by Zahra Barnes
Jack didn’t snap out of his fog until I was standing right in front of him. Even then, I had to clear my throat to get his attention. He started, then rose to his feet, cheeks reddening just a touch.
“Hey, you. Thanks for coming,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me in an almost-hug, barely touching me. Caught off guard, I wasn’t able to get my arms out before his made that impossible. It was like being in a human straitjacket. “I was kind of worried you were going to stand me up there,” he said.
Purposely be 10 minutes late to meet the guy who yanked my heart out of my chest cavity then pounded it with the emotional version of a meat tenderizer? Who, me? I would never.
“Sorry, just had some things to do. What'd you get?” I gestured at the mug on the table, full of coffee, spices, and swirls of foam.
“Latte. Yours is coming right up. I’ll grab it when it’s ready. Sit, please?” Jack thrust his chin at the chair to my side, which I slid into while eyeing him but trying not to look like I was eyeing him. He sank into his chair, looking way too good for the occasion. It would have been extremely helpful to my cause if he’d shown up with some sort of weeping facial rash or godawful haircut, but no. In sexy dark jeans and a crisp white button-down that only highlighted his insanely pretty eyes, he looked good enough to eat. Why was his hair so shiny?
I had time to think all of this to myself because Jack was just tapping a finger against his saucer, saying nothing and staring at what I had an inkling was the spot on my forehead between my eyes. Did he invite me here just to make me wonder if my foundation was doing its job?
“Caramel latte!” the barista called out. Jack shot out of his chair like a bullet to get the drink. He’d clearly had enough caffeine to get him through the conversation.
He brought the coffee over to me, holding it in front of him as it trembled in his hands. He set it down so hard some of the liquid slopped down the sides. What was he so nervous about?
“I’m kind of nervous,” he said as he sat, mirroring my thoughts.
“Thanks. And it’s OK,” I said, even though I had no idea if that would be true after I heard what he had to say. “So, what did you want to talk about?”
He brought his mug to his lips and took a long sip. His eyes watered. Was he getting emotional already?
“Too hot,” he coughed as he put the mug down. “Way too hot.”
I laughed a little, more out of nerves than out of relishing seeing his discomfort. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah. Sorry, I swear I’m not stalling. So, it was crazy to run into you last night. It made me realize a lot of things,” he said.
My stomach dropped. “Yeah? Like what?”
“Well, I guess I didn’t know what it was that made me just need…space. After you left my place, I mean. I just knew that I needed it, but not why.”
In my mind, needing a little bit of space after weeks of living together was normal, not something that should have ended us. “That’s totally fine. We were pretty new, so that makes sense.” I pushed myself to say what I really meant. “But why wouldn’t you tell me that you wanted your space, or whatever you want to call it? Even if you didn’t know why? Why just go straight to the silent treatment?”
“Honestly?” He stopped, truly checking if I wanted the full truth.
I crossed my legs impatiently. “Yes, honestly.”
“I thought you’d freak out. I don’t know if you realize this, but your life is really dramatic.”
I bit my tongue, reining in a defensive comeback. “What do you mean?”
“You get fired, your roommate goes on a crazy bender.” He hesitated, then continued. “People say you attract what you give off, you know? No offense,” he said hurriedly.
“I didn’t realize you thought my life would make good reality TV fodder,” I said. I’d come into this prepared to be mature even though a guy who disappears on you after confessing his feelings and having sex with you doesn’t really deserve that luxury, but now he was just pissing me off.
“I mean, we weren’t seeing each other for that long. I saw how awesome you were with me, but I kind of thought you might just go insane if I told you I was breaking it off. I just don’t like drama.” Ah, the old “blame a woman’s emotions for everything” excuse. Lovely.
I wasn’t going to pursue that line of conversation, already having to fight a table-flipping urge that would only prove him right. I felt my pulse tick along at a faster clip as I worked up the courage to ask what I really wanted to know. I forced the words out around the lump in my throat.
“OK, but what went wrong? You said you realized last night.”
“Yeah, that.” He looked relieved to be moving on, then immediately hiked his shoulders up near his ears as if preparing for the emotional blow of what he was about to say. “It wasn’t there. For you and me, it just wasn’t. You’re an amazing girl, but I don't think we’re right for each other. I saw you last night and I wasn’t hit with some, ‘Oh my god, I need to be with this woman’ epiphany.”
Still as a statue, I tried to process his words even though my heart slamming against my chest.
“I don’t really understand,” I said. “I’m not saying we’re right for each other, because clearly we’re not. But you acted like everything was totally fine until it wasn’t. You acted like there was something there, and that’s what was wrong.”
“I know, but that’s because you were pushing for things to be more serious—”
“Me?! I was the one pushing for things to be more serious?” Incredulous, I seized triumphantly on this absurd logic. “In what world?”
He stopped and blinked hard, suddenly looking much younger than his years and gaping like a goldfish.
“Seriously, explain that to me. You were the one who asked if we could go on a getaway, who confessed your feelings on said getaway, and who offered to let me move in. I checked along the way that you were fine with the pace of all of it. Don’t try to turn this around on me, Jack. Don’t.”
“Yeah, but I did all of those things because of the vibe you were giving off! This, like, womanly vibe of wanting things. You’re great, and you’re going to make someone really happy one day. And who knows, maybe I’ll look back on this and realize I made a mistake.”
“‘This…womanly…vibe…of…wanting…things.’” I spoke slowly like it was the most stupid thing I’d ever heard in my life. It probably was, its potential only matched by his asinine “I’m going to regret this so much but I’m still doing it like a dick” sentiment. “So, instead of acting like the adult you’re supposed to be, you went along with it until you could just remove yourself from my life with no warning.”
“It sounds really harsh when you put it that way,” he said. Um, yes, that’s the point. “But I really do think it’s for the best. Don’t you? I’m sure you’re moving on, doing well, dating, you know?” He looked at me with hopeful eyes that were begging me to ease his guilt.
I was just confused. Was it that he thought I was dramatic, or that he thought I was moving too fast, or that he just didn’t see us together? I felt like he was throwing out excuses to see what stuck. He seemed like a confused teenager trying to get out of trouble with his mom.
It was my turn to take a long sip of my coffee. Creamy, warm, and with just enough of a kick, it spread through my core, taking a new kind of resolve with it.
“You know, I was devastated when you left. I know saying ‘left’ makes it sound serious, but that’s what it was. Disappearing on someone you say you have a future with is leaving. And when I walked in here, I would have rather died than tell you that.” I took my last swallow, put the mug down, and started fishing around in my purse. “But I’m not like you. I don’t think it makes sense to hide my emotions, so I won’t. Jack, you’re an asshole.”
His mouth dropped open, which only stoked the flames of my annoyance. This was really news to him?
“You might be a great guy one day, when you grow up. For right now, though? You’re a grade-A douchebag, and I should thank you for doing me a favor. You’re one of those guys who hopes that a woman will feel too ashamed of her feelings to tell him that what he did was wrong. You chose the wrong girl for that.” Bits of Amy Dunne’s Cool Girl monologue rattled around in my head, spurring me on. I found what I needed in my bag and stood up to leave.
“Thank you for proving to me that you’re not worth it. It makes it a lot easier to forget you,” I said. We made eye contact and he shrank into himself a bit, finally looking sufficiently ashamed. I took one last look at his beautiful eyes, one hazel, the other blue, then threw a crumpled $5 bill down onto the table and turned away. I didn’t want to owe him anything.
Jostling tourists in an attempt to carve out my own little space in the flow of traffic, I waited for the tears to come. After a few shaky breaths, I knew my cheeks would remain dry.
Of course, that only lasted until I got some alcohol into my system. That night, I met Marley at an East Village bar. I pushed through the crowd and collapsed into the booth next to her, the story of my day spilling out before my ass hit the seat. She’d already ordered a round of lychee martinis. I was on my third when I saw Finn.
“I called in some reinforcements,” Marley yelled into my ear. I nodded happily. I was still in the good drunk phase. I felt powerful and vindicated.
Finn motioned toward the bar, clearly making a pit stop before joining our little estrogen huddle. As if on cue, two guys came over and introduced themselves, floppy-haired twins in gingham. I couldn’t tell whether they were actually twins, and I didn’t care. The one in red turned his attention to me while the one in blue homed in on Marley.
“You’re way too pretty to be here without a guy,” Red said to me.
I suppressed an eyeroll. “Well, here I am.”
“My lucky night,” he said, grinning. Or slurred, rather. His eyes were out of focus, his breath boozy. He was tanked. I glanced over at Marley, who was clearly enjoying Blue’s attention. She could have both of them, as far as I was concerned.
Finn finally came over, beer in hand. The twins swiveled their heads to look up at him, then back at me and Marley to see if Finn was welcome.
“Guys, this is our friend Finn,” I said. I couldn't for the life of me remember the twins’ names. “Can you make some room?”
They rolled their eyes but did it anyway. I wanted them to go away. I looked around the packed bar. A year ago, I’d been with Grant. I’d never have thought I’d have to go to bars to meet guys again. Chatting up eligible men in alcoholic watering holes had always been a favorite pastime of mine, but I’d just thought I was done with it. The reality of the night started closing in on me: Jack saw me and didn’t fall on his knees, begging for me back. After everything we had, I still wasn’t a revelation. I was here alone. I was going home alone. And I would lather, rinse, and repeat the process for who knows how long. Pearls of sweat beaded in between my shoulder blades.
“Sorry, can I get out for a second?” Everyone turned to stare at me, and I tried not to look too panicked. Finn, still in the process of getting settled, looked at me with a question in his eyes.
“You OK?” Marley asked.
“Fine, I just need some air. I’ll be back.” I grabbed my coat, feeling like I’d crawl out of my skin if I didn’t get out of the bar immediately.
I burst into the chilly air with a grateful gasp. The massive doorman looked at me suspiciously. “I’m just going to take a break for a second,” I said.
“OK, sweetheart. Take your time.”
That ounce of kindness was all it took. I’ll never find a man who’s that nice to me, I thought. It was one of those things that seems undeniably true in the moment, even though you know the next day you’ll wonder how you ever believed it at all. Embarrassed, I turned away and pinched the web of skin between my thumb and index finger, willing myself not to cry. I shuffled a few feet away so the doorman wouldn’t feel the need to ask me what was wrong, then leaned against the wall and tilted my head back. I knew there were stars up there behind the smog, and all I wanted was to see them. Too much time gazing at the inky darkness gave me the spins, so I tucked my chin to my chest and closed my eyes, trying to clear my mind.
“You need some water,” someone said, startling me. My eyes flew open to find Finn standing in front of me.
“I know. I just wanted to see the stars.”
Finn tipped his head back even though he had to know there was no way he’d be able to spot any pinpricks of light. “None tonight.”
“The stars were beautiful in Hudson River Valley,” I said quietly. The alcohol was urging me to think about Jack, even though I really didn’t want to. Besides that coffee, I’d only had a bagel. I knew this would only end badly. Where was all the power I’d felt earlier in the day?
Finn looked at me quizzically. “Hudson River Valley?”
“Where Jack and I went on our trip. I saw him today. And it was shit.”
“He doesn’t want me. He told me so. Just like Grant.” That’s the terrible thing about alcohol. It dredges up old wounds you thought had long since healed. But apparently, the Grant-sized hole in my heart wasn't quite closed. I picked up the opening beats to Haim’s “Forever” pumping out of the bar, which was the only thing that made me feel slightly better.
“Oh, come on. I don’t know this Jack dude much, but Grant definitely wanted you. He just fucked up.”
“No!” I slapped my thighs hard enough to sting. “I don’t know why, but they don’t want me. I give myself to them and they take me for a test drive but I’m never enough,” I hiccuped, my tears on the verge of tears spilling over. I felt sick, probably from a mixture of alcohol and embarrassment. But a tiny part of me felt relieved to finally say what was quickly becoming my biggest fear: that no one would think I was worth staying with.
Instead of the usual protestations, Finn was silent. I scanned his face, suddenly terrified he was trying to decide if he should be a good friend and tell me everything I was doing wrong. He looked torn, but he took a step toward me all the same.
“Tessa, you’re more than enough.” His voice shook at the end. I looked at his hands. Also shaking. “How can you not see that?”
With that, he put both hands on the sides of my face. Time slowed like syrup as he leaned down and touched his lips to mine. I froze while his thumbs traced my jaw, the rest of his fingers coming to rest on the back of my neck. My skin erupted into goosebumps, whether from surprise or from the cold, I couldn’t tell. His lips, soft and warm, moved against mine tentatively at first, then with more assurance. For a second, I responded in kind. I deepened the kiss, brought my hands up to his wrists and latched on, worked my fingers over the muscles of his forearms.
Then my brain sounded the alarm. What the hell was I doing? This was Finn. Finn, my friend, who I’d never even glanced at in that way. Finn, who had a girlfriend, turning me into the Sophie of their relationship.
I yanked my head back so hard I cracked it against the concrete wall. Stars exploded in front of my eyes.
“Shit, Tessa, are you OK? I’m sorry—”
I massaged the quickly-growing knot on the back of my head. “No, I’m not OK! I pour my soul out to you and you take it as a chance to get some?”
“What?” His eyes dimmed. “Of course not! You know me better than that!”
“All I know is that I need to leave. Now.” For the second time that day, I turned and fled from a guy who, on the surface, seemed perfect. Just not for me.