Come on, Allison, it's not like we were engaged or anything!" he said with that same goofy smile that had always let him get his way with her before. "We had a great run, but you didn't really think it was anything that serious, did you?"

"You asshole," Allison mumbled, gripping her coffee mug so hard she thought it just might shatter. Swallowing her heart, she looked out at the Sunday pedestrian traffic rushing by in the snowy February chill, not a single one of the people seeming to notice that the world had just come to a crashing halt. No wonder he'd insisted on meeting her here instead of at either of their homes. He would go and choose a place that had red hearts strewn all over the place for Valentine's Day, and buy-one-get-one-free specials for couples on dates. "You know I did think it was serious, Todd. And you know I thought you did too. You know it!"

"Well, I did, for a while," Todd said.

"For a while?! For how long, Todd?! Obviously not last night! You know I was up until three o'clock cleaning my place to keep from going crazy and telling myself you'd knock on the door any second? I had my whole room immaculate and where were you? You said back at your place you'd be right over, once you said good night to Joseph!"

"I planned to be, Allison. But that thing you said about Joseph right before you left..."

"That I felt sorry for him being on his own in your place? I did, I do, but so what?!"

"Just rubbed me the wrong way, is all. Joseph never asked for your pity. And you certainly don't treat him like you care about him."

"How can you say that?" Allison was in tears. "I've always treated him like a beloved kid brother!"

"Exactly," Todd said. "He's a grown man, and my best friend, and you treat him like a little kid. Look, I've got a party to deejay later today..." He stood up.

"Get lost." Allison grabbed up three napkins from the table dispenser and held them to her face. To her disgust, they were printed with 'Happy Valentine's Day!' in big red letters -- this was going to be hard to escape for the next two weeks. "Go!"

Allison called in sick to work on Monday and Tuesday, and spent them trying to do anything except think of Todd, and for the most part she failed. On Wednesday morning, despite having barely slept, she decided enough was enough. If the others were right and she'd been a fool, at least she could stop being one now.

Besides, going back to work meant spending time with the one and only friend she could trust not to shower her with I-told-you-sos.

Mark, her deskmate and dearest friend at the office, had told her so, just as much as any of the girls had. But he wouldn't remind her of that. Though he teased her aplenty about her boring wardrobe choices and her lousy taste in music, he never, ever hit where it hurt. Years ago back in high school, when Allison hadn't met any gay guys (or at least they weren't out to her), her older sister had come home from college with tales of how gay men were a girl's best friend. A year and a half of working next to Mark in their testosterone-soaked office had proven her right.

In an attempt to put her best foot forward, Allison put on her brightest red blouse in defiance of the gray February chill. If it happened to be the color of the detested holiday that was around the corner, then the coincidence be damned. With a stern reminder to herself to smile and get on with her life, she strode as confidently as ever into the office.

But as her rotten luck would have it, the first one to take notice of her return was Steve, the king bee of the office lotharios. "Allison, welcome back!" exclaimed Steve in his usual salesman's pitch that the other women in the office liked so much and always giggled over. "How're you doing?"

"Okay," Allison said with a forced smile as she set down her purse on her desk and took her coat off.

"Just okay?! Not terrific, fantastic, stupendous?!" Steve never could take a hint.

"No, Steve, I'm not." Allison didn't look at him again as she sat down.

"Whoa, there, I'm only asking! Relax!" Taking note of her red top, he added, "Celebrating Valentine's Day two weeks early, are we?"

Mark, already settled at his desk, saw the tears coming just before Allison lost control and buried her face in her hands. "Steve, would you shut it?!" he demanded. "Get lost already!"

Steve shook his head and sighed as he watched Mark jump up and come around to Allison's side of the desk and put a comforting arm around her. He did leave, but not before adding, "Your kind always do bond better with the ladies, don't you?"

"Your kind?!" Allison looked up at his receding figure in disgust.

"Never mind him, Allison," Mark said. "I've been ignoring them all my life. Just like you probably have." He offered Allison his box of tissues from his side of the desk, and she took a few gratefully. "Now. If you don't want to talk about it I'll understand, but if this means you're rid of Todd..."

"He's rid of me, is more like it. Just like they said. Just like you said."

"It might feel like that now, dear, but soon enough you'll see it's the other way around. He's an obnoxious little boy, and you're definitely better off without him. Now, can I help?"

Allison forced a smile. "Yes. You can talk to me about anything but this. What's the musical of the week?" Mark had every Broadway soundtrack known to humankind on his iPod, and played them on his computer speakers whenever the work conditions allowed it. "Just don't tell me if it's Les Misérables. I'm already miserable enough."

"That was last week, wasn't it?" Mark asked. "No, for today I'm thinking South Pacific. A good antidote to the weather out there, don't you think?"

"Oh, Christ!" Allison slapped her forehead -- the trip! In the fog of despair and anger, since Sunday, she'd forgotten all about that.

"Gee, I'm not helping at all here, am I?" Mark said. "Would you rather just be alone for a while, dear?"

"No!" Allison said. "No, I'm sorry, Mark, it's not your fault. It's just I'd forgotten and you just reminded me. I got tickets to Hawaii for Valentine's Day, for Todd and me. Now, well, he won't be joining me. Good riddance, as you say, but it does mean I paid for two when now it'll just be me on the trip."

"Hawaii in February, Allison? I do not think you'll have any trouble selling one of your girlfriends on that little jaunt, do you? And you're right, good riddance." He stood up and smoothed out his tailored pants, which looked meticulously ironed as always even when he'd been sitting in them -- one of these days Allison would have to talk him into telling her how he did that. "Now, before I can do any more damage here, it's time for my latte. What's your pleasure, Allison? It's my treat today, and I won't take no for an answer!"

After a moment's hesitation, Allison agreed to a mocha with whipped cream -- no more worrying about her weight, thank you very much! -- and watched her friend's trim figure from behind as he was off to the coffee shop. A deep breath as she turned to her e-mail, and her bitterness turned to wry laughter as she thought of Mark and what he had said. Good old Mark, always saving the day one way or another, and he'd done it again. Then again, he'd known Allison for over a year now and many was the time she'd commiserated with him about men in general. He got it, always.

He never did talk about his own boyfriend. Allison had no doubt there was one -- with his polish and his personality, he was just way too lovely a catch to be single. Probably a spectacularly classy one, too, a ballet dancer or some such, and she longed to meet the guy one of these days. But Mark had never commented on the matter, and so she had never asked.

Whoever the guy was, Allison mused now, perhaps he and Mark would like to buy her tickets to Hawaii? She could certainly use the break more than ever, she knew, and Mark was right that she'd have no problem finding a friend who'd join her for it -- but who? Sandra and Tricia were out of the question; they'd spend the whole trip saying "I told you so". Her mother crossed her mind, but the talk would be all about the divorce from Dad and how they must have brought her up to follow their dumb example. Allison wasn't crazy about the thought of Mom seeing her in a swimsuit, either; she could hear the unsolicited dieting advice already. Cheryl or Suzanne from the gym? Both happily attached, and they'd want to be with their guys for the occasion. Anyone from the office? They had all long since turned her off with their silly fawning over Steve and his buddies. Besides, choosing any one of them would lead to hard feelings from the others.

And after all, if she were going to choose one office mate...well, that could never work, and Allison put it from her mind, or tried to. No doubt he had big plans with his mystery boyfriend. No, it just made more sense to sell him both tickets.

When Mark got back with the coffee (and a conciliatory remark about how well her top went with her otherwise-black ensemble - "Thank heavens I don't need to lecture you again about wearing white before spring!"), she made the offer.

"No, thanks," he said. "I'd have the same problem you do, finding someone to go with."

"You mean you don't have a..." Allison paused there, reflecting that maybe Mark wasn't out to the whole office. He'd never even officially come out to her, she remembered now. His comment about Steve's jab just now was the closest he'd come to date.

Mark shook his head with a wry grin. "Married to my career, is the excuse I use. Truth is I'm just unlucky in love."

"Join the club," Allison sighed.

"I wouldn't say that, dear. You're a lot better off without that little brat, really!"

"Thanks, but it still makes me want to disappear somewhere for Valentine's Day."

"Then you should keep your tickets and go. Maybe you can get a refund on the other one, but I can't imagine there's literally no one you know who'd go with you, Allison."

Allison gave her friend a probing look, and bit the bullet. She had always wanted to try her hand at being a full-blown fag-hag anyway. "Why don't you join me, Mark?"

Two weeks later -- two weeks of both of them keeping their mouths shut at the office, trying not to worry about what others would say when they both came back tanned -- Allison stood by the ticket counter at the airport waiting for her friend. She'd thrown a winter coat over her breeziest short-sleeve blouse and capri pants, an outfit she'd spent quite some time deciding on. She'd have been happy in a t-shirt and jeans for the trip, but there was no doubt Mark would be dressed with his usual panache and she didn't want to feel raggedy beside him. A colorful sundress would be perfect for their arrival and a perfect complement to Mark's loud style, but she didn't want to freeze to death before takeoff. So she had compromised, and was only feeling mildly frigid in the drafty ticketing area.

Mark was right on time, with every hair in place and a chaste good-morning kiss on the cheek. "I can't thank you enough for giving me an excuse to get out of this slop!" he declared as they made their way to the ticketing line. "I just hope the plane can take off." There had been freezing rain off and on all morning.

"God, don't jinx it!" Allison warned. As he unzipped his coat, she saw he was wearing a bright green shirt she'd never seen before along with linen pants, pressed as always; his sopping galoshes and heavy coat were the only sign he even knew it was winter. For two weeks she'd been looking forward to seeing that toned body of his in nothing but bikini briefs, and the fact that any attraction could never be reciprocated only made her lusty thoughts feel all the safer. Now those bright colors were a welcome reminder of just how close that reward was, and she forgot all about her damp feet and the hoops left to jump through before they got to the plane.

For all that, his outfit was exactly the sort of thing he so loved to call Allison out on when she took a wrong turn with her clothes. She kept her mouth shut on the matter while they were checking in and going through security, and then there was the rush to the gate. But once they were in the air and he was a captive audience, she couldn't resist any longer. "Okay, now who's dressing for the wrong time of the year?"

"No one expects men to have any fashion sense anyway, dear, do they?" Mark grinned. "Besides, it'll be totally appropriate when we get there."

"I guess," Allison conceded. "I saved my loud clothes for once we're there, but I'm used to feeling drab next to you."

"Drab?" Mark was laughing now. "God, Allison, if I ever made you feel that way, I'm sorry! No! I do love critiquing your clothes, but I do it because I admire you so much. You women are so lucky, so many more options!"

"Thank you!" Allison felt like a shy teenage girl all of a sudden. "No, you don't make me feel drab. I just feel that way because I'm not as daring as you about colors. It's one of the first things I noticed about you." And one reason why you never had to officially come out to me, Allison added privately.

"It goes back to when I was a little kid," Mark said. "I always loved bright, flashy colors, and the other boys used to give me a really hard time about it. I didn't know why back then, not until about the fourth grade."

"Did you know by then?" Allison asked.

"Did I know? Oh, did I know why they teased me about it? Yeah, of course. But by then I'd figured out that the girls loved it, and I preferred playing with them anyway."

Well, Allison concluded, if he wanted to be coy even now, so be it.

"Thank heavens I had it figured out by then, too!" Mark continued. "From then on it was, if I didn't like football and I did like Disney movies, hey, it's who I was. I figured who cared what the boys thought?"

Allison laughed. "Yeah, I didn't care what boys thought at that age either."

"And you shouldn't worry about little boys like Todd now either," Mark said. "Speaking of which, we haven't been talking about him lately...is your heart on the mend?"

"As much as could be expected," Allison said. "I'm deep in the 'my head knows it's for the best but my heart doesn't' stage. But the trip is to forget about that, so..."

"So let's forget about him," Mark said with a knowing nod.

"Yes, please!"

The flight was a long one, or actually two long ones with a boring layover, but they filled it with talking about everything and nothing. As they finally approached the islands and a beautiful sunset put on a show outside the window, Allison was enjoying a long-lost sense of incomparable companionship that she hadn't felt in ages. Emboldened by a couple of rounds of fruity drinks suggested by the flight attendants, she took Mark's hand in hers. "Thank you for doing this with me, Mark, it's just what I needed."

"Well, you're very welcome, but you do realize the trip hasn't even really started yet!"

"No, but it's already...I don't know, I just really needed to get away from everyone else just as much as I needed to get away from the lousy weather! You were the only one who didn't say 'I told you so' about Todd, but you weren't the only one who warned me. All my friends did, and they told me why I couldn't see it, too. Nothing like having your friends tell you you're an immature little brat and then discovering they were right."

"You're not immature, Allison!" Mark said. "You just made a mistake in love. Everybody does that. Heaven knows I have."

"No kidding?" Allison asked. "Yeah, and just why is it that a great guy like you is on his own anyway? You never talk about that, and I can see why not in the office, with Steve and those guys, but -"

"Steve and his gang have nothing to do with it," Mark said. "There's a bunch of immature brats for you, and I've never let guys like that affect my life - not since I was a kid, anyway, like I said before. No, the reason why you never hear about my sordid romantic past is that I try not to go on about stuff that makes me sound bitter, and, well, my romantic past does make me sound bitter."

"I find that hard to believe," Allison said. "A classy guy like you?"

"Like I said, you made mistakes in love?" Mark reminded her. "So have I. I'm cursed with this thing about being friends first, then falling madly in love with someone who was perfectly happy with being just friends and wants nothing more than that. It's gotten me in trouble a couple of times and cost me a couple of good friends - and also some bad ones. Those are the ones I'm bitter about!"

"What's wrong with losing a bad friend?" Allison asked.

"It makes you realize you cared about and trusted someone who really didn't deserve it, and that makes you question your own judgment. At least it did for me. The last time was just a few months before you and I met, I guess that's why you never heard me mention anyone, because after that last time I didn't want there to be anyone for a good, long time!"

Allison nodded. "I'd say that's really sad, Mark, but then I know just how you feel. My friends - including you - all told me Todd was no good, and that only made me like him more."

"No offense, but I saw that."

"Takes one to know one, huh?" Allison said.

"I guess so," Mark said. "My ex - we were never really a couple, actually, just friends, but I still call her that - the thing about her was that she was really - "

In the shock of the moment, Allison felt the words coming. But she couldn't stop them. "Wait a minute - she?!"

Mark closed his eyes and shook his head, and let out a half-laugh, half-groan. "Don't even tell me after all this time, Allison, you thought..."

"You're not gay." It was more a question than a statement.

"I never said I was, did I?"

"Mark...you love Broadway, you hate football, you know more about women's clothing than I do, you're the only man in the office who doesn't look at us like pieces of meat..."

"Stereotype much? Besides, I never said I was gay! Don't you think I'd be out to you if I were?"

"I just figured you didn't feel the need to tell me," Allison mumbled.

"I didn't feel the need to tell you I wasn't. I mean, it doesn't matter, does it?"

"It wouldn't, if we weren't just about to spend a week together in a hotel."

"Oh, come on, Allison!" Now Mark almost sounded angry at her, something she'd never experienced before. "You weren't planning on us taking bubble baths together, were you? And surely you got a room with two beds?"

"Oh, shit!" Allison shut her eyes tightly in frustration.

"You didn't change the reservation?"

"I kept meaning to," Allison said. "But...well, hey, surely they'll give us another room. But Mark, honestly, I feel a little...misled. I mean, how could you not be aware that you give off that vibe?"

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