I decided for about the hundredth time tonight that I’m not going to Cassandra Castillo’s spring break barter party.
Then I changed my mind, because, fuck it: I’m seventeen, lonely, and horny. If I bailed on the party, not only would Coop and Ben never forgive me, but I’d have nothing else to do tonight that didn’t involve a bottle of hand lotion and a crusty sock of Catholic shame.
Friday night. I was sitting in a booth at a greasy dive with my best friends, Coop and Ben, praying for the finger of God to wipe us and the whole stupid town of Rendview off the map so that I wouldn’t have to make a decision about Cassie’s party. The problem wasn’t the party. It was the hostess of the party and the fact that, for the first time since freshman year, she was single. And not just single. Newly single. In fact, she had barely been free of the shackles of monogamy for an entire week.
But if I was going to make my move, I couldn’t afford to waste time.
Coop interrupted my Cassie-filled daydreams by asking me and Ben a totally irrelevant question. “Who’d play you
in a movie about your life?” Coop flashed a grin, unleashing the dimples from which no teenage girl is immune. Which sucks for them because he’s totally into dudes. One dude in particular.
Ben snatched a fry off my plate and shoved it into his mouth without so much as a please or thank you. Which is how Ben is. Love him or loathe him, you don’t get between him and a french fry. Not if you value your fingers. “Definitely Jake Gyllenhaal,” Ben said.
“Just because he plays you,” Coop said, “doesn’t mean you get to bang him.”
“Unless he’s a method actor.”
“You are pretty good at fucking yourself,” I said, and pulled my plate of limp fries out of his reach.
Ben kissed Coop on the cheek and said to me, “You’d be played by a Muppet. And the movie would be called: Simon Cross and the Blue Balls of Destiny.” Ben cracked up at his own joke and slid out of the booth to go talk to friends at another table.
Coop, Ben, and I had been best friends since grade school, when we all got stuck at the same lunch table with Phil Bluth. Banding together was the only way to protect our precious pudding cups from Phil’s grabby hands. We were the Three Musketeers. The Three Amigos. Peter, Ray, and Egon. Until junior year of high school, when Ben and Coop coupled up. I thought it was great that they had fallen in lust and all that sappy bullshit, but I often felt like the third wheel of a trike that longed to be a big, bad, two-wheeled bicycle, riding off
into the sunset, leaving me to pedal solo on the lonely road to Loserville. Population: me.
“Earth to Simon.” Coop snapped his fingers in front of my eyes and brought me back to our sticky booth in the middle of Gobbler’s, which is famous for being one of the few places in town that won’t immediately call the cops on kids for hanging out, and not at all famous for their lousy burgers. Rendview is a sleepy beach town on the east coast of Florida, and there isn’t much to do except eat, sleep, surf, and get drunk. That last item was on everyone’s agenda for the evening. Gobbler’s was wall-to-wall with my classmates. It was the last Friday of spring break and we were all getting ready to migrate to Cassie’s house for a night of balls-to-the-wall teenage rebellion.
Despite the fact that I couldn’t wait to graduate from the soul-rotting drudgery of high school, I felt a bond with some of these guys, forged from our years of shared suffering. Suffering that would come to an end at our imminent graduation.
“Ben’s only messing with you,” Coop said.
“I’m a loser,” I said. “A seventeen-year-old virgin. I’m going to graduate in a couple of months, go to community college, and end up sleeping with someone like Mrs. Elroy because I repulse girls my own age with my wit and charm and concave chest.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Coop said. “Mrs. Elroy was hot back in the nineteen twenties.”
“Lucky me.” I picked at one of my fries but tossed it down without eating it. “Even if I did manage to bag her, she’d end up showing me the door before I’ve had a chance to say, ‘I swear it doesn’t usually happen that fast’—though who am I kidding, it always happens that fast—because her husband will be home any moment and, oh wait, I think that’s him now. Better jump out the window. Naked. Yeah, good times.”
Coop laughed into his napkin, and I thought for a minute that he was going to choke, which would have served him right. But the bastard had the nerve to cough and catch his breath again. “It’s not that dire. There are plenty of girls that’ll do you.”
“If you say Aja Bourne, I’m going to punch your face off.”
“No,” Coop said. “We’ll find you a nearsighted girl who likes to binge drink.”
“I’d prefer something less date-rapey.”
“Who’s date-raping whom?” Ben asked as he slid back into the booth, throwing his ropey arm around Coop’s shoulders. Ben is always in motion, even when he’s sitting still. It’s like his molecules can’t stop bouncing around. Our school had suggested he go on ADHD meds back in eighth grade, but Ben’s mom had told them where they could stick their pills. Four years later, Ben is about to graduate with a free ride to MIT. Guess he showed them.
“I’m not date-raping anyone,” I said, loudly enough that a couple of kids at the closest tables turned to gawk.
Ben was eyeballing my fries, so I pushed the soggy leftovers
across the table. “Maybe more girls would be into you if you weren’t so obvious about your Cassie fetish,” he said
“Ixnay on the Assie-cay,” Coop said. I hate how he and Ben treat me like a feral monkey who’s going to fling his shit at them every time they mention Cassie’s name. Sure, I’m totally into the girl, but I’m not obsessed.
“The party is at Cassie’s house,” I said. “She was going to come up eventually.” I did my best to keep my voice even and calm. I’d had plenty of practice.
Here’s the lowdown on the Cassie situation: I love her. The feeling isn’t, technically, mutual. Maybe, possibly, somewhere deep, deep down where even she doesn’t know they exist, Cassie might have some sweaty feelings for me, but it’s highly unlikely. Girls like Cassie don’t go for skinny geeks like me, in spite of my awesome hair.
And that should have been the end of it, except that freshman year, I’d done the unthinkable. I’d asked her out. And she’d said yes. We’d gone on one date and I’d nearly kissed her but—
“Are you thinking about mini-golf again?” Ben asked. Without waiting for an answer, he slapped me across the face so hard that spit flew out of my mouth and hit the wall. Someone whispered, “Cat fight,” from a nearby table, and hissed.
Coop and I gaped at Ben. “Negative reinforcement,” Ben said. “Every time he thinks about, talks about, or looks at Cassie, I’ll slap him.”
I put my hand to my cheek and wiggled my jaw. “You, sir, are a douchenozzle.”
“I could punch you in the balls instead.” Ben made a fist and leaned forward.
Coop held Ben back. “Can we save the ball punching for later?”
“Or never,” I said.
“But Ben has a point,” Coop said. “Just yesterday you were going on and on about how the party is the perfect chance for you to tell Cassie you love her and to finally kiss her, finishing what you started at Pirate Chang’s.”
Ben gulped some of my soda. “That was years ago, buddy. Time to move on. Your crush, while adorable, is starting to curdle. Pretty soon you’re going to be that creepy guy who lives in his parents’ basement, wallpapering his bedroom with old pictures of the girl he can’t get over.”
My friends had a point, but that didn’t stop my brain from churning out scenario after scenario—imagined histories of what my life might have been like if I’d kissed Cassie that night instead of letting her get away. I feel about Cassie the way Coop feels about Ben. And even though I know that Cassie doesn’t feel the same way about me, I’ve hoped. For years, every time she talked to me, every time she smiled in my direction, I hoped.
“Let’s say you do make a play for Cassie tonight,” Coop said. “And, for the record, I’m not saying I think it’s a good idea. What about Eli?”
“Don’t egg him on,” Ben said. “Simon’s got as much chance of scoring with Cassie as he has of scoring with me.”
“Wow,” I said. “Thanks for the support.”
“I’m not trying to be a dick—”
“It comes more naturally to some,” I said.
“Simon, listen. Cassie is pretty. She’s popular. She’s smart as shit. She dates guys like Eli Horowitz. Eli Fucking Horowitz, man.”
“She dumped him.”
Ben chuckled. “Do you honestly believe that means he won’t break you into tiny pieces and then break those pieces into even smaller pieces? Look at him.”
We all turned to the far corner where Eli sat alone. He looked like reheated dog shit. Like he hadn’t shaved since school let out for spring break. Like he hadn’t showered or even bothered to put on clean clothes. I was willing to bet the cost of my meal that Eli stank like the insides of my gym shorts. And yet, despite looking like a New York City hobo, he was still built like someone who could and would tear me from crotch to crown. His arms were the size of my thighs and his thighs were the size of my torso. His dusky skin hoarded shadows, making him appear even more dangerous. Which he was. Eli was a wrestling god at Rendview. And an honor student, and homecoming king, and staring at us.
“I could take him,” I said, trying to look like I wasn’t looking. “Anyway, he’s mourning Cassie, not trying to get back with her.”
Ben patted my hand. “Simon, I would love nothing more than to see you and Cassie sneak off to a quiet bedroom to fulfill your porniest fantasies so that you can finally move on with your life, but it’s never going to happen. Ever. Not in your lifetime or mine. Not in a parallel universe where you and Cassie are the last human specimens on a planet ruled by poodles.”
I leaned back in the booth and crossed my arms over my chest. “Your confidence in me is inspiring. No, really, I may weep. Here come the tears.”
“Just keeping it real.”
“Don’t be mean,” Coop said.
“Sorry,” Ben said, but not to me. He and Coop got those silly looks on their faces that meant they were dangerously close to engaging in some full-frontal smoochery.
Thankfully, a tall girl with long blond hair strolled over to our booth and saved me from that ungodly display. We waited for her to say something, but she stood there awkwardly for a long moment.
“Did you forget your lines?” Ben asked.
The girl shook her head. I noticed a long scar that ran along the bottom of her chin. “Ketchup,” she said.
“It’s not a vegetable, kids.”
I kicked Ben under the table. “Don’t mind Ben,” I said. “He thinks he’s funny when he’s mostly just an ass.” I grabbed the ketchup from the end of the table and passed it to her.
“You’re Simon, right?” the girl asked. I nodded. “I’m Natalie Grayson.” She smiled brazenly.
Something about that smile reminded me of— “Wait. We had sophomore geometry together, didn’t we?”
“Yeah.” Natalie’s face lit up.
“What did the guy say when he got back from vacation and found his parrot’s cage empty?”
“Polly gone,” she said, and we both laughed.
Ben groaned and muttered something under his breath that sounded like “geeks,” but I ignored him.
“Are you going to Cassie’s party?” Natalie asked.
“What’s the deal with the bartering thing?”
I’d already made Coop explain it to me a thousand times. I mean, I got the concept but didn’t see the point. “You bring stuff to the party,” I said. “And you trade it for other stuff.”
“Like what?” Natalie stood holding that ketchup bottle with both hands. I was afraid she was going to squeeze a tomato geyser into the air.
Ben reached into his pocket and pulled out a little plastic bag with a dozen white pills in it. “Once people get shit-faced, I’m going to make a mint with these. People will trade me anything for them.”
“Drugs? Really?” Natalie did not sound impressed.
“They’re baby aspirin.” Ben put his finger to his lips and gave the girl one of his patented winks.
“I still don’t get why,” I said.
“For fun, dumbass. What’d you bring?” Coop asked Natalie.
She looked over at her table, which was packed with girls I knew by sight but not by name. They were the minor-league hitters. Not A- or B-list girls, but not part of the moo crew either. “I stole some tiny liquor bottles from my dad, and I have a guitar pick signed by Damian Crowley of Noodle Revolution.”
Ben faked puking into my empty basket of fries. He hates NR. Hates. So much that he started an anti-fan club.
“You can totally trade up with that,” Coop said, ignoring Ben’s continued mock vomiting. “It’s like that Canadian guy who started with a red paper clip and bartered his way up to a house. You could trade your guitar pick for a hot prom date if you played it right.”
“Fat chance,” Ben muttered, but we all ignored him.
Coop was giving me a look, this mental nudge that he seemed to think I understood. For the record, I did not. But, apparently, I wasn’t the only person at the table who didn’t get Coop, because Natalie was looking at him like he’d been speaking Parseltongue.
“Maybe I’ll see you at the party, Simon,” Natalie said, stuttering her way through the sentence, her earlier store of bravery seemingly all used up. “Thanks for the ketchup.”
“Anytime,” I said. “You need ketchup, I’m your man. Call me Mr. Ketchup. Or, you know, not.”
I watched Natalie walk back to her table, where she said something to her friends that made them giggle and squeal.
An idea struck me. “Coop, you’re a genius.”
“Tell me more,” Coop said.
“That thing you said about bartering a paper clip for a house. Was that true?”
“Indeed.” Coop grinned at me, and then at Natalie. “You can do anything you want tonight, Simon.”
“Then I’m going to barter for a kiss from Cassie. I’m going to tell her that I love her.”
Coop smacked his head on the table. Over and over. Ben finally had to put his palm between Coop’s forehead and the wood veneer. “It’s okay, baby,” Ben said. “Simon’s a little slow.”
“What?” I asked. “It’s a great idea. I’ll barter for a kiss, and then, when she’s had a taste of Simon Cross, I’ll tell her I love her. She’ll be mine.”
“You don’t have anything she wants,” Ben said. “She’s used to eating prime rib. You’re beef jerky. You’re not even beef jerky. You’re that off-brand meat chew that you get at gas stations.”
I was feeling abused and didn’t try to hide it. “You don’t have to be an asshole about it.”
“There are other girls,” Coop said. He was looking exasperated, not that I blamed him. When it comes to Cassie, I’m a bit OCD.
“Like who?” I asked.
Ben pointed at Natalie. “Her,” he said. “She was practically jerking you off under the table, dude. How are you so stupid?”
“She needed ketchup,” I said.
Coop and Ben started talking over each other, and I tuned them out. Had I really become so blind that I’d missed Natalie flirting with me? She’d been cute and nervous, sure, but she hadn’t been flirting with me, right?
Whatever. I couldn’t think about flirting with someone else. I’m not making excuses for my behavior, but if you’ve never been in love with the most beautiful girl in the world, then you don’t know. It’s like, for one second of her attention, you’d cut off your fingers, you’d hold your breath until you turned blue and passed out, you’d run to the ends of the fucking Earth and bring her back anything she asked for. Girls like Cassie aren’t just one in a million. They’re once in a lifetime.
But I’d had my chance. Had it and blown it.
Ben and Coop expected me to move on from that, but being near Cassandra Castillo was like living. Everything else was death.
“All I’m asking is that you try to go out with other girls,” Coop said. “You don’t have to fall in love, but maybe you’ll see that Cassie isn’t as perfect as you think.”
Ben rested his arm along the top of the booth, absently rubbing the back of Coop’s neck. “She’s not all that great,” Ben said. “The girl has got issues. I could tell you stories—”
“Don’t,” I said. Ben has a casual relationship with the truth when it comes to stories. It’s not that he lies per se, but he doesn’t see the problem with embellishing details or leaving them out altogether if it suits the tale he’s telling.
Ben is a master storyteller, but if I want the truth, I go to anyone else.
“I just want what you guys have,” I mumbled.
Coop looked at me with shelter dog eyes. The last thing I wanted was his pity.
“Simon, I’m never going to be more honest with you than I am right now.” Coop sat up straight and folded his hands on the table the same way my mom had when she’d tried to tell me where babies come from. For two years after that I’d believed I would impregnate every girl I smiled at. It had made first and second grades terrifying. “If you want to go to this party tonight and try to barter your way to a kiss with Cassie, I’ll help you.”
“Whoa,” Ben said. “We have our own plans tonight. You know.”
“We’ll have time for both.”
“I think I’m going to hurl,” I said, frantically trying not to imagine what Ben and Coop were going to be doing in a dark room at the party.
“As I was saying,” Coop said. “If you want to make some final play for Cassie, then I’m Team Simon.” Coop paused and took a deep, meaningful breath. “But there’s a girl over there who might actually like you.” Coop nodded in Natalie’s direction. She and her friends were still giggling. When I glanced at her this time, she waved before looking away. I waved back. “A girl who might like you for who you are. A girl who might even be willing to kiss you, though the thought makes me want to regurgitate my veggie burger.”
Ben was nodding along with everything Coop said. “And ketchup girl’s got small hands, so that’s a bonus.”
“They’ll make even your teeny weenie look like a foot-long.”
Coop punched Ben’s arm. “I’m trying to be serious.”
“So am I. Did you see those tiny little baby hands?” The boys started bickering, and I zoned out again.
It wasn’t like the thought of kissing other girls had never occurred to me. I’d gone out on some dates but they’d all been catastrophes. There was the Aja Bourne incident of which we never, ever spoke. Then there was Naomi Cutter, a ballet dancer who was great except for the fact that she’d refused to let me eat in front of her. We dated for three weeks and I lost eight pounds. Before that was Kirsten Gallows, who turned out to be as obsessed with Cassie as I was. There were other girls, but it always came back to Cassie.
Look what she’d done to Eli Fucking Horowitz. The guy had everything. He had more play in his pinkie than I had in my entire body. It would take fifty of me to equal one of him. Yet there he was. Broken. Defeated. A gutted man sitting alone, probably trying to decide whether or not he could stomach going to the party.
If I did manage to find something Cassie wanted, barter for it, kiss Cassie, and finally tell her that I loved her, I’d probably end up like that one day. Like Eli.
“If it makes you feel better,” Ben said. “Cassie’s got a raging case of herpes.”
“You totally just made that up,” I said. “And how would that possibly make me feel better?”
Coop checked the time on his phone. He was probably getting antsy to leave. He likes to get to parties early so he can score a good parking spot.
“You’ve got to make a choice,” Coop said.
I looked at Natalie. She was pretty and sincere. She had a killer smile, and she really did seem to like me, lame jokes and all. When she leaned forward, I could see the line of her panties sticking out of her jean shorts, and her slender shoulders outlined under her floral cami. I didn’t know much about her except that she was terrible at geometry. And I suppose that was the exciting part. I didn’t know anything about her and she didn’t know anything about me. We were enigmas to each other. She could turn out to be everything I wanted her to be.
Only she’d never be Cassie.
Then again, Cassie might never be Cassie. I might have spent years in love with an illusion.
I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything except that I had two choices. I could go to the party with Coop and Ben and try to barter a kiss from Cassie. I could try to make my dreams come true. Or I could embrace reality and move on with my life.
Cassie isn’t the only girl on planet Earth. Right?
Ben patted my cheek. It still smarted from where he’d slapped me earlier. “What’s it going to be, dude? You going
to keep pining for Princess Cassie, or are you going to talk to the perfectly nice, heterosexual girl who might not laugh at you if she saw you naked with the lights on?”
I looked over at Natalie. I looked at Eli. I looked at my two possible futures. “Fuck it. I think . . .”