“I don’t have much of an appetite lately. I might as well take advantage of that for my diet,” she got up to place the spoon into the sink.
Michael followed her tall figure with his eyes, weighing in his mind the pros and cons of what he were about to propose to her. When she turned around to face him, he saw that the area around her nose was rosy, as if she had been crying again. “Do you have a cold or something?”
Karen looked at him reproachfully. “It must be my allergies.”
Michael breathed in, as he often did when he was about to raise a point he considered particularly important. “Do you want to stop by Andrea’s?”
Karen winced at the suggestion. That was their favorite restaurant, where they used to celebrate special occasions. “Why go there now?”
“I have a surprise for you.” He looked around slyly. “But I prefer to reveal it somewhere special.”
“What is it?” Karen asked, without much enthusiasm. She had had more than enough surprises from Michael lately.
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” he took her by the hand and led her out the door.
She followed him blindly. “What kind of a surprise?” she asked him again once they stepped into his car.
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore, now would it?”
Karen’s heart sank. Michael’s behavior reminded her of the days when he used to love her, when he’d surprise her with fancy dinners and bouquets of flowers and boxes of the dark chocolate she preferred. But those days were now forever gone.
Michael stole another glance at her. He seemed pleased with her sad expression. Once they arrived at the restaurant, they squeezed together into the same compartment of the revolving door, like he used to do with Ana. He asked for the same table he had occupied with his girlfriend only a few weeks earlier, which happened to be available. He wanted everything to be as it had been with Ana. “Pinot noir,” Michael ordered two glasses of wine when the waitress came by. “And scallops with bacon, please,” he named Karen’s favorite hors d’oeuvre.
She smiled at him quizzically until the corners of her lips began to quiver. “What’s going on?”
“The whole fling with Ana. We broke up.”
Karen couldn’t believe her ears. “Come on…” she said skeptically, examining his face. But Michael’s expression remained perfectly serious. He didn’t burst out into laughter, like he usually did after making some cruel comment or inappropriate joke. “Why? What happened?”
Michael shrugged. “She was freaking out about the divorce. Plus, she didn’t even want to have a baby together. It became quite obvious to me that she wasn’t ready to commit to our relationship. You know me. Screw that! If you can’t keep up, get out of my way. In fact, that’s exactly what I told her.”
In spite of everything that had happened, Karen felt sorry for Michael. He must feel so hurt, she speculated. She could tell from the start that Ana never really loved him. But she deliberately refrained from saying anything that would sound like ‘I told you so.’ She knew how proud Michael was. Besides, he needed comforting right now. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Strangely enough, at that moment, she meant it.
“No you’re not,” he contradicted her, putting himself in her shoes. “You’re happy about it. Don’t bullshit me.”
Men mask their disappointment so much better than we do, Karen speculated, surprised by Michael’s lack of emotion about the recent breakup with his girlfriend. After all, he had been completely obsessed with Ana for almost a year. But what does all this mean for us? she wondered. That question must have been reflected in her eyes, since that’s precisely the point Michael addressed next.
“Thanks,” he looked up to thank the waitress who had returned with their drinks, then turned to his fiancée. “To us!” he raised his glass.
“To us?” Karen repeated and slowly raised hers as well. She took a sip of wine and waited patiently for an explanation. Her hand trembled lightly upon the stem of the glass as she set it back on the table.
“Maybe you were right all along,” Michael finally uttered the words she had longed to hear ever since he had told her about the affair.
“What did I say again?” Her heart raced uncontrollably.
“That Ana wasn’t right for me. That I needed a woman who was patient and calm and frugal and virtuous.” His gaze lingered over her, calming her frayed nerves. “A woman like you.”
“A woman like me?” Karen repeated, perturbed by the generic formulation.
“You,” he looked straight into her eyes, not so much lovingly as possessively, to reclaim his rightful territory. Then his gaze relaxed. “Of course, that’s entirely up to you. Given how I’ve behaved, whatever you decide, I’ll understand.” The waitress stopped by with two empty plates and a little tray filled with scallops wrapped in bacon, which she carefully placed at the center of the table. “Thanks,” Michael said to her with a friendly smile.
Karen sighed. So the ball’s now in my court, she observed. She had hoped for this moment, prayed for it, and even had tantalizing dreams about it that felt more like nightmares, during the hellish period when she was coming to terms with their breakup. “I don’t want to be second best again,” she replied, surprising her own self. She had assumed that she’d return to Michael in an instant if he asked her. But now that she was confronted with that reality, she was overcome with genuine ambivalence. “I want to be the only woman you love. Not the woman you settle for because your top choice let you down.”
Michael nodded. “You are Baby, you are.” He paused, looking discouraged. “Of course, how can I convince you of that now?”
“It will be difficult,” Karen agreed. “I’m extremely hurt by what happened. I don’t know how I’ll ever trust you again. I know I’ve said this to you before. But now it’s more true than ever.”
“Please know that I’m willing to wait on you however long it takes you to decide. Our future’s in your hands.”
Michael’s tone was so earnest and warm that Karen felt touched. “How do I know that you won’t use me as your backup until you find your next true love?” she asked him nonetheless. “I never want to live again in another woman’s shadow.”
“I guess I really fucked up this time. Pardon the pun,” he grinned.
Karen looked at his boyish face. How can he be so immature? she wondered. Here he is, a man in his late twenties who still speaks and acts like an adolescent boy. She sighed. That’s part of his charm, she thought, her maternal attitude overtaking her instinct of self-preservation.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Because I’m starting to feel a little better about us,” Karen confessed. Despite this moment of hope, her anxiety resurfaced. “I just want you to be sure this time,” she emphasized.
“What does this actually mean? Practically speaking?” Michael inquired. You lead the way, he seemed to suggest, enjoying this psychological game of chess.
Karen felt uncomfortable with what she was about to propose. But better now than later, she told herself. “You’re on the rebound now. I think you need some space to figure out what and, more importantly, who you want. You seem confused,” she chose to interpret his recent actions as generously as possible.
“And you? How come you’re not confused?” he asked her, knowing in advance what she’d say in response.
Karen’s smile was sad, making her appear prematurely aged. “I’ve been ready practically since the day we met. I knew from the beginning that you’re the only one for me. It’s you who’s always looked around and strayed. You’re the one who doesn’t know what he wants.”
Michael burst out laughing at her blunt expression, amused by its apparent perspicacity. But, in point of fact, he knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted it all. The maximum possible. “So what does this actually mean for us?”
She hesitated. “I probably should return to Phoenix for awhile. To give you some space,” she said, struggling with her own ambivalence. “Even though I don’t want to risk losing you again.”
Michael reached for her large hand and held it reassuringly. “I don’t need space. Let’s stay together through this, Baby. We belong together.”
“I’ve always thought so too. But I think we need to be apart for a little while, so that you can be sure that’s what you really want, before we actually…” she paused for a moment before bringing up the concept that seemed to scare him away, “…marry.”
To her surprise, Michael didn’t withdraw. “I could come visit you every other weekend,” he offered.
“What about the other weekends?”
“You can come visit me here,” Michael said, knowing full well that such an arrangement would be prohibitively expensive and impractical.
“What if you fall in love with someone else while I’m away?”
“You don’t have to leave. We can work things out here, together.”
Karen shook her head. “Not until you’re absolutely sure you want to commit to me.”
“So what are you saying? That, for now, we’re together yet free?” Michael attempted to control his glee.
Karen smiled at him only with the corners of her mouth while the rest of her features remained fixed. “You’re the only one who needs to be free, Michael. Not me.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I can’t compete with your torrid affair.” She intended to sound sarcastic, but ended up sounding jealous.
This time, he didn’t contradict her. With the manipulative man’s instinct, Michael sensed that to denigrate Karen’s rival would mean to lose one of his most important game pieces. He planned to milk the rivalry he had fostered between the two women for all its worth, long after Ana was out of the picture.
“If you don’t get that woman out of your system, we have no future together,” Karen continued. Her eyes pleaded with him. “You need to do whatever it takes to flush her out completely.”
They exchanged a complicit glance. “You mean the way I got over Amy?” he alluded to his bout of promiscuity after his first girlfriend had left him.
She looked away. This decision was excruciating for her.
Few women would accept such an arrangement, Michael thought, looking at Karen steadily to ascertain what was really going on in her head. He didn’t know if he should disdain his fiancée for agreeing to this new humiliation or admire her for confronting it so boldly. One thing is certain, he observed. This woman loves me. “Anytime you want to come back home, you’ll be welcome,” he declared wistfully. To distract her from scrutinizing his reaction, Michael pushed the plate of scallops towards her. “Have some before they get cold.”
Karen took a little bite of a scallop. After not eating much of anything for so long, its lukewarm chewiness turned her stomach. Even after this unexpected twist of fate, she still felt dejected.
Michael grabbed a scallop by its toothpick and popped it whole into his mouth. He chewed with his whole face, cheeks full and pumping. His heart pounded with glee. Screw all that cheating and hiding crap, he thought. What a coup! An open relationship on his side alone. And, in case things didn’t work out with someone new, Karen would still be there waiting for him, closing her eyes to his player lifestyle, just so that he’d forget about her rival. Forget who? Michael jokingly asked himself recalling Ana’s mystified expression when he had told her to get out of his car. The past was already behind him, the present filled with promise, while the future looked brighter than ever.
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