Characters could fall in love anywhere—an airport or auto body shop or hospital—but for an anti-romantic, it would probably take something more obvious than that to get the ideas going. For me, the best usually came from the unexpected, from mistakes and mishaps. It didn’t take inspiration to dredge up a list of plot points, but to find that moment—the perfect moment that defined a book, that made it come alive as something greater than the sum of its words—that required an alchemy you couldn’t fake.
The last year of my life had proven that. I could plot all day, but it didn’t matter if I didn’t fall into the story headfirst, if the story itself didn’t spin like a cyclone, pulling me wholly into itself. That was what I’d always loved about reading, what had driven me to write in the first place. That feeling that a new world was being spun like a spiderweb around you and you couldn’t move until the whole thing had revealed itself to you.
While the interview with Grace hadn’t given me any of those all-consuming tornadoes of inspiration, I had awoken with a glimmer of it. There were stories that deserved to be told, ones I’d never considered, and I felt a spark of excitement at the thought that maybe I could tell one of them, and like doing it.
I wanted to give Gus that feeling too. I wanted him to wake up tomorrow itching to write. Proving how difficult it was to write a rom-com was one thing, and I was confident Gus would see that, but getting him to understand what I loved about the genre—that reading and writing it was nearly as all-consuming and transformative as actually falling in love—would be a different challenge entirely.
I was too distracted to write when I got home, so I put myself to better use. I twisted my hair into a topknot, put on shorts and a Todd Rundgren tank top, and went to the guest bathroom on the second floor with trash bags and boxes.
Dad or That Woman had kept the closet stocked with towels and backup toiletries, which I piled into donation boxes and carried to the foyer one at a time. On my third trip, I stopped before the kitchen window facing into Gus’s house. He was sitting at the table, holding an oversized note up for me to see. Like he’d been waiting.
I balanced the box against the table and swiped my forearm up my temple to catch the sweat beading there as I read:
JANUARY, JANUARY, WHEREFORE ART THOU, JANUARY?
The message was ironic. The butterflies in my chest were not. I pushed the box onto the table and grabbed my notebook, scribbling in it. I held the note up.
New phone who dis?
Gus laughed, then turned back to his computer. I grabbed the box and carried it out to the Kia, then went back for the rest. The humidity of the last few days had let up again, leaving nothing but breezy warmth behind. When I’d finished loading the car, I poured myself a glass of rosé and sat on the deck.
The sky was bright blue, an occasional fluffy cumulus cloud drifting lazily past, and the sunlight painted the rustling treetops a pale green. If I closed my eyes, shutting myself off from what I could see, I could hear squeals of laughter down by the water.
At home, Mom and Dad’s yard had backed up to another family’s, one with three young kids. As soon as they moved in, Dad had planted a grove of evergreens along the fence to create some privacy, but he’d always loved that on late summer nights, as we sat around the firepit, we’d hear the screams and giggles of the kids playing tag, or jumping on the trampoline, or lying in a tent behind their house.
Dad loved his space, but he also always said he liked to be reminded that there were other people out there, living their lives. People who didn’t know him or care to.
I know feeling small gets to some people, he had once told me, but I kind of like it. Takes the pressure off when you’re just one life of six billion at any given moment. And when you’re going through something hard—at the time, Mom was doing chemo—it’s nice to know you’re not even close to the only one.
I’d felt the opposite. I was harboring a private heartbreak. About the universe, about Mom’s body betraying her again. About the life I’d dreamed of dissipating like mist. I’d watched my U of M classmates over Facebook as they went on to grad school and (mysteriously funded) international travel. I’d watched them post doting Mother’s Day tributes from far corners of the world. I’d listened to the kids who lived behind my parents’ house shriek and giggle as they played Ghost in the Graveyard.
And I’d felt secretly heartbroken that the world could do this to us again, and even worse because I knew saying any of that would only make things harder for Mom.
And then she’d kicked it the second time. And I’d been so grateful. More relieved than I knew a person could feel. Our life was back on track, the three of us stronger than ever. Nothing could tear us apart ever again, I was sure.
But still, I was mourning those years lost to doctor visits and shed hair and Mom, the do-er, lying sick on the couch. Those feelings didn’t fit with our beautiful post-cancer life, I knew—they added nothing helpful or good—so I’d tamped them down once more.
When I found out about Sonya, they’d all sprung out, fermented into anger over time, like an overzealous jack-in-the-box pointed straight at Dad.
I looked up and found Gus leaning against the railing on his deck. His gray T-shirt was as rumpled as everything else I’d seen him wear. His clothes very likely never made it from the hamper to drawers, assuming they made it to the laundry in the first place, but the muss of his hair also suggested he could have just rolled out of a nap.
I went to stand against the railing on my side of the ten-foot divide. “I hope it’s about the meaning of life. That or which book is first in the Bridget Jones series.”
“That, definitely,” he said. “And also, do I need to wear a tuxedo tonight?”
I fought a smile. “I would pay one hundred dollars to see what a tuxedo under your laundry regimen looks like. And I’m extremely broke, so that says a lot.”
He rolled his eyes. “I like to think of it as my laundry democracy.”
“See, if you let something inanimate vote on whether it wants to be washed, it’s not going to answer.”
“January, are you taking me to a reenactment of the Beauty and the Beast ball or not? I’m trying to plan.”
I studied him. “Okay, I’ll answer that question, but on the condition that you tell me, honestly, do you own a tuxedo?”
He stared back. After a long pause, he sighed and leaned into the railing. The sun had started to set and the flexed veins and muscles in his lean arms cast shadows along his skin. “Fine. Yes. I own a tuxedo.”
I erupted into laughter. “Seriously? Are you a secret Kennedy? No one owns a tuxedo.”
“I agreed to answer one question. Now tell me what to wear.”
“Considering I’ve only seen you in almost imperceptibly different variations of one outfit, you can safely assume I wouldn’t plan anything requiring a tuxedo. I mean, until now, when I found out you owned a tuxedo. Now all bets are off. But for tonight, your grumpy bartender costume should do.”
He shook his head and straightened up. “Phenomenal,” he said, and went inside.
In that moment, I knew exactly where I was going to take Gus Everett.
“WOW,” GUS SAID.