Beach Read

Page 43

Gus laughed. “Shadi,” he said ruefully. “I remember Shadi.”

“Yeah, well, she remembers you,” I said.

“So you talk about me.” Gus’s smile inched higher and his eyes flashed. “To your perfectly favorite person, Shadi?”

“You talk about me to Pete,” I challenged.

He gave one nod, confirming. “And what do you say?”

“You’re the one who said I could ask anything,” I shot back. “What do you say?”

“It’s strictly need to know,” he said. “The last thing I told her must’ve been that we got caught making out at a drive-in theater.”

I laughed and pushed him away, covering my burning face with my hands. “Now I’ll never be able to order another pink eye!”

Gus laughed and caught my wrists, tugging them from my face. “Did she call it that again?”

“Of course she did!”

He shook his head, grinning. “I’m beginning to suspect her coffee expertise is not what keeps her in business.”

When we finally stood to go to bed that night, Gus didn’t say good night. He said, “Tomorrow.” And that became our nightly ritual.

Sometimes he came to my house. Sometimes I went to his. The wall between him and the rest of the world wasn’t gone, but it was lower, at least between us.

On Thursday night, while sitting on Sonya’s couch and waiting for our pad thai to be delivered, he finally told me about Pete. Not just that she was his aunt—and had been his coach for soccer, which he assured me he was terrible at—but also that she’d been the reason he’d moved here when Naomi left him. “Pete lived near me when I was a kid, back in Ann Arbor. She never came over—didn’t get along with my dad—but she was always in my life. Anyway, when I was in high school, Maggie got the job teaching geology at the school here, so they moved out this way and they’ve been here ever since. She begged me to come. She knew the guy who was selling this house and went so far as to lend me a down payment. Just let me know I could pay her back whenever.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’m still caught on the fact that Maggie’s a geology professor.”

He nodded. “Never mention a rock in front of her. I mean it. Never.”

“I’ll try,” I said. “But that’s going to be extremely hard, what with how often rocks come up in everyday conversation.”

“You’d be shocked,” he promised. “Shocked and appalled and, more importantly, bored to the brink of death.”

“Someone should invent a boredom EpiPen.”

“I think that’s essentially what drugs are,” Gus said. “Anyway, January. Enough about rocks. Tell me why you moved here, really.”

The words tangled in my throat. I could only get out a few at a time. “My dad.”

Gus nodded, as if that were enough of an explanation if I couldn’t force myself to go on. “He died, and you wanted to get away?”

I shifted forward, leaning my elbows on my knees. “He grew up here,” I said. “And when he passed, I—I found out he’d been back here. Kind of a lot.”

Gus’s eyebrows pinched in the middle. He ran his hand back through his hair, which was, as usual, pushed messily off his forehead. “‘Found out’?”

“This was his house,” I said. “His second house. With … the woman.” I couldn’t bring myself to say her name. I didn’t want Gus to know her, to have an opinion on her either way, and it was a small enough town that he probably did.

“Oh.” He ran his hand through his hair again. “You mentioned her, kind of.” He sat back into the couch, the beer bottle in his hand hanging along the inside of his thigh.

“Did you ever meet him?” I blurted, before I’d decided whether I even wanted the answer, and my heart began to race as I waited for him to respond. “You’ve been here five years. You must’ve seen … them.”

Gus studied me with liquidy, dark eyes, his brow tense. He shook his head. “Honestly, I’m not really into the neighbor thing. Most of the houses on this block are rentals. If I saw him, I would’ve assumed he was on vacation. I wouldn’t remember.”

I looked away quickly and nodded. On the one hand, it was a relief, knowing Gus had never watched the two of them barbecuing on the deck, or pulling weeds side by side in the garden, or doing any other normal couple things they might’ve done here—and that he didn’t seem to know who That Woman was. But on the other, I felt a sinking in my stomach and realized a part of me had been hoping, all this time, that Gus had known him. That he’d have some story to tell that I’d never heard, a new piece of my father right here, and the miserably thin envelope taunting me from the gin box wasn’t really all I had to look forward to of him.

“January,” Gus said gently. “I’m so sorry.”

I had begun to cry without giving myself permission to. I pressed my face into my hands to hide it, and Gus shifted closer, put an arm around my shoulders, and gathered me to him. Gently, he pulled me across his lap and held me there, one hand knotted into my hair, cradling the back of my head, as the other curled around my waist.

Once the tears had started, I couldn’t stop them. The anger and frustration. The hurt and betrayal. The confusion that had been clogging my brain ever since I found out the truth. It all heaved out of me.

Gus’s hand moved softly through my hair, turning slow circles against the back of my neck, and his mouth pressed into my cheek, my chin, my eye, catching tears as they fell until, gradually, I settled. Or maybe just ran out of tears. Maybe realized I was sitting in Gus’s lap like a toddler, having my tears kissed away. Or that his mouth had paused, pressed into my forehead, his full lips slightly parted.

I turned my face into his chest and breathed him in, the smell of his sweat and the incense I now knew he burned when he first started writing each day, his lone prework ritual, and the occasional stress cigarette (though he’d largely quit smoking). He crushed me to him, arms tightening, fingers curling against the back of my head.

My whole body heated until I felt like lava, burning and liquid. Gus pulled me closer, and I molded to him, poured myself into every line of him. Each of his breaths brought us closer until finally he straightened, pulling me over him so my knees straddled his hips, his arm tight across my back. The feeling of him underneath me sent a fresh rush of heat up my thighs. His hand grazed along my waist as we stared at each other.

It was that night at the drive-in times ten. Because now I knew how he felt on top of me. Now I knew what the scrape of his jaw against my skin did to me, how his tongue would test the gaps between our mouths, taste the soft skin at the top of my chest. I was jealous he’d had more of me than I’d had of him. I wanted to kiss his stomach, sink my teeth into his hips, dig my fingers into his back and drag them down the length of him.

His hands slid toward my spine, skidding up it as I folded over him. My nose skated down his. I could almost taste his cinnamon breath from his open mouth. His right hand came back to the side of my face, roaming lightly down to my collarbone, then back to my mouth, where his tense fingers pressed into my bottom lip.

I had no thoughts of caution or wisdom. I had thoughts of him on top of me, under me, behind me. His hands setting fire to my skin. I was breathing hard. So was he.

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