I gape at him. “That’s a decent excuse when it’s a total stranger, not your best friend who you are concurrently fucking.”
Everyone goes quiet, and I get it: I don’t often yell. But I am on fire right now. Alex and Ed knew that Millie was lying to me, and then encouraged her to keep doing it. And she’s so goddamn out of touch with herself that she couldn’t just do the right thing.
I feel like an idiot.
I feel like I’m on the outside.
I feel totally humiliated.
I stand and toss a couple of twenties down onto the table. My heart feels like a boxer, beating and beating at my ribs. “Fuck you guys.”
I shut off the TV and the house falls into silence. I couldn’t even tell you what I’ve been watching. A car goes by on the street outside, and for the first time since Reid left last night, I don’t bother to look out the window to see whether it’s him.
He said he was going to think about things, but I worked from home today, and kept my phone and laptop right next to me the entire time and looked for him every time I heard anything outside . . .
I’m pretty sure he isn’t coming back.
My legs are stiff by the time I straighten them to stand and walk to the kitchen. I scan the contents of my fridge unseeing, trying to convince myself that the niggling voice in the back of my head is wrong, and Reid wasn’t totally freaking out.
I think he knows.
I don’t know how, but I felt it. I saw it on his face, some dawning awareness and then: the struggle to hide his anger.
No matter how much I concentrate on breathing slowly and exhaling to the count of five—over and over again—the panic is still there, growing more insistent with every heavy slam of my heart. Reid has never been mad at me before. I’m pulling apart at the seams. The room is too hot. The scent of Reid’s soap hangs in the air and when I turn my head, I can smell him in the fabric of my shirt, too.
I push away on unsteady legs and search for my keys, and then I just drive.
The sun is barely hanging on by the time I make it to Hendry’s Beach. I hadn’t planned to come here; I got in my car with no real destination in mind, but when the little blue pickup in front of me with the surfboard in the back turned, I followed.
Even with the windows up I can smell the salt in the air. It feels heavy and humid, and chilly enough here in the parking lot that I know it will be even colder down by the water.
I climb out and reach for the sweater in the back seat. It’s hideous but warm, a ratty old thing I keep ready for over-air-conditioned stops at Cajé and spontaneous beach moments just like this. I’ve had it for years, but no matter how many times I wash it, it still smells faintly of coffee.
With my keys and phone in the oversize pockets, I cut through the lot and down past the dog-washing station and the restaurant with blue and yellow umbrellas. Clumps of grass stake their claim near rocks in the sand, and I cross the sidewalk to the small set of steps down to the beach.
On the left side of the lifeguard tower, where dogs are allowed to run off leash, a particularly hyper golden retriever races into the surf, pouncing on waves as they break the surface and chasing them as they roll out to sea again. I take a seat in the sand: close enough to watch the waves but far enough away to stay dry. At least for a while.
A look around reminds me that I was here with Reid once, shortly after Dad was diagnosed. The trip home had been rough—so bad that I’d made up an excuse about work and flown back to Santa Barbara a day early. It was like the cancer talk with Mom all over again, and I’d literally panicked, heart racing and unable to breathe as I sat on the twin bed in Elly’s tiny little guest room. I had to go. Reid didn’t know what was happening, but he could see something was wrong as soon as I knocked at his door. I told him I’d had a bad day, and he drove us here. To watch the dogs, he’d said, because who can have a bad day while watching puppies run free and frolic in the ocean?
He was right. We’d rolled up our pants and found a spot on the beach and spent the next two hours just sitting in silence. Eventually, we talked about work and life. He told me about a date he’d been on while I was away, and how they made out in his car for an hour after he dropped her off, too wound up to say goodbye, but not wound up enough to have sex on the first date. There was an imperceptible ringing in my ears, a low-level hum of annoyance that seemed to grow with every detail that he shared. I watched his lips as he talked, imagined him doing the things he was explaining, and sort of . . . hated it.
When I look back on moments like that, it’s hard to convince myself that things between us have ever been one hundred percent platonic. The glances, the casual touches in the car, the subtle flirting—I wrote it off as us being comfortable with each other, but, holy shit, I am an idiot. I’d spent that afternoon stretched out in the sand with my head on his stomach, eyes closed while I matched my breaths to his and listened to the ocean. Would I do that with Ed? With Chris? Alex?
Not a chance.
I glance out over the horizon to where the sun is melting into the sea. The tide has come in, breaking against the shore and leaving clumps of seaweed behind as it recedes. I scrunch my toes, just out of reach of the foamy water as it inches closer and closer. I think I’ve always been jealous where Reid is concerned. Even then, I didn’t necessarily want to kiss him, but I didn’t really want him kissing someone else, either.
This makes me a really shitty person . . . a reoccurring theme as of late.
My friendship with Reid has been the easiest of my life. I’d never had a best friend before—never mind four of them—because I think I honestly don’t know how to do it. A summary of my last ten years would show a boring list of acquaintances and mild romantic serial monogamy. Nothing dramatic ever happens to me.
By design, I guess.
I didn’t even tell my sister when I moved in with Dustin. I wasn’t hiding it, exactly, but it didn’t seem like that big a change in our status. We were still together, not getting married. Living together sounds like such a huge leap, but it was still us, day to day. He still irritated me when he sucked his teeth after eating. I still irritated him by leaving my laundry on the floor. We weren’t ready to say forever; we were just being frugal and splitting rent.
I explained that to Reid once and he laughed for about fifteen minutes before kissing me on top of the head.
“What?” I said.
“You crack me up.”
“Because I’m smart about money?”
He shook his head. “Because you’re dumb about love.”
It didn’t even land in any aware spot in my brain. Like most of Reid’s teasing jabs, it just sort of rolled over me. I probably laughed and said, “I know, right?”
But I imagine living with Reid, and a small burst detonates in my belly. It would change everything, every first inhale and every last exhausted exhale of my day. It would influence every mood in between. I imagine shuffling sleepily around each other at the kitchen counter, waiting for the coffee maker to finish brewing. He’s wearing his soft, worn gray shirt and I can slide my hands up under it, warming them on his stomach. I imagine complaining about his morning breath, and him chasing me for a stinky kiss. I imagine grading papers on the couch together, my feet in his lap, him grumbling that I’m making it hard for him to work. I imagine the relief of sliding under the blankets with him—not just a warm body, but his warm body—every night.
I want every single one of these things flashing through my head.
I close my eyes, breathing in the salty air. I know people are more complicated than just good and bad, and that I can do something wrong and still be a good person—but it doesn’t feel that way right now. Shame claws its way up my throat when I think of how careless I’ve been with Reid’s feelings, and how I rationalized my way into hurting him. I think of how terrible I’ve been to my dad, and how I always assume Elly will be there to do the right thing when I inevitably drop the ball.
I love Reid but lied to him, and he knows it.
I love my sister and my dad, and haven’t been fair to either of them.
It’s time to grow up.
My hands are shaking by the time I ease to a stop in front of Reid’s house.