My friends—I call them friends because what else to call them? We eat dinner together, huddle into a single car to head across town for a movie, bake cookies at 3am, and smoke up out behind our dorm buildings while watching for campus security—mean well. Any one of them would love to be offered up a Jesse or a Carver from Virgina Tech or a Lucas from that punk band with two bassists and no guitar. Maybe they’ve already sampled. Maybe the Jesses and Carvers are the rejects, small cocks, bad breath, too cheap, whatever. Or maybe they’re being kind. More often than not they’re partnered, or in the process of becoming, and they see me there alone, eyes moonless. They don’t want me to feel left out.
I’ve accepted a few dates and have been asked on seconds, with my friends urging me on, cooing that a smitten guy is not a thing to waste. It’s an opportunity, they say. But being chased makes me feel like a dog who’s escaped her leash, and if that happens, good luck, there’s no getting me back.
There was the time with Tyler. Trevor? Something with a T. He spoke soft and blinked a lot. We ate pizza and he bought me never-ending razzamatinis. At the end of the night, he blushed as he asked to call me the next day. I gave him my number but ignored the voice-mails proclaiming he’d do whatever it takes to win me over.
Then there was the little incident with Mara’s ex, Cal. She was—is still—in love with him. For some reason she thought I had to meet him, so one Friday we drove to Lynchburg together. In her parents’ basement she got drunk on box wine while Cal stared at me, mute. I too sat mute. Back in Roanoke, Mara called me from her dorm room—right next to mine—and said I was a bitch, said of course Cal would like me, I’m his type. He could tell by my silence just how intelligent I was. He wanted to fuck me and she would kill me if I dared. Then she asked if I wanted to ride with her to Target. She needed new eyeliner, her little sister stole hers, and that was that. I went and bought the liner for her to show no hard feelings. I respectfully failed to mention that I didn’t have a thing for pasty, whiny guys with greasy hair and drug-hollowed eyes. If I’d loved him, or not, either way she’d have gotten upset and gulped down too many PBRs in attempt to blot out any self-concocted pain so it was best to just keep my mouth shut. I’m good at that.
So when we’re sitting in our favorite booth at Community Inn, our favorite dive across town, and Mara catches me eying the back of a man hunched over a bottle of Budweiser at the bar, it surprises me that she shakes her head, whispers that he’s track—she means drunk, like she is—and old, and probably smells, probably drives a rusted-out Ford, probably is missing a few teeth. I feign ignorance, What are you talking about? But I can’t stop looking. Stealing glances is the appropriate phrase.
Later in the car, secure against the night, Isa, in shotgun, turns back to me, asks what was up with that guy?
“The old alky in the flannel jacket.”
“You were watching him the whole night,” Mara chimes in.
“He wasn’t there the entire night,” I say as Mara speeds through a yellow light.
“If you weren’t watching him, how would you know?” Mara peers at me in the rear-view mirror.
“He looked familiar is all,” I lie, hoping they’ll drop it. A redirection will help here. I can mention Elle’s new catch, some shaggy blonde, or the bartender’s ugly new tattoo.
“Leave her alone,” Elle, blessed soul, says. “It doesn’t mean anything to look.”
Truth is, I didn’t see him, not really, not his face. He kept himself huddled over his beer bottle, a camo baseball hat low over his eyes. The only way I could tell he was older were the wisps of grey at the nape of his neck. I don’t know why he arrested me like that, handcuffed me by a stooped shoulder, a dusty neck. There were other guys in the bar, several groups of college kids, some of whom Isa knew and offered to introduce me to. My attention was, or so I erroneously thought, covertly locked on that lone figure.
I return the next night alone. It’s Sunday and I doubt he’s here. I doubt right, but I take a seat at a back booth nonetheless. Sarah, the bartender with the bad tattoo, smiles at me, asks where my friends are.
I shrug. “Probably back at campus.”
“You meeting someone?”
I shake my head. “Just me.”
She leaves, returns with a gin and tonic. “You like these, right?” When I nod, she tells me the drink is on her.
After my second free drink, I move to the bar, feeling buzzy. Sarah stops wiping glasses over by the kitchen, comes and joins me. I’m in the seat he’d been in the night before.
“So why are you really here?” She asks with a slow smile as she leans her elbows on the bar. Her tattoo, Bettie Page in a sexy cat costume—ears, tail, whiskers, all of it—looks scabby on her bicep. “Break up with your boyfriend?”
Sarah skewers a few cherries onto a plastic scimitar-shaped swizzle stick and hands it to me. “Good to know.”
The bar is now completely empty, a realization that emboldens me. “Do you know who was sitting here last night?”
Her face falls. “What?”
“Flannel jacket, hat, in this seat. Drinking Budweiser.”
She shrugs, all softness gone from her voice. “Some guy. Navin. Yeah, that’s it. I remember because there’s a road in my hometown, Navin Avenue.”
“Does he come in often?”
She starts wiping down the bar again. “Not daily. Why?”
Now I shrug. “Just curious.”
“Honey, I know it’s none of my business,” she offers, “but I wouldn’t go chasing after trouble if I were you.”
“How do you know he’s trouble?”
With a bitter grin, she says, “All men are.”
When I come back the next night, Sarah’s not there. Jules doesn’t give me free drinks, but he doesn’t give me any looks either. I sit at the bar, pull a book out of my purse. “You mind?” Again, the place is pretty empty. There’s a couple playing pool in the back, a guy flipping through the jukebox.
“You drinking?” Jules asks.
“Gin and tonic, please.”
I look up when I hear the door. The hat, the flannel. Navin. My instinct is to bury myself back in my book, not make eye contact, try to hide in plain sight. I never expected him to show. Now here he is and I don’t know what to do. He pauses. I’m in his seat. He sits next to me.
“What’ll it be?” Jules asks him.
“Bud. Bottle,” Navin says.
Two words and I’m transported. No longer sitting in the shitty Community Inn, I’m winding up a mountainside in a beat-up truck, the road coughing up little puffs of dirt around me, the sky above the trees splayed open. I’m in a mud-splattered white dress. My hair, unbound and free, whips across my face, flags out the window. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know there will be that late-night silence at the end, hand-rolled cigarettes and piss-beer in brown glass bottles.
Bud. Bottle. Home is in those words. Not the home where I was raised, not my parents’ home back up in New York, but the place where I should be, the place that feels comforting and right. That home. His voice. It wraps around me, constricts me until I can’t move. I want him to speak again. He needs to speak again. Please, speak again.
But when his bottle’s empty, efficient Jules sweeps it away, asks, “Another?” Navin nods, slides over a few dollars. I turn, pretending to look out the large bay window by the door but really studying his profile. Nose, lips, chin, all there, nothing remarkable, and yet. I feel my heart beating faster, so fast, so strong I fear everyone in the bar can hear it, all six of them. I’ve never felt like this. Of course I’ve never felt like this. He lifts his head, checks the score of the game on the television behind Jules. Before curling back over his fresh bottle, he cocks my way and I see his face full-on. Lashes as long as the Blue Ridge Parkway and eyes the color of the surrounding mountains.
I want to smile at him, take his hand, lead him out of the bar. I see us together in that junky truck, riding down dirt roads, heading toward our home, a wooden shanty tucked deep in a valley with a big brass bed inside, soot-stained lace curtains, maybe a cat, maybe an old bloodhound. Instead, I pay my tab, grab my book and leave, embarrassed. Certain that in that one brief glance, he saw all the way through me, down to my thoughts, and did not like what he saw.
Back on campus after a quick stop at the grocery store, my chest tightens. Ours is a small school, 800 undergrads, all girls, but it feels stifling, crowded, especially as I wind around the loop encircling the heart of campus and head toward the front quad. Our rooms—mine, Mara’s and Elle’s—are in Main, the largest building at the foot of the lawn. As I near, I see Mara and Isa wrapped in blankets and sitting in the rockers on the long veranda.
“You were at Kroger all evening?” Mara snips, reaching for the 6-pack I brought back for her.
“Not all evening,” I say.
“You had a date!” Isa accuses. “You sneak.”
“I had to get off campus.”
“Where were you?” Mara pours a beer into her pink Nalgene water bottle, tosses the can in the trash.
“I went out for a drink.” I shrug to show, No big deal.
“By yourself?” asks Isa. “That’s just sad.”
“Oh my god,” Mara laughs after a long swig from her bottle. “You went back to CI, didn’t you? To see if that old guy was there? You did! You’re so blushing.”
Unconvinced, Isa studies me. “Holy shit. You are blushing. You did go back there.” She flicks her cigarette butt toward the garbage can. “Seriously? What the fuck? He could be my dad. That’s gross, right?” Turning, she seeks approval from Mara, who nods in agreement. “Gross.” Isa repeats.
I roll my eyes. “I’m going to bed. Enjoy the beer.”
It’s three flights to my room, and as I climb, my phone beeps. Mara. Don’t be mad, darlin’. Only she can slip her authentic southern-belle accent into texts messages. You know I <3 you and b/c of that I want to see w/ someone who is better than that. Don’t sell yourself short.
I can’t blame them for blowing things out of proportion. Haven’t I already imagined me and Navin running away together? All from the slope of a back, a long eyelash, two words, that voice. When he looked at me at the bar, he didn’t smile. What did I expect—for him to slam me on the bar and take me right there, with Jules watching? What the fuck, indeed. Mara and Isa, though. I mean, I’m not stalking the guy. They don’t know Navin. They don’t know what he’s like or how old he is. Granted, neither do I. But is it selling yourself short to go after what you want, regardless of the whats or whys?
And I don’t even want him. I don’t. I’m just curious.
If I can get myself to believe this, I’ll be fine.
To press pause on the Bud, bottle loop that’s still running through my mind—and to get Mara and the girls off my back about my stalkee—I agree to another blind date. Elle’s shaggy blonde has a friend who likes to read and shit and for that, has been deemed perfect for me.
I beg Elle to set it up as a double date, but she refuses. “Gotta learn to fly on your own. Ryan’ll be here at seven on Saturday.” She adds, “He’s our age. Don’t hold that against him.”
After dinner on Saturday, Mara comes to my room. Just to visit, she says, but I understand this is an inspection. My jeans and over-sized black sweater displease her.
“Would it hurt you to try?” she asks, swinging open my closet door. “You have a dozen dresses right here.” Out comes a black and white polka-dot wrap dress. She locates a pair of red wedges and a matching purse. “Why don’t I ever see you wear this stuff?”
She ignores me. “You own mascara, don’t you?”
When I tell her I don’t, that it makes me look like I’m wearing false eyelashes, she sighs and says, “That’s the point. I’ll be back.” She returns with a vintage teal train case, pops it open and snaps her fingers at me. “Ren, dress on, now.”
I comply, then sit at my desk while she smears goo on my face. Elle rushes in waving her phone. “Josh just texted that Ryan’s on the way. He should be here soon.” She stops abruptly in front of me. “Wow, Ren. You look like a girl. Or a woman. You know what I mean. Hot.”
“I know, right?” Mara glows, stepping back from her work. “We never doubted you were pretty,” she explains, “but yeah, wow. You clean up good, kid.”
“Can we stop talking about how I look, please?”
“You need to get over yourself,” Mara advises. “Enjoy being hot.”
“Ryan’ll enjoy it,” Elle nods.
“I’m nervous,” I say.
“You’ve been on dates before,” Mara says.
This one feels different, I admit. Elle asks how, but I can’t tell them it’s my only chance to get Navin out of my head. I’m banking on some guy I’ve never met to drive out Navin’s ghost, the memory of his voice. “I guess I’m just excited,” I finally lie.
“You didn’t look all that excited in that getup you had on earlier,” Mara says. “You looked like you wanted to screw this up like the other dates we’ve gotten for you.”
She’s right. Before I’ve even met the guy, I’ve put him in an impossible position: Make me forget a man I don’t want to forget. I want Ryan to fail. I want to fail him.
“It’s just a date,” Elle says gently. “It’s okay if you don’t like him, but give it a shot.”
Mara peers out the window. “I think he’s here.” Then she whispers, “And he’s cute.”
I grab my coat and head toward the stairs.
“Knock him dead,” Elle says. Mara gives me a thumbs-up.
“Ryan?” I ask, stepping out onto the porch.
“Ren? Hi.” He moves in for a hug as I hold out my hand, my fingers poking into his ribs. He hops back.
Mortified, I apologize. “I guess I should come clean. I’m really awkward.”
Ryan smiles. “Me too. We can start a club, make t-shirts.”
“Three sizes too big with pit-stains,” he says. “Want to start over? A mulligan?” He holds out his hand and we shake.
He opens the car door for me. Sliding in, I look up and see Mara and Elle watching from Mara’s window. She smiles and waves. Elle mouths, Good Luck. I roll my eyes.
As Ryan climbs in he says, “I know the way these things are supposed to work is we go to a movie and spend the entire time wondering, Should I hold her hand? Is he going to try to hold my hand? And then afterward we go out for a drink and have only the movie to talk about but since neither of us were paying attention there’s a lot of awkward silence and then at the end we go through the whole, Should I kiss her? Is he going to kiss me? spiel, and as we’ve already seen, if I tried to kiss you, I’d probably get disemboweled, so let’s not do that. Plus, I had Josh ask Elle about you and I think I’ve come up with something you might like more. I hope it’s not too cheesy.”
“What is it?”
“Wouldn’t you rather be surprised?”
“Just this once? For me?” He shoots me a look, part puppy dog, part Gene Kelly. Mara was right: He is cute.
I heave an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. But that’s it. No more surprises after this.”
We talk and it’s not awkward, it’s easy. He watches the road, I watch his hands steady on the steering wheel. The moon glows above us, its light douses his knuckles pale blue. His eyes, though, are dark. His hair too, and curly. With the faint brush of beard, he looks like a child trying to pass as older, but somehow it works. Soon country envelopes us. I crack the window. It smells like Navin. Window goes back up.
“Too hot?” Ryan asks, reaching for a knob on the dash. “I can adjust the heat.” I assure him it’s fine.
We pull up to a farm littered with scarecrows and pumpkins, sugar-high children flocking en masse.
“A pumpkin patch?”
He reads the hand-painted sign hanging crooked on a fence post as we walk up the dirt path. “A haunted pumpkin patch. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I believe in pumpkins,” I say. “Elle said I would like this?”
Crestfallen, he asks, “You don’t?”
“Actually, I love it. I just didn’t think my friends knew me this well.”
“To be honest, all she said was, She’s not a normal girl.” He adds quickly, “But I’m sure she meant that in the best way.”
“I’m sure,” I laugh. “So this was all you?”
“All me. I done good?”
I nod. “You done good. But why this?”
“Well, I knew I’d enjoy it, and I’m not a normal girl, either, so…”
“So you thought it was fitting.”
“Exactly.” He rubs his hands together. “Now the most important question: What do we do first?”
He ticks off his fingers, “Haunted hay ride, haunted corn maze, haunted pumpkin carving…”
“I’m noticing a theme.”
“You’re not scared yet are you?”
A threesome of children in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costumes shrieks and storms past. I look for their fourth. “A little. You?”
“Terrified. You might have to protect me.”
“No way. I’m using you as a distraction so I can get away.”
“No damsel in distress here, eh?”
I lift my chin. “A girl’s got to take care of herself.”
He feigns dejection. “You’d really do that?”
“I hope we don’t have to find out.”
“I hope you don’t have to find out,” he says. “It’s going to be pretty hard to run in those shoes.”
I look down at my feet and then look over at him. He’s wearing a green and black striped sweater, jeans and Sambas. “I look ridiculous, don’t I?”
“You look beautiful, just overdressed for this particular occasion.”
A smaller turtle with an orange eye mask totters along, trying to catch up. He stops, looks around and, not seeing his friends, begins to sniffle. Ryan approaches him. “Michelangelo! Cowabunga, dude! Those are some pretty sweet nunchuks. Can I try?” The boy bashfully hands some orange plastic weapons over. Ryan swings them around his shoulder and waist.
“Cool!” the boy says as Ryan gives the nunchuks back.
“Your friends are up there,” he says, pointing up the hill. “See them?” The boy nods and runs off, trying to swing his toys like Ryan.
Because it feels right, I slip my hand into Ryan’s as we walk toward the corn maze. When he squeezes my fingers, I feel it, a surge through my body. Maybe Elle is wrong. Maybe I am a normal girl.
Maybe I don’t think about Navin the rest of the night.
But maybe I do.
- February, 23 Florida
- New feature: How I Write