As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry about my dilemma with Ethan. Almost a month to the day following his confession, me and Ethan broke up. It wasn’t a mutual decision.
“O.M.G.” Charity screeches in my ear as I am tucking my jacket into my locker Monday morning. “Did you hear about Ethan and Sam Harding?”
I frown at the English book I have selected. “No,” I say slowly. A creeping sense of unease has begun twisting in the pit of my stomach. “Should I have?”
Charity grips my arm, her eyes wide. “They totally hooked up at Greg’s party this weekend!”
My heart stops. Stutters, and then slams into my chest as it takes off like a shot. This isn’t happening. Charity’s wrong. She got some bad information. But then I remember her saying that she was going to a party at Greg’s, too. “Are you sure?” I croak past the burning lump in my throat. I’m not sure why I ask, because I already know the truth. Ethan cheated, again. But I have to hear it; I have to know the details. It feels imperative that I do.
“Yes, I’m sure!” Charity hisses. “It’s all over school.” I glance around and for the first time I notice how everyone is looking at me, some of them whispering to the person walking beside them. Humiliation begins to grab hold of me and I feel my face burn.
“Tess.” Charity presses in closer, shielding me from the crowd. Her voice is soft but urgent as she takes my arm in her firm grip and forces me to look at her. “You should know, I think Ethan is planning to break up with you.”
A million questions and emotions flit through me. Sadness. Sickness. Confusion. Anger. The biggest is anger. I glare at Charity, staring right into her oversized bright blue eyes. “You knew about this all weekend and you didn’t bother to tell me?”
I watch as she rears back in shock and confusion. “You’re mad at me?” She touches her hand to her chest, clearly offended. I’m not moved to apologize. I jerk my arm from her hold and slam my locker shut. “I can’t believe you’re pissed at me when I’m the one looking out for you. Real nice way to treat your best friend.”
She storms off and I watch as the crowd swallows her. I feel a mixture of doubt and another heaping of guilt add to the pile of emotional turmoil chewing away at my insides. Maybe I was too harsh on her. Perhaps even a little irrational. She was being my friend, after all, and if what she said was true, then I need to be prepared.
For the rest of the day I feel like I am on death row waiting for my executioner to arrive. I listen to the teachers lecture with only half an ear. I take notes on autopilot. I exist only because I breathe. The whispered rumors of Ethan and Sam are spinning around me. Now and then I catch bits and pieces, but the one that hurts the most, the one I wish I could close my ears to, is the one that claims Ethan has been seeing Sam after school for the last two weeks. I grit my teeth against the pain.
It’s come to a point where every time a door opens I hold my breath, half expecting Ethan to waltz in and tell me it’s over. I scan every face as I walk the halls between classes waiting to see his face part the crowd.
And then the moment finally arrives.
I am heading to my last class of the day—art—when Ethan falls into step beside me. I give him a small smile, but it slips when I see the grave look on his face.
“Can we talk for a minute?”
Talking is the last thing I want to do. From the look on his face, I know without a doubt that what Charity told me is true. I don’t want to hear it. Not from him, not from anyone. I just want all of this to go away. “Okay.”
With his hand on my lower back, he guides me to a corner just outside the flow of traffic. From over his shoulder, I can see people watching us as they pass by. Do they know what is happening? The first burn of impending tears starts in my nose and my throat thickens. I refuse to cry.
“Listen, this probably isn’t going to come as much of a shock…” Ethan’s face pinches and if I didn’t already know what a bastard he was, I might actually believe that he feels a spark of remorse for what he is about to do to me. But as I look at his beautiful face and try to recall why I ever thought I loved him, I can’t come up with a damn thing. It’s tainted. Every single memory we have together is tarnished by his lies.
Standing here in the middle of my high school hallway with a hundred other students covertly listening in on my private heartbreak, while Ethan stands in front of me trying to find the best and fastest way to unburden himself of me, I realize that I have been living in a fantasy world these past few months. He doesn’t love me. I’m not sure he ever did. What I do know is that I can never forgive him.
“I’m breaking up with you.” Ethan’s head snaps up, looking as stunned as I feel. I blurted the words before the thought had a chance to fully form, but now that they are out there, I refuse to take them back.
“That’s…I mean, that’s good,” Ethan stutters. “I mean, what we had was great, but it just isn’t working anymore, you know? I’m so glad you agree.” He’s smiling now. The same smile I used to love, but now I find I hate. “You have no idea what I’ve been going through trying to think of the right words to—”
The hand that hit him came out of nowhere and it took me a moment to process that it belonged to me. His cheek feels like jelly under my palm, soft and squishy. A roar of shock and laughter fills my ears. I don’t wait around to hear any more of his lies. I shove past him and move through the stunned onlookers with a fluid grace, absently noticing the female hall monitor standing just a few feet away, watching me. When the closed stairwell leading to the art rooms comes into view, I burst through them.
Once again, I am thankful that I chose the table in the back, far away from the other students who like to socialize. My faulty personality and near crippling shyness has worked in my favor today. No one will notice that I am quietly dying inside.
As I gather the project I have been working on and a few pencils and get to work a thought occurs to me and I worry my teeth over my bottom lip. I’ve just struck another student, and there were witnesses. I’m going to be expelled. I spend the next hour waiting for the phone to ring.
The call never came. It seems that I’ve gotten away with hitting Ethan. Frankly, I’m surprised considering that I did it right in front of the hall monitor. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that she was a woman. She’s probably had enough back experiences with men to know one who deserves it when she sees them.
Ethan hasn’t called or even so much as glanced my way since “the incident.” That’s what I’m calling it now. The incident. It’s just as well. After witnessing his very public affair every day in school for the last few weeks, I would probably just end up hitting him again.
It’s become the proudest moment in my life. I’ve finally stood up for myself. I replay it in my head over and over each day, and I wouldn’t do anything different. He deserved it. And considering how badly my hand stung afterward, I can only imagine the kind of mark I left on his face. I smile when I picture the humungous red handprint imprinted across his cheek. It’s my version of the Scarlet Letter, and I hope he got to wear it the rest of the day for everyone to see.
“What do you want for dinner tonight, honey?” I hear my mom talking to me before I even enter the room. She is sitting on the couch, her back to me, and she is flipping through one of her many recipe books.
“Doesn’t matter,” I tell her. I don’t really have an interest in food lately. As I turn to leave she pats the seat next to her.
“Come sit with me.” I sigh heavily, because her words are like a bright, flashing sign over her head that I’m not going to like what she has to say.
Cautiously, I take the cushion next to her. “What’s up?”
Mom closes the book, making sure to keep her finger inside so she doesn’t lose her place. “How are you doing, honey?” She curls a hank of hair around my ear when I hang my head so she can still see my face. I don’t want to talk about Ethan or Sam or anything to do with what happened. I just want to put it behind me but she seems obsessed with the topic.
It’s no secret that my parents liked Ethan. He was the all American boy. They talked like we would grow up and get married one day and give them grandbabies so much that I began to believe it too. Now their vision of the future was as shattered as mine, like we were all sharing the loss. It didn’t help that my parents were friends with Ethan’s. It meant that I was always receiving unwanted, unsolicited updates that just served to tear at my heart further.
“I’m okay.” It’s my usual response to this question. It’s a lie, only now; I’ve gotten good enough at telling it that even I am starting to believe it.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. How’s school?”
“Uneventful, but good.”
She smiles. “Still daydreaming about breaking free?”
“Always,” I groan, throwing my head back against the back of the couch, and for the first time in forever my smile feels genuine.
“So listen,” Mom says, her tone turning serious. “Your father and I are going away for the weekend. You know, for some time alone.” I nod. I don’t really have any interest in hearing about what my parents plan to do with their mini vacation. “I want to make something for you for dinner that will last until we get back. Do you have anything in mind? Any preferences?”
I pretend to think on it. Nothing sparks my appetite anymore. “Not really. Whatever you want to make is fine.”
Mom watches me with this worry-filled look that makes me want to shut myself in my room. “You don’t eat anymore, honey.”
I slap the cushions and jump to my feet. “I’m not in the mood for another lecture.”
“You don’t think we haven’t noticed how much weight you’ve lost? Tess, your father and I are worried sick about you!” she shouts as she scrambles off the couch to follow after me.
My feet move faster. I need to get out of here, away from…everything. “I don’t need anyone telling me what I need to eat or when. I’m fine!”
“Sharon told me Ethan is worried about you. He’s seen it too. He says you don’t eat lunch at school either. He says you don’t even talk to your friends anymore.”
I pivot around and watch with grim satisfaction when she stops under the weight of my glare. “Oh, so if Ethan says it then it must be true. You know, for once, I wish you would stop listening to Ethan and listen to me. Do you know how it feels to have to watch the person you spent the last year being in love with walk around kissing and holding hands with another girl?”
Her mouth flaps open and closed a few times before she steps toward me, her hand outstretched. “Oh, sweetie. People make mistakes. Maybe if you reconsidered, gave him another chance—”
I jerk back, my hands raised. “Just don’t.” The last thing I want is people feeling sorry for me or suggesting that I am the problem, especially when they don’t have all the facts. I never told my parents the reason I broke up with Ethan, just that I had. Somewhere along the way, Ethan’s sin had become my dirty little secret.
Angry with her, angry with myself, I dart out the door, unable to stand the feeling of being cooped up any longer. The need to get away slams into me with the force of a wrecking ball and I end up driving for hours with no particular destination in mind.