Sweet Filthy Boy: Chapter 20

IT’S STILL DARK when I step out onto the sidewalk, and the lobby door swings closed behind me. A taxi waits, headlamps extinguished while it idles at the curb, its shape swathed in a circle of artificial yellow light from the streetlamp above. The driver glances at me from over the top of his magazine, expression sour, face lined in what appears to be a permanent look of distaste.

I’m suddenly aware of how I must look—hair a mess and last night’s makeup still smudged around my eyes, dark jeans, dark sweater—like some sort of criminal slinking off into the shadows. The phrase “fleeing the scene of the crime” rings through my head and I sort of hate how accurate it feels.

He steps from the cab and meets me at the back of the car, trunk already open and smoldering cigarette suspended from his frowning mouth.

“American?” he asks, his accent as thick as the puffs of smoke that escape with every syllable.

Irritation grates at my nerves but I only nod, not bothering to ask how he knew or why because I already know: I stick out like a sore thumb.

Either he doesn’t notice my lack of response or he doesn’t care because he takes my suitcase, lifts it without effort, and deposits it in the trunk of the car.

It’s the same bag I arrived with, the same one I hid after only a few days because it looked too new and out of place in the middle of Ansel’s warm and comfortable flat. At least that’s what I’d told myself at the time, tucking it away inside the closet near his bedroom door where it wouldn’t serve as a daily reminder of my impermanence here, or that my place in his life would end as soon as the summer did.

I open my own door and climb inside; closing it with the least amount of sound I can manage. I know how well noises travel through the open windows and I absolutely don’t let myself look up or imagine him lying there in bed, waking to an empty flat or hearing the closing of a taxi door on the street below.

The driver drops into the seat in front of me and meets my eyes in the rearview mirror expectantly. “Airport,” I tell him, before looking quickly away.

I’m not even sure what I’m feeling as he puts the car into gear and slips into the street. Is it sadness? Yes. Worry, anger, panic, betrayal, guilt? All of those. Have I made a mistake? Has this entire thing been one colossal bad choice after another? I had to leave anyway, I tell myself; this was just a little ahead of schedule. And even if I didn’t, it was right to get some space, some perspective, some clarity . . . right?

I almost laugh. I feel anything but clarity.

I vacillate so wildly between last night was no big deal and last night was a deal breaker, between leaving is the right thing to do and turn around you’re making a huge mistake! that I begin to doubt every thought I have. Being alone and stuck in my own head on a thirteen-hour flight is going to be torture.

The taxi moves too fast through the empty streets, and my stomach lurches much in the same way it did that first morning here, but for an entirely different reason this time. There’s a part of me that would almost welcome throwing up right now, would find it preferable to the constant, pressing ache I’ve had since last night. At least I know vomiting would pass and I could close my eyes, pretend the world isn’t spinning, that there isn’t really a hole in my chest, the edges raw and jagged.

The city whips by in a blur of stone and concrete, industrial silhouettes dotting the same horizon as buildings that have stood for hundreds of years. I press my forehead to the glass and try to block out every moment of that first morning with Ansel. How sweet and attentive he was, and how I worried I was ruining it all and it would be over before it ever really began.

The sun isn’t up yet but I can make out trees and grassy fields, muddied blurs of green that border the freeway and bridge the distance between stretches of urban sprawl. I have the eeriest sensation of moving backward through time, and erasing everything.

I pull out my phone and bring up the airline app, log in, and search through the available flights. My decision to leave looks even more glaring in the too-bright light of the screen as it cuts through the darkness, reflecting back to me in the windows at my side.

I hover over the arrival city and nearly laugh at my imagined dilemma over choices, because I know I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.

The first flight of the day leaves in just over an hour, and it seems too easy to make the necessary selections and book my return trip with barely a hiccup.

Finished, I shut off my phone and tuck it away, watching out at the bleary city as it begins to wake on the other side of the glass.

There were no messages so I can assume Ansel is still asleep, and if I close my eyes I can still see him, body stretched over the mattress, jeans barely clinging to his hips. I can remember the way his skin looked in the low light while I gathered my things, the way the shadows drew him like canvas covered in charcoal. I can’t bring myself to imagine him waking up and realizing I’m gone.

The taxi stops at the curb and I see the price on the meter. My fingers tremble as I find my wallet and count out the fare. The broad, colorful bills still look so foreign in my hand that on impulse I fold the entire stack, pressing them into the driver’s waiting palm.

On the plane there are no phones, no emails. I haven’t bothered to pay for internet and so there’s nothing to distract me from the loop of images and words echoed back to me in dramatic—and maddening—slow motion: Perry’s expression slowly morphing from amiable to calculating, then from calculating to irate. Her voice as she asked how I was enjoying her bed, her fiancé. The sound of footsteps, of Ansel, of our shouted words and the sensation of rushing blood filling my head, my pulse hijacking every sound.

Aside from the few hours of sleep I manage to snag, this is the soundtrack throughout my entire flight and if possible, I feel even worse when we finally touch down.

I move in a fog from the plane to customs to baggage claim, where my single enormous suitcase waits for me on the spinning carousel. It no longer looks as new, marred in a few places as if it’s been thrown around and dropped, caught against the moving conveyer belt; it looks pretty close to how I feel.

At a coffee shop nearby, I open my laptop and find the file I’ve neglected all summer, labeled only “Boston.”

Inside is all the information I need for school, the emails about schedules and orientation that have arrived in the last few weeks, ignored but tucked safely away where I promised myself I’d deal with them later.

Apparently, later is today.

With the energy provided by a pot of coffee and the growing buzz over finally making the right decision, I log in to the Boston University MBA student portal.

I decline my financial aid.

I decline my spot in the program.

I finally make the decision I should have made ages ago.

And then I call my former academic advisor, and prepare to grovel.

I STARE AT the FOR RENT section in the local newspaper. Part of the deal in my agreeing to attend graduate school was that my dad would pay for my apartment. But after what I’ve just done, I don’t think he’ll support me, even if from where I stand it feels like the best compromise. I know he’ll be more likely to break something with his bare hands than give me a penny. I can’t bring myself to live under his thumb anymore anyway. Living in Paris has pretty much shot my budget to hell, but after a quick glance at the paper, there are a few places I can afford . . . especially if I can find a job relatively soon.

I’m still not ready to turn on my phone and face what I’m sure is a mountain of missed calls and texts from Ansel—or even worse, nothing at all—and so I use a payphone in front of a 7-Eleven just down the street from the coffee shop.

My first call is to Harlow.

“Hello?” she says, clearly distrustful of the unknown number. I’ve missed her so much that I feel tears sting at the corners of my eyes.

“Hey,” I say, that single word thick and coated in homesickness.

“Oh my God, Mia! Where the fuck are you?” There’s a moment of pause where I imagine she pulls the phone from her ear and glances at the number again. “Holy shit, are you here?”

I swallow back a sob. “I landed a couple of hours ago.”

“You’re home?” she shouts.

“I’m in San Diego, yeah.”

“Why aren’t you at my house right now?”

“I have to get a few things organized.” Like my life. In France, I found my spot in the distance. Now I just need to keep my eyes pinned to it.

“Organized? Mia, what happened to Boston?”

“Listen, I’ll explain later but I’m wondering if you can talk to your dad for me?” I take a shaky breath. “About my annulment.” And there it is, the word that has been tickling in the back of my thoughts. Saying it out loud sucks.

“Oh. So it went downhill.”

“It’s complicated. Just, talk to your dad for me, okay? I need to take care of some stuff but I’ll call you.”

“Please come over.”

Pressing the heel of my hand to my temple, I manage, “I’ll come over tomorrow. Today I just need to get my head on straight.”

After a long beat, she says, “I’ll have Dad call his lawyer tonight, and let you know what he says.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you need anything else?”

Swallowing, I manage, “I don’t think so. Going to look at apartments. After I check into a motel and catch a nap.”

“Apartments? Motel? Mia, just come stay here with me. I have an enormous place and can definitely work on my sex-volume issue if it means I get you as a roomie.”

Her apartment would be ideal, in La Jolla and perfectly situated between the beach and campus, but now that my plan has formed, it’s unbreakable. “I know I sound like a psychopath, Harlow, but I promise, I’ll explain why I want to do it this way.”

After a long beat I can sense her acquiescence, and for Harlow, that was remarkably easy. I must sound as determined as I feel. “Okay. Love you, Sugarcube.”

“Love you back.”

Harlow emails me a short list of places to check out, with her thoughts and comments on each one. I’m sure she called her parents’ Realtor and had her find things that were fit to exact specifications of safety, space, and price, but even though she doesn’t know where I want to live, I’m so grateful for Harlow’s busybody tendencies that I nearly want to weep.

The first apartment I see is nice and definitely in my price range, but way too far from UCSD. The second is close enough that I could walk but it’s directly over a Chinese restaurant. I debate with myself for an entire hour before deciding there’s no way I could stand smelling like kung pao twenty-four hours a day.

The third is listed as “cozy,” furnished, above a garage, in a quiet residential neighborhood, and two blocks from a bus stop that’s a direct line to the college. And thank God, because after paying the long-term airport parking bill I had upon returning, there’s no way I’ll be able to afford a campus parking permit. I’m relieved the apartment was listed only this morning, because I’m sure it will be snatched up quickly. Harlow is a goddess.

The street is lined with trees and I stop in front of the wide yellow house. A wide lawn spreads out on both sides of the stone walkway, and the front door is painted a deep green. Whoever lives here has a way with plants, because the yard is impeccable, the flower beds thriving.

It reminds me of the Jardin des Plantes, and the day I spent there with Ansel, learning—and promptly forgetting—the name for everything in French, walking for hours with my hand in his, and the promise of a future where I could do that with him whenever I wanted.

The woman who owns the house, Julianne, leads me inside, and it’s as close to perfect as I can imagine. It’s tiny, but warm and nice with tan walls and clean white trim. A cream-colored sofa sits in the center of the single main room. One corner opens to a small kitchen with a window that looks down into the shared backyard. The open floor plan reminds me so much of Ansel’s flat that for a painful heartbeat, I have to close my eyes and take a deep breath.

“One bedroom,” she says, and crosses the room to flip on a light.

I follow and peek in. A queen bed fills almost the entire space, a set of white bookcases suspended above.

“Bathroom in there. I’m usually gone before the sun is up so you can park back here.”

“Thanks,” I tell her.

“The closets are small, there’s horrible water pressure, and I guarantee the teenage boys who take care of the lawn will be absolute piglets when they see you, but it’s cute and quiet and there’s a washer and dryer in the garage you can use whenever,” she says.

“It’s perfect,” I say, looking around. “A washer and dryer sound like absolute heaven and I can definitely handle piglet teenage boys.”

“Yay!” she says, smiling wide, and for a tiny, desperate heartbeat I can imagine living here, taking the bus to school, starting to figure out my life in the sweet studio above her garage. I want to tell her, Please, let me move in right now.

But of course she’s rational, and with a tiny apology in her eyes asks me to fill out the background check form. “I’m sure it will be fine,” she says with a wink.

I’VE ONLY BEEN gone a few weeks, but checking into a motel in my hometown makes me feel like I’m returning to a city that has long since evolved without me. As I drive to the motel, I find a hidden pocket of San Diego I’ve never explored before, and although the corner of my dark city feels oddly foreign, the idea that there’s a different future for me here from any I had imagined before is powerfully reassuring.

My mother would kill me for not staying at home. Harlow wants to kill me for not staying with her. But even in the dim light and the cacophony of the I-5 freeway just outside my window, it’s exactly what I need. I check my bank balance for about the fiftieth time since landing. If I’m careful, I could make it to the start of school, and by then—thanks to my former advisor and the man who has gained me entrance to the MBA program that once heavily courted me at UCSD—I’ll have a small, rare stipend to help make ends meet. But even though the rent is reasonable in the studio, it would still be tight and my stomach flips imagining having to ask my father for money. I haven’t talked to him in over a month.

You are married? You have a husband, no? Ansel said, and God, that night feels so long ago. Curling into sheets that smell like bleach and cigarette smoke instead of summer grass and spice, I struggle to breathe and not completely lose my shit at eight at night in a dark motel room.

My neglected phone suddenly feels heavy in my pocket and I pull it out, let my finger hover over the button before I finally power it on.

It takes a few moments to load, but when it does, I see I have twelve missed calls from Ansel, six voicemails, and even more texts.

Where are you? the first one says.

You’ve left, haven’t you. Your suitcase is gone.

You didn’t take everything. I imagine him waking, finding me gone, and then walking from room to room, seeing the things I must have chosen to bring with me and the things I left behind.

Your ring isn’t here, did you take it? Please call me.

I delete the rest of the messages but not the voicemails, a secret part of me knowing I’ll want to listen to them later when I’m alone and missing him. Well, missing him more.

I’m not even sure how to reply.

I realize now that Ansel can’t be the answer to my problems. He fucked up by not telling me the truth about Perry and their past, but I’m fairly sure it had more to do with him being a stupid boy than wanting to keep me in the dark. This is why you get to know someone before you marry them. And the truth is that his lie was convenient for me, too. I’d been hiding in Paris, using him and the thousands of miles between France and the States to avoid the things that are wrong with my life: my dad, my leg, my inability to create a new future for myself beyond the one I lost. Perry might have been a total bitch but she was right about one thing: the only one moving forward in this relationship was Ansel. I was content to sit there, waiting, while he went out and conquered the world.

I roll onto my back and instead of replying to Ansel, I write a group text to my girls.

I think I found a place to live. Thanks for sending the list, H. I’m really trying not to lose my calm right now.

Let us come to your motel, Harlow answers. We’re going nuts not knowing what the hell is happening.

Tomorrow, I promise them.

Hang in there, Lola says. Life is built of these little horrible moments and the giant expanses of awesome in between.

I love you, I reply. Because she’s right. This summer was the most perfect stretch of awesome I’ve ever had.

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