A short story by Kelsey Kingsley.
(inspired by John Mayer’s “Comfortable”)
What the hell is Friendsgiving? When did that start?
Five years ago, I went to Justin’s for Thanksgiving and I’m pretty fucking sure they didn’t call it “Friendsgiving.” I understand the whole “spending Thanksgiving with friends” thing, but why is it necessary to have a special title for it?
Fuck, we don’t call it “Family-giving,” do we? “In-law-giving?”
No. No, we fucking don’t, but here we are, throwing around “Friends-giving” like they’re trying to get it to catch on—and it’s working.
“Someone is cranky.” Stacey the New Girlfriend checked her lipstick in the visor mirror for the fifteenth time since I picked her up at her apartment. I don’t know what she thought would have happened to it in that time, and I wasn’t particularly interested enough to ask.
“I actually saw a commercial for Friendsgiving the other day. Something about the perfect side dish or some shit like that. Is there special food I should have been notified about? Because we’re bringing a pumpkin pie and if anybody has a problem with that, that’s too goddamn bad.”
Aaand … there. I did it again. She whipped her blonde ponytail so fast I thought she would take off out of the car right then and there. Just helicopter herself right out of there, and I was pretty sure she’d be better off if she did.
“Please. You know how I feel about cussing.”
Oh, I knew. I knew all too goddamn fucking well how she felt about fucking cussing. Cursing. Swearing. She reminded me every time I uttered any of my favorite four-letter delights. In fact, she had me on such a short profanity leash that I had begun to feel repressed and like an addict, I’d slip one in when talking to the bank teller or the kid on the McDonald’s drive-thru line. “Yeah, I’ll have a fucking Big Mac, thanks,” I’d say, and it felt good. It felt so goddamn good.
Oh, but then, the guilt hit, and I gripped the steering wheel. I took a deep breath, sucking in the air around us and prayed it would give me the strength to get through the day. I apologized to her for losing my cool. She cocked her head and outstretched her hand to stroke my cheek.
“What’s gotten you so stressed today, babe?”
Babe. The corner of my mouth twitched involuntarily at the cute little term of endearment.
I told her that I guess I was a little sad that I wasn’t spending the holiday with my family. My parents and sister had decided to head down to North Carolina to visit other relatives, and like the dumb luck fuck that I am, I couldn’t get the time off to go with them. Leaving me stuck with my friends to celebrate Friends-giving as opposed to a good ol’ fashioned Family-giving (it’s going to catch on). I said to that gorgeous girl that my disappointment must have manifested into anger, and that I shouldn’t have been taking it out on her.
I told her I was sorry, and really, I was.
Her sweet puppy-dog face was a little exaggerated, but I knew she truly pitied me. With another stroke against my cheek, she said she was sorry, and turned to check her lipstick again.
I had fibbed, of course, and I wasn’t proud of it. But fuck, I couldn’t tell this girl I had been dating for a couple months, give or take, that I had another restful night’s sleep full of dreams about Kate. I’m not a dream analysist or some shit, but none of them meant anything, I don’t think. Just the usual shit: a montage of memories of things we did, trips we took, sex we had. Just the usual reminders of everything I was missing out on.
Not that it was a choice.
Stacey didn’t know about Kate. She couldn’t know about Kate.
I parked the car behind Justin’s in the driveway. There were three cars. Three cars for three couples: Justin and his pug-faced girlfriend Jen, Matt and his wife Kristina, and then, there was us. Jeff and Stacey.
They had never met Stacey, and had it not been for Friends-giving, they probably never would have.
“Hey, look who’s finally here!” Justin threw the door open as though he’d been waiting on the other side for our arrival. “Hey man, good to have you. You must be Stacey.” He took the foil-covered pie from Stacey’s slender arms and headed toward the direction of his kitchen. “Jeff, you want a beer? Stacey? How ‘bout you?”
Stacey glared at me with a look my mom used to throw me when I would talk back to my grandparents. It suggested certain death, and so I called back to Justin that, no, I wouldn’t be having a beer and that water would be just fine and dandy for me.
Happy fucking Friends-giving.
“We love her,” Kristine whispered at me as soon as Stacey had left the table to use the bathroom. Probably to check her lipstick again.
Not that I had been looking for a seal of approval from my friends, but I smiled and thanked her, as though I had made her myself.
“She’s good for you, bro,” Matt chimed in between heaps of mashed potatoes.
Jen and her pug-face smiled in a way that made her flat nostrils flare, giving her more of a monkey appearance, and I’m going to hell. “She’s gorgeous too, Jeff. Like, she makes me feel bad about myself.”
“Way prettier than Kate, that’s for sure,” Kristine added with a definite nod. “I don’t think that girl owned anything other than jeans and t-shirts.”
They meant well, I kept telling myself, but why the hell did people feel the need to say stuff like that? Was it some sort of contest? Oh, yes, let us all reassure Jeff that he’s made a good selection in this new girl by tearing apart his ex-girlfriend who isn’t there to defend herself or her choice of clothes.
Hell, I had always liked her clothes. She never dressed to impress anybody, and she sure as hell didn’t run off to the bathroom every half hour to make sure her face was still intact.
Relax, I told myself. ust get through Friendsgiving, and get home.
“What’d I miss?” Stacey returned to the table, walking as though she were about to stun the runway.
Her lipstick had indeed been touched up for the umpteenth time, I noticed as she sat down, and looking at her, I noticed that not only was her lipstick flawless but so was her entire face. Not a blemish, not a bump. Not even the slightest indentation from a childhood chicken pock. Nothing. A smooth canvas, giving her the appearance of a mannequin. I mean, maybe it was the dining room light, but she looked like a doll. A pretty doll, but a doll nonetheless.
She noticed my staring and turned with a smile, teeth showing as though I were holding a camera. “What’s up, baby?”
Her comfort in openly using these pet names was unsettling in a way that I knew it shouldn’t be, but God, I couldn’t get myself over that hurdle. I couldn’t get myself to reciprocate in a place other than the bedroom, and why the hell was that so easy, anyway? Why had it been so easy to jump in bed, but I could hardly get myself to call her my girlfriend?
I winced something of a smile through my guilt. “Oh, I was just noticing how nice your makeup looks today.”
What else was I supposed to say? That she looked like she had a Mattel label plastered to her ass? That she looked like she belonged in a department store window? I didn’t want to insult the girl.
A cool hand was placed on the back of my neck, squeezing gently with long nails gently scraping through the little hairs. It was a comfort that I could always succumb to easily, like a cat scratched behind the ears, and I fought my eyelids from drooping.
“Aww, thanks, baby. I actually got a new foundation from Sephora. It’s full-coverage and …”
My brain cut her off as she continued to ramble on, her voice nothing but a warble among the others at the table. It wasn’t only that I didn’t understand a word she was saying, speaking in a tongue foreign to my own with her talk of foundations and primers and whatever else. No, because I had also spotted the plate of biscuits, and my attention was instantly clouded by a memory. Playing like a movie projected on the wall behind Matt’s head.
I saw Kate, dressed in my sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants, backing away with her hands clasped over her ears as I prepared to pop a can of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls against the counter. She had always hated those things, and I never let her forget it with my teasing. This particular time though, the damn thing didn’t pop, and she pointed in my direction, laughing triumphantly. My only response was to throw the greasy dough at her, starting a flirtatious food fight and ruining our chances of snacking on cocktail wieners, but it had made for an interesting segue into sex on the kitchen floor.
I smiled sheepishly, coming back down to Friendsgiving, and Matt asked if I had wanted one of the biscuits. He held one up, prepared to toss it my way, but I wasn’t sure I could get through eating one without letting my memory slip again. I declined, falling victim again to the stroking against the back of my head, and let my eyelids grow heavy while picking at the mashed potatoes and turkey on my plate.
Friendsgiving continued as any other Thanksgiving dinner would have, leaving me even more perplexed about this need for some special title. Stacey socialized with energetic joy, talking enthusiastically with her hands, making sure to regularly place a hand on mine or rest her head against my shoulder—marking her territory. I played along here and there, kissing her forehead when she’d nuzzle my shoulder or placing a hand on her knee under the table if I happened to think of it. I praised the Lord she didn’t know me well enough to know I was only halfheartedly returning her displays of affection, because my intention was never to hurt her. My intention had never been to see her as a perpetual stranger, regardless of how many times we found ourselves tangled up in each other.
The problem was, and I think I’ve established this already, but the problem was Kate. The problem was always Kate.
I excused myself from the table abruptly, bringing the conversation about whatever-the-hell to a close. Stacey asked with concern what was wrong, and I chuckled a feigned embarrassment, telling them all I just needed to take a piss, like a true gentleman, and headed off in the direction of the bathroom. I locked the door behind me, sitting on the closed lid of the toilet. Cradling my head in my hands, I urged myself to knock it the fuck off, but no amount of coaxing could null the constant badgering of her memory.
Christ, it had been over a year, I tried reminding myself, but what the hell did that matter? Time didn’t change anything, disproving every claim made to me since the untimely split. All it did was bring my mind to a place of forgetfulness when it came to why exactly we broke up, leaving me with nothing but a cherry-picked bundle of comfort that never kept me warm at night.
It was funny, I thought, glancing toward the door at the high-pitched cackle I knew as Stacey’s laugh. Months of loneliness had brought me to a place I could manage, but it was then that I thought that, hey, maybe I should start getting myself back out there. Get back in the game. Then, I met Stacey, and the comparisons began. The torment of learning someone else’s habits, preferences, body, and mind when all I knew was Kate. I was desperate to be back in that cocoon, as probably flawed as it might have been. Back where it was comfortable and safe.
Why couldn’t I have met Stacey first? Why couldn’t I have met anybody else first?
Their echoed laughter penetrated through the bathroom door, and I despised their ability to have a good time while I was going out of my mind.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to come home with you? I can make you some tea, and …”
I was the worst person to ever exist in that moment as I pressed my lips together and shook my head, lacking the courage to look her in the eye.
We had left Justin’s place after I exited the bathroom twenty minutes later. I regrettably announced that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to get home as soon as possible before another bout of stomach woes could bite me in the ass. They offered Pepto, Imodium, and whatever other pharmaceutical relief they possessed, but since none of it could fix what was actually ailing me, I declined and told Stacey we better get going.
See, what none of them realized was that I hadn’t been sitting on the toilet, facing the aftermath of poor dietary decisions.
No, I wish that’s what I had been doing. That would have been less painful.
Instead, I had been accepting the harsh reality that, hey, maybe I wasn’t ready to start anything with someone new just yet. It was unfair to her, to let her put all of that effort into doing her makeup and baking pumpkin pies for a guy who couldn’t shake the memory of his first love from his fucked-up brain.
“Stacey.” I felt her name pass through my lips, trying it on one more time before making the commitment. But there was no denying that her name on my tongue was the equivalent to trying to jam my foot into a shoe two sizes too small.
I inhaled the courage to say what needed to be said and wrapped my hands around the edge of the steering wheel, my hands sticking to it with sweat as the adhesive.
“This isn’t going to work out.”
Although I didn’t want to be with her, I hadn’t gone into whatever-it-was with the intention of ending it a mere few months later. Hell, I had hoped when I first saw her standing against the counter at Starbucks that I would never have to deal with another breakup again, but I guess we don’t always see that type of thing coming.
I sure as hell never saw it coming with Kate. Maybe I should have paid more attention.
Stacey exhaled heavily and brought the back of her hand to her mouth, smudging her lipstick. “O-okay. Um … was it something I did?”
Mustering up some semblance of bravery, I turned to her to find a tear paving its way through the makeup on her cheek. “Fuck,” I muttered. She didn’t bother to reprimand me. “You didn’t do anything. I’m just not …” Just not, what? I hadn’t prepared to explain myself, and I wasn’t about to tell her that I was pulling the plug on our pseudo-relationship because I couldn’t move on from my ex. “I’m not ready for this.”
It was the best I could do. I hoped it would be enough.
“But it’s Friendsgiving,” she sniffed.
And that made it easier.
“For crying out loud, Stacey; it’s Thanksgiving.”
The guilt-driven pangs of stabbing pain in my gut brought a bit of truth to my fib of being unwell, but driving home, I told myself that I had done the right thing. I would always see her as the lesser woman for as long as I was still hanging onto Kate and every flawed piece of perfection that put together our misshapen puzzle, and who the hell really knew how long it would take for me to finally let go of the rope.
My apartment complex was crawling with families enjoying their holiday. Climbing the stairs to my second-floor abode, I wondered how many of them were hosting Friendsgiving celebrations and if they were actually okay with implying that they weren’t thankful for their friends by not calling it plain ol’ Thanksgiving.
“I’m home,” I called to the only fuzzy companion the complex would allow, and I was greeted with the excited back-and-forth race and squeals of the caged guinea pig I simply called “Buddy.”
Walking past the refrigerator, I stopped to pluck a carrot from the vegetable drawer and poked it through the bars. “Happy Thanksgiving, buddy,” I mumbled as the calico critter hungrily pulled the carrot from my fingers and into his plastic hut.
I flopped onto the couch with the intention of sleeping for the remainder of the day, hoping that I would be rewarded with another slew of memories in my dream state before waking up to a clean slate.
And I did think of her, but I wasn’t asleep. Instead I stared at the ceiling through dry eyes, thinking that there was a possibility she could have been thinking about me, and I ran that idea over and over again in my mind until it was as real as the couch I was lying on. I could see her there at her mom’s house, where they didn’t celebrate Friendsgiving. Picking at the turkey and lasagna. Wishing I was there to keep her from being lonely while surrounded by her cousins and their significant others. She would be thinking of me at the sight of the biscuits. She’d get defensive when her Aunt Jill mentioned that she was better off without that guy Jeff. She’d run off to the bathroom to sit for a half hour, just to try and stop me from invading her personal thinking space.
And maybe, just maybe, she’d find herself holding her phone, as I suddenly was.
It was so freakin’ easy to pull up the number I hadn’t gotten myself to get rid of, because nothing said permanent like a deleted number. I didn’t allow for a moment’s hesitation, not even to stare longingly at her contact photo as I had done so many times before. I dialed her number, shoving the phone to my ear in all of my urgency to hear her voice.
I can safely say I have never had the wind knocked out of me before that moment, when I heard her say my name for the first time in over a year.
“Hey Kate,” I managed to say through the strangling of my lungs.
The jumbled-up sound of voices colliding in the background faded with every second. I smiled with familiar amusement, knowing she was hurrying away from her family to find a more secluded area of the house. I heard someone, a cousin maybe, call after her, asking who was on the phone. She didn’t reply before the closing of a door came through the speaker.
“What’s up?” she asked hurriedly, and no, it wasn’t what I had been hoping for, but I guess it was too much to ask for her to profess her undying love for me so early on in the conversation.
“I, uh … I was thinking about you and thought I’d call,” I replied, busying my fingers with the thick seams of the couch. Running along their rolled edges in some pathetic attempt to calm my nerves. “Happy Thanksgiving, by the way.”
And I don’t know what happened in that moment, because suddenly I felt as though we had never broken up. Lying there with my eyes gazing up at the ceiling, it felt like it always had, and I naturally went off as I once did, telling her about my day as if we never skipped the past thirteen months. “Justin threw a Friendsgiving. Isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard? When did that even happen, you know? Fucking Friendsgiving—”
Kate stopped me in my tracks with a throaty sound of disgust, and I asked what was wrong, assuming someone was trying to wrench her away from the riveting conversation about Friendsgiving.
She laughed with exasperation and shouted into the phone, “Jeff! Oh my God …”
My fingers immediately discontinued their travels along the seams as my body stiffened, frozen at the sound of her yelling. A memory was triggered, one I had successfully suppressed for all that time, and I heard her distant voice yelling at me that it was over, that she’d had enough. I remembered asking her for another chance, but she had quickly retorted that she had run out of chances to give.
It didn’t seem as though she had found another one.
“You shouldn’t have called,” she said, stern but in a lower tone than before.
“I miss you, Kate,” I croaked through a throat that was beginning to tighten with hurt. “I fucking miss you so much.”
She sighed into the phone. “Well, I’m sorry that you do, but I don’t miss you. I meant it when I said I was done with this.”
There was a knock on whatever door she was behind, and someone asked if everything was okay. A guy. And he finished the question by calling her babe.
The room suddenly felt too hot.
“I have to go,” she hurried in a hushed voice. “Don’t ever call me again.”
She announced the time of death, hanging up before I got the chance to respond, and all I could do was stare blankly at the screen with all of the disdain in the world hanging from my shoulders. Weighing me down like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
I guess it had been ridiculous of me to expect that it could have worked out in some chick-flick sort of way, like the couple in so many movies Kate had made me watch. Spend some time apart, try our hand at other people, and then all roads lead back to each other in an arms-wide-open, let’s-get-married sort of way.
No, the real world didn’t work like that.
The guy didn’t always get the girl.
But why hadn’t I considered that perhaps I had already gotten her, and let her go?
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, getting off of that couch and back in the car. I drove with only one destination and determination in mind, ready to make the wrong things right.
Pulling up to her place, I looked up at what I knew was her window and questioned for just a second if it was the right thing to do only to decide that, yes. Yes, it was, and I got out of the car, and headed up.
My fist trembled as I hesitated before knocking on the door, hovering just centimeters away. But I did know, and after a few minutes, I figured she just wasn’t home. After what had happened, I could imagine why she wouldn’t want to be there, but I knocked again for good measure, surprised to hear her voice on the other side of the door.
“Are you kidding me?” she called angrily through the three inches of solid wood.
I deserved that, but I asked her to let me in, to let me talk, and although I never would have blamed her if she had decided to turn me away, she did open the door.
The woman I saw was not the same one I had remembered from before. This woman wasn’t dolled up with a loaded face of makeup and an outfit so effortlessly thrown together. Her hair wasn’t neatly done-up, acting as the perfectly tied bow on a perfect little present.
No, she had piled her hair into some nest-like thing on top of her head, and she’d wiped all the makeup off to reveal a face weathered from too many hours of tears and too few hours of sleep. Her clothes were nothing more than a pair of old pajama pants and a sweatshirt, and on her feet was a pair of mismatched socks.
She was comfortable.
She was beautiful.
“Why did you come back?” Her voice was small and very unlike the one I had failed to get to know better over the past few months.
I asked if I could come in and explain everything, and with a bit of reluctance, she stepped aside, granting me access. With the door closed, I boldly spilled my guts out on her living room floor—telling her about Kate and the difficulty I had getting myself over the mountain that had been put in front of me when we broke up. I told her about the phone call and her reaction to my calling, and the clarity it brought.
“So, you’re over her? Just like that?” Stacey asked through a skepticism I couldn’t blame her for.
“No,” I replied honestly and she rolled her eyes. “But, I am ready to move on, and if we could start over, I’d really like to get to know you. The right way.” Without Kate clouding my judgement.
She hugged her sweatpanted knees to her chest, nestling her chin between them as she released an exhale that sent the hairs lying against her forehead in the air. Moments went by before she would even look at me, but when she did, she rewarded me with a reluctant smile.
“Okay,” she agreed with a little nod. “Since it’s Friendsgiving and all. I’ll give you another chance.”
Fucking Friends-giving, I thought, and smiled.
© 2018 Kelsey Kingsley