“Ziah, please. This is ridiculous!” James is following me to my car.
My keys won’t hold still for me to unlock the door.
“Ziah.” His hand touches my shoulder, and I shrug him away.
I jerk open the driver’s side door, throw in my backpack, but my resolve to drive away from him starts to fade. I turn to face him.
“I’m going crazy without you. Please, can’t we just talk?” He’s on the verge of tears.
I wonder how we got to the point where he’s still crying over us, and I’m still just mad.
“Fine.” Maybe it’s time to get this over with. I glance around at the students flooding into the parking lot. “Climb in.”
I sit in the driver’s seat and contemplate driving away, but I don’t. Instead, I clutch the keys in my hand more tightly. I watch him walk around the front of the car. He’s so familiar. Familiar like family, comfortable like an old friend, and an a**hole just like every other guy who thinks it’s okay to cheat on their girlfriend. What on Earth am I going to say to him?
He sits in the passenger’s seat still smelling like formaldehyde from his last class. He has a free period and uses it to help Mr. Lester teach freshman biology instead of going home early. It’s just the sort of nice thing James does that makes it hard to stay mad at him. But I still want to be mad at him, and that makes it easier.
Wow. Awkward silence.
“You’re not acting like yourself, Ziah.” He angles his body to see me.
Now that we’re in this small space together, I wonder if it would have been better to stand outside. It’s like I’m running out of air.
I just need to get something out, right? “You lied to me, James. And not just one lie, but when you were given the chance to come clean, you lied again.”
“I didn’t lie.”
“Not admitting what went on is a lie! And so not what I expected from you.” It’s what I’d expect from someone like Dylan, right? Why does it all need to be so confusing?
He reaches out and takes my hand. I let him, but almost more because I’m curious. What does James feel like to me? Not like Dylan. Just…just like James, I guess.
“We’re perfect together, Ziah. You know it. We want the same things. We like the same things. Sharing classes when you completely ignore me is like torture. I want to be the guy who makes you smile again. I’ve missed that. I’ve missed being around you.”
Have I missed him? Parts, maybe. But for more than friendship? My feelings are too muddled to know.
“I don’t know if I want to be around you anymore.” But my heart hurts with him here. Do I still love James? Yeah, I guess I do, but only because love isn’t something that just disappears. I still care, but like a friend. I don’t want more, and maybe I haven’t for a while, it was just that we had a routine of being together, and I didn’t want to lose that.
James looks like I just kicked him. “I don’t want there to be awkwardness. Not with us. If you can’t do anything else right now, I understand. The space between us is killing me. You were my best friend and my girlfriend all in one gorgeous package. I go crazy when I think about how that one stupid night shouldn’t have happened. How I’d trade anything to take it back. I’ve berated myself over and over for not going to your mom’s restaurant.”
James is all sincerity. Maybe I’m keeping myself mad at him because I just want to be mad.
“Then you shouldn’t have lied about it.” I shake my head. “There were too many times, and too many opportunities for you to say something.”
His head falls forward, and I know James well enough to know he’s once again struggling not to cry. My first pang of sympathy for how I’ve tortured him hits me hard. It’s been weeks, and I haven’t said a word to him.
“I don’t think she knew who she was kissing, and even then, she kissed me in a way that you never had. Like she really, really wanted it. Me. Even though she didn’t know who it was. I wanted that from you.” He lets his eyes find mine.
I wanted that from him, too. But it just wasn’t there. James and I just aren’t supposed to be together that way.
“Could I take you out? Just once. Just to start over or something?” His hand squeezes mine, and it’s funny because I totally forgot we were holding hands.
“Midterms are in a couple weeks. Maybe we could get together to study or something. But don’t think this means you’re forgiven, and I don’t want to be anything more than friends.” I keep my jaw tight, hoping he’ll know I’m serious.
“Thanks, Ziah. You have no idea.” He runs the back of his fingers down my cheek. I turn away, even though it’s one of my favorite things he does. It just doesn’t feel like it used to. And I still sort of want to be mad.
I take my hand back. “See you.”
He grabs the door handle. “See you tomorrow.” He pushes open the passenger’s side door, and I pull in a long breath when it closes behind him.
If before James and I dated, I had been given the choice between him and Dylan, I would have chosen James in a second. He’s the safe choice. Only he destroyed me, so like Lora said, looks are deceiving—he isn’t the safe choice. But also, somewhere in our time together, I sort of lost the excited feeling of being with him. It doesn’t let him off the hook for Alyssa, but it makes me wonder what he’s fighting so hard to get back. And I really wish I knew how I felt about it. I also really wish I knew how Dylan felt about me, because after our kiss, I’m more confused than I’ve ever been.
For the past few days, Lora’s been riding on this high of getting her location, and then I learn it’s just for the ceremony. After dragging Dylan and I all over town, they’ve decided to use Mom’s restaurant for the reception, and we’re heading there tonight. My Friday night. A week after my Dylan-kiss, and I’m in NO hurry to see him again. At all.
I call Alyssa in a panic, and she rushes over to make sure I’m appropriately dressed to make an impression without looking like I’m trying. Of course, I have to explain everything about Dylan and our kiss and how I’m completely confused, and she’s concerned and worried about me on the rebound. I try to assure her I’m not interested in getting involved with him. I’d simply like for him to be a little sad at what he turned down.
It’s the first real thing she and I have done together, and it feels good. Better than good. Like we’re talking and doing, and it’s another step in getting us to where we should be.
I step out of the house in Alyssa’s black coat, dark skinny jeans, black boots, a simple black tank with this loose-knit shrug sweater thing that Alyssa brought over. It’s thin, so you can still see me underneath it, and the neck leaves a shoulder exposed. I feel over-dressed, but Alyssa laughs when I say that. So I guess I’m okay.
Now I just need to settle my nerves and get myself in the mindset to be totally normal around Dylan and not think about the kiss.
Mom’s restaurant is nearly emptied out at close to eleven. Just the bar is still going, and the second I walk in, I see Dylan and think about the kiss. Not good. My knees get weak when I think about him pressed against me in the tunnel, and I’m the pathetic one who thinks there’s more between us than there is.
Why, I want to ask him, Why? But then I remember that’s exactly what James asked me.
I am pathetic.
I slide off my coat and hang it on the back of the chair, and Lora and Derrick are looking around the restaurant trying to figure out the best way to set it up. Mom has this half wall that looks almost like an outdoor fence, and the main area of the place is like three different levels—not an easy setup to work with.
My shoulders go up as I find room in my pockets for my hands and my shoulder slips out. I’m trying so hard not to look and see if Dylan’s watching, but when I sneak a peek, his head jerks away. Guess we were both caught, and this is as awkward as I thought it would be.
“Can you two stand on that level?” Lora points behind me.
Great. Next they’ll want us making out to make sure the lighting is right.
I take the step up, and Dylan steps up behind me.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” He gives me this weird smile and glances over at my bare shoulder.
Just then Paul steps out of the doors to the kitchen with a huge bowl of macaroni and cheese with bacon piled on top. That definitely looks like a “custom-made” item.
He gives me a howl. “Lookin’ hot tonight, Ziah.”
“Hey, Paul.” I wave and smile, a blush creeping up my cheeks.
“I would weigh five hundred pounds if your mom was my mom.” He grins and shovels in a mouthful as he finds a place to sit.
Dylan crosses his arms, and I swear he’s frowning. But I’m not looking close enough to really see.
Huh. He’s looking at me, and he doesn’t like that I’m flirting with Paul. A little part of me feels almost hopeful again. And then I know I need to crush it for all the same reasons I knew I shouldn’t get involved with him in the first place making me wonder why I bothered to have Alyssa dress me up.
“Scoot to the left.” Lora gestures.
I bump into Dylan, and he practically jumps away. Am I that bad?
“Dylan can take over. I need food.” I walk away and sit down next to Paul.
“Got a bite for me?” I ask, needing to be away from Dylan and out of this situation.
Paul loads up his fork with as much food as he can, grinning the whole time.
I snort. “If you think that you can out-eat me, you’ve chosen the wrong girl.”
“We’ll see…” He holds out the fork. It takes a second, but I get the whole thing in my mouth. Only now I can barely breathe as I chew, and I’m trying not to laugh at Paul’s wide-eyes.
“Are you kidding me?” Lora gives me a look. “I just need you and Dylan to stand in different places so we can check lighting and placement. Please.”
“Thanks for the food.” I smile at Paul as I move to where Lora’s pointing, and then some sappy love song comes over the radio. Is that…Elvis?
“What is this?” Dylan and I say at the same time. It should be funny, and he should say jinx. But he doesn’t because it’s awkward, and suddenly I just want to go home.
“Our wedding song,” Derrick says. “There’s meaning. Keep your comments to yourself.”
And then the song hits me. “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” by freaking Elvis. I was right. There has to be a story behind that one. Because…just because.
I bite my tongue and wait for further instruction. Derrick’s at the edge of the room next to the dimmer switches adjusting the lighting, while Lora points here and then there. Dylan and I stand where she wants us to. Or we sit where she wants us to.
I’m afraid to look at him, and we don’t talk. This couldn’t be more awkward if we tried.
Derrick’s making notes on switches, and I can’t look at Dylan. I don’t even know how to talk to him anymore. And I feel like once again, I just lost a friend. But this time it’s because I was the one who needed a kiss.