Alex, Approximately: Chapter 19


“You’re sweet, and sexy, and completely hot for me.”

—Heath Ledger, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)


If I was worried about dying from not kissing before, now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. We definitely overdid it. I got home well before curfew, at eleven, but by then, Porter and I had time to eat dinner in Monterey at a cool restaurant that served a raw ahi tuna salad from Hawaii called poke—so good—and lots more time to park at Lovers Point Park and watch the sunset behind the cypress trees as the waves crashed over the beach.

Or, in our case, not watch the sunset. Which is what we ended up doing. A lot.

And now my dress is covered in grass stains, and because of Porter’s stupid sexy scruff, my face looks red and swollen, as if I got attacked by a swarm of angry bees. And did he really give me three hickeys on my neck? THREE? He swore it was an accident, and that I’m “too white” and bruise too easily. At first I got a little offended by this, but maybe it could be true, because I don’t remember any Hoover-like suction happening during the proceedings. And he did apologize a million times. . . .

Then again, I was pretty distracted, because we were lying in the grass on an elevated area above the beach, and he was pressed against me and it was delightful. I mean, nothing serious happened, really. Mostly just a lot of touching that didn’t stray to any untoward areas, unless my hips and side boobs count. (They don’t, in my opinion, but it was nice. Very nice.) But there was a lot of heavy breathing, and we both agreed once again that we are compatible arguers and kissers. And when he dropped me off at the surf shop, he tapped his temple and told me, “Today is moving up in the brain bank as best day in recent memory.”

In my own brain bank, my Artful Dodger eyes turned into cartoon hearts that pinwheeled.

But things got a little tricky after that.

“What in the name of planet Earth happened to you?” my dad said when I walked in the door, looking at my unholy, bedraggled state.

“Grace and I were goofing around outside in the grass,” I said. “Just wrestling and stuff with some other people from work. No big deal.”

He made a face. “Wrestling?”

Yeah. That sounded like me, all right. I mentally cringed.

“What happened to your mouth?” he asked. He looked appalled and concerned, like I was contagious, and held the sides of my head while he inspected me, lest he catch it too. “Did you get into poison oak or something?”

“Uh, maybe?”

“Should I get some oatmeal? I don’t have any calamine lotion. Should I go to the twenty-four-hour drugstore?”

I was pretty much horrified at this point. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. Just a mild burn or something.”

My dad narrowed his eyes at me. His gaze wandered lower. Don’t look at my neck, don’t look at my neck, don’t—

Uh-oh.

Now we were both horrified. He released my head. “Okay. If you’re sure.”

“Yep-yep-yep, so sure,” I said.

“Did you find your film-fanatic guy? What’s his name, Alex?”

I made a face, because just the mention of his name stings. “I’m not speaking to him at the moment. I think he’s got a girlfriend now, because he blew me off. And no, I haven’t found him yet.”

“Bailey—”

“Dad, just . . . please don’t.”

“Let me say this, okay?” he said, suddenly irritated, which is really unlike him, so it took me aback. And it took him a moment to calm down enough to finish. But when he spoke again, he was serious and eerily fatherly. “You have grown into a beautiful young lady, and people are going to take notice of that, which I don’t particularly relish.”

Oh, brother.

He raised a hand. “But I accept it. However, what I want to talk about is you. Because the thing is, Mink, sometimes when traumatic things happen to people, they retreat until they feel comfortable. Which is okay. But when they’re finally ready to step back into the world, they can be overconfident and make mistakes. Which is not okay. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Not exactly.”

“Do you remember when your mom had just won that big divorce case for that state senator and was driving too fast on that icy road in Newark on the way to Mr. Katter’s party and the car slid, and then, instead of easing us back on the road, she yanked the wheel and oversteered in the other direction, and we overturned into the ditch?”

“Yeah,” I said. We all nearly died. It was a nightmare. Hard to forget.

“Think about that.”

Cryptic, but I got what he was saying. He thought I was whoring myself out with some stranger just for kicks. For a brief moment, I wanted to break down and tell him everything about Porter, that I wasn’t oversteering and throwing caution to the wind. And for the love of guns, it had been four years! How long did I have to be in “trauma” mode? Wasn’t I allowed to make some decisions for myself and enjoy life? I appreciated his heartfelt concern, but I knew what I was doing . . .

Mostly.

Anyway, that’s all he said about it. Still, my dad may be the nicest guy in the world, but he’s no dummy. The day before I was scheduled to eat dinner at Grace’s house, he suggested driving me over there so he could personally meet Grace’s parents. What could possibly go wrong? When I told her, she laughed so hard and long, I worried she was having a stroke.

In the meantime, though my kiss-stung face has returned to normal, my heart and all working body parts are absolutely not normal. Because every time Porter so much as even walks within ten feet of me at work, I have the same reaction. Four knocks on Hotbox door? I flush. Scent of coconut in the break room? I flush. Sound of Porter cracking jokes with Pangborn in the hallway? I flush.

And every time this happens, Grace is there like some taunting Greek chorus, making a little mmm-hmm noise of confirmation.

Even Pangborn notices. “Are you ill, Miss Rydell?”

“Yes,” I tell him in the break room one day before work. “I’m apparently very ill in the worst way. And I want you to know that I didn’t plan for this to happen. This was not part of my plan at all. If you want to know the truth, I had other plans for the summer!” I think of my boardwalk map, lying folded and abandoned in my purse.

Pangborn nods slowly. “I have no idea what you mean, but I support it completely.”

“Thank you,” I tell him as he walks away, whistling.

Half a minute later, Porter pulls me into a dark corner of the hallway, checks around the corner, and kisses the bejesus out of me. “That’s me, destroying all your other plans,” he says wickedly. And if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he sounds jealous. Then he walks away, leaving me all hot and bothered.

I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

Tuesday night at the Achebe house comes. Grace’s family lives in a swank part of town, in an adobe-style house with a perfectly manicured lawn. When my dad and I ring the doorbell, my pulse rockets. Why oh why have I been using Grace as a cover for my time with Porter? That was so stupid, and now that everyone is meeting, I feel like we’re going to get caught—which is the last thing I want to happen, for obvious reasons. And because I don’t want to mess up what I have going with Grace. She’s the first decent friend I’ve had in a while.

Footfalls sound on the other side of the door. I think I might vomit.

The door swings open to reveal a willowy woman with long ebony curls and dark skin. Her smile is warm and inviting. “You must be Bailey.” Not Grace’s tiny voice, but definitely her British accent.

I say hello and start to introduce my dad when a broad-shouldered man appears behind her, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “This is her?” he says in a big, booming voice full of cheer. He smiles big and wide. “Hello, Bailey girl. Look at that hair of yours. It’s like an old-fashioned Hollywood star. Which one? Not Marilyn Monroe.”

“Lana Turner,” I provide.

He makes an impressed face. “Lana Turner,” he says slowly, with a cool African sway to his words. “Well, well, Miss Turner. I am Hakeem Achebe. And this is my wife, Rita.”

“Pete Rydell,” my dad says, shaking his hand. “We’re both fond of Grace.”

I see Grace poke her head down the stairs in the distance, smiling but gritting her teeth at the same time. She’s nervous we’re going to get caught in a lie too. Crap!

“We’re fond of Grace as well,” Mr. Achebe says jovially. “We think we’ll keep her.”

My dad laughs. I can already see him planning to hit up Mr. Achebe for board game night—but I really want this conversation to be as short as possible, so I hope he doesn’t.

“She’s gone on a lot about working with Bailey in that dreadful Hotbox,” her mom says with a smile.

“I hear complaints about that too,” my dad says. “But I’m glad they’ve been spending more time together outside work.”

Double crap! Please don’t bring up the fake story I concocted about Grace and me “wrestling” in the grass, Dad. Would he do that? Surely not. I glance at Grace. She backs up one step on the stairs. Don’t you dare abandon me! Just in case, I prepare to flee the scene. Where I’ll run, I don’t know. Maybe I could pretend to faint.

“Well, tonight, it’s work before play,” Grace’s father says, pointing the dish towel in my direction. “We have much preparation to do in the kitchen before dinner. Miss Turner, are you up for the task?”

Oh, thank God. Mr. Achebe: my new hero.

Grace’s mom asks my dad to stay for dinner, but he declines, and when he tells me to have a good time, I cannot get inside the Achebe house fast enough.

Grace’s dad makes a Nigerian rice dish called Jollof for dinner—it’s pretty delicious—along with steak and grilled vegetables. He puts me and Grace in charge of skewering the vegetables. She was totally right: He tells the worst jokes. But he tells them with so much glee, it’s hard not to laugh a little. She gives me a look like I told you so.

We spend the rest of the night listening to music out by their backyard pool. It’s mostly 1970s and ’80s bands, I think, her parents’ music collection. Grace takes off her shoes and tries to get me to dance. When I refuse, her dad won’t take no for an answer. So we dance to a ska song by The Specials, “A Message to You Rudy.” And it’s silly and fun, and I’m a terrible dancer. Grace laughs at me and then joins in with her mom.

When everyone’s exhausted, her parents go back inside to clean up, and Grace and I end the night cooling our heels in the shallow end of the pool, trading stories about growing up on opposite sides of the country and her childhood in England. She then tells me about Taran, her boyfriend, who is in Mumbai visiting his aunt and uncle for the summer. Grace and Taran have been seeing each other for an entire year and are already planning to apply to the same colleges in the fall. I’m a little surprised, because she doesn’t really talk about him all that much at work. I want to ask her more about their relationship, but I’m afraid. Maybe things aren’t as good as she claims they are. I wish I could see this Taran guy in person and judge for myself.

“When is Taran supposed to come back to California?” I ask, lying next to her by the edge of the pool with my legs dangling from the knees down in the chlorine-laced water.

Her tiny voice answers, “I’m not sure.”

That doesn’t sound good. I don’t want to have to figure out a way to inflict deadly force against a boy on another continent, but if push comes to shove, for Grace, I will. I scooch a little closer and we lean our heads together, staring up at the stars, until my dad comes to pick me up.

I underestimated just how much wrangling had to go into my one true date with Porter, because over a week goes by and we can’t manage another. Turns out that when you combine my sneaking-out requirement with our job schedules, Porter’s surf shop obligations, and any other time spent on family duties, you get very little to work with.

And sometimes when you least expect it, you’re just walking along, minding your own business, and the universe leaves you a winning lottery ticket right in the middle of the sidewalk. . . .

Friday and Saturday nights in the middle of the summer, the Cave closes at its usual time, six p.m., and then reopens from eight until ten p.m. for people to purchase tickets to the ghost tour. It’s basically three groups of people who pay twice the normal ticket price to tour the museum afterhours with cheap flashlights while listening to fake ghost stories. It’s a total rip-off. And I know this because the ghost tour guides are Pangborn and Porter, and they’re the ones who wrote most of the ghost tour script last summer.

It was mostly Pangborn, Porter admits. He was extremely stoned when he wrote it. He’s also extremely stoned when he’s giving the tours, and everyone loves him camping it up, especially with his shocking white hair that practically glows in the dark. I work the Hotbox alone, since it’s a limited ticket engagement. Once we sell out, I get to put up the AT SPOOK CAPACITY sign in the window and go inside the break room to read magazines until ten, waiting for the tours to finish.

Last night was my first ghost tour, and Porter had to rush home afterward, which sucked, because we never got to spend any time alone.

Tonight’s a different story.

It’s Saturday, and my dad and Wanda are spending the night in San Francisco. They’re coming back first thing in the morning, Dad informed me a hundred times, like I was worried he was going to hop a train and never be seen again. But I think now that he’s met Grace’s parents, he feels better about those stupid hickeys that neither of us has ever, ever acknowledged again. So after the ghost tour winds up, Porter and I plan to do the unthinkable: We might go on a—wait for it—second date, and on that date, we may be going out to catch a movie.

A MOVIE.

Sure, it will probably be whatever current blockbuster is playing at the local Cineplex, and that’s fine. I don’t expect him to appreciate my supreme good taste in film. At least, not right away. He can be educated, and I’m happy to oblige. But all I’m thinking about now is that it’s a movie and it’s Porter—together.

I’m trying not to get too giddy. After all, he’s got to get up early and work in the surf shop, so we can’t stay out all night, but a couple of hours sounds like heaven. Heaven that might even still get me home by curfew, or thereabouts. See? I’m not even really cheating. Good daughter, right here.

Sometime around ten fifteen p.m., I stop checking for updates from Alex on my phone in the break room (there are none, as usual, and I’m not sure why I even bother caring) and stretch my legs. We’re supposed to get to leave around ten thirty. Even though we close at ten, it takes Porter and Pangborn that long to shoo the last tour group out, lock up, put away the flashlights, and make a final sweep of the place to ensure there aren’t any dopey kids hiding out or people having heart attacks in the restrooms. After the guests are gone, I’m supposed to help with the flashlights—there are a hundred of them—so when the only other two employees who were working tonight clock out and leave through the employee exit, I head out to the lobby to take care of that. On my way there, I bump into Pangborn.

“How did it go?”

“Excellent,” he tells me. He’s wearing bright orange socks with little black ghosts on them, which are easy to see because his pants are riding so high, thanks to the matching suspenders. He changed just for the ghost tour. God, I love him. “One woman gave me a twenty-dollar tip.”

“How about that,” I say, actually impressed.

“I didn’t keep it, of course. But it was still a nice gesture.” He smiles and pats me on the shoulder in that comforting way he always does. “Your boyfriend is making the final sweep on Jay’s corridor. The doors are locked and the system’s backed up. Except for the flashlights, we’re done for the night.”

I know he just said a bunch of words, but all I heard was “your boyfriend.” Did Porter tell Pangborn we went out? Or has he noticed anything going on between us at work? I’m too chicken to ask, especially when Pangborn’s eyes crinkle up sweetly in the corners.

“I’ll get the flashlights,” I offer.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” he says. “I’m feeling more exhausted than usual tonight, and I’ve got to open in the morning, so I’m going to head home a few minutes early. Don’t want to nod off on the road.”

“Hey, not funny.” Now that I’m looking at him, he really does look tired. Like, insanely tired. For the first time since Grace told me, I suddenly remember the rumors about him being sick. They may not be true, who knows, but I know one thing for sure: He’s too old to be working this late. And Cavadini is an asshole to schedule him opening tomorrow morning.

“I’ll stay alert, don’t worry,” he assures me. “But your concern is much appreciated. I just need a good night’s rest. Daisy Dog and I need our beauty sleep. Tell Porter I’m locking the two of you in with the new master code. He’ll have to punch in the override to get out. He’ll know what I’m talking about.”

“Got it.” At least he has a dog to go home to. I tell him to be careful driving and when he’s gone, I head out to find Porter. It’s weird being alone in the museum. It’s dark and eerily quiet: Only the after-hours lights are on—just enough to illuminate the hallways and stop you from tripping over your own feet—and the background music that normally plays all the time is shut off.

I quickly organize the flashlights and check their batteries, and when I don’t hear Porter walking around, I stare at the phone sitting at the information desk. How many chances come along like this? I pick up the receiver, press the little red button next to the word all, and speak into the phone in a low voice. “Paging Porter Roth to the information desk,” I say formally, my voice crackling through the entire lobby and echoing down the corridors. Then I press the button again and add, “While you’re at it, check your shoes to make sure they’re a match, you bastard. By the way, I still haven’t quite forgiven you for humiliating me. It’s going to take a lot more than a kiss and a cookie to make me forget both that and the time you provoked me in the Hotbox.”

I’m only teasing, which I hope he knows. I feel a little drunk on all my megaphone power, so I page one more thing:

“PS—You look totally hot in those tight-fitting security guard pants tonight, and I plan to get very handsy with you at the movies, so we better sit in the back row.”

I hang up the phone and cover my mouth, silently laughing at myself. Two seconds later, Porter’s footfalls pound down Jay’s corridor—Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! He sounds like a T. rex running from Godzilla. He races into the lobby and slides in front of the information desk, grabbing onto the edge to stop himself, wild curls flying everywhere. His grin is enormous.

“Whadidya say ’bout where you want to be puttin’ your hands on me?” he asks breathlessly.

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” I tease.

His head sags against the desk. I push his hair away from one of his eyes. He looks up at me and asks, “You really still haven’t forgiven me?”

“Maybe if you put your hands on me, I might.”

“Don’t go getting my hopes up like that.”

“Oh, your hopes should be up. Way up.”

“Dear God, woman,” he murmurs. “And here I was, thinking you were a classy dame.”

“Pfft. You don’t know me at all.”

“I aim to find out. What are we still doing here? Let’s blow this place and get to the theater, fast.”

We race each other through the lobby and grab our stuff out of our lockers. When we get to the back door, Porter pauses by the security system panel and tilts his head quizzically.

“Oh,” I say, snapping my fingers. “Pangborn said to tell you that he was using the new master code to lock us in, and that you’ll have to punch in the override code to get out.”

Porter sort of shakes his head, mumbling to himself, and then appears to dismiss it. He unhooks his leather key fob thingy from his belt. I recognize his van keys on it, because there’s a tiny shark on the key ring. But when he swings it into his palm he pauses again.

“O-o-oh, s-h-h-i-i-i-t,” he drawls. His head drops. He’s silently swearing to the floor, eyes squeezed shut.

“What?” I say.

“Pangborn took my key earlier,” he says in a small voice. “Right before the tour. He left his at home during the break between the regular shift and the ghost tours, and he had to open the back door. I was about to start a tour, and I forgot to get it back from him. That son of a bitch.”

“But you can just use the master code to let us out, right?”

Porter snorts and throws up his hand toward the panel. “If he’d used the master code, yes. But he didn’t. See this here, this number? That code indicates that the system is on lockdown.”

“And that means . . . ?”

“It means,” Porter says, “that you and I are now locked up alone together inside the museum for the rest of the night.”


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