Gus knelt back onto his heels, and I tugged my shirt down. “Sorry about that,” I said, mortified.
The woman jerked a thumb down the dark, grassy aisle between cars. “Out,” she barked.
“Of course,” Gus said quickly and jerked the tailgate closed, shutting us off from her. I burst out in humiliated, deranged laughter, and Gus turned toward me with a faint smile, his lips bruised and swollen, his hair disastrous.
“That was such a bad idea,” I whispered helplessly.
“Yeah.” Gus’s voice slipped back into its dangerous rasp. He leaned forward through the dark and caught me in one last viciously slow, dementedly hot kiss, his fingers spanning the side of my face. “Won’t happen again,” he told me, and all the sparks awake in my bloodstream fizzled out just a bit.
One time. That was his rule. But did this count? My gut twisted with disappointment. It couldn’t. It had done nothing to satisfy me. If anything, it had left me worse off than before, and from the way Gus was staring at me, I thought he must feel the same way.
The woman banged on the back window, and we both jumped.
“We should go,” Gus said.
I scrambled from the back of the car into the front seat. Gus got out the back door and back into the passenger seat.
I drove us home, feeling like my body was a heat map and everywhere he’d touched, everywhere he looked when he glanced over from the passenger seat, was glowing red.
GUS DIDN’T APPEAR at the kitchen table at noon on Sunday. I figured that was a bad sign—that what had happened had destroyed the only friendship I had in this town. Really, one of only several friendships I had the world over, since Jacques and my couple of friends, it had turned out, had no use for Just Me.
I tried to put Gus out of my mind, to work on the book with singular focus, but I went back to jumping every time my phone buzzed.
A text from Anya: Hey, love! Just wanted to check in. The house would really like to see some initial pages, to give some input.
An email from Pete: Hello! Good news! Your books will be in stock tomorrow. Is there a day this week you could stop by to sign?
An email from Sonya, which I did not open but whose first sentence I could see: Please, please don’t let me scare you off from book club. I’m totally happy to stay home on Monday nights if you’d like to keep …
A text from Shadi: January. Help. I cannot get ENOUGH of that haunted hat. He’s come over the last THREE nights and last night I let him STAY.
I texted her back, You know exactly where this is going. You’re INTO him!!
I HATE falling in love, she replied. It’s always ruining my bad-boy reputation!!
I sent her a sad face. I know, but you must persevere. For the good of the Haunted Hat and so I can live vicariously through you.
Memories from last night flashed across my mind as bright and hot as fireworks, the sparks landing and burning everywhere he’d touched. I could feel the ghost of his teeth on my collarbone, and my shoulder blade was a little bruised from the car door.
Hunger and embarrassment raced through me in one twisted braid.
God, what had I done? I should have known better. And then there was the part of me that couldn’t stop thinking, Am I going to get to do it again?
It didn’t have to mean anything. Maybe this was it: I would finally learn how to have a casual relationship.
Or maybe the deal was off and I would literally never hear from Gus Everett again.
I was out of both cereal and ramen, so after I’d painfully churned out three hundred words, I decided to break for a grocery trip and, on my way out the door, saw that Gus’s car wasn’t in its usual spot on the street. I forced the thought from my head. This didn’t have to be a big deal.
At the grocery store, I checked my bank account again, then wandered the aisles with my phone calculator open, adding up the price of Frosted Mini-Wheats and cans of soup. I’d managed to put together a decent haul for sixteen dollars when I rounded the corner to the checkout and saw her there.
Curly white hair, willowy frame, that same crocheted shawl.
Panic coursed through me so fast I felt like I’d gotten an adrenaline shot in the heart. I abandoned my cart right there in the aisle and, head down, booked it past her toward the doors. If she saw me, she didn’t say anything. Or if she did, my heart was pounding too loud for me to hear it. I jumped back into my car feeling like I’d robbed a bank and drove twenty minutes to another grocery store, where I was so shaken up and paranoid about another run-in that I barely managed to get anything.
By the time I got home, I was still shaky, and it didn’t help that Gus’s car hadn’t reappeared. It was one thing to have to dodge Sonya in my bimonthly grocery trips. If I wound up having to avoid my next-door neighbor, I was pretty sure Plan B: Move to Duluth would have to take effect.
Before I crawled into bed that night, I peeked out the front windows one more time, but Gus’s car was still missing. Dread inflated in my chest like the world’s least fun balloon. I’d finally found a friend, someone I could talk to, who’d seemed to want to be around me as much as I wanted to be around him, and now he was just gone. Because we’d kissed. Anger reared up in me, forcing my humiliation and loneliness out of the way for just a while before they buoyed to the surface again.
I thought about texting him, but it seemed like the weirdest possible time to start, so instead I went to sleep, a sick, anxious feeling coiled in my stomach.
By Monday morning, he still wasn’t back. Tonight, I decided. If his car wasn’t along the curb tonight, I could text him. That wouldn’t be weird.
I put him out of my mind and pounded out two thousand fresh words, then texted Anya: Going well (actually (seriously (I mean it this time!))) but I’d like to get a little more done before anyone reads the partial. I think it’s going to be hard to tell where I’m going with this without the complete picture and I’m afraid if I jump forward to outline it will kill all momentum I’ve finally built up.
Next, I replied to Pete: Great! How does Wednesday work? The truth was, I could’ve come in on Sunday when I got the email, or on Monday when I sent the reply. But I didn’t want another invitation to the Red Blood, White Russians, and Blue Jeans Book Club. Putting off my stop at the bookstore until Wednesday eliminated one more potential week of that whole experience without having to reject the invitation.
By eleven that night, Gus’s car still wasn’t back, and I’d talked myself into and out of texting him five times. Finally, I put my phone in the drawer of the side table, clicked off the lamp, and went to sleep.
Tuesday I awoke soaked in sweat. I’d forgotten to set my alarm, and the sun was streaking through the blinds in full force, baking me in its pale light. It had to be close to eleven. I slid out from under the thick duvet and lay there for another minute.
I still felt a little sick. And then a little furious that I felt sick. It was so dumb. I was a grown woman. Gus had told me exactly how he operated, exactly what he thought about romance, and he’d never said or done anything to suggest he’d changed his mind. I knew that no matter how attracted to him I occasionally felt, the only place our relationship could go was through a revolving door in and out of his bedroom.
Or the back of my deeply uncool car.
And even if things had gone further that night, it wouldn’t have precluded him from disappearing for days. There was exactly one way that I could theoretically have Gus Everett, and it would leave me feeling sick like this as soon as it was over.