December 23, 2014

Tessa's Story

by Zahra Barnes

Jack reached out, his hand hovering in the air between us before it closed the distance and brushed a curl from my face. “I guess we’re two huge screw-ups, huh?”

I laughed and pressed my cheek to his hand, which was so massive it seemed like it could effortlessly cup half my waist. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

After Jack didn't show up at the bar the night before, I’d headed home already wrestling with a throbbing headache. I let myself into my apartment, greeted by the silence that was becoming the new normal since Celine was never home anymore, and burrowed into bed. I’d never been so thankful for the mountain of fluffy sheets and pillows Grant had always made fun of me for. Grant. The combination of my wine haze and bruised ego made me miss him with a force I hadn’t yet felt since our breakup. After getting into the kind of intense debate with myself that was only possible late at night after I’d had a drink, I finally grabbed my phone. I was on a mission to scroll through the texts we’d sent when everything was right between us, fully knowing it would make me feel like something stuck on the bottom of someone’s shoe and result in a crying jag. That’s when I saw two missed calls from Jack, along with incoming texts that were lighting up my phone one after the other:

“Shit, my phone died earlier! I just got home.”

“Yeah, we were on for 8:30—what happened?”

“I didn’t see you there?”
Growing more confused with each message, I texted him back.

“Wait, what? I got to the bar right around 8:30 and waited for a bit.” I wasn’t about to let him know I’d actually been there sampling merlots and malbecs for over an hour. “I didn’t see you and you didn’t answer my text, so I just left.”

My phone display started dancing to signal that Jack was calling me. I sat up and took a few deep breaths to stabilize my voice, which always lilted crazily when I’d had too much wine.


“Tessa, were you at the East Village Terroir or the West Village Terroir?”

“East Village. Wait, there’s a West Village one?”

“Yep, that would be where I was waiting for you all night.” His deep laugh rang out over the line, making it that much easier to imagine him in bed with me.

I joined in, flooded with relief. It was a classic miscommunication. After some playful arguing over who had messed up (I still maintain he should have been clearer about which location, but then again, I should have double-checked), he cut to the chase.

“God, we’re acting like an old married couple. Let’s just try again. If at first you don’t succeed, right?”


“East or West?” he asked.

“West,” I said.

“West?” he confirmed.

“Yeah, East,” I teased.

He snorted, then said, “Tessa, this is serious!” in a faux-stern tone. His voice softened. “I was really excited to see you tonight.”

My heart thrummed hopefully in my throat. “I was excited to see you, too. Let’s do West, as in, where you were tonight. I could use a change of scenery.”

“Perfect. 8:30 again?”

“See you then.”

So there we were the next night, thankfully in the same place, laughing at our mixup. We spent hours cocooned in a corner in the tiny wine bar, warmth zinging through my body every time our knees touched. Each time we tried a new wine, Jack would swirl it around in its crystal orb then sip, butchering its description until my stomach hurt from laughing. The first red he had was “distinctly smoky with notes of tree bark and very old, definitely expired fruit,” while the second was “bold and brimming with life, like a barnyard after mating season.” After polishing off our (actually quite good) glasses and truffle mac and cheese, Jack paid. A few minutes later we stood in front of the bar, unspoken uncertainty about where the night was going so palpable it was like three of us were huddled together, shivering in the frigid air.

“Want to walk?” He raised an eyebrow at me.

I nodded, fixing my huge infinity scarf around my neck to keep out the cold.

We headed through the streets, talking as we went. Our hands brushed just slightly each time our arms swung. It was distracting. We were talking past each other, both of us too focused on the crackling energy we were passing back and forth like a secret. Finally, he shyly wound his fingers through mine.

Jack told me about how his life wasn’t as picture-perfect as it sounded. His dad had been an alcoholic, routinely abandoning the family then stumbling back into their lives just as they’d started to pick up the pieces, reeking of booze and shameful apologies. It had gotten worse after his brothers left to college, when Jack was tasked with being what he saw as the man of the house for his mother’s sake. His dad was back and four years sober, but I could still read some resentment in his halting voice and creased brow.

In return, I explained what it was like to grow up with parents who had faced hell to be together, a white man and black woman in a time when it was much more frowned upon than today. I talked about how much I’d miss them over the holidays, but that they understood I had to stay to get a jump on moving Grey & Boehm over to Revel’s office space. Jack shared that his dream was to be a professor at NYU and mold young minds, and I confessed that I’d wanted to plan events for the Museum of Modern Art ever since I was seven. I’d been visiting the city with my parents and we’d walked past when MoMA was holding a gala, people in fancy dress spilling out onto the street and making an indelible impression on my young mind. Jack and I turned down a quiet street filled with the kind of brownstones that make you believe New York is just as magical as they say.

“Little seven-year-old Tessa.” He smiled, his teeth gleaming in the moonlight. “With wilder hair than you have now, I bet.”

“Oh, you can’t even imagine. It was like Cousin It got electrocuted.”

White fluff started to drift down toward us, lazily taking its time. I tilted my head back in surprise, then stuck my tongue out to give the snow a safe place to land. When I righted myself, laughing, Jack was staring at me with such serious eyes my knees immediately started shaking. Then he smiled, shooting the moment through with streaks of electric gold, leaned in, and kissed me.

The world roared around me, then faded away. In the swirling flurry of white, we were captured in a quiet snow globe that was meant for just the two of us.

I pulled away and looked into his unbelievable eyes, so close I could see the snowflakes dotting his thick lashes. Truly, how is it fair that so many men are born with eyelashes women would kill for? The even more pressing question was: how could a second date actually be so good?

“I like you,” he said, smiling at me helplessly. “I like you a lot.”

“I like you, too.” He grinned and kissed me again, working his soft lips against mine as he snaked his hands around my waist. I tucked my own under his coat to soak up his warmth. His muscles tightened as I ran my hands over them. Thrilled, I pulled him even closer. Finally, knowing if we kept going I’d get arrested for indecent exposure, I reluctantly backed away.

“I should probably go. Even though I really don’t want to.”

He combed a hand through his hair and exhaled hard. “I’m trying to decide if I should let you or convince you to stay. I have my ways.” He grinned and tugged on my scarf, bringing me closer again.

“I bet you do! But no, I really should get home.”

“Okay, well, when do I get to see you again?” Is there any more beautiful question in the English language?

“Soon. Promise.”

Jack bundled me into a cab. When I fell into bed, I could still taste his lips and snowflakes. Between the night I’d just had and the plan I had worked up for the next day at Grey & Boehm, I drifted off to dreamland with a smile.


“Fired?” I stared at Marian, uncomprehending. “What? Marian—“

“I have no other choice.” She removed her sunglasses and glared at me stonily. I flinched and quickly tried to cover it up by crossing my legs and smoothing out my black A-line midi skirt.

“Of course you do!” I cried out. I paused and fought to compose myself. “Marian, of course you do. I know you’re upset with me, and I accept full responsibility for my mistakes. But I don’t think you understand what’s going on here.”

“Tell me, what don’t I understand, Tessa? I saw you as a young me.” Her use of the past tense stung. “But I would never have done what you did—make mistake after mistake, be so dishonest. You’ve put Grey & Boehm in jeopardy and I can’t look the other way anymore.”

My mind spun as I sat there, trying to figure out how my plan had gone so awry. I’d gone into Marian’s office to tell her that I had concerns about Liv, namely that she’d almost ruined the triplets’ opening. After I found the document Liv had sent to herself, a list of every single thing I’d done wrong in her time there, I knew she was planning something. Fury rose in me like bile when I saw the bullet point that said, “Screwed up triplets’ opening.” The clincher? She’d sent the email to herself days before she’d talked to Gia on the phone. She planned the whole thing. I knew I had to take control of the situation, so I decided to go to Marian and come clean about what had happened. Apparently Liv had gotten to her first.

Liv told Marian I was the one to be worried about. She talked about how when Marian had been on the flight to Ibiza in the summer, I’d coaxed her into going out for gelato and leaving the office unmanned. She told her how I’d lost that promising exhibit because I’d taken Celine to the gala Marian had given me her invitation to, although I still wasn’t sure how she knew that. I’d kept that information safely behind lock and key while it was going on and had never breathed a word of it to Liv. And she explained that the triplets had almost missed their opening because I’d snuck out of the office and asked her to handle things, leaving her confused and in the lurch. She’d never told the triplets there would be a midnight opening, she reassured Marian. They’d merely chatted about how cool the possibility of one would be, but the triplets got confused and ran with it, she said. It was a mistake, she said. It was my fault, she said.

Worst of all, she told Marian about how she’d cleaned the back room when I needed to go meet Grant and try to salvage our relationship. And now, Grey & Boehm was potentially in legal hot water because of it.

“Imogen is furious about not getting her pay in a lump sum,” Marian said, referencing the artist from earlier in the year who would surround herself with relentlessly ringing and beeping phones only to ignore them. “That’s what her original contract said, that it would be a lump sum. The amended version said it would be paid in installments, because as you know, we don’t have the funds to pay her all at once. But we don’t have the amended version, do we?” No, we didn’t. Because Liv had thrown it out of the back office, even though I explicitly remembered telling her to keep the pile it was in and file it.

While many galleries didn’t pay artists for their shows, Grey & Boehm did things a little differently. If someone were exhibiting actual art people could buy, then there wasn’t a need to pay them much. But so many of our artists did installments that people came to see, not purchase. How else would they make money? We covered most artists’ travel and material costs, a daily per diem, and an artist’s fee. I would draw up the contracts, mail them to the artist who sent signed copies back, then sign them myself. I’d keep one copy of the signed contract and mail the other back to the artist. Now a whole host of our copies of those contracts were gone.

“You understand Imogen is threatening legal action because you got lazy? We don’t have a digital or physical version of the signed amended contract.” Marian’s voice rained down on me.

“I’m sure we can work it out—”

“There is no ‘we’!” Her eyes flashed. “Olivia told me that your little love-life crisis was apparently the result of you spending too much time here.” My face got hot. That bitch. “So you swung in the other direction, hmm? Decided to half-ass it here and thought I wouldn’t notice? No no,” she tutted. “That’s not how this works.”

“Marian, that was the one time I left early because of Grant, and I came in early the next morning to make sure the back room was fine. It was one time. Yes, we left the office when you went to Ibiza, but I was just trying to bond with Liv.” Look at where that got me, I thought in disbelief. “You know you can trust me. You know that! Liv is the one you can’t trust.” I struggled to keep from getting too emotional. “She told the triplets the wrong time on purpose.”

“Why would she do that?” Marian waited for a response, but I couldn’t say it was to get me fired. It sounded too crazy, even though it was absolutely working. “You know what matters most, Tessa? Olivia came to me and was honest. You’ve been messing up and trying to hide your mistakes, but you got a bit sloppy. Olivia wouldn’t even have been able to talk to the triplets if you had been there. Frankly, when I leave, I leave you in charge for a reason. You should have been there to guide her.”

“I needed to run to my apartment for an appointment. We had no hot water and it was so quick. I was barely even gone.” Marian rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean to make excuses,” I said hastily.

She shook her head in disgust. “If you don’t mean to make excuses, then don’t. It was the day before a huge exhibit. You shower in cold water until you can find time during non-work hours.”

In hindsight, she was right. It was one of those things that everyone did—duck out of work to deal with something decidedly non work-related—that was technically wrong but just seemed normal. Until it ended in a very near-miss that was apparently costing me my job.

Marian glanced at her watch and stood up from her desk. “I’m late to meet Tom. I need you out by the end of the day.” I sat silently, frozen in my seat. She opened the door of her office and paused. “It’s disappointing, you know. I had high hopes for you.” With that, she was gone.

It was only after she left that I let the tears splash down my hot cheeks. How could this be happening? I rested my head between my knees and started panting. No matter how much air I knew was getting to my lungs, the room was closing in on me. After a few minutes of almost choking on my own breath, I sat up. I swiped my fingers underneath my eyes to get rid of any tears or stray mascara. My hands were shaking, my heartbeat slammed in my ears, and all I could think was that Liv was the one who had done this to me.

I walked out and she was sitting at her desk, staring at her computer. With Marian gone, it was just the two of us.

“Are you happy?” I dug my nails into my palms and tried not to spit out the words. “Is this what you wanted?”

Liv just stared at me as though I were a foreigner babbling in some language she couldn’t understand.

“You got me fired, Liv! What the hell is wrong with you?”

She pushed herself back from her desk and wrung her hands until her knuckles turned white. “I know. I’m sorry.”

I waited for her to say something else, but nothing came. “That’s it? You’re sorry?”

“It had to be this way. I wish it didn’t, but I can’t change the facts.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you honestly think they’d keep both of us when we joined with Revel?”

I flashed back to the lunch when Marian had broken the news to me. She’d promised me Liv and I would be safe.

Liv read my mind. “What, Marian told you we’d both keep our jobs? Tessa, come on. Grey & Boehm is bleeding money, and Revel’s still establishing itself. The less people we have when we get there, the better.”

“I don’t believe you. There’s no way you would know this and I wouldn’t.”

She shook her head emphatically. “No, it’s true.” Liv leaned in conspiratorially and whispered the next part. “I saw it on Marian’s computer.”

I gaped at her. “You signed into Marian’s computer? What the hell were you thinking?”

“You signed into mine! And don't even try to lie.”

“Liv, I thought we were friends.” I knew how pathetic I sounded, but I couldn’t help it. I thought of all the things I’d shared with Liv and how openly she’d listened. I’d had no idea what was underneath the deceptive patina of kindness.

“We are! But this is business, you know?” She chewed her lip, obviously torn between keeping it all inside and telling me what she was thinking. In the end, the story spilled out of her.

“You guys just left me alone so often. I wasn’t looking for anything specific when I signed into her computer. I was bored. Then one day I saw her and Tom emailing about how there was only space for her to bring one employee over. And I knew it had to be me.”

“Why you? I’ve been at Grey & Boehm for years. You just got here!”

She paused, her eyes shining. “My dad’s sick.”

The reply I'd already been formulating died on my lips. I’d had no idea. “What? Sick how?”

“He has Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s slow-growing, but it’s still aggressive. Insurance just doesn’t cover everything. The chemo, the radiation…” she trailed off. “It was you or me. You can get another job. Every paycheck, the time I would spend job-searching, the delay it would take for me to get paid when starting a new position, it would all be money I couldn’t send to Dad for treatment.”

I was stunned. I’d never expected this. How awful. Even now, I was tempted to run over and give Liv a hug. What stopped me right before I did was how she’d gone about things.

“Liv, I’m sorry. I really am, that’s terrible. It makes sense that you would need this job. But why couldn’t you tell me this? We could have come up with a plan to make sure we both made it over to Revel. You didn’t have to go behind my back.”

“That’s a nice thought, but you know that isn’t how it works. Do you really think Marian would care that I needed this job to help keep my dad alive?” It was a harsh way to put it, but she was right. Marian would see that as Liv’s problem and wish her good luck. “You and Marian have a bond. It was obvious I would have been the one to go.”

“So you’ve just been planning this as soon as you saw it on Marian’s computer?”

“After I found out that they were only taking one of us, I wrote down everything I remembered. I really do like you.” It occurred to me that it was the second time I’d heard that sentiment in the past 24 hours, but this one was much less pleasant than the first. “But I need to keep this job.”

Unsure of my next move, I fingered my iPhone in the pocket of my skirt. Right before I stepped out of Marian’s office, I’d downloaded and launched a recorder app. I’d expected to get some kind of fully evil admission from Liv, not this sad revelation about what had made her so desperate. Still, a sick family member didn’t warrant throwing me under the bus. Maybe I’d have understood if we were actually friends, but hadn’t Liv just said this was business?

I took out my phone, the red light on its display glowing, and showed it to Liv. Instead of the reaction I was expecting, a slow smile crept over her face, twisting her pretty features until they became an ugly sneer that made goosebumps erupt over my skin. Then she played her trump card.

“Go ahead, let Marian listen to everything. I’m not getting fired.”

I faltered. How could she be so sure of herself?

She rolled her eyes. “Marian and Tom are having an affair.”

Shocked, I just stared at her.

“I walked in on them one night in the office. It was on your desk, actually.” I recoiled, not knowing if she was messing with me. My mind was assaulted by the image of Marian bent over my keyboard while Tom went at it from behind. “Now how would that look, a man who invested in a company for his dead wife and who just got married to a young piece of trophy ass, having an affair with the woman whose company he’s taking over?” She barked out a laugh that made me think she was all stone under her soft-seeming surface.

We stared at each other until my stomach roiled and sloshed with nausea, my eyes blurring beneath the tears. Every answer Liv gave me only created more questions, but I couldn’t stay there to ask them. I grabbed my bag and coat and stumbled into the biting cold, then dialed a number on my phone.

A warm voice answered, and I instantly broke down. “Mom? I’m coming home.”


  1. I don't believe a word Liv says. I wish Tessa could have gotten to Marian first but I hope she somehow figures this out! or at least finds a new, better job that she doesn't have to slave at.

  2. Holy shit. Liv is fucking crazy. And I don't believe anything about her dad.

  3. OK so yeah, Liv is a liar and obviously can't be trusted.

    But my question is, if she caught them cheating and knew Marian and Tom wouldn't fire her so she wouldn't out them, why go to the trouble of framing Tessa? And she still needs to give that recording to Marian. If nothing else at least it proves she isn't lazy and incompetent, and maybe Marian will find it in her heart to at least give her a good reference, since she probably can't take her back on.

    Also, yay for Jack! :)

    1. I agree. At least Marian knows the kind of person that she's 'keeping' instead..

  4. Chris - @nylonlover69 on IG/TwitterDecember 23, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    Eff me this is twisted!

  5. I guess I know violence is wrong but there's no way I would've walked out of the office without smacking Liv across her lying face.

  6. So she has all of that recorded, Tessa can use that to her advantage as well!

  7. Oh my goodness! What a nightmare!

    But obviously, makes for an awesome blog post. These are the times when I have to tell myself, "it's only a story, it's only a story." Haha.

  8. Wow, lots of info here... great post. Honestly though, even if Liv's dad is sick, you just don't do that to someone... if I were Tessa, I would not have let her off the hook with that one!!!

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Marian's not doing her company any good by having an affair with the (married) guy who's the new major stockholder, with the authority to run things however he wants. Thought her character was smarter than that, but I guess not. She could wind up getting screwed, and not just literally. It'd be an ironic twist if she came running back to Tessa for help after being run out of her own business. Liv sounds like a classic sociopath...skilled liar, with no remorse about hurting others. Creepy. Tessa will have to be calculating to deal with her - and with Marian. Since her soon-to-be-former boss isn't on her best game, that shouldn't be hard. Love the surprise twists and plot developments; can't wait to see how Tessa deals with it all.

  11. I've been keeping up with this blog for awhile, and this is the first time I have ever felt like I needed to make a comment on here. This made me so mad! Haha. Cant believe she did that to Tessa. Honestly wanted to slap liv for Tessa. Lol

  12. Even though if Liv's dad is sick, you just don't do that to anyone. :(
    Fifty Shades of Grey

  13. I know what happened was crappy (even though its fictional) but I think Tessa is going to end up opening her own gallery and I think it would be so interesting to read about. She got fired but I think she would kick ass at owning her own.

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