I sighed, resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be getting around this topic no matter how hard I dodged it. “Nothing was the same after that night. You and everyone else were the same, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t go out partying with all of you like nothing happened.” I took a breath, trying to push the memories back down. “It had nothing to do with our friendship, or you. I just couldn’t stand that look on everyone’s faces.”
When I looked up at her, the pity in her eyes made me sick to my stomach. I pushed my plate away and reached for my purse.
“I wanted to talk with you about it, but you never really gave me a chance,” she said.
“Believe it or not, I don’t really like talking about it,” I snapped.
Her eyes were bright and innocent, reminding me of the many nights we’d spent foraging her parents’ gift boxes of junk food, sharing stories and dreams in our freshman naïveté.
I relaxed in my chair. “I needed to work things out on my own, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t do that at the house.”
She didn’t, but I gave her credit for trying, even though she was dragging me through memories I’d long buried.
“Maybe we can get together when I get back from Spain and catch up a bit,” she said. “We don’t have to talk about that stuff, obviously. I know it’s upsetting for you.”
I nodded. I couldn’t change the past, but maybe we could salvage some of what was lost.
“Sure.” I forced a smile. “Let’s stay in touch.”
We talked about professors and housing in the city while Liz finished her muffin. Afterwards we exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. As I turned toward the campus again, my phone dinged with a text. It was Alli.
Need to talk. I have news.
My stomach sank. I called her.
“I have news.”
“So you said. What is it?”
“I got the job.”
“Fuck.” I blurted it out. I couldn’t help it.
“What do you want me to say?” I tapped my foot while people passed me on the street. Seeing Liz had put me over the edge, and now I was losing my best friend, roommate, and business partner. I refused to count this as a high point in my day. “Congratulations. I know you wanted this. Unfortunately I didn’t.”
Alli was silent on the phone for a few seconds. “We talked about this, and now you seem surprised.”
She was right, but it didn’t offset the sting. Things were in motion now, just shy of Max’s potential decision to fund us.
“When do you leave?”
“In a few days. I can crash with a friend in the city until I get a place.”
My phone started buzzing with another call. I didn’t recognize the number but needed an excuse to get out of this conversation before I said something I didn’t mean. “Someone’s calling me, Alli. I gotta go.”
I clicked over to the other line.
“Erica, it’s Blake.”
Fucking fuck. “This isn’t a great time.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I sounded anything but fine.
“Where are you? I’m in the neighborhood.”
I glanced around for the nearest recognizable landmark. “Near Campbell Square.”
“I’ll pick you up in five minutes.” He ended the call before I could argue.
I sat on a park bench, idly checking email on my phone to distract me from the bomb Alli had dropped on me. In one, Sid reported a decent influx of new users since the conference, which was welcome news since I had wondered if the entire effort had amounted to an expensive 3,000-mile booty call for Blake. My thoughts drifted back to Alli and Liz and how utterly alone I had become in the past hour.
A car horn broke my thoughts. Blake sat in the driver’s seat of a sleek black sports car waiting at the curb. I approached and was momentarily confused by the lack of door handles until one glided out of its hidden pocket in the passenger door. Strange. I got in, instantly mesmerized by the enormous LCD screen situated between the driver and passenger seats.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, instantly overwhelmed by all the gadgets and gizmos.
“It’s a Tesla.”
“Okay.” I stared out to the road ahead, waiting for the car to move.
“Hey,” he said softly, brushing his thumb against my cheek.
He looked fresh and cute, but his smile soon faded. My throat tightened as if I could cry again. I swallowed against the sensation, my body stiffening in an act of self-defense.
“I’m fine, seriously.” I turned my face away and wiped away any errant mascara that might clue him in to my recent meltdown. I didn’t know if I could bear being any more vulnerable to this man than I already was and still maintain a shred of professional integrity. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Are you hungry?”
“Sure.” I wasn’t, but I wanted to be anywhere but here. I let Blake take us away in what I now recalled was an extremely expensive high-tech car whose stock had just skyrocketed.
“How much Tesla stock do you own?”
“I got in on the second round of funding, so quite a bit.”
“Of course you did,” I mumbled.
Blake made his way into the city in record time and with little regard for pedestrians and traffic laws, but somehow I still felt safe and relieved to have the campus in the rearview. We rode the rest of the way in silence until Blake pulled into a reserved parking space across from the clock tower.
* * *
The Black Rose was an Irish pub in the heart of Boston, a few steps away from the famous Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Inside, a dark wood bar lined one end of the restaurant and coats of arms from the motherland covered the walls. Blake and I settled into a quiet corner of the restaurant where we could watch the people outside going about their day, including tourists, bankers, and men driving horse-drawn carriages.
The cute young waitress was cheery and asked for our order with an Irish lilt that made me think of my favorite professor who was also leaving in a few short weeks.
“Two Irish breakfasts and two Guinnesses,” Blake said, handing her our menus and promptly returning his attention back to me.
“Do you always order for other people?”
“I didn’t want you to battle with yourself over ordering a pint so early in the day.”
He leaned in, showcasing his biceps that were peeking out of the sleeves his T-shirt that featured the Initech logo from Office Space. He had no business looking so unprofessional on a workday.