How long is eighty days when your heart is broken? To me, it felt like forever and a day. I struggled to go to class and often tried to find ways to actively avoid Cassie and her pack of goons. In my head, they were all pointing and jeering. How could I have possibly thought that I could have a chance with the magnificent and wonderful Cassandra Ainsley?
But it was a difficult endeavour, particularly when we shared one class each week. For all the hurt that she had caused, Cassie was not one for gossip. She said nothing about the events that played out on the last day of the holidays and would often attempt to strike up conversation about the most benign of topics as she was always one of the first to arrive outside the classroom and the last to leave. But I found ways to avoid anything lengthy. Often I would rattle an excuse just to make sure she knew that the last thing I wanted to do was to talk. It was unfair of me. She had treated my feelings with dignity as she gently pushed me away when I had kissed her.
"I'm sorry if I led you on Jamie," she had started, face taking on a ruddy tinge. "It was never my intention to deceive and while I do like spending time with you, I'm straight. You're a wonderful girl and anyone else would be lucky to have you."
The words were like a sledgehammer as they shattered my heart into a million tiny pieces. Had I read the signals all wrong? Surely I could not have been so daft as to misconstrue something platonic with the potential for romance. In a blink of an eye, I retraced all our interactions from the very first – scrutinising them for any mistakes I might have made. But I could find nothing. Surely Cassie was pulling my leg.
"You think I'm joking. I mean, who wouldn't, given the situation. But Jamie, I wish I could say that this was just a prank in poor taste.
Each sentence was a dagger. My heart could take nothing else. Not even the concern shining in her eyes. I did not need her pity. It would be a slow process but I would manage to pick up the pieces in time. Derrick, that bastard, would inevitably help.
Forcing a smile to my lips, I tried to play it off even as I savoured what I could of the gloss that still coated my lips. And though my eyes stung with unshed tears, I promised I would not cry. Not for this. "That's okay Cassie. I'm fine. Really. You should see the look on your face. Granted, it was stupid but you just wait until the others hear about this. None of them thought I had the courage to do it."
Yet the expression on her face told me she was unconvinced. She had a knack for reading my face like an open book and so I struggled to keep the façade up.
"Oh come on, Cassie. Do you see a pout on my lips?" I said even as I tried to keep my voice light. All I wanted to do, though, was curl up in a ball. Derrick had been wrong. All the movies I had seen were wrong. This was not one of those stories where the hero would sail off into the sunset. "For a moment there I wondered if I was ever going to pull it off. I'm sorry if it came off as if I saw you in that light but really, it was nice to know that I was right about the cherry."
"If you're sure Jamie," she had said, though it was clear she did not believe me and perhaps a little insulted to learn that it had all been for naught.
"I am. Listen. It was all just a silly dare. Derrick thought I wouldn't but I suppose he now owes me a twenty."
It was not long before we headed to the closest train station. An awkward silence hung between us as we walked. We parted fairly amicably, promising to see each other the next day at uni. At least, Cassie did. I tried my best to keep my spirits up and enthusiastically waved her off as she headed down the short flight of stairs to Platform 2.
By the time I walked through the door to my house, the veneer of good cheer had crumbled. Derrick found me huddled up in the foetal position just beside the entrance. I had not even thought to take off my shoes. He coaxed me into the kitchen and we spent the evening side by side in front of the television, watching sad Korean dramas to take my mind off the most catastrophic blunder in human history.
Once I had a proper helping of ice cream, the pain of that most recent of rejections felt blunted. But when the first day of uni was knocking on my door, I was suddenly afraid. Cassie would be there. And we shared a class together. In our youthful exuberance, we had toiled over our timetables, trying to make sure that there would be time aplenty to catch up. And so I successfully managed to miss the first swath of lectures.
It was only when my mother was bodily dragging me from bed, all the while remonstrating me for the lazy daughter that I was, did I find the courage to go to uni during the second week and ensuring that my attendance, if not perfect, would allow me to see a passing mark. Besides, the world cares not for the troubles for one wayward woman. And the problem with Cassie would not go away on its own. Throughout that first week, she sent text after text to my mobile as we fell back into old patterns. I replied to some and deleted others.
And, as always, I tried to avoid her as much as humanly possible. Each time I spotted Cassie down a corridor or heading down a flight of stairs, I would quickly change direction. An offer of drinks would be left kindly ignored. It took its toll on her. I could see the strain behind the smile when she chatted with her other friends. Sometimes, I would catch her eyes wandering towards me during our tutorial with concern. Even though I had played it off, she knew me better than that.
To no-one's surprise, bar mine, she confronted me one day right after a tutorial we shared. I had hoped to disappear with the rush of students streaming out of the classroom but Cassie was simply too quick. She caught me by the wrist and led me into an isolated alcove. For several minutes she stared me up and down even as I tried to avoid her gaze.
"I know what you're doing Jamie," she finally said. "I thought our friendship was stronger than this. You told me everything was fine. That we would see each other once term began. But each time I pass you on the main walkway, you skirt by without a word or a greeting. It's been weeks, Jamie, and I want to know where my best friend went."
The earnestness in her eyes left me breathless. I wanted to grovel and apologise even as I longed for the conversations we had. It was pathetic. But the wounds she had inflicted, so callously, were still fresh and my heart still ached though I had just had a marathon binge of the most melodramatic shows that I could find on Netflix. Luke Cage, for instance, was a welcome distraction that could whisk me away to the streets of Harlem. But none of that happened when Cassie was close.
Sentences flitted through my head like half constructed conversations. Every morning and every night, I rehearsed what I would say but none of them seemed appropriate with Cassie right in front of me. A low whine sounded in my ears and it took me a moment to realise that it was coming from me.
"Jamie, I need to know where this is going. Even my parents know that something is wrong and they're prodding at all my old buttons, hoping that I'll slip up. Please Jamie. Just talk to me." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. Guilt gnawed at me, churning my stomach.
Steeling my heart, I tried to force a calm smile on my face. Everything was fine. I repeated the mantra in my head as I looked up in those hazel eyes. "I'm sorry Cassie. It's just that I've been busy with all the work we're expected to do. Come mid-semester break and all my assignments will be done. I didn't mean to give you the cold shoulder but you know how it is with me."
The words seemed to alleviate whatever anxiety had gripped her. Cassie nodded her understanding and let me go. But when I glanced over my shoulder to check on her, she looked deep in thought. Perhaps the answer I had provided was not enough to serve as a balm to all her worries. In fact, it appeared as if she were trying to reconcile with what I had said with what she knew. Strange, actually, to think on how Cassie felt after all the pain she had wrought with her rejection.
Days went by like aeons. Before I knew it, the lie became a reality. I was swamped with all the projects and assignments thrown my way by heartless tutors and course coordinators.
Despite my best efforts, I encountered Cassie more and more over the intervening two weeks before the break. In hallways. In the library. She would always wave, oft beckoning me to sit down. I knew what she was trying to do. Told myself it was simply a ploy. But like a fool, I felt myself being dragged into her orbit as I forced a smile to my lips. How could I not when I had told her that nothing was wrong?
My acquiescence, thus, helped soothe what doubts she might have had even as it cast me down into a bottomless pit of despair. I had to ensure that I was ever ready with the mask that I had prepared as we fell back into our old patterns.
All of her efforts came to a head the week after the break. In the one class we shared, the tutor assigned us both for a group project. She smiled eagerly at me while I offered her a weak one in return. This would be a nightmare. Was it possible to sink into the floor so that I might never have to suffer the humiliation? There had to be way to maintain my dignity and ensure that our assignment would give me the marks necessary for a distinction.
After my sentence had been handed down, Cassie caught up with me after class – all but bouncing on the balls of her feet with excitement. "So, would it better to head to your place or mine?"
"What?" I asked stupidly.
"I mean, I do have the bigger house. But my dad isn't very open to having any guests over. Although, there's not much he can do if he doesn't know about it in the first place. Are you free this Saturday, Jamie? If not, I can always come over after classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. That is, if it's not much of an imposition."
By the time she had finished her spiel, I knew that there was only one answer I could provide though the capitulation saw my newly bandaged heart begin the inevitable sinking. Cassie simply had a way about her that was hard to say 'no' to. I'm not sure if she realised it at the time. Or the grudging reluctance it took to type out my address on her smart phone. She had merely glanced at it and with a beaming smile said she would text me a time.
When the Audi pulled up on the street, I knew it would be better served coming into the garage, or at the very least, parked on the front yard. In my suburb, such a flashy vehicle was a sure-fire way to paint a target.
Lost in my thoughts, it was Derrick that opened the door at her knock. Stewing in my anxiety, I had forgotten to advise that our relationship had been newly mended. He was just about to slam the door in her face when I came down the stairs.
"I'll take it from here, Derrick," I said.
He looked at me quizzically. "Are you sure?" Those three little words were filled with such disdain I wondered what he had said to Cassie before I arrived. From the corner of my eye, I risked a quick peek at her expression. She seemed mildly bemused as she clutched a folder stuffed to the brim with all sorts of papers to her chest.
"If this is a bad time, I can come again next week," said Cassie, hoping to defuse the tension.
"No, no," I hurriedly replied. "Please. Come in. Let me find your some slippers. We can work on the dining table."
Without another word, Derrick stalked off. It was for the best, really. Even though he was younger, he could be aggressive when it came to protecting his family. In hindsight, I should have told him but with so many other concerns floating around my mind, I barely had the time to eat dinner, let alone spend some of it bonding with the other members of my nuclear family.
"What's wrong with him?" asked Cassie once we were properly settled. "Last time, he was eager to talk about all sorts of things but today he could barely acknowledge me."
I waved her concerns off with something I hoped would suffice. What she said was true. My thoughts drifted back to uni break and school holidays. Derrick had tagged along for several of our 'dates.' He and Cassie had hit it off quite well when the topic came to cars. Even I was surprised at their vivid descriptions of engines and modifications and spoilers and whatnots.
Cassie, understanding that my silences did not necessitate the fact that I was ignoring her, didn't press any further. Instead, she pulled my attention back to our group project.
We worked on it for a time. She tapped away on her laptop while I tried to make sense of the assignment parameters. By the time we had made some headway, it was nearly six. Cassie was the first to notice when she glanced at the expensive watch at her wrist, exclaiming in surprise.
"I wish I could stay longer Jamie but mum said there was something she wanted my opinion on this evening."
"Well, I'll finish all this up and send it through to you."
"Sounds like a plan. Although considering the scope, you might have to compress it or send it through as chunks. Do you know how big it is?" she asked, glancing over towards my cheap HP Pavilion notebook.
Silence reigned in the dimly lit dining hall as we both tried to process what I had just said. Cassie was the first to react. First there was a snort. Next came a short trickle of giggles. Within nanoseconds, she was slapping the table and wiping away the tears that had gathered.
I, on the other hand, was red with shame and embarrassment. What was left of my dignity was in absolute shambles. I tried to scramble for something witty. Yet I merely gaped as a fish until Derrick stepped in with a freshly microwaved frozen meal. He plonked down between us, eking out a small space among the mess of papers and started eating.