Another week went by in which I saw Jace only minimally. He was vague about the reasons, claiming sports and family commitments. The distance began to feel like a void between us, and I feared it would only get bigger until we were only silhouettes looking at each other from different sides of it.
Even Carly was little help when I tried to talk to her about it. She brushed it off like it was a trifle of a problem, kept telling me over and over that it was fine and not to worry. And when I tried to ask her about the night Jace cancelled but she had supposedly talked to him, she changed the subject or mysteriously had somewhere to be.
My paranoia about the two of them returned. But I felt I was at a dead end. Jace wasn't around for me to talk to and Carly would continually feign deafness to my inquiries. And despite my misgivings, I had never felt lonelier. If I lost the two of them, I wouldn't know what to do, but I couldn't continue to live like this either.
I had chewed through several different possibilities of letters I could send back to Carly, but I was torn on how I wanted to approach it. Did I want to tell her she had to give it up and go on liking him in secret? Or did I want to tell her that she should tell both me and Jace so it was finally out in the open and we could go from there?
Meanwhile, my mother was still on my case about my up and coming birthday. Should it be a big party or a small party? Should we do a combined family and friend party or keep them separate? Should we go somewhere or stay home?
I knew I should've been more excited. I mean, you only turn eighteen once after all. But at the time, I was content with allowing my mom free range. If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was how to throw a party. As much as she wanted my input on the matter, I knew that she would enjoy unlimited creativity.
One afternoon, I came home from a little bit of window browsing by myself to my mom hanging up the phone with a big smile on her face.
"What is it?" I asked, giving her a lopsided grin as I tried to decipher the look on her face. "What's got you in such a good mood?"
"I can't just be in a good mood?" she asked slyly.
"Not one that puts that ridiculous grin on your face," I said, laughing.
"And just for that remark, I'm not telling you," she replied, smacking me playfully with a rolled-up newspaper.
I pulled a face. What had gotten into her? She was dancing around the kitchen like a teenage girl just asked out by the senior football player.
"Tell me," I demanded.
"It has to do with your birthday," she whispered conspiratorially. "But that's all I'm telling you." The newspaper thwacked lightly against my shoulder again as she disappeared upstairs.
I shook my head, wondering what on earth she had accomplished that would make her so excited.
I found out that night at dinner. And not in the way my mother intended.
Skipping down the stairs to the kitchen, drawn by the smells of homemade pot roast, I stopped dead in my tracks in the doorway. The feeling of déjà vu washed over me, nauseating in its familiarity. My parents stood glaring daggers at each other. But this time they weren't yelling. I slipped behind the corner, before they saw me. I wanted to hear what exactly this was about less they stop like they always did when either I or Julia was present. This time, however, I wasn't going to take it all silently. I lay patiently in wait.
"You spent how much on a cake?" demanded my father. His briefcase was still in his hand, his overcoat still on, but his tie dangled loosely in his hand. My mom had a ladle clutched in her hand, her knuckles turning white. The expression on her face was one of shocked confusion. Like when you tell someone something and expect them to be excited only to have it blow up in your face.
It was quickly being replaced by cold anger.
"Why should that matter?" she snapped. "It's her birthday. Her eighteenth birthday. It should be special."
"It can be special with a normal cake. Not to mention all of the other things you have planned!" he yelled. His briefcase dropped with a bang. It sprang open, spewing papers over the floor. The tie whipped down onto the counter to lie in a crumpled heap. "What about the check we have to write to whatever school she decides to go to?"
"One birthday cake will not jeopardize her chances of going to school!" cried my mother, throwing her hands up. Soup that had been in the ladle splashed against the window over the sink. A noodle slid down slowly.
"How would you know?" retorted my father. "When was the last time you handled the finances?"
My mom gave a short bark of a laugh. "Typical. Why doesn't it surprise me that you would turn a damn birthday cake into a fight about the damn finances?" She jabbed her finger at him. "Would you like to tell me yet again how you're the breadwinner of the family? About the long hours you work at the office? What about all the sacrifices you have to make because of it? Which is a load of bullshit in and of itself?"
For a brief moment, my dad appeared stunned. As if he hadn't expected my mother to take that approach. I saw my opportunity and strode into the kitchen. The two of them regarded me warily; as if they were afraid of me. Good. They should be, because I was done being afraid of them.
"I didn't realize a birthday cake would cause so much trouble," I said quietly. My eyes flickered back and forth between them, gauging their reactions.
"Alex, listen" began my dad, a tight edge still constricting his words. A hand went to his thinning hair.
"Oh, I've been listening," I said. I kept my voice level. I wanted them to hear and understand everything. "I've been listening all along. I've been listening so much that I am actually tired of listening."
"Alex, honey," interrupted my mom. "Sweetie, we've…we've been trying…"
"And that's one of the things I'm tired of listening to," I continued, now fighting to keep the anger out of my voice. "Why don't you try being honest instead of placating? Julia and I are not blind you know."
"Alex," repeated my mother, and I could see her armor was breaking. I swallowed and forced myself to keep going. I turned to my dad instead.
"Maybe if a cake is too tight on the budget, I'll just bake cupcakes." I shrugged. "I wouldn't want it to get in the way of college or anything. In fact, why don't we just cancel my whole birthday? That way no unnecessary sacrifices have to be made."
My dad clearly hadn't expected me to take such a bold approach either. "I never said we had to cancel your birthday or that you couldn't have a cake," he blustered indignantly.
I narrowed my eyes, wondering if he honestly could not see what I was trying to say.
"You think this about a damn birthday party?" I snapped, my resolve waning. "You think a cake and balloons and plastering fake smiles on your faces will fix everything you've broken in the last eight months?"
"Don't you use that language, young lady," started my dad angrily.
"Alex, please," pleaded my mom, "We don't want to be the bad guys."
"You're the bad guys as long as you keep pretending that everything is okay, as long as you keep feeding Julia lies and shoving them down my throat," I snapped. "Stop telling us you're going to work on it. Work on it already!"
"It's not as easy as you make it seem," said my dad, bracing himself against the counter. My mom took a step up to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged out from under it, backing slowly into the hall. The pot roast bubbled ominously over flames that were too high, too hot. But no one seemed to notice.
"You push Julia and me every single day to do our best, to try our hardest. Why should we when you don't?"
I held both my parents' gaze. My mom with the ladle still hanging limply in her hand and her brown hair escaping her bun in disarray. My dad in his coat that suddenly looked two sizes too big and his shirt coming un-tucked.
"And when we don't try our best?" I ventured. "All that's left is disappointment."
I turned on my heel and walked away.
The next day, invigorated by the fight with my parents and the heady sense of strength and determination I had gleaned from it, I decided it was time to talk with Jace and figure out what was going on.
In the brief time in between classes, I caught him at his locker and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, Jace could I talk to you for a minute?" I asked, while he searched through his messy locker for an elusive book.
"Yeah," he said distractedly, trying to stabilize the leaning tower of garbage with his elbow while he dug through it. "But I've only got like ten seconds, I have a Calculus quiz."
"Well can we meet up after school? We could get coffee," I suggested, reaching over him to pluck his notebook from the rubble. I handed it to him. He took it with a sheepish grin and slammed his locker shut before everything descended over our feet.
"Sure," he said. He kissed my forehead. "I've got to run. See you later."
"Good luck!" I called after him.
I heard footsteps behind me and I turned to see Carly strolling towards me.
"Where's Jace going?" she asked, looking after his retreating back.
"He has a quiz," I said.
"Shoot," she replied. "I had to ask him something." I had noticed the piece of paper in her hand until she slipped it back in between her folders. The expression on her face was difficult to read.
"If you want, I could pass along the message," I offered. "We are going out for coffee later."
"Oh that's fine," she declined. "I'll just find him another time. And coffee? See I told you that you had nothing to worry about."
This time, I could tell something was off for the smile she offered me at the news that Jace and I had date seemed forced and tight.
"I know," I said playing nice. "I was worrying over nothing I guess. But Jace is such a good person, I was just afraid of losing him," I added, willing her to take the hint.
Carly fiddled with the note absently. Curiosity burned me about what she had written to Jace, but I forced myself to maintain my façade. Carly would have to decide what road to take herself.
"Alex," she said suddenly, looking up at me. Her blue eyes held mine imploringly. "I have to tell you something."
My heart jumped into my throat. Was this is? Was she finally going to admit her crush on Jace? I couldn't explain why I was so nervous, it wasn't like it was a surprise to me. But the real question was what would this do to our friendship.
Carly seemed to fumble for her words. Before she give voice to whatever it was that was bothering her, the bell rang. She startled at the sound and seemed to rethink what she was about to say.
"Nothing," she mumbled. "You're just really lucky to have someone like Jace."
She allowed herself to be swept away with the crowd and I lost sight of her. I allowed myself a moment to curse the poor timing of the bell, before heading off to my own class. An idea sprang to mind as I rounded the corner.
Carly seemed ready to tell the truth, but maybe she needed encouragement. Obviously, I couldn't say anything, but perhaps Alice could give her a nudge in the right direction. Turning on my heel, I headed the other direction towards the library.
Holing myself up in a cubicle away from prying eyes, I pulled my laptop out and opened my advice column.
Luckily, I hadn't written back to Carly after her previous letter, having been at a loss of words. But now it seemed I knew exactly what to say.
Dear Boyfriend Stealer,
I think that if it consuming this much of your time and thoughts, then the best path to take would be the honest one. With both of them. By only telling him, you are going behind your friend's back and she is more likely to find out through someone else and therefore feel even more betrayed. Perhaps, if you talk to both of them separately, it would help free your mind and keep your best friend. I can't promise everything will be completely fine, but at least everyone will be honest.
I crossed my fingers and sent the letter into the wrath of cyberspace. This wedge between the three of us had to come to an end somehow. Hopefully, with a couple of pulled strings, it would end on good terms and we could finally settle it.
Restraining myself from going in immediate pursuit of Carly, I repacked my bag and headed back to class, my mind now spinning with excuses to feed my teacher to explain why I was so late.