The Best Kind of Pain

by Karen Gsteiger

Amal stared down her reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink, looking for physical flaws and finding them. An unruly dark hair between her two eyebrows, a nascent and painful pimple on her chin--Good God, that couldn't possibly be a faint wrinkle???--no, no. Just the lighting.

The dryer's cycle ended with a loud buzz at just the right moment before she started yanking and squeezing and picking and making everything worse. She passed her father, who was snoring with a wide-open mouth on the living room couch as she made her way to the basement. She pulled out her sweatshirt, which happily appeared to be unscathed from the evening before. Olivia had been just a little sick on the right sleeve in the parking lot the night before, which didn't bother Amal half as much as she thought it would have. Olivia seemed so miserable that Amal didn't have the heart to hold a grudge. Besides, she thought with a giggle, it was worth it just to see her half-kiss, half-lick Harrison--of all people! Engaging him in a sentimental public display of affection was rather like watching someone try to play a rousing game of fetch with a prize-winning Siamese cat.

Poor Olivia, she thought, shaking her head. Wasting her time pining for that creep. It was at times like these when Amal's overworked conscience was forced to remind her that she spent all her time pining after a creep as well--a creep who happened to be married to one of her best friends.

Sometimes Amal wondered whether she had changed very much from her adolescence. She surrounded herself with the trappings of adulthood--sensible button-down shirts to wear at work, martinis (real ones...not just various liqueurs served in a martini glass) with her friends on Friday nights, a Palm Pilot that she kept forgetting in all sorts of unlikely places...speaking of which, had she left it at the office over the weekend again? On the other hand, it was hard to feel like a confident and poised professional woman when she still lived with her parents at the age of 25 and just couldn't shake these terrible, draining crushes on unworthy white boys, whom her parents would hate anyway. They did not ask much of her in terms of tradition and religion, for which Amal was truly grateful, and she hated the thought of disappointing them or abusing their trust.

So, she reminded herself for the millionth time, it was all hopeless anyway. Still, she was reluctant to give up her passion. Although thoughts of Michael only brought her misery overall, there were moments of bliss and heart-pounding excitement--the times that she realized that she had an unread message from him in her inbox, for example, or the day when he happened to see her on the street during their lunch hours, grabbed her arm, and accompanied her to the nearest sandwich shop (which was a waste of a lunch hour as she was incapable of eating in front of him). They sat at a table outside; she nervously nibbled on a single potato chip, and he smoked a cigarette (after making her promise that she would not tell Tonia of his brief nicotine relapse). She told her usual work stories and made him laugh. Every now and then they made eye contact, and she felt an almost electric thrill that even her highly tuned sense of guilt could not diminish. They both almost forgot to go back to their respective offices. Amal wound up returning 15 minutes late that afternoon, but it was not out of fear of her supervisor that her hands were shaking. She worried that if there were no one in her life who could make her hands shake uncontrollably, life would be very dull and monotonous indeed. It would be a great weight off of her shoulders to think of him in a neutral, unaffected way, but it made her feel hollow and sad every time she had to kill all of her interesting feelings for a person.

The great unknown, of course, was whether Michael had any interesting feelings for her. Whenever they encountered each other, which was almost always in the presence of his wife, he was friendly but never overly enthusiastic. Their email correspondence largely consisted of those same funny/crude forwards that everyone passed on to everyone else multiple times. He didn't seem to suffer in the slightest from an inability to touch her or profess his love to her, which was a cause of great annoyance and frustration. Amal suspected that some people were able to turn off any troublesome thoughts running through their heads, and she never could. She could never abort a disastrous infatuation; she just had to let it run its course, which meant that she would end up publicly humiliating herself about 40 times before she was through. Michael seemed to be happy enough with Tonia, and Tonia seemed to be happy enough with him, and Amal sometimes thought that she was the only unhappy party in this absurd situation.

Because of course, she loved Tonia too, even though she didn't often consider Tonia's feelings while imagining herself in compromising positions and various states of undress with Michael. But daydreams were one thing, and Amal was very conscious of a more unforgiving reality. A single shared kiss, and not only would Amal lose Tonia, but all of her other friends too, except for perhaps some of her most amoral male acquaintances, none of whom she felt particularly close to. Her social circle sometimes drank to excess and indulged in the occasional one-night stand, but adultery and cheating were certainly frowned upon as well as a betrayal of one of their own.

Never mind the fact that Tonia could eat her alive.

And that is why Amal secretly loved that one Coldplay song so much--not because of the lead singer's high-pitched warbling or all that mush about stars being yellow, but because Amal believed that she truly knew what it felt like to bleed oneself dry.