He tilted his head and watched me, unspeaking. He didn’t need to point out that both times I’d visited this town, I’d come without a mother.
I released my breath what felt like an hour later. “My mom died three years ago.”
This truth reverberated around the room, and I knew my admission irrevocably changed something between us. The simple things I was no longer: his new neighbor, a girl, potentially interesting, also potentially uninteresting. Now I was a girl who had been permanently damaged by life. I was someone to be handled carefully.
His eyes had gone wide behind his thick lenses. “Seriously?”
Did I wish I hadn’t told him? A little. What was the point of a weekend retreat if I couldn’t actually retreat from the one truth that seemed to stall my heartbeat every few minutes?
He looked down at his feet, toyed with a stray thread on his shorts. “I don’t know what I would do.”
“I still don’t know what to do.”
He fell quiet. I never knew how to reel a conversation back after the Dead Mother topic. And which was worse: having it with a relative stranger like this, or having it back home with someone who had known me my entire life and no longer knew how to speak to me without false brightness or syrupy sympathy?
“What’s your favorite word?”
Startled, I looked up at him, unsure I’d heard him right. “My favorite word?”
He nodded, slipping his glasses up his nose with a quick, practiced scrunch of his face that made him look angry and then surprised within a single second. “You have seven boxes of books up here. A wild guess tells me you like words.”
I suppose I had never thought about having a favorite word, but now that he asked, I kind of liked the idea. I let my eyes lose focus as I thought.
“Ranunculus,” I said after a moment.
“Ranunculus. It’s a kind of flower. It’s such a weird word but the flowers are so pretty, I like how unexpected that is.”
They were my Mom’s favorite, I didn’t say.
“That’s a pretty girly answer.”
“Well, I am a girl.”
He kept his eyes on his feet but I knew I wasn’t imagining the gleam of interest I’d seen when I said ranunculus. I bet he had expected me to say unicorn or daisy or vampire.
“What about you? What’s your favorite word? I bet it’s tungsten. Or, like, amphibian.”
He quirked a smile, answering, “Regurgitate.”
Scrunching my nose, I stared at him. “That is a gross word.”
This made him smile even wider. “I like the hard consonant sounds in it. It kinda sounds like exactly what it means.”
I half expected trumpets to blast revelatory music from an invisible speaker in the wall from the way Elliot stared at me, lips parted and glasses slowly sliding down his nose.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’m not a complete idiot, you know. You don’t have to look so surprised that I know some big words.”
“I never thought you were an idiot,” he said quietly, looking toward the box and pulling out another book to hand to me.
For a long time after we returned to our slow, inefficient method of unpacking the books, I could feel him looking up and watching me, tiny flashes of stolen glances.
I pretended I didn’t notice.
wednesday, october 4
I feel like I’ve torn open some stitches overnight. Everything inside is raw – as if I’ve bruised an emotional organ. Above me, the ceiling looks drab; water stains crawl along the spidery cracks in the plaster that radiate from the light fixture in the ceiling. The fan circles lazily around and around and around the frosted globe. As they turn, the blades cut through the air, mimicking Sean’s rhythmic exhale while he sleeps beside me.
He was asleep when I got home around two this morning. For once, I’m thankful for the long hours; I don’t know how I would have sat through dinner with him and Phoebe when all I could think about was Elliot showing up at Saul’s yesterday.
I had this momentary clench of guilt last night on the bus home, when the chaos of my shift was slowly ebbing from my thoughts and the run-in with Elliot pushed its way back in. In a panicked burst, I wondered how rude it was of me to not introduce Elliot to Sabrina.
So fucking quickly he comes back, front and center.
Sean wakes when I move to rub my face, rolling to me, pulling me close with his hand curled around my hip, but for the first time since he kissed me last May, I feel like I’m betraying something.
Groaning, I push away and sit up, propping my elbows on my knees at the side of the bed.
“You okay, babe?” he asks, moving close behind me and resting his chin on my shoulder.
Sean doesn’t even know about Elliot. Which is crazy, when I think about it, because if I’m marrying him, he should know every part of me, right? Even if we haven’t been together that long, the big things should be placed right up front, and for most of my adolescence, it doesn’t get much bigger than Elliot. Sean knows I grew up in Berkeley, spent many weekends up in the wine country of Healdsburg, and had some good friends there. But he has no idea that I met Elliot when I was thirteen, fell in love with him when I was fourteen, and pushed him out of my life only a few years later.
I nod. “I’m good. Just tired.”
I feel him turn his head beside me and glance at the clock, and I mimic his action. It’s only 6:40, and I don’t need to start rounds until 9:00. Sleep is a precious commodity. Why, brain, why?
He runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“Of course you’re tired. Come back to bed.”
When he says this, I know he really means Lie back down and let’s have some of the sex before Phoebs is up.
The problem is, I can’t risk the chance that doing that with him will feel wrong now.
I just need a couple of days of distance from it, that’s all.
thursday, december 20
fifteen years ago
I’d never spent Christmas away from home before, but early December that first year at the cabin, Dad said we were going to have an adventure. To some parents, this might have meant a trip to Paris or a cruise to somewhere exotic. To my dad, it meant an old-fashioned holiday in our new house, lighting the Danish kalenderlys – a Christmas candle – and enjoying roast duck, cabbage, beetroot, and potatoes for Christmas dinner.
We arrived around dinnertime on the twentieth, our car bursting with packages and newly purchased decorations, followed closely by a man from town with a gold tooth, a wooden leg, and a trailer carrying our freshly cut Christmas tree.
I watched as they wrestled with the mammoth tree, wondering briefly if it would even fit through our front door. It was cold outside, and I shuffled my feet on the ground to keep warm. Without thinking, I looked over my shoulder at the Petropoulos house.
The windows glowed, some of them foggy with condensation. A steady stream of smoke rose from a crooked chimney, curling like ribbon before disappearing into blackness.
We’d been to the cabin three times since October, and during each visit Elliot had come to the door, knocked, and Dad let him upstairs. We would lie on the floor of my closet – slowly being converted into a tiny library – and read for hours.
But I’d yet to visit his house. I tried to guess which room was his, to imagine what he might be doing. I wondered what Christmas was like for them, in a house with a dad and a mom, four kids, and a dog who looked more horse than canine. I bet it smelled like cookies and freshly cut pine. I decided it was probably hard to find someplace quiet to read.
We had been there barely an hour when the old chiming doorbell rang. I opened it to find Elliot and Miss Dina, holding a paper plate laden with something heavy and covered in foil.
“We brought you cookies,” Elliot said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His mouth was newly crammed with braces. His face was covered by a metallic network of headgear.
I stared wide-eyed at him, and he glowered at me, cheeks growing pink. “Focus on the cookies, Macy.”
“Do we have guests, min lille blomst?” Dad asked from the kitchen. In his voice I heard the mild disapproval; the unspoken Can’t the boy wait until tomorrow?