Finally, I manage to speak. “Yeah. It’s . . . it’s really cool.”
His smile widens. “And you live here?”
“Mm-hm.” I cough to clear my throat. “What about you?”
“Nah,” he says. “I’m on business. Sales stuff. I’m still back in Linfield.”
This, I realize, is what I’ve been waiting for for years. The moment when I finally know I’ve won: I got out. I made something of myself. I found a place I belonged. I proved I wasn’t broken while the person who was cruelest to me stayed stuck in crappy little Linfield.
Except that’s not how I feel. Because Jason doesn’t seem stuck, and he certainly isn’t being cruel. He’s here, in this city, in a nice white shirt, being genuinely kind.
There’s a stinging in my eyes, a hot feeling in the back of my throat.
“If you’re ever back there,” Jason says uncertainly, “and you wanna meet up . . .”
I try to make some kind of noise of assent, but nothing happens. It’s like the tiny person who sits at the control panel in my brain has just passed out. “So,” Jason goes on. “Sorry again. I hope you know it was always about me. Not you.”
The sidewalk swings again, a pendulum. Like the world as I’ve always seen it has been jostled so hard it’s rocking, might come crashing down entirely.
Obviously people grow up, a voice says in my head. You think all those people were just frozen in time, just because they stayed in Linfield?
But like he said, it’s not about them, it’s about me.
That’s exactly what I thought.
That if I didn’t get out, I’d always be that lonely girl. I would never belong anywhere.
“So if you’re in Linfield . . .” he says again.
“But you’re not hitting on me, right?” I say.
“Oh! God no!” Now he holds up his hand, showing off one of those thick black bands on his ring finger. “Married. Happily. Monogamously.”
“Cool,” I say, because it’s really the only English word I remember at present. Which is saying something since I don’t speak any other languages.
“Yep!” he says. “Well . . . see ya.”
And then Jason Stanley’s gone, as suddenly as he appeared.
By the time I get to the wine bar, I’ve started to cry. (What’s new?) When Rachel jumps up from our usual table, she looks stricken at the sight of me. “Are you okay, babe?”
“I’m going to quit my job,” I say tearily.
“Oh . . . kay.”
“I mean”—I sniff hard, wipe at my eyes—“not immediately, like in a movie. I’m not going to walk into Swapna’s office and be, like, I quit! And then walk straight out of the office in a tight red dress with my hair down my back or anything.”
“Well, that’s good. Orange is better for your complexion.”
“Either way, I have to find another job, before I can leave,” I say. “But I think I just figured out why I’ve been so unhappy.”
IF YOU NEED me,” Rachel says, “I’ll go with you. I mean, I seriously will. I’ll buy a ticket on the way to the airport, and I’ll go with you.”
Even as she says it, she looks like I’m holding out a giant cobra with human blood dripping off its teeth.
“I know.” I squeeze her hand. “But then who will keep us up to date on everything happening in New York?”
“Oh, thank God,” she says in a gust. “I was afraid you’d take me up on that for a minute.”
She pulls me into a hug, kisses me on either cheek, and puts me into the cab.
My parents both come to pick me up from the Cincinnati airport. They’re wearing matching I–heart symbol–New York T-shirts.
“Thought it would make you feel at home!” Mom says, laughing so hard at her joke that she’s practically crying. I think it might be the first time she or Dad has acknowledged New York as my home, which makes me happy on one level and sad on another.
“I already feel at home here,” I tell her, and she makes a big show of clutching her heart, and a squeak of emotion sneaks out of her. “By the way,” she says as we bustle across the parking lot, “I made buckeye cookies.”
“So that’s dinner, but what about breakfast?” I ask.
She titters. No one on the planet thinks I’m as funny as my mom does. It’s like taking candy from a baby. Or giving candy to a baby.
“So, buddy,” Dad says once we’re in the car. “To what do we owe this honor? It’s not even a bank holiday!”
“I just missed you guys,” I say, “and Alex.”
“Shoot,” Dad grunts, putting on his turn signal. “Now you’re gonna make me cry.”
We go home first so I can change out of my plane clothes, give myself a pep talk, and bide my time. School’s not out until two thirty.
Until then, the three of us sit on the porch, drinking homemade lemonade. Mom and Dad take turns talking about their plans for the garden next year. What all they’ll be pulling up. What new flowers and trees they’ll plant. The fact that Mom is trying to Marie Kondo the house but has only managed to get rid of three shoeboxes’ worth of stuff so far.
“Progress is progress,” Dad says, reaching out to rub her shoulder affectionately. “Have we told you about the privacy fence, buddy? The new next-door neighbor is a gossip, so we decided we needed a fence.”
“He comes by to tell me what everyone on this cul-de-sac is up to, and doesn’t have anything good to say!” Mom cries. “I’m sure he’s saying the same kinds of things about us.”