Rhonda was standing on the other side of the street now and she looked chilly as the wind picked up, blowing through the trees and litter swirled around her. I felt awful and I turned the engine off, poised to get out and chase her down the street if I had to. But as soon as I was standing outside the car and getting ready to cross, she looked both ways and marched toward me instead. Her face was still red and pinched and I could tell she'd been crying. Here I was thinking about some other girl who probably would never want me - or anyone else without a trust fund - and I'd made Rhonda, who actually liked me, cry and ruin her makeup. I felt like the real asshole extraordinaire of the evening. Todd Rossi had nothing on me.
"Rhonda, I'm a jerk," I said, throwing up my hands. "You're completely and totally right and I have no right to judge you. Self-preservation is a pretty important instinct. No matter what age you're at."
She sniffled. "Can you just take me home?"
"Sure. Of course." What else could I say? She had started to shiver so I handed her my jacket, but she just shrugged away from me and headed to the car. She slammed the door shut and I did the same. She was staring out the window, not looking at me, as I drove her back to Brambleton Street and Asha's family's place. Once we got there, she leaped out and I turned off the ignition. She already had her key out but was fumbling with the lock when I came up beside her.
"Damn door. Stupid light never comes on when it's supposed to. How the hell am I supposed to get the key in the door if I can't see?" She continued mumbling under her breath, a stream of obscenities. I put my hand on hers to get her attention and she jumped away from me, then looked me straight in the eye.
"I don't get it," she said. "Why are you being nice to me now?"
"What?" I said. "Because, I don't want you to hate me. Because I apologized and I want you to know I meant it."
"You figure," she said, "that you might as well like me now that it seems my cousin couldn't possibly be interested in you."
"It's not that," I said. "I don't know what I want, but I know that I do think you're cool and honestly, my lashing out at you had very little to do with you. I'm ashamed of myself. I never meant to hurt your feelings. None of what I said is true about you - at least I don't really think so. If it's true about anyone, it's true about me."
She sniffled and put her hand on her face and I thought she might cry again, but then she gave a half-hearted smile.
"You know," she said, "thank you. That may be the nicest apology I've ever heard."
I nodded slowly, wondering if this was going anywhere.
"To be honest with you, I want you to know that I most likely would have made out with you - or more even - tonight...and it would have been incredibly wrong."
"Uh..." I said. I was speechless at this revelation. "You're going to elaborate, right?"
"Yes," she said and laughed a weak laugh. "It would be wrong because, while you're really sweet and definitely hot, both of us are in love with someone else. I recently ended a relationship with a woman named Rebecca. I really loved her - and it was my first time for that sort of thing. Because, while I wasn't exactly out in high school, I certainly had my share of...extracurricular activities then. And after graduation. But in my second year at college, I was in between friends-with-benefits and I met someone I thought was special. And I guess I am still hung up on her."
"Right," I said. "That's perfectly understandable. I-"
"You -" she said, "are also dealing with your feelings for someone else. Someone you're in love with."
"Yes," I admitted. "Callie broke up with me earlier this month and I spend a lot of time feeling very alone and..."
"That's not who I meant," she said. I stared at her. "You're in love with someone else, I think. Really, actually in love."
"I-I don't know. What? What do you mean? I...I was just dumped. Callie dumped me," I said.
"Yeah," she said. "That may be so, but I think the person you're most tied up in now is my cousin. And if you want to know what I think...well, I think she likes you, too."
"But there's that whole issue of status," I reminded her.
"Screw that," she said.
Slowly, I began to smile and then, we both started laughing. And then, before I knew what was happening, Rhonda kissed me.
"Whoa, whoa - um," I said once we had parted. "What was that?"
"Can't blame a girl for trying," she said. Then, with a wink, she pushed her way inside. "Goodnight, Betsy." The door closed and I was alone on the porch steps.
"Goodnight Rhonda," I said quietly to no one. With a baffled laugh, I headed back to my car.
I was so glad to be home at ten. I'd been pretty tired, you know. Like, tired of Todd trying to grope me every time some scream-happy cheerleader or whoever got knifed in what turned out to be a really crappy sequel. I was happy to be soundly in my own driveway, walking up to my own home to change and crawl into my own bed.
Todd had been an incredible jerk, whining about why did I pay money to go to a movie if we weren't going to do something in the car? If it weren't for the fact that I really wanted to go to prom, I might have given up on the whole relationship thing. He probably still expected that I would sleep with him on the big night, despite the fact that I had no intention of doing so and had told him numerous times that it wasn't what I wanted. I planned to be in love before I did that - that part I hadn't said because I was afraid he would take offense and wonder why I didn't love him. It was something I wasn't entirely sure of - he had been a really sweet guy (or seemed like he was) when I first met him. I had no idea why I'd never fallen for that charm. Maybe deep down I knew that it was probably phony. Wait, what am I thinking? Todd means well...he just wants to be like the other guys.
I sighed and pulled my shoes off, placing them quietly on the rug, trying not to wake Rhonda. I was standing in my dark bedroom. I could hear Rhonda's light breathing on the other side of the bed and I found myself wondering what she and Betsy had been up to. I could see no sign that Betsy had come up to the room, but I wasn't sure. I pulled on my pajamas and left my clothes there on the floor next to the nightstand. I was just too tired. When I climbed into bed, the cool sheets against my hot skin felt nice and relaxing. I stretched out and waited for darkness to settle under my eyelids. In minutes, I was fast asleep.
I had another dream that I could only somewhat remember. I was in my gauzy prom dress with my hair feathered and adorned with tiny flowers and I was lost in a fog. I knew Betsy was there and I was trying to find her, but I kept running into things - trees, a barbed wire fence. And then there was something about the creepy monster man in the movie I'd seen with Todd and I was riding a flying camel or something strange like that. It dropped me into a river and I woke up with a start. Rhonda was standing over me with a cup of coffee.
"Wakey, wakey," she said. "Your parents left for the morning and they want me and you to watch Gio. I hope it's okay that I said we would. If you have plans, I'm sure I can deal on my own."
"Sure," I said. "It's not a problem." I sat up, taking the cup of coffee she offfered to me.
"I heard you making noise in your sleep. Bad dream?"
"It was weird, but I don't remember all of it," I said and shrugged. I picked up the brush from the nightstand and ran it through my hair. I could feel her eyes on me - or was that my imagination.
"You, um, said Betsy's name a few times," she said, with amusement in her tone. I whipped around.
"I did not!" I said.
"Yeah," she said. "Ya did. You have been known to talk in your sleep before, though. I remember when we were ten and you kept talking about Mickey Mouse and the sinking boat in your sleep. What was that about?" She chuckled, but I was blushing.
"What else did I say?" I said.
"About Mickey Mouse?" she said, but I knew she knew what I meant. I looked at her sideways and put my hands on my hips.
"Rhon, you know what I mean!"
"Yeah yeah. That's all you said, though. Just her name a couple of times. I assumed you had too many nachos at the show."
"Funny," I said with mock annoyance. I was still feeling embarrassed, though. I wasn't sure why - I mean, what could I have said? But I still felt really exposed and the need to pull the covers back over my head was hard to ignore. I sipped my coffee instead.
"Better get a move on," she said. "I made breakfast!" She sounded proud of herself, the way a child might if she had done something she saw as particularly "grown-up."
I got dressed quickly, then joined her and Gio at the kitchen table. There were pancakes and syrup on the table, next to a carafe of orange juice. Gio had a cocoa with teeming marshmallows and was eating his pancakes like he was a giant monster attacking a city.
"Garrrr," he growled, plunging his fork into his breakfast. I smiled and mussed his hair, but he didn't even look up, so engrossed he was in his little world.
"This is a pretty sweet breakfast," I told Rhonda. "He's going to be hyper the rest of the day and you signed us up with baby-sitting duty."
"He'll be fine," she said. "He has an insane amount of energy as it is. I doubt this will change that much. We should take him to the park, though. It will be good for him to run around some."
"Sure, that'll be nice. For us, too. It's looking like it's going to be a sunny day," I said, glancing out the window at the cloudless blue sky.
"Maybe we can play Frisbee or something," she said. She turned to Gio. "Would that be fun, kiddo?"
He nodded, his mouth crammed full of pancake. I sat next to him and placed two of the pancakes on my plate. I poured myself some juice.
"How was your night?" Rhonda asked, sitting in the chair with her knees propped up.
"Good," I said, though it was hardly true. I wasn't ready to talk about everything going on in my head at that moment. "Yours?"
She smiled mischievously and my stomach rolled.
"It was great," she said.
"Oh," I said. My mind went completely blank for a second and then I got up the courage to ask, "Did anything happen?"
She glanced over at Gio and shrugged. I sighed and got up, pulling her elbow toward the other side of the kitchen and out of my little brother's earshot.
"Ok, spill it," I said.
"She kissed me," she said. My smile was permanently plastered to my face, but I was pretty sure my eyes gave away my dismay. I couldn't explain it, but I felt...well, jealous.
"Or, actually...I guess I kissed her," she said, noting my look. "But now I'm wondering."
"Wondering what?" I asked her, barely able to look at her.
"Wondering if perhaps she was thinking of you when she kissed me back."
That got my attention. I looked at her squarely now.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't tell me you're that oblivious, Ash," she said. "That girl is crazy about you. You haven't noticed? I'm positive it wasn't just the fact that he actually was being an asshole that Betsy commented on Todd's behavior. She seemed to be a little...protective, shall we say?"
"Betsy said something about Todd?" I said.
"She said he was a jerk and didn't understand why you were with him."
"Really?" I said. It was all I could manage to say.
"And what did you tell her?"
"I said that you had seen something in Todd at some point that you liked," she said. In her voice, I detected a note of uncertainty. "That's true, right?"
"Yes, of course it is. There was something I liked...about Todd. Initially," I said.
"Initially?" she laughed. "So his status as most popular jerk-off is no longer as appealing as it used to be?"
"Please tell me that's not what you told her, Rhon!"
"Um, sort of."
"Well, isn't that why you're with him? Because I gotta tell you, Ash - I see no other redeeming qualities. If it isn't popularity, I don't know what it is."
I groaned, fell back against the sink and buried my face in my hands.
"She must think I'm an idiot...and just the most horrible person," I cried.
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Asha!" she said. "She doesn't! Betsy thinks you're about the greatest thing since toasters and The Clash. Seriously." She pulled my hands away from my face and showed me how sincere she was being. "Seriously."
I looked down at my shoes. I was so confused about why I cared so much, why just the thought of Betsy liking me so much made me giddy and like I wanted to pirouette all the way down to her house.
"Then I have to talk to her," I said.
"Yes. But today, you need to give her some time. Because I think she's coming to the realization of her feelings, too. And I say 'too' as in 'in addition to Asha's,' I hope you know. A blind person could see how you feel."
I just nodded. I needed to deal with my own revelations.
It was around noon that Rhonda, Gio and I got to the park. Rhonda was on a swing, smoking a cigarette as irritated mothers gawked at her and shuffled their kids away. I hung back and watched as Gio was dangling on the monkey bars and I snorted at the way parents ogled at Rhonda, while she didn't even seem to notice. I took a slow stroll around the bike path and nearby softball field. Watching a couple play with their dog, chasing him back and forth, I thought about what being a couple meant for me and Todd, as opposed to what it probably felt like for other people. Happier people I thought. People who were together for the right reasons.
But it had started out like that. Todd had been very nice when we'd first met. It was at a soccer match between our competing schools. We'd talked awhile about the game, made some jokes about the horrible players on both sides. He'd invited me out for pizza with his family. Though not exactly swooning, I was charmed. I thought he was funny and there was no denying he was attractive. Over time, we had seen more and more of each other with and without other friends around. Tennis on Saturdays at the country club where his parents belonged or just hanging out and watching TV at his place. We'd listen to records and play card games in his basement until my parents expected me home. It had been nice, we had been friends and it was all very PG-13. But somewhere along the line, he'd gained more attention at school or from friends. Was that what had happened? I wasn't sure. But he'd grown distant for awhile. And then, he'd gotten downright mean. Some days he would act like his old self...but only for a short time before being whiny, telling me he was bored with me and all the while, pressuring me about getting more physical. I was more and more fed up and last night had certainly felt like the last straw...but then, in the morning light, I was wondering what life at school would be like for me without him. There were no other options anymore. Mom couldn't afford private school anymore. None of us could.
That was another thing about Todd. He had been there when my mom had had the affair. When she lost her job and when we lost so much of the footing in the community that we'd once had. Even when we had to move and there was all this talk - he had stuck around. He knew about it all. Betsy didn't.
Betsy? I thought. Am I really thinking about her in the same way as Todd? I knew the answer to that. It had been as clear as daylight the day we met. No, I didn't feel the same about her as I did about Todd. Because what I felt for Betsy was much, much more. The question was, how would she feel about me when she found out more about my family and our past?
I knew that I had to talk to her, of course. But I needed time. I needed a chance to practice what I would say. I was afraid, though. I could no longer imagine my life without her in it and I was terrified I might lose her with the truth.
Lost in thought, I didn't hear Rhonda or Gio calling me until they were right up behind me. Gio smacked my arm as he ran by me and yelled, "Tag! You're it, Asha!"
Rhonda was laughing and she tagged me, too. She yelled to Gio that she was "it" now and I watched as he chased her and caught her, then she chased him. When she caught him, she started tickling him. I laughed as I watched him try to wriggle away. I glanced at my watch and realized we'd been there for two hours.
"We should get home," I called to them. When they came closer, I said, "I should get some lunch and Gio here needs a bath. He's filthy."
"Nooo," Gio groaned in complaint.
"Yes, you need a bath Gio. But if you're good and don't argue with me, we can watch cartoons or maybe Kids, Incorporated. And I'll make pizza."
"Spaghetti," he bartered.
"Okay, spaghetti," I said.
"Yay!" he said and jumped up and down. I had to hand it to the kid. He was easy to please. What's more, he was a happy kid and a really great one at that. He linked arms with me on one side and Rhonda on the other. Like that, we walked to the car doing the Monkees' walk like Rhonda and I had taught him when he was younger. If I could have kept my kid brother younger and free of the problems I was having forever, I would have. It made me sad that it wasn't possible, but I was just glad I could enjoy Gio this way for now. I'd make the most of it.
Back home, I checked the answering machine and found three messages from Betsy. Each said something along the lines of "I hope you enjoyed last night. It was good to hang out with you all. Maybe we can hang out again soon" or "Hey, just calling to see what you're up to this week. My band may be playing a gig at this coffee shop, so maybe you can come." I thought of calling her back but wasn't ready. Instead, I spent the evening with my brother and my cousin- but the whole time, my mind was with Betsy.