Soundtrack Song - Goo Goo Dolls, Black Balloon
I type back my message to Max, letting him know that I'll definitely be waiting after the game to see him. I always do anyway, but I especially can because tomorrow's Thanksgiving and I don't have to work.
"What are you smiling about?" Gina asks me, stepping into the living room. She sees me grinning at my phone.
"I'm going to Max's game tonight," I tell her. "He just invited me."
"Of course he did. He's head over heels for you, you know."
"He's amazing," I sigh, looking back at my phone, as if it's Max's face. For a second, I debate with myself about telling Gina about my horrible gaffe last night and how wonderful he was about it, but I decide not to. She'll only yell at me for it, and I still feel bad about it anyway. "He really is."
She rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I heard all about that last night. You know, Char, I was good about respecting the house rules this summer when you were all moody and bitchy and sullen. And now all of a sudden you've got yourself a boy toy, and the house rules go out the window."
I blush ferociously. "I'm sorry, Gina."
She shakes her head and laughs. "Don't worry. I'll get you back with Kevin sometime. Speaking of, I'm staying over his place tonight before we make our holiday rounds tomorrow. Just letting you know."
I laugh at her earlier comments. "Okay. Anyway, so, can you drop me off at the arena? I'm sure I can ride back with Max."
Gina nods and leaves me with my thoughts as I flip through the channels. I've got about an hour to kill before I grab a quick bite, change into jeans and the Lemieux jersey, and have Gina drive me to the Mellon. I say hello to all the girls and settle in to watch the game between Véro and Erin; however, the game quickly becomes painful to watch. The guys aren't clicking, and something seems off.
I'm worried because I don't know what to say or do when I see Max. I always congratulated him on the wins after the games I was there to watch, but what do I do after a loss? Should I console him? Pretend like it never happened? The girls all seem somber, so I don't ask them. Max doesn't give me a chance to say anything though, because once he emerges from the dressing room, he wraps his arm around my shoulder and leads me toward the door before I can even mutter goodbyes to the girls.
"So, don't you celebrate Thanksgiving?" he asks me as he navigates his way through the arena, almost accusatory in his tone.
I think about tomorrow. My mother practically begged me to come home, but I fed her the excuse that I just couldn't afford it. Really, I couldn't face my family this year; not after taking John home to meet them. I'd never hear the end of how I screwed things up with such a great man and how I can never do anything right. That's old news. It's so much easier to avoid the entire situation. "Of course I celebrate it, I'm just not making a big deal out of this year. It's not worth it to go home, and my grandparents are in Virginia to visit my aunt and her family. Gina invited me out to spend the day with her family because I know them all, but I didn't want to intrude since she's introducing Kevin to them. So I'm just going to enjoy the mini-vacation by myself."
"Oh," he says.
When he doesn't say anything else, I add, "That was kinda random."
"Well, I thought Americans make a big deal of this holiday. I figured you'd be going back to Chicago."
I shrug under the weight of his arm. "Nope. I'm staying here. Why ya so curious?" I giggle and poke him in the ribs, changing the subject to a lighter mood. "Do you wanna be American for the day, and eat cold turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie with me?"
"Maybe," he replies, very cryptically. I'm puzzled, because he's not usually this... quiet and subdued or terse. I don't know if I should ask what's wrong or if something's bugging him, but I figure it's the loss that's weighing on his mind and therefore stay silent.
When we leave the lot, Max leaves the windows up and doesn't stop to sign autographs. I hate to see it bother him so much. "I'm sorry about the game, Max-A-Million, but don't worry. You guys will bounce back, though. Don't be too upset about it," I say, trying to soothe his mood. I reach out and place my hand over his on the stick shift.
"Is it okay that we go back to your place?" he asks, ignoring everything I've just said, including my awesome new nickname for him.
"I kinda like your place better because it feels more open. It's bigger. Why don't we go to your house?"
"No, I think it's best if we go to yours. Charlotte," he says, taking his eyes off the road and turning to look at me, "we need to talk."
I feel like someone just pushed pause on my life. I pull back my hand and cross my arms over my chest. If Max wants to talk, it can only be about one thing: what I called him yesterday. I thought he was over it, that he forgave me and moved on. That's how he acted this morning.
But what did we have to talk about? Nothing. Because Max was going to tell me that we were over. It's obvious to me now that he's still upset, and I did think that he seemed to get over it quickly—too quickly, in fact. I should have known that this wasn't going to be done with so easily. But I apologized, and if that's not enough, then it isn't enough. There's nothing else I can say that's going to make it better. And it makes a lot more sense for him to take me to my place where he can leave of his own volition, rather than for us to go over to his house and then have him drive me home once he breaks my heart.
I spend the rest of the short drive staring out the window, wishing that this trip were longer. Because once we get to my apartment, he's going to tell me he's done with me. God, I'm so stupid for thinking we were done with this. When he parks along the curb, I get out of the bar before he can even turn it off.
Max follows me as I take the stairs up to my apartment, unlock the door, and let us in. He closes the door behind us, and I feel trapped. If he wanted to do this in my apartment where I would feel more comfortable and less like I was being attacked, it's not working. "So, you wanna talk?" I say, toeing out of my shoes. I'm trying to be nonchalant about it, but I'm shaking.
"No. I want you to talk. I want to hear this John guy. Your ex."
"Why?" I stop what I'm doing. I thought he was going to want to do the talking, and I certainly didn't expect this question.
"So I know why you called me by his name. What he did to you that makes you so scared of me."
"I'm not scared of you," I sigh, wondering if that's true. I want to keep this particular skeleton in my closet. I head into my room to pull off this jersey and replace it with a hoodie. "I just don't like talking about him, or what happened. Gina thinks it's best if I just ignore him and forget all about it."
"Well, I think Gina's wrong. You're obviously still hung up on him for some reason. I think I have a right to know."
"You really want to do this?" I ask, my hands on my hips in defiance. He's pushing the issue and pushing his luck, because I can feel my temper rising. "You really want to listen to me talk about my ex and all the sordid details and how it's fucked me up? You want me to go through all that again?"
"Yeah. I think you owe it to me to tell me," Max says.
"Owe it to you? Owe it to you?! What do I possible owe you?" I spit back, very exasperated.
Max comes back at me with just as much attitude. "I've been patient for you. I've waited for you to come around and give me a chance, which you were hesitant to do because of your past with this jerk. And then we have one fight, our first real fight, and you call me by his name. Charlotte, yes, you owe it to me to give me a full explanation."
When he puts it like that, I feel my anger leave me. Have things really been this one-sided all along? I sit on my bed and scoot over to the corner so my back is against the wall and pull my knees up to my chest. Max sits in front of me and rests a hand on my leg and coos, "Come on, baby. Talk to me." His eyes are softly pleading with me.
He's right. I know it; it isn't fair to keep this from him yet make him pay for something he never did. There's just something wrong about having to have this discussion, and talk about one old boyfriend to the guy taking his place. "You don't know what you're asking me to do. I don't want to do this. Please don't make me." I'm backed into a corner, physically and metaphorically.
"I know you don't want to. But I need you to tell me, and frankly I think you need to talk about it, too."
"And if I don't?" I ask. Immediately, I wish I could take that back. I'm asking for an ultimatum, and I don't think I'll like what he has to say.
"That's not an option, Charlotte."
"Fine. Okay." I concede, mostly to get him off my case, and then I push his hand away. Max gives me a pained look. "I can't have you touch me when I think about him," I explain, and he nods and gives me just the right amount of space.
I place the palms of my hands over my closed eyes. I've never told someone the whole story before, from start to finish. The only people that know about John are the ones who have known about him since the beginning of our relationship and heard about what happened as it happened; I've never talked about it after the fact to someone who wasn't already informed. I wait a couple seconds and let all those memories that I've worked so hard to suppress wash over me. Tears already threaten to erupt, and I wonder how I'm supposed to do this.
"So, what do you want to know?"
"Everything," he says, so matter-of-factly. I don't reply, because I don't even know where to start if I have to tell him everything. Max intuitively picks up on this and clarifies, "How did you meet him?"
No better place to start than the beginning. I smile briefly, remembering the initial giddiness I felt that night. "I went out with a couple of my classmates after my public speaking class one night, to this restaurant. I was only twenty at the time, so I couldn't have alcohol, but my friend Lesley spilled her drink and we needed extra napkins, so I went to the bar. And this guy was there. John. He was dressed in a suit and had a briefcase and everything. He looked so professional and mature, and he offered to buy me a drink.
"I was just smitten from the get-go. I definitely wasn't the prettiest girl there, or the hottest, but he wanted to buy me a drink. It was so flattering, and I couldn't believe it. I told him no, that I couldn't drink, and he just said, 'Not even pop?' Like he really, really wanted to have the chance to spend some time with me. So I sat up at the bar with him, drank a diet soda, and just talked to him. He asked for my number before he left, and I was... ecstatic."
"Pardon me, but that doesn't sound like that big of a deal."
I sigh and shake my head. "You don't understand. I was heavier back then, and pretty much a mess. It was toward the end of my sophomore year of college, and no one was interested in me. I hadn't been hit on since my boyfriend in high school, and he was captain of the chess team. To finally have that kind of attention was almost like a relief, and the fact that it was a real man instead of just a stupid college boy was thrilling.
"He was so eloquent, charming, and suave. John knew all the right things to say, and I was naïve enough to believe all the nice things he said. Well, you can believe me now when I tell you I learned my lesson. It's just that he was older, and I thought that that meant he knew what he wanted out of life and was ready to settle down instead of the guys my age that just wanted to fuck around. I bought into every one of his lies.
"The first six months were, like, amazing. He called when he said he would, was never late for a date, paid for everything, and made me feel like I was the only woman in the world. Like I was a goddess in the mortal realm. After two months, he told me he loved me. He said it was love at first sight, and he felt it the moment I walked through the door of that restaurant. Those words, they were like pure poetry! It was like hearing the gospel straight from the Lord's mouth.
"John was so keen on meeting my family right away, too. It seemed like it was happening kind of fast, but I didn't know any better and I thought things were progressing really well. And my family all loved him. My friends adored him, and they called us that perfect, sugar-coated couple, the one that never fights or even disagrees. Everyone was practically planning our wedding already. And I thought all those things, too. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to know him, that I was the lucky girl that got to be with him, the one that he chose. I fully expected that we were going to be together forever."
Max tries to say something. "Don't stop me," I tell him, holding up my hand to cut him off before he even starts. "You wanted me to talk, so let me talk and you can ask questions later." He nods and lets me continue my roundabout, disjointed, stream-of-consciousness explanation.
"So when things started to cool down at first, I just figured that it was because everything happened so quickly. We stopped talking everyday. He didn't want to hold hands in public or even under the table when we went out to dinner. Complained about how he was spending so much money, even though I offered to pay at least my share when we went out.
"He stopped wanting to go out completely. Well, with me anyway. He'd go out with his friends and drink all night with them. You know, one Friday night, he went out with his buddies and told me that he'd call me at the end of the night and stop over to see me. I waited up until three in the morning, calling and texting him to see if he was okay, because I thought something happened to him. I didn't hear from him all weekend. On Monday, he calls and apologizes, telling me that he spent too much money on drinks on Friday, and that pissed him off all weekend so he wasn't in the mood to come see me. But he didn't explain why he couldn't at least call to tell me that so I wouldn't worry about him.
"We didn't see each other for about three weeks after that, because he was wishy-washy about going out or coming over or inviting me to his place. He gave me some lame excuse about wanting to be in the right 'mood' when he saw me, and I got pissed off and then I went out with some friends, got drunk, and made out with some frat boy. I felt so guilty, and I'm ashamed that I ever did that, but when I confessed to John, you'd think I slept with the entire frat house. He just couldn't believe I would do something like that to him, let alone that I did it because I was mad at him. Heaven forbid anyone gets mad at him.
"I tried so hard to make it up to him. I mean, I already would have done anything for him anyway. But suddenly it wasn't enough. I apologized, cried, begged for forgiveness. Just when I thought he was going to wash his hands of me, he said he'd give me another chance. I swore to him that I would never do anything to screw it up again, that I'd never make him regret that decision.
"Then he took me out to this really fancy dinner. And he pointed to a family sitting a few tables away from us and said how nice it would be to have a family like that. I melted all over again and put up with him when he was being distant, because he'd always make up for it somehow by being really sweet again. It was a roller coaster, but the good times with him made it worth it, I thought. I just couldn't guarantee he'd be that way all the time, or that he wouldn't get moody and wall off and disappear again.
"Until he started getting... angry and demanding, like he was suddenly this other person. I know that he was getting a lot of pressure at work with the economy turning bad, and he was worried about losing his job. He wanted to start impressing his bosses, so he brought a lot of work home with him, and I just started helping him with it. In fact, I neglected my classes to help read reports and do research for his company and put together presentations. When I told him I had papers to write, he would say that I was being selfish and that I didn't care about him because I didn't want to help. He'd remind me of what I did, and how I told him I'd do anything.
"He said that it was for us. He needed to do well at his job so he could get a promotion, because he couldn't think about settling down until he was in a better position, making more money. I was such a fool. I thought that it was going to be the answer to everything. Once he got the promotion, he'd go back to his old self. But it just never happened.
"And meanwhile, I gave up everything for him. I completely lost myself in him and surrendered who I was in order to make him happy. But none of it made him happy, and eventually, I realized that it didn't make me happy, either. So, well, I left." I take a deep breath. It all came out in a sticky blob of words, and I'm not even sure that I said what I needed to or conveyed what I wanted.
"So, what made you leave?" Max asks. "I mean, what finally snapped to make you walk away?"
"It was time for me to graduate, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought maybe I could go to grad school, but I still wasn't sure what major I wanted to pick or what I wanted to go into. But John didn't want me to. I don't know what he wanted me to do, but apparently it needed to involve placing my focus on him. But he didn't want to get married yet, he wasn't even ready to propose, and suddenly it hit me that I was the one going the distance, and he wasn't. I gave him an inch, and he took miles. And took and took and took, and he never gave me anything. He wasn't ever going to be ready, and I couldn't wait around anymore for him.
"So I packed my bags and caught a Greyhound. He drove me to the station, kissed my cheek, and waved goodbye as the bus pulled out. And he laughed when I told him goodbye, because he didn't understand how I could possibly want to leave him. At first, I thought maybe we could be friends, but I couldn't do it. I was trying to forget all about him, just like Gina told me I should, but I wasn't sure if I could or if it was worth it. And then... I met you."