His brows lifted skyward in understanding. “Oh.”
“And also…” I glanced back down again, finding it easier to say these things to my lap. “This is sort of our little bubble.” I gestured vaguely around the room. “And when I met Emma, it changed that for me. Before, she was just a name, and I could pretend that you didn’t have more time with her every week than you had with me.”
“But I don’t, Mace —”
“I’m just using that example,” I explained, looking back up. “I wasn’t sure that you would really want to have a face to put with these names I’m spending time with.”
Some clarity washed over him. “Oh. I think I get it.”
I think he did.
“There’s a guy who likes you.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“There’s a few guys. And they were at the dance. And you and I are a weird noncouple, and you weren’t sure how to…” He let the words trail off before saying, “You didn’t want me to end up feeling like the outsider.”
I pulled my legs under me on the futon. “Yeah. I just think it could have been weird. You’re not my outside, you’re my every side. But in the moment, you might not have seen it that way, or believed me.” I looked up at him, hastily adding, “Just… speaking from my experience with the Emma thing.”
“Okay,” he murmured.
“I want you in my whole life,” I said carefully, stepping a toe out into the vast landscape of More. “I think all the time about how my real fear isn’t other girls, it’s losing you. I’m terrified of what it would feel like if you weren’t in my life anymore.”
His eyes grew tight, his voice reverent: “That won’t ever happen.”
“And if we started… and it somehow went wrong…” I had to swallow a few times after saying this, tamping down the storm that happened inside me at the prospect of this. “Anyway. I don’t think the dance was the first place to do that. To bring this life into that one. It would have been too much off the bat.”
“I get that.” He stood, walking over to the futon and sitting down next to me. “I told you already, Mace. I want to be your boyfriend.”
Reaching out, he coaxed me to him, until I was leaning against him, and finally laying my head in his lap. He picked his book back up, and I had mine, and I listened to the even rhythm of his breathing.
“You know,” I said, staring up at the ceiling, while he had one hand slowly dragging again and again through my hair, “these books were sort of the perfect gift.”
“Number forty-seven on Mom’s list is to tell me not to have sex until I can talk about sex.”
Beneath me, Elliot went very still. “Yeah?”
“I just think that’s good advice, I guess. Like, if you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
A tiny, nervous laugh burst out of him. “Do you want to talk about sex today?”
Giggling, I gently punched him in the thigh, and he feigned pain.
I wanted him to be my boyfriend, too. But I knew even then that I needed baby steps. I wanted the slow transition. I didn’t want to lose a single precious bit of him.
wednesday, november 8
ean is on the couch waiting for me when I come home after midnight. Other than my hike with Elliot, I had a crap day. Knowing what I had to do but avoiding it anyway, I went into work around three in the afternoon – a terrible decision. I ended up delivering two terminal prognoses and halting chemo on a third because the little girl couldn’t tolerate another dose (even though her cancer could). I’m in a mental place where I know I’m doing Good but it just doesn’t feel like it, and seeing Sean on the couch intensifies the self-flagellation.
“Hey, babe.” He pats the cushion next to where he sits.
I shuffle over, falling down beside him. Not really onto him, or in any sort of snuggly position. For one, I’m in scrubs and want to shower. And two, it just feels weird to lean into him. There’s this invisible force field there, repelling me.
As if reading my mind, Sean says, “We probably need to talk.”
“Yeah, probably do.”
He takes my left hand in both of his, massaging my palm with his thumbs. The touch is distracting because it’s wonderful and reminds me of all the other wonderfully distracting things Sean can do with the rest of his body.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not happy,” he says.
I turn and look at him. It takes a few seconds for his face to come into focus because he’s so close, and I’m so tired, but when it does I can see how much this is actually wearing on him. Just because he didn’t talk about it didn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about it.
Sean and I are exactly alike.
“Are you?” I ask.
Shrugging with one shoulder, he admits, “Not really.”
“Can I ask you something?”
His smile is genuine. “Of course, babe.”
His answer won’t change how I feel, but I have to know. “Do you love me?”
The smile straightens, and he searches my expression for a few breaths. “What?”
“Do you love me?” I ask again. “Seriously.”
I can tell he is taking it seriously. And I can tell that he’s not so much surprised that I asked as he is surprised at his own instinctive answer.
“It’s okay,” I say quietly. “Just answer.”
“I think I need the word between like and love, which means…”
“‘I hold her in great esteem,’” I say with a smile.
Never, in the history of time, has a breakup been so gentle. There’s barely a ripple in the water. So maybe we were barely together enough to even break.
“Do you love me?” he asks, brows pulled together.
“I’m not sure.”
“Which means no,” he says, smiling.
“I love you… as a friend,” I say. “I love Phoebs. I love how easy this is, and how little it requires of me right now.”
He’s nodding. He gets it.
“But trying to imagine this” – I gesture between us – “for the rest of my life?” I say, kissing his forehead. “It’s sort of depressing. It feels like we’re both headed down the path of least resistance.”
“Isn’t the path of least resistance for you the one with Elliot?” he asks.
I go still, thinking of the best answer here. In some ways, yeah, of course, falling into Elliot’s bed would be the easiest route, and Sean knows it. There’s no reason not to be honest there.
But there’s a part of me that believes Elliot and I were always only meant to be best friends. I was so scared of taking that next step with him when we were teens, and as soon as we did, it fell apart.
“We have history,” I say carefully. “Not bad history, for the most part. But he fucked up. And I fucked up. And we haven’t really discussed that.”
God. The most simple, obvious question.
“Because…” I start. “Because, I don’t know… that time in my life was really hard, and I made some bad decisions that I don’t really know how to explain. Apparently I’m also mostly dead inside and not really great with expressing the emotions.”
He sits up, looking at me earnestly. “You know what? If Ashley came home, and was totally clean, and said that to me – ‘Sean, I made some bad decisions. I don’t know how to explain them’ – I think that would be enough.”
“Really?” I ask.
He nods. “I miss her.”
I wrap my arms around him, holding him against my chest. I don’t think Sean has ever cried about Ashley leaving, or about the very real possibility that she’ll never come back. Or the even more horrible likelihood that the doorbell will ring someday and it will be her asking for money.
Or, even worse, that there will be a policeman there, telling Sean that she’s gone for good.