My heart still pounded. I never broke up with anyone before. I tried to search myself for what I felt, for how I managed to do something so—brave. Was it the right thing to do? Don’t I love Ben?
A panicky series of images flashed through my mind. At every important event in my life, Ben was always there. I met him in college; he was a big, goofy Norwegian guy who swept me off my feet. He was my world. I fit into his chest like a glove. He was there when I graduated from college, when I celebrated my first job as a graphic designer. Every birthday and Christmas since I was twenty years old. My gentle giant was always there for me when I needed him.
What the hell have I done?
* * *
The lights in the mall seemed entirely too bright. Jessica’s blonde head bobbed in and out of view as she disappeared behind the dress racks in the petite section. I felt like a zombie as I walked towards her, rifling through the dresses and feeling absolutely nothing but indifference for the styles.
Too flashy. Too many sequins. What is this, prom? I hate baby doll dresses; they make me look like a child. No, no, no.
Jessica dragged me out to the mall to go shopping with her, because apparently there was this party at her boyfriend’s house that I had to go to. They made up months ago. Ben and I were still over.
You’ve seen the Facebook photos. He’s moving on.
Less than a month after we broke up, I woke up to a splash of photos of my ex with another woman on Facebook: Ben sipping drinks with his coworkers in a flashy lounge, with his arm wrapped around a leggy brunette, her cleavage almost spilling from her dress. Seeing those hands that I knew so well wrapped around another woman made me feel gutted. It was like he deliberately reached in and grabbed a fistful of my innards—and yanked. He made me feel worthless, and that was probably his intention.
It was eight months since Ben and I broke up.
Eight months of Facebook stalking and crying into tissues and my whole body shaking with sobs that absolutely exhausted me and left me so tired in the morning that I could barely function. Eight months of that horrible, empty feeling in my chest. Jealousy when I glanced at my roommate’s gorgeous boyfriend. Anger at the ruin they left me in. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him. Rinse and repeat.
You broke up with him. I reminded myself of that ten times a day, at least.
I ripped aside another dress with a little more force than I needed, and Jessica raised an eyebrow at me.
“What do you think about this?”
She showed me a bright-red knit dress and draped it over her body.
“It’s a cute summer dress, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a cocktail party.”
She bit her lip and nodded in agreement. “Maybe I’ll buy it anyways.”
“Who’s going to be at this party?”
“Oh, it’ll be mostly Luke’s coworkers. It’s a launch party for his campaign so maybe a couple departments.”
I frowned. “And he’s having it at his house?” I couldn’t imagine all those people fitting into a home in the city.
“Just wait till you see it. It’s huge.” She took my hand excitedly. “I can’t wait. It’ll be so much fun. There’s going to be a band and he’s hiring caterers with the most amazing food.”
“Can’t wait,” I said in a voice that was too flat.
She gave me a sharp look. Jessica knew that I had no desire to socialize with a bunch of strangers. Nothing really mattered anymore.
Jessica’s eyes were knitted together. “Listen, I know you don’t feel like going, but you haven’t been out in ages. We used to do a lot of stuff together and now we barely hang out.”
I tried to hide my burning face, ripping dresses across too quickly. Her saddened voice made my emotions, which were running high these days, rise into my throat, constricting it.
“I know. I just don’t feel like it anymore.”
I walked to another clothes rack where I wouldn’t have to look at Jessica’s anguished face. The divide between us cut deeper every day. More than anything, I wanted to go home and retreat into my room to watch reruns on Netflix. There was a constant push and pull between loneliness and solitude. Whenever I was alone, I craved company. When I wasn’t, I couldn’t wait until I was alone again.
A slim black dress caught my eye and I pulled it out. It had a lace back and shoulders.
Relief washed over me when I finally bought the dress and walked outside into the blinding sunshine with Jessica.
“Hold on a sec.” I took the dress out of the bag just to look at it one last time.
Jessica made a small gasp. “Oh, look! There’s a hole in the lace.”
She pointed to a tiny hole in the fabric and I sighed in disappointment.
“Return it. You’ll find something else.”
I moaned as I stuffed the dress back into the bag. “Go on home, Jessica. It’ll probably take a while.”
“Are you sure?”
Her thin arm waved me goodbye as I turned back into the mall with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I hated returning clothes. Any kind of confrontation made me feel physically ill.
The queasy feeling in my stomach doubled as I approached the sales counter where a tall woman stood, her face heavily made up with dramatic makeup, but still beautiful. She was the sort of girl I always admired because of her ruthless style. I never felt secure enough in myself to wear that much makeup or sport plunging necklines.
“What do you need?”
I blushed under her intense stare, which was even more intimidating with the eyeliner. I placed the bag on the table. “Um—I just bought a dress and it has a hole in it. I’d like to return it.” I hated the uncertain tone in my voice.
Her manicured fingers reached inside and gripped the dress in her claws. She spread it out over the table. “I don’t see no hole.”
I leaned forward and pointed, my heart hammering. Her gaze seared across my face. “Where’s the receipt?”
“Should be in the bag, I think.” My voice was in danger of disappearing.
A stabbing feeling struck my heart as she searched the bag and didn’t find one.
“I was just here, you can ask the lady over there.” I pointed in her direction, but she was gone. Someone else took her place.
“No receipt, no return. Sorry.” She shoved aside my bag and didn’t even bother putting it back inside. “Next!”
Numbly, I placed my dress back inside and allowed myself to be swept aside. My face was hot and my lunch churned inside me. I heard laughter from a couple well-dressed, beautiful girls as I walked towards the exit and cringed. Even though they weren’t laughing at me, my brain still insisted that it was a possibility.