Over the summer holiday, your wild, new-age aunt—the one who can now smoke a pork butt better than Bobby Flay and is busy whirling cayenne, paprika, apple cider vinegar, and some secret ingredient in the blender—will wipe her hands on her apron and sit you down at the kitchen table to take the latest Cosmo quiz. The one you tried to wave off. The one that will require you to lie or confess.
She’ll impatiently scan the rules, wanting to jump ahead but unable to cheat because she doesn’t want to jinx the results. To mess with the order of questions, like the one she’s tapping a finger on now, might alter the course of your life. You want to laugh at her furrowed brow, but she’s serious. Instead, you obediently begin to answer. Because you love her attention. Because you know she, of all people, will understand.
She reads the title, How to Tell if He is Devoted to You, and you sigh. Is he kind? Sometimes. Is he fun? Check. Does he think you’re beautiful? Ugh. The questions can only get worse. Is he a considerate lover? Sometimes. Is he spontaneous? Yes, because he has to be. Does he come bearing flowers and other items Cosmo deems sweet and necessary? Never. Will he marry you? You meet her eyes guiltily and she squawks. But you both know it doesn’t matter. You have this gene in common.
She reads, “If you have reached this question, he should be the best sexual partner you’ve ever had, going out of his way to…” You interrupt with a solid no. You’ll tell her it was good at first, lousy in the end, and to give you the zero and move on. Your aunt will lose what’s left of her sympathetic posture at this point, indignantly waving her wooden spoon in your direction, ranting about “men like him,” throwing barbeque sauce everywhere. You won’t stop her. It feels good to have an ally.
He’ll stand behind the door in your office, leaning into the corner as if he wishes he could tuck in, like a spider. Unable to meet his eyes, you’ll hesitate, overwhelmed by the responsibility of answering his question about what he can do to make it up to you. For the hundredth time in as many days, the pain in your stomach will flare and tighten, and a lump will rise in your throat as you search for the right answer, staring at the half packed box at your feet, knowing you don’t have it.
He’ll become uncomfortable in the silence, fumbling for an exit before you can give back the burden of decision. You wonder at the timing as you stare at the door not quite closed behind him. Outside, Seattle’s rains are close, familiar. They comfort you and keep you from having to pretend you don’t feel sad.
The voice of preservation will take over, shutting down all emotion and moving you into the elevator, down to the brick plaza below his office. You are careful not to stand in the light from his window, pausing in the courtyard only a moment longer. For having stayed every time you should have gone, for thinking your honesty could counter your intuition, for letting his game of pretend become your reality, you are ashamed. You move further into the shadows, away from the square, and take a deep breath.
Your best girlfriend will sigh and say, “Tell me you didn’t say you loved him.” You’ll tell her you were strong enough not to. She won’t know about the times he wanted you to say it, his face hovering over your own, just before he came. And how he tensed everytime you reminded him with your clothes on. She wants to laugh, but to you it’s not funny yet.
You’re not a conventionally religious person but you’ll give thanks every morning you wake up and don’t have to walk into his office. You’ll get your own computer up and running, and hang out at the local coffee shop, networking, spying on fellow patrons. You’ll buy a new blouse for interviews and whisper an affirmation every time you send out your resume, just like the self-help CD says. The one your mother sent you. The one you threw away yesterday. You’ll fluctuate between enjoying your freedom and anxiously keeping an eye on the calendar. Last paycheck, May 15th.
The hard edges will soften, beaten down by the rain and the silence, the lines you let him draw on you dissolving. You’ll tire of analyzing why you allowed it to go as far as it did, why you made the same mistake over and over again, expecting a different outcome. You’ll realize that though you share some of the same self-destructive traits, your age is an advantage. None of your mistakes have yet been fatal, and you know that someday, you will be able to forgive yourself. The angry conversations in your head—the rehashing of the indignities, the pointing at missed opportunities—will stop eventually.
Still, the feeling of betrayal lingers, like a bitter pill at the back of your throat, ruining your appetite, spoiling your liberation. Shaking your faith.
One evening, you’ll answer his call. You’ll tell him you don’t hate him because that’s what he needs to hear. And because you mean it. You’ll be ready to hang up, but when the conversation starts to slide sideways and you find yourself listening, you’ll panic. Like a witness in a protection program, you’ll realize you just gave him your coordinates. That maybe you want him to find you. That no matter how bad it gets, maybe being his girl was at least being someone’s girl. That for all his cruel selfishness, your denial is worse.
Your best guy friend will hug you and say “What were you thinking?” He’ll hold you by the shoulders so that you can’t turn away. Not that you want to.
Your aunt will move on to the horoscopes.
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