The Real Deal
Baseball cap, a freckled face grinning in front of a chain-link fence, holding a beer. The sort of guy that would say he loves how you’re chill enough to order cheeseburgers and fries, but who lets out a groan when he walks by a heavy woman.
Holding a small white dog (probably not really his), trying too hard to seem like a good guy.
Wearing a backpack and a skin-tight grey athletic shirt, standing on a ridge overlooking a sprawling pine forest. She pictured herself waking up, un-showered, in a tent at 6 a.m. during her one week off.
Auburn hair, white smile, clean t-shirt. The background was blurred; maybe the photo was taken on portrait mode? She paused. In his second photo, he was standing in a windbreaker on a beach. The background was obscured by grey mist.
“Cameron, 28, Portland.”
No puns, no innuendos, no request for memes or music suggestions. The absence of information drew her in.
That evening, when she was scrubbing residual egg crust off of her least favorite frying pan, her phone buzzed. Omelets were healthier than take-out, but the clean-up was a pain. She wiped her hands on her pajama pants and checked her screen.
“This is my first time using a dating app (I swear I haven’t been saying that for the past 3 months) and I was nervous about it but I’m really excited we matched, Annie!” Cameron’s message read.
It made him sound awkward. An over-sharer. But the message felt genuine, and she appreciated that, so she opened the app and wrote back.
He invited her to meet him at a pizza parlor downtown on Friday night, which impressed her. Most guys just wanted to get drinks to lubricate their encounters. Going out for pizza sounded like a real date, and the spot had a 4.8 on Yelp.
After work on Friday, she showered and changed into a black skirt and a green blouse, choosing boots over wedges to avoid giving off an office-vibe. Brushing her hair into a ponytail, she studied the effect in her mirror and decided it was good. She looked playful and fun.
Jazzy, Annie’s roommate, arrived home as she was heading out.
“Well, look at you. You look nice,” Jazzy said with an approving nod. Jazzy had been ragging on her for months for wearing flannels or t-shirts when she met up with guys. “No one will want a second date if you don’t try at all on the first one,” Jazzy would say with a sigh.
“Do you need a ride? I can drop you off if you want,” Jazzy offered.
“It’s okay. I’ll just Uber.”
The pizza parlor stood out: a little piece of Rome in suburbia. It sat at the corner of a shopping center parking lot, but the ivy crawling up the yellow bricks and the small fountain out front didn’t feel tacky.
“Not quite as cute in real life,” she thought when she saw Cameron waiting in a booth. He was shorter than she had imagined. But when he caught sight of her, he smiled. His hazel eyes crinkled, and she felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach.
“Wow, you look amazing,” he said as he stood to hug her. “I ordered some garlic knots to start, I hope that’s okay. We could get another appetizer too if you want.”
“Garlic knots sound perfect,” she grinned, taking her seat.
At dinner, she learned that he was working at a bank doing something that involved numbers and buttons on screens. When she told him she was finishing her child development dissertation, he seemed genuinely interested. She sometimes worried that men would think she wanted a baby soon because she studied infants. She didn’t want a baby. Children weren’t even that cute when you had to placate them every day in order to get them through your experiment. They were better left in the lab than brought into the home. Cameron didn’t give her the usual “wow you must love kids” line.
“Wow, what an interesting window into human cognition,” he said, toying with his napkin. “Working with babies must be hard though. How do you get them to cooperate?”
“What? Is that legal?” his eyes bulged.
“No, I’m totally kidding. We use toys and games, try to make it fun and stuff. All we do is show them a puppet show and watch how they react,” she explained.
His eyes crinkled again. They looked sort of green, contrasting with the booth’s red-leather cover.
They ordered too much food: Two kinds of pizza (they couldn’t decide between the house veggie deluxe and the balsamic white sauce, so they ordered both), and garlic knots, which were thick and buttery. When the waiter arrived to clear their table, Annie asked him to pack up the leftovers.
“You’re keeping this?” Cameron asked, glancing over the remaining slices. “They’ll be cold tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but that’s what a microwave is for,” Annie replied. She suddenly felt embarrassed. Maybe bringing home leftovers was not cool dating behavior.
But then Cameron laughed. She felt a wave of relief. “Waste not want not I guess,” he said.
The check arrived. He reached for it.
“Let me split it with you,” she offered.
“I got it,” he said with a wave. “You can treat next time.”
So, there would be a next time.
Although Annie was happy that he paid for the food, she couldn’t help but feel the smallest twinge of guilt. It wasn’t progressive. She had a generous university stipend. Men and women should be equals. Other girls would complain about how having dates pay made them feel like sex was expected. But Annie liked feeling like there was a price on her company and that men would pay it. It made her feel appreciated. It wasn’t about the material gains.
Last year she slept with a consultant. She was annoyed when he didn’t offer to treat for sushi since she knew he could afford it. Then she had also hooked up with a poet who worked days in a coffee shop, and she was excited when he took her out to ice cream since he had to be careful with his cash.
“Can I drive you home?” Cameron asked as they left.
They parted ways with a soft kiss outside her apartment building. Annie was surprised to feel butterflies agan in her stomach. He was a good kisser. The wet, drunken kisses she got on the way to her bedroom for most Tinder dates didn’t stir up any real feelings. She felt nervous that Cameron hadn’t asked to come inside. Was he not attracted to her after all?
Her concern didn’t last long. By the time she reached the sixth floor, taking the stairs in a last-ditch effort to make up the number of garlic rolls she had eaten with dinner, he had texted her.
“Tonight was fun! Are you free later this weekend?”
“I could be. What did you have in mind?” she texted back.
“Want to go to the beach on Sunday? I can pick you up.”
“The beach? lol it’s December.”
“It’s still nice to walk on the shore even if it's too cold to swim. No worries if you’re not into the beach though we could see a movie?”
“No no the beach sounds nice, what time?”
“Great see you soon! Really excited!”
Annie put down her phone with a grin. The butterflies were back. It had been a while since she had gone on anything like a beach date. She hadn’t had a real boyfriend since high school and that hardly even counted.
Sunday was grey. Annie woke up to the pitter-patter of rain and groaned. So much for the beach. She pulled herself out of bed and made her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.
Her phone dinged and she assumed it was Cameron making alternative plans.
“Are we still on for 10?”
She was confused. Had he not looked out the window?
“I’m up but not sure it’s a great day to go to the beach....”
“Because of the rain? Don’t worry about that. The beach is beautiful when it’s stormy.”
Annie wasn’t sure she agreed but she was intrigued. What was she going to do if she backed out? Sit around her apartment and study? Why not take part in the adventure that was being offered to her?
She finished her coffee and went and got dressed in a purple flannel shirt, black yoga pants and yellow rain boots. Pigtails would look cute with her yellow knit hat. It was a younger look but one that men, for better or worse, generally seemed to like.
The last thing she did before leaving the apartment was shoot Jazzy a text with her plans. Just in case.
It was a two-hour drive to the beach Cameron had chosen. Normally Annie hated being stuck in cars but she and Cameron had fun singing along to classic folk tunes. She actually enjoyed the trip. They passed towering pine forests and churning rivers along the way.
Cameron parked at one of the many small towns dotting the coast. The rain had picked up making the short walk to the water seem like quite the trek.
“It should settle down in a few hours,” said Cameron. “Wanna check the town out first?”
“Sure,” said Annie and took his hand.
It was a tourist trap, Annie decided, but a cute one. Most of the tiny wooden stores, which boasted souvenirs like mother of pearl shells and lavender soap, were closed for the season, but one cafe was still open. Bells chimed as Annie and Cameron stepped into a cloud of warmth and cinnamon.
Cameron ordered two steaming lattes and a danish from the lanky teenager behind the counter. Snuggled together at a wooden bench, the pair took turns taking buttery bites out of the pastry.
“So how long have you been in Oregon?” asked Cameron.
“I grew up here actually,” said Annie. “In a small town outside of Eugene.”
“Huh so I guess this isn’t your first beach trip,” said Cameron.
“Not my first but I didn’t spend that much time at the coast growing up. My mom isn’t really into taking trips, even short ones. Plus I got car sick as a kid so we mostly just stayed in town.”
“Do you like taking trips?”
“Sure,” said Annie. “I like adventures, new experiences. In college I spent a semester in Paris.”
“Does France count as an adventure?”
“I mean, I think so. It was my first time out of the country so that was exciting. I’d never spent more than a couple hours on a plane before.”
Annie suddenly felt embarrassed. She had wanted to sound worldly, but it was coming out like she was a small-town loser.
“Have you been anywhere really fun?” she asked.
“Not as many places as I want to go,” he said. “My parents took us to Hawaii, Mexico and Canada but that was about it.”
Ah ha. France seemed cool after all.
“During my semester abroad a friend and I went to Germany and Italy,” she said, trying to secure her upper hand. “We took trains and these cheap green busses that are all over Germany. They’re nice, they even have wifi.”
“I didn’t take you for a public transit enthusiast,” he said.
“I mean, they weren’t public busses, but I do like public transit. Better for the environment and less stressful than having a car. But it is hard to get around in Oregon without your own ride. ”
Not cool, she was straying hard into nerd territory.
“Well, I have an idea of where we could go to have another adventure tonight,” he said.
“Mm?” Annie asked. She was trying to look coy. She hoped she knew what he was about to suggest.
“My house might not be quite as fun as Paris but you don’t have to get on a plane to get there.”
Annie wanted to call him out on his corny pickup line but she was worried it would ruin the mood. Instead, she smiled.
“Like I said, I’m into adventures.”
His house was in a wealthy neighborhood across town from her apartment complex. It wasn’t as big as some of the surrounding homes but had high windows. The rooms had white walls; few possessions made the inside feel roomy and a bit cold. He poured bourbon for them and they hooked up on his black couch. The couch’s draping was rough on Annie’s back and she was amused to find a rug burn on herself when she got home. A love wound.
She hooked up with him again on Tuesday night and then on Thursday, this time in her bed.
When she wasn’t with Cameron, he was texting her.
“What’s for breakfast today, Annie?”
“How was the lab? Kids behaving?”
“Saw a Garfield poster today and thought of you, so cute that you collected those comics as a kid.”
“Missing you, hope to see you soon.”
It was hard to respond to all of his messages, especially when she was at work, but she did her best. Knowing someone besides Jazzy and her mom was thinking about her was nice. She found herself smiling randomly throughout the day when she thought about his lame jokes or compliments.
By the time the next weekend rolled around she had started turning down other Tinder offers. She still used the app. It was exciting to get matches and messages from men she knew she would never want to see.
On Sunday morning, Cameron picked her up in his Prius. He had texted ahead that he had a surprise.
“Where are we headed?”
“My favorite brunch spot,” he said. “You’ll like it.”
“I love brunch,” she said.
Annie’s Instagram was littered with photos of eggs smothered in melted cheese and stacks of fresh toast covered in too much syrup.
As Cameron exited the highway off Route 26, soft rock blaring from his radio, Annie suspected she knew where they were headed.
Sure enough, he turned onto High Ave. and parked on the Street across from Sal’s Bakery.
“No way,” said Annie. “Sal’s? Sal’s is my favorite place! My roommate and I used to come here all the time, but we stopped since she quit her job to go back to school.”
Getting a Master’s degree made Jazzy happy, but it didn’t make much money.
“Wow, that’s wild, that you like it too” grinned Cameron. “It’s such a great place, so that makes sense.”
They settled into a blue-leather booth and ordered a plate of French toast. It arrived dripping with butter. Cameron cut a large piece, forked it, splashed syrup over it and held it out to Annie. She ate it in one bite.
“Was that a test? She asked after she finished chewing. “Bet you like a girl who can fit a lot in her mouth, huh?”
“Look at the pervert over here,” teased Cameron. “I’m just trying to have a nice brunch and you can’t keep your mind out of the gutter.”
Annie giggled. He raised his hand.
“Waitress? I need a new table. This woman is harassing me.”
“Cameron cut it out, people are starting to stare!”
Their waitress seemed to be in the kitchen, Annie didn’t see her anywhere nearby, but other customers had shot them uncomfortable glances during Cameron’s outburst.
He shrugged. “Fine I’ll stay but you better behave.”
Annie giggled again and dug in for another bite.
When the food was gone Cameron reached across the table to take her left hand. She was sipping the last of her coffee with her right and trying to decide whether to get another refill.
“Annie, I know this is fast but why don’t you move in with me?”
“Whoa, hang on there.” She placed her coffee cup on the wooden table and gaped at him. “Move in together?”
“I feel like we have a special connection. This way we wouldn’t have to drive across town after work to see each other. Besides, it would be great for you. I’ve seen your building and no offense but it’s a bit run down. My house is nice and I wouldn’t charge you rent until you’re sure you’re happy with the decision.”
Annie didn’t know what to say. She was flattered. The idea that he had fallen hard for her was romantic. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings but she knew it wasn’t a good idea.
“Cameron, I mean, that’s a little crazy. It’s so fast.”
“Who says it's too fast? Who makes the rules about how soon you can move in?”
She almost said “I get to decide” but then she stopped. It was true there wasn’t a perfect time to move in. Some women dated men for years and couldn’t get them to commit to a shared space.
“I just want to see more of you,” he said. “I want to wake up next to you. It’ll be an adventure!”
“Well, I’m not going to terminate my lease but I guess I could start sleeping over if that’s what you want.”
Cameron leaned over to kiss her and she hoped his shirt wouldn’t get in the remnants of their brunch
“He asked you to what?” asked Jazzy that evening. “Annie that’s nuts!”
“I’m not really moving in, I'm just going to start staying over there more.”
They were seated at the kitchen table sharing a bowl of boxed Mac and Cheese. Annie knew she would miss eating dinner with Jazzy in the little yellow kitchen where they had spent hours baking and eating breakfast and gossiping over beers. But she was also excited to use Cameron’s sleek new kitchen with a granite island, four burners, and air conditioning. Come summer, if things worked out, she wouldn’t have to open the window to avoid suffocating over a hot stove.
“Well then why didn’t he just ask you to sleep over?” said Jazzy.
“He’s just… a little dramatic. Trying to be romantic and adventurous and stuff.”
“That’s bizarre. Has he never dated anyone? He might not have ever dated anyone. You don’t really know anything about him.”
“Sure I do,” said Annie. “He told me all about his family back in Michigan and the company he works for here and his friends in the city.”
“Yeah, he grew up there and moved to Portland for college and stuck around after. What’s wrong with Michigan?”
“It’s just a milquetoast state. It seems like the kind of state you would throw out if you didn’t want to talk about your past.”
“C’mon Jazzy don’t be a nut. I’ve internet stalked him and it all checks out. His Facebook and LinkedIn and college research page. He’s not lying about his life.”
“The whole thing seems super strange to me.”
“People fall in love in different ways. Let me have this okay?”
“Well, you’re not getting out of your lease. I’ll sue. And you better come back and hang out with me or I’ll sue you for emotional neglect.”
“Not sure that’s a thing.”
“I’ll make it a thing,” said Jazzy.
At least she was grinning, thought Annie.
She packed up her toiletries, books and papers the next day. She took her work clothes and gym outfits and two nice outfits but left her weekend-chill clothes behind. No need for unflattering sweaters and jeans. She also left her knickknacks including the photo album her high school bff had made her when she left for college and the stuffed bunny her mom had bought her when she was a child. No need to put them at risk in the off chance that Cameron was a weirdo and decided to steal or burn her things if they had a fight. Okay Annie, no need to be paranoid she chided herself.
The last thing Annie did before leaving was delete the dating apps off her phone.
Seated at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, Jazzy watched as Annie carried her suitcase out the door of their apartment.
"I’m not helping you because I don’t approve of this,” she said and turned back to her newspaper.
“Love you too,” said Annie. She closed the door and took the elevator down to the ground floor and Cameron's waiting car.
When they got to his house he took her bag out of the trunk and carried it inside.
“Sorry I didn’t help more when I picked you up, I thought you might want to say good-bye to Jazzy one-on-one,” he said.
“I’ll see her again this weekend. We aren’t that codependent, it’s not like I can’t go a few days without her.”
“The house smells nice,” she said as she stepped through the doorway. “Did you get a new air- freshener?”
“Check the kitchen,” said Cameron. He hoisted her bag onto his shoulder and carried it upstairs.
There was a bouquet of white roses and honeysuckles in a crystal vase on the kitchen table. Annie leaned into the flowers and took a deep breath, savoring the sweet, light scent.
“I thought the honeysuckles might remind you of your grandma’s house because you got them off her fence there,” said Cameron, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Not sure whether you can suck on these ones though.”
Annie turned around in his arms and kissed him.
“They’re beautiful,” she said. “This is so sweet.”
Cameron grinned, lifted her off her feet and carried her upstairs. It was nice, falling asleep next to him and knowing he would be there when she woke up.
The third day Annie realized she had forgotten her sneakers at home but when she told Cameron he picked up a new pair for her so she wouldn’t have to drive back across town. Better to spend the time finishing her new paper, he said.
“Size seven right?” he said when he presented them. “You’re supposed to get new running shoes every six months anyway. Otherwise, you might injure your feet.”
“I think that applies to serious runners, not people who go to the gym once a week to jog a mile on the treadmill or take Pilates,” said Annie.
“You’re welcome,” said Cameron.
“Thanks, that was really thoughtful.”
She didn’t actually see Jazzy again for three weeks. Annie kept meaning to go back to the apartment but between work and Cameron she just didn’t have time.
“This is exactly why moving in together was a good idea,” said Cameron when she mentioned that she hadn’t seen Jazzy in a while. They were watching TV on the same black couch that had attacked her back. “If I hadn’t gotten you here, I would be the one who hadn’t seen you for three weeks.”
When she finally did meet up with Jazzy, to see a movie, Jazzy wasn’t happy. She was waiting outside the movie hall in a black peacoat, slacks and heels. Her dark hair was pulled up in a bun and her lips were bright red. Her sapphire earrings matched her eyes. Leave it to Jazzy to look more put together on a girl’s date than Annie did on her real dates.
“Three weeks? Annie come on,” she said as Annie went in for a hug. “Sue me.”
“Are you mad at me for not being more excited about Cameron? These days, it takes you forever to respond to my texts.”
“No, of course not! I’m sorry. It’s just that I can’t be on my phone in the lab, and Cameron doesn’t like me texting at home around him. He says it’s rude and we should be enjoying each other’s company.”
Jazzy didn’t say anything more but she pursed her lips together. They bought their tickets and headed into the theater.
The next day she picked up fairy lights and little potted plants from Home Depot. She put the lights up in the living room and spaced the plants around the house before Cameron got back from work.
“Hey now, what’s this?” he said when he got in.
“I picked up some home decor,” she said. “I figured if I’m going to stick around, I should make the space more my own.”
“Well I’m glad that’s the plan but don’t you think fairy lights are more appropriate for the kids in your lab than our house?” he said.
“No, I think they’re pretty,” she said.
He saw her face starting to droop and wrapped his arms around her.
“Well I think you’re pretty and I am thrilled that you’re settling in.”
They stopped going out as much, which Annie figured was normal for serious couples. Everyone knew you stopped “dating” once you were living together. Their timeline was just sped up.
Not going out was fine. Annie preferred eating at home in pajamas anyway. The problem was Cameron never seemed to like what Annie made. She had started cooking most of their meals because she still wasn’t paying him rent and she felt bad. She didn’t have enough on her stipend to pay him without screwing over Jazzy on their lease.
Cameron would always eat what she made, but he always pointed out what was wrong with the dish. He said that her cooking was “mediocre,” not “great.”
“Cameron, I’m not going to make you dinner if you sit there and criticize it,” she snapped after he told her that the Brussel sprouts were overcooked. “I know you work later than me but I have a job too.”
“Annie, don’t get like that. If you don’t want my feedback I’ll stop. I thought you wanted to keep getting better.”
The next night he texted her that he was going to pick dinner up. She was annoyed at what seemed like another insult. She considered filling up on cereal and going to bed before he got in but decided to wait for him. Not worth the fight.
Cameron arrived with sushi from her favorite restaurant. He would have had to drive 20 minutes out of the way to get it.
“I can’t cook nearly as well as you,” he said when he set the plastic take-out bag on the table. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings last night and I’m sorry. I hope you decide to cook for me again even though I was a jerk.”
“Of course I will,” Annie said. “I’m sorry I was so snappy.
“I get it,” said Cameron. “Your job is stressful. You really need to sleep more.”
“Who sleeps in grad school?” Annie joked. She opened the first plastic container and used a pair of wooden chopsticks to pull out a salmon and avocado roll.
The sex was great. At least for the first couple months. Each time she tried something she never would have considered before, Cameron was ready with a new idea.
“How do you know you won’t like it if you don’t try?” he would ask her. “It’s up to you, of course. If you don’t like it we can always stop.”
“I don’t think I want to” would be met with an eye roll or a sigh or a shrug and she would feel uncool and unsexy.
She wanted to complain to Jazzy but she was worried that it would be met with “I told you so” and she didn’t want Jazzy to think she was winning. Every couple has their differences, she thought. Cameron is still a great guy.
“Is your Instagram on private?” Cameron asked one morning after they had been living together for four months.
“Huh? Oh yeah. How did you know? I thought you didn’t have Insta.”
“I mean I don’t but sometimes I look at yours when I miss you at work,” he said. “How am I supposed to see your cute face now?”
“I’ll print out a photo and you can put it in an old-fashioned frame,” she said.
“Seriously why did you go private?” he asked.
“Well I need to start applying for jobs soon. I don’t really want hiring committees looking at my beach pics. Besides, do you want other men having total access to my bikini shots?”
“I guess I’ll just have to make an Instagram,” he said.
“Guess so,” she said.
It wasn’t until that night that a paranoid, uncomfortable thought hit her.
“How did you find Sal’s?” she asked him in bed.
“No seriously how did you hear about it?”
“Oh some buddies and I found it on Yelp in college, good place,” he said.
Sal’s didn’t have that many Yelp reviews and it was a good hour away from his college campus. Would it really have seemed worth the trip to a group of college bros?
“Ah, Yelp, typical,” she said.
As Cameron closed his eyes, Annie thought about the pictures on her Instagram feed. A sickly feeling bloomed in the pit of her stomach. There were multiple photos of her and Jazzy sitting at Sal’s, eating pastries and laughing as they split Belgian waffles and buttered French toast. But she told herself to stop being paranoid
“Of course he found it on Yelp. Like the coast, he’s the sort to go out of his way for fun,” she thought. “That’s why we’re a great match.”
They had their first fight a week later. Annie wasn’t really sure if it was even a fight because there wasn’t any screaming or shouting. It was something though. It started when she got home late from lab. She texted Cameron to tell him she wouldn’t be making dinner but hadn’t had time to call.
“Why were you out so late?” he asked when she got in. He was sitting at the table with a book.
“Missed you too,” she said, coming over to kiss him.
“Why were you out so late?” he demanded sharply, jerking away from her.
“Jeez Cameron I got drinks with my lab group,” she said. “One of the other grad students just got a paper accepted in a prestigious journal.”
“No which student.”
“Oh, Greg. He’s a sixth year too.”
“So you blew off our dinner to get drinks with Greg?”
“Cameron, what?” How cold his eyes looked startled her. His words were sharp, incisive.
“Annie if you’re getting tired of this, of us, you can say something,” he said.
“Cameron that’s not what’s happening at all,” she found herself pleading.
“Whatever, I’m going to sleep,” he said. Without another word, he went upstairs.
When Annie tried the door to the bedroom she found it locked. She was afraid that if she knocked he would get mad at her for waking him up, but she was also afraid that if she didn’t, he would be mad at her for not trying to reconcile with him. Annie spent the night in the guest bedroom. She left her teeth unbrushed.
The next morning he was calmly eating a bowl of cereal when she got downstairs. “Cameron about last night...”
“It’s fine,” he said, flashing her a smile. His eyes still looked cold. “Nothing you can’t make up to me tonight.”
He swatted her pajamaed behind, picked up his briefcase and left for work.
Annie felt butterflies exploding in her stomach but they didn’t feel right. Whatever was fluttering around in there didn’t go away all day. Instead it gnawed at her insides as she tried to work. She couldn’t focus.
“Babe you sure we’re good?” She finally texted him. “You seemed pretty mad last night.”
She opened and closed her phone over and over for the next thirty minutes hoping for a text until he finally responded.
“Of course. Sorry about last night, I had a bad day at work. My bad too. Love you”
Relief rushed over Annie.
A month later she told Cameron she was heading for a girl’s weekend with Jazzy. The two hardly ever got together and they were planning on spending two nights at a little bed and breakfast in a town a few hours away. There was a vineyard where they would do a wine tasting and a family-run organic farm that was supposed to serve excellent wood-fired pizza.
“Are you serious?” Cameron asked her. “You took off a whole weekend for Jazzy but when I want to hang out its always ‘papers this’ and ‘research that?’”
“I know. I know,” Annie said. “You’re right, we should take a weekend trip too.”
“Great, let’s go next weekend,” he said.
“No. Cameron, Jazzy, and I already booked the bed and breakfast.”
“Fuck me,” he said. “It’s always like this isn’t it? Are you going to fuck her in that bed and breakfast too? Sure seems like you like her more than me.”
Annie’s eyes bugged and her jaw went slack as Cameron turned and walked up the stairs. She gasped. Her face felt hot and tears came to her eyes.
Cameron paused halfway up the stairs.
“Annie, she’s never liked me. You know that. I love you but I can’t live like this, with the two of you sneaking around.”
Without thinking, Annie turned around and walked out of the house. She didn’t know what to do besides take a walk.
The air was still chilly but tiny flowers were beginning to pop up in the un-regimented spaces between people’s lawns. Even the regimented grass sprouting orderly on the lawns looked hopeful.
Annie felt embarrassed. Not so much by Cameron’s crazy accusations as the thought of having to tell anyone else about them. Jazzy would flip out. Annie’s mom had been so excited when she told her she had moved in with a great guy. If they broke up over this what was she supposed to say? She told herself it didn’t matter. She had moved in with Cameron as an adventure. A life partner was never the goal. She didn’t need to put up with his cruelty.
“I’m moving out,” Annie announced when she got back. Cameron was seated at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich. He hadn’t bothered to make her a sandwich, but she figured that was beside the point.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like, I’m leaving,” she said. “We fight all the time lately and I’ve had enough, I’m sorry.”
“I let you live in my house and now you’re leaving as soon as we hit a rough patch? As soon as things aren’t fun 24/7?”
“It’s not about fun,” she said.
The butterflies rode back in on a flood of doubt. Was it about fun? Was it shallow to leave because the adventure wasn’t going as planned? Every couple has their ups and downs, Annie had heard that a million times. Was she too flaky to stay through rough patches? Was she about to lose a good thing?
She felt less sure of what she was doing.
“Then what is it?” he asked. “Look I’m sorry about what I said about Jazzy. That was uncalled for. Rude and homophobic and I’m sorry. I just get jealous sometimes. I feel like I give this my all but you still care more about her than me.”
He fixed his eyes on her. They were red like he had been crying. He looked hurt and vulnerable. She felt jittery. She wanted to hug him.
“I mean, I love you Cameron but she’s been my best friend for years, since I started college.”
“You’re right,” he said. “She’s your best friend and you’ll probably want her as the bridesmaid at our wedding. We’ll learn to get along.”
Cameron had never mentioned getting married before. Marriage had never been a part of Annie’s plan at all. But it meant he really wanted her. If she left now it would hurt him a lot. He deserved another chance.
Two days before she was supposed to leave with Jazzy, Annie got violently ill. The symptoms started after breakfast. She was almost out the door when a wave of nausea sent her running to the bathroom. She vomited up the scrambled eggs and toast Cameron had made her. He was already gone so she dragged herself back to bed and texted her PI to let him know she wouldn’t make it to the lab.
Annie napped for most of the day and by the evening she had started to feel better. When Cameron got home she was going over newly published papers on the couch.
“Annie?” he said. “Why are you already in pajamas? Did you make dinner?”
“Oh shit,” she said. “Sorry I should have told you to pick something up. I got sick today.”
“Oh no.” He sat on the couch and pulled her into his arms. “If you had let me know I would have bought medicine. Do you want me to go to the drugstore?”
“No that’s fine, but thanks. I’m already feeling better so, hopefully, it was just a 24-hour bug.”
Cameron made himself boxed pasta. Annie wanted to keep her stomach empty but Cameron insisted she have some canned soup.
“We need to get some electrolytes and protein in you,” he said.
“Does soup have electrolytes? I thought that was like a coconut water thing.”
Cameron laughed and set a full bowl down at the table.
As soon as she finished dinner the nausea swelled up again. The soup came right back up and into the toilet.
“Poor Annie,” said Cameron. He walked into the bathroom behind her and put a hand on her head. “I guess you were right about keeping your stomach empty.”
Lying in bed that night the same horrible feeling she had had when she asked Cameron about Sal’s came creeping back. Was it a coincidence that she had gotten sick both times after Cameron fed her? Was it a coincidence that this was happening right before her trip?
“Annie you absolute nutter,” she thought. “This is lunacy. No more thriller movies.”
Even though she told herself she was being crazy, she couldn’t sleep. Finally, she decided she might as well check the medicine cabinet. She would see that nothing was there and that would be the end of it. Annie went into the bathroom and locked the door. She flushed the toilet in case Cameron had woken up when she got up, and ran the water as she checked the cabinet. Nothing suspicious. She let out a long sigh and returned to bed.
The next day she refused Cameron’s offer to make her oatmeal and he shrugged. She sat with him at the kitchen table, sipping tea while he ate.
“Annie you might want to cancel your trip this weekend,” he said. “I know it’s a sore subject so I feel bad bringing it up but you don’t want to get Jazzy sick.”
“Mm,” said Annie.
“Are you going into work today?”
“No, I want to rest more.”
“Sounds like a good choice. Love you.” He kissed her on her head and left.
After he was gone she looked inside the spice cabinet too but there was nothing amiss there either. Chastising herself for her paranoia, she popped a slice of bread in the toaster and then ate it plain. The toast stayed down. She decided not to tell Jazzy. The bug must not be that contagious if Cameron was fine.
She went upstairs around 5 p.m. to finish packing. As she folded her underwear and blouses into a backpack, she was surprised to hear noise downstairs.
“Cameron? Are you home already?”
He was stirring rice over the stove when she entered the kitchen.
“Yeah, I got off early today. I wanted to have dinner with you since you’re leaving early tomorrow. Besides since you’re feeling sick I didn’t want to leave you alone any longer.”
“Aww, sweet,” she said, coming over to hug him. She felt uneasy and guilty for feeling uneasy.
“What’re you making?”
“Chili for myself but you might just want to stick to rice,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “I can take over if you want.”
“No no, have a seat, I insist,” he said. He turned her shoulders away and sat her at the table.
She craned her neck to try and watch him but it was impossible to see exactly what he was doing.
He brought the food to the table and they ate together as he complained about one of his co-workers who had given him attitude when he left early.
“But I did it anyway because I love you and I think it’s important that we both commit time to each other,” he said.
Like clockwork, the sickness hit.
Annie rushed to the bathroom again.
“Oh babe, I’m so sorry,” said Cameron. He came into the bathroom and scooped up her hair.
“Get away from me!” Annie screamed. She got up from the toilet and shoved him as she gagged and tried to stop the bile from spilling out of her mouth.
“Annie, what the hell?”
“I know what you’re doing,” Annie yelled. She started to cry as a wave of sickness overpowered her. She sank to her knees and threw up.
“What am I doing?” Cameron asked coldly.
“You didn’t want me to leave with Jazzy so you poisoned me,” Annie said when the vomit subsided.
“You put drugs... I don’t know, something in the rice...” Annie’s words were cut short by another wave of bile.
“Annie listen to yourself; you sound like a lunatic. Drugs in the rice? I took off of work early to take care of you, and this is how you thank me? Make your own fucking food then.”
He turned and slammed the bathroom door on his way out.
Annie sighed over the toilet then started to weep. She wasn’t sure how to prove whether Cameron had poisoned her. If he hadn’t there was no way he would forgive her for the accusation. If he had she certainly wasn’t safe living with him.
Cameron was in the living room watching football when she exited the bathrooms so she went back up to the bedroom. Instead of weekend clothes, she packed up everything.
“So you’re leaving?” Cameron asked when she came down with her suitcase. “Because I drugged you? Like some comic book villain?”
Annie’s hands shook as she ordered an Uber.
“Unbelievable.” He shook his hands in frustration. “I’m not apologizing for something I didn’t do. I’m always the one who apologizes after our fights, every time. This time you need to apologize for accusing me of something crazy and criminal.”
“You’re fucking serious? Fuck you Annie. I really thought you were the one but now, well, I guess I didn’t really know you.”
She looked up from her phone. His eyes looked yellow as they reflected the fairy lights she had been so proud of.
“You’re going to start puking tomorrow morning and realize what a mistake you’ve made,” he continued coldly. “I’m not sure I’ll want to hear your apology though.”
Annie shrugged. Part of her wanted Cameron to cry and beg her to stay, to give her permission to put the whole incident behind them. At the same time she was afraid he was about to completely snap. What would she do if he tried to stop her?
“If you walk out that door you will regret it,” he said.
A shiver went down her spine. Her phone buzzed and she went out to meet the Uber.
Jazzy didn’t say much when Annie showed up; she just hugged her and helped her put away her things.
“Are we still going tomorrow?” asked Jazzy.
Annie was lying on her small bed while Jazzy sat on the end.
“I don’t know,” said Annie. “I’ve been sick and I’m not sure I’m up for a trip.”
“No worries,” said Jazzy. She got up. “I’ll see if I can get us a refund.”
After Jazzy shut the door Annie opened her phone. Nothing from Cameron. She re-downloaded her dating apps and felt a rush of relief as she started swiping. Annie fell asleep still holding her phone, feeling it vibrate with new matches and messages.
She didn’t vomit again, not even after eating an entire frozen pizza when she woke up.
Her second night back, she matched with a guy wearing a baseball cap and dangling some poor dead fish on a line. They met at a bar a block away. She kicked the baseball cap guy out at 2 a.m. and slept until noon. When her phone buzzed the next day, she ignored it.