September 30, 2014

Tessa's Story

by Zahra Barnes

I stared at Sophie, completely dumbstruck. I thought she hadnt even noticed us, and now she had the gall to come up and ask me for a quick chat? I was curious, and maybe if the situation had happened in a different way, Id even have listened. But shed known about me, known that Grant was going to stay with me, and kept after him. This woman obviously didnt have my best interest at heart.

I really dont think we have anything to talk about. My eyes darted around. Speaking of Grant, where was he? Werent mens restrooms supposed to be infinitely superior because of their short lines, allowing men to zip up and zip out?

Sophie shifted her weight, looking unsure of herself. Her hotness was practically searing my eyeballs, which was wholly unfair. I probably looked like a bedraggled mop, given my untamable hair and the windy night, while she was doing a winning impression of a Hollywood starlet.

I could see the moment she decided to plunge forward. She set her features into a stony mask, all traces of insecurity gone. Actually, we do. Listen, Im sorry for what happened. Forfor what I did. Her self-assuredness fell away as quickly as it had come. Im actually glad I got the chance to see you. That made one of us. Ive thought about reaching out to apologize to you, but I figured you wouldnt want to hear from me. So she wasnt completely devoid of brain cells! Then why was she confronting me? But the fact that we both ended up here, when I just came for my friends birthday. Its like fate, you know?

I glared. Id done my best throughout this entire ordeal not to be uncharitable in my thoughts about her, but she was making it exceptionally difficult. You have one minute. What is it?

Grant said he didnt love you anymore, she blurted out.

My heart seized, but I wasnt going to let her know what effect her words had on me. I rolled my eyes even though my neck was prickling with heat, and a lump had lodged itself firmly in my throat. After wondering many times if he could love me and still cheat on me, my first instinct was to take this as confirmation of the persistent voice that nudged me at night, hissing that he couldnt. I felt dizzy, and being on a boat didnt help. But wasnt Grant in the process of proving the complete opposite of what Sophie was saying?

I hoped my silence would come across like I wouldnt deign to respond to what shed said, rather than that I didnt trust my voice would be more than a squeak if I tried to speak. Thankfully, she was a terrible bluffer, and the rest spilled out in a rush. I mean, he said that even though he loved you, he didnt think it was worth it anymore. And that they might as well be the same thing.

Okay, breathing was a little easier now. Listen, Sophie. I dont know what your goal is here, but Grant and I are in a good place. I dont need you trying to ruin that. Again. Trying to ruin it again, I thought to myself. Hooking up with him was one thing. Actively pursuing him after? Whole different ballgame.

Im not trying to ruin it. She cast her eyes downward, looking sufficiently ashamed of herself. Im trying to make up for it. If I thought he were actually happy, I wouldnt be here talking to you right now.

I barked out a harsh laugh and turned away. Your minutes up. Whoever said dont shoot the messenger had clearly never been in such a tempting situation.

Look, Im not saying I dont get it. She moved into my frame of vision and adopted a pleading expression. She had the puppy dog eyes thing down pat. Hes charming. I had a huge crush on him for years, and I gave in during a stupid moment of weakness. Because of our conversation that night, I hoped he and I could be something real. That it wasnt just a hookup. I realized he thought it was just a dumb mistake, but that doesnt erase what he said. It seemed like he was finally being honest with himself, but after that, he just went back to his same old life with you. And I think its because hes scared. Well, I know it is. Because he told me. She was wringing her hands so hard I winced, worried Id soon hear a crack.

Why should I believe you?

Because he said he was realizing youd never really be able to slow down enough to give him the life he wanted, with the weekly Scrabble games and the Great Dane and a weekend house upstate. It felt so wrong, to hear her voice wrapped around the private wishes wed shared in breathless moments of love. My stomach roiled and I wanted to shove my hands over my ears, but I gritted my teeth and kept listening. I felt like I was about to grind them down into a fine powder. That he couldnt wrap his head around naming his kid Piper after an artist who acted like a psycho. That he thought your definitions of happiness didnt mesh, but you were all he really knew. As soon as I heard the word Piper, I knew she wasnt lying.

Grant was the only person Id ever told about how much I wanted to name a daughter Piper, in honor of Adrian Piper, an artist who did performative art pieces in public places in the 1970s. Feeling sick, I looked over Sophies shoulder and saw Grant standing there, stock still, just watching us. A deer in headlights had nothing on him. Sophie turned and paused before facing me again, shaking her head a bit.

I guess thats my cue to leave. Think about what I said. I know he doesnt want me, so what reason do I have to lie to you? I made a fool out of myself for nothing, she said with a rueful smile. I just dont want to see you do the same.

Sophie walked right past Grant on her way downstairs. To his credit, he kept his eyes on me as she breezed by. I stood and waited. No way was I making the first move to go over to him. Not when he wouldnt even come save me when Sophie had reduced my options to listening to what she had to say or leaping over the railing into the whitecaps below.

What was that about? Grant was next to me, peering at my face with a look of concern.

She completely ambushed me, thats what that was about.

What did she say?

Seriously? Can I ask the questions here? What did you say when you guys had that night together? I realized for the first time Id asked about what theyd done, but never about what theyd said.

He looked so uncomfortable I felt a flash of secondhand embarrassment for him. We were really drunk.

Youve mentioned that.

He opened and closed his mouth, struggling with his response, looking like a fish gasping for air.

Did you say you didnt love me anymore? I wanted to start with something outlandish so hed be more likely to agree when I asked something closer to the truth. Like a kid begging for a pony for Christmas when really, shell happily settle for a hamster.

What?! Of course not. He looked taken aback. Obviously I love you. I think trying again proves as much.

I softened on the inside, but kept at it. Okay, then whatever you said cant be nearly as bad as I thought.

He shook his head. No, but it still sucks to get into it when I thought we were putting this behind us. I just cant believe Sophies here.

I waited, again falling back on my knowledge that silence works wonders.

Like I said, we were drunk so I dont exactly remember everything. But I didnt say anything that would really be a surprise, you know? I was fed up with how much you were working and wasnt sure it made any sense to stay together, even though I love you. Obviously I realized it does. I was just dealing with that doubt.

But you told her about Piper? And about what we each wanted in life and how it didnt add up?

Blame the whiskey for it even getting that deep. I mean, blame me, obviously, he said when he saw my expression. But I wasnt sharing all of that for any reason beyond the fact that alcohol makes me talk too much, and I was missing you, and I had all these big questions about our relationship and it just felt good that someone would listen to them. Later I realized that fundamentally, we do want the same thing. Everything else is just details.

I remembered my human sexuality professor explaining that women are much more wounded by emotional cheating than physical. Id been skeptical back then, but now I understood. The guy you love confiding in another woman kills. Ultimately, though, the logical side of me knew this all made sense. I could accept that in the moment. Even if I couldnt, the deck was filling up with people and I wasnt a fan of fighting in public.

Okay, listen, lets just have a good night and well deal with this later. I didnt want to let him off the hook, but even more, I didnt want Sophie to feel like shed won, leaving us arguing and off-kilter in her wake.

He nodded, looking half-relieved and half-apprehensive. We spent the rest of the night drinking and dancing, and I tried to put on a brave face. I told myself to shove all my questions in a box, and it got easier with every minute that Sophie stayed out of view. Grant and I each went back to our own apartments at the end of the night. He knew I always needed to be on my own to really process things.

The next day, over burgers at her place, Marley cocked her head when I finished telling her the story. That one move said it all.

You dont think hes telling the truth, I sighed.

No, I do. I just dont love what the truth is.

I chewed things over both literally and figuratively. Trust me, neither do I. And hearing it straight from the mouth of some Sports Illustrated swimsuit model type stung like hell. But when you think about it, as much as it sucks, none of this is a surprise. It wouldnt exactly make sense if he had been singing my praises while cheating on me with another girl, you know?

Marley had decimated almost all of her burger and looked at me pensively over her last bite. Listen, I already told you Im supporting you in this. I just hate what it does to you. Last night should have been so much fun, but it was awful. Not because you ran into the girl he cheated on you with, but because he cheated on you in the first place.

I was getting so sick of dealing with all of this. All the talking it over, the emotional mood swings, the constant second-guessing myself, everything, I was tired of it. Although I knew Marley had good intentions, I couldnt help getting defensive. It was hard not to question my decision to take Grant back, to feel like I was failing myself sometimes. But I would always wonder about what could have been if I hadnt. Shouldnt supporting me mean you do it wholeheartedly instead of saying you do, but just repeating what you hate about him?

I dont hate him, and you know that. Remember that Im friends with him, too. But Im your best friend. I just feel like its my duty to be honest with you.

I appreciate you looking out for me, but I know exactly how you feel about it. Trust me, Im surprised that Im, for all intents and purposes, back together with him. But its so much more complicated than just dumping a guy the second he cheats, or that cheating means you dont love someone. I had no idea until this happened, but its not black and white. Its basically—”

I swear, if you make a 50 Shades of Grey pun, our friendship is over, she groaned. She knew me too well.

Fine! But all jokes aside, I know you just want the best for me. I dont want our friendship to ever get weird over a guy, because youre so much more important to me than that. So can we just agree that weve both heard each other out on this? For now, anyway?

Okay, Ill take your word for it. She sipped her lemonade and grinned wickedly at me, ready to move on. Speaking of Christian Grey, can I tell you what I was up to last night? Turns out her most recent date with her latest Tinder conquest had gone very well. So well, in fact, that shed ended up having three orgasms by 2 a.m. According to Marley, this guy was into spanking, and it netted some fantastic results. Apparently, I needed to step my game up.

We spent the rest of the day watching trashy reality TV before I headed home. Grant was waiting for me when I walked up to my stoop. I settled in next to him.

How long have you been here?

Just about long enough to leave an imprint in this concrete.

Right, with those buns of steel of yours.

We sat for a second before both launching into it at the same time.

About yesterday—”

So, what do you—”

I waved a hand in front of us, like, please, go ahead.

Im sorry we ran into Sophie, and Im sorry she told you what she did. Its true, but it was just me drunkenly saying things Id actually said to you a few times before. Nothing new, and nothing about me not loving you. None of it actually matters.

I know. Thats basically exactly what she told me. But obviously, it really sucked to hear what she had to say.

Yeah. I think I was just trying to convince myself that what I was doing made sense, as stupid as that sounds. Im sorry. For that, and again, for all of it. His eyes met mine and I studied him, wanting to just rain kisses upon his face and make everything better. I held back. I may have been well on the road to forgiving him, but that didnt mean he got an automatic pass for everything that stemmed from that night.

Mmmm, yeah, it was pretty stupid. I bumped his shoulder so hed know I was serious, but not trying to start a fight. When I said Id work to move past that night, did that mean Id automatically excuse everything hed done and said? Even though I knew that logically, yes, it probably did, I was only human. I just wasnt there yet. You know how some superheroes have the gift of lightning-fast healing? I wished something like that existed, except for emotions. At that moment, I would have considered promising my first-born to a warlock if I could just take advantage of that. Are you coming up?

After some more intense apologizing on his part (a guy going down on you for an hour in the name of makeup sex is the only bright side to fighting, right?), I scrolled through my Grey & Boehm email on the couch while he made pesto pasta. I felt a jolt of excitement when I saw a response from Mary Wilson, the artist Id met at the gala. Now that Id gotten Marian totally on board with using this exhibit to generate some buzz before the acquisition, I was trying to get the logistics in place. Id emailed Mary a few times to no response, so it was a relief to see her email waiting for me.

Hi Tessa,

Thanks so much for reaching out. I was very excited after we spoke at the gala, and especially after I did some more research into Grey & Boehm and saw what kind of work you do. It rules.

Thats why I hate to say this. But that girl who made all that commotion at the gala is your roommate, right? I dont mean to be offensive, but Ive been thinking about it, and that really threw me for a loop. It seemed like you were treating the night sort of as a networking event, which is fine, but bringing her along when she ended up making such a messI just really need someone with better judgment to manage my events at this stage in my journey. Im trying to change the trajectory of my art and how its received. People think Im this crazy artist and often end up ignoring what I produce to gawk over the uproar that surrounds it. So Im cutting it outno more intense partying, no more arrests. None of it.

Im sure youre really great at your job, but I cant take a chance and be around people or in an environment that encourages that kind of stuff. Im going to have to pass. So sorry.

Best,

Mary

I slowly lowered my phone, feeling numb. I pictured Marian tapping her talons on her desk while I tried to stutter out an explanation about why my personal life had ruined one of our biggest gets this year. To be honest, I was totally screwed.