“The greatest disappointment of this evening by far,” I said, “is that they didn’t actually include the paper umbrellas.”
“See,” Gus said. “It’s shit like this that makes it impossible for me to believe in happy endings. You never get the paper umbrellas you were promised in this world.”
“Gus,” I said. “You must be the paper umbrellas you wish to see in this world.”
“Gandhi was a wise man.”
“Actually, I was quoting my favorite poet, Jewel.”
His knee pressed into mine, and heat pooled between my legs. I pressed back. His rough fingertips tentatively touched my knee, slid up until he found my hand. Slowly, I turned my palm up to him, and his thumb drew heavy circles on it for a minute.
When I slid it closer, he folded his fingers into mine, and we sat there, holding hands under the table, pretending we weren’t. Pretending we weren’t acting sixteen years old and a little bit obsessed with each other.
God, what was happening? What was I doing and why couldn’t I make myself stop? What was he doing?
When the check came, Gus jerked back from me and pulled his wallet out. “I got it,” he said, without looking at me.
I DREAMED ABOUT GUS Everett and woke up needing a shower.
I’D HAD SATURDAY planned for three days, which freed me up to spend the morning working on the book. It was slow going, not because I didn’t have ideas, but because it required such painstaking research to confirm that each scene was historically possible.
I’d started working at eight and had managed to write about five hundred words by the time Gus came to sit at his kitchen table, facing mine. He wrote his first note of the day and held it up. I squinted to read.
SORRY I GOT WEIRD LAST NIGHT.
My notebook and marker were already ready. They always were. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I imagined it had something to do with being adults who weren’t dating but were holding hands under a table at Olive Garden. I fought a sinking feeling in my stomach. Yes, it had been weird.
I had also loved it.
From watching Shadi’s love life, I knew how relationship-phobes like Gus Everett reacted when boundaries broke down, when things went from friendly to intimate, or from sexual to romantic. Guys like Gus were never the ones to pump the brakes when the emotional-entanglement train started moving, and they were always the ones to jump out and roll clear of the tracks once they realized they’d reached top speed.
I needed to keep my head straight and eyes clear—no romanticizing allowed. As soon as things got complicated, Gus would be gone, and in this moment, I was realizing how not ready for that I was. He was my only friend here. I had to protect that. Besides, there was the bet, which I couldn’t fully benefit from if he ghosted me before I even won.
I wrote back:
DON’T BE RIDICULOUS, GUS. YOU WERE ALWAYS WEIRD.
The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. He held my gaze for a beat too long, then turned his focus back to the notebook. When he held it up next, it showcased a series of numbers. I recognized the first three as the local area code.
My stomach flipped. I scribbled the numbers down small at the top of the page, then wrote my own phone number much larger beneath it, followed by, I’M STILL GOING TO WRITE THESE NOTES.
Gus replied, GOOD.
I wrote another five hundred words by three thirty in the afternoon, at which point I drove over to Goodwill to drop off the load of boxes I’d filled from the upstairs guest room and bath. When I got back, I scrubbed the upstairs bathroom clean, then padded back downstairs to shower in the bathroom I’d been using for the past two weeks. The picture of my dad and Sonya still hung on the wall, photo facing inward.
I’d felt too guilty to destroy it, but I figured it was only a matter of time until I worked up the courage. For now it was a bleak reminder that the hardest work was still ahead of me: the basement I hadn’t even peeked into and the master bedroom I’d thoroughly avoided.
I still hadn’t really been down to the beach, which seemed like a shame, so after I’d made a pot of macaroni to tide me over until tonight, I picked my way down the wooded trail to the water. The light bouncing over the waves from the setting sun was incredible, all reds and golds blazing over the lake’s back. I slipped out of my shoes and carried them to the edge of the water, gasping out a swear as the icy tide rushed over my feet. I scrambled back, laughing breathlessly from the sheer shock of it.
The air was warm but not even close to hot enough to make the chill pleasant. Most of the people left on the beach had pulled sweatshirts on or wrapped themselves in towels and blankets. Everyone, all those wind-beaten and sunburned faces, all that lake-tangled hair, those eyes squinting into the fierce light. Looking at the same setting sun.
It made me ache. I felt suddenly more alone than ever. There was no floppy-haired, romantic Jacques waiting for me in Queens—no one to cook me a real meal or whisk me away from the computer. No missed calls or Was just thinking about Karyn and Sharyn and almost peed again texts from Mom, and no way for me to send her a picture of the sunlight dripping onto the lake without opening the wound that was the lake house.
I’d only seen Shadi twice since the funeral, and with her work schedule, most texts from her came in long after I’d gone to bed, and most of my replies went out long before she’d wake up.
My writer friends had stopped checking in too, as if sensing that every note from them, every call and text, was just one more reminder of how terribly far behind I had fallen. Was falling. Every moment of every day, I was tripping backward while the rest of the world marched forward.
Honestly, I even missed Sharyn and Karyn: sitting on their colorful rag rug drinking the nasty-ass bathtub moonshine they were so proud of while they hawked homemade essential oils that smelled great, even if they didn’t actually cure cancer.
My world felt empty. Like there was no one in it, except sometimes Gus, and nothing in it except this book, and the bet. And no matter how much better this book felt than every iteration of it that had come in the last twelve months, it wasn’t enough.
I was on a beautiful beach, in a beautiful place, and I was alone. Worse, I wasn’t sure I’d ever stop being alone again. I wanted my mom, and I missed my lying dad.
I sat down in the sand, folded my legs to my chest, rested my forehead against my knees, and cried. I cried until my face was hot and red and soaking wet, and I would’ve kept crying if a seagull didn’t shit on my head, but of course, it did.
And so I stood and turned back to the path only to find someone frozen in the middle of it, watching me ugly cry like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
It was like something out of a movie, the way Gus was standing there, except that there was nothing romantic or magical about it. Even though I’d been sobbing about being alone, he was one of the last people I would’ve chosen to see me like this. Momentarily forgetting the pile of bird excrement on my head, I wiped at my face and eyes, trying to make myself look more … something.
“Sorry,” Gus said, visibly uncomfortable. He glanced sidelong down the beach. “I saw you come down here, and I just …”