“I’ve come to realize something about you,” Valerie said slowly and surely into her FaceTime camera, carefully holding the phone to ensure that she was showing the very best angle of her visage. She was beautiful, no doubt, but 33 wasn’t treating her as well as 28 had, and even in moments like these, she was careful to make sure that she presented herself as elegantly as possible.
Staring back at her through the single crack on the screen of her iPhone 7 was the plain but handsome, older but youthful face of a man who was desperately, hopelessly in love with her. She knew that what she was about to say—what she had rehearsed saying in her mind dozens of times since she had last seen him just 24 hours ago—was going to destroy him.
But so fucking what? Valerie had been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again in the three years she and Paul had been together, and mostly by his doing. Through all of it, she had loved him. Defended him. Even protected him.
Paul had a bad habit of lying to protect her, but she could handle that. She knew that he needed to lie to her sometimes. Dating a man who traveled for a living and likely had a girl in every proverbial port before he met her…she didn’t want to know about all of that. But there was the one time he hadn’t lied, and that was the one she could never forgive him for. And that’s why she had to say what she was about to say.
“I’ve realized that while I will always love you—deeply, from the bottom of my heart—I’ve realized that I don’t love you romantically.”
There. She had said it. It was done.
Just saying it wasn’t enough, though. That’s why this call was a FaceTime. That’s why she had to see him break as she said it. Because if he was broken, she’d feel better about being broken.
And that’s why when Paul’s face cracked, ever so slightly, just long enough for a single tear to escape his eye, she finally felt the relief that had been missing from her life for so very long.
“Okay,” he said. Because what else could he say? He tried to smile, but that tear had betrayed him. “I understand.”
All the times they had been on and off, will they/won’t they, are they/aren’t they over the past three years, she had never been able to say that. But even in that moment, she wasn’t sure that it was true.
“I don’t understand why you two aren’t together,” Marie said as they sat down at the bar. “He loves you so much.”
It was a year before the breakup—the real breakup. Valerie and Paul were “just friends,” having parted ways officially a few weeks before. Of course, Paul was in town again, presumably on business, but he never really seemed to have much business to conduct when he was there. And he was staying with Valerie, sleeping in her bed with her every night. She wouldn’t let him make love to her, of course, but she was happy to sleep nearly naked next to him, feeling the warmth that made her so comfortable.
In the mornings, Valerie would set her alarm thirty minutes earlier than she needed to, just so she could roll over, place her head on his chest, and listen to him breathe. She loved hearing his breath quicken ever so slightly when he had awakened enough to realize she was there, and then feeling his arm gently pull her closer to him. Those silent mornings in her apartment were almost enough to help her forget.
“Baby,” Valerie whispered saucily to Marie, “I know he loves me. Maybe even more than you do.”
Marie laughed, mostly because Marie laughed at everything. She was silly, even playful in a way that made her seem at least a decade younger than her squarely millennial birthday that her driver’s license kept as a close secret. While Valerie had worn a deeply scooped, highly slit dress to the bar for their girls’ night, Marie had worn denim overalls and Chucks. Marie was always the Velma to Val’s Daphne, but it worked for both of them.
The two of them were inseparable, closer than sisters in most ways. There had never been a hint of anything romantic between them—despite what some friends said and many men wished—because it was deeper than that, in a way that none of the boorish, leering men at that bar could never have understood.
“Then why?” Marie moaned. “I would kill for a man to look at me the way he looks at you.” She waved her hand dismissively at the the other patrons of the bar. “These men? They just want to fuck us. You can get that anywhere. Paul wants to worship you. He does worship you. And he’s a good man, Val.”
Valerie knew all this to be true. She knew what Marie didn’t know, too—that Paul was still taking care of her, even after she had dumped him yet again. He had never stopped paying her rent, or sending her groceries via Instacart. And honestly, she needed the help.
It wasn’t like that, she reminded herself. I’m not sleeping with him or anything. He’s not my sugar daddy. I’m not using him. Right? Right.
“Something happened between us, Marie. I can’t talk about it, not yet.”
“My God, Val—did he hit you?” Marie’s tiny frame instantly became enraged, her voice rising to a shriek. “Did he force himself on you??”
“No, baby, shhhhh,” Valerie tried to shush her, lest any of the very interested men in the bar try to insert themselves into their conversation. “Marie…it’s nothing like that. You know he would never. I know he would never.”
“Then what is it?”
“I just can’t. It’s as much my fault as his, I know that. Please don’t hate him or anything, okay?”
Marie looked back with suspicion. “Okay, babe. I won’t.” She slurped down her margarita loudly. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought you’d cancel for sure when he came into town last minute.”
“Cancel on you? Never. You’re the love of my life.”
But as she arrived back to her apartment at 2:20 that next morning, full of tequilla and introspection, Valerie wondered if the love of her life wasn’t the man who had unexpectedly cleaned her bathroom, taken out her trash, and ironed her work clothes for tomorrow. She stepped out of her shoes, unzipped her dress and let it fall gently to the floor as she moved silently under the sheets next to Paul, who had obviously tried to stay awake for her, his phone still playing Get Him to the Greek next to his slightly drooling mouth on his pillow.
“Baby,” she whispered, stroking his chest slightly. “Baby. I’m home. Kiss me.”
And even half asleep, Paul knew not to miss his opportunity to get her back. So he did.
It had now been nearly two years since the real breakup, the day when that single tear defined their entire relationship. And Valerie had never been doing better.
Paul had been holding her back, she realized that now. She had been too reliant upon him, too nervous about what would happen if he had stopped supporting her, but simultaneously too comfortable with accepting those PayPal transfers. Going cold turkey had been a struggle, and there were a few days where eating was more a concept than a reality, but she had done it, damnit.
She and Marie had gone into business together, and they were busier than they could ever have imagined they would be. Valerie had tried to date, had even moved in with a guy for a month or two, but she quickly realized that her goals and aspirations were too large for any one man to handle right then. It would be the Val and Marie show for now, and that’s all she needed to be happy.
Until that fucking voicemail.
Marie had managed to arrange a meeting with a really big potential client—one that was honestly too big for them to handle at this stage of their business, but what the hell? Of course Valerie had put her phone on silent and had buried it deeply into her Prada bag that Paul had bought her for her birthday two years ago. She had even gotten to the point where she stopped thinking of him when she wore it, a fact that she was simultaneously proud of and ashamed to admit. So she didn’t hear the buzzing when a number that she didn’t even recognize anymore rang at the bottom of that satchel.
The meeting had not gone particularly well, to be honest. It was nearly immediately obvious that the scope of the project was beyond their limited capabilities, and the client was more annoyed than Valerie felt he had a right to be. Marie wasn’t as perceptive as she was, and Valerie kept having to squeeze her leg under the table to get her to shut up.
“I’m sorry, my love,” Marie said to Valerie in the parking lot of the client’s office. “I fucked that one up, didn’t I?”
“It’s okay, really. We never lose, right? We win or we learn. And we sure as hell learned a lot today, babe.” Valerie did her very best to laugh it off. That could have been the deal that set them up for the rest of the year—maybe multiple years. “We just weren’t ready. We will be next time.”
They embraced each other as they always did upon parting ways, and Valerie fumbled to get her keys and her phone from her bag.
“Voicemail? Who leaves voicemails anymore?” Valerie held the phone up to her ear to listen to the three minute plus message that somebody had left her.
She sank to her knees like she had been shot.
“Valerie!” Marie screamed. “What is it? What’s wrong?” She tried to pull Valerie to her feet, but couldn’t even budge her.
“It’s Paul. I think it’s Paul. I can’t tell for sure, he pocket dialed me. I don’t have his number saved anymore. But it’s the right area code. It sounds like he’s with some woman…and a baby.”
“A baby?” Marie was confused.
“Yeah, a baby. I can hear it crying.”
“What’s he doing with a baby?”
Valerie couldn’t speak. She just stayed there, rooted to the filthy blacktop of the industrial park’s lot. She listened to all three minutes, and then listened to it again. Marie was saying something, maybe even yelling something, but she didn’t hear it.
“Marie, I need you to take me home. I don’t think I can drive right now.”
“Val, I’m scared. What’s wrong? What’s wrong? For fuck’s sake, what is fucking wrong?”
“I’ll tell you as we drive. We need to go. Come on. ”
It took more than ten minutes of silence between the two of them. Marie driving her old, squeaky Nissan Versa with one eye on the road, and one eye on her best friend. Valerie, unable to even breathe properly.
Finally, she spoke.
“Marie,” Valerie began. “I…remember when I told you that something had happened between me and Paul that I couldn’t talk about?”
“Well.” She measured the silence, unsure how to tell her very best friend something that she had never told anybody. “That something was an abortion.”
“Holy fuck, Val.” Marie narrowly avoided putting the Nissan into a median before swerving back into her lane. “An abortion? When? How did I not know this?”
“It was when we broke up for a little while, right before that girls’ night we had when we talked about it.” Valerie paused. “It was an accident, of course. I wasn’t on the pill, and he, well, you know…he finished.”
She paused again.
“That’s not entirely true. I asked him to finish. We had never done that. We had been together for almost two fucking years and he had never come inside me, not once. And I really wanted that. I wanted to feel like we were a couple. And I had just come off my period and I knew—okay, I thought I couldn’t get pregnant.
“It felt so good that I asked him to do it again that night. And again the next morning—don’t look at me like that. I already fucking told you, I just finished my period, that shit’s not supposed to happen, okay?”
“Okay, Val. Christ.”
“So of course I was late the next month. And I waited to tell him, because honestly we were a fucking mess at that time and I didn’t want to make him feel like he had to stay with me. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted him to stay with me. I always had this dream of you and I starting this business, and look, look—here we are, we are fucking doing it!”
“I know, Val, we are doing it. It’s working, despite that shitshow of a meeting we just had!” Marie managed to force a laugh.
“I know!” Valerie forced her own laugh in response. “And a kid? That wouldn’t have fit into my plans at all. So I just called him and told him that I wanted an abortion. He was out of town, of course, but he said that no, he would fly in the next morning and we would talk about it. I told him no, that I was going to go that next morning and get the RU486 or whatever, and that he needed to pay for it.
“I didn’t think that he actually would. But that motherfucker just said, ‘you’re right, we can’t keep it,’ and he fucking PayPaled me three hundred fucking dollars. Like, fucking immediately. He didn’t even think about it.
“So I knew I was making the right decision. I went to the clinic—actually, I called my mom and she took me. God, I’ve never seen her be more proud of me than she was in that moment, like she was so fucking happy that I was going to get an abortion. She told me how her generation had fought for my right to control my body, and that this was going to be ‘so great.'”
Tears started flowing from her eyes, despite her best efforts.
“I paid my money and I took the first dose of pills. The first dose starts it, you know, but you have to take the second dose before it actually does the job. So while I’m waiting the however many hours it was, Paul calls me. He says that he just landed at the airport and that he wants to see me.
“I know that it’s a mistake, right? But I meet up with him anyway. I go to his hotel, and we just start talking, and he’s crying his eyes out. Says that he shouldn’t have sent me the money, but that he just scared and that he didn’t know what to do, and that please, please, please, can I not take the second dose of pills, because he thinks he might want to have this baby with me?
“I just couldn’t believe it. Like, what was I supposed to do? Pretend like everything was okay? Pretend like he hadn’t ripped my entire heart out when he sent me that money without a second thought? But, Marie, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to forgive him, to start a family, to make everything okay. But I somehow knew that I couldn’t.
Valerie forced out a painful, barking laugh. “You won’t believe what my dumb ass did next. I felt so bad for him, sitting there crying. I actually fucked him. Right there on the hotel bed. And then I left without a word, went home, and took the second dose.”
Marie sat in silence. “So…then you weren’t pregnant anymore.”
“Right. But I didn’t react well to the pills. I guess a lot of women don’t. They don’t tell you that part. I bled, and I bled, and I bled. Had to go to the ER. My mom wasn’t nearly as proud to see me there, I can tell you that. I almost died, Marie.”
“Holy fuck, Val.”
“I know. I called him and told him that it was over, right there in the hospital bed. And then I swore I’d never talk to him again. But, baby, I loved him. I loved him so fucking much.”
Valerie couldn’t stop the tears anymore. Marie didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing, letting the aching sobs wash over her.
Valerie continued. “So I tried to forgive him. For a whole year, I tried. I tried to forgive myself, too.”
She shook her head.
“It didn’t work. They tell you that abortion is no big deal. They tell you to fucking ‘shout your abortion.’ But I could never get over it. I still can’t.
“And now, I just heard the man who paid for me to kill my baby playing with his own child.”
She swore she wouldn’t do it. But later that evening, Valerie, her body having been wracked with sobs all day, sat on the same bed where she had once laid so happily next to him, and pressed send on Paul’s number.
“Hello?” It was definitely him. Maybe a hair deeper, or a tad older. But it was Paul.
“Um, I got a call from this number, I was just calling back.”
“Valerie, it’s Paul. I guess you deleted my number. I am so sorry, I’ve got a new phone, and it’s been randomly dialing people. I know it’s pretty pathetic…but I still have your number in my favorites. I must have pocket dialed you and…”
“Yeah, whatever,” she interrupted. “I’m really busy. Did you need something?”
“No,” he stammered. “It’s been a really long time though. I miss you.”
“Okay, thanks. Goodbye.”
Valerie pressed end, and realized that it was the last time that she’d ever hear Paul’s voice. It’s okay, Val, she thought. That’s done with. He’s happy. You’re happy. It’s for the best.
Wait a second, bitch, she thought again. For fuck’s sake, you don’t even know that it was his baby. You don’t know anything about him. You blocked him everywhere.
But not on the business Instagram. Social was Marie’s project—Valerie never even used it. She quickly logged into the business Instagram, and started to search for Paul. She didn’t have to search far.
Somehow Val had missed it. He was among the thousands of followers for their venture. Her heart quickened a beat or two as she realized that he had liked every single picture they had ever posted.
He had been cheering her on and supporting her every step of the way. And she had never noticed.
Valerie swallowed hard and clicked his name. There was no baby on his page. No girlfriend. Almost nothing since the day they had broken up. It was almost like his life had been paused indefinitely, just waiting for a reason to get started again.
She scrolled through his page and found the pictures from the time they had gone to Vegas. Chicago. Charlotte. NYC. London. She had deleted all of those. He never had.
God, can’t you just take me back to that day, she screamed inside her own head. Can’t you just somehow knock those pills out of my hand and fix this? She wanted to call him again, to tell him that she actually wasn’t busy at all, and that maybe he could come visit soon.
Then, without warning, she started laughing. Sort of ironically at first, and then longer and louder until it was a full blown giggle.
She picked up her phone again and blocked him from the business page. She blocked his number from her phone and deleted the voicemail. Then, she called Marie.
“Babe, it’s me,” she began. “I just wanted to say thanks for listening to all that bullshit today.”
“No, no, it was bullshit, and let me tell you why.
“What you and I are going to do is way, way bigger than some dipshit who wasn’t man enough to be there for me when I needed him. I don’t care if he has a baby, I don’t care if he misses me, and I sure as fuck don’t care if he still loves me. I love us, I love you, and I love me.”
Paul held the phone to his ear, frozen to the side of his face even though the call had disconnected several seconds earlier.
He had just heard the voice of the woman who had been the love of his life for the first time in almost two years. It had been so fast, less than twenty seconds total, but her words were burning in his ears.
He had been waiting for this moment for years, rehearsing what he might say if he ever got a chance to speak to her again. He had visualized the moment hundreds of times. In his mind’s eye, he always saw her saying that she missed him too, that maybe they could have lunch the next time he was in town.
And then they’d have lunch, and he’d tell her that he still loved her, and that he missed her every day. He’d sheepishly admit that he had never stopped following her business on social media, and that he watched her IG story every day, hoping to catch a glimpse of her smile or a note of her voice. She’d admit that she missed him too, and that she wondered about what he was doing.
Maybe they’d go for a walk, and his hand would somehow find its way into hers. She’d be nervous, he’d be scared…but they’d kiss each other. First briefly, and then deeply. And then everything would be just like it had always been, like no time had ever passed between them.
He’d give up being on the road and find something steady and safe in her city. They’d have a child, maybe two, enough to erase the pain of the time he had been too scared to be a father before. They’d grow old together, and they’d tell their love story to anybody who would listen.
But that’s not what happened. He had told her that he missed her, and she told him that she was busy.
“Is everything okay?” Paul’s sister, Lucy, bounced her baby on her hip, trying to keep the little one quiet for just a moment.
Paul took the phone down from his ear.