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small craft on a milk sea

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They leave Palm Springs in separate cars, Sarah heading to her apartment in Austin and Nyles going to pick up his dog, and then on to his house in Santa Cruz. She stops for gas and a late lunch at a combination Denny’s-Cinnabon-Subway-Arco’s, an absolute monstrosity of a building that she takes a picture of and texts to Nyles with the caption "missed the fine dining opportunities outside of palm springs."

According to her phone, it's the first text she's ever sent him.

She’s watching the numbers tick up on the gas pump when her phone starts buzzing with a call.

“I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be chill about this and wait 72 hours before contact, or…” Nyles says, and she laughs.

“Have you ever actually done that?”

“Well, no,” he says, and she can imagine his expression perfectly as he says it, eyes darting to the side and mouth tilting up unevenly with a sort of performative embarrassment. “You’ll note that I didn’t double text, though. I do have some decorum. Anyway, totally unrelated, I just remembered that I live with Misty! And also she’s kicking me out, because we broke up. And she thinks I cheated on her with you, which maybe I technically did? It was more of an emotional affair, if anything, but -“

“Nyles,” she cuts in, and he stops.

“Yep, right, sorry.”

“Do you have anywhere to live?” she asks, as the pump starts beeping.

“Well, funny you should ask that, because I was thinking: we shouldn’t move in together, right?”

“…right,” she says, after she takes a moment to picture it: waking up in the same bed together, arguing over what to make for dinner, buying hideous furniture together at yard sales. Vacuuming up metric tons of dog hair from every surface in her apartment. “That seems -“

“Premature, I agree. I’m glad you think so, but I figured it’d be weird to not bring it up, since we’re - you know.”

She does know, or at least as much as he does, which doesn’t feel like much. All the words she can think of feel both juvenile and - premature. What is she supposed to call him, her boyfriend? It’s too much and not enough all at once.

It’s the latter part of that sentiment that makes her say, “You should move to Austin, though.”

As soon as she says it, she panics, but it feels reflexive - like she’s terrified by how good it felt to say it, and how bad she doesn’t feel about the fact that she said it at all. 

“I should move to Austin,” Nyles is saying, not missing a beat. “Is that a formal offer to help me unpack my uhaul when I get there?”

“It’s a formal offer to buy you dinner after you unpack your own uhaul,” she says, and when he laughs she realizes that she’s clutching her phone very tightly in her hand, and smiling just to hear him laugh. 

“Fuck,” he sighs. “Is it weird that I miss you already? No, right?”

“No, it’s weird,” she says. “Super weird.”

“Oh, well if it’s weird,” he starts, laughter in his voice again, and she can’t keep from saying, “I miss you. Too.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I know. I mean, I hoped so. But I also knew, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," she says, and she does.


The thing that she sort of forgets until Nyles is standing there in her apartment is that they’ve only fucked once. 

She used to think about it often, if absently, especially in the hours between being kicked out of the cafe at closing time and falling asleep at the motel across the street. She didn’t need to fall asleep, could’ve wandered into traffic or found a cliff to jump off of or a million other day-ending activities, but the structure kept her focused. She’d wake up, drive to the cafe, study, run through every drink and baked goods combo on the tiny menu, fall asleep in the afternoon sun, study some more, and eventually retreat to the motel to wind down in some way that would keep her from falling off a metaphorical cliff in the morning when she woke up in Abe’s bed. That usually meant some combination of meditating, masturbating, thinking about Nyles, doing her best not to think about Nyles, and drinking the most expensive tequila she could get at the corner store, because hey, she wasn’t a saint - she was just an extremely determined woman with some problems and issues that had been exacerbated by being stuck in a fucking time loop.

Despite all the thought and avoidance of thought, the memory of that night can still make her feel some Russian roulette combination of vulnerable, overexposed, ashamed, and lovesick by turns. It’s a little faded now, warped by time, drugs, an immense amount of astrophysics, and the ways she’d tried to push it away, but some moments are still crystal clear: how warm his hands had been, the way he’d touched her, not hesitant but focused, almost careful, and how they’d moved together. He’d fallen asleep a few minutes before she had, and she’d drifted off next to him feeling like something was finally clicking into place.

And then she’d woken up, painfully sober and in her sister’s fiance’s bed, the day of said sister and fiance’s wedding, and things had fucking clicked, alright - just not the way Nyles had expected them to.

It’s the care that her thoughts catch on now, knowing what she knows - that it had been her first time sleeping with him, but the thousandth time he’d slept with her, and despite all of that, he’d acted like it was something unique. The way he’d pushed her away just so he could stare at her face like he was memorizing it, like it meant something to be able to know what she looked like in that moment. Like anything about the situation, the two of them, the night was important. Like she was important. 

It’s too much. It feels like a bomb she has to defuse, that knowledge of how much he wants her. So what, she tells herself, Rick had wanted her, too, and that hadn’t kept their marriage together. People want each other every day. It doesn’t do them any favors. She hadn’t been lying when she told Nyles that she fucked around too much; she has, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. 

It’s usually better when it doesn’t mean anything, actually - her experience with the whole fucking enterprise could be summarized as nothing more than an exercise in human capability, with one glaring exception, but she finds it impossible to think about it so clinically when Nyles is standing in her living room. He’s wearing not-the-same clothes she’s using to seeing him in, which is a trip all on its own, his hair looks vaguely neater, and he looks nervous, and she is - tired of putting words to things. Does not want to dissect the want and relief that runs through her when she sees him, so strongly that it hurts. 

“Hey,” he says, the word coming out on an exhale. He smiles at her, and she crosses the space between them, faster than sound and light could ever accurately record in the face of memory, where she’s been by his side all along.



Nyles follows her out to the porch when she begs off from another round of Uno with her dad and step-mom and the Happy Couple, and goes for a smoke break. She’s not surprised - he’s been charming all evening, but she knows he was starting to feel that strain that pulls on both of them, especially around people they’d been in the loop with, that ‘what am I allowed to do, what am I allowed to say’ itch that becomes absolutely maddening if they can’t get a minute alone.

And he wants to talk about it, she thinks. He wants to talk about everything now.

She’s barely finished lighting her cigarette when he blurts out, “So, full disclosure, I fucked your dad. I was lying about that, before.”

She takes a drag and looks out over the yard for a minute, letting him marinate in whatever he’s feeling. She thinks he might be uncomfortable. Some part of her is hoping for it, knows he needs those low stakes consequences to keep him from acting like nothing really matters. She does too.

“I figured,” she finally says, looking over at him. He’s leaning back on the porch railing, mouth twisted up. Definitely uncomfortable.

“It was only once,” he says quickly. “Well. Twice. I had a theory that -“

“I’m gonna stop you right there,” she tells him. “Please do not tell me about the times you fucked my dad.”

“I thought we were supposed to tell each other everything!”

“Some things,” she says. 

“Right,” he subsides. “Boundaries. Ignore how I said that, it sounded like I think they’re a joke. I don’t think that, I know they’re important. I just…”

He trails off, shrugging a shoulder as the corner of his mouth curves unhappily. She wants to go over to him, press him further against the porch railing, and do a lot of things that would be cliche for anyone, but especially for her. It was practically routine, at one point in her twenties: Sunday family dinner plus the guy of the week. Red wine, a board game she’d either conspire to lose as quickly as possible or get hyper-competitive over, then upstairs to show guy of the week her childhood bedroom, quickie, and back downstairs to either leave, flushed and feeling victorious in a wonderfully petty way, or have more wine and argue with Pia. She’d done that for years. She doesn’t need to do it with Nyles. 

So she stays on the other side of the porch, and says, “I know. It’s hard.”

It is hard. Going back to real life, real time, has been harder than she’d ever imagined. She thinks of it like an astronaut going back to Earth after spending a year in space. She keeps forgetting that she can’t just drop things.

“Does it help to know I never slept with your step-mom?”

“Ugh,” she grimaces. “I mean, I guess. It doesn’t hurt.”

He smiles at that, pleased with himself. She takes another drag, and lets herself enjoy it. The smoke curling out of her mouth, the slight breeze cutting through the warm evening air, and the fact that Nyles is there, with her. 

She’s looking at the scab on his jaw where he’d cut himself shaving that morning (I’m out of practice, he always says, I didn’t have to do it for like a million years!) when Nyles says, “I’m glad I’m here with you.”

“Oh,” she says, a little surprised by their weird emotional synchronization, although she’s not sure yet if it’s a disturbed surprise or a pleased kind. “Uh. Me too. It’s nice.”

“I mean, you’re very convenient cover for the fact that I know way too many details about your family’s personal lives,” he continues, and she rolls her eyes. “Imagine if I came over here by myself! They’d be freaked.”

“Well, I’m glad I can be your cover for a thrilling night of card games and Pia’s subpar bruschetta,” she says dryly.

“It’s just like the Sopranos,” Nyles says. “I’m assuming, anyway. I don’t remember watching the Sopranos.”

“Do not let my dad hear you say that,” she warns him. “He’ll break out the dvd box set at the slightest provocation.”

“Provoke your dad so we can bond over the Sopranos, check,” Nyles nods. “And don’t mention that we fucked.”

“I’ll take that deal,” she says, and finally takes a step towards him, extending a hand. He meets her there and shakes her hand solemnly, and then he never lets go, just sort of grins at her and holds her hand while she smokes and makes faces at him. 

Eventually, Tala pokes her head outside and tells them that there’s pie for dessert if they want to come in and stop being weirdos, and Sarah grinds her cigarette butt into the deck while Nyles offers a compromise of coming in but continuing the weirdness.

"I'll take that deal too," Sarah says, ignoring the way Tala is watching them with the same bemused but cautiously glad look that her parents give them, and finally, hand in hand, they go inside.