"I can't stand her." A masculine voice floated up the staircase and I froze.
It came again. "That's the thing. She's never home, and when she is, she has a sour attitude and hides in her room all day… Why should I have to do that?... Well, I don't want her around anyway. She's terrible company."
Before I caught any more of a conversation that was clearly about me, I retreated back up to my room and did what I did best: hid. I also blinked back tears of fury because Michael hated me and I hated him back. Our marriage was nothing but evidence of the control that our parents had over our lives. Luckily, mine couldn't control me anymore.
Five minutes later, I was composed and ready to attempt to go down again. I spent most weekends at my cousin's house, working out and then counteracting it with pizza and ice cream.
Michael was eating breakfast at the bar, Julia serving him a huge bowl of oatmeal.
"Will you be joining Mr. Michael for breakfast today, Miss Pepper?"
Julia asked this question every Saturday, and she always received the same answer. Part of me wanted to say yes, just to prove Michael wrong about his conversation a few moments earlier.
"No, she won't," Michael said firmly, not bothering to look up at me. He never looked at me, I realized. Not that it mattered. I kind of preferred it, actually—that way, I was certain that he cared for me just as little as I cared for him.
Julia looked between us awkwardly and I shrugged, reaching over and grabbing my keys from the counter.
"There's a hook beside the door for those, you know," he said, eyes fixed on a magazine beside his bowl.
The temptation to mock him was almost unbearable, but I resisted, turning toward the door. "Be back later," I called as if he cared. What a great way to celebrate our two-month anniversary.
"Ugh, why is it so hot in here?" Thank goodness I only wore shorts and a tank top.
"I call it 'hot cardio'. Like hot yoga, but worse. I turned off the AC a few hours ago and the sun has been baking it in here ever since," Kelly said, looking extremely pleased with herself. "Oh, and instead of pizza for lunch, we're going to have Caesar salads with extra chicken and croutons."
"Croutons are the best," I said, taking my regular spot in front of the TV. I needed this workout—I had plenty of stress to sweat away today.
I gave my all—something I rarely did—in this workout, not missing a single burpee or floor-touch. By the time we were finished, sweat was dripping from my body and I was starving. Kelly procured two huge salads from the fridge and I dug in, desperate for the carbs and protein.
"You're off today. Are you having a bad day again?" she asked. She'd been in the habit of doing so ever since my mother passed. She passed shortly after my wedding, and neither of those events were good times for me. At this point, though, I hardly mourned my mother anymore because I was too busy being angry at her for sticking me in this arranged marriage.
I shrugged. "I caught Michael talking about me this morning. He said I was terrible company and that he couldn't stand me."
She gasped through a mouthful of croutons. "Does he know you heard him?"
"No. I went back upstairs."
"That jerk. I'm sorry, Pepper," she said, laying her fork down briefly to pat my sweaty arm. Funny how being in this one-bedroom apartment with Kelly made me wish I could stay here and never return to the mansion. The mansion would never be home. Not that it was supposed to be. His parents were building a new mansion for us as a wedding present. I knew I would never feel at home there, either, though. Perhaps I would never feel at home again.
I stayed with Kelly until I wore out my welcome, which was around three in the afternoon, and stalled going home by stopping by the dingy, local library. I didn't even like to read. I was just there to browse the books because I could take as long as I liked without looking weird, even if I was in my exercise clothes.
I went straight to the romance section because that seemed like the kind of thing that someone of my demographic might enjoy. Most of the covers featured scantily-clad women in the arms of bronze-chested men who apparently never learned how to button their shirts up all the way. Would I have to read books like these someday when the loneliness became too much? Gosh, I hoped not.
I slid one back onto the shelf and grabbed another, turning to the back cover before looking at the front.
When Jamie, a lonely and pregnant widow, meets youthful Jeremy, a recent college grad, there is no denying their instant attraction for one another. However, Jeremy has reservations about the large age gap between them…
A voice startled me and I dropped the book, which landed coverside-up on the ground. On the front was a picture of a pregnant woman being held in a suggestive manner by a man who must have been at least ten years her junior. The book was titled, "Cougars Get What Cougars Want".
"Harrison?" Oh no. This couldn't be happening—not in front of my long-time high school crush. I quickly stooped to pick the book up even though I knew he saw it. "I wasn't actually interested in this, for the record. I'm just here to kill some time and get a good laugh," I explained, laughing a cheesy little laugh at the book before desperately shoving it back onto the shelf.
"Yeah, it's funny the types of books that sell sometimes, isn't it?" he asked. I didn't know if he was being merciful, or if he actually believed that I didn't read these books, but I was grateful for him letting me off easily either way.
"That's for sure," I said, forcing another awkward laugh.
"So, what have you been up to? I haven't seen you since graduation. So, it's been, what, six years?" he said, flashing me a gorgeous smile.
"Far more than I can explain in a cramped library aisle," I said. My mom died, I was forced into a marriage that I don't want, I work a dead-end hospital job, and I went to culinary school and don't use my degree—you know, standard loser stuff.
"Funny, I was just about to invite you out to coffee sometime—would you be interested in meeting up? Maybe I can hear some of your long story then," he said, taking a slight step closer to me.
"I'm actually married," I said, holding up my ringless left hand. "I took the ring off to work out, but I've been married for a couple of months now."
"Oh, congratulations," he said, still smiling. Did he ever stop smiling? "I meant no disrespect in inviting you out for coffee. If you'd still like to catch up, you could bring him along as well. I'm sure he's a great guy."
"I don't think that'd be a good idea. Thanks for the invitation, though. I'm going to get going now." With that, I grabbed Cougars Get What Cougars Want off of the shelf and sped to the front of the library. Thankfully, he didn't follow. The idea of going out for coffee with my high school crush and stranger of a husband couldn't have sounded more terrible.
I fought off tears the entire way home. The day had sucked enough. Today was my two-month anniversary; tomorrow would be the two-month anniversary of my mother's death. I finally got asked out by Harrison, only to have to say no. Harrison and I would have been great together—he tutored me in all of the science and math courses I didn't want to take. We were in the same grade, but he was the kid that my mother always wanted. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that he was on the path to become a doctor or lawyer or some other approved rich-kid job.
When I burst in the front door, the tears fell and I didn't even pay attention to Michael's confused look as he watched me from the couch. I threw my keys on the counter and ran upstairs. "Julia, will you make me some tater tots and fruit salad?" The fruit salad would make it healthy.
"Coming right up!" she shouted after me.
I couldn't see Michael. I couldn't think about what could have been with another man. Not today.