I stumble to try to keep up with him. He’s going too fast, and my feet are killing me. “Wait, wait, wait,” I say.
I bend over and take my shoes off. The sidewalk is grimy. I can see wads of gum so old they are now black spots in the concrete. Up ahead, a tree has rooted itself so firmly into the ground that it has broken up the sidewalk, creating jagged edges and crevices. But my feet hurt too much. I pick up my shoes and follow Ethan.
Ethan looks down at my feet and stops in place. “What are you doing?”
“My feet hurt. I can’t walk in these. It’s fine,” I say. “Let’s go.”
“Do you want me to carry you?”
I start laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he asks. “I could carry you.”
“I’m good,” I say. “This isn’t the first time I’ve walked barefoot through a city.”
He laughs and starts walking again. “As I was saying . . . I have a great idea.”
“And what is that?”
“You’ve been dancing,” he says as he pulls me forward.
“And you’ve been drinking.”
“And you’ve been sweating up a storm.”
“Uh . . . I guess so?”
“But there is one thing you haven’t been doing.”
The second he says it, I am suddenly ravenous. “Oh, my God, where do we eat?” I say.
He quickens his pace toward the major intersection up ahead. I start to smell something. Something smoky. I run with him, my feet hitting the gritty concrete with every step, until we make our way to the crowd forming on the sidewalk.
I look at Ethan. He tells me what I’m smelling. “Bacon. Wrapped. Hot dogs.”
He cuts through the crowd and walks up to the food cart. He orders two for us. The cart looks like a glorified ice cream wagon that you might see someone pushing at the park. But the woman running it is keeping up with the orders of all the tipsy people out on the street.
Ethan comes back with our hot dogs nestled in buns. He puts one under my nose. “Smell that.”
“Have you ever smelled anything that good this late at night in any other city you’ve been to?”
Right now, this second, I honestly can’t think of a time. “Nope,” I say.
We walk around the block and find ourselves on a residential street. The sounds of the crowd and the smoke of the cart are gone. I can hear crickets. While standing in the middle of a city. I forgot that about Los Angeles. I forgot how it’s urban and suburban all at once.
The street is lined with palm trees so tall you have to throw your neck back to see their full scope. They continue on up and down this block, up and down the blocks to the north and south. Ethan walks to one of the trees and the surrounding grass. He sits down on the thin curb that separates them from the street. He puts his feet on the road, his back up against the tree. I do the same next to him.
The bottoms of my feet are black at this point. I can only imagine how dirty I will make Gabby’s shower tomorrow morning.
“Dog me,” I say, holding my hand out, waiting for Ethan to give me the one he has decided is mine.
“Thank you,” I say. “For buying me dinner. Or breakfast. Not sure which this is.”
He nods, having already taken a bite. After he swallows, he says, “Ah, I made a rookie mistake. I should have gotten us water, too.”
The world is starting to come into focus a bit more now that we have left the bar. I can hear better. I can see better. And maybe most important, I can taste this delicious hot dog in all of its bacon-wrapped glory.
“I know it’s become a cliché now,” I say. “But bacon really does make everything else taste better.”
“Oh, I know,” he says. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I really feel like I knew that before everyone else. I have loved bacon for years.”
I laugh. “You were into bacon when it was just a breakfast food.”
He laughs and adopts an affected tone. “Now it’s changed. It’s so commercial.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You probably put bacon on a doughnut back in oh-three.”
“All kidding aside,” Ethan says, “I really do think I figured out candied bacon first.”
I start laughing at him between bites.
“I’m not joking! When I was a kid, I would always put maple syrup on my bacon. Maple syrup plus bacon equals . . . candied bacon. You’re welcome, America.”
I laugh at him and put my hand on his back. “I’m sorry to break it to you,” I say, “but everyone’s been doing that for years.”
He looks right at me. “But no one told me about it. I came up with it on my own,” he says. “It’s my own idea.”
“Where do you think people got the inspiration for maple bacon doughnuts or brown sugar bacon? All around the country for years and years, people have been putting maple syrup on their bacon and loving it.”
He smiles at me. “You have just ruined the only thing I’ve ever considered a personal achievement.”
I laugh. “Oh, come on. You’re talking to a woman with no career, no home, barely any money, and no potential,” I say. “Let’s not bring up personal achievements.”
Ethan turns to me. His hot dog is long gone. “You don’t really think that,” he says.
Normally, I would make a joke. But jokes take so much effort. I wave my head from side to side, as if deciding. “I don’t know,” I say. “I sort of really think that.”
Ethan shakes his head, but I keep talking. “I mean, this is just not where I thought my life was going, at all. And I look at someone like Gabby or someone like you, and I mean, I sort of feel like I’m behind. It’s not a big deal,” I say, finally realizing that I’m complaining. “Just something for me to work on. I mean, I guess I am just hoping to find a city and stick with it one of these days.”
“I always thought you should be back here,” Ethan says, looking at me directly.
I smile, but when Ethan doesn’t break his gaze, I get nervous. I slap my hands on my thighs lightly. “Well,” I say, “should we get going?”
Ethan stares forward for a moment, his eyes focused on the ground underneath his feet. Then he sort of comes to, snaps out of it. “Yeah,” he says. “We should head back.” He stands up as I do, and for a moment, our bodies are closer together than either of us anticipated. I can feel the warmth of his skin.
I start to back away, and he lightly grabs my hand to stop me. He looks me in the eye. I look away first.
“Something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while,” he says.
“OK,” I say.
“Why did we break up?”
I look at him and feel my head cock to the side ever so slightly. I’m genuinely surprised by the question. I laugh gently. “Well,” I say, “I think that’s what eighteen-year-olds do. They break up.”
The tension doesn’t dissipate.
“I know,” he says. “But did we have a good reason?”
I look at him and smile. “Did we have a good reason?” I say, repeating his question. “I don’t know. Teenagers don’t really have to have good reasons.”
He laughs and starts walking back in the direction we came from. I walk with him.
“You broke my heart,” he says, smiling at me. “You know that, right?”
“Excuse me? Oh, no, no, no,” I say. “I was the heartbroken one. I was the one who got dumped when her boyfriend went to college.”
He shakes his head at me, smiling despite himself. “What a load of crap,” he says. “You broke up with me.”
I smile and shake my head at him. “I think we’re dealing in revisionist history here,” I tell him. “I wanted to stay together.”
“Ridiculous!” he says. His hands are buried deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward. He is walking slowly. “Absolutely ridiculous. A woman breaks your heart, comes back to town a decade later, and pins it on you.”