I was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop growing. Almost seventeen, he had shorts on today and his long legs seemed to go on forever. They were hairier than I remembered. Not too hairy, just a light dusting of brown over his tanned skin. It was masculine, I decided. I liked it.
One of the strangest things about going stretches of time between seeing someone is all the changes you’d miss if you saw them every day. Like leg hair. Or biceps. Or big hands.
In his update he’d said his mom asked him about having laser surgery so he wouldn’t have to wear glasses anymore. I tried to imagine him without his glasses, being able to look into his greenish-gold eyes without the benefit of black frames between us. I loved Elliot’s glasses, but the thought of being so close to him without them did warm, weird things to my stomach. It made him feel somehow undressed in my head.
“What do you want for Christmas?” he asked.
I jumped slightly, startled. I was pretty sure I looked exactly like someone looks when they’re caught staring at their best friend with less than innocent thoughts. We hadn’t kissed again.
But I really wanted to.
His question echoed in my head. “Christmas?”
Dark eyebrows pulled together, serious. “Yeah. Christmas.”
I tried to cover. “Is that what you’ve been thinking about all this time?”
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
“I don’t really know,” I told him. “Any particular reason you’re asking me this in September?”
Elliot rolled to his side to face me, his head propped in his hand. “I’d just like to get you something nice. Something you want.”
I put my book down and rolled to face him, too. “You don’t have to get me anything, Ell.”
He made a frustrated sound and sat up. Pushing up off the carpet, he moved to stand. I reached out, wrapping my hand around his wrist. The light, lusty mood between us had been only on my end, apparently.
“Are you mad about something?”
Elliot and I didn’t fight, really, and the idea that something between us was off tilted my internal balance, making me feel immediately anxious. I could feel his pulse like a steady drum beneath his skin.
“Do you think about me when you’re back there?” His words came out sharp, exhaled roughly.
It took me a second to process what he meant. When I was back home. Away from him. “Of course I do.”
“All the time. You’re my best friend.”
“Your best friend,” he repeated.
My heart dipped low in my chest, almost painfully. “Well, you’re more, too. You’re my best everything.”
“You kissed me this summer and then acted like nothing happened.”
This came at me like a blade to my lungs. I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. It had happened like that. After I kissed him in his kitchen, I’d made everything go back to how it was: reading on the roof in the morning, lunch in the shade, swimming in the river. I’d felt his eyes on me, the shaking restraint of his hands. I remembered how warm his lips had been, and the way I felt like a lit fuse when he growled into my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why are you sorry?” he asked carefully, crouching down beside me. “Are you sorry because you didn’t like kissing me?”
I felt my hands flush cold, looking at him in shock. “Did it feel like I didn’t like it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging helplessly. “It felt like you liked it. A lot. And I did, too. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Yeah, Mace, and then you just…” He scowled at me, face tight. “You got weird.”
My thoughts got all tangled – the memory of Emma beside him in the driveway and the panic I always felt when I imagined him leaving my life for good. “I mean, there’s Emma —”
“Fuck Emma,” he said, voice rough, and it surprised me so much that I leaned back on my hands, tilting away from him.
Elliot looked immediately remorseful and reached to move a strand of hair out of my face. “Seriously, Mace. There’s nothing going on with me and Emma. Is that really why you don’t want to talk about what happened with us in the kitchen?”
“I think it’s also that it scares me to think of messing this up.” Looking down, I added, “I’ve never had a boyfriend – or anything. You’re, like, the only person other than Dad who really matters to me, and I’m honestly not sure I could handle it if I didn’t have you in my life.”
When I closed my eyes at night, the only thing I could see was Elliot. Most nights I was desperate to call him just before I fell asleep, so I could hear his voice. I hated to think beyond the next weekend, because I wasn’t sure how our futures were going to align. I imagined Elliot going away to Harvard, and me going somewhere in California, and we’d slowly turn into vague acquaintances. The idea was repellent.
When I met his eyes again, I noticed the hard line of his mouth had softened. He sat down in front of me, his knees touching mine.
“I’m not going anywhere, Mace.” He picked up my hand. “I need you the same way you need me, okay?”
Elliot looked at my hand in his and moved our palms so they were pressed together, lacing our fingers.
“Do you think about me?” I asked. Now that he’d raised it, the question gnawed at me.
“Sometimes it feels like I think about you every minute,” he whispered.
A bubble of emotion wedged tightly beneath my ribs, hitting a tender spot. I watched our clasped hands for a long time before he spoke again.
I struggled to keep my eyes from his body.
“Favorite word?” he whispered.
“Zipper,” I answered without thinking, feeling rather than seeing his smile in response. “You?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked, and the words sounded like an explosion of wind into the room, an awkward window opened.
He looked up from our hands, scowling. “Is that a serious question?”
He let go of my hand and returned to his book. He wasn’t reading it; he looked like he wanted to throw it at me.
I scooted a little closer to him. “You can’t be surprised I asked.”
He gaped at me, setting the book down. “Macy. I just asked you if you think about me. I asked why you got weird after we kissed. Do you really think I would push this subject if I had a girlfriend?”
I chewed my lip, feeling embarrassed. “No.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I gave him a grin. “A few here and there.”
He let out a wry laugh, shaking his head as he picked his book back up.
Obviously, whenever I imagined kissing anyone, it was always Elliot. And we’d already covered that: perfect fantasy, sublime reality, potentially treacherous aftermath. Even the idea of kissing him led to thoughts of a nasty awkward breakup and that would cause my stomach to spasm painfully.
Still… I could never stop looking at him. When did he lose all his awkwardness and get so completely perfect? What would I do with him if I ever had the chance? Nearly-seventeen-year-old Elliot was a work of long lines and definition. I would have no idea how to touch his body. Knowing him, he would just tell me. Probably give me a guidebook to the male anatomy and draw me a few diagrams. While staring at my boobs.
I snorted. He looked up.
“Why are you staring at me?” he asked.
“I was… not.”
He let out a short, dry sound of disbelief. “Okay.” Stretching his neck, he looked back down. “You’re still staring.”
“I’m just wondering how it works,” I asked.
“How what works?”
“When you…” I made a telling gesture with my hand. “With guys and the… you know.”
He raised his eyebrows, waiting. I could see the moment he knew what I was talking about. His pupils dilated so fast his eyes looked black.
“You’re asking me how dicks work?”