I realize I’ve been paused on the steps and Owen is upstairs, so I make my way back up to his apartment. When I reach the top of the stairs, my feet stop moving again. He’s in the process of changing his shirt. His back is to me, and he’s pulling his paint-splattered T-shirt off over his head. I watch as the muscles in his shoulders move around and contract, and I wonder if he’s ever painted a self-portrait.
I would buy it.
He catches me staring at him when he turns to reach for his other shirt. I do that thing where I quickly glance away and make it completely obvious that I was staring, since I’m now looking at nothing but a blank wall and I know he’s still looking at me and oh, my word, I just want to leave.
“Is that okay?” he asks, pulling my attention back to him.
“Is what okay?” I say quickly, relieved by the sound of our voices, which is now eliminating the awkwardness I was about to drown in.
“Can we go right now? To fix my hair?”
He pulls the clean shirt on and I’m disappointed that I now have to stare at a boring gray T-shirt instead of the masterpiece beneath it.
What are these ridiculous, shallow thoughts that are plaguing my brain? I don’t care about muscles or six-packs or skin that looks so flawless, it makes me want to chase his father down and give him a high five for creating such an impeccable son.
I clear my throat. “Yeah, we can go now. I don’t have plans.”
Way to appear more pathetic, Auburn. Admit you have nothing to do on a Saturday after ogling his half-naked body. Real attractive.
He picks the baseball cap up and puts it back on before stepping into his shoes. “Ready?”
I nod and turn to head back down the stairs. I’m beginning to hate these stairs.
When he opens the front door, the sun is so bright, I start to question my own mortality and entertain the thought that maybe I became a vampire overnight. I cover my eyes with my arms and stop walking. “Damn it, that’s bright.”
If this is a hangover, I have no idea how anyone could become an alcoholic.
Owen closes the door and takes a few steps toward me. “Here,” he says. He places his cap on my head and pulls it down close to my eyes. “That should help.”
He smiles, and I get a glimpse of that crooked left incisor and it makes me smile, despite the fact that my head hates me for moving any facial muscles. I lift my hand and adjust the hat, pulling it down a little more. “Thank you.”
Owen opens the door, and I look at my feet to avoid the assault from the sun. I step outside and wait for him to lock it, and then we begin walking. Luckily, we’re walking in the opposite direction of the sun, so I’m able to look up and pay attention to where we’re going.
“How are you feeling?” Owen asks.
It takes me about six steps to answer him. “Confused,” I say. “Why in the world do people drink if it makes them feel like this the next day?”
I continue counting steps, and it takes him about eight before he answers me. “It’s an escape,” he says.
I glance at him but quickly look straight ahead again, because turning my head doesn’t feel so hot, either. “I get that, but is escaping for a few hours really worth the hangover the next day?”
He’s quiet for eight steps. Nine. Ten. Eleven.
“I guess that would depend on the reality you’re trying to escape.”
That’s deep, Owen.
I would think my reality is pretty bad, but definitely not bad enough to endure this every morning. But maybe that would explain what turns people into alcoholics. You drink to escape the emotional pain you’re in, and then the next day you do it all over again to get rid of the physical pain. So you drink more and you drink more often and pretty soon you’re drunk all the time and it becomes just as bad, if not worse, than the reality you were attempting to escape from in the first place. Only now, you need an escape from the escape, so you find something even stronger than the alcohol. And maybe that’s what turns alcoholics into addicts.
A vicious cycle.
“You want to talk about it?” he asks.
I don’t make the mistake of looking at him again, but I’m curious where he’s going with his question. “Talk about what?”
“What you were trying to escape last night,” he says, glancing at me.
I shake my head. “No, Owen. I don’t.” I look at him this time, even though it hurts my head to do so. “You want to talk about why you’re shutting down the studio?”
My question catches him by surprise. I can see it in his eyes before he looks away. “No, Auburn. I don’t.”
We both stop walking when we reach my salon. I put my hand on the door and take his cap off my head. I place it back on top of his head, even though I have to lift up onto the tips of my toes to do it. “Great talk. Let’s shut up now and fix your hair.”
He holds the door open for me to walk in first. “Sounds a lot like what I had in mind.”
We enter the salon, and I motion for him to follow me. I know now that his hair will be a lot more cooperative if it’s wet, so I take him straight back to the room with the sinks. I can feel Emory watching me as we make our way past her and it makes me curious as to why she didn’t freak out that I didn’t show up last night, or at the least, call with a code word.
Before she has the chance to yell at me, I offer up an apology as I pass her station. “Sorry I didn’t call last night,” I say quietly.
She glances at Owen trailing behind me. “No worries. Someone made sure I knew you were alive.”
I immediately turn and look at Owen, and it’s obvious with his shrug that he’s the one responsible for Emory being notified. I’m not sure if I like this, because it’s just another considerate thing of him to do, which makes it even harder to stay mad at him.
When we reach the back room, all the sinks are empty, so I walk to the farthest one. I adjust the height of it and then motion for Owen to sit. I adjust the temperature of the water and watch as he leans his head back into the groove of the sink. I keep my focus trained on anything but his face while I begin to wet his hair. He keeps his eyes on me the entire time I’m working my hands through it, creating a thick lather with the shampoo. I’ve been doing this for over a month now and the majority of the clients at this salon are women. I’ve never noticed how intimate washing someone’s hair can be.