Nothing ever felt like it was going to happen in California. Back in New York, Dan finds himself waiting for something, but he doesn’t know what.
He smokes menthols on the fire escape to stave off the sunset and spends close to an hour staring at paint swatches for the loft until he settles on a deep blue. There’s probably something to be said by the quacks in L.A. about auras, but Dan just finds comfort in the colour, and he doesn’t think much into it past that. The air is heavy with a different kind of heat, perfumed with memory. Stuck inside a heating vent, he finds a half-melted Polaroid. The face on it is gone, and he wonders which one of them it was.
He sees photos of Serena online with her bottle-blonde friends and a breakout movie star that looks like all of his sixteen year old insecurities wrapped up in one guy. He calls her and tells her that he hates her, and in the morning he finds he hadn’t called her at all, had only left himself a voice memo, and that he’d actually said: Sometimes I wish I never bumped into you.
Serena had tried, at the time, in all their newly-engaged-it’s-going-to-stick-this-time glory, to refuse a prenup, but had signed one begrudgingly on her mother’s insistence, some kind of petty war between their parents of past and present feelings. It makes things easier, if there is a way for this to be easy. He goes out with a woman after the papers are signed who says she never dates divorced men but is willing to make an exception for him. They make it three dates before he says he doesn’t think it’ll work out.
He quits menthols and moves onto vape pens that he always feels stupid holding. He’s invited to give a guest lecture at NYU and another at Columbia after that, and in the rooms full of nameless faces all looking at him, he thinks he sees her. He figures out what he’s waiting for, but he doesn’t think much into it past that.
He keeps seeing her on the cross sections of numbered streets and amongst the students in the lecture halls and turning corners inside galleries. And maybe it was that, more than the heat and the silence and the ever-present unhappiness that permeated the West Coat; maybe it was that they no longer shared the one thing that kept them tethered, that he would stand in line for an overpriced cup of coffee and not see her.
When the sun starts to leave the city earlier and earlier again, bathing downtown in a starry night of skyscraper lights, he goes for walks with his stupid little vape pen and a notebook and he watches the hazy glow of kitchens and living rooms from the street. He tries to imagine what the families inside them look like; what his own would have looked like if they weren’t split across bridges and oceans and mostly nonexistent.
California feels more and more like a bad dream he can only piece together parts of with each passing morning. New York before he left feels even farther away, feels more like a past life than just the start of this one. When he looks back at the melted photograph, he remembers suddenly the moment it was taken, recognizes the slope of the bare leg and the colour of the painted toenails and the deep blue in the background. But he doesn’t think much into it past that.
When she gets there, the door is open.
In all the times she’d run through this scene in her head, she always had to knock. It’s what stopped her from coming most times. She didn’t think she’d be able to. But the door is open, and he’s there, unloading groceries onto the counter.
“Can I come in?”
He’s unresponsive for long enough that she thinks he might actually say no. Finally, he says, “How’s the kid?”
Blair takes a moment, then steps into the low-light of the loft and says, “He’s fine.”
Things look different from the last time she was here. The loft, that is; not him, he looks just as he did when she left him behind. But there’s new furniture and a television, the walls a dark blue that remind her of the bedroom she grew up in. That they grew up in.
“Sole custody,” Dan says. He won’t look directly at her. “How’d you manage that?”
“I told them the truth,” she says. “That if we didn’t leave him he’d be the death of me.”
Dan looks up then. There’s a twinge of something in her gut. Relief, maybe, that after everything she can still reach through his chest and flick that little switch on. Knight in rusted armour.
“Have you written anything lately?” she says. When he doesn’t answer, she asks, “You are still writing, aren’t you?”
“I am still writing.”
“The next great American novel?”
“Nope,” he says. “Done with that. I’m trying for a European audience now. Sex and fatalism.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
He turns, brows raised. She shrugs. “I’m making conversation.”
“Usually when you show up at the door of someone you haven’t seen in a while you come with something to say, and you don’t have to make conversation.”
She sighs. “I wanted to see you.”
His stare remains hard, unblinking, and so she continues: “You’ve been back for nine months and I haven’t heard a word from you.”
She had come across, by accident, the announcement of his lecture at Columbia, and had left work early to sit in a plastic-backed seat with a kind of anxiety she hadn’t felt in a while, choosing a row behind a guy twice her size, hoping to blend into obscurity. The students around her weren’t all that much younger than them, and glancing around the bustling hall had made her feel inexplicably like she’d missed out on something.
He was as charming as ever, maybe more so, relaxed in a way she doesn’t really remember him being. When it ended, the girl next to her turned and said, He’s great, isn’t he?
Yes, Blair had said. He is.
She’d gone back for the others, when she could. It was on her way out of the third one that she’d caught sight of a posting to sign up for classes. There wasn’t time between work and Henry and her half of the social functions she still attended to keep up appearances. But it nagged at the back of her mind; the routes in life she had passed on by.
“You’ve been counting?”
California is meant to pacify you, salt air and sunshine; but Dan still sounds as bitter and biting as a New York winter. It was never something that came easily to him, the way it did with her. He always had to work at it.
“Listen,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “Come back.”
Her face must change, because he clarifies: “Come back some other time. Or I’ll come to you. I wasn’t planning on this kind of conversation tonight. There’s – I have plans.”
She looks over the evidence scattered on the kitchen counter, his clean shave and his pressed shirt. “There’s someone coming over?”
He nods, going back to not looking her in the eye. It was selfish of her to think that he wouldn’t let his life move on without her with this little distance between them. Dan’s consistency was what made her run in the first place. She had expected to circle back and still find him there.
When he comes out after her, she has to move quickly to stop the elevator doors from shutting. “My number changed,” he says. “Do you want the new one?”
“That’s okay,” she says, then lets the doors close.
He’s leaned up against a parking meter with a halo of smoke hanging around his head when she sees him. He’s surrounded by strangers, but looks to be alone, and when the couple in front of him pass she sees a brown paper wrapped bouquet in his hand. For a few moments, just the time it takes for the numbers on the glowing traffic sign to make it to zero, she thinks about what it would be like if they were strangers. She knows they would probably pass each other by; her nose too high in the air for him to approach her and him too gruff to catch her attention. But still, she wonders what could be if there was a clean slate.
She tries to file into the theatre without him noticing but fails, his eyes roaming over the non-stop flow of people meticulously. He’s smiling when he approaches her.
“You never came back,” he says.
“I got busy,” she says. It’s not exactly the truth; she’s always been busy, she’s just been using it as an excuse for the last two months. “You have another date tonight?”
He shakes his head. She asks, “Then who are you waiting for?”
He makes a vague gesture that she’s easily able to translate, but pretends to remain oblivious, raising her brows. He holds up the bouquet.
“Are these for me?”
“No, they’re for the other girl who prefers peonies and has the hots for Robert Redford.”
She swallows a smile. So, underneath the wearied traveller, still hides Dan.
“I don’t think they’ll let me take them in.”
He nods, blows a breath of smoke out, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “You can throw them out.”
She holds the bouquet a little closer to her chest. “I’ll take my chances.”
She turns to him as the lights go down, her flowers tucked under her coat. “Do you still have a thing for Jane Fonda?”
He smiles at her small hand sneaking into his popcorn. “Yeah.”
Back out on the street, the sky blushes with an early sunset. Dan sticks his hands in his pockets and says, “Is it too early for dinner?”
“I have to pick up Henry,” she says.
“You don’t have someone to do that for you anymore?”
“I don’t have a lot of things anymore.”
“By choice,” he says, but she’s not sure if it’s a question or an accusation.
They eat at a hole in the wall restaurant that she wouldn’t even think to step into without his insistence. Under the white-clothed table, their legs are slotted together, and every so often when he shifts, she feels the brush of his fingers over her bare knee.
“You haven’t told me what it’s about,” she says. “Your new book.”
“A guy washes up on a beach and can’t remember anything about who he is, so he just makes it up as he goes along. But then he bumps into a girl at a bar that recognizes him, and he finds out from her all the horrible stuff he’d done in the past.”
“How does it end?”
Deadpan, Dan says, “He dies.”
“I know,” he says. His fingers flex around his glass of water. He stops after one drink now, says his liver almost didn’t make it back from California. If she didn’t know him better she’d think he was joking. But she knows him best. “It’s a work in progress.”
“Good things usually are.”
On a park bench with coffee cups to warm their hands, Dan says, “We were supposed to have a conversation.”
They’ve done a lot of talking about nothing in particular. He hasn’t asked many questions and she’s done him the kindness of not asking many back. She had stopped calling Serena first and so naturally the calls had become more infrequent before ceasing altogether.
“Take your pick,” he says. “We could start with whatever it is you’re not telling me.”
Blair had lived in silence for so long she had forgotten that there was anything to say. There’s no nice way to put it. But that’s not something Dan has ever asked of her.
“I have Henry seeing someone at Ostroff. I thought it better to start early. I don’t want him ending up like —“ she clears her throat. “You know.”
She can’t quite form the words around the rest of it; how he looks just like him, a ghost haunting her halls, as if she doesn’t get enough of his face on TV and in her nightmares. How he’s just always there, needing her to feed him and wake him up on time and pick up after him. How much work it is to take care of someone who doesn’t want you to.
All of it was bound to catch up to her at some point. Henry is her punishment of Greek proportions.
“I understand,” Dan says softly.
“You don’t,” she says. “He hates me. My son hates me because I took him away from his father. How could you understand that?”
“I know a thing or two about what it’s like to hate your mother,” he says. “I know it can be a lot easier than loving her.”
A breeze blows over them, and Dan shifts to prop his arm on the back of the bench. She settles back against it, then drops her head to his shoulder.
“I used to want so much more out of life,” she says. “Now I’m just surprised I made it this far.”
When Blair is with Dan she doesn’t have to be a mother or an ex-wife or a little girl who still has growing up to do or a woman who’s trying her hardest. When Blair is with Dan, there is nothing left to be but herself. She thinks, eventually, she will be able to say more, but for now is okay with just having someone to sit in the silence with.
“I’m not,” he says. “But I’m still proud of you.”
“You’re the only person in the world who would say that.”
“That’s not true,” he says. “But it does wonders for my incredibly fragile ego that you think so.”
Blair sniffs against her cup. “You remembered how I took my coffee.”
“I remember a lot of things.”
“We said a lot of things we didn’t mean,” she says. “I remember that.”
“Because we were angry,” he says. “But we’re not now. Right?”
“Right,” she says. “We were happy. I remember that.”
“Because we never made it out of the honeymoon stage.”
She straightens again to look at him, feeling the sudden need to let him know that this moment, here, on this cold bench in Central Park, and all the moments they’ve found the time to share the last few weeks, are very important to her. That they’re the beginning of something. That they’re the end of something else.
“You look like an idiot with that thing.”
He laughs around a bout of smoke. “I know.”
“How about now?” she says.
“I’d say I’m pretty happy,” he says. “You?”
“I’d say so too.”
She feels his eyes on her in the dark of the theatre, and when she glances at him he doesn’t look away like he usually does.
“It’s not polite to stare.”
“Politeness is arbitrary in New York.”
She hums. “Is that why you came back? People weren’t rude enough to you?”
“Amongst other things.”
She’s not sure who kisses who first, only that it happens, and when she pulls away his hand pressed to her cheek is damp with tears.
“I just missed you,” she says, and she knows this time, that it’s him that kisses her.
There’s little things that he likes about having his friend back. That she’s only a call away, that she leans against his arm while he pushes a cart around the grocery store, that she touches his hand in line for the movies or while looking at a painting like she’s making sure he’s still there. There’s small kisses; Hello, and See you later. There’s a night in the loft where he makes them dinner and he lifts her onto the counter and gets on his knees but they’re interrupted by the smoke alarm going off, and Dan has to put out a small fire on the stove. There’s a night on the couch in her living room after too much wine and halfway through Barbarella but they’re interrupted by the sound of Henry’s bedroom door opening, and Dan has to sit with a pillow in his lap and pretend his hands weren’t just up Blair’s shirt. So, they try to stick to mostly hellos, to see you laters. That’s what Blair says, just after she pulls away, still close enough to keep kissing, but he gives her the space. See you later, she says. She never says goodbye.
This is a new place, she had said, that night on the couch as he palmed at her pebbled nipple through the fabric of her shirt. He had paused to talk to her because talking to her is his favourite thing. There’s no memories here.
Is that good or bad? he asked.
I don’t think it’s either, she said. We can’t go back to the way things were, but I don’t think we have to.
They watch the sunset from the kitchen counter and she’s been laughing for so long at some stupid joke he’d made that he doesn’t even remember it anymore. She has a hand on his knee and her ankle hooked on his and she stops laughing for long enough to say, “Henry’s with a friend.”
The hand at his knee slides higher, tentative. “Did I mention it was a sleepover?”
“I don’t believe you did.”
“You wanna have one?”
They hadn’t turned the lights on, the kitchen bathed in hazy blue evening, his head swimming. He cups her face in both his hands and says, serious, “I didn’t bring my sleeping bag.”
“You’re impossible,” she says, then she kisses him.
When he picks her up, she yelps, gripping tight to his shoulders.
“Don’t worry,” he says against her neck. “I’ve got you.”