by Zahra Barnes
Liv’s forehead knotted itself into a maze of wrinkles as she muddled her blackberries.
“I don’t think I’m making enough juice,” she whispered.
I’d brought her along to my second mixology class as a thank you for her taking me to that drink and draw event. We were making pretty elaborate blackberry gimlets, but patience wasn’t Liv’s strong suit.
She stopped twisting and eyed her smushed berries, unenthused. “Can we just get to the drinking part?” She took a sip of straight gin. “It’s fine without the berries, I swear.”
“Plus, I only came so you could fill me in about the Grant situation. I prefer my drinks to be handed to me, ready for consumption.” She set her muddler down and perched on a stool. Her eyes shone at the promise of gossip even juicier than the mashed berries in front of us. Stalling until Johnny, the grumpy bartender, was out of earshot, I strained my drink and offered Liv a taste. She swatted the glass away. Okay, more for me.
When I walked into work on Tuesday, I could tell Liv had a hard time holding back her questions. She’d spent Labor Day weekend in Nantucket with her family and texted me on Monday, “about to OD on family time. Save me. What happened with Grant?!” So when we finally saw each other face-to-face, she was ready to burst. Marian was back, though, so I couldn’t just tell all. I’d promised I’d fill her in after the mixology class.
“We hooked up.”
“I KNEW it!” She crowed, and everyone turned to look. She quieted herself, then repeated herself in a hiss. “I knew it! How was it?”
“Honestly?” I grinned at the ceiling, trying to find the right word. “Amazing.”
“Yes. It wasn’t my finest moment because it happened in a freaking bathroom, which is gross, but I couldn’t hold back. It was insane. Like he was a double cheeseburger and I hadn’t eaten in years.”
“A bathroom?!” She whisper-screamed and I grabbed her thigh, laughing. I was flooded with a giddiness that harkened back to middle school, shared secrets, and jagged half-heart necklaces that pledged best friendship forever.
“Yes. I know. Whatever, isn’t that the kind of thing people need to do to have fully lived their 20s? Validate me, here.”
She sobered and held up two fingers to her chest in a mangled imitation of a Girl Scout, her chin quivering as she fought off a laugh. “I solemnly swear you are legally not allowed to turn 30 until you’ve fucked someone’s brains out in a bathroom.” She cackled and took a swig of my drink, her red hair tumbling over her shoulders.
“Well, what are you going to do?” She’d drained my glass, so I reached over and finished making hers so I could have another taste.
“He called me the next day and asked if we could have dinner. We’re meeting up tomorrow.”
“Okay, you didn’t really answer my question. Are you getting back together?”
“I have no idea. I mean, who even knows if he wants to start it all up again? And this weird thing happened at one point.”
I explained what had gone down with the condom. Liv stabbed an errant blackberry with a toothpick and frowned.
“So you don't think he was telling the truth?”
“I’m going to ask him tomorrow. It’s just a little convenient, you know?”
She nodded. “Good plan. Either way, at least you got good sex out of it.”
This was true. But over the past few days, I’d struggled with what had happened. I swung from rapturous delight to panic that I wasn’t just betraying myself, but all of womankind by considering dating Grant again. This was made no better by consulting my friends. Celine was, of course, very laissez-faire: “You will know the right decision to make,” she told me when I got back and explained what had happened.
Marley wasn’t so sure. “Obviously I’ll support you in whatever you do, but I personally don’t think going back to him is the smartest choice.”
And I’d finally fessed up to my mom, although I’d begged her not to tell my dad what was going on lest he fly up to New York and make Grant regret the day he was born. She’d echoed Marley’s sentiments.
“You’re my baby girl, and I just don’t want to see you get hurt.” Her slight Southern accent, courtesy of a military brat childhood partially spent in Georgia, made me ache with missing her.
Liv snapped me back to the moment. “I mean, you guys were pretty serious, right? Going to go for the whole marriage, babies, etcetera?”
“I hadn’t gone as far as kids, but I did kind of think we’d get married. I just didn’t really want to jinx it by bringing it up too soon.” Truth be told, toward the end of our relationship I’d caught myself checking out passing babies in strollers the way construction workers watch women’s asses when they walk by. I’d approach the stroller, staring ahead like a normally-functioning human being. As soon as it passed, my head would instinctively swivel so I could get a glimpse of the tiny face peeking out of its burrito-like swaddling. Don’t get me wrong, it wholly freaked me out. At the same time, it was a hint that my body, if not my mind, was getting ready to settle down.
“That’s a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes, you know? Really, if you thought he was it, like it, then a momentary lapse of judgment may be worth getting over. If you can.”
- - -
Around 7:00 p.m. the next day, I was wrapping up at Grey & Boehm. Grant and I were meeting at a tapas place on the Upper East Side. Instead of going to one of our mainstays around the city, when he called me the day after our bathroom, ahem, encounter, he’d suggested somewhere we’d never been.
“Something new would be nice,” he’d said. The unspoken understanding was that a new place could also mean a new us, if I agreed to get on board.
I was typing up my last email of the day when Marian came over and hovered by my desk. Ever since she’d gotten back from Ibiza, she wouldn’t take off these massive Dior sunglasses that engulfed half her face. I suspected she was either trying to hide the blistering results of falling asleep on the beach with said glasses on or conceal a botched eyelid surgery. It was a toss-up.
“Do you know what has struck me since my return to Grey & Boehm, Tessa?”
This was not going to be good.
“That back office just overflowing.” Dammit. I thought she never went in there. Marian was very much into orderliness, and our back office was where we kept basically any paper related to Grey & Boehm: press materials for past shows (Marian would suddenly be hit with an idea and want to see what we’d done like it before), financial files for our remote accounts team member, and tons of other stuff that, each time I tried to organize it, made me feel like I was drowning.
“Imagine Grey & Boehm is my mind, and there is an entire corner overrun with trash. Does that sound good to you? In order for me to have a clear mind, every part of this space must be clear as well. I want my mind to be a blank space, ready for inspiration to strike.”
“Clean the back room. I’m on it!”
“Good. I expect it to be done by the time I get in tomorrow morning. I have an important meeting in the afternoon, so I need everything in place.”
My stomach sank. I had to leave to meet Grant, and no way could I be late because I was filing papers. But wait, what meeting? I asked her as much and got an evasive “It’s just business” reply. She was still facing me, but I got the uneasy feeling she was avoiding my gaze.
“Oh, I forgot.” She went to her office without another word, giving me the chance to type a few more sentences in my email. When she returned, she dropped a thick card made of stock paper on my desk. “They say the invitation is non-transferable, but that’s ridiculous. RSVP and tell them you work for me and you’ll be attending in my place, if you want.”
It was an invitation to an upcoming art gala and, from the looks of it, was going to be pretty snazzy.
“Wow, thank you! I’d love to go.”
She shrugged, then pointed a dark, lacquered nail at me. “Remember, that back office.” With that, she was off.
“I can handle the back room, if you want,” Liv piped up. “I know you need to meet Grant and I don’t have plans tonight.”
“Are you sure? I’m going to come in early tomorrow to handle it, so you totally don’t need to.”
“No, don’t worry about it. It’ll be a chance for me to see how Grey & Boehm’s changed over the years, anyway.”
“You are seriously the best. I owe you. Let me walk you through it.” I quickly showed her the haphazard filing system we had in place, and pointed at various piles of papers we could trash. I still planned on coming in early, but now at least I knew some of it would be taken care of.
I got to the restaurant at 8:00, right on time. The hostess led me toward the back, where Grant was waiting. The bar was dark and buzzing with energy, all of us aware this was the type of place, and the type of night, we’d imagined would be staples of our glamorous, grown-up lives. It made it easy to forget the many nights I’d had $9 wine and gelato for dinner. The place was littered with candles that threw sharp, dancing shadows against the walls.
Grant looked at me and his eyes lit up. He stood and held out a massive bouquet of blush-pink peonies, my favorite. We’d spent so many Saturdays strolling through the city, me stopping him at each flower stand to point out which were the prettiest of the day. Peonies always reigned supreme. It was about the only thing I had in common with a Pinterest-obsessed bride.
“They’re beautiful.” I buried my face in them, inhaling their heady smell.
I could read his thoughts like they were broadcast on his forehead. I should say “so are you,” right? No, she’ll laugh me out of this place.
He was right.
“You look great,” he said. The waitress set our waters down and he started fidgeting with his glass immediately.
“Thanks. So do you.” His grey cardigan outlined his muscles quite nicely.
“How’d work go?” We fell into an easy conversation, and it felt like it always had. We talked about our respective days as if we didn’t have a much larger, more pressing issue to discuss. I limited myself to just one gin and tonic and stuck to water besides that. I knew I’d need my wits about me for this.
“So, I’ve been seeing someone,” he started as soon as we put in our orders. Before I could fully stroke out, he saw my expression and hastily added. “A therapist. I’ve been seeing a therapist. Well, I had my first session last week.”
I was speechless but quickly recovered. “That’s really great to hear. What made you decide to do that?” It was pretty obvious, but I wanted to be sure.
“After everything happened with us I realized I must have screwed it up for a reason, and then to let you find out that way instead of just telling you…” He trailed off, trying to organize his thoughts. “I don’t want to fuck it up again. And if you give me a chance, I won’t.”
“Are you actually sure you still want this? I mean, it’s your chance to be single when you probably thought you wouldn’t get that again.” Even though I’d been blissed-out with Grant, my friends’ stories about dating had sometimes made me wonder what it would be like to be on my own.I never seriously considered dumping him just to experience it. It was more like I wondered how Parallel Universe Tessa’s single life was going. It didn’t help that Marley had recently gone on a Tinder date with a pro soccer player who she swore must have had a battery-operated tongue. She was dying for me to start swiping.
“I’m positive. Being without you, especially in the apartment, which is the place I thought would make us even closer, has only made me realize what a mistake it was.”
He’d stopped fidgeting, and his voice was steady. He was the picture of decisiveness. His clenched jaw only added an extra “I am so sure about this” sign of resolve. And it was just really hot.
“What exactly was the mistake, do you think?” I was over judging him and what he’d done at this point. I just wanted to see if we were remotely on the same page about what had happened.
“Well, my first mistake was not being honest about how much it was all affecting me. I guess it was obvious to me because I’m in my head, but I don’t think you realized it. I like to think you’d have worked on it if you did.”
“Okay, I’m glad you know that. I viewed every time you were annoyed with work or Marian as its own separate incident instead of realizing it was all snowballing into something that made you feel so isolated from me. And I wish I’d known, because of course I would have done my best to change that. No matter what’s happened between us, I hate to think of you upset or feeling like you weren’t a priority. Like you were alone in this.” I was parched after that mini-speech and gulped down some water.
He nodded then kept speaking, clearly on a roll. “And then my second mistake was obviously what I did with Sophie. But I think the worst part was not telling you. I honestly don’t know what was going through my head, besides wanting to protect you in the moment. But that’s what I’m talking to someone to figure out.”
“Is it working?”
“Well I’ve only had one session and it was more of a getting-to-know-you thing. Nothing too intense yet.”
I was so impressed that he was willing to do something serious like therapy, and that he’d done it before we’d even seen each other at the engagement party. It wasn’t just for show.
“So, what’s the deal with Sophie?” I did my best to keep my face neutral, even though saying her name still pained me.
“I have zero contact with her. Nothing. I mean, she was already in a different department but I haven’t even seen her on the floor since you and I, you know, took our break.”
“But what if you do?” I shoved away nauseating visions of them having cheesy conference room sex.
“I’ve told her so many times that it was a mistake, will never happen again, that I love you, the whole nine. She stopped texting me, and if she does, I’ll tell her again. And what I said before still stands. I’ll quit if it’s what it takes to make you trust me again. This is New York, I can find another job. I can’t really find another you.”
I was touched, but I still knew I wouldn’t just be able to snap back into trusting him. My heart couldn’t rebound like a star basketball player, no matter how badly I wanted it to.
“And remind me what you said about the condom?”
He furrowed his brow, confused. “Condom?”
“The one you whipped out at Cait and Mike’s?” I wanted to know for sure that he wasn’t carrying it around because he was hoping to get lucky with someone else while still telling me he missed me. Of course it would have been his right, we were broken up, but it would have been pretty bold.
“Well, I knew I’d see you. It was presumptuous, and I’m sorry if it was tacky. I just hoped basically exactly what happened would happen. Plus, I know how much you like rooftops.” He raised an eyebrow suggestively. For some reason, rooftops turn me on. I think it’s because I’m slightly scared of heights, but it’s always such a gorgeous view that just seeing it makes me feel powerful? I long ago learned to stop questioning and just accept it for what it is.
“So, do you have any more questions?”
He didn’t ask in a condescending or fed up way, and I appreciated it. In one of the many articles I’d found while googling “should I take him back after cheating seriously what do I do,” the best piece of advice I’d found was that the cheater should be willing to answer any questions the cheated-on party has. In return, the cheated-on has to accept those answers and get over it if they’re going to make it work.
“Yes. Where the hell did you get that cardigan?”
We spent the rest of the night catching up on everything that had happened since the last time we’d really talked. Hours flew by, and I didn’t touch a drop of booze after my first drink. I didn’t need it. I was intoxicated, drunk on him, and I felt like I couldn’t get enough.
The waitress edged her way over and we finally looked up. Our food was barely touched, and we were woozy like we were resurfacing from the bottom of the ocean after a deep dive. I looked around and realized we were the last people there.
“This has been fun, but I should get home.” I was reluctant to leave, but I needed to get in early and make sure the office was in perfect shape for Marian’s mysterious meeting.
After we split the tab (he tried to insist on taking care of it, but I refused), he grabbed our to-go boxes and my flowers. We walked the few short blocks to my place and paused on a spare bit of sidewalk.
“It was so amazing to see you.” He towered over me, and swear to God, my knees felt weak.
“Likewise. It really was.”
“So, at the risk of sounding lame: what does this mean?”
I knew this might blow up in my face. I was well-aware that in a few months, I might find out Grant cheated again and wish I’d walked away at this very moment. But he was trying, and I loved him. It really felt that simple. At the same time, I wasn’t going to jump right back in like nothing had ever happened.
“Let’s just see where this goes. Sort of like we’re starting over?”
“With the potential of being together again?” A look of hope dawned across his face, and my insides melted like the world’s most perfect campfire-toasted s’more.
“I can see us heading there, yes. But we should take it slowly.”
He nodded, studying me tentatively. “Is it okay if I kiss you goodnight?”
I tilted my head and filed a mental note to email Benefit a thank you for their They’re Real! mascara, which was allowing me to flutter my eyelashes like it was my job. “I can’t say I’m against kissing on the first date.”
He rested the food and flowers on a ledge next to us and brought me in close. Normally I’d be watching my leftovers like a hawk (I barely touched those steak kebabs!), but I was swept up in the moment. He pushed my hair behind my ear like a goddamn Disney prince and kissed me like he meant it.
Grant finally pulled away. I was glad he was holding me up, otherwise I might have dissolved onto the filthy sidewalk into a puddle of Tessa that busy New Yorkers would step over, unruffled, on the way to their final destinations.
“I am going to woo the hell out of you, Tessa.”
I fully believed him, and I couldn’t wait.