As Ru sat in the Burbank Town Center Barnes and Noble café sipping a Caramel Frappuccino and pretending to flip through the latest issue of InStyle while waiting for Tate Pearson to show, the things she noticed were these:
A woman in her mid-thirties dressed in an inappropriate for SoCal beige wool Kasper skirt suit that must have been hanging in her closet since 1987, paired with a gold necklace that had a dangling dog charm that was probably supposed to be a Pug but looked more like a canine Hitler;
A guy in his late twenties, a perpetual student of something in some community college, his continual enrollment probably an avoidance of achieving gainful employment or securing a real woman who expected her boyfriend to have his own apartment, do his own laundry and spring for a meal once in a while that didn’t have to be shouted into an intercom situated between pictures of Big Mac and Filet-o-Fish sandwiches. He had his own spread going at a center table, a Meximelt and two gorditas from Taco Bell (a meal that made her argument for her), a gasoline barrel-sized Coke to wash it all down, prompting the café manager to come over and tell him he couldn’t consume outside food or drink. Ru was wondering if those outside product rules pertained as well to books, grateful that she had chosen to select one of their magazines to peruse rather than read the copy of The Great Gatsby acquired from Amazon now hidden in her purse when Taco Bell Boy rose from his seat, the heavy North Face backpack he had slung over the back of the chair tipping it over and bringing it down to the floor with a disruptive clatter that caused seventeen heads to turn his way in unison, except for Ru’s, which quickly turned in the opposite direction so as not to be caught staring;
A teen doggedly digging her fingers in her scalp, probably scraping at some old-made-fresh-once-a-day scab, which she eventually ripped away and dragged through her hair with her nails. Ru tried several times to look away, finally succeeding permanently when the girl’s fingernails went straight into her mouth and she began chomping on something in between her two front teeth.
Just because she’d stopped looking didn’t mean she ceased seeing and so to get the cannibalistic image out of her head Ru began humming Moves Like Jagger and picturing various people around the store dancing to it. She wondered what moves belonging to Jagger Adam Levine thought he possessed and if maybe Tate had them but soon stopped thinking of such things when she envisioned Tate with his hands on his hips jutting his neck out like a clucking chicken, the only moves Jagger had that Ru considered worthy of memory although she couldn’t fully understand why any other grown man would be proud of mimicking them.
Of all things perceived—real and otherwise—the one thing she did not notice was this:
A forty-three-year-old manchild sitting across from her, unruly light brown hair jutting out in all directions from beneath a navy blue knit hat, his smile revealing the slight overbite she’d always found so incredibly sexy. She didn’t know how she’d missed his entrance; even though she’d been watching the other bookstore patrons, trying to be nonchalant about it, at six-foot-six Tate Pearson was pretty hard to miss.
“Moves Like Jagger?” he asked, leaning back in his chair in his best I-don’t-give-a-shit posturing, one arm slung over the back, nudging her foot with his and suddenly she was the seventeen-year-old on the beach tablecloth again, and she wanted to cry, wanted to run, couldn’t believe how everything had aged but the feeling she had of being inadequate, someone who could never have him. Time had suspended only for that wonderful event.
“Oh my God,” she said, both from the stupefaction of seeing him and the embarrassment of being caught off-guard and he was on his feet, leaning over the table to take her hands in his and kiss her cheek. Beginning to emerge from her lovefog, she half-rose from her seat to meet him, slipping her arms beneath his, wrapping around his sturdy trunk. She felt his lips in her hair, heard him murmur, “It’s great to see you, Ru,” and then he was pulling away, easing her back into her seat.
Great to see her? When had she become someone for him who was great to see? Sometimes—over the course of the twenty-plus years since they’d last spoken—she wondered if he even remembered who she was. Now here he was telling her how great it was to look at her. Had it always been that way? If so, why had he never told her before? If not, what had so drastically changed about her that now made her easy on his eyes? Not much had changed about him. Time had been as gracious to him as her memory, seeming to slow down the aging process somewhere around thirty-three. He still wore his hair down to his collar, still had the same chipmunk cheeks and slightly jutted two front teeth that lent him an affable, almost cartoonish visage.
“I can’t believe it, I didn’t even see you,” she said, still flustered.
“Should I come back in moving like Jagger?”
“What does that even mean?”
“Something to do with sex.”
“Right. No wonder it escapes me.”
And like that she killed the banter they had going, not an easy thing for practical strangers, almost impossible for two people with the awkward conversational history of Ru and Tate. Somehow she was always reminding him of how unsexy she was, how so not worth his dick’s time.
After a pause she might have considered pregnant had she not been so allergic to all things pertaining to intercourse, he grabbed her hand across the table, squeezing it. “You look great.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve said that, I am great to see.”
“Well it bears repeating.” He released her hand and nodded his head toward her drink. “Whatcha got there?”
He picked it up and sipped it. “Mmm,” he said. “Pretty good.”
She stared at the tip of the straw, thinking how if this was twenty years ago, she would have swiped it before they left and tucked it in her purse to later press in a scrapbook dedicated solely to Tate. Pictures of Tate, things he’d touched, papers he’d scribbled on. She constructed such an homage to Brent Bobbins, a grade school classmate she’d had an early crush on. It was in one of the plastic storage bins of school memories she kept in her parents’ basement in Philadelphia, something some district attorney would use against her if anyone she knew ever turned up dead.
“So what have you been up to?” Tate was asking her, now holding the frappuccino and sipping it at regular intervals. “What kind of job brings you out here?”
This so wasn’t what she wanted to be talking about. She knew it was the proper conversation, the natural order of things, the way normal people caught up, reacquainted, got to know. But Ru hadn’t worked up the courage to contact him to follow the normal order of things, or even the usual way these things went. If that were the case she might as well say good bye to him right now and go back to her hotel tub and spread her legs beneath the faucet. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone, her home state, her so-called safe places. She was here. He was here. Would they ever be again?
“Can I ask you something?” she interjected into the pleasantries. He tilted his head, considering the question.
“I could never understand that question; why do people ask that question? Is it a warning?” he mused. “An exit clause? Insurance for the asker in case the one being questioned winds up offended? ‘Well, I asked if I could ask you.’ And why ask? Isn’t asking if you can ask me something, in fact, asking me something? You didn’t request my permission to ask me that; why waste a question by asking if you can ask me a question? If you’re going to ask something, why not just ask what you really want to? Can you imagine if news correspondents did that? ‘Mr. President, may I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, you may. And next person, your question?’”
She nudged his leg under the table, a practice she thought she’d abandoned fifteen years ago, right around the time she’d had her last official date with someone. “I’ll answer your question, wise guy. It’s a diversion tactic. A question more for me than for you, a stalling tactic, my last chance to back out from asking what I want to, maybe, secretly hoping you’ll say no.”
“So what could you possibly want to ask me, Ru, that requires an extra moment to nut up?” He finished her drink, unapologetically licking his lips and placing the empty cup between them. “You want to go to a bar, ask me there over a shot or five of tequila?”
Holy crap, he was flirting with her. He was flirting with her, he wanted to ply her with alcohol and flip her on her back and fuck her and his marriage at the same time.
“No, I—” She shook her head, stirring the thoughts, hoping the right one would shake into her mouth like the purple jawbreaker into the dispenser every time as a teen she’d dropped a quarter and turned the dial.
“Why did you never try to sleep with me?”
She didn’t know what he’d expected her to say, and although he didn’t look shocked, he didn’t look unaffected either.
“What? Wait.” He sat up straighter. “I never slept with you?”
She arched an eyebrow at the same time her head jutted back like a reverse move like Jagger. Seriously? Did he really just ask that? Was it really possible that somewhere in his skewed version of their history he saw them naked in bed together? Worse than that, that he found it so insignificant and forgettable as to actually create a false memory over what he assumed was a bad one? She didn’t know if she found the news more insulting or devastating.
“Um, no,” she answered, with more than a slight edge to her tone.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Tate, I’m sure. You think I wouldn’t know whether or not I slept with someone?”
“Well clearly I don’t.”
“I remember everyone I’ve slept with,” she stated indignantly. Both of them, she silently added, hating herself.
“Relax. I’m not calling you a whore,” he said, misunderstanding her sudden indignation. “Maybe it happened when we were drunk, and you just forgot; I know I was sauced through most of my bed-tripping back then.” He thought a moment, catching on to not just the question, but the way it had been posed. “Wait, what did you just ask me? Why did I never try to sleep with you? Did you want me to? I could make up for it now if it’s been bothering you all these years.”
His smile was sly, but not offensive. It faded slightly when she didn’t answer.
“Has it? Been bothering you all these years?”
Just leave, Ru. This is embarrassing, just go back to your computer stalking and ball games with Zane.
Zane. She hadn’t thought about him in a few days, and her heart jumped at just the sound of his name in her head.
But Tate was still there, sitting across from her. He hadn’t gotten up and left. He hadn’t decided to end this, this whatever it was. He wanted to hear her answer. He wanted to see it through, even if it was a bad place where they were going. Maybe that even made it more appealing, the rapscallion. Hadn’t changed a bit, had he?
Hell, we’re going to hell.
She sighed. Why clam up and get all reserved now?
“I had such a crush on you back then, it was so obvious, everyone knew about it. Either you were oblivious, or you knew too and didn’t care. You slept with everyone; I kept wondering, why not me?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say everybody—”
“I bet even some of the boys in our crowd got some action from you.”
“Seriously. You thought we slept together?”
He shrugged. “I never really thought about it at all. I mean, not that I remember having sex with you, but just because I don’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Take my wife, for example. I know for sure I’ve slept with her at least twice, but fuck if I can remember it.”
His smile was impish, goofy even, and Ru started to laugh, shaking her head.
“You want to get out of here, Ru?” he suddenly asked, and not for the first time that night. “Someplace that serves something a little stronger than a triple shot espresso?”
Can Not Say on What I’m Riding . . . Wh… Anna Annie Schmidt on What I’m Riding . . . El… Nichole Thompson on What I’m Riding . . . El… whatimriding on What I’m Riding . . . so… whatimriding on What I’m Riding . . . so…
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