I want you to leave. Go. Find your own place.
Phoebe practiced the words in front of the bathroom mirror, each time giving them a different inflection.
Mmm. That expression—too firm or not firm enough? Oh fudge, her lips were quivering. Not a good sign since she was only practicing.
Did that mean she was going to have trouble saying the words out loud to Matt?
But managing the words was only the beginning. How did she then go about extracting him from her life? How, for example, to handle all his possessions scattered throughout the apartment. The T-shirts and sports jerseys draped around the bedroom like a decorating statement, the safety helmets, coolers, fishing poles, life vests, ropes, canvases, and paints adorning any previously empty spaces with their sweaty, turpentiny, or fishy smells.
Shoving all his stuff out the door into the hall wouldn’t work. There was too much of it. The neighbors would complain, and rightfully so. She’d once suggested he move items he didn’t use regularly to the apartment’s storage locker. He’d given her a startled look and then shrugged.
Her chest tightened at the memory. She’d struggled to forgive his lack of cooperation, but now she saw what he’d been doing was squeezing her out of her own life.
Wasn’t she smarter than this?
“Hi, babe. I’m home.”
Phoebe, still examining her expression in the mirror, saw it morph into a frown at the sound of Matt’s voice. How could she have missed noticing how unhappy she was becoming as Matt returned to what she now recognized was his default position—placing her a distant second to his mandatory sports watching, nights out with the guys, and weekends in the hills.
That switch in attention had happened months ago. So what was her excuse? Why was she still with him?
Because he was the first man who’d taken her seriously as a woman? At least in the beginning. That intoxicating rush in those early days. Clearly, it had blinded her to his flaws.
And if she broke up with him, would that mean she’d once again be relegated to buddy status by the men she met, something that had never taken more than a date or two to kick in.
“There you are, babe.” Matt stood in the doorway, reflected in the mirror over her left shoulder.
Babe. It grated on her every time he called her that because it brought to mind a large pink pig. She’d asked him to stop. But Matt, who’d called most women babe since he hit puberty, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adjust. So she did. She stifled pig images and called him sweetcakes and honeybun, which she expected him to hate.
He didn’t. It amused him. Which, come to think of it, was one of his better qualities. Just not enough to build a life on.
Better if he called her idiot. Because that’s what she’d been. She closed her eyes in chagrin, remembering the pregnancy test.
Thank God it had been negative.
It was during the moments while she waited for the result to make itself known that she’d finally faced reality. That there was no way she wanted Matt to be the father of her children.
And if she couldn’t see him in that role, what was she doing playing house with him six weeks later? Still waffling. Telling only her mirror what she thought. It was embarrassing. Humiliating, even. Proof it was easier to make a wrong choice than a right one.
Saying a quick prayer for calm, she turned to face him. “Matt, we need to talk.”
“Uh-oh. Don’t like the sound of that. Can we eat first?”
“Sorry. I didn’t feel like cooking tonight.”
“S’okay. We can order a pizza. We’ll need to pay with your credit card, though. Mine’s about maxed out. Still waiting for the check from that last job.”
“Sorry. But no.”
“No, what? No, I can’t use your credit card, or no pizza?”
“No anything.” Good. The words sounded definite. And maybe it was best to keep going while she had momentum. “I want you to leave.”
“Leave? You mean now? What . . . are you breaking up with me?”
“But my stuff’s all here.”
Note to self: His first thought when faced with losing me was about his stuff.
“I want that out too.”
“You can’t just kick me out like this.”
“I don’t see why not. It’s my apartment, and you rarely contribute to the rent, let alone the food we eat.”
Matt stood staring at her a moment longer. Then he shrugged. “Food wasn’t that good. You’re an okay cook, but nothing special. And the sex was. . . unimaginative. Guess I’ll crash at Lindsey’s. She’s always had a thing for me.”
Phoebe stiffened, letting the words slide off without nicking her heart. There’d be time enough to lick her wounds later. “Good for Lindsey. I suggest you take as much of your stuff as you can now. I’m having the locks changed. You’ll have to make an appointment with me to get the rest.”
Lord, she sounded cold. But she felt cold. She rubbed at the goose bumps that had popped out on her arms.
His gaze narrowed. “What’s this really about? I thought you and I were good.”
“I’m not sure we ever were, actually. And this is about me acknowledging that and getting on with my life.”
He threw up his hands. “Hell, no skin off my nose, then. You always were too smart for your own good. This just proves the point.”
She waited to see if he’d realize he’d just said getting rid of him was a smart move on her part.
“A woman with a physics degree, for Pete’s sake. What was I thinking? My bad. Should have known better.” Muttering, he pulled a duffel out of the closet and started stuffing it with clothes.
For such a final step, it had taken place quickly. And easily?
But then, he wasn’t expunged yet. One duffel barely scratched the surface. She gave a brief thought to whether she should offer to help him remove his things, but decided it was better to leave all that to him.
She walked past him to the kitchen, fixed herself a cup of tea, and sat at the table in the breakfast nook that overlooked the parking lot. She warmed her hands on the mug, forgetting to drink. Thumps and bangs came from the other room, then the front door opened. Shortly, she saw Matt appear below.
She watched the muscles in his arms ripple as he lifted the heavy duffel into the back of his Jeep. When Matt wasn’t overseeing the graphic design of the latest issue of the adventure magazine he worked for—or working on his own art—he was out running, biking, bungee jumping, skydiving, rock climbing, white-water rafting, or driving into the backcountry where dirt tracks replaced roads. And all that physical activity showed in the lean, muscled legs and bulging biceps.
Not being athletic herself, she’d admired that about him. She exercised, of course, but she would never run a marathon or be able to pull herself up a cliff, and it had been satisfying that she’d attracted a man who could.
She’d turned down his invitations to join him for his more vigorous, not to mention more hazardous activities, but she went with him once on a backcountry drive he’d promised would be scenic and safe. They’d had two flats and a spinout near enough to a cliff to make it heart-stopping. Since her regular job was investigating accident scenes, she had no interest in being part of one, and she’d never gone again.
Matt, who took chances enough for the two of them, never stooped to calling her chicken, but she suspected he’d thought it. And she’d thought it of herself. Except, which was worse? Being labeled chicken, or taking chances with one’s life without some payback, like the high Matt talked about?
Instead, she felt shaky and sick to her stomach at even the thought of doing most of the things he considered fun. She didn’t even enjoy thrill rides at amusement parks, which made it all the more weird she and Matt ended up together.
And, yes, there had been things she’d liked about him. He was great at spinning yarns when they went out with a group. She appreciated that about him because struggling to make small talk was for her a circle of hell. He’d also provided her with a shelter against loneliness. And he was there, usually, when she came home from an accident scene. If there’d been fatalities, he’d give her a hug and a neck rub, and she’d found that an antidote to the chaos and emotional strain her job sometimes entailed.
She also had to admit she’d rather liked being able to refer to him offhandedly at work as “my boyfriend,” thus avoiding the matchmaking tendencies of coworkers that, while well-intentioned, were exhausting. Maybe a good plan after she got rid of him would be not to mention it to anybody.
Although, that would no longer be an issue once she transferred to downtown Denver to take up her new position as chief accident investigator for the City and County of Denver. It meant she’d soon have new colleagues, ones who didn’t know her well enough to interfere with her life.
She sighed. She knew breaking up with Matt was the right thing to do, but apartment clutter aside, being with him had been. . . comfortable. It had given her a feeling of connection? And could she now admit that put into stark relief exactly how far she’d strayed from the dreams she’d had as a young girl?
Back then, she’d never expected to settle for a relationship that was merely comfortable. But then, neither did she expect to still be unmarried at this late date.
Matt made yet another trip, using garbage bags to carry more of his stuff out. After several trips, he’d stuffed the Jeep to the roof. The last item was the mountain bike. He lifted it onto the bike rack, then he drove away.
And that was that.
Seeing him go, Phoebe felt the tightness around her heart ease.
Clearly, there was no mystery why it had ended. Rather, the mystery was how the two of them managed two minutes together, let alone two years.
~ ~ ~
In the weeks following Matt’s departure, Phoebe worked to forget him. The long hours spent settling into her new position helped. At home, whenever she came across something Matt had left behind—his shaving cream, one of his favorite T-shirts, a box of fishing lures—she grabbed them and without hesitation threw them in the trash.
She discovered the pleasure and relief of coming home after a long day to a quiet, unfettered, tidy life. She missed the neck rubs, but not much else. Or so she told herself.
As for her prospects of finding another man, one who might appreciate what she had to offer? They appeared nil at the moment, given she’d rather do one of those polar plunges than take a plunge back into the dating scene.
When she’d shared that decision with Sara, a friend and colleague from her previous position, Sara replied that at least polar plunges occurred in groups that included men. Phoebe had responded that she had zero interest in meeting a man who would do something so indicative of a less than optimally functioning brain as jumping into a freezing lake in the middle of winter.
As a result, her only recent male interactions had been with her new colleagues, most of whom were turning out to be too old or too young.
Although, there were exceptions. Like the deputy district attorney she’d met with yesterday. He’d been rather excellent looking. Tall, blond, and obviously fit. But although he’d not been middle-aged and had been both friendly and welcoming, she’d noticed he was also—what was the word? Oh yes, married. Ring finger taken. Besides, a man as good-looking as that one would not be interested in a plain Jane like her.
Her phone rang, jarring her out of her gloomy thoughts. It was Sara calling with a happy-birthday wish. “Okay…you were born in 1968, right? So that makes this the big three-O. Only a year away from pushing forty.”
Wishes conveyed, Sara switched to her ubiquitous subject since Matt’s departure—that of finding Phoebe a man.
“There have to be some tall, dark, handsome, unattached males somewhere on the planet,” Sara insisted.
After her experience with Matt, Phoebe decided that looks were less important than what was between the man’s ears, although basic hygiene mattered. However, even if the man was decent looking, recently showered, and clean shaven, if he couldn’t carry on a halfway intelligent conversation, a person might as well date a gerbil.
“You do realize tall usually means just over five feet, dark is often greasy with a five-o’clock shadow, and handsome is in the mind of the profile writer and not in the eye of the beholder.”
“Ah, you have looked at that site I recommended,” Sara said.
“Looked, didn’t click.”
“And didn’t post yourself?”
“It’s . . . it’s undignified.” Phoebe doubted this new thing of posting information about yourself on the internet to find a date would last. She used computers at work. But she couldn’t imagine them ever being an important part of her leisure activities.
“You need to do something, Phebes. Get your mind off Matt.”
“My mind is off Matt.” She stopped speaking, surprised at the sudden surge of loneliness? Regret? She shook her head. No, she was fine.
“Is that why you’re holed up in your apartment on your birthday?”
“I am not holed up. You caught me on the way out the door.”
“I’m going shopping. You can join me if you like.”
“Sorry, can’t today. But how about dinner? Next week?”
When, a few minutes later, she and Sara said good-bye, Phoebe hung up with a sigh of relief. She didn’t need Sara’s brand of girly companionship. Not today. But what was she going to do with an entire Saturday stretching out empty before her? Not shopping. But she did need to find something to look forward to, and not just today, but on all her days off.
She could maybe buy a bike and explore some of the hundreds of miles of trails running through and around Denver. Except, traffic gave her hives. Besides, she’d never been willing to go biking with Matt, so why consider it now? But then he’d been much too competitive, not to mention fit, for her to keep up with, without risking a severe muscle strain. But still.
She shook her head in frustration, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she noticed a copy of one of Matt’s outdoor magazines sticking out of the pile of books on the coffee table. She grabbed it, ready to throw it in the recycle bin, when the cover picture of a herd of wild horses caught her eye. It reminded her she’d once wanted a horse more than anything in the world, a desire pushed aside, first by her studies and then by her career.
But although her equine interactions had been both brief and rare, she still remembered the way the world seemed to light up when she was looking at it while riding a horse. Matt had never lit up her world that way. At least, not for long.
It might be worth seeing if she could recapture that feeling.
Without debating further, she showered, dressed, and drove to the Tattered Cover bookstore, where she bought a copy of every horse lovers’ magazine in stock. Then she brought them home and stacked them on a corner of her kitchen table. Sipping a cup of tea, she opened the first and began looking through the ads.
Gentle, good with children, no bad habits.
Yes. She was doing this.