The one thing you should know about me is this: I'm the consummate
Good Girl. I wash my makeup off every night, no matter how tired I
am. I mail out my Christmas cards every Thanksgiving weekend
without fail, and thank-you notes are written and posted within
three days of receipt of any gift. I've only called into work sick
once when it wasn't really true, and even then I spent the entire
day too racked with guilt to enjoy it. I'm an extremely loyal and
dependable friend, and have never cheated on a boyfriend or tried
to steal a man away from another woman. And I never, ever say yes
when a friend asks me if she looks fat, particularly if in the
throes of a heartbreak she's been hitting the Häagen-Dazs
pretty hard, because girlfriends should stick together and not make
each other feel self-conscious about their weight. But the problem
with being a Good Girl is this—I'm terrible at conflict.
Absolutely hate it, am terrified of it, will do anything to avoid
it. When it comes to the fight-or-flight phenomenon, my fight is
nonexistent, as wimpy as Popeye pre-spinach. Luckily, I am a
world-class sprinter when it comes to running away from everything
having to do with anything that even remotely resembles
Which is why, as I sat in the wood-paneled bar of McCormick &
Schmick's on K Street nursing a glass of merlot, I was dreading the
arrival of my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Eric Leahy. After weeks of
dodging his phone calls, I was resolved to finally end the
relationship. And unlike every other breakup I had ever muddled
with my pathetic timidity, this time I had a plan: I would tell
Eric gently, but firmly, that it was over, and at all costs
preserve our dignity. I was a career woman, an attorney (a career
you might—as my friends do—find amusing for me to have
stumbled into, considering my above-mentioned aversion to
conflict), and there was no reason why I couldn't end this
relationship gracefully. No matter what, there would not be a messy
emotional scene, nor would I allow myself to be guilted into giving
it a second chance or entering into couples counseling. I had let
this relationship drag on for far too long, and just like with a
Band-Aid, it's better to rip it off all at once. Of course, as I
sat there, hunched up on a hard wooden chair that was putting my
butt to sleep, while dipping pieces of pita into a pot of lemony
hummus, I didn't feel cool or dignified; I felt sick to my
I'd come to the bar directly from the office, and I had that
end-of-the-workday feel—grimy and sweaty, my feet tired from
walking the five blocks to the bar from my office in my three-inch
stacked loafers, the waistband of my favorite black pantsuit
digging into my skin. It was August, and far too hot to be wearing
a suit, even one made out of lightweight wool crepe that was
supposed to be "seasonless," but which felt as heavy as a mink coat
in the city heat. I'd tried to perk up the otherwise dull,
buttoned-up look with a hot-pink shell which I had thought looked
great that morning, but as soon as I got to my office I dribbled
some iced mochacchino on it, leaving brown spots splattered all
over my top, and was forced to button my jacket up over the stain.
I hadn't sweltered in my office, which was kept year-round at just
above freezing, but as soon as I ventured back out into the damp
heat of Washington, D.C., in August, I began to melt. My foundation
dripped from my face, my mascara was smeared around my eyes, and my
wavy hair, normally beaten into submission with a vast battery of
anti-frizz products, had rebelled, and began wisping up into a
Brillo-pad mess. I didn't feel elegant and composed; I was sticky
and weary, and dreading what was sure to be an unavoidably messy
Eric arrived. I caught sight of his affable, smiling face as he
waved at me and headed toward the table I claimed, cutting through
the after-work crowd of yuppies gathered in the bar. He collapsed
in the empty chair I'd been fighting to keep for him, and kissed me
on the cheek.
"Ellie," he said. "You look beautiful." Considering how grubby I
both looked and felt, I knew he was lying. But as far as lies go,
it was a sweet one. And Eric was always saying things like
that—heaping compliments on me, telling me how wonderful he
thought I was. It was a very appealing trait in a man, one that had
kept me from breaking up with him before.
It wasn't that Eric was unattractive—he had glossy black
hair, ruddy cheeks, and bright blue eyes, and looked sort of like a
pudgy J.Crew model. And while he was a little chunky, and dressed
in stodgy three-piece suits and shirts with cufflinks (both of
which looked pretentious on a thirty-two-year-old man), he was
gentle and thoughtful. Not funny exactly—well, no, not funny
at all. He tried to crack jokes now and again, but they were always
the kind that had obvious punch lines, and he usually mangled the
telling of the joke so badly you couldn't even laugh at the sheer
silliness of it. But he was a good man. A kind man. Exactly the
kind of boyfriend the Good Girl aspires to, and nearly identical in
appearance and personality to my last four boyfriends. We even had
cutsie, matching names—Ellie and Eric, E & E.
But, just like my previous four boyfriends—Alec, Peter,
Winston, and Jeremy—Eric bored me to tears. All he wanted to
talk about was his job—something having to do with
international finance (although I still wasn't exactly sure what,
even though he'd explained it to me more times than I cared to
recount)—or whatever football/basketball/ baseball/cricket
game ESPN had broadcast the night before. I'm not one of those
women who pretend to like sports in order to snag a guy; in fact,
I'm pretty up-front about how I couldn't care less about grown men
cavorting around on fake grass in short pants with a ball tucked
under one arm. But despite explaining my lack of interest to Eric
pretty much every time he started a conversation with "You wouldn't
believe what happened in the game last night," he persisted in
boring me to tears with a play-by-play analysis. Spending dinner
with him was pleasant as long as I could coax him into talking
about something else, and the sex was tolerable, if not
predictable. But just the idea of something more permanent, of
lying beside him in bed every night and waking up to his face every
morning, made me feel like I was being buried alive.
And besides, Eric just didn't smell right. It wasn't that he had
b.o., or that funky ripe odor some men get when they're sweaty. He
was very clean and deodorized, but there was something about the
way he smelled when I wrapped my arms around him and breathed in
deeply that was just . . . off. And his cologne—Polo, just as
Winston and Alec had worn (Peter wore Drakkar Noir, and Jeremy, who
had spent a semester studying in Paris, wore
Hermès)—which he practically showered in, was
overpowering and artificial smelling. Surely the man I was meant to
spend my life with would smell sexy and good and safe, and not like
a cheesy club promoter.
"I'm so glad you called," Eric said, after ordering a
Why is everyone in my generation always ordering martinis? Is it a
desperate attempt to try to return the world to the days before the
Boomers came along and wrecked everything with their self-indulgent
Me Generation crap? As though a single cocktail can undo the
sixties, I thought, forgetting about the impending breakup just
long enough to get annoyed by Eric, who had a tendency to be
pompous, and then promptly feeling a flood of guilt when I
remembered what I was there to do.
"I've been wanting to talk to you about something," he said,
stirring his drink, and spearing the olive on a toothpick.
Oh, good, I thought, relieved. He's probably sick of the way I've
been acting—ducking his phone calls, avoiding sex, snapping
at him when he launches into one of his insufferably long diatribes
about the yen—and wants to dump me. It will make this so much
easier. He'll try to let me down easy, and I'll try to look a
little stricken, but say of course, I understand, I've been so
caught up at work (ha ha!) that I haven't devoted enough time to
the relationship. A dignified, understanding split, and I'd be
mercifully spared from having to do it myself.
"Oh?" I said, and smiled at him encouragingly. "I've been wanting
to talk to you, too."
"Okay. What about?"
"No, you go first."
"Well . . ." Eric said, and then ducked his head shyly, a nervous
smile playing on his thin lips. "I want you to move in with
What? Move in. With him. As in not breaking up. As in living
together. I thought I was going to be sick. No, no, no, this can't
be happening, I thought. This is the part where he's supposed to
say something like "I never meant to hurt you," or "We've been
growing apart for a long time."
Eric—obviously misreading my hesitation—said, "I don't
mean without other plans. We could get engaged first. Maybe over
Labor Day weekend we could take the train to Manhattan, go ring
shopping, maybe see The Lion King—" and then, seeing my
stricken face, "What is it? What's wrong?"
"It's just . . . um . . . is the air conditioner working in here?"
The bar had become so hot and stuffy I could barely breathe, much
less think clearly. Eric's words—"engagement," "plans," "move
in together"—were jumbling around my brain. A minute ago I
thought we were nicely on our way to a collegial breakup, and now
all of a sudden he wanted to live together forever, buy a house in
the suburbs and have babies and minivans. What was it with men,
anyway? Why is it that when the woman wants a commitment, they
panic and flee the jurisdiction, but grow a little distant and
suddenly they're out shopping for diamond solitaires and
monogrammed guest towels?
"What were you going to say?" he asked.
"God, it's hot in here. Do you think it's hot in here? I'm burning
up," I blathered, and chugged a glass of ice water.
"No, it feels fine to me. Are you okay?"
"Oh. Yes, yes. Just hot," I said gaily, shrugging off my jacket, no
longer caring about the stain on my top.
Eric had a strange look on his face. "What were you going to say?"
he asked again.
"I was going to say . . . well, I don't think we should move in
together," I said weakly.
Excerpted from PUSHING 30 © Copyright 2004 by Whitney
Gaskell. Reprinted with permission by Bantam Doubleday Dell, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.