The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

"I'm sorry," Aiden said, wiping some ice cubes off his lap.

The anger inside Gwen gave way to something else. Something that pushed painfully at her eyes with tears. She rushed out of the coffee shop, almost running headlong into Beatrice.

"Oh, B!" Gwen said, wrapping her friend up in a hug. Beatrice returned the gesture, stroking at the back of her head and cooing.

"It's okay, it's okay. Hey, let's go back to your place and we'll talk. Can we do that?" Beatrice said.

Chapter 6

Gwen didn't know how she managed it, but she avoided a complete, sobbing breakdown. She settled for throwing herself down on her couch and shaking. It was all just too much. First, Janice throwing her under the bus with Patterson Holdings, now some rich guy literally trying to buy her.

Why is all this happening to me? she thought. I'm a nice person! The meanest thing she could ever remember doing was laying the blame for some spilled ice cream on their living room carpet on an old elementary school friend when she was little. And the guilt had wracked her so much she'd come clean to her father a week later.

Wasn't karma only supposed to affect bad people?

In the kitchen, the kettle started whistling. She had to give it to Beatrice: her friend could act like all she cared about was boys, but she was right there when you needed her.

Like now, for instance. Gwen listened as her friend poured the boiling water into the teapot. Soon thereafter, she came out into the living room toting the lacquered tea tray Gwen kept in the cabinet over the sink. It held her red tea pot and two cups with their accompanying saucers. All this, Beatrice put down on the coffee table and then sat on the bit of couch Gwen wasn't sprawled across. She squeezed Gwen's leg.

"What happened?" Beatrice said, "I mean, I know I was running late, and it touches me you feel so strongly about our relationship..." she finished with a smile and a wink.

Gwen sniffled as she sat up. The tea smelled good. English breakfast, her favorite. Little curlicues of steam issued from the spout of the tea pot; Beatrice had forgotten the cozy. But that didn't matter. It was the thought that counted.

"No, no. It's not you, stop flattering yourself," Gwen said, giving Beatrice a playful nudge.

"If not me, then who?"

Gwen related the story. Or most of it, anyway. She couldn't bring herself to tell Beatrice, her closest friend, about being propositioned like that. Instead, she left it at Aiden just being a complete jerk.

"You were right about him," Gwen said.

"Just goes to show that you need to believe me more often."

"Yeah. Oh, and I should also mention that we can never go to that Starbucks again. I did make a bit of a scene. I don't think I can ever show my face around there."

Beatrice put her arm over Gwen's shoulders and pulled her close. "Well, I guess after we get this rent thing all sorted out you're going to have to invest in an espresso machine. Momma needs her caffeine, you know. Needs it bad. And I don't think tea is going to cut it."

"You addict," Gwen said, always grateful for her friend's ubiquitous sense of humor. She sniffled one last time as the final vestiges of that awful meeting with Aiden left her system. I have more important things to worry about than some rich jerk with more money than sense.

So Beatrice and Gwen had their tea, and even caught the last half of Ellen on TV.

But all good things must come to an end, Gwen knew. This rule apparently went double for her. Beatrice begged off, citing a trip into the city to meet one of the guys from the party.

"Mr. Number Two, actually," Beatrice said as they hugged at the front door. "You just concentrate on finding a way out of all this, and remember, I'll help any way I can."

After Beatrice left, Gwen went back to the couch. She poured herself another cup of tea, but it was cold.

That just made her think of the cup of water she'd thrown in Aiden's face. And that just made her think of his offer.

"I don't need your money," she said, watching the tea slosh around in her cup.

It really did hurt to think about him. And she realized she must have really begun to actually like him for that to be true.

But apparently, she was a poor judge of character. After all, she'd thought Janice was a good person. And look where that's gotten me, she thought.

The blame game circled around to her for other reasons, too. She thought about how she'd already wasted most of yesterday, and all of the current day, on stupid things that got her no closer to finding that money.

But it was also clear that unless money literally fell from the sky into her hands, there were only two real solutions, and they were called mom and dad. It was time to swallow down her pride and call them.

Remembering coming clean to her father on the ice cream carpet debacle, and the way he'd handled that, she decided to get in touch with him first.

"I thought you said you wanted to try and make it on your own? Isn't school going well?" her dad said. She'd caught him on his lunch break at work.

"School's going just fine, dad. It's not that. I could really use your help here. I'm not sure what else to do."

Her dad paused on the other end of the line. In the background, she could hear the voices of his coworkers in the office. He'd been at the same place for 21 years now, pretty much as long as Gwen had been alive.

Then came a question she'd been expecting. "Have you talked to your mother yet?"

Which really meant: "Have you asked her for help? Did you really go to her first before me, your one and only father?"

"No, I haven't," she answered.

It was a toss-up whether this would be a good or bad thing. He might feel gratified that she came to him first. But then again, he might have felt more gratified being able to rub this in her mom's face, about being able to help their daughter out when she needed it.

"Well, I'm glad. It's good to know at least one of the women in my life thinks I'm good enough for them."

Gwen remained non-committal on that point. She loved both her parents, and it really tore her up inside to be the go-between for their little jabs at each other. Sometimes, whenever they ramped up the divorce proceedings, she felt like the rope in a game of tug-of-war between them and their lawyers.

"So you need some money then, or what?" her dad said.

She finally let out the breath she'd been holding. Her shoulders relaxed, and she leaned back into the comforting give of the couch cushion.

"Yes, if you don't mind..." Gwen said.

"Mind? You're my daughter! How could I possibly mind? No, it makes me feel good to help you out. I wish you'd let me do it more often. So how much do you need?"

"$5000 should cover it."

Something caught in her dad's throat. He stopped breathing. That wasn't the type of reaction she'd been hoping for. A chill went down Gwen's back.

"Five... thousand?" he said, "Gwen, are you in some kind of trouble? Do you owe money to bad people?"

"No, it's not that at all, it's..." and Gwen related the story of Janice again. She noticed how during each subsequent iteration, she painted her former roommate in even poorer light.

"I'm sorry, baby, really. But I can't. I just don't have that kind of money anymore. Your mother's sucked me dry. She always did know how to hit a man square in the wallet."

"Please, dad? They're going to evict me next week if I can't come up with it!" Gwen sat up straight, those knots in her muscles tightening again, her eyes searching around the living room as though they might light upon something that could convince him to change his mind.

"I'm sorry. I really can't. Hey, if you like, I'll come up there this weekend and help you pack. You can stay with me. I'd love to offer you your old bedroom, but your mother and I just closed escrow on the house. Can you believe she made me sell it?"

"I really can't move back, dad; I'd have to leave school. Thanks for listening. I'm going to give mom a call," Gwen said.

It was a low, calculated blow. She hated playing them off each other like this, but she was getting desperate.

"I'm sorry I can't help. And I can tell you right now your mom's going to give you the same answer. Hey, my lunch break's ending. Just give me a shout when you're ready to get packing. Just don't beat yourself up too much about all this. You just got a raw deal, but you're young, you'll bounce back in no time. Love ya, baby!"

"Love you too," Gwen said, lowering the phone to her lap. It was hot in her hands.

Despite the ball of lead weighing down her stomach, Gwen called her mom. The conversation went along the same lines as the one with her father. Her mom started being all optimistic, all happy to help, but had almost the exact same reaction her dad did when Gwen gave her the number.

She wanted to help, but couldn't come up with that kind of money. Again, Gwen received the offer of a place to sleep and a helping hand in the move. She hated how both of them thought it was just some foregone conclusion that she couldn't solve this problem and would be leaving her apartment shortly.

"Love you, mom. Gotta go, bye," she said when her mom started ripping into her father about selling the house. She dropped her phone on the couch and leaned her head back, staring up at the white stucco ceiling.

She'd really been counting on one of them actually coming through for her. Had convinced herself of it, really. The thought of both of them refusing didn't cross her mind until it happened.

Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea, she started to think, maybe I really didn't understand what Aiden was saying. It would be so easy just to take that money. In her mind, she saw him taking out his checkbook, ready to fork over the payment right then and there.

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