The Sea of Tranquility(15)

by Katja Millay

“Good enough?” he tries.

I nod. Yes, good enough.

“Good enough,” he repeats, without question this time, and the tell-tale flirt comes back into his voice. His posture loosens and he seems to relax. He’s back in familiar territory. “Let’s go inside before I give in to the fantasy I’m having of covering you in that cake and licking the frosting off.”

I glare at him. I’m kind of glad to have this Drew back. I roll my eyes and shake my head. He shrugs, resigned.

“Sorry. Nature’s a bitch. Can only fight it for so long.” He comes around to open the car door and offers to take the cake for me but I shake my head. I need to hold it. I cling to the cake like a lifeline as I walk up to the house, hoping my left hand doesn’t choose now to stutter and make me drop it. A three-layer cake with scratch fudge frosting, adorned with piles of shaved curls of dark chocolate, was probably overkill but I’m hoping it does its job and that they’ll notice the cake instead of me.

We walk into a high-ceilinged foyer that opens up into an exquisitely furnished living room. It’s pristine. I feel like I should take my shoes off so my heels don’t tear into the Berber carpet but that would probably be weird. Plus, as much as the shoes hurt my feet, they give me comfort. I used to perform in front of audiences, now I hide behind cake and high heels. Drew leads me back through a formal dining room. The table must seat at least ten people. It’s already set with china and fabric napkins that are folded to look like swans. Drew must notice me gaping at it.

“Told you my mom likes to pretend we’re civilized once a week.” Civilized is one thing. This is something different entirely. “It’s usually not this bad. I think she went a little overboard because I told her I was bringing you. Usually it’s just us and Josh. And he doesn’t count as company.” What the crap? I’m not sure which part of that little explanation I’m supposed to panic about first; either the part where his mother appears to have prepared for the coming of the queen because of me or the part where Josh Bennett is expected. Both are equally appalling but I think I’m giving the edge to Josh. As much as I fear the scrutiny of Drew’s mother, it’s a little worse to imagine eating a meal across the table from the boy who mopped up my vomit and watched me strip my bra off and throw it across the room. I spent most of the afternoon freaking out about what to wear and dreading having to face Drew’s sister. The thought that Josh Bennett might be here never even entered my mind. I don’t have any more time to get used to the idea because the doorbell rings, then opens before anybody could possibly have gotten there. Josh isn’t company here. Of course he doesn’t wait to be let in.

Before I know what’s happening, Drew’s mother is coming towards me, taking the cake out of my hands. I want to hold onto it, keep it in front of me just a little longer but it’s not an option so I relinquish it to her. My hands feel very empty.

“You must be Nastya!” Her smile comes from every part of her face. There isn’t a question where Drew and Sarah came by their looks. Their mother is beautiful. I can’t help glancing down toward her stomach. She must not be very pregnant because I can’t even tell. I wonder how old she is. She has to be at least forty, I imagine. It’s weird to me why anyone would want another baby at that age but I guess if you can, why not? She’s shifting things in the refrigerator now to make room for the cake. I didn’t ask her to but I’m glad. The heat and humidity already started doing a number on the frosting on the way over here.

“Honey, it is so sweet of you to bring dessert. It’s beautiful,” she says, shutting the refrigerator door and turning towards me. She closes the gap between us a moment later and before I can comprehend what she’s doing, she hugs me. I don’t do hugging. I don’t like people touching me even when there’s no threat involved. It’s too intimate and it bothers me. She doesn’t seem to notice how stiff my arms are at my sides and she lets me go a second later when Drew starts talking.

“How come you call her honey and never use terms of endearment on me?” he fake whines.

“I do,” Mrs. Leighton says, patting him on the cheek as she walks by. “Just last week I called you the bane of my existence.”

“That’s right,” he says. “That was a good day.”

It’s hard not to want to smile watching them. It hasn’t been so long that I don’t remember what it was like when my family was happy, too.

It’s only seconds before Josh Bennett finds us. Judging by the look on his face, he didn’t know I was going to be here any more than I was expecting him. I think he literally took a step back when he saw me.

Drew’s mom steps between us before excessive awkwardness sets in. She hugs him and he actually hugs her back. It looks wrong to me. I’m used to seeing Josh separated by a six-foot radius from all human contact, so to see him here, looking warm and alive and touchable with Drew’s mom, takes me a minute to process. I hope my mouth isn’t hanging open. I’m going to have ten-miles worth of thoughts to sort through when I run tonight. Not only do I have unexpectedly sincere Drew to process, but now I’ve got not-so-untouchable Josh Bennett as well.

Sarah’s in the kitchen a moment later. She obviously knew I was coming because there’s no surprise on her face. Only disdain.

“I guess you all already know each other,” Mrs. Leighton says, saving us from friendly pretense. “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes. Sarah, you pour drinks. Drew, take Josh and check on your Dad at the grill. Make sure he doesn’t overcook the steaks again. Nastya, you can help me bring in the food from the kitchen.” I nod, thankful that she’s given me something to do so I don’t have to stand around feeling not only out of place, but useless, as well. I follow her to the stove and she hands me a couple of trivets to put out on the table. There’s something at once comforting and unsettling about being asked to help. Like I’m not being treated like an outsider. This morning, my plans consisted of eating FunDip while watching misguided fame whores choke down buffalo testicles on old reruns of Fear Factor. Now I’m standing in black stiletto heels in the middle of a Norman Rockwell painting. More thoughts to process for later. I should start writing a list so I won’t forget anything.

Dinner is actually the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in months. For all the pomp and circumstance of the table, Drew’s parents are completely down to earth. His father is self-deprecating and funny. His mother is sharp as a tack and doesn’t take crap from any of them. Drew turned up the well-bred charm and turned down the suggestiveness as soon as we’d walked into the house. He sits next to me and Josh is on the other side of him so I really can’t even see Josh at all throughout the meal. I make a note to count that particular blessing tonight. Sarah is seated across from me so I can’t avoid seeing her. She says nothing to me and remarkably little to everyone else, but with all the talking going on at the table, it seems to have gone unnoticed. I do catch her looking at me a lot and I can’t figure out if she’s angry or uncomfortable. Maybe she’s afraid it will come out how she’s treated me at school and she doesn’t want her parents to find out that she’s such a stereotypical bitch. They must have some clue. I’ve seen the way she acts with Drew and she can’t hide that all the time. Maybe sibling rivalry is acceptable here but treating other people like crap isn’t.

Once dinner is finished and we’ve all helped clear the dishes, Mrs. Leighton brings the cake over to the table along with an apple pie. Sarah follows behind her with a stack of plates and forks and a container of vanilla ice cream.

“This is delicious, Nastya. Where did you order it from? I need dessert for a dinner party in a couple of weeks and I’d love to bring one of these.”

I shake my head and point to myself.

“You?” She doesn’t sound shocked so much as intrigued. I nod. “From scratch?” I nod again. I only bake from scratch. I don’t have anything against mixes, they just seem like cheating and I don’t feel like I can take credit for them. It’s just a cake. It’s not music, but it’s something.

“I can’t bake at all,” she says. I’m sure she could. It’s not that hard; you just need to know the ratios and once you get those down you can play with it. It mostly comes down to math and science, which is funny, because I suck at math and science. “Josh knows someone who can bake. Don’t you?” She looks over at him and I get the feeling the question isn’t entirely innocent. I look down and push the cake around my plate into a pool of melting ice cream.

“Just someone from school.” He sounds as uncomfortable as I feel. I mentally will everyone to drop it and I think Josh may be doing the exact same thing. I really don’t want him to explain the circumstances surrounding how those cookies ended up on his porch. He obviously didn’t have any trouble figuring out they were from me, which means he knew exactly why they were there.

“Who?” Drew asks around a mouthful of chocolate cake. Interesting, though not entirely surprising. He didn’t tell Drew. I wonder how his mom knows. Josh is waiting just a little too long to answer and I see Mrs. Leighton’s gaze flick from him to me. She seems satisfied. She got her answer.

“Drew, talk with your mouth full again and you’ll be serving at my next book club meeting.” She points her fork in his direction and his mouth clamps shut. Obviously this is a threat of monumental proportions. He holds his hands up in surrender to his mother.

Once we finish cleaning up the dessert dishes, Mrs. Leighton makes coffee and we all sit on the oversized white couches in the living room. I decline the coffee. I don’t drink it, because no matter how much sugar I put into it, it is still tastes like ass-water to me. Maybe it’s just because my taste buds are so desensitized to sweet that anything not comprised of at least ninety percent sugar tastes wrong. Even if I was addicted to caffeine, in a dystopian future where coffee was an illegal controlled substance and I hadn’t gotten my hands on any in three days, I still would have refused it. I never would have overcome my horror if my hand decided to lose its grip while holding a full cup of coffee on one of those white brocade sofas. Sarah doesn’t drink any, either, so I guess it doesn’t seem strange. Josh drinks three cups of it, not that I’m counting.

I listen to everyone talk until the conversation dwindles and the coffee pot is empty. The phone rings, giving Sarah an escape she must have been desperate for, judging by how fast she jumps off the couch at the sound. Drew walks over to his mother and takes her empty cup. Josh takes Mr. Leighton’s and follows Drew back to the kitchen. I don’t have a coffee cup to use as an excuse to bolt, so I sit in awkward silence, hoping they don’t stay in the kitchen too long. I study the coffee table, not really wanting to make eye contact with either of Drew’s parents. It looks familiar to me. I tilt my head to study the legs and I realize that it’s almost identical in style to the one I had seen in Josh’s living room on the morning we shall not mention. The similarities in the design are clear, but this table is obviously newer. The surface of the wood and the finish are flawless. I don’t even realize that I’m leaning over and running my fingers along the curved wood of the table leg when Drew’s father speaks.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Josh made it.” He’s staring, with pride, at the table, and thankfully, not at my face. My hand stops moving but I don’t look away from the table. I pull my arm in and settle back onto the sofa in time to see Josh standing in the doorway from the kitchen, watching us. Mr. Leighton looks up. “What was it, Josh? A Christmas gift?”

“Mrs. Leighton’s birthday.” Josh’s hands are shoved in his pockets and he’s looking past us at the table. He doesn’t step any further into the room until Drew comes in behind him, forcing him to move.