Friday night, I walked into The Grey Lady on the Lower East Side for my 'surprise' birthday-slash-new-job party. I still hadn't heard from Richard. At this point, I was pissed, and I was also sick of people telling me to "back off and give him his space." Yeah, I shouldn't have ambushed him like I did, but it had been five days since we spoke, enough time for him to come to terms with whatever it was he needed to come to terms with. This is a guy who has told me he loves me, and who has spent the entire holiday season with my family, and he doesn't even have the decency to send me a text on my birthday? I was done.
"I'd be done too," Ashley said, handing me a vodka soda.
I took a sip. "You're not very subtle, you know?"
"This is not about me not liking Richard for you," Ashley said. "If I knew nothing about Richard but this incident, I would still be saying this. He clearly doesn't want to be in a relationship with you."
I covered my heart with my hand and winced. "It's my birthday-and-new-job party, have a little mercy."
Ashley gave me A Look. "You know I don't just mean you. I mean anyone. I think he likes the idea of it in theory, but when it comes to the actual hard relationship stuff, he doesn't want to put in the work." She pushed a twenty on the bar to pay for our drinks. "You shouldn't take it personally. He did it to Sam too."
I know it wasn't her intention, but that just made me feel worse. I like Richard, was falling in love with Richard, because it felt like we had a special connection. Richard has a hard time opening up to people and I thought I was the person he would do that with. Just like every other lovesick girl in the world, I guess.
"Hey." Ashley pointed her chin across the bar. "Peter."
He didn't see me, but I saw him. He was wearing this black cashmere coat that I love. It's something Nance would describe as 'rich looking', makes him look like he's someone. He pushed his hair back and looked over his shoulder, at the tall dark haired girl in leather pants opening the door behind him. He smiled. Leaned down and kissed her. When he straightened up again, he scanned the bar. This time, he saw me.
"Think twenty-six will be a good year?" Peter asked.
I nodded. Despite the Richard hiccup, I really did. "I feel like my career is finally taking off. Like I could be in a completely different place this time next year. No more assistant for me."
Peter sipped his drink and nodded. "If William keeps his word that is."
I'd told Peter all about my new job, and the promise William had made me. "I know you don't like him," I said, "but he's never given me a reason to doubt him. Plus," I shrugged, "it's not really about William. I go to LA if I prove myself to the partners. It's all on me."
"I would just hate to see you get your hopes up and it doesn't work out," Peter said.
"What is this?" I laughed. "Ye of little faith."
"No!" Peter laughed back. "It's just...do you really think this was the right move for you? You have to be a shark to work in that industry."
I frowned into my drink. I didn't want to sour the night by getting defensive with Peter, but it bothered me that he would assume I don't have it in me to make it in 'the business,' as I'm learning people call it. I'd worked the job offer from CWA—negotiated a higher salary and made a deal regarding the Agent Training Program that to my knowledge, no assistant has ever made before. A dolphin couldn't have pulled that off.
"Hey!" Devon, Peter's date, popped up in front of us, back from the bathroom.
"What can I get you?" Peter asked her.
She squinted at the drinks menu displayed above the bar. "Uh, I guess just a vodka cranberry."
Peter turned away from us to order her drink and Devon said, "So I'm confused. Is this a birthday party or a celebratory party?"
"Both," I said.
Devon glanced at her phone in her hand. She was incredibly striking, but she seemed really young to me. She started to text someone as she asked, "What are you celebrating?"
I smiled. "New job."
Still texting. "Cool. Where?"
I told her about my move to CWA. I kept it short, but she still seemed to zone out. I turned the conversation back on her. "What do you do?"
"Oh," she waved her hand, "I've been taking some time off since graduating last Spring."
I'm no math whiz, but if Devon graduated in the Spring, that meant she has been job-less for nine months—and she's at most twenty-three years old. Peter's last girlfriend was young, and I was much more of a spring chicken myself when we first started dating. Devon is three years younger than me, which on paper, seems like nothing. But when I compare what I was like when I was twenty-three to what I'm like now, I realize how big a difference it makes.
"Here." Peter handed Devon her bright drink and she pursed her lips, asking for a kiss. Peter looked uncomfortable as he leaned down and pecked her on the mouth.
"Oh my God!" Devon suddenly cried. "My old roommate is here." She put her hand on Peter's chest. "I'm just going to go say hello." She clicked off in her sharp booties.
"She seems nice," I said to Peter. He smirked at me.
"What?" I laughed.
"You're a really bad liar," Peter said.
"I'm not lying!" I said. "I just...what's with all the barely legal girlfriends?"
Peter's shoulder brushed mine and he grinned. "Jealous?"
I gave him a little push. "I'm just picking up on a pattern, that's all."
Peter shrugged. "I don't know. It's not like a conscious decision. These are just the girls I've met who I like and who seem easy," he arched an eyebrow at me, "and not in the biblical sense. I just mean they're laid-back. After Elizabeth, I need laid-back."
I almost asked if laid-back was code for naive and impressionable, but I bit my tongue. "Was I laid-back?
Peter drained the rest of his drink. "You used to be."
I nodded. "I know you don't really mean that as a compliment," I said, "but it is to me." I was so green when I first met Peter it must have been palpable, the way I can sense it on Devon. I don't feel green anymore.
Peter looked down at me, his eyes moving back and forth over me like he was skimming a newspaper article. "I'm happy you're happy."
I clinked my drink against his. "I'm happy you're happy."
Peter and Devon left not long after that. Peter is always going to give me that uh-oh feeling in my stomach (he is one handsome son of a bitch and I am only human), but I'm growing up, and it's becoming clear that we want different things. The whole reunion just made my anger towards Richard dissipate, and I found myself aching for him—I know he's had a tough time with his own job situation, but he has never once placed that burden on me. He's been nothing but excited about the changes in my career, cheering me on, rather than doubting that I can handle new challenges. It can't be easy for him to offer that kind of unbridled support when things aren't going his way, and that, to me, says a lot about a person's character.
Ashley was nowhere to be found, so I approached Nina, cozy in the crook of Nick's armpit. She's been dating him ever since November, and he's decided to move to New York when he finishes his graduate degree in the Spring. In the meantime, he's been visiting New York a lot. It warms my heart to think that Frank is getting to spend more time with him, after missing out on his childhood.
I tugged on her sleeve. "I think I'm going to get out of here."
"What?" Nina spat. "You can't! It's your party."
"I know," I sighed. "I have the birthday blues and I can't shake them."
Nina glanced at the time on her phone. "Stay another fifteen minutes, at least."
I looked at my phone too. It was 9:47. Nina had a point—it would be pretty pathetic to bail before the local news aired. "Okay," I agreed.
I'd had three vodka sodas, and they suddenly hit me all at once. "I'm going to the bathroom," I told her.
Nina studied me, her brows bunching together with suspicion. "You better not skip out."
"I'm not, Mom." I made my way to the bathrooms by the entrance of the bar. The line was long, and it took everything I had not to break into the little toddler pee dance while I waited. Finally, it was my turn, and I think I beat Tom Hanks' record in that scene from A League of Their Own.
I washed up and slid open the door (oh, trendy New York bar bathrooms and your sliding frosted glass doors). I was rounding the corner to return to the main room when I stopped dead in my tracks. Richard was standing in front of me.
"Hi," he said. His face was scruffy; he clearly hadn't shaved for days. It read as nonchalant on him, like he didn't care about anything and no one could make him, and I just wanted him more.
I did my best to steel everything in my face. "Hi."
"Happy birthday," he said.
I swallowed the heavy lump in my throat. "Thanks."
"I want you to come with me," he said, and he held his hand out.
I stared at it, unmoving. "Where?"
I still didn't move.
"I have some stuff to tell you, Josie," Richard said. "I owe it to you to tell you this. I know this now." I still wasn't giving him my hand, so he grabbed it and pulled me into him. I tried to push him off, but then he whispered into my ear, "I fucking love you. I'm not going to fuck this up."
I looked over his shoulder at Nina, who was staring at us intently. She gave me a little smile and a nod. I realized she'd known he was coming all along.
I let Richard lead me out of the bar.
***Thank you to everyone who has been understanding of the extra demands on my schedule lately. Let's not let the negativity ruin the fun for us—I know sometimes it seems like it takes over the entire comments section, but the traffic numbers show that a very small portion of the readership suffers from outraged fingers syndrome. If I listened to everyone who tried to tear me down in my life, I wouldn't be where I am today.
I will have book news to share in 5-6 weeks (i.e. forever for this impatient millennial!).