Stories from the Hart: The Biggest Mistake

The Biggest Mistake by Shannon Hart

On a beautiful April evening, I sat there, watching the wine in my glass occasionally stir while I listened intently to Jack as he told me his story. I sighed repeatedly, feeling horrible and sick to my stomach as I digested everything.
"So, at the end of the day, I stood up there, said my vows, but didn’t mean a damn thing," he said, resting his elbows on the table and burying his head in his hands. "I was so wasted I don’t even remember half the words I said."
"Why did you do it? I mean, if you knew it didn’t feel right to marry her, why did you go through with the whole thing?" I asked, a spark of anger in my tone.
"I don’t know. I guess I just felt sorry for her. I mean, she would have been so embarrassed if we cancelled the wedding. I guess I wanted to spare her that because she didn’t deserve it."
"And you think she deserves this? To be left after five weeks of marriage?"
His head sunk lower. "I am such a jackass," he admitted, which I completely agreed with.
"Yes, you certainly are." I crossed my arms and gave him a hateful look. I didn’t care that I was sending bitchy vibes to the guy who had been best friend since third grade. I couldn’t stand to listen to him talk about how much of a jerk he had been.
"I know, I know! I’m awful, I don’t deserve to live," he said.
I sighed again.
"So what happens next?" I asked, getting explicit images in my head of Karen torn and in tears. Even I, who was just an outsider listening to the whole ordeal, felt heartbroken and crushed. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be her and in that position.
"Well, I already spoke to a divorce attorney from my dad’s firm. She already got one too, I think. Her friend, Sam, is a lawyer. I think they used to be childhood neighbors or something."
"How did she… react? When you said you were leaving?" I already knew how Karen reacted – after all, I had been there when they broke up last year. I was literally standing between them as Jack told her that he didn’t see himself being able to commit to marriage to her. I was the one she held on to when she was about to pass out in shock.
"Surprisingly, she didn’t actually say much. She said she already knew I wasn’t in it for the long run and said that she saw it coming right after we moved into the new house. She said she had a feeling that my heart didn’t completely belong to her and that sooner or later I’d pack up and leave."
That surprised me. Not that she knew he would leave, but that she was willing to put herself in the middle of the twisted situation. How could she allow herself to be tied down to him in marriage like that, knowing that it would end anyway? Did she love him that much, or did she not love herself that much?
"What I don’t understand is, if you knew you weren’t that into her, why did you propose? Why did you even ask her to marry you? And why did you play along with all the wedding preparations and everything? You could have just avoided this whole thing if you were just man enough to tell her you didn’t want marriage." Clearly, I was not Karen, but I felt like I had to ask on her behalf since apparently she didn’t ask. I have no idea why she didn’t ask, it would have been the first thing I would ask had I been her.
"I don’t know… I don’t know…" he answered, unconvincingly.
"Oh come on, Jack. Be honest with me. If you couldn’t be honest with Karen, the least you could do is be honest with me." It annoyed me that he insisted on playing dumb about it.
It was then his turn to sigh. He sat back in his chair, looking at the empty plate that forty-five minutes earlier had been filled with his favorite Tuna Aglio Olio Spaghetti.
"Jack, if not for me, then for you. You have to at least be honest with yourself about this otherwise you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Now come on, man up and spill it."
Jack went silent for a few long seconds. The anticipation nearly killed me but I knew him well enough to know that he’d eventually spill the beans. There wasn’t a single secret he could keep from me. There was that one time in high school when he secretly had a crush on Violet Monroe who sat in front of him during English Lit class; he pretended to not care, but I could tell from the way he looked at her whenever she flipped her hair. He denied it like nobody’s business when I confronted him, but in the end, on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon while we were decorating the school gym for the winter dance, he finally confessed and said, "You’re right, I think I have a thing for her," while he hung fake crystal ornaments.
"It’s not that simple, Mia. You’ve been away for a long time. There are things that you don’t know."
"I was gone for 8 months, Jack. And besides, it wasn’t like I was off jet-setting and exploring the globe, I was working."
"Working so hard that you couldn’t even come to my wedding," he replied sarcastically.
"Look, if you don’t want to tell me, hey, that’s fine. I don’t want to push you. You have no obligations to me. But at least admit it to yourself."
"What are you, a twelve-step program instructor? Did you get certified while you were off in Africa helping the sick and needy?" he chuckled.
"You really are a jackass," I said, rolling my eyes.
Our dessert came and as the waiter gently placed my plate of buttermilk panna cotta – I promised my trainer I’d lay off the desserts, but with a conversation like this, dessert seemed to be  the only way I’d survive the night – I found myself still dying to know.
"I know you still don’t really want to talk about it but I can’t help it. Call me nosy, I don’t care, I want to know why you didn’t feel for her the way she did for you," I announced as I put my tiny spoon through the soft custard. "I just can’t wrap my head around it. She’s beautiful, she’s nice and she’s smart. She dresses like she’s a movie star and she even puts up with your crap. She even played along when you had that vegan phase a while back!"
Jack nodded.
"She’s everything you always told me you were looking for in a woman. Remember, when we were camping that time? The perfect girlfriend you described is basically her!" I continued.
"I was eighteen, Mia. I didn’t know any better."
I took a moment to savor the amazing taste of the panna cotta melting in my mouth and Jack smiled.
"I love how you can grill and torture me with questions and still enjoy a good desert," he laughed.
"Hah. Glad I amuse you," I said, giving him a nasty look.
"Look, I can tell you why, but I’m not sure you’d understand it and I’d like to get through this dinner without looking like more of a jackass than I already do," he said, putting his spoon down and then folding his napkin.
"Seriously, Jack. You could never be more of a jackass than now. It’s not even humanly possible!" I chuckled at his expense.
"Gee, thanks."
We were silent for a while, and all of a sudden things just seemed awfully awkward. Jack was visibly uncomfortable in his seat and kept playing with the corner of his folded napkin.
"OK, look, let’s just forget it. Let’s not talk about this anymore," I decided. "I have just come back from a long trip and I just want to enjoy a good dinner conversation with my best friend. Can we do that?"
Jack laughed. "Of course we can."
"Good, so now let’s talk about work. How’s the new job?"
Jack snorted. "It’s been three months, it’s hardly new anymore. I love it though, I can’t imagine doing anything else."
I smiled, happy that at least something was working well in his life. We continued to talk for another hour, laughing and joking just like we always did. We talked about our dearest friend Kip, who had just declared he wanted to quit his job and backpack around Europe like a teenager (he was 40). We also had a field day mocking Jack’s brother Dean, who just bought a boat but was actually seasick prone.
The night ended too quickly – my cell phone was beeping thanks to the alarm I set for 11pm, to remind me that I had an early morning flight to catch. As we walked out of the restaurant, he grabbed my coat for me and put his own on, then slid his arm around my waist.
"Can I walk you home?" he asked, gazing into my eyes like… like what? He had never done that before. I didn’t even have a comparison.
"What? We always walk home together," I answered, finding my heart beat a little off the beat. What was he doing?
He grabbed my hand and circled my arm around his. Shyly and hesitantly from what I had observed but he did it anyway. And for some strange reason, I let him. I had no idea what I was doing, but pulling my hand away didn’t seem like an option unless I wanted a complete overreaction from him.
"Look Mia, before you go back to Africa and disappear for another year or whatever, I have to get this off my chest," he said as we turned onto 7th Street.
"Oh my God, are you dying?" I asked. My eyes widened and I almost really believed it.
"No! What are you talking about? I’m not dying!" he exclaimed. I watched a sweat break on his forehead.
"Then why are you so serious?"
Jack halted his steps. He turned to me and grabbed me by the shoulders. Before I knew it, with my hands limp on my sides, he was hugging me. He was hugging me so tight, I thought I’d die of lack of oxygen.
"Mia, you asked me why I couldn’t love Karen…" he started to say.
My heart stopped.
No. No. This can’t be happening, I thought to myself. What was he doing? Panic began to rise within me and I suddenly felt like everything was spinning.
"Mia, the truth is…"
"Stop!" I suddenly shouted. I broke away from his ridiculously tight embrace and put my hand on his mouth. "Don’t say it. I swear Jack, if you say one more word, I’ll kill you."
My heart was racing so fast, it was like my heart was in a Formula One Grand Prix race. Fear of him telling me that he had loved me all this time began to haunt me instantly, and I didn’t know how I’d respond to it if he did.
"Mia, please, I have to say this. I can’t keep this a secret anymore," he pleaded. In my head, I snorted – so much for thinking he could never keep a secret from me.
"But why? Why do you need to tell me? I don’t even want to hear it!" I said, covering my ears and closing my eyes like a little girl. I was this close to humming so I wouldn’t be able to hear him say it.
"Stop that. Stop acting like a little child. This is serious. Besides, you are the one who asked. I am simply entertaining your request," he answered.
I kept shaking my head.
No, I didn’t want to hear it. Seriously – I didn’t want to hear him declare his love for me, and I didn’t want to have to reject him. And I would reject him for sure, because I didn’t mention it, but I had a boyfriend; a wonderful, adorable, good looking and smart hazel eyed doctor boyfriend, who was waiting for me back in Africa.
I have no idea why I never bothered to tell Jack that I had a boyfriend.
"I can’t do this, Jack. Just don’t, OK? I can’t."
"Can’t what?"
"Can’t hear it. Please."
Jack looked down. His head hung from his neck like he no longer had the will to live. He sighed, and I sighed, and I felt like I was going to cry.
"Mia, please. I’ll never have the courage to say this again. Please."
The way he begged me like that just sliced my heart, but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t listen to him say the words because… I had a boyfriend. And because given the opportunity, I could very possibly leave him and choose to be with Jack instead. And choosing to be with Jack would mean leaving behind all my life’s work in Africa – leaving my passion and leaving the children I had helped teach all this time.
But then I made the silly mistake of actually looking him straight in the eyes. His blue eyes pierced right through me and I found myself nodding like an idiot. Like I didn’t know better, I let him finally say the words he had apparently wanted to tell me the entire night.
"I couldn’t love Karen because my heart already belongs to someone else. All this time, girlfriend after girlfriend – I could never truly love them because I already gave my heart away."
Oh. My. God.
I thought I was going to throw up out of nervousness.
"I have loved you since the third grade, Mia. I can’t love anyone else."
There. He said it.
And surprisingly, it didn’t kill me. But it did make me want to kill him.
"I can’t believe you! All this time, and you didn’t say a damn thing! And now it’s too late, Jack. I already have a boyfriend and Ethan is amazing. I can’t just leave everything – leave him – behind and be with you!"
I hit him repeatedly, throwing punches at him like he was a sand sack.
"Whoa. Stop hitting! Why are you so mad?" he asked, confused.
"Ugh! I’m mad because… I don’t know why I’m mad! I’m just… mad!" I pushed him away until he almost fell over, and I ran.
I ran as fast as I could to my apartment which, thank God, was only a block away from where we had our dramatic "fight" – if you could even call it that. I opened the lock with my trembling hand and quickly shut the door behind me.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why this was happening: why he was telling me all this, why I was reacting this way and why this was all happening now – when I thought I had finally moved on and had a great life of my own. I never admitted it to anyone, but I had been in love with him too, up until he decided to ask Karen to marry him. I tried to tell him to rethink things, I tried to hint to him that he may have other options under his nose, but his mind was made up. He wanted Karen – or he thought he did. Even I thought he did.
He knocked on my door repeatedly, unwilling to give up.
"Come on, you have to let me in! We can talk about this," he said, banging on my door.
"No. Go away!" I shouted.
"You can’t make me go away. If you don’t come out, I’ll just stay out here, I’ll tell all your neighbors that you’re under house arrest or something," he insisted.
I had to laugh a little – it sounded a bit like how I would lock him in his own closet when we were younger.
"Jack, stop. Really. You can’t make me open the door."
I heard him grunt.
A few minutes of silence passed by. I started to convince myself that he left, but just as I slowly placed my hand on my doorknob, he started singing. Like, really singing that old slow-rock song Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and Jack singing was even worse than Jack banging on the door. He was so oblivious of the fact that he was completely tone deaf, that I couldn’t decide whether it was hilarious or annoying. He made my ears hurt, that was for sure, but I couldn’t help but to find it freakishly charming.
"Oh God, please, stop singing! You’re cracking all the windows in the building!" I shouted, desperate for him to stop singing; desperate because it was getting to me as much as it was appealing to me.
"So open the door and the singing will stop, I swear," he answered, still trying to be musical even though it sounded nothing like any note I’d ever heard in my life.
I took a deep breath and gave up. I opened the door.
I opened the door half expecting for him to barge in and demand an explanation. The other half of me expected him to stand outside, begging me for forgiveness, admitting he was completely crazy to have just blurted out that he loved me like that. But no part of me expected him to just charge at me with a soft and gentle kiss.
Nope. Completely did not see that one coming.
His hands held my face and while I could have very much pushed him away and slapped him for being so aggressive, I didn’t. Instead, I let him kiss me.
Which was obviously wrong because my head knew that Ethan was waiting for me in Africa. It was so wrong because Jack wasn’t even divorced yet. Worst of all, it just felt wrong. It almost felt like I was kissing a brother or something.
I spent so much time of my life thinking I was in love with Jack, and dreaming of kissing him but when we actually did kiss, it felt more wrong than right.
Could I have been in love with the thought of being in love with Jack? Did I just want something I thought I couldn’t have? Was I just obsessed with the thrill of the chase?
He pulled away, taking a few steps back, looking every bit as awkward and uncomfortable as I did.
"Was that as weird for you as it was for me?" I asked bluntly.
He nodded hesitantly, with his eyes squinted and his nose wrinkled. "That just felt so wrong," he replied, which I then replied to with a sigh of relief.
We stood there looking at each other, not sure what to say or what to do next – after having made one of the stupidest mistakes in platonic-friendship history.
"Where do we go from here?" Jack asked, finally breaking the unbearable silence.
I shrugged. It was all just too bizarre to comprehend.
"Is it going to be weird for us now?"
It took me a few minutes to answer, and when I said "Probably," I saw his face fall and felt my own heart sink. "But you’ll always be my best friend, Jack. No matter what, OK? And the good thing is, I get to go away and be in Africa for awhile so we won’t have to look at each other like this for another six months at least."
He slipped his hands into his pocket and lifted his shoulders. "Great, well, you go on ahead. Go away again and I’ll just stay here and just deal with my miserable messy divorce."
I laughed lightly. "You know, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if you had just told me you were dying instead."
He chuckled.
"So you’re still getting a divorce, even though you now know you’re not in love with me?"
"I am still getting a divorce, yes. Although I’m still not sure that I’m not in love with you, Mia, but I’m positive that I don’t love Karen. I just can’t stay married to her – it wouldn’t be fair to her to continue pretending. It wouldn’t be fair to me either."
I nodded, even though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. He wasn’t sure he was not in love with me? What on earth did that even mean?
He took his hands out of his pockets and moved a few inches closer.
"Mia, I… I know this doesn’t make sense, but…"
Before I knew it, my heart started pounding again.
"I don’t want you to go back to Africa," he said, as if it was even his call to make. "I know this is selfish and I know that I have no right to even ask you of this, but I don’t know if I’m not in love with you. And until I know, I don’t want to blow my chances by letting you go back to Africa, to your… boyfriend…"
As much as I loved Jack – in whatever sense, be it in the brotherly sense or whatever else it may be, the way he said what he said just made me want to slap him. I couldn’t believe he even dared to say that.
"So, you bend over backwards trying to make things fair for you and for Karen, but not for me?" I snapped.
He shook his head repeatedly. "I know I’m being unfair to you, but what I’m asking for is just a chance, Mia. I don’t want us to part ways now and then realize we’re meant for each other and waste all that time in between. Don’t you think it’s worth a try? I mean, if we’re meant for each other, imagine how happy we could be…"
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, like a complete fool, looking at him with my mouth hanging open.
As much as I would love to deny it, I was actually tempted. A small part of my brain, way in the back of my head, asked me "Wasn’t this what you wanted all this time?" But a different part of me kept reminding me that Ethan was waiting – that I had no business messing up a perfectly good relationship just because the guy who I thought I loved all this time suddenly wants to try it out. With no guarantee that things would even work out and considering the possibility that if things didn’t work out I’d lose my best friend, I shook my head.
"No. I can’t. We can’t. It’s not an option, Jack," I answered firmly.
Sure, my legs were shaking. Whatever – I sounded firm enough that he thought it was for real.
"You won’t even give it a week? You can delay your flight back. Come on, Mia. Give us a week… You don’t know where this can go." He took my hands in his. "Please."
By then I had tears in the corner of my eyes and they were ready to drop anytime. I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t want to try. But then again, I couldn’t bring myself to risk damaging the one relationship I always had faith in: our friendship.
Our friendship was too important to me.
So with tears finally rolling down steadily on my cheeks, I shook my head one more time and gave him my final answer.
"If you asked me this a year ago, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. But… things have changed now, Jack. I’m not the same person I was before and I have moved on. I’m in a relationship now, Jack, a good one. I can’t just leave everything behind and gamble everything for something that may or may not turn out great. Don’t get me wrong; I love you. I’ll always love you. But…"
Jack closed his eyes, listening and absorbing everything I said. He nodded slowly, looking like he understood exactly where I was coming from – or tried to, anyway.
"I understand," he muttered.
"Do you? Really?" I asked. "I don’t want you to take it the wrong way, I…"
"No, Mia, it’s OK. I understand. I never should have even asked you to stay. I couldn’t help it, I just…" The sad look on his face quickly became unbearable for me to look at. He looked just about as sad as he would be if he were attending his own funeral.
"I’m sorry, Jack. I really am," I added. My head hung from my shoulders; I couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes. Add to that the fact that my nose and eyes were all red, I had no business looking up at all.
"Don’t be, Mia. Don’t be."
I continued to cry, and it had gotten even harder than before.
"Hey, hey, stop that. Don’t cry," he said softly. He put his arms around me and held me in a comforting embrace. "Please don’t cry. You know how much I hate watching a girl cry."
I wanted to stop crying – God knows I did. But my emotions just went on this gigantic roller coaster ride and I didn’t know how to control it. I couldn’t help but feel so overwhelmed with questions of why, how, when, and what now and it frustrated me so much because no one seemed to have any of the answers. Not me, not Jack, and certainly, not Ethan who was all the way in Africa, completely in the dark about the whole ordeal.
Come to think of it, Ethan didn’t even know Jack existed; I have no idea why I never told him about my best friend.
"Can we survive this? Can we get over this and go back to the way things were before?" I asked, afraid of what Jake’s answer would be.
"Of course! What are you talking about? Of course we’ll survive this. My God, Mia, I’ve known you practically my entire life. Nothing could come between us. Nothing, you hear me?"
I nodded and sniffled, while constantly wiping off the tears from my cheeks. I tried to smile back when he looked deep into my eyes and attempted to give me a smile that was supposed to comfort me – but all that came out of that was a half crooked spasm on my cheek that in no way resembled a smile.
He gave me a peck on the forehead gently, before telling me he had to leave because of an early morning meeting. As I opened the door to let him out, I felt like somehow, I was losing my best friend. Even though he basically swore that nothing would change between us, I had a distinct nagging feeling that things would change no matter what he said.
He turned around and looked at me one last time before entering the elevator. He flashed me his smile again with a wave and as I waved back at him, I whispered goodbye to him, knowing for certain that things would never, ever be the same again.
Seriously, things really would have been so much easier if he had told me anything else… just not that he loved me.