"What brings you here?" I ask. I don't smile though. I'm not smiling at him.
"I just... I wanted to drop by."
"Well. Can I get you a drink?" I ask. "Or should I just get you the entire bottle of Old Kentucky?"
He frowns. His nose and forehead are pink, like he's been working in the sun. "Look, I know it was... a long while back, but I came out here to say I'm sorry."
"Who sent you--Hilly? William?" There are eight empty rocking chairs on my porch. I don't ask him to sit in any of them.
He looks off at the west cotton field where the sun is dipping into the dirt. He shoves his hands down in his front pockets like a twelve-year-old-boy. "I know I was... rude that night, and I've been thinking about it a lot and..."
I laugh then. I'm just so embarrassed that he would come out here and have me relive it.
"Now look," he says, "I told Hilly ten times I wasn't ready to go out on any date. I wasn't even close to being ready..."
I grit my teeth. I can't believe I feel the heat of tears; the date was months ago. But I remember how secondhand I'd felt that night, how ridiculously fixed up I'd gotten for him. "Then why'd you even show up?"
"I don't know." He shakes his head. "You know how Hilly can be."
I stand there waiting for whatever it is he's here for. He runs a hand through his light brown hair. It is almost wiry it's so thick. He looks tired.
I look away because he's cute in an overgrown boy kind of way and it's not something I want to be thinking right now. I want him to leave--I don't want to feel this awful feeling again, yet I hear myself saying, "What do you mean, not ready?"
"Just not ready. Not after what happened."
I stare at him. "You want me to guess?"
"Me and Patricia van Devender. We got engaged last year and then... I thought you knew."
He sinks down in a rocking chair. I don't sit next to him. But I don't tell him to leave either.
"What, she ran off with someone else?"
"Shoot." He drops his head down into his hands, mumbles, "That'd be a damn Mardi Gras party compared to what happened."
"I don't let myself say to him what I'd like to, that he probably deserved whatever she did, but he's just too pathetic-looking. Now that all his good ole boy, through bourbon talk has evaporated, I wonder if he's this pathetic all the time.
"We'd been dating since we were fifteen. You know how it is, when you've been steady with somebody that long."
And I don't know why I admit this, except that I simply have nothing to lose. "Actually, I wouldn't know," I say. "I've never dated anybody."
He looks up at me, kind of laughs. "Well, that must be it, then."
"Be what?" I steel myself, recalling fertilizer and tractor references.
"You're... different. I've never met anybody that said exactly what they were thinking. Not a woman, anyway."
"Believe me, I had a lot more to say."
He sighs. "When I saw your face, out there by the truck... I'm not that guy. I'm really not such a jerk."
I look away, embarrassed. It's just starting to hit me what he said, that even though I'm different, maybe it's not in a strange way or an abnormal, tall-girl way. But maybe in a good way.
"I came by to see if you'd like to come downtown with me for supper. We could talk," he says and stands up. "We could... I don't know, listen to each other this time."
I stand there, shocked. His eyes are blue and clear and fixed on me like my answer might really mean something to him. I take in a deep breath, about to say yes--I mean, why would I, of all people, refuse--and he bites his bottom lip, waiting.
And then I think about how he treated me like I was nothing. How he got shit-dog drunk he was so miserable to be stuck with me. I think about how he told me I smelled like fertilizer. It took me three months to stop thinking about that comment.
"No," I blurt out. "Thank you. But I really can't imagine anything worse."
He nods, looks down at his feet. Then he goes down the porch steps.
"I'm sorry," he says, the door to his car, open. "That's what I came to say and, well, I guess I said it."
I stand on the porch, listening to the hollow sounds of the evening, gravel under Stuart's shifting feet, dogs moving in the early darkness. For a second, I remember Charles Gray, my only kiss in a lifetime. How I'd pulled away, somehow sure the kiss hadn't been intended for me.
Stuart gets in his car and his door clicks shut. He props his arm up so his elbow pokes through the open window. But he keeps his eyes turned down.
"Just give me a minute," I holler out to him. "Let me get my sweater."
The parallels are uncanny.