I HAVE AN EXCELLENT poker face. The woman sitting opposite me does not. I suppose I can’t really blame her; if I were Harlow and someone said the things to my best friend that I said to Mia, I’d be looking at them like I wanted to light them on fire, too.
Most likely, at some point everyone at this table has thought of me as a hateful monster. And even though I probably deserve every dagger Harlow’s eyes are currently throwing my way, it takes a Herculean restraint on my part not to call her on it.
Instead, I stay quiet, my hands clasped together and sweating in my lap. Dylan sits quietly beside me, folding little frogs out of cocktail napkins, and even though I want to ask him more about his life in Switzerland, I was starting to feel like we were being rude. But I wish I could go back to that, because feeling the intensity of Harlow’s disapproval is incredibly uncomfortable.
Oliver is in the middle of a story about the time we biked through Arizona, peddling like mad through the rain and hoping we’d find shelter before one of us was struck by lightning, and I notice right when Lola reaches the end of her patience with Harlow and her eye-daggers and not-so-subtly kicks her under the table.
Harlow winces and turns her attention to where Lola has stopped drawing on a napkin, and is glaring at her.
“Yes, Miss Castle?” Harlow says.
“Why don’t the two of us go get something to drink?” Lola suggests, and if I hadn’t already fallen in love with her on the drive here, I would now. She was lovely, if not a little quiet when Oliver introduced us outside her apartment, but it was easy to see that it had more to do with her own introverted tendencies than anything about me.
Dylan jumps in before anyone can respond. “But Harlow has a drink,” he points out, and I can already tell that that’s just what he does, saying whatever thought happens to pop into his head completely without filtering it.
It seems so bare, so real, like he has nothing he needs to hide, and it eases something in me every time he does it.
“Well, she’ll need another one,” Lola says, squeezing out of the booth and standing, waiting for Harlow to join her. Harlow gestures for Luke and London to get up so she can leave, then follows Lola out with a huff. I exhale for what feels like the first time since we all sat down.
“I’m also going to have a chat with her,” Oliver says quietly to me. “You good here?”
I don’t even give myself a chance to think about it because no, knowing that Harlow wants to punch me, and anticipating Ansel and Mia’s arrival any second, I am absolutely not good. To be honest, I’m not really even sure why I thought this was a smart idea in the first place.
Getting on a plane and flying across the ocean to reconcile with my ex and his new wife? I must have been drunk.
But I don’t say that, and instead put on my widest smile and nod. “Absolutely.”
“You’re a terrible liar, but I’m going to let this one slide,” Oliver says, and stretches behind Dylan to whisper in my ear. “It’ll be okay, yeah?”
I nod again and lean into him for a moment before he straightens and heads to where Lola is currently reading Harlow the riot act on the other side of the bar.
“Harlow is a hard-ass,” Dylan says, in a quiet, gentle voice that actually takes me by surprise.
“I can see that.”
He stirs his drink and sits back against the booth, watching Oliver as he joins the two women. “She loves loudly,” he adds. “Like really loud. Sometimes it’s just hard to make her shut up.” If this were any other moment, in any other situation, I would probably laugh and kiss him for trying to make me feel better.
“An admirable quality in a friend,” I say. “And Mia is her best friend. I get it.”
“Yeah,” he says, draining the last of his drink and crunching a piece of ice between his teeth. “Did you know cows have best friends?”
I pause with my own glass pressed to my lips. “I’m sorry . . . what?”
“Cows,” he repeats, as if that was where he lost me. “I watched a documentary where scientists measured heart rate and serotonin levels to determine when female cows were calm or stressed, and some of them showed lower levels of stress when paired with certain animals within the herd. It makes sense when you think about it: chill cows would definitely produce the largest amount of, or most superior, milk.”
I set my drink down on the napkin in front of me. “Wow, that’s actually . . . really interesting.”
He looks thoughtful for a moment before adding, “They can’t go down stairs, either.”
“Stairs? Is that something they were studying in the documentary, too?”
“No, frat party rush week.” When he says this, he gives me a boyish smile that makes something in my stomach tighten in a rush. “But that’s a different story entirely.”
I’m about to say something when the door to the little bar opens and a familiar shape cuts across the light. I haven’t seen Ansel in nearly ten months, but it feels like it was only yesterday, the last time we fought and he stormed out of my flat. He looks just like I remember: tall, thin but strong, sharp jaw. Gorgeous.
My heart pounds in my chest and every conversation I’ve had with myself, every version of this moment I’d imagined over the months, seems to shuffle through my thoughts all at once.
It’s clear Mia has given Ansel ample warning, because he seems to have a tight grip on her hand as she trails behind him. He stops just inside the door and blinks into the dim light, his gaze anxiously searching the room for . . . well, for me, I suppose.
I watch, heart in my throat, as he looks through the crowd, and even if I weren’t watching his every move I’d sense the change in his entire body when his eyes meet mine. His breath catches and he takes a step back, like he wasn’t ready for the reality of seeing me, either.
Where it rests in my lap, my hand is gently covered by another bigger, warmer one. I glance down to see that Dylan has reached over, and is giving my fingers an encouraging squeeze. I blink up and he is nothing but a wide, easy smile and bright eyes. I actually wish this were another moment, in a reality where I wasn’t the crazy ex-girlfriend, because I think I could really like Dylan. There’s something . . . light about him that puts me at ease, makes me feel light, too.
I know that I could wait for Ansel and Mia to come to me, but I feel somewhat trapped in this booth, and so I turn to Dylan with a smile of my own. “Just going to . . .” I start to say, but he all but pushes me from my seat.
“Go, go. A fic I’ve been reading just updated, so I’ve got plenty to do,” he says, and begins reading something on his phone.
I’m vaguely aware of the eyes on me when I cross the room and stop in front of Ansel and Mia near the bar.
“Perry,” Ansel says. “I—”
“I’m just going to give you two a few minutes,” Mia says, but I stop her.
“No . . . please, I want to apologize.”
She waves me off and insists that it isn’t necessary, but I continue. “No, I know we’ve spoken on the phone, but it’s not enough. I was still reeling from what happened and when I saw you . . .” I say with a small laugh, “I think I lost my mind a little. I felt terrible afterward, once the heat of my anger cooled and I had a chance to really think about things. I am so sorry.”
Mia closes her eyes for a moment and then takes a step forward, enveloping me in a hug. When I put my arms around her in return, she feels positively tiny and it makes me feel even worse. She seems so small, like I could have broken her with the strength of my anger.
“There’s nothing to forgive anymore.” She pulls back and smiles at me. “I mean that. I’m sure most of us—myself included—would probably have reacted the same way.” She looks up at Ansel, wincing slightly.
I know this must be hard for her, and saying my behavior was in any way justified puts a large measure of blame on Ansel. Her husband. She is of course right, but it in no way excuses the things I said.
“You two talk,” Mia says quietly, “and I’ll just be over here if you need me. Okay?”
Ansel nods and reluctantly lets go of her hand, before turning back to me.
“I . . .” he starts in French, stopping to push his fingers through his hair. The gesture is so familiar it makes a tiny spot in my chest ache. “I had all these things I thought I would say to you if ever given the chance and now . . . my mind is completely blank.”
I know exactly how he feels. “Why don’t we sit down?” I motion to a small empty booth in the corner.
Ansel nods for me to lead the way, and I can hear his steps just behind me.
“I can’t believe we’re actually having this conversation,” I say once we’ve taken a seat across from each other. “I never thought . . .”
“I know. It’s a bit surreal, if I’m being honest. Seeing you here.”
“It was all Mia,” I say, running my thumb over a scratch in the glossy tabletop. “She wants you to be happy and knew this had been bothering you. She planned the whole thing.”
“She just told me,” he says.
“She’s wonderful, Ansel.”
“She is,” he says. “I’m very lucky she forgave me for all the things I kept from her.”
Ansel shakes his head, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table. “Like you, yes. I . . . what I did was so unfair, to both of you. I can only imagine what it must have been like, for things to have just ended the way they did and then to hear that I married, and that she was living in the apartment we shared. How shocked you must have been. Then to see her at Christophe and Marie’s party. I should have been honest with both of you . . . I owed you that, Perry. After all we’d been through, I should have done better for you. I have thought about that so much these past few months.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I think a part of me needed to hear you acknowledge that.” I spin a coaster on the table in front of me. “And you’re right, it did hurt and it was hard, and yes, you should have told her about me, Ansel. And you should have told me about her, before I heard it from someone else. I’m not going to pretend that what happened didn’t hurt, but . . . you fell out of love with me, and even though that was hard, it wasn’t your fault.”
I take a moment to breathe, letting the sounds of the bar circle around us while I think of what else I want to say.
“It took me a while to realize that while we did love each other at one point, it got hard to tell the difference between what we were and what I wanted us to be. I can see that now. And I can see how asking you to stay with me was selfish. I do want you to be happy. I want both of us to be happy.”
“I would like that,” he says.
He reaches across and takes my hands between his, and to my enormous relief, it feels just like it did when Oliver did the same thing earlier.
It feels like the touch of a friend.