“Oh, nonfiction, mostly,” he says. “I stick to the facts.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Admittedly, it is hard to keep up conversation with a stranger and pretend he is not as much of a stranger as he is. I try to come up with something to say. I talked to him about his job already. What do I ask?
“Sorry,” he says. “This is my first date in a very long time. I’m sorry if it’s awkward.”
“Oh!” I say. “Me, too. First time on a date in a while. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I haven’t dated anyone since Ashley,” he says, and then confirms what I already have deduced. “My ex-wife. Christina keeps trying to set me up with people. But I never . . . this is the first time I’ve agreed to it.”
I laugh. “Mila was really pushing it.”
“So I take it you are also a victim of the institution?” he says, smiling. “Divorced?”
“Well,” I say, “I’m separated. My husband and I. We’re separated.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” David says.
“No, me, too,” I say. “About yours.”
David laughs to himself. “Well, we never separated. I found her sleeping with one of her coworkers. I filed for divorce as fast as I could.”
“That’s awful,” I say, putting my hand to my chest. I’ve known David for, like, an hour. But I can’t believe someone would do that to him.
“You don’t even know the half of it,” he says. “But I won’t get into that. I told myself, ‘Don’t talk about Ashley at dinner.’”
I laugh knowingly. “Oh, trust me. Same here. I’m relearning how to talk to people since Ryan left. Honestly, this is my first date since I was nineteen. I have a whole list of things I’ve told myself not to do.”
“Let me guess. Don’t talk about your ex. Don’t talk about how lost you feel being alone again. Don’t talk about how weird and awkward it is to sit across the table from someone other than your ex.”
I add a few myself. “Don’t eat off his plate, just because you’re used to being able to do that. Don’t admit you haven’t been on a date in eleven years.”
David laughs. “We’re doing better with some than with others.” He tips his wineglass toward me, and I reciprocate. Our glasses clink, and we drink.
We laugh our way through dinner. We order more wine than we should. As buzzed becomes tipsy, the filter of what to say and not say starts to wash away. We tell each other the things we don’t tell other people.
He tells me he wakes up sometimes thinking he should just take her back. I tell him Ryan is dating someone else and that when I think about it, I think my heart might implode. I tell him I’m not sure I ever had much of a life outside of Ryan. He nods knowingly and tells me that in his darkest hours, he wishes he never caught her. That he just never found out. That he could live his whole life being the guy who didn’t know that his wife was cheating. He tells me he liked life better then. I tell him I’m starting to wonder who I even am without Ryan. I tell him I’m not sure I ever knew.
It’s the first time I’ve told someone the uglier truths about how much it hurts. It’s the first time someone has been able to tell me they hurt, too. It is comforting when you share your pain with someone, and they say, “I can’t even begin to understand how difficult that must be.” But it is better when they can say, “I understand completely.”
When dinner ends, he walks me to my car. We walk down Larchmont Boulevard past the closed shops and cafés, all decorated with wreaths and lights in preparation for Christmas next week. It would be a romantic moment if we hadn’t spilled our guts to each other, exposing our wounds and washing away all mystery. When we get to my car, David kisses me on the cheek and smiles at me.
“Something tells me we’ve friend-zoned each other,” he says.
I laugh. “I think so,” I say. “But a friend is a good thing to have.”
“It’s too bad we’re so clearly not ready,” he says, laughing. “You’re a beautiful woman.”
I blush, and yet I am relieved. I’m not ready to go on a date that ends with passion. I’m just not ready. I grab David’s hand. “Thank you,” I say, opening my car door and getting into the front seat. “Keep my number, will you? Feel free to call me when no one else gets it.”
He smiles that nice smile. “Ditto,” he says.
Charlie calls me the night before he’s supposed to get into town.
“It’s all set, I guess. Mom knows I’m staying with someone else. That went over like a lead balloon.”
“She’ll be fine, trust me.”
“Yeah, and Natalie is a little nervous.”
“Oh, yeah, I would be, too. It’s a scary thing.” Am I nervous? To meet her? I think I kind of am.
“I told her, though, everyone loves pregnant ladies. Especially ones carrying my kid.”
My kid. My little brother just said “my kid.” It still doesn’t entirely make sense to me. But it is happening. I need to remember that. Just because it’s been a secret and I haven’t had anyone to talk to about it doesn’t mean that it’s not real. It’s real, and it’s about to become realer.
“OK, so you’ll just meet us at Mom’s, then?”
“Yeah,” he says. “What time is dinner again?”
“Dinner is at five, but I think we are opening presents around one or two.”
“That means two.”
“Mom told you one or two so that you get there at one and she has more time with you, but really, she’s planning on two.”
“Why are you saying it like it’s some diabolical plan?”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with your family wanting to spend more time with you.”
“I know,” Charlie says. “But we’ll be there at two instead of one. That’s all I’m saying.” He’s being precious with his time because he has someone he wants to spend time with. He wants to be alone with Natalie. He doesn’t want to spend his entire day with his family. Me? I’ll happily spend the entire day with my family. What else would I be doing?
“OK, then, I’ll tell Mom you’ll be there at two.”
“You got Mom a gift, right?”
“We’re still doing that?”
“Yes, Charlie, we’re still doing that. I gotta go. Rachel is calling on the other line.”
“Cool. OK, ’bye. And don’t tell her yet!”
“I won’t. I got it.” I hit the button to change calls, and I drop Rachel. What the hell? How hard is it to navigate two phone calls on the same phone at the same goddamn time? I call her back.
“Learn how to use your phone,” she says.
“So we have a problem.”
“Well, I do. And I’m inclined to make you help me, so it’s sort of your problem, too.”
“OK,” I say. “Let’s hear it.”
“Grandma read an article that says white sugar is linked to cancer.”
“OK,” I say. “So I’m going to guess that Mom is insisting that all of the desserts you make be sugar-free.”
“Have you even heard of such a ridiculous thing?” Rachel is the one being ridiculous here. We live in Los Angeles. It would take me five minutes to go out and find a gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, vegan cupcake if I wanted.
“You can do it,” I say. “Dessert is like breathing to you. You have got this.”
“She doesn’t even have cancer,” Rachel says. “You know that, right? I mean, we never talk about it, but I think it’s clear the woman is cancer-free.”
I start to laugh. “You seem to have forgotten that that’s good news,” I say.
Rachel laughs. “No!” she says. “I love that she’s cancer-free, I’m just not sure why that means I have to make sugar-free pumpkin pie.”