“Road kill?” I say, grinning.
He laughs, and surprises me by bending to kiss my forehead. “Should I get you some wine?”
My stomach does a weird tilt. I don’t feel like drinking with Tyler; I don’t want to get loose and comfortable and fall back into old patterns. But I don’t want to be rude, either. “Sure.”
The cork squeaks in the bottle as he opens it. “The entire way over,” he says, “I was remembering that time we went to see The Crying Game at the old dollar theater and you got into a shoving match with the dude behind us who used the word faggot.”
It takes me a few seconds to remember this one, but then it comes back with startling clarity. The redneck who ruined the end for those of us who hadn’t seen it years earlier.
“Oh. Yeah, he was lame.”
“God, those were good old days.”
I nod, disagreeing internally as I watch him pour two enormous glasses of Shiraz. He hands me the hulking dose and raises his glass in a toast. “To old loves and new beginnings.”
I let out a deflated “Cheers,” lifting my glass and letting the liquid touch my lips. The toast feels so cheesy and overbaked, I half wish Josh were here to give me a knowing eye roll over the rim of his own wineglass. Josh is a wonder when he’s serving his parents a drink; I love to watch the way he pours with both hands, the way he reverently accepts a drink in return just the same way.
The wine tastes a little off to me, so I put it down under the guise of needing to check the lasagna, and start the salad.
Dinner comes out pretty well. The cheese is bubbly and nicely browned, the salad came from a bag so it was impossible to mess it up, and the garlic bread required nothing more than to be pulled out of the freezer and dropped in the oven for twenty minutes. The Barefoot Contessa I am not, but I didn’t burn anything and for that I am giving myself a mighty mental high five.
My brain whirs continually while Tyler talks about his job, his apartment, and the friends he’s still in touch with from college. Am I really doing this? Having a date, at my apartment, with Tyler Douchebag Jones? Is this what it’s come to?
I have honestly never spent as much time thinking about my love life as I have in the past few days. I’m not an idiot. I know that my feelings for Josh Im go beyond the friend zone—hello, we had orbit-bending sex only one week ago—but whenever I imagine trying to date him, I get this panicky feeling in my chest and have to stick my head out the window or unbutton my shirt. The thought of dating him and having him ever say that I’m weird or embarrassing makes everything inside me duck for cover. Sex I can do. But baring my emotional soul to Josh and watching his proverbial lip curl in distaste? Gah.
I think about Mom, and the way she reacted to Dad when he said those four words to her—you’re so fucking embarrassing—and how it didn’t seem to faze her at all. I used to think it was because she was so strong and was able to hide her pain, but now I know that it’s because his opinion didn’t matter. She didn’t love him.
And whether I love Josh as a friend or more, I do love him. Deeply.
“… so I took it to another shop,” Tyler is saying loudly, as if he knows I’ve spaced out and is turning up the volume to get my attention back where he wants it, “and the guy there agreed with me. Fucking timing belt. Who misdiagnoses a timing belt?”
“Right?” I say, giving what I hope is the appropriate degree of disbelief on his behalf. I add an indignant scowl at my plate, pushing the lasagna around a little. It looked so good coming out of the oven, but right now nothing has ever seemed so unappetizing. I wonder whether it’d be cool with Tyler if I just busted out some Cap’n Crunch for my dinner instead.
“So anyway,” he says, “that’s why I had no flowers.”
I look up. “Huh?”
“To bring you,” he says, leaning in and cupping a hand around my forearm. “I gave you a drawing of flowers? At the door?”
He did? “Right, right. It was so pretty, though.”
He ducks, smiles humbly. “Well, I wanted to bring actual flowers, and wine. Do the romantic thing.”
The romantic thing. To Tyler, that used to be a six-pack of PBR and the promise of some good ol’ fuckin’ later. I wonder if it’s still true, and he’s just upped his seduction tangibles a little. I push back from the table and out of his reach. “That’s so nice. You know I’ve never needed flowers.”
“No one needs flowers.” Grabbing his plate, he follows me into the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves like he intends to do the dishes. “But everyone likes them.”
Apparently, I’m right. Tyler turns on the water, filling the sink. I notice that he doesn’t get the water particularly hot before plugging the drain and filling it, and I mentally cover Josh’s eyes so he doesn’t have to watch such blatant disregard for proper cleaning technique.
“So tell me something about yourself,” Tyler says, reaching for my plate. He frowns at it before scraping the entirety of my lasagna helping into the trash. “Something that’s happened in the past few years.” He’s been here over an hour and this is the first question that’s been directed to me.
I lean against the counter, watching him.
He might be somewhat clueless, but he sure is pretty from behind. And from the front, too.
And he’s here, trying. Washing dishes, making conversation. My stomach feels like a houseboat on a rolling river and if I could just calm the hell down, I might actually enjoy his company.
“Well, you know I’m a teacher.”
“Yup. Fourth grade?”
“Third.” I reach for my wine, sniff it, and decide against it again. “This is my first year at Riverview. Let’s see … what else. My mom lives in Portland now.”
“Moved from Eugene, right?”
Okay. Maybe not so clueless after all. “Yeah.” A tiny flicker of light ignites in my chest. He remembers things about me. Things completely unrelated to my cup size or erogenous zones. “My closest friend here is a woman named Emily—”
“Josh’s sister? I think he mentioned her at dinner.”
I allow myself a mental knee-slapping laugh. Josh probably mentioned a lot of things that I missed entirely during my mental meltdown. “Yeah, good memory. And she’s married to our principal, this sequoia of a man named Dave, who—I swear to you—makes the best barbecue this side of the Mississippi.”
“That sounds awesome.”
“I mean, I’ll admit that I’ve never been east of the Mississippi, nor have I sampled barbecue at all that many places, but Dave makes good food.”
Tyler laughs at this. “Maybe we can have dinner over there sometime.”
And just like that, just when I’d been starting to relax, something tenses inside me again. The idea of sitting next to Tyler at Emily and Dave’s dinner table feels dirty. I imagine Josh across from us, sitting beside Sasha, and then I imagine throwing a sauce-slathered rib at him. In my head, it lands with a dark splat on his pristine work shirt and he glares at me.
I mumble a belated “Sure” before making a cabinet dive for the Cap’n Crunch.
Shoving a hand into the box, I continue, “You know, I’ve got animal family in town as well. You’ve met Winnie the Poodle, Vodka, Janis Hoplin, and Daniel Craig.”
Tyler looks at me over his shoulder and I answer the question in his eyes, “Sorry. My fish. Daniel Craig.” Another question lingers there, and I answer that one, too: “Daniel Craig is a fitting homage. My fish has got a great tail.”
I catch the amused smirk just before he turns back to the sink.
Maybe it is different this time. Maybe Tyler really has grown up, and maybe that makes it okay that I never will.
When the doorbell rings, Tyler is halfway through the second bottle of wine. The single glass he poured me earlier sits mostly untouched on the kitchen counter.
He turns toward the sound. “Did you call me a cab?” he jokes, voice low and slow. “I thought I’d stay here tonight.”
The awkward laugh that comes out of me sounds like a cyborg malfunctioning, and I stand to answer. Up until now, we’ve been having a genuinely good time—I mean, not I’m gonna get some good time, but it’s been nice. Yes, there’s a lot of Glory Days reminiscing on his part, but I’m surprised to find that Tyler remembers things pretty accurately, and with not a lot of reimagined glossing.