“What? No.”

He looked up.

“No. I’m not dating anyone.”

“Oh.” His shoulders slumped. We were sitting in the back seat of his car, facing each other, and he leaned against the door behind him, rested his head against the window. He looked worn-out. He ran a hand down the length of his face, and finally, finally, he said, “What happened? What happened between now and the last time we talked?”

“I think maybe I had too much time to think about it.”

He looked heartbroken. There was no other way to put it. And he sounded heartbroken when he said, “You don’t want to be with me.”

Ocean was so straightforward. Everything about him felt honest and decent and I really admired him for it. But right now his honesty was making this conversation harder than it needed to be.

I’d had a plan.

I’d had it all worked out in my head; I’d hoped to tell a story, paint a picture, illustrate very, very clearly why this whole thing was doomed, and why we should avoid hurtling toward the inevitable and painful dissolution of whatever it was we were building here.

But all my carefully thought-out reasons felt suddenly small. Stupid. Impossible to articulate. Looking into his eyes had flipped tables in my head; my thoughts were now tangled and disorganized and I didn’t know how else to do this but to throw my feelings at him in no particular order.

Still, I was taking too long. I was silent for too long.

I was fumbling.

Ocean sat up, sat forward. He leaned in and I felt my chest tighten. I could suddenly smell him—his particular, familiar scent—everywhere. I was sitting in his car, I realized, and it had only just occurred to me to look around, to get a sense of where we were, who he was. I wanted to catalog the moment, capture it in words and pictures. I wanted to remember this. I wanted to remember him.

I’d never wanted to remember anyone before.

“Hey,” he said, but he said it softly. I don’t know what he saw in my face, what he’d caught in my eyes or in my expression but he seemed suddenly different. Like maybe he’d realized that I’d fallen, hard, and that this wasn’t easy for me, that I didn’t actually want to walk away.

I met his eyes.

He touched my cheek, his fingers grazing my skin, and I gasped. Leaned back. It was unexpected. I overreacted. I was suddenly breathing too hard, my head full of fire again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t do this.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” I said. “Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because it won’t work.” I was flustered. I sounded stupid. “It just won’t work.”

“Isn’t that up to us?” he said. “Don’t we have control over whether or not this works?”

I shook my head. “It’s not that simple. You don’t get it. And it’s not your fault that you don’t get it,” I said, “but you just don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t see it. You can’t see how different your life would be—how being with me, spending time with someone like me—” I stopped. Struggled for words. “It would be hard for you,” I said, “with your friends, your family—”

“Why are you so sure that I care what other people think?”

“You’re going to care,” I said.

“No I won’t. I already don’t.”

“You say that now,” I said, shaking my head. “But you don’t know. You’re going to care, Ocean. You’re going to care.”

“Why can’t you let me decide what I’m going to care about?”

I was still shaking my head. I couldn’t look at him.

“Listen to me,” he said, and he took my hands, and I didn’t realize until that exact moment that my own hands were shaking. He squeezed my fingers. Tugged me closer. My heart felt wild.

“Listen to me,” he said again. “I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care, okay?”

“You do,” I said quietly. “You think you don’t, but you do.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because,” I said, “because I always say that. I always say that I don’t care what other people think. I say it doesn’t bother me, that I don’t give a shit about the opinions of assholes but it’s not true,” I said, and my eyes stung as I said it. “It’s not true, because it hurts every time, and that means I still care. It means I’m still not strong enough because every time someone says something rude, something racist—every time some mentally ill homeless person goes on a terrifying rampage when they see me crossing the street—it hurts. It never stops hurting. It only gets easier to recover.

“And you don’t know what that’s like,” I said. “You don’t know what my life is like and you don’t know what it’d be like to become a part of it. To tell the universe you’re on my side. I don’t think you understand that you’d be making yourself a target. You’d be risking the happy, comfortable world you live in—”

“I don’t live in a happy, comfortable world,” he said suddenly, and his eyes were bright, intense when he said it. “And if the life I’ve got is supposed to be some example of happiness then the world is even more messed-up than I thought it was. Because I’m not happy, and I don’t want to be like my parents. I don’t want to be like everyone else I know. I want to choose how to live my own life, okay? I want to choose who to be with.”

I could only stare at him, my heart beating hard in my chest.

“Maybe you care about what other people think,” he said, and his voice was softer now. “And that’s fine. But I really, truly, don’t.”

“Ocean,” I whispered. “Please.”

He was still holding my hands and he felt safe and real and I didn’t know how to tell him that I hadn’t changed my mind, not even a little bit, and that the more he spoke the more I felt my heart implode.

“Please don’t do this,” he said. “Please don’t walk away from me because you’re worried about the opinions of racists and assholes. Walk away from me because you hate me,” he said. “Tell me you think I’m stupid and ugly and I swear this would hurt less.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. “I think you’re wonderful.”

He sighed. He wasn’t looking at me when he said, “That’s not helping.”

“I also think you have really beautiful eyes.”

He looked up, surprised. “You do?”

I nodded.

And he laughed, softly. He took my hands and pressed them against his chest and he felt strong. I could feel his heart racing under my palms. I could feel the outline of his body under his shirt and it made me a little dizzy.

“Hey,” he said.

I met his eyes.

“You don’t have anything offensive you’d like to say to me? Maybe make me hate you a little bit?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Ocean. I really am. For everything.”

“I just don’t understand how you can be so sure,” he said, and his eyes were sad again. “How can you be so sure that this won’t work that you won’t even give it a chance?”

“Because I already know,” I said. “I already know what’s going to happen.”

He said, “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I already know how this story goes.”

“No. You think you do. But you have no idea what’s about to happen.”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, I—”

And he kissed me.

It wasn’t the kind of thing I’d read about. It wasn’t quick; it wasn’t soft and simple. He kissed me and I felt actual euphoria, like all my senses had merged and I was reduced to breaths and heartbeats and repeating integers. It was nothing like I thought it would be. It was better, it was infinitely better, in fact it may have been the best thing that had ever happened to me. I’d never done this before but somehow I didn’t need a manual. I collapsed into it, into him, and he parted my lips and I loved it, I loved how he felt, how he tasted sweet and warm and I felt delirious, I was pressed against the passenger door and my hands were in his hair and I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was thinking about nothing, nothing but this, but the impossibility of this when he broke away, gasping for air. He pressed his forehead against mine and he said Oh, he said, Wow, and I thought it was over and he kissed me again. And again. And again.