A. C. Peterson
You never said
goodbye that night.
Every weekend was
the same. The same drunken girls. The same boys coated in fresh
flannel and Drakkar Noir. The same cheap, sugary booze handed out in
translucent plastic cups -- chemical foreplay in a Bacchanalian
attempt to pair off without consequence.
It was a hard routine
to do, really. Fix the hair, fix the makeup, stand and smile, nodding
and handshaking at Tom's side as the same people poured through the
front door. You never said, "Glad to meet you," because you
never knew when you'd met them all before.
You knew, and Lord
knows, that they all looked the same, clones of the Midwestern gene
pool that spit them out en masse. The same eyeliner. The same
cologne. The same expensive hairspray and same cheap cologne. Soon it
would be the same beer and vomit and gin spilled in the rug that you
would clean tomorrow, scrubbing while the game was on and the boys
would almost remember to thank you while you were on your hands and
knees cleaning up the remnants of someone's bad night.
didn't think of that while you smiled and shook hands. You couldn't
think of that, of course, if you wanted to stay smiling, the perfect
girlfriend at his side. Thus the gin and SoCo and sour mix and beer
and more SoCo.
So you drink. And smile. And eventually, the
smile became real. You smiled at the thought that the liquor, the
poison, was eating your liver bit by bit and eventually you would die
and never have to be polite to another college kid, four years older
than you and still unclear about the difference between connotation
and denotation, but still sure that since you weren't in
college they were far greater experts in anything they took an intro
level class in.
He was new, though. He looked more
uncomfortable than most. He winced at the alcohol like an underage
drinker. You knew, of course, because you practiced in the mirror not
making that face, no matter how nasty it tasted. Getting rid of the
face only takes a drink or two. But he sat there nursing it. He'd
never get drunk that way.
"You'll never get drunk
that way," you said.
"It is the traditional method for
drunkenness. Drinking alcohol," he shot back.
you giggled to be polite even though nothing he said was funny.
"Nursing it. Taking small sips. I bet it's already warm. Can I
get you another?"
"No. Not really," he said. "It's
camouflage more than anything else."
You wished you
didn't know what he meant, but the glass in your hand was the same
thing. Or at least it was three drinks ago. Now it was just a steady
stream of orange juice and SoCo to keep you from thinking about the
millions of other places you'd rather be right now, the millions of
people you'd rather be right now.
"Hi, I'm Amanda."
You reached out your hand to shake. There was no return hand.
you told me when I came in the door. Glad to meet you again for the
You blushed. You were usually much better
at this. This was your job: to impress, to entertain, to make the
world jealous that Tom had you. But there was no winning. You might
as well have walked away. But you didn't. You kept trying.
He turned his head away from you and returned to
staring at the fish that Matt just bought. Piranhas
were the kind of fish that impressed women. Matt had explained it to
you last week as he gingerly placed the scrawny
goldfish-with-the-mouth-of-a-bulldog into the tank that sat in the
living room for three weeks, just waiting for a carnivorous fish or a
snake or an iguana or something equally repulsive and yet intriguing
to cute, drunken girls.
But tonight, Matt let a chubby blond
from Iowa feed bits of Oscar Meyer salami to the fish despite the
fact the beast had been fed twice that night by other girls that were
also vaguely Matt's type.
So you ignored the fish-gazing boy,
with his dark hair falling over his glasses, preventing any possible
eye contact and you continued the prerequisite rounds of
"Tom, " you attempted.
"So I said to
You're weren't going to sit through that story
again, but the brunette in the sorority sweater would, laughing at
all the right moments, and putting her red claws into his tan forearm a
few too many times.
So you grabbed a sticky cup full of
Mountain Dew and SoCo. That would make her cackle a little more
tolerable and the next time you told yourself you didn't really care,
you might actually not care.
"You don't care about what?"
the dark-haired, curly-haired boy that you couldn't seem to recall
asked from behind as you cleaned up the blender you gave Tom for his
birthday, covered in sugar and strawberry mess left by a roommate
looking to impress with a daiquiri or two.
Your cover blown, it
took a few seconds to recover.
"Sorry?" you said with a
smile even brighter than the one you typically handed out at the
"Yeah. Well, so am I," and he turned and walked
out to the back garden with the same warm beer in the same plastic
cup, his dark, curly hair falling any way it wished.
going to follow him. You couldn't have cared less. He was just
another college jackass who thought he was so much better. The deep
and angsty bit may have worked with the graphic design girls in their
clunky shoes and thick-framed glasses, but you weren't that girl. You
certainly weren't following him out to the garden you planted on your
Easter break (only to see it crushed under motorcycle repairs and
vomiting frat boys and stomped cigarette butts because you hated
Matt's smoking in his own damn house). You weren't going to follow
that dark-haired boy.
"Hey, Amanda," Tony whispered.
"Know where the stash of condoms is? Someone's already in Matt's
room." You couldn't even speak. The girl on his arm was barely
standing. You wanted to scream at him, at her, at the room. You
wanted to object to all this wanton and random coupling. But you were
just a kid there and you needed to act like a grown-up for Tom.
pulled a lubed, extra sensitive from behind the tin foil in the
second drawer down and tried not to holler. Tony was too drunk to see
your disgust. Not like he would ever care. After all, as he often
said, you were just a kid.
The garden was cold. That time of
year was usually sweat-hot, but it was strangely cold with a bluish full
moon casting the brightest light you could imagine for an evening. It made
even your smushed rhododendrons look lovely. And the dark-haired boy,
now perched in crook of a tree, simply looked like a goblin.
the oak comfy?" you asked.
a poplar," he corrected you. "Oaks are thicker, have
Reaffirming his role as yet another
arrogant college boy.
"Do you like these parties?" he
asked, not sounding like he wanted an answer. But you gave one
"Well, certainly. It's a great chance to meet and
mingle with everyone from the college in--"
from the brochure?"
Red hot your face. Anger or embarrassment
or just that last SoCo shot kicking in; it was unclear.
without a touch of perky left in your voice. "No, the brochure
is better written."
"Let's hope so."
to bug you." You gathered your plastic cup, empty yet
"It's a pleasure to be bugged. At least you're not
throwing up on my shoes."
"I couldn't reach them all the
way up there. Wait. Someone threw up on your shoes?"
A lovely girl. Who apparently likes hot dogs and fries."
god, where? The living room?"
"I cleaned it up. You can
save the den mother act for a few minutes."
Silence. Lightning bugs. Crickets. Branches
"So you're not a party guy, huh?"
driving my roommate," he snapped.
That's so nice. What a great--"
"Stop. He's paying me
to. After his second DUI, he figured it was cheaper than another
More silence. More crickets. The
twig you'd been standing on finally snapped.
tried. "It's been nice, um, talking to you."
it, really. But thanks for faking it."
bitter or annoyed you ran into the house to tend to your duties.
Iowan blond moved on to feeding the piranha Cheetos as Matt attempted
to feel her ass. The brunette with red claws moved into full-blown
gales of laughter. Nothing Tom has ever said or ever will say would
be worthy of those kind of hysterics. But Tom was smiling and, as he
would never tell you but you knew already, you weren't making him
laugh or smile or even smirk lately. The word "statutory"
came up more than "girlfriend" in conversations about you
with his roommates. Only a few months until you turned 18, but did it
even matter any more? When he could attain someone older or prettier
or somehow more perfect, did the chubby high school pixie mean a damn
thing? Or maybe it was the 18 alone, the impending legality,
that was about to come between you.
That night, he would sleep
with the dark-haired girl in the sorority sweater. You would pretend
that you saw nothing and that his excuses pacified you, but really,
you couldn't even fake indignant anymore. It was a relief. It was an
excuse to walk out. Of course, you wouldn't. At least for a few
weeks, but you would hold that moment, and the moment you saw the
claw marks in his back, in your memory like a golden key. It was the
free ticket out, the escape hatch, the back door to relationship
But now, you would smile and kiss his cheek and slide
your arm around his waist, just to see his face and prove to yourself
that it wasn't your arms he wanted around his. And you moved along,
grabbing abandoned plastic cups and not crying. Picking up cigarette
butts and not crying. Drinking another cup Mikey decided to pour you
of soda and booze and certainly not crying.
You watched the
blond try to feed a fish a summer sausage and you did everything to
keep from thinking that the man you loved was about to get naked with
the kind of girl he always complained about. Until he could get one in
bed, of course.
You couldn't walk. You couldn't run. You certainly
couldn't drive your beat-up Buick Skyhawk back to your parents' home
after the drinks and the short skirt that would certainly reveal you
weren't sleeping over at Lisa's yet again.
Back to the garden
by default. The troll in the tree was gone. Maybe you
could climb it? But no, not in heels and certainly not in your last
good pair of hose. Because how could you begin to explain why you
needed to wear hose in the first place?
Silence. Crickets. You
leaned against the tree and wished that the dark-haired, curly-haired
angsty boy would return because even hearing how much smarter he was
would be better than hearing the laughter drifting from the house and
the neighbors listening to Seinfeld reruns too loudly while they
screamed at their children who always seemed to be crying. That could
be you some day if you could just convince Tom that you were the
He threatened to marry you a few times. To shut you up,
he said. It wasn't like that's what you were looking for really. But
what other options did you truly have? You could go to college like
the rest of the crowd behind you and wear clunky shoes or low-cut
tops and study Renaissance literature or mass communication or political
science or something equally important and you could go to keg
parties and talk about Kant and Duchamp as if you knew what was what
and you too could lose the love of learning and simply conspicuously
consume knowledge just to become a braggart. And you could marry Tom,
or some guy just like Tom, and you could get a job that held even
less promise than your art history degree and you could pretend that
you had a future to give up when you get knocked up to feed the
breeding pool of the suburbs that you refer to by the name of the
city in the hopes that someone from out of town will mistake you for
urbane. And you would be happy with this. You would never stand in a
destroyed flower bed and cry about it. You would look forward to the
day that you too could listen to Seinfeld too loudly and yell at your
children and call the cops on the neighboring college kids who were
laughing too loudly after 11.
"It's that good a party?"
he asked, triggering the motion lamp on the edge of the garage. The
dark-haired boy smoked a cigarette in brown-black paper, trying to
look cool, but simply looking awkward. You asked yourself why he would
smoke for the first time alone in the dark. Or why, if he had smoked
before, he handled a cigarette with the skill of a woodchuck riding a
You wiped your smeared mascara as gracefully as you
could after all those SoCos, which means with absolutely no grace at
all. The hairspray had let your hair fall completely.
Your reflection in the patio door revealed that yes, you did look
exactly like a 17-year-old girl failing miserably at playing dress-up
and nothing at all like a beautiful 22-year-old girlfriend that Tom
would want to show off.
As if on cue, the light went on in
Tom's room upstairs. You slammed back the rest of your drink and
you thought about anything but why Tom was up there and who he was with
and why the blinds were being drawn on a night with such a beautiful
moon. So you thought about the dark-haired boy standing next to the
garage, watching you smugly, trying to look cool. Who did he think he
was to judge you with his pretentious cigarette and his faux James
"So, you drove your roommate tonight, huh?
Who's your roommate?" you said trying your best to keep the
childish sniffles from your voice.
Mike? Or computer science Mike? Or that Mike with the drifty
"Computer Science Mike. Although he'll be
mathematics Mike soon enough. Just to piss off his dad."
good of a reason as any other it seems."
to the perky veneer?"
"I'm working on it. It'll be back
"Have a long day at school?"
What is it with you people? Just because you're in college and I'm
still in high school, you think you're better than me? You think one
or two years of paying to be told you are the future middle class is
somehow making you brighter than me? Fine. Sure. But at least I read
Chauncer because I wanted to, not because some asshole with a
syllabus forcefed it to me."
"I hated Chauncer," he
said slowly between attempting another drag on the fancy black
"Yeah," he said.
"You really in high school?"
"I don't really know anyone. I'm not a
great judge of age."
stubbed the last of the cigarette on the bottom of his black Converse
"So why did you read Chauncer?" he asked.
I was sick of being told I wasn't able to keep up with the
conversation because I hadn't read Chauncer."
let some asshole with an attitude, but no syllabus, force you into
reading it instead."
The light went off
in the back window of Tom's room. Maybe he was done showing off his
new computer or the loft bed he and Matt built. Or maybe. Best not to
think about it. It was best to keep talking.
"So Mike's your
"I like Mike. He's a nice
enough guy," you said, almost certain you knew which Mike was in
"Yeah. I can't imagine why he comes to
these kind of things."
"No offense meant,"
he said too quickly and you couldn't help but wonder if your smile at
the front door was too fake for him, or far too real.
doesn't strike me as the DUI type."
"Too dorky?" he
said, raising one eyebrow. "Yeah. Well. His parents bought him a
Lotus. He gets pulled over on the way to the grocery store."
what happens if he hooks up tonight?"
"I leave him here.
Or sleep in the car until he's ready to go. Or I drive the two of
them back to our apartment and have the pleasure of hearing her puke
on his waterbed at about 3 am."
"And if you hook up?"
"Too good for the girls here?" you asked,
cocking your head, waiting for another grand statement that only felt
like an insult.
"Yes. That's exactly it," his voice
dripping with sarcasm. "All those girls clamoring for a guy who
can quote Bukowski and knows the symbology of Bergman
"I liked Casablanca."
"It's ok. I expect
it by now."
And you were angry. Angrier than you had been in
years. And you must have been angry at the smug boy who thought he
was smarter than you. You must have been angry at the jerk so
self-absorbed that all you can think about is Bukowski when you were
obviously in pain. So it was really him you were angry at and not the
possibility that upstairs at that very minute the boy you thought was
yours was possibly off with the brunette in the tight sweater and
kissing the back of her knees the way he did to you when you first
met and he thought you were at least 19.
So you stood back and
scowled at the dark-haired boy, who underneath the thick glasses and
hair that went everywhere could have been considered cute in a
non-conventional, smart-boy way. If he wasn't so arrogant. If he
wasn't so smug. Weren't, you corrected yourself knowing that the smug,
self-centered, arrogant, holier-than-though boy with the dark
cigarettes and Chuck T-s with black laces would have corrected you if
you said it out loud. Because smart guys like that know the
difference between "it's" and "its" and can use
the words "gerund" and "subjunctive" without
cracking a smile.
"Weren't what?" he asked. He was cooly
keeping his distance, but he sat on the same cinderblock wall as
"I didn't realize I said it out loud. Sorry."
do that too."
"Use subjunctive clause?"
rolled his eyes, put the butt of his pretentious cigarette in his cup
of warm beer, rather than your destroyed garden and stood to
"Please," you heard yourself saying. "Please
don't leave." And you leaned closer to him, and you're still not
quite sure why. But you did and you smelled the burnt cloves and
nicotine and warm beer and the pleasant soapy boy smell that smelled
absolutely nothing like CK One or Polo by Ralph Lauren. And you
looked for a moment through his glasses into his deep-set eyes and
for a moment you could tell he wasn't hating you just then. In fact,
he might have even been afraid. But still, as he moved a little
closer to you, your defenses were up.
"So why are you here?"
he asked, raising one eyebrow in a way you found ridiculously sexy
and you wondered why an arched eyebrow could make you feel like
kissing an arrogant stranger.
"I'm going out with Tom."
he the tall blond?"
"No, the skinny one. By the front
"Oh, crazy Tom."
"Crazy Tom? What do
You sat up, straight and away from his body, not
leaning in. Not staring deeply into his eyes, not giving in to
whatever was wrong that you could be remotely interested in a boy so
self-satisfied, who was obviously about to insult you. Or insult the
boy you love, even if that boy was probably up there, at the same
moment, doing that weird thing with his hips that you always found
funny, but couldn't tell him to stop because he looked so serious.
You wondered if the brunette found it funny. Of if she liked that
thing that makes him look like he was lifting the weight of the world
with his groin. You briefly contemplated asking her.
not wondering, however, about what this dark-haired boy's lips were
like as you watched him speak. Although they looked soft and full as
he held them in a quizzical half-pout between anecdotes about Tom
shooting dorm dumpsters with paint guns at 3 am, those lips were not
soft. You just knew that. You knew they were not soft and you did not
wonder what they would feel like on your neck. Why? Because you hated
him. You hated him for being a college jack-ass. And for being
smarter than you. And for being better than you. And for thinking
that Tom was crazy just because he went to class naked for a
fraternity stunt. And you hated him because he was pretending to look
nervous and vulnerable as he slid closer to you, even though he
obviously didn't like girls who didn't read Bukowski and hated girls
couldn't figure out exactly what "Wild Strawberries" was
about. And you hated him because you found yourself making direct eye
contact and leaning in closer. Because you were about to kiss
"Oh god, he's dead!" you heard screamed from
the house. Both you and the dark-haired boy with goose-bumps, which
you told yourself were not from nervousness but rather from the cold
because that was far less endearing, jumped about three feet like
kids caught in the middle of something forbodden and began to
run to the house.
There was a girl crying and a mass of
muttering in the living room without much action. So you tucked your
hair, now completely unstyled, behind your ears, making you
look even younger than you had the rest of the night. And you stepped
closer to the fish tank to find the piranha belly-up floating among
bits of Hickory Farm summer sausage. And the blond Iowan girl was crying.
And Mike, computer science Mike, rich-kid-with-DUIs Mike, about to
switch majors Mike, was comforting her and telling her that
everything would be ok as Matt watched on angrily.
But as you
scooped the overstuffed
shimmering body out of the tank with the weak, green net and carried
the dripping carcass to your already destroyed flower bed and you saw
the brunette with the red claws climb down the stairs with hair
mussed and her arm around Tom and you saw the dark-haired arrogant
boy badly smoking another cigarette and not watching you and you saw
that someone had thrown up on the rug you bought for the kitchen with
last summer's baby-sitting money and you saw that the house was a
mess, that everyone was staring at you, you realized that no,
everything would not be ok.
It would not be ok for the fish
who you would bury among the moss roses.
It would not be ok for Matt who
lost his expensive fish and wouldn't even have a conquest to show for
It would not be ok for Mike and the
blond ushered into the low, yellow sports car, who would barely
remember that night, except for the vomiting on the waterbed at 4:23
in the morning.
It would not be ok for the brunette
with the red claws who Tom would keep on the side for almost three
weeks until he dumped her, and you, for a waitress from Denny's who
looked barely 15.
It would not be ok for Tom who
would end up with six kids and a job at UPS that barely required a
high school diploma.
And it would not be ok for you, who
would see the last glance of that dark-haired boy over the edge of
his glasses as he awkwardly climbed into the Lotus. And for the rest
of your life you would regret not even saying goodbye.