Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth talked of all that had occurred, during their visit, as they returned except what had particularly interested them both. The looks and behaviour of every body they had seen were discussed, except of the person who had mostly engaged their attention. They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit, of everything but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs. Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs. Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece's beginning the subject.--Pride and Prejudice
When Rory finally managed to sneak away, she changed into her regular clothes and made straight for the diner. She found Paris sitting at the counter, eating an ice cream sundae and talking to Luke.
"This place is a death trap," said Paris. "The food is great, but I'm not allowed to eat anything here."
"And yet you're doing a remarkably thorough job of cleaning out my entire inventory," said Luke.
"I said the food was good, didn't I?"
"Luke's is the best," said Rory, walking in and sitting next to Paris.
"Hey, Rory," said Luke. "I thought you'd still be at the victory party. Your mom looked pretty jazzed."
"It's just a stupid trivia competition." Rory stared down at the surface of the counter.
"It was ridiculously easy, too," said Paris. "If I hadn't been unfairly disqualified, I'd have crushed you. You should talk to Taylor about changing the rules, and set the bar higher next year."
"Oh great," said Luke. "Taylor's met a kindred spirit."
"I'm just saying," said Paris. "There's no point in instituting a competition if all qualified applicants aren't allowed to participate."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Rory.
She noticed that the coffee rings left on the Formica over the years had formed a pattern of intersecting circles. She traced their outline with her fingertip, moving around and around the pale brown stains.
"Rory?" She looked up when she heard Luke's voice.
Luke stared at her for a few moments. "Er...do you...that is, do you..."
He looked away and cleared his throat. "Do you want an ice cream sundae?"
Rory smiled. "Yes, please. That would be great."
"Coming right up." Luke walked back into the kitchen.
Rory turned back to Paris. "So...did you have a good time today?"
"It was acceptable," said Paris. She fished a maraschino cherry out of her sundae. "The book stall was fun. And so was the croquet. I liked the food. But I just know I'm going to regret it tomorrow."
"So, all in all, a pretty good day."
"I guess." Paris twirled the cherry stem in her fingers, then dropped it back into the glass. "I found a topic for my paper."
"Oh," said Rory. "Wow--Paris, that's great! What is it?"
"Well--" Paris stirred the melted ice cream with her spoon. "I'm going back to what Mr. Medina said about Charlotte Brontë, and doing a comparison between the two writers. I mean, on the one hand you've got a self-confessed proto-feminist who declares her intention of creating more equitable relationships between her male and female protagonists, and yet, in my opinion, fails miserably. And on the other, you've got Austen, who's got no scruples about treating match-making as the business of the day, and yet still manages to depict relationships that make you believe in the possibility of an equal marriage."
"That sounds amazing." Rory was impressed. Paris could drive her crazy sometimes--okay, almost all of the time--but there was no denying that she was smart. Really, really smart.
"Yeah, well." Paris continued to stare down at the remains of her sundae. "I don't usually discuss my assignments with anybody else, you know. For all I know, I could be making a huge mistake. Hearing your opinions could blunt my judgment. Or make me lose my focus. Or--"
"Paris, it's all right." Rory smiled. "I mean, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, but...I don't think it'll affect your work. Not badly, anyway."
"Well, okay. If you say so." Paris finally turned to look Rory in the face. "What about you?"
"Me?" Rory opened her mouth, then closed it again. "Yeah, I have an idea. Well, sort of."
"And?" Paris tapped her spoon against the rim of the glass. "What is it?"
"Um..." Rory stared down at her hands. "I haven't really thought it through, yet."
"If you don't want to tell me, then fine." Paris stood up. "I knew I shouldn't have let myself get fooled by your 'let's be friends' act. I apologize for being so naive."
"Paris, that's not it!" Rory took a deep breath. "I swear, I promise that I'll tell you in school, okay? I just...I need to think it through first. I need to get it straightened out in my head."
"Really?" Paris looked at her suspiciously.
"Cross my heart."
"All right," said Paris. "But you're on probation." She slung her backpack on her shoulder. "I have to go."
"Already?" Rory looked at her watch. "It's only seven-thirty."
"Exactly," said Paris. "Every time I come to your crazy town, I spend more and more time here. No wonder I never understood this 'friends' thing--it's a potentially catastrophic distraction from my goals. I need to get back to the real world and finish all the work I have left to do."
"Okay," said Rory. "I guess I'll see you in school."
"Yeah," said Paris.
She paused on her way out, and turned back to Rory. "He was here, you know. But he left a while ago."
"Oh, don't play dumb," said Paris. "It doesn't suit you. I don't know where he went, but I'm guessing it wasn't to the local square dance. Okay?"
"Okay." Rory smiled. "Thanks, Paris."
"Don't mention it. I'll see you in school." Paris turned and left, swinging the door shut behind her.
"Here you go!" Luke came back from the kitchen, holding an enormous dish piled high with ice cream. "One hot fudge sundae with all your favorite toppings!"
"Um, Luke?" Rory hopped off her stool. "I'm really sorry, but I have to go."
"What?" Luke stared at her in dismay. "What am I going to do with all this ice cream?"
"Why don't you eat it?"
Luke glared at her. "Unlike your mother, I want to live past forty-five."
Rory grinned. "Oh yeah, I forgot. I'm really, really sorry, Luke. I'll pay you for the sundae. But right now, I have to go."
"Nah, it's okay," said Luke. He smiled. "Just go do whatever it is you have to do."
"My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasions for teasing and quarrelling with you as often as may be; and I shall begin directly by asking you what made you so unwilling to come to the point at last. What made you so shy of me, when you first called, and afterwards dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?"
"Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement."
"But I was embarrassed."
"And so was I."
"You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner."
"A man who had felt less, might."
"How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable as to admit it!"--Pride and Prejudice
Rory knew where Jess would be. And sure enough, when she got to the bridge he was there, staring into the water.
He didn't look up. "Hey."
"So..." Rory hadn't planned what to say next, but the words just came out of her mouth. "Where is it?"
All of a sudden, Rory was furious. She had no idea why--Jess hadn't done anything wrong, and he certainly hadn't done anything to her. All she knew was that she was angry at him--angrier than when his antics had gotten Luke attacked at the town meeting, or when he'd completely shut down in front of her mother.
"You know what!" She walked up to him, dropping her bag on the bridge. "Your quiz sheet! Oh, wait, did you make it disappear? Was that another of your magic tricks? Did you change it into a white rabbit? Or are you going to pull it out of my hat? Which would be hard, seeing as I'm not wearing a hat, but maybe you'd like to give it a try!"
"What makes you so sure I didn't hand it in?"
"Because!" Rory knew that her voice was getting louder and louder, but she couldn't help it. "I saw the questions! I know you, Jess, you could have answered them in your sleep. And I watched you filling it out. So did Paris. So where is it?"
"Rory." Jess finally turned to look at her. "What exactly is it that you want from me?"
"What--" Rory stopped in mid-sentence when she saw the expression on his face. She took a deep breath.
"I don't...I just don't...I don't know." Her voice faltered. She wanted to ask him why he kept doing this, why he pretended that he was less than he was--why he couldn't always be the way he was around her, or even Paris. But the words wouldn't come.
She sat down next to him, hugging her knees to her chest.
Jess remained silent for a few seconds. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper.
"Here," he said, handing it to Rory. She took it, and read it through.
"Perfect score," she said.
"Look, don't make a whole big thing out of it, okay?" Jess stuck his hands back in his pockets. "This is your town. Everyone was expecting you to win. It just wasn't worth it. Besides, I didn't feel like being interrogated by Taylor about how I cheated."
"Taylor wouldn't--" Rory stopped, then smiled slightly. "Okay, maybe he would."
"Oh geez, ya think?" Jess laughed, and Rory found herself laughing with him.
She didn't know what to say next--but the horrible tightness in her chest had eased a little. She unbent her legs, dangling them over the side of the bridge.
For a few minutes they just sat side by side, staring at their reflections in the lake. Then Rory said, "I can't believe all this started because of my stupid paper."
Jess glanced at her. "Have you found a topic yet?"
Rory thought for a second. Something had held her back from telling Paris, before. She had an idea--but it was still fragile, still vague. She'd been afraid that if she said it out loud, or looked at it too directly, it would disappear. But she thought she could tell Jess.
Finally, she nodded. "Yeah, I think I have something."
"It's nothing definite, but--" She swung her legs to and fro, looking straight ahead. "I've been thinking about how conversation's such a big part of Austen's books--and yet some of the most important communication takes place indirectly, through writing."
She looked at Jess, who nodded. "You mean like Wentworth writing to Anne."
"Yeah. Or, well, clearly Darcy's letter in Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous examples there is. But it isn't just letters, it's literature, too. Like Marianne and Willoughby reading poetry to each other."
"Or the play in Mansfield Park."
"Exactly," said Rory, warming to the subject. "And they're all double games, right? It's important that the play is Lovers' Vows, and all the characters are acting out their own wishes and fears..."
"Yes, definitely." Rory smiled. "Many, many issues. And then Henry reads Shakespeare to Fanny and that almost wins her over, because it makes her think of him as a different person."
"But Marianne thinks Willoughby is worse than he is, because his fiancëe writes that letter--"
"And makes him sign it," finished Rory. "And then there are actual word puzzles, too, hidden in her books."
"Like Frank trying to con Jane and Emma."
"Yes, and there's the whole theme of riddles and word games running through Emma--it's like a detective story, almost. And it's like talking to people, writing to people, using language--that's a detective story too, in itself. And it's there in all her novels." Rory paused to catch her breath. "I don't have a title yet, but this one feels right. It's what I want to write about."
"Sounds like it'll work," said Jess.
They looked at each other for a few seconds, neither one saying anything.
Then Jess turned and reached for something next to him on the bridge. "Here." He held it out to Rory. "I got this earlier."
"Books," she said. "I'm shocked."
"They're the ones I chose," he said. "For you. You know, like you said."
"Oh. Oh. Right." She reached out and took them. "The Bone People, and What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
She couldn't help smiling. "Nice title."
"I figured you already had Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!," said Jess.
"Yeah, I do," said Rory. "But I don't have either of these. Any comments on The Bone People?"
"It's like nothing you've ever read," he said. "But if you like The God Of Small Things, I think you'll like this, too. We can talk about it after you're done."
"Okay." Rory reached into her bag. "I've got something for you, too. I came here to give it to you, but then I got sidetracked...anyway."
She held out a book. Jess took it.
"It's blank," he said. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
"No!" Rory tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. She knew he was doing this on purpose. "This isn't the book I picked for you. It's the notebook I won. You know, for the trivia competition."
"No way," he said, handing it back.
"It's okay," said Rory. "I'm not giving it to you because I want to share the prize. Well, that's partly it, that's why I'm keeping the fountain pen--I don't think you're a fountain pen kind of person anyway, are you?"
Jess shook his head.
"Okay, good," said Rory. "But anyway, mostly I'm giving it to you as a gift. Because I had a really hard time deciding what book to get for you. I chose something, in the end, but you might not like it. Everything seemed wrong--this one wasn't good enough, you'd probably already read that one, I wasn't sure whether the next one was your kind of thing, it was driving me crazy. But with this--you can write anything in it you want."
"Rory, if you're still going on about that writing thing, I told you--"
"I'm not implying anything," said Rory. "You can take it however you want. It's just a gift. But you know, if you do write in it, you should remember that it's okay to have happy endings. I told you before, life doesn't always suck. Even The Great Gilly Hopkins had some hope at the end."
She held her breath, waiting for Jess to say something.
Finally, he reached out and took the book back. "Okay."
"Yeah," he said. "Thanks."
"Oh, good." She smiled. "I'm glad."
Jess looked at his watch. "The movie's probably starting right about now. You should get going."
"Oh, yeah." Rory started to stand up, then sat back down again. "Actually, no."
"I've seen the movie more than ten times. I don't have to watch it again."
She could imagine what everyone in town would be doing right now. Taylor would be setting up the projector with Kirk, fussing about how to arrange the screen. Her mother would probably be dragging Luke out to the seats. Sookie and Jackson would be bringing food out to everyone. Miss Patty and Babette would be giggling in anticipation.
And Dean would be there. Everyone would be expecting her.
But she didn't want to go.
"I'd rather stay here," she said.
"Fine by me," said Jess. "This isn't to make up for forcing me to read The Fountainhead, is it?"
"You said if I tried it again and still hated it, you'd make it up to me. Well, guess what. I still hate it."
Rory burst out laughing. "No, this isn't to make up for that. I want to be here."
She pulled three more books out of her bag. "Now these are the books I chose for you at the fair."
"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." Jess looked at her. "Are you trying to go for the New York angle?"
"Well, yes," Rory admitted. "Have you read it?"
"Yeah," he said. "But I can always use another copy."
"Exactly," said Rory. "Now the other two."
Jess peered at the titles. "Poetry? I told you I can't get into that stuff."
"Excuse me," said Rory. "You've read Howl over forty times."
"Why?" she retorted. "Because you think it's edgy and dangerous? Well, so is this. Just because it doesn't have any swear words in it doesn't mean it's fluff."
"You're seriously comparing Hughes and Plath to Ginsberg."
"Yes," said Rory. "And if you read just a little of Plath's work, you'd see that she's just as angry as Ginsberg--only in a different way. And for different reasons. Of course, she's not angry all the time. Anyway, they were selling Birthday Letters and Ariel together, as a set. Ha, see, I knew we were right when we told Paris you had to have both. I'm going to tell her in school next week."
She looked back at Jess. "You should give it a chance."
"Okay, okay," he said. He checked his watch again. "You've got ten minutes to sell me on Plath."
"Great, I like a challenge," said Rory. She opened the book, flipping through the pages until she found the poem she wanted.
She looked back up to see Jess watching her expectantly.
"Okay," she said. "Here we go."