Beach Read

Page 14

“I’ll pass that suggestion along to the higher-ups, but I can’t make any promises,” I said. “There’s all kinds of red tape and bureaucratic bullshit to go through.”

“Southern Comfort sounds pretty sexy,” he said. “You have a thing for Southern boys? No teeth and overalls really rev your engine?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m led to believe you’ve never been to the South and possibly couldn’t locate ‘south’ on a compass. Besides, why does everyone try to make women’s writing semiautobiographical? Do people generally assume your lonely, white, male—”

“Coldly horny,” Gus inserted.

“—coldly horny protagonists are you?”

He nodded thoughtfully, his dark eyes intent on me. “Good question. Do you assume I’m coldly horny?”


This seemed to amuse him and his crooked mouth.

I glanced out the window. “If Pete wasn’t planning on using either of our books, how did she just forget to tell us what the book club’s pick was? I mean, if she just wanted us to join, you’d think she’d give us a chance to actually read the book.”

“This wasn’t an accident,” Gus said. “It was an intentional manipulation of the truth. She knows there’s no way I would’ve come tonight if I’d known what was really happening.”

I snorted. “And what was the end goal of this nefarious plan? To become an eccentric side character in the next Augustus Everett novel?”

“What exactly do you have against my books, which you have allegedly not read?” he asked.

“What do you have against my books,” I said, “which you have certainly not read?”

“What makes you so sure?”

“The pirate reference.” I dug in to a strawberry frosted covered in sprinkles. “That’s not the kind of romance I write. In fact, my books aren’t even shelved as romance, technically. They’re shelved as women’s fiction.”

Gus slumped against the booth and stretched his lean olive arms over his head, rolling his wrists to make them crack. “I don’t understand why there’d need to be a full genre that’s just books for women.”

I scoffed. Here it was, that always-ready anger rising like it had been waiting for an excuse. “Yeah, well, you’re not the only one who doesn’t understand it,” I said. “I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed. That people like you will assume my books couldn’t possibly be worth your time, while meanwhile you could shart on live TV and the New York Times would praise your bold display of humanity.”

Gus was staring at me seriously, head cocked, rigid line between his eyebrows.

“Now can you take me home?” I said. “I’m feeling nice and sober.”


The Bet

GUS SLID OUT of the booth, and I followed, gathering the donut box and my cup of sizzling shit. It had stopped raining, but now heavy fog hung in clumps. Without another word, we got into the car and drove away from DONUTS, the word glowing teal in the rearview mirror.

“It’s the happy endings,” Gus said suddenly as he pulled onto the main drag.

“What?” My stomach clenched. They all live happily ever after. Again.

Gus cleared his throat. “It’s not that I don’t take romance seriously as a genre. And I like reading about women. But I have a hard time with happy endings.” His eyes cautiously flashed my way, then went back to the road.

“A hard time?” I repeated, as if that would make the words make sense to me. “You have a hard time … reading happy endings?”

He rubbed at the curve of his bicep, an anxious tic I didn’t remember. “I guess.”

“Why?” I asked, more confused than offended now.

“Life is pretty much a series of good and bad moments right up until the moment you die,” he said stiffly. “Which is arguably a bad one. Love doesn’t change that. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief. Besides, can you think of a single real-life romance that actually ended like Bridget fucking Jones?”

There it was, the Gus Everett I knew. The one who’d thought I was hopelessly naive. And even if I had some evidence he’d been right, I wasn’t ready to let him trash the thing that had once meant more to me than anything else, the genre that had kept me afloat when Mom relapsed and our whole imagined future disappeared like smoke on a breeze.

“First of all,” I said, “‘Bridget fucking Jones’ is an ongoing series. It is literally the worst example you could have chosen to prove that point. It’s the antithesis of the oversimplified and inaccurate stereotype of the genre. It does exactly what I aim to: it makes its readers feel known and understood, like their stories—women’s stories—matter. And secondly, are you honestly saying you don’t believe in love?”

I felt a little desperate, like if I let him win this fight, it would be the final straw: there’d be no getting back to myself, to believing in love and seeing the world and the people in it as pure, beautiful things—to loving writing.

Gus’s brow furrowed, his dark eyes flashing from me to the road with that intent, absorbing look Shadi and I had spent so much time trying to put into words. “Sure, love happens,” he said finally. “But it’s better to be realistic so shit’s not constantly blowing up in your face. And love is way more likely to blow up in your face than to bring eternal happiness. And if it doesn’t hurt you, then you’re the one hurting someone else.

“Entering a relationship is borderline sadomasochistic. Especially when you can get everything you would from a romantic relationship from a friendship, without destroying anyone’s life when it inevitably ends.”

“Everything?” I said. “Sex?”

He arched an eyebrow. “You don’t even need friendship to get sex.”

“And what, it never turns into more for you?” I said. “You can keep things that detached?”

“If you’re realistic,” he said. “You need a policy. It doesn’t turn into more if it only happens once.”

Wow. The shelf life had shortened. “See?” I said. “You are coldly horny, Gus.”

He glanced sidelong at me, smiling.


“That’s the second time you’ve called me Gus tonight.”

My cheeks flushed. Right, Everett seemed to be his preference these days. “So?”

“Come on, January.” His eyes went back to the road, the twin spears of the headlights reaching over the asphalt and catching blips of the evergreens whipping past. “I remember you.” His gaze settled on me again, his eyes nearly as solid and heavy as if they were hands.

I was grateful for the dark as heat rushed to my face. “From?”

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