“Hey, you look like total crap. Are you feeling better today?” Jim asked, meeting me at the corner outside our building before work.
“Well, thanks ever so much,” I grumbled.
“No, seriously. Are you okay?” He asked again, his forehead creased over his thick, dark eyebrows.
I looked at Jim, concern clearly etched on his face. Jim was my friend from work and was a total enigma to me. Part Brooks Brothers model, part nerd, he was a self-proclaimed Star Wars geek and could tell you anything and everything there was to know about any of the “universes” out there, be it Marvel, DC, Star Trek, Doctor Who or more. He looked just as home in an Iron Man t-shirt sporting his Superman tatoo as he did in a shirt and tie, like the one he was wearing today.
“I’m fine,” I insisted.
“Good,” he nodded. “When you called in sick yesterday, I got worried.”
I resisted the urge to reach out and straighten his tie. Though Jim was always well dressed, there was always something a little off, be it a tie that needed straightening, hair just a little bit mussed, or his glasses, classic Clark Kent frames, needing to be cleaned. I think it added to his overall geeky charm. I suspected a couple of girls around the office had a secret crush on him.
“I stayed home,” I lied, “because I thought I was coming down with a cold. But, I’m feeling much better today.” In reality, I had spent the previous day alternately crying and binge-watching Hallmark TV while pigging out on take out Chinese food and ice cream. But he didn’t need to know that. After less than two days, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of my ‘Mike will call me, he’ll beg me to take him back, and we’ll live happily ever after’ fantasy.
“Okay,” he nodded, not looking very convinced as he led the way into our building. “Just don’t get too close,” he warned. “I’ve got a hot date tonight.”
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, pushing the elevator button. “Who’s the lucky lady tonight?”
“Kristen.” He grinned. He’d had a crush on this girl who lived in his apartment building ever since he bumped into her in the laundry room months ago. I’d met her once when she, Jim, Mike and I had gone out for drinks after work one night. I thought her boobs and hair were about the only things going for her, and I didn’t see the connection between the two of them. But, Jim had been one smitten kitten, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, their on-again, off-again relationship made for some interesting converations at lunch.
The elevator stopped at our floor, and Jim and I got out. I couldn’t help but grin at the receptionist, as her eyes followed Jim’s retreating back as he walked down the hallway slightly in front of me. He was so clueless of the effect he had on some of the girls we worked with. Me, I only ever saw Jim as a friend, more like my work husband, since I had been dating Mike for so long. And, over time, our relationship had morphed into this brother/sister sort of thing. Where we could tell each other everything. I just hadn’t been ready to tell him – or anyone really -- about Mike, yet.
“How’s the big project going?” Jim asked when I caught up with him a few steps later as we both headed into the kitchen to grab coffee.
“Um, okay, I guess. I had some printer issues, but I think I’ll get them straightened out this morning.”
“That’s good.” He nodded, pouring us both a cup of coffee and stirring some cream into his before continuing. “You’ve been putting in a lot of hours on this. Does Mike mind you working so much?”
“Oh, no,” I replied, taking the cup of coffee he handed to me, still firmly stuck in Stage One of breakup land -- denial. “You know how it is on Wall Street. He can work some pretty long hours, too, so it’s no big deal.”
“Well, this could mean big things for you. I hope you remember us peons when you’re up at the top with the big guys.”
“What?” I laughed. “You guys are just as important to how this turns out as we are. C’mon. You’re my numbers guy. Budgets and all that. I couldn’t do this without you.” I tried to elicit a smile.
“Speaking of budgets . . ,” he let that one hang out there.
“I’m working on the numbers,” I held up my hand placatingly. “I swear I’ll get them done by tomorrow at the latest,” I promised. “Besides, you’re changing the subject. You were talking about me getting a promotion and you still being an underling?” I said, half-kidding.
“Yes, I know,” he acquiesed. “This could be great for you. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. It just seems like we’re always the one getting dumped on at the last minute.”
“Yep, isn’t that always how it is?” I grinned. I’d heard Jim’s sob stories about his life in the accounting department many times.
“Sure is,” he finished.
We headed out of the kitchen. As we got closer to my office, I was surprised to see Tina, my collegue, already there. I looked at my watch. Surely, I wasn’t late. Tina never got in before me. But, no, it was just before nine o’clock. Jim looked back at me, raising his eyebrows before gesturing over his shoulder to Tina. She was sitting at her desk across from mine, sketching something on a pad in front of her. She was wearing a hot pink blouse with a bow, and she was sporting a pair of glasses I was sure she didn’t need. She reminded me of a Playboy bunny centerfold. From the “hot college girls” edition.
“Hi, Tina,” Jim said to her, one hand grasping the doorway as he leaned in to talk to her. I stopped short behind him, blocked from entering since his nearly six-foot frame took up the entire doorway.
“Morning, Jim,” she answered, smiling. She had a faint flush to her cheeks.
I tapped on his shoulder. He dropped his hand from the doorway, turning around toward me, like he had forgotten I was there. Which, given how Miss November – I mean, Tina – looked, I guess I could understand. He had a sloppy grin on his face. “Later, gator,” he said to me before backing away from my office door.
“See ya, Jim,” I called after him. “And, thanks for the coffee.” His only response was a slight nod in my direction while he continued to stare at Tina. Then, a quick over-the-shoulder wave as he reluctantly continued down the hallway toward his office.
“Lucky,” Tina whispered to me, as I entered my office and plopped down into my chair.
“He’s just a friend,” I shrugged, setting my coffee down on the desk and reaching over to turn on my computer.
“Are you crazy? Half the girls in marketing are head over heels for him. He’s cute!”
“I guess I just don’t think of him like that.”
“Plus, you’ve got Mike,” Tina added, pointing at the picture of the two of us on my desk.
“Well, yes,” I hesitated, definitely not ready to reveal my breakup to her. “There’s Mike.” The Mike who needed a change, I thought to myself.
Tina had only been with the company for a year, but during that time, I discovered she had a good eye for details and was very artistic. When Mark, our boss, let me head up a team to design the Benson campaign, he asked me to bring Tina onto my team. And, things were going well for the most part. My only beef, I guess, was I found that she seemed to coast by on her talent -- and her blond bombshell looks -- a little too frequently. As my “second in command,” she was supposed to be the one assisting me, but I was often left alone, working late to tie up loose ends. She would contribute now and then, but a lot of the time it was office gossip and trips to the kitchen for coffee. Because I was the head of the project, and this could mean a big promotion for me, I often bit my tongue and just tried to get through it all, knowing the presentation for the firm partners was soon, Then, I hoped to move up and on.
"Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Tina said to me, turning her chair my way and flicking her impossibly shiny hair over her shoulder. Seriously, I wondered if she washed her hair with fairy dust to get it to sparkle like that. “Mark and I were just going over the mockups from the printers.” She peered over her glasses at me, now starting to look more like a sexy school marm than collegiate centerfold.
I groaned inwardly, thinking of the mockups. “Oh, yeah?” Part of the reason I had called in sick to work the previous day was because the printer I chose for the Benson ad campaign had used the wrong color for the mockups. Not just a shade or two off. I’m talking bright orange when I’d asked for a soothing red. This was my first really big project -- a month in the making so far -- and I was going to have to make a few phone calls to get it fixed. Calls that I was dreading. Like I said, I hate confrontation.
As if hearing his name, Mark, poked his head around the corner. “It’s looking good, Kate,” he said. ”Hope you are feeling better. Will you be ready to present it to me and the other partners next week?”
“Yes, it’s looking okay.” I gestured to the mockups on my desk. “You can see, though, that we had some trouble with the color.”
"Yeah, Tina told me. Those things happen all of the time. Don’t worry.”
“You don’t think you’d be interested in making a call to the printer for me?” I asked hopefully. I knew they’d jump to get it fixed if he called.
“No, Kate. You’re Project Head. Dealing with printer problems comes with the territory. And, if you ever hope to work your way up . . .?” He let that hang out there.
I swallowed hard and gave him what I thought was an innocent grin. “I know, I know. I was just kidding.” Darn, I thought.
He laughed and then waved as he headed out the door. Tina and I both followed him with our eyes and then turned to look at each other.
“Well, I might as well get this over with,” I said.
“Better you than me,” Tina nodded, as she turned back to her work.
I bristled a little at that statement, but I hopefully kept a straight look on my face. Looks and talent did not a pleasant personality make, but I decided Tina wouldn’t make me feel worse than I already did. Besides, this could be my ticket to the promotion that Mark and the other partners always seemed to be dangling in front of me.
The call to the printer didn’t go as bad as I anticipated. It turned out that a new employee had copied a color code incorrectly, so they were more than happy to promise new mockups by the next day. The rest of day kept me busy enough to where I didn’t really have to think much. It was only after catching a glimpse at the picture on my desk again that I paused, my heart in my throat.
Picking up the picture, I traced Mike’s image with my fingertips. I tried to remember when the photo had been taken. We both looked so happy and content. Maybe it had been early on in our relationship, before things had turned the corner and started to go downhill. I thought back, trying to remember how I must have felt when we’d first started to date, when we officially became “a couple.” Trying to remember the first blooms of love.
I was startled out of my daydreams by the sudden buzz of my cell phone. A quick check of caller ID showed me it was my best friend, Emile.
“Hello,” I said, holding the phone up to my ear.
“Hi, Emile. What’s up?”
“I called to make sure you could be there tonight at 7:00 intead of 7:30. I wanted to go over the set list with the band, and I’m thinking about making a few changes.”
Oh, no, I thought. Was that tonight? I had agreed to fill in tonight for Charlotte as the singer for Emile’s band -- something I did on occassion -- because Charlotte, not only Emile’s wife but also lead singer of his band, was eight-months pregnant and had been put on bed rest by her doctor the week before.
I hesitated a moment before responding. “Yeah, yeah. That’s fine. I can be there,” I told him.
“Great,” he sighed in relief. “Is Mike coming tonight?”
“Um, no, he can’t make it tonight. He’s sorry he’s going to miss it.”
“Oh, too bad. I know he likes to hear you sing," Emile said. “Well, no worries. We’ll see you tonight, then.”
“Yep, I’ll see you tonight,” I said, getting off of the phone. I don’t know why I lied. I mean, I could see not being ready to reveal my newly single status at work. But Emile? He was my closest friend. I guessed with my emotions still all haywire, I just wasn’t ready to get into it, yet. Plus, with Tina sitting over my shoulder listening in on every word, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been long before my breakup became part of the office fodder.
Oh, man. How am I ever going to do this? I thought to myself, finally letting myself stop and think of having to go back to living life as a single person. I took one last look at the photo of me and Mike before shoving it into my purse.
God, I need a drink.
After work, I caught an uptown subway and ran over to my apartment to change clothes. I had just enough time for a quick dinner before I needed to meet the band at the bar. I checked the answering machine on the off chance Mike had called. He might have left a message for me at home instead of calling my cell phone because he knew I wouldn’t be home to answer. But, the only message was a recorded one from a carpet cleaning service -- which would do a lot of good in my rented, hardwood floor apartment.
I popped a frozen dinner into the microwave and went into the bathroom to touch up my makeup and brush my hair. After being satisfied that eyeliner and lip gloss do the job of hiding how tired I looked, I sat down to scan the mail and quickly eat before heading back out. The middle of my dinner was still slightly cold, and what I assumed was stuffing was so gooey that I didn’t enjoy the dinner at all. I ended up throwing half of it out before heading back into the bathroom to brush my teeth and reapply more lip gloss.
“Stupid,” I said to myself. “Should have thought about that BEFORE you ate.” I scowled in the mirror and stuck out my tongue. I looked so silly that I couldn’t help but laugh.
I headed out, hoping that the evening with friends would cheer me up. An evening chill had set in, and I was glad for my leather jacket. I zipped it up as I walked the three blocks to the bar. My thoughts were on the task ahead. In college, I had been the lead singer of Emile’s band, and I had even taught myself to play the guitar. Singing in a band had been fun, but I decided just before senior year of college to quit and focus on my last year of studies. Emile had been disappointed, but soon after, Charlotte auditioned for the band and the rest was history. Emile eventually became a professor, and Charlotte worked in the music business. But, they both continued with the band. They became engaged a few years after graduation, got married, and now they were expecting their first child. It was exactly the kind of relationship I’d been after for years -- the kind that somehow kept eluding me. Luckily, though, from the whole experience, I got some good friends out of it.
"Which,” I thought to myself, “is exactly why I have to sing tonight for Charlotte.” They’d always been around for me when I needed it.
I reached the bar, pulling open the door and going inside. The bar was crowded with people who’d come early to take advantage of Happy Hour, but the guy behind the counter saw me and waved. I waved back and then looked around to see Emile and the other guys on the stage getting their gear unpacked. They’d been playing at this bar for years, and Emile had decided that the Thursday night crowd was the most fun. The owner of the bar let them play the early set -- 8:00 p.m. -- and the band was popular enough that they drew a regular crowd. I walked over to the bar and ordered a diet soda before heading over to the stage.
Emile saw me walk up. “Hey, there you are,” he said, sounding relieved. “I’m so glad you could do this. Charlotte’s been so disappointed about being on bedrest and feels like she’s letting us down. I told her that you could handle things, but that only appeased her a little bit. She’s driving herself -- and me -- crazy about this whole thing.” He shook his head as he continued. “Do you know she’s started watching soap operas? She started to tell me this whole story the other day about Stephan someone and someone named Marco’s baby, and I had to stop for a minute before I realized what she was talking about.”
I smiled and took a sip of soda. “I should visit her this weekend, don’t you think?” I said. “I could bring a movie, ice cream, maybe we could paint our fingernails, to get her mind off of things?” Keep my mind off of things, too, I thought.
Emile raised his eyebrows and looked at me for a second. “Ohhh-kay,” he said, slowly. “I’ve never known you to be much of a girly-girl, though.”
“Hey, I like girly-girl. You may not realize it, but I like romance just as much as the next girl. And, I’m sure Charlotte could use a good distraction.”
“Yes, she could,” he admitted, “and I’m sure she would love it. How about Saturday afternoon? The guys and I were thinking of watching the game, but we could go to a bar, instead. You could have the place to yourself,” he said, half-questionly, half-hoping.
“Yes, Saturday afternoon is fine," I laughed. I was glad to make the plans for Saturday to have something to keep me busy. I made a mental note to call Charlotte tomorrow.
I helped the band finish setting up the equipment -- I would use Charlotte’s guitar for the few songs I played rhythm guitar -- and we went over the set list. Around 8:00 p.m., we started. Some of the crowd moved closer to the stage when they recognized one of the band’s most popular songs. It felt good to sing, to be part of something alive. And I was able to forget my troubles for a while, just going through the motions of singing, playing guitar.
It was during one of our last songs that I really started to pay attention to some of the lyrics. To really listen. I was singing a song I had helped write in college, a song that, at the time, we swore would take the band to the top. As we got to the second verse, and I hear my voice blare out of the loudspeakers.
When I sleep, I dream you,
But, when I wake, I lose you.
If only all my dreams were real.
I wish I were stronger,
But, I can’t wait much longer.
I think I’m going to tell you how I feel.
But, when I look at you,
My head grows dizzy,
And, I’m losing control, losing control.
Before I had time to process it all, the song ended. The crowd was clapping, the guys were all smiling, and I was standing there, like a dope, staring. Almost like I was having this out-of-body experience. And, all I could think was, “Will I EVER feel that way about someone? Did I ever?” Losing control was just something that I didn’t do anymore, not in my professional life, not in my personal life. I tried to remember who that girl was, to get a glimpse of her. But, just as I began to get a grasp on it, the moment slipped away, and I was back to reality. “Good,” I thought. After getting my heart broken a few times, it was just easier to shut down, to not let anyone in.
The rest of the set passed in a blur, and we were done by 9:30. I helped pack up the equipment and waited while the drummer brought the van around to load it all up. Normally, I might have stayed, but I just didn’t feel like it tonight. I shrugged on my jacket and turned to leave when I heard Emile’s voice.
“Kate, wait,” he said, catching up to me. “The guys said they’d bring the equipment back to the rehearsal space. Why don’t you and I grab a beer?”
We grabbed drinks and found a relatively quiet space near the back of the bar, where we perched on two stools.
“Okay,” Emile said, after taking a swig from his beer bottle. “Spill it.”
I was startled. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Obviously, something is wrong. Mid-way through the set, you sort of shut down. Tell me. What’s up?”
I could feel my face turn red. “Okay, fine. You’re right. I am a little depressed,” I admitted.
“Okay, I got that part. Why?” he pressed on.
“Mike broke up with me.”
“What? Why didn’t you say something?” he asked, increduously.
I shrugged. “I didn’t want to bring you in on all of my troubles. You’ve got enough to worry about, and it really doesn’t matter anyway."
“You’re an idiot, you know. Of course, it matters.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you didn’t say something. What happened?”
I took another sip of beer before telling him all that had happened -- about Mike meeting someone else, wanting a change, me realizing long ago that it was over but being too chicken to end it myself, and feeling that I wasn’t even capable of letting myself get close to someone and really feel a connection.
“You know,” I said, after staring into space for a while. “Maybe I’m emotionally retarded.” I didn’t really feel that way, but what else explained it?
“You are not emotionally retarded,” he scowled. ”Maybe more emotionally challenged?” he finished with a grin. He stood. “C’mon. I’ll walk you home.”
The cool nighttime air was refreshing as we exited the bar. The rush of cars and people on the street made it feel a lot earlier than it was, but once we crossed the street and headed further east, the streets started to get quieter. This was the time of night that I liked the best, when the busy city -- this part of it, at least -- did actually go to sleep -- more like a quiet hum -- as if it needed rest in anticipation of something big the following day. The only sounds to be heard, apart from the occasional taxi driving down the street, were our footsteps.
Emile was the first one to break the silence. “You know, I wish I could be there when it happens,” he said.
“When what happens?” I asked, confused.
“When you let yourself go. When you actually let yourself just be. You know, it’s okay to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” I scoffed.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” he persisted. “But, there comes a time when you have to get over it. You have to let yourself take a chance. Kate, I’ve known you for years. I’ve seen your life. You used to be so much more, I don’t know, carefree, maybe? I know you’ve gotten hurt. I’ve known some of the guys involved. But, just because you’ve gotten hurt once . . .”
“Four times, but who’s counting? Or, maybe if you count your ex-drummer, it’s five.”
“Okay, five times, if you want to count him, but I don’t.” We’d arrived at my building. “The point is,” he continued, “you can’t build a little box around yourself to keep from getting hurt. Something will always get in. So, why even try? All you’ll end up doing is missing out.”
“That’s easier said than done, Emile. It’s just not in my nature.”
“That’s bull. I know you. It used to be. And, it can be again. You just have to stop thinking about it so much.”
I didn’t know what to say -- finding the right words was not my strong point. I could feel tears coming to my eyes, so I made myself busy looking for my keys.
“Thanks for walking me home, Emile,” I managed to get out, and I gave him a hug. He hugged me back and then held me at arm’s length, looking at me.
“Call Charlotte tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you, and then you guys can plan your girly stuff on Saturday, okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll see ya.” I walked up the steps to the front door, turning back to give Emile a wave. He waved back and then headed down the street to find a cab home. Trudging upstairs to my apartment, I was exhausted. But, I felt a little better than I had the past few nights. This time, instead of crying for an hour, I cried for only fifteen minutes before falling asleep.