Cheating on Myself

by Erin Downing

 

An Excerpt

 


 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

When I was fifteen, the year my mom died, I made a checklist of my life’s goals.

Kissing Trent Sloan was at the top of that list. The list wasn’t meant to be in order of importance. But even if it had been, there’s a decent chance Trent would still have been in that top slot. He played center on the hockey team and had a perfect, un-ironic mullet that just worked. After Trent came the usual things: stellar high school GPA, get the hell out of Nowhere, Iowa, college plans, a reliable job, travel to interesting-but-safe places, a good husband, and a wedding dress so classic I could never regret it.

(Give me a break. I was fifteen. These things mattered then. Some still do.)

It was a long, ambitious novel of a list. I really dug in to some categories, expanding my goals to cover critical items like dorm room color palettes and what style of bed I would buy for my first apartment. I made things intentionally difficult for myself in some cases, mapping out the preferred location to experience my first college campus kiss and the song that would be playing when I finally had sex.

Call me anal, but I had a plan. And that plan helped me get through the grief of losing my mother. It was a plan I felt good about, and it represented a life I knew would make my mom proud. (Except maybe Trent. Mom always thought he was a little greasy, and there were allegations that he’d once kissed my friend Carrie’s mom. I don’t believe everything, but that wasn’t such a stretch. Carrie’s mom got around.)

When I’d finished the list, I was confident I had plotted out a perfectly achievable and idealistic life, complete with adventure, romance, and true love. I’d sighed happily, tucked the list inside my freshman yearbook, and called Trent Sloan.

When I kissed Mr. Mullet a few weeks later, I found out his mouth tasted like school cafeteria tacos (and I later learned he had slept with Genelle Henderson right before she found out she had genital warts). It didn’t matter, because the kiss was all I needed to check off the first box on my list.

In the twenty years since, I’d escaped the confines of my small-town upbringing and proudly marched my way through the rest of the boxes. Until I’d checked all but one.

Unfortunately, the last thing on my list wasn’t falling out of love.

But I guess it should have been.


 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE: AUGUST

 

Do my boobs look uneven in this shirt?” Lily Sparrow studied her reflection in the dirty glass of our office microwave. Her dark chocolate-colored hair fell in perfectly cascading waves around her slim shoulders. She turned, fixing her emerald green eyes on me. I swallowed, despite the fact that Lily shouldn’t and couldn’t intimidate me. Nearly everyone else at Centrex Corporation feared her, but I was immune to her intensity. Even still, the expression on her drop-dead gorgeous face was somewhat terrifying.

“Can you stop looking at me like that? Hardcore Lily freaks me out.” She grinned at me, displaying a mouthful of mostly-perfect teeth. Lily’s only imperfection was the tiny chip in her left front tooth—a permanent reminder to always check to make sure they used pitted olives in every martini before taking a bite. “And what do you mean by uneven?” I asked.

In the ten years I’d known Lily, I’d learned to expect random questions like this to pop up out of the blue. We’d been talking about spreadsheets mere moments before, but the topic-shift didn’t faze me. I sipped from my latte and stood sentinel in the door of our office’s twelfth-floor coffee pantry. This was our regular midday routine, and I’d come to look forward to some sort of random Lily conversation right around two every afternoon.

“Balanced. You know, does one look bigger than the other? Are they wonky?” She unbuttoned her conservative gray suit jacket, but stopped before taking it off all the way. “Anyone coming?”

I peeked my head out and looked both ways down the hall of cubicle walls. “Coast clear.” Lily slipped her jacket off and I shook my head when I saw she was wearing a two-sizes-too-tight jeweled tank top. Most people at the office knew Lily as a conservative Marketing Director with a zero-tolerance-for-stupidity policy. But I knew Lily’s carefully groomed image was just her way of managing office politics, since the Lily I was familiar with conjured up images of tight, tiny tank tops and cocktails. But I’d known her for more than ten years, and she’d spent a lot of time grooming her work image since our entry-level days. I guess there was a reason everyone was afraid of her—she just kept that side of herself away from me. She knew I wasn’t going to fall for her shit.

“Hmm. They appear to be straight. Very sparkly and perfectly symmetrical.”

“Do you think they feel even?” Lily pulled her Lean Cuisine meal out of the microwave with one hand, while threading the other arm back into her suit coat.

“You want me to touch your tits?” I tucked my latte-free hand into my dress pocket, just in case that’s what she was getting at. If James Davis—VP of Marketing and the Captain of Inappropriate Comments—were to walk by while I fondled Lily’s chest in the pantry, I was pretty sure all hell would break loose at the marketing summit later that week. “Why the breast obsession today?”

“Interns. They make me feel insecure. And the one with the red hair—Charlie, Chirpie, or something?—she has a chest I’d pay money for. I’m seriously considering it.” Lily murmured. Then she pulled her Blackberry out of her suit coat to check for emails while forking up a steaming bite of pasta and something that looked like broccoli. The bite made it to her mouth without her ever looking at the food. It was obvious she didn’t bother to taste it before swallowing, either. Lily’s eyes were fixed on her tiny Blackberry screen, her face a mix of emotions as she scrolled through the dozens of emails that had probably come in while she heated her food and obsessed over her chest. She shook her head as she thumbed through an email.

“Fucking James. He’s making me prep the interns for this week’s marketing summit. Stella, I hate interns. They come floating in here every semester with their tight little business school bodies and their smug attitudes, and I’m supposed to pretend I love teaching them everything I know.” She stopped to blow on her next bite, finally looking up when she dropped her Blackberry back in her pocket.

I swallowed the last of my latte and smiled as Corinne Andrews and Greg Kling from HR walked by. Corinne trilled out, “Hello, Stella. See you next week at the on-site off-site?” A blast of cigarette stench wafted through the hall as they breezed past.

“You bet!” I chirped. I noticed Corinne and Greg’s fingers brush together as they turned the corner at the end of the cubicle hall, and realized there was a little something more than smoking motivating them to take their breaks outside. Fascinating. Who would date a coworker?

“Lil, interns are a fact of corporate life.” That was true, but the other truth was, I disliked interns just as much as Lily. Anyone in their late-twenties (or, um, mid-thirties) who pretended to enjoy an onslaught of young, up-and-comers was a big, fat liar. I mean, let’s face it: women like me have finally gotten to a place in our careers where we’re not faking every decision, and suddenly, kaboom!, some twenty-four-year-old with long, shiny hair and fresh “Managing Change” expertise pops up and “makes suggestions.” Who likes “suggestions” in the workplace? No one. “Suggestions” just lead to “rethinking” which leads to “explorations” which lead to a whole lot of busy work. I can finally do my job (very well, I might add) in just over forty hours a week, but when interns pop up and start trying to meddle in a perfectly mediocre organization, middle-management marketers like me take the brunt.

Oh, and more to the point, my boyfriend thinks all interns are “adorable.” That worked out in my favor when I was an intern and he first asked me out, but I can’t help but wonder if interns are part of the reason Erik refuses to grow up and commit already. It’s like he thinks we’re still the know-it-alls we once were, and if we just freeze time and commitment where we were when we were twenty-three and twenty-four, we’ll never get old. Well guess what, Erik? Your hair is going to fall out, you’ve already up-sized the waist-size of your jeans, and you aren’t even very good at texting. You’re getting older, buddy, like it or not.

“Lily, we were both interns once. So they can’t all be bad.”

“Exactly. We were interns. That’s how I know just how smart they all think they are. And how stupid they think we are. Well, they’re probably not begrudging you, but they’re surely eyeing my job.”

Lily was a VIM—James’ acronym for Very Important Marketer. That meant Lil sat on Centrex’s marketing council, made important decisions, and got to sit in an office (Centrex was opposed to doors on offices, but still—she had real walls). I, on the other hand, was one of James’ “Bears.” Technically, my title was Senior Marketing Analyst, but the other people in my pod were told to call me “Share Bear.” I earned that adorably moronic name when I was honored with a spot on the task force responsible for morale and team spirit at Centrex. “The Bears” don’t make any important decisions. Instead, we sit in nubby cloth cubes, and are required to smile a lot. There’s no room at the Inn for a bad attitude, even when everyone around you is acting like an idiot. Marketing is such bullshit.

Lily jabbed another mouthful of pasta between her lips. This time, she took a moment to chew. “This is disgusting, you know. I blame the interns for making me eat this crap.” She tossed the rest of her microwave meal in the trash and dug through the reusable lunch bags in the fridge that were carefully labeled with other peoples’ names. I guess she thought Eve Overstreet wouldn’t miss her Strawberry Yoplait, since Lily seemed perfectly comfortable stealing it.

“I don’t see any interns holding an Econ textbook to your head and insisting you have to eat cardboard to stay slim. You’re a big girl. An important girl. Need I remind you that you have the intelligence and cash to buy whatever you want to eat for lunch?” I raised my eyebrows.

Lily knew I wasn’t going to get into a ridiculous discussion about whether or not she was fat—and we both knew that was where this was headed. Of all the reasons to hate interns, their looks and slim hips were at the bottom of the list. But even worse, there was nothing I enjoyed less than talking to Lily Sparrow about cellulite, chubby thighs, or love handles. Like I said, Lily was perfect. She just didn’t realize it. The good thing about Lily’s lack of self-awareness was her blindness to her friends’ shortcomings. I think she truly believed my size twelve thighs looked just like her size four thighs, the only reason for the difference in pant size being that my legs were longer.

Lily polished off the yogurt in six or seven very large and messy bites, stuffing the container in the trash when she was done. “I gotta go. Why aren’t you eating?”

We lowered our voices for the walk down the hall of cubicles. “Erik is taking me out to the new place on Washington tonight. He booked us in at the kitchen table.”

“Ooh, I heard about that place,” Lily said, obviously both hungry and jealous. “I read somewhere that the chef brings you little portions of every single dish that gets ordered. I don’t know how you stay so skinny.”

See what I mean? Even though she should be easy to hate, there was something about Lily Sparrow that made her very lovable. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Sitting on my ass, alone and miserable, as always.”

I rolled my eyes and said nothing. I wasn’t being cruel by ignoring this comment. I heard some version of the same thing most days, even when we had plans to go out. Her boyfriend, Chad, was a management consultant, and traveled to his clients’ offices every week. Many times, instead of flying home for the weekend, Chad would get his company to fly him to Connecticut to visit his parents or his college buddies instead. I was convinced their relationship only worked because of how infrequently they actually saw each other.

Lily sighed hugely. “I might have to make myself an alcoholic milkshake. Guilt bingeing.” We’d reached her office, but since there was no door she went inside and brought her voice down to a whisper. “Did I tell you I have to fire two of the marketing assistants today?”

“Why?” I honestly didn’t care who. There were so many marketing assistants that they all blended into one perky, post-internship blur. Yes, even the guys. Again, this was marketing. According to “The Bears” code of rules, we were all required to be perky and optimistic. James’ motto is, “Culture, kindness, and sharing foster innovation.” Interestingly, James was sharing a bed with his boss, Terese Fitzgerald, despite the fact that he was a newly married man. I guess he believed this was his contribution to the Centrex culture: kindness through orgasm and sharing spit with a superior.

“Why are they getting fired?”

Lily shrugged. “Performance issues, maybe? Excessive sick days? Bad attitude? The usual crap, but we’re calling it a layoff for legal reasons. ‘Downsizing.’” She made air-quotes and rolled her eyes. “I get to do the honors, as usual. Everyone thinks that just because I’m a bitch, I’m heartless.”

I laughed. “Well, you’re welcome to join me and Erik. At least then you won’t be drinking alone.”

“As if,” she murmured. “There’s nothing more attractive on a date than a drunk third wheel. And you never know… tonight might be the night, Stella Dahl.” She rolled my first name and last name together, Stella-doll, like I was a sad sub-brand in the Barbie franchise. Then she moved toward her desk and logged in, glancing at her email as she lifted her eyebrows at me. “Maybe?”

“Hardly,” I said, but the thought had crossed my mind. It was ever-present, actually. After twelve years together, I wasn’t foolish enough to think a surprise proposal was likely (especially since Erik and I didn’t exactly do surprises), but Erik knew I was waiting and wouldn’t wait forever, so it wasn’t totally out of the question. “Of course, you’ll be my first call if it does happen tonight.”

“I should hope so,” she said. “Now get the hell out of here so people don’t think I’ve gone soft. I don’t want anyone to see me smiling. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“Yes, ma’am!” I announced loudly, as I left her office. “So sorry to bother you, VIM!”

“Stella?” Lily shouted this, drawing attention from the collection of interns who were gathered around a computer monitor at the cube directly outside her office. “One more thing…” I peeked in and saw that Lily was holding up a piece of paper with “Will You Marry Me?” scrawled across it in black Sharpie. She tipped her head back, propped her feet up on her desk, and laughed. At least someone was asking me.

 

* * *

 

If I get a glass of the Malbec, will you get the Cab so I can try it?” I gazed at my boyfriend, Erik, across an expansive wood table in the bright and bustling kitchen of Molto later that night. He was studying the wine list carefully, looking hopefully for one of his favorites, I was sure. I’d already scanned the list of reds and saw none of the wines we were familiar with were featured on the list. We’d have to take a chance and try something new. Admittedly, this wasn’t something either of us did very well.

Both Erik and I were creatures of habit. Planners by nature. That’s part of the reason we worked so well together. We had both been the type of kids who knew exactly what we wanted out of life, and had taken all necessary steps to get there. I’d gotten near-perfect grades through high school, had piled on extracurricular activities to get myself into a great college, and landed the perfect internship at Centrex right out of undergrad. I never really had any clear vision of life after that, but that’s where Erik came in. He gave me a new goal for my adult life. I’d immediately fallen head over heels for him, and focused everything I had on our relationship and the new goals we’d made together. Before we met, Erik had followed almost exactly the same path as me. He’d been working at Centrex as a Marketing Assistant when I started as an intern, his sister introduced us, and the rest is history.

We’d spent our twenties focusing on careers and our relationship, and the problems only started to creep in a few years ago when I started asking about marriage. We’d always talked about commitment and staying together and making a life as Erik and Stella, but it was only then that he made it clear that he felt traditional marriage was an unnecessary formality. “Things are perfect the way they are,” he’d said that first time I brought it up with any real pressure. “Neither of us wants kids, so why do we need to spend twenty thousand to throw a party to get a form that tells us what we already know? I consider you my life partner—do you need a certificate to remind you not to leave me?” He’d smiled and kissed me and we’d made love on the couch, and I’d felt happy again.

I sometimes lost touch with what I wanted, but Erik was always there to remind me what I was looking for. It just seemed like fewer and fewer of our goals were mine, and more and more of them were his. They just suddenly felt like mine.

After the first conversation about marriage, I eased off for a while, but the truth was, I wanted to get married. It was part of my plan, the last thing on my list, and I was going to get it. So I started bringing it up more frequently. I know, I know… the women’s magazines would have had a field day with me. Whether I wanted kids or not (they weren’t a goal that was included in my list, and Erik and I had decided together that we did not), there was something romantic and powerful about commitment and compromise and the permanence of marriage, and I believed in it. But I was starting to wonder if I had to give that up if I wanted to stay with Erik.

At that point, I hadn’t even considered how much I was giving up by staying with him.

“You know I like Malbec.” Erik announced at Molto that night, finally looking up from the wine list. “I’m going to get that.”

“But that’s what I want.” I sounded like a whiny kid. “I just thought it would be fun to try two wines we’ve never had before. But if we both get the Malbec, then we only get to try one wine.”

Erik grinned. “If we both get Malbec, we can get a bottle. Isn’t that a better deal anyway?” He reached for my hands across the table. He lifted my left one off the table and held it up to his lips. His mouth grazed across my knuckles, dusting little kisses from pointer finger to pinky. I watched him as he ordered the wine, and thought about how well we fit together. He was right—if we picked the same wine, we could get a bottle. And then I’d get two-and-a-half modest glasses, the perfect amount. It was the smarter strategy, and this was usually what we did. When the waiter left, Erik continued to gently stroke my fingers. His focus on my left hand made me think about a ring again, and the thought made me wonder.

Each of his kisses sent the tiniest shock up my arm, reminding me of the time when his touch always made me feel like that. I still remembered that new love feeling, the sense of excitement and uncertainty and self-consciousness and curiosity. I missed the way he’d held me and wrapped his arms around me, even when people were watching.

That night, the kisses on my fingers and the anticipation and wonder about whether maybe tonight was the night, the night he’d see it my way, gave me delicious, tingly shivers. I pulled my foot out of my black slide beneath the table and reached it up, up, up Erik’s leg.

The bottle of wine arrived just as my toes found their way to his inner thigh, and he reached under the table to push my foot away. Erik wasn’t big on PDAs. Not that I was going after true affection… I just wanted to be sexy. After he tasted the wine and approved, Erik furrowed his dark eyebrows at me across the table. He needed a haircut, I noticed. His sideburns were too long, and his blackish hair was extra-puffy.

“What’s going on?” he asked, as my foot continued its path up his thigh.

“What’s going on with you?” I purred back, lifting my foot into his lap again. I wiggled my eyebrows at him and twirled a short curl around my finger. “Hi there.” I wasn’t much of a seductress (it happens when you ditch the dating scene at twenty-two), but I had a few decent moves. I licked my lips.

“Aren’t you going to try the wine?” Erik asked, widening his dark brown eyes at me and shifting in his seat. “Can you please stop?”

“Stop what?” I asked, using something that might pass as a sultry voice.

“That.” He blushed and pushed my foot away again, dropping my other hand in the process. “Seriously, Stella. That’s really embarrassing. What if someone saw you? This place is crawling with Centrex people. You should be more careful if you want to be taken seriously there.”

I bit my lower lip and looked down at the menu. He was right. Who did I think I was—Angelina Jolie? I was a decent-looking, overly conservative, mid-level marketer with shortish dull-brown curls (flecked with sixteen rogue grays that I routinely plucked), size twelve jeans, and a bad case of PMS-bloat. I didn’t need to do stuff like play footsie with my boyfriend—we were beyond that. I mean, we lived together and he peed with the door open and watched me pluck my grays. We weren’t the kind of couple to do spontaneous, faux-sexy stuff.

“What do you think they’ll bring us first?” I asked, perking up at the thought of food. “I skipped lunch today so I can eat a ton.”

“Did I tell you I gave the intern learning lunch presentation today?” Erik asked, easily shifting into a new conversation topic along with me. “One of the interns asked me to be her mentor. I guess it must have been a decent talk, if someone wants a longer lesson from me on online community activation.” Erik had transferred from his first job at Centrex into a Marketing Director position at a consumer products company called Zoom! several years ago. His job was to convince people to buy soap. Eventually, Erik’s goal was to start up his own company manufacturing organic baby products, but he hadn’t yet taken the leap. I guess his fear of commitment extended beyond just me.

The chef came over to our table carrying three tasting plates.

“Good evening.” He grinned sheepishly, as though he was embarrassed to have discovered someone sitting in his personal kitchen. He was obviously young—perhaps not even thirty—and looked like a little kid in a big kitchen. His white chef coat was too big, and something about his awkwardness made me laugh. Erik looked at me like I’d gone crazy, and the chef stammered on, talking about the dishes he’d brought over to our table. “This first plate features a sampling of our mini tacos—carnitas, beet and goat cheese, and sliced prime rib with raddichio.”

“You can put the beet and goat cheese taco on my side of the table,” Erik said. He knew I’ve never liked goat cheese. This was the good thing about life partners—they knew your dining preferences, and no one had to waste their time trying something they were sure not to like. We made a good team.

The chef cleared his throat and set a second plate on our table. “This is a tasting of our famous tater tot casserole. House-made tater tots broiled over a stew of lamb, locally-farmed carrots, and mini-potatoes from my own garden.” I lifted my eyebrows. The chef grew his own potatoes? And how was this dish famous? The restaurant had been open less than two weeks. Still, tater tots were hard to beat.

“The third dish marries grass-fed beef and onion slivers in a perfect union inside a puff-pastry shell. I think you’ll find it light, yet surprisingly filling.” He bowed, then swished back to the kitchen in his big boy coat.

I reached for my fork to start with the tater tots. “Is it just me, or did that waiter look like a little kid dressing up as a chef for Halloween?” I popped a hot tot in my mouth and let the soft, potato goodness melt in my mouth. “Yum.”

Erik shook his head. “He’s twenty-six. He was just featured in Midwest Magazine’s ten under thirty this year.”

I’d refused to read that feature ever since I lost eligibility. So sue me: I was thirty-four and petty. I didn’t need to read about people younger and more successful than me. “How can you be a professional chef with your own restaurant at twenty-six?”

“One of our interns sold her management consulting business while she was still in business school—she’s on her second career.”

I snorted through a mouthful of light-yet-filling beef. “And she’s an intern? She started a business, sold a business, and has decided an internship selling cucumber-melon soap would be fulfilling?”

The look on Erik’s face reminded me how sensitive he is about his products. Unlike me, he was a true marketer. He really believed in his product, and thought about the merits and advantages of Zoom! hand-soap often. He loved his job, and didn’t like people—me, for example—poking fun. It was a sensitive subject, and I’d crossed the line.

“It’s a great internship,” he said through thin lips. Erik’s lips stretched tight whenever he was frustrated. “It’s not Centrex, but still. And our interns are bright self-starters with a lot of great ideas.”

“Oh, come on! What is with the intern obsession today?” I reached for one of the tacos and inadvertently grabbed the beet and goat cheese one by mistake. Erik pulled it out of my hand before I could take a bite and replaced it with the carnitas taco. “What if I wanted to try the goat cheese one? Maybe I want to try something new. Is that a crime?”

“God, Stella, you’re in a foul mood tonight.” He refilled my wine glass, which had somehow emptied itself while I was on my little tirade. “What’s going on?”

I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was obviously feeling feisty, and Erik was there to take the brunt of it. I’d noticed this had been happening a lot lately—I’d get frustrated, start picking on Erik, he’d put his guard up, and all hell would break loose. We weren’t fighters, but the cold, irritable squabbling felt a whole lot worse.

“Are we ever going to get married, Erik?” It slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it, and as I said it, I could feel the tears prickling behind my eyelids. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a long, deep swallow of wine.

Erik took the wine glass out of my clenched fist and held my hands in his. This time, I felt no shivers, didn’t fool myself into hopeful anticipation, and I certainly wasn’t tempted to rub my foot up his thigh. I still had my eyes closed, but I knew exactly what expression was on his face when I heard him sigh. We were seated at the bustling kitchen table on a loud Friday night, and still I could hear his sigh, loud and clear.

Somehow, we got through the rest of our dinner that night. We made it home, we tucked into bed, we wished each other good night, and I read a single chapter in my book while Erik caught up on articles on his iPad. Business as usual. We predictably followed the routine of our life partnership and the monotony of each day-to-day. Unfulfilling, yet comfortable. Perfectly-matched, but taking each other for granted. We went on that way for another seven weeks.

Until I’d had enough.


 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO: SIX WEEKS LATER

 

Looking back, I guess I first let myself imagine what life might be like without Erik late in the night after our dinner at Molto. The sheer logistics were overwhelming at the time, so I’d considered it only briefly at first. There were the trivial things, such as the fact that I couldn’t make coffee myself. Thirty-four years old and unable to correctly figure out the right ratio of water to beans. Somehow, every time I ground coffee, I would end up with little chunks of coffee bean in the filter or a pile of ground coffee on the floor. I could learn to do it, sure, but the thing that immediately jumped into my head was the fact that the easier option—purchasing coffee for myself at the office—would add nearly five percent to my monthly budget.

Erik was also always willing to let me put my frozen feet between his thighs at night when I first climbed into bed, even if he’d already been asleep for an hour. I hated sleeping in socks, and my boyfriend was always there with a warm and toasty spot for them. He made really good chicken wild rice soup, and only fake-complained when I put “sappy” movies—anything with Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon or Colin Firth—in our Netflix queue.

The little things like hot coffee and cold feet added up, but on top of that were the big things… our life together, the carefully-negotiated morning bathroom ritual, his house that we’d made “ours,” his family coupled with my lack of family. There were enough things tying us together that it seemed impossible I could ever consider a life without him.

And more than anything, I loved him. I didn’t know an adult life without Erik, and I’d never let myself think one existed.

That, ultimately, was the problem. I’d had goals for myself—a list that told me who I wanted to become—when I’d been younger, and they were goals that had failed to evolve after I’d found Erik. At twenty-three, I’d achieved almost everything I’d ever thought I could want: I lived in Minneapolis-not-Farmville, had an enviable job, hilarious and reliable friends, and a seemingly perfect boyfriend. I’d checked off most of the things on my list that seemed to matter, but lost any desire for fun and spontaneity in the process. My life’s ambitions started to merge with Erik’s, and I found myself forgetting to think about me.

Initially, it was little stuff. I gave up pizza when Erik decided to do the South Beach diet, even though a carb-free day made me miserable. Then, Erik was always there to remind me how lucky I was to have my Centrex job, even though it was so unfulfilling I had lost my ability to be creative. I had always wanted to go to Italy, but since Erik had already been there on an art history trip during undergrad, we went to London and Brussels the only time we’d gone abroad. I’d never really thought about how much of myself and my own opinions I’d lost during our time together.

But new thoughts had crept in the night after Molto, and little incidents kicked me closer to the night I eventually left. I guess I started paying closer attention to what I wanted out of life, and other things began to bug me. A new list started to take shape in my mind, though this time I didn’t write it down. I just started paying attention to the little things, and when there were enough things on the naughty list, I knew it was time to go.

First, there was the baseball game. We’d decided to go to a late-in-the-season game, and Erik had gotten us good seats. We each ordered a hot dog with relish, one beer, and shared a little baseball hat full of ice cream. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, until the “Kiss Cam” turned its voyeuristic eyes our way. You know that giant TV screen where they show clips of the audience? And you know how they do that stupid thing where they zoom in on two people who appear to be in love, and wait for them to kiss while the crowd roars and urges them on? Well, I’d kinda always wanted to be on the Kiss Cam. Somehow, that night, we lucked out and the Kiss Cam came straight for us. I grinned, and turned toward Erik only to discover that he was making a disgusted face and exaggeratedly leaning away from me. The whole stadium started laughing, and I went bright red. He laughed, thinking he was Mr. Funny Pants.

The Kiss Cam moved away and got shots of other sweet couples who nuzzled and hugged and kissed and made my stomach sick with envy. I watched them all while Erik chatted about his hilarious performance with the beefy, drunk guy sitting in the seat next to him. After a minute or so, the cruel cameraman swung back around to catch us again—everyone obviously remembered us, since they started chanting, “Kiss her! Kiss her!” Some people in our section turned around to stare. My funny man decided to really ham it up this time, pretending I was the last person on earth he’d ever want to kiss. He held his hands over his mouth and shook his head violently. I felt the hot prickle of rejection tears stabbing at the backs of my eyes, and then suddenly, the whole crowd started “aw-ing.” I was being pitied by a stadium-full of screaming fans. The tears started flowing and then finally, with the Kiss Cam still trained on us, Erik stuck out his lower lip to pout and gave me a very unromantic kiss as a consolation prize.

He didn’t seem to realize how hurt I’d been by the whole thing, since that night he kept talking about how funny and clever it all was. How hilarious he was. Several people from work had been at the game and came over to say something to me the next day—I could tell they thought we were one of those couples who insult one another for sport, but the truth is, we weren’t. Neither of us was that clever. And the romance and make-up sex wouldn’t be powerful enough to handle the joking sting of fake insults. The night after the game was the first night in our entire relationship when I fantasized about Bradley Cooper while Erik and I were having sex. It was also the last time we had sex. A weeks-long dry spell followed that made me forget I’d ever had a sex drive.

Then, it was his obsession with the interns. Between Lily at the office and Erik at home, I was fed up with the obsession over youth and promise, and frustrated with my own shortcomings. I started to question my own choices, and began to wonder what would have happened if I’d picked a different path twelve years before. When I realized Erik and his intern-mentee were having a frolicking back-and-forth conversation via Facebook, I was understandably over interns altogether.

Ironically, it was a nimble, red-headed (and innocently unrelated) intern at Centrex that brought on the next wave of trouble.

Centrex had begun to offer a lunchtime yoga class on Mondays and Thursdays, at the recommendation of The Bears. It was good for team bonding, and studies showed that midday fitness boosted moods. I’d reluctantly started to attend, but had been struggling to get any of the moves down. Whenever our “guide” offered child’s pose as an alternative to tricky positions, I was the first to creep and crawl down to my mat. I couldn’t get the balancing poses, hated the stuff that involved upper-arm strength, and wasn’t bendy enough to do a lot of the floor exercises.

But one Monday a few weeks after my dinner with Erik, I foolishly squeezed my mat in between elderly Madelon from accounting and Stacia, the intern. When it came time to do the bridge pose, I looked over at Madelon and saw that she was just laying there, flat on her back. Then I peeked over at Stacia and saw that her body was perfectly arched into a fine, flowing bridge. Her flat stomach rounded up toward the paneled ceiling, fingers and toes perched easily on the floor beneath her.

“I can do that,” I thought, glancing briefly back toward Madelon, lying comfortably flat on the floor like a lump of old person. Then I pressed my tummy up and edged my hands and feet under my precariously-perched body. I was so elated my back was off the ground that I ignored the pinching discomfort in my back.

“I’m doing it!” I thought, grinning merrily. “I’m a yoga goddess!” That’s when I pushed my stomach further up and came crashing down with a horrible shriek.

“Oh!” Stacia cried, hopping nimbly out of her bridge to kneel next to me. My back was shooting rockets out from the lower vertebrae, and my body seemed locked in a position that was neither flattering nor particularly comfortable. “Are you okay?”

I stared at the intern, wondering if this looked “okay” to her. “Not really,” I muttered. By then, the rest of the class had turned to stare, and our instructor was huddled over my body with a horrified look on her face.

She began to rub the area in my back where it felt like daggers were carving someone’s initials into my spine. “I offered a modification,” she reminded me. “Perhaps the bridge was a bit much for you today?”

“Yes, today it must have been a bit much.” I bit my lip as my muscles continued to spasm. “I think I’ll just call it a day.”

I left my mat on the floor and hobbled from the converted conference room back to my desk. I spent the next hour flat on the floor in a corner of my cube. Lily rescued me after her strategy meeting and set up a floor bed in the corner of her office. I stayed hidden behind piled-up boxes that she ordered interns to carry up from the loading dock. She loaded me up with ice packs and ibuprofen, while I spent the afternoon entertaining her with my complaints about interns and their bendy limbs.

My body wouldn’t respond to meds, which meant the gym was out. No endorphins led to next-day depression. Depression led to angry eating. Angry eating helped me pack on a few pounds… so I was feeling fat, depressed, and bitter. And I couldn’t even run it off.

I suddenly had too much time to think about things, and had begun to lose perspective and patience. The way Erik breathed as he was drifting off to sleep irritated me, the smell of his body-wash in the shower made me sick, the fact that he never asked me what I wanted to do on the weekend was infuriating. So when I brought up marriage and how much it meant to me again, and Erik just sighed… well, that’s when I broke.

 

* * *

 

I let my engine idle in the parking lot and draped my hands over the heater for extra warmth and maybe a shot of courage. It wasn’t even October, but the temperature had already dipped into the forties and I refused to break out my gloves before the official start of fall. I also wanted an excuse to stay in the quiet and question-free environment of my car for a few more minutes. It was Thursday, and I was now ten minutes late for monthly drinks night with my friends.

Eyes closed, I breathed in through my nose, then out through my mouth, wondering if Sherri, my yoga teacher, was good for anything. But instead of my breath shooting calm zen through my system, the moment of solace was interrupted by a thudding knock on my window that scared the bejeezus out of me. I glared out the window and saw Catherine Jenkins’ perky face staring back at me.

“Shit, Cat, don’t do that!”

I turned the engine off and stepped out of my car to give her a big hug.

“Were you sleeping?” Cat said, flicking her hair extensions over the shoulder of her Burberry trench coat. “That’s not a good idea in this neighborhood, Stella.” She tapped her cell phone display. “You’re late, you know.”

“So are you,” I said, trudging at a snail’s pace alongside Cat as we walked through the parking lot out to the street. Her tottering high-heels kept her from moving fast, and indifference about making people wait made her move even slower. Even though tardy people made me jittery, Catherine had been one of my best friends for more than ten years. She was also Erik’s sister, which had made her both “family” and a friend—and the girlfriend I was most dreading talking to that night.

Cat giggled. “I’m always late. It’s my thing. You, however, ought to have arrived first.”

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” I grumbled, not ready to share my news yet. Judging by Cat’s lack of panic, Erik hadn’t told his sister—or, obviously, his mom—about our breakup yet.

“Oh em gee,” Cat said, grasping at my elbow with her tiny, manicured hand. Cat was five-foot-two and tiny, one of those people who made me feel like an ogre. She weighed less than my left thigh. Cat was also a mother of two, and had been known to eat exclusively leftover macaroni and cheese and hot dogs for three days straight. She ate like a child, and had now started to talk like one, too. Things like “OMG” and “natch” and “whatevs” had started to roll off Cat’s tongue less than a week after hiring a live-in French au pair who had apparently mastered English watching old episodes of Gossip Girl and Glee.

“You will not believe what Jana Mancini said to Taylor at school today. I think she’s putting her on a diet. A diet! Taylor is six. Can you imagine the issues that kid is going to have if her starved mother is making her diet at six?”

Cat carried on, telling me all the latest gossip from Blythe Day School. I had no trouble keeping up. Cat’s girls—Heidi and Pippa—treated me like an aunt, and I’d been around their entire lives. I loved them like my own daughters, and I made a point of dropping them off at school at least once a month. I hoped Cat would still let me be a part of the girls’ lives now that I was no longer a part of Erik’s.

Heidi was six and in first grade, while Pippa had just started her last year of Montessori preschool. The girls were smart and wonderful, and the gossip that came out of their schools was usually pretty amusing. I listened intently as Cat talked about marital trouble and cheating and whose job was in jeopardy. It was a welcome distraction from the rest of my week, and I suddenly wondered if I could avoid telling my friends anything about my now-defunct relationship all night.

By the time we had walked the few short blocks from the parking lot to the restaurant, we were twenty minutes late and I’d heard all about Melissa Engle’s hysterectomy. Lily and Anders were waiting for us at the bar, already halfway through a bottle of red.

“This is mine, girlies,” Lily said, gesturing to the wine. “I had a hell of a day, so I’m going to need the rest of this for moi.” She stood up and squished me into a hug, even though we’d seen each other at the office a few hours earlier. Her suit coat was off, revealing a slim silk blouse that covered her curves like it had been made for her. I could feel my own breasts pushing against the buttons of my shirt, threatening to burst under the pressure of my newfound heaving bosom. I was very comfortable calling my rack a bosom, because it felt huge. My yoga-induced inability to exercise had continued to take its toll, and I’d been self-medicating with food after the breakup that week. The spread had moved from my hips to my thighs to my belly, and was now waging a battle with my bras, too.

Anders Sorenson, who was perched on the bar stool next to Lil, rolled his eyes and swiped Lily’s empty wine glass. When Anders hailed the bartender, she rushed over like a dutiful minion and took the glass from his hand. Men and women both tended to respond quickly to Anders. His neat, dark hair and square jaw made him look a lot like a young Pierce Brosnan. Dapper and charming and always honest, Anders was the gay best friend every girl needed—except he was straight. At least, he insisted he was. He rarely dated, never hit on any of us, and gave great advice about just about everything. Even though we were all sure he was hiding a deep secret about his sexuality—from himself as well as the rest of the world—we all simply appreciated the fact that he was all ours.

The wineglass was bussed behind the counter before Lily even noticed it had been taken.

“Might as well drink it from the bottle if you’re drinking alone, eh, Lil? Ladies, I’ve already ordered us our own bottle for the table.” Anders was a childhood friend of Lily’s, and he had become a good friend of mine and Cat’s in the years we’d all known each other. He was laid-back, but had a feisty side that made him a great match for Lily. They only talked about it when they were drunk, but Anders and Lil had dated early in high school. They were strictly platonic now, but talk of their old relationship was always a fun conversation topic.

Lily just laughed and swiped Anders’ glass. She filled it to the top, emptying the bottle of wine in the process, and took a huge swig. Cat and I exchanged a look.

“Here’s the thing, Sorenson—I know you just want an excuse to talk to the bartender again. She’s been ogling you all night, so why don’t I take this glass and you can ask sweet ass over there for a fresh one?”

As Cat, Lily, and I followed the hostess to our table, Anders stayed back at the bar to chat up the bartender. This was all part of the usual routine on drinks’ night. Since Anders was the only single person in our midst, there was some expectation that he’d flirt on everyone’s behalf. We all lived a little vicariously through Anders.

Now that I was officially unhitched, I was concerned my friends might expect me to chat up random people, too. I hoped I wouldn’t be expected to start sleeping around, like Lily had before she started dating Chad. Did people still use condoms, or was there some new protection I would have to learn about? Did I have to start getting Brazilians? Would anyone ever actually want to sleep with me? I swallowed back the panic that had been creeping up every few hours since I’d left Erik’s house earlier that week.

Anyway, I was getting ahead of myself, since I’d only been single for three days. Three days. It’s not like it would be normal for me to just jump back into the ring and start lassoing up men left and right. I was looking for a life partner, not a fling... I wasn’t a fling girl. As I sat at the table, adjusting and readjusting my napkin on my lap, I realized all of my friends were staring at me.

“You look weird, Stella.” This comment, courtesy of Cat, was accompanied by a nod from Lily.

“I’m fat,” I said frankly, as Anders scooted his chair up to join us. “I still can’t run, I can hardly walk, and I haven’t lifted anything more than a glass of wine in four weeks.”

My friends all started to protest, telling me I looked great and relaxed and all the other bullshit friends are supposed to say.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Cat said, her eyes wide. “I mean, you look a little vacant.”

“You okay?” Lily pushed her giant glass of wine toward me, while Anders flagged down our waiter to get more to the table. “Drink this.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, and wondered if it was true.

Anders ordered bruschetta when the waiter came over with our wine, then said, “Have you gotten your back checked out? I can fit you in at the office tomorrow morning, if you want someone to take a look?” Anders was the office manager at a chiropractic and massage therapy center. He loved the job because it gave him time to work on his novel when things were slow, and he was addicted to shiatsu, which he got at a discount from one of the therapists. I wasn’t big on alternative medicine, but I was so frustrated by my back that I would try anything. Also, maybe it was time to try a new approach to everything in life. Enough of my life had changed that a significant shift in all my beliefs and attitudes ought to be easier now than ever.

I nodded. “Sure, that would be good.” They were all still looking at me, which was making me twitch. When I locked eyes with Cat, I could feel the tears springing up to the surface. “I left Erik,” I said, still looking at Cat. “I’m sorry.”

This announcement was met with complete and total silence, an unfamiliar sound for this particular group. Cat spoke first. “Left… how?”

“We… broke up, I guess.” Do you call it a break up when you’ve been together as long as we had? It sounded weird.

“Did he cheat?” Lily said, immediately jumping into protector mode. “Oh my god, he cheated with the intern. That skank who wanted him to mentor her—she’s a whore, Stella. He doesn’t deserve you.”

I laughed, waving my hand to get her to quiet down. “He didn’t cheat with the skanky intern,” I said. I pulled at my earring, remembering when Erik had given this pair to me. It was Christmas, the first year we’d been dating. We went to the winter parade downtown after work one night, and he bought them for me when we’d gone inside to warm up. That was when he still did impulsive things. He hadn’t surprised me like that in a long time.

“I guess it just boils down to the fact that I was tired of waiting for him to marry me.” When I said it out loud to people other than Erik, it sounded so trivial, so whiny. But it was my reason (the only concrete reason, anyway) and I couldn’t question my instincts. It was a big decision, but it wasn’t a stupid decision. I needed to do this for me.

Cat had gotten very pale. “It’s because of my mom. My mom and the gift exchange.” She was staring at me open-mouthed. She looked at Lily and Anders, who were obviously confused. “See, every year my mom puts everyone’s name into a bowl and we draw names for the Christmas gift exchange. But to be included, you have to be an official member of the family. She’s never put Stella’s name in the bowl. Ten years, and Stella sits there at Christmas with no gift under the tree. I told her she was going to drive you away with that effing gift exchange.”

“Cat, there are other things about your mom that would have driven me away a lot faster than her Christmas gift exchange. Her ‘suggestion’ that I find a new hair salon, for one. Or her ‘recommendation’ that I start to dress myself in more ‘winter’ colors.” I shook my head. Erik and Cat’s mom, Laurel, was a piece of work. But since my own mom had died, she was the closest thing to a mother I had.

Anders, who had been casually drinking his wine since I’d made my announcement, suddenly said, “I think it’s great, Stella.” Cat and Lily turned on him like he’d admitted I was, in fact, getting chubby. “What? I do. I think Erik’s fine, but I don’t see the spark. You’re not even married and the spark is gone? That’s not right, sweetie.” He squeezed my hand.

“Pardon my logistical questions,” Lily said, starting to slur a bit. “But don’t you live together?”

“Not anymore.” I pulled a piece of bruschetta onto my plate. “I moved to the Holiday Inn on Monday night.”

Cat audibly gasped, placing a hand over her mouth to cover up her disgust. “The Holiday Inn?”

“It’s less than fifty bucks a night with my AAA discount.” I shrugged. “It was my choice to leave, and it’s his house, so it was up to me to move out.” I’d been desperate when I left on Monday night, and the Holiday Inn was the first hotel I drove past (after stopping for a honey banana milkshake). I probably should have thought it through more carefully, but I hadn’t exactly been in a normal state of mind.

I was proud that I had been sensible enough to ask the front desk if they had had any bedbug issues. When they assured me they did not, I plopped my credit card on the counter and told them I’d be staying for a while. That promise had gotten me an upgrade to a room with one king bed and a scabby-looking jacuzzi tub, plus free HBO, all for less than a great meal and a few drinks out. The room itself reminded me of the one my high school friends and I had rented after our senior prom. I only wished I had as much beer as we’d had that night. Instead, I’d opened up the mini-bar, dumped a mini bottle of Bailey’s into my milkshake, and found a cleaned up version of 9 ½ Weeks showing on Lifetime. Tuesday night I’d ordered a pizza and watched old episodes of Family Guy. Wednesday, I’d gone home to the hotel, cut slices off a block of cheese that I alternated with bites of a baguette I’d bought in the office cafeteria, and zoned out in front of Pretty Woman. All in all, a gluttonous and ugly week, but it had made me feel better. And someone made my bed every morning, which was a welcome perk.

Anders suddenly shouted, “You’ll move in with me!”

I had considered that option. Anders actually lived in the tiny, two-bedroom tudor I’d bought before Erik and I had decided to live together. I loved my house, and had wisely decided not to sell it because the housing market had crashed just as I moved into Erik’s place. Anders had been looking for an apartment at the time, so for the last four years he’d been renting my house from me. “I’ll give you the master bedroom back.”

“I can’t take your bedroom,” I insisted. “But it would be nice to move home. Would you be okay with a roommate?”

“I—well, you—have two bedrooms and I get so bored. It will be fun!”

I wasn’t so sure about fun, but I did really want to be somewhere familiar. I couldn’t exactly kick him out of my house and I couldn’t imagine renting a tiny apartment after spreading out into Erik’s house. And I wasn’t so sure the lifestyle precedent I’d set that week while living alone at the Holiday Inn was healthy, so maybe it would work out for me to live with Anders.

“Okay, as long as you’re willing. I’ll cut your rent, obviously.”

Cat was shaking her head, and I wondered if she was still thinking about my residence at the Holiday Inn, or if she was back to dwelling on the breakup itself. “This is all very sweet, buddy-bonding roommate business, but I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that you and Erik are separated.”

“We’re not separated, we broke up,” I clarified and took a bite of bruschetta. Through a full mouth, I said, “Separation can only happen when you’re married, which we’re not.” Cat looked at me pityingly, and I knew she understood. We’d talked about this several times in the past, and she’d been pushing Erik to commit for longer than I had. Cat was big on tradition and formality, and I know she got it. I don’t think she’d ever expected it would actually drive me away from him. That bothered me.

Lily, who’d now finished her bowl of wine, reached out and put her hand on my arm. “Are you sure it’s not about the skanky intern? Please, give me a reason to believe… you guys were just so right together. Weren’t you happy?”

I clenched my teeth together and said, “Listen, this wasn’t an easy or simple decision. I kinda need your support.” Cat nodded slightly, and Lily just looked surprised. Finally, she nodded her head once. “I’ve been with him since I was practically a child, and I’ve never really stepped back and considered my own wants and needs. I can’t do that when I’m living in Erik’s life, wondering if he’s ever going to get bored and just take off. For a skanky intern or worse.”

“So you’re trying to teach him a lesson?” Lily narrowed her eyes at me. She always wanted a clear explanation, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to offer that.

Anders surprised me when he covered Lily’s mouth with her hand. “Bottom line: Stella has made a very important decision about her life, and we’re going to help her get through this in the best way friends can.” How was this guy straight and not taken? I briefly wondered if I could get over the whole mixed-signal-sexuality thing and go after Anders? Nope. Wasn’t going to happen. “We will listen, we will tell her she’s wise and wonderful, and we’re going to help her find a fling that will allow her to forget Erik.”

I groaned. “I’m not exactly ready to date. It’s been three days. I think I’ll take a little time for myself, no guys. Except you, of course,” I said to Anders with a smile.

“Girls?” Lily offered helpfully.

“Neither sex,” I said. “No sex, that is. I don’t need sex.”

Lily wiggled a finger at me. “Oh, but you do. You need sex. Sex will make you forget.”

“When is the last time you slept with Erik?” Anders asked abruptly. “I don’t mean to push, since it’s really not appropriate, but it’s an important question. Answer honestly.”

I glanced around the table and saw that all three sets of eyes were fixed on me. “A few weeks ago. Maybe more.”

Both Lily and Anders squealed. “No!”

Lily poured me more wine, while Anders slapped at the table. “It’s like you’re a virgin again.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be so freaking dramatic,” I said. “A few weeks is not that weird.” Under my breath, I muttered, “Or a month or whatever.”

“You lived with your boyfriend. Was he doing self-service in the bathroom at night?” Lily snorted. “A little jerky-jerk in the intern room at lunch?”

Cat knocked her on the shoulder. “Hello? You’re talking about my brother, pervert.”

“First and foremost, he is Stella’s ex-boyfriend,” Lily argued. “He’s fair game. I don’t care if he’s the Pope’s brother, he’s getting picked on tonight.” Cat nodded, then topped off her wine glass and waved the empty bottle in the air to request another.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I threw my back out, got fat. I don’t know, I haven’t exactly been feeling romantic.”

Lily reached across the table and held my hands in hers. “I will share a little secret with you: sex is not always about romance, sweetheart. Maybe that’s what you learned reading Judy Blume, but things change when you grow up. Sometimes, it’s nice to fuck someone for the fun of it. To sex!” Lily cried out a little too loudly, holding her drink up, and I knew she’d crossed the line between buzzed and drunk.

Anders cringed.

“I’m going on nine weeks,” Cat said suddenly, a little too quietly to really hear over Lily’s whooping and laughing. “Maybe ten. Also, Travis and I sleep in separate bedrooms.”

The wine arrived then, and we all quieted down. I was the first one to speak after our glasses were all refilled. “Are you pregnant again?”

Lily and Anders both “oh-ed,” and we all looked to Cat for confirmation. “Nope, not pregnant. Just frigid, I guess.” She grinned. “I get it,” she told me. “You just get distracted, and other stuff takes over. I thought it was just couples with kids who had this issue, but it makes me feel a little less bad that you and Erik are—were?—in the celibacy club, too. You learn to forget there was once a sex life to be had, right?”

I nodded. That’s exactly what had happened. We just started to take each other for granted. Good sex was the first thing to go, foreplay was second, and eventually sex of all variety went away altogether. We’d never been super into exciting and spontaneous sex, but anything that might have been considered hot had cooled down years ago. Bummer, sure, but other stuff took over and mattered more. “I miss that early relationship sex,” I said, suddenly realizing I did. I thought back to the night at Molto, and to the tingling in my fingers as he’d stroked my hands. I thought about how alive that sensation could make me feel.

“It’s not ‘early relationship’ sex you need—you don’t need anything with the word relationship tied to it. You’re looking for spontaneous, off-limits sex.” Anders grinned, and the look on his face had me worried. “You just need to shake it up a little, roomie.”

“I’m not shaking anything until my ass shrinks back down to an acceptable size,” I said, laughing. “I’m getting myself put back together and then we can talk.”

Lily raised her glass. “I propose a toast… to convincing Stella her ass is in perfect shaking shape and to Cat’s comfortable celibacy.” We all clinked, and I felt a whole lot better than I had in weeks.