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Liza could tell right away that Molly’s smile was fake—and not fake in that courageous way that tired moms of young children sometimes muster a grin, either. That, Liza would have understood, even empathized with. This was that ultra-polite, too-bright sort of smile-on-cue reserved for less than welcome social situations—the corners of her mouth pulled up too stiffly and the rest of her face forgot to match the purported emotion behind it. Liza squinted into the flat-screen of her laptop, hoping maybe it was just the awkward angle of the webcam or the dim light in Molly’s living room, where her friend sat in a halo of yellow lamplight on a ridiculously suburban-looking plaid sectional a few hundred miles away. But no. Liza could read Molly’s face with the indisputable clarity that came with years—most of a lifetime, really—of familiarity, even as she numbly lifted her own hand in a halfhearted wave.
“We finally did it!” Molly said in a tone that matched her cringe-worthy smile. “Girls’ night.”
After a long stretch of “We should really…” and “Maybe after the kids are in bed?” and other overtures they both tried to pretend were not empty, one of them had at last called the other’s bluff, and here they were: set to catch up with more than an offhand text—their first real chat in who knows how long.
Well, Liza knew how long. But she wouldn’t admit to keeping score.
“Girls’ night,” Liza agreed. She was already wondering, and simultaneously chastising herself for wondering, why they’d bothered—and not just because girls’ night was no rarity for her, though she was usually the only one taking part. She missed Molly. Really. She did.
It was just that the woman currently lifting her glass of red wine in a virtual “cheers” was not the Molly she missed. The image on Liza’s monitor was Molly 2.0—the version you eventually have no choice but to upgrade to but then can’t figure out how to navigate.
“Tell me everything,” Molly said with a mischievous shimmy of her shoulders. There. There she was. The old version, just for an instant. “Start with the Canadian.”
Liza took a long sip of her own wine, then tipped her glass toward her friend’s in the air. “No can do on the Canadian. He was deported.”
“Long story. But,” she said gently, “not one worth telling. That was like three guys ago.”
“Girl, you work fast!” Molly’s eyes lit up. Liza knew the drill—that her married friends liked to live vicariously through her dating escapades. It wasn’t their fault; she’d painted them into the role by having so many story-worthy nights in the first place, and by embellishing her retellings with such gusto. Being the lone scout out on the hunt, sending missives to her fellow soldiers at the base camp, had been fun for a while—a long while. But she’d grown tired of giving the play by play.
Which was when she’d realized she was tired of living the play by play.
“Not that fast. It’s been months.” Molly’s face fell. Liza had broken the unspoken rule of not acknowledging how disconnected they’d become, how little they’d come to know about each other’s daily lives. In junior high, they’d collaborated on a whole playlist’s worth of alternate lyrics to their favorite pop songs, serenading their lunch table with “Give Me Just One Bite (Uno Nacho)” and their still-loved stuffed animals with “GUND Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” In college, they’d held back hair over porcelain basins, mopped up tears with cheap liquor and late-night pizza, giggled their way through General Hospital sprawled on the shabby carpet of their living room. They’d gone on to help each other learn to, well, adult, even sharing a family data plan to make their cell phone bills manageable. That they would ever have to fill each other in on months of life at once, let alone reach for something to talk about, was unthinkable then. Laughable.
Liza never should have moved to take the job here. Chicago still seemed out of reach, even though she was right in the middle of it.
“Oh, God,” Molly moaned. “It’s really been that long. I’m officially the worst friend ever. Too busy competing for my Mother of the Year award in the Frozen Waffles for Dinner category.”
“That’s the best category. Kids love that category.”
“Being Mother of the Year isn’t about doing things kids like. It’s more of a competition in legal forms of torture, like those vegetable medleys that are all broccoli stalks and no florets.” They both laughed, but Molly’s didn’t last long. She pulled a face. “Liza, I really am sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s better to stick with the highlight reel anyway. Of which—brace yourself—there is currently none. I’m taking a break.”
“A break?” She looked so confused, Liza’s fears were confirmed: This hiatus, by its very nature of being unthinkable, was long overdue. “From sex, you mean? Not from dating.”
“From everything.” She held up her empty hands as if to display proof. I’ve got nothing. And by choice!
Well. It was by choice if you didn’t count the years of failed efforts preceding this period.
“Don’t you know my husband is away on business? This call is meant to take the place of the rom-coms I binge when he’s gone. What now?”
“Tough one.” Liza leaned forward on the futon and drummed her fingers dramatically on the coffee table where her laptop sat in front of her. Thanks to her mother’s overzealous gift of a whole box of flameless candles—with a note gushing about how magical they were, and how safe, and “what will they think of next?”—the open space of her loft glowed all around her. She loved how the simulated candlelight gave the exposed brick of the converted warehouse a nostalgic café type of feel, in place of the dingy disrepair that the renovation had never quite hidden from the daylight.
She was about to suggest that the husband himself might be a suitable topic when Molly perked up. “I know. How’s Max?”
Liza couldn’t help but smile. “Maximizing his Maxiness, as usual.”
How telling, in retrospect, that she’d met her closest friend here through indiscriminate dating—the very thing she’d pledged to do less of in order to seek more friends. If Liza were to leave Chicago, Max would be the only person to truly miss her. She supposed that this, too, was why she clung to what was left of her friendship with Molly. Because she might barely have it anymore, but she didn’t have anything else close. At this rate, she might never again.
“I still think he’d be a perfect match for you, if only…” Molly sighed.
“Kind of a big if only.” Liza wasn’t about to beguile Molly with colorful new Max tales, though she had a whole rainbow of them. She liked to keep him to herself—in part because she knew how well Molly remembered both the promise and disappointment of their sole date.
They’d met over a slow, talkative dinner at the kind of middle-of-the-road restaurant that could be surprisingly satisfying under the right circumstances and Liza had already been thinking ahead to what might come next when she excused herself to freshen up while waiting for the check. If the ladies’ room line hadn’t been so long she decided to skip it, she might not have returned to find Max in intimate conversation with their waiter. Their red-faced, furious, male waiter, who was demanding to know why her date had not returned his calls.
Knowing any second Max would turn and see her, Liza had stood, stricken, as the server stormed off. Part of her wanted to slink away, but she couldn’t summon the politeness not to confront what she’d witnessed. All she could think was, Damn. I liked you. The date wasn’t just going well; she hadn’t had this much fun talking to anyone since she moved here.
Max did turn then, and he looked just as caught as she’d feared he would. For a glimmer of a second she’d almost dared hope that it wasn’t what it looked like.
“So you date guys, too?” she’d asked quietly.
“No!” His expression turned funereal. “I mean, not anymore.”
“I’ve seen my share of scorned exes”—it was true, though they didn’t usually belong to her but to the otherwise affable men she was attempting to date—“and that one seemed fresh. Recent, I mean.”
Max averted his eyes. It had been just a phase, he said. He was straight—definitely straight, he said. But he looked cornered, trapped. And her instinct, her own feelings aside, was to reach in and free him.
“Look,” she’d said, thinking fast. She was usually honest to a fault, but she really did want to see him again. “I was working out how to tell you. I’ve had a lot of fun tonight, but I’m not feeling the chemistry beyond a friendship level.” Did it show that minutes ago she’d been angling for a look in the bathroom mirror, wondering if he might invite her to his place? Being openly bisexual would have been one thing. But she wouldn’t risk this: dating someone who was either confused or in denial, marrying him, having three kids, and then finding out that she was a beard and he had some waiter on the side.
“Friends then,” he said.
And just like that, they were. A couple years in, she still couldn’t say whether he was gay, straight, or something in between. But they’d never had trouble keeping things platonic, and she figured that alone said something.
Something Liza didn’t want to spell out for Molly all over again.
“Speaking of perfect matches,” she said instead. “How’s Daniel?”
“Oh, you know.” Molly sipped her wine, then squinted and massaged her temple with her free hand. “Actually, it was kind of awful when he left this morning.”
“Grant.” Liza smiled at the mention of Molly’s five-year-old. When he was born on her own birthday, Liza had proclaimed him a kindred spirit—and so far, he didn’t disappoint: surprisingly kind for his age, in spite of having zero inhibitions and a wicked sense of humor. “Daniel woke him up to say good-bye—it was almost time for him to get up for school anyway—and he flipped. I mean, really flipped. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ Daniel said, and Grant sobbed, ‘No you won’t!’ He was hysterical. He kept yelling, ‘You’re never coming back, never!’ Over and over.” She shivered at the memory.
“Yikes. Those exact words?”
“Those exact words.”
“What did you do?”
She rolled her eyes. “Daniel was staring me down, I mean boring into my eyes with this look that said, Whatever you do, don’t acknowledge this: Just pretend it isn’t happening. Like I don’t know better.” Molly did have a way of freaking the kids out with her own reactions—Liza had seen it—but now didn’t seem the time to side with Daniel, which had gotten her into trouble before. Excuse her for liking the guy her friend had married. She was guiltier, she supposed, of knowing full well that Molly could be … well, Molly.
“I keep hearing Grant’s tiny voice in my head, though,” Molly continued. “He sounded so sure.”
“Do you usually worry about Daniel when he travels?” Liza tucked her legs under her, glad of her stretchy yoga pants, the evening uniform she almost hadn’t donned tonight. Feeling self-conscious in Molly’s presence was still new to her, but she’d had oddly embarrassing visions of her pajama-clad self dialing in to find her friend in business casual. She needn’t have worried—Molly was in lounge clothes, too, though cute ones, a heather gray jersey wrap over a lace-trimmed cami.
“A little. Not Liza-style worrying, though,” Molly teased. Liza didn’t worry about everything all day long, but when something did take hold of the worst of her imagination it would cling for dear life, keeping her up all night. Few people knew the extent of her almost anxiety, as she called it. And fortunately, it usually seemed silly even to her in the morning.
Except for when it didn’t. That’s when she knew she was in trouble. She was no longer worrying; she was intuiting. And her intuition was kind of a show-off sometimes.
Molly turned serious. “Bad as it sounds, I’ve actually come to look forward to him being gone. I am never alone.”
“Do we count as alone right now?” Liza refilled her wineglass. “I mean, are we drinking alone?”
“Oh no. Friends don’t let friends drink alone. And you’re stuck with me. Because I plan to drink the ever-loving living bejesus out of this wine.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Strawser