“Hey,” I said back, and he started down the steps toward us. As he came closer across the grass, I watched Monkey, amazed at his full-body excitement to see this person he’d only been away from for an hour or so. What did it feel like, I wondered, to love someone that much? So much that you couldn’t even control yourself when they came close, as if you might just break free of whatever was holding you and throw yourself at them with enough force to easily overwhelm you both. I had to wonder, but Monkey clearly knew: you could see it, feel it coming off him, like a heat. I almost envied him that. Almost.
It was late that night, when I was lying in Dexter’s room on his bed, that he picked up the guitar. He wasn’t much of a player, he told me, as he sat across the room, shirtless, barefoot, his fingers finding the strings in the dark. He played a little riff of something, a Beatles song, then a few lines of the latest version of “The Potato Opus.” He didn’t play like Ted, of course: his chords seemed more hesitant, as if he was plucking by sheer luck. I leaned back against the pillows and listened as he sang to me. A bit of this, a bit of that. Nothing in full. And then, just as I felt I might be drifting off to sleep, something else.
“This lullaby is only a few words, a simple run of chords-”
“No.” I sat up, now wide awake. “Don’t.”
Even in the dark, I could see he was surprised. He dropped his hands from the guitar and looked at me, and I hoped he couldn’t see my face either. Because it was all fun and games, so far. Just a few moments when I worried it might go deep enough to drown me. Like now. And I could pull back, would pull back, before it went that far.
I’d only told him about the song in a moment of weakness, a time of true confessions, which I usually avoided in relationships. The past was so sticky, full of land mines: I made it a point, usually, not to be so detailed in the map of myself I handed over to a guy. And the song, that song, was one of the biggest keys to me. Like a soft spot, a bruise that never quite healed right. The first place I was sure they would strike back, when the time came for them to do so.
“You don’t want to hear it?” he asked now.
“No,” I said again. “I don’t.”
He’d been so surprised when I told him. We’d been having our own challenge of sorts, a kind of Guess What You’d Never Know About Me. I found out that he was allergic to raspberries, that he’d busted out his front tooth running into a park bench in sixth grade, that his first girlfriend was a distant cousin of Elvis. And I’d told him that I’d come this close to piercing my belly button before fainting, that one year I’d sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone else in my troop, and that my father was Thomas Custer, and “This Lullaby” had been written for me.
Of course he knew the song, he said, and then hummed the opening chords, pulling the words out of thin air. They’d even sung it a couple of times at weddings, he said: some brides picked it for the dance with their father. Which seemed so stupid to me, considering the words. I will let you down, it says, right there in the first verse, plain as day. What kind of father says such a thing? But that, of course, was a question I’d long ago quit asking myself.
He was still strumming the chords, finding them in the dark.
“Why do you hate it that much?”
“I don’t hate it. I just… I’m sick of it, that’s all.” But this wasn’t true either. I did hate it sometimes, for the lie that it was. As if my father had been able, with just a few words scribbled in a Motel 6, to excuse the fact that he never bothered to know me. Seven years he’d spent with my mother, most of them good until one last blowout, resulting in him leaving for California, with her pregnant, although she didn’t find that out until later. Two years after I was born, he died of a heart attack, never having made it back across the country to see me. It was the ultimate out, this song, admitting to the world that he’d only disappoint me, and didn’t that just make him so noble, really? As if he was beating me to the punch, his words living forever, while I was left speechless, no rebuttal, no words left to say.
Dexter strummed the guitar idly, not picking out any real melody, just messing around. He said, “Funny how I’ve heard that song all my life and never knew it was for you.”
“It’s just a song,” I said, running my fingers over the windowsill, easing them around those snow globes. “I never even knew him.”
“It’s too bad. I bet he was a cool guy.”
“Maybe,” I said. It was weird to be talking about my father out loud, something I hadn’t done since sixth grade, when my mother found therapy the way some people find God and dragged us all in for group, individual, and art until her money ran out.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, and I was unnerved by how solemn he sounded, how serious. As if he’d found that map after all and was dangerously close, circling.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
He was quiet for a second, and I had a flash of his face earlier that night, caught unaware by Don’s pronouncements, and the vulnerability I’d seen there. It had unsettled me, because I was used to the Dexter I liked, the funny guy with the skinny waist and the fingers that pressed against my neck just so. In just seconds I’d seen another shade of him, and if it had been light where we were now, he’d have seen the same of me. So I was grateful, as I had been so often in my life, for the dark.
I rolled over and pressed myself into the pillow, listening to the sound of my own breathing. I heard him move, a soft noise as the guitar was put down, and next his arms were around me, circling my back, his face against my shoulder. He was so close to me in that moment, too close, but I had never pushed a guy away for that. If anything I pulled them nearer, taking them in, as I did now, sure in my belief that knowing me that well would easily be enough to scare them away.
“I mean, God,” Lissa said, stopping in front of a huge display of bedsheets, “who knows the difference between a duvet and a comforter?”
We were in Linens Etc., armed with Lissa’s mom’s gold card, the list of items that the university suggested for all incoming freshmen, and a letter from Lissa’s future roommate, a girl named Delia from Boca Raton, Florida. She’d already been in contact so that she and Lissa could color-coordinate their bed linens, discuss who should bring what in the way of televisions, microwaves, and wall hangings, and just to “break the ice” so that by August, when classes started, they’d already “be like sisters.” If Lissa wasn’t already glum about starting college post-Adam, this letter-written on pink stationery in silver ink, and spewing forth glitter when she pulled it from the envelope-had pretty much done her in.