“I have to tell you something that you aren’t going to like,” David says. We’re both leaning against my car at the end of an old utility path just outside of town. On nights without high school football games or houses with absent parents, the path has always been our go-to spot. At least the clear sky, full-grown pines, and chirping crickets didn’t change while I was away.
“It can’t be that bad,” I say. David’s honesty never used to require a warning.
“Trevor’s dating Laura. He’ll probably bring her tonight.” David waited until after we’d taken a couple of shots of cheap bourbon and smoked a bowl of cheaper weed to bring this up. I’m sure the timing is intentional, an attempt to let recreational anesthetics soften the blow.
Laura and I split up over a year ago, so technically she isn’t cheating on me with Trevor, but the image of the two of them huddled together in her bedroom, binge-watching Netflix and occasionally pausing the show to make out, is hard to reason with.
“How did it happen?” I ask. The tone of my voice sounds like I’m referring to a premature death.
“What do you mean?”
Before I can settle on a reply, the approaching headlights of Trevor’s Camaro lift, fall, and shiver on the uneven dirt path. The throaty V8 falls silent and both doors fling open. Trevor and Laura walk toward me, his arm carelessly thrown around her shoulders. My half-stoned brain tries to simplify the situation by removing all unnecessary adjectives. She’s a girl I dated. He’s a friend. We’ve all hung out on this path a hundred times before.
The only source of light is a half-moon and a million pinprick stars, so the full devastation of Laura’s beauty doesn’t hit until she’s only a few feet away. She stands straight with her shoulders back, her eyes clear and powerful. Sun-kissed highlights streak her hair and tiny freckles are sprinkled across her nose and cheeks.
In my mind, the Netflix bedroom scene changes to Laura at the beach, wading in the shallow water. Then Trevor enters the picture, trim and tanned from working outside, and they kiss, hold hands, and splash through the waves. My gag reflex squeezes bourbon up the back of my throat, but I swallow it again.
Trevor greets David casually, but warmly. It’s clear I’ve become an out-of-town guest to be hosted. With the excitement of freshman year at Cornell, the growing disconnect between David, Trevor, and I hadn’t worried me, but now it seems obvious that friendships break down without maintenance. Trevor reaches to shake my hand and his firm grip tells me, “Things have changed. Be cool about it.” He looks for my response, but even if my face could move, I’m not sure what mood to fake. He lets go of my hand and I wipe my palm on my jeans.
“I heard about Jesse,” I say. The only bum in Southborough, Jesse was our most reliable source of beer in high school. It’s been three months since Jesse wandered in front of a train, but I just heard about it yesterday. My acknowledgement of his death is meant as an invitation to discuss this place, what used to be home, but it sounds like an awkward attempt at proving I still belong here.
“Don’t worry,” Trevor says. “It’s not hard to get booze anymore.” He produces a flask from his back pocket, unscrews the top, and sips unceremoniously. He passes the flask to Laura and the exchange is so natural I have to look away. “What’s it like at Cornell?” he asks.
“Can’t really remember.” I say this without thinking and everyone assumes it’s a joke about partying too much. They all laugh, even Laura, but I wasn’t kidding. I feel like the train that killed Jesse almost got me, too.
“Sounds like you’re living it up,” Trevor says. “I’m jealous as hell.”
The other three catch up on local gossip, but I have nothing to add and not looking at Laura takes most of my focus. David and Trevor complain about work—they both have full time construction gigs—and I nod along uncomfortably. I don’t have a summer job lined up yet, and even though at Cornell it seemed like I was the one who’d moved forward, it all hits different tonight.
“Anybody want to smoke a joint?” Trevor asks. He always has good weed. Laura never smoked in high school, but a lot has changed in a year.
“I’m still high from earlier,” I say. Laura’s presence already has me on the verge of a panic attack. The last thing I need is more pot.
“We can sit in my car,” David says. He still drives his old Buick. The wide bench seats are like a mobile living room.
David and Trevor climb in the Buick, but Laura stays behind. I have to survive at least five minutes alone with her. If every moment of my life passed this slowly, it would never end.
“So, how have you been?” I strain to be casual.
“Same old, same old around here. You know.”
I used to know, but now I don’t. I thought my hometown never changed, but it does.
“How are your mom and dad?” I ask.
“We have a few minutes to ourselves and you want to talk about my mom and dad?”
“What should I ask?”
“Don’t act like we just met,” she says.
“Okay. How are things with Trevor?” It’s an accusation wrapped in a question.
“Fine. He’s fun to be around.”
“I wasn’t?” These two words say themselves, using my mouth without permission.
“I said don’t act like we’re strangers. That doesn’t mean start an argument. But, since you asked, you’re also fun. When you’re around, I mean.”
“I couldn’t turn down a scholarship.” There’s a catch in my throat and I need the subject to change.
“I know that. There was nothing implied. Do you have a cigarette?”
“You smoke cigarettes now?”
When I was away at school, I didn’t smoke at all. No one did. Ten minutes after I crossed the first state line, I stopped and bought a pack. I take two from the box, light them both, and pass one over.
“You didn’t have to put your mouth on it,” she says.
“I’m kidding.” She takes a drag, holding the cigarette between her thumb and index finger. “Relax.”
“I don’t think I can. This is too weird.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. We used to be together, now Trevor and I are together. In six months, it’ll probably be someone else.” She shrugs. “That’s how it goes.”
“Not for me.”
“You didn’t date anyone while you were away?”
“Not really?” She laughs and huffs of smoke flee from her shining pink lips. “You can tell me. I won’t get jealous.”
“If you won’t get jealous there’s no reason to tell you.” A genuine smile finds my face.
Trevor and David open the doors of the Buick. A thin fog rolls out with their conversation, but they stop talking when they see me. They forgot I was here.
With the initial wave of nausea behind me, I unscrew the cap of David’s whiskey and drink. David and Trevor talk about the Steeler’s new defense, but all I’ve seen are Jets games. Laura talks about the strip mall coming to Southborough, complete with a Wal-Mart, liquor store, and Chinese restaurant, but I haven’t heard about it until now. Since I refuse to bring up college, for the next two hours I stay on the edge of the conversation. At almost one in the morning, David says, “I better get home. I have to work tomorrow.”
“On Saturday?” I ask. I’m desperate to leave, but I can’t stand the thought of Laura going home with Trevor.
“Can’t say no to time and a half.”
“We should go, too,” Trevor says. He makes a point to shake my hand again. “It was good seeing you, man.”
“I’ll be in town all summer.” I glance at Laura and catch her looking back.
Instead of going home, I drive around and smoke cigarettes. The edges of the open fields and dense woods clip by, their details flashing under my headlights then disappearing in the darkness. What’s different and what’s not? Mostly, I can’t tell. I park the car at the entrance of a cornfield, choose a sentimental playlist in my phone, and gaze at the sky beyond the windshield. I forgot there could be so many stars.
My ringtone interrupts Leonard Cohen’s crooning and the screen projects a radiant image of Laura. A quake of terror and excitement ripples through my stomach. Have I been waiting for this? “Hello?”
“Trevor was pulled over and arrested for a DUI. I’m at Sarah’s house and I need a ride home.”
“Sarah can’t take you?”
“I didn’t ask Sarah. I’m asking you.”
Laura’s outside, standing by the road, and I barely come to a stop before she’s in the car. Her perfume or lotion smells like sugary, exotic fruits. “Holy shit, that was scary. Have you got a cigarette?”
I give her one and she cracks the window and lights it. From the corner of my eye, I search her face for clues. There’s a shine that says she’s up, bathing in the glow of an unexpected thrill.
“Is Trevor okay?” Almost subconsciously, I light my own cigarette.
“Yeah. His dad is cool about stuff like this. As soon as the paperwork is done, he’ll be on his way home. It’s a miracle he hasn’t been pulled over before now.”
“What about you? Your parents are pretty strict.”
“That’s why I gave the cop Sarah’s address.”
I take a drag, open my window, and blow the smoke through the gap. “Do you really like Trevor?”
“We get along. He can be sweet when it’s just the two of us. Besides, we’re only dating. It’s not like we’re planning our wedding.”
“Why go out with him if you know there’s no future?”
“That didn’t stop us.” She doesn’t sound as nonchalant as she did at the path. There’s a tone—not heartbroken, but wistful. “I wouldn’t change it,” she says. My ego is grateful, but I don’t look at her. I’m afraid she’ll look back.
Her house isn’t far now. I want to drive past it. Keep going till we cross the county line, but then what? She flicks her cigarette outside. The wind snatches the tiny orange light and sends it careening back into the darkness. I put mine out in the ashtray and steer the car onto the quarter-mile gravel path that leads to her parents’ farmhouse. We used to park near the end to talk or listen to music. Sometimes we made out, but we never went all the way. I don’t know if I regret that.
“Stop the car,” she says.
I pull the gearshift into park and turn the key counterclockwise. The engine goes quiet and the headlights switch off. The silence between us builds, grows as big as another person. “What a night,” I say finally.
“It doesn’t have to be over.” Laura peels off her tee-shirt. She knows she’s beautiful. At least, she knows I think so. Her skin glows against the darkness and her eyes fill with mischief. She locks her fingers behind my head and kisses me hard. I’m helpless.
She reaches back to unfasten her bra. It’s not a regular, practical bra, but red and shiny with intricate lacework. It’s lingerie, meant to be seen by her lover. But she didn’t put it on for me. She wasn’t thinking of me when she bought it.
“Stop,” I say. The word sounds more like a cry for mercy than a command. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this to Trevor.”
She pauses, hands still behind her back. “Trevor? That’s who you’re thinking about? If the roles were switched, what do you think he’d do?”
“Maybe I’m a better friend than he is.” I consider trying to caveat this statement, tone it down and inject a shred of humility, but I let it stand. Why not?
Her eyebrows creep toward each other and her face goes dark. The same pink lips that kissed me pull back from her teeth in a half-snarl. The break between us was set wrong and it healed badly. Now we’re in pieces again.
“You think you’re better than us.” She finds her shirt, puts it back on. “You think everyone here is beneath you.”
“Is that so bad? To try to be better than the people around you?” I don’t want her to like me anymore, but I don’t want her to hate me, either.
She pulls the handle and gets out of the car. “Why didn’t you just stay in New York?” She slams the door and starts down the driveway. I watch her walk into the darkness, hoping she’ll look back before she disappears completely, but she doesn’t.
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