The holiday party is in a luxury hotel in the city, in the grand ballroom. The tables are set with eggshell white linen tablecloths, fine china plates and bowls, glinting silver plated flatware, and crystal glasses polished so clean that you could see right through them, like they weren’t there at all. Dinner hadn’t started yet, but the room was crowded and the open bar was bustling, as one would expect at a corporate holiday party. It seems like every person who works at the firm is there with their partners – husbands, wives, fiancées, long term boyfriends and girlfriends. Everyone milled around, greeting one another politely, making small talk, asking about kids, commenting on the weather, how cold it’s gotten, can you believe it, last week it was sixty degrees out and now we can’t leave the house without a coat, unbelievable.
That was the conversation that Sasha, the newest, youngest associate, overheard behind her as she stood by the bar. In her right hand was a glass of chilled pinot grigio, which she took tiny, dainty sips out of, and in her left hand was her Louis Vuitton clutch, which had cost a small fortune. The party was black tie, and having only been working there for a few months, well aware of her status as the most recently hired associate and a 24-year-old woman, she was even more aware. She had to remain professional and dignified. Under no circumstances could she allow herself to drink too much and make a fool of herself, which was why she was nursing her glass of wine, making it last as long possible. She was also highly aware of her empty stomach, because she’d been too anxious to eat lunch. She’d ordered a salad from Sweetgreen to eat at her desk, but she’d only picked at it. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she’d subconsciously done it on purpose so that she could drink on an empty stomach and feel the effects of the alcohol in her bloodstream faster without anyone realizing it – after all, if she’d only had one or two drinks, how could she possibly be drunk? She wondered if this was what self-sabotage was.
Her dress was long, red, and silky, and it fit her perfectly. She’d curled her shiny dark hair into waves that cascaded over her shoulders. Her eye makeup was smoldering, and her skin held the dewy, perfect glow of youth. But none of that mattered, because the senior associate she’d been working with was there with his pregnant wife, and they looked happy. She had secretly hoped that they would look miserable, and his wife would be ugly, but his wife had a pretty face, the kind of face that would be pretty at any size, no matter how much weight she gained during her pregnancy. She had dark blonde hair pulled back into a chic chignon. Her dress was red, too, but it wasn’t scarlet red like Sasha’s dress, it was more of a maroon color. It looked expensive, as did her shoes, which Sasha marveled at – how was she walking around in those heels while she was pregnant? Granted, she was early on in her pregnancy, only just beginning to show, but still. Sasha wasn’t pregnant and her feet were already killing her.
His wife’s name was Chloe, Sasha remembered, and Chloe’s husband, the man who’d been working with Sasha and teaching her how to do her job, was Richard. He was classically handsome, like he’d been the star quarterback of his high school football team, and Chloe was the head cheerleader and prom queen. That’s how Sasha thought of them as she stared at them from across the ballroom. Richard was always touching Chloe – holding her hand, placing his hand on her lower back, putting his arm around her shoulders. Their perfect white smiles made them look like they were posing for a catalogue photo shoot.
Sasha turned so that she was facing the bar again. It didn’t look good that she was standing around by herself with no date and no conversation partner, she knew that, but in that moment she didn’t care, she burned with jealousy. What hurt most was that it was unwarranted jealousy – Richard had been nothing but professional toward her, he never behaved inappropriately, never made crude comments like some of the senior managers did about the length of her skirt or the buttons on her blouse. He was kind, patient, never unprofessional, and he never gave her an inch. There was nothing for her to go off of – just this heartrending crush that felt like it was going to kill her if she didn’t do anything about it.
Across the ballroom, Richard led Chloe away from the group of Richard’s colleagues they’d been talking to and toward their table. Dinner was going to begin soon; cocktail hour was almost over. Richard had drunk one beer. Chloe, of course, abstained, though she made a comment about being tempted to order a glass of red wine. “My feet are killing me,” she huffed as she sat down in the chair Richard pulled out for her.
Richard said nothing. They hadn’t been getting along, in fact, right before this event, they’d argued – Chloe wasn’t enthusiastic about going, she was tired and pregnant, and then as they left their townhouse she threw in a jab about all of the young, pretty interns that would be there, while she was an old, bloated blimp.
“Interns aren’t invited,” Richard had sighed, annoyed because she already knew this from attending previous years’ holiday parties with him.
Chloe had been uncomfortable and jealous of the women Richard worked since he’d started working there. From her perspective, every woman was a threat, and women younger than her were downright enemies, out to steal her husband. She wasn’t stupid, she said, she’d heard the stories about men in powerful positions in the corporate world taking advantage of the young women who worked there. In Chloe’s mind, these affairs were dramatic: stolen kisses, touching in dark conference rooms, hotel rooms reserved for a couple of hours. She pored over books, movies, and TV shows about men who had affairs with their secretaries and personal assistants.
Richard knew that it was nothing like that, and he was far too tired to put an effort into having an affair or any sort of relationship with someone other than Chloe. Chloe was exhausting. She was constantly talking, it was like she didn’t stop to breathe, and if they weren’t together, she was sending him pointless texts about nothing – the tiny stain she found on the living room carpet, how she wanted to go to the farmer’s market on Saturday, her in depth decorating plans for the nursery. All day, his phone would vibrate in his pocket, and he’d check it sometime later and find seven or eight messages from her, the latter few always asking where he was and why wasn’t he answering her?
When they first started dating, what he’d liked most about her was that she knew what she wanted, and she didn’t hesitate to tell him. When he asked her to dinner, she told him which restaurant she wanted to eat at. For their first Valentine’s Day, she showed him a photo in a magazine of a tennis bracelet that she liked and told him that she preferred dark chocolate over milk chocolate. When they went on their first trip together as a couple, to Richard’s cousin’s destination wedding in Hawaii, she told him that she wanted to fly first class or business class. But she never did any of this in a way that was rude or abrasive. When one of Richard’s friends pointed out Chloe’s clearly expensive taste, hinting that maybe she was only interested in him for his money, he dismissed it. Chloe came from a good family; she’d grown up just as privileged as he had. She was kind, thoughtful, and she had good values.
He thought back to when he proposed to her, and he had a fleeting memory of how in the months before he proposed, Chloe would send him not so subtle hints about which engagement rings she liked via email. Platinum settings with huge, round diamonds in the center. It was all part of the expectations that he had to live up to – go to a good college, get a good job, meet a nice woman who checked all his boxes, propose to her, marry her, move to the suburbs, have kids. The plan had been laid out for him since high school.
Along the way, he had doubts. He liked Chloe, no, he loved her, but she was annoying sometimes and so, so needy, always needing him to do things for her like she could do nothing on her own. This didn’t make sense to him – Chloe had gone to college and gotten a job, just as he had, but at work she seemed like a different person. When she wasn’t working, she was no longer a capable adult who could take care of herself, she needed him to take care of her, and any minor inconvenience was enough to make her break out in tears, like a child crying to get what she wanted.
Right now, the main point of contention between the two of them was that Chloe wanted to be a stay at home mom, and Richard disagreed. Chloe had a college degree and a full time job, but she was intent on hanging it all up after she gave birth. Richard couldn’t stop thinking about her college degree hanging in their office next to his. What a waste, he thought to himself. All that time, effort, energy, money, only for her to decide to stay home and – what? That was the part he didn’t understand. What would she do all day? Cook, clean? She did some of that now, and Richard did as well, but once he was working and she was not, would she just become a homemaker? He imagined arriving home every day to a pristine house and a hot meal on the table. The concept seemed so antiquated to him.
The two of them sat together at the otherwise empty table. There were coats hanging over the other chairs at the table, the occupants still making the rounds or visiting the bar. They didn’t speak. Chloe scrolled Instagram and Twitter on her phone. He looked forward to other people joining their table so he’d have someone to talk to.
He scanned the room and noticed the young woman he’d been working with – crap, what was her name? It began with an S, that he remembered, but he was drawing a blank. Was it Sandra? Sarah? She was standing awkwardly by herself near the bar. He thought about going over to her, saying hello and making friendly conversation so that she didn’t have to stand by herself, but it wasn’t worth the argument with Chloe. Female friends were and always had been out of the question.
He watched her order another drink. The bartender handed her a glass of wine, and she drank it quickly, alarmingly quickly, and then she hurried off to find her table. Richard had the urge to go over there to prevent her from making a mistake, behaving in a way that wouldn’t be well received or talked about in whispers once everyone was back in the office on Monday.
Next to him, Chloe followed his gaze. Her eyes narrowed. “Did you sleep with her?”
Richard rolled his eyes and said, “Jesus, Chloe, not here.”
“So you did?”
“No, I didn’t.” He let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ve been working with her for a couple months. She’s new.”
Chloe watched Sasha for a long moment and didn’t say anything. When she did speak, she said, “That poor girl. That’s the worst fake Louis Vuitton bag I’ve ever seen.”
Richard looked at the girl’s bag, but he wouldn’t have known the difference. “Maybe she doesn’t care,” he said, taking a sip from his water glass.
“Well, maybe she should,” said Chloe as she arranged her napkin on her lap, and then Richard’s colleagues who’d be sitting at their table with them arrived, so Richard and Chloe greeted them and then they all broke off in separate conversations with one another, and Richard forgot about the girl entirely until they were getting ready to leave.
Richard had gone to get their coats from the coat room, and the girl stood there, staring at the coat rack in front of her. She looked let down, her eyes glazed over. Sasha, that was her name, he suddenly membered.
“Hey, Sasha,” he said, flashing her a quick smile. “Did you have a good time? I know these parties can be a little overwhelming.”
She didn’t smile back. Her expression was emotionless or angry, he couldn’t tell which. “No,” she said after she’d considered his question. “I’m not overwhelmed.”
“Well, good,” he replied as removed his and Chloe’s coats from the hangers.
He was about to say good night and walk out of the room when she said, “Can I ask a quick question?”
He paused. “Uh, sure,” he said uncomfortably.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
He was taken aback. It wasn’t a question that he pondered often – his own happiness. Happy was an emotion he associated with his childhood. The carefreedom, the ease, the fun, never worrying about anything other school and sports, never thinking about anyone but himself. But he said, “Well, sure.”
“Sure?” she said skeptically. She might’ve been drunk, or at least tipsy. Her eyes were shiny, like they were full of tears, but she wasn’t crying.
“I…don’t know what you mean,” Richard said slowly, unsure why she was asking him this. “Are you okay?”
She seemed to suddenly remember where she was, and her face brightened, like she put on a mask. “Yeah, I’m good,” she said with an embarrassed chuckle. “Sorry. I get really contemplative this time of year.”
“No worries,” he said. “I’ll see you Monday.”
“Yup, see you then.” She gave him a little wave and went back to looking for her coat.
Richard walked back to his table with his heart pounding. He was still thrown off by her question. Why would she want to know if he was happy, and why would she care?
“Is everything okay? You took forever,” Chloe said when he got back, seeing his confused expression.
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” he said automatically. He almost told her about his conversation with Sasha, but didn’t want to have an argument over it, so he didn’t say anything else. He helped Chloe into her coat, and the two of them made their way to the door.
As they walked hand in hand like they always did, he caught another glimpse of Sasha. She had on a black pea coat over her red dress, and she was walking fast. She didn’t notice him watching her. His eyes followed her as they went outside, as she walked a little further up the road and quickly entered a bar, slipping inside the door like she hadn’t wanted anyone to see her. He realized that she was alone, she hadn’t brought a date. He wondered if one day she was going to end up like Chloe.
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You took us to the dreaded office party and introduced the jealousy of the imaginary foe. Each of the women has a clear role to play in Richard's life and yet somehow, they confound their roles with the other and let jealousy take root. I think the Richard character is well-written too. He seems completely oblivious to what each of the women is dealing with, taking them only at face value and not considering anything else. There are a lot of conflicted relationships in this story and you have captured them brilliantly.
I love the title and the ending and how you bring the story full circle, without ending it in a way one would expect. I also like how you hint at Sasha's drinking issue and that Richard is clearly at a crossroads, which he does not yet realize.