I start to agree before remembering that I didn’t know this. “Wait, what?”
“She texted me,” Millie says, all innocent round green eyes and flirting freckles.
“Rayme texted you?” She didn’t text me. Millie didn’t mention it, either.
“Uh, yeah.” Millie follows Mom into the kitchen and I’m left with Ed, whose hands are shoved deep into his pockets—safe, he won’t break anything this way—and Alex, who saunters over and sits on the couch, kicking his feet onto the coffee table.
“Alex,” I say.
He drops his feet.
“Want a beer?” At their nods, I turn and head into the kitchen. Mom and Millie are staring into the oven and moaning over the sight and smells of the roasting meat.
“Christ, that looks good.” Millie’s gravelly voice rockets a gallon of blood down my body and toward my groin, before I remember that she’s talking about my mother’s cooking.
Mom heads out the back door to pick vegetables for the salad, and Millie leans against the counter, smiling at me. It’s a quiet smile, a real one, where her mouth curves but doesn’t open, and her eyes move all over my face, cataloging, almost like she’s reading a news story for the latest update.
“Hey, you,” she says.
It feels like everything finally goes still. With the tenure party, the spontaneous sex, and this last week of cycling work/dating-app adrenaline/sleep/repeat, I realize we haven’t just been us in days. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but Millie is a fixture in my life. When I don’t get time with her . . . it’s weird.
I shrug. “Work’s been bananas. How about you?”
“Same.” Millie pulls a hair tie off her wrist and bundles her hair on top of her head. “I got started on the book.”
“That’s awesome.” I reach for a high five. Her hand is a soft slap of warmth against mine. “How are things going on the dating front?”
“Meh.” She looks down to the floor. “There’s one guy I’m talking to a fair bit.”
“That’s awesome! See, I told you they weren’t all losers.” She shrugs noncommittally. “Is he cool?”
She nods. “What about you?”
Tension rises like steam in the room, and it feels like every other sound falls away. “Yeah. Same. Well, the two still, really. But Catherine and I stay up late messaging lately. It’s . . . nice.”
Millie gnaws at her lip for a few seconds, and I can’t read the reaction. Is it jealousy?
“Is this the one whose picture you didn’t like?” she asks.
I groan. “Come on, this again?”
She grins. “Tell me about her.”
There’s a flash of annoyance when I realize how easily she’s managed to turn the conversation back to me. She deflects before I realize she’s done it.
“Well,” I start, leaning back against the counter and choosing my words carefully, “I’m not sure what department she’s in, but it sounds like she’s faculty at UCSB. She’s funny—I told you that—and laid-back, but shares these amazing stories. Apparently in college she went to Africa for a month and got into a car with the wrong driver and ended up, like, two hundred miles away from the town she was supposed to be in, but she just got on a bus and went back.”
Millie smiles faintly. “Wow. How cool.”
“She has a sister and—like you—her mom died when she was younger.” I pause, looking at her closely. “You two would probably get along really well, actually. If things don’t work out with us, maybe I just found you a backup best friend for when I’m out of town.”
Millie bites her lower lip, looks at my mouth, and then takes a sharp, deep breath, turning away toward the sink. “Did you notice that neither of your parents have said happy birthday to you?”
A breath comes out of me as a laugh. “It’s not my birthday yet.”
She turns back around to face me. “But isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Only sort of,” I say. “Mom just wanted everyone here so she could brag that I spent my birthday with her.”
My mother has three sisters, and they are notoriously competitive about how great their kids are. Some children have pressure to go to an Ivy League school, some are pressured to become physicians. Rayme and I are pressured to do all the things specifically that Aunt Janice’s kids won’t do, like visit regularly, send thank-you notes, and celebrate Mother’s Day.
“Do you know what I was thinking earlier?”
She’s looking at her feet when she says this, so I can’t read her face to see why the tone has shifted. “I have no idea,” I say.
“That we had sex only three weeks ago.”
This sometimes happens with Millie. She’s not exactly forthcoming about her thought process, and the sudden change in topic is so disorienting that for a breath I think I’ve misheard her. But I haven’t, because she blushes.
“We did,” I agree, wondering how she got from birthdays to here.
She lets out this strange, breathy laugh. “What were we thinking?”
“Probably that we were drunk and sex would be fun?”
“You weren’t drunk,” she says.
“I was.” She considers this. “A little.”
“Are you sure you aren’t drunk now?” I smile and walk to the fridge, less to get a beer out and more to cool down the entire front half of my body. We haven’t talked about this again since the next morning, at Cajé—and it’s pretty daring to do it here when Alex and Ed are only a room away. I realize, too, that she’s wearing the same dress she wore that night. Is that what made her think of it?
I can’t help but wonder if she’s wearing the same thing underneath, too.
“Not yet, unfortunately. What I’m saying is, I could totally write you a letter of recommendation for one of your . . . lady friends. You know, if you need it.”
I give her a smarmy bow. “I genuinely appreciate that.”
Kicking off the counter, she walks to the fridge, opening it with comfort and pulling out a bottle of white wine. I don’t even need to tell her where the glasses are; she finds one in the cabinet near the stove, fills it unselfconsciously, and then returns the bottle to the fridge.
It trips an old memory, one of how Isla came here again and again with me, but even on her tenth visit, needed Mom’s permission or prompting for nearly everything.
Come on in.
Make yourself comfortable.
Would you like something to drink? Water? Wine?
Here, honey, sit next to Reid.
You two’ll be sleeping in the room down the hall.
Yes, honey, you can stay with Reid, you’re adults.
She never felt at home.
That isn’t Millie. It’s not that she’s presumptuous or callous in any way, it’s that she heeded the cues from her first visit here—the unspoken communication from Mom and Dad that my friends should all genuinely make themselves feel at home (except for racing naked in the vineyards). And here she is. She stretches, one arm over her head, then switches the hand holding the wineglass. Her torso elongates, breasts press forward.
Here she fucking is.
She’s watching me watching her now, leaning back against the counter and sipping her wine. “What’re you thinking?”
She knows what I’m thinking. She knows I’m thinking about the sex we had.
“Just watching you.” I know her so well, and yet in some ways she’s such a mystery to me. Even though what happened between us was fun, and hot as hell—in my opinion—I realize I still can’t really know how she views it. As something fun we did, or as a mistake we made but managed to smooth over without incident. But since it’s Millie, it occurs to me that she could be full of horrified regret, and I might never know it, because she’s shoved it so far below the surface.
On instinct, I scratch at her surface a little, digging: “Get any new messages today?”
Millie tilts her head from side to side. “I got one from my guy last night. I haven’t replied yet.”