When she moved to Chicago, Stella made her peace with the fact she might run into him. She lived in the Uptown neighborhood, north of Chicago, barely included in the city proper. Falling apart at the edges, but it was close to Lake Michigan and the peeling paint wasn’t so bad. She knew through the grapevine that he was somewhere on the north side of the city. Probably River North, with its diamond lights and silver high-rises. The fact that she’d never seen him since moving there was further proof that he ran in different circles than she did. And Stella did decent for herself. She could pay for a nice haircut and go out to dinner without looking at the number of dollar signs on Google. She thrifted, but not strictly because she needed to. A coffee shop manager paid, and it cut back the coffee addiction from adding up too much, but it certainly wasn’t the professor job she had once imagined for herself, nor one that her immigrant parents were satisfied with.
All of that changed when she got drinks with Quinn last week. Quinn lived in Boston these days and drank espresso martinis and Stella only saw her once or twice a year if she was lucky. She still had the same long, bouncy blond hair that she had back in high school economics.
All that changed because Andrew was single. A 6-foot tall, handsome, kind, funny, 6-figure making, good-kisser of a boy had grown up into a man and he was newly single. Damn it if she didn’t find out why. And who to better ask than Quinn, who lived life a rung higher up on the food chain.
“Andrew from high school? God, I forgot about him.” Quinn groaned, “Finally got that stick out of his butt after he broke up with his ex. He really let loose.”
Which ex? Margot? Helen? Stella and Quinn were also technically Andrew’s exes, so Quinn needed to be more specific.
“The blonde one?”
No, it had been the yoga instructor, the one with the pug. Quinn told her how the girl had already pulled the engagement photo off Instagram, but with narrowed eyes and Stella swallowed her curiosity.
Back in her peeling-paint apartment, Stella checked his socials. Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, even LinkedIn on private mode. Nothing recent on Instagram, some stale Facebook birthday well-wishes. She discovered he lived alone. Andrew’s Venmo didn’t have any rent or electricity incoming or outgoing. She wondered if his ex-fiancé had lived with him at one point.
Nick Novic’s birthday bash rolled around, the real reason that Quinn came back in town. While his parties claimed a notoriety of their own, Nick himself was the spider that watched people crawl through his web of connections. It didn’t matter if Nick liked or loathed you – what mattered is if you were a person of consequence. Andrew would be there; he and Novic were in the same University of Chicago frat. Stella was Quinn’s plus one.
Spying over the rim of a dry martini and the shoulder of a Bulls rookie, Quinn saw Stella’s face drop, the conversation unfold, the ring, the woman on Andrew’s arm.
Quinn kept sorority connections on a constant simmer. Theresa was one of them, who also just so happened to be living in Chicago, morally neutral, and happily married to a woman. Quinn had done what any friend would do; she called in a favor. Until Stella saw for herself that Andrew was unattainable, that they truly weren’t a match, Quinn knew her friend would continue to play a game in her head instead of closing the door. What if? What if it were different now? Patience was a virtue, but Stella twisted patience into a cage of futile perseverance.
Unbeknownst to Quinn, Andrew agreed. They weren’t a match. Stella came from a different dimension, one where congeniality and intent mattered. One where jeans and heels made sense and taking a gap year was wise and not stupid. When the money started to pour in, he paid off his college debt of course but after that the money started going other places. He couldn’t pinpoint an exact moment. Weekend skiing, $500 drinks in the Loop on a Wednesday, renting a yacht during Memorial Day Weekend, getting a golf membership at a course an hour away. Or maybe it was the fake vaccine card he bought for an “all-natural” girl he dated. His closet had more suit jackets than comfy sweaters and he could spot a Tesla key fob a mile away. This lifestyle had grown on him like a symbiotic vine, and a quiet part of Andrew knew he would fight tooth and nail to keep it. Stella belonged in an apartment that saw the leaves change, full of colorful candles and board games and cheap wine that no one cared where it was from. She belonged tucked away from the tourists, because if Andrew’s people realized what kind of person lived under their noses, they’d snuff her out. They’d pluck out her heartstring colors and make her paint them a sophisticated black.
Andrew agreed that they weren’t a match and thanked his lucky stars for bored married women that partied. Playing along was easy.
All these years later, it was a wonder no one knew he and Stella had dated that one summer home from college. Maybe it was because of the height difference? Normally, Andrew towered over her, but tonight she wore heels. Tonight, it would have been devastatingly easy to tilt his head down and-
“Are you in line?”
He was in line. “No, you’re good.” Novic’s apartment lacked plants but it did have at least one daydreaming idiot lingering outside the bathroom for no apparent reason.
That summer Andrew and Stella dated ended like a dam of icy water breaking over a fever dream. He broke up with her… over the phone. He didn’t want to see her face fall when she realized what a prick he was. To this day it surprised him that Stella hadn’t told Quinn about their relationship, because if Quinn knew the full extent of it, she would be a lot less subtle than dagger eyes when their social circles crossed.
The John Hancock building covered the watchful face of the descending moon when Andrew took some air out on the balcony. Overpriced champagne failed to offset the growing nausea while the party inside raged on against the night, indifferent to attendees’ growing age and responsibilities.
“Hi.” Andrew distantly noticed he wasn’t the only one on the balcony.
Novic nodded toward Stella down at street level. “You good?” The doorman held open the door against the wind as she pushed through, her scarf wrapped up past her chin. The city’s darkness kissed her shoulders, dipping its hands into her mass of curls. People, let alone thoughts, ran rampant this time of night. It would’ve been far safer to take an Uber, but from where he stood the most he could do was remind Quinn to text her and see if she got home safe. Andrew didn’t have Stella’s number saved in his phone, not anymore. Not that he would call her, no, but so that he wouldn’t memorize it the stupid little digits.
“Yeah, man. I’m good,” Andrew said tightly. He downed the rest of his glass and headed back inside, patching up the cracks left by a woman so clearly better off without him.