By noon I was hammered, thrilled that the seedy bar we hit up in Queens had a jukebox, and even more thrilled that the proprietor seemed to love eighties hair bands as much as I did. It was my mom’s guilty pleasure music and playing Twisted Sister over and over strangely made me feel like I was home.
“He was brilliant in bed,” I mumbled into my glass. “Well,” I corrected, holding up a heavy hand, “that one night we actually did it in a bed. My bed. And in that bed he was brilliant. I think we had sex like seven thousand times that night.”
“You only did it in a bed once?” George asked, standing next to the table and leaning on a pool stick for support.
Chloe sighed heavily and ignored him, popping another few highly suspect peanuts into her mouth. “I hate that you feel like you have to give that up. Nothing keeps a relationship together better than amazing sex. Oh, and honesty. I mean, that’s important too.” She scratched her cheek, adding, “And just, like, having fun together. I mean, sex, honesty, and fun. Secret of success right there.”
“We had the sex and the fun.”
Chloe looked like she was headed into the nap zone. “BB is f**king stellar in bed, too,” she mumbled.
“My complete lack of a sex life is also fantastic,” George groaned. “Thanks for asking. Do women really sit around talking about sex all the time?”
Chloe said, “Yes,” just as I said, “Not really.”
Then I changed my mind and said, “Kind of,” right when she said, “I guess not.”
We fell into each other giggling, but my laughter quickly dissolved when a tall shadow stepped into the bar. I sat up, heart pounding. He had broad shoulders, the same light brown hair . . .
My chest felt like it was too small for everything inside it.
“Ouch,” I moaned, rubbing over my heart. “Last time I was so far beyond feeling sad I was just mad. This just hurts.”
Chloe threw an arm around me. “Men suck.”
Her phone rang and she answered it after barely one ring. “I’m at a bar.” She paused, listening, then said, “Yeah, we’re getting day-drunk . . . She’s sad and I want to castrate him . . . I know. I will . . . I promise I won’t throw up all over the new carpet, settle down. I’ll see you later.” She ended the call and gave the phone the finger. “Such a bossy ass.”
And then she slumped against me. “You deserve a guy like Bennett.”
George bent down, inspecting us and shaking his head. “You two are a mess. Tomorrow night we’re doing Buck Up Sara Time the g*y way.”
Tuesday night, George took us to a g*y bar, packed wall-to-wall with people, pounding with music. It was exactly the kind of place I wanted to go with him in happier times, but now it only reminded me of how miserable I was. And the truth was, I didn’t really want to go out and party. I didn’t want to be in the middle of a fifteen-man grindfest. I wanted to find a way to just skip time, and get to that point where Max didn’t matter anymore.
What scared me was that it had taken almost no time to stop loving Andy; I’d met Max within a week. I suspected that it would be a lot longer before I’d get over this one.
I finally turned my phone back on Thursday morning to find seventeen missed calls from Max, but he hadn’t left a single message. He’d sent me about twenty texts on Monday and Tuesday, as well, and those I read:
Sara, I saw the Post. Call me.
More variations on the same thing: call, text, let me know you’re getting these. And, just when I was going to call, I saw the last one and it tripped an instinctive wire caging my heart.
Sara, I know it looks really bad. It isn’t what you’re thinking.
Oh, perfect. How many times had I heard that in a past life? The truth is, if you have to say that, it’s almost always exactly what you’re thinking. It took me forever to learn that lesson, and it wasn’t a program I was going to delete very soon.
I turned off my phone again, this time determined to leave it off for good.
Max returned Friday, I knew, but I still hadn’t called. He didn’t come by my work, and when I turned my phone back on a few days after checking my texts, I realized he’d stopped calling, too.
Which was worse: His clichéd insistence that I misunderstood? Or his silence?
Was I even being fair? I hated the in-between space, where anger met uncertainty. I’d lived in that space for so long with Andy, feeling like something was happening behind my back, but never knowing for sure. I had been caught in a horrible battle between feeling like a guilty nag and being positive he was doing me wrong.
This time my angst was so much worse. Because this time, I’d truly thought Max was a man worth knowing. In comparison, I realized I didn’t know that I’d ever felt that about Andy. Maybe I’d just wanted to make him into a man worth knowing.
What was the story with the other woman? Was she someone he hooked up with once before we were serious? Could I really hold that against him even though we’d agreed to be monogamous? But when had that picture been taken? Was it really only a few days before he spent the night at my house?
“Sare-bear. I can practically hear you thinking in there,” George called from his desk. “It is shrill and growing hysterical. Calm your tits. I put a flask in your desk drawer. It’s pink and sparkly but don’t fall in love; it’s mine.”
I glared at the wall, hoping he could feel the burn of my eyes on the back of his neck on the other side. “You’re an ass.”
“No. Should I?” I pressed a hand to my face. “Don’t answer that. He has Spanish flavors of the week. Of course I shouldn’t call him.”
I stood up and slammed my door closed, but just as I sat back down, three soft taps landed on the other side.
“You can come in, George,” I growled, defeated. “But I’m not drinking the scotch.”
Bennett walked inside, filling the space as only Bennett Ryan really could fill a space. I sat up straighter, looked down at my desk to instinctively inspect the level of paperwork disorganization.
“Hi, Bennett. I was totally kidding about the scotch. I don’t drink at work.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“Okay . . . ,” I said, wondering what he was doing here. We rarely had cause to interact one-on-one at work. He studied me for a beat before saying, “In Chicago, when I’d hit rock bottom, you came into my office and yelled at me.”
“You gave me perspective, hinted that my feelings for Chloe weren’t a surprise to anyone. You made it clear that everyone knew I was hard on her because I held her in particularly high regard.”
I smiled when I realized he wasn’t going to chew me out. “I remember. You were both such sad sacks.”
“I’m here to return the favor. I’ve known Max a long time.” He sat down in the chair on the other side of my desk. “He’s always been a bit of a playboy. He’s never been in love, I don’t think. Before you,” he added, eyebrow raised.
I knew it wouldn’t matter how long I knew Bennett; I would always feel intimidated by him, especially when he pulled the eyebrow move.
“And he hasn’t told me what’s going on, even though I’ve broken my own unspoken rules and actually asked, but he did say he hasn’t heard from you. And from what I hear from Will, he’s not doing well. If you really felt strongly about him, you owe him the chance to explain.”
I groaned. “Sometimes I think so, and then I remember that he’s a jerk.”
“Look, Sara. The way Andrew treated you was unconscionable. We all saw that, and I regret not speaking up on your behalf. But you have the choice to decide how you grow from it. If you’re going to think every man is like him, you don’t deserve Max. Max isn’t that guy.”
He watched me for a moment and I had no idea how to respond. But the way my heart squeezed painfully at the thought that I didn’t deserve Max told me that Bennett was right.
And that I needed to find a dress for the fund-raiser.
Chloe and Bennett picked me up in a town car and, as I climbed in, I took a second to appreciate Bennett in a tux. Honestly, the man was so pretty it was a little unfair. Beside him, Chloe glowed in a shimmering pearl halter gown. She rolled her eyes at something he whispered in her ear, and she replied, “You’re a pig.”
He laughed quietly, kissing her neck. “That’s why you love me.”
I loved seeing them happy, and wasn’t cynical enough to think that person didn’t exist for me. I just realized, as I stared down at my dress, that I’d spent more than an hour getting ready for this. I had really wanted my person to be Max.
I turned and looked out the window, trying not to remember the last time I’d been to his building, and how safe I’d felt with him in the shower. But to my tangled horror and relief, when we arrived the security guard remembered me, and smiled.
“Good evening, Miss Dillon.” He escorted us to the elevator and pressed the button for the penthouse before stepping back to leave us to ourselves. “Enjoy your night.”
I thanked him as the doors closed, and I felt like I might fall over.
“I’m legitimately worried I’m going to have a stroke,” I hissed. “Remind me why I’m here?”
Bennett leaned forward to look at me. “You’re here to show him how beautiful you look and that he didn’t break you. If that’s the only thing that happens tonight, it’s fine.”
I was swooning so hard at what he’d said that I’d completely forgotten to prepare myself to see Max’s living room. When the elevator doors opened, the sight of his place hit me like a wood plank to the chest, and I actually stumbled back a few steps.
The section that had been replicated in Johnny’s club was a minuscule portion of the room—a small area set back in a recessed corner and obviously meant for smaller gatherings. But to me it stood out like a beacon. Even with the vast open space and what felt like miles of marble floor between me and that memory, I could barely look away. A couple of men lingered there, sipping drinks and looking out the window. It felt invasive somehow, as if they were on the wrong side of the glass.
Without skipping a beat, Chloe slipped her arm through mine and pulled me forward as a tall, older gentleman led us from the foyer to the main living areas.
“I’m not sure this was a good idea.”
I heard her inhale a sharp breath and then she said, “Actually, that may be true.”
I looked up and followed her attention across the room to where Max had walked in, just behind Will.
He wore a tux, similar to the one he wore at the gala weeks ago. But tonight the vest beneath his jacket was white and his eyes were flat. His mouth smiled in greeting to everyone in the room. But the smile never made it into his eyes.
There were maybe a hundred other people looking at his art, wandering into the kitchen to grab a glass of wine, or standing in the center of the room, talking. But I felt frozen near the wall.
Why had I worn red? I felt like a wannabe siren among the muted creams and blacks. What was I hoping to accomplish? Did I want him to see me?
Whether or not I wanted him to, he didn’t. At least, he didn’t seem to. Max walked around the room, talking to his guests, thanking them for coming. I tried to pretend I wasn’t staring at his every move but it was useless.
I didn’t know what he felt, what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t know what we had really been.
I turned at the sound of Will’s uniquely deep voice.
“Hi, Will.” I hated seeing him so serious. I’d rarely seen either Max or Will unsmiling. This looked all wrong.
He studied me for a beat, and then murmured, “Does he know you’re here?”
I looked across the room at where Max stood, speaking to two older women. “I don’t know.”
I shook my head and he sighed. “He’s been such a useless bastard. I’m really glad you came.”
“I’m really sorry,” he said quietly.
I met his eyes. “You don’t have to apologize for Max’s indiscretions.”
His brow furrowed and he shook his head once. “He never told you?”
My heart fell and then immediately began thundering. “Told me what?”
But Will took a step back, seeming to reconsider saying anything else. “Oh, you really haven’t talked to him yet.”
I shook my head and he looked over my shoulder, to where Max stood. Will put his hand on my arm. “Don’t leave without talking to him, okay?”
I nodded and looked back to Max, who was standing with a beautiful brunette. She had her hand on his arm and was laughing at something he said. Laughing too much, trying too hard.
When I turned back around, Will was gone.
Suddenly needing air, I turned and walked down the closest hall. Down here, there were no caterers carting trays of food, no guests mingling. Just a wide hallway lined with closed doors. Between each were beautiful photographs of trees and snow, lips and hands and spines.