I assume most everybody has, at some point, seen Love, Actually. And regardless of your feelings about the film, you probably know the storyline about the guy in love with his best friend’s wife, who he eventually tells his feelings to via series of poster boards.
It’s both romantic and douchey at the same time. Mostly douchey, of course, when you really think about it. It’s his best friend’s wife, for crying out loud. Couldn’t he have brought the matter up before the wedding?! Or not at all? That doesn’t make for a good romantic comedy.
Yet somehow I’d managed to find myself in a similar position to Poster Board Douchebag. Worse: he hadn’t introduced his best friend to his wife.
When I caught Claudia and Eric in the bathroom, I about faced and left. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 or your lunch entree. I got in my car and drove the fuck away.
Since then, I hadn’t returned a single of Claud’s texts… for a week and a half. I cancelled my sessions with Eric, saying I had to work late and early every day, because of acoustics emergencies. (To be clear, I design soundproofing. There are no emergencies. But non-scientists will believe anything.) And to avoid facing Keith, I did end up spending extra time at work, doing things that could have been put off until the next day, staying in the office until the last person left, even though I usually arrived first each morning.
I knew I was responding irrationally, but I couldn’t control it. I had a boyfriend, was practically married, for all intents and purposes, and she’d had a shitty run of the dating world. She deserved a nice guy. Such a nice guy that she was so attracted to that she had no qualms doing it with him in a public bathroom.
So why did it feel like I’d gone entirely numb?
“You doing okay?” Keith asked one night over dinner.
“Yeah, just busy at work.” I poked at my pile of sesame zoodles, twirling some around my fork but unable to lift them to my mouth. Suddenly, I had the urge to blurt out, What are we doing here? Our whole life felt so static and bland, no forward momentum. We’d still be eating dinner, just the two of us, probably at the same table with the same dishes, when we were 50, 70.
“Yeah… They seem to be working you pretty hard. When was the last time you were able to go to the gym?”
I lay my fork on my plate. “I have a headache. I think I’m going to lie down.”
He furrowed his brows. “Okay. You haven’t eaten much, though.”
“I’ll have a protein drink.”
“Want me to make you a smoothie? Get you some fruit in there as well?”
I shook my head.
I went upstairs and lay on my side, watching the view out the window. The days were still long, but the evening was cloudy, suffusing everything with a tinge of gray. Once I lay down, I couldn’t move, my whole body heavy. All I could do was listen to the in and out of my breath. Part of my brain reminded me that if one of my friends were acting this way, I’d tell them to just get on with their lives, that sulking would only make them feel worse. I was depressed about nothing.
Eventually, after I don’t know how long, the door creaked open and I felt the weight of Keith sitting on the bed behind me.
“How you doing?”
I didn’t answer, and I felt him lie down on the bed, a few inches away from me. His hand started rubbing my back, slowly and gently. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the warmth of his hand.
Finally, I said, “Sorry. I don’t know what’s up with me.”
“You’ve been pushing yourself pretty hard lately.”
“Idea.” He stopped rubbing my back and lifted himself up onto an elbow. With effort, I rolled over so I could look at him more easily. “Why don’t we go to New York for the weekend? Drive down Friday after you get done with work, drive back Sunday evening. Catch a show. Even,” he paused and lowered his voice to a somber tone, “go shopping.”
I had to smile. He hated shopping. The vast majority of his clothes came from Costco. Everything else he got on Amazon. The rare occasion he went into a store with me, he sped through the racks, barely giving me a chance to look at anything. Fifth Avenue was his personal hell.
Claudia may have Eric, I told myself, but I have a pretty great guy, too. “Yeah,” I told him. “That sounds nice.”
* * *
Of course, on Friday I did end up getting stuck at work because we needed some new data to a client, then traffic back from the office was abysmal, then I still needed to throw together an overnight bag, then my blood sugar got low, so I needed to eat before we left rather than plan to eat once we got there… which meant Keith and I didn’t get on the road until well after 7:30. By the time we checked into the hotel, it was after 9. I literally went into the bathroom to pee, and by the time I came out, Keith had passed out on the bed, because #schoolteacher. Thus, our romantic weekend began essentially the same as any other weekend, with me watching the latest episode of Bachelor in Paradise on my iPad with headphones while Keith snored away.
The next morning, I woke up to a set of teeth clamped (gently) around my arm. I blinked away the sleep, and found my boyfriend latched onto my forearm. When I made I contact, he let go and said, with an utterly straight face, “I’m hungry.”
I rolled my eyes but managed a smile (it usually took me at least 16 ounces of coffee to be able to emote properly in the morning). “Give me a sec. I can shower. What time is it?” I glanced at my phone. 6:40. I groaned. “Keith. For the love of all things holy.”
“What? We’re always up this early on the weekend.”
“You are.” I grabbed a pillow and put it over my head.
“Mmm… I’m pretty sure you’d be on a run about now.”
He wasn’t wrong, but I waited to move the pillow. My body felt like it had jello sludging through its veins. After a few last moments of darkness, I moved it and said, “There’s a difference between waking up on your own and being woken up.”
He gave me puppy-dog eyes. C’mon, Stace, I told myself. Don’t be a dick. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and hoisted myself to a seated position. “Okay, okay. There’s a new breakfast place I wanted to try out, but I don’t think they open until 8.”
“Oh. I kind of wanted to get bagels and start wandering. Like we usually do.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose, but didn’t answer. Even if I went all-out getting ready– which of course I wasn’t going to do for just bopping around the city– it wouldn’t take me that long. So we would just have time to kill.
My stomach grumbled.
He continued, “We can get more coffee beans. And pick up a babka for Claudia. And pick up three babkas for me.” (Side note: I would like to point out that it seems like some sort of sick cosmic joke that my two most favorite people in the world both have horrifying sweet tooths while I’ve had type one diabetes since I was twelve. Thankfully, treatment has improved a lot in the past 25 years, so I can have the occasional treat, but I have legit seen Keith house over half of one of the aforementioned chocolate babka in one sitting. To be clear, that is disgusting and concerning, and I’ve told him many times. I can feel my arteries hardening just by being near him when he eats like that.)
“Okay, okay. Let me shower.”
Forty-five minutes later, we stood in line at Zabars, the air heavy with the smell of bread, cinnamon, and coffee. Going to Zabars always reminded me of weekends with my dad as a teen, since he lived on the Upper West Side. For years it grossed me out that he would get smoked fish and capers on his bagel every time we went there, but then one day, after my first real hangover in college, it sounded fantastic: salt and brine and that chewy bagel. I’ve been hooked since. He always went for old-fashioned herring, but I tried the peppered nova in my twenties and never looked back.
“So what should we do today?” I asked.
“I was looking on my phone while you showered, and there’s that Unseen Ocean thing at the Natural History Museum.”
I wrinkled my nose. “We went to the museum the last time we were here.”
He nodded. “Fair. Um. The Met? MOMA?”
“I’m not feeling very museum-y.” I snapped my fingers. “Oh! You know what I’ve wanted to do since it opened? See Sleep No More. That immersive play at the hotel based on some Shakespeare play.”
“So that instead of finding something on Broadway?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t that sound like fun? You wander through five floors of this hotel. Here–” I googled the show on my phone, “Tickets are… $140 dollars a person.”
He coughed. “What?!”
“It’s not that bad. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can pay for it.”
“I mean, I’m not really concerned with whether we can afford it. But should we really spend that much money on anything?”
“You would spend that much on Hamilton tickets, I bet.”
“Is it? It’s just more well-known.”
“Yes. Thus, different. Also it’s a musical. And not Shakespeare.”
I held back a sigh and studied the food cases in front of us. “Okay. How about this? Instead of going to an art museum, why don’t we check out the galleries in Chelsea?”
He nodded unenthusiastically. “Okay…”
“Or, you know, I’ve wanted to try Drag Queen Bingo. I forgot where it is, but I think they have it on Saturday nights.”
Now he looked downright skeptical. “Bingo? Really?”
“With drag queens!”
“I think that’s something you should save for a girl’s weekend.”
I did sigh then.
So we ended up doing what we always did– grabbing our bagels and coffee and walking over to Central Park to eat them, then walked around the park a bit, then walked over the 5th Avenue, but the stores weren’t open yet. So we jumped on a train and headed over to the High Line Park in Chelsea, got a second round of coffee. Wash, rinse, repeat.
God, this was boring. How was spending time in my favorite city in the world, with my favorite person in the world, so boring? Was this all our life together amounting to? My throat tightened.
“So?” Keith said. “You want to go over there?”
“Go over where?”
Ugh. Chelsea Market. The last thing I wanted to do was go into a space filled with tourists who didn’t understand the concept of walking in a straight line or, you know, paying attention to the other people around them. I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
“Fine,” Keith barked. He stopped walking.
“Why are you yelling?” I barked back, equally loudly.
“I’m just getting pissed off that I keep suggesting things and you keep shooting them down.”
I considered replying, Well, I’m getting pissed off that I keep suggesting things and you keep shooting them down. Instead, I said, “I have a headache,” Even though I hadn’t had one a moment before, suddenly my temples were throbbing, a sharp line of tension across my forehead. Nausea tumbled in my stomach. “I just want to lie down.”
“You’re serious. We booked a hotel in New York City, and you want to lie in bed.”
“Yes,” I snapped. “It’s not like we’re doing anything interesting anyway.”
“Wow.” Keith blinked and shook his head. “Fine then.”
I knew, logically, I was being a brat. Kind of like an out-of-body experience. Some deep part of my brain kept saying, No, Stace. Stop it. Get it together.
“I’m just saying we always do the exact same things. Zabar’s. Central Park. Natural History Museum. MOMA. A show on Broadway. Maybe, MAYBE if we’re feeling crazy, we head over to Chinatown for dim sum.”
“Last I checked, we do the same things every time because we enjoy doing them.”
“But we might enjoy other things, too.” I threw my arms up in the air. “Like, we always go to New York City. Never, like, Boston. Or Providence. Or, I don’t know, get really crazy and go to another country.”
“Because you’re from New York City and love it.”
“But it’s not going anywhere! Why don’t we ever do anything different?”
“I’m sorry I tried to cheer you up by taking you to your favorite place.”
My eyes blurred with tears. “I want to go home.”
“Home. You want to go home.”
He stared at me, waiting for me to change my mind and apologize. I thought I would, even. But then the words wouldn’t come out, and all I could think about was how I wanted to be lying in bed, bingeing some light, innocuous television show.
I didn’t say anything for the train ride back to the hotel or while we packed our bags. Neither did Keith. Just as he opened the hotel door, he looked back and said, “Really?” Like, Now is the time to say you’re bluffing. When the hotel clerk informed us we would have to forfeit the night’s fees because of the late cancellation, he said, “Stace, let’s talk about this,” but I gave him one quick shake of my head and told the woman that it was fine.
We drove all the way back to Connecticut without saying a single thing to one another.
* * *
When we got home, Keith immediately changed into his workout clothes and left for a run. I collapsed onto the living room couch and flipped through television channels, settled on an episode of Married at First Sight.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the concept of marriage, and no, not just because my own parents divorced when I was thirteen. It seems a bit hokey, this idea that a document can change the value of your relationship. Mostly, it just gets you some tax benefits, and maybe better insurance options.
If I wanted to admit it to myself, it came down to this: I knew that real relationships were not nearly as pretty or romantic as they appeared on television. (Obviously. I’m not a teenager.) But part of me really didn’t want to give into the idea of marriage unless I found something with that kind of… I don’t know. Spark. Excitement.
What I felt when I was around Eric.
But I also knew that wasn’t real, just hormones and lust that would fade over time. I felt that way about Keith when we first met, after all. Every text he sent made me giddy. I stereotypically stole pieces of his clothing, just so I could smell him when we weren’t together. Etc.
When that goes away, what do you have left? I knew there was some comfort in always having him there, going to bed next to him and waking up next to him, of being able to know he was always on my side. He was an undeniably good guy, if predictable. But if there was no destination for us — no marriage, no kids, no whatever else couples were “supposed” to do — if what we were currently was all we’d ever be, what were we doing together?
* * *
I was sitting at the kitchen table when Keith got back.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey.” He turned away and grabbed a glass of water, chugging it down. His skin glistened with sweat. When he finished the glass, he set it down, but continued to face away, his arms braced on the counter.
“Hey, can you look at me?”
He huffed and turned around. “What?”
“I’m sorry about earlier. I’ve just been feeling out of sorts.”
“Okay.” His face remained impassive. I rubbed my hands against my thighs, clenched and unclenched my jaw. Of course he was pissed at me. Why wouldn’t he be?
“I just… I’ve been wondering, where are we going with this, you know?”
He stiffened, stood up straighter and crossed his arms over his chest. His mouth twitched.
I took a deep breath. Looked him straight in the eye. “Let’s get married.”
©2019 Kat Setzer. This page has no affiliation with Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, or any other entity involved with the Baby-Sitters Club Series. Original stock photos ©2019 Aaron Amat and paffy from Adobe Stock Images.