“All we did was have sex!” I protest.
“What about after that?”
I throw my hands in the air because he’s clearly insane. “Had more sex!”
Undeterred, Joel growls and says, “BETWEEN ALL THE SEX, DEANDRA!”
I glare at him while I think back, and then I remember, “We ordered pizza.”
“And watched Lifetime movies.” That night, between all the sex, we’d sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, with a box of pizza half on Joel’s lap and half on mine, criticizing the movie characters. We gave them horrible relationship advice that made us both laugh until Joel had a stitch in his side and I had tears in my eyes.
When the corners of my mouth slowly tip up at the memory, Joel returns my smile, his eyes brightening like he’s remembering too. “How many girls do you think I’ve sat around watching Lifetime movies with?”
When I don’t answer, he tugs my legs over his lap and says, “Look. It’s not like you ever really wanted me to be your boyfriend, so stop acting like you’re pissed off I didn’t want a girlfriend.” I open my mouth to say something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but he cuts me off. “You just wanted me to chase after you like every other guy who ever lays eyes on you, and then you would have dropped me just like the rest of them.” I would argue if I could, but I can’t, so I don’t. When I try to pull my legs away, he tightens his hold on them. “I’m not going to do that. I’m never going to do that.”
Ignoring my sarcasm, he says, “But I am going to care about you. Because you’re more than this bitchy person you pretend to be. You’re also the girl who watched shitty movies with me on Valentine’s Day and force-fed me crackers when I got shit-faced on New Year’s.”
I’m stunned into utter silence, a heat creeping into my cheeks as he becomes more real to me than he’s ever been.
“You can say I’m pretending all you want,” he continues, “but I’m not and there’s nothing either of us can do about that.”
“So you’re asking me to be your girlfriend?” I ask, attempting to sound flippant while a million nervous butterflies flutter in my belly. I don’t know what I want his answer to be. If it’s no, it’s going to hurt me. If it’s yes, it’s going to hurt him.
“What, just so you can turn me down?” he says with a half smile. “No, I’m not asking.”
“SO HOW DID things go with Joel?” Rowan asks from the couch as soon as we’re alone. We spent the evening watching three rocker boys who had no clue what they were doing try to fix my door. Adam and Shawn noticed my bruised wrists but pretended not to, and I drowned my discomfort in a blender full of frozen margarita mix and tequila. I probably should have studied for the big test I have tomorrow, but there was no way I was going to miss the spectacle in my apartment. By the time the guys left, all they succeeded at doing was taking the old door off its hinges and suggesting that I buy one of those beaded privacy curtains to take its place.
I shrug and stand in the open doorway of my room, shaking my head at the open space. “He thinks he cares about me.” Since our talk, I’ve stopped doubting that Joel thinks he cares about me. The only question now is how long it’s going to last.
“So do I,” Rowan says, and when my surprised eyes fix on her, she explains, “He busted his knuckles open and broke your door down.”
I flop onto the cushion next to her. “Yeah, because he’s an idiot.”
She chuckles. “Yeah, he is, but he’s an idiot who likes you.”
She frowns and says, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Rubbing my eyes, I confess, “Yeah, but not just because he feels like he has to.”
“What do you mean?”
I sigh and let my hand fall to my lap. “He wouldn’t have done this before.” I don’t have to specify before what, because my entire life will now be measured by the before and the after of that single event.
“Maybe that was just his wake-up call . . .”
“Yeah maybe,” I say, too tired to burst her bubble. Rowan wants me to be happy, and I want that too, but the kind of happiness I find with guys is fleeting, and the kind I’d find with Joel would be crushing.
After washing my face and telling Rowan goodnight, I curl up under warm covers, careful to place my wrists on top of my pillow instead of under it. My eyes close to the present, and a dream drags me into the past.
“Dee, come down here,” my mother says, just like she had the last time I ever saw her.
I was eleven years old, standing at the top of the stairs, staring down at her bags packed by the front door. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“Come down here so I can give you a kiss.”
I reluctantly went to the bottom of the stairs and into her arms without hugging her back. She kissed the top of my head. “Be good for your dad, okay?”
I stared up at her when she released me, and she gave me a saccharine smile I didn’t try to mirror. I knew she was leaving us. I just had no idea I’d never see her again. She cast one last look at my father, who was sitting on the couch with his head in his hands, before she turned around and stepped onto the porch, closing the door between us.
When the door clicks shut, I wake with my face covered in tears. I angrily wipe them away and knock my tear-soaked pillow into a thin ray of morning sunlight cutting a line across my hardwood floor, cursing my subconscious for making me dream of her. I haven’t cried over her since that year, after I cried every last tear out with Rowan’s arms around me. My dad cried too, when he thought I wasn’t listening, and I’ll never forgive her for that.