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You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 3


When we park in front of Brandy’s, Nicholas sees Zach on the porch and eyes me sideways.

“Great. That guy is here,” Nicholas mutters. He knows his name, but he’s pretending not to. Tonight he’ll pretend he doesn’t know any of their names, like they’re below his notice, as revenge for them not liking him.

Zach isn’t doing anything but petting a cat on the porch railing, but I’ve complained about him ten thousand times to Nicholas for sneaking food from my lunchbox at work and regularly bailing on his shifts without any notice, so as much as I want to argue with every word that comes out of his mouth, I look down at my cards and decide not to play my hand.

“How long do we have to stay?” he grumbles. “Will there be food? I didn’t eat before I left. And I don’t want to be out late. I have things to do tomorrow.” You’d think I forced him to come. I try to remember what falling in love felt like and can’t recall. It must have been over with very quickly.

I think he senses I’m losing my patience because when I slam my door, he doesn’t say a word, just stuffs his hands in his pockets and follows slowly like he’s on his way to the electric chair.

I have never behaved this way when roles are reversed and we’re spending time with Nicholas’s friends. I have perpetual purple shadows under my eyes and every time they see me they ask me if I’m sick. Every.

Single. Time. One of these friends is an ex of Nicholas’s, so I know she’s doing it just to screw with me.

Zach’s eyes sharpen when they narrow on Nicholas, who’s stomping up the driveway with a scowl. Zach stops petting the cat and takes a long swallow of beer, one finger crooking around the glass neck. He never takes his eyes off Nicholas as he drains the whole bottle. “Well, well, well,” he says with a smirk. “Look who’s gracing us with his presence.”


Nicholas tries not to break eye contact first because they’re doing some kind of male standoff thing, but he’s looking a little unnerved. Zach holds the door open for me, which is the first chivalrous thing I’ve ever seen him do. He slips in behind me before Nicholas can get up the last step and lets the door swing shut in his face.

I glare at Zach and open the door for my stricken fiancé, who has never been treated so rudely in his life. He will surely call his mother later and tell her all about it. Zach gives me his patented dead-eyed expression, shrugs, and walks into the kitchen without a backward glance.

Nicholas doesn’t belong in this part of my life, and we both know it.

He’s here because he took my laugh as a dare, and he’s every bit as spiteful as I am. Game night has lost its joy for me, and I know down to the bottom of my soul that this is going to end badly.

GET OUT HERE NOW, I text Nicholas. It’s only been half an hour and he’s taken five trips to the bathroom to pet Brandy’s cat, which she’s stowed away since I’m allergic. His excessive bathroom-lurking is stalling the flow of Cards Against Humanity and people are starting to get annoyed.

When he scuttles out of hiding, he’s so busy glowering at me that he accidentally steps on one of Brandy’s masks that’s fallen off the wall, and cracks it.

She has a row of beautiful carved wooden masks of animal faces in her hallway, celebrating her Yup’ik heritage. Most are of animals you’d find in Alaska, like bears, seals, and wolves. It’s been her lifelong dream to move to southwest Alaska, where her parents are from, and we routinely scroll through real estate websites hunting for the sort of house we want her to live in. In the meantime, she’s tried to give her house an Alaskan feel with cedar furniture and a faux fireplace.

“Way to go,” says Zach.

Nicholas blushes, tugging a hand through his hair to cup the back of his neck. “I’m so sorry. What, uh, what is this thing? I’ll replace it for you.”

If Brandy’s upset, she hides it well. “No worries. With a little wood glue, it’ll be good as new!” She plucks up the mask and hurries away into the kitchen.

“I can pay for a replacement. How much did it cost?”

“Let him pay you,” Zach encourages. “It’s the least he could do. Wow, Doc, you really wanna leave, huh? Coming in here and breaking shit.”

“It was an accident,” I hiss, rubbing Nicholas’s shoulder. Nicholas tenses and shifts aside. I notice that Melissa witnessed this, so I step closer to Nicholas again.

“No worries!” Brandy sings again, looking a bit frantic. “It’s all good.

Let’s get back to the game.” She takes her job as hostess very seriously, so she’s eager to smooth this over. Nicholas could step on every mask she owns and she’d smile and apologize for leaving them out on the walls where anybody could step on them. “Is everyone having fun? Yeah? This is fun!”

Nicholas’s eyes dart between Zach and Melissa, who trade whispers and grins. I’m not close enough to hear what they’re saying, but Nicholas is.

His jaw clenches.

Melissa giggles. Her eyes fall to Nicholas’s polished loafers and she makes a low comment to Zach. I don’t hear his entire reply, but he makes sure the last three words are audible. Trying too hard.

“How’s that tooth?” Nicholas asks him in a tone that is not at all nice.

Zach once went to Nicholas for a toothache, and when he said a root canal would be necessary it blew up into this whole ordeal with “Dentists just want people’s money!” and “Dentists exaggerate minor problems to defraud insurance companies!” Someone in the waiting room recorded six minutes of the tirade and put it on the Internet, then linked it to Rise and Smile’s Yelp page. My fiancé and coworker are now low-grade nemeses.

Zach gives him a disingenuous smile. “All better.” Not true. Zach has refused to go back to the dentist and can no longer chew on the right side of his mouth. “I went to Turpin, which is where I recommend everyone go.”

“Hey, I have an idea,” I say. “Let’s get back to the game.”

Melissa ignores me. “The people at Turpin are more professional,” she says.

Zach nods. “And not self-important quacks.”

Brandy’s starting to sweat. “Let’s … ah … let’s all get along. No problems, okay? Whose turn is it?” She sounds like a harried preschool teacher.

“I don’t have a problem,” Melissa says sweetly. Her stare cuts to Nicholas. “Do you have a problem?”

Zach looks elated. He loves drama and definitely wants someone to have a problem.

Nicholas’s face darkens as he grows quiet. A storm cloud above my head begins to rotate, sucking all of my energy. When I want him around, he’s never there. When I don’t want him around, he’s the devil on my shoulder. If he gets into a fight with my friends, my work life is going to suck. Will he care? No.

We’re playing Clue at the kitchen table when Nicholas makes his next move. His ego is all bruised and battered now, so it was only a matter of time before he struck back.

He turns to Melissa. Cocks his head. “Didn’t you use to go out with Seth Walsh?”

He knows damn well that Melissa used to date Seth. He also knows that Seth cheated on her with a married dental hygienist who works with him.

Rise and Smile is a hotbed of scandal.

Melissa glares at him, then me. “Yeah.”

“Hmm. Why’d you break up, again?”

Cyclops from X-Men has nothing on the burning fury in Melissa’s stare.

“We broke up,” she says venomously, “because I was walking out of the West Towne Mall one day and I saw Seth’s car in the parking lot. When I went over there, he was in the back seat screwing another woman.” She doesn’t add it, but we all think of the rest: On top of Melissa’s Lawrence University sweater.

I vividly remember the day she discovered them. At that point, I’d been working at the Junk Yard, a shop of eclectic finds, for roughly three months and Melissa and I were friendly. We bonded over our mutual loathing of Zach’s playlist, which he subjects us to on Wednesdays when it’s his turn to control the music, as well as owning the same checkered shirt and red jeans, which we used to purposefully wear on the same day.

I haven’t worn my checkered shirt together with my red jeans since our falling out, because I don’t want her to think I pine for the good old days when she didn’t vibrate with fury at the sight of me. How could you not have known? Nicholas’s BFF getting it on with Nicholas’s own coworker!

He had to have known, and he would’ve told you about it. You let me make a fool of myself over that guy and didn’t say anything. I truly didn’t know Seth was cheating and still feel guilty for introducing them. Nicholas says he didn’t know, either, but I can’t make any promises on that front.

“Seth’s an asshole,” Zach says, rolling the die and moving one space short of the kitchen door. The murder weapon has got to be the rope, which is the only clue I’ve worked out. Zach’s going to guess everything correctly. He has a superhuman knack for this game and won the previous two rounds as soon as he edged his little Colonel Mustard game piece into a room.

Nicholas, who wouldn’t play unless he got to be Professor Plum, cuts Zach a dirty look. “You don’t even know Seth, so don’t talk about him.

He’s my friend.”

“Doesn’t say much about you, then.” Zach is honestly fearless and he will tell you exactly what he thinks about you, right to your face. It’s a quality I find nerve-racking when I’m on the receiving end of it, and right now I’m somewhere between reveling in watching someone stand up to Nicholas and embarrassment that my personal guest is about to ruin this party. I forget to be an actress who pretends to be one hundred percent in love, and Nicholas glances at me, noting my silence, before turning his stare to Zach.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Zach is a shark. “I mean that you choose asshole friends, and that reflects poorly on you.”

Across the table, Brandy fidgets with her Miss Scarlet figurine and Leon’s eyes flash to mine.

“Obviously, Melissa’s still upset about Seth cheating,” Zach continues.

“You could easily keep your mouth shut, since you know she has every right to be upset, but instead you rush to his defense. There’s a reason you’re empathizing with the asshole, and that’s because you see yourself in him. Ergo, you’re also an asshole.”

You could hear a fly land on the wall.

I’m supposed to reach for my poor fiancé’s hand. Tell Zach to shut up.

Declare that we’re leaving. But Nicholas’s expression makes me pause.

His mouth is pursed as he prepares his rebuttal, and he looks around the room with palpable disdain. He’s seeing himself as the successful son of two wealthy pillars of this bite-size community, rescuing the oversugared population of Morris one cavity filling at a time. He’s seeing my coworkers as lowly maggots crawling through the detritus at the bottom of the trash heap. They work at the Junk Yard, which sells alligator heads and novelty whoopee cushions with Whoopi Goldberg’s face on them. Mexican

jumping beans and mugs that say swear words when you fill them with hot water. When he judges my peers and finds them lacking, he forgets that I’m one of them. To Nicholas, it’s Us versus Them.

Brandy looks anxious. She’s so sweet and bubbly that I doubt she’s ever seriously argued with anyone in her life, and people not getting along is the worst thing that can happen right in front of her.

“Zach,” I belatedly warn through gnashed teeth.

“Can you try to get along with everybody?” Brandy implores him.

“Does anyone want more pizza rolls? I have cupcakes, too. Everyone have everything they need?” She half rises from her chair. “Water? Soda?”

Zach pushes her back into her seat with two fingers on her shoulder.

“I’m getting along with everybody just fine. Your turn.”

Brandy’s hand trembles as she rolls the die, and Nicholas is all finished deciding what vulgar thing he wants to say to Zach.

“I understand why you’re so emotional. Having no real job security would put anyone on edge. Your store doesn’t get more than, what, three customers a day? You’ve got to be hemorrhaging money.” He flashes the same disingenuous smile that Zach has been giving him all evening.

“When you’re ready, I know a guy at the temp agency who can help you.”

Zach raises two eyebrows at me, like we’re sharing a private joke Nicholas isn’t in on, then says to him, “You’re aware that your girlfriend works at the same place I do, right? If it closes, we’re not the only ones out of a job.”

“I make plenty of money. Naomi doesn’t need a job.”

Anger steams off me like ultraviolet rays.

“The store’s doing fine,” I say, which is a big fat lie. The store’s on its last wheezes. It’s been around forever, since Mr. and Mrs. Howard got married in the seventies, and at one time was widely popular because we specialize not only in gag gifts but in bizarre curiosities. People used to make our store a road trip destination. But ever since the dawn of Amazon and eBay, you don’t need to go out of your way to find weird, cultish knickknacks. With one click, you can have them delivered right to your door.

Mr. and Mrs. Howard know they can’t compete with online shopping, which is why our hours have been steadily scaling back and they finally sold their beloved Homer-Simpson-as-Elvis statue, who’s been greeting customers in the doorway since 1997. They’re so kindhearted that they can’t bear to down-size the staff, even though two of us could easily be running the Junk Yard for them instead of five.

There’s barely enough work to go around for everybody, and we’re all desperate for more hours. The phrase last to be hired, first to be fired follows me around like the Ghost of Christmas Future.

“The store’s on the brink of collapse,” Nicholas says flippantly, waving his hand. “Won’t affect you, Naomi. You’ll be fine.”

Brandy makes a strangled sound. “What do you mean, it won’t affect her? Naomi loves the Junk Yard.”

Nicholas says nothing, just taps his cards into a neat stack. It’s the last straw.

“If the Junk Yard closes, I might ask the Howards if they’ll hire me to work at their diner.” Mr. and Mrs. Howard run a year-round haunted house up in Tenmouth as well as a diner for strange foods inspired by horror films, called Eaten Alive.

Everyone stares at me. The vein in Nicholas’s forehead pulses. “Isn’t that a long drive from here?”

It’s perfect timing that I get to roll the die while I dramatically say,

“Two hours.”

His voice is deadpan. “You’d drive two hours to go to work. At a diner.

Then two hours back home, every day.”

“Mm.” I pretend to consider. “If I move to Tenmouth, it would only be a five-minute drive. I could ride my bicycle, even.”

I’ve captured the whole room, and it’s magnificent. A sparkle of the old Naomi Westfield appears, blowing off ten months’ worth of dust. At least, I think it’s her. It’s been so long since that Naomi and I have been in the same room together that I’m not sure I’d recognize her if we passed each other on the street.

My minuscule Mrs. White is in the library now next to Leon’s Mr.

Green, ready to accuse someone of murder. She’s got a length of rope, and I pick over my options to see who I’m going to hang with it.

My eyes fall upon the pompous little fucker loitering in the billiard room.

Bingo. Professor Plum.

This Professor Plum is a particularly hypocritical incarnation who warns children away from sugary snacks while letting Skittles pool all over his side of the bed on a nightly basis. He’s a villain escaped from Candy Land. He’s the thief of my joy and future father of my children.

Right now I love him twenty percent.

Nicholas’s tone is frozen solid. “My life is here. I’m not moving to Tenmouth and giving up my life for you to serve grilled cheese to truckers, Naomi.”

When he calls me Naomi, he definitely means Mrs. Nicholas. The diamond on my left hand is too tight, cutting off my circulation. The twenty percent shrinks to a ten, an all-time low that trips my self-preservation sirens. They’re flashing and spinning, Red alert! Red alert!

“I want to make an accusation,” I say at the precise moment he says with smooth authority, “I think we should call it a night.” But my guess might end the game, so he waits and listens.

I draw it out, just to antagonize him. He hates when I let two ends of a sentence drift apart. “I accuse …”

Nicholas leans forward.

I pick up his game piece and float him over to the library. He’ll like it there, where he can stock shelves with books about brushing your teeth in circular motions instead of from side to side. “Professor Plum.”

Brandy gasps. Melissa scribbles furiously on her detective notepad.

Zach’s eyes glint with malevolent joy. Nicholas just looks annoyed. But Leon, I see, is smiling. Just barely, but enough that when my eyes rest on him, he gives me an interesting look.

It says So this is where you’ve been.

In a strong, bold voice, I march on: “I accuse Professor Plum of murder!

He did it in the library, like a pretentious asswit, and he used the candlestick.” I know it’s not the candlestick because I’ve got that card myself, but I throw it in there anyway because: “It’s the stupidest possible weapon.”

Nicholas stares deeply into my eyes for an eternal spiral of time, and it’s entirely possible that we are going to break up over a board game, which would be a hell of a way to go out. His mother’s going to have a bonanza getting all her deposits back. The opportunity to call up small-business owners and yell that they’d better not charge her for an ice sculpture of roses will be the cherry on top of her year.

“Go on, then.” His eyes don’t leave mine as he jerks his chin to the center of the board. I realize that I’ve fallen asleep on the color of Nicholas’s eyes, which for whatever reason I’ve been thinking are gray. Up close, fierce with challenge, they’re every color of the rainbow.

Oblivious that I’m having an epiphany, he glares and his irises darken from pale silver to forest green like a mood ring. “Check the cards.”

I do so as slowly and theatrically as possible, warming up to the old Naomi. He wants so badly to knock over his Professor Plum figurine and cross his arms, but he’s trying to remain civilized. Dentists already have a bad reputation with phobics and he can’t afford any more negative press, even among the crawling maggots of Junk Yard personnel.

I check the cards and let out a hiss. Zach looks at me knowingly.

Mrs. White, in the kitchen, with the rope. “Well, wouldn’t you know it!

Looks like I’m the murderer,” I say cheerfully. “Didn’t think I had it in me.” Nicholas casts me a distrusting look. I think he’s going to be sleeping with one eye open tonight.

The worst part about this whole evening is how quickly Nicholas forgets it.

We’re at home now, where I’m still irritated and he isn’t. The man is baking cookies, and he’s promised to wash up all the dishes, and now I have nowhere to point my anger because he’s Over It, which means he’s won.

He offers me a spatula to lick, which I refuse because maybe his trick is to use salmonella to kill me, and he plants a sloppy kiss on my hair and breaks away smiling down at me like I’m an innocent child.

He knows I can’t argue with him now, because if I dredge up anything negative I’ll look petty. So I stay in my well-worn position on the sofa (far right), where I’ve logged a thousand hours pretending to watch television and pretending to listen to Nicholas and pretending to be happy.

I snap a picture of him with his back turned to me and post it to my Instagram with a rosy filter. I caption it with three hearts and Game night with my love! No better way to cap off an awesome day, and there’s no one else I’d rather spend it with. xoxo. #LivinTheLife #MarryingMyBestFriend

#TrueLovesKissFromARose

#TrueLovesKissFromARose is our wedding hashtag and if you look it up on Pinterest you’ll find one million pictures of bouquets, table settings, and bridesmaid dresses that I like (but am not allowed to have). Dopamine trickles in with the first response to my post: omg you guys are so cute; but the plush, pillowy feeling grinds down to metal on metal when Zach replies with lmao. yeah right. I delete his comment.

It’s my own fault that I’m still in this mess, and I know it. I’m the biggest coward I’ve ever met. I’m doing neither of us a favor by refusing to back out. If Nicholas had half a brain he’d be calling it off, too, so maybe we’re locked in some silent draw, waiting to see who bows out first.

I know why he won’t. His mother’s been nagging him to marry and give her grandchildren to rank from most to least favorite, depending on whose physical features our unfortunate progeny inherit. If Nicholas jumps ship now, Deborah will revert back to nagging him to procreate using the frozen, ten-year-old eggs of her friend from tennis, Abigail, who died a year ago and for whatever ungodly reason left her eggs to the Rose family.

Heather, Nicholas’s sister, is to be the incubator for this abomination of a child.

I can’t jump ship, either. I’ve been shouting to the world that I’m perfectly happy in my perfect relationship, and if I run now I’m going to look like a fraud.

Aside from that, Mrs. Rose has hinted more than once that if I back out, she’ll bill me for her troubles. If I leave her son, she’ll undoubtedly take me to small claims court to be reimbursed for Swarovski crystal candleholders customized with the letter R ( everything has been custom-ordered to feature the letter R), which I wasn’t involved in picking out. I don’t have a ton of savings, but I do have a little bit tucked away, and I’ll defend it with teeth and nails.

“Mom’s still going on and on about the prenup,” Nicholas is saying from the next room. Maybe we’ve been here all evening and my imagination made up going to Brandy’s. I’m sitting in the same spot, while staring at the same spot, and that uneasy churning in the pit of my stomach is a third, invisible member of our party. It materializes reliably whenever we talk about the wedding.

“I told her no way,” he continues when I don’t respond. “She and Dad never got one. Why should we? It’s not like you’d ever leave me.”

Nicholas loves to congratulate himself for not getting a prenuptial agreement. He thinks about it all the time, which I know because he won’t stop bringing it up. He’s waiting for me to jump in with a pat on the back, but I leave him hanging.

“Mandy’s haircut looks awful,” Nicholas remarks, darting a shrewd glance at me. “Those bangs. Ugh.”

He knows her name is Brandy. I mention her at least once a day. I’m smoking at the ears not just over this, but because I had bangs when Nicholas and I met. He says all the time how pretty I was, and how he fell for me immediately, and yet for about a year now he’s reminded me every time he sees a woman with bangs how much he loathes them.

“They look cute on her,” I say defensively. It’s true. Brandy’s got these quirky piece-y bangs for her shag cut and she pulls it off so well. Her hair’s always top notch. She experiments a lot with colors, and the style of the month is a mesmerizing blend of black and garnet. When she stands outside, the effect that sunlight has on her stunning hair belongs in a commercial. She never leaves the house without a full face of flawless makeup, and is the only person I know who can pull off a combination of electric blue liner, orange ombre eyeshadow, and fuchsia lipstick.

He whistles a low, innocent tune. It feels like If you say so.

I’m losing it so quietly that I am almost not even here. In my mind, I click the file on my computer that notes a list of Nicholas’s positive attributes, running through each memorized line. They’ve lost their power to impress, I think because I’ve reread them so many times that I’ve become desensitized.

Nicholas holds the umbrella for me and makes sure I don’t get wet.

When it’s raining and we park, he sidles up so that my passenger door opens to the sidewalk and not the muddy, grassy part of the curb. He has my order at all our restaurants mentally bookmarked, so he can recite exactly what I want to the waiter while I’m in the bathroom.

He has thick, beautifully rumpled chocolate-brown hair and he gets side-eyed by a lot of women whenever we go out. He says my eyes are the color of champagne, which became his favorite drink after we met for that very reason, and I had a wonderfully bubbly, fizzy sensation course through my veins whenever he smiled at me.

He likes dogs. Not enough to get one, but enough to chuff a laugh while I kneel to pet someone else’s dog, just before he says jokingly, “Don’t get any ideas.”

He doesn’t sneakily watch our favorite shows without me. If a song comes on the car radio that he hates, he doesn’t automatically change the station but first asks if I like it. He still wears a pair of socks with a poodle print that I got for him when we were first dating, even though it was a joke gift.

These might sound like minor traits, or even givens that I should take for granted, but I hold on to them like life preservers.

I love these things about the man. But I do not love the man.

I know this with all of my heart, sitting here in the house we live in together, the countdown to our wedding ticking louder and louder with each passing day. A doomsday clock. He and I are going to be a disaster, but whenever I think of taking proactive steps to avert the disaster, my tongue rolls up and my limbs paralyze. I can’t speak out. I can’t be the one to end this.

If he has a list about me, I’m sure it’s much shorter. I have no idea what I’m bringing to our relationship right now aside from the fact that I’m keeping dead Abigail’s frozen eggs at bay.

Thinking about this is prodding the wound, making it bigger, making it worse because I’m growing more aware of the breadth of my anxiety, the depth of my dissatisfaction. It is both therapy and torture. Something is not right. Something is missing. I am in knots.

I have no right to feel this unhappy, and I wish Nicholas were inarguably horrid so I could justify leaving. I fantasize about happening upon him with a dental hygienist in the back of his car at a shopping mall.

He thinks our relationship is perfect, or so he says. It’s what I say to people, too. He tells everybody that I’m great. He thinks I adore him.

We’re the only ones who know what Real Love is.

“What do you want for dinner tomorrow?” I ask in a tone that sounds like I love him. It’s an effort, and I’m exhausted.

“You pick.”

“Chicken tacos.”

“I was thinking stir-fry,” he replies, and I know it’s utterly unfair but my ten percent drops to nine. At this stage of the game, it takes nothing at all to dock points. If he breathes too loudly in his sleep tonight he’ll wake up to a score of negative fifty. Keeping points like this is terrible. I’m terrible. Our relationship might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but when I go over it while in a positive frame of mind, it doesn’t look that bad, so then I’m unsure.

How did I fall in love with Nicholas? How did we even meet? I can’t remember anything good because it’s been overshadowed by the intense dislike I feel now. Maybe we met on a dating app. Maybe I was getting a crown put on. Maybe we were both walking briskly around a street corner from opposing sides and ran into each other like something from a movie, loose papers and to-go cups and my purse clashing in the air. All I know is that a few months ago I woke up from a very long sleep and discovered I was engaged to someone I can barely stand.

“Sweetie,” he says, which is what he calls me when it’s payday or his favorite team won or he knows he’s screwed up and needs to grovel. “I forgot to say. Mom had an appointment with the florist earlier and she wanted me to tell you she’s changing it from delphiniums to carnations or something like that.” He waves his hand in a circle. “You’d probably know better than me. Flowers are more important to women.”

“You don’t think I might have wanted a say in the type of flowers we have at our wedding?” I reply. “What about you? Don’t you want a say?”

Nicholas blinks at me. There’s an emotion hiding in his eyes, and I try to identify it before he turns his head to a sharper angle and it vanishes.

“It’s already settled. She picked carnations, since you were so ridiculously adamant that it not be roses. Or do you think it’s not too late to make changes? Think hard, Naomi. Anything you want to back out of?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What do you think I mean by that?”

My eyes narrow. “Are you suggesting I back out of the carnations even though you literally just said that we’re already settled on the carnations?”

“Maybe I’m not talking about carnations at all.”

My spine snaps straight and I hold his stare, picking that emotion back to his surface. And I realize.

He’s fraying my ropes.

“Oh?”

Nicholas lifts his shoulder. Lets it drop. “We could talk about anything.

What do you say, Naomi? Anything you want to get off your chest?” He waits patiently for a response, but all I can do is stare at him. My mind is going a zillion miles an hour, zinging from revelation to revelation. I can’t believe I’ve been so dense.

All along I’ve thought Mrs. Rose has been pulling the strings, but it’s been Nicholas, using Deborah’s nails-on-a-chalkboard powers to drive me to the point where I’ll call this off. I’ll be the crazy ex-girlfriend who snapped; I’ll be at fault for everything and responsible for the steep costs of a broken engagement and lavish wedding. Everyone will feel bad for him because of what he had to undergo, jilted at the altar.

I can see him now, chin held high. I just want her to be happy, he’ll say.

A garden of Roses will sigh breathlessly and wonder how any angel could be so composed in such a dreadful situation. He’ll screw up his eyes and think about that time a guy in a truck clipped his car, and squeeze out a single tear.

For the space of a heartbeat, I see our situation through his eyes. If I end this and he gets to pretend to mourn the death of our relationship, he can easily milk that for at least a year. A year of Deborah not riding his ass over giving her grandchildren because “the wounds are still fresh.”

Everyone around him will bend over backward to accommodate him. If he ends it, on the other hand, I’ll come out of this looking golden. I won’t be at fault; no one will call me a fraud. If anything, I’ll gain sympathy points.

People will say How could he let you go? and If you ever need to talk to someone, I’m here.

When you build a life with someone, so many of your building blocks prop up your partner, and you’re propped up by theirs, until your foundations merge and walking away risks destabilization for you both.

We have joint checking and savings accounts. Our phones are on the same plan. Both of our names are on the lease, and it stands to reason that whoever bails forfeits the house. His parents have invested in me, grooming me into Mrs. Rose material. We have obligations together.

Long-term plans. I can’t cut a line between Nicholas and me and float away free, because we have tangles.

Yes. I look at him and for once, I can see outside my own cloud of resentment long enough to see that he’s got one of his own. He’s perceptive, all right. He’s already known for some time what I’m feeling.

I’m not a good actress after all.

Our love percentage plummets to zero and a tremor shudders through the floor. Tiles and furniture tip into a crevice that snakes all the way down to the earth’s core, separating kitchen and living room, him and me. The truth is plain, unfolding before us, but as usual I am late to catch on because I’ve been holding it all in and trying to rationalize away my gut instincts. Focused on myself, so wrapped up in trying to hide that I don’t even notice which moves he’s making.

My engagement to Nicholas Rose is a game of chicken.


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