"I’m telling you, you had the cinema tickets," Damien snapped, flicking through his wallet with agitated fingers.
Melanie chewed the inside of her cheek and tried not to cringe in front of the crowds of canoodling couples waiting for entrance to the Valentine's Day special sessions. Most carried boxed chocolates or single, long-stemmed roses. All she currently carried was her favorite handbag and an unfair share of blame.
"I distinctly remember handing them to you," he grumbled, turning out his pant pockets while he spoke. The volume of his voice rose with every syllable.
"Well, I haven't got them either," she whispered harshly, hoping he'd take the hint and lower his voice. Where was the nice guy she'd started dating ten months ago? More and more lately Damien's temper aimed its barbs at her. When everything went his way, he treated her like a princess, but if anything went wrong, even little things, he could get downright persnickety.
His handsome face creased into an impatient frown and he hissed aggravation through clenched teeth. If his forehead got any more furrowed, he’d have to screw on his hat.
"You must have them." Glassy blue eyes full of ill temper flashed at her.
"Check my bag if you don't believe me," she offered.
Leaning over, he snatched her black leather pocketbook. Her mouth dropped open and hung. She'd meant to be facetious, and never imagined he'd rifle through the bag's contents oblivious to her feelings.
He dropped onto a nearby seat and sprawled her personal items over the popcorn-smeared velvet, in full view of anyone in the cinema foyer who cared to look. Her eyes widened and she gritted her teeth.
"What’s this?" he asked, dragging the torn lid of a tampon box into center stage.
"Not tickets." She snatched the cardboard and quickly thrust it into her coat pocket.
He watched with bland interest, recognition slowly dawning. "Oh. You're not, ah... you know."
Her face heated. Did he not notice the restless crowd focusing on them as the most interesting distraction currently available? This was not a topic for public discussion or amusement.
"I always carry them just in case," she mumbled when he continued looking at her expectantly.
His reasons for wanting to know rankled. As if she was inclined to get romantic tonight when he treated her like this. Then again, how many periods could she fake in a month?
He continued to rummage through her bag like the drug squad with a known offender. Any moment now he'd slit the lining to ensure his search was thorough.
"Yeah, I thought so." He yanked movie stubs from the bottom of her bag and waved them triumphantly under her nose. "You don’t have them, huh?" Sarcasm dripped from his words in ugly puddles.
She blinked mascara-heavy eyelashes and tried to focus, reading the faded print.
"Oh," he grumbled when he read them too. "These are old."
No kidding, Sherlock.
He bent his head and continued ransacking, unaware that she'd grown unnaturally still. Her eyes burned, suddenly too dry. Her lip quivered and she gnawed it.
So there were those old movie stubs. Memory still held every detail of the day she'd bought them fresh and vivid. She curled her hands into fists, baby-pink nails cutting into her palms.
Gran had noticed her from across the street. Waved. Smiled. Together they detoured to the supermarket to buy cute crinkly-plastic triangles full of fresh sandwiches. On white bread. They swapped one each because Melanie didn't like pickles. Gran insisted they buy the mammoth popcorn bucket at the cinema candy bar. In Indonesian slums whole families lived in smaller quarters than that popcorn box. The thing was huge and cost a fortune. The memory made her smile. She should have known then something was up. Gran never wasted money. Not ever. The popcorn was an extravagant gesture on a day apart. A separate day, a day to remember.
"Troy" was a great movie. Epic. Heroic. Gran liked the action, the passion, the grand scale.
"You know," Gran confided as the credits rolled, "grief comes from people holding on to things too long. Like that Menelaus not wanting things to change and not willing to let go when he should have."
Melanie missed the import of the statement at that time, but she got it now. The fateful words sent a cold shiver up her spine.
She and Gran left the cinema arm in arm, their fingers intertwined. Gran's other hand patted Melanie and clucked her wordless love and acceptance as they walked.
"Learn to be happy, girl," Gran admonished. "Holding onto grudges and egos and the past will kill your soul as quick as it killed all those soldiers. Don't you let that happen to you, promise? Find your Paris no matter what it takes, and don't settle for anything less. Love is the only thing worth holding onto, the only thing you get to take with you in the end.”
Something in Gran's wistful tone had spoken to her that day. She'd sensed there was more in the conversation than she understood, but she hadn't known what and she'd shucked it off. Gran grew quiet, introspective. Melanie could still feel those wrinkled, age-spotted hands in hers.
When she was very little she'd pushed that loose skin down skinny forearms until it wrinkled like a series of Indian bracelets along Gran's wrists. Busy hands forever doing something for someone who needed it. Funny hands with the skin too saggy and loose. Love pulsed through those hands like a tangible thing, and beat its way into her body, shoring her up. If only she could have held onto Gran's quiet strength forever.
"I've seen a lot in my years, done a lot of things, but now I'm getting old," Gran warned her.
"Not that old," Melanie teased, dropping a light kiss on the age-softened cheek.
"Old enough. Everything has a shelf life."
"Since when have you been on the shelf, Gran? Darling of the local senior citizen's club, never without a dance partner or a friend."
"Yes, I've lived a good long life, but I'm about worn out. The only reason I'd be sad to go these days, love, is you.” Gran soft-focused on something over Melanie's shoulder and drifted off, then seemed to realise she'd done it and smiled. "I still want so much for you, Mel. I want to see you head over heels in love. I want to shout hurray at the beautiful, blushing bride and say wickedly embarrassing things at your reception."
"You will, Gran," she assured her.
The old woman grew more attentive, her pale blue eyes over bright in the artificial lighting. "But even if I don't, you'll know and remember how much I wanted to. How much you're worth. How much I love you."
It had seemed so important to her. Melanie nodded, not really understanding.
Six short weeks later, Gran died. She'd known her prognosis that day at the cinema, known she faced her own overwhelming battle. She came straight from the doctor's office to keep their date. In a funny way it was her way of coping, reaffirming she was still alive, reassuring herself of the things that made her life rich and complete. Melanie could see that now.
Pain and nausea set up residence shortly after their cinema day and never moved out again. Pancreatic cancer claimed Gran in its quick, cruel way. Sure, she and Melanie spent a lot of time together in that six weeks, but it wasn't the same. Not like their outing, their special day, a gentle passing on of memories, wisdom and love.
Melanie still missed her so intently that pain wrapped around her chest and squeezed until she could barely breathe.
"Melanie, they're not here. We'll have to buy another lot. Since you lost them, you can at least go Dutch. I don't see why I should have to shell out for another set on my own."
One of the old stubs fluttered to the floor and Melanie stooped to retrieve it. She tucked it lovingly in her pocket. Damien waited, hands on his hips, nostrils flaring like sixty's jeans. Any minute he'd tap his foot.
"Take me home, Damien," she said in a soft voice. She wasn't angry with him, but he seemed so petty now she looked at him with new eyes, eyes washed clear with too many unshed tears.
"Home?" he asked in a petulant whine, "don't be ridiculous. We're already here and haven't seen the movie yet."
Her eyes narrowed to let him know she meant it.
"You can't be serious." His leather shoe stamped on the faded carpet. "Don't be such a baby, Mel."
Welcome to the pot and kettle show. He surrendered her purse and she snapped it closed.
His thick top lip curled. "Oh for Pete's sake, all right. I'll pay for your ticket. Again."
She shook her head, not sure whether to laugh or cry. Couldn't he see that they didn't belong together anymore?
"Never mind," she said. "I'll take a taxi."
"A taxi? Why?" His voice was an irksome bleat.
"Why?" She gave a short mirthless laugh, torn between the grating look of incredulity on his face and the poignancy of the love letter within the old movie stub. "Because Damien, we will never have Paris."
He looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. Any further explanations would be about as useful as a glass hammer. She turned to make her own way home.
Single again. Breaking up on Valentine’s Day seemed to go against all the tenets of the holiday and yet, with her memories, she was never truly alone. And leaving Damien didn't hurt as much as she'd expected.
With every step her heart grew lighter. Her lips lifted at the corners. Gran was right. You just had to know what to hold, what to release and when to let go.
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