Ugh, poor Ed. “Wait. You mean after like two weeks of amazing conversation, you asked her to meet, and she vanished?”
Ed nods, clearly bummed. “I’m getting some other matches, but . . .” He shrugs and lets out a long, rumbling burp. “Can we get back to fixing this mess you’ve created with Reid?”
“I’m definitely not helping you clean this kitchen,” I tell him, “so why not.”
“Maybe you should disappear like that,” Alex says. “Catherine, that is.”
I frown at him. “What? Just not reply?”
Ed stares at me and then shrugs again. “I mean, it’s effective. It’s not like I can go out and find her.” Pausing, he seems to hear the stalkery vibe to his words and adds, “Okay, not that I would try.”
My beer sits untouched in front of me, and I watch as tiny beads of condensation run down the sides of the bottle and form a puddle on the countertop. The idea of someone just disappearing on Reid—even if it’s me, and I’m still going to be here—makes me feel all twisty and protective. “I’d feel so bad, just pretending I don’t know everything. And what if someday we are together—”
“I knew it!” Ed interrupts, pointing at me and sloshing his beer. “I knew you wanted Reid!”
“Good sleuthing,” I tell him, dryly. “I mean, if we do manage to make a go of this, I can’t spend my whole life knowing this secret and keeping him in the dark.”
“She said ‘whole life,’ ” Alex says to Ed, with this soft, fond expression I’ve honestly never seen him make. “Like, marriage.”
“Slow down.” I hold up a hand, laughing. “Reid may never forgive me, but I don’t think I could keep this from him.”
“Normally I’d say yes,” Ed says, “own up and come clean. But you’ve learned your lesson here, Mills. What is telling him going to solve? He’ll be hurt and upset and . . .” He hesitates and my stomach drops to my kneecaps. “I mean, I’m not saying he’d never talk to you again, because this is Reid and he’s a good fucking guy, but . . .”
Ed trails off and my brain frantically tries to finish the sentence for him.
He’s a good fucking guy, but . . . this may be too much to forgive.
He’s a good fucking guy but . . . you’re too much work for him to bother trying to be romantically involved.
My heart follows possible Future Reid in each of these scenarios, and I want to scream. How many of the women I write about thought they were good people? How many mistakes does it take before you’re bad? Does it start with a little white lie, and slowly progress to fraud . . . and worse? Does it matter if you do the wrong thing for the right reason? Okay, obviously at first I was just being competitive, but then being Cat was almost more fun than being Millie, because I got to have something with Reid that I’ve never had with anyone before, and I fell in love with him.
The wind is knocked from my lungs as the word bounces around inside my head. Because now that it’s there, I don’t want to let it go.
Did I know this an hour ago? Yesterday? How long have I felt this and just left it totally unlabeled?
My existential crisis can’t be bothered with the fact that Ed and Alex are still in the room, and so it takes Ed shaking my shoulder to bring me out of it.
“Are you listening?” he says, hand waving in front of me but eyes lit like he’s just figured something out.
“Yeah,” I say, and attempt to blink myself back into focus. “You were saying . . .”
Ed frowns in a way that makes him look just like his mother did when she found a Fleshlight in his kitchen drawer and thought it was an actual flashlight. She spent five minutes trying to put batteries in before I realized what she was doing.
“I think a good compromise is you should tell him you’re leaving,” he says. “That Catherine is moving. Alex agrees.”
I glance to Alex, who gives me a noncommittal shrug. “It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
“But then I’ll be lying to cover up a lie,” I tell them both.
“Yes,” Ed says, pausing dramatically. “But you can still make this right. Get Catherine out of the picture and talk to him. Tell him how you feel and let him really see you. That’s what he wants, Millie. You read it yourself, he wants something to happen with you. Catherine is what’s making him second-guess that, and that’s you! Give him what he wants.”
I reach up to rub my temples. Can I give Reid what he wants? I don’t even have to think about it: I certainly don’t want to lose him.
“How would I do this?” I ask, almost wincing like I’m afraid to admit to myself that I’m considering it. “What would I say?”
Ed and Alex both lean forward; the three of us huddle together around the kitchen island.
“Tell him your grandfather died and he left you some giant house, and it says in the will that you have to live there and—”
“This isn’t Scooby-Doo, Ed,” Alex says, shaking his head. “Let’s keep it simple.”
“Right. Simple is better.” Straightening, Ed looks around the room, his eyes brightening when they land on his laptop bag. Once his computer is powered up in front of us, he turns it to face me.
Still unsure, I log into the site, and then Catherine’s account. The REPLY button practically pulses on the screen.
“Okay,” Ed says, and swallows nervously. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
There are few things that settle me more when I’m stressed or preoccupied than going into the lab, grabbing a set of slides from one of my graduate students’ cabinets, and heading into the dark calm of the scope room.
My newest student, Gabriel, is measuring dendritic spines in the visual cortex, and he’s really starting to get the hang of the staining protocol. The fluorophores are brilliant green, sharp, low-background. As I go through his latest experiments, a thrum of pride begins to take over that space where the anxious gnawing resided only twenty minutes ago.
In the darkness, my phone lights up with a notification from IRL: a new message from Cat. Within seconds, my stomach is tight again. This is it: after all of our messages, we are going to meet.
From: Catherine M.
Sent: 5:54 pm, April 7
There was a lot to unpack in your last message, and some things on my end have shifted, so I’ve been taking some time to find the right words.
First up, I just want to say thank you for being so honest with me, and for being willing to just put it all out there. The information about your friend wasn’t upsetting to me, I know how this works. I really admire how you cut right to the chase and shared what you need and want. It’s something I need to learn how to do better myself.
Second, what I’m about to tell you sounds insane, but this shifting I mentioned came at such a weird time in our “relationship.” I found out this morning that I’m being transferred to a different research site, in Cambridge MA. I think it effectively mutes our ability to make anything romantic out of this, but I’m obviously a bit gutted over it since I do think we could have had some really great chemistry. That said, there really isn’t any reason to prolong the misery, and there certainly isn’t any reason for us to meet in person.
I’m sure if I were you I’d be reading this thinking, Ok I’ve definitely been messaging with a dude who lives in rural England somewhere and is having a laugh, but I promise. I am a woman, who came into this with good intentions.
All this to say, I really do hope that things work out with your friend.
Sometimes, the thing we want is right in front of us, and we’re the last ones to see it.
Take care, Reid,
I read it again, because it doesn’t feel like it sinks in the first time. After all of that—every letter, every bit of honesty—we’re never going to meet?
The feeling of bewilderment that slams through me is almost impossible to describe. On the one hand, realistically, I’m no worse off than I was a month ago when this entire adventure started: things with Millie are murky, and I’ve got no other relationship prospects in sight. Sure, the romantic life has no momentum, but in all other respects, I’m fine.