Fumbling my words a bit, I said, “Um…thank you. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be thanking you, because you caused it.”
“It was a long time coming. I’d wanted to throw you in the water since the first day I got here.”
“Yeah. Really.” He smiled mischievously.
“By the way, why are you still here?”
He squinted. “What do you mean?”
“You could have easily gone back to New York with Jade. You know that.”
“Are you implying something?”
“I’m not implying anything. I just know that you’ve been using the Sandy’s gig as the reason, and I find that hard to believe.”
“What do you want to hear, Amelia…that I’m here because of you?”
“No…I don’t know. I—”
“I don’t know why I’m here. Alright? That’s the truth. It just didn’t feel like it was time to leave.”
“Are you done interrogating me for one night…pain in my ass?”
“Yes.” I smiled. “Payne in my ass” was another name he used to call me. It was a play on my last name—Payne.
“For the record, I’m really glad you stayed.”
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes then said, “Trying to hate you is exhausting.”
“So, stop trying.”
My teeth started to chatter; it was getting chilly out.
“We’d better go inside,” he said.
Following him to the house, I couldn’t help thinking that the cold air outside had nothing on the warm feeling inside of me from having reconnected with him tonight.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“Go change. I’ll make dinner.”
“Well, we gotta eat, don’t we?”
“Yeah. I guess we do. I’ll be back.” I smiled all the way to my room, giddy from the idea of him cooking for me.
When I returned with a dry outfit, my heart fluttered at the sight of Justin standing at the stove. He was still shirtless and wearing his gray beanie while frying some vegetables in a pan.
I cleared my throat. “Smells good. What are you making?”
“Just a teriyaki stir fry with rice…seeing as though you have a limited palette. When the hell did you stop eating red meat anyway? You used to be a carnivore.”
He must have remembered how much we enjoyed Burger Barn together in the old days.
“One day, I just woke up and thought about how bizarre it was to be eating a cow. It made no sense. And I just stopped cold turkey.”
“Seriously? That’s kind of ridiculous.”
“You’ve always been a little bizarre, Amelia. I can’t say that surprises me.”
I winked. “That’s why you love me.” I’d meant it to come out facetiously but immediately regretted using the word love given his prior admission. When he didn’t respond, I panicked and diarrhea of the mouth developed. “I didn’t mean that you still love me. I was just joking. I—”
He held out his palm. “Stop while you’re ahead. I knew what you meant.”
I pursed my lips, trying to think of a quick change of subject. “Do you think you’ll go back to playing at Sandy’s tomorrow night?”
“Good. I’m really looking forward to hearing you perform again.”
He grabbed two plates and emptied the contents of the pan onto each of them then slid mine across the counter. “Here.”
“Thank you. This smells delicious.”
The dish he’d made was actually very tasty. He’d added sesame seeds and water chestnuts. “Where did you learn to cook like this?”
“Self-taught. I’ve been cooking for myself for years.”
“Where are your parents now?”
“I thought we were done talking about this stuff.”
“Sorry. You’re right.”
Despite his having said that, he looked up from his plate and answered my question anyway. “My mother moved back to Cincinnati when I was in college. They sold the house. My father lives in a condo in Providence now.”
“How long after I left did things continue between my mother and him?”
“About a year. My mother found out about what they were doing under our roof and kicked him out. He lived with Patricia for a while before things went sour between them.”
“He moved in with her?”
I couldn’t believe it.
“My mother kept that from me then. That explains why Nana stopped speaking to her around that time. She was mortified by their actions.”
“I spent a lot of time over there with your grandmother before I moved away. She was the only person who kept me sane.”
“Did you ever talk about me to her?”
“She tried to get me to, but I wouldn’t.”
“Do you think she left us both this house because she knew it would force us to face each other?”
“I honestly don’t know, Amelia.”
“I think she did.”
“I had no intention of coming here and trying to make amends with you.”
“No…really? I didn’t catch on.” When he cracked a slight smile, I asked, “Do you still feel the same?”
“Things don’t change overnight. We talked. That’s not gonna erase years of shit that happened. We’re not going to just be able to magically be best friends again.”
“I never expected that.” Playing with the remnants of my food, I thought long and hard before speaking again. “I’m just gonna say one last thing. And then I promise I won’t harp on it anymore.”
“I wouldn’t put money on that.” When his mouth curved into another smile, it was enough to give me the confidence to spill my guts one last time.
“I will probably spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t run away, if I’d just put my fear aside and told you everything I was feeling. You told me tonight that you were in love with me back then. I truly didn’t know that, Justin, but I wish I had. I really had no clue you felt that way. I need you to know that I loved you, too. I just had a really shitty way of showing it. And to think that you spent all of these years hating me. I just want you to be happy. If being around me makes you angry or stressed, then I don’t want to force anything, and if that’s the case, maybe it is best that we keep our distance. But if there’s a chance that we can truly be friends again, I would want nothing more. And I’m not stupid. Of course, I know it won’t happen overnight. That’s it. I won’t say anything else about it.” I got up from the table and put my plate in the dishwasher. “Thank you for dinner and for talking to me. I’m gonna turn in early.”
Just as my foot hit the first step to go upstairs, his voice stopped me. “I never hated you. I couldn’t hate you if I tried. Believe me, I have tried.”
Turning around and smiling, I said, “Good to know.”
“Good night, Payne in my ass.”
“Good night, Justin.”
Two days later, I was having my morning coffee when a text notification lit up my phone. It was from Dr. Will Danger.