Sometimes friends mean well, but the execution leaves much to be desired.
This story requires a bit of background. Some time ago, a fellow writer tweeted about how people are forever trying to pair her up with a fellow blogger: “We’re not fictional characters you can ship.” I liked that line and used it as a prompt, resulting in the bit of dialogue between the main characters here; the rest of the story was built upon that. There is no intentional resemblance between the aforementioned bloggers and the characters in this story, so please do not assume any relationship.
Shelby tapped her foot impatiently. She had been sitting in the coffee shop for twenty minutes waiting for her blind date to show up. She had come in annoyed, but having someone keep her waiting this long was the last straw. It was bad enough her friends believed she needed their help finding her soul mate; she didn’t need her potential Mr. Right to have time management issues on top of it.
She had only agreed to this date to get the others off her back. She was one of only two people in their group who wasn’t in a relationship. Apparently, they felt sorry for her and had determined the best way to “help” was to set her up with a complete stranger. Shelby had reasoned that it was only coffee, after all, and she could easily escape once they were through. She wasn’t particularly lonely, even if she was the only one who was convinced of that fact.
When the person holding the other rose walked through the cafe doors, Shelby’s jaw dropped. She was still picking her chin off the floor when his gaze fell on her. Oh, dear God, she thought as his eyes widened in recognition. He made his way to her table and plunked himself down across from her.
“Shelby. So you’re my date?”
“Yep. Sneaky, aren’t they?”
“Guess they thought the only two people who weren’t paired off belonged together, eh?”
Shelby groaned. “You know what this means, don’t you? We’ve been shipped.”
Dave blinked. “Shipped?”
“Like in fan fiction, when a writer puts two people together who they think belong with each other. You know, Bella and Jacob. Spike and Angel. Snape and the giant squid.”
Dave coughed. “Are you comparing me to Snape or to the giant squid?”
“Either.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, apparently our friends think of us as fictional characters.”
“Right—put together the people who aren’t with anyone. Because it really doesn’t matter whether we’re compatible.”
“Or if we’re seeing someone and just haven’t said anything.” Shelby raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, actually. We’ve already had sex and I’m pregnant with our love child.”
It was a very good thing Dave didn’t have anything in his mouth; he choked on his own saliva. “You are?”
“We’ve been together for some time now, but we’re planning to break up sometime in the next six months.”
“Um. What?” Dave managed to squeak.
Shelby rolled her eyes. “It’s my dissertation, you dolt. I spend all my waking hours that I’m not working whipping it into shape.”
“Oh. Well, um, good.” Dave cleared his throat. He appeared to have recovered somewhat. “So what are we going to do about our well-meaning but nosy and interfering friends?”
“Hm…good question. Perhaps a little revenge is in order.”
Dave smirked. “What did you have in mind?”
Most of Shelby’s friends were, like her, in graduate school. To break up the monotony of classes and the stress of their independent work, they were in the habit of getting together on a weekly basis for some Friday night down time. None of them were the type to enjoy the bar scene, so they usually gathered at one apartment or another. It was at one of these gatherings that Shelby and Dave put the first part of their plan into action.
All evening, they sat together, occasionally brushing against one another and leaning in to whisper in each other’s ears. The rest of the crew was not meant to know that Shelby and Dave were talking about their plan or even merely pretending to speak. More than once, Shelby caught the meaningful looks their friends exchanged. She smiled, knowing that they would interpret that as a sign of her happiness while she and Dave understood it to be part of their shared joke.
At one point, Marcie plunked herself down on Shelby’s right. She wasn’t rude enough to worm her way in between Shelby and Dave, but she obviously would have liked to do just that. Her goal was clearly to make both of them feel self-conscious while simultaneously extracting information from them. Her face was an exasperating mixture of smugness and curiosity.
“I see our little match-up worked out pretty well.”
Shelby smiled and hoped that it came across as blissfully in love. “Yes. We are so thankful that you were thinking of us. I’m not sure how we didn’t see it before.” She took great pleasure in condescending to Marcie without appearing to do so.
Marcie was, of course, oblivious. “That’s what we figured. Sometimes it can be so hard to notice what’s right in front of you. That’s how I ended up with Ted, after all.”
As though I haven’t suffered through that story more than once, Shelby thought. “I’m glad you’ve found each other.”
Marcie patted Shelby’s arm and stood up. “Joining us for a couple of games?”
“Sure,” Dave replied, though the question had been directed at Shelby. He squeezed Shelby’s shoulder before he too stood up and followed Marcie into the dining room.
Shelby decided to make it an early night. She had a large amount of reading to finish over the weekend, and she was already slightly behind where she wanted to be. She leaned into the dining room to call out her goodbyes.
“Aren’t you going to walk her out?” Marcie asked Dave, who had remained seated. This seemed to surprise him, but he rose from the table and stepped around to Shelby. The entire group was watching them.
When Dave reached Shelby’s side, he leaned in and whispered. “They expect me to kiss you goodnight. Do you want me to try to fake it convincingly, or is a real one okay?”
“Real is fine. Might as well put on a good show, right?”
Dave leaned in and pressed a soft, lingering but chaste kiss on her lips that left her feeling surprised at its semblance to a genuine lover’s farewell. “Goodnight, Shel.” He smiled at her, then winked conspiratorially.
“Goodnight.” She grinned back at him, even though her mouth was still just a little warm.
The plan was for Shelby and Dave to carry on for a couple of weeks, then stage a public break-up. Afterward they would reassure their friends that there were no hard feelings and that the whole thing had been their idea of a revenge joke. Shelby had no problem carrying on with that agreement, but Dave’s kiss had left her a little confused. She wondered if he had developed second thoughts about the arrangement.
After spending time together, both on their own and with various members of their group, Shelby determined that nothing had changed between them. When they were alone, Dave reassured her that he was still on board with their plan. The odd thing was, despite the fact that she agreed with him, Shelby found herself feeling more drawn Dave than she had before. She was amused that though they were growing closer in their friendship, they were “breaking up” their fake love connection.
When the Big Day finally arrived, Dave picked Shelby up a little early. “If we show up together, someone is bound to offer to drive you home.” He grinned. “Increases the tension and drama.”
Shelby laughed. “You’re evil.”
The get-together was at Eric’s. Shelby and Dave sat in his car, finalizing their script. Shelby was to accuse Dave of cheating on her, and Dave was to call her “shrill.” Among their friends, there was almost no insult worse. He figured it was all right, since they were going to clue everyone in afterward anyway. They climbed out of the car and proceeded up the walkway. While Dave pushed the buzzer for apartment 2A, Shelby put on her unhappy face and crossed her arms. Dave stole a peek at her to wink before Eric let them in.
Shelby and Dave remained apart from each other for long enough that the others perceived an arctic chill. Shelby saw Marcie and Eric swap worried glances. But it wasn’t until they were breaking out the cards that Dave made his move. He leaned in a little too close to one of the other women, prompting Shelby to glare at him.
She hoped she wasn’t overdoing it as she snapped at him, “Can’t leave them alone, even when they’re attached, can you?”
Dave straightened up. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, nothing. Or maybe the fact that I caught you with her again.”
He moved closer and lowered his voice. “This isn’t the time or place.”
“When is the time and place? Let’s go there.”
By this point, every eye was on them. They continued their mock fight until Dave said he was leaving. As predicted, there were several offers to drive Shelby home. Just before he reached the door, Dave turned around.
“Well, folks, it’s been lovely. But I have a confession to make.”
Shelby stepped over to his side. “Me too.” They faced their friends, side by side. “We staged the whole thing.”
No one’s mouth had remained in place. Slowly, the shock dissolved into frowns and angry murmuring among the group. Marcie appointed herself spokesperson. “Explain yourselves,” she demanded.
Shelby shrugged. “No one asked our opinion on whether or not we wanted you to arrange our lives. We were content to stay friends, but you were all so sure you knew us better.”
“We’re real people, you guys,” Dave said. “You can’t just take us out and play with us when the mood strikes. Let us worry about our own happiness.”
Marcie looked crushed. “But…but we thought that since we’re all paired off, you might, you know…”
“Be jealous?” Shelby asked.
“Right,” Shelby said. “But you didn’t ask. You didn’t listen to us when we said no. So we wanted to show you that your ideas and ours might not be such a good plan after all. Look what happened just from a fake break-up. What if it had been real? Whose side would you all have taken?”
Eric glared at them. “You could have just said something. Instead, you strung us along for weeks and then made us uncomfortable all night.”
Dave shrugged. “You made us uncomfortable for months implying we shouldn’t be happy unless we were attached. Just fighting fire with fire.”
Marcie was still pressing them for information. “So nothing happened between you?”
“Not what you were thinking, no,” Shelby admitted.
‘Remind me never to set anyone up on a date again,” Marcie grumbled. She seemed less unhappy, though.
The mood effectively shattered, people began finding their belongings and making their way out into the night. Shelby and Dave hung around until the end, apologizing to the others as they left. At last they were the only ones left; they bid Eric goodnight and returned slowly to Dave’s car.
“That wasn’t nearly as much fun as I had hoped.” Shelby sighed.
“They were really angry.”
“Yeah.” There was something else, too. Shelby hated to admit it, but she was going to miss the extra time she and Dave had been spending together for this extracurricular project.
Dave peered at Shelby cautiously out of the corner of his eye. “There’s something else.”
“Hm?” Startled, Shelby wondered if Dave had read her thoughts.
“Well…I was just thinking that I enjoyed spending time with you and getting to know you better.”
She smiled. “I was thinking the same thing. But—” She hesitated. What should she say? That she was worried that if she wanted to continue meeting up with him that it looked like she was sacrificing her ideals and her future? Or that if she said she didn’t want to spend time with him anymore that she might seem like a stereotype?
“You know, maybe we could just try doing exactly what we’ve been doing,” Dave suggested. “Studying and talking and…whatever.”
Shelby wrinkled her nose. “I hope you’re not suggesting being friends with benefits. Not really my thing.”
Dave turned to face her. “There are always benefits to being friends. I just meant we should try hanging out sometimes and see where it leads us. No matter where it leads us, even if that’s just back to the beginning.”
“You know, I think I like that.” She hooked her arm through his and they walked the rest of the way to his car.