STOP. KISSING. FINN., Chapter 8
Maybe the football game had been some kind of last-ditch effort to be my best friend. And the conversation in the parking lot was a test. If that were true, I was pretty sure I'd failed.
Chapter 7 Recap: Liz accidentally reveals a secret Jackie’s been keeping from Charlie, who attempts to avoid all confrontation by hiding in the art room. Of course, Finn’s there. He surprises her with an apology… and an invite to skip the rest of the day.
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“And then you just... ate fries?” Liz asked.
“Yes... you say that like no one has ever eaten fries.”
“And then what?” Liz demanded.
“And then he drove me back to my car,” I said, sitting down on the locker room bench. I'd given Liz a ride to early morning field hockey practice. I'd barely slept, mentally changing channels between a replay of my afternoon with Finn and the conversation I knew I had to have with Jackie. So, I'd texted Liz and asked if she wanted me to pick her up. I'd told her almost everything on the way to school, except for the part about the poetry.
She was more exasperated than I thought she’d be.
“Has everyone flipped their shit? You're skipping class with random strangers, Jackie's, like, a porn star or something, now...” She shoved a foot into a ratty cleat and yanked on the laces.
“I don't know,” I said, scratching at the wooden bench with my keys. “He's actually really nice.”
“This is the same guy who stole your food?”
“Yeah, but he didn't know it was mine.”
Liz silently stared down at me while she wrapped an elastic band around her ponytail.
“And, he's actually really interesting,” I said. “He’s really into art, and he’s starting a magazine,” I added.
“Serial killers are into art. Who’s the one who painted all those pictures of the clowns?”
“Seriously, he's not a psycho. You’re the one who’s always telling me I need to relax and talk to people.”
“I meant, like, normal people. People who don’t steal food.”
“He replaced everything. I swear he’s normal,” I said.
“Fine, but please don't get into a car with a random guy again no matter how nice and normal he seems.” Liz slammed her locker shut and turned towards me. “Okay?”
“I get it... But, it's not like he's a stranger now.”
“Now that you've eaten fries together, it's like you've known him forever,” she said with an exaggerated shrug.
“We talked about a lot of stuff,” I said.
“I have to go,” she said and jogged toward the door. “I'll see you in study hall,” she yelled over her shoulder.
Student council met every Thursday morning, so I was pretty sure I'd find Jackie in the library preparing her notes. I was right. She was in one of the cubicles behind the computer lab, hunched over a laptop.
“Hey,” I said, half whispering.
She glanced up, surprised to see me.
“Hey, what are you doing here this early?” she whispered.
“I gave Liz a ride to practice,” I said and sat down in the chair of the neighboring cubicle.
“Why didn't you tell me about Jared?” I asked.
“Shh!” Jackie hissed and quickly looked around.
“You told Liz, but not me. And, you told Liz not to tell me,” I blurted out.
“I know.” Her voice had softened, but her tone wasn't exactly apologetic. It was something else.
“I don't get it.”
“I didn't want to upset you.” She looked down and studied her manicure. “I didn't know if you could...handle it.”
“Of course I can handle it.”
She looked up at me, raising her eyebrows.
“Listen, I'm sorry,” she said and glanced at the clock hanging next to an exit sign.
“Are you mad at me or something? Because of the other day at Colson's?” I asked.
“No, I'm not mad. Hey, I really need to finish this before my meeting. Can we talk later?”
“Yeah. Coffee at Scones?”
“Um, sure.” She said it like it was a concession. Like she was giving in to something.
“Okay,” I said.
She flashed me a weak smile before turning back to her laptop.
I walked out of the library in a daze, trying to figure out when things between Jackie and me had gotten so weird. Was it that day at Colson's, or even before that? We had been hanging out way less since school started, but I thought it was because we were both busy. Had she been pulling away from me on purpose? Maybe the football game had been some kind of last-ditch effort to be my best friend. And the conversation in the parking lot was a test.
If that were true, I was pretty sure I'd failed.
The phone rang and I picked it up. That was my first mistake.
It was the little old-fashioned phone without the caller ID screen that Gram kept on her nightstand in the living room. I was vacuuming in there while she took a bath and it rang. It was just a reflex.
“You're home on a Saturday night?”
I hated how familiar and assuming she sounded, like she knew anything about what I did on Saturday nights.
“Hi, Marlena. Yeah, staying in.”
“What are you doing?”
“You're vacuuming? Why are you vacuuming on a Saturday night? Why aren't you out with your friends?”
Because Liz has an away game and Jackie stopped calling me.
“Well, someone needs to vacuum.” It came out more pathetic than I'd intended. The last thing I wanted was her sympathy. Mistake number two.
She sighed deeply.
“You should be out with your friends, going to football games...”
“I hate football,” I snapped. What was it with everyone and football?
“You shouldn't be spending your Saturday nights all by yourself caring for an elderly woman, is what I'm saying. All alone like that. And what if something happens?” She asked. “Not even if...when,” she added dramatically.
Her words hit me in the gut. I wasn't stupid – I knew one day Gram wouldn't be here. I didn't need someone reminding me.
I should have ignored her and said there was a call on the other line. Or asked if the bad reception was on her end or mine. Or feigned a coughing fit.
“Why are you bringing this up?” Mistake number three.
“Well, I really wanted to talk about this in person.” She took a deep breath. “But, there’s really no easy way to bring it up…I think we need to start thinking about alternative living arrangements, Charlie.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the living situation is getting to be too much for you. That's clear. I really don't think it's healthy for either one of you.”
“What kind of arrangements?” I said. “Like a nursing home?”
“Well, that could be one option,” she said.
“I can't believe... how could you even suggest that?” I asked, my pitch climbing.
“It's a perfectly reasonable consideration, Charlie.”
She was trying to sound calm and soothing. It was having the opposite effect.
“Why do you keep saying my name after everything?” I demanded.
She was silent for a moment.
“Are you ready to speak to me like a rational person?”
Part of her was loving this. She was playing her part in a typical mother/daughter argument scene from some TV drama – the kind of thing she never got to do in real life. In her mind, she was carrying a ripped paper bag home from a harrowing trip to the market and was exhausted with the responsibility of working full time and raising a teenager. I was hormonal and struggling to assert my independence. If we lived in the same house, I could slam a door or something.
“I guess what I don't understand is why you're suddenly so interested. In me or in Gram.” I paused, fidgeting with the handle of the vacuum. “You’ve called more in the last couple months than you did all last year.”
“I think you need to treat me with a bit more respect.” I'd struck a chord.
“I just asked a question,” I said.
“No, you didn't.”
A solid five seconds of silence passed, during which I considered gently replacing the receiver in its cradle and simply ending the conversation.
“Listen,” she said, sighing deeply. “I have to be here for deliveries while Bill is out of town for the next three weeks. After that I can drive in and we'll have dinner and sort this out.”
Leave us alone. We're fine without you, I thought.
“Fine,” I said.
She hung up without saying goodbye.
“The key is to not be overtly slutty,” Jackie explained as she carefully removed three plastic garment bags from her closet. Liz and I sat cross-legged on her bed and watched her.
“So we’re really doing this? A group costume?” Liz asked.
“Yes. You saw the invite. It’s a costume party,” she said. “And, Liz, please don’t, like, knock out a tooth or get a black eye at practice.”
“Well, I guess I’ll try not to. For the sake of our group Halloween costume, of course.” Liz rolled her eyes and adjusted the pillow she was leaning against.
Along with the entire senior class, we’d all gotten the invite, just as Andy had promised. His dad was letting him and his brother Philip take over their barn. They'd hired a DJ and there would be minimal parental supervision. Plus, Philip was two years older and, as made apparent by his high school dating record, was definitely not gay. So the prospect of meeting guys in college had definitely caught the attention of pretty much every senior girl. And that had caught the attention of every senior guy.
“Jessica Doll is his co-host, whatever that means,” Liz said.
“Jessica Doll is ridiculous,” Jackie said and rolled her eyes.
Jessica Doll had been the Maria to Andy’s Tony in last year’s production of West Side Story. I didn’t know her very well, but she had a really high-pitched speaking voice and dressed up – like, tailored dresses and full make-up – every day for school. She came off squeaky and frilly. The anti-Jackie.
“Anyway, the best costumes are the ones that suggest sexiness, but don't put it all out on the table,” Jackie said.
“Why aren't you and Jared dressing up together?” I asked cautiously.
“He's doing some stupid thing with his guy friends,” Jackie answered without looking at me. “Plus, I’ve had this planned for months.”
I eyed the three garment bags with suspicion.
“So,” she said, tossing the shopping bag to the side and turning to face us. “My vision was subtle, sexy, unpredictable, classy. How can you do sexy, but still be classy and subtle?” she asked rhetorically, pausing for a moment. Liz squirmed, crumpling a shopping bag.
“Vintage,” she answered, her eyes lighting up. They quickly passed over my face and settled on Liz.
“Predictable vintage costumes – Marilyn Monroe, flappers, pin-up girls...” she rattled on. “No, none of that. Too cheesy. Gives off an air of desperation.”
She paused for a moment, then grabbed one of the hangers and ripped away the plastic to reveal a royal blue skirt suit.
“We're going as 1960's airline stewardesses!”
Both Liz and I were silent for a moment. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to concern myself with miniskirts or midriff-bearing, but I definitely didn't get the “subtle sexiness” of a flight attendant. Flying made me think of flat soda, motion sickness and the fear of dying. I looked over at Liz, who cocked her head to the side, trying to understand.
“Okay, okay, I'll explain the whole thing,” Jackie continued. “Actually, let me just show you the costume and you'll get it, I swear.” With that, she darted into her bathroom and closed the door.
“She wants us to wear suits?” Liz whispered.
“Not what I was expecting,” I whispered back.
“Me neither.” She pulled a pack of her cherry candies from her back pocket. “Want one?” she asked, waving the roll at me. I shook my head.
Liz was quiet for a minute. “So, what's going on between the two of you?” she whispered.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to maintain a vague expression. I picked at a thread on Jackie’s bedspread, a sage green and muted grey replacement for the hot pink and orange floral pattern she’d had for years. In the last couple months, Jackie’s room had become very adult, like one of those half-bed displays at Bed Bath and Beyond. Every stuffed animal and knick-knack had disappeared. I wondered if she still had her copy of “The Constitution.”
“You guys are acting really weird around each other. I feel like you're talking ...through me, or something.”
I suddenly felt panicky. My eyes grew hot and watery.
“Charlie?” Liz asked and turned to look at me. I looked away as she studied my face. “Charlie, what is it?” Liz demanded.
“I don't know,” I whispered, quickly wiping away at my eyes.
“Did you have a fight?” she whispered.
“No, not really... I just...I feel like she's trying to avoid me, or something. She never calls me anymore...” I said, catching my breath. The last thing I needed was for Jackie to see me acting like a baby.
“For weeks now.”
“Why am I just now noticing?” she asked.
“I don't know,” I said. “Because you've been at practice, away games, early morning workouts—”
“I get it,” she said, interrupting me. “You still could have talked to me.”
“She didn't tell me about Jared, either,” I admitted.
Liz's eyes grew wide with sudden understanding. Before she could ask another question, the handle on the bathroom door jiggled.
“I'm coming out!” Jackie shouted from behind the bathroom door.
Jackie entered in dramatic fashion, throwing the bathroom door open to reveal herself. The blue suit, which had looked like shapeless polyester on the hanger, was tailored perfectly. It was fitted around Jackie’s hips, but it wasn’t too tight. The skirt barely grazed her knees, but the conservative length was offset by a pair of shiny, black stilettos heels. She'd gathered the bottom of the jacket with a wide, matching belt that cinched her waist. Somewhere she'd found not only a coordinating neckerchief that she'd knotted at the side, but also one of those old-fashioned wedge caps that sat atop her smoothed-back hair, which she had pulled into a neat little bun. A pair of silver pilot wings sparkled on her lapel.
She was right. The costume was unexpectedly sexy.
“Wow,” Liz said.
“It's great, right?!” Jackie exclaimed with a little hop.
“How did you find all this?” I asked. “You have an outfit like this for both of us?” Despite my best efforts, I'd emphasized “both” a little too much.
“Yeah, you can pay me back later,” she said as she adjusted her hat in the mirror.
“I don't know if I can walk in those shoes,” said Liz, studying the heel of Jackie's stilettos.
“We'll practice,” Jackie reassured her. “I think it would also be so cute if we carried packages of peanuts in our purses and gave them out at the party...I really think that we're going to have the best costumes.”
“I dunno, considering Charlie’s track record with nuts,” Liz joked.
Jackie looked at us blankly; I hadn’t had a chance to tell her anything about Finn.
“Nothing, never mind,” Liz said.
The costumes fit perfectly. I had to hand it to Jackie – she was really good with clothes. I studied my rear view in Jackie's full-length mirror.
“Is Finn coming to the party?” asked Liz, apparently reading my mind.
“I don't know. I'm not sure it's his thing.”
“Who's Finn?” Jackie asked casually. I could tell it pained her to ask the question. But it bugged her more to be out of the loop.
“Oh,” I said, “He's just this guy who has independent study at the same time I do.”
“They skipped school together last week,” Liz added.
“What?” Jackie said, turning to look at me. She was suddenly intrigued.
“Um, yeah, it really wasn't that big of a deal,” I said. “We were both just having a bad day.”
“So they ran around in the rain and shared their deepest, darkest secrets over a plate of greasy fries at Dino's,” Liz added, nudging me with her elbow.
“Is he cute?” Jackie asked. She sat at her vanity and spoke to my reflection in the mirror.
“Yeah, he's pretty cute. You've seen him before, actually. Remember that guy who talked to me at the football game?” Remember? Back when we were friends?
Jackie began applying lipstick and stopped mid-stroke. “Oh, that guy... Isn't he with that other girl?”
“The little one with all the eyeliner...” Jackie said, searching her brain. “Jenna. That's who I'm thinking of.”
“I don't know...” I said. “He might be. We just talked, it's not like anything happened.”
“Right,” Jackie said.
“He gave you his sweatshirt, though,” Liz added. “That's not typical behavior of someone who has a girlfriend. They're probably not serious.” Just days ago she was convinced that he was a homicidal maniac, and now she was rooting for us against all odds.
“He was just being nice,” I said. “I was freezing. Plus, I don’t even know if I’m even interested.”
“I wonder if he'll dress up,” Liz said, obviously trying to keep the conversation going between Jackie and me. “What would he go as?” she mused as she wriggled out of her suit jacket.
“Guys never have good costumes. They're too worried about looking like they tried too hard at something,” answered Jackie. “Liz, make sure you hang that so it doesn’t wrinkle.” She tossed a wooden hanger at Liz who caught it with one hand.
“I honestly don't even know if he would even go to something like this,” I said, still studying my backside in the mirror. “He's kind of like...” I struggled for the right word. “Non-conformist.”
“Well, he wasn't too cool to go to the football game,” Jackie said as she unpinned her wedge cap.
“Ask him,” Liz said sternly. “Or at least let him know that you're going. Do you both have independent study tomorrow?”
“Don't leave without bringing it up.”
“Someone needs to coach you. Or else, while you're too busy slicing garlic, Finn is going to wind up with ho-bag Jenna,” Liz said.
She glanced over at Jackie who had stopped listening and was busy with arranging her garment bag. I knew Liz well enough to know that we were thinking the same thing: This was Jackie’s job. She was always the one who always told us what to do, especially when it came to guys.
“Okay. I'll talk to him tomorrow,” I said.
“Good,” said Liz. She looked up at me and forced a smile.
“And, Liz, you mince garlic,” I said. “You don’t slice it.”