Copyright is held by the author.
THE FIRST thing I see when I walk through the door is the back of Cameron’s head. There’s no need to look twice — he’s unmistakable from any perspective. They’ve got two tables pushed together in the far left corner near the dart boards. Quickly but casually, mouthing “what the fuck,” I move to my right and position myself behind a group of three girls, one of whom looks really familiar. I think for a minute and, deciding, turn my back to the bar and pull the collar of my leather jacket up, make for the door. I don’t need this.
I slow down but keep moving.
Now I stop, fearing that her voice will carry over to where they’re sat. When I turn around she’s smiling and waving at me. Her friends are looking at me too, but with vacant expressions on their faces. Stepping toward them, I frown affably to get across that I don’t quite know who she is.
“Remember?” she says, one hand to her chest.
“Mm. Sort of.” I’m close enough now to be considered a member of their party. I don’t think Sean and the others have seen me. I’m still determined to get away.
“Katie.” She brings her hand to her chest again.
Still blank. I smile and shake my head apologetically. One of her friends laughs.
“Oh my God!” she says. “Katie Marcello! Applebee’s! Remember?”
It clicks. “Oh right, of course,” I say. “Katie. Yeah.” I shake my head again. “Sorry. How are you?”
She starts telling me but I’m just nodding, not listening, because out of the corner of my eye I see Sean get up and head in our direction. I look at him and smile weakly. In this moment, I hate his guts; I wish he were dead.
Katie is still talking when Sean reaches us. She stops when he rudely breaks in and grabs me by the shoulders and hugs me. He’s drunk already, beer on his breath. “Dude,” he says. “Dude. I’m so glad you’re here. I got so much shit to tell you, dude. You have no idea.” He lets go and faces Katie. “I apologize. I interrupted you.”
She starts to say something but Sean cuts her off. “This is my BFF.” He hooks an arm around my neck. “Benny and I are besties.” He turns to one of Katie’s friends. “Guess how long we’ve been friends.”
“I don’t know,” she says, unamused.
He tells Katie to guess.
Sean looks at me. “Who’s the fuckin psychic?”
He takes his arm from around my neck and holds out his hand for Katie to shake. She does.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Katie,” he tells her, “I’m Sean. You’ll have to pardon my language. Tourette’s. But anyway, yes, as you say, me and Benny have been friends for ten years. Since we were eleven. Sixth grade,” he adds. And then, to me: “Right?”
“That’s cute,” Katie says—sincerely, I think.
“But I apologize. I interrupted you,” Sean says again. “You guys were talking.”
“No worries,” I tell him. Katie says:
“I was just reminding Ben that we worked together at Applebee’s.”
“That’s cute,” he imitates. “I remember those days. He used to talk about you all the time—all good things, of course. Raved about you.” He pauses. “Wait, he forgot?” Looks at me. “You forgot?”
I scratch my forehead, act ashamed. “Afraid so.”
“How could you forget such a—such an unforgettable face?” And so, it begins. He looks at Katie. “Don’t feel bad. He forgets my birthday every year.”
Katie goes “Awwee” and for a moment I think that maybe Sean and I will just stay over here the whole night which would be boring but tolerable, but no sooner do I have the thought than Sean invites the girls to join everyone else at the other end of the room.
“More the merrier,” he says as he leads us over.
We’re two chairs short, and there don’t appear to be any available at other tables, so Sean asks one of the bartenders, a tattooed girl wearing a Santa hat and a muscle tank that says A LOVER AND A FIGHTER, whether she can grab a couple for us. She disappears into the back and less than a minute later returns with the chairs. “Perfect,” Sean says as Jordan (a girl) and Nick slide over to make room. I sit down between Nick and Sean. Katie and her friends form a small cluster to Sean’s left. Cameron is at the other end of the table. He gave me a cordial nod when I sat down; I pretended not to notice.
After a minute, two more pitchers of beer show up and Sean pours me a glass. Katie takes one too, and so does one of her friends (whose names I still don’t know); the other friend declines, sips on something clear. “Cheers!” Sean says, holding up his glass. “To sobriety!” The whole table follows suit. “Sobriety!” Everyone drinks.
It’s “Nineties Night” tonight and when “What’s My Age Again?” by Blink-182 comes on everyone sings the lyrics, pretending to be nostalgic about something we never really experienced. I’m being a good sport, singing along, pretending I want to be here.
“Arguably the best album of the nineties,” Sean absurdly announces when the song concludes. After a few minutes of heated debate, it’s agreed by the table’s loudest voices that nothing can touch Nevermind, but that Weezer’s Blue Album comes kind of close. Someone says something about Metallica and gets heckled. None of the girls seem to have an opinion. If Jess were here … If she hadn’t … I hate Nirvana. I nominated Out of Time but the only reaction I got was a smile and nod of recognition from a junior named Phil who I don’t really like. I was going to say Vauxhall and I but chose not to isolate myself any further. No market for such medieval abstrusiosities here. Nick says:
“Should’ve gone to karaoke tonight.”
“Go after,” Sean shrugs.
More pitchers of beer arrive and, as if on cue, “Buddy Holly” comes on and the table’s din gets louder and louder, its conversation dumber and dumber, and Sean and Katie are hitting it off as I suspected they might and I feel a dull headache coming on. When Katie and her friends disappear into the bathroom Sean invites me outside for a cigarette, knowing I don’t smoke.
“Had to get away for a minute,” he says, forcing me to take one. “Feels like I’m suffocating.”
He proceeds to tell me about the “shitshow” that went down at his house when Victor, his drug-dealing older brother who’s been in and out of jail the past few years, turned up unannounced the other night. It’s a short story but he’s taking forever to tell it. My attention span is non-existent. I’m nodding my head mechanically every few seconds to signal that his words are registering but the whole anecdote, like the cigarette that dangles uselessly from my fingers, is wasted on me. Part of me feels bad for not caring more. Most of me feels nothing. I never liked Victor. When he’s finished I say:
“Yeah. So then the next day my dad apologizes to me and starts trying to justify his behaviour, like he’s telling me about all this shit Victor supposedly did years ago, and how he warned him never to come home again. And I’m like, ‘I don’t give a shit what he did, dad, you don’t pull a gun on your own son. That was traumatizing.’ And it was, dude, I’m traumatized by it.”
“I’m traumatized just hearing about it.”
Sean nods as though he expected me to say that. He offers me another cigarette; I shake my head. He lights one for himself and tilts his head back and blows smoke into the night.
“Anyway, what’s new with you?”
“Nothing,” I yawn. “Status quo.”
Sean nods again, smokes. We watch a few cars go by, watch the taillights shrink away. At length, he says:
“That Katie’s not so bad lookin. Would be a welcome distraction.”
Just then one of Katie’s friends emerges from the bar and walks by us, texting on her phone.
“Taking off?” Sean says.
She looks up shyly and smiles. “Yeah, I have to work in the morning so…”
“Ah, that sucks. See you around.”
Sean turns back to me. “Did you really forget who Katie was?”
“Wonder if she’s got a dorm room. Can’t bring her back to my house—my dad might shoot her.”
It’s a good joke but for some reason I don’t laugh, don’t say anything, just stare at a crack running across the sidewalk. I wonder if Katie and her friends were discussing Sean in the bathroom. If so, what were they saying? Good enough?
“Getting cold,” Sean notes. “They said snow later.”
“I didn’t know he’d be here,” he says after another pause, catching me off guard.
I look at him and quickly look away, shrugging. “Whatever.”
“I think he feels really bad about it. In fact, I know he does. He asked if I would talk to you.”
“On his behalf? Don’t bother.”
“I told him you probably need some time before you even think about forgiving him.”
“It’s not about that.”
“What do you mean?”
I breathe in deep and sigh. “I don’t know. Nothing. Let’s go back in. Katie’ll think you blew her off.”
“Wouldn’t mind if she blew me off.”
I sit down in the same chair and sip from a warm glass of beer that might not be mine. Nick and I talk disinterestedly about finals, Christmas break, grad school, Game of Thrones. “I’m trying to read the book now,” he tells me, “but it doesn’t give you the same buzz.” Sean puts in more work with Katie. Katie’s friend stares at her phone, swiping right, left, left, left, right. She looks up and we make fleeting eye contact for the third or fourth time in a few minutes. I finish my beer. “Wish You Were Here” by Incubus comes on. “This isn’t nineties,” I say to Nick but he’s not paying attention and responds, “Yeah, man, for sure.” When I look over my left shoulder I see Cameron standing near the pool tables with Josh and two girls I don’t know. He appears to be giving them, the girls, lessons on how to properly hold the cue stick. What a guy.
“Another pitcher?” Sean says, indicating my empty glass. Katie is actually hanging on his arm now. Her friend’s work here is done.
“Positive.” I stand and move to the bathroom, piss for what feels like ten minutes. While I’m washing my hands Cameron walks in. My pulse starts to race. He stops at the urinal and says:
Our eyes meet in the mirror.
“Listen,” he says, “I need you to know how sorry I am about what happened.”
As if it only “happened” once. Just happened to happen. Like an untoward rain shower.
“Seriously, man, I feel really, really shitty about the whole thing. I sincerely apologize.”
“It’s nothing,” I tell him coldly.
“But it is. We used to be so tight. We did everything together. Now we don’t even look at each other.”
I don’t say anything, start drying my hands.
“If you need time I totally understand that. You have every right to hate me. I fucked up. But this can’t be the end. I want my friend back.”
I give him a long look in the mirror. Then I throw the paper towels in the trash and walk out. When I get back to the table I grab my jacket and tell them I’m going. Sean leans forward and says:
“Already?” He looks at his phone. “It’s twelve fifteen.”
“I’m tired.” I start putting my jacket on.
“Hold on, hold on,” he says. “Wait.” He stands up and guides me over to the wall.
“What?” I ask, annoyed.
“I’m gonna go with Katie and her friend back to their dorm.”
“Yeah? So what?”
“So, you’re coming with.”
He gives me an exasperated look. “Do I have to draw you a picture?”
“What—that girl? We barely said anything to each other. I don’t even know her name.”
“What do you mean, no?”
“I’m not into it.”
“You’re coming,” Sean demands. “In more ways than one. She’s into you. Katie told me. And she’s hot. Hotter than Katie.” If that were true Sean would have gone for her.
“Some other time.”
“There won’t be another time. This is the easiest lay you’ll ever get.”
“You know what I mean. You didn’t have to work at all. And she’s hot. No way you’re passin this up, dude. When’s the last time you were laid? Since Jess —” He abruptly stops, changes tack. “Come on, what’s the worst than can happen? You knock her up? OK, that would be pretty bad, but she seems —”
“Fine,” I give in, just to shut him up, “I’ll fuck her. OK? Can we leave now?”
“As you wish.”
He turns to walk away but I tug on his sleeve. “Hey.”
“No Auto Focus shit.”
He rolls his eyes. “That was a one-time thing!”
At five thirty I climb out of Ashley’s bed and get dressed in the dark. She stirs but doesn’t wake up. I didn’t sleep at all; instead I lied there looking at the ceiling, “Wish You Were Here” turning over in my head, evoking things I don’t want to think about but can’t escape. I slip my jacket on and grab my boots and carry them into the kitchen where the sink is full of dishes and a half-eaten birthday cake sits uncovered on the table. The refrigerator door is ajar. In the living room a string of blinking Christmas lights clings to the wall over the couch, half its bulbs burnt out. I try to remember if the cake was out when we came in. I don’t think it was. Sean and Katie must have had some after they were through. I cover it and put it back in the fridge and make sure the door stays closed. I consider sending Sean a text letting him know I’m gone, decide against it, put on my boots and leave.
Walking back to my car my breath is steaming and my boots are stamping prints in the snow. I let go and the unwanted thoughts flood in. The first time we met. The last time we spoke. The afternoon we went for a walk in the cemetery and fell asleep together in the grass next to a gravestone marked SMITH, and by the time we woke up they had locked the gate and there was no one around, only bodies bereft of their souls, and she tore her shirt climbing over the fence and we walked back to campus as the daylight melted away, the torn fabric shifting in the breeze, and suddenly I have to know what became of that shirt, if she still has it, if it means everything to her like it does to me, and I’ve stopped walking and I’ve taken out my phone and I’m dialing her number and the snow is tumbling down and gathering at my feet, landing on my eyelashes, and the sun breaks weakly over the horizon and there’s a faint din of traffic in the distance and it penetrates as another day begins and her phone rings in vain that the memory isn’t even real, that it’s just an invention, just a recurring mirage, just nothing, unlike the real night I introduced them to each other, the real time we all studied together in the library, the real numbness I felt when Sean told me, the numbness that lingers today, follows me around, won’t leave me alone … alone. Alone, I am. Mine.