by Tom W. Miller
Even as she held the phone and listened to Danielle, her best friend, offer words of comfort, Tara could not avert her longing gaze from the photograph of her beautiful ex-boyfriend. Charles’s golden brown hair was the color of ripe wheat yet as soft as goose down. His eyes were the color of a crisp, cloudless sky, their depths seemingly as endless. Ancient Greek masters had sculpted similar facial features as they crafted likenesses of their gods.
Sitting on the table beside her bed, Charles’s picture not only radiated physical perfection, but also charisma and strength. Tara had no doubt that Charles could have gone to Hollywood and had his pick of starlets, yet he had stayed here and chosen her. When she was with him, she felt enveloped in a bubble of protection, whether wrapped in his toned biceps or submitting to his confident, self-assured decisions.
“It may not feel like it right now,” said Danielle, “but you’re better off without him.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Tara without the least bit of conviction in her voice.
“Trust me,” said Danielle. “I’ve known you since kindergarten. Even that early, you were this sassy, smart girl who did everything exactly as you wanted to, even if everybody else was doing it some other way. Two years ago, when you met Charles, things changed. You became meek and submissive. If Charles said something, it was gospel. You couldn’t even go grab a cup of coffee with me unless you checked with Charles first. He was controlling you.”
Tara again looked into those twin azure pools and saw only caring and concern. “I did what I did because we loved each other and he only wanted what was best for me.”
“I know you loved him, and I’m sorry that you’re hurting right now, but I can’t help but be glad that he decided the chemistry was gone. The real Tara is coming back.”
Tara looked at the photo of Charles again and still could not believe that those hurtful words had emerged from those flawless lips and teeth.
“I’m ordering something for you right now,” said Danielle, who could read Tara’s thoughts through the silence. I’m getting you a Bestie Box subscription.”
Tara heard the clicking of computer keys over the phone. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Just a box of stuff that will come to your apartment once a month for a year,” said Danielle.
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard about those,” said Tara. “What’s in it—candy, makeup?”
“You never really know what’s going to come in your Bestie Box,” said Danielle. “I’ve had my own subscription for three months now. It’s about the size of a shoebox and it always has three things in it. When you first get it, you might think the items are a bit random, but whatever you get, just put it in your purse and keep it with you. Sooner or later, you’ll find out that it’s exactly what you need.”
Tara heard the cry of a baby in the background. “Sounds like Ollie’s awake,” said Danielle. “Are you going to get out of the house on this gorgeous Saturday?”
“Not much,” said Tara, “but I promise that it’s not because I’m depressed about Charles. I’m giving my first big ad campaign presentation next week, and I want it to be awesome. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
“It will be awesome, because you are awesome,” said Danielle. “But still, you need to get out and get some vitamin D, girl.”
After Ollie cranked up the volume a notch, Tara let her friend go. She adjusted the framed photograph of Charles so that she could look over and see his chiseled face before she went to sleep.
She thought about Danielle and her ridiculous statement that the things she needed could arrive in a box via the mail. Charles’s body would not fit in a shoebox, and the force of his personality could never be contained by mere cardboard. As she pushed herself up from the bed and walked toward her desk where lay the chaotic elements of her advertising campaign for the new Precision Razor, she could think of only one thing she needed: a note from Charles saying that he loved her and wanted her back.
On Wednesday morning, the day of the big presentation, Tara left the apartment slightly ahead of schedule. As her car rolled through the parking lot, she saw the mailboxes and realized that she had not checked her mail the previous evening. With a little time to spare, Tara stopped the car, got out, and opened her small metal cubicle. She found a bill, a credit card offer, and a key to one of the parcel lockers. She retrieved a neon orange box addressed to “The Confident and Successful Tara Hildebrand.” Above the address, in bold, black lettering, were the words “Bestie Box—we have what you need.”
Tara remembered Danielle’s description of the Bestie Box and noted how it echoed the product’s own slogan. This was the mark of a successful advertising campaign. Expecting a small bag of honey-roasted cashews in addition to two other extraneous items, Tara opened the almost weightless box after returning to her car. What she found generated far less enthusiasm than even a bag of sweetened nuts: a pair of nude pantyhose, a fountain pen, and a thin plastic vial containing a mini-screwdriver and tiny screws.
Tara shook her head and smiled. While the packing looked professionally done and the return address was Omaha, Nebraska, Danielle would be just the person to resort to extreme measures in order brighten a friend’s day. Tara decided to play along and she stuffed the three items into her purse. Maybe the joke was not yet over.
Tara drove the fifteen minutes to her downtown office and found a space on the street around the corner from her building. With her briefcase in one hand, her purse over her shoulder, and the note cards for her presentation in her other hand, she began the short walk to her agency’s front door.
As she was reviewing the many wonders of what she had termed “Pentablade Technology,” Tara turned the corner. No sooner did she spot the swatch of charcoal gray suit than her shoulder collided with a solid surface. After a momentary loss of balance and a slight brush against the brick of a building, Tara regained her equilibrium.
Her new companion was not as lucky. The dwarf had taken a solid shot to the face; his glasses had flown off the bridge of his nose and landed on the hard asphalt. He was wincing and trying to shake the cobwebs from his head.
“I am so sorry,” said Tara. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“And I was texting and walking,” said the man, rubbing his right cheek bone. “I’ve never been a good multitasker.”
Tara picked up the glasses off the asphalt and noticed the gaping hole where one of the lenses had once been. She handed the remnant to the man. “Be careful where you walk. You lost one of your lenses.”
Tara started scouring the area and soon found the missing oval of glass. “Here it is,” she said, handing it to her co-collider.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I lost a screw too. That’s going to be hard to find without a microscope.”
“Not a problem,” said Tara. From her purse, she removed the glasses repair kit that Bestie Box had just provided her. “I come prepared.”
“Wow, that’s awesome. I keep telling myself to buy one and put it on my keychain, but I still haven’t done it. Do you wear glasses?”
Tara handed over the plastic vial and her shorter acquaintance began his work. “Actually no,” she said, “but I seem to have one anyway.” She looked around, wondering when the hidden camera would reveal itself and Danielle would emerge to have a good laugh. The lengths Danielle had traveled to make her friend feel better—sending the professional-looking box and hiring a glasses-wearing dwarf—touched the deepest depths of Tara’s heart.
The man finished tightening the screw in the metal frame and slipped the glasses back over his face. “Thank you very much,” he said to Tara. “I really admire a person who’s always prepared. You have a great day.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and began checking it as he walked away.
Tara continued to scan her surroundings, but she found no sign of her faithful friend. She did notice, however, that she had a massive run in the stocking on her right leg. The rough surface of the brick must have created the fissure when her collision with the dwarf sent her in that direction.
Tara remembered the pair of pantyhose—the same color as the pair of stockings she currently wore—tucked in her purse. How could Danielle have known that she was going to wear hose today, what color they would be, and then have a paid actor send her into a brick wall just hard enough to damage her stockings without hurting her? Either Danielle was extremely lucky in her planning, or something very weird was happening.
Nonetheless, Tara was grateful that she had a new pair of pantyhose in her purse. When she entered the building where her advertising firm occupied the third floor, she walked into the lobby bathroom, locked herself in a stall, and began to change. A mirror hung on the inside of the stall door and Tara could not help glancing at her reflection as she shimmied out of her old stockings. Several people had told her that she resembled the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones with her silky black hair and curvaceous figure, yet Tara focused on the deficiencies in her appearance—the way the end of her nose turned up a bit too much, the slight gap between her two front teeth, and legs that could have been longer and more slender. Had Tara started her presentation with an obvious run in her pantyhose, the additional flaw would have distracted her from the exciting plan she had devised to sell millions of Precision Razors.
With the new pantyhose supporting and enhancing her legs, Tara left the stall and checked her face one last time in the mirror over the vanity. She was ready to show these executives what hard work and creativity could accomplish.
Tara was the first person to enter the room where the future of Pentablade Technology would be decided, but her audience soon began to arrive. She was expecting Leonard Brumbaugh, the firm’s senior partner, but she was surprised when the texting, bespectacled dwarf walked in beside him. Everybody quieted down when Mr. Brumbaugh and his guest entered the room. “I would like everyone to meet Lance McTanley, vice-president at Precision in charge of their razor division. Lance, I’d like you to meet Tara Hildebrand, one of our brightest associates who will present our campaign for the Precision Razor today.”
As Lance shook Tara’s right hand, he touched his glasses with his left. “We’ve already met,” he said. “I’d be blind right now if it wasn’t for her. She helped me fix my glasses.”
As the listeners began to murmur with appreciation and curiosity, Tara held up her hands and explained, “It was nothing, really. I just happened to have a glasses repair kit in my purse.”
When the audience finally settled down and Tara embarked on her presentation, she felt all of her self-doubts begin to fade. She looked great, she had done her homework, and the Precision VP already had a good impression of her. While she reeled off her well-rehearsed presentation, another part of her brain recalled the address on the Bestie Box: “The Confident and Successful Tara Hildebrand.” The first of the two adjectives had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
About two-thirds of the way through her speech, Tara saw Mr. Brumbaugh, who always took notes during a meeting, shake his pen and scratch it against his notebook without result. Tara was beginning to believe that the Bestie Box was endowed with supernatural powers. She stopped talking, and with every eye in the room on her, she picked up her purse, removed the fountain pen, and walked around the table to where Mr. Brumbaugh sat.
“Here’s another pen for you, Mr. Brumbaugh,” she said, handing him the sleek writing instrument.
“Thank you very much, Tara,” said Mr. Brumbaugh. “And a fountain pen—my favorite.” Her boss exchanged a look and a nod with Lance McTanley.
As Tara finished her presentation, she knew that she had aced it and convinced her audience. Lance was the first person to applaud. “Thank you, Tara,” he said. “That was excellent. I think we’re going to sell a lot of razors.” As other firm employees introduced themselves to Lance, Mr. Brumbaugh walked over to Tara and put his mouth close to her ear. “Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve earned yourself a fifteen percent raise.”
“Thank you very much,” said a stunned Tara. The image of the Bestie Box address again popped into Tara’s head. It appeared that the label’s second adjective had just come true.
Later that night, Tara waited until nine o’clock to call Danielle. By that time, Ollie would be asleep and her husband Frank engrossed in a baseball game.
Tara told Danielle about the things she had received in her Bestie Box and explained how the three seemingly random items had both increased her confidence and ensured her success.
“The same thing happened to me,” admitted Danielle. “My first box was addressed to ‘The Maternal, Thoughtful Danielle Hollister.’ I didn’t even open the box at first because it was a day when Ollie would not stop crying. Finally, as Ollie screamed in his crib, I took a moment to open the box because I was hoping it contained chocolate. What I found was an unlabeled CD, one of those disposable cameras, and a small square of interwoven, brown and white cardboard strips. I set the stuff on the dining room table and got Ollie, who was hoarse by now. I couldn’t do anything except hold him, so I figured what the heck and popped the CD into my laptop. There was something on it. The theme from that old show The Love Boat began to play. When Ollie heard it, he immediately calmed down. There wasn’t anything else on the CD, so I played the song again. By the end of the fifth play, Ollie was asleep.”
“That’s how it was with me and the glasses kit,” said Tara. “It seemed so perfect at the time that I thought you set it up.”
“I thought Frank was playing some kind of practical joke,” said Danielle, “but then, Ollie would have to be in on it. If Frank had figured out how to make a six-month old be quiet on command, I was going to make him take care of Ollie while I picked up more hours at the dentist’s office.”
“So what else happened to you?” asked Tara.
“Mine didn’t happen all in the same day like yours. A couple of days later, Ollie’s down on the floor and he starts to crawl for the first time. My phone had just died and I hadn’t plugged it in yet, so I grabbed the disposable camera out of my purse and got some really cute shots. Then later, during the weekend, Frank and I had gotten a babysitter for Ollie and gone to a party that another hygienist was throwing. Frank had a couple of drinks, and apparently they loosened him up because he asked me to dance for the first time since our wedding.”
“Wow,” said Tara. “He must have really been drunk. You usually can’t even get him out there for the slow songs.”
“I know,” said Danielle. “I had to take advantage of this, right? Well, I look around for somewhere to put my drink. There’s not a free coaster or a glass-topped table in sight. I was definitely not going to the kitchen and give Frank a chance to change his mind. I pull the square of cardboard strips out of my pocket. I’d left my purse in the car, but something told me to take the square, and voila, I had a makeshift coaster.”
“That is so wild,” said Tara. “So how did you hear about Bestie Box?”
“My mother-in-law sent it to me as a birthday present. When I opened the first box and saw what came in it, I thought she was doing her passive-aggressive thing again.”
“Oh, like the time she bought you that moisturizing cream when she found out you were eighteen months older than Frank?”
“Exactly like that,” said Danielle. “I went online and did some Bestie Box research. Apparently, you can’t order it for yourself. You have to have a subscription already and then the site will let you order for only one other person.”
“How could it possibly know that?” asked Tara.
“How did it know that I needed the theme from The Love Boat? Maybe the NSA is fundraising. All I know is that it’s awesome, and I’m not going to question it.”
“You’re right there,” said Tara. “Well, I guess I’m going to get ready for bed and read a bit.”
“You haven’t been texting Charles, have you?”
“No,” said Tara, “I have not been texting Charles. I admit there have been plenty of times when I wanted to. But I have not done it.”
“Good for you, girl. Just remember, you are smart and beautiful as well as confident and successful. You know I think you should leave Charles behind and move on.”
“I know what you think, but I still love him. I was ready to spend the rest of my life with him.”
“If anybody’s going to come crawling back, though,” said Danielle, “it’s got to be him. Maintain your mad self-respect.”
“I promised I wouldn’t do it and I won’t,” said Tara, “but it still hurts.”
“I know, Tara, but you stay strong. Now go get some sleep. Love you, girl.”
“Love you too,” said Tara.
As days and weeks passed, Tara would still feel a slight ache when she thought of Charles, but the frequency of these intrusions decreased. She had removed his picture from her bedside table and stowed it away in the back of her closet. While she worked on implementing the Precision Razor campaign, Tara was also preparing a pitch to a major automobile manufacturer. The account, if secured, would be by far the most lucrative one in the firm’s history, and Mr. Brumbaugh had entrusted this precious opportunity to Tara. The more her mind focused on how to sell cars, the less it traveled to Charles and his electric, impish grin, his tousled, golden brown hair, and his engaging, easy conversation.
A month to the day after her Precision Razor triumph, Tara withdrew her second Bestie Box from the parcel locker on her way home from work. The package was addressed to “The Assertive and Independent Tara Hildebrand.” Eager to find out what three items would soon boost these important qualities, Tara opened the box immediately.
The parcel contained a canister of pepper spray, a small bag of peppermint bark, and a single condom in its square, silver packaging.
As she drove to her apartment door, Tara tried to imagine a scenario where these three items would play a crucial role. She saw herself walking along at night, fending off a nefarious thug or a rabid dog with the pepper spray, but neither bark nor condom fit into this confrontation. Then again, as in Danielle’s experience, the items might come into play on different days and in different situations.
Tara parked the car, stuffed her three new possessions into her purse, and walked to the door. She pulled out her apartment key and inserted it into the lock.
“Hello Tara,” said a voice from behind her.
She recognized the voice immediately. That sonorous baritone had declared its love for Tara, had spoken of a life together with three kids in a charming cape cod.
Tara turned and saw Charles, still an Adonis, his penetrating eyes looking forlorn and yearning for connection. “Hello Charles,” she said, struggling to keep the shock and emotion out of her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to come home,” he said. “I was hoping we could talk.”
Tara ushered him inside. She set her purse on the kitchen counter and motioned for Charles to take a seat in the living room. He chose a spot on the couch while Tara sat down a safe distance away in a wing chair.
“I’m not going to make small talk with you, Tara,” began Charles, “I’m going to come right out with it. I’ve been miserable these past few weeks and I want you back.”
Tara listened as Charles embarked on a speech that could have been lifted straight out of a trite and predictable romantic comedy. He had been an idiot. His foolishness had made him blind to the fact that his relationship with Tara was the best thing that ever could or would happen to him in his life.
Not long ago, Tara had daily fantasies about Charles making this speech. In her daydreams, she would listen to his declarations with a neutral expression on her face. When Charles finished, she would appear to weigh his words and ponder her response until she flashed a loving smile and held out her arms for an accepting embrace.
Now, to her surprise, she felt only mild annoyance. She had lived for more than a month without any contact from Charles. He was still talking, still pouring out his love, and he expected Tara to follow the script. After several weeks during which he had surely charmed numerous other women, Charles thought he had only to ask to have Tara return.
He completed his speech and looked at Tara with adoring eyes.
“I’m not getting back together with you, Charles,” said Tara. “It’s been over a month, and I’ve moved on.”
Charles’s face assumed a look of utter incredulity. “What?”
“I said it’s over, Charles.”
“But I still love you.”
“You should have thought about that before you dumped me.”
“I didn’t dump you,” said Charles. “I just felt like we needed a break, a chance to explore other options.”
“Well it felt like getting dumped to me,” said Tara. “I explored the option of not being with you, and I have decided to exercise that option.”
Charles got up off the couch, walked over to Tara and put his hands on her upper arms. “Tara, I understand you’re mad at me, but—”
“I’m not mad at you at all,” said Tara, shaking out of his grip. “Now I would like you to leave.”
Charles’s expression quickly changed from disbelief to indecision and finally determination. He planted his feet shoulder-width apart and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not leaving,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what you want, and I’m not going anywhere until you’ve come to your senses.”
Tara stepped over to the kitchen counter and pulled the pepper spray out of her purse. She held the canister at arm’s length and pointed the nozzle at Charles’s face.
“You’re not going to do that,” said Charles, cracking a smile.
“I will. And then while you’re writhing in pain, I’ll call the police and tell them I just pepper-sprayed a trespasser in my apartment.”
Charles must have seen something in Tara’s eyes that said she was not bluffing, because he shuffled back and opened the front door.
“You’re going to be sorry, Tara,” he said. “But by then it’s going to be too late.”
“I am sorry, Charles,” said Tara, “sorry that it came to this. But I won’t regret it. Goodbye.”
After one last exasperated sigh, Charles turned and left, closing the door behind him.
As she stood alone in her silent apartment, Tara took stock of her emotions. She felt relief, as if a burden had just been lifted from her shoulders. At the same time, she was still tired from work. She did not feel like cooking dinner.
Tara checked the front window to make sure that Charles had left the area, and then she grabbed her purse and headed back to her car.
The way she had stood up to Charles entitled Tara dine on fine cuisine instead of fast food. She drove to Venetio’s, her favorite Italian restaurant. After being seated at a small table for two, she sipped on a glass of chilled white wine and munched on exquisite garlic bread while she perused the menu.
She ordered the manicotti and began to evaluate the other patrons. She counted six couples having intimate dinners. A man and woman in their early twenties shared bites of their entrees. The young woman giggled when her date wiped some stray sauce from her chin.
As the wine and soft music eased the stresses of Tara’s day, she spotted a man sitting alone in the opposite corner of the room. With his swarthy complexion, his smoldering eyes and his two-day growth of beard stubble, he looked more Italian than the food she was about to eat. When his eyes met hers, he did not pull away his gaze, but raised his wine glass and smiled.
Tara ate more garlic bread to distract her from that hypnotic face, but by the time she had swallowed the last bite of bread, the gorgeous stranger was standing beside her table.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I was wondering if you were dining alone tonight?”
“I am,” said Tara. “I’m celebrating myself.”
“That’s an excellent reason for celebration, but I do hate to see a beautiful woman dine alone. May I join you?”
Tara thought about it for a moment. She was in a public place. Why shouldn’t she enjoy the attentions of an extremely handsome man?
“Sure,” she said, before she remembered that she had just eaten a whole basket of garlic bread. Her breath probably reeked. She gestured to the chair opposite hers while she backed away from the table. “Excuse me for just a minute, though. I need to go freshen up.”
Tara took her purse to the bathroom, where she opened the bag of peppermint bark and ate three squares of the minty-fresh candy. When she was satisfied that her breath would not frighten away her dinner guest, she put the remaining bark back in her purse and returned to her seat.
The meal that followed was the most enjoyable one she had shared in a long time. Tara did not think it was possible, but Andrew Perkins was an even better conversationalist than Charles. Andrew was a stockbroker, but neither one of them talked very much about work. An only child, Andrew loved listening to Tara’s memories about growing up with four brothers and sisters. Tara sat rapt as Andrew shared stories of his many travels to all the continents except Antarctica. They ate superb Italian food, laughed frequently and drank more wine.
After Andrew had insisted on paying both dinner bills, he asked Tara if she would like to continue the conversation at his villa.
“Before I answer,” said Tara, “let me freshen up one last time.” Again, Tara picked up her purse and headed to the bathroom.
While she stood beside two other women and checked her makeup in the mirror, she weighed Andrew’s enticing proposal. On the one hand, she did not really know Andrew Perkins and leaving the safety of the public gaze would not be the smartest thing for her to do. On the other hand, she felt a strong attraction to this very sexy and interesting man.
She thought about the condom in her purse. It seemed that Bestie Box was urging her to accept the offer and share a night of fiery passion with this debonair world traveler. She could almost hear the words uttered by the small silver square in her purse: “Make this final physical and emotional break with Charles. Become the assertive and independent woman that I know you can be.”
Her decision made, Tara returned to the table but did not sit down. Andrew stood up, anticipating their departure.
“I appreciate your invitation,” said Tara, but I’m going to decline. Thank you very much for dinner and the pleasure of your company.”
“The honor was all mine,” said Andrew without a hint of displeasure. “Maybe we will meet again sometime.”
“If you keep coming here you will,” said Tara. “This is one of my favorite restaurants.”
“In that case, I look forward to our next meeting. In the meantime, I suppose I will have to stay here and soothe my disappointment with some of their delicious tiramisu.”
Tara held out her hand which Andrew shook. “It was wonderful to meet you, Andrew, and I hope you have a good evening.”
“Likewise,” said Andrew.
Tara turned and started walking out of the restaurant. If she was to be “The Assertive, Independent Tara Hildebrand,” she could not let Charles, or Andrew, or even a mysterious, all-knowing subscription box make the decisions in her life. She would listen to suggestions, but in the end, she and only she would determine the direction of her life. She felt the eyes of the maitre d’ follow her as she walked out the door and into a world that was hers to conquer.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Tom W. Miller 2017