Carl has always said that people who don’t haggle are suckers. And we aren’t suckers.
“I’m buying a car today. Doesn’t have to be from you,” I say to the manager.
The manager rolls his eyes. “All right, all right,” he says. “Eighty-one hundred, and it’s a deal.”
I shake his hand, and they start drawing up the paperwork. I put three thousand down and drive off the lot with a car. There goes most of my money. But it’s OK. Because I have a plan.
When I get far enough from the dealership, I pull over to the side of the road and start hitting my hands against the steering wheel, yelling into the air, trying to get out all the nervous energy that’s in me.
I’m doing this. I’m making a life for myself. I am doing this.
I call Carl at his office.
“Hello!” he says, his voice buttery and pleased to hear from me. “Tell me you’re taking the job.”
“I’m taking the job.”
“Outstanding. I’m going to put you on the phone with Joyce, our HR person here. She will talk to you about a start date, salary, benefits, all of that good stuff. If you don’t talk her up to at least forty-two, I’m going to be disappointed in you.”
I laugh. “I just paid eighty-one hundred for a ninety-five-hundred-dollar car. I got this. I promise.”
“That’s what I want to hear!” he says.
“Carl, seriously, thank you for this.”
“Thank you,” he says. “Honestly. This worked out perfectly. Rosalie showed up an hour and a half late this morning and didn’t even bother with an excuse. She denies it, but a patient told me last week that she swore at them. So I’m eager to let her go, and I’m just glad we don’t have to go through résumés to replace her.”
I laugh. “All right,” I say. “I’m excited to start working with you . . . boss.”
He laughs and puts me through to Joyce. She and I talk for about thirty minutes. She says she’s going to give Rosalie notice. So my start date will be in two weeks. But if Rosalie decides not to stay the two weeks, the job could start sooner. I tell her I’m OK with that.
“That’s why sometimes it really is best to hire someone you know,” Joyce says. “I know I’m in HR and I’m supposed to say that you should vet all the applicants, but the truth is, when you have a personal connection, it just makes it easier to be flexible.”
She offers me forty thousand, and, hot off the trail of my car purchase, I talk her up to forty-four. I get full health benefits. “And the good news,” she says, “is that we cover the rest of your family at a very low cost.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, it’s just me.”
“Oh, OK,” she says. “And you’ll have two weeks’ paid vacation a year and, of course, maternity leave if necessary.”
I laugh. “Won’t be necessary,” I say.
She laughs back. “I hear you.”
We finish discussing odds and ends, and soon everything is settled.
“Welcome to Hudson, Stokes, and Johnson Pediatrics,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. “Glad to join.”
I know he’s still working, but I find it impossible not to call Ethan.
“What’s up, buttercup?” he says. I’m surprised he answered.
“Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” he says. “Let me just step outside.”
I can hear him walk through a door, and the background quiets down.
“You’d better not ever try to negotiate with me,” I tell him. “Because I just talked the car salesman down fourteen hundred dollars, and I talked the human resources lady up four thousand. So basically, I’m a force to be reckoned with.”
Ethan laughs. “A car owner and a job . . . haver.”
“You’re damn right.”
“And did you find Charlemagne’s home?”
“They can’t see her until six,” I say. “So I bought the car, and now I’m headed back. I’m thinking I’ll just kill some time in the waiting room, see if the doctor doesn’t free up early.”
“Yeah. She’s there now. I had to leave a credit card so they’d keep her there until I get back.”
Ethan laughs again. “What, like collateral?”
“That’s exactly what I said!”
He laughs. “Listen, I’m leaving here in a half hour. What part of town are you in? I’ll come meet you.”
“Oh, that would be awesome!” I say. “I’m in West L.A. The vet is off of Sepulveda.”
“Jesus, that’s far from my house,” he says. “You took a bus there?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“I may or may not have hidden her in a backpack.”
Ethan laughs. “Why don’t I come meet you and we can grab an early dinner? Find a happy hour somewhere. I know of a Mexican place close to the animal hospital. I could buy you a celebratory burrito!”
I get lost more than once on my way there. Then I try to take an alley, only to realize there is a big truck coming at me from the opposite direction. I have to reverse out slowly and blindly back onto the street and find another way. But I get there eventually. That’s me in a nutshell. I’ll get there eventually.
I pull into the parking lot of the restaurant, and Ethan is waiting for me by the entrance.
“Is this the new car?” he says dramatically. “I like it. Unexpected. I thought for sure you’d pull up in something cherry red.”
I laugh at him. “I’m way more into practical decisions nowadays,” I say. “Stable guys, full-time jobs . . .”
“Stray dogs,” he adds.
I laugh and correct him. “I am merely helping Charlemagne find her true family,” I say as we head into the restaurant. “But the stable guy and the full-time job, those are . . .” I find myself intending to finish the sentence by saying “for keeps,” but I quickly realize I don’t want to do that.
It’s too early to be talking about how serious Ethan and I are or may be in the future. We have a history together, and we have potential to be something very real, but we just started dating again. I think the best thing to do is allow myself to imagine the future in my head but not put it into words just yet.
Which is to say that I think it’s very possible that Ethan is the one for me. But I’d rather be dead than say it out loud.
Luckily, Ethan appears to be on the exact same page, because he looks at me, grabs my hand, squeezes it, and says, “I hear you.”
The hostess asks if we want to be seated in the dining room or at the bar, and we go for the bar. As we sit down, Ethan orders guacamole.
“I’m very proud of you,” he says when the waitress leaves.
“Thank you,” I say. “I’m proud of me, too. I mean, I didn’t like where my old habits got me, you know? And I feel really motivated to turn over a new leaf.”
I think things have been working out for me so far partly because I have people believing in me. Gabby and the Hudsons and Ethan are so encouraging that it makes me feel I can do all the things I set out to do. In other cities, I never had a true support system. I had plenty of friends and, at times, caring boyfriends. But I don’t know that I ever had someone truly believing in me even when I didn’t. Now I do. And I think maybe I need someone in my corner in order to thrive. I think I am one of those people who need people. Because my family left and I was OK with it, I always thought that I was more of a lone wolf. I guess I thought I didn’t need anyone.
“Well, I admire it,” Ethan says.
The waiter sets the guacamole down in front of us. I grab a chip and dip in. But before I can even bring it to my lips, it smells awful. I put the chip down.
“Oh, God,” I say. “Is it rancid or something?”
“Uh,” Ethan says, genuinely confused. “The guacamole?”
“Smell it,” I say. “It smells funky.”