By Nicole Tone
Sophie laughed at the joke he tried to make, her hand brushing his arm.
“So, yeah, it’s not that funny. But it was the most exciting part of my day.”
He was nice and boring, had his 9-5 and his useful degree. Older, but not too old. Josh was everything she should like in a boy on the brink of manhood: He wasn’t married, devoted time and energy to her. The group of flowers, carefully picked out, was a testament to that.
She took a sip of her water, the bright yellow lemon bobbing ominously in the clear liquid. The bright lights of the generic Applebee’s, haphazardly placed to create “atmosphere”, seemed to only add to the feeling of nostalgia that bubbled through her. She was 12 years old again, having lunch with her Dad after a dentist appointment. She was 16, on her first date. No romance lingered between the plastic coated menus, the families that were trying to treat their children to something more than a home-cooked meal. Was this his idea of romance? Out of the wide variety of restaurants Buffalo offered them, she hadn’t been impressed with his choice of a chain. But she let him take the lead on this.
She had met Josh one night at a bar on Allen Street. He had bought her a drink, or she had let him buy her a drink—she couldn’t really remember. In a fit of rebellion she just invited him home with her, allowing him into her apartment, her sanctuary, and let him stay the night. Sophie hadn’t planned on seeing him again, but had surprised herself by giving in to his pleas for a real date. It was a decision she was still struggling to understand.
There were no candles here though, no soft music—nothing that Hollywood had tried to shove down her throat ever since her Mom let her see PG-13 movies. Instead, everything was boiled down to an easy formula: a high calorie dinner, pre-manufactured earlier in the day no doubt, followed by heavy petting and the long pause before they said goodnight or she invited him upstairs. It was this reason alone she had picked to drive herself. She liked her freedom too much to let him pick her up.
“Hang on just a second, it’s work.” Her phone had vibrated against her leg, Cait’s name and picture showing up on the face of her phone. She moved away from the table and went outside, half-tempted to just keep walking to her car and leave for the night. She wasn’t that cruel, though.
“Thank god.” Sophie breathed easily for the first time that night. A waitress stood in the shadow of the building, sucking on a cigarette while blowing smoke into the air. Sophie could see her eyes flashing, watching her and listening.
“Bad date?” Cait’s voice was low, if not sleep-filled, on the other end of the phone.
“Sort of. What’s up?”
“Just seeing if you wanted to hang out. You seemed tense, was thinking maybe you could use someone else to hang out with.”
There was a pause. Sophie chewed her lip. She had already planned on going home alone anyway, but having female company wasn’t exactly a bad idea. At least it would relieve the temptation of bringing Josh home with her.
“Yeah, let me finish up this dinner and I’ll let you know when I’m on my way home.”
“Maybe something stronger.”
Sophie hung up and went back inside, finding their dinner waiting for them at the table. He had been traditional with a burger. Josh: the all American boy with his red meat and his economically-centered undergraduate degree. He’d go on to get his MBA, a wife, and make children without so much as a noise. His life would be inconsequential, lacking the grandiose of a Gatsbyian American Dream. Maybe he’d have a mistress, maybe he wouldn’t. But as far as inspiration goes, she found none from him. This relationship was over before it had even began.
“Everything okay?” He looked up, his eyes narrowing out of general concern.
“Yeah, they’re just short staffed tonight. Wanted to know if I could come in.”
“Oh. Where do you work?”
Sophie looked across the table at him. He still thought her name was Amelia.
“A bar in Allentown.” She licked her teeth, watching him. “I told them I could come in after I finish up here. I hope that’s okay?” For a moment she was genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, that’s no problem. I’ve got to be up early tomorrow anyway.”
There was a hint of disappointment in the slight downward curve of his lips and the way he bit into his burger, slow and deliberately in order to close the gap between words. Sophie’s attention was drawn away from the sad meal, the cars moving down Delaware calling her away from the table. Sitting here, being here, it reminded her of who she wasn’t.
“Do you guys need anything else?” The waitress, her eyeshadow too blue and bright, smiled warmly as she took their empty plates. Dinner had commenced in silence, the night over before it began.
“Nope, we’re all set. Here.” Josh took the leather wallet, black and thin, from his back pocket and handed a bank card to the woman. “She’s gotta get to work.”
“You poor thing. I hope you enjoyed your dinner!”
The waitress walked away and Josh looked back at Sophie. “We should do this again when you don’t have to run off to work.” His hands were on the table, his palms undoubtedly sweating.
Sophie stood, phone and keys sitting in her back pocket. She offered a smile, finding it ironic that in the dim restaurant lighting she found no more magic than in the dirty stall of a bathroom.
“Definitely. I’ll text you.”
She turned and walked out before any send off kiss. She didn’t want his touch, or anyone’s for that matter, lingering on her skin tonight. She wanted to think clearly–as clearly as whatever Cait was bringing her would allow.
As she moved down Delaware Avenue, her car moved through the S curves as she headed downtown, an indie band out of some European country wavered in and out of frequency. Her fingers tapped along her steering wheel to the beat of the song. It was familiar to her, the way Josh’s hands were.
The trip home was short and uneventful, the steady rhythm of the stop lights keeping her car moving forward, stopping only at the light on West Ferry. Canisius High School stood tall and proud in the shadows of the night, not unlike the magnificent grain elevators that protected their shores: those dark lighthouses praying silently that their heroes would return safely to port. She couldn’t help but remember high school dances, those memories still fresh. Young boys hands, too big for their bodies, reached out with hope that they might touch a year girl. Pubescent hope had mixed with dry ice and the standard, top 4, 4/4 synthesized beat that was supposed to help even the most rhythmically challenged teen to move their hips. Yet, embarrassment ran high and by the end of the night the girl’s bathroom was filled with mascara stained tissues and broken hearts. Oh how they loved so easily, so casually.
Not much had changed in college after all.
Parallel parking on Ashland, in that rare moment on a parking spot close to her building, Sophie was glad to be home. The walk to her building was quick and greated by Cait’s silhouette, a cigarette glowing red dangling from her lips.
“How long have you been here?” Sophie unlocked the main door into her building while Cait gathered the brown paper bag from its spot on the sidewalk.
“I figured after our conversation you wouldn’t last long at dinner.”
Cait took a long drag from the white cylinder before flicking it into the street.
Confused and intrigued, Sophie obliged, following Cait to the silver Civic.
“We’re going to go visit some ghosts.”
“I thought Forest Lawn closed at dusk?” Sophie clicked her seat belt in it’s holder. Cait turned on the car, the engine humming to life overpowered by the music that blasted from speakers.
“Shit, sorry.” Cait reached over to turn the volume down. The yellow glow of the street lamp illuminating the silver scars on her arm. “No, we’re not going to Forest Lawn. We’ve got somewhere else to hit first.”
The weeknight traffic of Elmwood was easy to maneuver. Sophie sat back, inhaling the stale scent of cigarettes and the cotton-flavored air freshener that dangled from the rearview mirror. She had never smoked, hadn’t even tried–didn’t see the need. She didn’t want something to pull her away from her artwork if she was in the middle of a project. Others wrapped themselves in thick coats to hide on stoops, getting their nicotine fix. She had other vices.
“So how was your date?” There was a smug grin that pulled at the pale corners of Cait’s mouth, her eyes glancing sidelong at Sophie. Sophie looked back, shaking her head.
“I’m surprised he didn’t get my car door when I left.”
“He probably would’ve if you let him. Besides, I thought you totally ate up all that chivalry crap.”
“I think there’s a difference between manners and trying to get an invite home. We’ve got all of these romantic comedies telling us that guys should act like this to get the girl, girls should be like this–but they never really show what happens after the fireworks die down, do they?”
Sophie put her feet up on the glove box, fingers brushing at the dark sole of her boot. She had even dressed nice, the cool air warranting sweater and scarf though she was wondering if she should’ve grabbed a coat before she left with Cait.
“I don’t know. Never stuck around long enough to find out.”
“Me neither. I mean, what about your parents? Does your Dad still do stuff like that for your Mom?”
Cait took a second to answer. She had got them down Elmwood to Hertel, the Mighty Taco on the corner beaming like a beacon in the distance. She made a right, North Buffalo unfolding before them. Antique shops and boutiques were dispersed between local restaurants. Another SPoT Coffee had planted itself in the neighborhood. Greek restaurants mixed with Italian to provide an accurate snapshot of the cultural origins of the neighborhood.
“They go out for their anniversary and stuff. I don’t pay attention, to be honest. I just got out of there as quickly as I could. They weren’t terrible, I just had shit to figure out on my own.”
Sophie was quiet as they turned right onto Shoshone, the brick building she had spent the past four years of her life standing proud and empty. Cait parked the car on the side of the road and got out, paper bag in hand.
Sophie followed, glad they hadn’t completely fenced off the building yet. They sat on the steps, the dark red door set as their backdrop. Cait pulled out the bottle of wine and unscrewed the top.
“It’s cheap. Don’t judge.”
“I’m not picky.”
Cait was a few years older and had taken on a big sister role for her when Sophie had started at SPoT Coffee the summer before she started college. Her relationship with her brother was good, but there were things she knew she couldn’t go to him with. But she wasn’t even sure if she could explain her recent slew of sexual adventures to Cait. Not sober, anyway. “Why did you want to come here?”
Sophie leaned back against the top step, propped up on her elbows, watching a stray police car doing it’s nightly drive by of the abandoned high school.
“It’s Amy’s birthday today.”
Amy had been Cait’s best friend in high school, from what Sophie understood. It was hard to get Cait to talk about anything personal, her secrets held close and her heart locked tightly away. Yet, in those rare moments she was vulnerable and see-through: a sheer curtain dangling in the breeze of an open window. Amy, though, had been a senior when she had lost her brother. Bullying, they said. Gay bashing that went too far. Either way, the Johnson family—so plain, so American—had lost both their daughter and their son by their own hands. Will, 15, had decided his father’s revolver had been the easiest way out when they had been at Amy’s soccer game that Indian summer evening. Amy’s death, at 17, came a few months later, her body found in the boiler room of the high school. The papers had given no explanation for Amy’s death.
Amy’s death had affected Cait more than Sophie could ever get her to admit. Death wasn’t something you were taught how to deal with as you grew up, among so many other things. There was a list of things Sophie wished she had been taught how to deal with: Death, love, lust, loss. Amy’s death had made Cait harder and more protective of Sophie. They used to be acquaintances, separated by grade. Now they barely went a few days without seeing each other.
“I just needed to come say hi. I can’t believe they closed it.” Her words lingered for a moment or two, an unnamed emotion swimming in her eyes. Goosebumps blossomed across Sophie’s skin as she watched.
“Last year I actually was able to break in and do this.” She looked up at the dark windows, her dark eyes narrowing as if searching for something. “But let’s go. I don’t need to deal with cops tonight.”
Sophie stopped up, her mind on edge at the sudden change in plans. While she was still waiting for the wine to fill her limbs, she already felt intoxicated from the night air and the small smattering of stars that filled the dulled sky overhead. She was ready to follow Cait anywhere tonight as long as it meant running away from those things she feared the most.
It was one of those rare, simple nights that made Sophie feel invincible. They got back in the car, warm from the half-emptied wine bottle that was now tucked safely in the pocket behind Sophie’s seat, and rolled the windows down. The night air was cool, but not too cold. It carried the gentle acoustic and haunting voice of Cait’s musician of choice that night, the lyrics painfully accurate for that night. In that moment, she couldn’t understand why anything went wrong. It was as if she had never slept with her married professor or told Josh her name was Amelia. She hadn’t even lied about where she had to go tonight. She had just gone back to her apartment to write her paper, never ruined those stockings or that dress that night.
So she cried, and she cried and she cried until Cait took her home and tucked her into bed.
She was five again, wanting her Dad, knowing all too well that she was alone in this mess she made.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, Tips and Advice