I was in a good mood the next morning, from some combination of my successful date with Charlie and my late night imaginary rendezvous with Alex. I was feeling so good that I blew off my laundry, which was getting close to the desperate stage where I was contemplating reusing underwear, and went out to treat myself to a nice, non-bitter cup of coffee. Starbucks: my biggest indulgence in life.
As I waited for my delicious late to be made, I felt my cell phone vibrating within my pocket. Grace’s name flashed on the screen and I debated not answering. I suspected that the fact that she was calling in the morning and not last night meant that she had a deliciously fabulous date and now was calling to gush about it. I wasn’t in the mood for gushing, not with my only prospects for a relationship right now being old inside-out Charlie. But I felt like a bitch not being there for my friend, so I reluctantly picked up.
“Hi, Grace,” I said.
“Hi…” she said. Her voice was low, flat.
“Is this a bad time?” she asked me.
“No, I’m just buying a coffee,” I said.
Grace always teased me about my disgusting homemade coffee so the fact that she didn’t make a crack now was a bad sign. “Can I come over?” she asked.
That was an even worse sign. Grace and I got together sometimes on weekends and in the evening, but I couldn’t remember the last time she asked to come over randomly like that. She lived far enough away that pop-ins were not reasonable. None of this boded well for her date last night. “Yes, of course,” I said.
Grace showed up at my apartment about thirty minutes later, dressed in sweatpants and a stained sweater, her hair disheveled and her eyes puffy. She was holding a tub of rocky road ice cream. The whole thing felt so horribly clichéd that I winced internally.
“Don’t say it, Rachel,” Grace said, clutching the ice cream possessively to her chest. “Just get me a spoon.”
I hadn’t been about to say anything. Far be it from me to tell my friend what she could eat when she’d just had her heart broken. I retrieved a spoon from the kitchen, and as I handed it to her, I wanted to give Grace a big hug. Unfortunately, I’m not a very huggy kind of person and neither is Grace. So I tried to send her mental hugs.
“Men are horrible,” Grace said as she plopped onto my couch. “I hate them.”
I nodded in solemn agreement. She was preaching to the choir.
“Sam and I were talking for three months,” she muttered, ripping the cover from the ice cream container. “Three months. I thought the guy was my soul mate and I knew he felt the same way.”
“Your soul mate?” I always felt immediately skeptical when anybody declared someone their soul mate, especially someone they met only recently. I don’t believe two people could really share that kind of connection, unless they’ve known each other for like thirty years.
“I know, it’s stupid,” Grace admitted. “I got carried away. But… god, he really seemed great. I mean, maybe not objectively great. But great for me.”
“So, um, what happened?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, you know, the usual. Fake phone call fifteen minutes into dinner. Friend was in horrible car accident, had to leave immediately.” She paused to swallow her ice cream. “The best part was that I totally called him on it. I mean, he knew I’m a freaking ICU doctor… how could he be so dumb? I told him I’d come to the hospital and help him with his friend, and he froze like a deer in headlights.”
“Did he ‘fess up?”
“No. Mumbled something and got the hell out.”
I remembered how frightened I had felt when I believed Grace had found true love. Now I felt ashamed of myself. My chest ached seeing my best friend so miserable. She deserved a great guy. “He sounds like a jerk,” I said. “You’re better off without him.”
“Please don’t say that, Rachel,” Grace said, tears springing to her eyes. “I mean, I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but let’s all be honest with ourselves. Okay? He’s not a jerk. It was me. He didn’t want me.”
This was a topic that Grace and I very rarely broached in our five years of friendship. It disturbed me that she wasn’t allowing me to be sympathetic. All she wanted was the bitter truth and I couldn’t do that. “Hey,” I said, as an idea hit me. “You know what we should do? Let’s stay here all day, eat like shit, and watch cheesy eighties movies.”
For the first time since she had walked in the door, a tiny smile sprouted on Grace’s face.
We raided my DVD collection for our favorite “comfort movies.” We picked Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because we both had it bad for young Matthew Broderick. For the cheesy girly movie, we picked Sixteen Candles, starring Molly “I’m so awkward and redheaded and angsty” Ringwald. And of course, Ghostbusters, because how else are we going to know who to call when there’s a monster in the refrigerator?
As the time crept toward eight o’clock in the evening, I started feeling a twinge in my stomach. “Are you feeling hungry?” I asked Grace.
“Starving,” Grace said. She grinned at me. “Wanna go on a date with me?”
I laughed. “Totally. Hey, we’re both rich doctors… let’s go someplace ridiculously expensive. Get the most amazing food the city has to offer.”
“I like that plan,” Grace said, nodding solemnly. Despite having not had any alcohol, the pizza and the ice cream and the eighties movies were making us act giddy and almost drunk. “Zagat’s?”
“Do you think I’m the sort of snob who has a copy of Zagat’s in my apartment?”
“Fair enough,” Grace said. “I know, let’s look on the internet.”
We searched the internet for “most expensive restaurants in New York” and got tons of hits. Apparently, it was a popular question. “Do you like Japanese?” she asked me.
“Because there’s a good place in Columbus Circle,” she said. “It’s $400 per person for a night of ‘omakase excellence.’”
“What the hell is omakase excellence?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, maybe it’s not a good idea then. I don’t want to end up with herpes or something.”
Grace snorted. As we browsed the list of restaurants, we realized that the most expensive restaurants in the city were probably also the most crowded. On a Saturday night, we were never going to get in without a reservation booked a month in advance. We finally settled on a French restaurant in the village that was still taking reservations at this late hour.
After several failed attempts to capture a cab, we took the subway to the restaurant, which was deep in Greenwich Village. I love the village, especially on a night when Grace was my date. Around here, the immediate assumption was that the two of us were a couple, rather than two lonely women drowning our sorrows over French cuisine on a Saturday night. I didn’t mind those assumptions in the slightest. It was a hell of a lot better than the reality.
The French restaurant had just the right atmosphere for our faux date. It was small and intensely romantic, with a candle on every table. I bet the waiters were all very nubile and cute. “Hey,” I whispered to Grace. “If you and I started making out, nobody would even bat an eye.”
Grace shook her head at me. “Okay, Rachel, you seriously need a boyfriend. Like, now.”
I smiled at her, in good spirits for a change. Then I saw something that made my jaw fall open. At this little tiny nothing restaurant in the middle of Greenwich Village, I was suddenly staring at the back of the head of none other than my would-be boyfriend. It was Charlie. He was sitting in the restaurant, gazing into the eyes of another woman.
Let me just say that New York is a freaking huge city. Manhattan alone has well over a million people living there. Yet sometimes the city felt really, really small. It didn’t seem possible that in such a big city, you could coincidentally run into your date from last night in a restaurant chosen at random, yet it seemed like that sort of thing happened all the time. Maybe everyone in the city just goes to the same five or six places. Regardless, no matter where I go, it seems like I’m always running into someone I know. This time it happened to be Charlie.
“Rachel, are you okay?” Grace was frowning at me. “You look like you’re about to have a stroke. I’m not kidding.”
“That’s him,” I said numbly.
Grace followed my gaze to the chubby balding man wearing the sky blue shirt. I couldn’t help but notice he was dressed a lot better for this date than he was for ours. His shirt wasn’t even on inside-out.
“That’s him?” Grace crinkled her nose.
I nodded, feeling like I was about to cry. I don’t know why. I wasn’t in love with Charlie. I wasn’t even sure if I liked him. I guess it was because he was so clearly choosing this woman over me. He was dressed in nicer clothes and his hair was nicely combed. She got the Saturday night date, and I’m sure he gave her more than a day’s notice. Compared to her, I was an afterthought.
“You should go say something,” Grace encouraged me. “Bust him!”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “I mean, he’s got a right to go out with another girl. We’re not exclusive or anything. We’ve only had two dates.”
Since Charlie was facing away from me, I had a much better view of his date than I had of him. She was… cute. Straight blond hair that hung loose down her back, a round but attractive face, nice breasts. I would have picked her over me.
“Do… do you want to go?” Grace asked me.
I nodded and raced out of the restaurant seconds before the tears erupted.
After all that, Grace and I ended up at McDonald’s. We had a McDonald’s feast, which cost a hell of a lot less than omakase excellence. But you know what? There’s something pretty freaking excellent about a chocolate milkshake.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose it like that before,” Grace commented as she bit into her Big Mac.
I dipped a chicken nugget into my barbeque sauce. I absolutely refuse to call them McNuggets out of principle. I am not going to change what I call a food just so I can invoke the McDonald’s image. But I do like eating them a lot. I love that crunchy shell of fried bread.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry,” Grace said. “I’m just surprised. I didn’t even think you liked Charlie that much.”
“I don’t,” I admitted.
“So are you still going to go to the wedding with him?”
“Sure, why not?”
“And you’re still going to go out with him?”
Grace frowned. “So what about that other woman?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He seems to like her a lot.”
She sighed really loudly. “Rachel, don’t take this the wrong way,” she said. “But… I think you have the worst attitude I’ve ever seen when it comes to men.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“If you don’t like Charlie,” she said, “then don’t date him. And if you do like him, then take him away from that blonde bitch.”
“Just take him away from her?” I said flatly.
“Just like that?
“Just like that,” Grace said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
“She’s pretty,” I pointed out. “And he likes her better than me. She got the Saturday night date.”
“He doesn’t like her that much, otherwise he wouldn’t be dating you at all.”
“I can’t steal him away from her.”
“You’re better than she is,” Grace said.
I shook my head. “What are you talking about? ‘Better than she is’? What does that even mean? You don’t even know her.”
“Yeah, but you’re awesome, Rachel,” Grace said in a voice so sincere, I almost started crying all over again. “I know you’re better than that woman. I don’t need to know anything about her.”
I managed a small smile. “Well, thanks. You’re wrong, but thanks.”
“My god,” Grace breathed. “You’re impossible. Why are you like this about men? Who did this to you?”
Five years of knowing Grace and it was time to tell her the whole story, not just the abridged version. I took a deep breath and I told her exactly how things started on the downhill path 22 years earlier. I told her how Alex exposed my cotton-filled bra cups to the entire classroom, how he used to call me fat and ugly, and how I used to go home and cry just thinking about him. Alex Connors, who was currently lying in a bed in the rehab unit, scheming how to get his fiancée not to leave him.
“Sheesh,” Grace breathed. “I know you said you hated the guy, but I didn’t realize how badly Connors screwed you up.”
“Did you ever tell him?”
“Of course not,” I said.
“Yeah, you’re not the confrontation type, are you?” Grace smirked. “Well, so what are you going to do?”
“Look,” she said. “I didn’t make you confront Charlie. If you want to allow him to keep treating you like a spare tire, that’s fine. But you’ve got Connors exactly where you want him. You say this guy wrecked your life. Why should he get to live happily ever after with his fiancée?”
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you suggest?”
“Get your revenge,” Grace said. “Break them up.”
Of course, I’d already contemplated the same thing a million times before. I’d made a few passive-aggressive comments to Eva along those lines. But I hadn’t really done anything to actively break them up. I couldn’t. It would be wrong. This was not a gray area by any means. Plotting to get your patient’s girlfriend to dump him was not one of the things Hippocrates had been thinking about in his oath. It was unethical and cruel.
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“Sure you can,” she argued.
Grace folded her arms across her chest. “Are they that happy together?”
“No, actually, they’re having trouble right now.”
“So there ya go. It’ll be a piece of cake.”
“I can’t do it because it’s wrong.”
Grace smiled. “You and your morals, Rachel. Please. The guy’s an asshole and you deserve to have your revenge.”
Except Alex wasn’t an asshole. I wished he were. It would have been so much easier.
“Look,” Grace said in her logical voice that convinced many family members to take their loved ones off life support. When Grace believed something was the right thing to do, she could be extremely persuasive. “You’ve been holding a grudge against this guy for over twenty years. It’s keeping you from having a normal relationship. Once you get your revenge, you won’t have to think of him as the guy who tortured you in middle school. You can think of him as the guy who paid dearly for torturing you in middle school.”
She had a point. One thing that always bothered me was that Alex hadn’t suffered any consequences for what he did to me. In fact, it elevated his status. It always felt horribly unfair. But if I evened the score, maybe I could finally let this thing go.
“I don’t know,” I said slowly.
Grace’s face lit up because she knew at this moment that she had me. I was going to do it. After 22 years, I was finally going to get back at Alex Connors.To be continued....