It’s hot—Mom habitually overheats the house—too hot to stay under the covers, too hot to stay in my own skin with the cacophony of thoughts skidding around inside my head after last night with Millie.
Once was a fun accident.
Twice is two data points, and my brain scratches around trying to find a pattern.
Both times we were hanging out with friends.
Both times there was alcohol—although neither of us was drunk last night.
Both times there was—what? Mention of dates, other people, or the lack of partners in our lives?
And last night wasn’t even a single quickie, in and out, back to our respective rooms. It was a night together. We went up around eleven and I snuck out around three—long after everyone else had gone to bed—tiptoeing down the hall, and leaving Millie naked and visibly comatose on her bed as if a storm had blown through.
Was leaving a bad idea? Or would it have been awkward to wake up in bed together? Especially if we had to explain it to anyone else. I feel faintly nauseous, like this could go very bad very quickly. I know conversations about relationships and feelings aren’t in Millie’s wheelhouse, but in this case I feel like we need to have one.
Downstairs, only Millie and Ed are up. I heard the murmur of voices, but they’ve since moved to the back patio, and when I join them I wish I could say I’m surprised to find Ed with a beer in his hand at seven thirty in the morning, but I’m not. Millie is staring out at the vineyards. Ed is so intensely engrossed in Dad’s morning delivery of the New York Times that he doesn’t even look up when I step out onto the back patio.
“Mills,” I say.
She turns her face to me, giving me a bright smile. “Morning, sunshine!”
I draw back reflexively, jarred. The greeting is too loud, too over-the-top. Especially considering that the last real sound I heard her make was a long, relieved exhale before she passed out face-first into the mattress.
Her eyes flicker over to Ed, and then back to me. “What’s up?”
“Wanna go for a walk?” I ask, lifting my chin to indicate the tidy rows of vineyards that seem to stretch for an eternity.
She looks down at her bare feet, thinking it over for a few seconds, and then hops up. “Sure!” Again, too loud. “Just a sec. I’ll throw on some shoes.”
Ed still hasn’t looked up at me, and I bend, trying to catch his eye. “Hey, Ed.”
Eyes down, brow furrowed in deep concentration, he says a gruff “Hey.”
“Thirsty?” I ask, nodding to his beer. “Coffee wasn’t cutting it?”
“Uh-yup.” Very seriously, he turns the page of the newspaper, reaching the crossword puzzle and folding it up like he might actually start doing it.
“Don’t.” I hold my hand out. “My dad would murder you. He waits all week for the Sunday puzzle.”
Ed unfolds the paper and, instead of making conversation, starts reading an article on some new graffiti artist in Queens.
“What’s with you?” I sit at the edge of the chaise longue where Millie was lying before I came out. “Both of you, actually. She’s Merry Sunshine and you’re Very Monosyllabic.”
“Nothing.” He glances up at me, and then away. “Seriously just . . . readin’ the paper. Relaxin’. Drinkin’ some beer.”
“Okay then, Pauly Shore, keep on with your relaxin’ and drinkin’.”
Millie comes out and smiles more calmly at me this time, and I’m relieved Ed is acting so off it isn’t even weird for us to not invite him along with us.
I let her lead me down the back porch and through Mom’s garden, which transitions to vineyard after about thirty feet, allowing us to practically disappear into the foliage and the fog. But although we aren’t in view of the house any longer, the silence doesn’t immediately vanish.
After a minute or so of listening only to our footsteps tromping through dried leaves and soil, I say, “So, hey.”
Beside me, she laughs knowingly. “Yeah. Hey.” She glances at me. “I’m so sorry, Reid.”
This draws me up short emotionally; it’s an effort to keep my pace walking. “You’re sorry?”
She stops, turning to grin guiltily up at me. “I don’t know what gets into me sometimes.”
There’s an obvious joke to make there, but I ignore it, in part because I’m immediately irked by her flippant tone. “You didn’t exactly have to drag me upstairs last night, you know. Clearly you were going somewhere I was willing to go as well.”
“But should we go there?” she asks, wincing. “I mean, you’re talking to all these women online and at some point that will turn into something and we’ll need to stop anyway.”
I pull us farther back in her sentence, hung up on the phrasing. “ ‘All these women’?”
She shrugs, and I swear there’s a weird curl to it, something defensive beneath her nonchalant exterior. “Yeah.”
“There are two.”
“Well, both Daisy and Catherine seem sort of serious, right?”
Is she digging?
“How serious can it be if I’ve never met them in person?”
“You seem, I don’t know. Invested. That’s all I’m saying. You’re writing them frequently, right? And recently?”
I nod carefully and she continues, “I don’t want to put a wrinkle in that with our . . . friends-with-benefits thing.”
I study her face as she squints out into the vineyard, trying to read between the lines here. A twist of guilt works its way through my torso, and I’m immeasurably glad that she doesn’t know I wrote Cat after leaving her bed last night. If she did, I’m sure a simple “I couldn’t sleep” explanation wouldn’t cut it.
“Do you,” I begin, unsure of what I want her answer to be, “want me to stop . . . talking to these other women?”
“I mean, only if you want to.”
“To be fair, you have someone you’re calling ‘my guy,’ ” I remind her.
She doesn’t move. “Yeah.”
I laugh, feeling my chest start to tighten with unexpected disappointment. Last night was fun. Something new and a little scary is expanding in my chest, and it’s hooked to the memory of Millie above me, her eyes closed, neck arched. If she’d asked me to stay, would I have? “I have no idea what is going on right now, Mills.”
“Nothing is going on.” She says it more calmly, back in control. She returns her focus to me and puts a warm hand on my arm. “Really, Reid. At least, not with me. I’m good.”
Without asking me anything in return, she pushes on ahead, her pace picking up. A flock of sparrows pass overhead, and she looks up to the sky. “Man, it is so beautiful out here.”
With that, the conversation about last night seems left behind us and I feel . . . slightly untethered.
“It really is,” I say quietly.
Millie starts talking about the weather, which leads into a story about this time she was hiking with a friend in Yosemite and her friend almost died trying to take a picture of a sign that described the risk of death on the trail. I listen, hopefully making noises at the appropriate moments to let her know that I’m still paying attention, but inside I’m sort of shredded. The truth is, I’m curious whether I’ll have better in-person chemistry with Daisy than I do over messages, and I’m interested in the possibility that I’ll have just as good chemistry with Catherine in person as I do over messages. But after last night, I think my heart got ahead of my brain a little. If the twist in my chest is any indication, I think I wanted things with Millie to grow deeper.
Watching her in superficial storytelling mode, I honestly begin to wonder whether she’s capable of that. As a friend, she’s fun, and loyal, observant, and thoughtful. Her quiet depth comes out as humor, and reveals how unbelievably brilliant she is. She’s wild in the best ways while still keeping her life drama-free—all great things in a friend. But I don’t want a buddy for a lover—I want a lover who goes deeper than Millie ever seems to want to go, and the realization that this isn’t ever going to evolve makes me oddly—surprisingly—sad. Odd, that is, given that until this morning, it wasn’t even a conscious goal to get us there.