You never know what party will be the one. The one that people talk about for days, weeks or even years to come. The one that other parties are judged against. The one that people say, "Wait, were you there? Tell me what happened!"
Ansley wouldn't have thought this lowly kegger at Baylor University would signal a pivotal point, a sea change in her life as well as fodder for cocktail parties for months to come. She didn't know, but she should've seen it coming.
Parish, her fiancé, picked her up at her sorority house and drove her to the party, which was only a mile away, in his new silver BMW 700 Series. It was a graduation gift. They both were graduating from the university in a few days.
Driving to the party, Parish was quiet, but Ansley had more than enough to say. They had been engaged for two months and the wedding was a year away, but Ansley had already decided to have a Vera Wang dress custom-made, hire Bronwen Weber to design the wedding cake because she made beautiful and tender yellow cakes. Yellow cakes were the hardest to keep moist, Ansley knew. She was a baking expert. She had been whipping batter since she could pull a step stool up to the counter. Ansley bet Bronwen folded whipped cream into her batter, added a couple tablespoons of potato starch and a combination of oil and butter to keep the cake from getting dry. Well, that's what she would do. She was toying with where to have the reception. They could do something traditional and moneyed like the Fairmont or the Adolphus, or they might opt for something totally radical and have it at the zoo or their favorite dive bar, with the corrugated steel fencing around the patio.
"Maybe the botanical garden," Ansley said. "Or we could hit up one of our parents' rich friends and do it on their grounds. My momma is close with the Hunts."
"We're not deciding this right now, are we?" Parish asked.
"No, but soon," Ansley said as she changed the CD from some rap that Parish claimed he liked to Gil Gilberto. She had a thing for Brazilian music. It made her feel a little wild.
Parish gripped the steering wheel tighter. He hated it when she changed the music without asking. He thought it was rude. He was right, but Ansley reasoned that she could be a little rude with the man who loved her unconditionally. In marriage, you let a few of the niceties slide, she thought. You get to be more your authentic self.
Ansley's authentic self wanted her way all the time. She usually got it.
Ansley leaned over and kissed Parish's cheek to soothe him about the music. He smiled slightly.
"So, what do you think?" Ansley asked.
"Of your musical choice?"
"Botanical garden? Bar?"
"What about Neiman's? That's your favorite place in Dallas," Parish said as he parked right in front of the Greek Revival frat house.
"Sure, we can set up a lounge area in the Chanel section and get them to give people free makeovers at the makeup counter. Half my sorority sisters wear the wrong shade of lipstick," Ansley said sarcastically. But really, she knew that it was her choice. If he wasn't going to seriously discuss it, fine. She'd get back to him when she made a decision.
Parish opened her door and she grabbed his hand as they headed to the party.
They walked into the frat house. It looked like Tara with its huge white columns and manicured rolling lawn, but as soon as one stepped inside, that comparison evaporated. The place was a hodgepodge of eras. There was a mid-century-modern coffee table in the shape of a kidney bean and a sofa that was weighed down with blue and white pinstriped throw pillows from the eighties. The living room was littered with people. Parish waved to someone and headed toward the fireplace. Ansley walked to the kitchen. She didn't want to be trapped in a conversation about what companies were offering high-paying positions and what law schools were hard to get in. Ansley knew what she was going to be doing-getting married, entertaining and raising a family.
Her whole life she dreamed of getting married. Ansley had been raised to believe that one of the highest honors a woman can achieve is to marry right out of college and never have to work. If she chose to work for a charity or start a clothing line, that was fine. But she would never have to pull down a serious paycheck. Parish was the answer to her life's goal. In Texas, most men his age were thinking marriage. But Parish was more stylish and romantic about it, and he was hers.
Also, Parish always had a certitude about him. He wasn't one of the men on campus who played the field and equivocated for months before choosing a girl. A week into her sophomore year she was formally introduced to him. He said, "Ansley. I've always liked that name for my little girl." He proclaimed his love for her to his friends, to her friends and to all concerned parents six months after they met. For Valentine's Day, he bought her a platinum necklace, one that didn't bear a cheesy heart, like the ones most fraternity boys bought. Instead, it was a square pendant with a child's profile etched on it because he said the child represented what he hoped their future together would hold.
Not many people could say that everything they had planned for their lives since they were ten was exactly what happened to them, but Ansley could. Her life was going exactly as she'd hoped. Everything had always fallen into precise place. She had followed every Dallas girl's dream life, down to being a natural blonde. College, engagement and love were all happening like clockwork.
Ansley sauntered back to the kitchen. This is where the women were. Clumps of three or more girls stood together drinking beer out of red plastic cups. Ansley saw two of her sorority sisters-Patty and Claire-talking to a girl from another sorority. They were each rubbing one of her shoulders, comforting her like she was a three-year-old who had scraped her knee. Ansley headed over.
"What happened?" Ansley asked in a soothing, sympathetic voice.
"I thought he was going to do it. I thought he was going to propose. He made a reservation at Jeffrey's in Austin and booked a hotel room in case we got too tired to drive home. He told me to wear something sexy," the girl sputtered, and broke into tears. Her face quickly turned red and blotchy.
"Did he break up with you?" Ansley asked, in fact-finding mode.
"No, he told me we'd try to make long distance work. The dinner was to celebrate his new job," she whined.
"You will be in Dallas and he'll be...?" Ansley asked.
"In South America," she said, and couldn't talk anymore. The crying became silent and heaving.
"You're never gonna get engaged to him now," Ansley pronounced. She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head no, emphasizing the finality and severity of her words.
Her sorority sisters, who stood on either side of the girl, looked horrified. They patted her back hard as if they were counteracting Ansley's harsh words with their hands.
"You can absolutely get engaged. You're going to go see him in September, right?" Patty said.
"September is a long way away," Ansley scoffed.
"You have email and video phone," Claire countered Ansley.
The girl looked up hopefully. She sniveled as her crying lessened.
Ansley smiled at her. The girl smiled back. Ansley did a visual appraisal of the girl, starting with her feet and moving slowly up to her face. The girl was cute. She was maybe five foot two inches. Her legs were chunky. She had very little differentiation between her ankles and calves. She had perky breasts, a flat stomach and toned arms. Her neck was a bit thick. Her brown hair was cut into a long bob. She had freckles, a narrow face and a humped nose. She was clearly cute, not pretty.
"There's no chance in hell. As soon as he gets down there and starts visiting the beaches and the bars he'll forget about you. You're cute, but not gorgeous enough to wait for. In two years he'll bring his Spanish-speaking wife to Dallas. Start thinking about getting a job now."
The girl grunted like she had been hit in the stomach.
Patty took a step toward Ansley and whispered, "Why did you do that?" Patty was the sorority sister Ansley got along with the worst. Not only were Patty and Parish friends, which drove Ansley crazy, Patty always championed the underdog and Ansley had no use for those people. She once told Patty the world needed the underdogs to be underdogs because they made it clear that people like Ansley and Patty were superior.
"She needed to know the truth," Ansley said without a hint of empathy and loud enough for the girl to hear.
Her sorority sisters looked at her like she was the devil. Ansley didn't care. It was better that the girl face facts. This way she won't waste years pining after a guy who is obviously trying to let her down gently. In Ansley's mind, she was being helpful.
The girl was crying so hard now that it was hard to understand what she was saying. Patty kept saying, "It's okay. It's okay."
Ansley scanned the room for the next group to join. She saw Parish watching her from the doorway. She smiled and walked over to him.
"Missed me?" Ansley said as she wrapped her arms around him and cuddled up to his chest.
"Not exactly," Parish said.
"You were thinking dirty thoughts," Ansley said, and giggled, "Your face was so serious when you were looking at me I knew you had to be concentrating on not getting a boner."
"I wasn't thinking anything sexual," Parish said, and pulled Ansley's hands off of his shoulders.
Parish looked at her with eyes filled with sincerity and then he looked at the girl whom Ansley reduced to a puddle in the corner.
"I can't believe you made her hysterical. That poor girl," Parish said.
"She needed to know that he wasn't going to marry her. She has to start looking for a new one," Ansley said in a sweet teacherly voice.
"A new one?"
"A prospect, a potential husband," Ansley explained as she laced her fingers in his hair.
"How good a prospect was I?" Parish asked with a slight smile on his face.
"The best. That's why I wanted you."
"But you love me?"
"Of course I do."
"It seems like quite a coincidence that I'm a huge catch and you love me," Parish said as he leaned against the door frame and watched the party.
"Well, I love you because of all the things that make you a huge catch, so it's not chance at all. It's because of who you are," Ansley said.
"You make a good point," Parish said.
"Are we debating something?"
"We're deciding something," Parish said. He was paying attention to the other people in the kitchen. He was studying them.
Ansley turned to see what he was looking at. He was staring at couples-couples holding hands, kissing, arguing. He was in sociology mode. Parish was always trying to figure out what made other people tick. It was one of the things Ansley loved about him. She thought that it was a skill that would help him excel in business. He was very smart socially.
"They look cute, don't they," Ansley said as she looked at a couple who were nuzzling each other. The guy sat down and the girl gave him an impromptu shoulder massage.
"They like each other," Parish said.
"They do," Ansley said, slightly annoyed by how obvious his observation was.
"I don't like you," Parish said. "You're mean to people."
Ansley laughed from shock. Whenever she was surprised or angry, her first instinct was to break out in giggles.
"I am not mean," Ansley said.
"You made that poor girl cry uncontrollably," Parish said, and motioned to the woman who was still sniveling on the opposite side of the room.
"She needed to know," Ansley said.
"Why? Why did she need to know? And even if she did 'need to know,' why did you have to tell her in such a nasty way?" Parish asked. The veins in his neck popped out as he spoke. His jaw muscles clenched. He was really upset.
"Well," Ansley stalled. Their relationship had made a seismic shift in the last few seconds and she wanted to shift it back. She knew that the next few words out of her mouth had the power to push them further apart or sew them back together. "I was trying to be honest."
Parish shook his head, "You don't even know when you're being mean."
"I know you're being mean right now," Ansley said.
"Why do I bother?" Parish said as he rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and threw his hands up in dismay.
"Screw you," Ansley said, annoyed at his superior attitude. She backed away from him.
Parish started laughing hard.
"What are you laughing at?"
"You're first instinct is to be mean," Parish choked out the words between laughs.
"Why is that funny?" Ansley asked, uncomfortable with all the people looking at them.
"It's not. That's the thing," Parish said. "I've been thinking about this for a long time-I was going to be nice and wait until we were alone, but you'd never do that, would you? Our engagement is off. Whenever you're ready, give me my grandmother's ring back. I wouldn't ask, except it's a family heirloom."
"Are you crazy?" Ansley screeched in shock. "How could you be so stupid? Here, take your old-fashioned 'heirloom' one-carat clunker back right now. You'll regret this, I promise." The whole room was looking at them now.
"Please," Parish said in a serious voice.
Ansley stared at him. She'd gone on offense to protect her pride, but really, she wanted to hold on to that beautiful ring forever. But she didn't think she had a choice. If she fought him about giving the ring back, more people would listen to their fight and it would become a bigger deal. No, she needed to give the ring back and talk to him once he'd calmed down and possibly sobered up. She didn't know if he'd had a couple of shots before he came into the kitchen but she was hoping he had. It would explain his behavior.
Parish closed his hand around the ring, stiffly hugged Ansley and whispered in her ear, "Good luck." He walked out of the kitchen, and Ansley found out later he smiled and waved at people as he headed straight to his car and drove off. One of his frat brothers joked that he seemed happier than he had in weeks.
Excerpted from The Icing on the Cupcake by Jennifer Ross. Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Ross. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.