The old friend takes a sip of her drink. "Tell me how it started," she says.
I wipe my hand across his face, then sigh. "There were a million reasons it could never happen. We worked together, and I was, at least unofficially, her boss. She was way too young, and was a practicing Catholic. And she could be as annoying as hell. But that didn't stop me from having a world-class, stupid-guy crush on her. Not that I let it matter. It was just one of the things that made going to work that much more fun and that much more maddening. No big deal." I knock back the last of my dirty Ketel martini, making eye contact with the bartender, and point at my glass. I look down at the bar in front of me, then shake my head. "Until she sent me the text that set my world spinning."
The old friend smiles and listens.
"Thanksgiving dinner with the family was winding down in the usual way; the curmudgeon had gone off to drink his scotch and read; my sister's husband was washing the dishes and drinking some Napa merlot. I was smashing the last vestiges of pumpkin piecrust with the back of my fork, and half-listening to my mother and sister talk about...something. Nobody noticed the phone buzzing in my pocket, so I slipped it under the bottom of the tablecloth and flipped it open. It said, 'You would love what I'm wearing tonight.'"
I lay a hand on my stomach and grimace.
"It was from the Bombshell. She was 1,200 miles away, at an enormous post-prandial Thanksgiving party, and she was drunk texting me. ME. My body went numb for a second. I felt dizzy. It could only be a mistake. The message was definitely meant for someone else."
"Or so you thought," the old friend says, swishing around the ice in her drink.
"Yeah," I say. I sigh. "I responded with, 'I would, huh?' And, damn, the reply with her description gave me the first of six months' worth of stomachaches. It took me a full ten minutes to compose something sufficiently vague to pass the sexual harassment test, but sufficiently suggestive to encourage further flirtation.
"I answered with one word: 'Yum.'
"And then. And then, she nearly killed me." I muster a wan smile, shake my head again, slowly this time. I'm not sure whether to laugh a little, or to groan.
The old friend smiles back, and puts her hand on my cheek. Someone at the end of the bar gives the bartender a hard time. We both look up.
"Jerk." I say.
"How did she nearly kill you?"
I sigh again. "It was the text she sent: 'Want you. Want me?'"
"Uh oh," the old friend mutters.
"Yeah. When I got back to the office the next Monday, we could barely look at each other. We shared secret smiles all day. And at the first moment that we found ourselves alone, she told me we'd have to forget about it. Not while we worked together, at least. I agreed, in theory."
The old friend laughs. "So how did it happen?"
"What's the point?" The vodka has begun to catch up with me. The old friend orders another Stoli and tonic.
"Eric, tell me the story, and then we'll talk about what you should do."
I rub at my stomach again. "I ran into her late one Saturday night at the Public House -- I'd stopped by the bar for a last drink before heading home. She grabbed me and hugged me, we talked for a few minutes, and then she went back to her girlfriends and the guys they were with." I stop, pull an olive off the plastic toothpick with my left hand and take a big drink with my right. "So I took off. I didn't want to see her flirting around with the meatheads at the bar. I had a headache. I felt like a creepy older guy." I put the olive in my mouth, chew it up, swallow it. "I was just starting the car when she called and asked me where I was. She was sad I'd left. She asked me to come back. I couldn't say no." My sigh is a sub-aural groan and an exhalation of breath.
"So you went back," the old friend prompts.
"So I went back and found her. She squeezed me. She was loaded. One of the guys in the group gave me the fisheye. I bought her a Guinness and put away another vodka tonic. She introduced me to the group as someone she worked with. Fisheye guy kept standing a little too close to her, but she didn't seem to care. I felt like I was headed for a train wreck. Everyone decided to make a move for the crappy sports bar down the street, but when we went outside, we found ourselves in the middle of one of those sudden, soft, silent snowstorms." I smile, look up toward the dark ceiling. "It was coming down in big flakes -- no wind. The sidewalks were already blanketed. The Bombshell stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and shrieked with delight, while everyone else skittered into the next bar. I was standing there next to her, and she turned, pulled me close, and kissed me. Hard. So I kissed her back, the wet snow falling on our hair and cheeks. Best. First. Kiss. Ever."
"That's a great beginning!" the old friend says. "And now you're just letting her go?"
"What else can I do? We don't have a future together. She found another job, so that's no longer an issue, but I'm like 15 years older than she is, on top of everything else. She needs a young, Catholic guy with a nice car and a job in finance. Or dermatology."
"But you love her."
"Yeah, I do. And it's tearing me into little pieces."
"So now what?"
"Breaking things off was her idea, but she couldn't help sending me drunk text invitations at two in the morning, and I had no power to decline. I finally told her a couple weeks ago that she had to leave me alone, and I deleted her number." I put my head into my hands, mt elbows resting on the counter. I look at the array of shiny bottles across the bar. Thank goodness there isn't a mirror. "She wants to be friends, but it's too soon. Maybe someday."
I finish my martini, and we wander off to the next bar.
"So the Bombshell called me late Saturday night. Simone was asleep, I was getting ready for bed." I'm driving home from work, talking to the old friend on the phone.
"Oh no!" she says. "I don't like her. That's not fair."
"No, it's okay," I tell her. "I'm okay. She called me from Public House and told me she's madly in love with this guy. He's the one she's going to marry. And though she still gets calls from former lovers, who beg to have her back, it's not a struggle to say no to them. But she feels like something still connects us, and she can't let me go."
"That's messed up," the old friend says. Then I hear her swear. "Some people shouldn't be allowed to drive. So then what?"
I slam on the brakes as traffic inexplicably manifests itself on the highway. "She told me she needs me to tell her I've let her go. She wanted me to say to her that it's impossible for us ever to be together."
"Wow. Did you?"
"No. I couldn't."
"Crap, I don't know. I have no good reason. It's long over. I don't love her the way I did. And we don't have a future together. Ever. But she's still capable of driving a freight train through my heart." The traffic starts to move again, tentatively.
"Then tell her to stop."
You think you need me to do this, but you don't.
Here's me letting you go.
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