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By mid-March I knew for sure. Porter and I were officially a thing.
“You’re going to get caught,” Eli warned. “Plus”—he slammed his locker and gave me his pouty face—“I never see you anymore.”
“That’s not true!” I countered. “I was just at your house!”
“Last week!” He started walking toward the cafeteria and I followed him.
Last week? Had it really been last week? “Well”—I caught up with him and linked my arm through his—“it’s not like you haven’t been busy too. You can’t lay it all at my feet. What about you and Jordan?”
Eli pulled his arm from mine, and his eyes focused into a steely stare on some invisible point in front of him.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head, but I could totally tell he was upset.
“What is wrong?” I shoved him, trying to be playful and lighten the mood.
He stumbled a few steps to the right and turned on me. “You are unbelievable.”
What the hell was going on? I shook my head at him, I had no clue why he was so mad at me.
“So basically, even when you are with me you don’t listen to a single word I say.” His mouth flattened into a line. “That’s great, good to know.” He left me standing and staring at him in confusion while he started walking toward the cafeteria again. “It’s important to realize when you’re heading down a one-way street.”
“What are you talking about?” I ran to catch up with him. “Why are you so mad at me?”
“Because,” he stopped walking and got in my face. “When I tell my best friend that a guy I love slept with me and then broke up with me three days later . . . maybe I’m crazy, maybe I expect too much”—his voice seethed like acid—“but I expect her to have the common courtesy to retain at least a fleeting memory of the conversation.” He leaned back and shrugged in his fake, but you know I don’t even care act. “And obviously I’m the idiot for even thinking it was a conversation in the first place, since that would need two people.” He walked away again and waved his hand dismissively over his head. “As long as you’re happy, Ruth, it’s really all that matters in your world.”
Stunned, I didn’t chase after him. What he said, how he said it, it felt like being slapped. I was used to people saying shit about me, people like Bella and company . . . but Eli was my best friend.
He was my only friend.
I knew he had slept with Jordan . . . but there was no way Eli had told me that Jordan had dumped him.
Had he told me?
How could I have missed that?
The last time I talked with him . . . I racked my brain trying to think about that conversation. We were on the phone, and I had been distracted. I was running out of time for my honors thesis and I needed to get back up to Harmony House, soon, and observe Karen again—I needed more data. Plus, I had been missing so much school because I left campus a lot to work with Porter on our calculus project.
And to be with him, of course.
But what had Eli said? He said that he hadn’t talked with Jordan since they slept together two nights ago. It had happened after their last youth night meeting. The not-so-subtle flirting had been escalating for weeks and Eli and Jordan had been calling and texting each other almost every day.
At first it was about youth group logistics . . . even though when Eli showed me the texts, I could clearly see they were only thinly veiled excuses for them to reach out to each other. But then, the texts were more flirty, more personal. More, What are you doing right now? Thinking of you.
And I had rolled my eyes and said, “Of course he likes you, idiot.”
And Eli had smiled big, happy that I had confirmed his greatest wish. Jordan liked him back.
The sex had happened after the text that said, Let’s get coffee after group tonight.
They had somehow ended up at Jordan’s two-bedroom apartment that he shared with his sister who worked as a waitress at a nearby Denny’s. Two days later, I was on the phone with Eli, distracted by my own life, and he had told me . . . what? For sure not that Jordan had dumped him.
“Jordan isn’t answering my calls”—that’s what he said.
“Don’t freak out. I’m sure he’s just busy.”
“I think he’s avoiding me.”
I had sighed. “No he’s not. It’s only two days. Don’t go crazy.” And then, Porter, who had been lying on my bed behind me reading, got up and started kissing my neck. “Look . . . I’ll call you later. Okay?”
There had been a stretch of silence. “Okay.” And he hung up.
I had turned into Porter’s arms and been swept into the crazed rush of him. The press of his body and the taste of his mouth.
I had never called Eli back.
I watched Eli turn the corner into the cafeteria and headed after him. He hadn’t told me that Jordan had dumped him three days after he slept with him—but he had told me that he was worried. I should have known that he was feeling terrible. Feeling alone. Feeling like he’d just been used, in the worst way, by some post-adolescent crap-bag of an asshole.
If I’d been paying attention, I would have realized that Eli was basically telling me exactly what was coming. Even if—no, especially if he didn’t fully see what was happening with Jordan, I should have. I should have been there for him.
Ugh. It felt like a bottomless pit had opened up inside me—I was a crappy friend. I needed to tell him this. I needed to tell Eli I was sorry and then beg him to let me make it up to him.
Completely ready to get on my knees—figuratively of course, I rounded the corner to the cafeteria.
And stopped dead.
My blood turned to ice. Eli, my Eli, wasn’t at our usual table. He was sitting two tables over, with Bella and company and, as I watched, he leaned to his left. Bella whispered something in his ear.
Then, he laughed.
Laughed at something Bella said! As if Bella possessed even the most basic ability to—
I jumped out of my skin and turned to see Porter, standing beside me smiling down at me like my best friend in the entire world hadn’t just converted to the dark side. “Hey,” I said.
His brow wrinkled. “What’s wrong?”
I looked back into the cafeteria and caught Eli looking at me for a split second before he returned his attention to Bella. “Nothing,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Porter took my hand and glanced into the lunchroom before we headed inside. “Bella again?” he whispered.
I shook my head and kept my eyes on the doors that led to the yard as Porter and I crossed right in front of where Eli was being assimilated into Bella’s collective teenaged borg. “Not exactly . . . sort of.” We pushed through the doors at the same time. “I don’t know.”
It was hot out, more like summer than almost spring. I wanted to enjoy the day with Porter not obsess about Eli and Bella swapping Why We Hate Ruth Robinson war stories.
Porter reached into his back pocket. “Well, cheer up, I’ve been given a good-boy behavior treat.” He pulled out two slim slips of card stock and handed them to me. They were free drink coupons from Coffee Cabana.
My mouth went dry. My mother had given him these. She had a whole stack of coupons in her office. These from Coffee Cabana, One Free Taco from Dos Hermanos, Half Off Any Large or Extra-Large Slushy from the Texaco—tons of coupons she had collected over the years from local businesses, and she doled them out to kids to “reinforce desired behavior.”
I forced myself to smile. “Good behavior?” I tried to joke. “You? Where’d you steal these from?”
“No emotional freak-outs in four weeks equals free coffee for you and me,” he said, and slung his arm over my shoulder. “Hell, if I’d known that was all I had to do, I would have stopped throwing things at people in fifth grade.”
I smiled, because he was joking, but the image of him from that first day, screaming and being restrained by two armed cops floated into my brain.
It was easy to forget that version of Porter. Forget that he was not always this easy, even-tempered, stunningly brilliant guy who made my insides dissolve every time he pulled me into his arms.
Every time I closed my eyes and kissed him.
But being with Porter—I knew it was a minefield. Maybe right now I couldn’t see it. Right now it was the warmth of his body when I was lying beside him. The press of his lips. The thrill of the words he whispered in my ear.
But below the surface.
And it was true, ever since we had started seeing each other, Porter hadn’t had any issues. There had been no yelling, thrashing, angry episodes that required law enforcement intervention. I would like to pretend that he had changed, for good—except I happened to live with a woman who had spent the last twelve years of our lives working with kids just like Porter.
I kind of knew better than to believe in fairy tales.
In reality, I had no idea what wrong step might set him off.
The middle of the day on a Wednesday, Coffee Cabana was practically empty. Since the weather had been unusually warm, people were lined up outside the brightly decorated frozen Juice Drop two doors away instead of huddled inside the dark coffee shop. Everyone was dreaming about summer, of shorts and T-shirts, hot days, warm nights, and tropical flavored iced slushies.
I would much rather have a Summer Slammer, a yummy orange and pineapple drink blended with vanilla frozen yogurt—mine and Eli’s favorite Juice Drop concoction—than a hot cup of coffee. But I stood in line and ordered a small coffee, because this is what Porter’s coupon was for. We hadn’t talked about it, but I could tell it was important to him to be able to pay for me to get this drink. Since we’d been together, every time we went somewhere, either I would pay for us both, or Porter would wave his hand and say he didn’t want anything, he wasn’t hungry, thirsty, or, “How about we just go back to your house?”
Money was a weird issue that we never really talked about, even though it was always a topic between us. Hell, I was still pretending I didn’t know that Porter’s tennis shoes had holes in the bottom.
“What’s wrong?” Porter asked.
Dazed, I looked up from my coffee right into his beautiful worried eyes. His forehead wrinkled in the way it did when he was trying to figure something out.
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“You’re lying.” He took a sip from his cup and blew across the top, sending the hot coffee’s steam swirling away from him.
I took a deep breath, let a huge sigh out through my nose, and shrugged. He was right, of course. I couldn’t stop thinking about Eli, the look of pure contempt on his face, and especially the way he’d been huddled up with Bella and her friends. A sinking, sick feeling settled in around my stomach. Bella and Eli didn’t look like today was their first day hanging out. Obviously, while I had been busy becoming Porter’s girlfriend, Eli had moved on. Maybe Eli didn’t want to be my friend anymore. The thought terrified me. “I’m a really crappy friend, that’s what,” I whispered.
Porter’s mouth went flat. “That’s not true. I think you’re a great friend.”
I smiled weakly but I could feel my eyes start to well up with tears anyway. “To you, maybe.”
Porter could see that I was about to start crying. He put his coffee down and reached for my hand. “You’re scaring me. Is this about Eli?”
I nodded and felt the first tears slip over the edge of my eyelids and run down my cheek.
Porter got up from his side of the table and came over to sit next to me. “What happened?” He whispered into my ear as he pulled me into his arms. “Please don’t cry Ruth, I can’t stand to see you cry.”
“Eli . . . he’s like my brother. And I’ve been a shit for a friend these last few weeks. He needed me and I wasn’t there for him and now I think maybe he just decided that he doesn’t need me after all.”
Porter held me close and rested his chin on top of my head. “Just tell him you’re sorry. If he’s like your brother, then he’ll forgive you.”
“And what if he doesn’t?”
“Then he’s the shit, and he doesn’t deserve you anyway.”
I laughed and felt snot start to run out my nose. Thank God my face was below Porter’s so he couldn’t see, and I had time to grab a napkin from the table and wipe my face.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I smiled and nodded. “But I’m still going to have to go grovel in front of him and beg his forgiveness.”
Porter smiled, “Ruth Robinson grovel? I’d have to see that to believe it.” He leaned forward and kissed the space between my eyes and was just about to kiss my lips, when my phone buzzed loudly on the table between us.
Startled, we both pulled back and turned to see what it was.
A text message illuminated from the center of a bright white square on my phone.
WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?
An icy rush flooded my body and my limbs went numb. “Oh shit,” I whispered.
The text was from my mother.
Thank you for reading chapter seventeen of Affective Needs. A new chapter is posted every Wednesday. If you don't feel like waiting for updates, here is the link to my book page and all the vendors that carry my books. Happy reading!