It seemed silly to even bother knocking. The door was slightly ajar, noise pouring out, so I just pushed inside, stepping over a wide pile of shoes that seemed paradoxically thoughtful given the state of the rest of the house. There were cans, bottles, and stubbed-out joints on nearly every flat surface. Blaring music and television battled from down the hall. On the living room couch, two guys were passed out, and a third sat with a game controller in his hand, playing Call of Duty.
“Have you seen Elliot?” I asked, yelling above the hammering of fictional gunfire.
The guy looked up, glanced over to the kitchen, and then shrugged.
I headed to the kitchen.
The room was huge, and a complete disaster. Blender drinks had been attempted and abandoned. A pyramid of beer cans sat on a sturdy marble island, surrounded by a wreath of broken chips, smears of salsa, a trail of M&M’s. The sink was full of smudged glassware and a tall bong.
“He’s upstairs,” someone said behind me. I turned, and recognized Christian from the photos on Elliot’s desk. He was tall – not as tall as Elliot, but wider, with an ill-advised goatee, and a beer stain on his Chico State Wildcats T-shirt. His eyes were bloodshot and dilated nearly to black. At his side, another guy stared wide-eyed at me, looking like he was going to be sick. It was Brandon.
Elliot’s two best friends.
“Upstairs?” I repeated. Christian lifted his chin in a nod, rolling a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
“He’s really wasted,” Brandon said, following me when I turned to head out of the kitchen and upstairs. His voice grew increasingly desperate as my foot hit the first step. “Macy, I wouldn’t. I think he’s been sick.”
“Then I’ll take him home.” Even to me, my voice sounded hollow, tinny, like it was being projected from speakers in the faraway corners of the vaulted staircase.
“We’ll bring him home.” Brandon wrapped a gentle hand around my elbow. “Let him sleep it off.”
My pulse beat in my throat, in my temples. I wasn’t sure what I would find… but no, that isn’t quite right. I think I knew. I understood Christian’s laconic smirk and Brandon’s buzzing anxiety. Looking back, it’s hard to know whether I was prescient to head up there, or whether it was just so obvious.
“I would just head home, Macy,” Brandon pleaded. “When he wakes up, I’ll have him call you.”
His voice continued as a hum in the background, following me all the way up the stairs and to the only closed door, at the very end of the hall. I pushed inside and stopped.
A long leg hung over the side of the unmade bed. Elliot’s shoes were still on, still tied, but his jeans and boxers were at his knees and his shirt was shoved up under his armpits, exposing the lines of his chest, the dark trail of hair on his navel.
Brandon was right: Elliot was passed out.
But so was Emma, lying naked across his torso.
I took a step back, right into Brandon’s chest.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered.
I’d known heartbreak before, but this was a different sensation, like a lit match held to the bloody organ inside, holding steady, waiting patiently for it to dry out, harden into coal, catch fire.
I love you so fucking much.
I love you, and I lust you and want you.
I love you as the person I want to be with forever.
Will you marry me?
“Oh, my God.”
“Macy, it really isn’t what you think,” Brandon said, cupping his hands on my shoulders. “Please trust me.”
“It looks like he had sex with her,” I said numbly, shrugging him off. As much as the scene horrified me, I couldn’t look away. Emma’s mouth was open on his chest as she snored. Elliot’s dick hung limp along his thigh.
I’d never really seen him naked before, never just… looked.
Brandon shifted anxiously. “It’s her, Macy. Elliot wouldn’t —”
“Oh, shit,” Christian said, coming up beside me. “Not a good look, Ell.”
I made some gasping, choking sound that he seemed to interpret as a question.
“Nah, they have a history. Just… let it go,” Christian said, and then held in a rumbling belch and punched his chest with his fist. “It’s not really a thing. They just fuck around sometimes.”
I turned, bursting past them down the hall, my feet fumbling down the stairs, through the kitchen and then out the front door to the cold, stark air where I couldn’t seem to breathe. I tried to pull in a breath, but it was like I’d been punched over and over in the diaphragm.
Two thirty in the morning on New Year’s, and I was the most sober but least safe driver on the road. Through a wall of tears, I navigated clumsily down the winding road, zigzagging up the narrow hill and down the gravelly slope of the driveway. I screamed at the windshield, and nearly turned around a handful of times because I almost couldn’t believe my own memory. The two of them lying there.
I didn’t look at Elliot’s house as I vaulted up the front steps, afraid I would pound on the door, demand that he come downstairs, even though I knew he wasn’t there.
I didn’t know much in that moment, but I knew I couldn’t make it back to Berkeley in one piece.
Inside, the house was ice cold. Wood was neatly stacked in the back pallet – I could make a fire, have something to eat to settle the grinding in my gut – but I could barely make it to the couch. I pulled a blanket from the back of the easy chair and curled up on the floor.
Honestly, I don’t remember anything else but the feel of the cold floor along the right side of my body. I think my brain must have shut down immediately. Some self-preservation instinct didn’t want me to see his naked hips anymore, see the familiar press of her hand to his navel. Some protective piece of my mind didn’t want to recall the thick smell of that room – the cloud of bodies, and sweat, and beer, and sex – or the casual way Christian referenced their intimate history.
But was he right? Had that been what it was like all week long, and for most of their lives? Emma and Elliot, casually hooking up, filling the tedium of their days with each other? Texting each other to hang when there was nothing else to do. Hooking up at the park because – why not? I had no doubt that Elliot loved me – I knew he did, felt it in the marrow of my bones – but I was there barely a third of the time, and the other two-thirds, there was Emma. Every day at school, all year long: accessible, convenient, familiar.
I had no idea who Real-Life Elliot was. My Elliot existed only on certain days, only in the confines of our library closet.
I don’t know him at all. I don’t know him at all. That was the horrible thought that threaded through my dreams – dreams of running into him on a bus and not recognizing him, dreams of passing him in the hall and feeling the uncomfortable echo that I’d somehow missed something important but didn’t know what it was.
sunday, december 31
shift my hips up, feeling the clench in my chest when Elliot’s body slips from mine. I feel him retreat beneath me, his eyes filled with an ache that seems to build the longer we’re silent.
“You never let me explain what happened,” he says.
I can’t meet his eyes. It goes so much deeper than this, but even though these details seem tiny now, I know it’s where we have to start. “You said you loved me that night,” I remind him, “for the first time.”
He nods eagerly. “I know.”
“You asked me to marry you.”
Elliot reaches for my arm, circling his fingers around my wrist. “I meant it. I had a ring.”
I look at him in shock. “If I’d said yes, would you still have fucked Emma?”
“Okay.” He stands, pulling his pants up, buckling his belt. “Okay.” His shirt hangs loose, hair remains a mess from my fingers. Elliot looks down at me, backlit by the moon and the distant glow of the party. Bending to retrieve his glasses, he slides them on. “Do you know how many times I’ve told you this story in my head?”
“Probably about as many times as I’ve tried to pretend I didn’t see what I saw.”
He crouches. “I didn’t know what happened until a few days later.”