I nod. They were dating pretty tight all year, inseparable even, until some big blowup over spring break.
“He’s been kind of low, so I figured a party would be good.”
“Looks like it’s working,” I nod through to the living room, where Lamar is talking to a couple of college girls in short cutoff skirts and plunging sparkly tops. Tate follows my gaze and breaks into a grin.
“Good for him. . . .” The end of his sentence is cut off as the music goes up another level, some dirty club hip-hop track.
“What?” I yell.
Tate looks around, then gestures away in the other direction of the living room, toward the back of the apartment. One of the hallway windows is wide open, leading out onto the flat gravel roof where I can see some people are already hanging out: thin wisps of cigarette smoke drifting up into the night, and the low, sweet scent of something more. Tate bends over to climb through, then holds out his hand to help me after him.
Outside, it’s warm, and although the sky is now dark, it’s surprisingly bright; the night cut through with the glow from the apartments, and traffic on the streets below. We wander closer to the edge of the roof, and find a place to sit, perching on the edge of a brick-built air vent.
“It’s weird we haven’t really talked before.” Tate glances over at me. “I keep seeing you around in school.”
“Not so weird.” I take a sip of beer. “We don’t really run in the same circles.”
Tate gives a low laugh. “Yeah, you and Elise pretty much keep to yourselves.”
I turn. “That’s the way you see it?”
Tate looks puzzled. “What do you mean?”
I shake my head, amused. “Nothing.”
All this time, I figured everyone knew I was the outcast, that Elise and I were outsiders because we got blacklisted. But Tate figured we keep to ourselves out of choice, and I guess by now we do.
“What about you?” I ask. “Is it true you’re going to be president someday?”
Tate shrugs and looks bashful, and that’s when I know that it’s for real. He doesn’t try and make a joke of it, or deflect the comment away, like people do when they’re embarrassed.
He wants it.
“Sorry,” I add quickly. “I didn’t mean it like that. I think it’s great. That you want something so big. I can’t even see what I’ll be doing a year from now.”
Tate checks as if to see if I’m still teasing, then relaxes. “Maybe. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, always having to plan ahead.”
“What do you mean—school and college and stuff?”
“Everything,” Tate replies, and there’s a twist in his voice. “I want to go into politics someday for sure, but my parents keep reminding me that I have to be careful, and think how something will look twenty years from here.”
“You mean, like, partying underage at a college bash.”
“Exactly.” Tate gives me a rueful smile. “And they’re right, too. But now I have this voice in my head, warning me about everything. To do things right, all the time.” He falls silent, looking out at the city. His blue eyes are cloudy in the shadows, blond hair shaded to a dark gold. I can feel the heat of him beside me, just inches between us, and I feel a rush of simple gladness, that I get to see this part of him. The real part.
“So how about you don’t,” I suggest. “Just for tonight.”
He looks at me, a smile playing on the edge of his lips. “Do the right thing?”
“Why not?” I match his smile, playful. “Who’s going to know?”
• • •
If it had been a Hillcrest party, it never would have happened. He would be the boy who ruled the scene, and I would be the girl on the outside of everything. But here, away from it all, we’re just ourselves.
Back inside, we do lime Jell-o shots together, quivering and half-solid in tiny paper cups. The music plays on, loud, and soon we’re dancing, lost in the sea of bodies, hot and sweating. He’s solid against me, his eyes bright, and then Elise is nearby with some college guy, and Lamar too, wrapped around a pretty coed. We drink and dance until our feet hurt and our throats scratch dry, until it’s three a.m. and the cops come and shut the party down, and we flee, laughing, down the stairs and out into the empty streets. We wind up in a red vinyl booth at some twenty-four-hour diner down the street, sharing cheese-covered fries and thick, icy shakes, Elise and I squeezed in the middle of the group like it belongs to us.
Nothing happens with Tate that night, but looking across the crowded diner booth, I see the spark of something in his blue eyes, and I know it’s the start. The last few weeks before summer, he stays friendly in school—chatting in the hallways sometimes, or discussing an assignment after class. Elise keeps dragging me out to party and meet guys, worried I’m pining away over him, but I’m not. I’ve got a certainty about it, like we’re fact, even if it hasn’t happened yet.
Even if I want to pine, Elise doesn’t give me the time. Our summer is a whirl of beach days and road trips, driving through the western Massachusetts country out to explore quaint college towns and hidden-away bookstores and cafés. It’s not always just the two of us. Elise’s parents insist on introducing her to the kids of an old college friend of theirs, just moved to town from California. Max and his twin sister, Chelsea, turn out to be our age, set to attend Hillcrest in the fall. Max is equal parts surfer and comic-book nerd, Chelsea a laid-back artist-type with a baggie of weed hidden under her paintbrushes. We run into Lamar at a couple more college parties, and soon he and Chelsea are inseparable. Elise’s old friend, Melanie, starts hopefully showing up at the coffee shop—regretting her decision to take Lindsay’s side now that the queen bitch is off in Europe for the summer—and just like that, Elise and I have our own group, to hang out together in that back booth at the diner after a late night, to drive upstate to her vacation home in New Hampshire, or to just sprawl in one of our big, empty houses, sneaking liquor and smoking weed and watching school loom closer like a jail sentence at the end of summer.
And then Tate is there at a party one night, and just as simple, he’s mine; slipping into the place I had waiting for him. Elise on one side, Tate on the other: my hand linked through hers, his arm slung over my shoulder. After so many years drifting, not connected to anything, I’m finally tethered. Safe and loved, in the middle.