London Streets– A Love Story

Walking down the cobble stone streets, coming from another club in the Strand, I’m trying to remember why I thought it was a good idea to pack heels. I can usually walk in them just fine (dance too), but the stones’ nooks and crannies trick my feet and make me stumble like a newly born baby giraffe. The streets are too narrow to hail a cab, so I’m stuck fumbling towards a wider road. There are pockets of bass bouncing against the walls. The couple that is walking in front of me dips into the sound and disappears.

11:42 PM—it’ll be an early night tonight, but I can’t say I’m complaining. Two months since I got here and I’m not in love with the city yet; I’m constantly checking-in back home. I’m Connecticut’s crazy ex-girlfriend. Its confused crazy ex-girlfriend. I don’t want to get back together and move back to the states, but I’m not fully committed to London. I have another four months here before I have to decide to stay permanently. I plan to drag out that time for as long as possible.

The street feels like it’s smoothing itself out. My heels make a ‘clock’ sound that echoes off the brick. It’s comforting. It tells me that I’m alone.

The building in front of me has a splash of white paint on its side. I’m nearly home. My flat is a few blocks over—I’m glad that even as a kitschy Amerrican, I can still manuever my way around the city. The crunch and rustle of trash echoes behind me. Quick look over my shoulder– nobody. I find my keys inside my pocket and slip them between my fingers. It’s probably nothing. Quick footsteps. What the hell?

Someone is pressed up against me. Something is under my chin. The other arm is locked around my waist. I tussle for a second and just feel him grip tighter. Holy shit, get this fucker off of me. Where is everybody? Is it worth it to scream or will I just lie in the street until someone comes drunkenly stumbling out a club? I just move: elbow to the stomach. I don’t feel an immediate release; heel on his foot (finally, a good purpose for them). A grunt pushes up against my ear drum. The entirety of my chest cavity hurts from my heart beating so hard. He doesn’t talk, he just pants in my ear. I don’t smell any alcohol on him. Sober people tend to be better fighters. Damn it. He’s still holding pretty tight. I hit him again the stomach. I smash my elbow into his ribs again. There we go– I can breathe again. Just keep moving, keep hitting. Left hook to really get him off me.

He stumbles back from another blow I’ve given him. Black pants, average height, blonde hair. I need a face if I ever want to identify him, but I just want to get away. The road feels like it’s smoothed out, but I know I’ve just started trusting my feet. Clockclockclock. Public. I need people. No restaurants open, dark, seedy club would be a terrible idea. Can’t risk knocking down someone’s door and wasting time. Pub—that one at the end of the street.

Once I get in, I double check outside. No shadows stalking, waiting. The glass door adds an additional shock to my system when I lean on it. I’m safe, I’m around people. I’m going to be okay. I readjust my coat. Deep breath. My hands are shaking; I ball them up. I could’ve gotten killed. That was probably a knife. He could’ve done some serious damage. No blood, that’s always a good sign. I need a drink. This is adrenaline right now. The bar is slightly separated from the booths. I’m stuffing oxygen into my lungs and trying to avoid crying.

The booths against the wall are stuffed with young twenty-somethings toasting pints to new jobs, new boyfriends. There are only a few people perched on the leather stools. I want to be around people but not talk to any of them. I put myself in direct eye sight of the bartender. I don’t bother to take my coat off.

He walks over, “What’ll you have?”

“The strongest shit you’ve got,” I say.

I know he’s watching me as he fills it up.  I can’t tell if it’s coming out of a place of interest or concern. My hands are only tremoring now.“What is it that you’re running away from?”

“I thought Brits had better grammar lessons than Americans. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to end your sentences with a preposition?” I wince and smile at the same time. Dammit, I shouldn’t be surprised. I get… sarcastically testy when I freak out. Freud would have a ball with me.

He places the beer in front of me. “Well, you’re incredibly well spoken tonight, so I’m going to assume you’re not pissed. And that’s an incredibly nice defense mechanism you got there.” He smiles too. “You alright?”

“I am now. Thank you.”

“Jesus, what happened to your hand?” The skin on the knuckle on my left hand is cracked. There’s going to be a huge bruise there tomorrow.

“I…uhm, I had to get some mugger off me.”

“Want to call the cops? I won’t call unless you say it’s okay.”

I don’t say anything. I don’t have any information to give them.

“What’s it like working in a bar?”

“It’s fine.” He doesn’t elaborate. He wants me to answer his question. Maybe later.

 “I can’t imagine the stories you hear,” I say. “All the broken love stories and the drunken broken spirits…” I take a sip and try and ignore the irony.

He just looks at me for a moment. “It’s not so bad. I like people and the bar’s usually not too rowdy. I always manage to find interesting people to talk to.” He doesn’t look away when he says this. I really look at his face: not drop dead sexy, but dark hair, symmetrical face, and straight teeth.

In the warm bar, my heartbeat has calmed down. I smile back and take another sip. It’s nice to feel not-so-alone. And for right now, protected in the bar, London is alright.

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Good to See You Again, You Lying Bastard.

Ten million people in New York City– and I can’t escape the one that reminded me why I wanted to disappear.

“Molly,” I say after knocking on her door, “Why is Luke Hollaway coming here? He’s an actor, not a writer.”

She cracks a chesire smile grin. “Shut the door, please.”

Oh no. The door smacks shut behind me and I take a seat in her stiff leather chairs. “Do you remember the research I had you do on L.A. Candy?” My ass was stuck to my office chair for three hours while I prowled Bookscan’s RTD numbers. That kind of pain is hard to forget. I keep my mouth shut and nod. “Luke’s agent approached us with a fiction manuscript–”

“Written by him?” I ask, arching an eyebrow at her. Ghostwriting isn’t illegal, it just would be very surprising if Luke decided to put more than a day’s worth of effort into something. 

Molly just laughs. “It’s actually quite good. Holloway is a good writer. Not a half-bad actor either.” I continue to hold my tongue. “He wanted us to publish it. We have the budget, the name, and the time.”

“We don’t have to. We can lie; say we’re completely swamped.” Shit, I’m associate editor. I’ll have to sit across from him and avoid eye contact for at least two hours.

“Don’t even try that. Book sales could go up to 500,000 copies a week. I’m not willing to give up that kind of paycheck. I need you to compile a quick comp sheet. Meeting’s in an hour.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this earlier?”

“Only senior editors knew. We didn’t want to start spreading rumors,” As she’s booting up her computer, she comes to some conclusion, “Actually, we should probably let more of the office know so they won’t assault him once he’s in the door.”

“Please,” I snort, “he wishes he were that popular.”

Fifty minutes later, I’m nervously tapping my heels inside the meeting room. The metal gleams from its recent cleaning, and each of the eight seats has a neat packet laid in front. Comparison sheets of similar titles to predict sales from marketing, excerpts from the first chapter from the editors, magazine and TV campaigns from publicity. Ten minutes until Luke is officially late. Two hours until I can leave this room.

With nine minutes to go, a large group fills in many of the seats. Luke Holloway is among them. God, please kill me.

“Alex, I’m glad you’re here.” he shakes my hand and fails to dazzle me with his movie star smile.

“Luke, good to see you again.” I wait for him to take the bait.

“Again?” Molly catches on. “How do you know each other?”

He starts speaking, but I cut him off. “We ran in the same social circle.” And dated. And got engaged. And divorced. I told him to give up the dream of being an actor. He had gone to college for theater and consistently made the circuit through Times Square theaters. He did some small theater shows, but never got paid. You need to get a real job, I told him. He spat that I shouldn’t get angry at him for having the guts to do what I couldn’t. That I was being a coward for working in publishing instead of writing my own book.

Neither one of us flinched, “You’ve got to love New York,” Luke said, “You can run into anymore here.”

“Let’s get started, shall we?” I’m not interested in reminiscing. I take my seat as close to the head of the table, where Molly will direct this circus spectacle.

“I agree. Let’s get started,” Luke’s agent pipes up. We all sit. “What did you like?” He looks at Molly while he asks.

“I’m really excited about this. You’ve got a great story here. Market’s showing favoritism towards mysteries and thrillers.” Molly’s in full pitch mode and she sparkles.

“What did you think, Alex?” Luke asks. What? Clients are not supposed to speak during these meetings. “I remember you always had a knack for mysteries.” I focus on him. He looks cocky, not nervous. He knows I haven’t read it yet.

“From the few pages I’ve seen, I think it has a lot of promise. Publicity will be a great help with sales,” I lie. But hey, it sounded effective.

“Great. Then let’s talk details,” his agent says.

Two hours and two minutes later I break out of the conference room and head for the kitchen. I can’t tell if I want a cigarette, a cookie, or coffee. Coffee’s closest. It’ll do.

As I’m setting up the coffee maker, I head a kerfuffle by the door. “You’re looking good, Alex.”

I don’t want to talk to you. I focus on the lip of the coffeemaker, perfectly measure the coffee grounds. “Did you need something?”

“This company has been doing really well in the past few quarters. You chose well by working here.”

I roll my eyes and turn on him. “Apparently, so did you. After this, you’ll be an acclaimed writer and actor. Congratulations.” The word burns like acid.

“Alex–”

“What?”

“I…I guess this is proof that anyone can publish a book. Take that as motivation.”

I consider throwing the apples in the fruit bowl at him. Letting fruit splatter against his nose. “I have to look over the rest of your manuscript. I hope you can find your way out.”

He doesn’t get a word in. I shove past him to my cubicle. The gray collapsible walls offer some form of sanctuary. There’s folded piece of paper resting on my keyboard.

Have the courage to do what you want. I know a really good publisher when you have your finished manuscript.

I crumple up the note and listen to the satisfying ting against the trash can.

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Private Lessons

I’ve just walked into a conversation I’m not meant to hear. “I’m considering coming back for my Master’s. I could work under you.” Through the glass panel of his office door, I see Charles facing a young brunette, the one eager for advanced education. I worry that she’s prettier than me.                

I knock loudly.               

His eyes flick up to the entrance of the door. She barely moves.                 

“Ch–Professor Waters,” I glare at the co-ed, ”I thought you were free right now.”               

“Veronica,” it sounds like a sigh of relief, ”I’m being unceremoniously held up. Kelly is a former student of mine. She’s visiting from Boston.” When he says her name, he winces like it was a mistake. His face, young looking for a thirty-three-year old, looks pained. “A surprise visit,” he adds. The brunette turns around. She has wide blue eyes and soft hair.               

She twists around in the squat chair and sticks out her hand. She doesn’t get up, “Kelly. Pleasure to meet you. I can’t say I’ve heard a lot about you.” We shake. Kelly. I didn’t think she was coming back. I’m not used to competing with her in person. 
                             

Three months ago, Charles had opened his office door and welcomed me in. The snug office had an entire wall as a bookcase and it still wasn’t enough. Next to the window, there was a photo of him with friends. A girl with wide blue eyes and soft brown hair was snuggled up next to him grinning brightly.                 

“Where was that?” I asked. I tried to find that happiness in him in that cramped office.               

He raised his eyebrows at me, looking up from a notebook. “Hmm? Oh…Colorado Springs, last winter.” He picked up the photo, sighed, and put it back down again. 

“Is that your wife?” I asked.               

He focused on her. He ran his fingers through his cropped black hair and shook his head, “No.” He chuckled humorlessly, “Not even close.” Then, he looked at me and I felt my skin get hot. “You remind me of her.”
                                               

“When did you graduate?” I ask.               

“Two years ago. You were a sophomore, right?” I just nod. She knows I graduate this spring. She smiles widely and bats her eyelashes. “What class do you have with Charles?”               

“Physiology.”               

“Hmm. So did I. I really learned a lot.” She flirts over her shoulder, then faces me. Again with that saccharin smile.               

I search the wall for a moment and smile. Her picture is no longer there. Satisfied, I look towards Charles, then back at her. 

We put the office scene on repeat for several days per week. I would come in with some prop (a half-done lab report, a shoddy set of questions about the homework) and just talk. I started getting antsy in class. I noticed when he stood close to me. When he was looking at me. I was in his office one Tuesday night, pawing through his bookshelf when he came up behind me. “I think you might really enjoy this one,” he whispered. I can’t remember which book he pointed out. My work lay on his desk while he pressed me up against the bookcase.
                               

”Right. Well, I should let you get going. Isn’t it a long drive back?”               

“I’m considering staying the night,” she says.               

Charles steps in, “You won’t find a hotel this late in the day.”                

“Would you mind if I stayed in your guest room again?” She addresses me now, “He has great taste when it comes to decorating bedrooms.”               

I bite back a smile. I almost feel bad for her. “Kitchens too.”                

Charles gives me a look that makes me long to be surrounded by bookshelves. “Kelly, I really need to work with Veronica.”               

She tenses her jaw. “Guess I won’t have a chance to review the materials.” She stands and hitches her bag onto her shoulder, “It was nice seeing you again, Charles. She turns to walk out the door, “Veronica…good luck with everything.”

As she walks down the hallway, I know I should stop her. That will be me in six months, if not sooner. We should become friends or at least allies. We could compare stories and laugh over coffee about no one ever suspected us. But instead, I let her walk out while I close the door and uncover the finer points of physiology.

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A Quick Decision

Mom–

Andrew and I are leaving for Las Vegas. Or San Diego. Or Sedona. Anywhere with a Justice of the Peace, in case the urge to marry strikes us. We’ll be gone for a while; combo wedding and honeymoon. This means you won’t get the big wedding you wanted (despite the fact it would be my wedding, but that’s beside the point)– and our family will undoubtedly never let this go. Please don’t call me. I’m safe, I know what I’m doing. I love you, I’ll talk to you soon.

The night I am visiting my parents from college, one week after graduation, I write this note. All I have to do is leave the letter on the kitchen table, throw my duffel in the backseat and meet Andrew at the commuter lot by sunrise.

I sit with the letter in my hands for at least an hour. Could I do this? Could I flip the finger to my responsibilities and just leave? If I stay, I can imagine the conversations.

“I want a small wedding.”

My mom would pause, “I don’t know. There’s Doreen’s family and your cousins…” Ah, yes. All of the people I didn’t want poking and prying into my personal affairs.

It would get worse. “What do you mean she doesn’t want us at her wedding? We’re family; these kinds of events are reasons to get together. When else am I going to see you?”

“But, honey, that’s not how it’s done. You should exchange rings. It’s very important. Oh, let me fix your dress…” I push the image of my mother fussing with my dress away as if she were really there. No one is asking what I want. So I am going to take it. But if I leave, would I ever be welcomed back?

I feel nauseous as I rearrange the note, propping it up against the fruit bowl. 2:30 AM. I am running out of time to make decisions. Heaven forbid if either one of my parents comes downstairs, I will have some serious explaining to do.

I stop thinking. I grab the duffel perched on the center island and pull the door behind me, listening for any creaky floorboards.

A 1969 Red Corvette is the only car in the lot. Holy shit, we’re actually doing this.

Hi Mom—

We got into Sedona a little after two this afternoon. You wouldn’t believe what happened! We were in traffic, with a white pickup in front of us. The passenger stuck his head out of the window and craned his neck really hard to get a good look at our car. He ducked back in for a sec then—WHAM—came back out with a shotgun! He fired on the car once (with surprisingly good aim at sixty miles an hour) but Andrew swerved the car out of the way before we got hit. We asked the concierge about it; he thinks the plates would go to ground—it’s probably stolen. Never a boring moment out here in the Wild West.

Sending all my love back home.  

I clench the arm rest until my fingers ache. Andrew nearly spun out on the sand. He shakes his head, “What a nutjob.” He takes a side road, weaving through Mexican restaurants and the occasional Wal-mart. I keep my eyes on the mirror, searching for any white pick-up trucks.

“I’m hungry. Do you want anything?” He’s dealing with this well. It wouldn’t bother me so much if he realized I’m a few nachos short of an appetizer. I shake my head. He pulls into the next restaurant we see.

“I’m fine, by the way. Thanks.”

He arches an eyebrow at me. “I assumed, mainly because you didn’t get shot. Or did you? Maybe I have to give you a full-body exam.” He reaches over and starts tickling me.

“Stop it, that’s not funny.” But my body betrays me and I start laughing. Yet, I’m still mad.

It’s sunset by the time we reach the hotel. Our room embraces the red rock theme. The walls are doused in hot oranges and earthy reds. Oh, and lots of cacti. I throw my bag full of wrinkled, dirty laundry down on the mattress. Hard. Andrew is only a few steps behind me, his arms loaded with dinner, whistling some god awful song.

“Will you stop whistling, please?” I turn towards him; he hasn’t shaved in at least a week.

“Hey, you sang Katy Perry all the way through Oklahoma. Consider this revenge.”

I want to smile and push his face into the burrito he’s unwrapping at the same time. “What do you want to see while we’re here?”

“I’m game for eating cheap food and walking through the desert. I don’t need an itinerary.”

I flip through the complimentary ‘Things to Do’ book that’s in the nightstand. I think it’s replaced the bible. “What about a Pink Jeep Tour? It’ll take us through the canyons. Or we could do early morning meditation session?”

Andrew shakes his head. “How much money do we have? I don’t want to spend it on trashy tourist traps.”

It’s my turn to shoot him a confused look. “I thought that was the whole point of this. That we explore, do things we would never do otherwise.”

“We’re the same people, Moll. Just in a different place.”

Dear Mom—

After shacking up in Sedona for a few days, we hit the road for San Diego. It’s so green here, even when you’re on the highway. Part of the highway is titled Balboa Parkway.  I asked Andrew if it was named after Rocky…he couldn’t stop laughing for about ten minutes. I’m still Molly Rollins; haven’t hyphenated my name just yet. Guess we haven’t found the perfect place yet. I miss you. I’ll write again soon. 

“I don’t understand the panda appeal,” Andrew says as he looks at the plaque in front of the San Diego Zoo. “They just sit and eat bamboo all day.”

I laugh, “And they smell. But they’re dying out—makes them a hot commodity.” We walk through to my favorite exhibit: the polar bears. Small children crowd around the glass as they watch one bear twist and flip underwater. What a ham. I pull out my camera and let him pose for me.

I squeeze between the kids, until I’m inches from the glass. Then, just as suddenly, the children disperse. Probably went to see the pandas. I just stand and continue watching him. And for a moment, I forget that I left Andrew outside by the jaguars.

When I walk out the plastic cave, I see him lounging on a wooden bench, lapping up the sun like a cat. I smile and just watch. He’s the reason I’m here. I want to run my fingers down his neck and rub his shoulder.

He looks up and smiles wide. I feel even warmer…until I realize that I’m not the one he’s smiling at. A young woman with long brown hair and a white wife beater and jeans has gone over to make idle conversation. She’s tall and thin; she could substitute for bamboo quite nicely.

But the moment gets me thinking. We came out west to get married and explore. Yet, we were still unwed and mulling around a zoo. Was this what I really wanted?

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Did You Miss Me?

It was 5:01 PM when she pulled the fresh baked bread out of the oven. The familiar clomp of handmade Italian leather shoes echoed on the wooden steps outside.

“Millie? Is that you?” The voice was accompanied by plastic bags rustling.

“Hi, James. I’m about to start making dinner. What would you like?” She gave him a tired smile but he didn’t notice. He heaved four overloaded grocery bags on the center island. James, husband of five years, matched his wife’s height: 5′ 5″, 5′ 6″ on a good day.

That was the only way they were equal.

“I’ve got to send off a quick email. Could you put these away?”

Still holding the panned loaf of bread, she shook her head. “I’ve got my hands full. You just got home…can’t the email wait?”

“I don’t want it dangling over me. I’ll check if off of the to-do list now.” He turned unbuttoning the neck of his pressed cotton shirt and loosening the tie.

She watched him walk out of the kitchen. If she weren’t married to him, Millie would’ve nodded sagely, pleased at his ‘can-do’ attitude. To a point, she even understood his dedication. But it was a Friday night. Both of them were done for the weekend. And there he was, scampering to his email account.

But why say anything? A good wife always make home feel comfortable and safe, her mother told her. (Then again, her mother killed herself after a particularly depressive episode when Millie was in high school.)

Mille grabbed a long serrated knife from the knife block; a wedding gift from a college friend. Oh, I’m so jealous you’re getting married. You must be so happy!

Mille carved the bread with a little more force. Five years; not all bad or good, always changing. But why did it feel like there were more bad days than good?

She set down the knife to start putting away groceries. She pulled half of a pound of steak from the bag. She wanted to throw it against the wall. James would want her to broil it for that night’s dinner (or give her a brief respite and request it for tomorrow).

And she would do it. She would grumble about balancing other chores, researching for her new assignment at work, but when it struck six o’ clock, the kitchen would fill with spicy aromas.

She slammed cans of garbanzo beans into the cabinets and thrust the head of lettuce into the fridge. Goddamn, ungrateful…

“Billy! How’s it going?” James walked back into the kitchen, blabbering on his phone. “Yeah, Millie’s making dinner, so I figured I’d give you a call back. Have you watched the markets today? I couldn’t believe how erratic Facebook is right now. If you ask me, I would steer clear.”

Rage came closer to the surface. Millie knew, from all the wifely anecdotes that screaming would do nothing. But she felt her muscles get tight and tears gather in her eyes and she didn’t know what else to do.

“GET THE FUCK OFF THE PHONE!” She smashed the cabinet door shut; if she didn’t keep letting this emotion out it would stick to her insides.

James rolled his eyes and walked out. Millie could hear him saying something about “Millie being stressed”.

Millie had to move. She grabbed her purse, shut off the oven, snagged the keys to the Toyota and let the door rattle behind her. She needed to leave. Now. Get away and let loose.

When she hit the highway, her anger had subsided. The music blared out of the windows and the flapping of her hair and the warped sound of the wind passing through the car helped.

At 8:15 PM she walked back in. The kitchen didn’t smell like oregano and basil and the table wasn’t set. She perched on the sofa with a new book. There was no sound other than the whoosh of turning pages. Five minutes. Fifteen. Then, clomping.

“What was with you tonight?”

Millie snapped the book shut. “Do you know how many times I’ve asked you not to talk that loudly in the house?”

“I called back Billy. What did you expect me to do?”

“Keep your voice down!”

“Whatever. I don’t know why it bothers you.” He made a move to walk away.

The rage was back. “Stop it–”

(Apparently, so was his.) “No, you stop! I don’t know what your problem is. All I did was walk into the kitchen and you started screaming. God, you’re so miserable all the time!” He stomped out.

Millie exhaled fast. She tried to take solace in the silence, in her new book. She turned pages without remembering what she read. 

She had to get out. Maybe this time, for good.

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Drunken Propositions

Lyle takes his fifth shot of tequila in the hour he and Aly have been at the party.

He licks the line of salt off his hand, winces at the strength of the tequila, and bites the lime for effect.

“You know what? I should go punch his face in right now for what he did to you.” Lyle lurches forward towards his best friend and points in her face for emphasis.

Aly smiles into her red solo cup. With a little…a lot of alcohol in him, Lyle becomes her biggest romantic cheerleader. Always willing to give advice or dole out grevious bodily harm to lousy ex-boyfriends. “He didn’t do anything. He just…” She trails off.

Lyle shakes his head. But this party, sticky with too many people and cheap beer, is not the place to talk about it.

Aly watches as two girls– one pulling up her too tight dress, the other, completely obliterated– sulk away from the large beer pong table against the wall.

“C’mon,” She pulls on Lyle’s arm, “Pong’s open.”

The two squeeze between the couch full of people and the counter heavy with booze. With a deft head nod towards the victors, Lyle has reserves his and Aly’s spot. He racks the plastic cups efficiently. He never turns down an opportunity to play and win any sport. 

Aly just watches. The guy on the right has shaggy blonde hair and a two-day-old scruff, paired with a white tee and jeans. His buddy looks like he hadn’t slept in a week– rumpled button down, messy short brown hair, worn jeans. Coeds line the table to watch.

Lyle, with all of the subtlety of a peacock, throws his shoulders back, squints to aim, and shoots. It lands in the center cup. Whoops echo from their opponents…and from everyone else watching the game.

Blonde hair raises his eyebrows and turns to her, “Bitch cup. Your boyfriend has to drop his pants…unless you’d like to do the honors.”

Aly rolls her eyes. If only Becca, Lyle’s actual girlfriend, were here, she’d chew this guy out for challenging her uber-competitive boyfriend, then snack on Lyle for accepting it.

Lyle knocks back a shot and unbuckles his jeans. Consequences be damned.

Aly ogles the set up. For her, this is a game of luck, not skill. Perfect arcs and precise shooting stances are lost on her. She tosses and hears the welcome ‘plunk’ of the ping pong ball landing in water.

The boys shoot next. Both land shots effortlessly. Girls tipsy on weak beer and cheap wine congratulate them with suggestive smiles.

The game continues and Aly’s luck wanes. She misses the next few shots and sips her beer as punishment. Lyle misses too but insists on dousing himself with tequila and vodka.

“Y’know what, Aly,” he says just a bit too loudly, “you should find that motherfucker and give him a piece of your mind.”

Aly’s smile strains. What was there to say?

Her and Dave had met at a party just like this. They talked, flirted. She kept her hands from shaking by holding a beer. Why not give it a chance? She went back with him to his room. Clothes started coming off. Quickly, too quickly. The kissing felt perfunctory, their bodies moved awkwardly. He lay on top of her and she didn’t feel anything. She felt body heat, muscles tensing. But with the lights out, she had lost connection. She didn’t want to have sex. He grabbed her hand placatingly, coaxing her. She refused. She dressed, left and avoided looking him in the eye as she walked out. 

“Lyle, I think the tequila is going to your head a little too fast.”

He tosses his back and forth. “You don’t think I know what happened. I do. He was a jackass. So don’t you dare let what he did get to you. Guys would jump at a chance to have you.”

Even for Lyle, this is a bit much. Aly raises her eyebrows.

To emphasize his point, Lyle grabs a stranger by the arm and drags him around, “Man, would you have sex with her?” Lyle starts leaning on him.

She balks and misses the stranger’s appraising look. She turns to the guy to apologize. He’s only a few inches taller than Aly– five nine, five ten– with clipped brown hair and a lanky body. And bright blue eyes. When she looks him in the eye, she looks away. “Sorry…my friend is very drunk.”

He smirks. “I know the feeling. He should probably sit down and put the shot glass away.”

Lyle starts up again, “I’m fine!” Aly tries to make eye contact; his eyes tremble and never focus.

“Let’s go outside. Air might help.”

Aly stays put. A stranger, away from people. Clearly not inebriated. Someone not moments away from passing out needs to know that she’s leaving. She surreptitiously texts her roommate and slips her phone into her purse.

They walk outside and sit on the concrete stoop. They drop Lyle on a cheap lawn chair. Once the door closes, the sound drops to a whisper.

“Thanks for that,” she says.

“For helping bring him out here or helping you escape defeat?” He’s referring to beer pong.

She smirks, “I guess a little of both.”

He sticks out his hand, “I’m James, by the way.”

“Aly.”

There’s nothing to say without downshifting into useless banter. Aly lets the silence sit there.

“What was your drunken friend on about earlier?” James is looking forward.

She threads a loose piece of hair behind her ear, “Nothing. Just your everyday college drama.”

“Ah. That’s why he propositioned me.” He’s keeping a straight face, but she knows he’s dying to break out into a smile. 

She laughs, “You don’t get that all the time?”

He shakes his head, “No, this is the first time a guy has asked me to sleep with his girlfriend.”

“Best friend, not girlfriend.”

“I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse,” he harrumphs.

“Lyle is…strangely protective sometimes.” James snorts in response. Another long pause. Aly turns back to check on Lyle. “I need to get him back to his room.”

“You need some help?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.” It’s a knee-jerk response. He’s attractive; she’s a little bit wary. Lyle is floating in and out of consciousness. Aly smiles at James and heaves Lyle to his feet to make the trek home. “Good night.”

With brute force and sheer determination, she drags Lyle into his house, onto the couch to sleep off the alcohol. She collapses on the loveseat next to him and before she can move, she’s asleep. The last thing she thinks of is a pair of bright blue eyes.

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Sequins and Frisbee Don’t Mix

This is the third time in two days I’ve given my best puppy dog eyes to a guy. I’m three for three for getting shot down.

“Sean, you’re my last hope.” I’m currently deciding whether to push out my bottom lip and bat my eyelashes. Too much?

He shakes his head, “No can do. The show goes up at the end of the month and I need to be at rehearsal.”

“Do you know anyone else here that can tango?” Exactly twenty three days before my first tango competiton and my partner bails. I feel itchy in my own skin. I scan the throngs of college kids passing me. Damn Keith for doing this.

“Sorry, Ash. I’ll keep my ears open. I’ll text you if I hear anything.” He gives me a wave as he walks off.

I fight shredding my nails. I need to move. I step off the gravel path onto the wide green. A familiar bob of frizzy red hair meanders past.

“Sean shoot you down too?” Lindsay asks as she props her sunglasses on her head.

I nod once. “I’m doomed. None of our guy friends have time to learn ballroom.”

“They have lives. What’s up with that?” She smiles sympathetically as she unwraps carrot sticks. The carrots make me smile. Lindsay is determined to become Miss Universe before she turns thirty. Which means cardio and carrot sticks for the 200th day in a row. Her mom always sends chocolate cupcakes with the desperate hope her daughter will snap out of it.

When she sees I’m still moping, she nudges me, “Aw, come on. You’ll find someone. No worries.”

I snort, “My pain has eased so much thanks to you.”

She laughs and digs a small UPS box out of her backpack. “Will a chocolate cupcake help?”

“No, but I never turn down free food.”

We pass stout brick academic buildings on our way back to the dorm. Lindsay nods and waves to members of the different sports teams, drama clubbers, and musicians. Somehow, with her crazy hair and her ray-bans, she fits in with all of them.

She stops mid-crunch. “I know who you could ask.”

I lick chocolate frosting off my index finger. “Shoot.”

“Lucas Holloway.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Since when can he dance?”

“He plays frisbee. He’s not uncoordinated. And he’s relatively cute.”

Alright, she caught my attention. Still, a cute guy in that close of proximity…”It could be awkward.”

“What happened to your desperation?”

With a mouthful of cupcake, I muffle, “I can be desperate for a little bit longer.”

And wouldn’t you know it? Guess who we see strutting across the green… “Hey Lucas!” Lindsay yells and smiles. I feel the urge to hide the remnants of my cupcake.

He looks up and smiles. When she waves him over, all he can do is obey. As is typical at my school, there is a slight hipster vibe about him. Hair that’s just a shade too long, flannel over a band t-shirt.

But she’s right. He is cute. I mentally step back and let Lindsay do the talking.

“Lucas, how are your ballroom dancing abilities?” she asks.

He arches an eyebrow, “Non-existent.”

I would’ve stopped there. Not so with Lindsay. “Want to acquire some? Ash desperately needs a dance partner.” She peers down at her watch, “And I’ve got class. Catch ya later.” 

We both watch her leave. Silence. He turns to me. “What for?”

“Tango competition. Don’t worry, I won’t make you wear all the sequins.” I run my hand through my hair, letting it curl and fall down my shoulders. Bad nervous habit.

He checks his phone and starts texting. “Well… it sounds interesting. But I’m not really a tango person.”

I smile, but I know. He’s already checked out of this conversation. “Color me shocked.” I see the frisbee tucked under his arm. “Do you guys have a game coming up?”

He slides his phone into his pocket. “We’re about to go against Union.”

“I remember playing against them. God, they were brutal.” I feel exposed standing here with nothing to say. “Good luck with your game.”

I turn and march towards my dorm. Chalk it up to another awkward experience in my life. What was Lindsay thinking trying to browbeat this guy into ballroom? I don’t want to think about it anymore. But right now, it’s all I can think about. Why did Keith just leave? No explanation, no injuries.

As I punch my card into the door, I hear my name. “Ash! Wait up.” You’ve got to be kidding.

I sigh, “What’s up, Lucas?”

“You said you played?”

I roll my eyes, “So you were listening.”

“One of our guys is not answering texts or calls. The game’s in an hour. Can you fill in for him?”

“Shouldn’t you be a little more concerned that he’s not responding?”

He shrugs, “Knowing him, he’s holed up in his room playing COD. So… can you?”

“Maybe,” I watch him relax, “If you agree to help me with tango.”

I’ve caught him off guard. “Like I said, me and tango don’t go together.”

I shrug. “Good luck, then.” I turn to walk into the dorm. Let him see what it feels like to need someone else’s help. 

“Shit, shit. Alright. Bail us out tonight and if you’re any good, I’ll do it.”

I turn back, smiling. “Great. Then let’s go warm up.”

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