Arwin resumed his trek towards the restaurant where he was meeting Kelli. He really needed to see his girlfriend’s smile. No matter how bad things got with anyone else, there was always her.
Arwin entered the cafe and nodded to the waitress at the hostess stand.
“Table for one?” she asked, grabbing a menu.
“I’m meeting someone,” he told her with a smile, then headed into the seating area.
The cafe was an elegant affair, an upscale joint more often frequented by those with corporate credit cards and unlimited expense accounts. The wood floor and tables were all of very dark wood. The walls looked like the canvas sacks that coffee beans came in, framed in more dark wood. Fake ivy and tropical plants brought a verdant touch green that contrasted nicely with the almost-black wood.
The coffee and wine bar was brushed steel, staffed by men and women in crisp formal attire. Poised servers wound their way through the busy tables, delivering delicate sandwiches, steaming mugs of coffee and cold steins of beer dripping with condensation. Having been here before, Arwin knew they had a fantastic selection of pasta dishes and served mouth-watering deep-dish pancakes.
The place was filled with sounds: people chatting and the occasional laugh; metal cutlery tinkling on ceramic plates; glasses clinking and ice cubes tumbling. The air smelled of light food and roasted coffee.
Arwin looked around, eyes scanning the tables for someone sitting alone. But none of those women he saw were the very special one he was looking for. Then he spotted Kelli in a more private booth in the back. He came to an immediate halt, startling a male server with his abruptness and almost causing the man to spill a tray of used glasses.
The server just managed to swerve out of the way, grabbing a wayward wine glass and shooting daggers from his eyes before moving past. But Arwin was oblivious.
His body went cold.
Kelli was classy and beautiful, even in her light gray, very professional skirt suit and with her hair tied up in a thick ponytail. Her face was glowing and she had a big smile on her shiny red lips. She had a wine glass in front of her, half gone already.
And she was not alone.
Arwin watched as her lips eagerly plastered themselves to someone else’s. It wasn’t just any kiss. It was the kind of wet, erotically energetic thing that new lovers gave each other, and the man she was with returned it in the same manner, his arms around her, groping her, pulling her towards him.
Arwin edged forward like a zombie, his brain completely shut down. His eyes traveled over the couple. He saw the man’s arm around her shoulders in a comfortably possessive manner, and her arm around his lower back in a much more sexual one. One of her legs draped over his, raising her skirt to dangerously sexy heights. There was no doubt in Arwin’s mind: the way these two moved and touched, they had slept together. Actually, they’d probably been sleeping together for a while.
Arwin studied the guy. The man was slightly older than Arwin and Kelli, maybe in his mid-to-late thirties. His hair was professionally styled. From the confident way he lounged next to her, the expensive suit hanging open, the silk tie slightly loosened, the glittering luxury-brand watch on his wrist, it looked like the guy was pretty well off. He wasn’t particularly good looking or seemingly athletic at all, certainly much less so than Arwin, but, he obviously went to great lengths to appear financially successful. If you liked that type. Arwin knew Kelli did. After all, that was why she wanted him to pursue a career in business.
Kelli looked up as Arwin approached the table. Her red mouth broke into a cute little O. Well, it might have been cute in other circumstances. “Arwin!” she gasped.
Oddly, he still had yet to react to the situation. That puzzled him, for he and Kelli had been dating for almost three years now. Well, maybe it wasn’t that he wasn’t reacting. He didn’t feel angry yet, but he certainly felt stunned. In fact, his face and arms felt somewhat numb and even tingled. Apparently, he’d gone into shock.
Mouth dry, he tried to speak and his voice came out far more awkward and less manly than he desired in this moment. “We had a lunch date,” he croaked. Wow. That sounded lame even to him. He tried to clear his throat.
Kelli and the man slowly disengaged. But she didn’t entirely pull away from him, pulling her arm from behind his lower back but leaving it on his thigh the way a girlfriend might. “Arwin, look—” she tried to say, but fumbled her thoughts, seemingly unsure.
It took Arwin a split second, but he realized that there was no look of panic in her eyes. He gaped at her. “We had a date. We talked about it this morning. In our new apartment. After sex.”
Kelli’s looked down and away.
Arwin knew with sickening certainty then that this ugly meeting was no casual accident. “You set this up!” he accused. At last, shock began to give way and a stab of pain cut into his chest. Nothing had ever hurt this badly before. He’d never before felt so betrayed.
“Arwin, I’m sorry. I really am,” she managed. No denial. Nor did she seem terrible upset or guilty.
Arwin’s thoughts raced. What had he done wrong? How had he screwed up? Had he failed her somehow? He must have, or she wouldn’t be doing this. “Why? Why are you—?” he stammered. “Kelli, I love you. You love me too. What’s going on? What did I do wrong?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just — I don’t think we’re the right match for each other anymore,” she said weakly.
Arwin glanced at the guy next to her. No guilt on his face, no sympathy. He certainly didn’t care one whit for Arwin’s heart being crushed right in front of him. In fact, Arwin suspected that the guy was either annoyed that his make-out session had been interrupted, or glad that he and Kelli would no longer have to sneak around behind someone’s back. Arwin looked at Kelli, unable to suppress some of his contempt from boiling up in the heat of the moment. “It’s because he has money, isn’t it? And, let me guess, he works for a big-name firm, doesn’t he? Just like you wanted me to do.”
“Arwin…” she replied before trailing off, not denying him again. Apparently Arwin’s guess had been right on.
People had begun to take notice of their conversation. Arwin, for one, certainly wasn’t keeping his voice down. Nearby conversations had stopped and heads had turned their way. A server stood nearby, drinks in hand, looking unsure whether she should intervene or not.
“We just signed contracts together on a new apartment,” Arwin exclaimed, only vaguely aware of the attention he was getting. “And bought a car!”
She casually waved the idea away with one hand. “You can keep them both. They’re in your name.”
His mouth fell open. “I can—? How the hell am I going to pay for that all myself now?“ He blinked. “Wait. You knew you were going to do this,” he breathed in shock. “You planned this.”
She raised a hand in defence. “Listen—”
“That’s why you wanted them both only in my name.” The revelation staggered him. “You knew you were probably going to leave me weeks ago, the whole time we were shopping for both. Because you were already fucking him and thought you might have a better option. I was…just your backup plan, wasn’t I? Until you were sure you two were going to be together?”
Kelli looked away. She looked a tiny bit guilty, but not very.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now? How am I going to make all those payments on my own?”
She looked at him like he was dense. “Didn’t you get a new job today?”
“The job was bullshit!” he exclaimed. “Three months unpaid internship before it even started. Then only a pittance to start, which would only cover half the rent and nothing else.”
“Well, maybe you could—“
“I turned it down!”
She looked surprised, then a measure of disgust flashed across her features. “Why? Why would you — ugh.”
“It wasn’t for me. I tried to accept it, even knowing they were screwing me over. I tried to force myself. All so that it would make you happy. So that we could have a life together, the kind you wanted. I thought of making huge sacrifices for you. And here you were, planning to betray me the whole time. Abandon me with a wealth of bills I don’t want for things I don’t need. All the stuff I did to make you happy and you don’t give a damn about my happiness at all.”
A male server appeared next to Arwin and raised his hand, looking for the right moment to interrupt. Most of the cafe had now turned their attention to the ugly conversation.
The asshole next to Kelli tried to butt in, no doubt trying to look strong in front of the girl. He stood up and made a show of trying to look tough. “Why don’t you—“
“Just shut the fuck up,” Arwin threatened in no uncertain tone of voice, not even looking at the guy.
The other man hesitated, then sat back in his seat, unwilling to properly challenge Arwin.
The server, perhaps seeing muscles and veins standing out in Arwin’s neck or hearing the steely tone of his voice, wisely lowered his hand and backed away.
Arwin looked at Kelli, eyes pleading with her. He tried to calm down, tried to get things back under control. He softened his voice. “You know what I was thinking about on the way here? Marriage. I thought you wanted me to get a new job, for us to get a new apartment, a new car, all of it because you were getting more committed to us, that you were planning our future together. I was trying to figure out if I should talk to you first today or just go buy the ring — because I was excited to marry you and I thought you wanted the same thing!”
At last, some measure of real guilt, perhaps even doubt, came across her features. But she said nothing at all in response.
Arwin’s heart dropped at that. “Kelli, I’ve done everything I can to love you the best way I know how. I spoil you with attention. I’m forgiving and understanding, no matter what. I’ve been your best friend, supporting you through everything you’ve gone through in the last year with your family and more. And you’d throw all that away for some empty prick with a nice suit and big salary?”
“Says Mister McJob,” the illicit lover scorned with a mocking sneer.
“McJob? I’m a teacher! I work in public schools.”
He snorted. “You know what they say, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Why don’t you go hop back on your bicycle like a good little boy and leave us alone.” His arm slid back around Kelli’s shoulders, a mark of ownership which she didn’t refuse in the slightest. “Kelli deserves better.”
Arwin’s left eye twitched. He looked at Kelli in shock. “You’ve talked about me to him? And what? Denigrated me to him? Seriously? After three years together?” He tilted his head, almost unable to believe it. Who was this woman and what had happened to the girl he’d thought he knew? “You, what, laughed about me together? Made fun of me? Why would you do that to someone who loved you?” When Kelli didn’t answer, he shook his head and tried to forget about it. He stepped closer, begging now. “Don’t do this, Kelli. Please. Let’s go somewhere and talk.”
Kelli had no response.
“Come on, guy,” the suit said. “You get the picture. Just leave.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Arwin snapped so fiercely that the other guy actually looked startled.
Other patrons in the place had gone totally silent now as they watched the scene. Even all of the servers were enthralled. There seemed to be a general sense of horror as they watched the drama play out, kind of like watching cars crash in slow motion.
“Please, Kelli,” Arwin begged her, softening his voice again. “We love each other. I don’t care what happened with him. Let’s go. Let’s talk. We can work this out. Please. I don’t want to lose what we have together.”
Kelli looked mildly guilty, but she didn’t seem terribly emotional: no tears, no words of regret. She didn’t look upset at all about losing him. And yet, they’d been living together, telling each other that they loved the other every day. How long had her words been a lie?
She composed herself, seemingly easily enough, and spoke in a practical tone. “Look, I’ve thought a lot about this, ok? We are not a good match for the future. We’re different. And I want something else in a partner.”
“You want what? A bigger bank account? Is that really what’s most important in a partner?” Arwin glanced at the guy next to Kelli. He glared back, his previous contempt turned into sullenness. “How much does he make?” Arwin asked.
She sighed as if fed up with the conversation already. “Arwin this is pointless.“
“How fucking much?” he shouted.
She told him in a quiet voice, not looking at him.
Arwin was staggered. It was a lot. The guy was rich. Probably worked in finance or something. He shook his head in disgust. “So at a certain dollar figure, money becomes more important to you than love? More than emotional support? Loyalty? Honesty? Commitment? It’s more important than how much I make you laugh? Or how great our sex is? The deep level of trust we shared? You’d sell out everything we have for a more luxurious lifestyle?”
Kelli said nothing, just stared at the table in front of her.
Arwin nodded once. “I see.”
Kelli finally grew angry and defended herself. “Well, you know what? Money’s important. I can’t drive you around all the time in my car because you don’t have one. And what happened to being a gentleman when we go out on dates? Why do I have to pay for things? You’re the man, you’re supposed to pay for things.”
Arwin frowned. “That’s bullshit. Why should I have to pay for everything just because I’m a man? That’s so selfish. You make as much money as any guy at your position, and more than I ever would even as a full-time teacher.” Arwin countered. “Yet I always manage to pay my fair share. I pay half the dates, half of all shared expenses, no matter what. I thought you wanted equality in our relationship. If I’m always paying and you’re not, that’s a little selfish, don’t you think?”
“Oh, enough!” Kelli snapped. “I’m so sick and tired of your philosophical, moral rantings. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m sick of living like I’m still in university!”
“We don’t!” Arwin exclaimed. “We live like regular people.”
“I don’t want to live like regular people!” she shouted. “I want a better life than that. A future where I don’t have to think about money. I want to go on nice vacations whenever I want and stay in nice hotels. I want a man who knows how to dress and can afford to buy me diamonds on my birthday instead of giving me some stupid lecture about how the diamond trade is a sham. I want to be with someone I can respect. Who I can introduce to my friends and not have to apologize for.”
Arwin grew angrier and raised his voice. “I’m a teacher! What the hell do you have to apologize for? I spend my days raising children to become society’s future. If it wasn’t for people like me, then people like you wouldn’t have such flashy, high-paying jobs because you wouldn’t even know how to read and write. If anyone should apologize for what they do, it should be guys like this,” Arwin gestured at her new lover, “assholes whose mission in life is to create more and more wealth inequality and make things harder for everyone else.”
Kelli looked furious. She spoke in a tight voice. “Look, you’re a nice guy. We had some good times. But now it’s time to grow up and move on. You’ll find someone else.”
The male server returned, this time with a manager in tow.
The manager stepped forward, into Arwin’s line of sight. “Excuse me, sir?”
Arwin ignored the man, his voice rising alongside his anger. “This asshole makes enough money to support at least six whole middle-class families, comfortably. You don’t need that much money. No one does. And having that much just means that other people have to go with less. You don’t like how much money I make? Well it’s because people like him take more than their fair share. They’ve rigged the economy to be that way. But you don’t care. You just want it. You just want to spoil yourself and to hell with the consequences. Like, to hell with who you hurt? I’m fine as a boyfriend, but only until some rich guy hits on you? Then to hell with the guy who’s loved you for years. You’re just going to jump all over the money guy like a gold digger.”
Kelli’s voice turned bitter. “We’re over, ok? Just leave already.” She pointed to the door. “Go home,” she snapped.
But Arwin was pissed off. And as much as he loved her, he wasn’t entirely thinking straight. Shock and heartache had twisted him, so he lashed out. “Tell me, what’s the difference between a girl selling herself on the street and a girl dating a guy for his money? Aren’t they both just prostitutes? Is that who you really want to be? Is that what your love is worth? Your love isn’t real? You’re just a long-term sex worker faking whatever you have to for the cash?” The moment the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Giving into his pain and anger in the moment in order to hurt someone else was selfish. He hesitated, then opened his mouth to apologize.
Kelli stood up and shouted before he had the chance. “Fuck you!” she spat at him, furious. “We’re done. Forever!”
They glared at each other, Arwin in pain, her in anger. That morning, they’d had hot, wonderful sex, kissed and hugged, been boyfriend and girlfriend. Yet now, only hours later, there wasn’t a trace of love to be found in her eyes, her body language, or her words. It was as if she’d flipped a switch inside. One moment he’d mattered to her and she’d loved him. Now he was worthless trash.
Arwin’s heart was being shredded, the pain horrendous now. A deep ache filled his chest and his eyes burned, on the verge of tears. He couldn’t believe that she seemed to feel absolutely nothing for him so suddenly. How could anyone be that way? How could you turn off your feelings like that? Or had her feelings never been real? Had everything she’d done been a lie, right from the start?
The manager looked really upset now. “I think it’s best if all of you leave, right now. Before I have to call the police.”
Arwin didn’t look at him. “I’m going. Sorry for causing such a disturbance.” He turned to the door, then looked back at his now ex-girlfriend. “Three years together. I always treated you well. And this is how you repay that? By faking this accidental meeting and trying to absolutely destroy whatever was between us forever? You couldn’t just talk to me? Move out? Be honest? I loved you. I was good to you. I didn’t deserve this.”
She rolled her eyes and snarled at him. “Oh, stop with the emotional blackmail.”
Arwin hung his head. It was like talking to a completely different person than the one he thought he’d known. Until this moment, he had never imagined this side of her existing. He took a deep breath. “Fine, Kelli. You win. Enjoy your new, more material life.”
Kelli, with barely contained fury, opened her mouth to reply but couldn’t, then looked away, a somewhat uncertain expression on her face.
Arwin looked at her once last time, torn between heartache and love, fighting tears now. “I hope one day you realize that you can be a better person than this.” He walked out of the cafe, not looking back.