A wave of dizziness hit me. The shop seemed to rock. This didn’t make sense. Two and a half weeks of near-constant (albeit nontraditional) communication, and Gus hadn’t even shared the most basic parts of his life with me.
“But you call him Everett,” I said. “You’re his aunt and you don’t use his first name.”
She stared at me for a moment, confused. “Oh! That. An old habit. When he was a little guy, I coached his soccer team. Couldn’t show favoritism, called him by his last name like any other player, and it stuck. Half the time I forget he has a first name. Hell, I’ve introduced him as Everett to half the town by now.”
I felt like I’d just dropped a wooden doll only to watch six more fall out and discover it had been a matryoshka. There was the Gus I knew: funny, messy, sexy. And then there was the other Gus, who disappeared for days, who had played soccer as a kid and lived in the same town as his aunt, who said no more than he absolutely had to about himself, his family, his past while I spilled wine, tears, and my guts all over him.
I bent my head and went back to signing in silence. Pete kept sliding books across the counter to me, stacking the signed ones neatly on my other side. After a handful of seconds she said, “Be patient with him, January. He really likes you.”
I kept signing. “I think you’re misunderstanding the—”
“I’m not,” she said.
I looked into her fierce blue eyes, held her gaze. “He told me about the day you moved in. Not a wonderful first impression. It’s a recurring issue of his.”
“So I hear.”
“But of course you have to give him a break on that one,” she said. “His birthday’s really hard for him ever since the split.”
“Birthday?” I parroted, looking up. Split? I thought.
Pete looked surprised, then unsure. “She left him on it, you know. And every year since then, his friend Markham throws this huge party to try and keep his mind off it. And of course, Gus hates parties, but he doesn’t want Markham thinking he’s upset, so he lets the party happen.”
“Excuse me?” I choked out. Was this some kind of joke? Had Pete woken up this morning and thought, Hm, maybe today I shall release snippets of shocking information about Gus to January in a random yet cryptic order?
“She left him on his birthday?” I repeated.
“He didn’t tell you that was what had gotten a bee in his bonnet that night you moved in?” she said. “Now, that really does surprise me. If he’d told you he’d been thinking about his divorce, of course it would’ve explained how rude he was to you.”
“Divorce,” I said, my whole body going cold. “It was about … his divorce.”
Gus was divorced.
Gus had been married.
Pete shifted uncomfortably. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you. He felt so bad about being rude.”
My brain felt like a top spinning in my skull. It didn’t make sense. None. Gus couldn’t have been married. He didn’t even date. The store seemed to wobble around me.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Pete said. “I only thought it might explain—”
“No, it’s fine,” I said, and then it was happening again: the word-spilling. The feeling that I’d held everything in a moment too long and now had no choice over how much I let out. “I’m probably overreacting. I just … This year’s been weird for me. Like, in my mind marriage has always been this sacred thing, you know? Like the epitome of love, the kind that can weather anything. And I hate thinking some bad experiences justify people shitting on the entire concept.”
Gus shitting on the concept. Calling relationships sadomasochistic without even telling me he’d been married. Almost making me feel stupid for wanting and believing in lasting love, just because his own attempt hadn’t worked. Hiding that attempt from me.
But even so, why did I care what he thought? I shouldn’t need everyone to believe in or want the things I believed in and wanted.
When it came down to it, I resented the fact that some part of him must think I was stupid for still believing in something my own father had disproven. And beyond that, I resented myself for not letting go of it. For still wanting that love I’d always pictured for myself.
And a small, stupid part of me even resented that Gus had secretly loved someone enough to marry her, while one brief make-out session with me had apparently been enough to make him relocate to Antarctica without so much as a See ya!
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “Does that make sense?”
“Of course it does.” Pete squeezed my arm.
I had a feeling she would have said that even if it didn’t. Like maybe she just knew it was what I needed to hear right then.
The Porch Furniture
THURSDAY AT NOON, Gus was back at his kitchen table, looking less “sexily disheveled” and more like he’d been dragged behind a dump truck with a loose tailgate. He smiled and waved, and I returned the gesture, despite the sick roiling in my stomach.
He scribbled a note: SORRY I’VE BEEN MIA THIS WEEK.
I wished that hadn’t replaced the nausea with the zero-gravity rush of a roller coaster loop. I looked around: I hadn’t brought my notebook in today. I went into the bedroom and grabbed it, writing, NOTHING TO BE SORRY ABOUT as I ambled back into the room. I held the note aloft. Gus’s smile wavered. He nodded, then jerked his attention back to his laptop.
It was harder to focus on writing now that he was back but I did my best. I was about a quarter of the way through the book, and I needed to keep up.
Around five, I (discreetly, at least I hoped) watched Gus get up and move around the kitchen, making some semblance of a meal. When he’d finished, he sat back down at his computer. At about eight thirty, he looked up at me and tipped his head toward the deck. This had been our signal, as close to an invitation as either of us got before we moseyed onto our respective decks and not quite hung out at night.
Now that seemed like a blatantly obvious metaphor—his keeping a literal gulf between us, my readily meeting him each night. No wonder I’d gotten so confused. He’d been keeping careful boundaries and I’d been ignoring them. I was so bad at this, so unprepared to find myself drawn to someone completely emotionally unavailable.
I shook my head to Gus’s invitation, then added a written note to my pass: SORRY—TOO MUCH TO DO. ANYA ON MY ASS.
Gus nodded understanding. He stood, mouthing something along the lines of If you change your mind … then disappeared from sight for a moment and reappeared on his deck.
He walked to its farthest point and leaned across the railing. The breeze fluttered through his shirt, lifting his left sleeve up against the back of his arm. At first I thought he’d gotten a new tattoo—a large black circle, solidly filled in—but then I realized it was exactly where his Möbius strip had been, only that had been blotted out entirely since I last spotted it. He stayed out there like that until the sun had gone down and night cloaked everything in rich blues, the fireflies coming to life around him, a million tiny night-lights switched on by a cosmic hand.
He glanced over his shoulder toward my deck doors, and I looked sharply toward my screen, typing the words PRETENDING TO BE BUSY, VERY BUSY AND FOCUSED to complete the illusion.