THERE WERE NO more nights on our separate decks. On Sunday Gus came to my house looking like he’d started going through a trash compactor only for it to spit him back up halfway through. I felt at least as bad as he looked.
We put the chaise lounges on the deck flat and lay out there with ice packs on our heads, chugging the bottles of Gatorade he’d brought over. “Did you write?” he asked.
“Whenever I picture words, I literally gag.”
Beside me, Gus coughed. “That word,” he said.
“Should we order pizza?” he asked.
“Are you kidding? You almost just—”
“January,” Gus said. “Don’t say that word. Just answer the question.”
“Of course we should.”
By Monday, we’d mostly recovered. At least enough that we were both working at our own tables during the day (two thousand words hammered out on my end). Around 1:40, Gus held up the first note of the day: I TEXTED YOU.
I REMEMBER, I wrote back. A HISTORIC MOMENT IN OUR FRIENDSHIP.
NO, he said. I TEXTED YOU A MINUTE AGO.
I’d left my phone charging by the bed. I held up my pointer finger as I hurried from the room and grabbed my phone. The text just said, Do you know how to make a margarita?
Gus, I typed back. This is fewer words than the notes you wrote me to tell me about this message.
He responded immediately: I wanted to put in a formal request. Writing notes is a very casual form of communication.
I don’t know how to make a margarita, I told him. But I know someone who does.
Jose Cuervo? he asked.
I pulled open the blinds and leaned out the window, yelling toward the back of our houses, where the kitchen windows were. “GOOGLE.”
My phone buzzed with his response: Come over. I tried not to notice what those words did to me, the full-body shiver, the heat.
I went back for my computer and walked over barefoot. Gus met me on his porch, leaned against the doorjamb.
“Do you ever stand upright?” I asked.
“Not if it can be helped,” he answered, and led me into his kitchen. I sat on a stool at the island as he pulled out the limes then went into the front room for his shaker, tequila, and triple sec. “Please, don’t trouble yourself to help,” he teased.
“Don’t worry. I would never.”
When he’d finished making our drinks we went out onto the front porch and worked until the last streaks of sunshine had vanished into that deep Michigan blue, the stars pricking through it like poked holes, one at a time. When our stomachs started to gurgle, I went back to my house for the rest of the pizza and we ate it cold, our legs outstretched, feet resting on the porch railing.
“Look,” Gus said, and pointed up at the deep blue sky as two trails of silver light streaked through the stars. His eyes were doing the thing, the Gus thing, at the sight of them, and it made my chest flutter almost painfully. I loved that vulnerable excitement when he first caught sight of something that made him feel before he could cover it up.
He looks at me like that sometimes.
I jerked my focus to the falling stars. “Relatable,” I said flatly.
Gus let out a half-formed laugh. “That’s basically us. On fire and just straight up dropping out of the sky.”
He looked over at me with a dark, fervent gaze that undid the careful composure I’d been rebuilding. My eyes slipped down him, and I scrambled for something to say. “What’s the big black blob about?” I tipped my chin toward the updated tattoo on the back of his bicep, where the skin was a bit paler than his usual olive.
He looked confused until he followed my gaze. “Yeah,” he said. “It used to be something else.”
“A Möbius strip. I know,” I said, a bit too quickly.
His eyes bored into mine for a few intimidating beats as he decided what to say. “Naomi and I got them.” Her name hung in the air, the afterimage of a lightning strike. Naomi. The woman Gus Everett had married, I presumed. He didn’t seem to notice my shock. Maybe in his mind he said her name often. Maybe having told me she existed felt the same to him as if he’d shown me their photo albums. “Right after the wedding.”
“Ah,” I said stupidly. My cheeks went even hotter and started to itch. I had a knack for bringing up things he had no interest in talking about. “Sorry.”
He shook his head once, and his eyes kept their sharp, fiery focus. “I told you I wanted you to know me. You can ask me anything you want.”
It sounded sort of like, Get on top of me! Now!
I hoped I looked very pretty, for an overripe tomato.
Dropping the topic was the smarter idea, but I couldn’t help testing him, seeing if I, January Andrews, could really ask the secretive Gus Everett anything at all.
I settled on “What did it mean?”
“As it turned out, very little,” he said. Disappointment wriggled through my stomach at how quickly our open-book policy had deteriorated.
But then he took a breath and went on. “If you start at one point on a Möbius strip and you follow it straight around, when you’ve done the full loop, you don’t end up back where you started. You end up right above it, but on the other side of the surface. And if you keep following it around for a second time, you’ll finally end up where you started. So it’s this path that’s actually twice as long as it should be. At the time, I guess we thought it meant that the two of us added up to something bigger than we were on our own.”
He shrugged one shoulder, then absently scratched the black blot. “After she left, it seemed more like a bad joke. Oh, here we are, trapped on opposite sides of this surface, allegedly in the same place and somehow not at all together. Pinned together with these stupid tattoos that are five thousand percent more permanent than our marriage.”
“Yikes,” I said. Yikes? I sounded like a gum-popping babysitter trying to relate to her favorite Hot Divorced Dad. Which was sort of how I felt.
Gus gave me a crooked smile. “Yikes,” he agreed quietly.
We stared at each other for a beat too long. “What was she like?” The words had just slipped out, and now a spurt of panic went through me at having asked something I wasn’t sure Gus would want to answer, or I would enjoy hearing.
His dark eyes studied me for several seconds. He cleared his throat. “She was tough,” he said. “Sort of … impenetrable.”
The jokes were writing themselves, but I didn’t interrupt him. I’d come this far. Now I had to know what kind of woman could capture Gus Everett’s heart.
“She was this incredible visual artist,” he said. “That’s how we met. I saw one of her shows in a gallery when I was in grad school, and liked her work before I knew her. And even once we were together, I felt like I could never really know her. Like she was always just out of reach. For some reason that thrilled me.”
What kind of woman could capture Gus Everett’s heart?
My polar opposite. Not the kind who was always rude when she was grumpy, crying when she was happy, sad, overwhelmed. Who couldn’t help but let it all hang out.
“But I also just had this thought, like …” He hesitated. “Here’s someone I could never break. She didn’t need me. And she wasn’t gentle with me, or worried about saving me, or really letting me in enough to help her work things out either. Maybe it sounds shitty, but I’ve never trusted myself with anyone … soft.”