Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 21

I Looked for You Inside of Everyone Else

MATT

One Tuesday, a few weeks after I posted the letter for Grace to Craigslist, I was walking to my building from the subway when my eight-year-old nephew called, wanting to know if I’d sponsor his jog-a-thon. I adored the kid and said I totally would, but just as I was about to hang up with him, his mother got on the line.

“Matthias, it’s Monica.”

“Hey. How’s Alexander?”

“Great. Working like a dog and outshining all the other partners, as usual. You know Alexander.”

“Sure do,” I said, not unbitterly. “And you? How’s life in Beverly Hills?”

“Cut the shit, Matthias.”

“What’s up, Monica?”

“Elizabeth called me and said she and Brad are having a baby.” My sister-in-law could win an award for figurative ball size.

“Yeah, I’m aware. I get the privilege of working with those assholes every day.”

“She was my sister for eight years, Matthias. Don’t you think I have the right to know?”

I laughed. “You guys weren’t exactly pals, so calling her your ‘sister’ is ridiculous. And she left me, remember?”

“You’re an ass. She wouldn’t have left you if you weren’t so hung up on Grace.”

“Grace had nothing to do with my marriage or divorce.”

“Yeah right. Elizabeth said you never got rid of your photos of her.”

“I never get rid of any photos I take. Why would I? I’m a photographer. Grace was the subject of a lot of my early work. Elizabeth knows that better than anyone. Also, why are we even having this conversation?”

“I just wanted to make sure she gets a gift from us.”

“The postal service can help you with that. She still lives in our old apartment. You know, the one I gave up so she could play house and make babies with her boyfriend.”

“Husband,” she corrected.

“Bye, Monica. Tell Alexander I said hi.”

I hung up, took a deep breath, and wondered again, for the tenth time that week, what the fuck had happened to my life.

When I got to work, I found Scott getting coffee in the break room.

“You get any responses from that post?” he asked.

“Nope, just a few really sweet ladies who offered to be my green-eyed lovebird.”

“Dude, what’s your problem? Take advantage of the situation. She’ll probably never see it, but that doesn’t mean she’s the only green-eyed lovebird out there.” He batted his eyelashes at me.

“That’s the thing. On my way here, I was thinking about my life.”

“Uh-oh.”

“No, listen. My first girlfriend, Monica, and I had this stupid relationship that was all about being fake and trying to impress each other and everyone else.”

“You were young. So what?”

“It was the same thing with Elizabeth, at least in the beginning. My relationship with Monica set the precedent for my marriage with Elizabeth. When things got real, neither of us could handle it. It wasn’t like that with Grace. Ever. It was always real with her.”

“There are other Graces out there.”

“There aren’t, man. I’m telling you. I just met her at the wrong time. Fifteen years have gone by and I still think about her. I was married to another woman, a beautiful, smart woman, but sometimes I would think about Grace and wonder what it would have been like if we’d stayed together. I’d be making love to my wife and thinking about Grace. How fucked up is that?”

“ ‘Making love’? That’s really sweet, Matt.” He grinned, on the brink of laughter.

“Don’t patronize me.”

“I’m just saying it’s time to start nailing chicks. You’re long overdue. No more making love for you. Doctor’s orders.”

He slapped me on the shoulder and walked out.

Later in the week, Elizabeth stopped by my cubicle. I was leaning back in my chair, playing Angry Birds.

“Matt?”

I looked up to find her wearing a flowing maternity dress, looking like Mother Earth herself, caressing her baby bump. Elizabeth was pretty in a natural, granola kind of way. Plain features, plain brown hair, nice skin, and a sun-kissed glow all year long. It was her personality and her easy betrayal of our marriage that made her ugly.

“What’s up?”

“Don’t you have, like, a thousand photos to edit?”

I returned my focus to the screaming birds. “Done. Submitted.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her put her hand on her hip like a stern parent. Her patience was dwindling. I didn’t care.

“You couldn’t pass them by me first?”

My eyes shot up to her and then back down to my phone. “Well, that’s a fine-lookin’ high horse you’re on, Lizzy.” I never called her that. “You think you’re my boss now?”

“Matt. I can barely tolerate this strife between us.”

“Strife?!” I chuckled as I leaned back in my chair. My phone buzzed in my hand. Incoming call from a local Manhattan number I didn’t recognize. I held my finger up to Elizabeth, shushing her before I pressed talk. “Hello?”

“Matt?”

Oh God.

Her voice, her voice, her voice, her voice.

Elizabeth was still glaring at me. She threw her hands up and said, “Can you just call this person back? I’m trying to talk to you.”

“Hold on, Grace,” I said.

“Grace?” Elizabeth’s mouth fell open.

I covered the receiver. “Get the fuck out of here!”

She put her hand on her other hip. “I’m not leaving.”

I uncovered the receiver. “Grace?”

God, I wanted to fucking cry.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Can you give me two minutes? I promise I’ll call you right back.” I thought I was going to throw up.

“If it’s a bad time . . .”

“No, no, I’ll call you right back.”

“Okay,” she said, uncertainly.

We hung up. “So, you’re seeing Grace?” Something about her tone smacked of satisfaction, and her eyes said, Of course you are.

I sucked in a deep breath through my nose. “No, I’m not seeing her. That was the first time I’ve talked to her in fifteen years, and you just ruined it.”

“This is your job, Matt. This is a workplace.”

“Is that what you said to Brad before you fucked him in the copy room?” I shot back, flatly. I felt like someone had stabbed me in the chest and I was bleeding out. I felt weaker and weaker by the second. “I don’t feel good. Can you leave me alone please?” My eyes started to water.

She flushed. “I . . . Matt . . .”

“Whatever you’re about to say, I don’t care, Elizabeth. Not at all. Not even one iota.” I shrugged.

She turned and walked away.

I went to my recent calls and hit send on Grace’s number.

“Hello?”

“I’m so sorry about that.”

“That’s okay.”

I took a deep breath. “God, it’s good to hear your voice, Grace.”

“Yeah?”

“How have you been?”

“I’ve been okay. It’s been . . . a long time, Matt.”

“Yeah. It has, hasn’t it?” She sounded a little apprehensive. I was, too. “So what do you do now? Where do you live? Are you married?”

“I’m not married.” My stomach unclenched. Thank God. “I live in a brownstone on West Broadway in SoHo.”

“You’re kidding. I live on Wooster.”

“Oh, wow. That’s very close. Are you still working for the magazine?”

She knew I worked for the magazine? “Yeah, but I do more for the TV channel now. I’m not traveling as much. How about you? Still playing the cello?” A memory of Grace playing the cello in our dorm room, wearing nothing but her flowery underwear, drifted into my head. The light from the window had silhouetted her so I had pressed the shutter on my camera and snapped away as she played. I still had those pictures somewhere. I remembered that I had set the camera down, gone up to her, and traced the indentations above her cute little ass. She had gotten tripped up on the music and started giggling. I wondered now if I’d ever hear that giggle again.

“Uh-huh. Not professionally, I teach high school music classes now.”

“That sounds great.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. I wanted to tell her that she sounded different, doleful, un-Grace-like, but I kept those thoughts to myself.

Several moments of uncomfortable silence passed by. “So you saw the post, I take it.”

“Yes, that was really sweet . . .” She hesitated and took a deep breath. “When I saw you, I didn’t know what to think.”

“Yeah, um . . . the post was a shot in the dark, I guess.”

“You’ve had a great career. I’ve followed you a little.”

“Have you?” My throat hurt, my head began throbbing, and I was suddenly very nervous. Why had she followed my career?

“Is Elizabeth . . .”

“Pregnant?” I blurted out. Why did I say that? And how does she even know about Elizabeth? I wanted to fill her in on everything, but all the wrong words were coming out of my mouth.

“Matt.” Another long, uncomfortable pause. “I feel really confused about seeing you, and the post and . . .”

“Elizabeth isn’t—” I started to say, but she interrupted.

“It was nice talking to you. I think I’d better go.”

“Coffee? Do you want to get a coffee sometime?”

“Um, I’m not sure.”

“Okay.” Another awkward silence. “You’ll call me if you change your mind?”

“Sure.”

“Grace, you’re okay, right? I mean, you’re well? I need to know.”

“I’m well,” she whispered and then hung up.

Fuck!

Elizabeth chose that moment to come back with a stack of photos. She had the worst possible timing. “Can you review these and have them on my desk by tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, fine, leave them.” I didn’t look up. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was about to cry. I felt Elizabeth’s hand on my shoulder. She squeezed, the way a football coach might do. “You okay?”

“Yep.”

“It’s hard for you to see me like this, isn’t it?”

What? I was so taken aback, I almost laughed. Elizabeth had a way of making everything about her. “You think it’s hard for me to see you pregnant? No, I’m happy for you.”

“I guess that makes sense since you never wanted children.” Her tone was inscrutable.

I always wanted children, just not with you.

I took her hand in mine and did what needed to be done. “Elizabeth, I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband to you. I’m happy for you and Brad. I wish you both many years of marital and familial bliss. For the sake of all that is good, including our workplace sanity, let’s never, ever talk about our crappy marriage again. Please?” My eyes were pleading.

She nodded in agreement. “I’m sorry, too, Matt. I went about everything the wrong way.”

I released her hand. She smiled warmly, sympathetically, almost piteously. It was better to let her think I was lonely and pining for her than to fuel the fiery resentment she had always had toward me because I never got over Grace. Her suspicions were right, but I would never admit the truth to her.

Brad had been my friend since I’d first started at National Geographic as an intern. I had met him around the same time I met Elizabeth. He’d always had a thing for her and she’d always had a thing for me. I’d almost felt like an asshole for marrying her, so when she cheated on me with him, I wasn’t shocked. In fact, I’d had a strange urge to high-five him. Isn’t that terrible?

Elizabeth went back to her office and I headed to Brad’s office. It was time to be the bigger man, or at least the equally flawed, human man. I had blown the phone call with Grace, but it had shaken me loose; I didn’t want to stay in this rut of self-pity and hatred forever.

Standing in the doorway of Brad’s office, I cleared my throat.

He looked up at me from the other side of his desk. “Heyyyy, man.” He always stretched the “hey” out, stonerlike.

“Brad, I just came by to say congratulations on the pregnancy. Well done, my friend. We all know I couldn’t have done it better myself.”

“Matt—” He tried to stop me.

“I’m kidding, Brad. I’m happy for you guys. I swear.”

“Yeah?” He quirked an eyebrow.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“How ’bout a drink after work. Just the two of us?”

Well, I’m sure you fucked my wife on every available surface of the apartment I used to own, and now she’s pregnant with your child, so . . .

I clapped my hands together. “What the hell. Why not?”

We went to a hoity-toity cocktail lounge on the Upper West Side near my old apartment, which he and Elizabeth now shared. I fucking hated that bar, but it was familiar territory for both of us.

My scotch was served in a martini glass with an ice cube. There were so many things wrong with the drink but I downed it anyway. “Are cigars in order yet?”

“No, that’s after the baby’s born. You’re not really into kids, are you?”

“No, I hate them. I just want an excuse to smoke a nice Cuban,” I lied, for fun. What else is there in life?

“Well, the time will come. By the way, your sister in-law called. She’s sending us the antique bassinet.”

“What?”

“Yeah, she thought it should go to us. She thinks of Elizabeth as a sister.”

The bassinet was a family heirloom; it was meant to be kept within the family. “Monica is not the damned keeper of the bassinet.”

Brad picked up on my hostility and tried to change the subject. “Are you dating anyone these days?”

“No, just fucking,” I lied again, for amusement. “Finally got rid of that old ball and chain, you know?” I was finding it hard to stick to my goal of being the bigger man here.

“That’s great for you,” Brad said, uncomfortably.

“Another scotch please!” I called out.

“You know, sometimes Lizzy gets pissed at me for the smallest things. Like the toilet seat—she’s mad if I leave it up, but she’s mad if I leave it down.” He looked at me and shook his head. “She says my aim isn’t good enough.”

I actually felt sorry for him. “Listen, you’re gonna have to learn to piss sitting down. It’s part of being married. It’s actually kind of relaxing, like a little break.”

“Really?”

“Totally.”

My second scotch came. I drank it faster than the first.

“You know, I forgot to tell you that Lizzy found another box of your pictures and some rolls of undeveloped film. She said she wanted you to come by and pick them up since we’re . . . you know . . . trying to prepare the spare room.”

Jesus. “Okay.”

He checked his phone. “Shit, we have Lamaze class soon. I gotta go, man. Want to come up to the apartment and grab that box?”

“Sure, let’s go.”

We walked the few blocks to the apartment, hardly speaking along the way. Once we got to the building, I shuffled behind him into the lobby. The two scotches, combined with the weirdness of being in my old building, suddenly hit me. “You know what, Brad? I’m just gonna wait here for you to bring the box down.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ll wait.” I smiled weakly and took a seat near the elevator. A few minutes later, he returned with a dark gray plastic tote.

“Thought you said it was a box?”

“Uh, yeah, it was, but Lizzy took everything out of the box and put it in here for more efficient storage.”

“More efficient storage?”

He could barely make eye contact with me. “Yep.”

I was sure Elizabeth had gone through the entire box and thrown half of it away. I wasn’t surprised. “Thanks, Brad.”

“See ya, buddy.” He slapped me on the back as I turned to walk away.

Once I got back to my loft, I sat on my old leather couch, turned on U2’s “With or Without You,” kicked my feet up on the plastic tote, and closed my eyes. I imagined that I had built a life, not just a career. I imagined that my walls were covered with pictures of my family, not animals from the fucking Serengeti. Taking a deep breath, I leaned forward and opened the tote.

It was everything from that time, preserved in black-and-white photographs. Grace and me in Washington Square Park. At Tisch. In our dorm. In the lounge. Grace playing the cello. Grace naked on my bed, taking a photo of me, the camera masking her face. I ran my finger over it. Let me see your face, I remember saying. Grace and me in Los Angeles, playing Scrabble at my mom’s house. My mom teaching Grace how to throw pottery in the Louvre. Grace sleeping on my chest as I looked up into the camera.

Slowly, I took each photo out of the tote. The last photo I pulled out was taken on the day I left for South America. It was what they call a “selfie” now. Grace and I were lying in bed, looking up into the lens as I held the camera over us and clicked the shutter.

We looked so happy, so content, so in love.

What happened to us?

At the bottom of the bag, I found a cassette tape and an undeveloped roll of film. I removed it from the canister and held it up to the light. It was in color, something I rarely used back then; it wasn’t until I started working for National Geographic that I used color on a regular basis.

I got up, set the roll on the counter, popped the cassette into an old tape player, and drank until I passed out, listening to Grace and her friend, Tatiana, playing a violin-and-cello duet of “Eleanor Rigby.” They played it over and over, and each time, at the end, I could hear Grace giggling and Tatiana shushing her.

I fell asleep with a smile on my face, even though I felt like one of those lonely people they talk about in the song.

THERE WERE STILL a few film-processing stores around downtown. The PhotoHut was long gone, but I found a camera store on my way to work the next morning and dropped off the mysterious roll of film.

When I arrived at the office, I spotted Elizabeth in the office kitchen, near the coffeepot. “I thought you’re not supposed have caffeine when you’re pregnant?” I said.

“I’m allowed to have a cup,” she shot back as I brushed past her. I smirked and walked toward my cube. I could feel her walking behind me, her ballet flats shuffling against the carpet, kicking up electrical currents. She had a habit of dragging her feet.

I flipped on my computer and turned to see her standing behind me, waiting to acknowledge her. Her hair was sticking up, floating off her shoulders from the static electricity. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“What?”

“Your hair.” I pointed, like a five-year-old.

She scowled and wrapped her hair in a bun, grabbing a pencil off my desk to hold it in place.

“Thanks for getting a drink with Brad and picking up the tote last night.”

“Thanks for organizing my personal shit for me. Did you toss anything from the original box?”

“No, I could barely look inside of it. It was like a shrine to Grace.”

“Why were you so determined that I get all that stuff back, then?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel bad, I guess.”

“What exactly do you feel bad about?” I leaned back in my chair.

“Just . . . you know. How . . . I don’t know.”

“Tell me,” I urged with a smug grin. I couldn’t help but take pleasure as she struggled for words. She was clearly still envious of Grace.

“Just the way you put her on a pedestal and talked about her, like she was the one who got away.”

I leaned forward. “You’re not telling me everything—you’re doing that weird eyebrow thing that you do whenever you lie.”

“What weird eyebrow thing?”

“You wiggle one eyebrow, all crazylike. I don’t know how you do it. It’s like a creepy twitch.”

She self-consciously raised a hand to her brow. “It’s nothing that you don’t already know. I mean, we were so busy back then.”

“What are you talking about?”

Elizabeth’s eyes darted all over the room, like she was mapping out her exit strategy. She looked down at her overpriced shoes. “Grace called and left a message for you once, and . . . it was just . . .”

I stood. “What are you saying, Elizabeth?” I didn’t realize I was shouting until the room went completely silent. I could feel our colleagues peering around the walls of their cubicles at us.

“Shhh, Matt!” She leaned in. “Let me explain. It was while we were in South Africa.” She crossed her arms and lowered her voice. “You and I were already fucking. I didn’t know why she was calling.”

My mind raced to figure out the timeline. It would have been roughly two years after Grace and I last saw each other. After she disappeared.

“What did she say?” I asked, slowly.

“I don’t remember. It was so long ago. She was in Europe or something. She wanted to talk to you and see how you were doing. She left her address.”

Every nerve was on full alert. “What did you do, Elizabeth?”

“Nothing.”

She was acting so weird. Shifty. Like she still wasn’t telling me the whole truth.

“Just tell me what you did.”

She winced. “I wrote her a letter.”

“You didn’t . . .”

“I was in love with you, Matt. I wrote to her, but I was kind. I said that you had moved on, that she was part of your past, but that I wished her the best.”

My eyes were burning with fury. “What else did you do? For the love of God, Elizabeth, I’m about to make a headline out of us, and I’m not a violent man. You know that.”

She started crying. “I was in love with you,” she repeated.

I was stunned. I always thought Grace ran off. She hadn’t left me so much as a note—no address, no phone number. I had been devastated, always believing that she had been the one who left me.

“If you were in love with me, why didn’t you give me the choice?”

Brad walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. “What’s going on? What are you saying to her? She’s pregnant, man; what’s wrong with you?”

My chest was heaving. “Leave. Both of you.”

Elizabeth turned into Brad’s arms and started to cry against his chest. Brad glared at me and led her away, shaking his head, like I was the one who had done something awful.

Ever since I’d seen Grace on the subway, I’d been replaying everything that happened to us fifteen years ago, how the last conversation we’d had seemed so typical, just six weeks before I was supposed to fly home, back into her arms, back into the routine we’d set for ourselves during that year of heaven.

After work, I picked up the roll of film I had dropped off earlier. It was a Friday, and I had nothing better to do than go to my mostly empty loft and digest the news that Grace had tried to get in touch with me years ago. I sat on the couch near the big floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street.

Next to me, on the end table, was one small lamp; in my lap, the developed photos. The first three were blurry, but the fourth caught me off guard. It was a picture of me and Grace in our pajamas, standing in front of the blurry traffic lines. Our faces were slightly out of focus, but I could see that we were looking right at each other. That night we went to that diner in Brooklyn.

Every other photo was of Grace: in the lounge, in the park, sleeping in my bed, dancing in my dorm. All of her, captured in color.

I laid out each photo on my coffee table and stared at them as I thought back, reliving all the memories with her. Did I tell her I loved her? Did I know I loved her? What happened?

It was eight thirty and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was sick, disgusted by what Elizabeth had done. It all started to make sense—the way Grace had acted, so guarded on the phone. She had tried to reach out to me.

I hopped onto my computer and did a reverse phone number search. I found the name G. Porter on West Broadway. She was married? Even though I had been married, too, the realization stung. I Googled “Grace Porter musician nyc” and found a link to the high school where she taught music. I clicked through several more links and found out her department was having a special performance that night at the high school gymnasium, but it had started an hour before.

Without even looking in the mirror, I was out the front door. I just couldn’t leave things at an awkward phone call.

Once I arrived at the school, I took the stairs two at a time down to the gymnasium. I could hear the sound of applause, and I prayed I wasn’t too late. There was no one manning the double doors, so I slipped through and stood in the back, my eyes scanning the room for Grace, but all I saw were four chairs arranged at the far end of the gymnasium—three occupied, one empty. The crowd quieted as a man approached a podium set up off to the side of the incomplete quartet.

“Ms. Porter has something very special she would like to share with you all.” My timing was perfect, if not fifteen years too late. “This is indeed a treat, and a rare performance, so let’s put our hands together for her talented quartet.”

Grace approached the podium, and I couldn’t catch my breath. What I had loved about her all those years ago was still there: her unique mannerisms; how unaware she was of her beauty; her hair, still long and blonde, draped over one shoulder; her lips, a full, natural pink. Even at this distance, I could see her spectacular green eyes. She was dressed from head to toe in black—a high-necked sweater and pants, so striking against her light skin and hair.

She tapped the microphone and smiled as the thumping sound echoed off the walls. “Sorry about that.” Then a giggle. Jesus, how I missed that sound. “Thank you for coming out tonight. I don’t usually perform with the students, but we have something very special to share with you. Our first and second chair violinists, Lydia and Cara, and our first chair violist, Kelsey, will be performing with the New York Philharmonic next weekend.” The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles. Grace looked back at the three girls, who smiled at her, poised with their instruments. “This is a very proud moment for me, so tonight I would like to join them in a performance of ‘Viva La Vida’ by Coldplay. I hope you enjoy.”

Still my modern girl.

Grace walked to the farthest chair on the right and placed the cello between her legs. With her head down, she began the count. She had always played for herself, and as I watched her now, I could see that nothing had changed. I didn’t have to see her eyes to know they were closed, the way they always were when she played near the window in our old dorm.

I watched, enraptured, my eyes never leaving Grace as the song filled the gymnasium. At the end, right before the last pass of the bow, she looked up at the ceiling and smiled. The crowd went wild, the place shaking with thunderous applause.

I waited through the rest of the performances, starving, tired, and wondering if it was all in vain. The crowd cleared out a little after ten thirty, and I waited, my eyes still trained on her. Finally, she made her way toward the double doors, where I had stood the entire time. When I made eye contact with her, I could tell she had known I was there all along. She walked toward me with purpose.

“Hi.” Her voice was light and friendly, thank God.

“Hi. That was a great performance.”

“Yeah, those girls . . . lots of talent there.”

“No you, you’re so . . . you play so”—I swallowed—“beautifully.” I was a bumbling fool.

She smiled but her eyes were appraising me. “Thank you.”

“I know it’s late, but . . . would you like to get a drink?” She started to answer but I cut her off. “I know that phone call was awkward. I just want to talk to you in person. To”—I waved my hand around—“clear the air.”

“ ‘Clear the air’?” She was testing the words.

“Well, catch up. And yeah, clear the air, I guess.”

“It’s been fifteen years, Matt.” She laughed. “I don’t know if ‘clearing the air’ is possible.”

“Grace, listen, I think some things might’ve happened that I didn’t fully understand at the time, and—”

“There’s a little dive around the corner. I can’t stay out late though. I have something in the morning.”

I smiled at her gratefully. “Okay, no problem. Just one drink.”

God, I was desperate.

“Let’s head out, then. This way.”

We walked side by side down the dark street. “You look really fantastic, Grace. I thought so as soon as I saw you the other day on the subway.”

“Wasn’t that so weird? It was like the universe was teasing us; we saw each other just a second too late.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. I loved her mind. “I mean, apparently we live a few blocks from each other but we’ve never run into each other. It’s kind of strange.”

“Actually, I just moved into that apartment when I came back to New York last year.”

“Where were you before that?”

“I moved to the Upper West Side five years ago, but then I left for L.A. for a little while. After my divorce from Elizabeth was finalized, I came back to New York. That was about a year ago. I’m renting the loft on Wooster now.”

I watched Grace’s reaction carefully, but all she said was, “I see.”

Inside the dark bar, Grace selected a small table, hung her bag over the back of a chair, and pointed to the jukebox in the corner. “I’m gonna pick out a song. It’s too quiet in here for a bar.” Her mood seemed lighter. I thought about how she couldn’t handle being indoors without music. She was fine outside, listening to nature, but when she was inside, she always had to have music on.

“Can I order you a drink?”

“A glass of red wine would be great.”

I had to constantly remind myself not to reminisce in my head and to just be in the moment. There was a lot to say, after all. When I returned with our drinks, she was sitting, elbows propped on the table, her chin resting on top of her clasped hands. “You look great too, Matt. I wanted to say that earlier. You haven’t aged much at all.”

“Thanks.”

“I like the long hair, and this . . .” She brushed my beard with her fingertips. I closed my eyes for a second too long. “So, you were in L.A.?”

I tried to control my breathing, to stop myself from breaking down and crying. I was totally overwhelmed in her presence.

A sad song came on with a droning male voice. “Who is this?” I asked as I took a sip of my beer.

“It’s The National. But, Matt, you said you wanted to talk, so let’s talk. You went to L.A. after your divorce: did you stay with your mom? How’s she doing? I think about her from time to time.”

“I went before I got divorced, actually. To take care of my mom. She passed away while I was there.”

Grace’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Matt. I’m so sorry. She was such a wonderful woman.”

My throat tightened. “It was ovarian cancer. Elizabeth thought Alexander should’ve stepped up, but he was too busy trying to make partner at the firm. My mother was dying and her sons were fighting over who should take care of her. So stupid.” I looked away. “My marriage was already on the rocks. Elizabeth was desperately trying to get pregnant, but I was thousands of miles away, across the country. I think, on some level, she thought I was trying to avoid her. I just thought she was being selfish. We were both angry and hurting, I guess.”

She nodded. “What happened after that?”

“While I was in L.A., watching my mother wither away, Elizabeth started having an affair with my friend and our co-worker Brad, a producer at National Geographic. Eight years of marriage—poof.” I made an exploding motion with my hands.

“Eight years? I thought . . .” She hesitated.

“What?”

“Never mind. I’m really sorry, Matt. I don’t know what to say.”

“You can tell me this: why did you leave?”

“Leave when?”

“Why didn’t you leave a note or a message when you went off to Europe? You just left.”

She looked confused. “What do you mean? I waited. You never called me.”

“No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t make any more calls. The only person I talked to was my mom because I could call her collect. I was out of cash. We got stuck in a village with a broken vehicle and hundreds of miles of rain forest around us. I just figured you’d understand.”

She looked shattered. “What about that article in that photography magazine? It basically said you had a job with National Geographic and you were going to Australia after South America.”

“Back in ’97?”

“Yeah.” She threw back her entire glass of wine. “There was a photo of you taking her picture and it said you were going to Australia with her for six months.”

“I’ve never even read this article you’re talking about, so I’m not sure what you mean. Elizabeth asked me to go to Australia, but I turned her down. I came back here to be with you after my internship was over, but you were gone.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I thought you were going to Australia. That’s why I ended up joining Dan’s orchestra.”

I was shaking my head now, too. “No, I didn’t go to Australia. I came back at the end of August. I tried to call you before I left, but I couldn’t get through. I went straight to Senior House, thinking you’d still be there. When I couldn’t find you, I thought maybe you had moved to grad student housing, so I went to check with the registrar. He told me you had deferred your grad school admission. On my way back to Senior House, I saw Daria and she said you had joined Pornsake’s orchestra.”

Grace started crying, full, quiet sobs into her hands. “Grace, I’m so sorry.” I grabbed napkins from the dispenser on our table and handed them to her. “I thought you were the one who left me. I didn’t know how to reach you. I didn’t even accept the job at National Geographic until I found out you were gone.”

She let out a laugh through her tears. “Holy shit. All this time . . .”

“I know. I tried looking for you a few times, but I could never find you online. I didn’t know until tonight that your last name was Porter.”

Grace was hysterical now. “I married Pornsake, Matt. He changed his last name to Porter.”

My heart was murdered. “Oh.”

“Not right away. I waited almost five years. He’s dead now. You know that, right?”

“No. How would I know that?”

“I wrote to you.”

“You did?” Elizabeth. Turned out she still hadn’t told me the whole truth. It was like I had fallen into some alternate universe, where Grace loved me and I was the one who had left. All these years I had spent depressed over losing her, yet all this time she had been trying to find me.

I reached across the table and took her hands in mine. And she let me. “I’m so sorry about Dan. He was very kind. How did he die?”

“Enlarged heart. He died with a damn smile on his face,” she said, proudly.

“Did you love him?” I knew I had no right, but I was dying to know.

“He was good to me.” She looked up at the ceiling. “I loved him in my own way.”

“Yeah?” I was getting choked up again.

Her eyes met mine. “Yeah. But not the way I loved you.”

“Grace . . .”

“What the fuck happened, Matt?”

“I don’t know anymore. I thought I knew. Elizabeth just told me she sent you a letter?”

“I got one letter from you, maybe in ’99 or 2000. The rest of my calls and letters went unanswered.”

“Elizabeth wrote that letter, not me. I swear to God, Grace, I never would have ignored your calls.”

“Well.” Her voice got very quiet, shrinking in on itself. “It’s too late now, isn’t it?”

“Why? Why does it have to be too late?”

“I would say fifteen years is pretty late. So much has happened to us and . . .”

I squeezed her hands. “Let’s get a piece of pie or pancakes or something, like we used to.”

“Are you insane?”

“Yes,” I deadpanned. “We need to get out of this place.”

“I don’t know . . .” She withdrew her hands from mine.

I looked at my watch. “Breakfast for dinner?”

She ran a hand across her face and sat up straight, putting some distance between us. I couldn’t tell if she was contemplating the idea or trying to think of a nice way to say no. I searched her eyes and she smiled. “Okay. I’ll go with you, on one condition.”

“What’s that, Gracie?” She laughed at the nickname and then her eyes started welling up again. “Please don’t cry,” I said.

“We have to forget for a little while who we are to each other. No talking about the past. That’s my condition.”

“Deal.” I left a fistful of bills on the table, grabbed her hand, and pulled her toward the door. But just before we left, I turned to her. “Wait. Let’s do a shot first. We’re young, the city is ours, you don’t have to wake up early tomorrow to teach, and I don’t have an asshole for a wife.”

“Sure. Why not?” Her cheeks turned pink. She suddenly seemed happier, younger. And though I had promised her we wouldn’t talk about the past, I couldn’t help but feel like we had traveled back to the best time of our lives.

We each had a tequila shot, left the bar, and found a little twenty-four-hour diner. “I think I want pie,” I said as we stared into the refrigerator case.

“Me too. You wanna share a piece?”

“Let’s share two pieces,” I said, practically daring her.

“You’re talkin’ dirty now. I like it. Let’s do a slice of chocolate cream and . . .”

“A slice of peanut butter?”

“That’s so perfect. I’m gonna eat the crap out of that pie.”

God, I loved her. “Same here,” I said.

We ordered and then sat in a green vinyl–upholstered booth. She traced the sparkles in the retro tabletop with her finger. “So, how are Alexander, your dad, and Regina?”

“Great. My dad will never retire. He and my brother are partners at the same firm. Alexander and Monica have two kids and a big house in Beverly Hills. Regina is the same, except her face is tighter.”

Grace laughed but then her smile faded. “I’m sad to hear about your mom. I really liked her. I felt like we were kindred spirits.”

I thought back to the days before I lost my mom. She asked me what happened with Grace, and I told her it just didn’t work out. I was confused as to why my mother was bringing Grace’s name up after so many years had passed. She had no idea Elizabeth and I were having marital problems, but it was like she wanted me to know she still thought of Grace. I think she must have felt that they were kindred spirits, too. Elizabeth was never close to Mom, even after knowing her for a decade. One visit, and Grace was in my mom’s heart forever.

“Yes. She went peacefully. My dad actually came to see her before she died. It was heartbreaking because, after all they went through . . . she still loved him. That’s why she never remarried. I think, once everything was stripped away and he saw her near the end of her life, he loved her, too. At least, that’s what he said to her. If he didn’t mean it, at least my mom died believing it. I came to respect him more after that.”

“I can understand that.” She said it as if she spoke from experience.

I took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about something happier.”

“I followed your career for a while and saw that you won the Pulitzer. What an amazing accomplishment, Matt. Congratulations.”

“Thank you. It was unexpected and hard to appreciate because, I think, at the time, I was in a really dark place.”

“That was before your mother got sick though, right?”

“Yeah. She got to see me accept the award. She and my dad were really proud.”

Grace was so interested, so compassionate. I thought I had made up all those things about her in my mind. How fitting her name was. How real, beautiful, and genuine she was in the flesh. All those times I had stared at her photos and wished I could hold her, touch her, or just see her in person, in color, here she was, just like I remembered.

The slices of pie sat untouched between us. I stabbed a piece and held the fork up to Grace’s lips. “Pie makes everything better.”

She took the bite, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her mouth. I licked my lips, thinking about how she tasted—what it had been like to kiss her.

“That’s soooo good.”

“I know we aren’t supposed to talk about the past, but I’m dying to know what you did after we graduated. How was the orchestra?”

“It was wonderful, actually. We traveled for a couple of years. Tatiana did, too. When we came home to New York, Dan got his old job back at NYU, and I got my master’s in music theory in an online program. I taught at the college level for a few years, and now I direct the orchestra and band at the high school.”

“That’s fantastic, Grace. How is Tatiana?”

“She’s good. Still single and feisty. She’s with the New York Philharmonic so she travels a lot. She’s a very dedicated musician.”

“What happened to Brandon?”

She chuckled. “He was just one of many for Tati.”

“I should have guessed. So you never wanted to go down the same path as Tati? I might be biased, but I always thought you were a stronger musician than her.”

“I did, but . . .” She started fidgeting. “I, uh, never had the discipline she had. She was always better.”

“I don’t think so at all.”

“To the trained ear, Tatiana has more talent.” She smiled. “Last bite?” She held a fork full of peanut butter pie up to my mouth.

I grabbed her wrist, leaned in, and took the bite. The instant intimacy between us felt too familiar.

“I’m so sorry, but I have to get back. This has been so nice. It was good to see you again, looking so well and healthy,” she said.

“Let me walk you home.”

“It’s not necessary.” She moved to the edge of the booth to stand.

“It’s late, and I would feel better if you’d let me walk you.”

She hesitated. “Okay. You can walk me to my street.”

On the walk over, she twisted her hair up into a bun, exposing her tattoo. Green-eyed Lovebird. I couldn’t resist reaching out and running my fingers across the back of her neck. So it really happened. She flinched. “What are you doing?”

“I just wanted to touch it, to see if it was still there.”

She laughed. “Tattoos are pretty permanent.”

“I just wondered if you had it lasered off in anger.”

“I was more heartbroken than angry.”

Ouch.

I took her hands in mine. “I’m sorry. You don’t know how sorry I am.”

“I know. I am too. You still have yours, I assume?”

I stretched the neck of my black T-shirt, pulling it down to reveal the tattoo over my heart. “Yep, still there.”

She ran her fingers over it and whispered, “Just the ash.”

Her head dropped to the ground. I lifted her chin to look at me and her eyes were full of tears. “We were victims of bad timing. But here we are again.”

She smiled weakly. “I have to go.” Before I could stop her, she turned and rushed quickly down the street. I waited until I saw her walk up the steps of a brownstone, and then I headed home, pissed at the world, wanting to murder Elizabeth for screwing up my life in more ways than one.

As soon as I got home, I called my brother. It was only nine o’clock on the West Coast. Monica answered. “Hello?”

“Is Alexander there?”

“Hello to you too, Matthias. Alexander’s not here. He’s filing a big motion tomorrow so he’s still at the office.”

“Monica, you said you and Elizabeth were like sisters, right?”

“Well, we were family for eight years.”

“Uh-huh, sure. Did you know that Grace tried to contact me, and each time, Elizabeth found a way to keep that information from me?” My voice was harsh, accusatory. “Did you help her with these little deceptions, by any chance?”

“Stop.”

“No. You gave her the fucking family bassinet. You talked to her all the time. You told me yourself that she said things to you about how I was hung up on Grace. You didn’t like Grace from the beginning, and I knew that. You were both so jealous of her.”

“I’m going to hang up in two seconds if you don’t stop.”

I was breathing heavily, my pulse racing. There was nothing left inside of me but pure anger and adrenaline.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was never jealous of Grace. She was in your life for five minutes, and now you accuse me of this? Elizabeth never said anything to me except that you had a bunch of pictures of Grace that you refused to get rid of.”

“Elizabeth is the main reason I haven’t talked to Grace in fifteen years. Elizabeth is probably the reason I’m not married to Grace at this very moment.”

She sighed heavily. “Matt, you’re being melodramatic.”

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you all of this.”

She was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re telling me because we’re family.” Her words surprised me. “You should get some sleep, Matt. You sound torn up. I’m sorry if what you said is true. I never saw Elizabeth as a conniver.”

“Me neither. But she did it.”

“I’ll let Alexander know and have him call you, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks, Monica. Goodnight.”

I was still staring out the window at two in the morning. My head was foggy, so I decided to take a walk. Before I knew it, I was drifting toward Grace’s street. It was totally quiet as I stood staring up at four brownstones. I didn’t know which one was hers—they were completely identical.

“Grace!” I called out. I could have phoned her and said, “Gracie! Grace, please, I need to talk to you!” but if you’re going to insist on talking to someone at two in the morning, you might as well pay them a visit. “Grace, please!”

A man across the street opened a window and yelled, “Get out of here or I’m gonna call the police.”

“Do it!” I yelled back.

“He’s fine, Charlie!” It was Grace’s voice. I turned back to see her standing in the doorway of one of the brownstones. I ran up the five steps to the door, my chest heaving. I was inches away from her face as she looked up at me. She was wearing a pink flannel pajama set with Christmas trees on it. It was May. I smiled.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

I took her hands in mine and stared down at them between us. “I wanted to kiss you earlier but I was too chicken.” I leaned in and kissed her slowly, tenderly. Her lips were soft but her movements were eager. She kissed the way she always kissed, with passion. She threw her arms around my neck, pressing our bodies together as we deepened the kiss. She moved her hands to my sides, then to my waist, and under my T-shirt. Her fingers traced the designs on my belt.

She pulled away and whispered near my ear. “You still have this?”

“You were always with me, Grace. I never found a way to let you go.”

She dropped her head to rest on my shoulder. “What are we going to do?”

“Date?”

She laughed. “You want to date me?”

I’d marry you right now if you’d let me.

“Yeah, I want to date you. You’re my favorite ex-wife.” She lifted her head and I searched her eyes. I was relieved to find amusement in them.

“I’m free on Tuesday after class.”

“Want to meet in front of Senior House around three?”

She laughed again but her tears shone in the moonlight. I had made Grace cry too much for one night. “Yeah. I’ll see you there.”

I leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “Sorry I woke you up. Go back to sleep, young lady.” I kissed her nose, turned, and jogged down the steps. “Tuesday at three,” I called back. “I’ll see you.”

“Keep it down,” Charlie shouted from the window.

“Go to bed, Charlie!” Grace yelled.


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