August 19, 2014

Tessa's Story

By Zahra Barnes

Grant nuzzled my neck while I swam in that twilight space between sleep and the waking world.

“Mmmm. Feel. So. Good.” He traced a finger up and down my thigh in swirls that sent corresponding shivers through me.

I laughed at his caveman imitation and wriggled over so I was facing him.

“You really do,” he murmured, eyes still closed.

“So do you,” I whispered.

Our faces inched towards each other until, finally, we kissed. It was one of those movie moments where everything else faded away and we were drowning in each other. It just felt right. I won’t ever find this again, I thought to myself. I can forgive him. I have to.

“I love you so much, Sophie,” he breathed.

I yanked my head away, bewildered and blazing with hurt. Did he really just call me Sophie?! My thoughts fired wildly.

“What the hell, Grant?” I demanded. Well, I tried to. I felt my teeth loosening from my gums and piling up in my mouth. Each time I tried to speak, I could only sputter. Little nubs of enamel rained on Grant’s face in a cascade of clinks.

He threw his head back and laughed. “You have the best sense of humor. So much better than Tessa. That girl never could take a joke.” When he brought his face back down to eye-level, it was melting like candle wax. His eye sockets gaped as his features faded away into a grotesque mask. He gripped me tighter.

“It was all just a joke,” he grinned, his lips gumming together dreadfully.

I shoved him, panicked, trying to escape his grasp. I tumbled over the edge of the bed, falling for what seemed like forever.

I jolted awake before I hit the ground. Chest thumping, I looked around at my tangled sheets and heaved a sigh that was half-relief, half-annoyance. Another Grant dream. I’d thought maybe I could escape the relentless nightmares I have after every breakup, but apparently not. They just took some time to arrive in this case. After the night Liv and I went to The Grid’s boozy art event, they’d come for me with a vengeance. They’d varied from the terrifying kind I’d just had to an especially blissed-out one where Grant brought me a piƱa colada on a beach then gave me an orgasm (involving a mini umbrella, no less) that was so strong it woke me up, albeit in a much nicer way.

Knowing I wasn’t going to get back to my nap, I grabbed my phone to distract myself with Instagram. Shirtless men and puppies cure all, right?

As my phone blinked back to life, I saw that Grant had emailed me. I glanced at the timestamp, realizing it must have been around when my dream was turning into a nightmare. I warily gripped the skin of my wrist between two fingers and pinched as hard as I could. Apparently, I was awake. The email was real, and it was the first time he’d reached out since I’d moved into my new place. The dream was still so fresh; I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were an indentation in the mattress next to me like the kind people always cite as evidence that they’re haunted. I am haunted, I thought ruefully. How am I supposed to get over Grant if he’s just waiting for me every night? Now, seeing his name in my inbox, my heart was firmly lodged in my throat. There was no subject line and all I could see was, “Hey. I’ve been doing my best to give you space, so I hope this email is okay…”

I took a deep breath and tapped it. The full email read:

Hey.

I’ve been doing my best to give you space, so I hope this email is okay. How are you?

I miss you.

-G


Wait, I thought. What am I supposed to say? Oh, everything’s great, just having nightmares where you call me Sophie’s name and I almost pee myself like a scared, un-housebroken shelter dog. I stared at his message, thinking of the dream. It felt so real. I tried to wade through my warring emotions and figure out how I was going to respond.

The truth was, I was terrific some days, terrible the others. I’d been through breakups before, but never with someone I thought I was going to spend forever with. It was like a tug o’ war with my emotions: whenever I made progress, my mind mockingly said “not so fast” and ambushed me with a dream or memory I couldn’t shake.

I still didn’t know how I felt about getting back together with Grant. I wavered from day to day, but bottom line: I just wanted to feel like a whole person, with or without him. But these dreams always cast a cloud over my first few waking hours, making it hard to get on with my day. I buried my face in a pile of pillows and immediately heard a rapping on my door.

“Tessa?” Celine called through the flimsy wood. At least I don’t have to worry about her hearing me have sex through these paper-thin walls. Always look on the bright side.

“Mrrhhhhghhh.” I was still face-down in my pillow.

“Did you say you were going to go to the store for some liquor?”

I did. My friends were coming over now that I was all moved in, and I was so excited to show them the place. I had only had one true freakout when I was unpacking. It happened when I came across my favorite sweatshirt, a ratty relic from Grant’s freshman year at Columbia. I brought it to my face, inhaling like I was a huffer confronted with a vat of white-out. I’d spent the rest of the night lying on the floor, tracing cracks in the ceiling while I did the same with our relationship. After an hour or so, Celine had knocked quietly and found me splayed out on the floor. She’d looked at me with a now-that-won’t-do expression and physically hauled me up.

“We will have a party,” she said like a no-nonsense French mother who wouldn’t stand for any wallowing.

So, here we were. I had taken a quick nap after cleaning the place up, and I would need to shop now if I wanted enough time to get ready.

After a quick trip to Gristedes for munchies and the liquor store for some wine, I waddled back into the apartment weighed down with groceries.

Celine spun around to face me from the kitchen when I unlocked the door.

“Brilliant!” She looked luminous. Was that a French thing or just a Celine thing?

I set everything down and started to help her unpack, but she shooed me away. “Go, get ready! Your friends will be here soon. I left something to wear on your bed.”

Celine’s latest creation was waiting for me. I hopped in the shower before trying on the gauzy, wafty, trapeze dress that I would normally never wear. Its turquoise shimmer reminded me of sea glass. I looked at myself in the mirror and somehow, it worked. I ran into the kitchen and gave her a quick, grateful hug before tackling my hair.

I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup when I heard the buzzer.

“Allo?” Celine’s sing-songy voice echoed through our space.

“Hi! It’s Marley, Tessa’s friend.”

I was waiting at the door with a glass of red when Marley stepped over our threshold.

“Tessa!” She yelped giddily, then looked around in slight confusion as her voice bounced off the walls. She was wearing an all white outfit that reminded me of her chef’s gear.

“I know, it’s like a cave in here. Let me give you a tour!” I exchanged the glass of wine for the tupperware in her arms. I opened it and was greeted with the scent of her chocolate-caramel potato chip chips. The combo sounded disgusting, but I was convinced it was the nectar of the gods.

After a quick introduction to Celine, I walked Marley through the place.

“Your ass looks unreal in that dress.” Her voice rang out approvingly from behind me. I could always count on her to objectify me in a bizarrely pleasing way.

I turned around so we could talk face-to-face. “Celine made it. She’s insanely talented.”

Something flashed over Marley’s face, but it was gone in an instant. I wondered whether I had seen anything at all.

We ended up back in the living room while Celine got ready, nursing our glasses while we waited for the others to show up.

“So my latest Tinder date had some very obvious mommy issues.” Marley shook her head wistfully.

“Don’t they all?”

“Maybe, but I found out at absolutely the worst time.”

“Which would be…”

“Let’s just say he was latched on in a way that should have been sexy, but was creepy the second he called me ‘Mommy.’”

I goggled at her, equal parts horrified and disbelieving.

“Yeah. There are no words.” She drained the rest of her glass then headed to the bathroom.

I forced myself to be still, pretending I wasn’t overcome with the urge to grab my phone. I had left it in my room so I wouldn’t give into the temptation to email Grant back. Within a few minutes, my legs propelled me towards it. Wine always worked its witchy magic on me. I couldn’t help it.

Marley threw open the bathroom door as I walked past, intercepting me along the way just as the buzzer rang out. “Where are you going?”

“Just coming to find you! I bet that’s Finn and Amy.”

I leaned on the intercom’s “Listen” button and heard them talking over each other.

“I just don’t understand why you won’t listen to me.” Amy’s voice verged on a whine.

“Ames, I’m not making any big decisions now,” Finn sighed. “I just know that I need—“

I hastily pressed the “Door” button, hoping the squawk would shake them out of what seemed like a serious argument. I was dealing with enough drama of my own, I didn’t need to overhear anyone else’s.

“You made it!” I held up my glass in a quasi-toast as Celine let them in. I introduced everyone, doing my best to ignore Finn and Amy’s strained body language. Finn thrust a bottle of whiskey my way.

“It’s Woodford Reserve.” He knew I knew nothing about whiskey. “Good stuff. A celebration’s in order, right?”

“Right!” I poured it out over some ice and passed Finn and Amy two glasses, then showed them around.

“Wow, it’s really small, huh!” Amy craned her neck, as though she expected a whole other wing to reveal itself.

“It’s definitely cozy, which is nice because it already feels like a real home.” I was set on deflecting any weirdness. I didn’t want her taking things out on me just because she and Finn were having issues.

Celine took a sip of her drink and nodded. “Yes, that is the beauty of small spaces.”

We all got comfortable in the living room and Amy set in immediately. “So, how are you doing?” She had a pitying look on her face.

“I’m figuring it out!” I felt good, but really all I wanted was to escape to my room and email Grant back.

“I mean, it can’t be easy,” she continued, shoving some blonde tendrils back from her face. “You guys really did seem like the perfect couple. No one ever would have guessed it would end like…that.”

I eyed her, wondering why she wouldn’t let it go. Everyone looked about as uncomfortable as I felt. Marley leaned on me in what I saw as an act of solidarity during a thorny situation.

“Well, I don’t know that it’s necessarily over. I just need to figure it out. Anyway, excuse me for a minute! Bathroom.”

I hustled to my room, picked up my phone and composed a reply to Grant. That’s the good thing about being a tech-obsessed millennial; my fingers had done it all before my brain could talk me out of it.

I miss you, too, I emailed back. That was really all he needed to know. I shoved my phone underneath a pillow and returned to the living room, feeling giddy for no good reason.

I plopped down next to Marley. “How are you guys doing?” I was eager to steer the conversation away from anything touchy. We spent the next half hour catching up, and it was so good to just feel normal again. Amy seemed like she’d calmed down a bit until there was a lull in the conversation.

“Finn, tell them your news!”

“No, I’m fine.” He glanced at her and shook his head slightly. My interest was piqued, but I kept quiet. She’s pushing him, but you don't need to rock the boat, I thought. Amy got to me sometimes, but being a colossal bitch wasn’t on my agenda.

“I’m sure everyone will want to congratulate you.” Amy shot laser beams at Finn. This was not what I’d wanted the night to be. I certainly wasn’t a therapist, so I didn’t think I could handle any messy emotional purging in my living room. Did I want to be there for my friends? Absolutely. Did I want to do it while we were all fueled with alcohol and tension? Not quite.

“Amy.” Finn’s voice had an implicit warning.

“Finn wants to give up the best opportunity he’s ever had to ‘chase his dreams.’” Her acerbic tone stung me, and I wasn’t even involved.

“Seriously, now isn’t the time. Please, drop it.”

My head swiveled between the two of them. “Guys?” I was tentative, aware it was probably all going to blow up in my face. “What’s going on?”

Amy shot a triumphant look at Finn. She’d hooked me. “Finn got a job interview at Goldman.”

Goldman Sachs was huge. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t mentioned it during one of our countless Gchats.

“Finn! Are you serious? That’s amazing!” I was elated for him.

The silence that met me was deafening.

“Well, whether or not you take it, we should toast! Even just getting the interview is a big deal.” I got up to refresh everyone’s drinks.

It was only when I returned with topped-off cups and saw Finn’s pained expression that I realized this was exactly what he didn’t want.

“I don’t know if I’m going for it,” he admitted quietly.

Amy snorted derisively.

“He has the opportunity of a lifetime and doesn’t know if he wants it.” She glared at Finn. “Do you know how many people would kill for this job?”

I got a sudden vision of Emily Blunt in Devil Wears Prada, brusquely reminding Andy how many women wanted the position assisting Miranda Priestly. I just wanted, or even needed, us all to have a fun night together. Not witness the nuclear implosion of the one good relationship that still existed in my world. I especially didn’t want to get in the middle of another couple’s issues, especially when I could barely handle my own.

“You guys, maybe you should—“

“Yes,” Finn interrupted me hotly. “But maybe I’m not one of them. Do you seriously not give a shit that I don’t think I would be happy in the position? Are you that selfish?”

With that, Amy reared back as though he had slapped her. Then, she smiled. It chilled me. I saw the metal glint in her eyes and was glad I wasn’t the one facing off with her.

“Of course I care,” she said, with a biting sweetness. “But I can’t lie and say it isn’t pathetic that you’re too scared to take this opportunity.”

Finn’s face fell, and my anger flared up. I knew how much pressure he was under to make his family proud no matter how he actually felt, and I didn’t like that Amy was just piling on.

“Amy, lay off!” I couldn’t help snapping at her. “Finn’s purpose in life isn’t to bankroll your existence.” Between her digs at my apartment, badgering me about Grant and provoking Finn, I’d had enough. Finn looked so sad in his blue checkered shirt, his deep brown eyes downcast at his lap. Amy, on the other hand, was exhibiting an uncanny resemblance to the character of the same name in Gone Girl. The anger radiating under her composed surface was freaking me out.

“You know what, you’re right.” She flashed an icy smile at all of us. “Maybe I need to find someone who’s more on the same page as me.” With that, she got up and stalked out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her, leaving us shell-shocked in her wake.