And Dave had been inside before I had.
Gus turned then to look at me, brow furrowed.
“You got a tattoo.” It was the first thing I could think to say when we’d been silent too long.
His eyes darted toward his arm. “I did.”
That was it. No explanation, no information about where he’d been. I was welcome to sit here, to have a drink with him and talk about books and meaningless memories of girls puking on the backs of our heads, but that was it.
My heart sank. I didn’t want that, not now that I’d had glimpses of more. If I wanted casual, surface-level chitchat and conversational land mines, I’d call my mom. With him, I wanted more. It was who I was.
“Scotch?” Gus asked.
“I didn’t get much done today. I should get back to it.”
“Yeah.” He started nodding, slowly, distractedly. “Yeah, okay. Tomorrow then.”
“Tomorrow,” I said.
For once I was dreading planning our Saturday night. He left the glasses on the sideboard and came to open the door for me. I stepped onto the porch but hesitated at the sound of my own name. When I looked back, his left temple was resting against the doorjamb.
He was always leaning on something, like he couldn’t bear to hold all his own weight upright for more than a second or two. He lounged, he sprawled, he hunched and reclined. He never simply stood or sat. In college, I’d thought he was lazy about everything except writing. Now I wondered if he was simply tired, if life had beaten him into a permanent slouch, folded him over himself so no one could get at that soft center, the kid who dreamed of running away on trains and living in the branches of a redwood.
“Yeah?” I said.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
“You said that already.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I did.”
I fought a smile, stifled a flutter in my stomach. A smile and a flutter weren’t enough for me. I was done with secrets and lies, no matter how pretty. “Good night, Gus.”
TUX TONIGHT? GUS wrote at noon on Saturday.
Anxiety crept up every time I thought about being alone in the car with him, but I’d also had tonight planned since last Saturday, and I wasn’t ready to bow out of our deal, not when I was finally writing for the first time in months. OH, DEFINITELY, I wrote back.
SERIOUSLY? Gus asked.
NO, I wrote. DO YOU HAVE COWBOY BOOTS?
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Gus said. FROM EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT ME, TAKE A WILD GUESS WHETHER I OWN COWBOY BOOTS.
I stared at the blank page then went for it: YOU’RE A MAN OF MANY SECRETS. YOU COULD HAVE A WHOLE CLOSET FULL OF TEN-GALLON HATS. AND IF YOU DO, WEAR ONE. 6 PM.
When Gus appeared at my door that night, he was wearing his usual uniform, plus a wrinkly black button-up. His hair was swept up his forehead in a way that suggested it had been forced there via him anxiously running his hand through it while he wrote. “No hat?” I said.
“No hat.” He pulled his other hand from behind his back. He was holding two flasks, the thin, foldable kind you could tuck under your clothes. “But I brought these in case you’re taking me to a Texan church service.”
I crouched by the front door, tugging my embroidered ankle boots on. “And once again, you reveal that you know much more about romance than you’ve previously let on.”
Even as I said it, my stomach clenched.
Gus has been married.
Gus is divorced.
That was why he was so sure love could never last, and he’d told me none of these key details, because he hadn’t really let me in.
If my comment reminded him of any of that, he didn’t let on. “Just so you know,” he said, “if I actually have to wear a cowboy hat at some point tonight, I will probably die.”
“Cowboy hat allergy.” I grabbed my keys from the table. “Got it. Let’s go.”
This date would’ve been perfect, if it had been a date.
The parking lot of the Black Cat Saloon was jammed and the rough-hewn interior was just as packed. “A lot of flannel,” Gus mused as we made our way in.
“What do you expect on line-dancing night, Gus?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Gus said, freezing. I shook my head. “This has been an exact recurring nightmare I’m only just realizing was actually a premonition.”
On the low stage at the front of the barnlike room, the band picked up again, and a crush of bodies moved past on our left, knocking me into him. He caught me around the rib cage and righted me as the group pushed toward the dance floor. “You good?” he shouted over the music, his hands still on my ribs.
My face was hot, my stomach flipping traitorously. “Fine.”
He leaned in so I could hear him. “This seems like a dangerous environment for someone your size. Maybe we should leave and go … literally anywhere else.”
As he eased back to look me in the face, I grinned and shook my head. “No way. The lesson doesn’t even start for another ten minutes.”
His hands slid off me, leaving pulsing points behind on my skin. “I guess I survived Meg Ryan.”
“Barely,” I teased, then blushed as flashes of memory seared across my mind. Gus’s mouth tipping mine open. Gus’s teeth on my clavicle. Gus’s hands tightening against my hips, his thumb scraping over the jut of bone.
The moment stretched out between us. Or rather, it seemed to tighten between us, and since we didn’t move any closer, the air grew taut. The song was winding down now and a lanky man with a horsey face bounded onto the stage with a microphone, summoning beginners to the floor for the next song.
I grabbed Gus’s wrist and cut a path through the crowd to the dance floor. For once, his cheeks were flushed, his forehead dented with worried wrinkles. “You honestly have to write me into your will for this,” he said.
“You might not want to talk through the instructions,” I replied, tipping my head toward the horse-faced caller, who was using a volunteer from the crowd to demonstrate a few key moves, all while talking with the speed of an auctioneer. “I have a feeling this guy won’t be repeating much.”
“Your last will and testament, January,” Gus whispered fiercely.
“And to Gus Everett,” I whispered back, “a closet full of ten-gallon hats!”
His laugh crackled like popping oil. I thought of its sound against my ear that night at the party. We hadn’t said anything as we danced in that slick basement, not a single word, but he’d laughed against my ear and I’d known, or at least suspected, that it was because he was dimly aware that we should have been embarrassed to be all over each other like that. We should have been but there were more pressing feelings to be felt that night. Just like at the drive-in.
Heat filled my abdomen and I suppressed the thought.
Onstage, the fiddle started up, and soon the whole band was bouncing through the notes. The experts swarmed the floor, filling in the gaps between the anxiously waiting beginners, of whom we made up at least 20 percent. Gus pushed in close at my side, unwilling to be separated from the sentient safety blanket I’d become as soon as we’d walked through the metal double doors, and the caller shouted into the microphone, “You all ready? Here we go!”