Embarrassingly Old Work: Short Fiction: Relapse – From 2002

If I wasn’t a guy, I’d have probably felt raped last night.

I’m not a ladies man, but I do okay – the kind of guy that’s attractive enough to make a personality work. In school, things were pretty easy – I knew a lot of people, and they knew all the people I didn’t know. I could go somewhere and sit down with anyone, ask a few questions about a major or a childhood and within a few minutes have the kind of common ground that would last me until I was comfortable to ask for a phone number. And that’s sort of how Julia and I started. A few questions and a few hours, and that’s all it took.

I’d been out of school for about 18 months, and single for 17 and a half of them. But then there was Julia – the first really nice person I had met since I moved here. She was a copy-writer for the ad agency down the hall, and all I needed was one elevator ride to know I was going to ask her out eventually. It just took a little time and a little creativity, since questions about her major were probably off limits.

“Hey, you again,” she said.

She’d spotted me first. What do I say? Come on, don’t come up empty! Was I taking too much time to think? Fuck. I needed breezy. Be breezy.

“Yup.”

I guess that was breezy.

“Do you work here too?” she asked.

Thankfully, she was thinking a little clearer than I.

“Yeah. I think I’m on your floor. I’m with Gaten & Finch.”

“Is that a lawfirm?”

“Usually.”

Eight floors and nineteen lawyer jokes later, we parted ways with me telling her that if I didn’t have too much work, I’d stop by her office to see if she was hungry. I didn’t and she was, and thus Nick and Julia was born. My third grade teacher once told me that anything born had to die eventually. That was a pretty scary thought for a third grader, but it makes perfect sense now.

We were Nick and Julia to my friends and Julia and Nick to hers, but I wasn’t just Nick and she wasn’t just Julia for a long time after that lunch. I should have known when I’d asked her for her number, and she’d already scrawled it on the back of my receipt.

When adult is in front of a word, it usually makes the phrase dirty. Adult movies. Adult toys. Adult-ery. And now for my first adult relationship.

Julia and I spent the next year going to lunch. And then dinner. Movies. Shows. Charity golf tournaments. Okay, one charity golf tournament, but I wanted to show her off. Long, sleek legs. Beautiful smile. Dark black hair, just long enough to make her look sexy but short enough to that it wouldn’t strangle you as you fell asleep. And ambition. Wow, that girl had ambition. And I don’t just mean resume-filling ambition, though she was good at that, too. She seemed to redefine getting what you wanted in all aspects.

I always felt inferior to her when we had sex–not that you ever want to feel superior to someone in that sense. I can’t stress enough the importance of bedroom equality enough.

“No, not like that. No, over here. Yeah, okay. Slower. Slower! Um, okay. Just a little bit. Nick, stop looking at the clock, I don’t mind if it’s over soon.”

I never gave her a real reason why I ended things, and maybe that’s because I never gave myself a real reason. My friends loved her. My family loved her. I tried loving her. But it just didn’t translate. Maybe because she brought enough emotional baggage with her to fill the cargo hold on the Titanic. Maybe that’s why it sunk.

“Captain! The ship is going down!”

“I know. The woman in cabin 4B constantly asks her boyfriend about his past relationships, and when he tells her that she shouldn’t worry and that “˜the now’ is what matters, she thinks he’s hiding something. And there’s some sort of iceberg.”

I put up with it for a while. But every relationship gets into a rut eventually, and when our number was called, she just kept asking me why we were in a rut and what was wrong with me that I didn’t know how to get out of it. I told her that men never ask for directions.

“We should talk,” she finally said.

And that was her mistake. She knew something was wrong on my end. Even lawyers have to tell the truth sometimes, and it was my turn.

“You will never let yourself be happy,” she finally said, between comparing me to her last few boyfriends. “I don’t think I can ever understand you.”

I told her that if she could figure me out, I’d love for her to explain me to me so I could eventually understand me better. I was serious. She thought I was trivializing things, and that was the last I saw of her for about a week.

We ran into each other on the elevator. Along with some guy in accounting.

“What floor ma’am?”

“Awkward, please.”

Eventually came the friend thing, followed shortly thereafter by her alcohol-induced tirade. 45 minutes of “you’re a jerk,” followed by 15 of “I’m better than this.” A chorus of “Why shouldn’t we get back together?” made the night a smashing success. And by “smashing success,” I mean “miserable failure.” I put her in a cab and fell asleep to the 1 AM Sportscenter, trying to convince myself that could salvage the night. The best part about her emotional baggage was that it came with little wheels so she could carry it everywhere. And an expandable outer pouch in case she ever came home with more baggage that she left with.

“Didn’t start wearing a training bra until you were 14, huh? Yes, I understand that that could damage someone growing up, but can we talk about it after the end of The Breakfast Club?”

That “you jerk/I’m better/let’s date” fight was a month ago. And after that night, things seemed to go uphill. We had a few lunches, and she even told me about a new guy she was seeing. I got a little pit feeling in my stomach for a second, but then I remembered that dating him meant that I would be hearing about her dating neurosis instead of causing it, and I was okay again. Okay enough to invite her out to dinner yesterday. And though I usually intend for dinners to finish at my place, that was not what I was going for.

She’d left her purse on my coffee table, which led to two things I didn’t want – she had to come back to my place to get it, and I had to pay for dinner. We got back up town at about 10:30, and as soon as she came in, she bolted past me to use the rest room. I sat down and flipped on the TV while I waited for my turn, and left it on ESPN when I got up. Maybe I should have given her something to watch – by the time I got back out, she was sitting on my bed and the TV was off.

“Hey,” I said. “You didn’t want to watch the Packers?”

“How come you moved your desk over there?,” she asked. I wondered if her resume listed “changing the subject” under job skills.

“Just felt like it, I guess. I don’t like leaving it in one place for too long.”

“Oh.”

Silence. Not awkward silence though. Really awkward silence.

“You know, you can sit down.”

“No I can’t,” I said. “It’s the third quarter. Game is getting interesting.”

“I thought you always say it’s never interesting until the fourth quarter?”

“Yeah, but it’s getting interesting.”

“For god sakes, Nick, sit down.”

So I did. On my desk chair. And we talked for about ten minutes. I forget exactly what about. It was something to do with her cat. And I really wish I knew how she led the conversation from her cat to why we broke up so I can stop her if she ever tries it again.

“I don’t know,” I said, again. I hate having to break up with someone I’d already broken up with, so I tried just referring to our last painful conversation. “I’ve already told you everything.”

But that wasn’t enough for her, so I told her one more time. I told her that for some unknown reason, we just didn’t gel, and that I wished I had had some cliche excuse that she could be happy with because she’d already heard it on Sex in the City once. I stopped just short of telling her that I grew more frustrated every time she made me re-analyze our relationship, and that re-analyzing it is what finally made me decide to end it. Instead I asked if we could just talk about something else. Like her cat.

And that’s when she said it.

“Could you come over here and sit next to me?”

“But I’m comfortable.”

“No you’re not, Nick. You’re on a wooden chair with no armrests. And I’d hardly describe this situation as comfortable for you.”

“If you think I’m uncomfortable with this all the way over here, why do you want me to sit next to you?”

“Because sometimes I miss lying here with you. Habits are kind of hard to break.”

“Jules, I don’t think that would be so smart.”

“What wouldn’t be smart?”

“Us. There. Together.”

She laughed. “I didn’t ask you to sleep with me, Nick. Just come over here and sit down.”

I tried sitting as far away as I could, but on a twin-size bed, that’s not so easy. Before I had a chance to maneuver away, she was leaning her back against my chest and telling me how it’s nice that we’ve become such good friends. Which was odd for me; I’d never been in this position with a friend. I also couldn’t picture most of my friends naked. Accurately, anyway.

“I should really go check the score. It sounds like something big just happened.”

“Nick, I shut the TV off while you were in the bathroom.”

“Oh,” I said, still looking at the blank screen through the doorway. “I guess I didn’t notice.”

I have 17 separate floorboards that I can see clearly while sitting on the top right corner of my mattress, and I know because I counted them three times. For a guy who talks a lot, I had decidedly nothing to say.

My silence gave her speech room to run free. And to ask if I still found her attractive.

“Where is this coming from?” I asked, trying to sound more concerned with why she was asking than that she had asked in the first place. I took the opportunity to check if the answer was yes.

Long, black dress. Her hair, partly on my shoulder and partly hanging on her left cheek. Of course I found her attractive. Why couldn’t she have gained 30 pounds since we dated? I started wishing that she were ugly – that she could develop bags beneath her eyes to match the ones beneath her questions. Instead, her deep, wide-open blue eyes, just below her perfectly applied eyelash extensions, were staring up and back into mine. I had no choice but to say yes.

“Yeah, sure. Why?”

“I don’t know. Just that we’re adults and all. And we’re both here and single, and there’s no reason why we can’t stay like this for a little longer.”

Except for the idea that I was terrified of what two single adults here could get themselves into. My heart was a few inches from her ear – it was impossible for her not to know it was racing. I said nothing. I didn’t dare move. I saw what was coming.

She turned to face me. First, she kissed my neck, right where it meets the shoulder blade. Then, a kiss just below my chin. My right cheek. My lips. I had to move, to say something. To stop this before it got out of hand.

I used my forearm to push her off. She kept pressing towards me. I pushed her away again. She stopped, and stared at me.

“Why not?”

“Why?,” I responded.

“Because we’re mature adults, and it won’t hurt either of us.”

“Why do you keep saying that? And how do you know what it will hurt?”

Her hair was more mussed than before, and the strap of her dress had fallen to a few inches above her elbow. I noticed that she was kneeling now, putting her face about a foot above mine. I suddenly felt incredibly small.

I thought about what I was going to say next, and made sure it was the appropriate mix of what I wanted to say and what I wanted her to hear. And I landed at “it might hurt me.”

She wasn’t expecting that – and neither was I. There, she fell back onto the bed and pulled me down next to her. I was careful to face away. She spent the better part of the next hour telling me how it’d be fine, and tomorrow we wouldn’t care, and this was a one-night thing. And I spent the worse part of it telling her no. I must have said it eight different ways. If the word “no” sounded different in any other language I knew, I’d have said that too. So I tried another way.

“I just can’t be with you like that anymore,” I said. “I can not bring myself to do it.”

And though I was lying, she finally believed me. She didn’t look at me for a few seconds, and by the time she’d turned back towards me she’d been able to suppress all but one tear. And as I stared at it – a small, round drop of her frustration with my emotional incompetence just sitting there on her cheekbone, her kiss caught me by surprise.

And I looked at the clock.

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