so tell me when you're gonna let me in
Thanks for Tiffany for the quick beta read. For phoebep, who paid some moolah for this baby a long time ago for the help_haiti charity auction. Sorry it took so long, babe, hope you like it! Title comes from the Keane song.
The papers are hand-delivered to his front door (a personal touch, could you call it customer service?) in the middle of breakfast. Or rather, his mother making him breakfast. Which he totally did not ask her to do, but apparently this is what mothers do during the low points of their children's lives. Or at least that's what she said.
"You've been served," is what the guy says, handing him a clipboard and a pen, raising his eyebrows impatiently and waiting for a signature, as if he hasn't just metaphorically punched Derek in the gut.
(He remembers watching that movie with Matthew Perry and the girl from Austin Powers, about a guy who does this for a living, and standing there at his door, seeing this strange man with 80s glasses and an armful of clipboards, he'd half expected him to snap a Polaroid and yell "gotcha!" and then run off to have zany, slightly middle-aged adventures.
And he'd watched it with Maya when it was on television once because she loves Matthew Perry, and all he really remembers is how she wouldn't let him put his arm around her while they watched, and isn't that ironic. Or something.)
"This is good," is his mother's take on the situation. "You knew this was coming." Then she stops stirring and looks at him worriedly. "You knew this was coming, right?"
"Yeah." Yeah, he knew it was coming, not like the screaming fights and multiple declarations of I should've never married you! at top volume didn't clue him in.
"Well, good." Abby is the practical sort of mother, the one who would look at a crying child, cross her arms, raise the eyebrow and say, are you finished yet? Yeah, that's what I thought. On his wedding day, she'd slipped a duffel bag with a change of clothes and a bus pass tucked in the pocket into the backseat of his car, whispering, I'll cover for you if you want into his ear as she fixed his tie. He's kind of incredibly grateful that she's the one who's with him at this moment.
"Trust me," she says briskly, moving around his kitchen in brisk, harsh movements, cleaning and wiping with little jerks of her wrists. "Take it from someone who's done it before, this is the turning point. You sign the papers, you let her have the house, thank God you didn't have kids and move the hell on." She waves her hand in the air, as if brushing away the subject. "And you need to get a new place. This one is enabling you."
He doesn't have to reply, she doesn't expect him to, so he just sets the package (bigger than he thought it'd be) on the bookcase carefully, a wolf in manila packaging.
His mother manhandles him to the table and force feeds him eggs and bacon, and then tsks her tongue sadly, puts him to bed and sets a bottle of vodka on the nightstand, kissing his forehead as she leaves.
"Life is hard, kid," she says, smiling wryly. "Get out while you can."
He passes out a few hours later, wishing he were fifteen again, when break ups didn't include lawyers.
He gets a week. Then the circus starts.
First is Edwin.
"Did you know that seventy-two percent of divorced women never get remarried?" Edwin offers, as if it's supposed to be comforting. "And fifty-nine percent kill themselves."
"It is not, you made that shit up."
Edwin shuts his mouth abruptly, looking a bit perplexed. "Well," he says shortly, "It's probably a little bit true. Maybe thirty to thirty-eight percent true?"
"Stop making up percents," he says, and slams the bedroom door in his face. (He hears a muffled "ow!" but he doesn't feel all that guilty.)
Lizzie and Nora show up at some ungodly hour of the morning, carting enough food to feed a very brave army. Lizzie spends most of the visit cleaning out his fridge, making loud disgusted noises while Nora makes sad eyes at him and tries to hold his hand.
"You're giving me cooties," he deadpans, which only makes her snuffle louder.
"It's okay to be angry," she says, and he resists the urge to say something nasty about her shoes. Or her hair, maybe.
His friends aren't much better. The few close friends he's made at work send him sympathy cards with bottles of liquor, and he appreciates the sentiment but having that many bottles of tequila in his cupboard is just asking for alcohol poisoning. Sam drops by and does his fucking laundry – um, okayyy – and Ralph gives him a bag of pot.
"Dude," he says. "Seriously."
"It's for medicinal purposes," Ralph insists. Derek sighs and says thank you, which is usually the best reaction when it comes to Ralph anyway, and okay, also because he's a little bit impressed that he used 'medicinal' correctly in a sentence.
His apartment turns into a never-ending stream of sympathizers and well-wishers, everyone wearing the exact same expression, half-sad, half-pitying. He almost wishes that one of Maya's friends would come by to yell at him, just so he could yell back, because he doesn't remember fake-smiling this many times in a week since, well, ever.
He doesn't hear from Casey, though, which is…weird. He wonders if she even knows, but there's no way she doesn't know, because he got a call from fucking Sheldon Schlepper, and if a guy he hasn't seen since he was sixteen knows, then Casey has to know.
(But, whatever. If she wants to ignore it, he can – not that she has any obligation not to ignore him, but he'd thought…well, it doesn't matter.)
There's an invading sense of listlessness that dogs at his heels, that he feels every time he rolls out of his twin bed, when he shaves over his single sink, when he walks past the living room and sees the foreboding manila stranger that stares at him balefully. He collapses into bed every evening as soon as he gets back from work, too ambivalent to find anything else to do with his free time other than stare at his ceiling, waiting for sleep, and he feels pathetic. Pathetic, and alone, and…just, tired.
Marti comes by finally, one Saturday morning. She's the only one he doesn't feel obligated to talk to, and the only one who doesn't feel obligated to visit, because he's a big boy and she's got finals, or at least that's what she said. She pulls up to his apartment building in her ratty old car and calls him from the parking lot, voice clanging loudly in his ear.
"Hey, loser," she sings. "Come down, we're going somewhere fun. Bring your papers."
"Where?" he asks, then keeps talking because he doesn't really expect an answer. "No bowling. Or Frisbee golf. Or coffee shops that you think are cool because you're too young to know better."
"Fuck you very much," is her answer, and then she hangs up.
She drives him to Starbucks ("Shut up, I just want a latte, omigod, okay, we'll do the drive thru, you fucking lamehead,") and then to an nickel arcade, where she plops him down with a plate of nachos and promises to buy him a game of pool if he signs the divorce papers.
"Enough is enough, dude," she informs him around a mouthful of fake cheese. "Cut the cord already."
He hasn't even opened the package yet, since they were so thoughtfully delivered to his doorstep. He doesn't want to now, so Marti does it for him, flipping through them and rustling the neatly-stapled pages, humming and hemming under her breath.
"Looks good," she proclaims, and sets the packet in front of him decisively, as if she had any understanding of what she'd been reading.
His eyes skitter and catch on the stark blank ink on the front page, the Maya Venturi, Plaintiff, and he has to take a minute to just breathe, because that's his wife's name, Maya's name, only now she's more of a plaintiff than a wife, and fuck it all, that sucks. That really fucking sucks, and this is kind of the first time he's even admitted it to himself.
"Hey." Marti scooches up next to him, all big teeth and big voice and big personality, and lets him put his head on her shoulder, and even rubs his back as he tries really hard not to think, or worse, cry.
"I tried," he says, because he feels like he has to. "I really, really tried."
"I know," Marti replies, in a voice that makes her sound like their mother. "C'mon. Changed my mind. Pool first, divorce later."
So they play pool, and she kicks his ass. Then Marti skips off to the Dance Dance Revolution game, and he misdirects his aggression by shooting aliens for an hour. Marti orders more nachos and they have a speed-eating contest like they used to do years ago, and she wins, again. He buys her a beer against his better judgment and they toast to fake cheese, and he signs the papers with a purple gel pen Marti procured with his alien-shooting tickets.
He'd walked in as a separated-but-still-married man, and now he's a divorcee. His hands shake as he opens the car door, and he wonders if he should go get a tattoo or something, to mark the occasion.
(He doesn't mention that to Marti. She'd make him do it.)
This is how it happened:
Maya Sandoval is the fourth name on the audition list. She's got an agent, but it's one of the shady ones that take too much commission and use the term 'casting couch' a lot. She walks in and he immediately thinks too skinny, because this is a commercial for a restaurant, not a gym.
He'd like to say that her audition blew him away, or caught his eye at least, but it really doesn't. Really, he's distracted and he has a headache, and he'd made up his mind already, set on a redhead who'd auditioned an hour ago who just fits the image he needs in all the best ways that are actually possible for a forty-second ad spot.
He thanks her and tells her he'll let her know, and that's it. She leaves, he takes an aspirin.
Two days later, he runs into her at the coffee shop down the street from the studio, and he doesn't recognize her. She recognizes him, though.
"I just want you to know that I'm really thankful for the opportunity to audition, and even though I didn't get it I'm still really grateful for the experience." Her hair is long, dark and curly, and there are bits of confetti in it for no apparent reason at all. He's intrigued by it, and thinks about asking but ultimately decides against it, wanting to keep that little bit of mystery to himself a while longer, savoring it in the back of his mind as he talks to her.
"And I don't want to come off as too forward or anything, because really I don't do this a lot, but would you like to have dinner with me sometime?" She blushes and it makes her look cute rather than awkward, a much more difficult feat than people realize. "I just – I thought you were really cute, in the audition. I'm not usually nervous, but the other day, I was. Because of you."
And that's how they meet.
(She'll tell him, about a year later, that it was a line. That she'd actually used it before, on another casting director that she'd dated for a couple weeks her first month in Toronto. He tells her that she's a woman after his own heart, but the sound of his own laughter makes his ears ache.)
That night, his cell phone rings at 2:36 in the morning. He answers it without thinking, halfway wrapped in a dream.
His breath catches in his throat. "Maya?"
"I – " He can hear her breathing, heavy, like she's been crying. He imagines her in the house they bought together, sitting on the floor in the kitchen like she was when he found her on last New Year's Eve, working her way through a bottle of gin, smearing lipstick over the rim of the glass.
A small little cough, a puff of air, and she hangs up.
Derek throws his phone across the room.
He doesn't go back to sleep. Instead, he gets in his car and drives. To London.
Nora and George had moved into a condo in Toronto after Marti graduated from high school, too much space, not enough people, they'd said. A younger family lives in their old house now, with two kids in preschool. He drives by and parks down the street, by the park he used to take Marti and Edwin to when they were younger, where he used to play basketball with Sam. He wonders if the Davises still live next door, or if they've moved on too.
(He and Casey came here once, a few weeks before his wedding. She'd been wearing a blue dress, with purple lace, she'd just come from a charity benefit at her school, clutching a glossy program to her thigh. She'd asked him if he was serious. He'd told her to go fuck herself.)
He sits on the hood of his car and smokes an entire pack of cigarettes, and makes a list in his head of all the things he misses about Maya. It starts like this:
1. Her laugh, 2. her smile, 3. her hair, 4. her legs, and that goes on for awhile until he runs out of body parts. 14 is her sense of humor, and 15 and 16 are her shoes, because she has so many they might as well take up two numbers. 17 is running lines with her in bed at night, 18 is her enchilada recipe. 19 through 26 are all things he misses about living with her, and it isn't until he gets to 39 that he realizes that most of them are things about being married in general, non-specific to Maya in particular.
He's been separated for a year, divorced for a week, and he realizes he can't remember her favorite food, and so he pukes up a week's worth of nicotine into the bushes.
(These conclusions are all drawn way too late.)
Casey gets a text in the middle of a faculty meeting from Marti. She shouldn't check it but John Epps has the podium and is rambling about the coffee pot in the faculty lounge, which is at best irrelevant, so she sneaks her phone out under the table, thinking of the student she'd busted in her Contemporary American Lit class that morning for doing the exact same thing.
Maya sent him the papers, is all it says, but it has all the force of a freight train.
She drops her phone, and goes to pick it up but feels too lightheaded to bend over, so she just sits there instead. Staci Lippman throws her a concerned look from across the flower arrangement, but Casey is concentrating too hard on staying upright to respond. As soon as the meeting ends, she dashes to her office, trying to look as dignified as possible while speed walking across campus.
Then she calls her boyfriend and dumps him, on impulse.
(It's a stupid thing to do, he's such a nice guy. His name is Theo and he adjuncts at the school in the summer and teaches music theory and ear training full time at a private school a few hours away, but he still drives down to see her every Thursday afternoon, and brings her flowers wrapped in green cellophane. He's a good kisser, and does his best not to offend or anger her when they talk, which she appreciates, and he sounds so regretful on the phone when she tells him and she thinks, what am I doing, but does it anyway, instead.)
She spends the next few hours trying to grade papers while simultaneously berating herself before she gives up and goes home, sneaking out the back way of the building so as not to run in to anybody. Then she catches up on the five episodes of her favorite soap opera on her DVR, eats an entire carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and falls asleep in her armchair. She wakes up the next morning with a crick in her neck and she winces every time she turns her head too far to the left.
The next day is Friday, the busiest day of the week, when she has three classes in a row and office hours and department meetings and only fifteen minutes for lunch. The campus shuts down for the most part around five, but she spends an hour chatting with Ian Reynolds, a senior English major who's working with her on his thesis project, talking about his grad school applications, and then goes out to dinner with Edie Stein, a sociology professor who spends the entire meal trying to convince her to sign on to some lecture series she's attempting to bring to campus.
On the drive home, she answers her cell phone without glancing at the caller ID. It's George.
"He's doing all right, all things considered," George says, forgoing small talk. He always cuts to the chase, her stepfather – not because he's a particularly concise person, but because he's just a little too awkward with conversation not to. "Abby was with him the other day. And I talked to him this morning. He sounded okay – we're gonna give him some time alone, then we'll check on him."
"Good," she says, a big ugly frog sitting in her throat. "That's – that's good. He shouldn't be by himself for too long, he'll just sulk and get drunk."
"Right, well, that's healthy to do," George replies. "For the first week anyway. After that it's just indulgent."
He offers her a Derek-watching shift but Casey declines in a sort of panic, stammering about finals coming up and a batch of freshman composition papers sitting on her desk, and George hums and agrees absentmindedly.
"Marti's been stressing out about some psychology final, too," George says. "Well, I'll tell him you said hi."
Casey sort of half laughs, half chokes, and almost rear-ends the car in front of her as she hangs up.
The thing is, she tries to call him, like, a hundred different times. Every morning as she stands in her kitchen, waiting for her coffeemaker, she stares at her phone and thinks of the various ways the conversation might go.
I'm so sorry, Derek. If there's anything I can do, Derek. I know that we haven't spoken in seven months, Derek, and haven't seen each other in person since that day before your wedding when I told you I thought you were making a mistake, and I've never seen you that angry before, Derek. I'm sorry your marriage is over, Derek, but I'm kind of happy that it is because she didn't treat you very well, and hey, here's some more salt for your big gaping wound. You're welcome, Derek.
No, she doesn't call him.
She talks to Marti regularly, though. Well, she calls Marti regularly, just like she calls Lizzie and Edwin regularly (though they're on a bi-monthly schedule while Marti is still weekly, partly because both Lizzie and Edwin had threatened to call her therapist if she didn't stop calling them so much, and partly because Marti is a lot more fun to talk to, anyway). It's always hit-or-miss on whether or not Marti will actually pick up.
"Everybody calls me all the time, jeez, it's like I'm the family shrink or something," Marti says to her one day. In the background, Casey can hear a kind of buzzing that sounds a little like a fire alarm, but Marti just makes an impatient sound when Casey asks and says, "whatever, my dorm is so lame," and Casey figures the odds of the building actually being on fire are less than the odds of Marti hanging up if Casey pushes the subject.
"So he signed the papers, and everything," Marti tells her. "I think he's gonna be okay. Everybody's acting like somebody fucking died or something, it's kind of ridiculous. He just needs some time to sort it all out in his head, Jesus."
"Don't say fucking," Casey says. "Or Jesus."
"Fuck Jesus," replies Marti on autopilot; this is usually where their conversations turn sour.
"Where did we go wrong with you," wonders Casey, out loud. "I think it was the guitar lessons, we should have discouraged those."
"God help your future children," says Marti sweetly, and hangs up. Casey isn't too bothered; she'll call back and apologize the next time she needs money.
The one friend Casey has that is privy to the more personal aspects of her life (what her therapist calls "her inner space" and Marti calls "her personality") takes her out to dinner. His name is Brad, he goes by Julianne on Saturday nights, and he tends bar at The Blazin' Saddle.
"I think you should just fuck him and get it over with," he announces, loudly and in public.
"Brad!" Casey hisses. "There's so much wrong with that statement, I don't even know where to begin."
"What?" Brad is the kind of guy who Casey would totally date if it weren't for the fact that kissing girls makes him want to puke – arty and sophisticated and thin and a bit of an asshole. "You're obviously still in love with him, so it's logical, see?"
Casey flushes to the roots of her hair and drops her head into her hands, because, damn. "I am not in love with him."
"And I'm a Republican," Brad shoots back. Raising his martini glass and waving it at the waiter, he rolls his eyes dramatically. "Accept your destiny, baby. Denial is for Christians."
"Christians are very pleasant people, generally," Casey protests, voice muffled through her fingers.
"Sure they are," he replies easily. "Wasn't the esteemed former Mrs. Venturi a Christian? Just saying."
"Don't be catty," Casey says halfheartedly.
"Please. She was a stick-thin fame hound who dumped your soul mate because he wasn't rich enough." Brad makes a face of utter disdain. "Just on principle, that warrants a little cattiness. Jesus."
"He is not my soul mate," says Casey, and then bursts into tears.
"Oh, honey." Brad waves the waiter away, approaching with a fresh drink, and scoots around in the booth to hug her to his side. "Yes he is."
Casey wipes at her face pathetically, smearing mascara across her cheekbone in an angry line. Brad hums and wipes it off with his sleeve. "I've been trying so hard," she says pitifully.
"I noticed," Brad says. "And you were doing very well. That guy Ted – "
"Theo," Casey corrects.
"Whatever, he was a nice touch. I had my doubts there for a second."
"Do you think everyone knows?" Casey asks, voice small.
"Of course not, baby."
"Do you think Derek knows?"
"Oh no, that I know for sure," Brad says. "Definitely not."
"Well that's something, I guess," she mutters, wiping under her eyes with the tips of her fingers.
"Look," Brad says, not unsympathetically, "you need to talk to him."
Casey looks up at him, eyes wide. "I can't."
"Yes you can, it's easy. Pick up the phone, knock on his door, send him an email. Anything."
"No, I can't," Casey says miserably. "I've tried. I only ever get as far as the fifth number before I start to have an anxiety attack."
"Then how about email?" Brad suggests. "Easy, no pressure. I'll even help you write it."
"I don't know," Casey says, unsure.
"Well, you need to do something," Brad pushes. "Cuz regardless of your personal drama, he's still your stepbrother who just got divorced, and if you let it go any longer you'll always be the asshole who never called when he was going through a hard time."
"I don't think he really wants to hear from me, of all people," Casey says.
"Doesn't matter, it's the gesture that counts." Brad waves his hand and pulls out his Blackberry. "Look, I'll even start it for you. 'Derek – how are you? How's the documentary coming?'" Brad looks up and arches an eyebrow gracefully. "Easy peasy, see?"
Casey sighs in defeat. "Fine."
"I knew you'd see it my way. Hey, where the fuck is that waiter with my drink? Christ."
They spend a healthy amount of time huddled over Brad's Blackberry, painfully composing an email to send to Derek. The result is something halfway between casual and concerned, or at least that's what Brad says, and Casey hopes he's right.
Then Brad orders a round of shots, and invites the cute group of football fans at the next table to join them, and Casey ends up playing truth or dare until three in the morning and making out with the blonde one in the bathroom hallway, regardless of the fact that he's young enough to be her kid, if she'd had him when she was pretty young, like a teenage (well, preteen) mother, and when she points this out to Brad later he laughs hysterically and hands her a mojito, so…whatever.
She wakes up the next morning on Brad's couch and has a mini-attack of humiliation as she remembers singing Carly Simon at the top of her lungs in the parking lot, as well as some other unspeakable acts that she'd rather not say out loud. She does the deep breathing technique that Lizzie taught her, and logs onto Brad's laptop to check her email, and freaks out again.
Derek replied to her email, not even an hour after she'd sent it, and said:
Wanna have dinner?
She debates waking up Brad so she can have someone to freak out with, but he's probably hungover and thus, bitchy, and plus all he'd say is well you want to have dinner with him natch, so have dinner with him. Duh. Jesus Christ, I'm going back to bed, order some food and wake me up when it gets here, and so Casey doesn't really think it's worth it, plus yes, she does want to have dinner with him, so the logical next step is…well, logical.
She sends back a hopefully coherent reply, hands shaking, and then shuts the computer sharply and goes into the kitchen and steals one of Brad's nasty energy sodas, drinking it slowly and trying to regain some semblance of calm. She tells herself, I will not check my email until I get home, very firmly, and makes it about ten more minutes before dashing back to the laptop and pulling the window open again.
Derek's reply is short, to the point, Meet me at Mimi's tomorrow at five, and leave the lists at home, and Casey wants to laugh and cry all at once. She hasn't made a list of conversation topics for a date since…the last time she was on a date with Derek, and she isn't sure how she feels about that. Or if she wants him to know that.
Or, who is she kidding, whether or not the hope welling in her chest is the stupidest idea she's had in a long time. (Odds: a hundred to one. Maybe a thousand.)
This is how it happened:
Casey realized she was in love with Derek on the first day of classes of their junior year of college, when she came back to her apartment to find Derek sitting in the hallway outside her front door, a camera in one hand and a nasty bruise purpling around one eye.
She was surprisingly calm, and gave him a steak out of her freezer for the bruise and listened to him rant about asshole bike messengers who never looked where they were going and it wasn't his fault he wasn't paying attention, he was filming, making art, he deserved respect and attention and space, and he should really sue somebody because ow, it really hurt, and Casey nodded her head and hummed in sympathy, and when he was all done talking and gesturing wildly, she kissed him.
They didn't leave the apartment for two days, and Casey missed an insane amount of classes but she didn't care, didn't even care when Derek teased her about it, because she felt like she was flying, like his hands and his skin and his mouth and his voice, mumbling in her ear, were unlocking her locked-away pieces, one by one, until the strings were cut, the ties were untied, and there was nothing left holding her down or back, and she could do, be anything, as long as he was with her, beside her, inside her.
She didn't say any of it, though, she was scared of scaring him away, scared of many stupid things, and so she kept quiet. She let him call the shots, which he was very good at doing, and he kept things casual, he'd text her funny little jokes and quirky observations about wherever he was throughout the day, and he'd take her out to dinner sometimes and they'd hold hands as they walked across campus, and made out in interesting places, and the whole time Casey wondered, what he was feeling, what he was thinking, but she was too afraid to ask.
They didn't tell their family, didn't tell anyone but a few people they knew at school, and nobody who would possibly tell anyone from home. They shared an apartment their senior year and pretended to have separate bedrooms when George and Nora visited, and Derek dodged questions about his odd lack of a love life while Casey blushed and stirred the potatoes feverishly.
He told her he loved her on her birthday, but they were having sex, so she didn't say it back because hey, busy, but also she wasn't sure – men say things in the heat of the moment, don't they, and this, he, was too important to her to risk scaring him off because she got overexcited, so she waited, and told herself she'd take whatever he was willing to give her, even if it wasn't enough, not really.
And she could see him getting restless, noticed when he got frustrated with her and held himself back from yelling, why, she didn't know, and as graduation came closer and closer he drifted farther and farther away, and Casey didn't know what to do, so she did nothing, already knowing she'd regret it but not having any idea of how to fix anything at all, and too scared to try.
And so she told him she was going to Vancouver for grad school, and he said, well thanks for letting me know, and punched the wall, and they fought, and broke up, and he moved out the next day and Casey went out with Brad and got drunk for the first time in her life. And she tried to call him the next day but he didn't answer, and so she said to herself, what did you expect, that you could keep him forever? And squared her shoulders and moved away, and tried not to notice how every man she met reminded her of him in some way, every time she watched a movie she'd imagine what he'd say about it, every year on her birthday she remembered what it was like to feel like he loved her, even for a second.
And then a couple degrees and a move back to Toronto later, she got his wedding invitation in the mail, and she smashed every dish in her kitchen and called Brad in hysterics, and he'd had to leave work in the middle of his shift to come over and hold her and keep her from doing something stupid, like calling Derek or breaking her TV or jumping off her balcony or something, because she'd always thought, maybe, in the back of her head, maybe one day they could, he would, maybe, but instead he got married to a skinny actress with beautiful hair, and Casey was all alone, with only her gay best friend and a bunch of broken plates to keep her warm at night.
Life is hard, she's been telling herself, all these years, when she'd get screwed over by men she never really liked all that much in the first place again and again, and have these weird conversations with Derek, stilted by everything they weren't saying, and make excuses with her family for why she and Derek never seemed to show up for the same family events anymore, and watch everyone around her get married and settle down and have children while she just kept on waiting for something that she knows will never happen. It happens this way sometimes, you don't always get what you want and sometimes, even when you do, it turns out to be not what you thought it'd be and you get screwed anyway, and all you can do is keep breathing and hoping things will get better, because the only other option is to just lay down and die, and she's not the sort of person who'd be okay with that.
Mostly the hard part is the why, why he didn't chase after her, why he didn't try harder, why he didn't care enough. She's a hard person to live with, she realizes this about herself. That she's a hard person to love – that takes some more getting used to.
Derek doesn't know what the fuck he's doing, and that's the truth. In fact, he's sort of known for it, that at least hasn't changed in the years of grown up things like jobs and bills and a failed marriage.
How he finds himself in nice clothes in a nice restaurant waiting for his nice stepsister, he doesn't know. He just doesn't. He tries to figure it out, playing with the fork, sipping (okay, gulping) wine, and all he comes up with is I'm a fucking moron, which he already knew, so, unhelpful.
He hasn't seen her in…how long, it's pathetic that he knows. The last time he talked to her was on the phone, on her birthday, he'd called and she was at a bar, kind of tipsy and yelling incoherently about alcoholism and Ernest Hemingway or something, and Derek doesn't think she remembered talking to him the next morning. The last time he saw her was at the family reunion – they hadn't talked, but he'd seen her from across the lawn, eating a piece of watermelon with her fingers, and it hurt too much to look away so he just stood there and stared until Marti came up and nudged him, dragging him away before he embarrassed himself. Then another time, when he was near the university with a friend from work, scouting locations, and he couldn't resist driving past, spotting her car in one of the parking lots, beat up and old and so badly in need of replacing, but she still had that bumper sticker he'd bought her, the one that says I'm Smarter Than Your Honor Student (Bitch), and he couldn't believe that she hadn't torn that thing off yet (she'd certainly threatened to enough times).
But those don't count, those half-ass conversations and almost-encounters – the last time they'd actually talked, face to face, like real people, was that fight they'd had, and doesn't that suck.
(He misses her. When things got bad with Maya, the worst they ever were, he'd imagine talking to her, have pretend conversations with her in his head just to fill up the cold silence. It makes him shiver; there's something really sad, really pathetic, really selfish about that, but he can't quite bring himself to examine it too closely.)
He spots her from across the restaurant, standing by the hostess's station, looking around for him, and he has to take a deep breath to steady himself. It's not like he's forgotten what she looks like, or that she looks all that different, any more beautiful or stunning than she had before, but it's just – the visceral reaction from actually seeing her. Like the difference between seeing a picture of a celebrity in a magazine and seeing them in person; his memories of her are vivid, but they still don't even come close to comparing.
He can tell she's nervous from the way she clutches her purse, how she keeps her face cautiously blank, the quick impersonal hug she gives him, barely touching him, just a fast flash of body heat and perfume before she's pulling away, sinking into her chair. It's comforting, he guesses. That she's still affected, somehow.
"Hi," he says, for lack of any better ideas, and she blushes bright red and drops her purse.
"Finals," she blurts.
Derek blinks. "What?"
"That's why I didn't call. I mean, not that it's an excuse or anything, I just thought you should be aware…" she trails off and her hands flutter around nervously, eyes focused somewhere over Derek's left shoulder. "I have a very busy schedule, you know! I teach four classes this semester, plus advising, which is a very large load, maybe you don't realize – plus I volunteer regularly at the women's shelter and I'm teaching ESL at the community center every other weekend – "
"Whoa," he says, spreading his hands out, "slow down, Superwoman, I don't know what you're talking about but I'm sure it's ridiculous."
To her credit, Casey doesn't react to the half-hearted jab. Taking a deep breath, she nods woodenly. "I was very sorry to hear about your divorce," she says stiffly.
"Uh, thanks," he replies unsurely. "Are you okay?"
She starts slightly. "Yes, why?"
"You look like your spine is about to snap in half," he observes. "Also, you're strangling that napkin."
Casey drops her linen victim abruptly. "I'm fine," she says unconvincingly, and Derek watches, torn between amusement and a weird fatalistic resignation, as she visibly tries to relax her posture. The end result only makes it seem like she has some sort of debilitating muscle cramp.
"Okay," he says, "if you're going to be weird we should just go to Wendy's or something. This is a classy place."
Casey straightens back up at the impugn to her honor. "I'm fine," she repeats, haughtily this time, and Derek feels the old dynamic slowly returning. "I'm surprised they even let you in, anyway. I thought you were allergic to tablecloths?"
Derek smirks and makes the wine order in French, just to see the look on her face.
It's the old back and forth that he's missed, just as much as anything else, the push-pull tug of war that should've been more dysfunctional that it really was, in truth. As much has changed about them, between them, everything that hangs in the air unsaid and unspoken, the rhythm is the same as it's ever been. She orders the most expensive thing on the menu, arching an eyebrow in his direction, like, you're paying, right, and he orders an appetizer he knows she hates in retaliation. She insults the wine, he insults her taste in wine, they bicker about whether or not his steak is rare or medium-rare, she asks if he still dresses in the dark, he asks if she still takes fashion tips from Teen Cosmo.
She's picking at the remnants of her entrée, his still mostly untouched, when he blurts it out, not even sure why it's there, surprised at its existence. "I read your book."
The stiffness returns to her spine abruptly and he watches as the play of thoughts scroll through on her face, from he reads books? to what does he mean by that? Truthfully, he doesn't know the answer to that one anymore than she does.
"What did you think?" she asks, all bravado and false confidence. It makes his chest ache.
"I liked it," he says lamely. "It was a bit sappy."
She laughs, loudly and suddenly. "Um." She shakes her head. "I know."
"What, no lecture on the merits of romance as a literary genre?"
"I'm a professor now," she reminds him, "I'm supposed to hate romance on principle." She blushes. "Well, at least the kind of romance you're thinking of."
He pictures the kind of place she must live in now, classy kind of furniture, neat and organized, pale pastel colors, row of Harlequins hidden away shamefully on the bottom shelf, behind the Spenser and the Chaucer. "Really, Casey," he says, "toeing the line of academia?" He shakes his head, disapproving.
"You call it toeing the line," she replies primly, "I call it keeping my job." A rare ironic smile, a tinge of bitterness that he finds disconcerting, and, "no university wants an English professor who writes bodice-rippers."
He swishes the last of the wine in his glass, watches the refracted light from the lamps, casting small triangles on the edges of his plate. "Bodice-ripper isn't quite the phrase I'd use."
He can see a dozen different people in her face, all the past versions of himself reflected back at him, a twisted mirror. He has to look away, it's too much and not enough, all at once. "Romance works well enough, doesn't it?"
She doesn't look at him when she replies. "If you say so."
Her book: Traveling Naked, which had been enough to make him buy it, if not read it, despite his instincts.
He and Maya had been in New York, she'd had a casting call for some indie movie, a part she'd been drooling over for months. She was tense and nervous, snapping at him at the slightest provocation, chain-smoking and pouring over the lines for her audition constantly. He went out to give her space, wandered around the East Village with his camera, snapping photos aimlessly of things he found interesting.
A bookstore, one of those off-brand chain places, her name catching his eye in the window. The cover – a stylized sketch of a woman's profile, bright colors, catchy and provocative and somehow still understated, he could just see her painstakingly choosing it, meticulously nitpicking the details. He used his last bit of cash to buy it, stuffing it into his jacket pocket, feeling it burn like a scarlet letter, the bulky shape pressing uncomfortably into his ribcage.
He went back to the room, fought with Maya again. Went to sleep angry and frustrated, forgot about it.
When they got back to Toronto, he found it abandoned in the jacket, glanced at the back cover, and somehow forgot about everything he was supposed to do that day, read it beginning to finish, devouring it like he usually read scripts, unable to tear himself away. Not like it was anything groundbreaking or masterful – "chick lit," as it was defined by the reviews on the inside cover, a simple love story about a plucky journalist and her wacky next-door neighbor. He felt a little embarrassed for her; it was formulaic, obvious even to him. If it'd been written by anyone else, if he'd caught Maya reading it, seen it in a bookstore, he would've mocked it endlessly.
It was the details, though, how the girl was a little too idealistic, the boy a little too jaded. The description of the apartment building, with the creaky old doorman who played Bowie albums at top volume on his lunch break, the gay bar they went to on their first date with the tables made out of old doors, the car the boy drove, with its stupid name and broken transmission and cracking leather seats. The way he called her "baby" and how she hated it but let him do it anyway, how she made him a picnic lunch and snuck it in his front seat before he took off for work, the scene when they went to the park, and he took pictures of her until he ran out of film, and how all of them had turned out blurry because he hadn't figured out how to use the damn camera yet. So specific, and also, not.
It made him feel angry, embarrassed, stupid, foolish, touched, regretful, and a whole host of other things that he shouldn't be feeling since he was fucking married, happily or not, and so he shoved it away somewhere where he wouldn't have to look at it, think about how she'd written a fucking romance novel about their relationship, with a ridiculously cliché ending that was as confusing as it was annoying. (Was she mocking him? Was that why nobody had told him she'd written a book? Was it a sign? Did she want him to call? Did she…oh, fuck that.)
A few months later, he found it laying out on the counter, pages a little more creased and wrinkled than he remembered, and asked Maya about it. She said, yeah, I found it the other day and read it. Why didn't you tell me your sister wrote a book? Stepsister, jeez, whatever, fine. Oh. Well, I guess I liked it. It wasn't anything special.
Wasn't anything special, right. He totally agreed with her, which is the saddest fucking part. That Maya was right about something, even if she hadn't realized what exactly she was right about, that he was apparently unoriginal enough to even have this problem in the first place. Whatever, right. Just another romance novel on the bookshelf, at the end of the day.
(One thing he's learned as a filmmaker is the difference between real and fake romances: the real ones have shitty, boring endings. They don't make movies about the real ones. Or books.)
After their odd, tense, kind of nice dinner, maybe, he finds himself driving to her university without thinking about it, like his car is just naturally drawn in that direction, independent of his control. He wanders around the campus until he finds a helpful-looking person, who points him in the direction of the building where her office is, and he ends up sitting on a small bench outside her door across from a nervous looking freshman with a bulging backpack (Jesus God, what is his life) until she returns, pencil stuck in her hair, armful of books, keys dangling from her mouth that drop to the floor with a clatter as she gapes at him in shock.
He takes her out to lunch and they eat paninis at this café she likes, and she babbles about her classes and her favorite students, and he tells her about where he is with the documentary and the long, arduous process of editing, and when she leaves she kisses his cheek, blushes bright red and practically scampers out the front door. He blinks after her, heart somewhere in the vicinity of his throat.
She calls him a couple days later, tells him that she's found a book that they'd been talking about at lunch, and she'll be at Brad's bar later that night if he wants to stop by and pick it up. He goes and they drink margaritas while she flips through the book with him, basically explaining the entire plot so he doesn't really have to even read it, while Brad shoots them looks the entire time, alternating between suspicious and gleeful (Derek had always liked that guy. He'd been bummed that Casey had gotten him in the breakup).
They go to a Capra festival that weekend too, watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Arsenic and Old Lace, and he tries to convince her that the man's entire career was devoted to making anti-Communist 40's-American propaganda while she defends It's a Wonderful Life with vehement passion. Then they go out to dinner again, a place without tablecloths this time, and she orders a salad that she abandons in favor of his huge plate of pasta, and they fight over the last breadstick and she snorts iced tea because she's laughing so hard at his spot-on Edwin impression.
They go to the opening night of Marti's play together, too, because it's practical to carpool (or…something) and sit in the back so they can avoid Lizzie and her new douche bag boyfriend (he's in Greenpeace yet somehow justifies driving an Escalade, neither of them approve) and take Marti out for ice cream afterwards, who spends the entire time looking like she can't decide whether to knock their heads together or initiate a group hug. Casey steals Marti's old-lady wig from the play and wears it unironically, impressing the hell out of Derek because apparently she can deadpan now (it's fucking hot, he's not gonna lie about that), and Marti steals his wallet at some point and orders an extra milkshake to take back for her roommate, and Casey spends the entire car ride back lecturing her on the evils of pick pocketing, only to discover after they drop her off that Marti'd stolen her wallet too (Casey is convinced that Marti's going to use the ID to get into bars, but Derek happens to know that Marti has no less than three foolproof fake IDs already, and solemnly advises her to cancel her credit cards cuz there's no way she's seeing those again).
He invites her to come watch the final cut of the documentary before he sends it off to his producer for final approval, and she cries as she watches. He thinks that's ridiculous since it's a film about these ridiculous genius little kids who go to school at this ridiculous genius private school, hardly tear-jerking stuff, but whatever, he guesses it's flattering. She gives him this long speech on inspiring young minds and the passion in the pursuit of knowledge and the younger generation and blah blah blah, he stops listening and starts shooting rubber bands at her, aiming for the neckline of her top, but she scowls at him and calls him a Neanderthal, and they bicker all the way out into the parking lot.
And it goes like this, random get togethers, dinners and lunches and one memorable fancy breakfast event at her school where she gets some sort of award that he pretends not to be impressed by but really he totally is, and it's around week four or five of this, when he's sitting in his apartment, bored and trying to think of something to do, and of the ten or so possibilities on his mental list, nine of them include Casey, and he kind of thinks, oh shit.
He'd promised himself he wasn't going to freak out, at some point, but he can't really, uh, stop himself, and of all the people he could possibly call about this, the only one he actually thinks would help is Marti.
"You're such a fucking idiot," is what she says, and that's sort of why he called, so he can't really complain. Much.
"Why do you curse so much?" he asks. "I don't even curse as much as you do."
"Cuz you're a fucking idiot," she repeats. "I don't even know why we're talking right now. I have better things to do than counsel you through your non-crisis. Like finally getting that hot barista guy's number, which I totally could be doing right now, if you weren't such a fucking idiot."
"Please do not be telling me about your escapades with hot barista guys," he says sourly. "And this is so not a non-crisis. It's a very legitimate crisis, and if you call me a fucking idiot again I'm gonna tell Dad that you're the one who keeps stealing all his beer."
"Traitor," Marti says, aghast. "Fine. Let's talk about your totally legitimate crisis situation, where the girl you've been in love with forever is giving you a second chance and forgave you for fucking things up and marrying a bitchy actress on the rebound." She snorts. "Oh yeah, your life is hard."
"Maya is not bitchy," he says on reflex. "She's just…high-maintenance."
"Bitchy," Marti says, sounding bored. "My time is money, dude, let's not waste time on established facts, please."
"She's not," Derek insists, moving forward before Marti can protest. "No, shut up. I'm not having this conversation with you again. You cannot say something like that about her when you refused to even be in the same room with her for more than five minutes, so do not start."
"Oh, I didn't know her, whatever," Marti says, twisting the words mockingly. "I don't understand your complicated relationship, fine. What does this have to do with your little-girl freak out?"
"Nothing." Derek blinks, realizing abruptly that it's absolutely true. "Maya is not the issue here. You're the one who brought her up." He takes a breath, considering. "My freak out, which is totally manly and not at all like something a little girl would do, by the way, is about my stupid, reckless, moronic life decisions, which currently include accidentally dating my stepsister. Again." He nods to himself. "Yeah."
"There's nothing accidental about this, man," Marti says. "Let's review. Shall we?"
Derek groans. "No. No reviewing – "
"A) You're stupid for Casey, B) you date Casey, C) you fuck things up with Casey, D) you mope over Casey, E) you meet a girl that kind of looks and acts like Casey and marry her for no fucking reason out of nowhere, F) you're somehow surprised when this doesn't work out – "
"Maya is nothing like Casey," Derek says insistently, "which you would know if you'd given her a chance – "
"Cry me a fucking river," Marti snaps. "What letter was I on? G?"
"Ugh," says Derek passionately.
"Whatever. G) Somehow you get in good with Casey again, even though you totally broke her heart last time – don't argue with me!" Marti says sternly. "And you're complaining?"
"It must be nice to live in your world," Derek says. "It's so simple and straightforward and not at all like real life in any way."
"Come over then," Marti replies. "It's nice. We have lots of alcohol and a strict no-bullshit policy."
"Oh for Christ's sake," Derek mutters. "Smarti. Please. Tell me what I'm doing."
"What you want to do," Marti replies easily. "For the first time in a long time. Stop freaking out and just follow, you know, the flow." She pauses significantly. "Okay, you totally thought I was gonna say 'follow your heart,' didn't you? You're such a girl."
"You're the girl," Derek says, and hangs up on her before she has a chance to.
He knows where she lives, he picks her up sometimes when they go out. He hasn't been inside yet – she'd invited him in for coffee once, after they'd gone out to dinner somewhere, and he'd turned her down since he'd had an early morning meeting the next day like the responsible, boring adult he was, feeling the burn of her palpable disappointment churning in his gut.
But it's a nice place, at least he knows her apartment number. He calls ahead, asks her to buzz him in, and takes the stairs two at a time, heart pounding. He should have a plan, or something, he doesn't, par for the course, but whatever, whatever.
She's in pajamas, these loose sweatpants that hang on her hips lazily, a faded Wicked t-shirt that bares her abdomen, hair pulled back at the base of her neck. She opens the door, smiling quizzically at him, welcoming and familiar and beautiful, and he really, really wants to kiss her.
"I didn't marry Maya on the rebound," he blurts instead, and groans internally. Not the smartest alternate option.
She blinks, smile dropping from her face abruptly. "What?"
"I didn't – she wasn't a rebound, from you," he continues, because he's sort of stuck, now. "I loved her, okay, I did. There were so many things that I loved about her, you know – she was smart and sophisticated and nice and funny, and a really good actress, like phenomenal. And she was a great cook, and she was really passionate about politics, you know, like she – she really understood it, and she got really worked up about it. She would explain it to me in this really cool way, too, and she had great taste in movies…" he trails off. "I'm sorry."
Casey crosses her arms across her chest stiffly, obviously struggling for composure. "Okay?" she says sharply. "I'm…happy for you?"
"I'm just – " he breaks off on a sigh, running a hand through his hair. "I wanted to – explain it to you, and I'm…fucking it up. Uh. Can I come in?"
Casey studies him through narrowed eyes. "I don't think so," she says unsteadily. "Here's fine for now."
"Fair enough." He takes a deep breath, trying to find the best way to put it into words. "I know that you…that everyone thought I rushed into things with her, and that's kind of true, I guess. But we couldn't stop it, okay, we just – it was like a total cliché, you know, when you meet someone and everything clicks and you just can't stand to slow down because if you do then you might lose your grip on it." He watches as she looks away, that careful blankness returning, and winces. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry. I need to explain this to you."
Casey stares into space for another moment, then gives a barely perceptible nod.
"And I don't even know what everyone thinks about why we separated. Marti has this idea that she left me because I wasn't making enough money, and that's just bullshit." Derek shakes his head.
A flash of guilt flashes across Casey's face at that. "That's – what she told us," she says. "That's…I guess that's what I thought happened."
Derek sighs. "Maya wasn't like that. Really. Dad and Nora and everybody – they didn't like her. And Maya didn't make it easy, she just – she was a hard person to get along with, sometimes. But she really was a good person," he insists, feeling this driving need to make her understand. "I hope – I mean, I dunno. I need you to understand that."
Casey nods jerkily. "You wouldn't have – " she stops, clears her throat. "I don't know that you could've loved someone who wasn't a – good person."
Derek breathes a little easier. "Yes. And I did love her, okay. But we just – we realized that what we had wasn't worth how much we had to fight for it, after a while. Neither of us were happy most of the time, and when we were happy it still didn't – feel right. And that's all. We just – cut our losses."
He can hear her breathing, heavy and quick, chest rising and falling rapidly beneath her tightly clenched arms. "Okay," she says. "Okay. I think I understand."
"It wasn't about you," he says, almost defensively. "It really wasn't."
Her eyes narrow, shooting up to his face angrily. "Well, thanks for that," she says snappishly. "I didn't think it was, but apparently you think I am that self-centered – "
"No," he cuts in, "something – Marti said." Her expression tightens at that, but he pushes through. "I just – I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing here."
She huffs impatiently. "Well, don't look at me," she says sharply. "You show up out of nowhere and start telling me all about your ex-wife – which, I'm glad you're sharing your feelings and everything, but honestly Derek – "
"No, I mean, I don't know what I'm doing, here," he says, gesturing between them vaguely. "With you and me. Not here in this hallway, specifically. Although, that too, a little."
"Oh." Some of the tension drains from her frame, expression changing from angry to unsure. "Well, I – I guess we're hanging out. Reconnecting." She shrugs. "It's all – casual, you know. It doesn't – doesn't have to be – "
"Casual?" he repeats incredulously. "You really think anything could be casual between us? Really?"
She flushes indignantly. "What do you want me to say?"
"Anything!" he explodes, watching as she takes a step backwards in surprise. "God, Casey, I want you to open your mouth and speak, Jesus, I can't read your fucking mind – "
"Do not yell at me," she says, going for stern but trembling at the edges. "I have neighbors, you know – "
"Oh, fuck that," he says sharply. "What is wrong with you? You talk more than anyone else I've ever met in my life, but you can't seem to look me in the eye and give me your opinion on anything, you just – you just sit there, and look at me, and I can't tell what you want from me or what you want me to do or anything, and I can't do that again. I can't – you just – "
"Are you insane?" she hisses. "You have the nerve to stand there and yell at me like it's all my fault? Like I didn't try to give you everything you needed, whenever you needed it? Like I'm the only one with a mouth?"
"You moved away!" he accuses. "You just – like informed me, like it was just – just nothing, like oh, I'm going to Vancouver, thanks for the sex, see you next Christmas – just fucking casual, right?"
"That's not how it was!"
"Then how was it?" he demands. "Oh right, you're not going to tell me. Why would you?"
"You – you – " Casey sputters, eyes bright with frustrated tears. "You have no idea. None."
"Then tell me," he says, hot energy thrumming through his skin, jumping through his veins. "I can't – I don't know what you want from me, Casey. I never did."
Casey makes a choked-off noise, bringing one fist to her mouth.
"God. Just." Derek turns away, hands shaking as he brings them to rub at his eyes. "I have to go."
"Yeah," Casey spits, "go. Just leave, okay. Go marry someone else. Again."
"Do not," Derek starts, cutting himself off. "I can't – I can't do this."
Casey scoffs bitterly, and Derek turns his back on the sound, unable to keep looking at her. "Fine," he hears her say, voice clogged with tears. "Fine!"
The door slams, but he keeps walking. He can't stop, he just – he can't.
Okay, so, his side of the story:
He's a self-aware person, he knew he was in love with her for for-fucking-ever, and wasn't that just goddamn inconvenient.
The issue was that while he spent an inordinate amount of time thinking of her skin, her hair, her mouth, and God, worse, her laugh and her sense of duty and her heart, he still actually, you know, didn't really like her all that much. For the first couple years, anyway. Okay, fuck you, months.
But there were all these problems, see, like how she thought he was a scumbag (which he was) and how she dated assholes (his term) and also that they shared a bathroom, if not genes (thank God for small favors). And these problems were not singular problems, they were plural problems, or constant problems maybe, as in they kept happening, were ever present, every day, and if he hadn't already caught the memo on what a fucking pathetic tool he was, he sure did every time she reminded him (insults tossed over her shoulder, those were the ones he heard the clearest, and family dinners, "be nicer to your sister," God, it stung, every time, every goddamn time).
And so these problems, ever present as they were, became a part of who he was, and as most people do, Derek adapted. Became used to them. Even started to like them. Sometimes. At least they were constant, right? He couldn't count on his mom, couldn't count on his friends, but he could count on the fact that Friday night there'd be a guy in a jean jacket at the front door, over-moussed and staring over Derek's shoulder, searching the hallway for a flash of pink.
He'd just gotten used to it, somehow, had stared down the barrel of a long fucking life with these problems and just managed to say, aight I can work with this, when everything shifted, and it just figured, didn't it.
And whatever, okay, sue him for not turning down sex with the love of his fucking life or whatever you wanna call her, even if it was kind of a mistake. Okay, big mistake. In retrospect, biggest he's ever made, honestly, and counting in Maya, that's a statement, right there.
But it was like…easy, the way they just fell into it, without talking about anything. Kind of how he'd pictured it when he was younger, before he really understood sex or what it meant or what it could do to people. He'd sit in his room and think, one day, we'll be living somewhere away from the family, and it'll just happen, and it'll be hot and simple and awesome, and not that he'd ever believed it, really, because "Casey" and "simple" are "oxymorons," but somehow, it did happen like that, because of all his teenage fantasies to fulfill, of course it'd be that one, the absolute best and worst choice.
But the thing about not talking is that you get not communicating, and from that not understanding, which Derek didn't. He didn't understand anything she did, back then, when it was happening – nothing. Why she would play house with him, make him dinner and do his laundry like they were Mr. and Mrs. Brady, why she didn't insist on telling the family, why she would jerk away from him when he'd lean in too close in the middle of the cafeteria. Why she would look at him with wounded eyes all the time, why she would cry in the middle of the night when she thought he was asleep. Why she wouldn't let him hold her when he got tired of pretending.
The truth is that he's never been in charge, not really. It's all a game, and she's always held the cards, always had the last word, always had the final say. And fuck, was that supposed to change? Was he supposed to suddenly get to make all the decisions the minute he saw her naked? Was he supposed to just know what she wanted from him?
And he tried, okay, he's not an idiot and he fucking tried, because he loved her, and she deserved better than a guy like him, he always knew that. So he gave her his jacket when she got cold, he opened the car door for her, he took her out to dinner, he stopped pretending he wasn't listening when she talked. He let her win at poker, he gave her neck massages when she spent hours bent over her laptop during finals week, he held her hand and bought her tampons and brushed her hair sometimes, and whatever else she wanted him to do, or what he thought she wanted him to do.
But there was always this thought, or maybe a belief, or maybe more like – a state of being, because when you live a certain way for so long, you change, and maybe all that adapting he'd done was irreversible somehow, like how he'd adapted to not having her, and so when he got her it didn't fucking work. Maybe he's too fucked up, maybe he's not meant to have that, that happy ending, not because there's anything wrong with him, Derek's a mature enough individual to realize his own insecurity, but because he can't do anything to make himself not believe it when people tell him that he's not good enough.
And Maya was the only one, the only one who didn't make him feel like that. And that's really why he married her, if he's being honest with himself, even if it didn't feel the same way it did with Casey, or if he didn't think he was as committed as he should be, for the whole marriage thing. And it wasn't fair to her, but it wasn't fair to him, either. What else was he supposed to do?
What he said to Casey was true, honestly, it was. He did love Maya, and it had nothing to do with Casey. At all. He and Maya existed on some other plane of existence, separate from anything related to Casey whatsoever. From the day he met her to the day she walked out of his life forever, he became a different person, independent from everything. He lost touch with friends, stopped visiting his family as much. He liked different things with her, acted differently, became different. It was refreshing, and terrifying, and wonderful and terrible, all at the same time. He certainly wasn't fucking pining. For God's sake.
Everything he'd said was true. But what he didn't tell Casey: after awhile, the person he'd become, that Husband Derek person, he got a little unrecognizable. And that was the other problem, the one he still can't quite figure out for himself. How he'd let himself change so dramatically, how fucking easy it'd been to let himself go. And what really scares him: how hard it is to change back. And how he maybe doesn't want to.
(Had he really hated himself that much? It makes him sick, mostly because he knows the answer.)
Casey doesn't have time to be heartbroken, she just doesn't. She has to write a final for her freshmen, and grade papers, and students showing up at every odd hour to sign up for classes, and if she shuts her office door at lunch and cries into her coffee, so what?
Her mother visits one sunny afternoon when Casey has just finished one of these little tear-breaks, as she calls them, and there's no dissuading her from the subject.
"Is everything okay with that man you were seeing, honey?" she asks, finally making her move over tea at the café. "What was his name again – Ted?"
"Theo," Casey says, why is it so hard for people to remember that? It's such an original name, that's one of the first things she'd noticed. "We broke up."
"Oh, Casey," her mother says, that look on her face again, halfway between my poor baby and I'm never gonna have grandchildren, ever.
"It was awhile ago, Mom," Casey says. "Like – three months or something. A ways back. I'm fine – it was casual, anyway." She winces at the use of the 'c' word. Dammit.
"Well, is there – someone else?" Nora asks hesitantly. "You don't have to tell me, or anything. If you don't want to. But if you do – well, you can always talk to me. You know that."
Casey nods. "Okay," she says, "Mom. There is someone else."
Nora nods encouragingly, eyebrows perking in interest.
"It's Derek," Casey says boldly, surprised at herself. "The someone else is Derek. I'm – I have feelings for Derek."
Nora nods calmly. "I was wondering when you'd figure that out." She smiles, the slightest hint of condescension. "Are you seeing each other?"
Casey narrows her eyes. "Not anymore. We broke up," she says, and Nora nods sympathetically. "…ten years ago," she finishes, and watches as Nora chokes on her tea, eyes bugging out, a mean spike of satisfaction at the gob smacked look on her mother's face.
"You – " Nora coughs again, hand on her chest. "Um. Oh, wow."
"Yeah." Casey sighs, gulping her tea, savoring the hot liquid burning its way down her throat. "Explains a lot, doesn't it."
Nora's expression is distant, and a bit pale, and Casey knows exactly what she's thinking about – the last decade, dissected in a matter of moments, every unanswered question suddenly answered with stunning clarity. "At Queen's? When you were – oh Lord, you lived together!"
"Yeah." Casey sighs tiredly. "Mom. Honestly, you never suspected?"
"Well of course I suspected, but not back then," Nora says incredulously. "When you guys started avoiding each other like the plague – but that wasn't until – oh."
"It started our junior year," Casey explains. "We broke it off right before graduation. I went to Vancouver, and he stayed here, and…yeah." She shrugs. "His wedding – that's why I…" she trails off, cheeks burning at the memory.
"Oh, sweetie," Nora says, understanding suddenly dawning. "I thought it was that guy you dated, the one who cheated on you. But – wow. Yeah, this version makes more sense."
"It's so stupid, Mom." Casey shakes her head, setting her cup down abruptly. "I'm stupid. I think I – I think I really messed it up. I thought – but no. We…um." She brings her fingers to her temples, pressing until she can't feel the ache anymore. "We were – sort of seeing each other again, I guess, this last month or so. Just going on dates, talking again, nothing intense, or anything, but – we had this fight, and I think…I've just been sort of, reevaluating, and I think…" she trails off, feeling the tears welling up again.
Nora swallows thickly, reaching out and grabbing Casey's wrists gently. "What?"
"It's like – I spent all this time thinking one thing, and now I think I was wrong." Casey takes a deep, shaky breath, letting her forearms fall to the table, Nora's hands sliding to grasp her fingers tightly. "I thought he didn't like, care enough, or something. Like he didn't love me enough to fight for me, but I think – I think I was the one who gave up." The epiphany comes with sickening, harsh clarity.
Nora chews on her bottom lip. "Honey. I don't – " she breaks off, takes a fortifying breath. "I'm sorry. I'm still – processing."
Guilt for her earlier trick starts to seep through the cracks, and Casey squeezes her mother's hands comfortingly. "I'm sorry to spring this on you. I should've – we should've told you all a long time ago."
"I sort of – get why you didn't." Nora rolls her eyes. "God. I mean – you have to understand, when I first started to suspect – and it was just a feeling at first, I didn't have proof or anything. But then Marti said something once…and there was this one Christmas, he gave you that necklace, and it was…" she shakes her head. "I knew. On some level. Obviously not the whole story, but…anyway, that was what, five years ago? You were in Vancouver, still. I knew nothing was going on, but I was still – really angry. And – " she winces. "I think, betrayed."
Casey winces. "I'm sorry. Really, really sorry, Mom."
"No, it's okay." Nora takes another deep breath, looking steadier by the second. "I've – come to terms with the idea? George, too. We've talked about the possibility, and – it's okay. You're both adults, and – whatever makes you happy makes us happy, in the end."
Casey has to tamp down a bitter laugh. "Happy," she repeats. "I don't even – " she breaks off, shaking her head.
"Casey," Nora says gently. "Tell me."
"I – there's never been anyone else, not really," Casey says, feeling something slip from her shoulders with the admission. "And it wasn't the same, for him. He had Maya, and I had…nobody." She scoffs at herself. "Because I didn't let myself."
Nora looks uncertain. "He and Maya…"
"That's what we fought about. Sort of. It was more like him ranting, and me getting angry," Casey says. "He loved her, he did. And it was – hard. To hear that."
"And I just – he was right," she says, thoughts spiking randomly. "I never told him how I felt, and of course he would follow my lead. When it came down to it, he always…" she trails off. "He didn't want to pressure me into anything. He told me that once. He felt so badly, whenever you guys would come to visit. He always felt so guilty, like it was his fault…" Her chest aches.
Nora nods, crease between her eyebrows betraying her confusion. "It sounds like you guys need to talk," she says carefully. "But – honey. Just be careful, okay?"
"He's the one who needs to be careful," Casey says, stricken. "Oh my God. I'm – I'm horrible. I am."
"You are not," Nora says firmly. "Look, I don't know exactly what happened between you two; honestly I don't want to know. And you're not making a whole lot of sense, but – that's not what I meant. I mean – I don't want to have another ten years of awkward family reunions and holiday dinners. And I mean that."
"I know," Casey says regretfully. "I'm sorry, really."
"And you need to talk to everyone," Nora says. "Maybe not George, Derek can probably do that. But Lizzie and Edwin – and well, I'm assuming Marti already knows." Casey snorts. "Well. Yes. But this secret thing – that has to stop. You're grown ups now, act like it."
Casey nods obediently. "Okay. Yes, you're right."
"And take that as an across the board piece of advice," Nora says sagely. "From someone who has had both spectacularly wonderful and spectacularly disastrous relationships? Secrets kill. And so does silence." She squeezes Casey's wrist one final time. "Just talk. You can't go wrong."
Casey nods. "Thanks, Mom," she pushes through a choked throat. "Honestly."
"Oh, honey. I love you to death, even when you give me heart attacks," Nora says fondly.
Casey grins at her sheepishly. "I keep you on your toes?"
"That's certainly one way of putting it," Nora agrees, smiling tightly.
What happened at the wedding:
Casey got drunk. Very, very drunk. A combination of her latest romantic disaster (a mechanic who had managed to pull every cliché bad-boyfriend move in the book, everything from forgetting her birthday to hooking up with at least two exes that Casey knew of) and of the big fat horrible situation she'd found herself in – of attending Derek's wedding, to someone that was not her.
"Do not go," Brad had warned her. "This is my warning, okay? For the love of all that is good and holy, you will regret it, and that is the truth."
Had she listened? Of course not.
(Not that she could have. Who would've forgiven her for missing Derek's wedding? Nobody, that's who. Maybe Brad can get away with skipping his brother's anniversary party and ducking out early on Christmas Eve from his dad's house, but Brad's family is emphatically not Casey's family, so whatever.)
She started easy, thinking, oh, just a few drinks, just to make it go smoothly. But there was the ceremony, this disgustingly beautiful thing in Maya's brother's backyard, and Maya was gorgeous and Derek looked like, happy, and oh look, open bar.
She doesn't remember what happened, exactly, only that it was embarrassing, and involved an irritated Lizzie playing bodyguard for most of the reception while Casey alternately played drinking games with herself and sobbing pathetically into the centerpiece. She certainly doesn't remember Frenching Maya's second cousin in the back of his car, or giving her grandmother a lecture on how men all sucked at sex. She certainly will never hear the end of either of those incidents, as long as she will live.
(What she does remember, though: their first dance was to At Last, which she thought was cliché but secretly also incredibly romantic, and how Maya broke a heel at one point, and just kicked her shoes off, and Derek laughed and took his off too, "just to match," and how everyone had this mixed expression of delight and relief, like oh, finally, Derek's a grown up, and throughout it all, even when Casey was being extra loud and ridiculous, just to try and see what would fucking happen, Derek didn't look at her once.)
"I need to know something," Casey demands, using her Formidable Voice.
"Of course you do," Marti replies, half-asleep, hair a bird's nest on her head. It's a shocking shade of green – a new development. Casey barely notices. "Not like it's ass o'clock in the morning or anything – hey!"
Casey pushes past her into the apartment, dumping her purse on something that must be a table, beneath all the scattered scraps of cut-up magazines and construction paper. "Tell me why Derek and I broke up."
Marti looks at her like she's insane. That's kind of Marti's usual mode with her, however. "What, were you not there or something?"
Casey collapses on the couch, face in her hands. "Marti," she says, muffled. "Please?"
She hears a sigh, a dip in the couch next to her, the comforting warmth of Marti's body pressed up against her side. "What exactly are you asking, here?"
Casey leans into her instinctively. "I think I have – a messed up idea of how things happened," she finally says. "Also – I told my mom."
"Whoa!" Marti exclaims. "Really? No way!"
"Yeah," Casey says, a bit of embarrassed pride seeping through. "It wasn't even scary. Well – it wasn't that scary."
"Hey, dude, that's like – progress," Marti says, sounding dully impressed. "Congratulations. Or something."
"Thanks," Casey says tiredly, sitting up straight and looking up at her with what she hopes is a reasonably convincing amount of pathetic on her face. "Did I drive Derek away?"
Marti rolls her eyes. "You drove each other away."
"Really?" Casey asks, pathetically hopeful.
Marti sighs. "Okay. Well, keep in mind I was like, eleven when this happened. But here's what I think." She holds up one black-tipped finger. "Derek is crap with emotions. You are uptight and over-think everything. And finally, you both seem to have this weird idea that the other one is like, totally in charge." She frowns, ticking her points off on her fingernails. "It's like some kind of twisted gift of the Jedi thing, or something."
Casey blinks. "Uh – Gift of the Magi, Marti."
"Whatever, like I care," Marti says impatiently. "So I don't know the details, beyond what Derek's told me, but I can…imagine what went down, based on those important facts."
"Derek…talked to you about it?" Casey asks, voice squeaking.
Marti gives her a look that is either incredibly condescending or sympathetic, Casey can't really tell. "Casey. Why do you think he wouldn't set foot at home for like, three years? He was terrified of seeing you. Everyone thought you guys were in this terrible fight or something, because he didn't even like to hear news about you." Marti sighs. "It was bad enough this one time when he heard you were dating some guy in Vancouver…anyway. I think he was afraid to hear that you'd gotten engaged to some yuppie law student or something."
Casey kind of wants to laugh, but she can't quite gather enough energy to do so. "Well, that's ironic."
Marti sniffs in disapproval. "Maya was the first woman he'd dated seriously since you," she informs Casey bluntly. "And – well, I'm not allowed to talk about her anymore. Apparently. Hmmph."
Casey takes a deep breath, paradigm slowly shifting once again. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh," Marti says, twisting the words mockingly. "God, you're both dumb."
Casey sighs mournfully. "I'm actually – inclined to agree."
Marti slides one arm around her shoulder comfortingly. "Finally, you're coming around," she says affectionately. "Look. Maybe it's cuz I'm the youngest, maybe cuz I know you both better, who knows. Maybe cuz you two are ones who put up with me the most." She grins self-deprecatingly. "Hey, I'm self-aware. I know I'm a handful."
"A handful of awesome," Casey agrees, nudging her shoulder playfully.
"Duh," Marti intones. "Anyway. I'm the only one who knows what's really going on here, and you can trust me, okay? So trust me when I tell you: get your shit together. You and Derek? You don't really work all that well as independent units." She cocks her head. "It's like, your thing."
Casey leans her forehead on Marti's shoulder gratefully. "I don't wanna mess it up again," she says softly. "I – there's so much history there, I don't want to – "
"Don't think of it as history," Marti cuts in. "Think of it as – a road map. A cheat sheet, even." She rubs Casey's back soothingly. "And me? I'm totally your navigator. Because I? Am very invested in your happiness. Yours and Derek's." She leans in, whispering. "But tell anyone that and I'll totally kill you."
Casey laughs, loud and surprised. "I totally love you," she replies, squeezing Marti's waist, somehow managing not to dislodge herself from her spot on Marti's shoulder.
"Don't give me cooties!" Marti complains. "Ugh, okay. Hey – so, do you think you could spot me a fifty? You know, for the advice?"
Casey resolves to sleep on it. Because it's important, and also hello, finals. She just – she really is busy, she can't afford to have personal drama right now. It's the difference between nineteen and twenty-nine – things can't be put on hold for her love life.
So she grits her teeth, ignores her silent cell phone (and the mantra in her head: he hasn't called, he hasn't called, he hasn't called) and white-knuckles her way through the last couple weeks of the year, grading furiously and working fifteen-hour days, telling herself when she has time to think that Derek will understand, won't hold it against her. (They've waited long enough, anyway. What's another month?)
Most of the students have moved out by the time she finally finishes, the last grade submitted, last of the paperwork filed, the last i dotted and t crossed. She's exhausted, but not fooling herself, so she drives straight to his place after she leaves campus. Enough.
"I was wondering when this would happen," is what he greets her with. He's barefoot, and behind him the tantalizing smell of Italian food wafting in from inside his apartment. It's like the scene from before, only turned upside down, and with the added bonus of Derek's obvious bed-head, which has never been anything but adorable, if Casey's being honest with herself.
"Can I come in?" she asks timidly.
"I don't know," Derek says, not giving an inch. "I think I'm good here."
"Okay," she says, eyes falling to the floor, "I deserve that."
Derek makes a grunting noise of frustration. "Fuck. Well now you look all pathetic. I so hate you." Rolling his eyes, he steps back from the doorway. "Just get in here."
Casey scurries past him before he can change her mind. Eyes darting around the small, very Derek-esque place, she can't help noting with relief the work spread out across the dining room table, the single plate of half-eaten food, all the signs of a lone night in. "Um," she says, unsure of herself. Should she sit at the table? The couch? Would he be more likely to yell at her if she was sitting down and thus, smaller physically, maybe that would be less threatening? Or would it be offensive, as if she were invading his private space, and –
Derek moves and folds himself into the dining room chair, picking up his fork and digging into his dinner uninterestedly. "Whatever you're deciding, please do it before the food gets cold," he says, nudging the carton of lasagna in her direction.
Casey's stomach grumbles. "I don't want to intrude – "
"Intrude on what?" He gives her a look, mouth full of pasta.
She shrugs internally, sinks into the seat and grabs a piece of garlic bread, grabbing the serving spoon to load it with melted cheese and pasta before shoving half the thing in her mouth.
"Your table manners," Derek muses. "Definitely one thing I'm glad to see gone."
Casey blushes, swallowing thickly before answering. "I love lasagna," she says by way of explanation.
"I remember," Derek says fondly, spearing an olive and biting it off with his teeth. Casey blushes again, for an entirely different reason. "So. You're here."
Casey nods sheepishly. "Okay, well, I don't really know if this is the right thing to do," she says, "because that fight – it was not my fault. But it wasn't yours, either. And I – well, I'm sorry it happened. And I wanted to – come here and tell you that."
Derek nods. "Okay," he says, reaching out with one long leg and dragging a chair across the floor, propping both ankles on the seat. "Then, me too."
Casey hums, satisfied. "Well," she says briskly, "I think we should…talk. Honestly. Instead of avoiding and like – referring to it without really actually talking about it. That's stupid."
"Okay," Derek says again, more hesitant than before. "Um."
"I'll start?" Derek nods gratefully. "Okay. Uh," she starts, hearing Marti's voice in her head. Get your shit together! "Well, I want to be with you. I think that's obvious." She blushes hotly, fiddling with Derek's fork. "And…what happened, back then, in college…" she trails off, gulping nervously. "I'm sorry. I should have – handled things differently. I really did – love you." Across from her, Derek physically jerks, and Casey stares determinedly at the table. "I just – I was afraid to pressure you. And I didn't – I don't know. I was stupid."
"You – " Derek breaks off, clearing his throat. "That's…unexpected."
"Yeah." Breaking off another piece of bread, Casey stuffs it in her mouth, hoping he'll take the hint.
"Okay," Derek says slowly, and she's still not looking at his face, but she knows what it'd look like, cautious and wary and kind of resentful, the same expression he always has when forced to have a conversation about his gasp, feelings. "I, uh, felt the same way, as you did. Um, you know." Casey nods, chewing slowly, feeling relieved and a little dizzy at the awkward confession. "And I still do. Really. And I'm sorry I blew up at you about Maya, that was – " he stops abruptly. "That was ridiculous, you didn't deserve that."
Casey swallows the lump of food in her throat, eyes tearing.
"It's just – I can't do this again if it's going to end the same way," Derek says in a rush, voice tight with anxiety. "I can't, really. I mean – Maya and me, that was exhausting, at the end. I don't know if – you probably don't know. It was bad." Casey looks up at him, finally gathering the courage, and seeing him looking away, shoulders tense and drawn. "And that was enough to last me for years, okay. I'm worn out, and I can't do the whole huge breakup thing again, I just can't. And with you…" he trails off. "It'd be worse, okay. That's all I'm saying."
Casey bites her lip, reaching out and grasping the table, just to have something to hold on to. "I don't know if I could do that either," she says honestly, voice shaky but strong. "It's been – tough. Since, we." She stops, unable to say it out loud. "I – I'm kind of messed up, Derek."
Derek barks out a laugh bitterly. "Join the club."
She smiles weakly in response. "But," she says, "I'm happier when I'm with you. No – I'm just happy, period." She reaches out tentatively, brushing his forearm with her fingertips, feeling the muscle tense beneath her hand. "Aren't you? I mean, the time I've spent with you lately – I wouldn't give that up for anything."
Derek nods tightly, staying silent.
"I think we have to try again," Casey says determinedly. "And do it right this time. I mean, we're not kids anymore, Derek."
A twisted grin, and Derek moves his hand, entwines his fingers with hers, sending an electric rush racing up her arm. "Yeah, when did that happen?"
"When we weren't looking," she says, and squeezes. He squeezes back.
"I'm okay with trying," he says cautiously. "We just – do the communication thing, right? Be honest."
Casey nods enthusiastically. "Right! And oh, speaking of, I told my mom."
Derek shoots her an annoyed look. "I know," he drawls. "She called me. Thanks for the heads up, by the way."
Casey winces. "Oh. Sorry."
"Whatever," he says, waving it away. "We'll probably have to tell Lizzie and Ed, too. I think they think I murdered your cat, or something like that."
Casey can't stop the guffaw from escaping, only slightly hysterical. "Oh my God. Yeah. We've been terrible."
Derek snorts, nodding his head in agreement. "God. Really."
She grins, hope and happiness warring for prominence, giddiness that she's allowed to feel either of them at all overpowering them both. "Kiss me," she says suddenly, feeling bold. "I just realized – we haven't done that yet."
Derek's gaze turns a shade darker, and he leans in and obeys, tugging on Casey's hand to pull her in, tasting the edges of her smile, pulling a groan from her throat with the same lazy ease that she remembers from all those years ago.
"Mmm," he says, pulling away, "hello there."
"Hi," she says back, letting her head fall forward onto the table, shivering as he runs his free hand through her hair affectionately. "Oh."
"Oh," he echoes, smile prominent in his voice. "I can't believe we're doing this again."
"Me either," she says, voice muffled by the wood of the table. "You know what else I can't believe?"
"That I haven't devoured that lasagna yet," she says, and her stomach rumbles on cue.
He laughs, boisterous and delightful. "Anything for a lady," he says, and tugs the carton forward. "You don't want me to feed you, do you?"
She sits up, scooting her chair closer, grinning because she can. "Of course not," she says, and steals his fork, "gotta save something for the second date."
Her second book:
Is published three years later, unapologetically a romance novel, unapologetically shallow. It gets slightly better reviews, though not by much, a mention in the New York Post, peaking somewhere in the seventies on the Best Seller list.
(Derek doesn't like it. He's uncomfortable with the secondary male character, Jimmy, a documentary filmmaker with an unhealthy attachment to leather jackets married to a literature professor. Write what you know, Casey says – well, it's creepy, is all he's saying.)
She resigns her position at the university and they use what's left in both of their bank accounts to move to the States, San Diego. It's way too far from their family, which is hard, but Marti's got her heart set on California for grad school and vows to commandeer their guest room (which they anticipate and dread in equal amounts) and Nora and George visit every Christmas. Brad lives in LA, and visits when he can, too. They have a monthly board game night with him and his partner Adrian. (They always get their asses kicked.)
Casey writes, both scholarly and for pleasure, her articles and criticism earning her back the notoriety and respect that her novels diminish. Derek works his way up as a director, makes it to a level he's respectively comfortable with. It all works out, in the end, anyway. He gets to do what he wants, and so does she, even if they have to deal with some bullshit in the in-between hours.
They break up no less than six times, and get married on Derek's thirty-fifth birthday (so he can't forget their anniversary), back in Toronto, on the beach in bare feet, their family the only guests in attendance. Casey gets drunk again, but so does Derek, so. Lizzie pretends she's not weirded out by it, Marti throws them a joint bachelor/bachelorette party, Edwin finds it all intensely amusing, it's nice.
When they fight, it's mostly about Maya. (Sore subject.) They never go to sleep angry, even if they have to stay up all night to do it, though, and it mostly works. They buy a house together and Casey decorates it by herself while he's on a business trip; he comes back and hates most of it, but doesn't tell her to spare her feelings. She develops a stronger interest in cars than he'd ever would have expected, and cries when hers finally dies, and he holds her hand as it gets towed away, promising to buy her a better one. She tells him it better have a GPS and a sunroof or she'll never forgive him.
(And so it goes, like this. It's not an ending, not entirely happy, either, but it's something better than before.
Good enough for both of them.)