He nodded back, sliding his hands in his pockets, and I thought of what Esther, Leah, and Maggie had been talking about earlier that day, how he did or didn’t ride anymore, and the reasons, or person, behind that choice. Not that it was any of my business. I was leaving anyway.
I started toward my car, which meant I had to walk right by him. As I got closer, he glanced up at me again. ‘Already leaving,’ he said in that flat voice I recognized. ‘Not exciting enough for you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just… I have somewhere I have to be.’
‘Busy times,’ he said.
I didn’t pretend to know Eli at all, but even so, I’d noticed that his manner was slightly hard to read. It was something in the way he talked that made it difficult to tell whether he was kidding or serious or what. This bothered me. Or intrigued me. Or both.
‘So,’ I said after a moment, figuring I had nothing to lose in asking, ‘do you jump?’
‘Nope,’ he replied. ‘You?’
I almost laughed, then thought of Maggie and realized this maybe was not a joke. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t even… I mean, I haven’t ridden a bike in ages.’
He considered this, then looked back at the jumps. ‘Really.’
This too was said flatly, no intonation, so I had nothing to go on. Still, I felt defensive as I said, ‘I just… I wasn’t much for outdoor stuff as a kid.’
‘Outdoor stuff,’ he repeated.
‘I mean, I went outside,’ I added. ‘I wasn’t a recluse or anything. I just didn’t ride bikes very much. And haven’t recently.’
Again, it wasn’t like this was critical, necessarily. But something about it still bugged me. ‘What,’ I said, ‘is that a crime here or something? Like only buying one thing at the Gas/Gro?’
I meant to say this in a kidding sort of way, but I sounded shrill even to my own ears, hearing it. Or maybe just crazy. Eli said, ‘What?’
I felt my face flush. ‘Nothing. Forget it.’
I turned to go, pulling my keys out of my pocket. I’d only taken two steps, though, when he said, ‘You know, if you don’t know how to ride a bike, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘I can ride a bike,’ I said. And this was true. I’d learned over Christmas when I was seven, in our driveway, on Hollis’s old Schwinn, with training wheels. From what I remembered, I’d liked it, or at least not hated it. Which did not explain why I couldn’t actually recall doing it very much since then. Or, at all. ‘I just… I haven’t had the opportunity in a while.’
‘Huh,’ he said.
That was just it. Just Huh. Jesus. ‘What?’
He raised his eyebrows. Probably because again, my voice sounded high, slightly unbalanced. It was so weird, because usually I was totally nervous talking to guys. But Eli was different. He made me want to say more, not less. Which was maybe not such a good thing.
‘All I’m saying,’ he said after a moment, ‘is that we are at a jump park.’
I just looked at him. ‘I’m not going to ride a bike just to prove to you that I can.’
‘I’m not asking you to,’ he replied. ‘However, if you’re looking for an opportunity… here’s your chance. That’s all.’
Which, of course, made perfect sense. I’d said I hadn’t had the opportunity: he was pointing out that now I did. So why did I feel so unnerved?
I took a breath, then another, so my voice was calm, level as I said, ‘I think I’ll pass, actually.’
‘All righty,’ he said, hardly bothered.
And then I was walking back to my car. End of subject and conversation. But ‘all righty’? What was that?
Once behind the wheel, the door shut behind me, I looked back at him, already thinking of a dozen other, better ways I could have handled this conversation. I cranked my engine, then backed out of my space. The last thing I saw before turning around was Eli right where I’d left him, still looking up at the jumps. His head was cocked slightly to the side, as if he was thinking hard, the jumpers rising up in front of him. From this distance, you couldn’t tell them apart, distinguish their various styles or approaches. They were all the same, moving in a steady line, up, down, in view for only a moment, then gone again.
When it came to Thisbe, Heidi worried about everything. How much she slept. Whether she ate enough. Whether she ate too much. What that red spot on her leg was. (Ring-worm? Eczema? The mark of the devil?) If it hurt her to cry so much/her hair was going to fall out/her poops were the right color. And now, she was going to give the kid an identity crisis.
‘My goodness!’ I heard her saying one day when I came down for my coffee around four P.M. She and Thisbe were in the living room, having ‘tummy time’ – which she did religiously, as it was supposed to keep the baby from having a flat head – on the floor. ‘Look at how strong you are!’
Initially, I was too focused on getting my caffeine levels up to pay attention to them. Also, I’d kind of mastered tuning Heidi out, if only out of necessity. But after I’d had a half a cup I began to notice something was amiss.
‘Caroline,’ she was saying in a singsong voice, drawing out each syllable. ‘Who’s my pretty Caroline girl?’
I filled my cup up again, then walked into the living room. She was leaning over the baby, who was on her stomach, struggling to hold up that big, possibly flat head. ‘Caroline,’ she said, tickling the baby’s back. ‘Miss Pretty Caroline West.’
‘I thought her name was Thisbe,’ I said.
Heidi jumped, startled, then looked up at me. ‘Auden,’ she stammered. ‘I… I didn’t hear you come in.’
I looked at her, then at the baby, then back at her again. ‘I was actually just passing through,’ I told her, and turned to go. I thought I was safe, but then, just as I reached the stairs, she spoke.
‘I don’t like the name!’ When I turned back, she looked up at the ceiling, her face flushed, like someone else had said this. Then she sighed, sitting back on her heels. ‘I don’t,’ she said slowly, more quietly. ‘I wanted to name her Isabel. It’s the name of one of my best friends here in Colby, and I’d always loved it.’
Hearing this, I looked longingly up the stairs in the direction of my dad’s office, wishing, as I always did, that he was here to deal with this instead of me. But lately he’d been even more immersed in his book, the apples piling up uneaten.