Of Lilacs and Hookah Smoke


AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve been reluctant to post this anywhere for a variety of reasons. Namely, I was using portions of this novella for submissions, but I was also somewhat afraid of the judgment that this piece would incur from people close to me. It is somewhat autobiographical in nature, and I have had family members assert that they have a hard time not picturing me as the narrator. Like all good fiction, the story is grounded in truth, but is a complete fabrication so please do not concern yourself with my mental wellbeing. Given the piece was started in ’08 and finished in ’12, I finally think I’ve distanced myself away from it enough to post it here for your reading pleasure, in its entirety. It is not meant to be chronological! Some of you have read this before so I apologize for the lack of new material but rest assured there is more on the way. Without further ado, please enjoy my FIRST novella. 

We half stumbled, half crashed, into the poorly lit bed room- fingers laced across fingers, our giddiness holding sobriety at bay.

“So why are we in here again?” I asked

“Because the party’s old and I’m nosy.” she responded.

“Oh” was all I could apparently muster. My mind hadn’t entirely recovered from the alcohol bath I had been making it take all night. She let go of my hand, and started snooping around the room. She did it almost absent mindedly, moving stuff here, putting stuff there, not really looking for something so much as just looking, possibly tidying the place. Thinking back on it now, I am positive that if I had been sober I would have been able to tell whose room it was at just a glance. But seeing as how I wasn’t, all I could do was ask:

“So whose room is this anyway?”

She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. I caught her eyes, and could see what might have been an apology in them. It was a look of desperation, of hoping against hope that her revelation wouldn’t scare me away.

“M-mine.”

Our eyes connected, “those beautiful hazelnuts”, and I smiled softly.

“Oh. But you said you were being nosy.” I half slurred

“I am. I wanted to see how you’d react.” She said, walking past me and taking a seat at the edge of what was apparently her own bed.

I looked around, actually seeing the room for the first time. It reminded me a lot of my own. A bookshelf with too many books on it, a corner of the room with nothing but clothes piled up, and a bed covered with at least a dozen pillows. A stack of books without homes sat beside her bed. Thoreau. Wilde. Coelho, Diaz, Paz. We shared a lot of mentors. Picture frames of charcoal landscapes took up most of the walls, and her dresser was covered with different bottles and tubes of make- up and styling stuff, most of which I had never heard of. The word “Faith” had been neatly printed in blue marker across the top of her mirror. Yea, this was her room alright, I was right at the epicenter of her world, and that was where she wanted me. Me. Her. And her bedroom.

I shuffled over to her as she stretched her hand out to me, beckoning. This was it. The entirety of my life had brought me imperceptibly to this moment. Every move made, word spoken and action taken had guided me to right here, right now. Nothing else seemed to matter as she pulled me towards the bed. Not the noise on the opposite side of the door or the toxicity of my blood. Not the sand in my shoes or my missing bus pass. There was only us, the bed, and this moment. She pulled, I pushed, and our bodies entwined as our lips made contact, saying what we both had wanted to say all night. It was electricity and jumping into a cold pool in the middle of July. “Se me enchino el cuerpo.” I had needed this, wanted it more than I ever could have possibly articulated, and yet, something was wrong. None of it should have been happening. The spider of guilt had nestled in my heart and its babies were making their way into my mind as our clothes were being shed, as I tasted her lips and lapped at the flesh on her neck.  Her body was warm, and welcoming. Lilacs and hookah smoke. Her slender fingers ran through my hair as I slid the tips of mine down the spine of her back…

But none of that happened, because everything else seemed to suddenly matter as I grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the bed.

“Dance with me.”

I pulled my phone out, put it in speaker mode, and played the one slow song I had on it: Lifehouse’s “You and Me” of all damn songs. She giggled as I twirled her in a goofy manner, showing off my ballroom prowess. I was trying to show off and just wound up making her laugh. “Good.” I thought. “Kill the mood with silliness.” But, she closed the gap between us, slowly. My heart became too big for my chest as she pressed against me, and then we looked at each other, I mean really looked at each other. The song played on as our feet moved to and fro, her hands around my neck and mine trembling around her waist. My height made sure that there was still one more gap for us to close but I knew what was coming. The space between us shut for the briefest of moments before I pulled away altogether. It was overkill, I couldn’t do this. Even now, the look on her face is, easily,one of my biggest regrets.

“You don’t like me.” she half mumbled

“We’re drunk. This isn’t a good idea.”

“But I want this.” she took a small step towards me

“You won’t in a few hours.”

“You don’t like me.”

“No, I like you too much to let this happen.”

I kissed her one last time and then I shuffled out of the room. It was eight miles to my place from the apartments, and I walked all 42,240 feet that night. I got home and put my jacket to wash, it smelled like flowers and fruity cigarettes.

******

My alarm rang.  Time to get up. I rolled, (read fell) out of bed, bringing the paper bag colored sheets with me. The word crappy seemed to capture the scene pretty well. I had dreamt of dragons and psychic super powers, and after such an incredible dream, the day could only go downhill. Desperately, my mind reached out, tried to shut off the siren of my alarm by asking it to stop ringing, but that seemed to only make it beep faster and louder and at higher frequencies. So I made my way through the piles of clothes and shoes and books to put the clock out of my misery, silently cursing the friend who’s mom had given it to me as a going away present. Six in the a.m was too early to be alive, especially if all you had going on was school, school, and more school. “You can do this. Come on Spidey, you can do this.”

“The sun’s not even out yet!” I groaned.

To compensate for the ball shriveling cold, I stood around in the shower for an extra five or ten minutes. If any of my housemates woke up as obscenely early as I did on Fridays, I might have pissed some people off, but seeing as how I was alone in my early morning exploits, I didn’t have to deal with any obnoxious bitching and moaning about how long of a shower I took and how the heat left the room steamy or how my shower somehow ruined their laundry. Yes, the last one had happened. Seriously. Seriously. Seriously. But as much as I hated my housemates, I hated mornings more, and this one was already a pain in my ass. So with the excitement of a kid about to eat their vegetables, I started digging through a heap of clothes to find something clean and relatively decent to wear, secretly enjoying the odd sensation of freedom that comes from being completely naked behind a locked door. It took a bit but I eventually got dressed and ready for school, having opted to wear a plain green t-shirt, jeans, and a black jacket I had somehow acquired. With books, bus pass, and pessimism in tow I headed out the side entrance of the house and slowly strolled down the parking lot to meet my escort. As usual, I was late.

“How long have you been waiting?” I asked

“Not long.” She responded.

Eileen Marie Wozniak had to have had one of the most angelic conversational voices on the planet. Every single time you heard it, you could have sworn she was singing and not just talking to you. Her voice somehow managed to be light and friendly but still have a type of resonance that tuned your heartstrings. Quite frankly it was enough to make you never want to speak a single word around her again, if only to just hear her speak. It didn’t matter if she was reading the phone book, just hearing that voice made things like early morning classes worth it, if not bearable.

“Damn it. I was hoping I’d kept you waiting.”

“No such luck sorry.”

“I’ll try again tomorrow.”

“You’ll fail again tomorrow.”

“Ouch.”

“You’re too much of a gentleman to keep a girl waiting.”

“Actually, it’s because I’m a gentleman that ladies show up before me…if you know what I mean.”

She shook her head.

“I always know what you mean, unfortunately.”

It’d been this way for a little over three years now. We had the same schedule, same mode of transportation, same life almost. But I didn’t mind it, when it came to a person like Eileen it was impossible to not want to carry her around with you.  So we walked, making our way down silent streets and craggily cross-walks, on our miserable way to campus for a class that could not have been duller.

“Did you do your thought record?”

“No.”

“What!? Why not?’

“Why would I? I’ll just B.S. it later and turn it in for partial credit.”

“But you had all that time last night. Why didn’t you just do it?”

“Why does it even matter? It’s my grade, why are you so worried about it?”

“ I’m always going to worry about you bud.”

“I know, but I don’t see why. I’m a grown ass man. My responsibility, period.”

“I’m still going to worry.”

“And I’m still going to do things my way.”

“But what do you get out of that?”

“The satisfaction of knowing I’m no one’s tool.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know but it sounds better than, ‘more sleep’.”

She smiled and shook her head and rolled her eyes, and did all the other stuff that girls do when they’re simultaneously annoyed and amused by your actions. I just chuckled to myself. A lively wind picked up and blew in our direction, sending a slight chill up my back and having its way with Eileen’s hair. Spend any amount of time around Eileen, and you’d always end up admiring her hair. The style was simple, straight and shoulder length, but it just worked so damn well for the blonde you could really only appreciate it by staring. It bounced, it bobbed, it played in the wind and sunlight. Her hair was perfect, and even when it wasn’t, it was perfect.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked

“No, no I’m fine.”

“But you’re wearing practically nothing.”

“I am not wearing ‘nothing’, I’m wearing plenty thank you very much.”

“Yea that orange top which is sleeveless and that stupid half sweater doesn’t count as plenty I’m sorry.”

“It’s plenty for me, and it’s going to get hot later anyway.”

“Joy.”

“I love the heat!”

“I know…”

“And you know what else I love?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea…”

“Coppertone! Well, I love the smell of Coppertone.”

“But you only wear Banana Boat, I know.”

“That’s because Banana Boat is the only one that actually works for me.”

“Fascinating.”

“Picking up your sarcasm.”

“Well, I should hope so, because I’m laying it on pretty thick.”

We both laughed at this, Tommy Boy was one of our favorite movies.

After what seemed like a five hour bus ride and a twenty mile hike, we settled into our seats in class. Today was a presentation day. In other words, it was completely pointless for everyone except the people presenting and maybe the professor. It’s a well- known fact that no one pays attention to you while you present your project or idea or what have you. Everyone looks and smiles and nods and no doubt hears you, but no one actualy listens. There’s no point to presentations because no one gets a damn thing out of it. You’ve been there, I’m sure. Stuck in a class or a meeting that had no real interest for you, forced to be polite and pretend to give a rat’s ass about what your colleagues have to say because you don’t want to burn bridges or gain a bad reputation. It’s a miserable experience, and it takes every ounce of strength and every fiber of your being and every bit of, well everything, to not walk out or start heckling the dumbasses who are obviously making it up as they go along or are just piggy backing on someone else’s hard work and actual research. I just did not get it. The class ended sometime after Eternity, and Eileen and I went to lunch.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked as we hoofed it to the cafeteria.

“If I wanted you to know what I was thinking, I would be talking to you.”

“Tell me anyway.”

I sighed.

“I’m just a little sick of this routine.”

“What routine?”

“Trust me, you really don’t want to get into this right now.”

“Try me.”

“Fine, but I warned you…”

******

The journey to Johnny’s was slightly more interesting than the voyage to Victor’s, mostly because Sheryl was now entirely focused on me and playing twenty questions. I knew what she was getting at, I knew it, hated it, and went along with it anyway. Nick was my ride home and at the moment he was wrapped around Sheryl’s finger so I figured I would just make the best of things. There was a good chance that this Amanda girl Sheryl kept mentioning was actually attractive and I’d enjoy meeting her the next time I went out, I just disliked being measured. From the satisfied smirk on Sheryl’s face, I guessed that she liked what she had learned. It’s not like learning facts about me is all that difficult though. If you wanted to know you just had to ask, I guaranteed that if you were a halfway decent person I would answer honestly. Unlike the rest of the world which seemed to be scared of being themselves or revealing their true personalities, I was pretty damn ok with being my jerkish and sarcastic self.

We rolled up to the loudest house on the street, home to a bad speaker in the backyard blasting rap songs. Myriad forms and faces walked towards and away from the house, each of them talking, laughing, and moving to the noise. Crowds of people made me uncomfortable. Too many emotions and expressions, thousands of voices and messages dying to be heard and no one really listening. It was just too much stimuli, my only defense against it all was to shrink in on myself and hang out in the corner, pretending to text people. ‘Fuck, fuck fuck, fuckity fuck!” At that point I noticed that a pungent, almost skunky smell was in the air.

“What’s that smell?”

“Weed.” Sheryl replied “Good weed too.”

“Oh, so that’s what it smells like.”

My words earned me a fish eye from her.

“You’ve never smoked weed?”

“No. . .”

She stared, I rolled my eyes and continued marching towards my doom.

“Did you bring your nunchucks?” Eileen whispered

“I didn’t know that this was going to be the worst night of my life.” I laughed.

Eileen knew how I got around crowds. Referencing The Boondocks, was her way of helping me take my mind off of things. She was about to learn I didn’t know what I would do without her, when Sheryl grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me towards the house.

“Come on! Amanda is waiting.” She half sang.

Of fucking course, she is.’  It’s not like Sheryl was all that subtle about, well, anything so the situation should have been apparent from the get go. But coming to this party wasn’t so much a ploy to get me to come out of my shell as it was a ploy for her to play match maker. Sheryl shoved and maneuvered me through people until, at last, we reached the backyard. White Christmas lights galore lit up the relatively simple layout. Chairs, tables, booze, people, smoke, heat, sweat, and music at an absurd decibel. That’s all there was to this thing; a bunch of drunken dancers grinding up against each other to horribly trite rap and pop songs. I stopped short and actually made an effort of resisting Sheryl’s momentum.

“Come on, let’s go!” She had to yell just for me to hear her.

“I’m fine right here thanks!”

“Fine, let me go find Amanda, you need to meet her!”

Arms crossed, feet shifting listlessly, the proverbial nail waiting for the hammer to fall. My insides shriveled away as my gaze darted from girl to girl. There were too many tube tops, spaghetti straps, and tops that basically had windows. Not that anyone noticed, but I gawked a bit here, gawked a bit there and my transformation into awkward shy guy was complete. Every piece of eye candy had at least two guys trying to grind up on them though. “Not worth the effort” I told myself, grasping for the straws of my confidence. Getting antsy standing around and doing nothing, I decided to go find Eileen. I turned around, and there she was, having been standing behind me for God knows how long. A fleeting look at her face and I could tell she wasn’t entirely pleased with the scene either, but she always loved dancing and the fact that so many were doing it made the fact that they were all either drunk or high at least kind of ok.

“Go ahead! I’ll be over by the tables!” I told her

She looked at me, not quite apologetically, and then disappeared in the mob. A long sigh escaped me as she found a partner instantaneously. Her hair flowed and flapped as she tossed her head around. The guy behind her never missed a beat. Denim introduced itself to denim now. I walked away from the dance floor. This scene had happened before. I made my way to the tables, grabbing a plate of leftover snacks along the way and plopped into one of the thankfully cool plastic lawn chairs. I watched the crowd of people bumping, grinding, singing along to stupid lyrics for two or three songs. None of it sat well with me, but I wasn’t about to experience another miserable night out. ‘Not tonight.’ Weaving through strangers, I found the alcohol and snatched a beer. Underage or not, if I was going to be out, I might as well reduce my inhibitions. I had just taken a sip of the stuff when Sheryl found me, followed by an admittedly cute girl.

“Yea! Getting your groove on!” she yelled, a massive smile on her face.

“I got bored.” I explained

“Well this is Amanda. She’s a really sweet girl. You two talk I’m gonna go get a drink.”

She left and Amanda and I were stuck looking at each other awkwardly.

“Hi.” I finally said, motioning for her to sit down.

She took a moment before finally pulling up a chair right next to me. I couldn’t help but admire her courage for doing so. Being introduced to anyone by a girl like Sheryl would spell disaster under normal circumstances, a fact I am sure we were both aware of at the moment.

“So how do you know Sheryl?” I asked

“She goes to my school. I met her in my health class last fall.”

“Oh ok. Cool.”

I didn’t really feel the urge to tell her that I ALSO went to their school. For some reason I felt that would make things weird. There was a pause in our conversation. I didn’t want to make her feel any more uncomfortable than she probably already felt, but I needed to say something so as to keep my miserable mind from wandering into boredom. The problem was that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I wasn’t sure if she’d appreciate my wit, understand my references or laugh at any of my jokes, so I said the only thing that really came to mind.

“So Sheryl’s totally trying to hook us up. In case you didn’t, you know, notice.”

Amanda peered at me, sidelong, and smiled.

“I know, she does this to me at like every party we go to.”

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know, she doesn’t want me to be single I guess”

“That’s annoying.”

“I’m used to it.”

“No, I meant for me”

A laugh this time.

“Why for you?”

“Because it’s your fault we’re in this mess.”

“What mess?”

“Sitting here, having an awkward conversation with a stranger.”

“Well it’s not like I want to spend my weekends talking to weirdos.” She said with a hint of bitterness.

“Hey, in my personal defense, I’m a little weird, but I’m a catch.”

She raised her eyebrow at that.

“Save it, I don’t want to hear any of your cheese-ball lines. I’ve heard them all and you’re not getting any tonight.”

I studied her then, taking in the almond shaped, hazelnut colored, eyes, the silky coffee brown hair, and almost bronze complexion. I took in the slight pout in her lips and the fact that she was wearing a gloss of some kind. I took in her slender hands and finally I took in the fact that she dressed to show off the curves on her petite frame, without actually showing much skin. Now, it might have been the extremely small amount of alcohol in my bloodstream, or it might have just been that I was already in a bad mood because I was at a party I shouldn’t have been at anyway, or maybe I just wanted to show off a bit. In any case, her comment about me not getting any, and the implication that all I wanted was to get into her pants, jilted me into the following:

“Well, stop me if you have heard this one. You like linguini, various berry pies, and drawing with charcoal. You shop at Ross and frequent flea markets for anything but jewelry because clothes don’t make the woman in your eyes, jewelry does. You hate getting split ends and recently switched to a stronger conditioner because of it, Pantene Pro-V to be exact, and it’s sad to say but you broke up with your long-time boyfriend three months ago, after discovering he was cheating on you.  Now, I promise you that I am more than a cut above every other guy you will ever meet, so don’t try to diminish me and make it seem like I’m just trying to get laid because quite frankly, I’m better than that.”

She had a bit of a dumb look on her face. I could tell she wanted an explanation, one I didn’t really feel like giving, but she was cute so I gave it to her. I elaborated that there was a piece of linguini on her shoe, a small berry stain on the bottom of her  cream colored tank top and some faint charcoal smudges on her jeans. I explained that the brown corduroy jacket she had on also had a small Ross tag sticking out of the back, that judging by the stitching and repeating pattern on the purse it was pleather and I just guessed it was from a flea market. I told her that I noticed she was wearing a 14 karat white gold and diamond pendant from the Zales fall catalog which came out last week, and that as I recalled that particular pendant was being sold for roughly the same as a Coach bag; so it was easy to see jewelry meant more to her. I pointed out that I could smell the conditioner and that I happened to use the same one on account of my ridiculous fro. As for her boyfriend, the tan line from her promise ring was still visible, and seeing as how tan lines take five months to fade away, and hers was about two thirds gone, I figured three months. Finally I clarified that Sheryl wouldn’t be trying to set her up with new guys if she didn’t desperately need to get over her last one.

“That kind of heart ache could only mean one thing.” I concluded

She stared at me for a long while. I looked up, and down, and basically I looked everywhere but at her.

“Wow.” she said. “What was your name again?”

******

The day was undoubtedly a nice one. Just enough play between Sun and clouds and the winds. Eileen and I slowly made our way over the various hills of the campus towards the bus stop. As far as mornings went, I suppose there were worse ways to spend them than in marginally interesting classes with someone like Eileen at your side. Still, I was a little tired of reliving the same week, month in and month out. A few years ago, I might not have said anything about it, I might have not even noticed the routine and just taken life as the daily struggle it was. But now that I had grown a little older and a lot less complacent, now that I had gotten kind of hungry for life and thirsty to show the world what I was made of, it was all I could do to not talk Eileen’s ear off.

“I just want something to happen, Eileen.”

“Oi, you get like this every weekend.”

“Because nothing interesting ever goes on! I feel like I’m at the mercy of fate to electrify my life.”

“You’re life isn’t as dull as you claim it is.”

“I know, but I want it to be more exciting. I want to stop treading water.”

“Would you rather drown?”

“No, I would rather get out of the shallow end and dive in.”

“Then stop talking about it and just dive in!”

“That’s the kicker! I’m stuck! If I’m not at work, I’m at school, and if I manage to score some free time, I really only spend it alone because I don’t have people I can hang out with on account of the fact that I’m always at work or school!”

“All the more reason to get your license no?”

“Right, because we all know how affordable cars are, what with maintenance, gas, and insurance.”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“Ugh, whatever.”

“And it would certainly help with the girlfriend situation.”

“I’m not ready for a girlfriend.”

“Says the guy who memorizes love poems.”

“Besides the point.”

“Then what’s your point? You do want a girlfriend don’t you?”

“Sure.”

“But you don’t put yourself out there, and even if you did, you wouldn’t exactly be impressing any dates taking the bus, let alone find the love of your life.”

“The kind of girl I’m waiting for, wouldn’t care if I drove a damn Tesla Roadster or just used my Chevro-legs. Besides, that’s not the way it works.”

“Then please enlighten me, o wise one.”

I sighed. This was going to be tricky to explain, because I hadn’t quite figured out how to word it just yet.

“I think you just have to get to a certain point in your life before you are even capable of finding “The One”. You have to be able to live alone, not just survive, but live. A certain sense of self acceptance and self love needs to develop, and then in a stroke of poetic irony, right when you have come to terms with the fact that you are happy in your solitude, and that no one else is needed, lightning will strike and you’ll find them. My point is, at the stage I’m at, it’s pretty much impossible for me to find her. I’m not there yet, not completely ok with being alone. I still need and want other people in my life. I have to say that it’s kind of an interesting test though. Almost like the universe just wants to see if we’re strong enough to deal with being alone. Because if we can be alone and not be bothered by it, we are whole. I mean I can’t wait for someone else to complete me. I have to be whole, by myself, so that me and my other can grow together and become something MORE. That’s how it works… I think.”

Not bad as far as first times go.”I thought

“Where do you come up with this stuff?”

“At bus stops. Go figure.”

“You know, normal people would be thinking about their day or what they want to have for lunch, or something.”

“Yea well, I’m not exactly what you would call normal.”

“Nope, you’re awesome!”

“I know.”

I laughed as I hopped onto the bus.

“So what exactly are we doing tonight?”

“The same thing we do every night Pinky.” I replied in monotone.

“Seriously!? You’re the one who was going on about life not being exciting, and all you want to do is stay at home and watch movies and anime?!”

“I meant I want new people to come into my life. Preferably people that like movies and anime as much as I do.”

“Well no girls are going to come into your life if you’re not out and about.”

“Didn’t we just go over this?”

“There has to be something we can do.” She whined

“ I don’t know enough people to do anything interesting.”

“Yes you do.”

“No.”

“We need to get out- find an adventure, and they’re the only ones that can help with that.”

“ That one misadventure was enough for me.”

“Obviously not since you haven’t stopped complaining about how dull your life is since then.”

“Do you know what happens when people go looking for adventure? Adventure finds them, and it’s never pretty or easy or fun. Getting stranded on a cold ass beach all night with nothing but a sweater and thin blanket to keep me warm sucked. If that’s what college parties are all about, I don’t want anything to do with them. ”

“Well it’s better than treading water.”

“Fuck. Fine. I’ll talk to them. I’m sure the bastards have plans already and wouldn’t mind me tagging along. I think I remember someone saying something about hitting a couple of parties and maybe a hookah bar.”

“Perfect!”

We sat in silence for small while.

“You know, you never really went into detail about your routine.”

“Yea, well, tough nuts.”

******

The strangest look possessed her eyes at the moment. I mistook it for coyness, and then for the sparkle of humor, but eventually realized she was just drunk.

“Do I look drunk?”

“Not really. Why?”

“Good, cuz I’m sober.”

“Okay.” I replied.

I filled my shot glass with the bottle of Skyy. The yellow with brown striped monstrosity of a couch was a little lumpy, and I was tired of listening to this girl babble on about stuff I didn’t care about. The solution: turn my brain off.

“So what are they doing in there anyway?”

By “they” she was referring to the other two strangers that tagged along “to help set up”. They happened to be in the other room at the moment; the door was locked. As far as I knew, they had just met that night.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I really want to know to be honest.”

“They’re probably sexing.”

She giggled.

I shrugged. I really didn’t care what they were doing, as long as they came out soon, there was still a lot to do.

“Oh my God, I had sex last week, and everyone heard.”

“That’s lame, did he, like, brag about it?” I said, feigning interest

“No, my roommates and neighbors heard.”

“Oh. OH! Wow, were you that loud?”

“Yea, it was so shamful! Everyone heard.”

I didn’t know how to approach this one. I figured I’d start by not commenting on her mispronunciation of shameful though. Was I supposed to console her and tell her it was ok to be loud? Laugh at her and take it in stride? Be a semi-douche and use the ‘that’s what you get’ line? I didn’t get it.

“I’m sure that’s happened to everyone.” I laughed “You shouldn’t be embarrassed, it’s natural, and for all you know it just inspired everyone to have better sex.”

“Yea, it probably just helped with their hard on.”

There was a hint of crazy in her not quite broken English. It reminded me of the four girls who were missing in action at the moment, not exactly in a good way.

“So how many girls have you fucked?”

“I’m a virgin, actually.”

The response was typical: a raising of the eyebrows, bulging of the eyes, and a slight drop of the jaw.

“Really?!”

I nodded. This night was a little old.

“You’re not joking?”

My throat barked a small laugh.

“No, I’m not joking.”

“But, why? It’s so rare for guy to be virgin here.”

I wondered then if the rest of the world saw America as a land of promiscuity, or if Hemi just hadn’t encountered a male virgin since she came here to study business.

“Well I’ve had opportunities to have sex, I just never did. It didn’t feel right. You know?”

A partial furrow appeared on her face and vanished just as quickly. I got the feeling she questioned my sexuality in that split second.

“So it was just fucked up?”

“Well, no. I’ve only been in one serious relationship. We cared about each other, and there were times when we wanted to, but we just didn’t. It just wasn’t right. Does that make sense?”

She smiled, briefly, and nodded.

Another shot of vodka, feverish fluid hitting the back of my throat. The Crazies and Amanda weren’t around yet, which meant I could risk getting drunk and not have to worry about doing something stupid. Not that I was really trying to get drunk, or even that I wanted to get  drunk, really I was just bored and the bottle was right in front of me, and I was really tired of babysitting this girl. Nick returned after exploring the rest of the apartment, coming back from his quest to find and use the bathroom. It struck me as kind of odd that a handful of college students could afford such a big place. I guess it made sense when you took into account that Amanda actually had quite a bit of money. But if she was so well off why wasn’t she attending a better school? I didn’t get it.

“Fuck, they’re still in there?” Nick asked. More of an observation than a question though.

“Yea.”

“They’re probably having sex!”

“She drunk?”

“Yea.”

“I’m sober! I’m so sober.”

“You try the Vodka?”

“Yea.”

“And?”

“Booze is booze dude, I don’t taste the difference between the stuff.”

“Blasphemy. Come on let’s go get some air.”

 

“Damn it, Nick. Fine, let’s go Hemi.”

Sick of waiting for my brain to realize I was drinking, I took yet another shot before I got up. I was starting to feel it by the time I took the thirty steps to exit the apartment. Nick and Hemi were waiting for me when I stepped outside into the breezy night. The wind swept banister gifted us with the scent of bon fires and the open garbage bin nearby, oddly accenting the view of copper and gold city lights.

“I wanna jump.”

“No no no, don’t jump.”

“Yea, that wouldn’t be a good idea.” I said

“I wouldn’t die.”

“At this height, if you didn’t die you’d hurt yourself really badly.” I explained.

We were on the fourth story of the building and, from what I was finding out, Hemi definitely had Crazy potential. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed by that or happy knowing that I just found Sheryl, Melanie, Lisa, and Amanda a new friend. I looked over at Hemi as she half jumped half leaned over the walkway banister. Nick and I managed to keep her from actually going over the damn thing but it was a little too close for comfort. I held her close as we both looked out over the parking lot.

“Don’t do that again, ok?”

“I always get into trouble when I’m drunk. I always do something crazy.” She said.

“Nothing’s going to happen to you tonight.”

“Yea, especially with this guy around.” Nick chimed in.

“I wanna jump. It’ll be fun.”

“No it won’t. Just stay here. Stay here with me.”

Her warmth felt good. I wondered why all the cute ones are crazy, taking special notice of how good her shampoo smelled. Raspberry.

“Hey guys, I can see into their room.”

“Are they fucking?”

“Why are you looking into their room?”

Hemi stumbled over to where Nick stood, and not so subtly began leaning on him. I walked over to them. Uninterested in what the people in the privacy of a locked room were doing, I stood with my back to the window.

“I’m gonna get in trouble.”

“No you’re not, I’m too nice a guy to let anything happen to you.”

“I know- you’re so nice. So so so nice. You’re just so nice.”

Whether or not her eyes were dilated isn‘t up for interpretation. But whether it was the alcohol, the dim lighting, or if she just liked what she saw when I filled her retinas, I’ll never know. Gosh, was she cute though. Too cute. I mean, I like Asian girls as much as the next guy, but this was a little ridiculous. Her black jeans hugging her legs, and accenting every curve, were a sight in and of themselves, never mind how much cleavage she happened to be showing. Her top was actually just a vest of some sort and she hadn’t bothered to wear anything but a bra under it. I stared. Openly. Yes, I was definitely not sober and definitely not too worried about her eyes for long. The funny thing was that she said it had taken her over an hour to get ready, and she wasn’t wearing very much…I didn’t get it.

“I think they’re done.”

“Huh?”

“I just saw her leave the room.”

“ Oh ok, do we wanna go back in then? Get the rest of the stuff set up?”

“You go ahead. I wanna finish my drink out here.”

Hemi draped herself over him. I took a couple of steps towards the door, glanced back to make sure I was picking up the right context clues and slid back in to the apartment. I waited a little bit before cracking the door open again, taking my time so they had a chance to separate if they were making out. The walkway was completely empty. “FUCK!”

I busied myself setting up the beer pong table, the cups, the rest of the bottles, and the lights. I noticed the bottle of Absinthe before I dug through the plastic grocery bags of snacks and just laid everything out on the counter, thinking people could figure it out on their own. I had filled enough of my obligation to not feel bad, so I plopped back down on the lumpy couch.  Eileen took a seat next to me, her back leaning against the armrest of the yellow with brown stripe monstrosity.

“You ok?”

“No.”

“What’s up?”

“Why are we here, Eileen?”

“That is the big question isn’t it?”

“You know what I meant.”

“No need to get snippy. I don’t know, this is your party.”

“No it’s not. I hate parties. I hate people. I hate this! Why do I listen to you?”

“I didn’t put a gun to your head.”

“This blows. Nick is fucking Hemi in his car righ now. Those two idiots-”

“Sean and Blanca”

“Whatever. They’re… are fucking right now, and I’m here drinking alone.”

“Just they’re, and I’m not drinking with you.”

“Thas not the point!”

She sighed and crossed her arms.

“Wha?”

“Nothing”

“Fine, whatever.”

I leaned back and rubbed at my eyes. They were getting itchy.

“Whad you think of the game Sheryl was playing at?”

“I don’t pay attention to sluts.”

“Ok, well whad about Amanda?”

“What about her? She’s just a piece of ass to you right now.”

“Thas fucked up, Eileen. Why are you all judgy tonight?”

“I’m not. I’m just saying it would be a bad idea to do anything with her tonight.”

“Well whoer you to say shit about bad judgmen”

She turned away from me and crossed her legs, shaking her head slightly.

“That was a long time ago. I cant believe you haven’t forgiven me for that.”

“But it happind! And loook. Look where it got you. Look where it got us. Denying it wont change the past.”

She sighed

“They’re here.”

“Huh?”

I listened, or at least tried to, my pulse filled my ears. I barely made out the sound of car doors slamming, chattering, and the clink clink of bottles.

“How’d you hear them?”

“You’d have heard them too if you weren’t so shit faced.”

The door whooshed open and a blob of noise and light swept into the place like a SWAT team. The blob screamed my name, and the after after party began.

******

We walked, kicking pebbles and twigs along the way back to my place. My pocket began tickling me as the phone inside it started up with the bizz buzz that let me know I was getting a call.

“Your leg is vibrating.” Eileen said

“I hadn’t noticed.”

I fumbled through my pocket and pulled my phone out. The screen said it was my cousin calling.

“I should probably take this. Hello?”

“Hey buttmunch.”

I rolled my eyes at the nickname she’d grown so fond of over the years.

“What’s up cuz?”

“Nothing, just called to see if you had any plans this weekend.”

“Other than work tomorrow and Sunday evening?”

“I guess, yea.”

“Nope.”

“Cool than guess what you get to do?”

“Oh, God, what?”

“You get to help me move. YAY!”

“Bleh, really?”

“Yup, because you’re my cousin and you love me and if you don’t I’ll remember it the next time you need a ride somewhere or help with your girlfriends or whatever.”

“Well why not just throw all that in my face, why don’t you?”

“Tell you what, I’ll treat you to breakfast tomorrow because I love you so much.”

“Fine fine fine. What time did you want me over or what not?”

“I don’t know, it depends on when I wake up.”

“Well that’s useful.”

“I’ll call you and let you know when I wake up “

“Ok.”

According to my watch we still had about fifteen minutes before Eileen and I arrived back at my place, which meant we still had fifteen more minutes of my cousin talking to me. Unless she stirred up some shit and cut the conversation short…which we were due for as she hadn’t done it in a whole week.

“So why aren’t you doing anything this weekend?” she asked

“Damn it!” Knowing it was coming did little to prepare you for it. You see, the women in my life all had the tendency of asking slightly personal, slightly annoying, questions. It was a way of delving into an analysis of my life and what I happened to be doing wrong.

“Nothing to do.” I responded

“What do you mean there’s nothing to do? There’s plenty to do in the Bay Area. “

“Not for me.” I said in a pseudo jovial tone

She let out an exasperated sound. I was always too much of a homebody for her tastes and at some point she had made it a mission of hers to get me out of the house often and for different reasons.

“Come on cuz, this whole, ‘poor me’ attitude has gone on long enough.”

“What poor me attitude? I don’t have anything to do. Nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one to see, hence no plans.”

“Look, I get it, we all like our alone time, that’s just how the family is. But being alone so much isn’t good for you. Especially if you’re not even optimistic enough to open your freaking blinds.“

“I open my blinds, I just like them closed, my room gets too hot otherwise.”

“Well whatever, the point is you might want to consider going out more.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“And go where, to do what?”

“I don’t know, it’s Friday night, I’m sure you’ll find and think of something.”

“How am I getting there again?”

“All the more reason to get your license no?”

“Well thanks for that cuz.”

“Hey, I only tell you what you need to hear.’

“If you say so.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yea yea.”

“Bye.”

‘Bye.”

I hung up and fought the urge to chuck my phone at a nearby brick wall.

“What’s wrong?” Eileen asked

“Ugh! I’m just tired of her. Lately, the only times we talk she either needs something, wants to tell me how I should be living my life, or both!”

“Well she only does that because she wants you be happy.”

“I know, but it never fucking helps, it usually just ticks me off because there’s no real guidance or instruction or even a good reason. It’s just ‘you need to do this, somehow, and because I say it’s good for you.’”

“Would you rather her not care?”

“I’d rather her give me my fucking space. I’m living on my own, and paying my own way, the least I could get is a say as to how I get to where I want to be in life.”

She fixed me with a concerned pair of eyes, and was silent for a long while.

“You’ve never been one to do things any way but your own. Keep doing it this way, taking what advice you will, and  it’ll work out. I promise.”

Typical Eileen, knowing just how to mellow you out. I wanted to hug her, but to Eileen that would have been ridiculous. We finally made it back to my place, ate a small lunch of cold pizza and settled down in my room.

“When does Nick get home again?”

“Right about now.”

“Oh yea, I knew that.”

She smiled. I hated that smile, the one she got when she pretty much had you by the balls. Not that it wasn’t an attractive smile, just that I knew what it meant- uh, that she had me by the balls. We had walked in silence for the rest of the trip, an effort on her part to not be smug about her victory. Eileen knew I wasn’t looking forward to asking Nick if I could go out with him and the Crazies, and I was definitely not looking forward to following through and actually going out. I hated people. Not true, I hated crowds, and large groups of idiots doing idiotic things. Parties were a marriage of those two hatreds. They were the loathe child of two experiences that tried my patience and made me question my faith in humanity. But for Eileen, I’d have done just about anything…

I blasted my music. Nick was a nosy son of a bitch, and if he heard me playing my music loud he’d always knock and try to find out what I was doing. That being said, he was also pretty friendly, so I knew that when he knocked and stuck his nose into my life, he’d probably extend an invitation to whatever he had planned. As far as not losing any pride, and appeasing the voices in my head known as Eileen and my cousin, this was the best way to go about it, and sure enough there came a ratatat-tat at my door.

“Come in!”

Nick pushed his face through the slight opening in the door he made. The guy looked so much like a human vulture it was almost comical. Long slightly curved beak of a nose, and completely shaved, spherical head, I wasn’t sure if he was ever trying to look weird or if that was just his regular face.

“Hey, you got any q-tips?”

That’s another thing, he’d always ask for something just to make it seem like he wasn’t being intrusive. He had just bought q-tips, I had seen the box in his trash the day earlier when I walked by his room.

“Uh, sure. Here.”

I stood up and handed him the insignificant piece of cardboard and cotton.

“Thanks. Hey you doing anything tonight?”

“Just the usual.”

“You wanna go out? There are a couple of parties.”

“Where?”

“Around.”

“Who’s going?”

“Everyone.”

“What time?”

“Usual time.”

“Alright.”

“Ok, I’ll let everyone know you’re coming.”

“Wait, what- why?”

“To warn them the buzz kill will be around.”

“Oh, well thanks for that.”

He laughed and went back into his room across the hall. I turned to Eileen who was sitting on my mattress with a silly looking smile on her face. This smile was a favorite of mine, a slightly coy slightly giddy number that always managed to squeeze a smile back from me.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She sung.

I plopped back into my computer chair.

“Don’t you have to go get ready?”

“That’s a good idea.” She said. “But I don’t think I was necessarily invited.”

“It was an implied invitation.”

Nick never said anything to Eileen. They were from two different worlds.

“Ok, I’ll see you later then.”

“Yup.”

With that, she bounced up and walked out the door, not bothering to close it behind her. She did that on purpose, just to make me really take notice of her absence. Silly girl had no idea.

******

We crammed into the backseat of the rented Camry, accustomed to this sort of thing. The last time I had gone out with everyone we had been stuffed into a PT Cruiser. It hadn’t been the ideal way to meet new people, but it made for an easy way to break the ice I suppose. It reminded me of all the times my family had gone out to breakfast and how we always found a way to squeeze into a single car and how I developed my Theory of Mass Unification Under Pressure aka The Law of Squished. I stumbled upon this morsel of truth after one too many car rides stuffed in between cousins. Basically, if the people in the back seat of a vehicle are squished uncomfortably close, seatbelts become unnecessary because the squished bodies act as a solitary mass and are therefore too heavy to be affected by sudden changes in momentum. Try it sometime, I promise you that if you have enough people in the backseat, you won’t move an inch when your driver breaks suddenly instead of trying to catch the yellow. Anyway, the car was cramped and hot and I was sandwiched between the Crazies and Eileen.

The ride was relatively long and completely uneventful. By which I mean that the only thing worth mentioning, is that the Crazies talk talk talked ad nauseum about cute guys they met last week, the amount of alcohol they planned on consuming that night, and where each of the other  parties was happening. In the end we decided that seeing as how they all wanted to smoke hookah before officially starting the night, and I’d never been to a hookah lounge, that’s exactly what we’d do. They favored a place called Victor’s.

Upon getting there, I patted myself on the back for deciding to wear my jacket and struggled not to point and laugh at all the stupid girls wearing so little clothing, The Crazies, included. The lounge was essentially the outdoor area of another fucking restaurant. What boggled my mind even more was that The Crazies had been there before and yet still forgot that it was an outdoor location and that it cold as fuck outside. I didn’t get it. Looking easy wasn’t worth getting pneumonia over. To make matters worse, we were seated next to a defective gas fire, and I never heard the end of how cold it was while we stayed at the stupid place.

From what I gathered, the Crazies loved the hole in the wall simply because they were extremely lax on checking ID, and had spent many a drunken night here, taking Blowjobs. I kid you not, that’s what the shot is called. I forget what goes in it, but on top of the liquor they float a bit of whipped cream and presto you get a ridiculous sounding drink that makes only the most immature of college students giggle on a regular basis. Three guesses as to the kind of college students I happened to be with that night. I looked at Eileen and she seemed to be having a shit time of it as well. Although by rights she was smart enough to have dressed warmly AND fashionably. She made a face at me and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Sheryl asked

I looked over at Sheryl and shook my head.

“Nothing, just remembering something.”

“What were you remembering?”

“Have you read Moby Dick?”

“No.”

“Then you wouldn’t get it” I lied

“Oh.”

I laughed again and decided to at least be a little sociable. Sheryl was essentially the ring leader of the Crazies, she also had a lot of sway with Nick because they hooked up from time to time. She was a little on the promiscuous side and to be honest she made me kind of nervous. Not because she was attractive or anything, but because she was fucking crazy and I could never tell what the hell she was going to do next. Unpredictability in small doses can be a bit of a turn on, I’ll admit- but when a complete lack of consistency was the only consistent thing about you, it was the farthest thing from a turn on. Still, I slipped my neutral mask on and we talked, Sheryl and I. It only took a matter of minutes for me to deduce that the only reason she partied so damn hard was because she was afraid of actually growing up. There was obviously a lot more to her than she let anyone see, but the party girl mask she wore, I could tell, might as well have been made out of adamantium. She wasn’t about to let anyone have any sort of power over her with anything of substance, so she only let show what was hollow, what was as tangible as smoke. I didn’t like it, the false smiles she threw around, the bullshit passion she came up with. But who was I to say anything to her? As far as I was concerned she could keep playing pretend all her life if she wanted, maybe she’d actually know better one day, maybe not.

She decided to switch topics to me now and started simple, by asking me about my last weekend. Oddly enough I had an actual story in response to that question: My work had a poolside barebeque. I wasn’t sure if it had been the best of ideas at the time. All I knew was that I hadn’t wanted to get into the pool and that because payback is a bitch, someone would probably push me in. But being my perpetually paranoid self, I had brought an extra change of clothes and made a point to leave the contents of my pockets in my bag. I had no idea how lucky I ended up being. As it turned out, there were a couple of disabled kids at the party, and it just so happened that said disabled kids were enjoying themselves in the pool. Now when I say disabled, I don’t mean mentally. Up there, these kids were just as bright and just as sneaky as any other teenager, but their bodies weren’t really in the best of shape. Muscular dystrophy was the most common disease among the kids, a kid by the name of Joseph had it and happened to be hanging out in the pool. Joseph could still kind of walk, and was a bit on the heavy side so he floated pretty easily in the water, but it was obvious he couldn’t swim very well. I decided I’d keep an eye on him, after all he was only 10, and his attitude kind of reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. While he was floating around his squirt gun got away from him and he started reaching out for it, slowly making his way over to the deeper end of the pool. I watched. I watched the gun continue to escape him and I watched him start to lose strength, run out of breath and then have trouble getting his head above the water. I watched for a bit, thinking he’d be fine but knowing he wouldn’t be unless someone did something. The water was frigid as I jumped in, the thick fabric of my jeans clinging to my legs, weighing me down much more than anticipated. I opened my eyes to the chlorinated liquid and quickly got my bearings. He was close, and if I pushed off the bottom at a slight angle I could get under him and hopefully push his face above the water. And that’s what I did. Pushed off. Got under him. Grabbed his shoulders and pushed him up. All the while pedaling and bringing him back to the shallow end. Pedaling and pedaling underwater until my lungs were burning for oxygen and I was able to actually carry the guy back to the steps of the pool. I don’t remember what I was thinking as I got out of my chair, dropped my burger, and jumped in to save him. But I do remember what was running through my head when I was in the water. “No. No, no, no. I am not going to let this happen.

There wasn’t much more I could say. Sheryl stared at me in kind of awe. I hadn’t mentioned the bit about having had all my stuff in my bag, so I sounded slightly more heroic than I really had been.

“Wow, you’re like a super hero.”

I laughed, genuinely, and looked at her before shaking my head.

“I was just in the right place at the right time.”

I got the feeling that my slightly feigned humility was making quite the impression.

“So, how many girls do you have in your life?”

“About a handful of friends and family.”

“No, I mean girls you like.”

“None.”

“Aww how come?”

“I don’t know, I just don’t like anyone right now.

“But you’re such a sweet guy.”

I laughed again. Laughing was so much of a defense mechanism, it was slightly ridiculous. Truth be told I hated being called a sweet guy. Those words had been poison to me since- I just didn’t like being called sweet.

“Yea, I get that a lot.”

“It’s true!”

“Well then maybe I’m just looking for a sweet girl?”

Her eyes widened slightly. A micro expression, I was sure of it. Surprise? Or excitement?

“You have to meet my Amanda.”

“Who’s Amanda?”

“She’s super cute.”

“Ok, but that still doesn’t answer the question.”

“She’s a friend. She goes to our school.”

“Oh ok. Cool. Why do I need to meet her again?”

“You’ll see.”

There was a brief pause in the conversation. I absolutely did not want to press the matter and learn more about this mystery girl. Sheryl apparently thought this girl would make a good partner for me, but Sheryl was crazy, so I opted to go into an awkward silence. Seeming rude or like a poor conversationalist was worth sparing myself any and all frustration that would inevitably come from giving Sheryl the unintentional green light to set me up with someone.

“Are you going to Johnny’s party?” Sheryl finally asked

“Uh I don’t know Johnny that well, but when is it?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh, yea, I don’t think so. I have to get home soon.”

“Nick!” she yelled”

“Yo!” he replied from half way across the lounge. I think he’d been hitting on the waitress, a cute looking Asian girl.

“Let’s go to Johnny’s!”

“Alright!”

What the fuck just happened?” I thought.

“Looks like you’re going after all” she said, a somewhat sadistic smile slowly stretching across her face. I had wanted to avoid hanging around her much more, but she apparently had plans for me that night. “Fuck.”

We huffed and puffed and chitter chattered for a bit longer before groaning and grunting our way back into the rental. Johnny’s house wasn’t too far from the lounge, but I still wasn’t all that excited about going. First of all, Johnny was a bit of a douche bag. Rather, he was a giant one. Another full time party kid, but instead of doing it to distract himself from the scary- scary thing called being a goddamn adult, Johnny just did it to “fuck drunk chicks”. He’d always been friendly to me, and based off of our conversations he was at least somewhat intelligent, but I couldn’t stand the guy. It might have been different if I hadn’t have first been introduced to him as he was walking into a bedroom with someone, holding up a condom, and announcing to the entire world that he was about to score.  Then again, probably not.

******

I would like to say we met by chance. At least my skeptical side would like to say that. Heck, I would even like to go a step further, do the math, and explain the statistical improbability of our paths ever crossing; but my math skills are less than stellar, so my inner skeptic is skeptical about it being an improbability. Still, I’m not nearly egotistical enough or romantic enough to say that we were destined to meet, the two of us being linked by some invisible bond between our souls, a pair of twin flames or star crossed lovers or whatever. Anyway, however you want to slice it, chance occurrence or divine providence, we met.

We met on a Saturday night. It had been an emotional Saturday; we were volunteering for a retreat that was required for our Confirmation process. I’m a recovering Catholic now, but back then I was pretty gung ho about Jesus. On the second night of the thing, she overheard my aspirations to attend the Claremont Colleges, chimed in she was hoping to do the same, and I believe I noticed her for the first time in that instant. As it turns out, we had actually had a class or two together but we had somehow managed to be completely invisible to each other up until that moment. There was a brief chat, several smiles and just like that I met one of the most important people in my life.

I would go on to find her on Myspace, convince her to make an AIM account, exchange my phone number with her, and in a matter of weeks we were texting all day, every day, and calling each other as soon as school was over. I cannot tell you how much I loved it when she called me a sweet guy or how many times I fell asleep with the phone in my hands, mid text, or with the phone next to my ear, mid conversation. She was my new best friend. The downside was that we lived across town from each other and neither of us drove, so the amount of time we spent together was nonexistent.

Around mid December of that year that she decided we needed to go see a movie together. We managed to work something out last minute, and decided on the train wreck of a film called “August Rush”. From then on I would insist that she asked me out, and would never let her hear the end of it.

I dressed like I actually cared and got dropped off at the movie theater by my Dad, who laughed at me for apparently seeming excited. She was different from every other girl I’d encountered. She kept up with me intellectually, she laughed at my often dark humor, she was cute and funny and amazingly coy for a sheltered Catholic girl. But, most importantly, she noticed me. You have to understand, up until then, I had been invisible. But when I was around her, or talking to her, or even just thinking of her, I mattered. I was somebody, and even if I had to walk through Hell itself to see her, I would have done it gladly. That was kind of a weird sentiment, but suffice to say I liked the way she made me feel.

So we got to the theater, my Dad laughed at me one last time, and I walked over to the front of the building. I was late, but she didn’t mind one bit. I don’t remember what she wore that night; probably because I spent the evening freaking out about the right words to say, the right thing to do, and because I was undressing her with my eyes anyway. I barely remember what I wore that night either, only that I had my favorite jacket with me and that’s just because I remember wanting to use it as an excuse to cuddle up with her if the opportunity came up. She looked amazing though, and I felt slightly out of my league.

We bought our tickets and realized we still had time to kill so we decided on getting some ice cream. It was cold as fuck outside, but we were of the opinion that ice cream is good whenever.

“So my friend Ty works here.” she said in her sing songy voice

“Oh?’

“Yea, he’s actually on shift tonight.”

“Interesting.”

I opened the door for her and we were greeted by a frizzy, dirty blonde, seventeen year old with large round glasses and a rather douchey sounding voice. In retrospect, the ensuing exchange should have been a red flag. Or at least a pink one, heck I don’t know. It went something like:

“Douchey flirty teasing”

“Coy response”

“Hi” I introduced myself ” Nice to meet you.”

“Hey”

“Flirty question about the weekend.”

“Douchey response about a mutual friend’s party.”

“Can I sample the pumpkin flavor?”

“Coy request to sample the rum raisin.”

“Douchey bragging about how his nights are busier than his job.”

“Flirty flirt flirt.” subtly licks spoon.

“Douchey come on and invitation to a party”

“Flirty refusal.”

“Thanks for the ice cream!”

Again, it should have been a red flag, but I didn’t see the guy as a threat. I was taller, stronger, no doubt smarter, and she was on a date with me, not him. At the time, I thought it was because I had enough self confidence to not let something as petty as jealousy ruin my chances. But now that I’m a little older and a lot less of a loser, I realize that it was a lack of self respect that let the exchange slide. Anyway, we made small talk as we meandered back to the theater.

“How’s the pumpkin ice cream?”

“It’s good. It tastes like Christmas. Do you like the rum raisin?”

“Yea, it actually tastes like rum. I don’t think there’s any alcohol in it though.”

“How would you know what rum tastes like?”

“Oh, you know.” she winked

“I didn’t know you drank. Do you go out and get drunk at parties?”

“If I feel like it.”

“Huh. Ok.”

“You drink, don’t you?”

“Not at all. Unless you count tasting my Dad’s beer when I was a kid.”

“I guess it’s not for everyone.”

We watched the movie. I chickened out when it came to holding her hand. I met her dad afterwards and greeted him with a firm hand shake and a smile before he gave me a ride home. She hugged me tight before she got back in the car and left. There was a second date, and a third. I held her hand finally. There were lots of movies and late night conversations. There were flowers ‘just because’. There were early morning love poems sent via text message. There was a first kiss and there was a last kiss, and in between there were countless arguments over nothing, hopes for our future, five break ups, four make ups, times when she cut me off at the knees, times we rounded second base, words that cut deeper than knives, cuddle fests underneath blankets, lies, moments I wished would never end, and several affairs she’ll never openly admit to having. She moved two hours away, started ‘living’ as she put it, we had a hard time connecting anymore. Then came the night that changed everything. The night she called me up at three in the morning, drunk and stupid and going on and on about having lost her virginity to some asshole who left soon after fucking her and asked me, desperately, to make her feel better. That night, was the night it all ended between us. That night, the girl I had known and loved, ceased to exist, and so did the part of me I had given to her. That night, I died.

******

Nick wanted to stop at the pharmacy before we went over to Amanda’s and set up the After After Party. Said it would be a good idea to pick up some cheap liquor, chips, and whatever other crap he felt he needed. We pulled up to the CVS, parked, and he and I made our way in. The two volunteers, Sean and Blanca, said they’d hang out in the car while we went in. I got the feeling they really wanted the privacy as I slipped out the car and stepped through the sliding doors. There was a surprising amount of people inside considering how late it was, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of people on shift, so the line would be getting really long, really soon. With this in mind, I zipped past an overweight man in sweats who was stalking up on Muscle Milk and sped down the nearest aisle. Zipped here. Zipped there. My eyes scanned up and down the store but weren’t locating what I needed. I fought the urge to do the sensible thing and just ask someone who worked there for help; opting to walk to the central lane and briefly skim the signs. None of them provided a good clue as to where I could find my needle in this haystack, though. “Where the hell do they keep these things?” I muttered to myself. Finally, I stormed down the right aisle and found what I was looking for. Condoms.

When I think about it, there was absolutely no good reason for me to be going through with this. It wasn’t like I thought that night was a sure thing, it wasn’t  like I’d gotten any “real signals” or “obvious signs” from Amanda, and it definitely wasn’t like I was the kind of guy to do that sort of thing. But, for some reason, I felt like it might be a good idea to be packing.  I figured if nothing came of it, at least I’d be ready some other time, or maybe I could do people a solid and give them out. There was a couple in the aisle, so I just kept walking, hoping they thought I was just passing through. I pretended to be looking at the nearby allergy medication underneath the pharmacy window until she decided on what brand of tampons to buy and the two of them left. “Way to be mature about it, dude.”

I slowly crept back into the aisle and got slammed by a horrifying revelation. At least one third of the aisle was dedicated to the little latex bastards and I was completely overwhelmed and embarrassed to even be standing near the wall of rubber. Here was the problem, I had never in my life bought a box of condoms before.  I mean, up until this point I didn’t even know there were different kinds of condoms within each individual brand, and I didn’t know there was apparently a brand for every individual penis in the known universe. I recognized maybe two of the names stocked up on the shelf, and decided to just stick with what was familiar.

There were still a ton of options though and I couldn’t decide what would be best for me. “Why don’t they sell these things individually?” I was in the middle of awkwardly grabbing a box of Trojans when an attractive brunette in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, walked down the aisle. Brown met Hazel when our eyes spontaneously connected. I quickly looked back down at the box and pretended my eyes were fixed to the text written on the back.  “Play it cool. For the love of Vishnu, play it cool.” She casually strolled up next to me and began examining the pregnancy tests. She leaned over to grab an EPT. “Yoga pants”. I shoved the box back where I got it and briefly wondered if I should grab the box of Magnums to try and impress, but decided that was a horrible idea. I grabbed another box of Trojans and started reading the back. I looked over at the cute brunette, just as she looked over at me. Hazel met Brown again as we caught each others eyes for the second time.

So there I was, standing in front of a wall of condoms, smiling awkwardly at an attractive older woman, holding a box of spermicidal Trojans, desperately trying not to say anything stupid like : “hi”.

“Hi.” I half squeaked

“Hi.” she smiled.

We looked at what the other was buying and I got the feeling that there was some sort of poetic or cosmic meaning behind this, but ignored it on account of the awkward tightness spreading through my chest and decided to just purchase the box I was holding. Smoothly stepping around the straight haired, pink tank top wearing, yoga class taking, vanilla scented brunette, I headed for the cashier.

Somehow, I had managed to still beat the oncoming rush of customers, but Nick was no where in sight. Wanting to avoid him giving me any shit, I figured it would be a good idea to just go ahead and buy the damn things, but I wasn’t sure if I should buy them alone or get a soda or something to make it less obvious or even less uncomfortable. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as the kind of guy who buys energy drinks with his condoms though, either. “I’m a grown ass man, damnit. If I want to buy a box of condoms I should be able to buy a box of condoms and not be given any shit by anyone.” Having just charged myself up, I marched right on up to the cash register and firmly put the box on the counter. Face down. It was at this point that I realized the cashier was a portly elderly woman with white Santa Claus hair and large, gold, horn rimmed glasses.

It should be noted that Catholic guilt is a bitch. One look at this old lady, who happened to be wearing a cross around her neck, and I was wondering what my family would say if they saw me buying a box of condoms before heading out to a party, late on a Friday night. They probably wouldn’t have cared, to be honest, but I kept feeling like they probably wouldn’t have been too happy with me either. The old lady, who was reminding me more and more of my grandma, grabbed the box and I assumed a neutral expression. Grandma Claus took one look at the box, one look at me, and then proceeded to scan the source of my current shame. She scanned them once, twice, thrice, and nothing happened. The laser was refusing to read the bar code, and a line was already forming. The universe was conspiring against me, throwing up every imaginable road block to prevent my purchasing this one miserable box of rubbers, and all I could do was stand there and maintain as neutral an expression as possible.

Maybe I can make this seem a little more natural if I just casually buy some chap stick or something”. I looked down at the little plastic jar of the available brand on sale, and noticed that it was Vitamin Water flavored chap stick.  But not just any Vitamin Water flavor, XXX flavored (which is actually just pomegranate, blueberry and acai flavored, but still seemed hilariously inappropriate at the moment). “Oi, she’ll definitely think I’m perverted if I buy that.”

“I need a price check on a box of Trojan-ENZ condoms.”  rang the store wide intercom.

Now, I am positive there were women standing behind me in line, and I am positive each of them was thinking of me as a sleaze. I wanted to turn around and say “No, you don’t understand, it’s been kind of a weird day for me, this doesn’t normally happen. I’m really a nice a guy. It normally takes me four dates to even kiss a girl, I swear. I’m only buying these because it never hurts to carry them. Honest. It’s just like this lighter I only carry around because strange smokers ask me for a light all the time. You never know, right?”

I smiled, and laughed to myself a bit, doing my best to ignore the several pairs of judgmental eyes I could swear were drilling into my spinal chord and shoulder blades. I placed a ten on the counter, grabbed the box and walked off.

“Please, keep the change.” I said, power walking towards the automatic doors. Eileen was waiting for me, as I stepped out.

“Why didn’t I just have you get them for me again?”

She laughed. “You know I can’t handle that sort of thing.”

We waited by the door for Nick before heading back to his car. He finally showed up being partially followed by an Asian girl who I eventually recognized as the waitress he had been hitting on earlier that night. There were some scattered introductions for a bit until he finally loaded two heavy looking bags into the car. We got back into the car, ignoring how warm it was inside, and looked up Amanda’s address in the GPS. I had just forgotten about my humiliating experience when Nick opened his mouth.

“Condoms huh?”

“Just drive, douchebag.”

******

Soft reverberations of string instrumentals cascaded off the walls of the spacious, mildly lit coffee house. Even the powder blue glow of monitors and tablet screens was gently overshadowed by the warm decor and modern spacing. The clientele was so friendly and the owner so gracious that the Bitter+Sweet Cafe barely felt like a coffee house at all, but rather the home of a friend. This gem of a cafe was a bit of a hole in the wall that felt like anything but. For a long time this place had been like a second home for me, a safe haven from the chaos of an upset and divided household. For this reason, and this reason alone, I brought Amanda here. I didn’t exactly know why, but I trusted her with this, my pearl, and felt comfortable with her visiting my sanctuary.

“So what should I get” she asked as she peered over the menu.

“The red velvet latte is highly recommended.”

“I don’t like red velvet”

“Eh, don’t worry, it doesn’t actually taste like red velvet”

“So what’s it taste like?”

“It tastes like Christmas. Or like a hug on a cold winter night.”

She laughed.

“Shut up!” she mused “Gosh, didn’t realize you were such a poet.”

“Oh I’m not, I just play one in the dreams of your soul.”

“You’re ridiculous!”

“Little bit. Yea.”

Janice, the owner, greeted me by name and I asked for my usual.

“And who is this lovely lady?”

“This is Amanda, a friend of mine. Amanda, meet Janice, she owns the place.”

“Hi!” Amanda said, extending her hand.

“Nice to meet you” Janice smiled

“So, can I get your advice here? I don’t like things that taste too bitter.”

Janice shot her a bewildered look.

“You realize you’re in a coffee shop right?”

My turn to laugh.

“Well yea, but is there anything that’s not super strong?”

“I’d say get a mocha or the red velvet latte.” Janice suggested.

“Red velvet it is.”

I smiled to myself as I began reaching for my card but Amanda beat me to the punch by laying a twenty on the counter. Her eyes fired in my direction, half challenging me to say something, but I didn’t care enough to take her bait. She wanted to pay, either as a test or because she actually liked me, either way, my ego would not be negatively affected.

“Thanks for the latte” I said.

“You’re welcome.” she chimed, a satisfied smirk spreading across her lips.

We took our seats and I finally noticed my heartbeat was giving a hummingbird a run for its money. Would I bore her? What could I possibly have to bring to the table? What if she didn’t like nerds? What if she didn’t like Nerds Candy? What if I couldn’t muster up an interesting conversation piece? Or worse, what if I managed to get a steady conversation going and suddenly saw something in her that I didn’t want to see, hitting the proverbial “Oh Moment”? What if? What if? What if? The Japanese water torture of the human heart.

“So why don’t you drink?” she asked

“What do you mean? I was drinking a beer when you met me all of three hours ago.”

“Yea, but that’s all you’ve had tonight.”

“What’s your point? I drink, just not to get drunk.”

“That’s what I mean. So why don’t you drink?”

“Well, let’s just say I’ve been on the business end of many a drunken friend.”

“Are you trying to be mysterious or just annoying?”

“Little bit of both?”

“Explain.”

It was not a request.

“I just don’t like what alcohol does to people.” I said after a bit of a pause.

“So you’ve never been drunk?”

“Just once.”

“And??”

“And it was boring.”

“The night is still young.” she hinted rather seductively

I laughed.  Uh, again.

“That sounds like a pick up line. Are you trying to get me drunk so you can ravage my body?”

She smiled.

“Maybe. . . No I’m just surprised because you hang out with Nick.”

“Live with, actually.”

“Oh great, so that means I know where you sleep.”

“I can’t tell if that’s supposed to scare me or turn me on.”

“Little bit of both.” she shot back, echoing my choice of words.

At that point, Janice brought over our lattes, and we spent a good three minutes admiring the latte art. It was with a great reluctance that I took a sip and smudged the creamy red leaf floating at the surface of my white porcelain cup.

“What about drugs?”

“Nope.”

“Not even pot?”

“Nuh uh.”

“Well do you smoke?”

“I am a member of the Brotherhood of the Briar.” I nodded

“Huh?”

“I smoke a pipe. Think Sherlock Holmes.”

“Oh! “

“Yea.”

“Okay, so do you have one of those big curvy pipes?”

“Pfft! No. Those are called calabash gourds and they’re $300 on the low end.”

“Really?”

“Yea, and I’m not in a place in my life where I can spend that much on a pipe I’m only gonna use every other week, if that.”

“So…So what’s your deal then?” she said, sipping from her latte

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone has some sort of problem or vice. What’s yours?”

I didn’t know why, but I wanted to be honest with her. All things taken into account, she really carried an ineffable warmth to her, and I felt okay telling her the truth.

“I engage in the shadow side a lot.”

“You mean, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

“Hardly. I just get caught up in my own head when I’m dealing with this minor league depression thing I have going on.”

“Huh. I can see that.”

“Yup. But other than that, I’m a pretty swell guy.”

“Are you at all, like, stereotypically masculine?”

“Ouch. Does being  considerate and compassionate automatically make me feminine?” I laughed

“Well no. But do you like do guy things? Like, watch sports or drool over cars, or jerk off to porn?”

I shrugged.

“Not really. But enough about my issues. What’s your deal?”

“Sex.”

I stared at her for a bit.

“I don’t buy that.”

“Why? Because I’m a woman?”

“No, because you looked to the left when you said it, and all night you’ve been looking to the right when you tell me something true about yourself. You’re still testing me to see if I am what you think I am.”

“And what is that, exactly?”

“A brilliant but lazy, paragon of virtue with an outspoken inner altruist and a creative streak.”

We made eye contact, and all I could do was smile. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind I was coming off as a cocky douche bag, but I was having fun being so candid.

“Paragon?”

“Yea, it’s the perfect example of something.”

“I know what it means. But why are you a paragon?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“The girls you’ve fucked? Or the ones you’ve fucked over?”

“O ye of little faith. How canst thou impugn upon my honor so?”

She half glared at me and I sighed.

“For your information, I am actually a virgin.”

“Bullshit!”

Everyone briefly stopped minding their own business for a few moments to look in our direction and I quickly spouted off a few apologies as things began to ebb back into normalcy.

“What do I have to gain by telling an attractive young woman I’m completely inexperienced in the bedroom?”

She mulled it over for a few seconds

“Good point.”

She eyed me for a long while over the rim of her latte. It was the same way someone would eye an unsolved jigsaw puzzle. Normally, I would have looked away, avoided eye contact, withdrawn. But again, I met her gaze and let out another laugh. Skin met skin as I reached over without worry or apprehension and grabbed her hand. She didn’t pull away. She didn’t blink. She made no sign that she even felt my hand on hers.

“Do you trust me?” I asked

“Barely.”

“Good because this is all probably b.s. anyway.”

I flipped over her hand and stared at her palm for three seconds before she pulled her hand away.

“I don’t believe in that stuff.”

“Not sure I do either. But it’s at least fun to talk about.”

She looked at her watch.

“We should get back.”

We downed our lattes and hopped into the Cadillac. The ride back to Jimmy’s was short and peppered with small talk. Very small talk. Trying to explain funny scenes from The Simpsons small talk.

I wasn’t sure what was happening. The entire night I had been able to put my best foot forward. I was smart, funny, interesting, challenging, cultured, an all around dream to any girl, let alone one who had been recently disillusioned with men. At least I thought… “I must have crossed a line somewhere.”  But I couldn’t find a reason to be frozen out the way I was. It didn’t sit well with me- rankled with my self esteem. “Maybe being smart was being a condescending know-it-all, maybe being funny was being flippant or irreverent, not interesting just weird, not challenging just difficult, not cultured but bourgeois…”

We got back to Johnny’s, discovering that the police had broken up the party while we were away. Two seconds later, Amanda and the Crazies were taking off to the city for a round of club hopping. I was sure that was the end of it, confident that I would never see her again if I didn’t stop her before leaving. I had to say something, something that would get her to notice me again and hopefully give me another opening. But as they all got into her Cadillac, as she closed the driver’s side door, twisted the key in the ignition, turned on the lights, and pulled out of the driveway- I did nothing but watch. I watched the car until it had turned at the end of the street, and watched the end of the street for a while after that. I had choked.

“I’m sorry, bud.” came Eileen’s voice from behind me.

“Me too.”

“Did you at least enjoy yourself?”

“Yea…”

“Then it was worth coming out tonight, no?”

“I guess…”

Nick came up to me at that point and started rattling off details about another party being thrown that night. I wasn’t up for it.

“Come on, we just have to set it up!”

“Fuck that dude, just drop me off on your way.”

“Don’t be a pussy, man.”

“Who’s house are we even going to? Do you know them?”

“Yea man, her name’s Amanda. She’s cool.”

“What?”

“Yea, she gave me the key to her place and the address. She’s the designated driver for her friends tonight but she told me she wanted to party when she got home.”

“When was this?”

“Like ten minutes ago.”

“Wait, hold on. What?”

“Yea. She’s got some booze too. We just gotta set stuff up so that when people show up it’s not just everyone sitting around and drinking. I have the to-do list on my phone.”

Eileen didn’t look too happy, but all I could think about was how I had choked earlier, how soft Amanda’s hands had been, and how badly I wanted to actually hold them. Hold them in that, I’m in like with you, the Beetles were onto something, kind of way. Before I was truly aware of what was going on, I had said yes. Nick recruited a few more people and we hopped into the rental car. I buckled my seat belt as the guy in the backseat asked what I was thinking. “So where exactly does Amanda live?”

******

In a flash, the room was full, the house was full, and most importantly, the bar was full. Noise. The noise was an entity in and of itself, and it was stretching its pulsing, throbbing, fingers throughout the structure of the building while countless bodies bounced up and down to its so called rhythm. Up, down, this way, that, I lost track of Eileen in the storm of sweat and music. The strobe lights and black lights wreaking havoc on my eyesight. “How the fuck did they get this place so fucking…rave…ey?” I asked myself, having forgotten my own work by that point. My body was consuming every drop of di-hydrogen monoxide in its system to process the alcohol I was funneling into it. I couldn’t focus. Could barely hear, let alone understand, what was being said. I could no longer feel my face, but was oddly aware of all of my veins. A vat of tar was poured into my brain as inhibitions and iintelligence were defenestrated. Light blurred into light. . .

I’m by a screaming mob of noise, heat, and skunk smell. I can barely stand without swaying, and it’s fucking hilarious. Two seconds later, Lisa is sitting in my lap, gushing about how much of a cutie pie I am. She keeps rubbing my face, which I still can’t feel, but she makes me glad I shaved that day. She pours a shot of whiskey down my throat, I’m starting to love the burn it leaves in the pit of my stomach. It means I get to prolong feeling this carefree. She starts rubbing my chest, gradually inching lower. Lower. Lower. I’m sober enough, to catch her hand before she reaches denim. I have no idea why she’s acting this way, or what she’s getting at but my paranoia starts to set in. I look up and Eileen is beckoning. I tell Lisa to get me another drink and that I need to get a little air. I follow Eileen out onto the empty balcony.

They have a bet going.” she whispers into the night. “They want to see who can take your virginity tonight.”

What?! You’re kidding. How the hell do they even know about that?”

You really are drunk. You practically bragged about it to two different, gossipy bitches. Remember?”

Fuck.”

That’s exactly what they want.” She half sneered.

Why? Why bother? I mean, I’m not gonna be a good lay. I don’t get it.”

To say they’re hot enough to corrupt you.”

Corrupt me?”

Well yea. You’re practically a saint compared to all of them. That kinda intimidates them, which makes you attractive in your own way. On the other hand, there are girls who see you as a little lamb, and think that’s a turn on too.”

A little lamb that can bench press their body weight!”

Wow. Way to show off how insecure you are about your masculinity…”

My masculinity is fine, jerk… you suck.”

Don’t you wish.”

Ugh! What do I do?”

DO what you want. Not like I care.”

Really? You’re gonna be like that right now?”

She gives me a look. It says, very clearly, and in no uncertain terms, “What are you going to do about it?”. It’s a challenge. She wants me to beg her into helping me. She wants to know she still has some hold over my actions. I shake my head, turn my back on her, and march back inside.

I’m taking the brunt of an all out attack on my senses. The baseline of a dubstep song resounds in my chest cavity, the reverb tells me it wants to shatter my ribs. I push through the heat and find the bar. The dark green bottle reads Absinte. I’m thinking, rather absentmindedly, about alcohol poisoning as I pour myself two double shots and take them both. Licorice fire destroys my palette and incinerates the back of my throat. The conflagration howls in my stomach. My hand gets grabbed by a smaller, much softer, one and I’m being dragged onto the “dance floor”.

I don’t dance. I know this for a fact. I’m worse than the people from that town in that one dancer flick with the one dude whose name I can’t remember but makes me think of breakfast at this moment. I don’t dance but I really don’t mind grinding with Lisa right now. My dick doesn’t mind it either. I tell her to stop or slow down because I’m starting to get a hard on. She leans back, licks my ear, and says she hasn’t shown me her best moves yet. I want to fuck her. I want to fuck her more than I’ve ever wanted to fuck anyone. I dont think anyone else has ever even existed before Lisa and her juicy self. I feel a pair of eyes on me. Eileen is glaring at me from a corner. I maintain eye contact with her as I pull Lisa close and squeeze the soft mounds on her chest. At no point do we stop grinding. The song ends. Lisa wants more vodka. My jeans are still uncomfortably tight. I get bored and start looking for another pair of jeans to rub against. It takes me all of thirty seconds. Another song, another girl. Three, four, I lose track. I want one of them to be wearing a skirt. I want all of them to start stripping.

I’m not taking anymore shots. The booze smells like poison. I remember reading how poorly humans digest alcohol. A group of us are walking around the neighborhood in search of cigarettes. I’m here because of the rack on the somewhat pudgy white chick with the obnoxious laugh. She jiggles a lot. I don’t care if anyone notices me staring. She offers to let me squeeze them. I dive in.

Someone is asking me about bus passes as we’re shuffling through the play structure of a park. I hate sand. I’m wandering the desert at night in search of water. Polaris is the north star, navigate by Polaris. I give the guy my pass so he knows what it looks like. He tries to hand it back a while later, I tell him to hang on to it. I’ll get it from him later, night’s still young. I don’t remember how to swing and I don’t fit on the slides.

There are lots of people making out. I can’t take a step without crunching a cup, can, or clinking against a bottle of something. I can’t remember much of the last few hours. I’m trying to remember what my face feels like and why my shoes have sand in them. I’m holding a little white package that says Trojan ENZ-Spermicidal on it, and I’m wondering why I bought the thing again. I rinse my mouth with water. I don’t like the taste of cigarettes. I take a sip of the stuff when someone spins me around. It’s Amanda. She’s wearing a tank top and she looks hot. I feel like a haze is starting to lift from my vision.

I gazed at Amanda, taking her all in again. She was stunning. I wanted to run my fingertips across every last inch of her body. I didn’t want to fuck her. I wanted to seduce her. Not rough and dirty. Slow. Sensual. Erotic. Erotic, from the Greek god Eros, god of love. Love. All raw emotions of lust and primal urges melted away as I looked into her eyes, replaced by other emotions: anxiety, giddiness, and something else. Joy. A simple form of joy in just having her next to me. She told me she wanted my opinion on something, grabbed my hand, and lead me down the hallway.

******

“Seriously, fuck this place.” I complained
“I know right? It’s boring watching everyone else get drunk.”

“I just don’t like people”

“You realize you’re people too, right?”

“Nope.”

“No, you’re not a person?”

“No, I’m actually an ancient Babylonian sex god, trapped in mortal form.”

“Why Babylonian?”

“What do you mean why Babylonian?”

“Why not Sumerian? They’re supposed to be the oldest.”

“Because shut up, that’s why.”

We laughed. I was impressed and embarrassed. She had me there, I knew it, and I fucking loved her for it.

“Seriously, do you wanna get out of here?”

“Nick’s my ride, I’m grounded until he decides he’s done.” I said

“I’m the DD for my group. Come on we can go somewhere and be back before they even notice.”

“Uhh, well where would we go?”

“Who cares? But I kind of want boba.”

“I know a place.” I said.

We walked out of the backyard and down the street to a pearlescent gem of a vehicle.

“Whose car is this?”

“Mine.”

“Cool!”

I didn’t press it because I didn’t want to make it obvious that I could tell she clearly came from money. I didn’t want her to think I wanted to user her or chum up to her for that reason either. With all that in mind, I hopped into the sleek, white, Cadillac. She started the engine and we took off like a coked up eight year old being let out for recess – after said eight year old heard Santa Claus was outside and giving away free ice cream, candy, and fire crackers.

“So, uh, what year of car is this?”

“1959.”

“Wow.”

“Yup. She’s my baby.”

“Your car is a she?”

“When she wants to be.”

“So she’s a tranny? Shouldn’t I just call her an ‘it’ then?”

“No, asshole.”

“Ze, it is then.”

I laughed and leaned back, the seat practically molded to my body. I couldn’t remember if I was ever in a car this nice. I had ridden in a Tesla once, and a Corvette too, but sports cars were impossible for me to fit in comfortably. We sat in silence for several minutes.

“You don’t talk much do you?”

“I find that it’s best not to open your mouth, unless you actually have something to say.”

“You’re not curious?”

“Oh I am all kinds of curious. But I’m also polite. Not really my place to pry, ya know?”

“Well I give you permission to ask whatever you want.”

“Noted, and reciprocated. Do you wanna just tell me what you want me to hear so we don’t dance around it for rest of the night?”

“This is my dad’s car. He gave it to me when I left home.”

“Then that makes you a lucky girl.”

“My family has money. So I guess.”

“You don’t seem all that happy about it.”

“It’s just hard to tell who your real friends are.”

“I bet. If it makes you feel any better, us poor people have the same problem.”

She rolled her eyes

“It’s not like I’m super rich or anything, gosh!”

“You drive a Cadillac! No, not just a Cadillac, excuse me; you drive a two door, 1959, Cadillac Coup de Ville with a hardtop.”

She gave me a once over when re reached a red light.

“Were you pretending not to know about the car earlier?”

“Pretty much. Didn’t want to make a big deal about it if you didn’t.”

She smiled. I didn’t reveal that the only reason I knew a thing about the make and model of the car is because I saw an episode of Mad Men where Don Draper bought one. Cars, almost as whole, baffled me. When it came to why they were so impressive and such a symbol of status, I didn’t get it.

“Anyway, driving around here is a little finnicky because of all the pedestrians.” I added.

The Verde Tea Café was probably one of my favorite places in Mountain View. It was also horribly small, cramped, crowded, and located rather inconveniently in the middle of an area rather notoriously known for the hellish experience it called finding a parking spot. The saving graces it had to offer were its rather expansive selection of flavored teas, the altogether delectable thick toast, and its tendency to stay open past midnight on a weekend. My opinion: worth it. On this particular night though, the place happened to be overrun by a Christian youth group of sorts. Their Young Life t-shirts gave them away and every other word was Jesus, or Savior, or God.

Amanda and I stood in line for a while, deciding on what to get. She flip flopped over the thai iced tea or the strawberry. I was set on getting my usual taro iced tea with extra pearls. We had just decided when I overheard one of the Christian leaders talking. He was pitching the self deprecating, sacrifice your joy and fulfillment for the glory of God bullshit that drives me nuts. What’s worse is that a lot of the teens seemed to be agreeing with him. I couldn’t stand it. I turned to Amanda,

“Hold on a sec”, and then walked over to the group.

“What I’m trying to say is that, it’s best if we all just try to remember that we go to mass, not for ourselves but for God. We go to worship Him, because He deserves it, so it shouldn’t matter what kind of music is played or how we feel about the mass. What matters is that we-“

“Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but can I just ask you to clarify something for me? Yea, ok. So correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’re saying, is that it doesn’t matter if we are spiritually satisfied when we go to mass, because mass isn’t for our sake it’s for God’s? So basically, it doesn’t matter to God if we feel any sort of connection to Him as long as we fill our quota for number of hours at mass?”

“Uh, well. . .”

“Does anyone else besides me see an issue with that? Am I crazy? No? I mean it just strikes me as off that the Almighty and all loving would rather us worship Him and be miserable during mass than not worship Him, or worship Him differently, and be happy or spiritually satisfied. I mean, isn’t the point that God loves you no matter what? So why the hell would he want you to be unhappy?”

“That’s not for us t-”

“For example, take our parents. What does the ideal set of parents tell their children: “I don’t care what you do, so long as you are happy.” Now that’s pretty awesome, but our parents are still only human, incapable of loving us as much as God, who is MADE of love. So why wouldn’t God want us to do the same? Sure that book in front of you there has some decent answers but whether you like it or not, it doesn’t have ALL the answers. Guys, you’re not going to know God by reading that book, because he’s not in that book. God is all around you. In your heart and out there, in the real world. You want to know and worship God, live your damn life! Go out there with no fear in your heart, knowing that God loves you, that he is on YOUR side and wants you to be happy for crying out loud. Don’t waste any more time, listening to someone tell you that you don’t matter enough to actually enjoy the way you worship the Lord. That’s bullshit! You matter, if for nothing else, because God made you. ”

At this point, the rest of the café stared at me with uncomfortably judgmental eyes. I caught Amanda’s bewildered face and motioned for us to go. I had to get out before everyone started calling me an antichrist and crucified me on principle. Politely pushing my way through strangers and making a quip that hell doesn’t exist to the teen who condemned me to it, I forced my way out of the cramped little slice of tapioca based heaven. Amanda and I hadn’t had the chance to order anything so we just walked back to her car.

“What the hell was that?!”

“I had something to say.” I laughed.

“Do you always go around preaching to people?”

“Only when I feel others are doing more harm than good.”

“So are you like, into all that?”

“I am a recovering Catholic.”

“And was that a Catholics versus Christians thing?”

“No that was an ignorance versus truth thing.”

She stared.

“I DID say recovering, didn’t I? I disagree with a lot of so called Christian values.”

“So what are you? If you say Buddhist, I’m going to laugh.”

I shook my head.

“Well at the moment, I am in need of caffeine. Fancy getting coffee instead?”

“So long as you don’t go preaching about Allah and get yourself arrested.”

******

My laundry wouldn’t be done for another hour, and I wanted to be awake when it finished, so I sat down at the kitchen table and thought about my ridiculous adventure. In the midst of my ruminations I got a text message. She was outside. I knew where she was before I even got the message, and I knew she was waiting for me so I slipped on my moccasins as quickly as possible and headed out the door. I walked down the side of the house and there she was, in all of her splendor and angelic presence.

“You’re late.”

“I know.” she said

“Long walk?”

“Not at all.”

“I’m glad one of us was spared the extra exercise.”

She smiled. A pause took hold for a little while.

“You didn’t leave because of me, did you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“No. I didn’t.”

“But you went, because of me, huh?”

“Yea…” I nodded

Another pause.

“Do you think we can hang out tom-”

“No… We can’t. We can’t hang out tomorrow.”

Her expression didn’t change from that perfect smile of hers.

“How come?”

I showed her the text message I had received.

“Wow. She really likes you, doesn’t she?”

“Yea.” I said ” And it’s kinda mutual.”

She nodded, her smile still perfectly in place. I looked at her for a while, mustering up what needed to be said. I wasn’t sure if words would serve me this time around, but when I opened my mouth to speak, they poured out.

“I went out tonight thinking, no, knowing, that I would never lose you. That you would always be a part of my life. A part of me, even. But I came home having finally realized that I lost you over three years ago, and all of this…this pretending… it’s held me back. Heck it’s probably held us both back.”

Her smile remained the same.

“I never wanted to hold you back.”

“I know…I know… it’s just that I’ve been hung up on-”

“Someone who’s not worth it.” she cut in, her smile gone, replaced by a look of solemn sympathy.

“You’re TOTALLY worth it! I loved you…We loved each other…didn’t we?”

“No, silly, we were in love with ideas. We were in love with what we thought the other symbolized. We were in love with ghosts. Ghosts of what we thought we wanted.”

“Maybe…” I said

“Definitely. I mean we were so young then, and it was so difficult. It was a constant struggle to understand each other and accept each other.”

“But I tried! I really fuckin tried! Didn’t you?!”

“Of course I did, sweety. But none of that matters now. It’s in the past. Just like me.”

“I know… I know, and I get that, I just wish things had been different. I wish it could have worked. I wish I hadn’t gotten so attached, because I think we both knew that “when our colors mixed, we couldn’t fix how much they wouldn’t blend”.”

She smiled again

“Still quoting songs at me.”

“I will quote the truth where I find it, even if it’s in a Blue October song.”

“Don’t ever change…”

I sighed again, not sure how to respond.

“I can promise to only get better.”

“That’s perfect”

Our conversation paused, neither of us entirely sure how to go about beginning the end.

“So…is this-”

I sighed again

“It’s late, Eileen…Talk about this tomorrow?”

“Okay, I’ll meet you here at-”

“No, no…I’ll come over to your place.”

A bit of surprise spread across her face just before her perfect smile took over again.

“I’d like that.” she said

“Yea, so… I’ll see you then.”

She turned, flashed me another smile, and faded into the night.

I went back inside, replied to Amanda’s text, finished my laundry, plopped into bed and set my alarm for a two hour nap. When my alarm went off, I would have to wake up and start getting ready for breakfast with my crazy cousins. I blinked. I was picked up, greeted happily by people who shared my genetic code, and driven to the Original House of Pancakes.

We walked into the tan-beige building, and were immediately seated. My head pounded, my stomach was a queasy walnut, and I was taking the brunt of an all out attack on my senses.

“So what did you do last night?” my cousin asked

I looked up, and wanted so much to brag about my ridiculous adventure. I wanted to tell her about, how after our little phone chat, I was invited out. How I went to a hookah bar and smoked hookah for the first time, how I found myself smoking cigarettes at one point in the night. How I smoked hookah and cigarettes for the last time. I wanted to tell her how I was forced to strike up a conversation with a total stranger who turned out to be amazing, how I got swindled into setting up a party, how I got drunk and stupid and enjoyed myself. I wanted to tell her about the amazing girl who practically threw herself at me, and how I proved myself above the influence by not taking advantage, even though I had gone through the humiliating hassle of buying condoms earlier that night. This was my chance to show her that it was very much possible for me to live, and learn, and navigate by my moral compass.

“The same thing I do every Friday night, stay home and watch anime.”

“Did you at least enjoy yourself?”

“Of course, it’s anime.”

We ordered. A steaming cup of coffee was placed in front of me. Black as the devil, sweet as a stolen kiss. Our trivial conversation continued and eventually my cup was cool enough to actually drink. I had just taken a sip of the stuff when the rest of the usual questions started being asked.

How’s school going?
What’s your GPA?
You figure out where you’re transferring yet?
How’s work?
You planning on changing diapers all your life?

Truth is, I had never fit in with the rest of my family. They had a habit of hammering home the point that my work ethic was less than stellar when compared to theirs. “A man without a country” I mused. “I don’t fit in with the slacker, idiot, party people I wasted last night with or with the workaholic academic deities I share my genese with.” Like always, breakfast continued. People lectured, counseled, and advised. I listened, nodded intently and nothing good came out of it. I ordered dessert which earned an odd look from the waitress. Odd enough for me to notice that she happened to be wearing a cross around her neck.

“Ice cream is good whenever.” I said as I leaned back and rubbed my eyes. They were getting itchy.

I was offered lots of services if and when I decided to apply myself, followed by a somewhat heartfelt expression of “I don’t care what you do, so long as you’re happy.” and eventually, when I was finally allowed to actually have a conversation with my family, I said what I had wanted to say for over three years.

“I need a ride to go hang out with Eileen”

Silence.
When?
Today? She looked at her watch
Yea, I can take you.

“Thanks. I said I would come bearing gifts, so can we stop somewhere on the way?”

Sure. No problem.
It’s supposed to be a nice day today.
Yea that’s what I heard too.

Breakfast ended. I began reaching for my card, they insisted on treating me.

They were all crammed into the backseat of the Corolla. The bouquet’s sweet aroma filled the car as we drove over. Eileen had always liked the purity of white flowers, so I decided on a bouquet of lilies, roses, hydrangeas, and gardenias. It had always been a long drive to Eileen’s, but this trip must have lasted hours. My cousins whispered small talk amongst themselves in the back.

We got any q-tips?

Oh yea, she’s my baby.

Gonna go down there today, see if I can get it sorted out.

You gonna bring your nun chucks?

Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

A phone started up with a bizz buzz. A short conversation was had.

Finally, we stopped. I slipped off my seatbelt and told my cousins to hang out, I would be right back. I didn’t bother to look at them when I said this, only opened the door and stepped out of the car into the open air.

I notice its her favorite kind of weather, as the day was undoubtedly a nice one. Just enough play between Sun and clouds and the winds.

I smile. It’s going to get hot later…

I spot her right away as I walk up the pathway. She’s been waiting for me. It’s been over three years since I’ve seen her. I feel like it was only yesterday, but I’d still set my livelihood on fire if it meant being able to hug her for five more minutes. The headstone is simple, well polished, granite.

“Eileen Marie Wozniak. Beloved Friend and Daughter. Dearly Missed.”

I place my flowers next to another set which looks only a couple of days old.

“Hey Eileen…” I start.

“It’s been a while…

I see you’ve been taken good care of…

For the record, I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the funeral…

I just, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I’m doing now…

I miss you. I miss what we used to have and I miss hearing your voice everyday…

But this is me finally doing what I couldn’t three years ago.

I forgave you for all of our crap, and eventually I forgave you for driving that night, so I really hope you forgave me for pushing you away when you needed me most…

and that you’ll forgive me for leaving you behind…

I just think it’s time to move on with my life. . . ”

I pause. A small part of me had been hoping for some sort of response. A sign. Anything.

Slowly, I continue.

“You see I met someone last night. Someone who reminded me that there’s still a lot for me here, who managed to convince me that maybe not everything is completely fucked.

Her name’s Amanda.

I think you’d have liked her…”

This is harder than I thought it would be. The world is getting blurry, my facial muscles are contracting into a deep set expression of sorrow, and a pair of tears slide down my cheeks.

” I just can’t keep holding onto you like this” I sob. “In order to be there for the ones who need me now… for the ones who are still around and who I need too…. I have to say it…. I have to say the one thing I never could to you… ”

I trace my fingers across the cool granite of her name. Seasons pass, as I sit there, bawling and staring.

“Good-” I sigh

“Goodbye, Eileen. I promise to live my life how I see fit, just the way you would have wanted it.”

I stand up. I walk away. I don’t look back.

******

I made it back to the car without completely breaking down, opened the door and slipped into the passenger seat. My cousin didn’t say a word until, finally, she looked at me slowly, her eyes showing quite a bit of sympathy.

“It’s been a while hasn’t it?”

“Thirty-eight months or so.”

“Why now? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I just wanted to say one final goodbye.”

The ignition did its thing, the car started moving, and we began the return trip from Heaven’s Gate Cemetery. Silence filled the car for a time, but soon we started talking. We talked and talked, and even though my body hated me and I couldn’t think all that clearly, even though I had just left behind one of the most important people in my life, I smiled. I had once realized that when you go in search of life, it finds you, but it’s never what it seems, what you think it is, or what you want it to be. It’s cold, and broken, and dark. I had realized that over three years ago, and yet as I sat there, enjoying the breeze through a Corolla window, listening to my cousin gush about her adorable daughter, I couldn’t help but disagree with everything I had quote unquote realized. Life isn’t inherently cold, or broken, but it’s not automatically warm and wholesome. Maybe it’s what you make it, what you put into it, and the relationships you get out of it. Maybe. I laughed as my cousin finished her story.

“…and so she looks at me and says: “I got it!””

“Amen to that, little one. Amen to that.”