“Yeah…” Her wrong-shaped mouth twists in a half smile. “You said that.”
“Right.” God, just get me out of here.
But before I can make an escape, she talks again, her tone strangely neutral. “Is it because of her?”
I jerk so hard that my elbow hits the car window. “Her?”
Shannon blinks back at me. “You know, the redhead in the bar.” So much for me being subtle. “Is she the one you had that blow out with? Is she Red Hen?”
“Red Hen?” I repeat, my head buzzing. What. The. Hell?
She gives me a look designed to reassure, though I’m far from it. But there’s a gleam in her eyes like she’s dying for gossip. Does she honestly think I want to talk about Anna with her? And, again: Red Hen? Oh, hell no.
“You know,” she says, “the one that they were talking about on Twitter and Instagram.”
An ugly, sick feeling trickles over my shoulders. For a moment I can only stare at this girl as the buzzing in my ears grows louder. “What the hell are they saying?”
Oblivious of my growing anger, she answers eagerly. “That you dumped some redhead in the middle of the quad.”
That day haunts me still. Hearing someone else talk about it hurts my chest.
“Why are they calling her Red Hen?” I sound like I’m talking through a long tunnel. Does Anna know this? She’d hate that. Hate it.
“I don’t know who came up with that.”
“What does it mean?” My heart is thudding so hard it hurts. As a rule, I stay far away from social media. Obviously the guys were keeping something from me, because they’d usually tell me about any nonsense.
Shannon shifts from one foot to the other. Her sudden twitchiness makes my hackles rise further. “I guess it’s because she tried to trap you into a relationship. You know, by getting pregnant.”
The ground seems to sway beneath me, and a cold sweat breaks over my skin. Holy shit. Is Anna pregnant? She didn’t look… Hell, what does early pregnancy even look like? But she would have told me tonight, wouldn’t she? Then again, I’d pretty much gone on the offensive with her, which didn’t exactly make for an easy opening to a topic like that. Holy f**king shit, but if she is…
I’m going to hurl. Right here on Shannon’s sidewalk. Yet behind the instant terror is a strange sort of elation. If Anna is pregnant, I’m going to her and am sticking. Screw pride.
Somehow, I find the ability to talk. It’s a miracle that I can form a sentence. “Why do people think she’s pregnant?”
Maybe Shannon finally notices that I’m about to lose my shit because she clamps up.
“Why!” My shout rings out in the night.
Shannon visibly swallows, her eyes growing round. “Well, you, ah… apparently yelled at her about your relationship being just a hook up, and, well, she walked away all hunched over, clutching her stomach, so…”
So, no proof of Anna being pregnant. Just fools jumping to the wrong conclusion and sticking their noses in places they have no business being. Even though relief swamps me, the ringing in my ears grows to a clamor. “So, you all think that I would get a girl pregnant, then publicly dump her when she tells me?”
In the relative darkness, I can see the flush stealing over her cheeks. “Ah… well…”
Prickles break out over my skin. “And believing this, you still wanted to go out with me?” Okay, I might be yelling. Shit, it’s a miracle that I’m not shouting to the clouds at this point. That’s what people think of me?
Shannon backs away a step. “I didn’t blame you.” As if this supposed pregnancy was all Anna’s doing.
“Well you should,” I snap. “If it were true. You should stay far away from any ass**le who would do something like that.”
She just stares at me like I’ve gone insane, and the rage within me surges. What the hell is wrong with this girl?
I take a breath, not wanting to scare her any further. I’m much bigger than her, and even if I can’t wait to get away, it isn’t cool to make her afraid.
“Look,” I say with false calm, “whatever you’ve heard, it’s wrong. Yes, that was the girl, and yes we broke up. But it was a mutual decision.” I wince a bit with that one, but it isn’t really a lie. Anna didn’t want a relationship, and I couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t the only thing I wanted. “She’s a nice girl. And it makes me sick that people would think otherwise.”
Wide-eyed Shannon nods as if her life depended on it. She’s clutching her arms over her chest. I put that fear in her, and guilt clenches my stomach.
“I’ve got to go. Sorry.” I’m not sure what else I can say. I just need to get out of here.
By the time I get home and manage to turn on my laptop, my hands are shaking. Nausea rolls around in my stomach as a Twitter search for my name pulls up hundreds of tweets. And there they are in 140 character groupings of pure evil. Speculation on why I was arguing with a curvaceous redhead. Hate-filled comments about Anna that make my heart ache and my blood boil, and then I find the pictures.
My teeth grind. There I am, looming over Anna, who looks so tiny in comparison. I’m a monster with muscles bulging and a vein sticking out on my temple. I’ve never felt so ashamed. Anna’s pale, her chin lifting in defiance. That I remember. But I never saw the aftermath. There’s a pic of me walking away, humiliating because it captures my own pain. My face is twisted with it. And then one of Anna.
She’s leaning against the tree, clutching her arms around her middle, her gorgeous eyes looking up toward the sky as if it holds some answer. Pain etches her features. With shaking fingers, I nearly touch the screen. Pain that mirrors my own.
Have I done the wrong thing by ending it with Anna? Does it matter? She’s currently on a date with Mr. Yuck. And I can’t overlook the fact that one public argument with me has brought the ugliness of public opinion down upon her head. I never wanted that for her. After reading through the hateful tweets, how can I blame her reluctance to be seen with me?
For the first time in my life, I dread going out on the field and playing again. Because they’re all watching for the wrong reasons.
I’M SO GRATEFUL for the fall break I could cry. Not only will it spare me from having to face Drew in class, but I need to get away. For the first time in years, my mother’s home is a haven to which I want to run as fast as I can.
Better still, I won’t have to see Terrance when I get there. Last month, when my mom voiced second thoughts on selling her childhood home, Terrance went ballistic, telling her that she had no right to keep them from their dream by being a coward. Mom realized that it wasn’t her dream, but his. Two weeks later, old Terry was sailing off to the Bahamas with his chow-chow’s groomer.
Thanksgiving dinner is subdued. Mom often invites people to spend it with us, single friends, those who couldn’t make it home to families of their own. When I was younger, I would protest because I didn’t want to share her with other grownups. Not when I only saw my working mother at dinner.
As I got older, I grew to appreciate the sound of laughter and interesting conversation during those meals. Unfortunately, this year, my mom hasn’t invited anyone. I know it’s because they’ll ask about Terrance, and the breakup is too fresh for mom to deal. I empathize. Entirely. Only I’d rather have the distraction. Now it’s just Mom and me. And a quiet house.
We cook together, and I try to find something to talk about. Conversation usually isn’t a problem, but since the only thing I want to do is curl up in bed and cry, I’m finding it a struggle.
My mother fills the void and talks. About her practice. About her friend Silvia, who she thinks might be bulimic. About the new moisturizer she’s found and loves to pieces. And it’s fine. If only this aching, gnawing hole within me would fill up with each bite of food I take, instead of growing larger. If only I’d feel warm instead of cold. My walls are no longer shored up. I could topple at any moment. Right onto my mom’s plush Turkish carpet.
Dessert, as always, is taken in the living room, while tucked up in front of the fire on the old Chesterfield sofa that Mom had reupholstered last year in cream linen. In the frenzy of redecorating, Mom also converted the wood-burning fireplace into gas, and though the flames dance and look cheery, I miss the scent of burning wood.
Drew’s house has a wood-burning fireplace. I picture him kneeling before it, stacking wood and getting the tinder ready. Is he there now? Is he with Gray? God, I hope so. The idea of Drew being alone makes my heart physically hurt. I take an extra large bite of pumpkin cheesecake and try not to choke on it.
“What is going on with you, Anna?”
I nearly jump in my seat. I hadn’t noticed Mom studying me. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. Even if she doesn’t always act like she’s paying attention, she usually is.
I run the tines of my fork through the burnished cheesecake. I could evade, divert attention, but telling the truth is the quickest way with Mom. Like ripping off an especially sticky bandage. “I broke up with someone.”
“I’m sorry to hear it, sweetheart.”
My fork stabs deep.
“It didn’t get too far. We weren’t really right for each other.” God, the lie chokes me. I’m going to throw up my Thanksgiving dinner right here on the living room floor. I take a deep breath. “But I think I hurt him, and I’m sorry about it.” I might have also done some irreparable internal damage to myself, but we don’t need to talk about that.
Mom wisely says nothing but simply rises to go make me a cup of espresso. It gives me enough time to control my erratic breathing and quivering lip. When she returns, I’m composed.
“With a little extra crema on top,” she says, setting a tiny white cup down on the table before me. “Just as you like it.”
“Thanks.” The rich, deep scent of espresso is a needed comfort.
“Mom,” I say after a welcome sip, “did you think my father was… well the one? You know, when you first met him?”
As usual, mention of my dad makes her expression go blank and cool. She takes a sip of her own coffee. “Hard truth?”
Since I was a child, she has always asked if I want the watered down version or the harsh one. It depresses me to realize how often I’d asked for the easy tale. Not today.
“The plainest,” I say.
“Not really,” Mom says with a sigh.
I sit up. “Then why did you marry him?”
She runs a hand through her artful hair, a true sign of distress; she’d never risk ruining it like that. “Because I wanted him to be the one. And maybe…” She shrugs slightly, her dark hair sliding over her shoulder. “Maybe if he had stayed, he might have been.”
The taste of coffee turns bitter in my mouth. I set aside my cup and curl my feet under me. “But if he was the one, he would have stayed. And you would have known he was from the beginning. Right? I mean, it would have felt perfect.” It’s a lame protest but the very idea that my dad could have grown into her true love baffles me.
Mom’s light laugh fills the room. “You think love doesn’t take work? That it doesn’t need to grow?” Her hair swings as she shakes her head. “Of course it does.”
I sit back against the pillows with a huff. “Honestly, Mom? I’m shocked that you even believe in love at all.”
“Why?” Her eyes narrow to dark slits.
“Because you…” I take a frustrated breath. I don’t want to hurt her, but my unthinking mouth already started the ball rolling. Now I can’t take it back. “All these guys…” I trail off, looking away. The heat of the flickering fire tightens my cheeks.
Mom’s eyes are on me, burning my skin further. “Because I fail at love?”
Dully, I nod. And she drinks her coffee as she too looks off into the fire. The clink of her cup against the saucer breaks the silence. “Why do you think I keep trying, Anna?” Sadness weighs down her soft voice.
And when I dare to look at her, I see the lines deepen around her eyes.
“No, I haven’t found love,” she says. “Not the kind that lasts. Not yet. But it’s out there. And it hurts me to think that, because of my mistakes and fumbling, you have become so cynical.”
My entire face prickles with heat and the urge to cry. Fucking hell, I’ve never cried so much in my whole life than I have in these past few weeks. I hate that. Hate the tight ball of regret and ugliness that’s taken residence in my gut. Drawing my knees up to my chest, I wrap my arms around myself. Yet I still feel cold and unbalanced, as if something essential is missing from me.
Mom’s voice grows sharp. “I rather hate to tell you, but you remind me of your father right now.”
It’s like a punch to the gut. I exhale in a burst of breath. “That’s low. And unfair. I am nothing like him. Nothing.” I’ve worked hard to be like neither of them.
Her lips purse as her brows rise. She knows she’s cut me off at the knees. I’m paying for what I’ve said to her. Even if she won’t admit to it.
“Well,” she says, “he too gave up when it became difficult. He never wanted to try. Only to take the easy way out.”
“If you think I find any of this easy,” I grind out, “you’re wrong.”
Mom sets her cup on the coffee table. “Maybe so. But you’re still safer in your misery than going out onto that unknown limb.”
I’m on my feet before I can think about the action. “I’m going to bed.”