February 29: Leap Day
Got a message on the machine from Luke saying he couldn’t make tonight’s makeup tutoring session because he had to work. I couldn’t stop wondering—did he really have to work, or was he just afraid to see me? Was he feeling as mixed up about everything as I was? I know, I know, he has Nikki, and this Brittany chick, and who knows who else waiting in the wings. But I had Jeremy, and that wasn’t stopping me from feeling like Luke and I had connected out there on the playground in a way that felt like nothing I’d ever experienced.
I was slowly driving myself insane. I had to know for sure if these feelings for Luke were real, or if maybe I was using them as an excuse somehow, to avoid getting too close to Jeremy. Or was I just overthinking everything?
I grabbed the phone and dialed Luke’s number.
“Hello.” Mrs. Barton’s voice was hushed almost to the point of silence.
“Hi, Mrs. Barton. This is Francesca Castarelli.”
“Oh, hi, Francesca. How are you?”
“Just fine. Actually, I was wondering how you were . . .”
“Oh, thank you. It’s been hard over here, but we’re getting through.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure you really miss her.”
“Yes, very much,” she agreed, sounding especially sad. “Thanks for coming to see Luke that day—it really seemed to help him.”
It had? And he’d told her about my visit? I had to stop.
“He’s not home right now, but I can tell him you called,” she continued.
“Yeah, actually, that’s why I was calling—he said something about working tonight, but I, um, I forgot the name of the place.”
“Oh, no problem. It’s called Jitterz, with a z.”
“Coffee shop?” I guessed.
“Yes, exactly, over in West Hill.”
“Great, thanks a lot. I hope you feel better soon. Be well, Mrs. Barton.”
“Thanks Francesca. That’s sweet of you. You take care, too.”
I hung up, making my decision. I could easily go to Jitterz under the guise of needing a new atmosphere to study in. Besides, the notion of getting homework done at a coffee shop appealed to me. And the added impetus of Luke Barton being my obeisant waiter-slave made driving out to West Hill not seem so bad.
I quickly slipped on my maroon-and-white Pumas and did my hair up in two ponytails, then threw my homework into my backpack with celerity. I wasn’t in the mood to dawdle. Nikki had also left a message, asking me to call when I got back from “hanging out with Jeremy,” which was where I’d told her I’d be tonight instead of ‘fessing up about the lesson. I didn’t know what to say to her, exactly, but I’d think of something when I got back. Maybe by then, I’d know the real deal myself, finally.
Clumps of cars peppered the parking lot of the shopping center where Jitterz was located, and a bunch of kids my age were loitering in their vicinity. I figured maybe Noble Roman’s Pizza was having some sort of two-for--one deep-dish deal. As it turned out, Jitterz itself was quite populated, with a cheery, well-lit ambience. The front section was filled with kids from school—mainly female. Was this some unexplored, underground scene going on in Columbus? It seemed highly implausible. Where was Luke? He was supposed to be behind the register, parroting that age-old ingratiating salutation: “May I help you?” Ah well—so be it. I ordered a large Chai Tea Latte and sat in the back, where I could plug in my laptop, people-watch and work in relative peace.
But I wasn’t much in the mood to do work. Something was in the air. I felt like writing down my thoughts instead. I’d been besieged by a steady influx of intense thoughts for the past few weeks. And it wasn’t just my own situation. We just happened to be reading Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, in English class, and the story had all these eerie parallels to my own life right now. Well, okay, maybe that was a little bit of a stretch, but Anna K. was all confused about whom she wanted to be with, too.
Maybe I needed a break from anything too close to home. I decided to work on my vocabulary, instead, and write up a paragraph about my surroundings using words from my SAT prep book.
As an inveterate eavesdropper, I find the lives of perfect strangers way more captivating than they know. At the moment, I’m tuned to the wavelength of the assemblage of thirty-something women behind me. “Oh, my Gawd! Of course I saw her engagement ring! Was that not, like, the biggest, most garish rock you’ve ever seen!” “She only wants him for his money!” But my capricious ears tire quickly of their cupidity and tune into a different channel—the two artisans who just walked in the door . . .
I looked up. My heart thumped as I realized that one of the arty guys, the one with the guitar case strapped across his shoulder, was Luke. He noticed me simultaneously and flashed me a confused and rather inscrutable look.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s goin’ on? Didn’t you get my message?”
I opened my mouth to form the perfect, cool and casual response. “Yep,” is what came out. “I got it.”
“So . . . how did you find me here?”
“Oh. I called you. Your mom told me where you were.”
What was I doing? Hadn’t my plan been to pretend this was purely a chance meeting? There went that. I’m a sucky liar.
Luke’s eyes narrowed, and I realized that I sounded a little stalker-ish. My face reddened. He turned to the guy on his left, a tattooed and yet somehow urbane-looking, dark-tanned, twenty-something guy with an easy smile.
“Francesca, this is Minh. Minh, this is Francesca.”
“Men?” I asked.
“That works.” We shook hands. Where did Luke find these people? This guy was so not-Columbus, so in his own world. He looked like a GQ model.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, wondering what this guy was thinking of the weird stalker girl.
“Minh is one of three members of my jazz collective. I play flamenco guitar, and he plays drums. The other dude, who plays bass, is late. Again. Did you come here for our gig?”
“Gig? No,” I said, and meant it. “I just came to study—and to, um, say hi. I thought you worked here as, like, a waiter or something.”
“We make great background music,” Minh said.
“All right, well, we need to go fuel up,” Luke said.
I laughed. “Okay. Break a leg then.”
“That’s just for acting,” Minh said.
I pretended to get back to my homework, scribbling thoughts to myself instead.
WE’RE BOTH BEING DODGY
NO, I’M BEING DODGY, HE’S BEING SKETCHED OUT
ALMOST KISS MEANT NOTHING
They got on stage and started warming up. I focused on his fingers massaging the strings. I knew he was a musician, but I’d never seen him play before. The bass player showed up, lugging his stuffed instrument case. They plucked around, did a little mini jam session and stopped. Luke leaned into the mike, which responded with the shrillest of sounds. A few girls up front screamed.
“Come in Houston,” Luke said. “Testing one two three. Houston . . .”
The same girls were now a giggling gaggle of chickenheads, puppets on his string.
“Sorry about that. But seriously now folks. We are The Lords. We want to thank you all for coming out tonight. And a big shout-out to Jitterz!”
“We’re gonna play something new tonight.” Luke hushed the crowd with a delicate strum of his strings, letting the sound drift away. “I lost someone very close to me recently, and I wrote this song.” He pulled away from the mike and took a dramatic swig of his water bottle. “It’s called ‘Moribund.’”
With a title like that, you’d expect the song to be a bit heavy. But it was actually soft and lilting, a tribal drum line rolling along on guitar licks. I was mesmerized. I think everyone in there was. These guys were no wannabe hippie charlatans. They were talented musicians. Luke pressed his lips up to the mike. “ Lamenting that you were with me before, but with me no more . . .” There was real emotion in the song. You could feel that it was real.
When the band took a break, Luke walked over and sat down across from me.
“Sorry about having to cancel the lesson again,” he said. “They called us in at the last minute when the scheduled performer canceled.”
“Yeah, sure,” I joked. “I know what’s going on here—you’re just trying to sabotage my chances so you can beat my score and take my spot at the Ivys.”
Luke smirked. “That’s me—cutthroat academic all the way.”
I had to laugh at that image. Luke was one of those people who just happened to be smart. As arrogant as he was about his superior intellect, he didn’t get caught up in all those contests in school over grades, class rankings, that stuff.
“So, I guess Brittany’s back in California,” I said, tracing the pattern on the table with my finger.
“Yep, it was a short visit.” He crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back in the chair. “We’re just friends now, you know. Me and Brittany.”
I coughed. Why was he telling me that? “Okay,” I said, not sure how to respond. My gaze traveled over to the stage where he’d been playing. “So, the band—you guys are pretty decent.”
“Decent, huh? Okay, I can work with that.” He grinned back at me, and for a second, there was that thing between us again—that weird vibe that I couldn’t even describe except that it made my neck feel warm and my palms start to sweat.
I guess it’s why I didn’t hear her footsteps, or see the familiar figure heading toward us in my peripheral vision. The first thing I heard was . . .
“Sorry to interrupt.” Her voice was steely, cold, but also full of sadness that only someone who’d been her best friend for years could recognize.
I winced, knowing what her expression would look like before I turned to see it. But actually, it was even worse.
“Nikki—” I started.
“No, no, you guys are in the middle of something, no problem,” she said quickly. I could tell her facial muscles were working overtime to hold off the waterworks.
“Nikki, it’s not—”
“Don’t worry, I covered for you with Jeremy,” she practically spat out. “You know, when I tried his cell, looking for you, and he didn’t have any idea where you were.”
I went white, putting it all together. Didn’t I say I was a sucky liar? Nikki had realized I’d fibbed about my plans with Jeremy, and she’d tracked me down here. That’s why this looked so, so bad—like Luke and I had plotted some secret rendezvous.
“You might want to consider clueing him in, though,” she added. Her gaze moved to Luke. “Sometimes it’s not the worst thing in the world to actually let someone know how you really feel.”
With that, she turned and stalked out, ignoring my yells of “Nikki, wait!” and slamming the coffeehouse door shut behind her.
I dropped my face into my hands, rubbing my throbbing forehead. When I finally glanced up at Luke, he was avoiding my gaze, looking supremely uncomfortable, like he’d just been forced to eat spoiled brussel sprouts. A lot of them.
And that’s when it sunk in. Luke didn’t like me—I mean, at least, he didn’t like like me. He’d been vulnerable that day on the playground. For God’s sake, his aunt had just died. But he didn’t want anything to do with all this girly melodrama. He just wanted to be friends, with me and with Nikki. And now I’d blown things with my best friend in the entire world over something that never was even anything.