My head pounds from exhaustion. I’ve been overworking myself, aiming for a promotion, believing the money would make a difference in my life and I’d finally feel like I made something of myself, something more than a convict’s daughter. So when Chelsea’s name flashes across my screen, I let it go to voicemail. She was a huge party girl in college, and wherever she is, there’s bound to be liquor. But then Heather and Amy both call. They take turns blowing up my phone until, with a sigh, I answer. One four-way call filled with endless pleading and a guilt trip over how I “never come out with them anymore,” am “wasting my life working for a promotion I’ll never get,” and am “acting like the worst friend ever,” and I agree to go out with them for dinner and drinks.
I don’t tell them how much their words hurt me. That friends I’ve had for three-and-a-half years can’t believe in me or understand how important this promotion is to me is shocking. But I ignore that hurt because maybe they are right. Maybe I haven’t been available enough or checked in as often as I should have. Maybe I have been, without realizing it, a bad friend.
When I get home, I take a deep breath and promise myself I’ll only be out for two or three hours. Long enough to eat, catch up, get a couple of drinks, and come back home. I slip into a short pink dress that does a good job hiding just how large my stomach really is. Then I put on a pair of dark brown wedges that almost match the color of my skin and bring me a couple inches above my actual short height.
When I arrive at Wesley’s and see Chelsea, Heather, and Amy, with their high-pitched squeals and easy laughs, I should be happy to see them, but I’m not. Something is wrong. I can feel it in my gut, like a sickness I don’t know how to cure. And no matter how much I try to tell myself that it’s me, not them, it won’t go away.
So I plaster on a fake smile. I eat and laugh with them as if nothing is wrong, because if I’m being honest, I’ve been faking it for so long that it feels more natural to me than the truth.
The bill comes, and for the first time tonight, I smile genuinely. I’m ready to go.
And then it happens.
Chelsea leans forward, her blue eyes so intense they remind me of a snake ready to strike. “You’re not getting off that easy,” she says with a cold grin. The statement is meant to sound like a joke, but I can hear the threat underneath it as clear as day.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I know that look. You’re planning on skipping out on us,” Chelsea says as she wags one perfectly manicured finger at me.
I force my spine to relax. Chelsea is very much the leader of our group, and I understand that. We all have trauma and our own ways of working through it. Hers is ordering around everyone she can, drinking, and going home with any guy who has a couple hundred dollars in his wallet. It’s important for her to feel extravagant, in control, and on occasion be both judge and jury. She has no issue sharing her opinion and she can be brutal in her delivery. What’s more, if Chelsea starts raining down hellfire, Heather and Amy will jump in as well.
I can’t manage that, not today. I’m too tired. Whether it’s from work, life, or trying to be something I’m not doesn’t matter. The fact is, I don’t have the backbone to protect myself. I’m walking on borrowed time already, and if one of them pushes me, I’ll fold.
“Chels, you all know I have an early day tomorrow,” I say in a gentle tone, then look at Heather and Amy, begging them to understand. “And I’ve really been struggling to keep my head above. Maybe—”
“So you’re bailing on us again? I don’t know why I expected anything else from you,” Amy says as she crosses her arms.
I haven’t bailed on them that much, have I?
“Guys, I’m sorry if I haven’t been around lately. I’ve just been working really hard for—”
“Your promotion, we know!” Heather throws her arms in the air with a loud huff. “All you talk about is your fucking promotion—”
“And we’re starting to believe it means more to you than we do,” Chelsea says as she settles back into her chair. The corner of her mouth curls and I realize she knows. She knows exactly what those words will do to me and used them on purpose.
I’m instantly sent spiraling through space and time into the body of the small child who was made to feel worthless, like a burden to everyone who should have cared about her. Guilt claws at my heart. I would never want to make anyone feel like that—never want to hurt another person in the same ways I’ve been hurt—and my friends know that. They know I’ll be too lost searching for absolution to care about my self-preservation.
My lip quivers, but I hold the tears at bay. “I’m so sorry. I never, ever want any of you to feel that way.”
“We know.” Chels reaches her hands across the table to grasp my own.
“We know you’re busy,” Heather says as she rubs my arm, “but it just feels like you’ve forgotten about us.”
“No! No, I swear I haven’t.” I shake my head and clasp Chels’ hands tighter.
“Then hang out with us tonight, okay? It’s just one night, and it would really mean the world to us,” Amy says, squeezing my shoulder.
I nod because for some reason I can’t say the words. And if I were paying attention, I would have realized their grasps feel less like warmth and comfort and more like weighted chains tying me to them, dragging me where they want me to go.
But I don’t. I don’t realize it when they pile into the back of my car and direct me where to go. In fact, I understand the rationale. It makes more sense to take one car and for me to drive. That way, I can’t leave them when I want to. And of course, I don’t complain. I’m too busy feeling terrible that my friends know I’ll want to go home long before they do. But they promise me that they’ll respect my limits no matter what and we’ll call it a night with enough time for me to get some sleep for tomorrow.
I still don’t realize their manipulation when they laugh over large margarita glasses but don’t even bother to ask if I want something as simple as water. Nor do I realize it when they call a group of guys over to our table, bat their eyelashes, and shyly stroke the men’s arms and egos, until they convince them to dance—leaving me alone at the table.
I’ve never been extroverted like they are. I prefer to keep away from large gatherings, and the rare times they’ve dragged me to a party, I normally wait in some dark, vacant corner until they’re done. It might be inconsiderate to leave me to be hounded by men and fend off people who want to take our table, but it’s what I’m used to.
But when Chelsea, Heather, and Amy ask me to cover their two-hundred-dollar tab because they all “forgot” their wallets in their cars, I start to realize it. When I keep trying to call it a night only to be yelled and cursed at by my so-called “friends” until finally, to save the peace, I drive them to another bar, I start to realize it.
And now as I watch them dancing, their laughter spilling out around them while they tell each other drunkenly how much they love one another, I can’t unsee it. I can’t unsee how much I don’t belong. I’m invisible to them, and I wish I could say it wasn’t my fault. I wish I could blame someone else, anyone else, but I can’t.
The reason I’m sitting at this bar is because I’m gullible, naive, and fucking stupid. I have spent so much of my life being those things that I don’t know how to be anything else.
I’ve always wanted to see the good in people, to believe that there’s good out there. I thought if I worked hard enough, went to college, got a job, made friends, dated, and tried to fall in love, the ache inside of me would finally go away, but it didn’t.
Instead, it’s grown bigger and bigger, and like a fool, I’ve continued to tell myself that one day the ache of loneliness will subside. That if I continue to stuff my life with what society promised would make me feel fulfilled, I’ll be happy, and maybe I would have been if I had picked the right people.
But they never understood me beyond how they could use me, and all this time that’s what I’ve been feeling. That has been the horrible distension in my gut, the negative cloud that envelops me every time they call. I’ve stuck with them and said “yes” at every turn because I’d lost everything once, and I didn’t want to be left alone again. I thought trading my comfort for their companionship—for people who wanted me when no one else did—was worth it. But it isn’t.
My intuition has been screaming at me since the beginning that they don’t care about me, but I was so starved for affection that I ignored it.
And I would have continued to if I could. I would have lived in my little bubble with my fake friends, busting my ass at a job I don’t even like, surrounded by people who steal my ideas and put down my contributions. That life may be unfulfilling, but it’s mine, and I know it inside and out.
But that life no longer satisfies me. I can’t accept it anymore; my exhaustion won’t let me. I’m simply too tired to continue to let myself be treated this way.
Something in me has snapped. I can no longer see the world with the same rose-colored glasses I used to. I can’t simply believe that if I try a little harder, fake it a little longer, I’ll eventually get to where I want to go. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to turn.
Right now, I want to walk away from them and never look back. I can almost feel my legs moving, feel the wind in my dark curly hair. I can taste the fresh air of the parking lot and the thought of peeling away, driving as fast as I can from them, feels like heaven. A release to the pent up misery I’ve known for far too long.
But I also know it’s wrong. Regardless of how upset I am with Chelsea, Heather, and Amy, they’re drunk. Anyone could take advantage of them, and while I’m sure at least one of them has their cell phone, I doubt they’d be able to order an Uber by themselves. Honestly, I’d be surprised if they didn’t hop into the first car that showed up without even checking if it was their driver.
So, I’ll stay. I’ll temper my hurt, ignore the pitiful look from the bartender who knew I was being played from the moment we walked through the door, and use the next hour to figure out how to get through all of this. Because it isn’t just about dropping my friends. It’s about conquering the fear that makes me feel and fixing myself so I never let this happen again.