THIS IS MOST CERTAINLY the most put together I have looked all summer, I decide while twirling my reflection in the mirror.
My hair falls past my shoulders in loose curls, and a strand has been braided and clipped out of my face, which is currently accentuated with makeup. And not just my usual makeup, which consists of blots of concealer when necessary and a layer or two of mascara. Now, a coat of powder dusts my face, along with a faint dollop of blush on the apples of my cheeks. Shimmery gold eye shadow glimmers on my eyelids, and this time several layers of mascara have been swiped onto my lashes, extending them to lengths I previously thought unachievable. I pucker my berry-pink lips and sigh, wishing I didn’t feel like such a fraud for feeling pretty.
After all, beauty is what lies beneath the surface and all, and I’ve got some pretty hideous demons lurking down there.
I slip on a floral pink dress and throw a jean jacket over top, then slide my feet into a pair of leathery brown sandals, completing the outfit. I should be feeling confident, but my stomach feels like it’s filled with rocks and the added weight makes me second guess this supposed date I’m about to be going on.
Aunt Colleen knocks on my bedroom door, even though she’s already seen me since she helped with the hair and makeup. I invite her to come in, and her face breaks out into an angelic expression of admiration when she sees the finished look.
“Lexi . . .” she marvels. “You look beautiful, honey.”
I flush, but shoot her a smile nonetheless. “Thank you, Aunt Colleen. I couldn’t have pulled this off without you.”
She shakes her head. “No, you always look beautiful. You just look grown up like that.” She pauses for a moment. “You look a lot like your mother,” she adds softly.
I try to picture my mom looking young and carefree, but the only visual that I have of her consists of bags under her tired eyes and premature wrinkles from years of stress. Her fun and youthful days ended with my conception.
“What was she like?” I find myself asking, uncharacteristically. I don’t usually badger Aunt Colleen with questions about my mom. “When she was my age, I mean.”
Aunt Colleen takes a seat at the edge of my bed, patting the spot beside her in invitation for me to join her. She wraps an arm around me once I collapse down next to her.
“She had a wild spirit, your mom,” she says, squeezing my shoulder. “She was easily the most liked girl in her high school class, and all the boys had crushes on her. You’d be amazed how confident she was. It was like she owned the place and she knew it, yet she never let it go to her head. Your mom had the biggest heart, too. She was always the one who put the mean kids in their place.”
I smile faintly, glad to have these good memories of my mom to counteract the bad. It brings me comfort to know that at least at one point in her life, she was truly, genuinely happy.
Aunt Colleen sighs. “Lexi, love, I’m sure you miss your mom something terrible, because I miss her lots, too. But I want you to know that she’s watching you, and she is so proud of you. Please, Lex, keep making your momma proud by going out and having fun and participating in experiences like this date you’re about to go on. She would want you to live your life as unapologetically as she did. She never wanted you to live in constant guilt, honey.”
I blink fast to prevent the tears pooling in my eyes from spilling and ruining my makeup. Even though I can’t quite digest what she’s saying, it means the world that she knows exactly what I need to hear. She’s a true blessing, my aunt.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Suddenly, the doorbell rings, and I find myself dazed, not emotionally prepared to go out on a date and have—hopefully—fun after thinking about such a heavy topic.
“I’ll get it,” Aunt Colleen says, dusting herself off and walking out of the room, leaving me alone with approximately thirty seconds to compose myself. I grab a bottle of perfume and spritz some on myself, then take one last look in the mirror. My eyes narrow at my reflection, and I try to garner enough spunk to make myself look alive.
Dull blue eyes stare back at me, the life drained out of them. But if I contort my lips into a smile, it suddenly becomes a lot more believable.
I float toward the stairs, feeling weightless like an astronaut walking on the moon. I expect to hear the inevitable introductions between Aunt Colleen and this Derrick guy, but instead a voice too familiar to require any introduction saturates the air.
“Jasper, why are you here,” I fire angrily as I round the corner at the bottom of the staircase. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
He opens his mouth to defend himself, and then shuts it when his gaze falls on me. Heat rushes to my cheeks and I chew on the inside of my lip.
“You look beautiful,” he says. His lips pull upward into a smile, and his face has a rosy tinge to it like he’s somehow honored to be in my presence. For a split second, I soften at his desire to come support me before this date. But then I notice the video camera in his hand, pointed at me, and my gaze hardens.
“Thanks. Now please go. You need to leave.”
Aunt Colleen’s smirk next to Jasper does not go unnoticed, and I sigh audibly.
“I’m going, I’m going,” he grumbles in a childlike voice that reminds me of Willie. “I just wanted to see how you looked for your first date.”
I gesture at my body. “Well now you’ve seen the whole ensemble.” I rush forward and grab his shirt and begin dragging him away from the front door toward the door that leads out back behind the house. “Come on,” I say over his protests. When he’s finally made it to the door, I open it and push him outside, rolling my eyes at his melodramatics.
“I expect to hear all the details!” he exclaims.
“Talk later,” I say before slamming the door shut in his face. When I turn back around to face an amused Aunt Colleen, I exhale a rush of air and shake my head. “God, he’s annoying sometimes.”
“You know he loves you,” she says. “That boy would literally do anything for you.”
“I never asked him to be that way,” I fire, sounding somewhat defensive, though I’m not sure why. I should be flattered to have someone who cares so deeply about me. Instead, as his moving date looms closer, his sincere concern for me is becoming a tiresome burden. There’s comfort in having someone who would go to the ends of the Earth for you. But when that person is a million miles away on the literal opposite end of the Earth, what’s the point?
Suddenly the doorbell rings, and my brain refocuses back on the main point of tonight: Derrick.
Nervous jitters fire through my stomach as the question of what precisely I’m about to be getting myself into tangles in on itself like a bunch of streamers swirling together.
“Should I get that, or do you want to, Miss Popular?” Aunt Colleen quips.
“You can,” I say. “I gotta go turn my hair curler off. I just remembered I forgot to.”
“Okay,” she says, eyeing me cautiously. She probably knows I’m lying, but if she does, she doesn’t press the issue further.
I run upstairs and once I make it to the top, I hear the faint murmuring between Aunt Colleen and Derrick as she introduces herself and lets him inside, and I feel bad for making this boy make small talk with a random stranger.
Once I make it to my room, I rifle through my notebooks until I find the right one, and I flip to a page that’s about two thirds of the way in.
I am worthy. The words stand out stark and bold, as I’ve traced over them with my accumulated collection of mechanical pencils at least fifty times over the course of the last three years. It’s a stupid ritual, but it’s something I do when I need the mental boost. There’s something poetic about it, that each time I trace over the words, they get a little bit darker; become a little more concrete and maybe even truer.
“Don’t choke,” I mutter quietly to myself. “You know how to talk to people. Don’t let this boy intimidate you.”
“Lexi!” Aunt Colleen yells up the stairs. “Derrick is here!”
“Coming,” I whisper to my reflection. On the outside, I’m just another pretty girl. Yet internally, I feel like a thousand puzzle pieces that have been dumped out onto the floor, an unintelligible jumble of disarray. My heart beats in a scattered frenzy.
I clear my mind and drift down the stairs, mentally composing myself. God, this is weird.
When I make it to the bottom, Derrick is standing there, wearing a simple white T-shirt and a smile. “Hey, Lexi,” he says. “You look really pretty.”
Annoyingly right on cue, like what happens to all the girls on their first date in the books I’ve read, a rush of heat rises to my cheeks. “Thanks,” I say.
“Derrick was just telling me about some cute pizza place near here that he was thinking of taking you to,” Aunt Colleen says, clearly relishing her position as the parental figure whose role is to make things awkward. I smile privately to myself, just happy to see her happy.
“Sounds good to me,” I say.
“You ready to head over?” Derrick asks me.
“Yep! Bye Aunt Colleen, I’ll see you later.” I wave to her as Derrick says it was nice meeting her, and then my very first date is officially underway.
“She seems cool,” Derrick says as he opens the passenger car door for me. I slide inside, chewing on my lip.
“Yeah, she’s great,” I say when he circles around to his side.
He turns the car on and turns toward me, and the look of hesitation gives away his next question before he even asks it.
“My mom died when I was nine and my dad is out of the picture,” I answer for him.
His expression softens, and I feel stupid for ruining the mood this early in the evening. “I’m really sorry, Lexi,” he says. “That’s awful. I can’t imagine.”
I shrug, hating how I always seem to have that buzzkill effect on people. “It’s okay.”
He watches me carefully for a split second and then brightens, turning toward his car’s CD player. “I hope you like throwback hits, because I just burned a CD full of them.”
Unable to help myself, I laugh. “Who makes CDs anymore when you have online playlists?”
“Um, old-fashioned people such as myself,” he quips. “I’m a big believer in a good old-fashioned date.”
“What era of old-fashioned is this one based on?” I query. I’m just happy that the mood has shifted to a more jovial one. I don’t want this date to transform into a deep recitation of tragic backstories.
“I’m thinking eighties,” he answers as he begins turning out of the driveway. “Who knows, maybe we’ll end up at a library and enter a deep conversation about the pitfalls of societal social roles for the high school teenager.”
“Let me guess,” I say, tapping my chin in faux contemplation. “You’d be the misunderstood jock.”
“Nah,” he says, turning to glance at me as he comes to a full stop at a stop sign. “I’d definitely be the basket case.”
I blink at him, unsure what to say, and he laughs.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. You look so startled. I probably shouldn’t crack jokes about being a basket case on a first date, huh?”
“Yeah, that might be a wise idea, especially if you’re trying to make it to a second date,” I say, surprised at my ease of charisma. Do I always have it in me to seem this confident?
“So you’re saying there’s still hope for a second date,” he says, grinning as he makes a swift left turn, heading towards out of town. “Excellent.”
My lips quirk up into the slightest of smiles, and I face out the window to hide it.
“So, let’s play the whole Get To Know Each Other game,” Derrick says after a few silent beats.
“Sure. How do you play?” I ask.
A devious look crosses his face. “We take turns revealing information about ourselves to each other. It’s kind of like Twenty Questions, but instead of being forced to talk about uncomfortable things the other person asks, everything you say is totally voluntary. Takes a bit of the edge off.”
“I like that version,” I say.
“Me too. I’ll start: I absolutely detest seafood. Sorry to disappoint; I know you work at a seafood restaurant.”
I smile. “That’s okay. My fact was going to be ‘I’m glad to be doing something other than serving seafood right now.’”
He laughs. “Fair enough. Okay, fact two: This is my first time doing something with a girl since me and my last girlfriend of almost two years broke up. Trying my hand at the whole moving on thing.” He sneaks a glance at me. “Luckily I picked a pretty one.”
My heartrate quickens. “Was the redheaded girl at the restaurant your last girlfriend?” I find myself asking.
“No questions, remember?” Derrick says with a tsk. “But I’ll answer this one, since you’re wondering. Yes, Amber and I dated. But our relationship got a little . . . messy. So we ended things.”
“Messy,” I echo, wondering what that entails to qualify ending a relationship.
“Your turn to give a fact,” he says, effectively ending the conversation. Maybe it’s best if I don’t know details, anyway.
“Oh, right. Uh,” I fumble. “I’m originally from New York City. I lived there until I was ten.”
“No way. This place must suck compared to the city. Everything is so slow-paced and boring.”
“Trust me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
He slows to a stop at a red-light and twists his neck to look at me. “No,” he pronounces slowly, “I guess it’s not.”
“Mmm,” I murmur dreamily into the ooey gooey cheese pizza that dribbles down my chin as I take a generous bite, letting the red sauce and garlic-soaked crust entertain my eager taste buds. I bring a hand up to my face to cover my full mouth as I muse aloud, “Thith ith really good.”
Derrick laughs, clearly happy with my reaction. “I told you, Lexi. Best pizza in town.”
“You sure did,” I agree. “The pizza alone has made this a stellar first date.”
“What about the company?” he asks, quirking an eyebrow. “How’s the actual date faring?”
I pretend to look thoughtful. “I don’t know. The date isn’t over yet. I haven’t had adequate time to run an analysis.”
Truth is, this date has been everything I’ve wanted it to be and more. Derrick hasn’t crossed any boundaries, and talking to him has felt really natural and fun. I don’t feel like the awkward loser I usually am at school, I’m just me, Lexi. And somehow, Derrick accepts that as truth without hesitation or further inquisition.
He’s the same kind of unremarkable as Jasper. So far I have learned that he likes playing baseball and he’s really into physics, and he’s often teased by his friends about being such a goody goody when the rest of them like to wreak havoc and get into trouble in the way popular people typically do. His favorite TV show is The Office, and he loves any sort of comedy movies. He’s just a painfully typical guy, and I find myself drawn to the concept of being with someone whose existence embodies normalcy so loudly that no one would dare question the sanity of anyone linked to said guy. I’d be normal by association.
“So,” Derrick says with a hand over his mouth as he finishes chewing a bite of pizza. He gulps and takes a swig of water before continuing. “Book Nerd. I’m gonna need a better description of your hobbies and interests than just reading books and studying. I get it Callaghan, you’re a little smarty pants. But what else makes you you?”
I give a sarcastic scoff, trying to seem cool. “What’s wrong with reading books? It’s relaxing!”
He quirks an amused eyebrow. “Lexi, come on. Books are great; I’m not discrediting your hobbies. But there does happen to be more to life than reading books. If you’re only ever experiencing life through the lens of fictional characters, you’re not exactly experiencing life, are you? Come on, what does a typical day in the life of Lexi look like? What do you and your friends do for fun? And working doesn’t count.”
My smile falters and my mouth goes a little dry. There’s an obvious element of humor to his words, but I find myself getting antsy at this topic regardless. Describing myself to people in a fascinating light is as difficult as trying to sell a clearly broken product to a crowd of skeptical consumers. “I don’t really have many friends that I hang out with. I’m not exactly the social butterfly you apparently are, Mr. Baseball Star.”
He twists his mouth thoughtfully. “A lot of it is an act, you know.”
I blink at him. “Huh?”
“The popularity thing,” he elaborates. “No one is born intrinsically programmed to have more friends than other people. Ever heard the phrase fake it ’til you make it? That’s my high school experience summed up. I don’t know what I’m doing, I just pretend and hope for the best. That’s what you should try. You’re a lot cooler than you credit yourself to be. Even if you are a book nerd.” He grins at me.
I find myself smiling back.
“Your dimples are really cute, by the way,” Derrick says. “I mean, you’re just really pretty in general, but I have a weakness for girls with dimples.”
My cheeks go warm. “Thanks. I used to hate them.” I used to hate a lot of things about myself. De-emphasis on used to.
He looks genuinely taken aback. “Lexi, you are really pretty. Own that about yourself.”
I find myself needing to get the subject off of me and my lack of confidence. Derrick is supposed to be a distraction from those sorts of conversations, not a facilitator of them. It’s bad enough having Jasper on my case about self-love. I don’t need another boy in my life harping on me about things like that. Even if his intentions are pure.
“Okay, I thought of another hobby,” I say. “I take my five-year-old cousin to do this all the time. We like to go to the playground and swing on the swing set. Willie says it makes him feel like he’s flying.”
Derrick’s brown eyes alight with approval. “I know just the place. I’ll take you, as soon as we finish this delicious pizza.”
I duck my head to pick up my slice of pizza and smile, proud of my ability to deflect a potentially awkward moment. Progress is progress, no matter how small.
“Alright, fast, without thinking, what’s your favorite candy?” Derrick asks.
My fingers curl around the metal frame of the children’s playset beside me, and I don’t hesitate. “Anything chocolate. Oh, and I have a weakness for sour gummy worms.”
“Nice.” He nods appreciatively. “I, too, am a huge chocolate guy. Especially the chocolate with peanut butter. Don’t get me started on those peanut butter eggs that come out around Easter.”
“Oh no, you’re making me want some now!” I cry. “Great, now I’m gonna be thinking about those for the next seven months.”
He shrugs, feigning innocence. “Now we can suffer through the wait together.”
Something in my body freezes at this mention of together, in the future tense. A concept nice in theory, yet terrifying. And also thrilling. Maybe I’ve had poor insight of the future for so long, the idea of having a future to look forward to is foreign. For months and months, I’ve clung desperately to a present that I pleaded with the universe to drag on for as long as humanly possible. The future was just an ugly monster looming in the distance, drawing nearer and baring its terrible teeth at me as it reaches its branched arms out toward Jasper, nearly scooping him up by this point and preparing to take him far, far away. Maybe I’ve been so blinded in the shadows of this monstrous future for so long, I’ve forgotten that there is still a sun burning brightly behind it, full of possibilities.
“So, we’ve established I’m coming out of a two-year relationship with that girl you saw at the restaurant yesterday; what’s your dating history?” Derrick enquires beside me.
I look down at my hands, inspecting my nubby nails. I’d probably paint them, if there was enough nail to paint. “Don’t have one,” I say.
I feel him looking at me, and I can’t bring myself to stare back. So I keep fiddling with my fingers, head down.
“Lexi,” he says next to me. “That’s fine. You don’t have to have a dating history for guys to be interested in you. Sometimes it’s cuter when girls don’t have a history of exes. Heck, keeps it easier for whoever the lucky guy who finally scoops you up is. No weird competitions or anything for us to worry about.”
Without my conscious trying, the mention of competition causes my mind to drift back toward Jasper, and particularly the day he took me to that secluded beach and carved our initials in the tree floods back into my memory. J + L = BFFS.
Obviously, Jasper and I have never dated, and never will. But that doesn’t ward off the internal conflict I’ll find myself consumed with every time I attempt to open my heart to a new boy. I cannot imagine a day that I don’t compare every guy I encounter to Jasper, and I’m not convinced that there is another boy out there who can live up to the high standards he has established.
Or maybe the issue is that Jasper is just as flawed as the next guy, but his flaws are compatible with my personality in that they don’t bother me enough to tamper with our relationship. Maybe soulmates are just people whose personalities, flaws and all, align with our own the way a lock fits precisely one key. Different, yet the same. Mirror images that complement each other.
But that’s aside from the point. The point is that I’m here with Derrick, and I’m trying. To move on, to be normal, to act like Jasper is not the center of my universe.
“It’s getting kind of late,” I acknowledge, this time not seeking an excuse. It really is approaching time for me to be getting home.
“Yeah, of course,” Derrick says. “I can drive you home. But first,” he shoots me a devilish grin, “you have to race me down the slides.”
My eyes follow his gaze at the twin slides a couple feet away, their metal exteriors worn down by years of friction.
“You’re on,” I retort, accepting the challenge. We move to get ourselves situated, and then, on the count of three, we’re both springing into action. He beats me, and I’m sure that if I asked, he could give me the physics of why I didn’t have a prayer regardless of the circumstances. But honestly, I don’t care about the physics, because that takes away some of the magic. What I care about is that I’m laughing, and for a split second, I’m happy, and free, and it’s not the result of Jasper’s company.
My happiness is not conditional of Jasper’s presence, and for the first time in a while, a glimmer of hope sparks itself into view.