The bar has the same calming darkness as the microscope room, but it has the added benefit of booze. I’m two beers in before Chris shows up, followed closely by Alex and, ten minutes later, a harried Ed, who must not realize he’s still got a pair of lab goggles atop his head.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, and startles when Alex carefully plucks the goggles from his mess of curls.
“Everything okay?” I know he was helping Gabriel with an experiment today that they’d been planning for a few weeks. One look at Ed and I’m guessing I don’t want to know how it went just yet. “Never mind. I’ll ask you later.”
He rakes a hand through his hair before reaching for the beer menu. “Probably a good idea.”
“Okay, so,” I start, staring at the remaining foam in my half-full pint glass. “I feel like a bit of a dick doing this—talking about this here—but I need some advice and I think I need all of your input because I suspect you’ll each tell me something different.”
Alex shifts in his chair, glancing at Ed.
Chris is the only one looking directly at me. “Sure.”
“Chris knows this,” I say, “but about a month or two ago, Millie and I slept together.”
There is no reaction to this. No gasps, no outburst. Just even expressions and expectant silence. So apparently Chris wasn’t the only one who assumed we’d done this a long time ago.
“It happened again at my parents’ place,” I continue, “and again a couple nights ago.”
Alex nods slowly. “Okay?”
“But during all this, I’ve also been talking to Daisy online—which by the way, didn’t work out in person—and Catherine.” I take a quick sip, and focus my attention on the table. “After leaving Millie’s the other night, I was a little messed up about what we were doing, and I messaged Cat and sort of laid out what was going on.”
Ed coughs into his fist.
“I told her that I have feelings for this friend of mine—Millie—but that I also wanted to meet Cat as well. Long story short, Cat wrote back and told me she was moving to Massachusetts.”
“Dude, seriously?” Chris asks. “That’s . . . that’s weird.”
I don’t miss the way Alex bends and cups his forehead. Watching him, I say carefully, “If what you’re thinking is that Millie is Catherine, you’d be right.”
All three of their heads shoot up and they stare at me.
“Wait, what?” Chris says, pulling back.
“I figured it out at her place last night,” I tell them. “She was telling me she wanted us to try to be together, and when I bent to hug her I realized she’s got the same scar on her shoulder as Cat did in the profile picture. And Cat always made that same typo, the ‘tit’ typo, that Millie makes.” I look up at them, making sure they’re not looking at me like I’m insane. “A few other things, too—her dad being sick and her mom dying when she was younger. Her little sister she’s not so close to. I figured it out and gave her the chance to tell me about Cat . . . and she didn’t. I’m, like, ninety-nine percent sure she’s Catherine, and I gave her so many openings to tell me, and she didn’t. She just continued the lie.”
No one says anything. They just absorb all this in shock.
“And on the one hand, I get it,” I say. “Something happened between us in person and she doesn’t want this other persona in the way. But on the other hand, why the fuck did she do it in the first place, and why would she keep it from me?”
“Man,” Chris says quietly. “If this is true, this is fucked up.”
It takes me a few seconds, but then it registers that Ed—who has something to say about everything—is dead silent. His expression is tight, like he’s waiting any second to be yelled at . . . the way he looks when I catch him staring at grad students’ asses.
“What’s with you?” I ask.
He doesn’t look up from the napkin he’s methodically shredding. “Nothing.”
“Bullshit.” I’m reminded of that morning on the patio at my parents’ place, when he was acting like a lunatic. “Seriously, Ed.”
“I just . . .” He glances over to Alex. “I told her she should tell you.”
This honestly doesn’t penetrate at first. I know what he’s said, but at the same time, the meaning doesn’t fully hit me until he glances at Alex again, and Alex lifts his beer to his lips, shaking his head.
“Dude, you were the one who helped her write that last message,” Alex says under his breath.
“I’d told her a million times to tell him!” Ed protests to Alex.
“Wait.” I put my glass down, hold up a hand. “Wait. Wait. What is happening?” I am so flustered I don’t have any more words. I just stare at Ed, and then Alex, and then back at Ed again.
Ed drops his hands to the table. “This kind of shit never works out!”
A hush falls across the table, and Chris lets out a low whistle.
“You knew?” I ask, hearing the angry lean to my words. “Since when?” I stop, shaking my head. “Wait, you knew that morning at my parents’ place, didn’t you?”
Ed seems to shrink into himself. “I heard you guys.”
“You heard them having sex?” Chris asks, laughing. “That is unfortunate.”
Alex signals to the waitress that he wants another beer. “I’m still laughing that they had sex at his parents’ place when we were all there.”
I turn to Alex. “When did you find out?”
“I only found out like two days ago.”
“ ‘Only’ two days ago?”
My blood is rioting.
Anxiety builds in Ed’s expression. “I’ve only known about it for a week. You should know she’s been a total stress case about this.”
Chris shakes his head, staring at Ed like he’s unbelievable. “She should be, though.”
“She came over and wanted advice on what to do. She read your last message and—”
“Did you read my message?” I ask.
Ed looks to Alex and then back to me. “We both did, yeah.”
“Holy shit.” I press the heels of my hands to my eyes. “You guys. This is so fucked up.”
“It just only recently got out of hand,” Alex says, trying to smooth things over. “Seriously. All of this happened really fast. She’s been a mess, man.”
“Regardless, I gave her a dozen openings today, and she sat and lied to me. Again,.” I say.
“Okay,” Alex says, “to be fair, though, she wanted to tell you, but we thought it would be easier if Cat just vanished. She didn’t ever mean to be malicious.”
“If she wanted to tell me, then why didn’t she? How am I supposed to feel about this? She wants to start a relationship with me but she can’t even be honest on day one?”
“I mean,” Alex says, “you sort of played her, too, because the whole time today you knew that she was Catherine but she didn’t know you knew.”
“Oh, I think she knows I know,” I tell them. “And it’s not the same.”
Chris drops his head into his hands, groaning. “This is making my head hurt.”
“Why did she even start a separate account?” I ask, feeling my patience fraying. “Why did she let me view her full profile?”
“Honestly?” Ed spreads his hands, shrugging. “I think she assumed you’d figure it out. It sounds like it started as a way to not get so many dick pics, and to be able to be more ‘herself,’ ” he says, using air quotes, “then she matched with you and thought it was funny, and it just . . . grew.”
“That’s pretty reassuring, though,” Alex says, nodding. “Isn’t it? That it turned into something real for her, too?”
“Are you really fucking defending this right now?” I ask him.
“I’m just saying, I think shit can snowball, that’s all. You can start off with good intentions and . . . things can get out of hand.”