“A bird pooped on my head,” I said tearily. Apparently there was nothing more to say than that.
His look of painful empathy cracked under a soundless laugh. He closed the gap between us and pulled me roughly into a hug. The action seemed uncomfortable, if not painful, for him at first, but even so it was something of a relief to be held.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “But just so you know … you can.”
I buried my face in his shoulder, and his hands’ clumsy patting against my back settled into slow, gentle circles, before they stopped moving at all, just curled in against my spine, easing me closer. I let myself sink into him. The crying had stopped as fast as it had started. All I could think about was the press of his hard stomach and chest, the sharp ridges of his hips and the almost smoky smell of him. The heat of his body and his breath.
It was a bad idea to stand here like this with him, touch him like this, but it was also intoxicating. I decided to count to three and then let go.
I got to two before his hand slid into my hair, cradling the back of my head, then jerked suddenly clear as he took an abrupt step back. “Wow. That’s a lot of shit.”
He was staring at his hand and the goop dripping off of it.
“Yeah, I said ‘bird’ but it very well could have been a dinosaur.”
“No kidding. I guess we should get cleaned up before we take off for the night.”
I sniffed and wiped the residual tears away from my eyes. “Was take off an intentional bird pun or …?”
“Hell no,” Gus said, turning back toward the trail with me. “I said that because I assumed we would be taking a helicopter ride over the lake.”
A ripple of timid laughter went through me, breaking up the residual knot of emotion and heat in my chest. “Is that your final guess?”
He looked me up and down, as if weighing my outfit against some widely recognized helicopter-date uniform. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Really?” he said. “What is it, then? Tiny airplane over the lake? Tiny submarine under the lake?”
“You’ll have to wait and find out.”
We parted ways between our houses, agreeing to meet at my car in twenty minutes. When I’d washed my hair for the second time that day, I threw it into a bun and put the same (poop-free) outfit back on. I’d packed most of the supplies for our trip earlier that day, so all I had left to do was grab the rest out of the fridge and stuff it into the cooler I’d found on one of the kitchen’s bottom shelves.
It was 7:30 when Gus and I finally set out and 8:40 when we finally pulled in to Meg Ryan Night at Big Boy Bobby’s Drive-In.
“Oh my God,” Gus said as we drove up to the booth to hand over the tickets I’d bought online. “This is a triple feature.” He was reading the glowing marquee to our right: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. “Aren’t half of those Christmas movies?”
The attendant raised the gate and I pulled through. “Half of three is one and a half, so no, half of these movies aren’t Christmas movies.”
“Have I mentioned that Meg Ryan’s face pisses me off?”
I scoffed. “One, no. Two, that’s impossible. Her face is adorable and perfect.”
“Maybe that’s what it is,” Gus said. “I couldn’t tell you, and I know it’s not logical, but I … just can’t stand her.”
“Tonight that’s all going to change,” I promised. “Trust me. You just have to open your heart. If you can do that, your world’s going to be a much brighter place from now on. And maybe you’ll even stand a chance at writing a sellable rom-com.”
“January,” he said solemnly as I backed into an open parking spot, “just imagine what you’d do to me if I took you to a six-hour-long Jonathan Franzen reading.”
“I cannot and I will not,” I said. “And if you choose to use one of our Friday nights in such a way, there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but it’s Saturday and thus I’m the captain of this ship. Now come help me figure out where we can buy the Big Bobby Ice Cream Surprise I read about online. According to the website it is ‘SOOO Worth It!’”
“It had better be.” Gus sighed, climbing out of the Kia to join me. As the previews flashed clunkily across the screen, we made our way through the field to the concession stands. I beelined for the wooden sign painted to look like an ice cream sundae, but Gus touched my arm, stopping me from getting in line right away. “Will you just promise me one thing?”
“Gus, I won’t fall in love with you.”
“One more thing,” he said. “Please just try your hardest not to puke.”
“If I start to, I’ll just swallow it.”
Gus cupped his hand over his mouth and gagged.
“Kidding! I won’t puke. At least not until you take me to that six-hour reading. Now come on. I’ve spent all week looking forward to eating something other than cold Pop-Tarts.”
“I don’t think this is going to be the vitamin- and nutrient-rich smorgasbord you seem to be imagining.”
“I don’t need vitamins. I need nacho cheese and chocolate sauce.”
“Ah, in that case, you planned the perfect night.”
Because I’d bought the tickets, Gus paid for the popcorn and the Ice Cream Surprises ($6 each, decidedly un-worth it), and he tried to buy us sodas before I completely indiscreetly cut him off, doing my best to signal that we had other options in the car.
When we got back, I opened the tailgate and put the middle seats flat, revealing the setup of pillows and blankets I’d packed earlier, along with the cooler full of beer. “Impressed?” I asked Gus.
“By your car’s trunk space? Absolutely.”
“Har-har-har,” I said.
“Har-har-har,” Gus said back.
We climbed through the open trunk and I turned the car on, tuning the radio to the right channel to pick up the movie’s audio before settling in beside Gus just as the opening credits began. Despite what he’d said about trunk space, the Kia wasn’t exactly big. Lying on our stomachs, chins propped up on our hands, we were very nearly touching in several places, and our elbows were touching. This position wouldn’t be comfortable for long, and rearranging with both of us in the car was going to be a challenge. Being this close to him was also going to be a challenge.
As soon as Meg Ryan appeared onscreen, he leaned a little closer and whispered, “Her face really doesn’t bother you?”
“I think you should see a doctor,” I hissed. “That’s not a normal reaction.” As soon as I got my first book advance, I’d bought Shadi and myself both like twenty Meg Ryan movies so we could watch them together long-distance whenever we wanted, starting them at the same exact moment so we could text about what was happening in real time and pausing whenever one of us had to pee.
“Just wait until you hear how Meg Ryan pronounces horses when she sings ‘Sleigh Ride,’” I whispered to Gus. “Your life will be irrevocably changed.”
Gus gave me a look like I wasn’t helping my case. “She just looks so damn smug,” he said.