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In the shower, earlier, I had run out of shower gel. Through the steam I reached blindly into the basket of toiletries that I kept in my bathroom and pulled out a small bottle. As I hurriedly lathered my body, I became swathed in the smell of Spearmint and Ginger. The memory was sharp and sudden so vivid it felt physical:
We were in a hotel room - it was in a city centre, I know that much because I recall closing the heavy drapes to dissipate some flashing lights from a nearby club. I don't remember which city or which hotel. The room well, suite was one of those open-plan, two-roomed ones with dark wooded walls, art deco lamps and glass-topped tables. I recall that this hotel had a fantastic restaurant at which our 8pm reservation was long forgotten. I lay on the king-size bed, wrapped in white sheets, eating the complimentary fruit. I took a handful of grapes - the sweet taste was refreshing and reminded me that I was hungry; I looked forward to the steak and pommes frites that was on its way from room service. Nick was in the shower and I could smell the hotel's branded toiletries drifting from the bathroom. Spearmint and Ginger. I remember thinking that I would take home any that we didn't use.
I looked around the suite in the living area, the fruits of our earlier shopping spree were strewn everywhere. Bags and boxes dropped carelessly on the sofas and floor. Around the bedroom, our clothes were left where they had fallen. Or been thrown, I thought, and smiled. Decadently, I stretched out on the bed, noticing an almost full bottle of wine had been knocked over, the blood red contents spilled out over a pale green rug. I shrugged; Nick would take care of it.
The knock at the door startled me; I sat up looking around for my dress. Giving up, I threw on Nick's discarded shirt and padded across the room, my toes sinking into the plush carpet. As I passed a mirror, I remembered how much Nick liked it when I wore one of his shirts and nothing else. I signed for the delectable-smelling room service, tipping generously as Nick always did.
I stood in the bathroom doorway, watching him through the scented steam. As he rinsed the lather off his lithe, tanned body, he noticed me watching him. He stepped out of the cubicle, leaving the shower running.
"Pass me a towel honey," he said, shaking the water out of his hair and beckoning to the stack of white towels next to me.
I took one off the fluffy pile and he reached out for it, grabbing my wrist instead and pulling me toward him.
"Get off!" I shrieked. "You're soaking! Let go of me!"
Holding me at arm's length he looked at me seriously. "Why should I?"
"Because dinner's here," I replied, matching his serious tone.
"Good," he said, picking me up round my waist and setting me gently into the cubicle as I giggled, playfully fighting him. The water felt luxuriously hot and the stream was powerful, drenching my hair and soaking Nick's shirt to my body. Closing the cubicle door behind him he smiled as he came towards me, telling me; "I'm starving."
The coolness of the water from my shower bought me back to today. Annoyed at myself, I grabbed a towel and marched purposefully into my bedroom to get ready for work. I was determined to get on with my day, get on with my life, without wasting another second thinking about him.
At work I'd been staring at the same batch of papers for an hour and I'd got nowhere. My mind wanted to be on Nick and as usual I was fighting it. I disliked myself for being so weak. The dislike turned into annoyance. The annoyance turned into frustration and at midday I gave up. It was Friday afternoon, after all.
I left my office and got into my car, tilting the rear-view mirror to look at myself. I stared into my own eyes at the now familiar look they had when I was trying to stop myself thinking about Nick. They flashed with anger and belligerence as I tried to block the crushing pain. It was going to be one of those days. One of those days when Nick tried to infiltrate every second of my thoughts.
I did have days when I managed to get by without sinking to these levels of despair, but today I was desperately trying not to allow the four months that I spent with him to run through my mind like a bad movie. I tormented, ridiculed and tortured myself with questions I could never answer. "Why didn't you see through his lies?" "How did you let yourself get taken in?" "Where were your defences?"
I sighed, closed my eyes and leaned back against the headrest. Defeated, I allowed myself the bittersweet luxury of thinking back to the day we met.
Early Monday morning I had stopped at Starbucks for a skinny latte a habit I had got into. I liked to arrive really early on Monday mornings. I loved to watch as the city flickered then gradually lit up; as the vacant, lamp lit streets gradually transformed into a state of lively diverse activity. It invigorated me; I enjoyed the feeling of renewal that Monday morning in the city brought. I grew up in the country, moved to the city six years ago when I was twenty, and fell in love with it. With its diversity and twenty-four hour attitude, the city became my new, exciting friend, introducing me to a way of life I quickly grew to adore. Outside, the city was making its early morning noises, shop shutters were opening, and the cleaning truck was swishing over the concrete one last time, preparing the streets for the busy day ahead.
I smelled him before I saw him; he was behind me in the queue and I breathed in the scent of his expensive cologne, mingled with the scent of freshly brewed coffee and that day's special Vanilla Frappucino. I took a sneaky look and saw an older man, tall, well-dressed, slim, tanned and handsome. Very handsome. I listened as he ordered and shared a joke with the barista, tipping generously. I sat down and began pouring sweeteners in my coffee; next thing I knew he was standing at my table, looking down at me, smiling. Wow, I thought. Perfect teeth.
"Hi. May I?" he asked, indicating the empty chair next to me.
"Erm... sure," I replied, looking around. It was busy, but there were other tables available. Oh god,' I thought as I watched him hitch up his suit trousers as he sat down. Is he going to chat me up? He must be what? Forty?'
"I saw you in here last Monday morning," he said to me. He had a direct way of speaking. Confident. Arrogant almost. He looked directly at me, serious but with a slight, friendly smile.
"Er d-did you?" He was still staring at me. "I tend to come in here on Mondays. I like to start the week off smoothly I like to get in the office early on Mondays. I'm PA to a magazine editor and Monday is normally my busiest day, but I always sacrifice ten minutes to chill out with a coffee..." I realised I was rambling; why was this guy making me so nervous?
"Oh - so that's why I didn't see you in here the rest of the week." He took a healthy swig of his latte then leaned closer to me. "I was worried I wasn't going to see you again."
God he was handsome.
"You've been looking for me?" I asked hesitantly.
"When I saw you last week, I wanted to talk to you, but I didn't. I sat and watched you, thinking how gorgeous you were. Are."
I laughed, but he remained serious.
"I haven't been able to stop thinking about you." Now, it was his turn to smile. "This must sound like a corny chat up line, I know."
"Yes, it does."
He rubbed his forehead, slightly embarrassed. "What am I doing? I'm sorry." He looked at me purposefully and stood up. "I'm old enough to be your... never mind." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry." He picked up his briefcase and quickly walked out, leaving me sitting there, open-mouthed.
Next thing I knew I was walking out after him; as I stepped out of the warm coffee shop, the cold of the 8am February morning hit me, wrapping a whooshing windy chill around me. I couldn't see him; the streets were getting busy now, people were talking loudly into their mobile phones, the street cleaner passed blocking my vision completely, and people were hurrying in different directions in front of me; I looked left then right but I couldn't see him.
This inexplicably panicked me and I made the split decision to go left, rushing along the busy street, frantically searching, craning my neck to try and find him, this stranger. Then I saw him, about fifty yards down the street; he was waiting to cross the road. I ran towards him, unsteady in my high heels; I wanted to call out to him but as I realised I didn't know his name, it dawned on me how ludicrous this situation was. I took a deep breath, straightened my suit, turned and walked away, silently chastising myself for being an idiot.
I turned round and saw him hurrying towards me. As he got close we smiled at each other, both breathless. Then we laughed - neither of us knowing what to say but both of us realising the senselessness of the situation.
We sat down on a nearby bench, the sound and movement of the city carrying on around us.
"I " we both began at the same time and laughed again.
"No," I said smiling "You go first, you started this."
"Yes, yes that's true, I did." We both laughed again. He looked at me directly, "You came after me."
I looked away; his gaze was so intense, it made me feel both uncomfortable and incredible.
He reached over and took my hands.
"I'm very glad you did," he said, seriously.
And we kissed. There on the bench, 8am on Monday morning, in the middle of the city, his hand in my hair, pulling me into him, we kissed like teenagers. When we parted he smiled at me and asked me my name.
"I'm Sam," I said, and held out my hand.
He took it in a firm handshake, and in the confident, ever so slightly arrogant way that I would grow to love, he told me, "I'm Nick." Then he kissed me again.
My mobile phone brought me back to today; it was my colleague and friend, Amanda.
"Sam, where are you?"
"Mand, I'm not feeling well - I'm going home; can you finish off the proofs on my desk please?"
I heard Amanda sigh into the phone.
"Sammie, I love you but you can't keep doing this. Forget about him. You are gorgeous and smart but you are letting him drag you down. It's been two months now hun, you have to start moving on."
I rested my head in my hand. "I know Mand, I know, it's just... something jogged my memory this morning. I just need today; cover for me for one last time. I'll be back on Monday, I promise."
I heard Amanda's concern as she told me, "OK, hun, don't worry, I'll sort it. You haven't forgotten there's a head office visit next week they're looking to promote another PA; you know you could do it with your eyes closed. When you're on form," she added.
I groaned. "I know, I do want it, I just need today. Then that's it, I promise." I paused. "You know it would have been six months to the day that we met, this Monday coming."
"Well, give the anniversary some meaning make it the first day of the rest of your life - without him," Amanda told me. "If that's what you really want..."
Amanda had liked Nick she thought he had been good for me. In fact, when I finished with him she had at first tried to get me to listen to him.
"It is what I want, Mand," I said, forcefully. "Definitely."
"OK then hun, go home, take a bath, eat chocolate and drink wine. Call me if you need me. Love you."
I hung up and drove home. Instead of the chocolates and wine I went on a cleaning frenzy; it was spring, after all. I sorted cupboards and drawers, taking bags of stuff to the charity shop. I had an early night, and on Saturday went into town, had my hair done and did some damage to my credit cards in Selfridges. Later, I met up with friends who I hadn't seen for ages and we spent the night dancing in one of our favourite clubs.
On Sunday, I spent the morning relaxing, and after lunch with my friends went jogging in the local park. Afterwards, I walked around the lake, the usual mob were there, skateboarders, couples walking their dogs, fathers feeding the ducks with their small children.
I felt invigorated and positive, but at the same time, poignant. What Nick did to me broke my heart and I hated him for it. I had to let that hatred go but doing that meant letting Nick go. And that would break my heart all over again. I stopped to sit on the dewy grass and watched a small boy playing with a Labrador puppy. The boy was about four, the same age Nick's son Elijah would be. Nick had an older son, too, Jeremy, who was eight, and a baby girl, Emily, who would be one now. I saw a photo of the children in his briefcase once; they were gorgeous kids. Emily was tiny in the photo, newborn, and Jeremy, the eldest boy, was holding her, looking somewhere between proud and petrified as Elijah stood on his tiptoes to look at his little sister. In the background was a woman, in her early forties, looking proudly at the children.
Picking up the photo, I asked him, "Who are these?"
He snatched the photo from me, shoving it back in the briefcase, snapping it shut. "My sister and her kids," he had said unblinkingly.
That was the first of his lies.
The sexy, single man that I fell in love with on a city bench had been a liar. He told me he had an apartment on the outskirts of the city, and commuted into the centre. This was his excuse for taking me to hotels in the city on business trips and at weekends. "My apartment's a cold bachelor pad," he had told me. "Let's take advantage of the company credit card."
And we did. Five star hotels, exclusive restaurants... He worked on the stock market so his income was, well, expendable. For four months, we fed off each other, seeing each other at least twice a week, different hotels, and different cities. I invented an undiagnosable back problem to allow me time off work. The four months were a cyclone of champagne, romance, exhilaration and sex. I allowed him to take the upper hand.
I stopped and smiled as I thought of his hands. One of the very first things I noticed about him was his hands. He was holding mine across the restaurant table on our first proper date and I became aware of how his hands made mine look small and feminine. The skin on his hands was dark and looked almost weathered. Next to his, mine were soft and pink. His knuckles were large and furrowed and the fronts of his hands were veined and supple as he circled the inside of my wrist with his thumb. I loved his hands. The contrast between our hands did well to sum up our relationship really. Him: large, raucous, and slightly arrogant. (I liked that, too.) I, twenty-one years his junior, always felt uncharacteristically girly and princess-like in his company. I allowed him to look after me, to open doors and order in restaurants. He called me honey and baby and bought me expensive presents: a Gucci watch, a Prada briefcase... I allowed myself to feel protected and precious. My cherished independence suddenly began to feel less and less important as I sat on my man-made pedestal - his sugary tide of devotion washing over me.
Getting up from the park bench, I allowed myself to think about the day, almost two months ago, when Nick and I were in Leeds. It was June and the sun was shining; we were drinking cocktails on the terrace of a trendy hotel in the city centre when a couple in their forties passed us and stopped.
"Nick!" the man said, looking shocked and hesitating before he held out his hand. "How are you mate?"
Nick, looking pale, shook the man's hand. Clearing his throat, he said, "Pete, I'm well, thanks." Nick looked towards the woman who was glaring at me and Nick. "Hello Marie."
Marie ignored Nick and marched away, pulling Pete by the arm.
"What was that about?" I asked Nick, not really caring; I was on my third Dirty Martini and was already thinking about getting back to the suite.
"God knows," Nick replied. He gestured to my half full glass. "Do you intend to finish that?"
Later, as Nick slept beside me, I decided to go for a Jacuzzi and sauna. I left the room quietly and as I entered the hotel's spa, I noticed that Marie was in the changing area. I smiled at her as I entered and she responded with a filthy look. As I changed into my bikini, I could feel her glaring at me. I looked up at her.
"What?" I asked, annoyed.
"How could you?" she asked venomously.
"What are you on about?"
"Don't give me that - are you going to tell me there's nothing going on between you two?"
I sighed; Nick and I often received judgemental reactions to our relationship because of the age difference. I didn't care, though, in fact I loved it.
"Nick's my boyfriend; he has been for four months. So no, I wasn't going to tell you that."
"Your boyfriend?" Then, as though a realisation had hit her, she raised a hand to her mouth a nasty little laugh escaped through her fingers. "You don't know do you?" she said smugly. Pushing her feet into the hotel slippers and wrapping the robe around her she turned away, shaking her head.
"What? What don't I know?" You stupid old cow, I added silently.
She turned round and walked over to me.
"You silly, silly girl. Why don't you pop back up to your little love nest and ask him who Jane is. While you're at it ask him about Jeremy, Elijah and little... oh what did they call the baby now... Emma, no Emily." With a last, smug look, she turned and walked towards the sauna.
Standing there in my bikini, I felt exposed as heat rose from my stomach, reaching my neck and burning my face. I felt sick. Shakily, I sat down, the world around me suddenly dark. "She's mistaken," I said to myself, knowing she wasn't. Knowing now what would have been obvious if I hadn't been so blinded.
Mechanically, I walked back up to the suite. Nick lay sprawled out on the massive bed, sleeping peacefully. I quietly got my things together, left the hotel and took a bus to the train station. The journey home took almost three hours, and during the train ride, Nick had tried to call me countless times. I sent him a text: Don't ever call me or come to my house. It's over. I know.
It was after midnight by the time I got home; I crawled into bed, fully clothed, and finally allowed myself to cry. Within an hour Nick was at my door.
"Sam, let me in, I just want to talk to you. Please honey."
Wrapped in my duvet, I listened as he pleaded, begged, then demanded that I open the door. It was two hours before he gave up, and as I heard his car speed away, I wanted him to come back.
The next few weeks were a blur; Nick tried everything to get in touch, but I consistently ignored him; I refused to listen to any more of his lies. When he came to my office I asked security to tell him to leave. I stopped going to my favourite Starbucks, and I carried on with my life. The grief was overwhelming and many times I nearly gave in but the anger and the humiliation was stronger than my heartbreak. Just.
I did everything possible to avoid thinking about what Nick had done to me. What I had allowed Nick to do to me. I avoided the city, cutting myself off from the sights and noises that I had come to associate with Nick. The place that had become my home, my friend, was now my enemy. Everywhere seemed to hold a memory: every coffee shop, street bench, hotel and restaurant derided me. I stopped going into the city early before work, and I went straight home afterwards.
Eventually, Nick must have come to the same conclusion as me, because in time, the bombardment slowed down, and eventually stopped.
I walked home from the park and spent the evening preparing for my promotion interview on Tuesday.
Something, perhaps nerves, woke me on Monday at dawn. Realising I wouldn't get back to sleep, I dressed and left for work. The city was waking up and I realised that this was the first time I had come to work early on a Monday since six months ago today - the day I met Ni... I stopped myself, hearing Amanda's advice in my head. "Well give the anniversary some meaning make it the first day of the rest of your life."
I looked at my watch, it was still only 7.15. I took a deep breath and walked towards Starbucks. For god's sake, I told myself, it's just a coffee house. Everything was different; it had been redecorated and I didn't recognise any of the staff. I ordered my skinny latte and took a seat by the window. I felt calm and realised that today, as clichéd as it sounded, was the first day of the rest of my life. I allowed myself to think about Nick, noticing that the anger wasn't as strong as usual; I wondered if he was at home, giving the baby her breakfast or helping his sons get ready for school. I sipped my latte and realised I was forgiving him, but not only that, I was forgiving myself. I was letting him go. A lump came to my throat and I swallowed it down, quickly. I leaned back in the comfortable chair and watched the city as it slowly came to life.
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