Don't fall in love with a girl named Juliet.
Those stories never have happy endings.
* * *
It had been four months since Mark had come clean about his feelings for his friend's wife.
Four months was just an estimate, really; he hadn't marked off the exact day on his calendar, he hadn't kept track. He didn't wake up each morning and say, "Mark, old boy, it's been four months, five days, and sixteen hours since you had your heart stomped on."
He thought that was healthy. He hadn't obsessed. He'd moved on. At least, moved on as much as one could when forced to confront getting a kiss that felt like true love, and then seeing the woman run back inside the house to the man she'd actually chosen. That had hurt. It hurt an awful lot, and his Christmas was hard.
After about four months of hurting, he felt like he'd properly scabbed over. He'd seldom talked to Juliet since that night before Christmas, and friendly meetings with Peter had been rare things. They were busy newlyweds, after all. Peter didn't need much convincing that Mark was a busy singleton, juggling work with dating and reckless hedonistic abandon. He was busy with his own life... with his wife.
Perhaps, Mark thought as he wrenched off a beer cap and sank in front of the telly, he might not have scabbed over entirely. When the phone rang, he answered it without hesitating. "Yeah?"
"Mark? Could you be a dear and do me a bit of a favor?" asked a familiar voice.
The presumptive words put a smile on Mark's face. Mia always had been one to simply expect that she'd get whatever she wanted. He could picture her now: wearing something sleek and red, without a single hair out of place, and looking absolutely sure that she wasn't about to be turned down. "Which is?"
"I've taken a new job. It takes me ages to get to that office, and my lease is up, anyway. A friend of a friend told me about this studio to sublet in Westminster, and—"
"What do you need?" Mark asked, amused but determined to cut to the chase.
"You have a car," she said simply.
"I'll come by on Saturday morning," Mark decided without any further prodding. It would feel good to get away from his typical routine. He barely cared that Mia hadn't spoken to him in months and was clearly using him now. He'd be using her just as much. "You'll owe me lunch."
* * *
"You," Mark said as he lugged her dresser up to her new studio, "were a secretary."
"The term," she corrected, "is administrative assistant."
"You were a secretary," he repeated, and thankfully tilted the dresser's weight over the edge of the staircase, "and now you're one again. I can't imagine this place pays more than the old one." She didn't argue that, and so he got to his main point. "Aren't secretaries living in trendy studios supposed to shop at... IKEA? Buy furniture made of pressed sawdust? It falls apart if you breathe on it wrong, but...." She held her door open for him and, with a grunt, he shoved it inside. "But it's light."
"Thanks," Mia said. "Just slide it up against that wall."
With a look, he shoved the dresser where she'd asked. It was the last big piece of furniture she owned, and the studio had exactly enough room to hold it without feeling crowded. For most people, that would mean that things would look cluttered as soon as they popped open their first boxes. Mia had always been aggressively streamlined. Still, this place was smaller than her old flat. She'd probably wind up binning at least a few things.
"All right," Mark said as he inspected the space. "Food."
She returned with two takeout plates of chicken biryani. "There was a place right at the corner," she said as she sat cross-legged on her bare mattress, "but those chips were drowning in grease."
"I like grease," Mark said.
Mia smiled tolerantly. "I eat better than that, and it was my money."
Mark wasn't one of those types who thought that the only respectable path through life was to get married before thirty, and have two-point-three children who exclusively wore licensed Disney apparel. He worked around artists, after all. One of the happiest men he knew had two boyfriends, three cats, and only took holidays in Norway and South Africa. So long as a person's choices left them satisfied and didn't hurt anyone else, he wouldn't argue with them.
That assumed they were happy, though. Although Mia had smiled a lot that day, none of them seemed real.
"Why'd you change jobs?" he asked after shoveling in another forkful of food. They hadn't talked in quite a while; they ran in the same circles, but without much overlap. They'd last spoken about her office Christmas party, and that had been quite professional. Still, she'd like working at the agency, or at least it seemed that way.
"My boss no longer wanted me around," she said shortly, after a longer pause than he'd expected.
There was a story there. Mia didn't sound like it had scabbed over, though, and Mark let her alone. Things hurt when they were fresh. He knew time had to heal some wounds.
* * *
Mark, he discovered by the end of that next week, was able to feel loneliness again. It wasn't the keen sense of loss, of absence that he'd worked through when he accepted that Juliet had given her love to Peter. There wasn't a hole in his life shaped like one person. Instead, he wanted human contact. Any contact.
He and Mia had never been all that close. Even when they dated, they'd been at arm's length. They were part of a shifting, unstable group that migrated between the art galleries and nightclubs scattered along a few trendy blocks. Now they were closer to thirty than twenty, and most of that old group had left entirely. Some of them were married and heading toward the two-point-three kids. Some had track marks on their arms. And some, like he and Mia, were somewhere in the middle and single but no longer wanted to spend their evenings testing their alcohol limits.
Still, even if they'd never really been close, he and Mia seemed to be all that were left for each other. Maybe things would change during the summer. He could use a bit of sunlight.
"I needed that," Mia said as she flung an arm across her forehead. Beads of sweat ran down her ribcage.
"Wasn't half-bad," Mark agreed, and grinned at her.
She climbed out of bed. Despite how thin she was, he noticed a tiny ripple of cellulite dotting her bottom as the sheets fell away. Mark liked seeing it. She could be so hard, so slick, but that imperfection belonged to a person. "I'll order delivery," she said as she began rifling through menus, but didn't yet put on a robe.
"I want something greasy," Mark said loudly. "And I'll pay."
She placed an order that sounded horrifically unhealthy, and then finally began getting dressed. Mia was growing out her hair. He didn't know exactly how much longer it was than the previous year, but it wasn't the razor-neat bob she'd had before. She saw him looking and, with a smile, realized what held his attention. "I'm going to take it past my shoulders," she said. Her fingertips brushed lightly across the stark curves of her collar bone.
"Really," Mark said. "You don't seem the type." Mia was hard and glossy like something Steve Jobs would show to investors. Her hair, her clothes, even the way she formed words had always been self-consciously urban. Stylish. Modern.
"Really," she said, and brushed back her growing hair like it was already a curtain around her slim body. "I want to feel like a princess."
He looked around her tiny studio, and then at the bed they'd just shared, and said nothing.
Her fingers hesitated on the way to the dresser. She put on a beautiful golden necklace slowly, like it had been a hard decision to make.
"That's pretty," Mark said, sitting up and pulling on his pants. "Christmas present?" It had the look of something that a boyfriend would buy. She hadn't mentioned a serious ex-boyfriend, but then, neither of them had asked. What they were doing was about the present, not the past or future. They'd told each other they were currently alone, and that was enough.
"Yes. My boss gave it to me." She touched it a beat longer, then smiled at him a little too hard. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Your boss," Mark repeated uncertainly. A heart-shaped necklace was a very strange gift for a boss to buy. When memories floated in, he frowned. "Did your old boss fire you because...?" He wasn't sure of the right term for it. Sexual harassment, maybe? Mia was beautiful, without a doubt, and it was beyond unfair that some middle-aged wanker should be able to punish her for not living up to some sick fantasy he'd had. Maybe she could sue him.
"He didn't fire me," she said, and buttoned a blouse. "He didn't want me around."
Mark started buttoning up his own shirt as he tried to make sense of that.
"I was," Mia eventually continued, "a distraction. He was focusing on his wife, and I was...." Her long fingers slid around one wrist like a bracelet. "He was very polite to me, and completely distant. I saw a listing for a new job I could do and he was very happy to give me a glowing recommendation for that new office."
"What'd you do with him?" Mark asked, guessing where they'd headed before her old boss had focused so wholly on his wife.
She managed to smile. For a second it was perfectly obvious that she knew her tiny, cheap studio was not the tower home of a fairy tale princess. "I dreamed."
It sounded like she'd done more than that; she'd tried to ruin a marriage. "I was in love with this girl," Mark finally said. "Juliet. Really pretty. Gorgeous. Like she's barely real."
"I'm right here, you know," Mia said with another faint smile.
"Sorry," Mark said. "Anyway, she fell in love with my best mate. Said yes when he got down on one knee. I was best man at their wedding."
Mia flinched. "I think you might win."
"No, no. This was definitely not a win." Mark studied the far wall. "I'd dreamed, too. I did something totally foolish that I thought might... I don't even know what I was doing. I didn't want to break them up, but I just wanted to tell her. And then she went back inside to her husband, of course, and I was out on the cold street, going back to my empty flat. I'll be friends with them again eventually, real friends, but right now it feels like going through the motions, more often than not."
"Aren't we meant to know what we're doing by now?" Mia asked, and Mark realized with a sudden rush just how treacherous and meaningful their conversation had become.
"Seems like it, sometimes," Mark admitted. Juliet and Peter had everything figured out. He didn't have to be married like them, and he didn't feel that aching need for Juliet like he once had, but he did envy them that certainty. "Mia, if that's a present from a boss that it sounds like you hate... why are you still wearing it?"
Mia, surprised, considered the necklace hanging against her skin. Then she answered, almost defiantly, "I don't care where it came from. It's the prettiest thing I own."
Still. "You really shouldn't have come on to your boss," Mark said. "You said he was married."
"You shouldn't have told your best mate's wife that you were madly in love with her, then," she said back.
He drew back. "That's hardly the same," Mark said, unsure of whether to laugh or sound offended. Mia was seductive. The classic femme fatale, who went after what she wanted with no concern for who she might hurt. He was just someone with rotten luck. "I just wanted to let her know. No expectations. It's nice to hear someone cares. That's it."
"It is," Mia quietly agreed. "Except then it's worse when it's over." She touched her necklace again. "You shouldn't have told her."
"I should go," Mark said, feeling uncomfortable and almost angry from the judgment in her voice.
"But the food's still coming."
"I'll give you the money," he said, just wanting to be out of there, but drew back when he saw how hurt Mia looked. He realized a second later what it looked like: that he was paying her for services rendered. "I'm sorry," he said, and returned the money to his pocket. "I'll stay to eat."
They wound up sitting in opposite corners of the small space and paging through magazines until it came. Mark tore into his food with abandon, but Mia hesitated. "You know," she said, and removed her necklace, "I could sell this. Buy a new necklace, one that I picked out."
Mark chewed and swallowed. "Sounds like a good idea." She looked at him and he realized she was waiting for him to make some statement of his own. "This has been really, uh, fun, but I'll probably be busy around my part of town. Trying to catch up with the people around me... maybe I'll meet a new girl. A new Juliet."
Mia smiled faintly. She didn't want to look like she was being paid, but neither of them had any illusions about being the other's happily ever after. "Sounds like a good first step for both of us." She tucked away her golden necklace.
"To figuring out how not to screw up," Mark said, and lifted his can of soda.
"Hopefully," Mia said, and they both drank to the future.