Could that person be him?
That question takes me by surprise and it must show on my face because he immediately backtracks.
“You don’t have to answer me right now. I know you’re stressed out and feeling sick, but – think about it, okay? We can talk about this tomorrow. I…” He pauses, scratches the back of his neck without looking at me. “I would like it if you could sit next to me during dinner.”
It’s still warm outside but that must be some illusion. After all hell just froze over and hell, that is here. At least for me.
“I will think about it.” My words sounds strange to me, like in trance I nod, get up and turn to leave.
He follows my example, gets up from the bench and peers into my face.
“Will you get home okay? Or should I take you?”
The image of me and Ben in that small Ferris Wheel car pops up and I shudder.
“No, thanks. I need a bit of fresh air now.”
“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”
I nod, stare right past him and stalk off, away from him and this strange festival.
Only a few minutes later I realize that I don’t know where to sleep tonight. I don’t want to go back to Mom’s place, not as long as Dad is still there, playing his sick impression of a good husband.
But I don’t have enough money for a hotel, not even for a hostel. Besides, I don’t know if the town actually has one by now. There is no one I could call, despite his offer I won’t ask Jake for help. He could take that so very wrong.
In the end I sit down on a bench, far enough from the festival ground not to run into Mom and Dad but still in walking distance – after all I walked here and in my current condition I’m not very fast. At least the dizziness has faded a bit, only a slightly unpleasant sensation left, a tickle in my throat. The headache is still raging, though.
“I should have never come back home,” I let Domo know, use him as a small pillow. The night air is warm enough and I my exhaustion drags my eyelids down. I mustn’t fall asleep here, in this public space. What might people say tomorrow? Just because I plan to hightail out of here after the dinner party doesn’t mean that I don’t care.
I hear footsteps and laughter, hushed talking, and sit up straight, blink the sleep away.
The footsteps come closer, I turn to see Miho and Jared, arm in arm, with a huge pink unicorn dangling from Jared’s free hand.
“Oh, hey… you had fun?”
If I look only half as bad as I’m feeling it’s a miracle no one bolted at the mere sight of my sorry state. Miho furrows her brow, rushes over and peers at me.
“Holy, what happened to you? You look like crap!”
“Well, thank you.” I would be miffed if it wasn’t true. “I got a migraine after we split up.”
She looks back to Jared, tilts her head and raises both eyebrows.
“We can take you home,” he offers with a nod. “My car is just around the corner.”
“Ah, yes,” I slowly answer. “That’s nice but – I can’t go home. Sorry, but-”
Miho pats my arm, shares another glance with Jared.
“Yeah, I get it, don’t worry.”
Of course she does, she has been there when I yelled at Dad and witnessed my small meltdown afterwards.
“Okay, it’s decided. You stay with me tonight.” Her tone leaves no room for objection but I still shake my head.
“No, it’s fine. You are having a date, I don’t want to butt right in.” I just have to stay awake long enough for the sun to rise. And find a nice secluded spot to nap there. No biggie.
“Nope, we are not playing this game. Running into Jared here was a lucky coincidence, it’s not a real date. Hell, I wouldn’t have walked away with him if I had known you crash that hard when I’m not looking anyway. Besides,” she winks at him, grabs my arm to help me up, “who is talking about butting in? We could just ask you to join us.”
That at least makes me laugh, I stop fighting and just give in.
“Fine, thanks. Hey, can we stop at my Mom’s place and get my dress for tomorrow?” That way I wouldn’t have to face her at all. But this suggestion also gets quashed by Miho.
“Sorry, hun, but you have to talk to her at some point. Maybe not tonight since I guess you are both still angry, but eventually it’s necessary. Running away, turning a blind eye to your problems won’t solve them, you know?”
“‘Hun’?” I raise my eyebrow at her. “Do I look like Attila?”
Miho snorts a brief laughter, pulls me closer. “Nah, but you do look knackered. So move your ‘not butting in’ butt, Jared can take us home.”
I still feel bad for ruining their evening, but Jared smiles at me, jingles his keys enticingly.
“What about the unicorn?” This thing is huge and looks completely out of place, even if Jared’s not wearing a suit for a change.
“Its name is Cornisparkle McFluffbutt and it’s a present,” Miho lets me know, flashes Jared a smug grin. “Tell Jazz where we got it?”
He sighs, shoulders slumping, but he still smiles. “Miho won it at the shooting gallery. A solid 100 percent. No misses. I guess she was a sniper in a past life.” The affection shines through his words, lights up Miho’s face.
“Close. I was an assassin, but go on. Tell her how amazing I was.”
Their banter isn’t as annoying, rather amusing. A nice distraction from my screwed up life.
“It’s not as if I haven’t won anything, mind you,” he just explains, jingles his keys again. A small key ring dangles from it, cheap plastic in bright colors.
“What’s that?” I squint, in the low light of the street lamps it looks misshapen.
“It’s an octopus. See? Those are the tentacles and that’s the head.”
“It’s pink. Why is it pink?” I would even say it’s fluorescent.
“I have no idea. It was what I got after Miho scooped the big price.”
I can’t stop laughing until we are at his car.
Back on Miho’s couch she feeds me some pain killers and makes me drink a glass of water tall enough to pass as a vase. I apologize for cutting their night short and she for letting me walk off alone. It’s stupid, we were both the ones to make a decision while the other went along with it, but with that out of the way we can talk more freely now. And Miho isn’t one to mince words to begin with.
“You smell awful,” she informs me, nose scrunched up. “Hey, is – is that carrot in your hair?”
I duck away, screech in embarrassment, comb my fingers through my hair to find the offending piece of regurgitated vegetable.
“You wanna take a shower?”
The clock tells me it’s past 11pm and I feel like shit. Perfect time for a shower indeed.
Dressed in a shirt, courtesy of Miho, and with a slightly mellowed migraine I stumble out of the bathroom and onto the couch where Miho awaits me with a cup of tea and some cookies.
“Eat if you can, but you should definitely drink something.”
I groan and make a face, take the tea nonetheless. Hydration is key after all.
“Rooibos and ginger. Great for headaches, migraines and hangovers,” she explains, sips from her own cup. I nibble at a biscuit, without much of an appetite.
“Okay, you wanna tell me what happened? Did you just get a migraine out of the blue?”
“More or less. I mean, the stress of the last few days – very different to my normal stress – and those pesky emotions, it’s kinda overwhelming.” Like the taste of the tea. I’m usually pretty adventurous when it comes to tea, but this is not a pleasure.
“And that’s all?”
Dammit, she’s sharp.
“I had some – let’s call it triggers.” The tea doesn’t get better with every additional sip, but I am stronger than some boiled, colored water. “I ran into Ben.”
“Oh.” Her eyebrows shoot up, expectantly she stares at me over the rim of her cup.
“Yeah, ‘oh’.” I have troubled wrapping my head around the whole scene with him. “So I thought he was my secret admirer in school because – well, it made sense, he knew so much about me and some stuff in his room that just fits. Turns out he’s not. I asked him.”
“Ouch. Now that’s embarrassing.”
My hum sends small waves through the cup, stirs up the steam and directs a new waft of the aroma directly into my nose. It tickles, probably the ginger.
“Yeah, I thought so, too. But it turns out that despite him not being my secret admirer, he wants me to be his date for tomorrow. Oh, and he tried to kiss me.”
The clack of her cup being set down on the table is loud in the otherwise calm living room.
“He ‘tried’ to kiss you? What does that mean?”
“Exactly what I said. He tried to kiss me, I turned away, he let it go. Said he liked me, now that I’m hot and interesting.” Sounds shallow now that I say it.
“Not exactly a smooth talker, that Benjamin.”
“Yeah. And he doesn’t waste any time with moping after he got dumped.” The question is, was it Maddie or Ben who didn’t put enough effort into their relationship so it doesn’t have a lasting impact on him? Either way, if Sam was that indifferent after our – let’s call it breakup, it would be all the proof I need to know that the feelings weren’t that deep to begin with.
“Classy.” She grabs her cup again, no steam is rising from it anymore. “And?”
“And will you be his dinner partner?”
If he had asked me that five years, hell, even one year ago, I wouldn’t even hesitate.
“I do like him. I mean, I dreamed of him for years. He’s pretty much my ideal of a man.”
Her eyebrows knit in confusion. “Ben? Really? Not Sam?”
“It’s complicated.” It always is. There’s no easy explanation for feelings and attraction after all. My gaze drops to my cup again, the pressure in my head increasing again.
“Okay, then… if you’re curious and just want to find out if he’s really the boy of your dreams, just go for it. You get this chance presented on a silver platter, don’t even have to get rid of his girlfriend anymore.”
From the corner of my eye I can see her still looking at me.
“Maybe that was your problem with Sam all along. You’re still hung up on Ben and what could have been. So now you can find out if it’s him holding you back – or maybe just you.”
She shrugs, downs her tea and makes a face. At least I’m not the only one bothered by the taste of it.
“You know what’s even worse?” I ask with a chuckle, a wry sound that scratches my throat.
“It can get worse?”
I nod, prompt Miho to shake her head.
“Goddammit… okay, should I get a drink? I mean, something with a bit more umph than tea?”
“Can’t hurt. At least for you.” And it gives me a moment to gather my thoughts. I have been stumbling from one disaster into another tonight, I haven’t really had the time to analyse every word. But even after mulling them over and over again I can’t make much sense of what Jake has told me.
“Okay, I’m ready.” The glass in Miho’s hand is half filled with a clear liquid, I’m not even asking what it is.
“So after I had my little – I don’t even know how to call it, but after I rode the Ferris Wheel with Ben-”
“Wow, Ferris Wheel. Very romantic,” Miho pipes up but motions for me to go on.
“Yes, very.” I rub my temples, the pain sharpens again. “Anyway, after he invited me for tomorrow and I left him hanging without a real answer, I already felt miserable. Sick, not guilty,” I quickly elaborate. She nods, lets me talk.
“So I tried to find a place where I could rest, ran into some bloke who made a fuss about spilling his beer all over me and while I was still dealing with him Jake showed up, playing some strange ‘hero rescues damsel in distress’ act.” I snort, slump down on the couch into a nice slouch.
“He wanted to help, so what?”
“No, he didn’t want to help me, he just didn’t want to miss the fun of me being in trouble. Too bad for him that I’m all grown up now and can take care of myself.” I’m just so tired of all of this mess. Especially Jake.
“You might be wrong about his motives, but okay. Go on.”
I roll my eyes, but continue my strange tale. “He dragged me to safety and spilled his guts after I had spilled my dinner – more or less over his shoes.”
Her loud laughter makes me wince, I really need to sleep soon.
“Turns out that – surprise, surprise – Jake wants me to be his date, too. So now I have two Rosenfeldt guys wanting me to spend that dinner party with them. The one I used to dream of when I was younger, who turned out not to be my Prince Charming, and the other one who made my life hell but just told me that he loved me for years already.”
“Oh my god! What if Jake was your secret admirer!” Totally invested into my story now Miho bounces on the couch, glee and excitement fueled by the booze.
“Thanks for pointing out one of my biggest fears.” It makes sense, he was also always around, even after school at their house. And most of the presents back then came from someone who knew me well enough to give me a new pen in my favorite color or a notebook without lines so I could doodle.
“I just don’t get it,” I say after letting that possibility sink in. “He always teased me, called me ‘short stuff’ and ‘pipsqueak’ when I was younger. When his friends were around he ignored me completely. He humiliated me countless of times in front of my Mom, my friends, the whole damned school and suddenly I should believe that he loves me?”
“You’re preaching to the choir here, I’m not a big fan of him either.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Why not?”
She downs the rest of her glass, leans back in the couch.
“Well, he’s just another privileged prick. Always managed to get away scot-free. One time he got detention for the whole drama class by swapping our prop bottle of wine with some real cider. And whenever Pat got into trouble you can bet your sweet ass that Jake wasn’t far. Oh, and you know that stupid nickname? Mount Fuji-wara? He was the first to call me that.” She scoffs, rolls her eyes.
“Stupid prankster,” I sum it up, earn an agreeing hum. “What bothers me most is that he never even apologized for anything he did to me.”
“Lemme guess, that thing at school with the coffee and your blouse, that was him, right?”
“Ding ding ding, we got a winner.” Absentmindedly I scratch the skin of my cleavage until it’s red and tingling.
“Sounds like him. Screwing up, but not taking the blame.”
“And that wasn’t the only time. Or the worst.”
“Wait, worse than scalding you with hot coffee?” She sits up straighter again, eyes a stormy grey that would make every sailor tie up the boat in the harbour.
“Yep.” The pressure in my head now also takes hold of my throat, it gets tighter with every breath. “My ear. The hearing loss. His fault.” Panic claws up its way to my chest, deeply rooted in the pit of my stomach. And just like that words rush out of my mouth, as if getting rid of them is the only way to save myself from getting dragged into some abyss. Making me lighter.
“I told you about my secret admirer, right? Well, he sent me an invitation for Jake’s graduation party. The one at his home, after the official one. Everyone who was somebody went there, half of the school was invited and the other half tried to sneak in somehow. So I had this invitation and a note saying my admirer would meet me there and like the stupid idiot I am I went there. Secretly hoping it was Ben who invited me.” My fingers play with the hem of the shirt, I find a loose thread I can tug on.
“In every teenage movie he would have,” she comforts me but we both know that teenage movies are crap. The outcast won’t become the prom queen, the scrawny nerd won’t become the secret weapon of the football team and the nice guy certainly won’t date the poor but ambitious wallflower.
“I showed up there late, had to sneak out after Mom was in bed. Everyone was already drunk.” I have no idea where Jake got that much beer and booze, but bottles and cups were everywhere. If anyone had found out that the mayor’s son engages in underage drinking and also provides drinks for his friends, that would have been a scandal that could have ended Elias’ career.
“I was there, too. For a while. But then Pat and I – let’s say we had something better to do.” Miho clicks her tongue and winks at me, but it’s not enough to ease my tension.
“Can’t remember if I saw you there,” I admit, but in retrospective I can’t remember that much of the party anyway. “But there were tons of kids and I had no clue how to find the one I was looking for. So I tried Ben’s room first, but there was a bunch of guys playing some video game. Everyone was older than me and I wasn’t that popular at school anyway, so I didn’t know anyone. I knew some names and some more faces, but that’s about it.” Back downstairs someone had spilled their beer and as my mother’s daughter I took it as my duty to clean that away.
“I found Ben eventually – in the broom closet. He didn’t see me and that was good because he was – he was just…”
“Uh-oh… I don’t like where this is going.” Miho jumps up from the couch, paces the floor with aimless strides.
“Yeah, me neither. I walked in on him getting a blowjob from some cheerleader.” That was the exact moment my teenage dreams and my heart shattered, millions tiny pieces I never manage to put fully together again.
“I knew it!” Miho points a finger at me, shakes it once, twice. “Goddammit, that stupid manwhore!”
“What? Just because of one blowjob?” She has lost me during her triumphant march.
“Huh? No! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the rumors back then?”
I shake my head, nothing had ever prepared me for what I saw in that closet.
“That baseball coach was really strict and the boys weren’t really allowed to date if it impacted their performance. Mind you, that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to date at all, just that they could get into trouble if they got too distracted during a game or something like that. So some guys started seeing girls in secret, not because they had to but because they wanted to. That way they had a good excuse to dump the girls in case they got too clingy. Rumor has it that Ben was especially tricky. He only dated a girl long enough to get her into bed and afterwards he told her the coach had found out and would kick him out of the team if he didn’t break up with the girl. And that she was not to tell anyone under no circumstances or he would lose his spot in the lineup.” Miho’s couch pillows get a good punch and she flops down again.
“That – that can’t be right. Ben isn’t like that.” I refuse to believe it, some rumor won’t change the image I have of Ben.
“Sorry to be the one to tell you that, but he did that with at least four girls I personally know.”
With a sharp tug I rip off the thread I have played with, cut my finger in the process. Not my biggest concern now.
“Are you sure? I mean, one hundred percent? Not just gossip and hearsay?”
“Shit.” I feel sick again, force back the gagging with slow, deep breaths.
“Doesn’t mean he can’t have changed, you know?” she softly points out, rubs my back comfortingly.
“Yeah, I – I know. Sorry, I need a moment to process that.”
Once I calmed down again I nod, bob my head up and down to answer a question no one posed.
“Anyway, back to Jake.” It’s easier to put my feelings for him into words, I have lots of practice with it after all. “I was a bit – rattled after seeing Ben like that and someone handed me a cup and I thought: ‘Why the heck not?’ and downed it. In one go. Second mistake of that night.”
“And the first was…?”
“Going to the party in the first place, thinking my stupid teenage dreams would come true in some Hollywood worthy scene.” I can’t believe I was that naive. “It was the first time I had alcohol. You can imagine that it hit me like a truck. Not even in college I was drinking much, and back then I was completely clueless. Stumbled into the kitchen when I got dizzy, looking for some water. Instead I found Jake.” And a bunch of his friends, boys and girl, playing some game.
“Truth or dare with drunk teenagers, some of them even high on weed – not a good idea. Someone dared Jake to kiss me, all of them giggling at the mere idea of it. And he did. Kissed me right on the lips, I could taste the spliff on him. Full on, with tongue and everything, until I managed to shove him off me, slap him as hard as I could and run off.” He chased me out of the kitchen and into the backyard. Yelled after me to stop, still chuckling manically.
“End of the story, I slipped and fell into the pool. Hit my head and panicked. Jake panicked, too, left me underwater until I lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital, with a busted eardrum and a nice infection that caused my hearing loss.” And cemented my conviction that he is indeed the worst thing that could happen to me.
It’s a heavy silence, coupled with my migraine it’s almost pulling me under.
“But – you know, a shitfaced teenager in such a situation, there wasn’t much he could have done.”
“You mean besides getting me out of the pool? Yeah, not much.” We never told my Mom or the mayor the truth about it, but Jake and I know what happened. “He never apologized…”
I sit up straighter again, chase the gloom away. “But enough of me and my tragic backstory. Did you have fun with Jared?”
Changing the topic, running away, everything but facing the actual problem – that’s me. I mastered this technique long ago.
“Yes, sure.” Suspicion shines through her words, slowly uttered, and her eyes narrow slightly.
“Yeah, I can tell.” It’s my turn to point a finger at her now, directly at her neck. “You got something there…”
Her hands flies up, slaps over the patch of skin in question. “What? Dammit, I told him not to-”
My laughter is hint enough that she fell into my trap. “There’s nothing, don’t worry. But there could be, huh?”
A smile blooms on her lips, the storm in her eyes gives way to sun. “We – got a bit closer.”
“How close? I mean, you didn’t bang outside in the woods, did you?” It’s my turn to be curious now.
“No, but we made out a bit. Under that old oak, you know which one?”
I nod, every kid who grew up here knows the old oak. It’s just out of sight enough to be without an audience but close enough to the actual city that you don’t get lost.
“He’s picking me up for brunch tomorrow.” Her glow dims when she starts chewing on her bottom lip. “I’m thinking about telling him how my last relationship ended.”
“What? No!” There is being honest and slapping someone with a truth they don’t even need to know.
“You’re not even really dating yet, why don’t you save the heavy stuff for when it comes up?”
“Shouldn’t he know what he gets himself into?”
I give her a pointed look, a raised eyebrow and a snort. “And you think he’d know after you give him this one detail about you and your past? Miho, I have spent the last few days with you and I can already tell that you are absolutely unpredictable. In a good way,” I hurry to add. “You are a human, not some cyborg. Yes, you made a mistake, but does that mean you will repeat it over and over? Did you ever cheat before Pat? Or after that?” She shakes her head, still chewing on her lip.
“And do you plan on doing it again?” For such a smart woman she’s pretty stuck in a loop of stupid thoughts and guilt.
“No. I didn’t even plan to do it the first time around.” Her breath whooshes out through her nose, her lips pressed together tightly.
“Then why did you?”
“I was stupid, okay? Everything was fine with me and Pat and suddenly there was this guy and everything was like a dance. Stirred up the same old, same old.”
I mull her words over, there’s more to it than just a guy with a nice smile and a firm booty. “Everything was fine, you say? And was that all? Just fine?” ‘Fine’ and ‘the same old’ doesn’t sound like a very happy relationship to me.
With a groan she slumps further into the couch, trying to melt into the pillows, hands covering her face.
“Sometimes – on some days I woke up in the morning, thinking: ‘This is it? This is all, for the rest of my life?’ and it scared me, you know?”
I know. I know it just too well. I pat her leg, lean over and rest my head against her arm.
“But cheating was a shitty move and I hate that I did it.”
“Not gonna argue about that.” Breaking up is always hard but forcing your partner into taking action like that is definitely not the right way.
“Half of the town hates me now for hurting Patrick like that.” She sniffles, rubs her nose, exhales deeply. “But he’s happy now with his new girlfriend who will probably never cheat on him or even put the empty milk carton back into the fridge or – I don’t know – leave her worn panties on the bedroom floor until laundry day.”
“Ha! Now that’s something you should warn Jared about.”
She emerges from her pillow hideout, wipes her face with her hands.
“I guess he will find out eventually. Or not. We’ll see. I want to take it slow.”
“Like not knowing his name for four months slow?” My quip earns me a slap on my arm and I laugh, finally laugh again after this trainwreck of a night.
“Hey, I’m sorry for cockblocking earlier.” It’s really time for me to go to sleep now.
“That’s fine, helps me with the whole going slow thing. But you better go and sort your life out, at least the part with your parents. First thing tomorrow morning. I might cave in and bring him here after brunch.” She hands me a blanket, gets up from the couch.
“Well, you better go and pick up your old panties from the floor. If only to make room for new ones.”
My laughter follows her into her bedroom where she hopefully cleans a bit while I catch up on sleep.