You look down at your hand in hers. It’s true what you said, you feel bad about Claudia, but you don’t regret meeting Sam at all. In fact, she’s almost too good to be true. Maybe you just need more time to screw this up.
“There she is,” you hear someone say.
You look past Sam to see two girls approaching from the front of the gym. Both are wearing worn jeans and bright colored blouses like Sam. “Your friends?” you ask.
She turns to look at them. You can’t see the expression on her face, but the friends immediately stop walking and pretend to avert their gaze. One girl’s blouse is yellow, the other’s is blue, and Sam’s, you realize, is red. The prime colors, probably not an accident. The three must be tight.
“Yeah,” she says, turning back to you. “Now, where were we?”
“Sam, I um, I’m going to wait for my friends. I told them I’d be here.”
Her head tilts to one side. “So, now you’re going to wait?”
“Ouch,” you say, looking down at your still joined hands.
She gives yours a squeeze before pulling hers away. “Okay, but wait here for just one second. I’ll be right back.” She hurries over to her friends, probably to tell them what a disappointment you turned out to be. You catch them looking your way. A minute later she returns with an empty gum wrapper and a ballpoint pen. “Here,” she says, carefully tearing the wrapper in two and handing you a piece. “That’s my number. Now give me yours.”
You do and she writes it on the remaining half. When she looks up, you lean forward and kiss her on the lips.
“Goodnight, Matt,” she says, before rejoining her friends.
You watch her walk to the parking lot, get into a car, and drive away. As soon as she’s gone, a car, not far from your own, begins turning its lights off and on. You recognize Eric’s yellow Datsun and start walking toward it.
The passenger-side window lowers. “Dude,” says Gus. “That wasn’t Claudia Ortega.”
“Yeah,” Rudy says from the back seat. “What the hell, Matt?”
Eric is smiling and shaking his head. “Get in,” he says.
You lean into the open window. “Hey, dude. I brought the car.”
“The station wagon?”
“Man, no fucking way your parents let you.”
“You have the VW?” asks Rudy. “Dude,” he says, pushing on the back of Gus’s seat. “Let me out. I’m riding with Matt.”
“Relax, man.” Gus leans forward and opens his door.
“So where are we going?” you ask.
“A party, not far from here. Follow me.”
As soon as Rudy gets in your car he opens the glovebox and begins sorting through the pile of cassette tapes inside. “Van Halen, Rush, Adam Ant,” he says, reading off the names of the bands. “Tom Petty, Black Sabbath … oh, here, Combat Rock.” He ejects the Zeppelin you were listening to earlier and inserts The Clash.
The first song begins with an echoing riff and Joe Strummer’s gravelly voice delivering a public service announcement. The drum and bass come in and the song takes off.
Both of you start to sing along.
Eric’s already at the exit turning onto the street. “Wait up, man,” you say to yourself.
“Don’t worry,” says Rudy. “I know where it is.” He shuts the glovebox and sits back. “Dude, this is such a sweet car.” He looks over at you. “I can’t believe your…” he starts to say, but leaves the thought unfinished. “So, what happened to Claudia?”
“Man, she got there like an hour late. I swear, I waited for her, but this girl just comes up to me and asks me to dance.”
“Don’t tell me,” says Rudy. “Claudia busted you.”
“I felt like such an asshole.”
“Oh, shit,” he says. “Well, you kinda were, right?”
You search for the right words. “Man, have you ever just felt, I don’t know, horribly shitty and amazingly happy at the same time?”
He laughs. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Yeah,” he says. “We saw you kiss her goodnight.”
“Dude, we were making out on the bleachers.”
“She’s like, so soft, and her hair, and the way she smells.”
“What’s her name?”
“Sam? Sam what?”
“I don’t know.”
He’s shaking his head. “Dude, you’re fucked up.”
You continue to follow Eric’s taillights for the next mile or so until they abruptly disappear. “I think he just turned,” you say.
“Yeah. At the stop, make a right.”
After a few more turns, you are in a quiet neighborhood of newer homes with large grass covered front yards, the kind with landscape lights and automated sprinkler systems. Not like your house with the single shower-head on the end of the hose that gets moved around the yard.
“I’m pretty sure it’s this next street,” Rudy says, pointing.
Your question is answered as soon as you turn the corner. The street is thick with cars parked bumper to bumper up and down both sides. Eric and Gus are standing in the road. Eric walks to your window. You hear music coming from somewhere nearby. “This is it,” he says gesturing to the house behind him. “There are some spaces down there.” He points to the opposite end of the street.
When you and Rudy make it back to the house, Eric and Gus are waiting in the driveway. “It’s three bucks,” Eric says. “You guys got money?”
“Where do you get in?” you ask. There isn’t even a light on near the front door.
“Around the back,” says Gus.
“I’m broke,” says Rudy. “Someone spot me?”
“I got it,” you say.
Two older guys who look like they lift weights for a living take your money on the side of the house and let you through the gate.
“If we leave, can we come back?” asks Gus.
Rudy frowns at him. “Why would we leave?”
“I’m just asking.”
“You can come and go all you want,” says the guy adding your lunch money to the fat roll of bills in his hand. “Just give me three more dollars every time you do.”
“Got it,” says Rudy, placing his hands on Gus’s shoulders and pushing him forward. “Now let’s go so I can get Matt’s money’s worth.”
You turn the corner to find yourselves under a large patio. The back sliding-glass doors of the house are open with people coming and going, mostly it seems to refill their red plastic cups with beer from a battered silver barrel resting in a tub of ice near the center of the patio. There are more people out in the yard, but it’s hard to tell how many or just how far back the property goes in the dark.
Rudy immediately gets in line for the keg, with the rest of you close behind. You are about to ask where the cups come from when you notice a small stack on the floor next to the keg. From where you are standing you can see people crowded around a dining room table with more people moving about in the house behind them.
Once Rudy’s cup is full, he hands the spigot to Gus and starts to drink his beer. Before Gus is finished filling his, Rudy is pushing his cup in for a refill.
“Hey,” a large dude in a nearby lounge chair says. “You want more, get back in line.”
“Oh, yeah,” Rudy says, pulling his cup away. “It’s because it was, uh, mostly foam.”
Eric laughs and takes the spigot. “Dude,” he says to Gus. “Pump.”
“Hey,” says a girl standing in line behind you. “Is that Lil’ Boot?”
You recognize her dimpled smile. “Hi Joanne.” She’s one of your brother’s senior friends and maybe was his girlfriend for a while. She had dinner at the house a couple times last year. She’s wearing a snug, striped blouse with matching red pants. You are suddenly reminded of the crush you had on her.
“These your little friends?” she asks.
Eric grumbles something under his breath, but Gus and Rudy don’t seem to care.
“What’s up?” asks Rudy.
“Here,” you say, holding up the spigot. “You want me to get that for you?”
“Awe, thank you. What a gentleman,” she says, pushing two cups forward, one in each hand. You fill them both. The keg monitor doesn’t seem to care. “Maybe, I’ll see you inside,” she says, rewarding you with another smile.
“Hey, little shits,” the beer monitor threatens as you finish filling yours. “Quit holding up the line.”
“Yeah, Lil’ Boot,” says Rudy.
You ignore him and follow Eric through the sliding doors. You enter into a very large space that is kitchen on one side, dining room on the other, and living room beyond. People are everywhere, standing in the kitchen, crowding around the dining room table, lounging on the living room furniture. A few faces seem familiar, but most you don’t recognize. Many people look too old to be in high school.
The four of you make your way into the living room looking for a place to hang out, drink your beer, and otherwise blend in. You have to settle for an open section of wall in the corner of the room near the entrance to the hallway. The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is blasting from the stereo, but not too loud that you can’t hear each other speak.
“Remember that Happy Days?” asks Gus, “where Richie and Potsie drink all that milk and olive oil before going to that party?”
“Please stop talking,” says Eric, taking a sip of his beer.
“What? It was a good one.”
Every few minutes someone will ask if you are waiting in line for the bathroom and you have to say, “No. Go ahead.”
The third song on the album, “I’m Leaving You,” finishes and the acoustic intro to the fourth, “Coming Home,” begins.
“Hey, dude,” Eric says, nudging you with his elbow. It’s the boyfriend of that chica you were talking to this morning. Oh, and guess who’s with him?”
You see them standing near the dining room crowd. He’s got his arm draped over her shoulder while he’s talking to the guy next to him. His name is Tony Rodriguez, he’s got a jaw like a JCPenney model and apparently, he’s already signed with the major leagues or something. He’s been a local celebrity lately, picture in the paper, interview on the news.
“What’s her name, Ruth? You should go over and say hi.”
“Yeah, maybe later,” you say, but continue to watch them.
She looks bored, you think. Probably miserable having to listen to these guys talk about batting averages and pitching stats all night long. Then he says something that causes his friend to laugh and she smiles and turns to gaze up at him with a look in her eyes that makes your stomach hurt. “I need another drink,” you say.
You didn’t think the beer was having an effect, but weaving through the crowd to get to the keg feels a little like driving downhill without your foot on the brake. You get there all right, but you don’t really remember the details of the trip.
You return to the living room to discover someone has replaced the Scorpions with Prince.
“You’re not getting a refill?” you ask Eric.
“See this loser here?” he asks, just loud enough for you to hear. He gestures with his chin to the guy sitting on the corner of the nearest couch nodding his head to the music. “He’s gonna get up any second now.”
“How do you know?”
“He got shot down five minutes ago. He’s still trying to play it off.”
You realize that the girl next to him is turned sideways on the couch with as much of her back to him as possible. He tips his cup all the way back and then looks inside as if surprised to find it empty.
“Here we go,” Eric says, taking the drink out of your hand and pouring half of it into his empty cup. “Thanks,” he says, returning the rest of your beer. The loner gets to his feet and begins moving toward the kitchen. Eric dodges around him and slides into the empty space.
Gus edges closer to you. “This, I gotta see.”
Eric says something to the girl that you can’t make out. She immediately turns. You can’t hear what she is saying, but she looks annoyed, offended even, and you expect her to turn her back any moment, give Eric the cold shoulder, but instead, she shifts her body around to more comfortably face him. They seem to be having a conversation. Now she’s smiling. She throws her head back and laughs. He stretches out his left arm and hangs it over the back of the couch.
Prince is singing "Little Red Corvette."
You shake your head. “How does he do it?”
“It’s like he’s a fox in a chihuahua’s body,” says Gus.
You laugh into your beer, getting foam in your nose.
“Or maybe just a chihuahua who thinks he’s a Doberman.”
“Yeah,” you say, drying your upper lip with the sleeve of your shirt. “That sounds more like it.”
You lift your cup for another drink as some girls pass by on their way out of the restroom. “Lil’ Boot!” one of them says, and you recognize her voice before you look up from your beer.
“Oh, hi Luz.”
“Hey,” she says. “What are you doing here? You didn’t go to the dance?”
“No. I did.”
“Well, how was it?” she asks, stepping closer. “What do you think of Claudia, pretty nice, huh?”
“I, uh…” For the second time today, you find yourself staring down the front of Luz’s blouse. You quickly lift your eyes. “She got there really late and I missed her.”
“Yeah, I waited a long time,” you say, making the sign of the cross over your chest with your plastic cup. “I swear.”
This makes her laugh. “Okay, okay. I believe you.” But then she suddenly gets serious. “Wait, if you missed her, how do you know when she got there?”
You open your mouth.
“Never mind,” she says, patting you on the chest with the palm of her hand. “She’ll tell me on Monday.”
You breathe a silent sigh of relief.
“You remember CC?” she asks, turning to the tall girl in the denim skirt standing behind her. You are expecting to be greeted with the same scowl she gave you in the hallway this morning, but to your surprise, CC smiles back at you.
A few beers later, you are sitting on the large couch next to Rudy listening to Van Halen. “It’s like the guitar is speaking,” says Rudy. “Like you can almost understand it.”
“Why don’t I have any of these guys?” you ask.
“Dude,” says Rudy. “And this is only their first album.”
“Yeah, they already have like, five, I think.”
Across from you on the smaller couch, Luz and Gus are talking movies. CC is squeezed in between Luz and the arm of the couch, looking bored.
“What I don’t get,” says Gus, “is why they sent R2D2 and C3PO in there first.”
“Were you not paying attention?” asks Luz. “They had to deliver the message from Luke to let Han Solo go, that whole hologram thing.”
“No, I was paying attention. Luke said to accept the droids as gifts. He wanted to trade them for Solo.”
“Yeah, but of course he knew Jabba would say no.”
“Okay, maybe,” says Gus. “But why send Princess Leia in to give them Chewbacca?”
“To rescue Han.”
“Okay, but who was going to rescue Chewy?”
You turn away to check the dining room. Ruth is playing some kind of drinking game with her friends. She’s not winning. “Drink! Drink! Drink!” they chant as she puts the plastic cup to her lips. “Ruth! Ruth! Ruth!” they repeat until she sets it down empty on the table, and then they all cheer.
Rudy catches you staring. “Dude, why do you keep looking over there? You wanna go play quarters? Go already.”
You turn back. “No thanks.”
“Oh,” Gus is saying, “and what about that stupid bikini?”
“What?” asks Luz. “You didn’t like Leia’s bikini?”
Gus takes a sip of his beer, seeming to collect his thoughts. “To be honest, no. It was kind of disturbing.”
Luz puts her hand on his knee. “Disturbing?” She lets out a joyful cackle. “Dude, you crack me up!” Her chest bounces as she laughs. “I like your friend, Lil’ Boot,” she says. “He’s funny.”
Gus seems unsure how to take the compliment. He takes another sip of beer.
CC stands up, pulls down on the hem of her skirt, and walks around the wooden coffee table separating the two couches. “I’m going to get a beer,” she says to Rudy. “You want one?”
He immediately gets to his feet and follows her outside.
A moment later, Eric appears from the shadows of the hallway and drops down into Rudy’s former seat. He smells like pot. “Wa’sup,” he slurs.
“Where’s your new friend?” you ask.
He smiles and slowly turns to you with eyes half open. “She got tired of me.”
“Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s cool, man,” he says, as if you’re the one needing reassuring. “People get tired of … people.” His words lift up at the ends and drift back down. “You know? It’s not personal. They just get tired, and they have to go.”
Gus and Luz are watching, trying not to laugh.
“Yeah,” you say. “I hear you.”
“You better hold onto your friend there, Lil’ Boot,” says Luz. “I think he might float away.”
Eric just smiles.
Some of the dining room crowd are leaving the table and moving into the living room, Joanne and Ruth among them. Joanne’s boyfriend is just as jock handsome as Ruth’s and just as buff.
“I don’t want to go,” you hear Ruth say.
Her boyfriend is guiding her with his hand on her back. She doesn’t look very steady on her feet. “Come on Ruthie,” he says. “We’re going to go chill for a while.”
You lift your beer and pretend to drink, watching them from over the rim of your cup.
She shrugs his hand off, steps back. “I want to stay out here.”
“Ruthie, you can’t.” He reaches for her. “Come on.”
Joanne and her boyfriend are waiting nearby. She looks concerned, but her boyfriend is smiling and shaking his head.
“What do you mean I can’t?” Ruth demands, slurring her words. “You can’t tell me what to do. Maybe I don’t want to go chill for a while. You go back there,” she waves her hand dismissively in the direction of the hallway, “and do whatever.” She crosses her arms. “I’m staying out here.”
“No,” she says, turning her back to him. Suddenly she’s facing you. Your eyes meet. You lower your cup. “Matthew!” she says.
“Oh shit,” breathes Eric.
“Guys,” she says, looking toward Joanne. “It’s my friend Matthew from school.”
You raise a tentative hand and quickly lower it. Joanne smiles.
“Ruthie,” Tony says, anger and impatience in his voice. “Stop being difficult.”
She turns on him. “Difficult?” she snaps. “Like when I asked you to stop for that dog?”
“Aww, Ruthie.” He tosses his hands in the air. “Don’t start that again. It was an accident. You saw it run out in front of me.”
She shakes her head. “No, I didn’t. And you could have gone back to see if it was hurt.”
“I told you.” He shoots a glance in Joanne and her boyfriend’s direction. “It ran off. Could it run off if it was hurt?”
She faces him a moment longer before turning back in your direction. Then she walks over and wedges herself between you and Eric on the couch. “Go without me.” she says, her side pressed warmly up against yours. “I’m going to stay here and talk with Matthew and his friends.”
Tony looks like he wants to snap your neck. “Fuckin’ Ruthie,” he grumbles.
“Tony,” says Joanne’s jock, stepping toward him. “Dude, she’ll be fine. Just leave her.”
Tony looks around, then takes a breath and exhales.
“So,” says Ruth, turning to you. She smells like flowers and beer. “What are we talking about?”
“Hey, gay friend,” says Tony, pointing his finger at you. “You better be here when I get back.”
“Star Wars,” Luz says to Ruth. “We’re talking about the new one.”
“Oh, my God,” says Ruth with an enthusiasm you did not expect. “The beginning was so confusing, wasn’t it?”
“Exactly,” says Gus.
Tony and friends disappear down the hall.
Ruth turns, her face only inches from yours. You inhale slowly through your nose, breathing her in. Her eyes, swirling pools of liquid caramel pull you toward their dark centers.
“Matthew,” she says. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Go to next episode:
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.