I’ve been looking for Sawyer for half a lifetime when I find him standing in front of the Slurpee machine at the 7-eleven on Federal Highway, gazing through the window at the frozen, neon-bright churning like he’s expecting the mysteries of the universe to be revealed to him from inside.
Come to think of it, maybe he is.
I stop. I stare. I need gum and a soda and a box of animal crackers for Hannah, but already I know I’m going to be walking out of this place empty-handed. I’m due at my stupid accounting class in fifteen minutes. Water from the storm outside drips from my all-purpose braid and onto the dingy linoleum; a tiny puddle forms around my feet. “Hey, Reena.” Just like that, just like always, I’m caught.
He’s fitting a lid onto his plastic cup, careful, but nobody has ever sneaked up on Sawyer LeGrande in his entire life, and when he turns to face me it’s like he’s not even a little bit surprised. His hair is buzzed nearly clean off.
“Hey, Sawyer,” I say slowly, a sound like waves and roaring in my head. I slip my index finger through my key ring and squeeze, the cold metal biting into the flesh of my palm as it occurs to me how unfair it is that after all this time God knows where, he shows up tan and luminescent to find me looking like half-drowned trailer trash. I have no makeup on. My jeans have big holes in both knees. I’m at least ten pounds fatter than I was the last time we saw each other, but before I have time to be properly humiliated he’s bypassed the corn chips and beef jerky and is hugging me tight. Like it’s something we do a lot.
He smells the same, is the first thing I notice, like bar soap and things that grow in the ground. I blink. “I didn’t know,” I begin, not entirely sure which particular ignorance I’m about to confess: all of them, maybe, eighteen years’ worth of universal truths everybody was smart enough to figure out except for me.
“I just got back yesterday,” he says. “I haven’t been to the restaurant yet.” He grins one of those slow smiles of his, crooked, the kind I’ve been trying to write out of my system since seventh grade. “I think maybe I’m surprising a lot of people.”
“You think?” I snap, before I can stop it.
Sawyer stops smiling. “I . . . yeah,” he says. “I think.”
“Right.” I can’t come up with anything better than that.
I can’t come up with anything at all, which is how it always was with Sawyer, though you’d like to imagine I’d have outgrown at least some of it by now. Back when we used to work the same shifts at Antonia’s I’d be forever dropping plates and forgetting which orders went where, mixing up checks. One night when I was fifteen and he was behind the bar, a woman at one of my tables ordered a Sex on the Beach and it took me so long to work up enough guts to say the words to him that she complained to my father about the slow service and I had to clean the kitchen after we closed.
“My mom told me . . .” he says now—trailing off, trying again. “About . . .”
I imagine letting him dangle there indefinitely, a hanged man, but in the end I’m the one who breaks first. “Hannah,” I supply, wondering what else his mother told him. I can’t stop staring at his face. “Her name is Hannah.”
“Yeah. I mean.” Sawyer looks uncomfortable, like he’s waiting for something else to happen. For me to just come out and say it, maybe—Welcome back, how was your trip, we made a baby—but I keep my jaw clamped firmly shut. Let him wonder for once, I think meanly. Let him sweat it out for a change. The Slurpee’s bright green, like a space alien. My braid’s left a wet spot on my shirt. Sawyer shifts his weight awkwardly. “She said.”
We stand there. We breathe. I can hear the hum and clatter of the market all around us, everything chilly and refrigerator-bright. There’s a huge, garish poster of pretzel dogs over his left shoulder. I have pictured this going differently.
“Well,” I say after a minute, aiming for casual and missing by roughly the distance between here and the other side of the world. “It’s good to run into you. I should probably get what I came for, or like—” I stop, peel a stray hair off my forehead, glance up at the buzzing fluorescent lights. “Sawyer, I really gotta go.”
His jaw twitches, infinitesimal, the kind of thing you’d never notice if you hadn’t spent your entire adolescence doing things like looking at his jaw. “Reena . . .”
“Oh, buddy, please don’t.” I don’t want to make it easy on him. I shouldn’t have to. Not when he’s the one who disappeared, took off without even saying Good-bye, see you later, I love you. Not when he’s the one who just left. “Look, whatever you’re going to tell me, don’t worry about it. It all turned out fine, right?”
“No, it didn’t.” He gazes at me and I am remembering so clearly how he looked when he was eight, when he was eleven, when he was seventeen. Sawyer and I were only together for a few months before he left, but he was my golden boy for so long before that, he would have taken the guts of me with him even if we’d never been a couple at all.
I shrug and look around at the ice cream, at the displays of chewing tobacco and chips. I shake my head. “Sure it did.”
“Come on, Reena.” Sawyer rocks back on his heels like I’ve shoved him. “Don’t blow me off here.”
“Don’t blow you off?” It comes out a lot louder than I mean it to, and I hate myself for letting him know that I still think about him, that I carry him around inside my skin. “Everybody thought you were dead in an alley someplace, Sawyer. I thought you were dead in an alley someplace. So maybe I’m not the best person to talk to about feeling like you’re getting blown off.”
It sounds nasty and composed, and for one second my mighty magician Sawyer looks so helpless, so completely sorry, that it almost breaks my heart all over again. “Don’t do that,” I order quietly. “It’s not fair.”
“I’m not,” he says, shaking his head, recovering. “I’m not.” I roll my eyes. “Sawyer, just—”
“You look really good, Reena.”
Just like that he’s back to taming lions; this whole thing is so surreal I almost smile.
“Shut up,” I tell him, trying to mean it.
“What? You do.” as if he’s got some sixth sense for nearly breaking me, Sawyer grins. “Am I going to see you around?”
“Are you going to be around?”
“Yeah.” Sawyer nods. “I think so.”
“Well.” I shrug like somebody whose hands aren’t shaking, whose throat hasn’t closed like a fist. I only just finally got used to him being gone. “I live here.”
“I want to meet that baby of yours.”
“I mean, she lives here, too.” I’m aware that there are other people in this aisle, normal convenience-store shoppers whose worlds haven’t taken a sharp and unexpected curve this fine morning. One of them nudges me out of the way to get to the Cheetos. Outside it’s still pouring like crazy, like maybe the end of the world is at hand. I breathe out as steadily as I can manage. “Bye, Sawyer.”
“See you, Reena,” he tells me, and if I didn’t know better I’d think it was a promise.
“Gin,” Allie said triumphantly, dropping her last card onto my quilted bedspread and raising her sharp chin in victory. “You’re finished.”
“Ugh. Seriously?” I flopped back onto the pillows, dropped my feet into her lap. We’d spent most of the afternoon mired in a ridiculously complicated version of rummy governed by a rigid and intricate roster of house rules we’d never been able to explain to anyone else—which didn’t actually matter, seeing as how the only people we ever played with were each other. “I quit.”
“It’s not quitting if you already lost,” she said, reaching over to my dresser and scrolling through the music on my laptop. The sunny pop she liked best chorused from the tinny speakers. “At that point it’s just . . . conceding.”
I laughed and kicked at her a bit, just gently. “Jerk.”
“Your mom is.”
We hung out in silence for a little while, comfortable and familiar. Allie picked idly at a fray in the hem of my jeans. On the wall was a poster of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, another of Paris at dusk—both speckled with little grease spots in the corners from the tacky stuff I’d used to position and reposition them until they were just exactly right. It was the spring of our freshman year, almost summer; the world felt endless and impossibly small.
“Hey, girls?” My stepmother, Soledad, appeared in the doorway, dark hair knotted neatly on top of her head. “Roger and Lyd’ll be here any minute,” she said to me. “Can you come down and set the table for me? Allie, honey,” she continued, not bothering to wait for my reply— I’d say yes, obviously. I always said yes. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”
Allie frowned, glancing at the alarm clock on my night-stand. “I should probably get home,” she said, sighing. She’d gotten busted for shoplifting again a couple of weeks before, a pair of plastic sunglasses and a silky scarf from the Gap this time, and her parents were keeping her on a pretty tight leash. “Thanks, though.”
“Okay.” Soledad smiled and tapped the doorjamb twice before she turned around, the delicate metal of her wedding ring clicking against the paint. “Make sure you set an extra place, Serena, will you?” she called over her shoulder. “Sawyer’s coming tonight, too, I think.”
Right away Allie and I looked at each other, eyes going wide. “I can stay,” she announced immediately, bolting upright like a prairie dog. “I’ll call my . . . uh. yeah. I can definitely stay.”
I laughed so hard I almost fell right off the bed, thinking even as I tried to pull it together that I was going to need to put on some makeup. “You are so obvious,” I said, heaving myself up and onto the carpet, heading for the hallway as casually as somebody whose heart wasn’t jackhammering inside her chest. “Come on, nerd. you can fold the napkins.”
Lydia LeGrande blew into the kitchen like a tropical storm twenty minutes later, all confidence and chunky necklaces, dropping a cursory kiss on my cheek. “How you doing, Reena?” she asked, not waiting for me to answer before setting a tray of fancy cheese on the counter and peeling the plastic wrap away. Roger followed with a bottle of wine, navigating his considerable bulk with surprising deftness, and put a hand at my upper back to say hello. “Hiya, chickie,” he said.
The LeGrandes were my father and Soledad’s closest friends, partners both in the restaurant where we all worked and for vacations down to the Keys, outdoor concerts at Holiday Park. Their games of Outburst were loud and legendary. Lydia had gone to college with my mom. She and Roger had introduced my mother and father to begin with, and when my mother died of complications from multiple sclerosis when I was four and my father was too busy raging at God to think about things like lunches and clean socks, Lydia was the one who hired Soledad to move in with us, not realizing at the time that she’d found him a second wife just like she’d found him a first. A little over a decade later and they still came for dinner often—but not, for the most part, with their son.
Tonight, though, luck was in my corner or the moons of some far-off planet were aligned, because sure enough, Sawyer skulked in behind them, jeans and a T-shirt and his dark, wavy hair. Around his neck was the tiny half-moon pendant he always wore, tarnished and thin. “You,” my father said to him by way of greeting, ambling in from the yard where he’d been lighting up the grill. Allie and I were still setting the table; she was clutching a handful of forks. “I have a record I want you to listen to. An actual record. Herbie Hancock. Come with me.”
“My son’s in a mood,” Roger muttered, warning, but Sawyer just kissed Soledad hello and nodded at my father, following him out into the living room where the big stereo was. Sawyer was his godson, had grown up drifting through the crowded hallways of our house; my father had taught him to play the piano more than a decade before.
“Hey, Reena,” he said distractedly, nodding at me as he passed by—close enough that I could smell him, soapy and faintly warm. I’d seen him at work a few days earlier. He hadn’t come for dinner in nearly a year.
I swallowed, heart tapping at my rib cage like pebbles at a windowpane. “Hey.”
Sawyer was two years ahead of us at school, a junior, although he seemed way older—closer to my brother Cade’s age than mine. He’d always been that way, for as long as I could remember, like he’d already lived a thousand different lives. He tended bar at the restaurant and showed up to class when he felt like it and ignored me, for the most part: not in a malicious way, but in the way that you ignore a message on the side of a building you see every day. I was part of the scenery, blending in, so familiar as to be completely invisible to the naked eye.
Allie, though. Allie was hard to ignore.
“Hey, Sawyer,” she called out now, curly hair bouncing with the shake of her pretty head. She’d changed her clothes, borrowed one of my tank tops—simple black with skinny straps, nothing fancy. Her shoulders were covered with freckles from the sun. “Long time no see.”
Sawyer stopped and looked at her with some interest. Roger had followed Soledad onto the patio by this point; my father had disappeared into the living room. Lydia was making herself at home in the kitchen as usual, rummaging through the silverware drawer for knives to go with her cheeses. Allie just smiled.
I was watching carefully. They knew each other, sure, from any number of family parties, birthdays, and graduations. They passed each other in the hallways at school. They weren’t friends, though, not by any stretch of the imagination, which was why I was so surprised when he grinned back, slow and easy. “No kidding,” he told her, tipping his chin in her direction. “Long time no see.”
Excerpted from How to Love by Katie Cotugno. Copyright © 2013 by Katie Cotugno.
First published in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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