Chapter 2: The Fiction we Live
By the end of the day, any extraordinary euphoria had completely dissolved from Livy Sheridan's demeanor. In her mind's eye, there was still a pair of dark eyes staring amusedly at her from the driver's seat of a salient yellow Mustang. However, it had been a long day, and long days tended to wear at a person, even one that had had a most intriguing experience earlier that morning.
"What's the plan for this evening then, Liv?"
Livy, tired and pondering, did not answer. She was so tragically sick of the monotony that was her workaday life. She hated carrying out plates of greasy food, and she hated being cordial to customers that obviously didn't care in the slightest whether she lived or died. She hated Thomas Nightingale in all his brazen volatility, and she even hated Madelyn if just a bit for convincing her to apply for the job. More than anything, though, Livy Sheridan hated the prospect of change, and that in itself explained why she was what she was: bored, restless, and unable to quit contemplating her stimulating exchange with a perfect stranger this morning and the uneasy captivation that had come with it.
She wondered what LJ was doing at the moment and, if only fleetingly, if he was thinking of her. She liked to think to herself that he was, and for an instant a smile graced her features. She contemplated telling Madelyn about her encounter, but decided promptly that speaking of it would ruin the magic. Although she realized it had no substance behind it, here was something that was simply hers.
Livy was finally jolted back to reality by her friend's hand meeting her shoulder with an unprecedented amount of force. "What was that for?" she demanded angrily, and Madelyn didn't hesitate to put an equal amount of force into an all too familiar reproachful glare.
"I wouldn't have to slap you if you'd just listen to me for once, goodness," she complained, a touch of hurt sprinkling her expressive blue eyes. "Where have you been lately, Liv? I've missed you!"
Livy sighed as she made it to her car. Work until noon, class until five. A long day indeed.
"Livy?" She looked up and realized that Madelyn was studying her quizzically. "Are you alright?"
"Fine, Madi, just…tired," she replied unconvincingly, but what else was there really to say? Everything was – or, at least, should have been – alright, and Livy truly couldn't pinpoint what it was that had been bothering her of late. It was just this emptiness, a void that she couldn't even begin to explain. It was as if something – something vital – was missing. Maybe it's basketball again, she thought resignedly. She'd told herself a million times over to let it go – and she supposed she really had – but at every start of a new season, those stitches in her heart seemed to reopen a bit. Thinking back, she guessed she never knew that she would miss it so much…
"Been bit by the basketball bug again?" Livy looked up at the sound of Madelyn's voice, and smiled a bit at the ease with which her friend could read her.
"Yeah, I guess so," she answered, and Madelyn draped an arm over her shoulders.
"Don't worry about it, honey, it'll get better," she comforted, and Livy forced a wry smile.
"It always does, doesn't it? You'd think I'd have gotten over it by now."
Madelyn gave her a sympathetic squeeze. "It's perfectly normal, Livy, really. When something you care about so much gets ripped away from you the way that it did, it's only human for the hurt to linger for awhile."
Livy sighed. "This isn't normal, Madelyn. It was just a stupid…a stupid pastime, not a career aspiration! I shouldn't care so much…it's been four years, for God's sake…"
"It was too, and you know it," Madelyn countered. And, of course, she was right. Though Livy would never admit to it aloud, she'd always had high hopes for a career in the sport, as foolish as they may have been. And, damn it, she could have done it, too. She had been the best player in the state, and she knew it. Maybe that was what hurt so much.
She hated to look at where she was now, compared to where she could have been. Instead of playing the part of the typical basketball celebrity at Duke or UCLA or even Oregon's own prestigious university, she was…well, nothing. A neurotic journalism student at the University of Portland, the one college she'd vowed never to attend in high school. A waitress at Oregon's finest bar and grill, working for a man she despised. Just a girl, a tired, lonely, awkward girl that couldn't keep herself from living somewhere so very far away from reality – in the past.
"Maybe you should just go home and get some sleep, Liv," Madelyn suggested, subtly noting the vacant look in her friend's eyes.
"I can't," Livy replied remorsefully. "I'm taking Noah up to Oregon's Midnight Madness this evening."
"Just what you need," Madelyn mused, "more basketball."
"I know, but I promised Alicia – you know how busy she is – and Noah wants to go so badly…there's no way I could cancel on him. When I talked to Alicia at lunch, she said he was having one of his good days today…she thought it was because he had something to look forward to. He's so excited about this thing…"
"How's he doing?" Madelyn asked, and Livy smiled sadly.
"Oh, you know Noah. He's a trooper. Always has a smile on his face, bless his heart. Unfortunately, Alicia said that lately his good days have been pretty few and far between. I think his therapy is really getting to him. If I can do anything to make him happy…"
"No, by all means, you should go. I'm just worried about you, Livy."
She laughed a little, shrugging her friend's arm off of her shoulder and climbing into her black '85 Camaro. "You don't need to worry – give me a couple days. I'll bounce back."
Madelyn sighed. "Okay. Have a good time tonight…tell Alicia and Noah I said hello."
"Will do," Livy agreed, smiling slightly at her friend's reflection in the rearview mirror as she drove away.
Luke Jacobson leaned back in his chair, a half-empty bottle of Budweiser in one hand and the other idly flipping through a book on Voltaire. He'd been doing this a lot lately, he realized, emitting a strangely self-satisfied chuckle. Getting too drunk to move, breaking out a text from his philosopher of the week, and fulfilling his strange desires until promptly passing out with his head rested upon a black and white photo of Marx, Nietzsche, or, in this case, Voltaire.
God is a comedian, the wise man explained, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. LJ agreed with a quirk of the lips and a sip from the bottle in front of him. This wasn't alcoholism to Luke Jacobson, no matter how much his teammates whined about his lifestyle. He knew when he was drunk, when he was on the verge of being drunk, and when the woman hanging all over him was much too drunk to take home. He knew his limits, and subsequently pushed them as far as humanly possible without resulting in death or incarceration. He called it soul searching. Hayden, his housemate's no-nonsense but utterly lovable girlfriend, called it a relapse.
Truth be told, LJ had broken away from his supposed "bad habits" for a time. He'd been stupid, yes, and so nauseatingly in love that it almost sickened him to think about it. Or perhaps that was the alcohol. But, oh, it didn't matter now, for he had his Budweiser and his Voltaire, and Cailie McCoy was so far in the past that the only thing he could even remember about her was how much he hated her. And her silky blonde hair. And her luscious, inviting lips. And her luminous green eyes. And her white, soft skin. And her voice, calling his name…
Yes, Luke Jacobson, admired infamously by all for his skills with basketball, booze, and women, was an utter wreck. He did, however, do an admirable job of hiding it. In fact, if not for the empty beer bottles and countless library fees (the campus library apparently didn't appreciate his habit of cutting out particularly profound passages and tacking them to his closet door with every intent of returning the book – complete or not – later), even his housemates probably would not have known that in spite of the winning smile, engaging conversations, and outlandish antics, Oregon's most prized leading light was hurtling in a downward spiral – fast.
Not that LJ didn't realize it himself, of course. He knew he hadn't been himself – his true self, that was, not the one that demanded attention upon entering a room, and certainly not the one that put on an act that would have put the late Jim Morrison (God rest the brilliant man) to shame – ever since Cailie had taken his heart, stomped on it a couple of times, and ran it over with the riding lawnmower she'd affectionately called "Jake McConnell". LJ downed the rest of his drink. Even the name made his blood boil.
He'd told Hayden he'd forgiven her. And that was true, to an extent. Whom he'd neglected to forgive, and he knew this, was himself for being so goddamned stupid. LJ had spent his entire life in a carnival of sorts – a colorful, vivid, engaging world full of laughter and alcohol and enough women to satisfy him until he dropped dead from the sheer ecstasy of it all. He'd had the perfect life, really – he still did. He'd been blessed with talent, charisma, devilishly good looks, and an almost rock star status from Oregon's foray to the National Championship the past year.
Unfortunately, he'd also been cursed with Cailie McCoy. He'd rushed into the relationship headfirst, proclaiming to all that would hear it that she was the one for whom his coveted heart did beat, and hadn't realized until much too late what a mistake he had made. In the end, LJ was left with a broken heart, dire need of anger management, and an all too apparent lust for the life he'd had before she had destroyed it. And so, he'd returned to his beer and his womanizing without a bat of an eyelash. The rest, as they say, is history.
LJ couldn't help but smirk at the thought, allowing his gaze to drift to his rapidly filling bookshelf, where at the very top sat the home of the only pet his housemates would allow indoors, a single goldfish, Sigmund (after Dr. Freud, whom LJ thought to be an utter fool, but had had a strapping name nonetheless). He felt a stab of inebriated remorse as he noticed, by way of being nigh unable to even see Sigmund beneath the murkiness of the water, that it had been quite some time since he'd last cleaned the tank. He sighed a little guiltily, shuffled toward the tank in question, and sprinkled a bit of food into it in apology. Sometimes he felt like the poor fellow, he decided – suffocated beneath a world of idiocy…or, in Sigmund's case, a dense overgrowth of rather putrid fish tank scum.
He was smart, Luke Jacobson. Sometimes too much so, though most people were interested in his body rather than his brain. In private, he liked to call himself "the drunken philosopher". His housemates liked to call him a "fucking idiot", and oftentimes not so privately. Not that they didn't love one another immensely, of course, because they did. They were the reason, above everything else, that LJ hadn't ever questioned his decision to attend the University of Oregon to play basketball.
He'd met his best friend not even hours into arriving on campus, and the students had been buzzing with excitement at the news of their respective arrivals. Luke Welling was the epitome of a basketball nerd, really, and it was almost surprising how quickly LJ found himself bonding with the fellow freshman. Oregon's future point guard, as LJ soon found this goofy boy to be, was almost inhumanly humble, quiet in a pensive sort of way, and didn't need much more than the feel of the ball in his hands to make him content as could be. He'd introduced himself as Wells, smiled a big smile, and the two of them marched to the basketball court together followed by a flock of eager fans.
Thinking back, LJ really couldn't explain why he'd connected so quickly with Wells. The two of them had been polar opposites then, and they still were. LJ liked to cause a stir, to live life as if he'd fall short by not dazzling each and every one of his adoring fans in different, equally captivating ways. Wells, however, preferred to keep to himself as much as possible, to not let his stardom get to his head no matter how much attention he received. He never liked it; the attention, that was. Oftentimes Wells would choose spending an evening at home with his nose in a book over traversing to the bars with the rest of the guys. Somehow, though, the two of them just couldn't seem to live without each other, and that was just the way it was.
Adam Rushton had transferred to Oregon the summer after LJ's second year on the team. He'd come from an unknown Jesuit school in Wisconsin, but his true religion had resided in the worn basketball that literally had never left his sight until LJ had tossed it onto the roof in contempt for the enamored shooting guard's one-dimensional lifestyle. The two resorted to not speaking for the week following the incident, but Adam had surprisingly moved into the house that he, Wells, and another teammate, Michael Bruce, had shared shortly thereafter. All minor differences aside, Adam and LJ got along famously, and LJ couldn't help but admit – although grudgingly – that he admired his friend's crazy work ethic. That was, of course, until Adam decided to get involved in an illicit relationship with Coach Cav's daughter, the gorgeous yet thoroughly unattainable Hayden. Then, he admired his friend's work ethic quite openly.
DeMario Mason had arrived on the scene at nearly the same time as Adam as an outspoken, obnoxiously opinionated freshman. He and LJ had immediately hit it off, and though many – including a majority of their teammates – would have argued otherwise, both couldn't help but enjoy their numerous but fickle arguments. In fact, DeMario was the only one that could keep up with Luke Jacobson in a battle of wits. It was a common occurrence for LJ to change his point halfway through, completely contradicting his earlier statements and yet still have his adversary believing that he'd been bested. Not D-Mase, however. In fact, LJ had had his ass handed to him on a silver platter by the clever freshman on more than one occasion, and thus held all the more respect for him because of it.
They were quite the group, the four of them. In fact, they'd led the Oregon Ducks men's basketball team to their first NCAA title in over fifty years. It struck LJ as funny, almost, how much had changed just seven months removed from that fated National Championship game. That, he supposed, had been the beginning of the end. Wells was now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers (second pick overall in the draft, LJ reminded himself fondly), Adam was nauseatingly in love with his assistant coach, and D-Mase was doing whatever the hell it was he did while LJ was in his room binge drinking and reading Voltaire.
Hayden Cavallari had moved into Wells's old room upon his departure, and while the other guys did everything they could to adjust their living habits to having a female in the house, LJ did everything he could to create a scene. He walked around in only a towel just to get a rise out of Adam (and a blush from Hayden's pretty cheeks), left his undergarments lying wherever he removed him (which, more often than not, was somewhere other than his bedroom), and made a point of leaving the bathroom door open when he showered. Hayden told him he was the devil personified, and he laughed at her for it. However, when she placed a hand on his heart and told him firmly, "But that's not you", it was everything he could do to keep tears from springing to his eyes.
Doubt is an unpleasant condition, proclaimed Voltaire, but certainty is absurd. LJ's eyes darted toward the calendar on his wall (he only kept it for the pleasant pictures it provided of scantily clad women) and he inclined his bottle toward it in an awkward salute. It was October 15th – Midnight Madness, the official start of basketball season – the day when the world should suddenly feel right again for the college basketball player. LJ, as per usual, was the odd man out. He'd always felt a bit of a rush at the start of each season, but in years past, playing basketball always seemed to blur together into one long, emotionally-charged routine. No one had ever bothered to ask the esteemed wingman why he played, and secretly he was glad for that. The answer, he knew, was almost disheartening. Basketball, truly, wasn't his passion. It was merely what he was good at.
Luke Jacobson had discovered his talent at a young age, and his parents had welcomed his patented jump shot as a valued member of the family. His father, who had a self-proclaimed obsession for the sport that bordered on unhealthy, had immediately signed his son up for all types of summer camps, and had made sure that he had only the best of coaching. LJ had been impassive for the most part; settling into the routine and making shot after shot. High School came and went, and he hadn't been surprised at all the letters he received from coaches desperate to get him to come to their respective universities. In his own mind, he knew all the attention he was getting was just what he deserved. He was good at basketball, and that was just the way it was.
From the moment he'd arrived on the Oregon campus, LJ wasn't just the typical person anymore, though perhaps he never really had been. The basketball team held the title of campus gods, and was treated accordingly. For reasons he couldn't quite fathom but had welcomed in the years past, Luke Jacobson was ahead of the pack. In his four years at Oregon, he'd become an on-campus celebrity. His precise jump shot and engaging personality had worked its way into the very heart of the University of Oregon, and as with everything else in his life, LJ took it for what it was, embraced his role as the campus's infamous playboy, and signed autographs until he was sure he'd developed carpal tunnel.
It had always struck LJ as odd that people – women especially – had become so captivated with him, though it was something that had started long before college. Though he could never be so humble as to call himself unattractive – his lean, muscular build, shaggy, deep brown curls that fell over dark, enigmatic eyes, and heart-melting smile truly did treat him kindly – he'd never thought of himself as the image he now found himself fighting desperately to maintain. Image means so much these days, he mused absently, but at least I have a decent one.
LJ sighed and downed the rest of his beer in one large, ineloquent gulp, tossing the empty bottle on top of the rest of the empty bottles that made up his floor. The bottles clanked together noisily, and for a moment Sigmund made an appearance at the front of his tank, as if investigating the sound, before scurrying once more into the murky abyss.
"You're so boring, man," LJ muttered to the fish, propping his feet up on the table and idly balancing his chair on two legs. "Dunno how to have a good time, do ya? Just sittin' around in that swamp all day…watchin' your life swim on by…waiting to be flushed down the toilet…"
His soliloquy was promptly interrupted by the door swinging open, and he looked up impassively only to be met by the blazing almond eyes of one, Hayden Cavallari. If the way she was standing were any indication – head high, arms crossed dutifully across the chest – she was not happy.
"Top o' the mornin' to ya, m'lady," LJ greeted anyway, his words only slightly slurred. Hayden stepped into the room and slammed the door behind her so hard that it knocked his chair off balance and sent him crashing to the floor into a pile of clean laundry.
"Luke Jacobson, have you any idea what time it is?" she demanded furiously, crossing the room and kicking him swiftly in the side. He peeked out from beneath a wooly sweater and uttered a surprised curse.
"What was that for?" he whined, rubbing at the place she'd kicked, which he was, by the way, quite certain would bruise.
"What time is it, LJ?" she repeated, completely nonplussed, and when he offered no response, she moved to kick him again. He cowered quickly beneath the sweater, and she settled for a sharp slap on the top of his head instead.
"It's ten o'clock in the morning, LJ!" she ranted, yanking the sweater out of his hands to properly see his face, and all he could offer was a confused grimace in response. Why was she informing him of this again? He'd been sitting in his room, completely minding his own business as he contemplated his life, and suddenly she comes barging in and yells at him because of the time?
Hayden obviously noted his confusion, because she promptly dropped to her knees beside him and took his face in her hands. He blinked at her in bewilderment, but she paid him no heed, continuing her one-sided conversation. "God, LJ, I'm so sick of this!" she groaned, slapping him lightly on his cheek, and he would have recoiled had she not been holding him so tightly. "And today of all days!" she continued unabashedly. "Midnight Madness is tonight, LJ, it's ten o'clock in the morning, and you've already had enough alcohol to kill me!"
LJ frowned at her for a moment before quirking a sly smile. "That, m'dear, is because you're a lightweight," he said slowly, taking great care to articulate his words clearly, and Hayden's eyes widened angrily.
"You are such a bastard, Luke Jacobson!" she wailed, moving so that her face was only inches from his own. If she'd been anyone else, he probably would have tried to kiss her then, succeeded brilliantly, and ended up throwing her down right here in his pile of laundry. Not Hayden, though. They had an understanding. They were friends. However, at the moment she wasn't so friendly, and he was more than a little bit intoxicated. "You're completely missing the point!"
"Yeah," he admitted tiredly, pulling away from her and leaning back into his clothing, feeling a slight inclination to pass out right then and there just to avoid the unpleasantness of this particular conversation. Usually he enjoyed getting a rise out of Hayden, but not when she was truly angry with him. Right now, she was quite obviously incensed, and it was making him uncomfortable. "What's the point again?"
Hayden heaved a long-suffering sigh, chucked an inopportune tennis shoe out of the way, and lay down next to him so that the top of her head rested against his shoulder. "The point, my dear friend, is that your activities are not…particularly healthy," she said, her voice dropping to just above a whisper, and LJ had to struggle to keep his drunken mind focused on what she was saying. He knew it was important, he did, but his thoughts continued to wander nonetheless. He was worried about basketball. In fact, that was why he'd chosen to drink in the first place. Alcohol helped calm him down. Hayden, however, was only succeeding in agitating him even more.
"My father is absolutely going to throw a fit if you don't sober yourself up before seven o'clock," she was saying, and LJ closed his eyes tightly, wincing against a sudden pain in his forehead. Hayden had slapped him again. "Are you even listening to me?" she demanded, and he nodded sullenly. "Good. Now get yourself up off the floor, go to your bed, and sleep this off, okay? Obviously you're not going to class today. You're absolutely going to jeopardize your basketball career – among other things – if you keep doing this, LJ…"
"I think that may be what I want, actually," he cut in suddenly, moving slowly into a sitting position. Hayden made a confused sound. "I mean, I think…I think I'm, uh, quitting," he clarified vaguely, and Hayden's hand went to cover her mouth in surprise.
"LJ, you're drunk," she said softly, and he offered a wobbly smile in response.
"Yeah, I sure am," he replied, pulling himself slowly to his feet and staggering into the overflowing clothes hamper. "And I think I want to quit playing basketball."
Hayden shook her head slowly and watched in concern as he struggled to make his way to his bed, colliding painfully with his computer desk, entangling himself in the cord of his X-Box, and becoming particularly intimate with an errant stack of books before finally reaching his destination.
"You don't mean that," she stated as he collapsed onto his bed, and he chuckled drunkenly.
"I think I do," he replied in a sing-song voice.
"Oh, LJ," Hayden whispered, approaching his bed and covering his unmoving form with a quilt. "What on earth has happened to you?"
"Enlightenment," he replied cheekily, and she shook her head remorsefully.
"Get some sleep, then," she said softly. "I'll see you at Midnight Madness."
LJ's only response was a snore.
Author's Note: Well, what did you think? To those who asked, the reason why Livy didn't recognize LJ will be explained in later chapters – it all makes sense eventually, I promise. Also, Livy won't always be such a downer. Her transformation is an essential part of the story, so you'll have to bear with her for a little while – again, her temperament will be explained much more clearly in chapters to come. Please REVIEW and let me know how it's going.