“I’ll text it to you.” I fumbled in my baton bag for my phone. “What’s your number?” As he recited it, I plugged in the digits. After I texted him, he peered at his own phone, then typed something. I thought he was recording my info, but a second later, I got a text:
Thank you Gemma!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I laughed. It was nice that he even pretended to be enthusiastic about me. I would take it. “You’re welcome.”
As he tucked his phone back into his own bag, he asked offhandedly, “How’d you lose all that weight?”
I stared at him, wondering what he meant by that. Lots of people had grilled me about my weight since I started losing. Usually they asked me why I was giving in to the beauty queen mystique and trying to look like every other girl. But he seemed genuinely curious, nothing more. No agenda.
“I told my baton teacher what I wanted to do,” I said. “She explained it to me in mathematical terms. If you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. If you take in less, you’ll lose weight. I got on the Internet and figured out how many calories I was burning in a day. Then I added up what I was eating. Cobbler has a lot of calories.”
“Cobb— Wow!” He laughed. “You were eating a lot of cobbler?”
“Yes. My mom makes it.”
“Low-fat cobbler, or—”
“In Atlanta? God, no. That’s your California roots talking. You probably make it with tofu out there.”
He grinned and shrugged. “And sweetened with organic honey.”
“Right. Around here it’s refined sugar, lots of butter, and a scoop of full-fat ice cream on the side.”
He winced. “Often? Every day?”
“At least. My mom is a great cook. I used to cook with her, and we would eat together. And snack together. And have dessert together.” I thought back to those nights when I’d felt warm and safe and way too full. “Sometimes we might have dessert together twice.”
“I gotcha.” As he said this, he chuckled a little. Not like he was making fun of me, but like he really did understand the rut my mom and I had gotten into after my dad left, and how hard it had been for me to get out.
“The other thing my baton instructor told me was to ask myself, ‘Am I hungry? Or do I just want something to eat?’ The answer with cobbler is always going to be that you just want some cobbler. You’ve already had dinner, so there’s no way you can be hungry.”
“I could be hungry,” Max said.
“Really?” I looked at him beside me, his legs too long to sit comfortably on the concrete bench.
“Lately, yeah,” he said.
“You’re burning more calories playing football than I am twirling baton.”
“I haven’t gone on a weird diet,” I said in my defense, because I always had to say this to Addison and Robert and everybody else who teased me. “I haven’t even stopped eating my mom’s cooking. I just eat less of it, and no cobbler, ever.”
He looked up at the skyscraper in front of us rather than at me as he asked, “How does your mom feel about that?”
“I really don’t care,” I grumbled. Total lie. I was afraid she felt like I had betrayed her. But I couldn’t dwell too much on that, because I absolutely refused to go back to my previous weight. “I exercised, too, but that was easy because there’s a gym at my house.”
“You mean, your mom buys a piece of exercise equipment, thinking she will use it every day, and it gathers dust, and eventually she makes you move it into the spare room? My mom does that too. There’s not much butter in Japan, and apparently she went hog wild when she first came to America. Butter, and then loaf bread, and then she discovered mayonnaise. She seemed to have gotten a handle on it, but then we moved to Atlanta and there were biscuits.”
I laughed and said, “Just keep her away from the cobbler.” But when I’d said there was a gym at my house, I hadn’t meant my mom bought exercise equipment. I’d meant that my house contained a gym. It was a big house.
He must have read my mind. As a truck rumbled by, he turned to me and asked loudly over the noise, “So, your dad used to own part of the Falcons? Like, the wide receiver and a couple of tight ends?”
“More like half the cheerleaders, knowing him.”
Instantly I wanted to take back that bitter joke. Max was making polite conversation while we waited for my mom. He probably regretted it now.
He played along, though, scooting closer on the bench like he was interested in what I was saying. “That’s why your parents got divorced?”
I nodded. “When I was ten. He and my mom were big on the country club, dinner party, charity ball scene, because it was good for his business. But then it got back to my mom that he had a girlfriend.”
“So now—it’s kind of weird, if I think about it—they’re both doing half of what they used to do. My dad moved to Hilton Head with his girlfriend, but he still runs all his businesses and makes a lot of money from there. My mom got the house, so she still throws huge dinner parties for charity. They just don’t do it as a couple anymore.”
“Did you realize that when you talk about this, your breathing speeds up?”
I held my breath, looking at Max. I had not realized this. But yes, my chest felt tight and my head hurt, and I swayed a little on the bench, slightly dizzy.
He reached toward my chest, like he was going to touch me.
His hand stopped in midair.
Two bright spots of pink appeared on his cheeks, apparent even in the fading light of dusk, and I felt my face coloring too.
He put his hand over his own heart. “Do this,” he said.
I put my hand over my heart. It was racing. Talking about my dad made me anxious, but what made my heart race now was Max himself.
“There’s my mom,” I said quickly, recognizing her car at the intersection down the block. I did not add, Damn it! I wished she’d had something important to do and had been running late for once. I turned to Max to say good-bye.
He was staring at the car. Generally girls at my school thought it was a nice, expensive car, but boys knew exactly what it was and how much it had cost. Their faces showed admiration mixed with envy. Max wore the same expression as he asked, “Is that an Aston Martin?”
“Yeah,” I said as casually as I could, pretending I didn’t understand his astonishment. “It’s six years old. Before my dad left, he wanted to make sure my mom had a safe, reliable car so she and I didn’t get stuck somewhere with engine trouble, since he wouldn’t be around to help anymore.”
“He could have done that for a lot less money,” Max said, eyes still on the car. “That is not why your dad bought your mom a car that cost six figures.”
I glared at Max. I wasn’t stupid. He was right, of course. My dad had given my mom the house and bought her a ridiculously expensive car so she would feel special, could keep up her image, and would agree not to fight the pre-nup that prevented her from going after half of everything my dad had ever made. Sure. But just because it was true did not mean I wanted to discuss it with Max.
“I’m sorry,” he backtracked immediately. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” I said more loudly than I’d intended—loudly enough that I heard my words echoing against the concrete MARTA station curving around us. I was too angry to care. “You read people really well, Max, and I enjoy it up to a point, but you can’t just blurt out everything you see.”
He pointed at me. “Remember Addison asked me why I don’t have a girlfriend? This is why.”
I laughed shortly. “You do now.”
As my mom stopped in the pull-off, the engine rumbling at our feet, he gave me a hard look. “You are a very interesting person, Gemma. Very different, in a good way.” He stood, dragging his bag with him.
I tried to smile. “Do you want my mom to drop you off at your parking deck?”
He grinned. “Are you worried about my safety? That is really cute, Gemma.”
“I’m serious. You were worried about my safety. That’s why you’re here.”
His dark brows shot up. For the briefest moment, I wondered if that really was why he was here.
But of course it was. He shrugged. “Like you said, this is probably the safest place in Atlanta. And I look mean, don’t I?”
He didn’t look mean. His face was open and sweet, like the friendliest person I’d ever met. But he was at least six feet tall, which was probably what he meant.
If I admitted how daunting he’d look to a would-be attacker, I would sound like I liked him. I didn’t want to insult him, though. So I asked, “Are we back on the serial killer thing again?”
He threw back his head and laughed. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “See you next Friday night, Gemma.”
And then, before I could react, he reached past me and opened the passenger door of my mom’s car. I climbed in, dragging my baton bag after me. He closed the door with a thick thud.
As my mom drove away from the curb, I watched Max in the side mirror. He stood staring after us for a moment, looking straighter and thinner and taller now that I could see all of him, not just his expressive face. He shook his head as he slung his bag over his shoulder and walked up the sidewalk toward the parking deck.
“And who was that?” my mother asked expectantly. She stopped at the next intersection, by the mall and restaurants and high-rise hotels. Smiling couples held hands as they crossed the street in front of us.
Willing the tingle in my shoulder where he’d touched me to fade away, I sighed, “Max. Addison’s date.”
“Addison’s date!” my mom exclaimed.
“Yep.” I barreled through an explanation so she wouldn’t ask me twenty questions. “He’s a junior too, and he’s a kicker for the football team at East. We met him today at Tech. His dad is a professor there. Max was in football camp while we were in majorette camp. Addison’s going out with him next Friday, and I’m going out with his friend Carter, if that’s okay with you, to a concert. Max is picking me up because he lives around here. He was just waiting with me until you came.”
“That was nice of him,” my mom said. She peered into the rearview mirror as if to give him another once-over, even though he was long gone. She looked out the windshield again. “He has such good manners.”
“Yep,” I said.
“He’s very handsome,” she said.
“Yep,” I said.
I felt her watching me across the dark car. I’d never been on a date, but I’d assumed I would go on one now that I was a majorette and looked the part, except for my hair. Maybe my mom had been waiting for this too. She would have laughed if I’d explained to her how badly I wanted Max to be my date, and how far that was from happening.
She gave a little gasp. “What happened to your nose?”
I’d forgotten all about my injury after my nose had stopped throbbing. I touched it tenderly. It was sore. That’s probably what Max had been staring at the whole time I thought he was looking right through me to my soul.
“Addison hit me with her baton,” I said.
My mom raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment. I had suffered many injuries at Addison’s hands. Most of them had not been accidents, but I’d always claimed they were so I wouldn’t lose my only friend.
I was having second thoughts about that policy.
“So, you ate at the Varsity?” my mom asked. “What’d you eat? Not what you ordered, but what you ate.”
“A grilled chicken sandwich,” I said. “I ordered it and I ate it.”
“Is that all?” she exclaimed. “Are you still hungry? I made lasagna and kept it warm for you.”
“That sounds so good,” I said truthfully. “Maybe I’ll have some tomorrow.” But I knew tomorrow she would cook something else and press me to eat that. I couldn’t eat everything. Not anymore.
“How about some fresh peach cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream?”
Now she had me. Sweets had always been my weakness. I mean, food in general had been my weakness, but dessert was the worst. My mouth watered at the thought of cold ice cream melting over the flaky brown crust, sugar sparkling in the light from the kitchen chandelier, and all those sweet peaches. Georgia was the Peach State, and peaches were in season. My mom and I would sit at the table together and eat and say mmmmmm and feel like a family.
But I couldn’t do it. As I’d told Max, in the past nine months, I’d learned the difference between wanting food and being hungry. I was not hungry.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I repeated.
My mom was quiet, probably thinking about whatever charity ball she was planning at the moment. My thoughts drifted to our over–air-conditioned mansion ahead.
After the day I’d had with Addison, it was ridiculous of me to miss her. Yet I felt a horrible dread as my mom turned onto our street, passed the Campbells’ house and the Browns’ and the Khans’, and pulled into our brick driveway. If Addison were driving me home, she would be blasting the sickly sweet pop station specifically because she knew I hated it. But when she parked in my driveway, I never wanted to get out of her car. Addison was rude, selfish, and spiteful. She was also full of life, and she made noise.
My mom parked in the spotless garage with three of the four spaces empty, and sighed. “I have a lot of work to do tonight, honey. A lot. But when I get through, I want to hear all about majorette camp and these boys.”