Suffice to say, it was awkward.
Afterwards, I went over to my friend’s house—I’ve mentioned her to you before, she’s one of my closest friends, and we’ve become a bit more than just friends in the past couple months. Again: going for honesty here. Well, we had sex again tonight but instead of feeling amazing afterward, I felt pretty terrible. I think my feelings for her are deeper than hers are for me, or maybe I’m hoping hers turn into something more, but we both know they won’t. She’s wonderful, and I feel like we know each other inside out, but then she’ll say something and it registers that I hardly know her at all, deep down. When I tried to ask her tonight what was going on with us, she answered the way I most worried she would: we’re just having sex.
I hope this isn’t upsetting you. Or, maybe I hope it is a little, because then it will mean that you feel things for me the way I think I feel for you. Despite wanting things to happen with this friend, I’ve also held a piece of myself back because I haven’t wanted to shut out the possibility that you’re a better fit for me. But not knowing you in person, and knowing her, it’s been easier to hope that things with her would start developing, start going somewhere. What if I meet you, and we have fun, but the connection we have by letters diffuses in person?
At the end of the day (and it is, the end of a very long day), I need to know. I’d love to meet, and have dinner and spend some time just talking together to see if it’s worth pursuing something. This isn’t an ultimatum, or a date meant to rule something out. It’s just needing to know whether the reason things haven’t slotted into place with my friend is because the right person for me is still out there.
I stare down at the phone until the screen goes dark with inactivity. My reflection gazes back: brow furrowed, lips turned down at the corners, expression a mixture of terrified, bewildered, and hurt. Reid’s email is the equivalent of an emotional grenade going off in my face.
It’s only six in the morning, I haven’t had coffee yet, and my head is reeling. I’m not even sure where to start.
Reid felt terrible after we had sex? Is there a way to read that and not be devastated? I’ll admit things were awkward between us, but I’d been home five minutes—back from spilling my guts to Ed and Alex—to find him at my door. I’d barely processed anything. I didn’t even know if he’d read my letter.
All I knew was that he wasn’t with her.
I wasn’t thinking as I pulled him through the door and down the hall. All I could do was feel—feel how right we were together, and an overwhelming relief that he was here, and that I didn’t want him to leave. Afterward, the question What are we doing, Mills? felt like being grilled all over again at my dissertation defense, and I honestly did not have an answer. I got weird and panicky, and he left. Even Emotional Mutant Millie is aware it’s my fault.
“You’re really terrible about sharing personal shit. You know that, right?”
“Why you gotta be such a secret?”
“Come on, Mills. We all know you keep your cards close.”
They’re not wrong; I’ve never been good at opening up.
I had just turned eleven when Mom sat Elly and me down over ice cream and told us she was sick. She went so fast after that. It felt like one day she was carefully explaining what the word cancer meant, and then she was plugged into every manner of tube and wire. The sharp smell of hospitals and antiseptic replaced the lingering scent of Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers that she would spray every morning.
Toward the end, Dad kept us carefully away. “Don’t worry your mother,” he would tell us. “Let’s not give her something else to think about.”
So we didn’t. We told her that everything was great at school. We told her we were happy, that we loved her, that we didn’t need anything. And I kept the things I really wanted to tell her tucked away for when she was better. I didn’t bother her with details of a fight with my friend Kiersten, or how Mr. Donohue was the meanest teacher at the entire school. I would tell her later.
But then she died, and I didn’t have anyone to tell any of those things to. Beyond the ache of missing her, I found that life still went on. My quieter truths weren’t bursting to get out of me; I was fine keeping them inside.
It became habit to sidestep and be the listener instead. I got very good at listening. In college, I read somewhere that if we let someone talk about themselves long enough, it sets off the same neurological signals of pleasure in the speaker’s brain as do food or money. I’d been unintentionally exploiting that for years by then.
Anyone who needed something more from me gave up, and the ones who stayed have been fine with letting me hang in the metaphorical back when conversations get too deep. I’m an expert at knowing when to change the subject or crack a joke.
How convenient this must have been for Dustin. I was an easy girlfriend because I never wanted to analyze anything. We rarely fought because neither of us was entirely invested. He was happy to keep the status quo, and he never asked me to move out of my comfort zone.
Reid, on the other hand, has always been onto me—and, just like my sister, he’s about had it. It’s a real testament to my emotional deformity that I am capable of exhausting even the best people.
I reread his message to Cat, and it hurts more than it should. To him, Catherine is another woman—not Millie. He’s talking about all of this with someone else, not me. I have no claim to Reid, no right to be upset that he wonders if someone else is a better fit. So why does it feel like the rug has been pulled from under my feet? He told a total stranger that he doesn’t think he knows me at all.
Can I blame him?
I think back on what has always been my favorite smile, the patient one that says he’s exasperated but charmed—and loves me anyway. I compare that to his expression last night when he left. The tired eyes and disappointment that etched his features, the frown that got deeper and deeper until it resembled something hard and unfamiliar.
Now he wants to meet her, and I don’t know how to be her with Reid.
I am so totally fucked.
Ed’s neighborhood is composed of row after row of little brown condos, each a carbon copy of the one next to it. Community bike racks sit on each corner; the same shrubs are planted in each yard. I’m sure it was intended to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a logistical nightmare. If I’m singing along to the radio, or not really paying attention, I find myself on a random street, wondering if I was supposed to turn at that tall, skinny tree, or the one before it.
Like now. I drive around the block twice before pulling up in front of his condo, where my engine ticks in the quiet. The drive from my place to his has done little to calm me. I sit in the car for a moment and wish I had a Time-Turner so I could tell Past Millie to not be a dumb-ass.
Glancing at my phone, I’m hit with another blow when I realize Reid hasn’t called or texted once since last night. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t answer; I’m not confident enough in my bullshitting skills at the moment to fake my way through any sort of normal conversation, even one done over text.
It’s almost noon, but Ed answers the door in his bathrobe, holding a game controller. I would usually give him some shit about this, but alas, I’m also in pajama pants and didn’t bother with a bra.
“You’re not the pizza guy,” he says around a bite of Pop-Tart.
I brush by him, heading deeper inside, where I can hear Alex shouting at the video game.
Instead of couches, Ed has a set of high-back reclining gamer chairs that sit opposite the largest, most expensive TV I have ever seen. Alex is sitting in one and pauses their FIFA match when he sees me. “Mills, you here to play?”
“I’m here to flail,” I say. “I’m busted, you guys. Reid wants to meet Catherine.”
“What, your message meltdown didn’t scare him off?” Alex is mocking me, but I can’t care.
“You guys were right. Emotions give him a total boner.” I toss him my phone and drop like a lump into a flimsy beanbag in the corner.