A Four Letter Word

A Four-Letter Word

             My knuckles were as white as the face of the clock ticking away the seconds in the background as I gripped the stem of a wine glass. A ping went off and my index finger swiped up on the tempered glass covered screen of my phone. I scrolled to the text she sent me.

            ‘What should I do Sky?’

            ‘Lex, I don’t know what you want me to say,’ I typed. ‘I’ve suggested relationship counseling, I’ve suggested that both of you go to separate therapists, I’ve suggested the two of you going on a break. I don’t know what else I can tell you; I don’t know what else to say.’

            ‘Please, Sky,’ came her response. ‘I need your help. He won’t listen to me; he won’t take no for an answer.’

            ‘About what?’

            ‘Last night I stayed at his apartment and I was exhausted, but he kept bugging me for sex. I told him, no, but he wouldn’t stop, and he wouldn’t shut up, so I just laid back and let him do what he wanted.’

            I stared at my screen, even as it was blurred by my tears. I desperately waited for another text from her, something that would tell me she was just kidding, or anything that would erase the thoughts from my head. I had always known that the world was not a kind place for women, but the idea of my best friend being forced…I couldn’t even finish the thought.

             ‘Alexa, you realize what he did, don’t you?’

            ‘I know what you think Skylar, but it wasn’t like that.’

            ‘I don’t care if he is your boyfriend, what he did to you was rape.’

            ‘Stop being dramatic. That is a four-letter word!’

            ‘Yea, well I have a lot of choice four-letter words for your boyfriend.’

            ‘I knew I shouldn’t have told you about this.’

            ‘Please Lex, I can’t watch you go through this anymore. Let me help you.’

            I waited for her next text, but it didn’t come. I spent the rest of my night alternating between checking my phone and imagining worst-case scenarios in my mind. I googled hotlines she could call, I looked at statistics for abusive relationships that made me worry even more, I typed and deleted a dozen texts to her. In the end, I thought if I was the one to text her first, it would just drive her away more.

            She didn’t text me until the next day, asking about our ritual Friday lunch. When we met that afternoon, she acted as if nothing had happened. Our conversation was strained enough and then her phone started to go off. She ignored the calls every time and I knew they were from him.

            “Alexa, answer the phone or silence it,” I told her after the tenth time, sick of hearing her ringtone.

            She gave me an apologetic smile and put the phone to her ear.

            “Hey babe,” her voice went up an octave. “Sky and I are just having lunch…I’m sorry I di-…I guess I wasn’t really thinking about your feelings, and I’m sorry. I just figured you knew we were having our Friday lunch so you wouldn’t call me.”

            He couldn’t go an hour without being in contact with her somehow and a lot of the time a simple text wasn’t enough for him. I wanted to rip the phone out of her hand and scream at him for what he was doing to my best friend, but I took a deep breath and pretended not to listen as she spoke to him.

            “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day love, why don’t you tell me about it? No, I want to talk to you, I promise.”

            I didn’t even stop eating my food because by the time she finally got off the phone with him I knew hers would be cold.

            Later that day I kicked myself for not bringing up the four-letter word, but Alexa and I had been best friends for six years and I knew better. We’d been roommates at Northwestern; we bonded over our shared love of bad romcoms and Chinese food, we both loved to act, and we balanced each other out. At first, I worried Lexi and I wouldn’t get along. She looked like the kind of girl who had tortured me my entire teenage life. Lexi had the figure of a model and the charisma of a talk show host and I was her opposite in almost every way. However, she proved she was different a few months into our first semester.

            I was upset for a reason that I can’t even remember now. I had come back to our dorm, flopped down on my bed and started crying. A few minutes later I heard Lexi get up and leave and I figured that she just didn’t want to sit there and listen to me sobbing. About twenty minutes later I heard the door open and close again.

            “Do you prefer strawberry ice cream or chocolate peanut butter?”

            I rolled over on my bed and saw her standing there with a bag from the student union. Lexi smiled at me before sitting down on her bed across from me.

            “You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong, but if you want to, I promise I’ll listen.”

            I returned her grin and reached for the carton of chocolate peanut butter.

            “Why don’t we put on a movie for a bit,” I suggested. “I don’t have enough ice cream in my system to talk about it yet.”

            Our friendship grew from there. We spent our college years as a duo, from dressing up as Arya and Sansa Stark for Halloween to crying on each other’s shoulders too many times to count. Lexi became a constant in my life and after we graduated, we stayed close.

            In the six years that we’d been friends, I had seen Lexi go through a long string of guys, each one of them wrong for her in their own way, but I thought each one of them would teach her something about the kind of man she should be with.

            Honestly, I hoped that each man she went through would bring her closer to me. Every time she had her heart broken, I would sit with her, wipe away her tears and tell her that one day she would find someone who loved her and wanted to give her the world. What I didn’t have the courage to say was, that person was me.

            I don’t remember when I fell in love with my best friend, but I remember it was sudden. One day it was as if I was seeing her in a brand-new way. The way her brown eyes lit up when she smiled made me feel giddy, her laugh was the sound I wanted to hear most in the world, and a text from her could drive me to distraction.

            A silly part of me hoped that one day she might notice that the person who was always there for her and would do anything for her was me, then AJ came into her life.

            They had met through mutual friends during our senior year of college. He had already graduated and wasn’t Lexi’s usual type. He had short buzzed hair that was already receding a little. He wore glasses and was tall and lanky. Lexi usually went for men that looked like Chris Hemsworth, and AJ looked more like Paul Bettany. The first time I met him I thought he and Lexi were a good fit, he was quiet and reserved, and let Lexi be who she was. He looked at her the same way I did, and at first, I was jealous that he had her when I couldn’t. However, in the pit of my stomach, I knew that Lexi wasn’t attracted to women, so I just had to be happy that she was happy.

            One afternoon the two of them invited me to lunch which was a step in the right direction. None of Lexi’s previous boyfriends had ever gotten to know me, but AJ wanted to hear all about how the two of us became best friends. The three of us talked and laughed for hours that afternoon and when the check came AJ waved off my attempts to pay.

            “How would it look if I didn’t pay for lunch for two beautiful women?”

            Lexi had given him a smile as bright as a June afternoon when he said that.

            I also couldn’t help the smile that crept onto my face. No one ever really described me as beautiful except Lexi and I never believed her because she was obviously the attractive one. She was tall and had somehow had a size two waist and hourglass curves at the same time. She had long chocolate colored hair and bright brown eyes that matched it. I was the opposite of her in almost every way, including how many people were attracted to me.

            Sometimes it was difficult to be her friend, but it was even worse being in love with her and watching her relationship with AJ turn into something worse than all the other heartbreaks combined.

             A few months later I finally had the courage to say something to her about him while we were on a shopping trip.”

            “AJ’s been driving me crazy,” she said with a groan, shuffling through racks of clothes at one of her favorite stores.

            “I’m really starting to hate him,” I muttered.

            “Hate is a four-letter word, Skylar.”

            “You use that phrase all the time, what does it even mean?”

            “Usually ‘a four-letter word’ is something profane or offensive. So, I’m saying that your hate for my boyfriend isn’t appreciated.”

            “You were the one who started complaining about him,” I reminded her. “What’s he done now?”

            She forgot her annoyance with me and went back to talking about AJ.

            “He’s has been up my ass ever since I got put on that new case with Liam.”

            “He’s the new guy at the firm right?” I recalled her telling me about a new lawyer she had described as attractive. “Is AJ convinced he’s trying to get in your pants?”

            “Yes, but he’s happily married and expecting his first child in six months,” she told me, letting out an exasperated huff.

            “Lexi, this is your job, he can’t treat you like this,” I said firmly.

            She turned and looked at me, the sale rack behind her forgotten. “What do you think I should do?”

            I waited, not wanting to give away my position yet.

            “Just explain to him that this is a huge opportunity for you, and it doesn’t matter who you’re working with. Tell him you’re not interested in Liam and he isn’t interested in you and that is the end of it. He shouldn’t be jealous if nothing is going on.”

            “He just seems to freak out any time I’m around another guy. He doesn’t even trust my male friends.”

            “Lexi, that’s dumb. That means he doesn’t trust you, and you shouldn’t be in a relationship where you don’t have trust,” I told her, my voice calm but my hands shaking as I went back to rifling through marked down clothes.

            “He does trust me,” her voice was insistent. “He’s just been cheated on before and it’s hurt him a lot.”

            “Okay, cheating sucks, but he’s treating you like you’re going to cheat on him, even though it has never happened.”

            She grew silent and also went back to looking at clothes. For a few moments, the only sound around us was the slide of metal hangers on metal clothing racks and the generic muffled music piped into every mall in America. After a few minutes of tension, Lexi finally spoke.

            “I’ve cheated in the past Skylar,” she said, eyes not meeting mine.

            I nodded; my eyes boring into hers. “I know that. I know every sordid little aspect of your dating life and I still love you. I don’t think you can say the same thing about AJ.”

            She opened her mouth to speak again but I held up my hand. “I’m just worried, Lex. Every time you and I talk we either spend most of our time dancing around the subject of AJ or I spend it listening to your latest problem with him.”

            She scoffed. “Oh, I didn’t realize I was becoming such a burden on you.”

            “That’s not what I meant, and you know it, Alexa,” I told her firmly. “I just feel like you complain to me about him, so I’ll tell you what I think.”

            She didn’t object so I continued. “And if that’s what you want then I tell you exactly what I think.”

            “I think you’re in an abusive relationship,” I stated bluntly.

            “He’s never hit me,” she said quickly. “If he ever did, I would walk away from him forever.”

            I paused again, taking a deep breath.

            “Abuse isn’t just physical Alexa. I don’t think AJ is good enough for you. He treats you like shit, he’s jealous, he’s controlling, he can’t go an hour without calling or texting you and you two fight constantly.”

            “He always apologizes first when we fight and gives me flowers or something else to make it up to me.”

            “That just shows he’s capable of remorse and he’s trying to buy your forgiveness,” I said, my brain screaming at me to shut up while my mouth just ignored it. “When the three of us went out for lunch that first time I remember the way you smiled at AJ. I haven’t seen you smile like that in months and I miss that smile.”

            I looked at her and I saw there were tears in her eyes. “I just want you to be happy Lexi. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

            She looked up at me and for a moment our two our eyes locked and I felt like she might understand exactly where I was coming from. Instead, she turned on her heel and walked out of the store without another word to me.

            The next few days all I got from her was radio silence. She sent all my calls straight to voicemail and didn’t answer any of my texts.

            That was what Lexi was good at, ignoring her problems and hoping they would go away or sweeping her problems under the rug and moving on. She was one of the most passive aggressive people I had ever met, and it was one of the things that I had always thought balanced us out. I’d never been the kind of person to stay silent when I had thoughts or feelings about something. In our six years of friendship Lexi and I had never fought because anytime I brought up I problem I had with her so that we could get over it, she would just pretend it didn’t exist until I dropped the subject. Lexi didn’t like conflict, that was one of the reasons that she hadn’t left AJ. She honestly thought that if she just kept forgiving and forgetting things between the two of them would be alright.

            More than once while Lexi was freezing me out, I wondered if any of this was my business. I had always heard that a relationship looks different from the outside, that the only people who really know what’s going on are the people in the relationship. I tried to stay out of Lexi’s drama, but that never lasted long. I would tell her to do whatever she thought was best and no matter her choice I would support her. All I wanted was to support her in every way, to hold her hand, be the shoulder to cry on, be the person who loved her and wanted what was best for her.

            I was still in love with her, but she wasn’t the same woman I had fallen in love with. She was a shell, an illusion that sounded and acted just like my best friend but was hallow on the inside. what and pray that would be the end of it. I found myself asking what good I was doing in this situation. Yes, I was Lexi’s support system, but she didn’t listen to me, and if she didn’t listen did, she even value what I was saying? What would happen if I just walked away from the whole situation?

            I shuddered at the thought of leaving Lexi, but at the same time, the idea wouldn’t go away. I didn’t sleep well that night, I laid awake in bed for hours making pro and con lists and weighing out every possibility in my head. I still hadn’t made up my mind when Lexi text me the next day during work.

            ‘Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?’

            I sighed, looking at the corner of my screen to indeed confirm that it was Thursday. I still hadn’t made a decision about what I was going to do and I wanted to ignore her for once. However, I knew that avoiding her would only make everything worse, so I text her back, confirming lunch. For the rest of the day, I could barely concentrate, my brain formulating plan after plan and dismissing every single one. I didn’t sleep much that night either.

            The next day I arrived at our favorite café first. I sat at our usual booth, unable to get comfortable, adjusting myself every few seconds, looking up from my menu whenever anyone came in the door. Finally, ten minutes late, Lexi walked inside and made her way over to me.

             I tried to smile when I saw her until she got closer and I noticed how she looked. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her right cheek looked almost like it was throbbing. She sat down across from me and I was able to see what looked like a handprint across one of her high cheekbones. She ran a hand through her brown hair and soon her cheek was obscured from my view. I opened my mouth the speak but I was cut off when she thrust her left hand out towards me.

             I tore my eyes away from her face and looked down. There was a ring on her third finger and my eyes snapped up to look at her again.

            She gave me a feeble smile. “AJ and I are engaged.”

            The silence that settled on the two of us must have been as heavy as the world felt on Atlas’s shoulders. I dropped Lexi’s hand and looked up at her.

            “I can’t do this,” I blurted out.

            I still hadn’t been sure what my course of action would be when I had sat down at that table, knowing that Lexi was eventually going to sit down across from me. Seeing that mark across her face had thrown everything into focus faster than the automatic zoom on a camera.

            “Sky what are you talking about?” Lexi wondered, smoothing her hair down over her cheek as if she was afraid that I might get a better look at her. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me?”

            I remembered when she had told me that if AJ ever hit her, she would leave him and never look back. Now she was sitting across from me wearing both the engagement ring and his handprint as if they went together. I felt my heart clench painfully in my chest and tears began to prick violently at my eyes, angry when I wouldn’t let them fall.

            I put my menu down and reached across the table, taking her right hand in mine.

            “Lexi, I love you,” I said firmly.

            She smiled. “I know that Sky.”

            I shook my head, the tears finally starting to spill out. “No, you don’t. I love you as more than a friend, and I have felt this way for about five years.”

            She didn’t speak. I hadn’t expected a fairytale ending where she loved me too or even acceptance. I worried that the news might upset her which would have been better than this. Total silence, no reaction at all to the feelings that I had kept to myself for so long. My heart clenched again, and I got to my feet.

            “I love you, but I can’t stand by you and watch you make a mistake. I can’t sit here and listen to you make excuses for AJ anymore, and I sure as hell will not watch you walk down the aisle toward a man who has treated you the way he has.”

            I grabbed my purse, missing the handle the first time because of the saline clouding my eyes. I looked back at her one last time, there were tears in her eyes as well, but she still wouldn’t look at me and she still hadn’t said a word.

            I didn’t wait for her to find her voice. I knew that if she asked me to stay that I would find an excuse to justify that. Lexi wouldn’t even look at me, someone who really did love her, but she was willing to marry a man who had hurt her so many times.

            When it came from me, love was just a four-letter word to Lexi.