I bring the two beers to the table and turn back to get Gabby’s wine. By the time I sit down, another woman has joined us. I remember meeting her at Gabby and Mark’s wedding a couple of years ago. Her name is Katherine, I believe. She ran the New York City Marathon a few years ago. I remember faces and names really well. It’s easy for me to remember details about people I have only met once. But I learned a long time ago not to reveal this. It freaks people out.
Katherine extends her hand. “Katherine,” she says.
I shake her hand and say my name.
“Nice to meet you,” she says. “Welcome back to Los Angeles!”
“Thanks,” I say. “Actually, I think we’ve met before.”
“Yeah, at Gabby and Mark’s wedding. Yeah, yeah,” I say, as if it’s coming back to me. “You were telling me about how you ran a marathon somewhere, right? Boston or New York?”
She smiles. “New York! Yes! Great memory.”
And now Katherine likes me. If I’d come right out with it, if I’d said, “Oh, we’ve met before. You were wearing a yellow dress at their wedding, and you said that running the New York Marathon was the hardest but most rewarding thing you’ve ever done,” Katherine would think I was creepy. I have learned this the hard way.
Soon some of my old friends from high school start trickling in, the girls Gabby and I hung out with: Brynn, Caitlin, Erica. I scream and shout at the top of my lungs when I see each of them. It is so nice to see familiar faces, to be somewhere and know that the people who knew you at fifteen still like you. Brynn looks older, Caitlin looks thinner, Erica looks just the same.
Some of Mark’s friends from work show up with their spouses, and soon we are crowding around a table too small for us.
People start buying other people drinks. Rounds are on this person or that person. I nurse my beer and a few Diet Cokes. I drank a lot in New York. I drank a lot with Michael. Change starts now.
I’m up at the bar again when I see Ethan walk in the door.
He’s even taller than I remember, wearing an untucked blue cotton button-down and dark jeans. His hair is short and tousled, his stubble a few days old. He was cute in high school. He’s handsome now. He will only get more handsome as he ages, I suspect.
I wonder if he has crow’s-feet like I do.
I watch as he scouts around, searching for me in the crowd. I pay for the drinks in my hand and walk toward him. Just when I worry he’ll never see me, I finally catch his eye. He lights up and smiles wide.
He moves toward me quickly, the gap between us almost instantly reduced to zero. He throws his arms around me and squeezes me tight. I briefly put the drinks down on the edge of the bar so I don’t spill them.
“Hi,” he says.
“You’re here!” I say.
“You’re here!” he says.
I hug him again.
“It’s really great to see you,” he tells me. “Beautiful as ever.”
“Thank you kindly,” I say.
Gabby makes her way toward us.
“Gabby Hudson,” he says, leaning in to give her a hug.
“Ethan!” she says. “Good to see you.”
“I’m going to grab a drink, and I’ll meet you in a minute,” he says to us.
I nod at him, and Gabby and I turn back toward our table.
She raises her eyebrows at me.
I roll my eyes at her.
An entire conversation without a word spoken.
Soon the music is so loud and the bar is so crowded that conversation becomes difficult.
I’m trying to hear what Caitlin is saying when Ethan gets to the table. He stands next to me, resting with his arm up against mine without a hint of self-consciousness. He sips his beer and turns to Katherine, the two of them trying to hear each other over the music. I glance over for a moment to find him looking intently at her, gesturing as if he’s making a joke. I watch as she throws her head back and laughs.
She’s prettier than I realized. She seemed plain before. But I can see now that’s she’s quite striking. Her long blond hair is blown out straight. Her sapphire-blue dress flatters her, hanging off her body effortlessly. It doesn’t even look as if she needs to wear a bra.
I can’t go anywhere without a bra.
Gabby pulls at my hand and drags me onto the dance floor. Caitlin joins us and then Erica and Brynn do, too. We dance to a few songs before I see Ethan and Katherine come over to join us. Mark hangs back with the others, nursing his beer.
“He doesn’t dance?” I ask Gabby.
Gabby rolls her eyes. I laugh as Katherine, twirling, catches my eye. Ethan is spinning her.
I wonder if he’ll take her home. I am surprised at how much this idea bothers me, just how unsubtle my feelings are.
He laughs as the song ends. They break apart, and he high-fives her. It seems like a friendly gesture, as opposed to a romantic one.
Looking at him now, recalling what it used to be like between us, how I liked myself around him, how I felt good about the world and my place in it with him by my side, how I ached when he left for college, I remember what it feels like to truly love someone. For the right reasons. In the right way.
Gabby taps my shoulder, bringing me back to reality. I turn to look at her. She is trying to tell me something. I can’t hear her.
“Some air!” she yells, pointing to the patio. She waves herself off like a fan. I laugh and follow her out.
The moment we step outside, it’s an entirely different world. The air has cooled, and the music is muted, contained by the building.
“How are you feeling?” Gabby asks me.
“Me?” I say. “Fine, why?”
“No reason,” she says.
“So Mark doesn’t dance, huh?” I ask, changing the subject. “You love dancing! He doesn’t take you dancing?”
She shakes her head, scrunching her eyebrows. “Definitely not. He’s not that kind of guy. It’s fine. I mean, nobody’s perfect but you and me,” she jokes.
The door opens, and Ethan walks through. “What are you guys talking about out here?” he asks.
“Mark doesn’t like dancing,” I tell him.
“I’m actually going to go see if I can get him to cut a rug once and for all,” Gabby says. She smiles at me as she leaves.
It’s just Ethan and me alone out here now.
“You look a little bit cold,” he says as he sits down on the empty bench. “I’d offer you my shirt, but I’m not wearing anything underneath.”
“Might break the dress code,” I say. “I thought since I’m in L.A., I should wear a tank top, but . . .”
“But it’s February,” he says. “And this is Los Angeles, not the equator.”
“It’s crazy how new this city feels to me, even though I lived here for so long,” I tell him as I sit down next to him.
“Yeah, but you were eighteen when you left. You’re almost thirty now.”
“I prefer the term twenty-nine,” I say.
He laughs. “It’s nice to have you back,” he says. “We haven’t lived in the same city for . . . I guess almost thirteen years.”
“Wow,” I say. “Now I feel even older than when you called me almost thirty.”
He laughs again. “How are you?” he asks me. “Are you well? Are you good?”
“I’m OK,” I say. “I have some things to work out.”
“You want to talk about them?”
“Maybe,” I say, smiling. “At some point?”
He nods. “I’d love to listen. At some point.”
“What’s going on with you and Katherine over there?” I ask. My voice is breezy. I’m trying to sound as if this is casual, and I’m pulling it off.
Ethan shakes his head. “No, no,” he says. “Nothing. She just started talking to me, and I was happy to entertain her.” He smiles at me. “She’s not who I came to see.”
We look at each other, neither one of us breaking the gaze. His eyes are on me, focused on my eyes, as if I am the only other person in the world. And I wonder if he looks at every woman that way.