CHAPTER 14 – NATE
My foot slips off the gas pedal, but I’m quick to recover. “Misty can’t keep her mouth shut,” I tell her, turning the volume down.
“Oh, it wasn’t Misty. It was the other one. Lauren, did you say? The girl that’s no one special.” I can hear judgment in her tone. She’s closed herself off many times since we met, and is about as tightly wound as she could possibly be right now.
“What did she say, exactly?”
“Did you sleep with her last night?” she asks me bluntly.
“No!” I tell her quickly, the word practically falling off my tongue. I shake my head in adamant denial. “Wait, why?”
“Just something she said,” Emi states softly. “It implied… that… I guess. Maybe she was talking about something else, I don’t know.”
“No, why does it matter?” I clarify.
She quickly shifts her attention to the landscape outside the passenger window so I can’t see her face. I don’t like it when she hides from me this way. “I mean… I guess it really doesn’t,” she says. “I just thought it didn’t sound like you. Or at least who I think you are. But I don’t really know you.”
“You know more about me than anyone else I know.” And the truth is, I’m happy she doesn’t think it would be in my character to do that. That’s not how I want her to know me. “Emi, there’s something between us. Don’t you think?” That finally gets her to look at me.
“Yeah. I don’t normally open up to strangers like this.”
“I don’t either. Like, I never have. I’ve never told people I considered friends most of the things I’ve told you.”
“I think sometimes, there are just some people you’re meant to meet,” she says. “I need to know you right now.”
“I know what you mean.”
“But, Nate, I’ve never really had a boyfriend. And I’m not looking for one right now.”
“No, I know,” I say quickly. “I could use a friend.”
“I could, too,” she says with a slight blush.
“And I think I could use some distance between relationships,” I tell her. “I don’t like how it went with Misty. I certainly don’t want that again. There’s got to be something better.”
“I’m sure there is,” she says positively. “But take your time. You don’t have to be like my sister, going from one person to another.”
I don’t have to, but I want to. I remember the ache and need I felt last night, the feelings that drove me to Lauren’s. I also remember how I felt this morning, regretting the time I’d spent with her. I was so disgusted I couldn’t get out of bed. I hated myself. And there was absolutely no solace to be had in painting. She destroyed my motivation. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the poor decision I’d made.
And the ache and need are still here. What we did wasn’t even enough. It wasn’t enough because she isn’t who I’m aching for. She isn’t who I need.
“Hey, you alright?” she asks. “You have this horrible scowl on your face.”
“I’m fine,” I answer, wondering if I truly am. Wondering if all guys go through this, or if there’s something genuinely wrong with me. I wish my father was around for this. I wish there was someone I could talk to. “The sun’s just in my eyes.”
“Oh, wait.” She pulls her purse up off the floor board, digging through her things until she produces a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Look at me.”
“I’m driving,” I laugh.
“Look at me. Just a second.” I glance over and she quickly arranges them over my eyes. “Better?” I check myself in the rearview mirror first. “You look good, don’t worry,” she says flippantly with a smile on her face.
Her compliment produces a wide grin of my own. “The best,” I answer her. This may be the most complicated relationship I’ve ever had. I imagine if this is how it’ll always be. Me wanting her. Emi wanting a friend, but flirtatious and cute and doing things that make me think she wants more. I can see myself having a hard time hiding my own feelings. Maybe I should tell her first. Maybe it would be easier if she had all the information.
Or maybe it would make things worse, and scare her off. Telling her isn’t an option. Especially if I’m not willing to tell her the truth about everything. And I’m not. I’d rather live up to the person she thinks I am. I’d rather be that guy anyway.
When we finally get to the costume shop, she grabs a basket and asks me to stay away.
“What? I thought we were doing this together! We’re both knights!”
“If you need my help, I’ll help, but I have an idea, and I don’t want you to talk me out of it. It’s a little non-traditional,” she explains. “So don’t follow me.”
I just stare at her, and she must feel my eyes on her as she walks away, because she turns back around. “I think everything you need is on aisle two. Or that guy up front can help you,” she says with an almost pleading tone. “Or I’ll be over there in ten minutes. Don’t look so sad! You’re a big boy. At least that’s what I heard,” she tacks on, shrugging her shoulders and moving away from me at an even quicker pace. What the hell did Misty and Lauren say? Does she know I’m lying anyway? Is this a test?
I think about returning to my car and calling Lauren while Emi shops, but I have no desire to talk to her. The way we left things, I’m afraid she’ll think I want more from her. I may have told her I love her. I don’t. She didn’t need to hear it, but the words came out anyway. It pretty much killed the mood for me.
Resigned, I head to aisle two without Emi, picking up random plastic props that look like body armor and shields. There’s no way in hell I’m wearing this shit in class. I have a shirt at home that will serve the purpose. Picking up the most ornate sword I can find– which still looks cheap– I take it to the counter with a belt to put it in.
At the register, I check for small bills in the wallet, and finally count out thirteen dollars for the two items. When I unzip the change pocket, my last condom falls out. I pick it up before the sales person notices it, keeping it in my palm as I return my billfold to my pocket.
Get rid of the temptation, Nate.
I look around for Emi, but she still must be shopping. Finding a bench at the front of the shop, I sit down and try to plot my speech for Friday. Maybe I can pay one of my classmates to cut me off right after I start. It’ll make a point that my story was never finished. The end. I have a feeling my English teacher won’t find much humor in that.
“Go to the car,” I hear her tell me. She’s standing in front of her cart, blocking the items from my view.
“What, did you find a black steed to ride home on?” I ask her sarcastically.
“Please go wait in the car?” she begs.
“You won’t let me see your armor?”
“No,” she laughs. “I want it to be a surprise.”
“Well, you better not have copied my sword,” I mumble to her. “Or we shall duel.”
“I am an honorable knight, who hath put down his sword,” she explains, sticking her small nose up with an air of superiority. “Run along, little squire. I’ll be right there.”
“Yes, milady,” I say to her as I bow. “Your chariot awaits… or something.” I leave the store, and as I pass a nearby trashcan, I flick the condom into the receptacle.
I can be honorable, too. I will, for her.
When I get to my car, I take the opportunity to call Lauren. I consider disconnecting before she picks up, but she answers immediately.
“I was wondering when you’d call,” she says, her voice hushed, but silky.
“Listen,” I start, a little impatient. I don’t want to talk to her, but I know I have to. I also don’t want Emi to catch me on the phone with her. I don’t want to explain this to her. “I don’t know what you and Misty were talking about in gym today, but I don’t appreciate–”
“What’d Misty tell you? It was all good, Nate. Trust me. I had no complaints–”
“There were other people around,” I tell her. “Last night was a mistake, Lauren. I really didn’t want everyone to know about it.”
“How do you go from ‘I love you’ to ‘it was a mistake’ in twelve hours?”
“Lauren, you know what last night was about.”
“I didn’t say it, you did.”
“I didn’t mean it… you know that, Lauren. It just came out.”
“Who was eavesdropping, anyway?” she asks.
“It doesn’t matter. It got back to me, and I’d appreciate it if you were more discreet the next time you decide to talk about us.”
“And you think there will be a next time?” Being with her didn’t help like I’d hoped it would.
“No,” I tell her. “I don’t.”
“I’m not some whore, Nate. You can’t just do this to girls, you know?
“Lauren, I’m sorry. I just needed someone last night, and I thank y–.”
“Save it.” She hangs up on me. Just as I return to phone to its cradle, Emi comes out of the store with two large bags. I hop out, opening the small trunk for her.
“So, dress rehearsal at my place tomorrow after school?” I ask her as she settles in, buckling her seatbelt.
“Rehearsal, yes. Dress, no,” she answers. Her response conjures up an image that is less-than-honorable.
“I suppose that could be arranged,” I tease her, earning me a slap on the arm.
“I just hope my mom can alter the outfit,” she says. “It’s a little too big… but I think I can make do.”
“I’m not sure body armor was meant to show a woman’s figure,” I say, smiling and looking at her out of the corner of my eyes as we get back on the road, heading home.
She just grins back at me. “So,” she starts, “are you, like, looking for a girlfriend?” she asks. “Would you consider going out with this Lauren girl? Or someone else?”
“You’re not offering,” I state, but wait for her answer.
“Don’t mess this up, Nate,” she warns me, her eyes pleading with me.
“No, I think girls are more trouble than they’re worth right now. And the distraction seems to take all of my creative energy,” I admit. “I don’t like that feeling of being completely complacent and uninspired. It makes me anxious.”
“Well, I haven’t taken away that creative energy,” she says to me. “Have I?”
“No, that’s why you’re different.” She is different. She inspires me. For the first time in my life, I understand what people mean when they talk about artists having their muses. Maybe she’s mine. “You’re different, Emi, and I don’t want anything to change between us.”
“Good,” she says. “I don’t either.”
“Nate, can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think anyone has the capacity to cheat? Even good people?”
“I’m sure there are circumstances that would cause people to. Good people included. I can’t believe that every person who’s ever cheated is evil, you know?”
“I don’t know. Alcohol? They’re with the wrong person to start with? Revenge–”
“Well, those people are evil,” she interrupts.
“Not necessarily. Misguided, maybe. Maybe they were hurt first… and that was how they sought to get even.”
“Do you think you could ever cheat?”
“I’ve never really thought about it. I hope that, if I was with someone and thought about cheating on them, I’d talk to that person before I acted on anything.”
“Could you be with someone who cheated?”
“I think that would depend on the girl.”
“How do you think people end up with the wrong person?” she asks me.
“Is that what you think happened with your parents?”
“That seems to be what Dad is saying.”
“Maybe they settle. Maybe they don’t really know what else is out there. Maybe there’s a fear of being alone that keeps two people together who shouldn’t be. It could be a mutual understanding. There could be a child involved. I think there are an infinite number of things to consider. But in the end, Emi, I do believe it could happen. As much as it might hurt to admit that, it’s certainly a possibility. But only time will tell. Maybe your Dad really feels that way… or maybe he’s just making excuses for his actions. He’s the only one who knows, and right now, there’s no way he can convince you one way or the other.
“But he’ll try. If he loves you, he won’t give up.”
“If he loved me, he wouldn’t have done this to us.”
“Em, it may seem selfish to you right now, but this is his life. He can only live once, and if he wasn’t happy, would you want him to continue pretending to be? Because, honestly, that’s a little selfish.” I brace myself for her response, understanding this is a touchy subject for her. She remains quiet. “Just give it some time. I have no doubt, if your dad could have found happiness without hurting you, he would have done that first. But it’s obvious he couldn’t have it both ways this time.”
“Do you think you’d forgive your dad, if he had done something like this?”
“Of course. I forgive him already for much worse, Emi. He could cheat with twenty different women, and I’d still forgive him and accept him as my father. As long as he was around for me, that’s all that matters.”
“But that twenty-first woman?” Emi asks playfully.
“Nope, that’s taking it one woman too far,” I joke with her. “My limit’s twenty.” We both laugh a little, but silence settles over the car again.
“I think my limit’s one,” she says softly.
I look over at her with a small frown, understanding that she’s unwilling to forgive him.
“Maybe you should at least consider doubling it,” I suggest. “If what he says is true– if she’s the woman he’s meant to be with– then he won’t do it again.” I glance over at her, watching her stare out the front window of the car. “Right?” I ask, touching the tip of my pinky finger to her leg to get her attention. She simply shrugs.
If nothing else, I’ve given her something to think about. No one should hate their father. I wish I could show her how it feels to live even a single day without one. The painting was a good start, but the depth of some feelings can only be hinted at. The only way one could truly understand would be to live it themselves.
And although it’s a part of life nearly everyone will experience, it’s still not a feeling I’d ever wish on anyone.
“So…” I start, trying to cut through the tension in the car. “Do you want to stop and get something to eat?”
“Sure,” she says with a gentle expression. “Oh, there’s this great burger place not far from here. Oh, my god, the bacon they put on them is so crispy, it’s the best thing in the world. I swear, you will love it.”
“I swear, I will not,” I tell her. She looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Ewww,” she says, joking. “Why’d you do something like that?”
I laugh at her reaction. “If I describe the news program I saw when I was little in explicit detail, as it was presented to me, I can guarantee you’ll be one by the time I’m done. Ready?”
“Please don’t spoil bacon for me,” she says quickly. “They have salads, too.”
“Ever had sushi?” I ask her.
“Would you like to try it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Raw fish? It’s not safe.”
“The way they prepare it is safe. Plus, it’s not all raw.”
“You’ll eat fish?”
“It’s not all fish, either. It’s decided. We’re having sushi.”
“Naaate,” she whines. “What if I hate it?”
“If you hate it, I’ll…”
“Go try the bacon cheeseburger?” she suggests.
“No, I can’t do that. Plus, it would probably make me very sick,” I tell her. “Although I don’t think you’ll hate it. I’ll help you find something good.”
“Does any of it have bacon?”
“No,” I tell her, chuckling.
“Will you stop smoking?”
I look over at her sideways. “As a consequence?”
“Yeah, if I hate sushi.”
I consider this option, again realizing it’s probably unnecessary. On the off chance that she hates it– or stubbornly states she hates it even when she doesn’t, which kind of sounds like something she’d do– quitting smoking would be a healthier choice than eating red meat and pork. “Sure. If you hate it, I’ll try to quit smoking.”
“You have to really try,” she says.
“As long as you really try to like sushi,” I tell her. “Let me help you order. I don’t want you ordering octopus and eel just so you can hate it.”
“They have octopus and eel?” she asks warily.
“Is it good?”
“Vegetarian,” I remind her in a slow whisper.
“Right,” she says. “So it could be wonderful! Maybe I’ll try it.”
“Mmmm,” I hedge, “again, let me help you find something that’s not so out there.”
“Alright, alright,” she finally agrees. I start planning her menu as I drive to the restaurant, determined to convince her to like something at my favorite restaurant.
©2012 Lori L. Otto
Do you like what you’ve read so far? This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series. You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!