Viv’s real dad died of lung cancer at thirty-six.
He sighs. “C’mon! You know I don’t smoke. I just bummed one off Hoop because he said cigarettes help him focus.”
“Hoop’s an idiot. You know this.” I sit down next to him, wrapping my arms around my legs.
He stands abruptly. “Let’s go jumping. I had a beer and I’m tired as hell and I don’t want to think. You look pretty wired too. Bridge or pier?”
A little rush snakes through my blood.
Replaced by a quick guilt.
“Where’s Viv?” I ask. Nic and I hide from her how often we do stuff like this. It mystifies her. “What, life isn’t scary and dangerous enough?” she says. And to be honest, I wonder what it is in us that needs the rush. But I don’t court the danger, like Vivie thinks. I just hook up with it from time to time.
“She’s making a truckload of cupcakes for some baby shower. Strawberry on strawberry. Waaaay too pink for me.”
He shudders. “Get your suit, cuz.”
“Uncle Mike stay for breakfast?” Nic asks as we drive to the bridge in Mom’s Bronco. “Or did he just come by to drop off his laundry for his ex-wife to do, and make his only nephew feel like shit.”
“Nic . . .” I sigh.
He shakes his head. “Why’s he got to get on my ass so much?”
I massage my forehead with the palm of my hand, that itchy tense feeling multiplying. Nic reaches out, pulls my head toward his chest with the crook of an elbow, ruffling my hair with his knuckles. “Forget it. Not your problem. I told you I didn’t want to talk about anything heavy and there I go. Let’s just jump.”
But a few minutes later: “I heard from my mom today,” he says as we clamber up the wide wooden rails, worn and silvery with age. We’ve done this so often, we know which loose ones to skip over, which strong ones to rely on, planting hand over leg on the copper-nail-studded boards.
I know there won’t be. My aunt Gulia is caught in an end-less loop of bad boyfriends and bad jobs and bad choices. Her whole life is like my last March.
He shrugs, takes a deep breath, gives a yell, and flings himself out into the air above the rushing water. I wait for his head to bob back up.
“You’re stalling!” Nic calls up. “Going soft?”
It is a rush, that moment when you’re suspended in the air, and then rocket deep into the cold water. When I splash back to the surface, the adrenaline is tingling through me, more of a cool thrill than the water. I’m laughing as I come to the surface, and so’s Nic.
“Aunt Gulia and Dad being a grouch in one day. No wonder you’re tense.”
“Hey, at least she didn’t ask for money this time. Grouch?
I’d say Uncle Mike was more of a dick. But then, so was I.” He shoots me a wicked grin. “At least Vee knows how to take care of that.”
I put my hands over my ears. “La-la-la!”
“It’s funny how you’re such a prude about that when you—”
Nic stops, his voice cutting off like Cass’s mower earlier today.
The water suddenly seems colder. “When I what?”
“Gwen . . .” he starts, then trails off, ducking his head under the water as if trying to clear it. When he resurfaces, I’m ready.
“Just say it, Nic.”
“Spence Channing? For real? What were you thinking? I thought he was just . . . blowing smoke. Like that rumor about him doing five girls in a hot tub. I mean, come on, who does that? Entitled prick. But I never thought—” He shakes wet hair off his forehead. “That Alex guy, okay, typical douche giving you a snow job. But Channing?”
“Don’t get all self-righteous on me, Nico.”
“Gwen . . . I didn’t mean it like that. You know I don’t judge.”
“You had a little slip there.”
He sighs. “I know. It’s just . . . Let’s get out.”
We swim for shore, climb back up to the Bronco, pull tow-els out of the trunk. Then Nic turns to me, pinching his thumb and index finger together. “We’re this close to screwing up and getting stuck, Gwen. You know? I worry about it with me.
That I’ll be pissed off and not thinking and do something that ruins everything. I don’t want to worry about it with you too.
You’re . . . you’re too smart for that. But one little slip, and there you are . . . stuck in this place with some baby or some STD or some crummy reputation. I don’t want—”
“I already have the crummy reputation, Nic.” And you’re the one looking at engagement rings at age eighteen and not telling me. But the accusation tangles into a lump in my throat. I can’t ask. Not after he’s had to deal with both his mom and my dad today.
“Not really. ’Cause I never heard a thing until Hoop was going on about it. He thought I already knew.”
“Yeah, I pretty much thought everyone knew.” My voice catches on everyone.
Nic looks at me. I look away.
“Well, not me,” he says. “Probably not a lot of people. And it’s not like I’m going to pass it on. I just don’t really get where your head was. I told you not to go to that party.”
“I’m the swim team mascot, remember? I like to party.”
He swears under his breath, hunches his shoulders, twitches them like he’s shaking something off. Nic shutting down.
I dive out into the water, shut my eyes, swim away from him, off to Seal Rock. It’s firm and familiar under my hands.
Still faintly warm from the sun. I climb up, rest my cheek on my folded knees, and look out, far out, to the edge of the ocean.
Nic’s right. I should never have gone to Spence’s party.
When your host is famous for hot tub orgies, you sort of know what to expect. But I wasn’t going to hide after what happened with Cass. I wasn’t going to let those Hill guys, those swim team guys, think I was good enough to record their times in the pool, good enough for a one-night stand, but not good enough to socialize with. Nic and Viv were at the White House Inn. The only hotel on Seashell—which Nic had to have saved for ages to afford. I’d spent the afternoon lingerie shopping at Victoria’s Secret with Viv, after helping Nic call in an order for the flowers and the gift basket to be left in their suite. I teetered along the cobblestone path in my unaccustomed heels next to Hoop, who was cracking his knuckles as though expecting a wrestling match at the door.