by Jeremy Bursey
Copyright 2016 by Jeremy Bursey
All rights reserved.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
“The Girl that Got Away”
As the car sped from the driveway, mental images of the last three years flashed through his mind. Thoughts of expensive dinners and cheap ice cream came and went like lightning. Pictures of the past hovered out of reach, haunting him with the ghostly hope that he knew he would never again grasp. They mocked him with their silent pictures, invisible to everything but dreams. He stood there on that cold pavement, trying to touch those mental images. But he felt nothing on his fingertips. Just a phantom pain in the making. When his reverie exploded and his thoughts evaporated into afterimages, he found himself staring across the void at the fancy burgundy ’98 Toyota Camry disappearing from the street into darkness. The pit of his stomach lurched. He knew he was likely to never see her again.
Then his body shook. He pitched himself forward at the waist to stifle the real pain he was feeling in his gut. If this moment were true and not a game, then he was experiencing his first minutes of an indefinite heartbreak. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do about that.
Gary waited by the curb to see if she would turn around. Hope was fleeting now, but as long as a trace of it existed, there was still a chance. Her heart could’ve changed as she got further away; her thoughts could’ve longed for him at least one more time.
But he wasn’t about to kid himself. Even as he pictured her vehicle reemerging from the darkness, headlights beaming through the mysterious shroud that now separated them, he knew that scene would only ever be fiction in his overactive imagination. Nikki was not the type of girl who believed she was wrong, nor the type who ever changed her mind. If she was out of his life now, she was out of his life for good.
But hope still lingered in the particles that formed the dark cloud over his head. There was always a chance she could turn around.
He sat on the pavement to figure out what had happened. Until a few minutes ago, everything had seemed okay with them, for the most part, as far as he knew. If he were being honest with himself, he’d agree that things were never perfect, which is what Nikki had often said she wanted in the relationship, but he’d always figured it was good enough—he’d always assumed she was happier with “good enough” than with nothing at all. Now he wasn’t so sure. He’d done his part to wow her with flowers and to remind her how beautiful she was, and she’d always seemed to appreciate it. Seemed. In his mind everything was going just fine. But then she sprang this devastating piece of info on him, that things were not fine at all. And that was it. That was the end. Everything he’d thought that was working out had in fact fallen apart.
The trouble with believing in something that was no longer relevant, no matter how much he wanted it, no matter how strong he held on to hope, was that he would look like a complete idiot the moment he’d try to get her back. Sure, he could’ve played the heroic lead in a romantic epic, rip off his shirt, and go chasing after his lady love like a lunatic in the night, screaming out her name. But that wasn’t his style. He was a closet lunatic with the kind of body that didn’t need undressing in public. His path to idiocy would play out more subtly. In fact, the odds were high that the only person to notice would’ve been himself.
Which was why he caught himself completely off-guard when he reached his fingers down to his belt, grabbed the hem of his T-shirt, yanked it up and over his head, and started running down the street, shouting Nikki’s name. He was about halfway down the road when he managed to pull the shirt off completely.
Even as he covered two blocks in just over a minute, he knew he was fighting a pointless battle. Not only could she not hear him, but she was so far away by now that he’d never catch her. Yet, he continued to run after her, as if tomorrow had no meaning if he couldn’t win her back.
Her echo didn’t shout back from the dark. The only voice to respond was the gentle howling of a dog on the next street over. But it didn’t stop him from crying out every minute, hoping that maybe this time she’d hear him, and maybe this time she’d respond, and maybe this time she’d admit she was wrong, change her mind, and come running back for him, even though she was driving, not running, and driving into his arms would’ve been more painful than the pain he felt from her abandonment, most likely.
By the time he got to the end of his neighborhood, he was winded. Then he glanced to his left and to his right. Nikki would’ve been long gone down the highway by now.
He shuffled his feet as he headed back home, now facing the curious stares of neighbors who had come outside to see who was causing the commotion. He gave each of them a gentle wave, but he was not at all feeling sociable. After he would flick his fingers in their directions and curl his lips in a weak smile, he would lower his head and watch the asphalt passing under his shoes. None of them asked what was wrong.
As soon as he got home, he fell to his knees beside the back tires of his car and wept. His impromptu plan didn’t work, and now he was out of sensible ideas.
“The Happy Accident”
A little over a year ago, Gary Hartland was walking along a downtown sidewalk with his friend, Shawn Sizemore, looking in shop windows for a place to grab some pizza, when he heard a terrible grinding crunch to his left. A blast of wind swept over him, nearly knocking him into the nearest windowpane and throwing Shawn to the ground. Out of reflex, Gary swung his hands in front of his body to control his forward motion, then spread them to his side when his momentum stopped and he found himself pressed against the brick wall beside the window. In the seconds before the terrifying sound of metal-chewing carnage assaulted his ears, the street had maintained a peaceful ambience of birds, light traffic, and the hiss of a large vehicle trying to stop. Prior to the ruckus, he and Shawn had been talking about how hungry they were.
When he recovered from the initial shock wave, he glanced to his side to see the results of what he had heard. Three empty cars were smashed against each other and a city bus with a damaged front end was parked diagonally against the back of the last car.
The bus had stopped half in the street, half on the sidewalk, and several downed parking meters were spilling coins around its wheels. The bicycle that was strapped to the front bumper had come within inches of hitting Gary in the back. He felt himself clawing for the bricks in the shop’s wall, even though he hadn’t told his body to do that. Shawn, who had gotten up as soon as he fell on the sidewalk, ran into the building.
Unlike the three cars, which had been mashed together into a junk sculpture, the bus had suffered minimal structural damage. But the passengers nevertheless billowed out with their hands rubbing various banged-up parts of their bodies. It seemed that most of them were feeling pain in their necks and shoulders; though, some complained about their backs and foreheads while others complained about their chests and clavicles. One man complained about his groin.
Gary stepped away from the wall and allowed himself a moment to digest the scene before him. The bus had come so close to hitting him that he was lucky to be standing right now. Even though his heart was slowing, he still felt the adrenaline raging through his system. If there were ever a time to take advantage of life and its freedoms, it was now. He began jogging in place to get in some of that exercise he had been neglecting for so long, and to steady his thoughts. He couldn’t ignore the fact that he had nearly been killed just seconds ago.
When Shawn returned to the street, his breathing now more controlled and his eyes less widened, he caught up to Gary, gave the bus a once-over, and then slapped him on the shoulder.
“One thing about nearly getting killed while minding our own business,” he said, “is that it makes you hungry for life. And when I say ‘life,’ what I really mean is ‘pizza.’”
“Pizza is life,” Gary said.
Without missing a beat, Shawn started walking down the sidewalk toward the next shop, but Gary stopped him.
“Hey, shouldn’t we stick around?” he asked.
“Why?” asked Shawn.
“Well, you know. We’re witnesses to a bus wreck. Someone might want our statement.”
Shawn thought about it for a moment. Then he shrugged it off.
“That’s ridiculous. Come on, I’m hungry.”
“No, seriously, the police might insist.”
“Insist what? We didn’t cause it. We weren’t in it. Relax. I’m sure there are plenty of store cameras around here that caught it on tape. They don’t need us. Come on, let’s eat. We only live once.”
Shawn started walking again.
“How do we know unless we wait and find out?”
Shawn stopped and turned to face him.
“Gary, look. The thing about the police is that—”
Suddenly, something to his left caught Shawn’s attention. Then he hopped to Gary’s side and nudged him in the elbow.
“Dude, hottie at ten o’clock.”
Gary followed Shawn’s gaze and noticed a petite brunette in a blue flowered dress stooped over her book bag. She was massaging the nape of her neck while scanning her cellphone for information.
“She’s your type, man,” Shawn said. “Go talk to her.”
Even though a loud, metallic wave of destruction had cluttered the soundscape just moments ago, the birds were back, and they were singing. In spite of the eight-story buildings around him, Gary was beginning to notice how blue the sky was today. And for some reason, a stupid little force beyond his control was spreading that tingling feeling throughout his body. Maybe it was adrenaline. But he was near certain it was something else.
Gary found himself staring at the woman. His center of desire was suddenly at war with his center of logic. But he tried to let logic win.
“Seriously? She was just in a bus accident.”
“Perfect. Then you know she won’t be leaving any time soon.”
Gary looked at his friend as if he’d also been in a bus accident, maybe even hit by the bus, but Shawn was awash with sincerity on his face. It seemed he actually believed this was the right time and place to meet a beautiful woman, and if Gary knew Shawn well, then he knew what he was also thinking: any time was the right time to meet a beautiful woman if she was there and alone. When Shawn glanced back at him, he smiled.
“Dude,” he said, “it’s either you or me. I figured after what Victoria did to you, you need this more than I do.”
Gary wanted to respond, but as he processed the lovely creature he was staring at, he noticed his jaw was already hanging open. The woman with the injured neck was among the most beautiful he had seen in recent memory.
Shawn was dead right about her being his type. There weren’t many who were more his type. It was true that this was the worst place and the worst time to meet a girl like her. But it was a time, and it was a place, and she was the type of girl he needed to meet. Against all sense, against all reason, he knew Shawn was right.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go talk to her.”
It had been two months since Victoria gave him the boot, and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to move on. Maybe it was typical young adult drama—he loved Victoria, she was getting bored of him, he pursued her with flowers and candy, she complained he was trying to make her fat, he told her he loved her, she told him he was crowding her, and so on—but he had invested far more of his heart into her than she had in return, and she had known what she was doing to him when she allowed him to carry on in the loveless vacuum he had somehow gotten sucked into anyway. She’d complain when he bought her gifts, and she’d complain when he didn’t, and he was often confused about what it was she wanted out of the relationship. But he was so in love with her that he’d put up with the madness. He had seen it as a badge of honor, a requirement, even, for proving his love for her was real. He had certainly made it feel real. So when the time had come that she finally shut him down, he was devastated, and he knew that destruction to his heart was real. He had learned that day that love was a sword that could swing back at the wrong moment and stab him in the balls if he wasn’t paying attention to its trajectory.
The first thing Gary realized when he zigzagged through the crush of passengers to reach the lady of his dreams was that he was making a huge mistake. His walk was wrong for starters. It had begun as a stride, but somehow morphed into a drunken waver. The more he thought about talking to her, the more he worried he’d mess things up. What was he supposed to say? Hi, I saw you from afar nursing your injuries and thought I must have you right here right now? No, that was absurd. As he dipped and dove around each disenfranchised body on that sidewalk, carving his path with the grace of a rhinoceros, he realized he had no starter line, and thus, no game.
When he got within eight feet of her, he turned around to face Shawn. Shawn had not one but both thumbs pointed up at him. And the smile on his face was beaming. He could already imagine what he was thinking. That’s my boy.
Yep, Shawn’s “boy” was about to disappoint him.
Gary turned back and tiptoed the remaining eight feet to the injured girl of his dreams. By now, she had put her phone away and was biding her time massaging the back of her neck. Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets as he thought about how to head this conversation. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head, and told himself that this whole endeavor was ridiculous. The girl had just been in a bus accident. The last thing she’d want was to be hit on by a strange guy on the street. But he was already there, just inches behind her. And it was too late to turn back. He could’ve just kept on walking, brushing his hair back like he didn’t notice her, like he had somewhere else to be past her position, like vanity or an itchy scalp was the only thing on his mind, like a sane person would do at a time like this. But he didn’t. He reached out and touched his fingers to the back of her neck.
She flinched at first—of course she did—but then she reached back, gripped his wrist, and pressed his palms tighter to her skin.
“Yeah, right there,” she said. “That’s where it’s sorest. Thanks.”
Gary had no idea what was happening. Was he making a move on her, or was he acting as an onsite therapist? The way she tilted her head back, letting her hair fall over his knuckles, brushing his hand with every rhythm of her bobbing chin, seemed like an invitation to make a move. But the way her shoulders tightened, and the way she sighed with relief, was most likely an invitation for something else, something that screamed, “Help! I’m in pain,” but in a soft-spoken, almost ecstatic kind of way.
He dared to believe the latter, which was less risky than the former. It would also yield a shallower reward, but he was content with baby steps if it meant taking bigger steps down the road. He put his other hand next to the first and began to dig his fingers into the muscles connecting the back of her neck to her shoulders. Then he let his palms float down to either edge of her wingspan and back again toward her neck, digging hard into the muscle with the gentlest touch he could muster. She whined softly as she rotated her head in complete circles.
About a minute into the massage session, Gary glanced back through the crowd to see Shawn standing alone by the shop entrance. He mouthed the words “help me” at him. Shawn turned both thumbs upward and widened his smile. That was the best advice he would give.
Gary shrugged. He was basically on his own now. He knew nothing about this girl, including her name or why she was on the bus, but he did know she was absurdly attractive and, though he couldn’t place his finger on it initially, he had breathed her in long enough to pinpoint the fragrance, so now he knew; she smelled like coconuts. Not enough information to glean the future of their relationship, but certainly enough to know that he wanted to explore the possibility of starting one with her, assuming she was single. And the only way to unlock that possibility was to start a conversation, so he started with the most appropriate icebreaker he could think of, the one that would teach him whether this adventure was even worth packing his bags for:
“So, you dating anyone?” he asked.
The girl was taken aback by his question. In fact, she turned toward him, breaking free of the grip he had on her shoulders, for a better view of him. The look on her face was quizzical. Either she was confused or upset, but she was definitely not happy. Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets, raised his eyebrows, and smiled. Last thing he wanted to do was to appear threatening.
“Pardon?” she said.
Gary glanced up toward the sky as he began bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Just making conversation,” he said. “I always ask people I meet for the first time that question.”
“You ask them if they’re dating anyone?”
“Yep. All the time.”
She turned her back to him.
“I don’t believe you. You have some nerve asking me that under the circumstance.”
Gary felt his neck tingle. He didn’t know much about how to salvage a troubled situation, but he was certainly going to try. So, he walked past her, approached the older gentleman standing a few feet away. He angled himself so that he was certain she’d see him. Then he tapped the man on his shoulder, outstretched his hand for a shake, and asked the man the exact same question.
“I am,” the man said. “But even if I weren’t, you’re not really my type. Sorry.”
The man went back to reading his cellphone screen.
Gary noticed the girl smirking at him, so he took that as an invitation to return to her side.
“See?” he said. “It’s nothing personal.”
She nodded and gave him something like a smile, though it was clearly controlled, not too friendly, but not icy, either.
“You’re clearly insane,” she said. “But I haven’t laughed so hard in a while, so I’m game. To answer your question, yes, I am.”
Gary felt his chest sinking again. But he fought hard not to show it. He smiled at her, like this was good news. He even nodded to emphasize his false sincerity.
“That’s awesome,” he said through his teeth. “It serious?”
“Like a stubbed toe.”
Gary shook his head and frowned.
“Is that a…yes? I think the expression is ‘serious like a heart attack.’”
“I know what I said, and I stand by it.” She put her hands on her hips. “Are you questioning my metaphor?”
“No, no, of course not. I just—”
“Because if you were, I’d be very upset.”
“No, I’m not questioning—”
“Because I know what I mean, and I mean what I say.”
“Yeah, of course. I just—”
The girl faced away from him again.
“Honestly, I don’t want to talk right now. Just go back to massaging the pain out of my neck please.”
Gary did as he was told. And he stayed there for the next ten minutes while the scene changed from a gaggle of meandering accident victims to a cluster of interviewees for the police inquiries. When the police came to interview him, he didn’t have much to say. But when they interviewed the girl, Gary learned the most important part about her.
“Name?” the police officer asked.
“Nikki Rose,” said the girl.
And that was how Gary met the next love of his life, Nikki Rose.
Gary and Nikki didn’t talk much after the questioned metaphor or the police statement, but he did want the opportunity to get to know her under less pressured terms, so he asked her to have dinner with him that following Friday. He made it clear that he had understood her answer about the stubbed toe. She was already with somebody. Asking her out was certainly inappropriate. But then he had an epiphany: As he rolled his fingers along her shoulders, he wondered, what right did some other guy have stealing his future wife away from him? So, he worried less about the inappropriateness of him asking out another guy’s girlfriend and more about the inappropriateness of another guy dating the woman he was going to spend his life with. As far as he was concerned, it was his duty to win her back, for the first time.
“I want to have dinner with you,” he said, in the silence between her low-volume sighs.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said. “Thought I’d already made that clear.”
“Is he here right now?”
“No, he’s running his business right now.”
“Is his business more important than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why isn’t he here right now?”
She stopped rolling her head around on her neck so that she could turn to roll her eyes at him.
“Because he’s working. That’s what people do when they have a job.”
Gary shrugged, gave her a sheepish grin.
“Okay. Just thought anyone really meant to be with you would come to your side within a few minutes of your getting into a serious accident, is all.”
“It’s not serious.”
“It’s not? Then why are you worried what he thinks if you have dinner with someone else for one night?”
“I meant the crash isn’t serious. My relationship with my man is serious.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
She resisted her laughter.
“I’m not telling you his name.”
Gary shrugged again. His hands were still on her shoulders, even though she was now turned to face him.
“Okay. If you don’t know it, that’s cool.”
“Omigod, I know my boyfriend’s name. I just don’t want to tell you.”
“Why? Does he not exist?”
Her eyes fluttered upward and her mouth sucked in the cold, dry air. She was clearly flustered now.
“Of course, just, omigod.”
Her hands floated up to her chest, and she turned her back to him as she tried to process whether she could believe what she was hearing.
“You know what?” she said. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Just shut up and massage me.”
Gary dug his fingers into her shoulders for the next minute without a word. Then he dared to speak again.
“You like shrimp parmesan?” he asked.
“Love it. Why—oh, no, I see what you’re doing. We’re not having this conversation.”
Gary smiled. He was channeling Shawn somehow, and he was not about to waste it.
“How about white wine?”
“I’m only twenty. But, yeah, I love that, too.”
“White grape juice?”
“I’m not having dinner with you. End of topic.”
Gary spent another minute in silence. He didn’t know how much longer she’d let him stay with her. But he was running out of ideas. Smooth-talking was not his foray, and the last few minutes of conversation was just a faint echo of what he’d once seen Shawn do to get a date. Shawn’s example was rubbing thin now, and when Gary glanced back to see if he could offer him additional last-minute pointers, he saw that he’d already left.
Whatever he would say to her from now on was up to his own volition.
“How about puppies?” he asked. “How do you feel about puppies?”
Nikki growled at the bus sitting dead before her. Gary could feel her shoulders tensing between his fingers.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “I’ll go out with you. Stop asking.”
She’d almost refused entirely; he could see it in her eyes. She didn’t know him, didn’t know if she wanted to know him, but she would later confess that his massage therapy skill was ultimately what tipped her thoughts in favor of him. She was not at all poetic about it, however. She had the grace of an elephant.
“You’re not attractive,” she said to him, “not to me anyway—I suppose you could be attractive to somebody—even monkeys have other monkeys they’re attracted to, I guess. But those hands of yours and the things they can do. So adequate.”
Gary was no idiot. He knew that, so far, beauty was the only thing she had going for her. She was unpleasant from the start, critical, and clearly had no interest in him. But then, that was part of the attraction. His whole life, people had been telling him of the things he couldn’t do: “You can’t become president unless you graduate from an Ivy League college; you can’t keep yourself healthy if you keep eating potato chips; you can’t date the girl of your dreams because she’ll want to date someone better than you.” He had to prove to himself, and to everyone else, that he could become president no matter where he graduated from, that he could stay healthy no matter how many bags of potato chips he might’ve devoured in a day, and that he could certainly win the heart of the girl of his dreams, that all of the can’t-dos of his life were can-dos. And, even as he asked Nikki out to dinner there next to that broken down bus amid the police officers soliciting for information about the cause of the crash, he knew that those first two can-dos were ridiculous—of course he would never become president on his education or stay healthy on a diet of fried potatoes—but he believed that the third can’t-do was every bit the can-do he knew it could be, so he accepted no fear and went in for the big ask, knowing that beauty was literally the only positive thing she could offer him at the moment. At this point, he didn’t care. At this point, he had to show his resolve. She could’ve said anything, but he would’ve said anything back, so at the end of the day, she had no choice but to accept his invitation, even if she technically had all the choice in the world.
My hands are more than adequate, he thought. My hands can change your life, if you let me work my magic. Of course, his external machismo was nowhere near as strong as his internal confidence. Externally, he was still a little underdeveloped. His elegance was also like that of an elephant’s.
“I have hands,” he said. “Nice hands. Good hands.”
Nikki waited for him to clarify, but he didn’t. He just stood there smiling at her, like he had given her the best news of her life. She simply curled her lip and nodded.
Gary grabbed her right biceps and held his hand there.
“I’m never going to date anyone as beautiful as you, so please have mercy on me. One dinner, and then make your decision.”
She started forward then stopped. A look of confusion crossed her face.
“Well, if I go out with you, then I’ve already made my decision, right?”
“Well, I mean—”
Before he could finish his thought, she smiled at him.
“You really think I’m that pretty?” she asked.
He didn’t know how to answer her properly, so he simply grinned and nodded. He could feel his cheeks flushing and the sweat beginning to well around his neck. At this point, his Shawn-talk was diminished and now he was beginning to regress back into Gary-talk. Better to keep silent.
She gave him a shy smile.
“Okay, that’s flattering. Maybe I can have one dinner with you, just to see if you mean what you say.”
He wasn’t sure what part of what he’d said needed proof, or how he would even prove it, but at least she was willing to offer him the opportunity to prove it anyway, somehow. He supposed the big challenge was in figuring out how to prove to a woman that she’s beautiful when beauty was predominantly subjective.
“Can I just say what I mean and move on to getting to know you better?”
Her shy smile flattened out. She was back to serious mode.
“Er, no. You say I’m beautiful. As flattering as I think that is, I don’t know you enough to trust you or the words you say. So, you need to prove it.”
He folded his arms over his chest and nodded.
“Okay, I’ll prove it. No problem.” It was definitely a problem.
“Good, so we’ll meet at Yoyo Crunch Bistro five o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Obviously I don’t have a car, so you’ll have to drive.”
He was taken aback by the time.
“Why so early?” he asked.
“Because I have a hot date at seven. Don’t want to be late. I think my boyfriend is going to propose.” Her face stiffened. “But that’s none of your business, is it?”
“Hot Girl, Cold Date”
If not for his deep attraction to her, Gary would’ve canceled his dinner with Nikki. He didn’t care that she was unfriendly toward him, and he didn’t care that she’d essentially called him ugly. But he did care that she had another date after him, and he didn’t think that was fair. He knew she would be spending their entire dinner thinking about the other guy. He wanted her to respect him, to actually want to go out with him for a second time, so he had to come up with a plan to get her mind in the right place, on him.
He figured flowers weren’t going to be enough. Flowers were generic, the kind of thing a man gifts a woman he already knows and has nothing left to prove to, and that didn’t come close to describing his relationship with Nikki. No, he had to go bigger. But relationships, and the art of building relationships, wasn’t exactly his thing. When he was dating Victoria, he had gone all in, but that amounted to nothing much in the end. He knew that whatever he did for her probably wouldn’t work for Nikki, either.
Against his better judgment, he asked Shawn for advice. Shawn, never short on ideas, decided that he’d tag along on the date, just to feed him lines as needed.
“I don’t think that would work,” Gary said. “You’d distract her, and probably turn me into my own third wheel.”
“Dude, I’m okay with that,” Shawn said. “You should be, too.”
“You sure? Nikki’s hot.”
“I’m sure. Thanks.”
At five o’clock, Gary entered the Yoyo Crunch Bistro, a seafood restaurant with a kid’s cereal theme, and took his seat. Nikki had expected him to pick her up for the dinner, but changed her mind at the last minute. She said she had to get over her fears of taking the bus again, so she’d meet him there. So, he sat in the waiting room for thirty minutes waiting for the table and another ten waiting for Nikki. Shawn, who had tagged along against Gary’s wishes, took the seat next to him and stared through the pane window before him.
“I don’t think she’s coming, man,” he said.
Shawn looked at the screen on his phone.
“It’s 5:40. She said she’d be here at five. Maybe you should call it what it is.”
“It isn’t that.”
“I appreciate your sense of denial, but I don’t think it’s powerful enough to get her walking through that door.”
“She’ll be here.”
The server approached the table. She was a demure girl with high eyebrows and lots of patience displayed on her face. Her smile was friendly and her uniform was splotched with primary colors.
“You guys ready to order?” she asked.
“Not yet,” said Gary.
“I’ll have the crab soufflé,” said Shawn. “Coat it with a dash of sesame sauce. I’ll take the pumpkin crackers on the side.”
The server scribbled everything on her notepad. Then she tapped the ink tip against the last word she wrote, looked up, and smiled.
“And for you, sir?” she asked Gary.
Gary shook his head.
Shawn smacked him in the biceps.
“It’s 5:43. She’s not coming.”
Gary leaned in on his elbows and sighed. As much as he feared to admit it, he knew Shawn was right.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll have a shrimp parmesan.”
Ten minutes later, the dishes arrived. Five minutes after that, or about halfway through finishing his meal, Nikki came walking in.
Gary’s mouth hung open as she approached the table. The pasta dripping off his fork fell off completely. She strolled to the empty chair and sat down. Then she ripped off her purple sunglasses like a television cop and stared at the plate under Gary’s hand.
“Couldn’t wait for me, huh?” she said. “Nice first impression, pal.”
Gary dropped the fork to his plate.
“I thought you weren’t—”
She ignored him. Put her focus on Shawn instead.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked.
“Wingman,” Shawn said. “Here to make sure you don’t break my friend’s heart.”
“How can I break his heart if we’re not dating?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure that out.”
Nikki brushed her hand through the air, signaling to Shawn that it was time to get lost.
“I’m not a fly,” he said.
“Nevertheless, I’d like you to buzz off.”
Shawn glanced at Gary. Gary nodded that it was okay, that he could handle himself.
“Okay, fine. I’ll take my crab soufflé elsewhere.” He pointed his fork at Nikki’s face. “You better not send him home crying.” Then he showed her the screen on his phone. “5:53! Be on time next time. Horrible first impression, woman.”
Shawn left. Gary looked down at his plate and shook his head. His first dinner date with Nikki was off to a terrible start. He should’ve guessed it would go this way. It was very similar to how his relationship with Victoria had begun. He didn’t know why he expected different.
The date itself was no better. Gary had spent the entire night before thinking about the perfect way to win her over, but he couldn’t get past bringing her flowers. Chocolates were an option, but he didn’t know her stance on chocolate and didn’t know if she’d love it or hate it, so he left it out of the equation. He also thought bringing her a pony was too over the top and expensive, even if it made a grander gesture, and one she might even remember someday; he didn’t know where in this town he’d find a pony anyway. In the end, he had settled on bringing her a plastic bracelet, cheap yet symbolic of the diamond tennis bracelet he hoped he could buy for her someday years down the road when he was rich and she was married to him. But then he forgot to bring it with him, so he didn’t have anything to offer her.
She didn’t notice his snafu, and he didn’t bring it up. He just kept her attention on the conversation instead, hoping it would be enough to keep her interested. Then he started talking about his dinner, which was almost gone. She got bored immediately. When her dinner, a broccoli platter, had finally arrived at 6:38, Gary was in the middle of telling her about the history of the Roman Empire. She immediately put her hand in a halting position as soon as the plate hit the table.
“Okay, I’m going to eat now. We can talk after I finish.”
Gary watched her take each piece of broccoli between her thumb and forefinger, and gingerly stuff it in her mouth. She chewed each piece about forty times before swallowing. Bigger pieces took her as many as fifty chews. When she was just a quarter of the way through her plate, she burped. Didn’t bother excusing herself. Gary pushed his own plate aside, now that it was empty. He leaned into his elbows and stared at her while she chewed. The silence was killing him.
“So, when the Roman emperor said—”
“Don’t care. Eating.”
Her words were slightly muffled in the broccoli mush swirling in her mouth, but Gary could understand what she was saying. She was saying that she was more interested in food than in conversation. He leaned back and nodded. This was officially the worst date he’d ever had, and he had no idea why it had to be with the most beautiful girl who’d ever said yes to dinner with him. It seemed that luck was based on a sliding scale.
At exactly 6:45, Nikki pushed her plate away—she still had more than a third of her dinner left to eat—and backed off from the table. Her chair made a rough squeaking noise along the surface of the polished wooden floor.
“Okay,” she said. Then she stood up and draped her purse strap over her right shoulder. “I’m ready to go.”
Gary watched as she took her sunglasses off the table and stuffed them in her open purse. She was watching him back.
When Gary made no effort to move, Nikki beckoned him to stand.
“Come on, pay the bill already,” she said. “I’ve got somewhere to be at seven.”
“You don’t have to wait for me,” he said. “If you have to go, then go.”
She tapped her foot against the floor. The hollow wood made a thumping sound just over the white noise of nearby idle chatter. Her eyes were veering focus toward the ceiling.
“The bus won’t get here until after seven. I need you to drive me.”
“Drive you where?”
She reached into her purse and checked her phone.
“Wild Luck Hut.”
Gary wrinkled his nose. Something about that name rubbed him the wrong way.
“I heard of that place. What is it?”
“Where I’m supposed to go. Look, don’t worry about it. Just be a gentleman and drop me off, ‘kay?”
Gary reached for his wallet and pulled out a credit card. He passed it to the server when he caught her heading back for the kitchen. She had put not just his and Nikki’s dinners on the tab, but Shawn’s, too.
After he paid the bill, he led Nikki to his car, an old Ford, and opened the passenger door for her. At this point, he didn’t care about salvaging the date. She was certainly a joy to look at, but not to be around. If this was what it was like to date a beautiful woman, he thought, then he would just stick with the Plain Janes from now on. He certainly didn’t want to waste his time on someone he’d have to seek out on the street.
He waited for her to take the passenger seat before closing the door—it had taken him great effort not to close it while she was still climbing in. Just before he completed the seal, he heard something drift out of her mouth. It sounded almost like gratitude. He was certain he’d misheard her.
The Wild Luck Hut was just a few blocks away, it turned out. She probably could have covered the distance by foot and still gotten there by seven. But she was wearing stiletto heels, and Gary had heard on more than one occasion that high heels of any kind were difficult to walk in, certainly at a clipped pace. So, even though he didn’t want to spend another moment with her, he understood why she would want the ride, and why he would need to offer it to her. Even if the date was awful, he still had to do the right thing, and making a young, beautiful woman walk the streets in stiletto heels at night in the short black skirt she was wearing was not the right thing. The right thing didn’t require him to speak to her again, just to get her to her next destination safely.
When Gary parked at the curb a few doors down from the club, he waited for her to climb out, but she didn’t move. She held her gaze out the window for the next ten seconds. Gary squeezed the vinyl in his steering wheel, imagining that sweet moment when she’d get out and stay out of his life for good, giving him room to date a less attractive but more interesting woman in the near future. Her hand made no motion for the door handle. When nearly a minute passed without action of any kind, he finally dared to ask her what was taking her so long.
“You haven’t opened my door yet,” she said.
Gary closed his eyes and smiled at his ill luck. He was doing the gentlemanly thing by bringing her here, but he hadn’t anticipated having to walk her all the way to the club entrance. By her expecting him to open the car door for her, she had made it obvious that she was going to milk his generosity to the very end.
“Sorry,” he said.
He climbed out of the cabin and walked around the front of the hood to reach her passenger door. Then he opened it. She extended her slender hand to him. He took it and lightly pulled her toward him. She stepped out one slender leg at a time and leaned forward, nearly losing her balance from the shaky heels she was wearing, recovering her stance by grabbing his shoulder with her other hand. Her face got close enough to his in her rebalancing that he could sense the warmth of her breath. At some point between broccoli and the Wild Luck Hut, she had slipped a mint in her mouth. When she released his shoulder, her deep blue eyes flashed briefly at him. They were intoxicating to say the least.
“You may as well walk me to the door,” she said.
Gary had already anticipated her demand—well, request—something in between—and was gently pulling her toward the curb before she finished speaking. Her hand was smooth, and he liked the sensation of her touch, and he decided that even though he didn’t like her in the slightest, he liked her enough to hold her hand all the way to the club’s entrance. And when he opened the studded leather doors for her, he hesitated to release her grip.
“Okay, well thanks,” she said.
She broke the hold for him, but she didn’t scurry away just yet. She held his gaze for just a moment. Then she did something he didn’t expect she’d ever do. She smiled at him.
“You’re a nice guy.”
Then she patted him on the biceps. Then she stepped through the doorway.
Against all sound sense or judgment, Gary followed her in. She might’ve been ready to start her 7:00 date with her “boyfriend,” but Gary wasn’t quite as ready to end his date with her as he’d thought just a moment ago.
The Wild Luck Hut was a den of joyful horrors unlike anything he had ever seen, in the movies or in real life. It was part gambling den, part spa, part dance club, with an unusual mix of themes ranging from unicorn fantasy to biker chic. It was a classic case of an establishment with an identity crisis, and Gary couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
The lobby was shaped like a mouth, with sharp spiral horns coming down from the ceiling like a set of fangs. The door straight ahead was agape, curved at the top like the entrance to a cave. Above the door was a glowing lamp in the design of a uvula. To the sides were small anterooms leading off to other strange places. A bouncer sat on a trapeze rigging beside the door, ready to swoop in on the uninvited.
Nikki drifted away from Gary while he took in the sights. The crowd swallowed her within an instant and he was left alone, left staring at the physical representation of a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit. He took a few steps after her to avoid being separated, but it was of no use. She was engulfed and the pulsating crowd pushed him off to the left where he was spun around and tossed through a door and into an open area doused in sapphire light and reeking of steam and pheromones.
He blinked a few times and found himself drifting off, deeper to a place where the atmosphere transformed from a simple gray concrete ambience to a humid steam room bathed in a bluish light, guided by a maze of velvet ropes. An awful mix of perfume and chlorine ignited his allergies.
He sneezed. After the third sneeze, he wiped his nose with his sleeve. Then he looked up to see a sign on the wall beside him that said: WELCOME TO THE WILD LUCK HUT.
“Welcome, indeed,” he said.
Now what am I supposed to do? he thought. And where did Nikki go? To his right, he saw the organic crowd fluttering just outside the doorway, so he wasn’t getting back into the mouth. And he didn’t think that Nikki had come this way. But now he was stuck and had to move forward. The one thing he knew for certain was that he wouldn’t find Nikki by standing still. He continued left, into the maze of velvet ropes.
The “blue room” was a chill section of the club, where a diverse mix of visitors hung out by the side of a Jacuzzi. Even though the whirlpool was raging, no one was in it. A handful of couples lounged around the edges in full formalwear, sipping champagnes and chardonnays, but no one was getting wet. The room’s theme extended to a groovy-style poolside patio (even though there was no pool to speak of), where a visual odyssey of rainbow-colored liquid lights reflected off the surfaces of lounge chairs, patio tables, and magenta umbrellas. A soft presentation of downbeat chill music piped through several corner speakers, filling the room evenly. It was loud enough to engage the senses, but quiet enough to stay in the background.
Gary circled the Jacuzzi to get a better look at each guest’s face, trying to determine the difference between Nikki and the hot women who looked like Nikki. One of the unfortunate side effects of wandering into a classy club that attracted a beautiful woman like Nikki was that it attracted many beautiful women like Nikki, and picking her out of a crowd was not as easy here as it was when he’d seen her standing amid a group of passengers beside a damaged bus. But it still wasn’t impossible.
He counted at least a dozen people sitting along the edge of the Jacuzzi and double that lounging in the patio chairs. Most were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, and those neighbors were splitting topics with their opposite neighbors, and the whole thing resembled one continuous train of inconsistent discussions circling the bubbling pool at their feet. And none of the discussion points were of any real significance, it seemed. Most of the fancy guests just talked about themselves and how great they looked tonight.
When he dared to ask the nearest person, a dapper George Clooney look-alike, if he had seen a lovely girl matching Nikki’s description, he simply said that all the women here were lovely, so both probably and no. Gary decided this wasn’t the right room.
Getting out of the patio area was a challenge. The Jacuzzi had a misting effect that fogged the room, and Gary found it difficult to locate the door. Compounding the problem was the roped queue that wound like a pretzel and had two opposing ends. To get to the patio area, the guest had to navigate the line, and to get out he had to go back through. But the velvet ropes were inconsistent, and not all paths led to the patio or the door, and one wrong turn could take the guest to another room entirely. And, as Gary tried to find his way to the main exit, the mist confounded his sense of direction, and before he knew it, he found himself not back in the gray anteroom to the right, but in line for the adjacent room.
Through that wrong door, he found another gray room, this one a narrow hall where the emo kids hung out. They were dressed in gothic clothing, covered in eyeliner, and complaining a little about life’s cruelty and a lot about puppies. Beside them was a pizza bar decked out with all the best types—pepperoni, Margherita, white, and so on. Nikki wasn’t there, either.
When Gary asked them if they’d seen her come through, they simply stared at him.
“She’s about yay high,” he said, holding his flattened palm just above the bridge of his nose. “Dark hair, kinda like yours. Blue eyes, almost icy. Black, slightly checkered skirt. Dark gray blouse. Deep blue eye liner.”
He scanned each black-lipped pale face before him. Everyone had a blank stare.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “I’m a little surprised she’s not in here. She’d camouflage well among you. Except, her lips are hot pink. Yours are just gross.”
“We reject your compliment,” said the emo goth nearest to him.
Past the pizza bar was another door and through it was the “magenta room,” which, according to the electronica music thumping through the speakers, was the dance parlor. As was to be expected on an unpredictable evening, the floor was crowded with people from many backgrounds, ranging in ages from early adulthood to late middle age. Everyone was lost in the dance, and no one seemed aware of the other dancers nearby. It was as if all of the recluses in the city had suddenly snapped, gone out into public, and retreated back into themselves as they attempted to socialize through the power of dance. Some people were busy with their phones while they boogied. Some had brought a book with them.
Gary saw the exit at other end, but to get there he had to plunge right through the heart of the dancefloor. And that was no easy task. The 1000-megawatt speakers were piping hot with the siren sounds of a melodious sex vixen, and the happy introverts obeying her commands bounced around like ping pong balls to every rise and fall of her voice. Getting through to the other side was a bit like playing Frogger.
The other challenge, of course, was in searching the dance area for a sign of Nikki. Fortunately, the room was small. It had maybe fifty feet from one door to the other, with about thirty feet in width. Unfortunately, the room was packed tight, and to find her, Gary would have to look into the eyes of about a hundred other people. It was so claustrophobic that it would’ve been impossible for him to even hug the wall on his way around the room, much less position himself to see everyone he was sharing space with.
He tried anyway. He was there for Nikki, and he wanted to finish his date with her properly, even if it had been a wasted experience so far. But after fighting to look into the eyes of about twenty different dancers and fifteen of the same dancers two or three times in a row, none of which bothered to look at him back, he decided that he was going for the impossible. He still had at least eighty unfamiliar faces left to scan, and he just didn’t have the patience.
He kept fighting and pushing against the crowd, determined to reach the next room. Sometimes they’d push back, sometimes they’d just spin him around and throw him at another dancer, and the whole experience had left him jostled. But, against all odds, he found his way to the exit and danced right on through.
He was back in the pizza hall with the emo goth kids.
“What’s the point in dancing,” one of the goths asked him, “if we’re all just going to die one day?”
Gary didn’t answer him.
“Tell us,” said another, this one grabbing at him. “Tell us what’s so special about your precious dancing. Is it the music?”
Gary tried to break away. Another one got in his face.
“And why don’t you dance with your girlfriend?” asked another. “Is it because you don’t care? Do you think you’re too good for her?”
Gary felt haunted by a similar argument he had made to Nikki about her “working” boyfriend the day before when he didn’t show up at the crash site.
He decided it was time to leave.
“Where are you going?” demanded the emo kid at the end of the hall. He was blocking Gary’s way back into the magenta room. “Do you think running from your problems is the answer?”
An emo girl spat at him. The glob of saliva missed Gary’s cheek by mere inches.
“That’s what I think of you and your happiness,” she said.
Gary backed the other way. Then he ran for the blue room before anyone else could stand in his way or ask him a nihilistic question or spit in his face for being happy.
The blue room had multiplied in the few minutes he had been away. More people were crowding around the Jacuzzi, and like a black hole, he felt like they were drawing him in with them. He passed through the mist and the velvet ropes, searching for the other way out, but the disorienting nature of the room caused the queue to spit him out onto the patio, right into the crush of fancy debutantes hanging “poolside” with their glasses of champagne in hand.
“The best part about being rich,” said the George Clooney look-alike to his twenty or so companions, “is the money.”
All twenty in unison suddenly angled their faces at Gary. They must’ve collectively felt his presence.
“How about you, lad?” the man asked. “What do you like about being rich?”
Gary looked at how each of them were dressed. They were decked out in Italian suits and evening gowns—aspiring models or movie stars. The man before him was slick, dressed in a silver-gray three-piece, clean-shaven and head full of dark hair. Gary had no comparison between them and the jeans and T-shirt he wore. They looked back, giving him a once over. It seemed they had noticed the class disparity happening. Their curious faces were beginning to sag. Either the Botox was failing, or they were entering the early stages of disgust.
“Er, the money?” Gary said.
Suddenly, all the faces before him were once again refreshed. Many of them had a twinkle in their eyes as they laughed. The George Clooney look-alike smacked him with a sideways fist in the biceps. For a rich guy, he sure hit hard. Gary rubbed the impacted area once it began to smart.
“Elaine,” said the man. “What about you? What’s the best part about being rich?”
All eyes around the Jacuzzi refocused on a blond woman about five bodies to the first guy’s left. She was tall, painted in blue eye shadow, in an evening dress that came very high up her thighs and very low down her back, and bulged at her voluptuous chest. She was maybe about thirty. She looked down at her chest and smiled.
“The boobs, of course. Best money I’ve ever spent, and I’ve been divorced twice.”
The others laughed. Then they changed focus to the next person.
Gary tried to back away, but he felt a hand around his ankle.
“Hey, we’re just getting started,” said a shrill voice behind him.
He looked down to find a scrawny woman in her late twenties trying to pull him back toward the Jacuzzi.
“Nobody leaves the circle ‘til the ice is broken,” she said.
The intensity in her eyes suggested two things: she was in charge, and she was serious.
Gary shook his head.
“I have someone I’m looking for,” he said.
“We all have someone we’re looking for. Take your spot around the spa and join us.”
Gary shook his head. He had somewhere else to be. But he found no words to speak.
“We give everyone a chance to shine,” she said. “Please don’t disrespect the current speaker.”
The next person, a squat man with a thick mustache and black-rimmed glasses, was about to speak.
“I love my limousine,” he said. “My driver takes me everywhere.”
Gary tried to sneak out, but the scrawny woman grabbed his ankle again.
“Respect,” she said.
Finally, Gary found the words to speak.
“What are you guys?”
“Alcoholics Anonymous,” she said. “I am Tara G. What’s your name?”
Gary was staring at the glass of champagne in Tara G.’s hand. Then he swallowed hard and kicked her hand away with his other foot. The impact caused her to lurch sideways and pitch her drink headlong across the spa, but her body didn’t stop arcing away, and she ended up spilling sideways into the Jacuzzi.
Gary bolted out of there before any of the rich people could round up the energy to chase him.
He found himself back in the main hall facing the club’s entrance—a.k.a. the mouth—within less than a minute. Fortunately, the crush of party guests hogging the space had since gone elsewhere, so he could move around more freely.
In the section nearest the entrance to the right was the “green room,” which housed a smoky cloud hovering over a series of tables where old white men traded cards and puffed on cigars. A stoic bouncer stood guard at the entrance of the roped-off area surrounding the floor. He was stiff and beastly, standing stick straight with his legs spread at shoulder width and his arms folded over his barrel chest. Even though it was dark and murky in the club, he wore sunglasses to hide the menace in his eyes, or that one puppy dog feature—Gary couldn’t tell from here.
It was pretty obvious that Nikki wasn’t in here.
“Go fish,” said one of the old men to another.
Gary spotted a half door in back of the room cracked open and leading into some dark place. He edged past the bouncer, refusing eye contact, and made for it. When no one tried to stop him, he pulled the half door open to investigate. He found nothing but a broom closet and two emo goths making out inside.
He winced and closed the door tight. Then he peeked back in to make sure the girl wasn’t Nikki. It wasn’t, so he returned to the mouth, where he could check on the mysterious place beyond the uvula.
Just like a biological throat, the room beyond the cave-like entrance curved downward at a steep slope and descended into a basement lit only by torches. Past the basement was another hallway, this one more generously brightened by the pleasant luminance of opposing walls fit with illuminated aquariums. It was there that he realized he was running out of places to search.
At the end of the hall was a single door, pleated with leather, and guarded by a woman in a can-can uniform. She sat on a stool, and her ruffled dress did its job covering her legs, but a sign on the wall beside her promised all entering guests that she had the power to kick anyone right in the face if they were to act up, so they should behave if they knew what was good for them. Gary wasn’t certain if the warning was for those attempting to use the room beyond, or for those attempting to hit on her. He moved past her with his head down, just to be safe.
The room beyond the can-can bouncer, the “gold room,” had the dimming atmosphere of a café built for CEOs, politicians, and mobsters, with its recessive lighting, its juicy potted plants, its buxom beauty serving staff, and its low-volume jazz music (most likely at extreme odds with the blaring music piping out of the magenta room above). The visitors here were anything but “classy,” though. The majority of people dining in here tonight were scantily clad twenty-somethings who were interested only in beer and nachos.
Once again, Gary searched the faces of the people in the crowd, but he was getting tired of it. The whole club was a magnet for Nikki types stretched to the extreme, and examining each similar face caused his brain to swirl. Adding to the exhaustion was the obvious romantic leaning the gold room had over all the other rooms in the club, including the blue room, which Gary would’ve expected was the destination for romance if not for the rich alcoholics roosting at the Jacuzzi or the goth kids making out in the broom closet where the old men played cards. To check for sign of Nikki, he had to study the face and the clothing of each woman he saw, and each one was sharing a table with a man who did not seem happy that Gary was checking out his date.
At one point, a short bald guy jumped up from the booth and confronted Gary about his intrusive staring.
“Dude, what’s your problem?” he said.
Gary was looking past him and didn’t know what he was talking about, so he shrugged.
The short bald man cocked his head to the side and raised his hands like he wanted to start some trouble.
“Yeah? Your problem is that you’re staring at my girl a little too longingly.”
Gary blinked, then looked at the guy. He had actually been looking at another girl about three tables away.
“Er, which one’s yours?”
The man gestured sideways to the brunette sitting embarrassed beside him, clearly out of Gary’s line of vision. Then he poked Gary in the chest.
“You ain’t gonna sleep with her tonight, so quit your lusting, you piece of crap.”
He walked on before the guy could accuse him of making a pass at his girlfriend, who was now behind him.
Little did the short bald guy know, Gary did have a problem. But not with him, or his embarrassed girlfriend. No, the issue now was that he was beginning to fear he had lost Nikki. Even though she was a terrible first impression, after spending twenty minutes dealing with the nuts and freaks who dwelled in the bowels of the Wild Luck Hut, he realized that Nikki was a beautiful saint who needed a second chance, and he hoped among all hope that he could give her that second chance. He didn’t understand why she’d want to come here in the first place, but he remembered what she’d told him nonetheless. She came here to meet her boyfriend. That meant coming here was his idea. That meant he was the freak. And Gary couldn’t stand the idea of Nikki wasting her life on a freak. So, if she were still anywhere in the club, he would find her, and he would rescue her, and he would take her far away from this awful place, giving her the proper chance to date a man of normal character.
At the opposite end of the gold room, Gary found an opening adorned with black leather streamers. When he brushed the streamers aside and peeked through the doorway, he finally caught sight of Nikki. She was sitting in an egg-shaped chair, pixelating under a black and white checkered rotating light. The room was mostly monochrome, with the occasional splash of hot pink, and it was populated with a sparse mix of people who danced cobra-style in their chairs. The music was scored with a trance track, a continuous stream of instrumentals peppered with seductive feminine vocals uttering a version of “ooh” or “ahh” every eighth meter, and the swaying of the people in the room matched its progressive rhythm.
He entered the room, stepped over a pool noodle, and crossed the digitally enhanced floor with caution, weaving around the egg-shaped chairs until he found himself beside the lonely Nikki and her blank stare. Her eyes were open, but she was looking at nothing. He waved his hands in front of her. She didn’t react. He wondered if he should turn around and run as far away from this place as possible. But he didn’t. He just took her hand instead.
“What happened to your boyfriend?” he asked her.
She maintained her gaze upon nothing.
“Did he stand you up?”
“Whatever he did, he’s probably an idiot, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I’m sure you could do better.”
He wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he was trying to console her, and for her, that took a little faith.
“Want me to buy you a milkshake?” he asked. “To ease your pain a little?”
She looked up at him, but didn’t say anything.
“You like vanilla? Chocolate? Banana?”
“Wasabi,” she said.
“Say what now?”
“I like unique things.”
He tugged on her hand and lifted her out of the chair.
“Where are we going to find a place that sells wasabi flavored milkshakes?” he asked.
“I know a place.”
“Sounds awful. Let’s go find it.”
Gary sat in that plush stool across the table from her, mesmerized as he watched her sip the pistachio green milkshake. Every sip she took ended with her massaging her temples and squeezing her eyes shut, as if she were enduring a consistent stream of freeze headaches. He wondered why she would choose to punish herself so much. But he kept watching, fascinated by her masochism.
When she got halfway through the shake, she tilted her straw forward.
“Would you like a sip?” she asked.
Gary wasn’t sure how to answer that. On the one hand, he liked the idea of sharing a milkshake with this new, beautiful, unusual woman he’d found on the street, and nothing spelled “date” like sharing a milkshake. But on the other hand, it was wasabi flavored. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that drinking anything wasabi flavored took balls or insanity.
She passed the cup to him and he carefully pursed his lips around the straw’s tip. Nikki’s lips had been around it just a few seconds earlier, so in a way, taking this sip was a little like kissing her via remote. But the second phase, the slurping of the shake, made him fidget. Unfortunately, he was too deep in the process to chicken out now. He couldn’t look like a coward to her. He just had to get it over with. He slurped.
The initial flavor was like a hard mint, slightly bitter, but distinctively sharp. Then the nasal pain kicked in. He felt his sinuses catch fire in an instant. Then, just as quickly as it had zapped him, it went away. He hiccupped, passed the shake back, and then smiled at her.
“It’s…good,” he said.
“You don’t have to lie to me. It’s not.”
He shook his head.
“No, it’s a terrible idea for a milkshake flavor.”
He rubbed his temples. Then he reached for a napkin to wipe his mouth. Then he stared at her. She was staring back.
“You were testing me tonight, weren’t you?” he asked.
“What makes you think that?”
He leaned forward and looked her right in those icy blue eyes.
“No sane woman would date a guy who’d ask her to meet at the Wild Luck Hut. That place is a freak show, and I’d lose respect for you if your story was even remotely true.”
She smiled again.
“The Relationship Montage”
Gary and Nikki decided to give dating a legitimate try. They agreed to take it slow, since they were less likely to kill each other if the passion were to burn out before they anticipated. But, they also didn’t know each other’s relational pasts or thresholds for pain, and they didn’t want to screw things up right out of the gate. Immediate passion was fun and mysterious, but they’d tried that with other people, and they weren’t with those other people anymore, so they figured the slower approach was worth a shot. They had no idea if it was any better; they just knew it was different, and different came with hope.
For their first post-Wild Luck Hut date, they chose to hang out at the mall. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and they were instantly swallowed up by a maddening crowd. But they made a game of it. They pretended they were salmon swimming upstream a busy river. Then they talked about why salmon swam upstream and immediately changed the subject. It was too intimate, too soon.
They met up again the first Friday in December at a park downtown. Even though the park closed at sundown, they decided to walk along the shadowed paths under the waxing moon. They thought it was a good idea initially, but changed their mind when they stumbled upon a campsite full of naked hippies roasting marshmallows by a fire. Again, too intimate, too soon.
The second and third Friday in December, they just spent texting each other. Nikki was too busy studying for finals to go out, and Gary was stuck working late at his retailer for the holiday rush. They did what they could to make the most of it, but Gary was certainly less than engaged. He preferred seeing her face-to-face.
Gary: Hey, Nikki.
Gary: What you up to tonight?
Gary: Going well?
Nikki: OMG, no!
Gary: Hey, BRB. Work calls.
Gary: What’re you studying?
Gary: What subject?
Nikki: all of them
Gary: Argh, another customer.
Nikki wasn’t much of a conversationalist, he realized, but she was stunning to look at. Therefore, spending not one but two Friday nights in a row just texting her kinda sucked.
Fortunately, they got to see each other again after her semester ended. They decided to spend the holidays together.
The holiday was a quaint affair. Her family was in Europe on a three-week vacation, and she couldn’t afford to go with them, so she stayed behind to keep an eye on the house. While she was on her own, she had bought a small Christmas tree—basically a malnourished shrub—and wrapped around it a string of lights and set it on the coffee table. Then she clipped cherries to the branches to give it some additional color. Gary had helped her with the decorations. It had brought them closer together. They’d kissed for the first time beside that ugly shrub. Their dating relationship had officially ignited a minute later. Whatever plan they had in taking it slow went out the window in that moment. They spent the next three hours kissing by the Christmas shrub. Gary had never tasted anything so sweet in his life.
During their adventure through the mall on Black Friday, Nikki had finally noticed the sorry state of Gary’s shoes and made a snide comment about them.
“Your toes enjoying all that air?” she asked.
Gary didn’t think anything of it. He liked his shoes, even if they were falling apart. The important thing was that the soles held, for the most part, and he could walk without them peeling off mid-stride. But Nikki continued to make silly comments about them. Then, as a joke, she walked him into a shoe store and showed him all of the brand names she was going to buy him for Christmas. He laughed, of course, even though it wasn’t that funny, and that was that. They left the store and went on with their date.
The days went by, and the relationship continued to heat up. Gary had no idea what he’d done right, but he couldn’t believe his luck the day the bus had almost smashed into him. And he also had to thank Shawn, a number of times, for urging him to make that move on her. He admitted that he never would have believed it was possible on his own, and if not for Shawn, he wouldn’t have ended up with someone as amazing as Nikki.
But, as Valentine’s Day crept ever closer, Gary noticed Shawn’s attitude about Nikki changing. When they were out trying to figure out what to buy their respective girlfriends for the holiday, Shawn said something to Gary that Gary didn’t expect.
“I think she’s using you, dude,” he said.
Gary was a little surprised by the comment. For the last three months, Shawn had been fist-bumping him over every new milestone he had reached with Nikki. It was on Shawn’s advice that Gary introduce her to his parents, which he hadn’t followed through on, but he had nonetheless appreciated the suggestion. Shawn had even volunteered to let Gary spend the New Year alone with Nikki, to enjoy the time together without outside distraction. So, when Shawn made that claim, he didn’t know where that idea had come from.
“I see how she looks at you,” he said. “It’s not the way Ronda looks at me.”
“Ronda doesn’t really like you though, does she?” Gary asked.
“Doesn’t matter. The point is, Nikki doesn’t look at you like she’s into you.”
Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets. He had no idea where Shawn had gotten that idea. He tried searching his mind for evidence to his claim, but every picture of her he saw in his mind, Nikki was smiling at him as if she wanted him to take her right there right now.
“I think you’re wrong.”
Shawn shook his head.
“No, I’m not. I know when a chick is into a dude, and she ain’t into you like you are into her.”
Gary wanted to laugh. Clearly, Shawn was delusional. But he thought about it more. Then he realized that he saw her smile that way at him even when she was doing her taxes the week before. He frowned. Maybe Shawn had a point.
“How does she look at me then?”
Shawn patted him on the shoulder.
“Like she’s doing you a favor.”
Gary narrowed his eyebrows. That didn’t sound right to him.
“No, I reject that,” he said. “What favor could she possibly give me? We’re in love.”
“You’re in love. The favor she’s doing is dating you.”
“That’s ridiculous. We kiss like all the time.”
“Yeah, women are great at that, even when they’re not into it. It’s a game.”
Gary smirked at the idea. He knew Nikki. They were great together. She loved him. Shawn was being ridiculous.
“Okay,” he said. “If she is doing me a favor, then what’s her angle?”
Shawn swiped an ad for a vacuum cleaner off of a display rack on their way to the next shop.
“She wants you to do her a favor. Obviously.”
He slapped the vacuum cleaner ad into Gary’s hand.
“Okay, what favor?”
Shawn shrugged again.
“How am I supposed to know? She’s not using me.”
By April, Gary noticed Nikki making more or more excuses about how busy she was, and how they would need to postpone their dates for another night. By May, she was kissing him less often than in the months before. By June, she was kissing him almost exclusively on the cheek. When Gary asked her if everything was all right, she simply smiled, patted his arm, and said, “Of course.” He didn’t know what more to ask, so he left it alone.
July and August saw an unusual amount of consistency in her behavior, in that she treated him with the same platonic respect that she’d been showing him in June. When she was breaking consistency, it was in Gary’s favor. There were a couple of times near the end of August that they made out. Gary was so excited about the burst of energy in their relationship that he’d felt a renewed sense of hope about their future, so he went out and spent his hard-earned money on a new car for her. She had been going everywhere by foot or by bus since the day they met, and he wanted to give her a chance to drive herself around town for a change. It wasn’t anything fancy—just an old silver ’94 Nissan Sentra with automatic shift, power windows, and a broken air-conditioner—but he was proud of it. When he surrendered the key to her, she thanked him and kissed him on the cheek.
By mid-September, she traded the Sentra for the slightly newer but much nicer ’98 Toyota Camry. Gary found out about it the night she drove to his house for a talk. Things were fine initially, but then the mood changed seemingly out of nowhere. Then she broke up with him, telling him that she had gotten all that she could out of him and that it was time for her to meet new people.
Then she got into her car and drove out of his life.
Last Christmas, Nikki had bought Gary a sexy pair of white tennis shoes with a black trim, the same ones she had teased him with at the mall the night she’d made fun of his current “air-conditioned” pair. Like the other small gifts she had given him that night, he wasn’t expecting shoes. He was certainly expecting something since they were dating, but not shoes. Maybe a shiny watch or something electronic.
She had bought him the shoes because she didn’t like being seen with him whenever he wore his old ragged pair. Even though he still liked his old shoes, he understood her viewpoint, and he appreciated her wanting to class him up a bit. So, he tossed the old shoes, and the new ones immediately became his favorite. He had other shoes that he really liked, too, but none of them could compete with the pair that his hot girlfriend, a woman he had been falling in love with little by little each day, had bought for him. Even if the shoes weren’t a popular brand or expensive, he still thought they were awesome. He had vowed to wear them every day for the rest of his life, or at least until it was impossible to keep them on, just because they had come from Nikki, the most awesome woman he’d ever known.
Out here in his quiet driveway, alone and uncertain about what more to do, he was wearing still them.
But now the shoes were dirty. The pure white color they had once projected became muddy and lifeless. They could no longer be his favorite because they had no more appeal. They would no longer be associated with Christmas, but rather with the damaging image of Nikki’s abandonment. Never again could he wear them with dignity or pride. If he did, then doing so would inevitably remind him of her deceptive smile and the aftermath of what she had done to him. He did not want to endure it, so he took those ugly shoes off, tied the laces together, and tossed them up on the power line. The laces hooked on the first try. Now they could hang forever, doomed to suffer the torment that he was stuck enduring now.
After going back into the house to forget his shoes’ existence, he sat before the television for nearly an hour. Show after show blared out happy lies to him, but he could no longer buy into them. He sat there hopelessly as every on-screen kiss turned his heart ever so sour. Even the prime-time soap commercials tried to show him how great it was to be close to someone, even though his pillows were the only things sharing the couch with him. The advertisers knew his heart and still they looked for any method possible to ridicule him, as if his life really mattered to them. But it didn’t. They just wanted a fast buck.
The misery welling inside of him began to mutate into something fiercer. It wasn’t the dread of losing Nikki that drove his thoughts forward. The more he thought about her, and the time he had wasted with her, the angrier he got. The feeling of rain over his heart turned murky. He could feel the heat rising past his ears. Her sudden departure, without explanation, was simply unfair, and he couldn’t stand it. The tension covered his body, up his neck, down his spine, into his kidneys, and through his bowels. He could feel his entire body taking on intermittent tremors to cope with the blast of stagnant adrenaline. It was too much to contain.
He grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and hurled it at the television screen, shattering it into fragments, causing the sparks inside to fizzle and die. Those dastardly soap commercials couldn’t bother him now. He stared at the broken television for at least another hour before closing his eyes. He didn’t feel any better.
It was around ten o’clock when the phone rang. Gary let it get to almost the sixth ring, when the answering machine clicked into motion, before he picked up the phone. It took him another few seconds to say the first word.
“Hello?” he whispered.
“Gary,” said the voice on the other line. “It’s Shawn. Calling to see how the big revelation went today. Spill it.”
“Call back in a year or two.”
Gary hung up. He dropped back onto the couch, hoping to relieve himself of his splitting headache. The phone rang again. He blindly reached for the receiver.
“What?” he mumbled.
“You all right?” asked Shawn. “You sound like trash. What happened?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“You have to, man. You know I’m gonna keep pestering you until you tell me what’s going on, so tell me.”
Gary breathed a soft sigh and rubbed his hand through his hair.
“Nikki’s gone,” he said. “She decided I wasn’t good enough for her, so she left. Decided she wanted to be with her old boyfriend again. Or a new one. I don’t know. Told me I was worthless and can’t offer her anything anymore.”
“So I was right?”
“Yeah. I really want to punch you right now.”
Gary struck his fingers against the phone cord. The spiral plastic offered no comfort.
“Ah. Well, cheer up. I kinda figured this was gonna happen, so I got you a date tonight with this awesome bartender chick.”
Gary shook his head at Shawn’s attempt to numb his senses. Last time he had problems with Nikki, Shawn tried getting him to ignore her by driving him to a secret location, which turned out to be a “girls only” party at the nearby university. Gary was stuck on the front lawn for quite a while trying to hitch a ride home, hoping that Nikki would never find out about it. And that was one of many painful memories he had for the sake of forgetting about her.
“Shawn, don’t do that to me. That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“It might make you feel better. Come on. Get out of your house. You’re just gonna be more depressed if you stay in tonight.”
“I can’t go.”
“Well, no, you have to go. See, the girl I’m dating tonight will only go out with me if this bartender chick goes out with us, which means she needs a date, which means you gotta get on some clothes and get over here right now. So put on a happy face and pretend to have a good time tonight.”
Gary rubbed his head. All he could think about was the great times he and Nikki had together and how those thoughts seemed like nothing more than wasted memories. And yet, those memories were his curse for comfort. Now Shawn wanted to do his part to cheapen them again. Demanding a break was like asking for a kidney.
“Shawn, do you still need a TV?”
“Well, yeah actually.”
“You wanna buy mine? I’ll sell it to you cheap.”
Shawn’s voice rose with delight.
“Seriously? You don’t want it anymore?”
“Not really. I just don’t get as much out of it as I used to.”
“Well yeah. Absolutely then. Thanks.”
Gary stared at the remnants of his television and compared its broken state to that of his own heart. He wished he could sell it just as easily. He didn’t have much use for that, either.
“Good,” he said. “Guess I’ll be over in a little while then.”
“I knew you’d come through. You’re gonna have a great time tonight. I promise you.”
Gary hung up, letting the phone clang against the hook. Then he stared at his wall, seeing just briefly the moment when he and Nikki had tried to paint it, but ended up getting more paint on each other. Once the memory faded, he looked at his bare feet on the floor and clenched his toes through the carpet.
“I must be out of my mind,” he said.
A half an hour went by before Gary arrived at Shawn’s door. His face sagged, but he did his best to smile anyway. He knew that Shawn would torture him if he didn’t at least pretend he was having a good time, so the corners of his mouth strained to climb upward in an effort to fool him. Once his façade was adequately in place, he knocked on the door and waited. The door cracked open and Shawn peered out.
“Is that a smile I see before me?” he said.
“It’s my best attempt,” said Gary. “Let me in.”
Shawn opened the door. He nodded with approval.
“First tell me you’re gonna have a great time tonight.”
“Don’t make me lie.”
“Tell me, or you can’t come in.”
Gary shook his head in disbelief.
“Dude, come on.”
“Fine, I’m gonna have a great time tonight.”
“Like you mean it.”
“Don’t make me kick you. Let me in.”
Shawn folded his arms across his chest. He wore a stern look on his face.
“Are you gonna think about Nikki tonight?”
Gary shifted his feet around and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“How can I not?”
“Rrrr, wrong answer.”
Shawn closed the door. Gary yanked his right hand out of his pocket and beat the door with the bottom of his fist.
“This was your idea, you fruit bag. Open the door or forget about your little double-dating honey tonight.”
Shawn pulled the door wide open and smiled.
“That’s the answer I was looking for,” he said. “You may pass.”
Gary stepped through the doorway and punched Shawn in the chest. As he entered, he could feel the odor of Shawn’s cologne nearly choking him. His throat felt tainted with Stetson-flavored coarseness.
“Do you have to wear that stuff so strong?” he asked. “I have only so many nostrils.”
Shawn pulled at his shirt with pride, rubbing his chest from the impact.
“It’s for the ladies, my friend. They love this rank stuff.”
“So do flies, Shawn. Do you really want to attract them, too?”
Shawn faked a toothy smile; then he walked to the bathroom. Gary could hear him turning on the faucet.
Gary sat on the couch. He saw a couple of phone numbers sitting on Shawn’s coffee table. One was circled in red.
“You ever get tired of random dating?” he shouted.
“Why would I?” Shawn yelled back.
Of course, why would he? He’s Mr. Saturday Night.
“You ever think about just settling down?”
“Since when is that a question worth asking?”
Gary nodded. Once again the question was futile, but he was determined to get an answer.
“Just wanted to know what you thought about it,” Gary shouted.
“Don’t yell, I’m right here.”
Gary turned to see Shawn standing with his right arm cupped across his chest and his dark blue shirt sleeve dangling over his left hand as he tried buttoning the cuff. His cologne was a little less obvious this time. Shawn sniffed his underarms and nodded with approval.
“So, seriously, do you ever think about settling down?” Gary asked.
“After seeing what happened to you when you tried to settle? No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Gary looked at the phone numbers again. He picked one of them up from the table.
“Maybe I just need a random girl, too,” he said. “Think I can have one of these?”
“Not that one,” said Shawn. “Take the other one. That one is to a pizza place.”
Gary placed the phone number on the table. He slouched against the backrest.
“Never mind,” he said with a sigh.
Shawn stared at Gary for just a moment. Then he sat beside him and stretched his feet on the coffee table.
“Look, I warned you about Nikki early on, but you never listened to me.”
“That’s because your advice always sucked.”
“But I was right about her, wasn’t I? There’s a word for girls like her, and I hope maybe now you realize it. That word is user, Gary, and she makes you into a loser when you fall for her. Girls are great, don’t get me wrong. But I personally don’t take them seriously anymore. You’re obviously crushed by what she did, and I don’t want the same to happen to me.”
“So you think it’s better just to casual date and leave?”
“You’ve done it before. You know the answer to that.”
“I was never happy back then. I was happy with her.”
“Yeah, but she used you. Wake up.”
Shawn slapped Gary on the back. Gary completely ignored Shawn’s hand contact.
“She made me feel important.” He contemplated that idea for a moment. “She treated me like a person. All the girls before her treated me like a last date.”
“Isn’t that what she did to you tonight?”
Gary stared at the door as the truth reached his reality.
“Yeah, she did.”
He paused. Thought about the card he drew from life’s sick hand.
“Where did I go wrong?” he asked.
Shawn also stared at the door. He was bouncing his left leg back and forth between the couch and the coffee table. Gary could tell he was getting restless.
“Look, if the bartender chick is too much for you, then you don’t have to go. I’m only on Chapter Four in my book anyway. I am curious to see what happens.”
Gary looked at Shawn.
“You really think I’m pathetic, don’t you?”
“No, I think you just fell for the wrong girl, even though you didn’t listen to me.”
Gary tossed his hands up in frustration.
“What was so wrong about her, Shawn? You never gave me specifics.”
Shawn looked at him with arched eyebrows.
“Um, yes I did. I knew things about her that you refused to accept because she was Miss Wonderful or Miss Perfect, or some form of Miss that you so stubbornly believed in for God knows why.”
“Like what? Jeez, how the ignorant forget so quickly. You sure you wanna hear them now…again?”
Gary folded his arms over his chest.
Shawn leaned back into the couch and crossed his arms. Gary saw his eyes move back and forth, searching for the right words to say.
“Well for starters she kept seeing her old boyfriend behind your back. I’ve been trying to tell you that for months, but you’re always like, ‘Oh no, not Nikki. She’s the best. She would never cheat on me. Bluh blah, bluh blah.’ And yet she did.”
“Wait, are you saying that she was seeing me behind his back?” asked Gary.
“Okay, if you wanna put it that way…”
Gary was ready to leap off the couch in anger, but he realized that doing so wouldn’t have solved anything, so he rested his elbows on his thighs and leaned into them instead.
“Are you saying she used me?”
“I told you she’s a user,” said Shawn. “Didn’t you hear that part? Remember, ‘she’s a user, you’re a loser.’ Ring a bell?”
“Nikki used me?”
“Well, yeah…aren’t you listening to me?”
Gary was silent for a moment.
“Why would she use me?”
“Well, her boyfriend wouldn’t buy her anything fancy, so she wanted a guy who would. You gave her that. Until you gave her too much. Buying her that car was the death blow. Now she doesn’t need any charity, so now she’s able to date her old boyfriend without him complaining at her about all of her whiny needs.”
Gary looked up and gave Shawn the evil eye.
“How do you even know that?”
“Ronda told me just before she broke up with me. She and Nikki became quite the pals, it seems.”
Shawn patted Gary’s shoulder.
“If it makes you feel any better, Ronda basically ditched me for the same reason. But we’re still friends weirdly, so I don’t know. Maybe I can be the other guy someday.”
Gary’s mind raced with a little bit of confusion, a little bit of fear, and a lot of anger. How could he have been so blind? The signs must have been there, but he didn’t see them. He sat still.
“You gonna be all right?” Shawn asked.
Gary buried his head in his hands. He followed with a pull to his hair.
“She used me,” he whispered.
“Like a sheet of Kleenex.”
News like that had to be digested. All of Gary’s memories no longer seemed wasted. Now they seemed fabricated. He uncovered his face and stared at the door again.
“What’s the bartender chick’s name?”
Shawn stared at the wall next to the door. His face registered a complete blank.
“Um, I don’t know.”
Gary tugged on his hair lightly, though he meant to yank it, and he slowly brought his hands down to his lap. He knew that he needed to calm down before his heart ate into his stomach. There had to be another way of getting this pain out of his mind.
“Why don’t you introduce me?” he said.
Shawn smiled and patted Gary on the back.
“Well, okay then,” he said. “If you think that’s what’s best.”
“I think that’s what’s best.”
Forty-five minutes later, Gary and Shawn sat around a wooden table at the Yoyo Crunch Bistro with two statuesque looking women in short dresses. One was Sharon, the blonde guy-hopper who apparently liked peanuts, and the other was Erica, the raven-haired bartender chick who favored salsa and chips. Sharon talked and talked at Shawn while he silently dragged his fries through his ketchup. Erica sat next to Gary with her hands folded, staring at him for over a minute. He felt quite uncomfortable being here with her, and somewhat cheapened to boot. He took a sip of his drink.
“So what’s your story?” said Erica.
“It’s long,” he said. “Maybe it would be better to talk about aerobics or something.”
“You like aerobics?”
“No, I just think it would be better than talking about me.”
Erica smiled at him and ran her fingers through his hair. He quickly pushed her hand away.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s get something straight here. Don’t use me. If you already got a boyfriend, don’t waste your time stringing me around. Don’t buy me shoes, don’t call me at midnight, and don’t paint my living room walls. If you wanna touch my hair, you better be ready to walk down that church aisle with me. Got it?”
He watched as Erica shrank backward. He could see the awkwardness racing across her eyes as she looked at her friend with loosely clenched teeth. Soon, the image would freeze in his mind, and he would feel like a bigger idiot than he had in all his life. He figured it was prudent to get ahead of this before it turned into a fiasco, if it hadn’t done so already. Shawn confirmed by shaking his head.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Gary said. “I just got dumped by a girl today who never really dumped her last guy. I’m in a lot of pain right now.”
She looked at him with her eyebrows arched.
“Then why are you here with me tonight?”
“Shawn just needed a third wheel. I’m sorry, but this isn’t right. Shawn, I have to leave.”
Shawn glanced at Sharon and shrugged.
“Okay,” he said.
Gary and Shawn got up from the table. Shawn wiped a napkin across his face, set it down, and reached in his pocket to pull out fifty dollars. He handed the money to Sharon.
“Keep the change, baby.”
She set the money on the table and smiled.
“You gonna call me later?” she asked.
Shawn straightened his jacket as he stepped backward.
“In all honesty, you kinda bore me,” he said. “So, probably not.”
Shawn turned his back to her and left the table. Sharon’s nose wrinkled as she reached for her dinner fork in preparation to chuck it at him. Gary stood in the way.
“Don’t take it personally,” he said to her. “Shawn doesn’t have it all together if you know what I mean.”
He looked at Erica, trying to keep his eyes tougher than that of a puppy dog’s, but not so much as to lead her on the wrong way.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do this,” he said. “I hope you understand.”
Erica smiled at him.
“If you change your mind, I’ll go out with you again.”
Gary nodded. He wasn’t sure if he felt any better.
“See you around.”
Gary turned his back and followed after Shawn.
As Shawn sped down the highway in his black Mustang, Gary sat in the passenger seat, staring at buildings and lights passing him by. The Backstreet Boys song on the radio, the one about a girl and how she made the current singer feel, sickened him and made him want to rip his hair out from the roots. But he endured it because his night couldn’t have gotten any worse, and the only way to make it worse was to piss off the driver who apparently liked their music.
Shawn turned off the radio.
“I hate the Backstreet Boys,” he said. “They make me want to rip my hair out from the roots.”
He glanced at Gary, but he couldn’t for too long since he was the one driving.
“What’s wrong, Gary? Feel like you blew it twice in one night?”
“What am I doing here?” Gary asked. “Why do I have to have a woman in my life?”
“Because you’re not gay?”
“That’s not what I mean. The only time I was ever truly happy was when I was with a girl who was using me. There’s something wrong with that. I’m just wondering what it’s like to just not think about anyone anymore.”
“Besides the fact that it’s impossible?”
“Well, for starters I would have to stop fixing you up with the friends of my dates, and I don’t know if I can handle that. But if that’s what you want, you’re crazy, but it might work for you.”
That wasn’t exactly the answer he wanted. But then again, Shawn never gave him the answer he wanted.
The reality was that Nikki was gone, and he couldn’t change it. Sooner or later he would have to let her go, even if it was next to impossible. But then, once upon a time he had to make the same decision about Victoria. Even though her motivation was different, Victoria had broken his heart just the same. Once upon a time he had been knocked into the mud by a girl, and a new girl had stretched her hand and pulled him out. More than likely, another girl, maybe Erica, maybe someone else, would reach out and lift him from this new pit. Holding on to Nikki was just a way of keeping himself in the mud. He needed out. He needed to let go. Perhaps this was the time to start working toward that goal. Gary rolled down the window and stuck out his head, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Who needs you Nikki? Can’t you see I’m better off without you?”
He pulled his head back inside, breathing in and out heavily.
“Cold out there, isn’t it?” said Shawn.
“Pneumonia is a passing whim.”
Shawn laughed to himself.
“My boy is coming around. Feel better?”
Gary stared ahead at all the nightlife reaching out for him. Building after building drew ever so closely, blurring together in a mosaic of lights. The traffic signals were continuously green, except for that one annoying one that didn’t even need to be there. He crossed his arms and smiled.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said.
Shawn slapped the steering wheel. He had glee in his smile.
“That’s right,” he said. “Tomorrow’s racquetball day. You gonna be there?”
“I think I will.”
When Gary finally got home, his eyes sagged with exhaustion. The night was too long, but he got in his driveway safely enough. As he stepped out of his car, he looked to the street. He noticed that his shoes had fallen off the power line. Contemplating the phenomenon for just a moment, he stuffed his keys into his pocket and approached the fallen footwear now in the road. He knelt down, scooped them up with both hands, and stared at each one for a moment, trying to figure out what to do with them. At first he wanted to toss them back onto the power line to further forget about them and Nikki, but then he remembered that they were a really good pair of shoes, and that it would’ve been a shame to lose them. So he decided to keep them. He brought them into the house and laid them with his other shoes.
The next evening, Gary was still stung from Nikki’s rejection, but not as much. He decided to give Erica a call, just to see what could happen. He knew that the date could’ve been a failure. They could’ve hit it off, spent a year together, and then one ditch the other for no apparent reason, or for lack of a good reason. Or, she could’ve rejected him right at the start. The night before at the seafood restaurant could’ve been nothing more to her than a drunken memory; Gary could’ve been the faint recollection of a blurry guy she had been staring at from across the room, even though she was sitting right next to him. Calling her could’ve led to anything. And even though he was terrified of dealing with the next heartbreak, he just knew there was a chance—as slim as it was—that Erica was the girl who would keep him.
When he called her, she seemed happy to hear from him. She asked him if he was over his last girlfriend now. He told her the truth. She told him she was available for dinner if he wanted to give it another shot. He told her he’d meet her at the restaurant at seven. They would eat Tex-Mex tonight. As soon as they hung up, Gary found his white tennis shoes with the black trim and slipped them on his feet. He was going to try having a nice night with the new girl, with or without his old memories.
Thank you for downloading The Fallen Footwear. I hope you enjoyed it. If you liked the story or got something valuable out of it, please leave a review for it on your preferred retailer’s website, and tell others what you thought, and let me know what you liked (or didn’t like) about it. I appreciate all feedback and support from readers. Thank you.
A Brief History: In February 1999, I wrote a short story for my fiction class at UCF about a young adult (roughly my age at the time) who had to get over a breakup. It was little more than an experiment in dialogue and just a touch of fantasy (I wondered what it would be like to intentionally blow a first date), but it was also an attempt to play with symbolism, hence the “fallen footwear” of the story. The original version never gave much background about Nikki, and we never really saw her in that version, either. The story was entirely about Gary trying and failing at a rebound, and coming to terms with the fact that he didn’t have to rush right back into the field.
I also wanted to evoke the personalities of characters I had created in a screenplay I’d written two years earlier called Job Hunt. In that story, Mike Wright is the hopeless romantic who just wants a chance with his dream girl, and his best friend, John Linson, is the well-meaning friend with the bad advice who happens to get it right at the worst time. The characters of Gary and Shawn (rhyme intended) gave me an opportunity to extend the voice of those previous characters. I had fun writing that old script, so I wanted to revive the archetypes long enough to see what more I could milk out of their personalities.
Anyone who has read my author’s notes for other releases knows by now that most of the stories I’ve posted since last May of last year have been revised at least once before, between 2004 and 2006, for an appearance in one of my three story collections under the title The Collection of Junk. “The Fallen Footwear” was part of 2004’s Nomadic Souls: The Collection of Junk, Volume 1, and was sparsely updated from its original 1999 college version. I probably just updated the grammar, to be honest.
But per the new mandate I’ve set for the current-era rewrites, I didn’t think the old version of the story was enough to sustain an ebook, so I gave it a complete backstory showing the general scope of Gary and Nikki’s relationship as a means to better connect with the problem he deals with when she abandons him. And given my preferred style, I had to drench a lot of their normality in a sea of weirdness. Well, no, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. Weirdos are more fun than normal characters.
Anyhow, I know this story doesn’t keep to any particular structure, and perhaps it would’ve been nice to see how Gary copes with the breakup, or maybe even see more evidence of Nikki’s fading glory. But that was never the point. The message has always been about moving on in spite of the passion we feel for the person who rejected us, and I don’t think we need to see Nikki behaving badly, or Gary behaving ignorantly, for that to work. But, if you disagree, feel free to say so in a review at your favorite retailer.
This electronic version of The Fallen Footwear has been designed and formatted specifically for distribution through Shakespir and its affiliates. It is intended to introduce the author to a wealth of new readers, and for this reason is free to download. If the option is available, sharing this version of The Fallen Footwear is encouraged. The Fallen Footwear’s ebook version was created February 2016.
Jeremy Bursey is the author of many short stories, essays, and poems, along with a modest number of novels and screenplays, each covering topics and genres that differ from what he had written previously. He hopes to bring many of these into the ebook generation over the course of the next few years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Central Florida and currently works at a local college as a writing tutor. He appreciates feedback for anything he offers to the public.
Did you enjoy reading The Fallen Footwear? Then check out these other titles by Jeremy Bursey, available as an ebook at your favorite retailer.
Short Stories and Novelettes
[+ Eleven Miles from Home+]
[+ When Cellphones Go Crazy+]
[+ The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky+]
[+ Zippywings 2015: A Short Story Collection+]
A Modern-day Fantasy Annual Edition
[+ Cannonball City: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year One+]
Check back often at Jeremy’s author page on Shakespir or at his blog (listed in the next section) to discover newly released titles or titles that are on the horizon. More titles are on the way. You can also follow him on Twitter for news and other fun stuff.
Want news about my upcoming books or check if you’ve got them all? Visit any of these links for more information.
Shakespir Author Page:
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If you want additional info on my ebooks past, present, and future, then check the category marked “Published Ebooks” and it will find every post related to them. Or, check the right sidebar for icons of book covers to link you directly to that title’s description and retailers’ location page. You can also click on the main category “Fiction” for other blogs and sneak previews that focus on my fiction.
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Here you can find out what books I like (or rate and review this one).
What’s next? I am currently updating one of my earliest short stories, “,” into a full-length novel (or at least a hefty novella) for a summer 2016 release. It is about one man’s odyssey through a burning city on the hottest day on record to get back to the home he was once forced to leave and kick out the interloper who stole it from him. After that, I will be revamping my short story, “,” which is about a janitorial trainee who encounters occurrences beyond the ordinary with his once famous mentor at a secluded movie studio while on a quest to find out why the place is going nuts. My plan is to convert it into a novel. I hope to release it for immediate download sometime in August 2016. I am also drafting a third novel based on a short story from the 2006 era about a slacker high school student who must help his father win a bet with the principal by graduating with honors. That story, , will most likely come out before the other two, by April 2016.
All three novels are available for preorder. Click on their links for details.
For my shorter works, I’ve got one more ebook planned for release before Teenage American Dream comes out at the end of April. This will be a double pack featuring not one but two of my fantasy fables, “Waterfall Junction” and “The Narrow Bridge,” so check back soon. I expect to release the double pack Easter weekend.
Thanks again for your time.
Gary Hartland isnâ€™t looking for love. After a difficult breakup with Victoria, he has basically written off the idea of loving again. But thanks to a freak bus accident that he narrowly escapes, he is given the serendipitous opportunity to meet Nikki Rose, the girl of his dreams. At first, he is reluctant to talk to her: Never mind the pain he still feels over Victoria; finding love at the site of a bus wreck just doesnâ€™t happen. But there are few whom he would consider more his type, and to let her fade into the drawer filed under â€œlost opportunitiesâ€ just isnâ€™t something he can allow. So, Gary gives love another try, starting with that awkward first step toward her. Meeting her isnâ€™t exactly easy, though, and gaining her interest is even tougher. Like Gary, Nikki isnâ€™t looking for another heartbreak, so like Gary, she isnâ€™t looking for a new â€œfriend.â€ But he takes that chance anyway, puts his heart on the line, and once again he finds himself experiencing the thrill of discovery and the pain of heartbreak that love so notoriously heaps on those who just want to get it right. â€œThe Fallen Footwearâ€ is a story about the distances we may travel to make a relationship work. But, itâ€™s at its heart a story about healing and forgiveness, about letting go and moving on. It is the story about imperfect people looking for perfect companions and making the most of the results. It is about building hope when hope is at its most elusive.