“What’s wrong, Baby?”
Hearing him call her “Baby” in such a tender manner, Karen instantly let down her guard. “I don’t know what to do anymore,” she complained. “I’ve tried everything. I exercise four hours a day, like a maniac. I follow our strict program. I walk in the morning, then go swimming after lunch, do cardio and weight lifting at the gym in the evening. I eat fresh fruit, lean meat and vegetables. I cut out sugar and carbs,” she became increasingly upset as she recounted the Spartan nature of her diet regimen. “But in spite of all this, I’ve gained three pounds this week,” she sourly concluded her report.
“Did you check to see if the scale was set on zero?”
“Yes, it’s set where it’s supposed to be. I weigh myself about once a week, like you suggested.”
“No more than that!” Michael counseled. “You don’t want to become too obsessed with your weight. It could backfire.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a little too late for that.”
“You’re doing everything right, Babe,” he reassured Karen, usually sympathetic when her distress wasn’t demonstrably his fault. “Don’t beat yourself up over nothing. You’ve lost so much weight already. It’s normal to gain a few pounds just from the exercise itself. Remember what I said earlier?” he quizzed her.
“Muscle weights more than fat. Since you’ve been weightlifting almost every day, it’s likely all that weight gain’s pure muscle. In fact, you’ve probably lost some more fat weight. So, actually, congratulations are in order!”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Karen replied, not ready to uncork the champagne bottle just yet. “My clothes don’t fit any looser than they did last week. In fact, they seem a little tighter.”
“You might be bloated from p.m.s.,” Michael offered another charitable explanation.
“Maybe,” Karen hesitantly conceded. “My period’s so irregular since you made me get off the birth control that I don’t have a clue anymore when it’s supposed to come.”
“That’s alright. The pill screws up your hormones and makes you retain water. And you know I didn’t propose this for selfish reasons this time!” he laughed out loud.
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to tell since we’ve been living apart. And I miss you so much… I think about you all day long,” she launched into the real topic she wanted to discuss.
“I know,” Michael said without reciprocating, however. He used this occasion to allow his fiancée to pick up the scent of his detachment, without having to express it explicitly himself. His philosophy of communication was: when it comes to anything unpleasant, let your interlocutor do the work. That way you’ll get much less of the blame in the end.
“Do you miss me?” Karen fell right into his net, sensing evasiveness.
“Of course,” he blandly affirmed.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about giving up on this whole Phoenix idea,” she tested the waters for a potential change in plans. “It’s so lonely out here without you. And who knows if you’ll move to Arizona this summer. You may find the job of your dreams around Detroit.”
Michael was not expecting this twist. “I don’t think you should make any hasty decisions just because you had a bad week,” he assumed the tone of a disinterested observer. “Look at all the progress you’ve made in such a short time. You’re exercising several hours a day. You’re eating healthy. Even your attitude seems much brighter.”
“The truth of the matter is that I’m not happier here by myself,” Karen confessed. “I try to sound upbeat on the phone since we talk so little. But there’s not a single day goes by without me feeling sad that we’re apart.”
“Let’s not exaggerate!”
“I’m not exaggerating,” Karen insisted. “If anything, I’ve been doing my best to downplay the whole situation. I know how annoying it is when people complain …”
“You never annoy me.”
“I wish that were true! You’re very patient,” she added, knowing full well that Michael responded much better to flattery than to blame.
“Hey, what can I say? I aim to please.” She was fortunate to have me for as long as she did, Michael told himself whenever he tried to put himself in Karen’s shoes. She had a great life while we were together.
“You’re so much more independent than I am,” Karen returned to her initial concern. “Sometimes I feel like you don’t miss me as much as I miss you.” She hoped that Michael would deny this claim.
But he didn’t. He said nothing at all, allowing his fiancée to draw her own conclusion from his eloquent silence.
“I go on walks to many of the places we visited together last summer,” she prodded him. “That way I feel like part of you is still here with me.”
“Which part?” Michael quipped, glad to have spotted a pun.
“You always mock me!” Karen snapped back. But she caught herself. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m a little on edge today. I think I’m gaining weight just from depression. My metabolism must be slowing down.”
“I highly doubt it,” Michael countered, as comfortable as ever with the subject. “Genetics, exercise and diet determine metabolism much more than mood does,” he expertly pointed out.
“Yeah, but my mood’s pretty bad,” she emphasized, hoping that Michael would finally see how miserable she felt away from him and encourage her to return promptly to Detroit. “Why don’t we just forget about this stupid Phoenix idea, sweetie, and live together in Michigan, as before? We can always visit Arizona whenever we want,” she tried to tempt him.
“It seems to me that you’re so much happier in Phoenix,” Michael countered since, as far as he was concerned, Karen was moving quite literally in the wrong direction.
“I just miss you too much to enjoy living out here without you.” She hoped her confession would move him.
Michael exhaled with frustration. Karen was coercing him into becoming brutally explicit, something he preferred to avoid. After all, he didn’t want to look like the bad guy in this whole scenario. “I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he announced in a somber tone.
“What is it?” she asked with trepidation, dreading his reply.
“I’ve fallen in love with another woman. Her name is Ana. She’s leaving her husband for me,” Michael came out with it all at once.
At first, Karen was too shocked for words. Thinking back, she sought hints of this disaster in her fiancée’s behavior during the past few months. In all honesty, she couldn’t see any. There was nothing unusual about their interaction lately. After all, she recalled, Michael had tried to discourage her from moving to Phoenix in the first place. He talked to her on the phone every evening. He expressed interest in her concerns, as usual. He advised her on the diet and exercise routine, same as before. And he told her that he loved her, same as always. She was left with only one possible conclusion: “Is it because you were horny?”
Michael latched on to that promising lead. “Maybe,” he said, hoping that she’d develop on her own the explanation of their tragic undoing from this minimal justification.
Karen didn’t disappoint him. “I shouldn’t have left you on your own,” she turned the blame back upon herself. “Even my mother warned me that you couldn’t leave young men on their own. They have their needs.”
“That much is true,” he concurred.
“My depression was like an internal alarm signal. It was telling me that it was a huge mistake to come out here on my own,” she repeated, momentarily forgetting that the reason she had moved to Arizona in the first place was to try to resuscitate their comatose relationship.
Michael remained silent. After a rather unpromising beginning, the conversation was progressing surprisingly well.
“Is she pretty?” Karen pursued, her curiosity aroused after the initial shock.
“Is she a student in your department?”
“No. She’s an artist.”
“How did you meet her?”
“We met in church,” he stated, without elaborating.
“Since when do you go to church?”
Michael refrained from commenting.
“How long have you been seeing her?” Karen pursued.
“Since a few weeks after you left.” Will she buy that? he wondered.
“I bet you didn’t even let our bed get cold before you replaced me!” Karen let out only a tiny fraction of the spleen building up inside her.
But Michael couldn’t tolerate an unsubstantiated charge. “Yeah, well, you’re dead ass wrong about that! I was alone for a whole month before I even looked at another woman,” he lied with panache.
“I’m sorry,” Karen backed off. “I made such a huge mistake,” she reverted to self-blame. “Even my own sister said you were too good looking to be left alone. But I didn’t listen to anyone. And now everything’s ruined,” she concluded, devastated.
“Yeah, well, you couldn’t have known. Some things in life are beyond our control,” Michael said philosophically.
“Do you love her?” she asked with trepidation.
“Yes,” he affirmed.
“Who the hell knows? Why do people fall in love?”
“Do you feel like you’re more compatible with her?”
“In some ways,” Michael responded noncommittally, not wishing to alienate her. “Like I said, she’s an artist. She’s pretty and smart. We have a lot in common.”
“You always thought I wasn’t good enough for you,” Karen commented without any hint of reproach.
Michael could now afford to be gallant: “That’s not true. Don’t put yourself down.”
“What’s going to happen to us now?”
“I’m afraid it has to be over, Baby,” he said tenderly.
Upon hearing this statement, Karen broke down in tears. “Can we still be friends?” She felt crushed by the thought of never being close again to the only being she had ever needed and loved.
“I doubt it,” Michael replied, thinking that Ana would object to him remaining close to Karen, especially while being strictly forbidden herself from establishing friendships with other men. “But we can exchange a few greeting cards a year, like for birthdays and Christmas,” he kindly offered her a fair substitute for marriage.
After a brief pause, Karen said: “I’m too upset to talk right now. I’ll call you back as soon as I gather myself, okay?”
“Sure, take your time,” Michael obliged, thinking that the whole unpleasant business was concluded much more expediently than he had anticipated. He knew that the discussions with Karen would continue, of course. But at least the worst was over. Relieved, he went into the kitchen to make himself an ice cream sundae.
Meanwhile, Karen threw herself on her bed to melt into a pool of emotion. What a heavy price I’ve paid for one stupid move! she thought, going over and over in her head the counterintuitive decision to save their relationship by moving away from her fiancé. Eventually, however, some solace trickled out of the obsessive rehearsal of her own misjudgment. She began focusing on the figment of the other woman. Michael must have been desperately horny. A hot-blooded young man, left on his own, will sometimes make mistakes. Out of loneliness and desperation, he’ll jump into bed with the first attractive woman that crosses his path, she told herself. Once she identified the trivial source of the problem, Karen felt somewhat more confident about finding an adequate solution to it. I’m not giving up without a fight. I’ll go back to Michigan and reclaim my future husband, she resolved.
When she called Michael back, Karen sounded almost poised: “Don’t you think it’s kind of unfair of you to break up our engagement over the phone? At least we should discuss it in person.”
He quickly calculated the cost of such a move. If I agree, Karen will feel like I’m kind enough to grant her wishes. Ana will probably freak out at first, but she’ll understand eventually. After all, Karen was my fiancée. “Sure. It’s the least I can do,” Michael said, proud to display his generosity.
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