Sometime in March last year I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize.
“Hi Saira, it’s Cassandra. I was wondering if you were free right now to meet me for a drink and talk about Chris.”
It was late in the evening, probably around 8, and it had been raining all day (it had rained a lot that month). She told me to meet her at Brewer’s Art in five minutes. I made it there in four.
Brewer’s Art is a midtown Baltimore icon. The downstairs area, or “the basement” as locals like to call it, resembles a dingy cave. There are dark corners and hidden rooms with sticky tables and rickety chairs. Upstairs, however, is a different story. There, the bar is made of marble. It has large windows that allow sunlight to pour into the room, reflecting off the glass chandelier. Upstairs is where she asked to meet.
I didn’t know much about this woman except that she worked with my fiancé, Chris. She had recently moved to Baltimore from upstate New York, was a writer, and had been to Italy. I think she spoke some Italian. I remember Chris talking about how obnoxious he thought she seemed when he first met her while she was interviewing for a job at his workplace back in December 2012. But in the three months since she started, they had become friends.
I recognized her from Facebook photos that my fiancé had uploaded. She was sitting at the corner of the bar near a large window.
“Are you Cassandra?” I asked.
“Yes! It’s so nice to finally meet you,” she replied.
I seated myself on the stool she had saved for me, noticing that she had taken the liberty of ordering me a beer: Resurrection, seven percent alcohol content.
“So do you know why I called you? There are some things I need to tell you,” she said before I could respond. She smiled at me, her thin upper lip becoming barely visible. I sat there quietly sipping my beer as this stranger began describing her escalating relationship with the man I was supposed to be marrying in three months.
I was barely able to process her sentences, but certain words kept swimming around in my head. Sex. Baseball. Love. Pillow talk. Valentine’s Day. Sleepover. Drunk. Relationship. She told me about how, two-and-a-half months ago, after a couple drinks with coworkers, he ended up back at her place.
As she continued talking, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that she was holding her beer goblet firmly with one hand whereas I could barely hold mine without spilling the foamy contents onto the shiny marble counter. Her hands were strong and firm; mine were tiny and barely able to pack a punch. And then I noticed more. She was white, I was brown. She was tall, I was short. Wide-shouldered and strong, she looked like she could easily pick up the stool she was sitting on and hurl it across the room. My size six-and-a-half feet dangled from the stool, barely reaching the ground.
I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely pristine and fashionable or if she had dressed for the occasion, but suddenly I found myself insanely self-conscious about my attire. She was in a neatly ironed chiffon tan skirt with tan, shiny pumps and a black top. Her makeup was freshly done, and her light-brown, shoulder-length hair looked blow-dried and curled in a way I could never get my straight hair to curl. I looked drab: old jeans rolled up to make room for my puke-green ankle boots and the white Calvin Klein collared shirt I had worn to work earlier that day. My makeup was wearing off, and what remained was probably smudged under my eyes after 12 hours of wear.
I sat at that bar for an hour and listened to this woman describe her relationship with my fiancé and, towards the end, how she had ended it. The lies he had told both of us swam around my head.
I felt as if I was drowning in my own efforts to piece together hints and clues from the past few months. The thing is, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Her words had finally put his erratic behavior from the beginning of the year into perspective. It explained how a man I spent five years with had, almost overnight, become irrational, uncharacteristically mean, and seemed to be on his way to developing a drinking problem.
Unable to even finish the beer that now felt like a cheap ploy to buy my friendship and trust, I continued listening to her story, my brain flooding with questions that I didn’t have the courage to ask her.
An hour later, I was outside in the rain again, the smell of Cassandra’s perfume still lingering on me from when she leaned down to hug me goodbye. For the first time that year, I didn’t pull out my umbrella. Instead I stood outside Brewer’s Art, in front of that large window that everyone could see me through, and tilted my head up to let the cold rain wash over me. It rolled down from my head to my shirt and into my boots. I walked back to my apartment in the rain where I knew Chris was waiting for me, wondering where I had been.
They say there are five stages of grief that one experiences at the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I had been in denial long before my talk with Cassandra. The signs had been there all along: disappearing for nights, a new number repeating on our joint phone bill, changed passwords, and the most incriminating of all, long, blonde hairs all over my apartment.
Sometimes it feels like I transitioned from denial to acceptance quickly but when I got home that night, the rage set in. Chris was already in a panic when I walked through the door, he knew that I knew. Luckily, he spared me the anguish of denying it. I yelled, I screamed, I threw things. But mostly, I wanted to know why. Though as my shock wore off and reality set in, the answer was clear.
Chris and I met in 2008 as I was helping someone close to me through an abusive marriage. I wasn’t particularly interested in him, but he was nice and, most importantly, he treated me well. We got along great -- so great that it was easy to ignore our fundamental differences: we came from different races, cultures, and religions.
While this definitely isn’t a recipe for disaster, the thing that made us most different was the thing we fought about the most: what we wanted out of our lives. Where I wanted a career, he wanted comfort and stability. I wanted adventure; he wanted routine. I craved change and mobility; he was happy at the same job for four years. None of our individual choices were wrong but our failure to recognize how conflicting they were is what led to our downfall. And from there, it got deeper.
As the years passed the differences between us grew: By 2012 he had dropped out of college, and I was preparing to begin a rigorous master’s program at an Ivy League university in New York City.
The more I chased after my dreams, the more his insecurities grew.
While at first he denied feeling threatened by my success, weeks after I found out about his relationship with Cassandra, he admitted to feeling overshadowed.
“I always felt you’d be better off without me. I was holding you back.” he said.
And he was right. We both held one another back. He kept me in Baltimore longer than I thought I’d be while I stunted his emotional growth; rather than flourishing, he grew vulnerable by my presence.
I’ll never know what exactly made Chris begin a secret relationship with Cassandra or what went through his brain at the time but after much reflection I do know how he got there. At the end of the day, this isn’t a story about some crazy betrayal; it’s a coming-into-your-own story. It is a story about a woman with big-city dreams and a man of small-country comforts: two horribly mismatched people who should never have been together to begin with.
I moved out of my apartment that night and over the next few months, Chris and I maintained a cordial friendship as I weighed my options. But deep down I knew our relationship was over. When I confirmed my moving date to New York City, he insisted on driving me there. In a way, it’s kind of poetic that after all those years of holding me back, he’s the one that drove me into my future.
That was the last time I saw Chris. As he was leaving, with tears streaming down his face, he said, "I know we’re never going to see each other again." He walked to his red Mini Cooper parked a few feet away, got in, and drove off as I went upstairs to start my new life. And while sometimes I wish I could be his friend, offer him advice, or laugh over a joke, looking at how things turned out, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way.