by Zahra Barnes
Hi, everyone! Zahra here. I wanted to check in to let you all know May 5th will be the last installment of Tessa’s story. I’m so excited to show you how her journey ends, in this universe at least—I imagine her in an alternate one after this, curly-haired and painted with a mischievous smile, still getting into messes and trying to find herself through it all. I think everyone can agree she’s grown a lot since you met her last July!
This was my first time trying my hand at fiction, and it’s safe to say I’m absolutely hooked. I want to thank you for both your encouragement and constructive criticism as I navigated the ins and outs of Tessa’s story. I wish I could continue it elsewhere, but I’ve decided to focus that energy on other fiction projects instead. Here’s hoping you’ll be able to read those one day, too. Another special thank you goes to my wonderful boyfriend Blake and my lovely mom Winsome for dealing with my special Tessa-related brand of neuroses.
I also want to publicly acknowledge that I have been so incredibly lucky to work with Jessica throughout all of this. She’s fielded my questions about Tessa’s storylines, counseled me when I needed advice on my life goals, and generally been someone I know I can always count on and look up to. Beyond all of that, she is truly an amazing storyteller. Sign up for and , if you haven’t already!
After this, you can find me on Twitter and keep up with my writing at . Thank you all again, and I sincerely hope you enjoy these last three installments!
“The combination is uppercut, right cross, left hook. Or do I have that backwards?” Confused, I looked between Marley and our kickboxing instructor.
Our teacher Robert, who was so musclebound he reminded me of a much less-cute version of a bulldog, opened his mouth to remind me of the correct order. Marley shushed him. “No, this is how she learns best,” she corrected Rob. “By doing. If you just tell her things, she’ll never get it.”
My eyeroll and sarcastic “thanks” got cut off when I had to dodge Marley’s lightning-quick jab.
Evening kickboxing sessions were quickly becoming my favorite way to blow off steam. Between planning Bloom’s launch event and parsing out my feelings about Finn, I was full of nervous energy.
Marley and I danced around each other, me springing on the balls of my feet with a lightness that was partially helped by over-caffeination. I’d been mainlining coffee in an effort to stay on top of things at Bloom. Given that our launch party was only a few days away and Finn’s touch had spiked an undeniable adrenaline rush in me, I certainly needed the outlet for all that extra energy.
“So,” Marley huffed as she blocked one of my punches. “You and Finn. Should I assume you’re registering at West Elm?”
“Shut. Up,” I breathed hard as I thrust my right fist forward again. I paused for a second and leaned away from Marley’s kinetic force, swabbing the sweat on my forehead with the back of my glove. “I have no idea what’s going on with us. Plus, you know West Elm isn’t my style.”
“Whatever. Did he seriously bewitch your vagina with just two kisses? That’s certainly the fastest anyone’s done it in recent history.”
“Mar, have I ever told you you’re better at throwing shade than punches?”
She yelped in protest. “You know I’m not! But you’re my best friend, and Finn’s, well, my normal friend. I’d really rather not see either of you get hurt under the influence of random hormones.” She looked at the instructor, who had just barked out a command to drop and give him 10.
“Although,” she groaned as she got onto her knees, “I can’t say I hate the idea of you and Finn. I actually kind of love it. Just don’t fuck it up.”
“Oh, no pressure,” I said through clenched teeth on my fourth pushup. And that was really what my inner struggle came down to. I’d always loved Finn as a friend. And I couldn’t lie; this new woodworking side to him was beyond intriguing. Just the thought of the kiss we shared in his workspace was enough to make me shiver a little, which wasn’t helped by the fact that my muscles were already being exhausted to their breaking point. Still, the question nagged at me: Finn had been there all along. If we were truly meant to be, wouldn’t I have realized it somewhere along the way? Was I just being reckless in the wake of my breakup with Jack?
Rob called out to all of us to line up, putting the kibosh on the circular train of thought that was getting me nowhere. In the time since my second kiss with Finn, I’d experienced every emotion under the sun. I’d gone from all exhilaration and tingles to self-doubt and reprimands, then back again.
The other kickboxing students and I lined up in an orderly fashion, then pressed our hands tight and bowed to Rob as a thanks for teaching us. Marley and I congregated by the pile of sneakers, shoving our feet into our respective shoes. I checked my phone for any pressing emails related to Bloom’s launch. Savannah and Dee had put the majority of the planning in my hands, and if I crossed all my appendages down to my pinky toes, I figured I could pull it off.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marley shove her topknot’s spillover from her face. “Do you want to grab food?”
She had to nudge me before I answered. Again, an email from Marian had struck me into speechlessness.
“No, you go ahead,” I said. I looked at my phone again, Marian’s simple email, sent only a few minutes ago, displayed on the screen:
Meet me at Tapenade tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. I’d like discuss something with you, if you’re amenable.
“Really, Marian?” I felt like shouting, “Could you be any more cryptic?” in what would surely be a poor Chandler Bing impersonation. But I knew if I didn’t indulge her, I’d always wonder just what she wanted to talk to me about. Especially considering the complimentary email she’d forwarded a few weeks earlier. And I knew emailing Marian back to ask for more details was pointless. If she wanted to speak in person, nothing else would suffice.
I made my way home and passed out sans shower, even though I’d read various recent news pieces about how filthy the post-workout body and anything that touched it were. The next morning, I hopped under the warm welcome of my shower, feeling like I was being reborn beneath the spray. I’d had trouble sleeping all week, thanks to the pressure I was under at work. Each night I’d curl up into my mound of pillows, drift off, then startle awake with some thread of genius that I could either write down in the moment or lose forever.
I jumped out of the shower and layered on some no-makeup makeup. I didn’t want to get totally done-up and submit to what I realized was Marian’s deluded notion that she should rule the life of anyone she deemed an underling. While I could understand and respect her position in the art world, it didn’t excuse her attitude. Dotting on my blush, I imagined what Marian’s reaction would if I stood her up. The poor, unfortunate souls who would be around her in that moment.
I showed up at Tapenade just two minutes late, taking my time walking from the subway so as to avoid any sweaty evidence that Marian still had some sort of hold on me.
I gave Marian’s name to the host, who quickly led me to a private table tucked away from the bustle of the brunch crowd. There Marian sat, her jet-black hair as impeccable as ever. Anyone who didn’t know her as well would miss the hint of blue under her eyes, shadowed proof of recent procedure, but I clocked it.
She looked up as I approached, her eyes homing in, up and down, the closer I got.
“Hello, Marian,” I said. The host pulled my chair out for me and I scooted into it.
“Tessa. You look well,” she conceded.
“So do you,” I responded, tempted to marvel at the fact that my voice didn’t waver. And that I could lie to her face, which was alarmingly wind tunnel-tight.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” she said. She lifted a finger into the air and waved it around. In an instant, servers crowded around us, balancing plates in their nimble hands. My spirits lifted at the thought that maybe, just maybe, some delicious treat would help me deal with this conversation.
After my meal was set in front of me, I took a quick second to evaluate the offerings. Everything was green. Steamed spinach, sautéed kale, fresh-squeezed juice—everything boasted a verdant hue that basically screamed, “Look how healthy I am, to indulge in this self-flagellation of my tastebuds!” Of course. Even though I was no longer Marian’s employee, she still wanted to show that her opinion trumped all.
She picked up a fork and started stabbing at her salad with a ferocity that reminded me of my recent kickboxing session. Finally, she lifted a lettuce leaf to her mouth and took a rabbit-sized nibble. “Hm,” she hummed. Her eyes remained focused on the greenery in front of her. In that single intonation, I could tell she was wildly dissatisfied with the food. Sure enough, she called a waiter over, icily asked him whether the salad had been tossed in olive oil, then sent him off to the kitchen with his tail between his legs and the order to get her one that hadn’t. After that display, she turned to me.
“How are you?”
“I’m great, thank you,” I said. My instinct was to wonder whether she knew where I’d landed and why she was keeping tabs on me, but I quieted those questions. “How’s Revel?”
“Revel is doing very well.”
I nodded slowly, fighting the urge to fill the silence with questions. Marian had asked me to lunch, so I was determined not to do the conversational heavy lifting.
“Actually, Tessa, that’s what I asked you here to speak about. I would like you to come back to Revel,” Marian said, as though I’d actually spent a second there beyond when I’d snuck in to confront her in that tense face-to-face.
I couldn’t suppress my curiosity, but I didn't want to show all my cards just yet. I let out a surprised, “Oh!” but nothing else.
“You told me about Olivia. While I initially had reason to doubt the veracity of your account, the girl has fumbled task after task,” Marian said. Even at this point, she couldn’t just flat-out say she was wrong. “She’s also simply untrustworthy.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s got this nasty little habit of looking through my files, both technological and otherwise. I’ve reviewed the security footage,” Marian said plainly. “And if I must be truly honest, she’s taken to spreading rumors about my personal matters.” A flash of Marian and Tom bent over her desk crossed my mind, and I suppressed a shudder.
“Yes, quite. Of course, she’s no longer with us.” I knew Marian meant she’d been fired, but the phrasing made me want to ask what she’d done with the body. I chewed the inside of my cheek to stop a smile from forming. The only bitch bigger than Liv was karma. “And I would like you to come back in her place. Imogen was not the only client who has, since your departure, expressed a fondness for you.”
“So that was why you forwarded me that email from her?”
“Yes. I found it also reflected my feelings on the matter.” And there, right there, I saw something shift behind Marian’s eyes. She missed me. Mystery solved.
This was starting to rub me the wrong way. Still, after all this, Marian couldn’t apologize or refer to my firing honestly instead of dressing up a sanitized version of a “departure.” Her career trajectory would always inspire me, but I didn’t want to work with a woman who terrified waitstaff and wasn’t willing to admit when she made a mistake.
Did part of me want to blaze into Revel, work my ass off, and make everyone realize I was infinitely better than Liv? Of course. And even though Marian could flatten you with a word, I’d been with her so long that returning to her side, willing to learn from her illustrious history in order to make one of my own, seemed safer than the chance of striking out at Bloom. But I wasn’t going to leave somewhere I knew, down to the bones of me, was exactly where I was supposed to be. Not for this.
“Thank you so much for the offer, Marian. I’m flattered. But I just wouldn’t feel right leaving Bloom right now. They’ve entrusted me with so much responsibility. I’m committed to following through and excited to see where that takes me. I loved my time with you at Grey & Boehm,” I said, glossing over the awful way she treated me at the end. “But I have to pass. I’m sorry.”
Marian nodded, the vulnerability behind her eyes winking out like an extinguished candle. “So be it. I had to try,” she said. “But Tessa, a word of advice: never apologize for doing what feels right.” There it was again, that kindness Marian would on occasion show to those around her that made it so easy to wait around, hoping for more.
She pushed her chair back. “Enjoy your lunch. Have them bill it to my account,” she said, whipping sunglasses out of her bag. I opened my mouth to thank her, but she was already sweeping out of the restaurant.
Our waiter came over to the table with Marian’s new salad.
“She just left and said to put all this on her account,” I said. “Sorry about earlier. I know she can be a little intimidating.”
He leaned in conspiratorially. “She’s a legend here. She’s made half the staff cry at least once.”
“Trust me, I know. I promise that deep down, there’s an actual human with emotions in there.”
“We deal with that all the time, don’t worry about it.” He cocked his head and studied me. “Are you two close?”
I paused, then shook my head, the smile that had been right under the surface finally coming up for air. “Not anymore.”