It’s after ten, but the TV is on in the living room, so I know he’s home. I sit in the dark, watching the shadows flicker across his front window until a man walking a dog stops and peers at me from the other side of the street.
I give him what I hope looks like an I’m a friend, not a crazy stalker! wave before pulling the keys from the ignition and climbing out.
I haven’t even stepped onto the porch when the light flips on and the front door slowly opens. He must have seen me pull up.
My heart jumps inside my chest when I get a look at him. His dark hair is messy, falling over his forehead. He looks tired, is barefoot and dressed in a worn pair of jeans and a blue T-shirt. When he steps into the pool of light on the porch, my body reacts almost on instinct. I start to move forward to hug him and have to force myself to stay still.
I give him an awkward wave instead. “Hi.”
Crickets chirp from a pair of bushes on either side of the porch, the sound amplified in the duration of his answering silence.
He shifts on his feet, sliding his hands into his pockets. “It’s late, Millie.”
I take a breath. “I know. I was wondering if we could talk.”
That’s not something I’d have needed to ask before. On a normal night, I would have just barged in and dropped my things by the door before collapsing in a heap on his fancy leather couch. Nothing’s been normal between us for weeks now.
Surprising me, Reid takes a step back and holds the door open enough so I can pass. The small light over the kitchen window is on, and I can see that the counters are clean, the sink empty. I follow when Reid crosses to the TV, muting the volume before tossing the remote on the couch.
His mood is unfamiliar and solemn. Things were clearly strained when he left my house yesterday, but there’s something else in the closed-off look of his eyes, the way he holds his body, stiff, like there’s a wall around him and he’s being careful to keep everything tucked safely behind it.
He motions to the couch and I sit, relieved when he takes the spot next to me.
“I know I’m supposed to be letting you think,” I say.
I’ve never been scared in front of Reid, but the half inch of space that separates where our hands rest on the couch is terrifying. The act of simply not touching is intentional. I want to cling to his hand and feel its solid, reassuring weight. I want to hear that his love for me is unconditional, even though I know I don’t deserve it.
Reid clears his throat and I know I’ve been quiet too long. I’m sweating, hyperaware of how warm the night is and that I’m still wrapped in my giant sweater. When I look down at our hands again, I see tiny grains of sand that still cling to the sleeve.
“I should tell you something,” I say, wincing because of course I wanted to tell him something. That’s why I’m here, and we both know it. “Something I should have told you a long time ago.”
Reid’s finger twitches where it rests against the cushion. His hands are large, skin tan, tendons visible. I’ve seen those hands in the lab, calibrating the most sensitive pieces of equipment, and then in bed, holding me down, inside of me. He can tell I’m nervous—that I’m stalling—but for once he doesn’t reach out, doesn’t offer comfort.
I tug on my sleeves, pulling them down over my fingers despite the heat. I feel like I need a force field around me, some mental armor. “I lied to you—have been lying to you. For a few weeks now.”
Reid leans forward, away from me, to rest his elbows on his knees. “Okay.”
I’m not sure how to say it, so I blurt it out to get us both out of this miserable tension. “I’m Cat. I wrote the letters.” A heavy silence rolls through the room. He’s staring straight ahead to where Jimmy Kimmel is giving a monologue on the muted TV. “I never meant for it to get this far, and I don’t even know why I did it. Actually, I do, I guess. But those are excuses and—”
His voice is quiet. So why does it feel like a lead weight has just swung from a crane into my torso?
Reid straightens, rubs his palms on the front of his pants, and then stands to face me. He stares down at me, and he doesn’t have to say anything else for our entire conversation to echo in my memory.
“She was really great, and I thought maybe we had something. She talked to me about things. It felt like we were really becoming friends. And—I’ll admit—I maybe wanted more. She’s moving and it’s sort of a bummer that I’m not going to meet her.”
“That is a bummer. Do you think your feelings for her will affect . . . ?”
“I’m not sure. I liked our dynamic of straightforward honesty. I want that in a partner.”
He prompted me, gave me chance after chance to come clean, and I lied, right to his face.
I can feel the pressure of his attention, but I keep my eyes on the carpet, too humiliated to look anywhere else. “I think I realized when you figured it out.”
I hear his exhale. “I noticed your scar. Plus Monopoly, Girls Trip, the mentions of your dad, of a sister. Then I think it really clicked when the typo in one of your messages suddenly jumped out at me.”
“I’m so sorry, Reid.”
His silence seems to morph in front of me, and it’s in this moment I realize I’ve never really seen him angry before. I’ve seen him yell at someone on the freeway, watched him rebuke a careless intern for doing something unsafe in the lab. But I’ve never seen this. A frown pulls at the corners of his mouth and contorts it into an expression that seems almost perverse on his perpetually patient face. It’s disappointment, anger. The house is so quiet around us I can practically hear it rolling off him in waves.
He turns away, reaching for an empty beer bottle to take to the kitchen, but he stops halfway there. “What the hell were you thinking, Millie? Was it a joke?”
I choke on the words. “No! Of course not. I didn’t really think it through. I just— You guys were right about my profile, and so I changed it without telling anyone.”
“Why the name Catherine?”
“It’s my middle name. It made it feel less—”
“Deceitful?” He spits out a sharp laugh, and I wince.
Of course he didn’t know my middle name.
“I never set out to be dishonest. I was as surprised as you were when I got the message saying we’d matched.”
“So, you couldn’t have said, ‘Oh, funny thing, best friend. Even a computer program figured out that we’re sort of perfect for each other. Maybe we should give it a shot?’ ”
He stares at me as I stand and walk toward him, his gaze cold and unyielding. “I swear I thought you’d figure it out,” I say. “The Monopoly thing was meant to clue you in. But then it didn’t, and—”
“And you decided just to roll with it, have some fun?”
“No! I was going to tell you! But then you guys were making cracks about how the girl in the photograph must have been ugly, and how hot Daisy was . . .” I stop, swiping away hot tears with the sleeve of my sweater. “I got a little competitive and—”
“Jealous?” he finishes.
I look up at him. Something in me gets a little angry, too, at this being acknowledged out loud. But I really can’t justify that feeling, so I just nod. “Yeah. I was super jealous, Reid. I didn’t want you with her, even if I didn’t exactly know why yet. But it changed after that.” I move another step toward him and take a chance, reaching out to grip his arm. “Everything I wrote was true, every word of it. I said those things, that was me.”
He pulls away, and I crumble.
“But it wasn’t you. I love being with you, Millie. You’re smart and funny and I want you more than anyone I’ve ever known . . . but you never tell me anything. What’s missing—what’s always been missing between us—is the honesty I got in those letters. And you expect me to give you credit for being honest, in disguise, on some stupid dating app—after the fact?”
“I know, and you’re right. It’s hard for me to be like that in person, to talk about feelings and emotion. I’m just . . . I’m not good at it.”