We left the blinking yellow path and cut down a completely shadowy path between some houses. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check it as we walked. There was no call from Noah. I tried to be stealthy about this, but Stuart saw me.
“No call?” he asked.
“Not yet. He must still be busy.”
“Does he know about your parents?”
“He knows,” I said. “I tell him everything.”
“Does that go both ways?” he asked.
“Does what go both ways?”
“You said you tell him everything,” he replied. “You didn’t say we tell each other everything.”
What kind of question was that? “Of course,” I said quickly.
“What’s he like, aside from being tangentially Swedish?”
“He’s smart,” I said. “But he’s not obnoxious smart, like one of those people who always have to tell you their GPA, or give you subtle hints about their SAT score or class rank or whatever. It’s just natural to him. He doesn’t work that hard for grades, and he doesn’t care that much. But they’re good. Really good. Plays soccer. He’s in Mathletes. He’s really popular.”
Yes, I actually said that. Yes, it sounded like some kind of sales pitch. Yes, Stuart got that smirky I’m-trying-not-to-laugh-at-you look again. But how was I supposed to answer that question? Everyone I knew knew Noah. They knew what he was, what he represented. I didn’t usually have to explain.
“Good résumé,” he said, not sounding all that impressed. “But what’s he like?” Oh, God. This conversation was going to go on.
“He’s . . . like what I just said.”
“Personality-wise. Is he secretly a poet or something? Does he dance around his room when he thinks no one is looking? Is he funny, like you? What’s his essence?”
Stuart had to have been playing with my head with this essence stuff. Although, there was something about how he had asked if Noah was funny, like me. That was kind of nice. And the answer was no. Noah was many things, but funny was not one of them. He usually seemed relatively amused by me, but as you may have noticed by now, sometimes I can’t shut up. On those occasions, he just looked tired.
“Intense,” I said. “His essence is intense.”
“Would I date him otherwise? Is it much farther?”
Stuart got the message this time and shut up. We walked on in silence until it was just empty space with a few trees. I could see that far off, at the top of an incline, there were more houses. I could just make out the distant glow of holiday lights. The snow was so thick in the air that everything was blurry. It would have been beautiful, if it didn’t sting so much. I realized my hands had gotten so cold that they’d rounded the corner and now almost felt hot. My legs wouldn’t last much longer.
Stuart put his arm out and stopped me.
“Okay,” he said. “I have to explain something. We’re going over a little creek. It’s frozen. I saw people sliding on it earlier.”
“How deep a creek?”
“Not that deep. Maybe five feet.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s somewhere right in front of us,” he said.
I looked out over the blank horizon. Somewhere under there was a small body of water, hidden under the snow.
“We can go back,” he said.
“You were going to go this way, no matter what?” I asked.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“It’s fine,” I said, trying to sound more certain than I felt. “So, we just keep walking?”
“That’s the plan.”
So that’s what we did. We knew we’d hit the creek when the snow got a little less deep, and there was a slight slipperiness underneath us instead of the thick, crunching, solid feeling. This is when Stuart decided to speak again.
“Those guys back at the Waffle House are so lucky. They’re about to have the best night of their lives,” he said.
There was something in his tone that sounded like a challenge, like he wanted me to take the bait. Which means I shouldn’t have. But I did, of course.
“God,” I said. “Why are all guys so easy like that?”
“Like what?” he said, giving me a sideways glance, slipping in the process.
“Saying that they’re lucky.”
“Because . . . they’re trapped in a Waffle House with a dozen cheerleaders?”
“Where does this arrogant fantasy come from?” I said, maybe a little more sharply than I intended. “Do guys really believe that if they are the only male in the area, that girls will suddenly crawl on top of them? Like we scavenge for lone survivors and reward them with group make-out sessions?”
“That isn’t what happens?” he asked.
I didn’t even dignify that remark with a comeback.
“But what’s wrong with cheerleaders?” he asked, sounding very pleased that he’d gotten such a rise out of me. “I’m not saying I only like cheerleaders. I’m just not prejudiced against them.”
“It’s not prejudice,” I said firmly.
“It’s not? What is it then?”
“It’s the idea of cheerleaders,” I said. “Girls, on the sidelines, in short skirts, telling guys that they’re great. Chosen for their looks.”
“I don’t know,” he said tauntingly. “Judging groups of people you don’t know, making assumptions, talking about their looks . . . it sounds like prejudice, but—”
“I am not prejudiced!” I shot back, unable to control my reaction now. There was so much darkness around us at that moment. Above us, there was a hazy pewter-pink sky. Around us, there were only the outlines of the skinny bare trees, like thin hands bursting out of the earth. Endless white ground below, and swirling flakes, and a lonely whistle of wind, and the shadows of houses.
“Look,” Stuart said, refusing to quit this annoying game, “how do you know that in their spare time, they aren’t EMTs or something? Maybe they save kittens, or run food banks, or—”
“Because they don’t,” I said, stepping ahead of him. I slipped a little but jerked myself upright. “In their spare time, they get waxings.”
“You don’t know that,” he called from behind me.
“I wouldn’t have to explain this to Noah,” I said. “He would just get it.”