This parking lot looked like the opening scene to an apocalypse movie as I dragged my feet along the pavement. The asphalt was grey and faded from months of salt and ice, and I kept my hoodie pulled close around my torso as I shuffled toward the Carpooler's bulletin board. It was the second day of spring break—though it didn't feel like goddamn anything but winter—and the unremitting wind cut right through my pink-sheep pajama pants. Classy, I know. But it's not like there was anyone around to judge.
The papers were whipping around, barely holding on with the help of their respective staples, and this feeling of dread was starting to tug at my insides. There's no way in hell my note survived this weather, I thought, and if this last-ditch effort didn't work, I'd be stuck in this shitheap of a university for four more godforsaken days, drowning in Poptart crumbs and watching wedding shows on TLC. By the time my parents swung by on their way back from Montreal, all my brain cells would've crapped out due to insanity and indignity. But as my feet shuffled closer, I saw that my memo was still there—soggy and crinkled, but the ink still perfectly legible. "Ride needed from here to Long Island, New York. Will pay half of travel expenses. DESPERATE."
And what the hell do you know—someone had shown pity. In sloppy handwriting on an overlapping Post-it note, it said, "Leaving for Farmingdale at 4PM Saturday afternoon. Meet in the West Dawes parking lot if interested."
Farmingdale. My stomach skipped. It was the town directly next to mine, but this shit was sketchy. Beyond sketchy. No name, nophone number, no anything. Just a meeting place—a parking lot, nonetheless, because honestly, who besides Dexter does that?—and a time. I fumbled for the cell phone in the front pocket of my hoodie. 3:12 PM. I had forty-eight minutes to shower, pack, and get my ass down to the lot across campus. If, that is, I decided my own potential homicide was less important than the employees of Kleinfeld Bridal becoming my only source of interaction for fifty-six more brain-numbing hours.
My mom's paranoia-voice kicked on inside my head. Every time I wanted to do goddamn anything—head to the beach, take a road trip, go out drinking with friends—she always responded with, "Oh God, Em . I heard about this one kid on the news who insert-desired-activity-here, and then he died." Optimism at its best, let me tell you.
I couldn't imagine how many specials she'd watched on kids who got into cars with strangers and never came home, and so I weighed my options one last time. Home: Beach, friends, potential murder, but still, my own bed, actual shower pressure, food cooked in something other than a fucking microwave. Or here. Dark empty dorm room, packaged fruit-and-sugar pastries, and shame. So much shame.
Well, my note had said desperate.
Five years ago. My sophomore year of high school—the worst year of my life, as far as my sixteen-year-old-self was concerned. On this particular Tuesday evening, Mae and I found ourselves at the Sunrise Mall just on the outskirts of my hometown. It was a couple days before Christmas, and this place was like a can of sardines. Every single store had a mile-long line of crazed-up Long Island mothers, ready to deck anyone who (intentionally or accidentally) inconvenienced their holiday rush, and frankly, this mall wasn't a safe place to be this time of year. Fortunately, though, Mae and I weren't here for Christmas shopping.
"Don't you think this is a little juvenile?" I asked, my arms falling from their crossed position over my chest. As much as I wanted every ounce of my body language to scream the words, "I hate everything," I couldn't manage. The air in here was stuffy and strangling, every molecule heated by the hundreds of bodies and thousands of little blinking light bulbs.
"No," Mae responded. She didn't even tear her eyes away from the sample pictures that the elf lady had given her while we waited. "Which one of these borders best says 'fuck you,' do you think?"
Mae Richards. A blunt girl, to say the least. She was my best friend at the time, and though we'd kept in touch all throughout college, she and I were inseparable back then. I practically lived over at her house, and she'd been present for every single crappy-cafeteria-lunch that I'd forced down my esophagus. So when she didn't see or hear from me for three days, she stomped right on over to my house, barged into my bedroom, and had the entire story out of me within minutes.
Jake had cheated on me. Well, technically, cheated on some girl with me, but it was the first I'd heard of it. For four and a half months—the entirety of our so-called relationship—I'd been the other woman. Or barely-pubescent girl, but you get the point. My heart was splattered like a paintball against my ribcage, and for days now, my insides had felt like that garland wrapped around the second-floor mall balcony—twisted and cheap and brittle.
Payback, Mae had decided, was in order. "A small, harmless gesture," she'd called it, "But gets the point across."
We were currently waiting in line for a picture with Santa Claus. Little kids swarmed around us like bees on honeysuckle, their laughs and screams getting caught in the high ceilings, and I was not looking forward to their parents' reaction when the flare from the camera flash faded and my middle finger was up in the air. "How are we even gonna get this picture to him? I'm sure as hell not walking up to him in school or anything."
"You can give me his locker number and I'll slip it in. I don't know. We'll figure it out. Go." Mae shoved me forward, past the "Line Starts Here" sign and into the roped-off area. The six-year-old in front of us had just hopped off Santa's lap and scurried away, and after an hour and a half in that goddamn line, it was finally all me.
Santa's eyes were curved out of amusement as I lowered myself onto his lap. Besides the fact that my boobs hadn't grown in—and the way it seemed now, they might never—I looked way older than I was. Five-foot-seven with long skinny legs and a beanpole stature, and occasionally it made for some pretty awkward situations. Like right now, for instance. Just get your point across, Emily. Jake needs to know that he can't just walk all over you like that.
"And what would you like for Christmas this year, little girl?"
His voice was deep and young-sounding, and though he tried to cover it up with an old-person quiver, he wasn't too great at it. Now that I was so close to him, I could see that his face was young, too, and his hat and super-aesthetic-looking beard didn't do much to cover his dark eyebrows or high cheekbones. Man, kids these days were so stupid.
"I would like for my asshole of an ex-boyfriend to burn in hell."
"Oh. Wow. Alright."
"Say Merry Christmas!" Elf-Girl yelled. My finger went up in the air, the camera flashed, and I stood up before anyone could give me shit for it. After smacking fifteen dollars down on the register, Mae snatched the Polaroid from the girl's hand and then we were out of there.
I could feel the cold of the bricks through my jacket as I leaned against the north entrance. My breath was exiting my mouth in puffs of steam, but it wasn't enough to make me go back into that suffocatingly hot mall.
Mae's mom had called her just as we were leaving—it having been his first Christmas, their new chocolate lab had apparently gotten a tad confused about bathroom habits when he saw a tree in the living room. The lights short-circuited, and since Mae's relatives were arriving that night for the holidays, Mrs. Richards needed new ones ASAP. Mae was sent into the deathtrap that was tis-the-season Sears, but knowing that I was in absolutely no mood for insane customers and creepy motorized reindeer, she told me I could just chill out here.
"Huh. Looks like it might snow. Maybe Long Island'll get a white Christmas for once, yeah?"
I turned toward the voice. There was a guy standing maybe five feet away, his head bowed as he tried to shield a lit match from the wind. Once his cigarette had caught, he stood up straight and offered me a smile.
"Yeah. Maybe," I responded, but the words came out sounding more like a grunt.
"I think I read that it's because of the water, you know? That since the ocean soaks up so much heat during the summer, it's warmer in the winter 'cause it keeps letting off heat all year. And, you know, since we're surrounded by water and all—"
"Look, dude." The words spat out before I could stop them, and though I tried to say them as gingerly as possible, my tone was still drowned in bitch. " I'm sorry, and I'm not trying to be rude or whatever, but I've got a huge headache right now, alright? And I could do without the geoscience lesson."
His eyebrow peaked. Then he shook his head, and, turning to lean against the wall, took another drag on his cigarette. "You know, I really can't tell if you're always this touchy, or if this guy screwed you up so bad that you're immune to Christmas cheer."
Probably the latter. No, in fact, definitely the latter. This time last year, before Jake was in my life, I was a fucking ball of merriment, alright? I was running around the house with Christmas music blasting, baking cookies and wrapping gifts and singing at the top of my—Woah. Wait. I whipped around to face the stranger, my eyes dragging over every bit of him. How the shit does he know about Jake?
"Right. Sorry. Guess I look a little different without pillows lodged in my pants."
His green eyes curved in the same amused fashion, and it clicked. Santa was a nineteen-year-old boy in cords, Etnies, and a fleece jacket. Huh. And he smoked. Mrs. Clause must've felt like such a pedophile right about now.
"It's funny how stuff works out sometimes. The mall was as desperate for a Santa as I was for a paycheck."
My voice—and my bad mood—found me again. "Glad things are working out for one of us." I let myself slide down the wall so I was sitting on the cold concrete.
He laughed, humorlessly almost. "Look," Ex-Santa said, and he slid down next to me—not so close that I was uncomfortable, but close enough that I could feel the heat radiating from his body, and I could smell his smoke-and-Axe-cologne clothing. "I'm not good at these post-dumped talks, okay? I could tell you that it's his loss, and that you're better off without him, and that there's plenty of fish in the sea, but what kind of bullshit is that? Especially from a complete stranger."
"A fair amount of bullshit, I'd say."
"Exactly. So here's my advice, alright? Not that you're gonna take it, because you seem like you're stubborn as all hell. But life's way too short to let assholes get to you, and I honestly don't think that people are meant to be miserable. Spend time with the people who genuinely make you happy, do what you want, and fuck everyone else."
Santa heaved himself up to his feet. He dropped his smoke on the concrete and ground it in with the toe of his shoe. "Merry Christmas," he said, and he ruffled my hair like I was one of the little kids who'd asked him for a Transformer or a dollhouse. "I've gotta get back to my shift."
He left me with my eyes scanning over the asphalt, their speed increasing as the wheels turned faster and faster. His words had been so simple—nothing new as far as life epiphanies, I'm sure—but the way he'd put them together like that, they made so much sense. Jake was a grade-A asshole, no doubt about that, and the longer I extended this whole thing, the more energy and vitality and happiness he was taking from me.
I'm not sure how long I sat there. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. But as soon as I was up on my feet, it was like a wrecking ball at the top of its swing. Within seconds, I'd ripped the Polaroid from my pocket and then it was scraps tumbling across the mall parking lot. I tore the door open and I stomped my way through the hordes of mothers and children and customers and salespeople. Then I was back at the Santa exhibit, my fist balled around the collar of his fluffy red coat. Elf-Girl screamed bloody murder and children burst into tears as I yanked him away, his feet tripping over themselves in an attempt to take root on the shiny tiles.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!"
I didn't answer, because I didn't know. All I knew was that my emotions were rearing up worse than they ever had before, and man, was I intrigued by this kid. I'd been nothing but a raging bitch to him, and he'd been nothing but a sweetheart back. A straightforward and vulgar one, but a sweetheart nonetheless.
We'd rounded the corner behind the Food Court—the dark, brick-walled passageway that connected the bathrooms to the outside, but no one ever used it. The only reason I knew about it was because, when Mae had worked at the Wendy's that past summer, we used to chill back here during her breaks. Then I had him pressed up against the wall, and then his fake beard was in a pile on the floor. I didn't care that I didn't know his name, or that this was the most unclassy, impulsive thing I'd ever done, or that he was years older than I was, or that he was currently wearing a Santa suit. I made out with him. Hardcore.
When Mae found us, the tables had turned a bit. I was pressed up against the wall, my legs wrapped around him, but we were still macking it, and we were both insanely out of breath by now. My name echoed throughout the dim hallway in Mae's screechy little voice. "Em!" Then came the flood of uncontrollable laughter from my best friend for having assaulted Santa Claus with my tongue, and I swear to God, I never heard the end of it.
Story seems irrelevant, right? Wrong. 3:57 PM, out of breath and dragging my suitcase along behind me, I located my stranger. He was leaning up against the only car in the entire parking lot—a grey 1996 Sedan—and before he even raised his arm to wave me over, the you're-in-deep-shit-alarm sounded in my head.
He looked the same, really, even five years later. Same lanky stature, same carelessly-spiked hair, same way of holding a cigarette between his pointer and middle finger. The only major difference was that his beard was real this time—shorter, browner, and not held onto his face with an elastic band.
I really, really thought about walking away. Just turning around with my suitcase in tow and hauling ass back to my dorm. But he'd already seen me, and being the only two people left on this godforsaken campus, it was clear why I'd showed up. Maybe I'll luck out, I figured. Maybe puberty smacked me hard enough that he won't even recognize me. So I unzipped my bag, pulled out my fraying Yankees hat, threaded my ponytail through the back, and pulled it down over my face. All I've gotta do is last six whole hours.
"You must be the desperate Long Islander." Hah. Desperate. If he only knew the full extent of that word. "I'm Eli." He shoved his hand out to shake mine.
"Cool. Nice to meet you." Eli took my suitcase from me and tossed it into the trunk. "Ready to hit the road?"
Six painfully-long minutes later, the car had rolled past the last of the campus buildings. Absolutely no turning back now. My face had been pressed against the glass like I'd never seen such an intriguing landscape in my whole life, and if I could keep up this puppy-on-his-first-road-trip act for several more hours, I wouldn't have to look him in the eye even once.
"Ah, shit. You wanna know what I just realized?"
"IT WAS A DIFFICULT TIME IN MY LIFE. I WAS HORMONAL."
Eli remained in his casually-slouched position over the steering wheel, but his attention pivoted to my face. Then he raised his eyebrow and tilted his head like a Golden Retriever who couldn't tell whether you'd thrown the ball or not. "Um… I was just going to say that I forgot to pick up gas, but alright. Sorry that your past has been plagued with imbalances in your endocrine system?"
I gulped down the lump in my throat and tried desperately hard to match his laid-back body language. No matter what I did, I still just looked like I was sitting with a pole up my ass. "Sorry," I said. "I'm normal, I swear. I just… I have Tourette's."
"Oh," Eli murmured. "That's rough. Sorry to hear that."
"Yeah. It's okay. It's not bad if I take my meds. I just—SHIT. PISS.—forgot this morning."
"Right," Eli said, and he turned the wheel so that we rolled into some corner gas station. The tires crunched to a stop on the gravel, and he flicked the keys in the ignition. "It's no worries. I won't judge. Be right back, okay?"
The dinging noise in the car told me that he'd gotten out, so I allowed myself to raise my head. We hadn't made it that far—maybe a couple miles from the school—but I was doing alright. Some last-minute improvisation and a few blatant lies, yes, but I could easily keep up this Tourette's crap until we got home. Maybe I could claim acute paranoia, too, what with my inability to partake in any eye-contact whatsoever, and—fuck.
He was looking at me. Staring, actually. His hand was wrapped around the gas nozzle, but he wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to it. It could've overflowed and blown this car and those pumps and that station to bits, and at this point, he would've been far too busy wracking his brain to care, desperately searching for the logic behind that nagging little familiarity. His eyes were narrowed at me through the glass, and then all at once, realization flooded everything. It all expanded—his eyes, his mouth, his jaw, his chest. He knew.
Eli ceased pumping the gas. He retracted the hose, went inside to pay, and came back out. He slid into the driver's seat, but he didn't turn the keys. He just stared through the windshield, his face entirely blank and his fists clenched around the steering wheel. "You made out with me while I was wearing a Santa outfit, didn't you?"
I shut my eyes in mortification. "Yeah. Yeah, that happened."
"Alright. You got me fired, so you know."
"Yeah. Yep. I figured as much."
Eli breathed in, his chest filling with air and widening against his seatbelt. The engine reared. He put the old Sedan in reverse and backed out of the gas station. "You don't have Tourette's, do you?"
"Nope. Nope, sir, I do not."
With the overpowering silence in that car, I felt like the oxygen was Jell-O. It clogged my windpipe and weighed on my diaphragm and stuck to absolutely everything. The radio was on in the background, and though it should've made things less awkward, it didn't. The static rumbled underneath every single song, forcing my nerves to clench up and grind against each other.
"I'm sorry." We were well past the Finger Lakes when I'd said it. My voice flooded the car like one of those pain-in-the-ass chiming clocks, and I don't think either of us was expecting it.
"There. Apology accepted," Eli said. "Believe it or not, it wasn't exactly my dream job or anything."
"No," I told him. "Not just for getting you fired. For embarrassing you, and for mentally-scarring those kids, and for being all emotionally-unstable and generic-girl-like, and for acting impulsively, and for dumping all my pathetic issues on you in that parking lot five years ago, and for ruining Christmas, and for lying about having a neurological disorder, and for—"
"Woah, woah, woah. Hold the goddamn phone, crazy woman." Eli's fingers found the radio knob. It clicked into an off position, and my muscles unwound the slightest bit. "It's cool, alright? I mean, yeah, you might wanna consider starting up a therapy fund for the children who witnessed that. But everything else? It's fine. Respectable, even. To be honest, you have to have balls to do what you did."
"You have to have balls to ruin Christmas?"
"No," Eli drawled. "You have to have balls to take someone's advice like that. That quickly and that literally. I mean, most of the stuff you say to people goes in one ear and out the other. But I basically told you to make decisions based off of what you wanted, and then, with no regard to anyone else's feelings, you grabbed me by the coat, dragged me into a dark hallway, and stuck your tongue down my throat."
"I said I was sorry."
"No." The word came again, this time like a growl from the back of his throat. "You're missing my point. I'm saying that it was attractive. Hot, even." Eli lit up another cigarette and rolled down his window. He rested his wrist on the glass so that the ashes fluttered away in a ribbon behind the car. "It's hot when people go after what they want. I wouldn't have had the balls to do what you did, and I dunno. It was hot."
My hands rested face-up in my lap, and I stared down at them as though his words had been written there on my palms and I could analyze them at my own pace. This car was boiling, and I could hear the wind whooshing in on his side. Still, none of it was reaching my constricted lungs, so I cranked the window handle and flooded the old Sedan with dry winter air.
The sky was still drowned with clouds, but there were cracks in the masses of dryer-lint where the sun shone through. Its effects could be seen on the highway in front of us—little slivers of light on the asphalt, the occasional shadow of a tree. I took my Yankee hat off, letting my ponytail fall loose, and then I tossed it on the dashboard. I turned to Eli.
"How do you feel about a quick detour?"
When I walked out of the store, hugging the plastic bag to my chest, Eli was leaning up against the side of his car. His hands were in his pockets, and his heavy Etnies were crossed one over the other. He nodded his head in the direction of the shopping bag. "What's that about?"
Two results had popped up when I'd typed "Costume Stores in the area" into the navigation on my phone. There had been this one—Cassie's Costumes for Themed Parties and Other Events—and the other one—Incognito Erotica. The latter had been closer, and honestly, I thought about it. Seriously, I did. In the end, though, I figured this idea was ballsy enough on its own. Baby steps.
I tossed the bag at him. He oofed and caught it before it had the chance to roll to the pavement. Eli looked inside, his teeth clamped down on his lip in skepticism.
"Really, Emily? A Santa costume? Okay."
I shrugged. "It's March. It was thirteen dollars."
"Really?" he repeated, and though his voice was sarcastic, his smile was expanding to conquer his whole face. "You're batshit insane, are you aware of that?"
"Whatever," I said. "Put it on and meet me next to the bathrooms in five."
I turned around to walk back into the store, and I heard the ding, ding, ding from the Sedan that told me he'd accepted my offer. The door was hanging open while he slipped the fuzzy red suit over his clothing.
"Emily," he called. I glanced over my shoulder from my spot on the curb. Santa was yelling at me from across a parking lot. "You think next time we hook up, it can be under slightly classier circumstances?"
I laughed and yelled back, "Who needs class? Do what you want, and fuck everyone else."