Chapter 22

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“You’re single!” Lena shouted and jumped on my bed.  I tried to keep still so she didn’t stomp on me.  Maybe she would think I was sleeping and would leave me alone.  The thought nearly made me chuckle.

“Not really,” I croaked, my eyes still closed to the false brightness of a dreary May day.  If I ignored her then she would go away.

“You’re either single or in a relationship.  This isn’t Facebook; I’m not giving you an ‘it’s complicated’ option as a scapegoat.”

“But it is complicated,” I whined.  Too complicated to ponder with a sleep-muddled head.

“Life is complicated.  Get. Over. It.”

To think, some people had best friends they could rely on when they were in a slump.  Mine liked to kick me while I was down.  “Thanks for the sympathy.”

“You don’t need sympathy,” she warned.

“I don’t?”  Heaven only knew what Lena’s remedy for singularity was.

“No.  What you need for the night is a beer, someone to make out with, and your best friend.  Hmmm… if only you drank and had fewer morals.  I guess you’ll have to make do with the latter.”

“If only I had a best friend,” I said into my pillow.

“What would you call me?”

“Oh, the words I could use to describe you.  For starters, you’re a huge pain in my—”

“Before you say something that you’ll regret—” she interrupted.

“I never regret telling the truth,” I muttered beneath my breath.

“Would just any friend make you this?”

My eyes popped open, and I threw the pillow off my face.  “What is that?”

Lena shook the shiny disc in her hand like a tube of maraca.  “It’s a CD.”

“Really?  Wow.  What does it do?”

She laughed.  “Funny, Mer.”

“Thanks.”  I rolled over to stare at her.  She was excited; the feeling vibrated the air around us, attempting to be contagious.  I ignored its pull.

“Listen to it.”

“It’s not filled with a bunch of depressing songs, is it?” I couldn’t handle depressing today.

“But I thought you liked depressing.”

“Not right now I don’t.”

She hugged me, but made no move to get off me afterward.  “Don’t worry, Mer.  It’s not depressing.  It’s the best of break-up for the twenty-first century.  A single-girl’s mix, if you will.”

“So it’s a compilation of whiny women bashing their rotten ex’s?”

“Oh yeah,” she said enthusiastically.

“Kelly Clarkson?” I guessed.

“Twice.”

“It’s too bad I’m the only one who gets to listen to it.”

Lena glared at me from two inches away.  I suppressed the increasingly unfamiliar urge to laugh.

We are single,” she said, trying to be convincing.

“No, I am sort of single.  You, on the other hand, have a boyfriend.”

“Alec is not my boyfriend,” she said, unable to conceal the giddiness his name produced.

“That’s not what Facebook told me,” I teased then moaned.

Facebook.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, choosing to respond to my groan instead of my comment.

“I know it’s petty, but I hate changing my relationship status online.”  It seemed so… final, so public.

“Why?”

It was almost too trivial to admit aloud.  “Because all of those people out there who I barely know but stalk me anyway will be bursting with questions that are none of their business.  I can’t handle people who pretend to care only to appease their own curiosity.  Maybe I should just cancel my account.”

She chuckled.  “Good luck with that.”

Her blatant sarcasm set me on edge.  “What do you mean?”

“You’d only come back.”

“I think I could survive without belonging to an online social community.”

“No, you can’t,” she said seriously.  “Once you’ve joined you’ll be connected for life.  Besides, how else will you track all those random people we graduated with?  How will you rub your exciting life in their faces?”

“Right now my life is depressing.”

Right now.  But not for long, I don’t think.”

“I guess I don’t have to do anything right now.”  All I needed to do was survive.

“No, you don’t.  Especially since you’re not really single,” she mocked.

Lena sat on top of my stomach and pinched my cheeks together.  I scowled, and she smacked me on the forehead with the palm of her hand.

“Ow!  What was that for?”  I glared at her, calculating how much force would be necessary to throw her out my window.  Of course then I’d be responsible for paying for the damage.

In the end I decided it wasn’t worth breaking my bank account.

“You’re finished.”

“What are you talking about?’

“I am sick and tired of seeing you waste away while feeling sorry for yourself.  Quite frankly, Mer, it’s pathetic.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, replacing the pillow over my pathetic head.

“I detect a hint of sarcasm in your tone.  Just wait and see.”

The way she said that gave me a sick sense of foreboding.  “Oh no!  What are you planning?”

“First thing’s first.  You are going to shower, shave, and do your hair.  At that point we will talk,” she commanded.

I frowned at her highhandedness.  “Who died and made you boss?”

“Your hygiene, confidence, and self-respect.”  Instead of arguing, I sighed, knowing resistance was futile.  “Come on, Mer.  Being single is a good thing.  You never know who you’re going to meet.  Not knowing who you will end up with is the exciting part.”

“I’ve known who I was going to be with for five years,” I pointed out.  Knowing was comfortable.

“Seventeen was too young to decide something like that.  Besides, I don’t know why you’re so depressed.  Holden should have snapped you up when he had the chance.  You are a prize.  If he didn’t realize that by now then you dodged a bullet.”

The truth behind her words scared me.  I was nervous about my future, worried that I had made an irreversible mistake, and yet I was… relieved.

“He would have figured it out.”  Eventually.

“Hindsight will speed up the process.  Besides, you shouldn’t have to wait, pressure, or coerce.  If his timing doesn’t match yours then it wasn’t meant to be.”

“You sure are knowledgeable for a girl who is in her first relationship.”

“I have high standards,” she sniffed.  “Alec is the only one to even come close.  Can you imagine how much I’ve had to grow to be able to admit that?”  Her eyes were wistful, no doubt envisioning her boyfriend.

“I’m proud of you.  I feel like I should get you a card or something.”

“Totally unnecessary.  Besides, Hallmark probably doesn’t have one appropriate for this particular occasion.”

As commanded, I showered, shaved, and did my hair.   There was freshness to my face, a light I hadn’t expected to see.  I looked… hopeful.

A knock sounded at the door, pulling my gaze from my reflection.

“Lena, are you going to get that?” I shouted.

“Can’t!” She yelled back, her words barely lifting above Lil’ Wayne’s raspy voice.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not decent!”

“Since when does that matter?” I mumbled to the air as I took the steps two at a time.

“Hey, Mer!” The familiar voice gave me a pang of guilt.  It had been months since I had spoken with Brian.  I was a horrible friend.

“Hey, Brian,” I said happily.

I had missed his easy-going personality.  My last few weeks had been filled with too much seriousness.

“It’s been forever,” he pointed out without a hint of anger.

I winced.  “Yeah, I know.  Since before spring break.”  A lifetime ago.

“Yeah! And now the semester is almost over.”

“It’s hard to believe.”

“You look good.”  He smiled appreciatively.

“Thanks, so do you.”

He never changed; Brian was still the dorky guy from high school with an easy, goofy smile.  We could lose contact for years, and I would still be just as comfortable with him when we were reunited.

He blushed.  “So, I was wondering…”

The expectancy in his voice made me stiffen.  “Wondering what, Brian?”  My attempt at a light tone failed miserably.

His next words came out in a rush.  “I was wondering that since you’re single maybe we…”

Lena was a dead woman when I got back upstairs.

“We, what?”  I didn’t bother trying to explain the complicated status of my relationship.  Besides, it wasn’t any of Brian’s business—just like it hadn’t been any of Lena’s business.

“Well, what I meant was, maybe you and I…”  He let his sentence hang and offered me a hopeful look from beneath his short lashes.  It felt like someone had taken a gavel to the base of my skull.

“Brian, I am not single.”  Not really, not yet.

“But Lena said—”

“It’s complicated,” I hedged.  “Besides, you’re a really great friend but I’m just not attracted to you that way.”  Or any way that mattered.

“That’s okay,” he said, smiling slightly.

It took me a second to realize his implication.  “That’s… that’s okay?” I squeaked.  “You deserve more than a friendship in a romantic relationship.”

“If friendship is the only thing you feel for me then I’ll take it,” he said to his shoes.  When he looked at me his eyes were filled with determination.  “I’d take you any way I could.”

Did he understand what I was saying?  “I’m not attracted to you, Brian.”

“I know, but things like attraction could come with time.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

Brian frowned.  “There’s someone else, isn’t there?”

“No,” I answered too quickly.

There wasn’t someone else.  Why did everyone come to that particular conclusion?  Being purely single wasn’t impossible.  People did it all of the time.

“Then why—”

“Why are you pressing the issue?” I interrupted.

“Because if I don’t do it now I may never get another chance,” his voice was desperate, pleading.

“What makes you think that?”

“I don’t think, I know.”

“I’m sorry, Brian.”  I really was.

I reached out to touch his shoulder but let my hand drop.  He didn’t need me to comfort him right now.  So I escaped into the safe haven of my apartment.

“Lena!” I shrieked.  The scuffling noise from upstairs stopped.  “We need to talk.”  I stomped up the steps to my former best friend’s room.

“Hey, Mer,” she greeted.

“Why did you tell Brian I was single?”

“What are you talking about?” she asked innocently—too innocently.

“Don’t play stupid with me.  I do not want to spend the last week of the semester warding off a bunch of over-zealous suitors.”

Lena had the gall to smile at me.  “Why not?”

“Because I’m not interested in them.”

“How do you know?  Maybe you haven’t met all of them.  Or maybe you have met them and haven’t given them the opportunity to woo you.”

Woo me?  What is this, nineteenth-century London?  I’m not ready to date yet.  I don’t even know if I’m allowed to date.”  What a slap in Holden’s face if I went on a date with someone only a day after he and I had ended our relationship.

Allowed?  Do you need to ask your mommy?”

“Ha-ha.”

“You’re single, right?” she pressed.

“I don’t know!”

This entire nightmare would be over soon.  We had ten days before graduation, that’s all I needed to endure until Lena stopped trying to turn me into a less attractive, brunette version of her.

“I’m sorry for telling Brian, okay?”  For once there was sincerity in her tone.

“Please, please keep the information to yourself.  I need to figure out some things before I move on from here,” I begged, praying she would leave me be.

“You are going to move on, aren’t you?”

The thought was terrifying, unknown. “I’m not sure.”

“You know you should though, right?” she whispered.

“Yeah, I do.  But—”

“But what?”

“But it feels like it’s been fifty years since I’ve dated.  How do you even know if you like someone for the right reasons?”   I couldn’t remember the first step.

“Why?  Who do you like?” she asked, too excited for my own good.

“Come on, Lena!  We’re not in third grade anymore.”  And there was no way I was going to tell her who I could be interested in.  It was silly, stupid, and useless.

“You have to tell me!  Pleaseee?  I swear I won’t tell anyone else.”

“I know you won’t tell anyone.”

“Well then what’s the problem?”

“There is no problem.  I don’t like anyone.”  It would be too soon for that.

“Not even me?”  Lena batted her eyelashes and exhaled loudly.

“Not right now.”  Not when she was being nosey.

“But you just said—”

“I’m speaking hypothetically,” I allowed.

“I just want you to know that I’m not buying what you’re selling, Westbrook.”  I glared at her, willing for her to let the issue drop.  “Okay, okay.  In order to answer you I have to understand what you’re talking about.  But when you’re being all cryptic…”

“Like, how do you know if you’re with someone because they’re safe and familiar or if it’s because they’re the one?  Or if you think you like someone but only because they’re new and exciting?”

“And sexy?”

“Focus!”  I didn’t have time for her dangerous fishing expeditions.

“Focused.  I don’t know, Mer.  I guess you just know stuff like that.  If you’re meant to be with who you’re with then you aren’t going to sway from them.  Some guys are just there to tempt you, to try and draw you away.”

Too often I had watched from the sidelines as that scenario had played out in front of me.  “Yeah, I know.”

“But then sometimes the right guy is jumping up and down, waving his arms in the air, and shouting, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’”

Something Lena had said stayed with me long after she left my room.  In five years I hadn’t seen any man worth swaying for, until now.  But even then, I couldn’t hear him yelling.  It was just the opposite; he rarely spoke at all.  Instead, I was the one shouting, frantically waving my arms in the air, and daring to hope he would notice.

* * *

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