Addison refocused her attention on Max. She teased him with inane comments I didn’t bother to listen to. Max had a nice laugh that lit up his face, like he wasn’t afraid to show his appreciation for a joke somebody else had made, unlike Robert, who only laughed at his own. Carter munched french fries.
In the midst of Addison’s flirting, Max glanced up at me several times, his eyes so dark that they took me aback. At first I thought he was shooting me looks for ruining his kicking mojo. But he seemed so sympathetic that I started to wonder whether he was worried about me. I supposed I had gone silent very suddenly. There was a difference between keeping my mouth shut and sulking. So I sat up a little straighter and made a point to laugh periodically and interject a comment for every twenty of Addison’s.
Suddenly she frowned at my plate and sneered, “What are you eating?”
“A grilled chicken sandwich,” I said evenly. I’d been expecting this. The sandwich was good, but it wasn’t what people normally ordered at the Varsity. She stuffed her face with a burger and fries. Carter chowed down on two of each. And Max—
—was eating a grilled chicken sandwich, I saw as I glanced over. Ha! With great restraint, I gazed deliberately at her, then nodded toward Max’s tray like I was trying to stop her from offending him.
Her eyes slid to his sandwich and widened. She said without missing a beat, “Well, Max can probably eat whatever he wants to, Gemma. You’re eating grilled chicken because you just lost fifty pounds.”
Both boys stared at me, Carter stopping with a french fry halfway into his mouth.
I could feel myself turning bright red, but I just smiled sweetly at all of them.
“You did?” Carter finally asked.
“Yep.” I took a bite.
“That is hard to picture,” Max said.
Well, don’t, I almost blurted, but it was too late. They already had.
“Don’t you want some of my fries, Gemma?” Addison pointed to her plate. “Or the rest of my milkshake? Gosh, I can’t finish it all, but I’ll bet you could.”
Have I mentioned that I did not like my best friend very much? After a sip of diet soda, I tried to pretend I wasn’t mortified. I changed the subject by asking the boys, “What did y’all do at football camp?”
They looked at each other. Then Max said, “We were actually in two different camps. We were divided up by position. So Carter was in quarterback camp—”
“You’re the quarterback for your team?” Addison asked, genuinely interested in Carter for the first time. The quarterback for our own team was the most popular guy in school—so popular that even Addison, with her formidable powers of acting like a ditz so boys would like her, could not turn his head in her direction.
“Yeah,” Carter said. A blush crept into his cheeks, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a tightly controlled grin. Aw, the big guy was embarrassed at the attention.
“There’s more to you than meets the eye,” Addison said in the same flirtatious tone she’d used with Max thirty seconds before. “You’re silent but violent.”
The boys and I burst into laughter. For the first time, I felt like we were sharing something and she was the odd chick out.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
I turned to Max to let him explain, but his lips were pressed together, suppressing a smile. I put Addison out of her misery. “That’s a term usually reserved for describing a fart.”
“Oh!” Sixteen emotions passed across her face in the space of half a second. Like magic, she turned the situation around. She leaned diagonally across the table and patted Carter’s muscular forearm, her bottom lip poked out in sympathy. “I didn’t mean to call you a fart.”
Carter’s blue eyes widened. I thought he would be speechless. But then he said, “Max is the one who’s full of hot air.”
Incredible. Carter and Max were arguing over Addison. The table practically vibrated with their lusty thoughts for her.
I wasn’t going to take that through the rest of my chicken sandwich. To return to a more comfortable subject, I asked Max, “So you were at, what? Kicker camp?” I could have sworn he’d been staring at me on the field—me, not Addison. If he had been, he would have seen me staring right back at him. Since that obviously was not what had been going on, I couldn’t admit that I’d been watching him at practice and I’d seen what he’d done at kicker camp with my own eyes.
He did give me kind of a funny look, like he’d thought our eyes had met on the field and now he was confused. But he simply said, “Yeah. I’m not big enough to play any position but kicker. The first time I got tackled, I’d get squashed like a leetle bug.”
He was making a joke before Carter could beat him to it, I thought. Max must be used to getting teased by his team about his size. But he was taller than average and not skinny, just lean. That had become clear to me when he took his shirt off. Every other guy on their team must look like Carter the oafburger.
“As rarely as he’s on the field, he might as well not be on the team,” Carter said.
Max’s eyes slid to Carter, but his smile never changed. He took a breath to defend himself. For some reason, I felt compelled to do it for him.
“He might as well not be on the team?” I repeated. “Carter, how can you say that? There’s a lot of pressure on the quarterback because you have so much to coordinate. But there’s probably even more pressure on the kicker. Max is solely responsible for scoring a field goal or an extra point, and often that’s the deciding score in a game.”
Max turned to Carter. “What she said.”
“But it doesn’t really matter yet,” I said, “unless you’re starting seniors.”
“We’re both juniors,” Max told me, “but we’re both starting.”
“You are?” I asked. “For your school? Wow, that’s huge. You must both be really good.”
Carter smiled and blushed, but Max gave me a savvier smile. “How do you know so much about football?” he asked. “You don’t strike me as a girl who would watch football. You look like you’d be a fan of . . . I don’t know.” He tilted his head as he ran his eyes over my brown hair streaked with purple, down my MARCHING WILDCATS T-shirt, to my funky bracelet collection on my left arm—which I never went without, but which Addison complained was annoying to listen to when I twirled. He said, “Fight club.”
Fight club wasn’t quite the look I was going for. Roller derby would have been better. I didn’t want Max to think I was harsh.
Over Carter’s and Addison’s chuckles, I said, “May I remind you that I am also a majorette for my high school marching band? That’s me, Gemma Van Cleve, Incorporated, defying stereotypes for almost sixteen years.”
“As a Japanese-American football player with a southern accent, I might know where you’re coming from.” Max winked.
“Touché.” I grinned at him.
He grinned back at me, and the smile seemed genuine, reaching his deep brown eyes. I had never been good at flirting. When I was heavier, I’d had no confidence that boys would be interested in me, so I didn’t bother trying. Even now that I’d lost weight and gained self-esteem, flirting was foreign. There was a fine line between sexy banter and out-and-out arguing. I tended to cross it and chase boys off. Or maybe I chased them off with my noisy bracelets. But in that moment, with Max, I felt like I had hit the elusive sweet spot. For once, I had done everything exactly right.
“What did you say?” Addison asked. “Tissue? Tush? What?” She wasn’t really that stupid, I hoped. It must have been the only way she could think of to re-enter the conversation. While I’d held the boys’ attention, she’d stripped the wrappers off three straws and braided them together. She did not do well when she wasn’t the focus of attention.
“You have been left behind,” I told her.
That was the wrong thing to say. Addison smiled at me humorlessly, face tight. I had lots of experience being dragged along on her flirting runs, but no experience getting caught up in one. She seemed to be telling me to get back into my cage and wait until she called me.
“I’ll tell you how Gemma knows so much about football,” Addison said.
Oh, she wouldn’t. She’d already spilled to these boys that I’d lost almost a third of my body weight. Surely she wouldn’t tell them about my dad, too?
Yep, she would. “When Gemma was little, she went to every Falcons game with her dad.”
“Wow, every game?” Max asked. “That must have been expensive. He had season tickets?”
I swallowed. “Sort of.”
Addison, seeing that this line of conversation caused me discomfort, generously made things worse. “Her dad owned the team.”
Both guys gaped at me. Their eyes and mouths opened wide. They looked like cartoon characters with their jaws and eyeballs lolling on the floor. Boys were terrified by the idea of my rich and powerful dad, even though he was nowhere around and didn’t care about me.
“He used to own the team,” I clarified sheepishly. “Only part of the team. It was just an investment he held for a while.” As the words came out, I knew I was digging a deeper hole for myself, lamely trying to explain away my dad’s casual investment of several million dollars, but I couldn’t stop. “He sold it when he moved to Hilton Head.” Good work, Gemma! I had successfully downplayed how filthy rich my dad was by revealing that he lived in the most exclusive oceanside retreat for Atlanta executives.
My face burned so hot that my whole body started to sweat in the air-conditioned restaurant. I managed to mumble, “I forgot I need to text my mom,” as I jumped up from the table and hurried in the direction of the restaurant exit. Too late, I realized that was also the direction of the restrooms. The boys probably thought I had bladder control issues.
In front of the long row of cash registers, a display case held photos of the Varsity in the 1950s and 1960s and signed pictures of stars who’d eaten there or used to work there. I parked myself at the picture of Ryan Seacrest, maybe from back when he was a deejay in Atlanta, looking very 1990s with his hair spiked and frosted.
I’d only wanted to escape the boys’ scrutiny for a moment. But as I leaned against the wall, I really did text my mom. She was picking me up at the MARTA stop, and this whole side trip of Addison’s would put me home an hour later than I’d told her. As I thumbed L-a-t-e, Addison rushed toward me in a cloud of blond, her blue eyes huge, lips pursed and barely hiding a smile, fists balled in excitement. “Guess what!”
“Max asked me out! He works as a soccer referee on Saturdays and Sundays, and their school starts back Monday like ours, but he wants to go out with me next Friday night!”
“That’s great!” I forced out as my heart sank into my gut. Oh no. I had liked Max so much—way more than any boy I’d ever known for only an hour—and though Addison had been flirting hard with him, I’d begun to hope he would see that I was the girl for him. He was fascinating and quirky. He belonged with the quirky sidekick friend, not the popular princess friend. What was he thinking? How could he?
But as I stared at Addison in shock, I took in her asymmetrical shirt and crazy, colorful, dangling earrings, which I’d convinced her to buy on clearance so she’d have something in her closet besides preppie pastels. Max didn’t know this.
Maybe he’d mistaken Addison for the quirky sidekick friend. That was the only explanation. And my purple hair and bracelet collection really had passed for fashion. I had sat there paralyzed and mostly speechless while Addison had flirted with Max and told him how rich my dad was. He had thought I was snobby, not socially awkward. I had changed the way my body looked, but I couldn’t change the way I acted. In a battle with Addison over a boy, Addison would always win. I had never intended this or imagined it would happen in my lifetime, but I had been mistaken for the popular friend, and the boy I’d been looking for thought I was not his type.
Addison grinned her toothy majorette grin at me. “And you’re going out with Carter!”
“I’m going out with Carter? The quarter back?” I acted confused, but really I was fishing for information. I hoped she’d gotten the two boys mixed up. Addison had a date with Carter, and I had a date with Max. This scenario was unlikely but not beyond the realm of possibility. After all, she had flirted with Carter, too. She had rubbed Carter’s arm and told him he was not a fart. Maybe he’d gotten the message and asked to go out with her.
Wrong. “Yes, you’re going out with Carter the quarterback!” she said. “You two are so cute together.”
I found this highly doubtful. To figure out what had actually happened, I played along. “And I can tell you really like Max.”
“He is so hot,” she confirmed.
No argument there. But he was more than just hot to me. He was hot and hilarious, the perfect guy. Carter was not. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about that. “See, here’s the thing, Addison,” I said slowly enough for her to understand. “Carter didn’t ask me out.” In fact, if I never saw or heard from Carter again, I wouldn’t have been surprised. She could go out with Max once, and I would try to forget the whole funny conversation with him had ever happened.
“Yes, Carter did ask you out.” Addison nodded, as if that would be enough to convince me.
“He did? Where was I when this happened, and what did I say?”