My buddy Tom likes to bark at cars while I drive. He's got one hand on the dash, the other on the window frame. He's almost kneeling on the seat. His black hair makes a thwipping sound as it goes chaotic in the wind. I want to be mad at him, but I can't.
"Get your ugly face in here. You wanna get arrested?" I tell him.
"On what charge, Officer?"
"Indecent exposure!" He laughs. He tilts his head back and bugs out his eyes. He looks like a refugee from a nut house.
I'm driving a Chevy Impala SS, the one with the big engine. It's a sky-blue convertible. It's a beast. It's so smooth that when there aren't any other cars on the road I have to check the speedometer to make sure I'm not pushing a hundred. It isn't even my car. It belongs to Tom's mother. She sells real estate and needs flashy wheels to impress the clients, she says. Truth is, she's like Tom. She likes the top down and her hair flying.
I have my license, but no car. Tom has this car but no license. His mother lets me take the car because she thinks I'm a good influence on him. What I do mostly is drive over to the next town on Saturday nights so Tom can see girlfriend Caroline. He met her at a school dance and it was love at first bite.
I pull off to the side of the road at the top of her driveway and kill the engine.
Tom has this goofy look on his face, like a beer factory just opened in his back yard. I have to plead ignorance on this one. Tom and Caroline? I don't get it. She's a toothpick. She's not an ironing board or anything, but she's the kind of girl who, shall we say, has room for improvement. When Tom picked her out of the crowd and spent the rest of the night dancing with her, I failed to see the attraction. I still didn't see it when Tom started calling her from work, leaving me to pick up the slack. I absolutely don't see it these nights I have to drive Tom here so he can sneak into her house while her parents are out. The things I do for this guy. I'm a saint. A gold-plated, million-dollar saint.
But I feel kind of bad for the guy. He's got it bad, and she's got him jumping through hoops. And he never saw it coming. He was blindsided. "Be afraid," I told him that night. "Be very, very afraid." But he was too whipped to know what I meant.
"Ok, lover boy." I jerk my thumb at the house. "Not too long, huh?" Tom shrugs and gives me this innocent look. "Hey, it's cool," I say. "Just don't keep me here an hour while you have all the fun. Last time, it was almost two hours." Tom laughs.
"I'm not going in," he says. He gives me that grin, that toothy smile a shark gives you right before it has you for lunch. Tom reaches over and taps the horn twice. "They are coming out."
They? Sure enough, Caroline comes out and someone else is with her. It's hard to see in the gathering dark. Whoever she is, she's almost a head taller than Caroline. And, she's no toothpick.
Her name is Bonnie, and when she slides into the car beside me I can feel my fists tighten around the steering wheel. She's a blonde junior, her face a cupcake with a red doughnut where her lips should be. She's a large girl. Not fat. Not spilling out of her clothes. Just chunky.
And chatty. She chatters all the way to the rink. I never met anybody who could squeeze so many words out of things I never even bothered to think about. Her voice is throaty, and pours out of her like syrup.
I keep looking in the rear-view to catch Tom's eye, but he's avoiding me.
And another thing. This Bonnie's got space issues. Not that I mind entirely, but she's not sitting over by the window. She's more in the middle of the front seat, about a baby's breath away on my right. Her left arm keeps brushing up against me. It tickles in a weird kind of way. She smells like flowers.
She has really small feet. At the rink Tom and I get the skates and I have to get a size eight for Bonnie. I haven't been a size eight since I was nine years old.
"So whaddaya think?" Tom gives me a nudge and a wink. "Did I take care of you or what? Isn't she great?"
"Yeah, great," I answer. "She's really great." He offers to pay the rental on the skates. I let him. Roll-Land is flooded with organ music. The hum of rubber wheels on the wooden floor clashes with the yelps of skaters crashing into each other. "I can't believe I'm here," I say. "I don't even skate."
"Sure you do," Tom says. He hands me Bonnie's skates. "I've seen you skate."
"That's called falling," I remind him. "The idea is to stay up on the skates, not ride around the floor on your butt." He gives me a funny look. "It doesn't matter," I tell him. "I'm not going out there. I'll just make a complete idiot out of myself."
We go back to the girls, who are sitting at the table closest to the snack bar. Is that a hint? Bonnie waves to me as we walk over. I wave back and try to smile. I never knew having fun was so much work. The things I do for this guy. A saint. I'm definitely a saint. Me, Bobby Murray, a platinum-plated, billion-dollar saint.
I sit down and give Bonnie the skates.
"I thank you, sir," she says. She nods at me. "You are a gentleman."
Hmmm. I guess. I feel more like a big stiff.
She catches my eye but then looks away. I thought her eyes were blue, but now I see that they're more greenish. She has really long hair and when she bends over it falls in waves across her face and trails to the floor. She pulls on one skate and then sits up and tosses her head back, flipping her hair over her shoulder. I'm not sure why she bothers, because she has to stoop over again to put on the other skate and the same thing happens. Or almost the same thing. When she sits up this time, she stares cross-eyed at the hair in her face and pouts out her lower lip and blows it up and out of the way. And giggles.
Kind of cute, I guess.
Tom and Caroline head out onto the floor. Bonnie gets up and grabs my hand and pulls me out before I can protest. Tom and Caroline are already gone in the crush of skaters. I'm a rail-rider. I don't like being more than an arm's length away from the side. I kind of lurch along like a complete spaz, dragging my back foot forward and pushing off with the other. Bonnie is incredibly smooth. She glides along without any effort. I'm huffing and puffing, and she hasn't even broken a sweat.
Her hand is a little damp though. I feel like I might lose my grip. Twice I have to grab on to her to keep myself from falling.
Half-way through the evening, Tom and Caroline disappear into a dark corner of the building. I see them go, Tom giving me a wink. I turn back to Bonnie. She's smiling at me, brightly. She, too, has seen them go, and the fact that we obviously are not going makes things between us awkward. She starts chattering, and the shine in her eyes makes me think that maybe she's going to cry. But she laughs instead and dances me around backwards onto the rink where I promptly fall, pulling her down on top of me.
I spend the rest of the night sitting in the food court picking at some fries with Bonnie beside me, chattering. She doesn't eat anything, I figure, because getting food into her mouth means she might have to stop talking for a second or two. She has a nice alto voice, though, and just listening is good enough for me. At least I don't have to say anything back.
The evening ends when Tom and Caroline emerge from their nest. We drive back to Caroline's house and Tom and Caroline disappear inside. I walk Bonnie across the street to her house. I say good night and turn back toward the car, but stop. Bonnie is standing in the half-light of the doorway, her eyes closed, her lips squeezed together into a Cheerio. I could pretend that I don't see her, but something in the back of my head nags me and so I step up and hold her.
Kissing her is like drinking something warm and sweet. She's very soft, and her neck smells of lilacs. Her hands slide around my hips, resting there, drawing me. Her shoulder blades rise and fall with her breathing, and she leans into me in a way that is hard to ignore. In some dark recess of my brain, a light snaps on. I don't want to go back to the car. I hold her more tightly.
"Easy," she says, breaking off. "What would my boyfriend say?" She's still leaning against me, looking into me. I can't say what she sees, but my eyes must be darting around like caged cats while I wrestle with the thought that maybe she isn't kidding. She lets me think about it for a few more seconds, then laughs.
"Silly boy," she says, laying a finger on my cheek. She straightens up and steps back. "Call me," she says. She goes inside and the door shuts. Somewhere off in the distant dark of that neighborhood so unfamiliar to me, I hear someone blowing a whistle. A dog barks.
When Tom comes out later, we drive home without stopping to eat. Tom is frisky, but I don't want to talk. He tries kidding me out of it, but gives up after I glare at him.
Tom's mother drives me home. I bolt through the front door and wave to my mom in the living room as I head into the kitchen. I spend the rest of the night sulking by the phone, staring at the napkin penciled with the number Tom got from Caroline. I jerk the receiver off the hook, punch a few numbers, then hang up. I pace around the floor, the napkin balled in my fist. I want to throw the napkin away, but the image of Bonnie—swaying in the half-light, eyes closed—comes between the trashcan and me.
Whatever I do, I can see that things aren't going to go very well for me.
I'm in love, and I don't want to be.
And that makes me very, very afraid.
BIO: Robert Meade is a Boston native now transplanted in Mohegan Lake, in Westchester County, NY, with his wife and three children. He teaches at Loyola School in Manhattan. He won the Wordweaving Award for Excellence for his book, Daily Bread: Seven Days to a Healthier Soul. A published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, his recent work has appeared in Angels on Earth magazine and online at Guideposts and Apollo's Lyre.