by Zahra Barnes
My attempt at damage control with the Mary situation wasn’t going well. I had this hopeful vision of myself being a fixer, à la Olivia Pope. Except instead of helping philandering politicians and other unsavory characters, I’d be working out my own screwup. Not only did I not have the spotless wardrobe and split-end free hair that Olivia did, I also didn’t possess her capability to wrap up a problem in 45 minutes. And that’s not counting commercial breaks.
After the initial paralysis wore off, I realized how over-the-top it was that Mary decided she wouldn’t work with Grey & Boehm because of Celine. I sent her a very understanding, yet inquisitive response, reassuring her that we’d handle her exhibit with the utmost professionalism. After a few back-and-forths, she finally confessed that she had interest from other galleries, most of them much bigger than Grey & Boehm. She liked me, she said, but she had start somewhere with the process of elimination. The Celine thing just made it easier. I understood, but I wasn’t giving up hope yet. The acquisition meant we could eclipse these other galleries, I’d explained to Mary in the non-pushiest way possible. Even if we did her exhibit before the deal was official, it would get her some major press. So far, crickets.
Of course, Marian was relentlessly on me about the status of securing the exhibit. It was like she was equipped with a panic radar, able to immediately sniff out my feelings of alarm even though I was acting like everything was fine. Each time she asked, I’d reassure her I was working! On! It! in the brightest voice I was capable of. If I wasn’t going to get Mary, I’d have to snag someone even more impressive. No pressure or anything.
Halfway through the week, I was ready to pound my head against my keyboard when Finn texted me “drinks tonight?” We hadn’t seen each other in weeks, and I was dying to hear how things were going with Amy. I invited him to my mixology course to kill two birds with one boozy stone. In a perfect cosmic coincidence, we were focusing on whiskey. It was Finn’s favorite.
He took the class much more seriously than Liv had. He was so intent on getting his drink perfect that he’d actually shushed me when I made a joke about the unsavory effects too much whiskey had on a man’s anatomy. He drizzled honey into his glass, concentrating hard as he tried to form some type of intricate design on the liquid’s surface. He finally eased up and I nabbed it from him, tut-tutting.
“Not enough honey, Finnegan.” I upended the container, watching the amber goo ooze out. I was ready for my sugar high.
“I don’t know how you can drink the super sweet stuff.” He made a face, putting on the whole manly-man-who-only-likes-bitter-drinks-and-meat-that’s-practically-alive act. “Speaking of super sweet, Amy and I are in a pretty sweet place ourselves.”
“Oh, I’m so glad! What’s going on?” I’d assumed they were fine since I hadn’t heard about a breakup from either of them, but he was such a terse texter I could never get much out of him via phone.
“Well, I’m closer to quitting my job than ever. I literally can’t. You know?” I wanted to laugh at him sounding like the basic bitch everyone had been mocking online lately, but I held back because of the sensitive subject. Plus, no matter how he expressed it, I hated that he felt so lost.
“I do. And Amy’s coming around?”
“She’s trying. I can tell she’s not fully on board, but she’s at least being supportive on the outside.”
“Maybe it’s a fake it till you make it type of thing?”
“It could be. We sat down and had a real talk about finances, and she realized I have way more saved than she thought. I guess she doesn’t think it’s as sudden anymore.”
So, she’s okay with it now that she realizes you’re somewhat loaded and can still take care of her? I bit back the remark, knowing it would cut deeper than I intended. “Why don’t you guys take some of that money and run away to Thailand or something?”
A few years back, a college friend of mine had escaped to Bali with his girlfriend. His family was rumored to have invented the pizza wheel. It seemed like all they did in Bali was surf and weave bracelets on the beach, sporting deep tans and streaked, wind-blown hair. Why not live that life if you could?
“No way could Amy handle something like that. You know she needs structure.” I grinned at the thought of her losing it when nowhere in town had the specific brand of almond butter she liked in her morning smoothies.
“What’s so funny?” Finn knocked his knee against mine, probably reading my mind.
“Nothing!” I took a sip of my drink, the heat moving through me and making work drama seem fuzzy around the edges. I knew I’d be keeping it at one, though. Celine’s recent episode had made me wary, especially now that I saw how it changed people’s perceptions of her. And me.
“Riiiight. So what’s new with you?”
I told Finn all about the grim run-in with Sophie. The first thing he said?
“She sounds really hot.”
“You are an absolute dick, you know that?” I admit I had gone a little overboard in describing her just to get across how beyond mortified I was to be cornered by her on a boat. I couldn’t help that my first instinct was to feel like she was a sexy pirate and I was the person who had been stranded on an island for a month sans hair products or toning kettlebells. I may have used the phrase “cleavage that looked like pillows handcrafted by God Himself.”
Finn put on what I liked to call his “douchebag look,” which consisted of a smarmy smirk and raised eyebrow. He’d always do it back at Ohio State when he was imitating the guys I went for, but he couldn’t even pretend to be mean. The douchebag look dissolved and Finn lobbed a crooked grin my way. “Come on! If I actually thought she sounded hotter than you I’d never say that. Give me some credit.”
I rolled my eyes at his quasi-compliment.
“Plus, her hotness has nothing to do with Grant cheating on you. So you can stop feeling insecure about that, if that’s what you’re doing.”
I pounced at the chance to get some male insight. “What do you mean?”
“Tessa.” He clapped his hands together once, as though he needed to capture my already rapt attention. “Guys don’t cheat on their girlfriends because the other woman’s hotter. Some guy cheated on Halle Berry, so that obviously invalidated the credibility of that argument.” Very true. “They cheat because they want something new and the emotional aspect of the relationship they have isn’t enough to stop the temptation. Period.”
I couldn’t stop exploring that thought like a tongue worries the fleshy, still-raw socket where a tooth used to be. What he was saying made sense, given what Sophie had told me about Grant’s little revelation that night. And while she had the whole blonde bombshell thing going on, I’d certainly never gotten any complaints from guys I’d dated. We were totally different types of women, her peachy complexion counteracting my copper one, my curves providing the foil to her leanness. There was no point in comparing myself to her. Even though the thought of her with Grant made my stomach roil like I was on a sinking ship, I could admit that we were like caramel ice cream and crème brûlée: wildly different but definitely both appealing. I realized with a wave of relief that the simple fact I could acknowledge that meant I was putting the whole episode behind me.
“Okay, but do you think I’m crazy to give him another shot?” I knew it was kind of pointless to go around collecting my friends’ and family’s opinion like I was tallying up votes for an election, but I couldn’t help it. I sometimes hoped my friends would give me a free shot to tell them everything I thought when they made ill-advised love decisions, so they really should have seen it as me doing them a favor.
“If you are, then I’m crazy for staying with Amy. But, and I know this sounds so freaking stupid, I think we’re supposed to be together.”
I’d had the same thought about Grant many times. “Maybe we’re both nuts.”
He clinked his glass to mine. “Cheers to that.”
The rest of the week passed in a blur. Marian had various potential buyers coming by to see Grey & Boehm. I was doing triple-duty between entertaining those clients, dealing with my daily workload, and reaching out to possible Mary replacements. The best piece of work advice I’d ever gotten was never to present a problem to my boss without a solution. As the days went by, I knew it was less likely I’d work the Mary thing out. There was no way I was telling Marian that without getting someone even more amazing to take her place.
Liv was manning the gallery on Saturday morning in exchange for me working an opening that night. I awoke tangled up in Grant, his limbs wrapped around me like we were koala lovers. The fuzzies hit me hard, and I spent a few minutes swirling my fingers through his hair, watching his eyelids flutter as he dreamed. He started to stir.
“Mmmm, bacon,” he whispered into my chest. Did I smell like bacon? Or did being with me make him as happy as bacon did? I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or proud.
“How does an english muffin loaded with eggs, bacon, and cheddar sound? With extra bacon?” I’d convinced myself that making breakfast sandwiches at home meant they weren’t unhealthy, so I could feel somewhat superior each time I unloaded a huge hunk of butter into the pan.
Grant nodded happily into my chest, so I gently extracted myself from his grip and headed to the kitchen.
When I walked through the hallway, I saw Celine sitting at the table with her back to me. She unleashed a torrent of furious French. I instinctively froze at the bitterness in her voice, then realized she was on the phone. I couldn’t catch any of the words, but the animosity gave way to a slight sob, so I knew it wasn’t good. Her hunched shoulders quivered as she asked the person on the other end a quiet question, only to get cut off mid-sentence by a stream of anger so loud, I could hear it pulsing from the earpiece.
The floor creaked beneath me when I backed up, and Celine whirled around. She looked at me accusingly with red-rimmed eyes.
“Sorry,” I mouthed. I hurried back to my room. What the hell was that about? On the nights we spent together on the couch, Celine had always seemed like the type of breezy, care-free Parisian who had stepped out of a movie. We kept things pretty light, but was there really a problem with that? She was my roommate, which meant it was a plus if we became friends, not an edict to become the best ones possible.
I crawled back into bed with Grant and gave him the rundown.
“That’s weird, but she’s kind of out there,” he said. “It probably isn’t a big deal. Plus, you don’t know what she was saying.”
I couldn’t shake the venom I’d heard in her voice. I’d only ever seen her get the endearing kind of sassy that made me hope she’d always be on my team. The anger that had radiated off her was something completely different.
I knew it had looked like I was listening in on her conversation, so I was nervous to go back out there. Eventually, my hunger won out. I tentatively walked into the kitchen, and Celine sat facing the doorway. She pushed a mug of steaming coffee towards me.
“Sorry about that!” The tears were gone, her usual bright mood restored.
“Is everything okay? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop! I was just getting breakfast. That sounded really intense.”
“You know how French families are! Lots of passion.” Her laugh rang out like bells. “Remember I told you about my crazy stepmother?”
I nodded and sat across from her.
“You know how I said she’s like 30 years younger than my father? Of course she took an early design of mine that I left back in Paris and wore it to a party. The cow ripped it. I would have been like, ‘no big,’ but she wasn’t even sorry.” Celine shook her head in disgust.
“Ugh, that’s annoying. She sounds like the worst.”
“She is. But it’s fine, I can easily make it again if I want to. I was terrible in those days.” I did feel some sympathy, but Celine’s reaction had seemed pretty huge for it to be about an old dress she could remake.
“Okay, as long as everything’s good.” I tried to convince myself that as a designer, it would make sense for Celine to get so worked up over one of her pieces. “Well, thanks for the coffee. Do you want some breakfast? I’m about to cook something up.”
She nodded and smiled, holding my gaze steadily over the rim of her mug. The pink blotches on her cheeks were already fading. I started laying out ingredients, not sure why I felt so unnerved. Suddenly, I realized what it was. Celine’s smiles were always bursting with joy and unrestrained glee, like she was beaming from the inside out. This time, though, the light hadn’t reached her eyes.