The last time I kissed Rachel Greenstein, we lay in the bed of Scarlett, my Ford pick-up, watching the sun sink beyond West Lake. It was a mild mid-November night. The branches overhead were bare, and a breeze carried the ragged scent of leaves smoking in rusty oil drums. Winter was coming, no question, but I could almost fool myself that it was summer for just one more day.
“And poof,” Rachel said softly as the last brilliant sliver slid out of sight. “There it goes.”
“Now it’s just you, me, and the man in the moon,” I said. “And what a dirty old man he is, spying on us girls. Pervert!” I yelled at the sky.
Rachel laughed, a low bubbling sound.
“I can’t blame him, though,” I said. “It must get boring up there. Nothing to do but sit around and eat green cheese. What does green cheese taste like, anyway?”
“Blue cheese gone bad?”
“Gross. Blue cheese already tastes like it’s gone bad.” I cuddled closer. Rachel was a full head taller than me, but that didn’t matter when we were horizontal. “So, do you think he’s just a voyeur, or does he want a ménage à trois? I’d speculate, but I only got a C in astro.”
Rachel didn’t answer, and I felt like an idiot. Why was I running my mouth on what might be the last beautiful night of the year?
She pulled the blanket higher, enveloping us in plaid wool. Wriggling beneath, I untucked her shirt from her jeans and began kissing her belly. As my mouth moved upward, she gripped my shoulders. “Colby.”
It took me a moment to realize she wasn’t pulling me toward her. She was pushing me away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, resurfacing. “Chilly?”
“No, no. I just need to stop for a second.” Rachel tugged her shirt down and struggled to a sitting position. She frowned out at the lake, its surface gone from sapphire to obsidian in a matter of minutes. I sat up beside her. This wasn’t the first time Rachel had stopped me—she’d never let me go as far as I was ready to—but we’d definitely gone farther than this.
“Rachel, come on. Talk to me.”
She dug her fingers into her short dark curls and shook her head. “I guess I’m just stressed. College apps, senior project, orchestra, the Alliance.”
“It’s just you and me out here. Forget that crap.”
“Sure you can. Just lie back, close your eyes, and pretend it doesn’t exist.” I tucked my wispy blond hair behind my ears and leaned in, hoping for another kiss. “Trust me, it works.”
“Right. I guess that’s why you’re failing chemistry.”
I fell back, my head clunking against Scarlett’s rear window. “How’d you know that?”
“Van told me.”
Van. The only way to keep that boy’s mouth shut was to wire it. “It’s one lousy class,” I said.
“Except it’s not, is it? Van said your dad had to sign your midterm report. That’s serious. And you’ve been in detention practically all fall.”
“So, I’m not the star pupil you are. I’m good at other things, right?” I squeezed her thigh, but she ignored my teasing. “Look, I’m doing fine. Maybe not your super-duper, honor roll version of ‘fine,’ but it’s good enough for me.”
“I worry about you sometimes. They say junior year’s most important to colleges.”
“You don’t have to worry. You’re not my guidance counselor, Rachel, you’re my—”
Girlfriend. That was the word I wanted to say more than anything. But even though we’d been hanging out—making out—on and off since the summer, we’d never discussed just what we meant to each other. Every time I wanted to bring it up, I chickened out.
A strong gust blew across the lake, sending water lapping noisily onto the sand. Swallows darted in the dusky blue sky. The Michigan cold was creeping back, seeping into my butt through the corrugated metal of Scarlett’s bed. I drew the blanket up to my chin. “Can we go back to making out now?”
My stomach knotted.
Then she said it: “I think we need to stop.”
She didn’t mean just for a moment. “You mean, forever?” I said stupidly.
“I don’t understand. Did I do something wrong?”
“No. I mean—no.”
“Did I push you too fast? Because I can lay off. It’s not like I’m one hundred percent hormones. Only ninety-five.” I laughed nervously.
“No! It’s what I was trying to explain just now. I’m stressed. This—this thing we’re doing, it—”
“I’m stressing you out?”
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, sort of.” Rachel stared upward. I followed her gaze to the first glimmering stars. Then I turned back to her wide-set gray eyes, her curls that sprang back into place when I pulled them gently, the dimple in her chin that drew my fingertip like a magnet.
“I don’t get it. I thought we were having fun. I thought this was, like, anti-stress.”
“I know. And it was, for a while. But now, there’s so much going on in my life, and it just feels like one more thing to deal with.” Rachel blinked at me. Her cheeks were wet. “It would be the same with anyone, Colby.”
“But I’m not anyone,” I said, even as I thought, Am I?