Falling. Leaping. His hand should be a lifeline, but it’s pushing me over the edge. His words, batting at my heart.
“Have you brought many other guys here?” he asks after a while, his voice unreadable.
“Not when the pools are empty like this.”
“What about the lifeguard?” he prompts.
I stare up at the sky, knowing I should lie but not having the heart to. “No. Just you.”
I don’t know what we’re doing here. Joel and I aren’t the kind of people to lie under the stars—not holding hands, not having conversations that will haunt me fifty years from now when we barely remember each other’s faces because too many others have come in between.
“I feel like I’m keeping a secret,” he says, and I feel like I’m keeping a secret too. A lot of them. So many. Like how badly I want to pull my hand away and then cry in his arms for doing it.
I know he’s keeping secrets too. I’ve been trying not to guess what they are.
“Some secrets are better off kept,” I say, pleading with him to keep it.
“I love you.”
I close my eyes, my heart silently breaking. Part of me knew this would happen, but I was too selfish to stop it. “No, you don’t.”
The words have been said to me before. From some guys, that’s all they were—words. From others, they were a misguided belief that left them brokenhearted. This time, I’m the one who breaks.
Joel sits up, still clinging to my hand. “Dee, I nearly killed a man for hurting you. I changed my whole life to be with you. I bought a car to drive three hundred miles just because I was going crazy not seeing you. You don’t have to say it back, but don’t tell me how I feel.”
I don’t say it back. I can’t.
“Say something,” he begs after a while. My eyes are still closed. If I don’t have to see his face, maybe this won’t hurt as much.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“I’m sorry.” I open my eyes, and the broken way he looks at me grips at my heart. I sit up, wanting to hug him close, wanting to apologize for apologizing, but I’m doing this for both of us. Because neither one of us is the type of person anyone should give their heart to. Not if they want it kept in one piece.
I take my hand from his.
“I think you should go home.”
Years of practice help keep my face blank. “You should go home.” I begin gathering the towels, but Joel grasps my hand again, like he’s the one falling and he needs me to hold on to.
“Why? Why are you doing this?” I pull my hand away, and he says, “Is it because of your mom?”
Ice shoots through my veins, freezing me in place. “What do you know about my mom?”
“Your dad told me about her this morning—”
“He told you?”
“I didn’t ask. He just brought it up. I know that her leaving must have messed with your head but—”
“You know nothing,” I spit, standing up in a rush of frustration.
“Dee . . .” Joel says, standing up to face me. His voice remains soft in spite of the way I’m glaring at him. “I want to be with you. I don’t give a shit about your mom. You’re right, I don’t know anything. I only know that I’m in love with you. Like seriously fucking in love with you.”
I gather the blankets while he just stands there. “I’m sorry you think you fell in love, Joel. The good news is you’ll get over it.”
“You’ll have to.”
His expression hardens, and I’m glad. If he hates me, this will be so much easier.
“Are you fucking kidding me right now? You made me fall in love with you just to throw me out like the fucking trash?”
There it is. I made him fall in love with me. Just like all the others. I’m no better than my mother. The only difference is, I care enough about him to walk away before it’s too late—before this spark between us grows and grows and fucking grows until there’s nothing left but ashes when it finally runs out of fuel.
“Is this what you wanted all along?” Joel snaps. “Was this your fucking plan? To fucking crush me?”
“Go home, Joel.”
With the towels in my arms, I walk away from him.
I don’t look back. I can’t.
I ARRIVE BACK at the house before Joel, walk right into the dining room, and pull a bottle of tequila from the liquor cabinet.
“Dee?” my dad asks when he enters the room behind me. “Joel just pulled out of the driveway. Did something . . .” He trails off when I finish pouring myself a glass and turn around. “What the hell are you doing?”
“What, it’s okay for me to date rock stars with tattoos and piercings but I can’t have a freaking drink?”
My dad’s brows turn in as he studies me. “What happened?”
“Oh, you know,” I say, swirling the liquid in my glass. “Classic case of girl meets boy, boy saves girl, girl hangs out with boy, boy tells girl he loves her, girl tells boy to get lost.”
When my dad just stares at me like I’m a creature that possessed his daughter, I say, “Why’d you tell him about Mom?” His face pales, and I challenge, “It wasn’t enough for you to ask him to stay for Easter and invite him to Christmas, you had to go and tell him about Mom too?”