In the safety of my cubicle, I set my sunglasses and coffee next to the keyboard and fell into my chair, firing up the computer and taking comfort in being able to dim the screen. I couldn’t do anything about the overhead lights.
I’d consumed half a Nalgene bottle of carrot-ginger-tomato juice, a concoction I heard was the absolute best cure. Nothing beats simply going back to bed, but I couldn’t miss work.
Scrolling through e-mails, I banged away at the keyboard. I was halfway through my coffee when Beth’s eyes slowly peered over the cubicle wall. My hands froze above the keys.
“You doing okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, hi, I mean, good morning.”
I shifted my tired eyes back to the screen, wondering if they looked as bloodshot as they felt.
“You’re all right then?”
My eyes returned to Beth, and I could feel them pulse slightly, keeping time with my heartbeat. I drained the last of my coffee. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“Well, after you called me last night—”
“I called—” Catching myself before I could complete the question, I changed gears. “Yeah . . . last night. I called.”
Beth slipped around the cubicle wall and folded her arms across her chest. Perching on my desk, she lowered her head and searched my face, wearing the expression you make when you’re not sure if you should continue a conversation. “You remember calling me, right?”
“Of course,” I lied.
“All right, I wasn’t sure. And . . . I was concerned. You sounded sort of sad.” Beth’s eyes radiated empathy. My heart stuttered. She was perfect—smart, beautiful, honest—and now that I was over Amy, I was ready to fall in love with someone else, like Beth.
“Sad?” I forced the smile again, proving I was not sad.
I was treading water and damn close to sinking. The only thing I remembered with any clarity about last night was celebrating the date, October twenty-third. I was proud of having survived a year since breaking up with Amy, although I wasn’t sure survived was the right word. Over the last few months, I’d been careful to use the phrase, “breaking up with Amy,” because it sounded mutual, like something we’d both agreed on. Truth was, Amy ended the relationship, and I’d been walking around with a gaping wound ever since.
So last night, on the anniversary of our breakup, I decided to celebrate. To show how strong I had become, I watched Sleepless in Seattle, the old Tom Hanks–Meg Ryan vehicle that had been our go-to romantic comedy. Amy and I had the lines memorized. As a precaution, I deadened any possible pain with vodka. Normally, I wouldn’t do that; I didn’t even like vodka. But at the time, it made sense, in a self-abusive sort of way. I thought watching Sleepless in Seattle would be like me taking on the role of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, when Bogy asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By.” “Play it . . . if she can take it, I can take it.” It all turned out to be torture, just like it was for Bogart in the movie. He couldn’t take it, and neither could I.
I ended up flat on my back on the living room floor, semi-conscious, TV screen buzzing a monotone, and a half-empty bottle of vodka by my side. A tiny voice inside my head kept saying, “You know you still love Amy.” Which was why Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and I all got hammered drinking vodka.
“So we’re going out to dinner?” Beth asked.
“Right . . .” I was fishing, working hard to concentrate on the conversation and keep the smile on my face.
Amy walked by with a stack of files in her arms. Christ! Perfect timing. I froze for a second, trying to regain focus and remember what Beth just said. After missing a beat, I grinned. At some point this conversation was bound to crash and burn. I would die in a blazing fire.
“I’d like that,” Beth said.
This time I smiled for real, just like Tom Hanks. Maybe there would be a soft landing after all. For a second, neither of us were sure what to say next.
I lowered my eyes. “I’ve got a confession to make.”
Beth drew closer.
“I was, you know, just a little tipsy last night. I mean, when I called you.”
“But you meant to call me, right? You want to go out . . .”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Yes.”
Beth made a sympathetic “Mmmmm” sound, her eyes full of concern. I melted. She squeezed my arm, and I loved her even more.
Beth leaned back on my desk. “And you’re doing okay now?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Really.” This was working.
“Well, we’ll talk about it at dinner, right?” She squeezed my arm again.
That sealed it. “It’ll be fun.” Now my smile was uncontrollable.
Before she returned to her own cubicle, Beth gave me a little hug, which actually made me shiver.
Beth started to walk away and my breathing returned to normal. I focused on my computer as Amy walked by again, still carrying the same stack of files. Was she circling the office, waiting to talk without Beth around? Amy stopped next to my cubicle. I stood as she said, “You doing okay?” which made Beth stop and turn around.
“I’m fine. Ah, thanks for asking. How are you?” I fumbled for words as my eyes darted between Beth and Amy, and a hundred emotions—feelings that were supposed to be buried beneath a shallow pool of vodka—came rushing to the surface. Suddenly I was back to being Bogart, not Hanks. A sad, hungover Bogart.
“Good,” she said, nodding. “I just wanted to check, you know, after you called last night.”
Mike Nolan lives with his wife, Ann, in the little town of Port Angeles, in the far corner of Washington State, USA. He is the author of My Second Education, has a web presence at mikenolanstoryteller.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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