The Beaten Path (a Short Story)

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I had a ménage à trois.

I officially turned my back on logic and played Russian roulette with my life. My accomplices both knew about one another because of the inherent consequence of our relationships. My mind knew sooner or later one would succumb to the other. It was my destiny. First, chose to kiss karma. The entire time knowing that by choosing this fate, I essentially decided to also dance with deception. All three of us were caught in a bed of lies and confusion. It wasn’t fair to say I was forced or pressured. I selected my path and had to walk it. Life is a golden journey. It allows us the opportunity to make a difference, make a change, or make amends. It was time for me to do all three.

He knew I planned to tell her when my plane touched down. Although he preferred we keep quiet, he understood and supported my decision. In the car we discussed the possibility of a future but we both knew life didn’t work that way. There wasn’t a happy ending for the sinner. Justice couldn’t be obtained by the ones that chose to ignore and disrespect it. We made our choice. We exited the car. I started towards the door. He reached out to me. I turned to him and we embraced as two people that shared a common judgment do—deeply and with an understanding that nothing would ever be quite the same. We turned our backs to the other and walked away. I recognized how wildly staccato we’d become. We no longer fell into a rhythmic pattern, a masterful melody. Our movements were forced and offbeat. We lost ‘us’ that day. We lost ourselves as we thought we were or how we knew ourselves to be. An hour after my plane landed, she would know. Our relationships would be forever changed. That was when our journey began.

“Samantha!” I called out while stepping from the escalator. There were dozens of people waiting by the conveyor belt for both luggage and loved ones but I spotted her with ease. Maybe it was the all black ensemble with camel-colored belt, shoes, and handbag that gave her away. Her hair was dyed a few shades lighter and she looked to have lost ten pounds since we were last face to face. She looked amazing. As I walked towards her I contemplated the disruption I was about to cause in her life. She finally had things together and here I was throwing the proverbial wrench in her plans.

“Carmen!” she gave me a quick hug and half smile. They must have talked during my flight. It wasn’t so much the smile but the hug. It was awkward and guarded as though touching me was far from her ideal. I lingered a bit longer than necessary to reinforce the sincerity of my gesture.

“So how much baggage did you bring back with you?” For some reason her question made me feel uneasy. Was she trying to hint at something? Did she know the whole story? I readjusted my handbag and tried to clear my head. Stop being paranoid, I thought to myself.

“Too much! You know I can’t simply pack the necessities.” I answered with a nervous smile that wouldn’t vacate. This was my second off kilter relationship in three hours. I was batting a perfect average.

She ignored my uneasiness and responded simply “Okay, let’s grab your things and get out of here.” We retrieved my luggage from the conveyor belt and headed for the exit. I walked a few feet behind because I didn’t feel right walking beside her. That’s where friends walk. That’s where people you trust to always be there for you walk. It’s not a place for people that betray and lie to you. Those people walk in the back.

She strolled ahead without comment on my slow pace. She must know something. Thoughts tumbled around in my head. I should’ve spoken but words wouldn’t come forward. When we reached the car, she heaved two large bags into the compact trunk with little effort. My last bag was much heavier and required our combined effort to force fit it into the remaining space. I threw the small carry-on into the back seat and waited for Samantha to unlock the passenger door. I frowned at my reflection in the window. You brought back too much baggage.

I wrestled with my thoughts while Samantha maneuvered out of the Hartsfield airport parking garage. When we got to the ticket booth, I offered to pay but she refused the singles I pushed towards her. For some reason, that simple decline was akin to rejection. As though I wasn’t good enough and therefore, my money wasn’t either. Carmen, stop exaggerating. I had to say something or the night would start as badly as it was assumed to end. I needed to know if she knew or at least what she knew. I needed to break the tension. I wanted her to crack a smile that reminded me of our unbreakable bond.

Samantha and I were practically inseparable for the past three years. We’d been college roommates for the last two and things were great. Don’t mistake me, we had our occasional arguments but they were manageable. They were tolerable and expected. I just didn’t know if we could bounce back from something like this. She’s going to hate me and she should. I deserve whatever punishment she decides. We used to joke about how solid our friendship was and how nothing could come between us. We were about to test that theory.

There were many things to say but I was afraid of the honesty that would be produced on both ends. I had been separated from that seemingly foreign concept for a few weeks. My mind drifted back to the phone calls I didn’t answer, the emails I deleted, the words I never said. I had been living two separate lives and neither was grounded in truth.

“So, how has everything been? You didn’t tell me about the weight loss and the hair color, which both look fabulous!”

Something had to give. I required a minute with my best friend. I wanted a moment with the person that had been my biggest advocate and confidante. Forget the betrayal, the pending confession, the emotional outpour that was to come; I had to be selfish one last time. Because in my mind, after she knew everything, I wouldn’t get that chance again.

  

“So what type of man do you like?” Malcolm asked that question with a glint in his eye and curiosity on his lips. That wasn’t the first time those words had escaped his mouth. During brunch one day, he’d asked about my preferences in men. His first inquiry had more to do with Sam than me. He’d wanted to get inside information and what man wouldn’t try to obtain it from the best friend. But this time was different. The climate had changed between us and those glints occurred much more frequently.

“I like a man that walks into a room and commands attention. It isn’t because he’s flashy or loud though. He simply has a natural aura that says ‘take notice of me.’ I want a man that can respect my ambition, tolerate my confidence, and match my passion.”

Malcolm smiled and slowly nodded his head as he stared at the poster on the subway station wall. We were headed back to my apartment after catching a late movie. He would sleep on the couch since it was so late and we had early morning plans. By that point, he slept at my place every weekend and kept an overnight bag in the hall closet. I’d never thought there was anything wrong with this arrangement however, I had avoided discussing it in detail with Sam. Malcolm’s eyes remained glued to the poster as he asked the next question. He was good at twenty questions.

“So would you date someone like me?” he asked casually.

This threw me. I was known as a very upfront, direct person. I don’t like lying which is why I try to refrain from it. I believe that I shouldn’t do something if I can’t be honest about it. (All of this would be shoved down the drain in a few weeks.) Three months prior, I would’ve laughed in his face for asking such an unthinkable question. Don’t mistake me, Malcolm was an attractive man. He was tall, smart, and a gentleman—a dangerous combination when paired with a sexy, intelligent woman with an insatiable appetite for life. He just wasn’t on my radar. He was an assumed CFO, casual friend only, because we didn’t hang in the same circles or seem to have any type of romantic potential aside from cordial hellos and innocent goodbyes. That was further decided when he started dating my best friend. But on that day… waiting for the Metro… he asked if I’d date him. I looked up at him and smiled but no laughter came.

“What do you mean Malcolm?” I tried to evade the question. He had once told me how frustrated he gets when I answer his questions with a question. I hoped he’d be predictable, become frustrated, and shrug it off.

“I mean would you date me.” Damn. I guess that would’ve been too much like right and right was not on Carmen’s side.

I slowly raised my head, struggling to take all of him in. From the dark brown, square-toe size 15 designer shoes to the well-pressed flat front dress slacks to the crisp white button-down shirt, I looked at him. I zeroed in on the masculine hands that had helped carry luggage into my apartment and his broad shoulders which I’d leaned on after our daily visits to the gym. I wanted to inhale every part of him because I doubted it would happen again. We couldn’t go backwards and unfortunately, I couldn’t commit to us moving forward.

“It’s less about me choosing to date you and more about you being able to date me. I’m not the easiest person to love Malcolm. Plus, I think guys like you tend to choose someone a little more mild-mannered. Someone like Samantha.” There. I spoke the truth that needed to be said and reminded him of his current situation with my best friend. One of us had to remember our commitments.

“That’s very interesting.”  The vagueness in his reply unsettled me. My analytical nature didn’t have anything to scrutinize which left me confused.

“How so?” I asked with a hint of trepidation.

“Well, there are a couple of things I noticed in what you just said. One thing is that you’ve classified me with an entire category of men. You said guys like me but we both know that there aren’t too many guys like me. Also, I thought you knew me better but clearly you don’t. I like feisty women. Women not afraid to stand by their convictions as well as communicate them to anyone that asks. You’re upfront and honest and I admire that. I’m actually very drawn to that.”

I desperately searched for something friendly to say but nothing platonic came to mind. He looked so sincere and well-intentioned. The universe definitely had jokes. There I was, standing face to face with a man that could love me the way I wanted to be loved for the rest of our lives and I couldn’t have him. I had to help him create a connection with Sam when he naturally had one with me.

Not knowing what else to say, I released a sigh of relief as our train approached. The loud squeals of metal overshadowed the worried thoughts in my head. A few people exited as I squeezed through the opened doors. The conductor announced that the doors were closing and if anyone had thoughts of getting off, they were about two seconds away from missing the chance. The entire time, I avoided Malcolm’s entire existence. I didn’t want to make eye contact, I didn’t want to feel his hand graze my lower back, I didn’t want to be entranced by his cologne, and I definitely didn’t want to hear his voice whispering in my ear. But throughout all of it, I did. I connected with his hazel eyes, I tingled as his hand led me to the nearest seat, I inhaled his scent as he bent down beside me, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t experience a tremor between my thighs as he whispered, “maybe one day, a guy like me will get a chance with a woman like you.”

“You can put your things in here.” Samantha motioned to the den as we walked down the hallway. The drive from the airport had been both confusing and calming. After that initial awkwardness, we fell into our old pattern. We laughed and talked and laughed some more. I told her about my experiences in the Nation’s capital and she told me about things in Atlanta. We talked about friends we looked forward to seeing and the potential for a group cruise to Nassau the following summer. Everything felt natural. Everything seemed real.

We left the large bags in the den and I carried the small shoulder bag to her bedroom. She followed me. Time was winding down quickly.

“So are your parents still awake or have they nodded off?” I wasn’t ready to confess.

“They’re asleep. You know how early they go to bed.” She wanted to know.

I unpacked a few things but stopped when I felt her eyes on me. I was avoiding the inevitable. I turned and sat on the edge of the bed.

“So what’s up? What’s going on?” That was her loaded question.

“What do you mean?” That was my fearful answer.

“Yesterday you mentioned needing to tell me something, something pretty serious.  I assume it has something to do with Malcolm.  He called while you were on the plane.”

Of course he did. He didn’t even want to tell her and for some reason he assumed I never would. But I told him telling her had never been a choice. Confessing was a requirement. I couldn’t lie to her anymore and if he wanted to pursue a future with either of us, she should to know.

“What did he tell you?” I allowed my eyes to focus on a piece of string on the bed. I picked it up and found refuge in its simplicity. Most of all, it was an outsider to this conversation and I appreciated something that lacked bias.

“He told me to talk to you so that’s what I’m trying to do.” Her frustration grew as she crossed her arms and leaned against the closet door.

After the weeks of pretending, I had to deal with reality. In my mind, we’d had this conversation numerous times. It always ended in the worst ways. I either got hit or hurt but never healed. I never felt as clean as I was supposed to feel. It was never a true redemption for me.

“Listen, I know you have some quest— “she cut me off before I could finish.

“Did something happen between the two of you?” That’s when it hit me. I had betrayed my best friend. I had sacrificed our entire relationship for a few sinful nights. Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I was doing when I did it. But I never really thought about it for long. In my mind, I made up excuses and reasons for my mistake. I considered myself having found the surefire way of coping with betrayal, I rationalized.

“Yes.” My response came out in a whisper as the word and my nerves were stuck in my throat.

“Yeah, something did,” I said clearly and audibly.

“Did you kiss him?” Well that was an understatement. But she had more faith in me. She trusted me, so to her there was no transgression I would’ve committed past that one. Kissing him was the biggest sin. She would never think of us doing more. She had no idea.

“Yes we kissed.” She inhaled deeply. I felt the weight shift in the room. Her shoulders frowned at me. The ironic thing was that we’d only kissed towards the end. I never allowed him to kiss me when we first started our affair because I knew that there was something sacred in a kiss. A kiss can be so telling, so revealing, so powerful. In my twisted brain, I’d forced myself to believe that because we didn’t kiss, we hadn’t wronged anyone. I was clueless. In retrospect, we cheated long before our lips ever met. Our eyes affronted us long before our sheets got wind of it. We’d been involved in four-play all summer and it wasn’t evident to us that we were almost the last to know.

“Did it go beyond kissing?” That was the million dollar question. I wanted to scream that it had. I wanted to tell her it had been the biggest mistake I’d ever made; that I was the worst person walking the planet. She deserved someone better than me. She deserved respect and consideration for her feelings even in her absence. She deserved someone that knew what friendship meant. That person wasn’t sitting in her presence at that moment. I am contemptible and negligent and I deserve to be punished. But none of that came out. None of those words exited my mouth. Instead she heard, “I’m so sorry.”

Sorry? Sorry! What did that mean? Even during an apology I couldn’t get it right. Her entire body prepared for the next question. My mind froze on the image of Malcolm at the curbside check-in.

“Did you two sleep together?” I heard the disbelief in her voice. She posed the question in such an incredulous way. I raised my head slowly knowing that if at no other time I owed her respect, I did at that moment. I fought to hold her gaze but my eyes fell. The sound of her heart breaking bounced off the walls with every second that passed.

I nodded in reply because my throat chose not to participate. She lowered her head. With that admission of guilt, she no longer knew me. She couldn’t trust me and I was to blame. I had taken a part of her purity. Prior to that night’s confession, she believed in the good of people. She believed that people didn’t always act selfishly. Friends didn’t hurt friends for personal gain especially for instant gratification. But I’d destroyed that naïve part of her and there was no turning back.

Her low sobs slid across the room and landed in my ears. In the past, I would’ve been there to wipe away tears but this time I was causing them. How quickly things changed. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t escape. I yearned to travel back in time to that first night, our first mistake, when he told me I was beautiful and sexy. When he’d slid his hand across my midsection and sent chills up my spine. When he’d looked me in my eyes and asked me to hurt her. But I couldn’t. My punishment was sitting across the room and watching her pain. With every breath, she exhaled weeks of hurt. I would’ve preferred fistfuls of anger or a cold, well-deserved slap in the face. But instead I got to exchange my past pleasure for my present privilege. The right to sit and hear my best friend come to terms with being betrayed.

“Did it happen just once?” she inquired while trying to make sense of what happened. I could no longer fight the tears. I broke in that room.

“No,” as I confirmed her suspicion, I disgusted myself.

Images of he and I dancing from club to club plague my mind—foreplay. I had been too blind to call it by name before. Thoughts of us going to the theater together replay in my memory—pseudo-dating. I’d been too arrogant to recognize the lack of obvious boundaries. Memories of us exercising together watched me as I watched them. We were building tension. I saw it. I chose to ignore it. His comments, his touches, his looks—I chose to ignore all of it. How did I let it happen? How did we end up at this point? My mind kept taking me back to the same day. My valley of indecision…

Samantha’s crying snapped the thoughts from my head. She was still sobbing and refused to raise her head to look at me. I wanted to say something but what? How could I console her or say something that would make everything better? There wasn’t a greeting card for this type of mistake. No cute quote or profound phrase could erase the shame, guilt, and pain I’d caused. I had spent most of my life trying to be the perfect best friend. Anytime she needed me, I came running. But now, now I was forced to watch her internalize how much I’d hurt her; how easily I’d turned my back on her feelings. She would never know that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. I almost shout that Malcolm was the culprit for our shared cries. We were both victims of circumstance. But deep down, I knew the truth. I was at fault. I had embraced him when I should’ve pushed him away. I was wrong for allowing his words to replace her role in my life. I was wrong for sacrificing our love for a few nights of lust. I was her best friend and it was my mistake to let one minute jeopardize a lifetime. I sat on the bed looking at the string. I would wait for as long as it took. Wait, until she was ready.

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