“Are you just saying this because of Chloe?” I asked.
It worked. Stuart’s head snapped back a little. He clicked his jaw back and forth a few times, then steadied himself.
“Let me guess,” he said. “My mom told you all about it.”
“She didn’t tell me all about it.”
“This has nothing to do with Chloe,” he said.
“Oh no?” I replied. I had no idea what happened between Stuart and Chloe, but I’d gotten the reaction I wanted.
He stood up, and looked very tall from where I was.
“Chloe has nothing to do with it,” he said again. “Do you want to know how I know what’s going to happen?”
No, actually. I didn’t. But Stuart was going to tell me anyway.
“First, he’s avoiding you on Christmas. Want to know who does that? People who are about to break up with someone. You know why? Because big days make them panic. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries . . . they feel guilty, and they can’t get into it with you.”
“He’s just busy,” I said weakly. “He has a lot to do.”
“Yeah, well, if I had a girlfriend, and her parents had been arrested on Christmas Eve, and she had to take a long train ride through a storm . . . I’d have my phone in my hand all night. And I would answer it. On the first ring. Every time. I’d be calling her to check on her.”
I was stunned silent. He was right. That’s exactly what Noah should have done.
“Plus, you just told him you fell into a frozen creek and you were trapped in a strange town. And he hung up? I’d do something. I’d get down here, snow or no snow. Maybe that sounds stupid, but I would. And if you want my advice? If he isn’t breaking up with you, you should dump his ass.”
Stuart said all of this in a big rush, as if the words were blown up by some emotional windstorm deep inside. But there was a gravity to it, and it was . . . touching. Because he clearly meant it. He said everything that I had wished Noah would say. I think he felt bad, because he shifted back and forth silently after that, waiting to see what damage he had caused. It was a minute or two before I could speak.
“I need a minute,” I finally said. “Is there somewhere . . . I can go?”
“My room,” he offered. “Second on the left. It’s kind of a mess, but . . . ”
I got up and left the table.
Stuart’s room was messy. He wasn’t kidding. This was the opposite of Noah’s room. The only thing that was completely upright was a framed copy of the picture I had seen in his wallet sitting on his bureau. I went over and had a look at it. Chloe was a stunner, no kidding. Long, deep brown hair. Eyelashes you could clean a floor with. A big, bright smile, a natural tan, a splash of freckles. She had pretty right down to the bone.
I sat on his unmade bed and tried to think, but there was just a low hum in my head. From downstairs, I heard the sound of a piano being played, really well. Stuart was running through Christmas songs. He had real style—not just like one of those people who play by rote. He could have been playing in a restaurant or a hotel lobby. Probably somewhere better than that, even, but those were the only places I’d seen piano players, really. Outside the window, two little birds huddled together on a branch, shaking snow off themselves.
There was a phone on Stuart’s floor. I picked it up and dialed. Noah sounded just the tiniest bit annoyed when he answered.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s up? We’re about to go, and—”
“In the last twenty-four hours,” I said, cutting him off, “my parents have been arrested. I got put on a train, which got stuck in a blizzard. I’ve walked miles in deep snow with bags on my head. I fell into a stream, and I’m stuck in a strange town with people I don’t know. And your excuse for not being able to talk is . . . what, exactly? That it’s Christmas?”
That shut him up. Which wasn’t really what I was aiming for, but I was glad to see he had some sense of shame.
“Do you still want to go out with me?” I asked. “Be honest with me, Noah.”
The other end of the line went silent for a long time. Too long for the answer to be “Yes. You are the love of my life.”
“Lee,” Noah said, his voice sounding low and strained. “We shouldn’t talk about this now.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Isn’t that really more reason to talk?”
“You know how it is here.”
“Well,” I said, hearing anger spring into my voice. “You have to talk to me, because I am breaking up with you.”
I could barely believe what was coming out of my mouth. The words seemed to come from a place deep inside me, far beyond the place where I stored them, past the ideas . . . from some room in the back that I didn’t even know was there.
There was a long silence.
“Okay,” he said. It was impossible to tell what tone was in his voice. It may have been sadness. It may have been relief. He didn’t beg me to take it back. He didn’t cry. He just did nothing.
“Well?” I asked.
“Aren’t you even going to say anything?”
“I’ve kind of known for a while,” he said. “I was thinking about it, too. And if this is what you want, you know, I guess it’s for the best, and . . . ”
“Merry Christmas,” I said. I hung up. My hand was shaking. My whole body was, practically. I sat on Stuart’s bed and wrapped my arms around myself. Downstairs, the music stopped, and the house filled up with a drowning kind of quiet.
Stuart appeared at the door, pushing it open cautiously. “Just checking to make sure you were okay,” he said.
“I did it,” I replied. “I just picked up the phone and did it.”
Stuart came and sat down. He didn’t put his arm around me, just sat next to me, kind of close, but with a little space between us.
“He didn’t seem surprised,” I said.
“Assholes never are. What did he say?”
“Something about how he’s known it for a while, how it’s probably for the best.”
For some reason, this made me hiccup. We sat in silence for a while. My head was spinning.
“Chloe was like Noah,” he finally said. “Really . . . perfect. Beautiful. Good grades. She sang, she did charity work, and she was a . . . you’ll like this . . . a cheerleader.”