There was the pillhead cook, the alcoholic skateboarder, the extremely promising mentor in an after-school program for disadvantaged youth who, ultimately, had told Shadi he loved her in the same breath he’d admitted he wanted to be single for a few more years.
Everything about my best friend was misleading to the men of Chicago. She was eccentric and loud, prone to heavy drinking and all-night partying, comfortable with casual hookups, always the funniest and most shocking person in any room, and she posted mostly nude selfies with increasing regularity. She was enigmatic, the closest to the stereotypical male fantasy I’d ever seen outside of a movie, but deep down she was, completely, a romantic.
When she connected with someone, she opened up like a rose to expose the most tender, pure, selfless, and loyal heart I’d ever known. And when the men-children she accidentally wound up dating saw that side of her, they often wound up ass-over-toes in love with her, as she did with them. Dreaming of a future that neither of them had signed up for at the start of it all.
“I wish there was literally anything I could do to stop it,” she said then.
“No you don’t,” I teased, and a slow smile spread across her face.
“I both love and despise falling in love.”
“Same,” I said. “Men are the worst.”
“The wo-orst,” she sang. For a few seconds we were silent. The tears on my cheeks had dried and the sun had started to rise, but the storm clouds were blocking it, diffusing the strange bluish light that came through the blinds across the couch. “Hey,” she said finally. “I think it was time.”
“What was?” I asked.
“I think it was time for you to fall in love,” she said. “All this time I’ve known you and I’ve never gotten to see it. I think it was time.”
“You knew me before Jacques. You watched that happen.”
“Yeah.” Shadi gave a shrug. “I know you loved Jacques. And maybe in the end, it’s the same thing you wind up with, but with him, you never fell, Janie. You marched straight in.”
“So falling’s the part that hurts?” I asked with a humorless laugh. “And if you wind up in love without it hurting, then there’s no falling?”
“No,” Shadi said seriously. “Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.”
Tears clouded my vision. I did feel that with Gus, but I’d felt it once before.
“You’re wrong that you never saw that with me,” I said, and Shadi cocked her head thoughtfully. “That’s how I felt when I found you.”
A smile broke across her face, and she tossed one of the couch cushions at me. “I love you, Janie,” she told me.
“I love you more.”
After a moment, her smile faded and she gave one frank shake of her head. “I’m sure he loves you too,” she said. “I can feel it.”
“You haven’t even seen us together,” I pointed out. “You haven’t even really met him.”
“I can feel it.” She waved a hand toward the wall just as another thunderous rumble shook the house, lightning slashing across the windows. “Wafting off his house. Also, I’m psychic.”
“So there’s that,” I said.
“Right,” Shadi said. “So there’s that.”
IT MIGHT’VE BEEN seconds between the moment I finally drifted to sleep on the couch and the one when the pounding on the door began, or it might’ve been hours. The living room was still masked in stormy shadows, and thunder was still shivering through the floorboards.
Shadi shot upright at the far end of the couch and clutched the blanket to her chest, her green eyes going wide at the second round of pounding. She hissed through the dark, “Are we being ax-murdered?”
Then I heard his voice coming through the door. “January.”
Shadi scooted back against the arm of the couch. “That’s him, isn’t it?”
He pounded again and I stood, unsure what I was doing. What I should do, what I wanted to do. I looked at Shadi, silently asking her these questions.
She shrugged as another knock sounded. “Please,” Gus said. “Please, January, I won’t keep asking if you don’t want me to, but please, talk to me.” He fell silent, and the whine of the wind stretched out like an ellipsis begging to add more. My throat felt like it had collapsed, like I needed to swallow down the rubble a few times before I could get the words out.
“What would you do?” I asked Shadi.
She let out a long breath. “You know what I would do, Janie.”
She’d said it last night: I wish there was literally anything I could do to stop it. The joke being that of course there was something she could do to stop it and yet somehow she could never bring herself to let the text messages and phone calls go unanswered, no way she could convince herself not to visit a new lover’s family for a national holiday, no chance she could give up on the possibility of love.
I didn’t—couldn’t—know what Gus was going to tell me about last night, about Naomi, or where we stood. I couldn’t know, but I could survive it.
I thought back to that moment in the car when I’d tried to carve the memory into my mind so that if and when I looked back on everything, I could tell myself it had been worth it.
That for a few weeks I had been happier than I had all year.
Yes, I thought. It was true.
I lost my breath then, like I’d run naked into the cold waves of Lake Michigan once more. I was grateful to be alive, even with trash floating past. I was grateful to have Shadi here. I was grateful to have read the letters from Dad, and I was grateful to have moved in next door to Augustus Everett.
Whatever came next, I could survive it all, like Shadi had so many times.
By the time I realized all this, a full minute must have passed without another knock on the door or any more shouts, and my heart raced as I hurried toward the door, Shadi clapping from the couch as if she were watching an Olympic race from the stands.
I threw the door open to the dark, stormy porch, but it was empty. I ran out, barefoot, to the steps and scoured the yard, the street below, the steps next door.
Gus was nowhere in sight. I jogged down the steps recklessly, and halfway down, cut through the grass instead, toes squelching in the mud. I had reached Gus’s front yard when it hit me: his car wasn’t here.
He was gone. I’d missed him. I wasn’t sure whether I’d started to cry again, or if all my tears had been used up. My ribs ached; everything within them hurt. My shoulders were shaking and my face was wet, but that might’ve been from the downpour blanketing our little beach street. The whole thing was flooded now, a current carrying leaves and bits of trash away in a rush.
I wanted to scream. I’d been so patient with Gus all summer. I’d told him I would be, and I had been, and now I had closed back up in what was likely our last-chance moment.
I buried the back of my hand against my mouth as a ragged sob worked its way out of my chest. I wanted to collapse into the marshy grass, be absorbed into it. If I were the ground, I thought, I’d feel even less than I did when I was cleaning.