So it was with a less heavy conscience that I pushed myself through the (small) window, trying to be stealthy, and pretty much succeeding until I kicked the back of the house on my dismount, leaving a scuff mark by the electric meter. No biggie. Then I cut through the side yard to find Jess.
There was a time when I’d been famous for my window escapes. It was my preferred way to exit, always, even if I had a mostly clear path to the door. Maybe it was a shame thing, a punishment I chose to inflict upon myself because I knew, in my heart, that what I had done was bad. It was my penance.
Two streets over, on Caldwell, I stepped off the curb by the stop sign and held up my hand, squinting in Jess’s headlights as she came closer. She reached over, pushed open the passenger door, and then stared straight ahead, impassive, as I got in.
“Just like old times,” she said flatly. “How was it?”
I sighed. It was too late to go into details, even with her. “Old,” I said.
She turned up the radio and we cut through a side street, then passed Dexter’s house on our way out of the neighborhood. The front door was open, the porch dark, but from the light inside I could see Monkey sitting there, his nose pressed against the screen. Dexter probably didn’t even know I was gone yet. But just in case, I slid down, dropping out of sight, although I knew in the dark, and at this speed, he couldn’t have found me if he tried.
This time, I awoke to tapping.
Not normal tapping: tapping in a rhythm that I recognized. A song. It sounded, in fact, like “Oh, Tannenbaum.”
I opened one eye, then looked around me. I was in my room, my bed. Everything in place, the floor clean, my universe just as I liked it. Except for the tapping.
I rolled over, burying my face in my pillow, assuming it was one of my mother’s cats, which were all having minor breakdowns in her absence, attacking my door in an effort to get me to feed them more Fancy Feast, which they devoured by the case.
“Go away,” I mumbled into my pillow. “I mean it.”
And then, just then, the window right over my bed suddenly opened. Slid up, smooth as silk, scaring me to death, but not quite as much as Dexter shooting through it, head first, limbs flailing. One of his feet hit my bedside table, sending my clock flying across the room to crash into a closet door with a bang, while his elbow clocked me right in the gut. The only thing slightly redeeming about any of this was that he had so much momentum behind him he missed the bed entirely, instead landing with a thunk, belly-flop style, on the throw rug by my bureau. The whole commotion, while seemingly complicated, was over in a matter of seconds.
Then it was very quiet.
Dexter lifted up his head, glanced around, then put it back on the carpet. He still seemed a little stunned by the impact. I knew how he felt: I had a second-floor window, and climbing in off the trellis, as I had many times, was a bitch. “You could at least,” he said, eyes closed, “have said good-bye.”
I sat up, pulling my blanket up to my chest. It was so surreal, him splayed out on my carpet like he was. I wasn’t even sure how he’d found my house. In fact, the entire trajectory of our relationship, all the way back to the day we’d met, was like one long dream, bumpy and strange, full of things that should have made sense but didn’t. What had he said to me that first day? Something about natural chemistry. He claimed he’d noticed it right from the start, and maybe it was an explanation, of sorts, of why we kept coming together, again and again. Or maybe he was just too fucking persistent. Either way, I felt that we were at a cross-roads. A choice had to be made.
He sat up, rubbing his face with one hand. Not much the worse for wear: at least nothing was broken. Then he looked at me, as if now it was my turn to say or do something.
“You don’t want to get involved with me,” I told him. “You really don’t.”
He stood up then, wincing a bit, and walked over to the bed, sitting down. Then he leaned in to me, sliding his hand up my arm around the back of my neck, pulling me nearer to him, and for a second we just stayed like that, looking at each other. And I had a sudden flash of the night before, a part of memory opening up and falling into my hands again, where I could see it clearly. It was like a picture, a snapshot: a girl and boy standing in front of a phone booth. The girl had her hands over her eyes. The boy stood in front of her, watching. He was speaking, softly. And then, all of a sudden, the girl stepped forward, pressing her face into his chest as he lifted his hands to stroke her hair.
So it had been me. Maybe I’d known that all along, and that was why I had run. Because I didn’t show weakness: I didn’t depend on anyone. And if he’d been like the others, and just let me go, I would have been fine. It would have been easy to go on conveniently forgetting as I kept my heart clenched tight, away from where anyone could get to it.
Now, Dexter sat as close to me as I could remember him being. It seemed like this day could go in so many directions, like a spiderweb shooting out toward endless possibilities. Whenever you made a choice, especially one you’d been resisting, it always affected everything else, some in big ways, like a tremor beneath your feet, others in so tiny a shift you hardly noticed a change at all. But it was happening.
And so, while the rest of the world went on unaware, drinking their coffee, reading the sports page, and picking up their dry cleaning, I leaned forward and kissed Dexter, making a choice that would change everything. Maybe somewhere there was a ripple, a bit of a jump, some small shift in the universe, barely noticeable. I didn’t feel it then. I felt only him kissing me back, easing me into the sunlight as I lost myself in the taste of him and felt the world go on, just as it always had, all around us.
“Don’t you give me no rotten tomato, cause all I ever wanted was your sweet potato.” Dexter stopped as the music did. Now, all we could hear was the fridge rattling and Monkey snoring. “Okay, so what else rhymes with potato? ”
Ted strummed his guitar, looking at the ceiling. On the couch by the refrigerator, John Miller rolled over, his red head bonking the wall.
“Anybody?” Dexter asked.
“Well,” Lucas said, crossing his legs, “it depends on if you want a real rhyme, or a pseudo rhyme.”
Dexter looked at him. “Pseudo rhyme,” he repeated.
“A real rhyme,” Lucas began, in what I already recognized as his eggbert voice, “is tomato. But you could easily tack an o onto another word and make a rhyme of it, even if it’s not grammatically correct. Like, say, relate-o. Or abate-o.”