The first time Stephen saw me, it probably should have been the last. Life has a funny way of taking “should have been” and “was” and making two completely different things out of them. I can’t remember how many times now, I’ve wished it would lose its perverted sense of humor. I stopped laughing at its bad jokes a long time ago. Some of us were just meant to be on the wrong end of them I guess.
Corrie’s parties were all the same. You could count on two things, boys and beers. Not that those aren’t essential ingredients for a good party. It’s just neither of those two things have a long history of agreeing with me, and her parties usually ended up with me sitting alone on her couch wishing it wasn’t so far to the bathroom. Corrie always insisted I come to them anyway. There was always something she “needed” me to do if I said I had too much homework, or I wasn’t in the mood. I didn’t argue with her that night. I just came.
I wasn’t in a particularly good mood. My piano recital was coming up the following Wednesday. I had been working hard on the Adagio Cantabile from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 Pathétique, a hauntingly beautiful piece I’ve loved since I was a little girl. I was looking forward to performing it. Mr. Spencer had just informed me that the piece was already being performed by a “less accomplished” boy from another class and I had to choose something different at the last minute. On top of that, I had a nasty rash on the inside of my thigh. Nothing serious. It turned out to be a reaction to something I ate, but it was embarrassingly close to the top and it itched like crazy. I was in no mood for a party, but for once I was in a mood to disappear in a few beers.
Alone on the couch was how I was going to end up anyway, so I made it my second stop after the refrigerator. I cracked my beer open and sipped it. The can was deceptively cold, but the beer was warm as usual. It was already loud, with groups of kids collecting together and chattering over the music. College was seven hundred miles from home and I didn’t really know anyone well except Corrie and my neighbor Dave.
I was thinking about some alternatives for my recital. A boy had just approached a group of three girls in front of me and I watched with some amusement the way they each pretended not to be the one he was interested in. It wouldn’t be a pretense if it was me. Deanna Carter started playing on the stereo – Did I Shave My Legs for This? It didn’t help my music selection process any, and it made my rash itch. Badly.
One hand tipping my beer and the other one digging away, almost up in my crotch. That’s how I made my first impression. Suddenly realizing I wasn’t alone, I stopped scratching and tried to force my grimace into a tight-lipped smile. It stubbornly remained a grimace. A tall boy, slightly pudgy in the middle, but with an otherwise iron stature, towered above me. He had curly brown hair, a slender, squarish face, full lips and dark brown eyes with gorgeous, naturally thick lashes I couldn’t achieve with a third coat of mascara. All I could do was swallow the beer and squirm uncomfortably as the stupid rash itched even worse.
He’s here to torment me. I was sure of it.
“Can I help you find something?” he asked with a smirk.
I knew it! I had managed to get through the last couple of years without incident, but the stinging in my cheeks brought back too many memories of how I’d been treated when I was younger. My eyes narrowed, drawing a laugh from my tormentor. He shook his head and pushed his lips out noticeably. I already didn’t like him and yet all I could think was how I wanted to suck on them.
“I understand. Some people prefer to go it alone,” he said, waiving me off with the extra fingers holding his beer. “I just admire your determination.” I wasn’t about to tell him it was a rash, in spite of the fact that it felt like it had now spread to my butt, making it impossible for me to sit still. I couldn’t just let him be all smug like that. I had to say something. But my heart just pounded in my chest, my cheeks finished setting fire to the rest of my face, and my lips mouthed nothing with the eloquence of a manikin.
The couch suddenly seemed isolated and desperately far from the safety of anyone I knew. He walked around me to the other side of it and sat down on the edge, turned slightly toward me. He drank from his beer and observed me quietly. I wished it was my couch so I could tell him to get off it. I didn’t want to drink my beer because he was drinking his, and shame prevented me from looking at him. I pretended to be interested in the three girls who were now being joined by a friend of the first boy.
“I won’t tell anyone,” he said after another drink from his beer.
“I’m sorry?” I said. “We were talking?”
He smiled a little, much too calmly. “I was,” he replied. “You were in your own… private… little place.” He laughed aloud at his self-presumed wit.
I flipped a stare at him, my embarrassment turning suddenly to violent contempt. I jumped up from the couch, downed the rest of my beer and stormed into the kitchen to get another. I pushed my cheeks against the refrigerator door to cool them off. I waited until I was sure I had my tongue back, grabbed another beer and went back out to confront him. The couch was empty. I sat down on it again and looked around nervously. The one thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want him knowing I was looking for him.
That party ended like all the others. I never saw him again. I finished the night alone on Corrie’s empty couch. I’d lost track of who had been there, who had left together and who had left alone, and I’d barely talked to anyone the rest of the night. I had no idea what I was going to play for my recital and the only thing that really mattered anymore was how far it was to the stupid bathroom. Thank God I hadn’t shaved my legs for this.
Two weeks later, Corrie invited herself over to my apartment on a homework night. That happened a lot. I told her she couldn’t stay but she insisted she was just waiting for Dave to get home next door so I fixed myself something to eat while she waited. A knock came at the door, and Corrie answered it and I figured it was Dave. I pulled my Hamburger Surprise off the stove and turned around to face the guy from her party.
“Stephen, this is Annie,” Corrie introduced me. “The girl who’s afraid of boys.” I shot her a look, but she just giggled. “She’s a little Anne-drophobic.” She hadn’t been able to let that go since it came up in our Psych class. “Stephen’s studying pre-law here,” she said to me now. “He’s like the smartest guy I know.”
“We’ve met once,” Stephen said, ignoring Corrie’s comments. “Well, sort of.” He smiled and held out his hand.
In the light of my apartment, I could see his face better than at the party. A tiny trace of freckles showed on his cheeks. He took my hand gently in his and stooped to delicately press his lips to the backs of my fingers. They were so soft, I couldn’t stop a tiny shudder. I hoped it was imperceptible. “Enchanté,” he added in French.
I looked at Corrie and back at Stephen. There was no exchange of secret glances. There were no knowing winks. “Parlez-vous?” I asked.
“No, no,” Stephen laughed. “Not a word! Sorry. Corrie told me you were studying it and I…” He cut himself short, realizing he had just belied their ruse.
I looked at Corrie again. She shrugged innocently. “Dave should be home by now,” she said looking at my clock and heading toward my door. “You two get acquainted, I’ll be right back.”
The iron door swung shut and the echo resounded down the prison hallways. I stared up at the six-foot-two warden who stood between me and my freedom. I could feel myself hyperventilating. I looked down at the dog food in my sauce pan. The room was starting to get smaller, and the walls were turning to concrete when he spoke.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot, Annie,” his voice was sweet and sincere staving off my phobia for the moment. “I really didn’t mean anything. I was just looking for a way to talk to you.”
I found it hard to believe. He really was very good looking, not at all the kind of guy I was used to attention from unless it was knocking the books from my hands in the halls in middle school. “I never left the party,” I said, trying to make sure my skepticism showed. It didn’t sound like my voice at all.
“May I be honest?” He was so polite and sounded so sincere.
“Spill your guts,” I tried to sound casual. “Have ‘a go’ at yourself.” I wanted to be sick. I said it to be funny, but no more awkward words could have set themselves upon me.
Stephen paused for a second. He seemed to sense how nervous I was. He walked away from me and stood so the counter offered a barrier of safety between us. “I left the party, because you were the only reason I was there.”
I picked up a spoon and started stirring the hamburger, just in case it needed it.
His eyes flickered on my meaningless action. He smiled and ducked down a little to catch my eyes. “I just mean Corrie invited me because she wanted me to meet you.”
I looked up and kept stirring. “So I’m pathetic and I need a matchmaker? Is that it?” I didn’t give him time to answer. “Oh, and I masturbate alone at parties. I bet you’re glad you met me now!” I pretended I hadn’t flipped a little burger over the edge of the pan.
“I offered to help,” he said apologetically. His face was so simple and matter-of-fact I couldn’t help laughing.
“Okay,” I said. “We got off on the wrong foot. I’m Annie.” I held my hand out over the counter.
“Pleased to meet you, Annie. I’m Stephen.” He shook my hand cordially. I let it stay just long enough to see if he would hold it, but he didn’t.
“Prison rations?” I asked, holding up my hamburger. He made a funny face, but I shook off the explanation. “Never mind. Are you hungry?”
Stephen smiled our first genuine smile. It opened me up like a can of melted fudge and poured me all over my kitchen. “We haven’t even had our first date yet, and you’re already cooking for me,” he said. “I am glad I met you!”
I hastily grabbed a couple of buns and threw one on the plate for him. I dumped some burger on in it. I might have made a bit of a mess. The word date was making a mess out of me.
“Corrie tells me you’re a writer,” he said.
I threw a slice of cheese on his burger and poured him a glass of juice. “She’s being nice,” I answered. I handed him his plate. “I haven’t had anything published except one little short story in a magazine. How’s your Sloppy Joe?”
He took a bite and nodded with his mouth full. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not. Whatever. It came out of a box. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting company,” I said. “I didn’t make anything else.”
It didn’t seem to matter. He ate politely, and I was too nervous to eat in front of him. So I did what I do when I’m nervous. I pushed the burger around my plate while I let the rest of the hot fudge pour out.
“I wrote a novel,” I said. I waited for a reaction, but he kept eating. “I’ve got an agent and everything. She thinks I’m going to be published. It’s just a matter of when.”
Stephen kept listening, so I kept talking. He watched and nodded as he listened and ate. “I love writing,” I continued. “But I don’t really consider myself a writer, you know, until I get published. Until then, I’m just someone who writes. Lots of us write. You know, you might as well be writing an essay as writing a story. I have lots of ideas though. I’m… some of them are good ones I think. Like this one idea I got for writing a fantasy series. About a girl who flies into her recurring nightmare to conquer it. I get lots of ideas…”
“Annie will you go out with me?” He was serious. I didn’t know what to say so he did. “Dinner? A movie? I don’t care, anything. A walk down by the river?”
No one had asked me out in almost four years. It was easier to pretend he hadn’t said anything. “I get all these ideas. Sometimes I get so many of them I can’t even take notes fast enough to keep up. I feel like… like… like a gun. Like I’m a loaded gun, with all this ammunition all primed up. And I’ve got my parts all cleaned and my sights all aligned and everything…”
“Please,” he interrupted me again. He handed me back his plate. “Thanks for the dinner. One date.” He shrugged. “One little date?”
I didn’t know how to answer him, and I didn’t know how to explain why I couldn’t. I didn’t even care about the date. He was such a beautiful man! I wanted to jump over the counter and clean up any Sloppy Joe he might of missed and maybe half his face with it. But I couldn’t. And I couldn’t say yes.
“I even know where all my targets are, you know who my readers will be.” It was the only thing that would come out of my mouth. “…and I’ve got my aim set and everything. It’s all perfect only… only it’s like I’m a defective gun. I’m missing a trigger or something. So all my stories, all my ideas… they just sit there.”
“I can be your trigger, Annie,” Stephen urged. His voice was pleading with me now. “I just need you to squeeze me.”
I stared at his face. He really was adorable. Then I remembered the rash on my leg that night at the party, and suddenly we were on an island, marooned again in the middle of my humiliation. I could feel my breathing quickening again. “Um, I think you need to squeeze yourself,” I said. “It was just an analogy.”
Stephen drew himself up. He started toward me and instantly stopped when he saw me recoil. He was as bright as he was beautiful. He knew I was uncomfortable, and that wasn’t part of his plan.
“I don’t think Corrie’s coming back,” I said. “You should go.”
He waited for one brief moment and then backed his way to my door, smiling. “Thank you for the delicious meal, Annie,” he said. “And thanks for the delightful chat! I think you’ll be a great writer. I can’t wait to tell everyone I’m going to be dating a published author now.”
“It was just one stupid little story in a magazine,” I said.
“Ha! So then you will go out with me!” He opened the door, slipped through it, and closed it quickly behind him again before I could answer.
I stared for a minute at the friendly wooden door and then I walked over and leaned on it with my cheek up against it. A lawyer?
© 2011 Anne Schilde