Even given how the evening started, dinner is fine, mostly.
And as soon as I have the thought—in the car, as Josh drives me home—I turn to him and say it: “Dinner was mostly fine. Mostly.”
If he gets the Aliens joke, I can’t tell. He stares straight forward and gives me a tiny half smile aimed at the windshield.
I sigh, and poke my finger into the dimple in his right cheek. “Do we need to talk about it?”
He swallows, tightening his hands on the steering wheel. “Talk about what?”
I nod, dropping my hand and saying a quiet “Okay” out the passenger-side window. I can play that game, too. Sex? What sex?
“You mean about us having sex?” he says. “Or the fact that you told my sister and brother-in-law, aka your best friend and your boss?”
Ugh. Stomach flip-flops. Angst. I peek at him again. “It just came out, I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t actually care that they know.”
“I just blurted it. I’m broken.”
“They’d probably see it on our faces anyway,” he reassures me. And although we talked about it over the phone, it’s so good to talk about it here, too. Face-to-face. Nothing between us. Hazel and Josh.
“Sometimes your lack of filter kills me,” he says. “It’s not even like you lack a filter; you lack a funnel.”
“But seriously.” I turn in my seat to face him, pulling my leg under me. “I understand what it was, and there’s no reason it has to change anything. In some ways, it makes sense. You’re my best friend, and attractive. Of course I drunkenly mauled you.”
His smile slips a little. “Is that how you remember it?”
“I mean, you participated,” I concede, “but I practically begged you to show me your goods.”
This makes him laugh and I can tell he fought it for a few seconds. “Because I saw you peeing. You’re unreal.”
I sink down into my seat. “I’ll never get over that.”
“You vomited hot dog on television,” he says, sparing me a tiny glance at a red light, “but me seeing you pee is the mortification that’s going to stick with you forever?”
“I’m also still mortified about the hot dog thing.” I shudder at the visceral memory that winds through me. “I’m thrilled you remember that.”
He reaches over, taking my hand. “We’re good, Haze. I promise.”
With a little squeeze, he lets go, and my hand feels oddly cold.
Mom reaches down, not even trying to be subtle when she fishes a tiny brown cookie out of her apron pocket and hands it to Winnie. Lord, the woman doesn’t even have a dog of her own and she’s stashing dog treats in her gardening apron. “Okay, kid.” She rests her hands on her hips. “Out with it.”
I stand up, brushing dirt off my butt and adjusting my gloves. “Out with what?”
Her eyes narrow and she cups my chin, leaving a smudge of dirt there as she tilts my face to the sun. “You’re off today.”
I hold my breath, feeling my face begin to heat in her hand. Her eyes relax, expression softening. “Out with it, honey.”
“The other night, Josh and I …” I shrug.
She bites her lips before saying, “I knew it.”
“Oh, come on. You did not know it. I didn’t even know it.”
“I think that’s a myth.”
She cackles like I’m a moron. “Was it at least fun?”
“I think so? It was mostly drunk, but what I remember was pretty great, yeah.”
Mom hums, and pulls a small weed up where she sees it by her shoe.
I groan. I thought telling her would make me feel better, but I still feel all twisty inside. “And things are already different. We decided they wouldn’t be, but—”
“You ‘decided’? Oh, kids.” She laughs as she picks up the small spade and a pack of cabbage starts, and tilts her chin for me to follow her to the next flower bed. “Honey, that’s not something you can decide. Sex changes things.”
We squat by the freshly turned dirt, and I ease a cluster of roots from the package, handing it to her once she’s dug a small hole. “But I don’t want things to change,” I say.
Mom rests a dirty hand on her knee where she’s squatted and turns to look at me. “Really? You want it to be like this between you and Josh forever? Setting each other up on bad dates? Coming home to just Winnie?”
“And Vodka, Janis, and Daniel Craig.”
She ignores my humor defense mechanism and digs another hole, holding out her hand for another cube of dirt and airy roots.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” I add quietly, handing it over.
“Josh has always been this person who I admired. I mean, he’s beautiful, we all know that. But he also has that impossible kind of smart, and poise, and is emotionally-controlled. I’ve never been able to manage that type of calm, but he comes by it so naturally.” I stab the ground with the point of a small shovel. “And as a friend? He’s just … lovely. Loyal, and aware, and kind, and thoughtful. I sort of worship him.” Mom laughs, and I hand her another clump of roots. “I know I’m like Pig-Pen in Charlie Brown, and I have chaos around me, but it’s like he doesn’t even care. He doesn’t need me to change or pretend to be someone else. He’s my person. He’s my best friend.”
Mom straightens, surveying her work. “I don’t know, honey, that seems sort of wonderful to me.”
A dark streak of anxiety spirals through me. “It is. It was. But then we had sex. The thing is, I know on some instinctive level that I’m not right for Josh. I’m messy and silly and flighty. I forget to pay bills and sing made-up songs to my dog in public before realizing what I’m doing. I spent an entire summer arguing with the city council about not being able to have chickens in my apartment, and remember that time I bought all those balloons because they were a nickel each and then I couldn’t even fit into my car? I know without a doubt that that isn’t the kind of woman he needs.”
A little bit of fire flickers through her eyes. “How can you say that?”
I shrug. “I know him. He loves me as a friend. Maybe like a sister.”
“He had sex with you,” Mom reminds me, and I feel the memory like a pulse in my chest. “In most places, that’s not a sisterly thing. Hazel, honey, are you in love with him?”
Her question slams into me and I have no idea why. We’ve been headed there this entire conversation. I press my hands to my stomach, taking stock of what’s there and trying to translate the ache into words. “I’m not, you know, because I think there’s a fail-safe somewhere inside here. I don’t think I’d come back from that.”
Mom nods, her eyes softening. “Is it strange that I’ve never had one of those? I’ve never really had a love that could consume me. I want to know that kind of fire.”
“I’m not even sure I want that. If I set my heart on someone and they move on, I think it would wreck me.”
Mom reaches up, running a muddy thumb along my jaw. “I get it, honey. I just want you to have the world. And if your world is Josh, then I want you to be brave and go after it.”
“Because you’re my mama.”
She nods. “Someday you’ll understand.”
As usual, it takes Emily a solid ten minutes of silent menu perusal before she decides what she wants. We’ve been eating at this restaurant for years. I always get the same thing, so I spend her menu inspection time sorting the sugars, straightening the salt and pepper, staring out the window trying not to think about Hazel.
Hazel beneath me, the warmth of her hands moving down my back, the bite of her nails. Her teeth on my shoulder and the sharp cry she made the second time she came.
The second time. When she came, and came, and came.
I’m definitely not thinking about the quiet way she mumbled she loved me when I carefully lowered her semiconscious naked body onto her bed.