“Thanks for seeing me,” Grant said quietly. He looked like hell. All red-rimmed eyes and bristly five o’clock shadow, he stood rigidly in the middle of the room, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. Watching him squirm should have been satisfying, but all my anger had leaked out at some point in the night, escaping like air from an untied balloon. I wished it hadn’t. It’s easier to mistake anger for strength than it is sadness.
“Of course. You can sit, if you want.”
Relieved, he sank into the loveseat across from the sofa where I was curled up under a blanket. Since the night before, my body temperature had been out of whack and I couldn’t stop shivering like one of those Chihuahuas pampered heiresses always seem to favor. I clasped my fingers in my lap where he couldn’t see and squeezed, reminding myself with each pulse to keep. It. Together.
“I almost had a heart attack when I realized you were gone last night,” he started. My eyebrows shot up into my hairline and, seeing that I was about to protest, he said the rest in a rush. “But I realize why you did, and I’m just glad you’re somewhere safe.” Placated, I unfurrowed my brow and nodded for him to continue.
“Tessa, again, I’m so sorry. I can’t handle the idea of ruining what we have over a one-night mistake.”
“And I’m sorry for putting work first too much. I really can’t believe I forgot about your presentation.” I meant it. I truly did feel awful about that, and couldn’t deny that if the situation had been reversed, I probably would have acted out, too. Hopefully it wouldn’t have taken the form of me drunkenly groping a coworker, but you never know. “But it was a pretty big mistake, and you almost got away with it. I hate the idea of being the naive girlfriend who thought everything was fine while you had this huge secret.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I just wanted to protect you. In the end, though, the guilt was eating me up. I honestly think I wanted you to find out. You know, get it all out in the open.” It made sense. That’s the only explanation for a magna cum laude graduate from Columbia who, you would think, has a surplus of brain cells telling his girlfriend to look through his phone when it’s harboring incriminating evidence.
I let the silence fill the room as I considered all my questions. It was like I was waging a war with myself. I knew my imagination would torture me if I didn’t ask, but also that I’d fixate on whatever details I could squeeze out of him. My brain is nothing if not evil.
“Did you use a condom?” I blurted out.
He lowered his gaze. “No. I haven’t carried one in years.” I was on the pill and we’d both gotten tested when we got together, so we’d decided to go without a long time ago.
“And I guess you probably didn’t use a dental dam, either,” I snorted. I couldn’t not laugh when I said those words. Even if I were hooking up with Joe Manganiello and he said, “Let me just grab a dental dam and then I’ll get right to it,” my happy valley would turn into the Sahara. Grant’s lips twitched into what would have, on a better day, been a grin, but ultimately he shook his head. I’d expected as much, but putting my health in jeopardy added a whole other layer to this.
“I just don’t get it. You say the problem was that I was so busy, but you knew we were moving in together soon. No matter how late I stayed at work, I would have been coming home to you every night.”
“I know.” He heaved a sigh and his shoulders rounded reflexively, as if preparing for the sort of shameful nature of what followed. “I think it was more the pent-up frustration than anything. I resented you.”
“That’s what confuses me most. The Grant I know wouldn’t do that, no matter how resentful.” A year ago, Grant had actually severed ties with his mom for cheating on his dad. His parents stayed together and he and his mom worked it out, but now I had to wonder if there was some unfaithful gene running rampant in his family’s DNA.
“That wasn’t the Grant you know. This is. I’ll do anything. There has to be a way I can fix this.” A glint of steely determination flashed in his eyes and I marveled at how, even now, I felt a magnetic pull to him. I squeezed my fingers so hard they were probably turning blue. Keep. It. Together.
“I don’t know if there’s any way to fix this. I mean, you still work with her! How am I supposed to trust that it won’t happen again?”
“I’ll quit,” he responded immediately. In a perfect world, I’d have swooned at this declaration. It would have reaffirmed my belief that we could work it out. But his willingness to leave his job had the opposite effect. He’d just gotten this huge promotion and raise, and abandoning that for me would create such a weird power imbalance. I envisioned us in the future, sitting far apart on a stuffy couch in couples therapy, Grant resentfully spitting out that he’d given it all up for me. I couldn’t ask him to do that when I didn’t even know if I could forgive him in the end.
I just shook my head.
He mouth tugged down at the corners. “So you don’t think it’ll ever work? I want everything with you. I want to marry you.” A wild look bloomed in his eyes. He launched himself out of his seat and headed towards the floor, one knee leading the way. With a speed I never knew I possessed, I leaped off the sofa, grabbed his collar, and yanked him up.
“Grant, I swear if you propose to me right now, I’ll need to be institutionalized. Don’t.”
Being so close to him made my insides clench up, so I backed away before continuing. “I just need time to figure this out. Alone.”
His expression deepened from sadness to devastation. “What are you saying?”
We faced off and I felt like I was floating up by the ceiling, watching it all unfold in an out-of-body experience. I took a deep breath and told him what I’d decided. “I’ll call movers once I find a place. I don’t know if I’ll ever get past this, but there’s no chance of it if we live together.” Besides, he just got a raise. He could afford to live there by himself or fill it up with everyone from his company for a huge graphic design orgy commune type of thing, if he wanted. It was no longer any of my business.
The color drained from Grant’s face and his chin wobbled. He clenched his jaw, that beautiful jaw, to stop an impending emotional breakdown. He approached me uncertainly, and I took the last few steps towards him and folded myself into his arms. It was crazy that after all this, I still fit perfectly. Just like I always had. “I’ll give you your space,” he murmured into my hair. “I know you need that much. But I’m not giving up on us.”
After he left, I stared off into space before finally locking the door behind him. Even my broken-heartedness couldn’t cure my paranoia. Then, I promptly returned to Marley’s bed and burrowed under the sheets. Three days, I thought to myself as I fell asleep. Three days to wallow, then you’re done.
The next three days were a haze of a few things: crying in the bathroom at work, trying to convince Liv and Marian I just had a bad cold, and Marley attempting to spoil me with the most fattening, delicious meals she could cook up. I’d pick at them, then spend the rest of the night swilling wine with my head in her lap, watching Laguna Beach and bitterly thinking, This would never have happened to Kristin.
The fourth day after Grant-pocalypse, my self-imposed mourning period was over. I was determined to focus on my new life. If Piper Kerman could turn a drug bust and prison time into Emmy nominations and beaucoup bucks, I could make the most of my situation. I’d spent all my free moments over the past few days setting up more Craigslist viewings. I was open to everything except the Lower East Side since I couldn’t stomach the thought of potential Grant run-ins when I would inevitably look like a hag, since that’s just how the world works.
My first viewing of the day was before work in Chelsea, close to Grey & Boehm. The artsy feel of the neighborhood is my kind of New York, so I had my fingers crossed. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that when my potential roommates Lionel and Johanna wrote they were “looking for a third,” they didn’t just mean someone to fill a spare room. “We’re pretty adventurous,” Johanna grinned while tracing a circle on Lionel’s leg and pinning me to my seat with her come-hither eyes. I choked on my water and Lionel came over to whack me on the back. He reeked of weed and paint thinner. “I actually have to get to work,” I said shrilly. $900 for a room in Chelsea with “free-spirited artists”? Should have known, Tessa, I admonished myself during my hasty retreat.
I arrived at Grey & Boehm still shuddering. Marian sharply eyed me up and down. “Finally, good lord!” she exclaimed. “This is the first day you don’t look like you’re on the brink of death.” Recalling my appearance the past few days, she wrinkled her nose. The spackled-on makeup couldn’t hide my under-eye bags or the sickly tinge to my skin, so ever the hypochondriac, Marian had treated me like even the slightest contact would strike her dead. I hadn’t told Liv or Marian what had gone down, or even my family for that matter. I knew it didn’t make sense, but I was too embarrassed.
“Yep, it was just a bug!” I replied brightly. Marian disappeared into her office. When she emerged, she was carrying a super-sized container of hand sanitizer. She plunked it down on my desk, pointing at it then at me in a wordless command. I suppressed an eye roll and slathered some on, then threw myself into work the way I hadn’t been able to since the week before. I’d been skating by on the bare minimum, but I finally felt like I could really focus.
Around lunchtime, I asked Liv to hold everything down while I ran “an errand.” She looked at me quizzically but agreed. I ended up touring a dank basement space in Greenwich Village for $1,400, which would have been pushing my budget even if it had been truly amazing. In the ad, the landlord neglected to mention it was in the basement and had only posted photos of the living room. She’d obviously never heard of karma.
“You could try to spruce it up.” She chomped on her gum and surveyed the room, clearly unenthused. I looked around in disbelief. With no windows, a wall leak, and a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling, it looked like the set of the next Saw movie. I was out of there in five minutes.
Back at the office, I wrapped up the flower order for an upcoming show. The artist, Frank Bishop, would bring women to his house, cover both of their bodies in paint, and have sex on huge canvases. When we met him months ago, he explained the point of his art to us. “Each piece captures the essence of that particular instance of love-makin’,” he drawled in his Southern accent and pushed his thick hair back. “They each emote, they tell their own stories.” He was a walking Tim Riggins, only sleazier. My evidence? He had requested “flowers that look like a woman’s honey pot, if you know what I mean,” complete with a wink in my direction. Basically, I needed orchids and a shower.
After work, I’d stacked up two more viewings back-to-back. I knew it was crazy to overload myself, but I was scared I’d just give in and stay with Grant if I floated around for too long. The first place was on the Upper West Side. It seemed promising until Eric, the hobbit-y Irish bartender, mentioned Bess.
“Bess is totally harmless and can’t get out. They’re such misunderstood creatures,” he said wistfully.
My smile faltered. “Bess?”
“Yes, my tarantula.” He saw my expression and hastily tried to reassure me. “She stays in my room! No escapes yet!”
Needless to say, Eric and I did not work out.
After each apartment disaster, my fingers itched to text Grant. I even whipped out my phone to commiserate about Bess before remembering that I wouldn’t even have been in this situation if Grant and I hadn’t broken up. Each time, I shoved my phone back in my bag, willing myself to forget about him.
My next stop was on the Upper East Side. When Celine opened the door, my hopes skyrocketed. Not only did she look normal, she oozed an effortlessly cool vibe. She aced that whole low-maintenance gorgeousness thing with close-cropped brown hair and a pixie-like stature combined with low-slung boyfriend jeans and perfectly white tank.
“Come on in,” she said in a lilting accent I couldn’t quite place.
During the tour, I found out that Celine was a Parisian-born, American-bred fashion designer whose roommate moved away to go to business school. A dress form in the living room was clothed in a colorful outfit that was the perfectly zany counterpart to her laidback look. The place was small but cozy with a sparkling bathroom, a bit of counter space, and a sizeable room up for grabs. Celine offered me a glass of wine and we settled onto the couch.
“So, you were born in Paris? I’ve only been once but I loved it.” I tried not to gush since I didn’t want to come across as a typical annoying American. I probably failed.
“Yes, but my parents shipped me off to boarding school every year and I would spend summers in Paris or with cousins in Brussels.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged. “Children gave maman terrible migraines.”
Growing up with parents who doted on my every move, I couldn’t imagine it. But Celine explained that she had been living fully on her own since she was 18. Admirable. My parents still pay my phone bill.
Celine regaled me with stories of late nights spent sewing first, with plenty of parties after to reward her hard work. I realized this could be exactly what I needed to move past Grant. A complete change of pace. Something new.
She must have seen a glimmer of excitement in my eyes. “You seem so much happier now than when I opened the door!” We both laughed.
I looked into Celine’s kind face and was consumed with the desire to live there and let her French-ify my entire life, helping me get over Grant in the process. I also felt the urge to spill everything that had happened. Besides explaining that I was going through a breakup, I kept my mouth shut, feeling too self-conscious to tell all. Still, something about her made me want to open up. She was tactful enough not to fish for details, which only made me like her more.
“So, what annoys you in a roommate?” I wanted to take the conversation into lighter territory and see if either of us had any qualities the other would consider deal-breakers. We’d covered most of it in our email correspondence, but this was key.
“Mmm, I just need my privacy. I love to come home and have a glass of wine together sometimes, as you can see, but when I go in my room I am usually creating and cannot be disturbed.” I loved that she called it “creating.”
“Same! My last roommate had no concept of personal space and would just barge into my room. She didn’t know the definition of knocking.”
“I may be foreign, but trust me, I know that word. Not allowed here,” Celine smiled at me.
Something in my gut just told me to go for it. “Listen, I know I should play hard-to-get, but I would love to live here,” I admitted.
Celine whooped excitedly. “Alors, I would love to have you! Cheers to that!” We clinked glasses, and it was settled. I was moving in.