Home > Opposite of Always(9)

Opposite of Always(9)
Justin A. Reynolds

Sorry I didn’t come tumbling after, I’d said.

She’d smiled. We can always try again.

But then there’s a knock at the front door. We don’t move until the knock happens again, and then Jillian unravels herself from me to answer it. When she comes back, she’s not alone.

“Not this movie again,” Franny groans. “I didn’t catch two transfers over here to watch some cheesy movie.” He flops onto the sofa, in the exact spot formerly occupied by half of Jillian and half of me. Jillian sits beside him, and he pulls her in for a big hug. He laughs. “Hey, do I smell triple chocolate cookies?”

And at the precise moment Franny manages to wedge two entire cookies between his jaws, my jeans vibrate. I fish out my phone.

Hey, sorry I took so long. By the way, it’s me, Kate.

For half a second I consider waiting to reply. I don’t want to seem too eager, too attached. Except I can’t wait a second longer to talk to her.

Don’t be sorry, I assure her. Your timing is perfect.

“Who’s texting you?” Franny says. He pries the phone from my hands with his oversize fingers. “Whoever it is has got you seriously cheesing.”

I reach for it in vain. “Give it back, man.”

It’s too late. He jumps up from the couch, nearly spilling my milk. He grins, studying the screen. “I told you she’d come around.”

Jillian’s eyebrows rise. “That’s Kate.”

“It is indeed,” Franny confirms.

“Nice,” she says. She turns to me, forces a smile. “Now everyone’s happy.”

Franny tosses my phone back. “Well,” he says. “What are you waiting for? Shoot your shot.”

The Thing About Shooting One’s Shot

The thing is I suck at all things move-making. I’m more of the wait to be moved type.

YOU: And how is that working out for you, Jack?

ME: Admittedly, not well.

Which is why I decide to try something different with Kate.

Take action.

Screw passivity.

Screw inertia.

To hell with the path of least resistance.

So shoot your shot already, Jack, you say.

Consider it shotted, my friends.

I pick up my phone and hover over Kate’s empty photo circle, my thumb just above the generic, gender-neutral silhouette.

I hover.

And I hover some more.

Because the question that has dogged me ever since my first kindergarten crush still torments me a decade-plus later: What in the world am I supposed to say?

I think, Just be yourself, Jack. At least you can be you somewhat believably.

I type: Hey, I’m sorta in your neck of the woods. Wanna grab some cereal?

Silly Rabbits, Tricks Are for (Big) Kids

I have to borrow Mom’s car because my car is doing this billowing smoke thing, which probably isn’t good.

“And where are you and my car going?” Mom inquires.

“Out,” I say. I can’t control my face, and apparently it wants to grin ear to ear. “For cereal.”

Mom gives me a what’s wrong with my kid look but tosses me her keys and says, “We’re out of milk, too.”

I probably should’ve mentioned that this particular cereal is ninety minutes east. But this way, when Dad asks how much she knew, she’ll have what our government likes to call plausible deniability.

Anyway, to the metal I put the pedal, and I speed past a state highway patrol car idling in the center median, but either he’s on break or he understands that I am a man on an important mission, because he doesn’t even blink.

Then I blink and the next thing I know I’m pulling into a long driveway. I text Kate, Hey, I’m here.

My heart is shoving itself into a missile-shaped carton, lighting its wick, and exploding in my chest, a million and one fireworks erupting within my rib cage.

And I haven’t even seen Kate yet.

Just the thought of her fires up my sweat glands, makes me sink into the front seat, and I wonder if it’s too late to turn around. To go home. Yes, I want to see her. Badly. But also I don’t want to screw this up.

Only there are signs everywhere prohibiting U-turns.

Plus, there’s a tap at my window—

And it’s her—beautiful, brown, super-tight-curls Kate. She leans into my window frame, making that roll your window down motion. And I try, except I have to turn the car back on since Mom’s ride has power everything. I attempt to turn the ignition just enough to engage battery power without actually restarting the car, but it’s not working, so I turn on the car, only to fumble with the window buttons because Mom keeps the child lock on—apparently she doesn’t trust me or Dad to exercise good window-lowering judgment—and Kate is rolling in laughter.

Finally, I just open the door.

Kate shakes her head. “Uh, are you okay, man?” she asks.

The answer is no.

And the answer is absolutely.

We fill our arms with bowls and spoons, milk and cereal. She takes me to her favorite place. A quiet spot down in the gorges, where she goes to read and draw. “I do my best thinking here,” she confides. “Or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify the exorbitant amount of time I spend here.”

We navigate the narrow trail, a wall of crimson rock on either side of us. We watch the water curl around smooth stones, flowing to wherever, taking its time.

And it’s like she could lecture on pizza crusts for ten hours and I’d never stop listening, I’d never be bored. But we don’t discuss crusts, except to agree that neither of us is a big fan of cheese-stuffed crust, that we’re pizza crust purists, why mess with a great thing. We talk about where we grew up (she’s originally from a suburb near Pittsburgh), and our favorite movies (I confess Adventures in Babysitting, which was introduced to me, ironically, by my sixty-year-old former babysitter, also known as my maw-maw; Kate loves a flick she stumbled onto called Raising Victor Vargas, which I’ve never seen).

“I challenge you to watch it and not craugh,” she says.

“Craugh?”

She smiles. “Craughing is a simultaneous mix of crying and laughing that is triggered by only the absolute best things in life.”

“So, what else has made you craugh?”

“That’s for me to know, and for you . . .” She slurps up the leftover milk in her bowl and emerges with the most awesome fruity-loops-milk mustache ever, and she’s not at all embarrassed or self-conscious and she doesn’t flinch when I wipe it away.

And cereal is my new favorite food.

Probably why bowls and spoons were invented.

Truth & Consequences

Naturally, when I make it back from my cereal expedition, my parents are less than thrilled to learn how far I traveled for a bowl of artificially flavored milk.

“You missed dinner, Jackie. What were you even doing all the way out there?” Mom asks.

“Something about the milk out that way, it’s . . .” I shrug. “More organic-y?”

“Jack, come on,” my dad says, in his understanding-yet-stern dad voice.

“I went to see someone,” I blurt. “A friend.”

Mom and Dad exchange looks.

“Okay, do we know this friend?” Dad asks.

“No. We, uh, only just met.”

“Why didn’t you just tell us that?” Mom asks, shaking her head.

I tell them the truth, which is: I have no idea.

And so we discuss what it means to be trustworthy.

Rather, my parents discuss and I listen, nodding my agreement when so called upon.

Because my dad is an English major at heart, his part of the lecture consists of breaking down the semantics—do you understand what trustworthy really means, Jackie? It means that you must be worthy of one’s trust. Hence, TRUST . . . WORTHY—repeatedly, until even Mom seems bored.

“So, what’s her name?” Mom interjects.

“Huh?” I say.

“Don’t play with me,” Mom says in her I’m not messing around voice. If Dad is the Lecturer, Mom is the Interrogator. “This new friend of yours.”

“Kate,” I say.

“And,” Mom says.

“And what?”

“Tell me about Kate. Who is she? How do you know her? What’s her criminal record?”

“No criminal activity that I know of. She’s a freshman at Whittier. I met her during the campus visit.”

“An older woman,” Dad says, cheesing approvingly. “Apple don’t fall far . . .”

Mom freezes Dad with a death stare and he retreats. “Jackie, Dad and I aren’t upset because you took the car to Whittier. Or even because you like this Kate. It’s that you were intentionally misleading. That’s not like you.” Her forehead creases in a way that spells concern.

I understand. Parents live in constant dread, forever worried that their kid’s slightest transgression is an invisible step toward a life of crime, or at the very least, eternal dysfunction. For instance, what if the fact that I borrowed my mom’s car and drove it ninety minutes away gradually morphs into grand theft auto when I’m twenty-three, culminating in a highway police chase whereby I drive into a giant sewer drain, living out my days as a smelly rat king? Or what if missing curfew leads to my inability to be gainfully employed well into my thirties and I live in my parents’ attic with my invisible friend Otis?

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