One Woman's Choice
by Hannah Westman
Elise was barely twenty when she swore off men forever. At the time, Olivia - as well as everybody else, in truth - had laughed it off and told her oh, you'll change your mind or well, you could always date women instead! People believed that she would eventually change her mind because dating was just something people did, and no one really believed that Elise would stick to her decision. She was young, and young people grew out of silly choices.
After a while, though, it became obvious that Elise truly meant it. Even now, over a decade later, she hadn't dated once. Olivia couldn't help but wonder if, maybe, there was more to the story than any of them knew, because it was so clear that Elise longed for a family.
Was it selfish of Olivia, to stay away from relationships - when women like Elise so clearly wanted one, but something prevented that? Even if it was something psychological that Olivia didn't understand, the fact of the matter was that Elise wanted to date, and yet couldn't bring herself to do so. Although Olivia supposed, if she’d been hurt by men over and over again, she might have become bitter, too.
At her feet, Apricot whined. It was the long, drawn-out sound of a dog just waking from an excellent nap. She rolled onto her back with a great big yawn and then turned to gaze up at Olivia with enormous brown eyes.
"You want dinner, don't you?"
As if in response, Apricot let out a tired yip.
A glance at the clock above the TV told her it was getting late. Not dinner time late, but once Apricot had made a decision, nothing could change her mind. Heaving herself upright, Olivia rolled her eyes and padded into the kitchen. If Apricot was eating dinner early, then Olivia might as well do the same.
As she pottered in the kitchen, Olivia's mind wandered back to Elise. She lived alone too, although she didn't even have a dog or cat to keep her company. How was she? Elise had always claimed she preferred to live alone, rather than living with family or a roommate. As a popular physiotherapist with a hefty salary, she didn't need a roommate anyway. Yet, as Olivia began reaching for cooking utensils, she couldn't help but wonder if that was true. That Elise was happy alone.
They had spoken about it, once. About how Olivia enjoyed the single life and didn't plan to change that. Elise had said something similar but without her usual spark. Then the disastrous date had happened, and it all fell to pieces from there.
The Willow Tea Rooms weren't Elise's usual type of place. It was beautiful, there was no doubt about that - all elegance and style, the kind of place an upper-class Victorian woman might have loved. For Elise, though, she had picked this meeting place only because it was the opposite of where she had been last night.
Olivia sat across from her, sipping a steaming cup of herbal tea. She watched Elise in that way she had come to learn meant I know something is wrong, but I'm waiting on you to make the first move.
The problem was, Elise didn't know where to begin. She stared down at her own drink; a sweet raspberry tea that stained the edge of the cup a rich, dark red.
When it became obvious that Elise wasn't going to talk of her own choice, Olivia reached across the table to nudge her shoulder. "Date was that bad, huh?"
Next to Olivia sat Christine. Her dark curls were pulled up under a bandanna, and her dark skin shone under the natural lighting that streamed through the window to their left. She was much more patient than Olivia, for which Elise was grateful, but she still fixed Elise with an expectant sort of look.
Talking about your problems was supposed to fix them. Or at least make them easier to deal with. Biting down on her lip, Elise took a chance. "He was awful. I mean, the absolute worst. Do you know what the first thing he said to me was?"
Olivia and Christine shared a look. "I don't know," Olivia replied, "but I'm guessing it wasn't good?"
"He looked me right in the eyes and said you're not what I was expecting."
"Ah." Olivia cringed.
Christine looked mortified, which was just how Elise felt. She slapped a hand across her lips in a silent exclamation of horror, her eyes going wide. "And you still went through with the date? After he said that?"
"I thought maybe it was just a bad first impression," Elise mumbled. Now, she knew how stupid that thought had been. The evening had gone from bad to worse. The restaurant was picked by him, and it was some seedy place she couldn't even bother to remember the name for. The food was overcooked, the wine was horrible, and the company was worst of all. Even thinking about it now, twenty-four hours later, made Elise want to curl up and disappear.
Olivia tapped the wooden table with her nails, a distant expression on her face. "I know I haven't dated much so I'm maybe not one to give advice, but... one bad date doesn't mean you're doomed."
Elise winced. Her stomach turned. Suddenly, the enormous éclair in front of her didn't seem nearly as appealing. Taking a long drink of tea, she tried to savour the fruity taste. After yesterday's disaster, even that left a sour taste in her mouth. "The guy was horrible from the beginning. When we asked for the bill, I swear even the waiter felt awkward about it all."
Olivia squeezed Elise's arm before letting go. "It isn't the end of the world. It says a lot more about him than it does about you."
"Besides," Christine cut in with a warm smile, "all it means is that you can go on more dates, until you find someone that works for you."
It was all reasonable advice, but that didn't stop the hollow feeling from settling in Elise's stomach. She had never been good at the whole dating thing, even in high school, and now it really did seem hopeless. "I might have crossed it off as just a bad date, if he hadn't tried to smack my ass," Elise grumbled. She had worn a pair of new jeans, nothing too fancy, but apparently it had still been enough for him to try that awful trick. "I stood up to go to the bathroom and he just winked at me, like he was proud of himself or something."
"I hope you slapped him," Olivia muttered.
"I did," Elise countered, "which is how we both got kicked out of the restaurant."
There was an identical intake of breath as both Christine and Olivia stifled their gasps. "Oh, Elise..." Christine trailed off, at a loss for words.
"And if that wasn't embarrassing enough, I forgot my purse and had to go back inside. Everyone stared at me the entire time." She glared down at her cup, at the delicate white and silver trim, wishing that she hadn't bothered to come out at all. "I swear, I'm never going on another date. It's not worth the hassle."
"Wait, hold on." Christine reached forward to grasp Elise's hands, a frown spreading across her delicate features. "You can't give up on dating completely just because one man was horrible."
“It’s not just one man though, is it? It’s every man I’ve ever been with. My last three dates have been awful, and they steadily just get worse.” Elise rolled her eyes, but only because it hid the fact she was fighting back tears. “I’ve never had a decent boyfriend in my life. Maybe it’s me that’s the problem.”
“Elise,” Olivia said kindly, “don’t blame yourself. You’ll find the right guy eventually, and it’ll make all the heartbreak worth it.”
"Says the woman doesn't even like dating," Elise snapped - and that shut Olivia up. Immediately, guilt swelled in her chest - but Elise shoved it down with a scowl. She was right, wasn't she? Olivia had no right to tell her what to do, when she didn’t even care about men. She of all people should have known it was for Elise's own benefit.
Christine retracted her hand, her frown deepening. "Elise, that's uncalled for. We only want to help."
"What would help," Elise countered, "would be for you to stop acting like this was just one bad experience to be forgotten. It’s not just one bad date but one terrible guy after another. I don’t think there’s a decent one out there.”
"I know that’s what you think, but-"
"But nothing!" Elise snapped, cutting off Christine mid-sentence, "the problem is that men like him get away with it and forget it after a few days. To him, it was just another day to laugh about later, but it's not so easy for me to forget."
Silence. The Tea Room was quiet this time of evening, and only two more tables were occupied. The table closest, housing two older women, turned with raised brows and thin-lipped scowls.
Elise sank deeper into her chair, arms folded. "What I'm trying to say is, this happens all too often. It's not a risk I'm willing to take again. Not after yesterday."
Another shared look. They had all known each other since university days, but Christine and Olivia had shared most of the same classes, both taking Media and Journalism. As such, they knew each other far better than Elise knew either of them. She knew that look, though, and it made her chest skip.
"Do you think maybe you're overreacting?" Olivia suggested hesitantly. She bit down on her lip, staring down at her teacup, but didn't take a sip.
Elise almost refused to even dignify that with an answer. She did, though, feeling her chest tighten. "No, I don't," Elise snapped, "and if I choose to quit dating for good, you can't tell me otherwise. It's my decision. I know what's best for me, not you. Besides, you of all people should understand – why can you decide not to date, but I can’t?” People were staring now, or maybe they had been already. She was all too aware of the eyes on her back, heat prickling at the back of her neck. Yet the words kept tumbling forward and she couldn’t stop them. “You don’t need a boyfriend. Why would you? All you care about is your stupid job, so why would you let anyone in?”
Christine physically recoiled. “Now, that’s uncalled for-“
Something in Olivia snapped. Elise saw it happen, saw the way her whole body went rigid as she snapped, “don’t pretend to know my circumstances better than I do. I don’t date because I don’t want to. You’re giving up because you’re too scared to admit that maybe you’re the problem.”
Silence. It fell across the table, heavy like a physical force. Elise froze, her glare turning from Olivia to Christine, then back again. “You really think I’m the one in the wrong, here?”
“I don’t know,” Olivia replied coolly, “but you can’t blame everything on someone else.”
Elise’s whole body went cold. Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes but she blinked them away. She had known Olivia for years, thought of her as a close friend. Maybe even her best friend. If this was how she was going to act, though, maybe they were better off without each other. “Fine,” she snapped, “so you admit I’m the problem after all? If that’s how you feel, then you won’t care if I leave. Good luck with your career and your loveless life. Don’t bother calling.”
Olivia parted her lips to reply - but it was too late. Elise launched to her feet, snatching her coat from where it hung over the tall, backed chair. She didn't even pause to put it on, simply throwing it over her arm before storming out.
"Don't be like that," Christine chastised - but there was real panic in her voice. She twisted in her chair to watch Elise go, eyes wide.
People stared as Elise stormed past. The two elderly ladies clicked their tongues and muttered something about young people and their drama. Ignoring them, Elise kept walking.
Elise didn't look back to see her friends' expressions. She was past the point of caring, her blood boiling. She stormed down the long stairs leading to the Tea Room exit, heels clicking against the floor, and shoved open the door to exhale the cool afternoon air.
She had expected Olivia, at least, to run after her. Or for Christine to call her name. Yet there were no voices and no following footsteps, just the rush of her own pulse in her ears.
Well, fine. It was probably for the best because she was hardly in the mood to continue this conversation, anyway. Elise took a moment to suck in a breath of cold air. It made her lungs ache and her throat dry, but she took another gulping breath anyway. Then she turned heel and stormed off down Buchanan Street without any real destination in mind.
If she hadn't already decided it, now she was certain. Elise was swearing off romance for good. She had Olivia to thank for that.
There was nothing much in the fridge because Olivia had been too busy with work lately to go shopping. That was fine because she'd lost her appetite, anyway. She grabbed a fresh packet of wet food for Apricot and settled on pasta for herself. Sticking a pot of water on to boil, she cast a lingering look outside.
She and Elise had been young, then. Naïve and prone to childish arguments. It hadn't been their first fight or their last, but it had been one of the worst. She hadn't taken Elise seriously at the time - and even now, she regretted it. Although they had made up time and time again over the years, Olivia couldn't help but wonder if that day had been part of why Elise had stuck so strongly to her refusal to date. Sometimes, like now, she wondered if she had been the cause of Elise’s final decision. Her carelessness had hurt Elise so deeply that it affected her still today.
And here was Olivia, single by choice, not because of trauma or bad memories but simply because of her own apathetic views toward romance. She felt no need to date, no desire to marry or have kids, while women like Elise couldn't date because they didn't feel safe doing so.
Guilt rose in Olivia's chest, but she quickly shoved it down. With a sigh, she turned to the pot to half-heartedly dump a handful of pasta inside. The water bubbled up, spilling over the sides of the pot. Fantastic. If there was one thing that Olivia had never truly learned, it was the art of cooking. Grabbing a sponge to mop up the mess, she frowned.
Elise was a good person. The kind of person that men would have been desperate to date. Women, too. The reasons why people chose not to date or fall in love are vast, but Elise's was especially unfortunate. She was single because she’d completely lost faith in men, and herself. Maybe that was partly Olivia’s fault, for making Elise feel like she was the problem and not the guys she had dated.
They didn’t talk much now, even after having made up. Things had just never been the same after that, and Olivia had accepted that maybe their friendship wasn’t meant to last. Maybe, deep down, Elise had always resented Olivia for having the confidence to choose an untraditional path. And maybe, if Olivia let herself think about it, she felt bad for Elise, but never quite treated her with the respect she deserved.
Still. Elise wasn’t the only friend she had stopped talking to. She certainly wasn’t the first friend to have fought with. Sometimes it just happened, and Olivia had to fight down the rising guilt and get on with her life.