"Where’s your better half?" Kate asks when Tommy sits down at the bar, barely glancing up from the grenadine she’s pouring into a glass of ginger ale.
Tommy watches Kate put three cherries on top and nods in thanks as she slides the glass toward him. "Ben's on his way, he should be here any minute."
Kate rolls her eyes and goes back to wiping down the bar. "I meant Lila."
"Oh," Tommy says. "Well, uh. Lila and I broke up, actually."
"No!" Kate looks up in surprised dismay, no other emotions hiding behind the ones written clearly on her face. Until this moment Tommy hadn't realized that some part of him had still been hoping to see something else when he shared this news.
Tommy shrugs and does his best to hide it. "Yeah, it happened a few days ago. It's not a big deal. We ended up having different ideas about a lot of important stuff, like the best Pixar movie, and what kind of milk to buy. Finding Nemo and 2%, obviously."
"Obviously." Kate stares at Tommy for a long moment before moving out from behind the bar to sit on the stool next to him. She reaches out so that her hand is almost touching his, but stops at the last moment. Her nails are hot pink, the polish applied in a messy way that makes Tommy guess Maddie did it, which means Kate won’t fix it or take it off until it grows out or Maddie wants her to wear another color. "How are you doing? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Tommy says, picking up his drink to take a sip. Having Kate’s hand so close feels dangerous, somehow. "Really, I am. Ben has some really good stuff coming up with Rail Mall, and personally, I won seven dollars on a scratch-off the other day and I'm about to finish up my customer loyalty card from the Coffee Bean, which means I'm due for a free coffee in the next day or two. There are a lot of positives happening this week as well."
Kate doesn’t look convinced. "What happened? Lila seemed nice. I was getting kind of into the idea of her, BJ and me becoming a trio of super-blonde ladyfriends. And you seemed happy too, which was of course the most important thing. Did you guys have a fight or something?"
Tommy shrugs. "Not really."
Kate looks thoughtful, and then something close to panicked as she says, "It wasn't – it's not because of what happened at Christmas, is it?"
"No, of course not," Tommy says, even though some part of him wants to answer maybe. "Because nothing happened at Christmas. In fact, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Right." Kate smiles, but she still doesn't look entirely like her usual self when she says, "Then what-"
"I don't know, it just kind of -" Tommy spreads his hands out, because he can’t find a way to put it simply; he never stopped liking Lila, or thinking she was pretty, or having a decent time with her. But it never got to be more than that, and gradually they started talking less often instead of more, drifting apart. "And you can still be a fab trio of whatever it is you said you wanted to be. Lila and I said we'd stay friends."
"Oh, sure," Kate says, nodding in an indulging-the-lunatic way. "I'll hang out with her as soon as you hang out with one of my exes. Will, maybe."
Tommy makes a face. "Come on, that’s not the same thing."
Kate scrunches her eyebrows together. "How is it not the same thing?"
"Because you’re not – because Will’s a jerk," Tommy says, and rushes on when it looks like Kate is going to ask what else he’d been about to say. "I mean, all that stuff he did after you guys broke up? Barging in on your date with the bread dude-"
"Lance," Kate prompts.
"And all that other stuff. Lila isn’t like that. She just – we just didn’t work out. That’s it."
Kate nods, considering but unconvinced. "I’ll think about it. But I’ll need to see real proof that this girl hasn’t broken your heart before I can even consider reinstating the fab trio of super blonde ladyfriends."
"Lila did not break my heart," Tommy says. "I can tell you that for sure."
"We’ll see," Kate says, pulling her hair back into a ponytail. The change reveals that she's wearing two different earrings, not even close to matching: one an orange bead, the other a small silver hoop. It should look stupid but it doesn’t to Tommy, it just looks like Kate, such a Kate-like thing – like wearing nail polish her daughter applied and knowing Tommy's favorite before-six-o'clock drink - that seeing it does more to his heart than Lila or anyone else ever could.
Most things get easier over time, but the whole being-in-love-with-Kate thing hasn’t. It’s stayed as difficult as it was the first time Tommy recognized it for what it was, when he was twenty-two and Ben said, "Listen, buddy, I know you're still upset about how Molly messed up your plan a while back, and I know you’ve had a crush on my sister forever-"
"Not forever," Tommy corrected. "She was six when I met her, so that would be pretty creepy."
"Fine, not forever, but it’s been a while now, right?" Ben asked, pushing shoulder-length hair out of his eyes. They were shooting baskets in the driveway of Bruce Grendon’s house, a friend from high school who threw raging parties at his parents’ house every time they went on a cruise even though they were all in their early twenties now and should have moved on to other things. Ben and Tommy still went every time, and so had Kate the last few years, including tonight, and Tommy had been working up the nerve to make a move when Ben asked him to come outside.
"Listen, Ben, I’m not, like, in love with her or anything," Tommy said, moving the basketball from hand to hand, but as he said it he realized that he was pretty sure that was exactly what he was; the for-sure forever kind of in love with her, but he couldn’t admit it to Ben. "I just think she’s really great, and that we're very compatible temperamentally, and she's-"
Tommy cut himself off and passed the ball to Ben, who started dribbling slowly while moving further away from the basket. It felt weird to go on any more about Kate to her brother, which was one of the pitfalls of being in love with your best friend’s sister. Tricky ground to navigate, which Tommy now considered from another angle. "Do you have a problem with me liking your sister?"
"What?" Ben stopped dribbling. "Let me be absolutely clear about this. Do you know why I never minded having to repeat fourth grade?"
Tommy considered. "Because that’s the year we learned long division, and that’s a tough concept that’s important to master?"
"Well, yes, that, and also because it was on my second pass through Mrs. Farnum’s class that I met you, buddy. And that was more than worth sitting through Tuck Everlasting twice."
"Man, that book was sad."
"So sad, right?" Ben said, shaking his head. "So it isn’t that I don’t think you’re good enough for my sister. You know that part at the end of the Price is Right, when they pull back the curtain to reveal the showcases?"
"Yeah, that part is the best," Tommy said.
"Totally the best, and by the way, we need to revisit our plan to get on that show," Ben said. "I know we’ve tried four times, but I think fifth is the charm."
"Absolutely," Ben said, and started dribbling again. "Those showcases are always fantastic, right? But sometimes they’re revealed and you can see the contestant isn’t super-thrilled because maybe it includes a Jeep Wrangler and they live in New York City, or it’s a trip to Europe and they’re afraid of flying – it’s an awesome prize but they just can’t appreciate it because it’s not the right prize for them."
Tommy watched Ben go up for a layup. "So you’re saying I’m the disappointing showcase."
Ben spun around. "No! I am not saying that at all! At all. I’m saying that you’re an awesome showcase, the greatest showcase a person could ever ask for. But maybe the contestant isn’t quite ready for that showcase just yet, you know? Maybe she’s not in the right place in her life to use a seventeen-foot-camper and a lifetime pass to Yosemite."
Tommy gestured for Ben to pass the ball, and after he did, he dribbled the ball for a few seconds, thinking. "You want me to back off, is that what you’re saying?"
"No! Maybe. I don’t know," Ben said, shaking his head. "Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just - I don’t think it’s going to work out for you right now, buddy, and Kate-"
Tommy saw something in Ben’s expression that made the bottom fall out of his stomach. "Kate what? Did Kate say something to you?"
"What? No. She didn’t say anything. What would she say?" Ben paused. "Okay, she might have mentioned something."
Tommy could tell from Ben’s expression that she hadn’t mentioned anything good. "Did she ask you to ask me to back off? Is she creeped out by me? I’m not that much older than her, Ben, and she’s in college now, it’s not weird, okay? Or have I been weird? Am I that weird, creepy dude she can’t get rid of?"
"No, she’s not creeped out and you’re not weird, it’s not that at all," Ben said. "She just can tell you like her and she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, but she also doesn’t really see you that way, buddy. Not yet, anyway."
That was almost worse. Tommy dribbled the ball a few times and said, "What? Hurt my feelings? I told you, I’m not, like, in love with her or anything."
"Right," Ben said, and there might be a thousand reasons Tommy is glad to be Ben’s best friend, but his saying, 'Not yet, anyway,' and accepting Tommy’s word in that moment would be at the top of the list.
Tommy works on accepting the fact that he's just going to love Kate forever, and she's never going to love him back, and maybe that's tragic and awful and a total rejection of the optimistic everything-works-out-the-way-it-should-be, love-conquers-all worldview he's always lived by, but that's just the way it is.
It doesn't go very well.
"Mom and BJ are worried about you."
"What?" Tommy is so distracted by Maddie's announcement that he's late with his forehand and misses by a good six inches, which almost never happens outside of competitions, and definitely not when he's playing a seven-year-old.
Maddie adjusts her visor and lets her arm drop so that the tennis racket is flat against her leg. "They're worried that your heart is broken because of Lila."
"I am not heartbroken over Lila," Tommy says, louder than he means to. He deliberately softens his tone when he continues, "And they should not be talking to you about this."
"They're not. They were talking to each other in the kitchen while I was doing my homework. Sometimes I think they forget I'm seven now," Maddie says, emphasizing the number in a way that shows how proud she is to have reached it. "They were saying how sad you are but you don't seem sad to me."
"That's because I'm not sad." Maddie's forehead scrunches together in a way that reminds Tommy of Kate; in both of them it means they're either worried or not entirely convinced by something, and so Tommy continues with, "Clearly the reason for the difference is that your observational skills are much better than theirs."
Maddie nods, satisfied with this explanation. "That makes sense."
Tommy takes another tennis ball out of his pocket. "They don't have to worry about me, and you definitely don't have to worry about me. What you should be worried about? Is your backhand."
"But I don't like backhands," Maddie says, slumping her shoulders dramatically.
"That's what you have to practice them the most," Tommy says, lobbing the ball over the net.
Maddie returns it with a wobbly-but-better-than-last-week backhand, which starts a volley that lasts eight passes over the net, an accomplishment Tommy is almost as proud of as the second-place finish in the county-wide singles competition the summer before.
Tommy lives a pretty straightforward life and he doesn't have many regrets, but one of them would be his first reaction when he found out about Maddie.
It started when Tommy got a call from Ben that started with, "Hey buddy, do you know if your mom is home?"
"Yeah, I think so," Tommy said. "Why, what's going on?"
"Just, you know, need some help with something," Ben replied, and only then did Tommy recognize the panic in his voice.
By that time Ben had hung up, and when Tommy called back, Ben's phone went right to voicemail. It made Tommy nervous enough to run up the sidewalk to his front door when he got home and saw Ben's falling-apart car sitting outside.
What he found in the living room was worse than he could have ever expected: Kate crying into his mother's shoulder while Ben sat next to them on the couch looking helpless.
Tommy looked at Ben in silent question, and Ben mouthed the words, "Kate's pregnant."
(Which Tommy didn't get at first, but after some pantomiming of a large belly and a crying baby, Tommy figured it out.)
In that moment, seeing Kate's crumpled face, thinking of all the years Kate had spent talking about where she'd go to college, what she'd major in, what she'd do after; remembering how hard she studied for the SATs and sat in her room with the door shut writing papers while Ben threw a party in the rest of the Fox house – in that moment, Tommy kind of hated Maddie for ruining all of that.
He'd like to say the feeling only lasted a moment, but it lasted a while, all the way up to the day he got the call to go to the hospital and went into the room to see Kate lying in the bed with Ben and BJ asleep in the chairs beside her.
"Hey," Kate whispered. "Meet Maddie."
Tommy walked up to the bed and peered down into the little bundle of fabric. The head was kind of cone-shaped, which worried Tommy, but Kate seemed unconcerned, so he decided not to mention it. "How are you feeling?"
"Wrecked," Kate said. "But good. Really good. Want to hold her?"
Tommy opened his mouth to say no, but the hopeful look in Kate's eyes stopped him. "Okay."
Kate leaned up and Tommy reached down and then Maddie was there, in his arms. He had a lot of cousins, so it wasn't like he'd never held a baby before, but he'd never held one this tiny and new. "She's so small."
Tommy couldn't look away from Maddie's little face. The cone-shaped head didn't seem so bad, now. Maddie turned her head a little bit, toward him, and it was like that little movement pushed out all of the bad feelings he'd held onto. "I think she likes me."
"Of course she does," Kate said. "Who wouldn't?"
BJ is sitting on Kate's living room couch when Tommy brings Maddie home.
"Where's Kate?" Tommy asks, because Maddie just hops onto the couch next to BJ, so delighted to have BJ visiting that she doesn't appear inclined to ask about the whereabouts of her mother.
"Kate is at some wretched event at Maddie's school, so lucky Maddie, she's got me for a little while," BJ says, inclining her head toward Maddie without turning her head away from the TV.
"Can we play dress up?"
"Oh, darling, I'd love to, but-" BJ pauses, unable to find a way to end the sentence.
"I'll go get ready," Maddie says, jumping off the couch and heading to her room.
"Damn," BJ says. "I really need to write up that list of excuses. I keep getting caught flat-footed. How long do you think I can stall? Do you think she'll forget she asked?"
"Doubtful, but you've got at least a few minutes, which is good because I need to talk to you about something. At our tennis lesson today, Maddie-"
"You're learning tennis with Maddie? You'd think there would be an adult class, Tommy, you don't need to play with children."
"I'm teaching her, BJ. I'm a tennis instructor?" Tommy says, and then when BJ's expression doesn't clear. "You came to my competition last summer?"
BJ shakes her head. "Not ringing any bells, sorry."
"You seriously don't remember? I had eleven aces! Anyway, that's not the point. The point is," Tommy says, and then lowers his voice when he continues, "Maddie told me today that you and Kate are worried about me."
"What? That's ridiculous. I like you well enough, Tommy, but I've never spared an extra moment's thought on you in my life. And with my 'limited capacity for human empathy,'" BJ says, putting air-quotes around the phrase, "as my therapist called it when we were dating, I certainly haven't been worried about you."
"You dated your therapist? You know that's messed up, right?"
BJ waves Tommy's concerns away with a perfectly-manicured hand. "Not for long. He wasn't very good, really. Therapist or lover. But that's neither here nor there, what was it you were going on about?"
"How Maddie overheard you and Kate talking about me being heartbroken over Lila or something?"
"Oh, that!" BJ says, snapping her fingers. "Yes, that happened. But that wasn't me, that was Kate. She's the one obsessed with your breakup with Lila and you being heartbroken over it."
"Well, I'm not heartbroken over Lila, so you guys need to stop worrying about me, and you need to be more careful when you talk because Maddie is seven now," Tommy says, putting the same emphasis on the number that Maddie had earlier. He's said what he came there to say, but BJ's last comment keeps ringing in his head. "And what do you mean, Kate's obsessed with my breakup with Lila?"
"Well, she keeps going on and on about it, how it seems unfair that things didn't work out, because you're so great and you deserve someone nice, and how could Lila not see that, and wouldn't you make a great -" BJ sits up. "Hold on, now."
"Why are you so gloomy lately?" BJ asks, fully alert.
"I told you, I’m not-"
"Yes, you are, even my 'limited capacity' can see that, so what's going on?"
"Well," Tommy says, trying to find a reason. "You know I've always been a Padres fan, and I don't think they're making the right moves this offseason to really compete in the-"
"Tommy!" BJ slams her hand down against the couch cushion in emphasis. "What is the reason?"
"Okay, the reason? Maybe it's because I've been trying to accept that I'm just going to love Kate forever and she's never going to love me back and it's kind of a major bummer, okay?"
BJ raises a triumphant finger. "I thought that's what it was."
Tommy stares at BJ, but she doesn't follow up with anything else. "Is that it?"
"BJ, where are you?" Maddie calls from the other room.
"Be there in a minute, dearie, BJ's doing her annual good deed," BJ says, standing up. "I think you might be wrong, Tommy. I think the tide may be turning in your favor."
"The tide of Kate's heart, of course," BJ says, from the doorway to Maddie's room. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it."
"That's kind of terrifying," Tommy calls after her, but can't help the bit of hope that springs up inside.
Tommy is an optimistic guy, but he's not a fool; he's inclined to believe in possibilities but only had to be turned down by American Idol's open auditions once. When he knows there's no signs of hope – and the judges certainly made sure of that – he'll move on to other things.
That's the trouble with the being-in-love-with-Kate thing. There have been signs. Like:
*Sometimes when Tommy found himself bored at the Fox house, he'd pick up whatever magazine was lying around and, okay, sometimes it was a magazine for ladies, but Tommy was okay with that. He was secure enough in his masculinity even as a teenager to be comfortable learning tips on building a firm financial future from Redbook or skin care tips from Glamour. Maybe it was helpful, sometimes, to look at Seventeen and see what girls were thinking. Seventeen always had a quiz in the magazine, something like, Romantic or Realist? Or Set Sail on the Right Dreamboat, and he'd look at the quiz to learn something about himself, and almost always his answers lined up with the ones Kate had circled; and
*Not only did Tommy and Kate both show up at the same release party for the last Harry Potter book, they both showed up wearing Hufflepuff colors, and spent the whole night having fun, comparing notes over whether Harry and Ginny would end up together (of course they would) and speculating about Snape's ultimate fate, and other things, so absorbed in conversation that they almost missed their section of the bookstore being called to line up for books; and
*They both genuinely like raisins, and make sure to vote in local elections, and have an umbrella and/or rain slicker with them if the meteorologist says the chance of rain is anything higher than twenty percent; and
*There was that thing that happened at Christmas, and it wasn't a big thing, except for how it really kind of was, and –
Tommy doesn't let himself think about Christmas too much.
BJ comes up with a plan. To be more accurate, she comes up with several plans, because Tommy rejects the first immediately.
"I can't go out with a girl just to make Kate jealous," Tommy says, looking over his shoulder to make sure Kate isn't listening, but she's absorbed in taking the order of an table of twelve college students on the other side of the bar, too far away to hear.
"Why not? It seems to have gotten the ball rolling," BJ says with a quizzical tilt of her head as she places Tommy's drink in front of him. "I don't see why you wouldn't want to pursue the same course."
"Because it's wrong to use people like that," Tommy says, reaching over to add cherries to his drink. BJ never remembers to add the extra two.
"Oh, 'because it's wrong,'" BJ says, in an exaggerated American accent. "You and Kate clearly are meant for each other, that's all either of you talk about."
BJ says it casually, but it brings up a worry that's been rattling around Tommy's head, and so he pushes his drink away and takes a deep breath. "BJ, are you sure about this? Because I've been doing a lot of work trying to get over this Kate thing, and I think I was about to make some real progress, so if you're not sure about this, you have to let me know. I am so serious about you being sure that I'm about to make my serious face," Tommy says, reaching for his glasses.
BJ reaches out and stops him mid-movement. "No need for that. And as for whether I'm sure, let's say I'm seventy/twenty thinking things are going your way. Maybe even eighty/thirty. Those are good odds, yeah?"
Tommy checks them over again in his head to be sure and says, "Neither of those add up."
"Ah, maths," BJ says, waving a dismissive hand. "The point is, there have been signs."
Tommy sits up a little straighter. "Tell me about these signs."
"All right," BJ says, thinking. "I have been chatting you up lately, mentioning how fit you look-"
Tommy is so gratified by this news that he has to interrupt. "I have to say, it is nice to hear that, because Ben and I have been working with this great exercise DVD, Manlates? We found it at a garage sale a couple of weeks ago, and it focuses on specifically applying the lean-muscle-development of yoga to the masculine form, and I have to say-"
"I have to stop you right there," BJ interrupts. "First of all, you can never say 'Manlates' again or not only will I stop working on this you-and-Kate thing, I will actively work to ensure you never find female companionship ever again. Ever. And second of all, you look exactly the same to me, I made that up as part of my plan to feel Kate out."
"Oh." Tommy tries not to feel too disappointed. "And what was the result?"
BJ shrugs. "Negligible, I thought. But then you saw what happened today."
"What happened today?"
"What happened?" BJ looks incredulous. "All right, let's start with this: why did I have to make you this ridiculous drink tonight?"
"Because it's only four-thirty, and I generally try to adhere to a – "
"I meant, why didn't Kate make your drink, the way she usually does?"
"Oh. Well, she did, at first, but then she knocked over the glass, and then when she tried to pick it up, she forgot to take her finger off the tap and so she sprayed ginger ale everywhere," Tommy says, gesturing toward his own still-damp shirt and the way his arm sticks to the bar because BJ didn't do a thorough job cleaning it after she sent Kate off to wait on tables. "And then - oh."
"Yes, oh," BJ says. "Kate never gets that way around you. But she does get that way around-"
"Guys she likes," Tommy says in unison with BJ. He looks over at Kate again; she's heading toward the kitchen after finally finishing up with the table of twelve, menus tucked under her arm. When she catches Tommy's eye, she falters a step and somehow manages to drop all of the menus, the slick surfaces of them sending them sliding across the floor in all directions.
Tommy goes over to help her gather the menus, and tries to come up with something clever to say, but all he can come up with in the moment is a super-bland, "Those things have a mind of their own."
"They do, don't they? And thanks, sorry about that, I don't know what's wrong with me today," Kate says, rolling her eyes as she straightens the menus into a neater pile in her arms. "Just – I don't know – the full moon, maybe, or it might have been the fish I had for dinner last night – it tasted a little bit off, but I ate it anyway, and that probably wasn't the best idea, was it? But why am I telling you all of this? I need to put these orders in. Thanks, Tommy."
"No problem," Tommy says, and goes back to his seat at the bar, where BJ is ignoring other patrons in favor of doing something on her cell phone.
Finally she looks up. "Well?"
"All right," Tommy says. "So what's the plan?"
Here's what happened at Christmas:
The first time Ben couldn't make it into town for the holidays after Maddie was born, Tommy's parents invited Kate for Christmas Eve. They worried (rightly) that her parents would be too absorbed in their new marriages to think of their daughter, and they genuinely enjoyed spending time with Maddie, so it became a tradition in the years that followed, whether Ben was in town or not.
Tommy had only been dating Lila about six weeks by Christmas, and she'd already made plans to fly back to Portland for the holiday, but Tommy still felt weird to be sitting with Kate next to him at the dinner table instead of Lila. Or maybe the weird thing was the fact that it wasn't weird, and that he didn't miss Lila much at all.
Tommy's mother picked a central decorative item around which she built the theme for the house every Christmas: one year it had been stars, another year trees, and this year it was mistletoe. Sprigs had been placed in every doorway of the house, so that it was impossible to completely avoid and by the end of the night Tommy had kissed Maddie on the cheek three times, his mother once, Ben twice, and Kate three times.
The first two times it happened, it was like the others: Tommy leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, or she went up on her toes to kiss his, and it wasn't really a big deal (okay, maybe it kind of was for Tommy). But the third time was different.
The third time they met in the middle, somehow, and kissed for real, on the mouth.
Tommy expected Kate to stiffen, or push him away, or do any of a number of things other than what she did, which was: lean toward him, curling a hand around his forearm as if she needed him to keep her standing steady, which was ridiculous, because he was the one all kinds of knocked-off-center. It happened too fast and unexpectedly; Tommy felt like he hadn't had enough time to prepare or appreciate anything other than how right it felt, as right as he always suspected it would.
When he did pull away (or she did, Tommy can't remember which), he opened his eyes and expected to see embarrassment or awkwardness on Kate's face, but instead he saw something like surprise.
Before he could think of anything to say, Kate said, "Merry Christmas" and knocked over a poinsettia in her haste to get to another room.
At the end of the night, while Ben and Maddie were saying good-bye to Tommy's parents, Kate came up to him, arms awkwardly folded across her chest. "The mistletoe thing, that was nothing more than just, you know, the holiday tradition, right? You know traditions, how they are."
Tommy said, "Yeah, of course," mostly because it was the only thing he could say.
"So it's not a big deal, it's like nothing happened, really," Kate said, shrugging, but the color was high in her cheeks and she couldn't meet his eyes for longer than a second or two.
"Right," Tommy said. "Nothing happened."
BJ's second plan is as bad as the first, and so is the third.
"What possible reason can you have for not trying this one out?" BJ asks, swinging her towel around with such vehemence that Tommy has to lean back to avoid being hit with it.
"I am not going to pretend to be dying," Tommy says. "That is a ridiculous, awful idea."
"Would it change your mind if I told you I had a lot of success with it back in aught-eight?"
"Dismiss what?" Ben asks as he sits down next to Tommy. "Hey buddy, how's it going?"
"Good, good." Tommy tries to silently signal BJ to keep quiet about the Kate thing as he says, "BJ was just – she was just-"
"Coming up with a series of incredible ideas to get Tommy in the game," BJ says. "All of which he refuses to consider, Ben, it's incredibly frustrating!"
"Are you ready to put Lila behind you? Is there someone new in your sights?" Ben asks, craning his neck to look around the bar. "Is it the redhead by the door? She held the door for me when I came in, very polite, very friendly, gave off a good energy-"
BJ swings the towel in Ben's direction, barely missing his nose. "Oh, please. It's Kate."
Ben sits up straighter and gives Tommy a look he can't read. "Kate?"
"Yes, I've been trying to help him come up with a plan to woo her, since he's so pathetically devoted to her and –" BJ cuts herself off and starts folding up the towel she'd been swinging around so wildly just moments before, and the careful precision of her movements makes her look vulnerable, somehow. "Well, to be honest, I think Kate's due for someone who'll be pathetically devoted to her. I think they would be good together, and I think she's coming around to the idea herself, but she's so used to not seeing Tommy that way that she might need a little push."
"A push could work," Ben says, nodding in a thoughtful way. "What were you thinking, Beej?"
"You're all right with this, Ben?" Tommy says before BJ can answer, too determined to find out what Ben thinks to let BJ go any further.
Ben nods. "Officially, I'm staying out of it. Unofficially, I'm with BJ. I've been thinking that Kate might be ready for that showcase we talked about all those years ago. In fact, I think she's ready to bid."
BJ places a glass down with a sharp thump on the bar between them. "What on earth are you two talking about? Is this some wretched American thing? Baseball, or the electoral college, or-"
"Nothing, never mind," Ben says, taking the glass away from BJ. "And where is Kate, anyway?"
"It's her day to wait on old man Greene there in the corner," BJ says, nodding toward where Kate stands next to a table where an elderly man sat with a half-finished plate of food. "He's had her occupied for twenty minutes solid with his boring old stories, but she's going to be coming back here soon because her shift is almost over."
"Okay, so we need to focus," Ben says, looking determined. "What have you come up with so far?"
"First he rejected the fake girlfriend idea," BJ says, counting off each of them on her fingers. "And then he turned down the pretending-to-be-his-own-twin idea-"
"The Stefan Urquelle maneuver, I've tried it," Ben says, nodding. "It's actually more complicated than it sounds."
"It sounds incredibly complicated, and also impossible," Tommy says. "Kate knows I don't have a twin."
"Which was why I was suggesting the idea of identical cousins, but Tommy said no across the board. And then just now he rejected out of hand the faux terminal illness, a method that has a very high success rate, in my experience."
"I used that once to get out of my Columbia Music House subscription in the late nineties," Ben says. "It was that or go on the run, and I have to say, it was successful."
"I am not going to pretend to be dying! First of all, I'm in excellent health, and I think it shows."
Ben nods. "You are looking pretty good, buddy. I think Manlates is really bringing out your raw, masculine strength, but not in an intimidating way, in a really appealing way."
"Thanks, man. And you know what, Ben? I see some muscle definition in your forearm, so I think the Manlates is doing good stuff for you, too."
"I've gotta say, I'm loving the -"
"Don't you dare say Manlates," BJ says, taking the glass back from Ben. "Now, focus, there's not much time."
"Forget it," Tommy says before either of them can come up with anything else. "I don't like any of these, they all involve lying to Kate and I don't want to do that."
BJ shakes her head at Tommy with a puzzled expression, like he's a strange museum exhibit she's trying to place in context. "I truly do not understand you. Do you want to be with Kate, or not?"
"I do," Tommy says. "Obviously I do."
"And thus far, how much success have you had with your not-lying-to-Kate, pine-from-afar strategy?"
Tommy takes a moment to respond. He wants to tell BJ about Christmas, but the same feeling that makes him reject all of BJ's plans also keeps him from mentioning it. He says, "Okay, so far it's not going super great, but-"
"No buts! We need to come up with something, and quick, because Kate will be over here any minute."
Tommy turns around and sure enough, Kate is picking up her rain slicker on the rack by the door. She catches Tommy's eye and somehow manages to put her arm in the wrong sleeve, leaving her looking baffled for half a minute before getting it straightened out.
Ben turns to Tommy. "Now that's a good sign there, buddy."
"And he refuses to take advantage of it!" BJ says. "Okay, another option, which came to me off of your Columbia Music House anecdote, Ben – Tommy's at the heart of some vast international conspiracy and has to go on the run with only Kate for company."
"Kate can't go on the run," Tommy says. "What about Maddie?"
"What about Maddie?" Kate asks, having made her way over to the bar. "Did she call? She was going over to Gina Toretti's house after school, and I know it sounds awful because she's only six years old, but that kid is super annoying, so I thought Maddie might get sick of hanging out with her. Did she?"
"No, Maddie didn't call," Ben says. "Tommy was just saying that there's no way you could give him a ride home because of Maddie, but turns out, you can totally do it."
"I can totally do it," Kate says. "What happened to your car?"
Tommy gives Ben a look. "Nothing, my car is fine."
"Tommy." Ben reaches over and places his hand on Tommy's arm, as if attempting to console him through a difficult loss. "You need to accept that I'm right about this. I worked at Jiffy Lube for twelve days back in 2009, I know what dangerously bald tires look like, and it's raining out-" Ben says these last two words with a raised voice, his excitement over having noticed a detail that enhances his fictional tale so great that he can't contain it. "So you really need to take the ride, buddy. I would drive you myself, but, sadly, I have a very urgent appointment I need to get to, so. Looks like it's going to be Kate, buddy."
Tommy can tell from Ben's expression that he's not going to budge on this. "Just let me get my umbrella."
Here's the truth of it: Tommy doesn't want to lie to Kate, but he has. He lied to her when he told her the breakup with Lila didn't happen because of Christmas, when of course it did.
"Things just feel different lately," Lila said, in the middle of their last dinner together as a couple, sometime in the middle of January. "Do you feel it too?"
"Well, you know, the post-holiday period is always tough. I saw a segment on the Today show about it," Tommy said, because part of him still wanted to make it work. But even as he said it, he knew it wasn't really true, and so he followed it up with, "But, actually, I do know what you're talking about. You're right. Things are different."
"And not in a good way."
"No," Tommy said, and that was it. They broke up. Christmas was never mentioned, but it was hidden behind everything that happened after, the reason he took longer to reply to Lila's texts and spent less time thinking about her. The moment Kate's hand had closed over his forearm broke a spell, forced him to acknowledge that loving Kate was a permanent condition, the definition of a forever thing: something that started before he could remember with no end in sight.
A few minutes into the drive, Tommy looks over at Kate, who's tapping her fingers nervously on the steering wheel while waiting for the light to change. She must feel his eyes on her because she looks over after barely a second and says, "Tough break on the tires."
Tommy nods. "My tires are actually fine."
"You might want to get them looked at, Ben is actually not-awful at car stuff," Kate says.
"I know, but the thing about the tires is," Tommy says, and then stops. He knows this is the last moment before he can turn back, that if he says what he's going to say next, things might go horribly and painfully and awfully wrong. But he goes forward anyway. "Ben made that up."
"Why would he make up something about your tires?" Kate asks, turning down Tommy's street.
"Because, well," Tommy says, as Kate parks the car. "He wanted you to drive me home."
"That's weird," Kate says. "Any particular reason? Oh no. Are they about to do something crazy at the bar? Should I call Buddy?"
"No, it's not about the bar," Tommy says.
Tommy hears the whomp-whomp of the wipers across the windshield, smells the strawberry air freshener Kate has hanging on her rearview mirror, notices the way the rain has made Kate's bangs clump together. She's looking at Tommy with an expression that's something between confused and worried, her eyebrows just beginning to scrunch together, and Tommy realizes again that he'll never get tired of her face or anything about her. That it's pretty much hopeless no matter what he does; maybe he'll be in love with her forever and she'll never love him back and it will be awful. But maybe-
"Tommy?" Kate says, her eyebrows fully scrunched together now, the expression all-the-way worried.
Tommy remembers her wrestling with her slicker at the bar, the way she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel instead of singing along to Miss Independent when it came on the radio (even though Tommy knows it's one of her favorite sing-along songs). He remembers the way her hand felt wrapped around his arm at Christmas, the look in her eyes after he pulled away.
All those things give Tommy the courage to ask, "Do you think there's any chance you might ever want to go out with me?"
"What? Tommy, I'm-" Kate answers quickly and then cuts herself off; she doesn't say the rest, which Tommy's mind has already filled in (I'm flattered, really, it's just, I don't really see you that way, you're such a good friend). She turns to look straight ahead, at the windshield wipers and the rainy street outside.
Tommy lets the quiet sit for a while, and then can't help but fill it up, because he's never been a good-with-silence guy. He decides to go for broke. "I'm pretty sure you know it, but I've kind of been in love with you forever."
"I do know it," Kate says, nodding. She looks over at him and he sees in her eyes that whatever she feels, it's not any of the things he most feared: disgust or irritation or anything like pity. She pushes some of her hair behind her ear. "You know, if you'd said this to me six months ago, I would've known just what to say. But now, I don't know."
"But now what?"
Kate takes a long time to answer.
"But now I kind of want to make out with you?" Kate finally says, but she's turned back to look at the street instead of at Tommy, like she's too nervous to look at him while saying something like that. Tommy's grateful for that; he's pretty sure the expression on his face would embarrass both of them. "I do. Kind of since Christmas. Definitely since you broke up with Lila. I kept thinking about it, because I couldn't figure out how she could just let you go because you're so – you're Tommy. You're the best. You're funny, and kind, and you always leave a good tip even if the service isn't super-great-"
"Leaving a good tip is just common courtesy," Tommy says. "I mean, what if the waiter is just having a bad day? You're just making it worse for the table that sits down after you if you put down ten per cent."
Kate is looking at him with this funny smile on her face. "You're great, Tommy. Really great, and you're one of my best friends. Someone I can always count on. Someone Maddie can always count on."
"I'll always be that, Kate. No matter what. I promise you that."
Kate doesn't look surprised or reassured by this. "But if we try this thing – what if it doesn't go well?"
Tommy feels like they've covered this already. "I told you, I'm not going anywhere. You don't have to worry about me disappearing if-"
"No, I know that. I do know that. I know you," Kate says, as if that explains everything. "What I mean is, if it doesn't go well, what about you? I don't want to hurt you. Or break your heart."
Kate looks so worried about this that Tommy wants to say something right away to reassure her, but he can't, because he doesn't want to lie to Kate. To tell the truth he'd have to say something like this: a romance gone badly isn't the only way to break a heart. Unrequited love can do it too, and Tommy's pretty sure there's a few cracks in his already. He knows there's a good chance Kate will break his heart, but there's also a chance she'll fix it.
And so he says another true thing instead. "I'm willing to take the chance. You're worth the risk. More than worth it."
Kate looks at him for a long, silent moment, and then unbuckles her seat belt. He's about to ask her what she's doing, but then her cold fingers are on his cheeks, her mouth against his, and he knows. It's another kiss that starts out awkwardly because Tommy is surprised by it. He reaches out to keep her close and then it isn't awkward at all, even though he's holding a fistful of wet rain slicker and his seat belt is still fastened. It feels right.
When they do break apart, it seems wrong that the rain hasn't stopped outside and allowed the sun to shine through. He wants to memorize this moment; the gray light of the rainy day making the car feel almost unreal, the low hum of the turned-down radio, the smile on Kate's face. Most of all he wants to remember that.