A New Confession
Please note: This story takes place directly after the events on page 88, chapter 5 of Rites of Spring (Break), and includes spoilers through chapter 6 of that novel. Basically, if you aren’t familiar with the Brandon plotline of this book, you probably won’t understand this story.
My father, a tycoon of industry, lives by the following rule:
Know your enemy as you know yourself.
My mother, who married my father only days after he ended his engagement to her best friend, is also a devotee of The Art of War. Her favorite rule, however, has come in handy far more often:
All warfare is based on deception.
In high school, I watched my friends’ first romantic dramas, the lunchroom whispers of that hackneyed axiom, “All’s fair in love and war.”
I was baffled that my friends were only just discovering this now. Even more baffled to learn that they didn’t realize that love was war. It was self-evident to me.
My junior year in college, I was tapped into a secret society that, unsurprisingly, named me Sun Tzu. I called my parents to brag about that the morning after my initiation. When school ended, I left to spend the summer in Hong Kong.
And I fell in love, and my entire military strategist training went out the window.
Who needs strategy, I thought, when you have endless perfect days of being by your lover’s side, when you have yacht trips and sun-drenched afternoons in the South Pacific, when you finally, finally have a boyfriend who thinks games are for children and love doesn’t need battle formations or defensive tactics? Brandon had been defeated in the past, but he still refused to treat me as an opponent. He gave me the keys to the city of his heart without reservation, and also without surrender. I didn’t conquer him; I lived side-by-side with him in a mutually profitable peace.
It wasn’t until we returned to Eli that I realized how false our treaty was.
Amy Haskel had infiltrated our peace, set land mines in our conversations, and corrupted our relationship at the most fundamental levels. In Hong Kong, we could go out to a restaurant or spend a weekend in bed without the presence of Brandon’s ex. But here on campus, her ghost was everywhere, hovering over us like a spy satellite. If we went out for Thai food, I could see Brandon recalculating his order because he was used to complementing her meal —splitting spring rolls did not appeal to me as much as it did to the late, great Amy Haskel. If we spent the night in his room, I found myself wondering if he ever washed his comforter.
It was gross. It was disappointing. And more than any of these things, it was completely unexplainable. After all, I made a much better ally than Amy. She’d hurt him, used him, cheated on him. I’d healed him, loved him, entertained him, praised him. So why did Amy get most-favored-nation status? I was the girlfriend. I sat in my political science classes and pondered the problem when I should have been taking notes on the Vietnam War. I sat in my French classes and studied the etymology. Felicity meant happiness, but Amy meant loved.
That couldn’t be correct.
For the first few months of the term, I was paralyzed, completely frozen in the face of this surprise attack. I’d been lulled into such a false sense of security that I’d forgotten the basic rules. And twice a week, when I was called by the name of Sun Tzu and praised by my fellow society members as their favorite strategist, I still failed to remember the truth:
- Love is war.
- War is deception.
- Know your enemy as you know yourself.
I’d given Brandon’s disarmament strategy a chance, and had wound up ceding territory. The time for peace had passed.
I will not apologize for my actions. And though I regret the fallout, as anyone regrets the ravages of war, I am aware of its necessity. Love is war; war is deception; and Brandon brought this on himself.
Of course, there are setbacks in every campaign. The fight at Valentine’s Day was just such a setback. Or so I thought. Until my own operatives informed me of Brandon’s perfidy. That, I admit, I hadn’t expected. After all, Brandon had once been on the receiving end of a cheater. My action had to be immediate and decisive.
And if it looked like a white flag of surrender to the untrained eye, well, that only means I’m craftier than they thought. In point of fact, my coffee shop meeting with Brandon the day after his little snowed-in sleepover with The Enemy was nothing more than a reconnaissance mission. I needed to know what he felt, what he’d done, and how far the whole situation had gone. Were we dealing with scorched earth here, or just another land mine in a battlefield already littered with Amy-shaped holes?
For the relatively minor concession of an apology for screaming at him at the dance, I learned the following information: he didn’t sleep with her.
All was not yet lost.
But the question remained, how best to proceed with my campaign? The end goal remained: defeat The Enemy Amy, regain control of Brandon. But as I plotted my strategy, it turned a little hazy. The society didn’t help. Was I their brilliant Sun Tzu, or was I Brandon’s desperate girlfriend? Did I want to win Brandon, or did I want to win?
I retreated for a while, regrouped, and asked myself these questions.
It was a dangerous maneuver, and I knew it. I was giving Brandon an opportunity to slip even further out of my grasp, giving The Enemy some breathing room to launch a new attack on our shared objective. And yet, I had to know before I could proceed. If I didn’t know what I want, how would I know when I’d achieved my goals?
My mother knew. She wanted my father.
My father knew. He wanted to be in charge of a successful company.
Alone in my bedroom, I curled up on my comforter. I dimmed the lights. I sipped tea and listened to soft music. This was as close as I ever got to meditation, as close—despite years of trying—as I figured I could get. Around me were the mementos of my months spent with Brandon. Some volcanic glass we’d picked off the shores of Natadola Beach in Fiji, a picture of the two of us on my uncle’s yacht, the scarf he’d purchased from a street vendor in Victoria Harbor, dried flowers from the bouquet he’d sent me after the first night we spent together.
The presents had grown somewhat sparse since we’d returned to campus. My glittery bangle belt and his bowler cap from our Halloween costumes. A snapshot of the two of us (and about five of his college friends) at The Game. Brandon’s Christmas gift to me had been a cashmere sweater. I was wearing it now, but it chafed at the elbows and neckline, as if my skin knew that his heart hadn’t been in it when he’d picked it out. I pulled it off and leaned back against the pillow in only my bra, realization flooding my body along with the chilly February air.
Was I a summer fling? Were all those words of affection and respect and entreaties not to play games and to make love, not war… were they Brandon’s own form of deception? Had he ever loved me, or had he loved his rebound girlfriend only for what she gave him and not for who she—who I—was?
I followed that line of thought for a little while. It was painful, but then again, that was the nature of war. And my conclusion was: it didn’t matter. I loved Brandon. I wanted Brandon. So my goal must be to get Brandon.
My problem was I’d been approaching the situation as if I was on equal footing with the enemy. In my misguided strategy, viewed through a haze of love, we were both his equal lovers, his equal girlfriends, fighting from equal positions of power. In fact, I had even counted my foothold the stronger one, as I was the current girlfriend. Now, however, I understood the truth. He didn’t love me; never had.
But that was his own failing.
Brandon was not a fool, despite what his current behavior might lead some to believe. Like me, he was operating under his own haze of love, a haze which obscured the simple and objective truth that I was a far, far better choice for him than Amy was or ever would be. Leaving aside the obvious parameters of wealth and beauty—the former of which holds little pull with someone like Brandon, the latter of which is in the eye of the beholder—I had given him loyalty, commitment, security. I had loved him where Amy had not.
Now, Brandon might, like so many men, have an irrational lust for the chase. Perhaps Amy appealed to him precisely because she remained so unattainable. If so, the correct strategy would to become even more unattainable. The method had worked with my father when my mother tried it. But I did not think this was the correct tactic with Brandon. After all, he’d had Amy once, and given her up when she was at her most unattainable—when she had chosen her precious little secret society over him.
No, love of the chase was not what drove my boyfriend’s passions. But perhaps I’d never know. After all, I’d been wrong about him up until now.
I was still pondering this when my cell phone buzzed with a text message from the boy in question.
NEED TO TALK NOW.
My heart leapt. He needed me. Me!
Sun Tzu, I believe, would be ashamed of this reaction, so I tamped it down as best I could and texted back:
SURE. YOUR PLACE OR MINE?
There. That was better. Naturally, it would be ideal to meet here, where I had home field advantage. Additionally, Brandon would never summon me anywhere. If he needed to talk, he’d come to me, and we both knew it. But posing the question cost me nothing, and made me look generous for offering.
By the time he arrived, I’d girded for battle. My best underwear as a base layer, and everything else in pristine white. I was the innocent party, the wronged party, and every stitch on my body should scream it.
Brandon didn’t feel that way. Nor was he affected by the perfume I’d wafted near the threshold to remind his subconscious how he once craved my scent. He was already fuming when I answered the door.
“What have you been doing to Amy?”
“What?” I asked, making sure my face registered only puzzlement.
“Don’t play the fool, Lis,” he snapped. “You and your Dragon’s Head buddies. What have you been doing to Amy?”
Oh. That. “It’s really none of your concern.”
“My current girlfriend torturing my ex-girlfriend?” he asked. “I think I’ll decide what is and what is not my concern.”
“Torturing?” I spluttered. “I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but…”
“She told me enough,” he replied. “And I was there for some of it. I’m sure you remember the sodas.”
“Brandon, I assure you—” but the words caught in my throat. What? I couldn’t assure him of anything. It was war. I’d used every means at my disposal. My society. My boyfriend. Amy Haskel was going down, for whatever reason I could find.
I retreated into the room as Brandon advanced, his face darker and more closed than I’d ever seen it. I almost raised my hands in supplication, but caught myself just in time. I may be wearing a white sweater, but I wasn’t about to start waving it around.
“Don’t you see that it’s this jealousy of yours that is tearing us apart?” Brandon said. “You say I can’t get over her. Well, maybe it would help if you stopped telling me I wasn’t.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “You are placing the blame on me for how you spent the night in your ex-girlfriend’s room last week? That’s really your opening shot?”
He hesitated for a moment, but it was long enough.
“And you are conflating the issue. You come in here all riled up because of some society business. That it happens to contain some of the same parties…” I paused. “Wait a second. Did you tell Amy I was in Dragon’s Head?”
“No,” said Brandon. “Do you think I should? Make it even?”
I straightened. “Only if I’ve used Dragon’s Head to hurt you more than anyone has ever hurt you before. At least, that was the story you told me last summer.” I sat down on the couch. “Amy joined Rose & Grave, then promptly forgot about you. Isn’t that right?”
“And now you use my confidences to feed your own jealousy.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “Actually,” I said, “I did no such thing. Yes, I knew Amy was a Digger. You saw to that. But she’s also a very clumsy Digger. And I played by the rules. When she broke into our tomb and stole our belongings, we caught her on camera. A mild acquaintance could have identified her after that. I merely suggested it to my friends, and followed up that suggestion with a little encouragement.” I picked some fluff from my sweater. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it had very little to do with whatever issues we have in our relationship. It wasn’t jealousy. More like…feud.”
“Disappointed?” came Brandon’s voice, low, sardonic. “No, I’m flattered! Imagine being feuded over. I feel like Helen of Troy. Only next time you should inform the other party why you’re really attacking.”
“I was really attacking due to the trespassing and the theft,” I replied smoothly. “Much as my fellow society members may love me, they aren’t my own personal goon squad.” I rose from the couch and crossed over to him. “But I truly cannot believe you are going on the offensive here. After everything you’ve done to me!”
“After everything you did to her!”
I let that lie for a moment, long enough for him to realize how silly it sounded. I had answered for Dragon’s Head’s activities, revealed far more than I should of our campaigns. Look at me, Brandon, open and honest where Amy wouldn’t even tell you she was in Rose & Grave!
When his expression softened, I moved in again. “You just… ran back to her, B. Like we’d been nothing. Like I was just an obstacle. An interlude.”
“That’s not how it was.”
“I don’t know if I could bear knowing how it was.” I paused until I gained control of the catch in my voice. In some cases, crying could be a weapon, but there were drawbacks. Once employed, it limited your options. You could no longer be superior or seductive, and I was generally more skilled at those. “But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. I don’t care what happened. I just want to get back to us, back to this—” I leaned in.
He pulled away. Far away. In fact, he whirled and paced toward the door as if he’d fling it open and stalk out. Okay. Seduction was clearly the wrong move. Perhaps I should have stuck with crying. It felt more natural at this moment, anyhow. If Brandon walked out that door, I’d start and maybe never stop.
But there, with his hand on the doorknob, he paused. “You used me,” he said. “All month. You used me to find out she was in Rose & Grave. You used me to find out her schedule—”
“And you know her schedule!” I exclaimed. “You don’t think that’s weird?”
“She’s a friend.”
“I don’t know my own roommate’s class schedule, B,” I said. And what of the way he’d used me, all summer long? All last semester? What of the way he’d used me to mend his broken heart, lying and whispering words of love when all along I was nothing but a Band-Aid?
“You can’t convince me that none of this was motivated by our history.” Brandon wasn’t yelling. He hardly ever yelled, but then again, he didn’t need to. Instead, something fundamental changed in his tone to signify fury. It was there now.
The thing was I wasn’t entirely sure if it was me he was mad at. As I said before, Brandon was no fool. That I had fooled him about Amy had to be grating. That both he and she deserved it had to be even more grating. And that, once again, his relationships were getting mixed up in the world of secret societies, a world he neither cared for nor understood—that had to be the most grating of all.
In that moment, my strategy spread out beneath me like a vista, like a vast plain of battle where each move of my forces shone perfectly clear. I knew how to proceed. It was a triumph that many, even those who called me Sun Tzu, would view as surrender. But, though they were my allies, they did not know the true nature of this war. It was a war for Brandon.
A war I was going to win.
I swallowed heavily. “I won’t deny that the fact it was her was a bit of a perk. There. Happy? But otherwise, no, I had nothing to do with it. I’m not a crazy jealous stalker. I knew what you were up to because we’ve all been watching her.”
He was listening now.
“And it breaks my heart. I can’t bear it. I can’t.” And now I let the tears come, the ones I’d been holding back since I discovered the awful truth. They clustered around my words and left me breathless. Brandon watched me, his expression becoming less guarded with each second. He may not love me, but he wasn’t heartless either. He cared. And perhaps, until this moment, he never realized how much I cared back. He’d cast Amy as victim and me as tormentor. Au contraire, Brandon. It’s you who have been tormenting me all along.
I took a deep breath, as if steeling myself. “What’s it going to take, B?”
Silence. He’d never been presented with an option like that. He’d always been the one begging for a relationship…from her. So much the better.
I launched my missile. “I’ll make them stop.”
“I’ll make them leave her alone.”
An even longer silence. And then he said, very softly, “You’d do that?”
“Yes.” My voice overflowed with relief, with peace, with everything he ever wanted to hear a girl say. “Of course I would, if you wanted me to. I care about you—about what you think of me—way more than any of them.”
He’d see now. I know he would.
“You’re what’s important to me, Brandon. I love you.”
And then, when I’d won this war, we’d just see about Amy Haskel.