It was the longest night of the year. A strong, cool wind was stinging her face, rolling over the lake. There was a campfire somewhere in the distance, the smoke drifting through the trees. As she walked up to the cabin, the only sound was the pine needles crunching under her boots. This was it then, she thought. She was alone in a cabin in the woods. Numb. Empty.
Last spring was hopeful. She was meeting her goals that were carefully laid out on her vision board. Things couldn't have been better. She was healthy, successful, and secretly in love. She was a woman who almost had it all. In fact, she had so much that it made her nervous. Despite all evidence to the contrary, an overwhelming sense that the bottom was about to fall out hovered in the back of her mind. As if walking along without a care in the world, then slipping and crashing to the ground in slow motion. That was her future. A fall so unexpected and unavoidable. The red flags were flying high and furious, but she couldn't see them. She was blind with hunger and brimming with hope.
Then, summer hit like a ton of bricks. She doesn’t quite remember how she made it through to fall. But, in a blur, here it was the first day of winter. She possibly could be at rock bottom. What was that old saying? The only way is up? Or something like that. Surely she would find an answer to the question that had been pestering her, how in the hell did this happen?
She opened the letter on her laptop that she had written to herself the year before. The letter was upbeat, hopeful, and encouraging. She tried to grasp the feeling that she had back then, but it was like trying to catch fog with your bare hands.
A deep sense of grief overwhelmed her. The person that wrote that letter was dead. She realized that there was a hole in her chest, as if a melon baller had scooped out her heart. She was a scarecrow now, a shadow of who she had been just a year ago. What happened? Who killed that person who was full of hope and promise? Where was she buried?
The hole in her chest, in her soul, widened and drew all light into itself. As she read the letter she had penned just a year before, she wondered how she could have been so careless.
She and Adan had been friends, if that's what you call it, in graduate school. He often would ask her to study with him, which ended in sex, then her giving him her notes or doing assignments for him. After a few months, a pattern emerged. He wanted everything on his own terms. True, when they were together it felt like magic. They had a connection that was palpable. Other times though, he could be cold and unyielding. He was using her. Everyone knew it. She found the strength to let him go. She didn’t answer his calls. She avoided him on campus. Almost too easily, he drifted away. It hurt like hell but it was for her own good.
Eight years later, he texted her out of the blue. “I miss you.”
She was driving down the freeway when her car relayed the message. She was dumbfounded, but it quickly gave way to anger. Why in the hell did he think he could just insert himself into her life all these years later? And what in the hell did he miss? Her, being a doormat? No, she had changed. She was stronger now. There is no way she would put up with his bullshit.
“Hey Siri, text Adan Baxter.” , she said, determined to end this before it got started.
“What would you like to say?”
“You have the wrong number.”, she replied to the voice with decisiveness.
There, that should take care of him. There is no way that he missed her and if he did, well that was too bad! Then her phone rang.
Fumbling for the decline button, she accidentally answered. It was Adan. After fending off his compliments for several minutes, she felt desire for him growing in the center of her being. Long ago, he had touched a place in her that had laid dormant without him. He made her feel alive, desired, needed. The warmth grew until she found herself agreeing to see him.
It felt like home when they were together. They had always had great conversations about so many things. Not only that, he was funny. She laughed with him like with no one else. He was easy on the eyes, taller than average and built like a bulldog. His thick sculpted arms, chest, and shoulders bulged through his dress shirts. His energy was electric and polarizing. At least, that is how she remembered him. People either loved him or hated him. Everyone except her, she was on both ends of the spectrum.
Since she saw him last, she had gained a few more wrinkles and several pounds. But, she was also a lot more successful, confident, and career focused. The last time she saw him, they were classmates. When they met at a lecture in college, they immediately fell into bed. It was lust at first sight. Back then, she craved his energy and wanted to be with him all the time. The sex wasn’t the best she had ever had, not even close. But, the walks, playing games, working out together, and simply being with him made up for what was lacking in the bedroom.
On reflection, she realized that she missed him, too. Being with him again could be better than it was before. They were professional adults, working in the same field. That had to mean that things could be different. She let him go for always taking and never giving. She could focus on the good parts of him and ignore the bad. Maybe the problem was her after all, being too clingy.
“It’ll be different this time.”, she reasoned aloud.
She wouldn’t become attached. No, she would draw the line. Better yet, she wouldn’t even talk to him two days in a row. She was adamant about maintaining distance from his whirlwind of pleasure and pain. She was certain that she was strong enough, that was until she saw him.
His almond shaped brown eyes were as always, sharp and inquisitive. Since grad school, he had let his hair grow. Now, it was almost waist length and charcoal black. She struggled to think as she looked at his glowing skin and perfect smile.
She was immediately in lust, again. Her heart was racing and her cheeks blushed. Her entire body was screaming for his touch, while her mouth was saying that she only wanted friendship. She hoped that her eyes were not betraying her. It was all she could do to keep from wrapping her arms around him and pressing her face into his broad chest, breathing him in. But, to her surprise and disappointment, he agreed. Friends only.
For the first few weeks, the rekindled friendship went well. She was excited to hear from him when he called or texted. They laughed like old times. They talked about everything from basketball to business, philosophy to music. She did, in fact, miss him. Maybe a little too much.
Subtly, the rekindled friendship began to emulate the relationship they had years before. They saw each other only when he wanted. They went only where he suggested. By the time she noticed, she was already in deep, again, and frustrated with herself. He asked for her help on a design project and she reluctantly agreed. Faint red flags were being hoisted up the flagpole in her mind's eye. The tiny voice in her head was shouting that she should call it off. But, she couldn’t.
He arrived at her place with his laptop bag in hand. She opened a bottle of wine and they snacked on a cheese tray while collaborating on a design project that he was leading. It was his first big project. If he got it right, his career would take off. He was a big picture thinker and as far as she could remember, he always needed help on the finer points of projects. This was her niche, carving out details.
As they were coming to the end of the collaboration, Adan started looking at his watch every few minutes. The playful easy way they had been interacting with each other vanished. To every question, he answered at curtly as possible. She excused herself to the restroom. She stood silently, staring at herself in the mirror. The energy between them had shifted.
Her throat started to constrict. It was a game to him, a game of what he can get away with. Or was it? Why was she doing this? Why did she participate in his charade? She recognized this behavior in him. He would ask for her help, and after he got it, he wouldn’t need her anymore. His need for her abated just as her need for him peaked.
When she returned to the living room, he was packing to leave. Her heart sank. He was talking but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. All her concentration was focused on not crying or showing any emotion at all. She willed her face to remain neutral, to crank out a half-wilted smile. She walked to the door with him and said all the right things. All the things friends would say. As she closed the door behind him, she sank to the floor, legs sprawled out in front of her. She was exhausted. She wanted him to want her, not just what she could do. As she sat on the floor, she made up her mind. She never wanted to feel this again. That was why she had let him go before and it was time to do it again.
Two years later, she was promoted to lead a design team in a new location. She was surprised to see him on her team, as her assistant. He had heard the news apparently, because he had bought her a plant and a congrats card, which he had placed on her desk before her arrival.
Surprisingly, things went well. She was able to let go of her feelings and focus on the work. To be honest, they were a good team. Their shared ideas were better than she remembered. The fire between them made work fun. No, more than fun, it was electric. She found reasons why they should meet and he seemed to always have a reason to stop by her office. Against her better judgment, she shared more than she should have about work projects, her boss, and her future plans. They spent hours together collaborating, innovating, and sometimes just hanging out.
Months went by. She left work each day completely filled to the brim with love, light, and excitement for what was next. She was so full in fact, that she started letting her dating schedule fall behind. She found herself cancelling dates more often than going until she was dating no one and not missing it.
They found success together. Their projects were completed ahead of schedule. They celebrated each other’s birthdays above and beyond what would be considered a normal work relationship. They talked on the phone for hours on the weekends about everything. They even started running together again. It was a perfect match. Or so she thought.
Last year, in the letter to herself, she wrote that she was happy with their friendship. He filled a need that she had like no one else could. She wrote that she was glad that she had let go of dating other people because deep down, she knew that he was the one for her. Although she was his boss, she hoped that things would change so that soon, they could be together. They would be together as soulmates, not as boss and employee.
Tears filled her eyes as she read it. What’s the point? Why do people reflect, dream, and plan when there is no way we could know the direction our lives will take on any given day?
Just six months after she wrote to herself with hope and joy, on the cusp of the next chapter in their story, she received an invite from her boss for a Zoom call. She found that odd, as her boss never called last minute meetings. She had to reschedule her afternoon and decided to ask Adan to lead a meeting in her place. She looked for him in his office without success. She called him on the phone but it went straight to voicemail. That was odd. She tried texting him to cover the meeting. He responded by liking her message. That was odd, too. Maybe she was just paranoid. He had no reason to avoid her. They were getting along fabulously. Better than ever.
But the familiar red flag was waving in the background. Why would he avoid her? Was she being irrational? She texted again, asking if he would come to her office before the meeting. He replied that he was swamped and couldn’t make it. Now the red flag was slapping her in the face.
She couldn’t wait for the Zoom call. She called her boss and asked if something was wrong. Her boss tried to defer to the meeting later in the day, but she pressed on anyway.
The conversation started out in textbook style. Give 3 praises before the “but”. Her boss told her that she was an innovator in the industry, that was the first praise. She was creative and great attention to detail, that was the second praise. Sweat clung to her shirt, and beaded on her forehead. The third praise was that her boss always admired her tenacity and grit. That’s it then, here it comes. The “but”.
It was a blur. Her office started spinning. She had stopped breathing altogether as her boss said that she was going to be moved to a different location and that Adan would take over as lead on the design team she had built from the ground up.
She was reduced to one syllable mumbling. Why? How? Who? As the story unfolded, it was made clear that Adan had gone around her to claim that he was the one with all the recent ideas. He convinced upper management that he was the real leader and that she had been taking credit for his work. He told them that because of their personal history, she was controlling and was creating a hostile work environment. Not only that, he threatened to leave and sue the company if he was not given a promotion.
“Adan did this?”, her voice squeaked into the receiver as she held her breath. None of this was true. Why would he say such things? She could not stop her mind from reeling.
Her boss assured her that it wasn’t a bad thing. The whole incident would blow over. It would be like a promotion. By all means, it would need to remain confidential. She should schedule a meeting with her staff to announce her promotion and that Adan would be taking over the team.
She hung up the phone and sat staring at the paperweight on her desk. Adan had bought it for her birthday. It was the most beautiful gift she had received in years, and she had told him so. It was an acrylic egg with a black dragon inside, wings spread and mouth open. She picked it up and rolled it over in her hand.
He told her that he had ordered it specially made for her. How? How could he be these two people at the same time? How could he bring her more happiness than anyone in the world and at the same time stab her in the back? It was more than she could take.
She left work early. She needed to process. She typed paragraphs into a text to Adan then deleted them over and over. She had always been there for him. She loved him, no, she was in love with him. Instead of texting, she sent him an invite for a meeting the following morning.
He arrived at her office ahead of schedule. His energy had changed. He stood taller, face pulled downward, eyebrows bunched together. Gone was the ease they shared and in its place, a sense of betrayal hung heavy in the room.
“First, I want to say..” he started.
She interrupted him, “I don’t want to hear it, Adan! You went behind my back and lied.”
“Look, it’s my turn to lead. Plus, this is good for you, too. You’re getting a promotion, so what’s the big deal?” he said, avoiding eye contact and pacing across the room.
She could no longer contain her tears. They ran freely down her face as she realized that she had been caught up in his charade, again. Finally, she saw through to the real Adan. It was as if she had been looking through a pinhole all these years and now, finally, layers of blindness had been pulled back and she could see who he really was.
“You, you don’t love me do you?”, she heard herself saying. The voice in her head tried to caution her. Don’t reduce yourself to this. Don’t let him see you cry. She couldn’t help it.
He looked at her, puzzled. “What does that have to do with anything? You know I deserve to lead, you have said so yourself. Why are you so upset?”
“The best part of my job these past 2 two years has been working with you! I love you. I can’t imagine not being with you every day.” She stood and picked up the dragon egg.
“What is this? I thought you cared about me and you were just using me to get what you want. My fucking job! Now, I finally see you for what you are. A sorry piece of shit!” She threw the dragon egg at him. He dodged as it slammed into the door.
He looked at her in disbelief, then at the hole in the door where the egg hit. He turned the knob and opened the door slowly, “Finally, you get it. Better late than never.”