My ex-boyfriend’s friend Kim went with us everywhere. She was at the party where we met and she showed up to the concert where we went on our first date. For a year, she went on nearly all of my dates.
I never saw her without thick liquid liner and a bitter-looking pout on her face. She worked in fashion and her hobby was making fun of how people looked.
My relationship with Nick progressed extremely slowly and I was sure Kim's presence had something to do with it. I was getting frustrated by sharing attention with another woman who I had nothing in common with except for him. I'm sure she didn’t like it either.
But even so, she came along sharing cabs and splitting checks, seemingly not at all concerned that she was trampling all over my attempt at a relationship. I tried -- more than I can imagine many self-respecting women would try to befriend a woman who was constantly petting her boyfriend's arm and whispering in his ear --but I didn’t like her. Sitting with us on our dates, she’d point out which girl's clothes were cheap and which guy was weird and who she thought lived in Brooklyn, which according to her was shabby and distant. I think she said things about other people that she wanted to say about me.
She didn't like me either and treated me to that certain brand of disdain some women use on each other which is almost always imperceptible to men and impossible to describe to them later when you feel all shriveled up inside. My boyfriend remained stubbornly oblivious to the notion that bringing her everywhere we went together was an act of aggression on our relationship.
Late at night, once we'd finally be rid of her, I often tried to explain to him why I didn’t want to spend so much time with her, but it never came out quite right, mostly because he refused to admit the situation was totally bizarre. I didn't want to push him away, so usually I let it go and gritted my teeth when she would crash our trips to the movies. I should have just left him for being a ridiculous wimp, but instead I clung to the notion of us being a couple, just as Kim clung to him.
Being in New York felt like treading water in an ocean and we needed something to hold on to. On Christmas Eve, I went to meet Nick at Penn Station. I was going home with him to meet his family for the first time. Perhaps I was hoping that the forced intimacy of the holidays would bring us closer.
Things were not great in our relationship. They never really had been. I’d have one day with him where I'd feel good only to have him pull away the next, acting all distant and businesslike. As I neared the bottom of the escalator, she came into view. First a pair of platform boots, then the painted-on jeans and a gigantic, puffy parka, pouty sneer.
“Like she can pull those off,” Kim whispered to my boyfriend, eyeing a girl in leggings walking ahead of me.
What was she doing at my cozy Christmas Eve? I hoped for a moment that she had just followed him to the station and was on her way to somewhere else, but then I saw her Burberry overnight bag and I knew it was true. She was coming home with us for the holidays.
I realized then that he was completely aware on some level of what he was doing. He wasn’t an idiot. Looking back I’m positive, that whether he was entirely conscious of it or not, he was using her as a buffer so that he would never have to completely commit to me.
That night we slept on a pull-out couch and she slept on a cot at our feet. I remember staring into the grainy darkness of his brother’s basement and feeling like I’d brought this punishment on myself. I should have known from the beginning that things would stay like this. I felt wave after wave of self-pity. Why couldn’t I be with someone who really loved me? How had allowed myself to dedicate so many months to this shitshow?
Back in New York, I told him I couldn’t handle it anymore and he seemed to understand. He wanted to make it work, he said, and he knew that this meant no more Kim. Things got better between us. We went out on our own. I didn’t see her for a long time.
Then, one weekend he went away to a wedding and I stayed at his house. It was the only time I’d stayed there without him and it seemed emblematic, a step in the right direction. He called me during the reception. “Everyone I know in Philadelphia is married and miserable,” he told me. I could hear staticy music in the background. He had to go. They were cutting the cake.
I woke up the next morning to white winter sunlight and put on clothes from my designated drawer in his sleek black dresser. I had been feeling increasingly domestic and decided to make the bed, happily peeling back each fluffy layer.
As I brought the top sheet back, something fell on the floor. As I picked up the underwear, I abruptly realized they were not mine. I sat on the bed, heart pounding, and tried to will them into my memory. Maybe they were mine after all and just a pair I just didn’t wear often. I looked at the tag, noticing that they were dirty as I did so. Marks and Spencer, it read, set of five. I definitely did not have one pair of Marks and Spencer panties let alone five I couldn’t remember.
Using the tips of my fingers, I laid them delicately on a chair and finished making the bed. I collected things I would need for the next several days and put them in my purse and turned off the lights. I paused at the door and called him. He was on his way back to the city in a rental car.
When I told him about the underwear, he swore that he didn’t know what I was talking about. They must have been Kim’s he said, she had spent the night once when she was drunk and I was out of town, but there was no touching. He said it as though this excused him.
“Why would she have taken her underwear off if there was no touching?” I was incredulous. I doubt now the underwear were even hers. Kim was his excuse for everything. I had been blaming her, and while she was awful, he was even more horrible for acting like he was trapped in the middle when in fact he had manufactured and controlled the entire experience.
After I recovered from the initial shock, I could look back at the relationship and see I had been trying to maintain something that was an utter illusion. And that was my fault.