It’s one of my rare days off and I’m passing the time by rereading The Man in the Iron Mask, sprawled on Eric’s sofa. The coffee table beside me is littered with crumpled up pieces of paper, the product of my latest attempt to get into my writing again. For some reason the words just won’t come to me and the ones I do manage seem awkward and forced. I can’t focus.
No great surprise, really. It’s the seventeenth, the day Miranda leaves for California. And although we haven’t spoken since the day we broke up, I can’t help but wonder if her invitation to go to California with her is still on the table.
The thing is, I really just can’t make up my mind about the whole thing with Miranda. Part of me is still angry with her and the way that she used me to get her story. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it but that doesn’t change the fact that she was lying to me. She never really wanted the relationship we built, she just wanted newspaper fluff to help her portfolio.
On the other hand, I know it was real. Or at least I’m pretty sure it was. Something about it was true. Whether it’s me that she’s in love with or the fairy tale nature of our romance is still up for debate.
Come to think of it, I haven’t decided about that on my end either.
I do care about Miranda. I enjoy being with her and I want to see her happy. I can honestly see myself being happy with her. I’ve missed her these last two weeks, enough that I’ve considered calling her several times, although I always chicken out before hitting the green button. It’s not like we ended things on the best of terms.
Which leaves me wondering, even if I do want to go, does she still want me to go with her?
As if summoned by my thoughts, a familiar knocking cadence sounds from the door. Three heavy, two fast and light, and another harder one. The same knocking pattern she used to use on my bedroom door when she snuck over at night. I drop my book on the table and hurry to the door, throwing it open.
Miranda is standing on the little concrete stoop, wearing a pink, polka dotted sundress and looking extremely out of place in the rundown neighborhood. She shuffles her weight from one foot to the other and offers me a tentative smile. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I respond in surprise.
“I hope you don’t mind, the waitress at the diner told me where to find you,” she says, holding up a napkin with Eric’s address scribbled on the white paper in Brenda’s looping hand. “I wanted to talk.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I say. I step back to let her into the house and she hovers uncertainly before finally perching on the very edge of the sofa. If she looked out of place outside, she looks downright alien in here on Eric’s ancient upholstery. The sight brings a little smile to my face as I drop down to sit beside her. “So, what’d you wanna talk about?”
“I just-” Miranda pauses like she’s trying to find the right word. “Are you okay?”
I raise an eyebrow in surprise. “I’m fine,” I answer in confusion. She keeps staring at me with those questioning blue eyes and I sigh. “Okay, so I’ve definitely been better. Why?”
“Yasmine told me about what happened between you and her sister,” Miranda says. I groan and drop my head onto my knees. “I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“Thanks,” I say into my jeans. “So, she told you all about how I’m some horrible, woman-using toolbox, did she?”
“Well the words she used were a little less polite than that,” she admits and I chuckle weakly. “But that’s the basic gist of what she said, yeah.”
“Then why are you here?” I ask curiously, lifting my head to glance at her. “Why would you care about an awful guy like me?”
“Because I know you’re not that guy,” Miranda says simply. “Look, Jake, I might not know you as well as your friend Zarayha does, but I feel like I do know you. And the guy I’ve spent the last few months with is kind and devoted and would never look at a girl as some sort of object. You’re a lot better than me that way.”
“I was hoping we could avoid that subject,” I say, grimacing. “I’ve been trying not to think about it. I’ve got more than enough on my mind without obsessing over that too.”
“Sorry. Again,” she says. “And I’m sorry for slapping you too. I’ve been thinking about it and I think you were right. I do like you, and maybe I could even love you too. But these past couple weeks what I’ve really missed was the excitement. The sneaking around was fun. It felt like finally doing something my parents couldn’t plan out for me or control.”
“You know, normally I’m cool with being right, but this time it kinda sucks,” I say, shoving my glasses back up the bridge of my nose.
“I know, right?” she says, shaking her head. “Why’d you have to be so smart and figure that out? We were doing fine.”
“Still could be,” I point out hopefully.
Miranda grins but I can read the rejection in her eyes. “I don’t think we could,” she says. “Not after everything. Besides,” her smile turns playful, “love triangles are so last year.” I snort, both at the comment and at the fact that I’m part of a love triangle. Me: nerdy, glasses-and-cardigan-wearing book loner. “So, what are you gonna do about her?”
“Who, Yasmine?” I ask, playing it off to stall for time. “I was thinking a crossbow could be fun.” Miranda laughs and bumps her shoulder against mine, silently prompting me. “I don’t know, honestly. She made it pretty clear she doesn’t want to see me again. Maybe she’s right. If I can’t give her what she wants I shouldn’t just hang around and rub that in her face. Maybe I should just let her go.”
“Who says you can’t give her what she wants?” I look over questioningly and she shrugs. “She loves you, right? She wants the same things from you that you wanted from me. The romance and the story and the happily ever after. You don’t think you can give that to her?”
“I don’t know if I love her,” I point out. “I mean, I care about her, but love? I’m not sure I even know what love is anymore. I thought I loved you and we know how that turned out. I just don’t know.”
Miranda gives me a sad smile and combs her fingers through my hair gently. “I do. Give me a second.” She stands up and half-jogs outside. I prop my elbows on my knees and wait, wondering what she’s up to. What could she possibly have that can give me the answer that weeks worth of brainstorming can’t?
A minute later Miranda lets herself back into the house, clutching a book against her chest. I furrow my forehead in bewilderment. She sits down beside me before saying anything. “I figured you didn’t get one of these, so you probably haven’t seen it,” she says. I glance at the cover and read the embossed title. Tickuma High School - 2015.
“A yearbook?” I ask skeptically. “Are you going to show me how un-photogenic my senior picture is? Because I’ve seen enough of my school pictures over the years to take a guess at how bad it looks.”
“I had a different picture in mind,” she says, flipping through the pages. “Although you’re right, your picture this year was a little unflattering. There’s a glare on your glasses that sort of hides your eyes completely.”
“Typical,” I say, shaking my head. “At least I didn’t sneeze this time.”
Miranda laughs and then finally settles on a page, sliding the book onto my lap. I take in the multi-colored photos and the festive title on the top: Senior Masquerade Ball. “You know, you showing me pictures of the night we got together isn’t going to make me feel better,” I say, and then hastily add, “No offense.”
“What about if I show you this one?” she asks and then points to a picture that’s placed in the bottom right hand corner. The caption reads ’Masked couple share an intimate dance.’ I have to stare at the photo for a second before I realize just who the intimate couple is beneath the masks; it’s Ray and I.
“What is this?” I ask.
“Looks like someone caught a pic of you two dancing,” Miranda says. “And if you want an answer to all of your questions, just take one look at your face.” I study it more closely and something in my chest seizes. Ray’s head is resting on my chest, her eyes half-open and a contented smile on her lips. My gaze slips up to my own expression. My eyes are looking downward, fixed somewhere on the top of her head, and the smile on my face…
“I think your heart knew the answer all along,” Miranda says softly. “Even the night that we met, part of you already belonged to someone else.”
“My God,” I breath, unable to tear my eyes away from the photograph. “How is this-?” I close my eyes and try to sort out the way my brain is racing. I think back over all of the time I’ve known Ray; the way we’ve always been so in sync, the way she’s the first one I want to talk to and the one I can’t imagine living without. It’s not the sweeping, love-at-first-sight romance that I’ve always dreamt about, but there’s still that feeling in my chest; the warmth and comfort. “I think I love Ray.”
Miranda laughs and leans her head on my shoulder. “If there’s one thing you’ve taught me, it’s that you can’t make sense of love,” she says. “It’s confusing and insane and makes you crazy. But I think in the end it’s worth it.”
“I taught you that, huh?” I ask, finally looking over at her.
“Yes, you did. You and that whole ‘fairy tale romance, love is destiny, the world is secretly a beautiful place’ thing you’ve got going on,” she says playfully. “You know, I was ready to just marry the first rich guy that I didn’t hate, just like my mom did. But being with you has made me think I should hold out for everything you talked about. I want that." She taps the yearbook photo. "This, I want this.”
I smile and wrap an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against my side. “You’ll find it,” I say assuredly. “I mean look at you, who wouldn’t want to give you all of that and more?”
“Thanks, Jake,” she says. “So, you’re in love with your best friend. What are you going to do about it?”
I close the yearbook and set it in her lap, and then stand up and dust off my pants. “I’m gonna find a way to get my princess back.”