It’s Not You, It’s Me
My mom always said good things happen to good people. She also said bad things happen in threes.
Tonight was going to be one of those good-things nights.
I tugged at the hem of my dress. I shouldn’t have let my roommate Rachel talk me into something so short. I turned to look out the window of the taxi, my thighs suctioning to the sticky vinyl of the bench seat.
Rachel had insisted I take a taxi to meet my boyfriend for dinner. Eric had made reservations in Georgetown to discuss something important. After dissecting his message like sixteen year olds, Rachel and I reached the conclusion a proposal was imminent and we surely wouldn’t be leaving the restaurant in separate cars. A taxi made perfect sense. Then. Now, with my thighs sweating and my feet pinching in the new shoes I’d caved to, I said a little prayer that Rachel was right.
The taxi lurched left around a black Tahoe trying to parallel-park in a spot barely fit for a mid-size sedan. A stream of curse words in a variety of languages bounced off the plastic divider between me and the driver.
Another lurch and I grabbed at the black leather clutch before it went airborne. My phone buzzed inside, cranky at being ignored. Two missed calls. My mom and my mom.
We stopped at a traffic light, a momentary lull in the amusement park worthy ride. A woman laughed on the sidewalk outside the taxi window and I looked over. She laughed again and tipped up on her toes to kiss the man at her side. He lifted her hand to his lips. The setting sun threw a ray their direction, making the engagement ring on her finger sparkle blue crystals.
I pushed a fist into my stomach, trying to keep the butterflies from getting overly rowdy. What if we’d gotten it wrong?
I stabbed at Rachel’s photo on my phone. It was the before picture I’d snapped on the way to the salon when she’d decided to chop the bulk of her brunette mane. Her hazel eyes hid behind a pair of green rims with blue polka dots. One ring. Two rings. “Oh god, answer already,” I said, blowing out a breath.
“Why are you calling me?” Rachel answered just in time to prevent full-out hyperventilating.
“What if we have this all wrong, Rach?” My stomach dropped again as the taxi rocketed forward. At this rate I’ll be too sick to eat anything.
“Nicole, relax. Eric is taking you to Utopia. It’s one of the hottest new restaurants in DC. And on a Saturday night. Can you imagine what strings he had to pull to get a reservation on such short notice? And what about last week? Seriously, Nic, it was his idea to go shopping, right? And he just happened to stop by a jewelry store window to check his messages? Come on.” I heard the woosh of air pass over the phone and could picture the be-sensible tilt of the head she used with her students.
“I know. I’m just nervous.” I slid my hand under my thigh to break the seal with the vinyl. Nauseous and missing chunks of skin. Lovely way to start a romantic evening.
“Miss, we’re here,” the taxi driver said in perfect English. I couldn’t help wonder if he spoke any of the languages he’d cursed in.
“Rach, I have to go. Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need luck. Relax and enjoy. Call me later with the good news.”
“But, Rach …” But Rach wasn’t there anymore.
“Miss?” The driver glared at me via the rear-view mirror.
I handed a twenty dollar bill through the opening in the plastic partition, yanked my thighs loose and teetered out of the taxi.
The driver waved the change at me. “Keep it.” I waved back.
With a screech and a “Hey, watch it, Jerkoff,” from a pedestrian, my chariot was off, the driver clearly amused by the crazy tip lady.
I looked up at the sign above the door. Utopia beckoned. Reviewers had called it “the hottest new date night restaurant in DC.”
I tugged at the hem of my dress, pulled up to cover some cleavage, pulled back down to cover thigh, then swore never to go shopping with Rachel again.
Inside, the maître d’ announced that my “companion” had arrived and he’d show me immediately to the table. In the ten months we’d been seeing each other, Eric had gone from friend to boyfriend. My lips twitched over the word companion. Hopefully after tonight we’d move on to a more romantic label. Fiancé had a nice ring to it.
We stepped through a side door onto a patio with a breathtaking view of the Potomac River reflecting the jubilant lights of Georgetown on a Saturday night.
Eric was sitting at a table along the edge of the patio. He was staring into his Tanqueray and Tonic, eyebrows kitting together in thought. His blonde hair was newly trimmed and he still wore the white button-down shirt and navy slacks that he’d no doubt gone to the office in that morning. He was preparing for a big case and putting in lots of long hours.
“Hi.” I leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek.
“Oh hey, Nic. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you come in.” Eric stood, greeting me with a quick, gentle kiss on the lips.
I eased into the chair the maître d’ held out and silently analyzed the kiss. It was familiar, like you’d greet your girlfriend if you were meeting for lunch. The passion of the about-to-propose scenario I’d fantasized about in the taxi was disappointingly absent. Maybe he was going to suggest a vacation.
Suddenly I felt incredibly self-conscious in my oh-so-revealing teal sheath dress and black peak-a-boo heels. Even my professionally applied make-up from the Bobbi Brown counter at Neiman Marcus felt heavy on my face, making my cheeks feel like they were drooping instead of glowing.
Eric sat down, swishing his drink left then right. Apparently satisfied with the waves he’d generated, he looked up and appraised me. “Wow, Nic, you look amazing.” The smile was genuine and I relaxed. “That dress is perfect on you. You’re perfect.” He reached across the table and squeezed my hand.
I settled a bit more and gave him the most seductive smile I could muster. And just like that droopy clown make-up transformed into glamorous bride-to-be.
We discussed the menu choices and ordered wine. Business out of the way, I turned my anticipation back to what Eric had in store for me.
Should I bring it up? Should I wait? Maybe he’s waiting for the perfect moment. Maybe he’d orchestrated the whole thing with the discrete waiter who would bring out a surprise dessert with a ring expertly displayed on top. I’ll wait.
“How’s the new client working out?” Eric broke into my fantasy of the chocolate fondant with white chocolate shavings surrounding the 2-carat Princess-cut diamond engagement ring that we’d seen in the shop window last week.
It took three quick blinks to ground me in my chair and the discussion. As a meetings facilitator and corporate trainer I got to work with a number of interesting clients and usually had a funny story or two to share. “So far, so okay. Our first meeting is Tuesday though. It’s been a bit hard getting details from them. The main partner has been distracted with his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. From what I hear, it’s probably one of the biggest and most expensive parties he’ll throw. Well, next to her wedding I suppose.” Subtle Nicole, very subtle.
Eric looked up from his salad and studied me for a minute. I blushed, thankful for the hazy lighting of dusk.
“Listen, Nic, I wanted to talk to you about something.” He pushed the remainder of his salad around then meticulously lined up the goat cheese crumbles like tiny snowballs waiting for a snowball fight. My stomach flopped. I took a long drink from my sparkling water, hoping to buy some time. He wasn’t waiting for dessert.
I watched Eric over the rim of the water glass. Bubbles jumped and tickled my nose. “Okay.” I croaked. The lemon dislodged itself from the bottom of glass, sending a drop of water splashing onto my chin. I dabbed at it self-consciously.
Eric opened his mouth, his jaw popped to the right. He did that when he was trying to decide on how to say something. I’d watched him do that many times when he was rehearsing his opening or closing statements.
“Nic,” he started hesitantly. “You know I adore you. You are the most perfect woman I’ve ever dated.”
I gave an embarrassed half-laugh. “Far from perfect.”
Eric’s shoulder twitched in an almost imperceptible shrug but he didn’t make eye contact and didn’t refute my self-directed slight.
“Look, Nic, I think we should slow things down a bit. You’re wonderful and I really enjoy being with you, but I’m just not ready to settle down. I don’t want to string you along.” He stopped to take a drink of water, his eyes darted across my face.
Glamorous bride-to-be smile froze into a bride-of-Frankenstein grimace. “What are you saying?” The question was barely a whisper but Eric looked around nervously at the surrounding tables.
“Nicole, you are the kind of woman I would marry if I was looking to get married. But I’m not ready.”
My heart pounded, the sound deafening. I couldn’t have heard him right. This time my voice did skip up the volume button. “What?”
Eric scanned the surrounding tables again. A few sets of eyes quickly snapped away.
“I think we should break up. For a bit at least. Until I can get my head cleared out.” Finally he made eye contact and put his hand over mine. “Nic, it’s not you. It’s me.”
“Oh,” was all I could come up with. Magna Cum Laude, straight A student and all I had was a pathetic, wimpy “oh” that did nothing to boost my self-respect.
I pushed myself away from the table and up onto wobbly legs, narrowly missing the waiter balancing our dinner on a tray above his head. For one split second I had the urge to push the tray out of his hand and into Eric’s lap. But that would cause a scene and I wasn’t programmed to make scenes. I was programmed to make things pleasant for others, to make sure I never made anyone else feel uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry. I’m not feeling very well all of a sudden. I’ll get myself home.” And before the water works could open in public, I rushed out of the restaurant.
I gulped air. I can’t break down. Won’t break down. But in the safe anonymity of a Georgetown sidewalk on a Saturday night, the sobs bubbled to the surface and left me gasping.
Where the hell were all the taxis when you needed one?
“Nicole. Wait.” Eric was a few steps behind me. I turned. Pathetic hope catching in my throat. He was going to say he’d made a mistake. He was gong to ask me to forgive him. “Here.” He held out a large shopping bag from Cole Haan, his favorite place for shoes. A store we’d visited last week on the same shopping expedition as my window glance at the engagement ring. “I packed the things you had at my place so you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable coming to get them. I’m sorry, Nic. I really am.”
I took the bag from him, turned and marched blindly away. Three blocks later I’d yet to come across a taxi. Defeated, numb and in searing pain from those damn high-heeled peak-a-boos I leaned against the windowsill of a store. The Cole Haan bag with my underwear, Georgetown U sweatshirt, and toothbrush dropped to the ground.
Giant, heaving, gasping sobs broke free. The few people walking by took a wide berth around me.
This morning I’d believed good things could happen to good people. I was good people. Dammit mom, you were wrong.
I dug into my black clutch, the clutch that matched the shoes Rachel insisted I needed. The ones I would wear to the engagement party and the rehearsal dinner. The ones that were about to find their way into a trash bin.
“Rach,” I sobbed into the phone. “He broke up with me.” I was making a spectacle of myself in public and for once I didn’t care.
“He did what?” Rachel asked. “Nic where are you? What’s the noise?” The noise hadn’t penetrated my numb march up Wisconsin Avenue. But suddenly aware, I heard the honking and yelling as three cars battled for the last remaining metered parking spot in Georgetown on a Saturday night.
“I’m on Wisconsin somewhere. I just walked away from the restaurant. And him. Rach, he brought my underwear and toothbrush to the restaurant in a shopping bag.”
“What?” Rachel shrieked. “I’m going to kill that sonofabitch.”
The corner of my mouth twitched. Rachel, my mild-mannered friend, the one whose swear vocabulary consisted of “oh sugar” or “pickles,” was mad.
“Nic, where are you? I’m coming to pick you up.”
I looked around, bewildered at finding myself in Georgetown, alone, wearing a fancy dress and expensive shoes, the professional make-up job now streaking down my face. And, of course, carrying a Cole Haan bag with my underwear and toothbrush.
I twisted and my throat convulsed around a sob. “Oh my god,” I gasped, my forehead thudding against glass. The words Wedding Elegance, in expensively ornate calligraphy, entwined a flourish the width of the large picture window. And punctuating the words like a slap-in-the-face exclamation mark, was an exquisite Vera Wang wedding dress.
A wedding dress I would have swooned over just hours ago. Now I wanted to rip it off the headless mannequin and use it to wipe the streaking makeup off my face.
Without thinking I pushed forward, feet screaming for mercy. “I’ll meet you at Dean & Deluca. I need marshmallows.”
Thirty minutes later I crumpled into the front seat of Rachel’s car stuffing giant marshmallows into my mouth. Except for a pat on my knee, Rachel hadn’t acknowledged the pathetic state she’d found me in. For that I was grateful.
By the time we walked through the door of our apartment, I was ripping into the second bag of marshmallows. Rachel grabbed the open bag and pointed at the couch. “Sit. I’m getting us something more potent.”
I obeyed. I always obeyed Rachel. Since that first day of grad school when she plunked down next to me in a seminar on skills and ethics to survive and thrive in science. Within the first half hour I was ready to wave the flag of defeat. My art history background hadn’t prepared me well for this course. Rachel adopted me as her pet project and together we eeked out a shaky A minus in the class and a solid A friendship.
A few minutes later she was back with a pitcher of martinis and four glasses.
“You weren’t kidding when you said something more potent. But four glasses?” I raised an eyebrow and was answered by the sound of the doorbell.
Rachel shrugged. “I called in reinforcements.”
“That bastard.” Stephie burst in the moment Rachel opened the door.
“Cheers.” I held up my martini glass.
“Looks like you guys started the party without me.” Kali’s voice trilled from behind Stephie.
Rachel turned her aquamarine eyes on me and unleashed her most powerful who-me weapon.
“Now it’s a party.” I filled my glass again and raised it. I couldn’t be all bad if I had three good friends who rallied around me on such short notice. And on a Saturday night.
Rachel eased onto the floor next to me, leaning in so our shoulders touched. “Cheers, Love. He’s an idiot. You deserve better.”
Stephie sank into the armchair facing us and filled her martini glass. “Tell us what happened. And don’t leave anything out. There might be a clue in there to help us make sense of this.”
Kali snorted. “We’re not the Ladies Detective Agency, Steph. She got dumped.”
Stephie glared at her. “Are you here to help or not?” We’d become instant friends on her first day at McMillian and Associates four years ago. Her office was next to mine and she’d gotten my attention by bouncing a ball off the wall. When I’d poked my head around the door, she’d grinned and said, “I’m bored already. Let’s go get some coffee.”
While the two of them bickered, I stared into my drink. I wasn’t in the mood to mediate. They always disagreed about something. Mostly they agreed to disagree.
Rachel nudged my knee gently with hers. “Where did you just go? You have to know it’s not you. Maybe the stress of making partner got to him.”
“It’s not just him, Rach.” My hands trembled around the glass, making the lemon curl shimmy and dive. It fogged into the liquid as tears blurred my perspective. “It just seems like it’s always me. Or never me.” I wiped roughly at a rogue tear winding down my cheek.
Rachel swiveled sideways to look at me. “Why would you even say that?”
“It’s a pattern. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’,” I mimicked, sounding more like Goofy than any boyfriend I’d ever had. I reached for the marshmallow bag.
Kali got there first. “Maybe we need to ease up on those?”
“Let the girl mourn the breakup in her own way,” Stephie shot back.
“She’s going to end up looking like a marshmallow if she keeps this up.” Kali gestured at the two empty bags. “The guy obviously wasn’t ready for anything serious. Aren’t you better off finding out now than after investing more time in the relationship?” She threw her hands up as if the answer was obvious. As if it was just another pair of pants that didn’t quite fit but hey, there are six more on the rack waiting to be tried on. As if it was that simple to write off heartache and move on.
As if I was her.
Because Kali, of course, could brush off heartache like an annoying crumb. When Josh Gray, captain of the high school football team, announced he would be taking newly crowned prom queen Heather Kelly to the dance instead of Kali, his girlfriend of the last five months. Kali hadn’t wasted any time pouting over a lost love. She arrived with the captain of the rival school’s football team. A double win for them that weekend.
“Wow.” Rachel puffed, her eyebrows disappearing under her perfectly jagged bangs. “Not everyone is as heartless as you.”
“Why are you guys turning on me? I’m not the one who dumped her. I’m just saying it’s better to find out before she’s married to the guy.” Kali remained unfazed by the daggers Rachel and Stephie mentally sent her way. “I’m sorry Nic’s hurting. I’m not heartless.” She directed a fierce look at Rachel. “But I also don’t think it’s the end of the world. We’ve all been dumped before. And we’ve all gotten over it.”
Stephie pulled her mouth into a tight line, biting at one corner as she contemplated her next strike. “Amazing,” she said instead.
“So he wasn’t ready to propose. It’s not like he led you on. You’re making too much of this. I’m tired. I’m going home. Night.” Kali waved in a broad arc before slipping through the door and away from a topic she had no intention in pursuing.
“What’s up with her?” Rachel tipped her head like an inquisitive cat. “She’s acting even snootier than usual.”
“Her company has a big meeting next week,” I said. “She’s probably a little stressed.”
“Why do you always do that?” Stephie asked, her right hand flipping palm up in a seriously gesture.
“Make excuses for her.”
I shrugged. Kali was my best friend. We’ve always been there for each other. Since her tenth birthday, actually, when I’d sat up with her all night telling her I would never leave her. That was the day her mom had left. While we tossed water balloons in the backyard, Kali’s mom had put the finishing touches on the birthday cake, propped up a card next to it and left in a waiting town car bound for her old life in Hollywood. Kali had all but moved in with us after that. We were the perfect family in her eyes and she wanted to belong to a perfect family.
“I’m not making excuses for her.” I heard the defensive edge creep into my voice. “I just know her better than you guys do. She doesn’t want to see me get hurt. That’s all.” I finished my drink with a last gulp.
“She doesn’t want to see you happy,” Stephie countered.
“Even for Kali that was a weird mood shift,” Rachel agreed. She turned back to me, “Ready to tell us what happened?”
I relived the dinner, from the romantic setting, Eric’s appraisal of my new outfit to the abrupt shift in discussion over salad, and the humiliation of standing on the street being handed my underwear in a Cole Haan bag. By four am, we’d dissected every scenario and I was no closer to understanding what had happened.
I blinked at the sharp light streaming in through the blinds. The smell of coffee filtered through the haze of the previous night.
“Oh god I have a headache. I need coffee.” I stumbled out of my room to find Rachel standing in the small galley kitchen hypnotizing the espresso machine.
Without saying a word Rachel fixed two lattes. I wrapped my hands around the mug, inhaling the warmth, absorbing its comfort. I slumped into the couch and pulled my knees up.
“I have to go to campus today. Will you be okay?” Rachel asked, perching next to me.
Rachel shot me a look that said I wasn’t fooling anyone. “What are you going to do?”
I snuggled deeper into the cushions. “Watch a movie. Sleep. Read. I don’t know. I’ll be fine.”
“No. You will not.” Rachel pushed herself off the couch so fast I pitched sideways, coming dangerously close to spilling coffee. “No Sleepless in Seattle. Absolutely not. You need to get out.”
I licked a drop of coffee from my hand. Well fine. If I couldn’t have marshmallows and Sleepless in Seattle, that left one option.There was only one place I really felt tranquil and in control. Museums had always been
my escape. I loved being part of the history they held, loved losing myself in worlds I could only
imagine. And right now, an imaginary world was what I needed. Mine obviously wasn’t working
for me. Maybe if I was lucky, I would fall through a time warp.