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.

But you 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.
"No, no," 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.

"Yeah, you told me when I came in the door. Glad to meet you again for the fourth time."

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.

"Sorry. I just-"
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 mingling.
"Tom, " you attempted.
"So I said to the cop-"
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 door.
"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.
You weren't 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.

You 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.

"Is the oak comfy?" you asked.
"It's a poplar," he corrected you. "Oaks are thicker, have multi-point leaves."
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 anyway.
"Well, certainly. It's a great chance to meet and mingle with everyone from the college in--"
"Is that from the brochure?"
Red hot your face. Anger or embarrassment or just that last SoCo shot kicking in; it was unclear.
"No," without a touch of perky left in your voice. "No, the brochure is better written."
"Let's hope so."
"Sorry to bug you." You gathered your plastic cup, empty yet again.
"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?"
"Yes. A lovely girl. Who apparently likes hot dogs and fries."
"Oh god, where? The living room?"
"I cleaned it up. You can save the den mother act for a few minutes."
"Oh. Um. Thanks."
Silence. Lightning bugs. Crickets. Branches rustling.
"So you're not a party guy, huh?"
"Just driving my roommate," he snapped.
"Playing designated? That's so nice. What a great--"
"Stop. He's paying me to. After his second DUI, he figured it was cheaper than another arrest."
More silence. More crickets. The twig you'd been standing on finally snapped.
"Well," you tried. "It's been nice, um, talking to you."
"Has it, really. But thanks for faking it."
Hurt or bitter or annoyed you ran into the house to tend to your duties.

The 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 freedom.

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 one.

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 moped.

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 Dean pose?

"So, you drove your roommate tonight, huh? Who's your roommate?" you said trying your best to keep the childish sniffles from your voice.
"Crazy Mike? Or computer science Mike? Or that Mike with the drifty eye?"
"Computer Science Mike. Although he'll be mathematics Mike soon enough. Just to piss off his dad."
"As good of a reason as any other it seems."
"What happened to the perky veneer?"
"I'm working on it. It'll be back soon enough."
"Have a long day at school?"
"God. 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 cigarette.
"Yeah," he said.
"Me too."
"You really in high school?"
"You couldn't tell?"
"I don't really know anyone. I'm not a great judge of age."
"Yeah." He stubbed the last of the cigarette on the bottom of his black Converse high-top.
"It's ok."
And then silence.
"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."
"So, you 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 roommate?"
"I like Mike. He's a nice enough guy," you said, almost certain you knew which Mike was in computer science.
"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.
"Mike 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."
"So 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?"
He laughed.
"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 films."
"I liked Casablanca."
"Ingmar Bergman."
"Oh. Sorry."
"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 you.
"I didn't realize I said it out loud. Sorry."
"I do that too."
"Use subjunctive clause?"
He rolled his eyes, put the butt of his pretentious cigarette in his cup of warm beer, rather than your destroyed garden and stood to leave.
"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."
"Is he the tall blond?"
"No, the skinny one. By the front door."
"Oh, crazy Tom."
"Crazy Tom? What do you mean?"
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.

You were 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 who still 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 him.

"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.

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. P>

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.