Elliot curled up on the floor, pulling a fleece blanket onto his lap. “And you’re on spring break?”
I chewed my lip, nodding. “Yeah.”
He fell quiet, and then asked, “Are you bummed you won’t be with friends?”
“I am with a friend.” I looked at him, widening my eyes meaningfully.
“I mean your girlfriends,” he said, but I didn’t miss the way he blushed.
“Oh,” I said. “No, it’s okay. Nikki is going to Peru to visit family.”
Elliot didn’t say anything. He watched me choose a book and rearrange my own pillows before getting comfortable. Thinking of how I felt looking at a picture of him with his friends – and how much more I wanted to know about his life outside of this closet – I considered my next words, letting them tumble around in my head before speaking. “I stopped hanging out with most of my friends for a while when Mom got sick, so I could spend time with her.”
He nodded, and though his eyes stayed fixed on the notebook in front of him, I could tell his attention was solely on me.
I scanned the first page, turning to the chapter I’d just started. “And then when she was gone, I didn’t really feel like going to sleepovers and talking about boys. It’s kind of like they all grew up while I put myself back together. Nikki and I are still good, but I think it’s because she doesn’t really hang out outside of school, either. She has an enormous family she sees a lot.”
I could feel him watching me now, but I didn’t turn, knowing I’d never be able to finish if I did. The words seemed to bubble up in my chest, things I’d never talked about with anyone.
“Dad tried to get me to hang out more,” I continued. “He even arranged for me to go to this kids’ club thing down by his work?” I glanced quickly up at Elliot and then back down. “He said it was to socialize and make friends, but it wasn’t. It was a group for grieving children.”
“We all knew what we were doing there, though,” I told him. “I remember walking into this huge white room. The walls were covered in things I think were supposed to be teen-related: boy band posters, pink and purple graffiti on bulletin boards, fuzzy beanbags and baskets of magazines.” I picked at a stray thread on my jeans. “It was like someone’s mom had come in and put up all this random stuff they thought teenage girls should have in their room.
“I remember looking around that first day,” I continued, pulling my thick ponytail over my shoulder and fidgeting with the ends, “thinking how weird it was that we were all there to just hang out. After a few days I noticed that all the girls had almost the same haircut. Like seven girls, all around my age with these chin-length bobs. A few weeks later I found out that all those girls were like me, they had all lost their moms. Most of them just got these simple, easy haircuts.” I paused and began twisting the ends of my hair around my finger. “But my dad learned how to put my hair in ponytails, what kind of shampoo to buy, he even had someone teach him how to braid and use the curling iron for special occasions. He could have done what was easiest for him and just cut it all off. But he didn’t.”
For the first time I looked up to see Elliot watching me. His eyes were wide with understanding and he reached over and took one of my hands.
“Did I ever tell you that I have my mom’s hair?” I said.
He shook his head but gave me a real smile. “I think you have the prettiest hair I’ve ever seen.”
thursday, october 5
stand outside the entrance to Nopalito on Ninth, and without having to look too deeply inside, I know Elliot is already in there. I know this because it’s ten minutes past eight. We agreed to meet at eight, and Elliot never runs behind schedule. Something tells me that hasn’t changed.
Pushing inside, I spot him immediately. His napkin slides to the floor and his thighs awkwardly collide with the table in his rush to stand. I notice two things: one, he’s wearing a dress jacket, nice jeans, and a pair of black dress shoes that look newly polished. Two, he got a haircut.
It’s still longish on top, but cut very short at the sides. It makes him somehow a little less highbrow literary hipster and more… skater hot. It’s amazing that a look he would never have even attempted in adolescence is one he can absolutely rock at twenty-nine. That said, I’m sure he has only his stylist to thank. The boy I grew up with would give more thought to which type of pen he used to write a grocery list than what he looked like on any given day.
Fondness clutches me.
I make my way to him, trying to breathe through the hum of electricity surging in my bloodstream. Maybe it’s the benefit of having had time to get ready tonight – and that I’m not in my scrubs – but this time, I feel the way his eyes move from my hair to my shoes and back up.
He’s visibly shaken when I step closer and stretch to give him a quick hug. “Hi.”
Swallowing, he lets out a strangled “Hi” and then pulls my chair out for me. “Your hair is… you look… beautiful.”
“Thanks. Happy birthday, Elliot.”
Friends. Not a date, I repeat, like a prayer. I’m just here to make up for breakfast, and to clear the air.
I attempt to brand it into my brain and my heart.
“Thank you.” Elliot clears his throat, smiling without teeth, eyes tight. And really: where to start?
The waiter pours water into my glass and slides my napkin onto my lap for me. The entire time, Elliot is staring down at me as if I’ve come back from the grave. Is that what it feels like for him? At what point would he have given up on getting in touch with me, or would the answer be never?
“How was work today?” he asks, starting somewhere safe.
“It was busy.”
He nods, sipping his water and then putting it down, letting his fingers trace drops of condensation as they flow from the lip to the base. “You’re in pediatrics.”
“And did you know as soon as you started med school that you wanted to work in that?”
I shrug. “Pretty much.”
An exasperated smile quirks his mouth. “Give a little, Mace.”
This makes me laugh. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be weird.” After a deep inhale and long, shaking exhale, I admit, “I guess I’m nervous.”
Not that it’s a date.
I mean, of course it isn’t. I told Sean I was meeting an old friend for dinner tonight, and promised myself I would give him the whole story when I got home – which I still intend to do. But he was preoccupied with setting up his new TV and didn’t really seem to notice when I stepped out, anyway.
“I’m nervous, too,” Elliot says.
“It’s been a long time.”
“It has,” he says, “but I’m glad you called. Or texted, rather.”
“You replied so quickly,” I say, thinking of his old flip-phone again. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”
He beams with mock pride. “I have an iPhone now.”
“Let me guess: Nick Jr.’s hand-me-down?”
Elliot scowls. “As if.” He takes another sip of water and adds, “I mean, Andreas updates his phone way more often.”
Our laughter dies down but the eye contact remains. “Well, in case you were wondering,” I say, “the score is even at one–one. Liz gave me your number. Though I probably should have remembered it. It’s the same one you always had.”
He nods and my eyes flicker down reflexively when he lick-bites his bottom lip. “Liz is great.”
“I can tell,” I say. “I like her.” Clearing my throat, I add quietly, “Speaking of… sorry about how I left at breakfast.”
“I get it,” he answers quickly. “It’s a lot to process.”
It’s almost laughable; an ocean of information separates us, and there are an infinite number of places to begin. Start at the beginning and work forward. Start now, and work backward. Jump in somewhere in the middle.
“I honestly don’t even know where to begin,” I admit.