I took a step closer to him.
"—snapped," he finished. "I lost it."
"It's okay," I said.
"I knew even when I was doing it I'd regret it," he said.
"That it wasn't worth it. But by then it was already happening. I'm really pissed off at myself, if you want to know the truth."
"It was just one punch," he grumbled, then added quickly, "which doesn't make it okay. And I'm so freaking lucky the bouncer just broke us up and told us both to get out of there, and didn't call the cops. If he had…" He trailed off. "It's just so stupid."
"But you told your mom anyway," I said.
"When I got home, she could tell I was pissed. So she asked me what happened, and I had to tell her—"
"Because you're honest," I said, taking another step.
"Well, yeah," he said, looking down at me. "She was livid, to say the least. Laid down this hardcore punishment, totally deserved, but then today, when I tried to leave to come here, things got kind of sticky."
"It's okay," I said again.
"It's not, though." Behind him, the fountain was splashing, sunlight glinting off the water. "Because I'm not like that. Anymore. I just… freaked out."
I reached up, brushing his hair out of his face. "Huh," I said. "Really."
"I don't know." I shrugged. "It's just to me, that's not freaking out."
"It's not," he said. Then he just looked at me for a second. "Oh," he said finally. "Right."
"I mean, to me," I said, moving closer, "freaking out is different. More of a running away, not telling anyone what's wrong, slowly simmering until you burst kind of thing."
"Ah," he said. "Well, I guess it's just a matter of semantics."
"I guess so."
People were still moving all around us, on their way here and there, filling up their lunch hour however they could before the rest of the day began. I knew that somewhere behind me, my family was waiting, but still I reached my hand down to brush his.
"You know," Owen said, as his fingers found mine, "it sure seems like you have all the answers."
"Nah," I told him. "I'm just doing the best I can, under the circumstances."
"How's that going?" he asked.
There was no short answer to this; like so much else, it was a long story. But what really makes any story real is knowing someone will hear it. And understand.
"Well, you know," I said to Owen now. "It's day by day."
He smiled at me, and I smiled back, then stepped closer, turning my face up to meet his. As he leaned down to kiss me, I closed my eyes and saw not the flat black of the dark but something else. Something brighter, closer to light, shining small but ever steady. More than enough to go on as a part of me pushed up and out, finally, to meet it there.
I slipped on my headphones, then looked over at Rolly. When he flashed me a thumbs-up, I leaned into the microphone.
"It's seven fifty, and you're listening to your community radio station, WRUS. If you're looking for Anger Management, it will return in"—I glanced at my notepad, where, above my neatly written playlist, there was a big number two, followed by an exclamation point—"two weeks. In the meantime, I'm Annabel, and this is Story of My Life. Here's The Clash."
I kept my headphones on, watching Rolly until the first notes of "Rebel Waltz" were audible. Then I finally let out the breath I felt like I'd been holding forever, just as the speaker over my head popped and Clarke came on.
"Nice," she said. "You barely sounded nervous."
"That's still nervous," I told her.
"You're doing great," Rolly said. "And I don't know why you get so worried anyway. It's not like you're walking in front of people in a bathing suit." Clarke turned, shooting him a look. "What?" he said. "It's true!"
"This is harder," I said, sliding off my headphones. "Much harder."
"Why?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "It's more real. Personal."
And it was. In fact, I'd been terrified when Owen had first asked me to fill in when his mom decided that taking away the radio show was the only sufficient punishment for what he'd done to Will Cash. But once he'd convinced me that Rolly (and Clarke) would be there to help with the technical stuff and make sure I stayed on time every week, I'd agreed to try it at least once. That had been four weeks ago, and while I was still nervous, I was also having fun. So much that Rolly was already bugging me to take the community radio prep course and apply for my own time slot, but I wasn't quite ready for that yet. But never say never.
Of course, Owen was still involved with the show. When I'd first started subbing for him, he'd insisted that I stick to his playlist, even when it meant forcing music I hated on the masses. After the first week, though (and once he realized that he really couldn't stop me), he'd relented, and I'd started putting my own songs in here and there. There was something really great about being able to put something out into the world—a song, an introduction, even my voice—and let people make of it what they wanted. I didn't have to worry about how I looked, or if the image of me people had fit who I really was. The music spoke for itself and for me, and after so long being watched and studied, I was finding I liked that. A lot.
Rolly knocked on the glass between us, then signaled to me to get the next song ready to go. It was a Jenny Reef single, for Mallory—my first true fan—who made a point of setting her alarm each week so she could call in a request. I cued it up, then waited until The Clash began to fade out before hitting the button to begin its bouncy beats (a segue that I knew would annoy Owen, who for various reasons insisted on listening to the broadcast of the show in the car, alone). Once it had fully started, I shifted in my chair, glancing over at the row of pictures I had lined up next to my monitor. When I'd first started, I'd been so nervous I figured I could use all the inspiration I could get. So I'd brought in the shot of Mallory with the feather boa circling her face, to remind me at least one person was listening. The one of me Owen had taken, so I'd keep in mind that it didn't matter if she was the only one. And then one more.
It was shot of me and my mother and sisters, taken at New Year's. Unlike the one in the foyer, it was hardly professional, with no dramatic vista behind us. Instead, we were all standing at the kitchen island. We'd just been talking, about what I couldn't even remember, and then Kirsten's boyfriend Brian— with the class over, they were now free and clear to make their relationship public—was telling us to look here, and the shutter snapped. It was not a great picture in the technical sense. You can see the flash in the window behind us, my mother has her mouth open, and Whitney is laughing. But I loved it, because it was what we looked like. And best of all, this time no one was in the middle.