The Natural History or Us by Rachel Harris
Book #2 – The Fine Art of Pretending
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“What do you think are the components of a satisfying, successful marriage?” I ask instead, setting the paper down so he won’t see how badly my hands are shaking.
I avoided the blatantly obvious question, but this one is every bit as pointless. Based on our prior history, it’s almost a given he’ll say there’s no such thing as a successful marriage. Which makes it surprising when he replies:
“Really?” I interrupt with a laugh. “You’re gonna start with honesty? You?”
Justin leans forward, the paper tablecloth crinkling as he rests his elbows on the surface. With the way he stares into my eyes, it’s like he can see straight through to my soul. Maybe Gabi had the right idea hiding behind the menu.
“Yeah,” he answers. “I am. Look, Peyton, I know you don’t believe it, but people change a lot in three years. I’m not the complete asshole you think I am.” I scoff under my breath, and he holds my gaze for another long moment before the thick knot in his throat bobs and he glances away. “At least not anymore.”
A twinge of guilt hits my stomach. Which, when you think about it, is so stupid. He cheated on me! But, luckily, before I can do something even more foolish, like apologize for my well-founded doubts, he turns back and continues.
“Honesty,” he says it again, this time emphasizing the word. He holds up a hand and starts listing components on his long fingers. “Commitment. Telling your wife she’s the most beautiful girl in the room.” He pauses there, three fingers extended, and my hand clenches beneath the table. With a grin, he adds, “Remembering what a lucky bastard you are that she ever chose you in the first place.”
That’s four, according to the tally, and my pulse picks up speed with each uptick.
“Never going to sleep angry.” Five. “Getting all your shit out there before it can build.” Six. “And kissing her every damn chance you get.” Seven.
He leans back, leaving his hands extended in the air, and I just keep staring at his fingers. I chastise myself—stupid heart, he’s not saying these things about YOU!—but the longer the fingers remain up, the longer the moment stretches, the more the air around us shifts. The cool tickle of awareness races up my spine, and as I shiver, chill bumps prick my skin.
Justin’s eyes dip to my arms. The corner of his mouth twitches and as he curls his hands closed, he shrugs. “That’s my opinion, anyway. What about you?”
My opinion? I’m discombobulated.
Before dinner = fully combobulated.
Now = completely and totally without combobs.
“Uh.” My head is void of all thought but I clear my throat, grasping to pull something out of the air. Another trait to list or quality to check that he didn’t already cover.
Since when did the player of Fairfield Academy become a frigging marriage expert?
“Those are good,” I say, stalling as I think about my parents who have, hands down, the most incredible marriage ever. They support each other, they listen, and they make room for daily bouts of silliness. Remembering a few of their more gooberific moments I add, “Laughter.” Justin looks at me. “I think it’s important to laugh with the person you’re in love with.”
He nods as a small smile plays on his lips. “I like that one. You should write it down.”
We’re not just sitting here, dredging up our pain-filled past for kicks. We’re actually supposed to turn these answers in and use them to begin our joint paper. Grateful for the excuse to break eye contact, I grab my oversized purse and dig for something to write on other than the tiny margin of the question sheet or the butcher-paper tablecloth. Usually I’m much more prepared.
And much more combobulated.
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