by Zahra Barnes
My gaze bounced between Finn and Grant as my brain short-circuited, scrambling for the right way to handle the situation. On the one hand, there was the man who had spent years with me, getting to know me intimately, inside and out. On the other, there was the man who wanted to. Finally, my eyes settled on Grant.
“What are you doing here?” Of all the questions that were racing through my mind, I decided to start with the most rational one.
“I saw you tweeting that you’d be here,” he said, as if I shouldn’t have been shocked to find him stateside even though he was supposed to be half a world away. He looked around, his hair dangling into his frame of vision until he pushed it back. That one motion was all it took to remind me of how much I loved it when he grasped my waist in between his two hands, cradling me like I was the most precious, fragile, one-touch-and-you-break-her thing he’d ever come across.
“No, I mean, what are you doing here? Like, in the United States of America,” I clarified, both frustrated and flustered. I commanded myself to take a few deep breaths. No way was I about to ruin my dress with boy-induced sweat.
“I came back,” he said simply. He finished his visual tour of the room and looked into my eyes. “I need to talk to you.”
Time slowed while I considered my response. Grant had attributed so much of his cheating with Sophie to my devotion to my job, my constant absence from his arms in favor of my desk, my certainty that all that hard work would pay off someday. And yes, I’d apologized for hurting him. I’d meant it. But I couldn’t pretend I was sorry for where my time at Grey & Boehm had eventually led me. I wasn’t about to seize this chance at a romantic do-over to leave my post and make things all better with anyone, whether it be Grant, Finn, or Chris Hemsworth.
“I can’t right now. I’m working.” I waved a hand around the room.
“You did all this?”
“I’m impressed.” The corners of his lips turned up so slowly that I knew his pride had to be real. “Making a name for yourself, huh?”
I shrugged even though I hoped, no, knew I was. “Listen,” I said, finally stepping forward to give him a hug and trying not to settle into our warm, heavy past as I did. “It’s incredible to see you. But I need to handle all of this.” I set my jaw, Olivia Pope-style. “Maybe we can talk after?”
Disappointment made a home on his face. “Sure. My place is full of subletters, so I’m staying at the Four Seasons.”
My eyes darted past him to look at Finn, who was frozen with a pained expression, like he was a rubbernecker at a car wreck. Which I guess, in some sense, he was.
“OK. I’ll let you know when I’m done here.” I tried to ignore the slight change in Finn’s posture, which anyone who hadn’t known him for years might have missed. But I couldn’t mistake the rounded shoulders and limp hand, still holding my flowers, for anything except what it was.
Grant nodded, satisfied. “See you soon,” he said. His eyes flicked over Finn, hardening in a way that told me everything I needed to know: he was privy to what had been going on between me and Finn, and he didn’t like it one bit.
After Grant left, I turned back to Finn. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea he’d be here,” I said.
He shook his head, smiling in a way that stabbed my insides. “It’s OK. Listen, it seems like you have a lot to figure out. I probably do, too.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but really, what was I going to say? He was right.
“Here.” He held the flowers out to me. “I don’t want to pressure you, or be weird about it. I’m just going to head out.”
I could imagine him retreating to the basement of the furniture shop, whittling away at a slab of wood, all sawdust and rough hands, looking for all the world like a Harlequin romance novel’s wet dream.
“I’m sorry,” I said helplessly, taking the bouquet in my hands. “I didn’t plan this.”
“I know.” He reached out to smooth my hair, which, if it reflected my thought process, was probably standing up like I’d clamped both hands to a heavy-duty power line. Then he was gone. I watched him disappear through the crowd and brought the flowers up to my face, only getting to inhale their curious scent for a second before a crash made me jump, then wince. I turned around to find Nicole, the bumbling intern, red-faced and stammering in front of a pile of ruined appetizers. I stood on my tiptoes to hand the flowers to Johnny, who understood immediately and stashed them behind the bar without a word. They stayed there while I put out fires for the rest of the night.
The next morning, I showed up at the Four Seasons. Grant was standing outside, even though I hadn’t told him to expect me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” He grinned and jerked his head toward the packed sidewalk. “Wanna walk?”
We fell into a disjointed step, me stretching to make my short-legged stride match his.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” I said. We made small talk and intuitively wound our way through the crowd in the direction of Central Park. I gripped the strap of my cross-body bag, then realizing how sweaty my hand was thanks to my nerves and the spring humidity, shoved it into my pocket. Dresses with sneaky pockets: the savior of women everywhere.
“I can’t either. I’m all jet-lagged and culture-shocked,” he said, laughing.
I asked him tons of questions about life in Abu Dhabi, all the while avoiding my main one: what about it had made him leave and come back?
We hit the greenery of Central Park. Its resilience always surprised me. Year after year, it managed to thaw from underneath the harsh, unforgiving ice and bounce back with more life than I remembered. Excited, shrieking children swirled around us trailed by exasperated parents.
“Probably not the best time to come to Central Park,” I admitted.
“Probably not,” he agreed. Still, the Alice in Wonderland statue had just come into view. Miraculously, there were only a few kids nearby the sculptural homage to Lewis Carroll’s story. I broke out running, trusting Grant to know I was silently challenging him to a race rather than abandoning him. I heard a surprised laugh, then footsteps pounding behind me. When I reached the statue, I thrust my hands forward to keep from colliding into it, then used the momentum to haul myself up on top of the mushroom with Alice.
“So,” I started, emboldened with my back to him. “Why did you really come back?”
He was silent for long enough that I had time to swivel around and look down at his face.
“I missed you,” he finally responded.
“What about Tori?” I said, remembering the name of the girl he’d told me he was seeing during our iChat a few months back. “And what about work?”
“Things are a little slow right now. Call it a vacation. And Tori’s fine. She’s good, I mean. She’s nice, a great girl. But she’s not you.”
Poor Tori. I knew how easy it was to fall for Grant. Even though I didn’t know her, I felt for her. She probably thought she had him all to herself. He made it easy to believe.
Grant interrupted my train of thought. “Tessa, listen. I fucked up. I fucked up big-time. It was hard to deal with the Grey & Boehm thing, and Marian, but now I look back and can’t believe I gave you up. Tori’s great, but she’s happy to kind of wander around learning about random things,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call a Fulbright wandering around and learning about random things,” I replied.
“All that tells me is that you haven’t seen Tori do a Fulbright.” He smiled ruefully. “Last night everything just clicked. I want to go along for the ride with you.”
My stomach dropped, and it wasn’t just because my hand slipped a little on the statue. He was saying all the right things.
“I wish you had fought me,” he blurted out. “Begged me to stay. Told me you needed me here. I wouldn’t have gone.”
I slid back to Earth from my spot next to Alice, slightly dizzy, swaying a bit on the way down. Grant reached his hands out to steady me. I rested my own on his arms.
“I’m sorry, I just need a little time to think,” I said.
Grant looked at me knowingly. “About Finn?”
“About a lot of things.”
I spent the next few hours at my place, running over every possible scenario in my head. I picked up the flowers Finn had given me, which had been sitting on my dining table since the night before. I peeled the paper back to get a better look and a card fell onto the ground. I picked it up, read it, and glanced over the words a few more times for good measure. Then I went to my underwear drawer and dug around until I found what I was looking for. I stroked the creased edge of the subway card I’d used to board the train on the day I met Grant. Then, it hit me. There was only one right choice here. I knew, down to my bones, what I had to do.
I raced out of my apartment, stopping to grab my keys and some cash along the way. I had no idea where my phone was, and I didn’t want to stop to find it. I hurtled down the stairs, one hand on the cracked wall of my building’s old staircase, the other skimming over the banister so quickly it barely made contact.
Luckily, an elderly woman was disembarking from a cab that had pulled up right outside my door. I slid inside and gave the driver the cross streets, then watched the signs as they raced past. With each one that went by, I was even more confident in what I was doing. I rolled down the window and welcomed the breeze on my face. Finally, we arrived at my destination. I spilled out of the cab, offering cash and thanks to the driver. I bounded toward the the entrance, then leaned on the buzzer hard. It bleated acceptance, and I took the stairs two by two.
He opened the door, and I stood still for a moment, triple-checking with myself even though I knew, deep down, that I was sure. Without a word, I wrapped my arms around his neck. He hoisted me up, digging his hands into my hair and held me tight.
For the rest of the night, we rediscovered each other, delightfully stumbling upon all the things we’d missed before. He had a freckle here, I had a hysterically ticklish spot there. He thumbed the ridge of my cheekbone, I ran my fingers down his neck, watching the goosebumps dutifully spring up behind them. We paused to laugh in disbelief. He breathed in, I breathed out, and we exploded into gold dust together.
In the end, we only managed about an hour of sleep. At dawn I opened my eyes and watched his face in the twilit silence, knowing my decision was right. A few seconds after I woke, Finn opened his own eyes, squinting in the morning light. I stared into his eyes’ hazel depths, still marveling at the honey starbursts that surrounded his pupils. I traced a finger over his tattoo and his eyes focused on me, then he grinned.
“I could get used to this,” he said, pulling me closer.
“You might have to,” I replied, burrowing into the space between his chin and his chest.
The thing was, I really had felt torn. Although it would have been easier if I’d been 100 percent convinced I should be with either Finn or Grant from the get-go, life was messier than that. I would always have a soft spot for Grant, and the temptation to go back to what was safe felt insurmountable at times. But I wanted someone who had encouraged me from the start, who knew he could love every bit of me, even the insecure mess that I tried to hide. I was certain my heart, brain, and body were finally all in agreement.
The day before, when I saw the card Finn had tucked into my bouquet, I knew he was it. “These say it better than I ever could,” he’d written. That was when I took a good look at the flowers for the first time, their meaning stamping out all my breath in an instant. Aster for patience. Daffodil for new beginnings. Ranunculus, which made me blush thanks to their implied flattery that I was irresistible. Fern for magic and dahlia for a touch of wild beauty.
My past boyfriends wouldn’t have understood the messages they were sending with their flowers, but that didn’t change the fact that I could interpret them all the same. I thought back to the sweet pea and snapdragon Jack had once given me, which mixed an acknowledgment of pleasure with a warning of deception. And the peonies Grant loved to greet me with, which, as lovely as they were, carried anger in their petals. Finn had seen me grow and he wasn’t running from it. Instead, he was throwing himself into my world with abandon.
My stomach rumbled, bringing me back to the present. I’d worked up an appetite. Another wave coursed through me, although this time, it was one of excitement. Finn and I had spent the entire night kissing, silently agreeing that we had all the time in the world to explore each other. Flashes of the future of us ran through my mind: Finn peeling off my clothes, kissing me all over, burying himself inside me. There was so much to look forward to.
“What are you thinking about?” He pulled his head back and studied my face.
“Food,” I answered.
Half an hour later, we squeezed into the same side of a booth at a 24/7 pizza parlor. There were a few hours left before I had to be at work. I ordered mushroom and sausage, fully intending to at least try a bite of Finn’s vegetable slice. My hair floated around my face in a post-makeout halo, kind of dreamy, but definitely unsanitary. I dug through my pockets for a hair tie, corralled my curls in a haphazard bun, and leaned my head against Finn’s shoulder. That was when I looked up.
There, across from us, was our reflection in the store’s window. Confused, I was struck with deja vu until I figured out where I had seen the image before. I couldn’t help but smile. We looked just like that couple I’d spotted months ago in Wilfie and Nell, the man and woman who seemed completely wrapped up in each other and deliriously happy to be in their own little world. In that moment, I had new love, the promise of stellar sex, and a delicious slice of pizza on its way. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.