When we get out to Noah’s 4Runner, I notice that there’s a new addition: a booster seat in the back seat. My mouth falls open when I see it.
“When did you get the booster seat?” I ask him.
“I went out and grabbed one after I picked you up yesterday,” he says. He frowns at me. “You’re really supposed to have a booster seat for kids less than eighty pounds, and I didn’t want to put Lily in any danger. Not that I’m not a good driver, and… well, this car is really safe, but still.” He looks away. “You never know, right?”
“Thanks,” I say. “I appreciate you thinking of Lily.”
Lily is clearly not thrilled by the booster seat when I show it to her while Noah is taking care of something back in the house. “Why do I have to sit in that?” she whines. “Daddy doesn’t make me sit in a baby seat.”
“It’s not a baby seat,” I say. “It’s a booster seat. For big kids.”
“No!” she howls. “It’s for baaaaaaaabbbbbbies!”
Just when I’m worried she’s going to hurl herself onto the dirt and have a tantrum, Noah emerges from the cabin. He grins at Lily. “Hey there,” he says to her, “did you see the new special seat I bought just for you?”
Lily’s eyes widen. She looks between Noah and the offending seat. Then, without another word, she climbs into the seat and allows me to buckle her in. This is almost getting ridiculous.
Noah puts on music for the ride into town, and I’m grateful we don’t have to attempt to make conversation. In the brief time I’ve been here, we have yet to have one interaction that didn’t include him yelling at me. I’m getting sick of it. I promised my father I’d stay here for a week, but if things don’t get better with Noah soon, I may take off sooner.
Gwen and my father are waiting outside the diner when we arrive. Gwen is holding a big shopping bag and has a beaming face. God, I hope she’s not spending all of my father’s money—he’s barely making ends meet as is. Then again, Gwen has a son who’s a rich doctor. She doesn’t need my father’s meager social security checks.
“I thought it would be nice to eat out,” Gwen says. She pats Noah’s shoulder, “You deserve a break from cooking for us.”
“I don’t mind,” he says.
The diner is one of those all-American places where you can get a big pile of greasy food. It’s just what I feel like right now. Plus, I’m fairly sure that I won’t be the one paying. I hope not, at least.
There are four steps to get to the front door, and Noah hangs onto the railing as he climbs them very, very slowly. He gets to the top last of the five of us, and my father is holding open the door for him. Even though he doesn’t say anything, I can tell from the look on his face that Noah hates having the door held for him. When we were together, he would always jump ahead of me to hold doors for me. He even rushed to open the car door for me, even though I would laugh and tell him he was being silly. He liked being a gentleman, especially for me. It was something I missed when I was with Theo, who wouldn’t have thought to hold a door for me in a million years.
A pretty waitress greets us at the door, whose nametag reads “Katy.” She’s in her late twenties with teased blond hair and too much make-up. She beams at us when we ask for a table for five. “Certainly, honey!” she says with the slightest twinge of a Southern twang. “Any special family occasion?”
Noah smiles crookedly at her. “Sort of.” He gestures at me. “Her dad and my mother just got engaged.”
I can see the wheels turning in Katy’s head. She looks down at Noah’s bare left ring finger and puts it all together. “Oh!” she says to Noah. “So you and her… you two ain’t married?”
He shakes his head no, and Katy’s smile widens.
Way back when, girls used to hit on Noah in front of me. Far more, actually, than guys would hit on me, even when I was alone. Noah’s hotter than I am, apparently. In any case, it happened, but it wasn’t out of control. However, today, right now, in this diner, Katy’s behavior is out of control. Fine—I get that she thinks he’s hot, but she’s practically slobbering over him as she leads us to our table. I feel embarrassed for her.
Once we get seated, Katy rests her hand on Noah’s shoulder. “Now I’ve got to go take another order,” she says to us, but mostly to him, “but I will be right back here in a jiffy to take good care of y’all.”
“Thank you,” Noah says.
Katy doesn’t move her hand. “My, you’ve got some big muscles there… Do you work out?”
To his credit, Noah looks embarrassed. “Uh, I guess.”
“Well, you keep it up.” Katy winks at him as she walks away.
Gwen, who is thankfully seated next to Noah so I don’t need to sit next to him yet again, says to her son, “You should ask that girl for her phone number, Noah.”
“Christ, Mom,” he says. “I don’t need to ask out every waitress who flirts with me at a restaurant.”
“I’m just saying,” she says. “She seems really sweet. And she sure seems to like you.”
“She sure does,” I mutter.
Even though I said the words under my breath, Noah hears me. He raises his eyebrows at me across the table, and I’m worried about what that means.
Katy returns a minute later, and maybe I’m imagining it, but it looks like she’s freshened up her cherry-red lipstick during that time. She positions herself right next to Noah. “Now can I get y’all something to drink?”
“I’d love a beer,” Noah says, lifting his blue eyes to gaze directly at her. “What do you have on tap?”
“Well, we got Budweiser, Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Guinness, and Sam Adams.” She ticks them off on her long red fingernails. “Which one would you like, sugar?”
He smiles up at her. “Which one would you recommend… Katy?”
She beams at the use of her first name. “Well, you seem like a Guinness man to me… what did you say your name was?”
“I’m Noah,” he says.
She thrusts out her chest, which is already at least a cup size larger than mine. “Yes, I’d definitely recommend a Guinness for you, Noah.”
“Perfect,” he says. “Looking forward to it.”
So apparently, Noah has taken my comment as a personal challenge. When Katy returns with our drinks and to take our orders, he spends forever making her go through all the specials even though I know he only ever orders burgers at diners.
“Now how are the French fries here, Katy?” he asks her.
She bats her eyelashes at him. “Best in town, sugar.”
“Is that so?” he says.
“Well, I guarantee it.”
“I don’t know,” Noah says doubtfully. “I think I went to another place last month that had damn good fries.”
“Tell you what,” Katy says, “you show me a place in town that has better fries than here, and I’ll give you your next meal on the house.”
“Maybe I will,” Noah says.
“Give me a break,” I mutter.
Noah hears me again, but this time, he grins. Congratulations, Noah. You have succeeded in both irritating me and making me extremely uncomfortable.
And maybe a little bit jealous.
Not to be outdone by a waitress with too much hairspray and make-up, Lily tugs at Noah’s shirt. “You said you’d take us to the movies.”
“Yeah I did.” He nods. “What do you want to see, Lily?”
I clench my hands into fists. “Lily, I already took you to see Dogcat.”
“Yes, but I want to see it again,” she insists. “It’s my favorite movie!”
I don’t see how Dogcat could be Lily’s favorite movie or anyone’s favorite movie. It was literally the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life. There are some movies where they try to make it entertaining to the adults who get dragged along to see these films, but I feel like the people who made Dogcat weren’t even making a half-hearted attempt.
“Maybe Lenny and I could take Lily,” Gwen suggests. “I’d love to get to know her a little better.”
“Sure,” Noah says, clearly relieved to be released from his Dogcat responsibilities.
Lily looks around the table, her face crumpling. “But I want Noah to come!” she wails.
Before this can turn into an all-out tantrum, we quickly reassure Lily that Noah will come to the movie and that this is in no way a rejection of her. You think two-year-olds throw bad tantrums? You should see my six-year-old daughter when she’s at her worst. She screams her head off like we’re committing child abuse.
Katy brings out food for Noah and Lily first, then returns with plates for Gwen and my father. My stomach growls as I wait patiently for my own burger and fries to arrive, while everyone else digs into their food like I don’t exist. Doesn’t anyone at this table have any manners?
“I wonder what’s taking my food so long?” I ask, craning my neck to spot our waitress.
Noah shrugs as he takes a bite of his juicy burger. “Maybe your food is more complicated?”
“I ordered literally the same exact same thing you did!”
“Be a little patient, Bailey,” Gwen says evenly. “I’m sure she’ll bring it out soon.”
I look at Noah, who shrugs again.
Katy is nowhere to be seen. I finally get out of my seat to go search for her because I’m just that hungry, only to return to our table and find her standing with her hand on Noah’s shoulder.
“Can I get you a refill of that beer, sugar?” she asks him. “On the house?”
A refill of his beer? Where’s my food?
Noah smiles up at her. “Better not. I’ve got to drive.”
“Oh, you’re so responsible!”
I bite the inside of my cheek and take a deep breath, knowing this woman can (and probably will) spit in my food. “Excuse me,” I say tentatively, “is my burger coming out soon?”
Katy flashes me an annoyed look. “I’ll go check on that for you, ma’am.”
Ma’am? Wow, that was low.
Katy brings out my plate from the kitchen a minute later and drops it unceremoniously in front of me. Right away, I can see I got onion rings instead of the fries I ordered. And my burger has no cheese on it. And it seems like the extra time in the kitchen was spent charring my burger to a crisp, but somehow they still managed to make time to let it grow cold.
“What’s wrong, Bee?” Dad asks me. “You were so hungry a minute ago.”
I eye the inedible burger. And the onion rings that will probably give me heartburn. “It’s just that…”
I glance at Gwen, who already gave me a hard time for complaining about the burger last night, and is giving me her best “now what?” expression. I can’t give these people any further reason to hate me.
“No, it’s fine,” I say quickly.
While we’re eating our meals, Katy comes over to check on how Noah’s doing no less than five times. I suspect if I weren’t here, Noah would have gotten irritated with her at some point, but each time she comes over, he flirts with her. He tells her the fries are “pretty good,” but he’s sure that he’s had better ones in town.
“Well, you’ll just have to show me before I believe it,” Katy says.
He winks at her. “Guess I will.”
Gwen is delighted by all the flirting. I don’t get it—she can’t possibly think Noah really likes this woman. He’s clearly doing it to get back at me.
We tell Katy we’re not interested in dessert, but she brings over a whopping slice of apple pie a la mode, which she sets down right in front of Noah. “You can’t have a burger without a slice of pie at the end,” she tells him. Despite the fact that my father and I also both got burgers yet were not given free pie. I didn’t even get cheese on my burger. I’m lucky I got a napkin.
Noah glances down at the pie. “I’m not really that hungry.” He glances at my daughter, who is practically salivating over the pie. “Can Lily have it?”
At the mention of her name, Lily claps her hands together. “Puh-leeeeassse, Mommy?”
I know the pie is going to give her a terrible sugar rush, but I’m desperate to seem like a nice person, so I say, “Sure, honey.”
Gwen’s mouth falls open. “You’re really letting her have that whole thing?”
God, I really can’t win. I smile awkwardly. “She’ll never finish it.”
Lily never finishes anything, but damned if she doesn’t finish every single bite of that stupid pie. She even licks the plate when she finishes. I keep my eyes on the table, avoiding any judgmental stares.
When Katy brings out the check, Noah quickly waves it over in his direction. “No, Noah!” Gwen scolds him. “You always pay. You let me treat for a change.”
“I should be the one treating,” Dad says. “Noah, you’re the one offering your home for us all to stay in.”
I keep my mouth shut. I’m sure not paying.
Noah plucks the check out of Katy’s fingers. “I’m paying. End of story.”
“You’re so generous.” Katy smiles at him and pulls a little napkin out of her pocket. She places it on the table next to the check. “I also got something else for you. For later.”
After Katy walks away, Noah flips over the napkin to reveal ten digits scrawled in pen. His eyes meet mine, and he smiles.
“She gave you her phone number!” Gwen claps her hands excitedly. “Noah, you’re going to call her, aren’t you?”
He takes the napkin and shoves it into his pocket. “Maybe.”
Lily wrinkles her nose. “You’re going to go on a date with her?”
“He’s not really,” I say before I can stop myself.
I probably shouldn’t have said that. Suddenly, every adult at the table is glaring at me. If Katy were sitting with us, she’d probably be scratching my eyes out with her long, red fingernails.
Noah raises an eyebrow. “Why not, Bailey? Why can’t I go out with her? What would be so wrong with that?”
Great. Now he’s probably going to marry that waitress just to teach me a lesson.
“Nothing,” I mumble. “Nothing would be wrong with it. You should ask her out. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”
“Glad I’ve got your approval.”
Maybe he will go out with that waitress. Maybe they’ll really hit it off. Maybe she’s his future wife.
And I’m not sure why that idea bothers me so much.
Noah is graduating today.
It makes me sick to think about it. No, that sounds bad. I’m happy for him—I truly am. But at the same time, graduation means that Noah will go to New York City and spend the next four years making new friends at NYU Medical School, and meeting new girls that will soon replace me. I already hate these new girls.
We won’t even have the summer together. Noah just finished the last of his vaccinations and is flying out to Africa next week to help dig a well in Gambia. That’s what he’s doing with his last summer before med school—digging a freaking well. He says it’s really important, that the people in the town don’t have clean water, et cetera, et cetera. He’s not doing it to pad his resume—he genuinely cares about this cause. So I would have felt like a monster if I begged him to stay in the states to hang out with his girlfriend when there are dehydrated little Gambian children who need clean water. Although I’m not entirely sure why they can’t dig their own damn well.
Wow, I sound like such a bitch. But it’s only because I can’t stop thinking about how much I’ll miss Noah.
When he found out he was going to NYU, Noah suggested doing the long distance thing for a year till I graduated, and then follow him to New York City. I almost said yes, but then I got greedy.
“If you expect me to follow you to New York,” I said, “I’d expect a little more of a commitment from you.”
“More commitment?” he repeated. “What are you talking about? I’m not some guy you just met. We’ve been dating for two years!”
“I know, but…” I bit my lip, knowing this argument wasn’t going to a good place. “Look, we’re dating, but it’s not like we’re engaged or anything.”
“Engaged?” Noah’s blue eyes became huge. “Are you kidding me? I’m only twenty-one years old! You really expect us to get married?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, trying not to let on how much his words stung. “I don’t expect us to get married. But likewise, you can’t expect me to follow you to Manhattan.”
Noah sighed. “Shit, Bailey. I don’t want to lose you, but… I’m not ready to get married yet. I’m not.”
And that was it. I gave him an ultimatum, and now we’re breaking up.
Noah looks painfully handsome dressed in a crisp white shirt with a blue tie. He got his hair cut short for his medical school interviews and he seems to be keeping it that way. It makes him even more conventionally good-looking than he was before, but I miss the shaggy hair he used to have. Maybe because the whole thing feels like a sign that he’s moving on.
I’m helping Noah tie his tie. I watched a video about how to do it, so I’m doing it for him. I loop one end of the tie over the other, watching his Adam’s apple bob. I’m inches away from his face, and I can’t help but notice how nice he smells. He started using a new brand of aftershave lately. I love it, actually, but it also makes me sad. Noah’s changing. He’s going to move on.
“There,” I say as I tighten the knot on his tie. I brush off imaginary lint on his shirt. “Perfect.”
Noah turns to examine himself in his bedroom mirror. “I wouldn’t say perfect.”
“Pretty good for a first try!”
He smiles crookedly. “That’s a little different than ‘perfect,’ isn’t it?”
I let out a huff. “What’s the difference? You’re going to be wearing a cap and gown anyway.”
Noah looks down at the black cap and gown lain out on his bed and shakes his head. “It’s a million degrees out. I’m getting out of that stupid gown the second I can.”
“Well, I think the tie is fine,” I say.
“Fine!” he snorts. “So we’ve gone from ‘perfect’ to ‘pretty good’ to ‘fine.’ You’re worrying me, Bailey.”
What I really want to say to him is, Why are you obsessing about a stupid tie when we’re probably never going to see each other after this?
Except he doesn’t care. Not really. He’s already moved on. He mentioned a graduation party his mother is throwing for him in a few days, and only half-heartedly invited me. If you feel like it.
In his head, I’m already his ex-girlfriend. And it makes me so depressed, I can’t even think straight.
He’s the best thing I ever had, and I lost him because of that stupid ultimatum. And now he's already moved on. I will never meet another guy I like as much as Noah. I’ll never meet someone who races to open doors for me, deeply cares about the welfare of children in Gambia, and makes me knees weak when he kisses me. There’s only one Noah Walsh in the world, and I blew it.
“You look perfect,” I correct myself. “That was what I meant.”
Noah smiles and puts his arms around my waist. “You look perfect too.”
Just not perfect enough to marry.
I swallow a gigantic lump in my throat. “So… when do you have to go?”
“Pretty soon.” Noah looks down at his watch. “Actually, I need to get out of here any minute now.”
“Oh.” This is it. The end.
“There’s just one thing I need to do before I go.” He turns away from me and reaches into the top drawer of his desk. I don’t see what he pulls out of it, but then a second later, he’s on the ground. He’s on his knee. He’s taking my hand in his and…
Oh my God, he’s asking me to marry him.
“Bailey,” he begins.
I turn away from him. I’m already crying. I can’t seem to stop. I might never stop.
“I love you so much, Bailey,” he goes on, “and… hey, stop crying.”
“I can’t,” I manage, wiping my eyes with the hand he isn’t holding.
“Look, I know this isn’t exactly what you wanted,” he says, “but I love you and I want to be with you forever. So… will you marry me?”
I look down at the ring. It’s very simple—a plain silver band with a tiny diamond another woman might have laughed at. But I know Noah’s hurting for money, what with his med school tuition looming on the horizon, so the fact that he managed a diamond at all makes me cry even harder.
A crease forms between his brows. “You’re not saying anything.”
“Yes!” I practically yell the word. Thank God he didn’t do a public proposal because I’m sure my response would have been on YouTube, embarrassing me for decades to come. “Of course, yes.”
Noah gets back on his feet. He places the ring on my shaking finger, made all the more difficult because he’s shaking too. We grin dumbly at each other and then kiss for several minutes. I can’t seem to let go of him.
“I thought you weren’t ready to get married,” I say when we finally separate for air.
“I want to be with you,” he says firmly. “That’s all that matters.”
“It can be a long engagement,” I say and he laughs. I mean it though. I don’t need a wedding right now—just knowing that Noah and I are going to be together forever is all I need.
To be continued...