I roll down the window a little so the breeze is on my face. The sun is warming my legs and Josh is smiling again.
I do not even let myself think about how it is all going to end.
IF THE DRIVE normally takes five hours, I swear Josh cuts it down to three. But the hours mean nothing to us as we wind through the countryside, leaving the sea-salt wind behind us.
The memory is lit by the sun through the trees we drive through, nothing but lemons and copper tones scattering across our arms, lighting our eyes up blue; his sapphire, mine turquoise. I see my face in the car’s side mirror and I barely recognize myself.
I’ve changed. I’m someone new today. Today is a momentous day.
I’ll always remember the drive home as a movie montage, and I knew I was in one. Each detail was vividly bright. I knew I’d need the memories one day.
This montage is directed by someone French. A convertible would have been their preference, but the windows are down, so that’s something. The air is unseasonably warm and scented like honeysuckle and cut grass.
The montage stars this pretty girl, Flamethrower-red mouth smiling over at a beautiful man. He’s looking so achingly cool in his sunglasses you immediately buy a pair for yourself.
He lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses it. Tells her something charming and makes her laugh. It’s the sort of moment you want to hit pause on and buy whatever it is they’re selling.
Happiness. A better life. Red lipstick and those sunglasses.
The soundtrack should be a lilting indie affair; equal parts hopeful and with a broken, bittersweet lyric hook that makes your heart hurt for some unknown reason. But instead it’s scored by the 1980s hair metal I found in an incriminating iPod playlist titled Gym.
“You seriously got those abs while listening to Poison and Bon Jovi,” I crow, and he can’t deny it. It’s just us, windows down, stereo cranked, the road curling in front of us like a tongue.
We sing along. The lyrics for songs I haven’t heard in years fall out of my mouth. His fingers drum the steering wheel. Life right now is easier than breathing.
We never stop the car. It’s like if we stop, even for a rest break, reality will catch us. We’re bank robbers. Kids running away from boarding school. Eloping teenage sweethearts.
There’s a bottle of water in my bag, and Josh’s tin of mints. We share, and it’s better than a banquet.
I will eventually confess to myself why this montage means so much. I could try to believe it was because of Monday morning looming, and the one prize dangling above two worthy recipients. Maybe it was because of how alive I felt. So completely young and filled to bursting with the scary, thrilling certainty my life was about to change in a big way.
Possibly it was the thrill of sticking it to the man and the heady rush of standing up to someone terrifying. The thrill of rescuing someone. Being the strong one. Carrying someone; coddling and protecting, defending like a lioness.
Maybe it was the smell of spring in the air; the field of four-leaf clovers we pass. Red roses against a fence. Leather seats and Josh’s skin.
No, it was something else; the new knowledge of something irreversible, permanent. It cycled through my head with each revolution of the car’s wheels, each pulse of blood in my frail whisper-thin veins. At any moment a tiny valve could buckle under the pressure of the cholesterol from my croissants. At any moment I could die.
But I don’t. I fall asleep, my cheek against the warm seat, my face turned toward him, like it always has been. Like it always will.
I open my eyes a tiny crack. We’re in a parking garage.
“We’re home,” he says.
I think the unthinkable. I should have been thinking it all along. My eyes slide closed and I feign sleep.
“You need to wake up,” he whispers. A kiss on my cheek. A miracle.
I love Joshua Templeman.
We walk into his apartment and he puts my overnight bag with his in the bedroom, like I am returning home. I use the bathroom and when I come out, he’s making me a cup of tea with the concentration of a scientist.
He takes one look at my face. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me.”
My stomach drops out of my body and I grip the edge of the counter. He knows. He’s a mind reader. My eyes are love-hearts.
“You’re completely freaking out,” he states flatly. I can’t do anything but make awkward eye-slides and lip-nibbles. I look at his front door. I can’t get past him, he’ll be too quick.
“No chance. Get on the couch,” he scolds. “Get. Go on.”
I slip my shoes off and go and scrunch myself in a ball on his couch, hugging the ribbon-cushion.
He’s right, I am completely freaking out. It’s the mother of all freak-outs. I’ve completely lost my voice.
I talk to myself in the privacy of my head.
You love him. You love him. You always have. More than you’ve ever hated him. Every day, staring at this man, knowing every color and expression and nuance.
Every game you’ve ever played has been to engage with him. Talk to him. Feel his eyes on you. To try to make him notice you.
“I’m such an idiot,” I breathe.
I open my eyes and nearly scream. He’s standing over me with a mug and a plate.
“I simply can’t condone this level of freak-out,” he says, and gives me a sandwich. He puts the mug on the coffee table. He disappears for a minute then comes back with my gray fleecy blanket.
It’s like he knows I’ve had some kind of shock. He tucks me in on all sides, brings me an extra pillow. Who knows what my face looks like. I avoided looking at myself in the bathroom.
My teeth begin to chatter and I reach for what is quite a good-looking sandwich. No shoddy workmanship here. It’s even cut in half diagonally; my favorite.
I chew like a chipmunk, using my tiny prehensile paws to rip off the crust. I’ve got bright, shifty button eyes and puffed-up cheeks.
“You have not said a word to me since I woke you up. You look shell-shocked. Your hands are shaking. Low blood sugar? Bad dreams? Carsick?”
He discards his plate, his sandwich untouched.
“You’re still tired. You have stomach pains.” Josh begins to rub my feet through the blanket. When he speaks again, it’s so low I can barely hear.
“You’ve realized what a mistake you’ve made, being with me.”
“No,” I blurt through my mouthful. I close my eyes. The worried line on his brow is killing me.
I feel terrible. I’m ruining what was the beautiful bubble of energy from our drive home.
“Today is Sunday,” I respond after a lot of deliberation.
“Tomorrow is Monday,” he returns. We both sip from our mugs. The Staring Game has commenced, and I am welling up with questions I am dying to ask, but I have no idea how to go about it.
“Truth or Dare,” he says. He always knows the exact right thing to say.
“Coward. Okay, I dare you to eat the entire jar of hot mustard I have in my fridge.”
“I was hoping for a sexy dare.”
“I’ll get you a spoon.”
“Why are you freaking out?” He takes a bite of sandwich.
I sigh so deeply my lungs hurt. “I wasn’t ready for this, and I am having some scary feelings and thoughts.”
He studies me, looking for any trace of lie. He can’t find any. It’s abbreviated, but it’s the truth.
“Truth or Dare?”
“Truth,” he says, unblinking. There is some low afternoon light coming through the windows and I can see the cobalt facets of his eyes. I have to close mine a moment until the pain of his beauty eases.
“What are the marks in your planner?” It pops into my head. He didn’t answer last time; I doubt he will now.
He smiles and looks at his plate. “It’s a bit juvenile.”
“I’d expect nothing less of you.”
“I record whether you’re wearing a dress or skirt. D, or S. I make a mark when we argue, and I make a mark when I see you smile at someone else. Also, when I wish I could kiss you. The dots are just my lunch break.”
“Oh. Why?” My stomach trills.
He considers. “When you get so little of someone, you take what you can get.”
“How long have you done it?”
“Since the second day of B and G. The first day was a bit of a blur. I’ve always meant to compile some stats. Sorry. Saying it aloud sounds insane.”
“I wish I’d thought of doing it, if it makes you feel better. I’m equally insane.”
“You cracked the shirt code pretty quick.”
“Why do you even wear them in sequence?”
“I wanted to see if you noticed. And once you did notice, it pissed you off.”
“I’ve always noticed.”
“Yeah, I know.” He smiles, and I smile too. I feel him take my foot in his hands and he begins to rub.
“Those days-of-the-week shirts have been oddly comforting.” I lie back and look at the ceiling. “No matter what’s going on, I know I’m going to walk in and see white. Off-white. Cream. Pale yellow. Mustard. Baby blue. Bedroom blue. Dove. Navy. Black.” I’m ticking them off on my fingers.
“You forgot, poor old mustard has been replaced. Anyway, you won’t be seeing my stupid shirts soon. Mr. Bexley has told the interview panel to have a decision by Friday.”
“But that’s only a day after the interview.” I’d thought maybe there would be a week or two of deliberation. I’m going to either be victorious or unemployed next Friday? “I feel sick.”
“He’s told them if they haven’t worked out who’s the right candidate five minutes into the interview, they’re morons.”
“He better not try to sway the interview panel. We need this to be fair. Ugh, I hadn’t thought about reporting to Mr. Bexley directly, without you as the buffer. I tell you, Josh, the man has x-ray eyes.”
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