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“—I would embrace my status as the Biebs of soccer,” Max said. “As it is, my sister wanted to play, the league has a hard time recruiting coaches in the summer, and my dad has to work late some nights during the week, when they practice.”

“It’s probably hard for you, too,” I said. What I wanted to say was, This is the sweetest thing I ever heard, and it is making me fall in love with you, but I managed to hold back.

He shrugged. “It was fine in June and July. It’s hard now that school and football practice have started, but it will be over the weekend of our first football game.”

“The weekend Gemma’s team will crush us,” Carter said.

I stabbed a tomato rather than look at him, because I was afraid the expression on my face would give away how little I liked him at that moment. If Carter was really so concerned about Max being superstitious and losing his mojo for their game, why was he the one bringing it up again? And if he really liked me, why was he going out of his way to embarrass me?

Addison jumped up. “Gemma, come with me to the bathroom.”

I arched my eyebrows, by which I meant to convey to her that my mouth was full, and that she was a big girl who could go to the bathroom all by herself.

She did not get the message. She grabbed my arm and hauled me up so fast that I hardly had time to snatch my purse.

In the bathroom she pushed me against the wall and put her hands on her hips. “Are you trying to move in on my date?”

My heart raced. I wasn’t trying to move in on Max. I had not thought it was possible. But if I had thought it was possible, yeah. I would have been totally busted.

I put on the most perplexed face I could muster as I chewed my tomato very slowly and swallowed. “You mean Max?”

“No, I mean my butt!” she shouted at me. “Stop being funny, Gemma! He is my date, and I am the only one who’s allowed to be funny.”

“I’m not being funny for Max’s sake,” I reasoned. “I’m being funny and flirting with Carter.”

“Carter isn’t laughing!” She flounced into a stall and slammed the door.

True enough. I glanced at my watch. The concert would start in half an hour. It would probably last two hours. Driving back to Carter’s truck would take thirty minutes, which meant a total of three more hours saddled with this behemoth named Carter. I didn’t know how I would get through it if I wasn’t even allowed to pretend to be extroverted. It would be torture, sitting there silently while listening to Max crack jokes and not being allowed to respond. I wasn’t sure yet how I would get out of it, but I would not go on a date with these people again.

I didn’t wait for Addison. After a quick coat of lip gloss, I left the restroom and sashayed around the tables, back to the boys. Hunched over in conversation, they didn’t notice me coming. I caught the tail end of what Carter was saying: “. . . if she doesn’t even know you like her.”

This made me a little mad. They were talking about Max liking Addison. Of course she knew. He might not be hanging on her, but he’d asked her out, hadn’t he? That was more than anybody had done for me.

But I didn’t dwell on it, because I’d noticed something else as Carter spoke. Sliding into my seat, I said, “You are from Russia! I heard your accent that time.”

Carter’s expression sent daggers across the table at Max.

Max held up his hands. “This is a secret all of a sudden?”

“It was nice to go out with girls from a different school,” Carter said acidly, “because they didn’t know about that. Just like they didn’t know you make girls mad.”

“Oh, I think you spilled that in the first five minutes,” Max said.

Carter said, “Gemma found out anyway when we walked up here. I’m surprised Addison hasn’t slapped you yet.”

I glanced at Max across the table, looking so fun and sweet . . . but yeah, the goatee reminded me of his devilish side. I asked him, “Have you gotten slapped before?”

“Yes,” he and Carter said in chorus.

“I was twelve, though,” Max defended himself.

I could only imagine what a twelve-year-old girl had thought when Max had filleted her psyche and laid it out on a butcher block for her to see. Actually I was intrigued by this and wanted to know more about twelve-year-old Max. This guy had quite a bit of experience not getting along with girls.

But as Addison had reminded me, Max was not my date. I took my curiosity and warm feelings for Max and simply turned my head, directing all that emotion at Carter.

“I like your accent,” I said. “It’s sexy.”

Carter turned to me, too. This shouldn’t have been weird, but it was. Usually when he talked to me, he faced straight ahead and made a comment, and I knew from context that his words were meant for me. The most he’d ever bothered to do was tilt his head at me. This time he turned his whole body to face me full-on as he said, “БОлЬшОе cПacИбо.”

I was so shocked to hear Russian come out of his mouth that I grinned with a lot more emotion than I actually felt. If I acted like I felt it, maybe I really would feel it. I would start having a better time, and the night would not drag. I could not have Max. Carter was handsome. I was his date. I would give it a try.

He grinned at me. I slid my hand onto his knee and smiled back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Max signal the waiter. He called, “Check, please.”

9

I kept up my act during the walk to the concert and the wait to get inside. I touched Carter periodically. That prompted him to say a little more to me, and it was easier for me to think of things to say back to him.

Mrs. Baxter had told the majorette line that the glamour grin was important. We looked better smiling, and we also felt better, as if our bodies assumed there was something to smile about. I had never really felt this way about the majorette grin. It felt like I was gritting my teeth and waiting to drop a baton. But I did feel this way about smiling up at Carter. I made an effort to like him a little better, and then I did.

The concert was easy to get through because it was too loud to talk and too dark to see much. The Dolly Paranoids were chicks who wore leather and beehive hairdos and rocked their guitars, putting on a great show. As long as I watched the stage or glanced over at Max, who clearly was as big a fan as I was, I felt happy to be there. If this was what being a teenager was supposed to be like, I had a lot to look forward to.

It was only when the roving spotlight caught Addison that my mood slipped. She frowned at the stage and even sat down in her seat at one point, which nobody else was doing at this show.

Then the spotlight caught Carter. The light glinted in the blond stubble on his chin and danced in his short blond hair. He really was handsome like a model. I only wished he wasn’t scowling at the stage—not as if he was bored, like Addison, but as if he disapproved.

“Hey,” I said to him during a rare slow number. The only way the Dolly Paranoids could perform a love song was to make it ridiculously over the top. I figured Carter didn’t recognize that it was a parody of a prom theme rock ballad, not the real thing. I touched his huge hand, looked up at him, and batted my eyelashes, like Addison. “Having fun?”

He glanced down at me with the same scowl he’d given the girls onstage. Then he squinted in the dim light. His features softened. The scowl faded, and nothing was left but a quiet, cute sixteen-year-old boy on a first date, at a concert he hadn’t picked, who never knew the right thing to say.

He bent toward me very, very slowly, so I could have turned back to the stage if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t want to. He cupped my chin in his hand, and his lips touched mine.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I had never kissed a boy before. I had seen it done in movies, though. I had even seen Addison do it.

Mostly I let him lead the way. When Carter’s tongue slipped past my lips, I had a moment of panic that I shouldn’t let a boy go that far with me. Then I realized I’d gotten that advice in sixth grade. By one week and six days shy of sixteen, an open-mouthed kiss was probably okay.

I showed him my approval by running one hand up his arm to his thick shoulder and behind his neck. I pressed his head closer to mine and stood on tiptoes to reach him. He put both hands around my waist and kissed me harder.

The band reached the cl**ax of their ridiculous faux love song. It would have been easy to imagine that they were making fun of Carter and me. I didn’t mind. After quite a few false starts, Carter and I had finally found something we had in common.

The song ended, and the lights brightened for the next song. Carter let me go, then applauded the band for the first time all night. When the new song started, he put his heavy arm around my shoulders, and I didn’t shrug away.

I didn’t have to. Addison jerked me out from under him, calling, “Gemma, come with me to the bathroom,” as if I had a choice.

Not again. I really did have to pee this time, though, so I let her lead me as she shoved past Max, dragging me after her. I turned around to mouth sorry to Max because we’d bumped him, but he wasn’t watching us go. He stared up at the stage, not smiling now, with a stubborn set to his jaw that I hadn’t seen before.

Even with the restroom door closed, the music echoed, so I had to listen closely and watch Addison’s lips as she asked, “Why have you stopped talking? You have got to get Max off me!”

“What do you mean, get him off you?” I hollered back, not even caring that sophisticated college girls reapplying lipstick at the sinks were staring over at us. I thought with alarm that she was saying Max had been pawing her, but I hadn’t seen him touch her.

“He is making all these stupid jokes!” she shouted. “He never shuts up!”

“Oh no, that’s terrible,” I said, one hundred percent confident that the sarcasm would be lost on her. But making fun of her didn’t cheer me up. I felt so sad thinking that Max’s jokes were wasted on her, spilling on the floor, to be mopped up late tonight after the concert was over, like so many cups of Coke and beer. I wished there was a way I could help her out, poor thing, but I didn’t see how.

“And why are you making out with Carter in public?” she yelled. “Everybody is looking at you.”

“Well, they certainly are now!” I yelled back. The college girls closed their lipsticks and escaped the bathroom, which had suddenly become a very uncool place to hang out.

I had felt self-conscious about kissing Carter during the concert. So I had snuck peeks through half-closed eyelids, and I had not seen anybody paying us any attention whatsoever, except Addison, who had repeatedly looked over at us and poked Max in the side to show him. “Everybody who?” I asked.

“Just everybody!” she exclaimed, exasperated.

“You made out with Jimmy Farmingdale behind the Dairy Queen,” I reminded her. “I mean, not just kissed him, but really made out with him and let him go down your bra.”

“That was last year. God!” Now that the other girls had left, Addison stepped up to the mirror and reapplied her own lipstick. “And I can’t get Max to touch me.”

I folded my arms. “You want him to touch you?”

“Well, yeah! If you and Carter can do it, why can’t I?”

“I don’t know. You were just saying that you wanted me to talk to Max so you wouldn’t have to.”

“That’s talking,” she said. “That’s different. I would totally make out with him. He is so hot.” She pulled down on the middle of her shirt, exposing more of her cleavage.

I stared at her reflection in the mirror until she stuck out her tongue at me and banged into a stall. Was she trying to imitate my relationship with Carter? Did she realize kissing Carter was a lot easier for me than talking to him, and now she was throwing that back in my face?

I shook my head. Of course she wasn’t. She did not have any insight into what made me tick. That was a completely different friend. Max.

But what she’d said about talking versus kissing made me think, whether she’d meant it to or not. I wasn’t sure if I’d been wrong to kiss Carter when I didn’t really like him. I needed some guidance. When we went back into the theater, I half expected the band to be playing a song about hypocrisy. It was a song about black-eyed peas and collard greens. I listened very hard, but I could not detect any message at all. Sometimes a country speed-metal song was just a country speed-metal song.

The concert ended then. Max and Addison led the way back to the car, but he didn’t offer her a piggyback ride this time. Carter and I held hands.

Inside the car, the first thing Carter said was, “Turn the radio down, Max, would you?” I wondered whether Carter and I were going to have our own conversation. But the four of us just talked together on the way back to Carter’s truck.

I tried to enjoy the drive. All I could think about, though, was Carter’s hand on my hand. We weren’t sitting close on the wide backseat—we both wore our seat belts, which strapped us to opposite ends—but we were attached there in the middle. If he wanted to hold my hand all the way back, he probably planned to kiss me again once we got to his truck, right? I hadn’t minded before. In fact, I’d enjoyed it.

So why did I feel vaguely nauseated at the thought?

Max pulled into the shopping center parking lot and stopped the car next to Carter’s truck. It was after hours and the lot had cleared out, so there was nobody to see what Carter and I did next, except Max and Addison.

They bailed out of the car, met in front of it, and laughed about something. I could hear them through the windshield and see her fingers touch a Japanese character on his T-shirt, over his heart.