Authors: Phil Stamper
“Your sister put avocado in the deviled eggs. She can’t be trusted.”
He laughs at that. A soft laugh—more strained than light. The moon illuminates his features, and my brows furrow to match his.
“Hey, you okay?”
He makes eye contact with me, briefly. “Oh, hmm. Yeah. Sorry, I guess I just get antisocial at these things.”
His sullen expression floods into my body, and I consider
asking about it, but something stops me and tells me we’re not
I don’t know where we are, but I like the journey so far.
I take the unattended, opened champagne bottle on the ground and bring it to my lips. The tart, fizzy liquid burns my throat as I swallow it down. The taste isn’t great, but I could get used to it.
“I like this little hidden area,” I say, which makes him laugh. “No, I’m serious! This was the size of my bedroom in Brooklyn. It’s comforting.”
He looks dramatically from left to right. “This was your room?”
“Well, it had a ceiling, but yes.”
We pass the bottle, and the flavor gets better. The burning is less noticeable at least.
“So, Houston,” I say. “Anything fun to do downtown? Shows or anything?”
“We don’t get a ton of bands that play here. We’ll get stadium tours sometimes, but those are a little more mainstream—Elton John, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake. People like that.” He smirks. “It’s probably not your scene.”
“Excuse me? You think I don’t like mainstream music?” I don’t bring up my cassette collection.
He shrugs. “You’ve got the Brooklyn hipster vibe, what can I say? You’re telling me you don’t go to indie shows?”
“Well, I never said that. Back home Deb and I saw a ton of indie shows. But the reasons for that are twofold: First, it’s Brooklyn, so indie shows are everywhere. Second, those tickets
are cheap. It’s not like either of us could afford to see shows at Madison Square Garden.”
I take a swig from the bottle as he starts laughing again.
“You think you know me so well,” I say, wiping the foam from my lips. “But let me guess—you haven’t been to a concert since you came here. Oh, wait, I know your type. You listen to the radio, because you like a lot of different music, but you don’t really stan for anyone.”
“Wow, almost none of that was correct.” He pats my back condescendingly. “Really good try, though.”
“Fine, who do you stan for?”
“Dear god. I will tell you if you stop saying the word ‘stan.’ ” He keeps my gaze, and the reflection of the porch light makes his eyes shine. “I don’t have a favorite, but I literally couldn’t go to the gym for practice without my K-pop playlist.”
I hesitate, and he must see the confusion in my face, because he follows it up quickly, tension straining his voice.
“I mean, I like mainstream music like SZA and Khalid and whatever Calvin Harris song is currently at the top of the Billboard charts too.”
“No, K-pop is cool, I just never pictured you a fan of it. I haven’t listened much, but I’ve watched a few music videos before. They are super entertaining.”
He thaws a bit, and as I pass the champagne to him, I scoot a little closer. Almost imperceptible, but from this angle, our knees softly brush against each other. He doesn’t pull away, and the heat from his touch makes me melt.
“The music’s great, and there are so many artists I love in the genre, but there’s just something about how every song is high tempo and exciting—K-pop knows how to hit hard. It kind of makes me feel invincible. And I don’t get hung up on lyrics since, well, I don’t know what they’re saying.”
“Makes sense to me.” I offer him a genuine smile, and he returns it.
My smile widens, and a laugh comes out.
“What was that for?”
“Just, you and I are different in so many ways, but …” I drift off, formulating my thought. “We’re kind of playing the same role. We have this massive public presence, but we’ve got this whole life that the public doesn’t see. I can’t believe you’re that stoic, almost regal cutie from the
He sighs, and a distant look takes over his expression.
There are a dozen more questions I planned on asking him, about the astronaut families, about his mom, about Clear Lake. But there’s one that, maybe it’s seeing him with his guard down like this, that I
“Can I … be real with you for a second?” I hiss a long sigh through my teeth. “How do you all stay acting so perfect?”
I see the skepticism behind his eyes, so I pull back.
“Why do you ask?” he says. “This isn’t, like, for your show or anything, is it?”
I avoid eye contact and feel the blood rush to my head. “No, no. Of course not. I just … my family is … I don’t know, it was an idiotic question, sorry.”
He puts a hand on my knee, and I breathe in so fast it’s almost a gasp. It’s unfair that there are enough nerve endings stored in my knee to make a simple act like that leave me breathless.
Our eyes meet, and suddenly I’m the insecure one.
“My dad isn’t like yours,” I say. “My mom isn’t like yours. I’m not like you. We can’t carry ourselves like you do. We aren’t built to deal with this, no matter how much Dad thinks we are.”
“Cal, we’re not perfect. We’re far from it.”
“Come on, you are literally America’s family right now. You were on the cover of
—all of you.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t treat me like that, please. I see it in your eyes right now, this awe of my perfect life. It’s not perfect. We can pretend, I guess. I can pretend better than I thought, actually. Well, maybe not—near the end of that
photoshoot the photographer made us all do a serious pose because he said my smile didn’t look ‘right’ in the other shots. I can fake a confident, serious pose, but I can’t fake happiness.”
We’re close, but I want to lean in even closer. His melancholy buries itself into me, and I want to stop it. I focus on his face in the moonlight, and it’s then I realize I want to kiss him. I want to fix his insecurities and make it better, even if the happiness and rightness lasts only a couple of seconds. Or a few minutes. I bite my lips, subconsciously, and his gaze drops to them.
But it’s too fast. Or is it? He can’t deny this connection, the
one I know buzzes through both of us. The fire’s not strong, but something’s there, smoldering.
I lean forward, just slightly.
And he stops me.
He puts a hand to my chest, and his eyes soften to almost a look of pity. My chest aches with awkwardness, and I want nothing more than to jump over this fence and never look back and—
“I think you’re cute,” he says. “I know we just met, but there’s something about you I really like. But I need to make sure you understand something first.”
I clear my throat and look past his ear. Anywhere that’s not his perfect eyes. “Oh, um. What’s that?”
“If you want to kiss me, kiss me because you like me. Not because you think it’ll make me happy.”
“You can’t just kiss away all the bad feelings I have. You can’t kiss me and make me better. I think you know that, but … I have to say it.”
There’s a part of me that wants to deny it. To say that I really just thought he was cute and super kissable and wanted to go for it—not that all those things aren’t true, but that’s not what made me lean in. I wanted to help. I wanted to kiss him and see him smile again.
He doesn’t deserve that, which is why I say, “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
“Thought so.” He sighs. “You had that ‘poor puppy’ look. It was cute, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like being the one
who makes you look like that. Like you think I’m some broken baby bird or something.”
It’s silent for a bit. I wait for the awkwardness to set in, but as we pass the bottle back and forth, I feel myself worrying less about the silence and enjoying his company more. It’s a bit cooler out, and a nice breeze cuts through the humidity.
“Sorry if I made things weird,” he says. “I’m not usually so upfront about my, um, depression.” His voice dips, low and soft, like it’s a foreign word he knows he’s pronouncing incorrectly. “It’s something I’ve been trying lately. I’m not always my strongest advocate, you know?”
I nod. “For the record. I do want to kiss you, at some point. And not just to make you happy.”
He smiles at that, and the tension in my shoulders melts away.
“Someday,” he offers.
I want to tell him I’m here, that he can talk to me if he needs to. Or I can sit here, inches from him, listening to him breathe. In, and out. I want him to know how remarkable it is that, of the billions of people in the world, I am the one who’s sitting next to him, under stars and the champagne’s haze. I want him to know the improbability of two people meeting like this. That it’s astounding, no matter how inconsequential it is. Sure, strangers meet all the time. It’s the universe’s way to say we don’t matter. None of this matters.
Our eyes meet. And it’s clear that, sometimes, the universe is just wrong.
I almost lean into him again, but I hear someone open the sliding glass door. It’s Kat, and she’s around the corner in a flash, taking up the third chair with a sigh.
“You guys are missing a hell of a party. They’re all sucking down the champagne. Cal’s dad and Stephanie Jonasson—” she turns to me and adds, “the one who brings her yappy dog to parties—are currently battling for control of the record player.”
“Good.” Leon laughs. “I hope they break it.”
Kat turns to me. “So this record player came with the house, because everything
to be sixties and seventies themed, I guess, and Mom kept bringing home these records after work. She would bring like ten home a week. One day she comes in with a big stack, and Dad is like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Are you raiding a record store on your lunch break?’ First, she laughs because she doesn’t get much of a lunch break, being an
and all, and then she says, ‘They just keep giving them to me. I can’t say no.’ ”
“You mean NASA is buying your mom records?” I ask.
“Dozens of them,” Leon explains. “They know Mom and Dad throw most of the parties here, and I think they think it sets the tone, or whatever. During one
episode they asked what Mom’s favorite record was. She got so flustered, it was great. I guess I get the retro appeal, but I don’t know why NASA won’t let them stream like normal people.”
“Ha, right.” My voice cracks.
“It’s total nonsense,” Kat says, then gasps. “Oh! Sorry, your cassette thing is totally different.”
I look down, and heat flushes my face.
“What?” Leon asks. “What did I say?”
“I—it’s embarrassing.” I never thought it was embarrassing before, until I heard those words come out of his mouth. “I have a tape deck. A cassette player, I mean. I get a lot of old cassettes, and whatever new ones come out. I’ve got a big collection now. The sound’s smoother, I guess.”
“We didn’t mean to make fun of you.” Kat laughs. “Well, we didn’t then. Now, I kind of do. How old is that cassette player I see in all your vids? Can I remind you that you were not alive in the eighties or nineties, and even if you were, you’d have no right collecting them?”
“Ohhhhh,” Leon says. “It’s a
thing, isn’t it? So, I think that means I was right.”
I laugh at that, and I slap at him to get him off my back.
“What are you two talking about?” Kat asks.
I roll my eyes as Leon launches into an explanation of our earlier conversation.
“Oh, you told him about the K-pop—that’s usually info you drop during the
Turning to her, I narrow my eyes.
“Uhhh,” Leon says. “We’d need a first date for that to happen.”
“Look, I’m just saying I ran interference for thirty whole minutes so you two could have some alone time. Champagne, the moon, the stars—all looks like first date material to me.”
The way my heart is beating … this isn’t a date, it’s on a totally separate plane. Do you need a first date when you can
hide from gardening duty together under a tree, or get to know each other under a perfect night sky?
“Dating is overrated,” I say. “I like whatever we’re doing.”
Kat squeals, which makes Leon groan. After a few more minutes, we’re able to polish off the rest of the bottle.
“Oh, guess what? Cal’s mom said she’d start giving me some coding lessons,” Kat says while chucking the bottle in the recycling bin. “She’s awesome.”
I laugh, knowing my mom would die with joy if she knew a teen honestly thought she was awesome.
“That’s great,” Leon says. “But we should really get inside before they actually notice our disappearance.”
As we go in, I slip my hand in his and squeeze.
Leon and I keep tabs on each other, even when we’re in separate areas of the party, talking with various astronauts and their families. It’s a comfort that lasts me through the rest of the night.
Since Mom went home early, I’m waiting for Dad to come out front so we can go home. The faint scent of tobacco drifts my way, and my eyes follow the smoke trail. Parked on the street, in front of the house, is the white van I recognize as the one StarWatch uses. Leaning against the car, alone, is the producer from the garden.