“Yeah. She was in finance, and got addicted to cocaine on a work trip.”
His head shoots up, eyes shocked. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. Terrible, right?” I look past him, out into the parking lot. “So, I think part of it for him is that he has his daughter, and he never really got to get over Ashley. It’s been… really easy for both of us to just fall into something permanent without really needing each other.”
Elliot leans forward. “Macy.”
“Are you staying because of Phoebe?”
I stare at him, genuinely confused. “What?”
“No, I heard the name. I just don’t understand how – Oh.” I get what he’s saying. “No.”
“I mean, she’s this sweet little girl without a mom…” He says it like it’s obvious why I’d stick around, and okay, from the outside I can see why he’d think that. But he doesn’t know them.
“She doesn’t need me,” I reassure him. “She’s got an awesome, involved dad. I’m this…” I wave my hand around, unsure. “This accessory. I mean, let’s be real: I don’t really know how to… ‘mom’ anyway, so she doesn’t seem to need anything from me.”
He grunts a little, looking down at the twig he’s slowly and methodically shredding. “Okay.”
I glare. “What does ‘okay’ mean?”
“It means okay.”
“You can’t think that long before giving me an ‘okay.’ That’s a condescending ‘okay.’”
He laughs, and tosses the stick to the ground before looking up at me. “Okay.”
A challenge. He wants to engage me, I can tell.
“Goddammit.” I turn and stare up at the education center and the gray clouds rolling in behind it.
“She might need a mom when she gets her period,” he says quietly. “Or when her friends are jerks.”
“Maybe she’ll have a friend in a closet who listens to her instead,” I counter, and then turn to look up at him, suspicious. “Why does it feel like you’re trying to talk me into staying with Sean? Are you reverse-psychologizing me?”
Grinning, he relents. “Come on, let’s talk about something else. Favorite word?”
Heat ripples across my skin. I’m so unprepared for this that my mind stalls and suddenly, there are no words, anywhere. “I’d need to think… What about you?”
His laugh comes as a low rumble. “Mellifluous.”
I scrunch my nose. “That’s a mouthful.”
“It most certainly is, ma’am,” he growls, with a meaningful lean to his words.
He gets a pebble tossed at him for that.
“Your voice is mellifluous,” he murmurs, pushing off the bench to stand and move toward me. “And come on. Your turn. You don’t get to think too hard on this, cheater. You know the rules.”
I watch his lips part as he looks at my mouth. Watch his tongue dart out.
There’s no other word like it: The state of being infatuated with another person.
Elliot’s eyes shoot up to mine, pupils dilating like a drop of ink in a pond. “You’re terrible.”
“I’m not trying to be.”
He nods to the trail marker, beckoning me to follow. We hike down the path, and it reminds me of walking with him through Armstrong Woods, or along the dry creek bed in summer. It’s so weird how it feels like another lifetime, and also like it was two weeks ago. Slowly, our steps converge into the crunch… crunch… crunch of feet on gravel moving in tandem. He’s shortened his strides to match mine.
“Are you happy?” I ask him.
The question is so abrupt, I expect him to balk a little, but he doesn’t. “I’ve had moments of it, yeah.”
I don’t like this answer. I want him to be joyful, loved, adored, full of everything, all the time.
“I’ll admit,” he adds, “I feel more of it being near you.”
It’s heady, knowing I have the power to deliver that.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
“I haven’t been,” I tell him, and feel him turn to look at the side of my face. “And being near you again has made me realize it.” We stop on a tiny, slippery bridge in the middle of the woods, looking at each other. “You make me feel so many things,” I admit in a hush.
He reaches up, gently pulling my ponytail through his fist. “Me too. That was always true.” Shifting his hand to smooth a palm over the front of my hair, he murmurs, “I wasn’t trying to talk you into staying with Sean, by the way. I just think you’re being too hard on yourself.”
My eyes narrow in skepticism. “Me?”
Nodding, he says, “I think you’re beating yourself up for being with Sean. It’s why I asked about Phoebe and…”
“Yeah. Ashley.” He uses the tip of his index finger to push his glasses up, and stares out at the thick trees in front of us. “You act like you’re with him only because it’s easy. But in some ways, he’s your dad in this scenario, and you’re the woman who came after your mom. Sean doesn’t have as much to give, but you understand why. After all, you wouldn’t want to try to replace anyone.”
I stare up at him in shock. In only a few sentences, Elliot has just explained why it makes sense for me to be with Sean, while simultaneously proving that he – Elliot – is the only person who truly understands a thing about me. I didn’t even see this truth until now.
“Why are you so good to me? After everything?”
Elliot tilts his head as he looks back at me. Of course he doesn’t see it skewed this way. He only knows his betrayal, not mine. “Because I love you?”
Emotion clogs my throat, and I have to swallow a few times to get the words out. “I don’t think I really noticed before how numb I’ve been. Or cared, maybe.”
I see the way this hits him, physically. “Mace…”
I laugh darkly at this, at how fucking horrible it sounds. “That’s awful, isn’t it?”
He steps forward abruptly, pulling me into his chest. One hand cups the back of my head, the other wraps around my shoulders, and it feels like I haven’t really cried in ten years.
saturday, june 3
eleven years ago
ad and I packed up our lives for a summer to be spent in Healdsburg. Nervous clawing took up residence in my stomach. Everything felt different this summer: We’d finished junior year and were on the cusp of being seniors. School seemed more interesting, friends seemed less dramatic. And although Elliot and I hadn’t gone to my spring formal together – I hadn’t gone at all, actually – summer always felt like when things between the two of us shifted monumentally.
I was seventeen. Elliot was nearly eighteen. Last summer, we had kissed. We’d admitted to feelings. And ever since, he’d looked at me differently, more like something to be devoured than something to be protected. As much as I tried to think we could stay the kind of friends we’d always been, I knew I also wanted more. He was already one of the two most important people in my life. Instead of worrying about losing him, I had to focus on how to keep him.
I was draped on the pillows in the corner when he stepped into the room the Saturday after our arrival.
“Hey, you,” he said.
At the sound of his voice, I jumped up and ran to him, flinging my arms around his neck. It was a different sort of hug; instead of creating the careful triangle-embrace we’d always managed – shoulders touching, nothing else – I pressed my front all along his, from my chest to my stomach to my hips. Of course I knew he was the same Elliot from only a few weeks ago, the last time we’d been to the house, but after all my nervous obsessing over what the summer might be like, I suddenly didn’t feel like the same Macy.
He froze for a moment and then reacted with this tiny, perfect grunt of relief. Bending, he wrapped his arms around me and exhaled a quiet “Hey” against the top of my head.