“Ah.” My cheeks burned and I kept my focus on his arm instead of his face.
“I saw that with my parents, you know? This black hole and this bright light he was always just trying to swallow whole.”
My gaze flickered to his face, the sharp lines etched between his brows. “Gus. You’re not a black hole. And you’re not your father either.”
“Yeah, I know.” An unconvincing smile flitted across one corner of his mouth. “But I’m also not the bright light.”
Sure, he wasn’t a bright light, but he wasn’t the cynic I’d thought either. He was a realist who was a little too afraid of hope to see things clearly when it came to his own life. But he was also exceptionally good at sitting with people through their shit, making them feel less alone without promises or empty platitudes. Me. Dave. Grace.
He wasn’t afraid for things to get ugly, to see someone at their weakest, and he didn’t fall over himself trying to talk me out of my own feelings. He just witnessed them, and somehow, that let them finally get out of my body after years of imprisonment.
“Whatever you are,” I said, “it’s better than a night-light. And for what it’s worth, as a former fairy princess and the ultimate secret soft-girl, I think you’re plenty gentle.”
His eyes were so warm and intense on me that I was sure he could read all my thoughts, everything I felt and thought about him, written on my pupils. The heat in my face rushed through my whole body, and I focused on his tattoo again, nudging it with my hand. “And also, for what it’s worth, I think the giant black blob suits you. Not because you’re a black hole. But because it’s funny, and weird.”
“If you think so, then I have no regrets,” he murmured.
“You got a tattoo,” I said, still a little amazed.
“I have several, but if you want to see the others, you have to buy me dinner.”
“No, I mean, you got a marriage tattoo.” I chanced a glance at him and found him staring at me, as if waiting for some big reveal about my meaning. “That’s some Cary Grant–level romance shit.”
“Humiliating.” He went to rub it again, but found my fingers resting there.
“Impressive,” I countered.
His calloused palm slid on top of mine, dwarfing it. Instantly, I thought of that hand touching me through my shirt, gliding over the bare skin of my stomach. His gravelly voice dragged me out of the memory: “What about the Golden Boy?”
I balked. “Jacques?”
“Sorry,” Gus said. “The Jacques. Six years is a long time. You must have thought you’d wind up with matching tattoos and a gaggle of children.”
“I thought …” I trailed off as I sorted through the alphabet soup in my brain. Gus’s fingers were warm and rough, careful and light over mine, and I had to swim through a resistance pool full of thoughts like I bet scientists could exactly reconstruct him from this hand alone to get to any memory of Jacques. “He was a leading man. You know?”
“Should I?” Gus teased.
“If you’re taking our challenge seriously,” I countered. “I mean that he was romantic. Dramatic. He lit up every room and had an incredible story for any occasion. And I fell in love with him in all these amazing moments we had.
“But then, whenever we were just sitting together—like eating breakfast in a filthy apartment, knowing we’d have to clean up after a big party … I don’t know, when we weren’t gleaming for each other, I sort of felt like we just worked okay together. Like we were costars in a movie and when the cameras weren’t on, we didn’t have all that much to talk about. But we wanted the same life, you know?”
Gus nodded thoughtfully. “I never thought about how Naomi’s and my lives would work together, but I knew that’s what it would be: two lives. You chose someone who wanted a relationship. That makes sense for you.”
“Yeah, but that’s not enough.” I shook my head. “You know that feeling, when you’re watching someone sleep and you feel overwhelmed with joy that they exist?”
A faint smile appeared in the corner of his mouth, and he just barely nodded.
“Well, I loved Jacques,” I said. “And I loved his family and our life and his cooking, and that he was passionate about the ER and read a lot of nonfiction like my dad and—well, my mom was sick. You knew that, right?”
Gus’s mouth pressed into a thin, serious line and his brow furrowed. “From our nonfiction class,” he said. “But she was in remission.”
I nodded. “Only, after I graduated, it came back. And I’d convinced myself she was going to beat it again. But a part of me was really comforted by the fact that, if she died, she would have at least met the man I was going to marry. She thought Jacques was so handsome and amazing, and Dad trusted him to give me the life I wanted. And I loved all that. But whenever I watched Jacques sleep, I felt nothing.”
Gus shifted on the sofa beside me, his gaze dropping. “And when your dad died? Didn’t you want to marry Jacques then? Since your dad had known him?”
I took a deep breath. I hadn’t admitted this to anyone. It all felt too complicated, too hard to explain until now. “In a way, I think that almost set me free. I mean, firstly, my dad wasn’t who I thought he was, so his opinion of Jacques meant less.
“But more than that, when I lost my dad … I mean, my dad was a liar, but I loved him. Really loved him, so much that just knowing he isn’t on this planet still tears me in half whenever I think about it.” Even as I said it, the pain pressed into me, a crushing but familiar weight on every square inch of my body.
“And with Jacques,” I went on, “we loved the best versions of each other, inside our picturesque life, but once things got ugly, there was just … nothing left between us. He didn’t love me when I wasn’t the fairy princess, you know? And I didn’t love him anymore either. There were thousands of times I’d thought, He is the perfect boyfriend. But once my dad was gone, and I was furious with him but also couldn’t stop missing him, I realized I’d never thought, Jacques is so perfectly my favorite person.”
Gus nodded. “It didn’t overwhelm you to watch him sleep.”
It was the kind of thing that, if he’d said it even a few weeks ago, I might’ve taken as mockery. But I knew Gus now. I knew that head tilt, that serious expression that meant he was in the process of puzzling something out about me.
I’d seen it on his face that day on campus when he pointed out that I gave everyone happy endings. I’d seen it again in Pete’s bookstore when I made a jab about him writing Hemingway circle-jerk fiction.
That day, in class, he’d been working something out about who I was and how I saw the world. That day at Pete’s he’d been realizing I loathed him.
I wanted to take it back, show him that I understood him now, that I trusted him. I wanted to give him something secret, like what he’d given me when he talked about Naomi. I wanted to tell him another true story, instead of a beautiful lie.
So I said, “Once, for my birthday, Jacques took me to New Orleans. We went to all these amazing jazz bars and Cajun restaurants and witchy shops. And the whole time, I was texting Shadi about how badly I wished we could be together, drinking martinis and watching The Witches of Eastwick.”