Lola and the Boy Next Door
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I follow his lead to keep the conversation moving forward. “An adult. Officially.”
“It’s true, I feel incredibly mature. Then again, maturity has always been my greatest strength.”
This time, his usual self-deprecation makes me flinch. He was always more mature. Except, perhaps, around me. “So . . . you’re here to visit Calliope?” I shake my head as the embarrassment continues. “Of course you are. It’s her birthday, too. I’m just surprised to see you since it’s Saturday night. I assumed you’d be at some party across the bay, chugging beer in the handstand position.”
He scratches the side of his neck. “Cal would never admit this, but it’s been a rough adjustment for her. Me being away while she’s still at home. Not that I wouldn’t have come home tonight otherwise, of course I would. And I actually did drop by one of those parties for a minute as a favor to someone, but . . . perhaps you didn’t notice.” Cricket adjusts his tie. “I’m not the kegger type.”
“Me neither.” I don’t have to explain that it’s because of Norah. He knows.
“What about your boyfriend?” His voice betrays a forced cool.
I’m embarrassed he’d assume it, but I can’t deny that Max looks the type. “He isn’t a party guy either. Not really. I mean, he drinks and smokes, but he respects my feelings. He never tries to get me to join him or anything.”
Cricket ducks underneath a pink-flowered branch in our path. Our neighborhood blooms year-round. I walk below it without having to bend. “What do your parents think about you dating someone that old?” he asks.
I wince. “You should know that I’m really tired of having that conversation.”
“Sorry.” But then like he can’t help it, “So, uh . . . how old is he?”
“Twenty-two.” For some reason, admitting this to him feels uncomfortable.
A long pause. “Wow.” The word is slow and heavy.
My heart sinks. I want to be his friend, but on what planet would that work? There’s too much history between us for friendship. We quietly climb our street’s hill until we reach my house. “Bye, Cricket.” I can’t meet his eyes again. “Happy birthday.”
“Eggs.” He points. “You have my eggs.”
Embarrassed, I hold out the carton. His long fingers reach for it, and I find myself bracing for the physical contact. But it doesn’t come. He takes the carton by its edge. It’s a cautious, deliberate move. It reminds me that I shouldn’t be with him.
And it reminds me that I can’t tell Max.
The more I think about our conversation, the more frustrated I get. Cricket says he’s changed, but changed what? A willingness to speak his mind? To finally say he likes me? Or is there something else? Toward the end of our friendship, he grew so strange and distant until he cut me off completely by not inviting me to that stupid party. Which he still doesn’t want to talk about. And now he wants to be friends again, but then he leaves early the next morning and doesn’t come home for TWO WEEKS?
“Lola can’t play today.” Andy is banging around among his pots and pans, which is why we hadn’t heard Cricket knock on our front door. We left it open to let the heat escape, because our kitchen gets hot when all of the ovens are running. “She’s on pie duty. There was a huge, emergency, last-minute change to an order this morning.”
“Dad. He didn’t come over to play.”
Cricket holds up a box. “This was delivered to our house. It’s yours.”
Andy looks up.
“Lola’s,” Cricket clarifies. He places it on the floor outside the kitchen while Betsy runs in circles around him. She’s always loved Cricket.
“Thanks.” I say the word cautiously, a warning if he’s listening for it. I set down a bag of flour and move to examine the package. “Cool! It’s the boning for my stays.”
“Corset,” Andy says distractedly. “Lola, get your butt back in here.”
Cricket reddens. “Oh.”
Point number two for Andy in today’s embarrassment department. Cricket leans over to pet Betsy, who collapses belly-up, and I pretend not to notice his blush. Though I’m not sure he’s earned that particular favor. Or my dog’s belly.
“It’s for a dress,” I explain.
Cricket nods without looking at me. “Pie emergency?” A final rub, and then he enters the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves and removing his bracelets. “Need a hand?”
“Oh, no.” I’m alarmed. “Thanks, but we’ve got it.”
“Grab an apron, they’re in the top drawer there.” Andy points across the room.
“You can’t ask him to help,” I say. “It’s not his job.”
“He didn’t ask.” Cricket ties a long, white apron around his waist. “I volunteered.”
“See?” Andy says. “The boy makes sense. Unlike some teenagers I could mention.”
I narrow my eyes at him. It’s not my fault I’d rather spend my only weekend day off with Lindsey. I had to cancel our plans for sushi and shopping in Japantown. When I asked if she wanted to come over and help, she said, “No thanks, Ned. I’ll make new plans .” And I get that. But if she doesn’t hang out with me, she’ll just stay in and watch a marathon of CSI or Veronica Mars.
Which makes her happy. But still.
“Those pumpkins need to be seeded before I can toss them into the oven. Put the seeds and strings on that pile for compost,” Andy says.
“Pumpkins. Got it.” Cricket washes his hands and grabs the biggest pumpkin.
I resume weighing flour for two dozen crusts. When you bake in large quantities, scales are required, not measuring cups. “Really, we’re okay. I’m sure you have homework.”
“It’s no problem.” Cricket shrugs. “Where’s the other Mr. Nolan?”
Andy closes his eyes. Cricket tenses, realizing he’s said something wrong. “Nathan is with Norah today,” I explain.
“Is . . . everything all right?” he asks.