‘Wow,’ he said, nodding. ‘That sounds really interesting. Still, though, you should think about the FCLC. I mean, if you’re here anyway. I think you’d be a real asset to the conversation.’
There was a loud whoop! noise from the beach, followed by a round of applause and laughter. I said, ‘Maybe I will.’
‘Good.’ Jason smiled. ‘Look, I should get back to dinner, I guess. We were in the middle of this big discussion about class rank, the pros and cons, and I don’t want to miss it.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Of course.’
He took a step back, then paused. ‘Are you at the same number, though? Because while I’m here, maybe we could get together, you know. Just to catch up, compare notes.’
Everyone was coming off the beach now. I could see Maggie and Adam, who was soaked, in front, with Leah and Esther following. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Sure.’
‘Great!’ He smiled again. ‘So I’ll just see you soon.’
I nodded. And then, before I could even begin to react, he was stepping forward, pulling me into a hug. An awkward, too-much-elbow, faceful-of-fabric-softener hug, but at least it was over quickly.
But not quickly enough. Because as he walked away, there was Eli. Standing with the ball under his arm, watching me, his expression unreadable. For a moment, we just looked at each other, and I had a flash of that first long night, near this same place. Aren’t they all.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘How was the game?’
‘Good.’ He bounced the ball once. ‘We won.’
Two couples, dressed for a night out, walked between us, chattering happily among themselves. For a fleeting instant, I just wanted to fall in with them, go wherever they were going.
‘So,’ he said, coming closer, ‘what happened?’
‘I had to work,’ I said. ‘We’re behind on payroll, and there was all this filing…’
‘No.’ He bounced the ball again. ‘I mean to you.’
He nodded. ‘You’re acting different. What’s going on?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. He kept his eyes on me, steady, unconvinced. ‘What, you mean that?’ I said, nodding at the Last Chance, where Jason had now disappeared inside. ‘He’s just this friend of mine from home. My prom date, actually, although he ditched me at the last minute. Not that I was that upset, we were never, like, serious. Anyway, he’s down here for some conference, and he saw me out here, so –’
‘Auden.’ The way he said my name was like a brake, applied hard. I stopped in mid-breath. ‘Seriously. What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing,’ I said again. ‘Why do you keep asking me that?’
‘Because you were fine last night,’ he said. ‘And then tonight you duck out and hide from me and now you won’t even look me in the eye.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘God, I just had to work. Why is that so hard to believe?’
This time, he didn’t answer. But he didn’t really have to. It was a total lie, paper thin. And yet I stood there, holding on to it for dear life anyway.
‘You know,’ he said finally, ‘if this is about what happened with your dad and Heidi…’
‘It’s not.’ My voice was sharp. Defensive. Even I could hear it. ‘I told you, I had to work. I have a lot on my plate right now, okay? I can’t just spend my whole summer playing kickball. I have classes to prepare for, and books to read, if I want to hit the ground running at Defriese this fall. I’ve been slacking off so much, and now…’
‘Slacking off,’ he repeated.
‘Yes.’ I looked down at my hands. ‘It’s been fun and all. But I’m totally behind. I have to get serious.’
As I said this, down the boardwalk I could hear all those familiar voices, laughing, jeering, happy together. I knew it instantly, as the sound was much more familiar at a distance than from within it.
‘Right,’ Eli said. ‘Well. Good luck. Getting serious, and all that.’
There was something in his tone – final, distant, exactly what I’d thought I wanted – that made me suddenly realize maybe I didn’t. ‘Eli,’ I said quickly. ‘Look. I just…’
But no words followed. I just let this hang there, open-ended, waiting for him to jump in, finish it, do the hard part for me. It was my dad’s signature trick, and now I understood why. It was just so much easier than having to say what you didn’t want to aloud. But Eli didn’t fall in, doing the hard part for me. He just walked away. Not that this should have surprised me. What did he care if this sentence was finished or not? He was.
1:05 P.M.: Just on a break from a panel, thought you might want to grab lunch?
3:30 P.M.: Are you free for dinner tonight? Last Chance, around 6?
10:30 P.M.: Heading back to the dorms. Talk to you tomorrow.
I put my phone down on the desk. Leah, who was paging through some receipts, glanced at the screen. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘someone’s popular tonight.’
‘It’s just this guy I know,’ I told her. ‘From home.’
‘Just a guy,’ she repeated. ‘Is there even such a thing?’
We were in the office after closing, where everyone was waiting for me to do a few last-minute things before locking up. ‘In this case,’ I told her, ‘yes.’
My phone beeped again. I sighed, turning it over.
10:45 P.M.: If you have time to chat tonight, give me a call. Got some ideas to run by you.
‘He seems awfully persistent,’ Esther observed.
‘I think he’s just trying to make up for standing me up at prom,’ I said. ‘Or something. I don’t know.’
Really, this hadn’t occurred to me until right at that moment. But now that I thought about it, it kind of made sense.
‘You got stood up on prom night?’ Maggie asked. She looked truly upset. ‘That’s horrible.’
‘It wasn’t quite that bad,’ I said. ‘He called the day before, said he’d gotten invited to this big environmental meeting up in D.C. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
‘So is your senior prom,’ Leah said. ‘It’s a good thing you’re blowing him off. He deserves it.’
‘That’s not why I’m…’ I sighed. ‘I’m just not interested in revisiting that particular part of my past. That’s all.’