Nadine clutches at the pillow under her head, arching her back.
"Shit. Oh Jesus, Nadine—" Will pants, quickly following her over the edge. She wraps her arms around him as he dips his head down to kiss her neck, keeping most of his weight on his forearms as he catches his breath. "You're gonna kill me," he murmurs, and she feels his lips curl into a smile before he turns to kiss her jaw, then her lips.
She kisses him back softly, then again, harder. "We can't have that," she says.
She likes him well enough. She's let Will take her on several dates now, the last few having ended at his house, and she has no complaints about any of it. She likes that he can make her laugh, and she likes the way he looks at her and likes the way he fucks her.
Maybe she's just starved for something good.
After a while she sits up, swinging her legs over the side and fluffing her hair as she gets out of bed. She locates her bra and underwear on the floor and grabs them on her way to the bathroom. She does her business and gets back into her undergarments before exiting the bathroom.
Will observes quietly as she picks up her dress and slips back into it. He's still laying in bed, sheets covering his lower half. "You could stay," he says. "We don't have work tomorrow. I have nowhere to be. And I'd love to make you breakfast."
She smiles briefly. "Thanks, but I promised my son I'd watch the baby in the morning. Another time," she says, and walks over to the bed, leaning down to kiss him appeasingly. She's lying, but she doesn't feel bad about it. As much as she enjoys his company, she could use a little time alone this weekend.
Will wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her down, one large hand drifting down to her ass as he gives her a proper kiss. "Okay then. I'll see you soon?"
"Sure, I'll call you." Nadine kisses him one last time before slipping out of the bedroom. She gathers her coat and purse from the living room, steps into her shoes, and lets herself out.
Once she's back in her car, she pulls her phone out of the front pocket of her purse (she never used to be able to do that—just put her phone away and not look at it all night—back when she worked at State). No missed calls, but there is one text from Mike.
He'd sent her an email last month about meeting up while he was in town for business, but then had had to cancel the trip after his son had broken his leg during hockey practice. By the time Mike had been able to reschedule the work trip, in between all of his standing obligations at State, nearly a month had passed.
Over those weeks, they had begun to correspond with increasing regularity, graduating from emails to texting on a weekly basis. Because they were friends, Mike had rationalized. They were old friends, and it didn't have to be weird. They could make it not weird.
Will be in SF Tuesday through Friday next week. Hope we can still get dinner. Let me know, his message reads now.
And texting him is nice. She likes feeling like his friend again, with minimal commitment and minimal collateral. She likes pretending that none of the things that happened between them were poisonous or irreparable.
She sits back, sighs.
Maybe she's deluding herself. Maybe it's all just the precariously-constructed illusion created by digital intimacy; a friendship made to seem healed and whole by the distance, time, and lack of face-to-face interaction. Maybe seeing him in person would wreck that.
Still, she reasons, it's just dinner. Even she can't mess that up.
Tuesday would work, she types back. She puts her phone away, starts her car, and drives home.
She doesn't see Will all weekend, but she does call him, as promised.
"Miss you," he says.
"You just saw me two days ago." She rolls her eyes even though, secretly, she kind of likes that about him. He's direct about what he wants, but not in an overbearing way. He doesn't expect her to prioritize him over other things and doesn't get mad when she doesn't. It's easy to be with him. It's the least complicated relationship she's been in, perhaps ever.
"Still. Miss you."
"How about you come over later this week? I'll make you dinner," Nadine offers.
"I'm not free until Wednesday."
"Mm, Wednesday's no good for me."
"Thursday, then. There's an art exhibition opening downtown. I'd love to take you."
She smiles. "That sounds wonderful."
"Great," Will says warmly. "I'll see you in class tomorrow."
"You have got to stop coming to my lectures," she admonishes. "My students see you there, you know. They ask me questions. They think something's going on."
"Something is going on," he teases.
"You're impossible. I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," he says, and she can just tell that he's smiling. "Bye, Nadine."
"Hey," Will says, his head peeking through her open office door.
The day is winding down; Nadine has a few more papers she wants to get through before she leaves to meet Mike for dinner. They'd decided on a restaurant right in the heart of the city, and she already knows it's going to be a trek.
She looks up. "Hey, you."
There's no one around, so he steps right up to her desk and leans across to kiss her. "I've had a change of plans and now I'm free tonight, so maybe I can take you to dinner if you don't have anything going on."
"Oh, actually I'm supposed to meet up with a friend tonight," she says vaguely, but he doesn't press her for details.
"Okay. Well, have fun."
"But we're still on for Thursday?"
"Can't wait." She smiles.
"Me neither. Alright," he says, rapping his knuckles against the doorframe, "I'll let you get back to grading."
She makes her way through a few more papers before it's time to head out. And although she leaves campus with plenty of time she's still late getting to the restaurant, and Mike is already seated at their table when she arrives.
He sees her first and waves her down, standing. He walks around the table to pull her chair out for her, and when she reaches him he gives her a friendly hug. His smile is so warm and genuine that it almost isn't even awkward.
"Hey, I'm sorry I'm late," she says, settling in. She shrugs out of her coat and drapes it over the back of her chair, sets her phone on the corner of the table out of the way, and hangs her purse. "Traffic sucked and then I had to circle the block three times to find a parking spot. Should have Ubered."
"Don't worry about it. It's good to see you," he says. "You look good."
"Thank you. So do you."
"So uh," he says, picking up the menu, "this place has a great wine list. We could get a bottle of that Salentein Malbec you like."
"I don't think I could help you finish a whole bottle. Maybe just a glass."
He raises an eyebrow. "You didn't eat anything today, did you?"
She doesn't answer for a long time, pretending to study the menu. "I ate breakfast," she finally offers, without looking up. She doesn't need to see the way he is probably most definitely judging her.
"Uh-huh. It's eight PM now."
"Tuesdays are my long days."
"You're in academia," he says.
"It's midterm week."
"They give you grad TAs for a reason."
"I like to read the papers myself."
"Of course you do," Mike huffs, not sounding surprised in the least. "They're just undergrads, you know. They don't really have anything to offer you yet."
"Some of them would surprise you." She scans the menu. She is hungry, now that she's had a second to think about it.
"Then I suppose you can send us some White House interns," he replies. "In two years."
"Yeah, I hope so."
The waiter arrives to take down their drinks, and he orders them two glasses of Malbec without making any comment about Nadine's alcohol tolerance.
"So what business brings you all the way out here?" she asks him, once the waiter leaves.
"Consult with Mayor Breed."
"You cleaning house?"
"Couch-sitting," he corrects.
She waves dismissively. "Same difference. You know," she says, "you'd think there would be at least one qualified advisor in this entire state who could have managed that dirty work."
"Yeah, like you," he points out. "Except I hear through the California grapevine that you've been turning down all offers since the minute you got here."
She shakes her head. "It's not for me. If I wanted to stay in politics I wouldn't have retired from politics."
"You don't regret leaving?"
"No," she says truthfully. "I'm happy with what I'm doing now."
He smiles briefly. "You look it."
"Anyway," he says, turning the topic back, "I'm just doing this as a favor to my ex-wife."
"London's an old college friend of hers."
That makes a little more sense—because it isn't like Mike to lend his time and expertise to city politicians just for the heck of it. "I see."
"And when she took over for Ed Lee, she kept his staff," he says, his tone dry. "Didn't boot a single person. It's complicating her agenda, now."
Nadine presses her lips together. "Can't imagine what that's like."
The waiter returns and sets down two globes of red wine. "Here you are," he says. "Are you guys ready to order?"
They put in their orders and hand back their menus.
"Cheers," Mike says, lifting his wine. She taps her glass against his and takes a sip, knowing it'll go straight to her head if she isn't careful.
"So how's the Secretary?" she asks.
"She's good. Still waiting for her to admit to herself and everyone else that she's going to… well, you know," he says lamely, scanning their surroundings.
And she does know. When she worked for her, Nadine had no problem toting Elizabeth's denial to anyone who dared suggest otherwise, but she knows it's only a matter of time before the Secretary reverses course. And Mike, who is always thinking ten steps ahead, probably already has a campaign strategy ready to go. Just waiting for a green light.
"And everyone else?"
"Good. Jay has really…" he stops short because compliments don't come that easy, not from him. "He's not you, but he makes it work."
"And who's the new Jay?"
"Ah. Kat Sandoval."
"Oh," Nadine says, surprised. She hasn't been keeping up, evidently. She only knows Kat by reputation, but it makes sense how the woman could be Elizabeth's speed.
"Leave it to the Secretary to be the one person who could pull that woman back into politics," she mutters.
'Yeah, no kidding," Mike agrees.
"Do you like her?"
He shrugs dismissively. "Do I like anybody?"
"You like me."
He chuckles. "Yeah, I guess I do," he says, and he says it so easy that it's like the sting of their last encounter really has faded out. It's been over a year since she's seen him, anyway.
They talk about State, Mike's son, her son, her granddaughter—it's easy and nice and it doesn't feel forced. She had worried for nothing. She eats half her meal and boxes up the rest.
"Dessert?" he offers.
"We could share something," she says agreeably, and he flags down their waiter for a menu. They both know she'll have two bites of whatever it is and let him have the rest.
They settle on a tiramisu and a decaf coffee for Mike. The waiter whisks away the menus again, and then Nadine folds up her napkin and sets it on the table.
"I'm going to go to the restroom," she says, excusing herself.
She heads toward the back, uses the facilities and washes up, feeling good and feeling pleased. She hadn't thought it was possible for them to be friends again, hadn't realized that was something she wanted. It's certainly taken them long enough.
When she returns to their table, the dessert is already sitting there, two forks resting on the plate.
Mike nods toward her phone. "Someone's been texting you," he says as she's settling back into her seat. She glances over and sees the screen glowing, lit up with message previews. There's something tight in his voice that wasn't there before. It's minute; she wouldn't have noticed it if she didn't know him so well. He's bothered. Jealous?
"Oh," she says. She glances at the previews and sees that they're from Will. As best she can tell, they don't seem urgent or important, so she doesn't make a move to pick up her phone. She doesn't want to make a big deal of it.
Mike is watching her. "That's okay," he offers. "You can get it if you want." He hands her a fork, and digs his own into a corner of the cake.
"Thanks," she mutters, and unlocks her phone. She quickly scans through Will's messages and then locks her phone again, slips it into her purse without replying. "Not important."
"You were smiling," he says. "You're seeing someone." His inflection is halfway between a statement and a question.
"Um, yes," she says. She scrapes up a tiny bit of mascarpone with her fork, feeling foolish for feeling flustered. "Yeah, I am."
"That's great," he says neutrally. And suddenly that awkwardness she'd been trying so hard to avoid now thickens the air between them.
"Yeah?" she says, and if she sounds a little suspicious she can't help that. They've never been able to heal old wounds, and she's never been able to anticipate which one he'll weaponize. Because he does that sometimes.
It's fine either way. He can feel however he wants about it.
"Yeah," he says. The waiter returns with the check and she snatches it up, grateful for the distraction. But Mike somehow already has his credit card out. He tucks it into her hand with a grin. "You can get it next time."
She'll allow it. "Alright then." She slips the card into the pocket and props up the book on the table. They sit in silence as the waiter breezes back around to collect the book, and as they wait for it to be brought back. They work on finishing the dessert.
The waiter finally makes it back around, sets down the book. "Thank you for dining with us. Have a great rest of your night, guys," he says with a winning smile.
Mike re-pockets his credit card and scrawls in a tip and a signature. He looks up at her. "Ready?"
She nods, gathering her purse and her coat. He follows her out of the restaurant and onto the street. It's dark now, but the area is still fairly busy.
"Where did you park?" he asks.
She points up the street. "Two blocks that way."
"I'll walk you. My hotel's in that general direction anyway," he says. They walk in silence for a while before he speaks up again. "I meant it, you know. Earlier."
She looks at him. "Hm?"
"It's great that you're seeing someone."
"Oh. It's… well. Thank you. I'm not sure if… It's still pretty new, so..." she fumbles, trails off. Clears her throat and tries again. "Anyway. Thanks."
She rewinds her mental calendar. "Maybe a month."
"Where'd you meet?"
"We teach in the same department."
"Teacher hot for teacher." He nods solemnly.
"Oh my god Mike, no, it's not—"
"I'm kidding!" he says, laughing, and she rolls her eyes at his antics. Mike asks, "But you like him?"
"Yeah." Her mouth lifts in a half smile. "He's a good guy."
"You deserve that," he says sincerely. They fall silent again, walking side by side. He speaks up again. "I really… I do want to see you happy, Nadine. I want that for you."
She chances a sidelong glance at him, but he's looking straight ahead. She leans into him, brushing her shoulder against his. "I want that for you, too," she says. Neither of them step apart again, and they walk the next block with her arm pressed against his.
"This is me," she says when they reach her car. She unlocks it with the key fob, and Mike opens the driver side door for her. She turns into him. "I'm glad we got to do this. Thank you for dinner."
"Thank you for making time for me," he says, and envelops her in an easy hug. "Get home safe."
She stands shoulder to shoulder with Will and stares up at the massive display mounted on the wall in front of them. They study it for a good minute in silence.
"I don't get it," she says finally, voice hushed.
"Is it supposed to be… sexual?" Will tries.
"Freudian," she agrees.
He snickers. "At least the champagne's good." The champagne is good—and expensive. Her glass is almost empty.
"I thought art was your thing."
"Yeah, I thought so, too." He links his fingers with hers and leads her to the next piece. "I'm questioning that now."
The voice comes from somewhere behind them. "Nadine?"
She turns in surprise. "Mike?"
Mike walks toward them, glancing between her and Will, a smile fixed on.
"Um. Will, this is Mike Barnow. Mike, this Will," she says, sounding a little strangled and unlike herself and wrong.
Will shoots her an odd look, but then Mike holds out his hand, and he shakes it firmly. "It's nice to meet you," he says politely.
"I didn't expect you'd be here," Nadine says.
Mike hikes a thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of a group of people milling about behind him. "I know the curator." Of course he does.
"Nadine, I'm gonna get us a refill," Will offers, rather tactfully, and takes her empty glass out of her hands before excusing himself.
Mike looks at her, a little scrutinizing. "I didn't know you liked modern art," he says.
"I don't," she says honestly. "It doesn't make sense. Are you planning to purchase something here?"
He makes a face. "I don't think so. Just because I know the guy doesn't mean I agree with his taste." His eyes drift over to Will, across the room. Will has two fresh glasses of champagne in his hands but has stopped to chat with someone who he seems to know. "That the professor?"
He nods and doesn't say anything else. His face is carefully blank, but Nadine has known him too long not to see that he's dying to say something.
"Oh, come on, Mike. Don't do that."
His eyes flick back to her. "Do what?"
"You know what. You clearly have something you want to say, so just say it."
"Barnow," she says warningly.
"It's just harder than I thought, alright? Seeing you, here, with that guy." She frowns. Mike simply shrugs, unembarrassed with his honesty now that it's been pulled from him. "It just looks like… like what I wanted with you. What you refused to give me."
That deflates her. "You and I were different," she mumbles. "The circumstances were always… not this."
"It's just a little disheartening, I guess. That's all."
"I always cared about you," she offers. "I still do."
"I know you think that's comforting, but it's not," he says sharply.
She grows icy, defensive. "What would you like me to say?"
"Nothing. You asked me to say what was on my mind. I did."
"I can't change our history."
"I know. But back then, when I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this."
She looks away. "Don't," she says quietly. There's a hard lump in her throat, but she bites the inside of her cheek and refuses to cry.
"It doesn't matter now." He looks at her for a long moment. "You should get back to Will," he says. He walks away.
Nadine looks up at the ceiling, blinks hard. She exhales slowly and straightens her spine. She turns and finds Will in the crowd.
"Hey there," he says. He hands her one of the champagne flutes he's holding, and then does a double take when he sees her face. "Hey, what's wrong?"
She tries a smile. "Nothing. Nothing, don't worry about me."
"Is it— Did that guy say something to you?"
She shakes her head. "It's nothing—really."
"It doesn't look like nothing," he murmurs gently. "Who was that guy?"
"Just someone I used to work with, that's all."
"You must know him well if he can upset you like this," he prods. "Were you two close?"
"Oh," she says, voice wavering involuntarily, "close enough."
Will studies her, worried. "Let's get out of here," he says.
She nods, embarrassed for being so visibly rattled. "Yeah, okay."
He sets their untouched glasses on a nearby table and leads her out of the gallery.
He drives them. Once they get on the freeway, she notices that he's taking them toward his place.
"Actually," she says suddenly, "Can you take me home? I just… I think I need some space."
He glances over at her. "Of course. Whatever you want," he says. He takes an earlier exit to re-route them toward her apartment.
In silence, in her head, Nadine turns over her conversation with Mike the whole ride home.
"Here we are," Will says, turning into her apartment complex. He pulls in front of her building and puts the car in park, understanding that she isn't going to invite him up tonight.
"Thanks, Will. I'm sorry about tonight."
"Don't worry about that. Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah, I will be."
"Okay," he says, and doesn't press. She's grateful for that.
Will is the kind of man she ought to want. He's safe — she knows she can count on him to treat her gently, to be there, to keep her company. No surprises, just steady support. If that is what she wants.
Is she just lonely?
"I'll see you at work tomorrow. Good night," she says, and leans over to kiss him softly.
"Good night, Nadine."
She gets out of the car. She doesn't look back as she lets herself into the building.
Mike's words echo in her head all weekend.
She thinks about what she might have done, if Mike had been bold enough to invite her up to his hotel room the other night. She probably would have gone. She knows better than to reach for him, but that's never stopped her from wanting to.
When I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this.
She can't get him out of her head.
She didn't cheat, but this doesn't feel fair, either.
She shows up at Will's door that evening unexpectedly.
"Nadine? Are you okay?"
"I don't think this is working," she blurts out. Better to get it all out on the table at once.
He pauses. "What?"
She holds his gaze, and tries hard not to wonder if she's blowing up something good for no reason at all. "I'm sorry. I can't keep doing this."
"Nadine, I don't think I understand what's going on."
"I just… I think you're looking for something completely different than what I can give—"
"How about you let me decide that for myself?" he interjects gently.
"—and I think I've just been using you as a distraction," she confesses hollowly. "That's not fair to you."
He looks at her for a long time, unreadable. "Alright," he says finally. "Okay. Well, you've clearly made up your mind."
"I should go. I'm sorry, Will."
When I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this.
Later, at home and alone, Nadine wonders if maybe she just never learned how to be happy.