Almost perfect, p.10
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       Almost Perfect, p.10

           Brian Katcher
 
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“So, Sage … what’s new?” he asked, breaking the silence.

  “Nothing.” She paused. “What’s new with you?”

  I think at that point, Jack was ready to throw himself from the moving car, but he still forced conversation.

  “Well, my church is doing some major renovations. Painting the whole building.”

  “Since when do you go to church?” I asked. He ignored me.

  “We didn’t think we were going to have enough money, so we bought some cheap paint and watered it down. Didn’t look the greatest, but it got the job done.”

  “What the hell are you talking about?” Jack never got up before three p.m. on Sundays.

  “Well, we spent all last Saturday painting the outside. Unfortunately, right when we were finished, this rain started. Washed everything away.”

  “Oh no,” said Sage, sounding genuinely concerned.

  “The funny thing is, right when we were all running inside, I could swear I heard a voice from the clouds.”

  I sighed. “Saying what, Jack?”

  “Repaint! Repaint and thin no more!” Jack waited for Sage to laugh. Then, without warning, he opened his door and leapt out onto the street. We were stopped at Boyer’s only traffic light at the time, but knowing Jack, that might have been a coincidence.

  Sage’s home was still a mile away. I began to speed. If we were alone in the car too much longer, one of us would have to say something.

  “Pull over, Logan,” said Sage after a minute. “I can walk from here.”

  “It’s pouring, Sage. I’ll take you home.”

  “Don’t do me any favors.” She spoke like she was dying of thirst and I’d offered to let her lick the outside of my water glass when I was done.

  In the rearview mirror, Sage was looking at me with contempt. I pointed the mirror to the ceiling. A little too roughly, actually. Luckily, there’s a special kind of glue for that sort of thing. Five minutes later, we turned onto Sage’s street.

  The Christmas ornaments were gone from her house. All that was left was a fir tree painted silver and some rain-sodden tinsel.

  She opened her door and grabbed her umbrella.

  “Sage, wait.” I don’t know what made me stop her. Maybe I realized it would probably be the one time we’d ever be alone together. If either of us had anything to say, it was now or never.

  She paused, one foot out in the rain.

  “What?”

  What? What do I have to say to her?

  “Sage …”

  “What?”

  What?

  I turned in my seat. She glared at me. Whatever she had once felt for me was gone. Maybe I didn’t like that. With all the hatred I’d felt for her in the past month, it never occurred to me the feeling might be mutual.

  “Sage. I’m sorry.” My words fell flat, like when the teacher forces you to apologize to the kid you hit.

  She shrugged. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for,” she responded bluntly, swinging her legs out the door.

  “Maybe …,” I began.

  “Maybe what?”

  I took a deep breath. “Maybe if you explained things, I’d understand.”

  She stood in the rain and slammed the door. Great. I try to make peace, try to make some damn sense out of whatever the hell Sage was doing, and she runs off.

  But a second later, she was sitting next to me in the front seat. She had to push it back to fit her long legs.

  “Do you really want to know, Logan?”

  For the first time in a month, I looked Sage in the face. I desperately searched for something masculine. But there was no beard stubble, no unibrow, nothing but Sage. Just as pretty as she’d been when we met.

  A drop of rain dangled off the end of her nose. Her wet locks lay plastered all over her face. Two months ago, I would have reached up and smoothed her hair. Touched her cheek. Tried to see cleavage through her wet shirt.

  “I really want to know.” That was a lie. I certainly didn’t want details about how she shaved her shoulders and padded her bra. But then again, maybe that was why Sage hadn’t told me in the first place.

  Sage brushed the hair from her forehead. “What?”

  I had questions. Questions I wasn’t sure I wanted answered.

  “Is your name really Sage?”

  “Yes.”

  Okay. At least it’s not Steve.

  “Why … why are you pretending to be a girl?”

  Sage snorted. “I fooled you, didn’t I?”

  I revved the engine. “Goodbye.”

  “Wait.” She touched my arm, then immediately pulled away. “I guess this is all new to you.”

  It was my turn to snort.

  “Logan, I’ve never thought of myself as a boy. Not since I knew the difference. I am a girl. It’s some sick damn joke of nature that I wasn’t born with a female body. And you’re not going to see anything there, so stop staring.”

  I realized I’d been looking at her crotch.

  “Sorry.”

  “I don’t expect you to understand. You don’t owe me anything.” She was bitter.

  “You weren’t ever going to tell me, were you? Just drag me along, laugh at how you fooled some guy?” Picking up Sage had been a mistake. We were both getting angry and defensive.

  Sage turned to me, and I was suddenly very aware that I was not the most powerful person in the car.

  “Logan, you think that’s all it was to me? You think I didn’t feel guilty?”

  I leaned against the driver’s door. “No …” I cleared my throat. “No. You lied to me.”

  “Well, I felt like shit for doing that. I wanted to tell you. Remember when I dragged you out to the cemetery? I was going to tell you then, but I couldn’t.”

  “Why the hell not?”

  Sage seemed to shrink. “I thought you might beat me up. And I wasn’t being paranoid, was I?”

  I recalled, how for the only time in my life, I almost hit a girl. Or almost a girl. I couldn’t excuse that. I should have just stormed out. The second I balled up my fist, I became the bad guy.

  “You didn’t hit me, Logan. And, in my defense, I could have let you kiss me a lot earlier. I wanted to.”

  “Why did you have to kiss me at all?” I felt like I was grasping for reasons to be pissed. I had to remind myself of Sage’s huge lie.

  “You’re not the easiest guy for a girl not to kiss.” Sage abruptly turned away, and we sat for a moment. My earlier feelings for Sage were apparently not one-sided.

  Sage spoke again. “Logan, I would have liked to be friends. I guess that can’t happen. But thanks for keeping your cool, and thanks for not telling anyone. I wish I could take back that kiss, but honestly, I’m not sorry.” She turned back and stuck out her jaw defiantly.

  “Sage …” This was the end. Our friendship was over, but I was glad it was ending here, now, calmly.

  “Logan …” Sage looked like she had more to say, but she didn’t say it.

  We looked at each other for a long moment. This was the last time we’d ever talk.

  Sage opened the door. The rain had let up. I pulled out as soon as she entered her house.

  Brenda’s home was exactly the way I remembered it. Two stories, three-car garage, no abandoned appliances in the yard. Aside from Brenda’s Saturn, I counted three other vehicles in the driveway, but I didn’t think they were having company. A neat row of rosebushes, covered with protective plastic for the winter, lined the side of the house. Their inground pool, the only one in Boyer, was empty.

  I never really understood what Brenda’s father did for a living, but he earned a lot. At this home, a trailer was what you used to pull your boat, not something you lived in. It was funny, but her parents had always treated me nicely. This was one of the few places where I hadn’t felt like a poor boy.

  The rain had stopped, and I’d been standing in the street for ten minutes trying to swallow my pride and go up and knock. It shouldn’t have been hard; I’d banged on that door every week
end for three years. Eventually, I ran up and pushed the doorbell, fighting an urge to run off giggling.

  “Logan!”

  I’d forgotten what it was like to be this close to her, to look her right in the face. That long black ponytail. The high cheekbones, the pale skin. Those filthy glasses.

  “Hey, Brenda.”

  Her surprise turned to worry (or suspicion). “Would you like to come in?”

  “Uh, no. I was just passing by. Feel like a quick walk?”

  Brenda grabbed her jacket, and we took off down the road. Neither of us spoke. For years, I’d spent every free moment with this girl, and now I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I think the last thing I had told her was that she was a whore, so it was hard to start a conversation.

  She ended the silence. “How are Jack and Tim doing?”

  “They’re fine. Jack and I are going to Mizzou in the fall. And Tim’s got a girlfriend.”

  “So the rumors are true.” At Boyer High, it was hard to lose track of anyone, even after breaking up with their friend.

  I stopped suddenly. We were in front of a large stump at the end of Brenda’s street. It was the spot where we’d first kissed, back when we were freshmen. God, I’d felt so awkward. But she had giggled and hugged me and told me I was the cutest guy she knew.

  I placed a foot on the stump and stared off into a fallow field. “Brenda, why did you leave me?” I said the words quickly, like diving into a cold pool. I would have lost my nerve if I’d waited.

  “Logan …” Brenda’s tone was almost whiny. Maybe she was afraid I wanted to fight some more. Or wanted another chance.

  “I’m not trying to rehash this, and I don’t want to get back together. But you owe me this. Why?”

  She didn’t say anything for a bit. “I guess you wouldn’t believe it if I said I didn’t mean to cheat on you.”

  I gazed off into the distance.

  “Logan, look at me.”

  I considered disobeying, but only briefly. She stared at me with the same sad intensity as she had on that awful day in October. The same look that had made me realize even before she said a word that Jack hadn’t been lying.

  “Does it really matter at this point?”

  “Yes. I need … what’s the word?”

  “Closure?”

  I nodded. After dropping Sage off, I’d found myself driving out here. I wanted to finish things with Brenda, to try to finally close up the wound she’d left. And I had to know where we’d gone wrong before I could do that.

  “Okay, but this was your idea.” She took off her glasses and polished them on her shirttail, leaving them even more smudged than before. “I cheated on you because I was weak. But, Logan, I would have hurt you more if I’d stayed.”

  I almost convinced myself I’d misheard her. “Brenda, what—”

  “Let me finish. When we started going out, you’d always go on and on about how smart I was. And how pretty I was. And how wonderful it was to be with me.”

  “Excuse the hell out of me.” Jesus Christ, did every woman make no sense?

  “It was wonderful for me, too. For a while. But I kind of just thought of you as my high school boyfriend. I figured you saw me the same way. We’d date for a while, then get on with our lives.”

  Recalling my reaction to Sage’s revelation, I forced myself to count to ten before saying anything. “I did not see you like that, Brenda. Remember when we said we loved each other? I’m not sure what you were talking about, but I meant it.”

  She smiled a frosty smile. “Logan, I tried to tell you I was having second thoughts, but you’d just gloss things over, act like nothing could ever end our eternal romance.” Her tone took on a slight sarcastic edge that I did not care for. “Remember when we went mini-golfing on Labor Day? You kept talking about the fun we were going to have at Mizzou. How could I tell you I wanted to go to Washington U instead?”

  Wash U is a private college in St. Louis. Even with student loans, it was well out of my price range.

  Brenda continued. “I think that was the day I decided I didn’t really love you.”

  “Labor Day?”

  She nodded.

  “My birthday?”

  She winced, then nodded again, not breaking eye contact.

  “Then why didn’t you just dump me? Why didn’t you tell me I was being a romantic fool?”

  “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

  I actually laughed. “You didn’t want to hurt me?” A little slobber ran down my chin.

  Brenda turned away. Her body went rigid for a moment. She took a deep breath and turned back to me.

  “Or maybe I didn’t want to hurt me. I knew if I tried to break up with you, you’d convince me to stay. I wasn’t strong enough to tell you that your feelings and my feelings weren’t the same. They were close, but close isn’t always good enough.”

  “You certainly came up with an interesting way of telling me.”

  Brenda opened her mouth with an angry look on her face, then stopped. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I swear I didn’t. But Blake offered to give me a ride, and one thing led to another—”

  “You know what?” I interrupted. “I’m sorry I wasted your time.”

  I used to think Brenda might be my wife someday. I never thought we’d end up being strangers to each other. It hurt more than I wanted to admit.

  Brenda was standing there staring at the stump. When she finally looked up, there was a defeated look in her eyes. As much as I didn’t want to acknowledge it, she was hurting, too.

  This was one of those Hollywood movie moments where the hero says something profound before walking off into the sunset. Of course, my attempt at cinematic greatness was anything but profound.

  “Blake?” I asked, my voice tinged with sarcasm.

  “Huh?”

  “You dumped me for a guy named Blake?”

  Brenda looked confused. I continued.

  “I mean, I could understand you leaving me for a Doug, or a Johnny, or even a Brian, but Blake?”

  Brenda glared at me through the distinct thumbprint on her right lens. “He’s a nice guy.”

  “I’m sure he is.” I turned on my best Homer Simpson mocking voice. “Ooh, my name’s Blake! Would you like to have some tea and go to the opera?”

  “Logan, shut up.”

  “My name’s Blake! I enjoy romantic movies and walks on the beach!”

  “Stop it!”

  I began to skip about. “I’m Blake! I like ponies and Cinderella and rainbows!”

  Brenda suddenly shoved me in the chest with both hands, and I went sprawling. I hadn’t been expecting that, and I stared up at her in shock as muddy water trickled into my underwear. Brenda looked so angry I thought she was going to kick me in the face.

  But five seconds later, we were both laughing, hard and loud, just like we used to. As Brenda helped me up, I smiled like a total goofball. For the first time since the summer, I wasn’t mad at her.

  “Logan …,” began Brenda.

  I couldn’t bear to talk more about what had gone wrong between us, so I decided to make a quick exit.

  “I’m going to head out now.” I put my hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed. “Be happy, okay? And I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I walked off toward my car, still giggling. Blake?

  As I spread newspaper on the front seat to avoid leaving a muddy butt print, I thought back to what my ex-girlfriend had said. She’d lied to me about so many things. Nurturing my hate wouldn’t do anyone any good.

  When I started the car, I thought about Sage. She hadn’t lied to me about our relationship. She had flat-out told me she couldn’t date me and that we could only be friends. In fact, she had only ever lied to me about one thing. Granted, it was a pretty important thing.

  Did I really want Sage out of my life? Maybe. At least that way I wouldn’t have to face what had happened between us.

  chapter fifteen

  SINCE I WAS no longer stalking Bren
da or hanging out with Sage in the mornings, I actually began to arrive at biology before Tim. When he entered the lab the Monday after I’d tried to exorcise the demons from my past, I noticed something different about him.

  For starters, he wasn’t hauling around his usual convenience store’s worth of candy, chips, and other junk food. Just a sixteen-ounce soda and a small can of Pringles. Was he fasting? But there was something else.

  “Tim? Do you have a job interview today or something?”

  For years, Tim’s wardrobe had consisted of a highly distressed pair of jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, even in the summer. But today he was wearing khaki pants, a T-shirt that wasn’t a size too small, and a stylish-looking sweater vest. He’d even traded his sneakers for some loafers.

  Tim flipped through his bio book. “Dawn’s picking me up after school today. Thought I’d dress up.” His olive cheeks flushed red.

  I fought the urge to tease him. If Dawn could convince Tim to watch what he ate and not to be a slob, then more power to her.

  “That reminds me,” continued Tim, trying to change the topic, “my eighteenth birthday is this weekend.”

  “Oh yeah! What’s the plan? Buy some cigarettes, lotto tickets, and a rifle?”

  “Vote and register for the draft,” countered Tim. “Actually, Dawn wanted us all to go out and see this comedian in Columbia on Saturday. It’ll be fun.”

  “Yeah, okay.” That sounded like something college kids would do. It would be good training. “Jack can drive me.”

  “Jack’s still grounded.”

  “Oh yeah.” I’d tried to warn him that constructing a potato cannon was not the greatest idea, but he and his brother were determined. Luckily, no one had been injured in the explosion, though Matt had nearly become another spud-related statistic.

  “I think Mom has to work Saturday night. Can I ride with you and Dawn?”

  Tim, for once, wasn’t seething with self-assurance. Something was bothering him. Finally, he spit it out.

  “Logan, do you think you could, you know … bring a date?”

  “Huh?”

  Mr. Elmer was sifting through his notes. Class was about to begin.

  “Listen,” said Tim rapidly. “We can drive you to Columbia, no sweat. But … Dawn said she wanted to … I mean, after the show … wanted to go somewhere and be alone.” Tim had turned completely away from me and had nearly buried his face in his hands.

 
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