“Maybe if you weren’t spending so much time helping her, your life wouldn’t be such a mess.”
The snappy comment really took me off guard. I could feel Dad’s disappointment rolling from him like heat lamp.
Both of them took to Ben very well. He was a hotshot lawyer with a good salary, successful, handsome—he was everything they wanted for me. Sometimes, I wondered why Ben was attracted to me at all. I didn’t have the best looks. Dishwater blonde hair and boring, brown eyes, with smallish boobs that made me feel insecure as hell. I wasn’t anything special. It was plain from the look on Dad’s face that he thought I would never find someone like him again.
“I don’t regret helping Jessica. Look at her now—look how far she’s gone. I’m happy for her.” Are you, though?
“That girl was always a bad influence. I never liked that you hung around her so much. She used you to help herself. How is she helping you now?”
The beef stir-fry was subject to my rage. I stabbed the beef and popped it into my mouth. “She is setting me up on a date.”
“Well, it’s the least she can do after destroying your relationship.”
“She didn’t destroy anything!” I roared. “I broke up with Ben—not her. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you both!”
Dad’s angry face made me feel like I was ten years old. I wanted to apologize and run to my room. My cheeks flushed and I bowed my head, wishing I could take what I said back.
“Don’t talk to us that way. It’s not our fault you decided to go into art instead of applying to dental school. Waste of money! Twenty grand a year—and the dorms—for what? For you to make as much as a guidance counselor?”
Blurriness blinded my vision. How could my own father be so hateful?
“Dental school was your dream, not mine! Don’t make me feel bad because I decided to do something that would make me happy!”
“You think jobs are supposed to make you happy? It’s a job! You go to work, you do the bullshit, and on the weekends you can do the things you enjoy.”
“Natalie, you were not happy at the aquarium. You’ve wasted your education on a job that didn’t even pay well—”
I didn’t want to hear anymore, even if they were right. “I’m leaving!” Grabbing my purse from the granite countertop, I stormed outside and got back into my car. The tires squealed as I backed out of there, determined not to come back for a very long time. I could almost hear the conversation that they must be having: She was always so spoiled, so ungrateful. We did everything for that girl and she’s acting like such a baby.
The car soared on the highway. My phone screamed the whole way home and I fought the urge to hurl it out of the window. Self-doubt plagued me. Are they right? Am I wasting my time in this career?
I was in a pretty crappy mood by the time I arrived at my apartment—an apartment that always lowered my spirits whenever I crossed its threshold, because it was so dark and dingy and crappy. Very little natural light made it through the windows and the carpet was disgusting. There was carpet everywhere, even in the bathroom. It drove me mad. We need to move out of this place.
Jessica was perched on the leather couch that sat in our living room. It was brand new. Every time I saw it, I blinked at how out of place it looked in our crapartment. Her blonde hair was gathered in a ponytail and she turned her head to look at me with a shrugging, sympathetic grimace on her face.
Sighing, I joined her on the couch. “Went to my parents’ house. I don’t know why I keep going back there.”
“Really sorry about your job.”
I waved her off in the same way that I waved off Janine at work. “I don’t care too much. Yeah, it’s a blow to my ego, but it’s not the end of the world.”
“Well, that’s good.” The tone of her voice suggested that she didn’t exactly believe my nonchalant tone. “By the way, Luke came through. You’ve a date tomorrow in Berkeley.”
Oh, God. The last thing I wanted was to go on a date. “I don’t know.” My fingers plucked the leather armrest.
“I think you should go. It’ll take your mind off things. His name is Charlie. He’s really nice.”
The slow drip of depression obliterated everything it came in contact with, including my desire to do, well—anything.
“You’re in a rut. You’ve got to force yourself to get out there. You’ll feel better, eventually.”
“I’m going to look for jobs. You can text me his number.”
Exhaustion settled in my limbs, but I forced myself to walk to my room and sit down in front of my computer. I spent an hour browsing the graphic designer jobs I found on LinkedIn and shot my resume to a few of them. It really wasn’t the end of the world, but I never felt as unsatisfied with my life as I did then.
* * *
I chewed my lip as I searched the small, Ethiopian restaurant for Charlie. Having no idea what he looked like, my heart kept a frightening tempo behind my ribs. What if he’s ugly? Or boring?
There was still the old standby in case things got unbearable, the transparent ‘my friend has a crisis and I must leave immediately’ routine. Jessica promised to call me with an “emergency” if I gave the go ahead.
The aroma from all the food was mouth-watering. Steam swirled into the air from hot plates like calligraphy and the ceiling held sweeping, colorful drapes of cloth. This feels more like a richly decorated tent than a restaurant.
“Excuse me, are you Natalie?”
A slightly chubby man extended his hand and I took it, instantly detached. He was nice looking. Brown hair and eyes. Unremarkable.
“Yes, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Thanks for suggesting this. I don’t really eat out often.”
We sat at a cramped table and I hid behind the menu. Already knowing that this wasn’t going to work out, I decided that I was just going to enjoy a pleasant evening. You spoke to him for three seconds and you’ve already written him off?
“What do you do?”
The boring, stilted conversation of all first dates started forward on trembling legs. I could feel myself pulling back with every word. Drawing answers from him was like pulling teeth—it was as if he expected me to talk for the entire time.
The tall, thin waitress appeared at my elbow and I ordered the lamb and an Ethiopian beer. Without the menu, there was no distraction. We looked at each other for a few brief seconds, then my gaze wandered over the artwork on the walls.