There was nothing more embarrassing than being caught crying in the girls' bathroom.
But then again, if you couldn't come up with anywhere more private to lose your cool, then you kind of had it coming. I mean, let's face it. If you were crying in the girls' room, you probably wanted to get caught. I knew a lot of girls who loved that kind of attention.
Boo hoo, my boyfriend broke up with me. Or, Poor me, no one asked me to the dance.
Ugh. Have a little dignity.
I had no sympathy for those girls who put their pity parties on display all for the sake of attention.
So I guess I should have said, for me there was nothing more embarrassing than getting caught crying in the bathroom. Which was why, when I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears any longer, I did what any sane, proud, ready-to-weep student would do and hid in a closet. It was a stockroom, really, filled with miscellaneous band equipment and some other crap no one wanted.
It was the perfect hiding spot as I dealt with the latest brutal heartbreak, delivered mercilessly as always by Alex, my cheating flirt of a boyfriend—no, ex-boyfriend.
There I was, minding my own business and sobbing quietly when the door jarred open so suddenly I sat up straight like I’d just been electrocuted.
The intruder was backlit since he was coming from the brightly lit hallway. I was sitting cross-legged in the corner of the pitch-dark storeroom.
Holy crap. I’d been caught.
After that initial shock, humiliation washed over me in waves as the intruder just stood there gawking.
“Get out!” My voice came out too screechy and high-pitched. The sound of it ringing in that small room only added to my embarrassment. My hands curled into fists in my lap. I was still folded up cross-legged in the corner. That had made me feel all snug and safe a minute ago but now I was trapped as this weirdo stalker stood there and stared.
And then he flipped on a light I hadn’t known was there and suddenly I was blinking at the sudden jarring light. “What are you doing? Turn it off!”
God, I sounded like a banshee…or some sort of mutant vampire that was allergic to fluorescent light rather than sunlight. Either way, I was overreacting but I couldn’t help it.
I hated for anyone to see me crying, and now that I could see who was standing there staring at me in obvious shock, my humiliation had escalated a million times over.
Julian. Julian Morris. AKA emo loser. A fellow senior, he’d transferred to Briarwood last year from…I don’t know, somewhere.
That was pretty much all I knew about him. The only reason I remembered when he’d transferred was because the arrival of any new hot guy always caused a major stir among my friends.
And he was hot. Sort of. If you liked that geek vibe, ala Seth Cohen from The O.C. He was like a tall, lanky version of Seth, but with black-rimmed glasses and an ever-present smirk.
I hated him on principle. He was one of those kids who thought he was too cool for the cool crowd. You know the type. A loner who typically kept to himself and who clearly judged the rest of us who actually cared about our school and our status. As far as I knew he had one friend. One. Alice Kern, who was our quarterback Brian Kirkland’s girlfriend. She was another weirdo. But she was nice at least, and she made Brian happy, which in turn made me happy. Brian was a good guy, he deserved to be happy.
This guy, though…he was still watching me and he was definitely not happy.
“What are you doing in here?” His tone held a world of disgust, as if he’d just found me dissecting cute fuzzy kittens in this stockroom rather than crying like a loser.
“Crocheting a toaster cozy,” I shot back with just as much disdain. “What does it look like?”
He squinted a bit as he took in my red nose and my puffy eyes.
Have I mentioned how humiliating this was? Yeah, it freakin’ sucked. “Seen enough?” I snapped. If I’d had anything at hand I would have thrown it at his head. I had to settle for giving him my fiercest glare. “Get out, freak.”
He started to turn, one hand on the doorknob. Close it. Close it. My ESP apparently had the opposite effect. He hesitated.
Dammit. I’d lost all track of time but surely the bell would ring any minute now and that hallway behind him would flood with students. Anyone walking past would have a perfect view of me in all my weeping glory.
Get out, get out, get out!
He licked his lips as he glanced out into the hallway and then back to me, conflicted. Like he didn’t know if he really ought to turn his back on a girl who was crying in the dark.
Oh Lord, please spare me from loner geeks with a savior complex. I let out an impatient exhale and spoke to him in the slow, too-sugary voice I reserved for my little brother and idiots. “Turn off the light and go back the way you came,” I said. I dropped the fake sweet. “And I swear to God, if you tell anyone about this, I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.”
Any sane Briarwood student would have turned white at the venom in my voice, and gone running in the other direction.
Most would. Julian did not.
He ignored my threat and my command. For a second I wondered if he was deaf because he did the exact opposite of what I’d told him to do.
With a weary sigh, he shut the door behind him, closing us both into the well-lit but thoroughly stocked walk-in closet. There was no room for him to go so he just hovered there awkwardly while I hunched further into my corner.
“Are you all right?” His voice was gruff. He wasn’t concerned, not really. He was just doing what he thought he should.
“Of course I’m all right. Never been better. Why do you ask?” I rolled my eyes on the off chance he hadn’t picked up on the sarcasm.
His lips twitched upward a bit before he seemed to catch himself. “Look, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say here to make you feel better but—”
“You’re not supposed to say anything,” I said. “You’re supposed to leave me alone or—” I couldn’t finish my threat. My throat closed up with a choking sensation, like I was drowning.
Oh no, not now. Please not now.
Too late. It was here. Panic. Anxiety. I hated this sensation more than almost anything in the world. The only thing I hated more was for someone else to see my descent into crazy. I fought for air, just enough to speak. I swallowed down the panic, focusing on anger instead that this loser was still here, watching me like I was an exhibit at the zoo.
Panic bad. Rage good.
“What are you still doing here? Stare at someone else if that’s your thing, but leave me the hell alone.”
I needed him to leave. Now. But instead he shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned back against the door.
The sound of my breathing, all frantic and out of control, was the only noise in the room. I swallowed convulsively as I tried to slow my breathing.
It didn’t work. It never worked.
“Stick your head between your legs,” he said.
“You stick your head between your legs,” I muttered. It lacked the right amount of heat and I heard his short huff of laughter.
I wasn’t trying to be funny.
I looked down at my crossed legs and grit my teeth. That just made my jaw hurt as my teeth ground together, my hands clenching and unclenching convulsively.
I heard another sigh from my least favorite gawker before he crossed the room. I kept my eyes on my knees, tensing even more as he approached. Tears threatened again, but this time it wasn’t over Alex. It was because of this guy. Julian freakin’ Morris. Why did he have to witness this humiliation?
He paused beside me and I was weak. Useless. It was always this way when a panic attack hit. My body was no longer under my control. My heart was pounding too fast against my ribcage, my breath was coming too fast and shallow, my muscles were spasming, contracting painfully over and over again.
Julian’s large hand on my back was gentle but insistent. He was pushing me forward and I was too far gone to protest.
Next thing I knew my head was between my knees and he was methodically stroking my back. “Easy,” he said quietly. “Breathe in and out. Just like that.”
He kept talking softly but I couldn’t make out the words through the sound of the blood rushing in my ears. But his tone was calming. Low, soft, soothing. I focused on the sound of that and slowly but surely the panic subsided. First my muscles stopped contracting, and then my jaw unclenched, and finally my breathing started to feel somewhat close to normal.
I stayed slumped over though. Partly because I was too exhausted to move. One thing no one tells you about panic attacks? They’re ridiculously tiring. Like I’d just gone for a run after taking an intense barre class kind of exhaustion. My muscles were pretty much jelly and I knew that if I sat up I’d be shaky and weak.
Which was the other reason I stayed curled up in a ball for too long. Once I sat up I’d have to face the guy behind the voice.
While his voice was soothing and all, his presence was still a disaster. I barely knew this guy but I knew him well enough to know that he hated me. Which was fine. Lots of people hated me. That was the price of popularity.
He didn’t know me any more than I knew him but he was judge and jury, with his mocking smirks and his condescending attitude. I knew his type, and guys like him looked down on girls like me.
Whatever, I didn’t care. Usually. But right now, knowing that a guy like him had just witnessed my humiliation? Horror took the place of panic. After making it through senior year as the queen bee of this school, I’d just handed an enemy the perfect weapon to take me down.
Way to go, Tina.
But sitting there with my head between my legs and hiding like a coward was so not me. That temporary foray into cowardice was just an aftereffect of the stupid panic attack.
My mom kept trying to put me on meds and I’ve refused every time, but maybe it was time to consider it. I mean, up until now I’d been lucky. I’d never been caught. But now that I have…
I sat up slowly. Now I had to deal with the consequences. I had to neutralize the situation before it got out of hand.
When I was sitting up fully, I uncrossed my legs and went to stand.
Stupid legs and their stupid shaking. I dropped back down and crossed my arms, tilting my head back to glare up at the guy who’d witnessed my meltdown. “You can go now,” I said.
That came out harsher than intended. Being nasty to this guy was not helping matters, but right now it was hard to focus on a strategy to deal with his inevitable talking when it took everything in my power not to crumple into a ball again and resume weeping.
But I would never be so pathetic. Not in front of this guy, at least.
He scowled down at me, his dark eyes surprisingly concerned behind those dorky hipster glasses. “Are you going to be all right?”
I let out a huff of air that was close to a laugh. But really, he’d kind of surprised me. And that in itself was surprising. People rarely surprised me. “Why, are you worried about me?”
My tone was taunting because we both knew he didn’t care about me. He was just itching to run back to his friends—sorry, friend, singular—and tell her all about how the big bad mean girl went off the deep end in a stockroom.
But he didn’t run. He plopped down onto the floor beside me. Then he casually draped an arm around my shoulders like it was no big deal and pulled me to him so I was snuggled against his chest.
“What—what are you doing?” I tried to push myself away but his arm was surprisingly strong and I was still ridiculously weak.
I heard his exasperated sigh through his chest. He wasn’t any happier with this situation than I was, I realized. So why the hell was he cuddling me like we were friends or something.
“Just try and relax,” he said. “You’ll feel better soon.”
Don’t ask me why but I complied. I never took orders from anyone, least of all loner geeks with a superiority complex, but I chalked my odd compliance up to the fact that I was still shaking like a leaf.
So I did what he said. I relaxed. I let him hold me, which was weird, obviously. I mean, I was so not a snuggler. Not even with Alex. If we weren’t making out then we were fighting.
Alex and I were like a faulty faucet. We were either scalding hot or ice cold. We didn’t know how to do lukewarm. Which was fine. That was just how we were. Except right now, after what felt like the millionth breakup, the millionth heartbreak, the millionth betrayal…I was so tired of the extremes. I just wanted to take a nice warm bath…metaphorically speaking. But also literally. I was freezing. That always happened after anxiety attacks.
My shivering grew more intense and Julian started stroking a hand up and down my bare arm. I was wearing my cheerleading uniform for the last pep rally of the year. The last one of my life.
That thought made tears sting the back of my eyes but I bit my tongue hard to keep them at bay.
The show I gave this guy was bad enough, I didn’t have to add more tears to the mix.
Instead I focused on breathing, on the sound of his heartbeat beneath the warm, hard chest, the feel of his hand gently stroking my arm.
I don’t know how long we sat there but it was…nice.
Weird, but nice.
Until I came back to my senses and remembered who exactly was being nice and why. But even then I couldn’t bring myself to pull away. I was so cold and he was so warm. My body felt so tired and weak and he was so solid and…comfortable.
So this was why people liked to cuddle.
“Why are you doing this?” I finally asked.
“Doing what?” His voice reverberated through his chest.
I pulled back just far enough that I could tilt my head back and see him. I arched my brows. “Really? Doing what? Are you really going to try and pretend that you always skip class to comfort random crying girls you happen upon in closets?”
He laughed and his smile took me by surprise. I found myself staring in shock. He had a nice smile.
No, not nice.
He had a hottie smile. It made this geek look surprisingly sexy—all crinkly eyes and cute dimples.
I looked away quickly and let him pull me back in for some more snuggling.
This was so not a guy I wanted to find attractive. He might be cuddling me all sweetly now, but give him half a second and he’d be spilling the news to the first person he saw.
Cuddles or no cuddles, cute smile or not—this guy was the enemy.
“Want to tell me what you’re so upset about?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to shoot him down, but then I clamped it shut. Because oddly enough, I did. I wouldn’t, obviously, but I was tempted. There was something so very cozy about being alone together in this room, cuddling but not looking at each other. Plus, he was still doing that stroking thing that was lulling me into submission. I just wanted to cuddle in closer and tell him all of my problems.
Ugh. That was so not going to happen.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Trying to make you feel better,” he said, his tone filled with the unspoken “duh.”
I rolled my eyes even though he couldn’t see. “Before that. What brought you to my neck of the woods?”
My joking tone was too forced and I cringed at the awkwardness of it. But really, you try acting cool after a monumental meltdown and while cuddling with a near stranger.
The whole situation was awkward in the extreme.
He didn’t comment on the awkwardness but I felt him stiffen as he said, “I just came in here to be alone for a bit.”
“Aren’t you always alone?” I felt a little guilty for the unpleasantness in my tone. I might have had a reputation for being a mean girl, but I prided myself on not really being cruel. I didn’t pick on the underdogs, I just played the game like everyone else.
But unlike all the others, I played to win.
Julian was the type I’d typically ignore since he wasn’t a player in the game. He wasn’t so much a loser—he was probably considered cool in his little world. But he was on the outside at Briarwood. He had loner geek written all over him.
But today he’d gone and watched me lose it so now he was a threat, whether he meant to be or not.
He didn’t seem offended by my comment when he finally replied, “Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don’t have a lot of friends, but it’s still kind of hard to find alone time at Briarwood.”
I made a small sound of agreement. I couldn’t argue that since I’d just been discovered hiding in a closet. “So what do you need to be alone for?” I asked.
“What do you need to be alone for?”
I glared up at his chin. The answer was obvious. I’d come in here to cry. “I knew it was just a matter of time before you threw that in my face.”
He sighed again. I’d lost count of how many times he’d made that exasperated sound. I found myself wondering if he was a habitual sigher or if it was just me.
Probably me. I had that kind of effect on people.
“Sorry,” he said. I felt his body shift beneath me slightly as he lifted his free hand and rubbed at his eyes beneath his glasses. “I’m having a crappy day too. I’d normally be better at this whole comforting thing.”
“You do a lot of comforting, do you?”
He nodded. “I have a younger sister, and let’s just say she’s…emotional.”
The way he said it told me everything. “Dramatic?”
“Got it.” And I did. God, thirteen was the worst, especially for girls. “Does she have any older sisters?”
“No. Just me.”
“Is your mom around?”
He shifted again and I knew he was trying to see my face so I ducked my head. “Yeah, of course.” He sounded surprised, like that was a weird question or something. That right there told me that he had a good home life. People with normal, happy families were always shocked that the rest of us weren’t so lucky.
After a brief, awkward pause, he continued. “But I don’t think my mom gets it. Maybe she just doesn’t remember what it was like to be in junior high or…” He shrugged. “Maybe she just didn’t have a tough time.”
“Everyone has a tough time.” I didn’t mean to sound sad. I blamed it on the former bout of weeping. Sadness in my tone was just an after effect. I cleared my throat. “So I guess that explains why you’re so good at this whole girls crying thing.”
“I’m an expert these days.” His flat tone made me grin despite the lingering ache in my chest.
“Is she having issues fitting in?” I asked. It wasn’t like I was really worried about his sister but talking about her problems meant we weren’t talking about mine.
I felt his shrug. “There’s a clique of popular girls who she wants to be friends with,” he started.
He didn’t have to go any further. “Ugh. That’s her first problem. They know she wants them to like her.”
I felt him pull back to look at me.
“She probably hasn’t learned how to play it cool.”
“No,” he agreed. “Clara is honest to a fault.”
I nodded. If she were anything like her brother, it was easy to understand how this Clara girl wouldn’t fit in. She was probably way too nice for her own good. “Mean girls are the worst, especially when they sense weakness.”
He was still staring at me, I could feel it. “What?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly. “It’s just…it’s weird to hear you talk about mean girls.” He paused for a second. “You do know you’re one of them, right?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. So?”
He was quiet for a moment. “This is a bizarre conversation.”
I let out a little snort of laughter at the understatement. “So,” I said. “Are you ever going to tell me what you’re really doing here?”
I felt him stiffen. “Excuse me?”
I forced myself out of the warm comfort of his arms and crossed my arms over my chest as I turned slightly to face him. “I don’t buy it. You didn’t just want to be alone for no good reason. I don’t think you make a habit of skipping class or hiding out in the closet. You’re not the type.”
He arched one brow. “I’m a type?” His voice was laced with amusement.
“Of course you’re a type. Everyone’s a type.”
“And what type are you?” he asked.
I tilted my head to the side and narrowed my eyes. “I don’t know, Julian. What do people call me?”
It was a challenge. Head on. Direct confrontation.
His gaze met mine and I saw the amusement there but also the intelligence. He wouldn’t back down from a fight. Despite his geeky look, this guy was a fighter.
“Is that how we know what type we are? By what people call us?” His voice filled with laughter. “Because if that’s the case, I’d say you’re the Satan’s-Spawn type.”
My little gasp of shock threatened to turn into a laugh. Not just because he was clearly teasing but because of the truth behind it. It’s not like I didn’t know what people said about me. I knew my reputation better than anyone—I should, I created it.
But the fact that this dweeb had the balls to say it to my face made me want to laugh. It wasn’t often that people shocked me, but when they did it was usually to disappoint me.
“But,” Julian continued, his eyes dancing with laughter. “Now I know that’s not really your type, because everyone knows that the devil incarnate doesn’t cry in a closet.”
I stared at him openmouthed for a second before bursting out with a laugh. “Okay, you caught me,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “I am not, in fact, the devil.”
“Whew, that’s a relief.” He grinned down at me before pulling me in close again.
“I’m not nice either,” I felt compelled to point out, just in case there was any confusion. But my voice was muffled by his shirt and I wasn’t sure he heard.
“Oh, I would never think that,” he said. But there was no animosity in his tone so I let it go.
We sat in silence for a while and it started to feel ridiculous. I mean, I wasn’t in any hurry to leave my sanctuary, but if we were going to sit there we should at least be talking. And if I could get him to tell me something personal, I’d have leverage.
He couldn’t go blabbing about my meltdown if I knew his deep dark secrets.
“Seriously, why are you here?” I asked. “And don’t tell me you just needed alone time because that’s bull. You’ve been avoiding the question.”
“Says the girl who’s avoided telling me what she’s crying about ever since I walked in.”
He had a point. I weighed my options. I really had nothing to lose here, especially since the reason for my heartache would be all over the school soon enough. If I told Julian that would give him no reason to avoid telling me his own issue. And I needed something. Anything. If I didn’t get some sort of leverage, he’d be free to share my humiliation with anyone and everyone.
“Alex and I broke up,” I said suddenly.
I took a long deep breath to keep from screaming. That was the response I should have expected. It was the one I’d hear from everyone over the coming days. Yes, again.
It was true, Alex and I broke up regularly and got back together just as often. But it still sucked. It still hurt. Each time was just as painful as the last even though I knew it wouldn’t last. He’d come back. He’d apologize for making out with one of the girls on my squad at Melody’s latest kegger. And I’d take him back.
That thought made my insides twist into a knot.
I inhaled quickly and forced myself to think about something else. Anything else. Julian would do. “Your turn,” I said. “Spill. What are you really doing here?”
I felt his chest rise and fall beneath my cheek. “Sometimes I come in here to work on my music.”
I pulled back in surprise. “You’re a musician?”
He shrugged. “Kind of. I write songs and I play the guitar…”
“What you just described means you’re a musician,” I said. “No ‘kind of’ about it.”
His lips twitched up in a lopsided smile that made breathing difficult again. I leaned back into his chest and focused once more on inhaling and exhaling.
Not for the first time I found myself thinking that breathing shouldn’t be so hard. I didn’t know anyone else who found such a simple act so frustratingly difficult. Not all the time, obviously. Just on days like today when my body felt like it was possessed.
Possessed by the devil. Ha! I found myself grinning against Julian’s shirt.
“What’s so funny? Is it that hard to imagine me as a musician?”
The insecurity in his voice was subtle but I caught it. Figuring out where people were weak was kind of my specialty. I took note of it but I didn’t mock him or call him out on it.
Like I said, I might be a mean girl but I didn’t pick on underdogs. And Julian, despite his condescending attitude and smirks, was an underdog. A beta male in a high school run by alphas.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “You definitely have the emo musician vibe going on. I can totally see it.”
“So then what’s so funny?”
I shrugged. “I was just thinking how right you were to call me the devil.”
It was the truth but I shouldn’t have said it because it would only lead to questions, so I turned the conversation back to him. “So what are your songs about?”
“Whatever’s going on in my life, usually.”
His voice sounded strained. Gone was that cocky amusement. He seemed wary of continuing.
I was close.
“And what’s going on that you so desperately needed to find a place to work on your music?” I kept my voice soft, not wanting to spook him with my curiosity.
For a minute I thought he wouldn’t answer, but then he said one word that held all the heartache in the world. “A breakup.”
My heart hurt on his behalf, which was stupid, I know. But no one knew how badly a breakup could suck better than me. I was incredibly familiar with the sucktitude that was breaking up. Nothing about my relationship with Alex was normal. Not the way we constantly hurt each other and definitely not the way I always took him back.
We were messed up. But somehow we were always drawn back together, like we couldn’t exist without one another’s drama and pain.
I scrubbed at my eyes like he had done before, as if that physical act could somehow erase the ceaseless chatter in my brain. We weren’t talking about me and Alex. We were talking about Julian. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” He let out a long exhale that I totally felt, literally and metaphorically. After another heartbeat he said, “Sorry about you and Alex.”
His tone was kind of grudging, and I got it. You only got to use the pity card so many times when you were as on-again-off-again as me and Alex.
“What happened?” he asked.
Honestly I was kind of shocked by the question. First of all, I didn’t think he’d care since our breakups were the norm these days. But also because I thought everyone knew. Everyone always knew.
“He hooked up with some skank,” I said, my tone flat. “Again.”
Julian muttered a curse under his breath. “That sucks. I’m sorry.”
His I’m sorry sounded more genuine this time and that had me wriggling to get out of his arms. “Whatever,” I said. “It’s not like it’s unusual, right? Guys cheat, it’s what they do.”
He let me go, but he turned to me with a frown. “Not all guys cheat,” he said. “That’s a lie perpetuated by cheaters to make themselves feel better. They try to normalize it, but it’s not what every guy does.”
I blinked at him a few times. I don’t think I’d ever heard him say so much all at once or with such earnestness. He was an ironic kind of guy. A guy who wore T-shirts with bands no one has ever heard of. He sat in the back of every class and rolled his eyes when talk turned to pep rallies and homecoming.
He was that guy. So to hear him speak earnestly about anything other than poetry and art, or whatever it was he talked to Alice about, was startling. And then it dawned on me and my heart plummeted to the pit of my stomach on his behalf. “She cheated on you.”
Now it was his turn to blink at me in surprise but then he sighed for the zillionth time and ran a hand through his messy brown hair. “That obvious, huh?”
I shrugged. “No one is so passionate in their hatred of cheaters unless they’ve been cheated on.”
He nodded but his gaze was elsewhere. He was looking over my shoulder but I was sure he wasn’t actually studying the stack of cymbals with that level of intensity. “Why do they do it?”
His voice was so quiet and he was still staring at the cymbals. For a second I wasn’t sure if he was even talking to me, but I still gave him the only response I could. “I wish I knew.”
He nodded again, as if I’d actually given him an answer. His gaze met mine and suddenly he was paying attention to me. I had his full attention and I had to resist the urge to squirm.
Even if my eyes weren’t puffy and my nose red from crying, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable as the object of his scrutiny. It was like all the sudden a spotlight was shining on me and I had the distinctly awful sensation that there was no flaw he couldn’t see. And not just physically. Those dark eyes of his were too all-seeing, and way too knowing.
“Are you going to take him back?” he asked.
I stiffened and pulled away from him, irritated by the question and with myself for letting him take the offensive in this conversation. “I don’t know,” I lied.
The truth was…yes. I would take him back. I didn’t necessarily want to, and there was a big part of me that screamed No! Don’t do it! He’ll only hurt you again.
But I’ll ignore that voice, like I always do.
God only knows. There was probably some good reason deep down in my psyche somewhere. All I knew was…I needed him. I needed Alex, and I hated that.
“What about you?” I asked. “Is she already trying to win you back?”
His brows pulled together in confusion. He looked cute when he was confused. I could imagine the sweet little boy he must have been at some point before he turned to a life of angst and indie bands.
“No,” he said, as if it was obvious. “She cheated on me, and when I found out and called her on it, she gave me this whole speech about how we’ve been growing apart for a while and…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense. Any of it.”
Oh Julian. Sweet, naïve Julian. “She’ll be trying to get you back soon enough.”
He made a scoffing sound. “You sound so sure.”
I shrugged. “I am. I know her type.”
He inhaled loudly as he rolled his eyes and shifted so he was facing me more. “Here we go. Tell me again about these types, oh wise one.”
I ignored the sarcasm. He was challenging me, and that temporarily gave me something else to focus on other than my misery or the fact that I’d just had a meltdown in front of him. “Let me guess her type, okay? If I’m wrong, you can tell me to go to hell because I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
He arched his brows expectantly.
I tilted my head to the side as I studied him, imagining the kind of girl he’d go for and the kind of heartless, cheating witch who’d want to make Mr. Sincere fall in love with her.
It wasn’t hard to peg her in my mind’s eye. “She’s super chipper, right? Everyone likes her because she’s charming and nice.” I drew out the word nice in an immature sing-song voice that I just couldn’t help. I couldn’t help it. The word made me cringe otherwise.
“What’s wrong with nice?” he asked, sounding offended on his ex-girlfriend’s behalf.
I smirked. “So I was right.”
He gave another huff of annoyance. “Yeah, Leila’s nice, but that’s not exactly a specific description. Lots of people are nice.” He tilted his head forward so he was looking up at me over the top of his glasses. “Lots of people other than you, I mean.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said with a toss of my hair.
He arched a brow. “Again, what’s wrong with being nice?”
“Nothing if what you really mean is kind, generous, thoughtful…” I trailed off with a shrug. “But what most people mean is, she’s sweet.” I batted my eyelashes with a simpering smile. “Which is rarely real and should never be trusted.”
He stared at me for a second. “Man, you are seriously jaded.”
I straightened, shifting to get more comfortable and to face him like he was facing me. “I’m a realist,” I said. “And I wasn’t done. She’s outgoing, sweet—” I gave him that simpering smile again and ignored his eye roll. “But after the first few weeks, nothing you did was ever good enough, nothing you wore was right, you weren’t as funny as you used to be, or as attractive.”
His gaze was turning into a wide-eyed stare and honest to God, my mean girl heart hurt for him.
“She started acting flakier and flakier,” I continued. “But if you called her out on it, it was somehow all your fault.”
I stopped when his eyes filled with rueful, bitter humor. “It was always my fault.”
I nodded because I knew that feeling all too well and even though I was used to it, it made me feel ill to think about it. But for some reason I felt compelled to say something to make him feel better. Probably because he’d actually managed to make me feel better with the cuddling and the back rubbing. I hated to be in anyone’s debt. So I told him the truth that I learned the hard way. “Nothing you did could ever have been enough for someone like her.”
I wished I could take it back when his gaze searched my face and something frighteningly close to pity flickered in his eyes. “How did you know all that about Leila?”
I sighed, sounding old and weary. “How do you think?”
He shook his head and I could see him trying to deny it all in his head. He didn’t want to think that we were alike. That he wasn’t special. That what happened between him and this Leila chick was just another cliché. “But she’s not like that,” he said, and I just knew he meant she’s not like Alex, but part of me wondered if he meant she’s not like me either.
I’m sure she wasn’t like me. After all, she was nice.
“She was so sweet when we first got together.” He gave me a look that was almost pleading. “She told me she loved me.”
I flinched in response to the L word, but hopefully he didn’t notice. “She’s not sweet,” I said as gently as I could. “She’s outgoing, she’s pretty, she’s smiley…but she’s not sweet. She’s not kind.” I felt like the demon he jokingly called me before, sitting there like the big baddie as I told this legitimately nice guy the truth about his ex. “She was manipulative, Julian. Most cheaters are.”
His gaze met mine. “How do you know?”
I gave him a little smile that held no humor. “Because I’m kind of an expert on the topic. Or haven’t you heard?”
He stared at me for so long that I couldn’t keep eye contact. I looked away, wondering what on earth was going on here. Obviously I knew how he and I came to be in this stupid closet and why we were both still sitting there. We were hiding, plain and simple. From our friends, from our lives. But still, I glanced back at him—what are we doing here?
“So, knowing all this,” he started slowly, his gaze returning to mine and holding me captive. “Why do you go back to him?”
I drew in a deep breath. Part of me wanted to tell him to shove it, but his voice wasn’t unkind. He sounded genuinely curious, and I suspected he was thinking about himself. About this Leila girl. Trying to figure out the pull she had over him because it likely wasn’t rational.
Lord knew Alex’s hold on me had nothing to do with reason. I shifted beneath Julian’s stare as I tried to find the words. “Because while cheaters make you feel horrible, they also make you feel…” Loved. I swallowed down the word. I’d never said the L-word aloud before and I definitely couldn’t start now. “They make you feel special, I guess.” I shrugged at the lame word which didn’t even begin to cover it. “They make you feel seen and important.”
He nodded slowly. “But you don’t really think they can change.”
I shook my head. “Like I said, I’m a realist.”
The silence that followed felt heavy and thick. I regretted having said anything. The longer the silence stretched the more I hated myself for having opened up like that. With a stranger. A guy who wouldn’t get it. Sure enough, his next question was laced with judgy condescension, just like I’d expect from this guy who lived on the outside.
“I still don’t understand why you knowingly put yourself through this pain over and over again. Why do that to yourself?”
His question made me squirm. Mainly because I didn’t have an answer, but also because I hated the judgement I heard in his tone. “Look, when this Leila girl comes to you with big teary eyes asking for forgiveness and promising never to hurt you again, then you can judge me, all right?”
I hated myself for the rancid anger so clear in my voice. I hated myself even more when he didn’t get all defensive in response.
“You’re right,” he said.
I turned to stare at him. What? No. I wasn’t. I wasn’t right at all. There was no good explanation for why I put myself through this again and again. And when his ex came begging for a second chance he’d probably do the smart thing and tell her to get lost. So no, I wasn’t right. Nothing about this situation was right.
Still, a girl had her pride and mine wouldn’t let those words slip out of my mouth no matter how clearly they were racing through my mind.
He leaned his head back against the wall behind him, scrubbing his face with his hand and looking so utterly vulnerable and frustrated, it made my heart leap in sympathy.
He rolled his head to the side to look at me. “I can’t even explain what happened in my own relationship. I have no idea where I went wrong or what I should have done. I shouldn’t judge you and Alex.”
Yes, I wanted to say. Yes, you should. You should learn from my mistakes and avoid the epic mistake that is my love life.
But again, I couldn’t actually say that. So instead I threw him a crumb. Something that might hopefully help that lost look in his eyes.
“When I first starting having panic attacks a few years ago, my mom made me see a psychiatrist.” I licked my lips and smoothed my hands over the skirt of my uniform, trying not to think too hard about the fact that I had just told this stranger something that not even my closest friends knew about me.
I didn’t trust this guy. I didn’t trust anyone. So why the hell had I just told him that truth? Here, add this to the list of humiliating things you can tell those vultures who live to hear gossip that can take me down a peg.
“And?” he prompted, his voice gentle. Encouraging. God, this random dude was so easy to talk to. No wonder he scored a hottie from Atwater High.
“And he had this theory,” I continued with a resigned sigh. I’d come this far, right? “He had a theory that everything we do is because our subconscious is trying to make us happy.” I risked a glance over, hoping against hope that he wasn’t laughing at me.
I mean, I would have been laughing at me. This was entering into weird psychotherapy talk and no one needed to hear that. Still, it stuck with me because it was the only way I could justify my bizarre addiction to Alex.
I licked my lips again, an old nervous habit I’d thought I’d outgrown. “Anyway, the theory is that even when we make bad choices or seemingly inexplicable decisions, it’s because something inside us thinks it’ll either make us happy or keep us safe.”
“Even though you can’t explain it,” he finished.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
We sat there in silence for a moment, each of us lost in thought. I could guess what he was thinking. Probably something similar to what was going on in my head. What was wrong with me that I kept taking Alex back?
Well, now he knew. Underneath the peppy blonde cheerleader was a messed up panic attack ridden girl with some serious issues. I sighed quietly. And now the whole school would likely know.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t faced the rumor mill before. It was a necessary evil that came with popularity. I’d find a way to shoot down whatever half-truths and lies were spread about me when this guy started the gossip. Not intentionally, perhaps, but all it would take was a whisper.
I couldn’t even work myself up into a rage over it. Not now, at least. I’d worry about it when the time came.
When the bell rang a few moments later, I realized that we’d just been sitting there in silence.
And it had been kind of nice.
I let him leave first. I was in no rush to face my life. At least not without a fresh coat of mascara.
He turned to face me with his hand on the doorknob. “Are you going to be okay?”
The honest concern in his voice made my chest squeeze painfully all over again, but I nodded, brushing some of my hair out of my face. When he didn’t look away, I forced a smirk. “Haven’t you heard? The spawn of Satan always bounces back.”
He gave me that cute lopsided smile in response.
“What about you?” I asked. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I’ll survive.” He was still smiling. It was cynical and rueful, but it still made me believe him.
He opened the door and started out but stopped to look back. “For what it’s worth, I hope you don’t take him back this time.” His gaze met mine. “You deserve better.”
His words shouldn’t have been so shocking but I found myself staring at him with wide eyes for a second too long as my heart played pinball in my chest. Finally, I swallowed and took a deep breath. “So do you.”
And I meant it. I didn’t know what I deserved. I knew he was teasing with the Satan’s spawn comment, but I was certainly no saint.
But Julian? He was a good guy. An honest to God decent guy.
I watched him slip out the door before letting my head fall back with a thud against the wall. Decent guy or not, he’d spill about what I’d said. It was too tempting. The sad, pathetic mean girl, look how low she’d sunk.
But despite knowing that, I still believed what I’d said.
He deserved better.