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Authors: Diane Barnes

Mixed Signals (2 page)

BOOK: Mixed Signals
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Chapter 2
nstead of sleeping, I lie in my suddenly too-big bed staring at the glow-in-the-dark star decals stuck to my ceiling, and replay everything Nico said to me since our engagement. I can't remember anything that even hinted he was unhappy or thinking about leaving. Rachel's kids were a little wild on the day Nico broke the news; her three-year-old, Laurence, cried almost the entire time she was gone. Is that what scared Nico off? On the drive home from Rachel's, we were stopped at a red light; Nico didn't notice it turn green because he was so lost in thought. I had to tell him the light had changed and he could go. Is that when he was deciding to leave, or had he made the decision long before then and was working up the courage to tell me?
Next door, the shower goes on. Without looking at the clock, I know it's ten thirty. Mr. O'Brien gets ready for bed every night at the same time. I don't understand people who bathe before they go to sleep rather than when they wake up. It's something I didn't understand about Nico either; apparently one of many things.
At one o'clock, I give up trying to fall asleep and instead open my book,
Growing Up Pedro
. Nico gave it to me for Christmas. It's about Pedro Martinez, his all-time favorite Red Sox player. If anything will help me fall asleep, it's this book. I prefer fiction. The next thing I know, my alarm is going off and my book is on the floor. My head pounds so much that I'm sure there are a bunch of little men inside my skull trying to jackhammer their way out. I stagger to the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet. All the shelves are empty except the top one, where a lone box of tampons sits. I slam the door shut, causing it to jump off its track. What kind of jerk takes all the aspirin and cold remedies with him?
Forty minutes later, I make my way across the front porch and down to my car. Mr. O'Brien has already sprinkled sand over the frozen walkway, and his Buick is gone. For a retired guy, he sure gets busy early. I pull my hood over my head before I begin scraping the ice off my Accord. I'm just finishing the back windshield when the tires of Mr. O'Brien's station wagon crunch over the hardened snow at the end of the driveway. Even with his car windows closed, I can hear he's listening to
BS Morning Sports Talk
. According to Nico, the old man phones into the program at least three times a week using the alias Frank from South Boston. I'm not really sure if the caller is Mr. O'Brien, because his first name is Walter and we live in West Newton, but Nico's convinced it's him by the caller's habit of clearing his throat. Something Mr. O'Brien does regularly when he speaks more than a few words.
“Good morning,” I say.
Mr. O'Brien acknowledges me by lifting his Styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup in my direction as he plods his way past me. The smell of coffee makes me wish he had brought one for me, something he sometimes did before Nico moved in. When he reaches his front door, he calls out, “Did he leave his key?”
I throw the ice scraper into my backseat, feeling like I missed part of this conversation. “Who?”
“Who?” He repeats it in a way that makes me feel like the dumbest person in the world. He clears his throat. “The young man who's been living in my house with you.”
Mr. O'Brien sighs loudly before slamming his door.
* * *
On the drive to work, I tune into Nico's show as I do every morning. The hosts, Sean Branigan and Barry Smyth, aren't discussing sports. Instead, they're insulting a female sideline reporter who covered one of the playoff football games over the weekend. “She's hideous,” Smyth says.
“How many times do you think she hit the concession stands during the game?” Branigan asks.
My jaw locks. I don't like these guys. Then it occurs to me: I don't have to listen to them—not until Nico comes home anyway. I smile as I change the radio to another station. Take that, Nico! You just lost a listener. I keep changing channels until a song I like comes on. I sing along with Taylor Swift about haters hating.
I'm still singing when I lower my window to order coffee at the drive-thru window. “Shake it off and order,” the voice from the speaker says.
* * *
As I walk across the pedestrian bridge that leads from the parking garage to my office building, an icy gust of wind stings my face. I lower my head and run the rest of the way. When I enter the lobby, I tell myself that I need to be on my game today. In addition to changes in my personal life, my professional life is unstable as well. The company I work for, CyberCrimeBusters, was recently acquired by a venture capital firm, which immediately changed our name to Cyber Security Consultants. Clients hire us to assess the security of their websites and technology applications. Basically they pay us to hack into their systems and close up the holes that allowed us to do so. Our new owners have big plans for expanding our business, starting with refining our brand. As one of a four-person marketing team, I have a lot of work to do to change the company's image. My coworkers are Renee Boudrot, who, like me, is a writer, and Ben Colby, the graphic designer. The three of us report to Stacy Taylor, who is the vice president of marketing.
Now, as I board the elevator, Ryan and Tyler, two twenty-something salesmen, get on with me. “Tell Nico great show today,” Tyler, the light-haired one, says. My body tenses at the mention of Nico's name. In the four years I've worked here, he has attended every holiday party with me and several of our frequent after-work outings. The sports fans among my colleagues are impressed by his job. All night long, they buy him drinks and talk about Boston's teams. Most of the men outside Sales and Marketing don't know me as Jillian Atwood but instead think of me as that girl who dates the guy who produces
BS Morning Sports Talk
The elevator stops. “Any chance you can hook me up with tickets to Friday's Celtics game?” Ryan, the tall one, asks as we all step out onto the fourth floor.
“Sorry, no.” If Nico doesn't come back, my coworkers and I will mourn together.
At the entrance to my section of the building, I fumble through my purse for my access badge. When I find it, I hold it up to the card reader, and the door clicks open. As I walk by row after row of dull gray cubes, I hear the slogan for
BS Morning Sports Talk
coming from several of them: “The number-one-rated sports talk show in New England—and that's not BS.”
I push my diamond around my finger with my thumb. Nico saying he doesn't want to get married is BS. If he meant it, wouldn't he have asked for the ring back?
I reach the aisle by the windows, where my department sits. No one is there. My coworkers' jackets are hanging on the hooks outside their cubes, so I know they're somewhere in the building, probably getting coffee. I settle in behind my computer and log into email. An alert for this morning's meeting flashes in the bottom right corner of my screen, telling me I'm eleven minutes late.
So much for being on my game today.
I run to the end of the hall to Stacy's office and burst through the door. Ben's and Renee's heads both snap in my direction. Stacy looks pointedly at her watch.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
“We're brainstorming images for the new website,” Stacy says.
“So far we've come up with a lock,” Ben says. As usual, his light brown hair is still damp, and he smells like Irish Spring soap.
“We'll think about the images later,” Stacy says. “Let's spend some time coming up with buzzwords and catchphrases we can use in our messaging.”
Renee and I throw out ideas. Ben remains quiet, doodling on his notepad. I look down and see he's drawing a picture of Renee with her short, spiky black hair on fire and smoke coming out of her nostrils and ears. Over the past few months, she has started having hot flashes, and Ben teases her mercilessly about them.
“Prevent penetration,” he offers.
“Gross,” Renee says.
I scrunch my nose. Although the words definitely relate to cyber security, coming from Ben, who never sleeps with the same woman more than once, they sound dirty. As far as I can tell, his relationships usually last the same amount of time as the company's pay period: two weeks.
Stacy's computer beeps. “I have another meeting. Email me a list of catchphrases and images ideas by Wednesday.”
Ben, Renee, and I stand. “Jillian,” Stacy says, “how come I haven't seen a draft of the article on security risks in the health care industry?”
With all that's going on with Nico and the acquisition, I forgot I'm supposed to be ghostwriting an article for our CEO. “I'll send it to you at the end of the day.”
“Send me what you have so far,” she says.
“I haven't started it yet.” Embarrassed by my oversight, I can't meet her eyes, and look at the ground as I speak.
Stacy pulls a red and yellow stress ball, with the old CyberCrimeBusters name circling it, from her top desk drawer. “It's due tomorrow.” She's squeezing the ball so tightly that her knuckles are white. “Send it to me by three today,” she says.
I nod. Renee, Ben, and I file out of her office.
“What's going on with you, Jillian?” Ben asks when we are out of Stacy's earshot.
“What do you mean?”
“You're coming in late, forgetting projects, and you look like you didn't sleep all weekend,” he says.
“Concealer, sweetie,” Renee says. She's a few steps behind us. “Cover those dark circles right up.”
Dark circles are only part of the problem. My long brown hair refuses to hold a wave. My usually dark complexion is pasty. The dimple on my cheek seems shallower. Even the blue of my eyes seems muted. It's like Nico took my sparkle with him when he left. For a minute, I think about confessing that he moved out, but being dumped less than a month after getting engaged is too embarrassing to talk about. Besides, when Nico returns, Renee will make it her mission to convince me not to take him back. From the moment she first laid eyes on him, she didn't like him.
You'd think knowing he was meeting your coworkers, he would have bothered to shave
, she said.
He looks dirty
. She didn't believe me when I told her that he had in fact shaved an hour or two before we left the house. While Renee dislikes Nico's facial hair, to me, his fast-growing beard is the epitome of masculinity, part of his sexual prowess. I can't imagine him without it.
Ben and Nico aren't friendly either. They met at a holiday party a few weeks after I started. I was wearing a short black sleeveless dress that showed off my well defined arms and legs. Ben told me I looked smoking hot. He said the exact same thing to Renee and Stacy, but Nico insisted he had a different tone and look in his eyes when he said it to me. I think Ben makes him insecure. Nico never would admit it, but he's jealous of Ben's good looks. A green-eyed devilish version of Bradley Cooper is what Renee calls Ben, and her description is spot-on.
* * *
When I get home that night, the driveway is empty and my side of the duplex is dark. The thick row of long, pointy icicles hanging off the roof makes the house look haunted. In a way it is, with memories of Nico.
Usually when I make my way across the front porch, I can smell dinner cooking—steak on the grill Nico used on the back deck all year long, or garlic and basil from the Italian dishes he liked to whip up. The lack of a scent tonight is another reminder that he's gone.
Inside, the apartment is quiet.
isn't blaring from the television. Worse, Nico isn't there to greet me with a kiss or tease me by rubbing his razor-stubbled face over my cheek. The only sign that he was ever here is his jacket hanging over the back of the chair. I take mine off and slip into his. It's big and cozy and smells like his woodsy aftershave. I take a deep breath and imagine him hugging me. He always squeezes a bit too hard, as if he can't get a good enough grip on me. Turns out I was the one who should have been holding on tighter.
I push back the sleeves, reach into the pockets and pull out a handful of cinnamon candies from one and a folded piece of paper from the other. I unfold the note. It's Sean Branigan's letterhead. Below his name, the number 4.6 is written in thick black ink. I pop one of the candies in my mouth while I try to figure out what the number means. I come up with a pretty good guess: Branigan and Smyth are fond of rating women. Like they did today, they often waste on-air time discussing women's appearances: the hottest sports wife, the ugliest female sports reporter, the actress they'd give up ten years of their lives to sleep with, the star that they would choose death over sleeping with. A female intern started on the show a few weeks ago. The 4.6 is probably Branigan's rating of her looks. The guy is such a pig, but Nico idolizes him. I imagine him laughing when Branigan slipped him the note.
That's a little harsh. She's not that bad
, he probably said in a halfhearted attempt to defend the poor girl. As I think about it, I'm chomping the sucker into tiny pieces with my back molars. It drives me nuts the way Nico never stands up to Branigan. I rip off the jacket and fling it back over the chair.
As if he can see what I'm doing, Nico chooses that moment to call. My phone vibrates on the kitchen table as I debate whether to answer it. What if he's calling to get his coat back, or the ring? I'd have to admit it's really over. Nope. I'm not answering. Maybe he'll think I went out with Ben after work for drinks. That would make him insane. I imagine him jumping in his truck and driving by the restaurants near my office. When he finds me, he muscles his way past Ben and confesses he's made a horrible mistake. By the fourth ring, I've convinced myself Nico wants to come home and that's why he's calling. I scramble to answer before he hangs up because Lord knows, he won't leave a message.
BOOK: Mixed Signals
11.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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