This story is by Jennifer Pool and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ruby checked the time on her phone. Enough times to confirm that she’d missed the opportunity to call and catch up with Will before he went to bed. She was tired from what felt like an endless day of meetings, and in no mood to make her voice cheery and upbeat for a call anyway. She took a sip of her Negroni. Will was the kind of guy who lent people his favorite books even though he knew he’d probably never get them back. He listened to Bob Marley, drank craft beer and didn’t care if the wine they drank was $12 or $200 as long as they liked it. His overt attention to Ruby felt strange but exhilarating. It was something she still wasn’t used to.
Behind her, the sound of the door opening and closing caught her attention. Ruby glanced over her shoulder, breath catching in her throat as she watched her ex-husband, Dan, try to shake the rain from his jacket. Ruby’s mouth flattened into an unimpressed line. She knew there had been a possibility she would see Dan at this bar. His law offices were just around the corner. Clearly, some habits were harder to break than others.
He looked well. Heat and desire flicked along Ruby’s spine when she looked at him for the first time in five years. Her traitorous brain was no match for her heart. He’d taken off his coat, hanging it over the back of his seat as he sat at the bar, rolling up his sleeves. She watched Dan through the forest of other people between. He was drinking something amber, probably scotch, with a single cube of ice, and scrolling through his phone with one thumb. Five years ago Dan had never been able or willing to make time for anyone. It surprised her to see him out of the office so early.
“Here ya go.” The bartender slid another drink in front of her. Ruby looked up, one eyebrow raised in confusion. “It’s from the bloke down there.”
She glanced over, meeting Dan’s gaze. He lifted his drink hesitantly and nodded at her. Ruby wrapped her hand around the glass and raised it. It was mixed precisely to her liking. It irritated her he even remembered what she liked to drink. When she met his eyes again, he was smiling, and he winked before standing up and weaving through the crowd toward her.
“Good to see you, Ruby.” His tone was casual, as though they saw each other here on a regular basis.
“You too,” It wasn’t nice to see him at all. It felt raw, painful and pleasant in the same breath – a mix of one fucked up emotion.
“Here on business?” he asked, swirling the liquid in the bottom of his glass around the melting ice.
She nodded. “You?”
He paused for a moment, a touch of a frown between his brows. “I still work around the corner.”
“Oh.” Ruby took another sip. “I wasn’t sure you were still with them.” Lies. She didn’t even care if they were as transparent as they sounded.
“Actually…” He paused and looked at her tentatively. “I made partner last year.” She wanted to hear the regret in his voice, finally admitting she had been part of the price paid for that honor.
“Congratulations…you always wanted that.”
She remembered the years of nights spent wondering when he was coming home, how many hours would be enough to prove to them he was more than just an associate, and that maybe then she would have her husband back. She also remembered, more painfully, the years that she’d stopped wondering if he was coming home and had just gone to bed. It was around then she started to seriously consider leaving him.
At the time she hated him. He had so easily let his priorities shift from her to anything but her. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, a part of Ruby still believed she made the wrong decision. Looking back, if she’d been older or wiser maybe she would have stayed. She could have stuck it out to see if they would come through the other side, their relationship stronger than before. Despite how long Ruby had tried, a relationship couldn’t survive on the back of one person alone.
They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, the crowd drowning out her thoughts as they sipped their drinks. “You’re still so fucking beautiful,” Dan’s statement boomed out breathlessly into their silence, drawing her attention back to the present. He laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” Except he did, of course, he did.
She forgot how easy it could be to slip back into their dynamic when he looked at her with such a dark, hungry intensity. Ruby laughed, though the fact she still found him amusing annoyed her. “You’re such an idiot.”
“I was your idiot though.”
“You were. Once.”
She looked at him, trying not to allow him to suck her back in. All of their arguments had ended like that. His sweet charm turned on high, making up for his absence, his indifference. He was a master at convincing her whatever issue she’d had with him was a figment of her own insecurity.
He didn’t notice, just reached over to brush a piece of hair off her face, rubbing his thumb over her the tiny freckles on her cheek, and down the curve of her jaw. “Come home with me.”
“You remember how good the sex was, don’t you?”
She wanted to say yes. It had been great sex. The best she had ever known up until that point. Ruby’s mind flashed suddenly to Will. He wasn’t talkative in bed, but when he did speak it was with that deep rumble in his voice. His carefully chosen words set her pleasure afire in a way that, frankly, Dan had never even come close to.
“Let me make it up to you.” His words felt like hot knives in her chest and tears sprung in the corners of her eyes. How many times in their first year apart had she wanted to hear those words? And now they sounded as hollow as they probably always would have.
She drew back out of his touch, reaching one finger up to wipe the tears away. “You had years. Five years I’ve wondered if I made the wrong choice. You doled out love and affection to me like it was an allowance, yet I still wonder.”
Dan sighed, running his hand through his hair. “We all make sacrifices for the people we love, Ruby. You knew it wasn’t always going to be like that.”
Her laugh was bitter in her throat. “You don’t think I sacrificed? I always put you first. I put what you wanted ahead of everything I wanted. Even after…” Her voice caught in her throat, dying like any affection she thought she might have still felt as his eyes narrowed in contempt.
“Come on, Ruby. You were barely even pregnant.” Dan’s voice was a sharp whisper. The words should have hurt, but they didn’t. It only confirmed what she’d known all those years ago when she’d walked out. Dan only cared about one person more profoundly than anyone else, and it had never been her.
“I thought I was the villain in this story. I thought I felt guilty for all the horrible things I did to you, to us, and to the life we were supposedly building.” She stood up from her bar stool, lifting her purse onto her shoulder. “I realize now it always had to be me to make that choice, but you won’t ever be able to imagine what it feels like to have to break your own heart.”
Ruby pushed past him, the din of the room swirled around the growing space between them as she ignored the sound of his voice telling her to come back, to stop walking. And then…nothing. He’d let her go. He was always so good at that.
She looked down at her phone, there was a missed call from Will. She pressed redial as she slipped out the doors of the bar.