I slouch in the booth, hands in my lap, wanting to shrink into the space between the cushions and live with the dust. At least it’s out now. Whatever there is after this, it won’t be as humiliating as this moment. It can’t be.
Max is quiet a long time. I can’t read his reaction, and in each second that passes I take his silence as agreement. I don’t even blame him. It isn’t his fault he estimates success differently than I do. We’re just different people and trying to measure either against the other is pointless. I’d feel better if we agreed to stop trying.
“Conor,” he says finally. “I should have said this a long time ago—you have never not been good enough. I’ve never seen you as anything less than a funny, charming, intelligent kid who is becoming a remarkable young man. You’re right, there’s a paternal part of me who likes the idea of being a mentor to you, a role model. To bring you into the company and teach you to take over when I’m gone. If that’s not where your heart lies, I respect that. I probably should have taken the hint a little sooner, huh? But whatever you choose to do with your life and career, your mother and I will support you. As a team. As a family. Because we know you’ll make the right decisions for you. If I can help, I’m glad to. Otherwise,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh, “I’ll stay out of your way. In either case, I want you to know I’m exceedingly proud of you.”
I laugh weakly. “Come on now, let’s not get crazy here.”
“I’m proud of you,” he repeats, reaching into his pocket to pull out his phone.
I watch suspiciously as he goes to a website that has a photo of him sitting at his desk. One of those corporate PR shots. Then he places the phone on the table between us and zooms in. Behind him, beside all the awards and plaques, is a framed photograph of my mom and me.
My breath hitches slightly and I hope he doesn’t hear it. The picture is from their honeymoon, a couple days after the wedding. We all went to Hawaii, and on our last night there, Max took a photo of us watching the sunset. I’d never left California before that. Never been on a plane. I was in a shit mood the whole time because they were doing couple stuff and I had no one to hang out with, but that evening on the beach with my mom was my best memory from the trip.
“I’ve always been proud of you,” Max says gruffly, as my eyes begin to sting. “I’ll always be proud of you, Conor. I love you.”
“Well, shit,” I say, coughing to clear the rocks from my throat. “Guess I’m the asshole.”
He laughs while we both discreetly rub our eyes and make other manly guttural noises that are absolutely not crying.
“Not sure what to say now,” I admit. “Sorta feels like shit that we spent all this time being weird around each other.” I’m not about to be the guy’s best friend or start calling him Dad, but the last few years would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if we’d had this conversation sooner.
“Cheesy as it sounds, I’d appreciate it if we could start over,” he says. “Try to be friends?”
There are worse things. “Yeah, I could do that.”
I’m about to suggest we order some grub, but then I remember I’ve got a large child’s worth of flowers drying out in my front seat, and some more errands to run before I pick up Taylor for our date.
“How long are you staying in town?” I ask.
“Planning to head back tomorrow morning. Why, what’s up?”
“Well, it’s my girlfriend’s birthday tonight and we’ve got plans with her friends. But if you don’t mind sticking around a bit longer, maybe the three of us could have dinner tomorrow night? I was talking to Mom about my girl coming to visit me in California this summer.”
Max’s face breaks into a wide smile that he then tries to smother as he nods. “Not a problem. I can change my flight. You just let me know where and when. I’d love to meet her.”
I can’t help thinking Taylor would be proud of me right now.
Conor is up to something. There’s a definite sense of mischief about him. Nothing he’s said, exactly, just more of a vibe I’m getting. He texted this morning to wish me a happy birthday and to tell me to get dressed up this evening. Which is unusual, since lately he’s been more concerned with getting me undressed. Then he dropped a hint that he wouldn’t be able to meet me after class because he had “special errands to attend to.”
Whatever he’s got planned for our date tonight, I have a feeling he’s gone completely overboard. And I can’t say I’d be mad at him. Truth is, I’ve never had a boyfriend on my birthday before, so I’m sort of looking forward to getting the full Hallmark movie treatment television promised me. More than anything, I’m excited about the prospect of Conor and me making memories.
Of course, getting dressed up requires a consultation with my beauty advisor. I text Sasha as I’m leaving class.
ME: Hot date tonight. Do my face?
She gives good face. One of her many shifting career aspirations over the last couple years has been to work as a makeup artist. At least as a way of supporting her music interests, and if that whole supervillain thing doesn’t work out.
By the time I reach my street on the walk home, she texts back.
HER: Why bother? Just going to ruin it sucking Conor’s dick.
HER: JK just got home, come on over.
ME: lol you said come.
HER: Mind out of the gutter, dirty girl.
ME: You started it.
I add a string of nonsensical but contextually explicit emojis, then pick up my dress from my apartment and take an Uber to Greek Row.
I do need to get better at balancing my time. Being totally absorbed in a couple cocoon has been fun, but I don’t want to neglect my friends. Sasha, especially. More than anyone else, she has supported me through the rough spots over the last few years. I probably would’ve had a total nervous breakdown and set my hair on fire more than once if it weren’t for her. But lately I feel like I have no idea what’s going on in her life, which is a sign that I’ve been taking more than I’ve given. Major friendship no-no on my part. I need to change that, asap.
The weather’s finally warming up, which means the typically quiet lawns of Greek Row on a weekday afternoon are more active. Porches are dotted with people studying. A few lounge chairs in the grass contain girls working on their tans for summer vacation. At the Sigma frat house, guys are playing beer pong in the driveway. I don’t pay much attention to their shouts and catcalls as I slide out of the Uber and plant my feet on the sidewalk.
The frat boys shower me with unimaginative variations on “show us your tits,” the typical garbage girls get from that house. Then something catches my attention.
“Hey superstar! Can we get a picture?”
“Can I have your autograph?”
“Where do I sign up for the live cam?”
That sounds…specific. Quite oddly so.
I keep my eyes straight ahead and don’t slow down as I hurry up the front path of the Kappa house. The best defense is not giving them the satisfaction of a response. Mulling it over, I chalk it up to a dumb joke. Abigail’s boyfriend likes to call me a “fat Marilyn Monroe,” so I assume that’s what the whole superstar gimme your autograph junk refers to.