Excerpt from “The Exchange: A Novella”
by Katie Knecht
Honors College at WKU (Western Kentucky University) Thesis
Passed with Distinction, Spring 2012
A dull buzzing gnaws at my consciousness. A tiny part of my brain recognizes this sound and what it means, but it cannot reach the rest of my mind, still in foggy confusion. Abruptly, the buzzing alters to music, a combination of notes that resembles the chorus of “Quit Playing Games with My Heart” by the Backstreet Boys, circa 1996. Finally, I understand that my phone is ringing, and that song means my best friend is calling, and at an unusual hour, since it doesn’t seem to be light out yet. Then I remember everything—David. His sad eyes. The dress hanging in my closet.
My hand slides across what I know to be my cream sheets, and I hope that if I don’t open my eyes, I won’t actually have to wake up. It’s too early to have to communicate, much less face the world that is now mine.
At last my hand wraps around my cell phone, and I pick up.
“Hello?” I say in a sleepy voice.
“Grace!” Audrey’s voice comes through the speaker as though she hadn’t expected me to pick up.
“Aud?” I say tentatively. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine! Just fine.” She now seems overly calm. “Um...what are you doing?”
If something were seriously wrong, she would have told me. Audrey can’t keep much from me for long, especially in a crisis situation. I’m sure no one we know is hurt, and my mind moves to other potential problems: an argument with her husband, Graham? A worry about her daughter, my goddaughter?
“It’s—,” I check the wooden clock on my bedside table, “six forty-two on a Sunday morning.”
“Oh, I know! You’re sleeping! Of course you’re sleeping.”
“Audrey? What’s going on?” There has to be a reason she’s called so early. She knows I sleep in on Sunday mornings when I can since I have to be up early during the week.
“I—oh—well. Just call me back when you wake up. Right when you wake up, okay?” she asks, a hint of panic in her voice.
“Right, I’ll just hit the hay again now that you’ve freaked me out.” I sit up in bed. “Come out with it.”
“Well—I’ll come over,” she says. “Just hang tight, okay?”
“Alright, Aud. You sure you’re alright?”
“Promise. I’ll see you soon.”
I shake my head and wonder what she could possibly have to tell me that I could care about. It is day eight, but I don’t feel any less humiliated than I did last Sunday afternoon.
I slide out of bed and use the restroom, then splash cold water on my face. I stare at my blue eyes in the mirror and wonder what made David so mistakenly think he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He used to look into these very eyes and tell me he had never felt so overwhelmed with love and that he couldn’t believe he had been so lucky to find me and call me his own. And now these eyes are alone, and who knows how long it will be before anyone looks into them with thoughts of a future with me.
I turn away and tell myself to keep it together because Audrey needs me. For anyone else, I would change out of my pajamas and at least slide on some mascara, but it’s only Audrey, who has seen me in worse than sleepwear, and I’m still feeling exhausted. Thankfully, my coffee pot is already working its magic since I am up for work this early during the week. I realize that if I were on my honeymoon in Jamaica like I had planned, this coffee pot wouldn’t even be crossing my mind.
My thoughts have begun to cycle in the same way, always leading to the same place: My wedding did not happen. My carefully planned, prepared, beautiful wedding did not happen. And not only that—I’m single to boot. Humiliated by my fiancé of one year with a canceled wedding and I’m left to pick up the pieces alone.
It is impossible to grasp what an unfair situation this is. I am so angry with David for doing this to me. What’s worse is that he was as kind as he could have been, considering the circumstances, and his eyes were so sad when he told me he couldn’t go through with it. He said that marrying me when he wasn’t 100 percent certain that it was the right thing would have caused more hurt in the end. His reasons were pretty noble, but I wanted to hit him in a multitude of places for making me cancel a wedding I had perfected down to the last detail.
After he went home that evening, as if the world were giving me a break it knew I deserved, David had called me to tell me he and his parents would call the venue, the florist, the band and the caterer to take care of everything. I was so thankful that I hardly asked any questions and got off the phone before I started crying again. I think he owed me at least that. I haven’t talked to him since then, and I’m honestly glad. I know he is being respectful by not contacting me until after our wedding and honeymoon would have been over. I appreciate his thoughtfulness, even when I want to hate him so much.
I pour my first cup of coffee, add sugar, and wait. I stare at the cup in my hands I randomly chose from the cabinet: a Disney World mug, featuring Ariel the mermaid. A gift from David when he and I visited the theme park last year. He bought it without my noticing while I gazed around the shop in amazement (my parents had never taken me) and gave it to me once we were back in Louisville. He knew Ariel was, and still is, my favorite Disney princess. Now I can never drink out of this mug without feeling sad. And I’ll probably never be able to enjoy The Little Mermaid again. When my cup is halfway empty, I finally hear Audrey’s knock.
I open the door to find my best friend looking worried and still tired.
“Is everything okay?” I ask. “Why are you up so early?”
She waves her hand. “Callie had me up at five. The girl can’t sleep for more than six hours.” Seeing the look on my face, she adds, “Don’t worry, she’s fine. She’s with Graham.”
She comes inside my apartment, and for the first time I notice she is carrying a newspaper. She sits down matter-of-factly on the couch. “I need to show you something. It’s not good news, and you’re not going to like it. At all.”
I really have no idea what she could be talking about. I had felt certain that if someone we knew had been injured she would have told me right away. Is she about to open the paper to show me an obituary?
“Tell me already!” I say, sitting down next to her. “Just tell me.”
She opens the only portion of the newspaper she brought with her, and I see today’s date on the front of the “Lifestyle” section. She glances at me warningly before turning the paper around to face me.
“There.” She points to a bolded wedding announcement.
It says David Smith was married yesterday.
“Oh no!” I cry. “Our wedding announcement got printed?” Tears immediately begin to form. “David promised he would take care of
But Audrey shakes her head.
“’David Smith wed to . . . Sage Whitehouse’? Who in the world is that?” I have never heard of this girl, and now I understand. Another David Smith in the city was married yesterday, and now people are going to be confused because they were told our wedding was canceled. After all, David Smith is a common name; I work with a David Smith and know there must be several others in the area.
Now Audrey looks like she’s about to cry. “Keep going,” she says quietly.
I don’t know why the details of their wedding should matter, but I keep reading.
“’Married Saturday, September 16 . . . at Gardens at Ray Eden,’ ugh . . . ‘with local band Ocean Breeze as entertainment.’ Well, they rebooked quickly. . . . ‘David’s parents . . . Kim and Tony Smith’?”
And suddenly the couch falls away, and I am no longer able to breathe or think or hear or comprehend. There is no way what I just read can be right. There has been a terrible mistake, a cruel and terrible mistake.
Audrey’s voice reaches me from what seems like an ocean away. “Gracie, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
She hugs me and I try to move to hug her back, but I cannot make myself move or speak or think. This is not real.
“Is it . . . is he . . . David? Got married? My David?” I fumble with my words.
Audrey nods. “He didn’t cancel anything, Grace. The only thing that changed was the bride. He is a horrible, horrible person, and I will never forgive him for this,” she finishes, looking at me as though I should make the same commitment.
“I. . . .” I put my hand on my forehead. “He. . . . No. . . .”
Audrey rushes to the bathroom and comes back with a wet cloth, which she promptly places on my forehead, and urges me to lie down. I close my eyes as the cool wetness soothes me in the same way it used to when I was little and had a fever. But this is a sickness I know will not fade with medicine or a good night’s rest.
“It’s going to be okay, Gracie,” Audrey says. “I’m right here.”
But David is not right here. He is basking in his brand-new marriage to a girl who isn’t me.
I didn’t think it was real when Carrie Bradshaw slept for two days straight when Mr. Big called off their wedding in the first Sex and the City movie. Just stuff for the big screen. But it is Tuesday night, and all I want to do—all I can do—is sleep. And when I’m not sleeping, I’m lying in bed, unable to move. I cannot leave my apartment and enter a world where people know how badly I’ve been wronged. It’s the most humiliating thought I can imagine. I called into work for the entire week, after I had already told my boss I would be in because my honeymoon was canceled. All I know is I can’t face anyone at work, even though most of them probably have no idea my ex-fiancé of one week married someone else—and not that they would care. In my carefully chosen venue, with my beautifully arranged flowers, with my custom-picked menu, and with the seventh band that auditioned for David and me in his parents’ garage. I’m sure David’s eight-year-old niece was the flower girl, wearing the same white dress I selected for her seven months ago. I can only imagine what was going through her mind: Where’s Aunt Gracie? Who is this new lady? Why isn’t Aunt Gracie here to see me in my dress?
The thought brings on a fresh wave of tears in the darkness of my bedroom. The weight of what has happened to me is so heavy that I can hardly do anything but think about it when I’m awake. I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to read or write or watch television or go outside. There is nothing that could motivate me to put on anything except pajamas or even think about putting on makeup. There is no one I care about impressing. I feel such an emptiness of any joy that only pain and anger are left. Sleep is my only relief, but it’s temporary, because I dream about David and his new, faceless bride nightly, and wake to find myself overwhelmed with a pain I swear I can feel deep in my chest.
I cannot believe my David—sweet, gentle David—would ever do something like this. It is simply not in his nature. People can change, but they don’t change in a week’s time. I keep thinking that the next time I wake up, David will be lying next to me, and we will excitedly go over all the details of our special day again and again. I keep thinking that this has all been some horrible nightmare I got mistakenly dropped into, and Audrey will come over with Chinese takeout and help me choose the perfect shade of lipstick to go with my wedding gown. I keep thinking, ashamed as I am to admit it, that these sorts of things do not happen to me. They just don’t.
I’m the girl everyone wanted to date in high school. I’m the girl everyone tried to hook up with in college. I’m the smart, successful, recently promoted Assistant Metro Editor at the Courier-Journal, with enough income to support myself. I care about my weight and looks, and I maintain them both. I like to take charge of plans and ideas, and I am good at following through. I have led a relatively above-average life until the world’s largest catastrophe happened to land in my lap. Why me? Why now?
And it’s not like our wedding just got called off. It’s not like I only got dumped. The prick and his new wife stole my wedding. Stole it! How in the world could I have predicted that, especially with the way David ended everything?
It was last Sunday morning. He called me around 11 o’clock and said he was headed over. This was our usual routine for Sunday mornings, and we often spent the day recovering from whatever we had done the night before, resting up for the week of work ahead. On this particular morning, we were both recuperating from our bachelor and bachelorette parties the night before. David went out with his buds to Bardstown Road, and Audrey took a few friends and me to Fourth Street Live because in the three years I’d lived in Louisville, I had never been.
I was excited to tell David about my night of dancing on the bar at Howl at the Moon, getting free shots from strangers, and laughing with Audrey and the girls. But when I let him in, something seemed off. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. Maybe he had gone to a strip club or had too much to drink and felt guilty about it or something.
“Davie,” I said sweetly and threw my arms around his neck. I didn’t really notice until after he left, but he didn’t kiss me like he normally does when we first see each other.
“Hey there,” he said, giving me a quick squeeze.
I had changed into my David-appropriate pajamas (striped cotton shorts with a lacey tank) and we headed back to my bedroom to, I assumed, talk about our nights and maybe take a nap.
As soon as David sat down instead of lying down next to me, I knew something was really bothering him. I sat up.
“You’re being weird. What’s wrong?”
He was quiet for a moment, which is not unusual for him. I honestly expected him to be worried about some stupid stunt his friends talked him into pulling last night, which I knew wouldn’t be as big of a deal to me.
David looked up from his hands and into my eyes. “Grace, you know how much I love you.”
I scooted closer to him. “Of course I do.”
“I . . . I can’t . . . be with you. I can’t marry you”
I could never have imagined those would be the words he said next.
“What?” I whispered. “What do you mean, you ‘can’t be with me’?”
“Gracie—” he said, reaching out to me. Suddenly, the thought of him touching me felt so wrong. So invasive.
“Don’t!” I said, standing up and backing away from him. “Don’t call me that.”
He looked down again. “I love you, Grace. But last night made me realize this marriage is actually going to happen, and I . . . I can’t go through with it. It wouldn’t be right for me to marry you when I’m not completely sure it’s what I want.”
I had no idea how to respond. I really wanted to punch him repeatedly. “How can you say that? After all these years together, our four-year relationship? Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Are you not in love with me anymore?”
“I just . . . I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is it would be wrong of me to go through with it. Please try to understand.”
“Well, I don’t,” I said angrily. “It makes absolutely no sense for you to call off our wedding that’s supposed to take place in a matter of days out of nowhere. You have to be kidding me.”
I thought that if I played the rational card, he would see how illogical he was being. I truly didn’t think he would follow through with any of this.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at me with blue eyes that were sadder than I had ever seen. “Please know that I’m only doing this because I think it’s the right thing. The best thing. For us.”
“There is no us!” I said, my voice raised. “You’ve ruined everything!”
I honestly expected him to recant everything he’d said at any moment and tell me he had no idea what he was saying. That he had gotten nervous for a moment, but everything was perfectly fine, the way we had planned.
“Just go, David.”
But even with the threat of parting ways, still he didn’t change his mind.
He stood up. “Gracie, don’t hate me,” he said softly. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help but give in to his hug. Was this really happening? We stood there, embracing each other for a moment.
“I could never hate you,” I said, meaning it.
He left me alone in my apartment after a kiss on the forehead and a final goodbye. I cried alone all afternoon before I called Audrey and my mom to tell them what had happened.
After what Audrey showed me in that newspaper, I’m angry at myself for believing one word of his melodramatic lies.
I cannot believe this has actually happened to me. This doesn’t happen to anyone, especially someone who worked so hard to do everything right. I drift to sleep lost in tears and memories, with the lingering hope that next time I wake up, I will be in the pajamas I had on last Sunday, and this last week and a half will not have happened, and my life will return to its normal state.
Instead, Backstreet Boys wakes me up again on Wednesday morning and I know an intervention is about to occur.
“I’m at your front door. Open up!” Audrey says through the phone.
She has checked on me regularly since she left on Sunday night after spending the entire day by my side, even though I hardly spoke. I guess now she sees my mourning period as over. With no energy to argue, I let her in with a feeble attempt at a smile.
She is carrying a large duffle bag and her two-year-old, Callie, who screams, “Gwace! Gwace!”
I know this is part of Audrey’s plan to perk me up, and indeed, I can’t help but smile at Callie’s sweet brown eyes and dark curls. “Hey, sweetie,” I say, giving her hand a squeeze.
“Shower,” Audrey says. I stare at her. “I’m serious, Grace! This is what you always did for me. Now, go.”
It’s true. I used to be the one to show up at Audrey’s door with a day’s worth of activities piled into a bag and a plan to pull her out of a slump that usually involved one jerk of a guy or another. Now she is happily married, has a beautiful little girl, and the roles are reversed.
“Fine,” I mumble and head to the bathroom.
With the warm water washing over me, I let myself cry. I don’t usually cry—you know, the good, hard kind of cry when you feel like sadness is leaving your body in the form of salty tears. But I do this morning. I cry, and I think about how much I miss David and how he used to take showers with me here. I see him everywhere—in the soap we used to share, in the silly loofa he was with me when I bought. He would gently scrub every part of my body, and I would do the same in return, and we would hold each other under the water until it turned cold, laughing at our shivering bodies and chattering teeth. I know now that he will never be here again; his wedding announcement has made that quite clear. The sooner I can accept it, the better off I will be. When I finally get out and dry off, I feel cleaner, a little lighter.
“Now, we have several options,” Audrey says when I sit down beside her and Callie on the couch, wearing an actual shirt, albeit a v-neck tee, and comfy shorts, my wet hair hanging down my back. A step up from pajamas, anyway, but I can’t help but associate it with David. I wore this shirt a couple of weeks ago when we went to Molly Malone’s, a fun Irish-style bar and restaurant. I’ve worn practically all of my clothes with or around David. It just happens when you date for as long as we did. “We have board games, facials, manicure and pedicure kits, movies—all action, no romance—we have coloring books, seasons four, five, and eight of ‘Friends,’ and four episodes of ‘Dora the Explorer,’” Audrey lists carefully.
“Coloring!” Callie says excitedly. “Color, color, color!”
“Coloring it is,” I say.
Using crayons is something I never do, so it’s actually pretty fun, getting back to the basics of art. Honestly, I haven’t done much art or personal writing at all lately. I’ve been so busy with deadlines and new duties at work and preparing for the wedding that there hasn’t been much time.
Callie works quietly and seriously, and I tell Audrey she’s got a little artist on her hands.
“Great,” she says. “You can give her lessons, because we all know I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”
I grin and continue working on giving life to a scene depicting Barbie lounging by the pool in a polka-dot bikini. Audrey makes us omelets, and we spend the morning giving each other facials and manicures while our favorite seasons of “Friends” play. We order a pizza for lunch and use the afternoon to watch “Dora the Explorer” until Callie falls asleep for her nap.
“Thanks for coming today,” I tell Audrey.
“I had to do something,” she says, tucking a blanket around Callie.
I don’t disagree. I feel a little better.
I ask the thought that has been nagging at me since the moment I saw the wedding announcement. “Audrey . . . do you think they were together . . . while we were together?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I guess it’s possible. . . .”
But I know it’s more than possible. It’s probable. People don’t start dating and decide to get married in less than a week, which would have been the case if David had honestly broken up with me and started a new relationship the next day. No, they must have started their relationship long before mine was over.
I nod. “Aud, what am I gonna do?”
“Have you thought about going home?” Audrey asks.
Tears are filling my eyes, threatening to brim over. I swallow and try to keep my voice steady. “And face my father’s disappointment?”
“A trip home might be good, Grace. You could get out of town for a while, spend some time with your mom.”
“I don’t know. . . .” I will have to face my parents and hometown of Metropolis, Illinois sometime, but I want to put it off for as long as possible. I appreciate my parents—don’t get me wrong. But going home and getting sympathy from my family, with gossip reaching every street corner about what happened to me, would be like solidifying it. Once I accept “sorrys” and “it’s going to be okays” from people, I have accepted this situation. And I don’t want to do that.
“The worst thing you can do for yourself is sit in this apartment for a week,” my best friend says, somewhat sternly. I’m not used to this side of her; then again, I’m not often in need of being comforted. “Everything here is going to remind you of David, so going home will do you some good.”
If it were me, I would have already bought Audrey’s plane ticket home and packed her suitcase, but she’s not quite as straightforward as I am. I have to commend her on this piece of advice that I know is probably right. She does have a point.