“You should get ready for your party thing.” We are lying on the couch, some cooking show on TV providing background noises and idle distraction, when Miho points out the inevitable.
“Nothing’s saving me, huh? Adulting really sucks.” I yawn and stretch a bit, stalling for seconds although I’m sure Miho will drag me there herself if necessary.
“I have to check the dress, hope it’s not wrinkled.” This morning I just grabbed it and crammed it into my suitcase, just wanted to get out of Mom’s place as soon as possible. Now I pay the price for my haste, the dress is wrinkly and looks awful.
“I got a steam iron, no problem. You go and fix your hair, I’m going to fix your dress.”
Yep, she really wants me to go there. Or she just wants me to get out of her place for a while, I don’t know. But I do as I’m told, trudge into the bathroom to do my hair and makeup. Nothing fancy, just some eyeliner and mascara, concealer for that one annoying pimple and the dark circles under my eyes. I’m not going to impress someone with my minimal effort, but I won’t look out of place either. Exactly what I want. I brush my hair, tie it into a sideways ponytail, tuck some stubborn strands away with some bobby pins.
“Your dress is over there,” Miho lets me know when I step out of the bathroom, pointing towards her kitchen door. There it is, on its hanger, crease-free and suitable for the occasion.
“I like what you did with the hem.”
“I shortened it.” Nothing worth mentioning.
“Exactly. Now it’s less ‘80s school headmistress’ and more ‘sexy but sophisticated woman of our time’.”
I roll my eyes and snort, if that’s an attempt to make me feel better about my 15 bucks bargain, well, it’s working.
“Oh yeah, wait, they are in my luggage.” Simple black heels. Peep-toes.
“I got a black purse and a short jacket.” More stuff lands on her living room floor until I find what I need.
“I can do without.” I never had much jewelry, a simple silver chain grandma gave me for my birthday years ago with a small star shaped pendant, maybe a pair of earrings every now and then.
“No, you can’t. Dressing understated is one thing, but without a little bling your outfit will be simply boring. Here, let’s see what I have.”
A whole box of stuff, that’s what she has. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches. A small jewelry store in her bedroom.
“Here, these jade earrings will go great with your dress. Do you prefer gold or silver? Do you know your ring size? You’re not allergic to anything, are you? Most of this is fashion jewelry, you know?”
Her barrage of questions has be staggering, too many decisions in too little time.
“I think I’ll just go with my own necklace,” I mumble, grateful for her offer but unable to accept it.
“Stars, huh? I think I have some matching earrings somewhere… oh, and there’s a belt over there in that drawer. A black one, rather wide.”
It has a floral pattern, very unobtrusive.
“Miho – I can’t… why are you so nice to me?” It’s not that kindness is a foreign concept to me, a lot of people have been nice to me throughout my whole life. But this right now just is too much, I will never be able to repay her for everything.
“Me? Nice? You better watch your mouth, we don’t want to start some rumors. People might believe you.”
Oh great, I’m getting emotional. I frantically blink, my eye makeup too well done for me to ruin it with another ugly crying fit now.
“No, really, you’ve been a great friend.”
“Oh come on, you hooked me up with the guy I’m crushing on for months now, we are even.” She pats my bum, shoos me out of the bedroom and towards my dress.
“You will feel better once you’re actually dressed. Imagine it being your superhero outfit. That always helps me when I get dressed for some unpleasant task.”
“Don’t you mean, your super-villain outfit?”
“Hush!” This time she doesn’t gently pat my butt, but gives me a slap. A hard one.
“Ouch! Okay, okay, I get it, superhero it is. You definitely have some super strength.” Still laughing I grab my dress, retreat into the bathroom to change and take on my secret identity as confident, somewhat successful better version of myself.
It doesn’t work like a charm, but I do feel more confident now that I’m dressed up, hair and makeup not the usual mess.
“Now look at you!” Miho’s gaze sweeps appreciatively once up and down my outfit, she hands me the earrings and I’m ready to face the night.
Or not. A bus ride later I feel ridiculously dressed up, I’m leaving a trail of bobby pins and I’m sweating bullets. Rushing in, greeting the mayor and sneaking out again seems like a good plan of action. Maybe avoiding bumping into his sons, that would be great.
At the entrance I give my name to some nice woman who tells me where to leave my jacket – as if I didn’t know the house better than she ever could – and informs me that Mr. Rosenfeldt wants to see me.
Which one, though? A server offers me a glass of some bubbly and I go for it. Half of its contents later I’m still nervous, but at least with a hint of a buzz. But I have to say, the house looks incredible. Surfaces shimmer and no speck of dust anywhere. Good job, me!
I don’t recognize most of the people here and the few I do are only known to me from sight, not by name. Elias is surrounded by a small crowd, of course, he’s the host after all. Still, as soon as he spots me he excuses himself to them and comes over.
“Jazz, dear, I’m so glad you could make it. There are a few people I’d like you to meet. You are looking very pretty tonight, by the way.”
“Thanks, but flattery won’t get you anywhere. I already cleaned everything around here, there’s nothing more I could do.” At least he makes me smile.
“Nonsense. But didn’t you bring a date? It was a bit of a short notice, I understand. Still, there must a young man somewhere who caught your eyes, isn’t there?”
“It’s – complicated,” I say with the sweetest smile I can muster to throw him off the track.
“Well, maybe you will find someone here tonight. Although I’m afraid most gentlemen here are either already taken or too old for you.” He leads me over to the group he has been talking with earlier, gives me a little push forward. “May I introduce the first scholarship student from our local High School? Miss Jazz Mann, one of the brightest young women I ever had the pleasure to meet.”
There are some very impressive names and titles in the round of introductions, my nervousness skyrockets and so does my sweating. After Elias initiates a lively conversation he excuses himself again to greet some more guests, leaves me there with all these bigshots. Since Elias has announced my field of expertise before he left some questions are actually directed at it and at the projects I’m working on. I get some business cards and offers to talk more about the projects from people who I would have otherwise not the chance to speak to. Probably Elias’s plan all along, but my growing unease in the unfamiliar company, paired with the constant reminders of Sam as my partner in this project, makes me restless.
Just when I’m looking for a good excuse to slink away a familiar face shows up in the group.
“Ah, Benjamin.” The elderly gentleman I just talked to about the possibility of implementing some accessibility options for hearing-impaired visitors of his gallery a few towns over greets Ben as if they know for ages already. Not unlikely, though.
“Have you had the pleasure of meeting Miss Mann already?”
“Indeed, I had. And I’m actually just looking for her. I hope you don’t mind me stealing her away for a second.” He excuses us, grabs me by the arm and leads me away.
“You were looking uncomfortable so I figured I’d better come and save you,” he whispers, but his polite smile doesn’t even waver for a split second. If he can’t make it in sports he can still start a career as politician.
He takes me outside, into the garden, behind a corner hidden from the curious glances of the other guests. I’m afraid to shatter my glass but I have to grip it tightly to mask the trembling of my hands. Being alone with him after what he said yesterday is strange. Thinking that he actually is interested in me is even stranger. Surreal.
“You’re looking great tonight. The dress is – looks good on you.”
“Thanks.” Silence used to be comfortable between us, but this now is painful. I’m hyper aware of his every move, breath, glance.
“So, I took the liberty to make arrangements for us sitting together at dinner.”
Oh yes, he did ask me to be his dinner partner – among other things.
“You did? Oh, okay.” It’s not a big deal, I rather sit next to him than among people I don’t know at all.
“And maybe we can sneak off afterwards, spend a bit time alone together.” He leans in closer, as if telling me a secret. Since we are alone anyway it’s only for show, a cheap excuse to get closer. He smells like soap and wood, grass and fresh air. Not sure how much of it is him and what is our surrounding, but paired with the champagne it sends a shiver through me that stirs up the butterflies in my stomach. It reminds me of so many things I can’t even all name.
“We – we will see.” There’s not even enough saliva in my mouth to swallow and I almost choke on nothing but my own confusion. It’s just the echo of my old crush on him, one-sided feelings that only come up now that he fans them with his sudden interest in me.
It sucks when your mind and heart are not on the same page.
He inches closer, until I’m pressed against the wall, heart racing like crazy, dizzy and with shaking knees.
His face is right in front of me, I can see the golden speckles in his eyes, reflecting the sun even here in the shadows.
“I think we should go back for now. I don’t want anyone to come looking for us.”
Ben inhales, chuckles and pulls back.
“Yes, of course. Come.” He takes my hand, leads me back chatting as if nothing had happened. Well, nothing has happened, but my spine and knees haven’t gotten that information yet.
Back inside the house he leads me to the makeshift bar, my empty glass apparently a challenge he has to overcome. Another glass replaces my old one, the champagne bubbles happily and after a good swig I also feel much lighter.
“So here are you. I’ve been looking for you.” Jake motions towards the barkeeper who hands him a glass with a smile.
“She was with me,” Ben says, leans against the bar with his back and scans the room, smiles and greets here and there. Trapped between them, although there’s still much room, I don’t dare to move. I gulp down another big sip of champagne, fumble with the glass.
“Oh, okay. And now she’s coming with me.” No question, he takes my wrist and tugs, not enough to make me move, just indicating he wants to leave now.
There’s not escape at the bottom of my glass, so I set it back on the bar, shake off Jake’s grip and smile at Ben.
“Excuse us for a moment, I guess that will take a while.”
“Okay. Come and find me later.”
I hum, not a yes and not a no, but it’s enough to make Ben nod. We seem to have an agreement. Now for his brother.
“Lead the way.” I’m not going to have any kind of conversation with him when there are other people, we have the tendency to yell or embarass each other. Well, I yell and he embarasses me.
Ben’s room has been turned into a storage room for today, serving staff milling in and out. Jake’s is quiet, he’s staying in here for a few days after all. No way they could divert it without Jake kicking them out.
“Do I have to worry about you and Bennie?”
He plops down on his bed, I just stand there in the middle of the room like an idiot. All dressed up but nowhere to go, or better, not sure with whom.
“You don’t worry much about me anyway, so no need to start now.”
Propped up on his elbows he’s watching me, a cheap staredown I let wash over me. Not raising to the bait.
“I always worried about you. Told you yesterday, didn’t I?”
“No.” My legs are stiff, my knees locked up as I walk towards his desk. “You said you’re in love with me, not that you worry about me.”
“I love you, that’s why I care for you. Hence also worry about you.”
“You are good at hiding it.” My fingertips glide over the cover of his yearbook. He only tilts his head when I look at him so I open it, browse through the pages. There’s a fold somewhere near the end, the page familiar to me. Band and music clubs, me at the piano, before I lost my hearing. My shy smile not ruined by my retainers anymore, I look directly into the camera.
“Thing is, I didn’t want to hide it. I thought – well, in the beginning you were just this kid and then you grew up and I figured it would be weird if I openly hit on you.” He sits up, gives me room and time to process his words.
“So you opted for bullying me instead?” The sound of me slamming the yearbook shut covers up my dry laughter.
“I didn’t bully you.”
“No? The name calling, the laughing at me with your friends, all those stupid pranks?” My outburst lures him closer, he takes the yearbook from me, places it gently on the desk.
“I never laughed at you.” His eyebrows twitch and knit. “I always thought we were laughing together. You know, the banter, the back and forth. I said something, you said something. That was our thing.”
“That wasn’t us having fun. That was you being a jerk and me trying to say what I think in a way that wouldn’t upset you too much so my Mom wouldn’t lose her job!” That’s not too hard to see after all.
“Jake, you exposed me in front of the whole school, you ruined more of my important days than not, god, you even mocked Ben’s nickname for me!”
If there was a literal light bulb over his head it would light up now and illuminate the whole house.
“Ben’s nickname for you?”
“Jayjay. You know exactly what I’m talking about, but I guess you didn’t know that I heard you back then.” When he laughed with his friends, called me ‘Va-Jayjay’ behind my back.
“No idea what you think you heard, but I remember calling you ‘ma Jayjay’ in a very embarrassing fake accent. So I apologize for my poor excuse of a French accent.”
I refuse to get thrown off track now, not even sure if he’s telling the truth.
“Jake, you almost broke my nose with a basketball!”
“I thought you would catch it!”
“You spilled hot coffee all over me!”
“It was for you! You seemed so tired and fed up that day and I figured you could use a pick-me-up!”
“But not all over my blouse!” Every word, every single time we speak we gravitate closer to each other, and despite the difference in height I’m not intimidated, I won’t back down, won’t cower. Not this time.
“That wasn’t planned, okay?”
“Planned or not doesn’t change the fact that I was the girl who streaked in the school lobby for the rest of my time there.” He has only ever made my life harder and now he claims that he loved me all along. Great, just great.
“You act as if I never did anything nice for you.”
That close up his eyes are really interesting, different to Ben’s, but with the same golden speckles. Can’t help but admire that gene pool.
He scoffs, still only inches away from me.
“The notebook? The hair tie?”
“The pen. Bittersweet symphony. Yeah, that – that has been you, huh?” The only ray of light in my dark high school days and now it turns out the light at the end of the tunnel was a train all along.
“That, too. I was hoping – I mean, you like music and so do I, so we got that in common. And the song is-”
Short-lived triumph wells up in me when he breaks eye contact, hangs his head and shakes it. “We never actually played it together.”
“No, we didn’t. I thought-” My shoes are very interesting, I never noticed that small spot. Is it a hole? “When the invitation to your party was in my locker, I thought I would have one of those Hollywood rom-com moments. You know, the whole confession in semi-public, romantic duet thing. Just didn’t think you would be the one to show up.”
The warmths of his palm against my arm is a shock, sends a shiver through me.
“You thought it was Ben. You wanted it to be him.”
I nod, no need to hide it anymore.
“He’s my brother, I love him and all, but honestly, back then he was the wrong choice for you. He still is.”
“But you are the right choice? The one?” Something is wrong with my eyes, everything is so blurry.
“I surely hope so.” Something is really wrong with my eyes now, it looks as if Jake’s getting even closer, so close I lose focus.
His lips ghost over mine, one hand cups my face, keeps me in place, turned towards him.
Is that my voice, that pathetic whimper? Well, it’s not him, he is busy deepening the kiss. His hum is shaking me awake, I pull back before he can put his tongue to use.
“Wait, wait, wait. This – this is not good.” His warmth and scent cling to me, a siren song taking advantage of my confusion and the need for comfort. But not this. Never this.
“Too much, too soon?” His thumb strokes over my cheek, comes back wet. There goes my self control.
“You shouldn’t kiss me at all! Gosh, just like back then… what’s next? You going to let me drown again?” The angry pitch of my tinnitus cuts through the turmoil, shows me the way. Stay angry, stay focused.
I flinch but he only throws his hands up, not directed at me.
“Again and again. Sorry, but no matter how much time passes, it won’t change the facts! You forced that stupid game on me, you kissed me and when I ran away you chased me, right into your pool. And then you watched me struggle until I blacked out.”
“That is not – stop saying I let you drown! I was drunk, I was high, I was stupid, okay? You fell into the pool and I panicked. I wasn’t trying to murder you or anything!”
“But you didn’t exactly come to help me either.” One of the baseball players jumped in and got me out in the end. Just in time.
“Neither did Ben. Do you know what he was doing at that time?”
I take a step back, then another. Jake is too furious for me to feel safe.
“Yes, I know.”
“You know nothing!” The yearbook lands on the ground with a loud thud, opens at a random page. Jake blinks, surprised that he wiped it off the desk with his wide arm motions.
“You know nothing.” Softer this time, weaker.
“No, I do. I saw him. Them. Guess why I was so upset when I came into the kitchen.” I wipe my face with my hands, they come back streaked with black mascara.
“And you are still so hung up on him? He – whatever he tells you now, he doesn’t know you like I do. Doesn’t love you like I do.”
“Probably not. But he never made me cry like you do either.”
After a quick visit in the bathroom to freshen up – or better frantically wiping my cheeks clean, can’t do much about my red-rimmed eyes now – I’m calm enough to go back downstairs. With my head lowered a bit I avoid catching anyone’s eyes, I’m going to find an excuse to tell Elias and leave before I have a nervous meltdown. Making my way through the crowd I jump when someone grabs my arm.
“You having fun?”
Bewildered I stare at Miho in her fancy dinner outfit we have picked out earlier.
“What are you doing here?”
“He brought me.” She motions over to group of people. Jared is standing with them, looking good in one of his suits.
“This is the date he took you on?” The concept needs a moment to register, but I guess he’s working with Elias.
“Hey, it’s free food and drinks. I’m not complaining.”
“And free drama.” I take her glass and down it, shudder and let out a very unladylike burp. “Sorry, the bubbles.”
The next waitress with a tray full of glasses finds herself lacking two all of sudden, Miho takes the empty glass from me and pushes a fresh one into my hand.
“The worst kind.” I never liked love triangles in movies and books, and now that I’m somehow tangled in one I hate it even more.
“Oh, dinner with a show. Nice.”
I shoot her a bitchy look, scan the room for Ben and/or jake. Any Rosenfeldt at this point, I don’t even want to see Elias right now. It’s partly his fault, he’s the one to have these sons and he invited me here today.
“The problem is only, I don’t know my lines. The whole plot unfolds around me and I have no clue what to do or say.”
“Hm, how about you make the best of it? Make a huge scene. I mean, people are already talking about you, so give them something to gossip about.” Her arms loosely crossed in front of her she gestures with her champagne glass. Probably not her first one, minus the one I drank.
“I’d rather not.”
“Well, looks as if you don’t have much of a chance,” she mutters, looks pointedly past me. I turn, glance over my shoulder. Ben is heading directly my way, a bright smile on his face. A smile that wavers before he reaches me, eyes now trained at a point behind me.
“Ben, darling! I was looking for you already.”
Nails on a chalkboard are nothing against the sound of Maddie’s voice, the shiver and goosebumps it sends over me hard to shake off.
“Mads. What are you doing here?”
There’s not place I’d rather be now than trapped between them in this strange reunion scene. Maybe just the inside of an active volcano, but that’s about it.
“Silly question, I just made it back in time here to enjoy this wonderful party with you.” She clings to his arms, smiles brightly at him, but her eyes dart around the room to check for the reaction of the other guests. At least that’s what it looks like to me. Her eyes narrow when she spots me, but she opts to ignore me in favor of fawning over Ben.
That’s all he has to say, just ‘oh’. His shrug is directed at me, eyes wide, and without protest he allows Maddie to lead him away, her fake laughter and constant chatting battling with my tinnitus.
“What the heck was that just now?”
Jared, ever the gentleman, nods at me as a greeting and turns to Miho for an explanation.
“Ms Brewer? I heard she tried to lure Dr. Posner into her bed at some medical convention but didn’t know that he is definitely not interested.”
“And how comes you know all that?” Miho chats with him as if that was actually the most pressing question right now.
“Well, I play squash with Dr. Posner’s boyfriend, and he’s a huge gossip.”
“When did all of this happen?” I still try to wrap my head around the new information.
“Just now, this weekend. Posner was on some conference and originally another assistant was supposed to go with him but she got sick and Ms Brewer said she would love to take her place. That was -” He furrows his brow, stares at the ceiling. “Last Tuesday. And Friday they left for the conference. Terry – the boyfriend – told me yesterday over a nice game of squash about how the assistant Posner brought along tried to seduce him. They almost died laughing about the whole thing. Well, not the assistant. Only learned today it’s Ben’s fiancée.”
“Wait, so Maddie broke up with Ben to try and get her hands on a doctor?” My laughter shrills, clashes with the noise in my ears. “Sorry, but yeah, that sounds about right.” Not much like the Maddie I know from school, but like the one I met here the week ago.
“Good to know I have such a trusty source of gossip now. Anyone else you play squash with?” Miho lightly bumps her hip against his, smiles brightly. At least one who’s having fun. Or both, if Jared’s growing smile and the way he stays close to her without actually touching her too much is any indicator.
“I got a few, but a guy has to have some secrets.”
Their sickly sweet flirting wraps itself like a blanket around me, calms down my nerves, soothes my overloaded senses. Like white noise, just with more sexual tension. My heartbeat doesn’t hurt me anymore and I can breathe almost evenly. Panic attack averted.
“Are you having fun?”
In the few seconds I let my guard down Jake managed to sneak up on us, now stands next to me with a glass of champagne in his hand, smiling at Jared but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Yes, it’s a great party. I missed your father so far, I hope I will have a chance to thank him for inviting me later.”
Two good looking businessmen talking with each other, two women at their sides – we must look like some stupid commercial. Only that one of the women glares at one of the men, the other tries to make herself small enough to fall through the cracks of time while the other man is completely oblivious.
“I’m surprised about your choice for your date,” Jake just says, chokes on his sip of champagne when I jab my elbow into his side.
“Why is that?” Jared glances at Miho who still tries to murder Jake with the power of her imagination alone.
“I just didn’t know you are seeing anyone, that’s all.”
“We just talked about how men are also entitled to their secrets. And some should stay secrets,” I chirp, but my voice drops at the end of the sentence. I don’t dare give him more of a warning, not with witnesses around.
“I guess you are right.” Jake shrugs, but winks at me. Hopefully that means he got the hint.
“As much as I hate those stereotypes, but Jazz, do you happen to have some powder or eyeliner you could share? Or anything else that can pass as euphemism for me asking you to show me where the restroom is?” It costs me an incredible amount of strength to tear my glare from Jake, to move my ramrod spine and turn to Miho.
“Um, yeah, sure. We can go upstairs. That’s okay, isn’t it, Jacob?”
“Sure, will be less crowded upstairs. Mi casa es su casa.”
I stalk over towards the stairs, can feel Jake’s eyes on my back the whole time. No, I’m not putting on a show, my hips move like this all the time. I’m just overly aware of it now.
“You okay?” Miho whispers and I shrug.
“Not sure. How about you?”
“I had a drink or two, I’m fuckin’ great. Jake and his passive-aggressive judging won’t change a thing.”
Up here it’s not only less crowded, it’s completely empty. The carpet swallows our footsteps, I don’t feel like talking so we make our way down the hall in silence.
“Bathroom is in here,” I say, my hand already on the doorknob. “I’m waiting out here for you to – OH MY GOSH!”
Everything happens at once. It’s a deja vu, Ben leaning against the sink, a girl on her knees in front of him. I realize I walked in on him and Maddie, slam the door shut again while Miho bursts out into manic laughter.
My stomach churns. Throwing up here on the carpet is a bad idea but I can’t go back into the bathroom so I run for the stairs, I have to make it downstairs and into the bathroom there. Or into the kitchen. What the heck, even the garden is a better choice than puking here in the hallway.
Muffled footsteps behind me spur me on, whoever it is, I don’t want to talk to anyone.
“Jazz? What’s wrong?”
That’s not from behind but in front of me. Jake catches me before I can rush past him, steadies me. I’m trembling, alright. Not a good sign.
“Jayjay!” Out of breath Ben catches up with us, his face bright red. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t-”
“It’s okay, no need to explain.” My voice is shaking, as are my knees. Even more adrenaline today and I will explode. Can’t be healthy, this up and down.
“What happened?” Jake looks from me, pale and wide eyed, to Ben whose pants are still open, hastily pulled up.
“Nothing.” Both of us answer at the same time, Ben more frantic while I’m just tired.
“Benjamin!” Maddie takes her time, she’s just taking a few quicker steps for show. Practically saunters towards up.
“I see.” Jake pulls me closer, away from his brother.
“Oh, you are here, too.” It’s amazing to see how Maddie’s whole demeanor changed from one second to the other. She must hate Jake even more than me.
One of her hands clutches Ben’s arm, the diamond sparkles at her finger as if he was never gone.
“It’s more of a surprise that you are here,” Jake shoots back. Ben is torn between pleading silently into my general direction and looking at the floor. At least some shame left in him.
“Why is that? I mean, Benjamin and I are engaged after all.”
“Are you, though?”
“Of course. I needed a few days to think this through-” At this point I can’t help my sarcastic laughter, but Maddie continues as if nothing was wrong. “- but I decided that I’m willing to fight for him.” She glares at me and I can’t even care enough to react. My blank face is all she gets, the lack of reaction mirroring perfectly my lack of emotion right now. Later this night it will crash down on me and I will probably cry my heart out, but for now I’m pleasantly numb.
“Next time fight for him behind locked doors. If you excuse me now, I really need to get a drink. Maybe I can get drunk enough to black out and the image of the both of you in there will get erased for good.”
“You could have knocked,” Maddie spits, bats her lashes towards Benjamin.
“You could have some class, but that ship has sailed.” Before she can open her mouth I leave, head high, back straight. The urge to throw up is manageable now, so I can go and get some shots, no problem.
“I would say ‘told you so’, but no one likes to hear that.”
Jake motions for the barkeeper, orders two gin.
“And I would let you bask in your triumph, but honestly I’m not surprised.” The liquor burns, I can’t really taste it. But it hits the spot.
“Not? I thought you were – I don’t know, having something special with Ben.”
I pluck the glass from his hand, if he doesn’t drink it I will.
“Yeah? I was rather cautious about the nature of his interest.” There was definitely some physical attraction between us, also from my side, I can’t deny that. “He is not as I remember him anymore. Maybe he never was like that at all.” I make a face, the gin is stronger than expected. Doesn’t keep me from ordering more.
“Hey, what’s the beef with you and Maddie?”
“I think you should slow down with that.” This time he takes the glass from me and downs it. “Well, one year in college I came home for the summer and you had just graduated. So it was my second year? Third? Not sure anymore. Anyway, we ran into each other a few times. I remembered her vaguely from school but she was a bit annoying, threw herself at me all the time. No class, that chick.”
“And you only go for the classy ones, sure.” A last shot of gin and my mind gets fuzzy, my limbs heavy. In a nice way.
“Only the classiest,” he confirms and takes my arm, steers me out into the garden. Ah, fresh air. We give the pool a wide berth, stop at a small bench and he makes me sit down.
“She had a crush on you ever since middle school. Talked about you all the time.” I giggle. “Funny how she ends up with Ben now. And here I sit with you. Reversed worlds.”
“Might be because I turned her down. She asked me outright to sleep with her and I said no thanks. Didn’t take it well.”
I burst into laughter, half fueled by the alcohol, half stems from my mental image of Maddie’s face at the rejection.
“No idea how she ended up with Ben. But he brought her home one day, a year or so after the last time I saw her. And she had the audacity to offer me to dump my brother and be with me instead. Not hard to see why I don’t like her, huh?”
I have to agree, albeit begrudgingly, just because. Can’t get soft on him now.
“Well, she’s not with him because his equipment is so good, you know? First time I happened to see his dick I was mostly shocked, first real dick I ever saw. But from today’s perspective I can say it’s average at best. Probably a bit less.”
“Ewww, too much information! There are things I don’t want to know about my brother.” But he’s laughing and so am I.
“Back then when you kissed me – it was my first kiss.” I’m just miserable enough to tell him, so he can feel bad, too.
“Really?” I nod, rest my head on his shoulder but the world won’t stop spinning.
“You need a glass of water? Don’t want you to puke on me again.” He wraps his arm around me, my eyelids grow heavy.
“Nah, I’m good. Just need a second to rest and then I’m leaving before the actual dinner part. Can you tell your Dad I’m sorry and all, but I’m not well?”
“Do you want to lie down a bit? You could use my room.”
“You really can’t wait to get me in your bed, huh?” I blink against the dim light in the garden, sit up straighter again. “I don’t want to be in the same place as Madeleine or Benjamin. There’s not much of my dignity left, better make sure I keep the remains of it.”
“Well, you got my number.”
I do, but won’t call him. Why should I?
“Jake, listen, I can only imagine how hard it was to tell me all that, but just because you say you love me now doesn’t change the way I see you. The way I feel about you, always felt about you. It’s not an excuse for how you treated me in the past, maybe an explanation, but not an excuse. I don’t want to be cruel, but I want to make one thing clear. I don’t love you, I don’t even really like you. If it wasn’t for the gin I would probably not even sit here with you. It makes no difference if I have your number or not, and I would prefer if you just deleted mine.” It’s all a bit slurred but at least heartfelt. I pat his arm, heave myself up with a groan, wait until I don’t sway anymore and wobble back inside, have to let Miho know that I’m leaving.
I find her whispering with Jared, both of them stealing glances at Maddie and Ben playing picture perfect couple.
“You’re leaving already?” She looks me up and down once, her smile replaced with a serious expression.
“Yeah, sorry. This is – it’s too much. Crazy and confusing and all I want is to crawl into bed and stay there.”
“Oh, come on, at least wait until after dinner. I’m sure you can sit with me and Jared. You shouldn’t be alone in your state. And you should eat, to soak up the booze.” She glances at her watch, frowns.
“No, I really want to go now, before anything else can happen. I can’t take any more drama today.”
I hug her tightly, pat Jared’s shoulder and turn to leave. And freeze. There in the crowd I can see a familiar face, sparkling eyes and a hesitant smile.