STOP. KISSING. FINN. - Chapter 17 + Tracks by Lana Del Ray, Sam Fender, and More!
A constellation of rhinestone studs decorated both of Jenna's ears, but tucked just above the left one was a flower. A small, orange carnation. Like the one he’d given me.
Chapter 16 recap: Charlie gets a wake-up call/warming from no less than three authority figures. Her independent study, just like her relationship with Finn, is falling apart.
I was making quiche, and it looked disgusting. I was alone in the art room, except for a new collection of smudgy pastels and, of course, the back of Finn's canvas. I’d zoned out for a few minutes – probably some kind of subconscious defense mechanism against the quiche. Nothing grossed me out more than raw egg, but there was no way I was challenging Riley's instructions. She'd made it more than clear that she thought my decision to continue with the independent study was pointless, and I was pretty sure the unit on French cuisine was my punishment. I cracked the last of the six eggs, managing not to gag.
The canvas and easel seemed a bit more to the right than usual. Like maybe Finn had been in the art room recently and moved it. Maybe I'd just missed him.
The only other time I'd had quiche was at the reception for my grandfather's funeral when I was six or seven. I thought it was cake and had popped a huge chunk into my mouth when no one was looking. I thought back to that day as I stared across the room, still remembering the spongy texture in my mouth, my eyes watering as I forced myself to swallow.
Finn didn't like for other people to see his paintings before they were complete. I can respect that, I told myself.
The quiche needed 40 minutes to bake, so I took out my history book. The amount of reading I had to catch up on was ridiculous. I wasn't even sure I should bother.
I looked up again at the canvas. Technically, I'd already seen it unfinished before. So seeing it again wouldn't be that big of a deal. I flipped my textbook shut and walked toward the back of the room. I glanced up at the door before rounding the easel to take a look.
The girl's face had become more detailed, and her pink snowsuit had taken on a darker hue. But, that was all I could see. He’d left no secret code.
I have to talk to him.
I headed for the door, grabbing my bag on the way. The oven would automatically turn off after 40 minutes was up. Technically, I was supposed to monitor the quiche and check on it a few times. Technically, I was supposed to be focusing all of my attention on school. I wasn't supposed to be distracted by Finn anymore. But analyzing why he hadn’t called or texted was just as distracting as being with him, and I needed to fix that.
Stop number one was the parking lot. Sometimes he went to his car to smoke a cigarette. Actually leaving the building was a little risky, but you could usually get away with at least one “I left my book in my car” excuse per semester. I’d learned that from Finn.
I cut through the empty cafeteria and, as quietly as possible, slipped through one of the double doors. It was freezing outside and I didn’t have my coat. I ran towards the side lot where Finn usually parked. His car was there, but he wasn’t. I checked my watch before I ran back towards the entrance. Thirty-one minutes.
My next stop was the media center. He might be there with Henry and Jackson working on Blank. But, if he wasn't there, I didn't want Henry and Jackson to see me and tell Finn that I was looking for him. I did one of those weird-looking run-walks through the hallway of the east wing; I needed to get there fast, but I also needed to look like I had every right to be roaming the hallways during a class period. Teachers didn't usually bother stopping seniors at this point, but it would be just my luck to run into someone having a bad enough day to go through the hassle of reporting me.
I reached the door to the media center without incident and pressed down on the handle. It didn't budge. I looked up and saw that a piece of paper had been taped to the door. “Media Center Closed Today” was printed out in bold type. Someone had scribbled This school is such a fucking joke below it. Someone else had penciled in a crude drawing of a penis. I glanced at my watch again – 23 minutes.
I leaned against the locked door while I calculated my next move. Since the media center was closed, I figured that they may have gone to the library. But then I remembered that on the day that Finn and I had run from Rent-a-Cop, they'd gotten kicked out of the library for being too loud and had met in the hallway outside of the auditorium. The auditorium and library were in opposite directions.
The library was closer, so I headed in that direction. I could see a teacher approaching from the other end of the hallway, so I pulled a notebook from the side pocket of my bag and studied it intently as I walked. I must have managed to look studious or at least harmless because she passed me without question as I pushed through the library's double doors.
I passed the stacks of dusty encyclopedias that no one had touched in 50 years and headed toward the large tables in the back where most people hung out.
I spotted his blue hat first and my stomach flipped. I ducked behind a shelf of biology reference books. I hadn't really thought of what I was going to say. But, at this point, I only had 15 minutes to talk and make it back to the art room on time, so I was going to have to wing it. I swallowed hard and turned the corner.
Finn tilted back, balancing the chair on its two hind legs as he gripped the underside of the table with his fingers. He laughed the way he did when he thought something was really funny. A low, female cackle joined him.
As I turned the corner the whole table came into view. Jenna sat facing him. Not in a chair, but cross-legged on the table. She leaned in towards him and gripped the platform soles of her black, leather boots. Her shirt was cut so low that her red lace bra was completely visible. Red lace – of course. It matched her signature red lipstick.
Hit it and quit it, I remembered.
“Hi,” I blurted out.
Both of their heads snapped up and towards me.
“Hey,” said Finn, his smile intact. He looked unfazed. Jenna leaned back, resting her weight on her palms and thrusting out her chest to reveal even more of her bra. She arched her eyebrows and pursed her lips into that same little smirk she’d given me in the bathroom.
“I had to return something,” I began, trying to sound relaxed. “So, I just ran down here while my quiche was in the oven.”
“Your what?” Jenna said. “Did you say your queef? Ew!”
“Quiche,” I said. “It's this...” and then I stopped. A constellation of rhinestone studs decorated both of Jenna's ears, but tucked just above the left one was a flower. A small, orange carnation. Like the one he’d given me.
“It's, um...” I continued. “This egg thing.”
“So?” Jenna asked sarcastically. She looked at Finn and gave him an exasperated laugh.
“It's done. I'm going to get it now,” I said and started to leave. I couldn't look at Finn and Jenna and the flower for a second longer.
“Wait, I'll go with you,” Finn said. He tilted his weight forward, and the chair landed on all four legs with a thud that was way too loud for the library. He stood up and grabbed his bag from the table. “Bye, J,” he said as he fell in step with me.
Jenna pulled her phone from her bag without looking up. “See ya.”
We walked through the library in silence. I held my breath and focused on the double door exit, but all I could see was the orange flower in Jenna’s hair, and then my identical orange flower, beginning to wilt in the water glass on my desk at home.
I took a breath once we were out in the hallway. Finn stretched both arms over his head and let out a deep sigh.
“Um, yeah,” I said without looking at him.
“I'm hungry. Is it any good?”
“I don't know.”
I could feel Finn studying my face for a second. “You okay?”
I thought of the last time he'd asked me that question.
“Yeah, I'm just a little worried about independent study,” I said distractedly. “I'm really behind. Actually...I can't skip anymore. Like, not at all. Or, they'll make me take an incomplete. That's what I was wanting to talk to you about.” And, did you give Jenna that flower? I wanted to ask.
“Oh, okay,” he said.
We walked in silence. We didn’t hold hands. We didn’t even walk closely. Or look at each other. I silently begged him to say something about Saturday night.
He cleared his throat.
“So, it’s just like, eggs?”
“Huh?” I asked.
“The quiche. Sorry, I’m starving. I skipped lunch to work on Blank.”
“How’s everything with that going?”
Finn inhaled deeply. “Well. I think. It’s so much work, but it’s really important for all of us to get this right. There’s just nothing else out there like this.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Right.” I paused for a minute. “So, is Jenna part of Blank?”
“I just see her…she’s just kind of around,” I fumbled. “I just thought she might be, like, an editor or something.”
Finn laughed. “No, she’s not an editor.”
“Why do you laugh?”
“She’s just not really the literary type.”
I felt a little rush of relief – Maybe Finn did realize how stupid and predictable and cliché Jenna was. Which actually made sense. You’d expect every guy to fall all over Jenna and her school girl costume and eyeliner and red lace bra. But, Finn didn’t do anything just because it was expected of him.
And that was one of the things I liked best about him. That and how, when I was around him, I didn’t feel the need to do what was expected of me. I closed my eyes for a second and took a deep breath.
“What are you doing this Saturday?” I asked as we stepped into the stairwell where we’d held hands for the first time.
“Hmm, Saturday. I have to work in the morning.”
“What about Saturday night?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“Liz is having a party. You should come.” With me, I thought, but didn’t dare say out loud.
“Oh, okay,” he said easily.
“It’s not going to be big, or anything. Her parents are gone. Andy and Jess will be there,” I ventured.
“So, it’s invite-only?”
“Oh, no,” I answered, a little confused. “Why, is there someone you want to bring?”
“No, just checking.”
We walked into the art room and I headed straight for the oven, which had shut off automatically only a minute earlier. I pulled the quiche from the oven and set it on the stove top. The smell was undeniably eggy and almost made me gag, but it didn't look all that bad. The middle had set the way it was supposed to and the edges were a golden brown. At the very least, it was photo-ready.
“Hey, Finn,” I yelled in the direction of his corner, hoping he’d take some pictures for me. The photos he'd styled for me were still the best ones I had.
“Oh, you know what? I forgot that I had this sandwich!” he said and waved a wrapped sub triumphantly in the air. “I’ll totally have quiche next time. I’m sure it’s awesome.”
He tucked the sandwich under one arm. “Gotta go. Text me about Saturday,” he said as he squeezed my arm. He flashed me a smile before he walked through the door. It was the version he gave everyone.
Now Spinning: Brooklyn Baby by Lana Del Ray
“How's this, Gram?” I asked as I nudged the 20 year-old wooden entertainment center an inch to the right. I’d come right home from school and Gram had asked me to help rearrange the living room furniture. Apparently, the “light had changed,” creating a glare on the TV screen.
“I think that'll do it, but now I'm not so sure about where the clock is.”
She made polite suggestions and I was cooperative, but we both knew what this was about. I’d been leaving the house early and coming home late so I could avoid talking to her about Marlena and the house. She’d finally left me a note asking me to come home after school to help her with the furniture.
“How about we shift the clock a bit further to the left so it looks like the space between them is more intentional?” I offered.
“Okay, let's see that.”
I pressed against the grandfather clock with my shoulder, using all of my weight to slide it out of the indentations it had made in the carpet. “Careful, dear,” Gram said.
“There, I think that looks pretty good.”
“Yes, much better,” Gram agreed. “Thank you. I couldn’t have done any of this on my own.”
I ignored the way she emphasized “any.”
“So you’re good?” I asked. I wasn't going to break.
“I think so.”
“Okay, then,” I said and headed for the hallway.
“Charlie?” Gram called before I could leave.
“Yeah?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Maybe we should call your mother tonight? She's left umpteen messages.”
“I have nothing to talk to her about,” I said.
“You and I both know that's not true, Charlie.”
“Really? What is it that both you and I know?” I asked. I was hardly ever sarcastic with Gram.
“Why didn't you tell me what she was planning?” I finally blurted out.
Her face fell slightly in a way that made my heart break.
“I'm sorry about that,” she said. “She asked me to let her tell you. She wanted to handle it herself. And I wanted to give her the opportunity.”
“Since when should she be allowed to handle anything herself?”
“She has a point, Charlie. This isn't the proper living arrangement for either of us.”
“You want to live in one of those homes? Without me?” I asked. I choked a little on the last part in spite of myself.
“It's not about living without you. It's about finding a situation that's best for both of us. Charlie, you know this house is too big for just us and requires too much upkeep.”
Gram's voice was different than it had been lately. She sounded stronger. She didn't sound tired or like she was searching for the right words.
I looked down over my crossed arms as I leaned against the door frame.
“And, I will not put you in another situation like last spring. That was too much for you. That is one point where I happen to agree with your mother,” she said firmly.
I cleared my throat and wiped my eyes but didn't say anything.
“Now, this is all part of getting older. And, I don't mean just me. I mean both of us. We grow up, we get older and we accept that not everything is going to go exactly as we want it to. But, it's our responsibility to make appropriate compromises and do the best we can... And shouting and crying and refusing to talk to people doesn't make anything better. It just makes us look more childish and incapable of contributing a rational argument to which others should listen.”
If anyone else besides Gram had used “we” and “us” it would have sounded condescending.
“Now, may I make a suggestion?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, studying my hands.
“We both know what's happened before now. This isn't just about the house or where you're going to live or where I'm going to live.
“We've all gathered a lot of sand in our shoes along the way, if you will. But, guess what? The older you get, the more sand in your shoes. You don't get any lighter as you go. Do you understand what I'm saying?”
I did. Lately, it felt like I was carrying around those sandbags they use to stop floods. But I couldn’t actually find the source of the water, so I just had to keep carrying them.
“If you make this thing about every other thing that's ever happened, you won't get very far… I've said the same thing to her, you know.”
I glanced up to look at her sitting up straight in the floral chair. Had Gram really given Marlena this same talk?
“Just like you can't make this about every one of her missteps, this isn't her chance to step in and make everything right.”
“You said that?” I asked.
“I most certainly did,” she said, smoothing the small blanket draped over the back of her chair. “So, here's my suggestion. Call your mother. And, if you're going to have that conversation, only have that conversation.”
“So I'm just supposed to forget everything that's ever happened?
It seemed so unfair. Unhealthy, even, to just ignore the problems right in front of your face.
“Now, that isn’t what I said,” Gram said firmly. She smiled a gentle, forgiving smile. For the first time in a year or so she was using a cane to help support herself. The shades to our big picture window were pulled back, and I realized it had been months since I’d been in the living room during the day. Lately, I only ever saw our home – the floral chair, the empty tea cup, the delicate, translucent skin of Gram’s hand – late at night by the glow of the TV or a reading lamp. She was right; the light in the room had changed.
“Accept what's happened before,” Gram said, closing her eyes for just a moment. “And do the best you can with right now.”
Now Spinning: Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender
“What kind of party is it?” Andy had asked last Friday afternoon at Scones. I had been trying to make sense out of my chapter on sauces. (Did dressings belong with sauces, or were they something different altogether?) Andy had his laptop on the table, too, but hadn’t bothered to open it.
“What do you mean?” I had asked without looking up.
“Is it like 50 sweaty people hanging out in the kitchen with cans of PBR because no one is allowed in the living room where someone might puke on the rug? Or, is it like 15 people in the living room, muted TV on Turner Classics, dipping corn chips in jars of salsa and drinking wine?” I had looked up at Andy and found that he was leaning toward me a bit, eagerly awaiting my answer.
I hadn’t known anything more than what Liz had told me. “I think more like the living room one with the corn chips,” I’d guessed at the time.
“Perfect,” he said with a single nod before leaning back in his chair. “I know what to wear.”
But, in actuality, it wasn’t going to look like either of Andy’s scenarios.
“I figured we’d all just hang out in the room above the garage,” Liz said after she let me in through the side door to the kitchen.
A couple of years ago Liz’s dad had cleared out the room above their two-car garage and used some leftover scraps of carpeting to cover the floorboards. Jacob and Ryan had helped him carry up two corduroy couches, the armrests scratched bare by Dizzy, their runaway cat. Mr. Farmer bought a used ping-pong table he found online and installed it in the center of the room, positioning the beat-up furniture around it, setting the scene for years of neighborhood ping-pong competitions. We’d all taken turns playing each other for two weekends in a row before soccer season started for the guys, and field hockey for Liz. I hadn’t been in the room above the garage since.
“It’s a little cold in here, but I turned on the space heaters,” Liz explained as she opened the door. The coils of two ancient-looking metal contraptions glowed red from the corners of the room, which was still bare except for the couches. They looked even smaller and more sunken in than I remembered. A cluster of cardboard boxes had been shoved into a corner and a miniature refrigerator that I didn’t remember was placed between them. It served as a side table for two cases of canned soda. The ping-pong table had been folded up against the wall.
“It’ll warm up,” I said. My breath lingered in front of my face in visible puffs. “Where should we start?”
While I vacuumed the carpet and furniture, Liz unfolded the table and wiped it down with paper towels so we’d have a place to put drinks and snacks. She had found a string of old Christmas lights that still worked in one of the cardboard boxes, so we stood on aluminum folding chairs and used her dad’s staple gun to hang them from the exposed beams.
“So, who’s coming again?” I asked, feeding her a bit more of the cord. She stapled another section to the ceiling with a loud ca-thunk.
“Um, well, you know everyone from softball. Like, Katie D., Julie, Shane, Katie B., Chrystal – all of them. And, then probably Chrystal and Katie B.’s boyfriends. They go to South. And then I invited just a couple girls from JV…” Liz went on, naming a dozen or so of the jocky girls at school whose athletic builds and year-round sunburns visibly separated them from the rest of the student body.
“And then, you know, Andy, Jessica, and Finn, right?” Liz asked.
“Um, yeah, they’re coming,” I said, doing my best to sound confident. Jessica was picking up Andy and they were driving over together. I had texted Finn all the details that morning, but he hadn’t texted back.
“So, what’s really going on with you and Finn?” Liz asked on cue.
I felt a pang of guilt. Not telling Liz about sleeping with Finn and then being ignored by him would almost be defensible if I just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet and preferred to nobly suffer in silence.
But, I couldn’t use this excuse, because I had talked about it. Just not with Liz.
“I had sex with Finn,” I had blurted across the table at Scones a week ago.
Andy had just finished rattling off the top five movies most likely to be remade in the next 10 years (“Number one, Moulin Rouge. And they’ll want to update all the songs, unfortunately…”). He just looked at me and carefully placed his ceramic cup back in its saucer.
“Okay,” he said calmly, maintaining eye contact. He folded his hands in his lap.
“And, I’m sort of freaking out,” I said, feeling a wave of relief. I knew then that I should have been telling Liz, the person who, after Jackie, knew more about me than anyone else on the planet. After all, I knew how bad it felt to not be told such important news. But, something about telling Andy just felt easier. Maybe because he didn’t know my entire life’s history yet and might be less shocked that I’d done something so crazy.
“Why exactly are you freaking out?” he asked.
I started with the scene at Harley’s – how I’d stormed out on Bill and Marlena – and everything that happened after. The crying in my car and meeting Finn in the parking lot at work. Sneaking up to my room, the conversation we’d had and how we almost hadn’t done what we’d done. And how Finn had barely spoken to me in any significant way since he’d quietly snuck back down the stairs and left as the sun was coming up.
I told him about Hit it and Quit it.
And that awful orange carnation that I couldn’t get out of my head.
Andy nodded quietly, asking clarifying questions at times. But he mostly just let me ramble on. He seemed unfazed by the details of my and Finn’s encounter, which I did my best to present as matter-of-factly, almost medically, as possible. There was no giggling or gasping in surprise the way I had always thought the “first time” conversation would be.
At one point I stopped myself.
“I’m telling you, like, everything so you understand how…big this is for me.”
“It’s not…weird for you, or anything?”
“Why would it be weird?”
“Well, I mean…I guess we’ve never talked about… this kind of stuff before…” I paused. I wasn’t sure how to say what I wanted to say.
“You mean about hooking up with guys?” he asked.
“Well… yeah,” I said carefully.
We were quiet for a minute.
“He was the first,” I said eventually.
“I kinda figured.”
“I really liked him before, but now it’s like… painful.” I winced a little, actually feeling that pain. An empty, horrible ache that settled between my shoulders and occasionally bubbled up before burning through to my chest.
“All the times we hung out after school and in the art room, I felt like we had this real connection. I mean, besides all the physical stuff, we talked about real things,” I said. I shook my head. “I sound pathetic. I guess it just hurts because it feels like now he’s more to me than I am to him.”
“You don’t sound pathetic. You feel that way because he’ll always be that person for you. And you deserve to be treated better.”
I looked down at the napkin I’d been mindlessly shredding as I spoke. “I don’t want to seem needy.”
“You know what? You’re past that.” His face was a little flushed and his jaw tightened. He almost looked angry. “Once you have sex, you have the right to ask more of that person. It’s not a casual thing anymore.”
“Casual sex is a thing.”
“Charlie, that isn’t you,” he said, shaking his head. “You need more from him. Or, you need to end it,” he said firmly and stared at me without looking away.
“You think so?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Andy had said emphatically. “You need to start expecting more from the people in your life.”
If I expect more, it will hurt more in the end, I’d wanted to say at the time. But I didn’t.
I handed Liz another arm’s length of cord.
“You know, we’re not really defined in any way,” I said casually, still hearing Andy’s words in my head.
“And you’re good with that?” Ca-thunk.
“Yeah. For right now,” I said quietly, handing her the last of the cord.
Liz stepped off the aluminum chair and looked around the room. “It doesn’t look too bad in here.”
I looked around. The furniture was still shabby, but the twinkle lights were fun. We’d done the best we could with what we had.
Liz glanced at her watch. “We should hurry up and take showers. People will be here in about an hour.”
I got ready as quickly as I could, throwing on the outfit that Andy had assigned me after I’d confessed everything at Scones.
“Those dark jeans, the more tailored ones. Wear those.”
“Okay,” I’d said.
“Do you have anything green?”
“Like a green shirt. To bring out the flecks of hazel in your eyes.”
I almost laughed at how he’d said it. Only Andy would bark orders about flecks of hazel.
“I have a dark green cardigan. Oh, and a more lime green v-neck sweater.”
“V-neck sweater. Wear that. And shoes with a heel.”
The only heels I owned were the pair from Halloween that I’d shoved into the back of my closet and tried to forget about.
“I don’t have any.”
“Good thing you work in a shoe store,” he’d said.
That morning I’d stopped by Colson’s to pick up my check and buy my first ever pair of heeled leather boots. They were rider’s boots that I’d been secretly eyeing since August, but never actually considered buying. They were a combination of rich brown leather and suede. I’d never owned such a nice pair of shoes. Even with my employee discount, they cost almost all of my paycheck.
I zipped them up and looked at the full-length mirror in Mr. and Mrs. Farmer’s bedroom. The extra two inches that the boots added made me look slimmer and, for some reason, a bit more sophisticated. I pulled my damp hair up into a high, messy bun and fastened on some gold hoop earrings I borrowed from Mrs. Farmer’s dresser. I did my makeup, choosing a darker red lipstick than I was used to wearing.
I walked into Liz’s room, a bit unsteadily in my new boots. “You think your mom will mind that I borrowed her earrings?” I asked as Liz peered into her mirror and yanked a brush through her wet hair.
“If my mom ever finds out about this party, you borrowing her earrings will be the last thing I’ll have to worry about,” she said and squeezed a dollop of hair serum into her palm.
“What about your neighbors? Will they tell your parents if they see a lot of cars?”
“I told everyone to carpool. And half of the people are parking down at the cul de sac and walking,” she said, working the gel through her hair. She glanced up at me in the mirror. “Oh my god, you look so cute,” she said, smiling.
“Thanks. New boots,” I said, lifting up my left foot.
Liz turned back to the mirror and quickly fastened back her damp hair with a plastic clip. “Let’s head downstairs. People will be here soon.”
A trio of softball girls arrived first. They had on more eye make-up than usual, but wore the same team jackets over their hoodies and jeans. I stayed behind in the kitchen while Liz escorted them off to the loft. Next were two guys in baseball caps carrying clinking shopping bags I assumed were filled with bottles of liquor.
“Follow the path around the house and then up the side stairs,” I said.
Two more softball girls knocked. And then three more cars worth of guys and girls.
“The path right here, around the house, and then up the side stairs,” I repeated, suddenly realizing my destiny for the evening: letting the real guests know where to go to have fun.
Liz hadn’t returned. I checked my phone – nothing. My stomach felt unsettled. What if Andy and Jessica didn’t really plan on showing up? Maybe I’d been too quick to trust Andy with everything. And, if they didn’t show up, I would know exactly one person at the party: Liz, who was also the host. How embarrassing to have to follow her around all night like some lost puppy. It was everything I was trying not to be.
I wanted to look strong and self-sufficient in front of Finn.
But, then, maybe Finn wasn’t planning on coming either.
“Hey!” Liz said as she burst through the kitchen door. “Jeez, it’s cold out there. Why are you still in here?” she asked.
“Oh, I didn’t want people to get lost.”
“Everyone has my number. Come up to the party,” Liz insisted. At that moment, I wanted to tell her everything about Finn and how I was feeling. But, the doorbell rang.
I had barely opened it before Andy leapt through the door, pulling Jessica along with him.
“Ohmygoditssofreakingcold,” he said through chattering teeth. “HOW did it get so freaking cold?” he demanded.
“It’s winter, Andy,” Jessica said, shaking her head. She carefully removed a tailored pea coat, revealing a velvet party dress with a full skirt, and draped it over her arm. Her metallic heels clicked on the linoleum.
“Wow, Jess. You really went all out,” I said, even though I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Andy had dressed up in his own way with fitted jeans, a black button-down and a skinny teal tie. He handed me a brown paper bag.
“It was the best Shiraz I could attain on short notice.”
I glanced over at Liz, who was taking in the whole scene. For a moment I worried about what she was thinking and what the rest of the people at the party would think when Andy and Jess walked into the room above the garage like they were still in their Guys and Dolls costumes. “I’m glad you guys could come,” Liz said. “We’re actually all hanging out in the room above my garage.”
“Lead the way,” Andy said enthusiastically.
I’d prepared myself for a raucous scene, figuring the time I’d spent directing people from the kitchen was more than enough for everyone to get a little drunk and rowdy. But, it was remarkably quiet. Kids gathered in small clusters and perched on the arms of the decrepit couches. Every so often a small bubble of timid laughter rose above the murmurs of conversation and the speakers we’d plugged into Ryan and Jacob’s shared laptop. But, for the most part, everyone chatted and looked over their shoulders.
“Oh my god, my party is boring,” Liz whispered to me, horrified.
“No, it’s not, it’s just early,” I whispered back, glancing at my phone. No Finn.
“Does anyone have a corkscrew? Oh, nevermind, it’s a twist top,” Andy yelled to no one in particular. I felt my shoulders tense. It wasn’t exactly a wine-drinking crowd.
He set a plastic cup onto the ping pong table and poured himself a healthy portion of red wine.
“Hey, Liz,” Andy yelled.
“Got any paddles for this thing?” Andy asked, nudging the ping pong table with his leg.
“Yeah, I threw them behind the couch.”
“Sweet. Let’s clear everything off. Who wants the first game?” Andy asked the whole room.
I started to panic. I felt responsible for Andy. I didn’t want anyone to mess with him or hurt his feelings.
“I’ll play,” said one of the baseball cap guys. He stepped forward. He was about the same height as Andy, but outweighed him by at least thirty pounds.
“Play to eleven, you have to win by two. Three out of five?” Andy said without missing a beat.
“All right,” he said. I let out a deep breath. I should have known better. Andy was the kid who voluntarily wore a grass skirt and coconut bra in front of the whole senior class. He could handle a room full of jocks.
Everyone cleared the empty cups and bottles of liquor from the table while Andy quickly performed a sequence of shoulder stretches.
“Want me to hold your tie?” I joked.
“This is my lucky tie,” he said as my phone buzzed. I pulled it from my back pocket and turned on the screen. Finn.
I’m here. In front.
I held up the screen so Andy could read it.
He stopped stretching and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Remember what I told you.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I mean it. You have to talk to him about this. You deserve more respect than what he’s giving you.”
“Yes,” I said again.
“Now, I’m going to go kick this guy’s ass at ping pong,” he said nodding his head in the general direction of his opponent. “And you’re going to talk to Finn and not take any shit.”
“Okay,” I said. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“Let’s do this,” I heard Andy command as I closed the loft door behind me and pulled my jacket over my shoulders. I took the stairs two at a time and then followed the path to the front of the house.
Finn stood there looking down at his phone. His expression remained neutral as he used one thumb to scroll.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked up and nodded his head. “Hey,” he said before looking back to his phone briefly and then tucking it into his pocket. He wore a jacket that was too light for the weather. “Is there still a party?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah, it’s back this way. We’re all in the room above the garage.”
“Cool,” he said and walked towards me. His eyes met mine and then quickly shifted in the direction of the path. I felt the ache between my shoulders swell.
I knew I had to say something quickly, before he got to the garage, or I wouldn’t say anything at all.
“Actually,” I said, touching the arm of his jacket. I froze.
“How are you?”
He let out a skeptical sounding laugh. “Um, cold…how are you?”
“Yeah, me too,” I said and rubbed my hands together.
“Shouldn’t we go inside then?”
“Yeah, I just…”
“What?” he asked, scrunching his eyebrows.
“I just…I don’t want things to be, like, weird between us.”
“Are things weird?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Since, you know…” I almost didn’t say it. I really was starting to think I was going crazy and dreamed up the whole thing. “…everything happened we just haven’t really had a chance to talk.”
“Talk about what?” he asked. His eyes searched my face. I didn’t have an answer for him.
“Um, about anything,” I looked down at my new boots and dug at the frozen grass with my left toe. “I don’t really know what’s going on with you.”
“The usual. School, work, Blank…it’s not like it’s been that long since we’ve talked.”
I thought about what Andy said about expecting more. What level of expectation was wanting Finn to call after we’d been together? It didn’t even seem to me like a “more” kind of level. It seemed like something he should have done because he’d wanted to, not because it was expected.
“Well,” he said and cocked his head to the side. “You know, with your mom and your grandmother. It just seems like you have a lot going on right now. I just want to make sure I give you enough time to deal with everything.”
“Oh... Is that why you didn't text me?”
“Well, yeah...and I mean, it's not like we have to text each other every day.”
“Right,” I said and looked at my hands, which were freezing and starting to get numb. I wanted him to hold them so badly.
“I'm just saying we're not, like, obligated to each other in any way.”
“Right,” I heard myself say again.
“Like, I just find all the rules about hooking up so arbitrary and antiquated. What, are we supposed to trade class rings, or something?”
“Ridiculous,” I said. My voice left a puff of condensation in the air but sounded completely empty.
“Cool,” Finn said and began walking towards the garage. “I'm glad you're not freaking out on me or getting all quiet and weird.”
“That's happened to you before?” I ventured.
“Well,” Finn said thought for a minute. “Honestly, and, I mean, I'm being completely honest here. Not all girls can handle hooking up.”
“Uh-huh,” I answered. The ache I’d been feeling in my chest for days started to burn again, but every other part of my body was freezing.
“Like, they think they can...or at least they say they can. And, then all these feelings get involved, and there are all of these expectations...”
“Expectations?” I suddenly went into auto-pilot, as if the word was some kind of trigger. Or maybe it was more like survival mode. Either way, it took everything in me to stand there with Finn and listen to him talk about other girls’ expectations.
“Yeah, like, suddenly there's the expectation that you're together,” he emphasized the word, like it was hard to even say it. “And you have to spend this much time together and text them every minute of every day,” he smiled again, like I was in on the joke. “Like all of a sudden you're in this serious relationship with...well, like I said, rules.”
“Right,” said a voice that sounded like mine.
“But, obviously, you're not like that,” he said as we stepped onto the narrow staircase to the garage. Muffled music and cheering could be heard above us.
All this time I'd been trying to convince Finn that I was okay with everything – sneaking around, skipping school, ignoring all of the rules that he resented so much. Acting like I maybe even resented them as much as he did. I'd pretended that his hanging out with Jenna didn't drive me crazy. I'd pretended that the chances he took didn't make me uncomfortable, that he didn't make me uncomfortable. That I wasn't uptight or boring the way Jackie saw me.
I'd pretended I was someone I wasn't, and it had worked. Because he'd actually believed me.
Now Spinning: Go To Hell by Clinton Kane
And now it was backfiring. Because I wasn't that person who disregarded the rules. I hated lying. I actually cared what my teachers thought about me. And I wanted Finn to care about me.
We climbed the rest of the stairs in silence. The burning pain in my chest was making it hard to breathe. I opened the door to the loft and was met with a wave of body heat.
“I’ll give you that one,” Andy was saying. He was pointing his paddle at his opponent, who was sweating through his t-shirt. Everyone, including the guy who was losing to Andy, laughed.
I watched from behind as Finn walked in and gave a nod of recognition to one of the guys. They gripped hands and patted each other on the shoulders in a half-hearted hug before immediately falling into a conversation.
Before anyone could notice, I backed away from the door and headed down the stairs. I walked slowly. I didn’t need to run. No one was following me.
I opened the door to the kitchen and closed it behind me. The Farmers’ house was uncharacteristically still and dark, except for the single light above the kitchen sink. I placed my hand over my heart and released a jagged exhale. Without turning on any lights I headed for Liz’s room.
Halfway up the carpeted stairs, I stopped and sat down. My chest felt like it was crushing in on itself. I held onto a wooden banister and allowed myself to cry.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting there in the dark before a voice called out. “Charlie?” It was followed by the sound of the kitchen door closing.
I held my breath and didn’t answer.
“Charlie?” It was Andy. I sniffed audibly. He turned the corner and stood at the base of the stairs. I could just make out his figure in the darkness.
“Hey,” he said as he climbed the stairs and lowered himself next to me.
I said nothing for fear that if I opened my mouth I’d let out one of those ugly, guttural crying noises that were embarrassing for everyone.
Andy slipped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me towards him. I allowed myself to rest my head on his shoulder, which felt warm and a little sweaty. I rested my forehead in the crook of his neck and sniffed, breathing in the piney scent of his deodorant. The ache subsided a little.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I exhaled deeply. A minute passed in silence. The crushing in my chest was still there, but had lessened a bit.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said.
I inhaled and let out another jagged breath.
“That I never seem to have fun at parties,” I said. We both laughed, and I wiped my eyes.
“Seriously, though,” I said. “Isn’t this all supposed to be more fun? What the hell is wrong with me?”
“Well, some of it was fun, right?”
“You mean with Finn?”
“Yeah. You had fun with him.”
“Yeah. I…” I paused and closed my eyes. “Some of it was really fun.” I was using the past tense, like it was over.
“It’s just so hard. To know that he can walk away from everything… from me so easily. He’s like up there drinking beers and playing ping pong.” My throat clenched – I was dangerously close to the ugly, guttural crying sound.
“What did he say? Did he actually end things?”
“He,” I said and paused. I took a breath and cleared my throat. “He doesn’t think he has to end anything. He doesn’t think he owes me even that.”
Andy rubbed my arm while we sat in the dark.
“Listen,” he said after a couple of minutes. “This may sound a little new-agey, or spiritual, but whatever. I think that people come into your life for different reasons. And, I don’t know, maybe Finn came into your life because it was the right time for you to…you know, have fun. And, like, that was it. And like, the same way people come into your life for a certain reason, they also leave.”
We sat there in silence for a minute while my breath steadied.
“Why do you think they leave?” I whispered.
“I mean… I’m not saying I’m an expert, or anything. This is just what I personally think.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you need to make space for new people. I mean, I think there are always going to be a few people, like a small group, that you hold onto forever. But then the others who come in for, like, a specific reason. They have to move on.”
“To make space for new people,” I said.
We were quiet again. I thought of all the space I had – the space that been made for me. First Jackie left, then Finn. But, I still had Liz. And then Andy and Jess. And maybe one day there would be someone else.
“I feel bad,” I said and sniffed. “You’re missing the party. And, Jess is all alone.”
“Jess is fine. Some quarterback guy started talking to her and she has a weakness for thick necks. Plus, splintering is inevitable.”
“Yeah, the splintering off from the main group in a few smaller groups of two or three. Typically with the purpose of smoking weed. Or hooking up.”
“So, what’s our story?” I asked.
“I’m not sure which is more believable. That either one of us would have weed or that we’d be hooking up. With each other, anyway.”
We laughed. Andy wrapped his arm around me more tightly
“I like Liz’s house,” Andy said. “There’s something really homey about it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve always wanted a house like this.”
Now Spinning: Last Goodbye by Jeff Buckley
Missing Person – @MoledyVerses
would be wrong
irresponsible, even, to cause such panic
for no reason
you are not abducted.
would suggest haunting
but it’s nothing like that
you don’t hide in the darkness
to remind me of then. I don’t need the reminding.
I have the evidence
in the shape of a lopsided coffee ring
on my flowered bedsheet
faded after three washings.
might be right.
If they don’t believe you left, or rather
that you ever
had anything to leave
I could say that you’ve left
for somewhere it never rains
where nothing grows.