When you're starting over in a new town, you can be anyone you want to be. In this case though, there's someone yelling after you "Garf, Garf," footsteps hurrying as she cinches your wrist, bringing you to a halt.
Garf, she says, and you're not sure if she is a choking puppy in a human body, or if she thinks it is your name, but your name is Talbot, not Garf, so you yank your wrist free of the stranger.
"Wait, you're not Garfield." You love lasagna, and you're starting to hate this particular Monday, but you're not a cat, or some old president, so you shake your head.
You set down the bottle of shampoo you were inspecting.
"No, that I'm not." You're glad, because you'd hate to have a nickname like Garf. Sure, Talbot doesn't really conjure up any great names, but it doesn't sound like a choking puppy, and if you have nothing else to be proud of today, you suppose that's going to have to count.
"Sorry, you look just like my cousin." She studies your face for a minute, almost as if she is going to accuse you of lying, and relents. "I'm Monica."
You don't particularly care what her name is. All you want is something that will clean your hair. It's full of sweat from lugging all the moving boxes around in this horrid heat. Back home didn't have these kinds of problems.
No, you need to call this home now, with its overly friendly strangers pestering you in the shampoo aisle.
"Talbot," you say, picking the bottle back up. You take a whiff. Your face says it all, and she takes the bottle from you to sniff it herself.
"Oh God, that is awful. The smell, not the name. It's cute. I like it." She shoves the bottle back on the shelf and takes down a different one.
"So did my parents," you say. You're not going to take credit for it, especially when she's making small talk for no reason other than derailing your quick trip to the store.
She chuckles, picking up a third and fourth bottle. The third seems to please her, and after confirming that the fourth smells odd, she offers you the third. You take a sniff yourself, and unoffended, you place it in your hand basket. You're ready to check out now. There has to be some way to get out of this tango you've developed with her.
Taking the direct approach, you step around her to head to the cash registers. There's a set of footsteps following you. They make clicketty clacks, and you wonder if she is wearing tap shoes. It keeps you from wondering why she is still following you.
Click. Clack. Click.
You turn to look at her. Is there something she wants to say, or is she the type to follow you home and stab you senseless, just to steal your overpriced shampoo?
Note to self: Find a cheaper store to shop at.
Also, wear paper bag over head to avoid getting confused for Garfield. The cousin, not the cat.
"I take it back."
You're both stopped in front of the register now, and you hope its not the shampoo, because you've already scanned it, along with a bag of Cheetos that caught your eye.
"Huh?" You feed a twenty into the machine, wishing that your change would come out quicker. There's a slim chance that this girl will follow you out into the parking lot, as you assume she abandoned a shopping cart somewhere back in the beauty department.
"Garf has less freckles than you. And he's squishier, I think." She squeezes your bicep. "Yeah, definitely. Like, you don't brag about it, you're a secret stud."
You're pretty sure that your muscles are just stiff from all the moving these past few days, and you are indeed as 'squishy,' as she so nicely put it, as her cousin. You're also pretty sure that you're no secret stud. That's what the girls back home, old home, used to think anyway.
The change finally comes. You shove it in your pocket, and head for the exit.
"Nice to meet you, Monica."
"You can call me Nic." That's if you ever see this girl again. Chances are unlikely, as you're going to find somewhere cheaper to get your toiletries, where they don't cost the arm and leg that you're trying to wash.
It's a good thing you're not a betting man. A few colleagues from your new job invite you out to the bar after work, and there she is, bent over the pool table. She takes her shot, and it sucks. The ball flies straight off the table and rolls to your feet.
"T-bot, what's up?" She takes the ball from your hand, removing letters from your name like you're old pals, and not someone who met her for all of five minutes in the shampoo aisle two weeks ago.
Your co-workers eye you curiously. You know that come Monday, they'll all be calling you T-bot, ragging on the fact that you got strung into a game of pool with that Nic girl. She hands you the cue.
Your shot doesn't fly off the table.
The game is quickly won. You used to play back in college, and if her skill is any indication, she hasn't played until five minutes before you walked in that door. She asks you for pointers, and you bumble through instructions to be polite without wrapping your body around hers.
"Come on, show me."
"Did you not witness me winning the last game?"
She takes your hand and plops it on top of hers. "I mean, show me. I wanna get good."
There's a visible improvement in her game by night's end. There's also a group of co-workers now gathered at the table, cheering her on, buzzed on cheap beer and the sight of her too small tank top as she positions herself to shoot.
It's the weekend, so you're off tomorrow. It makes it hard to excuse yourself for the night. She notices you haven't had a drink all night and orders you one. Now you can't leave, so you stay with her and your friends until the sign flips to closed.
"I had a great night, T-bot." Her hug smells like whisky and watermelon (her perfume, perhaps?) you note. All she can smell on you is that stupid shampoo she picked out. She makes a point to comment on it.
"Goodnight, Nic." You decide to walk home, because the guy you hitched a ride with has had a few to drink. It's a long walk, but you have all of tomorrow, or rather today, to sleep.
There are footsteps behind you. Loud, thudding ones. It scares you, because it's dark out, and you're new to town, without a clue how to defend yourself. The thuds get closer, and then there is Nic, falling into sync with you.
"I live this way," she points. You notice that she's wearing boots today, and your heart settles. "Let's walk together. For safety."
Passing by your office building, you continue on down the street. You're not saying anything, as you are exhausted and want to get back. There's a bed calling your name.
"Do you like dogs?" It's such a simple question that it catches you off guard.
"Of course. Doesn't everybody?"
"Not Garfield. One bit him when he was a kid, and now he's terrified of them. Should've washed the peanut butter off his fingers." She stops at the street corner. You need to go straight another block. She goes to turn left, realizing that you aren't going to follow her.
Checking the street for traffic, you bid her goodnight again. When you make it inside, you search for bread, only to remember you ate the last of it at breakfast. You lick the peanut butter off the knife and pass out at the kitchen table.
By late morning, you head downstairs to get your mail. There, out on the front lawn sits Nic, with a terrier sitting next to her.
"Dang, you sure like your sleep," she says, closing her book to make her way up the path.
The box is empty. You've come all this way down, so you might as well keep up the conversation, despite the fact that you're still in yesterday's clothes and that you're hungry. You should have brought down your wallet so that you could go buy bread.
Any attempt of answering is cut short by her dog reaching you, demanding attention. Bending down, you greet him without any sort of hello to his owner.
"How'd you know where I live?"
"It was the only place on the block to have a for rent sign last month. Call it a hunch." You're impressed, if not a bit creeped out. The dog helps.
You'd invite her upstairs but the landlord has a strict no pets policy. When you inform her of this, she brushes it off like it's no big deal. She'll wait while you go get changed, because she is taking you out for breakfast. Lunch really. Though the sign says it's served until 11:30, and she insists you try the raspberry pancakes, so you put on a pair of cargo shorts and head out.
You make it by 11:20, and she whips out a few baggies from her wallet.
"I've always wanted to do this," she says, sneaking pancakes into them, tucking them into your multitude of pockets. They're warm against your thighs. Lunch is replacing the dishes at the buffet now, and she smiles as she splits a pancake with you in your hidden corner booth. It's as delicious as she promised, and you let the pancakes burn your thighs as you get up to grab yourself a plate of fried chicken.
Once you're out of the restaurant, you lift the leg of your shorts to see your thighs are red. It's only a block back to her place. Once you're there, she gives you two bags of frozen peas and officially introduces you to Pup, the dog. She snuck some sausages into one of the bags for him.
"Will these even reheat right?" you ask. If this was all for nothing, if you risked your thighs for some girl you barely know, you're going to be upset.
"We're going to freeze and reheat them. They'll be fine."
You hold her to her word, and a month later, you're in her apartment, eating defrosted raspberry pancakes sandwiches, filled with peanut butter. Pup is sniffing about, so you wash your hands before you decide to pet him.
"I showed my aunt a picture of you." They had gone to a street fair the weekend before, and had both gotten their faces painted. They had agreed to surprise each other with a piece. For her, he had picked a beautiful butterfly. She had gotten painted first.
Originally, he was going to be a lion, and then inspiration struck her as she asked for them to be twinsies.
Somewhere out there, there is a picture of him with a butterfly painted on his face. Not exactly what he had in mind when he moved to start over.
"Does she think I look like this Garfield person?"
"Spitting image. You really are, minus the freckles, not that she could see them under those wings." She pops the last bite into her mouth. "Totally worth the thigh burn, by the way. Maybe we ought to insulate your pockets."
You roll your eyes. She's crazy. People back in your old town were never like this. They were stuck in the mud, boring old folks who read newspapers on their front porch. They didn't start impromptu singalongs on the bus, nor draw hopscotches from block end to end in the moonlight for commuters to find in the morning.
And they definitely, no doubt, did not put pancakes in their pockets.
Your phone buzzes. You glance at it, and it's your mother. She knows your schedule, and if you don't pick up, she'll start to worry. You haven't been gone long, but you're her baby.
"Talbot, sweetie, how are you?"
She doesn't like how terse your answer is. "I've hardly heard from you. Are you being overworked? I can come talk to your boss if need be."
Nic gets back from washing her hands. She is about to say something until she notices you are on the phone.
You smile at her. Your finger goes up to signal you'll be brief.
"Yeah mom. I've been spending time with some friends."
"You've made friends? That's wonderful!"
"I'm actually with my friend now. Can we talk later?" There's a change in her expression that lasts all of a few seconds. Her face settles. You hang up, and you want to acknowledge it, though you're afraid it'll ruin it, putting a label on this habit you've formed with the girl from the shampoo aisle.
She doesn't say anything as you put your phone away. Her arms wrap around you, tightly, and you wrap yours around her.
"What was that for?"
"I'm just glad we're friends," she says.
She lets go and starts to ramble on about how to insulate your pockets, and you know you're interrupting, but it's taken too long to find the courage for these five little letters that you blurt out.
"What?" she asks. You think she gets it, but you say it anyway.
"I'm glad we're friends too." You're getting swept in for another watermelon (definitely her perfume) and peanut butter hug. It's tighter than the last one. Your bones crack. You don't mind.
You're hugging back just as hard.