The longer I stared at him, the uglier Carter looked. He still was model-handsome in that giant I-could-crush-you-with-my-pinkie way, but the look on his face revolted me.
Because I recognized that scowl. I had seen it in my reflection whenever I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass doors while practicing my baton routines in my backyard, driven by anger at Addison.
Max leaned across the table toward Carter. His expression was earnest. “I don’t feel like I have that attitude at all. I feel like I’m the only Japanese guy on the team. The other guys think I’m an outsider. And when you tell people I’m a pretty boy, you’re not helping.”
“You’re the only Japanese guy on your team?” Addison asked. “There are lots of Japanese kids at our school.”
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, to draw her into a conversation so she wouldn’t interrupt Max again. This was a talk Max and Carter needed to have.
But Max had already turned on her. “By ‘lots,’ do you mean three? They’re probably Chinese or Korean. There are more of them in Atlanta than Japanese.”
Addison shrugged. “What’s the difference?”
Carter and I gaped at Addison, both of us horrified at what she’d said and afraid of what Max would do.
Before Max could say anything, I put my hand on his and said soothingly, “She didn’t mean it that way, Max—”
He balled his hand into a fist and leaned toward Addison. “What’s the difference between Japan and China?” he asked sarcastically and too loudly for this coffee shop full of college-age kids and adults. “A language. An entire culture.”
“Max,” Carter said sharply to snap him out of it.
“Two thousand seven hundred years of history!” Max sneered down at Addison, who backed against the window and cringed.
“Come on.” I jumped up from the booth and grabbed Max’s elbow. I hauled him toward the door, motioning to Carter to keep Addison there. Carter nodded. Shaken, Addison put her head down on the table, and Carter stroked her hair. I thought that was strange. I’d never seen Addison and Carter touch before.
But I was more concerned about Max. My heart pounded in my chest as I dragged him out to the sidewalk, away from the windows where Addison and Carter could watch us. I led him around the corner of the brick building and stopped him. The sidewalks were filled with yuppies having date night, so I kept my voice low as I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have caffeine this late. Addison didn’t deserve to get yelled at.”
“She did!” he snapped. He was still wound up. I saw in his eyes that I was getting the full force of his anger.
I made my voice soothing, but I didn’t pull any punches. “You brought it up, Max,” I reminded him. “You talked about being Japanese on your team. You didn’t have to say that in front of her. You baited her in the first place. You confused her by taking her to a Chinese movie with Japanese bad guys. If you’re sensitive about a topic, don’t bring up the topic.” Not around Addison, anyway. “I don’t go around talking about losing weight, do I?”
“I’m not sensitive about being Asian,” he insisted. “It’s an entire race. Half the population of the planet is Asian. I can’t be sensitive about that. I’m not sensitive about being a man, either, or having two ears. I should be able to talk about the basic facts of who I am without being insulted.”
I put my hand on his chest, over his racing heart. “As you have pointed out, Asians aren’t the majority in Atlanta, or even a large minority. She hasn’t been exposed much to those cultures. All she meant was that she doesn’t know the difference. She wasn’t trying to make fun of you or belittle you.”
Exasperated, he ran one hand through his hair.
“Enough people do, though, right? Make fun of you and belittle you? I know the feeling. But not every conversation is an attack. You don’t need to accuse somebody of lashing out at you when they’re not. Don’t take your anger at Carter out on Addison.”
Max frowned—something he did not do often. He started, “What do you—”
“You know what I mean,” I interrupted. “Why is Carter on your case about kicking? He’s the quarterback, and he acts like he’s never heard of your position. There’s something else going on between you, isn’t there?”
“Yeah. It’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Try. It’s getting weird, and I’m getting tired of teaching Carter football.”
Max chuckled, but there was no humor in the sound. “Well, Carter didn’t speak English all that well when he came to America, so he got behind in school. He’s always had trouble making friends, for the same reason. The first sport we played together was soccer, but being a big guy isn’t an advantage there. It’s an advantage in football, and when we started playing, he was a lot better than me.”
I nodded. “And then you became a kicker.”
“Yeah.” Max sighed—because he was worried about the situation with Carter. Or because he was relieved I understood what he was explaining to me. I couldn’t tell.
“Carter’s a great quarterback, but you’re a great kicker,” I said, piecing it together. “He finally found one thing he was better at than you, and now he’s lost that.”
Max shrugged. “I mean . . . I’m not even sure that’s what he’s mad about. That’s what I think, but I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
Max laughed, and this time his heart was in it. “Have a conversation with my friend about how we really feel? You’re one to make that suggestion.”
“I don’t communicate very well with my friends,” I acknowledged, “but you do.”
“With you,” he said. “Not with guys. Guys would think I couldn’t take the pressure.” He rubbed his eyes with one hand, then held his head, eyes squinted shut. “How could Addison make a mistake like that? You go to the same high school, with its three Chinese or whoever they are, and you’ve never made a mistake like that.”
“Jesus, Max, would you let it go? I make plenty of mistakes. I ruined your mojo, remember?”
He put down his hand and stared at me with wide, serious eyes. “Don’t say that.”
“And you make mistakes. I don’t know what they are, but I’m sure you’ve made one before.”
My hand was still on his chest. His heartbeat had slowed as we talked. Now I felt it speed up beneath my fingertips.
He swallowed and said softly, “I sure have.”
Oh God. Max was trying to tell me that he wished he’d asked me out instead of Addison!
Or, was he? As he watched me with his long lashes blinking slowly over his dark eyes, I began to wonder. Maybe he wished he’d never met either of us. If he broke up with Addison, that would be the end of my friendship with Max too.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked. It came out a whisper.
“Nothing,” he grumbled, walking away. My hand slipped off his chest.
I wanted to pull him back, to tell him to wait. But I was beginning to feel like a puppy following him around and barking at his heels. So I hung back a few paces as he strode around the corner and up the sidewalk toward Addison. I wanted to plead with him not to break up with her forever, but all I could do was hold my breath.
By the time I reached the booth, he’d slid next to Addison and was talking earnestly to her, holding her hand. She looked upset, but her eyes were dry.
As I approached, Max stood up, pulling Addison with him. He frowned at Carter and said, “We’re going to my car. Give me five minutes.” His scowl sent the message, Or else. As they left the shop, he didn’t glance at me.
I slid into the seat they’d vacated and reached across the table for my iced coffee. The ice had melted.
Carter looked at his watch, marking the beginning of the five-minute period. Go.
I sipped my coffee. “You shouldn’t have called Max a pretty boy.”
“You don’t know. You’re not there.” Carter stared down at the table. “It’s my team.”
“It’s not your team. It’s Max’s team too.”
We didn’t say another word for the rest of the five minutes. He signaled that time was up by standing.
Outside, I led the way to where Max had parked. We emerged from a tree-lined section of the sidewalk to see Max and Addison kissing in the front seat of his car. Not making out, exactly, but not a peck on the cheek, either. His mouth was on her mouth. His hand cupped her jaw.
My stomach sank. So he was glad to be with her after all. And the mistake he told me he’d made was . . . getting close to me?
Which meant that I hadn’t been imagining things. He had liked me.
And somehow I had blown it.
I looked up at Carter. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, hardly glancing at me. He stared at Max and Addison.
They parted and opened their eyes. Max glanced at us through the back window. They exchanged what must have been one last whispered declaration of love, and Addison scooted out of the passenger side and walked up the sidewalk to Carter. “I’ll call you,” she lied to me.
Carter and Max didn’t even wave to each other.
I shuffled down the sidewalk, climbed through the door Addison had left open, and closed it behind me. I faced forward, watching in the side mirror as Addison and Carter hike slowly back up the street.
Max started the car and pulled into traffic.
The silence was excruciating. Even the radio was off.
He finally broke the silence when he turned the car into my neighborhood. “We should plan something really special for your birthday next Thursday. We can go out then, since we all have the game on Friday.” His words were sweet, but he enunciated them with fake emotion, like he was reading off a cue card.
“Yes,” I said in the same tone. “That—sounds—like—fun!”
He glared at me across the car. “Why are you so mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“You’ve been mad since I kissed Addison.” He sounded proud of himself. When I looked over, I caught a glimpse of the smug expression on his face before he could wipe it off.
“I have not been mad at you,” I said haughtily. “You’re supposed to kiss a girl when you’re on a date with her.”
“So you’re relieved that I’m finally kissing your friend,” he prompted me.
Now I was exasperated. “Yes! Sure. I’m totally monitoring your love life, Max. The two of you have such great chemistry. I know this relationship is going to last forever.”
He pulled into my driveway. As soon as the car stopped, I got out, slammed the door, and stomped across the yard to my house without once looking back. This time I didn’t care whether my mom had heard the front door slam. She wasn’t paying attention anyway.
The following Thursday, I received lots of presents for my birthday:
1. An actual birthday card from Robert, not a sympathy card or a Grandparents Day card.
2. A vintage bracelet from the store I’d visited with Delilah. She’d seen me admiring it. I hugged her hard because she was so sweet to notice what I liked—and because she was careful not to give it to me when Addison was around. We hadn’t talked about my rocky relationship with Addison, but Delilah must have known things were difficult between us, and she didn’t want to make matters worse.
3. A cool beaded necklace from Addison. She seemed genuinely happy when she gave it to me. I could almost ignore the fact that she waited to hand it to me until we were in a crowd, so they could see her being nice to me. Good public relations for her head majorette–elect campaign.
4. A funky patterned baton bag from the majorettes, embroidered with my name. So sweet! And just my style.
5. A text from Carter saying that Max and Addison would not be joining us for our date that night. Carter would meet me at the mall for an early movie, since it was a school night.
It was my sixteenth birthday. It was supposed to be my special day. Something so horrible could not be happening! At first I did not want to believe it, and I grasped for alternate explanations. Just because the text said it was from Carter didn’t mean it was. After seeing him three times, I still didn’t have his number in my phone.
But when I caught Addison on the football field, she verified the message. Max had texted her to say he couldn’t go after all. She fumed because she’d gotten a manicure just for this. It burned me up inside to think that she was worried about her nails, but she never once wondered if something was wrong with Max.
Maybe I had read him right last Friday. He really had gotten up close and personal with Addison because he was jealous of Carter and me. He was so into me that he couldn’t stand for us to go out as a group anymore. He couldn’t take another night of watching me with Carter.
If so, what should I do about it now?
I would get the chance soon enough to probe Carter about why Max was missing.
In the meantime, right after school, my mom took me to get another birthday gift:
6. My license.
I hadn’t been nervous. I’d practically memorized the study guide for the written test. I’d driven enough that I knew I could pass the road test—and after all, who would dare to flunk the chick driving the Aston Martin?
It wasn’t until I drove home that it hit me: I could drop off my mom and keep driving by myself!
But I couldn’t do that just yet, because I had to get ready for my date with Carter! Bleh.
At home, I opened the first of the four garage doors and very carefully drove the Aston Martin inside. The powerful engine roared even louder in the enclosed space, and I nearly hit the accelerator instead of the brake. In the adjoining garage space, which was usually empty, sat: