“Mmm-hmm,” I said, listening.
“I’m worried that my meeting you, meeting this fantastic girl who is perfect for me . . .” he said, “I’m worried it will be too much. I’m worried she’ll feel left behind. or . . . that I’m moving on too quickly or something. there’s nothing left in the house to change. and I feel like she’s about to“—he didn’t say it lightly—“crash.”
“You feel like you need to stagnate because she is stagnating? or that you need to keep her at bay for now until she settles?”
“Kind of. For some reason, I just think, when I tell my mom I’m in a really great relationship, some part of her isn’t going to be ready for that.”
“I guess I don’t understand why it’s so dramatic. I mean, you’ve dated other girls before.”
“Not girls like you, elsie. this is . . . you are different.”
I didn’t say anything back. I just smiled and looked him in the eyes.
“Anyway.” He went back to his sandwich, finishing it up. “When I tell my mom about you, it’s going to be serious because I’m serious about you and I don’t know . . . I’m worried she’ll take it as a rejection. like I’m no longer there for her.”
“So I’m a secret?” I asked, starting to feel bothered and hoping I was misunderstanding.
“For now,” he said. “I’m being such a baby, scared of my mom. But if you don’t have a problem with it, I just want to be delicate with her.”
“Oh, sure,” I said, but then felt myself speaking up. “But not forever, right? I mean, you’ll tell her eventually.” I didn’t say the last part as a question and yet, that’s exactly what it was.
Ben nodded as he finished chewing. “absolutely!” he said. “When the time is right, I know she’ll be thrilled.” He rolled up the wax paper from his sandwich. He pitched it toward the trash can and missed. He laughed at himself, walked over, picked up the ball of paper, and put it in the trash can. By the time he grabbed my hand and started to lead us back to my place, I had come around to his way of seeing it.
“Thank you, elsie. For understanding and not thinking I am a gigantic douchey mama’s boy.”
“You’re not scared your mom will be mad at you,” I said. “that would make you a gigantic douchey mama’s boy. you’re just scared to hurt her feelings. that makes you sensitive. and it’s one of the reasons I love you.”
“And the fact that you understand that about me and it’s a reason you love me, makes you the coolest girl in the world,” he said, as he put his arm around me and kissed my temple. We walked awkwardly down the block, too close together to walk gracefully.
When we got to my apartment, we brushed our teeth and I washed my face, both of us using the sink in our own perfectly timed intervals. We took off our jeans. He took off his shirt and handed it to me silently, casually, as if it were now an impulse. I took it and put it on, as he turned on the one bedside lamp and picked up a book with a wizard on the cover. I got in beside him and put my head on his shoulder.
“You’re going to read?” I asked.
“Just until my brain stops,” he said, and then he put the book down and looked at me. “Want me to read to you?” he offered.
“Go for it,” I said, thinking that it sounded like a nice way to fall asleep. My eyes were closed by the time he got to the end of the page, and the next thing I knew it was morning.
I tell ana I want to go, and within seconds, we are headed for the door.
“What’s the matter?” ana asks.
“No, nothing. I’m just ready to leave,” I say. ana’s keys are in her hand, and my hand is on the doorknob.
“You’re leaving?” susan asks. I turn to see her a few feet behind me.
“Oh,” I say. “yes, we’re going to make the drive back to los angeles.” What is she thinking right now? I can’t tell. she’s so stone-faced. Is she happy I’m leaving? Is this all the evidence she needs that I don’t belong in their lives?
“Okay,” she says. “Well.” she grabs my hand and squeezes it.
“I wish you the best of luck, elsie.”
“You too, susan,” I say. I turn around and catch ana’s eye, and we walk out the door. It isn’t until my feet have hit the cement in her driveway that I realize why I am so bothered by what she just said, aside from how disingenuous it was. she thinks she’ll never see me again. It’s not like I live in Michigan. she could easily see me if she wanted to. she just doesn’t want to.
When we get home, I run to the bathroom and shut the door. I stand against it, holding the knob still in my hand. It’s over. Ben is over. this is done. tomorrow people will expect me to start moving on. there is no more Ben left in my life. I left him in orange County.
I lock the door behind me, calmly walk over to the toilet, and puke bacon-wrapped dates. I wish I had eaten more in the past few days so I’d have something to give. I want to expel everything from my body, purge all of this pain that fills me into the toilet and flush it down.
I open the bathroom door and walk out. ana is standing there, waiting.
“What do you want to do?” she asks.
“I think, really, I’m just going to go to sleep. Is that okay? do you think that’s bad? to go to sleep at”—I look at the clock on my cell phone; it is even earlier than I thought—“to go to bed at seven oh three p.m.?”
“I think you have had a very hard day and if you need to go to sleep, that’s okay. I’m going to go home and let my dog out and I’ll be back,” she says.
“No.” I shake my head. “you don’t need to, you can sleep in your own bed.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want you to be alone if you—” “no, I’m sure.” I don’t know how she’s been sleeping here for all of these days, living out of a backpack, going back and forth.
“Okay.” she kisses me on the cheek. “I’ll come by in the morning,” she adds. she grabs her things and heads out the door, and when it closes, the apartment becomes dead and silent. this is it. this is my new life. alone. Quiet. still. this isn’t how it was supposed to go. Ben and I had mapped out our lives together. We had a plan. this wasn’t the plan. I’ve got no plan.
ben called me from the car to tell me he would be late. traffic was backed up.
“I’m stuck on the 405. nobody’s moving and I’m bored,” he
Said to me. I had been at lunch with ana and had just left and made my way home.
“Oh no!” I said, opening up my front door and placing my things on the front table. “How far away are you?”
“With this traffic I can’t even tell, which sucks because I want to see you,” he said.
I sat down on the couch and kicked my shoes off. “I want to see you too! I missed you all morning.” Ben had spent the night with me and left early to make the visit down to orange County. He had planned on telling his mother about us and wanted to do it in person.
“Well, how did it go?” I asked.
“We went out to breakfast. she asked a lot about me. I kept asking about her, but she kept turning the conversation back to me and there just . . . there wasn’t an opening to say it. to tell her. I didn’t tell her.”
He didn’t say the phrase “I’m sorry,” but I could hear it in his voice. I was disappointed in him for the first time, and I wondered if he could hear it in mine.
“Okay, well . . . you know . . . it is what it is,” I said. “Is traffic moving? When do you think you’ll be home? er . . . here. When do you think you’ll be here?” I had started to make this mistake more and more often, calling my home his home. He spent so much time here, you’d think he lived here. But paying rent in one place and spending your time in another was just the way things were done when you were twenty-six and in love. living together was something entirely different, and I was showing my hand early by continuing to make that mistake.