I slump down around the corner in the shadows where hopefully no one will see me ever again. After a few minutes, during which I do genuinely look at the sky, which is amazing, Sam shows up. “Here you are! You okay?”
“Yeah, totally.” I consider. “Wait, why did you come find me? Did Jen say something to you?”
“Leah,” he says. “She just said you seemed a little upset or something.”
“Nope, I’m excellent.”
Feelings are such a drag and right now I have way too many of them.
“I’m not totally excellent.”
“I know.” He takes my hand.
I don’t know why I get like this. I could go play beer pong or pool or get in the hot tub and maybe I would have fun. But my stomach is cavernous and my heart is hollow, and I don’t know how I got here.
Even with Sam there are things I don’t want to talk about, and I’m too raw to let him in on the extent of all this. “It’s like I’m never going to fit anywhere, except maybe in that stinky gym.”
“Which is why we’re going to keep you there permanently.”
“Ugh, may I escape such a fate. By the way,” I say, grateful for the change of subject, “you know Dax Furlong is here?”
“Yeah, we played some pool. He seems all right. A little full of himself, but whatever.” Sam shakes his head, then nudges me. “Come on, it’s cold. Let’s go play! I’ll let you win.”
Sam pushes himself off the wall to stand up, hand still in mine, but before he can, Ty and Amber stroll out in front of us like they have all the time and space in the world, feet kicking softly against the grass.
I don’t want to stay but I also don’t want to emerge from the shadows of the wall, so I tug on Sam’s arm for him to keep still and be quiet. It only takes me half a second more to realize that by not moving I have now become the creepster I was trying to avoid being, but it’s already too late. We’ll have to wait them out.
Amber settles on a swing, and Sam gives me a look like if swinging is involved it could take a lot longer than it seemed it was going to a few seconds ago and also that I’m potentially ruining his life because Jen will be looking for him and he’s stuck hiding with no beer.
“Did you bring me out here to watch me swing, Tyler?” Amber’s voice is the voice of all the girls who have ever known a boy was into them and also knows how to tease it out of them.
Ty watches as she twirls the swing from side to side. “No, I didn’t bring you out here to watch you swing.” The aw-shucks in his tone reminds me that all boys are just as scared of everything that can happen with a girl as we are of them. He’s nervous. I can tell by how he shoves his hands in his pockets then grips the side of the swing set like he’s looking for somewhere to put them and they won’t stay still.
Nausea rolls through me and I focus on my breathing. It’s bad enough knowing this is happening without having to witness it in person.
“Actually,” he says, “I brought you out here to see if you might want to hang out.”
“We’re hanging out right now.” She lets her fingers trail over his wrist.
“Well, yeah, but you know that’s not what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.” She’s so smooth and soothing.
I cringe thinking about Monday afternoon in Ty’s bed. We were so close. We gazed into each other’s eyes.
Mental note: This is what it looks like when a boy has his heart caught in a net. He’s watching her as she rocks herself as though he’s in exactly the right place with exactly the right person. I wish everything wasn’t so illuminated by floodlights.
“I have tickets to a show this Friday at the Ogden,” Tyler says.
“Yeah, I got VIP tickets to Lucy’s Diamond. I thought . . . if you wanted to . . . we could go to dinner before. There are some good places in that neighborhood. One of them has a menu that’s all based on famous book titles. A Tale of Two Sliders, Catcher in the Pastrami on Rye.” He trails off as she watches him. “Never mind, it’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. It’s super sweet.”
It is super sweet.
“What about Jo?” Amber says.
I start at being brought into this situation when I’m in full voyeur mode. But also, yeah. Whatabout me?
“Jo?” He looks completely perplexed at the mention of my name. “You mean Beckett?”
“Yeah. I thought you guys were maybe a thing, but then it didn’t seem like it . . . I don’t know . . .”
“No.” He cuts her off quickly.
Sam squeezes me and I am caught between wanting to slap him away and lean in closer to him.
“No?” she prompts.
No? Definitely not?
“No. I swear. I mean we did hook up but it’s not like that.”
We hooked up several times. And we had sex.
“Well, last time I checked, people hook up because they like each other, so . . .”
Tyler leans against the green frame. “It’s complicated.”
Amber laughs. “Try me.”
It seems like even the grass under me is waiting for his explanation. “She’s just a . . . practice girl. You know?”
Amber narrows her eyes. “A what?”
Yes, a what ?
“Okay . . . well, a practice girl is someone you practice, you know, hooking up with.” Ty seems to check Amber for disgust level. She’s listening carefully so he goes on. “So you don’t get emotionally attached and you aren’t going to ever get in a relationship with them. That’s what Beckett is. And it’s totally different than you. You’re someone to . . . you know . . . date. And it’s over with Beck, I swear.”
Amber furrows her brow. “But you did sleep with her, right?”
His shoulders deflate.
I’m still trying to understand what I just heard . . . you don’t get emotionally attached and you aren’t going to ever get in a relationship with them.
Every fear I’ve ever had about myself and how I’m perceived is being confirmed in real time and I can’t absorb it fast enough.
“Yeah.” He delivers this admission like it’s going to end his life. “I did.”
“But you aren’t into her?” Amber says.
He perks up. “No! I’m into you.”
Oh my God, I’m actually going to die. I can’t breathe. I can’t feel anything except my entire body pulsing.
Amber pulls herself up and wraps her arms around his waist. He hugs her, and his eyes flutter shut, like it’s sheer bliss. “I’m going to need to have a little chat with you about this practice girl situation, but okay.”
“Yeah. Okay, I’ll go to the show with you.”
She looks up at him and then they press their lips together and a little sound escapes me, a breath of pain.
Romance isn’t dead. Romance is only dead for me.
A crash comes from inside the house and Ty groans.
“We’d better go in,” Amber says.
“Yeah, I can’t leave those animals in there unsupervised.”
She makes a sound of consent and they disappear from view.
Another silence follows and I can feel Sam searching me for damage.
I look at him and his sincere green eyes and all at once I realize: Heknew. He isn’t surprised. He’s just worried.
“Sam, did you know he calls me that?” I say.
Sam doesn’t say anything. He looks down. I swallow.
Uh-oh. Sam never calls me Jo. A new and terrible thought is occurring to me now. “Doeseveryone call me that?”
He looks like he’s about to dissolve, like he’s trying to crawl out of his own skin. It’s all slowly coming together. Joost, Luke, Ty . . . All of it, total and complete nothing. Every time my heart leapt at the idea of being with them, every time I held them close to me and reassured them when they were uncertain, every time I guided them to the right places and told them what they could do to make it even better. Every time I smiled and laughed and shared and gave. Every time I let them in.
Garbage. Fake, disgusting garbage.
I might as well be a blow-up doll.
“Joost and Luke called me that too, right?”
He nods reluctantly. “Yeah. I’ve heard them say it too. It’s just a thing guys say. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You didn’t tell them to stop? Point out how incredibly disrespectful and demeaning that was of them to sayabout your best friend ?” I wait. “Nothing? What? Did you laugh along at my stupidity?”
He’s like an animal caught, frozen and looking for a path to escape. “It sounds bad now but it didn’t seem . . . In a way it was kind of like what happened with us,” he says. “I thought . . . You said you just wanted it to be practice.”
That was years ago. We were so brand-new at this. I can’t believe he thinks this is connected to that. “Sam, we mutually lost our virginities to each other for the sole purpose of not being virgins anymore. It was a practical decision. How is a bunch of guys passing me around, acting like they were into me when they were just using me for sex practice until girlfriend material came alonganything like what happened between us? This is not the same.”
“I wasn’t thinking of it like that. I knew you liked them. I didn’t want to upset you . . .”
I am so filled with rage I could set this whole place on fire with a flick of the wrist. “You let them turn me into nothing.” My voice darkens so much Sam actually takes a step back.
“Jo,” he says.
“You let them make a total fool out of me. And you never said anything to me, ever.”
“I was trying to keep it separate, not interfere.”
“No.” I hold up my hand. “Stop talking. You don’t get to say any more words. I need to think.” But I can’t think. Not now. A new round of people spills out of Ty’s house, hooting. Someone throws someone into the pool. It’s all such a blur I can’t see. Everyone around me is having the best time ever, and meanwhile it’s like I’m not even here, like my feet are not on the ground, like I could just float away. And then it hits me, and I look Sam square in the face. “Shit. You are not my friend.”
“What?” Sam is an emotional kaleidoscope. “I only heard the guys say it a few times . . .” He trails off weakly.
I don’t know what else there is to say. I need to get out of here.
“Find another ride home.” My voice cracks.
Before he can respond, I speed through the house and out the front door, back to the shaky rumble of my car. I need to be alone right now.
No one is going to see me cry.
Opal Roengchai | Designer
NY, NY 10019