There are a lot of things wrong with this chapter (just like the rest of the story) but I feel horrible for waiting so long as it is, and if I wait for perfection I'll never get this story done. It's ridiculous that it isn't done yet, anyway! I started it before I ever officially started high school, and now I'm done and Alynn's still stuck in the longest junior year ever. Again, thanks so much for the reviews. Seriously the only reason I keep going – that and knowing how disappointed I'll be with myself if I stop.
By the way, fun (?) fact: I had planned out the Juan-moving situation a long time ago. Imagine my shock, horror and keen sense of irony when something kind of similar happened to me. Three months before I left to move to another country, I fell in love with someone. We had an amazing three months and then – well, hey, you're here to read Alynn's story, not mine. Sorry! Hope you enjoy the long-overdue, imperfect chapter. I won't blame anyone for dropping off the wagon between last chapter and this one, that's for sure. X.x
Chapter 18 – Romance vs. practicality
My relative serenity lasted throughout the evening and only transformed into tiredness once I saw my bed. Our bed. Which proved to be the next problem.
"What do you mean this is your room too?" I asked Juan, frowning. "You didn't come in with me the first time."
Earlier that day, after the awkward introductions and a lot of being ignored by Juan's dad, said man had suddenly turned to me and told me I could put my stuff in the adjoining room if I wanted to get it out of the way. I'd complied, glad to be away from the despicable creature who called himself a father for a while. After christening the room by using one of the separately packaged toothpicks I found on the desk and leaving the plastic wrapper on an annoying, low-hanging lamp for lack of a trash can, I rejoined the family. If the adjoining room was Juan's too, why hadn't anyone mentioned it then?
"Dad was using it as a test. I didn't want to give him any reason to call you either loose or stuck up."
I blinked at him, not following his logic.
He smiled crookedly. "If I had mentioned it and you would have been okay with it, he would call you loose behind your back. If I had mentioned it and you would have made a big deal, he would call you stuck up or tell me you're not the right type to date during high school. Either way, he would have come up with something eventually so that we both look stupid. Now I can just sleep on the couch, no questions asked."
"Way to have completely obtuse reasoning skills. You could have just suggested that Evelyn and I share a bed and let that be the end of it. Don't deny that you just wanted the opportunity to sleep with me."
And though it had been a joke, Juan started to blush – hard. Instead of making me go "aww!" as blushing boys are prone to do, it made me feel embarrassed too, and I had to find some way to distract him before he could see my cheeks redden in response. That would just heighten the awkwardness.
So, before Juan could see the color rising in my cheeks, I found a different excuse for them. As he was standing near the bed, and I a little from him, I lost no time musing on what to do. Instead I ran in his direction, then tackled him so that we both fell on top of the bed. He was dazzled, and suddenly I was laughing too much to think about blushing.
I put my hand on his cheek, enjoying the fact that he'd shaved not long before, and his skin was still soft. Stroking one side of his face, I pressed my lips against his other cheek, still enjoying.
"This doesn't make me want to sleep with you less, you know," he informed me. "I mean, sure, tackling me was intimidating, but…"
I grinned and looked him in the eye. "Hey, if I got pregnant, you'd have to stay with me. This is my family's age-old art of seduction, passed down by generation. When our daughter is old enough, I will teach her, and she her daughter, and so on."
For a second, he looked at me in the old, familiar way, laughing while not laughing, his "you're such a weirdo"-smile too fond to be scolding. Then the familiar expression dropped away, to be replaced by a solemn one.
"I'm so sorry," he said, thoroughly destroying the playful mood. I wasn't sure I'd ever seen him look so apologetic, forehead scrunched, eyes somber.
"How far away?" I asked. My voice cracked at "away".
"Same country, different coast."
I attempted to say "ouch" in a joking manner. Sadly, it came out as a squeak, followed by a dry, gasping sob. Juan noticed it despite a praiseworthy try at turning it into a yawn.
Juan's actions only made the sobs come faster. He fastened his arms around me, secure, safe, and all the more heartbreaking for how good it felt. My face turned hot and sticky, and I gave up wiping away the tears.
"It's n-n-nothing," I gulped pathetically. "Over in… in a minute." The sobs only worsened. After letting out a low moan, I tried quipping, "This way, I don't have to g-go to th… the trouble of…"
He tried to shush me, realizing that my words only made me cry more. However, I was in the middle of making a very poor joke, and even poor jokes must be finished. "The trouble of… of –" and then, in a pathetic woosh of breath that turned into yet another sob – "of convincing you to g-g – damn it! - go to prom with me."
After my bad joke, I could breathe easily, though my eyes were producing a continual stream of tears. I could even smile, albeit bitterly.
"Alynn," I heard from above, though I would not move to look at the speaker. "Alynn. I love…" He paused, and sniffed. "What's that smell?"
I crouched deeper. "Besides pure, unadulterated misery?" I asked.
"Besides that. Alynn, sit up for a second. I think there's something burning."
I sat up, and the biting smell made it past the snot in my nose right to my olfactory hairs, which happened to be covered with an impressive amount of mucus. The smell – and my musing about mucus – was vaguely sickening, and I recognized the former at once.
"Burning plastic. Ew."
The distraction halted my crying, calming me instantly with its mystery. I looked about the room to find the source of the smell. There was the little, neat-looking oak desk with separately packaged toothpicks and a basket of stuff we'd have to pay for if we used, the inconspicuous bedside cabinet next to our queen-sized bed, two overstuffed, dark green, velvet chairs in a corner, and a low-hanging lamp between them.
Lamp. Lamps got hot on top when they were on for a while. Plastic toothpick wraps didn't respond well to being on hot lamps.
"Ah," I said unintelligently, before getting up to flick off the lamp's switch. "Voilà," I said, turning to Juan while keeping my hands outstretched towards the lamp like a lottery showgirl. "Plastic wrap à la lamp. Will you partake of it?"
I must have looked ridiculous, I realized later. Still wearing my long dress, and still wearing make-up – smudged with tears and my attempts to wipe them away – and now pretending to be the airhead assistant of some gameshow host.
For a moment I tried to imagine what my friends would think if they could see me. Somehow, I couldn't picture their reactions.
Perhaps, with Juan gone, we could go back to the old way. I'd been seeing less of my friends recently, and it was probably because I was so preoccupied with Juan this, Juan that. The thought of hanging out with my friends more often was one comfort in an ocean of depressing notions. I sighed and focused on the matter at hand.
"What are we going to do about this? Your dad's going to have me for dinner when he finds out."
The makings of a grin appeared on Juan's face. "I have a really, really inspired idea."
I raised an eyebrow at him in cynicism. "Why do I not feel like you're going to suggest scraping it off?"
Juan got up and kissed my forehead comfortingly. "You go and wash your face. You'll see when you get back."
I grabbed my toilet bag and headed off to the bathroom, wondering what his plan was.
Seeing the damage I had done to my face wasn't particularly pleasing. There were ugly, light-grey tracks of mascara and eyeliner coming from my eyes and the powder I'd put on my face earlier was now making me look splotchy rather than smooth. I sighed. There went any hope of seducing Juan into staying with me.
My thoughts froze for a second. Hold that thought. Seduce Juan? I was suddenly embarrassed as I forced myself to consider what seduction meant. Although we had made out too often to count, and the feeling of his warm skin under my hand made my heart race like nobody's business, sex was still a mystery to me. None of my close friends had ever been to that base. The thought made my stomach contents flip about uncomfortably. Did I want to have sex with Juan?
The next thought that entered my mind was one I knew I wouldn't be able to disclose to my friends any time soon. After enduring two semesters of health class, the thought seemed like pure treachery. Did I want to have sex with Juan? Well, I didn't not want to. I couldn't help feeling curious. Besides, did I even want to save myself? What if the next guy I dated was an ass who didn't deserve me?
Suddenly my virginity was being thrown back and forth in an intense internal debate. Yes, I would be embarrassed if anyone found out. But then, he'd be losing his virginity too, to me, and people always said you remember your first. There was a childish wish in me that wanted Juan to remember me forever. I could already see myself twenty years from now, reading an interview in a magazine. The headline would be, "interview with Juan Richards: how he became the successful writer he is today." I'd get at least three mentions within the article, including that we met in lit class, and how I was still a constant inspiration to him.
Before the fantasy could go any further, I looked my reflection firmly in the eyes and slapped myself on the cheek. Silly Alynn. Wash your face and stop daydreaming.
After physically obeying myself for a minute or two, by which time the make-up was almost coming off, my thoughts started to wander back to the previous subject.
What would it do to my reputation if people found out I slept with someone at the age of sixteen? Sixteen seemed young. There were rumors of teen pregnancies at other schools, but I'd never witnessed one at home. I was suddenly annoyed. Sure, it was cool for a guy to lose his virginity, but a girl? A girl had to keep it secret for fear of being called a slut. That thought annoyed me so much that I was needlessly rough with my eye-makeup remover pad, getting some of the solution in my eye and scrubbing my eyes until red despite that. After treating my eyes like a surface that needed to be sanded badly, I rubbed my entire face thoroughly, and finished off with a good splash of cold water in the face.
I straightened up and looked at my reflection. My face was red and rosy from scrubbing, a darker color than the peach-colored bathroom tiles. Oh well.
I reentered the bedroom, still feeling annoyed at the sexism of the losing-virginity process. In fact, I was so struck by the injustice of it that I wasn't at all uncomfortable when Juan looked up and smiled at me.
"Perfect timing. I just finished it," Juan told me happily. I raised my eyebrows in inquiry. "Come over here."
There was more plastic on the low-hanging lamp than there had been when I left the room. After looking at it for a second or two, I recognized what the black, burnt line of plastic spelled out.
"A & J 4eva"
I cracked up immediately. "Four-eva?" I howled, gasping the words out. Juan observed me with a wide grin, enjoying my inability to stop laughing – or start breathing. After three attempts to calm down, I finally succeeded.
"Very sweet," I told Juan. "Very middle school. If I was twelve, I would be touched."
Juan pulled the corners of his lips down in mock-hurt. "Then I think I like you more as a twelve-year-old."
He waggled his eyebrows. "You know you like it."
"Ahem!" I said, waiting for my conscience to stop twitching. So what if I'd thought about sex a moment ago? It didn't mean I had to feel guilty every time he said something suggestive. He didn't mean it like that. And yet…
I must have been a complete slut in a past life, because the next thing I did happened without me really thinking about it. I slunk closer to Juan so our bodies touched, then let my hand slide from the back of his thigh up to his shoulder blade, going under the shirt. My voice was silky as I uttered, as suggestively as I could, "Well, we could find out what I like…"
His eyes widened in slow-motion, and for a second I felt like a child-molester. It passed when his familiar, cynical smile greeted me. "You know, I never thought the prettiest girl I ever met would simultaneously be the weirdest one. Ten minutes ago you were inconsolable, and now you're seducing me? Not that I don't appreciate, you know, the attention. I was afraid that after tonight you'd never want to see me again."
"That would be convenient, but no, no such sentiment. I was thinking of ways to make you stay while I was washing off, actually."
Well, I'd been thinking of only one way, but he didn't have to know that.
His face was serious suddenly, prompting me to remove my hand from under his shirt. "It's not a question of wanting to move," he told me. "I want to stay, but no matter what I try, he'll make it impossible for me." His hand rose to stroke my cheek lightly. "Don't have any hopes in that direction. If I could stay, I would."
I nodded, then stepped away. "I think I'll put on my pajamas. It's kind of late."
After brushing my teeth, combing my hair and changing into my pajamas, I came to find Juan similarly ready for bed, his clothes neatly stacked beside the couch. He was wearing dark, unremarkable pants and an old grey T-shirt with letters so faded the writing was illegible. I was wearing my light blue pajamas, covered with pictures of little, fat cats emitting lines of Z's.
Juan smiled at the sight of me, and I sat by him on the couch. He'd found spare blankets and pillows and stacked them up on his make-do bed. I laid my legs over the stack of bed things and pressed my cold feet against his hip, where he rubbed them absently. We sat like that for a while, talking about things that didn't have anything to do with him leaving. After a while, it was becoming increasingly tempting to lie down, so I kissed Juan on the cheek and crept into bed. The sheets were still cold. The bathroom door closed as I snuggled under the cold sheets, trying to warm them.
I was drifting off when Juan came back from the bathroom – the only reason I remained awake was because the couch squeaked when Juan stepped onto it. I listened to him trying to get comfortable. His movements sounded fidgety. After a few more minutes of listening to Juan's squirming, I surprised myself by saying, "Come sleep in the bed, you dork."
Juan sounded wide-awake when he answered. "You sure? It's not uncomfortable here or anything. I'm just not that tired."
"If I fall asleep now and wake up to find you have a sore neck, I'll feel guilty. I'm pretty close to falling asleep, so you'd better hurry up."
I heard him stand up and walk over, so I moved over to one side of the bed to make room. He got in, letting cold leak into the bed when he lifted the blanket. Once he was settled, facing me, and I lying with my back to him, I scooted back to him. It was deliciously warm that way. He placed one arm over me and dumped the other beneath my pillow.
"The cutlery drawer is a happy place," I mumbled blissfully, thinking of spoons.
"You'd be less perfect if you didn't say silly things."
I felt fuzzy, warm, happy. It was no surprise that I continued to drift off. It was a surprise, though, when Juan whispered something in my ear. Something that made me smile before I nodded off.
X x x
Although I was in a new place, it took me no more than a second to realize where I was when I woke up. Deep, regular breathing drew my attention to the person next to me. I needed less than a second to remember who it was lying there. A smile touched my face. Take that, people who wake up disorientated!
My snort – an unavoidable side-effect of my stupid thoughts – made Juan move a bit, resettling into the bed. He was lying with his face towards me, head turned into his pillow and his hands on top of and under said pillow. I smiled again. Edith slept in the same way, and she always had a cuddly toy between her hands, holding it to her.
The moment was kind of perfect. I grinned when I realized why. It was not because Juan looked cute or vulnerable – though he did – it was because I could stare at him as long as I wanted to, and it wouldn't be awkward.
His hair was really messy, and I could see his natural hair color peeking from an out-of-place parting. Obviously hadn't had time to re-dye it recently. His lashes were dark, contrasting with the pallor of his skin – a pallor that hadn't always been there. The thing that widened my smile into a fully-fledged grin, however, was his mouth. It looked really funny because he was lying on his side, gravity making it lopsided. His completely unguarded expression sent a buzz down my spine, which in turn awakened butterflies in my stomach.
However perfect the moment, I couldn't resist sliding closer to him and putting myself between his arms, letting my left hand roam under his shirt…
"Alynn," he said slowly, his voice rough with sleep. "I read the same article. I'm not sure I agree."
I was surprised. "What article?"
"'What guys like'. Generic women's magazine." He opened his eyes, blinked at me, then closed his eyes again sleepily. "Some guy said his secret fantasy was to wake up and find a girl was having her way with him."
"This is what you think of first thing in the morning? Wow, Juan. Not only do you read girly magazines, they also have a profound impact on your life. Marlene might just be your soulmate."
He grumbled something, then reached around me and held me close. He sighed. It amused me that he sighed into the pillow, trying not to offend me with morning breath.
"What did you say?" I asked.
It took him a while to summon the energy to speak, apparently. Finally, he answered coherently, "I said "nngh m smate adun wan one", but I meant "If you're not my soulmate, I don't want one.""
"Oh," I said lightly, though his words made something flutter inside my stomach. "Well, that settles that, then."
X x x
After our slow awakening, the morning sped by. We packed up, cleaned the room and soon found ourselves in the parking garage soon after. I watched Juan's dad, glad to be free from him soon.
He hadn't remarked on our sleeping situation. We'd been careful to make it look like Juan had slept on the couch, even though we weren't sure his dad would check. He did.
"Well, it was good to meet you, Alynn," Juan's dad said smoothly. He held out his hand.
In movies, characters were always too cool to shake hands with people they despised or looked down on. They would observe the hand with disdain, then wait for the other to lower it. After a life of trying to be nice to everyone, I was incapable of doing so.
I shook his hand, disgust coursing through my body at the contact. Thankfully, a noncommittal "mmm" was all I uttered. I would not say it had been good to meet him. It hadn't. I hated his guts, his face, his everything. Except his children. I loved them.
Remembering said children, I turned to Evelyn. Her, I was glad to have met. She looked at me with apologies all over her face – the downward slant to her brows a sure sign of her feeling of guilt, and the tight lips betraying how uncomfortable she was, being unable to help. None of this was her fault, though.
I hugged her tightly. She'd been kind to me – so considerate, so hell-bent on making me feel comfortable. I was grateful.
"I'm sorry, Alynn," she said quietly as she returned the embrace. "I can't imagine how hard –"
"Shh," I said. "Don't feel bad for me. I'll be all right. Thank you so much for – everything. I'm really glad to have met you before – well – you know. It helps."
She nodded. I swallowed.
I'll be all right, I repeated to myself as I walked around the car and got into the passenger seat. Juan said his goodbyes, then joined me inside the car. We left the car park silently.
"I'm sorry," Juan said.
"Stop saying that," I said. "I don't… I don't blame you. Hearing you guys apologize only makes me feel worse." To show it, I drew my knees up and put my arms around them. Screw proper car-posture. At the moment, getting into a car crash and ending up maimed didn't sound too bad. At least I wouldn't have to pretend to be feeling good when I came back.
"Okay," Juan amended, in an obvious attempt not to say sorry.
I tried to convince myself to say something nice to make him feel better, but it just wasn't in me. Perhaps I was being a bitch, but I hurt so much. Comforting someone else would only deepen the misery I felt, and even love couldn't get me to do so.
It's just a phase, Alynn, I told the emptiness in my stomach. All phases end. You'll be with your friends soon. Have fun. You can tease Martin. Pretend to be annoyed at Ross and Kai. Have a sleepover with the girls…
The silence was comforting, in a way. We were both in our own places. I watched the scenery slide by, a new song decorating it every four minutes. My MP3-player was on shuffle, and I found myself skipping every bubbly song I had. I was considering creating a playlist just for sad songs when Juan spoke for the first time in over an hour.
"So. Prom, huh? You'll have to send me pictures."
I smiled. "No way. You'd have no more incentive to come."
He sighed. "I figured. It won't be possible, will it? We can't just keep on like this with an entire continent between us."
I shook my head. "Even though it's tempting – I think it would be cruel. In the long run, I can't imagine it would be a good thing. I don't want things to die out slowly."
"Don't tell me. One of your friends has experienced it?"
I nodded. Naomi had been quite specific about it. She talked of tiredness, of love slowly seeping away. She'd said that the relationship stopped feeling real at some point. I didn't want my relationship with Juan to be blighted by that. Better to go out like a Roman candle, right?
No matter how much I searched my soul, I didn't know the answer. God, I'd miss him. I'd be half insane with jealousy as he got over me and found someone new. Perhaps that was why I didn't want to keep the relationship going through e-mails and calls – this way I wouldn't have to witness Juan's love life after me. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be falling for anyone fast. None of the guys at school held any appeal for me.
Juan shook his head. "Honestly, how can you know so many people? You've seen everything before. They should teach popularity in school."
"Popularity as a science. I like it." I smiled and explained. "It's just Naomi. Besides, Del's the one that's popular. For good reason – she's the nicest person ever to walk this Earth."
"She couldn't do it without you, you know."
Juan's hands were slack on the steering wheel as he turned a corner. The ocean disappeared behind us. I wondered what he was getting at. His face was serious – it wasn't a joke.
"Del's brilliant, but she needs her friends. We all do."
Juan smiled grimly. "Yeah."
I watched him closely. "What is it?"
He shook his head.
"What?" I asked again.
"I had a stupid idea. I must be tired." He glanced at me before looking back at the road.
"You honestly think I'm gonna drop it?" He didn't know me very well.
"Fine. For a moment I envisioned us just taking off and leaving to go find our fortunes elsewhere. You know, just taking the next road away from home and seeing where we end up. It's tempting in the way that it's tempting to open the car door on a freeway."
"That may sound weird, but I know exactly what you mean. I've always wanted to open the door and just see what happens."
He grinned at me. "I put it in terms you'd understand. You told me you wanted to do that a while ago."
I shook my head, smiling. "Can't believe my insanity has finally rubbed off on you. You have low tolerance."
"What can I say? You're my greatest weakness." He followed the proclamation with an attempted suave smile, which teased a reluctant giggle from the pit of my stomach. I sighed afterwards, knowing I'd forgiven him for all the things I was blaming him for in my heart of hearts.
The suggestion was ridiculous, of course. I had no real talents, and Juan could hardly make enough money for both of us by playing guitar on street corners. That kind of stuff was for books and movies, just like refusing to shake someone's hand out of principle. I wondered how I would bear it: fiction told us to believe we could do anything if we only tried, but reality didn't follow fiction, nor did fiction truly follow reality. There were just certain tropes in fiction that we learned to accept as true, like reading betrayal in someone's eyes or having a strike of inspiration that allows you to go beyond your comfort zone for someone you really love – the well known climax in a chick flick.
If only Mrs Lancaster could hear me now – I don't think I've ever thought the word "trope" before, my inner voice reflected deprecatingly. If only… If only I were smarter. I would never know how to properly formulate what I felt, and as such, would never write a world-famous autobiography full of truths about the world.
"What are you thinking about?" Juan asked curiously.
"My autobiography," I responded truthfully. "Or rather, lack thereof."
His smile made my cheeks burn and my body heat up. To think that Juan, boy genius, smiled in such a sweet way in response to my silliness warmed me, as if I were something precious. The thought elicited another sigh. I was in deep, and had no real hope of surfacing. Were I given to nautical allusions, I would have compared myself to a Titanic that knowingly traversed the Atlantic, charging helplessly on with full knowledge that the icebergs were coming.
I shook my head and pressed play on my MP3 player, finally allowing a happy song to vibrate my eardrums. Just because the icebergs were coming didn't mean I had to drown just yet. That would come later.
"He's leaving?" Edith exclaimed, hands slapping down on the cafeteria table.
"Shh, Edith," I said, looking down at the spot she'd slapped and trying to summon a smile. I'd known the dreaded telling-the-friends thing would happen soon. I had spent my first weekend away with a new boyfriend, after all. "People in China don't have to know."
I sneaked a glance down the table, hoping the casual acquaintances who posed as friends hadn't heard Edith's exclamation. They'd quieted at the noise, but their conversation about bra sizes and the pros and cons of push-ups seemed to be too interesting for them to eavesdrop on our exchange. I sighed and readied myself for the onslaught from my real friends, who stared at me with varying expressions of outrage – all except Marlene. She looked on with mild interest.
"Hope you jumped him. No time like the present – and when he moves, you won't ever have to face him again if anything goes wrong." Marlene's flinch at the end of this speech suggested she'd been kicked. A smile tugged at my lips as she said, "What? I'm just saying what I'd do."
"Alynn isn't like that," Naomi said fiercely, and I fought down a blush. If Juan had tried to sleep with me, I wasn't entirely sure I would have said no. "She cares about Juan. You've seen the way they are together."
"Yeah. I've also seen the way Alynn has no time for us whenever he's in the picture." There was another flinch. "Stop kicking me! It's true," she told me, looking me straight in the face.
I couldn't help feeling shocked. My mouth opened in surprise. Was I really one of those girls, who only cared about their boyfriend and left friends hanging? I'd always sworn not to let boys get between me and my friends – had I failed?
"That's not true," Del comforted, taking in my shocked expression. "You've just been… preoccupied, lately. Marlene shouldn't complain: she's always obsessing about one boy or another." She glared.
"That's because I'm the aloof, overly horny friend," she replied cheerfully. "Alynn isn't in that position. She's the one who's kind of on the edge of things but will always be there whenever we need her, despite being questionably happy herself."
"Oh really?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"Yep. Del's queen bee, who we all love and support. Edith's the slightly wacky, yet mostly sane girl who usually has a boyfriend and therefore has a lot of boy-advice, and Naomi's the sweet, innocent one who will always believe the best of us no matter how many times we prove her wrong."
"Is it me or was our friendship just cruelly dissected?" Edith asked, looking faintly puzzled.
"Doesn't matter," Naomi said, looking pointedly at me. "I want to know how you're doing, Lynn." She reached across the table to squeeze my hand, and the childlike gesture warmed me.
"And I want to know why you allowed us to spend a quarter of an hour speaking about my new highlights!" Edith added indignantly.
I sighed. "It's not exactly something I love talking about," I said, burying my head in my hands. "I don't know what I'll do. I've never felt this way before."
"Not even with Matt?" Marlene asked, referring to the football player I'd dated briefly freshman year. "He was yummy."
A giggle escaped me at the term. "Yeah, and he couldn't keep his shirt on for more than five minutes at a time. That's the only time I'm dating someone for looks alone – all he wanted to do was kiss me and feel me up." I remarked embarrassedly.
"You haven't been very lucky, have you?" Del said sympathetically. "No worthwhile guys, until you find someone who's perfect for you and going to live on the other side of the country."
"He's a senior," I said miserably. "It would have happened eventually, anyway. We were destined to be separated before high school was over for me, anyway."
"Not this soon," Edith said sadly. "Not before prom."
I smiled at her sympathy. No guy would ever get the importance of the fact that I wouldn't be able to go to prom with the guy I really liked. Juan hadn't understood why that fact upset me so much, either – the only people who could truly get it were my girlfriends, and I took heart in their understanding.
"Oh well," I said, attempting to cheer myself. "One of us has to be single, and Marlene doesn't count."
The others quieted, and I wondered if I'd said anything wrong.
Naomi coughed self-consciously. "Well… things hadn't been going so great with Kyle…"
Was it possible for hearts to turn to ice? I felt as if someone had poured liquid nitrogen into my bloodstream, freezing me solid from within.
"How long?" I asked, lips numb.
"Friday. I didn't call you because – well, you were away. Del took me to the spa to cheer me up." She smiled, cheeks rosy. She didn't look like someone suffering from heartache, but then, wasn't that all the more admirable? Was it truly necessary for people to wear their misery like a stamp on their forehead? No, I decided. Naomi was vastly superior to me because she went through tough times and smiled, while I just moped around. I promised myself that my moping days were over.
At present, though, I grabbed Naomi's hands across the long table and nearly crushed her fingers with my fervor. "Naomi, I'm a horrible friend!" I proclaimed, hoping she would see just how earnest I really was. "Will you forgive me? Is there anything I can do to help? I'm so sorry!"
Naomi laughed heartily at this. "I have to admit, I did kind of want you there, if only because you're the best at making things seem funny, but I really wasn't too broken up about it." At my incredulous stare, she repeated: "Really!"
She thought about it, absently fiddling with her lunch box. "Well, I have to admit the relationship was rather, em, physical." She blushed. "I mean, I'm fine with making out and fooling around and stuff, but I'm not going to sleep with someone who feels me up more than he talks to me!"
I was torn somewhere between crow-like laughter and shock at hearing gentle, innocent Naomi talk about her horny ex-boyfriend in such a way. "Naomi!" I said finally. "I can't believe you! You let this guy feel you up? I ought to hunt him down right now!"
The rest chortled. "I oughta hunnim down right now!" Marlene repeated in her best Texan accent. This time, we all laughed.
At this point Dag and Danny came to join us, too chilled to sit outside for any longer. I knew Juan had been outside with them, but apparently he was exiling himself – that, or he just liked the fall cold. Either way, I wasn't going to drag him in to speak with my friends. I was afraid they'd hurt him for leaving me.
"Looks like you guys have more fun without us," Dag said, voice light – yet somehow sad, too. Was this something else I had missed in my list of oversights? Edith and Dag exploring the nether regions of the dating world, also known as the pre-break-up phase where everything goes wrong and every little comment counts? I chanced a glance at Edith and saw her look down at the table, face unreadable. Yup. Somehow, Dag's observation was aimed at her. I resolved to talk to her about it later.
"Only because we can talk about you," Del replied charmingly, leaning towards Danny for a kiss, then removing the backpack she'd set beside her to save his spot. I watched the gesture. I never saved Juan a spot – should I have? And would he take it if I did?
Edith hadn't saved Dag a spot, either, but I shared a seat with Marlene so he could sit down at the table, wondering whether Edith would rather we hadn't done so. The conversation switched to an innocuous subject – the weather – and the rest of lunch was spent in a relatively companionable atmosphere, me keeping a close eye on Edith and Dag. She wasn't looking at him, while he consistently tried to make eye contact.
I bit my lip as I watched them. Maybe it was better for Juan to move, so that we didn't have to break up because of different opinions or feelings. Breaking up with Juan now would leave me with the hope that maybe things would have worked out between us, while an extended relationship with a slowly dying flame would remove that shred of fantasy.
By the time the bell went, I had already decided that me and Juan would have split up before the year was over even if he didn't have to move to the other side of the country. I had convinced myself so firmly, in fact, that when I saw him in literature class, I felt as if we had already broken up. His kiss jolted me back to reality. His lips and jacket were cold from the air outside.
"Mm. Pastrami?" Juan asked pleasantly.
I glared, fighting embarrassment. "Well, if I'd known you were going to be sampling the aftertaste of my meal I would have put something less distinctive on my sandwich."
A cough interrupted out back-of-the-class banter. "Would you like to write about the taste, Mr Richards?" Mr. Dorr asked, voice just as light as Juan's a minute ago. I snorted so hard it was vaguely painful.
"Only if it's a collaborative work, sir. I should like to hear Alynn's thoughts on pastrami."
Our silly teacher laughed at that, then threw two books down on our table. Closer inspection revealed The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I sighed, having heard Naomi complain about this one.
The lesson began, and Mr. Dorr introduced us to "the unreliable narrator", which I considered to be a stupid thing for a book to have. Why would you want a narrator to tell things that didn't happen, or things skewed by his vision? Books were hard enough to understand as they were – I didn't need some pothead screwing with reality within the story.
Juan, on the other hand, appreciated the finer points of said narrator. He'd read the novel already, of course, and a few others besides. While a classmate asked a question, Juan told me I'd like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
"Why?" I whispered back.
"It's about crazy people," he replied with a grin. At my glare, he amended: "And great personal sacrifice for the betterment of others, and the emasculation of men, and –"
I interrupted. "Does it have a happy ending?" I asked doubtfully. In my experience, classics not written by Jane Austen tended to end with something that left me feeling empty inside.
Juan's smile wasn't for me: it was for some secret thought, which made it all the more mysterious – and to me, mysterious equaled sexy. "It depends what you call 'happy'."
I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Two people finding love and deciding that, despite their differences, they can work things out and will give it a try. The chick flick ending, basically."
"That's pretty narrow, don't you think? What about learning to be happy by yourself? To learn that you can manage without someone there as a crutch? To me, that seems like a more reliable form of happiness."
We were starting to be a disturbance to the class, so I shut my mouth, thinking of what he'd said. When the rest of the class got noisy, I whispered back: "There's no romance in that. Sure, it's good to be able to enjoy your own company, but to have no one to share the things you love with – that's harsh. You can't be that much of a loner, can you? I thought you stopped being a freak ages ago."
Juan smiled, this time at me. "I suppose I see your point, but to lay all your hopes on some other person, giving them the responsibility to make you happy – that makes no sense, either. You can't live like that, not for long. Anyone who thinks their chance of happiness lies with another, well, they're deluding themselves."
I bristled at that. Perhaps I was delusional, for thinking it was him who had made my previously mediocre world twist and spin and turn and go all ablaze. I wondered whether he understood what we were talking about. If he did, he was telling me I didn't need him.
And while I'd been trying to tell myself that the entire morning, I didn't want him to tell me that same thing. Because it meant he didn't need me.
That day, after school, I ambushed him on his way to the bus stop. My heart had ached at the thought that I was like an accessory to him, a light decoration that went with the general scenery of his life.
"I love you," I told him as I came out and grabbed the front of his grey-green jacket. He looked surprised to see me, and I caught a glimpse of that rare vulnerability in the delighted lift of his eyebrows and the smile that stole over his face. He could tell me happiness ought to come from within, but that short moment, when he didn't hide his simple pleasure at seeing me unexpectedly and hearing my long-overdue confession, was enough to convince me that I did make him happy, even if he didn't believe I was the cause of the happiness.
Maybe he did believe it, though, because the next words he said were: "I love you, too."