By Lauryn E. Nosek
A puddle has formed on the floor at my feet as I’ve stood here, holding open my closet door, mentally trying on each dress and throwing them onto the floor in disgust. Maybe the towel is wrapped around my head too tightly. It doesn’t matter what I end up wearing tonight; it won’t accomplish what I want to, need to tonight. Only I can do that.
Still, looking my best won’t hurt, or make my job harder. I grab a few dresses on hangers. Whoops, not going to wear that one. I put the red spaghetti strap dress back in the closet. I refuse to wear the dress I wore to my senior banquet again for my ten-year reunion (even though it fits better now than it did then; probably because my boobs finally grew in and I don’t have to pad to keep the neckline symmetrical and in the right place). I don’t want to be one of them, those tacky probably-ex-cheerleaders who have had a few kids but think they have the same figure they had before they popped them out.
I think I’ll go with one of the blue ones. They go best with my skin tone since it’s too cold out for the sun to be allowed an opportunity for changing that. The halter dress is a little uncomfortable and frankly, makes me look like I should be standing at a street corner in the red light district, even before I apply makeup.
Well, the simple process of elimination has worked yet again. It looks like it’s going to be the silk navy cocktail dress. It’s a relief that I still have the matching shoes, though I think I brought the hand clutch to the Salvation Army when I cleaned out the attic a few months ago.
There are moments while I’m getting ready where I have to pause and refocus or I’m going to lose it. I have talked myself in and out of what I need to do tonight so many times that I lose track of what I’ve decided and have to start the process all over again. Every time I decide to go ahead and confront you, I break out into a cold sweat that threatens to land me in either the tacky dress or the hooker dress. Every time I talk myself out of it, I remember all my unanswered questions and the agony, the self-doubt, and how I seem to sabotage every relationship I manage to start.
In the end, I’m ready almost an hour before I need to leave. Usually, in that sort of situation I would start compulsively cleaning but that’s out of the question tonight. It isn’t that I’m worried about my clothes getting dirty; it’s the smell. Tonight is one of the few times I’ve taken my time and put thought into my hair and make-up. I even dabbed on some expensive perfume that makes me feel guilty for ever having bought it. I’m not about to take a chance of ruining the effect by spraying tons of aerosol disinfectant or furniture polish around and covering up the intended faint whiff of roses with the overpowering essence of lemon or pine.
But I can’t remember you ever having said anything about my scent. I can’t help laughing a little at the thought even as I rack my brain, a familiar catalogue of moments, gestures, conversations and silences, searching for any references to scent.
The closest I can find, and it’s a stretch of epic proportions, is the time you complimented my singing. Immediately I get bogged down in the memory and what it has meant to me, what it still means. It hasn’t been a constant but evolves each time I bring it back to the surface. I can only be sure of the nature of what you said and the thrill your compliment gave me. But what did you mean by it?
I’d never thought of myself as much of a singer. Born into a notoriously tone deaf chorus of a family, I try to limit my musical outbursts to the confines of my motor vehicle and the only audience allowed to hear such free concerts are empty water bottles and soda cans on the floor of the backseat. Usually I’m too self-conscious when others are present to give in to the urge. But I very rarely felt self-conscious in your presence. Anticipating and reflecting on time we spent together, always. As soon as a third party came along, the anxiety would descend. But never when it was just the two of us.
That’s why I hope I’ll get you alone tonight. Thinking of it in such terms makes me blush. I have nothing to be ashamed of, but I start reverting to that high school mindset as I sit on the edge of my bed and slip my shoes on and off my feet with my hands under my thighs and shoulders hunched. It’s a posture I’d adopted most frequently at school dances when slow songs wafted down from speakers hung with streamers.
I always looked down, afraid my gaze would fall on you for too long and rumors would start. Afraid everyone could read on my face what I was hoping for except you. Afraid you too would be able to see it and you wouldn’t feel the same way. Terrified that if I looked up I’d see something worse. You dancing with someone else, oblivious to me, your friend when there was no one else to see or when it could easily be explained as something else. Family friends. Homework help. Simple proximity.
I’m not being fair and I know it. Not once did I ever hear you deny our friendship to anyone. Of course, I can’t recall a single situation where either of us was forced to confirm or define what we were to each other.
And it’s that question of what I meant to you that has always driven me crazy, that has me doubting what things happened, what small comments meant, pouring over the surface of memories now over ten years old, searching for a definitive, an objective subtext to give me the answer. I long ago came to the conclusion I will carry out tonight. The only way I’ll ever know for sure is if you tell me. Since you haven’t told me in the almost fifteen years we’ve known one another, it’s become apparent that I’m the one who’ll need to broach the subject.
It’s that uncertainty, the idea that if you had felt that way about me then surely you would have said something back then. I know that I tried to give you signals, let you know without being too forward. But what did you ever do to let me know if there was anything there?
Hypocrite. As I clean out my immaculate purse, I’ve come to accept this fact. I didn’t say anything either. I’ve gone back and forth and have found several ways to justify my silence. You always had a girlfriend. The windows of opportunity between girls were always brief and I was supposed to be your friend, the one you complained to when things with them weren’t working out. I was supposed to agree with you and commiserate, not tell you the truth about how frustrating and infuriating it was to watch you always with the same kinds of bimbos. Girls who would befriend me when their crushes on you began, then go back to treating me like crap when they no longer needed to invite themselves over to my house where they could so conveniently cross your path. I’m sure that on a few occasions my animosity for those girls leaked through. I must have made some honest comments as you told me about the fights you had with them on your way to breaking up.
You always acted in the opposite way, from what I remember, or from what I wanted to see. My best friend had an enormous crush on you and she was inept when it came to concealing it from anyone. This is going to sound horrible when I tell you later… if I end up telling you this part, but I didn’t mind her coming over to try to get on your good side. For one thing, I knew it didn’t work and never would. She couldn’t see it in your face the way I could. You were always honest about the way she annoyed you and did your best to be nice to her for my sake. At least, I wanted it to be for my sake. For more than just the sake of our friendship anyway.
In case you didn’t understand or realize it then, I need to tell you tonight how much it meant to me. Especially the day you apologized to her when your frustration seeped through and upset her. And the way you refused to let your dislike for her affect the way you empathized when she and I got into that stupid fight and you put up with my complaining about her for an entire week. It was the perfect opportunity for you to try to turn me against her or at least vent your full true opinion. But you held back. I like to think that it was because you knew we’d make up and didn’t want anything like that hanging in the air between the two of us, making it heavy and awkward.
I throw the pile of trash that had collected in the bottom of my purse into the bin beside the bed and begin to put back the items that actually belong. At least I know where I stand when it comes to my purse. Everything’s where I want it to be. It’ll be there when I go looking for it, exactly where I expect it to be. My cell phone, my wallet, the compact, and small tube of hand lotion can’t object or have opinions about where I put them. I don’t have to worry about what to do, how to react if they don’t care about me the same way I do them. Or did.
Do I even still feel this way about you or is this just the lingering effects of not knowing? Is it one of those things that sounds fine in my head or when I talk about it to a friend or the cat, but as soon as I say it out loud to you, I’ll laugh at how ridiculous it sounds? Will finally telling you make it go away?
Do I want it to go away?
A movement to my right catches my eye. It’s just my cat jumping up onto the bed beside me but the fact that he almost knocked the clock off my nightstand has called my attention to the time. If I leave now, I will arrive almost an hour early but I can kill time driving around aimlessly. There’s a good possibility that I’ll get myself lost as soon as I deviate from the directions I found online and printed. Everyone tells me I should get a GPS system but I don’t trust technology enough for that (and to be honest, I don’t want to spend the money on it). Ultimately, I just can’t stand to stay in this room with nothing else to focus on or distract me. It’s too crowded.
I stand at the door for a minute and run through the list of things I’ll need during the course of the evening. My shoes are on my feet, my dress is on the right way, there are no curlers left in my hair, and the make up is on my face. I’ve reorganized my purse so I know I have my keys and my cell phone. The directions are on the table next to the door and my coat, though it probably won’t be necessary because the evening is warm, is hanging next to that same table.
The cat gets closer to rub up against my leg and I nearly kick him across the room. I grab my purse off the bed and head for the kitchen. The sounds of his claws on the floor follow me down the hall. He’s hungry. I won’t be back for hours. Better feed him now.
Once the can of food is on the floor beside his water bowl, (yes, I only opened the can and dropped it on the floor even and yes, it bothers me that I didn’t use the special bowl for food that I usually use), I locate a roll of packing tape and use a piece to attack the spot where he innocently tried to get my attention. I loathe the idea of those lint brushes for pet hair but it’s times like these I can almost see them as serving a purpose, (though they’re still way overpriced).
On the way back to the front of the house I flip a few lights on and draw the shades. There’s nothing worse than coming home and having everything completely dark. Every bush has someone lurking behind it, every shadow becomes threatening, and it doesn’t matter how many little keychain flashlights are on the key ring, it’s not enough.
As I approach my car I instinctively look over my shoulder. It doesn’t matter where I live, I always look in the direction of where our two yards met growing up to see if you’re there looking for me to wave or see if I have a few minutes to chat before heading wherever I’m going. How many times did we stand by the waist high bushes that delineated the two properties and talk about everything and nothing? I remember a few times you called to clarify a homework assignment and we wound up making our way to those bushes as the batteries on the handsets died.
And then there was the time we were talking when my mother had to take my sister to a doctor’s appointment and we hadn’t moved or run out of things to say as she pulled back in the driveway almost three hours later. It amazes me now that with all that talking we never got around to what we will be discussing tonight. Maybe that’s why we never ran out of things to say? Were we avoiding the one topic that mattered to us both? Or were you avoiding it because you knew it couldn’t end well?
I don’t mean to but I slam my door, narrowly missing my dress. That would have been great. Clean off the cat hair only to close it in the door and get grease stains all over it, wrinkle it, maybe even rip it. I can’t believe I got that upset at what you may or may not have thought ten years ago. I can’t tell if doing this tonight will make me saner or be that final push over the edge. Am I really that close to the edge? And what’s beyond the edge, if that’s what I have to look forward to?
The directions I downloaded from the internet are confusing enough to distract me from thinking about you for a little while but then they make me drive past a coffee shop that looks exactly like the one down the street from that summer work program place our parents signed us up for the summer before sophomore year. I know I’ve said it before, but I am so sorry that my mother talked yours into signing you up too. Well, maybe that’s not true. Not anymore. While the work was boring, we did have some fun times during the breaks and the down time.
There was that one time we were running so late we decided not to go back and just sat around the coffee shop all afternoon until your mom came in scolding. The best part was that they weren’t paying us enough to bother firing us. Most of the time when the intern at work comes around with the coffee order and watches me pour in the hot chocolate made from the packet I brought from home, it reminds me of the face of the waitress made when you dared me to try it. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t be good and my first reaction was to spit it out, but I still drink it this way, though, it’s still best when the hot chocolate is also from the coffee shop.
Since I have time to kill anyway, I decide to detour and spend a few minutes, and a few extra dollars, at the coffee shop. As it turns out, only the outer structure resembles the one from that summer. The inside is actually pretty drab and dingy and chases away the impulse to linger. Still, it isn’t crowded so my entrance has drawn attention. I go up to the counter and double check the directions my computer spit out. At least I accomplished killing about ten minutes.
As I nod my head to the eager high school student who doesn’t realize yet how crappy minimum wage really is, I develop that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I always get when you’re around and probably unaware I know you’re watching. How perfect would it be if you had the same impulse passing this coffee shop that I did? Too perfect. That’s how I know you’re not the one who I’ll see if I look over my shoulder. Nope, just a friend of the kid behind the counter who was giving me directions. Now they’re just saying “dude” back and forth, talking about “Liz, the hot chick?” “yeah, Liz the Hottie” and “no way!” The last five miles of the directions go unconfirmed.
I get back in my car and find my way to the right hotel. Budget couldn’t have been anything spectacular based on the five or six balloons in the good old school colors tied to one doorknob of a pair of double doors. A piece of paper with a hand drawn arrow points the way to the pair of conference rooms we’ll be using for this little get together. I didn’t go to the five-year reunion but based on what I’ve seen so far, it must have been absolutely charming. From what I heard, almost everyone was either working at the same job they’d had in high school or they were still in school, postponing repayment of their school loans. By now there’ll be more than a few who’re married and have kids, working on paying the mortgage and those deferred loans.
At least that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about surprising me tonight. There’s no way your mother wouldn’t have mentioned to my mother if you’d gotten engaged or married. The grapevine isn’t as intact as it used to be but even that would make it through to me. You probably have a girlfriend. It’s probably going to be pointless and embarrassing and I’ll never be able to face you again after this.
Coming up on what is hopefully the last door, with another fistful of balloons signaling I’m approaching the party destination, I’m back where I was when I was getting ready. Indecision. Second guessing myself and my sanity for having thought of this in the first place. Then again, it’s not like we’ve been chatting regularly the last ten years.
There has to be a way to mention it without it becoming awkward and weird. Since I’m not sure what saying it aloud will do, maybe I should act like I’m more over it than I think I am. Maybe saying it that way, I will be over it. Did you know, back in high school, I had the biggest crush on you? It might be a good way to open it up and see how you react before committing myself more fully to a full confession. An emergency escape button of sorts.
Great, I’ve given myself another opportunity to back out at the last minute. That’s not how this was supposed to go. I’ve told myself over and over that the reason paying for an overpriced chicken dinner would be worth it if I could get answers, if I could finally know if it was your idea to bring me flowers for my birthday or if they were from your entire family, if I could know whether you read that book because I mentioned how much I enjoyed it, if you understood why I gave you that mug for your birthday.
Despite my ridiculously early arrival, I’m not actually the first one there. The class officers managed to dredge up a few volunteers from among the more dedicated members of the class. They’re sitting at a several folding tables covered with one table cloth and are patiently waiting for attendees like me for whom they can show off with how much trivia they can remember about our high school selves as they check us in and hand out name tags.
It’s stupid but I scan the room to see if you’re here. Of course not. You never were the first one at the bus stop. There’s a nice quiet spot in the corner where I can take my glass of soda and make small talk with anyone who comes along while I wait for you. And when no one is nearby trying to remember who I am or what my last name is, I’ll continue questioning. How will you react? Have I even been remembering things right or have I colored them with what I want to see? Whatever your reaction, I know the filing system I have my memories under will need reorganization. But do I even want that? Will knowing really change where I am now or can it only change the past?
Ten years is a long time and it seems longer with every person who walks through the doors and comes up to talk to me. These people I used to chat with in the hallways or make snide remarks to while the teacher’s back was turned are now simply people I used to know.
I don’t want you to turn out to be just another someone I used to know.