"Hi, honey," Terra bounced into the room, reading the scowl on her cousin's face. "What are you thinking?"
"Oh, I don't know," Nichole sighed. "I'm just in a funk."
"It's about him, isn't it," Terra said softly. "You can't stop thinking about him, can you?"
"I try, but I don't think I'm ready to let go," Nichole said. She pointed towards the big bay window, its light streaming into the kitchen. "It's beautiful out and all I can do is be depressed."
Terra put her arms around her cousin, her friend. "I miss him, too, but Michael died over a year ago. It's okay to move on."
Tears formed in Nichole's eyes. "I know that. I really do. Everything but my heart says the same thing. Today would have been three years since the day."
Nichole buried her face in her hands. Sobs wracked her body. Terra pulled Nichole close and held her for a long time.
"I'm sorry," Nichole said after her tears subsided. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. "I didn't mean to ruin your day."
"Oh, it's not ruined," Terra replied tenderly. "No day with you is ruined."
"Thanks," her cousin managed a smile.
Terra absently ran her fingers through Nichole's hair. The two sat in silence for a while longer. Finally, Nichole sat up and brushed the last of her tears away. "I think I'd rather be alone today."
"Are you sure?" Terra looked worried.
"Yes, I'm sure."
Terra paused for a moment, not sure if she should leave her cousin alone when she was so distraught, so vulnerable. "Okay, but you call me if you need anything."
Nichole walked her cousin to the apartment door. Terra began to chatter incoherently. "—going to the movies later with Gabe and maybe Laurie. We might go out for sushi later. I've got my cell, so call if you feel like going out."
"I will." Nichole wasn't really listening.
Terra stopped just over the threshold and looked deep into her cousin's eyes. "You know Michael would have hated you being like this over him."
"I know. But I can't help it."
"Okay. Call me. Love you."
"Love you, too." Nichole closed the door and heard Terra get in the elevator.
She walked back through her apartment, their apartment, the home she and Michael were making for themselves before fate intervened. She poured herself a glass of wine and settled back into the couch. The afternoon sun warmed her, just as it had on their first "date".
Michael and Nichole grew up together. Their fathers were partners in a local shipping company that supplied fresh produce and groceries to local markets and restaurants throughout Manhattan. They were three years apart in age, but no one could tell by looking at them which one was older. Michael was the first child of three, Nichole was smack-dab in the middle of five.
They all grew up in the same neighbourhood on the lower west side. Their families did business together, they played together, they stuck through hard times together, and they prospered together. For all intents and purposes, the eight kids were brothers and sisters. So having grown up so close none of them ever hooked up; it just seemed incestuous. Which is why everyone was surprised at the company picnic three years ago.
Michael had moved into their parents's shoes. The old men wanted to retire while they were still young enough to enjoy life, and they saw to it that their children were ready to take over the family business, surrounded by faithful subordinates and smart advisors. Michael was not the oldest of the eight, but he had the most business sense. All of the kids worked in either the company offices or the company warehouses when they weren't in school and six of them spent their entire lives employed in the family company, but none of them devoted more time and energy to learning the business like Michael.
Nichole's two older siblings, a brother and a sister, were either too dumb or too smart to take over the company. Nathan was the oldest, and while his heart was as big as some of the skyscrapers in New York, he didn't have the chops for running a company, but he also was humble enough to know where he excelled, which was driving trucks. Emily was a month older than Michael, but instead turned her attention to mechanical engineering and the Air Force; she was literally the family rocket scientist. The other kids fell in after them, and all four held some position within the company, from distribution managers to HR to marketing to IT staff.
That left Michael who, after graduating first from Columbia and then getting his MBA from NYU, was 25 going on 40, poised and groomed to take over the day-to-day operations of the company. Growing up, Michael was a stick in the mud. He preferred the company of adults, didn't have any hobbies, nor any vices. Michael also never noticed girls. He just didn't have the time.
The entire company was closed for only four days every year: Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving and the last Saturday in April for the company picnic. Nichole's father Ernie liked to throw big parties, and that year was no exception. In addition to their families, every retiree and employee of the company and their families were invited. After almost 40 years in business, that added up to a lot of people.
Some beancounters say that company picnics are bad for business. They cost money and for a seven-day a week business, cost productivity. Ernie had other ideas. He believed that anything that brought family together was worthwhile. They had the best insurance a small business could afford. They had more family sick time than any other shipping company in New York. He personally sent birthday cards to all of his employee's spouses and children. As a result, company absenteeism was near zero and each of the employees would have taken a bullet for their boss.
Each year, the picnic got bigger and bigger. That year the picnic took over a huge chunk of Central Park's Sheep Meadow. There was the finest food, a band and fun and games for everyone. Ernie had only one rule at the company picnic, which stood for 40 years, and still stands today: no talking about business. He and Michael's father John wanted the picnic to be about family and fun, not about money or shop talk.
So everyone had fun except Michael, who was bored out of his skull. That is, until Nichole showed up. They hadn't seen each other for two years. While Michael had been studying economics, Nichole was busy working and going to school herself, only instead of concentrating just on business, she dual-majored in business and Chinese. She did her senior year at Wellesley from China, teaching English part time and helping local missionaries build churches and schools.
She was tanned from working outside and her face radiated warmth and friendliness. Everyone liked her. Nichole had always been tomboyish; she played nearly every sport imaginable in high school and her mission work in China kept her fit. She was also a late-bloomer, which was the first thing Michael noticed when she arrived that the picnic; the small bumps on her chest had become larger bumps, and her muscular soccer legs had become long, slim and shapely.
Michael couldn't take his eyes off her. Maybe it was because she had been gone for two years. Maybe it was because she had become a woman without him even noticing. Maybe it was because on the one day a year he couldn't talk or think about the company, she walked back into his life.
"Hi, stranger," she said, giving him a big hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. He put his arms around her and found that he didn't want to let go.
"Hi, yourself," Michael replied. "What have you been up to?"
"I just got back—," she started and the two picked up right where they left off, as old friends.
For her part, Nichole noticed Michael immediately. He had always been tall, but lanky. Aging had filled him out nicely, and despite the long hours he put in at work, he still managed to find the time to work out and stay in shape. The two really were like brother and sister, but now that they were all grown up, their touches lasted a little longer and were a little more intimate than they had been the last time they met.
Of course, neither Nichole nor Michael noticed how close they were, but everyone else did.
The two unconsciously spent almost all of the afternoon together. It was a warm April day in New York. Between the softball game and the food and the other company contests, there was a lot to do, but Michael and Nichole spent most of their time talking and catching up. Their brothers and sisters watched in mute disbelief. No one said a word to either and left them in their oblivious world of bliss.
By late afternoon, the picnic was winding down. Most folks had left and the clean up crew was taking care of the last little messes. The family patriarchs, John and Ernie sat together with their wives and some of the stragglers. They watched as Nichole and Michael left arm in arm.
"How long?" Ernie asked aloud.
"How long what?" his wife asked.
"Eh? Eight months," John said.
His partner snorted softly. "Six."
" 'Til they're married or engaged?" John's wife asked.
"Married," the two men said simultaneously.
"Loser pays for the reception," Ernie extended his hand.
Not quite six months later, on a cool Autumn day in October, John wrote the check, and the company closed down for five days that year.
Nichole basked in the memories of that afternoon.
.... There is more of this story ...