I BLINKED MY EYES OPEN and quickly squeezed them shut again. Knowing I’d been caught, I fluttered my eyelids as though I hadn’t been about to feign sleep. My husband stood over me, watching, but I focused on the nightstand to avoid his stare.
“It’s nine,” he said gently. “Better get a move on.”
I rolled over and faced the wall with a small sigh, unable to handle his soft expression. “I’m not going.”
“Liv,” he started.
“I have to work today.”
“Things are crazy at the office.”
“It’s the weekend, and I told you about this birthday party last month. Can’t it wait ‘til Monday?”
“No. I’m under deadline.”
“I’m sure you could spare a Saturday afternoon,” he said wryly.
“Call Serena if you don’t believe me.”
“Of course I believe you,” he said, taken aback. “But you’re working too much. You need to take some time off, babe. It’s been over three months of this.”
I gulped. Has it only been three months?
When he continued, his tone was tentative, hedging. “I know it’s been hard, but this isn’t what Davena would have wanted. She would want you to move on.”
I almost laughed out loud, but I didn’t. I never did. The mattress dipped when he sat. Hesitant fingertips touched my shoulder, and my skin pebbled. I couldn’t remember when he’d last touched me. When he’d stopped even trying. His caress was strange; unexpected but not unwanted. It triggered a wave of guilt that left my heart pounding. Because of what I knew. Because of what I’d done. Because, after three months, I still burned with desire. But it wasn’t for him.
I braced myself as David’s image appeared. I wished I wouldn’t think of him every morning and dream of him at night. I wished his memory would fade, the way he had from my life. Three months. Three months since I had stormed from his apartment, since that night. My insides flurried as I remembered, the details still fresh in my mind despite the time that had passed. Despite the fact that every time they surfaced, I dashed them away immediately.
“Well, I have to go to the party.” Bill’s voice cut into my thoughts. “You know how my sister can hold a grudge.”
“Of course you do, sweetie.” The endearment was forced, unnatural, but Bill wouldn’t notice. “I wrapped Jimmy’s video game last night; it’s on the kitchen counter.”
“Thanks. I’ll bring you back a piece of birthday cake.” When I didn’t respond, he stood and left the room. Soon after, I heard the front door slam. I exhaled a long breath.
Hours were slow; stretched and elongated like a rubber band that never snapped. On the better days, I woke up numb. Today is not one of those days, I thought as I dragged myself from the bed.
Dressed in an outfit much too crisp and binding for the weekend, I meticulously applied my makeup. Every strand of my golden brown hair was combed into obedience. Inside, I had cracks, but I wouldn’t let them break the surface.
I was on the train within the hour. Through the windows, I found comfort in the way everything blurred together. A child’s squeal had me blinking from my trance. Across from me, a young man wrangled two toddlers as his wife cradled a baby on her lap. It was chaotic and messy, but she watched her husband with obvious love. The woman smiled goofily as he dodged apple juice spray. I looked away, fiddling with the clasp of my purse.
The morning after my night with David, I’d cried my eyes raw against the brick wall by his apartment. I hadn’t known up from down, left from right, love from despair. But I’d locked it up so tightly I could still feel the chains digging into me with every movement. When Bill returned from his trip that day, I mustered the biggest, most convincing welcome I could manage. But I couldn’t look him in the eye. And I couldn’t pretend to want his hands on me. And though Bill was never one to pick up on my subtle cues, I had made it impossible for him not to.
Somehow, the week passed. After a late night at work, I walked into an apartment filled with twenty of our closest friends and family. I gritted my teeth and let them wish me a happy twenty-eighth birthday, barely making it through the night. Not even Lucy or Gretchen, my closest friends in the world, could scratch the surface. I could only put my energy into acting normal. I had scoffed to myself when I’d overheard Gretchen and Bill in the kitchen toward the end of the party.
“How’s she doing?”
“I can’t tell, Gretchen, and it freaks me out. She won’t talk about Davena at all. She keeps to herself and pretends nothing is wrong.”
“Well, Davena was like a second mother to her,” Gretchen said. “There are times in her life when she was closer to her than to her actual mom.”
“I think that’s why she’s taking Davena’s death especially hard. She and her mom haven’t been getting along.”
“She doesn’t look well.”
“I haven’t seen her eat in days. I’d feel better if she at least cried, but she does nothing except smile and laugh in the weirdest way.”
“She was like this when her parents divorced. I tried to tell you. She’s hurting. She doesn’t deal well with loss.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you tried talking to her?” Gretchen asked.
There was a pause. “She leaves the room when I do.”
“It’s still fresh. Just give her time, Bill.”
After the last guest had left, we fought. I had made some empty promise to come home early from work, but I’d unknowingly missed half the party. I asked him how he could have possibly thought a party was a good idea.
I started leaving for work early and coming home late every day. With my recent promotion, it wasn’t hard to find projects at the magazine. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. And not a day went by that I wasn’t reminded of him. Of that night. And of the irreversible thing I’d done.
As the train barreled along, I tried not to remember. After all, the separation from David had been longer than the time I’d known him. Surely that was enough time to move on?
But it was impossible to forget. I fought myself as I always did when the memory threatened, but in that moment, alone on the crowded train, I wasn’t strong enough to stop it. I remembered the pain in his hard brown eyes when he’d demanded that I speak up. That I tell him I wanted nothing more to do with him. I rewound through our final conversation, when he’d said he wanted me in his life. He wanted us to be together. I remembered how he felt pressed against me and how I’d wished he would take me again.
His hands on my hips had held me steady as he’d mercilessly driven me to orgasm . . . twice. It was unforgettable. Haunting. Relentless. Under his affection, under his touch, I’d come alive. And since then, I was slowly drowning; hounded by the memory I tried to repel and weighed down by the guilt.
I was alone in the Chicago Metropolitan Magazine office. Maybe it wasn’t necessary for me to work on a Saturday, but the thought of sitting through a child’s birthday party with Bill’s family was daunting. I weaved through the empty cubicles until reaching the door to my office. Olivia Germaine, it read. Senior Editor.
I flopped into my big chair and rubbed my eyes tensely. On the days I wasn’t numb, everything seemed sharper, more excruciating; shame, grief, desire. It was a constant battle to swallow the emotions that rose up my throat one after the other.
My fingers flew over the keyboard, but my mind was occupied with other things. I owed Bill more than I gave him. He’d been patient, and I knew he was becoming concerned. Whenever things turned intimate between us, I pulled away without an explanation. He attributed my distance to Davena’s death, but there was more to it than that.
When my cell buzzed, I glanced at the screen and ignored the call. Within moments, my office phone began to ring. I sighed with defeat, knowing Gretchen wouldn’t give up.
“What’s wrong?” I asked when I picked up the receiver.
“Good afternoon to you too, Liv.”
“Seriously, Gretchen. Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” she said with feigned irritation. “I’m downstairs.”
“Bill texted me that you were coming in today, so I thought I’d surprise you for lunch.”
“You should have called first. I’m in the middle of something.”
“So take a break and pick it up later.”
“Later I have other things to do.”
“How? You work nonstop, and it’s Saturday for God’s sake. What could be so important? I haven’t talked to you in weeks.”
“My schedule has been full with this promotion. Beman has me under impossible deadlines. They need me.”
“I know they do, but I need you too. We need you. Come on – lunch is on me.”
“Fine,” I said, exhaling forcefully.
There was a brief pause on the line as I saved the document on my computer. “Fine?” she repeated after a moment. “What the fuck is wrong with you? I made a special trip over here to take you to lunch.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“No shit. I miss you,” she said, her voice softening slightly.
“Look, I said I’d come. Just give me a minute.” I hung up before she could respond and locked up the office. Downstairs, I felt mildly better after a deep breath of fresh air. She was waiting in a sleeveless tank top and denim cut-offs. Despite her casual outfit, her bright blonde hair was curled into perfect ringlets as usual. I tucked some hair behind my ear as I approached her.
“Aren’t you hot?” she asked.
I pulled my sweater closer. “I only have an hour.”
She rolled those big blue eyes of hers and pulled on my arm. “Then you’d better get talking.”
“Yes. It’s time to have a conversation, and that’s why I’m buying you lunch.”
“What’s the topic of this conversation? And don’t say Davena, because that’s all anyone ever wants to talk about.”
“Because you won’t,” she whined. “You won’t talk to Bill about it, you won’t talk to us and you refuse to see a shrink. Forget about poor Mack.” She waved her hand. “He’s beside himself, and you can’t even pick up the phone.”
My heart stopped along with my feet. “Who told you that?”
“Wow,” I said. She continued walking, so I ran to catch up to her. “No wonder you sound exactly like him. Do you guys get together and talk about me? Have little powwows about how to get me to spill my guts? Well here’s a tip: get a new hobby, because there’s nothing to spill. I loved Davena, but I’ve made my peace with her passing. Life goes on, Gretchen.”
She muttered something under her breath.
“What?” I challenged.
She sighed. “Liv, you can talk to me,” she said in an atypically delicate voice.
I glanced down at the pavement as we walked, willing myself to stay calm. “Everything is fine. You don’t need to worry.”
“I do, though. You never talk about her, and you haven’t seen Mack since the funeral. It’s not healthy and . . . it shows.” I pursed my lips and rewrapped the sweater as I crossed my arms. “Lucy needs you,” she continued. “With the wedding next weekend, she has to know she can count on us.”
“Of course she can,” I said defensively. “I’ve been there every step of the way – did I not host the wedding shower, and have I not done everything she’s asked?”
“Yes, you have, it’s just obvious that your heart isn’t in it. And it hurts her feelings.”
“She said that?”
“She doesn’t have to.”
I swallowed. “Okay, I get it.”
“Good. So let’s start with how you felt when you heard the news. Maybe you can explain why you hid it from us that night. It’s no wonder you got wasted and went home early. Nobody can keep something like that inside, not even you.”
“No – what I meant was that I get it. I’ll change. I’m not up for this random therapy session.”
“You can’t change without talking about it.”
“Again, there is nothing to talk about,” I intoned. “People grieve in different ways, so please just drop it. As far as the wedding, I get what you’re saying. I will try harder. For Lucy.”
Gretchen heaved a deep sigh and looked away as she bit her thumbnail. “You’re a stubborn bitch,” she muttered.
An unwilling smile found my face. “Where are you taking me anyway, Milwaukee?”
“Nope, we’re going to a place with the largest, juiciest burgers around. You need some nourishment,” she said, tugging at the hem of my sweater. I almost gagged at the thought of a hamburger, but I figured this was what choosing one’s battles meant. My heart dropped, however, when we rounded the corner. I was standing in front of the restaurant where David had taken me to lunch months before.
“Hello?” she urged, holding the door open.
I fumbled for an excuse. It was Saturday, though, and David wouldn’t be working nearby, so I followed her inside. I recognized the red-lipped hostess, despite the fact that she wasn’t nearly as cheery as she had been when I was with David. I wondered if she was trying to place me, since she gave me a curious, narrow-eyed look. I scanned the restaurant furtively as she led us to an open, conspicuous table.
I ordered a burger, or rather, Gretchen ordered one for me, but I found it hard to stomach. After making a show of the first two bites, I nibbled on the side salad while Gretchen caught me up on the last two months of work at her public relations office.
“You’ve got to come with me next time,” she was saying. “California in the summertime is the shit. I even took a couple surf lessons.”
“Doesn’t sound like work,” I muttered.
“It’s all about schmoozing, Liv, and – ”
I froze. Was that . . . ? No. It came again from behind me, and I stiffened instinctively.
“David, my man!” the voice boomed.
My heart whipped into a violent pounding, filling my ears as blood rushed to my head. Gretchen looked at me with her head cocked. Her mouth moved, but I heard nothing.
With slow precision, I turned my head over my left shoulder and looked back. Two men I’d never seen before were pumping hands emphatically. Through my decelerating heartbeat, I heard one call the other ‘David.’ I shook my head quickly and returned my attention to Gretchen. She was still talking about California, though now she was looking at my plate. To preempt another argument, I forced myself to take another bite. I chewed the patty methodically until it was mush in my mouth and swallowed because I thought she might notice if I spit it out.
“Well, that’s an extra hour on the treadmill,” she groaned to her empty plate and covered her tummy with her hand.