Gwen Prescott had her life figured out by the age of eight: she would work as a museum curator and marry her best friend, Jeff Crawford. There was nothing Gwen wouldn’t do for Jeff. She lost her virginity to him, defied her parents when they tried to keep them apart, put up with Jeff sleeping around, and almost gave up her dream college to run away with him. And in return, Jeff refused to take her with him and left her behind, never contacting her again.
Now twenty-four, Gwen has a loving, devoted boyfriend and a new job as a gallery curator in NYC. She’s convinced her love for Jeff was only an illusion; an unhealthy fixation fueled by hormones and adolescent fantasies. But when a photo of Jeff in the New York Times stirs past feelings, she’s forced to admit to her boyfriend—and herself—that she’s still not over Jeff. The breakup that follows makes Gwen begin to question whether she can be happy with anyone but Jeff.
Gwen lies to everyone close to her about the real reason for the breakup—afraid of what they might think—and tries to move on, finding solace in her work. When a chance encounter puts Jeff in her path, the pull she always felt for him—that need she could never fight or quite define—takes over, and she reverts to the girl she used to be. Unless Gwen can finally be honest about her feelings and risks letting others see her for who she really is, she’ll never break free from the past and be able to have fulfilling relationships—with Jeff or anyone else.
Gwen took a deep breath to clear her mind, then dipped the brush into the colors on her palette at random.
A swirl of red swept across the watercolor paper. Then another. A stroke of dark purple next. Some splashes of yellow. She continued in this way for a while, not caring about the outcome. A cool, autumn breeze came in through the open window, yet the smell of steak and roasted potatoes from her unfulfilled dinner plans still lingered through her studio apartment. Her stomach growled. She dropped the paintbrush onto the cart beside her and glanced at her phone. Eight o’clock. Two hours had passed since Brian called to cancel on her. Now that she was more relaxed she could eat without the fear she might choke.
She stood to clean up. Maybe she should text him, make it clear how crushed she really was and guilt him into coming over. But why bother? He couldn’t even devote one hour to her. They hadn’t spent any quality time together in almost a month but his dissertation was more important, as always. Breathe, Gwen, breathe. Let it go.
As Gwen was about to step into the kitchen, the doorknob rattled and Brian walked in.
He placed his keys on the table next to the door and grinned. “Surprise.”
Gwen crossed her arms and fought back a smile. She loved surprises. “What are you doing here? Weren’t you ‘in the zone’?”
“I decided to take a break.” He put his hands on her waist. “I should be spending more time with my girlfriend and not work so hard.” He leaned his head to kiss her. “I’m sorry for breaking my promise. It won’t happen again.”
This was the Brian she fell in love with, not the one who kept blowing her off. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “And how long do I have you for?”
“All night and all day tomorrow.”
“Nope. We’ll go to the MoMA and then hang out at Central Park like we used to.”
“Oh my God, really?” She pressed herself against him.
“I told you I’d make it up to you, my sun.”
Going to museums and galleries on Sundays was their thing. The last time was during their trip to DC four months ago, right before she completed her Master’s degree from Columbia, where they met. She missed their geeky banter so much. Gwen always commented on how the exhibit was curated and made observations about how she’d do it better if given the chance. Brian went into professor mode and lectured her on some obscure fact. He looked so adorable when he did that–his blue eyes sparkled and his cheeks turned rosy.
She kissed his neck and ran her fingers through his auburn hair. “You are so getting laid tonight.”
He smelled so good, like fresh out of the shower. “Or how about right now?” She grabbed his butt.
“Oh, maybe later? I’m starving.”
“Right, of course. So am I, actually.” She turned away then looked down at herself. “Let me change first. I must look awful.” She had on shorts under an old, white t-shirt splattered with paint.
“You look great, Sunny, don’t worry.” He budged her towards the kitchen.
“But I bought this sexy red dress for you, and my hair must be a mess.” She fumbled around the up-do she’d manage to arrange her long blonde hair into.
“Your hair is fine.” He grabbed her hands. “Look at me, huh?” He tugged at his t-shirt, stretching the Captain America shield depicted on it. “You look great no matter what you wear.” He pecked her on the lips. “Now let’s eat.”
After dinner, Brian helped her clean up and then they got ready for bed. As they made love, everything was right with the world again.
“I love you,” she murmured.
“I love you, too.”
As they lay in each other’s arms afterward, Gwen said, “I’m sorry if I was a bit unreasonable over the phone. I know you’re doing all this for me, so we can move to London next year, but it’s okay. You can take your time. I enjoy working at the gallery, even if there’s not much to do right now.”
“Going to the Courtauld is your dream. I don’t want you to keep postponing it because of me.” The Courtauld was the most prestigious art history research institute in the world, and Gwen wanted to do her Ph.D. there.
“I’d rather postpone it than spend so much time apart.”
“Don’t worry. From now on, I’ll take as many breaks as I can. Before you know it, we’ll be in London having a new adventure together.”
“I can’t wait.”
They were finally in a good place and had survived the worst—her lying about Jeff. Her insecurities and shame over what happened almost caused them to break up, but Brian had forgiven her. Holding on to Jeff’s memory and hoping for his return were a thing of the past. He was only an illusion, an unhealthy fixation fueled by hormones and adolescent fantasies, nothing more. Brian was the real love of her life, and Gwen looked forward to the day she could say “I do” in front of everyone.
“Wake up, sleepy head.” Gwen shook Brian. “We need to get started if we’re going to take advantage of the day.”
Brian yawned but kept his eyes shut. “What time is it?”
“The museum doesn’t open until ten thirty. We have time.” He rolled over, facing away from her.
“But I want to get there as soon as it opens. And it’s so beautiful outside.”
“Gwen, please. This is the first break I’ve taken in weeks. I want to sleep in a little bit longer.”
“Fine.” She got up from the bed. “But I’m starting on the pancakes.”
“Knock yourself out. I’ll eat when I get up.”
Gwen took a shower, got dressed, and prepared the batter for the pancakes. She used whole wheat flour and ground almonds to up the nutritional value. Brian loved them. It was his special treat for spending the night.
She was preparing the strawberry topping she liked when Brian got up and went into the bathroom. Minutes later the shower turned on. Gwen was hungry so she served herself and settled down on the breakfast bar. She grabbed her tablet, found the website for The New York Times, and clicked on the “New York” section.
And then she almost choked.
Jeff’s smiling face stared back at her. She dropped her fork and it clanged against the plate, the pancake forgotten as she brought the tablet closer to her face. Six years had passed since she last saw him. She zoomed in on the photo so she could admire every feature up close. His thick brown hair. The green eyes that could still disarm her. And that smile—the same one that always made her melt.
A need for him she hadn’t felt for years overcame her. The pull. How could it still be there after so long, after Brian?
Brian. What was wrong with her? How could she react like this to someone who caused her so much pain? And yet, she could not look away.
“What the heck is this?” Brian took the tablet away.
Oh no, oh no. “It’s not what you think.”
“And what do I think?”
Fuck. How was she going to get out of this? Brian had always been insecure about Jeff. How could she be so stupid? Think, Gwen. “It’s part of an article. See?” She zoomed out, revealing the article titled “John Crawford Announces Retirement, Names Son New CEO of Crawford Trading Solutions.”
“You didn’t seem that interested in the article,” Brian said.
Why did she have to zoom in? What was she, blind? “It’s just a photo.”
“Of your ex.”
“Who I haven’t seen in years.”
He scrolled through the article. “It says here he’s been living in the city since July. Did you know that? Have you contacted him?”
Jeff was back? “No.”
“Has he contacted you?”
“No.” Would he? He didn’t know where she was, so how could he?
Brian turned off the tablet and threw it on the counter. “I can’t deal with this right now. I need to eat.” He walked past her into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. Then he tossed two pancakes onto a plate and flung himself into the stool beside her.
Gwen’s hand trembled as she picked up her cup of green tea. Please, let that be the worst of it. It was only a photo, after all. A photo that had shaken her to the core.
Jeff was only a few blocks away, within her reach. Why did that affect her so much? It’s not like she’d go after him. Or would she? If only she were alone so she could process what it all meant.
Gwen kept her gaze on her plate and focused on eating. The pancake stuck to her mouth and she drank tea to push it down. She peeked at Brian. He was spreading strawberry jelly on his pancake, not seeming bothered at all.
She allowed herself to relax. Everything would be okay.
“Why were you looking at his photo like that?” Brian asked. “It was almost like you wanted to kiss him.”
“It’s a photo, Brian. As in not real.”
“But you wouldn’t mind seeing him in person, would you?”
“I don’t want to see him. He hurt me. You know that.”
It was hopeless to keep eating, so Gwen took her plate to the sink. Brian was not going to let it go. He never had. How could she reassure him when she was just as confused by the whole thing? One sight of Jeff’s face and she was back acting like a schoolgirl with a crush. She was twenty-four years old, for God’s sake. Maybe everyone reacted that way when they saw a photo of an old ex online. It was a perfectly normal reaction. She loved Brian. Jeff was in the past.
“What would you do if you saw him again?” Brian asked.
She sighed and turned around. “That’s never going to happen.”
“You could run into him at any moment.”
Oh, God, would she? Brian was staring at her. She was taking too long to respond. “I’d probably turn the other way.”
“You wouldn’t want to get a closer look like you did with the photo?”
“It was a silly thing to do, okay? It’s been awhile since I saw him and it rattled me. Wouldn’t you react the same way if you saw a photo of an old ex?”
“No, since I don’t have any left-over feelings for any of them.”
“I don’t have any feelings for Jeff.”
“Sure about that?”
Gwen walked around the breakfast bar and sat next to him, grabbing his hands. “Yes. I love you. Now can we get out of here? I don’t want to let this whole thing ruin our day.”
He didn’t look convinced but said, “Okay.”
Gwen took the plate from him and cleaned the kitchen while Brian finished getting ready. When he went into the bathroom, she risked another look at the photo. The attraction she felt was undeniable; her whole body yearned for him. But she loved Brian and Jeff wouldn’t ruin her life again. She closed the page and turned the tablet off.
Brian was still in the bathroom, so she made the bed and tidied up. Now they could leave. What time was it? She went back into the kitchen to look for her phone but it wasn’t there. Nor was it between the cushions of her blue sofa or under the bed. She could’ve sworn she took it to the kitchen with her when she went to prepare the pancakes.
Gwen knocked on the bathroom door. “Have you seen my phone?”
“What are you doing anyway? Let’s go.”
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
Her apartment was small so there weren’t many places for it to be. She searched her nightstand, the wardrobe, and inside the dresser. Nothing. Only Brian’s phone. She grabbed it and pressed on her number.
The sound of “Bubbly” wafted from the bathroom.
Her stomach dropped. Was Brian spying on her? She knocked on the door again. “What are you doing?”
After a few moments, he opened the door and—without looking at her—handed her back the phone.
“What were you looking for?”
“Texts, emails, anything from him.”
“I told you I haven’t heard from him.”
“You expect me to believe you after you’ve always lied to me about him?”
Gwen’s eyes widened. She had lied. More than once. Or at least, omitted information because she was ashamed of her past and all the stupid things she’d done for Jeff.
“I’m going to ask you one last time, Gwen. Please, no more lies. Do you still have feelings for him?”
“I, um …” Be honest, Gwen. No more hiding from the truth. “I don’t … I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” He shook his head. “Wow. After two years, you don’t know. Thanks for finally telling me.”
“Please, let me explain.”
“What’s there to explain? You just admitted you have feelings for another man.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s basically the same thing.” He sighed. “I knew it. I should’ve listened to my gut and broken up with you a long time ago.”
Her mouth fell open. “You can’t really mean that.”
“I’m already turning into that guy, looking through your phone. Next thing, I’ll be following you around. I can’t live like that.”
“Please, just …” She threw both phones on the bed. “Let’s sit down and talk this through.” She grabbed his hands and led him to the sofa. “Look at me.”
“Just because I may have feelings for Jeff, doesn’t mean I’d go back to him. Or cheat on you. I swear.”
“How can I trust you after what I just witnessed? If you react like this to a photo, how would you react to seeing him in person? It’s like he owns you. And I don’t want to share you anymore.”
“Brian, this is crazy, it’s just a photo.”
“It’s not just the photo, Gwen. I’ve always had my doubts. Seeing you today just confirmed them.”
“That you’re not really over him.” He paused. “Sometimes you get this faraway look in your eyes, and I know you’re thinking about him. You miss him. I’ve put up with it because he was such an important part of your past, but it always bothered me. I knew he’d eventually take over his father’s company, but I thought we’d be long gone by then. That’s why I’m trying to finish as fast as I can, so we can go to London. But now …”
Oh, my God. All this time she’d thought Jeff’s ghost had stopped haunting them, but his cadaver had always laid there, festering under the surface.
She caressed his cheek. “I’m so sorry—”
“Don’t be.” He turned his face away. “I brought this on myself.”
“Please, don’t say things like that. I never meant to hurt you.”
“Even if you didn’t mean it, you did hurt me. You still are.”
Gwen stared down at her hands. She’d thought herself incapable of hurting someone she loved like Jeff did to her. Even after trying to escape him, she turned out just like him.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Do you hate me?” Gwen asked.
Brian sighed. “No. But it’s better to end things now before I do.”
How could it be over just like that, when only last night they’d rekindled their relationship? Brian was “the one”. He couldn’t leave her. It couldn’t end. Who would love her then?
“We can still work things out,” Gwen said. “I’ll be one hundred percent honest from now on. No exceptions. You can have access to my phone, emails, everything. Please …” She broke into tears.
Brian stroked her back and waited until she calmed down before he spoke. “You really want that kind of relationship?”
“If it means being with you, yes. I’ll do anything to prove my love for you, baby. Anything.”
“Oh, Sunny, you don’t have to prove anything. I believe that you love me, but I can’t be with someone who has unresolved issues with another man. I want to be with a woman who loves me and is not just settling because it didn’t work out with someone else.”
“I’m not settling. I—”
“Please accept my decision. I’m not going to change my mind.”
Gwen pushed her fingers through her hair. Had she really been settling? Jeff left her, so she’d hung onto the first guy who told her he loved her? That couldn’t be. She loved Brian, she was sure of it. But then, why couldn’t she let go of Jeff? His ghost kept following her around and didn’t leave her in peace. Brian didn’t deserve to be tangled up in her mess. He was too good for that, too good for her. She needed to let him go.
“I really thought I was over him. I really did, especially after spending the semester in Paris and missing you so much.”
“So before then, you still thought about him?”
Why did she keep putting her foot in her mouth? “That’s not—”
“Forget it. It’s over.”
“And you’re fine with that?”
“No, I’m not. But I can’t keep competing with him. I’m done. I love you, but I deserve better.”
He did deserve better. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop saying that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Look, I think you should focus on getting clear about your feelings for him, or you’ll probably never be happy with anyone else. No other guy is going to put up with this as long as I have. Heck, I don’t know if you can be happy with anyone but him.”
“Then I’ll never be happy.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. “I need to get out of here.” Brian stood and walked to the door.
He was already leaving? Was this it? She’d never see him again? She walked towards him.
He grabbed his keychain, hesitated a moment, then removed her keys.
Gwen followed his every move. He was removing her from his life like a Band-Aid. No second thoughts.
“Shit,” he said. “My stuff.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“I’ll send it over.”
He sighed with relief. “I’ll do the same.”
Who cares about my stuff? I want you to stay with me. “Okay.”
They stared at each other.
“Take care of yourself.” He gave her a quick hug, but she clung to him and didn’t let him pull away. After a few seconds, he embraced her fully. Gwen pressed her face against his chest and inhaled his fresh, clean scent. She’d never wallow in it again. How could that be possible?
When he loosened his arms, she raised herself on her tiptoes and kissed him. His lack of response crushed her. She pulled away and without looking at him said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t love you enough.”
He turned to leave. When the door shut behind him, Gwen slumped to the floor. Only a few hours ago they were happy and in love, planning to spend the whole day together at the museum like they used to. It was their thing to do on Sundays. But it would never be again. Why did she have to see that photo? Why couldn’t she let go of Jeff? She’d come so close to a perfect life with Brian. It wasn’t fair.
How would she go on after this? It was the same question she asked herself when Jeff left and broke her heart.