The Tenth Step

Warning(s): Abortion, divorce. 

Author’s Note: I wrote this for a creative writing module back when I was in school, and it’s one of the stories I’m a little happier with. A telling of how people meet, and build a relationship with each other, before it essentially, dissolves.

x.

For the first time in years, he receives a call from her. It’s surprising, and he has to reject it at first, but before he can even send a message to her, explaining that he was in an important meeting, a message is seen. Understood. I’ll call you again at 3.30pm. Let me know if that’s fine.

It turns out that it is, and he returns the call early. Sitting in his corner office, the one with the gorgeous view, he sits up slowly when she delivers the bad news.  Their mutual friend, the person who’d first introduced them, had passed away after her long battle with cancer. “She was sick for a very long time,” her voice is heard clearly over the phone as he listens, sitting as he hears her sweet, sweet voice, “but she left peacefully, if that gives you any comfort.”

“When’s the funeral?” He feels a sense of regret, frustration and sadness as he reaches for his planner, looking through his plans for the week. “I need to block it out. This is something that I’m not compromising anything for. I’ll be damned if I miss her funeral.” His voice is a little small as the next sentence falls out of his mouth.

“You remember how she was the one who introduced us? How we’d met?”

ix.

It’s strange to see someone who is…well, was, such an important part of your history after years of no contact. So much so that when they spot each other from across the room, all they can do is give each other an awkward smile. They’re at a wedding, with the both of them being on separate guest lists. He nods at her cordially when she joins him at the bar, and they turn their gazes towards the happy newlyweds, their first dance attracting the attention and envy of so many of their single guests. But not them. They’re single, but they’re hardly envious.  It’s strange to watch them so…happy. And oblivious.

“Were we ever like that? Married, happy, enjoying each other’s company?” He starts, taking a long swig from his glass. “Did we ever look so young?”

She laughs, the social lubricant that is alcohol taking over for her. At first, when she’d spotted him from across the room, she was sure, just so sure that there was no way that she could get through a conversation if she was to maintain eye contact with him. Not when she was still so desperately in love with him. “Maybe you didn’t look that young – but I know I did.” Her head feels strangely light, the sight of him in her eyes still causing her heart to skip just a little faster. She isn’t sure if it’s the love she still harbours for him after being divorced for a good 5 years, or if it’s the shots of vodka she’s been having for the entire night, but she finds it so damn easy to talk to him again. Just like how it was when they’d first met. How it was when they were just getting to know each other – the fun bit, as it were.

“You know, I was never happier when I was with you.” Taking another shot, the glass comes back down onto the table with a loud ‘thud’, and she feels the adrenaline that pumps through her. “I miss you. I miss seeing you around the house. I miss having you next to me when I wake up, and next to me just when I’m about to fall asleep.”

Naturally, he doesn’t hear a word, the alcohol performing its job just a little too well as he lies there on the bar, head slumped on the table, hair in a mess as he falls asleep. She half-sighs, half-giggles, and in the end, just watches him as he sleeps before asking the bartender to get cabs for the both of them. Strangely, he sobers up for what must have been barely 15 seconds before falling back down to his drunken stupor, taking her hand. She feels it, but knows that it’s hardly reciprocated. Not that way, anyway. Shoving him into the taxi, she reads out his address from the envelope of his card. Ah. So that’s where he was staying now.

And it was addressed to two people. Strange, really, to see that the other name wasn’t hers.

When she returns to her own home though, the one without him, it feels empty. Not that it wasn’t before, but she’d filled it over the years with the art, music and literature that she’d always loved and he’d always found a little frivolous. To make up for the empty space that he’d left behind when he’d left her. Waltzing herself around the room, she finds herself lonely, as though she’d finally realized, for the first time, just how much she’d missed him, cried over him, drank herself to sleep because of him.

Even when the divorce wasn’t entirely finalised, they’d started living apart. She’d starting living alone in the house that they’d owned, but night after night after night she’d spend it on the floor, drinks in hand, crying, as though drinking her problems away was a viable option. She’d talked about it to a friend, and she had to admit, even though it wasn’t a very sustainable method of coping, damn, it felt good. Forgetting her problems, even if it was just for a short moment.

Pulling out another whiskey from the cupboard, a whiskey that just happened to be his, she sits herself on the floor again, starting the all-too-familiar drinking ritual that she’d thought she’d stopped a year after their divorce. Pouring it out, she looks at it, and swallows her pride. Just for tonight. No one was around anyway. Just to tide over the night, just to tide over the fact that he was, by all appearances, doing a damn lot better than she was – and it broke her heart.

viii.

They’re sitting at the Starbucks that they used to frequent so often; the Starbucks that they’d spent all of their free time at. He’s sitting there, and nods politely when he sees her approach. Surprisingly, he still gives her the smile she’d fallen for from the beginning – just a little bit shy, but with just a little bit of quiet confidence too. He’s ordered the drink she always has for her – latte, foam, with cinnamon on the top. It’s a simple order, a simple gesture, but she supposes that’s his way of calling a truce between them. A truce at their old haunting grounds when they were still dating, which ironically, became the location for the finalisation of their divorce papers. Sipping his own coffee quietly, a plain, nameless manila folder is slid over to her. Quietly, but with a surprisingly devastating force. This was it. This bit of paper would deem them, officially, as no longer married. As strangers. As people who have no relation to each other.

He places a pen next to the file, taking the cap off for her, even. “I’m sorry it’s come to this,” his voice is soft, a little raspy even, the voice he got when he’d been staying up for nights on end. The voice he got when he was under an unbelievable amount of stress.

“Please don’t.” Her own voice is a little hoarse from the shouting, the screaming, the crying, her own private mourning session where all she did was spend time taking out his things – and setting it on fire in the backyard. “What happened to us? We were doing well. We were in love, we were alright, we were doing perfectly f-”

“That’s a lie, and you know it, darling,” his tone is resigned, sitting up a little straighter. “We weren’t doing fine. Not at all.” His tone softens a little, expression of previous irritation and anger melting into one of heartbreak. “It isn’t as though we stopped loving each other, darling, it’s just…things got in the way. We were just…in a stronger relationship with our jobs, than with each other.” She looks at him, dumbfounded, his words cutting into her. They’re cutting at her, bit by bit, the knife just getting a little sharper each time, the words cutting deeper each time.

It hurt.

He looks at her expression, sighing once more. Taking another sip, he closes his eyes. “Please…darling. You couldn’t have thought we’d last. Not with the way we’d been fighting.”

But I did. She takes the pen, and fills out the form, with neat block letters spelling out the beginning of their end. But I did think we’d be alright.

He nods his thanks when the papers are returned to him, and he wastes absolutely no time, getting up slowly from the café. “I’ll see you around?” His voice is deceptively hopeful, but she knows that they aren’t going to see each other. Not for a very, very long time. He leaves the café quietly, thanking her again. She keeps her own head down, and gets up on her own, the latte left untouched on the table, tears crawling down slowly. This time though, unlike the many nights alone, she makes no move to brush them away.

vii.

It’s the second time that she’s found another bill – this time on his credit card. He’s gotten smarter, but she knows what’s going on. She’s seen it, and she’s gone down to the hotel herself to confirm that he was, in fact, there with another woman. She leaves the hotel, crying, instead going home to wait for him.

When she does though, she finds him sitting there, his phone in his hand. He turns to look at her, keeping his gaze level. “You got an abortion.” She says nothing in response, and just looks at him. “Were you ever going to tell me you were pregnant?”

“…I don’t know.” She closes the door slowly, standing in front of him as he pulled out a chair for her. “Would you have understood if I’d told you that I wasn’t ready to be a mother? That I had to do this for me?” He shakes his head, a wry smile on his lips. “See. You wouldn’t have.” She holds out the bill, as though talking to him about that would distract him. “Who did you sleep with?”

“You killed my baby.” His voice is cold, ignoring the fact that the bill is, again, in his face. “You killed my child.”

“…I did, but it was my baby too.” He looks at her, and she isn’t sure how he’s feeling now. She can’t read him. She can’t read him like she normally does, and it’s starting to scare her at just how foreign he actually was. This cheating side of him, this blaming side of him, this part of him that wasn’t there when they’d been together.

She knows she can forgive him though. She’s done it once, she can do it a-

“I want a divorce.”

vi.

“You’ve got to be joking,” he half-yells, rolling his eyes at her when she comes closer towards him, evidence in hand, “you actually went through my trash to get that? Jesus, how insane could you possibly get?” She stands her ground, the bill for the motel in her hand as she finally stands her ground, taking the bill to him. “You see why I don’t want to come home? I don’t want to deal with your neurotic bullshit again, with all of your stupid actions that just make you seem even crazier than you already are.”

“This isn’t about whether or not I’m crazy,” she starts, feeling her anger flare the more she talks, the more she sees his stupid face, the urge to reach out and give him a tight slap growing. “This is about the fact that you cheated on me, even when I had faith in you not to! This is about the fact that you couldn’t control your stupid urges around those gorgeous women in the firm with their stupid tight skirt and their stupid hair and stupid makeup and stupid bodies!” She screams at him, throwing the bill in his face. The bill for the hotel – the one he’d spent the night at with his mistress. He’d come home late that night, when she was still half-asleep, smelling the cheap perfume that was still on his shirt, the unmistakable scent of cheap whore. “You have a wife!” She screams at him in his face, again, punching his arm as hard as she can. “You have someone waiting for you, at home, for you to come home to her, and you go out and have an affair?!

She feels something…stinging, on her cheek. Stopping for a moment, she looks at him, and his hand is outstretched, her cheek burning with fury. He instantly regrets what he’s done, seeing her start to cry, and he comes closer to her. “Baby I’m so sorry,” he’s half-begging, his hands wrapped firmly around her thin shoulders, “please, please forgive me I didn’t mean to hit you. Babe, please.”

She says nothing, instead hanging her head when he moves in closer to hug her tight. As much as she hates to admit it, she’s missed this – his hugs, his words, how he would always hold her a little closer whenever they were sleeping next to each other. She wants to find it in herself to forgive him for what he’s done – and she knows that she can.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t know if she wants to.

v.

He starts spending all of his nights at the office – and she’s usually left alone at home, waiting for him. It’d happened on so many occasions that she was starting to get used to the idea of eating without him, going to bed without him and spending all of her weekends waiting for him to get home and spend a few hours with her. Their initially promised ‘date nights’, as they liked to call it, were long gone, and she couldn’t help but feel a sense of resentment towards his success.  It wasn’t that she didn’t have her own form of success, being an established writer, with numerous books to her name – it was more of the fact that his job was becoming his wife, and she was just his mistress, the woman he had on the side, with his job having all of his focus and all of his attention.

Turning over in the bed, she sighs to herself, ignoring the pang of jealousy. There wasn’t any point to it. There wasn’t any point to being jealous over something that wasn’t even real. She’d like to believe that he was having an affair, but he was too good for that. He was too good a man for that. Just have faith that he’s thinking about you in the office. That he misses you, and that more than ever, he wants to be home, with you. Closing her eyes, she lets her own thoughts fill her head, letting herself continue on, never for once, thinking about talking to him about it.

For all of the iambic pentameters, and all of the fancy ways she knew how to deliver stories and speeches, stringing sentences into beautiful phrases that had caused him to fall in love with her, she was never very good at communication.

iv.

He watches her as she comes down to the aisle, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen her look so radiant. So gorgeous. So beautiful, so youthful and completely ready to start the next part of their life together. He’d proposed a few months following his father’s passing, and he knew that he’d have been proud to have such a wonderful daughter-in-law. Smart, capable, pretty, all the qualities he would have loved if they were to ever have children.

She looks at him, standing, waiting for her at the end, and she knows she’s in the right place. This was where she’d always wanted to be, from the moment she was a little girl, she knew that she wanted to get married to the right man. And he was there for her – all-smiles, as though she was the only person in the world who mattered. He’s all she ever wanted in a husband, and for the first time in her life, there’s no hesitation in this. She knows he’s the right one. He’s part of the plan.

iii.

As they watch the coffin being lowered into the ground, she says nothing when she notices that he’s about to cry. Her hand is tentative at first, but takes his empty hand into hers, gently, even when he makes the slight effort to pull away. At first, he’s resistant, but eventually relents, saying nothing when their fingers are interlocked. His hand grasps the bit of dirt he’s supposed to throw in, but he can’t. He knows that he can’t do this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This wasn’t supposed to be how he’d say goodbye to his father. He can’t let go of that bit of dirt — until he hears her voice. “It’s going to be okay.” He looks at her, and she’s crying too, but she’s giving him the tiniest of smiles, the one she gave whenever she was full of hope. “I promise, darling, it’s going to be okay.” She leans over, kissing his forehead lightly. “It’s time to let him go now. I love you, and he’s always loved you.”

His gaze turns back to the coffin, and he nods slowly, watching as the dirt flows from his hand like sand in the hourglass. The last bit of time that he’d ever have with his father was spent talking to him. About how he’d met this wonderful girl. And how he was going to marry her.

ii.

He waits anxiously at the Starbucks, tapping his foot against the floor. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two three. His gaze comes up slowly, looking around in all directions, entirely unsure of where she was going to come from. Where she was going to be when he finally looked up and had her in his line of sight.

It was their official first date, and the plan was simple. A movie, followed by a coffee at this Starbucks. He knew he was a little too early, but that was how he operated. He had to be early. Everyone else could be on time if they wanted to, but for him, he had to be early. Part of being a lawyer see, always prepared, always giving yourself that little bit of a backup just in case something didn’t go according to plan. Shoving his hands further into his pockets, his foot-tapping tempo increases.

Oh God. What if she decides to stand me up. He glances at his watch. Nope, no, don’t panic, she’s still got 4 minutes to get here to be on time, and girls are always late anyway, and you’re not going to get stood up, don’t you worry, not like the la-

She hears him call his name, and when he looks to turn behind him, she takes his breath away. She’s gorgeous. And funny. And smart. And talented. And this is the person I’d love to get to know better. He gives her a smile and walks towards her, the first date that neither of them have had in years, slowly moving forwards to a common destination.

i.

The first time they meet, they’re introduced by a mutual friend. His eyes meet hers, and their hands are outstretched, initially extending the same hand before the same is done on the other, the two of them bursting out in laughter as their hands are a tangled, awkward mess. Finally, he alternates his hand, and their hands slot into place, a warm, firm shake from the both of them. They introduce themselves — he’s Ryan, and she’s Sarah, and they laugh at how they have names of royalty with little to show for it. They’re smitten with each other, and it’s clear as they spend the rest of the night at the bar, nursing drinks until it’s closing time. Numbers are exchanged, and they stand in line at the taxi stand, with him hailing a cab for her go home in. She pulls him into the cab with her; it’s expensive, and they could always split the cost.

In the cab, they continue their conversation from the bar, all-smiles and talking excitedly about their passions. Ryan was a lawyer, working at one of the local firms. “I’m just at the entry level right now, but it’s just wonderful there. I just spend so much time at work that it’s great to just come out for a few drinks at the bar.”

Sarah on the other hand, is a writer. “You should see the amount of manuscripts that I’ve scrapped and rewritten and redone. Thank God I use a computer – hardcopies would only make the deforestation problem go a damn lot faster.”

Ryan gets off first; and he pays for his section of the trip, insisting on doing so. Sarah accepts graciously, giving him a smile as she wishes him a good night. He returns the gesture, watching from the taxi stand as the driver takes off. He watches, and watches, unable to keep his mind off the wonderful woman he’d met that night. In the meantime, Sarah turns to watch the little figure that was Ryan disappear from view. Retrieving her phone from her purse, she texts their mutual friend, with a single question on her mind.

So. Tell me more about Ryan.

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