Chapter Fifteen: Stumped (Austin's POV)

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            After an excruciatingly awkward conversation between Ned Rochester and me, the food finally emerges. I have to contain myself not to shout, “Food!” I’ve never been happier to have an excuse not to talk.

            As we begin to eat, I realize that I won’t be allowed not to talk. Not with her mother shooting questions at me rapid-fire. I’m trying to shove in food so that I don’t have to talk, but then Aria elbows me and gives me a glare.

            Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

            Her mom clears her throat loudly. “So, are you still in school, Austin?”

            “Um, yeah. I go to Hunter.”

            “What are you majoring in?”

            I feel her judging me. She probably wants a guy who’s majoring in finance or accounting or something as exciting as a raw potato. “Architecture.”

            “Interesting.”

            I kind of feel like throwing the salad bowl. Can we all just admit we hate each other and move on?

            “So why architecture?”

            “I love to draw, but you can’t exactly do that for a career. So I decided on architecture. I was pretty good at math, and you get to draw. It’s a win-win for me.”

            “If you’re good at math, why not something else? There are so many good jobs where math skills are needed.”

            Because I don’t want to fit into your bubble. “Because I love to draw and sketch. You can’t exactly do that as an accountant.”

            “He’s really good, Mom.  He drew an awesome sketch of me last week.”

            “Hmmmm mmmmm….” She already hates me after two questions. Must be a record.

            Ned leans forward. “So, what makes you good enough for my daughter?”

            Stepdaughter. “Why don’t you ask her?”

            “Um….” Aria gives me a look as if to say, Don’t leave me in the lurch like this. “Well, he’s cute. And I don’t know…he’s not perfect. He’s human. He’s real.”

            “Hmm mmm. Why did you choose Aria?”

            And here I thought I saved myself. “Because she’s pretty, obviously. And because she’s smart. And generally awesome.”

            Aria beams at me. At least someone at this table likes me.

            A few more awkward, impersonal questions pass between us. Then Ned  drops the bomb.

            “So, how far have you two gone?”

            Aria gives him a look. “Are you seriously asking that? Seriously?!”  Then she does something drastic, something dramatic. She grabs my arm and pulls me up. “Let’s go. I refuse to be humiliated like this.”

            She grabs our jackets on the way out, and then slams the door shut. It’s snowing a little when we get outside. The wind whips across my face. This blows.

            “So where are we going?” I ask.

            “Somewhere.”

            We walk and walk, until my ears are red and my fingers are numb. Eventually, we end up by Central Park. We walk through the park. Nobody is really out, except for a few (insane) joggers. We walk and walk until we come to a tree stump across from a bench, right near the playground. She sits on the stump.

            “This stump,” she announces, “was my childhood.”

            “You must have had a really boring childhood.”

            “When I was a kid, I went to school near here. Every warm day in the spring and fall, my mom used to take me to the park. But I never went into the playground. I just climbed on this tree. There used to be a guy who had a cart right near here. When it was time to go home, my mom would buy me a King cone. We all know those were the best ice cream treats.”

            “I was more of an ice cream sandwich guy myself. So, when’d they cut it down?”

            “When I was twelve. It was a tragedy. This tree was my hope. It fostered my childhood dream of being a gymnast, then destroyed it when I fell and had to get stitches. I always used to dream that my father was a world-class gymnast, and he would come and see me and immediately recognize me as his daughter.”

            “You did have a sad childhood.”

            “I don’t sweat it.”

            I just stand there. Then I give her my hand. “Let’s go to my place.”

            We walk to the train station and take the train to my apartment. We get inside and warm up. Inside out. Lips, hearts, everything. That night, we become one.

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