As Sauci and Jeff Saffitz went to sit down after toasting to their daughter and their new son-in-law, the crowd erupts in applause and cheers. Brad looks over at Claire a few tables across the reception centre, wrapped up in her new husband.
For the hundredth time that day, the little green monster threatens to burst out of him, but he immediately smothers it. He forces himself to clap politely— although he’s almost sure it looked forced— when the MC— one of Claire’s outside-of-work friends, Lauren or something— once again takes the mic.
“Alright, alright, that’s what I’m talking about.” she grins, hushing the crowd, “Now everyone, give it up, for Brad Leone!”
He grips his chair when he stands up as the world around him spun precariously.
He shouldn’t have had that fifth glass of wine. How did he get stuck doing this?
Oh yeah, that’s right.
When Claire looked at him with those big, earthen orbs of hers. It didn’t matter what she’d have asked him.
Make a bomb on the 35th floor of the World Trade Centre using pressure cookers? Got it.
Let her use his new fancy-schmancy dehydrator? What’s mine is yours.
Face his fear of public speaking by giving a speech at her wedding to someone else?
‘Course Claire, I’d love ta.
God damn his big heart.
Regardless, he took his sixth glass, the wine inside threatening to spill, and made his way to the stage.
I remember that day and I know I might just regret that day for the rest of my life.
I don’t exactly remember I was doing, framed against the mild winter sunlight it was like a dream that I can’t quite place.
But I could never forget the time I first saw her face.
I was just a lowly kitchen assistant back in those days, practically a glorified dishwasher, and Claire Saffiftz—
Well, Claire Saffitz was already a fully-fledged, super-duper senior editor— and Harvard graduate to boot.
So way out of my league.
But I’ve never been the same.
After seeing those intelligent eyes in a five-foot-four frame.
Even if I didn’t even talk to her until weeks later.
“Hey, um, excuse me?”
I had been boiling eggs by the dozen for a shoot when a soft tap on my forearm interrupted my groove. I turned around and almost knocked over one Claire Saffitz.
“Oh— hiya Claire!” I exclaimed, surprised and flustered.
“Hi, umm, I’m sorry, but could you get the food colouring for me, it’s on the top shelf and—”
“‘Course!” I agreed, in retrospect, perhaps a little too readily.
Immediately abandoning the eggs, I went to go find the tub of gel food colouring.
“There you are, Miss Saffitz,” I announced, promptly plopping down the white tub and ripping the lid off to reveal the multitude of little bottles each holding a particular colour. “Satisfied?”
“Yes, thank you, umm—”
I fumbled for a moment, for a moment forgetting my own dang name.
“Uh, Brad,” I smiled, extending my own clumsy, large paw, “Brad Leone.”
“Nice to meet you, Brad.”
Claire smiled too and taking my hand in her own smaller, much more elegant one, the touch setting my heart aflame. Every part aflame.
Which is funny ‘cause I’d only really known her for two minutes— maybe three minutes— but it was like a dream. A dance.
Seeing that smile was like seeing the light.
The fact he hasn’t collapsed yet is a good sign. And he doesn’t think he’s swaying that bad. Even though what was supposed to be welcoming applause sounded thunderous in his ears and made his head swim,
He carried on.
As it was a Friday afternoon, in the middle of summer, the test kitchen was practically a ghost town with everyone high-tailing out of there as soon as they could.
All except for one Claire Saffitz.
She groaned as the dough once again failed to proof properly before cradling her head against her arms on the counter,
“You doin’ alright there, Half-Sour?”
I leaned over the bench to rest my elbows on the counter, inches from where she sat.
She lifted her head and rolled her eyes at the nickname but snorted in laughter anyway.
“No, uh, you see—”
Claire groaned again and promptly plopped her head on her arms before mumbling something unintelligible.
“Huh?” I responded, “You know I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Claire.”
She lifts her head and sighs,
“Usually, this wouldn’t bother me so much, doughs have failed on me more times than they succeed.”
I laugh at the memory of sourdoughnuts. She looks at me pointedly before her eyes soften in realisation.
“Oh yeah, sourdoughnuts.”
She reached up and tucks a wayward strand of grey hair behind her ear.
“But Rapo wants a recipe in today, and it’s still not working.”
“Well then Half-Sour, it’s only 5:30, the night’s still young. Jar two thirds full remember? You gotta look on the bright side,” I smiled boisterously. “If anyone can do it, it’s the ol’ Half-Sour!”
I took a breath before an amazing idea came to mind:
“Tell you what, why don’t I stick around and help out? That way we’d be finished in no time at all!”
“You sure Brad, surely there are other places you’d rather be.”
Little did she know there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
“Nah Half-Sour, I ain’t busy. Besides, consider it my good deed for the day. Scouts honour!”
“Thanks Brad. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
I had more fun in the kitchen than I had in a long time. Although It’s Alive was like a dream come true, there was something about cooking with Claire without the cameras and mics up in our faces that made it more enjoyable. She was more relaxed and it made me more relaxed. That smile wasn’t for the camera. That smile wasn’t for the big bosses upstairs. That smile wasn’t for the internet to see.
It was for me. And there was something special about it.
“Thank you so much Brad,” she breathed as she wiped down the counter.
I’m just glad you’re satisfied Miss Saffitz,” I grinned, piling the dishes into the sink. “Say, wanna head out for a drink after? Just the two of us.”
She looked down and away, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Umm, Brad, thanks but, but the thing is, I actually— umm— I have a date tonight, and I’d hate to bail on him now so—”
“Oh don’t worry about it then. Raincheck?”
He looks back at the dishes still scattered around their bench.
“Why don’t you go on ahead to your… date. I’ll stay here and clean up the rest of this.”
“Really?” she breathed.
“Yeah,” he smiled, in a way that was hopefully convincing.
From the way her entire face lit up, he knew that it was.
“Thank you so much Brad!” she beamed, almost uncharacteristically wrapping him in a warm, grateful embrace.
And for a moment, Brad could forget that she wasn’t his to hold.
She stepped back, and he found his arms empty.
“I owe you so much Brad,” she breathed, “If it wasn’t for you I would’ve had to cancel.”
She looked down almost bashful,
“And I really like him. Like, really really like him. God, Brad, I think— I think he might be the one.”
And when she looked at him with those doe eyes, so full of hope and love for someone that wasn’t him,
he realised three fundamental truths at the exact same time.
There were three steps up to the stage. Placing a hand loosely on the railing, Brad attempted to make the first step. His knees felt weak, unsure whether it was from the alcohol or the nervousness building in the pit of his stomach.
Number one: I’m the guy in her world whose only job is to be her friend.
Because no matter what my heart wants, that was what hers needs.
A friend who could get her things from shelves too high for her to climb.
A friend of the loudest, friendliness, wittiest kind, to fish her out of the dark holes she finds herself while on the job.
A friend who’ll navigate the internet with her, cause the gossip’s insidious, take it all with a joke and a smile.
But that didn’t mean I’d love her any less.
We were at an old bar, the smell of whiskey and wine wafting through the stagnant air, still holding remnants of cigar smoke. Two buddies. Out for a drink.
We sat in a secluded booth, against the wooden panels and away from the general murmur from the other patrons. The rain outside hit the roof in a soft pitter-patter. Smooth, lazy jazz music cruised through the air.
A contemplative silence settled over the two of us, contrasting the turmoil that raged on inside of me.
I was going to do it. I had to.
I had to tell Claire how I felt before she saddled herself up with that guy she’d been seeing. What was his name? Howard? Henry? Harry?
Oh yeah, Harris.
I could do it. I took one giant gulp of my whiskey before turning to the woman beside me.
We laughed at our synchronisation, and all of a sudden, the nervous energy that had built up inside of me dissipated like a wave meeting the New Jerseyan shore.
“You first,” I say.
Common courtesy right?
“Brad I just wanted to thank you for being such a good friend to me. I don’t know how I would have made it through any of this if you weren’t here. Like today, today was absolute bull, but you being there made it better.”
She took another sip from her glass. I was about to start speaking, to profess how much I love you, when you looked up and started speaking again.
“And I’m sorry so many people on the internet want us to be together. Like, why can’t the two of us just be friends, you know? Like you’re amazing and I love you, but just because we’re close doesn’t mean I love you like that. And I wish sometimes the rest of the world could understand that.”
She smiled again and nudged me in the side,
“But I’m glad that you understand, and I just wanted to thank you for that.”
She empties her glass,
“Now what were you going to say?”
My throat felt dry. And I wanted to throw something. And cry.
I cleared my throat.
“More or less the same thing, how much of a pleasure it is to be your friend. I’m a really lucky guy.”
“Thanks Brad, you’re like my brother, you know,”
I forced my mouth to smile despite the bitter aftertaste of her words,
“I guess that makes you my sister.”
The second step required a bit more focus— something his brain had steadily less and less of. Balancing on the foot on the first step, he swung his leg, which felt as heavy as lead, onto the second step. Wobbling only slightly, he steadied himself on the railing.
Number 2: She was my sister. My sister .
I’d have had to be naïve— or stupid— to believe that she would have loved me like that.
Maybe that was why.
Why I let her go to Harris, now that’s her groom.
Nice going, Brad, you’ll never be satisfied.
Happy shrieks and laughter and clapping greeted my ears when I entered the test kitchen. Everyone had gathered at the far end of the room where Claire would be filming that day.
“Congrats Claire!” exclaimed Molly, enveloping her in a hug.
“What for?” I asked with a grin, moving through the crowd to stand next to them, “What’s ol’ Half-Sour done this time?”
Molly let go of Claire and I saw her left hand.
And the engagement ring that sat there.
“You know, this was only possible because of Brad,” Claire smiled as Carla took her hand to inspect the ring, “I don’t think any of this could’ve happened if you hadn’t helped me that night last summer so I could go out on that date. Harris said that that was when he realised it was time.”
“And about time too,” Carla added with a grin.
Claire laughed and nudged my side playfully,
“Yeah, so thanks for everything Brad.”
I forced himself to grin, even though I felt like throwing up,
“Well Half-Sour, if it took fighting a war for you to go to that date, would have been worth it.”
The third step was the same height as the stage. The last one. He gripped the railing even tighter, tight enough to make his knuckles go white.
Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.
Number 3: I know Claire Saffitz like I know my own mind.
You’ll never find anyone as trusting or as kind.
But I had my chance and sometimes you can’t change the path you’ve chosen.
If I told her now that I love her,
God knows what would happen to our friendship.
Now on the stage, the MC hands Brad the microphone and steps back. The lights dim and focus on him. The people around fade into the shadows against the glare and the black spots clouding his vision.
But when I fantasise at night,
It’s Claire’s eyes,
As I romanticise what it might have been,
If I had done things just a little differently.
But at least I’m her best friend.
And at least I can keep her eyes in my life.
Brad lifts his glass.
“A toast to the groom.”
He makes eye contact with Harris.
Look after her, okay? Make sure she doesn’t overwork herself. And when she gets sick— which is often— make sure she eats garlic. It’s the an... ana… whatever that chemical inside garlic is called.
Be good to her. She’s my sister.
“To the bride.”
His eyes move to Claire.
I hope you’re happy, Half-Sour. I really, really do. Cause that’s all I really want from you. I’m not a hundred percent sure what you see in him,
but I can see he makes you happy in a way I couldn’t do.
So I’ll step aside. I’ll stand by.
“From your brother,”
Brad winks and Claire laughs from where she sat with her new husband.
Cause at least I’m here. Your brother in everything but blood. Somehow I knew you before I met you and I’m just really glad you let a poor, handyman like me hang around.
Cause when I see you, sometimes I still feel like the lowly intern who was so proud to help out this amazing senior editor.
But you’re my best friend. And I love you.
“Who’ll always be by your side.”
He watches as the audience also start raising their glasses.
And I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Claire. I’ll always be here, even when all your hairs are grey and this beanie I wear can’t hide that bald spot anymore,
I’ll always stand by you.
For every step. I’ll be there.
“To your union.”
His voice breaks a little as Brad try to suppress the tear that threatened to fall.
It was done. No more chances. This was it. Brad Leone would never, ever, ever be Claire Safftiz’s. Up until this moment. It felt like a dream. But now it’s reality.
There was nothing else for me to do.
Except accept it. And let her go.
“And the hope that you’ll provide.”
His hand shakes under the strain and alcohol, but he lifts his glass higher anyway.
I saw the silhouettes of their family and friends against the bright lights. All these people. Supporting this newly married couple. The hope that they would be happy. The hope that they would love each other until the very end.
The hope that this decision was the right one.
And it was. There was no other choice.
“May you always,”
Brad moves his arm so that his glass pointed towards the new couple. He saw the audience do the same.
I hope and I pray that you’ll always be happy. That you’ll always be healthy. That you’ll always feel like you are as wonderful and amazing as you are. That you’ll feel fulfilled and loved.
That you’ll always—
He closes his eyes. He couldn't look.
And I know she’ll be happy as his bride.
She’ll always be satisfied.
But I’ll never be satisfied.
The night moved along robotically. Brad cut himself off the wine, but everything was still a bit of a blur. The night around him moved along, a flurry of celebration and activity, as family and friends mingled. All the BA guys were dancing with their partners, oblivious to the pain inside of him. He mingled with the ‘oldies’, reminiscent of a pie competition in Denver, in a time long ago, wooing practically all of Claire’s aunts.
But when Claire’s painstakingly crafted eight layered cake was cut and passed around. He couldn’t stomach it.
The emptiness was numbing.
Finally, the newlywed couple bid good night, leaving their guests to entertain themselves. At this point, all the people he knew had left for the night, leaving just him hunched over the bar, nursing a pathetic glass of wourder that wasn’t quite filled up to two thirds.
He let his mind wander as the loud noise dimmed down to a quiet murmur behind his closed eyes.
“You know, for someone whose best friend just got married. You look pretty glum.”
He looked up and suddenly the blur of his alcohol-induced vision, focussed in on this woman. His shock must have shown on his face.
She chuckled gently and sat on the stool next to his,
“You look like shit.”
He barked out a laugh,
“Feel like it too.”
He stuck out his calloused hand for a handshake,
“Brad. Brad Leone.”
The woman smiled, taking it in her own and shaking it in a firm grip,