Eighth grade, sixth period P.E., outside on the basketball court. Sean was just as scrawny then as he is now, and even nerdier, always dressing out in a plain white shirt too small for him and green gym shorts too big, the latter only tight around his hips because his Sega Game Gear was perpetually tucked in the waist band. He’d sit in line for attendance every day until Coach finished calling everybody’s name, then run behind the cafeteria to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 while everybody else played actual sports.
This particular day, Sean was sitting in his spot for all of five minutes—he had just gotten Sonic in a major speed-fest, the little blue ball flying across the screen—when a shadow fell over him. He looked up and saw another boy, the sun creating a halo behind his head so that Sean was literally blinded by his presence.
“What the hell are you doing?” the boy asked.
Instead of answering what was clearly a stupid question, Sean just pointed at the Game Gear. The other kid responded by sucking his teeth and reaching down, snatching the Game Gear out of Sean’s hand.
What Sean remembers most about that move now though is it wasn’t hostile. Sean doesn’t really know how the kid pulled that off. Sure, he’d met up with bullies before that day. Scrawny, socially awkward kid with large glasses (contacts were still three or four years in Sean’s future) and a crooked smile (so were braces)?
Basically a bully magnet.
And even though Sean usually stuck up for himself in some way—not going to just take his ass whooping sitting down with a smile on his face—there’s only so much a person can do or say against somebody who’s twice their size.
This kid wasn’t that much bigger than Sean, but it was obvious he was athletic, which should have automatically added a menacing quality to his snatching of Sean’s Game Gear, an impromptu declaration of war. But it wasn’t, and it never even occurred to Sean until years later that it could have been.
It was in the way the kid did it though; he had this curious look on his face the whole time, and he didn’t jerk towards Sean when he took it so Sean would have to flinch away and look even more like a bitch. The kid just…took it, simultaneously reaching his other hand out right after and grabbing Sean’s, pulling him to his feet and saying:
“You’re never going to get laid like this, man.”
Sean looked at him like he didn’t even know getting laid was an option (which he didn’t). The kid rolled his eyes and threw an arm around Sean’s shoulder, started dragging him towards the basketball court, holding his other hand out to grab Sean’s fingers and shake.
“Leon,” he said.
“Sean,” Sean said nervously, taking his hand back, his entire body tense as they rounded the corner of the building where Sean half-expected a gang of pre-teens to be waiting, ready to beat Sean’s ass. Instead, there was one kid, slightly familiar and just as awkward-looking as Sean.
“Sean,” Leon said, pointing at the other kid. “This is Derek.” He looked at Derek. “Derek, Sean.”
Derek nodded, threw up a hand in something resembling a wave, then looked back at Leon.
“Is this what you called me over here for?” he asked.
In response, Leon took a step back and clapped his hands.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “I’ve been watching the two of you since school started. And both of you are going about this shit all wrong.”
Derek and Sean glanced at each other, raised eyebrows, then looked back at Leon.
“What thing?” Derek asked.
“Middle school,” Leon said, then pointed at the sky and smiled wide. “Life.”
Sean looked up at the sky too then back down at Leon, still having no idea what he was talking about. Leon sighed, shook his head and smiled, tsking like he was talking to two toddlers who just weren’t getting it. And Sean felt like one at that moment too, exposed to a part of the world he hadn’t experienced before, taking in new sensations and feelings and processing them faster than any conscious mind could keep up with. In the distance, a group of girls banded together, giggling and whispering, the waists of their shorts rolled up so the bottom barely covered the cusps of their butt cheeks as they watched the five-on-five game of basketball taking place near them. On the other side of the field, a group of guys kicked a soccer ball around, trying to see who could keep it in the air longest, while another group of girls crowded around Coach as he explained something, all of them obviously crushing out of their minds.
Leon stood between Sean and Derek, putting a hand on each of their shoulders.
“I don’t want an explanation,” he said. “I don’t care why you two are nerds.”
“I’m not—” Derek started angrily.
“All I know,” Leon said loudly over him. “Is that today it’s going to stop.” He turned to Sean, looked him up and down and smiled. “You’ve got friends now. Two of them.”
“I already have friends,” Sean said weakly, thinking about Kevin, the tiny Puerto Rican kid he sat with during lunch who spent the entire time analyzing the merits and pitfalls of the hentai (Japanese anime porn) he copped from his older cousin, getting pissed when Sean didn’t know what the hell he was ranting about.
“Friends the same age as you,” Leon continued, ignoring Sean. “Friends with most of the same classes as you. Friends who have your back, who will fight with you, fight for you. Friends with the same goals as you.”
Leon paused after this last part with his mouth half open, nodding and looking at each of them like he was waiting for a response.
Sean glanced at Derek.
“What goals?” he asked.
“Pussy,” Leon said triumphantly, then shrugged. “And other things. But mostly pussy.”
Up until that point, Sean had never met anybody that blunt before, and was immediately uncomfortable. Leon either didn’t notice or didn’t care though, just patted Sean on the back and stared at him until Sean finally looked him in his eye, then nodded and repeated:
Everything after that was basically a blur, as Leon started giving Sean and Derek the details on where they’d meet the next morning, where Leon sat during lunch and with whom—an impressive roster including two cheerleaders, a star soccer player, a starter on the basketball team, and the resident graffiti artist—and the entire time Sean kept thinking this guy is going to fuck us over, this is some kind of sick joke, somebody’s going to come up behind me and get me in a headlock any minute now.
But nobody ever came, and nothing bad happened. And when they walked back into the locker room, talking and laughing—Sean and Derek sufficiently relaxed and totally open to a potential attack—still nobody came and nothing bad happened. And as the bell rang and Leon pounded Sean and Derek’s fists and disappeared into the sea of other students filling the hallways, Derek and Sean glanced at each other like they’d both just seen the same vision of Big Foot. They tried to do the same fist pound that Leon had given them, but it was awkward in a way it hadn’t been with Leon around. And Sean knew then that Leon would be the glue that held that little group together.
It wasn’t until way later that night that Sean realized Leon had stolen his Game Gear. He gave it back the next day—telling an irate Sean that he’d “just borrowed it, bro, that’s what friends do”—but Sean never really knew if that was the motive behind their initial encounter. And he still doesn’t. It makes Sean wonder sometimes what would have happened if he hadn’t had the Sega Game Gear on him that day. Whether or not Leon would have just gone on being himself, apart from them. How different Sean’s life would have been in the long run.
He thinks about things like that a lot actually, especially of late. Sean remembers even conjuring up something resembling anger at Leon’s funeral, the emotion peeking through the cracks of drug-induced apathy and leading Sean to curse Leon’s name while standing next to his grave after everybody had left, holding a half empty six-pack of Bud Light with the faint sound of pills in a bottle clacking against each other in his pocket.
The emotion was and is always short-lived though. Regardless of how they met, Leon was Sean’s best friend, almost as much a brother to him as Marcus is.
But still—Sean thinks now as he drives the last load of his things to his parents’ house, away from what is now Derek and Kristina’s apartment—people meet and bond in the weirdest ways sometimes. And you can never seem to know when and where it will happen.
Or when and where it will abruptly end.
Lauren opens her eyes to the vaulted ceiling in her bedroom and waits for reality to push her dreams back into oblivion. Justin lies next to her, on the inside so that the wall blocks him from rolling off the bed. His foot twitches a little against her thigh, his thumb jammed in his mouth up to the palm. She wants to touch his face and hair, but she’s afraid she’ll wake him up, and she’s not ready to be Mommy right now. Right now—7 am—is her time.
Lauren’s bedroom looks exactly the way it did when she moved out four years ago, which is to say that the Usher poster from his Confessions album is still above her dresser, the bulletin board next to her door is still plastered with pictures from her senior homecoming, prom, and graduation, and the reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is still framed above her desk. Her bookcase is still filled with all the books she read in high school, and her closet still holds all her pep-rally t-shirts, party dresses, and formal gowns. It’s a regular blast from the past in here, only the past wasn’t all that long ago. So what she feels in her old bedroom isn’t simple nostalgia. Lauren remembers these moments in her life, some of them so vividly that they still hurt or excite her almost as much as they did back then.
This is the primary reason she hasn’t set foot in this room more than she’s had to ever since she had Justin. Because it’s hard to imagine herself as a married mother when she’s in here. In here, she’s still eighteen, getting ready to start FIU and upset that she couldn’t go out of town for school. Back then that was her primary problem: having to go to college in her hometown. She wishes that’s all she had to worry about now.
It’s been a week since Rick stopped calling.
Two days ago he came to pick up Justin for the night and Lauren hid in her room, feeling like a teenager all over again while her mom took care of getting her son out to his father. Lauren doesn’t know what her mother said to him during that interaction, but there was a bit of yelling from what she could hear, and then suddenly her mom was in the room with her.
“You shouldn’t be letting your son leave with him,” she said, and Lauren could almost see steam coming from her ears.
“He’s Rick’s son too, Mom,” Lauren replied, peeking out the window and watching Rick’s Mustang pull out of the driveway. “I can’t keep them apart.”
“Like hell you can’t,” she said. “He’s not a good husband, what makes you think he can be a good father?”
Lauren turned to her, crossing her arms and studying her mother’s flushed face.
“Those two roles are not codependent, Mom,” she said.
“They are one and the same,” her mother said, and at that point Lauren knew her mom wasn’t just talking about her and Rick anymore.
Lauren paused for a moment, considering whether or not she wanted to move forward with this conversation.
“Dad was an amazing father, Mom,” Lauren said finally, a lot louder than she intended. She immediately regretted it when her mother looked at her like she’d just spit in her face, then stormed out of the room. Lauren spent the rest of the night and most of the next morning waiting for Rick to drop Justin back; partly because she missed her son, partly because she knew Justin’s presence would be the easiest way to get her mom talking to her again.
Lauren felt bad about bringing up her father, at first. But part of her felt like her mom deserved it for making such an inane suggestion. No matter what’s going on between her and Rick, she would never deny Justin his father. It’s not like Justin did anything wrong, and she doesn’t see why this situation should affect him any more than it has to.
With all the commotion going on these past few weeks though, it’s only these early morning moments that have allowed Lauren to do any serious pondering on the subject of her and Rick’s estrangement. And through all the thoughts, the only viable conclusion she’s come to is she’s not actually mad at Rick. Not anymore at least.
It’s almost like—with that slap she gave him in his boss’s office and the subsequent encounter at the apartment while picking up her clothes—she exhausted her rage.
Truth be told, even when Lauren smacked him, the only thing she was really mad about was the humiliation. There’s an element of pride involved in being in a committed relationship, pride that’s battered when one of the people involved chooses to look outside of the relationship for intimacy. It hurt Lauren to know that there was something unsatisfactory about a relationship she was a part of. It seemed then, in some deep part of her psyche, that there was something wrong with both of them that had allowed her husband to be alright with the notion of infidelity. Not just him.
It’s not like Lauren’s delusional though. She doesn’t think for a second that this is her fault. But she also knows Rick, and he’s not a bad guy. Dim, but overall normal. Which means—as she’s figured out over the past couple of weeks of introspection—that Rick probably feels the same way about his life right now as she does: like three years ago they both fell into something neither one of them particularly knew how to handle. And now they’re both suffering the consequences of inexperience.
Lauren watches Justin sleep some more, then stares at the ceiling, then it’s back to Justin again, all the time wondering where this is all going. She can’t stay living in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house. Not with her son and no plan for the future. She wants to figure this out. She has to figure this out. More than anything.
The feeling of being pressured rises in Lauren right then, bringing her stomach up with it, and within seconds she feels like she’s in a rollercoaster drop, everything inside her turning into zero-gravity mush. It’s an oddly familiar sensation, and before she realizes what’s going on, she’s in the bathroom, bent over the toilet and hacking up the remains of the grilled chicken and mashed potato dinner her mother cooked last night. She lies on the bathroom floor moaning for another minute before—as abruptly as it came—the nausea disappears, replaced by an icy stone of recognition in her gut, which she puts in a very tightly sealed box of denial.
Lauren returns to her bedroom and—careful not to wake Justin—lies on the bed again. The nausea returns a few minutes later, but she closes her eyes and wills it away, along with the feelings and thoughts, focusing on the fact that she has to start getting ready for work in a few minutes.
Soon Lauren gets up, gets dressed, wakes Justin, gets him dressed, goes downstairs and says good morning to her mother, pretends to eat a bagel (but really just takes one bite, gags, then discretely tosses it in the trash), feeds Justin, then says goodbye to her mother and son and walks out the front door.
Lauren does all this without letting on that anything’s wrong. Because there isn’t anything wrong, she tells herself. She drives to work on US-1, listening to Power 96 and nodding her head to the music, turning the radio up when her thoughts try to intrude. When she reaches work, she walks inside and back to the pharmacy—smiling and waving at Steve and Janice, the morning cashier—then puts on her coat and sits in front of the fresh stack of prescriptions. She doesn’t indicate that there’s anything different about her, because there is nothing different, aside from the estranged husband. And she’s got that under control.
About an hour after sitting on her stool, another wave of nausea hits her again and she leaves a pill bottle half-full on the counter, speed-walking into the bathroom and barely making it to the toilet before she’s bent over it, dry heaving. Only then does the padlocked box of denial get blasted open. Without a word to anybody—not even so much as eye contact—Lauren walks out of the bathroom, up to the family planning aisle, grabs the first pregnancy test she sees and locks herself back inside the same stall she just threw up in. The same stall she took this same brand of pregnancy test in three and a half years ago.
Ten minutes later the stick in her hand is sporting two blue lines, and she can’t help but think how it’s the indicators in people’s lives that affect them the most. When she reminisces on the upheaval that was her first pregnancy (her mind’s hasty addition of the qualifier “first” to her last pregnancy is not lost on her), the most emotional moment that comes to mind isn’t the nine months of expanding belly, or the swollen ankles, or the mood swings, or the warmth of the epidural, or that final wonderful release as Justin came into the world.
When Lauren looks back on that time period, it’s those two lines on the pregnancy tests that pop into her mind. She remembers sitting in the bathroom then as she is now, hands shaking faintly, the white tiled floor a stark contrast to the bright blue lines glaring up at her and telling her so many things she didn’t want to hear. She remembers thinking that it seemed so unnatural for two simple lines—mere geometric symbols—to be able to have so much power.
And here she is again, sitting in the bathroom at her job staring at the same lines that are effectively screaming at her, you did it again!
Lauren ponders getting another test, just to be sure. But she’s suddenly so, so tired, and really there’s no point. She knows it’s true. She knew the moment she threw up earlier this morning. In fact—now that she thinks about it—she’s knows for days. All the signs were there: sore breasts, chocolate cravings, peanut cravings, rum and raisin ice cream cravings, and a newfound fascination with Everybody Loves Raymond (she hates that fucking show, yet every time it’s on now—which is seemingly 24 hours a day on one channel or another—she finds herself drawn to it, even if it’s just to criticize it, which totally stresses her out and yet she can’t seem to stop).
Lauren walks slowly back out to the counter where the prescription she was filling sits waiting. Ironically (to her, at least) she notices it’s for Cialis, the main competitor of Viagra. She brushes the tan tablets with the index finger of her latex-gloved right hand.
At the register, there’s an old woman purchasing her prescription. Lauren watches her grab her receipt and waddle away, wondering what she sees when she looks back at the landscape of her life. If she can even see the landscape, if it’s even that organized in retrospect or if life always remains this conglomeration of images and emotions with no order or meaning other than the moment at hand. Lauren doesn’t know which thought is more depressing.
Sean’s face pops into Lauren’s head and suddenly she’s thinking about their encounter, about the one night almost a month ago when she’d been his and he’d been hers. She tries to remember if he used a condom but all she can seem to remember is the left corner of his mouth, the way it rose first when he smiled, slowly leading the rest of his mouth into the expression. She’d like to think her basic safety instincts would’ve kicked in no matter how inebriated she was, and that she would’ve forced him to wear protection. But she knows herself, and she was drunk and pissed off. Anything could have happened, as evidenced by her sleeping with Sean in the first place.
And besides, regardless of how the situation played out, the fact remains that she’s pregnant. Which is the only fact that really matters.
“I’m pregnant,” she whispers.
“You say something?”
Lauren jumps, turning to Steve whose face looks sickly against the whiteness of the walls and counters and tile all around her in the pharmacy, the bleached cleanliness of it all.
“Nothing,” she says, fighting back another wave of nausea.
Steve raises an eyebrow and turns back to his computer. By the register, Janice is flipping through the latest issue of US Weekly and Lauren’s struck with a huge sense of déjà vu. Just days ago—hours ago, even—she’d been staring at that same magazine and worrying about her and Rick’s future, how Justin would take it in the long run if Rick and her remained separated. Now she’s wondering what she’s going to do for the next eight or so months, all thoughts of Rick’s infidelity dashed from her mind, almost like an unrelated joke made in the moments after a tragedy. All irrelevant now, nothing mattering but what’s growing inside her. Again. She can feel the paradigm shift happening even now, her anger subsiding, giving way to a familiar protective instinct.
Lauren drifts through the rest of her workday, and before she knows it, she’s back at her mother’s house, standing in the kitchen with her purse slung over her shoulder, watching her mom as she sits with Justin at the dining table and tries to get him to eat cut up pieces of barbecue chicken without smearing sauce all over his face and hair (which Lauren’s already told her mom is impossible and if she doesn’t want to clean barbecue sauce out of a toddler’s hair she shouldn’t put barbecue sauce on the toddler’s food, but her mother loves to act like she didn’t give birth to and raise two kids of her own).
Seeing her in this position though, Lauren can’t break the news to her. The scene is too lovely, almost heartbreaking in a way. Lauren’s mother loves being a grandmother to Justin, and Lauren loves being his mother. She doesn’t want to take any attention away from that right now.
Her mother notices her and turns, smiles. Lauren smiles back.
“I’m going to take a shower,” she says.
“Ok, baby,” her mother says, plastic spoon floating in front of Justin’s face. “Everything okay?”
Justin giggles and Lauren watches him with a smile painted painfully on her face.
“Fine,” she says. “Everything’s awesome.”
“That’s good,” she says absently, turning back to Justin. “Relax a little, I’ll finish up with him down here.”
Lauren nods and heads upstairs to the bathroom, stripping down to nothing and standing under the showerhead. She turns the faucet on, then keeps twisting it until the water is piping hot, her skin turning red, steam rising and filling the bathroom, blocking out everything like darkness. Eventually she can’t tell if she’s crying or if the heat’s just irritating her eyes. Either way, it hurts. Either way, she doesn’t want to get out of the shower. Ever. She wants to let the hot water get hotter and the bathroom get steamier until she’s enveloped in a comfortable cloud of nothingness.
But things don’t happen like that in real life. Ten minutes after she gets in the shower, she hears Justin wailing outside the bathroom door, and she knows it’s Mommy-time.
Lauren towels off and gets dressed, grabs her son and goes to her room to sit with him in front of the TV and watch Spongebob. After a few minutes, she leans towards him and touches the side of his head. He looks up at her with sleepy eyes and a smile. Lauren smiles back, pulling him closer to her.
“Baby,” she says, caressing the back of his head. “I’m pregnant.”
Because the first person she wants to tell is the only person she knows for a fact won’t judge her. Justin keeps smiling, reaching up and touching her cheek. She closes her eyes and feels his tiny fingers brush against her skin, willing back the tears she knows will only scare him away.
Ten AM Saturday morning, Yellowman (reggae artist who got his name from being an albino black dude; you ever see an albino black dude, you’ll know where the “Yellow” in “Yellowman” comes from) suddenly blasts from the living room into Sean’s dreams, blaring so loud he damn near pisses himself as he falls out of bed and bangs his head against his night stand.
Jumping up—wearing nothing but his underwear, sleep lines crisscrossing his face—Sean storms into the living room and there’s his dad, hairy paunch out with his heavy mustache twitching every few seconds as he chews on a toothpick. He’s in his underwear too, TV on mute, ESPN highlights flashing across the screen while he messes around on his phone (Sean had to have gotten it from).
His dad ignores him for a minute and Sean can tell he’s trying not to smile. Sean is definitely not experiencing the same issue.
“Morning,” his dad says finally.
“Really?” Sean says, and his dad ignores him so Sean turns away, but not before he sees the back end of his dad’s smirk.
Saturday mornings obviously haven’t changed around the Easton household.
Sean can paint the picture in his mind without even walking through the house: his mom will be in her room right now, cutting coupons out of the newspaper to prepare for her weekly expedition to the grocery store; Marcus will stay passed out until at least noon—Sean swears the bastard can sleep through a hurricane—and his dad will blast his goddamn music until Sean’s mom gets aggravated, comes out and tells him to cut the shit. And everybody listens to Mom.
Sean hasn’t lived in this house in six years, and yet the ritual still annoys the hell out of him.
He rubs his sleep-stung cheeks and walks into the bathroom, brushes his teeth, washes his face, then goes back in his room and throws on some shorts and heads to his mom’s room, where she’s got last week Sunday’s newspaper in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.
“Mom,” Sean says. “Does Dad have to do this every weekend?”
She looks up, scanning him from head to toe before looking back down at the newspaper.
“You shouldn’t be sleeping so late anyways,” she says.
No surprise there. Sean lies back on her bed and sighs, staring at the ceiling and listening to the snip of his mom’s scissors. He sits like that for a few minutes, thinking about everything until he finally flips onto his side and stares at his mom.
“You sure it’s okay that I’m here right now?” Sean asks.
“Where?” she says, slicing away an errant corner.
“Here,” Sean says, motioning around the room. “Back home.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know. I’m back home.”
“Still not getting what the problem is,” she says, shaking her head.
“The problem is I’m twenty-five,” Sean says. “And I haven’t lived at home since I was eighteen. And all of a sudden I’m back. Broke and in debt.”
His mom shrugs.
“Doesn’t that bother you even a little?” Sean asks.
“The debt part is a little worrisome,” she says. “But you can stay here until you get back on your feet.” She reaches over and pats his leg. “We’re glad to have you back, Honey.”
“You might be,” he says, glancing at the bedroom door. “I doubt Dad is.”
“Your father’s thrilled,” she says, sticking her bottom lip out.
Sean lets the silence marinate for a minute, acting like he’s calm even though inside he’s pissed as hell and has no idea why.
“So you’re trying to tell me you both are glad that I moved back here?”
“We missed you,” she says, smiling again.
“Yeah, but I’m your twenty-five year old reject son who can’t find a real job and had to move back in because he couldn’t afford his apartment anymore on a shitty bartender’s salary.”
“Language,” she says, clipping away another strip of paper. “And don’t call yourself a reject.”
“I just don’t know how you guys could actually be happy I’m back here,” he says.
“I just told you,” she says, and the tone of her voice indicates she’s getting aggravated. “We missed you. What’s your problem?”
“I just,” Sean says, then groans. “It shouldn’t be okay. You guys shouldn’t be happy. Nobody should be happy. I should be hearing about how this isn’t right and I’m irresponsible or something. But I’ve been here for weeks now and you guys haven’t said a word to me about it.” Sean pauses, then adds quietly, “you’re making it too easy.”
“Well,” she says. “You’re responsible enough as far as I see it. You went to school, got your degree, and now times are hard so you need our help.” She lowers her scissors and looks at him over the top of her glasses. “That’s what family’s for. We’re helping. We’re happy to.”
“My degree,” Sean says, realizing suddenly where the anger’s coming from and knowing he’ll never be able to explain it to her in a way she’ll understand. “Right.”
“Have you been looking into the graduate program?” she asks, glancing at the calendar on her bedside table. “Deadlines are coming soon.”
Sean stares at her and tries to say something, but he knows anything that comes out right now is going to start an argument, so he just shakes his head, hops up and walks out of the room intending to go reason with his dad when Marcus’s room door opens and he walks in front of Sean.
“Dude, stop,” he says.
“I know what you’re doing,” he says. “You’ve been at this shit for days.” He gives me a pleading look. “Let it go, man. Before they come to their senses.”
Marcus’s eyes are level with Sean’s, and he raises an eyebrow, nodding in the direction of Sean’s room. Sean grunts and walks past him, pausing for a moment and considering going to argue with his dad anyways. He glances back at Marcus who’s still standing there with that pleading look in his face, so Sean rolls his eyes and walks into his room, slamming the door and leaning against it. Glimpsing his guitar, he picks it up and plops down on the bed with it lying across his chest and starts strumming out Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” grumbling to himself until the motion of his hands holding the pick and pressing the strings finally calms him down.
Sean’s old bedroom’s been transformed from his dad’s office back to almost exactly the way it was before he left for college, complete with bed, desk, dresser, and TV stand, as if his parents had known he would eventually have to move back in and have just been biding their time. Sean looks around and starts to get aggravated again, so he looks back at his guitar, switching fingers to a new chord and playing Nirvana’s “Lithium.”
For a couple of weeks now the guitar’s been the only form of consolation he’s had. The only time he’s really been happy is with it in his hand, or while he’s at his computer searching Google for song tabs (song tabs: numbered method people use to transcribe their favorite songs; basically each finger is numbered 1-5 and put on six lines divided into cross sections which correspond with the string and frets. When you first see a tabbed song, it looks like a cross between piano notes and a math problem) and tips, learning about power chords and strumming techniques and generally playing until his fingers are close to bleeding, letting them blister and heal then messing them up all over again.
But even now Sean can tell this will eventually lose steam. He still loves it at this moment, and he’s gotten so used to the feel of the polished wood against his stomach that when it’s gone, he feels naked, and not in a good way.
But Sean’s getting restless. There’s something about his newfound hobby that deserves more than just him lying around strumming 90’s grunge and punk hits. Something growing, something that was planted in him over a year ago at Leon’s funeral. A desire for something more than the norm, something that could make him feel like he’s actually doing something with his life.
That’s the true source of his anger, now that he thinks about it. He’s not doing anything significant—hasn’t done anything significant, ever; never even had the ambition to do something significant—and nobody seems to give a shit but him.
Sean sits up, stares at his guitar, the strings already duller than they were when he bought the thing. He brings his right hand up to his face, stares at his fingertips then rubs them across his cheek, the rough calluses scratching against his skin.
Just learning to play the guitar isn’t going to be enough. Every douche at FSU with a bag of weed and a pair of sandals had a guitar when Sean was an undergrad. There’s nothing unique about it. But, Sean thinks, there are unique things a person can do with a skill like that. The thought pushes the epiphany he’s been on the verge of having for days now closer to the point of realization.
Sean jumps off the bed and hops over to his computer, opening up iTunes and checking through the massive number of playlists he’s assembled: music from over 800 musicians, everything from hip hop to R&B to reggae to rock band after rock band: Alien Ant Farm, Foo Fighters, Slipknot, Korn, Yellowcard, tons more. Music he’s listened to, practically studied. But what Sean focuses on is the playlist at the bottom of the screen, titled “Songs I’ve Learned.” Twenty songs on the list, and steadily growing.
With this much background in music, it’d be stupid not to utilize it in some way.
And the only way Sean sees to do that is to start a band.
His eyebrows rise and the smile that breaks across his face is so wide it hurts.
“I’m going to start a band,” he says out loud, then looks down at his guitar and proceeds to belt out the shittiest version of Everclear’s “Santa Monica” ever played.
Ok, first he’s going to learn how to play his guitar without sounding like that.
Then he’s going to start a band.
Sean stands up and walks out of his bedroom, goes down the hall to his brother’s room and knocks on his door. Marcus yells over his music for him to come in and Sean steps into a room that’s darker than a homeless dude’s asshole, with the exception of the one black light in the corner, the purpose of which seems to be to show just how disgusting his brother’s room actually is. Sean looks at the clock over his brother’s TV: one in the afternoon. The sun’s trying to peek through Marcus’s blinds, but he’s got the damn things taped shut against the wall surrounding his window.
Marcus’s sitting at his desk, on his computer, Internet Explorer open to Dictionary.com, techno music blaring from his speakers. Sean’s guessing these are his obsessions of the week. Or day. Or hour. Last Tuesday Sean came in here to chat and Marcus was blasting Kid Cudi and downloading pictures of that girl from Big Bang Theory in a bikini.
Marcus turns the music down, glancing at Sean then back at his computer.
“Nothing,” Sean says, nonchalantly. “I’m starting a band.”
Marcus scratches his chin, mouth open dumbly.
“A band?” he says.
“Yeah,” Sean says. “A rock band.”
“I get the concept,” he says. “With who?”
“Haven’t figured that out yet.”
“What’s the name?”
“I don’t know,” Sean says. “Whatever.”
Marcus taps his lip, thoughtful, then rolls his eyes.
“Fine,” he says. “I’m in.”
“Yeah, right,” Sean says, laughing with a snort.
Marcus gives him a hurt look, and Sean can’t tell if he’s serious or not.
“You can’t even play anything,” Sean says.
“Yeah I can.”
“Really?” Sean says. “What?”
Marcus points at the computer.
“Your computer,” Sean says.
Marcus nods and Sean squints, confused.
“You can play your computer,” Sean repeats. “Is that supposed to make sense?”
“You do realize this is 2013, right?” Marcus says, chuckling.
“Still not following,” Sean says, scratching his head.
“You ever heard of dub step?”
“Is that what this crap is?” Sean says, pointing at his speakers.
“You are such an old fuck,” Marcus says.
“Dub step,” Marcus says. “Drum and bass. House music. Electronica. Half of the music you listen to all the time. Trent Reznor made like an entire Nine Inch Nails album in his freaking basement by himself using mostly computer programs.”
“You listen to Nine Inch Nails?” Sean says, curling his lip.
“Yeah,” he says, shrugging. “Sometimes.”
“I can’t even begin to explain how before your time that is,” Sean says.
“Fuck you,” he says. “You listen to the fucking Beatles, and that’s before Mom’s time.”
“The Beatles are timeless,” Sean say, straight faced and serious.
“My point is,” Marcus says, waving Sean off and motioning towards his computer speakers, the techno music still playing on low volume. “Half the guys that make this shit have never played an actual instrument in their life. It’s all electronic today.”
“I have absolutely no idea how to do any of that,” Sean says.
In response, Marcus turns to his computer, clicks the mouse and the music shuts off, then he clicks it a couple more times and a program opens up on his screen with a bunch of lights and switches and a sound wave monitor on top. Marcus glances at him, smiles then presses more buttons and soon there’s the booming of a bass drum. He nods his head to the beat, presses another button and a snare drum pops in, then a cymbal, and soon it’s like an orchestra’s playing through his speakers. He adds in some other sounds, piano music and Sean thinks he hears a flute and finally he holds his hand up.
“Ok, ok,” Sean yells. “I get it.” Marcus turns off the music and Sean puts his hands down. “You taught yourself to do that?”
“It’s a computer program,” he says. “Not much teaching involved. You press a button and it makes a sound. Cut the middle man out, you know?”
“The middle man being somebody playing an actual instrument,” Sean says.
“It’s official,” Sean says. “We’re not in the same generation.”
“Fuck you,” he says.
“You can actually play that thing?” Sean asks. “Like…live?”
“Hook it up to some speakers and I don’t see why not.”
Sean sits back, cracks his knuckles. The thought is intriguing. It’s not like Sean knows any local musicians. And he’s not Trent Reznor. He wants to do this, but he can’t do it alone. Marcus is his brother. If he can’t trust him to take this seriously, he can’t trust anybody.
Sean thinks about that for a second and comes to the conclusion that he can’t trust anybody.
“Fine,” he says. “You’re in, but you’re only playing the drums. I need to find somebody else to play bass. I’m not going to be the one idiot in a two man band playing guitar while you’re back there conducting a fucking symphony.”
Marcus opens his mouth to retort but Sean’s phone rings. He pulls it out and doesn’t recognize the number. Pressing Talk, he puts the phone to his ear and, somehow, he knows who it is even before he hears her voice.
“Hi, Sean,” she says. “It’s Lauren. Listen…we need to talk.”
This past month is there in Lauren’s mind when Sean says hello. Lying on her bed at her mother’s, listening to Justin downstairs as he giggles at whatever her mom’s doing, Lauren thinks about how long it’s been since she spoke to Sean, and it’s all she can do not to hang up and forget it all.
“Lauren,” Sean says skeptically. For a second she’s humiliated by the idea that he might not remember who she is. It was a one night stand after all. She wouldn’t blame him. Then recognition enters his voice. “Lauren. Hi, hello. What’s up? Wow, how are you?”
There’s an obvious energy in his voice which calms her for some reason.
“Fine,” she says. “Listen, can we meet up?”
“Meet up,” he repeats.
“Yes,” she says. “To talk.” She opens her mouth to elaborate, but she’s got nothing so she stays quiet.
“Talk,” Sean says, and Lauren finds herself getting aggravated. Like…he should know why she’s calling goddammit.
“Yes,” she says. “Talk. Hang out. Catch up.”
There’s a long moment of silence after that, and she’s actually scared for a second that he’s going to turn her down. She can’t really tell, either, if she’s scared because she needs to tell him that she’s pregnant or if she’s scared because she doesn’t want to be rejected. The feeling’s odd, almost exhilarating.
“Ok,” he says finally. “When?”
“Are you free tonight?” Lauren asks.
“Uh, well.” He makes a clucking sound with his tongue. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, yeah. I’m free.”
“Ok, where do you want to meet?” he asks.
“You called me,” he says, chuckling then quickly adding, “Don’t you have somewhere?”
“No, not particularly.” She pauses. “Wherever’s most convenient for you. I’ll meet you there.”
“Ok,” Sean says. “You know T.G.I.Fridays in the Falls?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Eight o’clock ok with you?”
“Yeah,” Sean says. He sounds very tired, and Lauren wonders for a moment what’s been going on in his life recently. She wonders if there are any developments he’s had to deal with in the past month since their little tryst that would maybe rival her own trials and tribulations. She doubts it, but it would be interesting to know either way. She almost asks him, and imagines circumstances where she wasn’t going to this restaurant just to tell this stranger she’s pregnant with his baby.
In the imagined situation, she’s meeting up with him to tell him about who she is, who she wants to be and who she thinks he can be for her, hoping to hear the same things back from him. The thought is pleasant but depressing, a melancholy consideration she brushes away like crumbs found from an amazing meal eaten long ago. She doesn’t know Sean, but she realizes now what his initial appeal to her was: the newness and freeness he represented. Sean has his own problems, undoubtedly, but he isn’t beleaguered by the same issues Lauren is. Which automatically made—makes—him an attractive prospect.
But now, tonight, he’s about to be beleaguered.
A whole heap of beleaguered.
Lauren hangs up and lies on the bed for what seems like forever, quarter-sized clouds drifting across her vision in the otherwise flawless Miami sky. Eventually Justin waddles into the room and tries to climb on the bed—a feat which could prove disastrous—so Lauren stands, picks him up then goes downstairs to act like the decent, heartbroken daughter she’s supposed to be, all the while mentally preparing to completely change the life of a man she barely knows.
Sean hangs up the phone and stares at it until Marcus clears his throat.
“Who’s Lauren?” he asks.
“Who?” Sean says, too loudly, then shakes his head. “Nobody. Just—some girl. This girl I met. A while ago. Don’t worry about it. What were we talking about?”
Marcus eyes him suspiciously, amused.
“You were talking about calling Derek and asking him to be in our band.”
Sean opens his mouth to tell Marcus to go fuck himself, but Marcus is looking at him so innocently he can’t. Sean frowns, turns away. Of course he’s already thought of Derek, like five seconds after he thought of the band. Ever since, he’s been pushing the idea away. Sean really doesn’t know any other musicians though.
Derek’s been calling Sean every other day since he moved, trying to hang out and act like they’re still the same type of friends they were before he kicked Sean out of his own apartment. Sean keeps saying there’s no way in hell he’s letting this slide, but the longer he’s in his parent’s house and enjoying the benefits of not having to worry about rent, the less pissed he is at Derek. Which is, in itself, pissing him off.
“No,” he says to Marcus. “No way in hell.”
“Bro,” Marcus says, leaning back in his chair. “Get over it.”
“No,” Sean says, aware he sounds like a brat.
“I’m glad he kicked you out,” Marcus says.
“I’m glad to hear,” Sean mutters.
“Come on, Sean,” Marcus says, throwing his hands up. “You needed a change. Everybody saw how screwed up you were, Derek was just the only one who did something about it.”
Sean thinks about his family having conversations about him being screwed up and frowns, clenching his fists.
“So you all have been talking behind my back too?” he says.
“Who doesn’t talk behind people’s backs?” Marcus sighs. “I hate when people say that. It’s so dumb. It makes it sound like such a bad thing, but everybody can’t be everywhere all the time, and people talk. It’s like”—he shrugs and leans forward in his chair—“just what people do. You think I don’t know Mom talks to you about me whenever I’m not around?”
Sean opens his mouth to retort but Marcus keeps staring at him, never breaking eye contact. Sean finally turns away, shaking his head.
“Sometimes,” he says. “You are too fucking smart for your own good.”
“Impossible,” Marcus says, grinning and turning back to his computer. “Call Derek, man. And let me know when you want to practice.”
Sean heads back to his room, picks up his guitar and puts the strap around his neck. He’s about to play when he decides instead to just call Derek now and get this shit over with.
Sean picks up the phone and dials, and the moment the phone rings he realizes he’s more nervous than he’s been in a very long time, more nervous than he was five minutes ago when he was on the phone with Lauren.
Derek answers on the third ring, sounding cautious.
“Hello?” he says.
“Hey,” Sean says.
“Hey,” Derek says.
The moment of silence that follows is so oppressive it makes Sean’s skin prickle, and he racks his brain for something to say, some sort of segue into a conversation.
“You want to play bass in my band?” he practically yells.
“Sure,” Derek says.
Sean hears something fall in the background and the phone lets out a bunch of static like Derek’s fumbling around with it, then he gets back on the line.
“When do we start?” he asks.
Sean thinks about it for a second.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “Ten AM, my parent’s garage.”
“Cool,” Derek says.
“Thanks,” Sean says.
Long pause, then:
“Good to hear from you, bro.”
“Yeah,” Sean says, nodding. “You too, bro.”
Sean hangs up and—with all that potential drama avoided—his mind goes right back to Lauren, and it finally hits him that she just basically asked him out on a date. Turning out to be a better day than he originally thought when he fell out of bed an hour ago.
Sean turns to the large mirror above his dresser, flexes his arms and smiles. Then he really looks at himself—like, really looks at himself—and his face drops. He’s wearing FSU basketball shorts and he’s shirtless. The skin on his legs is ashy, like there’s a layer of chalk dust from knees to ankles. There’s a stain—pizza sauce, he thinks—on the bottom left corner of his shorts about three inches in diameter. He’s way past the 5:00 shadow point of facial hair, and since he stopped putting a razor to his head almost a month ago, he actually needs a haircut now.
Sean sighs, grabbing his car keys and walking into the living room. His dad’s still sitting there with the TV on, though the music’s off now. He’s passed out, taking his weekly Saturday afternoon nap, which always seems to happen like three hours after he wakes up, which kind of makes Sean wonder why the hell he woke up in the first place.
His dad opens his eyes as Sean opens the front door, startled.
“Where you going?” he asks.
“Out,” Sean says. “Barber shop.”
His dad nods, looking back at the TV and turning up the volume, like he never stopped watching. On screen they’re showing NASCAR highlights.
“Have fun,” he says.
“Loads,” Sean says, and even though he says it sarcastically, he’s starting to think he actually will.
Lauren pulls onto US-1, then immediately cuts across traffic to the left turning lane for a u-turn to go back and hide in her mother’s house, cars honking and flashing lights and swerving around her. Her leg jitters against the brake, her fingers involuntarily tapping against the steering wheel until she realizes what she’s doing and forces herself to stop.
Closing her eyes, she tells herself that this will not kill her. She’ll be fine. Sean is another human being. Just a man, a man who has every right to know he might be a father in roughly eight months. Only then is she able to put her right blinker on, get out of the turning lane and continue down US-1 towards her rendezvous point.
Despite the pep talk, Lauren almost turns back two more times on the way. In the end it takes her an hour to get from Coral Gables to The Falls, where the T.G.I.Fridays in question is located, normally a twenty-minute drive.
The closer she gets to the restaurant, the more scared she gets, and the more she berates herself for thinking she could go through with something like this. She can’t tell a complete stranger she might be pregnant with his baby. She hasn’t even been to the doctor yet. What if her instincts are wrong, along with the test she took? What if she tells Sean and he laughs and tells her he’s infertile or something? How embarrassing would that be?
But deep down she knows there’s no alternative situation here. She’s pregnant. With Sean’s kid. And he has to know.
So by time she pulls into the parking lot outside of Friday’s, Lauren’s a wreck. She sits in the car a couple of minutes, taking deep breaths to ward off the panic attack she feels about to take her over. It takes a moment, but she finally calms down enough to open her car door and walk towards the restaurant.
Lauren immediately spots Sean sitting by the entrance, where there’s a small crowd of people milling around waiting for tables. She didn’t consider that on a Saturday night the restaurant would be packed. Which means she and Sean are going to have to sit out here and make small talk until they get called inside. The thought makes her want to go sit back in the car and hyperventilate some more.
Sean turns towards Lauren and smiles as she approaches, a disarming move which momentarily alleviates her nervousness. As she approaches she gets a flash memory of their one night together, particularly the feel of his hands on her waist. The image hits her in a jarring manner, and she stops a few feet in front of him and completely forgets Rick, her mother, even her unborn child and imagines that they’re really here to innocently probe each other’s minds. A shiver travels up her spine, and she tries to offset the awkwardness of it all by throwing out her hand to shake his just as Sean’s leaning in to give her a kiss on the cheek. He pauses and his face drops a little. She opens her mouth to tell him it was a mistake, that she wasn’t trying to be impersonal. But it’s already happened and he takes her hand lightly in his own, shakes then drops it.
“Nice to see you again,” he says.
“You too,” she says, pulling a lock of hair back behind her ear and studying a couple across the walkway. “How long’s the wait?”
“I put us down thirty minutes ago,” he says. “They said thirty-five minutes, so it should be soon.”
“You’ve been here for thirty minutes?” she asks, her eyes widening, face heating up.
He shrugs, smiles.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I—there was a lot of traffic on the way here.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “No big deal.”
“This is embarrassing,” she says. “I’m never late. I hate when people make me wait. I’m sorry. Seriously, I’m not that—”
“Lauren,” he says, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Sean lets his hand linger before moving it and shuffling his feet nervously. The spot on her shoulder tingles.
“So,” Lauren says. “How have you been?”
“Fine,” Sean says. “You?”
They both nod then go silent. Lauren wonders if she should just tell him now, get it over with so they can move out of this realm of awkwardness and into the territory of serious conversation about how to move forward. She opens her mouth just as the intercom comes on, a speaker right above their heads letting out a high-pitched whine before settling into a hum.
“Easton, party of two,” the hostess says tiredly.
“That’s us,” Sean says, walking towards the door. Lauren follows him inside where the hostess puts them at a table near a window overlooking the walkway leading from the entrance of the mall to the restaurant. Sean opens his menu immediately, biting his lip with determination. Lauren opens hers, staring at it and not seeing anything. After a while the mood at the table gets that oppressive quality bad dates have when neither person has anything to say. Then Lauren reminds herself this isn’t a date, and she has a lot to say. And she needs to do it before she loses her nerve.
“So.” Pause. “How have you been?” Shit. She already asked him that.
“Good,” he says again.
“Good,” she says. “Good.” She sounds like a parrot.
“You ever had the Jack Daniel’s chicken strips here?” he asks.
“Uh,” Lauren says opening the menu. “Can’t say I have.”
Sean whistles and nods, turning a page on the menu. Lauren decides, again, to dive right in and tell him, and opens her mouth with every intention of doing so, but he cuts her off before she even starts.
“You surprised the hell out of me by calling.”
Lauren makes a little grunting noise in the back of her throat that she’s pretty sure she’s never made before and closes her mouth. She opens it again, closes it again, then smiles nervously.
“Really?” she says. “Why’s that?”
“It’s just, you know,” he says, shrugging. “It’s been awhile since…” He trails off into silence and smiles sheepishly. Lauren nods.
“Yeah,” she says. “It has. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Sean’s eyes glaze over, his mouth open a little, and Lauren wonders if something in the way she just said that sounded bad.
“Not like, anything bad,” Lauren says, a lump rising in her throat. “I mean, it depends on your opinion I guess. This is just so awkward, I know.” She takes a deep breath. “But there’s something I think I should tell you. Not a sure thing, but still something I wouldn’t feel right not—um—sharing. I mean, there’s still a small chance it’s all a mistake, which would be really embarrassing so I’m hoping it’s not a mistake because then I’d look like an idiot for calling you out here.” Lauren pauses, looks at her fingers and furrows her eyebrows. “Not that I want this or anything, that’s not what I mean—or that I don’t want it, it’s not that either, not like it’s a horrible idea, it’s just that, I don’t know, I have to tell somebody, and considering the circumstances, you seemed the right first choice.”
Sean’s mouth’s still open a little, and Lauren waits for him to respond. Then she realizes that Sean’s not actually looking at her but behind her. Lauren turns and sees a woman and man standing at the hostess stand. The young hostess grabs a couple of menus and walks in her and Sean’s direction, the couple following. She sits them down at a table about five feet away and when Lauren looks back at Sean, his head is buried in his menu. The woman crosses her legs, thigh exposed. She’s attractive, Hispanic, long curly black hair and dark features. Her lips are plump and her back arches a little as she opens her menu. The woman, noticing the attention from Lauren, glances at her, then at Sean, her eyes immediately lighting up with recognition.
“Sean?” she says.
Sean raises his head and does the worst fake look of surprise Lauren’s ever seen and she suddenly wishes she hadn’t called him. She wishes to God she hadn’t called him.
“Maria?” he says.
“Wow,” Maria says. “Funny seeing you here.”
“Yeah,” Sean says, then laughs much too loud for the occasion. There’s a long pause after, during which he nods with a half-smile on his face, switching his stare from Maria to her date and back. Lauren clears her throat and Sean jumps, like he just remembered he’s sitting with somebody. Maria touches the hand of the man she’s with.
“You remember Lowell,” she says.
“Hi, Lowell,” Sean says, barely giving Lowell a nod before looking back at Maria. “How have you been?”
Maria looks at Lauren and smiles.
“Fine,” she says. “I’m over at Baptist now, started my residency.”
“Really?” Sean says, and he seems genuinely surprised. “Wow. That’s awesome. Baptist…that’s major.”
“Yeah,” she says, holding a hand out in Lauren’s direction. “I’m sorry, this is kind of awkward. I’m Maria.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lauren says, barely touching her hand before moving away, continuing to watch Sean squirm and wondering more and more what she’s doing sitting here right now.
“And you are…” Maria says.
Sean’s eyes flit towards Lauren for a second, and in that moment Lauren realizes this is all a joke. She doesn’t know what she thought she would accomplish by coming out here. She knows absolutely nothing about this man, and she doesn’t know anything about the baby supposedly growing inside her. He’s obviously got enough going on in his life. She doesn’t want to get involved in his business. She has too much business of her own to deal with.
“Leaving,” she says abruptly.
Everybody stares at her as she picks up her purse.
“Excuse me?” Maria says, surprised.
“I’m leaving,” Lauren says, standing. “I’m sorry, Sean. I’m—this was a mistake. I have to go.”
Lauren speed walks out of the restaurant, heading back to her car where she sits for five minutes before finally starting the engine and driving towards Coral Gables and her mother’s house.
Halfway there, she suddenly veers across traffic to the turning lane, makes a u-turn then turns right on Kendall Drive, heading west until she’s sitting in front of her sister’s place. She watches the bedroom window in Caitlyn’s third floor apartment and wants to go up and talk to her, but she doesn’t know if it’s such a good idea. She knows her sister, knows how she’ll react.
“You slept with the bartender that night?” she’ll ask, making it sound like a felony.
“And you let yourself get pregnant?” she’ll add.
Then she’ll rant and rave about how Lauren should come to her first whenever she has some big news. She’s family, she’ll say, and she’s the first person Lauren should trust with anything. Then she’ll calm down and start scheming, trying to figure out the potential financial and emotional advantages Lauren can gain from her current situation, and Lauren will turn every idea down no matter how tempting it sounds because, in all honesty, she doesn’t want to turn into her sister or her mother. She actually likes to forgive, to forget, to move on and live an amicable lifestyle. The alternative is just so tiresome.
So instead of getting out of the car and going upstairs to talk to her sister, Lauren pulls out of the apartment complex and heads back east on Kendall Drive until she’s outside of her apartment, the same apartment she’s lived in with her husband and son for the past three years.
When she knocks on the door, Rick answers and, for a moment, seems to have no idea who she is. It’s only a second before the recognition courses through him, but in that second of doubt Lauren feels so vulnerable that she doesn’t really care if what she’s doing is right or wrong. She doesn’t want to be alone with this anymore. She can’t deal with it all by herself. Rick’s her best friend, has been for years now, and neither she or him are okay. His eyes are sunken and he needs a shave. It’s been a month since she left him holding his reddening cheek at his job, and it seems as if he’s lost ten pounds and all his energy in that time. It never occurred to Lauren that this whole thing could be taking as much a toll on him as it’s taking on her. The thought upsets her a little. He brought this on himself. Lauren didn’t ask for any of this, so why does he look worse than she does? A taint of pure red rage tickles the back of her consciousness which, surprisingly, makes it a lot easier for her to take a step towards him and meet his eyes.
“I’m pregnant,” she says.
Rick’s eyes slowly widen. She can’t really take the rawness in them, so she focuses on a dried, blackened gum stain on the concrete, poking at it with the toe of her shoe.
“You’re pregnant?” he asks.
Lauren nods and feels an instant weight lift from her. It’s been such a burden to keep this thing to herself, nobody to tell but her toddler son. Her eyes well up and she wills the tears away. She’s doing a pretty good job of it too until she sees Rick’s bare feet step up to the gum stain and feels his arms surround her.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I got you. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Lauren sinks into him and lets go and it just feels so good—so very, very good—that she has no problem shoving aside the rush of guilt that momentarily threatens to consume her as she steps inside the apartment and closes the door.
Maria sits one table away from Sean during their encounter at Friday’s and she looks better than she did when they were together, which Sean didn’t even think was possible. It’s almost like being with this new guy—Lowell the guy with a presumably steady income and job security and a workout plan and what-the-fuck-ever else he’s got—actually made her physically healthier. Not just healthier, but brighter. Like the sun’s been shining on her more. Not that she’s tanner than she was, but her skin just seems like it’s glowing from the inside.
Sean sees Maria’s face, her high cheek bones and eyes—sea-green with specks of hazel—her dark hair lit up in the lights overhead. Sean sees it all and doesn’t miss her so much as miss what being with her used to mean about him. About who he was. You’re somebody if you can keep a girl that looks that damn good. Not just good, but happy.
Something happens to him then, this crumbling in his stomach. Like the past month or two of trying to dig his way out of the hole inside himself just caves in and he’s suddenly falling in the middle of an avalanche. At that moment, the only thing he really wants is his TV and his Xbox, Guitar Hero and ESPN, some music, a comfy set of boxers and a twenty-four pack of Bud Light.
He glances at Maria again. Make that a thirty-six pack.
“I’m leaving,” Lauren says, finally catching his attention for about five seconds before she stands up and practically runs out of the building, and Sean finally remembers he didn’t come here by himself. He gets up and acts like he’s going after her, but when he reaches outside he watches her climb in her car and drive off, making no move to follow. Instead, he turns away from Friday’s, away from the parking lot, and just starts walking, head down.
When he looks up again, he’s sitting on a stool in a hole-in-the-wall bar across the street from the mall, a place he’s always seen but never actually been to before. The bartender’s an old dude with a handlebar mustache, and he looks annoyed as hell standing in front of Sean. Sean turns his head so his ear’s facing him.
“You say something?” Sean asks.
“I asked if you’re drinking anything,” he says. “Can’t sit here if you’re not drinking.”
Sean looks around and there’s a couple of people playing pool in the back, an old guy and slightly-younger-but-still-way-older-than-Sean woman wearing a tiny skirt and giggling every time the old dude says something. Sean looks back at the bartender.
“Shot of Patron,” he says. “And a Bud Light.”
“Draft or bottle?” the bartender says.
“Draft,” Sean says, then shakes his head. “Actually, fuck it. Two shots of Patron. And a Crown. On the rocks.”
The bartender raises his eyebrow, takes a step back and pauses, looking more amused than annoyed now.
“One of those nights, huh?”
Sean grunts and the bartender walks away, coming back a moment later with the Patron shots and rocks glass of Crown Royal. Sean takes both shots, chugs the whiskey, and orders another round, closes his eyes for a second and when he opens them again, he’s on the floor of his old bedroom in what is now Derek and Kristina’s apartment. The room’s been converted into an office, two desks and two computers and two of pretty much everything. His jaw is killing him and he feels like somebody just hit him in the back of the head with something hard and flat.
Sean turns to the door and there’s a dress shoe about a foot away from him. Derek’s standing in the doorway, looking both pissed off and confused.
“Did you throw a shoe at me?” Sean croaks.
“Sean,” Derek says quietly, shaking his head.
“Stop screaming,” Sean whispers, closing his eyes.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Sean says, then groans and rolls over. “I don’t fucking know.”
“Why are you on the floor?”
Sean opens his eyes a slit, scowls at Derek, then closes them again.
“Come on, man,” Derek say. “You gotta get up, act like you just got here.”
“Why?” Sean asks.
“Bro, if Kristina knows you came here in the middle of the night, she’s going to flip her shit.”
“It’s only been, like, a month since I moved, you know that, right?”
“Don’t start, Sean,” he says. Derek helps him up and Sean winces, his head feeling like his brain is rolling around in his skull, snapped from all the synapses and connective tissue and other vital stuff. He stumbles into the living room and falls onto the couch, grabs the TV remote and turns it on right as Kristina walks out of the bedroom wearing a huge t-shirt that comes down to mid-thigh, her eyes puffy and closed to slits. She looks at Sean, shoots Derek an annoyed glance and walks back into the bedroom.
“Sean,” Derek hisses. “You gotta stop doing this shit.”
“You drove last night?” he asks.
“Derek,” Sean says. “What part of ‘I don’t remember’ do you not understand?”
Derek walks over to the window and pulls the blinds aside then chuckles and shakes his head, which Sean assumes means his car is parked in its usual position in the parking lot: crooked across two spaces. He walks over to Sean with his hand out.
“Give me your keys,” he says.
Sean almost says no, but he doesn’t have the energy or the pain threshold to fight with Derek right now so he reaches in his pocket, pulls his keys out and tosses them at him. Derek searches the key ring until he finds the spare apartment key, takes it off and puts it in his pocket and tosses Sean back the rest. Derek stands there studying Sean, and after a moment Sean looks up at him, squinting through the sunlight coming in from the living room window.
“I thought you said you were chilling out on the drinking,” Derek says. “Playing your guitar, straightening things out.” He pauses. “Starting a band.”
“I am,” Sean says.
“What happened last night?” he asks, and when Sean shoots him a glare he puts his hands up. “I mean, who’d you drink with?”
“Nobody,” Sean says, thinking back to his last coherent memory of the night before. “I saw Maria. With the new guy. Lowell.”
What follows is the longest, tensest moment of silence ever. Sean flips through TV channels and stops on ESPN, puts the TV on mute, and suddenly he’s thirsty.
“Where?” Derek asks.
“Friday’s,” Sean says. “I was there with Lauren.”
“Yeah,” Sean says, giving Derek a look. “How’d you remember that?”
“What?” Derek says, then shrugs, suddenly looking nervous. “Wasn’t that long ago.” He waves Sean’s question off and points at him. “What were you doing there?”
“Lauren called,” Sean says. “We met up, Maria and the new guy showed up and—I don’t know what happened. I froze. Lauren got pissed and left and I went to some bar across the street and next thing I know you’re throwing a shoe at me.”
Derek shakes his head and walks over, sitting on the couch next to Sean. They watch TV in silence for a few minutes—some highlight clips of the Miami Dolphins—before Kristina calls for Derek. Derek stands and pauses, looking down at Sean.
“Guess we’re not practicing today anymore?” he asks.
“Uh, fuck yeah we are,” Sean says, standing and wincing at the slice of pain that runs through his forehead. He steadies himself on the arm rest. “I need to take my mind off this shit. What time is it?”
“Eleven. You work today?”
“Supposed to,” Sean says, holding a hand to his head. “Don’t think I’m going to make it though.”
“I don’t know how they haven’t fired you yet,” Derek says.
“Me either,” Sean says, rubbing his face.
“Whatever,” Derek says. “I need to know if you’re serious about this band thing or not.”
“Might be the only thing I am serious about right now,” Sean says, then shakes his head at himself when he realizes it’s the dead truth.
Lauren arrives at her sister’s apartment right after work, knocking on the door with shaky hands. Caitlyn opens it a moment later, takes one look at her sister’s face, clenches her fists and lets out a loud groan.
“You fucking got back with the prick!” she yells. No preemptive hello or probing questions to make sure she’s correct in her assumption, just flat-out, red faced anger.
Instead of answering, Lauren walks past her, heads to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water, wishing it was a glass of wine.
Twenty minutes later, when Caitlyn’s finally calming down, Lauren riles her up all over again.
“You’re pregnant?” she screams, then before Lauren can respond, “Why the fuck would you let that cheating douchebag touch you after what he did?”
And that moment, Lauren knows, is the moment when she should be choosing to divulge the full truth to her sister, let her know about Sean and their awkward encounter, her subconscious decision to just brush all this under the rug and focus on the impending months of pregnancy. Instead, she just shakes her head.
“I didn’t,” Lauren says, leaning back on the leather couch in Caitlyn’s living room and glancing around the disheveled apartment.
“You didn’t have sex with Rick?” Caitlyn says. “So what, is this an immaculate conception situation?”
“Not after Natalie,” Lauren says, avoiding Caitlyn’s eyes. “Maybe before.”
“So that’s what it is then?” Caitlyn asks. “You found out you were pregnant and went running back to him, just like that?” She nods and drops the corners of her mouth so that she looks exactly like their mother when she’s giving Lauren exactly the same look of contempt.
“I didn’t go ‘running back to him’,” Lauren says, standing and pacing the room, agitated, running her hand through her hair and chuckling. “You wouldn’t understand, Caitlyn. You have no idea what—God, how could you understand?” Lauren stops and glares at her. “I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea. You’ve never even been pregnant.”
The moment the words come out, Lauren wishes desperately that she could pull them back in. Caitlyn crosses her arms and Lauren closes her eyes.
“Caitlyn,” she says. “I didn’t mean it like—”
“So, what you’re saying is, I don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman because I haven’t let some—asshole inject me with his baby batter?”
Lauren’s never heard anybody describe the act of conception as if it were junkies shooting heroine. Any momentary remorse she feels is gone in an instant.
“You really need to get over yourself,” Lauren hisses.
“You need to get over this,” Caitlyn shouts. “You don’t need him. You don’t need anybody, Lauren. You keep selling yourself short, and I hate it. You should have come to me if you really wanted support. I’d have helped you.”
“Like you’re helping now?” Lauren says, laughing sardonically.
“No,” Caitlyn says quietly. “I’m obviously not. But I want to. I’m trying, Lauren.”
“Yeah, well,” Lauren says, surprised at the emotion in her sister’s voice. “You’re doing a horrible job,” she says weakly.
“You’re fucking impossible!” Caitlyn yells, throwing her hands up.
“And you’re the easiest person to talk to,” Lauren says, grabbing her purse. “I have to go.”
“Fine,” Caitlyn screams as Lauren storms out of the apartment, heads downstairs and hops in her car, sitting there with both hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles look like chalk. After a moment Lauren chuckles, the gesture reaching everywhere on her face but her eyes.
“Well,” she says. “That went well.”
Lauren wants to go home so bad, and pulls out of Caitlyn’s apartment complex with every intention of going to the apartment to hang out with Justin and Rick and pretend none of this happened. But part of her knows that she’s going to have to face her mother at some point. Might as well get it all over with.
On the way to her mother’s house, Lauren tries to calm down by telling herself that the impending conversation won’t be as bad as she thinks it’ll be. By time she pulls into her driveway and parks behind her mom’s Range Rover, Lauren’s convinced herself this will be true, that her mother won’t be nearly as hostile as Caitlyn was.
Then she gets out of the car and walks up to the porch, moves to unlock the front door and her mother throws it open before she can get the key in the lock.
Standing there with her hands on her hip, overwhelming disappointment in her eyes, Lauren’s mom looks like a character from The Wizard of Oz. Lauren sighs.
“Caitlyn called,” Lauren says, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead.
“He betrayed your trust,” she says. “Gave what was rightfully yours away to another woman. And you’re going back to him?” She makes a sound in the back of her throat and mouth, something between a suck and a grunt. “Are you being willfully stupid?” she asks, then pauses, as if Lauren’s actually supposed to answer that.
“Mom, I know what I’m doing.”
“I’ll tell you why you’re going back,” she says, pointing a finger at her. “Because he’s got you brainwashed with the only tool of persuasion he and every other man on this planet knows how to utilize.” She crosses her arms again. “His penis.”
Lauren swears it’s like déjà vu.
“Mom,” Lauren says. “I just left Caitlyn’s apartment. Consider that, please.”
“Why’d you do it?” she asks.
Lauren opens her mouth to answer, and this is another one of those moments, the moment she could choose to confide in her mother. She could choose not to withhold information like she did with Caitlyn and tell her mom everything right now, about Sean, about the one night stand, about the real reason she went back to Rick. But she can’t. She knows that, no matter what she says, her mom will still disagree with her decision and make her feel horrible about it. And Lauren’s already having an easy enough time doing that on her own.
And right then Lauren realizes that’s all she really wants right now: for somebody to tell her what she’s doing isn’t wrong. But she knows she won’t get that from her mom, or anybody. Because what she’s doing is wrong. So very wrong. So Lauren shrugs. That doesn’t seem to satisfy her mom, so Lauren groans and leans against the wall next to the door, the heat and humidity from the clear, sunny sky pelting her skin. Lauren wishes it would start thundering and lightning right now, anything to provide a distraction.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Lauren says finally, quietly. Part of the truth.
The disappointment on her mother’s face dissolves into maternal concern at her words.
“You’re never alone,” she says. “I thought you knew that.”
“Yeah, well,” Lauren says, chuckling and looking at the sky. “Sometimes it feels like the exact opposite.”
They both stand there silently, looking off into the distance. After a moment her mother moves out of the doorway and Lauren glances at her before stepping inside, expecting the tirade to continue in some form or another. But instead her mom puts an arm around Lauren’s shoulders and pulls her in for a hug. And the feel of it, the familiar smell of her mother’s skin, the general sense of safety that accompanies those arms, is almost worth the past hour or so of hassling from her and Caitlyn.
Marcus comes riding up on his bike from down the block, stopping in front of the open garage door and pointing at the two amps Sean’s got set up; one hooked up to his guitar, the other into Derek’s bass.
“Thought you changed your mind,” Marcus says.
“Nope,” Sean says.
“He’s serious then,” Marcus says to Derek.
“Why do you guys keep saying that?” Sean says. “Is it really that hard to believe?”
“Yes,” Marcus and Derek say simultaneously.
“Go get your shit, asshole,” Sean says, pushing Marcus towards the front door. Marcus grins and runs inside, emerging a few minutes later with an armful of equipment: the speaker system from his room, his computer, and a small TV dinner stand his parents keep next to the refrigerator. He sets up the computer on the stand and everything else on the floor while Derek tunes his guitar and Sean pretends to tune his, even though he hasn’t messed around with the tuning since a few weeks ago when he tried to put the guitar in Drop C based on some instructions he’d read on Google and it sounded horrible, resulting in him spending an hour trying to get it back to standard tuning.
Marcus finishes setting up and claps his hands together.
“All set,” he says.
“Cool,” Sean says, straightening his guitar strap around his neck. Derek strums a note on his bass and they all turn to face each other. Sean grabs a pick, raises his hand and pauses. After a moment, Marcus drops his head and chuckles.
“Am I going to have to be the asshole,” he says, slowly,” who asks what the hell song we’re playing?”
Derek stares at Sean and shakes his head and Sean pokes a string on his guitar, the amp letting out a loud twang.
“Shit,” he says. “Didn’t think of that.”
“It would help,” Marcus says.
“What songs do you know?” Derek asks.
“Only got a couple memorized,” Sean says, then his eyes get wide. “‘Song 2’ by Blur?”
“Never heard of it,” Marcus says.
“Yeah you have, everybody has,” Derek says, then nods at Sean. “Play.”
Sean takes a deep breath and turns away from them, closing his eyes and counting to three in his head before opening his eyes again and putting the pick to the strings. He gets through the intro with only one screwed up note then pounces on the distortion pedal and the amp does that screeing thing he loves and all of a sudden he’s rocking out. Head-nodding, foot-tapping type of rocking.
Marcus yells something behind Sean and he stops.
“Got it,” Marcus says, clicking around on his laptop. “Guitar Hero 5, love that song. Give me a second, let me get the drums right.”
“Knows it from a fucking video game,” Derek says, shaking his head. “Kids these days.”
“You got it?” Sean asks Derek.
“Bro,” Derek says, leveling his eyes at Sean. “I knew that song in my mom’s womb.”
“Gross,” Sean says, imagining Derek’s 60 year old mother and grimacing.
Marcus fools around with his computer some more then the intro bass drum and snares pulse from his speakers. Sean nods his head to the beat and lets it play for a minute, feeling the rhythm through the floor, rising from the concrete through his feet straight up to his head before he lifts his pick, arranging his fingers on the strings and slamming through the intro power chords. Derek joins in after a moment, his bass adding to the drums and hitting Sean in the chest, right in the middle, not on top of his heart but right next to it so he can feel it but it doesn’t hurt, just feels sweet and innocent and at the same time wicked and fucking erotic and—right on cue—Sean slams on the distortion pedal again and he swears the guitar hops in his hand, like it’s possessed, heating up as he strums through the chorus and closes his eyes, letting the beat wash over him.
And in that moment—in that deep part of his mind where imagination and reality blur—he sees Leon. Just the way he looked the night he died, standing in front of him and shaking his head solemnly, and Maria’s standing next to him with her hands on her hips looking pissed, and Lauren’s standing next to her, all of them upset for reasons he can’t understand. And Sean wants to care, he really fucking does. But there’s nothing in this moment but the music, so he closes his mental eyes too and turns away from them and everything and gives himself over to the vibrations as something releases in him, a clenched fist he didn’t even know was there.
They get through the song without a glitch and Sean comes up for air, closing the last guitar riff and letting it ring through the amp before turning to Marcus and Derek, his eyes blurry with tears. He turns away quickly before they see, just as the door that leads back into the house slams open, his dad stepping into the garage wearing a Polo shirt, jeans shorts, and a scowl.
“What the hell was that?” he asks. He notices Derek and nods. “Hi, Derek.”
“What’s up, Frank,” Derek says nonchalantly.
“We’re starting a band,” Sean says proudly.
“Started a band,” Marcus adds, grinning. “That just made us official.”
“In my garage,” their dad says.
“Where else?” Sean asks.
“I was in the bathroom,” he says, then scratches his ass. “You interrupted me.”
Sean shrugs and his dad rolls his eyes and walks back into the house.
“Might have to relocate,” Derek says.
Marcus scoffs and waves a hand in the direction his dad just walked.
“He’ll get over it,” he says.
“That didn’t actually sound half bad,” Derek says. “The song, I mean.”
“You ask me,” Sean says, nodding. “Sounded pretty damn good.”
“Only one thing,” Marcus says, scratching his head.
“What?” Sean asks.
“I’m not gonna be part of an instrumental band, bro,” he says. “That’s not even close to being cool. We need a voice.”
“I’m not fucking doing it,” Marcus adds.
“Your band, bro,” Derek says, pointing at Sean.
Sean sighs and raises his guitar like he’s toasting with a drink.
“Let’s hope all those drunken karaoke nights in college paid off,” Sean says.
“Wanna try that one again?” Marcus asks.
Sean glances at him, then at Derek, then nods, facing forward. Marcus clicks around on his computer again and Sean hears the beat in his head, visualizes the lyrics in his mind as he taps his feet, takes a deep breath and raises his guitar pick in the air.