I give it to her anyway. “It’s you and me. Not you and I. So, the correct way to say it would be: there will be stroking between you and me.”
She starts laughing. “I see what you did there.”
Shrugging, I begin laughing as well. “I tried.” I clear dishes from the other end of the counter and then stand around like a fool. My mom looks busy, and T’s covering the kitchen, so I guess I’m stuck here. Might as well see what other reactions I can get out of her. It’s Chloe or Mike. And Mike only talks about his glory days back in high school. I’ve heard every play he ever ran. Chloe, it is. “Do you go to Yale?”
“Yes.” She takes another bite with her eyes glued to the study guide.
“If I hadn’t seen medical books at your place and the MCAT guide you brought here, I would have guessed poli sci.”
“Why would you think that?”
“You like a good debate.” I deadpanned it, but it’s really the truth.
That makes her laugh. “I actually don’t. There’s just something about you that brings it out in me.” Closing the book, she says, “You’re not going to let me study, are you?”
“Most think I’m pretty good company.”
I’ve made her roll her eyes so much that I’m starting to worry about her. She tucks the book in her bag and then sighs. “You know what I think?”
“I have a hunch you’re about to tell me.”
She sets her napkin beside the bowl. “I think you’re used to getting a lot of attention, so when you don’t, you crave it. Are you an only child or just had that ego of yours stroked too much?” Highly amused by herself, she continues to laugh while I clear the rest of the counter. Bringing a bin of silverware and napkins with me, I make use of the time I’m stuck here babysitting my mom’s new friend. “Do you know anything about that?”
Luckily, I’m not that sensitive. “Clever,” I allow her. Highly amused by herself, she continues to laugh while I clear the rest of the counter. Bringing a bin of silverware and napkins with me, I make use of the time I’m stuck here babysitting my mom’s new friend. “Do you know anything about that? Ego stroking?”
It’s never happened to me. I have to earn every accolade.” Sitting back, she doesn’t cross her arms, surprising me. “But we’re not talking about me. I’m still searching for balance, remember?” She cracks a smile and picks up the spoon again.
“Touché. How’s the chili?”
“It pains me to tell you this . . . but it’s delicious.”
I tuck the napkin into the fold. “It doesn’t pain me to get the compliment. You should try the cornbread.” Crumbling a piece into her chili, she takes a bite and savors it. I laugh because I can see the irritation. “I know. It’s good, too.”
“There’s that humility again.” She sips her coffee, and then asks, “How about you? Are you in school?”
“I am.” I rub chin. “May not look like it, but I go to Yale as well.”
Her expression can’t cover the interest I’ve piqued. When her shoulders ease, she says, “It’s very admirable how you balance school and work.”
Nothing she says comes without thought. “It’s not by choice, but most things in life aren’t.”
“Speaking of balance, what else do you know about bonsai? I’m worried about caring for Frankie properly.”
“You should mist the leaves regularly.” I wrap more silverware while trying to remember more of what I read because she seems genuinely interested. “And they can outgrow their pot. Frankie looked like she might need a little more room.”
“I can relate.” Rubbing her stomach, she says, “How’d I eat the whole bowl?”
“Because it was good.”
Her guard lowers, and I get a peek at the softer side when she smiles. “It really was.” She starts digging in her bag and pulls out her wallet. “I should go.”
I like that she holds her own; her confidence is appealing. She seems to know exactly what she wants out of life. “It was just getting fun.”
Flipping through a stack of large bills, she tugs out a twenty. “As fun as it is bantering with you, I have a lot to do to prepare for school tomorrow.”
So do I, but I need to finish my shift first. She pushes the money across the counter just as I was reaching to stop her. When our hands collide, they both stay. My heart picks up, and I swear for a second that I can feel everything. Our eyes latch, and though there was a spark that would normally cause me to pull back, I fight the urge, enjoying the contact. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I say, “Like my mom said, it’s on the house.”
Before she has a chance, I move away, giving myself much-needed space.