It's when your pants are around your ankles that life comes and kicks you in the balls. It's been a hypothesis of mine for awhile now, and as I look at her thundercloud eyes, I'm pretty sure that there's now enough evidence for it to become a bona fide scientific theory.
I'm not quite sure what I've done to offend her already, but I'm assuming that it has something to do with my mere presence. But to be fair, I'm the one who should be offended. This is, after all, my party.
"What are you doing here?" she asks me, and even the simple question comes out like poison. I can't help but be angry that she beat me to the question. What right does she have to demand answers from me? She's the one who's not invited.
"Well, I happen to live in Rapids..." I trailed off. I try not to sound patronizing. I know she'd hate that, and I don't want to get her hackles any further up.
"I know that," she answers with an eyeroll. That's a development. Arched eyebrows and icy silences used to be her weapons of choice. But then, an exchange of words in general is a development for her. She used to just pretend that I didn't exist. It's been seven years and maybe she's grown up a little. But judging from the obsidian black of her eyes, those intervening years haven't changed anything between us.
"But what are you doing here?" she throws her hands up and gestures at the cramped and crowded room.
"Well, considering that this is my apartment, I should really be the one asking that question." I try not to derive too much pleasure from the darkening of her face. I can't tell if she's embarrassed, angry, or annoyed, but she is distinctly discomfited, and it makes me unfairly happy.
She surprises me though, when she lifts her chin defiantly and gives me an answer: "I went to school with the bride. Or bride-to-be, whatever. We were roommates one year."
Figuring that one straight answer deserves another, I offer my own explanation: "I'm the Best Man." I cut it short at that though. I don't want to explain that I'm the Best Man because Andy is my ex-girlfriend's brother. There's still a sting I can't quite hide when I add that prefix to the title of girlfriend, and I know that my apparent pain wouldn't stop her from smiling in derisive pleasure.
"How did you get the unfortunate duty of hosting this party?" The question almost comes out as civil, but I can't truly believe that she cares.
"How did you get the invitation?" I know it's rude, but the question keeps nagging in my mind. Something about seeing her in my house, where I spend every day of my life, keeps this from being real to me, and I need some sort of logic to set the world straight again.
"I'm a bridesmaid," she answers. I'm surprised that my rude question didn't illicit a slap or at least some sort of swear word, but her glower lets me know that it didn't go unnoted.
"I didn't see you at the rehearsal," I shoot back, and notice that we are slipping into a familiar routine of verbal one-up-manship. It's familiar despite the seven years we haven't seen each other, and it reminds me unpleasantly that every time I've got into an argument since meeting her seven years ago, her eyes, pupils dilated in dislike, have always been the ones staring back at me, no matter who I was arguing with.
"I had to work tonight. Besides, I was only asked to be a bridesmaid so that there would be the same number of groomsmen and bridesmaids. It's not like I matter." The last part falls from her lips and the bald statement drops to the worn carpet between us, heavy with anger and bitterness. I notice that she is still too thin. I know it's not my fault, but I still feel responsible somehow.
"Hey, guys!" Andy barrels in, wrapping his arm around my neck drunkenly. "Havin' a good time? You guys introduce yourself to 'chother?"
"Yeah, we've met," I answer, but the sarcasm is lost on him. "C'mon, buddy, we better take care of you. Tomorrow's a big day." I shoot a quick look under Andy's arm as I lead the two of us away from her, and the look she gives me scorches my cowardly, retreating back.
Dirty cups and half-empty beer cans litter my apartment, but more than that makes my home feel foreign. Now that she has been here, none of it seems like it's mine anymore. She's invaded my home turf, and everything's been compromised.
I begin cleaning up, and that makes me feel a little better. It's been a long day, and tomorrow promises to be even longer, but I need this time to reorganize. Still, I can't shake that nagging feeling that my home is no longer mine, and I hate the fact that she still has that control over me.
I pick up a champagne glass, the dregs of the alcohol flat, and notice the kiss of lipstick around the rim. Did she drink from this glass? The question comes unbidden, and I try to shake my head clear of it, but it won't go away.
Angie and I bought those glasses on our first anniversary. We came back to my apartment to celebrate, and Angie was shocked to discover that I didn't have proper champagne glasses. I was a young college student; I thought that red plastic cups were what you were supposed to drink from. But Angie told me that there was a different glass for every liquor and dragged me to the nearest Target to buy these cheap, but apparently proper, champagne glasses.
I hated to think that she could have possibly drunk from something that tied so intimately to my life with Angela. She and Angie were from two separate parts of my life, and I never wanted those lives to overlap.
I sighed when I realized that they didn't want to overlap either, because neither wanted anything to do with me. I wondered if they talked to each other at the party tonight. Did they know that they had something in common? Hatred of me. Did she still hate me, seven years later? And if she did, was that really my fault?
I tried to remember the first time I met her. We were from a small town, so I couldn't remember a time when I didn't know her name. But the first time we actually met, and I placed a face with that name I had always known, when had that been?
My mind scanned back through the years, and finally settled on one distant memory. It was the day before my eighteenth birthday, and my friends had decided to have a party for me. Well, it was more of an excuse to get together to play video games for two days straight, but still, it was in honor of me, and I felt entitled.
At that time, Jake and Hannah had only been dating for a couple weeks, so I couldn't help the annoyance that shot through my bloodstream when I saw Hannah walk downstairs into verifiable Boy-land. She shot one look at Jake, and I knew that my best friend was no longer mine that day.
And then, trailing behind Hannah, she walked in. I had seen her around school before, but I wasn't quite sure who she was. Both she and Hannah were in the grade beneath us, and I didn't give much bother about them. Still, their presence upset the balance of pure testosterone that we had going here, and it bothered me.
"What the hell?" Jake groaned as I killed his character in a particularly brutal fashion.
"Maybe you should actually be paying attention," I answered, and I couldn't quite keep a resentful edge from my voice.
Yeah, I decided. That had been the first time I had ever really met her. And after that, she seemed to be everywhere. It turned out that she was in my gym class, and I had the misfortune of being partnered with her for badminton.
At first, being her partner wasn't so bad. I'll admit, when I heard our names called together, I gave an inward groan, but that was to be expected. I mean, who would have thought that the fat girl was actually good at badminton?
After we won our first two matches, I considered cutting the girl some slack. Sure, she had ruined my birthday party, but was it really her fault that her best friend and my best friend were dating? And for being a good twenty-five pounds overweight, this girl could move. I would never say it out loud, but she was actually the better of the two of us.
That was probably the high point of our relationship. We could almost be considered acquaintances. We had... technically... been at the same party on a Friday night and were partners in gym class. I wasn't going to be asking for her number anytime soon, but I might have at least smiled at her in the hallway every once in awhile.
But apparently our handful of time spent together meant something more to her. I noticed some subtle changes during gym class - a touch on the arm that wasn't quite necessary, a joke that crossed the boundary between casual acquaintances and friends - but it wasn't until Petey made a comment that I realized I might have a problem.
I walked into Jake's house without even knocking, and continued down into the basement, the level of the house Jake lived on. On days that I was supposed to be with my dad, I usually went to stay with Jake, and Petey would do anything not to go home to his parents, so the three of us formed our own demented sort of family.
"Heeey, look who it is," Petey crowed. Figuring that it was his obnoxious form of a greeting, I ignored him and threw myself on the couch, grabbing the nearest controller. But today he actually had something to say.
"I'm surprised you showed up today," he continued.
"Yeah, where else would I go?" I answered distractedly, more preoccupied with the zombie I was trying to kill while shoving a piece of cold pizza in my mouth. Jake even offered a glance in my direction. I was surprised he was here. It might have been his house, but I was there more often than he was lately. Usually he was off somewhere with Hannah.
"Oh, I don't know..." Petey drawled, obviously leading me on. "I thought maybe you'd be a little busy with... your badminton partner?"
"Shit!" The zombie got the upper hand on me, and now I was dead. I turned to glare at Petey, who was giving me the most infuriating smirk. "What?" I asked exasperatedly, and gave a sigh when Petey just continued to smirk. "Why would I be with her?" I muttered, returning to my video game.
"Oh, I dunno. The two of you looked pretty cozy from across the gym," he goaded me. I rolled my eyes.
"You might be a guy, Petey, but the way you talk sometimes, I swear you have ovaries."
That shut him up for the rest of the night, but I could still hear his taunting voice in my head.
After that, I was hyper-aware of her during gym class. Behaviors that I had written off as being friendly now seemed pitifully obvious. She would tease me, laugh too loudly at my jokes, and try way too hard to be cute. If she had been anyone else, I might have been flattered, but considering that it was her, it was just embarrassing. Every time that her laughter echoed through the gym, I cringed to think how it must look. Here I was, a senior, with an overweight and overeager junior trailing behind me, shining with adoration.
I had to do something to discourage her. But what could I do that would put her off, but not offend her? I mean, we were the favorites to win the badminton championship and I'd hate to ruin that, and besides, our friends were dating, and the two of us most likely had to spend many more weekends in each others' forced company.
I tried not to encourage her any further. Conversation was one-sided, and jokes fell flat. But one day, after being subjected to a nauseating display of Jake and Hannah's affection, my patience was wearing thin, and she was grating particularly hard on my nerves.
We had just won another match and were waiting for a different pair to finish so we could play them, and I hurried over to watch Petey play before she could corner me into any sort of conversation.
"Hiding?" he asked me, watching the birdie sail into his square and not even pretending to try to return it. His partner glared at his back, but I was too annoyed to see the humor in the situation.
"Ugh, she's so effing retarded!" I responded without a thought. I wasn't eloquent under the best of conditions, and today had been particularly trying. "I mean, does she honestly think I'm interested? In her of all people? Who would be interested in her? She's not worth anyone's time."
Petey laughed, picking up his birdie and serving it incorrectly. As I watched him, I caught the glare of his partner, now directed at me. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that Petey's partner was one of her best friends.
I dreaded going to gym the next day. I even considered skipping the class; Jake lived right by the school. But facing her was inevitable, and it couldn't be that bad really, and I was still pretending that I was the one who was leading us to the Seventh Hour Badminton Championship victory. Besides, I didn't know for sure if her friend told her what I said.
I was quickly proven wrong on all counts. Her usually beaming face was stormy when I left the locker room, and when we grabbed our equipment, she didn't even acknowledge me. But it wasn't until we began our first match that I felt the full extent of her anger. The first couple serves went by smoothly, until the birdie was sailing her way. It was an easy shot, ideal for one of those killer spikes she was great at, but she didn't even attempt to hit it. It landed at her feet, and when I gave her an incredulous look, she just met my furious gaze with a cool stare.
"Why didn't you hit that?" I demanded.
"Oh, I'm sorry. It must be that I'm too retarded to play."
Things deteriorated quickly from that point on. Although she did finally consent to play, our partnership was strained, and we argued over who missed which shot and who was responsible for our eventual loss of the championship. By the end of the three week badminton unit, we couldn't start a conversation that didn't end in an argument.
Had that been the extent of our contact, the end of the unit would have been the end of our contention. Unfortunately, Jake and Hannah now insisted on spending every Friday night at his house, and she was part of that package deal.
We usually tried to deny the other's existence, but sometimes she would make a searing comment in my direction that always ended up in a shouting match. Both Jake and Hannah tried to reason with me, tried to make me agree not to provoke her anymore. They kept telling me that I had hurt her feelings, and if I just apologized, everything would be better. But at that point, too many fires had been started. Both of us had gone out of our way to injure the other in some way, and we were both too stubborn to move beyond our disagreements.
It was a couple months after the arguing began that I started to notice the weight loss. I tried to rationalize it - maybe she was finally growing into her too tall frame, maybe her family had a history of over-active thyroids - but I didn't assign any of the blame to myself. It wasn't like I had called her fat or anything. And even if it was my rejection of her that triggered the weight loss, how was I supposed to explain that it wasn't because she was fat that I didn't want her? She was just an annoying, stubborn, overbearing, argumentative, frustrating junior. In comparison to that, the fact that she was twenty-five pounds overweight was of minimal concern.
The months passed with more petty arguments and her ever-thinning waistline until it was finally graduation. I stayed in town long enough to get my diploma and smile for the mandatory picture. I thanked God that she wasn't at the ceremony, and I never saw her accusatory stare again.
"You look terrible."
"Thanks," I respond, pinching the bridge of my nose. Hearing that from Andy seems particularly damning, as if Andy's judgment is Angie's as well. I know that he is right though. I stayed up late cleaning my apartment, and when I finally got to bed at three in the morning, I tossed and turned until four-thirty, when I fell into a shallow sleep where I dreamed of being burned by glaring eyes.
I know Andy thinks that I am still messed up over the break-up, but Angie is only half of my worries. Truly, the fact that I will be sharing air space with Angie only really entered my mind on the way to the church, when I caught a glimpse of my sunken eyes in the rearview mirror.
One glance at me, disheveled and sleep-deprived, and she, like everyone else, will feel bad for me. That won't stop her from flaunting her new, more goal-oriented boyfriend ultimately, but any sort of recognition of me is desired at this point.
Before the skeleton in my closet turned up last night, looking collected and unaffected by Angie's new guy had been my main priority for today, but I had since given up any sort of hope for that.
"Honestly, man, did you even sleep last night?" Andy pursues, and his tenacity annoys me. I don't need a constant reaffirmation that I look like shit.
"For, like, two hours. Anyway, this day isn't about me," I deflect. "And if anyone should look terrible, it's you. Can you even remember last night?"
"Vaguely," he answers with a rakish smile. Denise is a lucky woman, I mentally scoff.
"Yeah, well, you better pretend you do, because yesterday was the rehearsal for right now."
"Good pep talk, bro. You're the best Best Man out there."
"Are you sure you're not still drunk?" Andy laughs like I'm joking around, but I'm only half-teasing. The way he casually called me "bro" has me shaken. Bro? Not likely anymore. I know the word has no real weight behind it, but it still reminds me of what I'm not. My tuxedo begins to feel even tighter and more uncomfortable.
"I'm going to go..." I trail off, without a real excuse for leaving.
Andy gives me a sympathetic smile that makes me want to kick myself. "Just be back in the next ten minutes," he stipulates. I nod and exit. I don't really have anywhere to go, and the whole wedding party has been confined to two rooms on separate ends of the church. I'm thankful for that, it means that I won't accidently cross with paths with either of the females I'm avoiding.
Although Angie is enough to make me feel miserable, it isn't her or her new boyfriend that I dread seeing today.
All night, I could feel the stare of cold black eyes on me, eyes that could burn with ice. I suddenly knew the reason I felt that plunge of guilt every time I was on the receiving end of a glare, or felt a shiver every time I saw a too-thin person. I had done my best to bury that aspect of my life into the deepest recesses of my mind, but my base instincts kept digging her memory back up until, yesterday, she materialized before my disbelieving eyes.
I spent hours last night thinking about my senior year of high school, the first time I ever consciously or voluntarily conjured up that year of my life. I didn't know where Petey or Jake were now, and I wondered if Jake and Hannah ended up married or were at least still together somewhere. Petey had always talked about joining the Air Force, and I wondered if he ever went through with that plan. He didn't seem to belong in the military, it was too regimented and harsh for him.
But more than anything, I wondered why I was so determined to forget about high school. Whenever the subject came up, I always used my broken family as my excuse for being so tight-lipped. But my reaction to her last night proved that the real reason I never thought about my adolescence was more than divorce and the instability of my home life.
Maybe the reason wasn't because I was damaged but because of the damage I inflicted on someone else.
When I was eighteen I told myself that her change wasn't my problem and, more importantly, that it wasn't my fault. Obviously there was something wrong with a girl that would change from the friendly fat girl into the bitchy anorexic chick. And whatever was wrong with her had more to do with a chemical imbalance in her brain than with an eighteen year old who called her retarded.
But seven years later, I couldn't deny that the episode had had an effect on me as much as it had on her weight. And the mere fact that her presence could shake me so entirely proved that she still had a hold on me.
If I truly wanted to rid myself of all ties to my past, I had to come to terms with her. Which is why I planned to talk to her today, have a conversation that was actually civil, make the apology my eighteen year old self had been incapable of, and then move on with my future.
And for some reason, my success with her tied to my success with Angie in my mind. Maybe if she forgave me, then Angie would want me again. It was irrational, but still, it was there...
"Oh, there you are," Andy announced himself brusquely. "You better come here, we are getting ready to leave."
He ducked back into the room, and I reluctantly left the bench I had taken refuge on. Nothing could get me ready to face the next hour I had to spend looking across the aisle at the woman I loved and the woman I had ruined beside her.
I had a headache. I never knew that avoiding someone's glance could be so exhausting. The service had been excruciating, and I had never paid so much attention to a priest before. Not that I listened to much of what he said, it just looked like I was listening for once in my life.
The bass-heavy music pounding through the reception hall was definitely not helping matters. Besides cleaving my skull even further in half, it also provided a nice excuse for Angie and her new boyfriend to rub themselves all over each other.
I glowered from the corner. I wasn't sure which was more annoying: the fact that Angie hadn't looked at me once today, or the fact that I knew that she hadn't. It was conclusive proof that she had absolutely one-hundred percent moved on and that I had absolutely one-hundred percent not.
I resisted the urge to groan when a slow song started. Considering how obscene they had been during a fast song, I didn't want to know what a slow song would inspire. I had to escape.
I escaped out the back door of the reception hall. It had rained sometime during the dinner, and I thought irrationally that rain was supposed to bring good luck, according to the Irish. But I wasn't Irish, so I didn't even have that working in my favor. In fact, judging by my last encounter, the opposite was probably true.
I heard the gritty shoescrape of someone shifting their weight nearby. I looked to the left and saw someone leaning against the overfull dumpster. A cloud of smoke explained their motive for hiding in the back of a dark alley. I could tell just by looking at the profile that it was her. After all, who else could be that thin?
"You know, the word on the street is that smoking is bad for you. Something about nicotine and addiction," I say, approaching her. My tone is light and playful, and it feels unusual considering that I'm talking to her.
She blows a cloud of smoke in my face. "No kidding."
A silence settles in between us. What do you say to someone you had never wanted to see again?
This is so my life. On one hand, my girlfriend and her boyfriend. On the other, the girl who has hated me since we were in high school. I can't go back inside the reception hall without having my heart ripped out and danced on top of by my girlfriend and the man who replaced me. But I can't hide out here either, because the girl who hates me after I ruined her in high school is hiding out here too.
"Soo.." I trail. I don't know why I feel the need to say something. She obviously doesn't want to talk to me. I cast a sidelong glance at her, and she is looking disinterestedly at the ground. She always was good at looking like she didn't give a damn about anything. Well, for most of the time that I knew her. There was a time when we were just badminton partners when she would look actively engaged in her life. But it was so long ago, that I can hardly remember how she looked then.
"Why are you hiding out here?" I ask, trying to sound as detached as she looked. I don't think it had quite the same effect. She had perfected indifference to an art form.
Her answer is a long draw on her cigarette. Smoking is the perfect touch to her whole facade, I decide. Nothing says "I really don't give a shit" quite like a cigarette.
Her silence is beginning to frustrate me. Any normal person would respond to my question with one of their own. Or at least give an adequate reply. All I get from her is second-hand smoke.
I mean, really, it's been seven years. Who holds a grudge for that long? And over something so minor!
"Hey, can't we at least have a civil conversation?" I ask out of desperation. We've always tiptoed around the fact that we hated each other when we were younger, but now I feel the need to scream out about it. The fact that she doesn't even offer me a reply does not help my frustration.
"So, how's anorexia working out for you? Using cigarettes to keep the edge off, huh?" I bite out. Okay, so maybe that wasn't the best way to start the conversation in which I was going to apologize to her, but I needed to get her attention somehow.
"Do you not know what 'civil' means or something? Because the last time I checked, insulting someone was not part of civil conversation," she answers heatedly. At least I had managed to crack through her cool disposition. Sure, she was pissed off, but she was talking, and that qualified as progress in my book.
"Well, at least I was trying! Not responding to someone's questions isn't exactly civil either!" I accuse her in return. We are passing the blame back and forth again, just like we were still high school students. So maybe this conversation isn't going exactly as planned. Old habits die hard, give a guy a break.
"Hey, I never said anything about wanting to be civil to you. That was all your idea," she answers coolly, dropping the stub of her cigarette to the ground and blotting it to ash beneath her heel. She is trying to act unaffected by our conversation again, but the vehement twist of her ankle gives away her anger.
I heave a sigh that could move a mountain and try to start over. "Look, I didn't come out here to start a fight with you."
"Well, I just came out here to have a smoke, and now that I've done that, I think I'll leave," she says, and pushes herself off of the dumpster.
"Wait!" I yell before I can think about what I'm saying. She turns and quirks an eyebrow at me, curious about why I was so eager to get her to talk to me. Shit. What did I want to tell her?
"When did you lose all of your weight?" I ask. I try not to sound so weak, but my voice warbles, and my confidence is not helped by her confused and wary expression.
"In my junior year of high school," she answers slowly, and then cautiously adds, "Why?"
"Why did you lose the weight?" I continue, ignoring her question, because the answer turns my stomach over and burns my throat.
"Because I was overweight," she answers simply, still wary about my interest. Her answer relaxes my whole body, and I can feel the relief run through my bloodstream. She is still confused, however, and the change in my disposition only furthers her confusion. "Why?" she demands, her voice dropping and her eyes blackening.
I almost laugh with the relief. Suddenly, the answer to her question isn't nearly as daunting as it was only the minute before. "Because I thought you lost the weight because of me," I tell her, and I can't quite hold back a short laugh. She doesn't see the humor in the situation however, if her narrowed eyes are anything to judge by.
"I cannot... I cannot believe you!" I she finally manages to say, her words choked by anger and disbelief. I begin to feel some of my relief draining out of my body and running off of my fingertips.
This time it's my turn to be confused. "What?"
"You... that's what you came out here to ask me? If my... anorexia-" She spits the word at me, "-is your fault? Oh, you absolute pig!" She shreds the air with her shrill laughter.
I'm still confused. "What? I was only trying to make right by you, how can you fault me for that?" I feel the familiar frustration settle into my bones, much to my chagrin. It wasn't supposed to feel like this once I had made my peace with her, so what went wrong?
"Oh, no, you weren't trying to make right by me, you were trying to make sure that you weren't to blame for breaking me when I was a young and vulnerable girl with a crush!" She laughs shrilly again, and the sound of it makes me shiver.
"Look... we were only eighteen..." I start to equivocate, but it comes across like an excuse, and I'm suddenly not so sure of myself. I thought she just said that it wasn't my fault?
She scoffed. "I was technically seventeen, but that doesn't really matter. I was young, and I had the misfortune of developing a crush on a completely spineless, cruel eighteen year old who didn't even have the courage or decency to let me down to my face."
"It was just a crush..." I say feebly, the weight of blame starting to fall around me and smother my words.
"It was just a crush, and you were just joking around when you said that I wasn't worth anyone's time, but it changed me forever, don't you get that? It took me a year before I could even look at myself in the mirror! I still can't look at a picture without criticizing myself. It took me three years until I could allow myself to be vulnerable to another person. It wasn't until I was a sophomore in college that I could even express interest in a man without feeling embarrassed. And it took another year before I could believe that I was actually worth someone's time, that I actually deserved to be loved! So, no, I don't blame you for my eating disorder, but I do blame you for completely debilitating me, for taking everything that was innocent and pure and naive in me and completely destroying it!"
"Please," I choke out through my guilt, "Forgive me."
She gave a short, derisive laugh. "No. You don't want my forgiveness. You just don't want to feel bad about yourself. Well, you know what, Chris? I had to live with this for seven years. It's your turn now."
She gives me one last, hard stare and shakes her head in disgust. "Pathetic," she whispers and then turns on her heel, leaving me alone in the back of a dark alley next to an overfull dumpster with nothing but seven years of guilt for company.
A/N- The old story formatting is back! I can put line breaks in my stories again! This is making me disproportionately happy! Anyway, I wrote this story a couple of years ago, but I have always liked it and thought I would share it with you all. I actually posted this under a different username (which I can no longer remember), so if it sounds familiar, I swear this isn't plagiarism, it's really my story. But I don't think it got many hits originally, so this is probably new to most of you. Hope you enjoyed it!