“Who is she?” Jill could hear her voice on the edge of hysteria, but she couldn’t stop the words from falling out of her mouth. It felt surreal, standing here. She’d been joking, after all. It was meant to be friendly. That’s what they were now after all – friends. Except he’d just laughed nervously and dodged the question…which could only mean one thing.
She credited him with all that she was but didn’t realize she’d been doing so until this exact moment. Jill suddenly understood what it meant to experience something as if you were no longer in your body, but above it, a free party, untethered. It was like when she realized he’d slept with someone else, her entire identity was wiped clean away.
He’d built her up, pushed her to her limits, and made her feel like she was meaningful. Like her life and her ideas and her efforts were worth sharing with the world. They’d decided they were better apart – or he had. But perhaps she was the one who had said it? She couldn’t really recall in this exact moment.
But she knew that, that night they had spoken, deep in conversation like only true lovers do. They’d cried together, then laughed together, holding hands and stealing looks as though they were young and afraid of the unknown. Could they let go?
Then they had gently kissed goodbye. It hadn’t been so difficult or dramatic. They’d remain close – it was unsaid but understood clearly by both.
And they’d continued on, as just friends. Or so she told herself and anyone else who asked. They were so right – but something was missing. She wanted to be desired – and was that so much to ask? To be loved as fiercely and as deeply as she had loved?
She’d accepted what he could offer her, then. Friendship. They’d continued to be confidants. Or had just she? Had he ever truly confided in her – told her things he’d never told anyone? She couldn’t think.
“Who is she?” she asked again. Damn it, her voice had broken. She’d meant to come off prideful, strong, self-assured. Anything but weak. Had she met this woman? Perhaps Jill had just been a pathetic fool, unable to read the writing on the wall. Had he been obvious about his growing attraction for another?
She could feel that she was curling into herself like a small, lost child. Her heart was breaking right in front of him, but he remained stone faced. Pity, she realized was what was filling his eyes, which made it all the more difficult to keep her pride in tact. She clenched the muscles in her neck, willing herself to remain strong.
“I don’t think I have to tell you that,” he answered coldly, his eyes completely devoid of emotion.
He may as well have slapped her, then. It’s not like he owed her – they were no longer together. And yet, he’d remained deeply rooted inside her heart. She thought the feeling was mutual. That with time and space, they’d slowly move on together. He’d led her to believe so. Asking her out for dinners and day trips. Being her cheerleader. Driving them places together. Spending time with her in coffee shops, quietly reading or working next to one another. Accepting too her invitations. The last few months were like the previous years they’d known each other- but with nothing more than emotional intimacy.
Blood rushed into her ears until she could no longer hear the soft wind, the gentle snow as it cascaded around her, falling at her feet along with her pride. He leaned casually on the car window, his arm relaxed but his hand clamped tightly around the leather as though he was trying to keep something from her.
Only two months prior she’d been “The One.” His one. The ring. Her mind flew to it, clinging on to it, desperate to prove that this wasn’t all in her head. They’d had something real. She had tangible proof of how he’d felt. “You gave me a promise ring,” she sputtered, the words sounding foreign on her tongue.
He scoffed, his eyes once again brimming with pity. It filled her with a yearning to understand the truth. Did she not deserve that, at least, from her friend? “How long?” She asked, her voice shaking. She could feel the tears welling up behind her eyes, but willed them to stay put.
“What?” He seemed surprised, unsure of how to answer the question. His hand clenched tighter against the leather. Their conversation was halting. Casual. Dotted and dancing around the other’s words, unsure of where a land mine might lay – he didn’t answer right away, processing her question.
“How long?” She asked again, more assuredly. She already knew the answer. Her hands balled into fists, then relaxed. Fists. Relaxed.
He was considering lying to her. She recognized it in his eyes, but ultimately he opted for truth. “She’s someone I’ve known a few years. “ He paused, his eyes remaining completely dull. “Back home.”
Her heart began to crumble. This was no casual dalliance that had picked up in the last week or even the last month. This was not sudden – not a fleeting tug of the heart that she’d be hurt by but could understand.
He’d deliberately deceived her. Ongoing. For months. “Never speak to me again,” she whispered, clutching her chest. The only words she could think to wheeze at him just before Jill felt herself stumble back. Nodding, then shaking her head, she marched with as much dignity as remained within her to her front door. She heard his car backing away, a soft crunch in the snow before she’d even made it inside. She could lose it now.
He wouldn’t look back. He didn’t even call out. Then again, he’d done this before, hadn’t he? Let her go. Not come after her. How could she not have known then?
Her hands began to shake wildly as she tried to place the key in the lock. Finally steadying one hand with the other, she let herself through the door.
Inside, her legs gave way beneath her. She felt tears, fat and hot, begin to stream down her face, her mouth open in a silent “O” of anguish and she clawed for something- anything to keep her upright. Nothing was there to catch her. Slowly, she sank to the floor. Without realizing it was happening, a low mew escaped her throat. Then, without warning, a loud, pained sob. Her chest hurt so much she struggled for breath. A heart could truly break – she was sure of it now. It was invested in him and she hadn’t even known – how had she not known her own heart?
No wonder he’d become so distant and homesick the month before they’d parted. She thought he’d just needed his space – that he was a loner, as he’d always claimed. It was her fault – she was suffocating him. She’d let him go. Better to let a bird go free than die of sadness behind bars.
In fact, he’d become hungry for someone else.
Yet he’d led her to believe that they were still friends. That he loved her. That he respected her. That she was special if not to everyone than to someone. He was a master magician, knowing just what tricks would attract her attention while acting out the real magic right under her nose.
But she’d been a fool. And he’d allowed her to be foolish. But while she always said she was fine with their arrangement, hadn’t all of her actions and words and flirtations meant otherwise? Hadn’t he said he loved her too? And whether he did or he didn’t, did she not have the right to not be led to think so?
And he’d had the nerve to look at her in a way that suggested she was crazy – pathetic, even.
But she wasn’t crazy. She’d been played. Willingly. Blindly. Women rarely were paranoid- they were just made to feel so by then men that didn’t deserve their affections.
Where did she go from here?