Ambush (Blocked Part 4)

“I’m not saying I don’t believe you…” Deb took her time with the words, pausing to run a finger around the lip of her mug. “Wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“I’m telling you, it was surreal.”

She rolled her eyes. “Your mom was the security guard. Doesn’t she live in like Wyoming or something?”

“Look, I don’t understand it either.”

“Can I speak frankly, Mike?” She swiveled on the couch to make full eye contact. “I think you’re looking at years of shitty behavior finally rearing up and biting you in the brain stem. You’ve got so much unresolved shit that you’re paranoid.”

She downed the rest of her coffee and plopped the empty mug on the table. “Plus, you know that water bottle you grabbed out of my fridge last night?” She tucked her phone into her purse and draped the strap over her shoulder. “Laced.”

The vacant look on Mike’s face was priceless. She savored moments like these.

“Are you serious?”

She shrugged. “Maybe.”

“C’mon, Deb. You may have ruined my one chance to get out of porn.”

A woman on another couch looked up from her book.

Deb smirked. “Well, I guess you’ll never know.” She turned beelined toward the door.

“You’re a shitty friend, you know that?” called Mike after her.

“Love you too, boo,” she called back with a flourish.

The bell above the door jingled as she slipped out onto Magnolia. The late afternoon sun cast the block in a deep golden sheen. She loved this part of the Valley. Far as it was from Silverlake and the bustle of Downtown LA, North Hollywood preserved a bohemian touch without the unnavigable crowds and dearth of parking.

Deb cast her gaze down the block past restaurants, art studios and black box theaters. Her watch read a quarter to eight. Perfect. Fat Dog was only a couple minutes’ walk from the coffee shop. She’d be able to get a table before Leah showed up.

She hadn’t seen her best friend in close to a month. Four years ago, that would have been unheard of. After rooming together during school in Nashville, they moved about the country like conjoined twins, first taking up residence in Atlanta for a spell and then migrating westward. Their social feeds from that time were nearly identical. Their heads pressed together in selfies from exotic locales. They featured in each other’s Stories daily. They clinked overpriced Vegas cocktails together in girl groups of ten or twelve, always side-by-side in the throng.

Life eventually got in the way though. Deb met Aiden, and what were once daily adventures became weekly. Then Leah’s show got picked up and her showrunner’s schedule forced them down to every other week. Now they were lucky to squeeze in game night once a month.

But that was growing up. Deb still loved Leah and enjoyed every second she got to spend with her. Familiarity breeds comfort. She could sit next to Leah for hours without feeling the need to fill the space with small talk or trivialities. Or they could make up nonsense dances while juggling wine glasses. It really didn’t matter.

She remembered their last get-together in May, the way they shouted as each of their college dorm room anthems came onto the playlist one after the other. How quickly their mutual friend Taylor went from surprised to annoyed.

“These are all terrible,” she yelled above the stereo.

“We know,” laughed Deb and Leah in unison.

Deb chuckled under her breath. She pulled open a heavy wooden door and disappeared into the dining room. Her eyes jumped from the tacky art on the walls across the anachronistic tile floor to the scattered hodgepodge of tables and booths. This place was a monument to Millennial pandering. She wondered if the design would hold up better than that of The Max in Saved by the Bell.

“How many?” The hostess seemed to appear out of nowhere, shrouded as she was in near-darkness.

“Two, but I think we’ll just hit the bar…” She stopped. Beneath a hanging bulb on the far side of the room sat Leah, head in her phone. Deb checked her watch. 7:50. Early wasn’t usually Leah’s style.

“Actually, my friend is already here,” she said, pointing. “I’ll just — ” And she pushed on through, weaving through the sea of tables.

“Hey, sexy lady,” chimed Deb as she approached. Leah looked up from her phoned with a start. Her eyes appeared to widen behind her trademark Warby Parker frames.

“Deb.” She dropped her phone on the table with a clatter. “I didn’t expect you to be here so soon.”

“I was at the coffee shop down the street,” explained Deb, pulling out the chair opposite Leah. She draped her purse over the back and collapsed into it. “Mike needed to vent after he tanked a job interview.”

“Oh, is he trying to leave that job at the porn company?” asked Leah.

“Emphasis on trying.” Deb gave the place a good once-over. “Do we have a waiter?”

“Not sure. I haven’t been paying attention.”

Deb looked over at her friend. Leah appeared to withdraw into herself, shoulders slouching and gaze tracing grooves in the laminate tabletop. “You okay?”

This stirred her a bit. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s just been a day.”

“It’s been a week if you ask me,” laughed Deb. “Let’s get some medication.”

She flagged down a server. “You ladies decide?” he said, whipping out his note pad.

“Yeah, a couple of Kentucky Mules to get us started,” ordered Deb.

“Actually, just water for me,” came Leah’s voice, little more than a peep from across the table.

Deb whipped back around. Who was this stranger opposite her?

“Perfect, I’ll get those started for you,” said the waiter. He flipped his book closed and disappeared into the shadows.

“Water?” asked Deb incredulously. “You on another cleanse?”

“No, nothing like that. I’m just –“ Her eyes darted about the room. “Nervous.”

“Nervous? This isn’t a Love Meet date.” Deb couldn’t help feeling that Leah didn’t want to look at her. This was beyond bizarre. “What’s gotten into you, boo?”

Leah sighed. She appeared to be mentally searching for words that wouldn’t come. Deb hadn’t seen her like this since the ordeal in Atlanta, that big crossroads that ultimately led them to LA.

“A Kentucky Mule,” came the waiter’s disembodied voice. A copper mug seemed to materialize in from of Deb. “And a water.” His hand emerged from the darkness with Leah’s glass. Then, he vanished yet again.

Leah took a generous sip of hers, swallowing hard. “Deb, you know you’re my person, right?”

“Oh my god, did someone die? Is that why you’re being so weird?”

Leah bit her lip. “It’s not that bad.”

“You realize that leaves a lot of grey area, right? Give me a reason not to worry about you.”

Something behind Deb caught Leah’s eye and she immediately perked up. Deb followed her gaze to the door where she spotted a familiar face scanning the crowd.

“Is that Taylor?” She wore a cardigan and jeans, her wispy blonde hair drawn into a messy bun. “Jeez, I hope she doesn’t see us.” Deb turned back around to find Leah waving her hand in the air. She didn’t need to send another look back to feel Taylor’s gaze landing on the table like the Eye of Sauron.

“You invited her?” Hissed Deb through gritted teeth. “I’ve been keeping her on read since the Vegas trip. You know this.”

Leah didn’t engage. Her mouth flapped wordlessly, eyes shooting between Deb and the approaching Taylor.

“Don’t make me talk to her. LeeLa, please don’t make me — “

“Deb!”

Deb shot out of her chair like a rocket. “Heyyyy, Taylor,” she seemed to squeak. “How are you?”

They leaned into what could only be called a hug for lack of a more appropriate term. Unfortunately, a word for the limp touch of bodies rejecting each other like repellent magnets hadn’t made a Webster appearance as far as Deb knew.

“I’m good,” said Taylor, drawing away from Deb as if she were a biohazard. “It’s been way too long.”

“I know, right? God, I don’t even remember the last time I saw you.”

“Vegas,” spat Taylor through a saccharine smile.

“That long ago? Huh, no wonder I don’t remember.”

“Come to think of it, you spent most of the weekend blacked out, so that might be why.”

Their smiles were fixed. Deb felt her face physically straining.

“What brings you to this side of town?” she asked. “Isn’t it super out of the way for you?”

“I invited her,” said Leah. The two women looked down at her, and then exchanged looks.

“I thought it was supposed to be just the two of us,” said Deb, her confusion audible. “I mean, not that I don’t love your company, Taylor.”

“None taken,” she replied, and sat in a third chair Leah pulled to the table.

“I knew this was going to be hard, so I asked her here for support,” said Leah as they settled in.

She and Taylor both sat rigid — an awkward pair of statues. Leah cupped both hands in her lap, shoulders tense and head drooping. Taylor lay a palm on her forearm, which seemed to calm her if only slightly. Deb noticed the gesture and the pieces aligned.

“Wait, are you two…?” She pointed back and forth between them. “Because you know I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just — surprising, you know, especially with all the Chads, Brads, and Bryce’s you have notched in your bedpost. Are you bi? Because I just automatically assume everyone is.”

Leah let her ramble a bit longer before waving her off. “No, no. It’s not like that. We’re not together.” She sent a wavering glance toward Taylor who nodded reassuringly. “At least not that way.”

“Then what is it? Are you two planning to platonically adopt a baby together? Because I’m at a complete loss.”

The women across from her continued to sent each other wordless messages. It was starting to get under Deb’s skin. Why was Leah acting so damn weird?

Finally, she spoke. “Deb, you’ve been the best BFF I could have asked for — ”

“ — That’s redundant,” Deb cut in.

Leah continued unhindered. “You’ve always been there for me and I don’t regret a single moment of the time we spent together. But things change, and people grow apart. We’re not who we were in college anymore. We’ve got these new lives that don’t intersect the way they used to.”

Deb knew this speech. She’d been given several versions of it before, but never from a friend.

“Are you breaking up with me?”

Leah bit her lip. “I think that it’s best considering everything. The distance between us is getting unbearable and I need to think about myself.”

“You can’t break up with me,” said Deb.

“Deb, please. This is hard enough for me as it is.”

Deb shook her head. “You can’t break up with me because we’re not dating, you moron.”

Leah and Taylor exchanged another look. “I’m breaking up with you as my BFF,” said Leah finally.

“This is ridiculous, even for you.”

“There’s no need to say anything hurtful,” chided Leah. “I’m just trying to do what’s best for us.”

“What’s best for us? Look, if you wanted to hang out more, you could have just called. That’s what friends do. They don’t orchestrate ridiculous theatrics.”

Taylor squeezed Leah’s hand. Deb scoffed. “I’m sorry, what is she doing here again?”

Leah inhaled sharply before continuing. “The less we talked, the more I felt this hole opening up. And when I least expected it –“ she cast loving eyes toward her companion. “ — Taylor came along.” A bridge seemed to exist between their eyes. Deb felt like an outcast, watching these two from behind a pane of glass. “She helped me feel whole again, like I suddenly remembered what it was like to have a BFF. She’s been an amazing friend to me over the past few weeks.”

“Past few weeks?” spat Deb in exasperation.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but you know how I am about confrontation. With her here, I knew I could finally go through with this.”

“What is this exactly? Are we not going to see each other anymore?”

“Deb, you’re my person. I couldn’t live without you in my life in some capacity. I just think we need some time to figure out what that means.”

She would need more than a little time. Sitting across from her now-former best friend, Deb struggled to make sense of anything. “This is absurd, Leah,” she spat. “You know you can have more than one friend, right?”

“Of course, I know that,” Leah bit back. “But the role of BFF means something a bit more to me. Shouldn’t there only be one if it’s ‘forever?’”

“It’s just a word.”

“Words have meaning.”

“What? Like ‘toaster’ or ‘podiatry?’”

Leah’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be a bitch, Deb.”

“I’m not. You’re being insane.”

Taylor finally cut in. “Okay, I think we all need to cool off here for a minute.”

Deb snapped. “Fuck you, Taylor. Why are you buying into this nonsense? You don’t know how she gets. You weren’t there in Atlanta.”

“I’m here supporting a friend,” said Taylor, maintaining her calm composure. “You don’t need to bite my head off.”

“Your best friend? Your ride or die? Give me a break. We only invited you to our things because we thought it was rude to invite your roommate and not you. You’re a plus one, a pity add.”

Leah took a deep breath. “I’m sensing a lot of anger here.”

“No, Leah. You’re sensing confusion. So what if you two are hanging out now. It’s fine. I get it. I’m never around. Go get your toes painted and talk about where to find the best bottomless mimosas. I don’t give a shit. What I don’t get is why that negates a connection we’ve built over X number of years.”

Leah reached over and took Deb’s hand. “No one could ever replace you. You know that. But I can only have one best friend, and it’s not you anymore. It hasn’t been in quite a while.”

Deb stiffened. Despite their absurdity, Leah’s words cut her deep. This was a break-up, barbs and all. Tears streaked down her cheeks, images of their friendship flashing through her mind. There was the time they got locked out of their down, and they spent the whole night hopping the honky-tonks of Broadway. There was Deb’s bachelorette party in Toronto where they confused a policeman for a stripper. And of course, Atlanta…

An electric buzzing disturbed her reverie. Taylor grabbed her phone. “Sorry, let me just — ” She checked the caller ID before silencing it. “I need to leave soon,” she whispered to Leah.

“You what?” Leah shook her head as if shooing a fly.

“I’m supposed to meet Kenny at Sweet Cream in a few. I thought I told you.”

Leah and Taylor took a heavy sidebar. “What are you talking about? You knew how important this was.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t think it would take this long — ”

“And who the hell is Kenny?”

Taylor shot a fleeting glance Deb’s way as if remembering that they weren’t alone. “He’s my friend.”

“And he’s as important as your best friend?” seethed Leah.

“I mean, I don’t really put my friends in a hierarchy.”

She might as well have slapped Leah across the face. Leah slumped in her seat pale and stunned. “Then why are you here?” she managed to squeak.

“Because you’re my friend.”

“Not as good a friend as Kenny apparently.”

Deb reached for her. “Leah — ”

“No!” Leah held up a silencing finger to both of them. “No, no, no! You’re seeing other friends, Taylor? I can’t — I think I’m gonna be sick.” She shot up from her seat, the chair clattering across the floor. Tears streaked her cheeks as she grabbed her purse and darted for the bathroom.”

“Leah, wait — ” Taylor held up a hand to stop her.

“No.” Deb was gathering her own things. “Leave her. She needs to get her head on straight.” She stood and let out an exasperated sigh. “Well, Taylor, I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…” She looked for the words, but not very hard. The sounds of scattered conversation and clinking cutlery filled the silence. After a few seconds, Deb gave up and gunned for the exit.

The last beams of light were fading as Deb lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag, feeling the nicotine go to work on her frayed nerves. Leah would be fine. Deb would give her a call in the morning when the mania subsided. Sometimes all Leela needed was twelve hours and a good sleep. And a friend to lean on.

A few puffs later, the Fat Dog door swung open. Taylor glided onto the sidewalk, the confusion on her face palpable.

“You look blindsided,” said Deb through a breath of smoke.

Taylor exhaled audibly. “Is she always like that?”

“What? You mean with a flair for the dramatic? Like you wouldn’t believe.”

Taylor crossed her arms and leaned against a meter. “Mind if I bum one of those?”

“This is my last one, but you’re welcome to help me finish it.” She offered her the cigarette. Taking it between her fingers, Taylor took a long, staying inhale.

“Look, I’m sorry for what I said in there,” Deb blurted out. “I didn’t mean any of it.”

“Oh, I can tell you did, but it’s no big deal.” Taylor handed the butt back to Deb. “I’d jump down your throat too if I thought you stole my best friend.”

“Yeah, you’re kind of a bitch for that.” Deb smirked and pulled the cigarette down to the end.

“Consider it payback for all the ‘pity invites.’”

They both laughed as the sun finally disappeared behind the far-off overpass. Likewise, the last drops of betrayal seemed to roll off Deb’s back. This thing with Leah was just another of her phases, and if it wasn’t — well, that was just life. She wasn’t the same person that she was in Nashville, in Atlanta, nor even two weeks ago. Neither was Leah.

Taylor checked the time. “I’m gonna be late of I don’t get a move-on.” She paused, seeming to consider something for a moment. “You wanna tag along?” she finally offered.

“Rad,” exclaimed Deb. “I need a quart of mint chip in me immediately.”

“Perfect. I’ll let Kenny know I have a plus one.” She typed furiously on her phone as the two of them started their stroll down the sidewalk. Lights blinked on in the buildings lining the street, twinkling in the place of the invisible stars overhead. The late-summer heat lay over Magnolia like a haze, the concrete radiating in the dimming light. The promise of ice cream quickened their steps. Life rushed by them in a blur.

“So forgive me if I’m overstepping here,” said Taylor. “But what happened in Atlanta?”