But the critical truths – that we aren’t really in love, never have been, and its absence troubles me – don’t seem to come in little drops of awareness. They’re suddenly there, in stark black and white, shouting This Relationship Is So Very Over every time we smile politely as we shift around each other at the bathroom sink.
I’m sick over it. I’m desperate to find the best way out. Unfortunately, I worry that Sean’s chief reaction will be disappointment. I am as convenient a lover to him as he is to me; but in his case he may not need more: he has the love of his life already, in the form of a six-year-old daughter.
A good start seems to be to make sure I can afford to live on my own in the city. I take a rare vacation day and drive to El Cerrito to do something I’ve been putting off for months: meeting with my financial adviser. Daisy Milligan is Dad’s old finance whiz, and I kept her more out of sentimentality and laziness than any particular knowledge about her skill.
That said, though she’s approaching seventy, she barely needs to refer to my file while lecturing me on what I have in my trust (enough to cover home repairs and taxes, but not much more) and why I should sell one of my houses (I need a retirement account more than I need two properties). I don’t dare mention that I’m living in San Francisco and not even making rental income from the Berkeley house.
I hate talking about money. I hate even more seeing how badly I need to get organized financially. Afterward, I’m sort of high-strung and buzzy, and when Elliot texts asking how my day is going, and I tell him I’m on his side of the bay… meeting up seems like a pretty obvious choice.
He suggests Fatapple’s in Berkeley, having no idea how close that is to my house. So instead I suggest we meet at the top of the Berkeley hills, in Tilden Park, at the entrance to the Wildcat Creek Trail.
I get there before he does, and outside my car I pull my fleece higher on my neck to battle the wind. The fog rolls in over the hills, making it look like the gray horizon is sinking down into the valley, an inch at a time.
I love Tilden, and have so many memories of coming up here with Mom, riding the ponies, feeding the cows at the Little Farm. Dad and I would come nearly every weekend after Mom died to feed the ducks at the pond. We’d sit in silence, tossing torn-off pieces of bread into the water, and watch the ducks snatch them up, quacking at one another competitively.
The nostalgia of Tilden seems to mix with the nostalgia of Elliot and forms a potent brew in my blood, tearing through me. Even though he and I have never been here together, it feels like we have. It feels like he’s part of my nuclei, entwined with my DNA.
So seeing him emerge from the fog of the parking lot and move toward me with his long, loping stride and tight black jeans… it makes my anxiety just… evaporate.
In a pulse of Obvious Epiphany, I realize Sabrina was right: I haven’t been living without him. I’ve been merely surviving.
I want to share this life with him somehow. I just… have no idea how that looks.
He seems to read my mood as he lowers himself onto the bench beside me, sliding his arm along the back. “Hey, you. Everything okay?”
The impulse to hug him is nearly debilitating. “Yeah, just… long day.”
He laughs at this, reaching with his hand to wrap a gentle fist around my ponytail and tug. “And it’s only noon.”
“I met with Dad’s old financial adviser.”
With his other hand, he reaches up, scratching his eyebrow. “Yeah? How’d that go?”
“She wants me to sell one of the houses.”
Elliot falls silent, digesting this. “How does that feel to you?”
“Not great.” I look up at him. “But, I know she’s right. I don’t live in either of them. It’s just that I don’t want to get rid of either of them, either.”
“They both carry a lot of memories. Good and bad.”
Like that, he cuts right through everything. Even since the first time he asked about my mom, he’s gently relentless.
I pull a leg up and turn to face him. We’re so close, and even though we’re outside, in a public park, there’s no one around us and it feels so intimate. His eyes are more green than brown today; he’s a little stubbly, like he didn’t shave this morning. I slide my hand between my knees to keep from reaching out and cupping his jaw.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Elliot’s eyes dip briefly to my mouth and then back again. “Always.”
“Do you think I keep things bottled up?”
Straightening, he looks around, as if he needs a witness. “Is this a serious question?”
I push him playfully, and he feigns injury. “Sabrina suggested I have a habit of keeping people at arm’s length.”
“Well,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “you always talked to me, but I had the sense you didn’t really do that with anyone else. So maybe that’s still true?”
A car drives past, and its diesel engine chugs loudly around the parking loop, pulling our attention momentarily away from each other and out to the grass-lined lot. The faint noises of animal life trickle to us from the Little Farm, just up the gravel road.
When I don’t respond, he continues. “I mean, maybe I’m biased by our current circumstances, but I feel like maybe you don’t really… talk about stuff. And I might be pushing my luck here, but I get the feeling that Sean is that way, too.”
I choose to ignore that part, wanting to avoid the Sean conversation with Elliot entirely. I know now what I have to do, but I owe Sean enough to discuss it with him first. “I used to talk to Dad,” I say, sidestepping like a pro. “Not like I did with you, maybe, but about school. And Mom.”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about now,” he says. “You were always pretty insular, but do you have anyone? Other than Sabrina?”
“I have you.” After an awkward beat, I add, “I mean… now I do.” Another pause. “Again.”
His expression straightens and Elliot picks up a twig from the ground, resting his elbows on his knees and spinning the stick between his fingers and thumb. Fidgeting.
I know —
I know —
I know what’s coming.
“Macy?” He looks over his shoulder at me. “Do you love Sean?”
I knew it was coming, yeah, but the weight of his question still propels me up off the bench and two paces away.
“I’ve seen you in love,” he says gently, not standing. “It doesn’t look like you’re in love with him.”
I don’t answer, but he reads me anyway.
“I don’t get it,” he growls. “Why are you with him?”
I turn back around to catch his expression, brow furrowed, mouth tight with emotion. It takes a few breaths for me to put the words together in a way that doesn’t feel supremely melodramatic.
“Because,” I tell him, “we have the totally fucked-up agreement of emotionally messed-up people – that was unspoken, I guess, until recently – that we only give each other a fraction of ourselves. Losing him would never wreck me.” I shake my head and look down at my shoe, toeing the dirt. I feel my epiphany from earlier about a robust, shared life starting to fade as Elliot pokes at my self-preservation instincts. I hate that Sabrina was right. I hate that retreating to my cocoon is my first reflex. “I realize how cowardly that sounds, but I don’t think I could take losing someone I love again.”
“It hurt that much,” he says quietly, not really a question. “What I did. When are we going to talk?”
“I didn’t just lose you,” I remind him.
I stop, needing a second to breathe. The memories of the last time I saw Elliot used to make me physically sick. Now they just send a wavy lurch through my body.
I can see he’s processing this. He studies my face, turning the words around in his mind and looking at them from different angles, like he knows he’s missing something.
Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
“What’s his story?” he asks.
“You mean Sean’s?”
Elliot nods, picking up another twig. “He was married?”