She is still in love with Brandt the night she bumps into Adam at a bar in uptown. She still likes the way Brandt styles his hair with pomade and a fine-toothed comb, like an old-fashioned gentleman, the boy-next-door from the 1950s. She still likes that when he cooks her dinner, it’s always spaghetti and meatballs, his secret recipe: a cup of red blend simmered with Hunt’s tomato sauce. She still likes the way he forecasts their future together: a promotion for each of them, a neatly diversified portfolio, a fixer-upper, and a dog (she can choose, he tells her, so long as it’s not one of those yappy ones). And then the ring, the wedding in the country, and a baby. They have names picked out. She likes that Brandt takes his time, thinks things through. She likes that she knows his mind the same way she knows his smell, a subtle earthiness tinged with the scent of aftershave, smell like a memory. She loves Brandt. Why else would she still be living with him?
Someday, she’ll reject the comfortable familiarity of their future. Someday, very soon, she’ll grow tired of his quirks and his savings accounts.
But before that, tonight, she recognizes Adam at an adjacent table. She knows him. Like Brandt, he went to college with her. She had three classes with him in undergraduate: in an intermediate Spanish class, they were group partners for the final project, a skit where he played a salesman trying to make her buy beach towels. They pretended to haggle over towels they’d stolen from the campus pool, filling up their ten-minute skit block spouting numbers back and forth. They both passed the class, and yet Caylin still can’t count in Spanish.
She knows Adam. They ran in similar circles. Her roommate’s lab partner was on Adam’s roommate’s intramural soccer team freshman year. So they sometimes found themselves at the same parties. And there was that time, junior year? Sophomore year, she remembers. They’d had to sneak the Coors Light from an upperclassman’s apartment, because they couldn’t buy the cheap beer themselves. The night they climbed onto the roof of the library. The night they exchanged numbers. But that was before Brandt, at least before they started dating. Brandt was the guy she’d liked since orientation freshman year, the one who, at eighteen, knew how to style his hair, knew what he wanted to do when he graduated, knew how to make her blush with just a half-smirk as he left the cafeteria. Brandt was the one she wanted. Adam carried a hand-me-down satchel and sang Broadway scores out loud to himself when he crossed to the science building every morning. He wore long hair and patches of stubble.
When, years later, they tell their story to friends and family who ask how they met and fell in love, this will be the part they elide into a few sentences. Adam was the dork in college. She was the pretty girl with her life figured out. Brandt will be an ellipses—wasted time between meeting Adam and falling in love with him. In most retellings, Brandt won’t even be a name.
But for now, Brandt is the one she wants. She simply knows Adam, recognizes him, which is why he catches her staring at him on a rooftop bar patio where she’s meeting work friends for drinks. In the history of their relationship, the one they craft and recite, this will be the moment that begins everything. The first chapter, so to speak, everything else a prologue.
This night, Brandt didn’t want to come out. He hates the crowds, the overpriced drinks, the shouting over loud music just to have a drink with casual acquaintances.
“I know,” Caylin says as she gets ready, squeezing herself into skinny jeans, trying to find a pair of heels that pinch just enough to make her look like she’s tried. “But I didn’t go last time. If I don’t go tonight, they’re gonna stop inviting me.”
“Then you wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not going,” Brandt remarks, his tone teasing, as he flicks on the TV. Still, she can feel him watching her from the couch as she digs through her makeup bag, his gaze a reminder not to go too far with the eyeliner. She’s not trying to impress anyone.
“I went with you to the Christmas party,” she says. She’d bought a dress (spending too much, even though it was only from H&M), had shaken hands with a dozen strangers and found herself at a table with Brandt’s work buddies, both of them married with three kids. Their wives hadn’t come because babysitters were too expensive, and because they’d been to this annual party a half-dozen times.
“It’s a good company,” they kept repeating. “Steady career.”
“I know Cay,” Brandt says now, as he lays the remote across his crotch. “But I’m just really out of it tonight. I’ll go next time,” he promises and yawns.
She looks at him, flat iron smoking her hair. She wants to says she’s tired too. She wants to tell him she hates all of it too. She hates the saccharine, fizzy cocktails that all taste the same. She hates the way Sophy will bring up her ex—who she’s obviously still sleeping with—for the twentieth time that week. She hates the hipster bar tender who will call her sweetheart as she leans over the bar to tell him her order, the way he has to cock his gaged earlobe toward her so he can hear her over the beat of the music. She hates the guy next to her who’s ordering two drinks, even as he eyes the cut of her blouse. She hates the bachelorette party at the table next to theirs, girls in sashes downing shots. She hates the group of middle-aged, balding financial consultants who stand in corners, clutching sweaty beers, reeking of Axe body spray, as they survey the night’s selection of single women. She hates all of it.
But she wants to tell Brandt that if he were with her, somehow all of it would be more bearable. This theatrical socializing—the dim lighting and the sound effects—would somehow make sense if he were with her. She could prove (to whom, she doesn’t exactly know) that they have their lives together. This is what happy people, with college degrees and good jobs and okay credit and luxury apartments and stable relationships, do.
But he is tired, and she worries if she tells him all this, he’ll convince her instead to stay with him. Convince her she doesn’t need the gaze of the world to validate their love. And she’ll know she should believe that. Somehow, the thought of staying, of taking off her heels and curling into him on the couch, watching Modern Family until one of them falls asleep, fills her with a dread she can’t explain. She doesn’t tell him. Instead, she finishes getting dressed, kisses him goodnight.
When she falls in love with Adam, she will understand the dread. When she and Adam spend an entire weekend dodging friends and cuddling on the couch, watching TV and talking nonsense, and neither of them can think of a single regret for the wasted days, she will know, without being able to speak it, what she was missing. She will wonder at the boredom that grew between her and Brandt, like mold proliferating at the corners of a bread loaf. She will wonder how it happened, and she will know that she let it. So, with Adam, she will guard against the silence, toxic and creeping, the kind she knows can rot love more surely than any betrayal.
Because she knows Adam is the love she always longed for. She will be thankful, despite her guilt, for escaping Brandt. But his mistakes and shortcomings will still shade her life with Adam. Miscommunications, disagreements, grudges, will remind her of all the ways Brandt failed her and she failed Brandt. And even when she and Adam are married—when Brandt is married too, to a girl he met while deep-sea fishing off the coast of Mexico—when she has assured herself that Brandt is nothing more than a bullet she dodged, she will still find the marks he left on her heart, like shrapnel, shaping her and her love for another man.
But at the rooftop bar, she sips an elderflower and gin cocktail from a mason jar, matches glances with Sara, who discreetly rolls her eyes at Sophy, who’s complaining about her ex again. As a Coldplay song competes with a siren in the distance, Caylin glances to a standing table across the patio, and sees Adam. He’s laughing, loud enough that she can hear him from where she sits. She notices that his hair is trimmed, though he still has the stubble, but even from her distance, she can tell it’s no longer so patchy. When his gaze meets hers, she is surprised by how quickly he waves, like he knew she was there. Like it took less than a second for him to recognize her. She will ask him someday if he was watching her. “No,” he’ll say. “But I knew it was you.” And she’ll take that as a sign of the love they didn’t know was already between them.
But in the moment, she waves back to him, discreetly, looks back at Sara, who announces she’s going to the bathroom. Caylin volunteers to go with her. In their too-tall heels, they stomp their way back inside the bar, and they wait in line in a skinny hallway behind other girls whose bladders are in sync. Guys look past them as they filter to and from their bathroom. Caylin and Sara wedge themselves into the two stalls in the bathroom, which is decorated with a vintage photo of Audrey Hepburn and a pedestal sink, contrasting the industrial metal siding of the stalls and the swaths of toilet paper stuck to the painted concrete floors. They pee and then reapply lipstick in front of the mirror.
“So, who was that guy?” Sara asks.
“The one who waved to you.”
“Oh, you noticed that?”
“He’s just a guy I knew in college.”
“Is he nice?”
“I thought you were going out with Sam.”
“What? I was just asking if he was nice!” Sara talks too loudly, even as they exit the bathroom into the noise of the bar. At the wedding, Sara will be one of Caylin’s bridesmaids, largely because Adam has too many groomsmen, and because Caylin’s cousin drops out at the last minute. Sara has broken up with Sam by then, and her attempt to woo Adam’s best man will be an amusing anecdote, a side story to the legend of their wedding day.
As they head back out to the patio, Caylin is laughing at something Sara said (“I ask for two things in a man: A firm jawline and a firm ass”). And then Adam is in front of them, saying he was worried Caylin had left before he got to say hello. Surprised by his eagerness, Caylin stumbles through introductions with Sara, who suddenly becomes shy. Realizing they’re in the way of waitstaff traffic, the three of them slip over to the balcony railing, where the music is slightly softer. They talk about work, about the two years since Adam and Caylin last saw each other at a college graduation party (though, Caylin quickly discovers, he’s kept up with her on Facebook. He knows she and Brandt are still together, that she is a social media strategist at a startup marketing company). Adam is a teacher, high school Biology and theater. Someday, this odd combination will make sense to her. When they move to Corpus Christi for his graduate school, he’ll find relief from biochemistry courses by going to bad community theater, dragging her along, laughing silently with her at the bad acting, but always finding the moment, the gem of a scene, that makes him lean forward with a hand to his chin, a nod. She will say he is generous for his sensibility; she will admire him for finding the good.
Even now, Caylin is jealous of the way Adam can take the long hours and low pay in stride, find the meaning in whiteboards and detention slips, admit without shame that his job has no benefits (it’s a charter school) and that he doesn’t have everything figured out right now.
“It’s one day at a time,” he says. “Some days it’s like running a cheese grater across your forehead, you know? But then other days it’s like, you watch the kid who never talks in class and always seems totally out of it and he auditions for Macbeth and he’s like, brilliant. And you feel lucky just to be the one to give him an outlet, you know?”
Caylin agrees, though she doesn’t know what that feels like, not yet, because Brandt has told her to work the steady job, write Instagram captions and respond to customer Tweets, just wait. She can try to start a photography business later, when the student loans are paid off, and he has a job that can provide for both of them. Adam will be the one to nudge her along, convince her to buy the pricey camera, start her own website, find the joy even in the fear of failure. And when they’re married, when she’s pregnant with the twins and thinks she and Adam have lost their minds—photography and a graduate stipend aren’t going to pay the bills—Adam scrounges up the money to take her to Ireland, the kind of landscape she’s always longed to photograph. Babymoon, he calls it. Their last time alone together before the babies come. Then, she’ll think of Brandt and his carefully charted budgets, his Roth IRA and investments. She’ll wonder if she made a mistake, before she embraces Adam. They’ll dance barefoot in their living room, planning walks on Irish coasts and the two little lives inside her.
But that is still three years away.
Tonight, Adam’s here with co-workers too. The assistant vice-principal’s birthday. After a little while, Sara says she’s going to get another drink. She doesn’t come back, but Caylin doesn’t mind being left alone as the conversation meanders and grows. Work talk ebbs into talk about future plans, about relationships. She learns he’s not dating anyone, and he admits he’s pretty picky when it comes to women. He has a list, he jokes. (And someday he’ll tell her she met all the criteria: confident, beautiful, reserved in a mysterious way, but able to put him in his place with a word. Loves the outdoors and books. Hates asparagus. Wants a family.) He asks about Brandt, and because everything she feels she can say about him are all the things you’d expect to hear about a boyfriend of four years, the conversation trickles to a stop. Caylin thinks they’ll end it here. Say goodnight, it was nice catching up. They’ll slip back to their friends and their lives and maybe see each other on another random Friday night. But then Adam says, “I hate these places.”
Caylin smiles at the way he says it, lightheartedly, and as if he knows she’ll get it. Which of course she does. “Right?” she says.
“It’s all so stupid. Like who actually enjoys this?”
Someone shouts, some guy taking shots with his fraternity brothers. “Probably that guy,” she laughs.
Adam chuckles too. “Yeah. But no one else.”
“But we have to do it.”
“Oh yeah. You have to. Because if we don’t…”
“We’re that person.”
“Exactly! We’re that person.” He crosses his arms, leans against the balcony railing. “We all know life is happening somewhere else. It’s when you’re on the couch with your best friend, planning your future. But until we find that, we’re all going to be here, pretending like we want to be.”
“Yeah.” Caylin wraps her arms around herself, wishing she’d brought the sweater she left on the couch, adjacent to Brandt’s head. She pulls her phone from her back pocket, checks it quickly. Brandt hasn’t texted. She assumes he’s in bed by now.
Two months later, she will wonder if he was waiting for a text from her, if her silence is more to blame than his. In the end, she leaves him because of the silence, because of the way Adam talks to her tonight, like they are still on the roof of the campus library, instead of the roof of a skyscraper, like Adam has been waiting to pick up that conversation for over four years. She leaves Brandt because she can’t remember if any one of their conversations has ever felt like coming home.
But there will be a small part of her that always wonders what her life with Brandt would have been, even as she is ashamed of herself for letting Brandt into her thoughts, for letting him have that hold over her, over them. He will be the reason she makes spaghetti and meatballs when Adam works late and she’s feeling lonely. He will be the reason she gets annoyed at Adam when he forgets to pay a bill, because Brandt never did that. He will be the reason she fears her own silence, when the days grow dark with Adam, because she knows where that silence leads. He will be the reason she always pauses to listen to Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up on You, the song Brandt always turned up when they were riding in the car together. It will be the reason, on a rainy afternoon when she is pregnant with Adam’s children, that she will reach to turn the volume up at the song’s guitar intro, glance away from the sleek asphalt of the highway for a split second. And when a half inch of water lifts her tires off the road, when she has as much control over her Toyota Corolla as the little beings inside her have over their own limbs, when one of those beings is cut short, and the other nearly follows, when the money for Ireland goes instead toward hospital bills and heartbreak, when she tells Adam, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,”—then she will realize she has never been free of all the past she’s tried to elide into an inconsequential backstory. She will blame herself for not being able to tell herself free.
Five years after, when they make it to Ireland, it will be with one child instead of two, and the trip will nearly break them. Nearly.
But that is still years away. On the rooftop patio, Adam shrugs and gestures at a couple sitting under a space heater. The girl’s wearing the guy’s jacket, and the guy’s got his arm around the girl. They’re talking with lips touching. “I mean,” he says. “They look pretty happy.”
“Maybe they already did their couch planning for the day,” Caylin offers, and Adam laughs.
“Do you still have the same phone number Caylin McCabe?” he asks, and she nods.
And when she looks back on this moment, Caylin will believe that some part of her already knew, in looking at him, that her life was on the verge of change. That she would find the joy she never found with Brandt. That the joy will be in its sharing, in its fleetingness, its death, and its rebirth. That they will suffer more cruelly because they share the suffering. That they will break each other’s hearts, create new hearts, and break those too, despite all the ways they try not to. That they will forgive. That she will love him, and their love, for the rest of her life. That their love will be the only true story of her life.
But not yet. Tonight, Adam walks her to her car. Tonight, she goes home to Brandt, crawls between cold sheets, his heat slowly radiating into her. She contemplates reaching out and stroking his hair, but she knows how he hates being woken up. So, she folds her hands into her breast as her mind flirts with sleep. She presses her palms hard against the hollow in her chest, and she waits.