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Authors: Whitney Lyles

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BOOK: Love Off-Limits
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“Did I tell you that you guys both scored the same way on the quiz?”

Jo shook her head. “No.”

“You guys both got ‘dressed to dream.' See, you're perfect for each other, and how many guys are romantic that way? He'd be such a good boyfriend.”

“The truth is, I think about him all the time. I know he would be. But it just seems so weird. I just don't know.” She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I just can't see it happening.”

Natalie had to make one more point. “Look, I'm not saying you have to marry the guy. But why don't you just give him a chance? You even said so yourself. Now is the time for dating. It's just a time to test the waters.”

Jo didn't argue. Maybe there was hope.

Sixteen

Natalie stomped her foot in exasperation as she watched her ball roll into the gutter for the third time. “Where's your form?” Jeremy called, half joking.

She smiled and shook her head.

Bowling ball in hand, Jo passed her on the way to the lane. “Nice try, Nat.”

Jo was smoking the guys, and Natalie wished she could say the same for herself.

She was terrible at bowling. There was no other way to put it. She needed the smallest and lightest ball the alley offered, and she had to roll the ball from in between her calves using both hands—a technique Jeremy referred to as “granny style.” However, in spite of all this she still thought the sport was
pretty fun. It wasn't like everyone expected her to be some champion bowler. A dozen of Jeremy's friends had shown up for the party, and most of them had probably only bowled a handful of times in their lives. Jeremy had a natural flair for bowling, but that came as no surprise. When it came to sports he was good at everything he tried. Jo had surprised Natalie the most. Natalie had never expected Jo to bowl better than Jeremy. For some strange reason, Jo just seemed to have a knack for it. The rest of the party fell somewhere in between Jo and Natalie, so Natalie wasn't alone in her defeat.

Natalie also loved the people-watching at the bowling alley. The lane on the left hosted a birthday party for a twelve-year-old, and all the guests had come in costume. It was pretty funny watching Pocahontas get a strike or Cinderella roll the ball granny style as Natalie had been doing all afternoon.

The lane on the right was another story. It was an older group. Natalie guessed they were in their twenties. Most were dressed from head to toe in black, and the dark eye makeup and onyx nail polish worn by the girls and guys brought visions of Marilyn Manson concerts. It wasn't every day she saw
a bunch of goths bowling, and she would've never pinned them as the bowling type. She would've thought séances and AFI concerts were more their thing.

But no matter how different everyone was in their costumes or their dark attire, they all wore the same shoes. Natalie observed that bowling shoes didn't look bad on anyone.

She watched Jeremy bowl a strike. He did a victory dance before Brianna took her turn at the lane. She came close to a strike, and then managed to wipe out the next pins on the following try. Brianna jumped up and Travis gave her a high five on his way to the lane. She still hadn't asked him to the dance, and Natalie made a mental note to bring it up if she had a chance later in the party.

“That was awesome,” Jeremy said as she returned to their party beaming. They high-fived.

Then it was Vincent's turn. He was a bad bowler too. He looked kind of funny when he rolled the ball. His legs sort of caved in at the knees, almost as though they were going to collapse, and his arm jutted out to the side.

“Keep your arm in,” Jeremy yelled.

The comment must've distracted Vincent because his ball took off at a grotesquely odd angle. Natalie watched as his ball bounced off the side of the gutter and landed in the goths' lane. She'd hoped the ball would keep heading east and only cause a moment of interruption for their warlock neighbors. Instead, the ball rapidly headed south.

Natalie caught a glimpse of Vincent's eyes growing wide. He mumbled something that would've been bleeped out on TV before his ball took out a few pins on the left side of the goths' lane. She hoped whoever's turn it was in the vampire clan was bowling as badly as Vincent was because this could either make their game or totally ruin it.

The only person who seemed to find this funny was Jeremy. Everyone else in their group wore the same
oh no
expressions. Jeremy's laughter bounced off the alley's walls and could probably be heard down the street. He doubled over. “That is freaking hilarious,” he said in between breaths. His baseball cap fell off and he caught it.

“Sorry,” Vincent called. “I'm sure you can remove it from your score.” He lowered his voice and looked at Jo and Nat. “I just have no idea how.”

Surprisingly, the Marilyn Manson crew cracked a few smiles. “No worries,” one of the goths called back. “It was Karen's turn, and she needed the points anyway.”

“Great! Glad I could help,” Vincent said as he quickly returned to the party. He slid into a seat next to Natalie. “Okay, that should make you feel better,” he said.

She laughed.

“One of us has to be the worst and I think it might be me,” he said.

“Actually, in spite of your lane invasion I think you're still beating me.” She glanced at the scoreboard. “Yep, you are.”

“Where's Matt?” Vincent whispered.

Natalie shrugged. The question had been eating away at her since the party had started an hour ago. It was so not like him to be a no-show. Avoiding her text message from the day before was one thing. But now he blew off Jeremy's birthday party? Maybe he really had fled the country.

“Has Jeremy said anything about where he is?” Vincent's voice was almost inaudible.

She shook her head.

“Why don't you ask him?”

“I will.” Natalie didn't know why she felt as though she needed to work up the
nerve to ask Jeremy where Matt was. It seemed as though even speaking his name indicated guilt. She felt like waiting. Maybe he would still show up. After all, bowling had been his idea. It was just so not him to avoid his best friend's birthday, no matter how weird he felt.

The other thing that had been holding her back from asking was that Jeremy hadn't sat still for more than two seconds. If she wanted to know where Matt was, she was going to have to yell over the group. But even with their friends she felt weird bringing Matt up. Was everyone going to point in her direction and accusingly say, “You! You kissed him.”

She realized how irrational and weird she was being. She waited until Jeremy was nearby. He was chatting with Brianna, and Natalie tapped the back of his leg with her bowling shoe.

“So, where's Matt?” she asked after he faced her.

“Oh, did I forget to tell you? He's sick. He called me this morning. He sounds like a freaking chain-smoker. I hardly recognized him.”

“Oh.”

He quickly turned back to Brianna.

Natalie was glad she'd asked. But then she wondered if she would get what he had. What if she sounded like a chain-smoker tomorrow? How much more guilty could she look? It would be the wrath of God.

Natalie came in dead last, and Jo and Jeremy tied for first place. Natalie wondered what Jeremy would've done if Jo had beat him. He'd probably demand another game. They sang “Happy Birthday” and ate the chocolate cake that Natalie had picked up from the grocery store. Several people brought gifts and they all watched while Jeremy opened them. In the past Natalie's gifts to Jeremy had had sentimental value or had been something special she knew that he'd wanted. This time she'd picked up an an iTunes gift card from the grocery store when she'd picked up the cake. He seemed happy with the gift.

The party came to a close and Jo and Vincent stayed to help clean up. Natalie drove Jeremy and his gifts home. For the entire ride home he blasted the new Slipknot CD that Brianna got him. After one song, Natalie was ready to chuck it out her window and watch it shatter into
twenty million pieces. She'd rather hear the ravioli song.

“Thanks for the party, Nat. This was great.”

“You're welcome. Did you have fun?”

“I had a blast.”

“Don't forget this.” She ejected his CD.

“Oh yeah.” He took the CD and she helped him carry the rest of his gifts to the front door. His mother had decorated their porch with a scarecrow. The head was lopsided, a detail that Jeremy quickly pointed out. Rather than fixing the head, he pushed it with his free hand and watched as it rolled down the porch steps. So Jeremy.

He chuckled as he looked for Natalie's reaction. She smiled and rolled her eyes. “Real nice.”

“It was begging to be beheaded,” he said.

They said good-bye in his foyer, and as she walked back to her car, she realized it was the first time that they had ever parted ways without a kiss.

Seventeen

The party was over, in many ways.

Matt didn't show up to school on Monday. She was sort of glad. After a lot of thinking she realized that it was probably best if she didn't see him until after she broke up with Jeremy. Maybe the fact that they'd be officially broken up the next time she saw Matt would make things seem less sneaky and scandalous.

She'd spent most of Sunday night and Monday thinking of an easy way to let Jeremy go. She thought about asking her cyber friends, but she had Jo and Vincent to confide in now, and she trusted them more than anyone. Furthermore, she didn't want to start another war on Romeohelpme. Her
last entry had drawn in more visitors than she'd ever imagined. Everyone had an opinion about her dilemma. She thought it was best to lie low on Up All Night until the situation was resolved and she could think a little more clearly.

The hardest part was that she had decided to tell Jeremy everything—even about kissing Matt. Even her best friends had conflicting opinions on this particular dilemma. Jo thought she should come clean and Vincent had advised against it.

“He's going to find out eventually,” Jo had said a thousand times. “It would be best if he found out from you. And it's the right thing to do.”

“Maybe come clean down the road,” Vincent said. “When things aren't so raw. But don't let the guy lose his girlfriend and best friend all in one day.”

She realized there was never going to be the perfect answer for this. So she had to do what she felt was best, in her heart. The more she thought about it, the more she knew she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she kept such a huge secret from him.

She'd never broken up with anyone in her life. It was hard enough thinking that
her decision was going to be the source of someone else's pain. She wasn't even sure about what she should say. She'd been searching for the right words all day.

After school she got in her car and thought of different options, and wanted to call her friends for one more chat. She reached in her backpack for her cell phone. While steering, she didn't have a chance to place it in its holder. She held on to the phone and waited for a red light so she could get situated.

She tried to think of the right thing to say.
I just need a break—just some time to find out if this is right. I still want you in my life, and I will always be here for you. It's not you. It's me. You're wonderful. And there is something else I need to tell you. I kissed Matt.

No matter how lightly she put it, the message was still the same. It was over. It was going to hurt. Her September column had been devoted to breaking up, but she'd never realized how hard it was until she was actually in that position.

She had that song by Fergie about breaking up stuck in her head all day. “It's not you, it's me” was basically the message. It wasn't her favorite song, but Fergie had really hit
the nail on the head. It was nothing personal. Natalie just needed some time to figure things out. Natalie nervously ran her fingers through her hair while still holding her cell phone. Wouldn't it be nice if she could put things as easily as Fergie had?

The sound of a siren interrupted her thoughts. The moment she heard the noise was the same moment she realized that she'd been singing out loud. She looked at her hands and realized she'd been holding the cell phone the entire time too. The officer thought that she'd been talking on her cell phone. She'd been singing! She tossed her cell phone on the Ravioli's passenger seat and pulled over. She'd never been pulled over in her entire life. She'd only witnessed her father getting a speeding ticket once.

Panic-stricken, she maneuvered the car to the side of the road. Cars whizzed past her as she waited for the officer to arrive at her window. She recognized many of her classmates' cars as they sped past her. She even heard someone scream “Hi, Naaaaaaaaaaaat!” from his window.

She noticed Jo's car head past, and Vinny was looking out the window pointing at her. This was just her luck.

How was she going to explain that she was singing—not talking on her cell phone? She'd never even heard of someone getting a ticket for singing. Jo had gotten one of those red-light tickets—the kind where the camera snaps a photo of you running a red light, and then the police department mails the picture and the fine to you. Jo had been singing in the photograph. But this was different—Natalie was seriously getting pulled over for belting out the lyrics to some lame breakup song. What were her parents going to say?

The cop looked even more intimidating up close. Was it a rule that cops had to have mustaches? He had thick lips and chubby, porklike fingers. Freckles covered his obscenely pale complexion.

“You know why I'm pulling you over?” he asked.

“Let me explain for a minute here. Officer, I swear I was putting my cell phone in the holder, and I just couldn't reach while I was driving. I was actually waiting for a light to snap my cell phone into the charger—trying to be safe—and, and I was singing. I swear, I really truly was singing.”

His chuckle was sinister. “That's a new
one. Haven't heard that one before. But it's a good one.” He began to write her a ticket.

“I'm serious! I mean, look. I have a hands-free device right here in my car.” She pointed to the holder. “Why would I talk on my phone when I have that? Why? No one would do that. No one in their right mind.”

He looked up from his ticket pad. “What were you singing?”

He wanted to know? She wasn't about to question why. “I was singing that Fergie song. I can't remember the name of it.” She was feeling desperate and began to sing the chorus to him. She couldn't see his eyes behind his cop shades, but she sensed he was enjoying her performance. “You recognize it?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Sorry. No.” Then he ripped the ticket from the pad.

“You're really giving me a ticket?”

“Fraid so.” He tapped the side of her car. “Be careful out there.”

She looked in her rearview mirror and watched him shake his head with laughter all the way back to his squad car.

Her phone beeped, indicating the arrival
of a text. However, she wasn't about to touch the thing at this point. She'd probably get arrested.

Pulling away from the curb was terrifying. She worried about getting in an accident right there with the cop watching her. Or worse, getting in an accident
with
the cop. Was she supposed to go first? Or wait for him to leave? He went first, speeding away with his siren on. She waited for a long time, just to let her nerves cool off.

When she arrived home, there was a note on the banister from her mother.

Natalie,

The boys had football practice today. And I took Grandma to get her hair cut. I'm bringing dinner home.

Love,
Mom

Perfect. She wasn't looking forward to explaining to her parents that she'd been pulled over for singing. What if they didn't believe her?

Even though no one was home, she went
to her room and closed the door behind her. She checked her texts.

Vinny.

R U OK?

She had another from Jeremy.

Did someone have a run-in with Johnny Law? What were u doing?

Had the entire school seen her?

She called Jo and Vincent first. Both of them almost died laughing when they heard her story.

“That might be one of the best stories I've ever heard in my life,” Jo said.

Vincent began singing the Fergie song. “I like that song,” he said.

“Anyway,” Natalie said, changing the subject, “I have to call Jeremy.”

They both already knew she had plans for “a big talk” with him, but refrained from asking her a lot of questions. She appreciated their consideration. It was only fair to go to Jeremy first.

She said good-bye to her friends, then waited for a moment. She was nervous. In
fact, she couldn't recall ever being more nervous. She'd felt more confident about the speech she had given on economics last year. She'd gotten through the speech, and she told herself she'd get through this, too. She might even feel better when it was over.

Her heart pounded as she dialed Jeremy. He answered quickly. Right off the bat he wanted to know about the ticket.

“You all right?” he asked.

She told him the whole story, and he also burst into hysterics. “That's pretty funny,” he said.

“Only me, right?”

He asked her a million questions about the experience, and she waited until he was finished to bring up the main reason for her phone call.

Her heart skipped a beat. “Anyway, I'm also calling because…I think we need to talk.” She paused. “In person.”

“O-kay,” he said slowly. “About what?” She sensed from his serious tone that he knew the answer. He sounded worried, so unlike himself.

“Just about stuff…” Now she sounded nervous. “Specifically you and me.”

He wanted to meet at the lake, which
wasn't her first choice after what had happened there only days ago. But she was afraid her father would come home and then she wouldn't be able to break up with him. And they couldn't go to his house because his mom and brother were there. Any crowded public places were out of the question. At least at the lake they could find their own secluded area to chat.

They agreed to meet at the lake in fifteen minutes. She was glad they didn't delay it because she needed to get this over with. She'd finally worked up the nerve, and if she waited too long, she might change her mind. He was standing at the water's edge when she arrived, throwing rocks into the lake and watching them bounce off the water. He hardly noticed her walk up.

“Hey, Jere,” she said.

He turned around, and the happy-go-lucky look he usually greeted her with was gone. The only other time he'd been like this was when he'd told her about his parents splitting up. He hugged her, which she took as a good sign. At least he didn't hate her—yet. But the hug seemed more like a good-bye than a hello. He totally knew what was coming, and she felt horrible. She
almost changed her mind about breaking up with him. She couldn't stand to see him suffer. However, it was worse to stay with him out of pity.

“Let's sit down,” he said.

She sat down next to him in the sand. For a moment he continued picking up small rocks and throwing them in the water.

“Natalie,” he started, then paused.

“I'm sorry, Jeremy,” she said. “I don't think I've been completely honest with you. There is a lot I want to say, and there is just no easy way to say it.” She swallowed, then took a deep breath. Here it was. “I think we've grown apart, Jere. I love you as a friend, and I never want to lose that. I mean, I would die if I lost you as a friend, but—”

“No, hey, listen. It's my fault.” He held on to a rock, making a fist around its smooth surface.

“What's your fault?”

“That we've grown apart.”

She was shocked. All this time, she'd assumed he thought they were closer than ever. All his confiding and late-night chats. She felt as though a weight had been lifted off her back.

“We're great friends,” he continued. “I
think that in many ways our friendship is closer than ever. I mean, I really care about you. But I think…”

“The spark is gone?”

He nodded.

“You don't have to explain. I completely understand.”

He seemed relieved too.

“I still really want to be friends with you, and you know you can always come to me for anything,” she emphasized.

“That's good. Because you've probably been the closest friend that I've had this past year.” Instead of throwing the rock that he held into the lake, he set it down next to him.

“Thanks for saying that. You really deserve someone better than me, Jeremy.”

“That's not true. I think you deserve better than me.”

They sat next to the lake for a while. It was starting to feel more like fall had finally arrived in San Diego. The breeze felt cool off the lake, and the sun seemed to cast different shadows than it had in the summer—as though it were getting darker earlier.

Natalie had thought breaking up would put a heavy tension between the two of them,
and in many ways it was sad, but the strange thing was that everything felt lighter, more relaxed. But she still had to tell him about Matt. Dread consumed her. But she was afraid that this amicable breakup might turn ugly. Then she thought about the dance.

“What about the dance?” she asked.

“Do you still want to go?”

She didn't want to hurt his feelings—what if he still really wanted to go?—and it was a little late to find a date at this point. “I'm definitely still in if you're still in. But I don't mind either way.”

“You want to just swing it solo this year?”

“Sure.”

He thought for a moment. “But what about the nominations?”

“Jo's on the committee. I'm sure she can take us off the ballot. You know the votes aren't cast until the night of the dance anyway.”

He nodded. “I hope it's not too much of a problem.”

“Seeing how we don't even have costumes yet, I think we're okay.”

He smiled. “True.” He looked at the lake. “Well, if you don't want to go, do you care if I ask Brianna?”

She was surprised—not in a bad way. She just hadn't seen that one coming.

She shook her head. “Not at all.”

It was a relief to know that he already had his eye on someone else. Brianna wasn't her best friend, though. At the end of the day, Matt was still Jeremy's best friend. She took this as a good opportunity to bring him up.

“There is something else I have to tell you.” She felt her stomach turning and her palms growing sweaty. As he looked at her and waited for her to continue, she didn't know if she'd be able to say it.

BOOK: Love Off-Limits
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