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You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 18

In early December, Nicholas and I are still miraculously getting along. It’s hard to trust, but all my reasons for feeling detached and resentful in the past have crumbled in light of Nicholas’s newfound attentiveness. He’s putting me first. He’s been kind and reassuring. He stood up to Deborah on Thanksgiving, and the following night he literally banished her from the house.

I still can’t believe he did that.

When these truths sink in, he doesn’t feel like my adversary or the obstacle in my path to finding happiness. He feels like part of the path.

Against all wisdom, I fall a little bit in love with pretending it won’t fall apart. And in the spirit of this, I do a very scary thing.

I open up a new password-protected document on my computer and jot down ideas for tokens of affection. If this isn’t a fluke, and if this is to work— if—I’ll need to consistently make Nicholas feel cherished in small but significant ways. The most important and most challenging element is typed at the top so that I won’t forget: Keep doing this even if he doesn’t reciprocate in an immediately obvious way. I have to give while expecting nothing in return; otherwise, the gestures are empty. I hope I won’t be the only one here trying.

One morning after Nicholas’s shower, I draw a heart in the steamy bathroom mirror. He ducks back into the bathroom to brush his teeth and after he’s left it again I find another heart he’s drawn, interlocked in mine.

It’s the world’s smallest start.

Inside his lunchbox, I leave a note. I hope you have a good day! I’m thinking about you.

Reflecting on it, I die a bit because we haven’t been genuinely sappy with each other in ages, so the barest of pleasantries is saccharine. We’re in a sap drought. We’ve been complete idiots when it comes to understanding when a partner needs something they won’t ask for.

At noon, he texts me. Thank you for the note. I’m thinking about you, too. When he comes home, he has a present for me: A plaid earflap hat to match his, because I’ve been wearing his so often that he thought I might like one of my own. It’s the color of champagne and soft as goose down. I give him a kiss on the cheek, and where my lips touch him the skin glows pink.

I might be onto something here, so the next day I slip another note into his lunchbox:

Good morning! I think you’re a terrific pancake maker and you always look and smell very nice. Thank you for supporting me. Have a great work day! Cavities everywhere are counting on you.

My nerves are this incredible mix of awkward Gahh and fluttery Eeeee, because what I’m saying is true. I hope to god he doesn’t find it corny. I also leave a bag of Skittles on his driver’s seat, which I’m less unsure about because Skittles are a home-run “just because” present and I know he’ll have the bag empty before he parks at Rise and Smile.

When noon hits, I’m one hundred percent certain my note was corny and I want to fall facedown into a bank of snow. It’s his lunch break, so he has to have seen it by now. I’m chewing my fingernails when my phone buzzes and I open a text message to see a picture of a piece of paper that I’m pretty sure is the one I wrote my note on. He’s flipped it to the blank side and drawn a stick figure of a man with scribbles on his cheeks. Stick Nicholas is wearing a big smile and there are three wavy lines coming off him that he explains with an arrow and a caption: My nice-smelling-ness.

There’s a heart on his stick chest.

The next day, I leave this note for him: I love our house. It may not sound like much, but it’s a big deal. In those four words I’m validating his decision to buy it, and I don’t refer to it as his house. Apparently he checks his lunchbox an hour early, because he shoots me a text at eleven that says: I love living in our house with you. Look under your pillow.

I run upstairs and fling all my pillows off the bed. He’s hidden a note for me! My heart lights up like a Christmas tree and I scramble over my mattress to devour every letter of the short message. Nicholas wrote me a note and took the time to slip upstairs and slide it under my pillow. Every step of the action resonates.

Good morning! You have excellent taste in music. (And men.) I’m so glad we stayed in Morris. I believe in you! You can do anything you set your mind to and I know you will achieve all your dreams. You are, and will always be, the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.

My smile’s so wide it’s hurting my facial muscles, and I lie on the bed and kick my legs and squeal. I’m certain that the ghosts who are watching think I’m a lunatic, but I don’t care. I put the note back under my pillow and run a lap around the yard to work out my restless energy.

Beautiful! He thinks I’m beautiful. And he believes in me. Or so he says, the devil on my shoulder adds, but I flick the devil off. I’m going to let myself be happy about this.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel this alive. Colors are brighter, bolder.

Sounds are louder. I brainstorm ways to thank Nicholas for his thoughtfulness and decide to have flowers sent to him at work. To my knowledge, no one has ever given Nicholas flowers in his life. To him, they’re impractical and he probably associates them with the crushing obligation he feels toward his mother, so I would like to change that. After I call up the local florist and none of her suggestions sound particularly inspiring, I ask if she can put together an arrangement made entirely out of myrtle. Myrtle is generally used as filler greenery in a bouquet, too plain to be the main event, but in the Nightjar world collecting myrtle gives characters vitality points. I think the significance will make him smile.

Nicholas’s car rumbles up the drive shortly after six, which means he hasn’t made any stops after work, and I run to greet him right as he’s shutting his door. He turns and looks down at me, a grin instantly appearing on his face. His eyes are bright and flickering like firelight, and a swarm of butterflies threatens to fly up from my stomach and right out of my mouth. He’s holding my myrtle bouquet.

“Hey, you,” he says, nudging my arm with his elbow.

“Hi.” I take his lunchbox from him. (Look, I can be gallant!)

“Thanks for the vitality boost,” he says. “It came in handy when a three-year-old bit my finger.” He shows me an indentation of tiny teeth on the tip of his index finger.

“I hope you bit the kid back.”

“Her mom wouldn’t turn around long enough for me to get away with it.”

Has Nicholas ever looked this happy? No. What a shame, to know I’ve been accepting anything less than this smile he’s giving me right now.

I think he wants to touch the way we used to. I think he wants to kiss me. But he’s restrained. He leans his forehead down to mine. “You’re cute,” he half laughs, then pulls away and taps my nose. We stroll up to the house and if I’m not mistaken, there’s a new spring in his step.

We pass our evening setting up the Christmas tree and making popcorn garland. He fashions me a popcorn necklace, so I make him one, too. We take turns tossing popcorn into each other’s mouths. I’m marveling how every day is better than the one before it when he checks his phone and his face falls.

“What is it?”

“Text from Mom.”

I pile a load of unsavory words onto a cutting board and dice them up into tiny pieces. Deborah has not called or initiated a text in days. When Nicholas texted her to test the waters, the responses he got were about as angry and self-pitying as you’d expect. “What’d she say?”

“Uh.” He looks up at me, and his expression is so full of apology that I get a tug in my stomach and feel vaguely ill. “I forgot that I even agreed to do this. I told her yes weeks ago, and they’ve made plans for some big welcome, or else I’d try to back out.”

“Back out of what? What did you agree to?” Ridiculously, arranged marriage pops into my head and I’m ready to clash swords with some faceless woman in a bridal veil. I’ve got a ring! I saw him first!

“A trip to Cohasset, Minnesota. About fifteen years ago when Dad was still plugged into the investment world, he invested a chunk of money into a friend’s start-up beer brewery, and it did well enough that he bought himself a partnership. Once a year he goes and checks out the brewery and they go over the year’s figures in a meeting and decide how they want to grow the company. This year, though …”

He scratches his head. “Well, Dad says he doesn’t care what happens to the company anymore and he’s tired of long trips. He just wants to stay home. Mom’s worried about missing out on potential investment opportunities, so she gave me a pile of spreadsheets to look over and begged me to go as his proxy.”

“Oh.” I pick at a thread in the rug. “What day is the meeting?”

“Mom says a man named Bernard is expecting me at ten a.m. this Saturday.”

“Ten a.m.? How long does it take to get to Cohasset?”

He makes a face. “I don’t know. I think, like, seven hours? I’ll have to leave early. They’ll keep me busy all of Saturday, and with a seven-hour drive back I’ll have to stay in a hotel and leave Sunday morning.” He checks the weather app on his phone. “Snow and precipitation all day Sunday. Of course. I have no idea how long it’s going to take to drive back.

I might get in late.”

“That’s the whole weekend,” I reply glumly.

“You could come with me.” Hope flares in his eyes. “You wouldn’t have much to do at the brewery, but we could look up other stuff in Cohasset to entertain you. We’ll play music in the car and get a ton of road snacks.”

My focus zeroes in on the hotel part of this equation—namely, if we’d share a room. Would he request one bed or two? A bolt of excitement strikes, but it all goes dark when I remember: “I have an interview Saturday morning.”

“Oh, right, at the campground.”

I’m still not sure what the position entails. I’m trying to avoid cubicles or small office settings, and the idea of being paid to walk along nature trails holds a certain appeal. Our house in the woods has converted me into Bear Grylls.

“Well.” I pick at the thread until it unravels another inch. I can’t hide my disappointment.

Nicholas seems disappointed, too, but the ghost of a smile lifts his cheek and the skin around his eyes crinkles. “Going to miss me?”

“Not even,” I mumble. It convinces no one. To distract from the sudden gloom that’s fallen over us I say, “So, will you be making financial decisions on your parents’ behalf, then? You can invest their money for them? There’s a GoFundMe to make a movie about Pizza Rat, called Ratachewy. You should look into that.”

He laughs. “Nah, I don’t get to do whatever I want with their money. I’ll mostly be listening and taking notes. Then I’ll report back to Mom and she’ll decide what she wants to do.”

I don’t bother asking why Deborah can’t just go herself. The purpose of Deborah bearing children was so that she’d have minions obligated to do her bidding.

“It’s only two days,” he says gently. “You’ll have the house to yourself.

You can draw handlebar mustaches on all my pictures and jump on the bed naked.”

“Sounds like my average day.”

Once, this would have been a dream come true. No Nicholas! I would have been rejoicing. It’s such a bummer that now I have to miss his stupid, adorable face when he’s gone.

I set my alarm on Saturday morning so that I wake up early enough to see Nicholas off. It’s insane that they’ve scheduled the meeting for ten a.m.

when he has to drive to get there. It’s as dark as outer space and way too cold to be traveling. His engine and tires might blow up. On top of that, he’s leaving right when I’m starting to come down with the stomach flu.

There’s a rising lump in my throat when I watch him tie his shoelaces, a leather bag with a change of clothes and overnight essentials at his feet.

“I don’t feel well,” I mutter.

He turns his head, scanning me from top to bottom. “What’s wrong?”

“Stomachache. I feel like I’m going to be sick. I’m all sweaty and uncomfortable.” I’m also pacing. For something to do, I unzip his bag and paw through his stuff. I dab some of his cologne on my wrists and rub them together, then bring the scent to my nose to inhale slowly. It settles my nausea a little. Then I raise my eyes to meet Nicholas’s probing ones and my heart stutters. “What?”

“Nothing.” There’s a tremor in his voice and he looks away, tying his other shoe. When he stands up, I nearly shout.

“Wait! You can’t leave yet. You haven’t eaten any breakfast.”

“It’s too early for me to be hungry. I’ll grab something on the road later.”

“You want more coffee?” I drift toward the kitchen but he shakes his head, tapping a thermos.

“Got plenty right here.”

Maybe he shouldn’t drink coffee. It’ll get him all wired and he’ll speed.

He’ll fly off an overpass and his car will do sixteen rolls in midair. “I’m worried you’re going to fall asleep at the wheel.”

Nicholas chuckles. “I went to bed early, so I’m wide awake. I’ll be all right.”

“What if it starts to snow?”

“I won’t fall asleep even if it starts snowing.” I think I’m amusing him.

I frown. “Nicholas, I’m serious. I did some researching on Cohasset and I wasn’t going to say anything because I didn’t want to spook you, but in August there were three carjackings. Some guy came up to people at a gas station and said their gas cap had fallen off, and when they turned to check he pulled a gun on them.”

He cradles my jaw in his hands. His gaze is molten and he looks almost like he could love me. I think about all the times I almost walked away and it’s terrifying. I would have missed out on this. “Then I won’t get gas in Cohasset.”

I’m pathetic. A helpless newborn kitten. “You can’t leave me here when I’m ill.”

He puts a hand to my forehead. The gesture feels so intimate. I’ve slept with this man, but this feels intimate? I’m contagious. He can’t go to Cohasset or he’ll infect the whole brewery, and he needs to stay quarantined here with me.

“I think you’re lovesick,” he says with a curving mouth.

My stomach flips. My tongue is tied in at least three knots. I can’t think of a response, so he steps even closer, until our bodies are just barely touching. “You are. Trust me, I know all the signs.”

My mouth doesn’t work. I try to form words and let out an unintelligible squeak.

He grins and leans in to kiss my temple. His lips pause at my ear, and I shiver so hard I know he feels it. “It’s a condition I’m quite familiar with myself.”

I clutch the arm of the couch so that I don’t tip over when he withdraws.

His back is turned to me, shaking slightly, and I’d swear he’s trying not to laugh.

I’m such a mess over his accusation that I barely hold it together long enough to say good-bye. He says, “Good luck at your interview. I know you’ll knock it out of the park. Be back before you know it, pretty girl.”

He winks, and then he’s gone, in his Jeep that’s going to crash, with a contagious illness and either too much or not enough caffeine.

I burn away the next few hours painting the front door purple, ordering Nicholas a new phone charger—one that’s long enough to reach his nightstand—and setting up my new Instagram account dedicated to the gruesome salt and pepper shaker babies. I’ve named them Frank and Helvetica and I’m going to position them in a new location every day to bewilder Nicholas. It will be like Elf on the Shelf, and I’m calling it Demon on the Ceilin’. My favorite ideas involve suspending them from fishing line at Nicholas’s face-level. The shower! The car! His office at work! It’s going to be way more fun than my old Instagram.

My phone chimes with a text from Nicholas at 9:50 to say he arrived safely in Cohasset.

Good luck! I reply. I don’t know what I’m wishing him luck for. He’s not doing any of this for himself; he’s doing it for his parents.

He replies, You, too! For extra good luck, drive by the Junk Yard on your way to the interview. Seeing an old friend might be just the boost you need.

My old friend died a slow, agonizing death. It will probably sit empty for at least five years, or maybe get bulldozed, which can only serve to bum me out. But Nicholas is trying to be sweet and encouraging, so I send him back a smiley face. He’s so cute even when he’s wrong.

I think about what Nicholas is up to today. His devotion to family, being the rock they all depend on. Being the man they call to come fix whatever’s gone wrong, to smooth it out and make it better. I think of what these qualities will be like when transferred to a wife and children. I think how there’s no way he’ll ever miss a school play, a parent-teacher conference, a soccer game. How he’ll want his wife to know he’s capable of supporting her financially and she can work if she wants but doesn’t have to, because that’s how he shows his love—by providing stability.

It’s a gesture I’ve completely misinterpreted, since it’s loving but not necessarily romantic. You look at a love letter and it’s clear as day—you think, This is a love letter. But when your significant other says, You don’t need to work. You don’t need a job, you might hear, I don’t think you’ll find meaningful employment without a college education. I don’t believe in you.

In my head, I’ve been assuming that when Nicholas says I don’t need to work, what he means is that any job I’d qualify for is so beneath his notice that I might as well not work at all. In Nicholas’s head, all he’s done is say, Here I am, here I am. Be anything! It doesn’t matter if you don’t make much money, because I’ll take care of you. I’ll let you need me. I’ll be your rock, whatever happens. Spread your wings, you can always fall back on me.

Our communication has been so shitty, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I decide to put on Nicholas’s hat and coveralls because wearing his clothes is the next best thing to bringing him with me, and I cringe to remember smirking at his big, durable boots and the button-down flannel, him wanting to change his stripes. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to change his stripes? He can have spots, too, if he wants. I open the closet and find two pairs of coveralls: his, and a much smaller one. It’s an initiation into his secret society.

On the drive to the campground, I repeat comforting phrases that remind me there’s no use worrying about decisions not totally in my control. If it’s meant to be, it will be. If they don’t want to hire me, that’s their loss. Everything happens for a reason. I’m lying to myself, but at least I feel better.

As the road rears up to pass the lifeless shell of the Junk Yard, I prepare for the usual twinge of anguish, but it’s peppered with surprise when I spot my car in the parking lot. Or Leon’s car now, I suppose. God, I miss that Saturn. If I were Nicholas, I would never let me live that down. The fact that I no longer assume it’s a pulled punch he’s saving gives me hope.

We’re making progress.

Maybe it’s muscle memory, but I turn on my blinker and pull into the parking lot. A friendly face appears at the window and waves. I wave back.

“Hey!” Leon calls from the back room when I trundle into the shop.

“Hey, yourself!” I revolve in a circle. The store’s gutted. There are rows of stains where shelves have sat without budging since the 1970s. A ghost of the Junk Yard still clings in the form of an aluminum sign on the wall above the register. It’s been there since before I was born, I’m sure: a picture of a little girl bending to feed a mouse a wheel of cheese.

Underneath it says It’s the little things. “Wow. This place is empty.”

“I know.” He comes out of the back. “Weird, isn’t it? Somehow it looks even smaller now that everything’s gone.”

“What are you still doing here?” I ask him. “Mr. and Mrs. Howard got you on cleaning duty until the place sells?”

“Nope! As of three o’clock on Wednesday, this place is officially sold.”

He leans against the counter and waggles his eyebrows, giving me a big, cheesy grin. “I was actually going to text you and ask if you wanted to swing by today or tomorrow to see it. I swore Nicholas to secrecy because I wanted to see the look on your face when you heard who bought it. I know you doubted me.”

I gasp. “No way.”

“And there’s the look.” He folds his arms, nodding. “You’re standing in Backwoods Buffet. Coming this spring.”

“Backwoods Buffet?” I repeat with a laugh. I can’t believe Nicholas managed to keep this a secret. A few days ago Leon came over to fish in the pond with Nicholas and when I walked up on them to say hi, they clammed right up even though until then they’d been gabbing a mile a minute. Naturally, I assumed they were talking about me and I’m not entirely wrong.

He beams. “I’ve got other names if Backwoods Buffet sounds bad. The Grizzly Bear. Fireside. Timber! With an exclamation point, like you know how loggers used to yell …” He stops because I’m still laughing. “Hey, Timber!’s a good one.”

“It is.” I nod. “Fireside sounds cool, too.” I gaze around the place, trying to imagine tables and chairs full of people eating. “This is so awesome, Leon. I’m really happy for you! I’m trying to envision what it might look like, and in my head it’s like Bass Pro Shops. Where’s the kitchen going to go?”

“Got to have one put in when I have the addition built. I have a few uncles with their own construction business who are going to help me with that. Right now I’m working on rounding up a staff, which I was hoping you could help me out with …” He opens a drawer and pulls out a laminated plastic badge, placing it on the counter with a light thud. When I read it, I clap my hands over my mouth.



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