Lawrence Mathews came into my life with the subtlety and grace of a wrecking ball. I was in the library studying for the dreaded first midterm, plugged into "Go Hard or Go Home." Something nudged my elbow, but I thought it was just the guy next to me not understanding personal space. I ignored it and continued attempting to understand Piaget's cognitive stages of development.
The nudge became more insistent. I yanked the earphones out of my ears and whipped my head to the right, meeting baby blue eyes.
"Yes?" I asked impatiently. The guy sitting next to me froze with his fingers still around the sleeve of my jacket, like he hadn't expected me to actually respond to his scrabbling little worm-fingers.
"Uh," he said, releasing his condemning hold. "Are you in Psych 199?"
I stared at him, taking in his mussed black hair and friendly lips. His mouth just looked friendly. Like it was on the verge of a smile. It was aggravating. Not only was he annoying, but he was also exhibiting mild stalker behavior. How long had he been peeking at my study materials? I covered said materials with my hands surreptitiously.
"Yes," I said slowly.
He grinned at me, those friendly lips of his curling back over bright white teeth. It made him look psychotic. "I'm Lawrence. We're in the same class. I'm studying for the midterm, too."
I eyed the hand he proffered coolly before slipping mine into his and giving it a brief squeeze. "Great." I turned away, ready to put my earphones back in.
"I do believe the socially acceptable thing to do is to tell me your name," he said. I paused, my thumb hovering over the play button.
"The socially acceptable thing is to not bother someone who came to the library to study. I'm Ashley. Nice to meet you." I gave him a frosty smile that indicated it was anything but, then resumed my playlist. Ten minutes passed before that pesky nudge came again.
I resisted the urge to scream—it was a library, after all—and turned to him, not even bothering to stop the music. "What?" I hissed.
He mouthed something, but I couldn't hear him over the music, and I didn't want to. Humans just wanted to be acknowledged. I nodded and pretended that I knew what he was saying before I turned back to my studies. He nudged me again, and when I swiveled around to him with my death-glare, he motioned for me to take out my earphones.
"Your music is kind of loud," he whispered. "I think everyone else thinks so, too." I looked around the table where we were sitting and made eye contact with the girl right across from me. At my steely gaze, she ducked her head quickly.
I stabbed at the volume control on my phone and shoved it in his face. "Happy?"
That screwball smile appeared again. "You like 50 Cent?"
I realized I had made a crucial mistake. Quickly, I retracted my phone. "Just 'Candy Shop,'" I said, then cursed myself for the defensive tone in my voice. I had nothing to prove to this blue-eyed, dark-haired creeper of questionable descent.
"I like him, too. Although I think he's becoming a bit outdated. You should check out Gucci Mane." He was so desperate for me to like him that I wanted to laugh out loud. But I wouldn't run the risk of letting this idiot think he was funny.
I motioned him closer, licking my lips. He eagerly leaned forward. "Fuck your Gucci Mane," I breathed into his ear. "Don't bother me again." Then I stuffed my earphones so far into my ears that they might have gotten permanently lodged in, and went back to reading about schemata.
Was I ready for this midterm? Yes. I was so fucking ready. Reconfirmation always worked like a charm before an exam. I looked with disdain at my nemeses, with their arrays of Number 2 pencils and index cards with terms. Fuckers. I used Quizlet.
I went up the stairs to look for my seat in the third row, five seats from the left. This was the place I sat for every lecture. Queued recall said that performance on exams would be better if done in the same environment where the material had been learned. I was fucking ready, but an optimal environment would only help.
When I got to my row, I held back a roar of outrage. Some fucker was in my seat. Picking my way across the infuriating abundance of sprawled legs, I tapped him on his shoulder, then had to give myself another reminder to breathe normally when he turned around. It was the stalker from Sunday studying.
There was clear victory in his eyes as he looked up at me innocently. "Ashley, was it?"
"You're sitting in my seat."
"I don't recall this class having assigned seating."
He was definitely delighting in his sweet vengeance. If it hadn't been socially unacceptable, he would be howling victoriously right about now. While it wasn't optimal, the seat next to him would probably allow for a similar enough experience to facilitate queued recall. Except there was a backpack there.
I made a noise like a grunt. "Is this yours?"
He looked up from his conversation with his friends at me, and I had the uncomfortable sensation of tables turning. "Yeah."
I kept going before he could resume his conversation. "Can I sit here?"
"If you're going to ask someone not to bother you, shouldn't you afford him the same luxury?"
I scowled. "I just want to sit. I'm not going to bother you."
"Bother away. I'm not an antisocial crone." He lifted the backpack, and I sank down into the seat with a muttered thanks. Seeming bored with his pursuit of my humiliation, he turned back to his conversation.
Taking out my scantron, I set it and a mechanical pencil neatly beside my ID card. Then I clasped my hands and quietly waited. I'd come to the exam ten minutes early just to breathe in the scent of fear and drink in the elixir of anxiety. It was my drug. I knew panic-cramming ten minutes before an exam would have incredibly low marginal returns, if any. Fortunately for me, my colleagues hadn't figured that out yet. Even Stalker Boy next to me was refreshing his memory with his friends about the order of adaptation.
"It's accommodation, then assimilation," one of his friends argued.
"No, it's fucking not," another guy cut in. "It's definitely assimilation, then accommodation."
"Why the fuck would you assimilate before you accommodate?"
I smirked to myself. I could set the curve for this thing, easy.
Then came that nudge again. "Hey. Ashley."
"What?" I snapped at him.
"Is it assimilation, then accommodation?"
I considered him and his doofus friends. I could easily feed them the wrong information, but that would be morally wrong. I'd beat them through my own merit, not by undercutting. "It's assimilation, accommodation, equilibriation."
"See?" one his friends crowed, shoving the other. "I told you. Dumbass."
Stalker caught my eyes as his friends commenced roughhousing. His were the blue most associated with tranquility and trust on the color wheel. They glinted with calculation. "Did you mean that?"
"I'm not an asshole."
He snorted. "Could've fooled me."
The professor began passing out exams. "Hey, good luck," Stalker said to me.
I decided not to tell him I didn't need luck, since it seemed too soon after my asshole comment. Instead, I scribbled my name on my test and made sure my arms were positioned so none of my neighbors could see. I wasn't taking any chances.
I finished ten minutes early after triple-checking the exam, although there wasn't really a point. I hadn't brought an eraser. After turning it in, I put on my "I'm a Fucking Winner" playlist and tried not to swagger out of the room.
Someone ran up next to me and bumped against me. I looked, and it was Stalker again, sans doofus friends. I rolled my eyes, pausing the music. "What now?"
"Where are you headed to?"
I looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Just curious to see if we're going in the same direction."
"Why don't you tell me where you're going first?"
"Not a chance. I gave you my backpack's seat. You owe me."
"There's no assigned seating," I parroted back at him.
"Fair point. I'm just going to follow you if you won't tell me."
I relented. Maybe he thought I was playing hard to get, which wouldn't do. "I'm headed to Southside."
"Now, was that so hard? I've got class in South Gate. Same direction. Let's walk together."
This was the turnout I'd expected, but it was disappointing nevertheless. "Sure." He had said walk together, but the definition of walk together was very loose. I took out my phone again.
"More 50 Cent?"
"No." I didn't give him more than that.
He was oblivious. "Did you check out Gucci Mane like I told you to?"
"Of course not."
"You should. I think you'd like him."
"I told you I only liked one song from 50 Cent."
"How could I forget? It was basically the only thing you told me." He arched his eyebrows. "So you remember our conversation."
"How could I forget? It was the most annoying thing that had happened to me that entire night."
He grinned, unperturbed. "As long as you remember me. You looked really prepared for that exam."
"That's because I was."
"Yeah. I saw your notes. How long did all that color coding take you?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Who said you could look at my notes?"
"I couldn't help it. It's like when you see a rainbow. You've got to look." The winter wind blew coolly across my shoulders, and he tucked his blue Northface jacket closer around himself. I took advantage of his momentary distraction to take out my phone.
"You know you're going to go deaf if you keep listening to music that loudly."
"At least I won't have to pretend that I can't hear you anymore."
He chuckled, and I got the strangest feeling that he was getting off on my resistance. Not only was he possibly a stalker, he could also be exhibiting sociopathic tendencies. I needed to defuse the situation and prevent him from asking me any more questions that could possibly enable him to become a full-time nuisance.
"What class do you have at South Gate?"
I nodded. Most of the computer science classes were concentrated at South Gate. "That makes sense."
The conversation should have fizzled, but he was intent on reviving a dying thing. "What about you?"
I pressed my lips together. I didn't feel right about lying, but I also didn't want to tell him why. He kept gazing at me with this expectant look, until I blurted out, "I live there."
"Southside? So you're in the Leland Dorms," he said, like he had made an amazing discovery on the same level of Pavlov and his dog. "I live there too. Which floor?"
This day couldn't have gotten worse. "Third," I choked out.
He started laughing, and I wondered if I needed to call an asylum and inquire after any escapees. "That's so funny. I'm on the second floor. I can't believe we haven't run into each other."
"I can believe it," I said, speeding up my walking. He didn't even seem to notice, keeping up with me in long strides.
"We should study for the next midterm together," he continued. I'd never noticed that the distance between Southside and Psych was so great.
"Sure," I said. If he asked me to study, I'd just make an excuse. And it wasn't like he knew which room I was in. I could always not open the door. I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to do.
"Ashley, there's a guy here for you!" my roommate Sabrina called, surprise evident in her tone. I didn't typically get visitors, even though it was past the middle of the semester and overeager freshmen had more friends than they could manage. Based on the vapid conversations about hot professors and undercooked cafeteria food that Sabrina had with our other floormates in the co-ed bathroom, it didn't seem like I was missing out on much. She'd tried to invite me on some of their outings, such as the famed university hike and football games, but I'd said no so many times that she eventually stopped. Consistency was key. Otherwise she'd get her hopes up.
I padded out in my comfortable sweats and giant bunny T-shirt, then almost collapsed when I saw who it was.
"You're studying for the second midterm, right?" Stalker said from the doorway. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the giant red letters of the university emblazoned across it. Yet another person with more school spirit than me.
"No," I said, preparing to turn away from the doorway. I had been, but he didn't need to know that.
"Well, you should. It's on Monday." He kept leaning against the doorway, looking deceptively casual. I saw other people in the hallway looking at him. He waved hello to a good number of them, and I would bet my Spotify Premium on the fact that he was an Overeager Freshman. We all knew the type. The ones who networked in class, in the dining commons, in the bathroom, and whom you could hear laughing with the RA late into the night. "Come on," he wheedled. "I'll swipe you into late night." Late night was the food that the dorm cafeteria served after ten, comprised of an array of artery-destroying foods like oily quesadillas and fried chicken.
"No, thanks." I turned, and suddenly Sabrina was there with a giant smile pasted on her face. She had obviously been eavesdropping on our entire conversation.
"You should go, Ashley! You've been in here all day studying, and all you ate was a salad wrap. You deserve it." She gave me a gentle shove, and I stumbled out of the doorway. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. If I said no to her, I would embarrass her, and she could quite possibly make the rest of our stay together a living, passive-aggressive hell.
"Let me pack my stuff," I grumbled, leaving Sabrina and Stalker together to make merry conversation. I stuffed all my highlighters and notes into my bag, then went to the doorway, where Sabrina was in the middle of telling Stalker about her incredibly uneventful experience of being at a frat party while he nodded along like it was the most interesting thing he had ever heard. The desire to be deemed socially adept was truly fascinating.
"You're not going to change?" Sabrina asked. I looked down at myself.
"Right." I grabbed my baggy sweatshirt, which said NEBRASKA and had a picture of a moose, and dragged it over my head, completely messing up my hair in the process. "Thanks."
She watched me slip my feet into my shower flip-flops with worried eyes.
"What were you studying all day?" asked Stalker.
"So you lied to me."
"Are you surprised?"
"I can't say I am." He held out his hand. "Here, let me hold your bag."
"I'm capable of holding it myself."
"What do you want from late night? My treat," he said, which would have sounded chivalrous if we weren't talking about meal points.
"Water. I don't eat food past eight."
"That rule doesn't count if you haven't eaten all day." We got into the line for late night and he waved to a couple more people. For the umpteenth time, I wondered why he was wasting his time on me. "Have you ever been to the rooftop of Leland?" he asked me. "It's pretty awesome."
"The rooftop is locked," I responded.
"Right. But I've got a friend on the tenth floor who lives next to the fire escape. They pried open their window with a wrench, and now you can climb up to the roof."
"Sounds dangerous," I remarked. I had no idea why he was telling me this.
"It's a great place to be if you want to be alone."
"Huh." I looked at the other freshmen around us, chatting happily away as they waited to stuff themselves full of grease. I was barely contributing to this conversation, and I was tired. We got to the front of the line, and Stalker started ordering garlic bread, loaded nachos, and sweet and sour chicken. It was horrifying. "Are you going to eat all of that yourself?" I asked scathingly.
"No," he said. "You're going to help me."
"I'll sell my soul before I put that shit in my body."
"You'll be singing a different tune by the end of tonight," he promised ominously. "Let's sit there."
I trudged after him, feeling like a cellmate following her jailer. Once we'd claimed a spot at one of the smudged metal tables, he pulled out his laptop. "How much have you gotten done?"
I lined up my highlighters and spread out my notes. "I've annotated all the sections and typed up summary notes for every chapter."
"Maybe we can talk each other through each chapter. You know what they say about teaching the material…" At my look, he quickly amends himself. "Or you could just let me see your notes."
If it meant I didn't have to engage in more useless conversation, I was all for it. "Here," I said, handing them over.
"Jesus," he said, going through my notes. "You should teach this course. It's so much clearer in your notes."
Flattery would be my downfall, but I indulged a bit in it nevertheless. "Thanks." I started rereading the textbook for the fifth time while he flipped through the notes.
After ten minutes, he handed them back to me. "This was super helpful. Thanks."
I blinked at him. "You're done?"
"I only need to pass this class," he said. "Reading those notes will be enough to get me a C on the midterm, and that's all I need."
I picked my jaw up from the table. "Are you kidding me?"
"Nah. I'm just taking this course to fulfill the biology prerequisite. But I do have to study. I have a computer science midterm, and I'm pretty fucked for that." He opened his laptop and started tapping away.
I breathed out through my nose, feeling duped. Even so, this was probably better for me. I plugged myself back in with "Deep Focus" and went back to highlighting my textbook. I dimly noticed him getting up and coming back with a tray heaped with food. He reached out and tugged on the cable of my earphones. "Hey," he said, when I pulled them out. "Eat up."
I made a face at the food. "No, thanks."
"Come on." He took a knife and fork, cutting away a piece of chicken and waving it in front of my face. "I'll stop bothering you if you take a bite."
Snatching the fork out of his hand, I carefully bit off the chicken. The sweetness slid down my throat, and I licked my lips, realizing that I was pretty hungry. That limp salad wrap had been burned off hours ago.
"Not bad, eh?" He pushed the plate towards me. "You don't need to thank me. Just eat it."
"I'm just hungry," I said as I pulled it in.
Lawrence did something that concerned me then. He smiled like we were sharing a secret and said, "Sure." Already, this boy could read me better than anyone had in a long time.
"Ashley, it's Lawrence!" Sabrina called, sounding mystified. Repeat visitors was quite a phenomenon when it came to me.
I froze in the middle of drying my hair after the shower. The last time I'd seen Stalker had been the Psych 199 midterm, which I'd predictably aced. I'd gone to the third row, and there he was. When he saw me, he gestured me over, lifting his backpack off my seat. I never saw him otherwise and had a sneaking suspicion that he skipped all the lectures. Not that I'd been looking for him.
"Hey," he said from the doorway. "Exam scores came back and we're celebrating. Come on."
I backpedaled, ready to make an excuse, but cursed Sabrina was there again. "I'm having some friends come over to watch a movie," she said. "It'll be loud here. Or you can watch with us!"
"Okay, coming," I said to Stalker, making a grab for my Nebraska sweatshirt.
"Here, take this," Sabrina said, tossing me a tight Juicy Couture hoodie. I scowled at her, and she gave me a winning smile. "Have fun!"
I followed him into the elevator, shrugging on the hoodie. It was too tight to zip up, so I left it open over my purple tank top. We looked at each other silently.
"So how'd you do?" he asked finally.
"Set the curve. How about you?"
"Seventy percent, baby. Right on the cusp."
I rolled my eyes. We got out on the tenth floor, and I followed him to a door with Star Wars figures pasted on it. It opened an inch, and then got thrown back so hard that it banged against the wall.
"Come on in!" It was one of Stalker's doofus friends. The faint smell of marijuana drifted out the doorway, and he quickly ushered us in before closing the door. "You won't tell, right?" he asked me before moving towards the open window and climbing out. There were faint sounds of whooping as his legs disappeared over the top.
I moved towards the window and peered over the edge. The ground seemed very far away. I ducked my head back in. "I'll watch."
Stalker laughed. "How are you going to watch when you're down here and we're up there? Will it make you feel better if I'm down here to catch you in case I fall?"
"I don't even want to entertain the possibility of falling."
"I'll go after you. You don't want to stay in this room while we're all up there."
I considered it. "I don't want to die."
"You won't," he said emphatically, stepping closer. I backed up, nerves flaring at his proximity. "Come on," he murmured, his blue eyes shining like jewels. "Live a little." We stared at each other for a long moment, his nose inches from mine.
Abruptly, I turned. "Okay," I said, hooking one leg over the ledge and edging towards the fire escape that ran parallel to the window. "Okay," I said again as I got a grip on one of the rungs of the ladder.
A trio of faces watched me from the rooftop. "Ay, she's climbing!" some guy cawed.
I looked back down, and Lawrence was there, watching me. "Keep going," he said encouragingly. I focused on the faces watching me expectantly and took my time climbing the ladder, telling myself not to look down. The rooftop wasn't that far from reach, and I hit the last rung in a matter of minutes, though it felt like hours. One of Lawrence's friends grabbed my hand and helped me down.
"Welcome to the top of the world," he said with a flourish. I heard the soft smack of Lawrence's shoes against pavement as he hopped down behind me.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" he asked me.
"I'm dreading going down."
"You can just stay up here forever. Did you get a chance to take in the view?" I followed him to the edge of the roof, where there was only a waist-high ledge to prevent us from death.
Taking in the bright lights of the university and the spread of city, I couldn't help but smile a little. "It's nice."
Someone had brought portable speakers, and Justin Bieber blasted over the roof.
"Oh, come on," yelled another guy. "Change the fucking music. Does anyone else have Spotify Premium?"
"Ashley does," Lawrence called, pointing at me. "She loves 50 Cent."
"My kind of girl," the guy holding the speakers said. "Here, hook it up to Bluetooth."
I swiped through my music and put on my Sky High playlist, and "High for This" by The Weeknd started playing.
"Much better," the guy said. He was holding a joint in another hand. "You want?"
I shook my head, and he grinned, taking another hit from it and leisurely blowing out a stream of smoke. "Lawrence?"
"Nah. Hey," he said, giving me his signature nudge. "Tell John what you got on the Psych midterm. Do it when he takes a hit."
John burst out coughing when I told him my score. "No fucking way. You set the curve? Shit, we have a celebrity in our midst."
The other two guys joined us, one of them clapping a hand on Lawrence's shoulder. "That test was so fucking hard," one of them said. "I didn't know who Kubler and Ross were."
"Kubler-Ross was one person. She came up with the states of grieving."
"Wrecked," he said solemnly. "At least I know one of the answers now."
The others chortled. "Are you a psych major?" asked one of them.
"Intended. But yeah."
"Cool," he said. "Heard it's a pretty impacted major. Do you know what you want to do with it?"
"Clinical work in developmental psychology." At their dumbfounded expressions, I clarified. "I want to study babies and how they grow."
"That's awesome," Lawrence said, and with the way he said it, I knew he really meant it. "I need to get my life together. I don't know anything beyond what my major is."
"Whatever, man," John said. "I bombed that CS exam. You know, the one you got a fucking A on?"
"I told you to study with me."
"No, I was studying. You were creating a Tinder account."
"We all have different ways of learning." They stayed out and chattered, and I sank peacefully into the background. It was funny watching them interact, throwing around curse words without a care, half of them stoned out of their minds.
The wind on the rooftop got stronger, and one by one, the other guys started heading back in, disappearing down the fire escape.
"You cold?" asked Lawrence, coming up next to me on the ledge. "Here, take my jacket." Before I could protest, he'd pulled his sweatshirt up over his head and plopped it on my head. I took it and draped it around myself, obscuring Sabrina's obscene track jacket.
"Why'd you decide you wanted to go into developmental psych?" he asked, sitting on the ledge.
"I don't really like people," I said.
"Could've fooled me," he said wryly.
"Yeah. But I like kids. They do whatever the fuck they want, and they could care less what other people think about it. It's the best part of childhood."
"Why babies in particular?" he asked.
"I want to give people the information they need to raise their kids better. God knows most parents need it." I thought of my own parents and how they'd treated my upbringing. Like it was just another task that needed to get done.
I turned to look at him and saw that he was already watching me, his hair fluffing in the wind. "I had a good childhood," he said. "But I guess the downside of that is that I can't really understand what other kids go through."
"That's fine. Admitting you can't is better than pretending you can. Why are you studying computer science?"
"To make the most money," he said bluntly.
I shrugged. "Makes sense. That's what most people want."
He cocked his head to the side. "You don't think I'm a little bitch for it?"
"No, why would I? It's normal to want to live comfortably." After considering how much I valued my life versus comfort, I joined him at the ledge, sitting against it backwards so that my feet were firmly planted on the ground while he sat above me, dangling his in the air. "The only problem would be if there was something you were more passionate about. Is there anything you like to do?"
"Not particularly," he said. "I'm good at CS, and software engineers are all the craze right now. I can get free lunches and a cushy starting salary, then maybe figure out what I want to do after that."
"Sounds like as good a plan as any. If you can't make up your mind, might as well make money."
"Yeah," he said. I craned my head around so I could peer at the view below the ledge. I watched a couple walk past down below, the guy's arm sliding around the girl's shoulders as he pulled her close. The silence should have been weird, but I didn't really care, and it didn't seem like Lawrence did either.
I was pretty sure an animal had died in my apartment. The odor curdled my nostrils, and I almost dropped my box of cutlery in my hurry to cover my nose.
The door swung open, unleashing a flurry of dust. "Welcome back—holy shit, what the fuck is that smell?"
I exited the hallway to see Lawrence in an identical posture with his hand smacked over his nose, his eyes wide. "What the fuck?" came his muffled exclamation.
"I didn't tell you where I live."
"I did!" Sabrina called, popping her head out of her room. She had a laundry clip pinched over her nose. When she'd asked me to live with her, I'd been surprised. My chronic silence and inability to get along with any of her friends hadn't repulsed her as well as it should have. Her unpredictable generosity had made things easier for me in terms of finding an apartment, but she was a psychological mystery.
"Why are you here?" I asked him, but with my hands over my nose it came out more like "Moy you heeya."
He revealed a set of car keys. "My housewarming gift to you. A trip to Ikea because I know you forgot stuff at home. Also, we can add air freshener to the list." He'd barely finished the sentence before I launched myself at the white, beaten-down Honda parked at the curb in front of my apartment.
"Let's get out of here before the stink embeds itself in my clothes!" I called, trying the car door.
"Uh, my car's down there." He pointed at an even more worn-down Chevrolet SUV down the street.
"Oh." I slowly backed away from the Honda. Once I'd distanced myself appropriately, I sprinted for the Chevy. Lawrence still got there first, and I had to make faces at him through the window of the locked car door before he finally cracked and let me in.
"Dumbass," Lawrence said as I climbed in. I kept my gaze pointed towards the window just so he wouldn't get the upper hand of saying it to my face. Lawrence would never let go of any chance to call me stupid.
Once we'd pulled on the highway, he turned to me. "Alright, you can stop being a little bitch now. Peace offering." He handed me the AUX cable of the car, and I took it victoriously, plugging in my iPhone and playing my Sad Boys playlist. Lawrence rolled his eyes but said nothing. "How was your summer?" he asked over the mournful strumming of Shawn Mendes.
"Full of small, screaming children."
"So it was wonderful."
"Heaven," I agreed. "Yours?"
He tightened his grip around the wheel. "As good as coding in a basement can be." He'd been at a startup this summer and hadn't enjoyed it in the least. "It all felt so fake. Every one of these tech companies says it's going to change the world, but all they're really trying to do is be the next Facebook and cash out."
I raised my eyebrows at him. "I know, I know," he said. "I sound like you."
"I'm glad my society-spurning rants aren't falling on deaf ears." I grabbed my bag and followed him out of the car. He wheeled a cart around and we walked into the Ikea, where dozens of families and couples were shopping for affordable furniture that was a bitch to put together.
I was just about to head towards a shiny pile of dog-shaped saltshakers before Lawrence stopped me. "Before we do anything..." he trailed off suggestively.
"You fucking genius," I said. My stomach growled in acquiescence. We pivoted and headed towards the cafeteria, where we piled a plate high with Swedish meatballs and slathered them in gravy. After grabbing a spot at a table next to a wailing toddler, I watched Lawrence get plastic forks and napkins. It was weird to be noticing little changes in his appearance, like his new haircut and how he filled out his jacket. He'd been going to the gym often this summer to get his mind off the pointlessness of his job. At least his misery had been productive.
When he turned around and saw me staring, he grinned. At least that smile was still all Lawrence, one that took up his whole face and made him look slightly unhinged. He was so… happy. Which was why his upset over his career prospects affected me more than they should have.
He passed me a fork and speared a meatball, popping it into his mouth. "How's living with Sabrina?"
I held up my hand in front of my mouth, still in the process of chewing. "It's okay. I've barely spoken to her, but it's Sabrina, so if she had a problem with that she shouldn't have lived with me in the first place."
"You were right. John has a crush on her. You might see him around your place often."
I made a face at this confirmation of my suspicions. Now I'd have to deal with his unwanted presence even more often. "You'll come too, right?" I didn't know how to interact with Lawrence's friends without him as a buffer. They were cool enough, but that didn't change how I felt about people in general.
"You know I have my own life, right?" he asked, batting my hand away as I tried to snag another meatball. "Eat slower. You've had three and I've only had one."
"You did this to me," I said accusingly, prodding the meatball in his direction. Ever since becoming friends with Lawrence and becoming introduced to his world of ice cream, steaks, and McDonald's at ungodly hours, I'd transformed into the portrait of gluttony. Gone were all the good habits I'd built up over the past decade. "Anyway, you could've fooled me with how often you came barging into my room last year." After the roof, we'd exchanged numbers so Lawrence could "give me a heads up" next time, but we'd probably called each other a grand total of three times because Lawrence would just come knocking every time he had a question, even if it was on something small, like if the teaching instructor for Psych 199 would dock points if he called Freud a perv in his paper.
"Yeah, you're right," he said. "By the way, you should really consider going on a date with Kevin. You know he doesn't tag along every time we hang out because he enjoys it."
"Wait," I said, pausing with my meatball halfway to my mouth. "He's gay. And I think he likes you."
Lawrence made a gagging noise, and I watched a piece of meatball fly from his mouth and arc through the air. "I think I'd know my own friend."
"Yeah, I'd think you knew too. And I know Kevin doesn't want to get with your antipathetic, barely functioning female companion."
"Hey," Lawrence said, frowning. "Don't discredit yourself like that."
I snorted, even though I felt a flare of affection. "You don't need to protect my self-esteem. I'm perfectly fine with who I am. You know what's funny, though?"
He blinked, and I took advantage of his distraction to steal another meatball. "What?"
"You might want to swallow before you hear this." Once he'd done so, I said, "I think that he thinks you're interested in him too."
"What?" he sputtered, then started choking on air. I passed him his water and he took a giant gulp. "Why would you say that? I'm not gay!"
"I know you aren't," I said. "But it makes sense for him to think so. I'm your only female friend, and we're so platonic that your dick shrivels up whenever you get within a mile of me."
"Hey, don't talk about my dick like that," he said. "Does this mean I'm going to have to talk to him about it?"
"Only if you don't want him trying to kiss you at any point in time and ruining your friendship," I agreed, making sure my meatball was fully coated in gravy. "Boy, am I glad I'm not the one who needs to have that conversation."
"What if he's not even interested in me?"
"If that's what you think," I said around the meatball. "It's not my business what you do with your life."
"Aw, man," he mumbled, sitting back. "I hate drama."
"This doesn't even count as drama," I said, rolling my eyes. "Just have an honest conversation with him and send him on his way. He'll find another guy."
"Easy for you to say," he said irritably, snatching the rest of the meatballs out of my grasp. "You fatass. I'm going to need another plate of these."
The sound of my phone ringing was the equivalent of getting clobbered around the ears. I picked up, my voice coming out in a croak. "What the fuck."
"Hey," Lawrence's fully awake voice echoed down the line. "Come out. We're going to watch the sunrise."
"I only got to bed at three last night, you bitch," I muttered into the phone, looking at Sabrina and John's unmoving lumps underneath her blankets and trying not to let my rage drive my voice up too high. They'd sexiled me for hours last night, and I'd had to sleep on the uncomfortably lumpy couch. "I'm going back to sleep. I hope that when I wake up, this will all seem like a distant nightmare."
"Come on," he said, wheedling. "I'll buy you breakfast after."
Free food or more sleep… It was a tempting tradeoff. "Fine," I said. "You'd better be outside with the heater on and a cup of coffee."
"Already done." He sounded too smug.
I rolled out of bed, grumbling the entire way. Splashing my face with cold water helped somewhat, but I was still exhausted after my night. At every moment of trudging to the bathroom, waiting for the water to turn warm, and shoving contacts into my swollen eyes, I debated just going back to bed and letting him wait futilely.
My phone rang as I was stuffing my feet, still clad in fluffy socks, into my shoes. "You're still coming, right?" I detected a note of concern in his voice, all smugness gone. So he hadn't been completely confident that I'd show up.
"No," I said flatly, before I opened the door and eyed the slight glow of dawn around the buildings with extreme distaste. His car was idling outside, and I hustled over, crawling inside and immediately cradling the coffee he handed me.
"Took you long enough," he said, putting the car in drive and accelerating with a force that shoved me against my seat.
"Jesus," I said. "I already feel like death. There's no need to actually kill me." Lawrence was an awful driver, but he refused to let me drive his car, so I had to put up with threat of imminent doom every time I went anywhere with him.
He drove us to the foot of a hill in the middle of nowhere. I saw a tumbleweed in the distance.
"Pretty cool, huh?" he asked, slinging a backpack over his shoulder.
I shot daggers at him with my eyes. "No."
He ignored me. Lawrence had the most selective hearing when I was around. "Come on, we've got some climbing to do."
"You're kidding me." I restrained myself from lobbing my hot coffee at him. "You didn't mention a fucking hike."
"Yeah, because I knew you'd just go back to sleep. It'll be worth it. You'll see. Or you can wait in the car until I get back."
I immediately opened the car door and sat back down. "You don't need to tell me twice."
"Oh, come on." He propped his arm on the door and gazed down at me. "You're breaking my heart here, Ash."
I let out a groan. Normally I was impervious to such tactics, but I also didn't want to wait in the car for who knew how long. "Lead the way," I grumbled. He smirked and started picking his way up the hill while I slowly followed.
"Hurry up!" he called, his voice far away.
"I hope you fall and break every bone in your body," I muttered.
"What was that?"
"Fuck you!" I hollered.
"We're going to miss it if you don't pick up the pace," was his only response.
I was coated in sweat by the time I joined him at the top. He looked totally unruffled, sitting there cross-legged on a rock.
He saw me and nodded towards the horizon. "Check it out."
I looked and was slightly mollified. It was pretty cool. The landscape was so flat that you could see for miles, and the sky was beginning to glow with a gold pre-dawn light that melted into darker shades of sapphire.
"Also," he said, opening his backpack and digging around, "I promised you breakfast." He unearthed some McDonald's hash browns, a box of scrambled eggs, and a plastic Safeway cup of freshly cut fruit.
I lunged for the fruit. "You've done something right for once." Popping a slice of watermelon in my mouth, I sat back and let the breeze cool the sweat on my skin. He nudged me and handed me a small stereo. Together, we watched the sun's rays peek over the earth while Wake-Up Acoustic played in the background.
"Can you believe we've only got two more years of college left?" Lawrence asked, munching on his hash brown. "Three more summers and two more years."
"No," I said. "I'm not sad about it, though. If time passes quickly, it means you're having a good time."
"Yeah, I guess." He gazed pensively off into the distance. "Are there things you wish you could've done differently?"
"Nah. I learned from my mistakes and did things in accordance to my beliefs. I'm progressing towards grad school at the pace I imagined, and I've even got friends. I'd say that's good, if not better, than what I wanted for myself."
"Damn straight," Lawrence said. "If it wasn't for me, you'd be living in a cave, never having experienced the Dollar Menu at Taco Bell."
"Don't give yourself so much credit," I said, giving him a shove. "I have Sabrina to force me into things I never wanted."
"Sabrina and John now," he amended.
I spat a watermelon seed at him, and it hit him square in the cheek. He shot up. "What the hell was that for?"
"I don't need you to remind me that I couldn't enter my own room last night until three AM because of their unrestrained libidos."
"Hey, sex is pretty great. You can't blame them."
Sex was nice, but not as great as Lawrence made it out to be. At least, not great enough for me to actively seek it out. Then again, he was a boy, and he'd also tried it way more times than I had. "Sabrina only does it so much because she's desperate to feel loved," I said. "And John does it because he likes sticking his dick everywhere. Speaking of sticking dicks everywhere, how are you and Kevin?"
Lawrence slapped my fork out of my hands, and I watched despondently as it tumbled down the hill, coated in dust. "You did not just go there," he said, outraged. "You know we haven't spoken ever since that stupid conversation!"
"He'll get over it," I said. "Just give him a little more time to come around. He's just nursing his hurt pride."
"I lost a friend because of you," he seethed.
"Instead of gaining a lover, I know," I said blandly. We'd had this conversation a million times already, and I'd given up on convincing Lawrence that he'd made the right choice. It wouldn't have been fair for him to keep leading his poor friend on. I saw the hope in Kevin's eyes every time Lawrence bit into a hot dog, and it'd been too pitiful.
Lawrence looked ready to pick me up and hurl me over the mountain, so I tried to showcase some sympathy. "It's too early for you to fly into a rage," I said, waving for him to sit back down. "Did you pack any extra utensils for these eggs?"
"No, just that fork. Have fun eating with your hands, bitch."
"Asshole. Don't worry—I'll enjoy every second of putting my dirty little hands all over these eggs."
He grimaced. "You're disgusting."
I pinched a piece of egg with my fingers and took great pleasure in letting him watch me drop it into my mouth. "Mmm. Are you thinking about things you regret not doing?"
"Yeah," he said, getting that pensive look on his face again. "I can think of some things."
"Well, you've still got two years," I said. "Two years and three summers to have no regrets. I'd say that's plenty of time."
"Yeah," he said, his face turned towards me instead of the sunset. "Plenty of time."
"View's that way," I said, flicking him in his stubbly cheek. I didn't follow my own advice, though, and instead watched the beginning of another day cast its warm pink glow over my best friend's face.
I'd been dreading this meeting ever since I'd agreed to it. For one, I didn't enjoy meeting new people, not unless they were under the age of three. In the convoluted and ambiguous realm of adult interactions, I was about as adept as an infant.
"Hey," Lawrence said, waving his hand in front of my face. "Can you not look like a zombie who ate too many brains?"
I blinked at him. "When's she coming?"
"She's outside. I told her to give me two minutes while I coaxed some more life into you."
"I'm not a child," I said scathingly, even though I'd been comparing myself to one just seconds ago. "Tell her to come in."
"Okay," he said dubiously.
The girl who came in was objectively not that pretty, but she dressed to accentuate her strengths and had a nice smile.
"Hi, I'm Katherine," she said, shaking my hand.
"Nice to meet you," I said. "I'm Ashley."
"Oh, I know," she said, smiling. "I've heard plenty about you from Lawrence."
"Don't believe any of it," I said, glaring at Lawrence. He blinked back at me innocently.
She laughed. "It's not all bad."
"You bitch," I said to him, and Katherine looked startled. "Sorry," I said, feeling chastened. I'd forgotten that the way Lawrence and I interacted didn't jive with people who weren't familiar with it. Sabrina used to look scandalized by my crudeness, but now she could sit through our swear word-infested conversations with an issue of People and not blink an eye. In most respects, it felt like a normal lunch between Lawrence and me. We caught up with each other, laughed at our own stupid inside jokes, gossiped about mutual friends. Katherine just happened to be along for the whole thing. Still, they shared a couple secretive smiles that made me feel ill at ease.
I didn't need to be studying psych to know they both liked each other very much. Lawrence was positively enamored, based on body language. I could see it in the way his hand kept drifting close to hers on the table, even though he'd yank it back every couple minutes like his brain was putting the brakes on his raging hormones. He was trying so hard to be casual that I almost busted out laughing multiple times.
At the end of the lunch, when Katherine had hugged Lawrence goodbye and departed to her Women Studies class, I finally exploded.
"Shut the fuck up," Lawrence said irritably as I howled with laughter.
"Just ask her out," I said when I'd finished wiping the tears from my eyes. "She'll say yes."
"You really think so?" he asked. He sounded unwilling to believe it.
"Yeah, why wouldn't she?"
"She listens to me talk about myself. She likes junk food and Netflix. And she's cute."
"Are you trying to convince yourself that she's worth it?" I stacked my tray on the others and turned to him. "I don't know why any girl would give you the time of day, but this one apparently will. You'd better hold onto her. Who knows when another one will come along, if ever?"
"I hate you," he said with little rancor. "Thanks for coming and scoping her out. I know how you hate meeting new people."
"I'm just a charitable person. But hey, don't forget me, alright?" I said it casually, and I would've rather died than let Lawrence know how much his response would affect me.
He stared me down, and it felt like he was trying to convey something that I didn't understand. "Do you really think I'm that kind of guy? I'd never forget my best friend."
I punched him in the arm, shoving down the warmth his words had sparked in my chest. "Don't underestimate the power of women."
When I got home, surprise of surprises, Sabrina was there with no John to be seen.
"How was the lunch?" she asked.
"She's nice," I said.
"As nice as you?"
"Ha. She's not going to last."
"You can't say that," I scolded her.
"Oh, please. I know our Lawrence. He needs someone to give him a verbal whipping continuously. He likes that stuff. Our little masochist."
"I think you're projecting your interest in kink onto other people."
Sabrina patted me on the shoulder. "Don't worry, he'll come around."
Sabrina had the biggest conspiracy theory that Lawrence was secretly in love with me, and that I was in love with him, and that our entire friendship was based on us lying to ourselves about our real feelings. Sabrina was the biggest supporter of things that didn't actually exist. For the longest time, she'd been convinced that the university was directing funds towards the chancellor's secret passion for belly dancing and tried to tell everyone who would listen. I didn't know how she thought up this stuff.
I went to my room to listen to some music and finish reading some papers but found myself thinking about how nice it'd felt when Lawrence had called me his best friend and comparing that sensation with the discomfort I'd felt whenever he and Katherine had traded smiles.
I put on a playlist to drown out my thoughts. Sabrina popped her head in five minutes later. I'd never noticed how annoying she got when John was gone. "Why are you listening to a playlist called 'when you're just too sad'?"
"Why can't I listen to what I want without nosy roommates asking why I'm listening?"
She just gave me another pat that made me want to divest her of her hand. "You ever want to talk, I'm here."
I let the baby in the crib grab my finger and looked into her guileless green eyes. "You'd never betray me," I told her seriously. "You'd never make empty promises."
The nerves were getting to me. Admissions results for most graduate schools would be released this upcoming week, and the anticipation was killing me. I'd been spending more time at the lab and in the nursery. Nothing calmed me like a room full of cooing newborns, but I didn't want people thinking I had a problem, so I was relieved that I'd find out soon.
I refreshed my email for the millionth time and almost dropped my phone on the sleeping baby when I saw an unread email from Stanford.
"Oh God," I said under my breath. "Oh God oh God oh God." Instead of clicking on it, I went to my contact list. My finger hovered briefly over the name Stalker, but then I scrolled back up to Sabrina's name.
She answered on the second ring. "Ashley? Why are you calling me? Is something wrong? Are you dying?"
"I've got an unread email from Stanford sitting in my inbox," I said breathlessly.
"Holy shit!" she exclaimed. "Well, open the fucking thing!" Sabrina rarely cursed, so I knew she was just as excited as me.
"Okay," I said. "Okay, okay, okay." I knew it was just adrenaline making my fingers shake, but even trying to dilute my nervousness into science wasn't calming me down. "Okay. I'm not going to open it."
"Ashley," Sabrina said. "Listen to me. Open the damn thing. Actually, first take a deep breath. Then open it."
"Okay," I said, inhaling.
"Remember to exhale," she said, making an exaggerated breathing noise that I normally would've mocked.
"Yes, okay," I said, after letting it out. Then I clicked on the email.
"What does it say?" Sabrina asked excitedly.
I knew it wasn't structurally possible, but the walls were definitely crashing down around me. Thank you for your application… "I didn't get in," I said tonelessly.
"Oh," Sabrina said, the excitement leaching out of her voice. "I'm sorry, Ashley. Do you want me to come to you? I'll bring ice cream? Or peanut butter apple slices?"
"No," I said. "It's okay. I'm going to hang up now."
I hung up and sank to the ground, holding onto the edge of the crib. Then I started to cry.
At some point, I realized it would do no good for one of the nurses to see me in a sobbing heap at the foot of some baby's crib, nor would it be healthy for the babies to see a grown adult bawling. I'd probably set off some deadly chain reaction and traumatize them for life. I got to my feet and trudged home, sneaking past Sabrina into our room and locking the door. If she got to sexile me, then I deserved to throw myself a pity party.
I was ten songs into my "When You Feel Like a Failure" playlist when I heard an insistent banging on my door.
"Open the fucking door before I kick it down." It was a voice I hadn't heard in a month.
Despite his promises, Lawrence and I had drifted apart. Whenever we wanted to hang out, it had never worked out. He had his internship, and I was in the lab every day. And if he had free time, he obviously had to spend it with Katherine. There were no more impromptu sunsets, trips to Ikea, or rooftop talks. Anyway, it would've been suspicious for him to do those things with anyone other than his girlfriend. It was the natural course of life, and it'd been sad, but it wasn't like I hadn't anticipated it. Even Sabrina had stopped talking about him coming around and coming back to me, whatever the hell that had meant.
I went to the door and opened it. Lawrence's concerned face immediately filled my vision. He shouldered his way past me and sat on my bed.
"Come here," he said, patting the spot next to him.
"No," I said, sitting in my desk chair instead.
"Fine. At least look at me."
I moved my swollen eyes to his.
"They made a fucking mistake, okay?" he said. "Stanford made a fucking mistake, not accepting you."
"Don't give me that shit," I interrupted. "It was my dream school, anyway. The point of a dream school is that there's a low likelihood you'll get in. That's all there is to it."
"What is this dream school bullshit?" He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "If there's anything I know about you, Ashley, it's that you don't leave anything up to dreams. For as long as I've known you, you've deserved every goddamn thing that you've gotten, and you deserve to be somewhere that recognizes everything you've done. You are the hardest worker I know. Do not let those assholes in admission be the reason you lose faith in yourself."
There was a brief silence. His chest heaved up and down. "Say something," he urged, looking concerned.
There were a million thoughts running through my head, a million questions. Why me? Why did we have to drift apart? Why do I set myself up for disappointment? Instead, I said the pitiful thing that I would've been ashamed to say to anyone else. "I really wanted to go to Stanford, Lawrence," I said, my eyes burning.
He stood up and wrapped his arm around my neck, pulling my head against his shirt. It was warm and smelled like detergent. It smelled nice. I suddenly thought about Wedekind's sweaty t-shirt experiment, where they had women smell men's shirts and discovered that women were particularly attracted to the shirts of men with the most dissimilar MHC genes. The smell of Lawrence's shirt didn't ignite my ovaries, but it smelled like comfort and an old friend.
"Let it out," he said. "Let it out on me."
That was all he needed to say for the tears to start flowing. I straight up bawled into his shirt, snotty and gross. It didn't matter, though. Lawrence had seen me with half-chewed food in my mouth and gum in my hair from the time I fell asleep on the ground. This was a cakewalk in comparison.
"God, that's nasty," he said after I was done.
I let out a watery laugh. "Sorry."
"I would gladly let you do it again, though I'd rather you didn't," he said. "Now, do you want to watch some Black Mirror and order buffalo wings?"
"Fuck yeah, I do."
"Alright, fire up the computer. I'll go make the order." He left the room, and I brushed away the remnants of my tears, letting out a surprised oh at my reflection. Even for me, that was icky. I was messy-haired and wearing my ugliest pineapple pajamas, and I briefly considered changing. But if Lawrence hadn't cared then, he wouldn't care now. Besides, they were comfortable.
"Do you still want the sauce to be burn-your-anus-spicy?" Lawrence called from my hallway.
"Hell yeah. I want to shit fire."
"You're fucking disgusting. Have I ever told you that?"
"Only a thousand times."
Sabrina had considerately left the house to us, along with a plate of peanut butter apple slices that I crunched up in seconds. We feasted on chicken wings, he listened to me psychoanalyze every character in Black Mirror, and it felt like old times. It made me miss how things used to be and dread the moment when he stood up to leave. He'd fulfilled his duty as a friend in a critical moment, but I held no illusions about his commitments. So I tried my best to anchor myself in that moment, where Stanford and Katherine didn't exist. It was just me and Lawrence being the same idiots we'd been when we first met.
When I walked him to the door to say goodbye, he bumped me with his shoulder. "I'm the only one who's allowed to make you feel shitty, alright? So don't pull that crap again."
"Alright, asshole," I said, about to close the door. But he wasn't done.
"Sorry I wasn't there for you," he said. "A month ago, you would've called me, not Sabrina."
I shrugged. "Life happens. Anyway, you still ended up here."
"I'm going to try harder," he said, for once not smiling. "I want to be there for you. I want to be the first person you think of when you need to talk to someone."
I knew he was still with Katherine and that she'd still be his priority, but I couldn't help saying it. "I don't think I worked hard enough to deserve you."
I expected him to say that of course I didn't deserve him with customary Lawrence bravado. Maybe it would've been better if he'd turned the question into a joke, so I wouldn't run over his answer days later, trying to figure out what it meant. Instead, he looked me straight in the eye. "Even if you didn't, you'd still have me. See you around, Ash. And do not listen to another sad fucking playlist."
Three days later, I got into Harvard. I called Lawrence first.
All he said was, "See now, those fuckers know what they're doing."
Moving to Boston required a lot of mental willpower, mostly because I had to put up with a maudlin Sabrina. If I had to hear another paraphrase about how I was leaving the nest, I would go certifiably insane. At some point in our cohabitation, she'd assigned herself the role of my surrogate mother, burdening herself emotionally in a way I'd never asked for.
"What am I going to do without you?" she wailed on the night before I left. I'd indulged her with action movies and cheesy popcorn, the two of us crammed onto my tiny bed. Ever since she and John happened, I'd refused to go on her bed unless I'd seen with my own eyes that the sheets had come straight out of the dryer.
"Oh, shut up. Now you and John can have sex in peace."
She thumped me with a pillow before pulling me into a hug. "I'm going to miss you, you antisocial freak," she said. I hid my smile against her shoulder.
Lawrence drove me to the airport after I got smothered in Sabrina's hugs, a homemade salad in the bag at my feet. We didn't talk the whole ride there. It seemed like he was thinking hard about something, and I didn't want to bother him.
"Can you believe we're graduated?" he asked finally, as we rolled into the parking lot of the airport.
"No. I still feel like an unprepared freshman."
"You are one. At least you're still going to school. I'm going into the workforce." He shuddered. "I'm going to have to suck a lot of dick out there."
"Don't pretend like you're not going to enjoy it. Get promoted fast, alright? Then you can take me to all the nice restaurants and we can stop eating Burger King."
"I would never give up Burger King. If anything, I'll get promoted so I can eat more of it."
"Do what makes you happy, I guess."
He walked me all the way to security.
"Guess this is goodbye," he said.
"Yeah." I nodded. I had no idea when I'd see him again. We'd joked about visits to the east coast, but flights were expensive, and vacation days were limited. It seemed like a dramatic moment, my leaving and all, but the truth was that we had various methods of communication, and Lawrence had Katherine. There would be no fantasies about words left unsaid.
He faced me, looking like he wanted to say something important. Instead, what came out of his mouth was, "I hope the East Coast will instill better music taste in you."
I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. "Fat chance." Maybe I was catching emotions from my parents and Sabrina. Either way, in a display of affection uncharacteristic for me, I threw my arms around his neck. "See you, Stalker," I whispered into his ear, and then I hurried into security before I could see his reaction.
Lawrence and I kept in touch surprisingly well, despite the distance between us. I told him about the obsessive professor who was advising my research, and he told me about his overbearing managers. We even managed to video call a couple times. The distance was good for our friendship. Without being able to rely on face-to-face contact, we chatted even more than usual.
When a three-day weekend came up, he flew to Boston, sending me a bunch of annoying pictures of his fancy first class footrest, thanks to his overinflated engineering salary. Despite his pretentiousness, I couldn't help looking forward to his arrival to take my mind off lab work.
He still had the same psychotic grin that widened at the sight of me. The only difference was how he dressed. We used to share hoodies and sweatpants, which were still my clothing of choice. But with his plaid button-up and messy hair, he looked like a well-educated slacker.
"Have your music tastes improved?" he asked the moment he saw me.
"Have your culinary tastes improved?" I retorted.
He brandished a greasy bag of Carl's Jr. "I only have a taste for the best. If you're good, maybe I'll share."
"Oh yeah? Well, you'll be glad to hear that I downloaded the entire One Direction deluxe album just for this special day."
"Is it too late for me to blow myself up?"
"Never. Say the word, and I will gladly teach myself the art of homemade bombs."
In the car, he ate his burger while I peppered him with questions about Sabrina. "I hear she and John are thinking about marriage."
"Jesus," Lawrence said around his burger. "Well, John's putting up the good fight. She apparently threatened to withhold sex, but he managed to change her mind. My boy's doing me proud."
"Gross," I muttered.
We sat in silence for a while, interrupted only by the sounds of his satisfied chewing, until I asked the question that I'd been summoning up the courage to ask for the past couple minutes. "What about Katherine?" I asked, casting a sneaky look at him out of the corner of my eye. "Are you hearing the wedding bells?"
He went preternaturally still, then slowly put down his burger. "We broke up," he said.
I fixed my eyes back on the road and tried to keep my voice casual. "Oh. You didn't tell me. When did it happen?"
"About a month after you left, actually. Sorry I didn't tell you. I thought it was something I needed to figure out for myself."
He shrugged, staring just as hard out the windshield. "The sex was good. We got along just fine. But I realized I wasn't okay with just fine. Want a fry?"
I let him feed me a curly fry, all the while thinking about this new development. Did it change things? For him, probably not. For me… I didn't know if I was ready to answer that question yet.
We slipped into the rhythm of things easily. Despite our long-distance communication, being face-to-face was just so much better. Seeing his face collapse into laughter, being able to shove him around when he invariably insulted me.
I showed him around campus, and he poked fun at how elitist the whole institution seemed. He was in a great mood, better than I'd ever seen him. This job of his suited him because he was good at it, and I was glad.
I'd imagined that we'd run out of things to talk about pretty soon, but the best thing about being friends with someone for so long was that you could just spend hours rehashing stories from the past when you got bored of talking about the present.
"Remember when you guys got in trouble for opening that window in the dorms?" I asked while we hiked up to a vista point near the university to catch the sunset. "And the RAs held that meeting where they lectured us for thirty minutes on safety and following the rules?"
"I was scared to death," Lawrence said, flicking a pine needle off his shirtsleeve. "I totally thought they were going to tell my parents. Until I found out that they don't tell anything to parents once you're in college. My life started the day I discovered that."
"If you weren't such a reckless idiot, that would never be an issue."
"Say what you will, but being stupid has led to some of the best memories of my life. Remember when we first met?"
"God, that was so long ago. But I still remember. You interrupted my studying in the quietest library on campus. That was literally the one place where you should not have been networking, but there you were."
"I have a secret to tell you about that day."
I raised an eyebrow. "A secret? You've been holding out on me a lot recently."
He looked duly chastened. "I wasn't ever going to share this one."
"Okay, let's have it. What is it?"
"I talked to you because I thought you were cute."
"That's your big secret?" We'd crested the ridge, and now I placed my hands on my hips, looking out into the distance. "I'm not stupid, Lawrence. I know there are motives behind the things people do. Even someone as unhinged as you."
He moved himself in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders, effectively blocking my view. There wasn't a hint of a smile to be found on his face. "I talked to you because of that, but then you were a frigid bitch, and I thought it would go away. And it did. At least, I thought it did. But then we became friends, and it came back stronger."
"Did you know that spending a lot of time with someone rewires your brain? You start seeing them differently, finding them more attractive when you didn't before." Diluting the facts into science made it easier for me to process, made it easier for me to meet the sincerity in his eyes.
"I'm telling you how I really feel, and you're treating me like a mental case."
"You're not a mental case. Your reaction is a predictable one."
"Is it? Then how come you don't feel the same way about me?"
"I never said that."
His grip on my shoulders tightened. "Do you?"
"You ran away," I said, fully aware that I wasn't answering his question. It was easy to rationalize Lawrence's feelings for me, but the full consequence of what that meant about our friendship was only now registering. "You let our friendship ebb and flow, and before we could do anything about it, you dated Katherine so you could put an end to what you felt." My lip trembled. The words were coming out of my mouth the moment I thought them. "All of this without ever indicating to me that you felt the way you did. You were a fucking coward, Lawrence."
He ran a hand through his hair, pain in his eyes. "Can't you understand how difficult it is to say this kind of shit to your best friend? You know me better than anyone else. How could I put that at risk?"
"I do. You are to me what I am to you. But I didn't go and get a boyfriend. You knew how you felt, and you still started dating Katherine, rather than take a risk. You said you'd planned on never sharing that secret. Then where would we be?" I squeezed my eyes shut, opened them again to see his face, the face I'd become so familiar with over the past five years. The emotion I saw on it now was unfamiliar, or maybe I'd seen it before, but never been able to recognize it. Suffering and hope. "It's been so long, Lawrence. We've been friends for so long. Is anything more possible?"
"How will you know, if you don't try?"
"I waited for you so long," I said, my voice almost a whisper. "I left. I live in Massachusetts now, for fuck's sake."
"We can make it work. If anyone can make it work, it's the two of us."
I sat on the ground, the pine needles digging into my butt. I stared down at the dirt. "I don't know. I don't know."
I heard him sit down next to me and run a hand down my back. Lawrence had never been touchy with me, but now it seemed like some dam on physical contact had broken. I was too numb to feel it. "I'm sorry I did this to you," he said. "But you waited for me. So I'll wait for you. However long it takes."
When I looked up again, the sun had already set, and the sky was rapidly darkening.
We headed down the mountain together, and it was awkward until I accidentally smacked Lawrence with a tree branch that I pushed out of my way. He cussed me out, and then we were sinking back into easy, casual conversation about happenings back home, careful not to touch any topics that would allude to what had happened at the vista point. That night, he texted me that there was a work emergency and he had to fly back early. Relief and sadness warred within me. I'd always told him I never regretted things, but letting him go without even a goodbye became one.
A couple days later, he requested to share a playlist with me, putting an end to my self-agony and anxiety that he'd taken back all the feelings he'd ever felt for me.
It was called "When a Boy Loves a Girl." Against all good sense, I started listening to it. The first song was "Candy Shop," which was completely offensive and unromantic. But I'd been friends with Lawrence long enough to know this wasn't his indirect way of asking me for a blowjob, but rather asking me to remember our history. If I was a stronger person, I wouldn't have listened to it. But I did, and afterwards, I wanted to call him so badly it hurt.
The playlist was my glimpse into Lawrence's mind. More specifically, the part of his mind where I was concerned.
When a Boy Loves a Girl by Lawrence Mathews:
"Candy Shop" 50 Cent
"We Can Make Love" SoMo
"Or Nah" Ty Dolla $ign
"Wasn't Expecting That" Jamie Lawson
"i hate u, i love u" gnash
"What Now" Rihanna
"I Want You So Bad" Glades
"Tonight I'm Getting Over You" Carly Rae Jepsen
"Miss Movin' On" Fifth Harmony
"These Are the Lies" The Cab
"I Can't Fall in Love without You" Zara Larsson
"Take Me Back" Christopher, Matoma
"I'm a Slave 4 U" Britney Spears
Unfortunately, our Spotify activity was totally public, and Sabrina obsessively followed my listening activity because, according to her, it was the only way she knew what I was thinking and how I was doing since I was such an "emotionally repressed hermit who refused to make the first move."
"What did I tell you?" she crowed over the phone, after calling me persistently until I answered. "I said he'd come around, didn't I? I knew it the moment he broke up with Katherine, but I wanted to wait to be sure. How do you feel?"
"It took him five fucking years, Sabrina," I said measuredly.
"You don't know how lucky you are. Some guys never figure it out. They're that stupid. God, this is so delicious! You have all the control. All of it! You could probably get him on his knees, if you wanted to."
"I'm not a power-hungry despot, and he's not some subservient serf I've got plowing my land and paying me tithes, so I don't see how I'd ever want that."
"That boy does not want to plow your land," Sabrina said sagely.
"Do not even go there."
She sighed. "You're so boring. By the way, I'm pretty sure John's going to propose to me on Tuesday. You're invited to our wedding. So there's your excuse to come back home, if you needed one."
"Congratulations in advance?" Sabrina had been working towards this proposal forever, so it was no surprise that she'd finally been sufficiently annoying for John to commit to a lifetime of her. I pitied him. He had no idea what he was in for.
"Thanks. And you know what the best wedding present would be? If you and Lawrence banged, and I got to say 'I told you so.'"
As usual, Sabrina was no help whatsoever, but her perspective was refreshing. I spent the next couple days applying the context of Lawrence's feelings for me to all the moments we'd had together, trying to figure out if they soured those precious platonic memories. I'd never had a serious relationship. Guys caused more grief than joy. It'd never been that way with Lawrence, but was it because he was special, or just the unique circumstances of our friendship?
I thought about it long and hard, but then realized I could save myself the trouble by just doing nothing at all. Things were fine the way they were, even this weird purgatory where we had to tread carefully around each other. I couldn't bring myself to compromise our pleasant coexistence. Additionally, there were other things that required my attention, like research papers and conferences. I listened to his playlist, though. Lawrence's heartbreak songs were great for my productivity.
After five days of radio silence between the two of us, I saw that he'd added a new song to his playlist.
"Can't Help But Wait" by Trey Songz.
I rolled my eyes. He knew how much I hated Trey Songz and his fake gangsta music. I didn't want to be the one to message him first, so instead, I created my own playlist.
When a Boy is a Yellow-Bellied Idiot by Ashley Canady
"FU" Miley Cyrus
"Starboy" The Weeknd
"Love Runs Out" OneRepublic
"U & Ur Hand" P!nk
"Jar of Hearts" Christina Perri
"Somebody That I Used to Know" Gotye
The next day, he added "Make Me (Cry)." I responded with "Stop Crying Your Heart Out" by Oasis.
Then he added "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart" and "My Heart Will Go On." The only appropriate responses to those were "Really Don't Care" by Demi Lovato and "Let Us Move On" by Dido. It became a ritual for me: waking up and scrolling to his playlist to see what sad angst-ridden song he'd added, then retaliating. Spotify had become our mode of communication.
Sabrina called me again. "For God's sake, stop taunting the poor boy. Should I go with a lavender or rose theme for the wedding?"
"I could care less," I said as I scrolled through Lawrence's playlist. Our little rivalry had grown it to almost a hundred songs. We'd started talking again, neither of us mentioning his little confession up on the mountain, but the conversation was continuing implicitly on Spotify. It looked like today's addition was "Crawling Back to You" by Daughtry. I snorted, going through the songs I'd been listening to recently, and adding one to my own playlist that I thought summed up my feelings pretty well.
"Don't make me regret the honor I'm about to bestow upon you."
I stopped scrolling. "What?"
"I want you to make our playlist for the wedding. I know you'd just bitch endlessly if I made you a bridesmaid, so this is my way of telling you that your silent plea for help has been heard."
I took a breath. "Thank you."
"Don't cry. It'll make me cry."
"Damn it, it's just me again."
My phone lit up with an incoming call, so I told Sabrina to suck it up and switched over.
"'Niggas' by Kamaiyah? Really? You're not even trying anymore." He sounded almost angry, and little unwelcome trembles radiated throughout my body.
"Who are you to criticize me? At least my playlist doesn't look like it was created by some over-emotional tween."
"It's what you do to me." The humor went out of his voice. "When are we going to talk about this, Ashley?"
I picked at a hangnail, not at all ready to have this conversation. Why couldn't we have stuck to Spotify? "I don't know."
"Do you really want to spend a lifetime avoiding me? When we could be spending that time embracing our newfound love?"
My grimace definitely wasn't brought on by the pain from the hangnail. "That's so weird. Don't say that again."
"Yeah, you're right. That was kind of weird." He sounded vaguely sheepish but recovered quickly. "I know you have feelings for me, though. And you forgave me. You did the moment you created your subpar playlist. So who's being the coward now?"
"Whatever," I replied intelligently. The problem with people knowing you well was that they called you out on your bullshit. I was being a hypocrite, and Lawrence knew it. Now I knew it too, and I didn't like how it was making me feel.
"I said I'd wait," he said softly, "But there's no point if you're going to ignore what we both know exists."
"Then maybe you shouldn't," I said flatly.
"Maybe I shouldn't."
I hung up, feeling even more at a loss than before. If I was avoiding this relationship with Lawrence because I was afraid of what it meant for our friendship, how come it seemed like that very avoidance was what would end it?
"You look rounder. Did you put on weight?"
I glared at Sabrina. "I'm going to be the better person today and ignore that because I know you've been dealing with a lot of stress lately, which makes you prone to lashing out." Self-consciously, I tugged at my dress. It did feel tighter. After the disaster that had convinced me I was better off being alone forever, I'd looked for some form of comfort that could replace the loss of my best friend. I'd found it in instant ramen and sea salt flavored Pop Chips. Eating a bucket of wings from KFC was a fair substitute for the happiness I'd felt every time he'd punched me in the shoulder and called me a dumbass. Eating cinnamon twists from Taco Bell made me feel closer to him.
She smacked me with her bouquet. "Don't get all shrink on me. You did, didn't you? Stress eating." She shook her head mournfully. "The silent enemy."
I already wanted to get out of here and dive into some deep-fried potato wedges. "Let's get this wedding over with."
"Lawrence is here already," Sabrina said. "In case you were interested."
I had to strain every muscle to resist whipping my head around. "Oh, really?"
"He looks good. One of my bridesmaids asked about him."
I swallowed against the sudden lump in my throat, dodging Sabrina's inquisitive eyes. Nobody knew what had happened between the two of us; even the thought of how I'd left off our conversation made me writhe in shame. "Wonderful." For all his promises about waiting, he'd sure moved on fast in the past two months. It was unreasonable for me to have those expectations, especially when I'd been so mean. Before that, the two of us had never had a fight. Arguments that invariably annoyed someone, but one of us always broke the silence, usually Lawrence. This time, nobody had, and now two months had passed and the loss had grown more painful as I realized Lawrence had no intention of talking to me ever again. Our Spotify playlists were eternally frozen, his at "Crawling Back to You" and mine at "Niggas." It didn't feel good.
I thought I'd be able to avoid him for the entirety of the wedding, but it was not to be. I arrived late to the grassy field where the ceremony was taking place, and there wasn't an empty seat to be seen, except the one next to a dark-haired man whose familiarity brought a fresh ache to my chest.
"Hey, sit down," hissed someone.
I hurried over and met Lawrence's blue-eyed gaze, getting a strange sense of déjà vu. "Can I sit here?" I whispered.
He stared back impassively. "I don't know, can you?"
"Oh, for God sake," I muttered, irritation bubbling up inside of me and eclipsing any guilt I'd previously felt. Without waiting for his permission, I sat down.
"Did you get fatter?"
Heat rushed to my head. It was like nothing had happened and he thought he could just call me out like usual. I welcomed the murderous feelings that rose up like dear old friends. "Yes. Leave me alone."
"You used to never eat. What happened?"
"Nothing. I just never realized how good fried chicken was."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you for the past five years."
"Well, now I know."
"What else did you realize while we weren't talking?"
"That I'm in love with you." It slipped out. I'd never been good at keeping secrets from Lawrence, especially in his presence. It wasn't balanced at all, since I couldn't read him at all, but it worked because Lawrence was so open. With the exception of his love for me, which arguably was the one thing he shouldn't have kept to himself.
My words shut him up, or maybe it was Sabrina's entrance. Everyone turned around to look at her as she entered, and even I had to admit she looked resplendent and not at all like an evil mastermind in her innocent white dress.
I thought we would just pretend that I hadn't said anything, but then he asked, "Do you mean that?" even as we both kept looking straight ahead at Sabrina.
"No, I'm just fucking with you. In fact, this whole thing has been a big, fat joke, and I just thought it'd be funny for us not to talk at all for two months."
"Come on, don't be mad just because you caught some feelings." There was a hint of laughter in his voice, like he totally thought the whole thing was a big, fat joke. I realized the two of us were still turned around and staring at the spot where Sabrina had entered, even though she'd made her way onto the stage a long time ago. The woman sitting behind me leveled me with a disapproving look. I quickly turned around, but not before glaring daggers at Lawrence.
I ignored Lawrence through the minister's droning, but when they got to the vows, his hand covered mine. It was warm and rough, though I had no idea how that was possible when he spent most of his time with it curved over a mouse. I didn't remove it, but I didn't look at him either.
When Sabrina and John kissed and everyone exploded with applause, Lawrence turned to me, and the look in his eyes took me off-guard. It was happiness, and I realized I'd seen versions before. Those times we'd studied for Psych 199 together over nachos, when we managed to catch the sunset on our way back from the library, when I raged over an inaccurate portrayal of mental illness while we watched Netflix. I could put a word to it, probably. But I didn't want to. Those things, after all, had all been shades of what I saw on his face now, something uncontained and unafraid. "You love me," he said.
"Yes, you idiot." I got up to follow the parade of people filing towards the part of the meadow that had been repurposed for reception, clearly all targeting the open bar. "But if you think this changes anything, think again."
"It changes everything." He pulled me to him. I fell into his chest with an oomph. Unwittingly, I grabbed onto his biceps to steady myself, looking up. He smirked down at me, and instead of wanting to punch him, I wanted to kiss him. "Come on, dance with me."
"I'm fat. I'll crush you." I felt ungainly and awkward, doing this dance of sexual attraction with my best friend.
"That's fine. I'm used to carrying your ass." He tugged me towards the dance floor, where Sabrina and John were wrapping up their newlywed dance. Sabrina looked incandescently happy as she slowly swayed to "A Thousand Years." I was glad she was enjoying this first half of my playlist.
I pulled him the other way. "Um… we might want to put some distance between Sabrina and me. I did something that she might not be very happy about." She'd requested something "romantic that segues into risqué," and I'd done my best to meet her specifications, although I'd thrown in a little something for Lawrence and myself that she probably wouldn't appreciate.
Lawrence gathered up my hands in one of his, placing them at the back of his neck. I smiled tentatively up at him, and he pinched my butt.
He grabbed my face and kissed me then, fast and rough, like he was hurtling down some unknown path and knew nothing beyond the fact that he wanted me with him. I was so still that he pulled back to look at me worriedly. "Sorry—" he started to say, until I pulled against his neck so that we were kissing again and going down that unfamiliar road together.
We were making out like hormonal teenagers and ignoring everyone who bumped into us and said variations of "get a room" until "Candy Shop" came on and I heard Sabrina's indignant shriek.
"DJ, skip this song right now!" she yelled, stomping her way towards the platform. There were too many people standing between them, so she turned her sights towards me instead. "I said risqué, not ratchet!"
Lawrence and I looked at each other. "Do you want to get out of here?" he asked.
"Do I ever." I'd waited five years for this crap, and I wasn't about to miss out on any more because of a vengeful bride. We ran off the dance floor, my hand firmly clasped in his, to the raunchy grunts of 50 Cent. In the darkness, Lawrence couldn't see the giant grin on my face, but I was certain that he knew it was there.
If things went according to plan, Sabrina would get that wedding present from me after all.