There's this theory I have: your entire day can be defined by its beginning. Your morning routine is a gigantic part of how you will feel when the sun finally sets. Some people choose to watch ladies get drunk on wine on television. Some people don't face the morning at all, choosing instead to wake up past noon. Some have no choice but to wake up when it's still dark out and trudge into the world.
I do none of these things.
Admittedly, I am a tad limited due to lack of cable television and flexible work hours. Sometime between nine and ten in the morning I turn off my alarm a couple minutes before it's due to sound. I've always been competitive, fighting tiny battles between people and inanimate objects with equal vigour. This current fight, me versus the alarm clock, has been going on for twelve years. I never use the snooze button; I never move it to the other side of the room to combat my natural laziness. There's no winning or losing, just the battle.
It might be better that way, actually. Winning or losing isn't the goal in life. You're already alive, you've won. It's the fight that drives you. It's the fight that proves you're living a worthwhile life.
You fight to catch the bus on time. You fight to become a better person. You fight yourself. But mostly, you fight because losing really sucks.
I used to be worse. Much worse. The daily battles I relish now were made redundant by caring parents and teachers. There has to be a possibility of losing to make the fight work. So, I channelled all that competitiveness into school work and extra-curricular activities. I had to be the best. When I look back now, I hate the girl that I was.
She wasn't a prom queen or a cheerleader. She was a nerd. She spent years wrapped up in drama club, band and science. And if those were to be her kingdoms, she wanted to rule them. She clawed her way to the top, only remaining friends with those with equal ambition. She made mistakes.
This girl, as she was, lasted approximately three days into her first year of university when she met Adam McNaughton. He lived three floors below and several social strata above her. But somehow, they became something more. So, she became Adam's girlfriend.
She fought to be the best girlfriend she could be. She wore the right clothes, did the right things, and followed all the motions. She gave him all her firsts…and for awhile, it worked. Then he met someone new, someone better, someone worth fighting for, and she was discarded. Thrown out like yesterdays newspaper, headlines no longer relevant. There had been tears, curses, and mistakes. The weird and generally horrible thing about living in the same building as your ex is that they're everywhere. Never enough distance to truly recover. The old me, that girl, didn't take it that well.
It's really difficult to determine when that girl became me. A person who knows to stick with tiny battles, where your heart is never on the line and getting hurt is unlikely. It could have been one of the many times she ran into Adam and his new love in the stairwell during the rest of that lonely freshman year. Perhaps, it was the first time she failed an exam in a haze of overconfidence. It could have been her nineteenth birthday, when she discovered alcohol and eager boys do not mix well.
It's a moot point, really. She became me.
I'm a statistician. It wasn't my original intention, but it suits me. I give numbers to life events. I can evaluate risk. What is the probability of getting hit by a car at a certain intersection as a pedestrian in downtown Toronto between noon and three p.m.? What is the likelihood of developing cancer if you use a certain product? Risk is perfectly quantifiable. You can always trust math. If you trust the math, you don't get hurt.
So, if you had asked me the statistical probability of Gordon Lu showing up at my apartment door in the middle of a July heat wave: I would have said nil. But that's the thing about probability, outlying events can occur.
So why was his sudden presence in my life so unlikely? Gordon Lu had spent four years trying to woo my best friend, Christina. Unsuccessfully, I might add. From the first day of grade nine to graduation night, he had persisted. If he hadn't been such an idiotic jerk, he might've succeeded. And, like most people from my past, I had expected him to stay there. Now he's standing in my doorway, baseball cap on and a serious expression on his face, saying the last thing I ever expected.
"It's about Wendell."
"What?" I ask, not certain of my hearing. Seven years of blissful ignorance being blown to pieces with three little words.
"Wendell, he's in trouble."
"Not my problem." I reply, arms crossed and head shaking. I don't need this, I really don't. I just want to sit in front of my fan, let the breeze drift over me, and escape the world for a few hours. I don't want to deal with past mistakes. Fighting the past is not a battle I can win, especially this one.
"Yes, it is." He insists and I can't help but snort. I lean against the wooden frame and try to stop picturing an anvil falling on Gordon's head.
"No, it isn't. He said, 'I like you'. I blurted, 'Oh, shit'. Since then, he's been exclusively your problem." I reply brusquely, trying to remain as short and concise as possible. It hadn't been my finest moment and I didn't feel like reliving it at the moment. But if it will get this idiot out of my building, I'm willing to drudge up the dirt. Willing, but not thrilled about it as the pangs of regret start to seep into my brain at even the slightest mention of the incident.
"Tess…he needs you." Serious expression? Check. Puppy dog eyes? Check. Worthy cause? Maybe. Gordon is bringing out the big guns…Fuck.
"He lost that right." I retort bitingly. I'm not going to play whatever game Gordon's playing right now. Some twisted version of 'Tess McAndrews: this is your life' is not on my to-do list. A nice cold-shower, yes. A trip to the bank in the near future, sure. Dealing with Wendell, hell to the no. "When he decided just being my friend wasn't enough for him."
"He didn't just decide that, it just happened."
"Well, however it happened, it sucked and I don't exactly feel like strolling down memory lane." I make a move to slam the door but am blocked by a boot-clad foot. What kind of idiot wears boots in 40 degree weather? I glare at the offending limb before easing the door back into an open position.
"I'll pay you." He insists, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.
"Are you nuts!?" Rhetorical question, really. He's counting bills now, and I can't help but feel a tad offended.
"Absolutely. Fifty bucks." He holds out the cash, waving it in my face.
"To do what? Fuck him? I'm not a hooker if you haven't noticed." My tone is seeped in disgust, both at his intention and how little he believes my dignity is worth. My hands have made their way to my hips and I glare at the offending money. He reaches into his wallet again, pulling out even more cash and counts it out in front of me.
"A hundred bucks to talk to him. Two hours of your time." A hundred bucks is a lot of money when you're still paying back student loans. A hundred bucks is a new pair of really nice shoes. I do love shoes and talking is easy, right? You can always use new shoes. He smirks at my pensive expression. Damn it, he knows I want the money.
"I'm not a therapist." I reply meekly, trying to find any excuse to prolong what now seems inevitable. He's not going to give up and I'm going to capitulate out of weakness…and in the name of really nice shoes.
"No, you're something much better. You were friends once, really good friends. You know all his weird neuroses, his history. You're the best chance we've got. He's just…" Gordon adjusts his baseball cap, tugging on it roughly. "He's just in a really bad place right now. I don't know what else to try. Please, Tess."
"How bad?" I ask with a sigh. I shouldn't care, but I do. He had never been the most emotionally stable back then, and I shudder to think how much worse it could have gotten.
"Bad. Toaster in the bathtub bad." Shit.
"He didn't actually try to…" I struggle with the words, not wanting to vocalize the subtext.
"Exactly. Now, are you coming?" He says gruffly, pointing towards the stairwell.
"Now?" I ask, hoping for some sort of reprieve. Time to collect myself.
"Yes, now." Guess not. I sigh, stepping back into my apartment.
"Fine." I grab my favourite heeled boots from the shoe rack, stuffing my bare feet in them. I grab my keys from their perch on the hall mirror and step out into the hallway. The impatient man taps his foot fervently, the beat echoing down the hall, as I lock the door.
I follow him hesitantly, down to the vestibule, out into the oppressive heat and into his shiny, red convertible. Oh, the excess of those born into privilege. The hot leather sticks to my bare thighs; my dress instantly dampens with sweat. My hair, probably already a frizzy mess, feels scratchy against my bare shoulders. He turns on the car, cranking the air conditioning, waiting for the traffic to clear before heading out on the open road. He turns up the volume on the center console. The pulsating beats of loud rock music do nothing to calm my frazzled nerves.
I watch the signs on the highway, exit numbers increasing as we head towards the city. As the surrounding farms and fields became skyscrapers, an hour passes. We reach the concrete parking garage under an apartment building south of Bloor and he pulls into a spot. The music, my companion for the journey, stops, but we both make no move to get out.
He turns towards me with questioning words. "You ready?"
"No." It's a blunt reply, but honest. I'd rather sit here in silence. Silent and safe.
"Too bad. It's time." He gets out of the car, and I follow him once more. We don't talk, the only thing we ever had in common is awaiting me upstairs. We end up in a well-furnished apartment, clearly belonging to people of the male variety. A modern kitchen and large electronic toys glimmer in the late afternoon sun coming through the balcony window. He stops beside a door, and I wipe my sweaty hands down the side of my dress, the bottom of it sticking to my thighs. I gulp as he smirks back at me, and I suddenly feel very trapped.
Before I have any chance of running, he opens the door. Quickly, he shoves me backwards through the doorway, slamming it behind me. Checkmate.
I turn slowly on my toes, from facing the closed door to a small room overpopulated with a large double bed, covered in plaid. My eyes move up from the end, a pair of hairy feet in my field of vision, up past the boxer clad man to his familiar face. Well, slowly up, I'm a red-blooded female after all, and someone had grown up good. The chubby, short-ish boy I remember has been replaced by a, not chiselled but, slender and toned man. All his lean muscles, in all the right places, make me gulp audibly. The surprise on his face, now bearded, is not unexpected. However, this is not the ennui I expected to encounter. I have a small inkling that this is not a depressed man in front of me. I've been tricked, plain and simple…Damn.
"Tess!?" He asks, clearly uncomfortable with my sudden appearance. The way he says my name sends shivers down my spine which just leaves me even more confused about this whole situation. He's given me the same once or twice over, analysing eyes noting my changes. I've always been tall for a girl, so my dress comes up just a little high. My hair, which I finally grew out after an unfortunate experience with bangs, falls in big, red waves hitting my lower back. However, considering the humidity, it's probably looking more like a vertical birds nest at the moment. My makeup from this morning's excursion to the grocery store is probably fairing no better against the heat, melting a little in a racoon pattern. Not the greatest look for seeing the suddenly attractive man I rejected at sixteen. I lean against the closed door, head raised and eyes closed. I pray to the gods of awkwardness to save me, but no white light surrounds me. Double damn.
I take a deep breath and open my eyes, looking at him straight on. "Hey Wendell. How's it going?"
"Well, it's a tad strange at the moment." He replies gruffly in his tenor voice. I nod, the awkward energy pulsating through my body. My fingers tap out some random rhythm on the wood door. I should say something, I know I should.
"Right. Umm…" I finally stammer out, looking back at the door.
"Gordon?" He asks with a sigh, coming to the obvious conclusion. His hand moves to his temple, rubbing in small concentric circles as if trying to remove the illusion that is me. No such luck mister.
"Yeah…" I reply, with a nod. "He maybe, sort of, kind of implied that you were in some sort of emotional distress."
"Do I look emotionally distressed?" I look back at him, fighting to keep my gaze from meandering downwards once more. I had my look. I had my chance. Now I just have to remind myself of that and keep focusing on his face. And ignore the beard, that wonderful, full, dark-blonde beard. Why do I have to love beards on men? Why couldn't I have a normal fixation on things like abs or shoulders? But no, I have to find beards sexy as hell on a man. Damn lumberjack complex.
"Not as such," I respond to his risen eyebrow. I move to smooth out the parts of my dress plastered to my thighs, trying to maintain some form of decorum, "But I'm getting paid."
"Ouch," he puts a hand over his bare chest. He smiles and my sweaty grip on the hem of my dress gets just a bit tighter. "You have to be paid to see me?"
"I was told it was an emergency. Toasters and bathtubs were supposedly involved. Also, student debt is a bitch." He's still smiling, and it's unnerving. He shouldn't be smiling; I'm the wicked bitch of the past come to disrupt his happy life. He lets a couple beats pass before responding.
"So are you." There we go. That's more like it. I can handle this status quo. I'm a bitch and he knows it.
"I know." I say flatly. He seems slightly surprised by my admittance, sitting up against the pillows on the bed. Don't look down. Eyes up, stay focused.
"Do you?" It sounds slightly sarcastic, but it's not the worst reaction I could have expected.
"It's been awhile, but I'm pretty sure that I was super bitchy."
"I might have deserved it." He says softly.
"You really didn't." I sit down on the edge of the bed, near his feet. My hands clasp together, my feet now taking up the awkward beat. The sound of their soft tapping grounds me. I can feel the cool breeze from the window air conditioner, fighting a losing battle with the heat. I'm pointedly ignoring his unclothed state, looking steadfastly at the ornate rug, obviously a hand-me-down from some family member, covering the hardwood. "I should've handled it better."
"We both should've. I might have been a bit…eager."
"That's one word for it." I reply with a snort. It's a bratty thing to do, but I've never been one to go with the mature reaction.
"What did you call it?"
"Stalk-y?" I reply, looking back at him. For two months, he had been everywhere. I had run, he had followed. I went down two floors and across the school before my first class; he would pop up at my locker. If anything, I really understand how mice feel when cornered by a cat on the prowl. Doomed.
"Great." He sighs, running a hand through his long curly blonde hair. My gaze falls to his forearm, all sinewy and golden. He has a tan. He never used to go outside, much less get a tan. And he's all hairy, and there's that little trail going down from his naval to…Shit. "So how long did he buy you for?"
"Two hours." I say, grateful he interrupted my gawking.
"Classy." He deadpans and I smile. We both know better.
"You know me, a lady through and through." I resist the urge to scratch the little itch working its way underneath my leg.
"I've seen you shotgun a pizza."
"And it was freaking impressive."
"It really was." He replies with a smile, seeming to forget who I really am for a second. It's a real smile, and for one second he looks like the Wendell I knew. It passes quickly though, and the calm indifference once again takes hold. I look at the closed door, cursing my jailer.
"I'm locked in for the duration, right?" I query.
"Oh yeah. We're trapped." He takes a swig of water from the bottle on his bedside table. Obviously, he's well prepared for this sweat-box of a room. I look down at my shoes, something that girl, the girl he knew, would never have worn. She wore running shoes and steel-toed boots. She had something to prove and an overdeveloped sense of suburban angst. I have high-heeled leather boots sticking to my calves, pretty and functional. I guess I still have something to prove, even now when I'm all grown up. The things I do to make my butt look better.
"So, how's life?" I finally ask in genuine curiosity. I may have walked away in the real world, but he had covered the online portion. After the incident, he had promptly cut off all social media contact, deleting me from his life with ruthless determination. Apart from occasional updates from Christina, I would have no idea if he was even still alive. Alive and smoking hot, something which I should've been informed of.
"Not bad. I'm working at CIBC…in their IT department." He replies sheepishly, as if he's ashamed of his current success. A small smile has found itself creeping into the corner of his mouth, instantly making his entire face look younger.
"Wow, that's great." I respond with a large smile, keeping my eyes trained on him from the neck up only. He scratches his head again, an old nervous tic left-over from years past.
"I know. I mean the bank thing, not the most fun in the world. I know, databases and programming, not your thing. But it pays great, and I'm getting some really good experience…"
"It really does sound amazing. I'm happy for you." I cut him off. He had always leaned towards self-deprecating and to see him genuinely care about his work…Well, it's really nice.
"Really." I state with a nod and a quick smile.
"So what about you?" He asks with a wave of the hand. I look back at the floor, trying to find the best description for my job.
"Actuarial position at a marketing consultation firm. I took a stats course in second year and switched majors upon realizing science sucks. I worked there for a couple co-op work terms and was offered a job straight after graduation."
"People pay you to do math?" He enquires incredulously, the surprise on his face transforming him from cold to warm. It's not unexpected, the shock in his eyes. I was horrible at math in high school. He had always been my tutor until that fateful day. But something in university just clicked in my brain, and I was off to the races.
"I know, I'm shocked too." We laugh together, and for a second it feels like we're sixteen again. Talking about nothing, but enjoying the company. I realize it first, stopping suddenly, and let the awkwardness settle back over us. The tension returns full force, evident in the vein in his neck. I can see it pulsing, only feet away. I can't help it. I mutter, "This is weird."
"No arguments here, I really wish I was wearing pants." He just had to mention the pants thing. Don't. Look. Down…Fuck. I did it. I looked down. I'm a horrible, reckless slut monster checking out a man I have no business checking out. I shake my head quickly, trying to fight the heat both inside and out.
"Don't…don't worry about it. You got blindsided…we both did. Besides it's hot out." I mumble out, suddenly finding a scuff mark on the wall behind him very fascinating.
"Mid-40's. Toronto smog. What's not to love? Except me, of course." His voice is even, words unhurried, but still I wince. If words had a physical presence, those last four would have slapped me right on the face. His strangely calm façade contrasts sharply with his harsh accusation.
"Wendell…" I had been hoping that we wouldn't do this. Wouldn't actually talk about the past. I would show up, tell him to stop being a dumbass, and go on my merry way. Even after I figured out the trick, it seemed like this was going to be relatively painless. It had been going so well, relatively speaking. There was no yelling, no throwing things, no blaming each other. His fierce expression says that he apparently has other plans.
"No. You're here. I'm here." He gestures around us, his green eyes piercing into my own. His voice cuts through the humid air, no anger, just…stone cold determination. "I don't know what the fuck possessed Gordo to get you here. Well, I have an idea but that's not my point. Let's do it, let's fight."
"I don't want to fight." I murmur; fists clenched on my lap. My nails dig into my palms, the sharp pain keeping my brain from overloading.
"That's new. You always used to be up to a fight. What happened to the girl who threatened me with a saw when I beat her mark in English in the ninth grade?" Wendell says flippantly, using the past as a weapon. I glare back. I am not that girl anymore. I have worked very hard to not be that girl anymore.
"She grew up. She got hurt. She learned better." I state in a staccato fashion. My legs are now folded beneath me on the bed, feet tucked under my butt, as I turn to achieve a better vantage point.
"She was a force of nature." He says, almost fondly.
"She was a grade A bitch." I spit out.
He smiles, laughingly retorting, "Such an overachiever. Imagine her settling for being a B minus bitch?"
"Oh the people she would have threatened."
"But seriously, what the hell happened to you?" He asks, his hand pointing towards me with a slight wave. "It's like you're broken."
"Thanks." I snort.
"You know what I mean. You're just-"
"Broken?" I repeat the word, both accurate and wrong all at once. It was that girl that the world broken, not me. You can't break something wrapped in bubble wrap that easily and I've spent years wrapping myself in layers upon layers of the stuff. "It's been seven years, Wendell. People change."
"You had fire running through your veins." His eyes capture mine, and it's just too hard to look away. I haven't been looked at like that in so long. I forgot how it felt, to be truly known. He continues, his voice a careful mixture of anger and regret. "And now you have a chance to yell at me for everything I did, but you're just sitting there."
"I thought we agreed. It was mutually horrible."
"Tess…" He sighs, leaning towards me. I shift away.
"Don't." I say quickly, standing up and walking towards the window. I look out upon the city streets below, bathed in hot sunlight. "I didn't come here to fight. I came because you were apparently suicidal and, despite whatever happened, I care."
"You care?" I turn back towards him, his eyebrows raised in query.
"Wendell, I didn't want to be with you. It doesn't mean I didn't…" I stumble over the tense, correcting myself, "I don't care about you."
"I thought you hated me. I told you that I wanted more, and you just froze me out, ignored me 'til graduation. What else was I supposed to think?"
I heave a sigh, moving back to sit on the end of the bed. "It was easier."
"Easier to lose my best friend?" He deadpans and I resist the urge to groan again because we had been. Best friends, I mean. Somehow, we had moved from competing for grades, fighting to be the best to being friends. It hadn't happened overnight. It had taken awhile. He used to joke that befriending me was like taming a wild animal to behave in normal society. We were each others' person. The person you told everything to, as stupid and pointless as things back then were. The five in the morning phone call, when the world is falling apart. The Friday night Dungeons and Dragons game. How can you regain that sort of friendship after something so earth shattering?
"And what if we had just gone back to being friends afterwards?" I inquire in all seriousness. I spent so long questioning that day, if I was being forced to be here anyway, I may as well get an answer finally. "It was never going to be the same."
"We could have tried. I could have told you about the next insane crush I had. You could have talked about what's-his-nose that you dated in first year." I recoil a bit in shock. He had been so thorough in cutting off all contact between us, his knowledge of my failure of a love life is surprising.
"You know about Adam?"
He responds with only one word, really all the explanation necessary, "Christina."
"Of course she did."
"She never told me any real details, just a vague overview. I just liked knowing you were out there, living your life." I smile despite myself. Heck, everything involving Wendell tends to occur despite my best intentions: our friendship, our fight, now. Despite all the anger and the resentment between us, we still like to know each other is okay.
"Yeah, well, it didn't exactly end well." I reply, trying to change the subject away from the disaster that was Adam and the girl that was me. "Turns out I'm not exactly girlfriend material."
"He was a dope."
"And I loved him, because that's what a fool does. They fall in love and then get their heart torn to smithereens."
"He cheat on you?"
"No." I shake my head. I continue softly, "He just found someone he loved more than me."
"I'm sorry." He says sincerely and I can only manage an appreciative nod. There's really nothing else anyone can say about a relationship five years expired.
"Thanks. So what about you?" I inquire, noting the lack of any pictures of the female variety on his bed stand. Not that I care or anything. This newly hunkified Wendell is probably raking in the ladies with a single crook of his finger these days.
"What about me?"
"Any great lost loves?" I elaborate, unwilling to let him off the hook that easily. There's an uncomfortable moment as he sits there with a sour expression on his face. Obviously, I hit a sore spot. Well, he wanted a fight, he asked for a fight, he goaded me into a fight. Be careful what you wish for buddy, because the bitch gene is never fully suppressed. We sit there in silence for a full minute, my raised eyebrow daring him to capitulate.
Eventually, he puts his hands up in false surrender before replying. "A bunch of maybes, none of them really worked out in the end. There was always something missing." Wendell explains in a bored tone, but that was always his default. Bored. He eventually bored of every girl he had a crush on. He was bored in classes all the time, too smart for the teachers to properly teach. The incident happened before he could get bored of me.
"Not your fault." He says while running an errant hand through his beard, scratching at some itch. "If something isn't meant to work out, it doesn't. That's life."
"I'm still sorry, Wendell." I insist, my fist clenching the bed spread beneath me. The feel of the cotton duvet, crushed between my fingers is calming on my frazzled nerves. Silence holds us in its omnipresent grasp once more, locking us into the unknown anew.
He looks at the door suddenly before turning back towards me. He sits up, leaning fully in my direction and I resist the urge to gulp. Muscles, scrunching in a most effective manner on his stomach, make my brain go all haywire. Then that trail of hair just going down, down, down..."Want to know why you're here?" He interrupts my meandering eyes.
"You know?" I enquire, pushing myself to not move a single inch. No more looking down. It should be so easy, resisting him. I did it once before.
"I have a working hypothesis." He states, scratching his beard in a contemplative way. Why the beard? He couldn't have grown another foot or something. Another foot wouldn't have my lady parts all tangled up in hormonal fluxes.
"Gordo and Christina, they hooked up a couple weeks ago."
I gasp in shock. After a few moments more, I feel the urge to reiterate my surprise with a questioning, "No way?"
"Way." He replies, his tone mocking my surprised exclamation. He continues, "I woke up one morning and there they were, eating breakfast like nothing unusual was going on. Just having frittatas on a Sunday morning like it's normal as shit. They've been hanging out pretty constantly ever since. Christina was always a meddler."
"True, she does tend to stick her nose in it. Remember when she spent months trying to get Samantha and Paul to get together?"
He laughs, lost in the memory, "She did everything but lock them in a closet together and wait for them to hook up."
"She tried that, actually." I reply, remembering the fateful New Years Eve party in the middle of our senior year. After months of trying to get them to talk to each other and admit (what Christina perceived to be misplaced lust and the rest of us assumed was hatred) their true feelings, she had taken a drastic measure. One minute Samantha and Paul had been arguing in front of the cannolli`s; the next, yelling was emanating from the closet. After one hour of rather creative swearing and loud kicks (or punches) to the door, even Christina, the constant optimist, had to admit that it wasn't ever going to happen.
"No?" It was Wendell's turn to be shocked. Our two-sided avoidance tactic in that last year of high school had resulted in him being unable to go to the party.
"Yup. Still didn't work." I finish with a giggle.
"I wish I had been there to see it." He says ruefully, effectively ruining my segue to happier things. "Why didn't you talk to me after I admitted to liking you? What about me wanting more made you freeze me out like that?" Ugh, there he goes again. The questions I don't want to answer. I cringe, finally giving into the impulse to back away from him. I shuffle over to the very end of the bed, putting as much distance between us as I can without having to stand up. I don't think I can stand at the moment.
"You hurt me." I respond softly, not accusingly. It was a fact.
"Tess…" He sighs, "I never wanted to cause you any pain."
"Yeah, well," I retort, trying my best to keep the bitterness in my voice to a minimum, "best laid plans of mice and men and all that jazz."
"But why wouldn't you talk to me?" He urges, coaxing me with his soft tenor voice into honesty. My fists are balled in my lap, pulling at the sweaty cloth of my dress. My toes are tapping on the floor. My reluctance has a beat of its own, erratic as my bruised heart. I can't bring myself to look at him, can't face the way side of his eyes crinkle and his eyebrows furrow.
"I was angry at you." The words just come out, sentiments I refused to even admit to myself over all the years since that day. But, in front of Wendell, they just flow. "All I wanted to do for months was talk to you about all this crap going on in my life and I couldn't. I mean, you were the only person I had left pretty much at that point and then you had to go and behave like a stupid boy."
"I couldn't help it!" He argues, I feel the bed shifting but continue to focus on the window and the clear blue sky beyond. The air conditioner is still fighting in vain against the heat in the room, but inside I'm icy cold.
"You promised me!" I spin towards him, my knees tucked beneath me, arms bracing myself against falling further forward. My voice is rising to the occasion, reaching long forgotten decibels. I haven't allowed myself to be that girl in so long, the girl who needs to be heard by the world. And this man in front of me, he was that girl's whole world. "I told you to never pull that stupid boy in love crap with me, and then you did!"
"That was my problem!" He hisses. His eyes are fixed on mine, not roving to my risen hem, not sinking to what I'm sure is a spectacular view of my boobs. So focused on the past, he's ignoring the present. "You were suddenly a girl and boom: feelings." He punctuates the 'boom' with a mimed hand explosion.
"It wasn't exactly something I could control. When you're sixteen, boobs happen. If you want, I can describe in excruciating detail what was going on with my ovaries at the same time, I think it just might horrify you."
"Save the health class lecture, I had to suffer through it a few times already."
"Yes, well. I was angry and hormonal. How many times had I listened to you bemoan your latest crush, rebounding through pretty much every girl in our grade? Huh, Wendell?" I point at him, forcing him into introspection.
"…Ten." He finally replies, reluctantly. A serial crusher, Wendell was. However, a ladies man, Wendell wasn't. Between the somewhat short height, coke-bottle glasses, chubbiness, and fondness for apocalypse conspiracies, he wasn't exactly a prize. Falling on the same side of the nerd spectrum, we had fallen into a pattern of me listening to his tales of his new crush between classes. I spent chemistry listening to how Katherine's hair fell like a golden jungle. Physics was spent hearing how Faith's smile was Oscar-worthy. Homework at lunch was punctuated by him waxing poetic between algebraic formulations. He talked the talk, but could never seem to manage to actually get a girl to give him a chance.
"Exactly. I was number eleven. Not your first choice, she rejected you without a second glance. Not even fourth, she at least was kind about telling you to move on. I was your goddamn cheerleader the whole goddamn time, telling you that one day you'd find someone worthy. I didn't mean me! And I certainly didn't mean for you to…" I struggle to find the right word, "…default to me."
"Default?" He backs away, leaning back into the pillows. He asks quietly, "You thought you were the default?"
I sit back on my heels, pulling my hem back down to a decent level before responding, "What else was I supposed to think?"
"That I was finally getting it right, Tess." He murmurs emphatically. The way my name rolls off his tongue makes my heart ache. He looks so sad, so defeated. I forgot how I could use words to hurt.
"We made sense, so damn much sense. Tess, there's a level of sense that us as a couple made, that is insane. We liked the same movies. We read the same books. We made fun of the same stupid idiots around us."
"Superficially, sure, I can see that. That's why we were friends. But there has to be more."
"More than sense." I look away from him, towards the door that has imprisoned us so. I can't look at him as I say the things I locked deep inside that grey June afternoon. "There has to be passion and need…an overwhelming want."
"Well, I overwhelmingly wanted you!" I am forced by the heat of his words and the power in his voice to look back at him once more. He's leaning towards me, his chest pulsing with heavy breaths. Every hair on my body is standing on end and I know it's not just the heat beating in from outside making me feel faint. This is the point where I should just back away. This is where I cut and run, avoiding the end of the big battle. This is a battle no smart person could possibly think they could win. But, damnit, I never said I was a smart person.
"Then you should've fought harder! I said no and you just backed down." He winces, his eyebrows taking up a permanent furrowed expression on his face. I should just stop here but I barely take a moment to breathe, instead continuing on in my tirade. "I didn't even say no, I couldn't say anything. I stood there and you just talked yourself out of wanting me. What about that says anything like overwhelming want!?" I don't know where that came from. I'm pretty sure it's the truth. but this is why I generally avoid analysing the past. Because, sometimes you discover something about yourself you never wanted to admit and I'm pretty sure I just admitted that I had wanted him back then and that can't be right.
"Because it was you, Tess!" He yells, his hot hand reaching out and grabbing my own, clutching readily. The contact, so sudden and unexpected, draws my stare to his tanned hand contrasting with my pale one. My blood races to my cheeks, reddening them instantly. I feel another hand lightly touch for my chin, only for a millisecond, pulling my attention back to Wendell's face. His eyes soften as he recaptures my gaze. Gently, he asks, "Do you think I would have risked losing you like I did if there wasn't a damn good reason?
There are no words on this Earth that could possibly combat that question. Stunned silence, that is all I can give him in this moment. His hands release me, but I don't move a muscle. It's like I'm made of stone, locked in the twilight of past and present.
"Huh?" I'm pulled out of my silent revelry and back into the present at those two little words. I look back at Wendell and see him staring at the clock.
"Your two hours are up. You're free."
"Oh, I didn't even notice." I stand up, pulling my hem down once more. "I guess I'll see you around sometime…if you're ever in my neck of the woods." I talk while bending down to pick up my discarded shoes but am interrupted.
"Tess…" He says softly, and I turn towards him instead of putting my boots back on. "Friends?" He asks, extending his hand towards me. It's a direct mirror of the question he asked be seven years ago when everything fell apart. But this time I reach out for it with a nod while his large hand engulfs mine. He smiles, and I freeze. There's intent behind that grin and I know something is about to happen. He jerks on my hand suddenly and I find myself splayed across him. Deftly, he flips us over so I'm trapped between the bed and his hard body.
"What are you doing?" I hiss; our closeness strange but oddly comforting. His hairy legs are intertwined with my own, the scratchiness only heightening the reality of the situation.
"Fighting for you." He whispers in my ear, his beard tickling my neck. My hands have somehow found their way to his broad shoulders, feeling the unfamiliar planes. Skin roving against skin. "It occurred to me that I never actually fought for you. I just let you walk out of my life. I don't care if the only reason you're here is the work of a meddling busybody. This time, you're not leaving without a fight."
"I thought I told you I was done fighting." I reply softly, a small smile on my lips. His thumbs are making rings along the side of my arms, his elbows propping him up above me.
"Exactly. If you don't fight…" His face grows ever closer to mine. I can feel his hot breath on my lips, a prelude of what's to come. Finally, he continues, "I win."
He captures my lips and I moan into the kiss. His weight crashes down on me and our bodies melt together like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle finally locking into place. Our sweaty hands run over each others bodies, learning new pathways. And as our kisses become deeper, a feeling of peace overcomes me.
That's the thing about the fight. You can spend your entire life hiding behind small insignificant victories. It's only when you finally face the big battles that you can truly win. And sometimes, well, sometimes you lose spectacularly.