"I need two hundred thousand dollars... um, wait! Two hundred and thirty," the young woman says with a British accent.
She’s scrolling vigorously through her glittery iPhone in front of my counter. Her perfectly straight blonde hair falls over her shoulders, and she swats it away as if posing for the cameras. A cream floral dress flawlessly wraps her slim body, making me feel like I’m wearing pajamas. The girl next to her is a slight variation of the same. Two candidates for the next Baywatch remake.
"Cash?" I ask, suppressing a smirk.
She looks up from the screen and purses her lips as if considering my offer. "No, I need a cashier's check. Do you know what it is?"
Of course, I do, Barbie, darling. I am a freaking bank teller.
"Yes," I reply instead, subduing the explosive brew of sarcasm inside me. Today it’s been threatening to boil over more than usual.
The girl waves her manicured hand like she's holding a wishing wand. "So, do it."
"Put your debit card in the reader.”
Miss Universe finally sets her virtual world aside and gets the card out of her checkered Louis Vuitton purse. Her impressive account balance is like a thorn in my side. I request an override from my supervisor and wait for what seems like ages.
"Sorry to keep you in this dull place.” The young woman smiles at her friend, and I silently agree with her on that. “I found this lovely little house in the area. My fiancé is too busy to get the deposit for the closing, so he transferred it to my new account.”
The other girl shakes her head. “What would men do without us?”
I am sorely tempted to roll my eyes. They would probably get to keep their two hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Well, let me guess. The guy is twice her age, bold, and suffers bouts of flatulence after dinner.
No such thing. The bride-to-be sets her phone down on the counter with a large photo in my full view. She is embracing a good-looking young man with a killer smile. Somehow, he seems very familiar.
This can’t be…
I dismiss the thought, hand her the check, and turn away.
"Next, please," I call out, not giving this unfairly lucky specimen of the human race another second of my sorry life. This morning I would love to assist someone with the removal of overdraft fees, but in this privileged area of Santa Monica that’s not a usual occurrence.
"Why such a sour face, sweetheart?"
An oddly dressed little lady in her sixties comes up next. The multicolored lacework on her bohemian shirt is a feast for my color-starved eyes.
"What can I do for you today, ma'am?" I ask.
She leans closer and whispers with a twinkle in her unusually bright green eyes. "Wouldn't it be fun if people always said what they thought? Do you want to try it?"
I return her mischievous smile. “Not a good idea. This never works out in my favor.”
Plus, I’d have to admit that I’m thinking of buying a tub of Rocky Road ice cream and re-watching Gilmore Girls for hours. Yep, I got dumped last night by my worthless boyfriend.
Over the phone!
"That's my favorite flavor too," the elderly woman interrupts my thoughts.
I stare at her gracefully wrinkled face and blink. Did I say something out loud? I must be slowly losing my mind at this mundane job.
"Here." She digs in her oversized handmade purse and dumps a handful of candy on the counter, each with a different colorful wrapper. "I don't have any ice cream with me, but this should brighten your mood."
I push the pile away. "Oh, no, I can't—"
She pats my hand and tsk-tsks as if I’m refusing to accept an obvious solution to all my problems. “When life gives you lemons, put lots of sugar on them.”
The man behind her looks at his watch and frowns. He's wearing a nice suit and probably thinks his time is more valuable than all of ours put together.
Fine. I'll pretend to take the candy.
"Thank you." I shove her gift in my pocket. It was nice for her to notice my misery.
“That’s better,” she says and lowers her voice again. “You're a real doll when you have a happy sparkle in your eyes. Now all the rich men will fall at your feet.”
No, no. I don’t want any of them littering my floor—rich or poor.
“What can I do for you today?” I repeat, hoping she’ll leave my personal life alone.
She wants to make a deposit, and I rush through the transaction under the disapproving stare of my supervisor. I bet she noticed the growing line of customers and will lecture me about it later.
The older woman collects her receipt and winks. "Sweets make everything better. Trust me. Your day will turn around if you let it."
She giggles into her hand as if she’d done something naughty, then walks away with her colorful patchwork of a skirt flowing around her ankles and her white curls dancing. A trail of glitter follows her to the door, although this must be my imagination. It would be fun to paint her portrait. I envy her and wish I could walk away too, but I’m chained to the counter. A self-made slave.
The next customer comes closer and clears his throat to get my attention. My supervisor’s stare is now drilling a hole in the back of my head.
"How can I help you?" I ask.
Here we go again. At least he’s not falling to my feet as the older lady suggested might happen.
The rest of the morning passes in a haze of faces and requests. I give them all the same rehearsed lines, and it’s driving me insane. A middle-aged man who tries to flirt breaks the routine and gets a surly look from me as a free extra.
It’s finally lunch. I rush out to get a few minutes of peace and quiet, but my supervisor stops me and takes me aside for a "quick chat".
"Is something wrong, Avery?" she asks, though her tone is anything but compassionate. It's most likely a rhetorical question, so I wait for an explanation. "You seem distracted today. And I received a complaint.”
“If it was the snobby lady who asked if I was legal in this country after I told her we couldn’t cash her check, I’d like to complain about her too,” I say without hesitation. Maybe asking in return if her check was legal wasn’t such a good idea, but I don’t regret it one bit.
My supervisor stares at me as if I’ve suddenly grown antlers. “I'm not sure you understand. This job requires a certain standard of customer service and... neatness.”
She crosses her arms and looks me over. I notice her shiny, perfectly aligned pixie cut that matches her perfectly tailored clothes and attempt to straighten my mop of brown locks. Not everyone is "lucky" enough to have inherited obnoxiously curly hair or ample hips. Although, my abuela would say that the latter is a blessing.
"You should probably take the rest of the day off," my supervisor continues when I don’t answer. "This is a respectable institution that serves high-end customers. If it wasn't for your recommendations—"
"No, please! I really am trying. This is very important to me.”
"Then pull yourself together or go work at a place where you won't have to deal with people."
That would be lovely.
But my ever-helpful sarcasm fails to dissolve the knot in my stomach. My mother's tired face flashes in front of my eyes. I have to keep this job no matter what. She needs to stay home and get well after the surgery.
"I understand, Mrs. Plum. I promise this won’t happen again."
She walks away after a few comments about my outfit, the only office-like wear I could come up with. Her high heels click on the tiled floor. An ideal picture of pulled-togetherness. And here's me—a walking disaster, an expert in mishaps, and a collector of misfortunes. It’s probably the only thing I’m good at, besides maybe art. But if I was truly great at painting, wouldn't I be selling my works instead of wasting my time here? The one favor I pulled from my father, who managed this branch for years, is starting to rub me the wrong way.
I bypass our break area and hide in the bathroom, closing my fingers tightly around the silver heart-shaped pendant I’m wearing. This always helps me feel more at peace, but not today. My reflection stares at me accusingly from the mirror. The can’t-handle-long-distance-relationship ex-boyfriend is not worth being fired from this job.
Should’ve ditched him first.
I linger in front of the mirror and practice smiling, but it looks more like a scowl. The circles under my eyes from channeling my frustrations onto a canvas late last night aren’t helping either. When did I turn into this bitter ball of nerves? I used to be energetic and adventurous, but that was before life walked all over me with muddy boots. Adulting hasn’t been much fun.
Get your act together, Avery Mercado. Stop sulking. You’re better than this.
I have no spare money to buy lunch, so I hang in the back of the building with the smokers. The sky is annoyingly gray, and it's starting to drizzle. As my stomach growls, I remember the candies in my pocket. Sweets make everything better... The woman's bubbly voice rings in my head. If only this was true. At least they'll kill my hunger for a few minutes. I unwrap one and pop it into my mouth. The mixture of sweet and sour fills my senses. I wonder if this quirky grandma laced it with something because my mood instantly lifts. It seems all I need for complete contentment is a little bit of sunshine. As soon as I think that, clouds disperse, and pale winter rays caress my face.
She was right.
People give me a few sideways glances as I giggle to myself about the coincidence. But the candy soon dissolves, the sun hides, and it's time for me to return to the dreaded job. I'd rather be painting surfboards at a local shop again as I did in high school. At least, I wouldn’t have to bother with niceties and can stay in my jeans. Unfortunately, that’s not enough money to support my ill mother.
"Daydreaming again?" Wendy, another bank teller, teases me when the boss-lady steps away and customers disperse for a few minutes. "About someone special?"
"Yes. His name is Double Cheeseburger," I respond, feigning a dreamy expression. The notion of a starving artist feels quite literal at the moment.
“Mmm, sounds like a hottie,” she chimes in. “Does he, by chance, own crispy garlic potato wedges?”
"Ugh, stop it both of you,” another girl complains. “I’m trying to lose ten pounds by spring.”
The two of them get into a discussion about the latest diet fads, which is not something I’ve ever been interested in. No thank you. I love to eat.
My stomach makes a pitiful sound, and I regret ever mentioning food. It’s time for another candy. I pick one that looks like a lemon drop and place it on my tongue, savoring the burst of flavor. It tastes like the sour treats my childhood friend used to bring me when we played in his enormous backyard. That was a carefree time when my parents were still together and pretending to be happy.
I excuse myself to the bathroom, still wondering what happened to the boy who was by my side for nine years. It seems only yesterday he evaded his personal driver to ride a bike through my neighborhood but ended up coming over for dinner and pants repair after I dared him to pet our neighbor’s dog. I wish I could show up at his parents’ place and find out, but I know this will never happen. Last time I tried, his father made it clear that our paths would never cross again. But returning to the city we both grew up in must be filling me with nostalgia. This is the second time I’m reminded of him today.
My vision blurs, and I rub my eyes. It’s probably the lack of sleep or food or both combined. When I open them again, I am standing in front of Wilson’s family mansion. Their arched entry with mahogany double doors is just a few steps away, but I am too shocked to move. A man in a gray suit comes out, briskly running down the steps. He’s tall and well-built with neatly trimmed ash-blond hair that he ruffles with his hand before noticing me. Stopping mid-stride, he stares in my direction.
My body freezes, and my mind spins in circles. Six years is a long time, but I recognize my wild best friend in this nicely dressed man. He’s sporting heavy stubble, but it’s still my Trev! And it’s also the guy from the photo on the blonde-haired Diva’s phone! Does it mean he’s getting married?
Before I’m able to connect all the dots, Trevor is next to me, scooping me up into a bear hug. For a moment I forget that our meeting isn’t exactly natural or that we haven’t seen each other for years. He smells like the rich men from the corporate world who make large deposits at our bank, but his arms wrap around me in a familiar way. All I want to do is stay in his embrace. Instead, I push him away.
“How about ‘I’m sorry I forgot Avery exists’?” I give him my best glare, but he appraises me with a crooked smile, making the heat crawl up my neck. How dare he turn out so good looking!
“And how about ‘I’m sorry I moved, changed my number, and didn’t bother to notify you’?” he says, raising an eyebrow. “You never opened a social media account, never went to any of the colleges you planned to attend. You didn’t make it easy for me, Avy.”
So, he did try to find me, but I’m not ready to give up this argument. “You stopped calling first.”
He winces as if I hit him. “True. I got too busy. But you completely cut me off. Don’t you think it was a bit extreme? I nearly lost my mind trying to figure out what happened to you.”
“I thought it would be better this way since you decided to move all the way to freaking England!” A dull ache, a remnant of that dreadful year when I had to let go of Trev, move to LA with my parents, then deal with their messy split resurfaces in my mind. For some reason he smiles again, fueling all my frustrations from the past. “Oh, so you think it’s funny? I’m sure you did just splendidly in the company of English girls while I moped around by my lonesome self.”
“That’s not why I’m smiling. I was thinking it’s cute that you still say ‘freaking’.” An old spark of mischief dances in his blue eyes and quickens my pulse.
“I’m sure Mr. Trevor Wilson uses proper English these days too,” I answer with a bad imitation of a British accent.
“And so that you feel better, I was moping around too. I hated the weather, and my aunt’s house was the most boring place on Earth.”
I’m pleased to hear he suffered at least a little, even though he doesn’t contradict my comment about the girls. It looks like he even managed to bring one of them back home. The thought makes me cringe, but Trevor takes a step closer and claims my hands, melting all my annoyance away.
“All I wanted was to be back at the beach, watching you get all messy with your watercolors.” His eyes linger on my face, and I feel self-conscious. With no makeup and in my ugly work clothes, I must look like a slob.
“Have you talked to my mom recently?” he asks.
I shake my head. He doesn’t need to know that his father put me out of doors years ago. “We moved to LA almost as soon as you left. Dad got a promotion there. I returned just a few weeks ago.”
“Perfect! I’ll get to witness her reaction.” He pulls me toward the entrance. “Stay here for a sec. I’ll set up the scene and will remove this one expensive vase from the hallway, so you won’t trip over it again.”
I try to swat him, but he easily evades my hand, grinning like a fool, and slips inside. As I open my mouth to protest, the last traces of candy dissolve, and I find myself in the air-conditioned hallway of the bank once again.
Was it a dream? Did I pass out? No. The warmth of Trevor’s embrace lingers on my skin. That was way too real. What will he think when he comes out and I’m gone? Then reality hits me like a bucket of cold water. My fiancé, the girl said. He’s engaged. Not that I had any shots to call. We were always only friends, even if I hoped for something more. I should be happy he found someone, but my heart protests. All my efforts to forget him evaporated in our brief meeting, and I wish we haven’t seen each other again.
“You were wrong, lady,” I mutter under my breath. “Your sweets made everything worse.”