Quarter Life Crisis: Step Four: Modification

-13-

Lauren feels Sean the bartender’s tongue against hers and can’t help thinking about it as if she’s not involved in the act, like it’s somebody else whose lips are pressed tightly against his. Yet, at the same time, she’s suddenly so aware of every part of herself; every pore and nerve and hair follicle, like every cell in her body has suddenly achieved consciousness. The whole situation is a wonder for Lauren, though she can’t really tell what’s exciting her more: him, the alcohol, or just the newness that the combination represents.

Either way, it’s happening.

Lauren can’t say she knew they’d end up back at Sean’s apartment when she asked him to hang out after work, but she can’t say she was completely oblivious to the possibility either. She can’t really say anything, actually, because she’s drunk and her tongue is currently occupying the space inside Sean’s mouth while he fumbles around with the keys to his apartment.

Sean gets the door open and Lauren pulls him inside, pushing the door closed behind them. From there they stumble to Sean’s bedroom where they fall back on the bed, Sean’s hands gripping Lauren’s waist, her shirt suddenly feeling so constricting and uncomfortable that she has no choice but to pull it off. She briefly thinks about Caitlyn and hopes Sean’s roommate was able to get her home from the bar okay, then Sean’s hands move from her hips to the front of her waist and she can’t think of anything anymore but him, his smell, his taste, the general feel of his arms grasping her like he’s in need. Like they’re both in need. Of what, she doesn’t know, but it feels good, the sweat and heat of it all, his skin against hers as they fall off his bed to the floor and she rips his shirt open, kicking her pants off then her underwear, flinging them across the room. Within moments she’s naked, and there’s a single second that she feels self-conscious before she looks Sean in his eyes and the drunken desire that’s there overpowers everything else and she pounces on him, digging her nails into his back as she straddles his waist, puts a hand between his legs, and puts him inside her.

Ever since sex stopped being painful—and yes, it hurt like hell the first couple of times, back during her sophomore year in high school with Max Klein, who Lauren swore up and down she was going to marry—it’s been like a dream for her. She’s sure it is for most people, but since she’s not most people it’s impossible for her to feel like there’s not something unique about her own experience. Even now, at twenty-four with a child and a husband who—up until a few months ago—she was regularly having sex with, she’s still in awe at how distinctive this moment is. Sean isn’t a supermodel, but he looks good naked, skinny but firm and different. There’s strength in his hands, coupled with this tenderness in his fingers as they touch her everywhere, like he can’t get enough of her skin. And Lauren can’t get enough of his, rubbing her hands across his broad shoulders and back, the freshness of the contours intriguing her.

By time they get into it—feeling out each other’s rhythm and moving in time to their breaths—almost every part of her is tingling, and the feeling mixed with the alcohol puts her into this reverie where she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. She assumes she’s being loud because at one point Sean puts a hand over her mouth and laughs, looking her in the eye as he does and using his other hand to grab her ass. She bites his palm and he pulls it away, hissing, then she bites his bottom lip and grins even harder on top of him until it feels like she’s about to explode. Then she does, a burst that she wishes would last forever and almost seems like it does.

Then, like a receding wave, it’s over, and she falls flat on his chest, breathing hard and suddenly so tired. And sure, she knows at that moment—lying splayed across Sean’s stomach and chest, the musky scent of sex slowly dissipating—that she should get up and figure out how to get back to her mom’s house to be with Justin, but she can’t really move right now so she closes her eyes for a moment, and when she opens them she’s lying on Sean’s bed, the early morning sun peeking through the blinds covering his window.

Lauren glances at Sean and he’s snoring lightly, and it’s not like he looks different than she thought he did. Yet still, she thinks about last night and feels a slight pang of regret. She’s still a little drunk, but sober enough to remember her car is back at Shambles. Therefore, she’s going to have to bite the bullet and go through the awkward experience of waking this man up and watching his face as he slowly remembers who she is and why she’s lying naked in his bed. Then she’ll have to smile and ask him for a ride back to the bar. She curses under her breath.

Lauren pokes Sean and he groans then rolls away from her, a fresh spot of drool gleaming up at her from his pillow. She rubs her temples, a dull pulse forming in her forehead. Sean’s alarm clock reads seven AM. She has to be at work in two hours and she’s sitting here butt naked, trying to figure out how to get back to her car. Self-conscious, she hops out of bed and grabs her clothes off a floor that’s littered with random stuff, mostly beer cans. Pulling on her pants and shirt quickly before Sean can get the chance to wake up and see sober what he’s already seen drunk, she heads quietly out of his bedroom and down the hall, past the living room where Sean’s roommate and some girl are whispering fiercely to each other, the girl pointing in the direction of Sean’s room. As Lauren passes, the girl sees her and rolls her eyes.

“See? That right there,” she says. “That is unacceptable.”

Lauren feels a prick of defensiveness and the resultant anger, and almost asks Sean’s roommate if he got her sister home okay. Her head is pounding though, and she doesn’t want to make anybody start yelling. So she steps out of their line of sight, stopping to listen to the back end of the argument.

“Babe,” Sean’s roommate says. “Calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” she hisses. “This shit needs to stop. You two aren’t children.”

“Hanging out with my friend on his birthday makes me a child?”

Lauren didn’t know it was Sean’s birthday. A faint smile touches her lips.

“When that friends is Sean, yes,” the woman says. “He needs to grow up, and so do you. We have no future if you’re going to keep pulling this all nighter bullshit, gallivanting around with him and God knows who else.”

Lauren starts to feel bad about eavesdropping, so she heads to the bathroom and locks herself in.

Inside, Lauren takes off her pants and shirt, puts on her underwear and bra then puts her pants and shirt back on. Turning to the mirror, Lauren scowls at her reflection, which very much reflects the night she had. Her mascara is smeared around her eyes and her hair is sticking out in eighteen different directions. She searches her pockets and finds a tie and throws the mop of hair on her head back into a frizzy ponytail, then washes all the make-up off her face. Eventually she looks as presentable as is possible given the circumstances and rummages through Sean’s medicine cabinet for some aspirin. Instead she finds an empty box of tampons and an empty prescription bottle of Zoloft for someone named Maria, and wonders if that’s the woman yelling at his roommate in the living room.

Lauren closes the cabinet and heads back down the hallway to Sean’s room, avoiding looking at the couple in the living room as she ducks inside and stares at Sean’s still-sleeping form.

Lauren surveys the room, noticing the single frame hanging crooked on the wall in the far corner: Sean’s Bachelor’s degree from Florida State. Psychology. Lauren wonders why Sean the Bartender has a degree in Psychology. Or, more accurately, why Sean the guy with the degree in Psychology is bartending at Shambles Bar and Grill.

Beneath the frame there’s a desk against the wall with a laptop and sound system. Below that, a guitar and amp sitting next to a Guitar Center bag. On the wall surrounding the frame—and on all the other walls in the room—are posters. Lots of them, all album covers: Puddle of Mudd, Blink 182, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross. Lauren doesn’t know how she didn’t notice them last night. A lot of variety, which is good, she guesses. Though it’s kind of odd for a man Sean’s age to have music posters all over his wall.

Behind his bedroom door’s an outdated Hooters calendar (figures) and she notices it about the same time she notices Sean’s awake, his eyes wide and confused and set on her. Lauren suddenly feels naked all over again, even though he’s the one with the bed sheet barely covering his bare butt which is a slightly lighter shade of brown than the rest of him. He pushes himself up a little and looks down at himself then back up at Lauren.

“Did I fall asleep like this?”

Lauren frowns. Definitely not the first question she expected from him. She shrugs.

“Wait,” Sean says, his eyes twinkling suddenly as he looks back into his memory bank. Lauren cringes a little, because she has a feeling he’s going to say something that’s going to take this awkwardness to a whole new level.

“I need a ride back to my car,” she says quickly.

Sean opens his mouth, then closes it and bites his lip.

“Okay,” he says finally. He hops out of bed and Lauren catches a glimpse of his flaccid penis. At the sight, she’s hit with a vivid flashback of the night, the sweat and movement and release, her on top, him on top, the floor, the chair, the bed. The memory’s not unpleasant, and her skin prickles a little. It’s odd though, like seeing a picture of herself five years ago and realizing how much she’s actually changed since then. Sean notices his nakedness and quickly pulls his pants on without putting on any underwear, tucking himself away before pulling his zipper up. Lauren points at his degree.

“So,” she says. “Psychology, huh?”

At that second, Sean’s room door opens and his roommate appears. He clears his throat and glares at Sean (who’s lacing up his sneakers and acting like he doesn’t notice somebody just barged into his room) before noticing Lauren.

“Hey, Lauren,” he says, flashing a smile. Lauren can’t remember his name so she just smiles and waves at him and he goes back to glaring at Sean.

“Sean, we need to talk.”

“Yeah,” Sean says, still intently focused on his shoes. “I have to drop her off at her car. I’ll be back in a little.”

The guy walks out without saying anything and Sean stands up, staying quiet as he walks out of the room. Lauren hesitates for a moment then follows him outside and a moment later they’re in his car with the radio on making their way through morning rush hour traffic back to Shambles. The parking lot is empty except for Lauren’s car, looking lonely and oddly sinful all by itself, as if anybody driving by would see it and know exactly what its owner was doing the night before.

They both sit outside the restaurant where their night began, the tension so thick it’s stifling. Lauren knows at some point she’s going to have to get out of Sean’s car and into hers, but she can’t seem to do anything to make it happen. She really wants to leave, go see her son and explain to her mom why she didn’t make it back last night. She turned her phone back on while they were driving to Shambles and the thing went insane with notifications: twenty text messages, twelve voicemails. All the texts were from Rick, along with eight of the voicemails, repetitive pleas for her to call him and let him know she and Justin are okay. The rest were from her mom, the first two telling her Justin’s fine but he misses her and Lauren should call and let her know what’s going on with Rick (and that she should reconsider getting Caitlyn involved). The last two were just repetitive: “I’m very disappointed in you, Lauren.”

If her mother only knew.

Lauren can’t leave right now though. She can tell Sean’s waiting for her to say something encouraging, so she smiles.

“I had fun,” she says, at the same moment she realizes she’s not lying.

“Me too,” he says. There’s another moment of silence, then he says, “We should meet up again, grab a cup of coffee or something.”

“That’d be nice,” she says. And honestly—seeing him in the daylight, his morning stubble and sadly intelligent brown eyes—it does sound nice. Which makes her feel even worse.

“Let me get your number,” he says, moving to take his cell phone out of his pocket. “I’ll give you a call.”

Lauren hesitates and Sean is quick. He catches it immediately and clenches his jaw, trying to hide the dejection that touches the corner of his eyes. Lauren immediately feels like shit because she doesn’t want him to get the wrong idea. She just really doesn’t want him calling at an inopportune moment. She doesn’t know when that inopportune moment could be, but current circumstances indicate that her future is going to be rife with them.

“Actually, don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’ll see you next time you come into Shambles. Or whatever.”

“No,” she says. “It’s not like that. It’s just…” Lauren pauses, runs a hand through her ponytail. “Things are complicated right now.”

“I bet.”

“Give me your number,” she says, pulling her cell phone out again. “I’ll call you instead.”

Lauren can tell he doesn’t believe her, but he gives her his number anyway. She’s about to save it under Sean, but changes her mind and saves it under Shambles instead. Just in case.

“I had fun,” she says again. She doesn’t know why. “Really,” she adds.

Sean just nods, looking like somebody who just found out their dog ran away. It’s cute, actually, that he obviously doesn’t want this to be a one night stand. Lauren can’t tell what she wants right now though, her mind too filled with thoughts of the consequences of last night. She hesitates for a moment before getting out of Sean’s car and walking over to hers then turning to wave at him, but he’s already driven off.

Lauren watches as Sean’s car fades into the distance and feels a pang of something in her gut. Guilt, maybe, or doubt about how she handled that situation. Sean didn’t do anything wrong. In his mind though, he’s probably wondering what horrible thing happened between last night and right now to warrant her being so standoffish. And it makes her want to call him and tell him the answer to that question is nothing. He did absolutely nothing wrong.

Instead, Lauren gets in her car, turning it on and letting it idle for a moment, pulling her phone out and dialing her mother. She answers on the first ring, which indicates that this is going to be an aggravating conversation.

“Where are you?” her mother asks.

“I’m on my way.”

“Where are you?” she repeats.

“I’m in my car. I just got in. I’m coming right now.”

“Rick called,” she says. She’s resorted to the form of communication where she lets her thoughts out in two to three word bursts; it’s a really passive-aggressive form of verbal abuse she likes to utilize when she’s disappointed in Lauren or Caitlyn. Talking to her when she’s like this is like trying to reason with Justin when he wants a toy he just saw on TV and Lauren has to tell him he can’t have it. Only he’s two and a half. Her mother’s forty-five.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Lauren says. “I lost track of time and fell asleep at a friend’s. It was a long night. I’ll be there soon.”

“Justin’s upset,” she says.

Lauren rubs her forehead and wishes there had been aspirin in Sean’s medicine cabinet.

“Put him on the phone,” she says.

There’s a muffled voice and some fumbling around and then Lauren hears a light breath on the line.

“Mommy?”

The sound of his voice strikes a chord and Lauren has to catch her breath.

“Hi, baby,” Lauren says.

“Daddy?” he asks, and Lauren feels that envy all over again.

“Daddy’s at work, baby,” Lauren says.

“Oh,” he says. “Miss you.”

Lauren pulls the phone away, squeezes her eyes shut then puts it back to her ear.

“I miss you too, baby,” she says. “I’ll be home soon. Put Grandma back on.”

More fumbling and then her mom comes back on the line, not saying anything, just giving a little grunt.

“Was he good?” Lauren asks.

“An angel, as usual,” she says, pausing. “Where are you?”

“Mom,” Lauren says, slowly. “I’m. On. My. Way.”

“Don’t get upset with me,” she says, sounding hurt. Lauren grinds her teeth.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Lauren says. “Ok? Sorry I left Justin overnight without telling you. I didn’t mean to inconvenience you.”

“It’s no inconvenience,” she says, her tone shifting. “I just want to know what the plan is. What are you going to do about Rick? This could be detrimental to Justin’s development. He needs to know what’s going to happen.”

“Justin will be fine, Mom,” Lauren says. “He’s two, he doesn’t need to know anything about anything.” Lauren pushes at her temples with her free hand, her headache starting to pulse, which she knows means it’s not going away anytime soon. “I don’t really feel like talking about this over the phone.”

“Well you have to talk about it sometime. If not with me then with Rick. Arrangements need to be made.”

“I know, Mom,” Lauren says. “Believe me, I know this. I’m late for work, I just want to change and be on my way. Can Justin stay with you again today?”

“Anything you need, baby,” she says, and the way she says it gives Lauren a bad taste in her mouth.

Lauren hangs up and is about to put her car in gear when everything sort of rushes up on her all at once: Rick, Natalie, Caitlyn, Sean the bartender, Justin, her mother, this hangover. And she can’t help it when she drops her head to the steering wheel and sucks in one deep breath then unleashes a scream that reverberates in her ear drums, turning the pulse in her head into more of a bang. When her voice gives out, she sits and waits with her head down, breathing deeply until the urge to scream again recedes back to that place where those types of outbursts lie dormant. Then she raises her head slowly, pulls down the visor, frowns at her flushed face in the mirror for a moment then reaches in the glove compartment and pulls out the makeup kit, applies some mascara and blush then tosses it all back in, turns the car on, and makes her way slowly back to her mother and son.


-14-

Sean stumbles into his room, falls face first onto his bed, and groans.

Rolling over he stares up at his degree, the medieval lettering stating that Florida State University was very proud to give him this Bachelor of Science in Psychology three years ago. Hanging in the back of the room, high on the wall so he can see it from almost every vantage point in the room. And for the life of him he cannot remember why he put it there.

Sean reaches over to his bedside table and grabs the first thing his hand touches—a red digital clock he got at Wal-Mart who-knows-when with batteries that died like six months ago—and throws it at the degree. The clock smashes off the wall about two feet to the right of the frame, falling to the carpet in a bunch of different pieces. Sean curses and shifts around to go clean it up, but the movement brings up a sudden whiff of Lauren’s perfume from the bed sheets and Sean pauses, sniffing the air and remembering last night (nice) and what just happened in the parking lot at Shambles (not so nice) and wishing he had another Wal-Mart clock to throw.

Sean pushes himself off the bed and stands in the middle of the room for a moment, then pull off his shirt, his shorts, his socks and shoes and tosses them all into a corner.

Back to basics.

He’s about to sit down and turn on the TV when his eye catches his new guitar lying next to his computer, the amp and all the accessories in the Guitar Center bag. All thoughts of one night stands suddenly fly out of his head as he slowly approaches the beautiful blue instrument, gently picking it up.

One minute later, Sean’s standing with a pick in his right hand, the guitar strapped around his neck. He spreads his legs a little, bending his knees and closing his eyes, feeling the slickness of the strings against his fingertips, taut like razor wire.

Sean takes a deep breath, raises his arm, and swings it down in an arc. A high pitched twang emits from the strings and he remembers the amp and feels his face heating up with embarrassment, even though nobody’s around to see exactly how much he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He spends the next fifteen minutes hooking up the amp to the guitar then unhooking it then hooking it back up the right way, and soon he’s back in the middle of the room with the guitar strapped across his chest, the guitar itself hanging in front of his pelvis, a pick in one hand and a plug in the other.

Carefully, Sean pushes the plug into the end of the guitar and the amp next to his foot lets out a screeee of feedback before humming quietly.

And just like that, he’s scared.

Of what?

He has no fucking clue.

He just knows that this all seems pretty heavy all of a sudden. He has no idea how to play this thing, yet he’s going to have to learn now to justify the amount of money he spent. Talk about pressure.

It blows Sean’s mind that he has no idea how to do something like play a guitar. How he doesn’t know how to do…anything, really. Sure, he grew up with video games and computers and TV teaching him how to do stuff easier, more efficiently, but when it comes to actually putting his hands on a tangible thing and making that thing do something else, he’s fucking clueless. He can read. He can write. In college he used both those skills to pass tests and get the degree that’s up on his wall. But reading books and passing tests isn’t really doing anything, unless you count learning to read and write as an actual act of doing, which Sean doesn’t because the majority of Americans can do both those things and, therefore, have relegated those actions down to the level of significance reserved for things like walking, or breathing. And yeah, Sean knows walking and breathing are actually pretty fucking significant, but they’re not things you’d stop somebody for just to compliment them on. You’d never see one guy look at another guy and say, “Bro, I didn’t know you could breathe. Awesome.” That would be stupid, and would likely get the man punched in the mouth.

But now, with the opportunity to learn something that requires actual doing, Sean feels like a kid again, adolescent and trying something out for the first time, all nerves and self-doubt.

Sean hears voices in the hallway—Derek and Kristina—then a moment later silence as Derek’s bedroom door slams shut. Sean waits a moment to make sure they’re not going to come back out before he steps over and closes his door all the way then turns back to the amp. Next to his TV there’s a large, cheap picture frame with a Limp Bizkit poster in it. At this angle, Sean can see his reflection and he looks weird with the guitar strapped around his neck. The distorted image forces him to notice features he’s never noticed before either: the shadows in his sunken cheeks, the thin vein pulsing on the right side of his neck, the uneven stubble on his head (instead of getting actual haircuts at a barber shop, the past few months Sean’s taken to using a razor and giving himself a two minute once-over every week).

Overall, Sean has to admit that he looks like a hot mess, especially standing here in his underwear holding a guitar. He smiles though, and it makes him look halfway decent, less like a homeless dude and more like somebody that a drunk, hot chick like Lauren would consider taking home. He looks even better smiling with the guitar sitting against his stomach. Not like the pretty-boy-rock-star-Lenny-Kravitz type of good, but more like that one guy from System of a Down, the lanky bass player with the braided beard and the small potbelly right above his waist line, only Sean doesn’t have a beard and he’s not pasty white and—once again—he’s standing in his underwear.

He takes a step back and prepares himself, taking a deep breath, holding it, then raising his pick hand again and bringing it back down in the same arcing strum motion. The amp lets out an explosion of sound that almost makes Sean fall over, cacophonous music notes erupting into the floor and vibrating up both of his legs and his pelvis.

And, to Sean, it sounds fucking beautiful.

About ten seconds later, there’s a bunch of hard foot-stepping coming down the hallway and Sean turns in time to catch Derek as he throws open the door then freezes, his face dropping in surprise, mixed with some fatigue. They have a tense standoff for a moment while Derek silently scans Sean’s room—not just the guitar and amp and Guitar Center bag but everything, including Sean himself, from head to toe, like he just realized he’s got a roommate and that there’s a lot more in this apartment than he thought there was and he’s wondering where all this furniture came from and how fast can he get it out.

“What the fuck is that?” he asks, focusing on the guitar.

Sean can’t help it.

“A dog,” he says.

“Seriously, Sean?” Derek groans.

“It’s my new guitar,” Sean says. “You like?”

Instead of answering, he catches Sean’s eye and glares.

“You know rent’s due in a week, right?”

“Yeah,” Sean says, shrugging. “I’ll work extra at Shambles.”

“We need to talk, Sean,” he says, rubbing his forehead.

“We are talking,” Sean says, then scratches his head. “What about?”

“I’m moving,” he says abruptly, then closes his eyes. “Or you are. One of us has to. I’m moving in with Kristina.”

There’s a long moment of silence, and Sean gets really self-conscious that he’s wearing nothing but underwear. Considering he’s spent the past year walking around his apartment in exactly this outfit though, this sudden insecurity is inexplicable.

“Excuse me?” he asks.

“I’m sorry, Sean,” Derek says, clenching his fists. “It’s just—you know the lease is up next month, right?”

Sean did not know this.

“Yeah,” he says. “So?”

“Well,” Derek says, scratching his elbow. “Kristina and I have been talking about it. And I know this was—is—your place and I’m not trying to push you out of it. I’m just saying, Kristina and I have decided to move in together. And we talked and figured with your, um”—he pauses, clearly avoiding Sean’s eyes, anger quelled and replaced with obvious guilt—“with your finances not being so secure, you’d probably be better off finding someplace cheaper and letting Kristina and I take over the lease here.”

Sean lets the words hang in the air for a moment, as if by not responding right away he can keep them from becoming reality for a little while.

“Really?” Sean says finally, forcing a smile that feels like a leer. “You guys come to that decision all by yourselves then? Good for you.”

“Come on, Sean,” Derek says, then holds his hands up. “Ok, you know what? I’m sorry. I went about this the wrong way. I didn’t meant to burst in here and throw this at you. It’s just been—a really long morning, and I’m hungover as shit and figured this might be the next best move for you.”

“Oh,” Sean says, his grip tightening on the neck of the guitar as he turns to fully face Derek. “Okay. This is for my benefit then? Well, I guess you two deserve some recognition, don’t you? Thank you guys. Thank you so fucking much. You two are in-fucking-credible human beings.”

“Sean, stop it,” he says. “We’ve been talking about this for a while now.”

“Behind my back,” Sean says.

“Not behind your back,” he says angrily, then shuffles around nervously. “Just—not when you were around.”

“Classic,” Sean says, laughing loud and exaggerated.

“Sean, seriously,” he says. “This isn’t working out and you know it. You need a change of scenery. I mean, look at you.” He sweeps his arm around the entire room, and Sean wants to punch him in the face. “You’re a mess, man. Have been since Leon. And Maria. And I get it, I really do. It fucked me up too, man. But this is ridiculous. Staying in this apartment with all these memories and feelings, drinking and smoking 24/7.” He glances towards his room and his voice elevates a little when he adds, “And bringing home random women who could be doing God knows what in here while we’re asleep.” Which is the moment Sean realizes this display is for Kristina’s benefit, which just pisses him off even more.

“This is bullshit, Derek,” Sean yells. “You’re Kristina’s bitch now? She makes decisions on what goes on in our apartment now?”

“It’s not her, Sean,” he says, not sounding convincing as he avoids Sean’s eyes again. “I want this.”

“No you don’t,” Sean says. “She’s forcing you into this, trying to take control. Just like fucking Maria did. They’re exactly the same.” Sean points at him. “Don’t fall for it, bro.”

“Sean,” Derek says, tiredly. He meets Sean’s eyes with his for the first time since he came in the room. “You really should have moved after you two broke up.”

“Fuck you!” Sean yells. Derek flinches, taking a step back. Sean takes a deep breath and steadies his voice. “This is my apartment. It was mine before you moved in and I will not leave just because you and your bitch girlfriend say so.”

“Don’t call me a bitch, Sean,” Kristina yells from the room.

Derek’s face turns red.

“Don’t call her a bitch,” he echoes quietly.

“I just did,” Sean mumbles. He knows it’s childish, but it feels good anyways.

Derek turns away, and Sean looks back at the Limp Bizkit poster, both of them standing on opposite sides of the room, the only sound coming from their heavy breathing.

“You’re right,” Derek says after a moment. “This was your apartment first. You and Maria’s, your fiancée at the time.” He turns back to Sean, and Sean turns to face him. “But then it wasn’t, and you guys just weren’t. Then it became our apartment, and then, for the past nine months, it’s been pretty much mine.” He points at Sean, Sean seeing his distorted finger in the poster’s reflection. “You don’t do anything around here, Sean. Everything you touch is filthy, and Kristina and I have been cleaning up after you for forever now. Your room looks like a homeless person squats here and you’re starting to look like an ex-con. This apartment isn’t a hideout, Sean. It’s a residence. I live here. I study here, I’m trying to make a life for myself here. I’m tired of making excuses for you.”

“Excuses for what?”

“You, Sean!” he yells. “Just—you.”

Sean suddenly wants to put some pants on. He feels like pants would give him some leverage in this argument. But he’s already been standing there in his underwear and is pretty sure putting pants on will only escalate things, like he’s putting on battle armor or something.

“You’re trying to make a life for yourself here?” Sean says. “What do you think I’m trying to do?”

“I don’t know, Sean,” he says. “Look, I know things have been hard for you, but there’s a point where you have to move on.” His eyes drift away from Sean’s and he runs a hand through his hair. “Kristina and I are moving in together, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I know you can’t afford this place on your own, and I seriously doubt you can find somebody to move in with you.”

Sean opens his mouth to refute the claim then thinks about the limited number of people he socializes with—none of whom he’d ever want as a roommate—and closes his mouth.

“Stop this, Sean,” Derek says. “Be practical. This isn’t an attack against you, bro. You need a change, something to jumpstart your life and get you back on track. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but I really am trying to help you. You cannot make anything of value happen while you’re living in this apartment.”

As he says this, he stares at Sean’s guitar, and Sean’s never had somebody—with one look—take something he’s felt so strongly about and instantly make it look like the dumbest idea he’s ever had in his life. It takes everything in him not to come running at Derek with the guitar held over his head, ready to bring it down on his fucking skull.

Sean clenches his jaw and turns away again, looking at the Limp Bizkit poster again. His position’s shifted so all he sees in the reflection now are his hands and the guitar, his face and torso hidden in shadows.

“Alright,” Sean says finally.

There’s another moment of silence, Sean staring at his guitar’s strings and flipping the pick from finger to finger.

“Sean,” Derek says. Sean can see him in the reflection of the poster and he raises a hand, holding up his index finger and shaking his head.

“Just,” Sean says, pausing to swallow thickly. “Give me a week or two. Then I’ll be gone.” He drops his hand.

There’s nothing but silence in response, and Sean’s thinking Derek’s left until he hears him say:

“I miss him too, bro.”

Sean turns back to the door, but Derek’s already gone.


-15-

Rick’s called Lauren a total of twelve times in the past nine hours, which makes her anxious the entire way back to the apartment after work, her mission objective to pick up some of her and Justin’s things and get out, stealthily. She wants to call Rick’s job to make sure he actually went in today and she doesn’t have to see him when she gets to their place, but she doesn’t want anybody to tip him off.

So, instead, Lauren speeds all the way across town and pulls into their apartment complex with a screech, scanning the area frantically for Rick’s Mustang. She doesn’t see it anywhere so she parks and hurries upstairs. Each step she takes heightens the tension squeezing her guts until she feels like she’s about to puke, her palms sweaty, face in an involuntary grimace.

Inside, though, the apartment is empty. Lauren closes the front door, sighing with relief and taking a moment to get her bearings before she heads to her bedroom, pulling out two suitcases from the closet and filling one with her things and the other with Justin’s. She heads downstairs with one of the bags and throws it in her car trunk then heads back upstairs for the other, walking briskly but confidently, glad to be taking some initiative, to be doing something for herself.

Lauren’s thinking she’s completely home free as she’s wheeling the second suitcase out of the bedroom when there’s a clicking noise from the front door. The doorknob turns slowly and the door opens, and Lauren finds herself stuck in the hall like a deer as Rick walks in. He seems surprised to see her at first. Then he isn’t. His face drops, as do his keys. The sound of them hitting the ground startles her from her daze, frozen in place with one foot raised off the ground right outside their bedroom door.

“I’m getting some things,” she says, reflexively.

Rick doesn’t respond, stepping aside instead as Lauren hurries towards and past him. She avoids his eyes, covertly surveying him out of the corner of hers. He looks extremely old at this moment and—she admits—she feels sorry for him. Really sorry, to the point where she almost turns and hugs him and tells him everything is going to be okay. And she also admits, she misses him a little too, and on some level wishes she could forget what she saw, climb onto the couch next to him and curl up under his arm.

Then the feeling switches and she suddenly feels dumb for feeling sorry for him—for wanting to do anything for him, actually. He brought this on himself.

Lauren stops in the doorway and turns to him, opening her mouth even though she has no idea what’s going to come out.

“Justin’s been asking about you,” she says finally. “You should probably come pick him up for the evening.” Pause, then—with sarcasm—she adds, “When you get a chance.” Lauren tilts her head to the side a little, squinting at him. “You can explain what’s going on.”

Rick nods and opens his mouth to respond, then closes it and nods some more. Lauren leaves him standing in the doorway, still nodding, and the entire way downstairs she keeps expecting him to follow. In fact, part of her wants him to, though most of her just wants to get out of here.

Lauren gets to her car without incident and throws the last suitcase in the trunk, getting behind the wheel. She sits there for a moment, her hands shaking involuntarily. At one point she sees Rick pull the venetian blinds to the side and peer down at her. There’s a moment of eye contact between them which breaks the spell that’s come over her. She puts the car in gear, squealing out of the parking lot, her teeth grinding the entire time.

Click to Read Step Five