Yacker & Jennabel

Jason Manganaro

 

Before Jenna blew in, I was sitting with two of the new Dirt Girls, hoping if I played my cards right I’d be getting some action by last call. It was midOctober, a football party night, and the apartment was half-full with a new crop of regulars. I never much went for pro football—over the years, even college sports have lost their luster—but back then, the game offered a ready excuse to tap a keg on a Monday. Most of our guests were still in school—too young to buy, too poor to score real enough IDs for the downtown Boston bar scene. So in that sense, we also saw our parties as a form of public service.

That season’s Dirt Girls were sophomores. Every Monday, they descended on the apartment in a swarm of six or seven to claim their seats. The term— which, at the time, we all thought was funny—had been coined our junior year. Our female friends had labeled the original gaggle, each ditzier and looser than the next, Those Dumb as Dirt Girls. Then Mezdog had caught a nasty rash from one of them and they’d become The Dirty Girls. But somehow, Dirt Girls had stuck—an ever-changing, age-capped lineup, like Menudo.

The blonde on the couch, Melanie or Melissa, whispered something to the brunette, hiding her mouth behind a red plastic cup. Somewhere in the distance, Mezdog called my name.

“Pardon me, ladies,” I said.

I stood and they giggled, like I—twenty-two, five months removed from commencement—was a horny old man, chatting them up on the Green Line.

Beer in hand, I wove my way down the hall, thinking vaguely about sex, about whether Melanie or Melissa would save my seat, about how I’d ever make my crap-ass shift at the video store the next morning. What I wasn’t thinking about, even remotely, was Jenna. Yet there she stood, wrapped in the fleece pullover and sequined mittens she’d worn since ninth grade.

“Asalto,” she said, a joke from high school Spanish, the word for both surprise party and attack.

We hugged hello. She squeezed so hard, I could feel the soft crush of her breasts through the fleece. Mezdog lingered like a wolf, circling for a sign of who she was, whether she was fair game.

When I introduced her as Chris Naz’s fiancée, he raised both hands and backed down the hall. “Cups are by the keg,” he said.

“Let me guess,” Jenna said. “He’s the one who never graduated.”

“One semester to go,” I sighed, as if excessive partying were the culprit. Really, he’d missed half of sophomore year with a burst appendix.

We looked at one another, smiled, then looked away.

“You told me last summer you’d just show up some night,” I said.

“What can I say?” She punched my arm, glad I’d remembered. “I’m a woman of my word.”

The last week of July, right before Chris had taken off for Stanford Law, the three of us had been inseparable—a throwback to my senior, her junior year of high school. One night at a house party, I’d told Jenna all about the Monday Night Football drinking game. Later, crashing in the basement, I’d listened in the dark while Chris screwed her on the opposite couch. She’d moaned shamelessly and he’d kept shushing her, probably assuming I’d passed out cold. But I’d had the weird feeling she knew all along I could hear.

From the kitchen, Drew, my other roommate, hollered, “Kickoff.”

I led Jenna to the living room, which was wall-to-wall now—the couches, the chairs, the window seat all overflowing with warm bodies. I could’ve pulled rank and reclaimed the couch, but instead we tromped through the crowd to an open spot on the floor. We sat side by side, backs against the blocked up fireplace. Two fresh beers were passed our way, courtesy of Mezdog. We tilted our cups to him and drank.

“Okay,” I said, “rules. First, you pick a team: Vikings or Saints.”

“Vikings,” Jenna said, like the choice was obvious.

“Okay, I’ll go Saints. So every time your team scores, you drink. Every time your team makes a completion, you drink. Every time the other team gets a penalty, you drink. Every time your team forces a turnover—”

“Drink,” she said. “I get it.”

“Between quarters and at halftime, a bottle will come around. I think the first one is SoCo.”

Jenna gave a fake shiver, cute as hell, then took a long swig.

“Let’s do this,” she said, pounding the floor with her fist.

That Chris, I thought. That lucky bastard.

The first drive was agonizingly long and uneventful. Finally, the first commercial came.

“So how’s he doing?” I asked. “In California?”

“You tell me,” Jenna said. “I only hear from him twice a week.” I was envious—I’d only heard from Chris twice total in the past three months.

“Law school’s pretty intense,” I said, as if I had any idea. “I hear half the class flunks out by the end of the first year. I’m sure he’s at the books twenty-four-seven.”

“Right,” she said flatly. “Poor baby.”

The game resumed. At some point, she switched her cup to her left hand, her right disappearing into the sleeve of her pullover. Her engagement ring, a one-carat diamond Chris had inherited from his grandparents, jutted out like a weapon. I nodded my chin at it. 

“Sparkly,” I said.

“The rock,” Jenna said, “or my personality?” She batted her lashes.

“Both,” I said.

She rolled her eyes, then gave me an odd stare. Too intense for friends. My reaction to it was almost chemical. Sweat bubbled to the surface of my skin. My throat went dry. My heartbeat throbbed along the sides of my neck. I looked away, downing what was left in my cup.

“Ready for more?” I asked.

Jenna drained hers, then handed it over. “Definitely.”

Mezdog was leaning against the kegorator, an old fridge with a built-in CO2 tank and a tap on the side. It belonged to Drew, and was—I’m ashamed to admit—the main reason I’d agreed to move in with him. Mezdog had a shitty view of the TV, but he couldn’t care less. He didn’t like pro football either.

“Careful,” he said, taking Jenna’s cup.

“What?” I asked. He filled the cup in silence, then traded me for mine. During my four years at BC, Chris had visited often, especially junior year when he and Jenna had broken up. He and Mezdog—usually the last two standing—had bonded then.

“Dude,” I said, trying to lighten the moment, “she’s Naz’s betrothed.”

“Glad you remember,” Mezdog said.

I snatched my cup from him. The truth was, there had always been something about Jenna. The fact that I’d met her first, had introduced her t Chris, had stood idly while he made his move—still hounded me. And though I tried not to dwell on it, some nights, as I drifted off, I fantasized that she was climbing onto my couch, taking me in hand, Chris miraculously out of the picture.

But making my way back to our spot on the floor, something happened. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of protectiveness. For Chris, my best friend since seventh grade. But also for myself: the kind of guy people trusted with their sisters, their girlfriends. Their fiancées. By the time I handed Jenna her cup, I was pissed at her. Showing up unannounced. Flirting with me.

From the couch, Melanie or Melissa and her friend were staring at us, whispering.

“Jealous girlfriend?” Jenna asked.

“Just Dirt Girls,” I said softly, with no further explanation.

The game resumed and she opened up a little. She was tired of living with her parents in Hale, of long T rides to UMass-Boston, of waitressing nights and weekends.

“And God forbid I’m spotted at a bar or a club,” Jenna said. “It always gets back to Christopher’s mother. Then she’s on the phone with him like, ‘Guess where so-and-so saw Jennabel.’” She took a long drink, independent of the game. “Jennabel, she calls me. Like Jezebel. I swear, I’ll never survive that woman. I’ll have to poison her.”

“You should move to California,” I said coldly, to my instant regret. I worried that Chris would settle there after graduation. That Jenna would follow.

“Nobody’s asked me,” she said, mouth hidden behind her cup.

The first quarter ended. A cheer rose when Mezdog raised the bottle of SoCo. As I watched it pass between hands, between lips, my gaze snagged on Jenna, still bundled in her pullover.

I waved my finger at her like a wand. “Want to put that in my room?”

“Not yet,” she said.

“You’re always cold,” I remembered out loud, chipping at the frost between us.

“Except when I’m hot,” she said.

I tried to catch her eye again, but the bottle came our way. We each took a swig, then passed it along.

“Nastier than nasty,” Jenna said.

“You get used to it,” I said, though the taste nearly turned my stomach.

Throughout high school, weekend parties had usually ended with me hurling into somebody’s bushes.

“Where can I smoke?” she asked.

I pointed. “Balcony off the kitchen. But the second quarter’s about to start.”

She put her hand on my shoulder, staring into my eyes. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take. You coming with?”

“Nah,” I said, disarmed by her gaze, her touch.

Jenna left the room and my roommate Drew hustled over, his lips plastered into a drunken smile. He raised his hand, and for a second, I felt like punching him in the face. Instead, I gave him a limp high-five.

“Dude!” he said. “Who’s that smoking hot girl you’ve been hanging with?”

I took a drink for dramatic effect. “Chris Nazulo’s wife.”

“Dude,” Drew said, an octave lower. “She’s been making goo-goo eyes at you all night.”

“I know it,” I said. “Here she comes.”

Jenna sauntered toward us, slipping her way through the pack.

“That was the quickest smoke ever,” I said.

“Too crowded,” she said with a frown. “I’ll have two at halftime.”

I introduced her to Drew.

“Greetings and salutations,” Drew said, grinning like he had a chance in hell with her.

Jenna smirked at me like, Is this guy for real?

Mercifully, the game resumed and Drew excused himself.

The second quarter was almost business-like—less talk, more drinking. I tried my best to concentrate on the game. Alcohol’s a funny thing—at a certain point, it raises a kind of aquarium glass between your mind and your actions. Sometimes, after a hard day of drinking, I can understand how bums curl up on the curb at night, newspaper tucked to their chins, oblivious to passersby.

On the window seat opposite the TV, a guy and girl I didn’t know were making out. He was running his fingers through her long, red curls. Her hand was up the back of his flannel shirt. I wanted Jenna badly then—independent of loyalty, of morality. As if sensing my weakness, she leaned against my shoulder, so close I caught the citrusy smell of her shampoo. For a while, I watched the redhead’s fingers move under the flannel, remembering every shitty thing Chris had ever done to me: the countless digs and wisecracks about my motormouth, my weak stomach, my bad luck with women. Writing “Yacker” across my chest in permanent marker when I’d passed out after junior prom. Doing Jenna on a couch, me a few feet away.

Halftime came and another bottle started around. Captain Morgan, I think.

Jenna stood up. “It’s hot as balls in here,” she said, a favorite phrase of Chris’s. She yanked her pullover over her head, flashing a glimpse of bare midriff. Underneath was an oversized Nirvana T-shirt. As I stood, I faced a blurry Kurt Cobain, giving me the finger.

“I’ll put this in my room,” I said, grabbing the soft, fleecy arm. I needed some air, a minute to get my bearings. But when I started to turn, she didn’t let go of the pullover. A few steps later, I was towing her through the crowd. Caught in a traffic jam, someone handed her the bottle of rum. She took a swig. A cheer rose.

By the time we reached the hallway, my heart was pounding harder and higher, working its way from my throat to my crown. I wanted her here, but I wanted her gone. I wanted to fool around, but I didn’t want it to be something I’d done, something I was capable of.

The door to my room was partway open. I stepped in and flicked on the light. Jenna let go of the pullover, lingering by the deadbolt, poking at it with her finger.

“Came with the apartment,” I said. I started to toss the pullover on my bed, the way my parents did when company came. Instead, I laid it on the desk with my empty beer cup.

She was still fascinated by the deadbolt. “I’ve never seen one on a bedroom door.”

“We always shit each other about it,” I said. “Like, why would you even live with somebody you had to lock out?”

Jenna closed the door, turned the locking bar, and gave me a strange look, like she couldn’t quite focus. “I want one,” she said.

What happened next is hard to explain. Not because I can’t or won’t remember, but because I’ve rehashed it in my head so many times, I remember it different ways. It started when our eyes met, and for what seemed like forever, there was only the two of us, shut off from the rest of the party. “Please,” I tried to tell her. But how she interpreted this—please stay, please go, please let this happen—is as mysterious to me now as what I meant to convey. Anyway, there was a please, and a rush, and our bodies collided. I like to think she made the first move, throwing herself at me from across the room. But more likely, we behaved like magnets, pulled together by an attraction we couldn’t break.

We kissed—lips, necks, earlobes. Her fingers raked through my hair, then across my chest. I thrust my hands up the back of her T-shirt, like I’d watched the girl in the living room do. Her bare skin was softer than I’d imagined, but tight, muscular. When I came to the clasp of her bra, she gave off a low hum. I was almost gasping. Her tongue darted around mine. Her mouth tasted like liquor and menthol, with a hint of sour milk. But I didn’t care. Her hand slipped into my back pocket, her leg wrapped around mine, and we fit against each other. As we backed slowly toward the bed, a pounding rang out from the other side of the door. We both froze.

Mezdog called my name.

“I got something to ask you,” he said.

“One second,” I said, scared to death he would try the knob, find out the door was bolted. I pulled my hands from her shirt and smoothed it down.

“Have you seen Nazulo’s wife?” another voice asked—Drew, that rat bastard.

Jenna gave me a filthy look, like Why is everyone saying that about me?

I unbolted the door as quietly as I could. As it opened, Mezdog and Drew fell into the room.

“How’s it going?” Drew said, so smug I wished I’d punched him when I’d had the chance.

Mezdog, on the other hand, was all business. “Can I talk to you a second?” He grabbed me by the bicep, then turned to Jenna, evicting her from the room with his eyes.

“I’m going to smoke,” she said, snatching her pullover from the desk, knocking over my empty cup with a rattle of plastic.

Once she was gone, Mezdog kicked me in the tailbone. When I turned to face him, Drew kicked me in the same spot, from the other side.

“What the hell?” I said. Mezdog threw up his hands. “Where’s your brain?”

Mezdog, I’ve come to realize, was the Chris of my college years. Not just a friend, but a friend I looked up to. Idolized, in a way. Having him call me out—in a tone like he was my dad, like I’d disappointed him—was more than I could handle. My throat tightened. For the first time in my adult life, I felt tears coming on.

“I’m wasted,” I croaked, a lie. “Help me.”

“Okay,” Drew said, “how about this: after the game, we all go to a bar. Someplace mellow, with tables. We hang out awhile, and on the way back, we put her on the last outbound trolley.”

If Mezdog and Chris were the kind of friends you admired, Drew was the opposite. Even when I liked him best, I thought of him as sort of a turd. At the moment, his eyes were brimming with superiority—him and Mezdog against me—and I hated him for it.

I looked to Mezdog, expecting him to tell Drew what a moron he was. “That works,” he said instead, then turned to me. “In the meantime, slow it down. And keep it zipped.”

They both watched me, a preview of how it would be from then on. How far Jenna and I had or hadn’t gone was beside the point. I’d been caught in the act, betraying a friendship. Now I’d be forever suspect. Though I deserved it, I already resented their judgment. Like I’d been duped, framed. Like I was the victim of forces beyond my control.

I gritted my teeth, nodded, and we scattered.

I waited in line for the bathroom—trying not to think about Chris, whether I could ever look him in the eye again—then headed back to the living room. I met Jenna at our spot on the floor. Her pullover stank of smoke. The third quarter had already begun, and this time, she was the one freezing me out.

We both drank very little, sipping only what the game required. The Dirt Girls on the couch were watching us again, probably sensing the tension. I tried to keep my eyes on the TV, but I could still feel her skin on my fingers, the poke of her tongue between my lips.

By the time the quarter ended and the final bottle came around— Jägermeister—I couldn’t wait for it. I took a long chug, then offered it to Jenna.

“No, thanks,” she said, our first words since the bedroom.

I passed the bottle along. “After the game, a bunch of us are hitting the bars. I can walk you to the T stop. Afterwards or on the way.”

She stared at me. “Outstanding,” she said.

I gulped. The final quarter had begun.

The next few minutes of game time were the most uncomfortable of the night. Instead of worrying over me and Chris, or me and the rest of the world, I started to wonder about us. If Jenna and I were still friends. If we could ever get past what’d nearly happened, ever feel at ease around each other again.

Then, about halfway through the quarter, Jenna took my hand. She didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at me, just wrapped her fingers in mine and held on, like children sometimes do. But the effect on me was electric. I started to drink again, really drink, and slowly, the aquarium glass began to rise. Her hand grew warmer, hot to the touch. When I looked down, I half-expected it to glow.

The game ended, a blowout in the closing minutes, though it’s hard to remember who won. By the time the clock ran to zero, the room was almost empty. The redhead and her boyfriend, even some of the Dirt Girls, were long gone.

When Mezdog circled over us, we were still holding hands. We let go.

“Bars in five,” he grumbled, then moved along.

Jenna stood and stretched. “I’m going for a smoke.”

I wanted to follow, but stayed sitting, feeling a bit wobbly.

“I’ll meet you,” I said.

I rose slowly, steadying myself. I could never tell how drunk I was until I tried to stand. At that point, the aquarium glass was thick as a dictionary. Down the hall, Drew was chatting up a group of girls, probably inviting them to the bar. He had a steady girlfriend at Tufts, which never ceased to amaze me. I thought about joining him, fouling up his game. Instead, I stumbled toward the kitchen.

I found Jenna on the balcony, smoking a butt, staring at the sky. Megan or Melissa was balled up nearby, her head resting against the wrought-iron railing.

“Hey,” I said.

Jenna glanced at me over her shoulder, blowing smoke in my direction. Beside her, Megan or Melissa burped, then whimpered. Jenna took another drag and let her free hand fall, lightly running her fingers over the other girl’s hair.

I put my elbows on the railing and stared out over the rooftops. Before you knew it, winter would come. The sky would be crisp, clear, and the stars would stand out more sharply. A few blocks away, the traffic from Comm Ave washed by. I could’ve laid my head down right there.

Without warning, the Dirt Girl popped to her feet. She bent over the railing and let out a louder burp. Two flights down, a splash hit the asphalt. My stomach gave a sickly gurgle.

“I feel better now,” Megan or Melissa told Jenna. “Thanks.” She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her coat, then wandered back inside.

Jenna finished her cigarette, eyes pointed skyward, and flicked the butt into the darkness. I tried not to picture it landing in the puddle below.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”

In the hallway, Mezdog, Drew, and a few girls stood waiting. I ducked into my room for my jacket as they started down the stairs.

“Hold on,” Jenna whispered behind me. “I need to use the bathroom.”

I nodded, then followed them down. At the front stoop, I stopped. Mezdog and the girl he was talking with led the way, making a right onto the sidewalk. Behind them, Drew and the other two followed blindly. Before they turned at the corner, Drew looked back, spotted me, flung up his arms in frustration.

I shoved my hands in the pockets of my coat. “Bathroom,” I said.

Drew stopped in his tracks, unsure whether to stay or keep moving— wondering, I’m sure, whether Mezdog would blame him if we lagged behind. His predicament made me smile. Finally, he jogged after the girls, out of sight.

I lingered outside a few seconds, then headed back in. From the top of the stairs, I peeked down the hall. The bathroom door was closed.

I imagined Jenna standing at the sink, staring at herself in the mirror. Confused, embarrassed, a little ashamed, maybe. Trying to pull herself together. I inched closer to the door.

Another minute passed and finally, the knob turned. The door opened but a sliver.

“David?” she said.

“I’m here,” I said. I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets.

“Are they gone?” she asked, still hidden behind the door.

“They’re waiting for us,” I lied. I wanted to put my hand up, to push the door open, but I was afraid to move.

“I want to stay,” she said.

I swallowed hard. When I replay that night in my head—as I tend to do over and over, in the closing days of every relationship I’ve had since, with a parade of women who aren’t Jenna—I see this as the beginning. I wonder if, from this point on, there was anything I could’ve done or said differently, so that among the many things I lost in those hours, I could’ve come away with her. How that alone would’ve justified the rest, even my betrayal. How maybe infatuation— like envy, like hate—is just a bat-shit crazy cousin of true love.

“What about Chris?” I said. “What about—”

Jenna stepped from the bathroom, pullover draped across her arm. “This isn’t about anybody else. Just you and me.”

I swallowed again, clearing my throat. “Okay,” I said.

She brushed past me, heading for my room. I followed. The door closed. The locking bar clicked.

 

We are awoken by voices in the hall. The room is black, silent except for our breathing. We reach out, find each other, move closer, hold on. Loud footsteps, growing softer. We feel secluded, hidden away. We feel together in a sense both new and ageless. Soft footsteps, growing louder. We feel safe. We feel complete. We feel free.

A knock on the bedroom door. We stay still—awake, but scared to move. Another knock, then the knob rattles, barred by the deadbolt. A flat palm hits the door, hard.

“Uncool,” a voice says, Mezdog’s. Muttered curses, more footsteps. A door slams somewhere down the hall.

We stay quiet. Outside, a dog barks. Further off, a second dog replies. We breathe, in and out, like waves across the sand, washing that day’s footsteps to the sea. We are happy, so sleepy. Our breathing carries us away.

 

I opened my eyes in a strange place, in a strange bed, feeling nastier than nasty. David lay beside me, pretending to be asleep. If we were a couple, I would’ve jabbed him in the ribs, torn the covers from his naked body, anything to call his bluff. But we didn’t know each other that way. We were friends—good friends, I told people, independent of Christopher. But here, now, we were also strangers.

Sunlight, oppressively warm and bright, gleamed in through the blinds. It crept into everything—under my eyelids, down my throat, dry like I’d swallowed a fistful of sawdust. I tried to blow it out, lightly, through my nose. Finally, David gave up the charade. He twisted and stretched, seemingly fresh from a dream. But I knew better.

Before he could look me in the eye, I shifted my head from the pillow to his shoulder. I sifted my fingers through the wispy hair on his chest—thinner and darker than Christopher’s, though I tried not to think of it that way. He breathed deep, then let out a long, low sigh, which ruined everything.

I rolled back onto the pillow. I pulled the covers to my chin. The apartment was eerily quiet.

“Where is everybody?” I asked.

He listened a second. “I don’t know,” he said. “Mezdog has a nine o’clock class on Tuesdays. Drew might still be asleep. Or maybe he went to his girlfriend’s last night.”

“That guy’s got a girlfriend?” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“I know it,” David said. “Hard to believe.” He combed through his hair with his fingers, scratched at his forehead. “What time is it?”

How should I know? I wanted to say. “Morning time,” I told him instead.

He sat up, fished around for his boxers, and pulled them on under the covers. His body was lean, ropy with muscles. Nothing to be ashamed of. But the way he slouched and slumped gave him away. His lack of confidence had always been sort of a turn-on—the knee-jerk sarcasm, the subtle sense of humor, so different from Christopher’s booming ego. Watching David skitter around the room reminded me of a bit Christopher liked to do, where he’d list off a bunch of names and end it with, “and David Casabianca, as The Yacker.” I felt awful whenever he said it. But I laughed every time.

The night before, after we’d finished, David had started to sob. I’d felt bad for him then, had tried to comfort him. But for one hot instant, I could’ve murdered him. I mean it. I’d pictured myself clutching the pillow, smothering it over his face. But the urge had left as quickly as it came, thrilling and terrifying all at once.

David found what he’d been looking for—his phone, it turned out—and dialed.

“Work,” he mouthed to me. For a second, I thought he was blowing a kiss.

When somebody answered, he used a strange voice, higher and more feminine than the one I knew. “I overslept,” he said. “I’ll be late, I guess.” He flashed me a sheepish grin. “What time is it now? Shit. Okay. Ten-thirty, maybe?”

I didn’t feel like waiting for the full explanation. I got out of bed, partly to show him I didn’t mind being looked at. But as soon as I stood up, I didn’t want him to look at me anymore. Not right then. So I plucked my T-shirt from the floor and pulled it on.

“Okay,” he said into the phone, eyes on me. “Sorry. Thanks. Sorry. Bye.”

“I need to shower,” I said.

“Okay. Just a second.” He unbolted the door and left me. At first, I thought about doing something crazy. Throwing off my T-shirt and sprawling out o the bed. To be funny. But I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. I became overly aware of standing in his room, alone. Of my ass hanging out from the back of my T-shirt. I tried to pull it down, but it was no use. I felt humiliated.

He came back. “They’re both gone,” he said, relieved.

“Which one’s your towel?” I asked.

He seized up for a second. “I’ll get you a clean one,” he finally said.

He pulled a towel from his dresser and I snatched it away. He smiled uneasily, so I hit him on the arm with it, to show I was joking around. Then I unfolded it and wrapped it around my waist.

“My soap’s the one on the left,” he said. “And there’s shampoo in there.”

I’d noticed it in the bathroom the night before, a giant bottle of Pert Plus, a boy shampoo. He was cute to think I’d use it. I put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek—nothing sexy, just a friendly kiss. Then I left for the bathroom so he wouldn’t get any ideas.

The water pressure was horrible. Barely a trickle. And with his bar of soap, I couldn’t clean between my legs like I wanted. I was in the shower so long, my mind began to wander. I wondered what time my shift would start at Friendly’s. Three-thirty or four? I thought about the term paper I had due. I thought about David’s buddy, Mezdog, who was more my usual type. The way he’d tried to ignore me, the way he’d pounded on the bedroom door. But he was too much like Christopher, especially for what I’d needed that night. Suddenly I felt light-headed. For a second, I thought I might pass out, or puke. But I closed my eyes and let the water dribble down my spine until I felt okay.

Scrubbing my armpit, I scratched myself with that goddamn ring. That was how I’d come to think of it. That goddamn ring. At first, I’d been so proud to flash it for people. It said something about me, I thought. That I wasn’t a girl anymore, but a woman. But the longer I wore it, the more it got in the way. The night before, Christopher had been twenty minutes late calling me. So finally, I’d called him. Some chick had answered. She was part of his study group, he’d said. On the phone, it’d been fine. But once I’d hung up, I’d felt like a fool. I’d stared at that goddamn ring and thought about what it really meant—that I belonged to Christopher. Like he’d plucked me from the rack and put me on layaway. Until he felt like coming back for me, or shipping me to California.

Then I’d thought about David and his Monday football parties. How he’d always been into me. I’m sure that sounds conceited, but believe me, I knew exactly what I was: the girl at the party who’s cute enough to be noticed, bu plain enough that every guy thinks he’s got a chance. Despite this, I’d managed to stay true to Christopher. Fending off guys at work, guys buying me drinks at clubs. No matter what Christopher’s wench of a mother thought, I’d always stayed true. I’d even tried to convince myself that sleeping with David—his best friend—was somehow better than sleeping with a stranger. But that was a lie. And though sometimes lying is necessary—usually to spare other people’s feelings, to save them from an ugly truth—there’s nothing more pathetic than lying to yourself.

I shut off the water and climbed out. I wanted to brush my teeth, but couldn’t tell which toothbrush was David’s. So I squeezed some Crest onto my finger and did my best.

I went back to his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. Now that I was clean, the whole place stank like beer and my brother’s sweaty socks. I dried off, pulled on my jeans, and borrowed a clean T-shirt from his dresser. Black, thank God, so I could get away without a bra. I stuffed my underwear into the pocket of my pullover and zipped it shut—another humiliation.

I found him in the kitchen wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, sipping a glass of tomato juice.

“Want some?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. What I wanted was to go home. “You have anything to eat?”

“Not really,” he said. “The trouble with this place is we always have beer, but not much else.” He looked around a little. “Want a banana?”

“Hit me,” I said. He tossed it over. Catching it almost squished it to mush. I peeled away the black skin. “I usually like them green,” I said.

“Huh,” he said. “I like them almost rotten.”

I stared at the banana. “If we got together, you’d always be frustrated.” He looked at me like I had horns. “You’d never get any bananas,” I said, taking a bite.

He kept staring at me. He thought something else was going on, I guess. Something sexy. I wanted to tell him that sometimes eating a banana is just eating a banana. To prove my point, I took a big, sloppy bite, like it was a turkey leg. I chewed with my mouth open.

“I need to jump in the shower,” he said.

“I need to get going.” I bit off some more and threw the rest in the trash.

“I could walk you to the T.” He was trying to be nice. He needed to get to work, and expected me to say no.

“Okay,” I said.

Outside was colder than I’d expected. I zipped my pullover, burying my chin in the fleece. I’d had it since high school, and had decided to keep wearing it until it stopped fitting or somebody bought me a new one.

The whole way, he bitched about his hangover. The more I heard, the more it aggravated me. As if it explained something. As if, in his version of last night, alcohol was the difference-maker. Even now, I wonder if he remembers it the way I do. If he’s come to realize that, like money, alcohol only makes you a bigger version of what you already are.

But that morning, I kept quiet. We walked the last few blocks to Comm Ave together, but not really. It was then I could feel it forming. His betrayal. It came through in the way he stared at the ground, the way he scraped his feet on the pavement. His sense that I’d lured him into something. And in a way, I decided right then that I’d come clean to Christopher, drown us both.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how slow of a drowning it would be, at least for me. That after a brief breakup, Christopher and I would go through with the wedding. That instead of freeing me, my confession would jam me under his thumb. That being the wife of Mister Perfect Lawyer would become a reminder, every day, of how imperfect I am. That when our bad joke of a marriage finally ended, I’d find myself pining for a boy I hadn’t seen or heard from since screwing him.

The T stop on Comm Ave was in the middle of the street. While we waited to cross, David turned around. I turned too and there we were, side by side in a store window. Our reflection had a depth to it, like you could reach in and touch us. We looked ragged, sure, but also young and serious, and, in a weird way, defiant. Like the versions of ourselves from another dimension, with enough balls to make last night the start of something.

“Some pair,” David said with a sad grin.

Maybe it was his tone, or that hangdog look, or the bad timing of his sarcasm. But in that moment, the meanness in me came back.

“Yeah,” I said. “Jezebel and Judas.”

I watched the glass, his face, the horror. By the time we crossed the street, I felt sorry again. Sorry for him, for us. For myself. I felt like the kind of girl who seduces her boyfriend’s best friend for attention. I felt confused, lonely, and above all, pathetic. But I didn’t want to be pathetic. I wanted to be the kind of woman a boy would do anything for. Lie, steal. Betray a friendship.

The Green Line trolley clanked into view. Tears were coming on. Without thinking, I kissed him hard on the mouth, like the kisses I’d seen in movies. I wanted the people on the train to see. To think we were in love. To wish they had someone to kiss them that way. But our mouths were so dry, it was nothing but show.

As the trolley pulled to a stop behind me, I closed my eyes and buried my face in his shoulder. The doors hissed open. David tried to step back, to let me get on. But I clung to him, I cleaved to him. Like a girl who might never let go.     

 

 

JASON MANGANARO is a graduate of Boston College and Ohio State University (MFA, 2000). His fiction has most recently appeared in Red Rock Review, The Journal, and River Oak Review. He has nearly completed a collection of stories set in his native Massachusetts, and is hard at work on a novel.