He pul s on a hooded jacket and a pair of Vans before walking me to my car. My lips are swol en and my skin is flushed head to toe. Like gravitational attraction, I can’t resist his pul when he’s within my reach. My teeth chatter as he presses me against my car, unzipping his jacket and folding it around us both, the hood up and shading the edges of our faces from the unobstructed moonlight overhead. “Cold?” he asks, and I shake my head. The shudders racing along my core have nothing to do with temperature. If anything, I’m burning. His mouth returns to mine and it’s no longer strange, no longer new. The feel of his heartbeat and the sinewy muscle layered over it is familiar under my hands, as is the manner in which he coaxes my responses forward, every nuanced turn and dip anticipated.
I drive home thinking this is me in manageable portions.
“Man, you suck.” This is John’s professed assessment of me when I sink the last solid bal on our second round of pool. Translation: I don’t suck and he wishes I did, because I’ve already beat him once and am about to make it twice.
“So, since there’s a pool table between us,” he says,
“and I’m sorta sober—enough to dodge if I have to—I have a question.” Considering that the only time I’ve ever been physical y violent with John was over Dori, I assume he’s letting me know that she’s the subject of this proposed interrogation. He’s either a lot braver or a lot stupider than I thought.
“Right corner pocket.” As I lean to take the shot, he clears his throat and I scratch. At my glare, he throws both hands up as if he had nothing to do with it. Standing the butt of the cue stick on the floor and holding it like a staff, I say,
After taking al day to line up, he pockets his last two bal s with one shot, and then sinks the eight bal . Bastard.
I rack the bal s for another round as he gulps down the last of his beer, which makes me more curious about what he’s got to say. “Your turn to break,” he says.
“Not until you start talking. And please tel me this has nothing to do with my love life.”
He sighs, chalking his stick, not looking particularly guarded but not getting any closer, either. “Wel I don’t know, you tel me— is it about your love life?” He air-quotes love life.
John real y is oblivious to how many times during our relationship I’ve wanted to punch him. This is one of them.
“Cryptic, John. What is this, a very special episode of 90210?” I slam the cue bal into the rest and scatter them across the table.
“Fine. Just… don’t get al hands-on. It’s about that Dori chick.” He’s directly opposite of me stil , the wide expanse of table between us. Smart.
“What about her.”
Palms up, he says, “See, you’re doing it already, man.”
“Looking like you’re gonna beat the shit out of me, that’s what. How am I supposed to be a bro and ask the hard shit if I’m afraid you’re gonna kil me for it?” He takes his shot and sinks the thirteen.
While he’s lining up another shot—remaining, conspicuously, on the other side of the table—I say, “Keep from talking about what I should do to her and you can ask whatever.” He sinks another stripe and quirks an eyebrow.
“Within reason,” I add.
“Okay. You’ve skipped out on a few parties lately. For like, the last several weeks. You get a text, you leave.” One shoulder lifts and fal s. “And?”
He eyes me. “Okay. The texts are from her?” I nod, leery of where he’s going with this, and he rol s his eyes. “Reid, I’ve known you since we were sixteen. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I think I’m pretty qualified to say— what the hell, man? You’ve never—I mean never—gotten remotely pissed over anything I’ve said about a girl you’ve hooked up with. Not to mention going al caveman apeshit.” He misses his third shot and I line mine up.
I wonder if John’s jealous in some way. Not that I can ask him that—I’d never hear the end of it. “What’s your point?” I sink my shot, move around the table to sink another. He’s fixated on a couple of girls playing one table over, one of whom angles indecently over her table in the shortest shorts possible. Glancing over her shoulder, she’s making certain we’re watching.
I’ve pocketed another two bal s by the time he answers.
“Uh, my point is, are you seeing that?” He tips his head at the two girls, who are openly appraising us and by the looks of things, about to come over.
I stand straight. “Yeah, John, I am a guy. I noticed. I just don’t care.” Every guy in the place noticed them the moment they walked in. Heads swiveled, bodies turned, mouths hung open. Your standard male reaction to females in tight, short, cleavage-baring clothes.
“See, that right there—what is that? You don’t care?
What does that even mean?”
“Hey.” Both girls saunter up right behind him.
“Hey, yourselves, ladies.” John’s standard hunter smile is in place. “What can we do for you?”
Short Shorts has an expression that matches John’s, but she’s aiming it at me. “You guys are pretty good. Thought we could get some pointers. We’re wil ing to buy the next round for your trouble.” They know who I am. Girls don’t buy the drinks, guys do. And in a pool hal ful of guys more than wil ing to do just that, they come to our table and offer to buy? I couldn’t be less interested.
“Sounds like a deal to me,” John says, giving me the please-don’t-screw-this-up-for-me face. Shit. He’s going to be pissed by the end of this night.
*** *** ***
“So you’re dropping out of col ege? Before you even start?” The shocked look on Nick’s face elicits a new heaviness in the pit of my stomach. “I haven’t decided yet. But I get spacey sometimes lately. I just… zone out. I can’t go to school at Berkeley and do that. I’d fail.” Nick reaches out before I know what he’s doing and places his hand over mine where it rests on the smal bistro table. “Dori, Deb wouldn’t want you giving up on your dreams because of what happened to her.” His hand is warm, covering mine completely. I stare at his square fingertips, the flat, short nails clipped evenly. So different from Reid’s tapered fingers—long, like a pianist, his hand stil big enough to dwarf mine.
“I know that.” I withdraw my hand to pick at non-existent fuzz on my sweatshirt, hoping the rebuff isn’t too conspicuous. As selfish as it is, I don’t want to lose Nick’s friendship—even if I no longer want anything other than that from him. He knows this, though it took him a little while to accept it. Staring at his hand, stil on the table between us, I try to explain. “I feel lost without her, and detached from those dreams. Maybe they weren’t ever real y mine.” He frowns, pul s his hand back to the steaming mug of green tea in front of him. “What do you dream of doing now, then?”
Reid’s image flashes across my mind like one of those ads with a subliminal message inserted—a single frame of a face inside a strip of film. What I dream of now is Reid; everything else is fil er. This realization should scare me to death, but it doesn’t. “Nothing,” I say. Before he can form another question, I ask him how he likes Madison, where he goes to school.
“Wel ,” he gives me a stern look, “everyone isn’t quite as fond of cheese as we’ve been led to believe.” One side of his mouth sneaks up.
“False advertising?” I ask, smiling back.
When he settled on Wisconsin as one of his top university choices last fal , he bewildered his parents—who are innately incapable of detecting sarcasm—by insisting that “an abundance of cheese” was one of his motives for wanting to attend. Nick’s parents don’t get his sense of humor. “Definitely.”
I sip my latte and smile. “Cheese aside, how’s col ege life?”
He considers for a moment. “Chal enging.”
“Ah, you must love it there,” I tease.
“Pretty much.” Dunking the teabag like he’s operating a marionette, he adds, “So what can I do to convince you to go to school, Dori?”
I heave a sigh. “Everything just feels pointless right now.” His serious brown eyes regard me closely. “Because of Deb.”
I nod. “I guess so. But it doesn’t feel like it’s her, or what happened to her, exactly. I feel more like… like I’m final y seeing everything for what it is, and nothing is what I thought.”
“Hmm,” he says.
We sit in our typical companionable silence for a few minutes, watching bag-laden Christmas shoppers scurry in and out of nearby stores. A few nights ago, Reid pul ed me into his house, tel ing me we were going Christmas shopping. “But—?” I said, fol owing him upstairs and into the media room.
He’d hooked his laptop to the screen, and while we ate dinner, I watched him give new meaning to the notion of online shopping. Armed with a list of people and addresses from his manager, he spent more money in a couple of hours than I could keep track of. When I wouldn’t let him buy me anything, he peered at me for a moment before pul ing me into his arms and asking, “So you only want me for my body?”
I bit my lip and nodded, and he growled and kissed me senseless. Once it got dark, Immaculada handed us senseless. Once it got dark, Immaculada handed us thermoses of hot chocolate and Luis drove us around to look at Christmas lights.
As though the thoughts in my head are transparent, Nick says, “If you don’t mind my asking—what’s the deal between you and Reid Alexander? I don’t fol ow Hol ywood gossip even when I’m in LA, but the whole country was speculating over the date—or whatever it was—you two had a couple of weeks ago. The one preserved for posterity on every website from TMZ to People. So I hear.” Before I left his house last night, Reid asked me to sing something, threatening to tickle me if I refused. When I told him I couldn’t sing without accompaniment—which he knows is a lie, he produced a guitar from his closet.
“Do you play?” I asked, sitting on the edge of his bed.
His mouth pul ed up on one side. “Not wel .”
“I could teach you.” I tuned the instrument, which was top-of-the-line, expensive. “I mean, you’ve taught me to massacre Nazi zombies. It’s the least I could do.”
“I’d like that,” he said, watching me.
He sat next to me while I strummed simple chords, singing “Fal en” by Sarah McLachlan. After, we lay on our sides, staring at each other. He ran a finger over my lips, down my throat. “You do have a beautiful voice, Dori.” I knew he was withholding something more, but I didn’t ask him to say it.
I pul out of the Reid reverie, shrugging at Nick. “We’re friends.” How can I explain to him, or to anyone, that without Deb, Reid is the only person in my life who sees me for who I am?