I held up my fingers, where I’d been keeping track. “I win by one,” I said. “Pay up.”
He started to reach into his pockets, sighing, then instead pulled me closer, spreading his fingers around my waist, burying his face in my neck.
“Nope,” I said, putting my hands on his chest, “won’t work.”
“I’ll be your slave,” he said into my ear, and I felt a chill run up my back, then cast it off just as quickly, reminding myself again that I always had a boyfriend in summer, someone that caught my eye after school was finished and usually lasted right up until the beach trip my family took each August. The only difference this time was that I was going west instead of east. And I liked being able to think about it that way, in terms of a compass, something set in stone that would remain, unchanged, long after I was gone.
Besides, I knew already we would never work long-term. He was so imperfect already, his cracks and fissures apparent. I could only imagine what structural damage lay beneath, deep in the foundation. But still, it was hard to keep my head clear as he kissed me there, in July, with another challenge behind me. After all, I was up now, and it still seemed like we had time.
“The question is, has he been given The Speech yet?” Jess asked.
“No,” Chloe told her. “The question is, have you slept with him yet?”
They all looked at me. It wasn’t rude for them to ask, of course: usually this was common knowledge-once, common assumption. But now I hesitated, which was unnerving.
“No,” I said finally. There was a quick intake of breath-shock!-from somebody, then silence.
“Wow,” Lissa said finally. “You like him.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said, not refuting this exactly, which set off another round of silence and exchanged looks. Out at the Spot, with the sun going down, I felt the trampoline bounce lightly beneath me and leaned back, spreading my fingers over the cool metal of the springs.
“No Speech, no sex,” Jess said, summing up. “This is dangerous.”
“Maybe he’s different,” Lissa offered, stirring her drink with one finger.
“Nobody’s different,” Chloe told her. “Remy knows that better than any of us.”
It says something about my absolute adherence to a plan concerning relationships that my best friends had terms, like outline headings, detailing my actions. The Speech usually came right as the heady, romantic, fun-new-boyfriend phase was boiling to full steam. It was my way of hitting the brakes, slowly downshifting, and usually involved me pulling whatever Ken was in my life at that time aside to say something like: hey, I really like you and we’re having fun, but you know, I can’t get too serious because I’m going to the beach/really going to focus on school come fall/just getting over someone and not up to anything long-term. This was the summer speech: the winter/holiday one was pretty much the same, except you inserted I’m going skiing/really going to have to rally until graduation/dealing with a lot of family crap for the last part. And usually, guys took it one of two ways. If they really liked me, as in wear-my-class-ring-love-me-always, they bolted, which was just as well. If they liked me but were willing to slow down, to see boundaries, they nodded and saved face by saying they felt the same way. And then I was free to proceed to the next step, which-and I’m not proud-usually involved sleeping with them.
But not right away. Never right away, not anymore. I liked to have enough time invested to see a few cracks and get rid of anyone whose failings I knew I couldn’t deal with in the long term, i.e., more than the six weeks that usually encompassed the fun-new-boyfriend phase.
Once, I was easy. Now, I was choosy. See? Big difference. And besides, something was different about Dexter. Whenever I tried to revert to my set outline, something stopped me. I could give him the talk, and he’d probably be fine with it. I could sleep with him, and he’d be fine-more than fine-with that too. But somewhere, deep in my conscious mind, something niggled me that maybe he wouldn’t, that maybe he’d think less of me, or something. I knew it was stupid.
And besides, I’d just been busy. That was probably it, really.
Chloe opened her bottled water, took a swig, then chased it with a sip from the tiny bottle of bourbon in her hand. “What are you doing?” she asked me, point blank.
“I’m just having fun,” I replied, taking a swig of my Diet Zip. It seemed easy to say this, having just run through it in my head. “He’s leaving at the end of the summer too, you know.”
“Then why haven’t you given him The Speech?” Jess asked.
“I just,” I said, and then shook my cup, stalling. “I haven’t thought about it, to be honest.”
They looked at one another, considering the implications of this. Lissa said, “I think he’s really nice, Remy. He’s sweet.”
“He’s clumsy,” Jess grumbled. “He keeps stepping on my feet.”
“Maybe,” Chloe said, as if it was just occurring to her, “you just have big feet.”
“Maybe,” Jess replied, “you should shut up.”
Lissa sighed, closing her eyes. “You guys. Please. We’re talking about Remy.”
“We don’t have to talk about Remy,” I said. “We really don’t. Let’s talk about somebody else.”
There was silence for a second: I sucked down some more of my drink, Lissa lit a cigarette. Finally Chloe said, “You know, the other night Dexter said he’d give me ten bucks if I could stand on my head for twenty minutes. What the hell does that mean?”
They all looked at me. I said, “Just ignore him. Next?”
“I think Adam’s seeing someone else,” Lissa said suddenly.
“Okay,” I said. “Now, see, this is interesting.”
Lissa ran her finger over the rim of her cup, her head down, one curl bouncing slightly with the movement. It had been about a month since Adam had dumped her, and she’d moved through her weepy stage to just kind of sad all the time, with occasional moments when I actually heard her laugh out loud, then stop, as if she’d forgotten she wasn’t supposed to be happy.
“Who is she?” Chloe asked.
“I don’t know. She drives a red Mazda.”
Jess looked at me, shaking her head. I said, “Lissa, have you been driving by his house?”
“No,” she said, and then looked up at us. We, of course, were all staring back at her, knowing she was lying. “No! But the other day there was construction on Willow and then I-”