I push my coat sleeve back and look at my watch. 10:42. “Ready?” I ask. She nods. I look at my watch again. “Okay, and . . . go. I like you. And I didn’t know whether I liked you until I thought of you at that concert with some other guy, but now I do know, and I realize that makes me a bitchsquealer, but yeah, I like you. I think you’re great, and very cute—and by cute I mean beautiful but don’t want to say beautiful because it’s cliché but you are—and I don’t even mind that you’re a music snob.”
“It’s not snobbery; it’s good taste. So I used to date this boy and I knew he was going to be at the concert and I wanted to go with you partly because I knew Randall would be there but then I wanted to go even without you because I knew he would be there and then he saw me while MDC was playing ‘A Brief Overview of Time Travel Paradoxes,’ and he was screaming in my ear about how he had an epiphany and he now knows that we’re supposed to be together and I was, like, I don’t think so and he quoted this e. e. cummings poem about how kisses are a better fate than wisdom and then it turns out that he had MDC dedicate a song to me which was the kind of thing that he would never have done before and I feel like I deserve someone who consistently likes me which you kind of don’t and I don’t know.”
“‘Annus Miribalis.’ Uh, he’s the only person who knows my locker combination, and he had them dedicate it to my locker combination, which is just, I mean, I don’t know. That’s just. Yeah.”
Even though these are the minutes of truth, I don’t tell her about the song. I can’t. It’s too embarrassing. The thing is, coming from your ex-boyfriend, it’s sweet. And coming from the guy who wouldn’t kiss you in your orange Volvo, it’s just weird and maybe even mean. She’s right that she deserves someone consistent, and maybe I can’t be that. Nonetheless, I shred the guy. “I fucking hate guys who quote poetry to girls. Since we are being honest. Also, wisdom is a better fate than the vast majority of kisses. Wisdom is certainly a better fate than kissing douches who only read poetry so they can use it to get in girls’ pants.”
“Oh, my,” she says. “Honest Will and Regular Will are so fascinatingly different!”
“To tell you the truth, I prefer just your average, run-of-the-mill, everyday jackass with his glass-eyed, slack-jawed obliviousness to the guys who try to hijack my cool by reading poetry and listening to halfway-good music. I worked hard for my cool. I got my ass kicked in middle school for my cool. I came by this shit honestly.”
“Well, you don’t even know him,” she says.
“And I don’t need to,” I answer. “Look, you’re right. Maybe I don’t like you the way someone should like you. I don’t like you in the call-you-and-read-you-a-poem-every-night-before-you-go-to-bed way. I’m crazy, okay? Sometimes I think, like, God, she’s superhot and smart and kind of pretentious but the pretentiousness just makes me kind of want her, and then other times I think it’s an amazingly bad idea, that dating you would be like a series of unnecessary root canals interspersed with occasional makeout sessions.”
“Jesus, that’s a burn.”
“But not really, because I think both! And it doesn’t matter, because I’m your Plan B. Maybe I’m your Plan B because I feel that way, and maybe I feel that way because I’m your Plan B, but regardless, it means you’re supposed to be with Randall and I’m supposed to be in my natural state of self-imposed hookup exile.”
“So different!” she says again. “Can you be like this permanently?”
“Probably not,” I say.
“How many minutes do we have?”
“Four,” I say.
And then we’re kissing.
I lean in this time, and she doesn’t turn away. It’s cold, and our lips are dry, noses a little wet, foreheads sweaty beneath wool hats. I can’t touch her face, even though I want to, because I’m wearing gloves. But God, when her lips come apart, everything turns warm and her sugar sweet breath is in my mouth, and I probably taste like hot dogs but I don’t care. She kisses like a sweet devouring, and I don’t know where to touch her because I want all of her. I want to touch her knees and her hips and her stomach and her back and her everything, but we’re encased in all these clothes, so we’re just two marshmallows bumping against each other, and she smiles at me while still kissing because she knows how ridiculous it is, too.
“Better than wisdom?” she asks, her nose touching my cheek.
“Tight race,” I say, and I smile back as I pull her tighter to me.
I’ve never known before what it feels like to want someone—not to want to hook up with them or whatever, but to want them, to want them. And now I do. So maybe I do believe in epiphanies.
She pulls away from me just enough to say, “What’s my last name?”
“I have no idea,” I answer immediately.
“Turner. It’s Turner.” I slip in one last peck, and then she sits up properly, although her gloved hand still rests against my jacketed waist. “See, we don’t even know each other. I have to find out if I believe in epiphanies, Will.”
“I can’t believe his name is Randall. He doesn’t go to Evanston, does he?”
“No, he goes to Latin. We met at a poetry slam.”
“Of course you did. My God, I can picture the slimy bastard: He’s tall and shaggy-haired, and he plays a sport—soccer, probably—but he pretends like he doesn’t even like it because all he likes is poetry and music and you, and he thinks you’re a poem and tells you so, and he’s slathered in confidence and probably body spray.” She laughs, shaking her head. “What?” I ask.
“Water polo,” she says. “Not soccer.”
“Oh, Jesus. Of course. Water polo. Yeah, nothing says punk rock like water polo.”
She grabs my arm and looks at my watch. “One minute,” she says.
“You look better when your hair is pulled back,” I tell her in a rush.
“Yeah, otherwise you look kinda like a puppy.”
“You look better when you stand up straight,” she says.
“Time!” I say.
“Okay,” she says. “It’s a shame we can’t do that more often.”
“Which part?” I ask smiling. She stands up.
“I should get home. Stupid midnight weekend curfew.”
“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my phone. “I’ll call Tiny and tell him we’re headed out.”
“I’ll just take a cab.”
“I’ll just call—”
But she’s already standing on the edge of the sidewalk, the toes of her Chucks off the curb, her hand raised. A cab pulls over. She hugs me quickly—the hug all fingertips and shoulder blades—and is gone without another word.
I’ve never been alone in the city this late, and it’s deserted. I call Tiny. He doesn’t answer. I get the voice mail. “You’ve reached the voice mail of Tiny Cooper, writer, producer, and star of the new musical Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story. I’m sorry, but it appears something more fabulous than your phone call is happening right now. When fabulous levels fall a bit, I’ll get back to you. BEEP.”
“Tiny, the next time that you try to set me up with a girl with a secret boyfriend can you at least inform me that she has a secret boyfriend? Also, if you don’t call me back within five minutes, I’m going to assume you found a way back to Evanston. Furthermore, you are an asshat. That is all.”
There are cabs on Michigan Avenue and a steady flow of traffic, but once I get onto a side street, Huron, it’s quiet. I walk past a church and then up State Street toward Frenchy’s. I can tell from three blocks away that Tiny and Will aren’t there anymore, but I still walk all the way to the storefront. I look up and down the street but see no one, and anyway, Tiny never shuts up, so I would hear him if he were nearby.
I fish through my coat pocket’s detritus for my keys, then pull them out. The keys are wrapped in the note that Jane wrote me, the note from the Locker Houdini.
I’m walking down the street toward the car when I see a black plastic bag on the sidewalk, fluttering in the wind. Mano a Mano. I leave it, thinking I’ve probably just made someone’s tomorrow.
For the first time in a long time, I drive with no music. I’m not happy—not happy about Jane and Mr. Randall Water Polo Doucheface IV, not happy about Tiny abandoning me without so much as a phone call, not happy about my insufficiently fake fake ID—but in the dark on Lake Shore with the car eating up all the sound, there’s something about the numbness in my lips after having kissed her that I want to keep and hold onto, something in it that seems pure, that seems like the singular truth.
I get home four minutes before curfew, and my parents are on the couch, Mom’s feet in Dad’s lap. Dad mutes the TV and says, “How was it?”
“Pretty good,” I say.
“Did they play ‘Annus Miribalis?’” Mom asks, because I liked it so much I played it for her. I figure she’s asking partly to seem hip and partly to make sure I went to the concert. She’ll probably check the set list later. I didn’t go to the concert, of course, but I know they played the song.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah. It was good.” I stare at them for a second, and then say, “Okay, I’m gonna go to bed.”
“Why don’t you watch some TV with us?” Dad asks.
“I’m tired,” I say flatly, and turn to go.
But I don’t go to bed. I go to my room and get online and start reading about e. e. cummings.
The next morning I get a ride to school early with Mom. In the hallways, I pass poster after poster for Tiny Dancer.
AUDITIONS TODAY NINTH PERIOD IN THE THEATER. PREPARE TO SING. PREPARE TO DANCE. PREPARE TO BE FABULOUS.
IN CASE YOU FAILED TO SEE THE PREVIOUS POSTER, AUDITIONS ARE TODAY.
SING & DANCE & CELEBRATE TOLERANCE IN THE MOST IMPORTANT MUSICAL OF OUR TIME.
I jog through the halls and then go upstairs to Jane’s locker and carefully slip the note I wrote last night through the vent:
To: The Locker Houdini
From: Will Grayson
Re: An Expert in the Field of Good Boyfriends?
Just so you know: e. e. cummings cheated on both of his wives. With prostitutes.
I am saying his name over and over in my head.
It’s a ridiculous name, and the whole thing is ridiculous, and i couldn’t stop it if i tried.
If i say it enough times, maybe it will be okay that isaac doesn’t exist.
It starts that night. in front of frenchy’s. i am still in shock. i can’t tell whether it’s post-traumatic stress or post-stress trauma. whatever it is, a good part of my life has just been erased, and i have no desire to fill in the new blank. leave it empty, i say. just let me die.
tiny, though, won’t let me. he’s playing the i’ve-had-it-worse game, which never works, because either the person says something that’s not worse at all (‘he wasn’t a natural blond’) or they say something that’s so much worse that you feel like all your feelings are being completely negated. (‘well, i once had a guy stand me up for a date . . . and it ended up that he’d been eaten by a lion! his last word was my name!’)
still, he’s trying to help. and i guess i should take some when i need some.
for his part, o.w.g. is also trying to help. there’s a girl hovering in the background, and i have no doubt it’s the (in)famous jane. at first, o.w.g.’s attempt at help is even lamer than tiny’s.
o.w.g.: i know it sucks, but in a way, it’s good.
this is about as inspirational as a movie of hitler making out with his girlfriend and having a good time. it runs afoul of what i call the birdshit rule. you know, how people say it’s good luck if a bird shits on you? and people believe it! i just want to grab them and say, ‘dude, don’t you realize this whole superstition was made up because no one could think of anything else good to say to a person who’d just been shit upon?’ and people do that all the time - and not with something as temporary as birdshit, either. you lost your job? great opportunity! failed at life? there’s only one way to go - up! dumped by a boyfriend who never existed? i know it sucks, but in a way, it’s good!
I’m about to strip o.w.g. of his right to be a will grayson, but then he goes on.
o.w.g.: love and truth being tied together, i mean. they make each other possible, you know?
I don’t know what hits me more - the fact that some stranger would listen to me, or the fact that he is, technically, absolutely correct.
the other will grayson heads off, leaving me with my new refrigerator-size companion, who’s looking at me with such sincerity that i want to slap him.
me: you don’t have to stay. really.
tiny: what, and leave you here to mope?
me: this is so far beyond moping. this is out-and-out despair.
and then he hugs me. imagine being hugged by a sofa. that’s what it feels like.
me (choking): i’m choking.
tiny (patting my hair): there, there.
me: dude, you’re not helping.
I push him away. he looks hurt.
tiny: you just duded me!
me: i’m sorry. it’s just, i -
tiny: i’m only trying to help!
this is why i should carry around extra pills. i think we could both use a double dose right now.
me (again): i’m sorry.
he looks at me then. and it’s weird, because i mean, he’s really looking at me. it makes me completely uncomfortable.