January 26, 2008


After the pretty-much-disastrous meeting, Emily eventually convinced Michael to let her give him a ride home. The Mini moved down the slowly cooling streets of the city, as the exhausted maples drooped low, eclipsing the streetlights. It hadn’t rained in days, but the humidity clung damp and miserable on everything. They passed under a blurry greenlight before Emily realized that she should have turned. Well, she’d meant to take the long way anyway, so she could talk to Michael. But she couldn’t think of how to start or even what she wanted to talk about, and Michael didn’t speak up.

“Well, I guess that could have gone better,” Emily finally said, a block from Michael’s house.

“It was fine. It was what it was. They were just freaked out, you know? We were just freaked out.”

“I guess.” Emily pulled up in front of the large stone house where Michael lived. All but one of the lights were out, even though it was only 9:30. “Do you really think it was a good idea to lie to them?”

Michael stiffened beside her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean about you saying Lillian told you they were definitely coming back. Is it a good idea to give them false hope like that?”

“It’s not false. You and I know they’re coming back, right?”

“I guess. Yeah, definitely.”

“I was just helping things along.” Michael reached to take off his seat belt, then realized he wasn’t wearing it. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. At the time it made sense, like something Churchill would do to rally the troops.”


“Winston Churchill, the prime minister of-”

“Yeah, okay, thanks…I know who Winston Churchill is, Michael.”


Emily sighed. “No, I’m sorry. This has been the worst day. At least I haven’t had to deal with my mom. Well, who knows, there’s still a few hours left before bed, maybe I spoke too soon.”

“Here, I’ll-“ Michael started to say, then thought better of it.


He shook his head. “I don’t even remember. It’s late, though…my dad-”

Emily looked over at him, but he was looking straight ahead. He was trying to seem amused, almost distracted, but she knew him well enough to know he was stalling. “Michael, why…why do you always do this? You’re so cold to me, and I’ve never done anything to you. Then every so often we’ll start to get along, and just when you’re beginning to enjoy yourself, you freeze up again. Why?”

“Huh. I guess I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Michael said. “I should get inside.”

“Michael, please. It was like David was saying, we have to stick together. Especially us. As Robert eloquently pointed out, we’re apparently the outsiders in The Gang.”

“Yeah, that one was news to me, too.”

“So…tell me. What were you going to say just now?”

“It’s not important.”

“It’s important to me,” Emily said, mumbling the last bit because it sounded like a line from a soap opera.

Michael frowned to himself, then turned in his seat towards her. “Okay, look. This is going to sound really stupid, but…okay, you said you were really stressed out, and I-I thought I’d teach you a relaxation exercise, if you wanted.”

The car was silent. Emily stared at him, trying to decide if he was telling the truth before finally laughing out loud. She put a hand over her mouth, but it was no good.

“Okay, never mind.” He started to open his door, but Emily grabbed his arm.

“No, no, tell me about it.”

Michael paused. “You’ll just make fun of me some more…”

“I promise.”

“Okay…uh, okay.” Michael closed his car door, and they were in darkness again. “Relax, lay back in your seat. I mean, uh, lie back in your seat. Okay? Now, close your eyes.”

Emily, trying to fight a grin, did as she was told. “Wow, I’m seeing a whole new creepy side of you, Michael. You should know I have pepper spray,” she said, peeking out of one eye.

Michael reached over and shifted her car into park. “Okay, now take a big breath and hold it.”

“For how long?”

“Just do it.”

Emily inhaled deeply, then nervously laughed it all back out. “Hold on. Okay.” This time she was somewhat more successful at holding her breath.

“Now…still holding your breath, clench up all your muscles.” He watched her face go tight, and her arms and her fists and her legs. She was fighting another laugh, but she soon stopped. “Keep holding your breath. Don’t forget about your toes.”

Emily, with her eyes closed, tried to tighten all of her muscles. Just when she thought she had every single muscle pulled tight, Michael would remind her of a different part of her body, and she’d realize that she had overlooked that part. “And don’t forget the back of your knees. And your belly. And the part that makes your ears wiggle.”

With every word, it seemed that he was getting closer and closer to her. “And the back of your thighs,” he said softly. “And the…part above the back of your thighs. And your shoulder blades.”

With her eyes closed, Emily noticed things she wouldn’t have otherwise, like the soft ticking of her car’s engine. And she could smell Michael, smell his hair, smell his…aftershave? (Michael shaves?) It was a boy smell, like camping and leather. “Your eyebrows,” he whispered. “Your armpits.”

“Michael,” she gasped, through clenched teeth. “I have to breath.”

“Okay, slowly exhale, and relax all of your muscles as you do.”

Emily breathed out, and as she did, she let go of everything. Her body melted down into the seat. She breathed shallow for a few moments, feeling parts of her she’d forgotten about go limp. The last thing she did was open her eyes. She thought she’d felt him move closer to her, but Michael was in the same position he’d been in before.

“So, uh…yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah! Do you do that with Lillian?” With a limp hand she reached in the back seat and found half of a Diet Coke that had been back there for only a couple of weeks. “All naked and stuff?”

“No…” Michael said. In the dark of the car, Emily took a drink of warm cola and thought to herself: oh my god, is he blushing? Michael, for his part, was thinking: holy shit, am I blushing? “Actually, I’ve never told anyone else about it. I do it all the time when I’m alone and, you know, stressed out. I learned about it when I was a little kid. It was on Reading Rainbow.”

Emily didn’t say anything.

“I know, I know, it sounds dumb.”

Emily drank some more soda.

“It was an episode about dealing with stress or not throwing temper tantrums or something. I don’t know.”

Emily screwed the cap back on her Diet Coke and smiled at him a little. “You don’t just do it when you’re alone. I’ve seen you do it.”

“You have?”

“A few times, when you thought I wasn’t looking. But I didn’t know that you were relaxing, I thought you were trying to control your anger about something. It was funny, because I’d only ever seen you all quiet and dismissive beside Lillian, and then a few times when you thought no one saw you’d just be totally overtaken with this silent fury. It made me think you had this whole other mysterious side to you, this fiery Macedonian temper you had to fight to control.”

“Oh. No…not so much.”

Emily shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s good to find out that you’re not a rageoholic.”

“You should have seen me a few weeks ago, trying to put on a bowtie for Prom.”

Emily opened her mouth, about to tell Michael a story about the beginning of the last school year. But then she thought better of it and said, instead: “Thank you for telling me about that.”

Michael shrugged. “Thank you for mostly not making fun of me.”

“Well, uh, I guess I’ll see you soon?”

“Of course.” Michael opened his door a crack, and the overhead light came on. “I heard somewhere that just because we don’t have the twins doesn’t mean we’re not a Gang anymore.”

Emily laughed a little. “Well, that’s apparently up in the air right now. So…call me?”

“Sure. Oh, I put your car in stop for you earlier.” He nodded at the gearshift.

“You put it in what? In ‘stop’? You mean in park?”

“Stop, park, whatever.”

Emily covered her mouth with her hand again. “Oh my god, Michael…it just occurred to me. I’ve never seen you…I mean, you don’t know how to drive, do you?”

Michael’s lips were pursed. He looked out the window, ignoring Emily’s giggles. “My dad won’t let me get a car, you know that.”

“Yeah, but…this is too funny. You don’t know how to drive!”

“I thought you promised not to make fun of me…”

“Yeah, about the other thing. This is fair game. And I’m not even making fun of you, I’m just amazed. I mean, you know how to do everything. You get straight A’s, you’re dating the prettiest girl in school, you’re the best dresser without even trying. You’re, you know, beautiful. (Not that you had anything to do with that, so don’t get a big head.) Robert starts playing his guitar, you back him up on piano. Andre’s computer breaks, you help him fix it. Litta’Bit gets a Vespa for Christmas, you go over and show her how to ride it. Yet…weird, you don’t know how to drive.”

“Okay, okay.”

Emily smiled. “I guess Perfect Michael’s not so perfect after all.”

Michael laughed out loud despite his annoyance. “Who calls me Perfect Michael?”

“Not me…not anymore.”

Rolling his eyes, Michael got out of her car. “Goodnight, Emily.”

“See ya at the bus stop, loser.”

Michael walked around the back of the car, pulling his keys out of his pocket slowly. Emily, inside the car, chuckled softly to herself, then watched him walk up to his house. That was really nice, she thought. They’d never really joked around like that before. Like friends.

Walking away from the car, though, Michael immediately regretted having spent so much time with her, opening up to her, laughing with her. He found his door key and stopped in front of the huge stone staircase leading up to the house. He looked over his shoulder…Emily was still watching him, smiling. He waved at her, and she waved back, but she didn’t leave. You have to keep her at a distance. She’s always been the one who could destroy everything.

With a sigh, Michael climbed the steps and stood before the front door. But Emily’s Mini still didn’t move, so he found another key and opened the front door slowly. It’s already begun. She’s going to ruin you, she’s going to take everything away from you. Once he was inside the long hallway at the front of the house, though, Emily finally took her car out of stop and pulled away slowly.

Michael waited a full minute before leaving the dark hallway, stepping back outside, and closing the door silently behind him. Then he walked down the stone stairs and went around to the side of the house, where he entered a small door in the back.