The Hating Game Page 32

It’s a sore point—and it’s also not the first time he’s asked. I might be about to give him fodder to tease me with for a long time.

“Why?”

“I’ve always wanted to know. Tell me everything about strawberries.” His soft, cajoling whisper will be the death of me.

In my mind I’m almost back there, under the big canvas umbrella with the torn corner, talking to tourists while their kids run on ahead, buckets clanking. The alien hum of cicadas fill the air. There’s never silence.

“Well. Alpines are also called ‘Mignonette,’ and they grow wild in France on the hillsides and they’re as big as your thumbnail. They have amazing flavor intensity for their size.”

“Tell me another.”

I open my eyes to slits. “Strawberries are not a joke. I’ve gotten shit from almost everyone I’ve ever met about it.”

“It’s such a cute thing about you.”

The word cute lights up like neon in my dim bedroom and I’m so rattled I begin babbling.

“Fine. Okay, Earliglows. They grow so quickly. One day you’re walking along at sunset next to nothing but green . . . the next morning they’re all there. Little red buds, getting brighter. By dinnertime they’re done, like red Christmas lights.”

When Josh sighs, his eyes close for a second. He’s exhausted. “Which are your favorites?”

“Red Gauntlets. They were in the rows closest to the kitchen and I was too lazy to go much farther. I had a big pink smoothie every morning.”

He sits in silence, and his eyes are definitely not the man I know. They’re wistful, lonely, and so beautiful I have to close mine.

“I swear, I can still feel the seeds between my teeth. Chandlers are my dad’s favorite. He says he paid for my college tuition with them.”

“What’s your dad like? He’s Nigel, right?”

“You and that blog. He worked so hard to send me to school. I can’t begin to tell you. He cried on the back porch the day I left for college. He said . . .”

I trail off. The squeeze in my throat makes it impossible to go on.

“What did he say?”

I sidestep. “I haven’t thought about this for so long. I haven’t been home in eighteen months now. I missed Christmas, because Helene went back to France to see her family, and I wanted to cover for her.”

“I didn’t go home either.”

“Oh, yeah. My parents mailed me a big care package, and I ate shortbread and opened presents on the floor of my living room watching infomercials. What did you do?”

“Pretty much the same. What did he say to you, then? Your dad, on the back porch?” He’s a dog with a bone.

I can’t relay that entire conversation; I’ll start crying. I might never stop. My dad, his elbows on knees, the tears making clean lines down his tanned, dusty face. I abbreviate the conversation into a sanitized nutshell.

“That his loss was the world’s gain. And my mom, she couldn’t stop bragging, telling everyone about her daughter going off to college . . . She’s making a new variety of strawberry, and they’re all called Lucies.”

“According to the blog, Lucy Twelve was quite good. Tell me more.”

“I don’t understand your fascination with that blog. Mom was a newspaper writer, but she had to give it all up.”

“For what?”

“For my dad. She was doing a piece on the effects of some heavy rain on agriculture, so she went out to a local orchard. She found my dad in a tree. His dream was to own a strawberry farm, and he couldn’t do it alone.”

“Do you think she made the wrong decision?”

“Dad always says, She picked me. Like an apple, right out of the tree. I love them, but I think it’s a sad story sometimes.”

“You could ask her sometime. She probably doesn’t regret a thing. They’re still together, and it means you’re here.”

“Dad calls you other names starting with J, but never your real name.”

“What?” He looks alarmed. “You’ve told your dad about me?”

“He’s mad at you for being so mean. Julian and Jasper and John. One time, he called you Jebediah and I nearly peed myself. You’d have to grovel to my dad, that’s for sure.”

Josh looks so disturbed I decide to cut him a break and change the subject.

“When I’m homesick I can smell warm strawberries. Which is pretty much all the time.” I watch him scrambling to try to unscramble these nonsensical statements.

“Did you play out there in the fields? When you were a kid?”

“You’ve seen the blog picture. It’s pretty clear I did.” I turn my face away. Me, knees stained pink from berry juice, tangled mane of hair, eyes bluer than the sky. Wild little farm girl.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He gently puts his fingertips on my jaw and turns me back. “You in your little overall shorts. You look like you’ve been outside for days. All dirty and wild. Your smile hasn’t changed.”

“You never see my smile.”

“I bet you had a tree house.”

“I did, actually. I practically lived up there.”

His eyes are bright with an expression I’ve never seen. I close my eyes for a second to rest them. He checks my temperature and when his hand lifts away from my forehead I complain. He touches my hand.

“I’ve never thought where you come from is inferior.”

“Oh, sure. Ha-ha. Strawberry Shortcake.”

“I think where you came from—Sky Diamond Strawberries—is the best place I can imagine. I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve Google mapped directions. I’ve even looked up the flight and hire car.”

“Do you like strawberries?” I don’t know what else to say.

“I love strawberries. So much, you have no idea.” He sounds so kind that I feel a wave of emotion. I can’t open my eyes. He’ll see I have tears in them.

“Well, it’s out there, waiting for you. Pay the lady under the umbrella and take a bucket. Mention me for a discount, but you’ll get an interrogation on how I’m doing. How I’m really doing. If I’m lonely, if I’m eating properly. Why I won’t take the time to come home.”

I think of the job applications, side by side in a beige folder. A wave of exhaustion and dizziness hits me. I want to be asleep, that lovely dark place where these anxieties and sadness can’t follow me. I start to feel like I’m slowly spinning.

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