The Last Thing He Told Me

3.11 Five Years Later. Or Eight. Or Ten.

chapter
Chapter

I’m at the Paci􀏯c Design Center in Los Angeles, participating in a First Look
exhibition, with twenty-one other artisans and producers. I’m debuting a new
collection of white oak pieces (mostly furniture, a few bowls and larger pieces) in
the showroom they’ve provided.
These exhibitions are great for exposure to potential clients, but they are also
like a reunion of sorts—and, like most reunions, somewhat of a grind. Several
architects and colleagues stop by to say hello, catch up. I have done my best with
the small talk, but I’m starting to feel tired. And, as the clock winds toward 6
P.M., I feel myself looking past people as opposed to at them.
Bailey is supposed to meet me for dinner, so I’m mostly on the lookout for
her, excited to have the excuse to shut it all down for the day. She’s bringing a
guy she recently started dating, a hedge funder named Shep (two points against
him), but she swears I’ll like him. He’s not like that, she says.
I’m not sure if she is referring to him working in 􀏯nance or having the name
Shep. Either way, he seems like a reaction to her last boyfriend, who had a less
irritating name (John) and was unemployed. So it is, dating in your twenties, and
I’m grateful that these are the things she’s thinking about.
She lives in Los Angeles now. I live here too, not too far from the ocean—and
not too far from her.
I sold the 􀏲oating house as soon as Bailey graduated high school. I don’t
harbor any illusions that this means I’ve avoided them keeping tabs on us—the
shadowy 􀏯gures waiting to pounce should Owen ever return. I’m sure they are
still watching on the o􀏦 chance he risks it and comes back to see us. I operate as
if they are always watching, whether or not he does.
Sometimes I think I see them, in an airport lounge or outside a restaurant,
but of course I don’t know who they are. I pro􀏯le anyone who looks at me a
second too long. It stops me from letting too many people get close to me,
which isn’t a bad thing. I have who I need.
Minus one.
He walks into the showroom, casually, a backpack over his shoulders. His
shaggy hair is buzz cut short and darker, and his nose is crooked, like it’s been
broken. He wears a button-down shirt, rolled up, revealing a sleeve of tattoos,
crawling out to his hand, to his 􀏯ngers, like a spider.
This is when I clock his wedding ring, which he is still wearing. The ring I
made for him. Its slim oak 􀏯nish is perhaps unnoticeable to anyone else. I know
it cold though. He couldn’t look less like himself. There is that too. But maybe
this is what you do when you need to hide from people in plain sight. I wonder.
Then I wonder if it isn’t him, after all.
It isn’t the 􀏯rst time I think I see him. I think I see him everywhere.
I’m so 􀏲ustered that I drop the papers I’m holding, everything falling to the
􀏲oor.
He bends over to help me. He doesn’t smile, which would give him away. He
doesn’t so much as touch my hand. It would be too much, probably, for both of
us.
He hands me the papers.
I try and thank him. Do I say it out loud? I don’t know.
Maybe. Because he nods.
Then he stands up and starts to head out, the way he came. And it’s then that
he says the one thing that only he would say to me.
“The could-have-been boys still love you,” Owen says. He isn’t looking at me
when he says it, his voice low.
The way you say hello.
The way you say goodbye.
My skin starts burning, my cheeks 􀏲aring red. But I don’t say anything.
There’s no time to say anything. He shrugs and shifts his backpack higher on his
shoulder. Then he disappears into the crowd. And that’s that. He is just another
design junkie, on his way to another booth.
I don’t dare watch him go. I don’t dare look in his direction.
I keep my eyes down, pretending to organize the papers, but the heat coming
o􀏦 me is tangible—that 􀏯erce red lingering on my skin, on my face, if anyone is
paying close enough attention in that moment. I pray they are not.
I make myself count to a hundred, then to a hundred and 􀏯fty.
When I 􀏯nally allow myself to look up, it’s Bailey that I see. It cools me out,
immediately, centers me. She is walking toward me from the same direction
Owen has gone. She’s in her gray sweater dress and high-top Converse, her long,
brown hair running halfway down her back. Did Owen pass her? Did he get to
see for himself how beautiful she has become? How sure of herself? I hope so. I
hope so at the same time I hope not. Which way, after all, spares him?
I take a deep breath and take her in. She walks hand in hand with Shep, the
new boyfriend. He gives me a salute, which I’m sure he thinks is cute. It isn’t.
But I smile as they walk up. How can I not? Bailey is smiling too. She is
smiling at me.
“Mom,” she says.


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