Working Title: Who Are You Competing With?

This story came in a dream, and I’ve spent months writing, rewriting, deleting and re-reading. I haven’t written short stories in a while either, which may explain why it took me a long time to spit this out and leave it alone after an acceptable first draft came together.

Writing this was fun and freeing, returning to my start of short stories over novels. There is less intimidation when writing short stories, when the adage of “you must know your main character like the palm of your hand” doesn’t apply as much because you won’t be with this character for very long. I spent a few months with her, and we’re still getting to know each other, and like all relationships, you learn something new about each other every day. At least, every day I went back to re-read and rewrite.

I enjoyed the freedom of this short story, of finding comfort in not knowing what happens next, because the story I wanted to tell begins and ends when it does. There may have been storylines that happened during that time, but I get to decide how important they were. Since it’s up to me, this is the most worthwhile story that she has to share.

Please enjoy and tell me how I did going back to my original medium. Or if you think I did a horrendous job, which I love to hear. My imposter syndrome is feeling a bit starved lately.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

The further she was in her pregnancy, the more distant he became. She expected that, since she wasn’t the one who was pregnant.

Joanna had met him when the baby’s mother was four months along, and she took it as a good sign that he’d been open and honest with her from the beginning when they’d only met by chance.

Since then, their relationship had an expiration date for her, the date when she was leaving New York or when the baby was born, whichever came first. That reality made the relationship sweeter, since they would never have to leave the honeymoon phase, the time when they can’t get enough of each other and everything is fun and an adventure, when they meet up with mutual friends for parties that last hours and always end with them pushed up against a corner together. They never had to leave the stage of being the envy of their long-term monogamous friends.

They never had to have the conversation about where this was going, whether they would continue their relationship long-distance, how she would be as a stepparent or whether she’d ever meet the baby’s mom. He liked that about her, she knew he did. She knew he loved how uncomplicated they were, how there were no unanswered calls or texts that a night together wouldn’t make up for. She knew that from how he called her his girl and from how he spent afternoons with her, coming and going as he pleased.

So when Davis told Joanna that he’d met another girl he was interested in getting to know, she said she was fine with it. Because she was. Wasn’t that, after all, the true tell of how relaxed, chill and young-at-heart you were? Who and how you chose to date in your early thirties was more of a status symbol than the clothes you wore or the restaurants you visited. Now, your status was dictated by who was taking your clothes off and which restaurant they took you to afterward.

This other girl was younger, also thought nothing of Davis’ imminent new arrival and looked up to Joanna, according to him. Davis told her multiple times that this younger girl (who had seen Joanna at other parties, but Joanna hadn’t ever seen her or made the effort to meet her) wanted to be like Joanna when she grew up.

The flattery helped Joanna come to terms with her new reality, and made her stick around. She wasn’t ancient at thirty-two by any means, and she hated to think she was too old to at least try to understand Davis’ attempt at polyamory before he became a father. If anything, she respected that he was getting his fun before the baby came. She felt a bit sorry for Davis, who was so clearly trying to hold onto his youth with these three women, and she still knew that their arrangement was still the envy of their long-term couple friends. Joanna’s only rule was that she would never talk to the younger woman or stay in the same party for longer than ten minutes if she was there. She didn’t have any rules for interacting with the baby’s mother other than making herself scarce, more out of respect than feeling intimidated. The other parties seemed to respect those rules without her or Davis having to enforce them. All the more proof that if there were a Dating in Your Thirties Without Being Uptight quiz at the end, Joanna would ace it.

**

“You’re really still seeing that guy?”

“And you really are having that tone with me right now?”

Joanna’s stepmom was the only one not on board with the arrangement, expiration date or not, and she checked in on it on their weekly FaceTime calls.

“What tone?”

“That judgmental tone. I would have thought you wouldn’t fault me for dating a guy with kids.”

“He doesn’t have kids yet, though. Unless you count that little girl he’s seeing on the side.”

That made Joanna feel better, less old and ancient. A woman’s thirties looked different now than before. A time of empowerment rather than a sentence as a spinster, being single and dating in your thirties wasn’t unusual now and was even celebrated. Joanna wanted to embrace that by staying open to their arrangement.

“That’s gross.”

“Is it though? How old is she again?”

“Twenty-one, I think.”

She knew how old she was. That was the first thing Davis had told her, before he’d told her for the first time that she wanted to be like Joanna when she grew up.

“And he’s thirty-three?”

“Jesus’ age indeed.”

Joanna’s stepmom laughed. It was their private joke. The two women were seven years apart, but in moments like these, when Joanna’s lifestyle choices were obviously alien and too much a product of the current time, the age difference widened. They felt like parent-child rather than friends, as they usually did.

“So he should certainly act his age.”

“Does that mean I’m not acting my age if I’m a year younger?”

“I would say so, but you’d only hang up the phone on me.”

And she was right. The call ended shortly after that when Joanna said she was meant to meet Davis soon.

Joanna was supposed to meet Davis at Bryant Park, which she wasn’t fond of but it was close to where he was coming from after the prenatal appointments he dutifully attended every week. She sat on a bench by the fountain, people watching. Autumn was just beginning, and tourists and influencers took turns looking for the best tree to use as a back drop for their videos or photos.

**

When she was in eighth grade, Joanna had her first kiss and her first boyfriend in quick succession. Both had ended as quickly as they started. It had happened on a trip to New York, with a lot of flirting back and forth all day, culminating when they were back on the bus to Maryland. With the lights dimmed, the freeway on either side of them and what felt like endless amount of time before they were home, a game of musical chairs, bus edition, let her sit next to the boy she had a crush on, Bobby-Mason. Not soon after they were sitting together, he told her that their other friend, Lester, wanted to talk to her. Lester was taking a break from making out with Mari and had Joanna sit next to him.

“Bobby likes you,” Lester told her. “He wants me to find out if you’d say yes if he asks you out.”

Joanna wanted to play it cool, to act mature and like the girls she saw in movies. She had just seen 13 Going on 30 and she wanted to act thirty. So she told Lester that she would, but that Bobby-Mason would have to talk to her directly and sit with her on this bus trip for longer than a minute. Lester said he’d tell him, and she went back to her now-empty seat.

She looked out the window at the dark, flashing lights coming and going, heart racing, when someone sat next to her. It was Bobby-Mason.

“Did Lester tell you?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright!” Bobby-Mason said and grabbed her hand. They didn’t say anything to each other, and then Lester and Mari were in the seat in front of them.

“We’re trying to see who can kiss the longest. We got one minute. How long can you guys go?”

Bobby-Mason spoke. “Start counting.”

With that, Bobby-Mason leaned over and kissed Joanna clumsily. Not knowing what to do, Joanna went along, moving her lips in response to his. The cheering and wooing eventually was too much for her, and she pulled away. Bobby-Mason put both arms around her and hugged her close to him, so that she was leaning on him with her feet on the seat.

“Four minutes. You guys win.”

They sat like that for a while, Joanna feeling his heartbeat on her head, thinking they were so mature for sitting together like that. It was uncomfortable and she had to keep shifting her legs when they fell asleep, but subtly so Bobby-Mason wouldn’t see. She got out her iPod to distract herself and Bobby-Mason asked for one earbud. They listened to music together as Joanna smiled at the darkness out the window.

“Want some gum?” His voice was at her earbud-free ear.

She nodded, and suddenly Bobby-Mason was leaning over her and kissed her again, except when he pulled away this time, Joanna had a mouthful of gum. We are so mature, she thought. She’d only seen adults in movies sit like this, sharing earbuds and sharing gum.

The bus trip eventually ended and they were back in Maryland, and Bobby-Mason got in his parents’ car without saying goodbye to Joanna. That’s okay, she thought. In a mature relationship, we don’t have to be together constantly. We are better than that.

That night, as her dad drove home, she thought about how vastly different she was from this morning when he’d dropped her off. Now, she was someone’s girlfriend. She’d kissed a boy. That’s the first thing Jennifer Gardner had done when she transformed into a thirty-year-old in the movie. She’d kissed a boy. Now Joanna was closer to being older too.

**

“So, listen, babe. I met this girl and I want to pursue something with her. I wanted to tell you about it beforehand though.”

They had been having an afternoon coffee in her apartment. Davis had come over to help her pack, but he’d instead sat on the couch while Joanna took her pictures and frames off the wall and told stories about where she’d gotten each one. Davis had spoken after a very long silence of being on his phone, and Joanna had to stand still and put down the frame she had been wrapping up.

She appreciated Davis breaking up with her so serenely and without drama, without the secrecy and duplicity. Dating in your thirties, she’d thought. Her chest felt tight at the reflex hurt of not being chosen, but she knew herself enough to be sure that she’d be composed long enough for him to leave before she got truly upset.

“Well, thanks for telling me. It’s fair you want to pursue something long-term with someone else instead since I won’t be around for much longer.”

Davis looked surprised and put his phone in his pocket before coming up to stand in front of her. She didn’t want him to do that, to comfort her as he hurt her, because she wouldn’t hold off the tears long enough that way.

“I didn’t mean instead of, babe. I want to see her as well. To get to know her at the same time as I get to know you.”

Joanna’s hurt started disappearing, but it was replaced with confusion. She went through her catalog of emotions to decide how to feel, but she looked at Davis instead.

“That’s cool, right? We never talked about being boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Joanna said no, that they hadn’t, because it wouldn’t be fair to either of them since she was moving to London in a few months’ time. But when Joanna had told Davis that she wouldn’t mind spending as much time as possible with him before she left, she had thought that even though the label wasn’t there, the mutual understanding had been. That hadn’t been very relaxed-dating-in-your-thirties of her.

“So I want to try this polyamory thing, see what happens.”

“I have to admit, I don’t have much experience with that,” Joanna said. “The wildest I’ve gone is dating multiple people at the same time, but not when it got more serious with someone.”

“I’ve done it once,” Davis said. “But I caught intense feelings for one person and had to end it with the others.”

Joanna was conscious not to look too surprised at ‘others’ with Davis holding her so close. This is fine, she thought. It’s another experience. Just like your move to London.

**

After that conversation, Joanna had seen Davis sparingly. When he wasn’t spending time with her, he was at a doctor’s appointment with the baby’s mother or going roller blading in Central Park with the other woman when the weather was nice. She thought about taking up cycling or rowing or even yoga in Central Park, before she remembered she hated all those things and that she had already sold her bicycle. That had left her with the weekend shift.

“I resent that,” Davis had said when she jokingly mentioned it. “You’re not minding me or keeping me company until your relieve comes.”

“It was a joke,” Joanna had said. “But there are only so many weekends before I leave.”

She had wanted to spend more time with Davis, or to at least spend it doing more than sleeping or watching him nap as she worked or packed or filled out forms for her job in London. She had wanted to feel less like the place Davis came to crash because it was close to the younger woman’s apartment that she shared with five others. But she knew that voicing this would break the spell, ruin the relaxed, twenty-first century version of a summer romance that they were having. Just go with the flow, she’d tell herself. Think of the stories you can tell about this time in your life.

**

“You’re what Carrie Bradshaw would be in today’s world,” Carly said. They were at a get-together in Carly’s place, smoking a joint and chasing it with wine.

“Are you saying my outfits are ridiculous and I spend too much money on brunch?”

Carly laughed. “No! I mean that you’re having incredible sex with Davis and don’t mind that he’s spending the rest of the week with another woman. And when he’s not doing that, he’s at birthing classes with the mother of his child. Your life is a sitcom’s wet dream.”

Joanna laughed, well aware of how their relationship looked to others. They didn’t know that she had seen Davis only once this week, when he walked into this party.

“You’re just so chill,” another one of their friends said. “I could never.”

“That’s incredibly judgmental,” Carly said. Joanna was grateful for that, taking a puff and a sip to hide how much that comment stung. Not because of the inherent judgment behind the compliment, but because of the nagging concern that she also couldn’t do this for long. She was grateful for her self-imposed deadline of saying goodbye and graduating from the experience.

“This is a modern kind of relationship, allowing our partners to explore their desires and identities. Not clipping anyone’s wings with the garden shears of the patriarchy.”

Everyone braced themselves for the Carly Tirade every party was known for. They only had to wait for her to run out of steam.

“We are beyond the ghosting and vanilla dating of our early twenties. We drink the medium shelf wine and liquor, not because we are snobs but because we know ourselves. We take our coffee black or with an offensive amount of sugar,” she looked at Joanna when she said that. “We know what we want and don’t give a shit how it looks just because we’re ladies of a certain age. At my age, my mother had two kids under ten and hated her life. I’ll be damned if that’s me.”

Everyone took a collective breath as Carly took a puff and sip of wine, ready for the rest of the rant. But it didn’t come, and instead Davis came to wind his arms around Joanna.

“See! Look at that!” Carly said and pointed at the two of them. “Davis came with his girlfriend but is now lovingly showing affection to his partner, after going to a birthing class with the mother of his child. What more can you ask for!”

Joanna froze and hoped that her tactical sip of wine hid her shock. Davis was laughing and held her tighter, oblivious to her reaction. She squirmed her way out of his arms, saying she had an early day of packing tomorrow.

“My closet needs a good seeing to,” she said, as she hugged Carly and kissed Davis on the cheek, hoping she wouldn’t run into the other woman on her way out.

**

She still waited for Davis at Bryant Park, and as she took out her phone to message him to check in, a pair of their mutual friends spotted her. She waved back at them and started walking over to meet them. It was Gianni and Carly.

“Amore, Davis has told me,” Gianni said. “He told me to tell you he can’t meet you because the baby is coming today.”

Joanna knew the baby would be due soon, just like she was due to leave New York in a month’s time, but she was banking on the last few weeks of sweet goodbyes and simple romance of two people committed to nothing but giving each other pleasure.

“He said it’s not serious, but that she was a lot further along than he thought,” Carly finished. “But he’ll be at the hospital with her for a while.”

“I’m confused,” Joanna admitted. “I was supposed to meet him today. Why wouldn’t he just call me?”

“We were supposed to meet him for lunch, and he said to tell you.”

“But were you already coming this way? Did he ask you to find me and tell me?”

“Amore, we are just telling you what he wanted us to say. It was easier.”

“He could have just called me.”

Gianni and Carly just looked at her, fidgeting and waiting for the polite time to leave. Joanna was angry and confused at how Davis’ mind had worked that morning and how he had reduced her to playing telephone with their friends in the playground.

“Did he put you in charge of telling her too?”

“He said he’d told her already. That he said it could be any day now.”

“So he did know how far along she was?”

“Amore, I do not know. He just said to tell you that he can’t meet you today and that he won’t be contactable for a while when the bambino is here. He said to tell you that you shouldn’t worry if you don’t hear from him for a while.”

Joanna was thirteen again as Gianni was talking, going right back to eighth grade when Bobby-Mason broke up with her three days after their bus trip through one of their friends. She had played it off then and gone to sit on the benches to braid her friend’s hair, but she’d cried in the bathroom after school. At least now she could go back to her apartment to break down in peace.

“Okay, well, thank you for coming to find me. You didn’t have to do that. You could have just called me too.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re going for dessert a few blocks over and you were on our way.”

“You just came from lunch with Davis right now? You were with him just now?”

“Si, si, amore, before he went to a doctor’s appointment for baby.”

As Joanna was putting the dots together and getting angrier by the second, Gianni and Carly said their goodbyes and walked west, arms linked and stealing glances at her as she stood in the park. Alone and confused. Just as she had stood after Bobby-Mason had broken up with her by proxy.

**

Two weeks passed before she heard from Davis. The first five days, she was tempted to call him or text him, to like the Instagram picture he’d posted of the small baby feet of the little girl that had made him a dad. To somehow remind him of her existence. But she didn’t.

The anger that had started in the park had morphed into rage over the two weeks. Rage at Davis, at herself, at Gianni and Carly who had nothing to do with this. She avoided the larger groups of friends, fearing she may see him before she was ready. She used the excuse of needing to do some admin before moving to get out of plans or to head home when small three-people dinners threatened to spill over into group-nights at the bar.

She didn’t miss Davis. She didn’t feel lonely. She didn’t miss trading off whose apartment they spent the night at, or having to subtly decline spending the night at Davis’ if all three of his roommates were around. She finally finished reading the book Carly had recommended and completed a yoga challenge. She said a teary goodbye to her therapist and promised to seek her out again if she was ever back States-side. When Davis finally called her to meet up, she surprised herself by noticing that she hadn’t thought of him in days.

As she read Davis’ clipped message asking her to meet up at a place of her choosing, she suddenly thought back to the first time she saw his baby announcement. When she saw the Instagram photo of the baby feet, the congratulating comments and heart-eyes emojis, her attraction to Davis was gone. She felt guilty at first, hypocritical and cruel, at finding a dad so unattractive as soon as the evidence of fatherhood was in front of her. It went beyond her lack of desire to have children herself, and she was suddenly giggling at the idea of having children with Davis. She laughed hysterically at the ridiculous thought, almost feeling sorry for the woman who was linked to Davis forever by way of this child. How long would it take Davis to grow up, to stop wanting to live in an apartment with three roommates just to be able to say he lived in Murray Hill? Would he ever get a job with benefits now that he had someone else to look after?

She was suddenly thankful to the baby for providing her an out of ever considering having kids of her own with him, to absolve her of even having to consider such an improbability. Because of that gratitude, and her own stepmom’s words in her ear, she wasn’t mad at the baby. It wasn’t the baby’s existence that made Davis so unattractive now – it was Davis pretending to be ready for the baby that made Joanna’s attraction fade. If this was part of the quiz, she would have failed spectacularly. Spectacularly and she would have taken her F and been grateful.

She would never have to compete with the baby. She would withdraw herself from the race, and knew that she was the wisest to do so. Of all the women in Davis’ life now, the baby did not have to compete with anyone. Joanna didn’t want to compete for second place with the baby’s mother and the other woman he was seeing, who was keeping him in tender hooks, keeping him interested. He’d lamented multiple times how she wasn’t returning his texts, once even as they were laying naked after making love. He squirmed away from her embrace to check his phone before putting it back with a groan and disappointment in his face. Joanna had thought her cool affect at his actions were her relaxed disposition at their arrangement, but it was really boredom of his disregard for her existence.

She was too old, too exhausted, for that tango. And she didn’t want to compete with herself either, the part of her who egged her on to go with the flow, to be adaptable, lest this opportunity should pass her by. She shook her head at that part of herself who was forever trying to hold onto her youth, her worth, by putting others first. She embraced the maturity of watching some opportunities fly by, of staunchly putting herself first.

So she put on her best armor to go meet Davis at an expensive cocktail bar he always made her pay at, putting on her outfit that she knew would turn heads, and went to tell him precisely that when he finally contacted her.

When she walked in, he was at the bar, looking at his phone. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, a man in a suit and a man in the fringes of the group he was with turn and look at her as she walked in. She kept the smile that was bubbling on her lips away and looked straight ahead. When Davis spotted her, he nodded his head at her before going back to his phone.

“Hey, babe. Do you want a drink?” He already had a drink in front of him, the watered-down Old Fashioned he always ordered and only drank half off before leaving for a chain Irish pub across the street.

“No, thanks. I’m not staying long.”

“Oh, you meeting people after this? What’s the move?”

“I’m not meeting anyone. I just have a few things to say to you and then I’m leaving.”

“But I missed you, babe. I’m learning to be a dad, so I’ve been distracted, but I wanted to talk to you.”

“I’m going to do you a favor and give you one less thing to worry about. You can go be a dad, go chase after that twenty-year-old. Do not worry about me. I’m out.”

“What do you mean? I thought we were having a good time?”

“I was not having a good time. So now, my gift to you, is one less woman to worry about.”

Joanna stood up and noticed the man in the suit was looking at her again. She flashed him a smile before turning back to Davis.

“And don’t bother coming to my goodbye party next week.”

She left then, and she heard Davis sigh, but her stubborn gait away from him in her best heels that weren’t packed yet were louder. She didn’t want him to stop her, to come after her and apologize. She wanted another cocktail bar, somewhere she could drink alone. She smiled at the thought.

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