“Well, and friends and lovers, joy and loss, I assume,” he says, hitting the nail directly on the head. His expression straightens with awareness.
An awkward silence grows like a canyon between us. “I didn’t mean us,” he says, adding in a mumble, “necessarily.”
With a dry laugh, I lean back in my seat. “I haven’t been marinating in bad feelings, Ell.”
Wow, that’s a lie.
When his phone buzzes again beside him, he pushes it away. “Then why not call?”
“A lot happened.” I shift back a little in my seat as our drinks arrive.
His eyebrows slant down in justifiable confusion. I’ve just told him my life was essentially rote and straightforward, but then too much happened to bother calling.
My mind cycles through a calendar of years gone by, and another sour awareness rolls over me. Elliot turns twenty nine tomorrow. I’ve missed nearly all of his twenties.
“Happy early birthday, by the way,” I say quietly.
His eyes go soft, mouth curving at the edges. “Thanks, Mace.”
October 5 has always been a tough day for me. What will it feel like this year, now that I’ve laid eyes on him? I cup my hands around my warm mug, changing the subject. “What about you? What have you been doing?”
He shrugs and sips his cappuccino, wiping a casual finger across his upper lip when it comes away foamy. Obvious comfort in his own body causes renewed heat to ripple through mine. Never have I known someone so wholly himself as Elliot.
“I graduated early from Cal,” he says, “and moved to Manhattan for a couple years.”
This hits the stall button in my brain. Elliot personifies Northern California, with all its shaggy chaos. I can’t imagine him in New York.
“Manhattan?” I repeat.
He laughs. “I know. Total insanity. But it’s the kind of place I could only stomach in my twenties. After a few years there, I interned at a literary agency for a while, but didn’t love it. I came back here almost two years ago and started working for a nonprofit literacy group. I’m still there a couple days a week, but… I started writing a novel. It’s going really well.”
“Writing a book.” I grin. “Who would have guessed?”
He laughs harder this time, and the sound is warm, and growling. “Everyone?”
I find myself biting both of my lips to rein in my smile, and his expression slowly straightens. “Can I ask you something?” he asks.
“What made you decide to come here with me this morning?”
I don’t really need to point out that he pushed his way into my schedule, because I know that’s not really what he means. What he said about Liz is true; we all know Elliot isn’t dangerous. I could have told him to go home and not contact me again, and he would have listened.
So why didn’t I?
“I have no idea. I don’t think I would have been able to say no to you twice.”
He likes that answer. A small smile arcs his mouth and nostalgia floods my veins.
“You went to med school at Hopkins,” he says with quiet wonder in his voice. “Undergrad at Tufts. I’m so proud of you, Mace.”
My eyes go wide in understanding. “You rat. You Googled me?”
“You didn’t Google me?” he shoots back. “Come on, that’s step one post-run-in.”
“I got home from work at two in the morning. I fell face-first into the pillow. I don’t know if I’ve brushed my teeth since this weekend.”
His grin is so genuinely happy, it works a creaky hinge open inside me. “Was it always your plan to move back here, or was it just where you matched?”
“This was my first choice.”
“You wanted to be close to Duncan.” He’s nodding as if this makes perfect sense and it stabs me. “When did he die?”
“Was it always your plan to move back here?”
I can see him working through my deflection, but he takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “It was always my plan to live wherever you were. That plan failed, but I figured my odds of seeing you again were pretty good back in Berkeley.”
This throws me. As in I am a brick, and have been hurled at the glass window. “Oh.”
“You knew that. You had to have known that I’d be here, waiting.”
I swallow a sip of water quickly to reply. “I don’t think I knew that you were still hoping I’d —”
“I loved you.”
I nod quickly at this bombshell interruption, looking for the rescue of our waitress bringing food. But she isn’t there.
“You loved me, too, you know,” he says quietly. “It was everything.”
I feel as though I’ve been shoved, and push away from the table a little, but he leans in. “Sorry. This is too intense. I’m just terrified of not getting a chance to say it.”
His phone hops across the table again, buzzing.
“Do you need to get that?” I ask.
Elliot rubs his face and then leans his chair back, eyes closed, face tilted to the ceiling. It’s only now that I realize how stubbly he is, how tired he looks.
I lean back in. “Elliot, is everything okay?”
He nods, straightening. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Eyeing me for a lingering moment, he seems to decide to tell me what’s on his mind: “I broke up with my girlfriend last night. She’s calling. She thinks she wants to talk, but really I think she just wants to yell at me. She won’t feel great afterward, so I’m sparing us both for now.”
I swallow past an enormous lump in my throat. “You broke up with her last night?”
He nods, toying with a straw wrapper and thanking the waitress quietly as she deposits our food in front of us. When she leaves, he admits in a low voice, “You’re the love of my life. I assumed I would get over you eventually, but seeing you yesterday?” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t go home to someone else and pretend to love her with everything I have.”
Nausea rolls through me. I honestly don’t even know how to translate this heavy emotion in my chest. Is it that I relate so intensely to what he’s saying, but am far more of a coward? Or is it the opposite – that I have moved on, have found someone, and don’t want the intrusion of Elliot into my easy, simple life?
“Macy,” he says, more urgently now, and opens his mouth to continue, but another trigger has been pulled, another game-show challenge. I dig for my wallet – racing the buzzer – but this time Elliot stops me, catching my arm in his gentle grip, his cheeks pink with anger. “You can’t do this. You can’t just continually run from this conversation. It’s been eleven years in the making.” Leaning in, he clenches his jaw as he adds, “I know I messed up, but was it that bad? So bad you just vanished?”
No, it wasn’t. Not at first.
“This,” I say, looking around us, “is a terrible idea. And not because of our past. Okay, yes, it’s partly that, but it’s also the intervening years.” I meet his eyes. “You broke up with your girlfriend last night after seeing me for two minutes. Elliot, I’m getting married.”
He drops my arm, blinking a few times, and seeming – for the first time I’ve ever witnessed – to be lost for words.
“I’m getting married… and there’s so much you don’t know,” I say. “And a lot of that isn’t your fault, but this,” I wave a finger back and forth in the narrow space separating us across the table, “between us? It sucks that it’s over, and it hurts me, too. But it’s done, Ell.”
friday, december 21
fifteen years ago
As if Dad knew that I was delicate after the conversation about Christmas Sans Mom with Elliot, he was even quieter than usual at dinner Thursday night.
“Do you want to go to Goat Rock tomorrow?” he asked when he finished his chicken.
Goat Rock, the windy beach where the Russian River collides with the Pacific Ocean. It is notoriously cold, with a dangerous rip current rendering the beach unsafe for even wading into the water, and so much sand blustering in the air that it’s nearly impossible to grill hot dogs.