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tagRomanceThe Unbucket List

The Unbucket List

byvanmyers86©

Author's note: This is my entry for the Literotica 2020 Summer Lovin' contest. Although this story is a stand-alone tale, many of the characters previously appeared in So Many Kinds of Love.

All sexual encounters occur between consenting, eager and loving adults.

Copyright ©2020 to the author.

**

The chatter of the sprinkle-smeared children at the next table echoed through my head as I dug my spoon into the sundae the server had just placed before me. Across from me, my best friend already had the first bite of peanut butter cup ice cream in her mouth, and I watched with amusement as her eyes fluttered shut and she leaned back to swallow, then moan.

"What a good idea this was," Gabriela said, slowly opening her eyes once more. "Why don't we come here more often?"

Making sure I had the perfect ratio of ice cream, cookie dough, fudge sauce and whipped cream on my spoon, I laughed. "Because we' both weigh four hundred pounds if we did?"

Gabriela shook her head. "Don't be silly. You're still too skinny."

The giant spoonful finally made it past my lips, and the contrast of its sweet, smooth coolness to the afternoon heat was everything I could have wanted. Letting it melt slightly in the warmth of my mouth, I luxuriated in the feel of the rich cream coating my tongue. It tasted heavenly, and I moaned in my turn.

The older lady overseeing the noisy brood at the next table turned to us and smiled. "I'll have what she's having!" Catching the movie reference, we all laughed before she returned to the full-time job of keeping the energetic kids from destroying the ice cream parlor altogether.

To me, Carolyn's Creamery smelled of chocolate and childhood. I vaguely recalled a birthday party here once, and the large mirror behind the counter triggered a memory of myself looking at my reflection as I sat on my father's broad shoulders, scared I might fall despite his large, strong hands holding me firmly in place.

Peering into the mirror, I had sighed. My dad had died when I was just six, and I had few recollections of him. That in itself made today doubly precious to me.

I hadn't eaten here in years, but now that I had entered remission from the cancer that had nearly killed me, I found myself wanting to revisit places from my past. Gabby, a psychiatric resident, said it was part of reintegrating myself. Me, I just wanted to reassure myself that I had even existed before cancer.

Before Cancer. B.C. How appropriate. Sometimes, my old life seemed like an ancient dream. Still, however hazy my past looked, it nevertheless appeared a whole lot clearer than my future.

Having wrung out the full pleasure of our first bites, Gabby and I turned our attention back to our sundaes. Her new engagement ring twinkled in the afternoon sunshine streaming in through the blinds, lifting my spirits further. My brother adored Gabby, and I might have felt more excited than they did when he proposed. Gary and I didn't have much family, so the idea of having a sister-in-law I already knew and loved filled my heart to bursting.

It seemed like we had always been friends, but we had met in my first year of college and her first year of medical school. We had bonded right away over a bizarre performance of Shakespeare's monologues in the library where we both studied. After security took the would-be actor away -- I had never heard anyone shout "Unhand me, varlet!" in a non-theatre setting before -- we started talking and never really stopped.

Had Gary not come home and immediately fallen for her, Gabby and I would have remained close, but our friendship wouldn't have deepened in quite the way it did. She made a sacrifice for me during my cancer treatments that went far beyond the boundaries of normal friendship, and I will never forget it -- or stop loving her for it.

Always beautiful, Gabby's face had found a new glow as her relationship with Gary had grown and blossomed. I felt so happy for them, and yet...

Putting her spoon down, Gabby regarded me. "OK, what's up?"

Startled, I looked into her deep-set brown eyes. "Nothing."

Cocking her head, she gave me her best "don't fuck with me" look. "Try again."

Shrugging, I poked at a pool of hot fudge with my spoon. "I'm just wondering ... well, it sounds silly."

My friend's look seemed to pass right though me and into my soul. "Which means it's probably not silly at all."

Looking at the little tableaus of ordinary life all around us, I saw parents and grandparents trying, with varying degrees of success, to restrain the children with them; a few singles staring at their phones while absently eating their ice cream; and couples, some loving, others some bored but together anyway. I wondered if any of them knew how fast and easily they could lose it all.

I took a deep breath. "It's just ... how do I start again?"

Gabby nodded encouragingly, and I stumbled on. "I feel like I had this life, and it was a good one, and I worked so hard to build it! And then cancer almost took it away. But I got lucky. I had a good doctor. I survived."

"You did," she agreed, her voice barely audible over the shrieking kids and eighties pop music playing from the ceiling speakers

I thought for a second. "Then I got through the pandemic, too. And that was hard in its own way. I always thought I was an introvert -- until I was forbidden to be around people."

Gabby nodded. Like most mental health professionals, she was still seeing the fallout from the pandemic, the fault lines in relationships and individuals exposed by isolation, grief and distrust.

"I think a lot of people found that out," she said, her voice gentle. "But go on."

One of the nearby children demanded more sprinkles on her ice cream, making me smile. "But now I feel good again and my hair's growing back, even if it's different."

Diverted, her eyes darted to my hair. "It's cute, though. You look good with curls."

Still amazed at their springy softness, I fluffed my new ringlets and came to the crux of the matter. "Dr. Hsu says I'm in remission and I'm good to go ... but where? And how?"

Steepling my fingers, I looked at the tin ceiling tiles as if they held my answers. "I feel like I've been shoved on a stage in front of an audience with no script and everyone's looking at me to deliver the next line. But I don't know it. I don't know which character I am. I don't even know which play I'm in anymore. I look around and everything looks the same, but somehow I don't recognize it anymore."

Spooning up the last of her sundae, Gabby swallowed blissfully, licked her spoon and set it down, giving me all her attention.

"Do you want me to listen, or do you want advice?" she asked.

Shrugging again, I set my own spoon down in the melted remains of my sundae. "Either. Both."

We smiled at each other, and I thought again how lucky I was to have a best friend who understood me so well.

"I think you're trying too hard, and maybe overthinking this," she said.

"Overthinking is what I do," I protested, only half joking. "I overthink, therefore I am."

Snorting lightly at the old joke, Gabby regarded me for a long moment, the outlines of her face softening as a cloud hid the sun.

"Of all my friends, you're the one I'd call truly self-made," she finally said. "You crawled out of a terrible situation and put yourself through college with no help from anyone. I mean, Gary loved you and supported you, but he was in the navy. He couldn't be there in the lifeboat with you."

"He would have if he could, but -- yeah. I rowed that damn boat all by myself."

"And you got back to the shore safely." She laughed suddenly. "Gary's infected us both with his metaphors! Silly writer man."

Giving her ring a fond glance, she took a breath and forged on. "And you kept rowing, and got to shore, and built yourself a good, secure life, the kind you wanted as a kid and couldn't have. And now, you're left with the trappings -- you still have a good job and a beautiful home -- but that security is gone. And now, the person you thought you were is gone too. Is that fair?"

Shivering from a sudden blast of air conditioning, I nodded, relieved to hear her say it out loud. "That's exactly it. If I'm not Layla 2.0, who am I?"

The sun shone through the blinds suddenly, picking up the dark reds and browns in my friend's almost-black hair. She gave a little shrug. "Layla 3.0?"

"I guess. But how do I figure out who she is?"

"Who says you have to do that right away?" She folded her hands in front of her and leaned forward. "Here's my advice, for what it's worth: Take some time just to be. Get out of your head and just enjoy the summer. Write down some cool things you always wanted to try and start doing them. I think that's how you find Layla 3.0 -- through action, not thinking."

I smiled. "You realize I've already written down my list, right?"

Gabby grinned back at me, no longer the psychiatrist-in-training. "An un-bucket list! What's on it?"

Chair legs scraped on the tile floor, and the colorful brood of kids next to us trooped out, leaving only the plaintive wail of Simon Le Bon closing out "Ordinary World" to distract us.

"Well, I've wanted to take a hot-air balloon ride since I was a kid. And travel overseas, maybe to England and Scotland and Ireland."

"Outlander country, in other words?" Gabby asked, knowing my obsession with Diana Gabaldon's books and the TV show based on them. I didn't ordinarily go for redheads, but Sam Heughan had made me rethink my position on that point.

"You know it! Maybe I'll find a sexy Scot." I sighed. "And I want to keep learning French and maybe travel to Quebec and France someday."

"For the crepes, or the Frenchmen?"

"Both!"

We laughed, and I let myself imagine a dark-haired man with a seductive accent plying me with crepes Suzette and hot, deep kisses.

"What else?" Gabby asked after a bit.

"Hmm. Speaking of France, I want to learn to make some delicious French foods -- the perfect soufflé, coq au vin, onion soup, crusty bread and crepes. All served with wine, or really good coffee, of course."

Despite having just filled up on the best ice cream sundaes in York County, we both sighed at the thought of all that deliciousness.

"You'd better invite me over for dinner, then. You're already a good cook," she said. "If you master the art of French cooking, look out, world! What else?"

I considered this. "I want to fly a plane. Get a really good massage. Buy a hammock for my backyard so I can nap out there."

"I love my hammock!" Gabby interjected. "So relaxing."

I chuckled. "I know! Gary told me. And speaking of him, I'd like to sing in public, maybe with him when he does an open mic. Get back to collecting good books. Have some wonderful sex with a man who truly cares for me. And make a difference. Give back."

I paused. "Even this hot fudge sundae was on my list. When chemo destroyed my taste buds, I'd try to imagine anything that might taste good." Glancing down at my dish, I sighed once more. "I can't tell you how amazing it is to be able to taste properly again."

Looking up, I spotted tears in Gabby's eyes. "What are those for?"

Blinking, she wiped her eyes. "You just reminded me how close we came to losing you -- and how much I take for granted."

Reaching across the table, she gave my hand a little squeeze. "That's an awesome list. Let me know what else on it I can help you achieve."

A new gaggle of brats took over the table next to ours, and we didn't even need to look at each other to decide it was time to go. As one, we rose and grabbed our dishes to take to the counter, following a slender middle-aged man with a boy. Probably his son, I decided, and killing some time on his custodial weekend.

"So which one do you want to check off first?" Gabby asked as we made our way through the dining room.

I grinned at her over my shoulder. "Some are more doable than others. But the singing, balloon ride and hot sex are definitely at the top of the list."

Turning back around, I nearly ran into the man in front of me, who had almost stopped while I wasn't looking. "Sorry."

Squinting at me from under his frayed baseball cap, he attempted a smile. "No worries. And hey, if you want any help with that list..."

Exasperated with his presumption, I shot him a look. "I don't."

The boy tugged at his arm. "Can we go now, Dad?"

Slightly forlorn, the man looked at me again. "Sorry. It was my attempt at breaking the ice."

"You need to work on your technique. It sucks," Gabby informed him briskly, sliding her dish into the pan of sudsy water.

"Come on, Dad!" The boy was hanging on his father's arm, pulling with all his strength towards the front door.

Mouth slightly open, the man stared at me helplessly even as he followed his son out the door.

Dumping my dish into the water, I shook my head. What had just happened?

"I predict you'll have no trouble at all with at least one item on your list," Gabby said thoughtfully, and we trooped out the door, squinting and shading our eyes against the late afternoon sun.

**

The pandemic changed the way a lot of us do our work. My boss had decreed that we would all work remotely until scientists developed a vaccine, and that policy change had worked out very well for me during my cancer treatments and recovery. Whenever fatigue hit me, I could collapse on the couch and either nap or simply work from there until I felt well enough to sit up again.

My brother, mother and I had converted part of my large living room to an airy, sunny workspace. A round wooden table fit the odd space created by the old bay window, and a guy Gary knew from the hospital had painstakingly lifted the floorboards to install an electrical outlet right by the table. After months of enduring an experimental cancer treatment, my balance and motor skills had needed serious retuning. One thing I didn't need on top of everything else was to trip over a power cord and have a bad fall, my mother had pointed out. As usual, she was right.

Now reasonably strong again thanks to yoga and regular workouts with Gary, I simply enjoyed the space. From my ergonomic, comfortable chair, I never tired of watching the trees ringing the playground across the street from my rowhouse or hearing the gleeful shrieks of kids at play, so different from my own bleak childhood.

My home pleased me too. The glowing oak paneling, original to the 1900s-era building, felt like satin when I ran a hand over it. Shelves under the windows held all my favorite books, and a row of herbs on the top of shelves scented the air with rosemary, lavender and sage.

My furniture and art came in all shades of the rainbow, of course -- the minute I had bought my own place, I had indulged in all the beautiful hues my stepfather had denied me during my childhood. Gary gently teased me about living in an Easter basket, but I ignored him. Color had always made me happy, and I felt sure it had helped me heal.

As I worked on a spreadsheet, a bubble popped up with Smitty's smiling avatar.

"Hey baby -- how's my favorite Pennsylvania girl?"

A couple of jabs, and the spreadsheet went away, replaced by the gap-toothed portrait of my brother's best friend from the navy. He'd started emailing me during my illness and we somehow had never stopped.

"I'm good -- happy to hear from you! Where are you this time?"

"Stateside for once! San Diego. Got here yesterday. They got a nice big base here with the prettiest senoritas nearby..."

I smirked. Smitty loved to boast about all his women.

"How many have you already seduced?"

A little pause stretched into a longer one, and I frowned. Smitty normally messaged like he did everything else -- fast and flirtily. Well, not that I had never met Smitty in person. But that's what Gary told me.

"Only two or three dozen," he finally texted.

I grinned, comfortable once again. "You're slowing down!"

"Yeah. I'm thirty now. Getting old."

"Yeah, time to get yourself a rocking chair and a ratty old cardigan. And some butterscotch candy to keep in the pocket."

Another odd pause.

"Look, I got a question for you."

"Yes?"

"Remember when you were so sick, I said I'd come to Pennsylvania and take you on the best date of your life?"

I sat up straight and looked at the screen again to make sure he had really typed that. The faint sounds of children playing outside penetrated the drafty old window frame as I stared at the words.

"Yes," I finally replied.

"How does next month sound?"

Disoriented, I gazed at the computer screen for several seconds. Smitty and I had great conversations, but mostly kept to the surface -- places we'd like to visit, our favorite foods and movies, stuff like that. I had even sent him my un-bucket list. But he had given exactly no signs of anything but friendly concern for his buddy's sister.

"Sounds good -- but are you sure?"

"Sure I'm sure. Are you not sure?"

I thought for a moment. At the time, his promise had given my spirits a huge boost, but I hadn't taken it seriously, so this whole conversation seemed slightly surreal.

"It's just kind of random," I texted.

"Only to you, baby. I've been planning to visit for a long time. I want to see Shorty and meet you and his fiancée in person. This is the first time I've been near the USA in months."

Blinking, I gave myself a shake and decided he wasn't the only one who could flirt.

"You're pretty cocky to think you can give me the best date of my life. What makes you so sure?"

His reply was swift and certain.

"I've got your list, baby. I guarantee you'll have at least four things crossed off by the time we're done."

Another pause as I sat back and stared at the screen.

"What do you think?"

The sheer reckless momentum of it grabbed hold of me then, and I giggled.

"I'm in!"

I'm pretty sure the kids outside heard my squeal of joy.

**

The weeks leading to his visit flurried by as July deepened into August and I got to work on my list. One of Gary's colleagues at the hospital knew a fantastic message therapist, and she gave me the rubdown of a lifetime. I had never considered how good it would feel to have even my toes massaged, but before the end of the session, she had converted me to the cause.

Gabriela's sister Jessica found me a signed copy of Julia Child's The Way to Cook, and I started making recipes from it each week for the family suppers that brought my mother and brother to my home each Thursday evening. The dinners had started during my cancer treatments as a way to keep my morale high, and it felt good to take over the cooking and give back to the people who had seen me through those excruciating days.

Meanwhile, Mom had a buddy who worked at the state capital in Harrisburg, and he gave us a VIP tour of the building. We agreed later that the highlight was standing on a balcony outside an executive office and singing part of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," trying hard to keep from giggling as we sang and hoping the official wouldn't return unexpectedly.

With every step, I gained confidence that my future looked better than I could have imagined.

Pennsylvania can get as gaspingly hot as the Deep South when it puts its mind to it, and the summer heat every night made me long for central air conditioning as I listened to my window unit rattle away the hours. My medical insurance had paid for most of my cancer expenses, but I still had bills. Central air would have to wait till next year.

But even lying in a clammy bed couldn't keep me grumpy for long. As I got on with living, my growing friendship with Smitty became an important part of that. The sporadic texts between us caught fire, and soon we were exchanging dozens every day. The messaging app we used had a call function, and within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves talking for at least an hour each night.

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