The Adulthood: The Life & Times Series. book 2 Prologue-ch9

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Jobs and the job market-the most important yet most daunting part of being an adult. The search, the application, the interviews, and the possible rejection can all be a bit much, and there's no room for child's play.

 

 

Adulthood confuses me. I'm not sure if it's the illusion of it that's confusing, or the God-forsaken reality. Either way, I'm confused right now. At twenty-two, and a recent college graduate, I guess I can officially be considered an adult, but I feel more lost than a child who can't find their mommy in a food store. I'm perplexed and overwhelmed at the idea of busting my lady parts for a job for years on end, to wind up pension-less, homeless, and living in a gutter because my ends didn't justify my means. Why must it all be so hard? And yes, you can picture me screaming and crying that like a five-year-old girl who can't tie her shoe.

It's been a few months since I graduated with my Bachelor's degree in English, a field that leaves many career paths wide open, yet I have no idea what I'm doing yet. No idea. I know I need to work. I know things like food, clothing, shelter, gas, car insurance and a cell phone don't come for free. But for the last six months, every time I saw a flyer for a career fair or some other networking function, I closed up tighter than a clam with its pearl exposed. Why? Well, I really have no desire to do this career thing. I'm hoping to luck out as a trophy wife or reality star. That way I can avoid interviews, résumé writing, and the inevitable passive-aggressive rejection that comes as an e-mail saying that my resume was not in the list of candidacies without being bothered to shake hands, hob-nob, and reiterate the same rhetoric to every employer this side of the continental U.S. Ain't nobody got time for that!

I think I will sidestep the unpleasant parts of adulthood with the bouts of traffic, commuting, house hunting, and all of that other crap. Artie, Michaela, and Ryan can have all of that. I will invest in the more entertaining tidbits: wine, vacationing, and no responsibilities. Yes, that's the lifestyle that Irene has earned after four long years of education. She has earned the right to not do a darn thing—at least not until she can figure out what adulthood entails. As of right now, it's about an empty void of nothingness. Ugh.  

Chapter 1

 

"Artie, can you hand me another beer?" I asked while sitting next to him, pool side and under an umbrella at our hotel in Puerto Rico. I lay there with my shades on despite the colossal umbrella over us, trying to soak up the hint of sun that shown on my bare legs.

"Babe, you don't need another beer. You've had 5 already. We haven't even had lunch yet. Take a break," he insisted without breaking stride from the Michael Eric Dyson book he was reading. The last two years Artie and I had been together, he had definitely filled any fatherless void I'd had throughout my life. He was more of a father to me than my actual father was, despite his passing when I was a child. I often reminded myself that he had younger siblings and was actually five years older than me, so his overbearing maturity and need to be controlling and disciplining at the same time wasn't entirely his fault.

I sat up, actually feeling the effects of the five prior beers while in motion. I pulled my shades down momentarily to spot Michaela and Ryan in the water, frolicking as usual. Michaela met Ryan last year at a frat party that Artie refused to go to—understandably so—but I was coerced into attending as part of the best friend agreement. At the time, Michaela had been single for over a year, so I wonder if it was loneliness that encouraged this union, as the actual attraction just confused me.

Ryan Holmes was a decent female, but just kind of—stupid. Intelligence wasn't her strong point, but perhaps that worked for Michaela. She did like to be right more often than not. Physically, Ryan was a sight for sore eyes—hetero or not. She was 5'5", bronze, tiny waist, but voluptuous everywhere else. I often found myself looking at her and wondering how she got the body she had. Damn genetics.

Once I spotted the two, I waved them down mid-frolic. I was in need of food, as more than the pool water was starting to move. Michaela waved back in her black and white two-piece, indicating that she saw me. Both had long black hair swaying down their backs. Ryan's skin glistened among her pink monokini as she made her way towards us. God, the two of them were so gorgeous that Victoria's Secret models were jealous of them.

"Yo, what's up?" Michaela asked. "You want to go eat?"

"Yeah, I was thinking we should since this one is trying to drown her fear of growing up into a six-pack of Corona," Artie said, gesturing to me.

"I am not. I'm just trying to take the edge off," I said. "It has nothing to do with graduating, or school, or work, or whatever. Just taking the edge off."

"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, girl," Michaela said to me, reaching for a towel. "I'm down for whatever. We can order or go dine-in. Ryan, what do you want to do?"

She stood there, flinging her hair back and forth and she toweled her butt down in front of my boyfriend. If she wasn't gay, and he wasn't my boyfriend, I would probably feel uncomfortable.

Thank God there could never be anything there. Thank God.

"I'm flexible, babe. Anything will work. As long as it's not meat, dairy, or processed, I'm fine," she said.

Artie and I looked at Michaela, awaiting a snarky retort for such a dumb statement. Instead we got a deep sigh and a hung head.

"That doesn't make you flexible, babe. That makes you ridiculously picky," she responded.

Ryan shot up. "Huh. I guess it does. Well as long as I can get vegetables and brown rice, I will be fine."

I snickered to myself.

What does Mikey see in this girl? I asked myself repeatedly. It's got to be the loneliness. No other plausible explanation.

We gathered our belongings from the area before returning to our rooms to change.

"You guys want to meet back at the lobby in about 30 minutes?" Artie asked, t-shirt draped over his shoulders and his swim trunks riding low on his waist. "It can give everyone some shower time and all that jazz."

"Sounds good, guys. We'll see you in a few," Mikey said as she and Ryan went off to their room.

*

"What do you think of my yellow maxi dress?" I asked Artie as I stood in the mirror of our hotel room.

"It's fine, babe," he responded, not even acknowledging me.

"It would help if you actually looked," I said. I noticed he seemed distracted when he didn't respond. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Ryan is starting to get on my nerves, but I'm fine otherwise."

"Artie..."

"Irene, I want you to take getting a job more seriously," he blurted out. "You don't seem to care, and that worries me."

I sighed heavily as I dressed. "It's not that I don't care. It's just so much newness at once. It's a lot to take in."

"I understand that, but after your mom died and you had to use your dad's left over pension and social security to get through the last two years, you aren't going to have much time until you're out of money. I don't want you to be flat broke. I've been there and it's not fun," he said, genuinely concerned.

"I get that," I said, still looking in the mirror. "I just need time to organize my thoughts and I will get a move on it all. I just need to figure out what I want to do."

"Babe, you've had all summer to figure that out. I need you to be more persistent."

"Okay," I said, eager to change the subject. "Are you ready to go?"

"You know I'm not going to let up until you make some progress, right?"

I sighed heavily as I walked over to him and buried my head in his chest.

"Can't we just enjoy our vacation?" I whined. "We can worry about this stuff later."

He pulled me away from him and looked my straight in the eye.

"As soon as we get home, lady. Not a minute later."

I nodded. Great. Artie was gung-ho on killing my buzz. Damn grown-ups.

*

We returned to the lobby to meet Michaela and Ryan. The two sat on a loveseat near the check-in desk, overly coifed as usual. Bangle bracelets, wedge sandals, skin-tight band dresses, and floppy hats adorned them. Between the two of them, the entire first floor of the hotel smelled of body splash, with the sun reflecting off of all the glitter illuminating from them. I swear, tweens don't glisten this much with their first make-up kit.

"Hey, are we ready?" I asked, underdressed by comparison in a simple sundress.

"Yeah, we were trying to figure out what to eat since this one is so picky," Michaela said. "I said we do seafood."

"Baaaaaabe! I can't eat shellfish!" Ryan whined. "Too much cholesterol."

"God," I heard Artie whisper under his breath.

"Okay, well you don't have to get shellfish. Order some tilapia or something," Michaela suggested, her patience clearly wearing thin.

"Don't worry, Ryan. We won't let you go hungry," I reassured her, trying to head for the door. My beers had kicked in full fledge, and I needed to eat soon to balance out the booze.

"Fine," she snapped, sucking her teeth and exhaling exasperatedly as we ventured out. I laughed to myself as she reminded of Nicolette, my ex-boyfriend's side chick who also had the mental capacity of a five-year-old. There's got to be something to dating pretty girls with no brain power that I am just missing. But then again, I am not a man or a gay female.

We stayed close, walking down the boardwalk to H20, a seafood restaurant that had seating outside so we could get seated more quickly. Once seated under an umbrella parallel to the water, we ordered drinks while hem-hawing over the menu.

As much as I tried, I couldn't help but be severely distracted by the conversation Artie and I had while still in the hotel room. I was trying to avoid discussing the obvious, but it was such a huge part of life now with graduation being a very recent memory. I couldn't help but think that no matter how much I tried to avoid it, I needed to get serious about looking for work. I decided to open up that pestering can of worms and ask Michaela if she was excited to be working in New York.

"I'm surprised you're asking me. You've made it so obvious you don't want to deal with job searching," she teased.

"Yeah, well, you know. I figure I might just need a little inspiration," I joked.

"Well, she's going to be doing page payout and design!" Ryan said, more excited than Michaela was. Fortunately, Ryan had already graduated and was making decent money as a fashion merchandiser. If needed, she could carry Michaela for a little while.

Hmm, maybe that's why she deals with the stupidity.

"I'm just hoping that three years at The Review wasn't in vain. I hope the pay balances out so I can get to paying these loans and what not," she said.

"Ugh. Loans. Groceries. Bills," I said, disgusted at the idea of it all. I was turned off from adulthood again.

"Come on, Irene," Artie said. "Adulthood isn't all just bills and paying for things."

"Well, that's all it's sounding like," I mumbled in exasperation.

"I like working, Irene," Ryan said. "I like collecting my own check and knowing that everything I have is mine," she said, actually making an intelligent statement for a change.

Artie nodded, admittedly agreeing with Ryan's statement. Color me surprised.

"And besides, you said you wanted things to go further between us, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, things can't go further if we aren't both working. I need an equal partner, not someone I have to take care of. I'm done taking care of people."

"Awww, what's wrong, Artie? Don't wanna be a sugar daddy?" Michaela joked.

"First, I'm too young, and second, if I was, I'd need to be doing a lot more than speech language pathology," he said. "But seriously, I'd like us to get married one day and be 50/50. You should seriously consider a career path."

I sighed heavily. I shouldn't have brought this up, but it had definitely become the elephant in the room between Artie and me, and then Michaela and me, and not to mention Michaela and Ryan since graduation almost four months ago. It's like no one knew what else to talk about, so it was always about what we were going to do next.

"Maybe I will go to graduate school. I've always been good at school," I said.

"Nah, you're debt free. Do yourself a favor and keep it that way," Michaela said.

"Well, grad school is usually only two years. So I would have less debt," I said.

Michaela gave me a look, stating, "You're crazy, and to hell with student loans. Debt is debt, period, but if I owe the bank my first born, I'm going to at least invest in myself." I laughed to myself, but inside I was petrified. I did have to figure something out soon. Paying the balance for college and the room and board expenses utilized a good chunk of the pension and money I inherited from my mother's social security after she passed. I managed to save her life insurance policy, but since I was still paying rent, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before that was gone, too.

Suddenly, I felt a wave of angst wash over me as I realized I had never worked a day in my life, and the idea of it was so overwhelming because I didn't know how to work. I had no idea what it was like to be in the work force, collecting a paycheck, and dealing with all these things that everyone sitting at the table around me had already encountered. Even Ryan understood what it was like to earn things on her own, and not just be handed money to handle things from someone else. Damn.

I suddenly lost my appetite. I closed my menu.

"What's wrong, babe?" Artie asked me. "You seem down all of a sudden."

"I've just lost my appetite. I think I'm going to go upstairs," I said, excusing myself and making my way to the room. No one dared to follow me or inquire about my leaving. I was glad my friends knew better.

*

I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling as I closed my eyes. For the last two years of life, all I saw when I closed my eyes was Mom. I don't know why; visions of her offer absolutely no insight. I still missed her, especially since her passing was so sudden. But at the same time, I was at peace with it. To still get images of her was just annoying now. I needed something to help me in my current situation. My mother stopped working when I was about six, and lived off of Dad's savings, pension and life insurance until the day she died. If I'm not mistaken, she got some funding from the state of NJ for being mentally impaired, as well.

I don't know why Artie won't just take care of me, I thought to myself. I could be a trophy wife.

As much as I liked the idea, I knew he wasn't the guy for that. If I wanted that lifestyle, I should've stayed with Edwin. He was destined to be a rapper or a football player—whichever came first. I guess I wasn't the trophy he wanted.

It's for the best, anyway, I reminded myself. He wasn't for me.

My thoughts wandered for what must've been a solid hour. I eventually dozed off, not waking until I heard Artie swipe his room key.

"Babe?" he asked softly, noting my still figure in the bed. "You awake?"

"Uh, kind of," I responded, a bit groggy. "What time is it?"

"2:35. I bought you a veggie Panini. I thought you might get hungry again."

He sat the sandwich down and sat next me on the bed, then slowly caressed the side of my face.

"I'm sorry you're so overwhelmed. I don't want you to feel anxious. Things will work themselves out."

"I guess I know that, but it's the not knowing what's going to be next that has me so overwhelmed. I don't want to be a failure."

"You won't be," he assured me, leaning over and kissing my forehead. "You have me, you have Michaela, and you have your old neighbors from home. Since your mom passed, they have been ready and willing to help you with whatever you need. I'm sure they can give you tons of insight on how to find your way."

I nodded at the thought, but I hadn't really spoken to Mr. and Mrs. Honeycutt since I got back to school for Spring break. That's a whopping six months. I hated to admit that, but I knew that I'd have to keep a more concrete relationship with them since they were kinda-sorta my parents now.

"Yeah, I guess I should be spending more time with them. I bet they have plenty of knowledge on how to get by in this world."

"Umm, yeah. They didn't get to be their age by being stupid."

I laughed. He had a point.

"Okay, well I will start there when we get home. Now, can we please enjoy the rest of the weekend without so much work talk? Please???" I begged.

Artie laughed, putting his arm around me. "Pinky swear first."

I sighed with exasperation. Holding up my right pinky, he grabbed it with his right pinky, and practically tied the two in a knot to affirm this "swear" that I will handle my adulthood business like, dare I say, an adult, when we returned home.

"Okay, so what do you want to do now?" he asked. "More beach?"

"Nah, I'm beached out for now. I want to do something else," I said.

"What? Watch TV?"

"Eh, something else."

"Sleep?"

"Um, something else."

"Poker?"

I thought for a minute, laughing to myself. It was a prime opportunity for a dirty joke, but we didn't seem to be on the same wavelength, so I let it slide.

I'll give him one more try, I thought to myself.

"Make out?"

Close enough.

"Yeah, we can start there."

2

The Hunt

It had been about three days since returning from our vacation, and Artie had not let me forget my pinky swear to visit the Honeycutts upon return. Artie and I recently rented an apartment—well, Artie recently rented an apartment—mere miles from where I grew up. He thought it was important that I be near them, since they were the closest thing to family I had in the area. With that, he woke me up that morning and said—and I quote--:

"Irene, get your lazy ass up and get over there before I drag you over there like a caveman."

Such hostility.

So, here I was, standing in front of the doorbell on a Thursday morning, wondering if they could really do anything to ease my ailments over becoming an adult. I just needed a job, after all. Hmmm, maybe they could get me one.

Exhaling deeply, I rang the bell twice.

It was quiet for a few minutes, so I rang the bell again.

Still no answer. Finally, after the fourth ring, I heard Mrs. Honeycutt running for the door.

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" her nasally voice yelled.

For some reason, I became increasingly nervous as she opened the door. It's not like I didn't know these people and was selling encyclopedias from door to door. I was just going to ask for some advice.

Once she finally got the door freed from its multiple locks, she flung it open.

"Irene! What a pleasant surprise!" she shouted, her bifocals hanging off of the tip of her nose. "What brings you over?"

"Well, I graduated not long ago, and just thought I would stop by."

"Come on in, come on in! I was in the basement doing the laundry, that's why it took me a while," she said, leading me in the house. I hadn't been inside since March, but it was pretty much still as I remembered. It was reminiscent of a museum—very beautiful, but very cold. I supposed that was on account of Mrs. Honeycutt's hot flashes. She spoke of them last time I was there, leaving the windows open and the ceiling fan on, despite the fact it was merely 50 degrees at the time.

"What have you been up to?" she asked as we sat at kitchen table. I hesitated to tell her that I was looking for a job, but had to remind myself that it was the whole point of the visit.

"Well, I am looking for a job now. I am hoping to find something that can utilize my English degree," I said.

"Have you thought of being a teacher?" she asked me. "I was a school teacher for many years after I finished college."

I cringed at the idea. I hated children with a passion.

"No, I don't think it's for me to be in education. Right now, I'd like to do something that could lead to a managerial position. Like an office assistant or something of that nature."

"Hmm, that sounds like it would be interesting. Have you thought of applying for entry level typist or data entry positions?"

"Entry level typist or data entry," I repeated in my attempt to make a mental note. "Yes, I have thought of that. I can do about 60 wpm," I said.

"That's great! You should also look into administrative assistant positions. You'd probably do great at clerical work since you have such a keen sense of detail," she suggested.

"Administrative and clerical work," I repeated again. Mrs. Honeycutt had no idea how much she was helping me with my job search. I hadn't thought of these things, and she was making it that much easier for me to decide what I needed to do. I didn't have much time left. Artie was getting frustrated with paying all of the bills most of the time. I'd help with food and utilities, but had to make my inheritance stretch just in case I didn't find work in a timely fashion. I know he was giving me very little leeway at this point.

*

I spent a good chunk of that morning talking with Mrs. Honeycutt, and she even offered speaking to her son, Justin, about helping me win employment with his company as a receptionist.

"Justin owns a gym franchise, and he is always looking for new receptionists when he opens a new location," she said. "I think it would be a great start for you to work for him."

"That sounds great," I said, thanking her for her time as I headed for the door. "When would I be able to meet with him and talk about applying?"

"As soon as I give him a call. I will call him tonight and then we can go from there."

"Thank you so much," I said, sighing a sigh of relief and giving her a big hug. Even though I didn't have a job yet, I felt more comfortable and less anxious since there were prospects on the horizon.

Once I left, I hurried home to get online and Google some jobs. Artie had already left for his first client when I got home. He was a speech language pathologist for newborns through 3 year olds, and spent most of the day traveling around town trying to help speechless children find their voices—literally. I had such hang-ups about wasting the day when he spent so much of the day being productive.

After giving my résumé a quick debriefing, I uploaded it to Monster, Craigslist, Indeed, and Careerbuilder. I continued to go onto UD's career services site, then added my résumé to said site and applied to jobs on there as well. I felt like a well-oiled machine at the pace I was moving now that I actually had some insight. Bank of America, TD Bank, Aflac, AllState; they were all getting my résumé.

Around 1:30, I took a break to eat some lunch and start a load of laundry. I tried to be a good domestic since I wasn't working yet. Artie and I had been living together since graduation, and I didn't want to feel like a freeloader. He made the money, paid our car insurance, our cell phone bills, Comcast, and bought the newer furniture. Much of the furniture from my apartment in Delaware had come with the apartment, so aside from my bed and my TV, we needed everything new. As for his old furniture, he generously gave it to Michaela as a graduation gift since she landed herself a job in New York working for The New Yorker. Big shot.

So, yeah. Clearly, I needed a job. While I knew it wasn't the case, not having one left me feeling like a bum. I felt as if I lived off of Artie like some kind of mooch, so I often found myself cleaning, cooking, doing laundry and whatever else to maintain my keep.

Ugh, this madness has to stop.

Taking a break from the domestic stuff, I turned on the TV. Daytime TV was a foreign concept for me. For the last four years, I had spent the day time in a classroom, not flipping through channels. I crossed one judge after another, Jerry, Steve, Maury, and—Ricki Lake? Wow. I must really be out of the loop.

I skimmed the cable channels, and clearly that meant re-run after re-run of primetime shows. Movie channels left a lot to be desired as I hadn't heard of any of the movies on the channels, and didn't dare order a movie to add to Artie's bills.

"Soy un perdedor...I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?!" I sang out loud to myself as I sat on the couch. If this was life until I got a job, I needed something to fill my time up other than domestication and crappy TV. I hit the internet again, Googling different activities I could do in the area for free during the day. Just then, my phone rang. It was Mrs. Honeycutt.

"Hello?" I answered.

"Irene, great news. My son Justin said he will hire you as a favor to me!"

Wow. Who's stunned? This girl, right here.

"Wow, that's amazing! I'm stunned! Thankful, but definitely stunned! He didn't ask for an interview or anything?"

"Well, he remembered you once I talked about how you grew up next door. I told him you were about 22 now and looking for work since you graduated from college. I also mentioned your parents' demise, so I think that softened him up quite a bit. He was eager to give you a chance."

"That's so great. So when do I start? When do I speak with him? What happens next?" I asked, excited and nervous at the same time. Never did I think I would set out for help in finding a job and actually get one in the same day.

"I will give you his number. Call him as soon as you get a chance. He would like to start you on Monday."

With that, she gave me the contact information and the address of the gym. Eager to speak with my new boss, I called Justin as soon as I hung up with his mother.

The phone rang several times before his voicemail picked up.

Aww, damn. I was hoping to speak to him directly.

His voicemail greeting was the dreaded impersonal message that only left the number. No personal greeting, not even his name. I hoped I had the number right, despite his mother giving it to me. She was over 60, after all.

"Hello, Mr. Honeycutt, this is Irene. I spoke with your mother earlier and she told me you'd be willing to hire me, so I am calling to see if we can set up a time to talk or meet. Please call me back at this number at your earliest convenience. Thank you so much. Talk to you soon."

I sighed.

Here's hoping.

*

Around 6:30, Artie came dragging into the apartment. On the upside, he was fortunate enough to be able to dress down for work. On the downside, he worked with very small children, and often came home dirty. Today he was covered in spaghetti sauce, dirt, and what I hoped was oatmeal and not vomit.

"Uh, how was it today?" I asked coyly. I already knew the answer. He looked exhausted.

"It was a day. I'm gonna hop in the shower before I literally crawl out of my skin."

"Okay, babe. I made your dinner whenever you're ready."

He stopped in his tracks and looked at me, with a puzzled look.

"What?" I asked.

"Did you go out like you were supposed to today?"

"Yes."

"How did that go?" he asked while walking to the bedroom, stripping off his dirty clothes as I followed him.

"Well, I rather talk about it while you're not covered in nastiness and focused on a shower."

"You could fill me in while I shower."

"Ummm, is that an invitation?"

He rolled his eyes. "Get it out of the gutter, Irene. I mean while I shower, you can talk to me."

"Yeah, I guess that's Okay, too."

As he headed into the shower, I admired his body in its full glory—no pun intended. Each muscle rippled as the bathroom light reflected off of it, and his tired demeanor made him that much more attractive. I had to break myself from my trance to fill him in on the job.

"Well, Mrs. Honeycutt told me about her son, Justin, who owns a gym franchise. He is looking for a new receptionist so she put in a good word and he is willing to hire me. I'm supposed to start on Monday," I said.

"That's great, babe," he said, turning on the water. "Any idea what exactly you will be doing?"

"Well, I figure memberships, booking trainers, things like that."

"I ask because you might not be working just in the franchise. I'm sure he has a main office somewhere that he might need help for. You know, data entry, account filing, things like that."

"I guess we will find out whenever he calls back."

Justin's ears must've been burning because suddenly, my phone rang.

"Hold on, babe, I think he's calling now."

I ran to catch the call before he reached my voicemail. I caught him on the last ring.

"Hello?" I answered nervously.

"Hello, Irene? This is Justin, Justin Honeycutt."

His voice was melodic and deep, like he was an R&B singer in another life. It made me that much more nervous.

"Hi, how are you? I was calling about the job your mother was telling me about."

"Yes, I'd definitely like to speak with you about it. Are you available to come in tomorrow around 11:30 so we can talk?"

"Absolutely. Should I bring a resume?"

"That's not necessary. I know everything I need to know. Come dressed for a tour of the facility."

"Okay, I look forward to seeing you."

"Likewise."

He bid me good bye, and I hung up. I exhaled deeply, feeling like I could finally breathe again now that I was off of the phone.

Artie was still in the shower, so I mentally prepared for the meeting tomorrow by picking an ensemble. I didn't have many workout clothes, so I settled on some leggings and a tank top. I didn't want to psyche myself out, so I left it alone and went to reheat Artie's dinner.

*

Artie and I lay in bed that night, and I stared at the ceiling wondering what it would be like to collect my first paycheck from my first job. I was wondering how much I was going to get paid, and what it was going to be like to maintain a household budget. It wasn't until now that I realized just how much I didn't know about money management.

Damn, Mom. You didn't teach me anything about survival but how to run from your problems, I thought to myself.

I felt guilty for silently cursing my mother, but my ignorance was essentially her fault. I sighed heavily, wishing Artie was awake to talk down my anxiety. He slumbered peacefully, and I hated to disturb him, especially since he woke at 5:30 every morning. I slid out of bed quietly and headed to the living room for another bout of anxiety-induced late night TV. It had become a way of life for me since my days of living with Michaela in college.

I'd give anything for work-related exhaustion right now. God, please let something pan out.

3

Workin' 9 to 5

Okay, it's going to be fine. You're going to meet Justin and he's going to enjoy your personality and he will be excited to start you in this position.

I sat in my car with my fingers still gripping the steering wheel, despite being in the parking lot at Fresh & Fit of Paramus. It was 10:30, and I knew I would have to go inside soon. I didn't want to risk being late, so I pushed myself to be extra early. However, my palms were sweating already.

Damn it, Irene, get a grip, I yelled to myself as I braced myself to go inside. More like forcing myself, as I, in a sudden burst of energy, unbuckled my seatbelt and hopped out of the car. I was determined and focused. I was getting a job today.

Walking into the lobby area, I walked up to the desk and rang the bell. Initially, I was surprised that there was no one at the desk. Then I realized that—duh—that's why I was there. I thought of calling Justin to let him know I was here, but noticed a tall, lean, sculpted male figure walking towards me in Under Armor tank top and basketball shorts. Strong jawline, low cut Cesar haircut, bronzed complexion and mouth-watering hazel eyes. Wow.

"Irene?" he said to me. "I'm Justin."

"Hi," I said, extending my hand to shake his. "Nice to meet you."

He looked at my quizzically. "Are you OKAY?" he asked.

"Umm, yeah, I'm sorry," I said, as I suddenly realized that I was probably gawking at him like a horny teenager with her tongue sticking out. He was just so...damn...fine.

"Come on, let's go talk in my office." I followed behind him, admiring his grapefruit-sized calves and glutes that looked like two bowling balls. Wow. Just wow. I forced myself not to stare at his body and averted my attention to the environment, taking note of all of the sweaty, chiseled men in the vicinity. 

Once we reached his office, Justin closed the door behind me. I sat across from, trying not to blush like a 12-year-old girl when he smiled at me. God, he was gorgeous.

"Irene, I know you're not looking to do this job forever, but I am curious as to what your career goals are. If your goals are something I can help you with, we might be able to set you on a path with this franchise."

I thought for a moment. I wasn't expecting that. I thought he was going to actually interview me, and ask me about school, past work experience, and all that jazz. Damn. I didn't have an answered prepared.

"I'm sorry, did I put you on the spot?" he asked.

"A little," I said coyly, thrown by the idea of deciding what I wanted to do right now. "I just graduated so I'm not sure what I want to do, but I know I'd like to be in publication or editing."

He nodded, and leaned back in his chair. "Well, maybe this position isn't right for you--" he began.

"Oh, please, Justin, I really need this. I mean, everyone has to start somewhere, right?" I pleaded, interrupting him.

"Irene, hear me out."

I fidgeted in my chair, hoping his next statement was in my favor.

"I was thinking you could work with me on the editing and publication of the website and newsletter. Do you have experience with print layout and design?"

"Yes, my best friend in college was a journalism major so I spent a lot of time with her at the paper, and I also had to take a couple of classes as an English major."

"Great. So you and I can work together on that. Do you have any plans for the rest of the day? I can start showing you the ropes now."

"Sure," I said, eager to get started.

"Great. We can work today, then on Monday we can get your paperwork situated. Make sure you bring two forms of ID for that," he said, smiling at me again.

If he smiles at me one more time, I might be in love.

*

Justin and I spent the bulk of the afternoon reviewing HTML layouts and scripting for the gym's website, and he explained the print settings, font preferences and graphic imaging for his monthly newsletter. I loved that everything was electronic. I hated dealing with paper. I always lose things when dealing with paper. Not only that, but it meant I could lean into him all day, taking in his scent. Boy, did he smell great. His triceps flexed every time he pointed to the screen, which usually left me more focused on his body than the work at hand.

Get a grip, Irene. You are in a relationship. This is your new boss, not a potential boyfriend.

Around 2:00, Justin offered to take me to lunch. Momentarily, I debated with the idea as I didn't want to seem to overzealous, but thought it might be in my best interest to get to know him better since I would be working so closely with him. Then again, I told myself that spending too much time with him would only make me more attracted to him, which could be bad in a work environment. I declined, and opted to head home for the day.

"Okay, I will see you on Monday," he said.

"What time would you like me here?" I asked, engulfed in his eyes.

"8:30. Your workday is from 8:30-4:30 and you get an hour for lunch, Okay?"

"Sure, sounds good. Thanks a lot. Should I call you Mr. Honeycutt now?"

"No, you can call me Justin. I look forward to Monday, Irene. I think we're going to work well together," he said. I'm not sure if I was overthinking it, but it sounded like he was flirting a bit. Or maybe I just wanted him to be flirting with me.

"Likewise," I said, as I bid him good-bye. I hustled to the car so I could call Michaela. I knew at this time of day she'd be working, but had to leave a message. I felt the blood continue to churn in my cheeks as I blushed yet again at the thought of Justin's perfectly sculpted body. I was going to be seeing it every day. Smelling it, leaning near it, on it, and around it. I didn't know if I was mature enough to handle it.

Hello, you've reached Michaela Johnson. Please leave a message.

"Mikey, it's me. Please call me when you get off of work. I have some news for you."

I sat behind the wheel before starting the car after I ended the message. I looked at my phone to see a text message from Artie.

Headed home early today. See you in a bit.

That was at 12:30. He'd be there by now, so I forced myself to not think of another man while I drove. I had a man at home, and that's where my attention needed to be.

You have a boyfriend, you have a boyfriend, you have a boyfriend, I constantly reminded myself. I knew I had no reason to feel guilty, as I hadn't done anything. Still, I didn't want to let my thoughts run too wild and I find myself in a difficult spot.

*

"I got a job today," I told Artie as I entered the apartment to see Artie sitting on the couch watching ESPN. "Mrs. Honeycutt's son hired me to work with him for his gym franchise."

"Gym franchise, huh? What is he, one of those muscle heads that thinks every season is beach season?"

I was taken aback by the snarky comment. "Hey, that 'muscle head' just gave your girlfriend a job. How about a little appreciation?"

"I will appreciate him more once you receive your first paycheck."

I looked at him momentarily. "Did you have a bad day?"

He shrugged. "I had a great day, why?"

Because you're being a 'cabrón' like no other right now for no reason.

"You just seem like you're in a mood, and frankly, I'm not interested. Doesn't look good on you, either. Kinda ugly, like plaid or ruffles."

"Welp, this is my mood," he said, turning off the TV and heading to the bedroom. "Deal with it or don't."

I was getting annoyed. Why did he bother to tell me he was coming home just for him to be a in the middle of a bitch-fit when I got here? And better yet, why wasn't he more happy that I got a job? He was the one who had been pushing it.

"Artie, I'm leaving. You're being a jerk right now, and I'm not into it. Text me when you get off your period."

With that, I left the apartment and made sure to slam the door behind me. I had nowhere in particular to go, so I decided to take a sporadic trip to NYC to visit Michaela. I figured by the time I actually got to Penn Station, she should be off of work and would be able to meet me. It was about 2:45 now, and the train ride into the city took about 20 minutes from Secacus, the closest train stop to me.

Sounds like a plan. Not in the mood for man-child bitch-fits today.

*

"So, you got a j-o-b, huh? Go 'head, girl!" Michaela congratulated me as we devoured flatbread paninis at Cosi that afternoon. She met me in Greenwich Village near the apartment she shared with Ryan around 3:50. "I'm happy for you. Now you and Artie can co-exist peacefully."

I laughed. "You'd think, but no," I snorted.

"Really?" she looked perplexed. "What's the problem? Wasn't the whole point for you to get employed? Ummm...mission accomplished."

"Oh, I realize this. You realize this. But then again, we are normal functioning human beings. He's a malfunctioning cyborg. Not all the circuits are working today."

Michaela shook her head as she continued eating. "Well, he will come around. Maybe he just had a bad day and didn't want to talk about it."

"Yeah, we're gonna go with that. But onto other news..." I began, changing the subject and ignoring the fact that he had texted me a couple of times since I left the apartment.

"There's more?" she asked, intrigued. "What could top the new job headline?"

"How about the gorgeous boss? It's definitely too big to be just a byline," I said as I showed her a picture of Justin I snapped when he was explaining something to me on the computer. Yeah, I know, stalker-much. I don't deny it.

Michaela examined the picture closely, much as I did the actual person when I first saw him.

"Wow," she uttered.

"That's what I said," I said.

"I'd go straight for him," she said. "Damn."

I laughed at the idea of Michaela going straight, and laughed again at the fact that Justin was just that attractive that she'd even consider it.

"What about Ryan?" I asked jokingly.

"She'll be OKAY. Her ass don't look like this. Damn," she continued, surprisingly fixated on Justin's physique much longer than I anticipated.

"OKAY, stop drooling on my otterbox. You're gonna cause a malfunction."

"OK. I'll stop ogling. So, he hit on you yet?"

"Umm, no. He can't. It would be sexual harassment," I said.

"Oh, come now. He's the owner and your boss. He can do what he wants."

"I would sue," I joked.

"You lying broad, you'd encourage it. You want that ass and you know it," she teased.

"Shut up! I'm a good girl."

"Yeah, Okay, good girl. Let him stroke your arm, face, or hand one time and I bet the Good Reverend Artie will be on the backburner."

"Hey, now. I'm a loyal woman. I was loyal to Edwin, wasn't I?"

"Yeah, you were...like a dumbass."

"Mikey! The point is, I was loyal then and I will be loyal now," I said, assuring her and myself both at the same time.

Michaela exhaled deeply. I got the impression that she didn't believe me, so I had to promise myself that I wouldn't be that girl. I couldn't be that girl.

"Watch," I told her. "I'm going to prove you wrong."

"How?" she asked in her normal nonchalant tone. "We live in different states and you could lie at any given time and I wouldn't know it."

I must admit, I was somewhat offended that she thought I'd go out of my way to lie to my only comrade. But at the same token, she had a point.

"I will ask him to be my trainer," I announced after a moment of silence. "I will record the sessions and post them online. I've been thinking of starting a blog, anyway."

She nodded in agreement. "Works for me. Good luck with that."

I shook my head at her. With that, I changed the subject to her work environment.

"Well, what's going on with you at work? Anything good?"

"Eh, nothing particularly special. I like it, but it's nothing to write home about. I do the same thing I did at Delaware, but now I get paid a few more pennies for it."

"Well, what about Ryan? Is her work life more entertaining? I mean, she works with people who make fashion decisions for a living, after all." I was being somewhat sarcastic, as I had no aptitude for that kind of thing. Top Model, Rip the Runway, Project Runway, whatever. Clothes were nice, but they were hardly life.

"She enjoys it. She tells me about these people she meets every day, but naturally, I have no clue who they are. And when I talk about work, she just looks confused. So, work stories are where we draw the line."

"If you can't talk about work, what can you talk about?" I asked, genuinely curious.

"Reality TV. Crap-tacular music. The usual nonsense."

"And you're not bored?" I asked her, bored just listening to her.

"Are you?" she asked me, a bit of attitude in her voice. "You and Artie aren't exactly Barack and Michelle."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you're not winning any awards for the most interesting, entertaining couple of the year, either. Irene, not every moment of coupledom is going to be a gem. But we enjoy our time together, so leave it at that," she said, clearly getting defensive.

"OK, I'm sorry. If it truly makes you happy, I won't bring it up again," I promised.

"Thank you. Now, are you going to come over and play nice?" she asked.

I smiled at her. "Yeah, I'll be nice, but I would like to go on the record by saying that you never tried this hard when I was with Edwin."

She snorted. "Yeah, yeah, the record shall reflect. But first of all you were never with Edwin. Nothing was in stone there. Also, he was a...what did you call it? Piece of mierda?"

I laughed out loud. Four years of college Spanish and that was all she retained.

"Ryan is not any piece of mierda. She's just...slow," she continued. "That's the difference."

"OK, fair enough."

"Let's go." 

4

Girls, Girls, Girls

"Baby, you home?" Michaela called out into the West Village studio as we entered. It was a wide studio, with an actual queen-sized bed placed toward the back of it, a tapestry separating the "bedroom" from the "living room", and a couch tilted towards the TV that hung on the wall. I'd forgotten that Artie gave Mikey all of this, and it seemed like fate as it all fit so perfectly in the apartment. The décor was clearly all Ryan's doing, as it had a contemporary modern feel. A lot of sharp edges and bold silvers, golds and blacks covered every inch of the apartment. Their degrees hung on a far wall.

Michaela hung her degree up? Mine is still in the envelope.

Because the apartment was so small, it surprised me that Mikey was even calling out for Ryan. She couldn't really hide anywhere, despite the spaciousness of the studio. It was indeed still a studio, so unless she was in the bathroom, she clearly wasn't there.

"I'm coming!" I heard Ryan shout from the bathroom, to my surprise. She was so quiet, I didn't think anyone was home.

"Irene is here, so make sure you're dressed!" Michaela shouted back. Oh God, I could only imagine Ryan running out here to great Michaela—stark naked—at the end of each work day. Such a blonde thing to do.

"I need a shirt! I was in the shower!"

Michaela walked over to their "bedroom" to get her something to put on. I made myself comfortable on the couch as I waited. I took the time to check my phone, and noticed several missed texts. 3 were from Artie and 2 were from...Justin?

Huh, I wonder what these could be in reference to, I thought to myself, looking at those messages first.

Hi, I just wanted to remind you about two forms of ID on Monday.

Also, don't forget to be here by 8:30.

Ok, two work-related messages. No big deal. Now, what the hell does Artie want?

Where r u?

Come home so we can talk.

Call me when u decide to come home.

I put away the phone. I would respond when I felt like it. His attitude earlier had truly rubbed me the wrong way.

Finally, Michaela and Ryan emerged from the bathroom.

"Irene!" Ryan shouted, running over to hug me like we were best buds. She sat next to me on the couch in a long white t-shirt. "Are you staying for dinner?"

"Oh, um, Michaela and I just came from Cosi. That was kind of my dinner tonight. I didn't know you'd be home and want me to stay," I said, somewhat apologetic and somewhat annoyed that she was even there. I wanted more time with Michaela alone.

"You ate dinner already?" Ryan asked Michaela, clearly annoyed. "I thought we promised to always eat together?"

"Babe, she was in dire need of a pow wow. It wasn't intentional," Michaela responded.

"But still, I waited for you. You are supposed to be more considerate than this."

I was taken aback by how hurt Ryan was over this. I wondered if this is how a straight couple looked when one wasn't as selfless as the other, and began to think about Artie and myself. I didn't care for mindless drama, and didn't want him and me falling into that category. I opted to head home.

"Guys, I'm going to head home. I need to get some rest anyway since this is my last free weekend and all," I interrupted, as they were still going back and forth.

"Mikey, I will text you when I get home."

She hugged me good-bye as I left.

No need for a chaperone to the subway. Please, continue with your bickering.

*

Artie lay on the sofa as I entered the apartment, reading a copy of MAD magazine. He glanced in my direction momentarily as I opened the door.

"Hey," he said, returning to the magazine.

"Hey," I responded, feeling somewhat awkward. "What's up?"

"Just been waiting for you to get back."

"Well, I'm back."

He stayed on the couch for a bit longer as I made my way to the bedroom. I took a quick shower, changed into a pair of black and white pajama pants and a white tank top, and headed to the kitchen for a quick snack. I was going to go online and do some research on healthy eating alternatives before the weekend was over. Since I now had the opportunity in front of me, I wanted to work on my physique. I knew food choices were going to be half of the battle.

Artie continued to lie on the couch for the entire time. The awkward silence was beginning to bother me, and I was tempted to go say something to him just to break the ice. But still, I felt he was the one who owed me an apology for being such a pill.

Uncomfortable silence it is.

I sat at the computer, which I placed on the kitchen table. I shifted, tapped the keys loudly, and sucked my teeth in every effort to break the silence.

Why isn't he saying anything?

40 minutes passed. He didn't look up from the magazine.

It's MAD magazine. It doesn't take that long to read. He's trying to make me speak first.

45 minutes passed. I shifted louder in my chair.

Maybe I should put Pandora on. But that will make it obvious I'm uncomfortable with the silence.

50 minutes passed. I sighed deeply.

He's not thinking about me right now. I'm going into the bedroom.

Almost an hour after I sat down, I retreated to the bedroom to watch TV. Somewhat hurt, I flopped down because it seemed as if Artie was more interested in a magazine than me, despite the fact that we probably could stand making up right now. He had been a jerk to me earlier, and now it seemed like he didn't even realize it or care that I wasn't speaking to him.

Why are guys so stupid?

I flipped through channels. It was after 8 now, and there was nothing on Friday night primetime. I mindlessly left the TV on Kitchen Nightmares. Gordon Ramsay was always good for a laugh. About 10 minutes later, Artie came into the room.

I looked at him as he approached me.

"I'm sorry about earlier," he said in a low register, like it was the hardest thing in the world for him to say.

"Ok," was all I could say. I didn't feel like accepting his apology right now. He sat next to me on the bed and placed his arm around me. I continued to look at the TV, and opted not to acknowledge him as he didn't acknowledge me for the last hour. He kissed the side of my face.

Ugh, he always knows how to get to me.

I started to blush, just like I did when we first met two years ago. He kissed my cheek again, giving it soft pecks which made me blush even harder.

"Come on, babe. Don't be mad," he whispered into my ear.

"I'm not mad," turning my head towards him so he could kiss me on the lips. "But you have to promise not to take your bad days out on me in the future," I said.

He nodded. "Fair enough, as long as you promise the same."

I smiled. "Another pinky swear?"

He held his left hand up, and this time it was my turn to wrap the two fingers around each other like a bow.

"I love you, babe," he said.

"How much?" I asked.

"Turn the TV off and I'll show you."

*

"Hey," Artie said to me as I emerged from the bedroom Saturday morning—or afternoon. I didn't really keep track of the time on weekends. He was cooking us up some breakfast—or brunch—as I came into the kitchen, hair tasseled and dressed in one of his t-shirts.

"Hey, making me food?" I asked, intrigued. That was the best part about weekends. If I gave him a good night in the boudoir, he gave me a good morning in the kitchen. I'd given him a good night and a good morning, so now he was giving me a good afternoon. It was role reversal in that regard.

"Yeah, eggs benedict and French toast for my baby," he said, bringing me a plate to the table. "I'm sure you've worked up an appetite."

I snorted, "I could say the same thing to you."

"Well, eat up. I want us to enjoy the day since tomorrow we both will have to get ready for work on Monday."

Ugh, I forgot already.

"Yeah, well, we can worry about that tomorrow. Today is ours."

"And tonight as well," he reminded me, clearly finally off of his manstrual cycle.

"Let me recuperate first. My body weary," I teased in my Bernie Mac voice. Just then, while Artie was in the middle of ogling me for what would be the third time in less than 12 hours, I got another text from Justin.

"Hold on, babe. It's my boss."

"He's texting you and you haven't even started yet? Damn, it's the weekend."

"Well, he might be sending me a reminder for Monday. Don't get so worked up."

Sure enough, Justin was texting me to ask me if I could come in today or tomorrow to get a company physical.

"I feel like I need to get that over with so we can enjoy our time, babe," I said. "You can drive me if you want," I added when I noticed how annoyed Artie looked at the idea of Justin texting me, work related or not.

"Ok," he said, sighing heavily. "Let's make this quick."

*

"Hey, Justin!" I said as I walked into the office. "I got here as soon as I could," I said, dressed as if he and I were about to work out in a black and white yoga outfit.

"Well, thanks for coming in. I thought it would be best to get this situated before Monday so you can be completely in the clear to start getting paid. Now, my physician will be here in about 5 minutes. She is going to check your blood pressure, weight, height, and draw a bit of blood for your levels."

"My levels?"

"Sugar, cholesterol...you have had your blood drawn before, haven't you?"

I thought for a minute, and put my head down in embarrassment. I'd never had anything done other than vaccinations when I thought about it.

"Wow, Irene, you should get your blood checked yearly."

"I'm scared now," I admitted.

"Don't be, I will be here," he said, comforting me with the touch of the shoulder and that damn smile of his.

"OK, well let's get this party started. Do I need to change or anything?"

"No, you're fine as you are."

We sat there quietly as we waited for his physician to arrive, and I fidgeted as I thought about asking him to be my trainer.

"Hey, Justin, I was wondering if I could ask you about something?"

"Sure," he said, approaching me to listen in closely.

"Well, I was wondering...is it possible that maybe..." I sighed as I considered this, completely exposing myself to admitting my physical insecurities. "Would you be willing to train me?"

He looked taken aback by the question, as if he didn't realize he was in impeccable physical shape. "You'd like for me to be your trainer?" he asked.

"Ummmm....yes?"

"Irene, there's nothing wrong with your physique. If I may be so bold, you look great."

Try not to blush, try not to blush, try not to blush...

"Thank you, but I would like to tone up."

"Ok, well I think some light weights should help out with that. We can talk about it after work on Monday."

"Sounds great."

Just then, a squat older woman with blonde highlighted dreads came into the room with a little machine that I assumed would be the blood pressure machine, as it had a Velcro arm band attached to it.

She checked it, noting my pressure was slightly high at 130/80.

"I've been pretty stressed since my mother died," I blurt out, eager to redirect any assumption that I overeat or don't drink enough water.

"Irene, it's OK. A lot of things can cause a spike in blood pressure. Did you eat before you came?" Justin asked.

"I had breakfast, yes," I said, thoughtfully. I had eggs benedict, French toast, veggie sausage, biscuits, and, my saving grace, fruit salad.

Damn, Artie is trying to kill me.

"So, it's probably because you ate. You're fine," he said, smiling at me again, forcing me to pretend I didn't notice.

Nurse Dreadlocks finished checking my vitals and rolled herself and the machine out, informing me that she'd give Justin the results of my blood test in about a week.

"You're all done, so you can enjoy the rest of your weekend," he told me, walking me out to my car. "I'm looking forward to Monday, Irene," he reiterated, offering me his hand as we parted ways. I was taken aback by the gesture. I'm not used to this level of professionalism where someone offers their hand, not an ill-gotten pick-up line that is usually fumbled profusely before dropped completely.

His handshake gave me goose bumps. The firm grasp around my petite fingers felt overwhelming. My heart almost skipped a beat as he opened my car door for me, and didn't walk off until Artie and I drove off. He was oozing sexy masculinity in every way possible, and it was undoubtedly turning my head.

While the ride home was short, it was long enough for my imagination to run wild, and fantasize about Justin in ways that would get me in trouble if I acted on them. I told myself there was nothing wrong with having a fantasy, as long as I didn't act on it. It was the only argument that appeased any guilt I had as far as philandering, despite the fact that I wasn't.

Oh, but am I willing...

I caught myself smiling at the idea, only to turn my head and get the evil eye from Artie.

Damn inner voice.

5

Another Manic Monday

I stared at the ceiling for an hour as the sun rose to welcome a new day, dark rays of light touching the shades of the mauve-colored bedroom. I continually stared as my first week as an employed person began, and I was scared shitless. W-2s? I-9s? Who, huh, what? As I tried to breathe deeply at the idea of collecting my first pay check in a couple of weeks, the idea of screwing up royally and having Justin hate me only resulted in rapid, shall breaths, clearly so intense that it woke Artie up as I suddenly realized he was leaning over me and asking me if I was OK.

"I....think....so...." I sputtered out amidst hyperventilation. He pulled me closely, rubbing my back and reassured me that things would go well because I was so smart and competent.

Yeah, I could use a good lie right now, I thought to myself. I didn't really know what I had to offer. This was the first time I would ever find out.

Artie continued to rub my back until I fell back to sleep, only to have to wake up moments later to my alarm. Despite the time, I must've slept longer than I thought. The sun rose completely, rays brightening the room. Artie was nowhere to be found, and it was 7:30. I collapsed back on the bed.

I totally get why suicide and heart attack rates are highest on Mondays.

With my head cushioned under my pillow, I stared at the clock as 7:31 passed.

7: 36.

7:41.

7:46.

Damn it, Irene, get up.

I dragged myself into the bathroom, blinking heavily as I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I combed my hair back into a ponytail as I threw on a tank top and yoga pants. Thank God for a leisure dress code.

Entering the kitchen, I went for the fridge for a breakfast of cereal and yogurt when I noticed a plate in there, covered in plastic with a sticky note.

Babe,

I want you to have a great first day. I know this is a big step for you and I'm proud of you for seeing it through. I wish you the best of luck and I know you will do great because you're great. Please enjoy strawberry crepes and eggs that I made for you. I also packed a lunch for you. I love you, and I can't wait to hear about your day. --Artie

A smile beamed across my face as I thought of my boyfriend, and how considerate he was. It meant a lot, and eased my butterflies just enough for me to eat this meal and keep it down. I went into the bathroom again the check myself out, and make sure I looked ready to go. Exhaling deeply, I grabbed my lunch, cell phone, keys and purse and headed out.

*

"Good morning, Irene!" Justin greeted me as I entered his office. He sat at his desk with a muscle milk protein drink in one hand and a pile of papers in the other. "How are you? Are you ready to get started?"

"Sure," I lied, still a bit nervous. "I have my two forms of ID like you asked."

"Oh, great. Just have a seat and we will get you started on the payroll paperwork and tax information."

Tax information? Oh, yeah. Income tax. I guess the government would consider this income.

He came around the desk to place the pile in front of me, leaning over my shoulder as he explained each document and the information needed. I noticed that most documents asked the same information—address, social, name, birthday—so that was comforting in the fact that I didn't need to add anything I didn't know.

He left me to the forms as he took my license and social security card to make photo copies. I began to relax when I realized that I was nervous about nothing, and finally felt comfortable at work.

The day passed quickly as Justin and I worked on the newsletter for his members, and he introduced me to how to do on-line memberships and billing. The work was easy enough to emulate, and I felt good knowing that I was intelligent enough to complete such simple tasks.

Ok, my mother didn't raise a complete moron. Good to know.

Before I knew it, it was after 4, and we were coming up on quitting time. I hesitated to ask Justin if he was still interested in showing me some things with the weights, as I didn't know if he had other things to do when he got home.

"Hey, Irene, it's almost time to get off. Did you still want me to show you some things with the weights?"

"Oh, yes, if you're not busy or in a rush to take off..." I began. "I don't want to impose anything."

"It's hardly an imposition. I'm flattered you asked me."

At 4:30, I grabbed my belongings and went to place them in my trunk so I wouldn't have to move them throughout the gym as we worked. Once I returned inside, he showed me some stretching techniques that he assured me would minimize injury and achiness afterwards. Helping me stretch, he placed his hands on my hips and he helped me stretch every part of me to the limit. When doing floor exercises, he'd hold each leg and lean in closely, and was eerily reminiscent of a position I find myself in with Artie—and we're definitely not working out in said scenario.

As we finished stretching, I couldn't help but think of the psychological impact gym life has on people and their sexuality. Of course you're going to want to be in shape if you can pull someone like Justin based on physicality alone.

We spent the next hour between a bench press machine, leg curl machine, and lateral row machine. I felt good, but sore. It was only the first day, I told myself, as we did a cool down stretch. I hoped I didn't smell, as Justin was between my legs in a manner only two people have been privileged to be as he helped me stretch my hamstrings. I breathed deeply, eager not to let on that it was arousing if nothing else. His hands felt strong and firm on my legs.

"Ok, thanks a lot," I said as I hopped up, trying to avoid my own thoughts yet again. "I should get home so I can get cleaned up."

"Yeah, I should, too. I am supposed to visit my parents tonight," he said.

"Oh, you're going to be around that area, huh?"

"Yes, just for a little while. My mother has been eager to have me for dinner," he laughed. "Hey, you should come."

I thought for a minute.

I'm pretty sure Artie was in the car with me on Saturday. Did he not realize that was my boyfriend? Hmmm...

"Ummm, I don't know if—"

"You can bring your boyfriend, if you want."

I laughed nervously. "Well, I guess I could run it past him and let you know."

"Yeah, you do that. If he decides he's not interested, maybe you can sneak out for a little while."

"Maybe," I responded quietly. "How did you know he was my boyfriend?"

"By the way he evil-eyed me when I opened the door for you."

"Oh," I said, kind of embarrassed, even though I had no idea why I was embarrassed.

"Irene, it's OK. He's just looking out for you."

I nodded, then excused myself to head home.

*

"Babe, I'm home," I announced quietly as I dragged into the apartment. The smell of Cajun tilapia wafted through the air as I flopped down on the couch and a Two and a Half Men re-run. "How are you?" I asked, only half interested.

"I'm fine, just waited to see how you were," he said, bringing two plates of tilapia, red skinned potatoes and vegetable medley to the table, which was already set with two glasses of white zinfandel and garlic bread.

"Nice spread," I said as I walked over, trying to perk up despite feeling a little deflated after Justin informed me that he is not as oblivious as I hoped.

"I wanted to do something special to celebrate your first day," he said.

"Aww, babe, the breakfast and lunch were special enough. You didn't have to make all this. Honestly, the way I'm feeling, a veggie dog would've been sufficient."

"What's wrong, love?"

"Eh, just a long first day. Justin and I worked out together for a little while afterward and my body is tired."

"Worked out together?" he asked, confused.

"Yeah, I asked him to so I could work on my frame."

"Huh. You never seemed to want to work on it before. I'm just a bit surprised."

I squinted at him, very positive on what he was insinuating. "Well, I didn't have a professional weight loss guru as a boss before, now did I?" I stabbed at the fish that I had absolutely no appetite in eating.

"I guess not. So did he show you anything useful?" he asked, chomping on potatoes and guzzling his wine.

"Oh, yeah. He helped me stretch and everything. It felt nice."

"His hands were on you?" he asked, stopping mid-chomp to wrap his mind around another guy's strong hands on my form.

"Yup, he helped me stretch my legs, back and arms before and afterwards."

I cocked an eyebrow as I awaited his response. He just looked at me and put his head down, returning his attention to his potatoes.

"Irene...I'd like for you to not work out with him. That makes me uncomfortable," he admitted.

"Well, I'd like to keep at it."

"Despite that it makes me uncomfortable that another man's hands are on you?"

"Yes," I responded, wine glass in hand.

He sighed heavily, clearly exasperated. "Fine, do what you want."

We spent the rest of the meal in silence.

*

I lay in bed Monday night annoyed. Artie and I didn't exchange many words for the remainder of the night, and I didn't care much. I felt he was being insecure, and the reality was that if I wanted to do something with Justin, I probably would lose my job. It wasn't like he had anything to worry about. Still, it annoyed me he wanted me to give up something that could be beneficial for me just because it made him feel inferior. I rolled over on my side away from Artie, and texted Michaela.

You up?
Yea. What's wrong?

Artie.

Give me 2 mins. I will give a call.

I snuck into the living room as I awaited Michaela's call. I needed to unload a bit, and she was the only person I trusted enough with such feelings. I sat on the end of the couch in the dark room, and flicked on The Late Show with David Letterman as I waited. She called around 11:45, not giving me much time to get caught up in the night's Top 10.

"Hey," I said.

"What's going on, mama?" she asked. "What did Uncle Ben do?"

"He's just being insecure about Justin because I told him that he and I worked out together."

"Wow," she said. "I'm shocked you actually went through with it. Did you inadvertently shoot any pheromones in his direction?"

I laughed. "No, none that I am aware of, despite him laying between my legs."

"What?"

"Just helping me stretch, nothing serious."

"Uh huh....and you really wonder why Tom Dubois is feeling insecure? You told him all of this, yes?"

"Yeah, tonight when I got home."

"Yeah, I can imagine that he admitted feeling insecure—or in man terms, 'jealous'—and you decided to rub it in, correct?"

I thought for a minute. "Yeah, I guess I did."

"OK, so you need to stop being a bitch, wake him up, and apologize for being an ass. Respect his insecurity. If he worked with Tyra Banks in her early years, and was working out with her, you'd want the same respect, would you not?"

"Stop doing that."

"Doing what?"

"Finishing every question with a question. Stop it."

"Just answer the question."

I sighed, exasperated. "Yes, I would want the same respect."

"Ok then. Good night."

"Bye."

I flipped the TV off, and returned to the bedroom to find Artie snoring quietly. Well, at least we both weren't losing sleep over going to bed angry.

*

September and October passed fairly normally—despite the occasional personality clashes between Artie and me—and mid-November rolled around. As the days had gotten chillier, I found myself wearing leggings to work instead of yoga pants. One morning, upon getting dressed, I couldn't help but notice the shapeliness of my thighs and arms as I dressed. While admiring myself, I also took note of how my clothes began to hang on me a bit, showing that they were no longer form fitting as they were when I was a size or two bigger.

Great, now I need new clothes. Looks like I have to go shopping!

It would be a great reason to go visit with Michaela again, and maybe get Artie interested in me all over again if I had a new wardrobe to go with my new body. I was feeling great. I had paid the rent myself this month, and I had some money left over to put aside for a nice weekend get-away next week for Thanksgiving. Things were going well.

As I walked into work that Friday morning, I felt an excitement I hadn't felt in—ever. I was feeling lighter on my feet and working with Justin was always a good time. We laughed, joked, and had an awesome work relationship that was never unfair or unkind. He was truly an amazing man.

"Hey, I was thinking of using you in a marketing ploy," Justin said to me as I walked into his office. "You've toned up nicely and I was thinking you could help get more business for the holiday season."

I snickered to myself as I thought of how full this place will be the week after Thanksgiving, and everyone tried to work off the holiday feast before the summer season resurfaced.

"Sure, what exactly would that entail?" I asked. "Would I have to be photographed?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "I would take some pictures of you and we could do a before and after to show that working out here is effective and worth the price."

"But I don't pay," I pointed out.

"Hey, it's a business. They don't have to know that," he joked.

"You're a wisenheimer, you know that?" I said.

"A wisenheimer? How old are you again?"

I smiled at him. "So, when do you want to do this?"

"Whenever works for you. We could do it now, or maybe tomorrow if you'd like a chance to look overly coifed like you weren't really working out. Dealer's choice."

"Ok, we can do it now."

"Ok, let's get some shots of you on the equipment."

We headed into the fitness center. Sporting a pink tank top and black leggings, I pulled my hair back in a ponytail as to show off my newly developed shoulder and back muscles. I straddled the leg curl machine as Justin took a shot of me on the apparatus, utilizing my newly developed muscles.

"How's this?" I asked.

"Looks great," he said from the other side of his camera lens. He worked with a Nikon D300, a lovely digital device that allowed me to see each photo after the shot. He shot me on leg press, hip abductor machine, and lateral row. Finally, he took some photos of me standing upright against a wall.

"You look great, Irene. So beautiful," he said to me. I tried not to blush as he complimented me, clearly enjoying the outcome of his work. We finally went into the office to decide which pictures to use, and I got a glance of my "before' picture. While I wasn't morbidly obese, there was a frumpy, hippy, wiggly quality to me that I was glad to finally be rid of, despite that the fact that I was always considered "cute" before.

Once we finally decided, Justin arranged the brochure accordingly, and once I gave it the OK, sent it off to print and uploaded it to the website. It was nearly 10:30—amazingly enough--and I figured it was time I head out to get home. Artie had texted me several times asking my whereabouts.

"Thanks again, Justin," I said as I made my way to the door. "I'm enjoying training and working with you."

"I'm glad. I'm enjoying it, too. I love how dedicated you are." I smiled at him, and we exchanged a quiet glare. He walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder.

"Maybe I should walk you to your car," he suggested, which was a far different action than I anticipated.

"Ok, if you think it's best." We headed out the building as he locked up, and walked leisurely to my car.

"I really like working with you, Irene," he said. "You're such a sweetheart." I knew it was wrong for him to say that to me. It was considered a form of fraternizing, which was against his own rules. I just didn't care enough to say something. I wanted him to want me, to kiss me, and even ask me out. I was secretly hurting for it.

"I'm enjoying it, too," I said, fumbling with my keys as I stood in front of my driver side door. I bit my bottom lip, hoping that my hesitation to take off would be a hint. He put his hand on my shoulder again, and this time ran his hand up and down my arm, caressing it as he touched it.

"You're toning up nicely," he insisted, making small talk in an attempt to keep me around from what I gathered. He moved his hand to my forearm, and pulled me close to him. I stared into his hazel eyes as he did so. He touched my face with his free hand, and lifted my chin just so as he leaned in.

His lips feel so good.

It started off soft, sweet and delicate. Slowly, it transformed into a strong, sensual, deep and passionate kiss I found myself enjoying thoroughly. My head and heart both knew I shouldn't be kissing him, but I couldn't help but enjoy it as it felt so...right. It came naturally, and when we pulled away at a necessary stop for air, we simply looked at each other. His eyes twinkled in the moonlight, and his lips looked even more delectable than they felt. Leaning in to kiss me again, I allowed myself to get lost in the moment, forgetting about Mom, Dad, Artie, Michaela and everything else that plagued me in order to worship this moment. I ran my fingers through his hair as I felt his arms around my waist, getting tighter with each passing second.

Once we broke away again, I looked up at him, resting my hands on his chest.

"What does this all mean?" I asked, sincerely hoping he could provide some insight to this kiss, what it meant, and if I should find somewhere else to live once I told Artie.

"It means...that I like you...and maybe...we should go on a date," he said, after thinking momentarily.

I smiled at him again, and thought what it would be like to date someone new. Then I panicked, as he was still my boss.

"What about work?" I asked nervously.

Silence.

"Well, I would never let what happened out of the office effect what goes on in the office."

I nodded in agreement, and returned to kissing him. Damn, it felt good.

*

I snuck into the apartment at 11:15 after a nice make-out session with Justin in the gym parking lot. Fortunately, the gym closed at 10 so there was no one to witness our fraternizing. I closed the door quietly behind me as I gently pulled off my sneakers and tip-toed into the bedroom bathroom for a quick shower. I knew there was no way I could get in bed with Artie possibly smelling like Bath and Body Works mixed with Axe Body Spray. I slid the bathroom door shut as I stripped, smiling to myself as I thought of Justin's arms around me and completely divulged in his kisses.

The hot water ransacked me as I scrubbed gently, removing the remnants of the day and preparing for a good night's sleep. I finally got into bed around 11:50 after brushing my teeth and slinging on a red night gown that I treated myself to after receiving my bonus after a mere two months of work.

Hmm. Maybe that should've been a sign.

"So, you finally decided to come home," I heard Artie mumble around midnight as I tossed in the bed a bit. "Thanks for letting me know you would be so late."

"Artie, I texted you that we were finishing up a holiday brochure. It's a big time of year for gyms and we are trying to get a jump on the competition," I said.

He rolled over to look at me. "I don't like that job. You are there way too much."

I sighed deeply.

"Artie, I'm working. Wasn't that the whole point?"

"Yes, but not for you to be working all the time with a guy in a gym."

"Stop being jealous!" I yelled, even though, he had every reason to be jealous.

"I'm not jealous, Irene. I'm pissed off," he said, flinging the comforter and turning on a light. "You come in here all hours of the night after being at work all day, I never see you, and he texts you whenever you're not there. When is enough going to be enough?"

I sat up in the bed, looking at him.

"Artie, it's been one evening of being there late. I'm not there this late on a regular basis. I'm sorry I couldn't just text you back, but we were working on something," I responded calmly, trying to defuse the situation.

"Bullshit! You were there late because you all are into each other! I'm not stupid, Irene! You can't sit there and tell me that you don't see what's happening!"

I bit my lower lip, trying to find some way to get him to believe he was wrong, even though I knew he was right.

"You're mad because he helped your girlfriend—who you're supposed to want the best for—lose some weight, learn how to feed us properly, and get employment? That's why you're mad?" I was shocked we were having this conversation again. It was becoming normal now.

"Yes, because there is something going on between you and him. I can see it in your face. Even if there isn't anything physical, you're into him and don't you dare say you're not!" he hollered.

I thought for a minute. Should I admit my philandering? Should I keep it quiet? Should I humor him? Should I tell him he's nuts?

"Well?" he asked, rushing my thought processes.

"Look," I began in a low tone. "I am not going to sit here and have this talk with you during twilight hours. We can talk about it tomorrow. Tomorrow is Saturday, so we should both be here, right?" I asked sarcastically.

"Yeah, why wouldn't we?" he asked.

"Exactly."

 

 

6

Have Your Cake and Eat It

    Oh, Saturday. What used to be a prime love-making day between Artie and me was now a day of awkwardness and silence. We moved around each other so well, it felt as if we both lived alone. I sat at the table with my granola, yogurt and strawberry concoction, and he with his bacon, fried eggs, and bagel. He was deliberately avoiding the healthier option in an attempt to rattle me. Little did he know he would be the one suffering once all that fat and grease hit his system for the first time in months. Dumbass.

    I occasionally looked at him from my peripheral vision, only to see him completely ignoring me and being overly fascinated with the wonders of fried egg and meat. Whatever.

    My phone buzzed several times before I finished my yogurt, and I decided to see who texted me. It was Justin.

    Hey, yesterday was great!

    Which part?”

    The last part, LOL.

    Likewise

    Got plans 2day?

    I thought for a minute before answering. Since Artie and I weren’t speaking, no I guess, I didn’t have any plans.

    Nope. What’s up?

    Have dinner with me.

    Sure. Where?

    Antiguo.

    Oh, fancy. What time?

    7?

    Sounds good. I will meet you there.

    Ok. See u later.

    I tried not to smile to myself as I thought about my date tonight, and as the day went on and I packed a bag, telling Artie I was going to Michaela’s for the night and we were going dancing, I knew I had to be honest with him as soon as possible. I had no desire to spend my days lying to keep two boyfriends.

    3:35. You will tell him before you leave. That way he can figure out how he feels about it while you’re gone.

    4:15. You will tell him when you get home. That way he can sleep on it and discuss it in the morning.

    5:40. You will tell him tomorrow. That way his mind will be clear.

    6:45. You will tell him in a week. That way you can figure out how to tell him.

    I bid Artie good night as I went to kiss his cheek before leaving. He sat propped on the couch in front of a “Two and a Half Men” re-run, and pulled away before my lips could make contact.

So, that’s the bullshit he’s on.

    I went to leave, and as I crossed the threshold, turned to address him.

    “You know, when most women do cheat, they do so because they’re feeling neglected,” I said, slamming the door behind me.

*

    I arrived at Antiguo around 7:15. The Spanish-Portuguese fusion restaurant was very upscale—there was a valet who parked my car, and a maître’d who seated me. I walked past couples dressed in fine suits and dresses I’d only see in Vogue magazine. Ryan would be in heaven with all of the high class clothing.

Apologizing for my lateness, Justin forgave me as he thought it was worth it.

    “You’re killing that dress,” he said, admiring the skin-tight red band dress I’d opted for, red pumps and silver clutch to match. “It’s doing wonders for your curves.”

    I smiled, this time allowing him to watch me blush completely. He donned a black button down with a silver vest and black dress pants to match. His black and silver striped tie accented it perfectly, making him a sight for sore eyes as he pulled my chair out when I finally joined him.

    “Have you been waiting long?” I asked, flipping my hair.

    “No, I just sat down myself. I’m glad we got to do this.”

    “Me, too. I wasn’t really sure what would happen between us since we work together,” I admitted.

    “Irene, I’m in charge. So you don’t have to worry about the boss firing you after finding out you’re fraternizing. I love having you at work. I’m not going to give that up for anything.”

    I smiled at him and he touched my hand. “I want you there as long as you want to stay,”  he said, giving me goose bumps as he stroked my hand.

    As the evening progressed, we laughed, ate, and drank wine. I stopped myself after two glasses, as I knew too much would encourage me to want to do more than I should on a first date. I did, however, take the opportunity to ask him what exactly he was looking for out of us seeing each other in a social context.

    “Well, I think you’re a great woman,” he began. “You’re someone who I feel I can be myself around, and that’s hard for me to do with most women.”

    “Why is that?” I asked, intrigued.

    “Well, a lot of women think I’m…kind of a loser,” he laughed.

    “What? Why?”

    He sighed, and leaned in as if he had some big secret to tell me.

    “Between me and you, I don’t have a lot of experience with women. So, I guess when I have been with a woman, I wasn’t…forward enough,” he confided.

    I thought about what he was saying, and laughed to myself. The idea of being the sexually savvy one between the two of us tickled me.

    “That’s OK. Not everyone needs to be Don Juan to be considered attractive.”

    He smiled at me. “See, this is what I like about you.”

    “It’s true. I like a gentleman who knows how to take it slow and let the woman make those decisions. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re being forced into a corner.”

    He nodded. “Do you feel you’re being forced into a corner?”

    “What do you mean?” I poured another glass of wine, worried that this conversation was about to go somewhere I wasn’t ready for it to go.

    “With your boyfriend. I mean, do you feel he is boxing you in? I get that vibe.”

    I sat quietly and thought about the question. It wasn’t untrue. If another man can sense there is something going on between Artie and me, I guess I should at least figure out what it is.

    “I don’t know if I would say I’m boxed in, but there is a funky vibe at the moment,” I admitted.

    “No kidding. You made out with me like you were single. I can tell there is a funky vibe. Is he jealous?”

    I nodded, wine glass in hand. “He won’t admit it. He wants me to quit.”

    Justin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Would you quit for him?” he asked nervously.

    “No,” I answered quickly. “He was on my case all summer about getting a job. I have one now, so he needs to shove his insecurities.”

    Justin smiled, glad to hear I wouldn’t leave work over Artie.

*

    The night continued on and we finally wrapped up the night with a tasty tiramisu that we shared. He called it our “cheat night”, and while I knew he was referencing the diet, I had to laugh at its double meaning for me.  

    We left the restaurant around 9:30, and he offered to drive me home as he noticed the wine had gotten to me a bit.

    “Well, you can drive me, but I don’t want to go home,” I suggested in a low and sultry tone.

    I touched his hand as I watched him blush for a change.

    “Are you sure?” he asked me, nervous about what I was implying.

    “Absolutely. And it’s not just the wine talking.”

    “Ok, we can definitely do that,” he said, confidence growing in his voice. He escorted me to his car and opened the passenger side door for me. I slid in, excited and nervous at the same time about what the night would have in store. Once he got in, we sped off into the night.

*

    Walking into Justin’s home was like walking into another world. It was beautiful and clean and modern and….adult. There was no other way to put it. He had sculptures and tapestries and—I’ll be damned, a smart TV!

    “Make yourself at home,” he said to me as I hung my jacket up. “Would you like something to drink?”

    “Oh, no, I’m fine right now,” I said, making my way to the couch. He removed his vest and quickly joined me.    

    We sat there momentarily in silence, both of us clearly nervous about what we were doing. I began to reconsider being there until he put his arm around me and told me to relax.

    With his arm around me, we quickly began exchanging kisses, which soon lead to me straddling his lap. As his hands found my waist, I noticed them moving further down my hips. As his hands moved, our kisses grew more intense. As the kisses intensified, his mouth moved from my mouth to my neck, kissing my shoulder and chest.

    He looked good, felt good, and tasted good. Every inhibition in my body disappeared and nervousness melted away as I felt his hands move to my posterior, caressing it like a cherished treasure. When he finally came up for air, we exchanged a long glare into each other’s eyes. Those beautiful hazel eyes were the eyes of my soul mate. Yeah, I know acquiring him in this capacity was hurtful to someone else, but I honestly never felt for Artie what I was feeling right now. I felt instant happiness, security, comfort and compassion. It took every fiber of me not to express that feeling verbally, and instead, engaged in another long kiss. Finally, during another stopping point, he grabbed me by my waist--my legs wrapped around him--and carried me to the bedroom.

    I lay there underneath the covers as I watched his body gleam by the candlelight. With a light aroma of rainforest cascading through the air, he leaned over me, bare-chested. Stroking the side of my face, he kissed my forehead as he pulled the sheets back. Anxiety coursed through my veins and rumbled through my stomach, but subsided quickly once he lay on top of me and fingered my hair. He traced my lips with his fingers, and looked into my eyes again. I saw something in his eyes soften, as if he, too, were using his restraint to not express the emotion we both clearly felt for each other.  

    I breathed deeply as he gripped my thighs. He kissed me slowly.

    “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked me quietly, taking note of the tension in me.

    “Yes, it’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve been with someone different,” I admitted. It wasn’t a lie. Aside from Artie, the last guy was Edwin—two whole years ago.

    “I’ll take my time, OK?” he promised as he prepared himself. I exhaled slowly as I watched him.

    OK, here goes nothing…

    I gasped deeply at first sensation, amazed at how for the third time in life, I was feeling new all over again. I felt tear droplets form in the corners of my eyes. He felt that wonderful.

*

    I rolled over and looked at the clock. 1:30 in the morning. Justin continually slept soundly as I wriggled from his hold to use the bathroom, pulling on the grey t-shirt he left for me at the foot of the bed if I got cold. I tip-toed to the living room in an effort to check my phone.

    Three messages from Artie, and I had a good feeling that I already knew what they’d be about.

    $100 says he called Michaela—after snooping through my phone bill for her number, I’m sure—to see if I was there. Yes, he had turned into that guy.

    Did u get to NYC safe?

    Look, I know things r rough btwn us, but I want to work it out.

    I’m sorry. I love u.

    I bit my bottom lip as I thought about the messages, their implications, and just how wrong I was for being in bed with another man right now. I exhaled heavily as guilt began to overwhelm me, and I hesitated to get back in the bed with Justin.

    Oh, God. What have I gotten into?

    My heart sank as I tip-toed back into the bedroom for my dress, but then realized that my car was at the restaurant.

    Crap!

    I was stuck there until morning. I didn’t know if it was loyalty that was getting to me, or if it was that my feelings for Artie were stronger than I thought, despite my infidelity. I suddenly felt trapped, and snuck back into the living room to retrieve my phone—again—and went into the bathroom to call Michaela.

    She answered groggily.

    “Yeah?” she said.

    “I’m having a crisis right now, and I really need some advice,” I whispered.

    “What? Where are you? Why are you whispering?” she asked, still groggy.

    I sighed heavily, practically misty eyed as the words formed in my head.

    “I’m at Justin’s apartment.”

    “Michaela? Please, I need help here,” I pleaded.

    “For what?”

    “For how to get out of here. I think I got myself into more than I can handle and I’m scared.”

    “Did he try to pull something?”

    “Well…no, not exactly,” I said in a low whisper.

    “Well, just leave.”

    With that, the phone disconnected and I heard Justin knock gently on the door.

    “Irene, are you OK? I heard you talking to someone.”

    “Uh, yeah, I’m coming out. Just my friend calling. She had to talk about something,” I said, coming back out. He stood there in front me in his plaid pajama pants and white t-shirt. I stood there momentarily, wondering if I should ask him to take me to my car. I wasn’t 100% honest with Michaela, and now that was bothering me, too. Of all people, I should be able to tell her the truth.

    “Are you OK?” he asked, noticing how I was frozen.

    “No,” I admitted. “I have to tell you something.”

    “What is it?” he asked as he shifted uncomfortably.

    I tousled my hair, scratching my head in an attempt to soften the blow that he’d just slept with a liar. I sat on the edge of the bed, and prepared to speak as if I was rehearsing this admittance for the first time to no one in particular.

    “I think I should get home. I shouldn’t be here, and I feel pretty shitty right now for betraying my boyfriend’s trust,” I said, hoping he would understand.

    Well, he heard me perfectly. He sat down next to me and stroked my arm.

    “Irene, I don’t think you’re happy in your relationship, or else things wouldn’t have gone so far with us,” he said, surprising me. “However, I don’t want you to be regretful. If you want me to take you to get your car, I will.

    “Are you serious? What makes you think I’m unhappy?”  I asked, confused.

    “The way you never talk abouthim. The look of appeasement you get when I touch you or compliment you. How I kissed you. It all makes me think you’re not getting those things with him.”

    “So how come you didn’t say anything about this before and that you still pursued me?” I asked, now skeptical.

    “Well, I tried to contain myself. But I figured the vibe you were giving me meant that he wasn’t doing his job as a boyfriend, so I thought maybe I could cheer you up and you would finally end that relationship and be with me.”

    Wow.

    Silence continued to exchange between us, and I had to regain my thoughts for a moment. I didn’t even know how to respond.

    “Irene, I want to be with you. Just give me a chance.”

*

    Sunday afternoon, I sat in my car for what felt like an eternity before going back into the apartment that I shared with Artie. After spending a large chunk of the previous night and morning talking with Justin, I had decided on what I needed to do. Still, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world as Artie was a decent guy. Who would’ve thought me getting a job—something that seemed to be the hardest thing in the world—would be easy in comparison to ending a two year long relationship?

    Irene, you have to go in there. You live there.

    With the overnight bag slung over my shoulder, I slowly entered the apartment again.

I walked through the apartment slowly, unsure as to what to expect as it was so quiet. It was fairly dark, as the sun had already moved behind the building. A strand of light beamed across Artie's face as I entered the bedroom, enhancing his silhouette. He sat on the floor in front of the bed. I can't imagine how long he had been sitting there.

"Artie?" I whispered, approaching him slowly. "You ok?" I already knew the answer. "No," he said in a low register. "I just thought I would wait until you got here to tell you that…maybe we should end this.”

"Why?" I asked, my voice thick with emotion. I never wanted things to go so far and get so out of hand. "Can we just talk about this?"

"I don't think we can," he said. "Irene, I…I don’t know if I can be what you want me to be. You are clearly unhappy with me. I can’t seem to make you happy at all." I got teary eyed at the idea of him leaving, despite the anger I’ve felt toward him lately. My emotions manifested as tears welded in my eyes.

"You have to understand where this is coming from…I felt alone in my own home. Please understand how hard that is."

He exhaled deeply as he stood up. “That’s the problem. I clearly don’t understand. I must’ve really screwed up for you to be spending your Saturday night with your boss," he said, looking out the window at the U-Haul in the communal lot. My tears began to fall without hesitation. "I didn’t want things to end up this way," I pleaded again. "Can we please just talk?"

"There's nothing to say. You’ve made your mind up. I thought about what you said. Women cheat when they feel neglected. I’m sorry for neglecting you these last couple of months. I tried to be better." I stayed on the floor as he walked away. I knew his mind was made up. Every memory I had with him flooded my brain, from our first date to now and I cursed him for not thinking of those things before he pushed me away to Justin. I hated him for being negligent, and hated myself for not trying harder. I didn’t want Artie to leave. Not like this.

Artie is gone.

    Yeah, I couldn’t wait for you to tell him. I thought he deserved to know a.s.a.p. that you were at your boss’s house last night.

    How could you do that?! I would’ve told him. I mean, I said I was there and I was scared. It doesn’t mean anything happened.

    You called me at damn near 2AM. Something happened, Irene. You can sugar coat it all you want. No one spends their Saturday night with someone other than their significant other and nothing happens.  

    I sat on the bed we’d shared for two years. Two years. Artie believed he was doing me a favor by leaving so abruptly, but my heart was saying something else. I wanted a change to talk about things, and maybe see if this time with Justin was enough to get him to understand what I needed from him. But none of that mattered now. I looked at the dresser, and noticed there was no cologne, no glasses, no clippers. There were no size 13 shoes near the door, and no basketball shorts in the hamper. While my initial response was sadness, it had manifested to anger. How dare Michaela tell him before I had a chance to? And how dare he even believe her without hearing everything from me—even though, Michaela was known for being blatantly honest.

    Justin texted me and asked how things were going, and while I knew that I wanted to be with him 24 hours ago, now I wasn’t so sure.

    Damn adulthood with its damn confusing emotions.

*

    I lay on my bed Monday night, 24 hours after Artie’s departure, trying to figure out what I was going to do when I went to work tomorrow. It amazed me how quickly life had changed in just a day, and while I knew I was responsible for it, I hated Michaela more for telling Artie that I was with Justin. I had planned on doing it—in my own time, my own way—and she robbed me of that. Now, I was left with a guy hating me if for no other reason, than the fact that he felt I couldn’t even be woman enough to be honest.

    Then there was Justin, who swore our work relationship wouldn’t change. I wanted to believe that so desperately, but I just didn’t think it was possible for it to not manifest somehow.

    Oh please, oh please, oh PLEASE don’t let work be any different. I need to keep this job now that I have to pay everything myself.

    And even that had finally began to sink in, as yesterday I was in shock that Artie left, now I was pissed off that I had to pay everything myself. Only God knows where he took off to, but I definitely felt that he owed me at least some kind of notice. Damn Michaela.

    Some friend. She totally screwed me over.

    Clearly her spidey since was tingling as she called to see how I was making out.

    “What?” I answered hastily.

    “Damn, bitch, what’s your problem?”

“You can’t be serious. You tell Artie about Justin, and got the nerve to be mad at me for feeling some kind of way? Are you serious?”

She exhaled deeply into the receiver. “Irene, I had to. You weren’t going to and you know it. If I didn’t tell him, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. You know I’m straight up.”

“How do you know I wouldn’t have told him? You never even gave me the chance! And besides, he was my boyfriend, not yours. It was my relationship, not yours. You should be over there in the city worrying about your shit-for-brains girlfriend instead of who I sleep with. Artie thinks it was a cry for help and that he couldn’t make me happy. He wasn’t even willing to salvage the relationship, he just split.”

“Ok, asshole, I will keep that in mind next time you call me in the middle of the night overwhelmed because you exhibited deceased daddy issues with your boss, despite having a perfectly good boyfriend at home who actually took care of you for the last two years because your sorry ass couldn’t even manage a bank account. I will remember to worry only about my shit-for-brains girlfriend then, ok?”

“Screw you.”

“Screw you, too, my dear. And what do you mean he took it as a sign that he couldn’t make you happy?”

“He said he felt I deserved more than him, or else I wouldn’t have been at Justin’s place to begin with.”

The line went dead, and I threw the phone across the bed. I just wanted a second to talk to Artie. I didn’t need him to come back, as I already knew he wouldn’t and I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to, but I just wanted to speak to him and let him know how sorry I was about the part I played in things going downhill. I looked at my call history and saw him number staring at me, and hem-hawed over calling him for what felt like an eternity. I called, listening to the most painful ring imaginable. To my amazement, he answered.

“Hey,” I said as he answered. “Can we please talk?”

Silence traveled across the phone line until he finally answered, “OK.”

“Can we talk in person please?” I asked quietly.

More silence, followed by another “OK”.

“Would you mind coming over?”

“Sure. I will be there in about 20 minutes,” he answered softly.

“OK.”

He hung up, and I got excited and nervous. I paced back and forth across the living room floor until he rang the bell. I took a deep breath before I answered, practically in tears as I didn’t know what to expect.

He stood in the door way, completely different from how he’d be engraved in my brain. His shoulders were slouched, his face morosely dark. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in a couple days.

“Hi,” I said as I invited him in.

Once again, we exchanged nothing but silence momentarily, as we looked at each other uncomfortably, equally fidgety.

He hates me. I don’t know why I asked him over here, I don’t even know what—

My thoughts were broken as Artie grabbed me and kissed me deeply. He kissed me in a way he’d never done before, surprising me and alluring me at the same time.

“You’re quitting that job,” he demanded as he broke our kiss. “I’m still upset with you, but after some time to think last night I am willing to admit that the last two months have been rough. Between work schedules and neglecting you, I realize that I encouraged this. But you’re quitting that job. We will figure something else out for you to do.”

Completely taken aback, I simply replied, “OK.”

“I love you, damn it, and I want to be with you. Now, if your intention was to get my attention, you have it. But we are going to make this work. I haven’t spent the last two years with you some for some muscle head to take that away in one night, or for you to sabotage it because you were feeling lonely.”

“OK,” was all I could say, as I’d never seen this side of Artie. It was appealing and scary at the same time.

“So come on, text him and tell him you won’t be there tomorrow,” he demanded.

“OK,” I said, fulfilling his will.

I have no idea what just happened here.

After texting Justin the most unprofessional resignation known to man, Artie and I sat down to discuss what was going to happen next since we were losing my pay.

“Irene, I thought about this all day,” he admitting, finally sitting on the couch. “I decided to apply for a job in New York that will actually increase my salary by 30%. It will allow me to work partially from home, and you can stay home for a while until you figure out what it is you really want to do. I want you to choose a goal, babe.”

I nodded, as I knew that being a receptionist at a gym wasn’t the most prominent of positions. Despite that, I had just a job while my friends had career paths. I sat next to him, and sighed heavily at the idea of, yet again, feeling completely lost.

“I just don’t know where to begin,” I admitted. “I don’t even know what I’m good at to figure out what my career should be.”

Taking my hand, Artie looked at me. “Babe, you are so talented at so many things that you don’t even realize it. You’re great in the kitchen. You have color sense and an eye for shapes and designs. I think you should consider culinary school or maybe being an interior decorator.”

I considered his suggestions, biting my lower lip.

“I guess that does beat wiping down weight machines.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

The City that Never Naps

    It had been two weeks since my argument with Michaela, and while I wasn’t really interested in apologizing to her as I did feel she was wrong, I knew I had to eat crow since I would need her help finding an apartment. Artie had been hired for the SLP position he was aiming for in New York, and despite a hurt and angered voicemail from Justin, I was officially released from my duties at the fitness center.

    “Are you serious, Irene? I mean, are you serious? You’re quitting on me? What about Friday? What about Saturday? Your face is going to be plastered all over this place for promotional ads and you want me to just move on and forget? Are you serious?”

    Yeah, him telling his mother didn’t help, either.

    “Irene, I am so disappointed that you would let Justin down like this without any provocation. He took a chance with you and you completely let him and me down. I am so disappointed.”

    Well, it looks like they won’t be inviting me over any time soon. And speaking of being invited over, I held my breath as Michaela’s phone rang for an eternity before her voicemail finally picked up.

    It’s Michaela. Do your thing at the beep.

    “Hi, it’s me. I know we are not on the best of speaking terms right now but I wanted to talk to you. I do want to apologize and just would like my friend back, so please call me when you get this—or, when you decide to forgive me. Love you.”

    I exhaled as my stomach churned, disgusted with faking an apology I didn’t believe in, and also at the idea of her not accepting it. Despite that, Artie had been looking for apartments for us in Queens, as it was a bit less city than, well, the city. He was there now, pounding pavement as I stayed put to pack boxes.

    Around 6:30, my phone rang—only 8 hours after calling—with Michaela dialing me back.

    “Hey,” I answered.

    “You’re forgiven,” she said. “Now, a little birdie told me that you and Arthur have reunited?”
    “Yeah, how did you know?” I asked, intrigued.

    “Who do you think he stayed with after he left? You know that dude doesn’t have any friends,” she joked. “Besides, I encouraged it.”

    “Oh, did you?”

    “Oh, yeah I did. Despite what you thought, I do care and didn’t want you making a huge mistake. You’re welcome.”

    I laughed. “Thank you.”

*

    “New York School of Culinary Arts would be a good fit for you,” Artie informed me as I lay on the bed Saturday night, secretly hoping for death. It had been a day of packing and researching, researching and packing. If I wasn’t sorting through clothes and garbage, I was looking up apartments for him to look at. If I wasn’t looking for apartments, I was looking into culinary schools. If I wasn’t looking into schools, I was packing more crap and I was exhausted!

    “Artie, can we please break for the night? It’s almost 11:30 and I would like some sleep,” I pleaded.

    “Sure, babe,” he said, powering down the computer. I slid over so he could lie next to me in bed. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the last time we had been together, which was over a month ago. Still, even though I wanted to reignite that particular flame in our relationship, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. As we lay there, he put his around me and stroked my arm. I patted his chest, thinking that maybe osmosis would occur and he would get the small hints. Still, nothing doing.

    “I’m going to go shower,” he informed me around 11:45 after 15 minutes of silence. I sat up as I listened to the water rush through the pipes. I debated momentarily before braving a surprise visit as he showered. I opened the door slowly, hesitant to scare him. I decided to turn the lights out to set a mood.

    “Irene?” he asked, thrown by the sudden loss of power.

    “Yeah,” I responded, slowly pulling the shower curtain back and sneaking in behind him. I placed my hands on his back as the water poured off of his skin. I felt the tension in back, and pulled him close to me. I rested my head on him as I wrapped my arms around his waist. Unsure of his next move, I bit my lip nervously.

    I felt him exhale slowly, nervously. Finally, he delicately touched my hands with his, breaking my hold to turn around and face me. Our foreheads touched as he fingered my hair, drops of water curling it slowly. Neither of us spoke as we allowed ourselves to get lost in the moment, in each other. He caressed my cheek, water running from his arm to my face. I placed my hand over his, enjoying his touch for the first time in a long time. While it was already dark, I closed my eyes as images of us when we first met and first dated flooded my brain. I thought of his smile, his scent, his handsomeness. It all brought me back to the person who I knew I belonged to and belonged with, despite my recent actions. Suddenly, a wave of melancholy washed over me as I guilt settled in, and I couldn’t help but feel wrong for being with him because I no longer felt I deserved him.

    “Artie, I’m so sorry about Justin,” I said, breaking the silence as tears welded in my eyes. He placed his other hand on my other cheek, his thumbs wiping my eyes.

    “Irene, it’s forgiven. I love you,” he said.

    “I love you, too,” I said. He hugged me tightly, the shower drenching us both as he pulled me close. He kissed me slowly, like something out of a movie.

    Best. Kiss. Ever.

*

    I rushed to finish throwing the last of our belongings into the boxes as the U-Haul sat outside, eager to get to Flushing as fast as possible. I didn’t want to give U-Haul a dime more than necessary, as the bigger trucks were like a gazillion dollars more per mile, and New York gas wasn’t exactly cheap.

    Times like this, I wish I could teleport…or had a genie—or at least older brothers to do it for me.

    While Artie had recruited his younger brothers to help with the heavy lifting, there was no one to help with much else. So our team was Artie, his brothers Dennis and DeSean, who were twin 19-year-olds who he had to bribe all the way from Maryland to get them to help, Michaela, Ryan, and me. I reminded myself that some man power was better than none as we headed up North.

*

    Finally at our new apartment in Flushing, my heart skipped a couple of beats as we parked. I looked at the building and sat tensely as Artie parallel parked the U-Haul, our belongings bouncing gently in the cargo area.

    Ugh! I am sooooooo not ready for this!

    I exhaled deeply as DeSean and Dennis began unpacking the cargo area as Artie went inside to retrieve our key. I sat in the truck, paralyzed with fear and anxiety about what this move meant for my relationship and my future. I would have to stick out this culinary school thing, as it was December and there was no other option until after the spring. Grad schools were going to be underway in weeks for the spring semester and I didn’t have a job after quitting on Justin. It was necessary, but I did feel awful about putting Mrs. Honeycutt in a weird place with her son.

    Damn libido.

    As I internally fought with my fear, Michaela banged on my side of the truck, snapping me out of my trance.

    “Let’s go!” she yelled, everyone pulling things from the truck as I sat there. “It’s your shit, so get out here!”

    I climbed down from the truck and grabbed a box and followed my friends into the building. I worried about the belongings that remained outside as there was no one to watch them, and just hoped that Street Easy had served its purpose in finding me a safe neighborhood. Fortunately, we were on the second floor and the building had an elevator, allowing us to move the boxes with ease and quickness.

    I got my second wind and rushed up and out of the truck to get things going. I helped pass boxes to the twins, and as we moved along, I watched the sun move across the sky. By the time the clouds were mauve, everything was moved in and we were all sitting inside our unfurnished, box-induced living room sprawled across the floor sharing a pizza.

    “Finally!”  Mikey said as she scarfed down a slice of buffalo chicken pizza. “Y’all trying to starve us after all that hard work?”

    “Hardly; I guess I had more stuff than I thought,”  I said, picking apart a slice of cheese. “We are truly thankful for everyone’s help today.”

    Artie nodded as he chewed, passing the box of supreme pizza to his brothers. “We figure feeding you is the least we could do.”

    “Clearly,” Ryan said, passing on the greasy slice Mikey handed her. “We couldn’t open a box and cook something decent, like brown rice and vegetables?” she asked.

    “Well, we just got here,” I said, trying to remain polite. “Our gas won’t be on until tomorrow, so…”

    “So, you won’t be washing tonight?” Ryan asked, more attitude accompanying her remark.

    “I told them they could clean up at our place,” Michaela said.

    “Well, I didn’t say that was ok,” Ryan intervened.

    “Well, I did, and they are my friends so get over it,” Mikey barked back.

    “Ryan, relax. What is your problem?” Artie asked. “We are going to shower and come back here. No big deal.”

    “Actually, Artie, it is a big deal. She has been doing this all the time—undermining my wishes, preferences, and wants. Just disregarding me completely and whatever she says goes.” Ryan spoke in such a way that made me think she and Michaela had been butting heads lately, and I hadn’t even known about it.

    “Ryan, stop being dramatic. It’s a damn shower! They aren’t coming over there to have a party. You’re always getting upset over some nonsense,”  Mikey said, dismissing her frustration with the wave of a hand.

    Ryan sat on the floor, legs tucked under her body. Her eyes glistened with tears that wouldn’t fall as she bit her lower lip in anger. I couldn’t help but take notice of her frustration, and told Mikey we could sleep in a hotel for the night.

    “No, you don’t have to do that. She will get over it,” Mikey said, in her usual nonchalant tone.

    I glared at Ryan again, noticing silent tears stream down her face. We all continued to eat in an awkward silence.

*

    The ride to Mikey’s house was an uncomfortable one. Artie had taken my car to take the twins to Manhattan to catch Amtrak back to Baltimore, so I rode with Mikey and Ryan to their apartment to catch a shower. Artie would meet me there later to take his shower, and we’d ride back to Queens together.

    I sat in the back of Mikey’s car quietly, listening to Hot 97 play mundane rap song after rap song. I didn’t recognize any of the music, and realized I had been isolated lately as my entire life revolved around this move and entering culinary school.

    Once we reached the apartment, Mikey dropped me off in front and handed me her key.

    “We’re going to find a parking spot; go ahead in and we will be in soon,” she’d said to me.

    I didn’t think much of the instruction, and gave her a nod as I looked at Ryan’s stone cold face. She was so upset—I wonder if Mikey noticed.

    I walked up the staircase to their fourth floor apartment, and unlocked the door. Searching for a light switch, I stumbled upon one as I tripped over something on the floor. I flipped on the switch, to find the apartment in shambles. While I knew Mikey wasn’t the neatest person in the world, I didn’t recall the apartment being so messy when I was here before Thanksgiving.

    Wow.

    Fashion magazines littered the floor, wine bottles clattered the counter, and the garbage was overflowing with Styrofoam take out containers. I exhaled deeply as I took my overnight bag into the bathroom to turn on the shower.

    The bathroom, too, was a complete disaster. Hair was all over the floor, make-up brushes and applicators lined the sink, and the bathroom garbage was a cluster of tissues, used hygiene products, and only God knows what else. I didn’t feel like investigating.

    Cranking up the hot water, I stripped and slipped into the small shower. I lost myself in the delicious feeling of water cascading over me. The quiet relaxation quickly disappeared as I heard a door slam and Ryan screaming at the top of her lungs.

    Holy hell, what is going on?

    “You are so full of shit, Mikey! You don’t respect me, you don’t treat me right, and I  hate you!”  Ryan screamed.

    “Will you keep your voice down, you stupid bitch? Irene can probably hear you!”

    “Good! Let her hear! You spend more time taking care of her than you do of me! You’re supposed to love me, not her!”

    Confused, I quickly rinsed off and dressed so I could get out of there. It sounded like there were some serious issues afoot, and I didn’t want to be around for a lover’s spat. I didn’t even like being around for my own relationship quarrels.

    I rapidly dressed in the spare sweatpants and hoodie I packed, and texted Artie to hurry the hell up. Opening the bathroom door, I stepped out into the living room to find Ryan screaming about infidelities and abuse.

    “Irene, will you please tell this crazy broad there is nothing going on between us?” Michaela pleaded. “She losing her damn mind!”

    “Ryan,” I began, trying to stay calm despite the hostility, “Mikey is my best friend. That is all. She is not my girlfriend in any way.”

    “Then why is it that she will take a call from you, but when I call it rings forever? Why is it she jumps at your texts, but mine will go unanswered? There is something going on here, and you can’t deny it!”

    “It’s because she isn’t the headache you are! Always whining about something! Always bitching about something! I’m sick of it!” Mikey yelled as she pushed Ryan down on the couch.

    Ryan snapped back, and pushed her into a wall. I ran across the room to the door, and grabbed the knob. It was the I head something break, and saw pieces of glass scatter from my peripheral vision.






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Fight Club

    The ambulance arrived faster than I thought it would, as I stood frozen outside of Mikey and Ryan’s apartment door. My stomach continually churned at the sight of blood that smeared the floor.

    Oh, my God, what just happened?

    I trembled as I held onto the door frame, wondering where the hell Artie was and why it was taking him so long to get back to the apartment. He was supposed to come here, after all. I knew I’d have to go to the hospital now.  

As the stretcher carried her out, I looked at the blood run down the side of her face, and wondered if the delay in the girls’ return to the apartment was because of some blow up in the car. Mikey said they were going to look for a parking space. It took a good twenty minutes.

    It’s New York, Irene. Between parking and walking to the apartment, it takes time.

    Still, I was so unsettled. I’d just witnessed an altercation I’d never seen. A wine glass broken over my best friend’s head in a fit of rage scared the mess out of me. Mikey had small fragments of glass still in her scalp, and I wondered what it took to repair something like that. Upon taking her down the stairs, the gurney stopped in front of me. I looked at her, unconscious and lifeless, and teared up.

    She’s just in shock. She’s unconscious because she’s in shock. She will be fine.

    An officer escorted Ryan out as the gurney moved, pulling her by the arm. She shot me a stern, cold look, as if she wished it was me who’d caused the entire debacle.

Our eyes locked until she turned the corner down the staircase, and another officer broke my trance as he stopped to ask me questions.  

Before any interrogation could begin, I stopped him mid-sentence.

“Sir, my best friend just got knocked in the head with a wine glass. I am not in the mood to talk.”

He handed me a card as I walked down the stairs. As I walked down, I saw Artie finally walking up. Still shaken up, I practically collapsed into his arms.

“Artie, where have you been?” I asked, hugging him as tightly as I could.

“I got stuck in traffic, baby. What happened here?” he asked, pulling me up. He walked me down the stairs as I filled him in on all of the details. Once we reached the car, he sat me in the car as we headed to the hospital.

*

    Artie sat on the couch of Mikey’s hospital room as I hovered over her bed. I stared at her long and hard, a plethora of emotions running through me. It had been two years since I was last in a hospital.

    Why is it someone I love always ends up in a hospital?

    I knew it wasn’t a rational question, but still a question that plagued me as I watched Mikey breathe slowly and deeply.

    She moaned softly as she came to, and I held her hand tightly.

    “Mikey?” I whispered to her. “It’s Irene. How are you?”

    “Sore,” she moaned. “What happened?”

    “Ryan. You guys fought and she hit you with a bottle.”

    “Ryan?”

    “Yeah, your girlfriend. She hit you with a wine bottle.”

    Michaela seemed unfazed momentarily as she tried to recall the events of the evening. Upon a recollection, she nodded slowly.

    “Yeah, that was my fault. I told her I was bored and wanted out. I’m sorry you got dragged into it.”

    “Don’t be,” I tried to console her. “She acted crazy out of jealousy. No one is to blame.”

    “I should’ve…I don’t know…you mean a lot and…my feelings…I get confused…”

    “We’re best friends. We always will be,” I said softly, giving her a reassuring kiss on the cheek.

    She sighed deeply. “Maybe we’re too close.”

    Speechless, I stood there and took it all in. I thought back to when I first met Ryan and she seemed completely different. Never would I have been able to fathom her as someone who is abusive or jealous. Then again, crimes of passion are not uncommon. The rage that I saw in her eyes as she was escorted out of the apartment scared me, like she would come back to finish any unfinished business.

    “Whenever you are released, please come and stay with me. It’s the least I can do,” I said when I finally broke my silence.

    “No, I need to go home. I need to deal with this. I will bail her out when I get out.”

    I shuttered at the idea of Ryan and Michaela back in that toxic environment together, and did not want any repeat scenarios. I pleaded with Mikey to not go back to the Village, but instead couch crash. I wanted her to have somewhere safe to go. It eerily reminded me of Nicolette’s situation with Edwin back during my Delaware days.

    “Please, Mikey. I want you to be safe,” I pleaded one last time.

    She exhaled. “If you will shut you up, then fine,” she said in her usual tone. I smiled to myself. Michaela was recovering just fine.

*

    Artie and I scampered about the apartment to unpack as much as we could before Michaela was released from the hospital tomorrow. He’d been quiet, clearly as consumed with his thoughts as I was.

    “Artie, are you OK with all this? I mean, I know it was kind of a snap decision, but I just wanted to make sure you were on board.”

    “I’m fine, babe. I know Michaela needs us right now,” he said, his voice low. “It’s just…hope she can get back on her feet quickly.”

    I nodded in compliance. “I understand, we just moved out here and we already have a houseguest for the next week.”

    “A week?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “Artie, she can’t go home until she has a home to go to. I mean, I know it’s not a Law and Order type deal, but her apartment is a crime scene right now. She can’t really go back there right now.”

    He shook his head in frustration. “It’s hardly a crime scene, Irene. Two broads fighting is a cat fight, not a crime scene. Bars have girl fights all the time and no one calls 911.”

    “Well, I did. My best friend got slapped in the head with a wine bottle. I thought that was wrong so I did something about it,” I said, some resentment in my voice for his tone.

    “I’m not trying to argue with you, but why couldn’t you let her figure it out on her own?”

    “Because this is my only friend in the world. I’m not going to leave her abandoned.”

    “What if she decides to leave you, Irene? What are you going to do then?”

    I stared at him long and hard. At first, I was taken aback by the question. Then, I was hurt. Why would he ever want to deliberately hurt me and say Michaela would just up and leave? She’d been my closest friend though all of college, and my only friend after college. We were besties. BFFs. Who just disappears on their best friend?

    “That was really mean, Artie. She’s not going to do that.”

    “What, you don’t think she’s ever going to want to go her own way? I mean, we moved to New York through happenstance, not so that you two could rejuvenate being joined at the hip.”

    I stared at him again. “Are you jealous?” I asked, seriously inquiring. He almost sounded like Ryan, without the overly accusing tone. He sounded more passive-aggressive in his accusation, which was right up Artie’s bitch-fit alley. If he didn’t want to directly ask me something, he’d passively-aggressively imply it.

    “She’s my friend, Artie. That’s all.” I returned to unpacking the kitchen.

    He sighed heavily as he returned to setting up the TV and DVD player, both of us working in silence. That dreaded, uncomfortable silence that was all too familiar.

    I couldn’t stand it.

    “Artie, just say what’s on your mind, already!” I pleaded, after the longest five minutes passed.

    “You and Michaela have a thing for each other, and you know it.”

    I had to laugh. Had he and Ryan been discussing any latent homosexual feelings that didn’t exist with each other? She’d just given me the same crap yesterday, and once again, I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

    “I don’t understand why it’s got to be we have a thing for each other. You never see me insinuate you have a thing for your close friends—oh wait, you don’t have any.”

    Yeah, I went there.

    “I don’t have any because I chose to move to New Jersey to be with you instead of moving back home and keeping my money. Remember how you didn’t work for a few months? That could’ve been money in my pocket.”

    “Remember when I had a job at a gym but you begged me to quit out of jealousy? That could’ve been money in my pocket.”

    Dick.

    “Besides,” I continued, “You working doesn’t excuse the fact that you choose not to interact or socialize with anyone. I mean, I interact with Michaela on a friendly level. If she wasn’t gay, you wouldn’t be coming at me with this nonsense. You wouldn’t be thinking twice about it. Her lesbianism has you shook, and I think it’s hilarious!”

    He is so pitiful. How can a man sleep with a female for two years straight, then all of a sudden think she’s in a quasi-homoerotic relationship? Seriously, how do you draw that conclusion?

    “No, it’s not her being a lesbian. It’s how she’s the person you always go to. You don’t tell me shit anymore. It’s always Michaela.”

    I shook my head. The audacity of it all was aggravating me now, and I didn’t care to continue the conversation.

    “Screw off, Artie. Her being gay is a coincidence, nothing more. She didn’t even realize she was gay until after we met, and I was dating you once she came to terms with it. Are we close? Absolutely. I was the only one who didn’t turn on her once she came out as a lesbian, instead of hiding herself as a closeted, hypersexual who’d sleep with anyone. Her father told her never to come home again because he didn’t want a dyke for a daughter. She has no one, and you’re trying to interfere with the only relationship she has that’s functioning? You already know my story and how alone I am in this world, and this is how you treat me? I’m so done with you right now.”

*

    I stood in the apartment building lobby waiting for Mikey’s arrival. I still had every intention of her staying there, despite Artie’s nonsensical accusations. I mean, he would just have to get over his insecurities.

    As she pulled up to the building in the cab I forced her to call—she had the nerve to think she could drive after having glass chards picked from her skull—I ran out into the December cold to help her with her bag. I paid the cabbie handsomely, despite his sitting there and doing nothing while two women struggled with luggage.

    Once he pulled off, we entered the building.

    “How are you, friend?” I asked, Mikey’s suitcase dragging behind me. “Feeling any better?”

    She held onto me as we headed for the elevator. “Uh, I’m OK. Still a bit disoriented at times. I didn’t realize how hard she hit me until last night, when I tried to go to the bathroom. Everything was blurry and moving. I threw up just trying to stand up.”

    “Are you still dizzy?”

    “No, now I’m just miserable and resentful.”

    “Me, too,” I said as we climbed onto the elevator. Yeah, it was only going to the second floor, but I didn’t want to lug a week’s worth of clothes up two flights of stairs.

    “Why are you miserable and resentful? I thought that was my job.”

    “Artie gave me that same shit Ryan gave you yesterday. He thinks we like each other.”

    “Are you kidding me right now? I’m not in the mood to deal with this again.”

    “Oh, I know. Me, either,” I said as we got out of the elevator and strolled down the hall way. “I told him we only have each other because our family lives have been so disheartening. I mean, I told him about your dad—sorry—and told him we are family to each other at this point because we have no one else.”

    “Yeah. I mean, I know I did say some things to you in the hospital. I do love you, but it’s a sisterly love.”

    I thought back to Michaela’s semi-declaration of fondness while she was heavily medicated, confused, disillusioned and scared. I thought nothing of it, and waved it off.

    “That was more the situation talking than anything. It’s no big deal,” I said.

    “No, Irene. Seriously. You are my family. I mean, I know I am cold, and harsh, and apathetic. But you are the only person…,” she paused to catch her breath.

    “The only person…?” I asked, trying to see where this was going.

    “The only person I can trust. I do love you for that. I mean, I thought I could trust my mother. She bolted when I was a kid. I thought I could trust my dad. He left me homeless and broke because of a—I don’t know, a personality quirk? I never thought that aspect of my life defined me. Ryan left me heartbroken because of jealousy. You’re the only constant.”

    I sighed deeply. I looked at Mikey. She looked so different from how I’m used to seeing her. She was usually alive, cynical, alluring, and sarcastic. She’d been reduced to a bundle of exposed nerves, her eyes holding back tears and her face quivering with emotions.

    “You’re my only constant, too,” I said. “Especially if this guy’s jealousy keeps up. You and I might have to invest in some cats and make it a Golden Girls life.”

    She smiled coyly as we entered the apartment.






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

There is No “Shame on Me…”

    “Think of it this way,” Michaela said to me as we sat on my bed a solid week after her arrival. “At least you know his leaving this time is not your fault.”

    My eyes narrowed. I had to laugh. Only Michaela would say something like that to me. Anyone else wouldn’t be so bold as to remind me that my boyfriend did indeed leave before—once again, in a fit of jealousy over a close relationship I had—and had left now for the same reason.

    Michaela’s visit had been much needed for her and me both. We needed to reconnect. However, Artie saw it very differently, and decided to leave mid-week.

    My response?

    “Get the hell out, then! I’m not letting you push another person out of my life because you can’t handle how close we are. You did that shit with Justin. You’re not doing it again.”

His reponse?

“If I leave, I’m not coming back.”

There’s the door, dickhead. Have a nice life.

I had no idea where Artie was, a whole four days after he left. It had been the longest we’d gone not speaking, texting, seeing each other, or anything since we met. It was very uncomfortable not knowing his whereabouts.

“I know I shouldn’t care,” I told Michaela. “But I love him and I miss him.”

“I know you do, but he has to learn that he can’t be jealous just because you’re close to someone. I mean, you and I both were in relationships—that ironically enough ended because of the assumption of something more than friendship—but we never let anything interfere with those relationships. Ryan and Artie have to learn to do the same. So screw them both.”

I nodded. Even though I knew Mikey was right, it didn’t make it hurt any less. Two years with Artie. Two years of laughing, hoping, fearing, needing, wanting, crying, kissing, touching, praying, hugging, smiling, loving gestures now gone. It was all too easy for him in my opinion.

I took a deep breath and dismissed it all.

So much for marriage.

“Well, now that we are both single again, want to be roommates again like we were in college?” I asked, joking and serious at the same time.

Michaela looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Have you gone completely and utterly mad? Hello no, I’m not living with you. But, I will say that now that Artie is gone, I will support you to do what you want. And I think I know what you want.”

Ummm, what might that be? Because I have no idea.

“And that is?”  I asked inquisitively.

“Justin,” she replied. “Call his ass now, beg for your job back, and work on having a real relationship with him. Despite everything, I think you guys really did have feelings for each other. It all just happened at a bad time.”

I mulled it over momentarily. I thought back to my time with Justin, and the night we spent together. I enjoyed being with him, even at work. I enjoyed work. I missed it. I missed him. Damn, I missed New Jersey, as hard as that was to believe. I felt like maybe if I called him—or thought about calling him—that maybe I could do some damage control. I mean, I wasn’t as into culinary school as Artie was at the idea of me going to culinary school. It was never my dream. But honestly, I didn’t know what my dream was.

“Michaela, I can’t call him. I wouldn’t even know what to say,” I said, feeling discouraged.

“Just be honest. Tell him everything that’s happened.”

I sighed again. “Which is what? What really happened here with Artie, because I can’t figure it out for the life of me?”

Michaela took note of my saddened disposition and patted the side of my face, something she hadn’t done in years. It was nostalgically comforting. Still, it didn’t take away from the fact that Artie actually came back when I had been unfaithful, and left when I hadn’t. It was confusing and hurtful, and just made me want to do 2012 all over again…well, at least the last three months.

*

    After Michaela left for the evening, I lay on my bed. My thoughts plundered my brain. Artie. Justin. Mom. Dad. Ryan. All of these people I’d interacted with in my life and I hadn’t a single positive relationship with any of them. All of them ended negatively and abruptly. Shit.

    Is it me?

    Upon that realization of such blatant endings, I thought about each one as an isolated situation. Artie chose to leave because he was jealous of my friendship with Mikey. There is no other way to put it. He saw her as a threat.

    Justin I left because I wanted to try and reestablish truth and honesty in my relationship with Artie. That was my choice.

    Ryan chose to hit Michaela and remove herself from her life.

    Mom and Dad both passed away. That was God’s choice.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t shake the feeling like I was constantly being put through the ringer and that I couldn’t keep a positive relationship with anyone but Mikey, and that bothered me. I opted to call Justin. I thought, at very least, I could reestablish the work relationship, possibly the romantic one, and get his mother liking me again.

    I listened as his phone rang.

    Please pick up, please pick up…   

    Voicemail.

    Ugh!

    I listened to the prompt as I mentally prepared my message.

    I’m just going to tell him the truth. I’m not going to play coy. I can do this. He will want to hear from me…

    “Hey, Justin, it’s Irene. I am calling to see how you are because I have been thinking about you. I want to talk to you because I miss you. I hope you miss me. Please call me back, OK? Bye.”

    Oh God! Why did I say, “I hope you miss me”? That sounds so desperate!

    Before I had time to tear myself a new one, my phone rang. It was Justin.

    Holy crap! Breathe, Irene! Don’t forget to breathe!

    “Hello?” I answered.

    “Hey, pretty. How are you?” he asked. His voice sounded the same. I don’t know why I expected it to be different.

    “I’m OK, how are you?” I began to blush again, just like I had when we first met.

    “I’m great now that I get to talk to you. How have you been?”

    “I’ve been good. Just trying to figure out what to do with myself. I’m enrolled in culinary school, but I don’t want to go.”

    He snickered. “Then why did you enroll, sweetheart?”

    I hesitated.

    Screw it, he will find out eventually, anyway.

    “My ex-boyfriend, Artie, the one you saw in the car that day I came for my physical, had encouraged me to enroll after I left Fresh & Fit.”

    “Oh, I see. And you say he’s your ex now?”

    “Yup, we are officially unattached. Ironically enough, a night with you was nothing in comparison to the idea of a night with my best friend.”

    He laughed. “Oh, really? So, he got over you being with me, but couldn’t get over you being with, what was her name? Michaela?”

    I smiled at his remembering the things I’ve told him. Made me feel special. “Yes, that is correct.”

    “Hmmm. That’s a fickle dude if I ever saw one. So, you’re unattached?”

    “I’m unattached, correct.”

    “Are you interested in revisiting our previous attachment? Maybe this time, in a more conventional manner?”

    I blushed again. “Are you asking me out?”

    “I am. Irene, I have no reason to beat around the bush with you. I do like you, and it’s only been a few weeks. If it had been years, that’s a different story. But your face, your scent, your body—these are things that envelope my mind daily.”

    “I’ve thought about you a lot, too,” I admitted, despite telling myself I would play it cool. “I know things ended on a very awkward, uncomfortable, damaging note, but I thought maybe we could meet up for a cup of coffee or something and just talk.”

    I bit my lip as I awaited his response. I hoped he was willing to see me, and then maybe I can go back to what made me happy, instead of what was convenient for someone else. I told myself I would stop doing that after the Edwin-Nicolette nonsense a few years ago.

    “I think that will work,” he finally responded. “When would you want to get together?”

    As eager as I was to see him, I had to remind myself he wasn’t as easily accessible as he was before, and now we had to make plans.

    “Well, I recently moved to Queens, so I guess you let me know when’s good for you. How do you feel about coming into the city?” I asked, hopeful he would meet me kinda-sorta half way.

    “Oh, I’d love to come into the city if I get to see that beautiful face again. Just tell me when and I will be there.”

*

    I stood in Penn Station near the New Jersey Transit schedule patiently awaiting Justin’s arrival. I fidgeted as I stood, eager to see him and wondering if he looked the same. I couldn’t imagine why he would look much different, but I knew from past experience that a few weeks could often feel like years.

    As the 3:19 from Secaucus pulled in, I watched everyone scatter as I searched for the impeccable physique that swamped my brain earlier this fall. Once I spotted him, it would’ve taken an act of congress to keep me from running up to him like a lost puppy.

    “Justin!”  I shouted as I hugged him overzealously. “I’m glad you made it!”  

    “I told you I would come! How have you been?” he asked as he checked me out. “You still look amazing.”

    I blushed hard, as always, from his compliment. He pulled me close and kissed me hard, taking me aback by his assertion.

    “What brought that on?” I asked when we broke.

    “You’re single now, so I don’t have to pretend anymore,” he responded before pulling me in for another kiss.    

    When we broke, I noticed he had an overnight bag with him. I thought back for a minute…had we discussed him staying the night, or was this something completely unrelated that I didn’t know about?

    “What’s with the bag?”  I asked as we made our way out into the street. “Are you going somewhere afterwards?”

    “Well, I brought it just in case. I mean, not that I’m jumping to any conclusions, but if we did decide to get cozy, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to be here for the night.”

    “You’re always prepared, aren’t you? I like that.”

    He held my hand as we walked down Eighth Avenue, pulling me closely as New York residents and tourists alike rushed towards us, by us, and around us. It was the one idiosyncrasy of New York living that I could not assimilate to. Every person I saw walking around me or near me I either thought was a pick-pocket or Artie. Neither feeling was a particularly good one.

    As we walked, we made small talk, and I asked him how work was going since my resignation.

    “Well, I will put it this way—if you want your job back, it’s yours. I haven’t filled the position yet.”

    I liked the sound of knowing I could get my job back, but then thought about the endless commute.

    Hmmm, I wonder if he has anything close by that he is opening up soon.

    I hesitated to inquire, but I thought if Justin cares for me the way he lets on, he wouldn’t want me riding the rails all hours of the night to get home. Fresh & Fit didn’t close until 10:30.

    As we made our way into a nearby Chipotle, I fidgeted with asking him as we stood in line. Clearly everyone was craving Tex Mex this particular afternoon.

    “What’s up, Irene?” he asked, noting my shiftlessness. “Something on your mind?”

    I looked at those eyes again, the same ones that made me weak in the knees that fateful night in November. I exhaled slowly.

    “Yeah, I was wondering if you could help me with something,” I asked as the line moved. “Something about the job.”

    “Sure, what is it?”  He asked, pulling out his wallet as we moved closer to ordering.

    “Uh, is it possible that there is a Fresh & Fit in New York I could work at? I mean, so I wouldn’t have to commute every day?”

    Please don’t think that’s the only reason I invited you out here…

I watched his jaw clench as we approached the counter. After we both ordered a couple of veggie burritos and chips, we sat down near the window so we could converse in semi-privacy.

    He hadn’t answered me yet before diving into his burrito, and I could only pick at mine until I knew if he was pissed off with me or not.

    After a ten minute bout with the food in complete silence, I decided to take matters into my own hands and just ask again—or at very least, ask him if he heard me.

    “Justin?”

    He looked at me while he finished his food, and leaned back in his chair. I had no idea what to expect, as he’d never been this vacant before.

    I crossed the line. I knew it. I knew I shouldn’t have asked him right after he got off the train.

    “Irene, I do have an opening at a center in Astoria. It’s got a new general manager as well. It’s a guy, so you would report to him as you did to me.”

    I nodded. “Thank you.”

    “That’s not the only reason you asked me to come is it? I mean, you could’ve done that over the phone.”

    I shook my head with fury, assuring him that I did want his company.

    “I’m glad you’re here, and I want you here. But I did just withdrawal from culinary school because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I liked doing the fitness center because it truly piqued my interest in health, fitness and wellness. I am thinking I want to pursue that.”

    “Ok, so how about we go over there today before…I go home?”

    I noticed his hesitance. I didn’t want him to think he wasn’t welcomed. Damn it.

    “You don’t have to go home tonight if you don’t want to, Justin. I mean, I want us to visit a while.”

    He slowly touched my hand as we sat, caressing it delicately.

    “I’m glad to hear that. I missed you a lot.”

*

    Justin and I walked up the stairs of the subway once we reached Astoria. He held my hand as we walked, clearly enjoying being in my presence again. He pulled me closer as we walked, as he was afraid I’d run off.

    “Justin, why are you holding onto me so tightly?” I asked. “Nobody is going to steal me.”

    He smiled. “It’s not that; I’m just trying to keep you safe. I don’t want anything to happen to you out here.”

    I blushed at his concern.

    “Well, I am sure I will be fine,” I said as he opened the door to our destination.

    I looked around to take in my surroundings.

    Yeah, looks just like the one in Jersey, I thought to myself. It even smelled the same—an intoxicating mixture of lavender, citrus, and clean linen. I don’t know if part of his gym paradigm was to have certain scents basking through the vents, but it was working. I loved it.

    “I will get the GM, and the three of us will talk!” he yelled over the sound of elliptical machines, stair masters, treadmills, radio and the ten televisions that all blared different shows at once.

    He escorted me to an office behind the juice bar and insisted I take a seat in front of the desk while I wait. As I made myself comfortable, I looked around the office, noting a few promotional flyers with my face on them.

Huh. I guess he did decide to just keep the pictures we took. Granted, it was probably cheaper than trashing all of those posters and flyers and starting over; it still made me feel as if I’d made a big impact on his life.

It was very reminiscent of Justin’s office, except for the name plate on the desk.

    “E. Paceo.”

    Hmm, I know that name from somewhere.

    I crossed my legs as I awaited Justin’s return, and continued to ponder what it would be like to work somewhere without him. Once he finally reemerged, I turned my head as a young man followed behind him. As I watched the two enter, I was particularly hung up on the young man’s braided ponytail. It reminded me of something.

    As Justin directed who I assumed was the General Manager to his seat, he introduced me. Ironically, I needed no introduction. Now that his face was clearly visible, it all came together in a second. The name sounded familiar because I knew his name. The ponytail looked familiar because I’d pulled his ponytail…on a few occasions.

    “Irene, this is--,” Justin began.

    “Edwin?” I asked.

 

 

 



 

 

 

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