Layla: Nothing more romantic than garlic bread and a man who is twenty minutes late.
Maddie: Be happy for me.
Layla: I’m being honest with you. That’s so much more important in a good friend.
Maddie: He could be the one.
Layla: Keeping my fingers crossed for you. But honey, don’t date him just because you’re afraid of the Chases of the world.
It bothered me that Chase and Layla were singing the same tune, but I shoved this worry to the bottom drawer of my brain.
Ethan arrived disheveled and a little sweaty, his hair sticking up everywhere. He wore casual clothes—a pair of jeans and a faded tee—not his usual doctor clothes. He kissed me on the cheek, his breath smelling uncharacteristically sweet, and took a seat in front of me, patting himself like he’d forgotten something.
“Well? How was it?” He cut straight to the Chase. Literally. He’d come to say hi to me the previous night, but that was just to lend me a book I’d pretended I wanted to read about managing infectious diseases in preschools. It occurred to me that I was making the same mistake I had with Chase back when we were dating. I was pretending to be someone who wasn’t completely me to try to appear more appealing to the person I was dating. It wasn’t so much that I was a completely different person, but I rounded the edges a little.
What Chase had told me after we’d gotten back from the Hamptons had struck a chord with me this morning, when I’d realized I had no intention or will to read a medical book just to make Ethan happy. Chase felt fooled, and as much as I wasn’t #TeamChase, I could still see where he was coming from. I decided to be completely honest with Ethan to avoid that. To show my absolute true self.
“What, the Hamptons?” I picked up my water and chugged it down to buy time. “It was understandably weird. I got trashed at the family dinner. Chase slept on the floor. We fought every waking moment his family wasn’t watching. Overall, we looked more on the brink of a bitter divorce than a blissful engagement.”
Ethan grabbed a breadstick from a basket and nibbled at it as he cooed, “Poor baby.”
“And then his cousin-brother—I’m not sure what they are to each other; biologically they are cousins, but they were raised as brothers—invited us . . . no, more like challenged us to go to dinner at his place to celebrate our engagement. He and Chase have this weird rivalry going on. So I kind of had to agree to that.”
I blinked at Ethan from across the table, eagerly awaiting his reaction. He put his breadstick down, frowned, and then looked back at me with his good-natured smile intact.
“Sure. I mean, we’re still casual, right?”
“Right.” I nodded. “Of course. Casual. Is that what you see us as?”
“For now. Yeah.”
I was beginning to hate the word with a passion. Then something occurred to me.
“You didn’t come from work, did you?”
Ethan shook his head, helping himself to another breadstick. Now it was his turn to stall. My eyes didn’t waver from his face until he was forced to add words to his lackluster explanation. “Nope. I was at a . . . friend’s house.” He looked uncertain, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You take showers at your friends’?” I raised an eyebrow.
“A special friend?” he offered, tucking his chin down and blushing.
My brain short-circuited for a second. He was sleeping with someone else?
“I see.” Frankly, I didn’t see anything. I was blindsided and annoyed but surprisingly unemotional about the discovery.
“It’s nothing serious. I just want to be up front and honest with you since your last boyfriend wasn’t. This thing with Natalie stops as soon as you and I are more established. But I figured since we’re not intimate yet, and you are doing this fake-engagement thing . . .” Ethan trailed off, the tips of his ears so red they practically glowed.
I decided to take it in stride. Ethan wasn’t Chase. He’d never let me think we were exclusive, then gone and slept with someone else. He hadn’t given me a key to his apartment or invited me to parties or gifted me a living thing. It was still early days. We’d only kissed a couple of times. Anyway, what business did I have getting riled up about it? I’d spent the weekend wearing my ex-boyfriend’s engagement ring and Yale sweatshirt. True, we hadn’t done anything together, but it was hardly behavior worthy of a girlfriend-of-the-year award.
Also, again: the fact Ethan had slept with someone else this evening simply didn’t bother me enough to give him grief about it, no matter how much I felt like I should.
A waitress came to take our order. Once she disappeared, I sat back, watching him with a weird mixture of awe and confusion.
“Where do you want to live when you grow up?” I blurted out. It was such a weird thing to ask, three weeks into seeing a guy. But I worried Chase might have been right about Ethan being everything I thought I wanted but not what I actually did want. I didn’t want to hurt Ethan’s feelings or drag both of us into something that was doomed from the beginning.
“I am grown up.” Ethan looked perplexed, helping himself to some more breadsticks.
“You know what I mean. When you have a family.”
“Oh,” he said, looking around us distractedly like I’d just asked him if he was willing to change my adult diaper.
Say Brooklyn. Say Hempstead. Hell, say Long Island for all I care.
“Westchester, I suppose. Great school districts, clean, safe . . .”
Boring. Then again, so what? Lots of young professionals who lived in New York ended up in Westchester once they started reproducing. Monica and Chandler from Friends had.
Yes, but you’re a Rachel, not a Monica, I heard Layla saying in my head.
And it’s also a sitcom, not real life. Now it was Chase’s voice that teased me.
“Can I ask you another question?” I peeled off the sticker holding the napkin together. Ethan took a sip of his wine, nodding. He didn’t understand this game much. Neither did I. I was just trying to figure out whether Chase had really read Ethan so well or not.
“What did you have for breakfast?”
“Eggs on toast,” he said without missing a beat. I sighed in relief, as if this were all the evidence I needed that Chase had it wrong. It wasn’t oats. Ethan probably hated oats.