“Yeah. He was like this weird mix between a good boy and a bad boy. He always looked the part of a bad boy, but the teachers always loved him because he always pulled straight As.” She chuckles and says, “I had a friend back then who had such a crush on him. I mean, a lot of girls had crushes on him, but she reeeally liked him. I think she’s in a band now too.”
She trails off, thinking about her friend, and I say, “What about Mike?”
“I don’t remember Mike before middle school, but even then, he just kind of kept to himself. I played clarinet, and I remember he joined band for like . . . a month. Then he just walked out one practice and never came back.”
“It was too easy!” Mike shouts from the couch, surprising us with his superhuman hearing.
Jenny laughs. “I think he started the band with Adam and Shawn shortly after that. He dated a girl for most of high school,” she lowers her voice to a whisper, “but she was a total bitch.”
“What about Joel?” I ask.
“I think he moved to town halfway through our freshman year. Back then he didn’t have the mohawk. He just had a head full of messy blond hair, and the girls loved it. He had like this grunge bad-boy look.”
I wonder if she knows about Joel’s mom, that he probably didn’t look grungy by choice, but I don’t ask.
“He always spent classes doodling in a notebook instead of paying attention. A few teachers really got on his case because they said he was wasting his potential, but I think he always knew what he wanted to do with his life, you know? All those study halls he spent in the music room ended up being worth it.”
Last Tuesday night, Joel came over with an acoustic guitar since he said he was working on a song but wanted to see me. We spent the evening sitting together in my living room, him strumming his guitar and working out the notes, and me working on a paper for English class while trying not to jump his bones. There was just something about seeing him play that guitar, so deep in concentration, that made me squirm in my seat. When he finally put it down, I was on his lap in a matter of seconds, tugging his shirt over his head and kissing him senseless.
I’m lost in the memory when Joel walks back inside, and I take a big gulp of my margarita to try to get my head straight.
“You two are really cute together,” Jenny says. She pats my arm and walks away.
“What were you girls talking about?” Joel asks when he takes her spot.
“You,” I taunt.
A tipsy smile consumes his face, and he says, “About how hot I am?”
I laugh and say, “Nope. About what a nerd you were in high school.”
He follows me out to the living room, protesting the whole way. “I was not a nerd. If anything, Shawn was the nerd.”
“Hey!” Shawn says, and a bunch of us laugh. “I was not a nerd.”
“You were kind of a nerd,” Mike says, and Shawn glares at him.
“Didn’t you used to let Adam copy all of your assignments?” Jenny’s boyfriend asks, and Shawn scoffs.
“What else was I supposed to do? Let him fail?”
Patting Shawn on the back, Adam says, “You’re a good friend.”
Shawn scoffs and knocks Adam’s hand away. “Whatever. You still owe me thirty bucks for doing that history paper for you for Mr. Veit’s class.”
“Joel still owes me thirty bucks for when I took the fall for him denting my mom’s car with that skateboard,” Adam counters.
The boys start squabbling over who owes who what, and I break it up by bringing Joel one of his presents from the gift table. “This one is from Blake and Jenny.”
He opens gift after gift, getting T-shirts and albums and gift cards and expensive liquor. Rowan got him personalized guitar picks, Leti got him a kickass pair of shades, and the guys all chipped in to get him a special kind of Fender guitar that everyone oohs and aahs over. I give him my gifts last, trying not to fidget as he opens them.
When he pulls back shiny green wrapping paper to reveal a graphite pencil set, he smiles down at the box.
“I didn’t want you to be able to back out of our deal,” I say, only half joking.
“What deal?” Rowan asks.
“He’s going to draw me something for my birthday.”
“You draw?” she asks Joel, and he finally turns his smile up to me.
“He was really good,” Adam offers, and I hand Joel my next present before anyone can ask any more questions he might not want to answer.
“Another one?” he asks, setting his pencil set carefully aside before taking the box I hand him and shaking it next to his ear.
“Just open it.”
Joel peels the wrapping paper away from the front of the box in one clean swipe, revealing the Hot Wheels Dragon race track that he got for his birthday when he was a kid—before his mom sold it to fund her alcohol addiction.
Adam and Shawn start gushing about the track, reminiscing in their own childhoods, but it’s all just white noise surrounding Joel’s blank expression. My heart plummets as he stares down at the set, unmoving and unsmiling.
I open my mouth to say something. To apologize. But then he looks up at me, and his eyes are bright and glassy. I barely have time to register the tears in his eyes before he sets the gift aside and walks right toward me, lifting me off the floor without breaking stride. He carries me all the way down the hall to my room, closing the door behind us, and then we’re just standing there, me with my feet off the floor and him with his face buried in my neck.