She hesitated, and her lips puckered. I knew she was only thinking, but the pucker sent my mind running in an entirely different direction.
“You really do volunteer to help kids after school?” She made it sound like I was aiming for the Nobel Peace Prize or something. They were just kids who needed a place to hang out.
I said, “I really do.”
After a few moments of hesitation, she slipped her hand into mine and shook. She frowned and said, “Max Miller—musician and raging bitch. I’m sorry for slapping you.”
“And pinching me,” I added, even though I wasn’t sorry. It had given me an excuse to touch her.
“And pinching you. And thank you, I guess, for today. And for tomorrow. And sorry number two that you have to spend your Thanksgiving with my crazy parents.”
I smiled. She had this scrunched look on her face, and I could just tell that an apology from this girl was a rare occurrence. I shrugged. “Hey, don’t feel bad. I was planning to spend tomorrow home alone with some Chinese food. I’m sure your mother’s turkey is much better.”
She smiled begrudgingly. “It is. She’s a crazy good cook. Emphasis on the crazy.”
“But the slapping . . . that you can feel bad for.”
She rolled her eyes, and moved away. “I said I was sorry!”
“What? No offer to kiss it better?” She raised an eyebrow, but I swear her eyes dropped to my lips for just a second. I thought of kissing her, just doing it, without thinking about the fact that we didn’t know each other or about her real boyfriend. But she stood, and the moment passed.
She said, “Well, Cade Winston, I really have to get going. I’m already late for my band practice, but can you come over early tomorrow before my parents arrive? We can map out the rest of our story then, so there’s no more need to improvise with hugs.” She grabbed a pen from her purse and wrote her address and her number on a napkin.
I pocketed it, threw my empty cup in the trash, and followed her to the door. I knew she said she had to go, but I wanted just a little bit longer with her. “You never got to drink your coffee,” I said, thinking back to when she’d dropped it earlier during the phone call from her parents. “Let me get you another cup.”
She shook her head. “I should be the one buying you coffee.”
“You’re having a stressful morning. You deserve a break.” She looked at me like I’d just made some grand gesture. Her boyfriend must have been a real dick if she was impressed by a cup of coffee. I added, “Besides, I don’t actually drink coffee, so it’s a moot point.”
She laughed. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever actually heard someone say ‘moot point.’ And if you don’t like coffee, what are you doing in a coffee shop?”
“I was supposed to pretend to be a girl’s long-lost brother, but she canceled at the last minute. It’s cool, pretend boyfriend gigs are so much more fun.”
We stepped up to the cashier, and she said, “Medium coffee.”
I watched her mix in a cream and two packets of sugar. As she stirred the drink, she eyed me like I was a puzzle to piece together.
“You’re kind of funny, Winston.”
She took a sip of her coffee, and what was left of her lipstick left a red smudge on the rim of the cup. It drove me crazy.
I said, “I’m more than kind of funny. You’ll see.”
“And cocky.” She smiled up at me. “You’re a little hard to puzzle out, you know.”
“I’m willing to spend as much time with you as you’d like while you try to figure me out.”
She laughed. “Let’s just stick with tomorrow for now. See you later, boyfriend.”
“Until tomorrow, Mackenzie.”
She made a noise halfway between a scoff and a laugh, and shook her head. As she pushed open the glass door at the front, she called over her shoulder, “You do not want to play that game, honey.”
She looked back just for a second as she crossed the street, and her eyes met mine through the window. A thrill bubbled up in my chest that reminded me of a race, of auditioning and fighting for a role that I knew should be mine.
I stood there like an idiot watching her leave until the cashier said, “Hey man, did you need something else?”
“No, I’m good, sorry.”
I stepped out into the crisp winter air thinking about how good I really felt. She didn’t know how right she was. This whole thing was a game. She wasn’t my girlfriend, even if her parents did love me. Especially because her parents loved me. I’d never dated a girl like her, and she’d probably never dated a guy like me. But sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until it’s already knocked you flat on your back. And what was the point in living if I was only going to travel the same roads again and again?
I replayed the last twenty minutes or so in my mind—our conversation, the meeting with her parents, seeing the way her face went red when she was mad. Maybe I was broken, but even the slap had felt kind of good.
Despite the absolute absurdity of everything, it was the most normal I’d felt in months. Like the clouds had finally parted. Like I’d pulled my foot free from being stuck in the past and had stepped into the now.
It felt better. And I was determined for it to stay that way.
It was time to start living, to actually enjoy my life. And I just so happened to know someone who was really good at enjoying life.
I dropped my stuff off in my apartment, and then went across the hall. I rapped my knuckles against my neighbor’s door and called, “Milo! You home?”
The sound of some kind of Latin music, salsa maybe, was leaking out from underneath the door, so I knew he was home.
“Milo!” I pounded against the door a few more times.
The door flew open, and Milo lowered a pretty brunette into a dip so fast that her head nearly hit me in the crotch. I jumped back.
Milo grinned up at me, his teeth white against his dark skin. He pulled the girl up against him fast, and her curls went flying.
I glanced at my watch.
Only Milo would be doing the salsa in his living room at 10:00 A.M.
“Too loud, amigo? I’ll turn it down.”
I held up a hand, “No. No, it’s cool. I was actually wondering if you wanted to hang out tonight?”
He quirked an eyebrow at me. I’d been bailing on plans all week due to holiday dread and depression, but it was time to shake that off.
“I have plans already, man, but you should come with. This is my friend, Sasha.” The brunette stayed tucked into Milo’s side but waved her fingers at me. I didn’t recognize her, but Milo spent time with a new girl every week, so that was unsurprising. “She’s dancing tonight. A new job.”
“Oh, like a show?” I asked.
Milo laughed raucously. So did Sasha.
“A little like a show, mostly like a bar.”
I blinked. She was dancing in a bar. Was she a stripper?
Milo must have known me well enough by now to interpret the look on my face. He said, “Easy, hermano, it’s not like that.”
Then what was it like?
“I’ll knock on your door at nine, okay? We’ll have a good time.”
Then Sasha tugged on his arm, and they went back to their dance. The dance was all swaying hips and skimming hands, and it looked much more interesting than anything I’d ever done at 10:00 A.M. I’d intruded enough on his early morning seduction, so I closed the door and retreated back to my apartment.
Something told me I was going to be in for an interesting night.
When I walked into Trestle, the bar where I worked and the band practiced, I was nearly twenty minutes late. I wish I could say Mace and Spencer were pissed, but I didn’t think they had even noticed. Spencer’s bass was forgotten as he looked through the various kinds of alcohol behind the bar. Mace at least had his drumsticks tucked in his pocket as he played a game on his phone.
“Hey, guys! Sorry I’m late.”
Spencer poured himself a bit of Maker’s Mark, and said, “It’s cool, Max.”
“Good. You know what else is cool? Not stealing from the place where we get to practice for free.”
I recapped the bottle of booze and returned it to the shelf. Spencer shrugged, adjusted his black-rimmed glasses, and downed the liquor in one gulp. I grabbed him by his black, skull-print bow tie, and pulled him toward the area where our instruments were set up. I pushed him toward his bass.
I slid a hand underneath Mace’s chin and tilted his head up toward me. He let me, but he just raised the phone higher to keep his eyes on the game.
“Come on babe, I know I’m late, but we only have until noon before Sam kicks us out.”
“Yeah, yeah, just hold on. I can’t stop running. If I look away, I’m going to die.”
Maybe I was still a little angry about how easily he bailed on me earlier or maybe I was just a bitch, but I snatched his phone out of his hand and held it behind me.
“MAX! Come on!” He reached for the phone, but we both heard the sound of the game ending.
“God, Max, sometimes you can be a real bitch.”
For a split second, Cade’s face popped into my head, but I pushed it away.
I said, “Yeah, well, you’re a dick most of the time. Deal with it.”
There was only a little heat in my words. I tucked his phone into his front pant pocket, and used that pocket to pull him toward me. His mouth was set in a thin line like he was angry, but that didn’t stop him from sliding his hands down my back to my ass. I didn’t elbow him this time. I kissed the underside of his jaw, and he stopped clenching his teeth so tightly. He kissed me, nipping my bottom lip a little too hard for it to be comfortable.
Spencer said, “I liked it better when you guys weren’t molesting each other constantly.” Spencer and I had been making music together since I moved to Philly a few years ago. Besides me, he was the only member of Under the Bell Jar that hadn’t changed frequently.
What could I say? I had a thing for drummers.
“Can we get to playing now?” Spencer asked, shooting a glare at Mace.
He couldn’t stand Mace, but didn’t make much of a fuss because he didn’t figure the relationship would last. It would be nice if it did, though. Mace was the best drummer we’d ever had.
I pulled back and went for my guitar.
“Okay, so this is the last chance we’ll get to rehearse all together before the show next week. We need to practice and nail down the order of our set list.”
We started with a cover of “A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley. I felt like I lived this song already this morning. The intro started soft and small. My lips brushed the cold metal of the microphone and I felt like I was home. It didn’t matter that we were in a grungy bar with no audience, or that I’d be back here tonight working until all hours of the morning, only to have to get up and pretend for my parents. It didn’t matter that this morning my love life had taken a sharp left at complicated straight into bizarre territory. It didn’t even matter that I’d been carrying this band like a yoke around my neck for years with no money and no break in sight.
When I sang, none of it mattered.
I was not an emotional person. I hadn’t cried since I was thirteen. Not really. I made a promise to myself then when my life had been awash in tears that I wouldn’t be one of those people. The kind of person who would cry uncontrollably when something bad happened, but two days later be walking around like nothing had changed. Crying was for moments of such drastic pain that you had to let it out, had to shed the dead skin on your soul so that you could breathe. I still had my life, so I refused to cry over stupid shit like boyfriends and parents. I was good at turning off the pain. The only time I let it out was when I sang.
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