I pulled the seat belt across my chest and clicked it in place. “Did you know that your sister never uses your first name? It’s just ‘my brother this’ and ‘my brother that.’ It’s maddening.”
He laughed a loud laugh that made me smile, then he pulled out of the driveway and onto the road.
“It’s actually really cute. I think that’s how she thinks of you always, as her big brother.”
His amused look softened. “So you still don’t know my name?”
“No. And I need it for tonight.”
He didn’t provide me the answer but instead asked, “What have you been calling me in your head, then?”
“What makes you think you’ve been in my head?”
He just smirked like he knew he had. And he was right.
He laughed. “Wow. Creative.”
“It’s all I had to work with so help me out here.”
“Here’s the problem. There’s this huge buildup now. I almost feel like I need to make up a name that fits this moment of anticipation.”
I gave him a stare of impatience. “Spit it out, fill-in Bradley, or that’s what you’re going to be from here on out.”
“Do you realize the acronym for fill-in Bradley is FIB? It’s kind of ironic, right?”
I smacked his arm playfully several times while saying, “Tell me your name.”
He laughed and grabbed my hand, pushing it down onto the center console then trapping it there with his. “My name is . . .”
“You’re right, this is super climactic. I don’t think there is anything you can possibly say that will match the anticipation I feel right now.”
“You’re not helping.”
“Should I guess?”
“We have about fifteen minutes, so you might as well.”
“Okay, let’s play Twenty Questions.”
“All right. Hit me. Not literally, though.” He squeezed my hand then let it go.
I smiled. “First question. Were you named after anyone famous?”
“Hmm. Well, yes and no. I mean, there are famous people with my name but I was named after someone not so famous with my name.”
I tilted my head at him. “Really? You have to be confusing like that?”
“Is that one of your questions?”
“No, if you’re going to be so strict with the rules, it’s not. My next question is, can your name also be a last name or close to a last name?”
“What do you mean ‘close to a last name’?”
“Like by adding a letter or something. William isn’t necessarily a last name, but Williams is. Phillip to Phillips. Edward to Edwards. You get it.”
“Then there are the unmodified last names that can also be first names, like Taylor, Scott, Carter, Thomas, Lewis, Harris, Martin, Morris—”
“You think my name is Morris?”
“Just an example.”
“You sure think about names a lot. Wait, don’t tell me, you’re one of those girls who’s already named all her future children.”
“No, I’m not.” Well, not all of them.
“That’s good. And yes, my name can be a last name.”
“A modified one?”
“A common one?”
“Not so much.”
I pursed my lips to the side, thinking. “Is it a name that can also double as a word?”
“You know, like Hunter or Forest or Stone—”
“Ha-ha. No, I was going to say Grant. As in, grant me the patience to deal with this boy while I am trapped in a car with him.”
“Trapped? I seem to recall you practically begging to come with me.”
“I don’t beg.”
With this he let out one big laugh.
“Okay, fine, I begged on prom night but whatever.” I hit him again. Then something occurred to me. “So why were you waiting in the parking lot anyway? You live six blocks from the school and your sister has a cell phone. Plus your sister said you had somewhere to be.”
He was quiet for so long that I thought maybe I’d brought up a sore subject. Finally he said, “If I tell you, I don’t want you to think I’m some sort of creep.”
“I make no promises.”
“I was worried about you.”
“I pulled in right as Bradley had unlinked your arms from his waist and pushed you away. Then you were yelling at each other. And the look on your face after he left . . . I just wanted to make sure you were okay and that you had a ride home. I pulled out a book so I didn’t look too creepy while waiting to see what you were going to do.”
Two feelings competed to take over my emotions. The first was extreme embarrassment at how pathetic I must’ve looked. The second was appreciation at how nice he had been without even knowing me. The gratitude won. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s very . . .”
“No, sweet. So is that why?”
“You said it wasn’t my smile that got you to go to prom with me but something else. Was it that you felt sorry for me?”
“Maybe a little at first, but then, you looked so . . .”
“Hot?” I prompted when he didn’t finish.
He smiled. “So lonely.”
The smile that had been on my face with the joke slipped off. “Lonely?”
He didn’t respond.
“I have a lot of friends.”
“Don’t be mad. It was just an observation. I was probably wrong.”
“You are wrong.” Here I’d thought he’d seen something in me that I hadn’t known I possessed, something he had figured out about me. It was the main reason I’d wanted to find him. Nobody had ever looked at me with the intensity that he had that first night. Nobody had ever seemed to see inside of me, beyond the obvious. But really he just felt sorry for me. He didn’t know me at all. Why wasn’t I at Logan’s party right now?
“Okay, I’m sorry. But good thing I felt that way or you wouldn’t have had a fake boyfriend that night.”
He ran a hand through his hair and threw me a big-eyed look as if to apologize again. It helped. “My name. It can’t double as a word, no.”
Right, back to the game. “Okay, so it’s not a super-famous person, it could be a last name but not a very common one, and it can’t be used in a sentence. This is hard.”
“Well, there are only a million names, so yeah. . . .” He had a nice smile. His top teeth were straight but the bottom ones were competing for space, smashed together in a slightly crooked row. “And I think those are the only questions you can ask about a name, so do you give up?”
“No, those are not the only questions about a name. Is it a place?”
“I’m sure everyone can find a place with their name.”
“So not a place that you know of, then?”
“Okay, so not Dallas or Houston, then—”
“You have a thing for Texas?”
“Those were just the first ones I thought of.” I looked around the car and wondered if there were any clues in there. Mail or notes. There was nothing.
“Are you trying to cheat?”
“Maybe. So your sister’s name is Bec. Can you tell me about any special meaning behind that?” I asked, thinking maybe there was a theme.
“That’s not a yes-or-no question. Are we done with the game?”
“Okay, Mr. Rule Follower, I withdraw the question.”
He turned down the radio that had been the background noise of our conversation. “My sister is named after Rebecca from the Bible, but that won’t help you because my dad named my sister and my mom named me. My dad is very religious. My mom’s a hippie, free-loving painter.”
“Really? How did that happen?”
“My mom entered some paintings into an art show put on by the church my dad attended. Twenty years later and they’re still together.”
“Yes, they are pretty cool.”
I stared at the glowing numbers of the radio station. It wasn’t a station I ever listened to, so I didn’t recognize the quietly playing song at all. “You know what we’ve succeeded in doing with this game?”
“Increasing the anticipation.”
He laughed. “I know, right? Can I just be fill-in Bradley forever?”
“No.” I turned toward him in my seat. “I really want to know your name.”
He gripped the wheel and stared at the road. The sun had set and the sky had turned gray and was darkening more with each passing minute. He licked his lips and his voice went husky and soft. “‘The seen, the known, dissolve in iridescence, become illusive flesh of light that was not, was, forever is.’”
I wasn’t sure what he had just said but I knew I wanted him to say it again. “That’s beautiful. What is it?”
“Part of a poem. When my mom was pregnant with me, she went to see an art show that came through town. Monet’s “Water Lilies” were some of those paintings and a poem by Robert Hayden was displayed with them. She had always loved the painting but that day she fell in love with the poem. So she named me after the poet.”
“Hayden . . .” I realized I had said it with a bit of reverence and I cleared my throat to pretend that was why.
“Is it disappointing?”
“No, not at all. I like it a lot.”
“I’m kind of fond of it as well.”
“Way better than fill-in Bradley.”
“How is Bradley anyway?” He gave me a sideways glance.
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him since that night.” I’d been telling too many lies lately, so I felt the need to add, “He texted me. I tried to call him back and he didn’t answer. Then he called me back but I missed it. Then I left a message for him. I haven’t decided if I’m going to call him again.”
“What’s the deciding factor?”
That was a good question. He should’ve been gone. I didn’t need to call him for him to be gone. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t be deciding at all. He left me at prom. In the parking lot. I wasn’t expecting it.” I was talking aloud without filtering my thoughts at all, so I shut my mouth before I said other things I didn’t mean to.
He raised his eyebrows, but I couldn’t read his expression. A large bug hit the windshield with a thump. He turned on the wipers, spraying water to clear it away. “You wanted it to end on your terms?”
“Yes. I mean, no, I didn’t want it to end . . . maybe. What about you? Bec was right, wasn’t she? You really do want your girlfriend back.”
He let out a breath. “Possibly.”
That was as close to “of course I do” as it got for guys, I thought, but I played along. “What’s the deciding factor?”
He tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs, took a deep breath, and said, “Tonight, I guess.”