And then he leans over and kisses me on the cheek.
The way it feels, his lips on my skin, makes me realize I have spent years looking for that feeling and never finding it. I have settled for casual flings, halfhearted love affairs, and a married man, searching for that moment when your heart jumps in your chest.
And I wonder if I should really kiss him, if I should turn my head ever so slightly and put my lips on his.
Gabby and Mark come through the door.
“Hey,” Gabby says, before staring at us. “Oh, sorry.”
“No,” I say. “Hey.”
Ethan laughs. “You’re Mark, right?” he says, getting up and shaking his hand. “Ethan. We didn’t formally meet earlier.”
“Yeah. Hey. Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry,” Gabby says. “We have to head out.”
“I just found out I have an early-morning thing,” Mark says.
“On a Sunday?” I ask him.
“Yeah, it’s this thing at work I have to do.”
I look at my watch. It’s after midnight.
“Oh, OK,” I say as I start to rise.
“Actually, I could take you home,” Ethan says. “Back to Gabby’s place later. If you want to stay for a while. Whatever you want.”
I catch a coy smile come across Gabby’s face for a split second.
I laugh to myself. It’s so obvious, isn’t it?
By coming back to L.A., I’m not just trying to build a better life with the support of my best friend. I’ve also reopened the question of whether Ethan and I have unfinished business between us.
We’ve spent years apart. We’ve gone on to live two very different lives. And we’re right back here. Flirting off to the side at the party, while everyone else is dancing.
Will we or won’t we? and If I let him take me home, will it mean more to me than it means to him?
I look at Ethan, and then I look at Gabby.
Life is long and full of an infinite number of decisions. I have to think that the small ones don’t matter, that I’ll end up where I need to end up no matter what I do.
My fate will find me.
So I decide to . . .
So I decide to go home with Gabby.
I don’t want to rush into anything.
I turn and give Ethan a good-bye hug. I can hear, through the door, that the DJ just started playing Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” and for a moment, I sort of regret my decision. I love this song. Sarah and I used to sing it in the car together all the time. My mom never let us sing the part about satin sheets. But we just loved the song. We’d listen to it over and over.
I consider taking my good-bye back, as if the universe is telling me to stay and dance.
But I don’t.
“I should go home,” I say to Ethan. “It’s late, and I want to get on West Coast time, you know?”
“I totally understand,” he says. “I had a great time tonight.”
“Me, too! I’ll call you?”
Ethan nods as he moves to give Gabby a hug good-bye. He shakes Mark’s hand. He turns to me and whispers into my ear, “You’re sure I can’t convince you to stay out?”
I shake my head and smile at him. “Sorry,” I say.
He smiles and sighs ever so subtly, with a look that says he’s accepted defeat.
We walk back into the bar and say good-bye to everyone—Erica, Caitlin, Brynn, Katherine, and the rest of the people I’ve met tonight.
“I thought for sure you were going home with Ethan,” Gabby says as we are heading back to the car.
I shake my head at her. “You think you know me so well.”
She gives me a doubting look.
“OK, you know me perfectly. But I just feel like if things with Ethan and me are going to happen, they will happen on their own time, you know? No need to rush anything.”
“So you do want something to happen?”
“I don’t know!” I say. “Maybe? Eventually? It seems like I should be with an honest, stable, nice guy like him. He seems like a move in the right direction, men-wise.”
When we get to the car, Mark opens the doors for us and tells Gabby he’s just going to take Wilshire Boulevard home. “That seems easiest, right? Less traffic?”
“Yeah,” Gabby says, and then she turns around and asks me if I’ve ever heard of the Urban Light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think so.”
“I think you’ll really like it,” she says. “They installed it a few years ago. We’re gonna end up driving by it, so I’ll point it out. This is all part of my campaign to make you fall in love with L.A. again, by the way.”
“I’m excited to see it,” I say.
“People always say that Los Angeles has no culture,” Gabby says. “So, you know, I’m going to prove them wrong in the hopes that you’ll stay.”
“You do remember that I lived here for almost twenty years,” I tell her.
“I meant to ask you.” She turns toward me as Mark looks ahead, driving. “How are your parents and Sarah?”
“Mom and Dad are good,” I say. “Sarah’s at the London Ballet Company now and living with her boyfriend, George. I haven’t met him, but my parents like him, so that’s good. My dad’s doing well at work, so I think my mom is considering only working part-time.”
They don’t send me money in any traditional sense. But for years, they have given me such a large amount of money every Christmas that I almost feel like I’m getting a Christmas bonus. I don’t know how much money my family actually has, but it certainly seems like a lot.
“Your family doesn’t come to the U.S. anymore?” Mark asks.
“No,” I say. “I always go over to see them.”
“Any excuse to go to London, right?” Mark says.
“Right,” I say, although that’s not really true. They’ve never offered to come back to the U.S. And since they are the ones buying the ticket, I don’t have a lot of say in the matter.
I turn toward the car window and watch the streets go by. They are streets I didn’t frequent as a teenager. We’re in a part of town I don’t know that well.
“Did you have fun tonight?” Gabby asks me.
“Yeah, I did,” I tell her, my gaze still on the sidewalks and storefronts we’re passing. “You have a lot of great friends out here, and it was awesome to see the girls from high school. Did Caitlin lose like thirty pounds?”
“Weight Watchers, I think,” Gabby says. “She’s doing really well. She was doing well before, though, too. Women don’t need to be thin to be valuable.”
I can see Mark smile into the rearview mirror, and I smile back at him. It is a small intimacy between us, our mutual eye-rolling at Gabby’s political correctness. I start to laugh, but I hold it in. Gabby’s not wrong. Women don’t have to be thin to be valuable. Caitlin was the same person before she lost the weight as she is now. It’s just funny that Gabby always feels the need to spell it out all the time. She can’t take it for granted.
Gabby’s phone dings, and she picks it up. I watch as she reads the text message and immediately hides her phone. She’s terrible at keeping things from me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“What is what?”
“On your phone.”
“Gabby, c’mon,” I say.
“It’s not important. It means nothing.”
“Hand it over.”
She reluctantly puts the phone in my hand. It’s a text message from Katherine.
Going home with Ethan. Is this a terrible idea?
My heart sinks in my chest. I look away and hand the phone back to Gabby without a word.
She turns back to look at me. “Hey,” she says softly.
“I’m not upset,” I say back, but my voice is thin and high-pitched. Upset is exactly how I sound.
“C’mon,” she says.
I laugh. “It’s fine. He can do what he wants.” I’m glad I didn’t stay out late with him, looking to see if there was something between us. “I specifically did not stay out with him tonight because I didn’t want it to be a one-night thing. If it was anything. So there you go. Spares me the embarrassment.”