He laughed lightly at this. “Don’t be.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. But I have to think it was worlds better to be with Luther and Roberta than Michael, even if that had been an option.”
“So . . . you don’t know your dad?”
“No.” Sam blew out a breath and arced a smile over at me. He let the confidence settle between us for a few quiet beats. “What about you?”
My heart slammed against my breastbone, and Nana’s stern warning expression was printed on the inside of my eyelids. This was where I always played my part: My dad died when I was a baby. I was raised by Nana and Mom.
But the thing was, I’d spent my whole life with the truth trapped in my throat. And with Sam’s enormous backstory out there between us, I didn’t want to lie again. “Me?”
Sam tapped his knee against mine, setting off an electrical storm along my skin. Even when he wasn’t touching me, it was impossible not to feel how close he was. “You.”
“I grew up mostly in Guerneville.” The truth rattled a cage inside my ribs. “It’s a super small town in Northern California. I’m moving to Sonoma for school—which isn’t very far.” I lifted my hands in a shrug and let a hint of the truth slip out: “I was raised by my mom and Nana.”
“No dad, either?”
I swallowed. The easy, familiar lie was right there, on the tip of my tongue—but I was under the London sky, thousands of miles from home, and a rebellious, impulsive flash streaked through me. This had always been such a bigger deal to Nana and Mom than it had ever been to me; why was I still protecting their story? “He sort of . . . fell away.”
“How does a dad fall away?”
I became aware, while I was lying beside this completely earnest stranger on a damp lawn, that it was weird that I’d never really talked about this. In part, I didn’t talk about it because I knew I wasn’t supposed to. And in part, because it was unnecessary: the one person in my life who learned about it—my best friend Charlie—watched the drama unfold in real time, in bite-sized servings that grew spaced farther and farther apart. I’d never needed to summarize it or spin it into a story. So why did I suddenly want to?
“My parents got divorced when I was eight,” I told him, “and Mom moved me back to her hometown. Guerneville.”
“Back from where?”
I peeked over the edge of this canyon, and I didn’t know what it was about that garden or Sam but I decided: fuck it. I was eighteen and it was my life, what’s the worst that could happen?
“LA,” I said.
I blinked in the direction of the hotel again as if I expected to see Nana racing toward us, shaking her fists.
Sam let out a low whistle, as if this even meant anything yet. And maybe it did; maybe to a farmer from Vermont, LA seemed as exciting as it could get.
I had only tiny, pulsing memories of living in the city: foggy mornings, hot sand on my bare feet. A pink ceiling that seemed to stretch into space above me. Over time I’d started to think maybe I remembered LA the way Mom remembers childbirth: all of the good parts, none of the obvious pain.
The quiet swallowed us again, and in it, I felt the adrenaline ebb. I grew aware of the contrast of the cold at my back and the heat at my side. I’d shared a tiny slice of my history and the sky hadn’t opened up and rained fire. Nana hadn’t materialized from behind a tree, intent on dragging me back to California.
“So, divorced parents, Mom moved back to Guerneville. Now you’re on your way to Sonoma? I told you about adultery and a secret love child. I’m disappointed, Tate,” he teased. “That wasn’t very scandalous.”
“That’s not exactly all of it, but . . .”
“But . . . ?”
“I don’t know you.”
Sam rolled to his side, facing me. “Which makes it even better.” He pointed to his chest. “I’m nobody. I’m not going back to Vermont of all places and telling everyone this beautiful girl’s secrets.”
My thoughts tripped on the word beautiful.
Torn, my fingers searched out the thread on the hem of my fraying sweater, but I was distracted when Sam reached out to pluck a blade of grass from my hair. The tip of his finger grazed the curve of my ear. Heat blazed from the point of contact and down across my cheek, scalding my neck. Could he see my blush in the dark?
He waited one . . . two . . . three seconds before he rolled onto his back again.
“Anyway, I guess that’s why I said that about Luther. I sure can’t talk about it at home. He and Roberta are the bedrock of our community, and for as independent as she is, I don’t know how Roberta would survive without him. If he’s sick, I’m sure that’s partly why he hasn’t told anyone. Like I said, I think I needed to put it out there.” Scratching his jaw, he added, “Does that make sense? Saying it out loud makes it real, means I can work on dealing with it.”
What he was saying, what he was describing—it was like a deep gulp of cold water, or the bursting, first bite into a perfect apple. I knew, in some ways, that my life had been entirely constructed as a safe little bubble. Dad was loaded, but I wasn’t sure we even took money from him, because we’d never had a lot. We had enough. I had freedom within a small geographic range, two of the best friends I could have ever hoped for, and a mother and grandmother who adored me.