It was August, and the slow-dance gang was over by then. That probably had something to do with why I finally asked Rachel out, though I'm really not sure.
Everyone else at the student house still called us 'the slow-dance gang' with as much sneering as ever. But Rachel had said the slow-dance gang was over. No one else knew just why, but it was her apartment and her CDs, and so we never questioned it, or at least I didn't. I was still hopelessly in love with Arlene and had no desire to watch from the couch as she waltzed about in Leo’s arms yet again anyway.
We still passed our free time together enjoyably enough. Weekend nights usually found us sipping our gin and tonics at the sidewalk cafés on Eighteenth Street until it was dark and watching movies at the student house afterwards -- and never, ever talking about the impending breakup of the gang. That Friday night started out the way they usually did, with a muddle of where-are-we-going in the foyer. Jacob took charge. "The Red Onion? They have happy hour until nine."
"Perfect, Jacob," Arlene agreed, dragging Leo by the hand as usual. "Leo and I won't be staying that late anyway."
"You always say that, Arlene," Rachel reminded her.
"Aw, leave the lovebirds alone!" Jacob declared, and like the gentleman he mostly wasn't, he held the door open for Arlene and Leo, followed by Maria, Rachel, myself and, bringing up the rear as usual, Hope. "Let's go get...enlightened," he said with a knowing glance at Arlene and her disapproval of the word "drunk". Then he took Maria by the arm and her face lit up as it always did when he paid her any mind.
"Enlightened!" Rachel. Turning to me, she said, "Pete, you already look 'enlightened'. More Friday afternoon drinking on the job?"
I laughed. "Yeah, that wouldn't go over too well." I had a steady job crunching numbers at a polling firm, boring but safe, and I wasn't about to throw it away. "Nah, I'm just... not really in the mood for drinks." I forced myself not to cast yet another longing look at Arlene. I had, miraculously, kept my crush on her to myself, loose-lipped Rachel would not be the first to learn about it.
"Aw, Pete!" Rachel threw her arms around me as we approached the corner of Eighteenth Street. "Maybe that just means you need it the most. I mean, Arlene and Hope and I, we're in that pressure cooker all day long studying, while you guys are getting paid to work -- we're the ones who need cheering up. Right, Hope?" she asked, looking over her shoulder while still hanging on to me.
"Huh?" Hope said. "Sorry, I was thinking about my project for Monday."
"Guys, we're here to have fun!" Rachel said. "No worrying about class or work, or else why are we even here?"
"To be together while we still can," I said. "Until –"
"Stop!" Rachel clamped her hand over my mouth. "None of us wants to think about leaving! Let's enjoy our time together."
"Is that your updated script for Casablanca , Rachel?" Jacob quipped.
"Hey," I recalled out loud while Rachel was laughing like a hyena, "I read that's playing at the Royale uptown. I've never seen it on the big screen, have you?"
"No, and I'd love to!" Rachel said.
"Want to go? Tomorrow?"
Rachel shook her head. "Too much work. But thanks."
At least now I could tell Arlene, who had tried to play matchmaker with us back in the spring, that I had tried.
When we got to the Red Onion, Jacob and Rachel picked up on their usual regaling one another with their nonsense, while Maria played with his hair and Leo and Arlene lingered over their glasses at the end of the table and I tried to ignore them from my end. I made no such effort to ignore Rachel, who I knew wasn't girlfriend material anyhow. Not like Arlene would have been if only I'd noticed her a few weeks earlier than I had.
Besides, I had a secret of my own that I hadn't sprung on any of the gang yet. I had an offer on the table to go to China to teach English. After two years in the student house and seeing dozens of friends come and go, I had an opportunity to go off and see the world like most of my friends from there had done. But I wasn't yet sure if I was up to it.
"So a guy at the museum says we've got to go into the archives and 'pull out' all the Dickens files," Jacob said, causing Rachel to spew her drink. She spattered a bit on Hope's bare arm, and apologetically mopped it up with a napkin but never took her eyes off Jacob. "And I just feel like saying, 'Pull out the Dickens. Yeah, baby.'"
"Yeah baby!" Rachel repeated, holding up her hand for a high-five, which Jacob gave her as usual.
"What is their latest victory, Pete?" Arlene asked me.
"The usual," I said. "Everything boils down to an Austin Powers impression."
"Doesn't it, though?" Arlene replied with that shy smile that had caught my eye just a little too late back in March. "Come join us if you're feeling left out. Leo was just telling me about his latest string quartet practice."
"Was not," Leo replied with that usual European chill in his voice, and I believed him. Leo never said much of anything, although he must have said the right thing to Arlene at some point.
I returned Arlene's smile and did consider getting up to join them. But as usual, I neither said no to Arlene nor accepted her invitation -- a strategy that I was quite sure was the only reason why our friendship had survived those months. Instead I turned to Hope. "So, any dirty jokes from your day?" I quipped.
"The kids probably had dozens," Hope replied. "But they know better than to repeat them where I can hear them!"
"They are," Hope agreed. "I'm going to miss them when we get our new assignments."
"Know where you're going yet?" I asked.
"None of us do for sure." Hope gestured down the table to Rachel and Arlene; all three of them were wrapping up their master's degrees in education with a summer school practicum at a posh private school uptown. "I put San Francisco at the top of my list, so here's hoping."
"Shut up, Hope!" Rachel interrupted. "I told you, no talking about splitting up the gang, especially when I'm going to Europe!"
"You're not still hoping to get back with Josef, are you?!" Jacob was deadly serious all of a sudden. "Look, I don't want to spoil the mood here, but he's not coming back to you."
"Yeah, Rachel, we just don't want to see you hurt, when there are plenty of guys who'd be great for you!" Arlene gave me a meaningful look as she said it; she didn't know what had already transpired that evening.
"Guys!" Rachel protested, slamming her glass down with a seriousness we hardly ever saw from her. "You saw how Joe and I bonded all through May! I know he got scared and went crazy when he went back to Germany, but he'll work through that."
"Rachel!" Arlene looked exasperated with her best friend, just as exasperated as the both of them had been making me feel on and off for months now. "Exactly! It was just May! One month, and he dumped you by email the moment he got home! He probably had a girlfriend back there all along!"
At this, I had to get up and make my escape up to the bar. It was just too tempting to spill the beans about the rumors I'd been hearing lately, that Leo also had a girl back in Denmark. Two years in the student house had seen more than its share of romantic intrigue, and this wasn't my first time on the wrong end of a triangle. But I was determined to handle this one like the adult I was.
I waved my empty glass at the barmaid and pulled out my wallet, and I was watching her mix the drink when I heard that goofy "Heyyyyy!" that I'd been hearing so much at the house lately.
I grinned, welcoming the change of pace. "Ricardo," I said, turning to see the Venezuelan engineering student who'd been the life of dinner every night since his arrival in the house a week before. "So you found our hangout," I said as he bounded up to the bar and I shook his hand.
"Been hearing about it all week, been too busy to come," he said. "Tonight I thought, I'll make time. So who's the girl, Pete?"
"Come on! You think I don't see you and your friends over there? All but one of them from the house? Who's the lucky lady I don't know yet?"
"Oh," I laughed, morbidly amused. "That's Rachel. She's a friend of Arlene and Hope from school, but she has her own apartment down at the other end of Eighteenth Street."
"The other end?" Ricardo's always-bright eyes burned brighter. "Isn't that the rich end? The nice condos?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I guess her family's really rich. They're paying her whole way this year, including the apartment."
"Is she single, Pete?"
"Aw, Ricardo, you don't want to get mixed up with her!" I said.
"Jealous, are you?"
"Maybe a little." It couldn't hurt to be honest. "Arlene tried to play matchmaker with us once, but she had a boyfriend."
"Yes, and another one since then. Two breakups in five months. What does that tell you, Ricardo?"
"It tells me she hasn't found Ricardo yet!" He collected his beer. "Trust me, Pete, I've got this."
I saw it was no use, and clinked his glass. "I'll keep a safe distance here, then. Have fun."
The summer heat was holding out in the twilight, and I chose to focus on my drink rather than eavesdrop on my friends. You couldn't quite say I was happy, for I never really was in Arlene's presence, but I was feeling good about having won yet another battle against giving in to bitterness – an old, bad habit of mine. I'd been trying to turn over a new leaf, and since no one seemed to know Arlene had broken my heart last spring, I called it a win. I had every intention of keeping it that way.
Somehow I didn't notice when Arlene appeared at my side. "Pete?" she asked. "You okay?"
"Never better," I lied with a smile. "Just had enough of Rachel for the moment." That much was certainly true.
"Oh, Pete," she said. "I'm sorry I tried to fix the two of you up. I just figured you do have a lot in common, but now I see she's no one a gentleman like you wants to get mixed up with."
"I see that now, too," I said. "I..." I paused and chuckled. "I finally asked her out tonight."
"I did, but she said no."
"The better for you, Pete, really!"
"I know." I took a sip. "I just figured, honestly, no offense intended but it has been a kind of lonely summer for me, and it seemed worth trying for at least a fling."
"Pete, you're not that kind of guy!" Arlene looked at me like the younger brother she probably thought I was. "And I am sorry it's been lonely for you...I mean, we're one lady short. It's too bad, but it happens!"
I could only laugh in response. Arlene laughed too, although I was quite sure she didn't know why. "Come on," I said, "Let's go join them again."
"I'll be back later," she said. "I need a break from Leo. He's in one of his moods."
Wondering to myself how she could tell -- Leo was always a blank slate of emotionlessness as far as I could tell -- I returned to the table, where Ricardo had usurped my seat, so I helped myself to a chair from an empty table behind us.
Rachel was roaring with the laughter she usually reserved for Jacob, who was also laughing at Ricardo and ignoring Maria, who was nevertheless hanging onto his arm with a hopeful look on her face. "Pete, why didn't you tell me about this lovely new arrival at the house?" Rachel demanded when I sat down. "He's a scream!"
"Pete, I told you!" Ricardo said with his usual arrogant grin.
"Told you what?" Rachel asked. "Was it about me?"
"Oh, you don't need to know that, Rachel," Ricardo said. "Guy talk."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all about guys!" Rachel said. "But not enough about Ricardo!" Turning to me, she added, "I hope you filled him in, Pete."
"Oh, I tried," I said, wondering what China was like in the fall.
"Tried but failed," Ricardo declared. "Want to have dinner tomorrow, Rachel? Then I can learn all I need!"
"That'd be great!" Rachel said. "Yes!" And the worst of it was, I wasn't even surprised. Neither was Hope, who gave me a sympathetic look as she sipped her beer.
I did my best not to stew about it, but I failed. An hour or so later on our walk home, I finally got the chance to ask when Rachel playfully skipped up alongside me and grabbed my arm. "Whatever happened to 'too much work'?" I asked, less unkindly than I felt.
"Too much work?"
"To go out!"
"Oh, no, Pete, I still want to spend some time with you. We're going to drive up and visit Jacob in Boston, right?"
"News to me!" Jacob called out over his shoulder. "But you guys are welcome!"
"Yeah, Pete and I have it all planned out. We talked about it last week, remember?" she asked me.
"Yeah, sure," I lied. I said nothing else for the rest of the walk home.
"Okay," Rachel announced on the steps of the student house, "Who's going to walk me home?" She looked at Jacob as she said it, but he was busy kissing Maria.
"I will," I volunteered, with an eye to avoiding yet another nightcap with Leo.
"Great!" Rachel said. "Listen, everyone, I've been..." she paused to glare at Jacob and Maria. "Maria? Could you lay off him for a moment?"
"What?!" Maria demanded. But she did pull back from Jacob.
"I've been thinking. We're about to lose Jacob, and then the three of us are off in a few more weeks too, and no offense, guys, but I think that's it for the gang even if you still are around."
"I'm off, too," Leo said, drawing a sad look from Arlene. "Two weeks after you guys."
"Exactly," Rachel said. "Sorry, Pete, it’ll be just you left. So, I know I said it was over, but...how about one more party? My place, next week? For old time's sake?"
A chorus of "Yeah!"s later, we all said our good nights. Rachel stepped down to join me for the walk back to her place, but not before Ricardo helped himself to a long hug that none of us could fail to notice. "Good night, Rrrrrrachel!" he purred.
Rachel only laughed in return, and took my waiting arm.
"God, he's aggressive!" she remarked as soon as we were out of earshot of the house. "I hope he doesn't have the wrong idea!"
"What wrong idea?" I asked. I took the liberty of putting my arm around her, and she responded in kind.
"About him and me! I don't want a relationship right now, not so soon after Joe."
"Then why'd you say yes?"
"Well, he's charming, and it's only dinner, right? I just want a little fun before we all go our separate ways and, no offense, Pete, but I think I've been spending too much time with you guys. Ever since that first party Arlene dragged me to at the house, it's been up and down Eighteenth Street, all lovey dovey with you and the gang, and no one else. It's false intimacy, isn't it?"
"You don't think we're intimate?" I couldn't help taking note of our arms around one another's back.
"Well, that's just it, Pete, of course we are! But it all happened so fast, us all being thrown together like this, we forced it to happen. I never wanted life to be all about our touchy-feely parties!"
"But you love them! Or at least you did until you lost Josef." All at once I knew that was why the slow-dance gang was over -- she didn't want anyone else to have what she'd lost. No wonder she'd changed her mind as soon as Ricardo caught her eye, either.
"Yes, I did!" she agreed. "And it's got nothing to do with Josef. I love you all! I love Arlene for introducing us. Don't you love Arlene, Pete?"
"Like the big sister I never had."
"I'm gonna tell her you said that!" Rachel declared, beaming at me. "That was beautiful."
"You know it was, Pete." She kissed my cheek, and then withdrew her arm as we were nearly to her building. "Well, here we are. My end of Eighteenth Street."
"Your end of the false intimacy," I quipped.
"Yes," she replied. "That's how I'm going to think of it for the rest of my life, anytime I get thrown in with a bunch of strangers and we suddenly become best friends. It's only Eighteenth Street intimacy." She fished her keys out of her jeans pocket. "Good night, Pete."
"Night, Rachel. Looking forward to that party."
"Bring a date!" she called over her shoulder as she unlocked the door.
Yeah, right, I thought. But I didn't answer her.