Sample text for This lullaby : a novel/ by Sarah Dessen.

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Chapter Eight

“Don't you give me no rotten tomato, cause all I ever wanted was your sweet potato.” Dexter stopped as the music did. Now, all we could hear was the fridge rattling and Monkey snoring. “Okay, so what else rhymes with potato?” Ted strummed his guitar, looking at the ceiling. On the couch by the refrigerator, John Miller rolled over, his red head bonking the wall.

“Anybody?” Dexter asked.

“Well,” Lucas said, crossing his legs, “it depends on if you want a real rhyme, or a pseudo rhyme.”

Dexter looked at him. “Pseudo rhyme,” he repeated. “A real rhyme,” Lucas began, in what I already recognized as his eggbert voice, “is tomato. But you could easily tack an o onto another word and make a rhyme of it, even if it's not grammatically correct. Like, say, relate-o. Or abate-o.”

“Don't you give me no rotten tomato,” Dexter sang, “just 'cause to your crazy shit I cannot relate-o.”

Silence. Ted plucked out another chord, then tightened a string.

“Needs work,” Lucas said. “But I think we're getting somewhere.”

“Can you all just please shut up,” John Miller moaned from the couch, his voice muffled. “I'm trying to sleep.”

“It's two in the afternoon, and this is the kitchen,” Ted told him. “Go someplace else or quit bitching.”

“Boys, boys,” Dexter said.

Ted sighed. “People, we need to focus on this. I want ‘The Potato Opus' to be ready for that show next week.”

“‘The Potato Opus'?” Lucas said. “Is that what it's called now?”

“Can you think of something better?”

Lucas was quiet for a second. “Nope,” he said finally. “Sure can't.”

“Then shut the hell up.” Ted picked up the guitar. “From the top, first verse, with feeling.”

And so it went. Another day at the yellow house, where I'd been spending a fair amount of my free time lately. Not that I liked the setting, particularly; the place was a total dump, mostly because four guys lived there and none of them had ever been introduced formally to a bottle of Lysol. There was rotting food in the fridge, something black and mildewy growing on the shower tiles, and some sort of unidentifiable rank smell coming from beneath the back deck. Only Dexter's room was decent, and that was because I had my limits. When I found a pair of dirty underwear under a couch cushion, or had to fight the fruit flies in the kitchen that were always swarming the garbage can, I at least could take comfort in the fact that his bed was made, his CDs stacked alphabetically, and the plug-in air freshener was working its pink, rose-shaped little heart out. All of this work on my part was a small price to pay, I figured, for my sanity.

Which, in truth, had been sorely tested lately, ever since my mother had returned from her honeymoon and set up her new marriage under our shared roof. All through the spring we'd had workmen passing through, hauling drywall and windows and tracking sawdust across the floors. They'd knocked out the wall of the old den, extending it into the backyard, and added a new master suite, complete with a new bathroom featuring a sunken tub and side-by-side sinks separated by blocks of colored glass. Crossing over the threshold into what Chris and I had named “the new wing” was like entering an entirely different house, which was pretty much my mother's intention. It was her matched set, with a new bedroom, a new husband, and new carpet. Her life was perfect. But as was often the case, the rest of us were still adjusting.

One problem was Don's stuff. Being a lifelong bachelor, he had certain objects that he'd grown attached to, very little of which fit my mother's decorating scheme for the new wing. The only thing that even remotely reflected Don's taste in their bedroom, in fact, was a large Moroccan tapestry depicting various biblical tableaus. It was enormous and took up most of a wall, but it did match the carpet almost perfectly, and therefore constituted a compromise of taste that my mother could live with. The remainder of his belongings were exiled to the rest of the house, which meant that Chris and I had to adjust to living with Don's decor.

The first piece I noticed, a couple of days after their return, was a framed print by some Renaissance painter of a hugely buxom woman posing in a garden. Her fingers were big, pudgy, and white, and she was stretched across a couch, buck naked. She had huge breasts, which were hanging down off the couch, and she was eating grapes, a fistful in one hand, another about to drop into her mouth. It might have been art-a flexible term, in my opinion-but it was disgusting. Especially hanging on the wall over our kitchen table, where I had no choice but to look at it while I ate breakfast.

“Man,” Chris said to me the first morning it was there, about two days after Don had moved in. He was eating cereal, already dressed in his Jiffy Lube uniform. “How much you think a woman like that weighed?”

I took a bite of my muffin, trying to concentrate on the newspaper in front of me. “I have no idea,” I said.

“At least two-fifty,” Chris decided, slurping down another spoonful. “Those breasts alone have to be five pounds. Maybe even seven.”

“Do we have to talk about this?”

“How can you not?” he said. “God. It's right there. It's like trying to ignore the sun or something.”

And it wasn't just the picture. It was the modern art statue that now stood in the foyer that looked, frankly, like a big penis. (Was there a theme here? I'd never pegged Don for that type, but now I was starting to wonder.) Add to that the fancy set of Calphalon pots that now hung over our kitchen island and the red leather sofa in the living room, which just screamed Single Man on the Make to me, and it was no wonder I was feeling a little out of place. But then again, this house wasn't really mine to claim anymore. Don was now permanent-supposedly-while I was of temporary status, gone come fall. For once, I was the one with an expiration date, and I was finding I didn't like it much.

Which explained, in some ways, why I was over at Dexter's so much. But there was another reason, one I wasn't so quick to admit. Even to myself.

For as long as I'd been dating, I'd had a mental flow chart, a schedule, of how things usually went. Relationships always started with that heady, swoonish period, where the other person is like some new invention that suddenly solves all life's worst problems, like losing socks in the dryer or toasting bagels without burning the edges. At this phase, which usually lasts about six weeks max, the other person is perfect. But at six weeks and two days, the cracks begin to show; not real structural damage yet, but little things that niggle and nag. Like the way they always assume you'll pay for your own movie, just because you did once, or how they use the dashboard of their car as an imaginary keyboard at long stoplights. Once, you might have thought this was cute, or endearing. Now, it annoys you, but not enough to change anything. Come week eight, though, the strain is starting to show. This person is, in fact, human, and here's where most relationships splinter and die. Because either you can stick around and deal with these problems, or ease out gracefully, knowing that at some point in the not-too-distant future, there will emerge another perfect person, who will fix everything, at least for six weeks.

I knew this pattern even before my first real boyfriend, because I'd seen my mother go through it several times already. With marriages, the pattern is stretched out, adjusted, like working with dog years: the six weeks becomes a year, sometimes two. But it's the same. That was why it was always so easy to figure out how long my stepfathers would last. It all comes down to math.

If I did the math with Dexter, on paper it was perfect. We'd come in well under the three-month mark, with me leaving for college just as the shine was wearing off. But the problem was that Dexter wasn't cooperating. If my theories of relationships were plotted geographically, Dexter wasn't even left of center or far out in right field. He was on another map altogether, rapidly approaching the distant corner and headed into the unknown.

First, he was very gangly. I'd never liked gangly guys, and Dexter was clumsy, skinny, and always in motion. It was not surprising to me now that our relationship had started with him crashing into me in various ways, since I now knew he moved through the world with a series of flying elbows, banged knees, and flailing limbs. In the short time we'd been together, he'd already broken my alarm clock, crushed one of my beaded necklaces underfoot, and managed, somehow, to leave a huge scuff mark on my ceiling. I am not joking. He was always jiggling his knees, or drumming his fingers, as if revving up, just waiting for the checkered flag to drop so he could spin out at full speed. I found myself constantly reaching over and trying to quiet him, covering his knee or fingers with my hand, thinking it would silence them, when instead I would be caught up in it with him, jangling along, as if whatever current charged him was now flowing through me.

Point two: he was a slob. His shirttail was always out, his tie usually had a stain, his hair, while curly and thick, sprung out from his head wildly in a mad-scientist sort of fashion. Also, his shoelaces were continually untied. He was all loose ends, and I hated loose ends. If I could ever have gotten him to stand still long enough, I knew I would have been unable to resist tucking, tying, smoothing, organizing, as if he were a particularly messy closet just screaming for my attention. But instead I found myself gritting my teeth, riding the wave of my natural anxiety, because this wasn't permanent, me and him, and to think so would only hurt both of us.

Which led to point three: he really liked me. Not in an only-until-the-end-of-the-summer way, which was safest. In fact, he never talked about the future at all, as if we had so much time, and there wasn't a definite end point to our relationship. I, of course, wanted to make things clear from the start: that I was leaving, no attachments, the standard spiel I repeated in my head finally spoken aloud. But whenever I tried to do this, he evaded so easily that it was as if he could read my mind, see what was coming, and for once move gracefully to sidestep the issue entirely.

Now, as work on “The Potato Song” broke up so that Ted could go to work, Dexter came over and stood in front of me, stretching his arms over his head. “Total turn-on seeing a real band at work, isn't it?”

“Relate-o is a lame rhyme,” I said, “pseudo or not.”

He winced, then smiled. “It's a work in progress,” he explained. I put down my crossword puzzle-I'd finished about half of it-and he picked it up, glancing at what I'd finished. “Impressive,” he said. “And of course, Miss Remy does her crosswords in ink. What, you don't make mistakes?”


“You're here, though,” he said.

“Okay,” I admitted, “maybe one.” He grinned again. We'd only been seeing each other for a few weeks now, but this easy give-and-take still surprised me. From that very first day in my room, I felt like we'd somehow skipped the formalities of the Beginning of a Relationship: those awkward moments when you're not all over each other and are still feeling out the other person's boundaries and limits. Maybe this was because we'd been circling each other for a while before he finally catapulted through my window. But if I let myself think about it much-and I didn't-I had flashes of realizing that I'd been comfortable with him even at the very start. Clearly, he'd been comfortable with me, grabbing my hand as he had that first day. As if he knew, even then, that we'd be here now. “I bet you,” he said to me, “that I can name more states by the time that woman comes out of the dry cleaners than you can.”

I looked at him. We were sitting outside of Joie, both of us on our lunch break, me drinking a Diet Coke, him snarfing down a sleeve of Fig Newtons. “Dexter,” I said, “it's hot.”

“Come on,” he said, sliding his hand over my leg. “I'll bet you.”



“Again, no.”

He cocked his head to the side, then squeezed my knee. His foot, of course, was tapping. “Let's go. She's about to walk in. When the door shuts behind her, time's on.”

“Oh, God.” I said. “What's the bet?”

“Five bucks.”

“Boring. And too easy.”

“Ten bucks.”

“Okay. And you have to buy dinner.”

“Done.” We watched as the woman, who was wearing pink shorts and a T-shirt and carrying an armful of wrinkled dress shirts, pulled open the door to the cleaners. As it swung shut, I said, “Maine.”

“North Dakota.”




“Delaware.” I was keeping track on my fingers: he'd been known to cheat but denied it with great vehemence, so I always had to have proof. Challenges, to Dexter, were like those duels in the old movies, where men in white suits smacked each other across the face with gloves, and all honor was at stake. So far, I hadn't won them all, but I hadn't backed down either. I was, after all, still new at this.

Dexter's challenges, apparently, were legendary. The first one I'd seen had been between him and John Miller. It was a couple of days after Dexter and I had gotten together, one of the first times I'd gone over to the yellow house with him. We found John Miller sitting at the kitchen table in his pajamas, eating a banana. There was a big bunch of them on the table in front of him, seemingly out of place in a kitchen where I now knew the major food groups consisted of Slurpees and beer.

“What's up with the bananas?” Dexter asked him, pulling out a chair and sitting down.

John Miller, who still looked half asleep, glanced up and said, “Fruit of the Month Club. My nana gave it to me for my birthday.”

“Potassium,” Dexter said. “You need that every day, you know.”

John Miller yawned, as if used to this kind of stupid information. Then he went back to his banana.

“I bet,” Dexter said suddenly, in the voice I later would come to recognize as the one that always preceded a challenge, deep and game show host-like, “that you can't eat ten bananas.”

John Miller finished chewing the bite in his mouth, then swallowed. “I bet,” he replied, “that you're right.”

“It's a challenge,” Dexter said. Then he nudged out a chair, with a knee that was already jiggling, for me, and said, in the same low, slow voice, “Will you take it?”

“Are you crazy?”

“For ten bucks.”

“I am not eating ten bananas for ten bucks,” John Miller said indignantly.

“It's a dollar a banana!” Dexter said. “And furthermore,” John Miller went on, tossing the now-empty peel at an overflowing garbage can by the back door, and missing, “this double-dare shit of yours is getting old, Dexter. You can't just go around throwing down challenges whenever you feel like it.”

“Are you passing on the challenge?”

“Will you stop using that voice?”

“Twenty bucks,” Dexter said. “Twenty bucks-”

“No,” John Miller told him.

“-and I'll clean the bathroom.” This, clearly, changed things. John Miller looked at the bananas, then at Dexter. Then at the bananas again. “Does the one I just ate count as one?”


John Miller slapped the table. “What? It's not even to my stomach yet, for godsakes!”

Dexter thought for a second. “Okay. We'll let Remy call this one.”

“What?” I said. They were both looking at me.

“You're an unbiased view,” Dexter explained.

“She's your girlfriend,” John Miller complained. “That's not unbiased!”

“She is not my girlfriend.” Dexter looked at me, as if this might upset me, which was evidence that he didn't know me at all. He said, “What I mean is, we may be seeing each other”-and here he paused, as if waiting for me to chime in with something, which I didn't, so he went on-“but you are your own person with your opinions and convictions. Correct?”

“I'm not his girlfriend,” I told John Miller.

“She loves me,” Dexter said to him, as an aside, and I felt my face flame. “Anyway,” he said, moving on breezily, “Remy? What do you think? Does it count or not?”

“Well,” I said, “I think it should count somehow. Perhaps as half.”

“Half!” Dexter looked at me as if he was just so pleased, as if he had carved me out of clay himself. “Perfect. So, if you choose to accept this challenge, you must eat nine and a half bananas.”

John Miller thought about this for a second. Later, I would learn that money was always scarce at the yellow house, and these challenges provided some balance of cash flow from one person to another. Twenty bucks was food and beer money for at least a couple of days. And it was really only nine bananas. And a half.

“Okay,” John Miller said. And they shook on it.

Before the challenge could happen, witnesses had to be gathered. Ted was brought in from the back deck, along with a girl he'd been seeing, introduced to me as Scary Mary (I chose not to ask), and, after a futile search for the keyboardist, Lucas, Dexter's dog Monkey was agreed upon as a suitable replacement. We all gathered around the table, or on the long, ugly brown couch that was next to the refrigerator, while John Miller did some deep breathing and stretching, as if preparing for a fifty-yard dash.

“Okay,” Ted, the only one with a working watch and therefore timekeeper, said, “Go!”

If you've never seen someone take on a food challenge, as I had not at that point, you might expect it to actually be exciting. Except that the challenge was not to eat nine and a half bananas quickly: it was just to eat nine and a half bananas. So by banana four or so, boredom set in, and Ted and Scary Mary went to the Waffle House, leaving me, Dexter, and Monkey to wait out the next five and a half bananas. It turned out we didn't have to: John Miller conceded defeat in the middle of banana six, then carefully got to his feet and went to the bathroom.

“I hope you didn't kill him,” I told Dexter as the door shut behind him, the lock clicking.

“No way,” he said easily, stretching back in his chair. “You should have seen him last month, when he ate fifteen eggs in a row. Then we were worried. He turned bright red.”

“You know,” I said, “funny how it's never you having to eat vast quantities of things.”

“Not true. I just moved on after completing the master of all challenges back in April.”

I hated to even ask what would earn such a title, but curiosity got the better of me. “Which was?”

“Thirty-two ounces of Miracle Whip,” he said. “In twenty minutes flat.”

Just the thought of this made my stomach twist. I hated mayonnaise, and any derivation thereof: egg salad, tuna salad, even deviled eggs. “That's disgusting.”

“I know.” He said it proudly. “I could never top it, even if I tried.”

I had to wonder what kind of person got such satisfaction from constant competitiveness. And Dexter would make challenges about anything, whether it was in his control or not. Some recent favorites included I Bet You a Quarter the Next Car That Passes Is Either Blue or Green, Five Bucks Says I Can Make Something Edible Out of the Canned Corn, French-Fried Potato Sticks, and Mustard in the Pantry, and, of course, How Many States Can You Name While That Woman Picks Up Her Dry Cleaning?

I, personally, was up to twenty. Dexter was at nineteen and experiencing a bit of a brain cramp.

“California,” he said finally, casting a nervous look at the front of the cleaners, where we could see the woman talking to someone behind the counter.

“Already said it,” I told him.



“South Carolina.”

The door opened: it was her. “Game over,” I said. “I win.”

“You do not!”

I held up my fingers, where I'd been keeping track. “I win by one,” I said. “Pay up.”

He started to reach into his pockets, sighing, then instead pulled me closer, spreading his fingers around my waist, burying his face in my neck.

“Nope,” I said, putting my hands on his chest, “won't work.”

“I'll be your slave,” he said into my ear, and I felt a chill run up my back, then cast it off just as quickly, reminding myself again that I always had a boyfriend in summer, someone that caught my eye after school was finished and usually lasted right up until the beach trip my family took each August. The only difference this time was that I was going west instead of east. And I liked being able to think about it that way, in terms of a compass, something set in stone that would remain, unchanged, long after I was gone.

Besides, I knew already we would never work long-term. He was so imperfect already, his cracks and fissures apparent. I could only imagine what structural damage lay beneath, deep in the foundation. But still, it was hard to keep my head clear as he kissed me there, in July, with another challenge behind me. After all, I was up now, and it still seemed like we had time.

“The question is, has he been given The Speech yet?” Jess asked.

“No,” Chloe told her. “The question is, have you slept with him yet?”

They all looked at me. It wasn't rude for them to ask, of course: usually this was common knowledge-once, common assumption. But now I hesitated, which was unnerving.

“No,” I said finally. There was a quick intake of breath-shock!-from somebody, then silence.

“Wow,” Lissa said finally. “You like him.”

“It's not a big deal,” I said, not refuting this exactly, which set off another round of silence and exchanged looks. Out at the Spot, with the sun going down, I felt the trampoline bounce lightly beneath me and leaned back, spreading my fingers over the cool metal of the springs.

“No Speech, no sex,” Jess said, summing up. “This is dangerous.”

“Maybe he's different,” Lissa offered, stirring her drink with one finger.

“Nobody's different,” Chloe told her. “Remy knows that better than any of us.”

It says something about my absolute adherence to a plan concerning relationships that my best friends had terms, like outline headings, detailing my actions. The Speech usually came right as the heady, romantic, fun-new-boyfriend phase was boiling to full steam. It was my way of hitting the brakes, slowly downshifting, and usually involved me pulling whatever Ken was in my life at that time aside to say something like: hey, I really like you and we're having fun, but you know, I can't get too serious because I'm going to the beach/really going to focus on school come fall/just getting over someone and not up to anything long-term. This was the summer speech: the winter/holiday one was pretty much the same, except you inserted I'm going skiing/really going to have to rally until graduation/dealing with a lot of family crap for the last part. And usually, guys took it one of two ways. If they really liked me, as in wear-my-class-ring-love-me-always, they bolted, which was just as well. If they liked me but were willing to slow down, to see boundaries, they nodded and saved face by saying they felt the same way. And then I was free to proceed to the next step, which-and I'm not proud-usually involved sleeping with them.

But not right away. Never right away, not anymore. I liked to have enough time invested to see a few cracks and get rid of anyone whose failings I knew I couldn't deal with in the long term, i.e., more than the six weeks that usually encompassed the fun-new-boyfriend phase. Once, I was easy. Now, I was choosy. See? Big difference.

And besides, something was different about Dexter. Whenever I tried to revert to my set outline, something stopped me. I could give him the talk, and he'd probably be fine with it. I could sleep with him, and he'd be fine-more than fine-with that too. But somewhere, deep in my conscious mind, something niggled me that maybe he wouldn't, that maybe he'd think less of me, or something. I knew it was stupid.

And besides, I'd just been busy. That was probably it, really.

Chloe opened her bottled water, took a swig, then chased it with a sip from the tiny bottle of bourbon in her hand. “What are you doing?” she asked me, point blank.

“I'm just having fun,” I replied, taking a swig of my Diet Zip. It seemed easy to say this, having just run through it in my head. “He's leaving at the end of the summer too, you know.”

“Then why haven't you given him The Speech?” Jess asked.

“I just,” I said, and then shook my cup, stalling. “I haven't thought about it, to be honest.”

They looked at one another, considering the implications of this. Lissa said, “I think he's really nice, Remy. He's sweet.”

“He's clumsy,” Jess grumbled. “He keeps stepping on my feet.”

“Maybe,” Chloe said, as if it was just occurring to her, “you just have big feet.”

“Maybe,” Jess replied, “you should shut up.”

Lissa sighed, closing her eyes. “You guys. Please. We're talking about Remy.”

“We don't have to talk about Remy,” I said. “We really don't. Let's talk about somebody else.”

There was silence for a second: I sucked down some more of my drink, Lissa lit a cigarette. Finally Chloe said, “You know, the other night Dexter said he'd give me ten bucks if I could stand on my head for twenty minutes. What the hell does that mean?”

They all looked at me. I said, “Just ignore him. Next?”

“I think Adam's seeing someone else,” Lissa said suddenly.

“Okay,” I said. “Now, see, this is interesting.”

Lissa ran her finger over the rim of her cup, her head down, one curl bouncing slightly with the movement. It had been about a month since Adam had dumped her, and she'd moved through her weepy stage to just kind of sad all the time, with occasional moments when I actually heard her laugh out loud, then stop, as if she'd forgotten she wasn't supposed to be happy.

“Who is she?” Chloe asked.

“I don't know. She drives a red Mazda.”

Jess looked at me, shaking her head. I said, “Lissa, have you been driving by his house?”

“No,” she said, and then looked up at us. We, of course, were all staring back at her, knowing she was lying. “No! But the other day there was construction on Willow and then I-”

“Do you want him to think you're weak?” Jess asked her. “Do you want to give him that satisfaction?”

“How can he already be with somebody else?” Lissa asked her, and Jess just sighed, shaking her head. “I'm not even totally okay yet, and he's with someone else? How can that be?”

“Because he's a jerk,” I told her.

“Because he's a guy,” Chloe added. “And guys don't get attached, guys don't ever give themselves over completely, and guys lie. That's why they should be handled with great trepidation, not trusted, and held at arm's length whenever possible. Right, Remy?”

I looked at her, and there it was again: that shifting of her eyes that meant she'd seen something in me lately she didn't recognize, and it worried her. Because if I wasn't cold, hard Remy, then she couldn't be the Chloe she was, either.

“Right,” I said, and smiled at Lissa. I had to lead the way here, of course. She'd never make it out otherwise. “Absolutely.” The band wasn't called the G Flats at all. That was just their wedding persona, the one they had been forced to take on because of an incident involving the van, some authorities in Pennsylvania, and Don's brother Michael, who was an attorney there. Apparently playing at my mother's wedding had been some kind of payback, but it had also seemed like the right time to relocate, as the band-whose real name was Truth Squad-did every summer.

For the past two years, they'd worked their way across the country, always following the same process: find a town with a decent local music scene, rent a cheap apartment, and start playing the clubs. In the first week they all got day jobs, preferably at the same place, since they shared one mode of transportation. (So now, Dexter and Lucas worked at Flash Camera, while John Miller fixed lattes at Jump Java, and Ted bagged groceries at Mayor's Market.) Although most of the guys had some college, or, in Ted's case, a diploma, they always got easy jobs that didn't require much overtime or thinking. Then they'd hit the local club scene, hoping to land a regular weekly gig, as they had at Bendo. Tuesday nights, which were the slowest there, were now all theirs.

They'd only been in town for a couple of days when I'd first met Dexter at Don's Motors: they were sleeping in the van then, in the city park, until they found the yellow house. Now it seemed they'd stick around until they were run out of town for owing money or small legal infractions (it had happened before) or just got bored. Everything was planned to be transitory: they boasted that they could pack up and be gone in an hour flat, already drawing a finger across the wrinkled map in the van's glove box, seeking out a new destination.

So maybe that was what kept me from giving The Speech, this idea that his life was just as impermanent at this moment as mine. I didn't want to be like other girls that were probably in other towns, listening to Truth Squad bootlegs and pining for Dexter Jones, born in Washington, D.C., a Pisces, lead singer, thrower of challenges, permanent address unknown. His history was as murky as mine was clear, with his dog seeming to be the only family in which he had interest. I was soon to be Remy Starr, formerly of Lakeview, now of Stanford, undecided major, leaning toward economics. We were only converging for a few weeks, fleeting. No need to follow protocol.

That night me, Chloe, Jess, and Lissa got to Bendo around nine. Truth Squad was already playing, and the crowd was thin but enthusiastic. I noted, then quickly made a point of not noting, that it was mostly made up of girls, a few of them crowded up close, next to the stage, holding their beers and swaying to the music.

The music, in fact, was a mix of covers and originals. The covers were, as Dexter put it, “a necessary evil”-required at weddings, and useful at clubs, at least at the beginning of sets, to prevent being beaned with beer caps and cigarette butts. (This, apparently, had happened as well.) But Dexter and Ted, who had started the band during their junior year of high school, preferred their original compositions, the biggest and most ambitious of which were the potato songs.

By the time we sat down, the band was finishing the last verse of “Gimme Three Steps” as the assembled girls clapped and whoo-whooed. Then there was a few seconds of practice chords, some conferring between Ted and Dexter, and then Dexter said, “We're going to do an original song for you all now, an instant classic. Folks, this is ‘The Potato Song.'”

More cheering from the girls, one of whom-a buxom redhead with broad shoulders I recognized from the perpetual lines for the ladies' room-moved closer to the stage, so that she was practically at Dexter's feet. He smiled down at her, politely.

“I saw her in the produce section,” he began, “late last Saturday. It hadn't been but seven days since she went away. . . .” Another loud whoop, from someone who was, apparently, already fond of “The Potato Song.” Good thing, I thought. There were dozens where that came from.

“Once she'd loved my filet mignon, my carnivore inklings,” Dexter continued, “but now she was a vegan princess, living off of beans. She'd given up the cheese and bacon, sworn off Burger King, and when I wouldn't do the same she gave me back my ring. I stood there by the romaine lettuce, feeling my heart pine”-and here he put a hand over his chest, and looked mournful, to which the crowd cheered-“wishing that this meatless beauty still would be all mine. She turned around to go to checkout, fifteen items or less. And I knew this was the last go-round, so this is what I said. . . .”

He stopped here, letting the music build, and John Miller drummed a bit faster, the beat picking up. I could see some people in the crowd already mouthing the words.

“Don't you ever give me no rotten tomato, 'cause all I ever wanted was your sweet potato,” Dexter sang. “Mashed, whipped, creamed, smothered, chunked, and diced, anyway you fix it baby sure tastes nice.”

“This is a song?” Jess asked me, but Lissa was laughing now, clapping along.

“This is many songs,” I told her. “It's an opus.”

“A what?” she said, but I didn't even repeat it, because now the song was reaching its climax, which was basically a recitation of every possible kind of vegetable. The crowd was shouting things out, and Dexter was singing hard, winding up the song: when they finished, with a crashing of cymbals, the crowd burst into loud applause. Dexter leaned into the microphone, said they'd be back in a few minutes, and then got down off the stage, grabbing a plastic cup off a speaker as he did so. I watched as the redheaded girl walked up to him, zeroing in, effectively cutting off his path as he started across the floor.

“Ooh, Remy,” Chloe said, noticing this too, “your man has a groupie.”

“He's not my man,” I said, taking a sip of my beer.

“Remy's with the band,” Chloe told Jess, who snorted. “So much for that no-musicians rule. Next thing you know she'll be on the bus and selling T-shirts in the parking lot, showing off her boobs to get in the stage door.”

“At least she has boobs to show,” Jess said.

“I have boobs,” Chloe said, pointing to her chest. “Just because they're not weighing me down doesn't mean they're not substantial.”

“Okay, B cup,” Jess said, taking a sip of her drink.

“I have boobs!” Chloe said again, a bit too loudly-she'd already had a couple of minibottles at the Spot. “My boobs are great, goddammit. You know that? They're fantastic! My boobs are amazing.”

“Chloe,” I said, but of course then it was too late. Not only were two guys standing nearby now completely absorbed in checking out her chest, but Dexter was sliding in beside me, a bemused look on his face. Chloe flushed red-rare for her-while Lissa patted her sympathetically on the shoulder.

“So it is true,” Dexter said finally. “Girls do talk about boobs when they're in groups. I always thought so, but I never had proof.”

“Chloe was just making a point,” Lissa explained to him.

“Clearly,” Dexter said, and Chloe brushed a hand through her hair and turned her head, as if she was suddenly fascinated by the wall. “So anyway,” he said brightly, moving on, “‘The Potato Song' really went over well, don't you think?”

“I do,” I said, moving in closer as he slid his arm around my waist. That was the thing about Dexter: he wasn't totally touchy-feely, like Jonathan had been, but he had these signature moves that I liked. The hand around my waist, for one, but then there was this thing that made me crazy, the way he cupped his fingers around the back of my neck, putting them just so, so that his thumb touched a pulse point. It was so hard to explain, but it gave me a chill, every time, almost like he was touching my heart.

I looked up and Chloe had her eye on me, vigilant as ever. I shook off these thoughts, quick, and finished my beer just as Ted came up.

“Nice work on that second verse,” was the first thing he said, and not nicely, but in a sarcastic, snarky way. “You know, if you butcher the words you do the song a disservice.”

“Butcher what words?” Dexter said.

Ted sighed, loudly. “It's not that she was a vegan princess, living off of beans. It's she's a vegan princess, living off beans.”

Dexter just looked at him, completely nonplussed, as if he'd just given the weather report. Chloe said, “What's the difference?”

“The entire world is the difference!” Ted snapped. “Living off of beans is proper English, which brings with it the connotation of higher society, accepted standards, and the status quo. Living off beans, however, is reminiscent of a more slang culture, realistic, and a lower class, which is indicative of both the speaker in the song and the music that accompanies it.”

“All this from one word?” Jess asked him.

“One word,” Ted replied, dead serious, “can change the whole world.”

There was a moment while we all considered this. Finally Lissa said to Chloe, loud enough for all of us to hear (she'd had a minibottle or two herself), “I bet he did really well on his SATs.”

“Shhh,” Chloe said, just as loudly.

“Ted,” Dexter said, “I hear what you're saying. And I understand. Thanks for pointing out the distinction, and I won't make the mistake again.”

Ted just stood there, blinking. “Okay,” he said, somewhat uneasily. “Good. Well. Uh, I'm gonna go smoke.”

“Sounds good,” Dexter said, and with that Ted walked away, cutting through the crowd toward the bar. A couple of girls standing by the door eyed him as he passed, nodding at each other. God, this band thing was sick. Some women had no shame.

“Very impressive,” I said to Dexter.

“I've had a lot of practice,” he explained. “You see, Ted is very passionate. And really, all he wants is to be heard. Hear him, nod, agree. Three steps. Easy cheesy.”

“Easy cheesy,” I repeated, and then he slid his hand up to my neck, pressing his fingers just so, and I got that weird feeling again. This time, it wasn't so easy to shake, and as Dexter moved closer to me, kissing my forehead, I closed my eyes and wondered how deep I'd let this get before ducking out. Maybe it wouldn't be the whole summer. Maybe I needed to derail it sooner, to prevent a real crash in the end.

“Paging Dexter,” a voice came from the front of the club. I looked up: it was John Miller, squinting in the house lights. “Paging Dexter. You are needed on aisle five for a price check.”

The redheaded girl was back at the stage, right up close. She turned her head and followed John Miller's gaze, right to us. To me. And I looked right back at her, feeling possessive suddenly of something that I wasn't even sure I should want to claim as mine.

“Gotta go,” Dexter said. Then he leaned into my ear and added, “Wait for me?”

“Maybe,” I said.

He laughed, as if this was a joke, and disappeared into the crowd. A few seconds later I watched him climb onstage, so lanky and clumsy: he tagged a speaker with one foot, sending it toppling, as he headed to the mike. One of his shoelaces, of course, was undone.

“Oh, man,” Chloe said. She was looking right at me, shaking her head, and I told myself she was wrong, so wrong, even as she spoke. “You're a goner.” ´?9²²±±±°° 7k+

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Interpersonal relations -- Fiction.
Dating (Social customs) -- Fiction.
Mothers and daughters -- Fiction.
Musicians -- Fiction.
Rock groups -- Fiction.