Kristy leaned across me, saying, “Wasn’t she the one you had to explain the concept of odd numbers to during that summer math tutoring thing you did?”
Bert nodded. “Twice,” he said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Monica said, nodding.
Kristy rolled her eyes, then took a sip of her beer. Her palm felt warm against mine, and I realized how long it had been since anyone had held my hand. I looked at Wes, remembering his sculpture, the heart cut into the palm. He was looking at me, just as I’d thought he would be, but like Bert’s, his look was not what I expected. No pity, no sadness: nothing had changed. I realized all those times I’d felt people stare at me, their faces had been pictures, abstracts. None of them were mirrors, able to reflect back the expression I thought only I wore, the feelings only I felt. Until now, this moment, as our eyes met. If there was a way to recognize something you’d never seen but still knew by heart, I felt it as I looked at his face. Finally, someone understood.
“Still,” Kristy said wistfully, “I did like her halter top. I have a black skirt that would look just great with that.”
We just sat there for a second, none of us talking. In the middle of the clearing, someone was playing with a flashlight, the beam moving across the trees overhead, showing bits and pieces of branches and leaves, a glimpse here and there, then darkness again. I knew that in the last few minutes everything had changed. I’d tried to hold myself apart, showing only what I wanted, doling out bits and pieces of who I was. But that only works for so long. Eventually, even the smallest fragments can’t help but make a whole.
An hour later, we were in the back of the Bertmobile on the couch, being honest. It might have been the beer.
I was not a drinker, never had been. But after what had happened with Rachel, I’d felt shaken enough to agree when Kristy offered to go get me a very small beer, which I was, she assured me, under absolutely no obligation to drink. After a few sips, we’d started talking about boys, and it just went from there.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, crossing one white boot over the other. “My last boyfriend left me for dead out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like that should be so hard to improve upon. I want a nice boy. You know?”
It was strange to me to be sitting there as if the whole thing with Rachel had never happened. But after we’d sat there for just a second, Wes said he had someone he had to find who had promised him some rebar; Bert tagged along; and Kristy, Monica, and I moved onto the couch to discuss other things. My secret, released, did not hover over like a dark cloud. Instead, it dissipated, grew fainter, until it seemed, if not forgotten, left behind for the time being.
“What I really would like,” Kristy said now, pulling me back to the present conversation, “is a smart boy. I’m sick of guys who can’t even remember my name, much less spell it. Someone really focused and brainy. That’s what I want.”
“No, you don’t,” I said, taking another sip of my beer. Only when I swallowed did I realize they were both looking at me, waiting for me to elaborate. “I had a boyfriend like that,” I explained. “Or have. Or sort of have.”
“Oh, those are the worst,” she said sympathetically, nodding.
I was confused. “What are?”
“Sort-of boyfriends.” She sighed. “You know, they sort of like you, then they sort of don’t. The only thing they’re absolutely sure of is that they want to get into your pants. I hate that.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Monica agreed adamantly.
“Actually,” I said, “it’s not like that, exactly. We’re more sort of not together, and not broken up. We’re on a break.”
“A break,” Kristy repeated, sounding out the word as if it was foreign, one she’d never heard before. “Meaning . . .” She moved her hand in a motion that meant I was supposed to jump in, anytime now.
“Meaning,” I told her, “that there were some concerns about us not wanting the same things, not having the same expectations. So we’ve agreed to not be in contact until the end of the summer, and then we’re going to see where we stand.”
She and Monica contemplated this for a moment. “That,” Kristy said finally, “is just so very mature.”
“Well, that’s Jason,” I told her. “It was his idea, really.”
“How long has this break been going on?” she asked.
I thought for a second. “Since the night I met you,” I told her, and her eyes widened, surprised. “He’d just emailed me about it, like, an hour earlier.”
“That is so funny,” she said, “because that night, I was picking up on something, like you had a boyfriend or were in some sort of situation.” She pointed at Monica. “Didn’t I say that, that night?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Monica said.
“You just looked . . .” she said, searching for the word, “taken, you know? Plus you hardly reacted to Wes. I mean, you did a little, but nothing like most girls. It was a little swoon. Not a sa-woon, you know?”
I said, “Sa-woon?”
“Oh, come on,” she said, shaking her head. “Even a blind girl could tell he’s amazing.”
Beside me, Monica sighed wistfully in agreement.
“So why haven’t you gone out with him?” I asked her.
“Can’t,” she said flatly. “He’s too much like family. I mean, after the accident, when my mom flaked out and took off to find herself and we came to live with Stella, I was crazy for him. We both were.”
“Bettaquit,” Monica said darkly.
“It’s still a sore subject,” Kristy explained, while Monica turned her head, exhaling. “Anyway, I did everything I could to get his attention, but he’d just gotten back from Myers School then, was still dealing with his mom dying and all that. So he had a lot on his mind. At least I told myself that’s why he could resist me.”
“Myers School?” I said.
Kristy nodded. “Yeah. It’s a reform school.”
I knew this. Jason had tutored out there, and I’d often ridden along with him, then sat in the car doing homework while he went inside. Delia had said Wes had gotten arrested: I supposed this was the punishment. Maybe he’d even been there those days, as I sat in the car, looking up at the loops of barbed wire along the fence, while cars whizzed by on the highway behind me.