On Tuesday, I went to the library instead of to school.
I had never cut class without a bunch of my friends dragging me out of the school gates before. But I was feeling tired of being responsible and ‘mature’ when all I got for my efforts were drunk girls calling me names and my father shutting me out of his life. Also, Curtis still hadn’t called after our fight about Chocolate Hearts. An hour or two of Jane Austen would help me feel less blue about things. Remembering that polite conversation and gallant men had once existed would bring me peace.
But when I got to the Classics section of the public library – there were two libraries at Linbury, the smaller, upscale, exclusive Rochester Library and the more proletarian Linbury Public Library – I wasn’t so sure I would find peace there, because Zach Gellar was sitting there, long legs curled up under him on a big plush ancient-looking armchair, buried in a dusty copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.
I stepped back to flee, but my footsteps had alerted him to my presence. He looked up expressionlessly. “Well, well, well.” His voice rang out authoratively in the quiet, empty room, making me flinch. “Stalking me?”
I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
Zach uncrossed his legs slowly. “Not content with disturbing me at my park bench, huh?”
“If I’d known how protective you are of ‘your’ park bench, I wouldn’t have gone there in the first place.” I picked my way over to the other armchair and picked up a book from the table between the two armchairs.
“Excuse me, kid, I didn’t invite you to make yourself comfortable here,” Zach said, putting Shirley down on his lap.
“I didn’t invite you to make yourself comfortable here, either, but you’re evidently doing so in spite of that,” I shot back. “Why aren’t you at Rochester Library, anyway? That one shuts out riffraff like me.”
He didn’t bother disputing my calling myself riffraff. “It doesn’t shut out riffraff like my mother’s friend.” Annoyance flashed over his features. “I come here to be alone, okay?” he added pointedly.
“I’m just reading. I have a right to be here.”
“I don’t think so,” Zach said smoothly. “School is where you’re supposed to be right now, kid.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You haven’t exactly graduated either.”
“So, what, you’re just going to follow me around and shatter any kind of peace I build up for myself in the process?”
“I could ask the same of you,” I retorted.
Zach slammed his book down on the table. “Just leave, okay?”
I wasn’t sure why, but I found myself saying, apropos of nothing, “Why do you hate me so much, anyway? I’ve never done anything to you.”
Zach blinked at me as if I’d started speaking in Chinese. “I don’t hate you.”
I raised my eyebrows again, and he let out a short laugh. “Trust me, kid, you shouldn’t flatter yourself by thinking I hate you. Very few people are worth such a strong feeling. You’re certainly not.”
“Yeah,” I said sarcastically. “I forgot. You just think Nathan will be contaminated if he’s around me.”
Zach rolled his eyes. “Please. Look, you can’t handle him. You’ll get burnt if you let him mess with you.”
“So why do you care?”
“I don’t. I just don’t want him to have the satisfaction of getting his way. He doesn’t deserve it. Otherwise, you’re welcome to him.” Zach’s voice was hard and scathing. “Now will you leave?”
I narrowed my eyes critically, feeling my mounting irritation come to a crescendo. “Did anyone ever tell you that the squint doesn’t really work for you?”
He glared back. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look drunk when you’re angry?”
“Did anyone ever tell you that the rebel-without-a-cause act is way overdone?”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you’re not going to survive a minute in this place?”
“Did anyone ever tell you –” I stopped myself. This was childish and juvenile. “Look, Zach. Contrary to what you think, I’m not here to get into your crowd, or to let Nathan mess with me.”
“Really?” Zach said, mock-worshipfully. “Well, good, because you’re not succeeding.” He paused. “So what are you here for, then?”
I looked at him. “Survival, okay? To make it somewhere. To study, get good grades, maybe go to…” I stopped, wondering if it was wise to tell him. “Yale,” I said finally.
Zach raised his eyebrows. “That’s where I’m going.”
I stared, taken aback. “You want to go to Yale?”
“Not want to,” Zach said confidently. “I’m going to.”
“But…you…” I fumbled for words. “You skip classes like it’s a compulsion.”
Zach nodded. “Yes, but I’ve gotten straight-A’s and great SAT scores without a bunch of idiots having to jump down my throat for every non-conformist idea I’ve ever had.”
“Jeez, you’re modest,” I couldn’t help saying.
He gave me a withering look. “Just being honest.”
“What about…” I paused. “Activities?”
He shrugged. “Spending money. And getting my parents to spend money.”
I rolled my eyes. “I get it,” I said scornfully. “You’ll get in by donating a new library to Yale. Your SAT scores don’t even matter.”
Zach shrugged again. “Pretty much.” He narrowed his eyes. “You think having money makes me a bad guy, huh?”
I shook my head, the hostility ebbing away as I looked at him thoughtfully. I found myself wondering how and why it was that I was having an actual conversation with Zach Gellar. “Nope. Not a bad guy. Just a lucky one.”
Zach opened his mouth and shut it again. I got up, grabbing the nearest book on the table, and marched out. For once, I wouldn’t let him have the last word.
I went home at three and called Curtis on my cell phone. Talking to Zach had made me feel less angry with Curtis. It had reminded me that there were a lot of assholes in the world, and it made me feel desperate to reconnect with Curtis before I lost one of the guys I could actually love.
I was going to get our relationship back on track for once and for all.
“Curt,” I said happily. “I’m so glad you called. I’ve missed you so much, and I couldn’t say it that evening, but – “
“We need to talk.”
Danger signals prickled all over my brain. I ignored them. I gathered up my courage with both hands. It was now or never.
“Yes, Curt, I know. Let’s talk, okay? Let’s talk about crazy stuff. Let’s have phone sex,” I added recklessly. “Whatever it takes. Just to feel like us again – “
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said flatly.
I closed my eyes, steadying myself. Somehow, even while deciding to try and get him back, I had seen this coming. “I love you, Curtis. So much. That hasn’t changed.”
“I don’t think I do anymore.”
The words shocked me out of my daze. “What?”
“I’m sorry.” His tone was clipped, far away. “You’re amazing. You’re great. You’re really, really smart and understanding and…but…I…things aren’t the same anymore. Can’t you see that?”
I gripped the phone tightly. “Yes, I can, but Curt – I’m still the same. You know that. My feelings for you are the same, anyway, even if I’m not. Can’t that be enough?”
“I’m sorry,” he said tonelessly.
I took in deep breaths, willing myself not to cry. “You called me my first day and I was so happy, Curt. And I came home this evening and I really thought we could try again.”
“God, I feel awful, Sum, but I just can’t.” I heard him let out a heavy sigh. “I loved you very much, you know that. But…oh, God, this sounds harsh, but I…I don’t think I love you anymore. I can’t be fair to you. You’re too far away, Summer.”
“I haven’t cheated on you, Curtis,” I said eagerly, grasping a stray thought. Maybe if he knew that…if I made him forget about our fight…
“I…but you’ll be tempted to, Summer. And so will I. I…I don’t understand you anymore. You can say you haven’t, but you have changed, in a way I can’t get. You’re so far away from all of us now – literally and metaphorically. Okay? We’re kids, and you have responsibilities none of us can understand.”
“I haven’t cheated on you.” It was all I could think about. Had he cheated on me? Was that what this was about? Could it possibly be that simple?
“There are a lot of white-ass grown-up rich kids in that whitebread town, Sum,” he said exhaustedly. “Your future is like theirs. You and I…we’re from different worlds now.”
I wished he would stop making it sound like this was about me. And I wished I could convince him that he was wrong. We were from the same world – it was me and the ‘white-ass grown-up rich kids in that whitebread town’ that didn’t belong together. “You don’t really think that, do you?”
“Yes, I do. And besides – I just want to be a kid, okay? I want to have fun. I don’t want to keep wishing I could fix things for my girlfriend – things I don’t even understand. I don’t want to try, period. I want a relationship that’s my age, not one that’s trying to get light years ahead.”
I curled my hand into a fist. He was right, wasn’t he? I had changed, and he hadn’t. I knew that perfectly well. It wasn’t fair to him that I was trying so hard to hold on to him.
“Stacey Templeton asked me to the Homecoming Dance, Summer. And I really, really wanted to say yes.” He paused, and I felt my stomach clenching, a pulse throbbing away at my forehead. “I don’t think that says anything good about our relationship. I’m sorry.”
Would he stop apologizing? God, how I wished I could hate him for how he was making me feel. But I couldn’t. I still loved him too damn much for my welfare.
“I’m sorry, I really am.” The tonelessness in his voice dropped down to misery. “I did – I do love you. But I can’t keep on doing this anymore. I can’t keep on doing this anymore. I can’t keep forcing myself to feel something that doesn’t come naturally. And I don’t want to fake it, either.”
I’d begged enough. I’d let him trample on my pride long enough. I bit my lip, summoning dignity from the depths of my soul. “You’re right. I’m sorry I made you waste so much time on me.”
“Summer, don’t – “
“I hope you have a good time at the Dance with Stacey. Say yes before she changes her mind.”
“Summer, please – I didn’t want to hurt you.”
A little too late for that. “It’s all right,” I forced myself to say, even though it wasn’t.
“Can we still be friends?” he asked me hopefully.
I couldn’t believe he was hitting me with that line. “Sure,” I lied. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t love me anymore, not really. Everything had been conspiring to break us up. Everything. He was just too tired to fight it anymore. I couldn’t pretend it was a surprise, really. Maybe it was even a relief, a good thing. But I couldn’t make myself feel glad. “I…I guess…we’re both free now, huh?”
“Yeah,” Curtis said. “Take care, okay?”
I sat motionless for a long time after he’d hung up, waiting for the sting of tears, for the keen, sharp excruciating pain. But all I felt was confusion, a loose feeling of being undefined, of not knowing who I was without Curtis as the one all-important constant in my life. Three years of giving into every wish my boyfriend had ever had, and all I’d gotten was this; standing in a cold bedroom with a phone in my hand, all ties to my home severed and nothing left of my old world except the feeling of being utterly, completely on my own.
If this was what freedom felt like, I’d rather be a slave.
And I’d thought Zach Gellar was an asshole.