Ed sets down his food, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. “Come on, Mills. We all know you keep your cards close. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but it would be cool to know more about what you’re thinking, you know? I could always be wrong, but . . . I’ve known Reid for a long time. If your plan was to scare him off by letting him get to know you—or Catherine—you might want to think of a plan B. Reid is an emotionally intuitive dude. He likes feelings.”
The problem is that I know, and it’s one of the things I love about him. He’s sensitive and able to express himself in a way I’ve never been able to. Reid moving on from Cat would be the easiest conclusion to this mess, but that’s sort of the problem. I can’t deny how good it felt to unload all that today. It felt good to tell him some more about my past, and how I’m lonely, and how that loneliness is almost entirely my own fault.
“You look like you’re going to fart again,” Ed says.
Alex wrinkles his nose. “Millie, drop it on the other side of the patio.”
“I’m not going to fart, you jackass. I’m thinking about how many chances I’ve had to tell Reid the truth, and how I’m selfish, and never do.”
“Not to oversimplify things,” Alex says, “but we’re all sort of selfish. I’m letting you pay for my dinner—”
He holds up a hand before I can correct him. “Reid is talking to two women at once, and thinks neither of them knows it. Not to mention the fact that Reid isn’t exactly the most casual guy. If sex is involved, I’m guessing he hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with you.”
Alex winces a little before this next part: “And if sex with Daisy happens tonight, I’m guessing he’ll need to rethink some things, too.”
The minute I see Daisy in the restaurant, all coherent thought slips out of my head. Her photos don’t lie: even from across the room there’s something almost magnetic about her. She’s beachy-casual in a sleeveless shirt and skirt; she seems cut from the pages of a catalog. Even so, Daisy shrinks a little under the focused attention of the number of men who turn and watch her while she searches for me. I told her I’d be wearing a blue-checked dress shirt, and I’m relieved to see her eyes light up when she spots me.
I get a slight sour tang in my mouth because as she approaches, I feel that ever-present shadow of Millie in my thoughts—and the sex we had only three nights ago—and the twin shadow of Cat and the authenticity I find in those messages that I can’t honestly find anywhere else.
I’m not a juggler—I’ve never been a juggler—but the easy attraction and fun I have with Millie seems to crumble when we try to talk about real things. I can’t tell if Cat and I would have the same level of chemistry in person, even if our conversations feel infinitely deeper.
And then there’s Daisy. Sweet, beautiful . . . and right here.
I reach to shake her hand but she embraces me instead, pulling me in for a tight hug. Her breath is warm on my neck, her blond hair tickling across my cheek. “I’ve been so nervous!”
“Absolutely no need to be nervous,” I say, stepping back.
“I know.” She pulls out her chair. “I guess I’m just so glad you were telling the truth and you’re not, like, eighty and enormous.”
This bounces around inside my cranium. I can only say, “No . . .”
The waiter approaches, and Daisy orders a rosé, I order a scotch, neat, and my stomach slowly climbs into my throat while I wait for all my opening questions to come back into my head. But all I can hear is the mental peanut gallery of Ed protesting Daisy’s fat phobia and Alex reminding Ed that Daisy has nice stems, and Chris ignoring all of it. Mental Millie is gone; she must have disappeared as soon as I registered my own relief that Daisy was indeed beautiful.
We start speaking at the same time: “I hope traffic wasn’t too bad,” I say, just when Daisy says, “I heard this place is so good.”
And then we do it again. “It is really good,” I say, just as she says, “No, it was fine.”
“Oh,” she says, “go ahead.”
I clear my throat awkwardly. “No, no, I was just saying that they do have good food here.”
She nods, smiling around at the maritime décor. “Cool.” Daisy unrolls her napkin and puts it in her lap. “I used to have a beach theme in my bedroom, like shells and stuff.”
“Oh?” I take an enormous gulp of water, cooling down the path from tongue to stomach as it begins to dawn on me that Daisy and I have zero chemistry whatsoever.
“Like, when I was a kid. Some fish nets, shells—I already said that, oh my God—and, like, everything was painted blue. Blue walls, blue bed.” She pauses, looking at me like it’s my turn to speak. I have no idea what to say. Finally, she adds, “Blue dresser. I wanted to be a mermaid.”
“Oh.” I nod, smiling as I struggle to shush the part of my brain that wants to point out that a mermaid probably wouldn’t surround herself with nets. Or a dresser. I mean, if mermaids were real. I clear my throat. “I bet that was . . . fun. I had the same boring red comforter from when I was seven until . . . well, it’s still in our guest room at home.” I try to ease the tension with a joke. “Maybe I wanted to be a fireman.”
Okay, that didn’t work.
Silence stretches a mile in every direction. Mental Millie returns, lifting up her cocktail for a sardonic toast and letting out a long, throaty laugh. She says saucily, Oh, I’m familiar with that comforter.
“So.” I desperately tread water. “You’re a student at UCSB?”
“Early childhood education,” she tells me, and then thanks the waitress when our drinks are delivered. “I’m almost finished and will work at the Bellridge Preschool Academy starting in the fall.”
I have questions about a “preschool academy” but let them go for now. I mean, at least she seems focused, directed. “You’ve already got a job lined up?”
Daisy nods. “I know the owner, she’s really great. Tons of hot dads there, too,” she says, and then laughs.
“Oh . . . that’s . . .” I lift my scotch, take a slow sip. “That’s good.”
Daisy chugs a few gulps of her wine. “I don’t know why I said that.” She throws her hands in the air. “I’m on a date with you, talking about hot dads.”
I wave a hand. “We’ve all done it.”
Daisy laughs again and shakes her arms out. “I haven’t been on a first date in a while.”
“I didn’t mention this before, but I broke up with my ex, Brandon, about six weeks ago, and I swear he’s probably dating every girl he meets, but I was never like that. I think that was part of what drove him crazy, that he thought I was really social—because we met at a party?—but really I just don’t like big crowds, or whatever, and he always wanted to go out and rage. I’m so over that, it feels so undergrad, you know what I mean? We were together for four years though, so.”
I dig around in the mental fracas, searching for something to anchor to here so I can craft a decent reply, but Daisy continues before I’m capable. “Anyway, I tried this IRL thing and it’s so easy to, like, talk online but then being here in person and you’re like—ahh!” She mimics being surprised, with wide eyes and a round mouth. “Like you’re so hot.” She takes a giant gulp of her rosé and then speaks after a rushed swallow, “But also sort of quiet?”
I feel like I’ve been run over by the train in this wreck, and it takes me a second to register that this time she really is expecting me to speak. “I’m quiet?”
“Are you? I mean, you seem quiet.”
“I’m not usually. Just . . .” I let the thought fade out. I’m floundering. I’ve never had to put someone at ease so . . . actively. I almost want to just tell her maybe we should try this another time.
“Brandon was the talker in our relationship,” she says, her face glowing pink. “Or, I mean when we were alone we both talked, but when we were out he did the talking and it was sort of nice. Not that I don’t like to talk. I do. I’m just bad at it.” She laughs at herself, and then looks helplessly down at the table, maybe like she might find a Xanax there. “Obviously.”