Authors: Rebecca Serle
It’s a Saturday in June, and I’m going to meet Bella for brunch. We haven’t seen each other in almost two months, which is the longest we’ve ever gone, including her London sojourn of 2015, when she “moved” to Notting Hill for six weeks to paint. I’ve been buried in work. The job is great, and impossible. Not hard, impossible. There is a week’s worth of work in every day. I’m always behind. I see David for five minutes, maybe, every day when one of us wakes up sleepily to great the other. At least we’re on the same schedule. We’re both working toward a life we want, and will have. Thank god we understand each other.
Today it’s raining. It’s been a wet spring, this one of 2025, so this is not out of the ordinary, but I ordered some new dresses and I was hoping to wear one. Bella is always calling my style “conservative,” because ninety percent of the time I’m in a suit, and I thought I’d surprise her with something unexpected today. No luck. Instead, I tug on jeans, a white Madewell T-shirt, and my Burberry trench and ankle rain boots. Temperature says sixty-five degrees. Enough to sweat with a top layer but be freezing without one.
We’re meeting at Buvette, a tiny French café in the West Village we’ve been going to for years. They have the best eggs and croque monsieur on the planet—and their coffee is strong and rich. Right now, I need a quart.
Also, it’s one of Bella’s favorite spots. She knows all the waiters. When we were in our twenties, she’d go there to sketch.
I end up taking a cab because I don’t want to be late, even though I know Bella will be running fifteen minutes behind. Bella is chronically fifteen to twenty minutes late everywhere she goes.
But when I arrive she’s already there, seated in the window at the two-top.
She’s dressed in a long, flowing floral dress that’s wet at the edges—at five-foot-three she’s not tall enough for it—and a crimson velvet blazer. Her hair is down and falls around her in tufts, like spools of wool. She’s beautiful. Every time I see her I’m reminded just how much.
“This cannot possibly be happening,” I say. “You beat me here?”
She shrugs, her gold hoops bouncing against her neck. “I couldn’t wait to see you.” She gets out of her chair and pulls me into a tight hug. She smells like her. Tea tree and lavender, a hint of cinnamon.
“I’m wet,” I yelp, but I don’t let go. It feels good. “I missed you, too.”
I tuck my umbrella under my chair and loop my raincoat over the back. Inside it’s chillier than I thought it would be. I rub my hands together.
“You look older,” she says.
“That’s not what I mean. Coffee?”
She holds her cup up to the waiter. She comes here far more often than I do. Her place is three blocks away on the corner of Bleecker and Charles, a floor-through level of a brownstone her dad bought for her two years ago. It’s three bedrooms, impeccably decorated in her colorful, bohemian, I-didn’t-even-think-about-this-but-it-looks-gorgeous perfect style.
“What’s darling Dave up to this morning?” she asks.
“He went to the gym,” I say, opening my napkin.
I shrug. “That’s what he said.”
Bella opens her mouth to say something, but closes it again. She likes David. Or at least, I think she does. I suspect she’d like me to be with someone more adventurous, someone who maybe pushed me outside my comfort zone a little bit more. But what she doesn’t realize, or what she conveniently forgets, is that she and I are not the same person. David is right for me, and the things I want for my life.
“So,” I say. “Tell me everything. How is work coming at the gallery? How was Europe?”
Five years ago, Bella did a show of her artwork at a small gallery in Chelsea named Oliander. The show sold out, and she did another. Then two years ago, Oliander, the owner, wanted to sell the place and came to her. She used her trust fund to buy it. She paints less than she used to, but I like that she has some stability in her life. The gallery has meant that she can’t disappear anymore—at least not for weeks at a time.
“We nearly sold out the Depreche show,” she says. “I’m so bummed you missed it. It was spectacular. My favorite by far.” Bella says that about every single artist she shows. It’s always the best, the greatest, the most fun she’s ever had. Life is an upward escalator. “Business is so good I’m thinking about hiring another Chloe.”
Chloe has been her assistant for the last three years, and runs the logistics at Oliander. She’s kissed Bella twice, which has not seemed to complicate their business relationship.
“You should do it.”
“Might give me time to actually sculpt or paint again. It has been months.”
“Sometimes you have to sacrifice to achieve your dreams.”
She smiles sideways at me. The coffee comes. I pour some creamer into it, and take a slow, heady sip.
When I look up, she’s still smiling at me. “What?” I ask.
“Nothing. You’re just so . . . ‘sacrifice to achieve your dreams.’ Who talks like that?”
“Business leaders. Heads of companies. CEOs.”
Bella rolls her eyes. “When did you get like this?”
“Do you ever remember my being any different?”
Bella puts her hand to her chin. She looks straight at me. “I don’t know,” she says.
I know what she means, what I never really want to talk about it. Was I different as a child? Before my brother died? Was I spontaneous, carefree? Did I begin to plan my life so that no one would ever show up at my door and throw the whole thing off a cliff? Probably. But there isn’t much to be done about it now. I am who I am.
The waiter circles back to us, and Bella raises her eyebrows at me as if to ask
“You order,” I say.
She speaks to him entirely in French, pointing out items on the menu and discussing. I love watching her speak French. She’s so natural, so vibrant. She tried to teach me once in our early twenties, but it just didn’t stick. They say that languages come better to people who are right-brained, but I’m not so sure. I think you need a certain looseness, a certain fluidity, to speak another language. To take all the words in your brain and turn them over, one by one, like stones—and find something else scrolled on the underside.
We spent four days together in Paris once. We were twenty-four. Bella was there for the summer, taking an art course and falling in love with a waiter in the Fourteenth. I came to visit. We stayed at her parents’ flat, right on Rue de Rivoli. Bella hated it. “Tourist location,” she told me, although the whole city seemed for the French, and the French alone.
We spent the entire four days on the outskirts. Eating dinner at cafés on the fringes of Montmartre. During the day we wandered in and out of galleries in the Marais. It was a magical trip, made all the more so by the fact that the only time I’d been out of the country was a trip to London with my parents and David and my annual pilgrimage to Turks and Caicos with his parents. This was something else. Foreign, ancient, a different world. And Bella fit right in.
Maybe I should have felt disconnected from her. Here was this girl, my best friend, who fit this faraway place like a hand to a glove. I didn’t, and yet she still she took me with her. She was always taking me with her, wanting me to be a part of her wide, open life. How could I feel anything but lucky?
“To get back to the prior discussion,” Bella says when the waiter is gone. “I think sacrifice is in direct opposition to manifestation. If you want your dreams you should look for abundance, not scarcity.”
I take a sip of coffee. Bella lives in a world I do not understand, populated by phrases and philosophies that apply only to people like her. People, maybe, who do not yet know tragedy. No one who has lost a sibling at twelve can say with a straight face:
everything happens for a reason.
“Let’s agree to disagree,” I tell her. “It has been too long since I’ve seen you. I want to be bored senseless hearing all about Jacques.”
She smiles. It sneaks up her cheeks until it’s practically at her ears.
“I have something to tell you,” she says. She reaches across the table and takes my hand.
Instantly, I’m flooded with a familiar sensation of pulling, like there’s a tiny string inside of me that only she can find and thread. She’s going to tell me she met someone. She’s falling in love. I know the drill so well I wish we could go through all the steps right here at this table, with our coffee. Intrigue. Obsession. Distaste. Desperation. Apathy.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “Come on,” she says. “Am I that transparent?”
“Only to me.”
She takes a sip of her sparkling water. “His name is Greg.” She lands hard on the one syllable. “He’s an architect. We met on Bumble.”
I nearly drop my coffee. “You have Bumble?”
“Yes. I know you think I can meet someone buying milk at the deli, but, I don’t know, lately I’ve been wanting something different and nothing has been that interesting in a while.”
I think about Bella’s love life over the last few months. There was the photographer, Steven Mills, but that was last summer, almost a year ago.
“Except Annabelle and Mario,” I say. The collectors she had a brief fling with. A couple.
She bats her eyes at me. “Naturally,” she says.
“So what’s the deal?” I ask.
“It has been like three weeks,” she says. “But Dannie, he’s wonderful. Really wonderful. He’s really nice and smart and—I think you’re really going to like him.”
“Nice and smart,” I repeat. “Greg?”
She nods, and just then our food appears in a cloud of smoke. There are eggs and caviar on crispy French bread, avocado toast, and a plate of delicate crepes dusted with powdered sugar. My mouth waters.
“More coffee?” Our waiter asks.
“Yum,” I say. “This is perfect.” I immediately cut into the avocado toast. The poached egg on top oozes out yolk, and I scoop a segment onto my plate. I make a vaguely pornographic noise through a mouthful.
Bella watches me and laughs. “You’re so deprived,” she says.
I throw her a disgruntled look as I make my way to the crepes. “I have a job.”
“Yes, how is that going?” She tilts her head to the side.
“It’s great,” I say. I want to add
some of us have to work for a living
, but I don’t. I learned a long time ago there is a difference with Bella, and our relationship, between judgmental and unkind. I try not to stray over the line. “I think it’s going to be another year, and then partner.”
Bella does a little shimmy in her chair. Her sweater slips from where it sits on her shoulders and I’m met with a slice of collarbone. Bella has always had a zaftig figure, glorious in its curvature, but she looks slimmer to me today. Once, during the month of Isaac, she lost twelve pounds.
Greg. I already have a bad feeling.
“I think we should all go to dinner,” Bella says.
She gives me a look. “Greg,” she says. She sucks her bottom lip in, lets it pop back out. Her blue eyes find mine. “Dannie, I’m telling you, you don’t have to believe me, but this one is different. It
“They always do.”
She narrows her eyes at me and I can tell I’ve crossed it. I sigh. I can never quite say no to her. “Okay,” I say. “Dinner. Pick any Saturday two weeks from now and it’s yours.”
I watch Bella as she loads up her plate—first eggs, then a crepe—and feel my stomach start to relax as she eats with gusto. The sky changes from rain to clouds to sunshine. When we leave the streets are almost entirely dry.
“What happened to the blue shirt?”
David comes out of our bedroom in a black button-down and dark jeans. We’re already running late. We’re supposed to be at Rubirosa in SoHo in ten minutes and it will take us at least twenty to get downtown. Bella may always be late, but I still like beating her places. It’s how we’ve always done things. Brunch was enough change for one week.
“You don’t like this?” David hunches down and surveys himself in the mirror above the sofa.
“It’s fine. I just thought you were wearing the blue one.”
He heads back into the bedroom, and I check my lipstick in the same mirror. I’m wearing a black sleeveless turtleneck and a blue silk skirt with heels. The weather says sixty-seven degrees, low of sixty-three, and I’m trying to decide whether to bring a jacket.
He comes back in, buttoning the blue one. “Happy?”
“Very,” I say. “Will you call a car?”
David busies himself with his phone, and I check to make sure I have our keys, my cell phone, and Bella’s gold-beaded bracelet. I borrowed it six months ago and never gave it back.
When we get to the restaurant, Bella is standing outside. My first instinct is confusion—she beat me, again. My second is that it’s already over with Greg and we’re going to be having dinner alone. This has happened twice before (Gallery Daniel and, I think, Bartender Daniel). I feel a wave of irritation, followed by one of sympathy and inevitability. Here we go again. Always the same thing.
I get out of the car first. “I’m sorry,” I start, just as the restaurant door opens and out onto the pavement walks Greg. Except he’s not Greg. He’s Aaron.
Aaron, whose face and name have been running in my head, on a loop, for the last four and a half years. The center of so many questions and daydreams and forced replays made manifest on the sidewalk now.
It wasn’t a dream. Of course it wasn’t. He’s standing here now, and there is no one else he could be. Not a man I’ve spotted at the movies, not an associate I once traded work jabs with. Not someone I shared a plane ride seated next to. He is only the man from the apartment.
I reel back. I do not know whether to scream or run. Instead, I’m cemented. My feet have merged with the pavement. The answer: my best friend’s boyfriend.
“Babe, this is my best friend, Dannie. Dannie, this is Greg!” She snuggles into him, her arms looping around his shoulder.
“Hey,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
He picks up my hand to shake it. I search his face for any sign of recognition, but, of course, I come up empty. Whatever has happened between us . . . hasn’t yet.
David extends his hand. I’m just standing there, my mouth hanging open, neglecting to introduce him.
“This is David,” I sputter. David in the blue shirt shakes Aaron in the white shirt’s hand. Bella smiles. I feel as if all the air on the sidewalk has been sucked back into the sky. We’re going to suffocate out here.
I follow Greg/Aaron up the steps and into the crowded restaurant. “Aaron Gregory,” he says to the hostess. Aaron Gregory. I flash on his license in my hand. Of course.
“Oh, yeah. My last name is Gregory. Greg just kind of stuck.” He gives me a small smile. It feels too familiar. I don’t like it.
I feel like I’m sinking. Like I’m falling through the floor, or maybe the floor is falling, too, except no one else is moving. It’s just me, catapulting through space.
He looks at me. Dead on. I hear David behind us laugh at something Bella has said. I smell her perfume—French rose. The kind you can only buy at the drugstores in Paris. “I’m not one of the bad ones,” he tells me. “Just because I know you think I am.”
I exhale. I feel dizzy. “I do?”
“You do,” he says. We start following the hostess. We snake around the bar, in between the two-top tables with couples bent together over pizza and deep glasses of red. “I can tell by the way you’re looking at me. And what Bella has said.”
“What has she said?”
We pass through an archway and Aaron hangs back, holding his arm out to let me pass. My shoulder brushes his hand. This isn’t happening.
“That she has dated some guys who maybe didn’t treat her right, and that you’re an amazing friend, and you’re always there to pick up the pieces. And that I should be warned you’ll probably hate me at first.”
We’ve arrived at the table. It’s in the back room, pushed up against the left-hand wall. David and Bella are upon us.
“I’ll slide in the corner,” Bella says. She shoves herself in first and pulls me down next to her. David and Aaron sit across from us.
“What’s good here?” Aaron asks. He gives Bella a wide smile and reaches across the table for her hand. He strokes her knuckles.
I don’t need to look at the menu, but I do anyway. The arugula pizza and Rubirosa salad are what we always get.
“Everything,” Bella says. She squeezes and releases his hand and shimmies her torso. She’s wearing a short black ruffled dress with roses on it that I bought with her on a shopping trip to The Kooples. She has neon green suede heels tucked under her, and dangly green plastic earrings clank against her cheeks.
I need to avoid Aaron’s face. His entire person—him—seated twelve inches across the table from me.
“Bella tells us you’re an architect,” David says, and my heart squeezes with affection for him. He always knows the things you’re supposed to ask—how you’re supposed to behave. He always remembers the protocol.
“Indeed,” Aaron says.
“I thought architects didn’t really exist,” I say. I’m keeping my eyes on the menu.
Aaron laughs. I glance up at him. He points to his chest. “Real. Pretty sure.”
“She’s talking about this article Mindy Kaling wrote like a million years ago. She says that architects only exist in romantic comedies.” Bella rolls her eyes at me.
“She does?” Aaron points to me.
“No, Mindy,” Bella says. “Mindy says that.”
I think it was in
. Titled something like: “Types of Women In Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real.” The architect thing was anecdotal. Incidentally, Mindy also said that a workaholic and an ethereal dream girl were not believable stereotypes, either, yet here we are.
“No handsome architects,” I say. “To clarify.”
Bella laughs. She leans across the table and touches Aaron’s hand. “That’s about as close to a compliment as you’re going to get, so enjoy it.”
“Well then, thank you.”
“My dad is an architect,” David says, but no one responds. We’re now busying ourselves with the menu.
“Do you guys want red or white?” Bella asks.
“Red,” David and I say at the same time. We never drink white. Rose, occasionally, in the summer, which it isn’t yet.
When the waiter comes over, Bella orders a Barolo. When we were in high school, we all took shots of Smirnoff while Bella poured Cabernet into a decanter.
I’ve never been a big drinker. In school it affected my ability to get up early and study or run before class, and now it does the same for work—only worse. Since I turned thirty, even a glass of wine makes me groggy. And after the accident no one was allowed a drink in our house, not even a thimbleful of wine. Completely dry. My parents still are, to this day.
“I’m in the mood for some meat,” David says. We’ve never ordered anything other than the arugula or classic pizza here. Meat?
“I’d split a sausage with you,” Aaron says.
David smiles and looks at me. “I never get sausage. I like this guy.”
I’ve been preoccupied, possessed, since I saw him on the sidewalk. For the first time, I consider the reality that this man is Bella’s boyfriend. Not the guy from the premonition—but the one sitting across from her now. For one thing, he seems good and solid. Funny and accommodating. It’s usually like pulling teeth to get one of her boyfriend’s to make eye contact.
If he were anyone else, I might be thrilled for her. But he isn’t.
“Where do you live?” I ask Aaron.
I see flashes of the apartment. Those big, open walls. The bed that overlooked the city skyline.
“Midtown,” he says.
He shrugs. “It’s close to my office.”
“Excuse me,” I say.
I get up from the table and wind my way to the bathroom, which exits off a little hallway.
“What’s going on?” It’s David on my heels. “That was weird. Are you okay?”
I shake my head. “I don’t feel well.”
I look at him. His face is studying me with concern and . . . something else. Surprise? It’s close cousins with annoyance. But this is unusual behavior for me, and so I’m not sure.
“Yeah, it just hit me. Can we go?”
He glances back into the restaurant, as if his gaze will reach the table where Bella and Aaron sit, no doubt just as baffled.
“Are you going to throw up?”
This does it. He springs into action, placing a hand on my lower back. “I’ll let them know. Meet me outside; I’ll call a car.”
I nod. I head outside. The temperature has dropped markedly since we arrived. I should have brought a jacket.
David comes out with my bag, and Bella.
“You hate him,” she says. She crosses her arms in front of her chest.
“What? No. I don’t feel well.”
“It was pretty spontaneous. I know you. You once muscled through the full-blown flu to fly to Tokyo.”
“That was work,” I say. I’m clutching my stomach. I’m actually going to vomit. It’s all going to come out on her green suede shoes.
“I like him,” David says. He looks to me. “Dannie does, too. She had a fever earlier. We just didn’t want to cancel.”
I feel a wave of affection for him, for this lie.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I tell her. “Go enjoy your dinner.”
Bella doesn’t budge from her place on the sidewalk, but our car comes and David holds the door open for me. I dive inside. He walks around and then we’re off down Mulberry, Bella disappearing behind us.
“Do you think it’s food poisoning? What did you eat?” David asks.
“Yeah, maybe.” I lean my head against the window, and David squeezes my shoulder before taking out his phone. When we get home, I change into sweats and crawl into bed.
He comes and perches on the edge. “Can I do anything?” he asks me. He smoothes down the comforter, and I grab his hand before he lifts it off.
“Lay down with me,” I say.
“You’re probably contagious,” he says. He puts the back of his hand on my cheek. “I’m going to make you some tea.”
I look at him. His brown eyes. The slight tufts of his hair. He never uses product, no matter how many times I tell him everyone needs it.
“Go to sleep,” he says. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
He’s wrong, I think. I won’t. But I fall asleep anyway. When I dream, I’m back in that apartment. The one with the windows and the blue chairs. Aaron isn’t there. Instead, it’s Bella. She finds his sweatpants in the top drawer of the dresser. She holds them up and shakes them at me.
What are these doing here?
she wants to know. I don’t have an answer. But she keeps demanding one. She walks closer and closer to me.
What are these doing here? Tell me, Dannie. Tell me the truth.
When I go to speak, I realize the entire apartment is filled with water and I’m choking on everything I cannot say.