“Do you ever watch reality TV shows like these and think to yourself, ‘If I ever get on this show, I swear I won’t be that batshit insane’?” Ashleigh asks.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Rusty start to smile, the edges of his big eyes crinkling in amusement. “I don’t really think I’m prime material for Say Yes to the Dress, Ash.”
Ashleigh laughs and picks up the throw pillow on the couch between them and tosses it playfully at his head. He catches it, laughing too.
“You know what I mean," she says.
(Dale went to bed a couple shows ago, midway through Brad Womack being sleazy and even duller than a Psi Phi Pi party. Before a few weeks ago, Ashleigh would have taken Dale’s place beside Rusty, moved closer, because that's how friends sit together. Now, that much proximity to Rusty feels fraught with two kisses and too many feelings she's not sure how to address. Are you serious enough about my brother? says Casey's voice inside her head, but she doesn't know, she doesn't know, okay? How does anything make any sense after graduation? There are no rules to how her life is supposed to go from now on.)
"Yeah," Rusty says, mostly to himself, in that way he has sometimes, where his voice lowers just a little too much and he draws out the word just a little too long and he lowers his head just a little too—well, Ashleigh gets distracted by the curve of his neck. Rusty is not Casey's Little Brother in moments like these; Rusty is just Rusty, Ashleigh's friend who she's started seeing a little differently lately.
"Except," Rusty says after a moment, and there's something about the way he says it that sounds hesitant yet certain, "it's always easy to look at a situation from the outside and think, 'I could do that better.' Once you're in that situation—" He shakes his head, lips pressed tight together; he's still not looking at her, tracing random shapes on the pillow he's caught in his lap. "—all bets are off."
"We're not still talking about reality TV, are we?" Ashleigh knows that Rusty knows she's only playing stupid so she doesn’t have to get too serious right now—he's never treated her like any less than she is. "Because I don't think it's possible for anyone to be good at reality TV."
("You're a good friend, Rusty Cartwright," Ashleigh had said, after Dale had gone to bed and Rusty had filled her in on Dale's stage embarrassment and how Rusty and Calvin had gone up there and supported him in his moment of need. She'd meant for it to come out playful but her tone turned out to be a lot more earnest than she'd intended.
"Not always," Rusty had said. "Sometimes I'm a really terrible, self-absorbed friend."
Ashleigh bit her tongue to stop herself from pointing out that that seemed to be a flaw in both of her Cartwrights. She and Casey were BFFs again. Bygones be gone or whatever. It's not like Ashleigh didn't have her own flaws to answer to.
"Well, we can't be expected to make the right decisions all the time, right?" she'd said. "Friends forgive each other. We’re all still growing up."
"And we're learning from our mistakes," he'd said, nodding, and she'd gotten another glimpse of that man he's been growing into. He wasn't the clueless freshman she'd met only a few years ago, or the sophomore getting a misguided taste of his own attraction for the first time; now he was consciously starting to grow into a better man, and Ashleigh liked what she saw.)
"Ash, I—" Rusty starts, voice still not-quite directed at her. Ashleigh suddenly needs him to look at her. She could feel him sneaking glances earlier, but that was when Dale was a buffer between them, before all they were left with was a pillow and then not even that, just empty space that either one of them could cross and change everything but neither one of them has been brave enough to do.
"Rusty." Ashleigh bends one long leg beneath her fancy dress and turns partway toward him on the couch. She knows she looks beautiful tonight. Simon may have given her the money for this dress but Simon is so far from being her focus right now she almost can't believe he's the person she'd broken up with only a few hours ago. She slings one of her arms across the back of the couch. Her fingers aren't even close to Rusty, but the motion gets his attention.
"I'm glad you broke up with that professor guy," he blurts out when he finally looks at her again. His eyes turn panicked as soon as he says it and sees the way Ashleigh raises her eyebrows, defiant. "I mean," he adds hastily, turning partway towards her too, "obviously I don't like to see you bummed out after a breakup, I just—"
His brow furrows a little, and Ashleigh bites her lip, tries not to smile too wide, because she finds something as stupid as that little furrow to be nothing less than adorable and that's kind of a problem right now, okay. Especially now that he's slung his arm across the back of the couch too, so their hands are so close that if Rusty just stretched out his fingers, he'd touch the knobbly bone of Ashleigh's wrist, and if that happened Ashleigh's pretty sure she'd lose all concentration on anything ever.
Weirdly, it's that more than anything that makes Ashleigh respond to the Casey-voice in her head with, Oh my god yes, I'm serious enough about your brother. I am serious as a wristbone, bitch. Which makes brain-Casey go, What does that even mean? Ashleigh tells her to shut up and leave her brain in peace, which is when she realizes Rusty hasn't finished sharing his thoughts about her breakup. He’s just staring at their hands, an inch apart. She knocks hers back against his.
Bump. "What were you trying to say?" Her voice has gotten softer than she intended. When was the last time a guy made her go soft like that? Have they ever?
"I was trying to say," Rusty says, his voice measured and also soft. He looks into her eyes, and all over again he's making her feel like he did on that night she first kissed him, because: "You don't need some guy taking care of you, Ash. You deserve someone who knows how capable you really are." Now he does stretch out his fingers, the tip of his index just barely brushing her wristbone, and oh my god, where did her breath go? "You deserve someone who respects you. Who supports you,” Rusty adds, tapping his finger lightly against her wrist, “without expecting anything more in return but the same respect and support.”
Oh my god, Ashleigh feels like she's in one of those key moments in a rom-com when the object of affection has just professed something all brave and romantic, and the leading lady is holding her breath because she doesn't want to break the spell of the moment—except in this case the spell of the moment is broken by some girl on Say Yes to the Dress screeching between them.
They both startle on the couch: Rusty jerks his hand back a little and looks up at the TV, and Ashleigh mutters, “Goddammit,” and grabs the remote to turn it off. When she looks back up, Rusty’s focused back on their hands and looking a little embarrassed, and Ashleigh wants to find the words to make him not worry, but this has never felt so right before: how is she supposed to find the right words to say? And shouldn’t she talk with Casey first and, like, get her blessing?
You see her, you look her in the eye, and you just know, Ashleigh once told Rusty, when she was giving him advice about how to talk to other girls. Okay, so maybe Ashleigh should take her own advice right now. She’s learned it from the greatest movies of all time, after all.
Rusty’s still staring at their hands, so she looks at his eyelashes instead. Trying to be bold, she reaches out and covers his hand with hers. They're not quite holding hands—no palm-to-palm, no fingers entwined—just her hand resting atop his. “Rusty,” she says, and he looks up, and yeah, okay, she knows.
(She had this weird dream a couple nights ago: It’s Calvin and Heath’s wedding, and on Beaver’s suggestion, Heath insists on throwing a bouquet at the reception. Calvin just shakes his head and drops his face into his hands, but he’s smiling, so Heath goes ahead and throws the damn flowers into their small crowd of friends. Cappie catches the bouquet, of course, flinging daisy petals willy-nilly as he throws his fist into the air, triumphant, and Casey’s at his side laughing so hard that her face burns red, but her hair looks amazing in the sunlight, and Cappie immediately presents her with the bouquet, bowing theatrically. Rebecca and Evan, predictably, have snuck off to have reunion sex in one of the groom’s quarters, and Dale is dancing with some random Christian chick who in Ashleigh’s dream-mind looks like a combination of Laura and Casey, which is . . . weird.
But the most important part is the part where Ashleigh is dancing to a techno remix of “Forever Young,” and she’s dancing to it with Rusty. He’s rambling something about this actually being a really unsettling nuclear age love song, until she rolls her eyes and kisses him and tells him to enjoy the ‘80s teen movie moment they’re having. His face breaks into a grin, and he wraps his arms around her waist, and they lapse into a slow dance against the beat of the song, foreheads bowed together.
It’s the sort of thing that fills her with something so bright and warm and solid that even when she woke up from the dream, she couldn’t shake the echoes of that feeling all day. It was especially weird because as soon as she woke up on the futon, Rusty was the first person she saw. Real Rusty, not Future-Dreamtimes Rusty, and he was just eating Lucky Charms in his pajamas at the kitchen island like every morning. He waved his spoon at her when she sat up, and it took her a second to readjust to the reality that she couldn’t just roll out of bed and kiss him good morning. Rolling out of bed to hide in the bathroom instead, it took her a little longer to adjust to the fact that she wanted that good morning kiss.)
So, they’re looking into each other’s eyes, and Ashleigh thinks it’s kind of awkward but kind of perfect at the same time, until Rusty averts his eyes and starts babbling, “Um, so, Ash, I know I'm not exactly in the same league as you or anyth—"
"Hey,” she cuts him off, voice firm. Now this is some ground Ashleigh is familiar on: She knows where she stands when her obviously-amazing friends are being down on themselves. "Rusty, what's my favorite movie of all time?"
He looks back up at her, confused but mostly amused at the sudden jump. "Clueless, of course."
Ashleigh warms a little, likes that he knows her so surely.
"Well," she says, sounding more confident than she feels right now, "then you know I think Cher and Josh are totally right for each other, regardless of the fact that she's all hot and popular, and he's all dorky and doesn't know the first thing about dressing himself—” She tilts her head a little toward Rusty, grinning conspiratorially. “—but he’s totally hot anyway."
She watches, pleased, as Rusty's cheeks burn pinkly. They're both grinning now.
"There's also that whole step-brother thing they have in the movie," Rusty adds, "and you and Case are practically sisters, so . . ."
Ashleigh laughs. "Yeah, so, basically, we're the 2011 remake of Clueless, super weird step-brotherly-sisterly beginnings be damned."
Rusty's grin turns a little shy again, and she realizes they've been edging a bit closer on the couch. He turns his hand over so their palms touch. "Does that mean I can kiss you again?"
Ashleigh's breath catches a little—seriously, the movies aren't wrong about this shit. "It means, um," her voice lowers again, and she threads their fingers together, feeling secure between his knuckle bones, "I've been wanting to kiss you for kind of a while now."
"I'm sorry it took me so long to catch on,” he murmurs, so close they’re sharing the same breath now.
"Well," her voice goes a little high at the end, nerves kicking in, and she shrugs one bare shoulder, "you’d just gotten out of a relationship at the time, so—”
"Wait.” Rusty pulls back and lets go of her hand. "You just got out of a relationship tonight. I mean, are you sure I'm not just—"
"Hey,” Ashleigh says, reaching out to tug him closer again, clasping their hands on top of their knees where they’ve pressed together on the couch. "Rusty, you're not just anything.”
His expression turns from anxious to elated just like that, and he sways forward, almost like he can’t help it, like she really is the “human magnet” he’d so drunkenly called her before that first kiss. He squeezes her hand, and she beams back at him, folds her palm around his jaw, her fingers slipping into the curls at the nape of his neck. It makes her think of that night on the balcony, when he’d hugged her and she’d held on a little too long, fingers combing through his hair. It had felt like she was having her very own Clueless moment of epiphany that night: when the fountains burst to life behind Cher and she’d realized, “Oh my god, I love Josh.”
Except, tonight, there is no holding on a little too long. Tonight, she has Rusty for real, resting his hand on her cheek then sliding his fingers back through her hair until he’s holding onto her, his hand a reassuring weight and warmth on the back of her skull.
“This is way better than the staircase scene,” she murmurs, lowering her eyes to his lips.
“What staircase—” Rusty starts, but Ashleigh kisses him, and when he kisses her back without any hesitation, she can’t help but think: Here is her very own climactic movie moment. It’s so much better than that, though, better than anything in her shoebox of romantic comedies, because this is her life. She’s scripting it how she wants now, and Ashleigh Howard, that girl is going to do amazing things with her life, and so will Rusty Cartwright, right by her side. Watch out, world.