‘Home at last.’
Tired, irritable and in pain, Melissa kicked off her shoes, dosed up on painkillers and pulled on her baggiest, most comfortable pair of pyjamas. It had been a strange sort of day. On the upside, she had handed in her notice at work, thereby ensuring her imminent escape from a job she couldn’t stand. On the downside, her period had started just before lunch, and she had spent the next few hours feeling like someone was squeezing her uterus in a vice. Thankfully, she hadn’t been teaching that afternoon, and therefore didn’t have to deal with teenagers who were as moody and hormonal as she was.
Once she had freshened up, Melissa plonked herself down on the sofa, turned on the TV and began absent-mindedly scrolling through Facebook. Her newsfeed was filled with the usual inane posts: people sharing random nonsense for no discernible reason, family members proudly airing questionable opinions, attention-seekers complaining about the terrible day they’d had and then declining to provide further details.
‘How very boring,’ Melissa muttered, flicking past a post from one of her cousins in which every second word was spelled incorrectly.
But the Gods of Facebook were cunning. Like so many times before, they had lulled her into a false sense of security. For there, directly beneath her cousin’s atrocious spelling, was a post that made Melissa’s stomach lurch.
It was a picture of Heather, girlfriend of Melissa’s old flame, Noah. Only she was no longer his girlfriend. As of an hour ago, she was now his fiancée.
There she was looking as pretty as ever with her long dark hair, dewy skin and big, doe-like eyes. She was sitting on the grass near a lake, perfectly framed by hazy May sunbeams, a huge sapphire sparkling on her finger. The picture was accompanied by a sickeningly smug post about what an amazing week she’d had. Not only had Noah proposed, she’d also been offered her dream job immediately after finishing her studies.
‘It’s all right for some,’ Melissa mumbled out loud to no one.
Seething, she closed the app, jabbing her phone screen much harder than was strictly necessary.
Of course, the engagement wasn’t exactly a surprise. Melissa had known it was coming. She seemed to have something akin to Spidey Senses as far as old flames and engagements were concerned. She would be going about her business one day when suddenly, and for no apparent reason, it would occur to her that a certain former love interest had been with his partner for years now and must surely be thinking of popping the question. And lo and behold, in a matter of weeks, an engagement announcement would appear in her newsfeed. It had happened before with Alex and Meghan, and now it had happened with Heather and Noah.
‘Are you psychic or something?’ her friends would jokingly ask whenever she made a correct prediction.
Melissa didn’t believe in psychics, but she did have a keen sense of intuition. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t seen Noah in over four years. Time and distance appeared to have no effect on her particular brand of Spidey Senses. They had begun tingling in April, when Noah posted a status marking his and Heather’s fourth anniversary. As soon as Melissa saw it, she knew it wouldn’t be long before the two of them were engaged. Now, just three weeks later, her instincts had proved correct once more.
Melissa spent the next hour in a deep sulk. She curled up on the sofa and glared at the TV as cramps continued to grip her lower abdomen, all the while resisting the temptation to crack open the bottle of white wine in the fridge. Of all the days for them to get engaged, why did it have to be today?
It’s always the way, said a snide little voice in her head. Someone else’s life is peaking just as yours is troughing. Usually someone who’s pissed you off in the past.
It was true. Things like this never happened on days when she was happy and loving life. Sod’s Law dictated that she would be ill, or on her period, or exhausted from a hard day at work. Sometimes all three. It was infuriating, and it didn’t seem fair.
Life isn’t fair, said the snide little voice.
‘Tell me about it,’ Melissa muttered, before snatching up the remote and changing the channel.
Melissa would search for the photo of Heather several more times over the coming weeks. Sometimes it was to stare wistfully at the ring, which just so happened to resemble the one she herself secretly longed for. Sometimes it was to show other people so that they could share in her…what was it exactly? Not pain. That had passed long ago. Sadness? No. That too had passed. Jealousy. Yes, that was it. Jealousy and bitterness and unshakeable feelings of inadequacy.
Because Heather was nothing like Melissa. Nothing like her at all. Heather was tall and slim, whereas Melissa was short and curvaceous. Heather had a nose ring; Melissa had prescription lenses. Heather had run the London Marathon the year before. Melissa couldn’t run for a bus without puffing like a steam train. Next to Heather, Melissa felt like a blip. An anomaly. A steppingstone to someone better. And Heather was better. No one would disagree. Apart from Melissa’s boyfriend, her friends and family, and any number of people who didn’t share Noah’s tastes, that is.
‘I don’t think she’s anything special,’ said Melissa’s best friend, Lucy, upon seeing the photo.
‘You know you can just unfollow him if you don’t want to see their posts.’
‘I know, but I’m nosy and I’ve got masochistic tendencies, so…’
‘What?’ Lucy recoiled in fake shock, clutching her chest in a deliberately over-the-top fashion. ‘You? Surely not!’
Alas, it was true. Melissa’s curiosity about other people’s lives far outstripped her desire to safeguard her own emotions. Social media was both a blessing and a curse in that respect. A blessing in that it allowed her to see what people were up to even when she hadn’t seen them in years. A curse in that she couldn’t help but compare her own life to theirs. A pointless exercise, she knew, but she didn’t have the discipline to stop.
‘I know this kind of thing shouldn’t bother me, but it does,’ she told Lucy one night after work. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wish I was engaged to him. I don’t. And it’s not that I don’t want him to be happy because I do. It’s just that I’d banked on being happy myself by now, and the fact that I’m not makes it really difficult when stuff like this happens.’
‘That’s perfectly understandable,’ Lucy assured her. ‘I think a lot of people experience similar feelings. They just never talk about them.’
Melissa could believe it, and yet it seemed utterly ridiculous to her. That people could lug such complex emotions around and never speak about them struck her as decidedly unhealthy, not to mention incredibly sad. Perhaps if people were more open and honest, they would come to realise that all emotions were valid, and no one was alone in their feelings. Or so Melissa hoped.
Another one of her friends, Kirsty, was much less diplomatic. She let out a disgusted, ‘Eugh,’ after reading the post, before going on to say, ‘She’s the plainest girl I’ve ever seen. And what are those ratty little teeth?’
Granted, Heather’s teeth were a little on the long side, but to describe them as ‘ratty’ was, in Melissa’s opinion, neither fair nor accurate. Still, it pleased her to know that Kirsty was and always would be firmly in her camp.
‘I think she’s pretty,’ she admitted, ‘I always did. I look at her and I can’t help but think that she’s better than me.’
‘She’s better than you for him,’ Kirsty pointed out. ‘That’s about it.’
Not all of Melissa’s friends were so helpful, however. Chris, her friend from university who had known her almost a decade, offered to give an ‘objective male opinion’ on whether or not Heather was attractive. Not only had Melissa not asked for his opinion, she also failed to see how his opinion could be more objective than anyone else’s. In fact, she could think of very few things less objective than what an individual considered physically attractive. But he offered it anyway, and sure enough, he ran headlong into the trap.
‘I think she’s pretty.’
Melissa had fully expected him to say that, but she was still tempted to throw the remainder of her pint in his face. Did he not realise there was only one correct option in this scenario? She could have shown him a picture of a Victoria’s Secret model; it would still be his duty as her friend to feign indifference. Honesty was not always the best policy, especially when she was confiding her most deep-rooted insecurities to him. The sooner Chris learned that, the better.
Chris’s inability to read the room did not go down well with Melissa’s younger sister.
‘Why do these men think we want their opinions?’ Erin lamented, rolling her eyes in a way that reminded Melissa of Kirsty. ‘Do you want an objective lesbian opinion, just to balance it out?’
‘Sure,’ said Melissa, chuckling at the phrase ‘objective lesbian opinion’ as she handed over her phone.
Erin stared down at it for a few moments, a confused expression on her face. Then she launched into a tirade.
‘Her? She’s the girl he ditched you for, really? I’m sorry, Mel, but I’m with Lucy and Kirsty. She’s nothing special. And if he threw you off you to be with her then he’s just an idiot.’
Erin’s unswerving loyalty was not surprising, but it was appreciated, even if it ultimately did nothing to assuage Melissa’s feelings of inferiority. It didn’t matter how many people told her she was prettier, or that Heather was nothing special. The fact remained that Noah preferred her. It had been hard enough, accepting that their dalliance was at an end. What made it even harder was knowing that Noah favoured a girl who was the very antithesis of her. Nothing made Melissa feel more insecure than a svelte brunette, especially when that brunette had succeeded where she herself had failed. Five years on, it still rankled. Her friends could reassure her all they wanted; Melissa couldn’t see her feelings changing any time soon.
There was once a time when Melissa would have welcomed the news that one of her old flames had had to postpone their wedding. When she would have thrown her head back and cackled like a mad woman. But when COVID-19 forced Alex and Meghan to push back their nuptials, Melissa was amazed to find that she actually felt sorry for them.
‘It must be beyond heartbreaking,’ she said to Lucy via video call one afternoon. ‘I can’t even imagine how they must be feeling.’
She thought of all the other couples she knew who were in the same position, and those who had ceremonies planned for later in the year.
‘I just hope Noah and Heather’s wedding can go ahead as planned.’
‘When is it?’
With three months still to go, it was possible that things would be back to normal by then. Of course, it was also possible that they too would have to postpone, depending on how long the pandemic lasted.
‘It might be OK by then,’ Lucy said, though it was clear from her tone and expression that she was far from certain.
‘I hope so. You know it’s strange. I always thought I’d be glad to see something like this happen. I thought it would feel like justice for all the hurt they caused me. But now that it has happened, I just feel bad for them. And I want it to work out. I want Alex and Meghan to get their happy ending sooner rather than later. I want Noah and Heather’s wedding to go ahead without any problems. I just want them to be happy.’
‘Of course you do, because you’re a good person and you care.’
‘I guess I’m not a jealous, spiteful bitch after all,’ Melissa ventured.
‘They’re just surface feelings,’ Lucy assured her. ‘When it really comes down to it, you do want them to be happy.’
Melissa did indeed want them to be happy. It had taken a global pandemic and news of cancelled weddings to make her realise, but she’d got there eventually. Her insecurities regarding Heather were still there, and they probably always would be. But Melissa was discovering that she could be insecure and still want the best for people. The two were not mutually exclusive.
There would be more updates from Noah and Heather. At some point there would be wedding photos, a honeymoon, maybe even children. Melissa could easily avoid those posts if she wanted, but being a nosy masochist, she would do no such thing. She would look, just as she had looked all those times before. And when those posts inevitably dredged up the same old insecurities, she would spill her guts to Lucy and Kirsty and anyone else who would listen, and they would assure her that such feelings were completely normal, it was just that most people never spoke about them. Then, when her mind was quiet once more, she would pick herself up, dust herself off and get on with her life. Until the next time, that is.