Chapter One: Denial
Try though she might, Zoey was not going to get Joan on the dance floor tonight. Joan had never been much of a dancer, or a party-goer (not since her marriage to Charlie anyway). However, she was especially reserved around her work colleagues. Back in her college days at MIT, it might have been a different story. In fact, she frequently had a bit too much to drink and enjoyed herself on class nights out. She could barely remember a weekend she didn't wake up with the worst headache ever and the resolution that she would never drink again. Joan graduated as one of the top students in her class, but at least she knew how to balance her work with her life. Charlie put a prompt end to that.
Charlie didn't like when she had too much to drink, so as a general rule, she only allowed herself 3 drinks at any event. She was currently on drink number 3.
It went without saying that her team at SPRQ-Point had never seen the fun Joan. They saw the short tempered, irate Joan who just wanted everyone to be as smart as she was. They saw Joan Bennett, overworked millionaire who doesn't believe in dancing and hardcore drinking at work events. What they didn't see was freshly married, 30 year old Joan Bennett falling over at parties after one too many glasses of champagne and making a fool of herself on the dance floor. No, she was much more content being a wallflower on the edges of the fun. After all, that's where she should have been.
There was something a little different about this party though.
This party was about Joan, it was to celebrate her work and her team. Shouldn't she be enjoying herself? After all, her whole team was making a fool of themselves. Zoey and Simon were dancing like a pair of morons and had been for around 2 hours. Max and his very odd date had had so much to drink that they could barely walk in a straight line. Leif and Tobin were greeting every major player in the tech industry with wide grins and the proclamation "You are literally the reason I studied computer science! You're my hero!"
Everyone made a fool of themselves at these things, she realised. Why was tonight different?
Zoey's light blue eyes caught hers across the dance floor once more, a familiar look of concern evident across her features. Gosh, she hated sympathy. There was nothing she wanted less than sympathy (except maybe cancer, but then, she suspected it would probably still be less uncomfortable). It wasn't useful. It was a stupid thing to feel. What good did sympathy do? And why was Zoey even feeling it at all? Joan and Charlie would be absolutely fine. There was no need to treat her like fine China; she wasn't going to break at the slightest little bump.
Had Joan been a different person, maybe she would have been touched by the young woman's concern. She might have even asked for a hug after all these years of big fights with her husband. After all, isn't that what having friends was for?
She honestly didn't know; she didn't really have any friends.
She was Joan Bennett; she didn't need any friends. She was far too tough and far too clever to need friends or sympathy or hugs.
So instead of relenting to Zoey's stupid sad eyes, she gravitated towards the bar. Free martinis? Couldn't say no to that. She'd be breaking her '3 drinks only' rule, but that didn't seem to matter. She could have one more, right?
Charlie should have been here, she thought, admiring the event for the first time tonight. The instagram celebrities and the tech bloggers, hell, even her employees seemed to be really enjoying themselves. They would have stood in the crowd, wouldn't dare join in the fun. But he should have been by her side, he should have done the demo and he should have cleared his schedule so he could stay past 9.30. He should have wanted to stay the whole night.
Although, maybe she shouldn't have pushed him at lunch yesterday. She shouldn't have spoken to Zoey about their marriage. She shouldn't have spoken to him the way she did yesterday. Maybe if she had been a better wife, Charlie would have wanted to stay the whole night. She shouldn't have expected so much from him and then maybe he would have loved her the way she wanted to be loved, if only she had been better.
Once she arrived at the bar, she ordered her fourth martini to try and settle her nerves. Ice. Vermouth. Stir. Strain. Gin. Stir. Strain. Olives.
"You should have ordered water. Remember where you are," Charlie would have said, hand just a little too tight below her elbow. He would have added, in faux concern, "That's your fourth drink, Joanie."
He said she was an embarrassing drunk, so she hadn't even been remotely tipsy in around 7 years. It was his first big launch party, ironically, and he had told her his colleagues were laughing at her. She hadn't done it again because he'd asked her not to. Only a few months ago, Charlie had been so drunk (at a party she wasn't allowed to go to) that he'd stumbled into bed at 4am inviting her to cuddle with him.
"Hey, Joan," Zoey greeted, appearing by her side. She said nothing else, only watched as the bartender placed her SPRQ-tini before her and ordered her own drink - a Diet Coke.
Joan glanced over at the young woman, wondering if she should change out her martini for a water. How would Charlie have felt if he knew she was drinking more than the 3 drink rule allowed for? She could feel a heat pass over her cheeks, embarrassed about ordering the 4th drink.
"I'm not a big drinker," Zoey said, seeming to read her mind. Joan could only nod in reply, but she didn't dare take a sip of the martini. She didn't know what was stopping her, but somehow every single time she thought of taking a sip, she could feel her body flinch. That's your fourth drink, Joanie.
Zoey's hand crept onto her arm, in that same spot Charlie held her when she'd had to much to drink, and spoke softly, "Joan."
"Do you want to go home? Get some rest, maybe? I can keep an eye on things here."
She shook her head, forcing a smile onto her face, "No, thank you, Zoey. I'm fine. I think I'm going to wait for the party to finish up here and try and catch up on some work. It's been so hectic with the launch party that I'm afraid I may be long overdue to catch up on some emails."
"But Joan, it's nearly midnight. You should go home. Emails can wait."
Feeling ambushed all of a sudden, she leaned in to take a sip of her drink before remembering that 3 drinks was more than enough and she should remember where she was. She put it down on the nearest table and turned to the young coder.
"Joan, are you-"
"Zoey, enough," she snapped, before immediately softening. "I'm fine. Really."
She nodded, "Okay, if you're sure."
Once she left, Joan took a deep, shaky breath. She was fine. She and Charlie would be fine (they always seemed to work these things out). She just had to apologise. She just had to be better.
It hit her pretty quickly though; they had been doing this for 20 years now. Joan had been trying to be better for 20 years now, and seemingly, doing a pretty poor job of it. She always seemed to do something that pushed him too far and she never seemed to learn. Maybe they weren't going to be together forever-
No, she was going to change. She was going to be better.
Simon, now at her side, greeted her with a sad smile. Wasn't he dancing with Zoey a moment ago? With a sad smile, he nodded seeming to know something was wrong but not entirely sure what it was. Had Zoey said something to him? No. She wouldn't. Would she?
"Joan, I'm going to head now, if you don't mind."
"Sure," she replied. "See you in the morning."
He acknowledged her with a nod, but didn't seem to budge. What did he want to say? What could he possibly want to say?
"Joan." he started, looking down at his brown Oxford shoes. "What happened to Charlie?"
Her heart stopped, how dare he ask her that! She was frozen for just a moment - reprimand him and he'll know there's a problem, lie and he might just leave her alone.
"Oh, he was sick. He's been off for days. I really shouldn't have pushed him to do the demo."
Simon shrugged, "I'm sure he understands, you just wanted to share your work with him. I get it."
No, Simon. You really, really don't get it.
Joan smiled that faux smile once more, but she knew it was nowhere near her eyes. Simon smiled and headed for home, leaving her alone with her thoughts at last. Zoey had joined her DJ friend in the booth, Max and his date had either went home or were making out in the bathrooms (millennials were disgusting), Leif and Tobin were back on the dance floor - but Joan only wanted for the party to end and for her husband to come back. She wanted to find Charlie and take him travelling the world again, back to the days of gondolas and having sex on Richard Branson's private island. She didn't care about the stupid watch. She didn't care about Zoey's worried glances.
She just wanted Charlie to want to work on this.
She went back to the bar and ordered another martini, only this time she drank it. It was not over with Charlie. They were going to make it work. But it was going to hurt her.
Charlie would never physically hurt her; that wasn't her concern. No, he'd take a young woman back to his suite at The Fairmont. Maybe he'd do it in their house and make her feel like she was crazy for being angry at him.
She hoped not.
Party-goers moved purposefully around her as the music came to a sudden halt. Was the party really over? She looked at the time on her watch - 1.30am. Christ, she was tired. She couldn't go home, though. What if Charlie really did have some gorgeous woman back at the house, having mind blowing sex on her favourite couch? What if they were doing it in their bed? Would he really do that?
Joan, you know he will, she thought, tears pricking at the back of her eyes and a lump rising in her throat.
"Joan," Zoey said, bringing her out of her unpleasant thoughts. Joan threw her a tired smile, before realising she was in the same spot she had polished off her martini in around an hour ago. Zoey didn't seem to notice, though, probably consumed by her own fatigue. No wonder, Zoey had worked hard on this launch.
"You heading home?"
Zoey nodded, "Yeah. I just wanted to let you know before I went."
"Okay. Thanks for everything today, Zoey. You worked hard."
The redhead looked up at her for the first time in hours, "You and Charlie..."
"Are going to be okay. Really. We have bad fights all the time," Joan smiled. Zoey looked back at her almost... disappointed? She'd said it herself; she thought Joan deserved better than Charlie. But she was only getting a snapshot of the couple's marriage. Charlie was horrible yesterday, she couldn't deny that. But Zoey never saw behind the scenes. She never had to witness Joan's mood swings and attacks when Charlie's focus hadn't been entirely on her or when he had to work late on her birthday or how he'd told her not to cry at her mother's funeral. She could have dealt with things better, she could have been better.
So, no, it was the other way around; Joan didn't deserve Charlie. And now she was going to make it right.
"Okay," Zoey relented, adjusting her bag on her shoulder. "I don't know how you do it, Joan. I'm exhausted."
"Well, I've got 15 years on you, kid," she smiled sincerely. "Go home, get some rest. God knows you've earned it."
"You want us in at 8?"
"Make it 9, you all deserve a break."
Zoey smiled once more, "So do you, Joan."
Joan watched her leave before shaking hands with influencers and tech gurus alike. She put on her best smile, that which she had spent hours perfecting and held herself together. She would be fine. She and Charlie would be fine. They were both upset, but they'd be fine once they'd given each other some space. This was transient and everything would be okay. There was no need to be upset. With time, her relationship, too, would be fine.
Joan didn't go home that night, too afraid to find her husband with another woman. She peeled her blazer from her body and rolled up the sleeves on her blouse, ready to clear every last unread email from her inbox.
Budgeting (ugh). Changes to HR policy (boring!). A conference invite to LA next week (tempting?). Catering invoice. The receipt from Charlie's sushi yesterday.
She looked down at her SPRQ-watch - 3.45am. She had went approximately 2 hours without thinking about Charlie. Damn him and his stupid California rolls.
Joan grimaced at herself - when did she become the sort of woman who fell apart after a fight with her husband?
When did she become so pathetic?
Charlie had slept with other women before - what made the mere thought of it feel quite so terrifying this time?
Her eyes struggled open after what only felt like 10 minutes and felt her eyes adjust painfully to the day light. Her blazer was placed delicately over her shoulders and her back was aching - had she really fallen asleep at her desk? Her eyes darted around the office to make sure no one was in, but met Zoey's gaze as she stood at the office door.
"Zoey, I thought I said 9?"
The young woman shifted, "Joan, it's nearly half past. I came in about an hour ago and you were asleep - did you go home at all last night?"
Joan didn't bother answering her, instead, reaching into her bag for her hairbrush. She sighed in realising she would flatten her curls, but decided it was better than nothing. Teasing out some knots, she threw it back into her bag and moved over to the coffee machine next. Placing a mug under the machine, she hit 'espresso' and listened to the beans grinding and the machine begin to pour.
"Would you like a coffee, Zoey?"
"No, thank you. Joan, why did you sleep in the office last night?"
She spun round aggressively, hoping Zoey might correct her over-familiarity. They'd only been friends for 2 days, she really ought to learn some boundaries. But upon meeting Zoey's sad, concerned complexion, she forced herself to soften. She doesn't mean any harm, she doesn't know what your marriage is really like.
Joan shrugged, removing her mug from under the machine and taking a sip which almost burned her lips.
"I was giving Charlie some space. The fact I cleared my inbox was just an added bonus."
Zoey took a seat, "Doesn't he have his suite at the Fairmont?"
"I wanted to give him the choice. Now, team meeting in 10 minutes?"
"Joan," she said sadly, "You slept in your office. You're wearing your party clothes. Are you sure you don't want to-"
"Zoey, just stop. I'll be fine. We don't have time for this today. I'm going to L.A on Monday for a couple of days, so really, a stupid fight with Charlie is the least of my concerns."
"You're going to L.A?"
"Since when?" Zoey pressed. Joan downed the rest of her espresso and forced herself to calm down.
"Last minute offer from UCLA to speak at their innovation conference, space at a booth to promote the SPRQ-watch. Why not? I decided I'd go - you're more than capable of handling things here."
But Zoey pressed on, "Joan, don't you want to stay here, work on things with Charlie? Maybe take some time to process?"
"Charlie and I will be fine. He's going to want to be alone and I want to do the conference. Charlie won't want to talk about it straight away, so why not go away, get some sales in for the watch and come back with a clear head. Now, if it's not too much trouble, could you please let everyone know there will be a team meeting in 10 minutes? I am going to change my blouse and while I'm doing that, could you warn anyone that dreams of mentioning my sleeping at the desk to start working on their resignations. I'm not in the mood today."