By Natalie Intihar
When Cal walks into my apartment with a bottle of white wine, beaming, I know something is entirely wrong about this night. It had been just over three months since our first date at the fancy Italian restaurant where his mom worked as head chef, and I had found myself becoming bored.
He opens his mouth, probably to say something about the drive over or the weather, and I immediately interrupt him. “Cal, we need to talk.”
Instead of responding, he perches on my countertop and crosses one leg over the other. I nearly wince at the sight of him, all flannel patterns and khaki shorts with black and white converse. If his hair was longer, I could see him pushing it back when there were lulls in the conversation. His comfort and ease in my apartment was the nail in Cal’s coffin. Visits to my apartment were meant for late night sex and early departures in the morning, not for lounging on the countertops and movie nights.
“This has been great, and you’re great,” I begin, “but I just don’t think we’re heading in the same direction.” When he shows no reaction, I continue: “Hope we can stay friends!” with a smile that feels entirely too forced on my face. It doesn’t surprise me that Cal is hesitant to hop off the counter and to walk out of my door entirely, but at this point, I just want the moment—and the relationship—to be over.
He just shrugs at me and hops back onto the floor. “Aight. See ya,” he says, leaving the wine on the counter and heading out the door. I watch his gangly body walk out the door and almost wonder what I was doing with him in the first place.
Some part of me wants to call after him, to ask why he doesn’t have anything more to say to me. But I know that would be needy. And I also know he wouldn’t have anything to say. Cal knew I didn’t do long term relationships. He also knew I hated white wine. But he made the mistake of believing that he could change me, and that he could be the “one”—a foolish notion I no longer believed in.
Once he leaves and shuts the door behind him, I pop open the bottle of wine and sit on the cold tile floors. White wine or not, the ending of a relationship always called for a night of forgetting it existed in the first place. Swigging straight from the bottle, I start to laugh. I might not have always been this heartless, but tonight, I was going to forget I had a heart at all.
“Three years, Cami. It’s been three years and you still can’t move on.”
I’ve just finished recounting this story to my friend Lauren the next morning at brunch when she throws this at me. It’s far too early and I am far too hungover for her accusations, and I tell her as much.
Instead of the sympathy I would much prefer, she looks me straight in the eyes and asks, “Have you talked to him recently?”
“No.” I know it isn’t Cal she’s talking about.
“Because I never want to talk to or about him again.”
“Because I said so.”
I stab at the scrambled egg on my plate repeatedly and wedge it in my mouth so I don’t have to say anything else. Lauren should know better than to push this.
She watches me butcher the egg silently, and as I’m chewing more food than should fit in my mouth, she speaks up again.
“Cami. This is your seventh breakup in the last two years alone. If I counted all the guys you’ve been out with since Derek,” I mildly wince, and she glares at me before continuing, “I would probably forget all their names. There are so many. So. Many.” She emphasizes and I roll my eyes.
“So what if my dating life is pretty up and down?” I ask. “There’s nothing wrong with living that single life.”
Lauren looks at me for a long moment and sips on her mimosa. When she swallows long and hard before answering, I brace myself for impact.
“When was the last time you’ve talked to Derek?”
Knowing I can’t dodge answering this time, I shrug. “Two years ago. Give or take.”
“I think you should talk to him again, hear him out,” she says, and I look from side to side incredulously. When I start laughing, she slams her fork back down on the table, making the glasses jump. “I’m serious.”
“So am I, Lauren,” I say, pausing for dramatic effect, “when I say I never want to talk to him again.”
I stand up and push my chair back, my hair swinging wildly behind me. “I’m done with this conversation. When I get back from the bathroom, we’re talking about something else.”
On my way, I swipe two wine glasses from the nearest waiter and down them. I need to forget this conversation, just like I finally forgot about that relationship. And when I return, Lauren lets me shift the conversation to her new job as an architect and we move on from thinking about my past.
A couple weeks later, I’m picking up groceries after work when I hear a familiar voice call my name. I pretend not to hear it and walk twice as quickly towards the Children’s section of Target. As I round the corner, however, I slam my cart directly into Derek’s mom Claire, who beams upon seeing me.
“Cami, darling, how ARE you!” She smiles and comes around the side of the carts to give me a bear hug. Smiling despite myself, I hug her back. She pulls back and immediately launches into a
tirade: “Your hair is so long! And it’s blonde now!” I nod, and she sighs. “It’s been too long, sweetheart.”
Choosing my words very carefully, I respond with, “It’s lovely to see you too.” In my head, I am wondering how much the universe hates me. As Claire prattles on about everything, I tap my foot against the wheel of my cart, searching for a kind way to exit the conversation.
When she pauses for air, I interrupt and tell her that I’m actually running late for a date. Her next words trail off into midair, and her smile quickly fades.
I pull the cart back and do my best impression of a smile. “It was nice to see you though! Take care!”
“Wait!” She calls at my back, and despite myself, I turn around. She hesitates before saying the last thing I want to hear:
“Derek’s back in town. Please come by for dinner. I know he would love to see you.”
As a flood of emotions threatens to overwhelm me, I quickly shoot her down. “Take care, Mrs. Pearce.”
With that, I turn on my heel and speed towards the opposite exit.
I’m standing in my closet later that night, trying to find an outfit for my date as I simultaneously debate canceling it altogether. Tonight I’m meeting Ethan, a guy from one of my accounting firm’s partners. We’ve been texting for a couple of days, trying to find a time to get together, and as far as guys go, he seems pretty decent.
I’ve been on enough of a dating kick lately that outfit shopping in my closet should be an easy job, yet tonight, it isn’t. We’re going to a trendy Mexican restaurant a couple blocks over from where we both work, so logically, I should go with my typical off-work outfit of jeans and a t-shirt. But for whatever reason I’m instead holding this beautiful, silky red cocktail dress to my chest.
The dress has been living in my closet since I bought it on a whim a couple of years ago. I usually leave it tucked in the back, forgotten. At the time, I had hoped to wear it to an anniversary dinner or some formal occasion, but now, I wonder if it’s even worth holding onto.
A nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me that Derek loved the color red on me. I shake my head to clear the thoughts and the memory attempting to come back. Flinging the red dress into the dark corner of the closet, I grab a sweater and jeans before heading out. I’m trying to start a new chapter of my life, not return to the past.
Dinner with Ethan is nice, if nothing else. He’s a decently attractive guy, with curly black hair and a trimmed beard. Ethan is passionate about politics and his family without being annoying and dominating the conversation. He asks me questions about myself too, and I find myself being as impressed with him as I am disappointed in myself for how little I find myself able to pay attention to him.
There is a natural lull in conversation as we wait for dessert to arrive. I allow myself to stare off into the direction of the kitchen, daydreaming about the molten chocolate cake we had agreed to split tonight. Ethan, however, interrupts my train of thought with a question that catches me entirely off guard:
“Cami, are you actually having a good time?”
I blink twice, all the surprise I’m willing to show. Smiling across the table at him, I say, “Yeah, I am. I’m really excited about the cake.”
He laughs at the mention of the cake and then looks me dead in the eye in a way that feels almost piercing. “I don’t mean this to be rude,” he voices, and I can see in his eyes that he genuinely means this, “But I just feel like you aren’t really present tonight. Is something bothering you?”
I fully expect to lie through my teeth in this situation. Instead, what comes out is the truth, about running into Derek’s mom and how much I would love to see her, but how risky it is after my history with Derek. I don’t tell Ethan the entire story, but I tell him way more than any guy deserves on a first date.
He sits there patiently and listens, nodding in all the right moments. When the cake arrives, he eats half and leaves me the rest. I am struck once again by the nagging sensation that Ethan is who I should want to be with. Instead of the familiar sensation of frustration that I anticipate arriving along with the stomachache I will blame on the cake, I just feel oddly empty at the prospect of being with someone else again, only to walk away a couple of months later.
Being with Ethan would be easy, I could tell. But running into Mrs. Pearce at the store this morning had taken a larger toll on me than I thought it would. Ethan assesses me after listening to me talk about this encounter, his blue eyes peering at me curiously across the table. This isn’t what he expected when he agreed to this date, and I feel a twinge of guilt for opening up to him in this way when we barely know one another.
I offer him the plate of cake with one final bite on it, and he takes it with a smile. “Do you want my opinion on this whole situation?” he asks after swallowing the still-hot fudge cake and ice cream.
I surprise myself and say yes.
“I think you should go to this dinner with the family. I know I barely know you,” he pauses to take a sip of water, “but I think it might bring you the healing you actually need.”
As soon as the words leave his lips I feel myself get defensive. But before I can open my mouth and say something that will certainly be damning, he continues.
“I’m so sorry if I’m overstepping, Cami. It’s just that I’ve been there. I needed closure so badly to be able to move on from someone in my past, and that one last conversation helped me a lot.”
He shrugs, the motion a contrast to his perfect posture but also an oddly attractive one. “Then maybe you’ll come out with me again and actually enjoy more than just the cake.”
For the first time in years, a genuine laugh escapes my lips. “I would love that,” I say. “Thank you.”
It surprises me how much he was able to put me at ease tonight, and as he grabs the bill— shrugging off my half hearted attempts to offer to pay—I allow myself a brief moment of wondering where this could go with Ethan if I manage to get through a dinner without falling back into thinking about the past. He offers me his hand as we walk out of the restaurant, pecks my right cheek, and then smiles at me one last time.
“Call me,” he reminds me, “once you’ve gone to your dinner. I’ll be here.” And with that parting remark, he walks off and leaves me in a near state of stupor.
The next morning, I text Mrs. Pearce and tell her that if she would like to meet for dinner, it would be nice. She replies excitedly, and tells me that I must come to the farmhouse where she and Mr. Pearce live, about an hour away from my apartment. She guesses correctly that it’s been years since I’ve had a home cooked meal; My parents live in London and my busy job means that it’s easier for me to grab food to-go rather than cooking.
Regardless of my apprehension, that following Friday, I find myself standing outside the Pearces’ old, oak front door. The house hasn’t changed in the years since I stopped coming by for Friday dinners; The front balcony’s white paint is still chipping, the porch swing creaks with the wind, and there are dozens of shoes scattered next to the warm red Welcome painted on a tan mat. The shuttered windows are swung open, betraying the smell of warm bread and the sounds of an old George Strait album playing on vinyl. I know this house backwards and forwards, yet I still hesitate to knock on the door, knowing as I do that the doorbell stopped working well over a decade ago.
You are a strong, independent, brave woman, I remind myself as I wipe my suddenly sweaty hands on my sleek, navy dress. You can do this. But before I can raise my hand to knock, the door suddenly swings open and I am greeted by the familiar smiling face of Mr. Pearce.
“Cami!” He beams at me, his cheeks round and pink. “Claire said you were coming tonight. It’s lovely to see you.”
Despite the nerves, I smile. “It’s lovely to see you too, Mr. Pearce.”
“You know better than to call me Mr. Pearce, dear,” he corrects me, still smiling. I know this; The Pearces were once Claire and Gregory to me. In the long years since I’ve been in this house, however, the singular names became far too personal for me to handle. It was worth a shot, tonight, as was this dress, a stark contrast to the many game nights and dinners in which I would arrive in jeans and a sweatshirt, as relaxed as one can be.
Mr. Pearce, however, knows better than to push me on this topic tonight, and instead gestures me inside. Lucky, the family dog, comes flying once she sees me, and I am relieved to know that even after all this time, she hasn’t forgotten me. Her excitement and wagging tail refuse to stop, so I end up entering the house with Lucky in my arms, licking my face happily.
The wood floorboards creak as I walk from the entry into the kitchen, and dozens of memories threaten to encroach. I shake my head to try and ward them off, though I am realizing quickly the futility of my efforts. The kitchen is easily my favorite place in their house, filled with so many colors that it is impossible to not feel immediately at home. The cabinets, a rich shade of navy, easily contrast the walls, an off shade of yellow, and the various pots and pans scattered on the countertops are a rich shade of red. The Pearces were far from poor, and while they could certainly afford to fix up their house, I knew they chose to keep it this way because it felt perfectly homey.
Mrs. Pearce is bustling around in the kitchen when I walk in, and I gently place Lucky down and ask if there is anything I can do to help. She waves me off without a second thought. “Go relax in the living room, dear.”
I do what she says, though my perch on the very edge of the couch is far from relaxed. The old version of me would have taken over the entirety of this tanned, squishy couch up, my legs curled up in perfect contentment. I can almost perfectly see myself resting here, half asleep, leaning against Derek and listening to the old vinyls with my eyes closed. It isn’t a half bad memory, and though I know I shouldn’t indulge myself in the past, I do.
This moment of quiet thoughtfulness is ruined by the slamming of the front door and a frustrated voice I know all too well. “Did you invite guests again without telling me, Ma? Come on. I thought we had talked about this.”
Mrs. Pearce’s voice floats through the house in response. “She’s not really a guest.” And in that instance, I realize that while I was aware that Derek would be here, he was in no way aware that I would be. This is a complete setup, and while it is completely plausible that Mrs. Pearce would try to get Derek and I back together, I cannot believe she didn’t mention my presence to him.
He stomps along the floor down to the living room and Lucky jumps back on my lap as I take a deep breath. When he enters the room, our eyes meet over the back of the couch I sit on, and years worth of memories immediately slam into me. Ignoring them, I instead take Derek in. I don’t want to notice that he’s in fantastic shape but I do, his muscles pulsing up and down as he takes air in and looks at me. His round face is coated with a hint of stubble, and his dark hair is as perfect and unruffled as ever. He unabashedly takes me in, smirking slightly when he sees Lucky shedding hair all over my dress. Neither of us are remotely inclined to break the silence, and the impending sound of footsteps means that Mr. Pearce and Derek’s little sister Maisie are now coming in to eavesdrop on the awkward reunion scene.
Maisie lights up at the sight of me, and squeals “CAMI!” before running to hug me. I put Lucky down and stand up to give the girl a hug, squeezing her extra tight. Maisie is thirteen now, but when Derek and I started dating, she was no more than five. For most of her childhood, I was a steady presence. In many ways, she still feels like the sibling I never had. If she has a phone now, I am almost certain she’ll give me her number by the end of the night so we can stay in touch. It’s a sweet thought, and not one I am entirely opposed to.
It’s easy to fall into conversation with Maisie, acting like Derek isn’t even in the room. She’s a huge Harry Styles fan, and prattles on without a second thought about his new album, the tour he’s going on soon, and how she’s hoping he’ll go to Kansas City so she can go. Derek watches the interaction between Maisie and I without saying anything, and I wonder how long he’ll be able to stay quiet for. Talking to Maisie about boy bands and her life at the middle school is refreshing and easy, and I know I’ll appreciate this moment later when Derek finally decides to open his mouth.
That moment doesn’t happen until after we’ve already sat down for dinner. I am intentionally in my old spot across from Derek, a fact we all know isn’t simple coincidence or convenience. Mrs. Pearce says grace, and after I thank her for the meal, we dive straight into the food. It’s a few moments before anyone says anything, and I know I could quite happily eat this entire meal without speaking. Mrs. Pearce is a phenomenal cook, and after so long without home cooked food, I appreciate it even more.
Mr. Pearce is the one to break the silence. “Cami, how’s your job going?”
I swallow a piece of bread before answering. “It’s really good. I’m a partner now, so I get to do what I really want to.” I tell him a little about what my accounting firm does and he nods appreciatively.
This response leads to a grilling from Maisie about the rest of my life, and after answering a string of questions about what movies I’ve seen lately (the new Wonder Woman), what my favorite band right now is (The 1975) and where I bought my dress and heels (Zara and Anthropology, respectively), she hits me with the obvious question about my love life that I had been hoping would never come up.
“So, do you have a boyfriend?” Her face lights up with childish mischief.
I take a large sip of my wine—red, just how I like it—before responding. “No.”
“So you can date my brother again?”
I consider myself lucky to not have sprayed wine all over Derek’s pressed blue shirt at that response. Mr. Pearce quietly chides Maisie, but I’m too busy choking on my wine and having a coughing fit to really respond.
Derek surprises me by coming to my rescue. “Maisie, if she was here to date me, you would know. She’s just here because Ma guilted her into dinner.”
Maisie swings over to me, and her dad sighs audibly. “Is this true?”
I dodge the question entirely. “I’m really happy to see you again, Maisie. But no, I’m not here to date your brother again.”
She humphs to herself before returning to her plate of mashed potatoes. In my head, I’m not sure whether to laugh or scream. But the rest of dinner goes off without a hitch, and I find myself reclining in my chair with a full belly and a weird feeling of joy at the prospect of not immediately going back to my empty apartment to watch the latest Grey’s Anatomy episode.
As I help the Pearces clean the kitchen, Derek and I meet eyes in a wordless exchange, communicating without speaking in a way I didn’t know was possible again. He tilts his head towards the backdoor, and I nod. We both know his family will be so excited to see us go talk that there’s no need to explain it to them, and once the dishes are all piled up in the sink for Mr. Pearce to clean, I refill my glass of wine and follow Derek out to the barn in the Pearces’ backyard.
He breaks the silence as we walk through the soft grass. “Are you not gonna put shoes on?
I shake my head. “Heels.”
The layer of tension over us remains even once we’re alone, and isn’t aided with the hundreds of memories from all the times we used to sneak back out to this very barn to be alone. Derek licks his lips nervously and I know he’s thinking about the very same things I am. Going to wipe my hands on my dress reminds me of the tough exterior I prepared for tonight, and I know I’m going to need to have my armor on for this conversation.
We walk into the barn and wordlessly climb to the attic, where there are still dozens of throw pillows and blankets piled in the corner. I look at Derek and he shrugs. “It was easier than taking them all down and explaining that I had stolen them from the house over the years”
I grab my favorite of the blankets, a red and white checkered throw, and tuck it over my shoulders. To my surprise, it still smells faintly of my perfume. I wonder if he ever washed them after we broke up. Shaking my head to rid myself of the thoughts of why the blanket smells like me, I wait once more for Derek to speak.
“Why did you come here tonight,” he asks.
“Your mom asked me to.”
“That’s not the real reason.” He knew as well as I did that his mom had asked me dozens of times over the last three years to come over. This was the first time I had said yes.
“I’ve been dating a lot,” I say. If we’re going to get into this, we might as well just dive straight in. “It never works out. The last guy thought I needed closure. So I’m here.”
He snorts. “You’re really telling me your string of hookups wanted more and you never wanted to give it to them.”
“You don’t fucking know me.”
A pause. “I did.”
I sigh. “Pray tell, is your love life any better than mine?”
He waits a moment before raising his eyes to pierce mine. “You and I both know it hasn’t been any good since you.”
He’s not just talking about dating.
I choose to ignore the heat in his eyes, though every urge in my body tells me to just reach over and grab him by the neck of his perfectly fitted collared shirt.
The wine in my hand, which I had completely forgotten about, is now a convenient excuse to not respond. I hold the glass to my mouth and watch Derek over the top of the glass.
He’s still looking at me intently. A few moments pass before he reaches a hand out for the wine and I hand it to him wordlessly. He swirls the wine in the glass, takes a sip and then places the wine out of his reach further down the attic. I raise an eyebrow at him, and he shrugs.
“You feel it too, don’t you? That undeniable pull between us. It’s still here.” He moves towards me, and I gulp, noticing the power behind his muscled body as he gets closer. When he’s next to me, he runs a finger along my jawline, tilting my face up towards his. Time slows down as we stare at each other, his familiar scent hitting me all over as my chest heaves with quick breaths.
This is a bad idea, and I know it. But when he asks me if I want him, I tell him yes, and he pulls me flush against him and kisses me with a passion I had no idea I missed so much. Our bodies collide and the familiar taste of him combined with the red wine on his lips has me moaning as he pulls away from my lips to trail kisses down my neck and along my collarbone. When he asks me if I want to stop I tell him no, never, and he laughs, and that’s the last thing we say for a long while.
Even though I don’t want to move soon after, I pull myself together quickly and throw my dress back over my head. Derek looks at me intently and I worry for a second this means something more to him than what it does to me.
“We’re good, yea? Just getting it out of the system?” He’s still not wearing anything, and I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on his face and to not wander.
“Yeah,” I nod, fixing my hair to the best of my ability. “It means nothing.”
“Still good, though.”
I roll my eyes. “Do you really need me to agree with that? I think you know how I feel about it.”
Derek smirks at me and I throw a blanket at him in response.
I level my gaze at him, knowing I need to shift the tone. Sleeping with him was like scratching a long overdue itch, but that’s certainly not why I agreed to come to dinner tonight. There were plenty of other things we needed to talk about.
“This,” I say, gesturing to him, “may be good, but I need to move on. That breakup was tough.”
He nods, but doesn’t move to get dressed. “I didn’t handle it well.”
It is nice to have this conversation without the emotion involved. Maybe the sex was necessary after all. “I thought you were going to propose and instead, you broke things off suddenly.”
He doesn’t wince, but looks uncomfortable. The memory is pretty clear in both of our minds, though it isn’t one I’ve chosen to revisit in years. “I was going to.”
I blink at him. “The fuck?”
“I was going to propose. And then I panicked. Thought you deserved more, that you were going places and I wasn’t.”
Words are completely escaping me. “What?”
He runs a hand through his now-messy hair, no longer caring about the facade of perfection. “I had a ring in my pocket that night. But I didn’t think I would be able to make you as happy as you deserved. So I left instead.”
“Let me get this straight. You dumped me because you loved me?”
“I would have said yes, you do know that, right?”
I glare at him at the third ‘yup’. He shrugs again, the motion so familiar that I almost smile.
Needing a moment to process, I lean against the wood beams of the wall and fidget with my hands. Since we broke up, Derek had become one of the most well-known real estate agents in the city. It was completely baffling to think that he had at one point thought he was never going to amount to anything. There had never been any doubt in any of our minds, however, that I was going to take over the world. I wondered if my ambition had made him question his own worth, and the very thought of that made my heart hurt, even years later.
“What does this mean, now?” I asked him gently, knowing that even with the years of healing, this pain lingered for him as it did for me.
“Nothing, really. Just that you know the truth now.”
“How are you so blasé about this?” I’m genuinely confused at his turnaround of emotion.
He looks up at me again, and even with the blanket, he looks years younger. “I’m not. But you want to move on, so I want you to have the full story so you can be happy.”
I cock my head at him, and ask the one question I should probably keep to myself. “Do you want me back?” It’s not an invitation and I know that he knows this.
“I’m always going to want you back. But I know I did some serious irreparable damage. And I get it if you never want me again.” He brushes his hair back before continuing. “That’s why I gave you all the space these last years. I wouldn’t blame you if you hate me.”
I cut in. “I don’t hate you. I’m just…processing. It’ll take some time.”
He nods again before telling me to turn around so he can get dressed. I laugh at this, but do it nonetheless. The time for bad dirty jokes is not now.
We walk back to the house in the dark, the crickets chirping around us and the cool breeze kissing my cheeks. Derek is quiet, but the tension that was surrounding us before we left is gone. Instead of going inside, we slip around the side of the house to the front, where I grab my shoes. He walks me to my car, and stops to appreciate it once we get there.
“You got nice wheels now, Cami. Very fancy.”
“I got made partner. What else was I gonna buy? Shoes?” We both laugh at that, though I did spend some amount of my first large paycheck on new shoes.
The silence lingers for a moment after my bad joke. “Well, what now?” Derek asks curiously.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “I know it’s been a couple years, but I need a little bit to process all this new information.” The ring. The proposal that wasn’t. The love he still holds for me. My head is still spinning, and I wonder if it’ll ever stop.
Continuing, I tell him that I’ll text him when I’m ready to talk, or to let him know what I’m going to do. “But please thank your parents for dinner. And give Maisie my number. It’ll make her happy.”
He chuckles at the mention of his sister. “I will. On both counts.”
I take him in one last time, appreciating his physicality but also memorizing the stature of him. “We’ll talk soon.” I give him a hug, holding on a second too long and just breathing him in. He knows I’ll call. Neither of us know what I’ll have to say. When I pull away, he tells me to get home safe, and I climb into my car, wave and drive away. I leave the radio off the entire drive home, my head swirling with thoughts. I get home and immediately pass out on my bed, fully dressed.
A few months later, I pick up the phone and call Derek. We’ve been texting off and on, but it’s time to talk for real. He picks up immediately, and I tell him that I’m ready to talk.
“Dinner tonight at Le Fou Frog?”
I hang up the phone and go get ready for the most important conversation of my life. And when I leave for the restaurant, I am prepared. Derek is dressed to the nines, and opens the door for me. We sit down, order wine, and he looks at me across the table and smiles softly.