“Crazy for you,” he replied, then leaned in, giving her a kiss on the lips. When they separated—about two beats longer than I was comfortable with—he turned his attention to me. “Sydney. Hey.”
“Hi,” I said.
This courtesy done, he turned back to Layla, who flushed happily. It had been her idea to pick Frazier and not Seaside, as she maintained that both her dad and Mac hated everyone she dated on sight. I seemed to remember Mac saying this was not true of her last boyfriend, even if Mr. Chatham hadn’t wanted to admit it. This was just a small detail. But the secrecy didn’t help with my suspicion.
It soon became clear that Spence felt about as enthusiastic about me. At first, he seemed fine that I was always tagging along to their various meetings. After a couple of weeks, though, I could tell that the little time they did get between his busy schedule and the fact that Layla was always working they wanted to spend alone. Maybe I should have taken this hint and left them to do just that. Instead, I made her spell it out for me.
“It’s just,” she said one day at lunch, while Eric, Mac, and Irv were having yet another loud debate about possible band names, “Spence really likes you. I mean, he thinks you’re so funny and smart. Because, you know, you are.”
I raised an eyebrow. This kind of kiss-up always led to a rug being yanked out from beneath you.
“But,” she continued, looking down at her hands, “we both want to, you know, have a chance to get to know each other. Alone.”
I glanced at Mac, but he was eating a handful of sunflower seeds, listening to Eric defend the name Cro-Magnon as a reference to the “evolutionary” nature of the band’s direction. “How are you going to do that, though?”
“Well.” She cleared her throat. “If I went home with you once in a while . . .”
“You want to hook up at my house?” I asked.
“No!” Now she looked at the boys, then lowered her voice even further. “He could meet me there, get me. And then I could come back. Later.”
“You want me to lie to Mac, too?”
“Sydney, it’s not lying.” I gave her a look. “It’s not! I’ll be at your house. Just . . . not the entire time.”
I knew I should say no: this sort of thing never ended well. But it was Layla asking, and she’d done so much for me. So I agreed.
The first time, everything went according to plan. We went to my house after school, where my mom immediately fell back into her snack-and-school-day-summary mode. When she went to the War Room to do some stuff for the Lincoln graduation, we took a walk, ostensibly to the convenience store just outside the neighborhood for Slurpees. Two blocks from my house, Spence was waiting.
“We meet in one hour,” I told her as she climbed happily into the passenger seat of his huge Chevy Suburban. “Right here. Yes?”
“Yes!” she said. He already had his hand on her knee. “Thank you!”
And they had showed up right on time, parting with a kiss so long, I had to distract myself by studying the topiary in a nearby yard. As we walked the two blocks back, she was happier than I’d ever seen her. That was enough to make me feel like whatever this was we were doing couldn’t be all bad.
We tried again the following week, with these same steps. This time, though, two things happened: Layla was late, and Mac showed up unexpectedly.
I was sitting on the curb when I saw him coming. At first, I felt the same burst of nervousness and happiness that I always did in his presence. The latter waned, then disappeared altogether, when I realized not only that his sister was nowhere in sight or nearby, but that I didn’t even know where she was.
It was too late to try to dodge him. So I just sat there as he pulled up beside me. He had on a blue long-sleeve T-shirt, and as he leaned out the window, looking at me, his Saint Bathilde pendant slid down the chain into view. Every time I saw it, I tried to imagine his neck so thick it was tight there. I still hadn’t been able to.
“Hey,” he said. “What are you doing?”
This was a fair question. Unfortunately, I did not have an answer. “Um, just sitting,” I said. “Waiting.”
He didn’t say this in an accusing way. His voice was not pointed nor his tone suspicious. But I caved, immediately and totally, anyway. “Layla.”
Somehow, he did not look surprised to hear this. He cut the engine, then sat back. “She’s with that guy, huh? The three-pizza eater.”
Now I was taken aback. “You know about him?”
He just looked at me. “Sydney, please. You guys are not that stealth.”
“Hey!” I protested.
“What, you want to be a good liar?”
He had a point. “She does seem to really like him.”
“She must, if she’s leaving you sitting here alone.” I looked down at my hands, not sure what to say to this. “I’ve got to run a delivery. Want to come?”
“Really?” I asked.
In response, he cranked the engine, then reached over, clearing a spot on the seat next to him. I walked around, pulling open the door, and got in.
Mac showed up, I texted Layla as he turned around and we headed out of the neighborhood.
A moment later, she responded. Shit.
We’re doing a delivery, I typed. Same spot in 20?
OK. Then, just as I was about to put my phone away, one more message. Sorry.
I wasn’t. In fact, as Mac and I pulled out of the Arbors, I was happier than I’d been in a while. And, weirdly enough, not nervous. As if where I was—riding beside him in the dusty truck, the radio on low—was not a new place, but one altogether familiar that I’d returned to after a long absence.