The “carnival” I’d found eight miles from our street was in a Big Lots parking lot, and it fit there a bit too easily.
“I just counted the rides,” Gus said. “Seven.”
“I’m really proud of you for getting that high,” I teased. “Maybe next time see if you can aim for ten.”
“I wish I were high,” Gus grumbled.
“It’s perfect,” I replied.
“For what?” he said.
“Um, duh,” I said. “Falling in love.”
A laugh barked out of Gus, and again I was a little too proud of myself for my own liking. “Come on.” I felt a pang of regret as I handed over my credit card at the ticket booth in exchange for our all-you-can-ride bracelets, but was relieved when Gus interrupted to insist on buying his own. That was one of many horrible parts of being broke: having to think about whether you could afford to share sucked.
“That wasn’t very romantic of me, I guess,” I said as we wandered into the throng of bodies clustered around a milk can toss.
“Well, lucky for you, that is pretty much my exact definition of romance.” He pointed to the teal row of porta potties at the edge of the lot. A teenage boy with his hat turned backward was gripping his stomach and shifting between his feet as he waited for one of the toilets to open up while the couple beside him hardcore made out.
“Gus,” I said flatly. “That couple is so into each other they’re making out a yard away from a literal row of shit piles. That juxtaposition is basically the entire rom-com lesson for the night. It really does nothing to your icy heart?”
“Heart? No. Stomach, a little. I’m getting sympathy diarrhea for their friend. Can you imagine having such a bad time with your friends that a porta potty becomes a beacon of hope? A bedrock! A place to rest your weary head. We’re definitely looking at a future existentialist. Maybe even a coldly horny novelist.”
I rolled my eyes. “That guy’s night was pretty much my entire high school—and much of college—experience, and somehow I survived, tender human heart intact.”
“Bullshit!” Gus cried.
“I knew you in college, January.”
“That seems like the biggest in a series of vast exaggerations you’ve made tonight.”
“Fine, I knew of you,” he said. “The point is, you weren’t the diarrhea-having third wheel. You dated plenty. Marco, right? That guy from our Fiction 400 workshop. And weren’t you with that premed golden boy? The one who was addicted to studying abroad and tutoring disadvantaged youth and, like, rock climbing shirtless.”
I snorted. “Sounds like you were more in love with him than I was.”
Something sharp and appraising flashed over Gus’s eyes. “But you were in love with him.”
Of course I was. I’d met him during an impromptu snowball fight on campus. I couldn’t imagine anything more romantic than that moment, when he’d pulled me up from the snowdrift I’d fallen into, his blue eyes sparkling, and offered his dry hat to replace my snow-soaked one.
It took all of ten minutes as he walked me home for me to determine that he was the most interesting person I’d ever met. He was working on getting his pilot’s license and had wanted to work in the ER ever since he’d lost a cousin in a car accident as a kid. He’d done semesters in Brazil, Morocco, and France (Paris, where his paternal grandparents lived), and he’d also backpacked a significant portion of the Camino de Santiago by himself.
When I told him I’d never been out of the country, he immediately suggested a spontaneous road trip to Canada. I’d thought he was kidding basically until we pulled up to the duty-free shop on the far side of the border around midnight. “There,” he said with his model grin, all shiny and guileless. “Next we need to get you somewhere they’ll actually stamp your passport.”
That whole night had taken on a hazy, soft-focus quality like we were only dreaming it. Looking back, I thought we sort of had been: him pretending to be endlessly interesting; me pretending to be spontaneous and carefree, as usual. Outwardly we were so different, but when it came down to it, we both wanted the same thing. A life cast in a magical glow, every moment bigger and brighter and tastier than the last.
For the next six years, we were intent on glowing for each other.
I tucked the memories away. “I was never with Marco,” I answered Gus. “I went to one party with him, and he left with someone else. Thanks for reminding me.”
Gus’s laugh turned into an exaggerated, pitying “awh.”
“It’s fine. I persevered.”
Gus’s head cocked, his eyes digging at mine like shovels. “And Golden Boy?”
“We were together,” I admitted.
I’d thought I was going to marry him. And then Dad had died and everything had changed. We’d survived a lot together with Mom’s illness, but I’d always held things together, found ways to shut off the worrying and have fun with him, but this was different. Jacques didn’t know what to do with this version of me, who stayed in bed and couldn’t write or read without coming apart, who slugged around at home letting laundry pile up and ugliness seep into our dreamy apartment, who never wanted to throw parties or walk the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset or book a last-minute getaway to Joshua Tree.
Again and again he told me I wasn’t myself. But he was wrong. I was the same me I’d always been. I’d just stopped trying to glow in the dark for him, or anyone else.
It was our beautiful life together, amazing vacations and grand gestures and freshly cut flowers in handmade vases, that had held us together for so long.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t get enough of him. Or that he was the best man I’d ever known. (I’d thought that was my dad, but now it was the dad from my favorite 2000s teen drama, Veronica Mars.) Or that he was my favorite person. (That was Shadi.) Or because he made me laugh so hard I wept. (He laughed easily, but rarely joked.) Or that when something bad happened, he was the first person I wanted to call. (He wasn’t.)
It was that we met at the same age my parents had, that the snowball fight and impromptu road trip had felt like fate, that my mother adored him. He fit so perfectly into the love story I’d imagined for myself that I mistook him for the love of my life.
Breaking up still sucked in every conceivable way, but once the initial pain wore off, memories from our relationship started to seem like just another story I’d read. I hated thinking about it. Not because I missed him but because I felt bad for wasting so much of his time—and mine—trying to be his dream girl.
“We were together,” I repeated. “Until last year.”
“Wow.” Gus laughed awkwardly. “That’s a long time. I’m … really regretting making fun of his shirtless rock climbing now.”
“It’s okay,” I said, shrugging. “He dumped me in a hot tub.” Outside a cabin in the Catskills, three days before our trip with his family was scheduled to end. Spontaneity wasn’t always as sexy as it was cracked up to be. You’re just not yourself anymore, he’d told me. We don’t work like this, January.
We left the next morning, and on the drive back to New York, Jacques had told me he’d call his parents when we got back to let them know the news.