Ben looks stung. He’s wearing a black suit he bought for the occasion. His mother took about a thousand pictures of him in his cap and gown, and he didn’t complain. Now he’s in a tiny public bathroom with Shelby. The place is so small his elbows push up against the walls. “This is the time? While my parents are sitting out there ordering the striped bass?”
“This isn’t love,” Shelby tells him finally.
“Oh yeah?” He says it with real bitterness. He doesn’t sound like the Ben that she knows. Shelby feels a shiver of fear when she sees the look on his face. She’s probably ruined him, turned a sweet, loving person into a cynical bastard. “How do you know?”
Because I’m not worth it, she wants to say. Because you knew me at my worst point, when I was bald and desperate. Because I was never good enough for you. Because my mother told me love is everything.
“I just know,” she answers.
“Well, thanks for including me in this decision,” Ben says. “It just means our breakup is exactly like the rest of our relationship. All about you.”
They manage to get through dinner, but Shelby can swear Mr. Mink knows. He raises his glass to her and says “Good luck” for no particular reason. “Of course she’ll have good luck,” Judy Mink says, patting her husband’s arm, perhaps thinking he’s had one too many. But he hasn’t. And he’s right. Shelby will need luck after what she’s done tonight. Ben doesn’t talk to her in the cab ride downtown. Shelby wants to hold his hand. She wants to tell him he was her friend when no one else was, that he reminded her she was alive. Maybe they can still be friends. Probably ninety-nine percent of people breaking up say that, and it’s probably true for less than three percent. From the wounded, angry look on Ben’s face, it’s likely they’re not in that three percent. They may be the couple where the wronged party hates his ex-partner forevermore.
Shelby keeps the apartment. It’s Ben’s really; he found it and paid for most of the rent, but that’s how Ben is, gracious. All the same she hears him cursing as he packs up his belongings. She hears her name flung around as if it was a curse as well.
“Maybe you should be the one to stay,” Shelby says. He is taking almost nothing. Not even his great-aunt Ida’s dining room table. It’s an eyesore, but a family eyesore, not that Ben cares. Now that it’s over and he’s finally seen Shelby for who she is, it seems he can’t leave fast enough.
“Don’t worry,” Ben tells her. He’s done. He’s ready to go in less than an hour. She can see in his eyes that loving her has changed him. “I’ll get something better.”
The summer is bliss. Monday evenings spent with Harper in his office. Chinese dinners that he cooks at her place. Great sex that leaves her wilted and without a thought in her head. Harper told her right away that he was married, but he and his wife are unhappy and will soon be separating. It’s not a true marriage in any real sense. He’s assured Shelby that she has nothing to do with their breakup; he’s been unhappy for eight years and they’ve only been together for ten. Harper has made it clear that he and his wife were ill suited from the start; she’s always been too dependent, and it was just a matter of time before their relationship imploded.
Time, however, is the one thing he doesn’t have when it comes to seeing Shelby, at least not yet. So she takes what she can get. This is nothing like her father’s sleazy affairs. Unlike Shelby’s parents, who have been very married for almost thirty years, Harper doesn’t love his wife. He loves Shelby. When he tells her so, she tells herself she is saving him from a life without love.
Shelby likes meeting him at the animal hospital on Monday nights. She is more convinced than ever that working with animals should be her career path. She’s assisted Harper during some of his appointments, taking time to smooch between pet patients. Lately Harper has allowed her to sit in during surgeries, and Shelby has never felt as alive as when she’s been in the operating room.
“You surprise me,” Harper said to her after her first viewing. It was a simple procedure, a tumor removed from an old basset hound. Shelby thought the entire event was beautiful, the dog saved from pain, the bright blood, the calm in the operating room. “Some people faint the first time, most people get dizzy, everybody flinches, but not you.”
“I liked it,” Shelby told him.
“Liked?” Harper said.
Shelby shrugged. “What’s not to like about a miracle?”
The time spent with Harper passes quickly, as the best times often do. Shelby knows she’s changing as the months go by. Her hair is chin-length now, angled, and she looks chic, despite her ragged clothes. She’s not as skinny as she used to be when she was made out of angles and pain. Occasionally she dabs on lip gloss and some black eyeliner. Now when Harper tells her she’s beautiful she half believes him. Her perfect day is the one when he picked her up in a rented car and they drove to Jones Beach to go swimming in the salty waves, then sunned in the sand with thousands of other beachgoers. She felt alive. She wonders if she might love him. She’s aware of the way her heart pounds when she’s with him. Sometimes Ben’s image rises in her mind while they’re in bed, and Shelby says I’m sorry out loud before she can stop herself. Harper laughs and says she is the sorriest girl he ever met. Sometimes she dreams of Ben. He sits on the edge of the bed in her dreams and watches her sadly. Hey, stupid, he says. Miss me yet?
Shelby’s mom asks when they’re going to meet Harper, and Shelby always says, Soon, but Harper is always too busy. He has so little time for her. Less and less it seems.
“He sounds like your father,” Shelby’s mom says when Shelby comes out for a visit. “He’s always working too.” Shelby’s mom serves her lemonade and hands her a postcard. “This arrived last week.”
There is an inked drawing of a box with something trapped inside. Eyes peer out. Shelby turns the card over. Save something. She keeps staring at the box. What is it looking out at her?
“Did you see him leave the card?” Shelby asks her mom.
“He comes at night,” Sue tells her. “I think he doesn’t want to bother me.”
Shelby laughs. “He just wants to bother me.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s what he wants,” Sue says.