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I tried acting like I was fine at work, but I couldn't maintain my normally happy demeanor. I felt betrayed, lied to, used, by a man who was manipulative and not even worth the pain in the first place—and yet I stayed with him, hoping somehow that would heal my self-esteem; you see, if he finally treated me well, that would have proven something, that I had worth.
When 4am rolled around, I hadn't finished my paperwork, and I hoped this meant Mark wouldn't talk to me when he saw me busily typing. But he'd grown to know me well enough that he wouldn't leave without making sure I was okay.
"No. I'm not all right," I sobbed. And I told him the whole damn story: About my ex-husband and everything that led to my divorce. About The Schmuck and being the other woman.
As I cried I was shocked to see tears brim in his eyes as well."Oh, Gina. You're worth so much more than this. It'll be okay. I swear."
That was easy for him to say. He was dating an amazing girl. His gorgeous dog had recently had a litter of puppies. His life was gravy.
"You wanna hang out sometime, outside of work? I gotta get back in there, but you know I'm around if you ever need to talk."
I officially broke up with The Schmuck within the next month. I'm embarrassed to say that it took so long. I guess I just needed absolute proof before ending it. I never got the physical proof I wanted, but I did get phone calls from two of his coworkers—who we'd both known before dating—and from one of his relatives who'd gotten my number at a party. "He was living with her the whole time, Gina. I'm sorry to tell you, but he was. He even took you on vacation one week, then took her the next."
That was it—I really needed a friend, and Mark was the best out there. "Mark," I called him out of the blue one day, "wanna come make gingerbread houses?"
He wasn't busy, so he headed over.
My four kids sat trying to eat all of the icing that was supposed to glue the houses together. "So…these are my kids," I whispered, looking at my kitchen. Gumdrops littered the floor. Green icing dripped down the back wall, and gingerbread cutouts sprawled all over the counter.
"Guys, this is Mark."
All four of them suddenly looked up with round eyes.
"We'll divide into two teams," I said. "Boys against girls?"
"Deal!" Mark and my son said, and I wondered how my friend would handle being thrown into the fire like this.
So we started. My three daughters and I haphazardly slapped our gingerbread house together. White and green icing oozed from every crack. My youngest daughter—only three—pushed skittles into every bare spot she could find and the poor house turned lopsided under the pressure.
Meanwhile the boys' house looked like Better Homes and Gardens with a walkway leading to the front door. Mark had made the house's windows with freakin' planters in front of them—for crying out loud. I was fine with defeat, until the boys started making ornate trees purely from icing.
Like a recording screeching to a halt—I glared at Mark's ginger-creation. "You brought wine?" I asked.
"Sure did. It's a really good one too."
"Great, 'cause I need some!"
After putting the kids to bed—which wasn't hard since they were exhausted after hours of crafting—I slammed two coffee cups onto the counter.
"No wine glasses?"
Did he think I was the duchess of Wales? If so, he'd pegged ME wrong. At least I was onto HIM—after that gingerbread madness I suddenly thought he was a cake decorator!
"Nope, just good old-fashioned coffee cups." And I proceeded to—over the course of two hours—make him drink the whole bottle of wine with me.
I don't remember much of our conversation after a certain point, but I do remember one thing he said. "I broke up with her."
If that didn't make my ears perk, I didn't know what would. "But she's pwerfect for you," I slurred, suddenly the devil's damn advocate. "You can't be having relationship problems. You just can't. It's nwot fair if we're both sad."
I origamied onto a small couch, and he sat politely on a seat perpendicular to mine. I must have fallen asleep at one point because he whispered, standing above me, "Gina,it's been a bit. I'm sober and I'm going home now."
I sat up too quickly and my head throbbed. "Drive safe?" I put a hand to my temple.
He just smiled down at me. "You're ridiculous. I had fun tonight."
"Me too…." I smiled, rested my head back on the cold leather couch once more and fell asleep before I even heard the door click shut.
We hung out a few times after that, went sledding, cooked a couple meals. The kids really liked Mark. And I had to admit that I liked him too—but just as a friend, always as a friend, after all, I'd sworn off dating men. Guys would always act sweet and then they'd turn—like freakin' vampires—and there was no going back. Plus, if a guy WAS nice, I could never fall for him, not really; guess I was just hardwired for sorrow or something.
I ended up deciding to go back to school and consequently quit job. I worried, wondering how I'd survive without my 4am visits, but surprisingly enough, our friendship deepened after I quit.
One day, Mark called me during the day when he should have been sleeping after working graves.
I instantly knew something was wrong. "Just cheer me up, Gina. Say something funny."
"Are you okay?"
"You know how my dog had puppies?"
"Yeah." I clutched the phone. It was so hard hearing that pain in his voice and not being nearby to make sure he was all right.
"Well, they all got parvo and some of them have already died." His voice quivered, normally so strong and manly, the change broke my heart. "My dog, Abby, well I fell asleep when she was in labor and she wouldn't even finish pushing the puppies out until I woke up. It was hard, and now this. What am I supposed to do, just let them die?"
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No. I'm doing everything I can. Trying to keep them hydrated, and all the other things the doctor said, but it doesn't seem to be enough. I just called you 'cause you always make me feel better."
I wouldn't let him down, not now. We talked for a while and somehow the conversation turned a little bit lighter. And even though he was still awfully sad, I think he felt a bit better.
"I think I can try and sleep now," he said.
"Call me if you need anything. I'm here."
"I know, Gina. Thank you."
"Mark, I really care about you. Your friendship means the world to me." Then I hung up.
The conversation made me realize how much his friendship did mean to me. He'd taken a special place in my heart, and I felt he was quite irreplaceable. What a strange turn of events, work as a security guard and gain a best friend.
I did some schoolwork, the whole time hoping Mark and his puppies would be okay. As I worked, The Schmuck texted me out of the blue, saying he wasn't with his wife anymore and he wanted me back. That same night his wife found me on Facebook and started messaging me terrible things calling me an "easy lay," saying she'd tell my neighbors what I'd done.
It only took moments to decide that I shouldn't respond. After all, good friends had encouraged me to take the high road and not "return to my woes." And, when I thought about who really mattered, I thought about my children, my family, and my friends, new and old.
I felt so grateful to be out of the terrible situations I'd lived through. Equally grateful to have such wonderful people in my life.
For the first time in over a decade I realized, this peacefulness was because I finally felt happy being alone.
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