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Resolved: A New Year's Resolution List
Make a shorter resolution list.
It was three weeks before New Year's, and Megan Hale's resolutions filled twelve typed, single-spaced pages.
They were divided into categories and subcategories; they had explanatory paragraphs, and in one case, a diagram.
And then, reading through the list, she realized that there weren't enough days in the year to possibly accomplish every last resolution. She had 528 of them.
Make better use of therapy sessions.
"Do you think five hundred and twenty-eight New Year's resolutions are excessive?" Megan asks her therapist, a woman in her late thirties, who often answers questions with questions.
"Do you think it is excessive for you?" her therapist asks.
"That's almost one and a half resolutions per day. I think it is excessive. What do you think it means that I have so many?"
"What do you think it means?"
"That I'm a mess?" Megan offers.
Megan's therapist, who does not acknowledge any self-deprecation by Megan, writes something in her notepad, then looks up from her paper.
"For next week, why don't you try picking out the ten resolutions that you think are the most important for your self-improvement," she says. "And then we can concentrate on those."
Learn to be more comfortable alone
(since most of your time is spent that way).
"What do you mean you're not going out?" says Megan's best friend, Lucy, who happens to be the sort of take-charge person that Megan aspires to be. Lucy decides things on whims, such as switching primary-care doctors regularly in order to maintain an even supply of antidepressants. "It is New Year's Eve."
"My therapist says I'm never going to find anyone unless I'm comfortable with myself, first," Megan says. "Besides, you know how I feel about parties."
"Yes, yes, you're scared to death of meeting new people," Lucy says. "I know. Still, I don't think your therapist would approve of you hiding in your apartment on New Year's Eve. Not to mention, how often do I have to tell you that what you need is Xanax, not therapy?"
"Call me old-fashioned," Megan says. "I think maybe I should talk through my problems."
"I still think your problem is that you're just shy," Lucy says. "Besides, I think you have something to celebrate. How long have you been free of Mr. X?"
"Three months," Megan answers dutifully, like a recovering addict. Mr. X is her former boyfriend, the married one, who has two kids and a spacious house in the suburbs.
"I'd say that alone deserves some champagne," Lucy says. "Don't you?"
Since, at the very mention of his name, Megan feels the old, familiar urge to call his mobile phone, she does not feel like celebrating.
Do not sleep with married men.
It was never Megan's intention to be the Other Woman. Megan only wanted to be the Woman.
Not the Other One.
Other Women were deplorable and despicable. They were the ones always being portrayed on Oprah as the villains, the grainy photographs of women who ran off with their best friend's husband. They were always the ones who decline to be interviewed.
Besides, she didn't look like the Other Woman. She wore Gap sweaters and pants from Banana Republic, not fishnet stockings and crotchless panties. She didn't even own a thong. If presented with a garter belt and stockings, she'd have no idea how to put them on. Her sexiest pair of underwear, in fact, was made of simple black satin. She wore her dark hair in a bob, and simple, barely there makeup, and rarely wore a sweater with a neck lower than crew-cut.
Her whole life she'd only slept with five men. She could count them on one hand. It's just that the fifth one was married, and she's pretty sure that he counts for five thousand partners on the S&P Whore Index.
Only date men willing to be known by their real names.
"You keep referring to him as Mr. X," her therapist says in session. "Why not use his real name?"
"He's still married and he has children and told me not to tell anyone his name because he feared losing his kids if his wife ever found out."
"Our sessions are completely confidential," Megan's therapist says. "You can say his name here."
"I don't know." Megan hesitates.
"By saying his name, it might help you get over him."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Do not go out with people met in elevators.
Megan met Mr. X in an elevator at work. For nearly a year he was her Elevator Boyfriend, the cute guy she'd see in passing in the elevator some mornings and afternoons, the guy she was so terrified to talk to that she could barely even look at him directly without breaking out into a cold sweat. Of course, this happened to be the same reaction she had with every remotely attractive man she saw. She may never have learned his name except that one day, the elevator stopped completely, stuck somewhere between the seventh and eighth floors, with only Megan, her Elevator Boyfriend, and a UPS deliveryman.
"Doesn't that seem like fate to you?" Megan asked her therapist the morning she had first gone to see her, after her boss finding her crying in the bathroom suggested she take advantage of the free counseling sessions offered as part of the company health plan.
"Do you believe in fate?"
"Well, no yes, sometimes," Megan said.
"Sometimes people use fate as an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway."
In the elevator, Mr. X had said, "Welcome to the seventh and a half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building."
Immediately, Megan recognized this from her favorite movie, Being John Malkovich.
"And fifty other lines to get into a girl's pants," she'd said, which was the only line she could remember from the movie. It was probably the most forward thing she'd ever said to anyone, least of all a stranger. The boldness of it completely shocked her. Where had that come from?
The UPS man looked from one to the other of them, and after a beat or two, Mr. X started laughing.
"That's my favorite movie," he said.
And just like that, Megan fell in love.
Always check to see if a man has a wedding ring before falling in love with him.
After she somehow found the will to break the long, protracted eye contact that they shared the this-is-beyond-flirting-and-into-love-at-first-sight kind of eye contact, Megan happened to glance at his left hand, and there it was. The wedding ring. A slim platinum band.
"You're married," she'd said out loud.
"Technically, separated," he'd said.
Never date a man who uses the word technically.
If this had been one of her friends in the elevator with Mr. X, Megan would have said do not agree to lunch and do not give him your phone number. Because a man who is technically separated is still technically married. But Megan, who had been accused by her friend Lucy just last week of never taking real chances and of always playing it safe with love, decided that maybe she would just go for lunch.
Lunch, after all, wasn't sex. What was the harm in lunch?
Megan felt at ease with Mr. X right away an ease that came from the sure knowledge that he was not Boyfriend Material, and therefore she didn't need to worry about whether her hair looked good, or she had smeared makeup, or that she was saying something dumb. She could relax and be herself for once, because there were not first-date jitters. Lunch with a married man even a technically separated one you see, was not a date. It was more like a practice date. No strings. No pressure. She already knew where this story was going to end nowhere.
Megan has always been shy. She was born shy. Her father said, in fact, after she was born, she didn't cry for three whole days, which worried doctors, who thought she might have a problem with her lungs. It turns out, she could breathe fine. She just didn't like to put up a fuss. She was so quiet, in fact, that when she was four, her father once caught her finger in the back door of the family station wagon, and she didn't make a single sound.
Do not be afraid to talk about your feelings.
After four sessions, Megan's therapist diagnosed her with social anxiety, after Megan scored 52 of a total score of 68 on a social anxiety test, which put her as "very likely" to be suffering from social anxiety. Megan's social anxiety, her therapist said, explains Megan's fear of small talk, and the reason she has not met any new friends since age five.
Her therapist suggested, in the short term, that Megan start attending anxiety group meetings once a week. The group is made up of an assortment of people with varying degrees of functional anxiety. The worst cases, in Megan's opinion, are Ed, a self-admitted sex addict, and Charlene, a woman who sometimes locks herself in her own bathroom for days at a time.
"We are not here to judge. We're here to help," her therapist says, and the group repeats it in unison, all except for Megan, who is thinking, "But I am judging everyone else so they must be judging me."
Do not let your anxiety define who you are.
In group therapy, everyone takes turns discussing their anxieties in the first half of the session, and then in the last half of the session, one designated member of the group acts out an anxiety. Charlene's, for instance, is to be in public and hear someone laughing.
"I think they're laughing at me," Charlene says. "I know it's not right, but I can't help the way I feel."
"I once had an escort laugh at me," Ed the sex addict offers. Almost all of Ed's anxieties are related to the sex he feels compelled to have with prostitutes.
"I will validate that feeling," says Debra, the group's motherly figure, who uses more therapy-speak than Megan's therapist. "This is a safe space."
Group therapy is often referred to as a safe space, which implies to Megan that it ought to have padded walls and no sharp corners.
"Fruit loops" is what her dad would say about people who go to group therapy. But then again, Megan's dad, who worked for thirty-five years installing phone cables, also applies the term to a broad range of people, from the homeless man on the corner who talks to himself, to his neighbor who mows his lawn in circles rather than clean, straight lines.
"Megan? Do you have anything to add?" her therapist says.
Megan shakes her head no. She usually doesn't have anything to add, since her problems seem so small by comparison. She had never once considered, for instance, staying in her apartment for a full week, as Charlene once did.
Understand that just because all the single guys you meet are losers, it doesn't mean it's a good excuse to start dating the married ones.
Megan's boyfriend before Mr. X was a computer programmer named Lars (short for Larry), who never called when he said he would call. He was always promising to do something that he had no intention of doing calling, going out, or driving her to the airport. It got so bad that Megan had taken to calling him Opposite Day Boy, since the reverse of everything he said was true. "I'll call tomorrow" meant he wasn't going to call. "I'll come over tonight" meant he would show up at her apartment the following morning around 5 A.M., after a night out of drinking with friends, looking for some drunken, booty-call sex.
Megan would not have tolerated Lars at all, except that she'd been boyfriendless for a record two years before him. She had begun to think that, at age thirty-one, perhaps she had turned the corner on boyfriends. Maybe it was all downhill from here. The pool was only getting smaller and smaller, and maybe there was someone even worse than Lars, like one of the regular guests on Maury Povich. At least Lars was smart and handsome. He could single-handedly beat a roomful of her friends at Trivial Pursuit, and he had such pretty blue eyes that they almost looked fake.
Still, the lying was getting ridiculous, and Megan knew she had to end things, and soon, but the thought of being thrown back into the shallow end of the dating pool had about as much appeal as a Brazilian bikini wax after a bad sunburn.
This changed at her company holiday party when she found Lars kissing and fondling one of her coworkers in the last stall of the women's restroom. He'd said, "This isn't what it looks like," and being that the opposite of everything he said was true, Megan knew that it was exactly what it looked like.
Remember that men who play games sometimes go to great lengths to look as if they aren't playing games.
The problem with Mr. X was that he was the exact opposite of Lars and all the bumbling single guys that Megan had dated, who seemed to have some sort of elaborate math equation in their heads for when to call, when to lie, and how long to keep you waiting. In other words, Mr. X did not play games. Megan decided this was probably because Mr. X was married, which meant that he had less time for games, and that he already knew how to treat a woman well enough to get her to agree to marry him in the first place.
When he said he would call, he called. He didn't forget to return her emails. Compared to Lars, he was a dream. And she told herself that it was all a platonic friendship the lunches that had turned into a habit were simply a nice diversion. Sitting across the table from Mr. X was like eating lunch at the Art Institute. She could look but not touch. This, she thought, she could handle.
Besides, Mr. X made her feel at ease the way no man or, in fact, anyone had made her feel since she was five. It was an instant easiness in their friendship, such that Megan would often forget she'd only known him a short time.
She started telling him things she didn't tell anyone else. She talked about Lars, about her latest sexual drought, about how she feared she'd waited too long and that all the good guys were taken and she might have to face the real possibility that she would never get married.
And when he acted shocked that she'd said this and replied, "Any man would be lucky to be married to you," Megan felt her face grow warm, and the warmth traveled down her throat and into her lower belly.
Seek spiritual enlightenment.
Megan was convinced that all of her bad deeds (once the petty kind like ignoring panhandlers on the street and failing to donate money to the Easter Seals while using their address labels anyway) had been upgraded to Commandment Breakers. By her own calculations, she'd now broken Commandment Three (taking the Lord's name in vain), Four (breaking the Sabbath), Five (dishonoring parents for breaking Commandment Seven), and Seven (adultery).
Of course, Megan took some solace in the fact that adultery was number seven; it didn't even make it into the top five commandments.
Improve karma to avoid being reincarnated as Anna Nicole in your next life.
Megan decided that her usual means of improving her karma (letting people into her lane on the freeway and opening doors for the elderly) would no longer do her much good since she was now a Commandment Breaker. So, she decided to spend every Wednesday night tutoring underprivileged children.
Encouraged by her therapist, because the work involved strangers, Megan took on the project hoping that working with children would be easier than working with adults. Of course, what tutoring really amounted to was sitting for an hour across from a sixth-grader who knew more math than she did.
When Sandra, her student, whipped out a pre-algebra book, she knew she was going to be in trouble.
"What does the X mean?" Sandra asked.
"X is an unknown factor," Megan said. "You're supposed to figure out what X is."
"How do you do that?"
Megan wished she knew.
Despite the fact that you're thirty-one, do not overestimate your ability to be An Adult about things.
Megan's first real date with Mr. X involved salsa dancing and drinks the weekend his wife went out of town for a business trip and the children were visiting their grandparents in Florida.
They were sitting in Mr. X's car, outside Megan's apartment, when Mr. X admitted his short-lived separation with his wife was over and that he was living in the house again naturally, sleeping in a separate room. For the sake of the children.
He then showed her pictures of his children. They had his big brown eyes.
"So you'll never leave them?" Megan asked him, feeling flushed from too many sangrias. "Or your wife?" This, of course, is what she had already gleaned from countless magazine articles and talk shows. Married men do not leave their wives. It's a fact carved in the dating Rosetta stone, right under the one that says, "If you go outdoors without makeup and in sweats, you'll invariably run into an ex-boyfriend."
"I don't think I can leave them," Mr. X said, sounding sad. Megan took this all in surprisingly calmly. After all, would she want to be with a man who would abandon his family? There was something perversely reassuring about that. If he didn't leave them, even if he'd fallen out of love with his wife, that was a level of unsurpassed commitment a kind of commitment she'd never in a million years get from guys like Lars. And maybe if she had even half this level of commitment just a small, part-time relationship with Mr. X, maybe this would even be better than having a whole relationship with Lars.
"If you want to never see me again, I'd understand," Mr. X said. "I probably can't offer you what you deserve, but I can't stop thinking about you and this connection we have."
And Megan, who found herself unable to stop staring at his lips, found her heart speed up at the word connection. That implied some hint of destiny, maybe, or of an unseen force that neither of them might be able to resist. It also implied that he had thought of her during times when they were apart, at least enough to formulate a theory about the two of them together: a connection.
But, Megan realized, Mr. X also was asking for sex. She wasn't completely mad with romantic hopes. She knew what he wanted.
And Megan decided, looking into Mr. X's deep brown eyes, that she was going to give it to him. She was, after all, tired of the one being cheated on. The one on the other side of the bathroom door from people like Lars. Why not her? Why couldn't she be a vixen for once? Do something bad? She was always the conservative one, the one who doubled the Three Date Rule, choosing Date Six as the one she preferred to have sex on. This is probably why she could count her sex partners on one hand. Few of the men she dated lasted past Date Four.
I'm An Adult, Megan told herself. I can handle this.
"So what you're saying is you want a fling? Just sex?" Megan asked him.
Taken aback, Mr. X blinked. He didn't say a word. Just looked at her. As if he was afraid of what she might say next, so he said nothing.
And Megan, who had never before even had a one-night stand or done anything so reckless as have sex just for the sake of sex, told herself that she could handle it. One night, probably. Two, at the most. She felt happy, giddy, even, at the thought of breaking her own rules, of being reckless.
"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't dying to touch you," Mr. X said.
His words made Megan's stomach jump. And she surprised even herself by saying, in a throaty, hoarse voice she didn't know she had, "Touch me then."
Repeat to self: I am worthy of love.
There's a man at tutoring who helps a boy across the room from where Megan is failing to teach Sandra pre-algebra. He reminds her of Mr. X in some ways. He has the same broad shoulders, the same thick neck. But otherwise, he's different. He has blond hair, while Mr. X had brown.
Even thinking about introducing herself to him makes her stomach seize up in knots and her breath come short and fast. Social anxiety, clearly, Megan thinks. She wonders, not for the first time, if being diagnosed with a condition is better or worse than not knowing something was "officially" wrong with her in the first place. While Sandra works on a problem quietly, Megan finds her eyes sliding to the spot where the man sits. She calls him Guy in Khakis, since that's almost exclusively what he wears.
"Do you like him or something?" Sandra asks Megan, catching her staring at him.
"What makes you say that?" Megan asks.
"You turn bright red every time you see him."
"I do?" Megan cries, dismayed, her hands going to her face.
It's one of her ongoing fears. That she's bright red and doesn't know it.
"Gotcha," Sandra says. "You're not red. But now I know you like him for sure."
Don't be afraid to use the Law of Relativity to inflate self-esteem.
Ed in group therapy is admitting that he has downgraded his sex addiction to simply oral sex. He calls it his Bill Clinton plan, and a few people in the group laugh at this. But Megan does not think it's funny. Megan keeps wondering why Ed always gets to talk about his addictions, when the group is supposed to analyze their anxieties.
During the Move Beyond Your Fear segment of group, the part of group therapy when a member practices overcoming a social phobia, Megan's therapist announces that Janice, a group member, will practice opening and shutting the door to the meeting room.
Janice is agoraphobic and mildly obsessive-compulsive and once missed her sister's wedding because she was afraid to open the church door in public. She had a fear that all eyes in the room would be on her.
In front of the entire group, Janice walks to the door of the meeting room and opens it and closes it ten times. When she's done, the group applauds.
Megan glances at her therapist and wonders, not for the first time, if her therapist is trying to show her that she's not as crazy as the people in group, or that she is.
Ignore your father's well-meant advice.
"How are the fruit loops?" Megan's dad asks her in one of her weekly calls to her parents' house. "Your mother told me about your therapy."
Megan's dad says therapy as if it were a curse word. Megan makes a mental note not to tell her mother anything again. She is forever spilling secrets. Megan's mother's loyalties have always been to her father first. They have one of those rare and loving relationships where Megan's mother agrees with everything her father says and will sometimes wait to hear her father's opinion before forming one of her own.
Megan felt sure that if her mother had to save either Megan's father or Megan from a burning building, she would save Megan's father first. And while Megan lay dying of smoke inhalation, her mother would say, "When you fall in love, you'll understand."
"They're not fruit loops," Megan says, even though she's not quite sure of this herself. "They're just people, Dad."
"Well, don't let them fill your head with a bunch of poppycock. Next, your mother will be telling me you've run off and joined the Scientologists."
"Dad, therapy is not a cult."
"You could've fooled me."
Do not assume friends will be understanding, or will even still be friends, after telling them about Mr. X.
"You are going out," Lucy says on the phone. "There's no reason for you to feel like you have to stay in. It'll be better if you get out."
Lucy grew up next door to Megan, and they used to play together in the blow-up pool on the lawn. Lucy makes friends easily, wherever she goes. At her wedding, she jokes, the guest list will be a thousand people long. Megan has trouble making new friends, but Lucy has always kept room for her in her friend roster. One of the benefits of friend seniority.
"Give me one good reason why I should go to one of those New Year's parties, pay one hundred dollars to get in, and then spend the night watching a bunch of happy couples sucking face at midnight," Megan says.
"We'll make it a girls' thing. Just you, me, and maybe Sarah."
"Sarah!" exclaims Megan. "Sarah hates me." Sarah, their mutual friend since kindergarten, has semihappily been married to Ben Bratt look-alike Luke Douglas for three years. Megan made the mistake of telling her about Mr. X after ingesting one too many margaritas. Sarah was harsh and swift in her judgment of the situation and has since barely spoken to Megan.
In fact, the stunningly brutal reactions of the first three people she told about Mr. X pretty much ensured she didn't tell anyone else about him. Each new reaction to her misdeed confirmed her greatest fear that she was no longer a "good person who'd done something bad," she was crossing into the territory of being a flat-out bad person.
"And what about her husband?" Megan asks.
"He's got some business trip to New York, if you can believe it," Lucy says. "Sarah's solo for New Year's."
The idea of spending an uncomfortable evening avoiding the fact that Sarah so strongly disapproves of Megan's recent relationship decisions that even the breakup with Mr. X has not changed her cool distance does nothing to persuade Megan that a night out is what she needs.
"I'll think about it," Megan says. But what she really means is that she'll think about coming up with an excuse not to go.
Avoid holidays designed to make single people feel badly about themselves, such as New Year's Eve.
"How did you do on narrowing down your resolutions?" Megan's therapist asks in their private, one-on-one session.
"Not so good. I added five more."
"Why do you think you did that?"
"Do you know how they say that a child has an infinite capacity to learn? I think I have so many faults that I think I have an infinite capacity for self-improvement."
Every day, at least once a day, repeat to self that great, mind-blowing sex does not equal love.
Megan read her share of romance novels. The sort that describe in great detail all the intricacies of mind-blowing sex. Megan, while she had read about the kind of sex that was supposed to make you quiver, had technically not had really mind-blowing sex her whole life. She'd mostly just had Polite Sex. Gentle Sex. And Loving Sex.
Sweaty, Wake Up the Neighbors Sex only came when she started having sex with Mr. X.
In fact, she'd never, technically, it must be said, climaxed during the Polite, Gentle, or Loving Sex. She had come only during Gentle but Determined Foreplay and, a few times, during a Loving Afterthought. But never during the act itself, and at times Megan had wondered if something was wrong with her.
But Mr. X had changed all that. Megan had guessed that part of what made the sex so good was its forbidden nature, but what Megan didn't understand until later was that the sex was so good because it had no future. There was no reason to be inhibited. She was convinced after a week she'd never see Mr. X again. So she didn't worry about the usual things like sucking in her stomach or trying to look sexy or being cautious about the sexual positions she felt put her assets at their weakest advantage. She turned herself over, wholly and without reservation, the way you might do after having a few drinks on a topless beach in a far-off country where you're sure that you'll never see any of the people around you again.
But then a week turned into a month, and a month into six, and it gave Megan time to think. She started thinking that maybe the mind-blowing sex meant something. Maybe, although she'd never in her life believed in soul mates, maybe, just maybe, there was something to the connection they had. The way, during sex, their bodies seemed to melt together in a heart-pounding, sweat-slicked knot, how she couldn't sometimes tell where she ended and he began, how they came together again and again, at once, in an endorphin-fueled rush.
Admit to yourself daily that you are an adrenaline junkie, and, possibly, a sex addict.
Mr. X called her twice a day. He emailed her constantly. He showered her with attention, bits and pieces of it that he could steal away from his family.
They might have been scraps, but they were heady and addictive scraps. This was probably the worst thing she'd ever done in her life, and it felt ridiculously good.
They had sex in cars, in elevators, hotel rooms, and her apartment. She gave him blow jobs in the backs of cabs, while he was driving, and once, in the office broom closet. He made her come in a million other ways in the women's bathroom, on her desk late one night in the deserted office, in the back of a movie theater.
It was a heady, thrilling rush, like nothing she'd felt since her first sweaty groping in high school. And she didn't want it to stop. She'd never been The Vixen before, and she decided she liked it.
And while it seems obvious now, she never expected that the karmic price of having good sex would be falling in love.
You are in charge of your own destiny.
Never let someone else dictate your schedule.
And she couldn't get enough. Everything became about waiting for him to call, for him to write. Her life was an elaborate game of Red Light, Green Light.
Red Light: He can't come to meet her for drinks because his son has soccer practice.
Green Light: His wife is taking his son this time, and he has a couple of hours before he has to pick him up again.
Red Light: His wife wants him to fix the roof, so he can't come over.
Green Light: He and his wife are fighting about the roof, and he's leaving.
Red Light: He has to be with his kids and he can't have dinner.
Green Light: His business meeting was canceled; he can spend the whole afternoon with her.
Before long, Megan couldn't tell if she was addicted to Mr. X or the idea of waiting for him.
Prepare to have bad-parking karma the rest of your natural born life.
Megan circles the tutoring center for an elusive parking space. She doesn't find one. After looping around four times, she gives up and parks a block down on the street. On her way in the door, she sees Guy in Khakis, who is up ahead of her, holding open the door for one of the elderly tutors. He glances up and catches Megan's eye and gives her a half smile that reaches his eyes. Hurriedly, Megan looks away, and her eyes fall to his left hand, where she sees no wedding band.
"Hi," says Guy in Khakis.
As usual, when addressed by a stranger, Megan panics and stares at her shoes, then walks past him at a quick pace.
Work on strengthening core female friendships.
Or find new friends.
"Lucy told me that you think I'm mad at you or something," says Sarah, Megan's married friend, on the phone, catching Megan by surprise at work. The tone of Sarah's voice implies she is, indeed, mad.
"Why did Lucy say that?" Megan asks cautiously.
"She says you won't go out with us on New Year's because you think I'm mad at you." Sarah is blunt and to the point. She has been since age eleven, when she told Megan she really ought to look into shaving, since she was beginning to develop underarm hair.
"Well, are you mad at me?" Megan asks.
"Look, I don't agree with what you did, but, whatever," Sarah says dismissively. This is as close to a pardon as Sarah is willing to get.
Come to terms with that you may not ever be happy.
Megan once read an interview with Melanie Griffith, who met and fell in love with Antonio Banderas when they were both married to other people. She said that she and Antonio decided that even though it was going to hurt their spouses, they had to take a chance to be truly happy.
Megan, who could not imagine making a declaration like that, wondered if happiness was like a rare artifact. Only the determined and skilled will find it.
"What if you can't be happy unless someone else is unhappy?" Megan asks her therapist.
"You can't be in charge of someone else's happiness," her therapist says. "You can only really be responsible for your own. What will make you happy?"
"Happiness comes from within," her therapist says, sounding like a fortune cookie.
"But what if I'm not capable of happiness?"
"We're all, to some degree, capable of happiness."
Do not dwell on the past.
Because Megan's mother adored Megan's father, they were a couple like none other Megan knew. Whereas most of her friends had mothers who were bitterly disillusioned with their husbands and had marriages in various states of decay, Megan's parents were always sneaking off on trips together, giggling behind closed doors, looking startled and springing apart if Megan came home early from school when she wasn't expected.
Megan found herself sometimes wishing her parents were like Lucy's, who had a bitter divorce when Lucy was nine. It was wrong, Megan knew, but she couldn't help it. Lucy became the central focus of everything. Custody battles, visitation rights, the back-and-forth art of gift one-upmanship as both parents tried to prove their love for Lucy with extravagant gifts.
Megan on the other hand felt as if her parents sometimes forgot she was even there at all.
Try not to judge others.
"I don't think I can do this," says Pam in group therapy. Pam has a fear of writing in public places. She is convinced that her fingers are too short and too fat and that people stare at them and make judgments. It's why she wears gloves most of the time, even in June.
"Go at your own pace, Pam," suggests Megan's therapist.
Pam is attempting to fill out a bank deposit slip while the group watches. Her hands are starting to twitch.
"We are not here to judge," says Megan's therapist. "Right, everyone?"
"We are not here to judge," says the group in unison. This is one of many group chants, including "You own your anxiety; your anxiety does not own you."
"I like your hands," Ed the sex addict tells Pam. "I think they're very feminine."
Pam blushes and smiles, then finishes filling out the deposit slip, which she holds above her head.
The group applauds.
Do not, under any circumstances, call Mr. X.
Mr. X had no social anxiety at all. He mingled at cocktail parties as if he were born to do it. He was the sort of person who knew the first name of the guy at his dry cleaner's and his favorite restaurant. He wouldn't let a taxicab driver take him anyplace without striking up a conversation with him.
Megan admired this. She, in fact, has a history of being attracted to extroverts. Outgoing people, after all, need a willing audience, and if there's one role she was designed to play, it is audience member.
Mr. X's outgoing nature, however, led to complications once they started seeing one another. She had to avoid public places, and she had to abide by a few of his rules.
Megan could only call Mr. X's mobile, and then, if he answered with "Hello," she knew he was in his wife's company and she'd have to make the conversation brief, while Mr. X pretended he was talking to one of his softball buddies.
If Mr. X answered "Hello, sexy," she knew she was in the clear, and she could talk to him at length. Of course, there were other rules. She was not to call after 9 p.m. any night of the week. Weekends were off-limits, as well as holidays, which he spent with his in-laws. And she could not call several times in one night, especially if his wife was there, for fear of rousing her suspicions.
And at times, when Megan sat alone in her apartment, the thought of Mr. X at home, cozy in bed with his wife, spooning, would drive Megan nearly insane. She would write him long, anguished letters that she'd crumple up and never let him read. She'd cry and curl up on her bed and wonder why, if Mr. X felt a tenth about her that she did about him, he couldn't manage to leave his family.
And then Megan would sometimes think maybe she was a masochist, that the only sort of relationship that could make her happy was one that drove her insanely jealous, one that opened her up to tiny hurts every day. Since every night he turned away from her to go back to his wife.
But then, during a stolen hour, Mr. X would tell her how much more beautiful she was than his wife, how much more sexual she was, how she was simply more.
He would whisper, "I've never felt this way before," in her ear as he held her close. He filled her with reckless hope by saying, "I think we were meant to be together," and, "I wish I could live my life with you." She filed these sweet words away and would bring them out again when she started to have doubts, when she wondered if he really loved her. And though she knew it was dangerous, she let herself dream.
And then she told herself to be patient.
One day he would come to her.
Stop saying "I'm smarter than this" every five seconds.
"How did you feel about Mr. X's children?" Megan's therapist asks in their private session.
It should have bothered Megan that he had children, but it didn't. When she heard him talk about them, so lovingly and so profoundly, she realized that he was aeons ahead of the guys she'd dated in the past, who couldn't manage to commit to a brand of toothpaste, much less the possibility of having offspring. And instead of making him less attractive, the children made him more attractive. He became like some sort of Super Dad: sensitive, nurturing, and with a deep and seemingly endless capacity to love.
"I knew that he would never leave his wife because of the children," Megan says. "And this was okay with me. I reminded myself of this often."
"Did it help you control your expectations?"
"I didn't really want him to leave his family. I mean, if he left them to be with me, then he'd grow to hate me, wouldn't he? His wife would turn his children against him, and eventually I'd start distrusting him, wouldn't I? Thinking he was having an affair? In the movies, these things work out, but in reality, I knew it wouldn't."
"Do you think maybe you were looking for a complete family? Maybe dating a married man helped you feel like you were dating a family and not just a person?"
Megan thinks about this. "Maybe." Megan sighs. "I still wanted a happy ending, though."
"And what ending would that be?"
"Maybe that his wife runs off with another man and I'm there to comfort him?" Megan says, partly joking and partly serious.
Megan's therapist is silent, as she usually is when she's judging something Megan has done, but doesn't want to add to the guilt spiral she has already diagnosed.
When the silence goes on a beat longer than Megan feels comfortable with, she says, "I used to think I was smarter than this."
Make more of an effort to meet new people.
"Tell me about Guy in Khakis," Lucy says at Cosi's, their favorite sandwich shop. "Any new news?"
"He smiled at me the other day," Megan says.
"That's a start. See? You see that there are so many other options out there for you? You don't need Mr. X."
"A smile hardly counts as a relationship. Besides, it was probably just reflexive."
Lucy sighs and looks to the ceiling. "Sarah's going to join us for lunch," Lucy says suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
"She wants to prove to you that she isn't mad."
Resist carbs in all their evil forms.
"You've always been shy, but I don't think that's a good reason for therapy," Sarah says, arriving in time to hear the tail end of one of Megan's group-therapy stories.
"It's not just about being shy," Megan says.
"Well, I'd rather shoot myself than tell a bunch of strangers my problems," Sarah announces.
It's moments like these when Megan really thinks she should work on being able to make new friends.
"Are you on a diet?" Sarah demands, watching Megan pick at her salad.
"Yes," Megan admits.
"I hope it's not that anticarb thing," Sarah says. "That's supposed to be terrible for you."
Megan shrugs. "Well, short of stomach surgery, I have to do something, or else I'm just going to keep marching up in dress sizes." Megan doesn't add that while she was dating Mr. X, she was stunningly thin: the combination of being so in love she couldn't eat, and that she was having so much sweaty, calorie-burning sex that every muscle in her body felt sore.
"You're fine," Sarah says dismissively. Sarah can eat anything, in any quantity, and never gain weight. She's a perpetual size 6.
"I'm going to go get more iced tea," Lucy says, jumping up. This is her way of leaving them alone so that they can work out their differences.
Megan and Sarah fall into a small silence.
"So," Sarah says. "I have one question for you, and then we can drop it."
"You know what." Sarah's talking about Mr. X.
Megan steels herself. "Yes?"
"What did he say about Mrs. X?"
Remember that even though a man says he's no longer in love with his wife, it doesn't mean that he's ready to leave her.
What didn't Mr. X say about Mrs. X? Megan thinks. She wanted to know everything, and he told her everything. How she'd lost interest in sex after her second child was born. How she started insisting that the lights be off during sex. How she had never, even in the early days, been willing to swallow. How she didn't like to receive oral sex, and how over time their sex life had just disintegrated to a bimonthly union of obligation.
How now he sees how different they are: She likes to go out, he likes to stay in; she wants to travel, he wants to save up money for retirement; she doesn't read newspapers and doesn't care about politics; he's a news junkie. They have nothing to talk about anymore, he says, except the children.
"What do you mean, what did he say?" Megan asks cautiously.
"Did he talk about her at all, that's what I want to know," Sarah says.
"Yes, a lot."
"And didn't that make you feel bad? I mean, I could have been Mrs. X."
"You aren't anything like Mrs. X." Megan doubted that Sarah had such severe hormonal mood swings that she'd throw a toaster at her husband, as Mrs. X once did.
"What did he say about her?" Sarah persists.
"He complained a lot. But, he stayed with her in the end, so I don't think it much matters what he said. I'm sure most of it was lies. You can't really trust a man who cheats on his wife, you know."
Megan, proud that she'd actually absorbed something she'd learned in therapy, gives Sarah a weak smile.
Sarah bites her lower lip. "I think Luke is cheating on me," she says, then starts to cry.
Use powers of deduction for good, not evil.
Having been the Other Woman gave Megan a unique perspective into cheating situations. She knew, for example, that they were never as black-and-white as presented on Oprah, and that seldom did someone really deserve to wear a red A for Adulterer.
You don't, for instance, need to punish Other Women; the relationships they're in are punishment enough. The constant jealousy, the hurt of always coming in second, the seemingly endless parade of personal slights (not being able to properly celebrate her birthday since it fell on a Saturday; the flush of anger when Megan once attempted to hold Mr. X's hand in public; going a full two weeks over Christmas without hearing from him once; his admission that he still has sex with his wife, and while it isn't good sex, it's still passable, even at times enjoyable).
For a time, Megan even envied Mr. X's wife. She could exist in ignorant bliss of what was really happening. She could pretend that everything was fine. Megan was the one who lay awake nights wondering if Mr. X was even, at that moment, in the arms of his wife. Or worse, that he thought of her not as someone to love, but as a problem to fix. Maybe, at this moment, he was standing in front of his mirror practicing his breakup speech.
And the alternative wasn't much better. If Mr. X showed up on her doorstep with his packed bags, she wasn't sure she would really want to take him in. Would she want to live with the knowledge that he would probably, eventually, tire of her too?
Do not pass judgment on others, even if they are all too willing to pass judgment on you.
"What makes you think Luke is cheating?" Megan asks, alarmed.
"I caught him online," Sarah says. "He was in an adult chat room."
Megan exhaled. "That's nothing. That's just basically porn." Megan sighs. "It doesn't mean anything."
"He was watching a woman masturbate!" Sarah exclaims.
"Watching, not touching."
"Dr. Phil says that's one step away from cheating."
"He's probably not cheating." Megan fails to add that if he were getting some in person, he probably wouldn't resort to risky online camera flings.
"How can I find out for sure?"
Megan sighs. "What, am I the infidelity expert now?"
Sarah doesn't say anything.
"Check his mobile-phone bill." Megan sighs. "And his ATM records."
Resolve the following question: If a good person does bad things, does that make her a bad person?
"You should feel good about helping a friend," Megan's therapist says. "You're taking a bad personal experience and using it to help others. Doesn't that make you feel good?"
"It makes me feel like I'm a big raging whore," Megan says.
"What did we say about labeling? Labeling doesn't help anyone. And most often, you're the one putting on the labels. Not other people."
"I used to think I was a good person," Megan says.
"Good and bad are relative terms."
Read All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
"Why don't you write him a note or something?" asks Sandra, Megan's student in tutoring, as she catches Megan staring at Guy in Khakis. This is what Megan usually does when she likes someone, she stares at him, trying to work up the nerve to say something to him.
"Why a note?"
Sandra shrugs. "That's what we do. Or you could send him a text message that is, if you know his cell phone number."
"What should I write?"
"Ask him if he wants to go with you duh."
Be more open to group therapy.
"You've been very quiet these past few sessions," Megan's therapist tells Megan in group. "Is there something you want to share with the group?"
Megan looks around at all the eager and friendly faces. "I don't know what to say."
"Whatever you feel like talking about. You're in a safe space," Megan's therapist says. A few of the others in group nod their heads.
"I miss my ex-boyfriend," Megan says. "And I fear that I won't ever meet anyone new."
More people nod. They are so encouraging that Megan decides to take an extra step.
"Our relationship was wrong. He was married. But I think I liked the fact that our relationship was secret."
"I think everyone can relate to not wanting their personal affairs public," Megan's therapist says.
"It's a common symptom of social anxiety," adds Charlene.
Megan feels relief, and for the first time, acceptance.
No matter how obvious it is that the cup is half-empty, tell yourself it is half-full.
Talking about Mr. X makes Megan feel relief and yet, at the same time, the urgent need to call him. She hasn't felt this strongly about contacting Mr. X since the weeks after their split, when just about anything would make her want to call Mr. X a Charlie Kaufman movie on cable, walking by the same restaurants they visited (always the dark ones in out-of-the-way places), seeing a couple in a movie theater kissing (as they had done in the back rows of so many dark, nearly empty theaters). In fact, just standing in her office elevator made her so sad, she started taking the stairs, even though her office was on the twenty-sixth floor.
Megan reminded herself how much better off she was without Mr. X. Look at all the freedom she had. She'd never again have to be on call, ready to drop all her plans and lie to her friends all to be available, at a moment's notice, should Mr. X find himself free.
She never had to worry about whether she was seen with him; listen to him talk about how guilty he felt about lying to his family; or see him flinch when she touched him in public. She was now free to wear perfume and sweet-smelling lotions without having to worry about the scents as evidence, rubbing off on his clothes.
And when he was running late, as he did on occasion, she'd never again start to wonder if Mr. X had been in a car accident and died. And then start to panic, because if he did die, she might not find out for days.
She was free of his oppressive love, which kept her off-limits to the truly eligible men, the sort that could offer her a real future.
She was free, she reminded herself every day. But free to do what exactly? Be alone?
At least once, try to party like it's 1999.
"I think we've made a lot of progress today," Megan's therapist says in group. "Now, Megan, it's your turn to confront a fear. What would you like to do?"
"I want to practice meeting new people," she says. "I do terrible at parties."
"I hate small talk," Amy admits. Amy has a fear of strangers. She once ran away from a man who asked her directions. "Just what are you supposed to say? I never know."
"That's why I prefer escorts," says Ed. "You can't talk to most people the way you talk to call girls. With them, it's easy. You just tell them what you want, and they tell you how much it will cost. With strangers at a party, you've got to worry about their feelings."
Megan stares at Ed. She can't get the image out of her head of him negotiating the cost of a blow job on the street corner.
"Let's stick to the topic at hand," Megan's therapist says. She smiles at Megan. "What would you say at a party, Charlene?"
"I've never been to a party," Charlene says.
"Not even a birthday party? As a kid?" Ed asks her.
"I am allergic to flour, so cake makes me break out in hives," Charlene says.
"That's the saddest story I ever heard," Ed says.
"I think working on being comfortable in a party setting would be beneficial to everyone. Why don't we plan on having a mock party at session?"
Do not always share everything with friends, and that includes therapy sessions.
"You're going to have a mock party with a roomful of social degenerates and you won't go out with your best friends in the whole world?" Lucy exclaims, offended.
"That's not fair. This is treatment, not a choice," Megan says.
"Are you sure you don't want to try some of my Xanax?"
Say hello to a stranger.
"I'm sorry, did you drop this?" Guy in Khakis says to Megan during her last tutoring session before New Year's Eve. The tables are nearly empty; it's technically during the students' winter break, but some of the students, especially Sandra, who fears she might be held back for the third time for sixth grade, have come to a special tutoring session.
Megan freezes, as she does when strangers say things to her. She's been known to take a long time to answer a question as simple as "What time is it?" She'll stare at her watch in a panic, desperately trying to remember how to tell time, as if the stranger were conducting a pop quiz and grading her on her ability to read the hands on her watch.
"Uh," Megan stutters, at a complete loss at what to say.
"It's probably someone else's," says Guy in Khakis. There's an awkward silence while Guy in Khakis weighs his options between finding something else to say or leaving.
"Hey, mister," says Sandra, Megan's student, just as Megan is certain Guy in Khakis is going to walk away. "Do you know how to find for X?"
"Uh, sure," he says, looking at Megan.
"Well, sit down then, 'cause we need help," Sandra says.
Sandra winks at Megan.
Megan gives her a look. Sandra just smiles and blinks her eyes innocently at Guy in Khakis.
He looks down at the textbook and pulls up an empty chair next to Megan. He's so close to her that she can smell his aftershave.
"The key to these things is always doing the same thing to both sides," Guy in Khakis says. "You have to have balance first, then you can find for X."
Stop worrying so much.
The day of the mock party in group, there are festive streamers hung up on the walls, along with a folding card table and a bowl of nonalcoholic punch. The group's usual circle of chairs have been removed entirely.
Ed and Charlene are hovering uneasily by the punch bowl. The rest of the group are scattered throughout the room. Most of them shift constantly, as if trying to find a stance or pose that doesn't feel too forced.
Megan's therapist begins directing them as if they're all planes and she's an air traffic controller.
"Charlene and Dennis," she calls. "I want you two in a conversation. Christi and Pauline, you two, and Megan and Ed. Yes, you two."
"Should we try the practice conversation?" Ed asks Megan. He's referring to a "mock" conversation Charlene and Megan's therapist demonstrated in front of group two weeks ago. It went something like:
Person A: Hello. How are you?
Person B: Fine. How are you?
Person A: Fine. Nice party, isn't it?
Person B: It is a nice party.
Person A: How do you know the host?
Person B: The host is my uncle.
Megan doesn't have an uncle, so she's not sure this mock conversation would really work for her.
"Nice party, isn't it?" Ed asks Megan now.
"Um, it is a nice party," Megan says.
"Can I offer you some punch?" Ed asks, moving on to Mock Conversation #3, even though they are nowhere near the punch bowl.
"Yes," Megan says.
Ed doesn't move.
"Are you going to get the punch?" Megan asks.
"I thought it was just an exercise," Ed says.
Be extravigilant about birth control, especially during an illicit affair.
During the mock party, while Ed practiced his small-talk scripts, Megan thought of what would happen if she brought up the
Big Talk, the one she had had with Mr. X, right before they'd broken up.
It went something like:
Megan: My period is a week late.
Megan: Aren't you going to say something?
Megan: Please say something.
Mr. X: What do you want me to say? "Thank you for ruining my life"?
Do not underestimate a jerk's ability to be a jerk.
Three weeks went by without Mr. X calling. Nearly a month went by, and nothing. This after he used to call two or three times a day, as if always wanting to know exactly what she was doing.
Megan's period came and went. Mr. X never called.
Megan left him a message on his cell phone, telling him she wasn't pregnant. He still didn't call.
She saw him, after work one day, in the lobby of their building. She almost said hello, but before she could, she saw Mrs. X come through the revolving doors, wearing her Kate Spade shoes, carrying a matching bag, two of his children in tow.
He hugged his children, bringing the girl up on his shoulders, and he smiled down into his wife's face and absently brushed her hair out of her eyes. Megan recognized the gesture. He'd done the same thing to her a million times.
Then, he looked up and saw her.
His eyes clouded. With panic? With scorn? She couldn't tell. Then he looked away.
Watch "What Not to Wear" on the off chance you leave your apartment for an occasion other than work.
"Is that what you're wearing?" Lucy asks Megan, picking her up at eight o'clock New Year's Eve, for an outrageously expensive party at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Megan is wearing a safe outfit of black pants, a black cashmere sweater, and flats. Lucy, on the other hand, is wearing a miniskirt made of red sequins, stiletto heels, and a black halter top.
"I don't want to go," Megan says.
"What have you been going to group for, except to help you be more socially confident? I see I'm going to have to do a fashion intervention."
Lucy raids Megan's closet, and they don't leave her apartment until Megan is properly attired in a 1950s-style strapless cocktail dress and heels.
"Better," Lucy says.
Be less selfish.
When Lucy and Megan make it to the Intercontinental, Sarah is already there, sitting at the bar.
They order a round of drinks and Sarah says, "I hired a detective to follow Luke around."
Lucy and Megan look at each other and then at Sarah.
"He wasn't cheating after all," Sarah sighs. "I overreacted."
No matter how tempting, do not blame the wife.
Megan wanted to blame Mrs. X.
After all, how is it fair that Mrs. X could abuse Mr. X throw coffee cups at him and curse him and still, despite it all, be a better companion than she is?
And why is it fair that even when Mr. X said mean things about his wife, if Megan even said so much as "She's being ridiculous" he would come to her defense? And because she had no one to confide in, not really, her resentment of Mrs. X just grew and grew, a big black oil slick of dislike inside her, a frightening dark combination of emotions.
She had what Megan didn't: Mr. X.
But watching her friend Sarah, Megan reconsiders. All the excuses in her head, the ones that were propping her up, making her feel justified in sleeping with Mr. X that you can't pick whom you fall in love with, that Mrs. X is a tyrant, that she, herself, might be having an affair melt away.
"I'm glad he didn't cheat," Megan tells Sarah.
"Me too," she says.
Circulate more at parties.
"Excuse me," Megan tells Lucy and Sarah. "I'm going to the bathroom."
On her way, she collides straight into Guy in Khakis from tutoring. Except he isn't wearing khakis, he's wearing black tuxedo pants and a simple white shirt.
"You," Megan says without thinking.
Guy in Khakis (now Tuxedo Pants) takes a look at Megan. "And you," he says, a smile playing around his lips.
"What are you doing at this terrifically overpriced party?" Guy in Tuxedo Pants asks.
Megan freezes temporarily, the parts of her brain in charge of conversation stunned. Then she thinks of Ed and the mock party.
"It's a long story," Megan says.
"How about you tell me over a glass of champagne?" Guy in Tuxedo Pants says.
Flirt with handsome strangers.
"I hate New Year's," Guy in Tuxedo Pants says.
"Me too," Megan agrees.
"I think it's a Hallmark conspiracy. That whole finding-someone-to-kiss-at-midnight thing. Hallmark is trying to chip away at our self-esteem so we become so vulnerable that we feel the urge to collect Precious Moments figurines."
Megan laughs. "You're funny," she says, and smiles.
"That's what all my ex-girlfriends tell me." Guy in Tuxedo Pants winks. "So, about this kissing-at-midnight thing. Want to make a pact?"
"What kind of pact?"
"Well, if you don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend or anybody to kiss, how about me?"
"You?" Megan asks, surprised by the offer.
"Don't say no, or else I'm going to have to run out and buy a Precious Moments figurine just to get over the rejection, and I'm pretty sure no Hallmarks are open at this hour."
Megan laughs. "OK."
"You'd kiss me? You really would?" Guy in Tuxedo Pants asks, surprised. "Score!" he shouts, and puts two hands in the air. This makes Megan laugh again.
Change mobile phone number to avoid calls from Mr. X.
Megan's mobile phone vibrates.
And without even looking at the caller ID, she already knows who it is. Mr. X. Who else would be calling on New Year's Eve? Not her parents, who always go to bed before ten-thirty, even on major holidays.
"I'm sorry, it's my phone," she tells Guy in Tuxedo Pants as she reaches into her clutch to get the phone.
"I miss you. I need to see you" comes the familiar voice of Mr. X. "Can you meet me? In a half hour?"
Take responsibility for the addiction.
Megan feels her heart start to speed up. And instantly she knows even though she should say no, even though every ounce of pride she has tells her to hang up on him, she can't.
She feels herself being pulled, as if on strings, toward him, and she knows before she speaks what she will do.
"Where?" she asks him.
Do not look to the past for happiness.
She meets Mr. X in the parking garage of their old office, the site of a number of their clandestine rendezvous, and her heart is beating quickly, so quickly, and her mind is moving at light speed through different scenarios. He's going to tell me he loves me, she thinks. He's going to tell me it's all been a horrible mistake. He'll have his bags packed. He'll be waiting for me to take him in. He'll put his arms around me and tell me he loves me.
Mr. X is wearing sweatpants and a baseball cap, and he gives Megan a sheepish smile. "I told my wife I was going out to get some milk."
It takes a moment for Megan to absorb this. I told my wife I was going out to get some milk. It implies he'll be returning to her, and soon. Megan glances uncertainly from his car to him. He has no bags. He doesn't plan to leave.
"What do you want?" Megan asks him in a voice harsher than she intended.
"To see you," he says simply. "I know you deserve someone better than me. I know you deserve someone who can love you fully. Someone who won't be there just part-time for you."
Megan nods and looks down at her shoes. She feels the pull of him, the electric energy that still exists between them.
He doesn't love her more, she thinks. He is just bored. Trapped with his family for a whole week, nothing to do but think of what he doesn't have.
"Aren't you even going to hug me?" he asks, opening his arms.
She imagines stepping into them, kissing him. The starting again of Red Light, Green Light, the thrilling sex, the series of slights and disappointments, the end at which he breaks her heart again. She realizes she came hoping he would talk her into something foolish.
"I shouldn't have come," Megan says to her shoes.
Megan doesn't say good-bye. She simply gets into her car and shuts the door. Mr. X says, "Wait."
But Megan is tired of waiting. Waiting for him to call. Waiting for him to leave his wife. Waiting for him to fall in love with her. She is done waiting.
She feels a light switch flip in her heart. This, she thinks, is it.
"Good-bye, Daniel," Megan says, turning on her ignition and putting her car into drive.
And driving home, Megan doesn't cry. Or even feel sad.
She feels as if a weight has lifted, a heavy, flat stone she's been carrying on her back for months, gone. This, she thinks, must be what a clean slate feels like.
In her car, the DJ on the radio wishes her a happy New Year.
Find a new therapist.
"I'm leaving this field," Megan's therapist informs her in the last five minutes of their latest session. "I'm changing careers. I'm going to law school."
"But...you can't do that," Megan says, her heart speeding up as it does when someone is breaking up with her. How long had her therapist been keeping this secret? Days? Weeks? Months?
"Megan, you've made a lot of progress."
"That isn't true," Megan whines. She doesn't feel any more ready to tackle the world today than she did the day before. Her resolution list, after all, has grown to nearly 610 in just the last week alone, and it was already two days into the New Year.
"You only have one more session left of group," her therapist points out. "I think you're ready to be released into the wild."
"I don't feel ready."
"You are ready." Megan's therapist smiles.
"I'm not. I haven't even told you Mr. X's name."
"What's his name?"
"See? You wouldn't have been able to do that a month ago."
"I still don't feel cured."
"It's not about a cure. It's about making peace with yourself."
Megan imagines a scene from the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: her new self promising not to car-bomb her old self in exchange for a place to live.
"I'll be around next week if you want one more session with me."
Megan is silent.
"If you want to continue counseling, I can recommend some good people," her therapist says, sounding like any number of Megan's matchmaking friends who try to set her up on blind dates. "But if you want my opinion, you've reached a good place."
"What about my resolution list?"
"I think you ought to tear it up. You really don't need it. You're going to be fine."
Do the math.
At tutoring, there is no sign of Guy in Khakis. Megan feels disappointed, and partly responsible. After all, she had ditched him on New Year's.
"I still think he likes you," says Sandra as she completes her math homework.
"I don't know about that."
"Didn't he come to your party?"
"How did you know about that?" Megan asks.
"Well, I did tell him where you were going. I overheard you talking to one of your friends, and I thought you could use a little help in the romance department."
"I can't believe you did that."
"Well, I finished my math homework first." Sandra smiles.
Seize the day. Whatever that means.
In the stairwell, leaving tutoring, Megan runs into Guy in Khakis.
"There's Cinderella," Guy in Khakis says.
"Isn't that what you call a beautiful girl who disappears before the clock strikes midnight?"
"I'm sorry. My friend..."
"That's OK," Guy in Khakis says. "You don't need to explain."
"But I want to explain."
"In that case, maybe we should grab a drink?"
Get to know a stranger.
"I had an affair with a married man," Megan blurts, almost before she's even taken a half sip of her drink.
Guy in Khakis doesn't even blink. "For how long?"
"Nearly a year." Megan looks down at her champagne glass. "I just felt like you should know that about me."
"I see. Well, we all make mistakes. If love made us do rational things, they wouldn't call it love, would they? It would be something else entirely, like logic."
Megan gives him a smile.
"So, I think you owe me a kiss," he says.
"You promised on New Year's Eve."
"But that was for when the ball drops."
"Would you feel better if I reenacted it for you?"
"OK. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six..."
"That's what my therapist tells me. Five. Four. Three. Two..."
"One," they both say at the same time.
Then, Guy in Khakis bends down and kisses Megan sweetly on the lips. It's the sweetness of the kiss that makes Megan's heart start beating a little faster.
"I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?" he says as he pulls away.
"I didn't, I'm Megan."
They shake hands, and looking into his face, Megan sees a future full of possibility and second chances.
Be open to change.
"My name is Megan and this is my last session," Megan says, standing up and speaking before the group. "I want to thank everyone for all their help, I learned a lot about myself."
"We'll miss you, Megan," the group says in unison.
Then, everyone applauds.
Tear up your list of resolutions.
The next morning Megan picks up her heavy stack of resolutions. They are the size of a novel.
She sits down and reads through them, one by one.
Lose weight. Love more. Appreciate every day a little more than the last. Avoid complicated relationships. Strengthen friendships. Learn to trust self more. Improve self-esteem.
The more she reads them, the more she hears the nagging quality of them, the merciless tone of disappointment. Maybe she should just follow one simple resolution: Do the best I can. Maybe the key to self-improvement isn't to tackle the problem all at once, like eating a foot-long sub in one bite. Maybe it's better just to start with a nibble and work your way in from there.
She looks at the stack of papers, then starts tearing up the resolution list, one page at a time.
Cara Lockwood was born in Dallas, earned her bachelor's degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, and then moved back to Austin to spend her formative years working as a newspaper journalist. She married shortly thereafter and moved with her husband to the frigid tundra of Chicago, where she currently pines for sunshine and Tex Mex.
Her first two books, I Do (But I Don't) and Pink Slip Party, have been published by Downtown Press.
Copyright © 2004 by Cara Lockwood