Unfinished Business

I.

While he wasn’t quite an inhabitant of the coffeeshop — there were patrons that spent more time there than the employees themselves — he was enough of a regular that Katie knew where to find him when she needed.

He saw her walk in. He was in the recessed corner behind the door where you could watch the street run by and the people out strolling the sidewalks of College Avenue; he had the shades closed, though, since it had been dark for almost an hour now. She looked around and he knew who she was there for, but he kept his mouth shut even as she came out of the back room and looked right at him.

Katie was an attractive, if unspectacular, woman who’s greatest asset was simply lightening the air around her when she walked by. She was 5’7" and slender, with close-cropped blonde hair like Jamie Lee Curtis and bright blue eyes. Tonight, though, as she slid into the chair across from him, she had a sullen look about herself that reminded him of the early winter clouds that had made the day so blustery earlier. He showed no sign of the fact that he was taking in every detail of her that he could — her look, her walk, the way her damp sweatshirt hung off of one shoulder with the zipper halfway open over her favorite R.E.M. t-shirt, the bags under her eyes and the streaks in the minimal makeup she wore. Her perfume was still lingering from last night — he would never forget that night — but she showed no signs of the bright, bouncy dancer that had set the Back Deck on fire only 20 hours ago.

He didn’t look up until she talked to him, and then he only moved his eyes. His hand was still absently stirring his hot chocolate while his face watched the spoon’s swirls in the mug.

“Ryan and I split today,” she said in a flat monotone. Randy noticed that she didn’t sound sorry, or excited, just rather matter-of-factly, as if she were delivering a history lecture.

“I knew it would happen,” he said, his face still watching his hot chocolate.

“You knew?!” she flared to life. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I was doing it, and you want to tell me you knew!”

“Katie, calm down,” he said, moving his face to look her right in the eyes. “I knew it was going to happen, I didn’t know how… I didn’t know when.”

She composed herself. “I’m getting some coffee. You want anything?” she asked as she stood up.

“No thanks, I’ve got my chocolate.”

“You’re the only guy I know that loves to hang out in coffeeshops and can’t stand coffee.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m weird.”

Katie turned away and with a little more life in her step that she’d had when she came in. At the counter she said ‘hi’ to three people, and even managed a smile for one of them. She got her coffee and gracefully twisted and slinked her way through a crowd of soaked newcomers, and landed back in her seat with a minor flop that was nothing like the conspiratorial slither with which she had joined him last time. Randy lifted the shade and looked into the streetlight glow long enough to see the raindrops bouncing off of the headlights of cars no doubt headed for any of the six or seven clubs along College Avenue. Randy hadn’t decided yet which band he was going to see tonight, but as he stared at the rain, he resolved to drive instead of walk.

“So you knew it was coming, huh? How?” she asked.

He didn’t answer at first, as if trying to formulate the right answer, “Jesus Christ, Katie!” he finally blurted out, “What were you gonna do, marry him? Have three kids and a dog and a station wagon and wait for him to come home from another toilsome white-collar day at the office so you could kiss him and cook him dinner?”

She stared back at him, the calm on her face betrayed by the concern in her eyes.

“No, but I also never really saw an end coming to it. At least, not until now.”

“How does it feel?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m still in a bit of shock. I haven’t really thought about it enough yet.”

“It’s kind of empty, huh? Sort of like you know something’s missing but you can’t pin it down enough to get it back, and you’re not sure if going back is really going to fix how you feel, either. Like you need a fix of something, but you just don’t know what…”

“Been there before, haven’t you?” she said with a soft, reverent curiosity.

He nodded.

“You want to talk about it?”

He stared at his now-lukewarm chocolate, absently stirring it as he thought about what might be the most costly line he could ever remember having to say, turning it over and over again in his mind.

“It still hurts, doesn’t it,” she spoke up, “I think I under–”

He cut her off. “It was the day you and Ryan started going out.”

Her mouth was still hanging in mid-sentence, words poised to be spoken, as she forced herself to take a drink just to move. His head still stared at the table as he fumbled to put the spoon down, unable to balance it on the saucer under the mug. He toyed with the handle, as if he was going to take a drink, but his hand was shaking so much that he didn’t want to chance holding it. His heart felt like it was about to float right out of his body, and he trembled all over inside.

“Randy…” she started to say softly, before she forced herself to take another drink. She looked for his eyes and he reluctantly met her gaze. He shifted his feet uncomfortably under the table and shifted his body in his trademark slouch. His head hadn’t moved yet.

“Randy…” she put her mug down.

“I never thought someone could leave me speechless,” she said finally. “You’re the first.”

“Hmmph,” he said softly, “Not quite the claim to fame I was looking for.”

“What were you looking for?”

He took a drink and he wished it was still hot, and he also wished the shades were open so he would have somewhere to stare but down or at her. The first was too clichéd; the second, dangerous.

She continued to alternately sip and blow on her coffee. She’s got to be the only one who can excite me by blowing on coffee, he thought. She never seemed impatient, perfectly content to sit there and stare and sip coffee until he was ready to answer her, come hell or high water. Maybe I can hope for high water in this rain, he thought wryly.

Finally, he breathed out heavily, “I guess the first thing was to make sure you would always be there for me as my best friend, like last night. And I was gonna worry about the rest after that.”

“What do you mean ‘there for you’?” she asked.

“Katie, I wish you had some idea how much you lighten my life just by walking by. I see you, even far away where I can only think about talking to you, and it’s just like…”

“Randy, don’t do this, please.”

“No Katie, I’m gonna finish.”

“Randy, I don’t need this right now.”

“If I don’t say it now, I might never be able to say it again.”

“What are you gonna say, Randy?”

“I just… I guess thought I knew I always wanted you around for good, but I never knew how to get it. Now that I might possibly have a slim hope of a chance, I can’t even think straight, much less try to convince you to fall in love with me.”

“Love?!” she almost spit coffee everywhere.

“Bad word, maybe?”

Love?!” she wiped coffee off her chin.

“Bad word, definitely.”

“Speechless twice in one conversation. You should be commended.”

“Is that still my only claim to fame?”

“Love?!”

“Yes, love.”

“As in ‘hi honey, I’m home,’ three kids and a dog and a station wagon?”

“No station wagon,” he said soberly, never even hinting at a smile.

She searched his eyes for a minute with a questioning flutter in her eyes, not sure what to look for, but certain of what she didn’t want to find.

“Jesus,” she said, “you’re serious.”

“I’m sorry,” he said plainly, “I can’t help it. You’re my best friend and I don’t want you–”

“No! Stop it. Just stop it and let me think.”

The silence, relative though it was in the bustle of the coffee shop, was overpowering. People were coming and going every second now, either arriving after dinner for the poetry slam in the back room or leaving for the clubs. The opening of the door turned the sizzle of the rainy street sounds of passing cars and hurried people on and off like a lightswitch. Hesitant to take his eyes off of her for fear she’d simply disappear, he reached over for the cord to lift the shades slightly, more because he’d exhausted things to do on the table to break the tension than to see what was out there.

He raised them about a foot, and took a glance outside at the soaked passers-by hurrying through the sheets of almost-freezing rain and the cars splashing down the road. He must have lingered longer than he realized and he felt Katie slide into the booth next to him and press up close against him, leg against leg. He looked down and over toward her, unable to focus on anything until she put her arm around him and leaned close to whisper in his ear.

“You know what I want to say, don’t you?”

He looked her in the eye.

“You’ve already got every scenario played out in your head, “she went on, “and you’ve already figured out what I’m going to do, haven’t you?”

He was frozen. She was far beyond what he’d played out in his head, and he felt everything spiraling out of control… for the first time in years.

“What am I going to do next?” she asked.

“If I were you, I’d probably get up and walk out as dramatically as I could.”

“I considered it, but that plays too heavily on cliché, and I can do better. Besides, I don’t know if I want to leave yet.” She scooted closer. “I can’t marry you now. We both know it wouldn’t work.”

“I didn’t say now.”

She hesitated just long enough for him to get his hopes up. Then she leaned forward and kissed him once.

“Neither did I,” she answered, and with that she got up and walked out, leaving him suspended in his seat, waiting for more, but knowing it would be too much, too soon.

He alternated staring out the window and at the door for the next half hour, hoping maybe he could catch a glimpse of her in the streetlights. His eyes never came to tears, but focusing was all but impossible. He continued to sip his chocolate long after it had gone cold, but he didn’t notice until Rick refilled it under him and he almost burned his tongue on a fresh cup of hot cocoa.

Neither did I.

That phrase rang in his head, over and over. He barely remembered all of those silent midnight prayers that were answered when she kissed him. He had a chance, more than he’d ever thought possible, he dove after it, and he wasn’t sure what he got for it. “Neither did I.” It didn’t shut him off, but it didn’t say, “take me now, you fool!” either. How does one act on “Neither did I?” What do I say to her now? More importantly, what does she say to me? “Neither did I?” He felt like he was on hold with the Publisher’s Clearinghouse, knowing that all he had to do was get off hold to claim his $10 million prize, but helpless and at the mercy of the operator.

The coffeeshop would have closed around him had Rick not come over and jolted him out of his stupor. Randy left two dollars on the table; tips were unusual in the coffeeshop, but nevertheless appreciated. One of them had the three phone numbers of the ∆Z sisters he met at the Village Grill on Thursday. He wouldn’t even remember he gave them away for another week.

He half-stumbled home, unable to focus enough attention to even walk coherently. He continually pulled his jacket tighter and tighter against the now-frozen drizzle hanging in the air. The traffic was sparse, but the hiss of an occasional car zipping through the weather always made him look up to make sure he was out of the splash range of its wheels. His black pants were soaked from the knees down from earlier, when he was standing too close to the curb waiting to cross the street. His legs were slowly going numb, but hardly cared.

Back in his room, he hung his jacket up and quickly stripped out of his soaked clothing to get in the shower. It was already after midnight, but his suitemates were at a party and wouldn’t be back for another hour or two, at least.

He had hoped the shower would be a type of baptism, washing away his worries and clearing his head to allow some comparatively free thought. “Neither did I.”

It was no use, he thought, as he pulled on some flannel boxers. His windows were both halfway open, but only because he never could get the state-of-the-art 1963 vintage fusion-powered heater in his room to any setting other than ‘off,’ ‘bake,’ or ‘broil.’ It made his room rather odd — if you were in the loft, you needed every one of the four blankets he had up there, but on the floor, in the direct line of fire of the heater, shorts and t-shirts were the norm.

He started up his computer and let it warm up while he put some water in the coffee pot to heat up a cup of soup. He was still slightly dazed, but not so much that he would just stare aimlessly about. The walk and the shower had done some good, if not much. “Neither did I.” It still echoed in the back if his mind.

He sat down on the flip couch and grabbed the laptop and kicked up Last Descent. He’d just bought it the other day, and it was just the diversion he’d been seeking for weeks, but no good tonight.

The soup was too hot and he burned his tongue. The game was interesting, but not as engaging as it had seemed before this latest episode. Distraction ran rampant through his mind. He had the same song on repeat for the past two hours. At 3AM, he finally buried himself in the covers of his loft and drifted into a fitful sleep without even setting an alarm. Her voice still rang in his head, “Neither did I.

II.

On the way back, she passed him in her car. He didn’t even recognize it until she was driving away from him, but her powder blue Ford Escort was pretty difficult to miss, especially since it was likely the only one in town with Oklahoma plates on it. He tried to wave, but she wasn’t looking in the rear view and didn’t see him. The roads were just starting to thaw with the Sunday morning traffic all heading home after the all-night parties. A cold mist still hung in the air, and even though the temperature was down around 40, it was surprisingly warm under the pine trees as he passed the first of the three sets of apartments that housed almost nothing but college kids. He’d been to his share of wild parties there, including the one where he’d borrowed his friend’s bedroom and discovered the wonders of flavored nail polish. He got his second wind just in time to get up the big hill at the end of the run back onto campus, and he stopped, heaving for breath at the top. The steam from his breath was so thick that it looked like he was breathing smoke.

He saw her car parked by her building, and he called her again when he got in. Still busy — maybe she just took it off the hook, he thought. He took another shower and dressed warm for what was slowly shaping up to be another blustery day. The CD player was still playing Triumph’s “Little Boy Blues” from last night. He turned that off and dialed around the TV stations, but Sunday morning in North Carolina without cable limited his options to the televangelists and the Power Rangers. Instead, he put the Screaming Jets in the CD player and programmed the mellow songs to loop and stewed for ten minutes before deciding to just go over there.

On the way downstairs, he saw all of the freshmen in their Sunday best heading to church. They were nothing like the wild party-hoppers who had been staggering in from their parties at 2AM last night, and yet they were still the same kids. He followed someone into Katie’s building. Her name was Jennifer, he remembered in the elevator. She was on the soccer team, and she was the one with the flavored toenail polish that night. He wondered if she remembered him and he was glad that she wasn’t on the elevator with him; in his state of mind, that would have been awkward at best. He caught himself feeling oddly detached, as if it was a different person entirely that spent the night with Jennifer, and he realized that he wasn’t sure if he even would have acknowledged her had she joined him in the elevator.

He knocked on Katie’s door, and at first she didn’t answer, but he heard her moving around in there, so he knocked again and heard, “Just minute, OK?! I’m getting dressed.” Great thoughts flashed through his head just then, but he was able to push them out of his head long enough to remember to stick his thumb over the peephole in the door so she would have to open it to see who it was. When she did open it, her body was behind the door, and a brief look of surprise crossed her face.

“Recovered pretty quick, huh?” she asked.

“Can I come in?”

“Why not. You’re not going away if I don’t let you, right?”

He followed her inside and he heard that annoying beep that told him her phone was off the hook, and he saw it over in the corner of the room. Her hair was still damp, and it was obvious she’d just gotten out of the shower. She dropped her robe to reveal a tight pair of very short shorts and a bare midrift. Just what I need right now, he thought, another distraction.

“Afraid I might call?” he asked, motioning toward the phone with his head as he flopped down in her dark red beanbag.

“Afraid I might answer,” she said softly as she pulled on an oversized sweater that came down to her knees. “Afraid someone might leave me speechless 3 times in 24 hours… afraid of what I’d tell you if that happened.”

“You sound like you don’t want me around anymore.”

“It’s not that. It’s just–”

“–just what?”

“I love you, OK? I really do, but you’re pulling double duty as my best friend right now, when I need a friend more than anything else in the world, and I don’t want to be tied down just yet, especially not by my best friend. I’m just being me again, and I want to learn and grow and discover and do it all as me, not in context to someone else, and I don’t want to cut that off this fast.”

“Even for love?”

“Especially for love. I don’t want love to be something I hate because it stifled me. I want it to be something wonderful that I love because it lets me do all those things I want to and still be me on my own terms instead of having to look out for someone and second-guess everything I do in fear it’ll hurt someone. I’m just not sure which love this is.”

“So you love me but you wouldn’t marry me?”

“Not now.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I love you and I think I would like to marry you… someday, but not here and not now. There’s too much going on here and too many things I still want to do to worry about what effect they’ll have on you. I do care what happens, but I don’t want to be put in a position where I feel obligated to care. I do want to marry you, but it’ll have to wait. Can you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

Another one of those big great empty silences descended on the room. He wished he could take a pin and pop it, exploding into cacophony, just to have some mindless noise to take its place.

“You don’t?” she said, her voice almost a whisper.

“Dammit Katie, I’ve never had to ‘wait’ for anyone before! I don’t know if I can wait that long, especially since you don’t know how long that’s gonna be. Will I try? Yes. Will I like it? Probably not. Will it be worth it? Ask me again in a few years. Remember, I’m only here for another five months. I’ve got graduate school coming up when I get done with my degree, and if I don’t go right away, I lose the scholarship. Austin’s a long way from here. I don’t have forever to wait for you to decide.”

“What are you doing today?” she asked, obviously in a hurry to change the subject.

“Daydreaming about you, I’m sure. Why?” he said almost petulantly.

“I’m going to the mall. You’re invited as long as you don’t say another word about this.”

“I guess that’s fair.”

“Now get out and let me get dressed.”

He sat out in the hall to wait for her, his legs pulled in and his chin resting on his soccer-scarred knees. He smiled at her suitemates as they staggered into the shower, hung over in the extreme. There was something seductive about a girl in a towel, he decided. And not being able to see through it only enhanced the effect by leaving up to the imagination. One of them even darted from the shower to her room and back completely naked, obviously not caring if he saw her, or else forgetful of the fact that he was there in the still fading vodka haze from the night before. He was right about one thing, though — they were better left to the imagination, and her legs needed a serious shave.

Katie came out of her room about five minutes later, wearing the same sweater and a tight pair of black jeans. The sweater was charcoal gray, and it lent an uncharacteristically somber mood to her that even the red ribbon in her hair couldn’t compensate for.

“Are you still wearing as little under there as I hope you are?” he asked with a lopsided grin.

“I thought you were gonna behave.”

“I am — that’s lust, not love. There’s a difference.”

“You’re not gonna get your lusty mitts on me, sweetheart. Why don’t you try the girl in the ‘A’ room, she’s a freshman exhibitionist who wouldn’t mind a senior taking shots at her.”

“Already saw it, and it wasn’t that interesting.”

“Forgot her shampoo again? Ran bare-ass naked through the hall to get it out of her room?”

“I guess that’s what she went after,” he chuckled. “It was pretty fast, and I wasn’t really looking at what was in her hands.”

“I’ll bet.”

At the mall they wandered in and out of almost every store, each taking turns dragging the other one giggling through mountains of assorted useless merchandise, all on sale for Christmas and being thoroughly rummaged by parents and children hoping to find the spirit of Christmas on a red tag in a store. They were having too much fun to even care about the underfoot kids. They both picked out some clothes in one of the outdoor stores and tried them on, and had fun laughing at their impromptu ‘Most-mismatched Color Scheme’ contest. She bought him a shirt in one store, the same one where he found her a backpack, and later he bought her a pair of huge slippers that looked like ducks, complete with wings and all, which she sat there and played with for ten minutes when she tried them on.

They went into the Gap, and they both found some t-shirts and jeans to try on. He had beat her to the last dressing room, and was going to let her go first, but she insisted in letting him go. Finally, she said “Let’s just share the damn thing.” He thought she was kidding until she grabbed him and pulled him into the stall with her.

“Well, this is awkward,” he said.

“Shuddup and help me out of these jeans,” she answered.

“You’ve done fine by yourself all day long.”

“Maybe I want help this time,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

It’s a test, he decided. She wants to see if I can hold out. He crouched low in the cramped room, eye level with her thighs and started to slowly tug at the legs of her jeans.

“It’s easier if you undo them first,” she said.

He grinned and gripped the corner of her jeans by the buttonhole with his teeth and pulled, and then grabbed the zipper and tugged it down until they were loose enough to fall free around her ankles. He hesitated only a half of a second before looking down to help pull her feet out of the jeans, but it was long enough for him to etch every detail of her body in his mind for life: the soft curve of her hips, the tone of her thighs that were utterly devoid of her summer tan in the December chill, the smoothness of her dark red Jockey underwear and its perfect fit of what he believed was the perfect body. After that, he stood up and started to talk.

“Katie–”

“Hush Randy, Let’s not spoil the moment.”

“But–”

She put a finger over his lips, then turned his back and tried to slip into the other jeans without falling over in the cramped room. She was just as perfect on this side, he decided as he reached and put his hands on her waist to steady her. Every scent, every sensation — the soft double-stitch of the cotton sweater, the perfect seam where her underwear ended and her waist began, the rush he got when she leaned back into him to balance herself before pulling up her jeans — was grabbed and gathered and collected and catalogued under ‘Once-in-a-lifetime…’ in his mind.

She stood up and spun around with a bouncy smile on her face. “How do I look?” she asked. He half-fell back onto the bench in the room.

“Perfect,” he murmured.

“What?” she asked, leaning closer.

Shaking his head as if blowing off a trance, he answered, “Great. They look great.”

“Good,” she said, “‘cause I like ’em, too.”

She took them off and then turned her back to change her t-shirt. The first was ridiculously large, and he told her it made her look pregnant.

“It what?!” she said.

“You look pregnant,” he answered. “You’ve got this wide area of shirt from your boobs to your hips and no belt or anything to pull it in around your waist. It looks like an early maternity shirt, especially with no pants on.”

“Really…” she said with that twinkle in her eye.

“You’re not…” he said in a shocked voice.

“No,” she said, smiling. “I just wanted to see what you’d say.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Don’t tell me about it. Have you ever had to go through something like that before.”

“Yeah, I had some friends back in high school. One of my best friends got pregnant in ninth grade. What about you?”

“I thought I was once…”

“You?!”

“…back in high school. Right after my boyfriend pressured me into it after the homecoming dance. I was a week late after that, and I thought I’d skipped or something, so I went to the doctor. He told me there was no way, but I was so stressed out that I missed it altogether and went back to the doctor, and he told me again that I wasn’t, but I was still stressed out, thinking ‘what if the doctor’s wrong?’ and I was really all torn up. Ever since then I’ve been religious about taking my pills.” She smiled a wry grin. “Of course, we all know I’ve just been sleeping with everyone and everything,” she said with heavy sarcasm.

“That sounds like it was pretty rough.”

“Yeah, and of course we broke up the morning after homecoming, so I had to go through it all by myself. That was the worst part.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. I’m OK now. D’you really think this is too big?”

“Yeah, try the other one.”

She struggled into the other shirt, a tank top that was obviously too small, and then turned around.

“I feel like I outgrew this thing in the second grade,” she said; it looked like it, too.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I like it.”

“You would,” she said.

As she changed back and put her pants back on, he let his mind drift off into left field and daydream about running off to California with her.

“C’mon. I know which ones I want,” she said, and jolted him out of his fantasy just as they were splashing into the Pacific surf in Santa Barbara. She led him out the door, and he left his jeans and t-shirt under the seat in there.

They went to lunch in the food court. He got Subway, and she got Taco Bell; he hated Taco Bell. Halfway through the meal, in the middle of a mindless discussion about their uncles’ tax brackets, she suddenly stopped with a burrito almost in her mouth. “Didn’t you have some jeans to try on?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t really seem all that important in there anymore.”

“Well right after lunch we’re going back so you can try them on .”

“No, really–”

“I’ll help,” she said with a grin.

“Sure,” he said with a note of resignation.

He went back into the Gap and grabbed what he thought was the exact same pair of jeans he’d left under the bench in the dressing room. As he went into the same stall, he got a dirty look from the saleschick that confirmed his suspicion. Katie was already in the stall behind him, and he winked at the girl. She blushed furiously and turned away, frantically scrambling for a customer to serve, and constantly glancing over at the closing door to their dressing room while Katie pulled him in by his waistband.

He landed in her lap on the bench, and looked her dead in the eyes. It felt like that classic movie cliche scene where the budding young lovers suddenly fall helpless into their first kiss. Instead, he fell out of her lap.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s OK.”

He got up to undo his jeans, after he kicked off his tennis shoes. She brushed his hands out of the way and started to undo his belt.

“Hey,” he said, “I used my teeth.”

“I didn’t have a belt on.”

“Oh…”

She finished with the belt and grabbed the same corner of the jeans with her teeth and tugged. She overdid it, though, and instead of simply undoing the jeans, she pulled the button off. “Thorry about dat,” she said with the zipper in her teeth. All he could think about was how juvenile he felt, and how wonderful it was. She tugged the jeans down and he stepped out of them and into the other pair. Her eyes were glazed — not really unconscious, definitely not awestruck, but rather a sort of wonderment at the goings-on around her. He pulled on the jeans and closed them up over his flannel boxers as she smoothed them down along his legs. She sat back on the seat and leaned up against the wall and appraised them.

“I like ‘em,” she said, finally.

“Good,” he said, “so do I.”

“Would you have gotten them if I didn’t like ‘em?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I do like them, but I don’t know that I’m not ready to start doing things the way you want.”

“I don’t run your life.”

“Careful, Katie. We’re straying into that territory you didn’t want to go into.

“C’mere,” she said. He sat down on her lap they put their arms around each other, as much for balance as affection.

“Today has been great for me,” she said.

“Me too–”

She cut him off. “Let me finish, please. Today has been great, but I can’t count on it always being like this, and I don’t want to dive into something based on one day. And I still don’t know that I won’t have days like this with someone else.”

“That’s a shitty thing to say right now, especially given these circumstances. If I had my way, never unlock the dressing room door, but you’ve taken that choice away from me, and I hate that. I hate being out of control as much as anyone, but I understand the need for it, and I try to accept it.”

“We don’t have to unlock that door until nine o’clock tonight. Just what did you have in mind?”

“I’d be perfectly happy just sitting here talking until tomorrow, and if I’m here with you, then there’s no way I can be afraid of you running around with some other guy.”

“That’s pretty petty.”

“Yep, it is, but so is admitting to my face that you want to look forward to these days with other guys.”

“I never said I’d be fair, just honest.”

“As far as I’m concerned, being honest is as fair as you can get.”

They sat there in silence for another ten minutes before they hugged each other tightly and held on for dear life for what seemed like an hour.

III.

“Dare I ask what you’re up to tonight?” he finally said.

“Party with some friends.”

“Somehow I was afraid of that.”

“What,” she asked, “that I’m going to a party, or that I won’t tell you which friends?”

“That it doesn’t involve me.”

“Nine hours at the mall wasn’t enough for you?”

“Playing percentages, it was great to spent over half of my waking hours with you…”

“But…?”

“You know where this is going.”

“And we’ve been over it before.” He noticed that her voice showed no exasperation, that it was simply a factual monotone.

“Five months, Katie. I know it sounds abrupt and pushy and presumptuous and lots of other big words, but that’s what I have to keep bringing it back to… five months.”

“I know, Jesus, don’t you think I know,” she said as they arrived at her building.

“I just wish you seemed to be more in a hurry to do something about it.”

“Something like what? Something I don’t feel ready to do? Something I might kick myself for for the next thirty years? Or just something lustful and impulsive that leaves you thinking there are deeper intentions and only hurts you more?”

“Something like getting everything blocking your path out of the way and diving in with both feet and trusting I’ll be there to catch you.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to dive in.”

“Then it’s not that you don’t trust me…”

“Hell no, I trust you more than anyone, except maybe my mother, and I know that you would never hurt me. But I’ve been defined for so long now by someone else–’Ryan’s girlfriend’–and I just want to define myself before I try and become ‘Randy’s main squeeze’.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Really?”

“I understand. I don’t like it. I wish there was something I could do about it. I think it sucks. But I do understand.”

“I’m glad you understand. I don’t expect approval. I’m not looking for it, either. I just want you to understand.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he said trying to steer the conversation away from what seemed to be an uncomfortably repetitious line.

“I don’t know yet.”

“I’d like to go do something with you. There are several good bands playing, and I can get passes to any of them from Rich at the station.”

“I’ll let you know.”

“OK.”

“Are you going to kiss me goodbye?”

“Would you let me?” he asked, mildly surprised.

“I just thought you’d do it without prompting.”

“I wasn’t sure, after everything we just…” he stopped when she leaned forward and their lips met. It was brief kiss. Affectionate. Deliberate. Not fully passionate, but clearly not a simple goodnight between friends. As they parted, he lingered as if frozen for a split second before realizing how foolish he might look to a passer-by.

She was halfway in the door before he remembered to call “G’night!” after her. She turned and smiled at him through the glass as the door closed behind her and the reflections of the streetlight on the smudged windows in the door drowned out his view of her rounding the corner in the lobby.

He went back to his room. It was only 5:37, but he felt like going to sleep already, like a little kid on Christmas Eve, trying to make the next morning get there that much faster.

Instead, he flopped on the floor, turned on the TV, and lounged, not caring what he was watching. He drifted in and out of catnaps for the next several hours, last night’s short sleep obviously catching up to him. Finally, about nine or so he climbed into his loft, buried himself under the comfortable weight of his blankets, and tried to get a decent sleep. He drifted off still feeling her lips pressed against his, with visions of her back to him in the Gap dressing room as she pulled on her jeans, and the phrase “Neither did I” ringing in his ears. And he found it strange that they were as comfortable and reassuring as the blankets he pulled tighter around his neck and shoulders.

IIII.

Even though both of them were of legal age, they were sipping on a pair of Cokes, wondering how much of their souls they would bare tonight. Katie had on her same old sweatshirt over that black skintight bodysuit leotard that she wore under her jeans; Randy was wearing his worn-out leather jacket, even though the deli was a comfortable 65 degrees. His glasses reflected what little light was in the place, but Katie could still see his eyes, and that in itself was enough for her to know how sincere he was.

Even though they greatly enjoyed each others’ company, a tone of despair seemed to be cast over them both. Even alone, they had trouble letting their guard down and opening up, especially after that day at the mall, and this was the first real heart-to heart they’d had since then. He’d spent the day before hanging out with three different girls, trying to do anything he could to forget her, or at least see if he was simply seeking a woman’s presence in his life, not necessarily hers; she’d spent it alternating between the coffeehouse where she’d first admitted that yes, she loved him, too, and her sister’s sorority house, watching the girls parade their boyfriends around like trained ponies.

Izzy Stradlin was playing on the jukebox.

“I was thinking about what Marie said yesterday,” Katie said, “you know, about Ryan seeing that girl from State, and I really don’t know why it bothers me so much.”

“You don’t still love him, do you?”

“Of course not, but still, after everything he said about how long it would take him to get over me, and everything he said about how I ruined his life, how is it that he can find someone this quickly, and I’m still alone?”

“You’re alone by choice.”

“I know, but we’ve been ‘round and ‘round about us getting together.”

“And you don’t think it’s time yet.”

“Jesus, Randy, you’re a juvenile delinquent masquerading as an authority figure. You go out of your way to see how far you can push things just to see how much people will put up with and you don’t do it for any real reason. All you think about is tweaking the system, you never bother to stop and look around and see if anyone else who got shut out needs someone to pick them up and dust them off. That may be fine for now, but later, I’m gonna want a lot more, and I think you will, too, and right now, I just want to be on my own.”

“Then why am I sitting here with you?”

“I’m here because even after everything we’ve been through, you’re still my best friend, and I still have parts of me I want to share with you and you only. The only thing I can think of is that you’re still waiting for me to fall hopelessly into your arms.”

“OK, maybe I am, but is that so bad? I spent a year and a half thinking about you, and after some of the times we’ve had, I’m not sure I’m ready to let go all hope just yet. I still love you, even after all that you’ve put me through. And besides, we both know that I’m going to want to spend every available waking, breathing, living moment with you”

They stared at each other through the neon haze of the bar, and he wished yet again he had a window to look out.

“OK, honestly…” she said finally, “would you have fallen head over heels in love with me if we hadn’t spent that night together the weekend before I broke up with Ryan?”

“Honestly — ” he took a breath and tried to let it out slowly. “I already had. And as much as that night meant to me, the next one, when we were out dancing at the Back Deck, meant so much more. That first night was just a chance for me to taste what I’d been dreaming of for months. It wasn’t to break you guys up — I never expected that quite that soon…”

“…but you knew it was coming.”

“Yeah, I saw it coming, but I really didn’t expect to be the cause of it.”

“Forgive me if I find that a little hard to believe.”

“Do the motives matter?” he asked.

“To me, yes. I don’t want to think that the guy I’m realistically thinking about marrying is manipulating me into it because of a night that I needed away from my boyfriend. I don’t want to not trust my best friend because I think he pulled the right strings to get me in this seat.”

“Look at yourself and I think you’ll find all the answers you need.”

“I know that I was completely in control that night. You even tried to talk me out of it at least twice that night. But I knew I what I needed and I knew what I wanted, and I was gonna get it, from you or someone else.”

“Don’t you think I knew that?!” She stared at him sharply and looked around at the other people in the bar looking over at them. He quieted his voice somewhat. “I’m not the idiot that I sometimes play in public. I knew exactly what was going on, which why I threw myself in front of you like a runaway train. You were gonna do something­­, and I wasn’t going to let it be with someone who didn’t love you and didn’t care if they hurt you.”

“I wasn’t worried about pain that night…”

“I know, and I realized afterwards that there was nothing about that night that you were gonna let get to you, emotionally. I realized right about the time that you were walking out the door.”

“What the hell did you expect me to do?” she burst out. “I wanted a wild night of wanton, guilt-free romance, and you roll over at three a.m. and start rubbing my feet and telling me about how you hope we’ll be doing this for the next two years…”

“It was 3:07…”

“Don’t interrupt me, dammit. I’m on a roll…”

“Sorry.”

“And then you start in with all of the ‘I love you’s and you kept waiting to hear it back from me…”

“… And I never did.”

“That’s right, you didn’t. I wasn’t after love. I was after sex, pure and simple. And I will confess that it was wonderful, but do you see how you ruined it with the overemotion? I wasn’t concerned so much that it was my best friend I was with, just that it was someone that wasn’t going to make me regret it afterward, and you very nearly did that. I was lying there in the bliss of the afterglow, and you want to make it a serious, life-involving emotional milestone. I expected that my best friend would understand what was going on and help me out, not take advantage of the situation.”

“I’m sorry, OK? I didn’t mean to ruin it, but how often do I get a night with the woman of my dreams, who, oh, by the way, also happens to be my best friend and who, coincidentally enough, is laying her beautifully nude curves on my floor looking like nothing so much as the heaven I’d only dreamt about for 16 months? I took advantage of what I thought would be my one and only shot at you falling in love with me, and by the time I’d stuck both of my feet in my mouth telling you what you already knew — that I loved you — you were on your way out the door, and I was out of feet to chase you with.”

“You should have had more faith in the power of love than that. As close as we’ve been for as long as we’ve been friends, it was only a matter of time before we had our own night.”

“I know that now! But how was I supposed to know that that wasn’t it? It’s not like you held up a sign as you were taking your clothes off that said ‘ATTENTION: THIS NIGHT FOR ENTERTAINMENT ONLY, NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH TWO FRIENDS BLOSSOMING INTO ROMANCE.’ I was trying to follow my instincts, and they were wrong.”

“You know that I forgave you for that a long time ago.”

“A long time ago?! It was two weeks ago.”

“I know, but when I really needed someone after I broke up with Ryan, you were there.”

“And I always will be.”

“I know. I’ll try not to abuse it.”

“Do that, but don’t forget that I’m always there whenever you decide to cut loose again.”

“Was the sex really that great?”

“One, I’m a biased opinion of that, but two, that actually has nothing to do with it. I just can’t stand the thought of you spending it with some guy that’s just going to treat you like shit the next day. I know that I’m going to the absolute best for you that I can. I can’t count on someone else to do that for you.”

She nodded soberly before a slight grin graced her face. “Where’re we gonna crash, your place or mine?”

V.

Just then he heard the doorknob turning and the latch falling as someone opened the door and Katie slipped in wearing his bathrobe and a towel around her head.

“Next time, I’m gonna wake you up to stand guard,” she said.

“Did one of the guys hassle you in the bathroom?” he asked.

“No, one of them threw some ice water over the shower curtain. I guess he thought you were in there because of the bathrobe. Anyway, I’m sure he got a surprise when he heard a female yelp instead of you screaming at him.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet he was a bit unnerved. I’ll hear about that later today.”

She started to dry her hair with the towel and he waved her over to sit down next to him. He turned so that he had one leg on either side of her, facing her back, and began to slowly dry her hair for her. She went almost limp and leaned back into him.

“Nnnh, that feels so good,” she said.

“You’re not kidding,” he whispered.

“Huh?” she asked, not having fully heard what he said.

“Nothing, just muttering things you’d probably rather not hear.”

“Don’t I get to be the judge of that?” She started to turn around to face him.

“No, but if you ask real nice, maybe I’ll tell you.”

“Define ‘real nice’.”

“I don’t know, start trying, and I’ll let you know when you get there.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I never claimed otherwise.”

She gave up and simply let him dry her hair. Afterwards, he rubbed her shoulders for a few minutes and then worked his way down her back as she leaned forward. When his watch beeped, she looked up at his clock and then jerked up with a start that caused the towel to fall off of her chest and his hands to slip a little further around her than he’d intended.

“Sorry,” he said.

She either didn’t hear him or ignored him and she scrambled to her feet. “I’ve got a paper due in an hour,” she said, panicked.

“Relax, campus isn’t that big.”

“I haven’t finished it!”

“Oops.”

She flailed around looking for her shirt before he reached over next to his pillow and tossed it to her. It was a little disconcerting to see her standing around his room with the windows open and no shirt on, but he figured, what the hell, I’m on the top floor of the highest dorm on campus, who’s looking?

She pulled on her pants in a hurry and grabbed her jacket, kissed him hurriedly, and scrambled out the door. Half-hoping to embarrass her into coming back if only for a second, he called after her as she was getting into the elevator “Hey, you forgot your bra!”

“Keep it,” was the reply, as the doors were closing, “you wanted it so bad last night!”

Once again, she’d turned the tables on him, he thought, as he wondered how many more times in his life she’d say something he never expected to hear from her. She was able to keep up with him, and usually beat him at his own game. God, he thought, I love that woman.

Back inside his room, he looked for his watch intent on taking it to the nearest construction site and entombing it in the deepest concrete foundation he could find, but it already seemed lost in the chaos of his room, mocking him with its elusiveness.

He lay back down on the futon, burying his face in her pillow, trying all the while to inhale every bit of her left there, memorizing every detail of the aroma of her hair, and delighting in finding several of them still attached to the pillow. Finally, reluctantly, he motivated himself to fold up the futon and take a shower. He had a paper due the following day, and though he realized it would break tradition, he decided to start on it a day early.

His frosted flakes were soon stale, his inspiration lost, and his hands numb from the way he’d rested his wrists on his keyboard. He didn’t notice any of them. Visions of Katie lingered in his head. Oddly enough, he thought, they were never images of her laid out before him in a moment of passion, but rather other moments that seemed even more intimate as he remembered them. He had now had two nights with her, and two others where she had stayed only for sleep, although those two were long ago, before even Ryan. No, his intimate moments were the look on her face when he first said “love” in the coffeeshop and she’d almost lost her coffee, and the Duck slippers whose wings she flapped while waving them around with her feet while trying them on, or the perfect curve of her body as she tried on jeans in the dressing room, the dull neon glow reflected off her eyes as she stared out from underneath her bangs at him in the deli and the kiss outside her dorm, the way she moved to the Black Crowes on the Back Deck as everyone watched him try to keep up with her, and slow dance at the Chainsaw Kittens show. His mind was full of swirling images of Katie, and everyone brought a warmth to him. They ruined his concentration, and they stole minutes and then hours from him, as he thought about nothing but how happy he had been for the past two weeks.

The watch beeped again, and he jerked his head toward the sound just quick enough to catch a glimpse of the sunlight reflecting off of it for him to find it in the pile of last night’s sweatshirt and the spare futon end-pillows. He checked the time when he picked it up. It had been eight when she left, and now t he watch was beeping eleven. She should have been back from finishing the paper by now, he thought. She should have called me and told me to meet her for lunch somewhere. Five months, he thought, I wonder if she realizes that I’m serious.

I never finished this, and I don’t know if I could recapture the spirit of the story if I went back and tried now. Still, if you liked it, please hit the “heart” button and help others find it, too. Comments are welcome, as well!

Dad, husband, game commando, veteran, Army brat, writer, teacher

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store