Beach Read

Page 60

“Reader first.”

“I’ve got it,” he said. “It was on Amazon. One star: ‘Did not order book.’”

I threw my head back, laughing. “I love the ones where they accidentally ordered the wrong book, then review based on how different it was from the book they meant to order.”

Gus’s laugh rattled. He touched my knee beneath the table. “I like the ones that explain what I was trying to do. Like, ‘The author was trying to write Franzen, but he’s no Franzen.’”

I pantomimed gagging myself and Gus covered his eyes until I stopped. “But were you?”

“Trying to write Franzen?” He laughed. “No, January. I’m just trying to write good books. That sound like Salinger.”

I erupted into laughter, and he grinned back. We fell into easy silence again as we sipped on our drinks. “Can I ask you something?” I said, after a minute.

“No,” Gus answered, deadpan.

“Great,” I said. “Why did you try to keep me away from New Eden? I mean, I know you said you didn’t want me to have to see it, and I get that. Except that the whole point of this bet was for you to convince me the world was how you said it was, right? And that was the perfect opportunity.”

He was quiet for a long moment. He ran his hand through his messy hair. “Do you really think that was what this was about?”

“I mean, I hope it was at least partially an elaborate ruse to sleep with me,” I teased, but the expression on his face was serious, even a little anxious. He shook his head and glanced toward the window.

“I never wanted you to see the world like I see it,” he said.

“But the bet …” I said, trying to work it out.

“The bet was your idea,” he reminded me. “I just thought maybe if you tried to write what I write—I don’t know, I guess I hoped you’d realize it wasn’t right for you.” He hurried to add, “Not because you’re not capable! But because it’s not you. The way you think about things, it’s not like that. I always thought the way you saw the world was … incredible.” A faint flush crept into his olive cheeks and he shook his head. “I never wanted to see you lose that.”

A jumble of emotion caught in my throat. “Even if what I’m seeing isn’t real?”

Gus’s brow and mouth softened. “When you love someone,” he said haltingly, “… you want to make this world look different for them. To give all the ugly stuff meaning, and amplify the good. That’s what you do. For your readers. For me. You make beautiful things, because you love the world, and maybe the world doesn’t always look how it does in your books, but … I think putting them out there, that changes the world a little bit. And the world can’t afford to lose that.”

He scratched a hand through his hair. “I’ve always admired that. The way your writing always makes the world seem brighter, and the people in it a little braver.”

My chest felt warm and liquidy, like the block of ice that had been lodged there since Dad died was breaking up, just a little, its hunks melting down. Because the truth was, learning the truth about my dad had made the world seem dark and unfamiliar, but discovering Gus bit by bit had done the opposite. “Or maybe I’m just right,” I said quietly. “And sometimes people are brighter and braver than they know.”

A faint smile flickered across his lips, then fell as he thought. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved the world like you do. I remember being afraid of it. And then angry with it. And then just—deciding not to feel too strongly about it. But I don’t know. Maybe when I do this shit, when I talk to people like Dave and walk through burned buildings, there’s a part of me that’s hoping I’m going to find something.”

“Like what?” It came out as a whisper.

He put his elbows on the table. “Like the kind of world you write about. Like proof. That it isn’t as bad as it looks. Or it’s more good than bad. Like if we added up all the—all the shit and all the wildflowers, the world would come out positive.”

I reached for his hand and he let me take it, his dark eyes soft and open. “When I first found out about my dad’s affair, I tried to do that kind of math,” I admitted. “How much lying and cheating could he have done and still have been a good father? How deep could he have gotten himself in with That Woman and still loved my mom? Still liked his life. I tried to figure out how happy he could’ve been, how much he could’ve missed us when he was away, and when I was feeling particularly bad, how much he must’ve hated us to be willing to do what he did. And I never got my answers.

“And sometimes I still want them, and other times I’m terrified of what I’d find out. But people aren’t math problems.” I gave a heavy shrug. “I can miss my dad and hate him at the same time. I can be worried about this book and torn up about my family and sick over the house I’m living in, and still look out at Lake Michigan and feel overwhelmed by how big it is. I spent all last summer thinking I’d never be happy again, and now, a year later, I still feel sick and worried and angry, but at moments, I’m also happy. Bad things don’t dig down through your life until the pit’s so deep that nothing good will ever be big enough to make you happy again. No matter how much shit, there will always be wildflowers. There will always be Petes and Maggies and rainstorms in forests and sun on waves.”

Gus smiled. “And sex on bookshelves and in tents.”

“Ideally,” I said. “Unless the world freezes over in a second ice age. And in that case, there will at least be snowflakes, until the bitter end.”

Gus touched the side of my face. “I don’t need snowflakes.” He kissed me. “As long as there’s January.”

HEYYYYY, BABYCAKES. JUST wanted to make sure we’re still on for a September 1 manuscript delivery. Sandy keeps checking in, and I will gladly be the human barricade that keeps her off your back, but she’s desperate to buy something from you and if I keep promising her a book … well, then there really does need to be a book in the end.

Gus had spent the night, and when I shifted away from him to reach for the phone, he rolled over, still asleep, to follow me, nestling his face into the side of my boob, his hand sprawled out across my bare stomach.

My heart began to race both from the still-new thrill of his body and from Anya’s text. I couldn’t send her the incomplete book. It was miraculous she hadn’t dumped me yet, and I couldn’t put her in a less-than-ideal situation with Sandy Lowe without something to soften the blow. I slid out from under Gus, ignoring his grumbles, and grabbed my robe as I headed into the kitchen, texting Anya as I went: I can do it. Promise.

September 1, she replied. Hard deadline this time.

I didn’t mess with the coffee. I was wide awake as it was.

I sat at the table and began to write. When Gus got up, he put the kettle on, then walked back to the table and took a swig from the beer bottle he’d left there last night.

I looked up at him. “That’s disgusting.”

He held it out to me. “Do you want some?”

I took a swig. “Even worse than I imagined.”

He smiled down at me. His hand grazed my clavicle and skimmed down me, parting my robe as he went. His fingers caught on the tie, and he tugged it loose, letting the fabric fall open. He reached through to touch my waist, drawing me onto my feet.

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