The Break-Up Artist
For Mom, Dad, and Steph—my first fan club.
A WARNING TO ALL WHO READ THIS
Couples are made to be broken.
That’s what my sister, Diane, told me when I started my business, and she knows better than anyone. “Don’t get duped like I did, Becca,” she said almost a year ago, as she shoved her wedding dress into a garbage bag. She’d had it designed to look like Kate Middleton’s, lace sleeves and everything. It’s a shame nobody saw her wear it.
We all like to think that there’s one person out there who will rescue us from the tower, slide the glass slipper onto our foot, brush away our one falling tear and tell us if there’s six more weeks of winter. Or something like that. But that’s not how the real world works. Just ask the cheating boyfriends and girlfriends I have to deal with on a far-too-regular basis.
Back in olden times, people were up front about why they took the plunge. For land, for money, for children. Marriage was a business contract. That’s how it started, anyway. Farmers would marry off their sons and daughters in order to double their acreage. Society’s first corporate merger. Next were dowries, where brides came with a down payment. But history, as it always happens, was rewritten. The truth was washed away like a house in a flood, and in its place sprouted one vague excuse: love.
People use that word to go around and do what they please. They don’t have to worry about who gets hurt because it’s all in the name of love. Love has no rules, no boundaries. It’s gone all these years unchecked. That doesn’t make it whimsical; that makes it a tyrant.
I may not be an angel in all this, but I’m certainly not the bad guy either. If you can’t handle my line of work, then go read the latest bodice ripper. I’ll leave you with this: How many lives have been ruined because of love?
Who’s really the bad guy here?
Calista McTiernan looks away from the screen. Tears form in her eyes. The levee’s about to break. I wish I could reach through my computer monitor and give her a hug. I hear these stories too often.
“Ever since they started dating, Bari’s become a totally different person. Derek’s favorite band is U2, and now magically it’s hers, too. Derek is into politics, and now Bari is watching CNN religiously. I laughed it off because she acted this way with her last boyfriend. But then...” Calista shakes her head.
“But then what?” I ask in my best British accent, looking directly into my webcam.
“Then she dyed her hair brown, she started dressing like some J. Crew mannequin, and this week she quit cheerleading.” Her blond locks fan around her pea-sized head. Her hair’s the same shade as mine, but hers is real.
“People change. It happens.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t the same. Derek’s making her do this. He told her he thinks blondes are trashy, and he didn’t want some slutty cheerleader girlfriend visiting him at Princeton next year. He said that. To her face!”
“He did?” Derek Kelley has been student council president for three years, and what little power the Student Government Association—aka the SGA—holds has gone to his head. He seems friendly in the halls, but guys are just as capable of being fake nice as girls.
“Bari said he was joking around, but I’m not laughing.”
“Have you tried talking to her about it?” I can already guess the answer.
“She says she isn’t into cheerleading anymore and she’s never felt like a blonde.” Calista rubs her forehead, and I can feel her concern through the screen. “Everything that made her Bari is disappearing.”
I lean closer in my chair, all business, and hold Calista’s attention. “So, you want me to do this?”
Calista squeezes a fresh set of tears from her eyes. I instinctively reach for the Kleenex box on my desk, forgetting we’re on Skype. “My best friend is pushing me away. You don’t know what that’s like.”
I do, I want to tell her. My eyes wander to the floor and the pair of golden ballet slippers next to my desk. It’s like a hole through your heart that can never be filled. A part of you that is missing forever. I should throw the slippers out like I’ve done with the rest of my memories from that train wreck of a friendship, but I won’t. I never do. I keep them here, in plain sight, a perpetual reminder of why I do this.
I force my attention back to the screen. I can never get personal. One misspoken word, one accidental truth, and I give myself away.
“I told her I didn’t think Derek was treating her well,” Calista says.
“And what did she say?”
Calista stares at the screen, her bottom lip quivering. Only the hissing of her radiator fills my speaker.
“She said, ‘You just don’t understand because you’re single.’” Tears stream down Calista’s cheeks. She buries her face in her knee to compose herself.
I clench my lips together. I have to remind myself to stay strong for my client. She can fall apart, but I have to make things right. Blood rushes to my face in frustration, coloring me the same shade as this shapeless graduation robe I’m wearing.
Calista continues, “I feel like if Derek had his way, she’d never talk to any of her friends again. Especially me.”
My raccoon mask conceals my raised eyebrows. I’ve seen Bari and Calista joined at the hip since elementary school. They once tried convincing our classmates that they were cousins. (I fell for it.) They seemed to have one of those übertight friendship bonds that I thought would survive the dating world. Then again, I’d thought I had that, too. But now I know that once people get into relationships, friends—and rational thought—get tossed aside.
“It’s a good thing you came to me,” I say.
“You seriously can break them up?”
“I have a perfect track record.”
“My methods are proprietary and confidential.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m really, really good, and you’ll just have to trust me.” I catch my reflection in the screen. I’m shocked anyone’s been able to take me seriously in this disguise. I look like an escaped mental patient, but that’s better than looking like myself. Luckily, my work speaks for itself.
“It’s not going to be easy. I think they’ve already said ‘I love you’ to each other.”
“I’ll take my chances,” I say. Why do my classmates believe that saying those three words automatically protects a couple? They’re not relationship insurance. They’re just words, and if people actually meant them, then I would be out of a job. Bari and Derek are a couple destined for flame out. I’m just speeding up the inevitable. And if I can save Bari before she’s permanently under Derek’s thumb, so much the better.
“Before we go forward, I want you to be certain about this.”
She gets so quiet I can hear the static crackling in the background. “I—I don’t know.”
“A minute ago you were devastated.”
“I know. But...” Calista hugs her chopstick legs into her chest. I wonder if she’s one of those girls who stays skinny no matter how much she eats. “This seems kind of severe. I don’t know, and maybe a little petty, too?”
I clench my jaw. “When was the last time she called or texted you just to say hi?”
Calista ponders this. She shrugs her shoulder.
“So you think it’s fair that she’s cutting you out of her life? Just because she has a boyfriend?” I ask calmly.
“No. But Derek—”
“Derek hasn’t mastered the art of mind control. She’s choosing all of this. To disappear. To change. To stop being friends with you. It’d be nice if Bari suddenly came to her senses, but that’s not going to happen, and you know it,” I say. Blunt, but not untrue. “So now here’s where you choose—are you going to let her continue on this path uninterrupted or are you going to do something about it?”
“So you really will break them up?” she asks between sniffles.
“For a hundred dollars via PayPal I can.” The wheels begin turning in my head. I flash Calista a warm smile, telling her I got this. Maybe I can salvage this friendship. No girl should have to live through a best friend cutting her out of her life.
Her face brightens among the red splotches, and she smiles for the first time tonight. “Let’s do it.”
My mom still makes me a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every morning. It was the only thing I ate for breakfast when I was in elementary school, and she stuck with it. Now that I’m older, I found my ideal get-up-and-get-’em meal: a large cup of coffee. Black, no sugar.
Sharp rays of morning sun pierce through the kitchen windows. My dad sits at the table with his coffee and oatmeal, watching a guy shout on TV. Apparently, the fluctuation of Chinese currency can make some people quite flustered. My mom hands me a cup of coffee, and I push aside the sandwich with my mug. She picks it up and takes a bite. And so goes our morning routine.
“Busy day today?” my mom asks.
“Kinda.” I have a new couple to break up. Oh, and I have a math quiz. “Where’s Diane?”
My mom heaves a sigh, then gives me a look like I should know better. “Still sleeping.”
Which I should’ve known, but I hold out hope that one day the answer will be better. My dad shakes his head and mutters to himself.
“Hey,” my mom says to my dad after taking another bite of my former breakfast. “Why did you get one-ply toilet paper last night?”