Like Falling

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The night is all Anthony’s. I see him slouching against a wall, looking cool beneath the purple string lights taped up behind him. He’s watching Nate make an idiot of himself in front of Queen of the Ringlets with the white sequin top on. The poor kid twitches he’s so nervous and splatters punch all over her water bra cleavage. He goes right for her chest, trying to wipe it away but of course that’s only making it worse and his jaw comes unhinged as he notices what he’s doing. “I’m sorry! That was—I mean I—I’m sorry!” he sputters. I’m just cracking up now. I’ll have to go congratulate him later. But I’m not really paying attention past then; I’m keeping up with Anthony’s expressions. A slow smirk creeps its way onto his mouth and his shoulders jerk up and down so I know he’s laughing. He’s not all broody tonight. That’s good for me.

I saunter over to him, only stumbling once on an empty plastic cup and smashing my knee on the edge of the couch. But no one noticed so it’s okay. Letting my hand slither across the back of his neck and rest on his opposite shoulder, I say, “Hey Ton.”

He’s smiling until he recognizes my voice and then his face goes slack, blank, like a whiteboard wiped clean. “Gina,” he deadpans. He hasn’t even turned to look at me. Honestly? Why does he hate me? He takes my hand off his shoulder and pulls me around in front of him, still holding my fingers. He reaches up and I’m struggling not to go jelloid and collapse in a puddle in front of him as his eyes appraise me. Then he tucks my hair behind my ear and I choke back a low moan of delight. Oh god oh god oh god he loves me. I scowl at him. “What?” he asks, his indifference dissolving into curiosity.

“I like it better when people can’t see my face.”

“I don’t,” he replies, smirking again.

“I know you don’t. It annoys me.”

He laughs. “How do you think I feel?” He looks amazing when he laughs. I mean he looks amazing all the time but mostly when he laughs. Just the way his cheek dimples and his eyebrows loosen up and I need to shut up about it now.

I wriggle my hand free and wrap my arms around his back. “I think…” I murmur, “we should dance.” He tenses and pushes me away suddenly. I feel like a kicked dog and that’s probably broken through my mask of confidence. What’s going on? He always dances with me.

“I’m busy, Gina.” My heart is thrumming loud, swallowing the surrounding noise and I’m breathing hard now through my nose. “I have to talk to Nate, okay?” That is such a lie. They don’t even hang out anymore.

“Fine,” I say coolly, releasing him. He ruffles my hair, I hope he can feel it sizzling, before he slips away to the basement where the music is louder and the mass of bodies is thicker. Having just lost my companion, I sway to the metalcore music, hoping I don’t look like the loner I’m quickly becoming.
It used to be so easy, being with him. There was this party this summer, his brother’s graduation, that was only supposed to go until around seven but I ended up sticking around until past midnight. Anthony and I were tired from playing chicken in the pool all day and were just lying next to each other on our soggy towels in the grass. He had a handful of cake in his fist, the frosting hardened in red and orange loops after having melted in the heat of the sun earlier.

“Are you gonna get a plate for that? Or a fork maybe?” I teased.

Turning his head to the side he stared straight at me, our noses almost touching. I could smell the sting of chlorine in his tangled hair. His eyes narrowed like they do when he’s about to do something mean, and then I felt the soft spongy cake smear across my bare stomach. I shrieked, sitting straight up and flinging it off me. “Plate,” he said plainly.

“You jerk!” I gasped, rubbing my sticky hands all over his chest.
We got so close that night, holding hands and watching fireflies light up on the other side of the yard. Nothing had ever felt that perfect before. It was like that feeling you get when you’re falling, but without all the terror. I’m still deep in the memory when heavy hand slams down on my shoulder, making my knees buckle a little.

“Hey!” Jamie shouts into my ear, his voice low and booming. His big blue eyes are framed with blond lashes that glow in the dim light like the plastic strands of an opti-lamp. “I thought you weren’t coming?”

“Um, I’m here right?” I tell him.

His hand pounds on my back repeatedly while he laughs. “Right, right, you are.” I swear if he gains anymore muscle he’ll bust out of his shirt. “So how’s soccer going? I hear you’re a starter this year…” He grins crookedly and nudges me, gently this time.

“Oh yeah, I didn’t think I…” Anthony’s tuft of feathery black hair floats above the group of people emerging from the basement. “…didn’t think I would be, but the summer team I joined must have…” He has his arm around another girl. She’s pretty. She tucks her face against his neck. Swallowing hard, I finish, “helped.” It sounds like Jamie is talking in some other dimension and everything is fuzzy and distant while my ears fill with this nagging buzzing noise.

Jamie is still rambling, “…we lost the seniors after all, that’s what I like, finally get to be the big guys on the team, you know? Gina?”

My legs itch with the urge to run. “I’ll be right back,” I choke. I can’t see where I’m going, the image of him with some other girl burned into my eyes, and I walk straight into a wall, then a door, then Jamie grabs my hunched shoulders and spins me around.

“What’s wrong? Did you go blind?” he jokes.
No no no, I beg inside my head. Not again, not after every other frigging guy ditched me. Why does this always happen? What is wrong with me?
My thoughts overwhelm me and I start bawling. Jamie hesitates and then strokes my hair awkwardly. “Hey now, don’t cry. Whatever it is I’m sure it’ll be okay.”

“Sorry,” I sob when I can finally breathe. I hear Jessica, my wind up doll of a best friend, screeching something across the room as she rushes over and throws her skinny arms around me.

“What did you do, Jamie? Why is she crying?” she demands.

“I didn’t do anything!” he exclaims, going on the defensive. “She just snapped! I don’t know what happened, I promise you that, Jess.”

I hack out another sob like a hairball. “Oh Gina…” Jess sighs. I lift my face and smear tears across the back of my hand. A black smudge appears on my finger as my mascara comes off. That must look attractive.
Groaning, I ask, “How bad do I look?”

“Awful. You’re gross,” Jess says.

“I thought so.” My heart is like a gaping wound under my skin. Everything hurts.

“Come on babe, let’s go mingle. It’ll get your mind off things.” She tugs on my arm, anxious to get back to the party.

“Yeah, okay,” I mumble, eyes searching hopelessly for Anthony. God, I’m pathetic.
Jamie, still hovering near us, smiles in encouragement. “See?” he says. “You’re tough, you bounce back.”

Jess leads me away near the kitchen where a few other girls from soccer are clumped together.

“Night’s not over yet!” Jamie shouts at our backs, winking. Still in a daze, I step on Jess’ heel by accident and she stumbles.

Growing ferociously, she hisses, “Don’t. Step. On my heel. I hate when people do that. Hate it.”

I think I apologize, I can’t remember. I can’t concentrate on anything but the sickening thuds of my heart beating in my chest. I listen halfway to the girls chattering. Anthony looks at me from beside the couch, cocks his head to the side. He’s still with the girl but he’s not touching her anymore. Jess just asked me a question. I have no idea what it was but I don’t want to be rude and say, “What?” again. She might think I’m ignoring her. Even though I am.

Shifting my weight, I squirm where I stand, combing my fingers through my hair. Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him. I look at him laughing with the girl, his arm around her shoulders. That’s where I’m supposed to be. And since when does he like blondes? I hope she says something stupid or falls over.

Then she’d be acting like me and he wouldn’t like her anymore.

Unexpectedly he glances up and stares at me. The laughter fades from his face and his eyebrows pull together. He excuses himself from the blonde and eases through the crowd, never turning his gaze from mine. I’m frozen as he gets closer. It’s like one of those moments in a horror movie where the guy wielding the chainsaw is trumping slowly toward the girl who’s got a broken leg or whatever and is screaming her head clear off on the stairs.

He stops a couple feet in front of me, too far away, I want him closer, and then he keeps walking. He passes me, goes through the kitchen and grabs a Dr. Pepper from the cooler next to the oven, a vanilla Coke for the girl probably, and meanders back to her.

Oh my god.

My vision is clouding, throat burning, and Jess asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I say, too fast. A scrawny guy with bright red spikes bumps me from behind, pushing me against the wall. “Sorry hon,” he rasps and bounces away, hollering at the friends that shoved him. Jess glares after him, chewing the inside of her cheek.

She exhales loudly through her nose. “Should we just go? I’m not having fun.”

“Yeah, me either.” I can’t even tell her how much fun I’m not having.
“K. You need a ride?”
“Yeah.” We are walking down the driveway to Jess’s Toyota Camry parked across the
street when Anthony appears out of nowhere next to me.

“What are you doing at… let’s say quarter to two tonight?” he asks. He looks flushed; his hair messier than it was when I got here.

“Um, that’s when I’m scheduled to save the world,” I say sarcastically. “What do you think I’m doing then?” This is easier, being angry at him.

“The world is going to wait. I’m picking you up then. So be home and awake. Okay?”

“Okay.” I accidentally smile. He doesn’t return it.

It’s 2:28am when I sneak out. Anthony never showed. I should have figured. So I stop flopping around restlessly in bed and sit up. One last glance out my window, and then I’ll give up. Got it? Good. I can practically hear my neck creaking from how many times I’ve glanced back in the last few hours. I’m going to have a killer kink by tomorrow. The one streetlamp in my neighbor’s yard flickers halfheartedly and then dies out. Yeah, I know how you feel. He’s not coming. So I tie back the mass of black hair on my head in a ponytail and take my new Nike’s with lime green stripes out of their box, lacing them with needless concentration. Right eyelet, left eyelet, cross over to the left side. Now that one is too tight. I tug them off my feet and start over.

I perch up on the windowsill and pop out the screen, leaning it against the wall. A gust of wind pummels my face and goosebumps rise up on my arms. I slip out the window and onto the garden like a trickle of rain and run. Legs wheeling, thighs clenching, hips aching, insides burning for oxygen.

Why did he tell me he’d be here if he wasn’t here? Inhale, right foot, left foot, exhale. Why am I always here, always waiting? Inhale, right foot, exhale, left foot. Because he tells me to. I’ll do anything for him. Right left right left, pant pant pant.

He’s a Klondike bar.

The chilly November air stabs my lungs as I take Yellow Pine Street into the wind. His face appears under my eyelids every time I blink. The big stapler of a nose, the smooth arch of his dark eyebrows knitted together to keeps his thoughts hidden away from me, the smudge of the dimple on his right cheek. I push myself faster and faster, hoping to leave the image behind, let it slop onto the pavement to be trampled on and driven over until there is nothing left of it.

I hate him. No, I hate myself for not hating him. His soft serve ice cream voice is in my ear suddenly echoing words he said this summer when he called me his best friend, “Gina, you know I would never hurt you.” Liar. You just did. Somehow my feet beat the road faster, harder, and my throat narrows. I can’t breathe. I need to stop. The wheezing starts and I’m desperately shoving air into the coffee stirrer straw my windpipe has become.

Two beams of white headlights sail around the corner and grab onto me.
Awesome idea, Gina. Let’s go for a run in the middle of the night without our inhaler, have an attack and get run over by a car. Smartest thing we’ve done yet.
But then the tires squeal to a shaky halt on the damp tar and Anthony gets out. I start having a coughing fit in utter shock.

Swearing, he takes me roughly by the shoulders and sets me on the curb. Something in my gut twinges unpleasantly. “What are you doing out here on your own? Are you okay? Gina,” he demands me to answer.

I nod my head furiously, it’s a lie.

“Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

I shake my head this time, it’s the truth. I’ve stopped coughing and I can breathe easier now that he’s here. After a few more minutes I push my sweaty bangs back and smile weakly at him. His face is twisted up, in fear? Concern? It’s a foreign thing. He’s usually so uncaring, I don’t recognize this. “Hi,” I say.

He breaks out in laughter that sounds like a kid with Croup and squeezes me tight, crushing my nose against his collarbone.

“Ow,” I mumble. There’s that twinge again.

He exclaims, “I thought you were going to die!” still rocking me and nearly cracking my ribs with his grip.

“I will die if you don’t let me go,” I squeak out.

“Sorry.” Immediately he pulls away and examines me. I’ve never seen him like this, crazy with relief or whatever it is. “Gina.” His clammy hands cradle my face and my eyes follow their usual pattern, darting from each of his muddy green eyes down to his dimple and the curve of his mouth. I can feel his breath like steam on my cheek and the twinge comes so strong I duck my head away. “What?”

“Why are you so late? Were you with that girl?” I ask, though I don’t even want to know.

“Why do you care?” he scoffs, his face going red. I say nothing. “Oh.”
Nodding slowly, I stare at the pavement, at the yellow dashes skipping across it, and see nothing. I’ve been waiting so long for him to look at me like that, I want it so bad. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll be his girl on the side, I don’t care. I’ll be whatever he wants. But I know as I think it that it’s not true.
“I don’t know, Gina. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
“I have to go.” It’s more of a question I’m asking myself than a statement to him. But
think the answer is yes. “I have to go,” I repeat, decidedly this time.
I walk home the way I came, alone. The screen is still lying propped up against the wall. I don’t care at this point whether I get caught or not. I climb through and lay on my stiff mattress, falling asleep with my shoes still on, the lime green stripes glowing like two smears of firefly guts in the dark.





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