JP was incredulous. “One of who? The cheerleaders?”
“Dude,” Keun said. “I’ve been trying all night. They’re packed too tightly to talk to just one of them. And when you try to talk to all of them, they just kind of ignore you.”
But I had to talk to one of them, or at least appear to. “It’s like lions hunting gazelles,” I said as we watched the gaggle intently. “You just find a straggler, and”—a tiny blonde girl turned away from the pack—“pounce,” I said, as I jumped up off the stool.
I walked up to her with purpose. “I’m Tobin,” I said, ex-tending my hand.
“Amber,” she said.
“Beautiful name,” I said.
She nodded, and her eyes darted around. She wanted a way out, but I couldn’t give her one yet. I fumbled for a question. “Um, any word on the status of your train?” I asked.
“Our train might not even leave tomorrow,” she informed me.
“Yeah, that’s too bad,” I said, smiling. I glanced over my shoulder toward Billy and the Duke, only she was gone. The hash browns still steamed off the plate; she’d poured the ketchup on a side plate to dip them into like she always did, but then left. I left Amber and walked over to Billy.
“She went outside,” he said simply.
Who in their right mind would go outside when the hash browns and the warmth and the fourteen cheerleaders were all inside?
I grabbed my hat from the counter and pulled it down low over my ears, and then I put my gloves back on and ventured back into the wind. The Duke was sitting on the curb of the parking lot, just barely underneath the awning, half protected from the still-falling snow.
I sat down next to her. “You missed the postnasal drip?”
She sniffled and didn’t look up at me. “Just go back inside,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”
“What’s not a big deal?”
“Nothing’s not a big deal. Just go back inside.”
“‘Nothing’s Not a Big Deal’ would be a good name for a band,” I told her. I wanted her to look up at me so I could assess the situation, and finally she did, and her nose was red, and I thought she was cold, but then I thought maybe she had been crying, which was weird, because the Duke doesn’t cry.
“I just . . . I just wish you wouldn’t do it in front of me. I mean, what is interesting about her? Tell me what is interesting about her, seriously. Or any of them.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You were talking to Billy Talos.”
She looked up at me again and this time held my gaze as she spoke. “I was telling Billy that I didn’t think I could actually go to the stupid formal with him, because I just can’t bring myself to stop liking someone else.”
The idea crept up on me slowly. I turned toward her, and she said, “I realize that they giggle and I actually laugh, that they show their cleavage and I have none to show, but just so you know, I am also a girl.”
“I know you’re a girl,” I said defensively.
“Really? Does anyone? Because I walk into the D and D and I’m the Duke. And I’m one of the three wise men. And it’s gay to think that James Bond is hot. And you never look at me like you look at girls, except . . . whatever. Whatever whatever whatever. When we were walking here right before the twins came, I thought for one second that you were looking at me like I was an actual female, and I was, like, hey, maybe Tobin is not the world’s biggest superficial jackass, but then you go and I’m breaking up with Billy and I look up and you’re talking to some girl like you’d never talk to me and whatever.”
And then, belatedly, I got it. The thing that I was trying to unthink was a thing that the Duke had also thought. We were trying to unthink the same thought. The Duke liked me. I looked down. I had to think it through before I looked at her. Okay. Okay, I decided, I will look at her and if she is looking at me, I will take one good look at her and then I will look down again and reassess. One look.
I looked over at her. Her head was cocked toward me, her eyes unblinking, containing all of the colors. She sucked her chapped lips into her mouth and then let them go, and there was one strand of her hair coming out from under her hat, and her nose was rosy red, and she sniffled. And I didn’t want to stop looking at her, but finally I did. I looked back down at the snowy parking lot beneath my feet.
“Will you say something, please?” she asked.
I spoke into the ground. “I always had this idea that you should never give up a happy middle in the hopes of a happy ending, because there is no such thing as a happy ending. Do you know what I mean? There is so much to lose.”
“Do you know why I wanted to go? Why I wanted to go back up that hill, Tobin? I mean, surely you know it’s not because I cared if Keun had to hang out with the Reston twins or because I wanted to see you fawn over cheerleaders.”
“I thought because of Billy,” I said.
She was really looking at me now, and I could see her breath all around me in the cold, surrounding me. “I wanted us to have an adventure. Because I love that crap. Because I’m not whatever-her-name-is. I don’t think it’s oh so hard to walk four miles in the snow. I want that. I love that. When we were at your house watching the movie, I wanted it to snow more. More and more! It makes it more interesting. Maybe you aren’t like that, but I think you are.”
“I wanted that, too,” I said, half interrupting her, still not looking for fear of what I might do if I looked. “For it to keep snowing.”
“Yeah? Cool. So, cool. And so what if more snow makes a happy ending less likely? So the car might get messed up—so what! So we might ruin our friendship—so what? I’ve kissed guys where nothing was at stake, and all it ever made me want to do was to have a kiss where everything—”
I looked up at about the “nothing was at stake,” and I waited all the way until the “everything” and then I couldn’t wait anymore, and my hand was on the back of her head, and then her lips on mine, the cold air gone and replaced with the warmth of her mouth, soft and sweet and hash-brown-tastic, and I opened my eyes and my gloves touched the skin of her face pale from the cold, and I had never before had a first kiss with a girl I loved. When we parted, I looked at her, bashful, and said, “Wow,” and then she laughed and pulled me back toward her and then from above and behind us, I heard the ding-dong of the Waffle House door opening.
“HOLY. CRAP. WHAT. THE. HELL. IS. HAPPENING.”
I just looked up at JP, trying to wipe the goofy smile off my face.
“KEUN!” JP shouted. “GET YOUR FAT KOREAN ASS OUT HERE.”
Keun appeared at the doorway, looking down at us. JP shouted, “TELL THEM WHAT YOU JUST DID TO EACH OTHER!”
“Um,” I said.
“We kissed,” the Duke said.
“That’s kinda gay,” Keun said.
“I AM A GIRL.”
“Yeah, I know, but so is Tobin,” Keun said.
JP was still shouting, seemingly unable to modulate his voice. “AM I THE ONLY PERSON PROFOUNDLY CONCERNED ABOUT THE WHOLE MAKEUP OF OUR GROUP? WILL NO ONE THINK OF THE GOOD OF THE GROUP?!”
“Go gawk at cheerleaders,” the Duke said.
JP looked at us for a while and then he smiled. “Just don’t get all gooey with each other.” He turned around and walked inside.
“Your hash browns are getting cold,” I said.
“If we go back in, no flirting with cheerleaders.”
“I only did it to get your attention,” I confessed. “Can I kiss you again?” She nodded and I did, and there was no second-kiss drop-off whatsoever. I could have kept going forever, but finally, through the kiss, she said, “I actually really do want my hash browns,” and so I opened the door and she ducked beneath my arm and we ate dinner at three A.M.
We hid in the back amid the giant steel refrigerators, our time interrupted only occasionally by JP coming back to give us the hilarious details of his and Keun’s aborted attempts to engage the cheerleaders in conversation. And then the Duke and I fell asleep together on the red tile of the Waffle House kitchen, my shoulder as her pillow and my jacket as mine. JP and Keun woke us up at seven, and Keun briefly broke his vow never to abandon the cheerleaders and drove us to the Duke and Duchess. It turned out that Tinfoil Guy drove the tow truck for them, and so Tinfoil Guy gave us a tow, and I jacked the car up in the driveway so the axle wouldn’t break and just put the wheel in the garage, and then the Duke and I went over to her house and opened presents, and I tried not to make it incredibly obvious to her parents how incredibly gooey I felt about the Duke, and then my parents came home and I told them the car got jacked when I was trying to drive the Duke home, and they yelled at me about it, but not for too long because it was Christmas and they had insurance and it was just a car. I called the Duke and JP and Keun that evening after the cheerleaders had finally left the Waffle House and everyone had eaten their Christmas dinners. They all came over, and we watched two James Bond movies and then stayed up half the night recounting our escapades. And then we all fell asleep, all four of us in four sleeping bags, like we’d been doing forever, and nothing was different except that I didn’t actually fall asleep, and neither did the Duke, and we just kept looking at each other, and then finally got up at, like, four thirty and walked a mile in the snow to Starbucks, just the two of us. I overcame the confusing French of the Starbucks ordering system and managed to get a latte, which contained the caffeine I so sorely needed, and then the Duke and I were sitting next to each other in plush purple chairs, sprawled out all over those chairs, as tired as I had ever been, so tired I could barely even smile. And we were talking about nothing, which she was still so good at, and then there was a pause, and she looked over at me with sleepy eyes and said, “So far so good,” and I said, “God, I love you,” and she said, “Oh,” and I said, “Good oh?” and she said, “Best oh ever,” and I put the latte down on a table, awash in the happy middle of my greatest adventure.
the patron saint of pigs
For Dad and for the lovely mountain town of Brevard, NC . . .
both chock-full of grace
Being me sucked. Being me on this supposedly gorgeous night, with the supposedly gorgeous snow looming in five-foot drifts outside my bedroom window, double-sucked. Add the fact that today was Christmas, and my score was up to triple-suck. And add in the sad, aching, devastating lack of Jeb, and ding-ding-ding! The bell at the top of the Suckage Meter couldn’t ring any louder.
Instead of jingle bells, I had suckage bells. Lovely.
Well, aren’t you a merry little figgy pudding, I said to myself, wishing Dorrie and Tegan would hurry up and get here. I didn’t know what figgy pudding was, but it sounded like the sort of dish that sat cold and alone at the end of the buffet table because no one wanted it. Like me. Cold and alone and probably lumpish.
Grrrrrr. I hated feeling sorry for myself, which was why I’d called Tegan and Dorrie and begged them to come over. But they weren’t here yet, and anyway, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself.
Because I missed Jeb so much.
Because our breakup, which was only a week old and as raw as an open wound, was my own stupid fault.
Because I’d written Jeb a (pathetic?) e-mail asking him please, please, please to meet me at Starbucks yesterday so we could talk. But he never showed up. Didn’t even call.
And because, after waiting at Starbucks for nearly two hours, I hated life and myself so much that I trudged across the parking lot to Fantastic Sam’s, where I tearfully told the stylist to lop my hair off and dye what was left of it pink. Which she did, because why did she care if I committed hair suicide?
So of course I felt sorry for myself: I was a brokenhearted, self-loathing, plucked pink chicken.
“Addie, wow,” Mom had said yesterday afternoon when I’d finally come home. “That’s . . . a pretty major haircut. And you got it colored. Your beautiful blonde hair.”
I gave her a why-don’t-you-shoot-me-now look, which she answered with a tilted head warning that said, Watch it, sweetie. I know you’re hurting, but that doesn’t give you permission to take it out on me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I’m just not used to it yet.”
“Well . . . it is a lot to get used to. What inspired you to do it?”
“I don’t know. I needed a change.”
She put down her whisk. She was making Cherries Jubilee, our family’s traditional Christmas Eve dessert, and the tang of the mushed-up cherries made my eyes prickle.
“Did it by any chance have to do with what happened at Charlie’s party last Saturday?” she asked.
Heat rose to my cheeks. “I don’t know what you mean.” I blinked. “Anyway, how do you know what happened at Charlie’s party?”
“Well, sweetie, you’ve cried yourself to sleep almost every night—”
“No, I haven’t.”
“And of course, you’ve been on the phone with either Dorrie or Tegan pretty much twenty-four/seven.”
“You’ve been listening to my calls?” I cried. “You eavesdropped on your own daughter?!”
“It’s hardly ‘eavesdropping’ if you have no choice.”
I gaped at her. She pretended to be so motherly in her Christmas apron, making Cherries Jubilee from an old family recipe, when really she was . . . she was . . .
Well, I didn’t know what she was, just that it was wrong and bad and evil to listen in on other people’s conversations.
“And don’t say ‘twenty-four/seven,’” I said. “You’re too old to say ‘twenty-four/seven.’”