He rubbed at his forehead. “And then Markham asked what was new with me, and I told her about you, about how you were here for the summer, and she thought it was a bad idea—”
“Bad idea?” My gut roiled. That didn’t sound impartial. It sounded very partial.
“Because you’re leaving,” Gus said in a rush. “And she knows—she knows how stupid I am when it comes to you, how crazy I was for you in college, and—”
“What are you talking about?” I challenged. “You never even spoke to me.”
He let out a humorless laugh. “Because you hated me!” he blurted. “I’d come late to class so I could choose my seat based on where you sat, and I’d rush out afterward so I could walk with you, ask to borrow pens every day for a week, fucking drop books Three Stooges–style when you hung back so it would just be the two of us, and you’d never even look at me! Even when we were workshopping your stories and I was talking right to you, you wouldn’t look at me. I could never figure out what I’d done, and then I saw you at that party, and you were finally looking at me and—that’s my point! I’m an idiot when it comes to you!”
I was reeling with the information, replaying every interaction I could remember and trying to see them how he’d described. But almost all of those had just been me staring at him, looking away when he noticed, burning with jealousy and frustration and a little lust. I could believe that maybe Gus had wanted me since before the infamous frat party, because I’d been attracted to him too, but anything more than that didn’t compute.
“Gus,” I said, “you only critiqued my stories. I was a joke to you.”
It was possible I’d never seen such a blatant expression of shock. “Because I was an asshole!” he said, which didn’t exactly explain things, but then he went on. “I was a twenty-three-year-old elitist dick who thought everyone in our class was wasting my time except you! I thought it was obvious how I felt about you, and your writing. That’s the point! I never knew what you were thinking then, and I still have no idea—”
“What do you think me taking your pants off means?” I said.
He tugged at the hair at the crown of his head. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, what I’ve been trying to tell you since you got here,” he said breathlessly. “I don’t remember how any of this is supposed to work or what I’m supposed to do. Even before Naomi and I—January, I’m not like Jacques.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, stung.
“I’m not the kind of guy women try to date,” he said, frustrated. “I never have been. I’m the one they want to hook up with and drunk text and hang out with for a change of pace when they’ve just gotten out of seven-year relationships with doctors, and that’s fine, but I don’t want that with you, okay? I can’t do that.”
My throat squeezed tight, strangling my voice into something flimsy and weak. “That’s what you think? That this is all some kind of identity crisis for me?”
His eyes fell heavily on me, and for once I felt like I could see straight through them. That was exactly what he thought: that like our bet, Gus was something I was trying on for size while I took a break from the real me. Like I was on my own reverse Eat, Pray, Love tear that would fizzle out as quickly as it had flared up.
“I want to be your perfect fucking Fabio, January, but I can’t,” Gus went on. “I’m not.”
I’m not like Jacques, he’d said, and I’d thought he was insulting Jacques or making a dig at me for dating someone like him, but that wasn’t it at all.
Gus still thought he was missing something, some special piece other people had, the thing that made people stay, and it broke my heart a little. It broke my heart that when we were younger, he’d thought I’d never even looked at him.
I shook my head. “I don’t need you to be Fabio,” I said, voice thick with emotion, like it wasn’t the single stupidest sentence I’d uttered in my life.
“Yes, you do,” Gus said urgently. “Everything I’ve done in the last twenty-four hours has hurt you, January. You want me to be able to read you, and I can’t. You want me to know how to do this, and I don’t.”
“No,” I said. “I just want you to tell me how you feel. I want to know what it is you want.”
“I’m going to mess this up,” he said helplessly.
“Maybe!” I cried. “But that’s not what I asked. Tell me what you want, Gus. Not why you can’t have it, or what you think I want, or why you can’t give that to me. Just tell me what you want for once. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”
“I want you,” he said quietly. “I want you, in every way. I want to take you on dates and play with a fucking beach ball in a pool with you, but I’m a wreck, January.
“I’m trapped in a marriage with a woman who lives with another man, just waiting to be done. I’m on medicine. I’m in therapy. I’m trying to give up smoking for good and even to learn how to meditate—and while that’s going on, while I’m a walking dumpster fire, I want you in a way I’m not sure either of us can handle. I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want to feel what it would be like to lose you.”
He stopped for a beat. In the dim half-light of the tent his face was all stark shadows, but his liquidy dark eyes glinted as if lit from within. He took a few breaths, then said in a soft murmur, “It doesn’t mean I don’t want you, January—I’ve always wanted you. It just means I also want you to be happy, and I’m scared I could never be the person who could give you that.”
The intensity in his gaze settled, like he’d burned through every spark he had, and I loved his eyes like this too, all warm and raw and quiet. I touched the sides of his face and he looked into my eyes, still breathing hard. Warmth bubbled in my chest, spilling into my fingers as they curled around his sharp jaw.
“Then let me be happy with you, Gus,” I said and kissed him softly, like the rare and tender thing he was.
His hands swept across my back, and he pulled me closer.
GUS LAID ME gently down, his hand still tucked beneath my neck, fingers tangling in my hair. I pulled him over me as his hands caught the bottom edge of my shirt and lifted it around my ribs. When he’d peeled the damp tank top over my head, he tossed it aside and cradled my jaw, kissing me again, slow and heavy, thick and rough and perfectly Gus. His palm skated up my center and back down to undo my wet jeans, and together we managed to get my shoes and pants off before he lifted me across his lap.
“January,” he whispered through the dark, like an incantation, like a prayer.
I wanted to say his whole name back like that. To make Augustus mean something different to him than it had. But I knew that would take time, and for Gus, I thought I could be patient. So instead I just kissed him, slipped my fingers up his warm stomach to lift his sopping shirt over his head and discard it into the pile with mine. We sat back in the dark, looking at each other, unhurried and unembarrassed.