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Growing Pains

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age nine

Rudy comes over for dinner and a playdate. He and Louise spend hours in her room pouring over Burobu and pranking Gene and Tina.

Bob cooks dinner, playing with rice noodles and other substitute foods. Louise had given him a two-page list of Rudy’s allergies the day before and a stern warning to the rest of the family that “If anyone makes fun of him I will end you.”

With Louise’s threat in mind, dinner is too quiet.

“Let me guess,” Rudy says halfway through the meal. “Did Louise tell you not to talk about my food allergies?”

There’s a general murmur of assent.

“It’s okay,” Rudy says. “She’s just protective. Ow Louise, stop kicking me!”

There’s a thud under the table that indicates Louise kicked him again. Then there’s another thud, and Louise says “Ouch!”

“Sorry.” He turns to the rest of the Belchers. “So don’t treat me any different! You guys are like my third family!”

“We are?” Bob says. Rudy has only been to their house about three times that he knows of.

“Aw, Bob, we’re his third family!” Linda coos. “Alright Rudy, what happens if you eat gluten?”

He starts to describe his stomach cramps, and the Belchers ooh and ahh at all the right moments. Conversation flows much easier after that.

 

age ten

Normally Louise tries to get out of answering the doorbell, but Dad is in his Thanksgiving frenzy, and everyone else has already found excuses to flee the kitchen. So she thuds down the stairs away from her manic father, and  opens the door to Rudy. His face is very red, and his body is hunched over and tense.

“Oh boy,” Louise says, and lets him in.

He throws himself down on the couch and buries his face in a cushion. Rudy is making weird gasping sounds, and Louise hovers in the doorway, unsure whether she should let him cry it out or try to ask what’s wrong.

Eventually the second option wins. She crouches down next to him and tentatively pats his back.

“Hey, Rudy? Buddy?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Rudes?” She pokes him in the head. “I’m not gonna go away until you answer me.”

Still no answer.

“Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. This is my house, so legally you have to tell me what’s wrong.”

He looks up at her. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“He speaks! And yes it is, how would you know?” Louise sits on the couch beside him. “So… what’s up?”

Rudy sits up and pulls his knees up to his chest. “My parents” sniff “decided to have Thanksgiving together” sniff “so we could be a family even though they’re… divorced, but” sniff “they’re fighting again. So I walked out.”

“Whoa,” Louise says. “You just left? That’s hardcore.”

He blows his nose loudly into a tissue and says weakly, “Thanks.”

“But what about dinner? You don’t want to miss that.”

“No one bought a turkey,” Rudy wails. “We’re having Chinese!”

“Yikes. Well, how about this?” Louise throws her arm around his shoulders. “You can have dinner with us!”

“Really?”

“Yeah! I’m sure my folks won’t mind.”

 

Her folks, as it turns out, do mind. Bob and Linda call Rudy’s parents and tell him that he’s safe. Then, because they're the worst, they confirm that someone is coming to pick him up.

Louise argues and begs, but the grown-ups won’t budge.

“Rudy’s parents want to spend the day with him. As a family,” Linda explains.

“Well, they’re not acting like a good family!” Louise says, and gets sent to her room.

 

Rudy’s dad is outside waiting in the car. Louise catches Rudy just as he’s about to leave.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t convince them to let you stay with us.”

Rudy has stopped crying, and his positive smile is back on his face. “Hey, that’s okay. You gave it your best shot.”

“Bull crap,” Louise says. “Adults are dumb.”

“Agreed. Happy Thanksgiving, Louise.”

She’s struck with an idea and grabs his arm. “Hey! You might be stuck with Chinese food tonight, but I’ll bring you some leftovers tomorrow!”

He beams. “That would be great!”

“I hope you realize that I’m fighting off Gene for you. I expect something in return, got it? Like… a loan of that new comic, maybe.”

Rudy says happily, “You got it. Thanks, Louise!”

They shake on it. 

 

age eleven

Louise is antsy all through her after-school shift at the restaurant. As the clock ticks towards 6:30, her bounces get bigger.

“Aw, look at her, she’s so excited,” her mom says. “My little baby. Remember when you hated sleepovers, Louise? Then I fixed it!”

“Wrong,” Louise says. “I still hate sleepovers with random people. But this one will be epic! Jessica is bringing a scary movie and the twins are bringing some kind of Chinese candy that they had to smuggle through customs. I heard one bite can give you heartburn!”

“Aw, that’s nice!” Linda says. “Heartburn, yay!”

“You never let me have boy-girl sleepovers,” Tina complains.

Linda gives her a look.

Tina says, “Yeah, that’s fair.” 

Louise spots Jessica and Rudy walking down the street and yells “Yes!” before she sees Logan sauntering down the other way.

“No no no no,” Louise says, and runs out the door.

“Hi, Louise!” Jessica says as she runs towards them. “Wait, what are you doing? Why are you dragging us into this alley?”

Logan is coming over here!” Louise pants.

Jessica gasps. “Logan? Really? The guy who—”

“Yes!”

“Wait,” says Rudy. “I’m confused. Who’s Logan?”

“It’s better if you don’t know,” Louise says. “Jessica, you look normal on the outside so you’d probably be fine. But God, Rudy, look at yourself! Logan would eat you alive!” She squishes his face in her hands.

Jessica says, “Logan is this really mean older kid who likes to pick on Louise.”

Rudy gapes. “What? But Louise, you’re not afraid of anyone!”

She scoffs, not convincingly. “Yeah, I’m not afraid of Logan. I’m just… not stupid. You guys have to hide here until he’s gone.”

“Who has to hide?” Two perky voices say from behind her.

They turn to see Andy and Ollie.

“What are you guys doing over here?” Ollie yells.

“Are we having an alley party?” Andy yells.

Shh you guys!” Louise turns to Jessica. “Okay, we need a plan to drive Logan away. Any ideas?”

“I’ve been practicing pantsing people!” Rudy pipes up. “Been getting pret-ty good, if I say so myself. Maybe I can do that to Logan.”

“Do what to Logan?” someone says. “You and your little friends plotting against me, Louise?”

“Crap.” She turns to face him.

Logan is looming at the alley entrance. He takes slow steps forward, grinning. Louise throws out her arms and steps in front of her friends. They peep out from behind her.

“Just keep moving, Logan,” Louise says, trying to project confidence. “Nothing to see here.”

“Oh, I disagree. Which one of you squirts wants an Indian burn?”

“Whoa, culturally insensitive,” Jessica snarks. She whispers to Rudy. “Do the pantsing. Now.

“Yeah, that’s not cool,” Rudy says loudly. He whispers back. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea!

Jessica says to him, “Look at Louise.”

He does. She is still standing in front of them, arms outstretched like she can keep Logan back by sheer force of will. Rudy looks closer, and realizes that Louise is trembling.

The sight spurs him forward. He pushes past Louise, dodging as she tries to grab his shirt, and walks up to Logan.

“Whoops,” Rudy says, and trips. As he falls he catches the sides of Logan’s shorts and pulls them down with him.

“Now!” Jessica yells, and Logan is suddenly bombarded by Andy and Ollie. The Pesto twins jump on the older boy with as much enthusiasm as they do anything else, which is quite a lot.

Logan staggers, bewildered and in his underwear. Before he can shake off the two fourth-graders chewing on his arms, Jessica picks up a nearby trashcan and dunks it over Logan’s head.

“Run!” Louise yells, and they take advantage of Logan’s sorry state to race into the Belcher apartment and up the stairs.

The group huddles in the living room to watch through the window. Logan shakes the trash off, looks around, pulls his shorts up, and walks away swearing.

Louise turns to her friends. “That… was… amazing! You guys took him down!”

“Of course we did!” Jessica says. “No one messes with our Louise.”

For a second, Rudy wonders if she’s going to protest — that she wasn’t bothered, that Logan hadn’t scared her, that she wasn’t their Louise — but she only smiles.

  “Aw. Sick.” Louise holds out her arms for a hug. “Get in here, guys.”

“Yay!” Andy yells.

“Group hug!” Ollie yells.

 

Later, the twins and Jessica are making up a cultish chant, inspired by the movie they’ve just watched. Rudy is sitting on the couch when Louise throws herself down next to him.

“Need a break?” He asks.

“Whew, yeah. I think I’m crashing from the candy.”

They watch the twins pretend to sacrifice Jessica.

“Hey, Louise?”

“Yeah?”

“You know that we meant it before, right? We’re always gonna be there to look out for you, just like you look out for us. I mean, it seems like you’re always protecting one of us… actually, it’s usually me who needs the most protecting. But anyway, it’s okay to be on the other end. And whenever you need someone pantsed, you know who to call.”

“That was some very impressive pantsing out there.”

“Thank you! The hard part is choosing to use my powers for good instead of evil.”

Louise laughs. “Thanks, Rudes.”

Jessica dies a dramatic death, then comes back to life as a monster. Andy and Ollie start to chuck pieces of popcorn at her, yelling about lightning bolts.

Louise says, “You know that if you ever pants me I’ll kill you, right?”

“Yeah, I know. You don’t need to worry about that.”

“You could get Gene, though. That would be pretty funny.”

“Backup! Backup!” Andy and Ollie yell.

“I think that’s our cue to throw things at Jessica.” Louise hops up. “You coming?”

“Yeah,” Rudy says. He grabs a handful of popcorn and follows her.

 

age twelve

Summer is hot and boring. One day, a few neighborhood kids are gathered around wasting time when Tina comes out of the apartment carrying her computer.

She sets it up in the restaurant and they crowd around her. Before Louise realizes what’s happening, the Boo Boo music video for his new song “Girl, You’re Deep as the Ocean — Save the Whales” fills the screen.

Louise tries to escape, but Tammy and Jocelyn are crowding her into the booth. She’s trapped, staring at Boo Boo’s beautiful face and beautiful dance moves.

“I see what you guys mean!” Zeke says, watching from over their heads. “This dude’s electric!”

On the screen, Boo Boo is riding on an orca. He waves at the camera, and everyone sighs.

“I want to be friends with him and ride on the ocean together,” Rudy murmurs.

“Let me out!” Louise says, pushing Tammy’s arm with renewed vigor.

Tammy pushes her back. “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that Louise had thought Rudy was in the bathroom. Rudy thinks Louise is cool (which she is), and finding out that she likes boy bands and gets crushes on pop stars might take his opinion of her down a notch.

The song reaches an end, and Tina instantly hits the replay button.

“He is so cute!” Jocelyn squeals.

The words tumble out of Louise’s mouth before she can stop them. “I know! I just want to slap him!”

“Uh, what?” Tammy says. “That’s weird.”

“No it isn’t,” Tina defends her sister. “When Louise has a crush on a boy she slaps him. We all have our things.”

“Slap therapy!” Gene shouts.

“Like, why?” Jocelyn says.

Louise sinks into her seat and mumbles, “It helps get him out of my system.”

“Not with Boo Boo, though,” Tina points out. “You slapped him twice and you still like him. Hm, maybe slap therapy doesn’t really work?”

Behind them, Rudy chokes and starts to cough.

Louise gives her sister an evil look. She had told Tina about The Valentine’s Day Thing That Will Never Be Spoken Of Again and expected it to be kept confidential. That teaches her to trust Tina with a secret. 

Louise still remembers The Valentine’s Day Thing That Will Never Be Spoken Of Again. She remembers it vividly, in fact. And judging by the amount of surprised wheezing Rudy is doing behind her, he does too.

Tina smiles at Louise innocently.

Louise glares.

 

age thirteen

Andy and Ollie are on vacation, so it’s just Jessica, Louise, and Rudy sleeping over at Jessica’s house.

It’s about 11:30 pm, and they’re halfway through their Naruto binge. Rudy fell asleep on Louise half an hour ago, and though she had grumbled, Louise hadn’t pushed him off.

Rudy begins to wheeze in his sleep. It’s a strange sound, and it takes Jessica a minute to realize that it’s not coming from the TV. The wheezing starts off occasional but then grows more frequent and louder. Jessica imagines that the breathing problems will wake Rudy up in a few minutes, if not now.

She looks over just in time to see Louise reach for Rudy’s inhaler. Without taking her eyes off the screen, Louise gives Rudy a puff and his breathing evens out.

Jessica looks away quickly before Louise can catch her staring. She files the interaction away in her mind to think about later and devotes her focus to the anime.

 

age fourteen

Twelve seems to be the age most kids start thinking about dating, so that’s the age that Bob and Linda institute the Open Door Rule.

Tina accepted it without much problem. Gene usually left his door open anyway, so he just made jokes about the rule. Naturally, Louise hates it and fights about it every chance she gets.

“Mom, Dad, Rudy’s here!” Louise yells a few weeks after she turns twelve. “We’re going to do homework in my room!”

“Okay,” Linda calls back. “But keep your door open!”

“God, it’s just Rudy!” Louise yells, and stomps the rest of the way.

 

When Louise turns fourteen, “It’s just Rudy” slowly gives way to other arguments.

“Rudy’s here!” She would shout through the apartment. “We’re gonna try to grapple hook across the alley from my window!”

“Don’t do that! Do something safer, like, uh, papier-mâché!” Bob would call. “Also, doors open!”

“That’s heteronormative!” Louise shot back. “Just because I’m a girl and he’s a boy? Get with the times, Dad! Do you make Gene keep his door open whenever he has any friend over?”

“Yes, we do.” Bob couldn’t resist adding, “So there.”   

“It’s true!” Gene yelled from the other room. “I have no privacy!!” 

 

“Hi, Bob and Linda! I’m gonna dye Louise’s hair. Can we use the bathroom sink?”

“Ooh, yeah! Door open, though!”

“Ugh, Mom!” Louise would butt in. “Is this a police state? We’re already under constant surveillance from our government!”

“Louise,” Dad would say.

“Tell me, Mom, do you think Stalin was a good ruler?”

“Louise.”

 

The shift happens very gradually. Louise always has a new, creative argument, and the parents start to look forward to hearing it.

Louise employs any tactic to fight against the Open Door Rule, except for one. Eventually Bob and Linda notice that, for whatever reason, she never uses “It’s just Rudy” anymore.

 

age fifteen

The summer before freshmen year, Rudy has a long overdue growth spurt and shoots up. They measure, and Louise is horrified to realize that Rudy is now four whole inches taller than her.

He also grows into his ears a little more, and his legs don’t look as gangly as they once did. Most surprisingly, he starts getting dates.

They’ve hit high school, pigs are flying, and girls like Rudy.

Sure, Louise can see why they like him. Rudy is friendly to everyone, loyal to a fault, and has a share of jokes so bad they’re funny.

“But he’s always been like that,” she complains to Tina over video chat one day. “It’s just now that he’s okay-looking instead of weird-looking that everyone is swarming all over him.”

“Hm,” Tina says wisely.

“You’re right, it must be the hormones. Ugh, being a teenager sucks!”

“Are you mad that girls are interested in him?” Tina asks mildly.

“No,” Louise says and means it, because she has a monopoly on Rudy’s time. Sure, she might critique his dates a little harshly, and her shovel talk has made a few girls cry, but she doesn’t mind seeing him holding hands with someone else.

The important thing is that he still eats lunch with her and Jessica every day, and usually they walk to class together (except when Louise has math, because then Rudy has creative writing on the other side of the building), and when Louise has in-school suspension he slips her notes and dumb limericks under the door.

If he was ditching her to spend all his time with someone else, then they would have a problem. But he won’t do that, so Louise doesn’t care when he brings a date to the movies or kisses a girlfriend on the cheek after school.

 

Louise tries kissing, too. She kisses a few boys and also a few girls, because there’s a family history of not being straight and she wants to see what all the fuss is about.

She comes to the conclusion that pretty much everyone is bad at kissing and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

When someone does know what they’re doing, though, then it’s okay. Not as magical as Tina made it out to be. But not awful, either.

 

age sixteen

Rudy climbs up the fire escape with a bottle of Tequila and they get horrifically drunk in Louise’s room.

Linda finds them in the morning, sprawled out on the ground with a bottle of liquor between them, and screams. “Louise! Bob! Bob, Louise!”

The teenagers sit up, groaning.

“Mom,” Louise whispers. “Why are you so loud?”

“Because I’m mad!” Linda yells. “Bob, get over here!”

Her dad is horrified for a few minutes, and then finds the whole situation hysterical.

“Why are you laughing?” His wife says, affronted.

“I’m laughing because you did the same thing when you were Louise’s age, Lin. I remember you telling me about it!”

“Oh, God! I’m turning into my mother!” Louise flops back onto the ground.

Rudy says, “Aren’t we all?”

 

Once Bob’s stopped laughing, and once the kids are relatively awake, Rudy and Louise find themselves sitting at the kitchen table.

“You two are in big trouble,” Linda says, shaking a finger. “I can’t believe you, Louise! I’ve been trying to get you to drink some wine with me for ages and you keep blowing me off!”

“Lin, no.”

“So I’m in trouble because I didn’t invite Mom?” Louise asks.

“Louise, cut it out,” Bob says. “You know why you’re in trouble.”   

“That’s right, Miss missy. And to punish you, the two of you are gonna work in the restaurant. All day!”

“No!” Louise yells. “Wait a minute, you can’t make Rudy do that. He’s not your kid!”

“He slept in my house and made bad decisions,” Linda says. “He’s close enough!”

Bob hands them each a cup of coffee. Louise groans.

 

“Oh, here comes a customer!” Linda says, looking out the restaurant window. “C’mon, you two, let me see your customer service smiles!”

Rudy is cleaning a table, and Louise is holding a mop. They look up and give her identical grimaces.

“Eh, close enough,” Lin decides. “Oh, hi Teddy!”

“Hey, Linda!” Teddy says, plopping down on his usual chair. “Didya get a new employee?”

“Oh, that’s just Rudy. He’s serving time ‘cause he snuck into Louise’s room last night.”

What?!” Teddy yells. He rolls up his sleeves, apparently embracing his role as the weird uncle. “I’m gonna beat him up!”

Rudy says, “Uh…”

From the kitchen, Bob calls, “Teddy, don’t do that.”

“No, Bobby, I’ve gotta!”

Louise stands between them, brandishing her mop like Gandalf. “You touch one hair on that asthmatic, hungover head and I’ll beat you up.”

“No one is beating anyone up!” says Bob.

Teddy sits back down, but he points at Rudy. “I’m watching you.”

Rudy waves, unbothered. “Okay.” 

 

age seventeen

Louise isn’t sure who gave her the flu. The stomach bug is going around school, and though her money (and blame) is on Peter Pescadaro, it could easily have been Darryl or Jessica or anyone else who’s sick. Another prime suspect is Millie, who likes to sneeze on Louise so they can share germs.

She goes home sick from school and Rudy comes over the next night, bringing her homework and a container of chicken soup.

Louise drops the schoolwork onto the ground and tries the soup.

“I made it,” Rudy says apprehensively. “You can say if you don’t like it.”

Louise swallows her bite, not without some difficulty. “Uh, no! It’s good!”

“Are you sure?” Rudy says. “Because you kind of made a face when you tried it.”

“What? No I didn’t. That’s just… how my face looks!” She puts the soup on her bedside. “Are you here to finally tell me that thing?”

Rudy looks alarmed. “What thing?”

“I don’t know, Rudy, you haven’t told me yet!”

He had been going up to her the past few days at school and starting a conversation, but they always got interrupted. Sometimes the bell rang, sometimes a friend came and whisked one of them away, but Rudy had never been able to finish his sentence.

“C’mon, tell me,” Louise wheedles. “I’m trapped in this bed and I’m so bored.”

“Yeah, but you’re sick, Louise.” Rudy protests. “I don’t want you to be trapped in your bed while I’m saying it. It’s, um… it’s serious.”

Louise sits up. “Are you dying? Are you moving? Are you getting a dog?”

“No! No, none of those.”

“Well then what else could it be! Rudy, tell me. Tell me. Tell me.” 

Over the years Rudy likes to think that he’s gotten more immune to Louise’s pleading. “I’ll tell you when you’re better. It’s fine, it can wait.”

“Ruuuudyyyy. Come oooooonnn. Please?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“Yes!” Louise says.

Apparently Rudy is not as immune to Louise as he thought. Or at all. He sighs. “Okay, but you have to promise to let me get through it.”

“I promise!” Louise says. “Finally something interesting is happening! Look, my mouth is zipped.”

He notices that she’s wearing the pajamas he bought her. Rudy had gotten them for Louise as a gag gift a few years ago, but she had genuinely liked them. He hadn’t known that she still wore them.

The sight of that blue cotton printed with sharks eating people gives him a rush of courage.

“Louise,” Rudy says. “We’ve been friends for a long time. And I’ve always admired the way you stand up for people you care about and the way you play fast and loose with the rules. And over the years, I think that I’ve come to care about you as… more than a friend?”

He stops to use his inhaler. Louise has her hand over her mouth. There’s a funny look on her face.

Rudy pushes on. “I really like you, Louise. And if you don’t feel the same way, it’s alright. I mean, it would crush me… but I would understand.”

There’s a silence.

“So, what do you say? In the words of ABBA, wanna take a chance on me?” Rudy asks nervously. “Uh, Louise?”

“I’m gonna throw up,” Louise says, and runs out of the room.

 

Rudy holds back Louise’s hair as she kneels over the toilet. After a few minutes of retching, it’s become clear that Louise’s nausea was caused by the flu and not by Rudy’s love confession — something he is infinitely grateful for.

“Mom!” Gene yells, passing by. “Louise is throwing up again!”

“Hi Gene,” Rudy says.

“Oh, hey Rudy!” He pokes his head into the room. “Louise, do you want me to get you a warm washcloth?”

“No thanks, Gene,” Louise groans.

“What about a cold one?”

“Nope. I think I’m good.”

“Lukewarm?”

Louise vomits again.

“I’ll take that as a yes!” Gene decides, walking away.

Linda rushes in. “Oh, poor Louise! Do you feel well enough to walk, honey? Come on, Rudy, give me a hand. And… up we go!”

“I think I left my intestines in the toilet,” Louise mumbles.

Together they lead Louise back down the hallway and Linda pushes her back down on the bed.

“Okay, Rudy,” Linda says. “I’m gonna need you to help me.”

“No!” Louise says suddenly. “Wait, I have to tell—”

“Oh yes, missy. Time to get better.”

“No!”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rudy asks.

“Louise has always hated taking her medicine,” Linda explains. “Quick, get her legs! She’s a kicker!”

“Betrayal!” shouts Louise. She starts to writhe around as Linda brings the medicine closer, trying to loosen Rudy’s grip on her legs.

“Ow, my face!”

“Sorry, Mom.”

Eventually Linda gets the medicine in Louise’s mouth and leaves, panting from exertion.

Rudy puts his inhaler up to his mouth just as Louise spits out her medicine into the soup.

“What— Louise!”

“Rudy, wait, listen. If I take that stuff I’m gonna fall asleep, and I want to be lucid when I say this.”

“Oh. Oh.” he says. “Is this about the…?”

“Yes! So let me talk, okay?”

“Rudy,” Louise says, “I had a lot of time to think over that toilet. And I realized… ugh, I can’t do this. I hate talking about my feelings!”

“I know, sorry. Would it help if I, like, faced the wall or something? Then you wouldn’t have to look at me.”

“Blair Witch style?” Louise thinks about it. “Yeah, that’d be cool. Let’s do that.”

Rudy obligingly stands in the corner. Louise stares at the back of his head, noticing the uneven section where he had dared her to cut it, and feels a rush of affection for him.

She thinks back.

Last summer, swimming on the beach. Rudy had taken his shirt off, revealing his stupid, scrawny chest and Louise hadn’t been able to look away.

In seventh grade, when a tragic accident had befallen Louise’s ears. Rudy had pushed their gawking classmates out of the auditorium. He didn’t judge her when she had cried about it into her dad’s arms.

The time he had a severe allergic reaction that landed him in the hospital and Louise hadn’t been able to sleep for three days.

Rudy, cheering her on as Louise rode her new bicycle over those ridiculously small ramps his dad made.

Rudy, going along with whatever crazy plan the Belchers came up with, and sometimes coming up with his own.

Rudy, hungry for life and running through a museum with Louise. Rudy, accompanying her jokes with his cymbals after only knowing her for less than a minute.

Once Louise starts thinking about him, she can’t stop. She doesn’t want to stop.

Back in her room, she whispers, “I like you too.”

“What was that?” Rudy says.   

“I said I— you can come back over now, it’s okay.”

He does.

Louise continues. “I said, I like you too. Like, a crazy amount. I like you so much it’s scary.”

Rudy’s face lights up.

“But!” Louise says as that image imprints into her brain, “I don’t want to be ‘dating’. At least, not yet. Let’s just… see what happens.”

“Okay,” Rudy says. “Keeping it casual. I’m okay with that.”

She watches him carefully. “Are you sure?”

“Louise, you just said you’re crazy about me. Right now, you could ask me to jump off a cliff for you and I would do it.” He grins at her.

She grins back, and for a moment they just smile at each other.

“God, we’re sappy,” Louise says.

“Yup. And speaking of sap, you need to take your medicine.”

She scowls.

“Come on, Louise. Hey, the sooner you get better, the sooner we can kiss.”

“What?” Her eyebrows shoot up, and Rudy laughs. She says, “I mean, you could kiss me now.”

“Mm… you just threw up.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s fair.” She takes a swig of the medicine. “Happy, Rudes? And you never take your medicine without me bugging you about it, so this is…”

Louise falls asleep midway through her sentence. Rudy pulls the blanket up over her.

He whispers, “Sweet dreams, Louise.” and shuts off the light on his way out.

 

age eighteen

Louise storms into the restaurant. Before the door can slam shut, Rudy catches it and rushes in after her. 

“Will you stop following me, Stieblitz?” Louise shouts. “I said I don’t want to talk right now!”

“Well I do!” Rudy shouts back. “Why didn’t you tell me you were mad about the scholarship?”

“I’m not mad about the scholarship!” Louise yells. “Why would I ever be mad that you got an award?! You deserve every award ever, Rudy!”

Bob comes out of the kitchen to join Linda at the counter. The arguing has attracted the attention of the few other customers, who are watching with interest.

“Uh, guys?” Bob says. “Do you maybe wanna take this somewhere more private? Someplace that… isn’t the restaurant?”

“What are you arguing about, anyway?” Linda asks.

“Nothing!” Rudy and Louise say in unison, and then keep yelling at each other.

“Should we… stop them?” Bob whispers to his wife.

“Nah, they’re working it out. It’s healthy!”

“Okay, if you say so. But if it’s still going in a few minutes I’m asking them to leave.”

Rudy shouts, “If you’d just told me that you didn’t want to apply I wouldn’t have pushed so hard for it! I can’t read your mind, Louise!”

“I didn’t want to tell you! You were so excited about it! But you’re right, I should have! Don’t you dare say anything about self-sabotage!”

“I wouldn’t say that! Only the guidance counselor says that!”

“Well, she’s stuck in my head! I’m sorry I blew up at you!”

“I’m sorry too! And I think we need to work on our communication skills!” Rudy yells.

“I agree!” Louise shouts, and then they’re making out on top of a table.

“Wow.” Bob says. “I guess the fight is over? And I guess… this is a thing now.”

“You didn’t know?” Linda asks.

“No! I mean, I noticed they were… holding hands more often, but I wasn’t sure— wait a minute, how did you know?”

“Oh, Gene told me,” Lin says happily. “Louise was paying him ten dollars a month to keep it quiet. But we’re sharing the money! Shh, don’t tell her.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it’s going into our spa day fund!”

Bob glances at Rudy and Louise and immediately averts his eyes. “Oh, God. They’re still going.”

Lin looks over. “Wow. Intense. Ugh, it’s like they’re eating each other’s faces.”

“Should I ask them to stop? It’s kinda gross, I mean, we’re a restaurant. They’re on our table.”

“Eh, no one’s using it. Leave them be!” Linda says, and starts to sing. “Young love, young love! Eating faces on a table…