Maggie made a face of exaggerated shock. “Never!” she cried, taking hold of Gus’s arm. “Your aunt may be fickle, but to me, no one is more important than you, Gussy! Not even the Labradors—don’t tell them, of course.”
I leaned into Gus and whispered, “Not even the labradorite.” His face turned an inch toward mine and he smiled. He was so close that most of his face looked blurry to me, and the smell of the blue punch on his blue lips made my blood feel like it was spiked with Pop Rocks.
“So I’m right after the Labradors?” a man at the table teased Maggie.
“No, don’t be silly, Gilbert,” Pete said, striding back with the newcomers and a beautiful bouquet in her hands. “You’re tied with the Labradors.”
Gus looked down at me and his smile faded into a crooked, thoughtful expression. I was watching him retreat into himself and felt a sudden desperation to scrabble for purchase, grab fistfuls of him to keep him there.
His eyes cut to me. “I’ve got to get some of this blue punch out of my body. You okay here by yourself?”
“Sure,” I said. “Unless you’re actually going inside to hide baby pictures of yourself. In which case, no, I am not okay here by myself.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“Are you sure?” I pressed, trying to make him smile, to bring Happy Safe Gus back to the surface. “Because Pete will tell me. There’s no hiding them.”
The corner of his mouth hitched up, and his eyes sparked. “If you want to follow me into the bathroom to be sure, that’s your prerogative.”
My stomach sang up through my throat. “Okay.”
“Okay?” he said.
Already, heat was flooding my body under his sharp stare. “Gus,” I said, “would you like me to come to the bathroom with you?”
He laughed, didn’t move. His eyes skirted down me and back up, then flashed sidelong toward Pete. When he looked back to me, his smile had fallen, the gleam in his eyes gone without a trace. “That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He touched my arm gently, then turned and went inside, leaving me more mortified than I’d been in a long time. Or at least than I’d been since the night I drank wine out of my purse at book club. Unfortunately, I imagined I would now be going that route again, trying to blot out the memory of what had just happened.
Gus had turned me down. Hours after he’d had me against a bookshelf, he’d turned me down.
This was somehow so much worse than the worst-case scenario my brain had concocted when I’d weighed the pros and cons of starting something with Gus.
Why did he say that thing about wanting me for so long? It had seemed so sexy in the moment, but now it made me feel like I was a loose end he’d finally gotten to tie up. My stupid fatal flaw had struck again.
I waited beside the sliding glass door, face burning and buried in my drink, for a few minutes. I jumped when my phone buzzed with an email from Gus. My heart began to race, then sank miserably when I opened it. There was nothing in it except: Event at Pete’s Books, Aug 2, 7 PM.
I thought back to what Maggie had said, about how what Gus and I did was so different externally that “this” would be interesting. I was fairly sure I’d just committed to doing a book event with him.
Dumb bunny, dumb bunny, dumb bunny. I’d spent a month in near-constant contact with Gus. If I’d spent a month solid with nothing but a blood-drenched volleyball, I imagined I too would be crying as the tide swept it out to sea.
But no, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t just loneliness and a tendency to romanticize that had gotten me here.
I knew Gus. I knew his life was messy. I knew that his walls were so thick it would take years to chisel through them and that his mistrust of the world went nearly core-deep. I knew I was not the Magical One who could fix it all just by Being Me.
When it came down to it, I knew exactly who Gus Everett was, and it didn’t change a thing. Because even though he would probably never learn to dance in the rain, it was Gus I wanted. Only Gus. Exactly Gus.
I had set myself up for heartbreak and now I suspected there was nothing I could do but brace myself and wait for it to hit.
“OH, COME ON, Gussy. Get in!” Maggie splashed water toward the edge of the pool, but Gus merely stepped back, shaking his head and grinning.
“What, are you afraid it will mess up your perm?” Pete teased from the grill.
“And then we’ll find out you have a perm?” I added. When his eyes cut to me, a thrill went through me, followed by the disappointing realization that the saggy one-piece Maggie had lent me made me look like a waterlogged Popsicle tangled in toilet paper.
“Maybe I’m afraid that once I get in, no one will set a timer and remind me to get out and use the bathroom,” Gus said.
At the far end of the pool, a stringy little boy and girl cannonballed in from opposite sides, their splash soaking us. Gus looked back to me. “And then there’s that.”
“What?” I said. “Fun? Are you afraid it’s contagious?”
“No, I’m afraid the pool’s already totally full of pee. You two enjoy bathing in it.” Gus went back inside and I tried not to keep checking every minute or so whether he’d emerged again.
Maggie found a beach ball, and we started hitting it back and forth. Soon enough, it was four o’ clock, and since Sonya was coming at five, I excused myself to change. Maggie hopped spryly out too and grabbed the yellow towels we’d left on the cement around the pool.
She draped one over my shoulders before I could grab it from her and led the way inside. “You can use the upstairs bathroom,” she said with a sweet smile that seemed almost like a wink.
“Oh,” I said uncomfortably. “Okay.” I gathered my clothes and went to the stairs.
The steps were creaky, wooden, and narrow. They turned back on themselves halfway before depositing me into the upstairs hallway. The bathroom sat at the end, a pink tile monstrosity that was so ugly it became cute again. There were two doors on one side of the hall and a third on the other, all of them closed.
It was almost time to leave. I was going to have to knock on them until I found him. I tried not to feel embarrassed or hurt, but it wasn’t easy.
From your first real conversation, Gus made it clear he wasn’t the type to expect anything from, January. The kind not even you were capable of romanticizing.
I toweled off and dressed in the bathroom, then came out and knocked softly on the first door. No answer, so I moved to the one across the hall.
A mumbled “Yeah?” came through it, and I eased it open.
Gus was on the twin bed in the corner, legs stretched out and back propped up by the wall. To his right, the blinds were partly open, letting in streaks of light between the shadows on the floor. “Time to head out?” he asked, scratching the back of his head.
I looked around the room at the mismatched furniture, the lack of plants. On the bedside table there was a lamp that looked like a soccer ball, and across from the foot of the bed, the little blue bookcase there was full of copies, US editions and foreign ones, of Gus’s books. “Come here to ponder your own mortality?” I asked, tipping my head toward the bookshelf.