We’d beaten Dave to the table and put in an order for a couple of sodas. We’d had no problem talking in the car, but sitting across from each other in an Olive Garden booth was a different story.
“Do you feel like your mom just dropped us off here before homecoming?” I asked.
“I never went to homecoming,” he said.
I pretended to play a violin, at which point I realized I had no idea how a person actually held a violin.
“What’s that,” Gus said flatly. “What are you doing?”
“I think I’m holding a violin,” I answered.
“No,” he said. “No, I can safely say you are not.”
“Yes, seriously. Why is your left arm straight out like that? Is the violin supposed to balance atop it? You need that hand on the neck.”
“You’re just trying to distract me from the tragedy of your missed homecoming.”
He laughed, rolled his eyes, scooted forward on his bench. “Somehow, I survived, tender human heart intact,” he said, repeating my words from the carnival.
Now I rolled my eyes. Gus smiled and bumped my knee with his under the table. I bumped his back. We sat there for a minute, grinning at each other over a basket of Olive Garden breadsticks. I felt a little bit like there was water boiling in my chest. At once, I could feel his calloused hands gathering my hair off my neck as I puked into a carnival trash can. I could feel them on my hips and waist, pressing me closer as we danced in the sweaty frat house basement. I could feel the side of his jaw scrape my temple.
He broke eye contact first, checked his phone. “Twenty minutes late,” he said without looking at me. “I’ll give him ten more before I call.”
But Dave didn’t answer Gus’s call. And he didn’t answer Gus’s texts, or his voice mail, and soon we were an hour and twenty minutes into the bottomless breadsticks, and our server, Vanessa, had started seriously avoiding our table.
“Sometimes this happens,” Gus said. “They get spooked. Change their minds. Think they’re ready to talk about something when they’re really not.”
“What do we do?” I asked. “Should we keep waiting?”
Gus opened one of the menus on the table. He flipped through it for a minute, then pointed to a picture of a frozen blue drink with a pink umbrella sprouting out of it. “That,” he said. “I think that’s what we do.”
“Well, shit,” I said. “If we drink our frozen blue things now then I’ll have to totally rethink my plan for tomorrow night.”
Gus lifted an eyebrow. “Wow, I was living the lifestyle of a romance writer all along and I didn’t even know it.”
“See? You were born for this, Augustus Everett.”
“Why do you do that?”
“What?” he said.
I repeated, “Augustus Everett.” His shoulders lifted, although a bit more discreetly this time. “That.”
Gus raised the menu as Vanessa was trying to bound past and she screeched to a stop like Wile E. Coyote at the edge of a cliff. “Could we get two of these blue things?” he asked.
His eyes were doing the sexy, intimidating X-ray thing. Color rushed into her cheeks. Or maybe I was projecting what was happening to me onto her. “Sure thing.” She sped away, and Gus looked back at the menu.
“Augustus,” I said.
“Shit,” he said, flinching again.
“You really don’t like sharing things about yourself with other people, do you?”
“Not particularly,” he said. “You already know about the vomit-phobia. Anything more than that and you’ll have to sign a nondisclosure.”
“Happily,” I said.
Gus sighed and leaned forward, forearms resting on the table. His knee grazed mine beneath the table, but neither of us moved away, and all the heat in my body seemed to focus there. “The only person who called me that was my father.” He shrugged. “That name was usually said with a disapproving tone. Or screamed in a rage.”
My stomach twisted and a sour taste crept across the back of my mouth as I grasped for something to say. I couldn’t help searching his pupils for signs of the history he’d been piecing together for days. His mother had stayed with his father, no matter the cost, and part of that had been her son learning to hate his own name.
Gus’s gaze lifted from the menu. He looked calm, serious. But it was a practiced look, unlike the alluring openness that sometimes overtook his face when he was deep in thought, working to understand some new information.
“I’m sorry,” I said helplessly. “That your dad was an asshole.”
Gus gave a breathless laugh. “Why do people always say that? You don’t need to be sorry. It’s in the past. I didn’t tell you so you’d be sorry.”
“Well, you told me because I asked. So at least let me be sorry for that.”
He shrugged. “It’s fine.”
“Gus,” I said.
He looked me in the eye again. It felt like a warm tide rushing over me, feet to head. His expression had shifted to open curiosity. “What were you like?” he said.
“You know enough about my childhood. I want to know about baby January.”
“Oh, God,” I said. “She was a lot.”
His laugh vibrated through the table, and my insides started fizzing like champagne. “Let me guess. Loud. Precocious. Room full of books, organized in a way that only you understood. Close with your family and a couple of tight-knit friends, all of whom you probably still talk to regularly, but casual friends with anyone else with a pulse. A secret overachiever, who had to be the best at something even if no one else knew. Oh, and prone to juggling or tap-dancing for attention in any crowd.”
“Wow,” I said a little stunned. “You both nailed and roasted me—though the tap lessons were my mom’s idea. I just wanted the shoes. Anyway, you missed that I briefly had a shrine to Sinéad O’Connor, because I thought it made me seem Interesting.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I bet you were an adorable little freak.”
“I was a freak,” I said. “I think being an only child did that. My parents treated me like a living TV. Like I was just this hilarious, interesting baby genius. I seriously spent most of my life delusively confident in myself and my future.”
And that no matter what else, home would always be a safe place, where all three of us belonged. A burning sensation flared in my chest. When I looked up and met Gus’s eyes, I remembered where I was, who I was talking to, and half expected him to gloat. The bright-eyed ingenue with all the happy endings had finally gotten chewed up, the rose-colored glasses ground to dust.
Instead, he said, “There are worse things to be than delusively confident.”
I studied his dark, focused eyes and lax, crooked mouth: a look of complete sincerity. I was more convinced than ever that I wasn’t the only one who’d changed since college, and I wasn’t sure what to say to this new Gus Everett.
At some point the frozen blue cocktails had appeared on the table, as if by magic. I cleared my throat and lifted my glass. “To Dave.”
“To Dave,” Gus agreed, clinking his plastic cup to mine.