The tip of my tongue brushed his finger, which curled reflexively into my mouth, tugging me closer until our lips were separated only by an inch of electric, buzzing air.
His chin tipped up, the edge of his mouth brushing mine infuriatingly lightly. His eyes were as dark as oil, slick and hot as they poured down me. His hands skated down my sides, out along my calves, and back up my thighs to cup my butt, grip tightening.
I drew a shuddering breath as his fingers climbed beneath the hem of my shorts, burning into my skin. “Fuck, January,” he whispered, shaking his head.
The doorbell rang and all the motion, the momentum, crashed into a wall of reality.
We stared at each other, frozen for a moment. Gus’s eyes dipped down me and back up again, and his throat pulsed. “Takeout,” he said thickly.
I jumped up, the fuzz clearing from my head, and smoothed my hair, wiping my teary face as I crossed to the front door. I signed the credit card slip, accepted the bag full of foam containers, and thanked the delivery guy in a voice as thick and muddled as Gus’s had been.
When I closed the door and turned back, Gus was standing uneasily, his hair messy and his shirt sticking to him where I’d cried on it. He scratched the crown of his head and his gaze flicked tentatively toward mine. “Sorry.”
I shrugged. “You don’t need to be.”
“I should be,” he said. We left it at that.
ON FRIDAY, WE drove to Dave’s house for the second part of the interview. The first had been so thorough Gus hadn’t planned to have a second, but Dave had called him that morning. After thinking it over, his mother had things to say about New Eden.
The house was a small split-level, probably built in the late sixties, and it smelled like someone had been chain-smoking inside it ever since. Despite that, and its shabby decor, it was extremely tidy: blankets folded on couch arms, potted plants in a neat line by the door, pots hanging from hooks on the wall, and the sink scrubbed to sparkling.
Dave Schmidt had to be right around our age, give or take a few years, but Julie-Ann Schmidt looked a good ten years older than my mother. She was tiny, her face round and soft with wrinkles. I wondered if it was a lifetime of being treated as if she were sweet, because of her figure and face, that had given her the almost toothy handshake she offered.
She lived there with Dave. “I own the house, but he makes the payments.” She guffawed at that and patted his back. “He’s a good boy.” I watched Gus’s eyes narrow, appraising the situation. I thought he might be looking for hints of violence somewhere in their interactions, but Dave was mostly hunched and smiling in embarrassment. “He was always a good boy. And you should hear him on the piano.”
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Dave hurried to ask.
“Water would be great,” I answered, more to give Dave an excuse to hide than because I was actually thirsty. As he disappeared into the kitchen, I ambled around the living room, studying all the walnut picture frames mounted to the wall. It was like Dave had been frozen at about eight years old, in a V-neck sweater vest and dull green T-shirt. His father was in most of the shots, but even in the ones he didn’t inhabit, it was easy to imagine he’d been behind the camera, snapping the tiny smiling woman and the baby on her hip, the toddler holding her hand, the gawky child sticking his tongue out next to the gorilla exhibit at the zoo.
Dave’s dad had been lanky and brown-haired with bushy eyebrows and a receding chin. Dave looked just like him.
“So I understand you had more to say,” Gus began. “Things you thought Dave couldn’t offer.”
“Of course I do.” Julie-Ann took a seat on the blue plaid love seat, and Gus and I perched beside each other on the roughly woven tan couch. “I’ve got a well-rounded look. Dave only saw what we let him, and then when we left like we did—well, I’m afraid his opinion of the place probably swung from one extreme to the other.”
Gus and I looked at each other. I leaned forward, trying to keep an open, friendly posture to combat her defensive one. “He seemed pretty fair, actually.”
Julie-Ann pulled a cigarette pack off the table and lit up, then offered us the box. Gus took one, and I knew it was more to put her at ease than because he truly wanted one, which made me smile. Even though what we wrote and said we believed was so different, I’d started to feel like I was capable of knowing Gus, reading him, better than anyone else I’d ever met. Because every day we spent together, this peculiar feeling was growing in me: You are like me.
Julie-Ann lit the cigarette for him, then sat back, cross-legged. “They weren’t bad people,” she said. “Not most of them. And I couldn’t let you go thinking they were. Sometimes—sometimes good, or at least decent, people do bad things. And sometimes they actually believe they’re doing what’s right.”
“And you don’t think that’s just an excuse?” Gus asked. “You don’t believe in any kind of internal moral compass.”
The way he said it made it seem as if he himself did believe in such a thing, which would’ve surprised me a few weeks ago, but now made perfect sense.
“Maybe you start out with that,” she said, “But if you do, it gets shaped as you age. How are you supposed to believe right’s right and wrong’s wrong if everyone around you says the opposite? You’re supposed to think you’re smarter than all of them?”
Dave returned with three water glasses balanced between his hands and passed them out one by one. Julie-Ann seemed reluctant to go on with her son in the room, but neither she nor Gus suggested he leave. Probably because Dave was approximately thirty years old and paying for the house we were in.
“A lot of these people,” Julie-Ann went on, “didn’t have much. I don’t just mean money, although that was true too. There were a lot of orphans. People estranged from their families. People who’d lost spouses and children. At first, New Eden made me feel like … like the reason everything had gone wrong in my life up to that point was that I hadn’t been living quite right. It was like they had the answers, and everyone seemed so happy, fulfilled. And after a lifetime of wanting—sometimes not even wanting anything specific but just wanting, feeling like the world wasn’t big enough or bright enough—well, I felt like I was finally pushing back the curtain.
“I was getting my answers. It was like this great big scientific equation they’d solved. And you know what? To an extent, it worked. At least for a while. You followed their rules, did their rituals, wore their clothes, and ate their food and it was like the whole world was starting to light up from within. Nothing felt mundane. There were prayers for everything—while you were going to the bathroom, while you were showering, paying bills. For the first time, I felt grateful to be alive.
“That’s what they could do for you. So then when the punishments started, when you began to slip up and fail, it felt like there was a giant hand on the bathtub plug, just waiting to yank it up and rip it all away from you. And my husband … He was a good man. He was a good, lost man.” Her gaze skittered toward Dave and she took a slow puff.
“He was going to be an architect. Build sports stadiums and skyscrapers. He loved to draw and he was damn good at it. And then we got pregnant in high school, and he knew all that had to go. We had to be practical. And he never once complained.” Again her eyes gestured toward her son. “Of course he didn’t. We were lucky. Blessed. But sometimes when life throws a wrench in your plans … I don’t know how to explain it, but I just had this sense when we were there. Like … like my husband was clinging to whatever he could grab hold of. Like being right mattered less than being … okay.”