“We’re engaged!” Rachel announces, thrusting her left hand onto the table and wriggling her fingers, ensuring that the modest diamond on Patrick’s grandmother’s ring – Rachel’s ring, now – sparkles under the light for all their friends to see.
“Oh my god. Finally!”
“About fucking time, Brewer.”
“Okay, this calls for real champagne!”
There are hugs and slaps on the back and popping corks and Patrick has downed his first glass of said champagne before even taking off his coat.
It’s nice, how invested their friends are in their relationship. They always have been. It’s part of what has managed to bring them back together after each of the many, many breakups they’ve had over more than a decade – the widespread, long held belief that they’re perfect for each other. Everybody around them has always been sure of it. Patrick and Rachel? Oh, they’re just meant to be.
Patrick hadn’t always been convinced of that in practice, but on paper, sure, it made sense; Rachel had literally been the girl next door when they were kids, they’d been high school sweethearts, had dated all through college. She was pretty and smart and kind. Rachel had been his first, well, everything, and he had been hers. She was his best friend in the world and he loved her, but...There was always a but. And because of that, they had broken up and gotten back together so many times that, for the past few years when it happened, it barely elicited more than eye-rolls, prods to just make up already from their friends and families. As a couple, it was their ‘thing’, a quirk they had; everyone always believed it would be just a matter of time before they’d find their way back to one another.
Sometimes Patrick envied the faith other people seemed to have in them, other times he resented it. Though he couldn’t deny that they had always been right, in the end. He and Rachel have always fallen back into their old routine. Because that’s where they belong: together, just like everyone has always said.
And not everyone can be wrong, can they?
Patrick’s hand feels sweaty where it clutches his champagne flute and he tries not to let it shake when he holds the glass aloft for a premature refill, clinks it noisily against multiple others as more friends greet them, effusive in their congratulations. Rachel beams under the attention, finding ways to keep her ring in the group’s line of sight by flipping her hair, touching her face, tapping her glass. She seems happy.
“It’s about time you made an honest woman of her,” says Heather, Rachel’s ex-roommate, as she nudges Patrick’s shoulder with her own. It’s playful, but not without an undercurrent of admonishment. She’d been nudging them together ever since their first real break-up in college.
“I know,” he replies, and he does know; he’s been sick and sleepless with it.
On-again-off-again seemed fine before, but they’re not getting any younger; their friends are settling down, getting married, even starting to have kids. He’d panicked, at first, when his mom had given him his grandmother’s diamond ring. ‘It would make a nice engagement ring,’ she’d said, not so subtly, and he’d laughed it off. ‘Okay, Mom. There’s plenty of time for all that,’ he’d told her and hugged her in thanks and then buried it at the back of his sock drawer for more than a year before even looking at it again. But after their most recent break-up (and eventual, inevitable reunion) something felt like it had shifted; it had stopped feeling like they had plenty of time. The approach of Patrick’s thirtieth birthday, and Rachel’s soon after, had made him feel like time was ticking towards some sort of relationship deadline; like if they couldn’t make it work, couldn’t commit by then, after more than half a lifetime together, it would be time to split up for good. Patrick struggled to figure out which option scared him the most.
When they last broke up, Patrick had felt stuck. Stagnant. When he thought about his future, it looked too much like his past; Rachel, work, baseball. Drinks at the weekend. Dinner with parents. More work, more Rachel. Ad infinitum.
People had always told Patrick that he was lucky, so he’d gotten used to telling himself that, too; he had a steady job and a nice apartment and a beautiful girlfriend; he had his health, friends, parents that loved him. He should be happy; and he was, some of the time. But he wasn’t sure that only periodic morsels of happiness would be enough to sustain him for the rest of his existence. He’d felt, for a while, like there was something missing; a piece of his life, a piece of himself. He was just never sure what. At least, not until something happened, something uncharted, that had made him think, however briefly, that he might finally have an inkling.
It had been during the standard radio-silence phase of their breakup; that early stretch when the wounds still felt too fresh, too raw, for either of them to feign amicability. Patrick couldn’t deny that he always felt the dull ache of loneliness when they were apart. It was only natural. They had been so deeply intertwined in each other’s lives that it felt like Rachel managed to keep a part of him, his identity, every time he left.
Patrick had found himself working more, socialising less; time spent with their usual group of mostly mutual friends in these periods ranged from awkward to excruciating - they took sides, made unsubtle digs and, invariably, orchestrated well-intentioned attempts to get them back together – so, in the interest of giving himself, Rachel andtheir friends time to adjust, he threw himself into work instead.
He’d worked at the same place for a little more than five years. It had been his first grown-up job out of college, and he knew it was too long, probably, to stay in one workplace so early in his career - it only compounded the stuck feeling he had about his life in general - but the rural provinces weren’t exactly teeming with exciting opportunities for a business major, so he stayed, and he applied himself and hoped that, someday, he might be rewarded for his efforts.
That first Monday of his newly single life had started off just as unremarkably as any other Monday morning at work. His short commute had been uneventful, his desk was just as he’d left it the previous Friday; neat and well organised, his clean mug and box of chamomile tea waiting for him in the drawer. Patrick liked to get into the office early, to get settled into his day before the nine a.m. rush of chatty co-workers jostling for hot water, for the coffee machine, so he was surprised to find someone he didn’t recognise in the kitchen, making an unsuccessful effort to clean up the mess from what turned out to be an exploded coffee pod.
“Oh, hey, sorry about this,” the unfamiliar guy had said and gestured broadly at the film of splattered coffee grounds coating the counter, the cabinets, his crisp white shirt. “I was sure I knew how to use this thing.”
Patrick had done the only appropriate thing under the circumstances; he’d teased him, “Looks like you were very much mistaken on that front. Hell of a way to make a first impression, though.”
“Oh, I like to make my mark wherever I go.”
“Well, you’ve managed that. Quite a few of them, in fact.” They’d shared a laugh and Patrick had helped him clean up the mess.
“I’m Will, by the way, the admin temp.”
“Patrick Brewer,” he’d said, and regretted that a handful of damp paper towels had stopped him from offering a customary handshake, “business support.”
The next morning, Will had passed by Patrick’s desk en route to the kitchen (even though the location of his desk in the open plan office very much required a detour to be en that route), coffee mug in one hand, fingers crossed on the other. “Wish me luck,” he’d said with a wry smile.
“May the Nespresso gods be with you this morning,” Patrick had replied.
Will paused, added in a stage-whisper, “I brought a spare shirt today, just in case.”
“Smart thinking. I’ll be here if you need a helping hand with it,” Patrick had swiftly blushed, corrected himself, “The coffee machine, that is.”
Will had replied with an airy, “Good to know,” and looked at him with slightly narrowed eyes before hurrying towards the kitchen.
And that had been the start of it. Their flirting. Patrick was pretty sure that he had instigated it, and the temp had reciprocated. Will would swing by Patrick’s desk every morning after that, bright-eyed and smiling, lingering a tad longer than he should. He was awkward and funny. He had dark curly hair and long limbs and he talked with his hands and laughed with his whole body and the way Will looked at him had made Patrick feel more alive than he’d felt in a long time.
The fact that Patrick was very much enjoying flirting with a man? Well, that was neither here nor there, he had told himself. He was friendly with everyone; flirty, even. And Will had just been there at the right time, when Patrick was itching for something new to distract him from the sad stasis of his life. People flirted at work. People flirted all the time. And anyway, it was the twenty-first century. He was a modern guy. He was pretty sure that flirtation didn’t have to be gender-specific, it didn’t have to signify any kind of attraction.
If anything, the fact that Will was a man made it feel easier - safer? - because it took away the prospective what if? This kind of platonic push-and-pull would never lead to anything. Nothing more would happen between them. They wouldn’t end up dating and fooling around and making it weird between them and leaving Patrick feeling as unfulfilled as he ever did when he tried to move on from Rachel, because Will would only be in his life for a few weeks, and he didn’t even know if Will liked him. Or men. And, more importantly, because Patrick didn’t actually like men, not like that. He liked women. He had an on-again-off-again girlfriend to prove that much. And if the usual rate of travel for office gossip was anything to go by, Will surely knew that already; everyone in the office knew about Rachel. (They certainly still asked about her often enough).
It was all harmless fun, he’d assured and reassured himself, even when it hadn’t strictly felt harmless; when he’d felt disconcerted by an unnamable yearning, when he had felt reckless and giddy with it. But who wouldn’t welcome a little positive attention, regardless of where it came from, when they were at a low, lonely ebb? Who wouldn’t allow themselves to enjoy it?
And Patrick had enjoyed it. Maybe more than he should have. He had found himself chasing that reckless, giddy, new feeling; eager to collect more of the moments that had quickly become the best parts of his day. Patrick had found himself watching Will, seeking him out, more than he should have; had found himself loitering by the coffee machine or the copier alongside Will for longer than he should have; had found his thoughts out of work drifting to Will way more often than they should have. And in the end, when Will had perched on the edge of his desk to tell Patrick that he was moving on to a stint at an office supply company in a neighbouring town, he knew he felt more disappointed than he should have.
“It’s been fun,” Will had told him, frown inching towards a small smile, “working here. With you.”
“It’s been fun for me too.”
“We should stay in touch,” he’d said in a quick rush of breath and handed Patrick a pale blue post-it note with his phone number on it, “catch up over a drink or something, sometime.”
“We should,” Patrick had agreed, looking first at the post-it and then up at Will and that’s when he knew he couldn’t deny what had been happening; it was as clear in the too-loud pounding of his heart as it was in Will’s shy smile, the faint pinkness that tinted the long column of his throat, crept up his cheeks, all the way to the tips of his ears. And he knew the right thing to do would have been to say something that would nip the whole misunderstanding (was that what it was?) in the bud, to disentangle himself from the mess he’d created, something along the lines of a nonchalant, ‘yeah, it would be good to get the whole office together for drinks,’ or ‘I’m pretty busy, so I don’t know…’, or even ‘I don’t actually date guys,’ but he hadn’t.
“I’d like that,” he’d blurted out instead, maybe because he was an incurable people-pleaser, because he couldn’t handle the prospect of disappointment up close, or maybe just because it was true; he thought he would like it.
In response, Will had only grinned back at him in a way that made Patrick feel lost and found all at once.
In the few days after Will had gone, Patrick had caught himself thinking about how, in both the recent and distant past, he’d had too many flimsy excuses for breaking up with Rachel, too many unsatisfying first dates and one-time hookups, and as he’d stared again and again at the ten little digits on the post-it, he’d allowed himself too many times to wonder what if?
“So, when’s the big day finally gonna be?”
“Where do you think you’ll have the ceremony?”
“Are you doing a church or civil ceremony?”
“Oh, jeez, we haven’t even gotten to any of that stuff yet,” Rachel shakes her head and glances at Patrick with an almost apologetic smile.
“We’ve got plenty of time to plan all the details,” Patrick adds, although he isn’t sure he believes that anymore, “We just wanted to tell everyone first.”
“Well, don’t wait too long — you don’t want this one to get cold feet!”
Their friends all laugh at that, Rachel laughs, and Patrick laughs, too, even though it makes him bristle, just a bit, because they all know it’s true. Though it doesn’t have to be, he thinks, not anymore. He doesn’t want to keep being that guy; for him and Rachel to be that couple. It's time to grow up, to stop coasting and take charge of the life he at least thinks he wants instead, cold feet or not.
Patrick’s what if? about Will had swiftly turned into but what if I don’t? He hadn’t called Will, or texted him, or even thought about him (much) in the weeks after he’d gone. That giddy feeling had soon faded into something that felt silly, scary, shameful. What the fuck had he even been thinking? He was twenty-nine years old. If he’d been interested in men, he would’ve realised before, acted on it before. Wouldn’t he?
He still isn’t entirely sure what had happened, what had motivated that all-consuming transient doubt he’d felt, last time, for the first time in an otherwise familiar sea of uncertainty. Patrick had questioned many things about himself, his relationship with Rachel, over the years, but never something as fundamental as his sexuality, not even when he might have been expected to; not when he was a hormonal teenager at an all-boys school, or when he was meant to have an experimental phase in college, or even when his attempts to sow his wild and not-Rachel-flavoured oats with other girls always seemed to fall flat. Maybe the appeal hadn’t been attraction at all, but more the possibility of it; the illusion that he had a choice, that his life wasn’t already as clearly mapped out as everyone seemed to think.
Because the truth of it was that the burgeoning prospect of turning thirty and still being in the same town, with the same girl, in the same job - of cementing it all by getting married and settling down - scared him shitless. He just didn’t know why, exactly. He wanted a relationship. He wanted to love and be loved and to settle down.
He also craved more; a nebulous, undefinable extra something that had always seemed absent, just out of reach. He felt ashamed of himself for wanting it; he had no right. He was lucky; he knew he was. Plenty of people didn’t have the options, the love and support, that he had in his life. It felt selfish and greedy and juvenile, and so he decided that he was ready to finally just...let it go, move on from his drawn out quarter-life crisis before he lost everything he could have in pursuit of what he might never find. He’d consoled himself with the fact that it could still be fixed. As far as quarter life crises go, it could have been worse. He hadn’t acted on this particular fleeting notion, or any others — he hadn’t ploughed his savings into cryptocurrency or a risky start-up; he hadn’t joined a band or gotten a tattoo or quit his job to run away and find himself. He could get over a little short lived sexual confusion with minimal consequences. It wasn’t too late.
Once Will had been away from the office for about as long as he’d been there, Patrick stopped thinking about him and the ambiguous what ifs altogether and instead thought about all the things he missed about being part of a couple, about being with Rachel; about drinks with friends and movie nights and dinners together. He reasoned that being without her wouldn’t - couldn’t - feel so bad if he didn’t really want to be with her. So when she inevitably sent him a text that was supposedly meant for someone else, he replied, and they talked, and, with the usual coaxing from friends, from parents, they fell back into things, just like they always had.
Patrick was glad to be back in his old routine. He knew who he was when he was with Rachel, who he was supposed to be. It was safe and comfortable, and he dove back into that feeling, let it warm him like a blanket, cold feet and all. Still, he wanted more, this time. He wanted something to change between them. And in a relationship defined by regular intervals of instability, what could signal more of a change than a lifelong commitment?
He throws back his third – or is it fourth? - glass of champagne and plants a kiss on Rachel’s hair when she wraps her arm around his waist, smiles her familiar sweet smile at him. “Everyone is so happy that we’re finally doing this,” she says.
And it’s true, they all are. So he isn’t sure why his first instinct is to ask her, “But are you happy?”
“Of course,” she says. He believes her, but tries not to wonder why she doesn’t ask him the same question.
Because he is. Even if the knot he’d felt in his stomach in the lead up to proposing sometimes felt more like dread than excitement, he’s sure now that it was just because it’s a huge step. Committing to spend the rest of your life with someone isn’t supposed to be an easy decision, is it?
He’s always thought of himself as a take-charge guy but, for a while, he’d felt like he’d lost control of his life. Maybe this is his way of regaining that control, reclaiming his decisions, by ending the cycle of leaving and coming back by simply making it harder to leave.
“I’m gonna get a refill, you want one?”
Patrick looks at his half-empty glass. “Definitely,” he replies.
Maybe this is all they’ve needed all along, he thinks, something more to bind them together. He drains the rest of the glass, hangover be damned, and plants a wet kiss on Rachel’s cheek before she makes her way to a trio of waiting, grinning friends at the bar.
Patrick smiles back at them, a pleasant fuzziness starting to loosen his limbs, slow his racing mind. Maybe this time he’ll stay.