“Fine,” my father said. “I think we can stuff this in the back, if we’re lucky.”
They went around to the back of the car and I sat in the front seat, slamming the door harder than I should have. I did hate Elizabeth Gunderson, and I hated the fact God gave me virginity just so I’d have to lose it someday and I even hated Christmas, just because I could. In September I’d told Scarlett that Macon belonged with someone like Elizabeth, and maybe I’d been right. I wasn’t ready to think about the other yet: that it wasn’t that I wasn’t right for Macon, but that maybe he wasn’t right for me. There was a difference. Even for someone who things didn’t come so easy for, someone like me.
The next afternoon, when I was supposedly at work and Macon and I were over at his house, his hand crept back again to our familiar battleground. I grabbed it, sat up, and said, “Who’s Rhetta?”
He looked at me. “Who?”
“I just want to know.”
He sighed loudly, dramatically, then flopped back across the bed. “She’s just this friend of mine,” he said. “She lives over on Coverdale.”
“You go over there a lot?” I knew I sounded petty and jealous, but there was no other way to handle this. I was prepared, soon, to hand over something valuable to him. I needed to be sure.
“Sometimes.” He traced my belly button with one finger, absently. To him, this was obviously no big deal. “How’d you know about her?”
“Elizabeth Gunderson,” I said. I was watching his face closely for a sign, any suspicious ripple at the sound of her name.
“Yeah, she’s over there sometimes,” he said casually. “She and Rhetta are friends, or something.”
“Yeah.” I was watching him, and he just stared back, suddenly catching on, and said, “What, Halley? What’s your problem ?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just thought it was weird you never mentioned it. Elizabeth said she’d seen you there a lot.”
“Elizabeth doesn’t know anything.”
“She acts like she does,” I said.
“So? Is that my fault?” He was getting angry. “God, Halley, it’s nothing, okay? Why is this important now?”
“It isn’t,” I said. “Except half the time I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing and then I hear from Elizabeth you’re off somewhere you never told me about hanging out with her.”
“I’m not hanging out with her. I’m at the same place she is, sometimes. I’m not used to being accountable to anyone. I can’t tell you what I’m doing every second, because half the time I don’t even know myself.” He shook his head. “It’s just the way I am.”
Back in the beginning, when P.E. was my life and nothing had happened between us yet, it wasn’t like this. Even two months ago, when I’d spent my afternoons just driving around with him, listening to the radio under a bright blue fall sky, there hadn’t been these issues, these awkward silences. We didn’t talk or laugh as much anymore, or even just play around. Everything had narrowed to just going to his house, parking out by the lake and battling for territory while arguing about trust and expectations. It was like dealing with my mother.
“Look,” he said, and he slid his arm around my waist, pulling me close against him. “You’ve just got to trust me, okay?”
“I know,” I said, and it was easy to believe him as we lay there in the early winter darkness, him kissing my forehead, my bare feet entwined with his. It all felt good, real good, and this is what people did; all people, except me. I felt closer than ever to telling him I loved him, but I bit it back. He had to say it first, and I willed him to just as I’d willed him to come over to me in P.E. when it all began.
Feuilleton, feuilleton, I thought hard in my head as he kissed me. Feuilleton, feuilleton. Kissing him felt so good and I closed my eyes, feeling his skin warm against mine, breathing him in.
Feuilleton, feuilleton, as his hand crept down to my waistband. I love you, I love you.
But I didn’t hear it, just like I always hadn’t. I pushed his hand back, trying to keep kissing him, but he pulled away, shaking his head.
“What?” I said, but I knew.
“Is it me?” he asked. “I mean, is it just you don’t want to do it with me?”
“No,” I said. “Of course not. It’s just—it’s a big deal to me.”
“You said you were thinking about it.”
“I am.” Every damn second, I thought. “I am, Macon.”
He sat back, his hands still around my waist. “What happened with Scarlett,” he said confidently, “that’s, like, an impossibility. We’ll be careful.”
“It’s not about that.”
He was watching me. “Then what is it about?”
“It’s about me,” I told him, and by the way he shifted, looking out the window, I could tell that wasn’t the right answer. “It’s just the way I am.”
We had come to the same place we always did, a place I knew well. Just standing across the battle line, eye to eye, no further than where we’d started. A draw.
Christmas was coming, and everyone seemed suddenly giddy. All the mothers came into Milton’s in sweatshirts with wreaths and reindeer on them and even my boss, congested Mr. Averby, wore a Santa hat on the day before Christmas. My parents went to party after party, and I lay in bed and listened to them as they came home, half drunk and silly, their voices muffled and giggly downstairs. Grandma Halley’s move to the rest home was all set, and my mother was going up there in early January to help. I thought of my grandmother in that tiny room, small in her bed, and pushed the thought away.
We had our tree, all the presents beneath it, and the Christmas cards lined up on the mantel. We had lights strung up across the porch and Christmas knickknacks on every free bit of table or wall space. My father kept breaking things. First, with a too-bold arm movement, he sent the chubby smiling porcelain Santa off the end table and into the wall, and later one of the three Wise Men from the crèche under the tree rolled across the floor and was flattened, easily, as he walked through the room. Crunch. This happened every year, which explained why all of our Christmas sets were short something—a baby Jesus, one reindeer, the tallest singing caroller. The Christmas Victims.