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Authors: Molly Ringle

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BOOK: Relatively Honest
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At the dorms, she pulled into the car park, but didn’t turn the engine off. We looked at each other. “I don’t feel like eating dorm food tonight,” she said. “Do you?”

“It’s not as if I ever do.”

“Let’s go to the Glenwood. They have a Sunday-night tomato soup special.”

So we drove to the Glenwood, a 24-hour café near campus, and secured a corner table and bowls of soup. The place was full of students drinking coffee and clapping for a two-woman guitar and ukulele act performing on the tiny stage.

I liked sitting across from Julie rather than beside her. I could see her better. She had on a gray coat and a greenish scarf that brought out the color of her eyes. Her earrings amused me: little gold-and-purple bunches of grapes. I hoped Patrick hadn’t bought them for her. I hoped Patrick would never do anything regarding her ever again.

I got so wrapped up in my study of her features that it took me a few moments to notice she was studying me too. Neither of us was talking. Our eyes met, we both looked down at our plates, and I started fussing with the packet of crackers while she grabbed her spoon and stirred her soup. I felt shaky and delighted.
Sexual tension, back at last! How I missed thee
.

“I owe you an apology,” she said, and scrunched her nose at me.

“For what?”

“Halloween.”

“Oh. No. You don’t.”

“I was horrible to you. I should have thanked you. I can’t tell you how scared I was when those guys…well, let’s just say they were never gentlemen, and even less so when they got me alone.”

I shook my head with a fierce glance out the dark window. “Fucking bastards.” I looked at Julie and added, “Sorry.”

She grinned. “I’ve thought of stronger words for them myself.”

“Well, I would enjoy mutilating those two in a variety of ways, but I wasn’t angry at
you
.”

“Thank you for rescuing me, all the same.”

“You’re welcome, all the same.”

“Every time I think back on that night, I cringe. I simply had no fun at all.”

“Sounds like my night with Liz.”

She smiled. “Poor Liz.”

“I’m not blaming her. I just shouldn’t have done it.”

She folded her arms on the table and turned a wistful look to the rain-spattered windowpane. “College isn’t half as much fun as they told us it was going to be.”

“It’s not one-hundredth as much fun.”

“That night Patrick left, at the beginning of the term…” She lifted an eyebrow at me. “You knew I had been crying.”

“I guessed as much. Didn’t want to quiz you about it.”

“It wasn’t really about Patrick. I missed home. I missed my folks, and my brother; and then I thought of my dog, and burst into tears.”

“Now
that
I can relate to.” My mood soared.
It wasn’t really about Patrick. Halle-bloomin-lujah.

“It was so dumb.” She ducked her head. The little grapes swung under her earlobes. “You’re supposed to love it, being on your own, being free of your family. Instead I wanted to call my parents and beg them to take me home.”

I felt like climbing over the table and hugging her, and not even in a dirty way either. What was wrong with me? “When I was ill the other week,” I said, “I wanted the same thing. It’s somehow so much worse, feeling like crap in a dorm room, with dorm food and dorm people, instead of at home where they’ll take proper care of you.”

“Exactly.”

“Do you suppose other people really enjoy college? Or is everyone faking?”

“If I knew what other people were thinking,” she said, “my life would be a lot easier.”

I threw her a flirtatious glance.

She broke into a laugh. “All right, maybe it’s best if I don’t know what
some
people are thinking.”

Smiling, I tipped cream into my coffee, and watched it billow into liquid clouds. “I’ve told you more of what I’m thinking than I usually tell anyone. That’s not just a line, either.”

Her foot tapped mine, under the table. “I think you’re a better guy than you let on.”

“Shh. I have a reputation to look after.”

Chapter 10: The End of Autumn

Just like
that, Julie and I became the best of friends. We got into the habit of eating together at the dining hall for all three meals if our schedules allowed it, and took evening walks sometimes. It was best when we got to share her umbrella, and I had an excuse to smell her hair and press my side against hers. On a couple of nights when Sinter and Clare were seducing one another in my room, I went to Julie’s room and did my homework sitting on her bed, while she did hers at her desk, two feet away.

She liked me. It was so clear and wonderful. We kept catching each other in mutual glances, and blushing. With any other girl I would have made a move by now, but she was still technically spoken for. Plus she knew my past too well. She would be suspicious if I proposed a shoulder massage. So we never touched, except by accident or necessity.

What surprised me was how much I liked this set-up. Because thinking about sex is approximately five hundred times more fun than reading about the financial structure of hotel chains, my thoughts and my eyes would drift while I studied with her, and I would daydream myself into such a mouth-watering state of lust that I had to arrange my notebook strategically to keep her from noticing. But rather than being a frustration, it tended to be the best part of my day.

“It would be so convenient,” I said to Sinter one afternoon, “if Julie would dump Patrick, and take up with me, and then I could stay nights with her while you stayed with Clare, and we would all have our privacy. Don’t you think?”

He laughed. “Isn’t this a long time for you to be hung up on one chick?”

“No need to make me sound like a tart. And, yes, it is. Honestly, I have high hopes for this one.”

“You have been spending a lot of time together,” he said.

“We have indeed. And she hardly ever talks about him.”

“Well, you’re definitely more appealing than Patrick. As far as I can judge these things.”

“You’re only saying that because you’ve kissed me. Once you land a bit of Revelstoke, you never go back.”

He actually blushed, and muttered something about what my ego and I could go do to one another. I just grinned. Despite final exams next week, despite my parents’ total weirdness, and despite Patrick’s existence, I was flying high. Julie and I shared a mutual crush the strength of which was unparalleled in my life so far, and it was about to bloom into something fabulous. I was sure of it.

Which meant, of course, that fate was likely about to deliver me a gigantic knockback.

On the last day of classes before finals began, I attended my hour-long trigonometry class and, as usual, chose a seat beside the north window, where I could see the busy intersection of two campus streets. I knew that in the middle of the hour, Julie’s history class was let out, and I could usually see her come out of her building and walk below my window. Today, as I cast glances outside, anticipating her appearance, I noticed a tall fellow wearing jeans, a red ski coat, and a backward baseball cap. He strolled across the intersection, sat on a bench near Julie’s classroom building, and stretched his legs out into the pavement. I stared, but couldn’t be sure I recognized him. I
hoped
I hadn’t recognized him.
Couldn’t be
, I told myself.
Impossible
.

The glass doors of Julie’s building swung open and released a spill of students, and the fellow on the bench jumped to his feet and looked over their heads. I saw Julie at the same moment he did. But I was captured in a classroom ten feet above the ground, and he – he was rushing forward to catch her in his arms and lift his shocked, delighted girlfriend off her feet.
No
. The protest rose up in my throat; I clenched my teeth to suppress it.
No! It’s not fair! You’re supposed to be in Boston, you bastard!

They laughed and kissed and jumped, and not a sound of it came through the glass between us: a heartbreaking silent movie. I wanted to scream and pound on the window, but as I watched them walk away together I had to sit still and pretend I was thinking about trigonometry, as if I hadn’t a care in the world.

When I got out at the end of the hour, I rushed back to the dorm through a drenching shower of sleet. Clare was in our room, with Sinter asleep in her lap. Not a good sign.

“Are Julie and Patrick in your room, then?” was the first thing I said.

“Yeah. He seemed to want some time alone with her,” she answered. “Poor Julie. I wanted to stay and protect her, but…” She shrugged and ran her palm across the spiky tips of Sinter’s hair. “He seemed to be in a pretty horny mood, so who am I to stand in the way?”

I barely restrained myself from throwing my books against the wall. I dumped my dripping raincoat and knapsack in a corner, and sat at my desk. I checked email a few times – nothing interesting – and ended up staring out the window.

A knock on the door brought me to my feet, and woke up Sinter. I called, “It’s open,” and none other than Julie and Patrick came in.

“Hi everybody,” Julie said. She was smiling and looked rather rumpled.

Patrick was beaming so much he was almost gloating. My mind, in a miserable fury, tried to decide what they been doing down in Julie’s room.
Still a virgin, I hope? Just gave him a nice little “welcome back” hand-job?

Had to stop thinking like that. Was going to kill someone.

“Hey, Dan,” Patrick greeted. “How’s it going?”

“Well enough.” I averted my eyes. “Seems you’re a bit far west, Patrick.” How I made my voice sound even the slightest bit cheerful is beyond me.

“All my finals were take-homes, so I got them done early, and flew to Eugene to visit. I’ll hang out here for the next week and then go back with you guys.” He smiled and hooked an arm around Julie.

The thought of Patrick crashing in on my drive home with Julie, on top of everything else, was too much to take. I turned away and tried to breathe normally. “I see.”

Sinter gave me a pained, compassionate smile. Even Clare, in her glance my direction, seemed sorry for me.

Julie did not make eye contact with me. But then I didn’t try very hard. “Well, I’ve got a lot of studying,” I said, and swung my bag onto my shoulder. “I’d best be off to the library.”

And I got out of there without punching anyone, kicking anyone, or breaking down in tears. Some days the small victories are all you achieve.

I stayed
away from the dorm as much as possible, and tended to my studies. But I was too distracted and unhappy to accomplish much, and when I did finally take the exams, I was sure I buggered up at least half the questions. I blamed Patrick wholly, completely, and out loud to Sinter.

“You shouldn’t stand aside and take it,” he said. “I am sick of that guy, and Clare is sick of that guy, and you know what? I even think Julie is sick of that guy.” Sinter, with less at stake than I, had bravely subjected himself to Patrick’s presence in the girls’ room this week.

I was cleaning out the old notes I wouldn’t need anymore from the past term. I flung a handful of papers into our recycling bin. “Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because she’s not
stupid
. And a couple times now she’s asked me where you’ve been.”

Wasn’t going to get my hopes up, no way. “Oh?”

“I said you were studying. I’m serious, dude, don’t act like you can’t do anything about it. Don’t play all ‘reserved British gentleman.’ I think she’s waiting for a clear sign that you’ll take her, and that you’re serious about her, and then she’s kicking Patrick out on his ass.”

A week’s worth of trig notes got brutally ripped in half. “I’ve given her signs! I’ve given her plenty of signs. What does she want me to do? Slap him across the face with my glove, and challenge him to pistols at dawn?”

“That does sound kind of stylish,” he said. When I glowered at him, he went on. “Look, you deserve better, and she definitely deserves better, and it’s getting irritating to watch.”

“She has to break up with him. I can’t do it for her.”

“It’s not easy for her to do. They’ve been going out for two years. That’s longer than a lot of people have been
married
. She needs to be sure about you.”

I stamped down on the paper in the bin, crushing it to make room for more. “I’m telling you, Blackwell, I’ve done everything I normally do in such cases, and a great deal more, and she’s still with him. Any more and I’d start being the sleazebag she originally thought I was.”

He was quiet a while, as I tore up another of my notebooks. “I really think she’d rather be with you,” he said at last. “Why don’t you ask her?”

I could have produced some bluster about making
her
come to
me
, preferring to hold all the cards in the game, ball being in her court, et cetera, et cetera. But evidently I was on some kind of honesty streak. Echoing myself from Thanksgiving weekend, I answered, “Because I’m afraid of what she might say,” and ripped a history syllabus in half.

The drive
home, naturally, was an exercise in utter depression. Patrick blathered on about how fabulous Boston was, and how much he would love to have Julie join him there; and she, rather than shooting down his proposal, actually said with her graceful laugh, “Lighten up. I’m still considering it.” Another time, she said, “U of O does pretty much suck. Am I right, Daniel?”

What the hell was that about?
I
was supposed to back her up now? As if I was likely to say, “Oh, yes, I really think you ought to run away to Boston, darling. It’s clearly the best choice. Cheerio! Godspeed!”

I could, and did, mutter in sincerity that I was not enjoying Eugene much at all.

And then it got worse! Truly!

“…but I’ll only get to see you for a week,” Patrick whinged, at the end of some soliloquy I had tuned out. The words tuned me right back in. We had two weeks for the winter holidays. Would Patrick possibly be gone for the second half?

“Sorry, babe,” she said, and patted his knee.

“Going back to Boston early?” I asked.

“No.” It was Julie who answered. Our gazes met briefly in the rearview mirror, and she looked guilty. “I’m going with my family to New Mexico. Visiting my dad’s folks for Christmas.”

While my heart sank, she went on. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll be back in time to drive you to Eugene.”

Whatever. It felt like years in the future. And in the meantime Patrick was going to be getting
(hand-jobs! Tongue-kisses! Free gropes under her bra!)
a whole week of Julie’s attention, while I sat at home alone.
At least he won’t be with her during the second week either
, I reminded myself. But that was pathetic comfort, since ideally he would not be in this bloody car or her bloody life at all.

In Sunriver a foot of snow blanketed the ground. Christmas lights decorated everything for the tourists. We arrived at dusk, and from the front path of my parents’ house I could see the Whitecrest ski slopes ablaze with floodlights, behind a swath of fir trees. Julie pulled up to the curb, and I interrupted Patrick’s latest dissertation to say, “Right. Nice to see you, Patrick. Julie, thanks for the ride. Cheers.” I hopped out of the car.

Julie jumped out too, leaving the engine running. “Here. I’ll help you get your stuff out of the back.”

Side by side, ankle-deep in snow, we extracted my few bags and boxes from the car. I took the last bag from her and balanced it on top of the suitcase I had put down on the curb. “Well,” I said. “Hope you enjoy New Mexico. I hear it’s beautiful this time of year.”

“Thanks.” She glanced through the back window of the car, where Patrick’s head was obscured by a tower of luggage. “I’m sorry I won’t have much time over break,” she added. “Would have been nice to hang out with you.”

“Yeah.” Light powdery snowflakes were drifting down. I blinked one off my eyelashes. “Next term, maybe.”

“Definitely.”

We stood looking at each other. I reached out and ran my palm along the wave-crests of her hair. “Snow’s sticking to you. Pretty.”

Ugh. I thrust my hand into my pocket and looked down. Why so shy? This was supposed to be my element.

Her laced-up black boot took a step toward me, and sank into the snow, one footprint’s length from my toes. I lifted my face. She put her arms around me. Warm apple-scented hair with cold snow-sparks brushed my cheek. Through the leather of my coat and the wool of hers, I felt the shape of breasts and belly and hips. My hands eased flat against her back. For the first time, and finally, I was holding Julie French in my arms, and it was no quick-and-casual hug. It was a definite I-care-for-you cling. I let my eyes close, and savored the one good moment I was likely to get for the next two weeks.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, and pulled away.

“Happy New Year,” I answered. The warmth she had pressed into my chest evaporated into the winter air.

“I’ll call you in January.” She waved, I waved back, and she got into her car and drove away.

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