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Left Standing – Chapter One

Change wasn’t easy for Justin, although he knew some changes were for the better. Fall had begun and his roommate Gavin had found a place of his own which worked well for both of them. They desperately needed their own space to start the new chapter in their lives. Gavin was messy and Justin was well organized – how they survived three years together, they’ll never understand.

Once Gavin had moved out of their two-bedroom apartment in East Chicago, Justin was finally able to reflect in peace about the life behind him and the life ahead. He’d just received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Illinois – Chicago that May and was ready to see what life had in store for him. One of many great things going for him was his job at The Chicago Gazette as a columnist. What made this job extraordinary was that at twenty-two, he was the youngest columnist ever to be hired at the Gazette after working there as an intern.

Along with his future, thoughts of his sick grandfather and his fading relationship with his girlfriend Stephanie consumed his mind as he stood in his now quiet and dark living room.

It was time for Justin to start writing his weekly column for the Wednesday edition. As always, he was starting his article late on a Sunday night, but he knew it was the time of day when he was most creative. After he looked around to make sure his apartment was organized, he walked into the spare bedroom. He had made the bedroom into an office just minutes after he waved goodbye to Gavin. Writing at the kitchen table or in his room never seemed to work well for Justin when Gavin was around – it was never quiet. Now in the spare bedroom – turned office, he had room to breathe and talk out loud.

But as he sat motionless in front of his laptop, he could only stare at the blank computer screen. He turned his attention to the nameplate his mom had especially made for him after he was officially hired on as a columnist. Seeing his name, “Justin Mason” on a plate was something he had wanted to see ever since he went to visit his dad at work and saw a similar plate. Justin made a mental note to bring it to work.

His mind continued to wander, but no ideas came to him. He got a slight chill through his body and a sense that something was wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what that was. Looking around his new office, he realized he had forgotten to change his quote-of-the-day calendar on top of his filing cabinet, but left it as is. In front of him was a clear desk except for his notebook computer, a few notes, his nameplate, and a steaming cappuccino with plenty of caffeine to get him through the night.

Finally, it came to him. Stephanie. After ten months, their relationship had been a constant battle between selfishness and massive egos. Just a few weeks ago, he began to realize their relationship was beginning to take the best of him. He didn’t like who he had become, or who he was when they were together. They fought over the smallest issues. She always wanted him to be available whenever she had free time, but he was usually working on his column or helping his editor, learning everything he could. When he had free time, she was usually busy with her last year of school, pursuing the same degree as Justin had received. Their schedules conflicted and their feelings toward each other were beginning to do the same. They believed in an eye for an eye. Neither would take the blame nor would be the first to say, “I’m sorry.” Their relationship was spent playing mind games and it had begun to drive them apart.

Even though it was past eleven o’clock, he decided to call Stephanie. What seemed odd to him was that the call to ask her out more than ten months ago had a different feeling in his stomach than the call he was about to make. He felt more ill than nervous as he had been for the first call. He didn’t know what he’d say, but he knew something would come to him. After all, something always did. He vowed to give the relationship one last try; he figured he owed it that much. She was his first love.

He rolled his chair to the filing cabinet and picked up the phone and checked for a dial tone out of habit. He dialed those seven digits – maybe for the last time, maybe not, but he was about to find out. He knew calling this late would probably anger her, but then again nothing he did or said was ever right. Stephanie took everything to the worst extremes. Holding the phone he recalled the previous month complimenting her hair at dinner, only to hear her respond, “Doesn’t it always look nice?” Since then, he found himself having a hard time coming up with compliments that she couldn’t take the wrong way. This caused him to say nothing at all, only to hear her ask, “Why don’t you compliment me anymore?” All along, she had been changing him into someone he didn’t want to be. Negative about everything.

There seemed to be an extra second after each ring, this made the wait to hear her voice seem all that more unbearable. After the third ring he wondered where she was that late at night. He prepared to leave a message. It was then he heard her voice, a fatigued “Hello?” Yes, he knew he woke her. She is going to be upset.

“Hey Stephanie, did I wake you?” Justin asked.

“No, I wasn’t asleep, just resting,” she said as she lay back on her bed. She had been tossing and turning trying to get to sleep. She moved her hair away from her face and tried to get comfortable on the bed, she knew this would somehow turn into a long conversation. A conversation that was long overdue.

“How are you? I haven’t talked to you for awhile.” Justin tried to get the conversation going.

“I’m okay, kind of tired. I had a long day of studying for that statistics class I’m taking and I couldn’t sleep very well last night and…”

“Do you want me to let you go then?” Justin interrupted Stephanie.

“No you called, what do you want?”

She realized she probably shouldn’t have asked what he wanted in such a manner, but she didn’t correct herself. She didn’t even know why she was so mean to Justin, he had been nothing but nice to her. Stephanie knew the only reason she decided to date him was for the sake of having someone to occupy her time. After all, he was the cutest guy in her Writing for Mass Media class during that past semester where they met and the fact that he showed confidence in asking her out… how could I say no to that?After their first date, she was hooked on Justin’s charm. He was hooked on her beauty and intelligence.

But now, Justin was used to her recent change in attitude and ignored her tone. “I wanted to ask if you got the flowers I sent you,” Justin asked as part question and also to use his voice to hint disappointment that she hadn’t called to thank him.

“Yes, they are beautiful,” she looked at the roses in the vase on her dresser, “thank you, but you didn’t have to…” she answered not sure if she was finished with her thought or not. He was always doing nice things for her, sending her gifts. She didn’t feel like she deserved it. Her past boyfriends never did anything nice for her, so why did Justin bother? She didn’t do anything for him, not recently.

Justin took a moment to say what was on his mind. “I wanted to. I don’t want to fight anymore, I’m tired of it.”

Stephanie had been thinking about their relationship and where it was or wasn’t going. “I know, we have been fighting too much, it is stressing me out and I don’t need this right now.” She paused, took a deep breath and confessed, “I think we need some time apart.”

Justin couldn’t believe what he heard. After a moment he was finally able to respond, “Time apart? Why? Is there someone else?”

She quickly replied, “No!”

“Then why do you want time apart? We already don’t spend very much time together.”

Stephanie paused to contemplate Justin’s question. How can I remain nice, but still let him down easy? He hadn’t done anything wrong and he would never understand her actions. She wasn’t sure of her actions either, but she hoped she would realize what she was doing and not regret her decision. She decided to do what she had done to guys in her past – make it seem like it was their fault. It had worked well before and she never felt bad.

“Well, you never compliment me. When you are with me, I don’t feel like you want to be with me,” Stephanie finally replied.

“It is hard to compliment you because you always blow them off, and when you say ‘I love you’ I don’t want to say it back just because you said it. You are my girlfriend. You are beautiful. Those are the things I want to tell you,” Justin said with all the sincerity he had left in him.

She cringed at his reference to ‘I love you’. It was true she had said it. Even though she felt it partly because he was different than any other guy she had dated. She thought her attraction to him was love, but now it didn’t feel like love. She had been in love before and she knew this wasn’t it.

“I don’t blow off your compliments,” she said, “I don’t agree with what you say. It makes me feel self-conscious, besides I don’t take petty compliments.” When is the last time I complimented him?

“Well, what do you want me to say?” he asked, not sure when the last time she had even complimented him was.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either,” he quickly said in the same manner as her, only louder. He continued, “Anytime I ask if you want to do something, you never want to do anything. I make suggestions, you never like them.”

“Well sorry, why do I always have to think of something to do? Why can’t we say what’s on our mind?”

After a tiny moment of silence, Justin replied, “Probably because the real truth would hurt us too much.”

His tone of voice was a little more rigid; this had Stephanie’s attention. She had never heard this tone from him before. “What do you mean by that?” Stephanie asked, on full defensive. I can’t let him have the upper hand.

Justin paused to make sure he said it right, but he knew that somehow she would take it the wrong way. “I mean, we would point out each others faults and our frustrations. If we said what is really on our mind, we may end up hurting each other more than we already have.”

“You mean there are things on your mind that would hurt me?”

“Stephanie, that’s not what I said. I don’t know if there are things in my mind that would hurt you… I’m afraid to find out.”

“Well, most times the things you say hurt me,” she expressed in a way to make him think he should feel guilty.

Justin was angry. She is blowing everything out of proportion, as always. “That is because you take everything I say the wrong way or take it to the extreme,” he immediately responded.

“Oh, so it’s my fault? Why can’t you be honest with me and tell me what you want?”

“No no, there you go again. Taking something I say to the extreme. I love you. I need you. You make me feel alive. I love cuddling on the couch. I love your smile and I love seeing you laugh and laughing with you. It hurts to see you cry and it hurts even more when you are silent. I don’t know what is going on in your head. I can’t read your mind. I don’t understand most of the things you do. I can’t understand why you always change your mind, but I love you, and I want to work things out.”

Stephanie knew he was genuine and knew he was the type of person she would end up marrying, but now wasn’t the time. She was barely twenty-two and not even done with college. She had many things she wanted to do and it seemed she would someday blame Justin for not letting her experience new things.

She exhaled. “I want to be happy.”

Justin stood up from his computer desk and started pacing the floor with his cordless phone in hand. “So you’re saying you’re not happy now?” he asked as if he had just been insulted.

“I feel alone. I feel like no one understands me. I don’t know what to think. I have too much going on in my life.” Let him down easy. No sense giving him more baggage for his next relationship. She silently prayed, I will move on and God, I hope he will too.

“What, too much going on that you can’t fit me in?”

“Well, there is so much I want to do for myself,” she paused, “by myself.”

“Oh.” He was quiet for a while. He hated silence; he felt every moment needed to be filled with something. He couldn’t remain quiet, but now he wasn’t sure what else to say, and for once, he was ready to allow silence to consume the rest of the conversation.

After what seemed like five minutes of complete silence, Stephanie spoke again. “I don’t need these complications in my life. I want to focus on school and my future. I can’t make time for you anymore. I’m sorry.”

“So is this the end of our relationship?” As dumb as the question sounded to him after this whole conversation, he felt like it needed to be out in the open. She had said ‘time apart,’ but he knew she wanted to end it. As much as he didn’t want this to occur, a part of him was ready for these ongoing frustrations to be over. He loved her, but he was beginning to fall out.

Finally, he gets the point. Wow. This was harder than before with other guys, Stephanie thought knowing deep down she never wanted to hurt Justin. With guys in the past, hurting them was no big deal. But then Justin was no ordinary guy. She knew she would never treat him the way he should be treated – having never been a giver in any relationship herself. After all, if she was not treating him as he treated her, she knew she wouldn’t start now. Justin deserved better. Stephanie rationalized her actions with these thoughts and eventually would have to explain herself to her friends. Each of her friends loved Justin and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t on Cloud Nine.

“Yes,” she finally said after a few seconds of delay and actually convincing herself to say it.

Justin made his way to the living room. His eyes were closed and he tried to concentrate on the right words to say. “So this relationship is ending because you don’t have time for me; you don’t understand me, and I don’t understand you.”

Justin was finally out of words, there was nothing to say that would save this relationship and he no longer wanted to. “I guess your reason for wanting to end this can benefit me as well. I can focus more on work now. I can look at my priorities, rearrange them, set some goals, and move on.”

“Oh that’s a real nice thing to say.” How did he manage to turn this back on me?

“Nice? I have been nothing but nice to you. I’ve brought you flowers and cards. Drove over to give you a midnight hug and a massage. I scraped ice off your car while you were sleeping and took care of you when you were sick! Sorry if I’m a little mad that all the energy I spent on this relationship was wasted,” he paused to take a breath, “because you don’t have time for me!” Justin almost yelled into the receiver.

“You don’t understand.” Stephanie sat up in her bed and held her head with her hand.

“I know I don’t understand. I never will. What do you want me to do about it?”

Justin could hear her whisper, but he couldn’t understand what she said.

“What?” He practically shouted into the phone.

She looked up and responded softly. “I… don’t… know…”

“I’ve said all I need to say. I guess we live, love, and learn,” he replied, fed up with her lack of a true answer to any of his questions.

“Whatever,” came her response and she cringed, she hadn’t meant to say it.

Justin tightened his fist. She said it. She used “Whatever” again in that snotty tone that she knows drives me nuts.

Since this conversation wasn’t going the way he had intended, he only had a few last questions only to try and make some sense of it. “How do you know that you can’t make time for me? How do you know that we can’t work things out?”

Stephanie remained silent.

He continued. “Since you decided for the both of us that this relationship isn’t working, how about I decide that we aren’t meant to be and will never be?”

“Goodbye,” she said before she hung up the receiver. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders, but sadness started to overwhelm her more than she expected. In the future she might call him and explain why she did what she had – if she could even understand it herself. She confused herself more than she’d ever admit. She’d miss the nice things Justin did for her; after all, he was a true gentleman. In the long run, she’d convince herself that this was for the better, for the both of them.

Justin heard the click and nothing but an uncomfortable silence. He was left standing in his dark living room. His mind immediately went blank. After a few minutes he realized he was still standing there with his phone in hand. He combed through his hair with his fingers as he walked back to his bedroom and crashed on his bed. Only then he remembered he still had to finish his column.

He got back up and reheated his cappuccino; it isn’t like I’ll be able to get to sleep anyway.

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