July 29, 2014

Tessa's Story

by Zahra Barnes

Stunned, I blinked at Grant’s phone in disbelief, my dinner rising in my throat. I tried to reread the messages, but the screen was shaking. My hand was trembling too much. I gripped the phone with both hands and focused on the words in front of me.

Sophie: When can I see you?
Grant: I told you, it was a mistake. It’s never going to happen again. Please stop texting me.
Sophie: If you say so. When your ready for round two, you know where to find me...

Sophie worked on Grant’s floor. I’d had a funny feeling about her ever since their company holiday party, when she’d looked me up and down with an amused “is he seriously dating her?” smile on her face. Something about her jangled my intuition, but I knew Grant would never do anything. Or I thought I did. If he was going to cheat on me, couldn’t he at least do it with a girl who knew the difference between “your” and “you’re”?

Grant walked into the room with a festive smile, two glasses of red wine in hand. His eyes darted from my expression to his phone, and in that instant, he knew. He paused, his thought process playing out on his face. He had no idea how to approach this.

“Tessa—“

“What the fuck is this?” I held up his phone. I felt numb, like my insides had been cauterized. I was eerily serene. Openly Angry Tessa would have been much less frightening than Calmly Angry Tessa. It’s like comparing someone who’s mad you ate her leftovers to someone who qualifies for Snapped.

“It’s not what it looks like—“

“Really? What is it, then?” I let the phone slip through my fingers, suddenly so disgusted I didn’t want to be in contact with anything he’d ever touched. The clatter of it hitting the floor gave me a fleeting burst of satisfaction.

“I’m sorry,” he started, chagrined. He took a step towards me and I immediately moved back, bumping into a box filled with books. I looked around and got the insane urge to laugh at how absurd this was. We were surrounded by boxes, having just moved into our new apartment two days earlier. We were supposed to be starting our life together, not destroying it.

“It didn’t mean anything.”

“What happened? And don’t you dare lie to me.”

“It was just one time.” His voice cracked. “I swear to you.”

“Grant. What. Happened.” My tone was icy, and I could see him mentally calculating the best way to answer. That only pissed me off more.

“It was at the conference in DC last month,” he said, forcing himself to maintain eye contact. He’d been gone for a week. I remembered texting him that I couldn’t wait to see him again, and my stomach roiled. “Everyone got drunk, and I missed you—“

“You missed me, so you had sex with someone else? That’s a strange way to show it.” I couldn’t help interrupting him. It was like my brain wasn’t connected to my mouth anymore, so words were just spilling out of me without my permission.

“I didn’t have sex with her! But yes, Tessa, I missed you. I barely see you anymore. You’re always at work, or running around doing things for Marian. I guess I felt like I was losing you.”

“Are you that desperate to make this okay that you’re using my work as an excuse?” My fury gave way to incredulity. This was my fault now?

“Of course not!” He finally set the glasses on top of a box. Before I discovered the texts, we were about to toast to our fully unpacked bedroom. The glasses mocked me from their perch. “You know I’m proud of your work, but there needs to be a balance. I felt like I was the one doing all the supporting, but I didn’t have anyone to turn to when I was stressed, or even when something good happened.”

“That’s absolutely not true! I’ve always cared about what’s happening with you, both at work and otherwise. I can’t believe you’re saying this.”

He shifted his weight, and I could tell he was debating whether or not to say what came next. He decided to make his point. “You didn’t even ask me how my presentation went last week,” he said softly.

I instinctively opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out. He was right. I had forgotten that the deadline for the biggest presentation of his career got moved up. I’d been even more slammed at Grey & Boehm than usual. I thought Liv would reduce some of my workload, but I neglected to factor in the learning curve. Between correcting her mistakes and the frenzy of moving, I never asked him how the meeting or subsequent talk with his bosses went. Quickly flooded with self-doubt, a montage of all the times I bailed early or canceled dates played in my mind’s eye. I was at a loss, only then realizing how much it affected him. But then I got a flashback to Sophie’s smug smirk and any empathy that was edging its way in evaporated.

“I…I got it. The promotion, and the raise.” It wasn’t unexpected for him to blurt things out when he was nervous, but this was just insulting.

I glared at him, and he actually withered beneath my gaze. “Do you really think I care? Grant, if you don’t tell me what you did with her, I’m leaving right now.”

“We didn’t have sex,” he said haltingly, his face red. “But we…did everything else.”

My hands tingled, which always happened when I got angry. “What do you mean? What exactly did you do?” I felt a preemptive stab of pain. I hated myself for asking, but I needed to know.

“Are you sure this is a good idea? I don’t want to hurt you.” His voice trailed off feebly. He must have realized how stupid that sounded, given the circumstances.

I stared at his face, unable to speak because I was channeling all my energy into not hitting him. He eyed my clenched fists nervously and started talking.

“Like I said, we got drunk. I was lonely, and she was there.” He stopped and pursed his lips in a tight line, probably hoping he would be absolved of responsibility if he couldn’t physically say the words.

“And? Seriously, Grant, tell me what happened.”

“We were at the hotel bar. Everyone else left and she and I were just talking. We decided to call it a night, but our rooms were on the same floor, so we got off the elevator together. We kissed outside her room and I guess one thing led to another. Tessa, it was so stupid. I was so drunk and I didn’t know what I was doing. I stopped it before we had sex.”

“Aw, really? You shouldn’t have.” My sarcasm was out in full force. I sank down, tuned him out, and curled into myself. I felt like I was being buffeted around by waves of warring emotions. I was drowning. It happened a month ago, and everything had been fine after that. I’d kissed him after that. I’d whispered to him, as he was inside me with the same penis another girl had touched, that I loved him. He’d laughed with me, rubbed my back, gazed into my eyes without a hint of guilt. I felt completely unmoored. How did I not realize something was different? How could I not know?

I met his eyes. “Was she better than me? Was it worth it?”

“Of course not! I don’t think about her at all. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t know what else to say. Please forgive me.”

“So, you thought the smart thing to do would be to cheat on me and exchange texts with this girl about it.” I couldn’t say her name. “And then ask me to go through your messages to get the landlord’s phone number.” Part of me was furious with him for his obvious stupidity. I wouldn’t have found out if he had just done it himself.  

“I completely forgot those texts existed. I really just made myself forget it ever happened at all.”

My face crumpled, but I wasn’t going to let a tear fall in front of him if I could help it. He rushed over to me. He never could handle seeing me upset. I scrabbled backwards on my hands and feet.

“Don’t touch me! Seriously, do not come near me right now.”

Grant dropped to his knees and tears started leaking from the corners of his eyes. My mind raced in the silence. I always thought I would never get cheated on. Not because I was some Victoria’s Secret model-looking person who also happened to be brilliant, funny, and nurse sick kittens back to health at animal shelters. I didn’t think a guy would be crazy to cheat on me because I was so amazing. I just thought I’d never choose someone who was truly capable of it. Apparently, I thought very wrong.

He acted so normal after it happened. That was the scariest part. He didn’t fly home immediately, overcome with remorse. He didn’t get blasted one night and confess, begging me to forgive him. He didn’t give himself away at all.

“What?” he asked.

I realized I had been talking to myself quietly. “You acted completely normal. How could you do that? How could you look at me every day?”

“I wanted to tell you, believe me, I did. But I knew that would have been more about relieving my guilt. It would have made me feel better while just hurting you, so I didn’t.” There were tear tracks on his cheeks, but I noted that his eyes were dry again.

Sitting there with him, I was suddenly overcome with the panicked sensation that the walls were closing in on me. I felt like a crazed, wounded animal who would chew off her own leg to get out of a trap. I staggered up and into the bathroom across the hall, locking myself in. I needed to think.

Up until then, I was certain I was going to marry Grant. We just signed a year-long lease together. My family loved him. Embarrassment swelled inside me, quickly morphing into full-blown humiliation. What was everyone going to think? 

He knocked on the door. “Tessa?” He was crying again.

“I can’t talk to you right now.”

He paused. “Is it okay if I just wait here, then? Until you’re ready to come out?”

I didn’t respond, and I heard him settle on the other side of the door.

Trying to collect myself, I rested my cheek against the cool tile of the walls. It was just one time, I thought frantically. Maybe I didn’t need to tell anyone. Maybe I could just forgive and forget. Or what if I hooked up with someone as a one-off, so then we’d be even? Like in Greek, when Casey had sex with Cappie after Evan cheated on her, I remembered triumphantly. Thanks to a slightly bewildering crush on Rusty Cartwright, I’d been watching the show recently on Netflix. But I knew real life didn’t work like that. I didn’t want anyone else. I only wanted Grant, and I was ashamed when I realized his cheating didn’t immediately obliterate my feelings.

I sat in the bathroom for hours, my emotions fluctuating wildly between rage, mortification, devastation, and disbelief. Finally, more because I was sick of staring at the stupid toilet than anything else, I opened the door. Grant was sleeping propped up against the wall. Whenever he went through something emotionally difficult, he always fell asleep after, like his mind was forcing him to take a time-out so it could heal.  

I tiptoed past him and into the bedroom, where I quickly stuffed some clothes in a bag. I trod lightly on my way out, avoiding the mother of all creaky floorboards. With a pang, I remembered the haunted house jokes we’d already cracked about it.

In the cab, I focused on details. If I let what just happened hit me, I’d lose it. I texted Marley saying I was on my way and I’d explain when I got there, then turned off my phone. I didn’t want to be tempted to answer when Grant inevitably woke up and freaked out. If Marley wasn’t home, I decided, I’d sit on her stoop and wait.

Thankfully, Marley buzzed me up as soon as I got there. I raised my hand to knock once I was in front of her door, but she swung it open before I could. Her worried face underneath that reliably disheveled topknot finally made my ice queen fa├žade crumble. I dissolved onto her couch, crying so hard I was almost choking with each inhale. She bundled me in her arms and held me until I had to run to the bathroom to throw up, sick from all the sobbing. Goddammit, my toothbrush, I thought, realizing I’d left it behind. I swigged some mouthwash instead. When I went back to the living room, Marley had water and rosemary crackers, the closest thing she had to saltines, waiting. I chugged the entire glass and set it down shakily.

“What happened? Grant’s called me like ten times.” She gestured to her phone on the table. I eyed it warily, and as if on cue, it lit up and started vibrating.

“Oh God, please don’t answer.”

“You know I won’t. But what happened? Tessa, you’re scaring me.”

I focused my eyes on the crackers as I said it, not wanting to see her reaction. “Grant slept with someone. Some girl he works with.” I felt a flash of hot anger at Sophie, but I knew it would pass. She wasn’t my boyfriend. She’d made no promises to me.

“No! Are you serious?” I shot a look at Marley’s face and she was fuming. Her anger fueled my own, and it all spilled out.

I explained how I discovered the texts and everything that had come after. I hadn’t explicitly told my friends the depth of my feelings for Grant. I guess I always subconsciously felt like it would jinx our relationship. Still, I’d let things slip to Marley, like how my ovaries screamed when I saw him playing with his baby niece, and that I saw moving in together kind of like being engaged to get engaged. She knew how I really felt.

“Mar, what do I do?” I ran a hand through my hair, or tried to, anyway. I worked my fingers through the tangles and realized how crazy I looked. I hiccupped a laugh, confronted again with the ludicrousness of the night.

“You don’t have to decide now.” She reached out and hugged me. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”

Hit by a sudden wall of exhaustion, I was finally ready to go to bed. Marley big spooned me the entire night, but it only made me feel worse. I’d wake with a start from fitful snatches of sleep, thinking Grant’s arms were around me, reassured it had been a nightmare. Then it would come rushing back, and I’d relive it all over again. The worst part was that I’d always gone to Grant with my hurt. What was I supposed to do when he was the one inflicting the pain?

The next morning, the idea of going to work was unbearable. Marley offered to stay with me, but I insisted she go to the office. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts, but I didn’t need to screw her life up just because mine was going off the rails. While she showered, I buried my face in a pillow and tried to get a bit more sleep.

I woke up to Marley curling her eyelashes in front of her bedroom mirror. “Are you hungry?” She turned and looked at me hopefully. “I can make whatever you want before I go.” 

I shook my head, staring at the ceiling. The day before, my life had been completely on track. How was anything going to go back to normal?


Marley’s phone buzzed for the millionth time, and she gave the screen a cursory look. “Um, Tessa?” She glanced up at me nervously. “Grant’s downstairs.”