After much whispered discussion in the kitchen, an uneasy peace was negotiated. I apologized to Jennifer Anne, trying to make it sound genuine, and suffered through some more talking points over chocolate soufflé before finally being allowed to leave. Chris still wasn’t really speaking to me, and didn’t even try to make it sound like he wasn’t slamming the door at my back when I left. I shouldn’t even have been surprised, actually, that he’d caved so easily to love. That was why he’d lost our marriage bet every time: his guess was always over, way over, the last time by a full six months.
I got in my car and drove. Going home seemed depressing, with just me there, so I cut across town, into Lissa’s neighborhood. I slowed down in front of her house, turning off my lights and idling by the mailbox. Through the front window I could see into the dining room, where she and her parents were eating dinner. I thought about going up and ringing the bell-Lissa’s mom was always quick to pull a chair and another plate up to the table-but I wasn’t in the mood for parental talk about college, or the future. In fact, I felt like I was primed for a little backsliding. So I went to Chloe’s.
She answered the door holding a wooden spoon, her brow furrowed. “My mom’s due home in forty-five minutes,” she informed me, holding the door open so I could come in. “You can stay thirty, okay?”
I nodded. Chloe’s mom, Natasha, had a strict policy of no uninvited guests, which meant that as long as I’d known Chloe there’d always been a set time limit of how long we could hang out at her house. Her mom just didn’t seem to like people that much. I figured this was either a really bad reason to choose a career as a flight attendant or a natural reaction to having become one. Either way, we hardly ever saw her.
“How was dinner?” she asked me over her shoulder as I followed her into the kitchen, where I could hear something sizzling on the stove.
“Uneventful,” I told her. I wasn’t lying as much as I just didn’t feel like getting into it. “Can I score a couple of minibottles from you?”
She turned around from the stove, where she was stirring something in the pan. It smelled like seafood. “Is that why you came over?”
“Partially.” That was the thing about Chloe: I could always shoot it straight with her. In fact, she preferred it that way. Like me, she wasn’t into bullshitting around.
She rolled her eyes. “Help yourself.”
I pulled a stool over and stepped up, opening the cabinet. Ah, the mother lode. Tiny bottles her mom had filched from the drink cart lined the shelf, arranged neatly by height and category: clear liquors on the left, dessert brandies on the right. I grabbed two Barcardis from the back, readjusted the rows, then glanced at Chloe to make sure it looked okay. She nodded, then handed me a glass of Coke, into which I dumped the contents of one bottle, shaking it around with some ice cubes. Then I took a sip. It was strong, and burned going down, and I felt this weird twinge, like I knew this wasn’t the way to react to what had happened at Jennifer Anne’s. It passed, though. That was the bad thing. It always passed.
“Want a sip?” I asked Chloe, holding out my glass. “It’s good.”
She shook her head. “Yeah,” she said, adjusting the flame under the pan, “that’s just what I need. She comes home to my first tuition bill and I smell like rum.”
“Where’s she been this time?”
“Zurich, I think.” She leaned closer to the pan, sniffing it. “With a layover in London. Or Milan.”
I took another sip of my drink. “So,” I said, after a few seconds of quiet, “I’m an angry, bitter bitch. Right?”
“Right,” she said, without turning around.
I nodded. Point proved. I supposed. I drew in the dampness left by my glass on the black countertop, stretching out the edges.
“And you bring this up,” Chloe said, turning around and leaning against the stove, “because…”
“Because,” I told her, “Chris suddenly believes in love and I don’t and therefore, I am a terrible person.”
She considered this. “Not altogether terrible,” she said. “You have some good points.”
I waited, raising my eyebrows.
“Such as,” she said, “you have really nice clothes.”
“Fuck you,” I told her, and she laughed, putting her hand over her mouth, so I laughed too. Really, I don’t know what I’d expected. I would have said the same thing to her.
She wouldn’t let me drive when I left. She moved my car around the corner-if it was parked out front her mom would be pissed-then drove me to Bendo, where I had to swear I would only have one more beer and then call Jess for a ride home. I promised. Then I went inside, had two beers, and decided not to bug Jess just yet. Instead I set myself up at the bar, with a decent view of the room, and decided to stew for a while.
I don’t know how long it was before I saw her. One minute I was arguing with the bartender, a tall, gangly guy named Nathan, about classic rock guitarists, and the next I turned my head and caught a glimpse of her in the mirror behind the bar. Her hair was flat, her face a little sweaty. She looked drunk, but I would have known her anywhere. It was everybody else who always liked to think she was gone for good.
I wiped off my face, ran my fingers through my hair, trying to give it some life. She stared back at me as I did this, knowing as well as I that these were just smoke and mirrors, little tricks. Behind her and me the crowd was thickening, and I could feel people pressing up against me, leaning forward for drinks. And the sick thing? In a way, I was almost happy to see her. The worst part of me, out in the flesh. Blinking back at me in the dim light, daring me to call her a name other than my own.
Truth be told, I used to be worse. Much worse.
I hardly ever drank much anymore. Or smoked pot. Or went off with guys I didn’t know that well into dark corners, or dark cars, or dark rooms. Weird how it never worked in the daylight, when you could actually see the topography of someone’s face, the lines and bumps, the scars. In the dark everyone felt the same: the edges blurred. When I think of myself then, what I was like two years ago, I feel like a wound in a bad place, prone to be bumped on corners or edges. Never able to heal.
It wasn’t the drinking or the smoking that was really the problem. It was the other thing, the one harder to admit out loud. Nice girls didn’t do what I did. Nice girls waited. But even before it happened, I’d never counted myself as a nice girl.