“She sounds like a prize,” I said grimly.
“I never knew why she went out with me. I was just some guy, and she was Chloe Newland. We dated for fourteen months. We were really happy, as far as I knew. At least, I was. The only problem was that she was always busy, and then she got busier and busier. Too busy to stop by my locker or the house, to call, to e-mail. So I would stop by her house. And call her. And e-mail her.”
It was all so horribly familiar.
“One night,” he went on, “we were supposed to study together, and she just didn’t show up. I drove over to her house, but her mom said she wasn’t there. And then I started to get kinda worried, because usually she would at least text me if she needed to cancel. So I started driving around, looking for her car—I mean, there are only so many places you can go in Gracetown. I found it in front of Starbucks, which made sense. We study there a lot because . . . what other option does society give us, right? It’s Starbucks or death, sometimes.”
He was wringing his hands furiously now, pulling on his fingers.
“What I figured,” he said pointedly, “is that I just made a mistake and that I was supposed to be studying with her at Starbucks all along, and I’d just forgotten. Chloe didn’t really like coming here to the house very much. Sometimes she got a little freaked out by my mom, if you can believe that.”
He looked up, as if waiting for a laugh from me. I managed a little smile.
“I was so relieved when I saw her car there. I’d been getting more and more upset driving around. I felt like a moron. Of course she was waiting for me at Starbucks. I went inside, but she wasn’t at any of the tables. One of my friends, Addie, works the counter. I asked her if she’d seen Chloe, since her car was there.”
Stuart ran his hands through his hair until it got kind of huge. I resisted the urge to pat it down. I kind of liked it that way, anyway. Something about his really big hair made me feel better—took away some of the burn I felt in my chest.
“Addie, she just got this very sad look on her face and she said, ‘I think she’s in the bathroom.’ I couldn’t figure out what was so incredibly sad about being in the bathroom. So I bought myself a drink, and I got one for Chloe, and I sat down and waited. There’s only one bathroom in our Starbucks, so she had to come out eventually. I didn’t have my computer or any books with me, so I was just generally staring at the wall mural where the bathroom door is. I was thinking about how stupid I was to get upset with her and how I’d kept her waiting, and then I realized that she’d been in the bathroom for a really long time and that Addie was still looking at me, really sadly. Addie went over and knocked on the door, and Chloe came out. So did Todd, the Cougar.”
“Todd, the Cougar?”
“It’s not a nickname. He’s literally the Cougar. He’s our mascot. He wears the cougar costume and does the cougar dances and everything. For a minute, my brain was trying to put it all together . . . trying to figure out why Chloe and Todd the Cougar were in a Starbucks bathroom. I guess my first hope was that it couldn’t be anything bad because everyone seemed to know they were in there. But from the look on Addie’s face, and the look on Chloe’s face—I didn’t look at Todd—it finally clicked. I still don’t know if they went in there because they saw me coming, or if they’d been in there for a while. If you’re hiding from your boyfriend in the bathroom with the Cougar . . . the details kind of don’t matter.”
I momentarily forgot all about my phone call. I was in that Starbucks with Stuart, seeing a cheerleader I didn’t know emerge from a bathroom with Todd the Cougar. Except in my vision, he was wearing the cougar outfit, which probably wasn’t how it really went down.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing. I just stood there, thinking I was going to be sick on the spot. But Chloe got furious. With me.”
“How does that work?” I said, furious on his behalf.
“I think she was freaked out by the fact that she’d been caught, and it was the only way she could think to react. She accused me of spying on her. She called me possessive. She said I put too much pressure on her. I think she meant emotionally—I guess—but it came out sounding so bad. So on top of it all, she made me sound like a letch in front of everyone in Starbucks, which might as well be everyone in town because nothing stays quiet here. I wanted to say, ‘You’re making out with the Cougar in the Starbucks bathroom. I am not the villain of this story.’ Only I didn’t say that because I literally couldn’t talk. So it must have looked like I agreed with her. Like I was admitting that I was a possessive, grabby, sex-freak stalker . . . and not the guy who was in love with her, who had been in love with her for more than a year, who would have done anything she asked. . . . ”
There probably was a point after the breakup when Stuart told this story all the time, but he clearly hadn’t done it in a while. He was out of practice. His expression didn’t change a lot—all of his emotion seemed to come out of his hands. He had stopped wringing them, and now they shook, just ever so slightly.
“Addie finally walked her outside to talk her down,” he said. “That’s how it all ended. And I got a latte, on the house. So it wasn’t a total loss. I became the guy who was famously dumped in public when his girlfriend cheated with the Cougar. Anyway . . . I had a point in saying all of that. My point is, that guy . . . ”
He pointed accusingly at the phone.
“ . . . is a dick. Although that probably doesn’t mean much to you right now.”
My memories of the last year were playing back through my mind at super-speed, but I was looking at them all from a different camera angle. There I was, Noah holding my hand, one step ahead of me, pulling me through the hall, talking to everyone else but me along the way. I sat with him in the front row at school basketball games, even though he knew that ever since I’d gotten hit in the face with a wayward ball I was scared of those seats. But still, we sat there, me frozen in terror, watching a game that never interested me to begin with. Yes, I sat with the upper-echelon seniors at lunch, but the conversations were repetitive. All they ever talked about was how busy they all were, how they were building their résumés for their college applications. How they were meeting with recruiters. How they were organizing their calendars online. Who was recommending them.