All I could think as I looked around at the happy faces and cradled cans of beer was how much I needed to get the hell out of here.
Heat prickled my cheekbones. Do not cry, I told myself, holding back the tears with considerable effort. It was just like sucking in your gut for a picture. I had done this before. I could handle it.
The front door was only ten yards from where I stood. Thank god. I could see it there, gleaming black, a slightly scuffed beacon of hope. The doorknob had a grubby piece of tape over it to keep people from using the lock, but I’d never seen anything look so beautiful.
Everyone below me—I was quite tall—was swallowed by a blur of those damn tears that now sat at the bottoms of my eyes. Wishing them away, I gave a half smile to someone who bumped my arm. In my daze, all I saw was a flash of red hair as the bumper brushed by me and disappeared into the kitchen. Maddy.
Nine yards from the door now. Surely I could make it without bursting into tears. Surely I could control myself. I wasn’t a blubberer. I was poised, steady, mature.
Suddenly, someone shouted from somewhere on the back deck, and I kept myself from turning around. No, must go out, I thought. I took one more step toward the front door, and as I did, I heard it. Fi’s laugh. It was raspy and beautiful, with a bit of an edge. I almost came undone right then and there. No, I thought. Pull yourself together.
The door was eight yards away now. Acquaintances and their friends draped over armchairs and perched on the edges of the couch, which was a sunken navy blue, and would have been the perfect place to cozy up for a good cry.
Randy and Julianna waved me over. I pretended not to see, looking just above their heads, accidentally studying the odd piece of art hanging there. A picture of a crow, a duck and an ostrich all standing next to each other. Maddy’s taste always was...questionable.
“Gar,” Randy called. “Come over here. We have to ask you something serious.”
I made eye contact. I can’t ignore them now. Dammit.
I was only seven yards from the front door. Seven. I almost made it. But when someone calls your name, you look. It’s instinct. It probably served some very important function when we were all neanderthals with predators to look out for and mates to find. But right now, my instincts just screwed me.
I swallowed back the surge of hot memory that threatened to dampen my eyes again. I knew Fi was back behind me somewhere. The house was thick with her presence, and even her smell. Wait, no, that was just some wine someone spilled.
As I watched Julianna bend forward in a slow, lazy laugh, I realized they were probably too drunk to notice if my eyes were a little watery, so I decided to make my way over, just for a minute.
“What kind of dog should we get?”
I peeled my gaze from the door, which I made sure was still in close striking distance, and found Randy’s face pointed up at me in anticipation. His eyes were glossy and unfocused, and he waited for me to say something. Julianna wobbled a bit on his knee, and I reached out to steady her.
“Well…” I started.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say. I don’t have a dog. I never have. I had no idea what kind of dog they should get. But they looked so earnest that I started going through dog breeds in my head.
“My grandma had one of those fluffy white ones,” I said.
“We want a rescue.” Julianna said it abruptly, leaning forward to place her half-empty cup on the table.
“She wants a rescue.” Randy pointed at his girlfriend, then picked up her discarded cup and downed the contents. “I want a great Dane.”
Julianna smacked him on the arm, and he gave her a cheeky smile, wagging the empty cup in her face.
“Both sound like great choices. I—”
“Now you have to go up and get me a new one,” she said.
“No, you left it on the table, which means it’s fair game.”
Suddenly, yellow lights from the street poured into the room as the door swung open. Someone I didn’t see came inside, and I found myself inching toward the light. But soon enough, it was slammed shut, the gust of its weight belching in my face.
Julianna was standing over Randy now, holding her empty cup in front of his nose. Randy looked slightly off to the side, pretending he didn’t see her. Neither of them saw me any longer—that much was clear—and so I stepped slowly backwards. If I don’t make any sudden movements, I told myself, they won’t realize I’m gone.
I turned toward the door. Just as I did, I slammed into someone, getting a full beer down the front of my pants.
“Ah, sorry, man.” The guy who had spilled the beer reached up. I could tell he was trying for my shoulder, but sensing my height, settled for an awkward hold on my bicep. I searched his face but didn’t recognize him.
And then, there it was again. That raspy laugh, from somewhere inside the house now. It was smokey and delicious. I thought of Fi’s face, the way her lips smiled harder on one side than the other. Couldn’t she at least have the decency to wait until I was gone before she started having hilarious conversations with other people? A chill ran through me. Her coldness, I thought. But then I realized it was the beer, slowly seeping through my underwear.
“—you’re that guy from that thing. The ‘Here, babe, I made you coffee’ guy.”
I blinked down at the beer guy, who was still standing in front of me. His face was alight with recognition.
“You were in that commercial.” He shook his head, smiling to himself. “That’s a great one, man. Love that one. You’re really funny, man. That’s good acting. Anything else I would have seen you in?”
“Just that one,” I heard myself say. It was what I always said. And, sadly, it was true. I was only ever in the one commercial. It was kind of a viral success for a few months, and then it died down. It still airs, but not often. I never did look for another gig. And I never will.
My throat clenched as I remembered the day we first watched it. Fi sat by my side, hand on my knee, screeching with such excitement after my line, it made getting a role in a commercial for a fast-acting cleaning solution feel like winning an Oscar.
I could still feel her tonight. My Spidey senses told me this party was hers now. I should be gone. The tears came back, warming my throat, then my face. I tightened my jaw. Not yet.
I looked down, realizing beer guy was giving me an exasperated look.
“Come on,” he said. “Please, man. Just once. I swear I’ll leave you alone if you do it.”
Even though I hadn’t heard the request, I knew what he wanted. I tried to never do the line in public. It was humiliating, especially because they always wanted me to mimic the coffee, too.
He held out his cup.
I took it, thankful that its contents had already spilled out. On me. I stepped back to give myself some room, and as I did, I noticed beer guy tap the arms of a few people nearby. Some unknown faces turned to watch. I wondered how many of them knew what I was about to do. How many had actually seen the commercial and how many would just think I was a tall moron doing a very unfunny bit out of context? It didn’t matter. I wanted to leave, and this was the last thing that needed doing before I could do that. Then, it was smooth sailing. I’d be out the door and in my car where I could let it all out. I could release this pressure building inside me.
I held the plastic cup in my right hand and shook out my shoulders. “Here, babe,” I said, trying to cheer up my voice a bit. In my ears, it sounded flat and pathetic. Beer guy seemed not to notice, though. He was already preparing to slap his knee, and the moronic punchline hadn’t even been delivered yet.
“I made you coffeeeeee.” My arm stretched out in front of me and my face contorted into a bewildered look that was probably just terrifying. In the commercial, I stumbled over the edge of the rug, and the coffee spilled all over the couch, and I jumped forward to try to stop the liquid from seeping into the cushions. Now, though, there was no rug or couch in front of me, only a little bit of hardwood floor, but I did my best and launched myself in the air, crashing to the ground. If I was going to do it, I’d better do it right. I gave my knee a little rub.
The small crowd parted, and beer guy bent over to help me up. A few people clapped and laughed, and I let a momentary pleasure soak into me. It really was funny when you added in the fall. But then, oh, I remembered the wet stain on the front of my pants. That was probably what they were laughing at.
I gave beer guy a curt smile and took an abrasive step toward the door.
A crash came from the kitchen just as I did. I thought about ignoring it, the pull of the exit palpable now, but it was followed up with a familiar groan. I knew I couldn’t leave just yet.
Stepping into the kitchen to investigate, I saw Maddy on the floor, scooping up heaps of something globbed all over the floor. She paused, pushed her red hair out of her face with a forearm. Then she sat back on her heels.
I reached for a towel on the counter. A clown face gawked up at me from it, shiny red lips and an evil smile.
“Don’t,” she said. “That’s my nice one.”
“Paper towels?” I looked around. There was lots of clutter—glasses, plates, something brown and lumpy, maybe lentils, in a bowl—but no paper towels.
“The environment,” she said with an exhale.
I nodded and knelt down with her, sensing her frustration building. I could tell when she was about to burst. Since high school, she’d had that same funny look, the one with the bulging eyes and flared nostrils.
I reached out and scooped up slimy lasagna sheets and dollops of what I knew to be cashew cheese turned to mush. What use were big hands if not to grab heaping mounds of spilled bird food off your friend’s floor?
In moments, we had finished. She tossed down an old rag from underneath the sink, wetting it first. This would have come in handy just a few minutes ago, I thought, but I kept that to myself.
We sat on the floor, our backs against the cabinets, listening to the party around us. Maddy made to get up. “There’s so much to do.”
I placed by hand gently on her elbow. I wanted her to stay, just for a few more minutes. It was nice in this room, secluded. I couldn’t hear any laughter. The sounds seemed filtered by the hum of the dishwasher.
She seemed to sense my need for her and stayed sitting, sliding her legs out in front of her. “You smell like beer.”
“Fi and I broke up.”
She looked shocked. “When?”
“Here, actually. About an hour ago.”
“Oh my god, what the hell, Gar? What are you still doing here?”
I looked at her, those damn tears held back by just a breath. One move and I was sure I’d become a sobbing mess, right here on the kitchen floor.
“I know. I’ve been trying to leave, but I can’t—”
“Yea, I get it. You can’t let her go.”
Maddy sighed, flopped her feet from side to side just like she used to do when we sat out gym class at the nurse’s office. “I feel like an idiot now. I shouldn’t have invited her.”
“You didn’t know. I didn’t even know, how could you?”
She scoffed. “It’s going to be awkward now. Two of my best friends.”
I bit my lip. I hadn’t thought about the awkwardness. I hadn’t thought how hard it was going to be for anyone else. I had only thought about how hard it was for me to be here, in this house, with Fi’s laugh somewhere in the near distance. Honestly, I had barely thought about anything else.
Maddy still had a few lumps of fake cheese on her fingers. Some flew off as she spoke. “Why don’t you head out. Go have a good cry. Here.” She reached up and grabbed a bottle of wine off the counter.
Her finger brushed mine just slightly as I took the bottle from her. A tiny whisper moved through me, but I wasn’t sure what the feeling was. It was probably just cashew bits, changing hands. When I looked back up, Maddy was getting to her feet.
She moved around the house, sweeping up half-flat beers and sticky wine glasses like a human vacuum, while I buried my hands in the sink. When the dishwasher had finished, I put those dishes away, hoping I’d chosen the right home for the blender parts, and then loaded it again. Maddy popped in now and again, dropping off a few things and then scurrying off. She was like a ghost. I wasn’t even sure she stopped to have any conversations at all, apart from with me.
Soon, my fingertips were shriveled and transparent, and my feet ached.
“That’s it,” she said.
I looked around. The kitchen was spotless. I’d left a dripping, towelless pile of clean pots and pans out to dry on the counter. We stepped out into the living room together. I braced myself to reenter the party, but there was no one there. Everyone had gone.
“What time is it?” I asked her.
She laughed. “What, surprised you stayed this long?”
I was. I was very surprised. But I eyed her couch. It was hollow at the corner, waiting for me to sink into it. “Mind if I just sit for a sec?”
She laughed again. Gentle, sweet, a little twangy.
I sat, closed my eyes.
And in another moment, I opened them, blinked as I looked around. The house was still empty, but daylight streamed in through windows, through the door, illuminating the tacky strip of tape that covered the doorknob.
The wet spot on my pants had dried overnight. Now it was just a slightly off-color stain, but the smell of beer was ripe. I turned over, faced the wall. The picture of the ostrich stared me in the face. Yikes.
“Well, good morning.”
It was Maddy, I knew without turning around. Her voice was bright. Morning people. I would never understand them.
“Morning.” My voice was thick with sleep, like I was an ogre who only used his voice once every century, to lure young princes to his lair so he could eat them. Oh god, and my breath was just as bad.
I sat up just in time to see Maddy whirl around and disappear into the kitchen, red hair following her obediently.
I thought about Fi, even though I didn’t want to. Her casual face came to me, the way she’d said, we should see other people. I thought the recent memory would make my face burn, and I prepared for the tears. I was on the couch, in the quiet, with a good friend. This was the place to do it, finally.
But I couldn’t summon the sadness at the moment. In fact, my face was dry and cool. My nasal passages were clear. Something about this morning made me want to get up and start my day. Ugh, was I becoming a morning person?
At that moment, Maddy rounded the corner holding two gray mugs, obviously handmade—possibly by a toddler, probably by her. Her fingernails were freshly painted, I noticed with a start. A vibrant yellow.
She came towards me, passing by the front door.
“Here, babe,” she said, giving me a look. “I made you coffee.”