This is the next installment of The Growing Season by Stephanie Phillips. For the previous entries, click here.
I woke up the next morning with a boy in my bed. And for maybe the first time ever, I felt like I knew everything about him. There was no awkward grabbing at clothes or straining to remember a name, no wondering if he would call. My boyfriend was lying beside me there in the morning light, and I couldn’t stop smiling as I studied his sleeping face and replayed the previous night in my head.
It had been perfect. For our last few minutes of taking things slowly, he had continued to take them slowly: undressing me piece by piece, telling me how beautiful I was, kissing me everywhere. We matched up here just like we did everywhere else. There was passion, laughter, and sweetness. Now Jack opened his eyes and caught me staring, and I giggled. He pulled me close to him and I placed my head on his shoulder.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Hell yeah it is,” he replied.
We lay in bed for awhile, drifting in and out of sleep, then finally peeled ourselves away from the sheets in the late morning. “So are you going to make me do the walk of shame by myself?” he asked. “Or will you get breakfast with me?”
“I’m pretty sure we’re in brunch territory now,” I replied, glancing at the clock, “but yeah, I’m starving.”
We got dressed and walked, hand-in-hand, to a diner around the corner, where we fueled up on caffeine and grease and grinned at each other like a couple of kids. I studied him, realizing we had only known each other for about a month and a half. It dawned upon me that last night’s milestone, in that amount of time, wasn’t necessarily taking it slow, but I felt like I had known Jack for much longer. And in a city where sex was as common as the daily paper, it seemed that we had taken our time. He looked back at me.
“You aren’t thinking about last night, are you?” he joked.
“No, not at all. Certainly not about how great it was,” I answered.
“Yeah, what do you know?” he said. “Is there anything we’re not good at together? I mean, really.”
I thought about it. “Karaoke,” I said. “I bet we’re not good at that.”
He shook his head. “Nope. I bet we’re those people who are so bad at it that we’re cute. Try again.”
I laughed. “I always hate those people.”
“People who are bad at karaoke, or people who are perfect together?”
“Well, usually both. But especially people who make goofy eyes at each other across the table in a diner on a Sunday morning. I’ve always hated them.”
“Guess you’re going to have to learn some tolerance,” he replied, “because now you’re one of them, and I plan on keeping it that way.”
“Oh yeah?” I challenged.
“Yep,” he said. “And if you don’t watch out, I’m going to bring this—“ he pointed both index fingers toward himself—“over there to your side of the booth and make things really awkward.”
I held my hands up in mock surrender. “I’m not ready for that,” I cried. I tossed my napkin at him and he jumped over to my side of the booth, wrapping me in his arms as people began to stare. For once in my life, I didn’t care at all.
We had decided to meet as a group for dinner before the big Christmas party for a few reasons. One, so Brian could join us and meet Jack before his very different kind of bash at Splash, a gay bar downtown. Two, so the girls could get to talk to Jack before we entered the madness of our party. And three, because the words open bar are dangerous enough on their own without throwing an empty stomach into the mix.
Conveniently enough, Sala, the restaurant that had provided the setting for my first date with Jack, had a location on 19th and 6th that wasn’t far from the party. I twisted the arms of my typically tapas-avoiding girlfriends and we gathered around a table that Saturday night for introductions. For Kennedy and Abby, it was a hello-again meeting; Brian and Cara were appraising Jack for the first time.
“Cute,” Brian whispered in my ear after he shook Jack’s hand and sat on the other side of me. Cara grinned her approval across the table. We quickly ordered drinks—pitchers of sangria all around—and picked some plates off the menu to share. I noticed Cara refilling her glass within five minutes of sitting down, while the rest of ours were still full, and hoped that tonight wouldn’t end in disaster.
“So, Jack,” Cara launched into conversation, “What do you do?”
Jack began to describe his banking job, which I honestly still didn’t completely understand, and Brian leaned closer to me.
“So?” he asked. “Good in bed, or do we know yet?”
“We do, and he is,” I whispered back. “Amazing, actually.”
“Fourth of July,” I answered.
He quietly tapped my glass with his. The job conversation was winding up, and Cara turned her spotlight on Brian.
“Dude,” she said. “When are you going to take us out on your boat? I hear she’s a beauty.”
Brian smiled angelically. “Yes. She’s the only woman I’ve ever been attracted to,” he said. “Sadly, she’s locked up for the winter. But when spring rolls around, I promise to take you girls out for a spin. And Jack, too, of course,” he added quickly. “Along with any other men we’ve all managed to pick up by then.”
“Don’t tease us,” I told him. “This could be the promise that gets me through winter this year.”
Our food began to arrive then, along with more pitchers of sangria that Cara had ordered. We passed plates and bowls around and once again, I was struck by the feeling of family that my friends in the city provided me. People in New York City were tough, but the bonds between us could be even tougher. Especially when you considered some of the things we had been through together. I hoped tonight would be the beginning of a happier season for all of us.
At the end of dinner, we all told Brian goodbye and he headed downtown, then we bundled up into our coats and hats and headed west to our party. We waited in line for a few minutes—there always has to be a line involved—then Kennedy handed our group’s tickets over at the door. We checked our coats (another line) and stepped into the huge room, an event space with windowed walls, sky-high ceilings, and hardwood floors. The space had been transformed into a winter wonderland. Silver, blue, red, and green tinsel hung from the rafters, and lights were strewn alongside the colors to create a twinkling, romantic holiday effect. I immediately spotted the four bars in the corners of the room, each with a small line already forming. The space was filling up by the second, with groups and couples milling around as a DJ spun tunes. The crowd looked tame now, but I figured that in a couple of hours things would get rowdy as partygoers pounded more liquor and the dancing started.
“Drinks!” Cara announced. “Let’s hit the bar!”
The five of us headed to the nearest corner and its bar, and I looked forward to having a drink in my hand and feeling its calming effect. I was already engaged in some serious rubbernecking, looking around for Cara’s Bad News Guy without even wanting to, and I could feel Kennedy and Abby doing the same thing as they glanced nervously to and fro. Cara had clearly decided to medicate any anxiety she felt, and was already further on her way down that path than the rest of us. Jack placed his hand on my back as we walked.
“Any sign of the loser?” he whispered in my ear.
I turned and smiled at him, appreciating that he remembered the potentially awkward situation we were facing. “Not yet,” I whispered back. “Looks like a big crowd. Hopefully we can avoid him.”
“Cara’s definitely working on that,” he said, and I watched as she threw her shoulders back and sauntered to the bar to order her drink. “What do the rest of you want?” she yelled back at us.
A few minutes later, we had picked a spot on the sidelines, drinks in hand.
“I hate the beginning of these things,” Kennedy complained. “Everyone just standing around, waiting to get buzzed enough to let loose and have fun. It’s so crowded I can’t even tell if we know anyone.”
“That may not be such a bad thing,” Cara interjected. “Could be time for us to meet some new people anyway.”
Jack and I hung close to each other, sipping our drinks and talking, as my trio of friends scanned the crowd for familiar faces or hot new ones. It felt like the old days, all of us out on the town again, with the very noticeable and positive difference being Jack by my side, disposing of any of the typical and anxious eye-wandering and crowd scans I was used to practicing at these events. My eyes were locked in one place, and could finally rest. I leaned against my boyfriend and listened to my friends’ enjoyable assessments of the quality of men present.
“A plaid bowtie? Seriously?” said Kennedy. “What is with these Southern guys who think it’s cute to dress like they’re singing in the Christmas church musical?”
“And the Bieber hair is just really too much,” Abby added. “I can’t wait for the part where they all pull the baseball caps out of their pockets and throw those on. Lame.”
“Lame and predictable,” Cara threw in. “I think Merritt’s got it right—time to venture beyond the Mason-Dixon for our men.” I thought I detected a note of bitterness in her voice, but the slurred edges of her words made it less noticeable. I looked at Jack and we smiled. There are few things that make you feel more like a couple than being recognized as one by your closest friends.
The three of them decided to do a loop around the party, and Jack and I stayed put with our drinks and each other. After a few minutes and a thickening crowd, I spotted a familiar face. Standing about fifteen feet from us was a bow-tie-wearing, floppy-haired Reynolds.
“Shit,” I murmured, poking Jack.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Cara’s douchebag is here,” I told him. “Behind you.”
He turned around and scanned the group behind us, four guys standing in a line and checking out the crowd. Somehow, when Cara and Abby and Kennedy had performed the same move it was cute. On these guys, it looked predatory. But maybe I was biased.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “The one with the bowtie and the leer?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Though all of them look to me like they’re leering. Ugh. Gross. We should relocate so the girls don’t end up here near them.”
Naturally, at that moment I heard Cara’s laughter and looked up to see the girls heading straight toward us. On the other side of Jack existed the only people-free space in the entire room, beyond which Reynolds and Co. stood, unblocked by human shields. I tried to catch Abby and Kennedy’s eyes, shaking my head furiously, but several drinks had loosened their focus. Seconds later, the girls landed at their destination in front of Jack and me.
“We were actually just about to pick another spot,” I hastily said. “We’re getting kinda bored standing here. Y’all want to walk around some more? Or maybe hit another bar?” I offered in a last-ditch attempt to garner interest. Not that anyone needed another drink.
But Kennedy seemed to catch on to the fear in my eyes, because she grabbed Cara’s arm. “Yeah, let’s do that. Maybe even dance. Come on, girls.”
Cara shrugged her away. “Ow!” she cried. “Stop grabbing me! My feet are tired. Let’s just stand still for a minute.”
At that moment, Abby sucked her breath in and I followed her gaze straight to where Reynolds was standing. He had already spotted us, and he and his buddies were elbowing each other and grinning. It was like a replay of the night we had met him, only with a warzone of debris existing between us now. Debris of which he was entirely unaware.
“Am I going to have to get in a fight, or did you bring your gun?” Jack whispered in my ear.
Words escaped me as I watched Reynolds approach, his eyes boring straight into Cara and that stupid grin decorating his face. He appeared to be moving in slow-motion, and I wished I could make time stop so we could rearrange ourselves out of this situation. Cara had finally noticed him, and I watched as her face turned white. I grabbed her drink before it fell to the floor.
“Well hello there, stranger,” Reynolds leered his way up to our circle, acknowledging only Cara. I felt Jack tense up beside me, an instinctive reaction of The Good Guy to The Bad Guy, and I took a second’s break from my uneasiness to feel proud to have finally ended up with the right one. Then Reynolds’ stupid face started talking again.
“How ya doin’?” he asked Cara, and reached across like he was going to place an arm around her. Jack stepped forward, but Cara had regained her reflexes. Ferocity had poked a hole in her drunkenness, and I saw hatred in her narrowed eyes. She stepped away from the oncoming advance and held her arm up.
“Don’t,” she hissed in warning.
Reynolds froze for just an instant at her reaction, then regained his lurid composure. I could only imagine that this wasn’t the first time he had received such a greeting from a girl.
He laughed, glanced around at the rest of us. “Aww, is this because I didn’t call? I’m sorry about that. It was my mistake. Let me make it up to you and buy you a drink.”
“The drinks are free, asshole,” Cara muttered.
His smile vanished, and he took a step back. “Look, bitch, if you want to hold a grudge—“
Jack stepped between Reynolds and Cara. “You don’t talk to a woman like that—“ he began, then Cara gently nudged him aside.
“Thanks, Jack, but it’s okay,” she said. She stepped forward until she was inches from Reynolds’ face. “You think I’m mad you didn’t call me?” she said, then laughed bitterly. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh yeah?” he challenged. “Then why don’t you enlighten me?”
She stared at him, and I could only imagine the thoughts running through her mind, the things she was tempted to say, the feelings that were roaring back to life inside her. I braced myself for an explosion of truth-revealing. People were turning to look at the scene, and a few had even gathered close by to hear what was going on. Then Cara’s face changed. She seemed to master whatever was brewing within, and her features settled from rage to calm, like an angry ocean after the storm had passed. A smile even played at the corners of her lips.
“Guys like you are all the same,” she finally said. “You think you’re God’s gift to women, and you run around this city going door to door, taking what you want, thinking you’re hot shit. But you’re just a loser. You’re going to marry someone you don’t even like, or else be the fifty-year-old guy in the bar whom all the women are warning each other about. You’re a bad story with a terrible ending, and things are better for you right now than they’ll ever be. I feel sorry for you.”
Struck speechless, Reynolds just stared at her with his mouth hanging open. Then the sneer returned and he began to speak, but Cara interrupted him. In the silence that surrounded our area, she concluded loudly: “And you could have warned me that your dick is the size of my lipstick case.”
With that, she headed straight for the door.