Undecided, page 29
“Marcela has a wrench and a screwdriver,” I inform him. “So…maybe she’ll know how to reassemble the furniture.”
He smirks and carefully places the wood slats along the wall, away from the wood pieces on the other wall that used to be my desk. “Go get these ‘tools,’” he orders, shrugging out of his jacket. “And this time, pay attention.”
I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I whirl around and hustle into the kitchen to find the wrench and screwdriver in Marcela’s junk drawer. By the time I get back Crosbie’s got the pieces arranged on the carpeted floor, and he’s kneeling between them, looking perplexed. “What’d you do with the screws?” he asks. It takes me a second to answer; he’s wearing a black T-shirt and it’s straining across his back, his biceps broad and defined.
I shake my head to clear it of lusty thoughts. “I left them in my car. I’ll go grab them.” I turn back around and hurry out the door before he can think this through. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t positively giddy that he’s here. That he’s…trying.
I reach the car and snag the plastic bags I’d stashed the screws in, then hesitate as I study Crosbie’s car. The lock on the driver’s side door is up, and before I can talk myself out of it, I’m rooting around beneath the passenger seat until I find the gift I’d hidden there before Chrisgiving. Maybe I’ll give it to him as a thank-you for building my furniture. He’d given me something, after all. Even if I had to return it.
I get back to the apartment and join Crosbie kneeling on the floor in my room, handing him things as instructed, pretending to pay attention like I’d done the last time. “How’d your exams go?” he asks, holding a screw between his lips as he twists another one in.
“Okay, I think. Better than last year, definitely. You?”
He shrugs, and his shirt lifts up to reveal a swath of pale skin and his boxers peeking out from the top of his jeans. “Not too bad.”
“Yeah. How was your trip home?”
I hesitate. “Ah…”
He stops working. “What does that mean? No turkey?”
“There was turkey. And there was…truth-telling.”
“Yeah. I basically made my parents admit they hated each other.”
“Do they? Did they?”
“Yes and yes. My dad’s already looking for a new place.”
“Or underrated,” Crosbie counters. “As a truth serum.”
I laugh. “Fair enough.”
“How about Nate and Marcela? Are they going at it yet?” He turns his attention back to connecting the final pieces of the frame.
“I don’t know,” I muse. “I don’t think so. Marcela said she wasn’t ready to admit she was in love with him, but she’s not going to pretend not to care, either.”
“Where does that get them?”
I shrug. “Marcela’s in Tahiti, so…paradise?”
He smiles and pushes to his feet, gently kicking the frame to make sure it’s sturdy. “Grab the other end,” he instructs, picking up the box spring. I do as I’m told and we wedge it into the frame, following with the top mattress. Crosbie sits down heavily, bouncing a few times, and it all holds up.
Then he looks at me.
“You know what I’m going to say.”
“Happy New Year?”
“Jump on the bed, Nora.”
“Remember what happened last time?”
He gives me a thorough once-over. “You look like you’ve lost some weight. It should be okay.”
“I can’t believe I ever missed you.”
His smile fades slightly. “Did you?”
“Did I miss you? Yes, of course. You got a hundred texts.”
“A hundred and fourteen, but who’s counting?”
“Who, indeed.” I take a breath when he stands and extends a hand to help me up. I’m perfectly capable of climbing into bed on my own, but I want to feel him again, even if it’s just the coarse skin of his fingers against mine, the faint squeeze before he lets go. I stand in the middle and watch him as he leans against the far wall, folding his arms across his chest. His biceps bulge, his forearms look ridiculously strong—he’s so sexy and I feel like such an idiot.
“Jump,” he interrupts. “We have to make sure it’s safe.”
He clears his throat and raises an eyebrow.
I grimace and give a tentative push with my toes. The mattress springs squeak, but nothing terrible happens. I stare at my socked feet and push a little harder this time, my heels coming off the slippery fabric, skidding a little. I bend my knees and try a bit more, glancing up warily, as though I’m in any danger of hitting the ceiling.
I inhale and tell myself I’m only going to do this once, just one big jump to show Crosbie that I can, even though by now I think he knows it.
I plant my feet and wait, fully expecting the mattress to come tumbling down or a neighbor to pound on the door, but it doesn’t happen. I jump again and the mattress squeaks, but everything holds firm. I jump again, and again, and again, and when I look up Crosbie is smiling as he watches, sexy and amused and somehow knowing.
I brace a hand against the wall as I stop, the mattress wobbly under my feet, my breath a little unsteady as I curl a finger in Crosbie’s direction. “Come on,” I say. “Your turn.”
“I’ve already had a turn.”
“I just want to see that you know how to have fun,” I say. “Isn’t that what you said to me?”
“And what did you say?”
“I was like, ‘Okay, great idea.’”
He laughs. “I’ve already built this thing twice. I’m not building it a third time. Get down here.”
“Because I said so.” He bends to collect his jacket from the floor, and my stomach sinks. Oh.
But then he pulls out the flat red box from his coat pocket and turns to face me, exhaling carefully. “You know what else I realized?” he asks quietly.
I step down off the mattress but don’t cross the four feet that separate us. “What?”
“That we saw each other on Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Halloween, Chrisgiving, and now New Year’s. But not Christmas.”
I stare at the box he must have retrieved from the kitchen. “I know.”
“I got you this. I put it under your pillow, but then…”
“I thought a lot about it recently. I mean, fuck, I thought a lot about it since we met. I was really worried that I was in love with someone who was in love with someone else.”
“I’m not in love with Kellan.”
“Yeah. A hundred and fourteen texts, remember?”
“That sounds like an awful lot. But if you don’t think it’s stalkerish or creepy, then okay.”
“You helped me study,” he says, trailing a finger around the edge of the box. “You gave me free snacks at the coffee shop. You pretended not to know about that Hustler in my pillowcase.”
“You acted impressed by my magic tricks.”
“They are impressive.”
“And you helped me paint over that bathroom wall. Like the choices I made last year, the ones I regret, were okay. Because that’s what happens in college. You make mistakes. And you learn from them.”
I nod, hopeful and afraid of it.
“Some people streak down Main Street and get arrested,” Crosbie adds as an afterthought, “but those are the really messed up ones.”
“You were doing so well.”
He smiles and studies the box. “What time is it?”
I check my watch.
He sighs. “Do you want to wait eleven minutes for this so it’s really perfect timing?”
I shake my head fervently. “I don’t want to wait.”
He extends the box. “Merry Christmas, Nora.”
“Oh, what is this?”
He laughs, embarrassed, and steps on my toes, lightly. “Just open it.”
Of course I already know what it is, but still my breath catches when I lift the lid to see the dainty gold necklace inside, the tiny book charm, the careful etching on the front.
“Did you put it on?” Crosbie asks, hooking a finger under the chain and lifting it out. “When you found it?”
I shake my head, unable to speak as he fiddles to open the clasp, then carefully fastens it around my neck. The gold book dangles into the V-neck of my sweater, and we both glance down as he strokes his thumb over the letters carved on the front.
“What do you think?” he murmurs. “Did I choose right?”
I nod mutely.
Finally the words do come. “There was never a choice,” I say, reaching up a hand to touch his face, the hair curled around the bottom of his ear, the tendon in his neck.
His smile widens and he dips his head to kiss me, but I push him back. “Hang on a second.”
He freezes. “Seriously?”
“Yeah.” I jog out of the room and retrieve his gift from where I’d stashed it behind a chair in the living room. When I come back he stares at the wrapped box, about the size of a board game, and slowly accepts it. It’s dented in one corner and there’s a tear in the paper and part of it’s wet.
“Your Christmas present. I hid it in your car before everything, but then…”
He studies me, then looks back at the box, curling his finger beneath the folded edge of the paper.
“It’s not as nice as yours,” I say hastily. “And I mean, it’s kind of stupid. I know you don’t need—”
“Shut up,” he orders, pulling off the paper and letting it drop to the floor so he’s holding the box. Large, sparkly letters printed across the top spell out “Magic Kit” and beneath that in block font reads, “Lovely Assistant! Astounding Illusions! (Assistant not included.)”
“It’s, um… It’s all tricks that require an assistant,” I say, suddenly more awkward than ever. “I thought until you got more comfortable on stage, if you wanted, I could…assist…you. Or…whatever.” I trail off as he just stares at the box, turning it over to scan the contents listed on the back. It’s from a weird little store in Gatsby and the guy at the counter swore it would be well-received. He’d also tried to sell me what amounted to little more than a bathing suit and a pair of fishnets as my “assistant outfit,” but I’d declined.
“Thank you,” he says finally, lifting his head. I’m taken aback by the force of the emotion in his eyes, the sincerity, the intensity. He’d given me a gold necklace and I’d given him a magic kit and he’s reacting as though that’s anywhere near the same thing.
Still, all I say is, “You’re welcome.”
He sets the box on the mattress behind me and fingers the book charm again, looking at me. “You still want to be my assistant?”
“If you still want me.”
“These will be the only secrets you can keep.”
“You’ve got to take them to your grave.”
“All right, Nora. You’re hired.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Fantastic.”
“And…” He looks at me seriously and tugs on the necklace. “I love you. In case you can’t read.”
“Will you build my desk now?”
“Nora. I swear to—”
I press onto my tiptoes so I can kiss him. “I love you, Crosbie. Only you. I’ve never said that to anyone before, I promise.” Then I tell him something he hasn’t heard a lot, something he deserves to hear every day. “You’re the first.”
I feel him smile against my lips, his hand sliding around the back of my neck, fingers snagging as they slip into my hair. “Same here.”
Outside, the fireworks start before I can reply. It sounds like a million tiny explosions, the display short but intense, and through the frosted glass of the window we can make out blurry washes of reds and greens and yellow rocketing into the sky, unfurling quickly before sinking away. Lovely, intense, ephemeral.
“Perfect timing,” I say.
“Just like I planned.”
“Is this part of the illusion?”
He smiles and kisses me. “No. This is real.”
I glare at Crosbie and plant my hands on my hips. “You went out last night,” I snap.
“So?” He glares right back. “I can’t see my friends anymore? We get married and all of a sudden this is supposed to be my whole world?”
I gasp. “As though this is so bad? I work hard to make this look nice for you!” I gesture around the stage, decorated to resemble a makeshift living room. It consists of an old armchair, an unplugged lamp, and a long wooden box on a raised table.
“I work hard to pay for all this! Not to mention that!” He points at the enormous fake diamond ring on the fourth finger of my left hand. “I deserve a little me-time!”
“Trust me,” I bite out. “You will be getting more than a little me-time. Fine—go out with your friends. I’m going to bed.”
Crosbie storms off stage as I make my way around to crawl into the prop box, lying flat on my back, head sticking out one end, high-heeled feet visible on the opposite end. I close the top so I’m securely tucked inside, then wiggle my toes and give an exaggerated yawn before quickly falling fake-asleep.
We’ve rehearsed this a hundred times, so I don’t need to open my eyes to see Crosbie sneaking back on stage with a saw. Beans is packed, the shop standing room only as people piled in for the Valentine’s Day Open Mic performances. As usual, there’s lots of poetry and singing, but only one magic act. Crosbie did most of the show alone, but this—the finale—requires an assistant, so here I am.
Getting sawed in half.
The audience gasps and snickers as he locks the box then determinedly saws through the wood, and on cue my eyes fly open. “What are you—” I shriek mid-sentence, then launch into a very convincing death scene.
“That oughta do it,” Crosbie announces when the box has been sawed clean through. He tosses the saw to the ground and separates the halves, showing that I have indeed been neatly cleaved in two. Though it’s an illusion we’ve all seen before, the audience applauds uproariously, and it’s all I can do to keep a straight face as I continue to play dead.
I hear Crosbie breathing as he rounds the table, checks for a pulse, nods his satisfaction when he doesn’t find one, and moves the box back together. With great flair he unlatches the lid and I climb out, unscathed, and we hold hands and bow, the audience on their feet.
He leans over to kiss my cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“You do know how to woo a gal.”
We grin and bow one last time, then quickly move our props to the side for the next performers. Crosbie clutches my hand as we weave our way through the crowd, giving thanks and high fives as required, before ducking into the kitchen to grab two bottles of water and heading down the hall to the back entrance for some fresh air. Though my portion of the act lasts only six minutes, it was a nerve-racking six minutes and I’m sweating copiously, despite the fact that my assistant outfit is only a pair of thin black tights and little black dress that takes little very seriously.
“You were great,” I say once we’ve caught our breath. “The trick where you throw the cards and grab the right one out of the air? They were stunned.”
Crosbie watches me as he downs half his drink in one swallow. “You know they were only watching you,” he says, wiping his mouth with the ba
I smile. “I’m proud of you.”
He smiles back, embarrassed. “Thanks.”
His nerves haven’t eased much since the last time he performed, but as always, he’s out there trying, doing his best, working his ass off. And though my “assistant” role was relegated to the shadows until the finale, I really don’t care anymore. The spotlight is overrated. Being seen is overrated. If I have to pick quality or quantity, I’m going with quality every time. Because Crosbie Lucas is the best boyfriend I never would have guessed I wanted.
“What are you thinking?” he asks. He polishes off the water and launches the bottle into the nearby recycling bin for a perfect three-pointer.
“That you’re a good boyfriend.”
“Oh yeah? In what ways?”
“Mostly how you’re so modest.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty great.”
“And you’re smart.”
“I’m brilliant, but close enough.”
I scratch my chin. “And…you run really fast.”
“Um…I guess you’re sort of attractive.”
He makes a buzzer noise. “Wrong.”
“You have good taste in girlfriends?”
“Wrong again. You were doing so well, Nora. When’s your next meeting with the Dean? I’m going to tell him you’re not progressing as we’d hoped.”
I snicker. “Leave Dean Ripley out of this.”
A chilly February wind blows through the alley, making us both shiver. We step back inside and head up front to check out the rest of the show, stopping abruptly at the kitchen door. On the other side, lingering behind the coffee counter, are Nate and Marcela. They’ve been cordial since the Chrisgiving blow up, but to the best of my knowledge, nothing has actually happened between them. Now, however, they share a bowl of popcorn, their hands bumping when they reach in at the same time, glancing at each other for a long moment, then removing their hands and pretending to watch the show.
Ever so slowly I see Nate’s canvas sneaker-clad foot slide across the inches separating their feet, stopping just short of actually touching Marcela’s sparkly gold boot. After a second she shifts her heel, bumping her foot against his. They don’t look at each other again, and they don’t move.
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