Walking my suitcase to my dorm, I spied familiar faces scattered across campus, re-energized and ready to take on a brand new year and semester. Off in the distance was Alex’s girlfriend, so I took that to be confirmation that Alex was safely back on campus. Samantha came by to spend the last few days of break with the Everett’s, and thankfully, she was his ride back to school. I wondered if they stopped by Alex’s diner for The Hardy Special? I almost took a restroom break there on my way back to school, but chose to drove the distance instead.
I was more concerned about Elliot and how I planned to face him after parting from him so awkwardly before break. We had occasional text check-ins over break, but that was different from an in person interaction.
“Rae!” I heard my name from two different directions.
I looked in both directions and saw Margo in one and Silas in the other. They caught each other’s eyes before advancing towards me.
Grabbing my open arm when she reached me, Margo shouted an order at me, “Come with me!”
“Excuse me!” Silas retorted. “She’s coming with me!” He grabbed my other arm, the handle of my suitcase dropping from my hand.
Margo and Silas’ personalities clashed the day I introduced them, and yes, it was because they were much too alike.
“I don’t think so, blondie,” Margo shot at him.
I eyed her, awed by the elementary insult she threw Silas.
“If we’re name calling,” Silas responded, “I have a whole list for you.”
He looked her up and down with contempt, his eyes narrowed.
“Oh yeah?” she challenged. “Name them!”
And that was the beginning of their friendship.
They dragged me to the atrium for an informational meeting about a summer internship they both wanted to know if I was interested in, even though it had nothing to do with my field. It suited Margo in hers, and Silas in his, so naturally, I suggested they partner up.
They became inseparable to finish the month of January, and even agreed to be each other’s wingmen when Valentine’s Day reared its unappealing head.
Unlike the two of them, so many of my Valentine’s Days had been spent watching and mocking romantic movies with Nathaniel, and with Ana when she became old enough, and I wasn’t bothered by the fact that it was yet another Valentine’s Day in.
It came as a total cringe worthy surprise when Margo and Silas announced:
“We need a wingman.”
I gawked at Margo, and then at Silas, bewildered by their request of me.“You have a wingman,” I said to Margo. “And you have yours,” I turned to address Silas.
“Fire doesn’t fuel fire,” said Silas. “We need wood,” he explained, looking me up and down. “A log.” I blinked at Silas, his slight at me accurate, but ridiculous.
Margo joined him in surveying me and nodded in agreement.
“You two are insane,” I declared, getting off my bed and moving to my desk where my laptop sat.
I opened it to start on my weekend documentary when Silas slammed it shut.
“You have issues,” I looked up to scold him.
“They start with you,” he responded, grabbing me by the wrist with his long, bony fingers, and pulling me up from my seat to stand. I craned my neck in discontent to look up at the platinum blonde hair, lightly waved on top of his glowing shimmering face, and couldn’t help but marvel at his beauty, even in the face of his awfully childish disposition. “You’re going tonight,” he said, “and we don’t care if you look boring like normal.” He looked me up and down with disapproval. “All the better for us.”
I stared at him, and then over to Margo, who threw me a wink from where she sat. The looks of relentlessness on their hopelessly desperate faces struck in me an unknown chord of sympathy I couldn’t ignore. Sighing dramatically, I agreed. Margo and Silas cheered as I put on a pair of white chucks to match my long sleeved black and white striped shirt and loosened black suspender dress that poofed lightly at my hips.
“You look like a child,” Margo commented on my appearance with a look of rich judgement as we exited the dorms.
I adjusted the bun on my head as I responded.
“You said you wouldn’t care.”
“I didn’t say that,” she clarified, looking over to Silas on the other side of me, “and I didn’t think you would actually walk out like that.”
“I didn’t either,” said Silas, offering me the same side eye stamped on Margo’s face.
“Graced with my presence means this,” I declared, hooking arms with the both of them.
Both taller than me, they exchanged eye rolls and sighs above me as we walked.
When we arrived at the party, music playing around us, I swallowed my nerves at the thought of my last experience. Silas’ roommate made a full recovery from his overdose, and returned home, wherever that was, but it felt like recovery escaped me. Taking a breath, I entered the sorority house with my two deranged friends.
We miraculously found a seat in the living room of the sorority house, surrounded by characters completely different from us. I caught the gleam in both Margo and Silas’ eyes, and unexpectedly found myself doing exactly what they brought me along to do.
“What’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you?” the question was posed to the circle of people in the sorority house living room.
I scoffed quietly to myself at the silly question as I surveyed the person asking it.
She was a beautiful girl with dreadlocks on her head, half up and half down. On her feet were five story stilettos on top of a pair of dark skinny jeans and a plunging black top. The plunge looked less daring than it did just right though, since she wasn’t much endowed in the upper half of her body.
“My ex once took me on a hot air balloon ride,” answered a girl across from me.
Everyone said aww in unison as I furrowed my eyebrows at the company I shared. All I heard was “ex” and wondered just how romantic a moment could be when the relationship it happened in was only temporary. I guess I was that person.
We heard tales of mountain peak kisses, ferris wheel confessions, and the standard candlelight dinners.
“What about you?” the beauty who started the conversation turned to ask me.
Margo and Silas snickered, but when they gained the curious attention of the group, they stifled their laughter.
“Uhm,” I started, offering up the only moment of romance in my life, “one time in seventh grade I read this poem at the talent show for a kid named Pierce Thompson.”
“That’s sweet,” said the beauty. “Do you remember it?”
I thought I was a prodigy in poetry and decided to audition for the talent show. Why the drama teacher and student council leaders thought it permissible to provide me a platform to embarrass myself, I could only guess. It was probably because they didn’t have enough acts to warrant a production, however, so I passed the audition.
“Read this,” I passed a sheet of notebook paper to Alex.
He scanned the sheet of paper, nodding to himself as he read it, before turning to look at me.
“Give me honest feedback,” I told him.
“It,” started Alex, “is awful.”
Offended, I blurted at him, “Then how come I passed the audition?”
“Maybe they needed variety?” Alex offered. “Singers, dancers, and two poets. You,” he said, “and me,” he finished, smirking.
“What?” I spat at him. “Since when?”
“Since after you auditioned,” he casually explained. “You stirred in me courage, so I thought I’d do the same and declare my affections for Olivia Randall publicly too.”
My evened eyes flared at him.
“You better not steal my thunder.”
Alex only scoffed.
When Ms. J ushered me to the stage, I climbed the steps of the platform, set up in the commons area of our middle school, to join her, two spotlights on us in the dark of the evening. I could lightly make out the faces of the people in the crowd from the lighting in the hallways, and in it was, Pierce Thompson.
“Performing original poetry,” Ms. J announced, “please welcome Reagan of the seventh grade.”
There was applause all around as Ms. J stepped out of the spotlight.
I cleared my throat nervously before announcing, “This poem called Possibleis for,” I paused and looked directly at the subject of my poem, “Pierce Thompson.”
I watched his eyes widen as the friends all around him turned to stare at him, the rest of the audience stirring to look for him too.
Whenever I dream, it’s you in my sleep
The way that I feel, I promise it’s real
Since the beginning, you made my heart sink
In waves that were crashing, and made me believe
That anything’s possible, and nothing’s improbable
You’re a gift from above, and this is true love
Let’s be more than just friends, you’ll have my heart ’til the end
It’s time that you find, your ride and your die
I smiled as sweetly as I could towards Pierce Thompson at the finish of my poem.
There was a long pause, and inside it, isolated laughter all across the room, before the entire commons erupted in laughter mixed with mocking applause.
Flushing in embarrassment, my eyes stinging, I darted off the stage, passing Alex as I ran. Just as I neared the exit, I heard the sound of the microphone squeak loudly, bringing the crowd to a quiet as the next act introduced himself.
“I’m Alex,” he announced to the crowd, “and this is for Reagan.”
I slowed to a stop and turned around to join the rest of the still audience, staring at the eighth grade boy in the middle of the stage, two spotlights on him.
“Between,” Alex shared the title of his poem, his eyes locked with mine at the back of the commons, multiple bodies separating us.
Between you and I
Where whispers befall
Between you and I
When smoke hazes over
Between you and I
Where space stands
Between you and I
When scents they waft
Between you and I
Between all these lines
The stars they align
Between you and I
Silence swept the commons of my middle school just the same as it swept the strangers surrounding me in the living room of the sorority house, Margo and Silas stilled just the same, as the words of the poem left its impression on them, music playing behind us and drunkards all around.
I looked at Margo and Silas uncertainly, then at the rest of the faces in the circle as the silence prolonged and their eyes stayed on me. Swallowing in embarrassment, I wondered why I thought to share the story in the first place! Of all the peer pressures I thought I would face that night, telling an embarrassing story about myself certainly wasn’t one of them. Just as I began to stand up to make my escape from the gaping eyes, Silas squealed suddenly, the rest of the circle gushing with him. Confused, I jumped and looked from Silas to Margo and from one unfamiliar face in the circle to another, each of them making a comment at the other about my story.
“Your friend wins!” one of the guys in the circle exclaimed.
I stared at him, puzzled.
“What?” I asked quietly.
“No boyfriend in my lifetime has ever done anything as sweet and as thoughtful as your friend did for you!” said a girl sitting next to me.
“No—” I started to counter. “It’s not like that—”
“What happened to you and your friend?” another girl asked me suddenly.
As I opened my mouth to answer, in the distance, my eyes caught Elliot weaving through the crowd across the sorority living room with Samantha next to him, and on her arm, Alex. His face moved in and out of the shadows as he made his way through the crowd. Smiling and greeting others warmly, he lit up what otherwise was a darkened room.
“We,” I said, my eyes lingering on Alex’s face before returning to the group, “grew apart.”
The circle smiled in quiet as Margo declared, “And now we need drinks.”
Apparently I was particularly skilled in my wingman abilities. I watched Margo hook arms with Silas and a guy next to her as they moved to grab drinks. As the rest of the circle dispersed around me, linking up as well, I was left to myself, watching as Alex, Samantha, and Elliot drew closer to where I sat. In panic, I stood hurriedly, shuffling to follow someone, just to be reminded that I didn’t know anybody. I sighed in recognition of the situation and hurriedly took out my phone to pretend to be browsing it.
“Reagan at a party on Valentine’s Day?” said an amused Elliot over the music as he approached me with Samantha and Alex beside him. I looked up, smiling dimwittedly at their three faces. “Were you with that group?” asked Elliot, nodding in the direction Margo and Silas took off in.
My eyes caught those of Alex’s for a moment before I answered.
“Oh,” I stuttered, “uhm, we,” I struggled to find words. “Mountains,” I said out of nowhere. “Ferris wheels,” I continued for some reason. “Balloons?” I finally finished.
The three of them eyed me strangely before Elliot chuckled and Alex scoffed.
“Drinks?” Alex suggested, tapping Elliot on the arm.
They left before I could utter another inane word, leaving Samantha and me to ourselves. I didn’t know how to start a conversation between just the two of us, since Samantha never seemed to have much patience or tolerance for me, and I had yet to figure out why. I wondered if it was my relationship with Alex? How a neighbor of his could irk her, I couldn’t figure.
When I thought the right words to initiate a conversation with Alex’s girlfriend finally came to me, I opened my mouth to engage her.
“Hey—” I started.
“L is my best friend’s ex,” Samantha interrupted me loudly to ensure I could hear her over the music. I flinched lightly, taken aback by the sudden retort and new information. “She’s visiting next week, so if you stay away from him until she leaves,” she requested of me, “that’d be great,” she finished casually.
All I could do was stare at her, finally learning the reason for her dislike of me. Unfortunately, several excruciating seconds passed before I could open my mouth to speak again.
“Did,” I started, “it not end well?”
Samantha’s eyes evened at me, but she cleared her throat and answered
“She left to study dance last year,” she informed me shortly. “Otherwise, they’d still be together.” I swallowed at the message Samantha was sending me, before she boldly made a demand of me, “Whatever you’re doing, stop.”
Bewildered by her comments, I changed the subject slowly.
“What,” I started, “do you think of The Hardy Special?”
“The what?” she answered sharply over the music.
I stared at her, unsure of my next words, as the thought of Alex’s favorite meal at his favorite diner came to mind. I wondered how it was that Samantha had no knowledge of it, considering all of her and Alex’s car rides between school and home. Between the two of us, how was it that I, Alex’s neighbor, knew of The Hardy Special’s existence, and Samantha, Alex’s girlfriend, didn’t? Wasn’t The Hardy Special special to him?
“Uh… just… I…” I stuttered quietly, but eventually decided to go with, “Nothing.”
Samantha breathed in deeply and exhaled to keep from rolling her eyes, and we spent the next few seconds in silence with the music blaring around us.
Though I thought my mind would be prone to linger on the new information about Elliot’s ex girlfriend, I couldn’t shake The Hardy Special from it. A swirl of uncomfortable butterflies began to take flight in my stomach as questions about Alex occupied every corner of my mind:
Why would Alex bring me to his coveted diner and not his girlfriend? Wasn’t The Hardy Special special to him?
When he and Elliot made their return, my eyes shot directly to Alex, my heart racing at the sight of him.
In his hands were two shots and in Elliot’s two waters, per Alex’s announcement. Before the three of them could say a word to interrupt the questions running rampant in my mind about Alex, I grabbed a cup from Alex’s hand and sent its contents down my throat. My eyes widened at the intense sting of the dark liquid on my taste buds as it passed through my esophagus. Quickly grabbing for the water in Elliot’s cup, I chugged it before coughing wildly into the back of my hand. My audience wore wrangled faces as they watched me recover from my first taste of alcohol.
I dropped both cups from my hands suddenly and took the remaining cup in Elliot’s, drinking the water in a few gulps.
Samantha looked disgusted, her eyes rolling in aggravation as she grabbed Elliot’s wrist swiftly, diagonal from her, and crossed between Alex and me to make for the drinks table with Elliot, leaving Alex to stare at me alone.
“How bad on the burn meter?” he asked.
I coughed before answering.
“Like hell set on fire then erupted.”
Alex laughed and took the shot in his cup before grabbing the empty one in my hand and setting them both on the coffee table next to us.
“I’m impressed you kept it down,” he complimented me. “What a privilege it was to witness your introduction to alcohol.”
I threw Alex a look of annoyance and held it there on his face, but as I kept it there, it began to morph into one of soft confusion, the butterflies in my stomach fluttering unceasingly, not quelled by the alcohol.
As I stared his irritatingly beautiful face on, I wanted desperately to ask him, “Isn’t The Hardy Special special to you?”
Recognizing the flip in my expression, Alex could tell my mind was racing, so he opened his mouth to inquire, but not before I spoke first.
“How did you find Cup of Jade?”
Alex threw me a curious look at the random question.
“That old geezer tea shop you go to?”
“Yes,” I answered him shortly.
“Online,” he answered me briskly.
I eyed him oddly.
“What keywords did you search?”
He eyed me oddly.
“Old geezer tea shop,” he answered casually.
“Within a ten mile radius?” I added incredulously.
The questions on my mind were endless as I tried to piece together a puzzle I didn’t know I was doing with Alex.
He was lying.
Cup of Jade wasn’t listed online. I found it one day while wandering the streets on a weekend when Margo and the guy she kept bringing around were driving me to my wit’s end. It wasn’t a trendy tea shop, offering tasty sweet drinks for young teenagers and college students. It was where the elderly sipped freshly brewed tea, gossipping about their neighbors while playing a few select table games for hours on end. I became a regular, sipping on my own tea as I studied in a corner of the shop, occasionally taking part in a game or two with the grannies and grandpas. Then one day, Alex walked through the doors.
He also showed up at poetry slams.
He frequented the tutoring lab enough.
He said the diner was his stop when things got hard.
Before I knew it, I couldn’t stop the rapid fire from leaving my mouth.
“Do you even write poetry anymore?”
“Aren’t you a genius at math?”
“Isn’t The Hardy Special special to you?”
Alex recoiled lightly at the seemingly random questions, but as I watched him process each of them separately, quickly stringing them together as the places where he and I found each other’s company, I knew the conclusion he reached was the same as mine when his eyes softened suddenly and dropped swiftly.
Staring at him, I swallowed my overactive nerves and took a breath to stir the courage I needed to confirm my suspicions.
“Between you and I,” I challenged him, his eyes darting upwards at me in recognition of the familiar sweet words he once recited for me in the center of our middle school commons, “nothing ever makes sense.”
Music played and people moved around us, but he didn’t drop his gaze as he swallowed, too.
“Or everything does,” he countered.
My eyes flickered to break the intensity shared by our eyes.
Was this it? After all these years, was this it? His moment of confession that I had imagined and reimagined throughout the course of our life together?
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
We only shared another brief moment of silence before Elliot and Samantha rejoined us.
“Is everything okay?” Elliot asked, sensing the tension between me and Alex.
“Yeah,” I lied, laughing. “That shot almost took me out.” I grabbed Elliot’s arm suddenly, and all three pairs of eyes turned to look at my hands on Elliot’s bicep. “Can you walk me home?”
I didn’t wait for a response. I pulled Elliot towards me and smiled up at him as I positioned myself next to him to make for the front door. Though taken aback by the sudden movement and close proximity between us, Elliot didn’t shake my touch and led us out of the sorority house together.
When I awoke the next day, I made my way across the campus courtyard, redoing the bun on my head, when suddenly, I felt a yank on my arm.
“What are you wearing?” Alex shot the question at me when we stood face to face.
I pulled my arm from his grasp.
Alex looked my boring black and white striped shirt and black suspender dress that Margo and Silas disapproved of the night before up and down before his evened eyes settled themselves back on mine.
“The walk of shame doesn’t look particularly good on you,” he blurted sharply at me.
“Is this the part where I strut?” I responded bitingly, raising a shoulder dramatically.
He paused before taking a step towards me, but I only took a step back, my eyes betraying me suddenly as they started to moisten.
Was this it? After all these years, was this it? My moment of confession that I had imagined and reimagined throughout the course of our life together?
Alex noticed my moistened eyes immediately and stopped where he stood. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t, so my shimmering eyes just stared his softened ones on.
“What are you doing?” he asked me.
Therein lied the unspoken tension between Alex and I. Between he and I, no lines ever went unread. He knew as well as I did that the answer to that question–the same one I posed to him the night before–had only one answer, and neither of us were willing to admit the truth.
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