“Maybe,” he says hesitantly, “maybe we check out the menu, order some wine, and then catch up? You know, like people do over dinner?”
I nod, relieved that he seems as mentally sturdy as ever, and lift the menu to scan it, but it feels like the words on the page are trumped by all the questions in my head.
Where does he live in Berkeley?
What is his novel about?
What about him has changed? What stayed the same?
But the petty, traitorous thought that lurks in the guilty shadows of my brain is the bravery it took him to end a relationship after seeing me for less than two minutes. I mean, unless it wasn’t very established.
Or was already on its way out.
Is this the worst place to start? Am I a complete maniac? I mean, at the very least it was the last real thing we talked about yesterday, right?
“Is everything okay with… with…?” I ask, wincing.
He looks up from his menu and maybe it’s my slightly anxious expression that clues him in. “With Rachel?”
I nod, but her name triggers a defensive reaction in me: he should be with someone named Rachel, who reads with relish every issue of the New Yorker, and works in nonprofit, and composts all her eggshells and beet peelings so she can grow her own produce. Meanwhile, I’m a mess, with never-ending med school loans, mommy issues, daddy issues, Elliot issues, and a shameful subscription to US Weekly.
“Things are okay, actually,” he says. “I think. I hope eventually we can be friends again. In hindsight, it couldn’t ever have been more.”
This sentiment slips into my bloodstream, warm and electric. “Elliot.”
“I heard what you said,” he says earnestly. “You’re engaged, I get it. But it will be hard for me to just be your friend, Macy. It’s not in my DNA.” He meets my eyes and puts the menu back down near his arm. “I’ll try, but I already know this about myself.”
I feel his disarming honesty chipping away at the resilient shell around me. I wonder how many times he could tell me he loved me before I melted into a puddle at his feet.
“Then I think some ground rules are in order,” I say.
“Ground rules,” he repeats, nodding slowly. “As in, no expectations?” I nod. “And, maybe… anything you want to know, I’ll tell you, and vice versa?”
If this is quid pro quo, I’m going to have to put on my big girl pants and get through it. Although everything inside me is rioting in panic, I agree.
“So,” he says, easing into a smile, “I don’t know what you’d like to know about Rachel. We were friends first. For years, in grad school and after.”
The idea of him being friends with another female for years is a knife pushed slowly into my sternum. Taking a sip of water, I manage an easy follow-up. “Grad school?”
“MFA from NYU,” he says, smiling. Rubbing a hand over his hair as if he’s not quite used to the feel of it yet, he adds, “Looking back, it seems a little like when we hit twenty-eight, we defaulted into a relationship.”
I know what he means. I turned twenty-eight and defaulted to Sean.
He’s a mind reader: “Tell me about this guy you’re going to marry.”
This is a minefield, but I may as well put it all right up front and be honest, too.
“We met at a dinner welcoming all of the incoming residents,” I say, and he doesn’t need me to do the math for him, but I do: “in May.”
His brows slowly inch up beneath his shaggy mop of hair. “Oh.”
“We hit it off right away.”
Elliot nods, watching me intensely. “I assume you’d have to.”
I blink down to the table, clearing my throat and trying not to respond defensively. Elliot has always been brutally honest, but it never came out sharply at me before. To me, his words were always gentle and adoring. Now my heart is pounding so hard, I feel it swooshing between us, and it makes me wonder whether our individual heartaches are silently duking this out from inside our bodies.
“Sorry,” Elliot mumbles, reaching across the table before thinking better of touching me. “I didn’t mean it to come out like that. It’s just fast, that’s all.”
I look up and give him a weak smile. “I know. It did move fast.”
“What’s he like?”
“Mellow. Nice.” I twist my napkin in my lap, wishing I could come up with better adjectives to describe the man I plan to marry. “He has a daughter.”
Elliot listens, nearly unblinking.
“He’s a benefactor for the hospital,” I say. “Well, in a sense. He’s an artist. His work is…” I sense that I’m beginning to brag, and I don’t know why it leaves me feeling unsettled. “It’s pretty popular right now. He donates a lot of the newer art installations over at Benioff Mission Bay.”
Elliot leans in. “Sean Chen?”
“Yeah. You’ve heard of him?”
“Books and art run in similar circles around here,” he explains, nodding. “I’ve heard he’s a good guy. His art is stunning.”
Pride swells, warm in my chest. “He is. It is, yeah.” And another truth rolls out of me before I can catch it: “And he’s the first guy I’ve been with who…”
I try to think of a better way to end this sentence than the bald truth, but my mind is completely blank but for Elliot’s earnest expression and the gentle way his hands are cupping his water glass. He unravels me.
He waits, and finally asks, “Who what, Mace?”
Goddammit. “Who didn’t feel like some sort of betrayal to…”
Elliot picks up my unfinished sentence with a gentle “Oh. Yeah.”
I meet his eyes.
“I’ve never had one of those,” he adds quietly.
Actually, this is a minefield. Blinking down to the table, with my heart in my windpipe, I barrel on: “So that’s why I said yes when he proposed, impulsively. I’d always told myself the first man I was with and didn’t feel wrong about, I would marry.”
“That seems like… some sturdy criteria.”
“It felt right.”
“But really,” Elliot says, drawing a finger through a drop of water that’s made its way to the tabletop, “according to that criteria, technically wouldn’t that person be me?”
The waiter is my new favorite human because he approaches, intent on taking our order just after Elliot says this, preventing me from the awkward dance of a non-answer.
Glancing at the menu, I say, “I’ll have tacos dorados and the citrus salad.” Looking up, I add, “I’ll let him pick the wine.”
As I probably could have guessed, Elliot orders the caldo tlalpeño – he always loved spicy food – and a bottle of the Horse & Plow sauvignon blanc before handing his menu to the waiter with quiet thanks.
Turning back to me, he says, “I knew exactly what you were going to order. Citrus salad? It’s like Macy’s food dream.”
My thoughts trip over one another at this, at how easy it is, at how in sync we still are right out of the gate. It’s too easy, really, and it feels unfaithful in a really surreal and backward way to the man who’s a couple of miles away, installing a television in the small home we share. I sit up, working to infuse some emotional distance into my posture.
“And she retreats…” Elliot says, studying me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. He reads every tiny move I make. I can’t fault him for it; I do the same thing. “It started feeling a little too familiar.”
“Because of the fiancé,” he says, tilting his head back, indicating elsewhere. “When’s the wedding?”
“My schedule is pretty nuts, so we haven’t set a date yet.” It’s partly the truth.
Elliot’s posture tells me he likes this answer – however disingenuous it may be – and it stirs the anxiety in my belly.
“But, we’re thinking next fall,” I add quickly, straying even further from the truth now. Sean and I haven’t discussed dates at all. Elliot narrows his eyes. “Though if it’s left to me, it will happen in whatever we’re wearing at the courthouse. I am apparently really uninterested in planning a wedding.”