The ding-ding-ding of the car’s door chime turned to a bassline in my head. Rhythmic, mathematically built for maximum danceability. Enough to make my ears pulse with each new addition to the dozens of dings before. Like a concert from the parking lot, reverb echoing in straining ears and hearts begging to thump to the cadence if they could simply get close enough to catch the beat.
Rainwater rested like glass on the pitch-black pavement, late October’s fallen leaves dappling fluorescent orange against the shiny nothingness of an oil-slick surface. My measured breathing joined the door chime, briefly altering the beat. Just enough to snap me out of it.
Unhook the seat belt, grab the purse, and get inside. Easy peasy.
I reached for the button, but couldn’t make the move. My icy fingertips had nothing to do with the cool air that threatened to turn from rain to frost in a blink. A prickle of goosebumps ran along my arms, down my back, and straight to my toes—all warning, not a hint of excitement.
Eva wouldn’t recognize me. Not anymore. It was ridiculous to imagine that out of a couple hundred people crammed into a sleepy hotel conference room, she’d pick me out of the crowd. Not without the spiked collar and fishnet sleeves. I was nobody without eyeliner to rival Robert Smith (after Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me made it big). Just put a fake name on the traditional “Hello! My name is...” sticker and hide the sucker behind my coat collar. Incognito.
About as incognito as those letters I’d shoved into her locker. Heartfelt musings. Deep secrets. Promises to work up the courage to admit my identity. She was into it. Letters passed through the minuscule vents of dented metal doors without a word between us.
I’d seen the excitement, actual joy, every time there was another note from her secret admirer—a lift in the corner of her mouth that was only for me. For my notes. Everyone else got the toothy supermodel smile with forced crinkles perfectly framing her brown eyes. That was the version she showed them, but I knew her true smile: Lips pressed tight into a lopsided, upturned curve, a little squint, and a wrinkle in her nose. That was the one I waited for.
It was heartachingly beautiful the way she chewed her thumbnail after tugging open the corner of each perfectly folded bundle. Watching her eyes track the page gave me nearly as much of a thrill as slipping the square into her locker. Each passed note left me wondering if it would be the one that outed me; if it would be the time the secret slipped.
Even if she watched for me to open the locker to retrieve her notes, just like I waited to see her reaction, she never would have caught me. The locker’s former occupant, Julian Rodgers, had moved the second week of school and they never re-assigned it. His anger at attending a ninth school in his four-year high school career was my gain: The bottom of his top locker never quite sat right after he put a fist through it, so notes tucked inside his dropped ever so conveniently into my bottom locker.
I hadn’t gone to great lengths to hide my identity. I hadn’t shared it, either. Where was the line—and what was the balance between right and wrong? Would she have sent responses if she knew who I was? Would she have considered how well we got along, the way we knew each other, how we’d probably finish each other’s sentences during a face-to-face? I could feel the abyss in the center of my ribcage where the pressure of coming out collided with the fear that she’d reject me. Which was I more afraid of?
Watching dressed-up thirty-somethings stroll, carefree, across the parking lot was about all I could bear. Reminiscing wasn’t on my agenda for the night. They could giggle and toss stories around, rehash homecoming nights, football games, homeroom, and skip day. I’d been too busy keeping my chest from caving in from the grief to join in the shenanigans. Not that I’d have been welcome. Chants of ‘Tori can’t get a man, that’s why she’s a les-bee-an’ still rang in my ears fifteen years later.
I never found out who’d told her, but the notes stopped coming. Instead, I’d received the mocking echo of my own words read dramatically over the intercom during morning announcements, until someone from the office left the microphone squealing in their takeover attempt. Individual notes photocopied and plastered across walls, tucked away in lockers, and handed out at parties. Nothing but a joke, and they’d all laughed. Eva’s eyes were always downcast after that. They’d never fall on me for long, and for what? Fear that I’d make a move? Drag her down with me into my own little hell?
My head, heavy as the hurt still held in my heart, flopped onto the headrest. With courage enough built up to tear out of the parking lot without looking back, I turned the key, threw the car into gear, and backed out of my parking space. My exit plan didn’t account for the crunch and jolt of backing directly into a light post.
A string of profanities accompanied me out of the car and into the parking lot to assess the damage. Hanging bumper, busted tail light. Nothing a little insurance couldn’t fix. I made a beeline for the driver’s seat, but a voice cut through the raindrops, sparking heartstopping panic.
“Tori?” Though her voice pitched upward, there was recognition in the tone. “Tori Jones?”
The options were lie or run, and I was never a good liar. I tugged the door shut hoping she’d assume I didn’t hear her. Maybe we’d go on living our lives, ships in the night and all that.
Before I could hit the gas, she was tapping on my window. An escape now would look like exactly that: running away. I lowered my window and looked up at her from my seat.
Her understated turquoise dress played beautifully against her brown skin. The thought of her prom gown—nearly the same color, but two-piece and sequined—curled up in the back of my mind and settled in for the long haul.
“Hi.” I looked past her instead of at her. Keeping the street lights in focus became my lifeline. If I could see the lights, I wasn’t getting lost in her eyes.
She greeted me, then waved her hand to the side—a gesture that usually had an introduction attached. The idea of meeting her handsome husband and hearing about their perfect life together sent ripples through my stomach. I plastered a smile on my face and swallowed back the quiver that threatened to take up residence in my lower lip.
“Meet my date,” Eva said.
A woman stepped forward; cropped black hair, a swipe of glitter across eyelids, dangling earrings, and a black wrap dress stopping at knee length.
“My ex-wife, Diana.” Eva pressed a squeeze into the woman’s hand. “I couldn’t bear to come alone. Deal with all of those guys from the football team again? Not on my checklist for this decade. She agreed to be my bodyguard for the night.”
I huffed a laugh through my nose and nodded a greeting.
“This is Tori,” Eva said, holding a palm in my direction. A speck of dark nail polish had jumped the cuticle, marring her otherwise perfect hand. I focused on that, a distraction to keep my mind off how casually she tossed my name into the conversation—and the flash of recognition in her companion’s eyes when Eva said it.
“Are you here with your girlfriend? Wife?” she asked, glancing around.
“I’m not really the relationship type.” I bit my lower lip as the confession slipped.
Diana chuckled. “Eva, either.”
Eva shoulder-bumped Diana and spread her hands, teeth gritted against embarrassment. “Stop it,” she whispered.
Car doors slammed and enthusiastic greetings filled the parking lot as more guests arrived. Chest bumps and hoots of excitement echoed off buildings and pavement, once-close circles of friends becoming tight-knit again, even if only for a night. Disappearing into the darkness was impossible now that I’d been spotted, but the pressure was off. I could hit the bar without watching my back. Maybe even take care of the busted bumper after I’d drowned in nostalgia.
“Well, if I’m going to do this, it’s got to be now. Before I completely lose my nerve.” I climbed out of the car, smoothing the wrinkles from my skirt.
“Want to bet the band is the same one from prom?” Eva asked.
“Want to bet the quarterback asks if I’ve finally switched sides?” I lifted a playful eyebrow to soften the edge in my voice.
Diana leaned in and whispered in Eva’s ear.
One corner of her mouth turned upward. “It seems my bodyguard has another assignment for the night. Any chance you’re available to provide security detail for this event?”
My throat had gone dry. Stroll into the reunion with Eva, like nothing.
Like my letters hadn’t been stapled to bulletin boards and tucked beneath windshield wipers.
“It wasn’t me, you know.” She searched my eyes. “I had no idea it was you, not until it was too late. The rumors, I’d never have…”
Her sincerity was like a bullet train hurtling through my chest. Somewhere deep down, I’d already known.
“Hey,” I said, offering a bent elbow. “Let’s give them something to talk about, then.”