A Hilarious Fake Engagement, Small Town, Holiday Romance…
What a beautiful, crappy day. The sun shines on a gloriously snow-lined Interstate 75 in staggering contrast to my stormy mood. On a regular day, I wouldn’t particularly enjoy driving for hours—I get motion-sick pretty easily, even if I’m at the wheel. But today I’d trade a limb, or possibly even a minor, non-vital organ, to be anywhere other than stuck in a rental car with my ex-girlfriend-turned-fake-girlfriend as we head home for the holidays.
I tap my fingertips on the steering wheel and throw a glance at the emerald numbers of the car’s digital clock—and we’ve still got two hours of sunny road ahead! Joy of joys.
Kate and I started fighting the moment I pulled up in front of our old apartment in Ann Arbor at noon to pick her up. Too late, in her opinion. A wasted half day. A totally reasonable hour for me, considering I had to pack, grab a bite to eat before the long journey, and walk to the rental office to collect the car, which of course wasn’t the right model. Toy-size, according to Kate; perfectly proportioned, according to me. Then, we argued about the dimensions of her luggage—exaggerated in my eyes, essential in hers—which also explained why she considered the car too small.
“I have presents to bring home,” she argued. “Didn’t you buy any?”
And when I said I planned to do my Christmas shopping in Bluewater Springs, she gave a theatrical eye roll. “Of course, why would you put some thought and care in choosing gifts for your loved ones? Do it last minute, like always. It’s your specialty.”
To which I didn’t respond.
But the bickering isn’t why we’re sitting so tensely in this overstuffed Nissan Versa we risk snapping in half at every bump on the road. No, we’re on pins and needles because, for the past four months, we’ve barely been in each other’s lives. Definitely not in person. Definitely not for hours at a time. And definitely not in such a confined space like the passenger compartment of a—allegedly tiny—car.
Until today, our sole communications since the end of summer break amounted to the odd, informational text about momentous happenings in our days the other should be aware of to keep up the farce. As relationships go, ours grew nice and steady over the years as we progressed from best friends to dating to living together, but then crashed alarmingly fast on the way down—a falling, vertical smear of a breakup that flat-lined into this fake-relationship sham we’re now carrying out for the sake of our families.
Anyway, now that she’s run out of criticisms, Kate is giving me the silent treatment. Which she knows I hate.
Silence is uncomfortable.
Angry silence is unbearable.
When I can’t stand the bitter muteness any longer, I give up and ask a question on the only topic that still unites us. “How do you want to tell them?”
Kate, who’s been pointedly staring out the window, her big brown eyes unwilling to meet mine even for a glimpse, turns on me. “Since you’re telling them, you can do it however you choose.”
I frown. “Why should I be the one to tell our parents?”
“Because it’s all your fault.”
“If I remember correctly, you dumped me. So, if anyone should take the blame, it’s you.”
Kate pulls a lock of her chestnut hair behind her ear and crosses her arms over her chest. “Not when you didn’t leave me any choice, with you being such an immature—”
“Save it,” I interrupt, staring at the straight, infinite road ahead. “I don’t care to listen to a list of my shortcomings again. And I sure won’t stand in front of the firing squad alone. I wouldn’t even know what to tell them.”
“Go with the truth. It’s always the best approach.”
“Which would be?”
“That we don’t love each other anymore.”
My mouth parches as I remember the day she informed me of this fact. Needless to say, Kate’s decision to end things between us totally blindsided me. A sudden breakup with no chance of an appeal after a romance that had lasted almost a decade came to me as a real shock. A freezing-cold shower.
And, okay, maybe I wasn’t grand-gesturing her every other day, and I might’ve taken our relationship a little too much for granted. I’m man enough to admit that. But I’d always assumed we’d grow old together. She was my rock, and I was hers. Full stop.
Only, she had different plans. Plans that involved a new, shinier, half-Cuban rock.
No, she didn’t cheat on me, I’m positive. Kate just moved on painfully and humiliatingly fast. I don’t know the details—I haven’t asked—but we still have enough friends in common for the news to reach me that she has a new boyfriend. Marco Guerra.
His Instagram account, where he delights his followers with daily sweaty videos of himself working out at the gym, has given me enough insight into this guy’s life to know he’s the complete opposite of my nerdy, computer-rat self.
Marco is a stud, but, other than that, what do they talk about when they’re together? How many pounds he can bench press?
Admittedly, the dude’s not all brawn. He must have some brain, considering he teaches Latin American and Caribbean Art to undergrads at the University of Michigan. That must be it: his knowledge of the arts provides him enough savoir faire and catchphrases to hoodwink women. Kate must feel oh-so-sophisticated for dating a professor.
I keep my focus on the road ahead and don’t contradict her declaration that our love is over. Instead, I move on to the last practical step needed to put an official end to my first and only relationship: how to tell our families.
It would have been easier if our parents were just old friends who’d always dreamed about their offspring getting married and merging the bloodlines. But no, the Warrens and the Roses do nothing in half measures. Our parents are not only the best of friends, but also business partners and co-owners, with a twenty-five percent share each, of The Bluewater Springs Chocolate Company.
Bluewater Springs is renowned in America for exactly two things: our stunning fall foliage, and our delicious chocolates. The factory is the only industry in our hometown, a small village on Lake Michigan about fifteen minutes north of Traverse City, which makes us basically celebrities there. Big fish in a small pond, as that notoriety doesn’t extend much past the town’s borders.
Our parents founded the business as newlyweds fresh out of college, and they’ve grown the organization for thirty years, turning The Bluewater Springs Chocolate Company into an international corporation that distributes to over forty countries worldwide.
But the company isn’t just a business for us; it’s a dream we all share and want to keep expanding moving forward. My very first memories growing up are within the factory halls, back when both our families used to live in the twin attic apartments above the original production facilities. The apartments no longer exist, and have long since been turned into office spaces, but my entire childhood is crammed into that building.
But I digress. The main side effect of our parents’ success and unbreakable friendship is the way they’ve been invested in my relationship with Kate since we started dating in high school.
Now that I think about it, the familial pressure probably didn’t help us make things work. It might have even been a wedge driving us apart. The sense of entrapment. The obligations and expectations that our parents and the town put on us as heirs to the chocolate kingdom. And the unwillingness we had to disappoint them.
I sigh, trying to find some middle ground, now, between us. “Why don’t I tell my mom and dad, and you tell yours?” I propose. “It’s only fair.”
Kate pouts in that way that is not a ‘yes,’ but not a definite ‘no’ either. I’ll mark it down as a victory and interpret her silence as tacit consent.
A small triumph.
So why do I still feel like the biggest loser?